The Red Impulse Chronicles -- Ab Initio by RIgirl
Summary: In the years before there was Gatchaman, or the Science Ninja Team, Nambu called upon a team of men who would eventually become known as Red Impulse. These are their stories.

In the middle of a tense assignment, Washio is joined by his new team mates -- and becomes the target of a mysterious blonde woman.
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Berg Katse, Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Goon, Kentaro/Red Impulse, Original Character, Other Canon Character, Sosai X
Genre: Action/Adventure, Angst, Character Study, Drama, Mystery
Story Warnings: Adult Situations, Blood, Guts & Gore, Death, Graphic Violence, Mature Content, Mild Adult Situations, Mild Language, Mild Sexual References, Strong Language, Violence
Timeframe: Prequel
Universe: Tenuously Canon
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 2 Completed: Yes Word count: 18804 Read: 3507 Published: 05/27/2013 Updated: 05/27/2013

1. Chapter 1 -- The Meetings by RIgirl

2. Chapter 2 -- The Outcomes by RIgirl

Chapter 1 -- The Meetings by RIgirl
The water sluiced off his shoulders, running in rivulets down the smooth planes of his chest and arm muscles. To her surprise, she found herself desiring to run her fingertips along the water’s routes, tracing its progress as the water dripped down. She frowned inwardly, though her face showed no outward change of emotion.

He was not her usual type and she still could not figure out just why he held such a fascination for her. In general, she preferred younger men, ones closer to her own age, perhaps a little younger, and sporting a decidedly more androgynous look.

This one, however, was all male -- lean, all broad at the shoulder, narrow at the hip, and defined muscle everywhere. The perfect model of testosterone in action. She glanced down, appreciating the view from where she sat. Though he did not wear the typical tight-fitting swimwear that men of this region of the world seemed inclined to wear, instead, he wore modest swim trucks, whose dark cloth clung to his hips without revealing all that much.

Which only served to make her want to see that much more of him.

She had first spotted him when he had entered the company’s lobby. Unlike the others who came in for the initial tour, he kept a careful watch around him, seeing, looking, but he had not reacted as the others had, with the lack of guile and air to please that the rest wore. He was looking to be impressed, not impressing, and he seemed to be looking for something else as well.

She wanted to know what. So after they had been through the tour and she watched from her remote office window. As they were then led into one of the conference rooms and given the opening sell speech by the company’s public relations man, she followed him.

It was that easy.

Without him noticing, she trailed after him and the others, and realized that he did not go to the same hotel as the others. She took a seat and ducked behind an open fashion magazine as he signed in. Just as he wrapped up his transaction, she quickly rose and joined the waiting line behind him. As he turned, key card in hand and finished with checking in, and just as she moved forward to take his place, their eyes had met for the briefest of moments. Curiosity and intrigue mixed with a sudden desire she had not felt before nor could not explain, even now.

Though she had kept her mind on the business that brought her here, it did not keep her from watching, waiting, seeing where and when he came and went over the next few days. After all, the company representatives that they were making their pitch to were scheduled to remain here for two weeks, on the claim that they had to see the entire operation, in its various stages of production, and that decisions would need to be made, and answers would need to be given, before they departed.

Unlike the others, she found that he varied his schedule, sometimes leaving the hotel through one door, some times another.

Which only served to deepen the mystery around this man. Why was he being so evasive? What secrets was he keeping? She had to know, to find out. Her instincts were never wrong, and right now, there was something about this man that made her know she had to do something, say something to him.

So she watched him now through narrowed eyes, grateful that her harlequin sunglasses shielded her eyes so that no one could possibly know exactly who she was observing. He had swum fast and hard, his movements easy and as liquid as the water through which he was moving as he went lap after lap from one end of the pool to the other and back again.

She had hoped that he would surface soon, but he had been in the water for nearly half an hour before he finally caught hold of the metal ladder and pulled himself out. She glanced over again at the towel draped over the back of the chair next to hers, the sunglasses left near the edge of the table at her elbow. She had assumed that they were his, and so far, no one else had claimed the items. She looked back at him expectantly.

He stood there still, one rung down from the top, and combed his fingers through his wet, dirty blonde hair, slicking it back in a single, easy, practiced move. He snapped his hands, shaking the last of the water from them, then climbed out of the pool the rest of the way.

She felt her heart pound as he approached. She had taken a chance and now, if she played her cards right, he would be hers to claim by the end of the evening.

And what a prize he would prove to be, she thought, nearly purring at the thought.

As he reached out for the towel, she discreetly hooked her foot under and around the chair leg and jerked it a few inches, pulling it just out of his reach. He cut a look of surprise at her, but said nothing. She gave him a smile, though the sunglasses did not let him see that there was no warmth in her eyes, just a predatory hunter’s assessment.

“Do you swim just for recreation,” she asked him, “or are you training for a competition?”

His jaw tightened at her question, then he snatched up the towel before she could move the chair again and he briskly dried himself off. He pointedly dragged his glance from her face, down her body, and up again as he finished.

“Are you challenging me to a race?”

“Hardly,” she replied with a light laugh, waving a hand dismissively in the direction of the pool. “I can’t abide being in water like that.” She lowered her sunglasses just enough so that she could look invitingly over the tops of them at him. “And I can think of other ways to challenge you, if you are interested.”

“Sorry, no,” he answered curtly, scooping up his own sunglasses from the table and sliding them on. With the towel draped around his neck, he walked towards the cabana and the men’s locker room.

As if that would stop her, she thought with a slight curl to her lip.

She watched him disappear into the low, painted cinderblock building and drummed her fingers on the glass tabletop as she mulled this over. She would have him; now she was more determined than ever, and she was not one to let a little thing like outright rejection deter her.

All she had to do was find out what his biggest weakness was. That, and who he was. Easy.

With that plan in mind, she rose to her feet and looked over at the hotel’s clock tower. It was later than she thought and she did not plan to be late for her first corporate shareholders meeting. She held complete power now and she intended to show all of those stuffed suits that she meant to wield it.

* * *

He walked into the conference room, barely listening to the nattering of the company’s public relations man, who apparently had felt obligated to take it upon himself to extol the company’s virtues to these potential investors for the entire time they were unfortunate enough to be in his presence.

A quick glance proved his theory right. The other company representatives were stifling yawns, giving quick, surreptitious glances to pockets and cupped hands that contained whatever electronic gizmo they had that connected them to the more interesting outside world, or making comments to each other sotto voce. No one seemed to mind or care that the PR guy was being ignored, least of all him.

By Kentaro Washio’s estimation, the PR guy should have shut up while he was behind about twenty minutes ago. He looked at his wristwatch again, unbelieving that its hands had barely budged from their places. That was when he heard a door at the opposite end of the room open and he quickly looked up to see the newcomer.

His blood went cold as he recognized the woman from the pool the day before. The tall, statuesque blonde, dressed in a figure-flattering dark purple suit, strode into the room as if she owned it and she paused just shy of the back of the chair nearest to her to pointedly look at those assembled before her.

Her eyes locked with his when her gaze reached him, a slender, long-fingered hand tugging at the red silk scarf at her throat, and she favored him with a smile as though she were enjoying a good joke that only she had heard and at his expense.

Does she know, he wondered, busying himself by taking a seat with the others now that their main presenter was here, or was our encounter at the hotel merely a coincidence?

But there were no coincidences. Not in his world. Every move, every meeting, every everything was calculated and manipulated. In this game, you either kept two moves ahead of your opponent or you found yourself out of the game.

Sometimes permanently.

Washio kept a neutral expression on his face and forced himself to turn to the PR guy, who had claimed the seat next to his.

“ ... and we’re making great strides,” he said with an eager enthusiasm, leaning forward on the table towards the man seated on the other side of him, “great strides that you and your companies will want to be a part of.” He pulled back, as though to sit, then rocked forward again.

No doubt thinking himself to be forceful and confident when he’s nothing but hot air and show, smoke and mirrors, Washio thought uncharitably, his discomfort and doubt at the blonde woman’s presence coloring his already dim view of the man seated next to him.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” an older man whom Washio recognized as the CEO of the host company, called out, “if you could all please take your seats so that we may begin?”

There was a brief scuffling as chairs were slid back, places were found, and people made themselves comfortable. To his further discomfort, Washio looked up to find that the blonde woman had placed herself directly across from him. She gave him a chilled smile.

“Greetings to all,” the CEO, an older, florid man, whose red face spoke of heart problems in his near future, began once everyone was seated. “I’m delighted that you all could come to our meet-and-greet getaway. You’ve all had the tour of our facilities, so I won’t bore you with another overview of our company again. Instead, I will turn the floor over to my esteemed colleague, who has worked her way up through only a few short years from office intern to the executive level she now holds ....”

“Thank you,” the blonde woman interrupted, cutting him off and rising gracefully to her feet in one smooth motion. Once up, she paused, taking a moment to meet the eyes of every person seated around the table, saving Washio for last so that she stared at him as she continued. “We have big plans for this company and every other company who joins us. As part of our organization, we can guarantee you protections that might not otherwise be available.”

A thin man from the end of the table cleared his throat. “That almost sounds like a threat.”

“It is no threat,” she responded coolly, ignoring his challenging tone. “It is merely the way things are going on a global scale. Look around you, Mr. Arnstrom, if you do not believe me. Industries must ban together, even those as diverse as those represented here today, if we are to survive at all. You all hear the news. You are all familiar with the political climates in places like Franbell, Bien, and Ameria. In order to not get caught up in the financial fallout of those civil unrests, you will, of course, want to protect your companies ... and your bottom lines.

"We can assure you of having full standing orders every month for goods and services, along with quotas that will keep your companies in business. To turn us away now, well, who knows what will happen three months from now. Six months? A year? Do you really want to risk seeing your company decline as resources get harder and harder to find and more expensive with each passing quarter? And what of your stockholders? What would they want you to do? Or your employees? Or yourselves?”

Washio felt an icy finger draw down his spine and he suppressed a shiver. He had expected a hard sell, this was not the first of these types of meetings that he had endured for the sake of a mission, but this was the first time he had seen this woman and there was no mistaking the dark undertone of her speech.

He looked down and gave quick looks from beneath his lashes at the others. A few were nodding, in full agreement with the woman, apparently having already made up their minds. A few looked unsure and slightly sick, while a handful wore expressions of pure terror.

For his part, Washio did not have the real worries that these executives did. For starters, the company he represented only existed courtesy of the International Science Organization, or ISO. When he was handed this mission, he was told that the company had been set up through a number of blinds and false names. It looked great on paper, but only because it had been written that way, and if someone did a background check, or even appeared at the address given on its official documents, they would find a building which boasted the corporate headquarters as tenants.

Or so he had been told. He had gone to the address himself, wanting to know as much as possible, just in case. He did not want something as insignificant as a building detail give him away and he was sure that this organization that he had been trying to uncover would have checked. Or at the very least, sent one of their own spies or undercover agents to gather intel on the veracity of the corporations.

If they had, though, no one had said anything to him.

Yet.

Or maybe she knows, Washio thought, his eyes once more drifting to the blonde woman. Perhaps that was what she was playing at the other day, and even being here now. All a way to let him know that they knew.

Washio pulled himself out of his thoughts as packets of information, all containing agreements that stated that each company would work solely for this coalition and no other, were handed out.

Another glance at the blonde woman and he found her staring at him once more, eyeing him up the way a lion would track an injured gazelle. He resolved to leave as soon as he could, before he could be trapped into another confrontation with this woman. As the last of the packets came to rest at their final destination of hands, the blonde woman clapped for everyone’s attention.

“Remember,” she said above the noise of bodies moving and paper rustling, “you will all have 48 hours to get back to us. Those who join us will, of course, have the pleasure of touring our private industrial park, which is not part of the public operations you have all seen so far. This next tour will be to demonstrate to you how we will be able to help you streamline your companies and make them more efficient with the advanced technology that only we possess.”

“And should we choose not?” asked a man Washio recognized from a company having its corporate headquarters located in Ameris.

The blonde woman’s smile remained fixed on her lips, but the anger that flashed through her eyes was hard to miss.

“It will be your loss,” she replied coldly, in a tone that was more veiled threat than promise, “in more than one way.”

The man swallowed hard, his brief spark of defiance now blown out. He looked anywhere but at the blonde woman, then made himself busy with gathering up his things.

What would he do, Washio wondered, rising to his feet. What would they all do?

* * *

He was so lost in these thoughts that it took him a moment to realize that the four men standing in front of the building he had been using as his headquarters were actually waiting for him.

Hell’s bells, he thought angrily, his hand tightening on the steering wheel. I do not need this, and certainly not now. Damn Nambu and his rotten timing.

He had forgotten Nambu’s threat. No, that was not quite accurate. He had not forgotten, but chose to ignore the fact that Nambu had wanted to send him a small group of men, to form a squad. Of what he didn’t know and didn’t care to find out. All Nambu had deigned to tell him was that they would be known within the ISO as Code Name Red Impulse.

“I don’t need anyone else,” he protested when Nambu had first informed him of his intent. “I’ve managed this far on my own and I see no reason to involve anyone else.”

“But that’s just it,” Nambu argued. “Things are progressing faster than we anticipated. All indications are showing that this organization -- this Galactor -- is quite possibly larger then we originally thought, and wield a great deal more power than we know. I don’t want you in the field alone, it isn’t safe ...”

“Since when has my safety ever been an issue?” Washio snapped.

Nambu’s back stiffened at the comment, but he chose to ignore it. “These men have been hand-picked, and could help you do your job more efficiently. Moreover, should anything happen to you, they would be able to make sure that no sensitive information falls into the hands of Galactor.”

“I see.”

“They are military trained, and the idea is that you would, all together, form an elite squad, using your military background and prowess, not only to gather information on Galactor, but possibly also serving to aid in certain ... political situations.”

“And they know this?”

“They do,” Nambu confirmed. “These are men who find themselves in situations like yours ....”

No one has a situation like mine,” Washio interrupted savagely, “nor would I wish this on anyone.”

Nambu let the silence fill the gap in the conversation for a moment, allowing Washio to calm himself down.

Things had not gone exactly as they had hoped when he had first started out. For the ISO, his mission was considered an unqualified success; on a personal level, it had meant complete devastation. Nambu knew that his friend’s anger still ran close to the surface, and he did not blame him. However, there was nothing either of them could do about it now except to keep moving forward as best they could.

“Understand me,” Nambu said evenly once a full minute had passed, “this is not a request, and I am not asking it as a favor. These men will be coming to you, as your squad, and from hereon out, they will be your responsibility to train, command, and order as you see fit for whatever duties we will need your services on. Despite all else, you still work for the ISO, as they do, and together, we will expect you all to work together. It was for this reason we have done what we have ... and why we continue to do what we do. And you know this. I shouldn’t have to tell you.”

The call ended shorted thereafter, and Washio put the topic aside as this newest assignment came up, especially when this group did not appear the next day or even the following week. But they were here now, and he had only a few minutes to decide how best to proceed from here.

For a moment, he considered just driving away, but he knew better than to do that. These men would wait, and continue to wait, as per their orders, until he had met, and dealt, with them.

And deal with them I shall, he thought bitterly, swinging the car alongside the building and putting it into park. As he walked up to the building, and the men, Washio realized that, although they all wore civilian clothes, the uniforms that Nambu had warned would be issued to each of them were no doubt folded and contained within the plain olive green duffle bags at their feet. They would have no other possessions; they would acquire none while they remained here, either.

Nambu had sent Washio one of those uniforms as well, which he promptly stuck in the back of the closet. For what he did, Washio needed to blend in, to be as inconspicuous as possible, and that uniform would do nothing but scream an announcement of his presence. Perhaps some day it would be useful, but definitely not now. Yet again, Washio was left to wonder what Nambu had been thinking.

They watched him wordlessly as he walked up to the door of the small building and opened it, extending an arm in dramatic invitation, a lord welcoming the squires of his land.

“Gentlemen.” It was against military protocol, Washio knew, for subordinates to enter before their superior officers, but years of living deep in the world of espionage had taught him to never turn his back on a man unless he knew he could trust him.

And even then, to be prepared for anything.

Washio stepped back to make room for the quartet as they went into the small room serving as his base of operations. It was not large, it was not grand, but it got the job done. As he closed the door behind him, Washio studied the four men. To his left, two of them stood a bit apart from the rest, and from each other. On his right, the other two stood together, shoulder to shoulder. He frowned.

“Which of you is Ichiro?” he asked, his voice cracking the silence like a whip. The slender man directly in front of Washio took a step closer and gave a short, bobbing bow.

“Me, sir,” the man said, snapping to a military stance. Washio suppressed a sigh as he studied the man.

More like a boy, really, Washio thought. Seems they just kept getting younger every year. Probably doesn’t even shave more than once a month, if that.

“You know why you’re here?”

Ichiro blinked. “I know what brought me here, sir.”

“That’s not what I asked. Just answer the question.”

Ichiro’s mouth set in a hard line. The defiant look made Washio recall what had been in the report on this man that Nambu had sent to him. Even though it had been a few weeks since he had read it, Washio remembered most of the salient details for his purposes. After all, it was not as if he could pull the file out of the drawer and peruse it again. Once he finished reading them, the files were destroyed, lest they landed in the wrong hands. Another lesson, learned hard. Keep nothing in writing and get rid of anything that could be seen or taken. He had not survived this long by being sentimental over things, he couldn’t afford to be. He cast his mind back to what the files contained.

Ichiro, he remembered, had served a short stint in his country’s army -- Franbell, if Washio was not mistaken -- and learned the basic rudiments of military life and what it meant to serve in a war. He had been something of an upset, and had a short record of disciplinary infractions, though nothing that Washio thought terribly out of line or unmanageable.

Ichiro was here, as they all were, because they were the men that the ISO did not know what to do with anymore, and killing them would just create more problems than it would solve. Besides, the ISO held firm the belief that they would have need of these men again, so what else to do with them but to send them into hiding, to be called upon and used whenever the need arose?

No doubt Nambu thought things neater this way, Washio thought as he waited for Ichiro’s answer.

“I am here because I have been ordered here,” Ichiro finally replied grudgingly. “Because I would rather take action instead of always running. Because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder.”

“You will anyway,” Washio retorted in clipped tones. “What we do will call for you to do just that.”

“And if I choose not to?”

“You have no choice,” Washio barked, striding forward to stand before Ichiro, nearly nose-to-nose. “If you have a death wish, do it on your own time, but I will not allow recklessness on the part of one person to endanger the lives of the others. Is this understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Ichiro mumbled.

Washio’s eyes narrowed. “What was that, soldier?”

“Yes, sir,” Ichiro repeated louder, straightening his body to a more correct stance.

Washio turned his attention to the next man, who instantly straightened his posture as well. Washio inclined his head as he studied him. The man regarded him with a nervous curiosity.

“Riku?”

“Yes, sir,” the man answered, straightening his back even further, waiting for further questions.

Washio, however, merely stared at him for a heartbeat longer before proceeding across the room to where the remaining two stood. One was about his own height, though stockier in build, while the other was slightly taller and leaner. The self-conscious way he held his head, along with the small bit of angry red scar just at the edge of the turtleneck he wore, even in the heat of a summer day, told Washio which man was which. He walked over to the taller one.

“You are Oniishi, the one who will not speak.”

A throat cleared. “He is, sir, but it is not that he will not speak, he cannot ...”

“Did I address you?” Washio asked, his eyes never leaving Oniishi’s face.

“Well, no, but ....”

“Then do not answer for him,” Washio snapped, taking one step closer to Oniishi and addressing him. “I am presuming that you are able to communicate with others on your own, yes?”

Oniishi gave a bow and nodded his head as he reached into his trouser pocket and withdrew a small notebook and pen. Quickly, he wrote a few words and held it out to Washio. “We can converse this way,” he had written, “or if you’d rather, I know sign language as well.”

Washio nodded his head at this, then looked to the last fellow, Masaki. Friend to Oniishi, who got pulled into circumstances beyond his understanding, and through no fault of his own, and now he was being asked to turn his back on the life he could have had, should have had, and would have been his had he not agreed to help a friend.

How long, Washio wondered, would the friendship last before the resentment began to corrode the feelings of solidarity? How long had it taken between him and Nambu? He pushed down the unbidden, unwanted thought, not wanting to examine the answer too closely.

“You are Masaki.”

“That is correct, sir.” A snap to attention, acknowledgement with a small bow. Something close to a spark of mirth in his eyes. Unlike the other three, Masaki was obviously not burdened with the weightier issues of guilt and regret that brought them here. Washio wondered how long it would be before Masaki cracked completely. Before they all did.

But that, he decided, was not his problem. He had warned Nambu against this move, and his warning went unheeded. Whatever happened to these men would be on Nambu’s conscience.

Washio ran a critical eye over his crew once more, before turning on his heel and heading towards a door leading to an even smaller inner office.

“Sir?”

The question made Washio pause, rocking back on the ball of foot.

“What is it, Masaki?”

“Are you not going to give us our orders and assignments?”

Washio stared at the man with a steady gaze. Eager, even if misguided.

“Orders?” he repeated slowly, rolling the word around in his mouth as though foreign to him.

“Yes, sir. What should we do now?”

The corner of Washio’s mouth lifted slightly. “Settle in, boys. You’re all going to be here for a good long while.”

* * *

Washio kept his hand on the glass, his fingertips just touching its rim. It was the standard cut-glass heavy-bottomed crystal seen in just about every bar he’d ever been in, save for the most down-at-heel. Every few minutes, he’d take a sip of the amber colored liquid within and watched as the ice slowly watered it down to the color of pale caramel.

He sat at the end of the hotel’s bar, angling his body as much as possible to avoid having a blind spot or his back exposed. He was early, he knew, but that was by design. He was curious to see who else would even show up, or not. Or if anyone else would even show up at all.

At the same time, he had no intentions of letting anyone get the upper hand on him, and wanted to be waiting for them, instead of having someone else set the tone of this odd meeting.

Washio leaned back in his seat, pushing the glass on its paper coaster, imprinted with the hotel’s name and logo in dark blue against the cream colored background, a few inches in front of him on the bar’s glossy wood surface. From the corner of his eye, he could just make out his reflection in the mirror behind the bartender and his bottles.

The vision of a bored businessman, stiff from sitting, met his discerning eye. He was not used to seeing himself as a blond, nor was he fond of the goatee that framed his mouth, but there was no help for that. He adjusted the thin wire-framed eyeglasses at the bridge of his nose as though that was the reason he was staring into the mirror.

He had considered loosening his tie for effect, but changed his mind. It was still too early for that kind of action yet. After work hours, definitely, but at 4 PM, it would look hasty and contrived, out of place with those who would still be considered at work, even if not in their offices. The last thing he wanted was to plant a seed of doubt into the minds of those he intended to meet now.

Washio was just about to put the rim of his drink to his lips when a young man entered the bar. There was nothing remarkable about his appearance or clothes and that, in and of itself, was noteworthy. At this time of day, a fellow his age would be just getting out of university class, studying, or maybe on his way to a part time job. He would be hanging out with his friends at the local campus pub, where other young people gathered. It seemed unlikely that he would have business here, in the bar of a business class hotel in the middle of the afternoon.

Washio set his glass down and continued to watch the door, always keeping the youth, who had taken a seat a little more than halfway down the bar from him, in the periphery of his vision.

Five minutes later, the first man arrived, and he had just given his drink order to the bartender when two others arrived together. They each took the seats nearest Washio so that they were all lined up.

Like birds on a wire, Washio thought grimly, or ducks in a shooting gallery. Washio touched the glass to his lips, allowing the smallest swallow of liquor. No one spoke until they all had a drink in front of them.

The young man, Washio noted, had not moved from his seat and was now toying with a tall glass of clear, bubbling liquid.

Club soda and lime, Washio analyzed. The young man was young enough that Washio would have seen the bartender ask for proof of age, this being one of those countries with set drinking age limits, but since he didn’t, it could only mean that the ordered drink was non-alcoholic.

“I don’t think I like this,” the man in the middle grumbled suddenly to no one in particular. He stared hard into his mug of ale as if daring it to argue with him.

“So which one of you invited us here?” the first man asked nervously, twitching in his chair every so often.

“Not me,” the third man at the end said, taking a healthy swallow from his chilled bottle of beer. They all looked to Washio, but he, too, shook his head.

“So you didn’t, and you didn’t, and I certainly didn’t, and he didn’t, then who?” the guy in the middle demanded.

Good question, Washio thought, his eyes immediately drawn back to the youth just three seats away from the businessman on the end. Who wanted us, in particular, to be gathered together, and why?

“Well, I don’t like this,” the middle man repeated again, toying with the mug, rolling its bottom edge around on the damp coaster, “and I’m not crazy about all those ‘presentations’ either, if that’s what whichever one of you wanted to talk about.”

“Not for us to like or dislike, though, is it?” the third man commented, his weariness seeming to weigh down his sloping shoulders, threatening to snap off his arms if the load got any heavier. “We just got the info and it’ll be the higher-ups who tell us what to do. Leastways, that’s how it works where I am.”

“And what are they telling you to do?” Washio asked, curiosity getting the better of him. Since they were all here, may as well get what intel could be had.

The man shrugged, then tossed the rest of his drink to the back of his throat and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Same thing’s you’re being told, probably.”

“You think they’re on the level?” the first guy finally asked, still twitching in his seat, warily eyeing the Doubting Thomas next to him, who flicked his fingers to the bartender.

“They’re about as level as you can get,” Doubting Thomas eventually answered one the bartender set another glass down in front of him.

“But don’t you think that there are some things that just seem ... off?” Twitchy insisted.

Doubting Thomas shrugged and downed half his drink.

“I know what you mean,” Sloping Shoulders commiserated, “but, seems to me, we don’t play the game their way, they’re not going to let us play at all.”

“Yeah, I got that feeling too,” Twitchy said unhappily and the men fell silent for a moment, letting the light late lunch conversation flow over and around them.

“So despite your reservations, you’re all in, though?” Washio ventured, hoping to get the men talking again before they were too deep in their cups for any type of reliable response.

“Not really a choice, is it?” Doubting Thomas answered, draining his glass and sliding off his seat. “We’re going forward with this. Got the official say-so just an hour or so ago. So, I guess I’ll be seeing it through to the end so I can leave this place and go home.”

He took a teetering step back, then eyed the empty glasses on the bar. “So, uh, who’s paying for this little get-together?”

“I will,” Washio offered, giving him a curt nod.

“Damn good of you,” Doubting Thomas said, reaching over to slap Washio on the shoulder. “See you round.” He turned then and ambled out of the bar, several people stepping from his path to let him stumble past.

Were he a gambling man, Washio would have bet the bank account that another hour would find the guy drunk and hitting on some girl young enough to be his daughter. Washio also had no doubt that Doubting Thomas would also end up sleeping alone tonight, unless he passed out before he made it back to his own room.

Twitchy leaned forward once Doubting Thomas had left. “I’m trying to talk my CEO out of it,” he whispered conspiratorially, “but it’s like spitting in the wind, you know? They only want to hear what they want to hear, and it’s nothing I’ve got to say.”

“Yeah,” Sloping Shoulders added, “and it’s not easy when you know they’ve already gone over our heads. Deal’s already been made and we’re just the saps who got to sign our names to it and take the heat if something goes wrong.”

“Always nice to have someone else to blame,” Washio agreed.

“Damn straight,” Sloping Shoulders said, pushing away his empty glass and getting to his feet. “Guess I’ll see you at the next meeting, then?” He paused a moment. “Or not.” Then he wheezed out a laugh as though what he had said was funny.

“I should get going too,” Twitchy mumbled, stepping away from the bar, his glass still half full.

Washio watched as the pair of them left and sighed as the heavy glass and brass door to the hotel bar closed behind them. He focused on the glass he held, as if it could supply the answers he sought.

So no one is thrilled by this little farce, he thought, but everyone’s feeling enough pressure to yield. Then again, why had only the four of them received an anonymous invitation to the bar this afternoon? Or had the others just decided not to show up? Or were they specifically being targeted because of their doubts and hesitation?

Why, Washio thought, even go to the bother with companies that seemingly had nothing to do with each other?

This was at the crux of the problem and why he had originally thought that Nambu missed his mark this time. Could the organization they recently uncovered -- Galactor -- truly be behind this? Listening to Blondie’s words, it was possible that she was speaking for something larger than just the company she supposedly represented, but it still came down to the question of why.

If Galactor’s intent was to control government, why go to private sector companies? If it was to gain an upper hand in the world-wide manufacturing business, why not just approach each company directly? With the world wide economy in such bad shape, companies were being merged or bought out or dissolved all the time.

But they obviously did not want that. They repeatedly emphasized that each company would, for all intents and purposes, still be its own entity, with its own board of directors and shareholders. The only thing that would change would be the end users, and they were guaranteeing work orders, something as rare as hen’s teeth in the current business climate.

Washio pushed his glass away before the urge to finish it became more than he could resist. A flurried movement out of the corner of his eye made him look up and he watched as the young man sidled up to him, drink in hand. Washio narrowed his eyes, openly studying the youth now.

The young man slid up onto the seat just recently occupied by the corporate suit that was Sloping Shoulders. He was a step up from the former, but no more trusted. Washio took another mouthful from his glass, studying the young man over the rim of the glass as he did so.

His light brown hair was on the long side, just brushing the top of his light green polo shirt’s collar. Light khaki trousers, topsider boat shoes with no socks. His lean frame bent like a reed as he slouched into the chair. It took everything in Washio to not order the youth to sit up straight.

Instead, he dropped his gaze to his glass in front of him, all the while still watching the newcomer from the periphery of his vision, waiting.

For what, he wondered. To see what would happen next? To see why this boy had made his decision to come over here?

“Ask you a question?” the young man spoke up, leaning in and over the bar towards Washio. The young man’s earnest eyes were the color of warm, melted chocolate, a teasing smile on his full, pouted lips. He was so pretty as to almost be feminine.

But there was something in his eyes, the set of his mouth, that reminded Washio of someone, but he was certain that he had never seen this youth before now.

“You just did,” he answered.

The young man’s olive complexion went red with a deep blush that would have been unappealing on any other man and he laughed lightly. “Yeah,” he said softly, “I guess I just did. Can I ask you a few questions, then?”

Washio stilled, alarms ringing through his head, but he kept his expression to the same bored look he had when he had been speaking to the others. “You can ask whatever you want,” he said after a moment, “but I won’t guarantee you’ll get an answer to any, or all, of them.”

The youth’s eyes narrowed slightly at this challenge as a smile continued to play at the edges of his mouth. Once more, Washio felt his nerves crackle with warning. This guy definitely reminded him of someone, though who it was, he could not place. Maybe playing along would jog his memory.

“You staying here at the hotel?” the youth asked in a low, conspiratorial tone, twisting in his seat so that he now faced Washio more directly, his back to the rest of the room.

As though he was afraid of being lip-read, Washio assessed, or of being seen. He gave a quick look around the room, but though a few people had come and gone, there was no one else who seemed interested in their little corner of the bar. Still, looks were deceiving ....

“Are you?” Washio asked back.

“I didn’t say you could ask questions.”

“You didn’t say I couldn’t. Does it matter?”

Another laugh, this time more like a girlish giggle. “No.”

“No, you’re not staying here, or no, it doesn’t matter?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” the young man answered evasively.

“I didn’t say I would.”

The youth’s eyes narrowed more and those full lips were drawn together, pursed up tight, as he considered this impasse they had reached.

“Married?” he ventured.

“Again, does it matter?”

A shrug. “No. Not really. Doing anything special for the next hour or so?”

“Is that why you wanted to know if I were staying here?”

“Possibly,” the boy answered coyly, looking up through his long, thick eyelashes at Washio. The look told Washio all he needed to know about where this was about to go, and it was no place he wanted.

“Sorry,” Washio said, abruptly pushing his glass away from him and tossing money onto the bar. He slid off the bar stool as he turned to leave. “Was nice talking to you, though.”

As he walked by, the young man held out a hand, his fingertips brushing Washio’s sleeve.

“Wait.”

Washio paused briefly, leaning slightly away, his muscles bunched tight with anticipation in having to move fast if required.

“You ever want something?”

“Something in general, or something specific?” he asked warily.

“You ever want something,” the young man repeated, “only to have it denied to you, without any good reason at all?”

Washio shrugged and took a casual step back, away from this odd youth and his questions, and then took another.

“Denial is a good way to build a strong character.”

“I don’t mean self-denial.”

“Neither do I,” Washio answered crisply. “You can’t always have what you want, so you just have to learn how to deal with it.”

On that last word, he turned on his heel and strode across the room and out the brass-bound doors, putting an effective end to the conversation.

* * *

He watched the blond man leave, just as the blond man had watched the others leave only a few minutes before. Deliberately, he sipped at his drink, chuckling to himself softly. The plans were now in place, all it wanted now was the execution. All in all, this gamble turned out to be a very productive one. Now he knew which of the four were definitely on board ... and which still needed further convincing.

They would be taken care of when he returned to headquarters, though, and he was not particularly worried of any of them leaving just yet. Besides, even if one man stood against them, he could easily be replaced with another, more compliant one. With all of those manufacturers at their disposal, it meant that their plans could move forward at once. There would be no more waiting, no more hand wringing.

The time was now.

The only real disappointment was that the blond man had not taken him up on his unspoken offer.

A pity, really, he thought as he drained his glass, they could have had a lot of fun this way. But, no matter. A slower seduction could be fun, too, and there was still time, he reasoned. When the blond man’s company came on board (and they would), he could always find out who this man was, and then arrange it so that they would be seeing a lot of each other. He smiled into his empty glass, then set it on the bar. He pulled a few bills from his pocket and slapped them down next to the glass.

Shoving his hands into his pockets, he strolled out of the bar, whistling a light tune as he walked out of the hotel and down the sidewalk. Once past the bar’s large plate glass windows, however, he ducked down the alleyway he had come from, being certain that no one saw him.

* * *

The body had been in the alleyway, behind the hotel’s garbage containers, for several hours by the Medical Examiner’s estimation. Though the hotel was not one of the more posh ones in the city, they had requested the police to keep the investigation and removal of the body as unobtrusive as possible, in the hopes of keeping their clientele from finding out about this most unfortunate incident, and to keep them from deciding to move to a safer hotel. After all, it was a tight economy and no one could afford to lose any more business. Besides, it was not as if the dead man would voice any further objections at such treatment.

Other than that, it was like any other homicide in a large city that the police detectives assigned had dealt with, at least until the coroner’s report came back. That was when the lead detective, John Rasmussen, felt it his duty to appear in the grim office of the medical examiner, Dr. James Gilmur, to get some answers.

“So there’s nothing substantial as to how this kid died?” Rasmussen asked, hands on his hips, the tips of his forefingers and thumbs stuck into the waist of his trousers, his suit jacket bunched behind him. From where he sat, Gilmur could see the handle grip and part of the holster tucked just beneath Rasmussen’s left arm.

“Afraid not,” Gilmur answered, leaning back in his chair and bouncing against the springs for a moment. He stared at the copy of the report he had just finished typing and which Rasmussen had just tossed back onto his desk.

“So he just up and died and no reason, except that he just stopped breathing and keeled over?”

“That’s about the size of it, yeah.”

Rasmussen followed Gilmur’s line of sight to the report. He had seen the victim, had watched the autopsy, and thought for sure this would be one of those cases of a drug deal gone wrong, maybe an overdose, or a love affair turned sour. Instead, this young man, all of twenty-three years old, seemed to have died from nothing.

“No underlying medical conditions?”

“Not that we’ve been able to find out.”

“Had a bad heart and didn’t know it?”

“No,” Gilmur replied quickly, then paused, squinting at the report as he chose his next words carefully. “His heart was just fine. It’s just not beating any more.”

“Well, he had to have died from something,” Rasmussen insisted, dragging one hand through his thick, wavy salt-and-pepper hair. The short ends rippled through his fingers and he smoothed them down again with another pass of his hand.

“You want my honest opinion?”

“No, I’m here because I have nothing better to do.”

Gilmur ignored the sarcasm. He and Rasmussen had worked together too long for a little comment like that to ruffle his feathers now.

“My humble opinion would be that the boy died of fright.”

Rasmussen stared at Gilmur for a full thirty seconds before responding. “You shittin’ me? You honestly want me to believe that this heathy young kid was literally scared to death?”

“Yeah,” Gilmur said, bouncing in his chair a few more times, and looking Rasmussen straight in the eye, “that’s what I’m saying and it’s entirely physiologically possible, you know.”

Rasmussen’s gave an angry glance around the room, then dropped his eyes to the report. “So how come, if it’s so possible, you didn’t put that in your report?”

Gilmur sighed. “Look, you’ve read my report. You know that it says he died of indeterminate causes, because that’s all I can put. I don’t know what scared him, only that it had, and besides, you wanted to know my personal opinion, and that’s what it is.”

Rasmussen sighed and did his hand-through-the-hair ritual again. “This doesn’t feel right,” he finally admitted after a moment.

Gilmur nodded. “On that, we both agree, but there’s nothing further we can do from this end.”

Rasmussen gave the medical examiner a hard look, then sighed and his shoulders sagged a moment. “Yeah, I know, but we’re not coming up with anything on our end either and I hate to think that whoever killed this kid is just going to walk.”

Rasmussen lifted his hand again, then let it drop to his side. Instead, he reached over, picked up the report and held it aloft. “Thanks for everything, Jim. You hear of anything, or think of anything else that might give us some direction on this ....”

“You know you’ll be my first call,” Gilmur said, rising to his feet.

“Thanks.”

* * *

Washio tapped the top of the pen he held seesawed on the edge of his hand between his thumb and index finger in a rhythmic tattoo, his eyes never leaving the papers he had been reading when Masaki entered his office. By his watch, that had been easily five minutes ago. Washio heaved an inward sigh. Obviously, the man did not intend to give up until he was heard. Without looking away from the documents before him, Washio spoke.

“Is there something wrong, Masaki?” he asked, his voice sounding more weary to him than he would have liked.

“Yes, sir.”

When he did not go on, Washio looked up, and only then did Masaki continue.

“We’ve been here for several days now and we’ve done all that we can do, and then some. Isn’t there something else? Anything else? Something that you’re working, maybe, where we might be of assistance ...?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Washio snapped, instantly dismissing the offer. “It’s dangerous enough, and entirely possible for one man to be found out, never mind five.”

“But surely there’s something for us,” Masaki insisted. “Some research, or surveillance ....”

“I told you. There is nothing.”

Masaki’s back straightened at this last and he stared at his new commander for a moment, who had now gone back to his reading. He had no choice but to take that as the man’s final answer, but he was not about to leave without having had his say, regardless of the outcome.

“Nambu Hakase had told us that you’ve worked alone for several years now, and that you might be a little resistant to our presence. However, if you don’t let us do something, you’ll never know our true worth to you. We were asked to trust you implicitly, and on that trust alone, we are placing our lives in your hands. It would seem to me that now you must yield a little and trust us, as your team, or else there is no point or purpose to our being here.”

He finished his speech at a rush, then waited, bracing himself for the storm that would surely follow. Back in his previous unit, such an outburst against a superior officer would have garnered an instant open-handed strike across the face if his commanding officer was feeling generous; a hard punch if he was not. At the very least, there would be a loud and long verbal assault dressing him down for such insubordination, followed by a punishment of some sort.

After a few days of staring at the walls, though, Masaki figured even being given a punishment would at least give him something else to do.

Washio rose to his feet, forcing Masaki to look up to meet his stare. Inwardly, Masaki braced himself for the first physical blow.

“You think that?” Washio challenged instead, throwing Masaki off balance. “You think that just because you were assigned here, and came, although there were no other options, that I should just hand over everything I’ve spent years of my life working on to all of you, without a care? Why should I? Making a trip doesn’t prove trustworthiness, it just means that you came because you had no choice.”

Masaki considered his next words carefully. “No, but if you don’t start to trust us at some point, then you never will,” Masaki countered, then remembered himself and quickly added, “sir.”

He was skating on thin ice, he knew, but if he did not risk it now, there might never be another chance. He held his breath and waited. To his surprise, Washio reared back, then sat down again. Elbows on the desk, fingers steepled in front of him, he regarded Masaki for a moment more.

“You might be right. I will take your words under consideration.” As Washio spoke the last, he picked up the documents he had been reading when Masaki had entered and began to peruse them once more.

Knowing that he had pushed his luck as far as he could, Masaki gave a respectful bow and left.

* * *

One look at their hopeful faces as he walked into the small common area they used as their gathering place and Masaki knew he was going to be the bearer of bad news.

“So?” Riku asked, pushing away from the counter he was leaning against with his hip and taking a step toward Masaki.

Masaki held out his hands, palms up. “He said he would consider it.”

“‘Consider it’?” Ichiro repeated mockingly. “What’re we supposed to do with that in the meantime?”

“Yeah,” Riku jumped in, hand curling into fists. “We want action ... something to do. I didn’t agree to this, and come all this way, just to stare at the walls.”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Ichiro grumbled. “I can’t take one more day of this place with nothing to do than count the minutes go by. If I wanted that, I could’ve just gone to pr ....” He caught himself, but too late, a guilty flush burnishing his cheeks red.

None of them were told anything of the others’ past lives, or of the roads they had taken that led them all to this same place. However, it just seemed that, since Masaki and Oniishi were already friends, Ichiro and Riku would be drawn together.

At Ichiro’s slip, though, Masaki could see a look of doubt and terror wash through Riku’s eyes, the two steps he took away from Ichiro, whether intentional or not, and it all belied an uneasiness between them. After all, what did they know of each other, really?

“And we are asking yet another man to trust us with his life?” Oniishi signed to Masaki, as if reading his mind. “We don’t even trust each other.”

He, too, had seen Riku’s actions. Masaki gave him a wordless, apologetic shrug of his shoulder.

“For the moment,” Masaki said, addressing the other two, “I say we sit tight, as unpleasant as it is for all of us, and see what comes of it.”

“Nothing, that’s what,” Ichiro grumbled, slumping back against the counter, his hands stuffed into his pockets.

Riku slid a conspiratorial look at Masaki and Oniishi. “Then we’ll just move to Plan B?”

“Yes,” Masaki confirmed with sharp nod of his head, “but I would prefer if we could do this through approved means.”

He felt a light nudge at his elbow. “You really think it’ll happen?” Oniishi signed.

“I don’t know,” he sighed, “but I’m certainly hoping so.”

* * *

In the end, it was not meant to be. Yet again, they found themselves left behind as Washio took off for the city, on an errand of which only he knew.

“He could be just going in to get away from this, you know,” Riku groused, out of sorts that his between-nap naps had been disturbed. “And, like as not, even if we manage to get halfway through your crazy plan, we’ll all just be sentenced back here, so what’s the point?”

“You wanna do something besides shoot off your big mouth or not?” Ichiro asked wryly, slapping his hand to the back of Riku’s head.

“Hey!” Riku yelped, pushing back at Ichiro. “I’m just saying we need to be certain because if he’s just going in for a little, uh, companionship, he’s not gonna be too happy we disturbed him, y’know?”

“He’s not,” Masaki said, placing the two briefcases he retrieved from the back room onto the table. Oniishi set the two he held next to the others. Masaki snapped open one case and removed the gleaming gun from its protective gray foam nest. “If he were, he wouldn’t have taken that briefcase, or those documents. Now is our chance.”

“I hope you’re right,” Ichiro said, his face splitting into a grin as he fondled the gun from the case in front of him. It felt good to be so empowered again.

“Me, too,” Masaki replied grimly, snapping in a cartridge and double-checking to make sure the gun’s safety lock was in place.

* * *
Chapter 2 -- The Outcomes by RIgirl
He was being followed. At least since the hotel, that much he knew, and though who his mysterious shadows were remained a mystery, he had a pretty good idea of who they were. Now, however, was not the time nor the place. He would deal with them later. Right now, there were more important things demanding his attention.

Unlike the other times he had been brought to the corporation’s headquarters, Washio was now met by someone other than the chatty PR guy. This dour, sullen man in an ill-fitting dark blue suit led him into a small room just off of the main lobby. Washio almost missed the PR guy. Almost.

As they entered the room, the man turned and gave Washio a stern look.

“Have you and your company made your decision?” he asked abruptly.

“I just had some questions. If I could just speak first with ....”

“The time for questions has passed,” the man interrupted. “Have you the signed agreement or not?”

Washio pressed his lips into a thin, hard line as he studied the man. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met ....”

“And we probably will not again after this. Yes or no, is the agreement signed?”

Washio had been hoping that it would not come to this, but he had also realistically known that it would. He unlatched his briefcase and pulled the papers from it. The man ripped the documents out of Washio’s hand the moment he saw them and fanned through the pages. He nodded his head.

“It all looks to be here,” the man said in judgment, then ordered, “go through that door,” he indicated the far door with a jab of his chin, “and wait with the rest.”

“And then what?”

“And then, once everyone is accounted for, you’ll find out.” Without waiting for any further questions, the man stepped back out through the door through which they came.

“But ....” Washio began and his hand reached the knob just as the door latch clicked home. One turn of the knob and Washio realized that he was now locked in, with only one way to go. He snapped the briefcase shut, set his shoulders, and walked the length of the small room to the door the man had pointed out.

Bracing himself for whatever he might find, he flung open the door, taking a side step to his right. Ten faces swiveled his way, their hushed conversation lulling for a moment before picking up again once his presence had been acknowledged.

Washio stepped through the doorway, running his hand over the catch plate and depositing a small tack, as he had come to think of them, into it. The door swung shut on its own accord, but this time, this door did not lock. In the case of an emergency, Washio wanted at least one way out, even if the door out of that room was locked. Doors could easily be kicked in, though it took up precious seconds in the event of a chase, and he knew that this door would lead to the outside. The fewer doors he had to go through, the better off he was.

Of course, how many guards he would have to get through in order to get to the outside was an unknown, but he would worry about that when the time came, if it came at all. This was the farthest he had ever gotten into a place Nambu believed was run by an organization calling itself Galactor, and Washio hoped that this would get him on the inside, to see the organization as a whole, its structure, how it runs, and, most importantly, who was at the top, running the show.

Oddly, no one was holding or using any sort of electronic devices. On a hunch, Washio pulled out his cell and turned it on.

“Don’t bother,” a woman behind him said dryly. “No signal, no bars, nothing. This must be some sort of dead zone or something.”

Or something, Washio echoed mentally as he watched his phone’s screen confirm what the woman had just said. He turned it off and slipped it back into his pocket, turning his attention, instead, to the space around him.

The air was electric with nervousness and some wore their fear as they did their suits -- badly. Washio glanced around this conference-turned-waiting room. There were no windows, clocks, or even any furniture. A few people leaned up against the walls, arms crossed over their chests, while others swayed, shifting their weight from foot to foot, since they had no place to sit.

A few even managed to look bored and Washio considered them the biggest fools of all. If they only knew that this would not be a mere agreement between companies, but what would, in effect, amount to a hostile takeover, they probably would not be so casual.

Or maybe they would be, he reconsidered. Over the past few months, he’d pretty much seen it all in the corporate realm. At times, it made the battlefield seem like a walk through daisies.

He let his mind drift, looking around at the people who represented different companies from around the globe.

Why, specifically, these people, these companies, he wondered. It was diverse group, to be sure. One belonged to a major food company, which processed everything from cereals and breads to frozen pizzas and snack foods. Another was a representative from a widely-known electronics company, their work in fiber optics catching the interest of everyone, including the ISO. There were banking representatives, stock investors, and, oddly enough, a toy manufacturer. What was the tie that linked them all together?

Washio looked around the room once more, this time analyzing the space itself. This was just another psychological game, he was sure of it. So far, everything that he had seen had been engineered to sway, influence, convince and now, this waiting game in a small, cramped room with no windows was yet another tactic. Spend long enough in here, and everyone would be grateful to just get out, willing to do whatever it took to leave.

Turning his attention to the people themselves, he recognized the weary faces of the business executives he had just spent the last two weeks with, including one of the men who he had met at the hotel bar. Their eyes met and the man pushed between the two he had been talking to and made his way over to Washio. He unbuttoned his suit jacket and pushed the sides back as he stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets.

“So, made your decision to join after all?” the man that Washio had come to think of as Sloping Shoulders, but whose name, in reality, was Herbert Devans, according to the ‘Hello, My Name is ...’ tag that he still had stuck to his lapel from the first day, its edges now curling and fuzzy with lint.

Washio gave a non-committal shrug. Devans stepped forward, close enough that Washio could tell that the man had apparently had a shot of courage with his oatmeal, if the smell of alcohol on his breath and the crusted beige blob on his tie were any indications. He slapped Washio in the center of his chest with the back of his hand.

“Besht deshicion,” he slurred and Washio mentally upgraded him from one drink to several, probably pouring it over the oatmeal. “If you can’t beat’em, join’em, I always say.”

“Yes,” Washio said in a low voice, conscious that their every move was probably being watched and heard, “but who are you joining, really?”

Devans blinked at him a moment, his mouth opening and closing in his confusion, then he began to laugh and slapped Washio on the shoulder.

One more time, Washio decided, and this jackass was going through the wall.

“Damn funny,” he laughed, then turned and nudged a pale woman in a dark suit next to him. “He’s damn funny, isn’t he?”

The woman barely gave Washio a glance, then gave Devans a half-hearted shrug and a faint smile as she took a few retreating steps away from them. Washio didn’t blame her; he felt like doing the exact same thing.

“I’m telling ya, best decision, yessireebob,” Devans now muttered to himself, shaking his head and ambling away, still muttering, though who he was now trying to convince, Washio had to wonder.

A few others watching their exchange likewise stepped away from Devans or averted their gazes elsewhere in the hopes of not making accidental eye contact and encouraging him to talk them next.

Two others joined them as one hour blended into the next.

There had been twenty of them at the start of this conference week, Washio mentally calculated, and slowly, the first five left or dropped out, one by one, claiming important deadlines that they simply had to return home for, while two others claimed emergency family issues and departed in a hurry.

A quick count around the room yielded thirteen, meaning two were still unaccounted for and Washio was surprised to find that it was the other two from the bar. The one he mentally kept referring to as Twitchy, and the other he thought of as Doubting Thomas. Had they gotten together, then, to defy their respective companies? Did Doubting Thomas finally convince Twitchy, a man who struck Washio as the type to bend with whatever way the wind was blowing, to actually get up enough mental fortitude to defy his superiors and go with his gut instincts?

More likely, Washio thought uncharitably, he was just running late because he couldn’t scrape up enough nerve to show up. That left Doubting Thomas. What had become of him? Washio looked at his wristwatch again only because the action gave him something to do.

Another half hour dripped by in slow minutes when the outer door opened once more and the one man, Twitchy, hesitantly stepped into the room, clutching his leather case in front of him like a shield. He met Washio’s stare with a start, then quickly looked away to find Devans, who was quickly sobering up against his will. Devans scurried over to him and the two exchanged low words. For a moment, Twitchy looked as though he were about to burst into tears.

At that moment, the door on the far side of the room swung open and three men walked in, two remaining stationed by the door while the third walked to the back of the room and blocked the door that Washio had tampered with earlier.

Washio went on instant alert. These men were not from the contingent of businessmen from before; these men were dressed in security uniforms, guns holstered at one hip, billy clubs on the other, their brimmed hats low over their eyes.

They know, was his first thought, followed by the realization that they were now under control of these men. They’re going to herd us out, and make sure that no one tries to get away, but why such extreme caution, Washio wondered, tightening his grip on his briefcase handle, as they others began gathering their things in the hopes that the waiting was over and they could all just leave.

That was when a slender figure appeared in the open doorway and all extraneous movement ceased.

“Now that we’re all here,” the blonde woman said, looking pointedly at Twitchy, who cringed under her critical glare, “we can begin the process to welcome you all into our little company, once all the paperwork has been attended to and some minor details are ironed out. For right now, however, we’ll be showing you the model that you will all begin implementing within your companies right away, with the more advanced items being implemented over a time table, which will be discussed and agreed upon on an individual basis, of course.”

“But we’ve already seen your facilities,” a sturdy looking woman in a black serge suit pointed out.

“Yes,” the blonde woman acknowledged, her eyes quickly assessing the woman and, from the look on her face, found her not up to her standard, “here. This is what we’ve done for this company, which is what we will do for you. But there is a bigger picture here ....”

“You mean this isn’t your company? I was under the impression that it was and that all final negotiations would be at your headquarters. Isn’t this it?” a tall, balding man who owned a plastics company complained. “If I’m going to align my company with this one -- or whichever one is yours -- I want to deal directly with the top brass, not keeping getting the run-around by underlings.”

The blonde’s almond-shaped eyes narrowed, the irises of her green eyes glittering dangerously like chips of broken glass frozen beneath ice. “I can assure you, I am as high up as you will get. It is by my authorization alone which will determine if we take you on. Is that clear?”

“Yeah,” the man said grudgingly, giving uneasy glances at the armed security guards, no more happy than before, but less willing to argue the point now. “It’s clear.”

“Good. Now, if you’ll all just follow me, we can conclude this last piece of business and get you all on your way.”

They followed her and the two security guards out, going down several winding hallways before coming to a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” Pushing it open, they found themselves on the floor of a mock factory, large signs calling attention to things that needed to be changed immediately, within the near future, or were negotiable. On large tables in the center of the room were dioramas of company buildings.

Each of their companies, Washio realized with a start. They had been planning this for a long time, then. He slowed his steps, trying to hang back without being noticeable, to take in the layout. A guard to the blonde’s right began speaking, pointing to various signs as he went for visual references.

“What we are doing, what you are about to embark on,” he intoned as the huddled group moved as one down the large space, “will be strictly classified. You will be provided with guidelines, but as of right now, your company will be set up as this one is -- with the public section, where you will still manufacture and sell goods to the public, and a private section, which shall be guarded.”

“We will provide you with the necessary funds,” the blonde broke in smoothly, “to create the test centers we mentioned earlier. In these research and development areas, anything that it created, made or found will become the property of our company and will only be move forward upon clearance from us.” She hesitated a moment, then added as an afterthought, “for right of first refusal of course, since it will have been created and designed from our funds which you will be using.”

Washio dragged his feet a little more, now at the tail end of the group, trying to memorize what he could of the layout of the building, the dioramas, and the words that were being spoken.

He had, briefly, considered taking photographs with his cell, but decided it was not worth the risk of being found out by doing something so obvious. That was when it occurred to him that they had all been allowed to keep their cell phones, without all of the usual warnings that they were not to turn them on or use at all.

The official reason given for this was that they had sensitive equipment that could be ruined if any stray wavelengths or frequencies were introduced into the area, like a phone forgotten to be turned off. Besides, the PR guy had said with a grin and an apologetic shrug, it was very hard to get any sort of reception in most areas of the building.

Now, Washio had to wonder why such caution had been used before, but not now. They all had the electronic devices they brought in with them, and no one cautioned them to turn them off. So what had changed? Granted, the devices did not work, anyway, but still, wouldn’t it be even more important to keep them from surreptitiously recording anything at this stage?

Washio had crashed enough of this organization’s parties by now to know that they revealed nothing in the very beginning stages. It was getting beyond those gates that remained the challenge, and one of these times, he was going to slip through. Today was looking promising, and all that they was just a few meters more before they would be in the “private” sector.

As the group was herded out of the model room, Washio made to follow when the blonde woman stepped into his path, blocking him. He pulled up short, surprised at her boldness, while noting that, although one of the guards had gone ahead with the rest of the group, there remained the two other guards somewhere behind them. One he could see off to his left, and the other ... where was the other?

He looked the blonde woman straight in the eye.

“Is there something wrong?” he asked bluntly.

“I’m afraid so,” she answered evenly, her eyes steady on his. “Regrettably, this is as far as you go.” With her final words, she raised her hand, in which she held a small gun.

Washio took a step back, but stopped when he saw the guard moving as if to draw a weapon as well. Nothing to do but to play this out to the bitter end, or until he could think of a way out, whichever came first.

“I don’t understand. I’m sure everything checks out ...”

“Oh, everything does,” she assured him, “but you don’t.”

He felt the panic rising in his chest, but he kept his voice even, giving a touch of indignation to his tone. “I still don’t understand. What’s the meaning of this?”

“The meaning,” she answered, stepping closer to him as the two men now likewise drew their weapons, “is that I intend to find out exactly who you are.”

“This is ridiculous,” Washio scoffed. “You already know. I’m Peter ...”

“Vandenhart,” she finished for him, “except that you’re not. No, please, don’t bother protesting because we already know the truth there. So, who are you, really?”

“I told you ...”

“You told me lies!” She pushed the gun out a little farther, away from her body and Washio ran half a dozen different scenarios through his head in that split second. He needed her unarmed and he needed to make sure the other two did not just kill him outright. He also needed to get out of there in one piece, before they set off any alarms, if they had not already. He needed time.

“What really happened to the last man, the one who didn’t show up today?” he asked, changing the topic. He met her stare unflinchingly and she gave him a reptile’s smile.

“He decided not to join us, so he is gone.”

“And gone is where?”

“Not anywhere you’ll need to worry about,” she replied sharply, “because you won’t be joining us either.”

“You keep saying ‘us’ but I get the feeling you’re not talking about this company. So who is the ‘us’?”

“Who are you?” she demanded, fully extending her arm and giving him the chance for which he had been waiting. He threw his briefcase at the guard closest to him, causing the man to fire at it out of reflex rather than at him. With that guard occupied, Washio lashed out a foot, knocking the gun to the floor, while at the same time, he grabbed at her still extended arm, catching her by the forearm with one hand and pulled her towards him.

“You already had a chance for this and you turned me down, remember?” she chided him with a mocking tone. She tried to pull away from him, angling her body, and the second he saw her move, her body telegraphing her intent, he was already in motion. He sidestepped her kick, aimed at his groin, but instead the heel of her shoe grazed his abdomen. Pain streaked across his body in the wake of her foot, but it was still not enough to make him let go as she had hoped.

In fact, he only tightened his grip as she struggled against him, surprisingly strong for a woman, until the guard who shot the briefcase came up behind Washio and struck a solid blow between his shoulder blades with the butt of his gun.

As the blonde woman staggered away, then regained her footing, her man put the gun barrel to Washio’s back. He could feel the small circle of metal making a cold imprint against his rib cage. Washio held out his hands, painfully aware that he was unarmed and could only hope that another opportunity to get away came up soon.

The blonde woman gave a throaty chuckle as she retrieved her weapon from where it had landed on the floor. She looked at Washio as it disappeared from her hand into some hidden pocket in her suit.

“You know, it’s a pity you didn’t want to play before. You obviously like it rough.”

Washio ignored the comment. “You can’t kill me. My Board members will get suspicious if I don’t return,” Washio pointed out.

She tilted her head in consideration. “Somehow, I don’t think that a Board of Directors that doesn’t exist can’t possibly miss a man that’s never worked for them, do you?” She warmed up to the topic as she continued. “In fact, I would be willing to bet that if we dig just a little deeper, your so-called company exists no more than Peter Vandenhart does.” She paused a moment as she drew her lips back in a wide smile. “Does it?”

The report of two shots, fired at close range, was her only answer. The first bullet struck the hand of the guard behind Washio, his gun falling to the floor, and the second took the guard himself high in the chest. Instinct had Washio diving down and to the side, out of the way of any other incoming bullets. Instinct, likewise, had the blonde woman running for the door. At the threshold, she paused and turned.

“You’ll never get out of here alive,” she warned him. “My men will see to it that neither one of you leave.”

“That’s what you think.”

She gave him a glacial smile. “It’s what I know. Remember, you can’t always have what you want, so you just have to learn how to deal with it. Have fun dealing.”

With those words, she turned on her heel and disappeared through the doorway, the door instantly shutting behind her, the lock sliding into place with an audible click.

For a moment, Washio remained where he was, frozen at her words, the same words he had said to the young man back at the bar. Had he been right in guessing that the young man worked for her? Or was there something else going on that he was missing? It was too eerie for it to be chalked up to coincidence.

And besides, there were no coincidences.

And then it occurred to him. The look in the blonde woman’s eyes mirrored the same scheming, devious look in the young man’s eyes. Perhaps they were related and that was why one reminded him of the other. But it was a riddle that Washio could not puzzle out at the moment. He rolled up onto his feet, though remaining in a low crouch, turning now to fully see the third guard. Foam pieces and thick makeup hid his features well, but Washio recognized those brown mirthful eyes in a heartbeat.

“The others around?” he asked, rising to his feet, still keeping a wary eye on the guard, though it was more than apparent he would not be getting up on his own any time soon. Every breath was accompanied by a moist rattling, the pool of blood spreading from his body inch by inch.

“Yes,” Masaki confirmed. “We managed to fan ourselves throughout this place, but something tells me that we won’t be able to leave the same way the others did.”

“No,” Washio agreed, giving a glance back at the door the blonde had disappeared through, “you’re right there.” His eyes scanned the walls and high ceilings, looking for potential ways out. The only doors appeared to be the one they entered and the one the others had gone through. The one that was now locked shut.

“Think the others will know we’re here?” Washio asked.

Masaki nodded. “They’ll start looking for us when they see we’re no longer with the rest of the group.”

There was a scraping sound, iron against concrete, and both men turned simultaneously to see the dying man sitting as upright as he was able, his gun braced between both hands.

“I may die,” he rasped, “but I’ll take one or both of you with me for the glory of G--....” He stopped talking as a new bloom of red appeared on his shirt front and he fell backwards in the time it took him to look down and comprehend what just happened. He hit the floor with a meaty thunk, this time to stay.

Washio bent down and wrested the gun out of the dead man’s hands, giving it a quick look over to see if it still had ammunition. Satisfied it did, Washio looked at Masaki, who still held his gun at the ready.

“Forwards or back?” Masaki asked, indicating each door in turn with the muzzle of his gun.

Washio frowned as he thought a moment. Forward might put them in the thick of things, but it would be a sure bet that it might also mean that innocent people would die. Going back, it was possible that the blonde woman’s men were waiting for them, but, Washio reasoned, they were far less innocent. Besides, once out the door, they were at least familiar with the hallways that got them here in the first place.

“Back,” he decided.

No sooner was the word spoken than Masaki took aim and punched several holes through the door with three successive shots. The hole was small, but enough to make the lock no longer an obstacle. Before he left, Washio grabbed his briefcase, noting the two new bullet holes it now sported.

There was no respect for fine luggage these days, he thought ruefully, inconsequentially.

They had backtracked halfway down one hallway when they heard the shout.

“There they are!”

Without either one looking back, both Washio and Masaki sprinted down the hallway, their pounding footsteps reverberating along with those in pursuit, making it sound as though an army were behind them. Just as they approached a crossway, a door to their right swung open. A man in a security guard uniform beckoned to them.

“Hurry, this way,” Riku ordered, holding the door open. Masaki and Washio ducked through the door, which Riku pulled shut. They found themselves within a stairwell, but Riku took the lead and led them around and behind the stairs, where there was another door. Cautiously, he opened the door and stuck his head out. Just as he gave the all-clear wave, they could hear pounding on the door they had just gone through.

They quickly ducked through the door Riku had opened and, by the end of the hallway they found themselves in, they were joined by Ichiro, who was dressed in a janitor’s overalls.

“Down this way, and we’ll be out in a flash,” Ichiro assured them.

“And there’s no one following?” Washio asked curtly as they ran.

“Not any more,” Ichiro replied obliquely as he hit the cross bar of a door marked ‘Emergency Exit Only.’ He paused as he read it, then shrugged. “I’d say this qualifies as one,” he muttered, the door swung open.

Washio braced himself for the sound of an alarm, and was surprised when none came.

“We already disconnected it,” Masaki replied with a grin, “for just such an emergency as this.”

They emerged at the side of the building, where only a few delivery vans sat parked, and two 18-wheeler trucks were parked side-by-side at the far end. Waiting by the door, however, was a smaller van, its engine running, with Oniishi at the wheel. They all jumped in and Oniishi hit the gas as the door slid shut, the tires squealing as they dug into the pavement and found traction. Oniishi drove away from the building, taking smaller, less traveled roads and, back in the city, and he drove in circles for two hours before everyone was convinced they were not still being pursued. Even still, Washio kept glancing back, just to be sure.

* * *

Washio flung the briefcase into a nearby chair with such force that the chair back bounced and left a small smile of an indent in the wall behind it.

“What the hell were you thinking? Or weren’t you?” he roared, turning on the four lined up at his side. “Did I give an order for all of you to join me? Because if I did, I don’t recall that. So would one of you please refresh my memory, Masaki.”

The blistering glare that followed the name almost defeated said man’s innate cheerfulness.

“While it’s true that you did not specifically issue an order ....”

“Damn right I didn’t, and you’ll all be lucky you don’t go on report.”

“...which means that technically we didn’t go against your orders, since you didn’t issue any in the first place,” Masaki finished.

“I told you all to stay here.”

“Actually,” Masaki countered, “you told us that we couldn’t join you. And we didn’t. However, you never said anything about following you.”

“You’re just playing with semantics. You all knew very well what the spirit and intent of my orders were, regardless of how they were worded.”

“True,” Masaki said thoughtfully, “however, had we not followed, you probably would not be here to argue the point.”

Washio’s eyes burned and his mouth snapped shut in the face of this logic. The men’s hopes rose ever so slightly that perhaps they would not be court-marshaled. Or worse, stuck in this cramped building indefinitely with nothing else to do but count the floor tiles.

“We also thought,” Riku ventured, “that it would help you in your considering of us, to actually see us in action, to see what we could do.”

“You thought, did you?” Washio sniped. “From where I’m standing, I’d say four men were collectively thoughtless. Do you all realize what could have happened? You could have jeopardized the whole mission. You could’ve blown my cover ... or your own. You could’ve ...”

“What we did,” Ichiro broke in, “was prove to you that we can set up a plan, go undercover, and execute it. We even managed to save your ass in the process. So, you’re welcome.”

“If you expect me to be grateful to you for just doing your job, you’ve come to the wrong place.” Washio paused a moment and gave the men before him a hard stare before speaking again. “We’ll meet back here in three hours.”

With that, he turned on his heel and left, leaving the four to ponder their fate.

* * *

When Washio left the building at the airstrip, he did not return to the hotel, knowing full well that it was most likely being watched. Instead, he went in the opposite direction, into a small, sleepy village set quite a distance from the outskirts of the city proper and nestled in the foothills of a nearby mountain range. There, he made several quick purchases and then rented a room from a rather dour couple who gave him strange looks, but took his money nonetheless.

In an economy of words, the owner pointed out the amenities of his establishment, then indicated the direction of Washio’s room. Washio had let the man go on, knowing that if he just brushed him off, the man would remember him. Would remember the blond man who was so impatient to get to his room ... alone ... and that he obviously had not picked his inn for what it could offer.

Washio waited, only half-listening, and did not breathe easy until the door closed and he locked it. With his purchases on the bed and the window curtains were pulled tightly shut, he devised his plan and got to work. Razor, scissors and hair dye came out of the first thin plastic bag. This would be the part that would take the longest.

Once the dye was in his hair, he tackled the problem of his clothing next, snapping the tags off of the just-bought shapeless dark shirt and trousers. The suit he wore went into the bag the new clothes had just come out of, carelessly stuffed in. Where they were going, a few wrinkles would not matter. He knotted the ends of the bag and rinsed off the dye, then began shaving.

With the most pressing chores now out of the way, Washio removed the last item remaining -- the disposable cell phone -- and punched in the numbers he had memorized long ago.

The conversation was quick, spoken in terse words, and Washio broke the phone in half when the call ended. He tossed the pieces into the last bag, then went around the room, wiping off surfaces and making sure that he would leave not even the smallest thing behind.

As he walked over to the one side of the room, a photo bent at the fold of the newspaper caught his eye. Carefully pulling on gloves, he unfolded the paper to look at the photo in its entirety, then glanced up at the small headline next to it.

Youth found Dead behind Hotel

It was a quiet announcement, but hit Washio like a punch in the gut. As he read, a chunk of icy fear lodged in his stomach. There were only two small paragraphs, which he scanned quickly, then re-read again, this time more slowly, before letting his eyes drift back to the small photo that accompanied the article, which was actually more like an obituary.

It was the same young man he had seen at the bar. Washio would have recognized him anywhere. Those large, brown eyes, the full mouth, the set of his slender shoulders, though in the photo, his hair was slightly shorter.

Probably taken the last time he saw his family, or thereabouts, Washio thought sadly. But as he stared at the grainy photo, he could not help noticing that there was something different about him. The light in his eyes, the way he smiled and held himself. Different setting, he thought, with different people, perhaps.

But one thing was definite -- the police were now looking for a tall blond man with a goatee, believed to be a guest at the hotel, and was now wanted for questioning. They had seen them together, from the hotel’s security cameras in the bar.

When had it happened, he wondered, thinking back to that afternoon. The time given as the time of death put it around the time that Washio had spoken to him at the bar, meaning that Washio truly was the last one to speak with the young man.

Only, he had not been. Had the young man been followed? Or had their conversation been observed? Perhaps the youth had been approached by his killer after Washio left.

But then ... how was it that the blonde woman knew Washio’s own words, the exact ones he had told this boy, the ones that she had quoted back to him. At some point, those two had met or talked ....

Had the blonde woman been the youth’s killer ... or did one of her men do it?

Washio thought back, picturing the blonde woman’s face in his mind’s eye again. That intelligent cruelty in those icy green eyes. The hand gun she wielded so expertly and effortlessly.

Washio read the article for a third time. No, no mention of how he died, just that he had and had been found in an alleyway next to the hotel. Carefully, Washio folded the newspaper back the way it had been and left it on the table where he found it. With almost surgical precision, he then placed he room key onto the table next to the paper. It was time to leave.

Gathering up his bags, Washio took one last look around the room and, satisfied, turned and left. In the parking lot, he tossed the bags into a nearby garbage bin and headed back to the airstrip.

His thoughts, however, flew far ahead of him and continually circled around the young man and the blonde woman. They were connected, but how?

* * *

All four men were waiting for him and he smiled slightly at the shock registered on their faces when they saw him. Gone was the goatee and glasses, along with the dirty blond hair. Instead, it was a clean shaven Washio who stepped into the small conference room, his hair now dyed to a light brown and cut military fashion, if somewhat choppy, at the sides and back, with only the hair in the front slightly longer, though shorter than it had been a mere three hours ago. Green eyes were now brown, though which had been the real color, none of them could say. Perhaps neither.

His clothes, too, were different. The double-breasted dark gray suit now replaced with a more casual look in slouchy clothes.

“Three things,” Washio said, striding to the other end of the room, all four heads turning in unison as he went. “First and foremost, never again are any of you to so blatantly disregard my implied wishes, if not my direct orders. If we are to work together as a team, then we must be able to rely on each other, and that means that orders will be taken and obeyed. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you approve of it or not. It is not for you to like, dislike or question. Understood?”

“Yes, sir!” the four replied together.

“Secondly, we need to discuss what happened today,” Washio paused a moment, gathering his thoughts before continuing. “I know you were tailing me, but how did you know what you would do once we arrived? None of you could possibly know where I was going or what I intended to do, did you?”

Guilty looks were exchanged between the men. Ichiro cleared his throat. “Actually, sir, we didn’t.”

“You didn’t?” Washio repeated, each word given a sharp snap.

“No, sir,” Ichiro said, suppressing a shrug. “We just figured we’d tag along and see what we had when we got there and go from that.”

Washio’s eyes flared wide, then narrowed. “So you went into a situation blindly, not knowing at all what you be facing, no recon, no intel, no nothing and that was your big plan?”

Washio’s words hung in the air a moment, then Oniishi stepped forward and held out his notepad.

“Even if we had a plan, all plans change upon the meeting of the enemy.”

Washio inclined his head as he thought over the words. “I’ll grant you that, but it is also the height of idiocy to not look before you leap.”

“Point taken and noted,” Oniishi wrote back.

“So once you got there,” Washio said, steering the conversation back on track, “what did you do? What did you see?”

The men exchanged looks once more, then Riku stepped up.

“It was pretty straightforward, really,” Riki said with a nervous lick at his bottom lip. “We watched until you went in through the front door, and when we saw the checkpoint, we knew that way was out for us, so then we went around to the back of the building. One of the delivery doors had been left propped open, so we gained entrance that way, leaving Oniishi as our getaway and chief lookout on the outside, in case you came out again while we were still in there. Once we were in, well, we just grabbed the opportunities as they came up.”

“But how did you know?” Washio insisted. “How were you able to identify which guards would be with the blonde woman?”

“It was a lucky guess,” Masaki confessed sheepishly. “I saw the guy go into the washroom, so I followed him, knocked him out, took his uniform, and tied him up. I didn’t know what job he held, but I figured I could at least use his pass keys, which I did.”

“And the blonde woman, who was she? Did you hear her name? DId you see to whom she reported?”

Masaki blinked at the rapid fire questions. “There was no one else. From what I gathered, it seemed that she was the one calling the shots.”

“And no one addressed her by name?”

Masaki thought back. “No,” he finally said. “They simply just said yes, ma’am or no, ma’am. No name was ever spoken.”

Washio turned to Ichiro and Riku. “And what of you two? When you were in the warehouse, and then, I presume, the offices, did you see anything that looked out of place, or anything that could imply that that company was being used as a front?”

“For what?” Riku asked. “Everything I saw was consistent, except for the armed guards, but a lot of people are going overboard with security these days. There was nothing odd or abnormal that I saw.”

“You suspect something else,” Masaki guessed, his voice low.

“Yes,” Washio admitted, clasping his hands behind his back, then instantly moving them to his sides, the gesture reminding him too much of Nambu when he delivered bad news. “We have reason to think that the driving force behind these mass company consolidations is pressure from an outside organization ....”

“You mean, like a mafia?” Ichiro asked, his eyes widening.

“Like them, but not one,” Washio amended. “We believe that this organization is trying to attempt a grass roots movement, before going larger.” He paused and gave a quick glance over at Masaki and Oniishi. “I believe you two may have already had a brush with them.”

The jovial light in Masaki’s brown eyes was extinguished by a kind of surprised horror and there was a wince on Oniishi’s face as he looked away.

“You think Galactor is behind this?” Masaki asked in a near whisper.

Washio shrugged a shoulder. “We are beginning to believe it may be possible, but without firm evidence, it’s hard to say. That was why I was sent there, to try to get as far into it as I could go ....”

“And we tipped them off to you,” Masaki said miserably.

“Maybe,” Washio allowed, then thought back to the blonde woman’s words and of the invitations issued to only four of them. “Maybe not. I have a feeling I was being targeted even before then, so perhaps your presence simply forced their hand sooner than they would have otherwise done.” He gave another shrug. “It’s done now, so there’s no point in dwelling on it. The only thing we can do now is move forward.”

“So you will get another chance to infiltrate them?” Oniishi wrote.

“I don’t know,” Washio answered honestly. “For right now, we both agreed it would be best for me to lay low for a while and see if another chance comes up. In the meantime, we will be busy.”

“With what?” Ichiro asked warily.

“My third point. We have another job to do,” Washio said with a bare, cold smile and looked with satisfaction at the suddenly eager expressions of the men. His team.

They may not have been able to control the circumstances that brought them here, but now they were in this together.

* * *

Rasmussen pinned the photo of the young man -- Stefan Giordano, as he was recently identified -- to the cork board hanging on the wall next to his desk. Every avenue, every line of inquiry, had gone cold or came up empty. Muddying the waters even more was the fact that it almost appeared, by the hotel’s security cameras, as though Giordano had ducked into the alleyway where he was found, emerged, on the street side, only to go back an hour later to meet his death. Or had he met it in the hour in between?

Rasmussen had played the surveillance footing over and over until he knew every second of it. At 16:09:03, Giordano walked into the bar. From 16:10:10 until 16:27:48, he sat alone at the bar, seated next to the four businessmen. From 16:29:13 until 17:04:16, he spoke with a blond man, who then left at 17:06:17. At 17:09:26, Giordano walked out of the bar and was not seen alive again.

They had spoken with bartender, who remembered seeing all of them, but did not know them, nor had he seen any of them again. They had also identified the other men at the bar, the ones Giordano had sat next to. Two of the four men did not even remember seeing Giordano, their interviews conducted at the airport as they waited for their flights back home, here in the city only for business.

Rasmussen frowned at the smiling Giordano. Both of the businessmen appeared nervous, jumpy. Always stopping short of looking over their shoulders, as if they were afraid of being followed. It was the behavior of the guilty, but those actions did not necessarily automatically translate to guilt, especially since there was no hard evidence.

Then there was the matter of the remaining businessman, who also seemed to be a missing person. Until he turned up dead behind a small restaurant on the outskirts of the city. He had not died a quick death.

Which brought them right back to the last man. The blond man. It always came back to him, and he alone remained unfound.

Rasmussen was sure that if they could locate this man, they might have some idea of what happened. Perhaps he could say if Giordano seemed to be behaving oddly, slurring words, or seemed off-balance. Or even if he mentioned not feeling well. Maybe it was an underlying physical condition, heretofore unknown to Giordano’s family.

But Rasmussen had his doubts. For starters, the blond man never returned to the hotel after that day and, even more telling, never checked out. Unfortunately, by the time they were able to identify him as a guest at the hotel, his room had already been cleaned and new guests installed. Any chance at finding fingerprints or any items of interest were now long gone.

Rasmussen frowned as he pinned up the blurry freeze-frame screen shot of the blond man next to Giordano’s photo. It was hard to see his face, as he had kept his head down and angled away from the cameras. All of them.

As if he knew where the cameras were located, Rasmussen thought, his eyes narrowing, the feeling in his gut stronger now more than ever that if they found this man, they would find Giordano’s killer. After all, this man had left the bar first; it was not out of the realm of possibility that he had hidden in the alleyway, knowing Giordano would take the same way back as he had come, and finished him off.

But how? That was the true mystery that Rasmussen wanted to find out.

Were the two connected, Rasmussen wondered as he tacked up the dead businessman’s photo up on the other side of Giordano’s, or had it just been coincidence that two people who would die within a day of each other by violent means would be seen in the same bar together, just before fate, or someone else, stepped in?

He did not know, but he was determined not to rest until he found out.

* * *

She sat back, letting the chair support her back fully, as she leaned an elbow on the chair’s arm, her manicured fingertips tapping her chin. Legs crossed and using one foot, she pushed the chair, swiveling lightly from side to side.

He had gotten away. He and those handful of men who had overcome her own men and on her own turf. It was not to be tolerated. She tightened the net and the little fish swam right through. It was careless and inexcusable that such impostors could have gotten so far and did the damage they had. It was sloppy work, pure and simple, and she had already seen to it that those responsible had been swiftly dealt their punishments.

She had no plans of starting her reign soft. Begin as you mean to go on, as the famous saying went, and that was exactly what she planned to do. Show the world that Galactor had no heart, could be ruthless and cold-blooded when needed, so that their ultimate goal could be attained and she installed as the Earth’s only and true overlord.

A cold smile played on her lips. No, her men would not be so nonchalant in their duties and responsibilities from now on. Not unless they desired to lose another family member.

Her fingertips tapped, then she dropped her hand and shifted her weight in the chair as a thought occurred to her. That needed to change. At the moment, it was fine for them to use this type of ...incentive ... program, but suppose others were to infiltrate? After all, they had just seen how easily a handful of men had slipped in unnoticed. That had to be rectified. There was simply too much sensitive and valuable information that could be lost if even one managed to get by. She would need to bring that point up to Sosai X when next they spoke. He would know what should be done.

It would not do for their workforce to be blackmailed into working for anyone else. Or worse, for them to come as double agents. They had to hardened their hearts ...

No, she decided. Even better, all within Galactor shall become utterly heartless and loyal only to one. To her. To Galactor. One and the same.

She rose up swiftly, a plan already forming in her mind. By sunrise of the next day, Operation Heartless would be created. By the end of the week, it would be implemented.

She thought once more of that man and felt that longing again, even at the memory of him, and turned that emotion against him. It had been her desire to see him again that made her turn a blind eye to what he had truly been, what he was doing, and what he nearly succeeding in attempting. She nearly lost everything she spent a lifetime waiting for, and all because she let herself follow her heart.

Never again. Never again would she allow herself to be duped, nor would she allow it in those around her.

One more time, she wondered who he really was and what his purpose had been. Was he a government agent? A private investigator sent by one of the more hesitant companies? Or a mole from a rival company? Or maybe something even more sinister?

Perhaps there would be a way for her to lure him out once more, and then to make him suffer for thinking that he could gain access to Galactor’s secrets so easily. He would pay and she wanted to make sure that when he did, he would know exactly why and who was the author of it.

Because, she knew, the only way she would ever be truly free of this man would be if only one of them walked away alive.
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