Chapter 2 – A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing: The book’s unusual path to publication
Chapter 3 – Buzz, Balls & Hype: The book’s image system
Chapter 4 – Jungle Red Writers: Combining the series worlds of Rain and Treven
I had nearly reached Ogawamachi subway station, where I would catch a train and examine the items I’d taken from the two dead men, when one of their phones vibrated. I stopped and checked the readout—just a number, no name.
I looked around at the bustling street scene, cars crawling, pedestrians hurrying past me, the sky dark now, the area lit only by streetlights and headlights and storefronts. I pressed the “receive call” key, held the unit to my ear, and listened.
A low voice, almost a whisper, said in American-accented English, “I know who you are. Don’t worry, I won’t say your name on an open line. You took the phones you’re carrying from the two men I was with. It’s okay. I know they don’t need phones anymore.”
The natural question was, Who is this? I ignored it because of its likely futility, in favor of something more relevant.
“What do you want?”
“To meet you. I have a message from a fan.”
“Tell me over the phone.”
“No. If this is going to work, we’ll need to establish our bona fides.”
“My partner and me.”
“There were four originally, but yes.”
I paused, thinking about the video camera, trying to get my mind around what the hell this could be about. The evening was still sultry and I realized my shirt was soaked with sweat.
“Look,” the voice said, “I wasn’t any more enamored of the two guys you just met than you were. If I had been, I wouldn’t have encouraged them to get so close. I sent them inside twice. I knew you’d see them.”
I wondered whether that was bullshit. But the timing of the call and the calm confidence of the voice suggested I was talking to someone who’d foreseen this, even planned it.
“It’s up to you,” the voice said. “But I have something you’ll want. A unit that was receiving from the two you’re carrying now. Take your time examining them, you’ll see I’m telling the truth. Then, if you want the one I’m holding, we can meet.”
I considered proposing a creative rectal use for the unit he claimed to be carrying, but decided against it. The calculus was the same as for the two giants. I could face this now, tonight, or I could spend the rest of my days wondering who was after me, what they wanted, how far they were willing to go. And let whoever it was answer my questions at a time and in a manner of their choosing, not mine.
“Where are you right now?” I asked.
“If you’re still on foot, we can’t be more than a half mile apart.”
“There’s a coffee shop near the subway station I came out of. I’m assuming you were somewhere behind the two who followed me out?”
“You passed it ten seconds after you hit the street. Big yellow sign, distinctive frontage. On the right coming around from the station.”
I clicked off and pulled the batteries from the phones and the video cameras. The timing wasn’t great—if they’d been behind me the whole time, they were closer to Saboru than I was. I would have preferred to get there first and watch from the street. But there would have been disadvantages in proposing someplace farther away, too. First, I would have had to give explicit rather than oblique instructions over the phone. Second, they would have had more to time to set something up, if that’s what this was about. Overall, I judged my chances best if I could keep them on a short clock.
It took me less than ten minutes to get back to Saboru. I made two circuits, the first wide, the second passing directly in front. Sepia lights glowed in the windows but the bamboo plantings made it impossible to see inside. I stood at the dim corner of the street for a moment, looking left and right, considering. The cicadas had gone temporarily quiet, and the only sound was of the suzumushi—bell crickets—Saboru’s centenarian proprietor keeps in a cage by the entrance because he finds their evening music pleasing. I saw no Caucasians and nothing seemed out of place. My guess was, whoever had called me was already inside.
I walked over and went in, my gaze sweeping the softly lit interior. A young hostess offered to seat me and I told her as I continued to check tables no thank you, I expected my friends were already here. The ground floor was about half-filled with an ordinary assortment of after-work sarariman types and loafing college students. There was a quiet background murmur of conversation mixed with J-pop music emanating from speakers affixed to the corners of the low ceiling. No foreigners, nothing out of place. I took the wooden stairs to the second floor. Again, nothing. Then to the basement, squatting as I descended the stairs to get a view of what I was up against before I’d gone all the way down.
I spotted them immediately, in a corner booth, their backs to the brick wall, both big and fit-looking. One, in his thirties, with blond hair and a strong jaw, quintessentially American; the other, about a decade older, with shorter, dark hair and darker skin, harder to place. I wondered which had spoken to me and for some reason sensed it was the darker one. There was something dangerous-looking about him, an explosive quality I could feel from across the room even though he was sitting perfectly still. Their hands were open, resting on the pitted wooden table. A good sign, or at least the absence of a bad one. They kept still and watched me, their steady gaze the only indication there was any connection between us.
I kept moving, sweeping the cave-like room with my eyes, confirming there was no one else here who looked like he didn’t belong. There was another table open in the opposite corner. I inclined my head toward it to indicate they should follow, walked over, and stood by the bench with my back to the wall. I didn’t want to sit in the spot they had chosen, or to offer them a view of the stairs while I was denied it. And I wanted to have a chance to see them head to toe, to watch how they moved, as they had just done me.
They got up and walked slowly over, no sudden movements, keeping their hands clearly visible. We all sat down wordlessly and watched each other for a moment. A waitress came by and handed us menus, which were in Japanese. The darker guy glanced at his, then looked at me with the trace of a smile. “What do you recommend?”
I’d been right: the same quiet, raspy voice I’d heard on the phone. “I hear the house coffee is good,” I said.
He glanced at the blond guy, who shrugged. Their demeanors intrigued me. The blond guy seemed on edge, as he ought to have been, as indeed I was. The dark guy, on the other hand, was incongruously relaxed, and seemed almost to be enjoying himself.
I ordered three coffees and three waters and the waitress moved off. I nodded at the dark guy. “What do I call you?”
I turned my head to the other guy, who said, “Treven.”
“All right, Larison and Treven. What do you want?” The more on-point question, of course, would have been, Who do you want me to kill? But it didn’t matter which route we took. We’d arrive at the same destination.
“We were sent just to find you,” Larison said. “The one who wants something from you is Colonel Horton. Scott Horton.”
The name was familiar, but for a moment, I couldn’t place it. Then I remembered something from Reagan-era Afghanistan, a time that felt to me now, when I considered it at all, so remote it could have been someone else’s life. The CIA had recruited former soldiers like me to train and equip the Mujahadeen who were fighting the Soviets, and though deniability had been imperative, there were a few active-duty military in theater, too, to liaise with the irregulars. There had been a young Special Forces noncom everyone called Hort, whom we’d teased because, despite his obvious capability and courage, he was black, and so an absurd choice for a covert role in Afghanistan. He assured us, though, that this was the point: if he was captured, Uncle Sam wanted to be able to say to the Russians, You think we’d be stupid enough to send a black soldier to blend in Afghanistan? Must have been a freelancer, a black Muslim answering the call of jihad. See how your wars are radicalizing people? What a shame.
I said, “This guy cut his teeth in Afghanistan?”
Larison nodded. “Training the Muj, yeah.”
“Does he go by a nickname?”
Sounded like a match. He must have received a commission somewhere along the way and then never left the military. I estimated that today he’d be about fifty. “And he’s a colonel now,” I said, more musing than asking a question.
“Head of the ISA,” Treven said.
I nodded, impressed. It was a long way from deniable cannon fodder to the head of the Intelligence Support Activity, the U.S. military’s most formidable unit of covert killers.
“And you?” I asked, looking at Larison, then Treven. “ISA?”
Treven nodded. He didn’t seem entirely happy about the fact, or maybe he was just uncomfortable acknowledging an affiliation he would ordinarily reflexively deny.
Larison said, “Once upon a time. These days, I just consult.”
Larison smiled. “You tell me.”
“The pay’s okay,” I said. “Healthcare’s not so great.”
Treven glanced at Larison—a little impatiently, I thought. Maybe the kind of guy who liked to get right down to business. He didn’t understand this was business. Larison and I were trying to feel each other out.
“And the other two?” I said.
“Contractors,” Larison said. “One of the Blackwater-type successors. I can’t keep track.”
I glanced at Treven, then back to Larison. “So, ISA, a consultant, contractors… That’s a fairly eclectic gang you’ve got there.”
“We didn’t ask for the contractors,” Larison said, turning his palms up slightly from the table in a what can you do gesture. “That was Hort. I guess you could say he… overstaffed this thing.”
“And you downsized it.”
He dipped his head slightly as though in respect or appreciation. “You and I both.”
He seemed determined to let me know there were no hard feelings about the two dead giants—indeed, to acknowledge he’d deliberately sacrificed them. And now he was implying some distance between himself and Horton, too, and implying some commonality between himself and me. I wasn’t sure why.
“What’s Horton’s interest?” I asked.
“We don’t know the particulars,” Treven said. “All he told us was, he’s rebuilding, and he wants to make you an offer.”
“I don’t know. Something about an operation you took down, run by a guy named Jim Hilger.”
Hilger. I didn’t show it, but I was surprised to hear the name. In all the times we’d crossed paths, first in Hong Kong, where he was brokering the sale of radiologically-tipped missiles and nuclear materiel, and then in Holland, where he’d been running an op to blow up the port in Rotterdam and drive up the price of oil, his affiliations had never been entirely clear to me. The last time I’d run into him was in Amsterdam, which was the last time he ran into anyone. If Horton had been involved with the late Jim Hilger, whatever he wanted was apt to be hazardous.
“What do you know about Hilger?” I asked.
Treven shook his head. “No more than I just told you.”
Larison said, “I’ve heard of him.”
“Who did he work for? Was he government? Corporate?”
Larison laughed. “You really think there’s a difference?”
Treven frowned just the tiniest amount, and I sensed Larison’s comment made him uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why. Well, neither was going to tell me more. And, given Hilger’s current condition, I supposed it didn’t matter anyway.
“Anything else?” I said.
Treven said, “Yeah. This thing Hort’s trying to rebuild is going to include a former Marine sniper named Dox, who you’re supposed to know.”
I didn’t respond. I hadn’t seen Dox in a while, but we were in touch and I knew he was still living in Bali. He didn’t need work, but this would probably interest him anyway. It wasn’t a question of money with Dox. He just liked to be in the thick of it.
A part of my mind whispered, And you? I ignored it.
Larison said, “You might want to contact Dox yourself. If you don’t, we have to, and what’s the point of getting more contractors killed?”
Again, I was intrigued by his hint that he didn’t mind what happened to the contractor elements of his team.
The waitress returned with our order and left. Larison took a sip of coffee and nodded appreciatively. Treven didn’t touch his.
I drained my water glass and looked at them. “What does Horton have on you two?”
Neither of them responded. Well, he had something. And now they had something on me.
But then Larison surprised me. He said, “The video recorder is in my pocket. Mind if I reach for it?”
The question was appropriate. In a situation like this one, with someone like me, you want to keep your hands visible. Especially once you’ve established that you’re too smart to reach for something suddenly. The only reasonable inference would be that you’re going for a weapon, and the inference would lead to an unfriendly response.
I gestured that he should feel free. He stood and slowly extracted from his front pocket a unit like the two I’d taken from the giants. He placed it in the center of the table and sat back down. Then he glanced at Treven, who repeated the move, producing an identical unit.
I made no move to pick up the recorders. I’d expected the intent of the initial offer was only to get me to meet them, but now they seemed actually to be following through on it. Give up leverage for free? If they’d been clumsy civilians, maybe I could have read it as a naïve attempt to beget goodwill with goodwill. But neither of these guys was naïve. On the contrary, both of them had the quiet, weighty aura of men who’ve repeatedly killed and survived, an experience that tends to extinguish belief in the power of goodwill, along with most other such happy indulgences.
“There are no copies,” Larison said. “We don’t have anything on you. You want us to get lost, we’ll walk out of here right now. But the next team Hort sends, they won’t give you the video. They’ll use it.”
Probably he was lying about the copies, but I would never know for sure until someone tried to use them against me, and that would happen only if friendlier tactics proved useless. So Larison could be expected to try something relatively subtle to begin with. And so far he’d handled it deftly, I had to admit. You never want to present extortion as a threat: doing so just needlessly engages the subject’s ego and creates unhelpful resistance. Instead, you want to present the threat as though it has nothing to do with you, as though in fact you’re on the subject’s side. Maybe that explained the hints about a gap between Horton and them. It would have been a good way to help me persuade myself that my problem wasn’t with these two, but with someone else. If he was ruthless enough, and I sensed he was, he might even have sacrificed the two giants for the same end.
“Look,” Larison said, “no one can just disappear anymore. Everyone is findable. It’s a condition of modern life. You want total security? You have to disconnect. Live off the grid, remotely, no contact with the outside world. But if you like cities, and judo, and jazz, and coffee houses, and culture, all of which is part of your file, you don’t have a chance if someone like Hort is determined to find you. The only way is to make it so the people who are looking for you, stop looking for you.”
“How do you do that?” I asked, my tone casual.
He took another sip of coffee. “You wait for the right opportunity.”
“Or you make one,” I suggested.
He nodded. “Or you make one. And I’ll tell you one other thing. If you decide to accept Hort’s offer, whatever it is? Charge him for it. Charge him a lot. He can afford it.”
He sounded unhappy as he said the words, even acrimonious, and if I hadn’t picked up earlier on some kind of rift, I couldn’t miss it now. Whatever Horton was up to, I decided it must be important to him, if it was generating animosity in someone as seemingly formidable as Larison.
No one said anything after that. Larison obviously knew when it was time to shut up and let the prospect close the deal with himself, and Treven was smart enough to follow the older man’s lead.
We sipped our coffee in silence. Either this was an impressive piece of theater that included two dead extras, or what they were telling me, and what they were hinting at, was largely true. Horton wanted to make Dox and me an offer, most likely one we couldn’t refuse. He’d made similar offers already to Treven and Larison, who were unhappy about it and looking for an alliance or some other way out, but were also smart enough to keep those particular cards concealed for now. As for copies of the evening’s home video, for now there was no way to know. And for the moment, it didn’t really matter.
For the third time that night, I saw no advantage in waiting. I finished my coffee and took the video units from the table.
“How do I contact Horton?” I said.