There was the sharp bang of a Glock going off -- once, twice -- then a wet grunt and a resounding splash. The sun was eye-wateringly bright in a cloudless sky.
The place even smelled just like Kato remembered. There was a whiff of lemon detergent that always floated in the lobby around 8am, to be replaced later by the smell of people and city air when the door was wedged open to let the breeze in. The new AC unit still wasn't working right since it had replaced the one smashed by a stray volley of bullets, and at this time of summer the heat could get stifling.
His boots squeaked on the still-moist floor.
The inside of the elevator no longer smelled of fresh paint, but rather sweat and carpet wash. Kato drew a deep breath as the doors whooshed open at the executive floor. He was hit by the murmur of fifty people typing and talking, the brightness of window glass and metal-framed furniture, the smell of atrocious office coffee, and Lenore, who nearly ran into him.
"Kato!" she exclaimed, thoroughly failing to drop the stack of folders she was carrying, thus proving there was no truth in television. The cacophony of sensory input switched into focus on the incredible blueness of her eyes.
"Hi, Lenore," he said. "Still remember me, then?"
Lenore stood still for a moment, and then hit him on the shoulder with her folder stack, hard enough to bruise. "That's for running out on us."
Kato rubbed his shoulder. He hadn't expected open arms, perhaps, but it had been six months. "Not even a hello?"
“You incredible, selfish--” She hit him again, and lowered her voice. "Do you have any idea what it's been like to manage – you know – all on my own?" She seemed to recall their surroundings, looked around and grabbed his arm. Kato allowed himself to be steered in the direction of a supply closet and shoved in.
Lenore switched the light on and advanced on him until he had his back to the copy machine. She sparkled with anger. “Kato, since you've been gone there have been two gang take-over attempts and we're now in the middle of a third, which you might say has been something of a success so far. I'm up all nights just doing detective work, which is on top of the research that I have to do for my actual job - you know, the one I'm being paid for, and which isn't exactly nine-to-five either. This would be more than enough if I didn't also have to manage Britt."
Kato lifted his hands. "Lenore, calm down, I'm--" he said, just as she said, "You really messed him up, you asshole."
Kato stopped and stared. So did she. Lenore recovered first. “You're coming back?” Her eyes flickered, and he could tell she was doing her mastermind thing, trying to puzzle him out. He hated it when she did that, mainly because she was so good at it.
They had only spoken once since the night he left, and that hadn't been long after. Lenore had sounded flat and resolved, then. He wondered how much she knew about his reasons for leaving, or the things he and Britt had said to each other that night before Kato had climbed on his motorcycle, driven out of LA and just kept on driving until he'd left California behind. Knowing her, and knowing Britt, probably everything.
“You're not planning on coming back,” she said at last, stepping back and crossing her arms.
“No, never,” Kato said hotly.
“Well, I guess you'd better go tell him that, then,” she said, moving back and opening the closet door. “That's what you're here for, right? You're lucky, because he's in today. He had a couple of meetings with potential investors.”
"Nice to see you too, Lenore," he said. She gave him a wry smile in return, and he pushed past her back to the floor.
Chandra, the office gossip, was slotting coins into the Coke machine not five feet from the closet. He'd hardly expected less – it was a room full of reporters, after all. Luckily Chandra had a dirty mind and would interpret everything she heard according to whatever she'd expected to hear. Lenore was likely to find out second-hand that she'd been having a quickie in the closet with her boss's ex.
Kato took a deep breath, then took off his leather gloves and stuffed them in his pockets, suddenly self-conscious of his riding gear. He could feel curious faces turned towards him as he kept his eyes on the floor. He'd never got very friendly with the office staff despite being the supposed go-between between them and the boss - he'd hardly ever been around, to be honest, and could only name a handful of the people in the room. Some of the faces were new, too. He forced a smile and a hello for the people he recognized, asked after the twins he only just remembered Sweeney's wife had had, and ignored the buzz he left behind as he made his way through.
Axford was standing by the coffee machine in the kitchenette across from Britt's office. He gave Kato a tired look and a pair of lifted eyebrows.
A rattle startled Kato as the blinds in Britt's office windows came down. He hadn't even thought to glance inside for a look at what he was walking into.
"I guess he spotted you," Axford said and saluted with his coffee mug. "Try not to wreck the place this time, will you?"
Kato couldn't be sure whether he meant the time he and Britt had got into a... wrestle, as he finally decided to call it, and wrecked the drinks cabinet, or if he knew about the time they drove a tricked-out Chrysler Imperial through the office. Not that it mattered. Who Britt chose to share these things with no longer had anything to do with Kato.
He steeled himself with remembered anger and pushed open the office door, not bothering to knock.
Britt was standing by the drinks cabinet, downing a glass of something dark brown and almost certainly not suitable for the hour. He turned only halfway when he heard Kato close the door behind him.
"So I hear you haven't quit the game yet," Kato said, "or been arrested."
Britt shot him a look, eyes narrowed, but whether in curiosity or resentment was impossible to tell. Britt looked much the same as he always had -- possibly a little leaner, which was a surprise. He'd always looked good with a bit of - never mind.
Britt put the glass down. "Yeah, who would've thought, right?" he said. "I am good for something after all."
You had Lenore, Kato thought, but he didn't want to start a fight. You never knew where a fight with Britt could go. "It's good," Kato said, looking around the room. It was neat and didn't look remotely lived-in, or even worked-in, but there were some empty glasses and an ashtray on the coffee table. "I'm glad it's working out for you."
"It's not exactly the way I planned it," Britt said.
The man had a lot of nerve. Kato had never liked the way Britt insinuated blame rather than having things out in the open.
"Don't tell me you're thinking of coming back," Britt said, pouring another drink. "Ran out of money and missed all the toys I used to buy you, I guess."
"What?" Kato laughed out loud. "You would go there? You--"
"Yeah, well, what the hell do you want then, Kato?" Britt shouted, twisting around to face him, his face red with anger. "'Cause you made it pretty damn clear it wasn't me!"
"Listen," Kato said, anger rising in answer to anger, "I am not coming back, not now, not ever, not for the 'toys' and yeah, definitely not for you."
The dramatic effect was somewhat lessened when his last word was drowned out by retro hip hop blasting out of Britt's breast pocket. Angry or not, Britt was a 21st century man, so he fished out his cell and turned away. "Hello? Axford? Why? Yeah, I know."
Kato snorted. He was pretty sure that if he caught a glimpse of that screen, the caller ID on it would be Lenore's.
"Dude, are you kidding me? No way. No. Look, I know. All right. All right."
Britt shut the phone and turned back to Kato. The anger wasn't gone, just under control again, etched into his jaw line. He gave Kato one of his searching looks, which were nowhere near as shrewd as Lenore's, even if the guy thought he was goddamn Columbo.
Kato lifted a finger. "No," he said firmly.
"That was Axford," Britt said.
"No it wasn't."
"Okay, it was Lenore. She wanted me to say I had to go to an emergency meeting or some shit so you'd have to wait to say whatever you were going to say, and she'd have time to think of something to make you stay. Which you can forget about, because as far as I'm concerned you can just turn around right now and go back to wherever the hell you've been all these months."
Kato's jaw twitched. "I knew I shouldn't have come back here. Look, Britt, I only came to say--"
Britt held up a hand. "Does any of it include the word 'sorry'?"
"Why the fuck should I apologize?" Kato exploded. "It didn't work out. We had a fight. I left. It happens, Britt! It was not some kind of a personal insult!"
Britt looked like he'd just been slapped in the face, but at least he shut up. Kato sighed. He hadn't meant for this to go this way. "I only came here to wipe the slate clean."
"What does that even mean?"
Kato walked over to the window and looked out over the sun-drenched city. The view was magnificent and intensely familiar, and so deeply linked to the life he'd left behind that it didn't make what he had to say any easier. Britt had been the lodestone of that life.
"I'm going to be law," he said at last. "I'm joining the police force."
"You pig," Britt said with an incredulous laugh. Kato shot him a scowl.
It was a cool December night in the Mojave Desert when Kato rode into Las Vegas. The flashing neon almost reminded him of Shanghai, but only if he blinked and let himself believe it. Nothing in America was quite like Shanghai, and nothing anywhere in the world was quite like Vegas.
He'd been doing a lot of thinking and a lot more feeling while his bike sliced through the wind on the highway. His muscles ached after long hours riding, passing motel after even worse motel until he was tired enough to sleep in a barrel if it came to that. He'd bought a fresh change of clothes along the way and extra canisters of gas for the trip through the desert. He wasn't sure why, but when Vegas' lights had swallowed him, he'd finally felt he'd come far enough.
He parked his motorcycle outside a small hotel with a Nordic theme, an amply endowed, neon-bedecked Viking girl grinning from the sign above the door. He still had no idea what to do with his life now, or even why it had to be Vegas. He'd shed a lot of baggage along the way, but he'd got so light he felt like he was floating, with no direction and nothing to hold him down - or perhaps that was just all those skipped meals.
He'd hardly spent any of the money he'd made as 'executive associate', so he wasn't worried about finances in the short term, but he'd need a job soon. He figured he should probably email Lenore for a reference.
"You're not still on our payroll, are you?" Britt interrupted.
"No. Called in my resignation. Lenore sorted it out. She figured you didn't have to know. I used a pay phone, otherwise she probably would have tried to drag me back here months ago."
"Wish people told me these things," Britt murmured.
People always needed mechanics, and Kato was an excellent mechanic. He landed a job in an auto repair shop in another three days. He took out a small apartment over a video store, big enough for his needs, and called his landlord in LA to clean out his old place and do what he liked with all his stuff. Kato had never kept any secrets there, and he could always get another training dummy.
Being in Vegas felt a lot like freedom. It was different from the high of a bare-knuckles fight, or of outwitting opponents while around you the world dissolves into gunfire, metal and splintering wood. He'd lived like this before Britt, but being alone had lost its appeal over time. Now it was fresh and new again, the luxury of being perfectly alone in a world where nobody knew him and nobody cared and nobody could get hurt.
Kato glanced over at Britt, who was filling another glass and frowning, but Britt said nothing about responsibility or leaving your messes behind. Good – he wasn't one to talk.
"Running into Bai was a bit of a shock," Kato continued. "I hadn't seen her in years, not since Shanghai. She was a friend of mine growing up."
"Girlfriend?" Britt asked.
"Sort of. She came over to America for college and never came back. Majored in chemistry, got naturalized, got another degree, eventually joined the force. Made lieutenant a couple of years ago."
"And this Bai chick offered you a job?"
"You don't just accept someone into the force who you haven't met in nearly ten years, especially if when you last saw him he was a criminal."
Britt raised his eyebrows, a 'do tell' gesture.
It wasn't the sort of thing anyone was jailed for, but selling traditional remedies – and, to be honest, some of his own bootlegs of pharmacy medicines – from a market stand wasn't exactly a respectable business. Bai had understood. She'd been a college kid, he a barely schooled factory boy with a knack and passion for science. She’d been a knockout; he’d had the street fighting skills to impress anybody likely to be impressed by such things. He’d had the hots for her; she’d been gayer than a tree full of monkeys. They'd spent most of their free time together, sometimes fighting, often studying, occasionally even making out, and Kato had had some high hopes of becoming an 'exception' - until she'd got the scholarship and left, just like that.
It took him two blinks of an eye to recognize her when she drove her Mini Cooper in for rewiring at Cal's. Aged thirty, Bai was just as pretty as she had been in college. A pixie haircut and a collection of tailored suits had replaced the ponytails and tiny skirts, but the twist in her smile took Kato back as if ten years had been ten days.
He undercharged her scandalously. She invited him to coffee. He invited her for a late night movie marathon. It felt good to hear the hometown lingo again. Bai was like a lifeline back to his childhood. He no longer felt like he was free-floating.
Bai was married, though. Her wife's name was Mala and she was an event organizer, vegetarian and a huge music nerd.
"So you got to know each other better and then she gave you the job?"
“I got drilled, poked, investigated, trained, tested, and then I got offered the job,” Kato corrected him. “And I accepted it, tentatively. I wanted to talk to you first.”
“Wow,” said Britt, poured a third glass and offered it to Kato. He took it, but didn't drink. “You, a cop? They can't have investigated your dark past too closely."
"So maybe Bai cut me some slack," Kato snapped, “but there's only so much she knows and only so much she could protect me from. They wouldn't be too thrilled to find out about the Green Hornet.” He swirled the liquid around in the glass. “So...”
“Say no more.” Britt leaned against the back of an armchair, crossing his ankles. “Your secret is safe with me.”
“Of course it is,” Kato said with a soft snort, “as long as yours is safe with me. All I'm saying is stay out of my business and I'll stay out of yours. We're not on the same side anymore.”
“I guess not,” Britt said. “Let me get this straight. Your plan is to stick to the law, hassle drunks on the Vegas beat, knowing you're not making a damn bit of difference, and that's gonna be it, day in and day out. Maybe you'll vary the monotony by pining after this Bai chick who ain't ever going to put out, and then go home early and watch Bruce Lee on TV doing the kind of things you know you can do better. And that's going to make you happy?”
“It's a hell of a lot more respectable than playing gangsters for a hobby!” Kato put the glass down on Britt's desk. It clattered harder than he meant it to.
“Sure. Respectability goes a long way.” Britt nodded seriously. “I can see how respectability is much better than going out in the sweetest ride on Earth every night, kicking the shit out of bad guys and then coming back for some mind-blowing sex in my Beverly Hills mansion.”
Kato took a step forwards and yanked Britt down by his collar until his scowl was an inch away from Britt’s face. “Yes. It is.”
It took another couple of seconds for him to think this might have been a bad idea. His breath caught and he had to force it to move again.
If anyone had told Kato a couple of years back that he would be going gay for an oversized American idiot, he would have told them they were crazy and then probably punched them in the mouth. And yet here they both were. Britt's long fingers were an inch away, ready to twine with Kato's if he only reached for them, and Kato could feel a tremor not unlike fear in the pit of his belly.
With Britt, all the rules had just gone straight out the window. Things he'd never thought he'd do had suddenly become possible, and not only that, they had seemed like a great ideas just because Britt had gone at them full steam. Like putting on a stupid mask and going out looking for trouble. Like making out on the hood of the Black Beauty with the adrenaline still pumping through them. Never mind if any of it was smart or safe or even any use, he'd gone for it every time.
This was why coming back had been a bad idea. Britt made him weak. Made him reckless. But he was Kato, and so he forced himself to keep on glowering even as Britt's lips parted, even as something like pain flickered across his eyes, even as he said, “Okay.”
“Good,” Kato said, and felt momentarily at a loss for words.
“Just do one thing for me,” Britt said, his voice constrained. “Then I'll let you go. Please.” He leaned in closer, and Kato tensed, ready to spring back as Britt's breath warmed his cheek, and he whispered, “For old times' sake.”
Britt and Lenore had both quite firmly agreed that they should refer to the Green Hornet's new hideout as the Hornet's Nest. It was obvious, elegant and had no more syllables in it than the ridiculous name they actually ended up calling it, which was “the Hornetcave”.
“What is a mistake that every villain makes?” Britt had asked when they'd brainstormed for a better place to use as superhero headquarters than a house in the middle of a fully lit Beverly Hills street with no less than three part-time servants. “Everybody can tell where their lair is. They build it out of the way, sure, but once you get the coordinates you can pretty much spot it for what it is, right? I mean, oh, might it be that abandoned military base with the giant skull painted on it? How about that futuristic wonder complex built inside the old sewers?”
“So build it somewhere out of the way and inconspicuous.” Even Lenore had to admit that when it came to superhero logic, Britt was the expert. “Moreover, if someone walks in and sees a banged-up Chrysler Imperial, it should look like it belongs there, at least long enough for us to get the drop on them.”
“Garage,” they'd both said together.
Lenore had found a run-down gas station nuzzling the side of Griffith Park with a garage in the back that had been locked up for years. She'd bought it and had it cleaned out using an alter ego, the retro car fanatic and cigarette heiress Marlene Downs. The station kept its 'closed' sign up, but the garage was restored with extra security, supposedly to protect her collection. She made a show of hiring and firing a number of technicians to work on her American classics - actually James Reid's, of course - until no-one cared to wonder who was on her payroll this week, and the cover was up.
Just as planned, it wasn't much to look at, little more than a large room with a maintenance pit and an office, cars parked in neat rows on the floor with the two Black Beauties - the extra one of which Kato had completed not long before his departure - parked at the back. The gun locker was chained up among other lockers holding tools and supplies. Just about everything else they needed to keep the Beauties running were things that wouldn't have looked out of place in any garage. The Hornetcave was really just a Black Beauty -cave – the rest of their operation was either digital or sitting in Lenore's attic closet in the form of outfits, wigs and the occasional piece of military surveillance technology she'd found on the black market.
It was past midday when Lenore pulled over to the garage in a red Bug, attired in Marlene Downs' faintly retro style. The Bug was a part of the disguise. Britt had resented the idea that the garage should house a few slightly ridiculous vehicles as well as the wicked cool Imperials on the basis that they made the Black Beauty look stupid. Lenore had explained that that had been the point. They'd gone back and forth about it for a while because Britt could be stubborn, but Lenore was right and Lenore always got her way.
She saw that the chain lock was loose, so Britt must have got there before her. That was no surprise, as she'd been on the telephone setting up her press pass for the courthouse tomorrow while his only task had been to keep Kato in town. Now it was a question of whether he'd succeeded, if he'd stuck to the plan at all.
Lenore had been there to witness Britt's mood swings after the big break-up. She’d seen him through the period when he'd seemed constantly angry, the one where he'd locked himself up in his bedroom and played video games all day, and the one where he'd gone out every night and she could show up in the late afternoon and still find him hung over and in bed with some woman (occasionally a man, or a few of each), none of whom she'd ever seen before or would ever see again. She still didn't know what had made him drag himself out of that mood somewhere around the end of the third month, but she had been glad for it. There was only so much she had been able to do on her own. Without Kato, the Green Hornet was nothing but subterfuge and slight of hand. She had taken the Beauty out a couple of times herself just to keep the fear of the Hornet alive, but it just wasn't the same. She needed her boys. Getting Kato back could return the operation to its old glory, or it might break Britt all over again, but under the current circumstances that was a risk she was willing to take.
All three of them had to be irresponsibly reckless to live this life in the first place, but there was a point where stupid became suicidal. From what she'd heard about how the Green Hornet got started, Britt had advanced in leaps and bounds after the Chudnofsky affair when it came to responsibility - as in, he was actually thinking ahead, and half the time didn't even need to be rescued. He should have been able to keep himself alive, but since he'd come out of his funk, Britt was driving like there was no future and picking fights he couldn't possibly win. She'd had a full-time job just making sure he didn't decide he was Daredevil and start jumping off buildings. With Kato back even for a short while, who knew? Maybe Britt would get over it. Maybe they'd even patch things up and make Lenore's life a hell of a lot easier.
She only wished Kato had picked a better time.
She could hear murmured voices as she unlocked the side door, followed by a grunt and a crash. She felt for her gun in her purse, just in case, then pushed the door open silently and surveyed the room. Everything seemed in place, and only the office and the pit with a Black Beauty over it were lit. There was another clank and a curse from the direction of the pit.
“If you can't do it right, get out." Lenore recognized Kato's impatient, voice, let out a breath and relaxed her grip the gun.
“If you'd just give me some wiggle room...”
“Out. Besides, Lenore's here.”
Britt's head appeared over the pit's side and he broke into what she preferred to think of as an admiring smile rather than a leer. “Hey 'Marlene'!”
“Marlene?” Kato's head popped up beside Britt's, looking alarmed.
Lenore smiled and touched the back of her white wide-brimmed hat coquettishly. “Alter ego,” she explained. “Didn't Britt fill you in?”
“Don't you think that's kind of a personal question?” Britt said and yelped. Lenore guessed that Kato had kicked him.
Kato jumped out of the pit, took a rag out of a pocket and wiped his oily hands. “I've done the basic maintenance and fixed the busted wiring,” he said to Lenore. “It's good for now, but you guys really need to hire a mechanic. I can see you've tried, but you need an expert to control this kind of damage.” He ran his fingers lovingly along the Beauty's gleaming hood.
Lenore looked curiously at Britt, who gave her a resentful shrug. It was true that they'd needed work done on the Beauties, but Lenore chose to take this to mean that Britt was giving her a chance to talk Kato over. He was going to play ball, at least for now. All right, then - she would give it her best shot.
“It's hard to find someone you can trust,” she said, walking over and around the pit, making a show of admiring the car. “It would have to be someone who understands classic engines, understands weaponry, and won't either rat us out or blackmail us. That's kind of a short list.” She polished an imaginary spot off the Beauty's handle with her gloved thumb.
“It's a big city.” Kato said, looking just a little too nonchalant. “You'll find someone.”
“Will we?” She rested both arms on the car's roof, drawing lazy circles on the metal with her index finger. “There was one guy, you know.”
“Earl Williams.” She widened her eyes innocently when Britt did a double take. She hoped Kato hadn't noticed. “Earl's a great guy. Been a mechanic since he was 12 years old, worked on just about every classic car collection in LA, but never exactly made a fortune out of it. Lost his house in the GFC and what was left of his money to the hospital when some muggers broke his leg last year. Never were caught. He's not too fond of the establishment at the moment.”
“Sounds perfect.” Kato didn't seem at all uncomfortable with the idea of someone else messing with his Beauties, but then Kato had always been the master of the poker face.
“Unfortunately, he's now in a detention center outside the city, waiting for his sentencing at the courthouse tomorrow. He will be found guilty of first degree murder and sent to death row.”
“Did he do it?”
“No.” Lenore shook her head. “That makes no difference. The jury's bought and paid for.”
“It was Carla van Loren,” Britt said, jumping up from the pit. “She's some kinda hotshot, owns a make-up store or something. Lives down the street from me.”
“Van Loren Beautè is an international brand, actually,” Lenore said. “They have outlets in over seventy different countries, some of which she could probably buy. She's one of the richest women in the world, but she didn't make all that money with glitter lipstick. A mob inheritance helped.”
Lenore recounted how Earl Williams had once been van Loren's ex-husband's mechanic. He had shown up at the house looking for more work when he'd walked in on van Loren at the poolside, wearing just a dressing gown and holding a smoking gun. The body of the said ex-husband was in the water, slowly turning the turquoise water pink. A bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates floated gently on the ripples.
“He told me the only thing she said was, 'Son of a bitch should've known I was on Montignac.' I wrote a damn fine article to go with that interview, but that's no use when every juror in the council is promised money on one side and threatened with retaliation on the other.”
“How connected is she?” Kato asked.
Lenore suppressed a smile, and turned into another leisurely walk around the pit. “How isn't she? Her uncle was once the boss of the LA branch of the Sicilian Brotherhood. Her brother officially runs our latest pain in the neck here, but it's her business and everybody knows it. It's not a mafia, but it's more than a gang. They call themselves Chicken Game Boys, which is so fifties it would be cute if they didn't kill people. They deal and smuggle cocaine and pot mostly, but they have some other, rather inventively unsavoury stuff going on too. Officially - as officially as these things happen between criminals - the Green Hornet has a non-interference pact with them. Unofficially, we're both just waiting for the other to make a mistake.”
Kato shot Britt a surprised look. "You have a pact with them?"
Britt shrugged. “They've got too many alliances with too many of the real big boys to start open warfare. We'll get them once they're out of allies. Right now it'd be picking a fight with the Sicilians, the Armenians, probably one triad and fuck knows who else, all at the same time."
“They're winning, Kato," Lenore said seriously. "They're hiring kids from local small time gangs, offering them more money than they've ever even seen, and they sacrifice them in turf wars and robberies without a second thought. They never run out of soldiers. We can't just go at them with a pair of machine guns - and considering some of their fighters are barely in their teens, I'm not sure I want us to."
"So Earl gets tagged for the murder, it gets spun as some kind of a disgruntled employee attack and van Loren gets away with it,” Britt concluded. "No brilliant mechanic for the Green Hornet."
"It's a shame, but that's just our problem," Lenore said. "Earl's got it worse. I don't think the Chicken Game guys are going to let him survive in the pen long enough to mount an appeal. We considered busting him out of the prisoner transport vehicle after the sentencing tomorrow...”
“Why don't you?”
Lenore shrugged. “Aside from the non-interference agreement? It's a three-man job. Can't do it with two.”
Kato crossed his arms and his lips twisted into something resembling a smirk. She could see he was on to her, but then it wasn't as if she was being subtle. It was all down to making a convincing argument. “How is that?” he asked. “You intercept the vehicle, shoot out the door, and walk away with the prisoner. Done. That's a one-man job.”
“Those vans are built to withstand any artillery that doesn't rip them to pieces,” Britt pointed out. “We'd want to rescue the guy, not blow him to bits.”
Lenore nodded. "It'd take a heavy-duty metal saw to get through the door, not to mention you'll have LA's finest at your back as soon as the alarm goes off. The time frame's just not there."
"Plus you'd need someone to cover you," Britt added, "because there will be a guard in the back with Williams.”
“You could fit a high-intensity cutter in the car, never even need to get out of it...” Kato suggested.
“If we had a few more days and a Kato, maybe,” Britt said. Nobody missed the hint of bitterness in his voice.
Kato looked between Britt and Lenore, who had somehow rotated until they stood one on each side of him, nailing him between their gazes.
“Or,” Lenore put in, leaning closer, “If I'm lucky, I could try and disable the alarm system when the vehicle is parked at the courthouse. That would give you considerably more time to complete the extraction. You'd still have to be crazy to try it alone, even with the Black Beauty."
She noticed a slight change in Kato's breathing. Time to bring in the big guns. “Tell you what,” she said sweetly. “You do this one thing for us, and you can have one of the two Black Beauties. Is that okay, Britt?”
Britt shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"
“I don't want charity,” Kato snapped at Britt. “Your money paid for them.”
“You built them, they're yours and you know it," Britt said testily. "If it makes you any happier, sure, you can think of it as payment. Don't try to tell me you don't want one."
Kato looked uncertain. “Just this once?”
“That's all we need from you," Britt said. "Just get us a mechanic, and then you can fuck off back to Vegas."
Lenore bit her lip. Earl wasn't the only mechanic in the world and they might have been safer just looking through Craigslist, but he was an innocent man about to be sent to death row, and he knew that would get Kato's attention. Still, this rift between her boys could end up messing it up for all of them, Earl included. Her endgame was a long shot, and it all hung on this.
Kato nodded curtly.
They were on.
Kato's gloved hands squeezed the wheel, his foot ready on the pedal. A red light was beeping in the control panel. They were running low on ammo, but he still had a couple of back facing target missiles ready to launch.
Kato stared at the mirror as though he could make time go faster through sheer exercise of will. In the narrow stretch of glass he could see the masked Green Hornet running down the dusty road towards the car, half-carrying Earl Williams, who was hunched over and shuffling as fast as his chained feet allowed. Behind him, Bai's motorcycle turned the curve. He could see the sunlight glint off the gleaming surface of her helmet as she screeched to a stop and reached for her gun.
Kato hit reverse.
26 minutes before.
The car was parked on a dirt road leading off from the highway. It was now almost fifty minutes since their last contact with Lenore, who should still be at the courthouse. They hadn't said a word to each other for the last thirty.
Britt glanced at the back of Kato's neck. A stretch of skin was showing between his collar and the fringe of his hair under the hat. He had the sudden impulse to lean over and rub his thumb across it. He wrenched his eyes away and glared out the window instead, balling his hand into a fist.
Shit, even now. What was wrong with him?
Why had he agreed to this? He supposed he'd wanted to see if this part of the two of them, him and Kato, could still work. He realized now that that had been a stupid idea, and he wished he'd told Lenore to fuck off. It was too late now. He was stuck in a car with the guy who still drove him up the wall in more ways than one, and they'd have to work seamlessly as a team or get killed by the United States government. Nice.
Britt wondered how he'd ever preferred sitting in the back of the car instead of holding the wheel. Now, he hated not being in control. He had never been a great driver, but he'd got better. Lenore said he was taking risks, but he'd never learn if he didn't, would he? He didn't just want to be a good driver; he wanted to be a great driver. Like Kato. He had to be. The Green Hornet was a master of ass-kicking and a god behind the wheel, wasn't he?
He'd told Lenore he could handle rescuing Earl alone, back when he'd first pitched the rescue plan to her two weeks ago. She'd vetoed it then. Earl Williams' fate didn't actually make much of a difference to the city and Britt might have done the man more good by anonymously donating his lawyers' time on the appeal. Either way, in prison or on the run, the guy stood to lose his family and everything connected with his old life. The only thing that could change that outcome would be if someone burned out the Chicken Game Boys and then cleared his name. No, Britt had mostly wanted to do it just because they'd never done anything like it before, and also because it would be a nice preliminary 'fuck you' to the CGB before he and Lenore went all Hornet on their asses. He wasn't sure he liked the project as much now that it had turned into Lenore's idea of relationship counselling.
Kato's voice suddenly cut through the hum of distant traffic and birdsong. “This is a lot more boring than I remembered,” he said, sounding almost amused.
“Yeah," Britt snorted. "Imagine what it's like without someone to talk to.”
He could see Kato's eyes flicker to the rear view mirror and his lips part, but just then the Hornetphone on the dashboard beeped. Kato picked it up. “Yeah.” After a moment he put it down. “They're on the move. 15 minutes.”
Three hours before.
Lenore squeezed her wiry body into the crowd of reporters teeming around the prisoner transport vehicle on the courthouse parking lot. It was early morning and the heat hadn't begun to do its worst yet, but the smell of sweat was already high. Her toes were stepped on and her microphone was almost wrenched out of her hand when it caught in the Telegraph's photographer's camera bag. This, she suspected, was why they were called the 'press'. She'd have to look it up later.
The Williams case was high profile, not just because it got billed as a mob case thanks to van Loren's connections, but also because a number of news sources had spun it as GFC tragedy with Williams portrayed as a respected member of the community gone wrong. In her heart of hearts, Lenore knew that either of those stories - the one about the innocent man caught in a mob murder, and the one about the guilty man who snapped under pressure - could be the real truth, or completely off the mark. She hadn't told Britt as much, but she'd based her assumption of his innocence on a gut feeling. Real life rarely turned out like a newspaper story, anyway.
The vehicle back doors were pushed open and she caught sight of Earl under the arm of a ruddy-faced prison guard. The three courthouse officers began to shove the reporters away. Earl, a lean elderly man with white hair and clean-shaven, kind face, looked more tired than the time she'd interviewed him, but he'd gained some healthy weight, at least. Cameras flashed to get a shot of him. Edgar, Lenore's photographer and partner from the Sentinel, stood a step ahead of her, clicking away frantically like the pro he was.
Lenore pulled her microphone free and pointed it at the vehicle. She pressed a hidden button at its end. A piece of adhesive gummy dough shot out of it and rolled under the bench inside the van, sticking lightly when it stopped.
It had been easy enough to find an electronic trace on the black market, stick it in a piece of gum and construct a basic hidden slingshot inside the thick handle of a microphone. The job on the plastic handle wasn't exactly professional, but it worked, and in the absence of a Kato you did your best with what you had. What Lenore was really proud of was the remote-controlled electric jammer she'd had a hell of a time buying without getting caught, and the fact that she'd managed to strip it to its essentials to make it small enough to fit inside the sling. But now the doors were closing and the jammer was still inside her microphone. She'd have to stick the gum hard on the vehicle itself.
Time to put her kickboxing muscles to use.
Lenore pushed, shoved, kicked and clawed her way through the press. All things considered, if you absolutely had to act like a dick in public, being a reporter was at least a good excuse.
45 minutes before.
"I have a one o'clock with the D.A.," Bai Jun said, showing the clerk behind the glass her badge.
The clerk peered at it through his thick glasses, then nodded. "Third floor," he said. "If the secretary's not in, ask at the next office."
She made her way up the stairs. It was no use trying the lift at this hour. The tall, white building with its modern, gleaming furniture wasn't so much bustling as blocked, with the security letting people by in twos and threes at most and the long lines gathering at the info desk and the elevator. She found the D.A.'s office easily enough behind a set of glass doors. Seeing no sign of a secretary in the front office, she just knocked on the door marked with his name.
"Come in, June," a voice said, and for a moment Bai was thrown. No one called her Jun, not even Mala. She pushed the door open to a neat but surprisingly compact office with a passable view over the city Hollywood Hills. A slightly doughy white man in his late forties was sitting behind a grey oval desk littered with papers, a Mac asleep on his right. He looked up at her in apparent surprise. "Who are you?"
Oh, June with an E. Right. That must be his secretary. "I'm your one o'clock, sir. Lieutenant Bai from Vegas? It looks like your secretary stepped out."
"Right, of course." He rubbed his forehead. "I told her to go take an early lunch. Sorry, Lieutenant." He stood up and offered his hand, and she shook it with a smile.
"Have a seat." He pushed some of his papers together and indicated a seat. She took it. "This is about that surveillance data you sent us earlier."
"Right. I've been in contact with your chief of police and we're hoping to coordinate what we know with what they know, but I was told you wanted to see me personally."
"I did. Lieutenant, I know you've been working closely with the Chinese community in Las Vegas..."
"Among other things, sir, yes."
"And you say you have reason to believe that the Blue Horn triad is strengthening its presence in Los Angeles."
"It's possible. What we know for sure is that there has always been a supply line between our cities. Smugglers bring goods in via the LA docks, which are then transferred to Las Vegas for consumption as well as sold to local suppliers. Blue Horn has always had a presence in Los Angeles, but the crime in this city has always been competitive, and for a while there it was practically institutionalized under one man..."
"Benjamin Chudnofsky," the D.A. said with a nod. "And now we have that high publicity Green Hornet."
"From what I heard from Chief Chavez the situation is more fractious now than it's been since before Chudnofsky's takeover a few years ago. The Hornet and a Sicilian mob offshoot called the Chicken Game Boys have been named as the chief players...Does that sound about right?"
"Sure," said the D.A., "and that makes it a difficult situation for us, and the Blue Horn too if they're thinking of moving in. With two belligerent local big-shots fighting over the market, already armed to the teeth, they'd either have to come in full force or ally themselves with one side or the other."
Bai nodded. "The triad has no problem co-existing with other gangs as long as boundaries are clearly defined, but in a war, boundaries tend to get crossed..."
"What I wanted to make sure you understand is the nature of this local rivalry." The D.A. leaned across the desk and crossed his fingers, reminding Bai of nothing so much as all the concerned school teachers she'd seen in sitcoms telling Mom that junior had been getting into trouble with the hosepipe again. "The Chicken Game Boys are not popular even among criminals. Those street level gangs who haven't already been hired by them hate their guts, usually because they've snagged some of their members, but also just because they don't," he waved his hand, searching for the right word, "engage with them. The CGB don't trade or deal, they just sell or take. Either you're one of them or you get screwed over. It doesn't help that the organization's figureheads are white and rich and new to the game. The Green Hornet, now. He doesn't deal or trade either. The bangers on the street don't hate him so much as they see him as kind of a force of nature. And I say 'he' because, swear to God, sometimes it's like there really is just two or three men in his organization, which is impossible. He's just very good at hiding his operation."
The D.A. sat back. "The Green Hornet shows up, tells you what he needs you to do, and you do it, because if you don't, he will be absolutely ruthless. If it's a choice between making money or earning respect, the Green Hornet's people walk away with respect every time. A lot of people can appreciate that. So… if the Blue Horn comes here and makes a deal with the CGB, my guess is we will see the start of a long and drawn-out turf war. If they make a deal with the Hornet, on the other hand, there's no predicting what will happen, because the Green Hornet is not always logical. We still haven't figured out the exact nature of his game. What I want to know is: what is your plan? How do you mean to interfere?"
Bai considered. This could be a trick.
Being a police officer is supposed to be straightforward. A crime is committed, the suspect is apprehended, and the courts take care of the rest. Bai had learned to see the big picture. She didn't see stopping crime being the point of the job so much as keeping people safe, and when it came to that, the danger came from policy making and poverty least as much as it ever did from breaking the law. For her this was about politics, not punishment. She would choose the path that would cost the least lives, in the long run or the short, but saying that out loud could land her in a lot of trouble.
It seemed the D.A. saw it that way too. How much did he know or suspect of her work with the Blue Horn? Did he know what that "with" included?
"I mean to gather intelligence," she said at last. "Observe. Protect the law. Be mindful of civilian lives at stake." She put a slight emphasis on that last sentence. "Sir, when thousands of people are involved - and that is absolutely what we are talking about here - this job is more about what you can do than what you should do. Sir. What you should do is simply your best."
He smiled and nodded. "Admirably vague. Very well. Coordinate with Chavez, but don't prepare for war. That whole 'desire peace' bullshit is for children. You make war or your don't. The SWAT team is there if you need them, but don't let Chavez know you might, or you probably will. The man can be a little excitable. You see?"
Bai nodded. "Yes sir!"
Bai made her way out, almost colliding with the harried-looking June on the way out. She checked her watch. 13:15. She had plenty of time before her 2:30 at the precinct. Might as well check out the Earl Williams trial.
She'd read that the D.A. had only reluctantly arraigned Earl Williams instead of Carla van Loren, but the circumstantial and circumspect evidence against him had been too strong not to. Now the conviction seemed to be a done deal. If van Loren had shown up to gloat, Bai might catch a glimpse of her. Observe the enemy, right? She took out her phone and checked the trial schedule online.
She found the courtroom just as people began to pour out of it, mostly reporters pressed into a clump of bodies around officers escorting the main players. Bai hung back and saw little more than a glimpse of Earl Williams' white hair, and then in the very next clump of reporters, the infamous bouffant of Carla van Loren.
"Statements will be made later in the day," a voice was booming. "No comment. I said no comment, ma'am."
Bai retreated up some stairs as the crowd milled into the hallway as Earl was forcibly escorted through it. She caught the sight of a crying woman - his wife, perhaps? - clinging to the officer shielding the prisoner. From her new vantage point, she could see Carla van Loren's tastefully made up face, her cool, distracted eyes following Earl. A man in a suit was whispering into her ear.
As the crowd dispersed, her eye was caught by a skinny blond reporter hanging back from the crowd, exchanging words with a young man with messy hair and a camera. The young man nodded and chased the crowd while the reporter retreated around the corner, her phone already in her hand. That was unusual.
Bai decided to take a closer look. The woman was clearly a reporter, judging by the press pass tagged to her chest and the notebook and recorder sticking out of her purse. What phone call was so important that she'd give up chasing her story for it?
Bai walked softly down the stairs and followed her.
"Don't do anything stupid," Lenore added, then cut the call and switched the cell back from the encrypted Hornet profile to her regular one. That was her part done. So far, they were on track. Earl was being transported back outside the city as per the plan and the transport vehicle would house only him, the driver and two guards. While in the crunch, she'd managed to stick the jammer behind the licence plate. It should be there still, and if not, well, her boys weren't amateurs anymore. They could handle the operation in a hurry.
She slipped her phone into her purse and looked around. She'd kept her voice low, but there was a dozing official behind the vehicle registration desk ten feet away and a short woman in a suit nearby, giving her a curious look.
Lenore stopped and glanced at her again, then turned around and stared at the woman's reflection in the metal frame of a portrait on the wall. Damn. The woman was watching Lenore with calm but intense interest. She could swear she saw a thoughtful frown on the few dots of shadow that made up her face in the reflection.
Calm down. Walk away.
Lenore started down the hall. If she made it back to Edgar, who should still be following the crowd, they could be gone in less than ten minutes. He must be wondering about her sudden need for a bathroom break anyway.
The woman matched her pace for pace.
Seven minutes before.
The tracer Lenore had stuck on the transport vehicle blinked green on the dashboard radar. Traffic showed no unusual clusters in immediate vicinity, which meant no extra police escort.
Kato had expected as much from Lenore's data. Earl Williams was not considered dangerous or at a high risk for escape. He had no known connections on the outside save for a law-abiding wife and an estranged daughter. Depending on how much the police knew, it was possible they also figured no-one would be foolish enough to rescue someone the Chicken Game Boys wanted dead.
"You have considered that there will be a fallout from all this, haven't you?" Kato asked as he steered to so-far innocent-looking Chrysler, its weapons concealed inside the trunk, on a collision course with the green blinking dot.
"We have, yes," Britt confirmed. "Lenore's got something set up, though. I let her do the thinking."
Kato glanced at Britt. He was looking out the window, distracted and still sulking. It pissed Kato off. He didn't deserve that shit. He'd been trying to be friendly. "What is up with you and Lenore, anyway?" he asked sharply. "You seem to get along awfully well."
"Don't tell me you're jealous?" Britt's narrowed eyes met his in the rear view mirror and Kato quickly looked away. The image of Britt and Lenore together flashed through his mind and turned his stomach. He didn't know why he'd asked. He didn't have time for this.
The dot blinked faster on the screen. "Heads up. We're here."
The transport vehicle made its way up the slowly rising highway where it cut through a slice of undeveloped land. The Black Beauty swept towards it. As the distance between them sped away, Kato picked up a remote and pressed it.
Nothing happened. The two vehicles continued to draw closer to each other. "Okay, the jammer's not working," he said. "That should have killed their engine."
"All right," said Britt, and he didn't sound at all displeased. "We'll have to do this the old-fashioned way, and fast."
The distance turned to twelve feet, ten, five. Kato pressed a button. An array of beans took out the transport vehicle's wheels. The white van screeched and skidded and turned sideways on the road.
Kato fired off a volley of bullets. The ones that hit the metal sank halfway into it harmlessly, but under a concentrated fire the reinforced driver seat window shattered. He could just see the shape of a man ducking out of the shards' way. Britt leaned out the passenger side window, pointed his Hornet gun and shot a pellet through the window.
"I cut, you cover," Kato ordered and grabbed a heavy metal saw from the passenger seat as Britt jumped out of the back. They rounded the vehicle to the rear.
Breaks screeched as a Toyota stopped to avoid collision with the Black Beauty, then turned around and sped away. "Smart move, ordinary people," Britt muttered as he checked the pellet count of his gun.
The saw whined its way through the metal. They could hear cries and cursing inside. It was agonizingly slow work. Kato still took time to cut through a small hole about the size of a fist first, to let Britt shoot a pellet inside.
The Hornetphone rang in Britt's pocket. "Seriously, now?" Britt cursed, shot a second pellet inside and fished the phone out. Kato concentrated on the cutting.
"Right," Kato could hear him say through the noise of the saw. "You all right? Got it."
"Trouble?" He was almost through. The hole was about three feet across. There were no more sounds from inside.
"Lenore's been made. The law's on the way."
Kato gritted his teeth. "Fantastic." He turned off the saw, stood back and kicked at the metal, which bent with an ear-splitting whine. He kicked it again and it fell off. Inside, they could see the prone shapes of a shackled, elderly man and a burly woman in a prison guard's outfit.
"Get the car, I'll get Earl," Britt said — unnecessarily, since Kato was already turning to the Beauty. "Wait." Britt stopped him with an outstretched arm and handed him the Hornetphone.
Kato slipped into the driver's seat, tossed the saw on the passenger seat and thumbed the phone on. He dialled Lenore as he turned the car around, ready to run.
"Did you get out?" he said as soon as the line connected.
"Only just. They know about the job, though," Lenore's voice said. "There was an agent here who caught part of my call with Britt. Did you get Earl?"
"Getting him," Kato said, glancing at the rear view mirror. Britt was pulling a dazed but conscious Earl out of the still smoking hole in the metal. "We're almost done."
"All right, but be quick. If the beat cops don't get there soon, she will."
"She?" Kato felt a touch of premonition. "Describe her."
"Pretty, Asian, short hair and glasses, late twenties, maybe early thirties. Why?"
Kato cut off the call and tossed the phone on the dashboard, gripping the wheel.
The dust was high and the sun was hot on his neck. The dark thick Hornet suit wasn't doing Britt any favours at this time of the year. Earl was still woozy despite having received only a small doze of the hornet gas, and frightened, though a few soothing words and the mention of Molly Williams' name seemed to have convinced him to at least not fight.
Britt heard the roar of the motorcycle barely a moment before the Black Beauty reversed to the side. "Duck!" came Kato's cry, and Britt was already pulling Earl down when three bullets whizzed above their heads, one bouncing off the Beauty's roof. Britt pulled a door open and shoved Earl inside as kindly as the hurry allowed, tumbling in after him. The car sped off down the road with the door still hanging open until Britt could right himself and pull it shut.
"Right," he said. "That's that done. Now we shake 'em off."
"Britt, that was Bai," Kato said.
"Bai, my-- my supervisor."
Britt stared at the back of Kato's neck. "You didn't tell me you brought your cop friend with you!"
"You didn't ask," Kato replied coolly. "And I didn't bring her. She said she had a job in LA and we rode over together. She didn't tell me what job and I didn't ask."
Britt groaned. "The Chicken Game Boys, I'm guessing."
"Those people!" Earl cried out. "I'm not saying anything. I wouldn't make them any trouble, I promised I wouldn't. They didn't have to do all this to me."
"I know, man," Britt told him. "You're not with the Colonel Sanders crew now, don't worry. You're under the protection of the Green Hornet." He offered Earl a hand.
Earl looked at him suspiciously, but finally shook it. "I've heard of you. Hardly matters who I'm with as long as everybody's still trying to kill me."
"We're not trying to kill you, Earl. You're just going to stay with us for a while."
There was an explosion and a whistling sound as a missile launched from the back of the car and swirled its way down the road behind them. Britt looked out the back and saw, astonished, as it exploded on the street, a big enough blast to crack concrete, right in front of the bike speeding towards it.
"Kato, holy shit!" Britt said. "I thought she was your friend!"
"She is," Kato said darkly. "Look back."
Britt turned again, and saw Bai back in pursuit, having barely slowed down.
"How is she – Kato, is your not-girlfriend Batman?"
"Don't call me Kato, Hornet. Also, yes, she is kind of Batman, at least on motorcycle." Kato cursed in Chinese. "I was just hoping that would slow her down."
"Is it just sexy engines that she's good with? How's her detective work?"
"If you're hoping she's a donut-muncher or a bureaucrat who doesn't really give a shit, what do you think? She just jumped a missile blast. You don't want her interested."
"Well, shit. Can we shake her?"
"I'm trying!" Kato punched another button and smoke billowed out from the back of the car, enveloping their pursuer.
Britt had never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he could read a situation. "She's going to know you're trying to avoid killing her," he pointed out.
"Not if she thinks I'm out of missiles," Kato replied as – sure enough – the helmeted figure of the motorcyclist emerged unfazed from the fog behind them.
Kato hesitated for about half a second, then nodded and punched the button. A net shot out from the back of the car and hit the motorcyclist. Britt watched as the bike turned and screeched and finally fell, skidding across the road with its rider's leg caught under it.
There was no way to assess the damage at a distance, but it would have been impossible to control or minimize the net's effect. Bai could have lost a limb or cracked her head on the asphalt.
Britt turned back and sat down on his seat, quiet. There didn't seem to be much to be said.
"The cave?" Kato asked.
Britt shook his head. "Pasadena."
Lenore turned the key in the lock, hissing as the pressure bit into the bruises on her fingers. Her hand felt like a claw and every movement hurt. She pushed the door open. Inside her house, all was calm and familiar, filled with early afternoon light. She threw her purse on the hallway table and carefully pulled off her glove, finger by finger, before heading for the medicine cabinet.
At least Edgar hadn't commented on her hand in the car back to the Sentinel. Thank goodness for gloves being back in fashion and for photographers who never notice anything unless they're looking at it through a lens. Fuck, what a life, she thought briefly as she swallowed a painkiller.
The woman had caught up with her by the ladies' room on the second floor and stopped her with a hand on her sleeve. Lenore had tried her best innocent smile and ended up being pushed into the bathroom while the woman drew out her badge. She had only just made out that it was the LVPD before the wallet was flipped closed again.
"I heard you on the phone. Who's on the way?" she'd demanded. Despite her stature, her grip had been like iron. "Who were you talking to?"
The woman had quickly and calmly grabbed Lenore's right hand and twisted her fingers in a way Lenore had never seen in any movie or read about in any of her many, many gory books on the criminal underbelly. She'd nearly fallen to the floor in agony.
"If something is 'on its way' right now I guess I haven't got a lot of time. Please consider cooperation," the LVPD had said softly.
"I, I got a tip that the Green Hornet was going to bust Earl Williams out," Lenore had said almost before she'd had time to analyse whether this was a good or a terrible idea. "I have a colleague with a video camera trailing the van. Wanted to get footage of the Hornet... Sorry, ma'am, we did mean to inform the police as soon as they pulled off, I was just about to..."
"Give me your purse." Lenore had obeyed, silently praying that her modified microphone passed inspection. The woman had taken out her wallet, had a look at her driver's licence and picked up her Sentinel calling card.
"Don't leave town," she'd said sharply, handed Lenore her purse back and disappeared out the door, her cell already out.
Lenore had made damn sure that when she called her boys to warn them, there had been no one around to hear. She wasn't usually that careless.
Lenore went into the bathroom, washed the rest of the make-up off her face and undid her hair, running a brush through it before tying it back up awkwardly. She was just inspecting the yellow bruise developing under one of her nails when the phone rang. She rushed to it, chucking the contents of her purse on the hallway table to get to it faster, and tapped answer. "Hello?"
"Britt. We got out. Got Earl, too. He's having some soup right now."
"Thank goodness for that. Well done. Where are you?"
"Wayne mansion." That was another one of their unintentional and thoroughly dorky nicknames. He meant a small residential house in Pasadena, belonging to Marlene Downs' fictional cousin who never seemed to get around to moving in.
"Jammer didn't work, you know. Should ask for a refund."
"Motherfucker," Lenore swore softly. "How do you feel about putting a hit on a certain black market supplier I know?"
"Wow, that's kind of dark for you, Lenore."
"I'm joking, Jesus. How's Kato?"
"Bitchy. But we're both fine. Oh, he wants the phone, hold on."
Lenore went into the kitchen and balanced the phone on her shoulder while she filled the water boiler. Soon, she heard Kato's voice. "Jammer didn't work."
"I heard. Kato, I want you to know I really appreciate it. We couldn't have pulled it off without you."
"How badly were you compromised?"
"With the LVPD woman?" Lenore took out her box of tea bags. "She knows who I am, but she only heard one half of a short conversation. Told her it was for a story. I think she bought it. Should be fine. You got away before she got there, right?"
"Not exactly. Lenore, that was Bai Jun."
Lenore put down the box. "That lieutenant you told me about last night? She's here? Shit, that makes sense."
"Kato, I have to ask you right now. No more bullshit. Are you with us? I mean, for the long run?" There was only silence on the line. "Kato. If you still mean to go back to Las Vegas and join the force and never talk to us again after tonight, hand the phone over to Britt, please."
There was a moment more of silence, then the sound of steps and rustling and then Britt's voice saying, "Yeah?"
Lenore sighed. "Okay, it looks like we've lost Kato. Never mind. Don't tell him anything. He told you about the lieutenant?"
"The Batman chick? Yeah."
"Batman again? Oh, never mind. It doesn't change anything. Tomorrow's plan is the same as before. I'll try to think of something to do with Earl, but don't leave him alone for long, okay? Can you stay with him tonight at the Wayne place?"
"Are you sure? There's no TV."
"Okay, fine, I've got Angry Birds on my iPhone. It's not like I even have a social life anymore anyway. I gotta drop Kato off at the cave first, though, let him collect his price."
"I guess that's fair. Thanks, Britt. Call me if anything happens. And get some rest."
The Black Beauty sat quietly in the garage of the 'Wayne' house in Pasadena, its guns out while Kato removed used casings and checked the frame for burn damage. He heard Britt finish the conversation with Lenore and yanked out a spent shell hard enough to scrape the paint.
He'd known this was the last job he'd do with the Green Hornet. That had been the agreement. They hadn't worked together as a team for six months. It shouldn't bother him, but being excluded like that by Lenore - well, he hadn't enjoyed it. It was easier when he was the one doing the rejecting.
The last casing rattled on the floor and Kato stood up with a sigh, wiping his fingers on an oil rag. What the hell was he even going to do with a Black Beauty in Vegas? It wasn't like he could drive it around on the beat. He could use it for grocery runs and dates, he supposed, but it didn't seem quite right. Imagine bringing a girl in the Black Beauty. He'd have to install new dashboard plates to hide some of the more interesting displays.
He'd take it, though. Of course he would. He wiped some of the dust off the bumper thoughtfully. Britt had been right. He'd built them. They were his, no matter who had paid for them, and he'd missed them.
Something else Britt had said came back to him. 'All the toys I used to buy you.' He'd actually said that. Like Kato was some kind of a sugarbaby, or a mooch. Britt, who had always had money to buy whatever he wanted, who had the whole world open to him and had done shit with it until Kato showed up, dared to say that to him. Hell yes, Kato had made ample use of Britt's credit card. How about all the toys Kato used to make for Britt? Those didn't count somehow?
Britt appeared at the garage door. "Hey, d'you want a coffee or something? There's leftover soup, too." Kato shot him a scowl. Britt scowled right back. "Jesus, fine," he said and disappeared back into the house.
Kato sighed and rested his head against the black chrome. When had it all gone to hell?
Maybe it was when he'd first let Britt kiss him. That had been stupid. They hadn't even been drunk. It's one thing to laugh off drunken fondling, something else when you're sober as the day you were born and so high on adrenaline you park the car and pull your partner down by the collar to-- wait-- No, he was sure Britt started it. Must have. Maybe that wasn't the first time. Maybe it had been on the couch in the rec room, sinking into the pillows under Britt's weight. Maybe they had been drunk. He remembered a number of times they specifically had not kissed, dozens of times he'd turned away or punched something or taken a drink to avoid the vibration between them. Then there had been the day he hadn't, and after that it had been too late.
Kato didn't have a problem with gay guys. He just didn't want to be one. No use telling him there was nothing wrong with it. On some level, he'd always known it was in him to fall for a guy, so he'd taken the necessary steps to avoid it. Was it his fault if Britt had been stealth? And once it started...
He'd had to leave. He had been becoming things he didn't like. Not just gay, but some kind of a kept man, a joke for a racy newspaper story, some goddamn variant of the sexy pool boy. He'd been too tangled up in Britt and the Green Hornet and Lenore to notice it at first, but when he had, it had been the obvious decision. Kato wasn't a coward, but there's a difference between cowardice and getting out while you still can, before you let a situation define you, before leaving becomes too much like ripping yourself apart.
Britt couldn't see that. No, he was just sulking because he couldn't have things his way. All he could see was that he'd had something he liked and now he didn't, and that Kato was mean for taking it away. Asshole. Lenore blamed Kato because Britt's feelings got hurt? He was a grown man, goddammit. Kato wasn't responsible for his well-being.
Kato got up and swept up the casings, dumping them in the garbage bin in the corner. Let Britt worry about it if anyone ever searched the place. He went to the door that led to the living room/kitchen combo area that ran through most of the width of the small house. It looked like an Ikea model house, unreal and gleaming new, except for the coffee rings and the soup kettle on the kitchen counter. Earl was flipping through a magazine on the couch. Britt hovered over him, looking incongruous in the setting, a big man in a green-tinged black coat and a menacing mask, like a comic book villain dropped into some quiet evening in the suburbs. "All set?" Kato asked.
"All right, Earl?" Britt asked in his turn.
Earl grunted. "Better than where I would have been. When are you going to call Molly?"
"Shit, good point," Britt murmured. "We can't, at least not without rerouting the call. They'll have her phone tapped."
"Can I send her a postcard, then? She'll know it's from me."
"Sure, Earl. Write her a note. Sorry about all this, man."
"Like I said," Earl chortled, "it's kind of an improvement on the original plan. Here, I've got my very own bathtub and everything. I just don't want Molly to worry. Got a pen?"
Kato watched, feeling out of place, while Britt rummaged around the unfamiliar house's bookshelves stacked with classics and Reader's Digests, before finally finding a blue ballpoint pen in one of the empty kitchen drawers. Earl ripped an empty page from the back of a copy of 'The Catcher in the Rye', wrote his note against the wall, folded it and handed it to Britt. "Soon as you can, yeah?" he asked.
"Tonight," Britt promised.
Earl shook his hand and shook it. "Then I'll believe you're all right, even if you don't tell me your reasons. Thanks for the bath, anyway."
Britt followed Kato into the car and said nothing when Kato took the wheel, though he slid onto the passenger seat next to him instead of the back. "I'll have to get straight back," he said. "Can't leave him alone. The Chicken dudes would pay good money for a tip-off if someone spots him."
"What are you going to do with him?" Kato asked as he steered the Black Beauty back out on the street. He was almost surprised to see it was still light out.
Britt shrugged. "Clear him, probably, and then give him back to Molly. If he's innocent, there's got to be proof somewhere, and the appeals court can't be intimidated like a local jury - at least not if we manage to get rid of Colonel Sanders before then."
"I thought you had a non-interference agreement."
"And I told you, Lenore's got a plan."
"She told you not to tell me, didn't she?"
"So what if she did?" Britt snapped. "Look, we can sit here repeating old dialogue or we can just get back to the Hornetcave and get this over with."
The seemingly endless suburbia slipped past them, the hill of Griffith Park growing in the horizon. The sun was sinking low in the sky, giving the distant forest a golden lining.
Britt sighed. "Look." He pulled off his mask and rubbed his eyes. "I'm sorry, okay?"
Kato said nothing.
"You're right, we had a thing, it didn't work out, and I shouldn't be angry about it. I am, because shit, it wasn't fun and I'm not Gandhi. I’m just saying, I get it, you're your own man and you don't owe me anything. Maybe I don't like it, but that's my damage, you know?"
Kato glanced at him sideways, and then nailed his eyes back on the road. An ugly feeling was growing in his chest, much like the one that had driven him that angry drunken night six months ago. He didn't relish it and didn't want to process it, so he just said, "Thank you."
They drove the rest of the way in a delicate silence, each lost to their own thoughts.
Lenore flicked off the electric kettle and poured herself a cup of green tea. She held the hot cup up to her nose and sniffed the familiar aroma. At least some things in the world you could rely on.
As she sipped it, her eye caught movement in the garden outside the French window.
Had she locked it? Yes. And the door? Yes. Did it matter? No. Could she get to her purse in time? Lenore's grip tightened on the ear of the cup of searing hot liquid.
There was a knock on the door. She put the cup down on the counter, cried out, "Just a sec!" and went to the hallway. She took the phone from her purse, thought about it for a moment, and put it back in next to the gun. It would only distract them, and they'd never make it there in time anyway. Besides, she might be wrong.
Lenore opened the door.
The woman was in her late 40s, with pale blonde hair piled on top of her head. Her smile was tastefully painted and her eyes were sharp as razors.
"Hello, Ms Case," said Carla van Loren. "Mind if we come in?"
From the kitchen came the sound of breaking glass.
It was night by the time Kato steered the Black Beauty into the parking lot of his hotel, a simple two-story building close to the shoreline. It had nothing resembling a view, but the rooms were comfortable and the price had been right, and you barely noticed the flaking paint. He parked, fished out the room keys from his jacket pocket and sat for a while staring at the light reflecting off them.
Explaining the car to Bai would be tricky, but he'd think of something. Something like ‘my ex-boyfriend gave it to me in exchange for busting out a convicted murderer.' Yeah, that'd work. She'd have a ball with the first part, and then handcuff him for the second.
He'd changed back into his riding gear at the cave. His black coat, hat and mask were wrapped up in a plastic bag and stuffed behind the driver's seat in the Black Beauty. He wasn't sure why he'd taken them. Nostalgia, perhaps, or maybe he just didn't want anyone else to have them. They were his, too.
Back at the Cave, Britt had been fidgety and restless. He'd paced up and down the hall between the lines of cars and then gone into the office to make more coffee as Kato stripped his choice of the two Beauties of Britt's residue - the bottle and the Nintendo DS in the glove compartment, the bag of chips under the seat, the disguises in his size stashed in the back. When Kato had been all set and ready to go, Britt had just looked at him, leaning on the other Black Beauty, his lips tight as if there were dozens of things he specifically wasn't saying, or that he still expected Kato to say. Kato remembered that look while he sat, still between two lives, and wondered if he'd really done the right thing.
That ugly feeling was still with him. He grabbed the keys hard enough to hurt and yanked the door open. Yes, dammit, he had done right. They would both have been hurt worse in the long run. As soon as the door closed, though, he had an urge to yank it open again, drive back and...
What? Fall into Britt's arms? Say he'd never leave again? That wasn't a promise anyone could make in the best of cases, and it wasn't as if any of their problems had gone away. No, he'd done enough damage already.
He found the room he and Bai had taken out together on the second floor and knocked on the door. "It's Kato," he called out, but there was no answer. He remembered the motorcycle crash and his throat felt dry. He let himself in.
The nightlight was on and clothes lay haphazardly on the bed Bai had claimed. Bai's laptop was on the desk, displaying a starry field, and he could hear the shower running. He breathed a sigh of relief. At least the worst hadn't happened. Bai was good at falling and he'd been fairly sure of not killing her, but he could easily have found her with a broken leg. He'd had enough of making all his friends miserable for one week.
They had booked a single room without even discussing it. It had just seemed like the thing to do. He was suddenly struck by how well the scene seemed set for an illicit affair. They were two old friends who'd always felt a certain pull for each other, all alone and away from everybody who mattered. There was a minibar, privacy, heartache and, he was sure, an all-night diner down the road you could buy condoms from. He didn't even think Mala would mind. She'd been talking his ear off about polyamory ever since she'd found out about their history of casual making out back in Bai's college days.
Why not? If Bai was willing, why the hell not?
Kato threw off his coat and kicked off his shoes, falling on his back on the unfamiliar bed. He closed his eyes, his mind wandering back to the smell of lemon detergent.
Bai hadn't heard him come in, but she'd turned off the shower just in time to hear him kick off his shoes. She took her time toweling off, careful around the bandages covering raw skin of her thigh and back, then dried her hair and wrapped herself in one of the big bathrobes.
She found him stretched across his bed, still fully dressed and snoring lightly. He looked barely two years older than he had when she'd said goodbye to him in Shanghai a lifetime ago. Funny how you can lose someone and then find them again when you're both completely different people.
She wondered about him. Something had happened to him, and recently. If she'd had any evidence to back it up, she'd assume he'd had his heart broken. Funny to think that. Kato had never seen particularly romantic. Dashing, to be sure... If he had been a girl, one time... but, well, he wasn't, and this wasn't that time.
She grabbed a sheet from her bed and laid it carefully over him, then went to brush her teeth.
Britt woke up with a start when the alarm went off on his phone. He'd picked the most annoying bleebity-bleep tone he could find just to make sure he'd wake up, and between finding the phone, dropping it, finding it again and jabbing it until it behaved, it took him a full minute to get the damn thing to shut up.
He dropped the phone on the couch and rubbed his eyes under the mask. He must have red welts on his face from sleeping on it, but he'd figured it wouldn't do either him or Earl any favours if he showed his face. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, either. Damn Lenore and her precautions. She was probably just waking up in her own room, all bed-warm and well rested. It wasn't like the cops and the CGB were more likely to find Earl between the hours of 2 and 8 am anyway, and it had been past 2 by the time Britt had got back. First there had been Kato's fussing about which Black Beauty had the fewest bullet holes in it, then waiting around the corner from the Williams house until the lights went out and he could drop Earl's note in the mailbox. He'd need a holiday after this, somewhere nice and relaxing where Lenore couldn't reach him. The bottom of the ocean, maybe.
Britt took a deep breath. What he needed was coffee. Something muddy and horrible that tasted so bad you had no choice but to wake up. Luckily that was one of the few things they had in the Wayne Mansion cupboard. He grunted, cracked his back and went into the kitchen to fix himself some sludge.
He tried Lenore's phone while the sludge was dripping. No reply. She was probably having a long relaxing bath that smelled like spring flowers and sunshine. It didn't matter. Britt had his morning's schedule memorized.
He was just pouring a cup when Earl shuffled in from the bedroom in his boxers and undershirt, scratching his belly. He looked a little bewildered. "So it wasn't a dream," he said.
"Welcome to reality," Britt said with a smile. "Coffee?"
An hour later he was slightly cleaner, feeling slightly more human, and behind the wheel of the Black Beauty once more. He drove through the city towards the sea, negotiating lanes and roads until he pulled up to the old boarded-up 7-Eleven.
It was a small, out of the way place - as much as anything in LA was out of the way - that looked like it had been closed for a year or two. The sign that hung over the front entrance was unlit and a corner of it had broken off; the windows were taped over, and the loading area door was locked with a chain-lock. Britt parked the Beauty by the loading doors and stepped out, drawing in a breath of exhaust and sea wind. He still had some time to spare.
He fished out the chain-lock's key, thought about it for a moment and put it back into his pocket. Instead, he took out his gun and shot the lock. It shattered, links scattering on the asphalt. That would look better.
Fifteen minutes now, tops. Unless they were late, and they weren't the type to be late.
"Had a good time in the city yesterday?" Bai smiled and bit into a danish.
Kato swirled the cream around in his coffee. "Um." They were sitting in the hotel's tiny restaurant, having their complementary breakfast. It was clean and surprisingly nice, even if the danishes were a little dry and overly sweet.
"Never mind, you don't have to tell me. I'm heading straight back to the precinct for the day myself." She shifted painfully on the seat. "Gotta take a cab, though. The doc said no riding until the leg's better, and I'm thinking he's right."
"I'm sorry about your leg," Kato said, wincing.
"Don't be. You didn't do it. That was one hell of a car, Kato. It had more booby traps than the Batmobile. He's a funny guy, this Green Hornet."
Kato saw his opening. "Bit of a local celebrity. They seem to think he's interesting, like an amusement park ride. Did you know auto shops around here make fake Imperial Chryslers for the local thugs? People think they're cool now."
"Do they?" Bai laughed.
"Yeah - they're basically just Imperial frames or copies with cheap engines that fail in two weeks. I bought one yesterday. Figured I could use the parts."
"You bought a car? Where'd you get the money?"
Kato snorted. "That beat-up thing cost peanuts. Anyway, I got paid yesterday. That's what I came in here for - got my last paycheck from the place I used to work. Actually, I still need to pick up my bike from the Sentinel, so I can give you a ride downtown if you like. You should see all the dead buttons they put on this thing." It'd be some kind of a test, anyway. If Bai bought that the car was a fake, anyone would.
"Thanks, Kato, that's nice of you. You worked at the Daily Sentinel? What did you do? Something at the presses?"
"Something like that." He began to butter a roll of bread.
"All right, I'm backing off. Keep your secrets." She leaned back, winced, and leaned forward again, sipping her coffee. "Funny to think I'll be going Hornet-hunting in a Hornet-car, though."
"Are you?" Kato asked, trying not to look alarmed.
"Something's going down here, Kato," she said thoughtfully. "We may not be able to do anything about it, but it's going to be big, and it's going to happen today. In short? We think the Blue Horn is coming over to LA, and you know what they say about blue and green."
Kato swallowed. "What do they say?"
She grinned. "They clash."
He stared at her. She frowned. "You're not groaning. That was totally a groan-worthy pun."
"Maybe you should take a cab," Kato said after a while. "We don't want the car to fail on the way."
"You're not superstitious, are you?"
"I just think that maybe you don't want to drive out looking like the Green Hornet right now."
"Fair enough." Bai said and finished her coffee and picked up her purse. "I have to go. Don't get into trouble."
"No promises." He waved at her, his fingers clutched tight around the butter knife. "Bai, wait," he said at the last moment.
"Yes?" She turned back and hung her purse on her shoulder, waiting.
"I have a hypothetical question."
"Ooh, I love those." She sat back down. "Go on."
Kato looked at her in consternation. She was, as it turned out, his oldest friend. She was also someone he had had a crush on since he was a child, she was gay, and she was a cop. Why couldn't things ever be easy? "Hypothetically," he began, and she nodded in encouragement, "if you fell in love with someone who was - in your case - okay, if you - imagine if Mala was a guy."
Bai looked confused, but nodded. "Okay."
"You're a - what do you call it? - a card-carrying lesbian, right? And she's a guy. I mean, he is. And not only that, he's selfish, spoiled, obnoxious and can't hold a conversation without dropping in ass-related profanities."
Bai chuckled. "That's Mala all right."
"Well, then." He looked at her expectantly.
"I'm sorry, what was the question?"
"You fall in love with guy-Mala. Would you still marry him?"
"If I fell in love with him?"
"In a heartbeat."
He stared at her, then frowned.
"I may be gayer than plaid, but you don't choose who you love and you shouldn't feel ashamed of it, whatever the combination of genders involved. I'm also a walking crime show stereotype and I don't give a damn. It's not worth it." Bai squinted at him. "If this is about you and me - Kato, I really like you. Maybe I kind of love you a little, but I never fell in love with you. That makes all the difference. Maybe it was because you're a guy, or maybe it was just one of those things. I can't know for sure. Does that make sense?"
He toyed with his spoon. "I wasn't-- I get all that. That's not why I was asking."
"Then I really don't get it."
"It's just that, then you'd be straight. Just like that." He sighed. "No, I'm not asking this right. It's not the same thing, being suddenly straight isn't like--"
"Kato." She took his hand. He dropped the butter knife. "Holy shit. Is there a guy?"
"No." He shifted uncomfortably.
"You're lying. Wow!" She laughed out loud.
"That's nice." Kato glared at her. "See, you too? Just forget about it, I--"
She grabbed his hand with both of hers just as he tried to pull it out. "Okay, first of all, it's not just gay or straight. This is queer 101 stuff, you should know this. You can sort out the definitions later. Kato, are you in love with this guy?"
She grinned happily. "Lying again. I'm sorry, but that's adorable. Is that who you came here to see?"
"It's not adorable. And I'm not lying. It's - it's complicated! Also he's." His voice dropped to a near-whisper. "He's an asshole."
"Does he love you?" she asked.
"Maybe not anymore." He covered his face with a hand. That sick feeling was beginning to make sense, and he liked it even less now. It was choking him. "Bai. I think I may have been the asshole."
She squeezed his hand and smiled. "Go see him. If you're really worried about the car, you can take my bike."
He dropped his hand and looked at her.
"Go on." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Anyway, I really have to go now. Good luck, sweetie."
She hurried away. He stared at the butter knife, then swallowed his cold coffee and got up.
16 hours before.
"Relax, sweetheart," Carla said. "We only want to talk."
"Is that why I'm going to be shopping for a new kitchen door?" Lenore said.
"Aren't you tough." Carla walked in, grabbed Lenore's arm and pulled her into the living room. Two men followed her inside — one a tall, lanky guy in his mid-forties with a ridiculous brown mop of curly hair in a ponytail, the other young and military-cut, save for a mustache. She recognized the lanky guy, who grinned at her delightedly. He was Daniel Marciano, van Loren's younger brother, whom nobody thought of as the sharpest tool in the shed. As for the other guy, she recognized the bulge in his jacket.
Carla half-threw Lenore on her own couch. Two more men had got in through the garden door, both of them young - one looked barely older than 16 - and wearing expensive-looking suits. "I guess you're wondering why we're here." Carla said, then in an aside to Daniel, "Oh, sweetie, pour mama a cup of coffee, will you?"
"I only have tea," Lenore put in.
Carla barked a laugh. "What kind of a reporter are you?"
"I drink too much of it at the office, so--"
"Got any scotch?"
"Left cabinet over the sink."
"That's more like it." Carla sat down on Lenore's favourite armchair. The man with the mustache laid a hand on Lenore's shoulder. "You know who I am, I take it."
"Yes, Miss van Loren," Lenore said. They liked you to be polite. "To – to what do I owe..."
"It's not that piece of shit article you wrote about how I supposedly shot my worthless ex, if that's what you're thinking," Carla put in. "Thank you, sweetie," she said to Daniel, who handed her a scotch on rocks.
"Ma'am, I assure you--"
"Oh hush. No. You know I was at the courthouse earlier today. After the trial, which you'll recall was rather long, I stopped to powder my nose, and then I stopped to take a crap. You know what I heard while squeezing out a dainty turd in the judicial ladies' bathroom?"
Lenore sank into the couch. "I can guess."
"So what I want to know is, how does some two-bit bimbo reporter know what the Green Hornet's planning to do when none of my boys can figure it out? What's your connection?"
Lenore felt the hard barrel of a gun press into the back of her neck. "Like that pig earlier," Carla said, "I, too, suggest you consider cooperation."
Lenore swallowed. "Ex-boyfriend. Sort of ex, anyway. Works deep in the Hornet's operation. There's only so much he knows and only so much he'll agree to tell me. The Hornet is secretive as f-- anything. He only told me about the Earl bust because I promised not to tip off the cops."
"Oh, come on. The Hornet would kill us both."
Carla raised her eyebrows. "And you think I won't?" The gun barrel was shoved harder into Lenore's neck, bruising her skin.
"All right," Lenore breathed. "Fine. It's Wayne. Wayne Downs. Please don't hurt him."
"Oh, we wouldn't," said Carla, pleased. "All we want is that the two of you – or you, specifically – play ball. There's no need to tell him about us, but whatever he tells you about the Hornet's operation, you tell your new best friend. That's me. How does that sound, sweetheart?"
Lenore considered, but she had to do it fast. There was only so long she could keep up a pretense, but if all went well with Britt, she'd only have to maintain it for another 24 hours at most – long enough to get away until the storm blew over.
"Oh, honestly," said Carla, her lip curling ever so slightly. "There will be kickbacks too, don't worry about it. You can pay off that mortgage, buy a new fucking kitchen door, do a little shopping in New York, whatever gets you off."
"Okay," Lenore said hurriedly. "Okay, whatever you want is fine."
"Much better." Carla smiled. Lenore relaxed as she felt the gun leave her neck. "But you have to give us a little something, just to show you mean it. What else has your Wayne told you?"
"There is one thing," Lenore said, swallowing. "Can I – can I get a drink of water?"
"Sure, sweetheart. Daniel?" Daniel hurried back into the kitchen. "What is it?"
Lenore took the leap. "Something's going down tomorrow morning. Something I think you'd want to know about."
Through the tinted windows of the Black Beauty the morning seemed painted over with grey, but every line and gradation showed up as sharply now as it did at night. Kato steered with one hand as he typed in a request on the control system and brought up a trace signal for the Black Beauty #2.
He was fairly sure Britt didn't know about that feature, as Kato had been sure to hide it in case one of the cars had to be abandoned as wreckage again. The other Beauty showed up at an address in Long Beach, apparently stationary.
Kato punched it.
Britt let out a ripping yawn and rubbed his temple beneath the mask. Damn thing was itching. The heat had already started to climb and it wasn't doing his mood any favors.
Just as he settled the mask back in its place he saw three cars swerve into the parking lot. The leading one was a beautiful dark blue Mercedes with an elaborate symbol emblazoned on the doors. He launched himself up off the car he'd been leaning on, assumed his best swaggering pose and prepared to bullshit like he'd never bullshitted before.
Britt had never met any Blue Horn member as high-ranking as Mr Soong before. As a matter of fact he'd made a point to avoid Las Vegas' – and as a side note, Los Angeles' – powerful triad. Lenore had talked his ear off about the cultural context of triad activities and ties to legally operating tongs that were benefiting Chinese-American communities, but what Britt knew for a fact was that you don't fuck with Blue Horn, not even if you're the Green Hornet, at least not unless you're damn sure you've got them by the balls. Too many people could be hurt otherwise.
The trouble was, they had fucked with them. Over the last few months more and more of produce being smuggled in by Blue Horn's people through the LA port had mysteriously gone missing due to misapplied address tags, muggings and the magic of Lenore's blackmailed access to the shipping schedule. They'd been careful, but they couldn't have kept it up much longer, hence the need to move on to the next stage of the plan.
Two of the cars disgorged impressively toned men in quiet dark suits, while the emblazoned one sat quietly patient on the yard. Britt strolled down towards them, spreading his arms casually. One of the suited men reached inside his jacket. "Relax, man, chill," Britt called out loudly. "Is there a hand I could shake? I'd love to shake a hand before we get down to business. How about you?" He gestured towards the nearest bodyguard, a chiseled man in his late thirties who looked slightly alarmed at the proposition.
The door of the emblazoned car opened. "You can shake mine," said a man coming up from the passenger seat. So not the boss then. Britt had expected as much. He was pudgy but good-looking, clean-shaven with a strong jaw line. "I'm Mr Ho, Mr Soong's assistant."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr Ho," Britt said. He offered his hand and they shook firmly. Britt gestured to the 7-Eleven. "Shall we?"
"Are you quite alone?" said Mr Ho curiously as they started for the building, two of the silent bodyguards following without comment.
"Why not?" said Britt. "We're all friends here, aren't we?"
"Indeed," said Mr Ho with a slight smile. The bodyguards entered first, and Britt followed Mr. Ho in.
the room was big enough to park two smaller trucks side by side. Two doors led out of it on each side towards the storage areas. The room was in gloom, but a high window over the loading exit cast a single beam of light directly on a large logo painted in red at the back wall. It depicted a knife stabbing through a feather, with the letters C, G and B twining around it.
Mr Ho inspected it thoughtfully, then, at Britt's indication, went to the door on the right and switched on the light. Only one bulb sparked to life, but by its light they could see that the racks that lined the storage area were filled with crates in various sizes. Each one had the CGB logo painted on it, often over ripped-off shipping tags.
Mr Ho pointed to a crate at random. The bodyguard stepped forward and delivered a precision punch that knocked the lid off. Inside, there were packets of white powder and sheets of pills. The bodyguard knocked open another crate. This one held medical container units. He picked one up and gave it to Mr Ho.
"These are addressed to Hong Kong." Mr Ho looked around. "I see some of the crates have already been broken."
"I had to make sure it wasn't a trick. Nothing's been taken, I promise you."
"I have been assured that no investigation will be made into merchandise still unaccounted for," Mr Ho said with a smirk. "Tell me again how you came upon this stash?"
Britt launched into his cover story about keeping tabs on the other gangs, nothing that would be called interference, more like keeping an ear to the ground, to which Mr Ho nodded as he inspected the crates. "We're not all gentlemen, I get that," Britt concluded. "I mean, you gotta look after number one. But stealing from people you're supposed to have an understanding with? That's not just wrong, it's bad for business."
"So you agree that dispatching a traitor can only benefit us all," Mr Ho said, turning on his heels to face Britt.
Britt faced his flinty stare without flinching and smiled. "Absolutely."
There was a shout from outside in a language Britt didn't recognize, then the sound of engines revving. Mr Ho did not seem startled, only more focused. Britt reached into his pocket for a gun, only to find a cold barrel pressed to his neck. He slowly let the gun fall back into the holster and raised his hands.
Mr Ho retreated behind the bodyguard, who grabbed Britt's shoulder and pushed him toward the door. "I hope you haven't been stupid, Green Hornet," Mr Ho said softly.
Britt hoped so too. "I promise you, whoever is out there is not working for me."
They sneaked up on the exit from the side. The bodyguard shoved Britt against the wall to look around the doorframe. As he did, a woman's voice shouted, "We're not afraid of you gooks! Give us the fucking Green Hornet!"
Shit, Britt thought, but said, "What did I tell you?"
The bodyguard said something quick in what Britt assumed was Chinese, and Mr Ho looked at him curiously. "I guess they found out about you," he said. He seemed to consider, then gestured to the bodyguard, who released Britt.
Britt shrugged his coat back on and flicked dust from his sleeves. "Thank you," he said.
"You may wish to run," Mr Ho said casually.
Britt's blood was pumping in his ears. Where the hell did he have to run to, anyway? Images of van Loren at a cocktail party flickered through his mind, the sound of her laughter, her brown-painted nails clutching a champagne glass. The memory was replaced with Lenore's worried frown and the twitch in Kato's mouth when he'd turned away for the last time, then a mental map of the yard outside. He could see it as clearly as if he was looking straight at it.
"I'd rather fight alongside you," he said, reached inside his jacket, and paused. "If you don't mind."
Mr Ho looked amused, nodded, and Britt pulled out his real-bullets big-boy gun. Mr Ho produced a professional, compact semi-automatic, and the three of them burst through the door and into brilliant morning light.
"There's the son of a bitch!" van Loren said with a delighted grin when she saw Britt. The two Blue Horn cars had moved to shelter the third, with more besuited men behind them pointing guns at the red open-topped Porsche and yellow Lamborghini parked on the curve. Van Loren was standing up behind the wheel of the Lamborghini, one knee leaning on the seat. There was a curly-haired man on the back seat with two guns out, grinning at the triad frontline.
"You're out-gunned," Mr Ho called out calmly. "Please throw down your weapons."
"Not before you give me that two-f--" she cut off a hail of bullets hit the car from behind, riddling its side.
Van Loren swore and ducked down as the Black Beauty twisted elegantly between the Blue Horn and Chicken Game cars, tires screeching on the asphalt, its machine guns out and pointing at the Lamborghini. No one was bleeding. It had been a warning volley.
"Interesting," said Mr Ho, lowering his gun. Britt was still busy collecting his jaw from the ground. "There are two of these remarkable cars, then?"
"Get out of my way!" van Loren shouted. "I don't care who the fuck you are, give me the guy in the mask or we will fucking end all of you! Do you know who I am?"
Britt pulled himself together. "Mind if I...?" he asked. Mr Ho nodded, and Britt cleared his throat.
Britt raised his gun and pointed it at van Loren. "Calm the fuck down, lady," he shouted. "And then back off out of this yard, because I assure you will be dead before you fire one bullet. Do you get that? I'll count to three. One." He advanced towards the Lamborghini, his gun out ahead of him. On an impulse he jumped on top of the Black Beauty's back hood, one foot on the roof. "Two. Three." The gun kicked back in his hand and van Loren flew backwards.
Britt's ears rang, and then pain flashed through them as the Black Beauty's guns exploded into life. Bullets and fire decimated the two cars.
Britt lowered his gun and stared at the bloody mess splattered across the gleaming yellow paint of the Lamborghini. He had killed before. It was no big deal.
The younger guy in the Porsche was only hit in the shoulder, while the older one slumped in the backseat. The kid threw down his gun when he saw Britt looking at him, fumbled with the ignition and hit the back pedal, reversing back into the road and speeding off.
Britt's hand still shook as he slid the warm gun back into its holster. The kid had looked terrified. That still shook him, every time, to realize that he was terrifying. Or the Green Hornet was, whoever the fuck that meant.
He turned back and saw Mr Ho lean over the rolled-down window of the Mercedes, deep in some quiet conversation. Then the man stood up straight and nodded at him. Britt nodded back, jumped down and opened the Beauty's passenger seat door. Kato pulled him in the rest of the way.
"Jesus, K, I didn't think--" Britt started.
"Take the wheel," Kato said curtly and got out of the other door.
Britt was more than happy to stop being the one in charge. Shit, he didn't even care whose side Kato was on anymore or if he even knew who they were dealing with. Right now just sitting down for a while felt like a great idea. He slid into the driver's seat as Kato strolled up to Mr Ho and shook his hand. Britt watched through the rear-view mirror as they exchanged words. Mr Ho grinned and grabbed Kato's shoulder, and Kato pointed to the second Black Beauty, at which Mr Ho's grin only grew wider.
The phone in his coat pocket rang. Britt fished it out. "Britt?" Lenore's voice said.
"I'm fine. Kato's back," Britt said hollowly.
"It worked? Are you heading back?"
"We're still here, but we pulled it off. I – van Loren is dead." He looked over to the Lamborghini. The curly-haired guy who had been with her was still moving, crawling to the front and gathering the dead woman in his arms. His gun lay on the ground.
"Shit, they got there?" Lenore said. "Shit! I'm so sorry, Britt. I tried to get to you before. I've been tied down. Fucking literally. You guys still need to get out of there. I'm looking at the traffic data and it looks like the cops are right around the corner."
"They would be," he said, closed the phone and grabbed the wheel, turning the car towards the parking lot exit. He pushed open the car door. "Guys, time to roll. The law's coming. Sorry about the mess."
"Quite understandable," Mr Ho said with a slight inclination of his head, and nodded to the others. The bodyguards disappeared into the cars.
"This will be a crime scene," Kato said, standing calmly by Mr Ho. "You'll likely lose your merchandise."
"It's worth it if it means no more disturbances to our business in Los Angeles." Mr Ho smiled tightly. They shook hands. Mr Ho indicated the second Black Beauty. "Besides, this exceptional machine may well be worth it."
"Jesus, you gave him the car?" Britt said when Kato slid into the passenger seat. "What the hell?"
Kato shrugged. "We still have this one. Ho will be your best friend now. Guy loves tricked-out cars."
"You know him?"
"I knew him in Shanghai. He was a lot less suave back then."
Britt was the last to drive out of the yard, the Black Beauty's wheels painting tracks in blood on the yard. The Lamborghini wasn't going anywhere. They could already hear the sirens coming. He punched it, swerving off towards Griffith Park. "I thought Shanghai had like a billion people living in it. How come we run into the one you know?"
"Worked for his boss. A lot of people did."
"Some kind of triad boss?"
"Not triad. Just organized crime."
"That's all, eh? What was your job, fixing cars?"
"And other things."
"'And other things.' I see."
"A little street racing. It's no big deal. Ho figures I'm the real Green Hornet, you know."
"I'm not surprised." Britt sped up and passed a Volvo. The sirens were already fading. "Considering how badass your life used to be, why the hell were you ever with me? And why do you want to be some kind of a traffic cop in Vegas?"
"I'm not going to be a traffic cop."
"No, I guess you'll be going straight to homicide. Shit! I'd put you there if I was them, unless they've got, like, a genius martial artist unit or something."
"I'm not going to be any kind of cop. Britt, are you okay? You just shot someone."
"She had her gun out. It happens." Then he processed what he'd heard. "You're not going to be a cop? Why?"
"Staying with you."
Britt said nothing at first, just drove on for another minute or two. Kato faced the window, shadows of buildings and trees flickering across his face.
"Don't fucking do this to me, Kato," Britt said at last, keeping his eyes on the road. "Don't play around." His throat felt dry. He was sleep-deprived and sweaty and he'd just seen someone's bare bones sticking out of a Prada jacket in a bloody mess just because he'd moved his finger. The adrenaline was draining into exhaustion.
"Not playing. If I say I'm gonna stay--"
"I don't want you around, okay?" Britt snapped. "You didn't ask for it and you never wanted to hear it, but I fucking loved you. Did you know that? I don't give a damn if that makes you uncomfortable. I don't think I'd even been in love before. Before it was just girls and, okay, some guys, and shit going down and... I don't know. The point is you dumped me and that hurt and maybe that's not your fault but I can't be your 'xiōngdì' anymore." He pronounced the word carefully, perfectly. He could do that now. Kato flinched. "It's just not a bro thing for me. I'm grateful to you for bailing me out, again, and for all the other times too, but we’re done. Okay?"
"It isn't even any fun anymore." The road ahead was blurring, but he knew where he was going. "Going out and being badass, I mean. It's just a lot of hard fucking work. I don't want to do it but I can't not do it, either, you know? With great power and all that shit. Except I don't really feel powerful anymore, Kato. I just feel fucking miserable."
"Jesus fuck, Britt. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry." A hand touched Britt's thigh. He turned to look at Kato. What was that look? Pity? Concern? Why the fuck did Kato have to be so unreadab-- The thought and many other brain functions were cut off when Kato grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him into a kiss.
The car swerved. Britt felt a hand close over his on the steering wheel, steadying it. Kato wasn't letting go. Crazy bastard, Britt thought, and then, oh god.
This was stupid. Left field. Dangerous. He was probably going to get hurt. So right up his alley, really.
Who was he kidding, anyway? If Kato wanted him, he was his. Every last bit of him.
"I have to park," he muttered between kisses, elation starting to rise from the pit of his belly. Kato released him and he parked on the side of the road by an empty beach. The horizon bisected into two shades of blue beyond a sandy slope. Gulls cried ahead and the traffic roared past.
Britt reached for Kato's mask just as Kato reached for his.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
Bai looked over the crime scene, taking care to walk around the tracks. The wind had blown out what sand could have preserved impressions of feet, but the black tire tracks could still tell a tale.
"We should have had the goddamn SWAT team ready," Chavez told her for the third time. "When our guys responded to that gunshot call, they weren't prepared for this kind of full-blown John Woo shit. You always bring your best soldiers, Bai, always."
She ignored this. "Did Marciano give us anything yet?"
"No, but he will. Right now he's just going on about how much he loved that cow. As soon as we get a search warrant to their place, we'll get everything we need." Chavez grinned. "It's been a good day, Lieutenant, even if we didn't do the work ourselves."
"What do you think happened here, Chief?"
Chavez shrugged. "Looks and sounds like a gang tangle. No telling which one, but to be fair, it was probably the Hornet. That's been brewing for a while." He fingered his gun holster and frowned. "It's all going to shit in this neighborhood. All these gangs. Makes a man feel like he's fighting a losing battle. I'm telling you, if some terrorists went down to East LA and firebombed the shit out of it, we wouldn't have any more trouble."
Bai thought of the faces she'd seen on her ride through the city, and of the kindergarten back home that she knew for sure was financed by the triad's drug money. She thought back to Shanghai and the factory boys who used to come to her father's shop, to tease her or flirt with her or steal her schoolbooks. She thought about fire, and she thought about compromises.
She smiled and clapped him on the back. "Let's just stick to doing our jobs, Chavez. What do you say? Hey, do you know any good Indian places around here? I love that spicy stuff."
"Let's see, what went wrong?" said the real Green Hornet, pacing up and down the rec room at the Reid mansion in her high heels. "How about everything?"
Lenore stopped with her hands on her hips and gave her two partners a stern look. Kato and Britt were curled up together on the couch, Kato's head resting casually on Britt's shoulder. They looked exhausted but happy. "Are you two even listening to me? Britt, you should have made sure to contact me before going ahead with the meeting. And Kato, what the hell? First you don't tell us your cop friend is in town, next you come in guns blazing when she could have been right behind you all the time. We could all be in jail by now."
"Relax, Lenore," Britt said. "We're all cool now. Or do you want to go into how you kinda sent both Bai and Chicken Game guys after us?"
"Oh god, you're right. It was a disaster and it was all my fault." Lenore dropped on to the easy chair, burying her face in her hands. "It made sense at the time. Tip off the lieutenant and she won't make a connection from my identity to yours. Tip off the Chicken Game Boys and they'll show up at the 7-Eleven looking guilty, and the Blue Horn can take them out. I thought you guys would be gone by then."
"How's your hand?" Kato asked, sitting up and reaching for Lenore's mangled hand. She let him inspect it, gently spreading her fingers to see the bruises.
"Guys, we need to expand," she continued. "I can't handle this anymore. If we're going to be a real gang we need real members. Fighters, programmers, businessmen. We have to have an income, too. Have you looked at your finances recently, Britt?"
"I know." Kato turned to look at him. "We're a little low on cash," Britt explained. "Rebuilding the Sentinel cost a lot of money, and it turns out the business isn't as lucrative as it used to be. It's shit I never had to think about before, but she's right."
"So, bottom line," Lenore continued, wincing slightly as Kato moved her fingers, "is that we can't afford crime as a hobby anymore."
"You have to rest it," Kato said, handing Lenore her hand back. "Looks like there might be a fracture in the index finger. Stop popping pills and typing through the pain, all right?"
"Seriously, are you listening to me?" she asked, exasperated.
"I am. Rest it." Kato smiled slightly. "Anything else can wait."
Lenore drew a long breath. She was too tired to argue and too much in pain despite the pills. She'd had a long night, too, trying to catch some sleep on her couch with a man with a gun hanging over her until just before the showdown at the 7-Eleven, when Daniel had called to say the tip had paid off. Even now she was afraid to go home. Both the cops and the Blue Horn were going through town, eliminating, processing or swallowing up CGB stations, but until the situation stabilized she would be a target. "Maybe you're right. I need to..." Lenore's head snapped up. "Earl! I forgot to ask. Is he okay? Have you checked up on him?"
"He and Molly are fine," Kato said. "Turned out the idiot sent her a note with the Wayne house address, and this idiot delivered it without reading it." He punched Britt lightly on the shoulder. "It's dumb luck she read it before the cops."
"Hey, I don't read other people's mail," Britt said, frowning. "Anyway, they ought to be fine for another day and night. When we got back to the Wayne house we found they'd been uh, having conjugals. We figured we'd better not stick around too long."
Lenore looked between them with a wry smile. "I'm guessing they're not the only ones."
The way Britt smiled at that was either shy or smug — she really couldn't tell — but Kato just grinned and rested back against him. "Not yet," he said and laced his fingers with Britt's. They exchanged smiles.
My, but things had changed.
"I guess I better leave, then," she said and picked up her purse.
Britt raised his eyebrows at her hopefully. "Oh, only if you really want to. We can share."
She picked up the sofa pillow and threw it at him.
Kato was right. They might be neck deep in trouble, but what else was new? They were relatively safe and at least two thirds happy. For now, everything else could wait.