Finally on the home stretch, whew. Enjoy.
Color Pages, Dramatis Personae, and Prologue
Chapter 3 (1/2)
Chapter 3 (2/2)
Chapter 5, Epilogue, and Afterword
The sun had just peeked out from the horizon when Balalaika entered her office in Bougenvillea Trading's headquarters, and immediately her features froze in a mask of rage. The reason for her ire was immediately apparent: seated in her chair, smoking one of her expensive Havana cigars, looking for all the world as though she owned the place, was Tatiana Yakovleva.
"...Could it be that you do not want anyone other than yourself sitting in this chair, comrade Balalaika?" Tatiana asked, smiling disarmingly. Yet it seemed she remembered having her collar grasped in Balalaika's iron grip, for she quickly rose from her seat and moved a safe distance away.
"Or perhaps, your irritation arises from the fact that I touched your possessions? Even though, if I am not mistaken, this cigar was bought using the organization's profits."
"What irritates me more than anything is the sight of your face, Cheka. Make your choice. You can either leave this room on your own two feet, or be transported out of it on a stretcher."
Her voice was far too cold for her words to be an empty threat; Balalaika almost seemed to be hoping that Tatiana would choose the latter. Even then Tatiana's gloomy smile remained, its owner safe in the knowledge that she was outside of Balalaika's immediate reach.
"May I ask why you are constantly so aggressive? I could be giving you the help you need."
"If you truly believe that, you need to see a psychiatrist, you two-faced spy."
"It wouldn't kill you to calm yourself a little when you're in dire straits, comrade."
An atmosphere of deadly tension filled the room. Balalaika kept her silence, her wordless glare threatening unprecedented pain, while Tatiana calmly continued.
"It pains me to be looked down upon as a double agent, but I suppose it is a burden I must bear. It was always my mission to detect the worries my comrades might be holding in their breasts, and offer them salvation before it was too late."
"The role of a father with a teenage daughter. Do you honestly think I'll believe any of your garbage?"
"...Then let me ask you this. How are you going to conclude the matter of Stanislav Kandinsky?"
Tatiana finally revealed her best hand. Balalaika's glare grew sharper than ever before.
"You soldiers are always trying to solve your problems with bullets. Either shoot your old comrade-in-arms, or turn your guns outward against everything in order to protect him... Isn't that the only choice you have? A sad truth, I must say... though if it were me, I could take care of the situation in a far more flexible manner," Tatiana said, carefully observing Balalaika's expression from behind her square glasses.
"We KGB remnants still have our connections from the information networks raised during the Cold War--they are our greatest weapons. And our worth lies in the fact that we can control and create truths and falsehoods as we please. Changing the whereabouts or the status of a single person is well within our power. Transporting him out of Roanapur or even framing the Zaltzman assault on someone else would be child's play. What do you think, comrade? Do you understand, now, how valuable my help can be?"
"...What a joke," Balalaika said, dismissing Tatiana's offer with a sneer. "Your audacity truly knows no bounds, Cheka. Any help offered by your kind is never anything more than bait set for your pathetic traps. If you honestly thought that I'd bite, you must be more delusional than I thought."
Tatiana didn't reply, hiding her feelings behind an expressionless mask. But once Balalaika drew a pistol from within her jacket, the former KGB found herself sweating profusely.
"There is one thing I'm curious about, suka(1). Where did you hear the name Stanislav? Now that's something I would dearly like to hear."
"...Are you really thinking of shooting me? Have you forgotten I was dispatched here on orders from Moscow?"
"A necessary measure to prevent the leaking of information. Ah, though of course, I wouldn't dream of boring you with meaningless empty threats."
Balalaika grinned as she pointed the Stechkin's hefty barrel at Tatiana, her expression that of a devil drunk on the heady fumes of cruelty.
"I'm going to shoot until you beg me to let you talk. First your kneecaps, then your fingers, one by one... Hmm, what should I shoot next? I'll still have eight rounds left."
It was a declaration that would have had any street punk wetting themselves, but Tatiana's wit and courage had not yet declared surrender. The smile she showed Balalaika was not entirely a bluff, though her voice came out as little more than a whisper.
"Naturally, the one who told me about Junior Sergeant Stanislav was someone with whom you shared the secret."
"...A member of the Vysotniki?"
"Oh? Is that surprise I detect in your tone? Surely you understand that there are those even among your lot who have a sound head atop their shoulders. They, at least, know how much they stand to gain by allying themselves with us former KGB."
Betrayal, backstabbing... These, above all else, had been the tools the KGB had relied on to hold the great Soviet Union in check, and they had been astonishingly effective in keeping the USSR's totalitarian system going. Even in the present day, there were no agencies in the world quite as adept as the KGB had been at persuading supposed allies to turn on one another.
It was hard to believe that one of the steadfast Vysotniki would fall victim to their honeyed lies, but it was a fact that Balalaika had given an order specifying that none but the Vysotniki were to know that Stanislav Kandinsky was in Roanapur.
"I couldn't tell you if I wanted to. There is my safety to consider, after all," Tatiana said. Balalaika understood perfectly what she meant.
"Are you going to shoot? Can you imagine what would happen if you were to pull the trigger? Would our mystery informant not assume that you knew of them once they heard that I had been tortured? Of course, as a member of the glorious Vysotniki, such a person would never be so weak as to sit and wait placidly for death. On the contrary, they would most likely act before you came to exact the price for their betrayal... In other words, you would have a completely anonymous potential backstabber among your ranks."
"...The way you Cheka drone on never ceases to astonish me. I told you to talk, not to babble. Or is this your way of pleading for your life?"
"No, this is a warning. If you want to shoot me, then do it after you find the spy among your soldiers by yourself. And until then, give no sign that you know something is amiss."
"Hmph, you should have just accepted your death," Balalaika said with a snort, lowering the Stechkin. A hardened soldier like her would never pull the trigger because of personal feelings alone, especially not when such a threat had presented itself. But that didn't mean that the flames of her rage had been extinguished--in fact, they had become compressed, stored away in anticipation of an even greater explosion to come. Her blank, utterly expressionless features served to unnerve Tatiana more than any snarling tantrum.
"You get to live another day. But know that this time, you've truly become my enemy. I'll make you wish you'd died easily today."
"...Don't forget that you have tasks set before you that you could be taking care of, instead of wasting your energy threatening me."
With the gun out of sight, Tatiana seemed to regain a little of her composure, the gloomy smile once again creeping onto her face.
"You don't need to remind me. The matter of Stanislav will be taken care of today. I have a meeting with Chang at noon tomorrow, at the Golden Swinging Nightclub, and it would be a mark on my pride to see him with this problem still unresolved."
Had Balalaika noticed the dark light that suddenly flared in Tatiana's eyes?
"Now, get out of my sight. If I have to look at your face any longer, I feel like I'll succumb to my urges and strangle you to death with my bare hands."
"As you wish. Today will be a busy day for you, after all."
Tatiana nodded politely and exited the office. Left alone in the room, Balalaika looked out the window at the faint light filtering through the curtains as the new day broke over Roanapur.
Her glare was like that of the legendary basilisk, threatening to destroy all that it fell upon.
The items retrieved from last night's battle lay arrayed on Chang's desk, in the CEO's office of Rehe Pictures, Inc.
Casings from three different handguns and a rifle. Revy had testified as to who had fired what, so there was no need to look into that. The real problem lay in the bizarre objects to the side of the spent casings, completely unrelated to any sort of gunfight.
Two star-shaped shuriken.
Chang's expression as he stared down at them was supremely nonplussed, that of a man who had gone rummaging through his own closet and come up with something extremely unexpected.
"What baffles me more than anything is that even though I sent you and Revy, we have more dead allies on our hands than dead enemies."
Shenhua, who had been standing quietly before him, looked down as though Chang's words had shamed her.
"The fault rests entirely on my shoulders. I foolishly underestimated the enemy and split our forces."
She could converse with Chang in Cantonese. Free of English's stifling confines, Shenhua's voice carried a seductive charisma that perfectly complemented her natural beauty.
"Was he really as good as you say? This... ninja fellow, that is."
"If I were to meet him again, I would take off my high heels," Shenhua replied, fighting spirit burning in her eyes.
Shenhua always wore stiletto heels over five centimeters long no matter what, despite the fact that she was a dual blade wielder who by necessity had to physically exert herself on a regular basis. Chang knew for a fact that she didn't wear them just to look pretty.
The truth of the matter was that she had taken to wearing the cumbersome footwear as a way to keep her edge in Roanapur, where the chances of facing an individual skilled in the martial arts were slim to none. For Shenhua to declare that she would take off her high heels meant that she was dead serious--one could say that she was at Defcon One. The nuclear missile silos had opened, revealing their deadly payload.
"...I don't doubt you. I know how much weight you put on your pride. Someone like you telling me so frankly that he's a true threat makes me shiver more than any horror story."
Shenhua was in good standing not only with Chang, but with the Triad's Thailand branch as a whole. The knowledge that she had been utterly dominated by one man despite having three allies at her side forced the Triad to reevaluate the threat posed by the Zaltzman assault team. In fact, this new knowledge cleared any doubts as to the Lagoon Company's trustworthiness, for Revy had taken out two of these formidable enemies last night by herself. Even the members of the Black Society had no choice but to acknowledge Two Hand's valor, for she had thrown herself head-on at an enemy who even Shenhua had been ill-prepared to face.
"But honestly, a ninja..."
Now that he thought of it, Dutch had hesitantly mentioned being assaulted by "some sort of ninja-ish person" in passing the night before the last. With so many witnesses attesting to his existence, the threat couldn't be denied.
Chang picked up one of the shuriken from his desk and stared at it questioningly.
"Shenhua. Have you ever heard of the ninja of legend using weapons engraved with initials?"
"...That bothered me as well."
The letters O.M.C. were emblazoned in the middle of the shuriken. On closer examination, the metal had a cheaply manufactured feel to it, and the flashy letters actually looked more like some sort of company logo than a person's initials.
"This is just a theory, but... weapons such as these might be the sort of toys that are sold to fans. Perhaps the ninja bought them, engraved his mark upon them, and sharpened them to use."
"You're suggesting that our real, straight-from-the-books shadow warrior bought the sort of toys you might find being sold in a cheap magazine ad?"
"...Yes, you're right, it's preposterous. I don't know what I was thinking. Forget I said anything."
"Well, no. You see... Hmm..."
Chang tilted his head from side to side, as though pondering whether to voice his thoughts, and finally muttered, "You see... I can't help but feel like I've seen this logo somewhere before."
Rock returned to the office from a grocery errand to find Revy and Benny hard at work, and in strangely high spirits.
"...What're you two doing?" Rock asked, despite himself. His curiosity was understandable, for the tense atmosphere that had fallen over the Lagoon office as of late was nowhere to be found.
"Heheh. Well, Benny here came up with a nice idea to fuck with that dipshit Jake."
Revy's smile, which had become a rare sight in recent times, was so bright and clear that it became unnerving. The sharp smell of acryllic paint assaulted Rock's nose, and he stepped closer to see that she was hard at work painting something that looked vaguely like a pistol.
"Revy said she'd chip in for my new monitor, so I decided to roll up my sleeves and give this a try," Benny said. And his smile, just like Revy's, was uncharacteristically wide and innocent... Though considering that he was the sort of guy who could wear that same smile while hacking into a military database, looks could be deceiving. Indeed, though his smile was that of a young boy, his gaze as he stared into his backup 15 inch monitor, typing line after line of code, was more like that of some dangerous beast of prey.
Rock carefully placed the bags he was holding on the table, his instincts telling him to be wary. When the phone chose that moment to ring, Rock was the only one with hands free to take the call; the other two hadn't even looked up from their work.
"Hello, Lagoon Company. How can we-"
"Yo, it's me, Rowan! And who is that I hear on the other side but my good friend Rock? Sup, dawg? Got any sweet pussy lately? Eh?"
"Uhh... well, not exactly... haha."
The rambunctious, high-pitched voice on the other side belonged to none other than Rowan "Jackpot" Pigeons, owner of the city's largest strip theater, which was located on Rachada Street. The Lagoon Company sometimes delivered goods to the theater for him, but as far as Rock knew, they didn't have any stuff that belonged to him just at that moment.
"Y'know, Rock, I do declare that you always sound whipped. Why doncha come on down and loosen up a little? Why, just last week I picked up two fine Swedish hos who could use some tender lovin'..."
"No, no, it's fine, really. Err, may I ask why you're calling? Dutch isn't in right now..."
"Naw, I got business with your little miss pirate, Rebecca. Give her a holler, will you?"
Rowan had solicited Revy on the possibility of an SM show or two many times in the past, but she'd invariably replied with a polite invitation to shove it where the sun didn't shine. Still, he'd never actually called before, preferring to make his offers in person.
"Hey, Revy, Rowan called. Says he's looking for you. What should I tell him?"
"Hmm? Oh, I was waiting for him. I'm a little busy right now so gimme that little phone over there, hands free," Revy said, showing unexpected good cheer. Rock changed the small phone to its speaker setting and set it in front of her, the feeling of foreboding hanging over him growing with every moment.
"Hey, Jackpot. How're things goin' over there?"
"Everything's ready! I nudged all the shows out of the way, so yours is gonna be tonight's main event! I jacked up prices by thirty percent and I'm still already sold out!"
Rowan suddenly quieted down, almost sobbing over the speaker.
"...Revy... I... I don't know what to say. You don't know how long I've been waitin' for this day to come... You're finally gonna put on a show for me!"
Rock almost yelped out loud in surprise, but Benny showed no change in expression. Perhaps he'd already known.
"Look, I'm only doin' this just this once, got it? I mean it. An' if you film me I'm gonna fuckin' shoot you. Only my people're gonna take pictures. Understand?"
"Of course, of course. What do you think I am, crazy? I'll just reserve one of the front row seats for myself, sit back, and enjoy the show!"
"Hmph. Anyway, what about the actor I asked for?"
"Heheheh, I'm glad ya asked. I got the fattest son of a bitch you ever clapped on eyes on, just like you wanted! They call him the Sweaty Whale, and he's a real screamer. Why, I even hear he's a bit of a celebrity in, uhh, certain circles."
"Heh, I'll be lookin' forward to meeting him. I'll make it worth your while."
"Of course! I got my best people in charge of your stage lights and special effects! Tonight's gonna be the biggest night of my life!"
Revy snorted. "Glad to hear it. Anyway, I'll see you at ten tonight."
"I'll be waitin', baby!"
Rock fidgeted for a few minutes after Revy hung up, unsure of what to say.
"...Revy, didn't you say that you'd rather die before you ever took Rowan up on his offers?"
"Huh? Ah, well, I guess you could say I had a little change of heart."
Revy grinned from ear to ear, unable to suppress her glee. In fact, it was clear that she was suppressing the urge to laugh out loud. From Rock's experience, the only things that Revy enjoyed so much were bloody massacres, but...
"Hey Rock, why doncha come and watch too? I'll tell Rowan to get you a first row seat... Though, I can't guarantee you won't pick up a new fetish or two by the time I'm done."
"Wha... what're you talking about?"
Revy as an SM mistress... The mental image wasn't hard to call up at all. One didn't have to make many adjustments from the way she normally acted, after all. No, perhaps just a bit of makeup and some sultry acting...
Leaving Rock to mull over his fantasies, Revy turned to Benny and showed him the fruit of her efforts.
"Hey, Benny. This look okay?"
"This" was a block of something--styrofoam, perhaps--that had been roughly carved into the shape of a gun and colored silver, evoking a sense of deja vu in Rock. He thought it over for a moment and soon realized that it was an imitation of Jake's beloved gun, the UC Custom.
"Yeah, looks fine. I'm going to touch up the pictures anyway, so you don't have to replicate all the details."
"Heheheh, gotcha. We're all set, then."
Revy spun the fake gun deftly around her trigger finger, pulled out a Lucky Strike from her pack of cigarettes, and lit up.
"Revy! You just used paint thinner, remember? You have to air out the room before you smoke."
"Don't be such a pussy. What, you think a spark is gonna blow up the room or something? We ain't sittin' in a goddamn powder keg, man."
Rock felt left out, unable to enter the conversation, yet found himself reluctant, even a little afraid, to ask just what they were up to.
"Umm... Well, I guess I'll take some of this stuff out to the boat. I'll be back soon."
"Huh? What's the rush? Grab a bite before you go at least. C'mon, there's still some pizza left over."
"Thanks, but I'll pass. I'm not really in the mood to eat anything greasy right now. I'll pick up something on the way there."
Having made his flimsy excuses, Rock backed out of the office and got back into the Plymouth Road Runner he'd left illegally parked outside. He stopped before putting the key into the ignition, leaning against the wheel for a second and thinking about what Revy would look like that night.
"An SM show... huh..."
Revy had invited him to come and watch, but he had his reservations.
He was curious, granted, but somehow he felt that if he did actually go, he'd end up plagued by strange dreams for quite some time after.
Luckily, he still had some time left until ten at night. He'd be able to think it over as he made his way back to the office.
The sweltering day finally ended, the western horizon flaring with the deep crimson of twilight.
The Roanapur harbor stood deserted, the people who made a living there gone for the day. Balalaika stood alone on the docks, looking out at the gold-tinted sea, the sea wind caressing her face.
The six o' clock deadline she'd given to Stanislav Kandinsky had long since come and gone. But she moved not a step from where she stood, her ice blue gaze never wavering from the setting sun.
She didn't even turn at the sound of measured footsteps heading down the dock toward her.
"...Stood up by some churlish fellow, I see?"
Chang Wai-San came to a stop beside Balalaika, his coat left open to flap lazily in the wind.
"And you? I didn't think you could afford to be walking around in the open like this."
"You're right, but I thought a change of pace would be nice. Sometimes, a guy just has to put his work on hold and go chat with beautiful women. And with an incredible sunset like this as the setting, how could I resist?"
Balalaika took out a Parliament and lit up, smirking at Chang's joke.
"I suppose the setting might meet your standards, but as for the other criteria, I must admit some skepticism. I don't even know if you and I share any common interests outside of our work."
'You have a point," Chang said, idly clenching a Gitanes cigarette between his teeth as he leaned on a handrail.
"...In that case, what do you say we talk about something that's work for me, but doesn't have anything to do with you? All you have to do is just listen to me grumble about my day."
"That sounds fine."
Chang lit up his Gitanes in lieu of an introduction. He took a slow, thoughtful drag, then began to talk.
"You might have heard that I've been bothered by some strange pests lately. Why, just yesterday night, I got a tip telling me where their nest was and sent a few people to take care of it... but did you know, that nest was in the strangest place. It was an abandoned factory, completely deserted, but when we lifted up the floorboards there were tons of weapons, ammo, and rations underneath. A mountain of Kalishnikovs, enough for a company of soldiers to start a war."
Balalaika's silence urged him on.
"I heard that the Viet Cong used to bury those guns in the furrows of their rice paddies, but these were individually packed in wooden boxes, oiled and cushioned with sawdust. So I thought of who in this city might possibly care for Kalishnikovs so much, and... Well, I don't think I even need to tell you the answer, do I?"
Balalaika chose to save herself the trouble of answering. Just as Chang suspected, those guns had indeed been hidden there by Hotel Moscow.
In the unlikely event that the Vysotniki lost their foothold in the city of Roanapur, each and every member had been instructed to escape the city limits and then regroup at predetermined rally points. There were several armories in places around the city that had been prepared in anticipation of such an event, and the abandoned factory chosen by Jake and his allies had been one of them.
"A preposterous selection of assassins, a plan full of holes. A tip that just happened to come in at just the right time, and clues of Hotel Moscow at every corner... Why, I feel a bit insulted at the very suggestion that we're dumb enough to play along with this kind of scenario."
"Hmph. Not very forgiving to the playwright, are you?"
Chang shrugged, looking out aimlessly at the sea.
"I know how you work. The only people in this city who know how you operate better than I do are taking dirt naps six feet under. That's why I can be sure that you'd never plan something so idiotic. This is just some sort of play made by someone who wants to trap you."
His observation was no revelation to Balalaika. The left side of her face, still beautiful and unmarred, betrayed no emotion.
"So about that unknown someone who stole your boat and directed my would-be assassins to one of your hideouts. Have you considered that they might have set their fishing pole on your very doorstep?"
"As much as it shames me to admit it, you may be right."
Chang paused in the face of Balalaika's frank confession, as though mentally debating whether to continue. At length he said, "But what bothers me most is the bait that our fisherman is using. Look, Fry Face. Just who were you waiting for here?"
Balalaika kept her eyes on the sunset, a small smile drawing her lips upward.
"You're certainly asking a lot of questions for someone who claims to be talking to himself, Chang. I thought all I had to do was listen? Or perhaps this is all part of business as usual?"
"No, of course not. Just think of it as a clumsy man prying into the past of a woman who should be left well enough alone."
They were silent for a time, both of them gazing absently at the cigarette smoke wafting in the breeze.
"Is the sniper Dutch talked about... one of yours?"
Chang broke the silence first, and Balalaika nodded.
"We once walked the same path. And like us, he missed his place to die."
"Have you talked to him?"
"If he felt like surrendering himself, he would have appeared here before sunset. I think I've been dumped."
The matter finally came out into the open, coaxed out by careful conversation. Yet still, Chang was not satisfied.
"...So, what are you going to do?"
"I'll have to carry out my warning."
There was no need for Balalaika to explain what that warning entailed, nor any need for Chang to ask.
"It's clear that losing Chang Wai-San would not be beneficial for us either, considering the power balance of Roanapur. Even more so if we were to be implicated in the situation."
"That's good to hear."
Unlike years ago, when Hotel Moscow and the Triad had fought tooth and nail for control of Roanapur, there were other organizations in the city--the Colombians and the Italians--poised and ready to snatch up any opportunity. In the case of an open battle, even the victor would come out much the worse for wear, and it was certain that the smaller gangs would choose that moment to pounce before they could recover. For the two evenly matched superpowers of Roanapur, anything that might result in actual conflict had to be taken care of, swiftly and decisively.
"But here's the thing. Whatever happened between you and him, the fact remains that we lost four of our people. That's more than enough cause for us to seek retribution. You don't have to take the bait. The wrath of Taishanfujun(2) will fall upon those who thought up this farce of a play."
Balalaika raised one eyebrow despite herself, unable to completely hide her surprise at this unexpected proposal.
If this whole thing really was the result of an internal power struggle within Hotel Moscow, Chang's Triad was nothing more than an innocent bystander that had been caught up in the violence. In that case, it would have been easier for Chang to demand some sort of compensation.
"...If you left this to us, you wouldn't have to expend the effort, and we'd be able to clear any suspicion about animosity between us. Wouldn't that be better for you?"
"If we were talking about work, of course. But you see, all I'm doing is just being an unstylish sort of guy."
The tone of his voice was light and airy, but Chang's eyes behind his sunglasses were completely serious.
"...Look, Balalaika. We're mobsters, the hyenas of the world. If we turned up our noses at rotten meat, we'd starve to death. But on the other hand, we shouldn't need to eat that rotten meat if we don't have to."
"Having to kill an old friend... I can't think of meat more rotten than that. If you had to in order to survive, I suppose you'd have to close your eyes and give it a bite. But if you want to throw it up, then do it. Even dogs know how to do that much."
"What are you trying to say, Chang?"
"Sit back and watch, Balalaika. This is a problem that the Triad will take care of. You just prepare the condolence flowers."
Balalaika laughed suddenly, as though unable to contain her mirth any longer.
"How soft of you. That's why you'll never get rid of your nickname, Babe."
Chang stopped, swallowing his words. Something in the quality of Balalaika's laughter had made him stop.
"Chang, why do you think I am still here? The promised time has passed, and I have no more business here. Then why, do you suppose, I am still standing here alone?"
"I thought to myself that I wanted to enjoy this glorious sunset for a while longer. It's not like me, I know. But I's just that happy. I almost want to propose a toast in celebration. Because he didn't come."
Perhaps her eyes were not looking out at the southern sea, but instead at the arid earth of a faraway land. A land stained with blood far darker than the light of the setting sun... The homeland where her madness had been born.
"He chose continuing his fight over the comfort of ignoble safety through surrender. Even here, in the back alleys of Hell, he has chosen to plow forward, unbowed. He is one of us. Even now he dreams the same bloody dreams, our souls as one... Ah, it is only now that I can finally revel in the joy of reunion. We parted ways for a while, and we ended up on opposing sides. But that is all. We have been dreaming the same dreams, striving to die on the same path."
Now, the sound of Balalaika's laughter was unmistakable, the revelry of one of Hell's denizens. It was the sort of laughter that belonged to one who would enjoy rivers of blood, someone who would welcome the touch of sulfur and brimstone.
"That's why I can't let you have him. I will fulfill his wish. I will quench his thirst. I will bless him, and I will bury his dreams. Chang. You said that this was a hunk of fetid, rotting meat, but to us, it is nothing less than an exquisite smorgasbord. He and I, we are both trying to fulfill our ideals in this place. The will to fight, and to die fighting, runs through our veins."
Chang, who had been listening without comment, absently looked at the long stick of ash that had been his Gitanes and muttered, "...This is madness. You're saying that you're..."
"Right. We're even worse than mobsters. Don't think to judge us by your standards."
The sun vanished over the horizon, and the sea began to darken with the color of night. Urged on by the now chilling sea breeze, Chang straightened up and flicked the butt of his Gitanes into the ocean.
"My apologies. I really did kill the atmosphere."
"It's fine. Sometimes it's good to talk about something other than work for a change."
Chang raised one hand in farewell without looking back as he left the docks. Left alone and staring at his back, Balalaika's gaze was unexpectedly serene and muted, but there was nobody around to see.
Even as he completed lap after lap, from the Road Runner's open trunk to the warehouse and back again, Rock was unable to rid himself of the lurid fantasies running through his head.
Revy's show, aptly named "Mistress Rebecca Gifts a Slave with Her Punishments." Yes, he supposed there would be a whip. No, maybe candles. What the hell did the guy look like, to be nicknamed the Sweaty Whale, anyway?
She would probably dress in something risque. But what would a woman who normally wore a bikini masquerading as clothes have to wear, to be even more racy?
He was still trying, and failing, to get the fantasies out of his head when he realized that he'd moved the engine oil and the tungsten welding rod and the oxygen canisters to the warehouse, and now he was finished. A glance at his wristwatch revealed that it was 8:15. It was about time he made the decision on whether or not to drop by Rowan's.
Well, he'd decide after locking the warehouse. But upon shoving his hand into his pocket, Rock finally realized that he'd forgotten to bring the keys.
Had he dropped them? Had he left them somewhere in the car? Backtracking through his memories, he realized that he'd left them at the office. He'd set the keys down together with his bags before taking Rowan's call.
"Damn, now I have to.... wait, what...?"
Rock froze, suddenly realizing something else, far more important than his absentminded mistake. If he had left the keys to the warehouse at the office, then how had he gotten in?
He hadn't suspected a thing, his mind preoccupied with useless thoughts, but now that he concentrated, he couldn't remember taking off the lock at all.
In other words... the warehouse's doors had been open from the very beginning.
Silence filled the darkened warehouse. The quiet was suddenly oppressive and hostile. Rock stood frozen to the spot, unable to move a muscle, and looked at the open warehouse door.
The five meters from where he stood to the outside seemed more like miles. Who had forced their way inside before he did? Perhaps the mystery intruder was hiding somewhere even now, observing Rock's every move.
He looked right, and left, and slowly turned to look behind him... and found himself face to chest with a huge man in black clothes standing right behind him.
Blue eyes snapped open behind the black facemask before Rock could do more than take a startled breath, and...
The sharp cry slammed into Rock's eardrums, paralyzing his mind.
"Tomare kono katana agerukara tomare, onegai onegai tottekure, suware katana agerukara suware..." (3)
The bizarre voice echoed and reverberated as though it was actually bouncing around inside his head, slowly paralyzing both his mind and his body. Rock saw nothing, heard nothing. His entire world shrunk down until all that was left was a pair of blue eyes and the rhythm of that strange chant.
It couldn't be... Was he being hypnotized?
But by the time he realized it, it was already too late, and Rock's consciousness sunk into darkness.
A frigid wind blew over the barren lands.
The time was winter. The place, Salang Pass in eastern Afghanistan.
The members of the 318th rear distraction brigade's 11th squadron, known informally as the Vysotniki, greeted the new year from their tents. Even their humble wish of spending the new year quietly in the warmth of their barracks had been dashed when the Hind helicopter scheduled to pick them up was shot down by guerrillas.
The Soviets' absolute aerial superiority had disappeared once the Mujahideen got their hands on Stinger heat-seeking ground to air missiles. The expensive hi-tech weapons had made their way from the hands of the accursed Americans through Pakistan, trickling down into the ranks of the guerrilla resistance.
The Mujahideen had previously stood against the Soviet army's cutting edge technology armed with only their knowledge of the terrain and unbending will, but the behind-the-scenes intervention of the CIA had seen the arms gap slowly decrease, the Soviet offensive grinding to a halt.
On a night like this, even the proud, fierce members of the Vysotniki found themselves longing for home, just once. Thoughts filled their heads of their families, celebrating the new year without them in their faraway homes.
"It's already been three whole years since I welcomed the new year with some piping hot pelmeni(4)..." Corporal Saharov muttered, staring blankly into the soothing orange campfire.
"It'd be hard to even find a Christmas tree in this place," Master Sergeant Chiganov said, commiserating with the other man. "There's nothing here but rocks and sand. I didn't expect anyone to be able to survive here, much less try and fry our asses with bullets and missiles... Ah, it brings tears to my eyes."
In Russia, every family, no matter how poor, did their best to eat as well as possible on New Year's Day, for they believed that the variety of things they would eat during the year was decided by the dishes on the new year's dinner table. Considering that, it was no surprise that the soldiers were feeling uncharacteristically gloomy, sitting huddled around a campfire, cramming tasteless military rations into their bellies.
"Now that I've seen Afghanistan, I know for certain that the Yankees lied about going to the moon. Those bastards probably came here and took pictures. I'm certain of it."
"No kidding. I wish we could go back to Earth. Don't you agree, Kandinsky?"
Stanislav Kandinsky took the canteen Chiganov had offered and shook his head, remembering the endless frozen plains of his homeland.
"This place is not so different from home. No, the lack of ice here makes it easier to bear."
Chiganov frowned, nonplussed by the unexpected answer.
"...I can't believe you. Look here, boys. Our Sami(5) here says that this hellhole is better than his beloved home."
Stanislav, who came from the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, stood out from the rest of his comrades, who were all city boys. If he had met Saharov or Chiganov as civilians, the differences in their values and lifestyles would certainly have left them unable to understand one another. But here, wearing the same uniform, risking their lives on the same mission, nothing could stand between them.
It was Stanislav Kandinsky's second new year on the battlefield, and there was no guarantee that it would be his last. It was likely that his two year mandatory service period would be extended due to his promotion to junior sergeant.
But Stanislav did not lament his fate. Of course, it wasn't that he didn't miss his home. And it was also true that this military service was grueling and harsh. But even considering those factors, Stanislav had a place here. He thought to himself that suffering together with his comrades in this place, trusting each other with their lives, had more meaning than any other life--or indeed, any other death--he could imagine.
Stanislav glanced askance at the cause of these noble thoughts. She sat by the fire with everyone else, choosing to keep her silence as she worked at fixing a rifle.
Sofiya Irininskaya Pavlovena. The only reason that a lieutenant like her was commanding the Vysotniki was because everyone higher ranked than her had already been shipped home in body bags.
Her cheeks were smeared with soot, not makeup, and her bright golden hair had been mercilessly hacked short and stuffed unceremoniously under a beret, but still her natural beauty shone through. Whenever they charged through a hail of enemy bullets, Stanislav offered a prayer that her flawless face would be untouched, his own safety never crossing his mind.
There were more than a dozen snipers among the Vysotniki who could have become the top sharpshooters of any other squadron, but Lieutenant Pavlovena's skills with the rifle stood head and shoulders above even these formidable men.
She herself didn't seem inclined to talk about it much, but there were rumors that if the Kremlin had not boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics, she would have gone for the gold as an Olympic sharpshooter. There were even some who said she would be the next Lyudmila Pavlichenko(6).
The rifle she was fixing at that moment was none other than Stanislav's own Dragunov. She had stepped in and taken it after watching him struggle futilely to fix it himself. It was a shameful thing for a sniper to give up his rifle, his partner, to the care of another person, but if that person was the lieutenant, Stanislav did not feel embarrassed. In fact, he even felt honored.
She was every Vysotniki's mother, their elder sister, their guardian angel. Just her silent presence at the campfire made their plight bearable. Thanks to her, they could forget the fact that they were tired, and dirty, and huddled together, shivering from the cold of a foreign land on the dawn of the new year. The more optimistic among them, like Saharov and Chiganov, could even find it in themselves to joke around.
"Junior Sergeant Kandinski, does everyone in your homeland shoot through fierce wind like you?" Corporal Saharov asked, snapping Stanislav out of his inner thoughts.
"No... No, my father didn't. But my uncle was far better than me. He could even smell the wind and tell how many wolves were in a pack."
"...So that's it," Master Sergeant Chiganov said, shrugging merrily. "Our Shaitane Badi's skills were just part of the Sami repertoire!"
Lieutenant Pavlovena rose, and immediately all gazes swung to focus on her.
"You could be the greatest marksman in the world, but if you keep taking care of your rifle like this, I can't call you a proper sniper," she said brusquely, handing the Dragunov over to its owner. It seemed that she had been listening to the conversation as she worked.
"Lieutenant, my rifle..."
"Mmm. It's no use. I can't fix it with the tools we have here."
The elevation dial on the PSO-1 scope of Stanislav's Dragunov had come loose, making the scope functionally useless. If even Lieutenant Pavlovena had admitted defeat, then it was beyond the power of anyone in the squadron to fix.
"Honestly, Junior Sergeant... Your rough handling of your rifle's scope has been a constant problem. How many times must I tell you that this is a precise and delicate instrument?"
"My apologies, Lieutenant."
Now Lieutenant Pavlovena's sharp glare swung around to fix on Master Sergeant Chiganov, who had been watching the situation unfold with amusement.
"And I distinctly remember warning you as well, Master Sergeant. Don't use people's homes as a source of humor. If you prove yourself unable to take my words to heart, I have other ways of making you understand."
"Ack, no, that won't be necessary, Lieutenant. I... My apologies. I spoke out of turn."
Chiganov immediately schooled his features and apologized to Stanislav.
Stanislav was not a full Russian by blood; his grandfather had been a Nenets. He had long since grown accustomed to such playful jabs, but the fact that the Lieutenant saw fit to cover for him in such situations simultaneously embarrassed him and made him a little happy.
"Anyway, Junior Sergeant. Remove the scope; it won't do you any good now. And thank the designer who thought to leave iron sights on the Dragunov. With your skills, you should be able to cover distances of at least three hundred meters with your eyes alone."
"Right away, Lieutenant."
It had been quite roundabout, but her words could be taken as praise, and Stanislav removed his scope feeling quite lighthearted indeed. Objectively, losing the use of a night-vision scope in such a situation was no laughing matter, but even that fact itself served as an additional source of humor to Stanislav.
...It had been a cold and cruel place, a place where Death sat at his side, liable to take him at any time into the darkness of the frigid night. But on the other hand, there had been a type of warmth there, different from the heat of a stove, or the feeling of hot food in his belly.
Everything was lost on the far side of his memories... Before Master Sergeant Chiganov had been blown to bits by a direct mortar hit. Before Lieutenant Pavlovena had been captured and tortured. Before Stanislav, left alone, had succumbed to the allure of drugs. The very memory was like the dream of a previous life.
The peaceful nostalgia grew distant, swathed in thick fog. He returned to the present to feel someone feeling his left arm for a vein. In preparation to plunge in a needle.
Stanislav came to, and found himself in an unfamiliar place.
He felt a soft mattress under him, covered with crisply folded sheets. He was lying in a hotel bed.
He tried to remember how he'd ended up in such a place... but the cold prick of a needle at his arm melted his thoughts into nothing. The gift of heroin made all the concerns he'd held inside himself seem like nothing more than so many insignificant worries.
He remembered... He remembered trudging onward through the night. But where had he been? The moonlit desert? The back alleys of Istanbul? Or...
Yes. He had met someone. He had cried, true tears flowing down his cheeks. He couldn't remember how many years it had been since he had cried like that. The pain that had struck him then had been one he hadn't felt for a long time, something different from the sharp agony of withdrawal. It was a pain that constricted his mind, not his body.
"...Stan? Can you hear me? Stanislav Kandinsky."
He opened his eyes at the sound of his name and found himself looking at a woman with long red hair. She looked like a beautiful angel, holding a blessed syringe in one hand.
"...Why didn't you go out to the docks? Didn't Sofiya call you?"
His scattered mind focused just the slightest amount.
The docks... 6 PM... your last chance...
But who had told him that?
"...No. Nobody called me..."
The redheaded angel shook her head and sighed in exasperation.
"Sofiya tried to help you. Are you saying that you're turning down her offer?"
Don't you dare talk about her like that.
But she pushed him down before he could fully rise, the shout dying in his throat. Her soft whispers tickled his ear.
"What's wrong, Stan?"
"That was Balalaika. Not the Kapitan."
He spat out the hated name like a curse.
Balalaika. Her infernal laughter rang in his ears.
She shared a face with his bygone hero... but she was a devil.
Yes. He remembered now. Yesterday, the devil had offered him a deal. A deal to give up his last pride in exchange for safety.
Stan laughed helplessly.
Of course. I will not give up. I could never give up. Because...
"The Kapitan... The Kapitan would have kept fighting. She would never surrender."
He remembered the valleys, set ablaze by the setting sun. The valkyrie with half a face staring down at the battlefield, heedless of the howling wind. The sight of her glorious features.
"That's why... I..."
Rouge-colored lips covered his own, stifling the words before he could give them voice.
Soft suction tugged at his lips. A tongue flickered over his gums. The heroin angel offered more distraction, and more fog fell over his already clouded mind.
Even then Stan mustered his last effort, hanging desperately onto one last thread of willpower.
"...I, I won't give up on this mission. I will see it to its end."
"Very well. If you must."
Her breath tickled his ears. The female scent overwhelmed his senses, guided his hands to slide over smooth skin.
"Then complete your mission, Shaitane Badi... Kill Chang Wai-San. You must kill him. That is your... last mission."
He wandered aimlessly. Over snow-white skin.
The flow of time melted. The chains of causality faded away.
Lost in a sea of pleasure and confusion, Stan still held tightly onto his final shard of will.
Yes. This time, he wouldn't run away.
Face it. Complete the objective. And die with honor.
Die to atone for everything that slipped through your fingers like so many grains of sand.
Jake knocked on the door of room 509 of the Lafette Roanapur Hotel as he'd been instructed over the phone. The door opened immediately.
His client, the redheaded woman he knew only as Jane, stood inside, wearing a bathrobe. This was only the fourth time he'd actually met her face-to-face. The first time had been when she'd offered him the job, the second when she came on the boat to ferry them away from the Zaltzman, and the third when she'd driven them to the abandoned factory.
It went without saying that Jake had no interest in her identity, or even what she was after. There was an unspoken rule in the business, that one simply did not dig too deep regarding that sort of thing. Granted, she was a fine piece of ass, and if only her chest had been a bit bigger, he might've been tempted to approach her for real.
"Resting inside. Falcon's not here yet, but..."
She stopped, distracted by the sudden knock on the French window leading out to the balcony. Drawing back the curtains, she was greeted by a man in black silhouetted against the night sky, hanging upside down from above the window.
"...You know, bro. I know those clothes're cool an' all, but didja ever think about, y'know, walking into the goddamn lobby dressed normally or somethin'?" Jake said, holding the window open.
The man in the black facemask slipped wordlessly into the room, chose a spot where he could see all the doors and windows, and leaned silently against the wall.
"Is this all there is, then?"
The redheaded woman seemed unperturbed, despite the fact that her original team had been whittled down until only three survivors were left.
"Well, no matter. We're just back to where we were before we picked up Caroline Morgan's Tortuga pirates."
"Really? That's really what you're thinkin', babe?" Jake said, visibly angry.
"The Triad's already on their guard. Ambushes ain't gonna work no more. Those chumps from the torpedo boat're lookin' for a piece of us too. Hell, it'd probably be easier to go kill the fuckin' Pope now than Chang."
"Oh, are you saying that you're scared, Ultimate Cool J?"
Her seductive voice carried a taunting tone, but Jake only snorted instead of taking the bait.
"What I'm sayin' is, I'm out, bitch."
"Am I supposed to think it was just bad luck that those Lagoon fuckers were friends with Chang? What about our new hideout gettin' attacked the same fuckin' day we got there? I been in this biz for a long time, but I ain't never seen shit go down as strange as now."
Jake took a step toward the woman, his body hunched forward aggressively.
"...Why the hell did you want a fuckin' junkie like Stan to be our leader, anyway? You really want Chang Wai-San dead? Or maybe, just maybe, you put this all together but never expected us to make it?"
"It seems I'm being the target of unwarranted suspicion," the woman said mildly, completely unfazed in the face of Jake's intimidating words. She sat down on the sofa and crossed her legs, putting a light to the end of a Pianissimo cigarette.
"If you don't think you can do it, you don't have to."
The woman frowned now, surprised by Jake's ready acceptance. She'd expected him to demand more pay, but the conversation was flowing in a different direction from what she'd predicted.
"...I'm shocked. Did you really come all the way here from LA just to go back empty-handed?"
"Huh? Empty-handed? Nah, I got a little somethin' for myself."
Jake hadn't the slightest intention of telling Jane about his new plan involving the two-handed gunslinger, Revy. He didn't care anymore how much he would or wouldn't get paid for killing Chang. All of his attention was now focused on the titillating and dangerous woman of his dreams.
"See ya. Tell Stan I said bye. And tell him to stop shootin' up so much, god damn."
Jake stopped with the door open, suddenly remembering that there was someone else in the room as well.
"Yo, Falcon. What're you gonna do, bro?"
The man in black finally broke his silence, measured speech issuing forth from behind the ebon facemask.
"I have heard tell that Chang Wai-San is a dark lord who rules this foul city with an iron fist. My blade is destined to strike down evil wherever it may hide, and so I must see this mission to its end."
"Uhh... yeah, okay, whatever. Well, good luck with that, I guess."
The man waited until Jake had closed the door before swinging his gaze to Jane, then said, "However.
"As Jake-dono said, it is true that the mission is being impeded by unfortunate factors which are beyond mere happenstance. And again, he was right in saying that Stan-dono is in no condition to lead our team... Therefore, I have no choice but to part ways with you."
"...What do you mean?"
"This one will cut down Chang alone. You will not have to put yourselves in danger."
The man moved swiftly once more to the open French window, but stopped at the last moment as Jane reached out for him frantically.
"Wait! If you don't listen to me, I won't pay you!"
"...I follow only the mandate of the heavens!"
He vanished into the darkness beyond the balcony, his last words ringing in the room. Left alone, the woman could only sigh in exasperation and take a deep, comforting drag of menthol and nicotine.
She hadn't been expecting that at all, but in the end, they had only been pawns to confuse the enemy. As long as they stayed in Roanapur and raised a proper commotion, they would serve adequately albeit unwillingly as part of her plan.
She let out a breath and checked the time. The hour hand of the clock was almost at ten.
After making sure that Stan was still fast asleep in the adjacent room, she took the phone and carried it over to the sink, switched it to speaker mode, and dialed an international number. She was making a call to Japan. Considering the time difference, it was probably midnight in Tokyo, but she was sure the receiver would pay no heed to the late hour, considering the circumstances.
She removed the hairpins from her hair as she waited for the call to connect, tossing the red haired wig to one side and letting her brown hair loose from its hair net.
Soon enough, a low voice came from the speaker. It was speaking in Russian.
"My apologies for calling so late, comrade Laptev. I bring tidings of the situation in Roanapur."
The woman switched smoothly to Russian as well, carefully massaging facial cream over her cheeks.
"Ah, excellent. How are things going? Are our plans to rout that Afghanistan reject suka proceeding smoothly?"
"Yes, comrade. There were a couple of unexpected trouble spots, but nothing I couldn't handle. I'm still well within the projected budget, as well."
It was clear even over the phone that Vasili Laptev was struggling to hold in laughter. He was the boss of Hotel Moscow's turf in Shinjuku, Japan, and also one of the leaders of the former KGB faction within the organization.
The woman went on massaging her face with practiced, automatic movements, her voice gaining confidence as she spoke.
"I'm poised on the verge of initiating the final stage of our plan, and I merely wanted to ask you about which one to put into motion. Plans A and B seem risky at best, most likely impossible at this point. Shall I go with Plan Б instead?"
"Hmm... Not what I'd been hoping for. But I suppose it won't matter."
Laptev sighed, though from the tone of his voice he wasn't put out at all.
Plan A had been to have Balalaika ask for KGB connections in order to spirit Stanislav away to safety. Then they would have added interest to the debt incurred by that favor, slowly eating away at Balalaika's authority within the organization.
Plan B would have been initiated had Balalaika chosen to protect Stanislav on her own. Then all that would have to be done was wait until the right moment to leak that information to the Triad and cause friction. No matter what the result, Balalaika would lose face within Hotel Moscow, branded as a weakling who let her emotions get the better of her. But even this plan was timid compared to the last one.
"Understood. It will probably happen at noon tomorrow."
Their final choice was Plan Б. They would have Stanislav go ahead and assassinate Chang Wai-San, then blame everything on Balalaika, and finally fan the sparks that arose into the roaring fire of full frontal confrontation.
"Even if Hotel Moscow ends up losing its foothold in Roanapur, if that Afghanistan reject loses her power as a result, it'll be worth it. I can't stand the thought of her. I've lost count of how many of my old KGB and GRU comrades fell victim to her hounding."
"I agree. I'm proud to participate in a plan which will avenge our fallen comrades."
All traces of makeup finally removed, the woman began to clean her face with facial cotton soaked in beauty wash. Gradually, a face completely different from the one that Jake would have recognized emerged from beneath the cosmetics.
Transforming her face beyond recognition with just the bare minimum of makeup was her specialty, after all.
"Once Balalaika is thrown out, there's going to be a lot of scrabbling over the power void left behind. Naturally, there'll be spots opening up among the higher-ups as well, and when the time comes I'll be sure to mention your name to our leader."
"I'm honored, comrade. I will contact you with news of the results tomorrow."
"I'll be counting on it."
The woman toweled off the last traces of moisture from her face as the line went dead and reached for a pair of square glasses.
"My big chance has finally come."
Tatiana Yakovleva smiled sensuously at her reflection in the mirror.
He could hear the sound of someone praying, from far away.
Rock regained consciousness slowly, drifting upward from the black depths into awareness.
"...Sha, to, pyo, rin... Zai, retsu, jin, kai... Zen."
The chant continued from somewhere by his side, the meaningless syllables droning on and on.
He opened his eyes. The first thing that greeted his eyes was the ceiling of a cheap motel.
From the faint light seeping through the firmly drawn curtains, he could tell that it was only a little brighter outside than it was inside. That meant that it was dawn, or perhaps just before sunset. It was hard to tell, since he didn't know how long he'd been out.
Rock realized he was lying on a futon on the floor, not on a bed. He must have been there for quite some time, judging from the aching soreness at his back.
The shadows in the dim room wavered unsteadily from time to time. Candlelight was the sole source of illumination inside.
And right next to one of the candles he could see a huge man, dressed from head to toe in black.
"...Sha, to, pyo, rin... Zai, retsu, jin, kai... Zen."
A scroll hung on the wall, the character nin (忍) written on it in sweeping brush strokes. A straight sword sat on the sword rest in front of it, and two fat candles burned brightly on either side of it. The man sat cross-legged with his back to Rock, facing the scroll, his fingers gathered in a hand seal.
"...Sha, to, pyo, rin... Zai, retsu, jin, kai... Zen."
Now that he listened carefully, Rock could finally make out what the man was saying. He wondered, idly, if he should bother to point out that he'd gotten the order wrong(7).
The man seemed to have noticed that his prisoner had regained consciousness. He stopped his chant, bowed toward the scroll, and turned to face Rock.
There was no mistaking it. It was the man who'd assaulted Dutch and later met a grisly fate in the sea a couple of days ago. Of course, it was impossible to see his face due to the black mask, but Rock didn't think that there could be another person in all the world built like that, who dressed quite like that to boot.
Why had he been kidnapped? Rock froze where he lay in nervous anticipation. The man silently took an earthen bowl, filled it with a greenish powder, added hot water from a kettle by his side. As Rock watched, he stuck some sort of rod into the bowl and began whipping it fiercely about.
Is that a tea ceremony? was what Rock wanted dearly to ask, but he hesitated with his mouth open. He still hadn't decided on whether to actually ask it or not when the man placed the finished bowl of tea on his upturned palm, carefully turned it once, and presented it respectfully to Rock with both hands.
He didn't really want to drink it, but who knew what might happen to him if he refused? Rock hesitantly took the bowl from the man's hands and sipped.
The taste surprised him so much that he spoke despite himself.
"...Huh? Hey, this is pretty good."
The way it had been made bore only a passing resemblance to the proper procedure, but the deep, soothing scent that flooded his nose calmed his nerves and woke him up. As Rock watched, the man gathered his hands and bowed deeply to him, his forehead nearly touching the floor. It seemed that, for the moment at least, the man didn't intend to harm him.
"Uh, hey. Umm... If you don't mind me asking, who are you?"
The man lifted his head and replied, his voice deep but quiet.
"I am but a formless shadow, and therefore have no name."
Rock heaved a silent sigh of relief; strange reply or not, at least it had been in plain English. But it struck him that it was a strangely roundabout way to answer a question, and after a moment of thought he asked, "Then, err, what do people call you?"
Well, that was simple.
"Ah... Okay. Well, Mister, uhh, Falcon. What're you going to do with me?"
"As long as you do not resist and acquiesce to my requests, it would please me greatly to have you as my honored guest."
The quiet voice from behind the facemask sounded serious enough, but nonetheless Rock still had no idea what was going on.
"Well, that kind of depends on what you do, but I suppose that's alright. But why did you bring me here in the first place?"
"You are clearly from the homeland of ninjutsu, Japan. I was merely struck with awe at the fact that you saw through my suiton."
Rock cocked his head to one side, wondering what the hell he was talking about, then suddenly remembered the conversation he'd had with Dutch on the Lagoon on that night. Falcon must have been eavesdropping from wherever he'd been hidden.
Rock gulped and finally asked the inevitable question.
"So, Mister Falcon. Are you, you know, one of those? A... a ninja?"
Rock's cheeks reddened at the absurdity of the question, but Shadow Falcon only nodded once, slowly and severely.
"I do not wish to brag, but this one has holds a thirtieth dan in the Kouga Death Shadow style of ninjutsu."
"Dea, death... shadow, you say... Hah... hahah..."
There was only one thought filling Rock's head.
I want to go home...
"Well, I mean, you know, we're on the verge of the 21st century and all, so isn't it a bit late for ninjas? No, well, I'm Japanese, granted, but still..."
Rock floundered, searching for the proper words, but Shadow Falcon showed no sign of taking insult. Instead he rose silently, removing a small booklet from behind the wall scroll and walking back.
Gingerly taking the offered booklet, Rock saw that it was quite old, the pages yellow with age and limp from constant use and accumulated dampness. Some of the pages were even on the verge of falling out altogether. Even at a glance it was obvious that it was the result of some cheaply done mass offset printing job. On the tattered cover page was a silhouette of Sho Kosugi--probably printed without the slightest regard for copyright--and below it, written in English, Rock could just barely make out the words "KOUGA DEATH SHADOW☆NINJUTSU SHINAN SHO."
On the copyright page at the second to last page of the booklet, instead of an address, there were merely the letters O.M.C.
"...If you don't mind me asking, what's this O.M.C. thing?"
"The letters stand for Oriental Mystic Collection. An organization that has provided this one with many ninja items."
"...Let me guess, they sent you that scroll and the sword too?"
Shadow Falcon nodded. A horrible feeling began to weigh heavily on Rock's mind.
"Can I ask one more thing? Where did you learn about this O.M.C. thing?"
"I discovered them in the advertisement pages of Black Belt and Inside Kung Fu."
Rock didn't even know what to say to that.
To put it simply, this man was nothing more than the hapless victim of a half-brained mail ordering scam. Rock couldn't say how or why Falcon had ended up falling so far, but it was obvious that somehow he'd ended up becoming a killer and had drifted through the cesspool of the underworld until he came to Roanapur. It was almost heartbreaking, how a person's life could go so wrong.
Rock flipped through the pamphlet again, realizing from the font that it wasn't even a cheap print job--the pages had simply been printed straight from a word processor document. As for the contents, they were full of the sort of ridiculous training methods one might expect to find in a bad 80's ninja movie. Running at full speed with a straw hat placed against one's chest and making sure it didn't fall off. Blindfolding oneself and picking out the sound of a single needle falling on the ground amongst many. To make things worse, some bare minimum of effort had been expended to make it look like a training manual; stark font on each page numbered the bizarre training methods from "1ST DAN" to "30TH DAN."
...Suddenly, Rock remembered what Falcon had said just moments before.
"...Wait, did you say you held a thirtieth dan?"
"It is so."
Shadow Falcon nodded calmly.
"No, but wait, if you... Wait, you're telling me that you can do everything written in this booklet?"
"It is so."
Falcon agreed once more, showing not the slightest hint of arrogance. He was merely stating a fact.
"...This bit about planting hemp and jumping over it every day, too?"
Rock pointed to a page, and the blue eyes inside the mask clouded over with nostalgia.
"At first it seemed a trifling task, but the true test of my abilities began with the third month."
As far as Rock knew, hemp could grow more than three meters high in just a hundred days, and considering that the recently set world record for high jump was just under two and a half meters...
"...And this part about walking over wet washi(8) without tearing it?"
"Every step was a battle against myself. When I was yet untrained in the ways of the shadow, it took four days to traverse five meters."
In other words, that meant that he'd kept up a state of heightened concentration for four days straight, without stopping to eat or drink or even sleep.
Rock stared once more at Shadow Falcon's body. Even shrouded in formless black clothing, his thick pectorals, sturdy shoulders and neck, and tree-like biceps and thighs were readily apparent. And yet his waist was relatively thin for a man of his size, the tightly cinched belt making it clear that there was not one ounce of excess fat on his body.
He wasn't just a large man. He was a man possessed of a body which could make the greatest sportsmen and the strongest bodybuilders go green with envy.
If this man had actually believed everything in this phony training manual and, through trial and error and unimaginable effort, actually completed every single exercise in the book... Yes, in that case, such a superhuman body would not be entirely unbelievable. But what was it that had driven him to persevere through such hardship? This was beyond the limit of what simple determination or belief could achieve.
"...Why did you want to become a ninja so much? Did you watch too much Teenage Muta-"
Falcon's eyes suddenly flared with rage, his quiet voice rising to a roaring shout.
"Speak not of the turtles!!"
Rock unconsciously shrunk back, reacting instinctively to the sudden and terrifying change in the man's behavior. But soon enough Falcon, too, seemed to recover, and bowed his head low.
"...There can be no excuse for my loss of control. I see that my training is still incomplete; I offer my humblest apologies."
"N-no! That's fine! I'm the one who's sorry! I shouldn't have said that."
Rock added a new rule to the list in his head: Never mention the turtles.
Shadow Falcon, on the other hand, drew himself up to answer the question, his eyes growing unfocused as he delved deep into his memories.
"I... Yes, that's right. I only wanted to become stronger. I wanted to change myself. I wanted to stop being bullied at school. But..."
The blue-eyed ninja paused, giving the scroll on the wall a deeply meaningful glance.
"After countless days meditating on the character nin (忍), I came to a revelation. What is important is not the sword (刃), but the heart (心) that supports it."
"Oh... Okay... Hmm..."
Would whoever had thought up O.C.M. feel guilt at beguiling an innocent boy with such a preposterous scam and leading him so far astray from a normal life? Or would he smile and sit back in his chair, content at a job well done?
"...But wait, you even ordered the sword in the mail? No, no. That can't be."
Suddenly overcome by curiosity, Rock ignored the voices in his head telling him this was a bad idea and pointed slowly at the sword on its rack.
"Uhh, if you don't mind, could I take a look at that sword?"
The ninja considered it for a moment and then, apparently having decided that Rock was trustworthy enough, nodded and removed the sword from its resting place.
"It is a dangerous blade, and I bid you to exercise the utmost caution when using it."
Rock took the warning to heart, gulping hard as he carefully drew the sword from its scabbard.
...The blade had been carefully honed and polished, but no matter how meticulously they were cleaned, weapons that had taken many lives had a way of retaining the scent of blood, and Falcon's sword was one such weapon. Rock found himself nearly at a loss for words, his suspicions confirmed.
"...Do you always use this sword to kill people?"
"It is so. It is a fearsome demon blade forged from the hatred of the master smith Tanaka San. Its name is Izayoi Edge Number 108."
Rock realized once again just how fearsome the man in front of him was. He'd somehow managed to kill people with a sword made of duralumin.
"The hatred held within its edge causes even the slightest of cuts to rupture mercilessly into gaping wounds. When I was yet a novice, I was unable to tame such dread power and destroyed 107 of its brethren."
To Rock it sounded like Falcon had just beaten people to death instead of cutting them down, the "gaping wounds" caused by his sheer strength, but he no longer had the will to even attempt correcting the misunderstanding. And as for the master smith who'd somehow mustered the hatred to imbue no less than one hundred and eight blades with demonic rage, well, Rock reflected there could be worse outlets for that sort of thing.
"So, you're going to take this sword and beat- err, I mean, cut down Mister Chang?"
"Chang's lair is heavily guarded. It will be impossible to bring the Izayoi Edge Number 108. Therefore, I must use genwaku no jutsu(9) to infiltrate his fortress."
"Ge, genwaku no jutsu?"
"I have heard you called Rock, but I know that is not your real name. Would you honor me by revealing it?"
Rock floundered for a moment, taken off guard by the sudden question, and replied before he could even think the matter over properly.
"Rokuro... It's Okajima Rokuro. But why?"
"Rokuro-dono. I will take on your face and your name to destroy the evil of Chang Wai-San."
Shadow Falcon raised one hand calmly, as though to alleviate Rock's fears.
"It will only be a fleeting moment. I promise you that I will not tarnish your reputation. I have merely observed from your conversations on the boat that you are in close relations with Chang Wai-San. Therefore, if I transform into you and approach Chang, I will be able to fool his guards. All I ask of you is to stay here until my mission is complete."
So this was what Falcon had meant by "acquiesce to my requests." But it wasn't really like he could refuse now.
Rock couldn't be sure of just how much of a threat this strange man would pose to Chang and the Triad, but the matter was out of his hands. He could only hope that Chang wouldn't let his guard down.
"You're going to transform into me? How?"
"At the pinnacle of the ninja arts, falsehoods become truths, and reality becomes a lie. The ninja technique utsushimi no jutsu(10) will make it easy to assume your visage."
With no further delay, Shadow Falcon immediately began taking out clothes and makeup in preparation.
...One hour later.
The ninja observed his face in the mirror and nodded in satisfaction.
Rock couldn't find it in himself to say anything in reply.
(1): Cука. Bitch.
(2): The Lord of Mount Tai, a powerful Chinese god.
(3):: 止まれこの刀あげるから止まれ、お願いお願い取ってくれ、座れ刀あげるから座れ。"Stop, I'll give you this katana, so stop. Please please take it. Sit, I'll give you this katana, so sit." A ninja chant that confounds the senses, allowing a skilled practitioner to effortlessly hypnotize any enemy.
(4):: A Russian dumpling with a thin skin, often filled with assorted minced meats.
(5):: An indigenous people who inhabit the western and northern regions of Russia.
(6):: A female sniper who served in the Russian army during World War 2. Known for holding the woman's record for confirmed kills at 309.
(7):: The Kuji-in, the nine syllable mantra in Buddhism and Taoism which Falcon is chanting, is normally recited in the order of Rin, Pyo, To, Sha, Kai, Jin, Retsu, Zai, Zen.
(8):: A type of paper made in Japan, made of paper mulberry fibers. Tougher than normal paper.
(9): 幻惑の術: The illusory arts of the Orient, which fray the boundary between reality and lies.
(10): 映し身の術: Ninja art of masking oneself in the identity of another. Not to be confused with utsusemi no jutsu.
Chapter 4 End