Blood streamed down the side of Akira Sato's face at an alarming rate, mixing bright red against the white porcelain tub. As the showerhead splayed hot water over her body, she watched it with strange fascination, circling and disappearing through tiny holes in the drain. She picked up a white washcloth and mindlessly scrubbed against her narrow waist until her skin turned bright pink. Then she lowered the coarse cloth and rubbed longer than usual at the triangle of black hair between her legs and upper thighs, stopping only when it became painful. At least on the outside she felt cleaner, but inside was a different matter.
The consequences of her actions could not be remedied, nor could they be wiped away. Yet despite her resolve for this justified killing, she remained lost in a sea of hopelessness — incapable of seeing a way out.
Then why are you still here? Pick up your sword and end it now. The words echoed in her mind, taunting and teasing. She didn't care about anything — or anyone. Why should she? Mitsui had insisted all ties be cut with the people she had once loved, including the Buddhist monk she might have married.
She poured a generous amount of shampoo into the palm of her hand and lathered her long black hair, gingerly touching the wound her victim had inflicted. The gash in her scalp would disappear in due time, just like her other scars. But the bloody slaughter in the living room had left a horrible mess and would need to be addressed before she left the house.
After thoroughly rinsing her hair, she worked on her face with the bar of lavender soap, removing the black eyeliner, blue eye shadow, and whorish red lipstick she had applied for Kurosaki's benefit. It wasn't fair by any means, but there was no going back to the naive geiko she had been. With eight deaths to atone for in her afterlife, she was cursed in both worlds and simply waiting to die at the hands of another assassin. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her back against the cold white tile, hugging herself as water washed away her tears.
She heard a muffled sound in the next room and turned off the water. After easing the shower door open, she strained her ears and heard nothing, but her instincts told her otherwise. She stepped onto the bamboo grate covering the stone floor and grabbed the katana sword resting against the wall. The sound of someone rapidly approaching increased her heart rate. Her right hand shook involuntarily, yet she managed to remain calm. The bathroom door flew open suddenly, exposing two members of Kurosaki's gang.
The first man stared at her, snarling. "You murder a man in his home and have the nerve to use his shower? What kind of monster are you?" He reached for her arm while the second man stood back watching — his coal-black eyes piercing her skull.
"The worst kind," Akira spat. She drew her sword with lightning speed, beheading the first one with a one-handed horizontal cut. Blood sprayed over the mirror above the sink. She dropped her sheath and held the sword in front of her with both hands. The second man's face paled, and his jaw slacked. He remained motionless for endless seconds before charging at Akira with a knife stretched out before him. With one swift movement, she raised her sword above her head and brought it down hard and fast across his neck. She pulled the blade back, sending blood spraying across her face.
Another body fell to the floor.
Akira could feel sweat gathering at the base of her spine. She wiped her eyes with her forearm to clear her vision. Tears threatened to break loose and destroy the fortification she'd built.
The voice was back in her head, moving her forward. Keeping her from crumpling into a pitiful mess. Don't be a fool. Finish the job you were sent here to do.
She found two capsules in the outside pocket of her bag and popped them into her mouth. It took nearly a minute for the numbing effects to take hold. Then she set to work dragging bodies from the house and dropping them into the pit she had found in the woods. When she was finished, she stepped into the shower to wash the dirt and blood off a second time. After cleaning the bathroom floor and walls and scrubbing the living room thoroughly, she dumped all the evidence into the pit outside and set everything ablaze with a match and a bottle of Château Guiraud. Her only salvation rested in the fact that Kurosaki's nearest neighbor lived too far away to witness the gruesome scene and strange smell filling the air.
A cool breeze touched her skin. Too cool. She looked down at herself and was instantly reminded of her nudity, which she had forgotten with the work she'd undertaken. A nervous laugh escaped her lips, and once more she found herself questioning her sanity.CHAPTER 2
Gravel crunched under the tires of a rapidly approaching car, sending Akira scurrying to the house. She secured the door behind her and pulled on her clothes. Then she peered through the glass panel in the entry. With her sheathed sword at her side, she waited for an intruder to take shape. Seconds ticked by as the dust settled. Then the car door opened. Black boots appeared below a pair of faded black jeans. They were topped with a red T-shirt, half covered with wavy black hair. A huge wave of relief washed over Akira when she spied a face. It was Yuki Ota — Mitsui's daughter-in-law — coming here to assist with the aftermath of her mission. However, as usual, her timing was way off.
Anger smoldered in Akira's heart. She opened the door and called out, "What took you so long?"
Yuki shrugged a shoulder. "I had some important matters to take care of tonight."
Akira tossed her head haughtily. "More important than helping me?"
Yuki curled her full lips in disdain. "Have you already forgotten? I protected you from Mitsui-san when no one else would."
Of course, Yuki was right. If not for her intervention, the gang lord's men would have made short work of Akira after discovering the threat she had made on Mitsui's life. But reaffirming that knowledge didn't wipe away the extreme measures she'd taken to hide her murders.
"Maybe you should have left me to die."
"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," Yuki snapped. "At least you don't have to kiss up to Mitsui-san."
Akira handed her a baggie containing "tokens" from her last job — personal items to confirm the deaths of the men in the burn pile. Yuki turned it over, studying the silver lapel pin and gold chain necklace Akira had lifted from Kurosaki's men before dragging them outside. "Oh, almost forgot this." She gave her the silver dollar Kurosaki had been rolling with his knuckles. "It's interesting what people place value in."
Yuki studied it for a few seconds before tucking it into the back pocket of her jeans. Then she slid into the driver's seat of her black Lexus and waited. Akira climbed in the passenger side and slammed the car door behind her, anxious to disappear.
"I have great news for you," Yuki told her as she turned over the engine.
Anger trickled away and left her head throbbing. She touched her scalp again. It was tender, and she noticed a trace of blood on her fingertips. "Let me guess. Mitsui-san's leaving Japan for good, and I never have to see him again."
Yuki laughed. "Sometimes I wish that too." She tied her unruly hair in a knot and secured it with a red lacquered chopstick. Then she grabbed the steering wheel and stepped on the gas, sending gravel flying.
"So what kind of news do you have?" Akira watched Yuki's profile, testing her patience.
"He wants you to take down another murderer. A British gallery owner cruising in the Caribbean."
Akira huffed. "And you consider that great news?"
Yuki glanced at her. "Take care of this job, and your obligation to Mitsui-san ends. He's given permission for you to start your life over anywhere you choose. Just as long as it's not in Japan."
Akira took a deep breath and rubbed her palms on her skirt. Where would she go? What would she do? Like most girls in Japan, her dreams of being famous began at a young age. She studied harder and longer than all the maikos in her family home, excelling in music, dance, social graces, and international languages. As the seasons changed in Gion, she matured in her abilities and ultimately earned the respect of everyone around her. Yet she lived a sheltered life as a geiko — always being told where to go, what to do, what to say. After being forced by Mitsui-san to leave her profession, she never considered what freedom would mean — away from his control and the only home she had known.
Yuki turned to her. "I assume that's what you were hoping for."
Akira nodded. The scooped collar on Yuki's red shirt revealed the three gold stars tattooed on her neck, matching the ones on Akira's hip. They were a constant reminder of their commitment to the Zakura-kai, Japan's notorious yakuza family. They were a ruthless, barbaric crew who considered compassion a weakness and failure the best reason to die. After spending six months in their company perfecting her techniques, Akira was no better than the rest of them — just a little less obvious.
As the landscape sped by, her delayed reaction took hold. She jiggled her leg up and down, chewed a ragged nail, and checked the time. The pills she had taken to dull her reality were wearing off quickly, leaving fragments of a surreal nightmare in her brain.
"Damn it, relax," Yuki told her. "You've got nothing to worry about." She motioned her head toward the rear seat. "Everything you need is in the black binder: background information, photographs, travel documents, and an altered passport. You have ten days for this job — more than enough time. Do it right, and you'll be rewarded for your loyalty. Mess up or kill yourself, and Oka-san will die."
Akira stared at the dashboard, gnawing on her bottom lip. She hated the thought of killing another human being, but risking the life of the woman who had raised her was simply out of the question. And according to Mitsui-san, suicide wasn't an option. "Are you going with me this time?" Akira asked. "Is that the plan?"
Yuki smirked. "What's wrong, little geisha? Don't think you can handle the job yourself?"
Akira frowned. "I think something may have escaped your attention. How am I supposed to deal with the crew and tourists on the ship? If someone should see me ..."
"Like I told you, you've got nothing to worry about. There's been more than five thousand deaths on passenger ships, and the majority of them are still unsolved. No one will suspect the involvement of a pretty, young tourist, especially with her father on board."
Akira's voice faltered. "My ... my father? What do you mean? He died years ago."
Although Yuki's smile was sardonic, her eyes held a glint of humor. "Your new father: Takashi Hamada. Mitsui-san chose him because he has the right look. He studied in Los Angeles and speaks perfect English. He's also a Zakura-kai cleaner and will make sure nothing goes wrong."
Akira stared straight ahead, her mind swimming in doubt.
As they approached an intersection, Yuki slowed the car to a stop and took the opportunity to provide more information. "Two months ago, Mitsui-san's sister was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool. The Mexican authorities in Cabo San Lucas ruled it an accidental drowning, but her best friend and the men sent to retrieve her are convinced that an English couple was involved. Apparently, they got into a heated argument with Keiko over two reserved lounge chairs, of all things. The pool manager relocated their belongings and did his best to calm everyone down. But early the next morning, a gardener found Keiko facedown in the pool."
Akira narrowed her eyes. "Why would anyone kill someone over deck furniture? I mean ... isn't it possible that Keiko accidentally fell into the pool and drowned? It's not like it hasn't happened before ..."
"It doesn't matter what you think, Akira. It's Mitsui-san's decision. But just so you know, a bartender was strangled in a neighboring town. It was the same place where Paul Lyons's wife was refused service and asked to leave." Yuki increased speed as she veered off toward the freeway. "I've been told that if you can't figure out which member of the Lyons family was involved, then you need to take them both out."
A married couple? Are you kidding? Akira had disposed of more men than she cared to remember, but she'd never considered the possibility of killing a woman — let alone a foreigner. She glanced at Yuki, knowing this was the same ambitious archaeologist who had been dismissed from a drilling project in Mexico after attempting to sell artifacts on the Internet. The same woman who had castrated a lover for failing to please her. The same schemer who had a long history of blackmailing businessmen with illicit photos and had been shipped off to Thailand by Mitsui-san after stealing diamonds from a hidden tomb in the Sea of Japan. And now she was sitting here insisting on the assassination of a British couple whose greatest mistake could turn out to be arguing with the wrong person at the wrong time. Yuki wasn't just a sociopath; she was a murderous, conniving bitch who had no feelings or empathy for anyone.
Akira released a deep, resentful sigh. There was no possible way she could do this. Not without being absolutely sure of their guilt.
Chilled air blew in through the car window, whipping her long ebony hair across her face. She dismissed it and stared off into the distance, allowing herself to be hypnotized by the green landscape unfurling beyond the sedan's shiny black hood. The car jittered when Yuki turned the wheel a second too late trying to avoid a dead rabbit. It was just a small bump, but Akira shivered and pushed her hand into the cleft between the seat cushions. She touched something fragile and withdrew a crushed red rose — like a boutonniere a man might have worn.
Yuki huffed. "It was already dead ... and anyway, there are zillions of rabbits in the world." Her voice had an artificial huskiness, undoubtedly acquired from the tough characters she kept company with in the seedy nightclub below her apartment.
Akira whispered, "Stupid things." She squared her shoulders and sat up straight. "Where are we, anyway?"
"Just below Onekama." Yuki jammed the car's cigarette lighter in with her thumb. "Get me a smoke, huh?"
Akira pulled a large tan purse from the back seat and fished around for a cigarette.
Yuki cleared her throat. "You're important to our family, Akira. Our boss is depending on you to do this right. Understand?"
"Completely." Akira poked a cigarette between the woman's lips.
Yuki smoothed her hair again. "He won't forgive a screwup, not even by you."
"Yeah, I get it."
Akira's thigh muscles cramped. Her temples throbbed. Something was terribly wrong with this scenario. She could feel it in her bones.
Yuki lit her cigarette and replaced the lighter before adding, "Then we're all set, right?"
"Well, I don't ... think so. I just wondered, you know? About using a phony passport. I mean, it's not something I would have ever considered trying. Not unless I was planning to spend a million years in jail."
Yuki half shrugged. "It's not phony ... just altered." She took a long pull on her cigarette and blew a stream of smoke to the side before flipping it out the window. "Tastes like crap."
"So whose is it? The passport, I mean."
"It belonged to my cousin." Yuki pushed the cigarette lighter in again and nodded toward her purse. "You mind?"
Akira tore the cellophane off a fresh pack of Winstons and tapped the box the way Yuki sometimes did. Then she passed the cigarette over and asked in a casual way, "What's her name?"
Yuki lit up and replaced the lighter. "Amato. Akira Amato. Thanks to Mitsui-san, you have something in common. A beautiful name."