8: Wednesday

9:30 AM, Salinas

Having mastered the intricacies of the hand-held scrambler on his last attempt, he was ready and waiting when the telephone rang promptly at nine-thirty.

“Ikhilevich.”

“Good morning, Uschi. I trust all goes well there?”

“All is on schedule and proceeding as planned.”

“That’s good, old buddy. I have some information for you that may save you some grief. The FBI has connected your two test runs.”

“Zat is not possible!”

“They’ve done it. There’s an FBI special agent at the Monterey Police station as we speak. His name is Leon Kitfox. He’s working with a police lieutenant named Inez Zamora.”

“On vat?”

“On you, old buddy. Somehow this Kitfox connected the Monterey banker with the stiff you left in Reno, and he’s been on it like a bulldog for a week now.”

“Vat is ze lefel of his progress?”

“I’m not certain, but if the Bureau’s seen fit to leave him down there for a week, he must have something to show them.”

“Horse turts! He could haff nosink! Zey are two unrelated acts of violence, so common in your country as to go unnoticed.”

“Well, it’s been noticed, old buddy. This Kitfox guy is out there. He’s a science fiction buff, always ready to embrace the impossible. This operation plays right into his strengths. If he happens to tug on the right thread, the whole thing will unravel like a cheap rug.”

“Ha! Vat if he does? Who vill belief him?”

“Zamora, for one. She’s made rank in her department at a remarkably early age. She’s sharp. If he points her down the right path, she’ll drag all the mainstream, button-down cops with her.”

“Is two days until conference. Zey cannot possibly sort srough all zis before plan is in action. By ze time zey collect enough clues to connect ze dots, dots vill be gone, leafink only deat targets in vake.”

“That’s what we hope, old buddy. I’m just warning you so you can take reasonable precautions. These two compliment each other beautifully. What one lacks, the other provides. The one could figure it out logically, the other by a flash of intuition. They’re a dangerous team. Don’t underestimate them.”

“I sink you unterestimate me. No pair of capitalist flatfoot gumshoes can cope vis plan off Uschi Ikhilevich. I vas traint by greatest spy organization in vorld, by Gott!”

“The greatest spy organization in the world is gone, Uschi, because they couldn’t cope with people like Kitfox.”

“You sink KGB is gone, olt butty, zat just points out your own shortcominks!”

“This is not time for bragging, old buddy. Those two are dangerous. You keep one eye on them, and be ready to react if they start acting like they’re onto something.”

“Vat you are meanink, react?”

“Use your imagination, Uschi. This operation is too big and too important to allow it to be jeopardized by some guy who reads too many comic books.”

“I sought he vas dangerous.”

“He is dangerous! Thinking in comic book terms is what makes him dangerous. No nine-to-five, read the bloodstains cop is going to get onto this. Now you watch these people, and don’t let them fuck this up, do you understand?”

“Ya, I unterstant goot, by Gott! You don’t vorry, olt butty, now zat you haff varned me, zey vill haff no chance, none vatsoefer.”

“That’s good, Uschi, that’s what I wanted to hear. Do you have any other concerns?”

“No, none.”

“Good. Tomorrow, then, same time.”

“Same time.”

Ikhilevich broke the connection quickly, and began to disassemble the scrambler. It was a marvelous piece of equipment, yet one that was handed out as casually as a handkerchief. Amazing, these Americans! Still, this one had a fine sense of what was necessary. No, now that he had been warned, these capitalist cops would have no chance. No chance at all.

10:48 AM, Monterey

Kathy Benson hovered and cruised around the perimeter, overseeing the preparation of “the Ferrantes,” the three staggered rectangles of the Marriott’s largest conference room. Oversight was definitely needed. The PacRim Conference, the first of many, would be a watershed event in the history of California’s first capitol.

No longer would Monterey be a sleepy fishing village, nor a tourist mecca ignored by world events. No longer would San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle-Tacoma dominate the economic and political landscape of the western seaboard, leaving little Monterey to beg for tourist dollars. This weekend would mark a return to greatness.

She looked up over her diagram, tasting a flash of irritation, neither liking it nor knowing where it came from. Shrugging it off, she began to pencil in instructions for stocking the bar; sake, Thai beer, fruit liqueurs, and Kaoliang from China. Smiling in modest pride of her esoteric knowledge, she looked up, and her gaze lit on a ventilator screen high in the wall above the door.

For reasons she couldn’t fathom, she found this detail of the architect’s art to be fascinating. Her mind followed its unseen course toward the rooftop air conditioners, idly speculating on how many “stops” this subway of the ceilings might make before its final destination. Then the interest was gone, and she was alone with her gaze locked on the screen, and she was puzzled.

This attentiveness to unimportant details must be due to her refreshed post-vacation mental state. Sure, that had to be it. With a shake of her head, the moment was over, flung off like a flake of dandruff. Her attention turned to the tables. What a splendid idea!

Her cell phone appeared like a gunslinger’s Colt, and one-handing the cover open, she dialed with her thumb without looking.

“Seth, Kathy . . . Yeah, fine, thanks. Look, I’m setting up the Ferrantes for the PacRim, and I just had an idea. Get hold of, oh, who’s best? Probably Pacific Grove Floral. Get me two each of their biggest centerpieces made of flowers representing native plants from southeast Asia, the Chinese coast, the Japanese Islands, the Korean Peninsula, and the American west. You got that? . . . Be sure. If you screw this up . . . Okay. These have to be delivered and on the tables not later than seven AM Friday . . . Right, seven AM Friday . . . If there are any holdups, call me. In fact, call me anyway. I want to know this is going well . . . Okay, I’ll be talking to you. Bye.”

The phone disappeared as her gaze roamed the room, looking for more details to perfect. This conference would be the talk of the Pacific for months to come, and all the glory would accrue to Kathy Benson. Maybe she would get her own hotel out of this. The future was rife with possibilities, and she was prepared because she had taken a refreshing two weeks in Cabo San Lucas. What a wonderfully fortunate time she had chosen to refresh herself!

And that nameless irritation washed over her again.

12:28 PM, Monterey

Kitfox reclined in Zamora’s chair, feet in her bottom desk drawer, thinking. Eugene Shaw, professor of economic theory, killed in Reno by a kid who didn’t remember doing it. Robert Durant, bank manager, host of an economic conference that Shaw planned to attend, killed in Monterey by a housewife who didn’t remember doing it.

It was inconceivable that the two events weren’t related. so, what was the connection?

“Need a pillow?” Zamora asked as she entered the small cubicle. Kitfox hurriedly sat up, but she waved a hand at him and sat down in a visitor’s chair. “Deep in thought, or catching a nap?”

“Deep in thought. What connects these two murders?”

“The conference.”

“Why? I can understand Durant. Killing the host might be seen as a way to disrupt the whole affair, but why Shaw?”

“Maybe he was going to present a theory that someone wanted suppressed.”

“Then, why Durant?”

“I don’t know. Maybe this really is a coincidence.”

“No. Usually, you can get to a motive by following the money, but in this case, the money is in favor of the conference going ahead.”

“Follow the lack of money, then. Look at the riots that follow the WTO everywhere it goes. Those are all people who don’t want their little jobs shipped off to China or wherever.”

He looked down and scratched his temple.

“No,” he said after a moment. “Darnall lives in the lap of luxury, and while burger boy certainly isn’t affluent, that isn’t a job that’s being shipped off to China. It’s all tied in with this conference. We need to get a guest list.”

“Way ahead of you, G-man.” She opened the tote bag she had carried in, removed a sheaf of papers, and dropped it in front of him.

The Marriott logo blazed from the cover of the pamphlet at the top as he pressed out the curl and flipped through the pile. She had picked up all the publicity materials the convention center offered, but at the bottom was a stack of fan-folded printout paper which he immediately saw was a list of attendees with a thumbnail sketch of each.

“How’d you get this?”

“Just asked for it. It’s amazing what you can get with a badge and a high-profile case.”

“There must be hundreds of names here,” Kitfox said, flipping through the printout.

“One hundred eighty-two.”

“It doesn’t matter. The conference starts in a day and a half. We won’t be able to scratch the surface by then.”

“We’d better try. Give me half of that.”

Kitfox tore the list at a fold.

“A banker and a professor,” she said, laying her half in front of her. “What the hell’s the link?”

6:48 PM, Monterey

Kathy Benson made a graceful rolling dismount from her mountain bike and glided to a stop in front of the modest public library, chained her trusty steed to the bike rack, and bounded up the stairs and through the double doors. Students from the college were much in evidence, given the time of year, and the males stopped their research to give her supple, athletic body a thorough appraisal, a task made simpler by her form-fitting spandex riding singlet. She marveled again at the ease with which she could identify the leg-men; they were the ones who tended to stare without regard to who noticed.

One of the librarians at the desk acknowledged her with a friendly, may-I-help-you lift of the chin, but Benson knew what she wanted, and where to find it. She walked by the desk with a nod of her own, and toward the far corner where the 790s were kept. Eye and finger raced one another along a high shelf, but finished in a tie, both coming to rest on The Way of the Ninja by Shungo Hasekawa. Pleased as she was to find it in its place, she knew it wasn’t critical. She had an entire list to work from.

She slipped it from the shelf and, without a thought of how much her reading habits had changed recently, took it to an unoccupied table far from the door.

Table of contents.

Section Three: The Physical Art.

Page 72.

“As the ninja was, above all else, an assassin, the skills he worked to cultivate were primarily those involved with taking him safely to his target and making the actual kill. These skills involved crossing insurmountable obstacles, hiding when discovery was imminent, and the actual art of delivering the fatal strike, which must for obvious reasons be done swiftly and surely. Fighting was merely a secondary skill, but when a ninja resorted to it, he struck from ambush and fought with a savage brutality that disdained the honor required of the samuai’s code of bushido. To give an overview of how a typical ninja operation would unfold, join one of the shadow warriors now on a hypothetical strike against a daimyo in his feudal castle . . .”

She removed the cat’s paws from her hands and tossed them back into the moat. They had made the climb up the sheer stone base of the castle possible, but she wouldn’t need them further. If she left them here, they might be discovered, and the alarm would be raised. If anyone heard the splash from far below, it would likely be put down to a restless crane or a jumping carp.

She moved along the wall, hugging the shadows where her black cotton garb would protect her. Not far ahead was the private garden of the daimyo. He would be sleeping in a room adjoining his haven of peace, and there she would kill him. First, though, she had to cross a small open space, and in the yard below was one of his samurai retainers. If she was seen and engaged, even one of them could cut her to ribbons.

Best not to be seen. Loose pieces of stone littered the top of the ancient green wall, flaked off over the centuries by variations in temperature, and the all-pervading moisture. A few irregular bits in the one-inch range came to hand without even a minor delay.

She waited for the soldier to turn away from her on his aimless stroll of the grounds, then came to her knees and threw the first stone hard into the darkness.

Crack!

Excellent. It had struck a piece of wood in the distance, and the sharp-eared samurai turned like a cat, directing his attention to the source of that sound. Carefully lifting her head, she noted his attitude and moved to reinforce it, lobbing a larger stone in a higher trajectory farther to the left, away from where she wanted to go. There was a most satisfactory rustle as the missile forced a bit of foliage from its path, then the quietest of thuds, as it lodged in the soft soil below.

The samurai had heard enough. Drawing his long curved sword, he began to creep cautiously toward the offending sound. Above and behind him, her black form crossed the open space without challenge.

And now, below, was the daimyo’s garden. It was a fifteen-foot drop, and she wouldn’t be coming back this way, but none of that mattered, only completing the mission. One of her brethren had hidden for fourteen hours in the sewage of a hundred-gallon chamber pot until the search had moved outside the castle, at which time he had simply walked out. Knowing of this exploit, could she not produce one even more clever?

Picking out some of the soft Ewa grass, she dropped into it, hardly disturbing the sleeping crane nearby. Waiting for it to settle back into its slumber, she moved stealthily and patiently to the most ornate door and, sliding it slowly, silently back. stepped into the room.

Moonlight fell across the futons, revealing the portly daimyo and his wife, concubine, whatever. A lantern in the next room cast the shadow of a samurai on the paper wall. If the man made a sound when she struck, he would wake the woman, and her scream would bring the samurai running. It wouldn’t matter. The daimyo would still be dead. Still, if she could escape, leaving the woman to find her lover dead beside her in the morning, the psychological effect on the entire house would carry effects down the generations. She would try.

Selecting for the murder weapon her short tanto, she drew the six-inch blade and crept toward the bed. If her hand covered his mouth and at the same instant the blade sliced through his larynx, she had a chance. All that would matter then was how deeply the woman slept. Knife in hand, she knelt beside him, left hand poised over his face, feeling for the rhythm of his life’s breath . . .

“Miss?  Miss, are you all right?”

She started violently, striking out as a hand clutched her shoulder, the hated samurai about to take her alive! But no, it was just a middle-aged woman, shrinking from her blow, covering her head with her arms. The librarian.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” Benson gushed, shooting to her feet to comfort the woman. “I must have been dreaming! Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine.  That must have been some dream.”

“Yes, it was. I was in . . . Well, there was . . . I’ll be damned. It’s gone.”

“Dreams are like that, more real than life, then gone in a heartbeat. Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Benson said, though her confusion didn’t feel all right to her.

“Well, we’re about to close, dear, and I’m afraid you’ll have to go. Do you want to check the book out?”

“Huh?” Benson was still in a fog.

“The book. Do you want to take the book home?”

“Oh.” Benson closed the cover. The Way of the Ninja. “No. No, thank you.”

“All right, dear. I’ll put it away for you. Have a safe trip home.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

Benson handed her the book and started toward the door. She was sure that if she could just catch a corner of the dream, it would come rushing back, and the confusion would fall away.