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.