9: Thursday

9:28 AM, Monterey

“Jesus.” With that one simple comment, Kitfox tossed the rumpled printout down on Zamora’s desk and leaned back, rubbing his eyes. “I feel like I’ve been up all night, and we don’t even know what we’re looking for.”

“Yeah,” Zamora agree. “What we need is about five more dead. I’ll bet the pattern would fall right into place then.”

“You’re probably right.” He picked up the printout again and flipped to the next page. “Look at this, though. Here’s a banker from Hong Kong, a factory owner from Kobe, a broker from Anchorage, the list goes on. How do we pick somebody out of this mishmash and say with any certainty that he or she is a target?”

“I don’t know, but we’d better figure it out. The conference starts tomorrow. Attendees are certainly in town already.”

“Whose idea was this again?”

“What, the conference?”

“No, getting this list.”

“It was a mutual stroke of genius, as I recall.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m beginning to think it was a mutual stroke of lunacy. Here we sit trying to make connections between names of people we know nothing about while our criminal, if there even is one, is out there working on his master plan, if, in fact, he even exists.”

“Leon, he has to exist.”

“Does he? We made the assumption because the killers both claimed amnesia, and because the victims were both scheduled to attend this conference. What if it’s coincidence?”

“Coincidence among killers and victims? Oh, no, Leon. Coincidence would be if they wore the same kind of shoes.”

“Coincidence exists, and it’s derailed more criminal investigations than all the careful plans ever laid.”

“I’m not buying it, Leon. You convinced me, and I’m sticking with it. There’s more to this than a couple of people going nuts, and you know it.”

“Yes, I do know it. What I question is how much good we’re going to do with this list.”

“You wanted it.”

“I thought there might be something useful there. Now I see there isn’t.”

“Maybe nothing. Look at this crap.”

“Yeah, it looks like crap now because we haven’t caught the pattern. There’s probably a name on the next page that will lock everything into place the minute we see it.”

“Or not.”

“Or not. Okay, look, let’s keep working this until lunch time. If we don’t have anything by then, we’ll reevaluate while we eat.”

9:38 AM, Monterey

Kathy Benson, dressed to the nines, stood at the raised entryway to the north dining room looking out over the lobby with a deep feeling of pride. Wealthy and influential people from all over the Pacific basin would spend a weekend here deciding the financial future of nations. Beautiful Monterey was the shining corner of America these people would remember. The Marriott would cater to their every need while they were there, and the look, the feel, the very heartbeat of the Marriott had been defined by the meticulous work of Kathy Benson. She would be famous among great people who would never know her name.

Attendees had been arriving since yesterday afternoon, and Benson was hyper-alert, thrilling in anticipation of the weekend to come. Just her luck, she thought, to have some little thing be out of sorts, like the first harbingers of an impending flu. With a sigh of irritation, she smoothed down the sides of her smart hostess dress, glanced at her name tag, and descended to the lobby, almost unconsciously checking details all the way across to reception.

“Good morning, Miss Benson,” Fran Oberman greeted her as she stepped behind the long, gleaming counter.

“Fran. How is it going?”

Fran was up front, drawing overtime pay, because Benson had hand-picked her and two others based on their sharp appearance and upbeat personalities to be on the desk in the mornings for the duration of the convention. It had been a hard sell to the humorless guardians of the bottom line, but her charm and brilliance had swayed even them. Another hand-picked group was ready for the evenings, chosen for their warm, subdued caring, soothing to the conferees after a long day of negotiations. No detail had been left to chance.

“Quite well. It’s still slow, but everyone’s been very pleased with us, I think.”

“That’s good. Do you need anything?”

“I could use a potty break.”

“Oh, go ahead.”

Benson leaned back against the rear counter and took in her domain. Oh, technically old Anna was responsible for “presentation,” but old Anna was just a figurehead, a leech on the skills of the ambitious, and it was Benson who had pulled theme and format together into an unostentatiously breathtaking whole. She knew that management knew it; Anna might soon be enjoying an unexpected retirement.

Three men in tailored business suits came through the wide sweep of smoked glass, cabby  following with a dolly of luggage. The three of them stopped at the desk directly in front of her, and she stepped up to assist, feeling a tiny flare of youthful pride at her ability to do any job out here.

“Welcome to the Monterey Marriott, gentlemen. How may I serve you?”

She felt a hot flash at her neck as that mysterious ailment flared up just a bit. She became aware of a tense burn in her jaw muscles, and she fought it down to put her sunny smile back on display.

The center man glanced nervously toward one of his companions, then bowed slightly and said, “I am Mr. Onishi. This is Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Arisaka. We have reservations for the conference.”

“Very good. Let me just pull the record.” She turned to the monitor and input Onishi. “Terud Onishi?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. You’re confirmed in room seven-oh-eight. Let’s see, Watanabe.” She let her voice trail off, and at once felt her jaw tightening again. She stretched her mouth back, and set her pleasant, inquisitive look back in place. Too late. Onishi had noticed.

“Is something wrong?” he asked with another glance at his companion.

“Oh, no, thank you. Just got light-headed for second.”

“Are you all right now?”

“Yes. Maybe I’ll get a diet cola when I’m through here. Let’s see, that’s Minobu Watanabe?”

“That’s right.”

“Very good, you’re across the hall in room seven-oh-seven. And Mr. Arisaka,”

“Would you like me to finish this, Miss Benson?” Fran asked from behind her.

“Oh, Fran, would you? It’s pulling Mr. Arisaka’s reservation now. The other two are on the printer.”

“Okay, I’ve got it.”

“Do enjoy your stay, gentlemen,” Benson said to them.

“Thank you,” Onishi said, bowing again. “I hope you feel better.”

“Thanks. I’m sure I will.”

Benson smiled, turned, and entered a no-guests area, feeling a dull throbbing beginning to settle at her temple. Fifteen minutes in the hotel’s weight room would banish that to limbo, but the other she wasn’t so sure about. She knew exactly what had overtaken her at the reception desk. She just didn’t know what had evoked it. It had been a dark, overpowering wave of all-consuming rage.

11:28 PM, Salinas

Ikhilevich paced the floor of his dingy hotel room, adding miles to the L-shaped run between the side of the bed and the bathroom. Problems. Unexpected complications. Everything was running so smoothly, and then this FBI agent, this agent, with his willingness to embrace any oddball scenario, had arrived. He had questioned the viability of the suspect, somehow connected the two test runs, and enlisted the aid of a cop who would listen to him and had the authority to follow his lead. Now they had downloaded a list of conference attendees. Dave had made it sound like a personal criticism when he told him, and maybe he was right. He had been warned about this guy.

Well, okay, a mistake had been made, but it wasn’t too late to correct it. How do you kill a snake, the American saying went. Cut off the head. Use your imagination, Dave had told him. All right, by God, he would!

He took out his organizer, entered the password, and scrolled down his contact list. Yes. This one would be perfect. He picked up the phone and dialed.

“Monterey Holiday Inn, how may we assist you?”

“Fish rite bicycles in neat lines of curvature.”

A long pause, then, “Yes?”

“You vill prepare yourself. You vill go to room twelf. In zis room you vill fint a man asleep. You vill terminate him. Do you unterstant?”

“Yes.”

“Execute.”

11:59 PM, Monterey

Kitfox came suddenly awake. He didn’t know why, and he hated the feeling. He lay on his side and listened for a long moment, and hearing nothing, he simulated a bout of coughing and rolled to his back under its cover.

Settling on his back, he opened his eyes a crack, just in time to see a dark shape with a silvery coating descending toward his face. He tried to throw his arms up, but it was too late as a soft weight with a thin plastic lining covered his face. As he arched his back, a heavier weight straddled his chest, and when he tried to breathe a thin film of plastic filled his mouth and nose.

Panic nearly took him, but he fought it down and tried to punch his assailant’s ribs. But the man, if man it was, had his elbows placed perfectly to absorb the blows. He tried to arch his back and roll, but the soft bed absorbed all his leverage with ease.

Heart pounding, chest heaving in his desperate efforts to suck in air, he tried to knee his attacker’s back with no more effect than anything else he had tried.

Think, man, think!

Must have air. Nothing else came before that. His hands were free, and he was able to work the under the pillow beside his head. Ears ringing with the need for oxygen, he scrabbled at the plastic sheet lining the pillow, and finally one of his fingernails caught and the thin plastic tore away from his face. It was still a fight to breathe, but the pillow alone wasn’t enough to prevent it entirely.

Unaware of this development, his midnight visitor continued to press his or her weight against the pillow. Kitfox pulled his arm out from under, and instead of trying to punch again, he seized an inch of skin at the figure’s waist, pinched hard, and twisted for all he was worth. He was rewarded with a shrill cry of pain and the shifting of weight to favor that side. He immediately used his considerable strength to throw the would-be assassin off the bed.

Throwing the pillow aside, he sucked a deep breath into his starving lungs, and was struck hard in the face by a handful of bony knuckles. He rolled to the far side of the bed and turned to face his attacker while he pulled himself together.

In the dim light filtering in from the parking lot, he could make out a white shirt over dark pants, and shiny black hair over a narrow face. All this rode on a light, wiry frame, and Kitfox’s training told him to use his superior bulk to overpower his lightly-built assailant. He rolled across the bed and ran toward the figure who scooted to the side, toward the door. No way, Kitfox thought, and reached out to perform a high football tackle, but instead of trying to reach the door, his visitor performed a spinning martial arts kick that took him under the cheek bone and almost knocked him off his feet.

As he staggered against the nightstand, the figure was upon him, performing a series of stomp-kicks to his chest, trying for the broken rib that would end all resistance. Arms up to ward off the hammer blows, Kitfox was able to grab the back of a heel. His other hand locked onto the instep, and he twisted hard. The wiry assailant turned and went down face-first, but came up again like a cat, eager to renew the fight.

Kitfox was fully awake now and thinking clearly, and in the moment’s respite he had claimed, he reached behind him and took his pistol from the nightstand’s magazine shelf. With no time to issue a warning, he fired into the center mass of the attacking shape. There was a loud cry, and the attacker went down.

Kitfox turned on the light and examined the huddled figure. The competent assassin was now just a whimpering mass of flesh, kneeling, rocking, arms wrapped tightly over its abdomen. Holding the pistol ready, Kitfox crouched in front of him and forced his head up with his left hand.

It was the night clerk, Mendoza!

“Filipe?”

“Why you shoot me, Mr. Kitfox?”

Filipe Mendoza was in his early twenties, skinny, wore no wedding ring, and couldn’t make much money for watching bad TV at the front desk all night. The bullet had hit above the back of his wrist and traveled lengthwise up his forearm. Tears of pain coursed down from his eyes, wide with astonishment.

“Why you shoot me?” he asked again. “I no do nothing!”