/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror / Series: Repairman Jack

By the Sword

F. Paul Wilson


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Forewarned is forearmed.

By the Sword

F. Paul Wilson

Acknowledgements

    Thanks to the usual crew for their efforts: Mary; Meggan; my editor, David Hartwell; Elizabeth Monteleone; Steven Spruill; and my agent, Al Zuckerman.

    Many thanks to Alexis Saarela, Jodi Rosoff, Dot Lin, and head honcha Elena Stokes of Tor/Forge publicity for taking such good care of me during 2007.

    Thanks also to a trio of gunnies from the repairmanjack.com forum: Biggles, Ashe, and Ken Valentine. They did their best to help solve the katana-meets-Glock question. The problem became a Gordian knot, which I finally Alexandered.

    Special thanks to Tom O'Day, whose generous charitable donation earned him a violent death within.

    And last, thanks to Paul Ramplin for the title. As often happens, I'll write a novel with no idea what to call it. Once again, I asked the members of the repairmanjack.com forum to help me out. Paul came up with By the Sword, and it stuck.

Author's Note

    I've always said that Repairman Jack would be a closed-end series, that I would not run him into the ground, that I had a big story to tell and would lower the curtain after telling it.

    Well, we're nearing the end of that story.

    And with only a few novels left in the series, I'm running into a problem. I'm no longer able to tie up each novel as neatly as I'd like. I've always kept longer story arcs running from book to book, but I used to be able to bring each installment to a satisfying conclusion. That, I'm afraid, is no longer the case.

    As I move people and objects into place and set the stage for the events that will tip all of humanity into Nightworld, the final chapter, this sort of incremental closure has become impossible.

    So I ask you to bear with me. You may have noticed that Bloodline didn't quite end. By the Sword picks up where it left off, and the next installment will pick up where this leaves off.

    At most, three or four more novels remain in the series. Along the way we'll be reprinting the remainder of the Adversary Cycle, synching the releases of The Touch, Reborn, Reprisal, and Nightworld with Jack's timeline. (See "The Secret History of the World" at the end of this book for the sequence.)

    More and more now, the post-Harbingers installments of Jack's tale are going to form what the French call a roman-fleuve—literally, a "river novel," with one story flowing from volume to volume. As a result, each new installment is going to feel richer, deeper, and make more sense if you've read the ones before.

    Hang in there, folks. It's been a long ride, and we've still got a lot of wonder, terror, and tragedy ahead, but I promise you'll be glad you made the trip.

    —F. Paul Wilson

    the Jersey shore

SUNDAY

1

    They weren't making muggers like they used to.

    After trolling for about an hour through the unseasonably warm May night, here was the second he'd found—or rather had found him. Jack was wearing a Hard Rock Cafe sweatshirt, acid-washed jeans, and his INew York visor. The compleat tourist. A piece of raw steak dangling before a hungry wolf.

    When he'd spotted the guy tailing him, he'd wandered off the pavement and down into this leafy glade. Off to his right the mercury-vapor glow from Central Park West backlit the trees. Over his assailant's shoulder he could make out the year-round Christmas lights on the trees that flanked the Tavern on the Green.

    Jack studied the guy facing him. A hulking figure in the shadows, maybe twenty-five, about six foot, pushing two hundred pounds, giving him an inch and thirty pounds on Jack. He had stringy brown hair bleached blond on top, all combed to the side so it hung over his right eye; the left side of his head above the ear and below the part had been buzzcut down to the scalp—the Flock of Seagulls guy after a run-in with a lawn mower. Pale, pimply skin and a skull dangling on a chain from his left ear. Black boots, baggy black pants, black Polio T-shirt, fingerless black leather gloves, one of which was wrapped around the handle of a big Special Forces knife, the point angled toward Jack's belly.

    "You talking to me, Rambo?" Jack said.

    "Yeah." The guy's voice was nasal. He twitched and sniffed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "I'm talkin a you. See anybody else here?"

    Jack glanced around. "No. I guess if there were, you wouldn't have stopped me."

    "Gimme your wallet."

    Jack looked him in the eye. This was the part he liked.

    "No."

    The guy jerked back as if he'd been slapped, then stared at Jack, obviously unsure of how to take that.

    "What you say?"

    "I said no. En-oh. What's the matter? You never heard that word before?"

    Probably hadn't.

    His voice rose. "You crazy? Gimme your wallet or I cut you. You wanna get cut?"

    "No. Don't want to get cut."

    "Give it or I stab you in the uterus."

    What?

    Fighting a laugh, Jack said, "Wouldn't want that." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. "I left my wallet home. Will this do?"

    The guy's eyes all but bulged. His free hand darted out.

    "Give it!"

    Jack shoved it back into his pocket.

    "Nope."

    "You crazy fucker—!"

    As he lunged at Jack, jabbing the blade point at his belly, Jack spun away, giving him plenty of room to miss. Not that he was worried about any surprises. Most of his type had wasted muscles and sluggish reflexes. But you had to respect that saw-toothed blade. A mean sucker.

    The guy made a clumsy turn and came back, slashing face-high this time. Jack ducked, grabbed the wrist behind the knife as it went by, got a two-handed grip, and twisted.

    Hard.

    The guy shouted with pain as he was jerked into an armlock with his weapon flattened between his shoulder blades. He kicked backward, landing a boot heel on one of Jack's shins. Wincing with pain, Jack gritted his teeth and kicked the mugger's feet out from under him. As the guy went down on his face, he yanked the imprisoned arm back straight and rammed his right sneaker behind the shoulder, pinning him.

    And then he stopped and counted to ten.

    At times like these he knew he was in danger of losing it. The blackness hovered there on the edges, beckoning him, urging him to go Mongol on this guy, to take out all his accumulated anger, frustration, rage on this one pathetic jerk.

    Plenty accumulated during his day-to-day life. And every day it seemed to get a little worse.

    He knew now the origin of that blackness, where it hid in his cells. But that didn't make it go away or any easier to handle. So when one of these knuckle draggers got within reach, like this doughy lump of dung, he wanted to stomp him into the earth, leaving nothing but a wet stain.

    A thin wire here, one he Wallenda'd along, trying not to fall off on the wrong side. Spend too much time there and you became like this jerk.

    He did a ten count and willed that blackness back down to wherever it lived. Let out his breath and looked down.

    "Hey, man," Polio fan whined. "Can't you take a joke? I was only—"

    "Drop the knife."

    "Sure, sure."

    The bare fingers opened, the big blade's handle slipped from the gloved palm and clattered to the earth.

    "Okay? I dropped it, okay? Now lemme up."

    Jack released the arm but kept a foot on his back.

    "Empty your pockets."

    "Hey, what—?"

    Jack increased the pressure of his foot. "Empty them."

    "Okay! Okay!"

    He reached back and pulled a ragged cloth wallet from his hip pocket, then slid it across the dirt.

    "Keep going," Jack said. "Everything."

    The guy pulled a couple of crumpled wads of bills from his front pockets, and dumped them by the wallet.

    "You a cop?"

    "You should be so lucky."

    Jack squatted beside him and went through the small pile. About a hundred in cash, a half dozen credit cards, a gold high school ring. The wallet held a couple of twenties, three singles, and no ID.

    "I see you've been busy tonight."

    "Early bird catches the worm."

    "Yeah? Consider yourself a nightcrawler. This all you got?"

    "Aw, you ain't gonna jack me, are ya?"

    "Interesting choice of words."

    "Hey, I need that scratch."

    "Your jones needs that scratch."

    Actually, the Little League needed that scratch.

    Every year about this time the kids from the local teams that played here in the park would come knocking, looking for donations toward uniforms and equipment. Jack had made it a tradition to help them out by taking up nocturnal collections in the park.

    The Annual Repairman Jack Park-a-thon.

    Seemed only fair that the oxygen wasters who prowled the place at night should make donations to the kids who used it during the day. At least Jack thought so.

    "Let me see those hands." He'd noticed an increasingly lower class of mugger over the past few years. Like this guy. Nothing on his fingers but a cheap pewter skull-faced pinky ring with red glass eyes. "How come no gold?" Jack pulled down the back of his collar. "No chains? You're pathetic, you know that? Where's your sense of style?"

    The previous donor had been better heeled.

    "I'm a working man," the guy said, rolling a little and looking up at Jack. "No frills."

    "Yeah. What do you work at?"

    "This!"

    The guy lunged for his knife, grabbed the handle, and stabbed up at Jack's groin—maybe thinking he'd find a uterus there? Jack rolled away to his left and kicked him in the face as he lunged again. The guy went down and Jack was on him once more with the knife arm yanked high and his sneaker back in its former spot on his back.

    "We've already played this scene once," he said through his teeth as the blackness rose again.

    "Hey, listen!" the guy said into the dirt. "You can have the dough!"

    "No kidding."

    Jack yanked off the glove and looked at the hand within. No surprise at the tattoo in the thumb web.

    These guys were starting to pollute the city.

    "So you're a Kicker, eh."

    "Yeah, man. Totally dissimilated. You too? You seem like—"

    He screamed as Jack shifted his foot into the rear of his shoulder and kicked down while giving the arm a sharp twist. The shoulder dislocated with a muffled pop, nearly drowned out by the high-pitched wail.

    He hadn't wanted him to finish that sentence.

    The Rambo knife dropped from suddenly limp fingers. Jack kicked it away and released the arm.

    "Don't know about the rest of you, but that arm is definitely dissimilated."

    As the guy retched and writhed in the dirt, Jack scooped up the cash and rings. He emptied the wallet and dropped it onto the guy's back, then headed for the lights.

    He debated whether to troll for a third donor or call it a night. He mentally calculated that he had donations of about three hundred or so in cash and maybe an equal amount in pawnable gold. He'd set the goal of this year's Park-a-thon at twelve hundred dollars. Didn't look like he was going to make that without some extra effort. Which meant he'd have to come back tomorrow night and bag a couple more.

    And exhort them to give.

    Give till it hurt.

2

    As he was coming up the slope toward Central Park West he saw an elderly, bearded gent dressed in an expensive-looking blue blazer and gray slacks trudging with a cane along the park side of the street.

    And about a dozen feet to Jack's left, a skinny guy in dirty Levi's and a frayed Hawaiian shirt burst from the bushes at a dead run. At first Jack thought he was running from someone, but noticed that he never glanced behind him. Which meant he was running toward something. He realized the guy was making a beeline for the old man.

    Jack paused a second. The smart part of him said to turn and walk back down the slope. It hated when he got involved in things like this, and reminded him of other times he'd played good Samaritan and landed in hot water. Besides, the area here was too open, too exposed. If Jack got involved he could be mistaken for the Hawaiian shirt's partner, a description would start circulating, and life would get more complicated than it already was.

    Butt out.

    Sure. Sit back while this galloping glob of park scum bowled the old guy over, kicked him a few times, grabbed his wallet, then hightailed it back into the brush. Jack wasn't sure he could stand by and let something like that happen right in front of him.

    A wise man he'd hung with during his early years in the city had advised him time and time again to walk away from a fight whenever possible. Then he'd always add: "But there are certain things I will not abide in my sight."

    This looked to be something Jack could not abide in his sight.

    Besides, he was feeling kind of mean tonight.

    He spurted into a dash of his own toward the old gent. No way he was going to beat the aloha guy with the lead he had, but he could get there right after him and maybe disable him before he did any real damage. Nothing elaborate. Hit him in the back with both feet, break a few ribs and give his spine a whiplash he'd remember the rest of his life. Make sure Aloha was down to stay, then keep right on sprinting across Central Park West into yuppieville.

    Aloha was closing with his target, arms stretched out for the big shove, when the old guy stepped aside and stuck out his cane. Aloha went down on his belly and skidded face-first along the sidewalk, screaming curses all the way. When he stopped his slide, he began to roll to his feet.

    But the old guy was there, holding the bottom end of his cane in a twohanded grip like a golf club. He didn't yell "Fore!" as he swung the metal handle around in a smooth, wide arc. Jack heard the crack when it landed against the side of Aloha's skull. The mugger stiffened, then flopped back like a sack of flour.

    Jack stopped dead and stared, then began to laugh. He pumped a fist in the old guy's direction.

    "Nice!"

    "I needed that," the old dude said.

    Jack knew exactly how he felt. Still smiling, he broke into an easy jog, intending to give the old dude a wide berth on his way by. The fellow eyed him as he neared.

    "No worry," Jack said, raising his empty palms. "I'm on your side."

    The old guy had his cane by the handle again; he nonchalantly stepped over Aloha like he was so much refuse. The guy had style.

    "I know that, Jack."

    Jack nearly tripped as he stuttered to a halt and turned.

    "Why'd you call me Jack?"

    The old man came abreast of him and stopped. Gray hair and beard, a wrinkled face, pale eyes.

    "Because that's your name."

    Jack scrutinized the man. Even though slightly stooped, he was still taller than Jack. Big guy. Old, but big. And a complete stranger. Jack didn't like being recognized. Put him on edge. But he found something appealing about that half smile playing about the old dude's lips.

    "Do I know you?"

    "No. My name's Veilleur, by the way." He offered his hand. "And I've wanted to meet you again for some time now."

    "Again? When did we ever meet?"

    "In your youth."

    "But I don't—"

    "It's not important. I'm sure it will come back to you. What's important is now and getting reacquainted. I came out here tonight for just that purpose."

    Jack shook his hand, baffled. "But who—?" And then a sixty-watter lit in his head. "You don't happen to own a homburg, do you?"

    His smile broadened. "As a matter of fact I do. But it's such a beautiful night I left it home."

    For months now Jack had intermittently spotted a bearded old man in a homburg standing outside his apartment or Gia's place. But no matter what he'd tried he'd never been able to catch or even get near the guy.

    And now here he was, chatting away as casually as could be.

    "Why have you been watching me?"

    "Trying to decide the right time to connect with you. Because it is time we joined forces. Past time, I'd say."

    "Why didn't you just knock on my door? Why all the cat-and-mouse stuff?"

    "I doubt very much you like people knowing the location of your door, let alone knocking on it."

    Jack had to admit he had that right.

    "And besides," Veilleur added, "you had more than enough on your plate at the time."

    Jack sighed as the events of the past few months swirled around him. "True that. But—?"

    "Let's walk, shall we?"

    They crossed Central Park West and headed toward Columbus Avenue in silence. Though they'd just met, Jack found something about the old guy that he couldn't help liking and trusting. On a very deep, very basic, very primitive level he didn't understand, he sensed a solidarity with Veilleur, a subliminal bond, as if they were kindred spirits.

    But when and where had they met before?

    "Want to tell me what's going on?"

    Veilleur didn't hesitate. "The end of life as we know it."

    Somehow, Jack wasn't surprised. He'd heard this before. He felt an enormous weight descend on him.

    "It's coming, isn't it."

    He nodded. "Relentlessly moving our way. But the key fact to remember is it hasn't arrived yet. Relentlessness does not confer inevitability. Look at your run-in with the rakoshi. What's more relentless than a rakosh? Yet you defeated a shipload of them."

    Jack stopped and grabbed Veilleur's arm.

    "Wait a sec. Wait a sec. What do you know about rakoshi? And how do you know?"

    "I'm sensitive to certain things. I sensed their arrival. But I was more acutely aware of the necklaces worn by Kusum Bahkti and his sister."

    Jack felt slightly numb. The only other people who knew about the rakoshi and the necklaces were the two most important people in his world—Gia and Vicky—plus two others: Abe and…

    "Did Kolabati send you?"

    "No. I wish I knew where she was. We may have need of her before long, but we have other concerns right now."

    " 'We'?"

    "Yes. We."

    Jack stared at Veilleur. "You're him, aren't you. You're the one Herta told me about. You're Glae—"

    The old man raised a hand. "I am Veilleur—Glenn Veilleur. That is the only name I answer to now. It is best it remains that way lest the other name is overheard."

    "Gotcha," Jack said, though he didn't.

    So this was Glaeken, the Ally's point man on Earth—or former point man, rather. Jack had thought he'd be more impressive—taller, younger.

    "We must speak of other things, Jack. Many things."

    There was an understatement. But where?

    Of course.

    "You like beer?"

3

    "An interesting turn of phrase," Veilleur said, pointing.

    Jack glanced up at Julio's FREE BEER TOMORROW… sign over the bar. It had hung there so long, Jack no longer noticed it.

    "Yeah. Gets him in trouble sometimes with people who don't get it."

    They were each halfway through their first brew—a Yuengling lager for Jack, a Murphy's Stout for Veilleur. In the light now Jack could see that Veilleur's eyes were a bright, sparkling blue—almost as striking as Gia's—in odd contrast to his craggy olive skin. He watched him pour more of the dark brown liquid into his glass and hold it up for inspection.

    "All these years and I still don't understand why the bubbles sink instead of rise."

    Jack knew the answer—someone had explained the simple physics of the phenomenon to him once—but he didn't want to get into it now. No sidebars, no amusing anecdotes. Time to get to the point.

    Julio's was relatively quiet tonight, leaving Jack and the old guy with the rear section pretty much to themselves. An arrangement Jack preferred on most occasions, but especially tonight.

    Probably best to conduct discussions about the end of the world—or at least the end of life as anyone knew it—without an audience.

    He glanced around the bar with its regulars and its drop-ins, drinking, talking, laughing, posing, making moves, all blissfully unaware of the endless war raging around them.

    Jack envied them, wishing he could return to the days, a little over a year ago, when he had shared their ignorance, when he thought he was captain of his life, navigator of his destiny.

    No longer. No more coincidences, he'd been told. Instead of steering his own course, he was being pushed this way and that to serve the purposes of two vast, unimaginable, unknowable cosmic… what? Forces? Entities? Beings? If they had names, no one knew them. Nothing so simple as Good and Evil. More like neutral and inimical. Forces that humans in the know had dubbed the Ally and the Otherness—although Jack's dealings with the Ally had caused him only pain and loss. He'd learned he could trust it as an Ally only so far as his purposes were in tune with its agenda. If their purposes diverged, he'd be dropped like last week's Village Voice, or crushed like a fly against a cosmic windshield.

    The man on the far side of the table had answers Jack desperately needed.

    "So you're the one I'm supposed to replace."

    Veilleur shrugged. "Should the need arise, someone is going to replace me. You aren't the only candidate."

    "I'm not?" Dare he hope? "Could've fooled me."

    "You are a prime candidate—perhaps the prime candidate—but there are backups out there."

    "Swell. I sound like a replacement part."

    "In a very real sense you are. Don't think of yourself as anything more than a tool. You're not. But you became a tool that stood out among the other tools when you caused the death of the Twins."

    Jack closed his eyes, remembering the gaping hole in the Earth that had swallowed a house and a pair of very strange men.

    "I was only defending myself. It was them or me. I even tried to save them at the end."

    "But you were the proximate cause, and that shifted the mantle of heir apparent to you."

    "But I don't want it."

    "No sane man would. But only a certain type of man qualifies. He must have a sense of duty and honor and—"

    Jack snorted. "Considering my lifestyle, I think I'd have a permanent spot on the bottom of the list."

    "You may be what your society considers a career criminal, someone it would lock away if it knew you existed, but I gather you must be someone who does not easily turn his back on problems, and who finishes what he starts."

    "What do you mean, 'must be'?"

    Veilleur shrugged again. "Though I don't know you all that well, those are the qualities the Ally requires, so I must assume you possess them."

    Yeah, well, maybe he did, maybe he didn't. Navel gazing wasn't his thing. And even if it were, who had time?

    Jack leaned forward. "What's it like being the Ally's point man? Does it change you?"

    "You mean physically? Of course you're changed, but you feel the same as you ever did. The only difference is you stop aging. If you get sick, you beat the infection quicker than anyone else; if wounded, you heal faster."

    "Immortal." The word tasted bitter.

    Veilleur nodded. "So to speak. But not indestructible. You can die, but it takes a lot to kill you. An awful lot. But it's the living on and on that changes you. Watching your loved ones age and die while you stay fit, young, and vital." Flashes of infinite hurt danced in his eyes. "Friends, lovers, children, family after family dying while you live on. Watching their wonder turn to hurt as you stay young while they grow old, stay well as they sicken; the hurt turning to anger as you refuse to grow old with them; and sometimes the anger turns to hate as they come to view your agelessness as betrayal."

    He sighed and sipped his Murphy's in silence while Jack put himself in those immortal shoes… watching Gia age while he didn't… watching Vicky grow until she was physically his contemporary while her mother moved on through middle age and beyond… burying Gia… burying Vicky…

    The prospect made him ill.

    Veilleur broke the silence. "Maybe it is a betrayal of sorts not to tell them from the start that you'll go on and they won't, but I've tried it that way and it doesn't work. First off, your lover doesn't believe you, or perhaps concludes you're slightly daft and accepts that. Because in the heat of new passion, her lips may acknowledge what you've told her, but her heart and mind do not embrace the possibility of it being true… until bitter, sad experience confirms that it is." He shook his head. "Either way, it nearly always ends badly."

    Jack saw a bleak landscape stretching before him—possibly.

    "So that's what I've got to look forward to."

    "Not necessarily. If the Adversary has his way, you and I and the rest of humanity will have a very short future."

    "About a year or so, from what I've gathered."

    "Yes… next spring if all goes according to his plans. But that's only if his way is unimpeded. That's if we don't interfere with his plans."

    "But if Ra—"

    Veilleur held up a hand. "I assume you've been warned about saying his name."

    Jack nodded. "Seems weird but, yes, I've been warned."

    He'd been told on a number of occasions over the past year never to utter the name Rasalom, to refer to him instead as the Adversary. Rasalom allowed no one to call him by his name or even speak it—although he used anagrams of it for himself. Say the real thing and somehow he knew—and came looking for you.

    Jack had witnessed what happened when Rasalom caught up to someone who'd been using his name. Not pretty.

    "How old is this Adversary?"

    Veilleur pursed his lips. "It's hard to be sure, what with the fall and rise of civilizations, each keeping track of time in different ways. Counting from his first birth, he's a few years older than I am—about fourteen, perhaps fifteen thousand years."

    Jack sat in stunned silence. He'd expected him to be old, but…

    "Wait… you said 'first' birth?"

    "Yes. He's hard to kill. I helped bring about his demise on our first meeting, but he didn't stay dead. I thought I had finished him for good—so had the Ally—on the eve of World War Two. In fact, the Ally was so sure he was gone it freed me and allowed me to start aging."

    "But wrong again."

    "Unfortunately, yes."

    "But the Twins—where did they come in?"

    "They were created to watch over things in the aftermath of the Adversary's supposed death and my return to mortality. The Adversary was gone, but the Otherness was very much alive, so they restarted the yeniçeri to—"

    "The yeniçeri…" Jack ran a hand across his face. "Oh, man. What a nightmare. Wish I'd never heard of them."

    "I'm sure the feeling is mutual. They answered to me until the fifteenth century when I locked the Adversary away—for good, I thought. After that, their numbers dwindled until the Twins resurrected them."

    Jack pounded a fist on the table—once.

    "And if the Twins were still around, they'd be taking care of business and I wouldn't be involved in any of this, and you and I wouldn't be having this conversation."

    He wanted to kick himself, but pushed back the regrets. If only was a futile game, and since he couldn't exactly call Peabody and Sherman and have them crank up the Wayback machine, he'd have to play the hand he'd drawn.

    "Take it two steps further backward: If a German army patrol hadn't breached a wall in the Adversary's prison, he'd still be there. Or just one step back: If the Adversary had died back in 1941, as thought, even the Twins would have been redundant. By a quirk of fate—and this I believe was a true coincidence—his essence found a home in a man of, shall we say, unique origins. But though he was undetectable, he was also trapped and powerless. Until that man fathered a child. Then he was able to move into that child—become that child."

    "When was this?"

    "Early in 1968."

    Jack did a quick calculation: He'd been born in January of 1969, which meant…

    "Early 1968? Hey, I was conceived in sixty-eight."

    "Not a coincidence. Once the Adversary merged with the fetus, the secret was out. Plans were set into motion. You were one of them."

    Jack leaned back and stared at the wall. "So I was part of this even before I was born."

    Some things he'd learned as a kid suddenly made sense.

    Veilleur nodded. "Perhaps I was too."

    "Why all this cloak-and-dagger crap? Why don't the Ally and the Otherness duke it out mano a mano—or cosmo a cosmo, or whatever they are?"

    "Because that's not how the game is played. And though it's a life-or-death struggle for us, to them it's something of a game."

    "And we're the pieces they move around."

    "Reluctant pieces in our case. Not so the Adversary. We're still fully human, but he's something else now. That's what happens when you align yourself with a power that is inimical to everything we consider good and decent and rational. He became the agent provocateur for the Otherness. He gains strength from all that is dark and hateful within humanity, feeding on human viciousness and depravity."

    "And he's gaining momentum, isn't he?"

    Veilleur leaned closer. "Why do you say that?"

    "I can feel it. Can't you?"

    He sighed. "Yes… yes, I can. The pieces of his endgame are falling into place, I fear. Some of them I can't identify, but I can feel when they fit together."

    "So where's the Ally? Why isn't it fitting its own pieces into place?"

    Veilleur paused a moment before speaking. "I can't say for sure, but my sense of it is that after I appeared to have ended the Adversary's existence, the Ally retreated in a way—downgraded its surveillance of our corner of reality. An infinitesimal speck of it is still watching, still acting, but in a limited capacity. I don't think it senses any imminent danger, so it's maintaining a state of readiness or preparedness and little more."

    "It should be making countermoves."

    "Against what? The Adversary is playing this very carefully, keeping his hand out of sight as he strengthens it. Part of the reason for that is me."

    "You? You've been riffed."

    "But he doesn't know that. He thinks I'm the same hale and hearty being who pierced his gut with a sword that sucked the life from him and spit it out. He has no idea that I'm an old man in a creaking body or that the sword is long gone. He fears if he tips his hand, I'll come looking for him, and this time he might not be so lucky."

    "Instead, you're hiding from him."

    He nodded. "Not so much for myself—I've lived longer than I ever wanted to, and quite frankly, I'm tired—but for my wife and the rest of you. If he learns the truth about me, he'll feel free to act openly, and he'll waste no time stealing our world from the Ally."

    "But how? Won't that set off cosmic alarm bells?"

    "So one would think. But he must have a way—or thinks he does. And something between now and next spring will trigger his plans." Veilleur's expression grew bleak. "The only thing I can think of is that he'll discover my weakened, mortal state."

    "Then you'd better stay damn well hidden. But maybe it's something else, something he's cooking up, something we can stop. Any idea what he's been doing behind the scenes?"

    "Well, the latest is this so-called Kicker movement and—"

    That pricked up Jack's ears. "Whoa. 'So-called' Kicker movement? Why do you say that?"

    "Because its leader has no idea what he has tapped into, nor what he might unleash."

    "Hank Thompson. I've met him. Definitely trouble. What has he tapped into?"

    Veilleur glanced at his watch. "A long story… one I've no time for tonight."

    "How long a story?"

    "It begins fifteen thousand or so years ago."

    Frustration clamped down on Jack's shoulders. "You can't waltz off and leave me with just that."

    "My time is not my own. I've a sick wife at home."

    "Give me some thing."

    He sighed. "Very well. It's courting disaster to concentrate so many Taints in such a relatively small area."

    " 'Taints'? What are you talking about?"

    "Taints is what we called them millennia ago, before the Taint in their blood became diluted enough that they were no longer a threat. Now their distant progeny are becoming aware of their Taint, and calling themselves Kickers."

    "Yeah. Idiotic name, but—"

    Veilleur shook his head. "Not so idiotic if you're aware of the story behind it, but that's part of the secret history of the world, so virtually no one knows it."

    Secret history of the world… jeez, did that ever ring a bell.

    "You're making me crazy." But something else he'd said had struck too close to home, sending a wave of uneasiness through Jack's gut. "This Taint in the blood…"

    "A contaminant from the Otherness."

    Just what Jack had suspected… and the last thing he wanted to hear.

    "Some folks have another name for it: oDNA."

    Veilleur frowned. "Never heard of it."

    "It's part of what's considered junk DNA, and if I may echo you: Virtually no one knows of it."

    "But you do?"

    "I was told by an expert." Dr. Aaron Levy had told him a lot—way more than he cared to know. "And I guess it's only right that I know, since I'm loaded with it."

    Veilleur gave Jack a long, cool stare, then said, "In a way, that makes a perverse sort of sense. The Ally is trading in the only Taint-free human on Earth for one who is heavily tainted. Maybe it thinks it can turn the Taint against its source."

    "There's only one Taint-free human, and you're it?"

    Veilleur nodded. "I predate the Taint. The Adversary would be untainted as well, but he was reborn into tainted flesh."

    That meant Gia carried this Taint. And Vicky.

    No.

    "Wait-wait. You said Thompson was courting disaster by concentrating so many Taints in such a small area. You mean Manhattan? Because if we're all Taints, then this town is about as concentrated as you're gonna get."

    Veilleur shook his head. "Simply carrying the Taint doesn't make you a Taint. You must carry enough to influence your behavior, enough to taint your relationship with the world around you."

    "So… the greater the Taint, the greater the… what? Potential for violence?"

    "The greater the potential for making this place more to the Adversary's liking, and pushing it closer to the Otherness."

    "Do you know for sure the Kickers are Taints?"

    He gave Jack a perplexed look. "I can smell them."

    "Then I must stink."

    "Oddly enough, you don't."

    A flash of hope. "Then maybe I don't—"

    A quick shake of Veilleur's head. "Oh, you do. It's just that somehow you've learned how to compartmentalize it—or perhaps you were born with that ability. That talent, or knack, or whatever it is, allows you to bottle up the brutish tendencies so common to Taints, and set them free when you need them."

    "Sometimes they set themselves free."

    Veilleur stared at him, nodding slowly. "I imagine they do. What's that like?"

    "Scary. And yet…"

    "An exhilarating high? A dark joy?"

    "Yeah. 'Dark joy' pretty much nails it."

    "Perhaps that ability to compartmentalize was why you were chosen."

    "But where's this Taint come from?"

    Another glance at his watch. "Too long a history lesson for now." He rose. "Thank you for the beer, but I must be going. See you here again soon."

    Jack wanted to shove him back into his chair and duct-tape him there till he'd told the whole story. Instead he settled for grabbing his arm.

    "Wait. So you think the Adversary's got a hand in this Kicker thing?"

    "The Adversary or the Otherness itself. That image—the Kicker Man—on the cover of his book and graffiti'd all over town makes me suspect the Otherness. This Thompson couldn't have discovered it on his own. It must have been implanted."

    "What's it mean?"

    "No time. But I can tell you it's a lure of sorts. Taints respond to it. They see it on the cover of his book and the Otherness within them reaches for it. They can't get it out of their heads, so they tattoo it on their skin and paint it on walls. And they are drawn to others who feel the same way. This Thompson has no idea what he's tapped into."

    He slipped his arm free and started for the door.

    "Just one more thing," Jack said. "What would be the purpose of creating a super-tainted child?"

    Veilleur stopped and turned. "Super tainted?"

    "Yeah. Back in the seventies a guy went to a lot of trouble to father heavily tainted children to mate and produce a super-tainted child."

    "Did he succeed?"

    "Don't know. The child hasn't been born yet and I don't know where its mother is. But I'm sure you've seen her picture."

    He frowned. "She wouldn't be the one on those ubiquitous flyers, would she?"

    "You got it."

    "And she's carrying a super-tainted fetus?"

    "Could be—no one knows what the child's made of yet."

    "Do you know the name of the man who did this?"

    "Started it all? That would be her grandfather—Jonah Stevens. Or so I've been told."

    Jack wasn't sure what to believe anymore.

    Veilleur's eyes widened. "Really. Jonah Stevens. That's very… interesting."

    Then he turned and left Julio's.

4

    "The katana! It is near! It awaits!"

    Toru Akechi started at the high-pitched wail. He hadn't been expecting it so soon.

    Through the eyeholes of his silk mask he watched the legless monk, naked but for his mask and fundoshi, writhing on the rumpled futon in the Sighting room. He had drunk the Sighting elixir twenty minutes ago and it was starting to take effect.

    The windows to the Sighting room had been sealed during the old building's renovation. The darkness was virtually complete but for the glow of the four candles placed at the corners of the futon, wanly limning the dozen figures, robed and hooded in dark blue, encircling the Seer. Some of those figures stood, some sat, and the ones without limbs lay on the floor.

    Toru knew them all by the designs on their silk masks and the shapes of their bodies. Some were missing limbs, showed empty sockets through their masks. Those lacking ears and tongues and noses were less obvious.

    With his arms jerking back and forth, his torso twisting, the Seer appeared to be suffering an agony of sorts. His empty eye sockets could offer no sign of pain or distress, but his body gave full testament. Suddenly he lay still. All present held their breath, listening.

    And then the Seer sat up and swiveled his masked, eyeless face back and forth. Toru knew he wasn't seeing the Sighting room. He was seeing somewhere, somewhen else.

    "The katana!" he wailed. "It is near! It awaits!"

    We know all about the missing sword, Toru wanted to scream. You told us during the last sighting and the sighting before that. Say something new.

    "It waits where, my brother?" he said in an even tone.

    "Here! In this city! I see it!"

    "Where do you see it?"

    "In a dark place!"

    "And where is this dark place?"

    "Here! In this city!"

    Toru ground his teeth as the Seer went on, presenting nothing new.

    "The sacred scrolls! They have returned to our Order! But that is not enough! The katana! The Order must possess the katana that once sealed its doom! When the Order controls the katana, it will control its future, and its future will be assured for a thousand years!"

    "Will we succeed?" Toru asked, as he always did.

    "Only if we persevere!"

    All eyes in the room turned toward him. He had been assigned the task of finding the sacred scrolls, stolen from their Order—the Kakureta Kao—in the last days of World II, plus the katana that had destroyed the Order by fulfilling a prophecy of doom.

    He had succeeded in finding the scrolls, but the katana eluded him, slipping through his fingers. He now had a plan in motion to secure it.

    "If the Order does not control the katana," the Seer screamed, "it will again destroy us! It will slay the last surviving member!"

    Toru swallowed. The last surviving member… the Seer was talking about the death of everyone in this room, in this building. No equivocation there. They were all going to die if they didn't find and hold that benighted blade.

    "The Order came to this place to destroy this city! And the sacred scrolls will provide the Order with the means to do so!"

    Yes, they would. Toru had his students scouring the city for the ingredients to create a Kuroikaze—a Black Wind.

    "But the Order will itself be destroyed if it does not possess the katana!" He turned his sightless sockets on Toru and pounded the futon. "The katana! The katana!"

    Toru's fellow monks, all still staring at him, took up the chant.

    "THE KATANA! THE KATANA! THE KATANA!…"

5

    Jack watched the door swing closed behind Veilleur. He could follow him, but to what end? Force his way into his home and quiz him while he tended to his sick wife—assuming he really had a sick wife.

    Nah. The guy wanted contact—had initiated it. He'd be back. Meanwhile, Jack had a lot to digest.

    Like the Kicker Man, for instance.

    … it's a lure of sorts. Taints respond to it

    He remembered the first time he'd seen the figure—in Dr. Buhmann's while standing next to the stroked-out professor. Remembered the odd twinge of familiarity it triggered, and the feeling that something long dormant within had stirred.

    But he hadn't noticed any desire for a Kicker Man tattoo, or a compulsion to grab a can of spray paint and start tagging walls.

    Maybe because his Taint was, as Veilleur had said, compartmentalized.

    The Taint… where had it come from? The Otherness, sure, but how had it seeped into humanity's bloodstream?

    But the biggest surprise of the night had been meeting Glaeken, the man whose shoes he might have to step into—would definitely have to step into if Rasalom made his move.

    Glaeken and Rasalom… two ancient enemies, each thousands of years old… Jack had met both now, and felt like a punk… far, far out of their league.

    Rasalom… looked as human as the next guy until he lowered his guard and allowed a peek into his eyes—twin black holes of hunger with no hint of mercy or regard. Total self-absorption.

    Glaeken—better get used to calling him Veilleur—was still a man, a regular guy. Or at least he seemed to be. Thousands of years old, yet hurrying home to his sick wife—the first wife he'd grown old with. Was that why she was so precious to him?

    Jack had never felt further out of his depth.

    At least he'd been able to tell Veilleur something he didn't already know—he'd seemed genuinely surprised to hear the name Jonah Stevens. Seemed to have recognized it.

    But Jack was more interested in Jonah Stevens's granddaughter and great-grandchild—Dawn Pickering and the unborn, super-tainted baby she carried.

    Almost a month now since Dawn had disappeared. Where the hell could she be? Her mother was dead, she had no family. Hank Thompson and his Kickers were looking for her too, and the fresh posters with Dawn's picture going up almost daily, asking HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GIRL? were proof of sorts that they'd yet to find her.

    Which meant she had to be hiding. But where?

    Jack had met her once, and then only for a minute or so when he'd handed her an envelope while pretending to be a delivery man. A slightly overweight, seemingly natural blonde with a round face and puggish nose, not a wowzer but not a bowzer either. Good grades, accepted to Colgate, but it seemed unlikely she'd be going if she didn't finish her senior year of high school.

    Eighteen years old and alone and pregnant in the city. Or maybe not in the city. Her Jeep was gone too, so she could be anywhere.

    Jack assumed officialdom was looking for her as well. After all, her mother's death was a suspected murder, and with both her and her boyfriend—more like manfriend—Jerry Bethlehem pulling a disappearing act, the hunt would be on.

    Except she wasn't with Jerry, she was hiding from him. Someone needed to get word to her that the father of her baby, the man she'd known as Jerry Bethlehem, was dead, thanks to Jack. But the irony of it all was he'd done it in a way that had left the man with little or none of his skin, thus virtually ensuring that he'd never be identified.

    But being the object of a manhunt—womanhunt?—meant Dawn couldn't use her credit or ATM cards without leaving a financial trail.

    So where was she? Jack hated the thought of her sleeping in her Jeep, or staying in some flop motel until her cash ran out.

    Poor kid.

6

    Dawn closed her eyes and totally luxuriated in the caress of the bubbles as they rose through the hot tub's steaming water.

    Extending her legs, she let herself float to the surface and peeked at her body. Not bad for almost two months pregnant. You'd never know. Those weeks of morning sickness had had a silver lining: She'd dropped some of her blubber. Much of her blubber, in fact. Check out that flat ab—well, almost flat—and those sleek thighs. They didn't do total justice to the flowered Shan bikini, but didn't totally insult it.

    She raised her head and gazed through the green-tinted glass walls at the towers of the El Dorado building over on Central Park West. She wished she were farther downtown where she could be looking at the Ghostbusters building, or maybe at the Dakota, but she'd be like a total dumbass to complain about this view. Below, out of sight at this angle, lay Central Park.

    The bubbler cycled off as it hit the twenty-minute mark. As Dawn reached over to reset it, she heard the gym door open behind her. She sighed. She knew who it was.

    Gilda.

    Right on time, carrying a white terrycloth robe.

    Did she have her own timer? Or was she like a dog and the bubbler signal was like the sound of a can opener? No matter where she was, did she hear it and hurry over?

    "Did miss enjoy her soak?" she said in her accented English.

    She came from somewhere in Eastern Europe but Dawn had totally forgotten where. Thick-bodied, graying, bunned-up hair, dark eyes, and a gaptoothy smile.

    "I was just beginning to. I could stay here for hours."

    "Tut-tut-tut. You know the rules, you can read the signs: Twenty minutes is all you are allowed."

    "But another five minutes—"

    "Any longer might hurt your baby."

    "It's not a baby—it's a thing inside me and I want it out. Can't anybody here get that through their heads?"

    "The Master said—"

    "It's not his body, it's mine, and I want it back. Totally."

    Gilda held up the robe by the collar and jiggled it. "Come-come. I bring your nice soft robe. I will help you." Another jiggle. "Come."

    Pissed, Dawn rose and stepped over the edge of the tub. She noticed Gilda giving her wet body a careful up-and-down. Looking for signs of pregnancy? Or just… looking. As a housekeeper, Gilda seemed totally efficient and not a bad cook either. Totally no-nonsense but always cheerful. Seemed devoted to her job, but every so often Dawn would catch her looking at her in a way that she found just plain creepy.

    She slipped her arms into the robe—God, it had to be an inch thick—and folded it around her. As she knotted the belt she stepped to the glass wall and stared down at Jackie-O Lake.

    "Why do you call him Master?"

    "Because he is the Master of the house."

    Yes, but—"

    "And because he wishes us to."

    That didn't surprise Dawn. Mr. Osala had a commanding air, like he was totally used to being in charge. But hearing him called "the Master" all the time made her feel like she was in Dracula's castle or something. All he needed was a red-lined cape.

    The Master this, the Master that…

    Screw the Master.

    Who was he, anyway? He said he'd been hired by her mom before she died—hired to protect her from Jerry—or Jerome, as Mr. Osala had called him on the night he'd interrupted her planned dive off the Queensboro Bridge.

    That had been a bad time—the low point of her life. Mom dead, killed by Jerry who'd tried to make it look like a suicide.

    A lump rose in her throat as she thought about it. Her fault. If she hadn't got involved with that creep, whatever his real name was.

    Nowadays Mr. Osala just called him Bethlehem.

    Mr. Osala didn't seem to have a first name, at least not one that he used, but he was rich, no doubt about that. A Fifth Avenue duplex with its own penthouse health club. No way Dawn could complain about her treatment here. She had a bedroom with a breathtaking view of Central Park. She could order totally anything she wanted to eat, and if Gilda couldn't make it, they'd have it delivered. Anything she wanted she got. She'd asked for a swimsuit for the pool and hot tub, and a few hours later this Shan bikini arrived—just her size. Yeah, she could have anything she wanted.

    Except an abortion.

    And a walk outside.

    She so wanted to get out of here, even if only for an hour or so, but Mr. Osala—the fucking Master—said no. Too risky.

    Who was he anyway to tell her what to do? Just because Mom hired him as some sort of bodyguard didn't mean Dawn had to listen to him. Trouble was, she had no choice. He had key-only deadbolts on the doors and wouldn't let her out. Too dangerous, he said.

    Like being in prison. Okay, maybe that was pushing it. More like a birdcage—velvet lined, with solid gold bars, but a cage just the same.

    "I need to get out of here," she said to no one in particular.

    "Oh, but miss, you can't. That man might see you."

    That man…

    Jerry Bethlehem, or whatever his real name was. Yeah, Jerry was out there looking for her. Looking real hard, she'd bet. Totally. Because he wanted his kid—wanted it like crazy. Insanely.

    The Key to the Future, he'd called it.

    Mr. Osala's reasoning was that as long as she remained pregnant, she'd be safe from harm by Jerry, because hurting her could hurt his child. But if he ever caught up to her and learned she'd had an abortion, her life wouldn't be worth two cents.

    Last month she'd wanted to die, had been ready to jump off a bridge. That had passed. Now she wanted to live, but this wasn't the kind of living she had in mind.

    Mr. Osala didn't seem to want anything from her beyond cooperation in keeping safe. She wound up with proof of that when she told him she'd left her Jeep parked in a garage near the 59th Street Bridge. He'd taken her ticket and "relocated it to a safer place."

    And then he'd handed her an envelope containing a quarter of a million dollars.

    Her quarter mil. Or rather her mom's.

    Either Mr. Osala was so honest that he wasn't tempted by any amount of money, or so totally rich that a quarter mil was pocket change. Or both.

    Fine. But what good was any amount of money if she wasn't allowed to spend it?

    "Jerry's one man and there's a zillion people in this city. What are the chances of the two of us running into each other? Like almost totally zero."

    "But you have everything here." Gilda pointed through the glass at the rooftop garden. "You have trees and flowers right outside."

    "How about shopping? I want to go shopping."

    "Why? Anything you want, you have only to ask and it is brought to you."

    She turned and faced Gilda. Didn't she get it?

    "I'm talking about shopping—s-h-o-p-p-i-n-g. You know: walking up and down aisles, looking at things, touching things, trying stuff on. Shopping."

    Gilda looked genuinely puzzled. "I do not understand. Why should you want to go out when everything can be brought in?"

    A scream rose in Dawn's throat. She started to suppress it, then figured, what the hell, let it all out.

    And she did—a formless screech that echoed off the glass walls.

    Gilda paled and backed up a step.

    "Miss—?"

    Dawn kept the volume cranked up. "I'm going crazy here! Can't you see that? If I don't get out for a while I'm going to climb that fence out there and jump off!"

    Gilda backed up another step. "I'll get Henry."

    "Get your fucking Master!"

    "He's away, searching for your Mister Bethlehem. Henry will know what to do."

    As Dawn watched her bustle off, she thought, Probably thinks I'm a spoiled brat.

    But she wasn't. Mom had seen to that. Even went so far as to make her get a job waiting tables in the Tower Diner. Not a bad job, and the tips had been decent. Mom never would have stood for a tantrum like the one she'd just thrown.

    Her throat tightened, her eyes filled. Aw, Mom. Why didn't I listen to you? Why didn't I appreciate you while you were here? I miss you.

    She swallowed and blinked back the tears. Had to stay tough. Spoiled brats didn't whimper, they screamed and threw tantrums. And if that was what it took to get somebody to listen around here, then this place was about to become Tantrum City.

    Totally.

7

    "Gilda tells me there's a problem, miss?"

    Dawn looked up and saw Henry standing in the entry to the great room. As usual, he wore his chauffeur's black livery. Reed thin with a tall frame—six-four if an inch—that made him look even thinner. His angular, dark-eyed, thin-lipped face never smiled, at least not when Dawn was looking. Mr. Osala didn't seem to have a first name; Henry didn't seem to have a last.

    She hadn't changed out of her bikini and robe, electing to sit in the glass-and-chrome great room and wait for Henry to show his face. She'd turned on the gigonda plasma-screen TV and pretended to be watching.

    She rose and faced him. Normally she'd never have the guts to confront someone like this, but she was playing a part now—the bitch brat.

    "I want out of here."

    "I'm afraid that is out of the question." His stiff posture and faint British accent gave him a snooty air, but she heard no hesitation in his voice. "The Master won't allow it."

    "He can't keep me prisoner!"

    "His promise to your mother was to keep you safe, and he is doing so."

    "I'm sure she didn't want me totally isolated like I am."

    "You have the television, you have a computer—"

    "Yeah, one that's fixed so I can't IM or send e-mail."

    She still couldn't believe that AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail, and all the rest were blocked to her. She could surf anywhere, even MySpace, but couldn't message anyone.

    "That was done for the same reason the telephone is coded: to prevent you from accidentally revealing your location. We are sure your friends are being watched, and one or two of them might even have had their computers hacked and monitored."

    "That's crazy. How could Jerry do that?"

    He wagged a finger at her. "You can't be too careful these days."

    "This is crazy." She felt herself filling up. She would not cry. But she felt so totally helpless. "I'm a prisoner."

    To her amazement, Henry's features softened—just a bit.

    "I know it seems that way, miss, but you must resign yourself to the fact that you cannot risk showing your face. He might see you."

    "And then what? Grab me and drag me kicking and screaming down the street?" She felt a spark of rage begin to glow. "You ever think maybe he should be worried about me? Like maybe if I saw him first I'd be on him like a cat, scratching his eyes out of his head?"

    "Now, miss, I know how you feel—"

    "No, you don't!" The rage flared. "You haven't a clue how I feel! You can't begin to know how I feel!"

    "Allow me to rephrase: I cannot imagine how you must feel, but you must not reveal yourself. Not yet."

    She felt herself cooling. Would she really have the nerve to attack that bastard? She wanted him hurt, but she didn't know if she had it in her to do it. Maybe some day she'd find out.

    "What if I wore a disguise—like a brown wig and big sunglasses?"

    He shook his head. "Still too dodgy, I fear."

    That hadn't been a flat no. Was he softening?

    And then it hit her—the perfect solution to the whole problem.

8

    Jack let himself into his third-floor apartment but didn't turn on the lights. He didn't need light. He emptied tonight's proceeds from the Park-a-Thon onto the round oak table in the front room. He knew a fence who'd turn the gold chains and rings and medallions into cash tomorrow morning, then he'd give everything to Gia who'd make the official donation to the Little League.

    He dropped into a chair and stared out at the night. Not much to see, just other brownstones like his across the street. No famous Manhattan skyline visible from here, just an occasional tree.

    No need to keep an eye out for the mysterious watcher tonight. He'd just had a beer with him and he was home with his sick wife.

    Or so he said.

    Jack didn't know what to believe anymore. Everything he'd believed about himself and his family and the world around them all had been shot to hell in the last couple of years. Nothing was what it seemed.

    And to top it off, his relationship with Gia was starting to feel a little strained.

    His fault.

    He'd withdrawn from her and Vicky. Not completely, but after moving in and living with them during the months they'd needed to recuperate from the accident, returning to his own apartment must have seemed like a form of abandonment.

    But he hadn't abandoned them. He still saw them on a daily basis, but it wasn't the same. Things had changed—not them, nor his feelings for them. But his feelings about himself… those had changed when he'd learned about the measure of Otherness he carried in his blood.

    The Taint.

    What a perfect name for the perfectly awful.

    Knowing the truth had, well, tainted his relationship with them. He felt the need for some distance. Rationally he knew he couldn't contaminate them any more than they already were—he'd been assured everybody carried a little oDNA—but something deep in his subconscious wasn't so sure. Sex with Gia, so sweet and sweaty and wonderful… he couldn't escape a hazy image of him injecting her with bits of Otherness.

    Crazy, yes. They'd been together almost two years. But knowing… knowing colored everything.

    He shook himself. Had to get over this. And he would. Just going to take some time, was all.

    But he felt so alone. He'd always been able to be alone without being lonely, but this was different. He felt like a Stylite monk standing on an infinitely tall pinnacle. Everyone he cared about waited far below, forever out of reach as he faced the swirling cosmos alone.

    He smiled and shook his head. Look at me: drama queen.

    Buck up and shut up.

    He rose and stepped over to his computer. Needed a distraction.

    He logged onto repairmanjack.com and checked the Web mail there, deleting the predictable inquiries about appliance repairs until he came to one with "Stolenhelp please" in the subject line.

    He knew what that meant: Something indeed had been stolen, but the victim could not report the theft to the cops because the item was either illegal or ill-gotten. That was where private eyes came in. But if it was very, very illegal or major-felony ill-gotten… that was where Jack came in.

    This sounded promising. He opened the file.

    Dear Mr. Repairman Jack—

    I was given your name and told you might help me find a lost object. The authorities cannot help. I am praying you can help.

    —N

    Concise and to the point—Jack liked that. The authorities cannot help—liked that too. Implied he couldn't go to them. But "authorities"… who still called them "authorities"?

    He pulled one of his TracFones from a drawer and punched in the number. After two rings he heard a male voice say, "Hai," and rattle off a string of syllables that sounded Japanese.

    Surprised, Jack hesitated, then said, "Um, did you recently leave a message at a certain Web site?"

    The voice switched to accented English. "Repairman Jack? You are Repairman Jack?"

    Jack hated admitting it—never fond of that name. Abe had stuck him with it and now it followed him around like a bad debt.

    "Yeah, that's me. What's up?"

    "A family heirloom was stolen last month from my home. Please, I must have it back."

    "Where's home?"

    "Maui."

    Well, that put an end to this job-to-be.

    "Maui as in Hawaii? Sorry. No Maui. It's got to be within an easy drive. Better luck—"

    "No-no! You do not understand. It was stolen in Maui and brought here to New York City."

    "You know that for sure?"

    "Reasonably sure."

    Reasonably was close enough.

    "Just what is this heirloom?"

    "I would rather not say right now. I have pictures I can show."

    "Is it big?"

    "It is not small, but can easily be carried with one hand."

    Good. Liked to hear that. One more, then he'd quit the twenty questions. Jack liked to know how a customer found him.

    "Where did you hear about me?"

    "From friend of friend on Maui."

    Jack frowned. Did he know anyone out there? Didn't think so.

    "Name?"

    "I prefer not to speak names on phone. Where can we meet? I will tell you everything then."

    Jack couldn't argue about keeping mum but the meeting place was a good question. He'd been overusing Julio's lately and couldn't risk becoming a creature of too much habit. Someplace public… far from Julio's… that served beer, of course.

    "Okay. We'll meet tomorrow at—"

    "Can we not meet tonight?"

    "Tomorrow. Three P.M. at the Ear. It's on Spring between Washington and Greenwich."

    "The Ear? This is a true name?"

    "Believe it. It's a pub."

    "It does not sound appetizing."

    "You eat sushi?"

    "Of course."

    "Well, don't expect to find any there. See you at three. If you're late, I'm gone."

MONDAY

1

    Hank Thompson lay blinking in the dark, just awakened from a dream.

    But not the usual dream. Not the dream of the Kicker Man protectively cradling a baby—Dawn's baby, Hank was sure—in his four arms. This one involved the Kicker Man, yes, but instead of holding a baby he was swinging a Japanese sword—one of those long, curved samurai numbers—whipping it back and forth. And then he dropped it and faded away.

    But the sword remained, allowing Hank a closer look.

    A real piece of crap—no handle and its blade eaten away in spots up and down its length.

    But maybe it only looked like a piece of crap. Its appearance with the Kicker Man meant it was important. Somehow it figured into the future of the movement—or "Kicker evolution," as he was calling it.

    A few months ago Hank would have been asking, How? Why? Now he knew better. Somewhere along the way he'd become a sort of antenna for signals from… where? Out there was all he could say, although where that was and what was out there he had no idea. His daddy had told him about "Others" on the outside that wanted to be on the inside, and that Daddy and Hank and his sibs had special blood that would put them in great favor if they helped the Others cross over.

    Daddy's talk had sounded crazy at times, but he had a way of saying things that made you believe. That dead eye of his could see places and things no one else could. Or so he said.

    But a couple years ago Hank had started having dreams of the Kicker Man, and the man had shown him things… things he'd put into a book that had sold like crazy, making him famous—or maybe notorious was a better word—and attracting a following from all levels of society, especially people living on the fringe.

    Yeah, Kick was zooming toward its two-millionth copy sold, with no signs of slowing. He was rich.

    Hank glanced at the glowing face of his clock radio: 2:13 A.M. He pushed himself out of bed and wandered to his room's single window. He looked out at the Lower East Side block, just off Allen Street, one story below.

    Funny, he didn't feel rich. Not living in this single room in the Septimus Lodge. But he had to keep up appearances, had to live like his peeps. Get into conspicuous consumption and he might lose them—and that meant losing their donations. He had a few whales giving big bucks to the Kicker clubs, but most donations were small. But they added up because there were so many of them.

    Well, he was used to living lean. No biggie. He could hang out until the Change came and the Others arrived. Then he'd be rewarded. But there might be no change and no Others arriving if he didn't help open the door. And to do that he needed the Key.

    Had to find Dawn, damn it. Her baby was, as Daddy liked to say, the Key to the Future.

    But what about that ratty sword? Where did that fit in?

    He'd have to put that on the Kicker BOLO list.

2

    Hideo Takita stood in Kaze Group's Tokyo office looking down at the Marunouchi district's gridlocked streets. Even in early afternoon—jammed.

    He lifted his gaze beyond the skyscrapers to the Imperial Palace squatting low and graceful among its flanking gardens, but the sight of it offered no peace.

    He wiped his sweating palms on the pants of his gray suit. A systems analyst such as Hideo was not invited to the office of Sasaki-san, the chairman of the board, simply for idle chatter. Idle was not a word one would associate with Kaze Group.

    The reception area offered little reassurance—literally and figuratively. Bare walls of polished steel, black ceiling, gleaming floor, and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the city. A brushed-steel desk and chair were the room's only furnishings, and not meant for visitors. One must not be comfortable if one is idle at Kaze Group.

    Kaze… a fitting name.

    Although ostensibly a simple holding company, Kaze Group was more powerful than the largest of the keiretsus, the giant vertical and horizontal conglomerates that ruled Japanese business.

    Formed shortly after World War II, it had slowly woven itself into the fabric of Japan's economy. Today, through a web of dummy corporations, it owned controlling interest in Japan's "Big Six" keiretsus and most of the major corporations. The keiretsus were like icebergs—their small, uppermost portion visible, the vast bulk looming hidden beneath the surface.

    But what determined the path of icebergs through the sea? The currents. And what dictated the currents?

    The wind.

    Kaze.

    Not satisfied with Japan alone, Kaze Group had branched out, extending its reach in all directions. Although it produced nothing itself, it had a hand in the manufacture of everything of importance produced around the globe.

    "Takita-san?"

    Hideo whirled and saw that the slight, business-suited receptionist had returned and was standing behind the desk. Hideo tried to look relaxed and confident as he approached.

    "Sasaki-san will see me now?"

    The receptionist's lips twisted. Hideo realized with a spike of embarrassment that he was suppressing a laugh.

    "You will not be seeing the chairman today."

    Hideo imagined him adding, nor any other day.

    The receptionist handed Hideo a thumb-size flash drive.

    "On this you will find scans of a shipping tube taken at Kahului Airport on Maui. In that tube you will see the image of a damaged katana. The item was checked through to Kennedy International in New York. The passenger's name was listed as Eddie Cordero. That, however, is an alias. The chairman wishes you to go to New York and find that katana." The receptionist gave him a knowing look. "If you deliver this katana to him, he will be most grateful."

    Hideo knew what that meant. But…

    "The chairman wants me to find a damaged sword?"

    "You question the chairman's desire?"

    "No, of course not. I did not mean that. I meant, why me? I have no special skills."

    "The chairman thinks you do, and the chairman is wise." The receptionist paused, as if embarrassed, then added, "The chairman knows it is a difficult task. But he believes you will be especially diligent and expend extra effort because success will go a long way toward restoring your brother's honor."

    Hideo hung his head. Yoshio, what happened to you? Who killed you? He looked up and nodded to the receptionist.

    "I will go. I will find the chairman's katana."

    "It is not the chairman's, but he wishes it to be. However, it may not be the katana he wants. It must meet certain criteria, all of which will be explained on the drive." The receptionist glanced at his watch. "Your flight leaves in two hours. You had better hurry."

    Hideo made a quick bow and started toward the door.

    "Oh, and one more thing," the receptionist said, "you will not be traveling alone."

    Hideo eyed him. "Oh? Who—?"

    "Your three travel companions will meet you at the airport. They will be along to aid you should you need their sort of help. The chairman doesn't want you to end up like your brother."

    Hideo shuddered. Neither did he.

3

    "Well, what do you think?" Gia said.

    Jack stared at the little wooden sculpture—although why it wasn't called a carving, he had no idea. But nomenclature aside, he liked it. A lot.

    "It's beautiful."

    He looked at Gia. For a while she'd let her blond hair grow out, but last week she'd shown up with it cut short again. He liked it short, with its little unruly wings curving into the air.

    She'd dragged him down to this SoHo art gallery, saying he just had to see the latest Sylvia. Jack had no idea what a Sylvia was, but he'd come along. And was glad he had.

    According to the brochure, some artist who signed her work simply as "Sylvia" was famous for her faux bonsai trees, laser sculpted from a model of the real thing. And Jack could see why. Her latest was a mix of bonsai and topiary—a boxwood with a curved trunk, its roots snaking over a rock and into the soil of its pot. But the rock wasn't a rock, the soil wasn't soil, and the tray wasn't clay. The whole thing was a solid block of laminated oak. Interesting enough, but the tiny boxwood leaves had been teased and coaxed and trimmed into the shape of a skyscraper. Jack knew that shape: the tapering spire, the scalloped crown, the eagle heads jutting from the uppermost setback. Of course their size didn't allow the details of a bird's head, but Jack knew what those tiny protruding branches represented.

    Gia fixed him with her clear blue eyes. Her smile was dazzling. "Knowing how you love the Chrysler building, I figured this should be added to your must-see list."

    Jack walked around its pedestal, leaning over the velvet ropes that kept him from getting too close. Someone—Sylvia?—had hand-painted it, mimicking its natural colors. The leaves and moss were green, the tray and clasped stone different shades of gray, the trunk left the natural shade of the original oak.

    Jack stepped back. "From a distance it looks alive."

    "Isn't it just fabulous?" said a soft male voice behind him.

    Jack turned and saw a slim, middle-aged guy wearing a sailor shirt and white duck pants. His little name tag said GARY and his black hair was perfect.

    "Fleet Week's not quite here yet," Jack said.

    Gary grinned. "I know. I can't wait. But as I said"—he gestured to the tree—"isn't it fabulous?"

    "Yeah. Fabulous." A word misused and overused, but here it fit.

    "And it doesn't just look alive, it's so very much alive in the way all true art lives. And best of all, it requires no pruning, no wiring, no watering, and yet it remains perfect. Forever."

    "I like the low-maintenance idea. Always wanted a bonsai, but I have a brown thumb."

    "Maintenance is not an issue. This is a work of art, and so much more than a bonsai. This is a subtle melding of the man-made and the natural, a brilliant use of the latest in modern technology to preserve an ancient art form."

    Seemed like Gary had memorized the brochure.

    "How much do you want for it?"

    "It's not a matter of how much I want," he said, reaching into a pocket. "If I had my way it would stay on display here forever." He pulled out a card and pen and scribbled. "But alas, that won't pay the rent."

    Alas?

    He handed Jack the card. He'd written a number on it.

    Jack couldn't help laughing. "Twenty thousand dollars?"

    Gary cooled. "Each of Sylvia's trees are fashioned in strictly limited editions of one hundred, signed and numbered by the artist herself."

    "And people actually pay twenty K apiece?"

    "Each edition sells out almost immediately. Our gallery was consigned only one. We put it out this morning. It will be sold by closing."

    What a crazy world.

    Just then a jewel-dripping thirty-something blonde strolled up, clutching the arm of her Armani'd, sixty-something sugar daddy.

    "Oh, look, honey. Isn't that a Sylvia? Alana has a Sylvia and I want one too. Can we get it?"

    The words leaped from Jack's mouth before he could stop them.

    "I'll take it."

    "Jack!" Gia said, giving him a wide-eyed stare.

    "It's only money."

    "Are you serious?"

    He shrugged. "I've got all this moolah socked away—you know that. For what? You won't let me spend it on you and Vicky." Spend it? He'd tried to give it all to her back in December when he thought he'd be leaving on a forever trip. "So I might as well blow it on something like this."

    "I can assure you it will only appreciate in value," Gary said. "Some of Sylvia's early trees are selling for triple what you're paying."

    "See?" he said to Gia. "It's an investment." He turned to Gary. "You accept gold?"

    "The AmEx Gold Card? Of course."

    That wasn't what Jack had meant, but…

    "Okay. Wrap her up to travel."

    "I suggest you let us deliver it. It's very valuable and you don't want to risk someone stealing it."

    Jack smiled, aware of the weight of the Glock 19 nestled in the small of his back. But it was Gia who spoke through a wry smile.

    "Oh, I don't think we'll have to worry about that."

4

    "Nobody likes to hear of an artist hitting a big payday more than I," Gia said. "But—"

    "Speaking of art, what about yours?"

    They were walking up Greene Street toward Houston, passing the grave of the Soho Kitchen & Bar. Whenever Jack had been in the neighborhood, he'd made a point of stopping in for a draft pint of Pilsner Urqell. Another goddamn boutique occupied the space now.

    "I'm back to work—three dust jacket assignments and some paperbacks on the way."

    "Yeah, but that's work done to order. That's not you. What about the stuff you're doing for yourself?"

    She shook her head. "Told you: not happy with it."

    "Still?"

    "Still."

    "When are you going to let me see it?"

    A shrug. "Maybe never. I may just take them somewhere and burn them."

    Jack stopped and gripped her arm. "Don't even joke about that. Anything by you is valuable to me."

    "Not these. Trust me, not these."

    "They can't be that bad."

    "Oh, yes, they can. I don't like them and I don't want to show work I don't like."

    "Even to me?"

    "Especially to you." She tapped the box under his arm. "Frugalman Jack, spending twenty thousand on a sculpted tree… I don't know what to say."

    Obviously she wanted a change of topic, so he let it go. For now.

    "I've been frugal because I've always wanted to be able to retire early." He could have added, while I'm still alive, but didn't.

    "Granted, it's a stunning piece of work, but twenty thousand?"

    "Better than letting some bimbo blonde—"

    "Ahem."

    "What?"

    She pointed to her hair. "What color is this?"

    Oh, hell.

    "But you're not a bimbo. And yours doesn't come from a bottle."

    "It gets help from a bottle."

    "You know what I mean. Anyway, I didn't want that… person to get her grubby mitts on it."

    Gia stopped and laughed. "You've got to be kidding! You spent twenty thousand just for spite?"

    "Not spite. I may not be an artist"—he placed a hand over his heart—"but I have the soul of one." He tapped the box under his arm. "And this—what's the art-speak phrase?—this speaks to me."

    Gia demonstrated the unofficial ASL sign for Gag me with a spoon.

    He put on his best offended expression. "Well, it does."

    Truth was, it had spoken to him by appealing to something deep within. He'd wanted it from the first instant he'd set eyes on it. He'd bought it not so much to save it from the bimbo as to possess it—to put it someplace where he'd see it every day.

    "Really? And just what does it say?"

    They'd reached Houston, the wide, bustling thoroughfare that linked the East and West Sides down here, the street responsible for SoHo's name—south of Houston. Jack raised his free arm to flag a cab.

    "As you can see, it's all wrapped up at the moment, so I can't hear it. But back in the gallery it said, 'Please don't let me go home with that bling-bedizened beotch.' It really did."

    Gia laughed and leaned against him. "I love you."

    "I love you too."

    "And I'd like to make love to you again sometime before I die."

    Uh-oh.

    A cab lurched to a halt before them.

    "You and me both."

    "Then why—?"

    He handed her the box with the tree. "Take this back for me, will you?"

    Concern tightened her features. "You're not coming?"

    "Got some bidness down here."

    She eased herself into the backseat of the cab and looked up at him.

    "Is something wrong?"

    "No… it's just that I've become involved in a situation that could be dangerous to you."

    "Like what?"

    "It's too complicated to get into here and now."

    The cabby looked like a Hotel Rwanda bellhop. Jack handed him a twenty and said, "Sutton Square."

    The guy nodded. Did that mean he knew where it was? Too many cabbies didn't know zilch about the city anymore. At least he had a GPS.

    Gia was still looking up at him. "When, then?"

    "When what?"

    "When can we get into it?"

    He leaned in and kissed her on the lips.

    "Soon, Gia. Soon. I promise."

    "I'm back on the pill, if that's what you're worried about, and I'm never going off it again."

    That wasn't it. Or maybe it was. He wished he knew.

    "I'll talk to you later."

    Then he closed the door and the cab took off. Gia's puzzled face in the rear window felt like seppuku—without a second to deliver the coup de grâce.

5

    It took Henry until two o'clock to track down what Dawn had requested. He finally returned with a box labeled with Arabic script.

    "I suppose this would have been easy to find if I'd known where to look," he said, handing her the box, "but I didn't. I believe this is what you want."

    Dawn tore it open and found a large blue silk scarf within. But not just any scarf. This one had a veil attached. She'd Googled Muslim clothing last night and came across this whack Muslima fashion site that featured something called a pak chadar. It had looked perfect. This morning Henry had gone in search of one.

    She pulled it out and stepped into the powder room for a look. After draping it over her head and shoulders she checked herself in the mirror. Not bad. The color intensified the blue of her eyes. She pulled the top front lower to hide her blond hair, then draped the long end of the scarf over her opposite shoulder. Now for the final touch: the veil.

    She stretched it across her nose and her lower face and fastened it on the other side.

    Well, it was totally stupid looking but it did the job. The only things visible were her eyes. On the one-in-a-zillion chance Jerry saw her, he would so not recognize her. He'd think, there's a weird, blue-eyed, white-bread Muslim chick, but that would be it.

    But what if he recognized her eyes? Simple fix: sunglasses.

    She hurried back to her room where she slipped on the wraparound Ray-Bans provided for sunbathing on the roof.

    Another inspection, this time in the bedroom mirror, and wow—totally unrecognizable.

    Am I smart or am I smart?

    Her glee slipped into sad wonder when she remembered facts from her comparative religions course—aced like most of her courses—in social studies. Hundreds of millions of women around the world were totally forced to dress like this. What was wrong with seeing a woman's face or hair? What sort of asshole came up with this bullshit? Could only be a guy, most likely one hung like a light switch. She didn't know why women put up with it. Oh, yeah. Because if they didn't they got stoned to death or something. Nice religion.

    People said the world was getting totally crazy, but truth was, it had always been crazy—at least where women were concerned.

    She ground her teeth. Mom had never talked feminism. She didn't have to—she'd lived it. Completely self-sufficient, without a man or even a family to lean on, she'd built a life for herself and Dawn through sheer guts and determination.

    God, I miss her.

    She shook off the melancholy and hurried back into the great room where Henry waited.

    "Okay. What do you think?"

    He nodded. "Even your own mother wouldn't recog—oh, I'm sorry."

    "It's all right." She was getting out of here and nothing was going to bring her down. But Henry's expression turned grave. "Really, Henry, it's all right. You don't have to—"

    "It's not that," he said. "I believe I'm having second thoughts."

    "About what?"

    "About letting you leave the apartment."

    Dawn stiffened and thought her heart had stopped. No! He couldn't change his mind now. Not when she was so totally mad stoked about getting out.

    "You can't be serious."

    "The Master would be quite upset if he found out. I'll lose my job. Or worse."

    Worse?

    "He's so never going to find out. Not from me, at least. And you're not going to tell him. So… ?"

    "There is Gilda."

    "Today's her afternoon off. No way she can know."

    "Still, I should check with the Master first."

    No-no-no! That downer bastard would totally say no.

    "But you can't find him. And anyway, no one's gonna know. Please, Henry, please. I'm dying here and we've got a perfect solution worked out. Come on, Henry. Please!"

    The word hung between them, then Henry sighed and shrugged.

    "But only for a little while—a very little while. I do not want Gilda to come home to an empty apartment. She will be very upset."

    "Deal. Anything you say, just get me out of here." She wanted to be on the move before he changed his mind again. "Let's go."

    He gestured to her legs. "That doesn't look very Muslimish."

    She looked down at her bare legs and tight training shorts.

    "Christ."

    "He's not part of this equation."

    Dawn had to laugh, and looked to see if Henry was smiling. But no. Deadpan as ever.

    She rushed back to her room for something a little more modest.

6

    Jack stood in a doorway of the Wyeth building near the western end of Spring Street, catty-corner from the Ear Inn's block, just a couple of hundred yards from where SoHo morphed into TriBeCa. He held a lit cigarette and pretended to be an exiled smoker—a ubiquitous fixture around the city—as he watched the entrance to the Ear.

    Not the easiest place to find. It sat—quite literally—over the eastern end of the Holland Tunnel. The unlit neon sign jutting over the sidewalk was no help during the day. If you squinted you could see that the tubing said BAR and nothing else. A different story at night when it was lit: They'd blacked out the right half of the "B," enabling the sign to proclaim the place's name.

    But in daylight you had to be standing before the front window to see the discreet EAR INN on the glass. Used to be a fisherman's hang back in the nineteenth century, right on the waterfront—not much west of the Ear back then but the Hudson River. Now the Hudson lay on the far side of the concrete lanes of the West Side Highway.

    Midafternoon was a traditionally slow time for bars—the lunchers gone, the happy-hour crowd yet to arrive—and the Ear was no exception. Though only a couple of blocks from Hudson Street, this dead-end warehouse area, dominated by a huge UPS depot, was about as far in spirit from touristy as imaginable. No weary shoppers passing by and stopping in for a cold one. You had to know about the Ear and come looking for it.

    At a few minutes to three a taxi pulled to a stop before the door and out stepped a slim Asian in a black suit, white shirt, striped tie, and fedora. Could have been Kurosawa's undertaker.

    He stood looking at the Ear's front window, then turned back to the taxi and said something to the driver. Jack figured he was asking if this was really the place. Finally he forked over some cash and stepped toward the door. After a few seconds' hesitation, he pushed inside.

    Jack waited a few more minutes to see if anyone followed him in, but the street remained clear. He crushed out his cigarette and headed for the Ear.

    Inside he found the guy standing alone near the front end of the half-occupied bar, looking around with a confused expression. He stood out among this half hipster, half middle-manager crowd like a Hasid at a Taliban wedding.

    Jack tapped him on the shoulder. He spun, a startled look in his face.

    "You the fellow who lost something and wants it back?"

    "Yes-yes. You are Repairman Jack?"

    "Just Jack will do. Let's get a table."

    As if on cue, a smiling, strawberry-blond waitress with an Irish accent appeared and asked if they wanted a table for two. Jack pointed to an empty one in the far corner of the front room with a good view of the entrance and easy access to the door to the kitchen.

    She led them past the warped and scarred bar with its old-fashioned, four-legged, vinyl-topped stools. Two old-wood gables hung over the bottle racks on the wall, separated by a high shelf jammed with old empty bottles of all imaginable shapes and sizes. The front window said the place had been established in 1817. That might have been the last time those bottles had been dusted.

    Jack seated himself in the corner near the huge ear mounted on the wall. He put his back against a three-sheet poster offering a graphic, organ-by-organ lesson on the ruinous effects of alcohol on the human body. The wall to his left sported portholes with either seascapes or stern-looking portrait faces gazing into the room.

    Once they were seated, the guy removed his hat and placed it in his lap, revealing jet-black hair combed down over the left side of the forehead, all the way to the eyebrow. He appeared to be somewhere in his forties and had an ascetic look—hollow cheeks and intense dark eyes peering from deep orbits. Eyes that never quite made contact with Jack's. Before he adjusted his jacket cuffs, Jack caught a glimpse of a black tattoo above his right wrist—some sort of polygon.

    "You know my name," Jack said. "Time to hear yours."

    He dipped his head in a quick bow. "Nakanaori Okumo Slater."

    "Whoa."

    A quick smile. "I am called Naka."

    "Naka it is. But Slater doesn't sound very Japanese."

    "My father was American."

    Jack couldn't detect any Caucasian in Naka's looks, so he either favored his mother's side—a lot—or his father was Japanese-American.

    The strawberry-blond waitress came over, pad in hand, and handed them menus. When Jack ordered a pint draft Hoegaarden, she smiled.

    "Hey, you pronounced it right. Don't hear that too often. You Belgian?"

    Jack smiled back. "No, Jerseyan."

    When Naka ordered water, he found Jack and the waitress giving him looks.

    "I do not drink spirits."

    As the waitress sighed and walked away, W. C. Fields's warning wafted through Jack's brain: Never trust a man who doesn't drink.

    Jack picked up a menu. "The burgers here are outstanding."

    "I do not eat flesh."

    Jack looked at him. "I bet you don't get invited to too many parties, either."

    "Parties?" He looked puzzled. "No."

    "Yeah, well, neither do I. The Ear burger is really good."

    The guy made a face. "You devour something's ear?"

    "Only kidding."

    But he wished someone in the place would find the cojones to list their big, eight-ounce sirloin burger as an Ear Burger. That would be too cool.

    "I did not come here to eat. I came here to talk."

    "I can do both—I'm a multitasker." Jack dropped the menu. No contest. He'd decided on the burger. "So tell me again how you found me—and name names this time."

    "When an object was stolen—"

    "From your home on Maui, I assume."

    He nodded. "Yes. I own a plantation."

    "What do you grow?"

    He looked flustered. "Why do you wish to know?"

    "Call me curious."

    "Papaya, sugar cane, macadamia—"

    "Okay. So the 'object' was stolen from your Maui plantation. What then?"

    "I… I hired detective."

    "Why not go to the cops?"

    "I wish to be discreet."

    "Because…?"

    Naka hesitated, then sighed. "Because ownership would be, how shall I say, called into question if existence of object become public."

    Knew it.

    Couldn't report the theft of a stolen object.

    "And your detective blew it, I assume."

    He nodded. "He discover name of thief but thief escape on plane to New York."

    Now the pieces were fitting.

    Naka's water and Jack's Hoegaarden arrived. The brew had a thin half-slice of lemon floating in the foam. He was not a fan of witbieren, but Hoegaarden was a treat if found on tap. Jack ordered the burger with cheese, bacon, and sautéed onions. Naka broke down and chose a salad.

    As the waitress bustled off, Jack sipped his brew. Good. A light lemony flavor, great for summer or when he didn't want to feel logged down. Not on tap in many places around the city. Another reason to seek out the Ear.

    He noticed another Asian—this one too looked Japanese—come in and sit two tables away. He glanced at them once, then studied the menu.

    Jack turned to Naka. "So, with the thief in New York you needed someone local."

    Naka nodded. "Yes, but I have no idea where to turn. I was discussing my problem with artist I know—I buy his sculpture and we become friends. He say his consort used to live in New York and might be able to help."

    First, "alas" from Gary. Now, "consort." What gives?

    "What's this artist's name?"

    "Moki."

    "Never heard of him. How about his 'consort'? What's hers?"

    "I do not know. I never meet her. We speak only on phone. She give me your name and how to reach you. She call you a ronin and say I should not lie to you, that you are a good man who can be trusted but who can also be not nice at times."

    " 'Not nice'? She said that?"

    "Yes. Her exact words."

    Who the hell…?

    "You're taking her advice, of course."

    "All I am telling you is true."

    Jack put aside wondering about the mystery woman until later.

    "Good. So, your detective at least learned the identity of your thief."

    Naka further averted his gaze. "Unfortunately, we have since learned that he was traveling under false identity."

    "Which was?"

    "Eddie Cordero."

    Jack leaned back. Why did that name sound familiar? He was sure he'd never heard it, but something about it set off a chime.

    "So what did he steal?"

    "A sword. A katana. I must have it back."

    "And what's so special about this sword? What's it worth?"

    "That is puzzle. It is terribly damaged and of no use or value to anyone but my family."

    "And why's it valuable to you?"

    "One might call it heirloom. It belonged to dear friend of my father. He is deceased and sword was all my father had left of him. When my father died he made me promise to keep sword in family. I must keep promise to my father."

    Okay. Jack understood that. But odd the thief would take a worthless heirloom back to New York. Unless…

    "Maybe it's worth more than you think."

    Naka shook his head. "I think not." From an inside pocket in his suit jacket he pulled a pair of photos and handed them across the table. "See for yourself."

    The first showed a long, slim sword, its naked, curved blade lying atop a wooden stand, cutting edge facing up. The long, tapered tang was exposed—someone had removed the handle. The blade looked strangely mottled. The next photo was closer in and slightly blurred, revealing the mottling as a random pattern of irregular holes in the steel. The cutting edge was perfectly preserved, but the rest was Swiss-cheesed.

    "A samurai sword?"

    "Yes," Naka said. "A katana."

    "No offense, but it looks like a piece of junk."

    "In very real sense, it is. But to my family it is priceless. Therefore it make no sense for someone to steal unless they mean to ransom back to us."

    Jack looked again at the moth-eaten blade and agreed: no sense at all.

    "And you've received no demand?"

    "Nothing. And thief has fled islands."

    This didn't make a whole lot of sense. Jack felt some key element was missing—or being withheld.

    "Aren't some of these swords valuable?"

    Naka nodded. "Nihont fashioned by ancient swordsmiths such as Masamune and Muramasa—especially those signed by Masamune—are rare and of most extreme value."

    Most of what Jack had just heard was meaningless.

    "Nihont?"

    "Only swords forged in Japan can be called nihont. Foreign-made imitations cannot."

    "And I take it this blade isn't signed by Moonimalaya or whoever."

    "No one. Especially not Masamune." He pronounced the name with exaggerated clarity, as if speaking to a five-year-old. "A Masamune sword would never corrode as this one did."

    Jack squinted at the photo and spotted a tiny figure carved into the steel of the tang:

    He turned the photo toward Naka and pointed. "Someone's signed something there."

    Naka glanced at it and nodded. "Yes. The two characters separately mean 'outside' and 'person.' Together they mean 'foreigner.' "

    That tripped a memory.

    "Oh. Gaijin."

    Naka blinked. "You know this word?"

    "I know a few words. Arigato and all that."

    In truth he'd picked up "gaijin" reading Clavell's Shogun, but no need to let this guy know.

    Naka pointed to the engraving and looked at him directly for the first time. "Does this mean anything to you?"

    Jack shrugged. "Only that I'd be a gaijin in your country just as you are in mine."

    "Yes." Naka sounded relieved and averted his gaze again. "That is what it should mean."

    What's that all about? Jack wondered.

    He decided to push a little.

    "So if I want to get this sword back for you, all I have to do is go around asking about a rotted-out blade with gaijin written on the hasp."

    Naka's seat jump was almost comical.

    "No-no-no! You must not. Such inquiries could reach wrong ears."

    "So it is valuable."

    "No. It is not. As I tell you, original owner might hear. It would want back."

    "It?"

    "A museum in Japan."

    Good. He could handle a museum. Jack didn't want some kind of Zatichi coming after him.

    The food arrived then. The burger came open-face style. Jack assembled it and took a big chomp—heaven—while Naka started to poke at his salad.

    After a couple of bites, Jack forced himself to speak. He would much rather have wallowed in the ground sirloin until it was gone.

    "And why would this sword have been in a museum?"

    "Because it is old. It was but minor part of much larger collection, but if museum hear, it will want back."

    "Gotcha."

    Naka looked at him again, a plea in his eyes. "You can do this?"

    "I can only promise to try."

    "No. You must succeed! Moki's consort said—"

    "I don't know who this lady is, but if she said I could guarantee success, she's wrong. No guarantees in this business."

    Naka was silent a moment, then nodded. "That is fair, I suppose. I am glad you are being honest with me." Another pause, then, "What is your fee?"

    Jack was tempted to pull a Gary: Write down the dollar amount and hand it to him. But he didn't have cards, so he pulled out a pen and wrote it on the white butcher paper that served as a tablecloth here.

    Naka blinked. "That is very much money for no guarantee."

    Yeah, it was stiff. Jack had upped his price since the Dawn Pickering job. His intention was to cut back. One way to do that was to be very choosy about the fix-its he took on. The other was to price himself out of certain markets.

    This Naka guy owned a plantation on Maui. He could afford Jack's price, no sweat.

    "Didn't your artist friend Moki's 'consort' tell you that?"

    "I asked but she did not know."

    Not know? That meant she wasn't a former customer. A puzzlement.

    "Well, it's not as bad as it sounds. Half up front, and the rest when I deliver the goods."

    "And if you do not? What happen to first half?"

    "That stays with me."

    "But how am I to know you have not simply taken my money and done nothing?"

    Instead of answering, Jack took another bite of the burger and chewed at a slow, deliberate pace. Something about this guy bugged him. Maybe because he sensed Naka was giving him only part of the story. Then again, he couldn't expect full disclosure from someone who wanted him to steal back a stolen object.

    As for the job itself, it could prove relatively easy if the thief was trying to sell the sword, but damn near impossible if he intended to keep it for himself.

    Jack had set the photos on the table. He took another bite and studied the close-up of the ruined blade.

    Who'd pay for a piece of junk like that?

    Finally he swallowed and said, "It's called trust. You have a reference—granted, it's from a woman neither of us knows, but you trusted the source enough to get in touch with me."

    "Yes, but—"

    Jack held up a hand. "No buts. You either trust me or you don't. You know my price, so you either come across or you don't. I don't bargain, haggle, dicker. Make up your mind."

    Naka sighed. "I do not see that I have much choice."

    "Of course you do. You're dealing with maybe the last vestige of the free market, which means you can walk out the door you came in with no hard feelings—at least on my part."

    Jack expected some lengthy rumination on Naka's part. Instead he surprised him by giving a curt nod and saying, "Yes, it shall be done. I shall pay you cash."

    "Yes, you will. Although we accept Krugerrands as well."

    "When can you start looking?"

    "As soon as I have the money."

    Jack had learned over the years that certain customers had to believe they were dealing with a no-nonsense, hard-ass mercenary. He sensed Naka-whatever Slater was one of those.

    "I shall make call and someone shall deliver it to you within hour. Where—?"

    "Right here will do fine."

    No sense in burning another meeting place.

    "One last thing," Jack added. "How did the break-in occur?"

    Naka frowned. "I do not understand."

    "Was a door pried open or its lock picked? Was an alarm system bypassed? How did he gain entry?"

    "Through bedroom window."

    "With you there?"

    "No. Out to dinner."

    "No alarm?"

    "Yes, for rest of house, but my wife like to sleep with open window. Our system bypass those windows."

    "No motion detectors?"

    "In rest of house, yes, but he turn off alarm system from bedroom. I do not know how."

    Jack did. Inside info: a cleaning girl, or maybe even someone at the alarm company.

    Good. This gave him an idea of the burglar's skill set, always useful in tracking someone.

    Naka rose and reached into his pocket. Jack waved him off.

    "On me. I'll be running a tab." He pointed to the photos. "Got anything better than these?"

    Naka shook his head. "Sorry. Those are best. My father never felt need of taking picture. He had sword in place of honor where he could see every day. Why take many picture?"

    Made sense.

    Naka put on his hat, bowed, and hustled out the door. Jack settled into finishing his burger, considering ordering another Hoegaarden and maybe even another burger, and thinking how this was the kind of fix-it Gia liked him to take.

    Retrieving a decrepit old sword… really… how risky could that be?

7

    Toru Akechi was sitting with his favorite student, Shiro Kobayashi, the fourth son of a fisherman in the Ishikawa prefecture, in one of the few rooms in the Order's temple that had remained a classroom. Most others had been converted into dormitory-like quarters for the monks, acolytes, and guards. A few of the larger rooms had been renovated for Sightings and for surgery.

    Tadasu burst in. Toru sensed restrained excitement in the man as he bowed.

    "The mercenary has agreed to search for the katana, sensei."

    Toru regarded him through the eyeholes of his mask. Tadasu Fumihiro was forty-two, a former student. He had watched Tadasu grow since his teen years, mentoring him through the levels of the Kakureta Kao as it struggled back from extinction. He had earned the position of temple guard but showed promise of so much more, which was why Toru had selected him for a mission so critical to the future of the Order.

    "You must stay close to this. The Order is depending on you to guarantee its future. If this man finds it… you know what must be done."

    "I do, sensei. I shall not fail."

    "I have faith in you. And good news for you. Shiro has located the final ingredient for the ekisu."

    After regaining the sacred scrolls, Toru had sent out the Order's acolytes and any guards who could be spared—and who could show their faces—to scour the city for the ingredients to make the elixir that would create the Kuroikaze—the Black Wind.

    Tadasu grinned and bowed to the acolyte half his age. "Most excellent!"

    Shiro returned the bow. "I am honored to be of service."

    Tadasu's hair was longer than Shiro's, but the two were so similar they could have been father and son.

    Tadasu said, "This means that the Order can once again wield the Kuroikaze!"

    Toru hoped so. He knew of only one way to be sure.

    "Yes. Even as we speak, the ekisu is being prepared in accordance with the instructions in the scrolls. We must test it as soon as possible. For that we will need a shoten. The two of you go, search the city. Find someone sickly, someone with low vitality, and—most important of all—someone who will not be missed."

    He followed the pair out of the classroom and returned to his quarters. He locked the door and removed the embroidered red silk mask from the folds of skin the surgeons had created in the four corners of his face. This had been done when he'd entered the Fifth Circle of the Kakureta Kao and took the Vow of the Hidden Face. No one ever again would see his face.

    The Fifth Circle… where he had gained the folds and lost his testicles. A small price to pay, hardly a price at all, especially considering how long ago he had sworn off pleasures of the flesh.

    As a sensei, he would not be allowed to progress beyond the Fifth Circle for many years to come. He needed all of his senses to be an effective teacher.

    He stepped to the open window and let the breeze caress his face. Even though it carried a faint, sour tang of garbage, it felt refreshing. Yes, he'd made the vow, but sometimes he became weary of looking at the world through two eyeholes.

    He stared across the flat lowlands and highways to the huge mounds of the Fresh Kills landfill surrounding the Order's temple.

    Temple… a term used loosely in this case. Toru had seen photos of the beautiful five-story pagoda in the heart of Tokyo that served as home to the Kakureta Kao until the World War II fire bombings. People high and low had feared and venerated the Order. And then it had been destroyed.

    Even after all these years, the Order remained a mere shell of its former self. This old, boxy, two-story schoolhouse on condemned ground was all it could afford. The toxins supposedly had been cleared but still no one wanted to live here. But the Order cared naught about toxins, and the building's bargain price was all their depleted coffers could afford.

    How the mighty had fallen.

    But the Kakureta Kao would regain its former status. The Seers said so. And they said that New York City was where its resurgence would begin.

    Toru hated this barbaric country whose commercialism had reached across an ocean and tainted his homeland's culture. But he believed the Seers. As did the Elders. And so here the Order would stay.

    But the Seers had said the Kakureta Kao would not rise unless it regained the scrolls and the blade that had caused their downfall. The scrolls they had, but they must control the blade if they were ever to regain their ancient status.

8

    Blume's.

    Dawn was in total heaven—six floors of paradise on Fifth Avenue. She'd spent the entire afternoon here. She'd never been able to afford Blume's on her allowance and what she'd earned at the diner.

    With Henry never far away, she'd touched, caressed, tried on, and bought—on Mr. Osala's dime, of course. She'd even gone to the designer floor, intending to see how far she could push this free ride—to find the limit of Mr. Osala's largesse. A sales clerk named Rolf had shown her around, but when she saw the prices, she'd lost her nerve.

    The things she'd ordered would be delivered.

    She also enjoyed the sidelong glances from the other shoppers at her pak chadar. Kind of cool, in a way, like playing hide and seek, or spying. She could see their expressions but they couldn't see hers. She'd totally stuck her tongue out at a couple of old biddies and they hadn't a clue.

    Better fun was raising a ton of eyebrows when she'd picked out a skimpy scarlet teddiette and taken it to a dressing room. Not like she'd had any intention of trying it on, let alone buying it; she'd just wanted to set tongues a-wagging. And she had. She'd heard the sales desk buzzing as she headed for the changing area.

    She dragged Henry up to Fifty-seventh for a late-afternoon snack—totally tricky with the veil.

    After that Henry informed her that it was time to go.

    Bummer.

    As they waited for the car—Henry had been adamant about using it instead of a cab for the short trip—Dawn saw a scruffy-looking man pasting a Day-Glo orange flyer on a nearby wall. The bold black letters caught her eye.

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GIRL?

    She stepped closer and saw someone was offering a five-thousand-dollar reward. It listed an 800 number.

    And then she saw the name: DAWN PICKERING.

    And then she saw the picture: hers.

    "Oh, my God!"

    The guy turned and gave her a quick up-and-down inspection. He had scraggly hair and needed a shave. He squinted at her, scowling. A button in his shirt read, ASK ME ABOUT THE KICKER EVOLUTION.

    "Yo. You mean, 'Oh, my Allah,' right?"

    Fighting waves of shock and nausea, Dawn pointed a trembling finger at the flyer. "Wh-who's looking for that girl?"

    The guy's eyes narrowed. "Why? You know her?"

    With no thought on her part, a reply leaped from her lips. "No. No, of course not. It's just…" Think, Dawn. "Was she… was she like kidnapped or something?"

    "Or something. All we know is she's gone. She's out there alone and afraid and we want to help her."

    That sounded memorized. "Who's 'we'?"

    "Why, the Kickers, of course." He held up the back of his hand to show her the little stick figure tattooed on the thumb web. "We're out here just doing our part."

    Dawn stifled a gasp. Jerry had had one of those.

    "What are you going to do when you find her?"

    "Return her to her home and protect her."

    "From what?"

    "From anything that wants to hurt her and her baby."

    Her baby

    Dawn felt the sidewalk tilt under her. She swayed.

    The guy stared at her, his expression suspicious. "You okay?" He reached toward her veil. "Let's see what you look like under that."

    Suddenly he was sailing backward. He slammed against the fender of a parked car.

    "You will not touch her, sir." Henry's voice.

    The Kicker's face twisted into a snarl, then relaxed into a sneer when he looked up and saw Henry.

    "Not like I care 'bout no Mohammed-humping ho anyhow."

    Dawn would never have guessed Henry had such strength. He hid it well. As the Kicker started to turn away, Henry pointed to the stack of flyers in his backpack.

    "May I have one of those?"

    The man hesitated, squinting at them, then handed over half a dozen.

    "Sure. Spread 'em around. The more people see 'em, the quicker we find her."

    Still dazed, Dawn felt Henry grip her arm and lead her to the car. He ushered her into the backseat, closed the door after her, and soon they were rolling.

    Through the rear window she saw the Kicker writing something on the back of one of his flyers.

    They headed east, then uptown on Madison. And everywhere she looked she saw the flyers. She'd taken passing notice of them on the way to the store, but flyers were so common around the city, especially around construction sites, that she'd paid them no mind. But now, knowing what they said, each flash of orange was a cramp in her gut.

    Forcing herself to move, she leaned over the back of the front seat and retrieved one of the flyers. She stared at it.

    Where had they got this picture? She didn't remember it. It looked fairly recent, but before she'd lost the weight.

    "Do you see?" Henry said. "This is why the Master does not want you out. Now do you understand?"

    She waggled the flyer. "About these?"

    "Yes. They mean far more than just one man is looking for you. There's a whole network of people. And through these flyers and the reward they're offering, they're enlisting a host of allies. You simply cannot show your face in public."

    Dawn stared at the flyer. "I need to call this number."

    "I do not believe that would be wise."

    "Just stop at a pay phone. No one will know it's me." She had to call. She just had to. "Please, Henry."

    For a moment he said nothing. Then, without taking his eyes off the street, he offered a cell phone over his shoulder.

    "Use this. It's safe. But be very careful what you say."

    Her throat tightened at his unexpected gesture. "Thank you, Henry. You're a friend. And I'll be very careful."

    Her finger trembled as she punched in the number. A male voice answered on the second ring.

    "Dawn hot line."

    Dawn hot line… oh, God.

    "Hel—" She swallowed. "Hello? I'm calling about the girl on the flyer."

    "You think you've spotted her, right?" His tone was like, Yeah-yeah, tell me another one. "Where'd you see her?"

    "You don't sound like you believe me."

    He sighed. "Sorry. We've had so many false leads and"

    "Who are you people and why are you looking for her? I mean, you're not the police, so—"

    "We're private, and we've taken an interest in her case… her disappearance. Have you seen Dawn? Do you know where she is?"

    "Who's in charge there? Who's behind this?"

    "He's not here right now. But if you haven't seen her, can you help us, give us any hint of where she might be?"

    "I'm not saying another word until I speak to whoever's behind this."

    "I'm sorry, he's not available right now."

    "Is his name Jerry? Tell—"

    A long-fingered hand snatched the phone away and snapped it shut.

    "Quite enough," Henry said. "I let you call for one reason: To make clear to you that your ex-lover is conducting a very organized hunt for you. Do you understand now?"

    Ex-lover? If he only knew the rest of it.

    "I understand."

    Did she ever.

9

    "Still fighting chopsticks, I see," Jack said.

    The Isher Sports Shop was officially closed, its narrow, cluttered aisles dark except for the rearmost section where Abe perched on a stool behind the scarred counter. The air reeked of garlic from the take-out kimchi he was forking into his mouth.

    He raised his free hand and waggled his stubby, chubby fingers.

    "These look made for eating with sticks?"

    "You could learn."

    "Why for I should learn? For westerners, chopsticks are an affectation. I don't do affectations."

    No argument there, Jack thought, taking in Abe's customary white half-sleeve shirt and black trousers, strained by his bulging belly and stained by the day's parade of edibles.

    "Well, for one thing, they might slow down your eating."

    "I should eat slow? Why?"

    "Slow eaters tend to eat less."

    "You're not going to start, are you?"

    Jack shook his head. "Not tonight."

    He knew his own eating habits—except when Gia cooked for him—were anything but healthy. One of these days he'd get his cholesterol checked. But at least he was active. Abe spent most of his time on that stool, eating. Jack didn't like to think of his closest friend as a cardiac arrest waiting to happen.

    But he was getting tired of being a nag, especially since it hadn't changed anything. The guy was fatter than ever, and didn't seem to care. With his wife long dead, his daughter barely speaking to him… food and reading newspapers—usually simultaneously—were his joys in life.

    Abe said, "And kimchi, I'll have you know, is diet food. Fermented cabbage. More low-cal is hard to find." He pushed the container toward Jack. "You want?"

    Jack shook his head. The two burgers at the Ear would hold him the rest of the night.

    "Thanks, no. I didn't think any of the Korean places around here delivered."

    "I picked it up on my way back from the hospice."

    Jack knew why Abe had gone there.

    "How's the professor doing?"

    Abe shook his head. "Not good. The chemo and radiation are slowing down the cancer, but his right side is still useless from the stroke."

    "And the numbers?"

    A sigh. "Still with the numbers."

    Peter Buhmann, Ph.D., Abe's old professor from his university days, had suffered a stroke last month while paging through the Compendium of Srem. Turned out to be a hemorrhage into a metastatic brain tumor from kidney cancer. The weirdest part was that he'd stopped speaking words and begun speaking numbers. Exclusively. And not random numbers—only primes multiplied by seven. Strange and sad, because the cancer was all through his body.

    "How long?"

    Another shrug. "Could be weeks, could be months." He burped kimchi.

    "And how long before that stuff hits your colon? I would like to be out of here before then."

    Abe smiled. "Why do you think I stock those NBC masks?"

    "You'll let me know if I need to run downstairs and grab one, won't you?"

    "Of course. But my guess is you didn't come here at this hour to ask about the professor or tshepen me about what I eat and the way I eat it. Nu?"

    Jack told him about his meeting with Naka Slater.

    "So, a second-story man you're looking for."

    "Seems like it. Used the name Eddie Cordero, which rings some sort of bell with me, but apparently it's an aka."

    Abe frowned. "A bell for me too. Who, I wonder…?" He shrugged. "Maybe it will come. Meanwhile, we need to find a second-story ganef who was away for a while and has a tan maybe."

    "And looking to unload a rotted-out katana."

    Abe twirled his finger next to his head. "He's a little farblondjet, maybe?"

    "Maybe." Damn, this was weird—but that made it interesting. "Anyway, you put out the word to your people, I'll talk to mine."

    "You know who else you should talk to? Tom O'Day."

    The name sounded familiar.

    "The knife guy?"

    "Yes, and a fence he'll be should the opportunity arise. Runs an East Side specialty shop called Bladeville. Sells anything and everything that cuts—from scimitars to steak knives."

    "Good thought. I'll check with him tomorrow. Never met him, so could you give him a call to loosen him up?"

    "Sure, but don't expect much looseness. A shmoozer he's not."

    "Might be if I say I'm looking to buy it. If he knows of it, he can dip his beak as middleman."

    "Good luck." Abe rubbed his belly and shifted in his seat. "Uh-oh. Fortz coming."

    Jack spun and beat it toward the door.

    "Bye."

10

    "And you have no clue where she was calling from?"

    Menck shook his head. "Tried to squeeze her—gentle, I swear—but suddenly she hung up."

    Hank Thompson ground his teeth as he and Menck stood to the side of the phone bank he'd set up in the Lodge's basement. Ten phones manned by a rotating cadre of volunteers, collecting one false lead after another.

    "And you didn't do anything to scare her off?"

    "You've asked me that three times now and the answer's still no. Fuck no. Matter of fact, she already sounded scared when she got on the line."

    "Scared how?"

    Menck shrugged. "Dunno. Can't be sure but she sounded surprised. Like she'd just seen the flyer for the first time."

    How could that be? They were all over the five boroughs.

    Unless she'd been out of town for a couple of weeks.

    "You're sure she asked for 'Jerry'?"

    "Absolutely. Who's Jerry?"

    Hank almost shouted, My brother, you asshole, but realized Menck had no way of knowing that. Only a handful of people knew he had a brother—half brother, actually—and they weren't talking.

    The world knew that Jeremy Bolton was dead, but didn't know Hank's connection. It had been a big story last month when his body was found and identified by DNA. Dawn had known him as Jerry Bethlehem—still presumed alive—but the rest of the world knew him as Jeremy Bolton, the famous Atlanta Abortionist Killer from almost twenty years ago. Only the same handful of people who knew the brother relationship knew that Jeremy had been living as Jerry.

    Hank was pretty sure he knew who was behind his death.

    Mr. Everyman: mid-thirties, average height, average build, average-length brown hair, average nose, nothing-special brown eyes, dressed in nondescript clothing. He'd dogged Hank's trail, pretending to be a reporter, even mugged him in broad daylight.

    Jeremy had described a guy just like him worming into the edges of his life.

    An agent of what his father had called the Enemy. That had sounded a little bit crazy to Hank, a little bit paranoid. But then Daddy had disappeared.

    Now Hank believed: They were out to ruin Daddy's Plan to change the world. Dawn's baby was the key to the Plan, and the Enemy was out to kill it. Kill it. Hank had to find Dawn first.

    That had been Dawn on the phone. Had to be.

    Is his name Jerry?

    She was the only one who'd connect those flyers with Jerry.

    Which meant she didn't know he was dead. Maybe he could use that…

    And maybe not.

    "Oh, here's Darryl," Menck said, pointing to a lean, scruffy Kicker waiting by the stairs. "He wants to talk to you. Says it might be important."

    "Yeah?" Hank knew Darryl. One of his flyer posters. "Send him over."

    Darryl approached and squinted at him. He always squinted, even at night.

    "Hey, man. A little weirdness happened today. Might be somethin, might be nothin."

    "Shoot."

    "I was hangin this flyer by Blume's when this Arab chick comes over and starts asking me about it."

    "Arab?"

    "Well, she was wearing that veil thing they wear."

    Hank nodded. He didn't know much about rag heads, but knew the veil meant Muslim, not necessarily Arab.

    "What was her problem?"

    "Well, for one thing, she was all shook up. I mean, her hands were shaking, man. Asking all sorts of questions about who was looking for her and what we intended to do with her if we found her."

    Hank felt his insides begin to tighten.

    "What she look like?"

    Darryl shrugged. "Well, with the veil thing with that big scarf wrapped all around her head and shoulders, who could tell?"

    "You must have seen her eyes. What color were they?"

    Darryl shook his head. "Wearin shades, man. The only thing I could see was her forehead and her hands."

    "What color—dark or light?"

    "See, that's the thing that got me curious. Arabs got dark skin, right? Hers was real pale."

    Hank felt his saliva evaporating. "Did you see any of her hair?"

    "Like I said, she was covered up pretty good, but I was suspicious, so I went to take a peek under her veil and some guy dressed like a chauffeur pushed me away. Told me not to touch her. Even called me 'sir.' "

    "Chauffeur?" Oh, hell, could it be the Enemy? "What'd he look like? Brown hair and eyes, average height?"

    Darryl shook his head. "Nah. Tall and skinny, but a no-nonsense type. I wasn't gonna raise no ruckus with him."

    "Chauffeur means a car. Did you—?"

    "Scope the plates?" Darryl grinned and pulled a folded flyer from his pocket. "Sure did. Big black Mercedes. Number's right there."

    Hank let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Here was their first break.

    "What time was this?"

    Darryl shrugged. "Around four, maybe?"

    He turned to Menck. "When did that call come in?"

    Menck checked a sheet in his hand. "Four-oh-seven."

    Dawn. She thought Jerry was still alive so she'd worn a Muslim veil to hide from him. After leaving Darryl, she'd called here.

    Yeah, it was her.

    But a chauffeur?

    He clapped Darryl on the shoulder. "Good work, my man."

    Darryl grinned and squinted, then headed for the door.

    Hank turned to Menck, who was in charge of the Be-on-the-Lookout sheet that every Kicker was supposed to carry in his or her back pocket. Only one thing on the sheet now: a picture of Dawn.

    "We need an updated BOLO list. Add that everyone should be on the lookout for a pale-skinned girl in a Muslim veil. They see her, don't get near, just tail her."

    Menck nodded. "Got it."

    Hank pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. "And find a way to add this."

    He handed him a crude drawing of the dream blade—the best he could manage from memory, but it gave the general idea. He'd written "sword blade" below it.

    Menck looked at him. "What the—?"

    "Just do it. And put down that if anyone sees it, bring it to me. And if you can't bring it, tell me about it. I want it."

    A long shot—very long—but who knew? One of his Kickers might be passing a junk store or antique shop and see it in the window. Worth a try.

    As Menck moved off, Hank felt his elation fade. Dawn's shock at seeing the flyer meant one thing: She'd been out of town the past few weeks.

    He looked around at the phone bank and wondered if maybe all this was a huge waste of time. If she'd just got back into town, where from? Had the Enemy gotten her an abortion? Had she been spending the time recovering?

    Hank wanted to scream. If she killed the kid, she killed the Plan. And for that, he'd kill her. It wouldn't bring the baby back, but it would be the right thing to do. And he'd enjoy it. Oh, how he'd enjoy it.

11

    Hideo Takita sat in first class and stared at his laptop screen. The face staring back looked very much like his.

    Yoshio, his twin, had flown this same route less than two years ago. Sent by the board to investigate the mysteries surrounding someone named Ronald Clayton, a man who had died in the crash of JAL Flight 27 on his way to meet personally with Sasaki-san and the entire Kaze board.

    Nobody met with the entire Kaze board.

    But rumor had it that Clayton had developed a world-changing technology so revolutionary that the country—or company—controlling it could call the tune to which every other nation around the globe would have to dance.

    Yoshio's failure caused Hideo loss of face within the company. Had he succeeded he might have raised Japan to first among nations and Kaze to first among economic powers.

    Hideo switched to another face, one of a number of photos Yoshio had sent back during his investigation. This one had Arabic features. Hideo knew his name: Kemel Muhallal. He also knew he was dead.

    He clicked the arrow to proceed with his grim slide show. The next face was Caucasian: Sam Baker, an American mercenary. Also dead, his corpse found along with Muhallal's and three other bodies in the rear of a panel truck abandoned in the Catskill mountains. Two of those other bodies were mercenaries hired by Baker.

    The fifth had been Yoshio, the victim of a bullet into the back of his head.

    Another click and up popped a blurred photo of the mystery man. Yoshio hadn't known his name, but had labeled him "ronin." The ronin was missing. Perhaps he was dead too. And perhaps he was alive, the one responsible for executing Yoshio.

    Execution… the manner of his death showed that he had allowed himself to be captured alive. And that meant he might have talked. Hideo knew that no form of torture could make Yoshio give up Kaze secrets, but still… bushido lived on in Kaze Group.

    Hideo stared at what he could see of the face. The photo had been shot at an angle and the focus was poor. A very forgettable face. Not the face of a killer. But what then did a killer look like? Yoshio had killed in the service of Kaze. And Yoshio and Hideo, while not identical twins, had often been mistaken for each other.

    Which means I wear the face of a killer.

    Hideo shook his head. He could never kill anyone. Yes, he worked in the espionage wing of Kaze Group's corporate intelligence, where he spied on companies, traced money trails, hacked systems and intranets. But the only things he killed were worms and viruses and trojans.

    Killing a human? Unthinkable. He hesitated killing a fly unless it became especially bothersome.

    Sasaki-san obviously knew of his lack of aggression, why else would he have assigned three hoodlums as Hideo's traveling companions? Why then had he chosen Hideo of all people to chase down this ruined katana? Was it because of his computer skills? Or his language skills? He'd begun learning English as a child. He could say "Lulu loves lollipops" as well as any American.

    Futile questions.

    He again accessed the flash drive and stared at the scan: a cardboard shipping tube packed with foam popcorn and a bubble-wrapped katana, stark white against the surrounding grayness, measuring ninety centimeters from the tip of its blade to the butt of its naked tang. But a ruined katana, its blade filigreed with perhaps one hundred small holes of varying sizes and configurations.

    He had heard that Sasaki-san collected katana. But why would the chairman, who could afford the finest blade ever made by Masamune—could probably resurrect Masamune-san himself and force him to make a new, custom blade—want this unsigned piece of junk?

    And the inscription:

    Gaijin… what was the significance of that?

    Questions, questions. Maybe he'd learn the answers. But more importantly, he prayed a Takita would not let down the chairman again.

    He returned to the photo of the ronin.

    I will be looking for you, he thought.

    He glanced at the yakuza dozing beside him, and then at the two others seated ahead of him. If he found the ronin and established that he had killed Yoshio, he personally would do nothing. But he foresaw no problem in convincing his travel companions to take decisive action. They'd no doubt enjoy it.

TUESDAY

1

    Bladeville lived up to its name.

    Jack stood on a Madison Avenue sidewalk and stared at the display on the far side of the front window. Claymores, cutlasses, krisses, kukri, katanas, cleavers, and carvers; sabers, scimitars, and survival knives; paring, chopping, and filetting knives; daggers and dirks, Bowies and broadswords, rapiers and axes and on and on.

    And swinging back and forth over them all, a model of the blade from Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum.

    The steel security shutter had been rolled up, lights were on inside, and Jack caught glimpses of someone moving about, but the front door remained locked. The sign in the lower right corner of the window said it opened daily at ten. Almost that now.

    Jack wanted to be the first customer of the day.

    Finally, the snap of a latch and the squeak of an opening door.

    "Coming in?"

    Jack had been expecting someone who looked like Abe. This guy couldn't have been more opposite. Very tall, lean, sixties maybe, with gray in his brown hair and a bent lamp—his blue eyes didn't line up. He wore a dark blue Izod and khakis. Jack stepped forward, extending his hand.

    "Tom O'Day?"

    O'Day had long arms and a firm grip. "Who wants to know?"

    "Name's Jack. Abe Grossman said you might be able to give me a little help with something I'm looking for."

    His smile broadened. "Oh, yeah. He called. How is he? Trim as ever?"

    "Trimmer."

    "What are you looking for?"

    O'Day's right eye kept looking over Jack's shoulder; he had to stop himself from turning to see what was so interesting.

    "A katana."

    "Well, you've come to the right place." He motioned Jack through the doorway. "I got a million of 'em."

    At the threshold Jack did a quick scan of the walls and ceiling and spotted a security camera in the far, upper right corner. He'd worn a Yankees cap today—just for variety—and so he adjusted the beak lower over his face. A bell chimed as they stepped through.

    The rest of Bladeville was like the front window, only more so. A knife-filled glass display case ran the length of the store; every kind of edged weapon imaginable festooned the wall behind it.

    Bladeville. No kidding.

    He motioned Jack to follow and led him through a door at the rear marked NO ADMITTANCE. He flipped a switch and the lights came on, illuminating row upon row of Japanese swords—long, short, medium—all racked on the wall in scabbards.

    Jack glanced up and around. No security cam in here. A quick look over his shoulder showed no second cam in the retail area.

    "My collection—Masamune, Murasama, Chogi, Kanemitsu, whoever. You name a classic swordsmith, I've probably got one."

    "This is a special katana, Mister O'Day."

    "Call me Tom."

    "Okay, Tom. This katana was stolen recently and I'm trying to get it back for the owner."

    O'Day's eyes narrowed. "You a cop?"

    "Would Abe send a cop? I'm private. Just wondering if anyone's tried to sell you a damaged katana recently."

    O'Day flipped off the light and they returned to the store section. He stepped behind the counter and began Windexing the glass top. Jack positioned himself with his back to the cam.

    "Can't imagine anyone buying damaged when you can get them in pristine shape. Unless it's a signed Masamune or Murasama."

    "Not signed by anyone, I'm afraid. And it's sort of moth eaten."

    His hand paused—just a second—in mid-wipe, then continued polishing.

    Jack wondered if O'Day had seen it or been offered it. If so, a good bet he might know who had it. But he said nothing. Better to approach from an angle.

    "You mean rusted out in spots?"

    "The owner says it's not rust, just defects."

    Now the polishing stopped as O'Day looked at him. "You wouldn't happen to have a picture of this katana."

    "Sure do." Jack pulled the photos out of the breast pocket of his shirt and slid them across the counter. "Not great quality, but they give you an idea."

    O'Day looked, froze, then snatched them up. His hands shook. Without taking his eyes off the photos he reached behind him, found a four-legged stool, and dropped onto it.

    He let out a barely audible, "Oh, shit!"

    "What's wrong? You've seen it?"

    "The Gaijin," he said to himself. "The fucking Gaijin."

    Interesting…

    "Yeah. That's what I'm told those doodles mean, but what's the big deal?"

    He glanced up at Jack. "The fucking Gaijin Masamune, my man. This is the fucking Gaijin Masamune!"

    "Is 'fucking' really part of its name?"

    "This sword is legendary. And it all makes sense now. It all makes sense…"

    "Well, that makes one of us. Has anyone approached you about—?"

    "The story goes that early in the fourteenth century a wandering gaijin warrior commissioned Masamune to refashion his heavy dirk into a kodachi—a kind of short sword. He said the metal in the dirk had fallen from the sky in a blaze of light and he wanted it transformed into something more graceful. He left, saying he would be back. When Masamune began to work with the metal, he found it the strongest steel he'd ever encountered. He made a kodachi with an edge like no other."

    Jack didn't care about where it had been in the past; he wanted to know where it was now.

    "Yeah, but—"

    O'Day went on like he hadn't heard Jack. Maybe he hadn't. Jack had a feeling the only way he could shut him up was blunt-force trauma.

    "Masamune waited years for the gaijin to return but he never did. Thinking him dead, Masamune melted down the kodachi and added more steel—his finest steel—but the two metals never fully mixed. The katana that resulted had a mottled finish. Though its blade was beautifully resilient, and took an edge like no katana he had ever seen, its finish embarrassed him."

    "Fine. He was embarrassed. I'm sorry for him. Now—"

    "Because he was so embarrassed, he didn't sign it on the nakago as he often did—"

    "The what?"

    "The tang, the butt end inside the handle. Instead he engraved it with 'gaijin.' " O'Day pointed to the ideogram in the close-up photo. "He locked it away and prayed the gaijin wouldn't return. Finally, as he neared the end of his life, he gave it to a samurai who'd done him a service. No one ever knew who that samurai was and the so-called 'Gaijin Masamune' became something of a legend—supposedly stronger and sharper than anything Masamune had ever made. The story was known only to experts and collectors, and a lot of them thought it was a just that—a story. That all changed in 1955."

    Jack had to admit he was interested now.

    "What happened?"

    "The Peace Memorial Museum opened in Hiroshima. And on display was this naked katana blade. Its tsuka—handle—was missing and the blade was riddled with holes. It had been found at ground zero, right where the Aioi Bridge used to be. It had the gaijin ideogram engraved on its tang."

    "Could have been a fake."

    O'Day scowled. "Aren't you listening? It was found at ground zero. It should have melted. But it didn't. Only some of it melted—the regular steel that Masamune had added to the gaijin's. The gaijin's steel resisted the heat. Remember the part about the blade's mottled finish? That was because the Earth steel, instead of blending with the steel that had 'fallen from the sky,' formed discrete pockets. So when it melted away, the remaining gaijin steel was left riddled with defects."

    Despite knowing the answer, Jack said, "I gather it's no longer in the museum."

    "No. The place opened in August, the sword was gone by mid-September."

    Jack now knew what museum Naka was hiding from. But he couldn't have stolen it—not unless he was a lot older than he looked. Must have been his father.

    "That brings us back to the reason I'm here." How to put this? "Look, you're known in certain circles as a guy who provides a service for goods of uncertain origin."

    Well, that was better than just coming out and calling the guy a fence.

    O'Day gave him a mean look. "What are you saying?"

    Jack held up his hands: peace. "Look, I'm in those circles, and I even do a little myself. Thing is, you're also known as an expert on swords. So, if I was burdened with a katana that I wanted to be rid of, you'd be the guy I'd call."

    O'Day said nothing, simply sat and glared.

    Jack cleared his throat. "Well? Heard anything?"

    Finally O'Day shook his head. "Nothing."

    Lie. He hadn't heard about the Masamune Gaijin—his shock had been too genuine—but he'd heard something. What?

    "Too bad. Look, you hear anything, you call Abe. There's a finder's fee in this for you."

    He smiled. "If I find it, better hope the guy doesn't know what he's holding, because if he does, he's either not going to part with it, or he's going to want a ton."

    "So it's worth a lot?"

    "Ohhhhhh, yeah. I hear from him, I'll point him toward you—and expect a fat finder's fee."

    "And if he doesn't know what he's got?"

    "Hell, I'm going to buy it from him."

    "Then what? Sell it back to my guy?"

    "Yep. Hope he's got deep pockets."

    "He might."

    "He'd better."

    Jack sensed a lie. This guy was a katana-collecting Gollum, and the Gaijin Masamune was his Precious. If he got his mitts on it, no way was he letting it go. Not for any amount. At least not now. Maybe he'd part with it down the road—cash in and be able to brag to his katana-collecting buddies that he once owned the Gaijin Masamune.

    Jack couldn't wait around. If O'Day got to the blade first, Jack might be forced to play rough and gank it. An iffy and dangerous proposition he wished to avoid. The best solution here was to find this Eddie Cordero before O'Day did, and hope for the same: That he didn't know what he had.

    Jack turned and headed for the door. "You hear anything, you'll call Abe, right?"

    "Absolutely."

    Suuuuuure.

2

    Hideo leaned close to the computer screen as he ran through the tape from the security camera focused on carousel seven at Kennedy International. He'd arrived, gone straight to the Waverly Place mansion—one of a number around the city owned by Kaze Group—and set up shop.

    He hadn't had to ask how the baggage scan had made its way to Sasakisan. Kaze Group had a hand, in one form or another, in the production of almost every piece of electronic equipment in the world. The chairman had no doubt ordered an image of the sword embedded in the pattern-recognition software. When that image passed through the scanner, it was automatically forwarded to the chairman.

    And since Kaze had a hand in most of the world's security systems and surveillance cams, Hideo had easily hacked into JFK's network.

    The tube had been loaded onto Northwest Flight 804 out of Kahului Airport, then transferred to Delta Flight 30 in Seattle. Flight 30 had arrived on time at 3:36. Hideo fast-forwarded ahead to 3:45 on the day in question and watched the passengers crowd around the carousel. He watched the baggage start to slide down the chute. The tube appeared at 3:58 and was picked up by a stocky, dark-haired man who had already picked out a suitcase. As he turned and walked toward the cam, Hideo executed a number of freeze frames, enhancing and downloading each to the server in the basement.

    He was glad this was streaming video rather than a three- or five-second refresh. He might well have missed the opportunity for a close-up.

    The man was traveling as Eddie Cordero. Hideo would soon learn his true name.

    Then he switched to the exit cam, advanced it to 3:58, and waited for the man with the tube and the rolling suitcase. He appeared and walked over to the taxi area and waited in line for his turn. Hideo downloaded enhanced frames of the taxi's license plates and the medallion number on its roof light.

    He leaned back and smiled. All he had to do was track down those plates and medallion number, pass a little cash, and he'd know where that particular cab had dropped off the passenger picked up that day shortly after four P.M. at JFK.

    He was beginning to understand why the chairman had chosen him: His computer skills made finding the man easy.

    As easy as brewing tea.

3

    Dawn stroked against the jets in the endless lap pool in Mr. Osala's private rooftop health club. She'd always liked swimming and now she could swim as long and as far as she wanted without ever having to make a turn. She'd read it was the best exercise of all, and knew it was toning her body.

    She'd hoped the repetitive activity would totally numb her brain, act like a physical meditation mantra, but just the opposite. It cleared her head of everything but what she needed a break from.

    Those posters.

    Her mind wouldn't let go of what they meant: Jerry wasn't the only one looking for her. She'd thought she was in a bad situation before, but now she knew it was worse. It had ruined her day out—everything had been super up till then. But at least now she knew what she was up against.

    She stopped swimming and stood panting in the warm flow from the jets.

    What to do?

    She was a virtual prisoner here, but if Jerry found her, she'd be a total prisoner until she gave birth. And that would be, what, like January? Like next year? She shuddered. No way.

    Here at least she had tons of comfort and Mr. Osala would cut her loose as soon as he'd tracked Jerry down and dealt with him.

    What did he plan to do with Jerry once he found him? He always said "deal with him." But what did that mean?

    God help her, she hoped he meant totally kill him. After what Jerry had done to Mom, she wanted him dead—he deserved to be dead. God himself should strike him dead.

    A sob broke free.

    And this thing inside her… every day it got a day older. Right now she could think of it as a thing. But what if it got to the point where she could feel it kicking and turning inside her? When did that happen? It wouldn't be a thing then. It would be a baby. Even with the total grossness of what it was and how it got there, she sensed she'd get to a point where she couldn't kill it.

    So despite what Mr. Osala said about the thing being like an insurance policy, she totally had to get it out of her ASAP. Even if that meant running the risk of Jerry killing her if he caught her and found out.

    And she thought she might have a way. It would be tricky, but if it worked she might have her cake and eat it too, so to speak.

4

    "You say Eddie Cordero is his AK? You know that for sure?"

    Jack sat in an inside booth at the Highwater Diner, perched on the west side of the West Side Highway, practically in the Hudson. Reaching it was real-life Frogger, but worth the risk.

    Teddy "Bobblehead" Crenshaw slouched on the far side of the table, slurping iced coffee through a straw. Atop his pencil neck sat a size-eight skull that tended to wobble back and forth as he walked. Nobody called him Bobblehead to his face—he got testy about that. But no one referred to him as Teddy behind his back. When out of sight, he was Bobblehead all the way.

    A half-eaten BLT and a hundred-dollar bill sat between them on the Formica tabletop, the latter weighted down by a salt shaker. Teddy's head was steady now as he sat and sipped and kept glancing at the Ben.

    "For sure," Jack said. "What I don't know is his real name and where to find him."

    Bobble seemed to think on this, then took a big bite of his sandwich and spoke around it. "The Man ain't involved, right?"

    Bits of bacon and mayo sprayed the tabletop and the c-note. Eating with this guy was like sitting front-row center at a Gallagher concert.

    "Not at all."

    "Because I already feel like a snitch as it is. Things've been kinda tight lately, y'know? But if fingering him is gonna bring real heat down on this guy…"

    Jack wanted to shake him but knew he had to let Bobble run through his guilt trip.

    "I understand. Reason my guy came to me is because he doesn't want the police involved. And there's a good chance 'Eddie' might make something on the deal."

    "What if he doesn't want to deal?"

    Jack shrugged. "That's his choice. I've been hired to get something he stole back into the hands of the previous owner. There's an easy way, and there's a hard way. I prefer the easy way, and so should your friend, 'Eddie.' Especially since my guy might be willing to pay a ransom. A little cooperation and it can be a win-win-win-win situation."

    Bobble frowned. "Huh?"

    "You get money, 'Eddie' gets money, I get my fee, and the guy gets his property back. We all walk away happy."

    Bobblehead nodded. He seemed to like that spin.

    "And if he's not who you're looking for?"

    Jack tapped the bill, right on Ben Franklin's forehead. "Like I said: If I think your info's in good faith, you get this to keep. If it's the right guy, you get another."

    He sighed and stuffed the end of the BLT into his mouth before speaking. "All right. Here's how it goes: When I heard you was looking for a second-story man going under Eddie Cordero, Hugh Gerrish popped into my head right away. He's a major possibility."

    "Possibility? So this is a guess? You don't know this guy uses that AK?"

    Jack wasn't looking for guesses. Guesses could send him chasing ghosts.

    "No. Don't know for sure, but dig: Gerrish is a second-story man who loves the ponies, especially the thoroughbreds. Take two of the greatest jockeys in history, mash their names together, and you come up with Eddie Cordero."

    Jack leaned back, as much to avoid the Sledge-o-Matic effect from Bobblehead as to think. That was why the name had rung a bell. Jack had worked a racetrack scam in his younger days. Didn't care for the sport, but anyone who knew anything about the ponies knew the names Eddie Arcaro and Angel Cordero.

    "Did he disappear for a while and come back with a tan?"

    "No tan, but he disappears for a couple weeks and then he pops up again, and he's buying rounds, saying what a sweet job he pulled."

    "No details?"

    "He's smarter'n that."

    Jack mulled this a bit. Definite possibilities here.

    "Okay, he sounds worth a shot. Where's he live?"

    He shrugged, setting his head to bobbling. "Don't know him well enough for that. We both just tend to end up at the Fifth Quarter down on St. Mark's. But you can find out easily enough."

    "Yeah?"

    "He's out at Belmont most every day during the season—'cept Mondays and Tuesdays when it's dark. And since this is the season, all you gotta do is find him and follow him home."

    "Great. But I don't know what he looks like."

    "He's forty-something, real skinny, brown hair—dollars to donuts he dyes the gray—and…"

    His voice trailed off as he saw Jack's face. Must have reflected the disappointment and frustration he felt. Wasted time.

    "You know how many guys at the track look like that? Next you'll tell me he wears a Yankees cap—"

    "Naw-naw, he's a Mets fan."

    "I need a Capone scar, I need an Aaron Neville mole. And if he hasn't got anything like that, I need a photo."

    Jack slipped the Ben from beneath the salt shaker and began to slide it toward his side of the table.

    "Hey, wait."

    "Good story, Teddy. But no address? No picture? No deal."

    Bobble grabbed his wrist. "Wait! Wait! I ran into him last Saturday during the Fifth Quarter's Preakness party, just a couple days after he showed up from his 'sweet job.' Bastard won big too."

    "So?"

    "So Suzy the bartender was taking pictures with her phone when we were celebrating. I think she got one of me with Gerrish and some other guy. If we're lucky, maybe she hasn't erased them."

    Jack rose and shoved the hundred into his pocket.

    "Looks like we're heading for the East Village."

5

    It hadn't taken Hideo long to single out Kenji as the smartest of the yakuza assigned to him. And although he seemed the oldest of the three, he could not be much past twenty-seven or twenty-eight.

    He was the only one to exhibit any signs of intellectual curiosity. His two fellow hoodlums, Goro and Ryo, seemed to have no interests beyond smoking, drinking, watching TV, and playing cards.

    Hideo didn't understand the need for Kaze Group's alliance with various yakuza groups. More powerful than all of them combined, it could crush them in a matter of days if it so wished. Yet it maintained ties. Why? Because it required a buffer between it and certain activities?

    He had noticed that once out of sight of his fellows, Kenji dropped his swagger and confrontational demeanor and became a sponge for any knowledge or information to be had.

    "What do we do now, Takita-san?" he said in English.

    Good for you, Hideo thought.

    Of the three, Kenji spoke the best English, and was obviously trying to hone whatever fluency he had.

    The taxi trail had led to a dead end. Hideo had gone to the cab company and paid off the dispatcher to let him check the fare records of the vehicle in question. Yes, it had picked up a passenger at Kennedy at shortly after four P.M. that day, but had dropped him off at Belmont raceway. Hideo doubted the mystery man lived at the racetrack, so he'd have to find another way.

    Sitting at his workstation, he called up one of the close-ups he'd culled from the surveillance tapes.

    "I'm going to run this through our latest facial recognition program, map the landmarks of his features, and create a mathematical faceprint."

    As he started the programs, a series of dots of varying colors began to appear on the face, connected by multicolored lines. Then numbers popped up as calculations were completed.

    Kenji pointed to the screen. "You can no longer see his face."

    But Hideo's gaze was drawn from the screen to Kenji's hand. The tip of his left little finger was missing, cut off at the first joint. Hideo knew what this meant: yubitsume. Kenji must have made a mistake somewhere along the line and, by way of apology for his wrongdoing, cut off the tip and sent it to his kumicho, begging forgiveness.

    Apparently he was forgiven, or he wouldn't be here. Hideo hadn't noticed it during the trip because he'd worn a fake fingertip to divert suspicion. Traveling yakuza often became targets of increased scrutiny.

    Kenji's cuff had slipped back, revealing the lower end of an intricately patterned sleeve tattoo. Hideo had never seen these yakuza unclothed, but he would bet Kenji and Goro and Ryo were covered with them, head to toe. Yakuza tradition demanded it.

    "Takita-san?"

    Hideo snapped his attention back to the screen. What had Kenji said? Oh, about not seeing the face.

    "Yes, but the computer will use that numeric formula to create a template to which it will match other faces."

    "But where—?"

    "One Police Plaza will be our first stop."

    According to information on the flash drive, the sword had been stolen from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum over fifty years ago.

    "We can go to the police?"

    "Not physically, but we can visit without leaving these seats. The man we are looking for was transporting a stolen object. He may not know the history of its original theft, but I believe he knows that what he carries was not legally obtained. That makes him a criminal. And most criminals at one time or another are arrested. And when they are arrested, they are photographed. And those photographs are stored…"

    He paused to allow Kenji to finish for him.

    "In their computer, of course." He smiled and nodded. "You very smart man."

    The recognition program beeped, signaling it had finished.

    "No, the very smart man here is the one who designed the software. I simply use the tools he has provided me."

    Hideo didn't bother going into how the algorithms and templates would work in sequence through Police Plaza's database.

    He entered the database—Kaze kept easy-open access to most of the city's major databases, mostly for tracking markets for advance warning on economic and currency trends. He set up the templates and let them loose.

    "How long?" Kenji said.

    "This could take very long. Why don't you check on Goro and Ryo and get some rest. I want to be able to move quickly should we get any hits."

    Kenji gave a quick bow, and left. Hideo watched him go, thinking how that kid could go places—if he lived long enough.

    When he was alone again, he popped another photo onto the screen: the ronin. It was only a three-quarter shot but often that was enough. He'd made positive IDs with less.

    He started the recognition program and watched as dots and lines and numbers blotted out the stranger's face. Yoshio's notes had said he suspected the man he had dubbed "ronin" of being some sort of mercenary hired by Ronald Clayton's daughter for protection. If that was the case, then he too might have run afoul of the New York City authorities—weapons possession, perhaps. And if so, then his photo would be in the database as well.

    He stared at the jumble of colors and numbers.

    I will find you, ronin. And when I do I will ask you questions. And you will answer. Kenji, Goro, and Ryo will see to that.

6

    Dawn paced the penthouse's great room.

    "I neeeeeed to go shopping again, Henry. Come on!"

    Instead of easing her restlessness, her brief taste of freedom yesterday had left her totally wanting more. Despite the size of Mr. Osala's place, it seemed smaller than ever.

    Henry shook his head. "I'm afraid I dare not, miss. It was a terrible risk allowing you out yesterday without the Master's permission. I don't wish to push my luck."

    "Well, then, get his permission. Or better yet, let me talk to him. I'll get him to come around."

    Fat chance of that. Mr. Osala didn't strike her as the type she could move with a crying jag. But she'd give it the good old college try.

    "As I told you, he is not always accessible."

    "But you know where he is, right?"

    "I know he's in North Carolina, but that isn't exactly pinpointing his location."

    "I thought you said he was out hunting Jerry."

    "I'm sure he has other concerns besides you. He called earlier to ask how you were faring and happened to mention that he was heading for North Carolina."

    "What's he doing there?"

    "He does not offer details of his activities and I do not ask. All he told me was he is doing research and 'setting the stage' for an extended project beginning in September."

    "You must have an emergency number you can call."

    He nodded. "I do. But the operative term there is emergency. A shopping trip hardly qualifies as an emergency."

    "It does to me! Totally!"

    He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I can't risk it again."

    Dawn fumed as she watched him turn and walk away. She so wanted to kill him right now. But she wasn't through yet. She'd find a way to get him to take her out again.

    And this time she wouldn't come back.

7

    "I have found the perfect shoten, sensei," Tadasu said.

    Shiro Kobayashi knew that was not quite accurate. Shiro had found him. But he didn't begrudge Tadasu the credit. He had been the leader, and if they had failed, the shame would have fallen on him.

    Besides, for years Tadasu had instructed him in the use of the tanto, the katana, the bo, and nunchaku. He had been stern but seemed to care only that Shiro learned well. And Shiro had. He was now almost as good as Tadasu.

    Akechi-sensei nodded from where he stood by the classroom window, staring out at the day.

    "Is he, as I instructed, in a weakened state?"

    "Yes, sensei. We have him locked in an empty storeroom. Do you wish to see?"

    Akechi-sensei turned and faced them. Only his eyes were visible through his silk mask, which puffed slightly as he spoke.

    "I do indeed wish to see this fortunate soul who shall be privileged to serve the Hidden Face."

    The Hidden Face… seeing it was the focus, the ultimate goal of every member of the Kakureta Kao. Yet to achieve that goal, one had to pass through the Inner Circles of the Order. That took dedication, resolve, will… and sacrifice. Eventually, the ultimate sacrifice for the ultimate reward.

    Shiro greatly admired his teacher, and would sacrifice his life for the Order. But he was not so sure—at least not as sure as he had been in his younger days—that he wished to progress beyond the Fourth Circle. Because that was when the surgeries began: the flaps, the castration, losing limbs and senses one by one until…

    Until all contact with the world except the air in the lungs was severed. Only then could one see the Hidden Face and, joining it in death, know everything.

    Shiro yearned to see the Hidden Face at death, but was more than willing to wait before joining it in the Eternal Void. He had just recently passed his twenty-second birthday and was hoping to ascend from acolyte to temple guard.

    If so, he intended to spend many years in loyal service at that post. Perhaps in his later years—much later years—he would ascend to the Inner Circles, but for now he wished to preserve all his senses and body parts.

    He and Tadasu led their teacher to the storeroom. Along the way they passed one of Shiro's fellow acolytes wheeling a wooden cart holding a masked monk in a blue robe. He had no legs and no eyes. Shiro knew him as the Seer.

    When they reached the storeroom, Shiro opened the door and the odor slapped him in the face. The man sprawled on the floor smelled as if he had not bathed since the Tokugawa Shogunate. They had brought him here from his cardboard house under a Brooklyn overpass. Although he had traveled in the trunk of one of the Order's cars, his presence had fouled the air of the passenger area. They had been forced to drive with the windows open.

    The man was a bearded Caucasian of indeterminate age, but he was quite content where he was. Shiro and Tadasu had provided him with a large bottle of Jack Daniel's. He had already consumed half of it.

    He studied Akechi-sensei with bleary eyes, then grinned, showing rotted teeth.

    "Is it Halloween already? I dig the mask." He lifted the bottle in a mock toast. "Trick or treat!"

    "We have done well, sensei?"

    At least he said "we" this time.

    Akechi-sensei nodded as Shiro gratefully closed the door. "He will make a good trial shoten. We want a small Kuroikaze for our test. He will not survive the strain for long."

    The Kuroikaze… the Black Wind. Shiro had heard of it since childhood when his father had handed him over to the monks of the Kakureta Kao. But no one alive had actually seen one, so it remained a formless legend. A legend he knew by heart.

    In the sixteenth century, the shoguns imprisoned the Emperor in Kyoto while they ruled as they wished. After Nobunaga took control he began killing off all who supported the Emperor. He made a special target of the Order, which had been agitating for restoration of the Imperial Line. According to legend, Susanoo, the Sword God, the direct ancestor of the Emperor, created the Kakureta Kao in the time of Jimmu, the first Emperor, and charged it with the mission of protecting the Son of Heaven, and preserving His power in the world.

    Nobunaga's armies marched throughout Honshu, razing each of the Order's monasteries after slaughtering all the monks. Finally, only the oldest, largest, and best fortified monastery—in Nanao on Honshu's west coast—remained. Under siege, the remnants of the Kakureta Kao delved into the cache of ancient lore that was their legacy from the God of Swords, and found a means to defend themselves.

    As the shogun's armies neared the gates of the monastery, a darkness descended and a mystical wind rose up around the temple. Some called it The-Wind-That-Bends-Not-the-Trees, some said it was another Kamikaze, or "Divine Wind" like the one that sank Kubla Khan's invading fleet at the end of the thirteenth century. But those in the Order knew it as the Kuroikaze—the "Black Wind." The legends didn't say exactly what happened, but when the Kuroikaze was done, half of the shogunate's army lay dead on the field, with the rest in retreat.

    Nobunaga left the Kakureta Kao alone after that.

    But the Order never fully recovered. It consolidated into a single temple in Tokyo not far from the Imperial Palace. During the Second World War it once again used the Black Wind against the Emperor's enemies, and might have changed the course of the war had it not made the fatal error of relocating to Hiroshima.

    "Tomorrow night we shall test the ekisu. I have found the perfect place, right here on this island, almost within sight of our ultimate target."

    Shiro asked, "Why New York City, sensei? Why not Washington?"

    Recently he had explored the city in search of the compounds necessary for the ekisu. During his travels he had become enamored of Manhattan—so full of life and motion. He felt energized whenever he set foot there.

    "Washington may be the seat of the American government, but New York City is its engine. It is the heart that pumps economic life throughout the rest of the country, and even into the rest of the world. Kill New York City and not only do we drive this foul nation to its economic knees, but we deal a death blow to its spirit."

    Shiro was not so sure about that, but who was he to doubt his sensei?

    Tadasu said, "Pardon, sensei, but will we truly be able to level Manhattan using such a miserable excuse for a human being as a shoten?"

    Shiro saw the skin around Akechi-sensei's eyes crinkle behind his mask holes, a sign he'd come to recognize as a smile. "We once thought the ekisu effective only when used with a child. We have since learned that any living human, no matter how miserable, can serve as a shoten. And as for Manhattan, we shall not level it. The Kuroikaze will do much worse. Tomorrow night you shall see."

8

    From outside, the Fifth Quarter looked pretty much like every other Irish pub Jack had seen. Inside, two steps down from street level, it looked pretty much like every other sports bar he'd seen: oval bar in the center, a ring of wide-screen TVs above it, high pub tables and stools near the bar, regular tables and chairs farther out, booths along the walls. And more TV screens in every corner.

    Each and every screen was running the Mets game—they were leading the Phillies four-zip. Jack had been a Phillies fan as a kid. Now it was Go Mets.

    "There she is," Bobblehead said, pointing toward the twenty-something teased blonde behind the bar. "Thank God it's her shift."

    He hurried ahead of Jack, demonstrating—in case anyone might have forgotten—the origin of his street name.

    By the time Jack reached the bar, Suzy had her phone out and was doing a two-thumb tap dance on the keypad.

    "I kept somma them," she said in a thick Nassau County accent. "Most was so blurry I ditched them right off."

    Bobble glanced ceilingward with a please-please-please look.

    "Hope you kept some of me," he said, turning back to Suzy. "My mother wants to see a recent picture, and I think the best kind to send her is one of me having fun with my friends. Hey, y'got one of me and Hughie? He was in rare form Saturday."

    Suzy grinned. "Should've been. He picked the winner." More button pressing. "Let's see here. Hey, here's you and Artie."

    "Nah. Where's the one with me and Hughie?"

    "Here's you with Joey from Ohio."

    "You must be one photogenic guy," Jack said. "Everyone wants a picture with you."

    "Yeah, I'm a photo ho. Look, Suze—"

    "Here's the last one of you—with Laurie this time."

    Bobble glanced at it with a disappointed expression, started to look away, then grabbed the phone for a closer look.

    "Hey!" Suzy said.

    He handed it back. "Sorry. Any way I can get a copy of that?"

    "I can send it to your cell phone."

    "Ain't got a cell phone."

    She looked at him as if a third eye had just appeared in his forehead. "You're kidding, right?"

    "Wish I were." He turned to Jack. "You?"

    "Yeah, but you sure you want a picture of you and this Laurie?"

    "Oh, yeah." He lowered his voice. "And so do you."

    "Great," Suzy said. "I'll zap it to you now."

    Jack pulled out one of his trusty old TracFones. "Never done that. How's it work?"

    Suzy launched into a wire-head word salad about texting and attaching the photo file to a text message, then sending the message to Jack's phone, blah-blah-blah. It left him feeling like he was standing on a platform watching the technology train pull out of the station.

    He held up his phone. "All I do with this is make calls."

    She took it, looked it over, grimaced as if she'd just picked up a handful of spoiled meat, then quickly handed it back.

    "That's about all you can do with that dinosaur. You need an emergency upgrade." To Bobble: "I'll have to e-mail it to your computer instead." She stopped. "You do have a computer, don't you?"

    Bobble shook his head and turned to Jack again. "You?"

    "Yeah. Send it to: r-p-r-m-n-j-c-k at yahoo."

    Suzy gave a wry smile as she tapped it into her phone. "Not only a computer but an e-mail address too. Wow. I'll upload it to the photo site and forward it to you later." Her tone made it sound as if she'd been asked to use a rotary phone.

    Bet I can whip your butt in DNA Wars.

    "You can't do it now?" Bobble said.

    "Need to get to a computer for that."

    Jack nudged Bobble. "I'll print it out so you can send it to your mother."

    Actually, he'd have to have Russ print it out since Jack had never bothered to buy a printer. What for?

    "Or if you want, I can send it straight to your mom."

    "Thanks but she, um, doesn't have a computer either."

    Suzy rolled her eyes. "Where's she live?"

    "Um, Toronto."

    Jack could tell he'd pulled that one out of the air.

    She laughed. "Toronto! I've been there! I love Toronto! It's like another country."

    A few heartbeats of silence, then Bobble said, "Oooooookay. We'll be going now, Suze. Don't forget to send that picture to my man, here."

    "Right. See you here for the Belmont party? Or are you going out to the track?"

    "I'm here, Suze."

    She gave him a thumbs-up.

    "Wow," Bobble said as they hit the street. "Another country? She knows all that techie stuff but doesn't know Toronto's in Michigan? I mean, people are so stupid these days."

    Jack let it go.

    "So why do we want a photo of you and this gal Laurie?"

    Bobble grinned. "Because guess who's in the background, staring straight at the camera?"

    "Our man Hughie?"

    "None other."

    Things were looking up.

    "Neat," Jack said. "Old Hughie got Zaprudered."

    Bobble said, "Zapwha?"

    "Never mind."

9

    Hideo knocked on the door a third time. It needed painting. In fact, the whole apartment building needed a makeover. He shook off the thought. His need for orderliness sometimes distracted him from the matter at hand.

    And what mattered here was getting past this door.

    He heard movement on the other side. The three yakuza flanked the doorframe, out of range of the peephole. Though dressed in suits and ties, they looked anything but respectable. Yakuza… the word meant "good for nothing," and that quality shone through. Each might as well have had another tattoo on the forehead announcing "hoodlum."

    But Hideo had no idea what he'd run into on the far side of the door, and so was glad to have them along.

    The facial recognition software had done its job half well. In the NYPD database it had found mug shots of a brown-haired man named Hugh Gerrish, arrested for breaking and entering two years ago. They matched perfectly the face on the security cam. Gerrish had pleaded out to an illegal-trespass charge and been given probation with no jail time. The file listed this apartment in Brooklyn's Greenpoint area as his address.

    The software had not, however, found the ronin. Rather, it had found too many of them. One hundred twenty-seven hits, each of them resembling the ronin. Either his features were very common, or the only existing photo was not detailed enough for an accurate search. Perhaps both. Hideo would have to work on a way to narrow the selection.

    "I'm coming, I'm coming," said an old woman's voice from within. Her accent was Spanish. A few seconds later the peephole darkened and he heard: "Who are you?"

    Gerrish's mother, perhaps? Hideo was prepared for this.

    "Police, ma'am," he said, holding a gold NYPD detective's badge up to the peephole. "We need to speak to you about your son."

    "Madre de Dios!"

    A chain rattled, the knob turned, and the door opened. A wizened, gray-haired old woman in a stained housedress looked up at him with frightened eyes.

    "Mi Julio! What has happened?"

    Hideo had a sudden bad feeling about this. Hugh Gerrish hadn't looked the least bit Hispanic. He pushed open the door and motioned the yakuza inside. The old woman backed up a step and opened her mouth to scream but Hideo pressed a finger firmly against her lips.

    "Silence, please. We mean you no harm." When she took a breath as if to scream anyway, he held up his other hand in a stop sign. "Please."

    She stayed silent.

    Beyond, in the tiny apartment, Hideo heard a cacophony of doors and drawers opening and closing. It lasted less than a minute, and then Kenji was beside him.

    "Empty, Takita-san," he said in Japanese. "And no katana."

    "How many bedrooms?"

    "One."

    Hideo nodded as a sinking feeling dragged on his gut.

    "The closets—any men's clothes?"

    He shook his head. "Only woman's. And not much of that."

    Goro and Ryo appeared, the latter holding up a framed photograph. Hideo took it and saw the old woman with her cheek pressed against that of a dark-haired, dark-skinned young man who looked nothing like Hugh Gerrish. He showed it to her.

    "Who is this?"

    She snatched it from him. "Mi Julio." Tears rimmed her eyes. "What has happened to him?"

    "Nothing. He is fine. We have made a mistake."

    "Mistake?" she said, her tone and expression growing indignant. "You break into my home and frighten—"

    "How long have you lived here?"

    "Since September."

    Eight months. Gerrish must have moved out last summer. Hideo suppressed a curse and masked his frustration as he pulled a wad of bills from his pocket.

    "We have disturbed you and wasted five minutes of your time." He peeled off five hundred-dollar bills and pressed them into her hands. "I trust this will help you forgive us."

    She gazed at the bills as if he'd given her a fortune. Perhaps to her it was. To him it was merely an expense he would charge to Kaze.

    What had seemed so straightforward and easy yesterday was proving digressive and difficult. He had run into obstacles, but none he could not surmount.

    As Americans liked to say: Back to the drawing board.

10

    Shouldn't be too hard to spot, Jack thought, studying the face in the photo as he walked west along East 96th Street.

    He'd just left Russ Tuit, his go-to guy for all things computer. Russ had downloaded the photo, cropped out Bobblehead and the inebriated-looking Laurie, sharpened and enlarged the guy behind them, and printed it out. Still kind of blurry, but serviceable.

    Hugh Gerrish had a round, florid face topped by wavy brown hair that scooped down into a sharp widow's peak. The outstanding feature was a big diamond stud stuck in his left earlobe. Jack wished he had more of a view of his body to help spot him from a distance, but this would work.

    He'd checked the post time at Belmont: first race one o'clock except Fridays when it moved to three P.M. The track was closed today so he'd have to wait till tomorrow.

    "Jack?"

    A woman's voice. He looked around and saw a slim blonde in her mid-twenties, looking much younger because of her pigtails and her getup. She wore a white oxford shirt with a loose, askew tie, a plaid pleated miniskirt, white knee socks, and high-heel Mary Janes. Only a few of the shirt buttons were fastened, exposing her diamond-studded navel.

    Jack stared, dumbfounded. "Do I—?"

    She smiled and batted her heavily mascaraed, blue-shadowed eyes. "It's me. Junie. Junie Moon. We met—"

    "Right-right. Gia's friend. How are you?"

    They'd met last summer when Junie had been a guest at a Brooklyn party celebrating a big sale of one of her paintings. But she hadn't looked like jailbait then.

    "Fine. Things have cooled down a little, but still better than I'd ever dreamed."

    Nathan Lane had bought one of her paintings and publicly raved about it and suddenly her canvases were going for twenty K apiece. Jack had never seen any of her work but Gia said she was good.

    "You're looking… different."

    "Like it?" She struck a pose. "Marketing. All marketing." She stepped closer. "I saw Gia last week."

    "You did?"

    "She didn't tell you?"

    "No."

    Jack wondered why not.

    "Must've forgot. I finally got the nerve to stop by. I'm such a slut of a friend. I mean, here she's been like my big sister for years, but I couldn't bring myself to stop by after the accident. I just couldn't stand seeing her hurt."

    "She's pretty much back to normal now."

    Junie shook her head. "Not really."

    Jack felt a sinking sensation. "What do you mean?"

    "Her art, my brotha. Her paintings. They're…"

    "She showed you?"

    "Well, ya-ah. We're both artists, you know. Why wouldn't she?"

    It stung knowing Gia would share them with someone else but not him. Maybe the artist connection explained it, but still…

    "I haven't seen them."

    "Oh, shit. You two aren't on the outs, are you? Because if you've hurt her—"

    "Never in a million years. She just doesn't want me to see them."

    "Yeah, well, maybe I can see why."

    "Want to give me a hint?"

    "They're not her."

    "What's that supposed to mean?"

    "They're not like anything she's ever painted. They're… dark. You know how Gia's stuff has always been sunny, with all that Hopperesque bright light and shadow. Now it's mostly shadow. I think that accident changed her, Jack. I mean, you talk to her, she seems the same, but those paintings…" She looked uncomfortable. "They aren't from the Gia I knew."

    They chatted awhile longer, with Junie monologuing and Jack monosyllabling, barely hearing what she said.

    Those paintings… he had to get a look at Gia's paintings.

11

    "Glenn! Glenn!"

    Glaeken stood at the living room window, watching the stretched shadow of his building inch across Central Park's Sheep Meadow.

    Glenn… he was glad Magda had forgotten his real name. Wouldn't do to have her calling "Glaeken!" a thousand times a day. Glenn, Glaeken, Veilleur, and all the other names he'd adopted down through the ages. Sometimes he lost track of who he was supposed to be.

    Used to be he could always return to "Glaeken," but no longer. In his mind these days he'd become simply Veilleur.

    "Coming, my dear."

    The voice had come from the kitchen, as were sounds of rattling cookware now. He headed that way and found Magda standing by the granite-topped island, staring at the open cabinets in confusion.

    Her white hair was neatly combed, thanks to the visiting homemaker who had just left. Her weight loss over the past few years or so accentuated the stoop of her shoulders. She wore a sweater as usual, because she was always cold.

    "My kitchen!" she cried, her Hungarian accent thicker than before the decline had begun. "Glenn, what's happened to my kitchen?"

    "Nothing, Magda. It's just as it always is."

    A vision of a younger Magda took shape before him. Soft, smooth skin; long, chestnut hair; dark, gleaming eyes so full of wit and intelligence. That Magda was gone, but his love for her remained. He heard echoes of her voice as she sang, of her mandolin as she played, the sight of her bent over her typewriter as she wrote.

    Another vision… Magda facing down the greatest evil… defying everything Rasalom could throw at her… terrified, horrified, repulsed, yet holding out, blocking his way until Glaeken could gather strength enough to take her place.

    The memory of her courage and her unyielding trust that he would not let her down constricted his throat—now as much as then.

    But two years ago her memory began to fail. She noticed it first. Then he noticed her making notes about the simplest things. He knew what it meant. And it crushed him.

    The one woman across his eons with whom he could grow old was failing, becoming less and less the woman he'd fallen in love with. He refused to allow the splendid life they'd lived, the glowing love they'd shared to be tainted by her decline. He would never leave her, never give up on her. He would be with her until the end.

    And perhaps that end was not too far off.

    For both of them.

    For everyone.

    "But how can I cook dinner?"

    He stepped to her side. "We've already had dinner."

    She looked at him. "No! We couldn't. I'm still hungry."

    "We had lamb chops, roasted red potatoes, and string beans. You cleaned your plate."

    "No, I—"

    "I cut your meat for you, remember?"

    She closed her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. They were moist when she opened them.

    "I do remember." She squeezed his forearm. "Oh, Glenn, I'm making it so hard on you."

    He patted her hand. "Not at all, my love."

    "But why am I still hungry?"

    "Perhaps you didn't eat enough."

    Her eating habits had become bizarre. She would be famished after a big meal, and then go most of the following day without eating anything—needing to be talked into sitting down for dinner.

    "How about some ice cream? We have chocolate, your favorite."

    She shook her head. "I need something more… more…" She frowned, searching for the word.

    "Substantial?"

    "Yes!" She brightened. "I'll have Miranda fix me some scrambled eggs."

    Miranda had been their housekeeper six years ago.

    "Miranda's not here, but I'll fix them."

    She clapped her hands like a delighted child. "Wonderful! And you'll fix them the way I like them?"

    He nodded. "With grated asiago. Of course."

    He pulled out a frying pan and began melting a pat of butter. He'd cooked countless meals down the seemingly endless years and had become skilled at it.

    He knew if Magda followed her usual pattern, her appetite would be gone by the time the eggs were ready. And then he'd eat them. He'd have to. He'd been hungry too many times, sagging against death's door more than once from starvation, ever to throw away food.

    But that was all right. He made excellent scrambled eggs.

12

    What the—?

    It had happened again.

    Jack sat at his round oak table and stared at the page he'd bookmarked in the Compendium of Srem. Nobody knew the book's age. He'd heard it was from the First Age, but no one could prove that, and the people with the credentials to do some sort of backgrounding on it believed it was a myth. After all, only one copy existed, and Jack had it. He'd been told it was indestructible, that Grand Inquisitor Torquemada had tried everything—fire, sword, ax, and anything else he could think of—but had been unable to destroy it. Finally he'd given up and buried it beneath a monastery. But it hadn't stayed buried.

    All very odd, but the oddest thing about the Compendium was that everyone who opened it found it written in his or her native tongue.

    Jack had bookmarked the section on the Seven Infernals the other day and decided tonight would be a good time to check out a weird-looking contraption he'd seen there that looked oddly familiar… displayed in a sideshow, long ago. But now, when he opened to the page, he found himself in another section.

    Impossible that someone could have moved the bookmark, because he was the only one in the apartment, the only one for weeks.

    He started paging through, looking for the Infernals again, but could find no trace of them. Instead he found pages he'd never seen before. He'd read a lot of the book—understanding little—and had flipped through it a number of times, but now he was finding whole sections he'd never even glimpsed before.

    This wasn't the first time. What was this thing? Could it be sentient?

    He slapped the book closed and pushed it to the center of the table. Damn thing was heavy.

    He leaned back and tried to let his mind go blank, but an aching need popped Gia into his head. He saw her… he heard her… the sounds she made when they were in bed. She wasn't a wailer, not a screamer, not an oh-godder… just soft little moans, almost like whimpers, from way back in her throat. He felt her nails raking his back when he was in her, heard the rasp of those nails as they raked the sheets when he was down on her.

    He had to go back. He couldn't stay away any longer.

WEDNESDAY

1

    Usually Gia avoided mention of Emma and rarely visited her at St. Ann's. But every once in a while she felt the need to stand over her daughter's grave and speak a few words to her.

    Jack understood that—all too well. What he'd never understood was why she had insisted on this particular cemetery. St. Ann's was in Bayside, way out in the far eastern hinterlands of Queens. Practically in Nassau County. The reasons had been cryptic: Because Emma had communicated during Gia's coma that she wanted a view of the water… and wanted to be here to comfort someone. Who that someone might be, Gia couldn't say, because Emma had never told her.

    And now Gia had forgotten the dreams and that she'd ever said those things. The memories were gone but Emma would remain at St. Ann's till whenever.

    Other memories… of the burial… crashed around him. The snow-covered grass, the hard-frozen ground, the cutting wind, the tiny white coffin…

    And no Gia. Although she and Vicky were recovering from their comas and injuries at what every doctor and nurse in New York Hospital had called "a miraculous pace," they remained in the trauma unit. Emma needed burial but no way could they venture out of intensive care. Which left all the funeral arrangements to Jack.

    Looking back now he recalled little of his meeting with the undertaker, or arranging the burial plot out here in Bayside. He'd been too numb. He vaguely remembered Abe, Julio, Alicia Clayton, Lyle Kenton, and a few others at the graveside. Father Edward Halloran had somehow heard about Emma and showed up, insisting on saying a few words over the grave.

    And so whenever Gia wanted to visit, Jack would take her. Because he needed a visit now and again too, and didn't like the idea of her alone in a cemetery.

    He'd been planning to call her this morning when the phone rang and there she was, asking if he'd drive her.

    Perfect.

    She sat on the ground now, running her hand through the new grass over Emma's grave. Her lips were moving in silence. Jack wondered what she was saying to her unborn child, the daughter she'd known only from within her.

    To give her some space, he wandered off across the grass with no particular destination. St. Ann's Cemetery was small and old, crowded with headstones dating back a hundred years or more. As he wound among them, reading the inscriptions, he heard a male voice cursing in Spanish. He'd never studied Spanish, but a few years working for a local landscaper had taught him how to curse and swear in the language.

    He headed in that direction and found a gardener kicking at the dirt of a bare patch near the high stone wall. When the man realized he had an audience, he stopped and flashed Jack a sheepish, gold-flecked grin.

    "Excuse my words, señor." He gestured at the headstones. "Especially here among the dead."

    Jack shrugged. "I haven't heard any complaints. What were you kicking there?"

    "This ground… nothing will grow on it. I mix in the finest topsoil, I seed it, I water it, yet no grass will grow. I put sod down, it dies. I become very angry."

    "I saw that. Ever think of trying some ground cover?"

    "I have planted periwinkle, pachysandra, and ivy. They all die. I think the soil is poisoned, so I dig down six inches, bring in new earth. Still the same. Nothing will live here. Not plants, not even ants. Nothing."

    Jack stared down at the four-foot oblong patch of bare ground. It looked like normal topsoil. The grass around it was in beautiful shape. Just this one patch…

    He spotted a beetle scurrying through the grass toward the bald spot. He watched it veer left just before it reached it. The bug walked around to the far side of the patch, then continued on its way.

    A chill ran over Jack's skin. What the hell was wrong with that patch of ground that even bugs wouldn't cross it? Had something been spilled there? Or more unsettling, was something buried there?

    "I've got your solution," Jack said. "Astroturf."

    The gardener shook his head. "No. I shall win. This dirt will not beat me."

    Jack waved and headed back toward Gia and Emma. "Good luck."

    He found Gia waiting for him on a rise.

    "Ready?"

    She took a deep shuddering breath and nodded. "Why?"

    "Why what?"

    "Why do I have to come here to be with her? Why isn't she with me? Why did this have to happen?"

    "I wish I could tell you, Gia."

    And that was true to the extent that Jack found himself unable to speak the words that would answer her question.

    He still hadn't found the right time to tell her the truth. Maybe he'd never find the right time to say, Because of me, because of your importance to me, because some cosmic something beyond knowing thought it could better use me if you and Vicky and Emma weren't around.

    As he took her hand and they started back toward the car, he remembered how Gia had said the dream-Emma wanted to be here at St. Ann's "to comfort someone."

    He looked back at the gardener raking up the soil of the bare spot.

    Could it be…?

    Nah.

    "I want to come home with you, Gi. Vicky's at school so I was hoping maybe we could…"

    "Talk?"

    "Yes. Talk. And do other stuff."

    "Other stuff?"

    "Other stuff."

    "I am in need of other stuff, Jack. Especially after being here. I need to lose myself for a little while."

    "Me too."

    She smiled that smile. "Goody."

2

    Hideo had wanted to search further through the police database last night but the need for sleep and the time zone change had caught up with him. He'd awakened late this morning fully refreshed and ready for the next step.

    His target was anyone connected with Hugh Gerrish. First was to search for a list of "known associates," but he could find no such list. Perhaps because Gerrish had never been a fugitive. He had served no jail time, so there was no cellmate Hideo could look up.

    He went back to the crime itself and found the arrest record. His spirits lifted as he read through it: Gerrish had not been alone on the break and enter. He'd been captured along with a man named Alonzo Cooter.

    Hideo searched the database for that name and found the mug shot. A beefy, surly black face stared back at him. Not a cooperative face. The belligerence in his eyes said he was not a man who would frighten easily.

    But that was what the yakuza were for.

    He called for Kenji, then hit the print button. While he was waiting, Hideo found Cooter's last known address—he hoped it was good—and printed that screen too. Then he scanned through Kaze Group's properties in the five boroughs. Cooter lived in the South Bronx. Kaze owned a boarded-up building awaiting demolition near Yankee Stadium. Cooter lived less than a mile away.

    "Takita-san," Kenji said with a quick bow upon arrival.

    Hideo wrote the building's address on one of the printouts, then handed him the sheets.

    "Find this man. Bring him to this address. Then call me."

    Another quick bow and Kenji was gone.

    Hideo nodded. Complications had been encountered and overcome. Soon he would be talking to Hugh Gerrish.

    Now… if only he could find the ronin.

    He called up the mystery man's photo and stared at it, trying to devise a way to track him down.

    And he would. Hideo was sure of it.

3

    "As nice as that was, it's not an explanation."

    Gia lay to his left on the bed, head on hand, propped on an elbow, gazing at him as she trailed fingers through his chest hair.

    Jack laughed. "Nice? Nice? It was fantastic. At least for me."

    He wasn't kidding. He loved pleasuring her with his fingertips, his lips, his tongue, and she'd experienced a couple of little deaths along the way, but after they'd fitted themselves together, Gia had taken over with an uncharacteristic hunger that left him feeling as if he'd been dissected organ by organ and then reassembled.

    She smiled. "Okay, it was fantastic for me too."

    "What did you do to me?"

    "I'm not sure. It's kind of fuzzy now."

    "Whatever it was, I think I'm going to need a walker to get out of here."

    "Sorry. No walkers around. Only Nellie's old cane."

    "I'll take it."

    He closed his eyes relishing the touch of her fingers on his chest. He felt wiped out.

    "Well?"

    He looked at her and saw her expectant expression. No way out of this. He'd have to tell her something, and it had to be the truth. He wasn't going to start lying to her.

    He glanced at the clock. He wanted to get to Belmont noonish. Still plenty of time, so he couldn't use that as an excuse.

    He raised a finger and began tracing concentric circles on her left breast, languidly gyring toward the nipple.

    "A rosy-tipped breast, as the novels like to say."

    She pushed his hand away. "That tickles. And if you're trying to distract me, it might work, so stop it and tell what's been going on."

    Jack sighed. Where to begin?

    "Last month I learned that I have big chunks of bad DNA floating around my chromosomes." He didn't mention that she and Vicky carried a little of it too. That everyone did to varying degrees.

    She frowned. " 'Bad'? What's wrong with it?"

    "It's not normal. It gives people… violent tendencies."

    There. He'd laid it on the table.

    Gia's expression remained neutral, registering neither shock nor fear nor revulsion.

    "Oh."

    "And I've got a lot of it."

    "Oh."

    After a silence that seemed to last forever she took a breath. "Well, I guess that explains some things—at least it's a hint as to why you're good at what you do—but it doesn't explain your gentleness around here. You're a pussycat with Vicky."

    "She owns me."

    "And you've never once raised your voice against me, let alone your hand, so why have you—?"

    "It feels like a ticking bomb."

    "You can feel it?"

    "No, but just knowing it's there, inside me…" At a loss for words, he shrugged. "I don't know."

    "But I think I do. You're afraid it will hurt us?"

    "No. I seem to be able to control it—most times. I have no doubt that you're safe. But anyone who threatens that safety…" He thought of all the dead yeniçeri back in January. "They're on the endangered species list."

    Her brow furrowed. "Then what? You can't infect us with it."

    "No, but I just injected you with some."

    She looked puzzled for a few heartbeats, then, "Oh." Her eyes widened. "Oh. Emma."

    "Yeah. Emma."

    "You think she inherited some of this bad DNA?"

    "How could she not? She was half me."

    Another long silence, then, "Well, it's kind of scary, but it's moot, isn't it. Emma's gone and I don't want to—I can't go through that again. I'd get my tubes tied if it mattered."

    "Why doesn't it matter? Because of those coma dreams?"

    She nodded.

    She'd come out of the coma this way, sure that the future was short—very short. Veilleur had mentioned something along those lines, and someone he knew who said he could see the future had told him next spring ended in darkness.

    When Gia had been on death's threshold, had she peeked through and seen what was coming?

    Did that mean Rasalom was going to win?

    He shook it off.

    "Look, if anyone's getting tubes tied it's going to be me."

    She smiled. "That's sweet, but it doesn't matter."

    "Please stop saying that."

    "Well, it's true, but I'll stop saying it."

    She rose from the bed. Jack stared at her. He loved Gia's body—the breasts that fit his hands so perfectly, the curve of her hips, the slight swell of her belly. He wanted to reach out and grab her and pull her back.

    She'd taken it well. Seemed like he'd been worried about nothing. But a vasectomy… that was a thought. He didn't want his oDNA going any further.

    He glanced at the clock. Time was moving.

    "Hey, Gi? How should I dress for my day at the races?"

4

    Gia had thought he should dress down, and suggested his construction worker look: worn jeans, flannel shirt, work boots, Mets cap, dollar-store sunglasses.

    He drove the Long Island Expressway the entire length of Queens and crossed the border into Nassau County where Belmont Park occupies a large chunk of Elmont. He arrived a little past noon. Post time for the first race wasn't until one o'clock, so he had time to settle in. He decided against valet parking, and chose the preferred lots instead, in case he needed his car in a hurry.

    His big problem—besides having nothing more than a blurry photo of his quarry—was not knowing where Gerrish was coming from, or how. The Long Island Railroad's Bellerose stop was only a short distance away. If Gerrish didn't have a car, that might be the way he'd come and go.

    From the outside, the patriotic bunting—bedecked grandstand was pretty much like he remembered it from the old days, except the ivy had spread farther across the brick walls and around the big arched windows.

    He bought a clubhouse admission and a program, and strolled the flagstone floors, checking out the Neiman manqué paintings on the walls as he refamiliarized himself with the place.

    He took the escalator up to the second floor and found a Sbarro's. That hadn't been here before.

    He ordered a slice of pepperoni pie and hung at the counter where he could keep watch on the traffic at the betting windows. Jack was betting on Gerrish being a clubhouse kind of guy—if he was as flush as he'd told folks, he wouldn't hang outside with the hoi polloi. That meant sooner or later he'd show up here.

    Melancholy seeped into his mood as he watched the thin, drab, sadlooking crowd, mostly middle age or older, go through the motions. No zip, no vim or vigor. He seemed to remember a livelier crowd, Runyonesque flashy dressers with style and attitude. But memories are unreliable, tending to be colored by wishful thinking. Maybe it had never been like he thought he remembered. But either way, these folks had more in common with Willie Loman than Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit.

    Around 12:45, after doing flybys to check out a couple of guys who turned out to be almosts-but-not-quites, Jack spotted a likely candidate lining up at a window. He had a round, florid face and wore dark blue nylon warm-up pants with white stripes under a loud Hawaiian shirt acrawl with birds of paradise. Brown, wavy hair stuck out below the edge of his Rangers cap.

    Could be.

    Jack slipped the photo from his pocket and gave it a quick look.

    Yeah. A definite possibility. Even had the big diamond stud earring. Trouble was, he wore wraparound shades and had his cap pulled down almost to his eyebrows. The Hugh Gerrish in the photo had a wicked widow's peak, but this guy's hat was obscuring his hairline. Jack needed a way to sneak a peek at the peak.

    He hurried over and slipped behind him in the betting line.

    "Rangers fan, huh?"

    The guy turned and looked at him. "You got a problem with that? You gonna give me some Islander shit?"

    The Islanders had just won the Stanley Cup and Ranger fans were not happy.

    Jack smiled. "Hey, easy. I'm a Ranger guy too." Lie. Jack hated hockey. He hated high fives almost as much, but held up his hand for one. "Next year the cup is ours."

    The guy smiled and gave Jack's raised palm a good-natured slap.

    "From your lips to God's ear."

    Jack made a point of staring at his cap. "That's a nice one. Where'd you get it? The Garden?"

    He nodded. "Cost an arm and a leg but worth every penny."

    "Yeah. Nice quality. Wonder who made it. Mind if I see the label?"

    "Sure."

    The guy took it off, revealing a huge widow's peak. Jack couldn't help staring at it.

    Lily, call Herman—we've found Eddie.

    "I thought you wanted to see it."

    Jack shook himself and took the proffered hat, pretended to look at the label, then handed it back.

    "Cool. Thanks. Gotta get me one. You live in the city?"

    A suspicious light sparked in his eyes as he fit the cap back on his head. "Why you wanna know?"

    Jack put on a flustered look. "No particular reason. Just wish I could get into the Garden more. Get me one of those hats."

    The suspicious light faded. "I'm in Jamaica. The train takes me right into Penn."

    "Yeah?" Jack's mind raced. "I'm in Jamaica too. Briarwood, actually. Put everything I had into a tiny two-bedroom ranch nine years ago and am I ever glad."

    Gerrish nodded. "You must be sitting pretty. But, hey. It's just as easy for you to get to the Garden as me."

    Jack shook his head. "Not at night… the wife don't like me going out at night."

    He snorted a laugh. "Been there, done that. That's why she's now my ex-wife."

    They shared a manly heh-heh-heh and then came Gerrish's turn at the window.

    Jack leaned close to listen in, planning to bet the same horse. Gerrish supposedly knew his ponies, and winning would give Jack a chance to reconnect with him at the payout. But a glance over the bird of paradise on his shoulder gave him a shock. No human being at the window. Some sort of cash register sat there instead.

    When did this happen?

    He watched in dismay as Gerrish worked the thing like an accountant on an adding machine, then took the ticket that popped out and started to walk away.

    "Luck to you," Jack said.

    Gerrish didn't turn. "Yeah. Same."

    As Gerrish moved off, Jack stepped up to the machine and studied it for a few seconds. He had no idea what to do, and no time to figure it out, so he faked working it, then walked off in the same general direction as Gerrish.

5

    Dawn sat chin deep in the hot tub and stared at Henry.

    "You mean you still haven't changed your mind?"

    "It's not a matter of changing my mind, miss. It's simply that I have not been able to reach the Master and do not have permission. I would help if I could but I cannot risk it again. I break out in a sweat just thinking about what could have happened."

    What was it with this guy? Didn't he have any balls?

    Balls… there was a thought. Henry seemed like totally sexless. She never caught him looking at her. Not once.

    What would stiff-and-staid Henry do if she totally came on to him? He looked to be like fifty—like two and a half times her age. But big deal. She'd been living with a pervo twice her age and doing him every night.

    She bit back a surge of acid as her stomach tried to hurl. Don't think about that. You've got that perv's baby inside you and the only way you're going to get rid of it is to get out of this place.

    She could do Henry. If she could do that perv she could do anyone. And it would only be once. She'd let him think it would be a regular thing, but no way.

    How did that phrase go? Quid pro quo? Yeah. She hadn't gotten straight A's at Benedictine Academy without paying attention in Latin class.

    If she did something for him, he'd have to do something for her if he wanted a replay. But no replay. This time if she got out she would be so not coming back.

    Did she dare? She'd feel like such a loser if he turned her down. But she had to risk it. She had this awful feeling that her future depended on it.

    She opened her mouth to speak but no words of seduction would come.

    Hey. Maybe she could seduce him with money. She had a quarter of a million in cash in her room.

    "Henry? What if I paid you for a shopping trip?"

    "I beg your pardon?"

    "What if I totally paid you ten thousand dollars to take me out for an hour?"

    He looked offended. "You insult me, miss. I am not for sale."

    She was about to double the offer but saw in his steely eyes that it would be a waste of time.

    Okay. Time to bite the bullet, as it were.

    Keeping her chin at water level, she reached behind her and unhooked the top of her bikini. She slipped out of it, releasing the girls, and pushed it under her. Next came the bottom.

    Now… the big moment.

    She rose to her feet and stood thigh deep in the bubbling water, facing Henry. She glanced down at her girls. The wet mounds glistened in the sunlight streaming through the windows. She could see the nipples rising in the chill room air. Maybe she was a little too thick in the waist, a little too wide in the hips, but she had great skin and she was like totally sure that hers was the best bod Henry had seen in a long, long time. She couldn't see her pubes right now but knew they looked sort of funny. Pervo Jerry had made her shave. Well, didn't force her, exactly. All he'd had to do was ask and she'd done it—like she'd done other things he'd asked. The hair was growing back now, looking like a three-day stubble.

    She'd never asked herself why he'd wanted her bare there. Thought it was just some simple kink. Maybe even a hygiene thing, though he'd never shaved himself.

    But knowing what she knew now, it was probably a way to make her look more like a child.

    Her gorge rose again but she forced it back.

    Focus, Dawnie. Focus.

    She looked at Henry and saw that his jaw had totally dropped. The offended look in his eyes had given away to a sort of wonder and awe.

    "Like what you see?"

    Henry continued to stare in silence, his expression frozen.

    She stepped toward him, trying to make her movements languid and sexy, hiding the urgency bubbling inside. If this was going to work, if this was even going to get done, it had to get started soon and end quickly. Before Gilda arrived to make sure Dawn didn't soak beyond her allotted twenty minutes.

    She climbed the two steps up to floor level and stopped before him, dripping.

    And still Henry said nothing. Maybe he'd been dreaming of sex with an eighteen-year-old. Maybe even younger.

    "You got a problem with young stuff, Henry? If not, I'm about to make you a very happy man."

    Ugh. That sounded awful. Still… she'd gotten her message across and he hadn't backed off. Hadn't moved toward her either.

    Okay… looked like it was going to be all up to her.

    She knelt before him and reached for his fly, hoping this wouldn't be too gross.

    She felt a bulge behind the fabric as she tugged on the zipper.

    Henry didn't move to stop her.

6

    Gerrish had a seat in the clubhouse's reserved section but Jack had a good view of him from his spot. The guy bet on every race. Jack decided to keep his distance. He studied his copy of Post Parade Magazine and made a few mental bets of his own, but lost every single one—even when they were favorites.

    He hoped he had better luck bird-dogging Gerrish home.

    Jack made it a policy to follow Gerrish to the windows. He often collected wads of cash. Either the guy was dating Tyche on the side or really knew his ponies. After the next-to-last race he skipped the windows and headed for the exits.

    Giving him a good lead, Jack followed him to the LIRR Bellerose station. He stayed out of sight until a westbound train pulled in. He waited for Gerrish to board, then hopped on two cars ahead of him. The train was fairly empty, so Jack moved back a car and sat where he could take an occasional peek at his quarry.

    Gerrish got out at the Jamaica stop and walked east. With the sun still bright, Jack had no shadows to hide in, so he hopped out and walked behind a trio of chattering Ecuadorians, using them as a shield until they hit the street.

    He allowed Gerrish a full block lead. The guy was a fast walker. Maybe these treks back and forth were the only exercise he got, so he made the most of them. A dozen quick blocks on Jamaica Avenue, then a left on Merrick past an old and gloriously ornate building called the Tabernacle of Prayer. Looked like a converted movie theater. Finally he stopped outside a six-story building—a beauty parlor and a Duane Reade drugstore on the first floor, and what looked like apartments above.

    He watched Gerrish enter the building. By the time Jack reached the door he was gone. He peeked through the glass and saw rows of mailboxes. Excellent.

    He waited around until an elderly black woman in a matching green jacket and skirt came by, lugging two plastic sacks of groceries. She put them down to take out her key. When she'd unlocked the door, Jack grabbed the handle and held it open for her.

    She gave him a suspicious look. "You live here?"

    He smiled. "Nah. Just waiting on a friend." He pointed to the bags. "Want help with those?"

    "I can handle them."

    "Well, at least let me get the other door."

    He slipped into the foyer and held the inner door for her. She kept an eye on him, as if expecting him to jump her. She watched until the inner door had closed behind her, then headed for the elevator.

    "You're welcome," Jack said.

    He checked out the mailboxes, noted that 4D was labeled GERRISH.

    Perfect.

    He'd return after dark and pay ol' Hughie a visit. Find out if he still had the sword. If sold, he'd find out the name of the buyer. If not, he'd offer to buy it. If Hugh wasn't selling, Jack would take it.

    Either way, like it or not, Hugh Gerrish would wake up tomorrow morning as the former owner of that sword.

    As Jack stepped out onto the street he glanced back and saw the old woman watching him. He smiled and waved.

7

    "Remember, miss. Only an hour."

    "Sure, Henry."

    Not.

    Doing him had been kind of rough but not totally unbearable. Like maybe if you didn't look up or didn't think about who it was—like make believe it was someone you liked—you could get through. Even get into it maybe. Except Dawn didn't have anyone she really liked in that way—not anymore—so no way she'd been able to get into it.

    But she'd gotten through it. That was what counted.

    He'd never said a word. Just stood there like a statue through the whole thing. The only good thing—if anything good could be said about it—was that it hadn't taken long at all, like he was a guy who hadn't gotten any in a long time. The only sounds he'd made were some grunts at the end. And when he'd squirted all over her, at least it didn't mess up any clothes. After it was over he'd zipped up while she was still on her knees, turned, and left.

    She got a little satisfaction out of seeing his legs wobble as he'd walked out, but otherwise she felt crushed. She'd made a whore of herself for nothing.

    So she washed up—crying in the shower—and dressed, and was combing out her wet hair when he'd knocked on her door and said Gilda had left to go shopping. If Dawn wanted to go out, they had a window of two hours, so it had to be now. She'd stuffed her quarter mil in a shoulder bag and headed for the door.

    She was surprised at how calm she was feeling about the whole thing. A little dirty, yeah, but it was over and done with now, and considering who she'd been having sex with before this, Henry was like a hot soapy shower.

    Yeah, Henry… a total prince. No leering remarks, no familiar touching. Acted like it never happened. He was doing such a convincing job, she could almost make herself believe it hadn't.

    Kind of a shame she was going to have to screw him in a totally different way this afternoon.

    She'd had him drive her down to SoHo and cruise lower Broadway. Along the way she'd bargained—reasonably, she thought—to define the "hour" on the town as an hour of shopping, transit time not included. He'd reluctantly agreed. But when she tried to convince him to drop her off at one of the boutiques, he totally wouldn't.

    "For your well-being—and that of my job—I cannot let you out of my sight."

    She gazed out at the shopping bag—carrying throngs crowding the sidewalks and said, "Are they like giving stuff away?"

    "It's the dollar, miss. Very cheap these days, which makes visiting the States and shopping here a real bargain."

    Mixed among the foreigners—they didn't carry signs saying so but their clothing styles screamed Not from here!—were clusters of bridge-and-tunnel folks from the burbs and Jersey.

    She didn't care where they came from, as long as there were lots of them. The more the merrier, and the easier it would be to disappear into their ranks.

    When Henry pulled into a parking lot, she waited behind the tinted glass, adjusting her pak chadar while he took a ticket from the attendant. She put on her sunglasses and stepped from the car. A quick glance at her reflection in the window confirmed that no one, not even her mother, would recognize her in this getup.

    She led Henry through the crowd, noticing the curious looks from the B-and-T types but not the Euros. She guessed they were more used to seeing covered Islamic women. One scruffy type was totally staring at her—or squinting, rather. With a start she recognized him as the guy with the flyers from Monday.

    Her chest tightened. Why the interest? Did he recognize her from outside Blume's? Maybe that was it. No way he could match her to the girl on his flyers.

    She could feel his gaze on her back after she'd passed him.

    She shook it off and focused on the stores. She was looking for a certain type of layout. She stepped into one after another. The first three had their dressing rooms in the rear. But the fourth had situated them mid-store.

    Just what she was looking for.

    Dawn had a plan.

    You can do this, she told herself as she wandered the aisles, examining overpriced T-shirts and ugly, rhinestone-studded belts and designer jeans.

    Some of the sales folk were eyeing her, probably wondering why a fundamentalist chick would be interested in this stuff. Let them wonder.

    She wandered to the rear of the store, hoping Henry would trail her, but he lingered at the front, people watching through the big front windows when he wasn't watching her.

    She had to get him back here. So the next time he glanced her way she waved and signaled him to join her. When he arrived, she pulled a sundress off a rack and held it up before her.

    "What do you think?"

    His face remained expressionless. "Not my size."

    She laughed. "No, silly. For me."

    "It's not very Islamic."

    She smiled at him. "Neither am I. Wait here while I try it on, then I want your opinion."

    He glanced around. "Do you think that's wise? It's very out of character."

    "Don't worry." She tugged on her veil. "I'll keep this on the whole time."

    Before he could say any more she hurried forward to the changing room. As soon as she was inside she ripped off the pak chadar and turned to the squat Hispanic attendant busy arranging items that had been tried on but not purchased.

    "I need your help," she said in a low voice.

    The woman looked up at her. "You don't want that, just leave it here."

    "No. There's a man following me."

    "So? Call the cops."

    "I don't want to cause a scene."

    Totally true. She could have reported Henry to the police at any time, said she'd never seen him before and that he was following her, harassing her. Maybe while they were questioning him, she could slip away. And maybe not. She'd most likely have to identify herself, and then someone would make the connection between her and the girl on the flyers. And even if she could slip away before identifying herself, that kind of activity would draw a crowd, put her at the center of attention, attract stares. All things that were so not what she wanted.

    No, she needed to do this quietly. Slip out onto the street and totally fade away.

    The woman gave her a bewildered look. "What can I do? Call the manager?"

    "No. Look—just take a look. Is there a tall guy in a gray suit hanging around the sundresses?"

    The woman peeked through a slit in the curtains, then nodded. "Is that him?"

    "Yeah. Look, I have an idea. Let me help you carry these back into the store. We'll head toward the front, drop them off, then I'll escape to the street."

    She gave Dawn a suspicious look. "I don't know…" she said slowly.

    Dawn had totally expected this and had come prepared. She pulled a hundred-dollar bill from a side pocket of her shoulder bag and handed it to her.

    "Please? He really creeps me out."

    The woman's eyes bulged when she saw the zeroes. She quickly shoved it into a pocket.

    "Okay. How we do this?"

    Dawn pulled a green linen table napkin she'd snared from the penthouse and knotted it around her head do-rag style. Then she looked around and spotted another sundress, a light blue flowered print, in the pile the woman had been arranging. She grabbed that along with a couple of others and held them high by their hangers—high enough to obscure her head and torso. If she kept the dresses between her and Henry, he'd never see her.

    Or so she hoped.

    Her stomach totally cramped. This so had to work. If she blew it she'd never get another chance.

    Do it.

    "You lead the way," she said.

    The woman nodded, filled her arms with clothing, and darted between the curtains.

    "Ándale!"

    Dawn followed, dresses held high, gliding toward the front in the woman's wake. As she reached the checkout area she tossed the dresses on a counter and kept going—out the door, onto the sidewalk, and into the ambling crowd.

    This was dangerous, she knew, as she wove through the throng. Yeah, she had her hair covered, wore sunglasses, and was holding her hand across her mouth, hiding most of her lower face, but someone still might recognize her. Wouldn't be easy to do, but with the way her luck had been running lately, she couldn't take anything for granted.

    She risked a look back as she turned the first corner she came to. No sign of Henry.

    Relieved, she pressed on. He probably didn't even realize she was gone, and when he finally did, he'd be looking for someone wearing a pak chadar. But he wouldn't find one, or if he did, someone else would be wearing it. And if he asked anyone if they'd seen a woman wearing a veil, whoever they'd seen wouldn't be Dawn.

    The sidewalks here on Spring Street were narrower than Broadway, slowing her progress. She resisted the urge to step off the curb and walk in the street. She wanted to avoid anything that would separate her from the pack.

    She looked around and saw a cab but it was occupied. She didn't want to stand in the street signaling for one. She wanted off the street and sidewalk.

    She'd been shopping in SoHo tons of times, sometimes with her mother, sometimes with friends. The closest subway stops were each two blocks away, but both too near Broadway. She might run into Henry. She continued along Spring. She knew of another straight ahead on Sixth Avenue.

    Time to get totally lost in New York.

8

    I must be living right, Darryl thought as he followed the girl through the crowd.

    Or maybe it was because he was dissimilated. Hank had always said good things would start to happen once you dissimilated yourself. Darryl had memorized his words:

    The time has come to separate yourselves from the herd. You don't belong with the herd. Come out of hiding. Step away from the crowd. Let the dissimilation begin!

    Darryl had done just that. One of the guys on the line with him at the Ford plant in Dearborn had handed him a copy of Kick during a break and told him to read it. Said it had changed his life and would do the same for Darryl. Well, he'd never been much of a reader, but one look at that spidery black figure on the yellow cover and he'd had to know what was inside.

    He'd read it. Then he'd read it again. And again. And when he checked Hank Thompson's Web site and learned that he was speaking in New York City, he'd headed east.

    And after he'd heard him in person, he never went back. What for? Back to his dead-end job? Back to an ex-wife who hated him, and a kid who barely knew who he was? Fat chance, baby.

    So he'd declared himself dissimilated and stuck around, earning room and board playing gopher for Hank, and grooving to the whole Kicker Evolution thing. For the first time in his life he felt like he belonged. His brother and sister Kickers were like the family he'd never had.

    He had no idea why Hank wanted Dawn Pickering found, but that didn't matter. She was going to make Darryl a star among Kickers. The five-grand reward in his pocket wouldn't hurt neither.

    He couldn't believe his luck. He'd got up this morning, scrounged some breakfast, and got out and wandered. That had been his pattern since Hank had put up that reward for finding her. Some days he'd go uptown, some days down, subwaying as far up as the Bronx and all the way down to the Battery, and everywhere between. But ever since Monday, after seeing that chick with the Arab thing around her head outside Blume's, he'd been sticking to the shopping areas. Hank had thought she was the girl he was looking for, and that was good enough for Darryl. He had Dawn's face branded on his brain, but he was also keeping an eye peeled for anyone wearing a veil.

    So today he'd landed on Broadway in SoHo. Why not? Blume's had another store down here. And what does he see—the same chick in the same veil thing. But with that chauffeur guy again. Darryl wasn't gonna mess with him. His back still hurt a little from where he'd landed against that car. Guy was stronger than he looked. A lot stronger.

    But no way he was letting her out of his sight. He'd followed from a distance, watching the two of them go in and out of one store after another. So he'd been hanging across the street from the fourth store, killing time, when all of a sudden this blonde with a green dishrag or napkin or whatever tied around her head comes rushing out. It took him a second or two to realize it was the girl from the flyer—without her veil.

    He had a frozen, what-the-fuck? moment, and then he'd started to move—cautiously, expecting her driver guy to pop out behind her. But he didn't show.

    Darryl was hanging well back. Good thing too, because she kept looking over her shoulder, like she was on the run from someone. Her driver? That didn't make sense.

    Whatever, she was easy to track with that dumb green thing on her head. Sure, it hid most of her blond hair, and she wore these big sunglasses, and she kept her hand clapped over her mouth, but none of that had been enough to fool old Darryl.

    He wished to hell he had a cell phone so he could call Hank and get some backup. If she jumped into a cab and he couldn't find another one in time, he could kiss that reward good-bye.

    He followed her along Spring until she headed down the steps of a subway station.

    Darryl pumped his fist. You are living right!

9

    Alonzo Cooter glared defiantly up at them from his chair.

    "You slopes think I'm scared of you? Think again."

    Hideo looked down at the man's angry black face. Most people would be terrified and begging for release or at least an explanation. This man radiated defiance. Hideo had seen that in his photo and so had prepared this building for… persuasion.

    Cooter-san had not been hard to find, but he had been difficult to isolate. He pumped gas at a Lukoil station on Tenth Avenue in Manhattan and was not accessible at work. After work he spent some time at a Ninth Avenue bar with two of his coworkers. Then he took the subway to the Bronx. Kenji, Ryo, and Goro accosted him outside his apartment building and shoved him into a van where Kenji asked him a question that an average man would have been frightened enough to answer without hesitation. But Cooter-san had refused and so the yakuza brought him to this abandoned building, duct-taped his wrists and ankles to the arms and legs of a sturdy wooden chair, and called Hideo.

    "It's a simple question, Mister Cooter. Where does Hugh Gerrish live?"

    "Fuck off. Never heard of him."

    "Do not lie, Mister Cooter. You were arrested with him during an attempted robbery. You do know him. And obviously you are loyal to him. That is admirable and honorable. And I am being equally honorable with you when I say that we wish him no harm. In fact, we intend to make him rich by purchasing an item he holds."

    Cooter-san surprised him by grinning. "Look at me, chinky boy. Do I look like I just popped out of my momma's pussy? I got nothing to say to you."

    Hideo heaved a dramatic sigh. "I was afraid of this." He nodded to Goro. "You may begin."

    Goro grinned and pulled off his shirt, revealing his yakuza irezumi. The tattoos were so extensive that he appeared to be wearing a long-sleeve bodysuit. Hideo had heard of the yakuza tradition of tattoos, of course, and had seen photos, but never before had he seen them in the flesh. A pair of carp swam in different directions across Goro's chest; from his back a tiger attacked with extended claws. Waves and hillsides and cherry blossoms filled the spaces between and wound down his arms.

    Cooter-san stared in awe, speechless.

    The prisoner's wrists were already secure, so Ryo began taping the fingers of his left hand to the arm of the chair—all except the little one.

    Cooter-san found his voice. "The fuck you think you're doing?"

    Hideo stepped away from the table, leaving the stage to the yakuza. In a very real way, it was a stage. For they were each playing a part, carefully worked out in advance.

    "In my country," Kenji said in a matter-of-fact tone, "members of our organizations have a ritual known as yubitsume. When we offend a superior, or make a mistake that costs the organization, we make amends by yubitsume."

    "Yeah? Well, you can bitsume my big black dick."

    "The word means 'finger cutting.' We use a tanto—that is a certain kind of knife—and cut off the tip of a finger, usually the smallest, which we then send to our superior."

    "I'll bet he's real tickled about that. What's he do with it? Shove it up his ass?"

    Kenji didn't miss a beat. "You have offended our superior by not honoring his simple request for information. Therefore we have decided to perform yubitsume on you."

    Hideo knew how far outside true yakuza tradition this was, but Cootersan would not know that.

    The man's expression lost some of its belligerence.

    "Yeah?" He looked down at his left hand, where his little finger had been taped flat and straight along the arm of the chair. "You're kidding, right?"

    Kenji gave his head a slow, solemn shake. "I do not know this 'kidding.' My associate will perform the yubitsume. We do not have a tanto available, so we have had to make do with what is available."

    As if by magic, a meat cleaver appeared in Goro's hand. He tested the edge with his thumb.

    "Oh, yeah," Cooter-san said, his air of bravado returning. "Gotta admit you put on a good show with this finger business. But I notice all you guys got your pinkies. I'm supposed to believe you guys've never screwed up? That's a laugh."

    Goro frowned and shot Kenji a questioning look. Cooter-san's English had been too rapid for him. Kenji translated.

    Goro smiled and tucked the cleaver under an armpit. He spread the fingers of his left hand. Then he grasped the tip of the fifth and pulled it off.

    Cooter-san's shocked gasp echoed through the room.

    And then Ryo revealed his stump, and finally Kenji.

    As the still-smiling Goro grasped the cleaver again by its handle, Cooter-san began writhing and thrashing about in his chair.

    "Wait a minute! Wait-wait-wait a fucking minute!"

    The cleaver was all for show. All three of the yakuza carried tantos, but a meat cleaver caused a more visceral reaction—at least in Hideo. And, from the looks of it, in Cooter-san as well.

    Hideo had given strict orders not to harm the man, merely frighten him. He was sure the sight of the tattoos and the cleaver—and now the foreshortened fingers—along with Goro's merciless black eyes would be more than enough.

    Hideo admitted to some qualms about putting the cleaver into Goro's hands. He had a feral quality about him, a sense that violence lurked very close to the surface, no deeper than his tattoos. That increased the level of threat, but also increased the chances of Cooter-san suffering injury.

    Goro stepped forward and positioned the cleaver over the last joint on Cooter-san's little finger.

    Kenji said, "I will give you until the count of three. One…"

    Goro smiled at Cooter-san and Hideo couldn't remember a more chilling sight.

    "Two…"

    Still smiling, Goro raised the cleaver.

    "Th—"

    "All right, all right, all right! He lives in Jamaica!"

    Hideo's burst of elation at Cooter-san's capitulation died in midflash.

    "Jamaica? He lives in Jamaica?"

    "That's what I said. Now get this guy away from me."

    "Why did he leave the country?"

    Cooter-san laughed. "Leave the country? You dickwad! Jamaica, Queens!"

    Relief flooded Hideo. Queens… he knew where Queens was… and he would find this Jamaica in Queens.

    Cooter-san, defeated now, gave his friend's street address without argument or further duress.

    As Hideo reached for his PDA to key in the data, he heard a thunk and a man's scream. He looked up in time to see a small dark object tumble through the air, trailing a fine thread of blood. Goro's hand darted out and caught it in midflight.

    Hideo looked at Cooter-san and saw him writhing in agony as blood flowed from the stub end of his little finger. His stomach turned.

    "What—what did you do?" he cried in Japanese.

    Goro gave him a flat look. "Yubitsume."

    "You weren't supposed to hurt him! I told you that!"

    "I know."

    And then he popped the fingertip into his mouth and swallowed it whole.

    Hideo couldn't believe his eyes. "What—?"

    Goro smiled and said, "So they can't sew it back on."

    "But you were not supposed to hurt him!"

    "He should not have informed on his friend."

    Furious, confused, frustrated, Hideo turned to Kenji. "Stop his bleeding and return him to his home."

    Then he hurried from the building. He did not want to be sick in front of the yakuza.

10

    Hank couldn't believe it, so he made Darryl say it again.

    "I found the bitch. She's in the Milford Plaza."

    "You're sure? You're absolutely sure?"

    "Hey, man, ain't I been lookin at her face all day, every day for weeks?"

    Yeah, he had. Hank's gut tingled with triumph, but he was afraid to celebrate. All along he'd put on a confident face, but in his heart he hadn't truly believed he'd ever find her. The flyers had been a long shot but, ironically, in the end it had been one of his own Kickers who'd come through.

    If it was really her. He had to ask again.

    "No question in your mind?"

    "She looks thinner than in the picture, but it's her. She was in that same Arab getup at first, and then she took it off. It's her all right. Followed her on the C from SoHo to the Deuce, in and out of a Duane Reade, and into the Milford Plaza."

    Milford Plaza? What was she doing there? No sign of her for weeks and weeks, and then she shows up in a theater-district tourist trap. What was going on?

    "She with that chauffeur you mentioned the other day?"

    "That's the weird part. He was following her in and out of these stores like a bodyguard, like stink on shit, but then she comes tearing out of the last store and he's nowhere to be seen. Almost like she was ditching him."

    None of this made any sense. Had she had a falling-out with whoever had been hiding her?

    He realized it didn't matter. She'd come out of hiding and gone to ground again. But now he knew where.

    "You're sure she's still there?"

    "I watched her check in—paid cash. Watched her take an elevator. I'm calling from the lobby where I can see the elevators. She ain't come out."

    "Good man, good man. Any chance you got her room number?"

    "Naw. Didn't want to get too close. She seen me twice now."

    Good old Darryl was smarter than he looked.

    Be nice to know the room number, but they didn't need it. After all, not as if they could march in, bundle her up, and carry her out. No, they'd have to play a waiting game. She couldn't hole up there forever. Sooner or later she'd have to hit the street. And then they'd have her.

    "Say," Darryl said, "um, when do I get my reward?"

    "Soon as she's in this building, standing right here in front of me. But for now you stay right where you are with your eyeballs glued to those elevators. Got it?"

    "Got it."

    "I'll send you some relief ASAP." A question popped into his head. "Any idea what she bought in Duane's?"

    He could sense Darryl's shrug.

    "Dunno. Like in the hotel, I didn't want to get too close, so I stayed across the street. She went in empty-handed and came out carrying a little white bag. Maybe she's on the rag."

    Hank wanted to say, She's pregnant, you idiot, but bit it back. Darryl had done good work. No upside to insulting him.

    Still, he wondered what had been important enough to make her detour on the way to a new hiding place.

    And then he thought he knew.

    Of course.

11

    Standing in the deepening dusk outside Gerrish's apartment building, Tom O'Day punched his number into his cell phone and waited for him to pick up.

    "Hello?"

    "I'm here."

    A sigh, then, "Okay."

    Not a lot of enthusiasm there.

    The buzzer sounded, unlatching the door. Tom yanked it open and stepped inside. Halfway through the inner door he stopped.

    His nape was tingling. And why not? It should be. He was standing in the same building as the fucking Gaijin Masamune.

    He shook it off and headed for the elevator, cursing himself for being such a jerk when Gerrish called him the other day, offering the sword. He'd moved a little hot merch for him a couple of times in the past and now he was looking to unload the sword. When he'd described the condition, Tom had told him forget it—sell it for scrap metal.

    Idiot! How could he have been so fucking stupid?

    But how could he have known?

    So as soon as that guy Jack had left the store yesterday he'd looked back through his phone's call history and found Gerrish's number. He'd been calling him for two fucking days now. Finally he'd got through late this afternoon. Apparently the jerk hardly ever charged his phone.

    But worse: Gerrish was no longer in a selling mood. Said he'd changed his mind and wanted to keep it. At least he still had it. If he'd sold it to someone else…

    Tom didn't want to think about that.

    After much wheedling—humiliating as all hell—he brought Gerrish around to the point where he'd allow him to examine the sword.

    When the door to 4D opened, Tom offered his hand.

    "Hugh, thanks so much. I really appreciate this."

    Gerrish's handshake was as limp as his tone. "Yeah, well, I hope you don't think you can talk me into selling."

    When he stepped through the door the tingle in his neck spread down his back. He was in the same room as the fucking Gaijin Masamune.

    "Like I told you on the phone, I just want to see it." He'd worked up this story earlier in the day. "You said it was rusted out in spots, and that makes it pretty much worthless. But then I got to thinking that maybe it wasn't rust. Maybe it was some kind of design in the steel that hadn't been reported before. I need a look."

    "Okay. You can look, you can touch, but you can't have."

    "Sure. Fine. But a few days ago you were itching to sell. What made you change your mind?"

    Gerrish's expression wavered from resolute to uncertain. "I'm not really sure."

    "You sound pretty sure."

    "When I… when it came into my possession, I had a feeling it was special… that I could, you know, move it for some decent change."

    "So you called me."

    "Yeah, but you turned me down."

    "That I did." Schmuck that I am.

    "Turned out I was glad you did. Because the thing's kinda been growing on me. I decided to keep it."

    "Interesting. Where is it now?"

    Gerrish motioned Tom down the short hallway to the main room where he made a flourish toward the coffee table.

    "Ta-daaa!"

    Tom stopped and stared. The room could have been made of solid gold and lined with the proverbial seventy-two naked virgins. Who cared? Tom had eyes for only one thing.

    At first glance, with its Swiss-cheesed blade, it indeed looked like a piece of junk. As he bent and ran a finger along the random pattern of pocks and holes, every square millimeter of his skin began to tingle. He lifted it and rested it on his palms. These weren't rusted out or eaten out—these had been melted out.

    He raised it and peeked through one of the holes. He experienced an instant of vertigo as he seemed to be standing on a low bridge looking out at a bustling city filled with rough-clad Asian men and kimonoed women. Then it all disappeared in a blinding flash as bright as the sun.

    He snatched the blade away from his face and stood blinking at the purple afterimage.

    "What's the matter?" Gerrish said.

    Tom took another quick peek. This time all he saw was Gerrish.

    "Nothing."

    He lowered the blade again for a closer look. The jihada—the steel of the cutting edge—was unmarred. The swordsmith must have concentrated the best steel there. The hamon—the temper line—undulated like a series of gentle waves on a placid lake.

    Tom moved down to the naked tang. This was where the swordsmith traditionally carved his mei—his signature. No signature here, only a Kanji symbol:

    This was it—the Gaijin Masamune. He was holding the fucking Gaijin Masamune.

    He noticed his hands starting to shake so he put it down. Not an easy thing to do. Maybe the hardest thing he'd ever done.

    "I—" He swallowed around a dry tongue. "I was right the first time out: It's a piece of junk, good only for sentimental value."

    "But it's so sharp," Gerrish said. "Watch this."

    He stepped into the kitchen and returned with an apple. He lifted the sword by the tang and dropped the apple onto the upturned edge. A whole apple hit the blade. Two halves bounced onto the table.

    "Yeah. Sharp."

    Tom wanted to say, What else would you expect from a Masamune blade, especially one tempered in ground-zero atomic fire? But he held his tongue. This asshole had no idea what he had. Cutting an apple—like using a CO2 laser to make a paper doll. Christ.

    He saw the smear of apple juice on the blade and wanted to scream at Gerrish to wipe it off.

    No way was he walking out of here without that blade. Like leaving a small child alone with a pedophile. Uh-uh. Not gonna happen.

    He pulled a Ziploc bag from his pocket.

    "Brought you a present. Since you're gonna keep this piece of junk, it might as well have a handle—what the Japs call a tsuka."

    He sat on the couch, pushed the apple halves aside, and dumped the contents on to the table next to the sword. Two pieces of halved bamboo, a bamboo peg, a piece of cloth, and strips of tightly wound silk.

    "You don't really—"

    "Sure I do. My way of saying thanks for letting me see it, even if it is junk." He held up the two pieces of bamboo. "These make up the ho."

    He fitted them around the tang, noting how they obscured the gaijin symbol. He shook his head in wonder, thinking, You could own this thing all your damn life and never know you had the fucking Gaijin Masamune.

    He picked up the bamboo peg.

    "This is the mekugi and it fits through the holes in the ho and the tang to hold everything together."

    That done, he wrapped the red cloth around the ho and began winding the silk cord around the cloth in a crude approximation of the traditional diamond pattern tsuka-ito. Once the sword was his, he'd fashion a suitably magnificent tsuka. But for now, this was all he had time for. He'd even skipped installing a hilt—the round, ornate tsuba. He wouldn't need one for what he had planned.

    Finally he was done. To his collector's eye the job looked like crap. But to Gerrish…

    "Hey, you're really something." He reached for it. "Thanks a lot."

    Tom shook his head. Holding the katana handle with two hands now, he rose and faced Gerrish, pointing the blade at his chest.

    "I'm taking this."

    Gerrish's expression hardened. "No way. That's mine, O'Day."

    "We both know it's not, or you wouldn't have come to me to fence it."

    Gerrish stepped forward, reaching, but backed off when Tom gave the blade a couple of back-and-forth swings.

    "Uh-uh. Look, I'm not out to steal it. I'll give you a good price for it. A damn good price."

    Gerrish's eyes narrowed. "So it's not as worthless as you said."

    "It's junk, but it's unique junk. I want it for my collection."

    "No—"

    "Hughie, babes, listen to me." He briefly freed a hand from the grip to fish a wad of hundreds from his pocket. He tossed it on the table. "A thousand bucks. Yours."

    "It's not for sale."

    What was wrong with this jerk? He was a small-time burglar in a crummy apartment. A cool thousand in cash sitting before him for the taking and he was turning it down?

    What gives?

    "Look, one way or another I'm walking out the door with this katana. You try to stop me"—he swung the blade in a quick horizontal arc—"off with your head."

    He smiled as he said it. A joke. But something happened during that swing. His already long arms seemed to stretch even farther of their own accord just as Gerrish took a step forward.

    At first he thought nothing had happened. A bowel-wrenching near miss. Gerrish stopped cold, a puzzled look on his face. Then Tom noticed a thin red line appear across the front of his throat. Gerrish's hands fluttered like uncertain butterflies toward his neck just as the wound burst open and spewed blood in all directions.

    Gerrish stood there with a dumbfounded expression, a human fire hydrant with a sprinkler cap, his mouth working but only bubbling gurgles issuing from the slash. He pressed his hands over the wound, trying to close it, trying to stanch the flow.

    Tom backed away, his stomach threatening to toss up the Big Mac he'd gobbled on his way over. He glanced down at the blade. Not a drop of blood along the tip. The slice had been so clean he hadn't felt the slightest tug of resistance.

    "Hey, man, I didn't mean…" The words clogged in his throat. What could he say?

    He looked back at Gerrish and saw blood still spurting from between his fingers. He began to sway as his arms dropped and hung limp at his sides. Then he keeled over, tilting to his right in slow motion like a falling tree. He landed on his side, then flopped onto his back.

    Tom dropped the katana and hurried over to him. Gerrish's eyes were fixed on the ceiling with a glazed, dead stare. Blood continued to pump weakly from his throat. Finally that stopped too.

    Tom's knees weakened and he would have collapsed onto the body had his hand not found the arm of the sofa.

    Oh man, oh shit, oh fuck, he'd killed him. Hadn't meant to. Almost seemed the blade had done it by itself. But here was Gerrish, horribly dead. And who was gonna believe it was an accident? Tom had already been through the system on possession of stolen property. He had a record. They'd say he was trying to steal the sword and Gerrish caught him. He was cooked, he was fried, he was—

    Wait. Whoever found the body wouldn't know about the sword, and neither would the cops—not if the sword wasn't here when they arrived. No murder weapon—that would mess up the investigation. No one had seen him go into the apartment. If no one saw him go out…

    But he couldn't simply stroll out of here carrying a katana. He stepped back to the front hall. Hadn't he seen—?

    Yes. A short runner. Perfect. Now, if he could just remember everything he touched and wipe it down…

    He just might be able to walk away from this.

12

    Hideo watched the street while Kenji worked on the front door lock to Gerrish's apartment building. Goro and Ryo crowded around him, shielding his actions from passing eyes.

    They had blindfolded Cooter-san and dropped him near a hospital, then gone back to the Kaze house to await darkness. He used the time to write up a report on Goro, detailing his disobedience. Goro would lose another joint on his little finger as a result.

    When he'd finished he read it over and realized that the incident was as much a failure of command as a failure of discipline. He deleted it.

    Hearing a grunt of satisfaction from Kenji, Hideo turned and saw the door swing open.

    "Excellent work," he said as Kenji used a toothpick to jam the latch. "You three wait nearby. I will call you if I need you."

    The three nodded and moved off as Hideo entered the vestibule.

    He had decided to do this on his own. Not simply because he could not trust the yakuza to restrain themselves, but the mere sight of them would certainly frighten Gerrish. If the man would not open his door, how could Hideo persuade him to sell his katana?

    And he would sell it. Whatever his asking price, Hideo would meet it. He had one hundred thousand in cash in his briefcase. He would bring more if need be. He didn't care. It wasn't his money. And Sasaki-san would pay anything. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred thousand—a mere pittance to the chairman. Not even an hour's interest on his holdings.

    The elevator deposited him on the fourth floor. To his left, across the hall, he saw a door marked 4D.

    The moment had arrived. Soon—perhaps tomorrow, if all went smoothly—he would be on his way back home with Sasaki-san's precious katana safely stowed in his luggage.

13

    Jack came in through the fire escape. He'd donned a goth look for the night: sneakers, ripped jeans, a hoodie, and leather gloves—all black. He'd used a bump key on a back door of the adjoining building, come across the roof, and down the fire escape to what he figured to be 4D. Behind him, across a fairly broad alley, loomed the blank wall of the Tabernacle of Prayer.

    The window opened into a darkened bedroom. It was locked but old and he easily popped the latch with the screwdriver he'd brought along for just such a purpose.

    He eased up the sash and listened. Quiet as a coffin. No sign of life. Gerrish was probably out. This might prove easier than he'd expected.

    He slipped into the bedroom and headed for the hall. Best-case scenario: He'd toss the place, find the katana, say sayonara, and be gone before Gerrish came back.

    If he didn't find it, that could mean either that Gerrish had hidden it really well or, worse, sold it. In that case he'd have to settle in and wait for the man's return.

    Jack stopped in the hallway, his senses tingling with alarm. Why? The place was dead. And then he recognized the smell.

    Blood.

    He pulled out a penlight and flashed it around until the beam found the corpse. Blood everywhere, especially the corpse—its entire front was saturated with it.

    He stepped closer and recognized Gerrish. His throat had been slashed. Looked like the work of a straight razor.

    Or a katana.

    Jack knew right then he wouldn't find the sword here. Could be a lot of reasons for Gerrish's offing, but Jack's gut told him it was the sword. Someone else had wanted it badly enough to kill for it—maybe even used it to do the deed.

    Time to go.

    He turned back to the bedroom and saw red-and-blue flashes through the window. He stuck his head out and saw a pair of NYPD cruisers in the alley, and four cops talking to a couple of kids.

    Shit.

    Three choices: Climb back to the roof now and risk being spotted, wait them out, or leave by the front door. The third offered more chances to be seen by one of the neighbors, but he needed out of this crime scene. Now.

    If he put on a pair of shades and pulled up his hood, he figured he'd be all right. He was doing just that on his way to the front door, carefully avoiding the blood splatters, when he heard a knock. He looked up and saw the door starting to swing open.

    A voice said, "Mister Gerrish?"

    Who—?

    Didn't matter. Couldn't be caught here. He spun and dashed back to the bedroom. He was about to dive out onto the fire escape when the window lit up, then faded.

    A peek out showed the two kids cuffed and bent over a car hood. One of the cops was flashing his car's searchlight back and forth over the building's outer wall. Another was using his light on the Tabernacle. Jack didn't know what they were looking for but they'd sure as hell spot him if he tried to escape.

    "Mister Gerrish?" the voice repeated from the front room.

    Only one thing to do.

    He backed into the bedroom closet, pulled his Glock, and closed the door—the damn hinges gave out a faint squeak. He measured his breathing and waited, hoping it was anyone but a cop.

    Anyone but a cop.

14

    Upon approaching, Hideo had noticed that the door to apartment 4D was unlatched. He'd knocked anyway but the door had swung open under the gentle impacts.

    Only darkness within.

    "Mister Gerrish?"

    He pushed the door open wider.

    "Mister Gerrish? Are you here?"

    He was concluding that Gerrish-san had left without fully latching his door, when he heard a high-pitched whisper of sound from within. He stepped across the threshold and fumbled along the wall for a light switch. He found one and flipped it.

    Hideo found himself in a short hallway looking into the apartment's front room. A dozen feet away a body lay sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood. The sight drove him back against the door, slamming it shut. He dropped the briefcase and fumbled for his phone. He speed-dialed Kenji's number.

    "Get up here now! All of you!"

    He leaned against the wall, closed his eyes, and conjured visions of Omi-shima, the tranquil Inland Sea island he'd visited last summer. He needed to calm himself. He couldn't allow the yakuza to see him like this.

    By the time they arrived, he was standing by the body, briefcase in hand, looking calm and composed, although his gut was churning with nausea at the smell of all that blood.

    The yakuza, on the other hand, took everything in stride, with no more reaction than if they'd found a dead animal along the side of a road. If a stick had been lying nearby, he was sure one of them would have picked it up and poked the poor man.

    Gerrish. No question in Hideo's mind, and confirmed when Kenji pulled the wallet from his pocket and checked his ID. He checked the throat wound that gaped like a second bloody mouth.

    "A very sharp knife."

    Hideo met his gaze—better than looking at that wound. "Or katana?"

    He nodded. "Or katana. But you have shown me the X-ray. Such a rotted old blade could not have the edge to make this wound."

    Hideo had a feeling it very well could. Sasaki-san was not a junk collector.

    He felt his dream of heading home to Japan tomorrow shatter around him. The sword was gone. It had been used to kill its owner. He might never find it now.

    Yet despite that leaden certainty, he could not leave without being sure he had turned over every rock in this garden of death.

    "Search the place. Look everywhere—behind furniture, behind appliances, everywhere. Leave no corner uninspected."

15

    Jack heard two voices chattering in what sounded like Japanese. Naka Slater, maybe? Didn't sound like him but, then again, he'd never heard him speak Japanese. What was he doing here? Had he—?

    Footsteps approached, passing the bedroom door, heading for the kitchen. He heard furniture moving in the living room, and then someone stepped into the bedroom.

    How the hell many were they?

    He heard drawers being opened and slammed shut, heard the bed moved, the mattress pulled off. The closet would be next. Inevitable.

    He raised the Glock, depressed the trigger safety, and waited.

    Seconds later, as the door flew open, Jack thrust the muzzle against the forehead of a stocky Japanese guy in a dark suit.

    "Not a word," he whispered.

    Maybe the guy didn't understand English, maybe he didn't care. Whatever, he started shouting gibberish, and a heartbeat later two other young suits darted into the room with silenced pistols raised. The cold eyes sighting down on him behind those barrels said they wouldn't hesitate to shoot if they had the chance.

    He'd seen enough Kitano movies to know what they were: yakuza.

    But Jack had already ducked behind his prisoner and twisted him into a half nelson. He had the Glock's muzzle pressed against his lower spine.

    "Hair trigger here," he said, grinding the muzzle against the big guy's back. "You know what that means?"

    "I know what it means," said a voice from the doorway. Uzi-fire Japanese followed.

    Christ, a fourth. How many more?

    The new guy was older and wore a lighter suit—business gray. He looked upset.

    The boss?

    "Good," Jack said, hoping what followed would sound worse than dying. "Then know this too. I pull this trigger, your pal never walks again. He'll be piloting a three-wheel scooter around Tokyo the rest of his life."

    The newcomer either translated or gave instructions.

    "Also," Jack added, "mine's not silenced like yours. One shot will bring those cops running up from the alley."

    The new guy glanced at the window and saw the flashes. His mouth tightened as he turned back to Jack.

    "We want only the sword. We will pay you handsomely. Give it to me and you can go."

    The sword? These guys wanted the sword too? That meant three parties looking for it. What did these guys want with it? Didn't strike him as the collecting types.

    What had he got himself into now?

    Never mind. Needed to figure out how best to play this. Dumb seemed a good way to go.

    "What sword?"

    "The one you stole from Mister Gerrish."

    "Do I look like I have a sword on me?"

    "But you must—"

    "I don't. I came looking for Gerrish and found him dead, just like you did. Feel him. He's cold. I wouldn't still be hanging around if I'd killed him."

    Jack didn't know if the body was really cold, but it had looked cold.

    He gave Jack an odd look. "Do I know you? Have we met?"

    Jack stared at him. Come to think of it, he looked kind of familiar.

    "I don't think so."

    He seemed to shake it off. "What was your business with Mister Gerrish, if not the sword?"

    "Owes me money. Make that owed me money. Looks like I'm out my dough and you're out your sword."

    He tightened his grip on his prisoner's neck and started pushing him toward his pals.

    "Let's move this party down the road a piece. I'll let your guy go and you can watch me walk out the door without a sword, or even a bread knife."

    The leader guy said something in Japanese and the three of them began backing away. Jack wished he knew what he'd said. Desperate, he tossed off the only Japanese he knew to throw them off balance—maybe.

    "Arigato. Konichiwa. Kyu Sakamoto. Gojira. Gamera. Rodan."

    When they were all out in the hall between the front room and the kitchen, Jack's prisoner began spewing angry Japanese.

    The older suit protested but one of the younger pair shook his head and began speaking in English.

    "We will move no farther." He raised his pistol and aimed it at Jack's eye where he peeked out from behind the thick neck. "We will dishonor our brother if we allow you to leave."

    Funny, they didn't look like brothers.

    "You want him crippled?"

    "He will not live as a cripple."

    Jack got the message. He sensed something building, something stupid and unnecessarily bloody and surely deadly.

    "Okay. Let's be calm and figure what we can do here so we all go our way with our honor intact."

    "You must release our brother and surrender to us."

    Didn't like the sound of that.

    "I don't think so."

    The tension in the air increased. These crazies were going to start shooting, and if their brother went down in the crossfire, so be it.

    The older guy obviously was against this and had been arguing in a placating tone. Suddenly his eyes met Jack's and bulged like a Bob Clampett character.

    Now he was pointing and yammering in a high-pitched voice, repeating the word ronin over and over. But the two cold-eyed mooks weren't listening. Maybe he wasn't their boss.

    Only thing to do was duck and let the big guy take the first shots, then shove him toward them and start blasting away.

    Shit-shit-shit! What was the point? Everybody was going to lose. Every—

    And then a sound, a high-pitched howl of rage from the front door as a big black guy came charging in with a raised baseball bat. Jack noticed a bloody bandage on his left little finger. He looked like an enraged grizzly and he had murder in his eyes.

    What the—?

    The three of them whirled. The two gunners hesitated half a second, then began firing. Without thinking, Jack pushed his prisoner toward the melee, tripping him along the way, and ducked back into the bedroom.

    As he dove for the window a phut-phut-phut-phut sound echoed behind him. He heard something heavy thump to the floor back there, and still the phut-phut barrage continued. He hauled himself onto the fire escape and began climbing as fast as he could. Screw the noise, screw the cops, he had to make the roof before Tojo and company reached the window.

16

    "Stop!" Hideo shouted. "Stop now!"

    Finally they listened and stepped away from Cooter-san's bullet-riddled body. They began loading fresh magazines into their pistols.

    Hideo's mind reeled. Two dead! All because of a broken-down katana. Was it cursed? And then he saw Goro pushing himself up from the floor, with no one behind him.

    "The ronin!"

    Kenji clicked a magazine into the grip of his pistol and gave him a puzzled look. "Ronin?"

    Kenji and Ryo had been so intent on killing their attacker that they'd forgotten the ronin.

    Hideo pointed toward the bedroom. "The man! He's escaping!"

    Goro swung around and charged through the bedroom doorway, Kenji and Ryo on his heels. Hideo followed, but knew what they'd find.

    An empty bedroom.

    Goro grabbed his pistol from the floor and barreled toward the window, still lit by red and blue flashes.

    "No!" Hideo cried. "The police!"

    Goro wasn't listening but Kenji and Ryo had enough presence of mind to pull him back.

    "We must go," Hideo said. "Now. We cannot be seen."

    Goro struggled free of their grasp, then nodded.

    "The stairs," Kenji said. "That will be the safest."

    They slipped past the two corpses and paused at the door. Kenji peered into the hallway, then gave the signal to follow. The four of them rushed to the stairwell and hurried down.

    Hideo brought up the rear thinking about the man in the apartment. He'd looked familiar at once, but he'd been unable to place him until he caught a look at his face from an angle similar to the photo.

    Yoshio's mysterious ronin.

    His mind whirled. What were the odds of winding up in the same apartment with that man? Astronomical.

    And yet…

    He said he'd been looking for owed money, but that could have been a lie. He too might have been looking for the sword. If so, he did not have it, for he'd been bargaining to walk out of the apartment without it.

    What a strange, strange day this had been.

    When they reached the street, Hideo studied the traffic lights at the nearby corner, looking for—

    There! A traffic security camera, trained on the corner, but pointed his way. Its angle might—he prayed to his ancestors that it be so—include this doorway. Where there was one cam there would be others. He could search them out through the police grid and review their recordings.

    If he was lucky, he might see the ronin and gain a clue as to where he could find him.

    If he was very lucky he might see a man carrying a katana. But no one could be that lucky.

17

    Jack swayed and rocked as he rode the mostly empty Manhattan-bound train, but his thoughts remained in Jamaica.

    That Japanese guy seemed to know him, and Jack had to admit he looked a little familiar. Obviously they'd met at some time. But where? Jack didn't know many Asians and they rarely came to him as customers. They had their own extralegal ways of solving problems. So where—?

    He straightened in his seat. The Japanese guy in the Catskills—Yoshio. This guy looked like him. But he couldn't be him. He'd been executed by Sam Baker. As cold-blooded an act as Jack had ever seen. One Baker had paid for.

    This new guy looked enough like him to be his brother. Maybe he was. But even so, how did he know Jack?

    He shook his head. Be glad when this was over. And he had a feeling it would be over soon. Because he had a pretty good idea who had the sword now.

    Never would have pegged O'Day as a killer. Just went to show the lengths a collector would go to.

    Gollum had found his Precious.

    "You're looking for a sword," said a woman's voice behind him. "You should be looking for the baby as well."

    He turned and saw a twenty-something girl dressed in black like him, with bright burgundy hair and heavily kohled eyes. She sported a slew of ear, nostril, eyebrow, and lip piercings. A pit bull stared up at him from the end of the leash clutched in her hand.

    "You're one of them," he said.

    She nodded.

    "Prove it."

    She lifted the front of her Sandman T-shirt to reveal a deep depression just to the right of her navel.

    She smiled. "Need a closer look?"

    Jack shook his head. He knew it went clean through and exited in the small of her back.

    Women with dogs had been walking in and out of his life, each knowing more than they should about him and what was going on.

    "I'd love to find the baby—and its mother. Where's Dawn?"

    She shrugged. "Sometimes I know and other times I don't. She appears and disappears. But her baby…"

    "What about it?"

    "It is important."

    "How?"

    "I wish I knew. Like the katana you seek—unique among swords—the baby is unique among mortals. It has the potential to be used for immense good or terrible ill. Whoever controls that baby may well control the future." She frowned. "Or not."

    "Thanks for clearing that up."

    "There's nothing clear about it."

    "I promised to protect Dawn, but not her baby. If she wants to get an abortion—and she has every reason to—should I stop her?"

    The girl's expression looked almost pained. "I wish I could say. Perhaps it would be for the best. It is a wild card that could provide the Adversary with an unbeatable hand. Then again… it may allow us to trump him."

    Jack sighed. "You're a big help."

    "I wish I could tell you more. That is all I know. We are in uncharted waters." As the train stopped, she said, "I get off here."

    Jack didn't want to see her go. So many questions…

    "There's nothing more you can tell me?"

    She shook her head. "When I know more, I shall come to you. Until then…"

    She stepped out onto the platform and let the dog lead her away. Jack knew better than to follow.

18

    "The hireling has not yet found the katana, sensei."

    Toru, sitting in his darkened room, did not turn at Tadasu's voice, but kept his face to his window, gazing out at the night.

    "He is truly searching? You have followed him?"

    "He is difficult to follow, but I believe so, sensei."

    "You think he is an honorable man, then?"

    "I do, sensei."

    "Will that make it more difficult for you to do what must be done when the time comes?" Toru sensed an instant's hesitation. "Well… will it?"

    "No, sensei. Nothing will deter me from my duty to the Order."

    "Good." He waved a hand. "Prepare the shoten for me. We leave within the hour."

    The door closed, cutting off the light from the hallway and plunging the room into darkness. Toru did not move. He sat and thought, and his thoughts were not happy. Instead of handling this matter on its own, the Order had been forced to depend on a gaijin mercenary. Humiliating.

    But the Kakureta Kao would rise again. The Seer had promised.

    He went to the small wooden bureau that held his worldly belongings and withdrew a small case of sturdy ebony, its top inlaid with ivory. He removed the top and examined the doku-ippen within: two dozen slivers of wood, each saturated with a different mix of herbs and extracts, rested in individual grooves. The ones ringed with blue caused mere unconsciousness. The others were soaked with deadly toxins: Those marked with black were employed for instant effect, those marked with varying shades of red conferred a delayed death. All were untraceable.

    He would need one of the reds tonight.

    So many needs in his life now…

    The Order needed the katana, so that its future might be measured in millennia.

    The Order also needed a successful test of the ekisu tonight so that New York City's future might be measured in days.

19

    Hideo's ancestors answered his prayers.

    A fair number of traffic cams around the city were fakes, installed on the principle that if one thinks one is being watched, one will behave accordingly. But the cam near Gerrish-san's apartment was of the functioning variety and—bless his ancestors—showed the building's entrance in the far upper left corner of the frame.

    Kenji sat with him, absorbing all Hideo was doing. So difficult to reconcile this young, eager-to-learn face now with his cold-blooded expression while pumping round after round into Cooter-san.

    Hideo turned to him. "How long do you think Gerrish-san was dead when we found him?"

    The answer was important. He needed to know how far back in the recording to go. He had no idea of how to judge a death, but he sensed Kenji had seen his share of corpses.

    He answered in English: "From way blood was only part"—he looked to Hideo for help—"thicked?"

    "Clotted."

    He nodded. "Yes, clotted. I say one hour."

    To be safe, Hideo began reviewing at a point ninety minutes before their arrival at the apartment. He showed Kenji how to fast-forward, then leaned back and concentrated on the screen. The entrance was not terribly busy, so he did not have to stop Kenji often.

    The onscreen clock read 19:52 when he saw a man step out of the entrance carrying an oblong object.

    "Stop."

    Kenji did so and Hideo took over the controls. He enhanced and enlarged the image. The object under the man's arm appeared to be a rolle-dup rug. He estimated its length at approximately ninety to one hundred centimeters. Long enough to hide the katana they sought.

    The man was moving north. If he walked any faster he would have been trotting. One might even think he was escaping from something. A murder scene, perhaps?

    Unfortunately he kept his face straight ahead, providing only a high-angle profile that Hideo doubted would provide sufficient mapping points for the facial recognition program.

    Hideo called up the map of traffic cams in Jamaica and found one two blocks north. He prayed again to his ancestors, begging them to go back in time and guide this man on a straight path to this intersection. Then he accessed the new cam and began his review at 19:52. He did not fast-forward but waited patiently, praying for the man to appear. If he had turned left or right at the preceding intersection, Hideo might never find him again.

    Finally, miraculously, he appeared. Hideo closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief and thanks, then focused on the man with the rug. He crossed the intersection heading north, then turned west and waited for the green.

    "Look up," Hideo said aloud, earning a puzzled look from Kenji. "Look up and check the traffic signal. Look up!"

    And then, almost as if he'd heard him, the man looked up, almost directly into the camera. Hideo froze the frame, enlarged, enhanced, and saved. He would enter it into the facial recognition program later. But first…

    He returned to the view of the entrance to Gerrish's apartment building and watched until he saw himself and the three yakuza exit. He let the recording run even longer, but no sign of Yoshio's ronin.

    He sighed. He didn't see any way of finding him. But he should be grateful. At least he'd secured a picture of the current owner of Sasaki-san's katana. That was the important thing. Of course it would all come to nothing if he had never been arrested and entered into the system. But Hideo had a feeling that a man who would slit another's throat to acquire a sword would have to have been arrested at some point during his adult life. And if he had, Hideo would find him.

    The ronin, however… the odds were high against his ever having another chance at that man.

    But Hideo had a feeling that, with the help of his ancestors, he might beat those odds.

20

    Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

    Someone had seen her. She totally knew it.

    All right, she didn't know it, but how could someone not have seen her? She'd got on the C without knowing where she was going, but that had been okay. What had counted was being off the street. Then she'd looked around the subway car and seen her face on half a dozen flyers.

    She'd kept her head down, her mind screaming for a solution. Finally it hit her: tourists.

    Totally.

    Native New Yorkers would have her face burned on their brains by now, but tourists came and went. And tourists usually spent their time gawking at the sights and gazing up at the skyscrapers and such, not studying posters. So where could she find the most tourists? In the Times Square/theater district, of course.

    Tons of tourists.

    She'd ducked out of the C at 42nd Street. The Port Authority had tempted her—hop a bus to New Jersey where Jerry would never find her. But she knew nothing about Jersey, and figured she'd probably need a car there. She didn't know if they even did abortions in Jersey.

    No, better to stay where she knew her way around. At least for now. Lots of abortion clinics in the city. Once that was over she could think about relocating.

    She'd wound through the crowds on Eighth toward the theaters. When she saw a bunch of men wearing John Deere caps and string ties come out of the Milford Plaza, she knew that was the place for her.

    But checking in hadn't been easy. They'd been totally suspicious about her wanting to pay cash, but she had no choice. She couldn't use a credit card—someone watching her account would know exactly where she was. They'd wanted ID and she had to show her driver's license. That put her real name on the register.

    And then the room. A single. Dawn could so not believe how small it was. A postage stamp with like four feet between the walls and the king-size bed. Even the mirrored wall couldn't make it look bigger. Plus the bathroom had fixtures that looked fifty years old.

    All for the bargain price of $326 a night.

    She guessed she could have chosen a better grade, but that meant more money and she wanted to conserve as much of her cash as possible. She had no idea of how long it would last.

    So for the time being this would be home.

    Gross.

    She went to the window and looked out at the night. She couldn't see the street, only rooftops and the glow from all the lighted marquees on 45th Street directly below. Was someone down there in the crowds, watching the hotel, waiting for her to come out? Waiting so he could collect his reward?

    She couldn't leave, couldn't even risk going to the hotel restaurant. She'd have to order room service and hope the delivery guy didn't recognize her.

    She felt just as trapped as she had at Mr. Osala's, but at least there she'd been safe. Here…

    This was a nightmare.

    Why not just call Henry and have him pick her up? But then she'd be back where she started.

    She couldn't take it. She'd been ready to end it all before but had let Mr. Osala talk her out of it. Why not finish the job now? Get it done this time.

    She tried to open the window but it wouldn't budge. She picked up the room's one chair and slammed it against the glass. It bounced back. She tried it again with the same result. Some sort of safety glass.

    She dropped onto the bed and began to cry.

    She had to find a way out of this. She'd formed the beginnings of a plan on the subway. Maybe she should go with that.

    She pulled herself together, grabbed the bag of stuff she'd bought at the drugstore, and headed for the bathroom.

21

    Using his flashlight sparingly, Shiro rushed back through the dark woods to his teacher, praying the news he brought would not cause him to abort the test.

    "Sensei, there are people in the little cabin there!"

    Akechi-sensei, a faintly limned shadow in the starlight, nodded. "All the better. Proceed."

    "But what if they interfere?"

    "They will not." He pointed back toward the woods. "Go. Hurry."

    Shiro obeyed, returning to where Tadasu waited with the shoten. The chosen site lay half a mile north of a golf course and barely more than half a mile from any dwelling, yet here among the silent trees, civilization could have been a thousand miles away.

    That changed as he neared the rotting cabin in a tiny forgotten clearing.

    Not completely forgotten, obviously. Four teenagers—two couples—had driven a battered Jeep to the cabin and begun an impromptu party. They had beer and were playing loud music.

    He found Tadasu about fifty yards from the cabin. The shoten lay bound and gagged on the ground before him.

    "Sensei says to proceed," he said when he arrived.

    Tadasu nodded, then knelt next to the shoten. He pulled a blue vial from his pocket.

    "Hold his head and remove the gag," he said.

    Shiro did as he was told and the shoten began cursing.

    "What the fuck you sonabitches—"

    "Drink this," Tadasu said, forcing the mouth of the vial between his lips.

    The old drunk apparently never refused anything to drink because he swallowed it in one gulp. Then he made a face.

    "Shit! What is that shit?"

    Shiro reapplied the gag, then stepped away. Tadasu remained kneeling.

    "Now we wait."

    The shoten's muffled protests and struggles against his bonds slowed, then ceased. When he lay quiet, Tadasu removed the gag and then produced a red-striped wooden sliver.

    "A doku-ippen?" Shiro said.

    "Akechi-sensei's idea. Just to be safe." He pricked the shoten's neck with it, then rose and stepped over him. "Back to sensei. Quickly. We don't know how soon it takes effect."

    Shiro led the way, and soon the three of them were standing together next to their car on an empty side road, staring in the general direction of the shoten.

    Suspense gripped Shiro like a vise. His breath felt trapped in his chest.

    "What will happen, sensei?"

    "Something wonderful, Shiro. No one alive has seen a Kuroikaze. We shall be the first in a generation."

    "Why did we use a doku-ippen?"

    "The ekisu causes the one who drinks it to become a focus for the Kuroikaze. The Black Wind will last as long as the shoten survives. Because this is an experiment to test the ekisu, I do not want large-scale death. We will save that for later. I had you choose a sickly shoten because, while the Kuroikaze is sapping the life from all it touches, it is also diminishing the life of the shoten. The longer the shoten survives, the more fierce the wind, the greater the radius of death. The particular doku-ippen used will bring death shortly after it is introduced into the body. So even if this wasted shoten taps into some hidden reserves of strength, he won't survive long enough to raise a full-fledged Kuroikaze."

    "There!" Tadasu cried, pointing. "Something is happening!"

    Shiro strained to see, but the starlight was dim, and the trees dark.

    And then he saw it—a layer of blackness overspreading an area of trees… a cloud, blacker than Shiro had ever seen… so black it didn't reflect the meager starlight, but rather seemed to absorb it… devour it.

    The way it oozed across the treetops made Shiro's gut crawl. This was evil, and he didn't like to think of the Order to which he had devoted his life as dealing with evil. But then, this was certainly no more evil than the atomic bombs that killed so many in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Yes, if he thought of it that way, he could accept.

    He watched and waited, expecting to see the inexorable flow of the blackness slow and then begin to ebb. But it continued to expand, coming their way.

    "Sensei? Shouldn't it be stopping now?"

    Akechi-sensei turned to Tadasu. "You are sure the point pierced his skin?"

    "I saw blood, sensei."

    "Then he should die any minute."

    But the blackness showed no sign of slowing, let alone retreating.

    "Perhaps we had better move farther way," Tadasu said.

    "No," said their teacher. "If you did your duty, we have nothing to fear."

    Shiro felt he had a lot to fear. That blackness… it made him want to run, and hide, find his mother and cower behind her.

    Abruptly the blackness changed. Instead of spreading toward them, it began expanding upward, shooting a towering ebony column into the sky, reaching toward the stars.

    And then it was gone, and the blackness over the trees evaporated like smoke in a gale.

    "Quickly," Akechi-sensei said. "Into the woods. We must see what it has done."

    Shiro led the way, directing his flashlight beam ahead of him. He moved cautiously at first because he didn't know what to expect. But then, seeing no trace of the blackness, he picked up speed…

    Until he came upon the dead vegetation—like crossing a line of death where everything on one side thrived and everything on the other was dead. Every leaf on every tree and bush was wilted and brown, every needle on every pine was brown, even the weeds were dead. Nothing moved. No owls hooted, no crickets chirped, no mosquitoes bit.

    All this death… from the Kuroikaze?

    He came upon the shoten. The flashlight beam revealed a shrunken cadaver that looked as if it had been dead for weeks.

    Shiro backed away, then approached the shack. Entering, he found the structure intact but its inhabitants… he had to look away.

    He had only glimpsed them before the Kuroikaze, so he didn't know how they had changed. They looked shrunken, though not so much as the shoten. But what Shiro found most disturbing was their expressions. Each open-eyed, openmouthed face carried the same look: a great sadness, an unfathomable hopelessness.

    "And this is how it will be."

    Shiro started and turned at the sound of his sensei's voice. He found him gesturing to the corpses and to the shack around them.

    "They firebombed Tokyo, atom-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but worst of all, they humiliated the Son of Heaven, made Him bow to them, made Him surrender. Now it is their turn. We will set up strong, vital shotens around the city. We will feed them the ekisu and we will not pierce them with a doku-ippen. Then the clouds will rise and merge, creating such a Kuroikaze as has never been seen. It will leave the entire city like this. Millions dead, yet the buildings untouched. Imagine, the entire city silent, unmoving. All the structures intact, unmarred, just as they had been before the Kuroikaze, but filled with the dead, millions and millions of dead."

THURSDAY

1

    O'Day… the man's name was Thomas O'Day.

    It had taken Hideo a while to find him in the police database. Due to the poor light in the captured still, the face recognition program had been unable to create a sufficiently specific map to pin down the man he sought. The result was dozens of hits, followed by the wearisome task of tracing the current whereabouts of each one of them. Some were dead, some were still incarcerated, and some were free and gainfully employed.

    One was the owner of a shop specializing in knives and swords. He had been arrested for possession of stolen property with intent to sell. He had lived free for a number of years now without another arrest.

    But a man who had sold stolen goods in the past might have reverted to his old ways. If Gerrish had wished to sell the stolen katana, who better to seek out than a fence who knew all about swords?

    It was not a sure thing, but it was the best he had. In fact, the only thing he had. He decided to pursue it.

    His instincts said to wait until nightfall, especially considering the Madison Avenue address of this Bladeville store. But he reminded himself that he had waited until dark to visit Mr. Gerrish and had regretted it. He would not make that mistake again.

    He called out to Kenji to gather his yakuza brothers and prepare to move.

2

    Dawn checked herself in the mirror.

    She'd had a totally terrible night and looked it. Hardly slept at all. Kept hearing people outside her door and worrying they were coming for her. She had the security bar in place and even had wedged the chair against the knob, but still she worried.

    And then the phone had rung. Just one ring and then stopped. She'd stared at it, waiting for another, but none came. Finally she mustered the nerve to pick up the receiver and listen.

    Nothing but a dial tone.

    Probably just some electronic glitch in the system. Under normal circumstances she wouldn't have given it a second thought. But last night she'd stayed on tenterhooks for hours, wondering if it would ring again.

    Paranoia was so not fun.

    The bags under her red eyes made her look like she'd been partying all night. They went right along with the rotten haircut and dye job she'd given herself.

    But at least she looked way different from the girl who'd walked in here yesterday. She'd used the scissors and brown hair-coloring kit she'd bought at the drugstore to give herself a makeover. The shoulder-length blond hair had become short and brown, barely covering her ears.

    She put on her big sunglasses and turned this way and that. She looked nothing like the girl on the flyer. No way anyone would recognize her.

    That made her feel somewhat better. Especially since she was leaving the hotel today on an important errand—a visit to an abortion clinic on West 63rd this afternoon. She'd called first thing this morning and they'd given her a three-thirty appointment.

    She paced the tiny open area near the window. What to do till then? She had no choice but the tube. She turned on the set and found nothing but news. Something had happened last night.

    Please not another terrorist attack, she thought. First the trade towers, then LaGuardia, now what?

    She stopped to watch and listen to a talking head…

    "The news from Staten Island just got worse, I'm afraid. Five bodies have been found in the dead areaan adult male and four teenagers. They have not yet been identified. For those of you who have just awakened, here is the breaking story: A half-mile-wide circle of Staten Island died during the night."

    An aerial view of a wooded area filled the screen, green except for a circle of brown at its center. It looked like a lawn where someone had spilled weed killer. Dawn felt her neck tighten and crawl when she realized how perfectly round it was. The newscaster spoke over the image.

    "People on the island, and even some in Brooklyn, reported a strange meteorological phenomenona vertical black cloud by most accountsthat lasted only seconds, but seemed to originate in the area some have begun calling the 'kill zone.' Everything is dead. The floor of the wooded area is littered with the bodies of birds, squirrels, mice, moles, and chipmunks. Every single bit of vegetation is brown and wilted. Nothing was spared."

    Chilled, Dawn switched to the next station where she encountered a talking head described as a "cereologist."

    "… obvious that since their crop circle warnings were at best ignored or at worst ridiculed, they've progressed to the next level. Now, instead of merely knocking down vegetation, they've started killing it…"

    Next she came to someone labeled a "chemical warfare expert."

    "Look, we know it's not an infestationfirst off because parasites don't kill overnight, and secondly because too many species of plants died. And a parasite won't explain the dead birds. No, it has to be a toxinherbicidal, but toxic to birds and mammals as well. Frankly, I've never heard of such an agent, but obviously it exists, because that's the only way to explain the across-the-board lethality and the confined location."

    Another channel showed a man-on-the-street interview with an old codger who looked to be in his eighties.

    "What about you, sir. Are you scared? Could it be terrorists?"

    "Could be. I saw something like this back in the Pacific theater duringwar. We called it a 'wilt' back then, and it was always associated with a black cloud. Atolls and whole islands would get hit, leaving nothing aliveeven the fish would be dead. And if any of our guys were there, they'd be dead too, all with these awful looks on their faces. It was a Jap secret weapon then, and it stayed secret from us. But it looks like someone else's got hold of it now."

    Dawn turned off the set. This was creeping her out. She turned her thoughts to her appointment at the clinic.

    She had all her moves planned: Out the front entrance and into one of the waiting cabs, up to the clinic for her interview, examination, and blood work, then call a cab to bring her straight back here. She estimated her maximum exposure on the street at less than two minutes. That sounded totally safe and doable.

    So why then did she feel like she'd be entering a combat zone?

3

    Jack timed his arrival at Bladeville for a few minutes after ten A.M. Maybe he was wrong, but his gut told him otherwise.

    As he stepped through the door—keeping the beak of his hat between his face and the security cam—the chime sounded and Tom O'Day stepped in from the private area at the rear. He stopped in his tracks with a startled expression.

    "Um… Jack, right?"

    Jack nodded. He'd gone over all the possible approaches and had decided on balls-to-the-wall directness.

    "We've got a problem."

    What little openness there'd been in O'Day's expression shut down like the security shutter on his store.

    "Really?"

    "Yeah. The guy who stole the Gaijin Masamune is dead, his throat slit by the katana in question."

    Jack didn't know that for sure, but figured it was a safe assumption. O'Day's sudden pallor went a long way toward confirming that.

    "Wh-what do you mean? How do you know?"

    "I arrived at his place shortly after it happened."

    O'Day quickly regained his composure. He gave Jack a narrowed-eyed stare.

    "How do I know you didn't do it?"

    "Because you got caught on the lobby camera entering and leaving around the time of death."

    O'Day blanched. "Bullshit!"

    Which was right on the money. Jack hadn't even seen the lobby, and had no idea whether it was fitted with a security cam or not. But he had a feeling O'Day wasn't anywhere near as aware of them as Jack was, so it was a good bet he'd never noticed either way.

    Jack shrugged. "After I found the body I broke into the security office and ran a quick review off the hard drive there." He smiled. "It's not much more than a glorified TiVo, y'know. Watched you walk in empty-handed, then a little later, not so empty-handed—a long, wrapped object under your arm."

    No way would O'Day walk out carrying a sword for all to see. He'd have it wrapped in something—a towel, a sheet, a rug. Jack had no idea which, so he'd kept it vague.

    O'Day looked weak. Sweat beaded his face.

    "Hey," Jack said in his most reassuring tone. "Told you: I'm not a cop. Too bad about Gerrish. Never knew the guy, and there are probably worse ways to die, but that's between you and him. What's between you and me is the matter of the sword. I'm ready to do you a favor and take it off your hands for a nice price."

    O'Day shook his head as if to clear it. "Favor?"

    "Sure. Once the cops see that tape, you'll become what they like to call 'a person of interest.' When they find you—and that's when, not if—they'll learn about your trade and your collection, and when that happens you'll graduate from person of interest to suspect numero uno."

    "And selling to you's gonna help?"

    "Sure. You've got a murder weapon hidden away. Gerrish may have shown it to a friend. It's pretty distinctive, and if they find it on you, you're cooked. But sell it to my guy and he'll sneak it back overseas where he came from. You'll have big bucks, he'll have his sword back, and I'll have my fee. Win-win-win."

    O'Day chewed his lower lip in silence for a moment, then gave a quick nod.

    "For the record, I found Gerrish dead, just like you did. The katana was lying next to him. Since he wouldn't be having any more use for it, I decided to give it a good home."

    Riiiight.

    "Like I said: Never knew Gerrish. What happened between you and him stays between you and him. Like Vegas. What do you want for the blade?"

    "A hundred grand."

    Jack blinked. "Whoa. I don't know if he wants it back that badly."

    O'Day gave him a sour smile. "Well, we'll never know if we don't ask, will we."

    "I getcha. Where is it?"

    He didn't want to be responsible for involving his customer in some lowrent scam.

    "In the back. Wanna see?"

    "I think I should, don't you."

    He shrugged. "I guess so." He started toward the front of the store. "But first…" He went to the door and pulled down the security shutter, closing them in behind a wall of corrugated steel. "Like a fishbowl in here. Can't be too careful."

    "We could've just gone back there."

    "Don't want anyone wandering in."

    Jack felt an uneasy tingle in his gut. Something askew here.

    As he watched O'Day stride toward the back room, he wondered if he'd bought the security cam bit. If he hadn't, then Jack was the only person who could connect O'Day to Gerrish, and it would be in O'Day's best interest to eliminate that link.

    He pulled his Glock from the small of his back and turned sideways, shielding it behind his right thigh.

    O'Day returned balancing the katana on his palms. The blade was riddled with pocks and holes, just like in the photos. Jack noticed that he'd done some fixing up.

    "You put a handle on it."

    "It's called a tsuka. Yeah. I spent half the night getting the wrapping right." He pushed the sword closer to Jack. "Wanna closer look?"

    "That's okay."

    A little farther out. "C'mon."

    "I can see what I need to see. Okay, I'll tell my guy—"

    O'Day was fast for his age. In a flash he had the katana raised in a one handed grip and swinging toward Jack's head. With a choice between getting off a shot or being scalped, he ducked and raised the Glock to ward off the blade. It struck the pistol with almost enough force to knock it free. As it was, the blow pulled his finger against the trigger and fired off the chambered round. Jack rolled and pulled the trigger again.

    Nothing.

    He glanced at the Glock and saw only half a pistol. The blade had sliced through the plastic frame just forward of the trigger guard, then through the spring and guide rod and—hell, it had cut through the barrel as well. The slide had been knocked free, exposing the chamber. He could see the next round waiting to be chambered.

    What the—?

    He leaned back as the katana made another slice at his head—the guy had one hell of a reach. He heard the whisper of lacerated air and felt the breeze in its wake.

    O'Day had a two-handed grip now and was already making another swing for the bleachers. Jack flung the remnant of the Glock, bouncing it off his forehead. O'Day grunted in pain and his swing went wide.

    With that, Jack vaulted over the counter, grabbed a dagger off the wall, and flung it. O'Day knocked it away in midair with the blade. He grinned, confident. He knew how to handle a katana.

    And now Jack knew it too.

    He grabbed another knife—a heavy dirk—threw it, and reached for his Kel-Tec in its ankle holster. But the dirk went wide and the katana smashed into the display case inches from Jack's head, showering him with glittering shards of glass.

    He forgot about his backup for an instant as he rolled away from the glass and O'Day's follow-up swing. Then O'Day climbed over what was left of that section of the display case and charged, the katana held high with both hands, his mouth wide in a scream of rage. Looked like he'd had enough and wanted to end this here and now.

    On the floor, with no room for lateral movement in the narrow lane behind the cases, Jack scrabbled away on hands and knees. In desperation he grabbed a wavy bladed kris from a case as he passed and winged it over his shoulder. He heard O'Day's scream choke off but he didn't slow. Without looking back he dove onto the display cabinet and rolled to the other side. As soon as he hit the floor, he rolled again, yanking his backup free along the way. He leaped to his feet, aiming the Kel-Tec P-11 at O'Day's center of mass.

    But didn't fire.

    O'Day stood behind the counter, leaning against the wall. He'd lowered the katana, though he hadn't dropped it. His eyes were glazed as blood poured from his mouth. Somehow, the kris had landed point first in his open mouth, piercing the rear of his throat. The wavy blade protruded at an angle, and began to bob as he made a slow turn and staggered toward the rear of the store.

    Jack heard a clattering clank and figured he'd finally lost his grip on the sword. He made it to the NO ADMITTANCE door before collapsing face-first onto the floor. The dead-weight impact of the floor against the pommel of the kris drove its blade deeper into his throat and out the back of his neck. His legs spas-kicked a couple of times, then he lay still.

    Jack watched it all and felt nothing.

    Bye-bye, Tom O'Day. Maybe Hugh Gerrish will be waiting for you on the other side. Should be an interesting conversation.

    He hurried around to the back of the counter and lifted the katana, careful to avoid its cutting edge. He felt a strange sensation run through him as he touched the blade. Couldn't identify it—at once thrilled and repulsed. He gripped it by the handle and had to fight off a mad urge to swing it in a decapitating arc.

    Was that what had happened between Gerrish and O'Day?

    No matter. He wasn't going to keep it…

    Or was he?

    Jack felt this mad rush of desire to take it and hang it on his wall and shred anybody who tried to take it from him.

    He shook it off. Three people dead now because of it—at least he assumed the bat-wielding guy who had charged into Gerrish's apartment had left the living. Three that he knew of. Who knew how many it had killed since Masamune had made it? He couldn't see how it could be worth it.

    Time to get out of here. He needed something to wrap it in, and then he'd be gone. He looked around…

    And his gaze settled on the security cam.

    Shit!

    Despite his hat, with all that dodging and weaving and rolling over the counter, no way his face hadn't been exposed. Had to find that tape or disk or hard drive or whatever and trash it.

    He dragged a chair over to the corner and was climbing toward the cam when a rattling racket came from the front of the store. Someone was banging on the security shutter.

    "Mister O'Day?" a voice called. "Are you in there? You are supposed to be open by now."

    That sounded like the yakuzas' boss from last night. The same guys? Could it be possible?

    Didn't matter. Couldn't be caught here.

    He hopped down and pulled on the NO ADMITTANCE door, but it wouldn't budge because O'Day's corpse was slumped against it. Jack was trying to slide him out of the way when he heard the steel curtain begin to roll up. No time to get out, so he darted toward the counter. On the way he spotted the pieces of his ruined Glock on the floor. He snatched up everything in sight and ducked behind the display cases. Beneath them he spotted wooden doors. He slid one open and found a near-empty space occupied by a few stilettos and folding knives. A tight fit but…

    He put the katana in first, making sure its cutting edge was facing away. He followed it, folding his knees against his chest and sliding the door closed. He waited, listening, Kel-Tec ready.

4

    Hideo had noticed that the security shutter was unlocked, so he instructed Goro to raise it. The lights were on within. He pushed on the door and it swung open.

    "Mister O'Day?" he called again. "Are you in there?"

    No answer.

    Kenji slipped past him and entered the store. He took two steps and stopped. He glanced back with a surprised and concerned expression, then hurried forward. The two other yakuza followed. Hideo hesitantly brought up the rear, sensing that something bad waited ahead.

    He was right. One quick look at Mr. O'Day, a flash of the hilt of a dagger distorting his mouth and the bloody point of its wavy blade jutting from the back of his neck, was all he could take. He turned away and struggled to hold down his breakfast of natto, nori, and miso soup.

    He succeeded, then managed to say, "The katana—does anyone see the katana?"

    As they began looking, Hideo noticed people passing on the street. No one glanced in, but sooner or later someone would.

    "Hurry!"

    Goro and Ryo rolled the body away from the rear door. Kenji stepped through and turned on the lights.

    "Takita-san! Come see!"

    Hideo gingerly stepped over the corpse and peeked in the room. He gasped at the dozens of gleaming blades racked on the walls. He knew little about katana, but sensed this was a magnificent collection.

    Unfortunately each blade appeared to be in perfect condition. And there on the floor lay the rug he had seen O'Day carrying from Gerrish's apartment building—empty.

    He glanced again at the front of the store. Madison Avenue was becoming busier and busier. Only a matter of time before someone stopped in for a look.

    The katana was not here. O'Day had killed Gerrish to get it, and now someone had killed O'Day. This blade was leaving a trail of corpses in its blood-soaked wake. How was he going to find this latest killer?

    Wait. Hadn't he seen a security camera on one of the walls? He stepped back in to the front area and yes—a camera mounted near the ceiling. A chair sat conveniently in place below it. He climbed upon it to get an idea of where the wire might go. He tugged on it and—

    It came free.

    Only a gentle tug to pop it out of the wall. Hideo found himself looking at the clean-cut end of a coaxial cable, devoid of any connector.

    No! A prop!

    In a fit of rage he tore the fake cam from the wall and hurled it across the store, spewing curses as it flew.

    Hideo hated O'Day then. He deserved to be dead. He had left Hideo with no record of what had transpired here.

    He jumped to the floor and hurried to the front door where he scanned the street. No traffic cams in sight. He cursed again, this time under his breath.

    Then he turned to Goro. "Turn out the lights inside and lower the shutter." To Kenji: "Call the car."

    As he waited he reviewed his options but saw no way to rescue this. He must find one. Must. His own honor as well as Yoshio's depended on it. He could not return to Tokyo and report failure to Sasaki-san.

5

    Hearing the security shutter clang shut and the store go silent, Jack eased open the sliding door and unfolded himself from the cabinet. Good thing he wasn't claustrophobic.

    He reholstered his Kel-Tec and fitted the pieces of the Glock into his pockets. Even though it was ruined, he couldn't very well leave it behind. He looked around to see what had caused the crash and the cursing. In the dim light seeping around the edges of the shutter he noticed the security cam lying smashed on the floor. When he stepped closer and saw the deadend cable, he understood.

    O'Day… scamming to the end… everybody, including Jack.

    Okay. Alive and in possession of the katana. All he had left to do was get out of here and return the sword to its rightful owner. No, wait—that would be the museum in Hiroshima. Then again, the rightful owner would be the family of the man who had owned it last—probably vaporized in the A-bomb blast.

    A torturous provenance. He'd go with the Hirohito he knew.

    He began a search for something to wrap around the sword. In the back room he found a dusty throw rug that did the trick. But first he used it to wipe the kris's handle, and anything else he had touched.

    He slipped up to the front door and peeked through a quarter-inch gap between the wall and the shutter track just in time to see the boss man and his three yakuza pals getting into a black Lincoln Town Car.

    Jack waited until it had moved off, then adjusted his cap and shades for maximum coverage before lifting the shutter just enough to allow him through. He straightened and let it drop again. A quick look around showed nobody particularly interested in him. It also showed the Lincoln waiting to make a left onto 29th Street.

    He stood watching it, wondering who the hell they were.

    The light changed and the car started to turn, but stopped halfway. For a second Jack thought one of them had spotted him, then realized it had stopped because it couldn't go any farther. Twenty-ninth was backed up.

    As he watched it inch around the corner, he realized a pedestrian could run circles around them. Hell, an arthritic snail could leave them in the dust.

    If traffic stayed jammed, maybe… just maybe he could follow them to whatever they were calling home.

    He gave them a lead of half a block or better, then followed. Cautiously. They were crossing the lower end of Murray Hill and he didn't see many places to hide. Whenever the car stopped—and that was often—he did the same and found a doorway or used an unloading van as a screen.

    When they finally reached Fifth Avenue, Jack saw the problem: mini gridlock. On the far side of Fifth, the street opened up, but the avenue itself was backed up. Could be an accident, or construction, or simply the daily perversities and vicissitudes of Manhattan traffic. Didn't matter. Once their car crossed Fifth, they'd be gone.

    But wonder of wonders, the left-turn blinker came on. Hope sparked. This might work out after all.

    Staying out of sight on Fifth was easy—more lanes of traffic, more pedestrians. The Town Car stayed in the center fire lane as it made its downtown crawl, which told Jack that it wasn't intending to turn for a while.

    After more than twenty slow blocks, they came to Washington Square Park. The car seemed aimed to pass through the famous arch when it flowed right onto Waverly Place. The car stopped before a massive, granite-fronted townhouse where the four got out and hurried up the front steps through a columned portico. They entered as if they owned the place.

    He had a feeling they didn't, but maybe their employer did. He wondered who that might be. Some sort of Japanese crime organization? How else to explain the yakuza? Seemed that someone in that deep-pocketed organization—had to have elbow-deep pockets to afford a place like the one on Waverly—was a katana collector as well, and had somehow learned that Gerrish had stolen the Gaijin Masamune.

    Jack was sure Abe could learn who owned it. He'd ask him to find out.

    Just for curiosity's sake.

    Because Jack had no intention of seeing any of that crew again. He'd contact Naka Slater ASAP, hand over the sword, collect his fee, and then it would be arigato, sayonara, and good riddance to the cursed thing.

6

    Darryl's eyes burned in the bright midday sunlight but he kept constant watch on the comings and goings at the Milford entrance.

    Even though his shift didn't start again till midnight, and he needed some shut-eye real bad, he couldn't stay away from the hotel.

    With good reason: He had a big investment here.

    Hank had set up two twelve-hour shifts of three guys each in a side-door panel truck, noon to midnight, and midnight to noon. They'd found a parking space across from the front entrance and camped there. The plan was to spot her and follow her and one way or another pull her into the van without being seen. In the event they were spotted and reported, the van had been fitted with stolen license plates.

    Darryl had taken the first red-eye shift with two other Kickers. Hank had told them that Dawn would probably dye her hair, so give every chick in her age group—not just the blondes—a close look.

    And just to make sure she was really registered, he'd called the hotel and asked for Dawn Pickering. Darryl had figured she'd register under a phony name but Hank had said no way. Maybe before 9/11, but not since. The hotel wouldn't tell him the room number but had put him through to Dawn Pickering's phone. He'd hung up just as it started to ring.

    Yeah, she was there, all right.

    Smart guy, that Hank.

    He scratched his left shin. Been itching him since last night. Had something bit him?

    He pulled up his pants leg for a look and saw a purplish blotch on his skin. He tried to rub it off but it was in his skin. Weird. And ugly. Must have bumped it in the truck. He'd spent twelve hours straight in that thing watching the entrance with no sign of Dawn. And even though he'd been relieved a couple of hours ago, he couldn't seem to let go.

    He didn't know the guys on the noon shift, didn't know how sharp an eye they'd keep out for the girl. After all, what did they care. Yeah, Hank said she was important to the future of the Kicker Evolution, but what did that mean in everyday terms? Not much.

    If she slipped by them they'd be like, Oh well, fucked up, we'll get her next time.

    Different for Darryl. That babe meant five grand in his pocket. He wasn't about to let her slip away.

7

    Hideo was having no luck. He wanted to grab his keyboard and bat it against the desk until it shattered into a thousand pieces, but he resisted that dubious pleasure. He must appear to be in control of himself and the situation—the rapidly deteriorating situation.

    Despite his best efforts, he had been unable to find a traffic cam with a view of the Bladeville doorway. He also had searched the Manhattan Webcam sites available on the Internet but still no luck.

    So he decided to go to the source: Check police records on the Hawaiian Islands for a report of a stolen sword. That would lead to the owner and give Hideo a starting point.

    But no such report existed on any of the islands. The possibility of a thief like Gerrish buying it seemed too remote to consider. Which left Hideo with a number of unpleasant prospects: The owner was either dead, or did not know the sword was missing, or did not legally own it.

    He rubbed his sweaty palms on his trousers. What was he going to do? He had to report back to Sasaki-san's office within the next twelve hours. What was he going to say? Certainly not that he had hit a dead end. Certainly not that he had run into a man who matched one of the pictures his brother had sent back—that would only remind them of Yoshio's failure and perhaps wonder if this brother might not be headed along the same path.

    No, he must sound optimistic: Through his diligence he had already had two near encounters with the katana. Perhaps add that he had missed it by scant minutes each time and hint at how he wished he had been assigned this mission sooner. Had he arrived in New York even half a day earlier, he would have the katana by now and be flying it home. He believed this to be true, and hoped it might mitigate any ire in the home office about his lack of success to this point.

    What he dared not say was that he had run out of leads. The two men he had connected to the blade were dead. His encounter with Yoshio's ronin had been a one-in-a-million chance coincidence. He could not count on another.

    All he could do was ask his ancestors for help and guidance, and pray that they or fate would drop something in his lap.

    Until that happened, he must appear to be in control and homing in on the katana. The only course open to him at the moment was to find the previous owner—the one from whom Gerrish had most likely stolen it.

    That meant tracing Gerrish's movements from the time he landed on the Hawaiian Islands until the time he boarded Northwest flight 804 out of Maui.

    At least then he would have a goal. He could look busy, be busy, all the while knowing he'd set himself a nearly impossible goal.

    And then two seemingly unrelated facts collided and clung: If the previous owner of the katana had no legal claim to it, might he not have followed the blade to New York and hired a local to find it? Yoshio had termed the mystery man a ronin—and ronin had been known to sell their services.

    He straightened in his seat. Here was another avenue of inquiry—a daunting task but one he must pursue: Seek out someone in this city who hired out to solve problems that needed to remain hidden from the authorities.

    An urban ronin.

8

    Delivery was scheduled for ten o'clock tonight. Naka Slater did not want to take possession of the katana in a public place. Said he needed to examine the blade before he forked over the rest of Jack's fee.

    Fair enough. Were positions reversed, Jack would have demanded the same.

    He'd decided on the alley next to Julio's. It was convenient, he was familiar with it, and meeting there wouldn't necessarily connect him to the bar.

    After cutting the call, he stood in his front room staring at the rolled-up rug lying on his round oak table. It seemed to call to him.

    Shrugging, he unwrapped it and took a two-handed grip on the handle. He knew next to nothing about swords, but the katana's balance was so perfect it seemed to want to move of its own accord. He carried it to the center of the room where he lurched into an improvised sword kata that probably looked a lot more like John Belushi than Toshiro Mifune.

    He felt a twinge of regret that he'd called Naka Slater. It felt good in his hands, so good that he didn't want to set it down. Heirloom or not, collector's item or not, object of murderous desire or not, he wanted this on his wall, not some rich plantation owner's. He could give back the advance…

    He forced himself to put down the sword, telling himself not to start down that slippery slope. He'd made a deal to find and return it. He'd accomplished the first half, now to complete the job.

    He stared down at the sword where it lay on the dirty old rug. Something entrancing about the pattern of holes in its blade. Almost hypnotizing.

    What the hell.

    He picked it up and began swinging it again.

9

    "He has the katana, sensei!" The familiar voice was bursting with joy. "He will deliver it tonight!"

    Only a supreme effort of will prevented Toru from leaping to his feet and shouting Banzai! For once the meaning would be literal—possession of the katana guaranteed the Kakureta Kao a thousand years.

    But the Order did not yet possess it.

    Controlling his voice, Toru said, "You have done well, but two tasks remain: Take possession of the katana, and see that no one can connect you or the Order to it."

    "Yes, sensei."

    Toru studied the younger man through the eyeholes of his silk mask.

    "You have been trained in the fighting arts, and you are so proficient that you have trained others. But you have never used them for anything like this. Are you capable of killing?" He raised a hand as Tadasu opened his mouth. "Think well on this. It is crucial. If you are not sure, I will send someone along to see it is done."

    His dark eyes flashed. "I will need no help, sensei. I can do this."

    Toru studied his determined expression for a few heartbeats, then nodded.

    "I believe that you can and that you will."

    He bowed. "It will be an honor to so serve the Order."

10

    Darryl checked his watch—4:40. Man, he was tired. Had to give it up and catch some Z's. Needed to be rested for the red-eye shift at midnight.

    Okay. Give it another twenty and quit at five, grab a couple of brews and hit the hay.

    He watched a cab pull up, saw the door open and a gal get out. Seemed the right age, short brown hair, shades. He was about to write her off when he took another look. Something familiar about those shades. Just like the ones Dawn had been wearing—he knew 'cause he'd got a couple of close looks when he'd seen her in that Arab getup. He took a closer look at her face and—

    Fuck me! It's her!

    He watched in shock as she kept her head down and hurried inside. He shook it off and checked the cab as it passed, memorizing its number. Then he hurried over to the van. He was going to give the guys inside a bit of pure hell. And then who did he see standing there, leaning in the window, but Hank himself.

    Perfect.

    Hank smiled at him as he came up to the van.

    "Hey, Darryl. What's—?"

    "She got out!" He pointed to the guys in the van. "She got past them! Me too!"

    Hank's smile vanished. "What are you talking about?"

    "I just saw her get out of a cab and go inside."

    "Bullshit!" said one of the guys in the van—Darryl didn't know his name. "We been watching like hawks."

    "Yeah? Well, your hawks need glasses because I just saw her. Lucky for us she was going back in. But that means she was out, 'cause you can't go in 'less you been out."

    "You're crazy!" said another one of the van guys.

    "Whoa! Whoa!" Hank said. He was staring at Darryl. "You're sure?"

    "Sure, I'm sure. You were right about her changing her hair color, Hank. But she cut it too. It's short now—kinda spiky and dykey, if you know what I'm saying."

    Hank looked worried. In fact his face had gone dead white. "How'd she look?"

    "I just told you."

    "No, I mean her health. Did she look well?"

    What was he getting at?

    "How so?"

    "I mean, did she look like she'd just had surgery or something?"

    "No. She was moving pretty good."

    He looked relieved. "Okay. But where could she have gone?"

    "I've got the cab number, if that's of any use."

    Hank laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "Darryl, my man, you're invaluable!"

    Darryl felt a warm glow envelop him. Hank Thompson thought he was invaluable. How great was that?

    He shrugged. "Just trying to help the evolution."

    "Well, you're doing a great job." He pulled a small notepad from one pocket and a ballpoint from another. "Here. Write it down. I'll have Menck grease the driver's palm with a few bucks and we'll know where she came from."

    Darryl wondered why that was so important and what Hank was worried about, and then it hit: the baby. Was he worried she'd gone out and had an abortion?

    Darryl was about to ask just that when he realized Hank was staring at him again.

    "It just occurred to me, Darryl—what are you doing here?"

    "Keeping watch."

    "You had any sleep since your shift?"

    "No, I—"

    "You're supposed to be resting up for your next shift."

    "But—"

    Hank raised a hand. "I appreciate the heads-up you've just given us, but you're gonna be no damn good on your own shift if you don't get some shut-eye."

    "But she got by these guys."

    "She got by you too—on her way out. And she'll get by you again if you're not sharp." His expression turned stern. "Now get off the street and get some rack time. We know what she looks like now, so she won't give us the slip again. But if I see you around here during your off hours, I'm cutting you from the surveillance detail."

    Darryl waved his hands. "Okay, okay. Just trying to help you out."

    Hank gave him a thin smile. "We both know who you're helping, but that's okay. I'd be the same in your place. Now get out of here."

    Darryl did just that. But he didn't like it.

11

    "May I see it now?"

    Jack looked down at the trembling fingers of Naka Slater's outstretched hands… and hesitated.

    Again that strange urge to keep it for himself.

    Setting his jaw he pushed the rolled rug into Naka's hands and felt a pang of loss tinged with relief to be rid of it.

    "All yours."

    Naka took it and dropped into a crouch with the bundle across his thighs. His hands shook as he unrolled the rug. He gasped when he saw the sword.

    "It's true! You have found it!" He caressed the hilt. "And I see someone has added a tsuka and a tsuba." He looked up at Jack. "You?"

    Jack gathered he meant O'Day's handiwork. He shook his head.

    "That was done by the previous owner. Now—"

    "Perfect!" Naka said, gripping the handle as he rose. He dragged the fingertips of his free hand across the filigree of holes. "It is just as they said it would be."

    "They?"

    An alarm bell rang in Jack's brain. Naka was acting like this was the first time he'd ever seen the katana.

    The guy didn't answer. Instead, he gripped the handle with his second hand and swung the sword in a vicious arc.

    Jack was already backing away, already reaching for his replacement Glock. Now he leaped away, but the tip of the blade caught his left deltoid. He knew he'd been cut—felt the edge part skin and muscle—but felt no pain.

    When he looked up Naka was already into another swipe. Jack raised the Glock as he fell backward. No time to aim so he pointed the barrel in Naka's general vicinity and pulled the trigger. The shot caught the bastard in his outer thigh.

    As Jack landed on his back he saw Naka spin and lurch away toward the street. He raised the pistol for another shot but decided against it. This was hardly an ideal shooting stance, and if he missed just as a car was passing…

    What was this? Try-to-kill-Jack-with-the-Gaijin-Katana Day?

    He rolled to his feet—and now he felt the pain. His left deltoid felt as if it had been sliced open. He looked. Yeah, it had. Only now he was feeling it.

    God damn, that hurt.

    And then from the street he heard a horn blare and tires screech, and a heavy thump—like a body against sheet metal.

12

    Damnedest thing Darryl had ever seen.

    Tired as he was, he hadn't been able to sleep. So he'd gone out wandering the city, hoping he'd eventually need to crash, but that hadn't happened. Somehow he'd wound up in the West Eighties outside this bar he'd never heard of. Why this particular bar, he didn't know. Almost as if he was on a string and the place had reeled him here.

    So there he was, checking it out as maybe a good place to grab a brew and trying to figure out those dead plants in the window. He was just reaching for the door when he heard this loud bang! Darryl had done some hunting in his day and knew a gunshot when he heard one. And he'd just heard one.

    And then this chinky guy comes stumble-running out of the alley next to the bar, crosses the sidewalk, and keeps on going between two parked cars right smack into the path of a delivery truck. The driver tried to stop, but he was clipping pretty good, so no way. Even if he'd been going slower—no way. The chink tried to stop but, again, no way.

    Ba-boom!

    As the chink went flying, his arms flapping at crazy angles, something flew out of his hand—long, metallic, propellering through the air. It landed point first with a shoonk! on the hood of a nearby Volvo wagon. No, not on the hood—through the hood and into the engine compartment.

    Darryl took a few steps to check it out.

    Be damned. A sword. And obviously a sharp one. What kind of blade can cut through a steel car hood like it was paper? One of those Jap swords like in the samurai movies, only this one—

    "Fuck me!"

    This one's blade was all crudded up with little holes, just like the drawing Hank had shown him.

    … if anyone sees it, bring it to me… I want it.

    He glanced around. All eyes were on the scene of the accident, and the folks who weren't just standing and gawking were rushing to help.

    Great.

    Just as he yanked it from the hood he saw a guy step out of the alley and check out the accident. He was holding his left shoulder and something dark was seeping between his fingers. Had he taken the bullet? And was he looking for the sword?

    Keeping a tight grip on the handle, Darryl did a quick turn, positioning the blade along the length of his body to shield it from the guy. Then he began quick-walking east toward the park, unbuttoning his outer shirt and pulling it around the sword. It didn't hide it completely, but at least he didn't look like some nutcase ready to start chopping up pedestrians.

    He'd duck into the park, wrap it in his shirt, then hightail it downtown to show the boss man what he'd found.

    What was going on with his luck? Maybe not luck. Almost seemed like something was guiding him.

    How cool was that?

    The high point of his life since his dissimilation had been the praise and backclaps he'd received from Hank for finding his precious Dawn Pickering. He'd thought it couldn't get any better than that, but maybe the best was yet to come. He couldn't wait to see the look on the boss man's face when Darryl handed him this sword.

    Oh, yeah. Hank was gonna be tickled as all hell.

13

    Jack washed down a couple of Vicodins with a Yuengling to ease the throb in his shoulder. It had taken Doc Hargus nearly an hour to sew the wound closed, inside and out. But he'd stopped the flow of blood and now Jack had to deal only with the seepage.

    Doc had given him some antibiotic tabs and a tetanus shot, leaving Jack covered against pretty much any complication. He'd told him to keep it in a sling. Jack had bought one on the way home but didn't know how much he'd wear it. Gave him a trussed-up feeling.

    All through the repair, Hargus kept saying, "You sure this wasn't done by a scalpel? I've only seen this clean a laceration from a scalpel."

    He'd scoffed when Jack told him it had been made by a centuries-old, rotted-out sword. Doc thought every one of his patients embellished the stories behind their wounds. Even Jack. Hell, Jack might have scoffed too if he hadn't been there.

    He shook his head. Two days of legwork, a lot of miles, a trio of corpses, and a customer on the way to the hospital.

    And what did he have to show for it? Half a fee and a neatly sliced shoulder.

    And no sword. The katana had disappeared. Like magic.

    Well, not like magic. Jack hadn't been able to hunt for it, bleeding as he was. He'd sent Julio and a couple of the regulars out, but they'd all come up empty. The only possibility he could think of was some passerby picking it up and running.

    But why? It looked like junk.

    He shook his head again. The rule of the city: What's not nailed down or protected is fair game—as good as mine.

    Well, good riddance. He'd been attacked twice with it today. He wasn't angling for a three-peat.

    Thing was, why had Naka Slater attacked him? Jack understood O'Day's motive, but what gave with Slater? To save the rest of the fee? That didn't make sense, considering how he owned a plantation on Maui and how fast he'd come up with the first half.

    Or maybe it was a bridge-burning deal—sever his only connection to the katana. Jack couldn't fathom why he'd think that necessary, but he'd never been comfortable with the way some people's heads worked.

    He glanced over at his computer and realized he was overdue to check the Web site. Hadn't logged on in a couple of days. His in box was probably clogged with spam.

    He entered his user name and password on the Web mail page and—yup—welcome to Spamopolis. After deleting the come-ons for Cialis and stock tips and home loans, then the appliance repair questions, he came to a subject line that read: Need to find lost object.

    "Just been there, just done that," he muttered, moving the pointer toward the DELETE button. Then he thought, what the hell. See what's lost before deleting.

    Dear Repairman Jack—

    I hope I have the right person. Someone gave me your name and said you might help. I have it on good authority that a very valuable object stolen from my home has been brought to New York. For various reasons, I'd rather not involve the police. If I have the right person, please call ASAP. I have only a few days before I must return to Hawaii.

     N.S.

    Jack stared dumbfounded at the screen.

    Stolen object brought to New York… no police… Hawaii.

    And the initials: N.S. Naka Slater?

    What the hell?

    He grabbed one of his TracFones and punched in the number. A male voice said, "Hello," after the first ring.

    Jack asked his usual opening question about whether this someone had recently left a message at a certain Web site.

    "Yes, I did," the voice said in perfect English. "Is this the man called Repairman Jack?"

    "Yeah. Is this Naka Slater?"

    Dead silence on the other end, then a nervous laugh. "Oh, I see. Your friend must have called to give you a heads-up."

    "What friend would that be?"

    "I… I don't know her name. She's a friend of a friend."

    "An artist friend?"

    "Yes. Then you know who I mean."

    Jack hadn't a clue, but he let it ride.

    "You need something found?"

    "Yes. Very much. A family heirloom that was stolen from my home. Can we meet soon?"

    Oh, yeah, Jack thought. We'll meet soon. He rolled his shoulder and felt a jab of pain. Not tonight, but definitely tomorrow. No way was he going to miss this. Not for the world.

    He set up a meet for an early lunch at eleven and gave him directions to the Ear Inn.

    Yeah. The Ear. If déjà vu was going to be the order of the day, might as well push it to the limit.

    He hung up, leaned back, and said, "What the hell?"

    It was becoming a litany.

FRIDAY

1

    Jack started to turn the knob on the door to Gia's third-floor studio and stopped. This felt wrong. Whatever waited on the other side belonged to Gia. If she didn't want him to see them, then he should respect that. And he wanted to respect that. And it would have been easy to respect that, if only…

    … they're not her

    If only he hadn't run into Junie. And if only she hadn't told him about the paintings. And if only Gia hadn't left him here alone while she went off to one of her final occupational therapy sessions.

    He twisted the knob a little farther. Should he?

    Oh, hell, why kid himself? Showing the paintings to Junie had ruptured their protective seal, so he was going to peek through that break.

    He pushed the door open and stepped inside. Indirect light from the skylights illuminated the room but he flipped the light switch anyway. Leaving the door open behind him, he looked around at the large canvases leaning against the walls. One canvas, its back to him, rested on an easel in the center of the room.

    He moved to his right and stopped at the nearest. So dark… black surrounding a circle of dark, dark blue with specks of white and a glowing moon. It took him a while to orient himself. The perspective seemed to be from the bottom of a well or some kind of hole in the Earth, looking up at a circle of night sky lit with cold, distant stars and a full moon.

    But not our moon.

    Same size, same color, but the familiar mares and ridges and pocks that made up the friendly Man in the Moon were gone, replaced by stark, foreign contours. For all he knew, the real moon might have turned its back and was showing its so-called dark side.

    He moved on to what appeared to be a desert at night, but the dunes formed strange angles, and the moon overhead—the same alien moon as in the first painting—shed much less light than it should have.

    Junie was right. These weren't Gia. Or at least not like the chiaroscuro roofscapes she'd been painting before the accident.

    Next, a cityscape, but a ruined city, with that same moon overhead. He bent closer. He had a feeling that things were flying in that night sky, obscuring stars as they passed, but he couldn't be sure.

    Then a succession of dark landscapes with strangely curving horizons and distant mountain ranges that seemed to reach into the stratosphere.

    He turned finally to the work in progress on the easel. He stared, trying to find structure, something to latch on to. It seemed to be a swirling blackness seeded with faint, blurry, yellow-gray blotches—like internal flashes of lightning within a black storm cloud.

    Jack stepped back. What had happened to her? He could find nothing welcoming in any of them. They looked… felt… dangerous. He was getting a Pickman's-model vibe—could she have seen these places in her coma when her swollen brain was inching her through death's door? She'd never mentioned seeing anything like what she'd put on canvas. She might have no conscious memories, but her unconscious couldn't forget. Maybe it was trying to vomit them up.

    All because of me, he thought as he stepped back into the hall and closed the door behind him. All my fault.

2

    Using a one-handed grip, Hank Thompson stood in the center of his room and swung the sword back and forth in a figure eight.

    Cool.

    It looked like crap, but he couldn't help loving the feel of it, the balance. It almost seemed to move on its own. He'd never held a sword—wait, not a sword, this was called a katana. Had to remember that. Much cooler sounding than "sword."

    He stopped swinging and stared at it. Darryl had brought it to him last night, and bingo—for the first time this week, no dream of the Kicker Man and the katana.

    What was it with Darryl and always being in the right place at the right time? He'd seemed like such a nobody at first, but obviously he was tuned into something. Maybe the same something that was broadcasting to Hank's internal antenna.

    Whatever was going on, it seemed obvious that this blade was important and somehow connected to the future of Kicker Evolution. Something wanted him to have it.

    What something? The something out there whose signals he was picking up? The "Others" on the outside that wanted to be on the inside? They must have wanted him to have this sword real bad because, if Darryl was to be believed, it literally dropped into his hands.

    Okay. So he had it. Now what?

    He didn't know. Only time would tell, and he wasn't about to waste a lot of time pondering it. He had other, more important matters on his mind. And Dawn Pickering topped the list.

    Menck had tracked down the cabbie and found out where she'd been picked up: an abortion clinic.

    Hank had almost lost it right there in front of Menck and the others. But he'd hung on to his cool and called the place. To his enormous relief he'd learned that you couldn't just walk in and get an abortion—at least at this place. They required a few blood tests before they put you on the table and did the deed.

    So Hank now had two teams on the street—one watching the Milford, and the other out front of the clinic. One way or another, Dawn Pickering was not getting through that clinic door.

    He hefted the katana and started swinging his figure eight again. He was just getting into a rhythm when he heard a knock on his door. He ignored it. But when it came again, he reluctantly laid the katana on his bed and answered.

    He found a tall, thin, hawk-faced man in a white suit. He had a hook nose and graying hair slicked straight back. He carried a cane wrapped in some sort of dark hide. He extended a business card, trapped between the tips of his index and middle finger. Hank checked it out.

Ernst Drexler II Actuator ASFO

    "What can I do for you, Mister Drexler?"

    "Mister Thompson, we have a problem." His voice carried a hint of a German accent. His icy-blue stare made Hank uncomfortable, but he couldn't show that.

    "Oh? Who's 'we'?"

    "You and I. The Council of Seven sent me to inspect the premises."

    Council of Seven… that meant the high-ups of the Ancient Septimus Fraternal Order. Had to play nice-nice with them. They'd opened this lodge building to Hank as a headquarters of sorts for him. The place had a bunch of small, empty storerooms on its second floor. Hank had had these converted to bedrooms for himself and a few choice Kickers.

    A great setup. With its deeply recessed windows and solid granite walls, the place looked like a fortress. It offered him a secure Lower East Side location with a room overlooking the street.

    So whatever problem this Drexler guy was having, Hank wanted it fixed.

    He crooked a finger at Hank. "I want you to see something."

    He led Hank down the wide stone stairway to the main hall where he pointed to the ten-foot seal of carved stone suspended on the far wall.

    "Okay," Hank said slowly. "I see the Septimus Lodge seal. What am I—?"

    "It's called a sigil, Mister Thompson. A sigil."

    "Right. A sigil. Sorry." What the hell was a sigil, anyway? "But I don't under—oh, shit."

    Some asshole had spray-painted a little Kicker Man on the stone.

    Hank ground his teeth. The Kicker Evolution attracted people from all walks of life, all the social strata, but the majority seemed to come from the low end. A fair number had criminal records. Lowlifes, some might call them. Yeah, well, maybe they were. But they were Hank's lowlifes.

    Trouble was, they pulled shithead pranks like this. He didn't care that they tagged the Kicker Man all over the city—that was advertising of sorts. But you don't piss where you sleep.

    Problem was, the guy who did this probably wasn't one of the ones bunking here. And with all the various Kickers wandering in and out during the day, Hank would never be able to track him down.

    "Sorry about that."

    "Sorry isn't enough. The Septimus sigil is immensely important to the Order. We are an ancient brotherhood, and that sigil is far, far older. This will not be tolerated."

    "I'll take care of it."

    "That is not enough." Drexler's voice was calm, cool. Maybe too cool. "The Council has taken a step unprecedented in the history of the Order by opening its doors to nonmembers."

    "Why us?" Hank said. The question had been bugging him.

    Receiving only a cold look from Drexler, Hank went on.

    "I mean, the Septimus Lodge goes back, what, a couple hundred years?"

    "A couple of hundred? Mister Thompson, it goes back much, much further than that."

    "Okay, much further. So if in all that time you've never let in nonmembers, why the sudden change of heart? And why us? And you didn't just let us in, you invited us."

    "The local members received a directive."

    "Yeah? Where from?"

    "The worldwide High Council of the Seven. They rule the Ancient Septimus Fraternal Order. When they speak, the Lodges obey."

    "Don't think we're not grateful, we are. But what about the rest of the question: Why us?"

    "The Council doesn't explain its decisions."

    Hank sensed this guy knew more than he was saying. Lots more.

    "Well, Mister Drexler. Since the Council entrusts you with inspecting this place, I imagine you're wired in. You've gotta have some idea."

    A humorless smile played around Drexler's thin lips as he glanced at the Kicker Man graffito, then back to Hank.

    "It could be that they think you and your followers—"

    Hank wagged a finger. "Not 'followers.' That would make me their leader, and I'm not. Kickers recognize no leaders. We're all simply fellow Kickers."

    At least that was the line he made a point of pushing every chance he got: I'm not your leader. We're all just Kickers. He figured the more he denied it, the more he'd be identified in their heads as the leader he said he wasn't.

    "If you say so," Drexler said, obviously not buying it. "It could be that the Council recognizes a common bond between your Kickers and the Septimus order."

    "Which would be what?"

    Drexler shrugged. "Who is to say? The Council is wise and it keeps its own counsel."

    Yeah. Okay. Maybe they did tell him, maybe they didn't. But either way, he'd bet this guy had a pretty good idea of the why part of the question.

    "But be that as it may," Drexler intoned, pointing to the Kicker Man graffito, "their hospitality does not extend to this."

    Hank found himself eyeing Drexler's neck and thinking of the katana. He'd bet one good chop would send his head flying. Did he dare? He had a feeling he'd have to strike fast and hard and not miss. Because this Drexler guy did not look like someone he'd want to mess with.

    He shook off the thought and focused on the present.

    "I'll have one of the men clean it up. Then we'll track down the one who did this and make certain he never does anything like this again."

    Drexler brushed his hands together, as if dusting off dirt. "See to it immediately."

    As he walked away, Hank again envisioned the katana biting into his neck. A delightful sight.

3

    "Tell me again why that article was never published?" P. Frank Winslow said as they waited for their food.

    Jack had called him this morning, pretending to be the same Trenton Times reporter who had interviewed him last month. He needed to talk to Winslow and the writer seemed anxious to comply. They arranged to meet for breakfast in the same spot as last time: a bustling lower Second Avenue deli named Moishe's.

    Winslow's work had shocked Jack when he'd stumbled upon it. The plots of his novels Rakshasa! and Berzerk!—both based on dreams—were bizarrely similar to events in Jack's life. When Jack had interviewed him he'd mentioned other dreams his editor hadn't deemed novel-worthy that also seemed plucked from Jack's life.

    "My editor thought it was too blah," Jack said.

    Winslow reacted like a mother who'd just heard someone say her baby was ugly. "Blah? Jake Fixx is blah? What's he, nuts? How can a freakin' ex—Navy SEAL and former CIA black-ops specialist be blah?"

    Thirtyish, with a skinny bod, big nose, and thin face, Winslow was a far cry from the burly, brawny hero of his series.

    Jack shrugged. "Who can explain editors?"

    "I hear ya. Mine's a piece of work. Sounds like yours is too."

    Jack knew a couple of authors and a few wannabes. They all loved to bitch about editors. Jack played it up.

    "Guy's a clown. Doesn't know squat about good journalism. I fought for the article, but he wouldn't budge. Said I had to find a hook for it or forget about it."

    Winslow's hazel eyes stared at him over his coffee cup. "Hook? Isn't Jake himself a hook?"

    Jack shook his head. "I guess not. I mean, for me he is. I'm a big fan of the character. Your books are super."

    He saw Winslow swell with delight. Authors were so needy.

    "Yeah, well, I like him too. I—"

    "Here's your food, gents," said a cracked voice.

    Sally, their ancient, orange-haired, dowager-humped waitress had materialized tableside carrying their plates. Winslow had the same as last time: eggs over easy with corned beef hash; Jack had opted for the western omelet.

    As Winslow chopped up his runny eggs and mixed them into the hash, he said, "What kind of hook does he want?"

    "You don't think he'd actually tell me, do you? That would take some original thought on his part. But I do have an idea."

    Winslow looked up. "Like what?"

    "These dreams you base the books on. What if they're not dreams? What if your unconscious mind has somehow tapped into the life of a real Jake Fixx?"

    He took a bite of the yolky hash. "You're not telling me you think that's possible, are you?"

    "Course not. But that could be my hook: Who is the real Jake Fixx? or Is there a real Jake Fixx?"

    Winslow nodded. "Ooh, I like that."

    "I do too. But I'm going to have to sort of catalogue your Jake Fixx dreams, even the ones you don't use."

    "No problem."

    "Let's start with the latest." Here was what Jack had come for. "What's happening?"

    "Really weird. About this cruddy Japanese sword that everyone wants. I—" He stopped, staring at Jack's face. "What's wrong?"

    "Nothing." The idea of this guy looking over his shoulder via his dreams made him queasy. "Go on."

    "Well, I can't use it all crudded up, but I can clean it up, make it super shiny—maybe even make it glow a little—and super sharp. You know, sharp enough to cut through a rifle barrel."

    "Why not make it sing, too?"

    "Hmmm?"

    "Never mind."

    "And of course I'll have to add a back story where Jake took dueling lessons from a master samurai while he was in the CIA."

    "Of course." Fixx was an expert in everything. God forbid he'd actually have to learn something. "So how does the dream end?"

    "It hasn't yet. Like I told you before, I dream in chapters."

    "Well, has he got the sword yet?"

    "Got it and lost it."

    "Does he get it back again?"

    Winslow shrugged. "Haven't dreamed that yet, but no matter how the dream turns out, I guarantee in my book Jake'll get the sword back and use it to cut a swath through the bad guys."

    "Who are?"

    "Don't really know. Some sort of cult. I'll probably make them members of that Aum Shinrikyo cult—you know, the ones who released sarin gas in Tokyo's subway."

    A cult… could the yakuza types he'd run into be part of a cult? Didn't strike him as the type. The Kickers could be considered a cult, but they weren't Japanese. That left Naka Slater—if that was his true name. Was he part of a cult?

    None of this made sense. Maybe the second Naka Slater would have some answers.

    "So you don't know how it ends yet."

    "I just told you: Jake gets the sword and—"

    "I meant the dreams."

    He shrugged. "Doesn't matter. I've got my ending."

    Swell. But Jack didn't have his.

4

    Dawn jumped and let out a little yelp when the phone rang. But unlike the last time, it kept ringing.

    She'd totally hated telling the abortion clinic where she was staying, but didn't have much choice. Mr. Osala had confiscated her cell phone as soon as she'd entered his house. She hadn't dared to stop and get a replacement while she'd been out yesterday.

    The clinic had done blood tests and a black woman doctor with an African accent had done a pelvic exam. They'd said they'd call her today with the results. If everything was okay, they'd set up a time for the actual abortion.

    She picked up on the fourth ring.

    "Y-yes?"

    "Ms. Pickering?" said a woman's voice. "This is Grace from the Sitchin Clinic."

    Relief. She felt her drum-tight muscles relax.

    "Is everything okay?"

    "Everything is fine. You are eight weeks pregnant and in excellent health. You are an excellent candidate for the procedure."

    "When?"

    "How does three o'clock tomorrow sound?"

    "Tomorrow? Can't I get it done today?"

    "I'm sorry. We can schedule only so many a day and today is booked."

    Damn. That meant another night alone in this room. She wanted this done with.

    "Okay, I guess. Yeah. Put me down for three."

    "Excellent. I understand you're paying cash?"

    "Yes. Is that a problem?"

    "You will be expected to pay in full in advance."

    They'd told her this yesterday and she'd agreed. The fee was stiff but she had it, and she couldn't think of anything better to spend it on.

    "That's okay. I've got it."

    "Excellent. Please be here sharply at three. Have a nice day."

    "Yeah. You too."

    As she hung up she thought she should pump a fist or something, but she felt no sense of triumph. She'd be totally free of this baby, yeah, but she wouldn't be free of Jerry Bethlehem. He'd still be out there looking for her. And he'd totally kill her if he found out she'd rid herself of his precious Key to the Future.

    By four o'clock tomorrow the baby would be gone. Then what? Where would she go from there?

    The only place she could think of was Mr. Osala's.

    She'd show up at his door saying how sorry she was for running away, and how she didn't know what had come over her—maybe she'd gone a little crazy from being cooped up—and how she'd totally never ever do it again.

    What she would so not tell him was that she was no longer pregnant. He'd said the baby was her life insurance policy where Jerry was concerned, and he might get mad if he knew she'd totally ignored his advice.

    Well, what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him. And maybe when he was away on his next trip she'd pretend to have a miscarriage.

    Meanwhile she'd be safe and comfortable.

    Feeling suddenly rotten, she dropped onto the unmade bed.

    Listen to me. I sound like a totally gold-plated conniving bitch.

    She'd never been like this. Never lied, never cheated. Maybe what she'd gone through—was still going through—had changed her. She hoped it was temporary, that when it was over she could get a grip and totally change back. Well, maybe not totally—all this had to leave scars.

    But what if this was the real her—the real Dawn who'd been hiding just below the surface of the other Dawn? What if Mom's murder and the knowledge that she'd been screwing the man who not only had killed her mother but was also—

    She didn't want to think about that. Every time she did, it made her totally want to hurl.

    Maybe that was it. She felt dirty, and totally worthless. So low she wouldn't mind being dead. And when you felt that low, all sorts of things you never thought possible suddenly were easy—like lying and cheating and trading sex for favors.

    She had to climb out of this hole. And the first step up and back to her old self was to be rid of this baby. Because the old Dawn hadn't been pregnant.

    Tomorrow… at three P.M.… she'd take that step.

5

    Jack waited inside the Ear this time—same table, same back-to-the-wall seat under the perils-of-drink poster. The place was only a quarter full, the kitchen just getting up to speed.

    He'd worn the arm sling on the subway ride down. Didn't like the feel but it did seem to make people give him a slightly wider berth. As he'd seated himself here he glommed on an unconventional use for it. He pulled his Kel-Tec backup from its ankle holster and sneaked it into the sling where it could rest unseen, just inches from his fingers.

    He liked that so much he thought about making a sling a regular accessory, then decided against it. Put ten guys in a crowded room, one with a sling, nine without: Who would people remember?

    No, save it for special occasions.

    He thought about his trip to the hospital earlier this morning, right after his breakfast with Winslow. The guy calling himself Naka Slater had been taken down to Roosevelt on 59th Street. Jack had inquired at the ER about an auto accident victim brought in last night. After much wheedling and cajoling he'd been told that they'd admitted an Asian John Doe who'd refused to give his name.

    Still alive… good.

    Jack said he wondered if the guy could be his good buddy, Ishiro Honda. Could he maybe just go up and see if it was really him?

    She had to check with the higher-ups to see if that would be okay. Ten minutes later she'd returned to say the higher-ups needed to talk to the hospital attorneys—concerns about hippo regulations or something like that.

    He'd told her he'd be back. He wanted to talk to this guy, find out what he was up to, why he'd tried to kill him. But first… the new Naka Slater.

    He snagged a copy of the Post from a neighboring table where one of the help had left it. The Staten Island thing still dominated the front page: an aerial photo of the dead area of woods under a huge headline:

EVEN THE COOTIES CROAKED!

    If the Pulitzer folks awarded a prize for headlines, the Post would win every year.

    He skimmed the page three article. It reported how tests had shown that even bacteria and mold spores had been killed. The consensus was some sort of toxin, but nobody knew what particular toxin. Whatever it was, this stuff killed everything.

    Just then a vaguely Asian guy stepped in and looked around. He wore khaki slacks and a long-sleeve, blue-and-white-striped rugby shirt. As his gaze settled on Jack, he raised his eyebrows and pointed. Jack nodded.

    The guy wound through the tables and offered his hand when he reached Jack's. "Nakanaori Slater. But you can call me—"

    "Naka," Jack said, shaking his hand. Good grip. He pointed to the other chair. "Yeah, I know."

    Close up now Jack could see the Caucasian influence in his skin tone and features. Unlike his predecessor, this guy looked like the genuine offspring of a Japanese and an American. He also looked older than his predecessor—Jack guessed a well-preserved sixty, or maybe younger—and a lot more relaxed. His black hair was streaked with gray, and he too wore it combed down over the left half of his forehead.

    "Moki's friend must have told you," he said, smiling as he seated himself. "What else did she tell you?"

    His smooth English said he'd been raised in an English-speaking household.

    "Nothing. I have no idea who she is."

    He frowned. "Then how—?"

    "Let me tell you a story, see if it rings a bell. Four days ago, right here at this table, I met with an Asian dude who also called himself Nakanaori Slater. He gave me a middle name too but—"

    "Okumo?" Slater's face lightened a few shades. "He said he was Nakanaori Okumo Slater?"

    "Yeah. Quite a mouthful. So I was glad for the just-call-me-Naka part."

    He looked baffled. "But I'm—"

    The waitress arrived then. Older than the one last time. Jack ordered a Hoegaarden, then waited to see what Slater would do.

    "A double Jack Daniel's on the rocks."

    Jack realized in the case of Naka One he should have heeded W. C. Fields's warning about never trusting a man who doesn't drink. Naka Two drank Jack Daniel's before lunch. Did that earn extra trust points?

    He caught Jack studying him. "I need a double after what you just told me."

    "Don't have to explain to me."

    "Describe this 'Naka,'" he said.

    "Japanese—all Japanese from the look of him, though he said he had an American father." He pointed to the dippity-do over Slater's left forehead. "Same hairstyle too."

    Slater lifted his hair, revealing the rest of his forehead. "Did he have this?"

    Jack stared at what looked like a red wine stain spreading from his hairline almost to his eyebrow. He tried to picture Naka Slater Number One's face and couldn't recall ever getting a peek under the dip.

    "Couldn't say."

    "My dad called it the Slater Stain. All the Slater men have something like it." He released the handful of hair, letting it drop back into place. "He had it, and both my sons have it, though thankfully to a lesser degree than I." He leaned forward, his onyx eyes intent. "What else did he tell you?"

    Jack gave him a condensed version: Heirloom katana blade stolen from his Maui plantation, traced to New York, woman living with artist friend gives him Jack's name, so Naka Slater comes to New York to hire Jack to find the blade.

    Slater's face was even paler than before. "That's incredible! It's all true except that I'm Naka Slater, but I didn't get to New York until yesterday. He didn't happen to mention any scrolls, did he?"

    "No, nothing about scrolls."

    "A bunch of ancient scrolls my father and Matsuo confiscated from—"

    " 'Confiscated.' I like that."

    "Okay, stole. They were stolen from me along with the katana, and I've recovered neither. I don't care about the scrolls—have no idea what's on them and couldn't care less—but that katana…"

    The drinks arrived. Even though he wasn't all that hungry after the earlier omelet, Jack ordered the burger with cheddar cheese and bacon. Couldn't pass up an Ear burger. Slater ordered the same.

    Naka Two was starting out a lot easier to like than One.

    As the waitress was leaving, he tapped her arm and rattled the ice in his near-empty glass. "Another of these?" He pointed to the barely sipped Hoegaarden but Jack shook his head.

    Not yet.

    Slater drained his sour mash and said, "Another Slater trait: a fondness for booze and a very efficient liver." He put down the glass and stared at Jack. "Now the all-important question: Did you find the blade?"

    Jack gave a reluctant nod. Slater must have noticed the reluctance because he stiffened in his seat.

    "Oh, God. Don't tell me—"

    Jack nodded again.

    He slammed his fist on the table. "Kokami!"

    "Pardon?"

    "A Hawaiian term of endearment. Any way of tracking it down?"

    Leaving out the deaths and the yakuza and what he'd had to go through to get the sword, Jack told him about the attempted exchange, Naka One's attempt to kill him, the subsequent accident, and the disappearing sword.

    Slater squeezed his eyes shut. "So, it's literally a dead end."

    "Very literally. Very dead."

    Slater's second JD arrived. As he scooped it up and sipped, Jack remembered something.

    "Roll up your sleeves."

    "Why?"

    "The other Naka was younger, but otherwise copied you down to the hair comb. I wonder if his tattoo was part of that."

    Slater showed Jack a pair of bare forearms. "I don't have any tattoos. As someone said, why decorate your body with drawings you wouldn't hang on your wall?"

    "Okay. This other guy had some sort of hexagon or something tattooed above his left wrist."

    Slater frowned as he pulled down his sleeves. "Hexagon? That's it? No dragons or hibiscus or carp or any of the usual Japanese design salad?"

    "No." Jack tried to picture the dead man's arm. "Just a hollow hexagon with a bunch of crisscrossing lines. Like hatch marks." He glanced at Slater and found him staring at him. "What?"

    "You're pulling my leg, right?"

    "No."

    He signaled to the waitress. "Can I borrow your pen?"

    She handed it to him and he began scribbling on the butcher-paper tablecloth. When he'd finished, he pointed to it.

    "Did it look anything like that?"

    Jack looked. "Exactly."

    "It can't be." He slammed the pen down. "Impossible."

    "If you say so. But for curiosity's sake—let's just assume I'm not lying—what's it supposed to mean?"

    Slater was silent a long time. Finally…

    "Sorry. I'm not calling you a liar. It's just… that was one of the symbols used by an ancient Japanese cult of self-mutilating monks. They—"

    "Whoa." A cult? Winslow had mentioned a cult. "And did you say self-mutilating?"

    Slater nodded. "Well, not self-mutilating in the strictest sense. They mutilated each other."

    "Swell."

    "Once they'd gone through acolyte stages and reached the inner circles, they'd cut little flaps in their facial skin to hold a cloth mask in place, leaving only the eyes visible. Then they started giving up their senses, one at a time: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch."

    "Touch? How do you give up touch? Unless you cut off your skin."

    "They had a slower method. One limb at a time. The final cut was high on the spinal cord, severing all sensation from the body but not so high as to affect the diaphragm. They were left floating in a black, silent void, seeing the thing they'd suffered for: the Kakureta Kao."

    "Which means…?"

    Slater pointed to his drawing and ran his finger along the outline of the hexagon. "See this? That represents a head." Then he tapped the hatchmarked center. "What sort of face do you see here?"

    "None. Just a bunch of lines."

    "Exactly. Originally, when the tattoo was in progress, the artist would draw a rudimentary face inside and then obscure it with all those crisscrossing lines. Hiding it. That's what Kakureta Kao means: They were called the Order of the Hidden Face."

    "And what happens when they see this Hidden Face?"

    "Then they knew the meaning of everything. They died happy and fulfilled, and joined it in its eternal void."

    Jack had noticed something. "You keep using the past tense."

    "That's because the last surviving members of the sole remaining enclave were incinerated by Little Boy on August sixth, 1945."

6

    "I hurt, sensei."

    Wearing a surgeon's mask and a stolen lab coat, Toru Akechi stared down at the man in the hospital bed and grieved. Poor Tadasu. Had he succeeded in his mission he would have been admitted to the Inner Circles.

    But he had failed.

    Tadasu lay in the bed like a broken marionette—legs suspended on wires, both arms in casts, his neck sheathed in a hard plastic brace.

    Toru nodded toward the clear plastic bag suspended over the side of the bed. When he spoke, the surgical mask he wore muffled his voice more than the traditional mask worn in the temple.

    "They give you painkillers."

    "The pain is in my heart, sensei. The pain of failure."

    Toru controlled a sudden burst of fury. He wanted to say, You should feel pain, Tadasu Fumihiro. In your heart and everywhere else. You deserve intractable pain for such miserable failure.

    For although Tadasu had to answer to him, Toru had to answer to others.

    But he modulated his response. "You made many mistakes, Tadasu. The first was in choosing the thief."

    The younger man looked as if he was about to speak, but instead pressed his lips tightly together and nodded as best he could within his neck brace. He knew better than to mention that his sensei had approved the choice of Hugh Gerrish for the job.

    It had seemed a good choice at the time: Better to deal with a known quantity here in New York, where they had the temple, and fly him out to Maui rather than try to find someone in Hawaii.

    But Gerrish had betrayed them.

    "At least we have the scrolls," Tadasu said.

    Yes… the Kuroikaze scrolls once again belonged to the Kakureta Kao. And that was good. Gerrish had delivered them as promised, but had reneged on the katana. Instead of turning it over, he had fled home with it. The Order's reach was limited here in this barbaric land, and it had been unable to locate him. So they had turned to the man they had overheard recommended to that mongrel, Nakanaori Slater.

    At least that had been a good decision: The man had tracked down the katana.

    "How could you have failed in the last act of the task? You were to sever all links between the katana and yourself, and thus the Order. You are skilled in the use of the katana. You know all the kata. How could you not only fail to kill him but lose the katana as well?"

    Tadasu closed his eyes. "I had my moves carefully planned. But when I saw the blade… when I touched it… I could not help myself. I dropped my plan and flew into action without thinking."

    "That is very unlike you, Tadasu. How could you be so reckless?"

    "I don't know, sensei. I had this sudden, overwhelming urge. I didn't give in to it. It… took over."

    "And now, because of your foolish surrender to impulse, because of your weakness, the sword remains lost to us. It could be anywhere. Anyone could have picked it up."

    "I saw him, sensei."

    "You did?" Toru felt a jolt of hope suffuse his heart. Here was a chance to set this right. "Why didn't you tell me? What does he look like?"

    "I saw only part of him—just his hand."

    "His hand?" The excitement withered. "Of what value—?"

    "He had a tattoo, sensei."

    That might be useful.

    "What did it look like?"

    "It was the strange man-figure that I have been seeing painted on walls throughout the city."

    A man-figure graffito? The necessity of hiding his face—certain to raise alarms in post-9/11 New York—kept Toru from leaving the temple often, but on a recent trip, sealed behind tinted windows, he thought he had seen the figure Tadasu was talking about.

    He'd noticed a pen jutting from the breast pocket of the lab coat he'd borrowed. He went to hand it to Tadasu, then stopped as he realized both arms were in casts.

    He looked around and found no paper, so he pulled back Tadasu's top sheet and began to draw. When finished he held it up where Tadasu could see it.

    "Is this it?"

    Tadasu gave another restricted nod. "Yes, sensei. That was on his hand."

    Toru had no idea what it meant, but he would find out. He would learn everything there was to know about this figure.

    But now it was time to deal with temple guard Tadasu Fumihiro. He would be undergoing multiple surgeries. Who knew what he might say under the effects of anesthesia? The Kakureta Kao could not risk exposure.

    From a pocket of the silk tunic he wore beneath the lab coat, Toru withdrew the small ebony case of doku-ippen. He opened it and chose one of the deadly black-ringed slivers. When he looked up he found Tadasu staring at the box with bulging eyes.

    "Sensei, this is not necessary."

    "Do you question me, Tadasu?"

    "No, sensei. But—"

    "Accept your fate. It is a kind death I offer. One prick of the skin and all your pain—in your heart and body—as well as the shame of your failure will be gone. It is for the Order, Tadasu."

    The acolyte closed his eyes. Tears found their way between the lids.

    "I shall never see the Hidden Face."

    "No, but in making this sacrifice for the Order, you will make that possible for others."

    Eyes still closed, Tadasu nodded. "For the Order."

    Holding the sliver between thumb and forefinger, Toru found a small area of exposed flesh near Tadasu's shoulder and pressed the sharp tip into the skin.

    Then he turned and started toward the door, knowing that Tadasu would be dead before he reached the hallway.

7

    … incinerated by Little Boy… August sixth, 1945

    Then Jack realized: "The Hiroshima bomb—same as the sword. Did the katana belong to these kooks?"

    Slater shook his head. "It belonged to a Japanese Intelligence officer named Matsuo Okumo who was at ground zero with the sword when Little Boy went off. He died along with that psycho cult."

    "Looks like they've risen from the grave."

    "Maybe someone started them up again. They've had since forty-five to rebuild."

    "If they're back, why doesn't anybody know about them? They're terrific tabloid fodder."

    "If they're back, they're laying low. After the war it was discovered they were kidnapping children and mutilating them."

    Jack stomach tightened. "Jeez. How do you know so much about them?"

    "My father left a posthumous memoir—a balls-to-the-wall tell-all that takes no prisoners. In his will he asked me to get it published, but no one would touch it as a memoir. I did manage to sell it as a novel. I called it Black Wind. Didn't sell too well. If you want a copy—"

    Thinking of the Compendium, Jack waved off the offer. "Thanks, no. Got too much to read as it is."

    "As you wish. My father was pretty merciless with himself as well. At times it was tough, as his son, to read about his failures of nerve, but in the end I respected him more than ever."

    Jack thought of his own dad, and how close they'd become on their last outing… before…

    He shook it off and said, "Okay, you've been told this Hidden Face thing is extinct, which may or may not be true, but the guy pretending to be you wore the tattoo and knew everything that you knew."

    "Someone must have tapped my phone. That's the only way."

    "He wanted the sword. Why?"

    "It killed a lot of Kakureta Kao members."

    "The memoir says so?"

    Slater nodded. "Yeah. If they're back, they may want it as some kind of totem. Or to destroy it."

    "Good luck. If Little Boy couldn't turn it into a Dalí clock, I don't see how they… " A thought occurred to him. "Wait. If they're looking for it, that means they didn't steal it. Which leaves us with the question of who hired Gerrish."

    "Gerrish?"

    "The name of the thief. A pro—a very dead pro."

    "Dead?" Slater's eyes narrowed. "You?"

    "No. But he's not the only one. Two others have gone to their greater reward because of that thing." Jack decided not to mention how O'Day had passed. "Almost like it's cursed."

    "Maybe it is." He sighed. "My father told me he'd handled the sword a number of times before the bomb and said it felt different afterward… changed."

    "Well, it took one helluva beating."

    "He didn't mean physically. He meant spiritually. Like it had lost its soul."

    "Yeah, right." Jack tried to imagine that happening with one of his guns.

    Slater shrugged. "You either get it or you don't. How'd you feel when you held it?"

    Jack remembered the dark elation while swinging it around in his apartment. And the urge to keep it instead of give it up.

    "Let's get back to this Kaka-Kookoo group. If they didn't hire Gerrish, who did?"

    Slater shook his head. "Oh, they hired him. The scrolls that disappeared with the katana once belonged to Kakureta Kao. Matsuo Okumo gave them to my father for safekeeping."

    "Then why—?"

    "Would they hire you to find it? Maybe something went wrong with the plan. Maybe they tried to kill the thief like they did you, and he escaped and ran back here. Or maybe he thought he could get a better price for it elsewhere."

    Or maybe decided to keep it, Jack thought, remembering his own vacillations.

    "Well, it is, after all, the Gaijin Masamune."

    Slater looked baffled. "What's that? I was told it was a Masamune blade, but 'Gaijin'…?"

    "Apparently it's a fabled and much sought after collector's item."

    "Sought after enough to kill for?"

    Jack nodded. "You betcha. Three corpses will attest to that. And I could have been the fourth." As Slater shook his head in dismay, Jack added, "Something else you should know."

    "I'm almost afraid to hear."

    "There's another player on the field." He raised a hand as Slater opened his mouth. "Don't ask who because I don't know. I do know they're Japanese—underworld types, from the look of them—and ready to kill to get the katana."

    Slater leaned back, puffing out his cheeks as he exhaled. "Man. Who'd have dreamed? I'm almost willing to forget the whole thing, except…"

    "Yeah?"

    "It meant so much to my father."

    "He stole it from the museum?"

    Slater jerked upright. "How the hell did you—?" Then he relaxed. "Oh, yeah. My alter ego must have told you."

    "Only that it belonged to the Hiroshima Peace Museum."

    The burgers arrived then. Jack and Naka assembled them in silence, then bit in.

    Slater let out a groan. "This is amazing. Why can't we get beef like this on the islands?"

    They worked on their burgers a little more, then Jack quaffed some Hoegaarden to wash down a big bite.

    "So how did the blade get from the museum to your dad's place?"

    "The Peace Museum opened in fifty-five, ten years to the day after the bomb. My father was with the Occupation. When he saw the blade he knew it was Matsuo's and figured he had more claim to it than the museum. He too had been an intelligence officer and was owed more than a few favors. He collected on some by persuading a few commandos to sneak in and snatch it for him."

    "That's why you can't go to the police."

    He shrugged. "I doubt anyone connected with the museum would remember it now, even if they heard about it, but why take the chance?" He leaned forward. "I need that katana back. Both my parents revered Matsuo's memory. It was all they had left of him. My father made me promise to keep it in the family. So I don't see how I have much choice."

    Jack spread his hands. "And I don't see how you have much hope."

    "That bad, huh?" His expression was bleak. "You've got no idea at all where it could be?"

    "No, but I know where to find the guy I gave it to. He didn't have time to hand it off before he was hit, but maybe one of his Hidden Face buddies was waiting out there and snagged it after our friend and the truck got intimate."

    "You've got to make him tell you."

    "If he's crazy enough to be in that cult, I seriously doubt he'll be the sharing type. And there's something else you have to consider."

    "Your tone says more bad news."

    "Maybe he didn't have anyone waiting. Maybe some passerby found it and took off with it. It could be anywhere—even in a Dumpster."

    He looked crushed. "Then what do I do?"

    "If by some miracle I can squeeze anything useful out of this guy, I'll let you know. But if I come up empty, as I suspect I will, all you can do is advertise—put out flyers and offer a reward. That might bring somebody out of the woodwork."

    He banged the table again. "Ai Kae!"

    The place had gained a few patrons since their arrival and people were giving them curious and concerned looks.

    "Another Hawaiian term of endearment?"

    "What? Yeah. I can stay here only a day or two. You think you could make up the flyers and—?"

    Jack was shaking his head. "Not my kind of work. If I come up empty at the hospital, you do it. Start a voice mail account and put that number on the flyers. Get them spread around. Check the voice mail often. If anything promising comes through, call me and I'll see what I can do."

    Jack would be delighted if nothing came through. That sword had nearly killed him twice. Damned if he was about to give it another try.

    "Jesus, God!"

    Jack looked up and saw that Slater's face had gone white. He was staring at the cover of the Post on the next table.

    "What?"

    "The Black Wind! What happened in Staten Island—it never hit me till now. The Kakureta Kao has brought back the Black Wind!"

    Despite Slater's ominous tone, it didn't sound particularly threatening to Jack—like something that might occur after a frijoles negro burrito.

    "And that's bad?"

    "Very. I didn't make the connection because I thought they were extinct. But now that you've seen someone with their tattoo, it's all coming together. What happened on Staten Island is exactly the effect of the Black Wind as described by my father. If they're planning to use it on the city…"

    "But nobody mentioned a wind or wind damage."

    "It's been called the Wind-That-Bends-Not-the-Trees."

    "Oooookay." Maybe the Jack Daniel's was hitting him.

    "I've got to tell someone. But who?"

    "Um, try Homeland Security. But don't mention me, okay? Meanwhile, I'm going to check out this Hidden Face guy in the hospital."

    He grabbed Jack's arm. "Ask him about the Black Wind. You've got to find out."

8

    The Wind-That-Bends-Not-the-Trees, Jack thought as he reentered Roosevelt Hospital. Where do people come up with this stuff?

    He was relieved to find the same clerk at the ER admitting desk. Her name tag read KAESHA and she once might have been called Rubenesque, but she'd moved beyond that. The glazed Krispy Kreme donut sitting next to her keyboard hinted at the how and why.

    "Hi, Kaesha. Remember me? I was here earlier about the Asian John Doe?"

    She gave him a hard look, then her features softened. "You're the one who thought you might know him."

    "Right. Have the hospital attorneys cleared me for a look at him?"

    "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the patient died a few hours ago."

    Crap.

    "But," she added, "it would be a great service to him and to the hospital if you could identify him. And the police want to talk to you as well."

    Jack stiffened inside. "The police?"

    "Well, I suppose it's okay to tell you, since he's dead. But he also had a gunshot wound. The police are looking for any information available."

    Double crap.

    "Sure. I'll help any way I can."

    Uh-huh.

    "We appreciate it. I'll see about arranging a viewing and let the police know you're here."

    "While you're doing that," Jack said, forcing a tremor into his voice, "I think I'll step outside for a breath of air. We were very close. Had a lot of laughs together. He was a real cutup."

    She gave him a sympathetic smile. "I understand."

    As soon as Jack was out the door, he made a beeline through the banished smokers and began quick-walking up Amsterdam Avenue. He pulled off his sling and shoved it inside his shirt, then ducked into the Lincoln Center parking garage and cut through to Columbus Avenue.

    As he mingled with the crowd there he called Naka Slater and told him to print up those flyers and Martin Luther them all over town, because his only info source was dead. The body count had moved up to four.

9

    Hank found the perfect spot on Long Island's North Fork.

    Somewhere in the tectonic past, Long Island's eastern third split into a pair of peninsulas. While the longer, wider southern division grew crowded and famous for its wealthy Hamptons and remote Montauk, its smaller sister to the north remained fairly rural, becoming the heart of Long Island's wine industry.

    Halfway out the fork—shouldn't it be called a tine? he wondered—and a little ways off Middle Road, he came upon a farm with a dozen or so brown-and-white Golden Guernsey cows munching grass in a field adjacent to the road.

    He watched them for a moment, then turned and looked at the slim, oblong, blanket-wrapped bundle on the backseat and felt his excitement grow.

    This was gonna be good.

    He found a spot on the side of the road where his Jeep would be shielded from the farmhouse by an intervening stand of trees.

    Perfect.

    Except for the wait. Though the sun was well into its slide toward the horizon, the sky was still too bright for what he planned.

    So he took a leisurely drive out to Orient Point on the far eastern tip of the fork and parked near the ferry dock. As he stared across the choppy channel to Plum Island, he thought about the strange turns his life had taken since he'd written Kick. From manual laborer to backdoor celebrity.

    Life had been simpler and maybe even happier back in his slaughterhouse days. He hadn't had to make decisions for other people, not even for himself. He'd been happy to do what he was told. Some days he'd be a "knocker," using a compressed air gun to shoot a steel bolt into the cow's head to knock it out. Other days he'd be assigned as a "sticker," which he tended to prefer. Once the knocker was through with them, the unconscious cows would be hung upside down by a leg from the overhead rail, and then Hank would come along and slit their throats.

    Bloody, bloody work, and hot too because of the rubber jacket and pants. But looking back, Hank realized he'd never felt so at peace with himself, not before, not since.

    Peace… He shook his head. Would he ever know peace? Then he heard himself laugh. Did he even want peace again?

    Sure as hell not till he'd found the guy who'd stolen the Compendium of Srem—right out of his hands, the son of a bitch. The same guy who'd called himself John Tyleski and pretended to be a reporter. He could still see his nothing-special face, with its brown eyes, and his brown hair as he grilled him. Hank would have the Kickers out looking for him but how do you describe a guy who looked like everybody and nobody?

    Hank glanced in his rearview and saw the sun nudging the horizon. Time to go.

    He drove at the speed limit, trying to time his arrival at the farm with dusk. He needed some light for his plan, but didn't want too much. The closer he got, the more he felt his excitement build, tingling down his back and around to his belly to settle lower, like a horny kid heading out to meet the easiest girl in town, knowing she'd give it up with the barest minimum of persuasion.

    As he turned off Middle Road he spotted a puddle. He stopped and rubbed mud on his license plates, then continued to the farm.

    The light was perfect when he reached it. He parked in the blind spot and removed the katana from the blanket on the backseat. He held up the blade and saw the dying light reflect dully along its pitted, riddled surface. He found it strangely beautiful, almost… mesmerizing…

    With effort, he pulled his gaze away and hopped the fence. A Guernsey stood about thirty yards away. She looked up at his casual, unhurried approach. Not afraid. Why should she be? The worst any human had done to her was milk her teats. She lowered her head to the grass and resumed grazing.

    Hank positioned himself beside her, feet spread, facing her thick neck. As he raised the katana above his head he felt a stirring in his groin.

    He needed this… really needed this. And he wanted to see what this katana could do… wanted to cut all the way through with a single swing.

    But he wanted the cow looking at him when this happened.

    "Hey!" he called in a soft voice. "Hey, you."

    When the cow looked up he saw his reflection in her large dark eye, a man-shaped blotch silhouetted against the fading twilight.

    Now… do it now.

    To add extra force behind the blow, Hank envisioned the fake John Tyleski's bland features against the skin of the neck. With a low cry he raised the blade even higher and swung with all he had.

SATURDAY

1

    "Here's an odd story," Abe said, staring down at a newspaper through the reading glasses perched on his nose.

    Jack glanced up and saw it was the Long Island paper, Newsday. Abe hadn't ventured into the wilds of Long Island since he'd had a full head of hair, but that didn't keep him from Newsday.

    "Odd how? Like congress-has-impeached-itself-for-high-crimes-and-misdemeanors odd, or two-headed-cow odd?"

    "A cow he mentions. You're psychic maybe?"

    "Call me Criswell. Another moon-jumping incident?"

    "Not quite. Someone killed a cow on a farm out Peconic way."

    "That's not odd, that's the first step toward a Big Mac. Hard to get ground beef with the cow still alive."

    "This one wasn't killed by its owner."

    "Those pesky aliens again? Mutilated?"

    "Beheaded."

    That brought Jack up short. He looked up at Abe and saw he wasn't kidding. The thought of someone hacking away at some poor dumb animal's neck until the head fell off made him queasy.

    "Jeez."

    "There's more. It seems to have been done with a single blow."

    "To a cow? Behead a cow with a single cut? What'd he use—a chainsaw?"

    "They think it was a sword."

    Ah… so this was why he'd brought it up. Jack had told Abe about the Gaijin Masamune, and how it had sliced through his shoulder like a hot Ginsu through butter—no, make that soft margarine.

    But could it be the Gaijin? Maybe. It had cut through the barrel of his Glock, yes, but was any sword sharp enough to do a cow like that?

    Could it have been the katana?

    "You think there's a connection?"

    Abe gave one of his shrugs. "A sword maven I'm not. But you yourself just told me this blade was very sharp. But then it disappears and what happens: The next night—the very next night—a cow is beheaded with a very sharp, swordlike object." His Norman Mailer eyebrows oscillated like caterpillars in heat. "Coincidence?"

    Last year Jack had been given the chilling message that there'd be no more coincidences in his life. But that cow wasn't a part of his life, so why couldn't this be a coincidence?

    "Do you believe that?"

    Abe shook his head. "No."

    "Neither do I."

    Crap.

    And then he remembered a passage from Kick where Hank Thompson mentioned his years of working in a slaughterhouse.

    Could it be?

    If so, it would be another in a long chain of noncoincidences.

    But he had no way of knowing, so he let it go.

    "If it was the same sword, the story could have been about your head being separated from its body."

    "Tell me about it. That thing is sharp. Barely felt it cut me."

    "Speaking of cuts, how did you explain yours to Gia?"

    Jack glanced at his shoulder. He hadn't worn the sling today and hadn't missed it. His deltoid throbbed, but nothing he couldn't ignore.

    "Haven't had to. Haven't seen her since it happened."

    "What are you going to tell her?"

    Jack shrugged. "The truth. No biggie."

    "And when are you going to tell her the truth about the accident that was no accident?"

    He shook his head. "Wish I knew, Abe."

    "The longer you wait, the harder it will be."

    "She needs a little more distance from the acc—from what happened."

    Abe looked dubious. "If you say so." He tapped the newspaper. "And this sword? What are you going to do?"

    "Nothing until I hear from Slater."

    "I see the flyers up already. You may be hearing soon."

    Jack had referred Naka to one of his old customers, a guy with a print shop who, for an added fee, would farm out the distribution work to guys who could use the extra cash and had nothing better to do.

    "Even then, I may opt out."

    "You're saying you're going to stop looking? You?" He shook his head. "Such little self-awareness. You know you're not."

    "Am too. Going to wait for that katana to come to me."

    Abe frowned. "That'll happen, you think?"

    Jack nodded resignedly. "Yeah. Got a feeling it will. A bad feeling."

2

    Hank waved one of the flyers and shouted, "I want these down! I want them gone!"

    Darryl and Menck looked a little cowed as he paced back and forth across a corner of the Lodge basement. Well, they should be. He was pissed. When Darryl had brought it in to show him, he'd exploded.

    He'd awakened this morning still high from last night. The air had seemed a little cleaner, the sun a little brighter.

    Doing the cow had had something to do with it. Though he'd tried to avoid it, he couldn't help getting splattered with her hot blood. Messy, but it had felt good.

    And then the dream. The Kicker Man was back again with the baby, cradling it in his lower right arm. But this time he was brandishing the katana in his lower left, while he held his two upper arms high in a V for victory.

    The meaning was unmistakable: With the sword and the baby in his possession, nothing could stop the Kicker Evolution.

    Well, he had the sword, and Dawn had been located. Only a matter of time before she and her baby were under his roof. Despite some rough spots along the way, everything was working out.

    Then this flyer. What a bring-down.

    Five thousand bucks for information leading to the sword. He wondered about the amount… a coincidence that it was the same reward he'd been offering for Dawn? Or a challenge?

    "You've already got the sword," Menck said. "Ain't nobody else gonna get it."

    "How do you know that? Whoever this guy is, he's offering a five-grand reward. We've got a lot of people moving in and out of this building, and although they're not allowed on the second floor, and although they have Kicker Man tattoos, some of them would sell their mother for half that."

    Darryl said, "But—"

    "But nothin! Somebody may have seen you pick it up. That someone may connect you with me. I can think of a million scenarios where this could go south. So I want those flyers down and Dumpstered. Got it?"

    They nodded and spoke in unison.

    "Got it."

3

    Jack spotted him the minute he stepped through the door. Someone was sitting at his table.

    "He say he waitin for you, meng," Julio said in a low voice as he met him at the door. "I saw you with him the other night so I figure 'sokay. 'Sokay?"

    The guy had his back to the room, but the broad shoulders and gray hair gave him away.

    Glaeken—no, make that Mr. Veilleur.

    " 'Sokay."

    Jack walked over and said, "Mind if I join you?"

    Veilleur lifted his glass of stout in a toast and smiled up at him. "Jack. I was hoping you'd stop by." He gestured to the chair against the wall. "I saved your seat."

    Julio came over as Jack sat.

    "Usual?"

    After two visits to the Ear in one week, Jack had developed a taste for witbier.

    "Too bad you don't have any Hoegaarden on tap."

    Julio made a face. "That yuppie-hippie-emo piss? You kiddin me, meng?"

    Jack sighed. "The usual."

    As Julio left, Jack turned to Veilleur and noticed a flyer on the table. He turned it around and recognized a photo of the katana. Naka had wasted no time.

    "Where'd you get this?"

    Veilleur shrugged. "A man handed it to me on my way over. A very interesting sword."

    Jack debated whether to say anything about it, then decided why not.

    "Supposedly it's called the Gaijin Masamune."

    Veilleur's head snapped up. "The what?"

    Jack wondered at his reaction. "You've heard of it?"

    "No. But I've heard of Masamune and I know what gaijin means. It's really a Masamune?"

    Jack's turn to shrug. "So I've been told. He didn't sign it, so who's to say?"

    Veilleur's gaze was fixed on the flyer. "What else do you know about it?"

    Jack didn't want to talk about the katana—would rather not even think about it. He was far more interested in learning more about the Taint. But he had to give the guy an answer so he told him the Cliff Notes version of the story as he'd got it from O'Day—from the meeting between Masamune and the gaijin to Hiroshima and the bomb.

    In closing he tapped the flyer. "It was stolen from this guy. He asked me to find it for him. I told him flyers were the best way to go."

    "Will you know if he succeeds?"

    "I promised I'd look into any leads if he wants me to."

    Veilleur was staring at the flyer again. "Well, if you come into possession of it, I'd be very interested in seeing it."

    He'd be delighted never to see it again, but he said, "Sure. But enough of the katana. Let's talk about the Taint."

    "Of course. But first I'd like something to eat. I don't suppose Julio serves food?"

    "Serves foodlike substances."

    Veilleur frowned. "That doesn't sound very appetizing. Does he have a menu?"

    Jack shook his head and pointed to the blackboard over the bar. "Just that."

    Glaeken squinted at it. "The writing is very faint."

    "That's because it's been there forever. He never changes it."

    He looked around. "The place looks too small to have a kitchen."

    "Not if you call a freezer and a microwave a kitchen."

    Still squinting at the sign, Veilleur started to rise from his chair. "I'll have to move closer—"

    Jack grabbed his arm. "I haven't known you long enough to call you a friend, but let me tell you: Friends don't let friends eat at Julio's."

    The old man dropped back into his seat. "Thank you. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've eaten in my life, but my stomach's not what it used to be."

    "Purely selfish on my part: I don't want you grabbing your gut and running out of here before you've told me a few things."

    He laughed. "A practical man, and straightforward about it too. I like that." He sipped his stout. "You want to know more about the Taint."

    Jack leaned forward. "Bingo. And maybe throw in a little info about Jonah Stevens while you're at it."

    "If we have time."

    Julio arrived with a mug of Yuengling for Jack and pointed to Veilleur's stout. "Get you another?"

    "I believe so."

    "You wanna eat?" When Veilleur glanced at Jack, Julio added, "Don' look at him. He wouldn't know good food if it bit him."

    Jack said, "One of your burritos did bite me—right on the stomach lining."

    "Don' listen to him. You hungry? You wanna cube steak? We got delicious stuffed cube steak."

    Veilleur gave him a wan smile and shook his head. "I'm cutting back on stuffed cube steak."

    When he was gone, Veilleur said, "I almost feel obligated to order something, even if I don't eat it."

    "The Taint?" Jack said.

    "Single-minded, aren't we?"

    "So I've been told."

    Veilleur leaned back. "To understand the Taint you need to know some of the Secret History of the World."

    That phrase again. "When I was a kid, I had a good friend who used to talk about a Secret History of the World."

    "The conspiracy crowd believes in a secret history and has countless scenarios for it, mostly wrong. But they're right about one thing: The world has a history known to only a few. It was codified once in a book that I hid away for safekeeping with other so-called forbidden texts, but they've all disappeared."

    Jack had a flash. "That wouldn't be the Compendium of Srem, would it?"

    Veilleur straightened in his chair. "You've heard of it?"

    "Heard of it? It's sitting in my apartment."

    "Amazing. Well then, why do you need me to tell you the Secret History when it's at your fingertips?"

    Jack drummed those fingertips on the table. "It's not exactly an easy read, what with the pages changing every time you turn around."

    Veilleur frowned. "Is that so? I guess Srem wound up with a multivolume work that she had to fit into a single book."

    "She?"

    "Yes. Srem was an ancient, ancient Cassandra who saw the cataclysm coming and wanted to preserve a record of her times before everything was destroyed."

    "Cataclysm?"

    "We'll get to that. But—"

    "Wait-wait-wait." Something wasn't right here. "You said you owned the book. So how come you didn't know how the text keeps changing?"

    Veilleur shrugged. "I owned it but I never opened it. Her history was no secret to me. I didn't need to read about it—I'd lived it."

    Okay. Jack could buy that.

    "But what good is a book that keeps changing?"

    He scratched his beard. "Not much. Something must have gone wrong. That sort of book was designed to have a finite number of sheets but a virtually infinite number of pages."

    Jack stared at him. "I will add what you just said to my list of Things That Make Me Go, 'Huh?'"

    "It's simple, really. If you have one hundred sheets in a book, you will have two hundred pages, correct?"

    "One on each side of a sheet. Right."

    "But in this sort of book, when you turn the one-hundredth sheet—notice I didn't say 'last'—you find another waiting for you. And another after that and another after that."

    "But then you've got extra sheets."

    Veilleur shook his head. "No. Because sheets are disappearing at the beginning of the book. If you flip back, you will find them again, but the sheet count remains constant."

    Jack stared at him. He didn't seem to be pulling his leg.

    "You're serious?"

    "Of course. It's a lost art."

    He realized that, after all he'd seen, he shouldn't be surprised by anything anymore, but this seemed straight out of Harry Potter.

    "All well and good, but that's not what's happening. Pages are disappearing here and there about the book and being replaced by ones I've never seen that have nothing to do with what precedes or follows them."

    "I imagine that would make comprehension very difficult."

    "Tell me about it."

    "Something must have gone wrong somewhere along the millennia. Too bad. The text would have explained everything."

    At least Jack had an explanation of what was going on with that damn book—if you could call that an explanation.

    Yeah. Too bad.

    "So now the job falls to you."

    "So it seems. Very well. To understand, you have to go back to the First Age, when the Adversary and I were born, and the war between the Ally and the Otherness was more out in the open. The laws of physics and chemistry and matter and energy were more pliable back then. Some people could perform what might seem like magic to you."

    "Like Srem?"

    "Like Srem. Anyway, I'd already defeated the Adversary—I was a mercenary in those days and did it for money—and it appeared I'd killed him. Because of that, the Ally chose me as one of its paladins."

    "One of them?"

    "There were a number of us back then, and the Adversary had his fellow plotters as well."

    "But now it's just the two of you?"

    "We're the only two to survive—for different reasons."

    "You said you thought you'd killed him."

    "Yes, but he managed a rebirth—"

    "Besides the one in sixty-eight?"

    A nod. "He's resourceful and resilient. We battled for centuries across surreal landscapes that would now be called dreamlike—or nightmarish. Neither side could gain the advantage. In a desperate move, the Otherness created the q'qr race."

    "Cooker? You mean Kicker?"

    "No. Kicker is Thompson's mangling of an ancient word." He spelled it for Jack, then pronounced it again.

    Jack almost leaped from his seat. "Q'qr! I saw that in the Compendium. It called the Kicker Man 'the sign of the q'qr.' And under that it had some sort of poem about the q'qr."

    " 'The Q'qr died yet lived on… the Q'qr is gone yet remains.' Something like that?"

    "Yeah. That and more."

    " 'The Song of the Q'qr.' A cautionary tale."

    "Well, it's hard to be cautioned when you don't know what they're talking about."

    Like much of what Jack had read in the Compendium, it assumed the reader shared the same reference base.

    "The Otherness took a horde of its followers and inserted something of itself into their DNA."

    "Did you even know about DNA back then?"

    "We called it something else. Our life sciences were advanced, but the Otherness and the Ally blocked advances in weaponry, leaving us with only points and edges to fight with. Which often were not enough against waves of creatures part human and part Otherness."

    "Like a rakosh?"

    Veilleur shook his head. "The rakoshi were built from the ground up, so to speak; the q'qr were, in the current parlance, retrofitted. They were savage, vicious, their appearance fearsome—large and hairy, with fanged snouts. But their most terrifying feature was their two extra limbs."

    "Four arms—the Kicker Man."

    "Yes. But their extra limbs were boneless, tentacular, which made them all the more terrifying. What you call the Kicker Man was their symbol. They would draw it in blood wherever they had slaughtered humans—an almost continuous occurrence. They lived to kill and breed, and were prolific at both."

    "How'd you stop them?"

    "As I said, First Age weaponry was primitive, but our life sciences were advanced. The adepts began searching for an infection that would kill q'qr and spare humans. They were half successful: They created an agent that turned out to be deadly only to q'qr females."

    Jack winced at what he saw coming. "With no females around, the q'qr males must have gone after human women."

    "An unforeseen consequence. The males would tear through villages and towns, killing all the men and children and raping the women, hoping for at least some half-breeds to add to their ranks. But only a q'qr female could give birth to q'qr children. The raped women gave birth to human children—at least they looked human. Their mothers' DNA had commingled with the remnants of human DNA in the q'qr, but had quarantined the Otherness-created genes. The children seemed fully human but they carried what came to be known as the Taint. After the q'qr were defeated, the Taints were segregated—given their own land apart from the untainted population."

    "But if they were segregated, how did the Taint spread?"

    "The cataclysm. When its q'qr strategy failed, the Otherness lashed out at humanity, causing global geological and climatological upheavals that wiped out First Age civilization and most of humanity along with it. The surviving humans—pure-blood and Taint alike—huddled together and interbred, and spread out from there."

    Jack shook his head. "This sounds like Velikovsky stuff. I mean, I used to be into anthropology and this goes against all the accepted theories."

    Veilleur seemed unperturbed. "I imagine it does. But that's why it's called the Secret History of the World."

    "Come on. There's gotta be some trace of the First Age somewhere."

    Jack remembered a strange object he'd found in the Pine Barrens as a kid, possibly a leftover from that time. But it had disappeared.

    "I'm sure there is, but not much. The upheavals were colossal and extensive. The Adversary and I barely escaped with our lives—all my fellow paladins perished. So whatever little is left is buried deep." He paused. "And yet… not so deep. Every human religion from the Sumerians to the Babylonians to the Jews has a cleansing cataclysm in its mythology—usually a flood. And even the q'qr live on in a way. Look at Hinduism—arguably the oldest established religion. Its pantheon includes gods like Shiva the Destroyer, Indra the god of lightning, Yama the god of the dead, and the most fearsome of all, Kali the blood queen. And what do they have in common?"

    Jack didn't know Indra and Yama, but had seen pictures of Shiva, and knew Kali all too well. The answer gave him a chill.

    "Four arms."

    "Exactly."

    They sat in silence for a while. Jack didn't know what Veilleur was thinking, but his own thoughts were awhirl. Finally…

    "So we all carry this Taint."

    Veilleur shrugged. "I suppose the laws of probability dictate that some people must be Taint free, but you can't tell by looking at them."

    "Can you think of any purpose for a super-tainted baby?"

    He shook his head. "Not one."

    "Then why did Jonah Stevens—" Jack suddenly remembered something. "Wait… the other night… you seemed to recognize his name."

    "I do. He was the Preparer of the Way for the Adversary's rebirth. And after he was born, Jonah protected him while his mother raised him."

    Jack slapped the table. "Then Ras—I mean the Adversary must be behind the baby."

    Another head shake. "I don't think so. I believe the Adversary murdered Jonah not too long after he'd set his plan in motion."

    "Murdered? I heard it was an accident."

    "Accidents can be arranged. I believe Jonah Stevens had it in his head that his super-tainted offspring could take the Adversary's place. The Adversary found out and eliminated him."

    "Then I guess that now that the baby is on its way, he'll want to eliminate it as well."

    That meant even more competition in the hunt for Dawn Pickering and her unborn child. First Hank and his crew, and now maybe Rasalom as well.

    A teenage girl with no idea what she's carrying, clueless as to all the wheels she's set in motion.

    Dawn—Dawn—Dawn… Where the hell are you?

4

    "A woman!" cried the Seer. "A woman with child!"

    Toru Akechi chewed his upper lip in worry as he watched the legless, half-naked Seer writhing on the futon. His anxiety stemmed from his elimination of Tadasu yesterday. As one of the Order's sensei, he had great latitude with his charges, but that stopped well short of pronouncing a death sentence. He had done what he had done for the good of the Order, but he had not had the approval of the Elders. No member of the Order could be eliminated without that.

    He worried that the Seer might learn of it and tell the Elders assembled here. As far as Toru knew, the Sighting potion allowed only visions of the future, but still…

    The Seer sat up, swiveling his eyeless face back and forth.

    "A woman with child!" he cried again. "I see her face everywhere, staring back at me. She is important only for the child she carries. Her child, her child, her child… it will change the world. Who controls the child controls the future. The Order must control the child. It must!"

    He loosed a guttural sound as he went through another bout of writhing and thrashing. And then he stopped, looking once again at nothing.

    "The blade! The blade is with the woman! No! It is with her child! I see the child wielding the blade. The blade and child are together now and will be so again in the future. Her child and the katana are linked to the destiny of the world!"

    And then he fainted, falling backward. His head hit the floor with a meaty thunk.

    A pregnant woman whose face was everywhere. Everywhere… a film star? A cover model?

    He and the Elders would divine its meaning and hunt down this woman with child and bring her under the Order's wing.

    Who controls the child controls the future.

    Toru wanted that child for the Order.

    But then the second half of the Seeing: The blade and child are together now and will be so again in the future.

    What else could that mean but that the katana was with the pregnant woman? Find one and they would find the other.

    Her child and the katana are linked to the destiny of the world.

    The future of the Kakureta Kao was linked to the destiny of the world as well.

    He would start the hunt immediately.

5

    "Takita-san!"

    Hideo looked up and saw Kenji rushing into the room, waving a pink sheet of paper.

    "Look at this!"

    Hideo took the sheet and froze as he recognized the katana in the photo. And then he was out of his seat and in Kenji's face.

    "Where did you get this?"

    "Taped to the front door. They're all over."

    Hideo stared at the sheet. What did it mean?

    Acting on his theory that the owner from Hawaii had hired the ronin to find the katana, Hideo had spent all yesterday searching for an urban mercenary. He'd found mercenaries—plenty of them. They advertised in magazines like Soldier of Fortune and on various Web sites, but none of them fit the profile of the man he was looking for.

    And now this flyer. Who but the owner from Hawaii would be offering such a reward? If so, it meant he had not yet reclaimed the katana.

    He had to speak to this man. He was a living link to the sword—the only one within reach—and Hideo needed to learn what he knew. Perhaps he could provide a direction. He needed something, anything. He was flounde