Exit Strategy

Akiko edges out in the hallway first, showing only a few inches of her body until she can verify that it is clear.

She's unzipped the bag on her shoulder. Her right hand is inside it, on the grip of the compact machine gun. Safety, off. Index finger inside the trigger guard.

She looks up and down the plush-carpeted hallway. Empty. Shoes lined up outside shut doors.

She exhales slowly. Lifting her left hand, the elbow jutting straight from her body, she waves Natsume out with her fingertips.

Silence. Explosive silence.

Natsume steps out, slumped in fear as if shrinking into herself. Akiko touches her thin shoulder, steering her toward the elevator bank.

They stop by a vase of fresh orchids placed on a table between two brass elevators and Akiko taps the Up button. An elevator begins to climb from L to the 10th floor, the numbers blinking on and off fast.

She and Natsume look at each other. Natsume is very pale and looks ill.

Akiko says: Go to the 14th Floor. Wait there until the fire alarm sounds. Then go down by the stairs and walk out calmly through the lobby. Do not look at anyone or anything. Just walk out as quickly as you can without running. Walk down the street to the corner, hail a taxi and go home.

Natsume seizes Akiko's elbow. Grips it hard, her dark red fingernails pinching.

Molly. Come with me. Please.


Natsume lets go. She drops her gaze. Her wild black hair, come undone done, hangs over her eyes. Akiko smooths the strands back with her left hand and, darting forward, kisses Natsume's brow with dry lips.

The bell clangs. The elevator gapes open. Natsume steps into it.

She looks at Akiko. Bravely, yet she is already starting to cry again. They are looking at each with something like real affection as the doors slide shut.

Gone. Gone.

Akiko walks to the staircase exit. She opens the door with her left hand on the cold knob, searching the stairwell with her eyes and ears. She glances over the railing. It's just a brightly lit staircase. Vacant.

She relaxes her grip on the machine gun and jogs down the stairs.

9th floor. 8th. 7th.

At the 2nd floor she steps out next to the brass elevator bank with its vase of orchids on a marbled table. Glancing up, she sees the blinking numeral 14.

There's a fire alarm here, as on every floor. She pulls it.

As the alarm begins its raucous wild clanging, she steps back into the stairwell and jogs down to the Lobby.

Crossing the ornate, marbled lobby, she keeps her hand inside the bag, and walks quickly glancing from side to side, toward the revolving glass doors of the main street exit.

The two night desk clerks are on their phones and the other lines are beeping. A man in a silk suit -- the manager -- is shouting frantically at someone in the office behind him.

Akiko veers away from the street exit when she glimpses, through the doors, a short middle aged woman in a black raincoat who seems to be merely loitering there as if waiting for someone, and looks unconcerned by the clanging fire alarm.

She walks around a potted plant and makes her way toward the kitchen.

The kitchen is still and empty. Hanging pots gleam. The floor is scrubbed to a shine.

She walks through it quickly and smoothly, not breaking into a run, keeping her breaths deep and clear.

There. The rear exit. She lets out a short exhale and pushes it wide.

Crouching, she emerges into the alley.

She glances to her left first, then right.

No one. A few trash bins and some crates of empty bottles.

She walks fast, her heels clicking, into the neon lights of a Tokyo avenue. Turns left, away from the hotel, and picks up her pace to merge with the pedestrian traffic as fast as possible.

It's now that Akiko glimpses a man's stark face -- he's in the driver's seat of a parked black Audi sedan across the avenue -- and knows that the alley was "covered" after all.

A motorbike jumps to life behind Akiko. Glancing back, she sees the man astride it -- and although she cannot see his face under the dark visor of his helmet, she knows this man is part of the team sent to eliminate her.

As the Audi screeches from its parking spot, the motorbike rider sticks his right hand into his leather jacket.

Akiko kicks the high heeled shoes from her feet into the gutter, steps barefoot from the curb and dashes across the street diagonally, toward the empty parking space the Audi has just shot from, its tires smoking.

Omitsu had taught her this: When confronted by multiple opponents and a straight on attack is impossible, you can confuse your enemy by moving behind him.

The Audi brakes with a lurch and the driver throws it smoothly into reverse and, the tires smoking and screeching again, aims the rear fender at Akiko's running legs.

She throws herself onto the hood of a parked car and slides across it, rolling onto the wet sidewalk. A couple walking arm in arm under a plastic umbrella jump back out of her way.

The Audi brakes again, and a side rear door is flung open.

As Akiko rises from the sidewalk she glimpses a man in a dark sweater and blue jeans and a pink windbreaker emerging from the backseat -- in his hands is a machine gun just like the one she has in her hands.

She fires a short rattling burst that catches him in the upper body, and he slams back against the Audi and then pitches forward, his legs sliding underneath it.

The luggage bag bouncing on her ribs, Akiko now shoves aside the frozen couple and sprints all out toward the nearest side street.

The tires screech again, and there is a dull thump as the front wheels bounce over the legs of the fallen would be killer. Engine shrieking in reverse, the skilled driver closes all the distance she's gained in two and a half seconds.

As the sedan's front passenger side window comes level with the sprinting, now gasping Akiko, she half turns and fires a short burst one-handed, the bullets spanging and clanking on metal. The passenger window explodes and the Audi fishtails wildly.

Akiko has all but reached the corner when she changes direction again, darting out in front of the sedan as it spins backward.

The man on the motorbike, gunning his engine to 40 mph to reach the sidestreet and already beginning to veer around the spinning Audi in order to intercept Akiko at the corner, is shocked by her sudden appearance in the street just six feet in front of him, but before his body can react, Akiko hits him full in the center of his visor with the butt of her machine gun. His neck snaps, and he tumbles from the motorbike.

The motorbike falls on its side and slides, spinning and showering sparks, past the Audi as its fender smashes into a parked taxi, showering glass and metal.

Akiko leaps back onto the sidewalk and sprints in other other direction. Away from the carnage and the wail of oncoming sirens.

After running barefoot for two blocks, she turns down an alley at a jog. It's dark after the blinding neon. She's gasping, and her ribs hurt, and her arms are stinging from the shock of impact with the motorcycle helmet -- the left wrist feels as if it might have been wrenched -- and there are tears flowing out of her eyes. Akiko stops, leans against a wall, and shoves the machine gun with its spent clip back into her luggage bag and zips the bag shut.

Rain is falling on her lank dripping hair. Akiko tilts her head to it, mouth open gratefully -- she drinks the acrid Tokyo rain.