San Isadoro


So Akiko enters the temple hall. As she steps through the entranceway, a shadow detaches itself from the wall. It moves so swiftly it might be a hallucination, and Akiko drops and rolls away as a shuriken, a ninja star, slurs through the darkness and sticks with a moist sounding clunk into one of the supporting beams. Akiko rips Ogata's sword free of its scabbard and in the same deft movement whips the scabbard at the shadow's hara, its gliding inconstant center. Hears it clattering and skidding, as she rises to a barefoot crouch with the naked katana held straight up before her eyes. Did she hit the shadow? No. No cry, no moan. No sound. She quiets her breath, her heartbeat, she focuses and extends her ki. The shadow moves again, and Akiko leaps striking out with the katana as an extension of her ki, whirling it to the left, the right, the razor edge whistling as it cuts air. Nothing. Then another shuriken -- a wicked slurring whisper -- flashes at Akiko's head, and she turns the blade to deflect it. A spark, and it's gone, stuck into a floor plank. Akiko leaps again, shouting and thrusting at chest level with the point, feeling her steel graze cloth and flesh. She cuts again twice but the hallucinatory, fleeting shadow sinks away, flowing like water from the arc of her blade. And now she's sure. It's a Medusa. She has not heard any steps, only the soft scrape and rustle of cloth. This is another of Omitsu's students. And here in the Great Hall, she realizes, there is more than one killer. She "realizes" this even as another shuriken flies at her head from the direction of the altar. This one grazes her cheek as she turns out of its path, sticks twenty feet away in the doorframe. Though Akiko's skin is broken, maybe the cut's not deep enough for a potent hallucinogen or nerve paralyzing agent to do its work on her. Maybe. But nobody has ever survived an attack by two Medusas. She is caught in the open, exposed, and utterly alone.

She knew it would come to this.


On an empty asphalt road in the middle of nothingness, a dark-haired young woman takes off her leather jacket and slings it over the warm bike seat.

The engine clicks.

She unscrews the radiator cap.

Hiss. Clank.

Overheated. It needs an infusion of water. Otherwise, the engine will die.

Standing, she shades her eyes to look around.

It's the bleak desert of Sonora, Mexico.

Wild. Empty. No water anywhere.

She sits crosslegged.

In the shade of the bike.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

By slitting her eyes, she can make out the watery, remote, light-blue shimmer of mountains.

Gradually, her mouth parches.

She slows her heart.

It's quiet and still, but for the occasional shriek of a predator bird, or the soft dust-scuffle of a lizard.

Hot, furnace-hot, yet she begins to feel almost cool.

After a few hours, she falls asleep.

Slumped, her head on the exhaust pipe.

In her dream she hears the whine of an engine, rattling metal.

A dusty, battered pick up full of squat brown Mexicans all in white cowboy hats and button-down shirts grinds to a stop, and she wakes, rubbing her mouth.

They put her bike in the back like some fragile thing and she climbs aboard without help and they're off, bouncing -- into the red setting sun.


Night. A town high in the mountains.

Narrow stone streets. A plaza dominated by a dirty Baroque cathedral.

Some bars, cafes.

A few windows are lit.

Voices, laughter. Clattering footsteps.

Votive candles in paper bags full of sand burn luminously around the edges of the plaza.

Through a bead curtain into a bar, on the left side of the Plaza facing the great blackened stone facade of the Spanish mission church. She sits at a bare table and orders tequila and a dish of salted almonds and pistachios as the beads clack and swing more and more softly. She cracks the pistachio shells with her teeth.

At ten the next morning she returns.

In the dimness, a few customers drink beer and tequila.

She orders tequila and a Tecate with a wedge of lime stuffed into the can and a rim of coarse salt.

She looks out the dust-stained window at the Plaza in the hypnotic heat.

Beyond the church spire mountains gather in dusty, bleak brown folds. Mexico.

She senses a strange buzzing energy, muted yet angry chaos.

Yet she is calm. She drinks her tequila, the rich anejo, then a long swallow of cold beer with lemon and salt.

The cold aluminum can sweats against her fingers.

She has just finished her second anejo when the bead curtain clicks apart and a man enters.

He's middle aged, rather handsome though his face is lopsided and guant, an American. Blue eyed, with dark hair graying at the temples.

He wears jeans and battered green leather cowboy boots -- not the tourist kind -- and a white shirt. He is not tough looking but there is a certain inner balance, a collectedness, that suggests the possibility of toughness.

His movements are fine and calm, and his demeanor does not change as he enters the bar room. She thinks this is unusual. He stands at the long copper bar as one would stand outdoors.

There is a lightness, a clearness, an airiness about his movements that suggest a man who spends much time working in the open air. He's tanned, too.

When he puts his hands on the bar she sees that they are the hands of a man who has killed people.

Not with undue cruelty or any special desire to kill, perhaps, but there it is. You cannot hide this from another killer. Every killer knows that if you look at the hands of anyone you can see instantly if those hands have killed human beings, or not.

So it is only a matter of time until he glances at her hands also.

The man looked at her eyes as he walked in. Their gazes met in a way that was almost playful. His glance absorbed her interest in him. Appraised it.

It wasn't a cold appraisal, but nor was it especially yearning or responsive or even warm.

Now it is inevitable that these two killers will speak.

She drinks her Tecate, licks the coarse salt, and waits. Again, she is calm. She can barely feel her heart beating in the smooth tips of her fingers, in her elbows on the hard wooden table.

He has a good body, he keeps it strong by working outside, he drinks but usually not too much, he has an inner toughness that goes well with his calmness and sensitivity to all the currents of life, and once upon a time he was a killer. He came up the ranks in the US military and because of his psychological profile and special skill set was chosen for off the books assignments, black ops, which he performed cleanly and well. He led small and select assault teams in European cities and throughout Southeast Asia and Latin America and the Middle East, he took out the bad men, and except for a few goat fucks everything went down like a dream.

He, the blue-eyed man, was once sent to take out some luckless people in Tangiers. He and his team killed them with aplomb and simplicity and without any rancor. Professionalism, streamlined as a bullet. But the last man, cornered like a rat in an alley, vomited forth a fairly coherent (if a tad rushed) story just before the blue-eyed avenging angel dispatched him with his trademark merciful, shattering Oyama karate style edge-of-the-hand blow. And when the blue-eyed man checked this curious tale against certain disquieting facts, he was coralled into a brain-sobering conclusion: namely, what the doomed spook said was true. The stammering, blood-slobbering, adrenaline-shocked fool had nattered on about some samples showing unmistakeable traces of thermite, retrieved by a foreign intelligence agency from Ground Zero -- grave of the collapsed Towers. Apparently, the plot was simple blackmail -- his group wanted a few billion in exchange for assorted samples and lab reports. Not from the American government, no, but from a so-called "Group of 22" which was the responsible party. The blue-eyed man, open-minded and always the junior trooper, chased down these leads. They pointed true north. Less than six months after Tangiers, he quietly, sadly acknowledged the facts to himself during an epic Single Malt binge in Georgetown. Then he typed up and submitted his resignation, in triplicate. That same agonizingly hungover afternoon, he bought a used pickup truck under a false name and drove as fast as he dared toward Mexico.

He brings his beer over. Stands by the table. She looks up. She is half in his shadow. He moves slightly and the light glares on her empty tequila glass and the dish of salted nuts.

May I join you?

English. His voice is clear and gentle, without any special intonation, flat. She invites him with a shrug and so he sits -- drawing the chair back a little, silently without any scrapes on the pinewood floor.

He sits and looks at her face. She raises her chin a little and they look into each other's eyes. They laugh.

She feels a dart of desire. He feels it, too.

Her hands are folded in her lap. She keeps them under the table, even as he places his hands flat on either side of his beer.

Drums a little.

He says that he's seen everyone in San Isadoro. He knows them all. He says he only comes down from his mountain twice a week, to buy supplies and to get a drink at this bar. It's his bar. He likes it because it's just a bar, the patrons want to drink cheaply and be left alone, the same as he does. It's an unlikely place to meet a beautiful woman. He says the word beautiful as though it were not a flattering thing, just a fact, like dust or wind. He says he knows she's not here like the other tourists, to buy shawls and bad paintings and so forth, because of the way she's dressed, like someone who just drove in on a motorcycle. She nods, smiling. He says he's lost all his skill at making conversation, so maybe she could help. She laughs. She says her bike broke down on the road through the desert and some men picked her up and so she's here, wasting time for a few days, that's it. Nothing else. Nothing else? he asks, mockingly amazed. Nothing. Like who you are, nothing like that? She shakes her head. She turns sideways to look out the dusty window and picks up her beer and drinks it and sets down the empty can. He blinks, his face seems to throb. He's seen her hand. He may not trust what his intuition tells him but he's definitely seen it for what it is, the hand of a killer. She smiles at him and now he knows it and his heart stops and then beats a little faster.

She says she's just a woman, likes to travel, has been all over and isn't looking for anything at all.

That's unusual, he says.

It is.

Are you part Japanese? Despite those scary blue eyes?

The blue eyes are from my father.

Was he a soldier?

How did you know?

So now he's thinking: Maybe that explains that scared-tightening-awed gut feeling, the feeling that this woman is someone like me.

He shrugs.

A woman who's half-Japanese, half-American, with blue eyes -- Okinawa, right?

She looks out the dusty window at the mountains.


You speak English a little formally, too, so I'm guessing you grew up in Japan, and you speak Japanese fluently. Am I right?

She nods.

He then says in rapid, good Japanese that he can't even guess how young or old she is but she is appealing to him and also mysterious. She is silent for a long time and he joins her in it, the silence, seemingly without any tension or regret, waiting, alert. Then suddenly she says she's going to use the toilet. She walks to the back of the long dim bar-room without glancing over her shoulder and she feels his gaze on her all the way. She is feeling very deep and calm.

She shuts the wobbly door. She looks at the brown water in the toilet. Then she turns on the faucet. Water gushes into the stained sink. She cups water and douses her face, shutting her eyelids just before the water hits, then opening her eyes to see the water raining into the sink. She straightens up and wipes her face with the sleeve of her denim shirt. There are no towels, paper or cloth. She flushes the toilet.

As she puts her hand on the brass doorknob, the door crashes into her with a shot-like bang, sending her flying against the sink -- she feels the edge hit her hip, the awareness ringing through her body, it isn't even pain yet, and now blue-eyed man is there in the bathroom, his right hand with the fingers rigid striking knife-like at her throat, she slaps it away with her elbow as she drops down into a crouch, his knee rushes up at her face and she turns so it misses, the cloth of his jeans scorching her face and ear, and she hits the leg hard with her left hand, turning her body so he goes past her and his knee cracks the toilet tank, gushing out a cold spray of water, and now she hits him twice in the left kidney before he can get his balance and kicks the other leg out from under him so he falls sideways on the wet cement floor, and she grasps the wrist of his left hand which is holding a knife and turns it at the joint and hits it on the cement so the knife slides away between toilet and wall. She hits him with her open palm on the bridge of the nose, blood leaps out and he begins to choke and he's blinded and stunned, trying to shake the blood away and get up, but she has her complete balance and agility now and she immobilizes him with a wrenching pressure on the elbow joint and drags him so his face is under the spraying water, rinsing away the blood, and she says, not loudly but clearly: You've got it wrong. I was sent to kill you but I won't. Do you hear this? Do you understand me? He nods. I could kill you here and now if I wanted to. Will you stop fighting me? He nods. She pulls his head out from the splashing water and raises him to his feet and holds him there against the sink, panting. Blood pours from his smashed nose. Her hair is wet and clings to her face. Someone is hammering on the door and shouting in Spanish. She steps back and opens the door. To the barman's gaping face she says, We are fine but there has been a small accident. He looks at the blood dripping from the blue-eyed man's face and then down at the gushing toilet. Do not worry, I will pay for it, she insists, in her stilted and unfamiliar Spanish. Do you have a cloth? I need a cloth and also some ice.


They walk slowly across the dazzling hot plaza and down a sidestreet and there parked against the curb by a mound of trash and assorted garbage is his small blue car. They sit in the car looking at the light and shadows bisecting the narrow street and the wrought iron balconies and the dangling items of laundry and after a long silence some schoolchildren run up the street swinging their satchels and singing or shouting at each other -- it's hard to tell which, singing or shouting -- their voices echoing off the stone walls of the tightly packed apartment buildings. Then two priests walk down the street wearing identical black hats and one is carrying a rosary and they are conversing in quiet voices. She looks at them as they pass, walking slowly and quietly with all the time in the world. They're both young and seem completely untroubled and without the least stress or hurry afflicting their matched urbane and clear movements. They might have walked right out of another century and looking at them gives her a weird jolt of feeling that provokes in her a soft laugh. It's hot and musty in the car and the man is holding the bloody cloth to his nose with his head tilted back as if in supreme exhaustion. His suffering like Christ's. Every man when he suffers is like Christ.

It's as they sit in his blue car in the clear light and dense shadows of this Mexican street that she tells the blue-eyed man a little of her life. She says that she has worked as a killer for the last five years. Very few assassins, man or woman, are as good at this work as she is. It's a rare gift, this ability to learn martial arts and to use them effectively in the real world. She explains to his ongoing silence how she was trained by a Japanese woman named Omitsu, a fighter so quick she can make herself appear and disappear. She works for something called the Organization which communicates its wishes exclusively through Omitsu, whether for security reasons or because this is customary who knows. So it is from Omitsu that she gets all her assignments. She is free to take each job offered or not. But once she has taken a job on she must do it or else.

Or else what? he asks nasally, through the bloody cloth.

Or else they kill me. She laughs again. What do you think?

They won't kill you, the man says, taking away the cloth. The blood has dried in his nostrils. You won't let them. Why didn't you just kill me, though, as planned? Why go through the trouble of coming here and sitting in that bar if you didn't plan to do your assignment? What changed your mind?

She unzips her leather bag and takes out a sheaf of passports. Places them on the seat.

There's four passports there in different names. You can cut and paste in a recent photograph and they'll pass anything except a really detailed and relentless inspection.

She takes out a package wrapped in plastic, next, and puts it on the passports as the blue eyed man stares at her.

That's some money. You've got to leave San Isadoro. Today. Drive south, and trade this car for another one as soon as you can. Pick one of the false passports and use that name wherever it is you happen to stay. Pay for everything with cash until you can get new credit cards. If you write your own name on a hotel register or give it to any kind of clerk or policeman, they'll know your whereabouts within four hours and they'll send a clean-up team. They -- by that I mean the Organization that pays me to kill people. Do you have a gun?

The blue-eyed man looks at her then reaches down under the seat and comes up with a long-barreled .44 Magnum pistol. He places it carefully on the bundle of money.

She says: For the first four years, I killed men who I was pretty sure were criminals. Last year in Bangkok I killed a man who runs a charity. Then, in Taiwan, a publisher. Then in Mexico City I killed a police inspector who was working on solving the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez and who, I found out later, had just announced a fascinating new lead in his investigation. Apparently, he had implicated a very wealthy businessman in the murders. Then I got an assignment to terminate a blue-eyed American living on a mountain in Mexico. I did my research beforehand and what did I find but that he was a retired intelligence field op, busy working on a book about a mysterious group run by some extremely rich men that has already infiltrated and compromised a half dozen major national intelligence organizations and is using terrorism and a string of assassinations to to try and create a worldwide shadow government. Yes. I even found those two articles you posted anonymously on the Internet. It was you, wasn't it? And reading them I suddenly realized that what you call "Group of 22" I and others call the "Organization."


The blue eyed man asks:

So do they often send you to kill people without bodyguards?

No, says Akiko. It's exceptional. I've nearly always been sent to kill the most well-body-guarded of men. Also a few women.

She laughs.

He laughs, too. Why not?

Why are you doing this?

Because if you live to publish it, your book will hurt the Organization. And I want to hurt them, as my going away present. For using me to do such filthy, dirty work. When I thought I was killing criminals, yakuza types, crooks, that was one thing. But this --

So what will you do, asks the astonished blue-eyed man, if your Omitsu finds you?

She shuts her eyes.

If Omitsu finds me, she'll kill me. But she might just believe -- as the Organization probably will -- that I made a mistake, and that as a result of this mistake you killed me and left my body to the desert. It doesn't matter. I've already put everything in place: the passports, the money. I'm going away to live quietly -- on an island.

And do what?

I don't know -- she laughs -- Swim?

She tells him to keep driving, go further and further south, don't stay in any single place for too long, create a story about why you're travelling, change your hair and the way you dress, grow a beard or a moustache. Buy a pair of little round bookish glasses and put in fake lenses and wear them everywhere. Finish your book. Finish it and upload it to one of those sites on the Internet. You know how to create mail drops and to cover your trail. Do that to communicate with your editor and never break form. Try to understand that the Organization hired a Medusa to kill you, an assassin from one of the last remaining ninja schools of ancient Japan. Once your book is published, they'll no longer have a reason to send assassins. You might even someday be able to come out of hiding.

He nods. Smiling.

Thank you, miss --

Akiko, she says. Laughs.