Twenty-five-year-old Cai Yi took a big gulp of her Long Island Iced Tea before unloading on the black punching bag before her.
She’d been working on the same jab, jab, jab, jab, left hook combo for a good thirty minutes now. She needed to increase the power in her left hook and was trying to get used to the idea of throwing right jabs.
Before that, she’d spent a solid twenty minutes on her speed kicks. She should have put weights on her legs, but she had a date and didn’t want to be completely exhausted before she got there.
Assuming she was still showing up. She was fifteen minutes late and Cai was getting more nervous with each passing minute. Hence the long island to help calm her nerves.
Cai’s phone rang.
Speak of the devil, she thought.
She hit speaker and said, “Hey, you’re late.”
“Hello?” a young female voice asked nervously.
“Listen, I get that you work late, which is why I agreed to a date at 2:30 am, but please tell me you’re not canceling now at this hour.” Cai asked before sipping on her Long Island.
“I’m sorry, but your number was the last one called.”
“Lucky for me, I suppose. Wait, who is this?” Cai when she heard sniffing. Like the girl was crying.
It didn’t sound like Xi.
“I’m sorry, but the person whose phone this is… she’s dead.”
“This isn’t funny.”
“I’m so sorry. I just thought you should know. She was killed tonight.”
Cai dropped her drink. The glass shattered onto the polished hardwood floor of her one-bedroom studio apartment.
“I don’t know. There was some kind of fight in the bathroom. Three people were killed. I’ve seen this girl a few times before and thought someone needed to know the truth before…”
“Before what? Where are you calling from? Did someone call the police yet?”
The call ended.
Cai tossed her phone onto her large dining room table that spent more time covered in the tools of her craft than it ever did food. She undid the tape on her hands as fast as she could while her mind raced. None of this was making sense. Xi was one of the sweetest girls she’d ever met. Who would want to ever hurt her, let alone kill her?
This had to be some kind of mistake. There was only one way to find out for sure.
Cai grabbed her laptop off the couch and sat down at the table.
She needed to act fast.
Despite the blood and dirt covering him, his blue eyes shined as bright as ever. If he was being honest with himself, he had used the beauty of his eyes for good and bad. For every friend he had reassured and comforted with his bright blue eyes, how many women had he seduced and led into temptation by allowing them to get drawn into his gaze?
Most of the time, he didn’t give it a second thought. It was his job and he was good at his job. There was a greater purpose at work here. At times such as this, he wasn’t always sure of what that greater purpose was, and he wondered if what he was doing to others was worth it.
As much as he wanted to stop, he knew he wouldn’t be able to. He would get through this night and by tomorrow morning he would be back to how he always was.
That didn’t mean he would forget tonight. It just meant he would have dealt with it and then let it go. He had to. It was the only way this could work.
It was the only way he could do what he did.
And he was good at what he did.
Tonight was the exception.
Tonight hadn’t been so good for him.
Mercenary Nick Walker stopped looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and turned the water to hot.
Blood covered the sink handle and then dirt and more blood filled the sink as he washed his hands clean. He filled his hands with soap and scrubbed, washing it all away.
Tonight was his own fault.
He had no one to blame but himself.
Yes, the intelligence had been faulty, but it was still his fault. He had made the mistake.
More than one, if he was being honest with himself.
Nick turned to grab a hand towel and winced at the sudden movement he made.
He looked down at the floor and saw the puddle of blood forming around where he stood.
He turned slowly to see just how bad of a bloody trail he had left through the apartment.
Sorry Brenda, he thought.
At least it wasn’t his primary apartment, but one of their safe houses.
Megan was pissed enough as it was.
Nick let out a strained breath and dropped the hand towel into the soapy sink.
This wasn’t a job for a washcloth, that was for sure.
He cleared the left side of his face first.
Or at least tried to.
His breathing was labored, and he was feeling the effects of the blood loss.
He looked at his phone. It was blinking.
A text from Jamie.
She was on her way, ten minutes.
Nick didn’t respond. He didn’t have to.
He did the right half of his face next.
That was better, mainly cause the cut was on the left side of his face and wouldn’t stop bleeding.
Nick slowed his breathing, trying to get it back under control.
He struggled to undo his shoes but finally kicked them off, followed quickly by his pants. His shirt proved to be the hardest. It was soaked in blood and trying to take it off slowly was not an option that seemed to be working.
Nick closed his eyes and yanked the button shirt off himself. He winced in pain again, but let the moment pass.
He opened his eyes.
His bright blue eyes looked back at him in the mirror.
They took him all in.
Blood still came out from the gash on his face under his left eye, but it was better than it had been. A bruise was forming on his right cheek. He’d need ice on it soon if he wanted any chance of stopping the swelling.
His body was even worse. He had at least two bruised ribs on his left side and two gashes, and his right side had three puncture wounds from a push knife. One almost on his back, then two on his side. One high, one low.
Only his skills had stopped the attacks from hitting anything vital.
Didn’t mean they didn’t hurt or bleed like crazy.
Nick turned the shower on and stumbled into it. The bathmat in front of the sink now covered in blood.
The shower soon looked worse than the sink.
Nick switched the shower head to the lightest spray and carefully rinsed the blood and dirt off him. He peeled off his soaked black boxer briefs and left them on the shower floor.
He looked up at the water and let it run down his face. He grabbed a bar of soap and carefully cleaned the grime away on him.
Jamie will fix it, he thought.
Nick closed his eyes, pushing the pain and fatigue away.
This was far from the worst he’d ever suffered in his life, but it’d been a while since he been beaten this badly.
His body beaten, that is.
He still won in the sense that he completed his mission.
It wasn’t pretty, and neither was he right now, but he succeeded.
The question now was at what cost?
The job was finished. The money would be paid. So that was a win. But there were still three dead bodies when there should have been only one.
He still looked like shit.
Megan was still mad as hell.
Maybe furious was a better word for it.
The hot water continued to wash over him and Nick stood still, his eyes closed, his breathing good.
Jamie would be here soon.
Nick thought back to the night before. Her name was Xi. She was a Chinese bodyguard and excellent at Wushu martial arts. He approached her at Tai’s Billiards. Gave her a business card for a free lesson at his dojo. She showed up the next day.
Those damn blue eyes.
Doesn’t hurt that he has an in with the bartender, Tia either.
One training session. That’s all it took. By the end, he had her in the shower room.
She had led him to the shower room.
He hadn’t even tried that hard. It was some advanced flirting, sure, but he didn’t expect how turned on she would become.
Her file mentioned she was lonely, but had he underestimated how well he could make others feel wanted?
It wasn’t all lies with him. He really did care.
But there was a time and place.
Nick Summers wasn’t Nick Walker.
Nick Walker wasn’t Nick Summers.
His fingers pulled down her yoga shorts. They trailed along outside her, ready to spread her open.
Then her phone rang.
She said sorry a dozen times as she grabbed it off the bench.
It was work. She had to go. But please meet her later. She’d make it up to him. She’d do anything he wanted.
According to her file, she wasn’t lying. Well, at least not according to her internet search history. There was however, no evidence that she had actually done a 10th of what she was into.
First time for everything.
Nick should have declined.
He showed up to the club her boss was at.
He bought her a drink.
Her boss was the target. She was the way in. It was happening too fast.
He shouldn’t have been so rash.
The target was a Chinese businessman. His file said nothing about him being a Chinese government assassin working as a double agent against the CIA.
Megan was pissed.
She would have found it out. Nick wasn’t supposed to have made a move in less than 24 hrs.
The male bodyguard died first.
Nick didn’t know him. He didn’t care. He was just doing his job, but so was Nick.
And Nick was better at his job.
Xi died second.
She fought well, but she was never a match for him.
In any way.
“I’ll do anything,” he heard her repeat. He would have left her gasping on the shower room floor with just his finger.
Nothing in her file suggested otherwise.
She wasn’t supposed to die. Her boss went right through her to get to Nick.
He was superb with push knives. Nick didn’t plan for that.
Stab, stab, stab.
Nick had used her as a shield when he countered her attack. Her boss didn’t even hesitate in his attack.
The first wound Nick got when he let Xi fall to the ground. The second wound was when he saw the look of horror and confusion on her face.
What had happened?
It was his fault. The blame laid with him.
Megan knew that too.
Nick shut off the water and got out.
Megan had to send a cleaner to the club. She had to send Jamie to him. Then also Brenda tomorrow to the apartment.
He had completed the job, but at what cost?
He wrapped a towel low on his waist.
Blood continued to run down his clean skin. He was going to need another skin graft.
Megan was going to get madder before calmer.
Nick looked into the mirror.
His blue eyes stared back at him.
The boss died third.
It wasn’t supposed to be that hard.
To be that difficult.
His fault. He got caught up in his own hype.
He heard the door open to the safe house. He continued to stare in the mirror.
Jamie appeared in the mirror behind him. Her long blonde hair in a ponytail. It was late. She must have been sleeping. A tired look on her face. An old t-shirt, navy blue yoga pants, not the kind a friend lets you wear out in public.
He said nothing. He didn’t have to.
She had followed his blue eyes and blushed.
Jamie slung her medical bag over her shoulder and motioned to his bed.
He walked slowly, the blood still dripping from him. He made it to the foot of the bed, his towel fell.
Jamie tried not to look. She had orders not to. Because of what happened between them during their training session in September. Megan had found out. She had been mad then, but nothing like tonight.
Jamie looked anyway.
Nick said nothing. Just laid down on the bed.
Jamie covered him, then started working on his wounds.
He let out a breath. It was all his fault.
Cai slammed her car door shut and slammed her fists on the steering wheel.
The horn blared through the otherwise quiet street.
She glared back at the building to her left. A Chinese restaurant with its open sign still on. The restaurant, while legit in its own way, was really a front for what went on underneath in its basement.
There was a small alley not big enough for a car beside it. Down the alley was a side entrance to the building that led down into the basement, which had been converted into an underground gambling den.
A place known as Apatite Alcove or AA for short. Cai had heard rumors of it, but tonight was the first time she had ever been.
Her cover alias as a Boston police detective got her past the security goons protecting the front doors to the place.
Once inside, Cai saw two large bars with a small dance floor between them. The bars each sat a dozen or more people. Along the perimeter of the space were large alcoves. Fourteen, to be exact. Seven on each side. They were covered with large, thick curtains for extra privacy. Games of poker and blackjack could be had in each alcove, fitting half a dozen people in each one comfortably.
All things considered, it was a nice place. Everything was definitely top shelf in terms of quality and material.
Another half dozen security guards wandered around the place. One rumor about the place was that it provided onsite security for all its clients, which made what supposedly happen even harder to fathom.
How could someone be killed in a place like this and no one knows about it?
Or at least that’s what was being said.
Or rather not said.
No one would talk.
Not the waitresses. Not the bartenders. Not the people at the bar. No one.
The manager working told her to come back with a warrant if she wanted to look around. They were a private establishment whose clients valued their privacy.
And technically, she couldn’t see anything illegal going on, just people enjoying expensive drinks at an expensive-looking bar.
She told the manager that someone had called about a murder there.
No one called. There was no murder.
Everyone was lying. She could tell that much. But she had nothing to go with or threaten to use against them.
No. Her threats as a Boston PD detective didn’t bother them and any lie she came up with didn’t scare them either.
Something already had.
“Is it bad?” Megan asked.
Jamie didn’t respond. She looked back into the dim bedroom. The light from the hallway letting her see Nick lying on top of the bed. He was covered in bandages.
“Is it bad?” Megan repeated.
Her voice showing no sign of emotion. Just a calm, maybe cold, tone. Not like a machine but like an old fashion operator. How may I direct your call? They didn’t care who you were calling or why you were calling them. They just needed to know how to proceed.
“Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Jamie finally said.
“Then a response would be in order.”
“I’ve never seen him this bad before.”
There was a delay in the response. Not because Megan was trying to compose herself at the news because her tone was unphased when she replied with an, “I see.”
No, it was a delay in the sense that she was now computing what to do with the information Jamie had just given her. While Jamie wasn’t currently face to face with Megan, she had been in other similar situations and knew that’s what was happening.
Jamie wasn’t close to Nick, not compared to the other girls in his life, but they’d been through enough that she cared about him. Hell, she had to showing up the way she did. Camel toe and all.
But Megan saw Nick every day, and she was still calm as ever.
Maybe she was a robot. Or half. Go with half.
“Do you require anything?”
“I’m going to need more of his blood type. He lost a lot of blood before I could get here. He should be okay now, but I’d like to have some on hand just in case. Plus, I need more to refill my stockpile. He used it all up.”
“Understood. Brenda will make a house call, and I will make sure she has enough for you. Anything else?”
“I know he’s not going to like this, but I think it’s best for Nick to stay here for a day or two. The less moving he does, the better.”
“Well, this place could use some fresh supplies then. The bread and milk are three weeks old.”
There was another delay in the response.
“Say that again.”
“Nothing, it’s fine. I know it’s only a safe house.”
“Listen to me carefully Jamie,” Megan’s tone rising slightly.
“Okay,” Jamie replied, wondering what was wrong.
“That safe house is on a weekly rotation.”
“Oh,” she said, understanding now as she shut the hall light off and closed the door to Nick’s room.
She pulled her gun out of her medical bag and made her way to the kitchen. She peeked through the blinds over the sink.
Still dark outside. She looked out the other set of blinds. The streets were empty too.
“I’m going to have Brenda come now to check it out. I’ll review security footage to see if this is a breach. You good to go?”
“You bet. Wasn’t going to fall back asleep anyway.”
“Considering how your night has been going, I concur with that statement.”
Jamie shut off her phone and turned on a lamp in the living room before turning off the lights in the kitchen. She was sure it was just a mixup. These things happened, but Megan was always overly cautious.
Still, better safe than sorry.
Jamie settled into the sofa. There were still a few hours until dawn.
Cai drove by the small house the first time. She didn’t slow down. She didn’t have to. She saw Xi’s car in the driveway once she had turned onto this road. The house was the fifth one down on the right side.
She drove to the end of the street and took a right. She was going to have to circle back. Thankfully, there wasn’t any traffic this late at night and she found a spot she could park without attracting attention.
Cai let out a sigh as she drove back onto the street a couple of minutes later. She didn’t think it would take that long to make the loop.
There was a single space across the road, one house down. She parked and shut the engine off.
The house was dark from the road, Xi’s car was in the driveway. It was a tiny house with a tiny driveway that was shared with the neighbors. A chain-link fence ran down the middle, dividing the sides. The house beside them was completely dark and the driveway empty.
Cai looked down at her laptop. If it wasn’t for the GPS tracker she had put on Xi’s car, she never would have found her. She didn’t know where the hell she was right now. She just drove to the last spot the GPS told her the car had been.
Cai had been driving for almost twenty minutes. Smack in the middle of urban house sprawl.
Nothing about this night was making sense to her, but she suspected she would find answers in that house. And she needed answers.
Cai put her hand on the door to get out, only to quickly take it off and duck down. A car’s headlights lit up the road behind her.
It was slowing down.
A black Explorer pulled into the driveway. Behind Xi’s car.
Cai risked peeking up.
Two women got out carrying groceries and beer. One of them had dark hair, the other short curly blonde hair.
What the hell.
The blonde knocked on the door. Someone from inside opened it and let them in.
Maybe she could…
No! Be smart.
Xi was dead. Cai could feel it. She couldn’t change that but, she could make sure whomever killed her, suffered.
She just had to figure out what was going on. Why was Apatite Alcove covering it up? And who was making them?
So many questions.
She needed to get some sleep and think before doing something stupid. Or rash. She had to be smart.
Cai saved the address to her GPS so she could come back tomorrow. She started up her car and drove away as quietly as she could.
Tomorrow she would get answers one way or another.
“You came?” Jamie asked, not hiding her shock when she saw Megan walk in with Brenda.
“I felt the situation warranted an in-person view.”
Jamie nodded, then glanced at Brenda, who was flying as peachy as ever, save for the bulletproof vest she had on under her shirt.
Geez, Megan is serious about a possible breach.
Brenda moved passed them and went about putting away the supplies, including three six packs of beer.
“This location has generated too much traffic. Best to make it look like some girls over for a party,” Megan said, seeing the look on Jamie’s face.
Jamie motioned to Brenda, who tossed her two. She cracked one open while Megan walked to Nick’s room and closed the door behind her.
“Are you conscious?” She asked, even as her eyes took in the view before her.
She hadn’t seen Nick this badly injured since being back from Japan.
“I am,” Nick said, his eyes covered with a cold cloth.
“It is stifling in here.”
“I suggest you cease any attempts at humor. I’m in no mood.”
Nick took the cloth off his eyes. Megan was before him, just not how he expected to see her. She wasn’t wearing glasses and her brown eyes were blue, her long brown hair was instead short blonde and curly and she had a mole on her left cheek. If she wasn’t in front of him, he would have sworn.
He knew he had messed up, but didn’t know it had been this dire.
“I don’t care to hear it. If I wanted a job handled this sloppy, I would have sent Bobbi or Shane to do it.”
Megan paused, letting the insult hang in the air, then continued, her tone rising. “You know how much shit I have to clean up now because of you?”
Nick closed his eyes. He had been afraid of this.
“I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
“A lot of fucking good that does me right now!”
“Please stop swearing, Megan.”
“I will converse any fucking way I feel like right now!”
Nick looked away.
“You have forced me to allocate resources and personnel to tasks that didn’t need to happen. I’m going to have to brief Morgan on this because you won’t be available for tasking, but I can’t have him look too deep into this operation, either. There’s a good probability that you have now ruined this location’s use as a safe house for future operations. I have had to take time away from other pressing issues to assume the role of one of my alias’s to prevent further contamination from the visibility you have brought to this location. And now I’m going to have to deploy a cleaner to sterilize this area, which the only available assets I have on such a short notice is going to rack up a body count which I will have to help coordinate as well.”
“I can help with that.”
“The hell you can!”
Nick pinched his nose, a headache coming on.
“The only thing I need from you is for you to pull yourself together. Tomorrow you will be transported to the Compound in Maine.”
“Jamie said I needed to stay here.”
“Do not interrupt me again!”
Nick took a deep breath but remained silent.
“Until I know otherwise, this area is compromised and you will not be staying here. You will, however, use whatever tricks you know to make sure you heal and recover as quickly as possible. Next week, you will undergo skin grafts to fix the damage you’ve done to your body through your own carelessness. Is that clear?”
Nick remained silent.
“I asked you a question.”
Megan left the room, slamming the door behind her. She let out a breath.
She’d never seen Nick that hurt before. This wasn’t supposed to have happened. This job wasn’t supposed to have caused all this trouble.
She must have missed something. She needed to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Megan composed herself before going out to see Jamie and Brenda.
She still had a lot of work to do.
“Can I help you?” A stern voice demanded.
Cai turned around from looking at the flyers posted to a bulletin board on the wall between a dojo and an office. According to the GPS on Xi’s car, she had been at this dojo hours before Apatite Alcove.
Two blondes stood before her, one with dirty blonde hair in a ponytail who was chewing gum. The one who spoke had her arms folded across her chest.
“I certainly hope so,” Cai said, flashing her fake badge and ID quickly. “Detective Lee, Boston PD. I’m looking for someone.”
The stern blonde kept her arms crossed. The other one smacked her gum loudly. Clearly, they would not make this easy for her.
Cai pulled out her cell phone.
“Have you seen this woman here?”
They both looked at the picture of Xi on her phone.
“Can’t say I have,” replied the stern blonde.
“We have reason to believe she was here yesterday for a period of time.”
“Well, it’s a gym. People usually want to put in some time and effort into their workout, if they’re going to bother at all.”
“So, she does workout here? Even though you just said you haven’t seen her before.”
“I didn’t say that. I said people,” replied the stern blonde.
“She could be one of Nick’s,” the ponytail blonde said, then chomped her gum more.
“Excuse me?” Cai said, taken aback.
“I don’t understand what you said. One of Nick’s?”
“Oh, well, yeah. See, some girls like to get a lil one-on-one time with Nick. And sometimes they get a drink after and stuff,” she said with a wink.
“I doubt that,” Cai scoffed, not able to help herself.
“You’d be surprised. It happens.”
Cai felt her eye twitch. Stay calm.
“I was under the assumption that the woman in question wasn’t…”
“Into that sort of thing.”
“So, she’s a nun?”
“Then why wouldn’t she be? She’s a cute enough girl. She could get some guys.”
“She’s not into guys!” Cai snapped.
They both stared at her.
Redirect. Stay in control.
“Where is this Nick guy?”
“What precinct did you say you were with again, Detective?” The stern blonde asked.
“Okay, well, I’d like to see your badge number again and your captain’s name and contact number otherwise get out of my business. We’re done talking here.”
“I could arrest you both for obstruction.”
“Try it,” the stern blonde said.
Ponytail said nothing, but had crossed her arms and stopped chewing on her gum.
The stern blonde continued, “Cause so far it sounds like you’re looking for someone who hasn’t been missing for twelve hours, let alone twenty-four hours-”
“I don’t need to wait twenty-four hours to look for a missing person,” Cai interrupted.
“Do you have proof that she’s missing? Because it sounds like this ‘missing’ person spent the night with someone you don’t think she should have.”
“You better hope you’re right, otherwise I’ll be back here with so many cops you’ll wish you cooperated,” Cai said, poking the stern blonde.
“Don’t touch me. And if I ever see you again, I’m dropping you.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Absolutely,” she said and glared back at her.
Cai glared back at both of them, trying to hide the fear coursing through her.
She’d never encountered a woman so terrifying as the stern blonde. Cai knew it was only the flimsy chance that she could be an actual Boston Police detective that stopped the stern blonde from dropping her right there on the spot.
The woman was clearly crazy.
Cai stormed out of the building and back to her car.
By the time she drove away from the dojo, her fear had turned to anger.
Cai took a deep breath and stepped into the house.
The girls had left and this Nick guy was home alone. If the bugs she planted outside the house were right, he would be a sitting duck. She closed the door quietly behind her and made her way to the bedroom he was staying in. She had spent the last several hours gathering intel on this location and the people within.
Because that’s what Cai did. She was a private investigator with a specialty in surveillance.
She knew how to watch people.
When Cai arrived after her visit to the dojo, Xi’s car was gone. The GPS had been disabled by now and who knows where they had taken it.
She had waited 30 minutes before even getting out of the car to plant some of her cameras.
The smell of smoke had been in the air, apparently from a large house fire a few streets over that was now contained. That had actually helped Cai in a way since no one was around on this street at all.
Cai still wasn’t sure what had happened or if Xi was still alive, but she was about to get answers.
She opened the door.
He was lying on the bed still. A washcloth over his eyes. She stepped by a large bowl filled with water and more washcloths. It smelled horrible.
“Can I help you?” He said calmly, even as she pointed a gun at his face.
“Where’s Xi?” she asked.
He took the washcloth off his eyes and looked up, his bright blue eyes inches away from the barrel of her gun.
Cai swallowed hard. The tiny piece of hope she was holding on to gone.
“How?” She sniffed.
“I was careless. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.”
Cai wiped the tears from her eyes.
“You’re sorry! She’s dead, you bastard, and that’s all you have to say.”
He remained silent.
“She was such a sweet young girl with so much potential still. And because of you, she’s dead.”
“She had such hopes and dreams. She was going to go places.”
“I’m sorry. Was she your sister?”
“Family at all?”
Cai sniffed and said, “She was my girlfriend.”
“Why is that surprising?”
“It’s not. I just didn’t know she was in a relationship.”
“I mean, she hadn’t made it official yet, but…” Cai wiped her eyes.
“How long were you guys together?”
“Four days. We met on Tinder and really hit it off and had some intense text messages. We were supposed to go on our first date, but then she had to go to work.”
He remained silent.
His blue eyes just staring at her.
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t lie to me!” She snapped, shaking the gun at him.
“I was badly injured, as you can see. I don’t handle the clean ups. That’s someone else’s job.”
“Like the bitches that keep coming in and out of this place? What you think you’re some hot piece of shit to women and just expect them to be at your beck and call?” Cai screamed as she pulled at her hair.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Nick replied calmly, even as his hand slowly gripped the hidden dagger he had under his pillow.
Things were deteriorating. Nick remained silent as he watched her twitch several times, her eyes moving side to side.
Cai cleared her throat.
“You know what, I’m not going to shoot you.”
“How kind of you.”
“No, first I’m going to go back to that dojo of yours and shoot those two blondes there. I’ll be sure to take pictures, then I’m going to come back here and shoot whatever other bitch shows up here to wipe your ass.”
His blue eyes narrowed.
“That would be a mistake.”
“No, what you did was a mistake. What I’m going to do is on purpose, you bastard,” Cai said as she walked backwards out of the bedroom.
She slammed the door shut, then ran to her car.
Carol watched as Cai left the house and headed for her car. Carol followed quickly behind her.
Cai was so focused on getting out of there, she didn’t notice Carol until she was right behind her.
Cai turned, but by then it was too late. Carol’s fist caught her square in the face.
That’s all it took.
One punch from Carol shattered Cai’s nose and sent blood spraying.
Cai’s knees buckled, and she crumbled, but Carol caught her and punched her again.
The second punch broke Cai’s face.
Carol felt the bones break. More blood. This time it got on her.
She let Cai fall to the ground.
Then punched her a third time with her left hand.
And a fourth with her right hand.
Carol wiped the blood off her knuckles onto her white shirt, then pulled Cai back up to her feet, or what was left of her.
Blood bubbles formed at her mouth as she struggled to breathe through her mouth, her nose beyond repair.
Carol wrapped her arm around her throat and turned behind her. She almost felt bad that this had been so easy.
Carol snapped Cai’s neck with a quick twist and let her body fall once more to the ground at her feet.
She pulled out her phone and dialed a number.
It was answered on the first ring.
“Good. Leave the body in the car. Someone will be along soon.”
“Not a word to Nick. Ever.”
Carol ended the call, tossed Cai’s lifeless body into the backseat, along with the pair of latex gloves covered in her blood, then walked back to her car, where she changed shirts quickly before driving back to the dojo.
Nick let out a deep breath as he moved into the sixth form of his clan’s Kata. This one was done blindfolded and lasted six minutes.
The music continued to play traditional Japanese musical instruments. A new song came on just as he finished tightening the blindfold.
Despite his injuries from last week, Nick moved with perfect grace. His movements aligned in perfect harmony with the music. Matching the tempo beat for beat. The sixth form had less gliding than that of the fifth or the seventh form but his body still flowed like water, his movements smooth and fluid as he moved about in a five-foot radius in the red circle he had taped before starting his kata regiment.
Even with the blindfold on, Nick knew exactly where he was with every breath he exhaled. He never stepped out of the circle.
His mother taught him 8 of the 9 forms their clan uses. His sensei taught him the 9th while he lived in Japan for those seven years after his parent’s assassination.
Normally, the sixth form wasn’t taught until a child was at least 12 years of age. Nick was taught at 6 and had mastered it by 7.
That mastery came at the cost of many lashes and bruises as his mother corrected every misstep or slight deviation the instant it happened. Stepping out of the circle was the worst offense. It was the first thing Nick made sure he got right.
His mother was known as the deadliest kunoichi for a reason.
He let out a deep breath as he prepared for the halfway point. Even as the intensity of the music picked up, the user had to dial back. The movements still had to flow, but the form had to become even more graceful. Smoother. More focused.
At that moment, Nick wasn’t in the underground dojo in his secret basement at his compound in Maine. And his body wasn’t recovering from his wounds from last week or the skin grafts from two days ago.
No, for all intents and purposes, Nick was back in Japan during the summer, out in the grass, up on the hill overlooking the pond.
It had always been his favorite spot. The sky was blue, the clouds fluffy, perfect to watch them go by if you were laying down. The tree was plenty far outside the circle. He wouldn’t hit it.
Nick felt the warm sun on his skin, the gentle breeze around him. The smell of flowers.
Even if he hadn’t preconditioned the dojo to mirror those, he still would have felt them.
That was the point of the sixth form.
And it could only be done after doing the other five in a row.
That was the only correct way to master it.
Birds flew overhead, but they didn’t break Nick’s flow or form. But as much as he wanted to linger, he couldn’t.
The third form allowed that, and he missed his chance to do so because he needed to get to the sixth form.
The music waned, and the sky and hill vanished.
The club from last week appeared.
Nick was back there.
Xi was there.
The music was ending, as was the sixth form.
Nick stood up on his left toes and did a slow, precise 360’ degree turn.
The music stopped.
No music because none would ever capture the moment relived.
The blindfold remained, and Nick replayed the fight.
Nick yelled out in pain as the push knife plunged into him again.
He replayed the fight again. His movements exact.
He yelled out in pain.
He replayed the fight a third time. This time, there was no yell. His body found the answers.
Xi still died. But he remained unharmed.
Some things couldn’t be avoided.
Some things couldn’t be changed.
Nick removed his blindfold. His phone flashed by the door.
One from Michelle Trilling asking about getting together next week.
And one from Megan. New job she needed done by him if he was ready.
She avoided him when he was like this whenever she could.
They agreed long ago not to talk about Japan or his time there.
Nick put his phone down, responding to neither text, and played the next song.
The seventh form wasn’t always required after the sixth, but it always helped.
Nick took a deep inhale of the largest candle by the music, letting it overcome him. He kept his eyes closed. Next time the results would be better, he was sure of it. He had seen his mistakes and he wouldn’t make them again. He was better now than he had been a week prior. There was no mistake of that now.
He began the seventh form with a stomp. The sky and hill came rushing back to him.
And Nick smiled.
The Merc Series