Excerpt: The Sixth Precept (1)

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From this upcoming Urban Fantasynovel: Chapter 9 – Shadow Hunt.
In all this stench and decay… a sprinkling of perfume, a slight whiff of body lotion. Ahhh. And under that…

The shadow-tracker raced through the rain-slicked back alleys of the city’s North Side, slipping in and out of the streetlight-cast shadows like a ghost. Almost invisible in a black, form-fitting jumpsuit, he flitted amidst the battered hulks of buildings and garbage-strewn streets of the darkened slum district as easily as wind through trees, his bare feet whispering over the pavement.

japanese-fiction

His presence was unseen–no one caught a glimpse of the shadow-tracker unless he allowed them to. He stopped for a moment, raising his nose to the night air. If by some unseen miracle, someone did catch sight of him, he would appear as merely a silhouette, a glimmer out of the corner of one’s eye, perhaps, at most, another inhabitant of the fringe lurking in the darkness. But upon closer inspection…

No. The shadow-tracker smiled. No one ever got that close to him. No one but his teachers and handlers had in the twenty-three years since his birthing; no one outside the Totou and his hunt mate, had in the nine years since he had been activated as a shadow-tracker.

No one ever would.

Rot, mold, human waste. But there, again, something quite remarkable in this area’s grid–the spoor of his target, faint but present. Death, decay. But life, yes, that life!

He sniffed again, to reaffirm, to make sure this was not another false lead, like so many others had been over the centuries. His target’s spoor, the target’s spoor, was indeed evident even among the myriad smells confined to this back street, though the still-falling rain washed most scents from the air.

The particular scent he followed had been imprinted in his DNA, as it had been in all the shadow-trackers before him, harvested from one of his target’s ancient ancestors. There was no mistaking it.

It was her. After all this time.

She had gone in this direction, perhaps three or four hours ago. The shadow-tracker’s yellow eyes narrowed, he licked his lips, running his tongue over sharp, pointed teeth. He extended and retracted his claws in anticipation. The very flesh on his lean, powerful body quivered.

Tonight would be the night. After centuries of searching, he would finally find the target generations of shadow-trackers before him had failed to do, she who his masters had sought for so long…

…the female known as the Yomitsu, the Great Enemy.

The very sound of that name held him in awe, even he, who knew no fear. But in the world of his masters, they who had bred him and his kind for this one purpose, the Yomitsu was almost like a goddess to him, second only to the other one, the one the Yomitsu would eventually send forth into the Void to destroy the Eminent Lord, she who the Masters called Ko the Little

But, according to legend and the masters’ historical data, Ko’s time had not yet come to maturation. And would not if the Yomitsu were stopped first.

And with the information he would glean, those he served would put an end to her, here, now. He frowned at the thought of his huntmate, searching another of the city’s grids, missing out on this glorious opportunity. The glory should belong to both of us, he thought, knowing she would wait for him if the situation was reversed. But…

He grasped the small silver amulet he wore around his neck, caressing its finely wrought curves. Yes, he thought. The masters will be pleased. He darted into the adjoining street, clinging to the shadows as he avoided the occasional nocturnal inhabitant of this grid. Tonight, the streets were not so crowded, the rain and unusually high summer temperatures keeping most everyone under cover.

So much the better.

He moved across the street, seeming to dodge the very raindrops themselves, quickly, economically, following the invisible trail as if he were indeed the shadow his name implied.

Tonight, he thought, licking his lips, anticipating what was to come. Tonight everything will change.

#

“Hey, how ‘bout a break?” A rich baritone broke in on Kim Yoshima’s thoughts, making her jump. “You’ve been at it now almost three hours. Is this all you came over for? What about my needs? My wants?”

Kim smiled at her friend, Lazo Sibulovich, as she rubbed the back of her neck. “Sorry, Laz,” she said. “I didn’t mean to ignore you, you poor baby. Has it been that long already?”

Lazo nodded, placing a cup of fresh coffee in front of the lieutenant. “Yep. Time flies when you’re cruisin’ the net. That is, for those of us who don’t surf. It is now…” The big man glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantel adorning one wall of the main reading room. “…almost ten-thirty PM, my sleepy-eyed Ms. Yoshima. Time for all good cops to be in bed. Besides, it’s way past our closin’ time for a weeknight.”

“I know. And I appreciate you letting me stay.” Kim stretched, pushing herself away from the desk where she’d been sitting. It had been a long evening. Of course, the comfort level of the reading room–thick hand-woven carpet, antique furniture accented by fresh flower arrangements and assorted works of art (some original)–could be a little too relaxing at times. But that ambiance, aside from the wealth of knowledge stored here, was one of the attractions of Lazo’s facility.

She took a sip of the coffee. “Mmm, delicious,” she said, stretching the kinks out of her jean-clad legs. “Your coffee-making ability has always been your best trait. But you know what? I found more info in this book than in any web site–‘Roots of Ancestral Geishas’ by Razan Endoso. Pretty interesting. Where did you find this edition anyway? As well as the rest of your collection? Pretty rare stuff, yes?”

Kim waved her hand to encompass the richly adorned reading room that contained a part of Lazo’s library–floor to ceiling bookcases on each wall that held just some of his singular reference collection. Countless matters of science, history, mathematics, geography and assorted ephemera could be found within the pages of the old volumes ensconced here.

The rest of Lazo’s collection was housed in the other archival-designed climate-controlled rooms located in his specially renovated apartments. With its combination of a strict library atmosphere and a design motif straight out of Victorian England, Kim had always kiddingly referred to the restored underground storage facility as Lazo’s “intellectual bomb-shelter.”

“How many times have you asked me that before?” Lazo said, sitting down next to Kim. He leaned back in the chair, stretching his own long legs under the antique claw-footed oak table. His brown eyes twinkled beneath a long, scraggly crop of gray hair. “And how many times have I told you…?”

“I know, I know,” Kim smiled, shaking her head. “Trade secret of the ‘Loyal Order of Bibliophiles’ or some such mysterious organization.” She sighed, suddenly feeling tired

Lazo chuckled, his ample belly jiggling. “Ok, Ok, enough about me. What did you find?”

Kim ran her fingers down the pages of the large open book facing her. “Well… it looks like Grandmother was right after all. One of the distant ancestors of the Yoshima clan was a shirabyoshi, who were minstrel/courtesans, I guess you could say, sort of precursors to the geisha.”

“Hubba hubba,” cracked Lazo. “I always thought you’d look good in a sarong.”

“Wrong culture, as if you didn’t know,” Kim said with a laugh. “But thanks anyway. This particular geisha wannabe was named Mitsu, Yoshima Mitsu, which, by the way, was my grandmother’s name. The shirabyoshi Mitsu lived in the sixteenth century in Tokyo, or Edo as it was called then, around the time of Omori Kadonomaro’s reign of terror during what is referred to in Japanese history as the Muromachi period. Within that was this timeline of feudal warfare called…”

“…the Epoch of a Warring Country.” Lazo nodded. “Or the Warring States Period.”

“Right.” Kim gazed at her friend. “What do you know about that?”

Lazo shrugged. “Oh, a little. The Warring States Period lasted about a hundred years, from around the early-to-mid-fifteenth to mid-to-late sixteenth centuries. Omori’s so-called Great Purges were just a small footnote on a backpage of a particular local history.”

“But the violence of the purges was supposed to have been pretty widespread at one point,” Kim interjected. “Spreading out from the fortress-city of Odawara (Pittsburgh’s current sister-city, by the way) and the Kanto plain region into much of the surrounding countryside. All the local daimyos or warlords were jockeying for power then. A pretty chaotic time apparently.”

Lazo nodded. “Right. And, in this particular case, if I remember right, the purges began with your man, Omori. He was a friendly, neighborhood Japanese daimyo himself who had briefly conquered Odawara, taking the reins of leadership from another warlord called Soun Ujitsuna. Omori wacks out and decides to kill or imprison all children of a certain age because of a prophecy that decrees one such child will overthrow him.”

“Yes. Seems like a lot of cultures have some kind of prophecy/myth angle concerning children.”

“And, like all those others, this was the usual frenetic power-mad melodrama replete with murder, mayhem, magic and eventual heroism. Thank you very much.”

“Well put, I think.” Kim’s eyes narrowed. “It seems you know a little more about this than you originally let on. Why didn’t you tell me before I started all this research?”

“I didn’t know anything about your ancestor, I promise,” Lazo said, holding up his hands. “I just thought this volume might be able to help you in your search. Hey, you know what they say–‘The reward is in the journey itself.’”

“Well, I’m not sure that is what they say but it’s the heroism that interests me in this story. According to my grandmother, this shirabyoshi was supposed to have helped to bring down Omori but there’s nothing here on the record that refers to my ancestor’s participation in his defeat.”

“Still, that is interesting.” Lazo leaned across the table, glancing at the upside-down text of the book. “Such historical asides often have a basis in fact. I know the daimyos, in general, kept sluggin’ it out until, finally, the Edo Shogunate stepped in and cleaned everything up but as far as your guy is concerned…” He shot Kim a knowing glance. “I may have some other stuff that might be helpful in the other rooms. Sometimes that’s how these searches go, you just get enough information to want to know more.”

Kim glanced down at the pages of the thick tome, tapping her lower lip in concentration. Not much existed in the way of illustrations but there was a drawing of the personal seal of the daimyo Omori in an adjoining sidebar–a dragon swallowing its tail, stylized in an ancient Japanese configuration. The ouroboros, she thought. A common symbol in many cultures. But what’s it symbolizing here?

Kim stretched again and stood up. “Thanks, Laz, but I’d better be going. I’ve still got some papers to go over for this case I’m working on. I just started thinking about Grandmother Mitsu earlier and remembered you had called so I decided to check up on that old story of hers. It’s something I’ve thought about doing before but reality has kept getting in the way, I guess.”

“Had nothin’ to do with visitin’ an old friend?”

“Nope. Too busy!”

Lazo stood up and grinned. “Yeah, well, I remember how busy we both were.”

Kim returned the grin knowingly. Lazo had been a police officer himself for almost three decades before he retired and set up his “Old Books and Research Haven” under the streets of the North Side. It helped that the big man had made some shrewd investments despite the economy tanking and had done very well under the circumstances. This wasn’t the first time Kim had perused the arcana housed here.

“Hey,” Kim shrugged. “Police work is my gei, my art. Don’t really have time much these days for anything else.”

“Know what you mean. Hang in there.”

As Lazo got to his feet, Kim picked up her briefcase, shouldered her backpack and embraced her friend with her free arm. She had to stand on tip-toes to reach the big man’s shoulders. “Thanks again,” she said. “The department isn’t the same without you, you know. And let’s you and me and Jenny do lunch sometime.”

“It’s a date.”

Kim walked through the door into the outside foyer. She stepped into the waiting elevator that took her up to the small, private garage reserved for Lazo’s “clients,” two stories above at street level.

Kim stood for a moment, relishing the secret quiet this little “enclave” of Lazo’s provided. Though located in a pretty rough part of the city, the location did provide her friend with a certain degree of autonomy and anonymity. The so-called dangerous surroundings here were, in fact, the “moat” to Lazo’s “castle.” He had renovated and recycled some more use out of the sixties’ era underground storage facility–usage that definitely provided a service to law enforcement and government officials, scholars and information junkies alike.

Still, one had to be careful. That’s why Lazo employed a small security force, mainly on the surface for the parking garage. Just in case.

Kim paused briefly, again rubbing the back of her neck. The paperwork she needed to review was, in reality, routine documentation. Things had been a little slow since her last case–despite the investigations, interviews and meetings comsuming a lot of her time. Yet she was reminded of something that had been scratching at the back of her mind for some time. Kim realized, despite everything, that she was getting a little bored, a little restless–the worst things that could happen to someone as motivated as she was. She sighed and walked toward her car.

#

There were three of them–furtive, shadow-like in their own right–gang members from the looks of the clothes and colors they wore, all huddled around a small trash fire at the back of an alley. It had stopped raining and suddenly some of the human refuse were surfacing like worms, going about their wasted nocturnal rituals.

Drugs, the shadow-tracker thought, watching them from a safe distance, hidden in the dark. He could smell their sweat, hear their mumbled whisperings. Even now, one shot up with some substance, heroin, no doubt. He visualized the prick of the needle, the user’s shudder, heard his ecstatic, breathy exhalation.

Fools. The threesome and their inane activities were unimportant; only their proximity to his target’s position concerned him and, that, only a little.

Across the wet, littered street sat a newer, more modern-looking structure. Unlike its neighbors–abandoned tenements, their outward appearances broken, boarded up and scrawled with graffiti–this one seemed to have been recently built or renovated. An ornamental security fence surrounded an area of perhaps a quarter-block square with tall lighting stacks set up at each corner. The one-story building had no windows or visible doors but the shadow-tracker could discern the hidden shapes of security cameras placed strategically about the building. A newly-paved driveway led up to the front gate with another side-road running off around the back.

The shadow-tracker had followed his target’s spoor to this spot. His keen hearing and eyesight picked up nothing as yet but there was something about the building itself, its construction, design…

A façade, he decided. An intriguing yet openly innocuous exterior that, in reality, hid something else.

Interesting.

His target would have to exit the structure at some point. Once he made visual contact and positively identified her, he would inform his masters. His duty to the Totou, the duty of all shadow-trackers, past and present, was to report the location of the Yomitsu as soon as contact had been made. His masters would then do the rest.

His chest momentarily swelled with pride at his accomplishment; a sense of wonder at the history being made this night almost overwhelmed him. He would be the one future generations of the Totou would remember; the one they would talk about; he who had found…

Laughter sounded from the alley. Curses, shouts. He peered closer, his heightened night vision piercing the murk. One of the three gang members had drawn a gun.

The shadow-tracker didn’t care if these three killed one another or anyone else for that matter. Why should he? Why should he care about such insects?

But if the one who possessed the gun decided to fire it, the noise might alert his target. Thus on-guard, she might take another route out of the building, and make it harder for him to accomplish his mission.

They would have to be dealt with.

The shadow-tracker approached the alley, moving silently yet quickly, his feet skimming over the surface of the wet street like a water spider’s. He hit the sidestreet’s opening at a run, banking off the wall to vault into the air above the gang members

He fell on them like a raptor, claws unsheathed. He struck the one holding the weapon first, his claws raking across the man’s throat and opening it to the bone. Before the first gang member even hit the ground, the shadow-tracker whirled on the other two. They were just now realizing they were under attack, their drug-riddled brains slow, uncomprehending, oblivious. He could see the alarm slowly building in their narrowed eyes.

He moved forward and, bent at the knees, brought his right hand upward in a slashing arc. His claws slit the second man through the ridiculously thick bulk of his layered clothes from stomach to neck. Gurgling and convulsing, the man stumbled backwards jerking like a marionette, blood gouting from his wound.

A thrill rushed through the shadow-hunter. Though bred for offensive action, he and his brethren were rarely allowed to follow the hunt through to its most satisfying conclusion, tracking being their primary function. The occasional kill was allowed if deemed necessary but he had almost forgotten the feeling when the bloodlust was on him. Besides, if he couldn’t be permitted to terminate the Yomitsu, these three would have to fill that sudden need.

He took his time with the third. Time was of the essence, yes, his target was near. But he grinned as he slowed down, approaching the third man at a more leisurely gait. He would break this one’s neck. Yes, that would do nicely, allowing him to savor the moment.

The third man tripped over his own feet and fell back against the wall. His hands fumbled in his coat, his eyes wide and staring. The shadow-tracker smelled the urine in the man’s soiled pants.

He reached out and grasped the man on each side of his head and twisted. A shot rang out, muffled by the man’s coat yet still ringing clearly as a bell through the night air. The shadow-tracker leaped back as a burning flame arced across the side of his head. He fell back into the shadows, a blackness of another kind enveloping him.

Idiot! he thought. The third man, now a crumpled heap on the other side of the alley, had been holding a gun too. The shadow-tracker realized he had been careless, too caught up in his attack, too overconfident.

Blood trickled down the side of his head. The bullet had grazed his temple. He touched the blood, tasted it. He felt dizzy, disoriented. He hung his head, panting heavily. He closed his eyes, trying to overcome the pain and sudden weakness.

There was a noise… His head snapped to the left, the sudden motion making him swoon. He looked through mist-shrouded eyes. There… his target had exited onto the street.

#

Kim heard the shot just as she was putting her briefcase into her car. She didn’t think twice, her instincts taking over. She pulled her Sig P228 and an extra clip from her backpack, threw the pack into the back seat and headed for the exit door.

The door had a special keyed locking system on the outside to keep possible intruders out. From within the parking lot, it was essentially an emergency exit. She looked up at the security camera stationed above the door and thought about contacting Joe, Lazo’s security head. No time, she decided. Besides, there was no need for two people to be in a possible-line-of-fire. Once she took stock of the situation, she’d call for backup on her cell phone. She punched the button and as the door shussed open, exited the lot.

The humidity was all over her, heavy, moist air settling on her skin like a hot towel. It had stopped raining but the streets steamed; the glow of the streetlights cast an eerie luminescence throughout the empty block. She blinked, creeping into the shadows at the side of the garage and then, quickly, opened the section of gating outside the emergency exit and jogged out into the street.

No sounds. Nothing. The street was devoid of life. That was when she saw the figure walk out into the light.

#

It’s her. The Yomitsu. The Eminent Lord be praised!

The shadow-tracker felt a thrill of another kind as he saw his target, gun in hand, crouching across the street. Her scent, even at this distance, filled him to the bursting.

I can take her, he thought, his head throbbing as he blinked the spots from his eyes. I can bring her back to the masters myself! The hell with their rules! The situation had become something entirely different. She was so close! Why shouldn’t he take advantage of this? The masters would know then, that despite his miscalculation on the three gang members, despite the wound he had incurred as a result, that he had still served his purpose.

Yes, he thought, rising to his feet. He would make his mark, no matter what. He walked out of the alley.

#

The silhouette was tall, lean, moving like a dancer, sinuous and mincing. The muted light revealed some kind of tight-fitting garment clinging to its body. Its hair was long, knotted into thin corn rows. Its eyes reflected the light as… yellow? Something sharp glinted from the tips of its fingers.

What in heaven? Kim raised her gun. The figure stopped, its form backlit by a wavering glow from the alley behind it. Trash fire? This one doesn’t look like your typical street person.  The figure began to move again, loping (yes, loping was the right word) toward her, its motion controlled and precise like a gymnast.

“Stop right there!” Kim cried. “Police officer!” The figure entered a pool of streetlight, its face briefly illuminated.

It was the face of an animal.

“Freeze!” Kim yelled, a chill running up her back. “Stop or I’ll shoot!” The creature speeded up, suddenly charging like a sprinter on overdrive. Kim fired once over its head. No effect. It was only a few feet away now, its arms and legs moving in a whirlwind of motion. My God! Kim thought, her fear building. She aimed a kill-shot, straight at the creature’s head.

The thing shifted to its right, dodging the bullet as if the deadly projectile was moving in slo-mo. It reached a clawed hand out toward Kim, its suddenly visible face stretched into a ghastly parody of a smile.

Kim threw her body sideways. She fell, rolling on her side, the pavement smacking her hard. She felt a crunching pain on her waist. Pulling herself to her feet and breathing fast, she held her luger with both hands extended in front of her.

Her breath caught in her throat. The creature was down.

Kim blinked. The thing was fast, unnaturally fast. It should have had her. And she was positive it had dodged her bullet. Yet, it lay facedown on the street, struggling to get up. This close, Kim could see the blood on the side of its head.

And that face… Inhuman features glared up at Kim. Man? Dog? It looked a combination of both–exaggerated bone structure, sharp teeth, high cheekbones, sloping forehead, yellow eyes.

Kim fell back a step, a sudden, unreasoning fear taking control. What is it? she thought, both hands shaking as she tried to hold the gun steady. What…?

The creature suddenly leaped to its feet and flung itself at her, arms wide, mouth open. Kim fired and fell back, putting her arms up over her head.

What? Kim looked wildly around her. The thing was gone. Where had it vanished to?

Have to call for backup! she thought frantically. And surely Joe saw what happened on the security cams! She started back towards the garage, hoping the gate would open again as she fumbled at her belt for her cell phone, looking over her shoulder. The fear was like a burning fire running through her system.

A low moaning floated through the night air. Kim stopped  and turned back towards the alley. Someone’s hurt, she thought, licking her lips. Probably by that dog-thing.

Taking a deep breath, she jogged back toward the alley and stopped at its entrance, the skin between her shoulder blades tingling. If this dead-ends, I’m trapped, she thought. And yet I just can’t leave someone in there if they’ve been injured.

The moaning increased, a desperate sound radiating pain and confusion. Kim got her cell phone off of her belt. Got to call Lazo, she thought. Have to get… Damn! She stared dumbly at the broken casing of the now-useless phone. That’s what I felt when I hit the street. Cheap shit! The Captain’s going to hear about this!

She snorted. Listen to me. Come on, Yoshima, get your act together! Darting another look back towards the street, Kim took a few tentative steps into the alley. “Who’s there?” she called, her mouth dry. “Are you hurt? I’m a police officer!”

A gurgling, wet sound answered her, a barely recognized imitation of speech. Gritting her teeth, Kim entered the alley.

#

Across the street from the alley opening, the shadow-tracker knelt, trying to quell the aching in his head. He gulped air, his heart hammering in his chest. I had her! He thought. She was mine!

But his head… the pain and blood had disoriented him, which caused him to falter, something he had never done. Curse that insect and his gun!

By now, his huntmate would have sensed his distress and started to look for him. They had been raised together since their birthing, both attuned to each other’s emotions and instincts. Like all matched huntmates, the two of them had always shared everything. It was only right and honorable that she be a part of this moment now. Again, he knew he should wait for her; he should report back to his masters the location of his find.

But what if this glorious opportunity was lost? He was here, now! How could he resist? He growled softly, his claws scraping the pavement. Yomitsu or not, he was still the greater. He would finish what he had started, using the abilities he had been born with and had honed through a lifetime of training. If he could bring the masters of the Totou the body of his target, he would be forgiven his mistakes and his name could still be written in glory.

He tore a piece of his jumpsuit off of his leg and wrapped it around his head, stanching the still-flowing trickle of blood from his wound.

His yellow eyes followed the movements of his target. He sensed her fear, watched her indecision.  He almost felt disappointed. Surely she should be a more worthy opponent.

This was the Yomitsu, after all, the vaunted Great Enemy. So be it, he thought. This is where it ends.Following a line of shadows cast by the building behind him, he flitted once more into the street.

#

Three bodies. Young African American men, possibly members of a gang. Two had been horribly mauled as if by an animal, the third appeared to have had his neck broken. The one with the stomach and chest wound was still alive.

Kim knelt over him, keeping the alley entrance in sight, knowing, at this point, there was very little she could do for this victim. Considering the extent of his wounds, she was surprised he was alive at all. “What happened?” she asked softly, knowing already. “Who did this to you?”

The boy was trembling, breathing rapidly, almost hyperventilating. Blood pooled around his body and dribbled from his mouth. His glassy eyes were blank and staring. His body twitched. He tried to speak. “De… Dejuan got ‘im,” he said, his words thick and slurring. He jerked a thumb to point behind him. “Dejuan popped the motherfucker. Yeah… yeah…”

Kim saw one of the dead men still held a gun in his hand but the one still alive had pointed to Broken Neck. “Hang on,” she said. She went over to the third man. There was a hole, possibly a bullet hole, in the front of his coat. Yes, Kim felt the gun still held in a claw-like grip beneath the heavy garment, incongruously worn even in this humid weather.

It was surprised, Kim reasoned, remembering the blood on the face of the creature. It didn’t think this one had a weapon.

She knelt back down beside Stomach Wound. “I’m going to get help,” she said and then stopped. The boy was dead. In just those few heartbeats… No! she thought, smacking her hand against the pavement. She looked back up to the alley entrance. Nothing.

It took out these three easily enough. It should have killed me with no problem but it was wounded. She again pictured the blood on the side of the creature’s face, the discharged weapon in the hand of the dead gangbanger. Shot in the head, probably grazed, and that head wound is slowing it down. Kim nodded to herself. Looks like I’ve been given a little bit of a break. Now if I can just take advantage of it.

She looked back out into the street. No movement. No sound. The city block seemed almost like a ghost town. If anybody was out and about at this hour, the sound of gunfire, no doubt, was keeping them safely out of sight.

She grasped her gun tightly, her hands shaking and slick with sweat. Why am I so afraid? she wondered again. Yes, yes it’s some sort of… of freaking monster but it’s… it’s as if I know that thing; as if I’ve seen it before.

She paused at that realization. As if she’d seen it before…

But that couldn’t be.

She pressed her back against the wall, gun held securely in both hands. Taking a deep breath she slowly started inching her way back towards the alley entrance.

(There was a movement… Kim felt something… a tingling in her head…)

Startled, she looked up. The creature was above her, clinging to the side of the alley wall like a spider. It let go, flipped its body around and dropped downwards, claws extended, fanged mouth open.

Kim cried out and jerked her hands upward, firing, once, twice, three times. The creature twisted in mid-air, impossibly dodging all three shots. It landed clumsily yet slashed out at Kim, its razor-sharp claws raking her shoulder.

Kim screamed and stumbled backwards. She fell onto the pavement, her gun clattering across the alley. The creature crouched on all fours, its muscles tensed as it readied to pounce. It grinned at her like a deformed circus clown. Uttering a small cry, Kim kicked out at the thing’s face, the upper part now wrapped in a piece of ragged black cloth. Her tennis shoe clipped it on its bloody temple.

The creature howled in pain (the first sound Kim had heard it utter). It backed off, holding its head. Kim scrambled to her feet. Her right shoulder burned like fire where the thing had cut her. She felt hot blood coursing down her arm.

The gun! The gun! She ran and scooped up her weapon, whirled… but once again the creature was nowhere to be seen, vanishing as if into thin air. Her feet pounded against the pavement as she headed towards the back of the alley. Fear drove her now, her training and survival instincts forgotten. Have to get away, have to get away…

The light from the dying trash fire outlined a door on the back wall of the alley–an old wooden door with a simple lock and hasp. She fired at the lock, the rusty metal practically disintegrating with the force of the bullet. She kicked in the door to the long, one-story building and bolted inside.

The glow from the fire, the outside streetlights and a large skylight looming in the ceiling above her shed a soft light throughout, illuminating the interior of the building. From the quick look Kim gave the room she found herself in, this area appeared to be part of a warehouse, stacked high with crates and boxes; empty shelves lined the walls; bags of some type of supplies lay piled in corners.

No alarm, probably no security here. Christ! Where’s the freaking light switch? She ran behind a pile of crates, her lungs burning, a terrible pain shooting through her shoulder. Stupid, middle-aged… She took deep breaths, trying to calm herself. She pressed her gun hand against the bleeding slash marks on her shoulder. Come on, Yoshima, remember your training! Remember what Grandmother taught you!

Ancient rites of self-discipline, the natural order of the universe. Even to someone as young as Kim had been thirty years ago, a girl of twelve, a third-generation Japanese American visiting in Japan, the tales and advice proffered by her grandmother had always remained with her. She had been awed and impressed then and had tried to live her life by such tribal but powerful philosophy as much as she could.

But now she struggled for control, fought with the rising panic and desire to run that threatened to engulf her. The creature, whatever it was, had touched something deep within her, pressing some heretofore hidden fear-of-the-dark button she never knew she possessed.

And again, there was that nagging, inexplicable thought–I know this thing. But how?

She snapped her head towards the doorway. There had been a noise, slight, almost a whisper. The creature was inside.

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