The stakeout had been easy, so easy that it was boring. As the lady had said, her stepson and his associates were holed up with her young daughter in a big ramshackle house in the hills outside of Santa Rosa. The architecture was eccentric: while Hakkai was researching the place, he found out it had been built by some mid-range and nearly forgotten movie star from the 1950s. "Prince" Kougaiji Maoh and his big bodyguard took turns leaving for the day on some sort of business. Hakkai didn't care, really, what they were doing. The thin but busty young woman who was reportedly a medic or perhaps a nurse never went far from the house except on weekends, when she did the grocery shopping, and Kougaiji and the big man stayed home. The girl didn't seem to be going to school at all: maybe Ms. Medic was homeschooling her.
Hakkai had managed to pull the original floor plans from microfiche in the property transactions office at the county seat. It was clear that some modifications had been made at one time or another, but it looked like the second and third floors were both mostly bedrooms and baths. The girl's room was likely at the rear of the house, on the north corner of he second floor. He had seen her looking out the window there a few times, and the hours at which the lights went out at night seemed reasonable for a young adolescent.
By approximately midnight, the rest of the lights in the house seemed to be out, except for a faint glow that might indicate safety lighting in the halls or even night lights in the baths. Although the house's backlot was overgrown and ran into the nature preserve up the hill, there were only a couple of trees close to the house. The shrubs and other garden plants, however, were massively overgrown. It showed a fatal carelessness, in Hakkai's opinion. It was trivial to dart across the weedy back lawn, past the dryly scummy swimming pool, and get to the back door.
As he'd expected, there was no sign of any sort of electronic security system. The lady's chief associate, who seemed to fancy himself some kind of scientist, had described the kidnappers as "charmingly naive" in a voice that dripped smarmy superiority. Hakkai hadn't liked the man at all, but that was nothing unusual. Hakkai didn't like anybody, really.
He put down his bag, silently, and took out a tiny headlamp and his lock picks. The two locks were massive but very old-school. It took him perhaps five minutes to defeat both of them. He put away the headlamp and picks and eased the door open.
As the plans had indicated, this was the kitchen. It was silent and smelled mostly clean, with a faint aroma of poultry cooked with garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. The only lights were the power indicators on the appliances, which were surprisingly few, given the size of the place. A massive table stood in the center of the room, with a knife block that held half a dozen knives. Nothing happened when he crept into the room and eased the back door shut, but did not lock it. A door off to the side was shown as a large, old-style pantry in the plans. He went into the little room, with its shelves and built-in cabinets, and took out his weapons, put the rifle together, loaded it with trank darts. The whole thing had been ridiculously easy so far: he might even be able to get away without actually killing anyone.
Not that he had any issues with killing one of them, or all of them, except for the girl.
He put the silencer on his pistol, holstered it, checked the contents of the various pouches attached to his waist, slung the rifle over his shoulder, and made sure the bag could not immediately be seen if the pantry door was opened. Then he glided out of the little room, across the kitchen and out into the main hallway.
There was still not a sound but for the stir of air from a couple of ceiling fans. Hakkai stalked up the main stairway. He could not prevent every creak or groan of the old wood, but he avoided any regular pattern that might sound like footsteps. Here was the second-floor landing. Ms. Medic's room was immediately to the right. The girl's was across and to the left. No one else lived on this floor, although there were two other rooms. Their doors were half open, but the rooms beyond were dark except for the faintest glow of the night sky outside their uncurtained windows. He stood still, listening. Regular breathing came from behind the door to the right. He was too far from the girl's room to hear her breaths, but there was no light underneath her closed door. No sound came from the stairway that went up to the third floor, where the stepson and his big thug apparently slept.
Hakkai started across the landing to the girl's door. Something thudded once on the stairway and a light went on. He started to turn, flinging the rifle into position, but before he could bring it to bear, a man leapt off the stairs and kicked out with both feet. The blows landed on Hakkai's ribs and shoulder, Hakkai staggered and nearly fell, and the rifle went flying, hitting the tile floor of the landing with a hideous clatter.
Hakkai's first emotion was disbelief. No one was that fast but himself. His opponent — a tall, gangly fellow with long, red hair — aimed a solid-looking punch at Hakkai's face. Hakkai pivoted away, but he was off balance and winded from the blow to the ribs, and he fell to the floor.
His opponent was on him in a heartbeat, and they rolled on the tiles together. Hakkai tried to work his way toward the rifle, but the other man seemed well aware of his objective. He was shirtless, all lean muscle, less thin than Hakkai, and he was clearly skilled at this sort of inelegant brawling. Hakkai managed to get himself in position to smash his opponent's head on the bottom of the stairway, but just as he was gathering his strength to do so, the other man managed to reverse their positions, and Hakkai found himself pinned facedown on the floor, his opponent kneeling over him with one leg on each side and with one of Hakkai's arms locked firmly between his shoulderblades.
For a moment everything was still, the only sound their labored breathing. Hakkai was astonished to realize that no one else seemed to be awake, despite the noise of their struggle. The light was really still very dim: it was only the sudden contrast to the earlier darkness that had made it seem bright at all. Hakkai's ribs on the left were one mass of pain. He gritted his teeth and tried to buck the other man off, but the fellow only settled himself more solidly so that he was more or less sitting on Hakkai's ass.
"Too bad for you," he whispered, and Hakkai could hear a smile in his deep voice. "My ground holds are killer."
Hakkai growled softly and tried to pull his arm loose, but the man really knew what he was about with the pin. This was all wrong. There was no one who looked like this among the stepson's associates in the dossier that his employer had given him, and he had not seen the man during the two days he had been observing the house, either. "Who are you? Where did you come from?" he whispered, at last.
The man chuckled again. "Me? Nobody special. I just blew in from the coast a couple days ago."
"No one has come up the road but Kougaiji and his associate for the past two days."
"You were watchin' the house, huh? Must've just missed me. I wasn't feelin' so hot, so I been layin' low since I showed up. But I heal quick." He shifted his weight against Hakkai. "My turn. What the fuck are you doin' here in the middle of the night?"
Hakkai tested the pin again. "Uh uh, no," said the red-headed man. "I could do this all night. And I only have t' yell, and Jien and Mr. Maoh will be down here in a New York minute. Might as well spill; you ain't goin' nowhere."
"Your … friends are kidnappers," whispered Hakkai, at last.
"Shit. This is about Lirin? Mr. Maoh's sister? Hot damn. You've gotta be from his stepmother."
"She wants her daughter back."
"Oh yeah. Because she's such a lovin' mom, right? That what she told you?"
"Isn't it my turn to ask questions?" Hakkai relaxed a little, turning his head so he could see his opponent out of the corner of his eyes. The fellow had a long, lean face, light hazel eyes, and a pair of parallel scars across his left cheek. His expression was sardonically humorous, his wide mouth stretched into a grin. He smelled of tobacco and sweat, musky and surprisingly attractive.
"You can ask; doesn't mean I'll tell," he said.
"How did you know enough to guess my employer when you've only been here for two days?"
"You think they let me up here without telllin' me what was up? They're sure as hell not that dumb."
"You're assisting with a criminal enterprise."
"And I caught you breakin' into someone's house with a rifle and a pistol and a knife, just for starters."
"The lady wants her daughter back."
"Why? So she can let her creep-ass mad scientist boyfriend do some more experiments on the kid?"
Hakkai opened his mouth again, but nothing came out.
"No answer t' that, huh? Our little princess has tracks on her arms like a 35-year-old heroin addict. If you've been stakin' us out, you've seen the kid once or twice. She's all cute and bubbly and only 13 years old, even though she's gettin' a little top heavy already. Baby sure as hell didn't stick those needles in her arm herself."
"Maybe she was ill," Hakkai whispered.
"That would be pretty interesting, 'cause they never sent her to any hospital. Maoh was there until three months ago. He knows what went down. You been sold one hell of a bill of goods, buddy, if you think that bitch is a lovin' mama." The grin had faded, and the man was starting to look angry and not a little scornful.
Hakkai didn't blame him. "So I was set up."
"Yeah, you were. Why'd you take the job?"
"Gyokumen Koushu knows my … history. I presume she imagined that a chance to rescue a girl and perhaps commit murder in the course of doing so would appeal to me. I knew the woman was a criminal, but I did not imagine that she would treat her own child in such a fashion."
"You're a killer, huh?"
"I was. Does the thought repulse you?"
"I've killed a couple of sons of bitches. Done some other stuff I wasn't too proud of, either."
"Some of the people I killed did not deserve it," whispered Hakkai. "I was found not guilty by reason of insanity."
Maoh's man shifted his weight a little on Hakkai's buttocks. It was distracting. "You're crazy, too?" he said. "Yeah, that figures. What am I gonna do with you?"
"I know what I would do."
The other man was silent, apparently looking at Hakkai's profile, and then he sighed. "See, this is why I wasn't gettin' far in the criminal business. Here we've been talkin' so nice. And the fight went outta you the minute you believed what I said about that bitch down in Mexico, so I figure that you probably were nuts when you were killin' people who didn't deserve it. That makes it kinda hard for me to just up and kill you."
"You're not going to let me go."
"Damn straight. I ain't gonna lie to my brother and his boss."
A few pieces fell into place. This man did not resemble the tall fellow who guarded Kougaiji, except for his height, but it figured that someone who loved his young half-sister enough to steal her from her terrifying mob boss parent would employ a bodyguard who had similar familial loyalties. Hakkai remembered the sister he himself couldn't rescue and wished he had had allies such as these back then.
"You could give me to your employer."
"Yeah, baby, I could do that. You gonna sit still while I get my phone outta my pocket?"
"Would you trust me if I said yes?"
"Nope. Sad but true." With his eyes still locked on Hakkai's face, he carefully reached across his own body with his free hand, managed to get the phone out of his pocket, and activated it. He listened a few moments, then: "Yo, Jien? You both better come down here t' two. Quiet: the ladies are still asleep."
Hakkai closed his eyes as the heavy, quiet steps sounded on the stairs above. Perhaps he would be dead in a few minutes. Oddly, he felt more peaceful than he had for the last five years.