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Against the Odds by RIgirl
Against the Odds by RIgirl
Summary: What if Red Impulse were a woman, instead of a man? Inspired by the concept drawings of Roberto Ferrari, who envisioned Red Impulse as a woman, this story chronicles the journey of Kaori Washio from test pilot and single mother to undercover spy and her ultimate transformation into the mysterious Red Impulse.
Categories: Gatchaman Characters: Berg Katse, Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, Goon, Jinpei, Joe Asakura, Jun, Ken Washio, Kentaro/Red Impulse, Original Character, Phoenix/God Phoenix, Ryu Nakanishi
Genre: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, Tragedy
Story Warnings: Adult Situations, Death, Mild Adult Situations, Mild Language, Mild Sexual References, Mild Violence, Sexual Situations, Suicide, Violence
Timeframe: Episode Rewrite, Mid-Series, Prequel
Universe: Tenuously Canon
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 4 Completed: Yes Word count: 45763 Read: 4052 Published: 04/11/2012 Updated: 04/11/2012
Story Notes:
Many thanks go to Madilayn and Condorcandi for their initial beta-ing and for helping to set the character; to Green, for her inspiration and insight into character motivation; to ChrisW, for the suggestion for adding a little more depth in the “Jigokillers” scene; and thanks to everyone at Gatchamania who followed the story as it progressed and offered words of support and encouragement!

For me, this was a labor of love for a character I have always loved.
Chapter 1 -- The Test Pilot to Spy by RIgirl
He heard each footfall ring off the tiles, echoing down the empty corridor. Solid, self-assured, unyielding; as relentless as the one who now approached was. Nambu turned as the footsteps suddenly ceased at the doorway and studied the figure standing there.

A straight back; a gaze that was piercing and direct. Her hair, pulled back in a French twist, looked dark in the subdued lighting of his office, though he knew, were it down or if the lights were brighter, it would be a light brown with dark honey highlights. She wore a minimal amount of makeup; none at all during test flights, and Nambu was glad of that. It made it easier for him to not think about the fact that he was repeatedly asking a woman to put her life on the line, even if she was the best test pilot his research facility had.

The winter white suit she wore was cut to flatter her figure, but was not so tight that it revealed much. Actually, it revealed nothing. Even the striped silk blouse she wore gave the illusion that she exposing more than she really was.

And that, Nambu reflected, was what made Washio Kaori very dangerous. And also why he was approaching her about this situation.

“You wanted to see me,” she stated without preamble, without greeting or smile, as she hit the door with her hand so that it swung shut behind her as she walked further into the room.

Nambu nodded his head sharply, but did not begin speaking until the snick of the lock caught in the door. “I did, and I thank you for meeting with me on such short notice.”

Kaori gave an almost imperceptible shrug of one shoulder. “What is so urgent that it could not wait until a more decent hour?”

Nambu let the question hang in the air between them for a moment. He used the time to pull up the items on his computer that he wanted to show to her. With a final keystroke, he glanced up to find her staring at him, waiting. Not impatiently, not even a flicker of curiosity on her face. Simply waiting in an ‘at ease’ stance which silently spoke of her years in the military. He let the first image flash up onto the large wall monitor before he spoke.

“It has come to my attention that a certain group has become more bold in their activities,” he hit a button and the screen changed, flashing up a map, “and it appears that they are centering themselves in Hontworl, but whether that is their main base of operations or not, I don’t know. What I can tell you, though, is that reports have been coming back to me that there is rumored activity regarding a new armament in the works.”

“Nuclear?”

“Possibly, but it’s hard to tell.”

Kaori frowned in thought. “I thought Hontworl was a neutral country.”

“It is, and, unfortunately, the pacifist government currently in place refuses to acknowledge that such things are being done, preferring to keep their heads buried in the sand.”

Kaori shrugged. Politics were only of marginal interest to her. Games that men play. “So we’re looking at the possibility of some resistance cell thinking to take over Hontworl? Or is this actually sanctioned by the so-called pacifist government?”

Nambu licked at his lip and took a deep breath. “So far, everything that I’ve told you is classified, but not so much that I would need to make sure that you had clearance to hear it.” He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts, selecting his words. It was now or never. The next few minutes would pull her in and he would either have one more person to worry about knowing this … or he would have the person he needed for the job. “What I tell you next is to never to spoken of, or even thought of, again outside of this room. Are we clear?”

“Crystal.”

“There is a two-pronged problem at hand here,” he continued. He changed the screen again, this one blurry, of some sort of blueprints, but nothing that could provide useful information. “First, we have news of a weapon being built, with or without the government’s permission, by an organization that makes world mafias look innocent. We would need to get proof that this is what is being done so that the perpetrators can be routed out before any real damage is done to Hontworl, its economy, and its people.” He paused a moment, to let this sink in.

“And second?” she prompted.

“Second is that I have it on good authority that this weapon is so powerful that, should it go off, earth and everything on it would be a mere memory in its wake.”

“That’s what this is?” Kaori asked, a brief nod towards the monitor.

“Part of it,” Nambu acknowledged. “Unfortunately, the image is too blurred even with computer enhancement to decipher it. It was sent to me by a field operative a few days ago.”

Kaori tilted her head. “Then why not just ask him to take another?”

“Because they realized what he was doing and eliminated him,” Nambu responded, hitting the button and changing the screen image once more. He steadied himself against the desk as he added, “and his family. If our analysis of what happened is correct, when they discovered his deception, he watched as his family were killed before his eyes, probably in an attempt to get him to talk, though his corpse likewise bore evidence that he was most likely tortured before he died as well. This is a ruthless, nasty group who will stop at nothing in order to get what they want.”

“I see,” she said curtly, then looked over at him. “So?”

And here it was. Nambu steeled himself and launched into it. “So I need someone to go in, find the evidence of just who is funding this weapon and to obtain the plans for it so that we’ll know just what, exactly, they’re planning on doing and figure out a way to counteract it, if possible. It had to be done under wraps, as discreetly as possible, because the consequences of being found out are severe, to say the least.”

“And you are telling me all of this why?”

“Because I want you to be that someone.”

“Me?” she queried with a quirked eyebrow. “Why me?”

“Because I know I can implicitly trust you. That you would be the last person to fall under their spell and be swayed by their promises.”

Kaori gave a short laugh. “Not good enough, Nambu. Not by half. You have any number of people, including your own spies – oh yes, I know all about them – who could do this job for you just as easily as I. Bottom line it, Nambu. Seriously, why me?”

Nambu squared his shoulders and stared her right in the eyes. “Because you are the only one who has the … skill set needed to get the job done, and possibly more, if required.”

Kaori’s brow arched slightly higher. “‘Skill set’?” she echoed. “Or physical attributes?”

Nambu colored under the accusation, but could not deny it. For starters, she was right and he acknowledged this. There was no point in even attempting to be diplomatic or politically correct any more.

“Partially, yes. This is organization, such as we know about it so far, is a tight network, strengthened by the fact that greed seems to be the common denominator. To try to put a man in there would most likely be next to impossible. They would scrutinize him carefully and he would be regarded with caution, if not outright hostility. Look at what just happened to my last male agent. A woman, however, could simply cozy up to one or another of them, any one of them, and be able to get in and get what we need. You could easily go under their radar. Female spies are not unheard of, but you have to admit, even now in today’s day and age, they aren’t still the first ones to fall under suspicion.”

“So you want to pimp me out for this information and to find these plans,” she stated baldly. Nambu blanched at her choice of words.

“Not true,” he denied. “I’m not telling you how to do the job, and I’ll leave the what and the how entirely up to you. And you still have the option, now, to say no and leave.” He paused a moment, then added quietly, “By the way, I think I should warn you. This is a mission that is totally off the books and files. Only I will know the truth behind what you are doing and why.”

Kaori stared at him unblinkingly, then inhaled as she inclined her head ever so slightly, her blue gray eyes narrowing. “So if it goes off the wire …”

“ … there will be nothing anyone could to do help you, yes,” Nambu finished. “I am hoping, in time, to be able to send in others to help you, as backup, should it become necessary, but it will take time for me to find the right ones for the job.”

“Then why not just wait until all the players can be in place?” Kaori countered.

“Because I need someone on the inside and I need them there now,” Nambu retorted equally as fast. Modulating his voice, he dropped the tone lower. “This can’t wait, Washio. Every minute that ticks by is one more minute that they have to perfect this plan of theirs. To start implementing it. We would need to get you in there, nameless, traceless, have you disappear somehow, so that they could never ever think to trace you back here, or anywhere else. And once there, you would be completely on your own. You once said that you would volunteer for a special ops job, if one ever came along. Well, this is it.”

Kaori studied the map between them. To go in, under cover, and to actually be of some importance in keeping the world safe from this lunatic fringe organization or cartel, or whatever it was they were calling themselves, was what she had worked towards her entire life. On its face, it did not even seem that difficult, really.

All she had to do was go in, find the plans and get out. How long could it possibly take? More to the point, how long would it take her? It was a tantalizing challenge …

Then a solitary thought brought her up short.

“What about my son?”

Nambu blinked, his mind trying to comprehend the meaning. Then he remembered, vaguely, that she actually did have a child. “What about him?”

Kaori gave an ever-so-slight huff of impatience. “What am I do with him? I can’t just stroll off, pretending to be missing, or disappearing, or whatever it is we come up with, and not make some sort of provision for him.”

“Well, how old is he?”

“About four,” she replied with a slight hesitation, unusual for her, the words ‘I think’ unspoken but still heard.

Nambu sighed hard. This was an unforeseen complication that he had not anticipated. Had he remembered that she had a child, he never would have approached her with this. At least, he thought he wouldn’t. Then again, maybe he would have anyway.

“I could still do this,” she said quickly, as if reading his mind. “It’s just that some things would need to be seen to before I can feasibly start, if I decide to do this. You just said yourself that these people were vicious, so it stands to reason that they probably would not hesitate to use force against a one small child if necessary. We would need to find a way to keep him safe, should my identity become known at some point.”

Nambu looked at her. That answer said it all; she was interested and her mind was already trying to work out the details. It encouraged him, to think that he would soon have an agent he could trust beyond a doubt on this, and it saddened him beyond measure, for reasons he could not express, even to himself.

“Would the boy’s father be able to care for him?” Nambu hazarded a guess.

Kaori gave him a cutting look. “The boy’s father has no idea that he even exists and it will stay that way, so do not expect help from that quarter. I suppose I could simply put his nanny on a permanent retainer, but that is no guarantee to me that he will be properly looked after. People can, and often do, change in the face of different circumstances, especially if they know that they will not be held accountable for their actions to anyone. At the very least, I would want to know in the back of my mind that he is adequately provided for while I’m gone.”

Nambu nodded. “Of course,” he conceded. “I realize that this is a hard decision for you. Perhaps there is a relative or someone close that the boy could stay with?”

She was shaking her head before he even finished speaking. “No, there is no one else. He would be at the mercy of strangers, no matter where he is to go. And I did not go through the trouble having him just for him to end up in some orphanage or welfare agency. He deserves better than that, at the very least.”

Nambu’s mind turned over the matter, trying to consider it from all angles. What it boiled down to was that he was asking a lot of her and she was willing to make the sacrifices. Now it was his turn.

“I could always take him in,” he volunteered, the words said in a single breath. “Him and his nanny. My house is large enough, they could stay with me. This way, after you are gone, he would still have someone familiar with him. I could even give you progress reports on him then, if you wanted ...”

“No,” Kaori interrupted swiftly. “It would probably be better if you did not. It would serve no purpose and would only be a distraction.” Her eyes held his in an icy stare. “It would also be one more possible way that a connection could be established, tying him to me.”

“Still,” Nambu followed up, his voice hushed, “you would know that you could reach him, if you wanted to. If you had to. And even if they did somehow find out your real identity, he would be well protected.”

At this last, the corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly. “After all, if he would not be safe with you, he would not be safe anywhere, is that it?”

“Something like it,” Nambu replied, glancing back down as his laptop. “It is your decision, but I need to know before you leave here now.”

Kaori lowered her eyes as she considered this offer. The ensuing silence enfolded them as Nambu waited for her final decision. When she next looked over at him, she had made up her mind and gave him her final answer.

“I’ll do it.”

* * *

She pushed back a strand of her hair with the heel of her hand, using the opportunity to look around the factory floor once more. The manufacturing plant was large, covering nearly an acre of land and, while many of its processes were automated, there were still jobs that could only be done with the human touch. Like the job Kaori now did.

She double-checked the gauges, reset the machine, and hoped it did not jam again. It was hot, tiresome, noisy work but, for the moment, it also provided her with her only source of income and, with any luck at all, she would not be doing it that much longer.

So far, though, since beginning her work under cover, Kaori had yet to see or establish a connection between those missile plans Nambu had gotten and this factory, despite the fact that this was where the operative claimed to have been at the time.

To her surprise, Kaori found that her biggest problem was not remembering to respond to her new name, but to remember that she was to be compliant and quiet. Her natural instinct to just take over and lead had to be tamped down, especially when she saw things that could be done better, or faster, or easier.

But that was not why she was here, she kept reminding herself. She had to blend in, become part of the scenery, make it so that no one would even take notice of her, let alone question her presence. And, for the most part, she seemed to have succeeded. The longer she worked at the factory, the less people took notice of where she wandered, though twice she had to use the old “looking for a bathroom and got lost” excuse. Still, it did not stop her and she used her breaks to scout around, taking the time to search for something that would provide the tip that she needed.

In fact, that was the real reason why she took the third shift in the first place; there was more opportunity to search and less chance of being seen doing it and raising suspicion. There had been some whispered rumors, murmured conversations alluding to a “big job” but so far, she had found nothing concrete.

As Kaori began her shift on this night, however, she immediately noticed a change in the atmosphere, pushing her senses to high alert. Workers moved with more speed and efficiency than they normally did, the joking and friendly banter that was typically the norm suddenly reduced to just essential comments, and all were job related. Something was definitely up.

At around midnight, as Kaori bent to check a gauge on a machine behind her, a sliver of light caught her eye. A door, which up until now was never used, suddenly swung open and several men in suits walked in, five in all, and, paying no attention to those in the factory proper, continued their way up the stairs. They had obviously done this before and knew exactly where to go.

The noise on the floor from the machines drowned out any hopes that Kaori had of trying to overhear their conversation. From her position, she surreptitiously watched as they all headed for the conference rooms on the second floor, whose windows overlooked the factory floor below. Kaori saw the light in one of the conference rooms flicker on. About five minutes later, two more men came in and disappeared up the stairs. Of them, Kaori thought she recognized one of the men, but the lighting was poor and he held his face away from her, so there was no way she could be certain.

As she worked, Kaori divided her attention between the task at hand and the square of light on the second floor. At times, one or more of the men would stand, pace around, appearing briefly at the window, only disappear again as they returned to their seats or went back further into the room.

Three hours later, the meeting broke up and Kaori got the chance she was hoping for – as each man came down the stairs and through the door, she got a good, clear view of him. Some she was certain she had never seen before; a few looked vaguely familiar and she felt certain that she should know who they were. A couple she definitely recognized. She nearly looked away again when the seventh man stepped through the door, accompanied by a tall blonde woman.

Kaori blatantly stared at them, positive that she had only seen seven men walk in. So where had that woman come from?

The woman paid no attention, her eyes not even seeing the factory as she headed out the door. The man, however, paused and met Kaori’s stare with his own. He was a short middle-aged man with a stocky build that was running to fat. His dark wavy hair was slicked back, conforming to the shape of his skull like a greasy cap. With wide-set eyes and wide, thin lips, he instantly reminded Kaori of a bullfrog.

His small eyes narrowed at her and she quickly dropped her gaze, busying herself with her machine. Now was not the time to get into staring matches. Out of the corner of her eye, however, she saw the blonde woman turn back and say something to him, and he answered, his eyes still locked onto Kaori. At another word from the blonde woman, he gave up, turned, and followed the blonde through the unmarked, previously unused door.

Kaori felt a shiver of uneasiness ripple through her.

Who were they?

* * *

It became an established pattern after that. The same seven men would show up for a midnight meeting on the second Wednesday every three months, with the blonde woman sometimes leaving with them, and sometimes not seen at all.

Though Kaori had had no luck in finding out her identity, she quickly established the identities of the seven other men. Three were from the manufacturing company itself, those being its Chief of Operations, one of the Chief Executive Officers, and one of the accountants; two were from a rival manufacturer in a neighboring country, and the remaining two were government council members.

It was establishing the identities of the two council members that made her decide that she could no longer wait before contacting Nambu.

Using a disposable phone and using the number to a dedicated private line, Kaori reached him. It was picked up on half a ring.

“Yes?” Nambu answered, his voice sounding gruff and harried. Without wasting words, Kaori outlined everything she was able to discover so far. The part about the government council members made him pause.

“You’re sure of who these men are?”

“Positive. Visual ID, plus a few workers were able to provide some background details, though it’s more in the nature of gossip at this point …”

“What about security cameras? Surveillance tapes?” Nambu interrupted.

“Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” Kaori replied sarcastically. “Oh, wait, right. I did.”

Nambu ignored her. “And?”

And the security cameras in those areas apparently have a knack for developing glitches or are listed as being ‘under repair’ at the time of the meetings and then miraculously work or are fixed the next day.”

“I don’t like the sound of government officials being there. It smacks of dirty backroom deals, and there’s no telling how many other members are also in on the take.”

“Bloodless coup?”

“It’s possible,” Nambu admitted with a sigh, “but we need to know more. I can’t go to the Hontworl president accusing members of his staff and Cabinet of treason without solid proof. These are serious accusations that could ruin these men for life, not to mention the consequences it would have to the governing party. We have to be beyond reproach with this.”

“Like what? I’ve already given you names, dates, places …”

“I need something substantial, like photographic evidence, recordings of conversations or meetings …”

“Then can’t you send in someone else to investigate that part?”

“We’ll see,” Nambu hedged vaguely. This was not a problem he really wanted to focus on just yet; he had other, more pressing concerns at the moment. “For right now, keep your eyes open on that aspect and step up doing what you can to get those plans.”

Kaori sighed hard and disconnected.

* * *

She watched them, noting which way they headed. It was an unprecedented event; never before had the seven men and one woman left the conference room to go elsewhere in the building, but tonight, they did.

At 2 am, Kaori was allowed to take her break. She controlled her movements, keeping her stride measured and unhurried. Once in the hallway and away from the watchful eyes of those in the factory room, she quickly headed the way she had seen them go. She searched each room along the way, but found them all to be dark and unoccupied, not even a scrap of paper left behind.

She slowed her steps as she walked back. She had seen them come this way, so where had they gone? What could have been so important that they felt the need to change conference rooms after all this time? That was when a small strip of light caught her eye at the bottom of a door. She glanced up and saw that the small sign affixed declared it as “Janitorial Supplies.”

Hearing voices echoing down the hall, Kaori thought better of investigating and hurried away. She had waited this long, she figured she could wait a little longer.

* * *

Unfortunately, “a little” longer turned out to be a lot more than she had anticipated. After that last meeting, job orders of insane proportions poured in and the number of workers on all shifts were doubled.

In order to keep up with the now near-frenzied pace, Kaori found that she no longer had the free time she used to have, as the number of breaks were drastically reduced. They were watched like hawks by the foremen and the reprimands came fast if they were not doing their jobs fast enough to suit them.

Still, Kaori tried to get down that hallway again, but met with little success. There were too many people now, and too many were keeping close watches on those around them. Even at the few times she was able to get there, it always seemed as though at least two or more people were also there, lingering, talking, watching …

Her frustration grew, but there was little she could do. The factory itself was now running on a 24/7 schedule; there was no point when it closed, no day off or holiday, when there was no fewer than several hundred people around.

And then … just like that … the pattern was broken. On what would have been a scheduled midnight meeting night, no one appeared. No seven men, no blonde woman, no meeting in the second floor conference room. Nothing.

She waited for the next meeting date … and then the next …

For nothing.

A sense of urgency nearly closed her throat as she tried to focus on the machine gauges in front of her. Whatever was in that room, whatever secrets the janitorial supplies closet was holding, she had to get in there. One way or another …

Using what would have been her half hour meal break, she slipped away from the others heading to the break room, claiming she had forgotten her food in her car. Kaori walked in the direction of the door leading to the parking lots, right up until she was sure no one was watching anymore, then hurried over to the one hallway that held such promise.

Only one person was strolling along the corridor, his back to her. She waited until he disappeared around the corner, then hurried over to the janitorial supplies closet and was just about to reach out to open it when she paused, then pulled her hand back.

Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a pair of thin latex gloves and put them on. Then she opened the door and slipped into the deep walk-in closet before anyone else had a chance to enter the hallway. Kaori steadied her breath and waited until her eyes adjusted to the dark, not wanting to turn on the light and alert someone to her presence in there.

As she looked around, turning in place, her eyes picked out a faint thin line of light to the back right of the closet. Carefully avoiding stacked boxes of paper towels, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies, and stepping around a couple of extra buckets with their mops bristling out of the holders, she braced herself against the corner of a shelf to lean in and get a better view.

It was a door. Definitely. She ran her hands along the edges, but found no knob. She began to press into the wall, but no luck there either. Kaori expanded her search, her mind tumbling through all of the possible types of ways there could be to open a door or panel.

She felt a trickle of sweat ease its way down her spine as the pressure of the ticking minutes was measured with her heart beats. It was taking too long. This was taking her too long. She should be able to …

And at that moment, she felt her fingertips brush over something about a foot behind the shelving unit. She pressed the button in and relief washed through her when the panel slid open.

To her surprise, she was confronted with a flight of stairs. Three of them, to be exact. Kaori swiftly descended and found herself in a whole different hallway, in an area of the factory that, up until now, she had had no idea even existed. She blinked and paused a moment, her mind trying to call up the layout of the factory three stories up. This would be directly under the factory floor, she thought, mentally sizing up the distances she had walked.

Setting the logistics question aside, Kaori quickly canvassed the hallway. Lots of locked doors, most leading to small offices, based on the looks of the ones that had been left open. A few turns, left, right, and Kaori’s casual glance as she walked by one doorway revealed a light left on over a drafting table. Next to the table was a laptop, but it was not turned on. Had someone forgotten to turn the light … or was whoever it was going to return soon?

Looking around, Kaori tried to determine the purpose this room served. It was large, with drafting tables dividing the space into work stations. There was not enough light from the one left on for her to really see the work spread out on the other tables, but judging from the work on the table with the light on, it looked to be for engineering, maybe research and development. For the factory or something else?

She flicked her wrist and studied her watch. Time was too short to boot up the laptop now. Quickly snapping a photo of the blueprints on the drafting table, she gave the computer one last, longing look, then left the room and ran down the hallway, retracing her steps to the iron staircase leading up to the supply closet.

She returned to her post flushed, and slightly out of breath, but only two minutes late. Hopefully, no one noticed. Or, if they did, they would just think that she had had her break in her car and had just run back in.

* * *

Nambu studied the photo that he had just clicked opened. He braced his chin with his hand and swiveled the chair he sat in lightly as he considered this. It was possible, though it would take more than just a few minutes of casual observation to make a definite determination.

Moving into action then, he transferred the photo from his email inbox to the special file in his computer that could only be accessed with a series of codes, which codes were changed every few weeks. Then he deleted the email. Later, he would purge the hard drive, making sure that the e-mail was well and truly gone. For right now, however, he had to know.

He pulled up a split screen and compared the two, one blurry and out of focus, and the other, obviously a different view, a different section, but still … it could be the same …

Over an hour later, he reached over to his phone and hit the dedicated line, his eyes still comparing the specs as he listened to the rings until it was answered.

“It looks like you found it.”

* * *

“I’m telling you what I saw,” he said, tapping his pencil against the rim of the drafting table. “That a woman came out of the supply closet. The closet, you comprehend? … no … no, because if she did, wouldn’t she have been holding something? Her hands were empty … because I saw her … yeah … yeah, okay. Well, just keep an eye out, huh? We’re too close now. We have got to be on our guard, just like boss lady said ... right … right.”

He disconnected and snapped the cell phone shut. Dropping it onto the desk next to his laptop, he picked up his coffee cup and swirled the contents for a moment.

If he had taken just a minute less in the bathroom, or decided against getting this cup of coffee, he would have found her red-handed.

Well, he thought with a smirk, as he took a deep drink from the cup, if his suspicions were correct, there would always be next time.

* * *

She was inundated. There was no other word for it. Every hour of every night of every shift, from the moment she walked through the door until the end of her shift, and sometimes for an hour or more beyond, Kaori was continually given job orders, the output of her machines running nearly double to that of the other person doing the same job.

As if they knew, she thought uneasily, carefully plucking out a few items for their quality control inspector. She dropped them into his hand without a word and he turned and left, tapping in a few notes on his tablet.

The thought continued to plague her. Glancing around, everyone else was equally busy, no one had said or done anything to make her think that she, in particular, was under watch.

So why did she keep feeling like she was? Was it just the product of an overactive imagination? Was this undercover work finally getting to her and she was just being too paranoid? She did not know; all she knew was that she had to get back into that room.

It took awhile for all of the right elements to come together, but when they did, Kaori seized her chance. Without the hesitation of the first time, and knowing exactly where she going and how to get there, it took her far less time to locate the engineering room than before.

Only this time, there were no lights on. The laptop she had previously seen was gone, too, but another had been left behind at a different desk. She booted it up, plugged in the small USB code breaker, and, as it did its job, Kaori began the second part of her plan.

Snapping on one light at time and using her cell phone, she took photos of all of the layouts and blueprints on each of the drafting tables, along with all of the scaled replicas and engineering models that sat on tables lining the walls. She was about halfway through when a small ping indicated that the code breaker had done its job. She inserted a blank USB key and began the sequence to download all of the files from the hard drive onto it. Then she took photos of the documents on the remaining desks.

When the computer finished its download, she turned both computer and light off and took just a moment to make sure that everything was turned off and exactly in the same positions as she had found them. Pocketing her phone and the code breaker in one pocket, and the USB key in a safer place, she left the room and ran to the stairwell.

She made it back to her work station with only a few minutes to spare. Almost giddy with the thought that she finished this assignment, Kaori returned to work with shaking hands and an enigmatic smile on her lips.

* * *

She could not wait. She had to call him and let him know. Kaori had just finished her shift and was rapidly crossing the parking lot towards her car, when she pulled out her phone and dialed, taking the advantage of the fact that no one completing their shift with her was walking out the building at the same time.

“Yes?”

“I’ve got it,” Kaori said in a low, excited whisper. “I’ve got it all. I’ll send it to y – ”

Her words were cut off as rough hands grabbed her from behind.

* * *

He heard the sudden gasp, several indistinct sounds … and then … silence. Not a dial tone, not a disconnect, not even static.

“Are you there?” Nambu yelled out, panic blooming out from the center of his chest. “Can you hear me? Answer me! Ka - ” He bit off the name as a slight flicker of a shadow out in the hallway caught his eye. “Who is that? Who’s there?”

No answer.

“Show yourself this instant!”

Slowly, the nine-year-old boy stepped into the open, his shoulder rolling around the edge of the doorframe. The look on his face was not one of contrition at having been caught, but rather, one of challenge.

“Ken, what have I told you about eavesdropping and sneaking up on people?” he demanded.

“That we should practice until we are like shadows, silent, noiseless and unseen,” Ken instantly answered back.

“Only in training practice,” Nambu snapped, his nerves taunt, as he slammed the receiver down in its cradle. He straightened his back and fixed Ken with a hot glare. “Around here, I want to know when you are approaching and where you are at all times. Do you understand?”

A trace of an emotion close to defiance flickered through the boy’s blue eyes, which then narrowed. “Who were you just talking to?”

“No one that you need to concern yourself about,” Nambu answered curtly. “Isn’t there something you should be doing right now? Are you ready for your lessons? If not, go and get ready.”

Ken stared at him a moment, then lowered his head as he walked away, his feet taking dragging, loud, slow steps so he could not be accused of ‘sneaking’ again.

* * *

Nambu waited until he was sure that Ken was far enough down the hallway so as to not overhear anything anymore. He sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling, torn between doing what he wanted to do … and what he knew he should do.

His gaze returned to the phone. Would she call back? Was she even able to? His fingers itched to redial, wanting to know what happened, wanting to know that it was just a simple malfunction and not something more ominous …

Nambu pushed that thought away and returned to the problem of Ken’s eavesdropping. How much had the boy heard? They had not spoken for very long, before the conversation was cut short. It could not have been much. Was it enough though? Enough to make him suspect?

Nambu had thought that, once Ken moved past the original grief, it would get easier. Instead, as he got older, it only seemed to have gotten harder.

For reasons known only to himself, Ken suddenly began to insist that his mother was still alive, refusing to believe that had she died during a test flight. At first, Nambu thought it was because the child was idolizing his mother, wanting to think that she could do no wrong, that she could not have made a mistake that resulted in her leaving him.

Then, as his insistence grew, Nambu began to think that it was just a sort of wishful thinking on the child’s part. After all, there had been no funeral, there was no gravestone, nothing to actually point to and say, ‘that’s where she is.’ He had nothing to hold onto but the dream that she might yet return to him.

Nambu stared hard at the phone, wondering if the lie had just become the truth.

A few heartbeats later, he picked up the receiver and dialed the memorized number in staccato taps.

* * *

He slipped back into the room, giving just the briefest of glances over his shoulder to make sure no one had followed him. He was supposed to be getting a book that he had forgotten in his room, but headed for Nambu’s now-empty office instead, his curiosity getting the best of him.

He knew what he heard. Nambu was definitely going to call out a name beginning with a ‘K.’ He was positive of that. True, Nambu knew lots of people with names that started with the letter ‘K.’

Like his.

Like his mother’s.

He had to know.

Ken went behind Nambu’s desk and eyed the phone a moment before picking up the receiver. He punched in the code that would automatically dial the last number that the phone had been connected to, whether dialed in or out.

His heart thumped in his chest as it rang, skipped a beat when the phone was picked up, soared with hope at the sound of a woman’s voice, then tumbled into his stomach as he heard her words.

"At the tone, the time will be precisely ... six …thirty … eight …”

* * *

Instinctively, she dropped the phone and hoped that Nambu would have enough sense to immediately disconnect. The phone fell to the ground unimpeded and disregarded.

And right now, Kaori could not think of him, or the phone. She struggled against her captor, who had threaded his arms around her own, as a second man appeared before them. He grabbed her face, cupping her chin with one hand, his fingertips digging into her cheeks.

“I believe you have something that belongs to us,” he said, leaning in close so that they were nearly nose-to-nose.

Kaori shook her head. “I have … nothing … of yours,” she managed to say despite his tight grip on her jaw.

“Oh, but you do,” he insisted, letting go of her mouth with a rough shove. “You think we don’t know? That we don’t see? Now, I’m a reasonable guy, but my partner here, he’s not so much. So here’s what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna do what we tell you to and answer our questions, and maybe he won’t have such a good day, cause there’s nothin’ he don’t like more than to pound on traitors to Galactor.”

“Galactor?” Kaori repeated in a rasp, struggling against the man’s hold. He tightened his grip as a result.

“Yeah, as if you don’t know that already.”

“I don’t. I’ve never heard of any Galactor.”

The second man shrugged a shoulder, the corners of his mouth turning down, as he tilted his head. “Really? Never heard of us? Just happened to pick this factory and start snooping around for the fun of it? Okay, have it your way. You don’t know us. So, then, why don’t we start with something easy first, eh? Who sent you? Who’re you really working for?”

Silence.

“Feds? Interpol?” he guessed. “ISO?”

Instead of answering, Kaori just stared at him, hostile anger reflected in her eyes. He backhanded her across the face. The bitter taste of iron filled her mouth as she tentatively licked at the spot where her lip had just been split.

“So you just wanted that information for what?” he continued. “You doin’ a scrapbook? Writing a novel? Or is spying just a hobby for you?”

More silence. The man’s face turned red as his anger rose and he hit her again, snapping her head against the man’s chest behind her.

In the back of her mind, Kaori kept thinking that someone had to be leaving the building … seeing this … would come to help her …

And then, belatedly, she realized the truth. That was the reason why they had all stayed behind. Supposedly delayed on the pretense of an administrative error. All, but her.

“Where it is?” he screamed, getting in her face again, grabbing at her shoulders and shaking her so hard her teeth hit together. The man behind her yanked her arms back even further. “We know you have something. So where is it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Kaori snapped back.

“Yes, you do,” the man said, this time shoving his hands into her jacket pockets, then stripped the garment away from her body as much as he was able. Kaori twisted in an effort to stop him but his searching hands patted down her torso and touched her waist.

As he thrust one hand into her pants pocket, he leaned into her, a leering smile on his face. “You know, I don’t think my partner and I would be against doing a full body cavity search, if necessary. Or is that what you’re hoping for …”

Without no further thought, Kaori’s military training took over and she reacted automatically, not even conscious of her own actions. She just moved.

Her knee connected solidly with the groin of the man in front of her and he went down in a crumple. Pushing back with her hips, she took the man holding her by surprise enough that he momentarily loosened his grip, having been knocked slightly off balance. She caught the inside of his knee with the heel of her shoe even as she swung her elbow back into his gut.

A whoosh of air grunted out of him as he bent forward, his face meeting her fist on the way down.

Now free, she paused only long enough to scoop up her phone and ran for the rental car that she switched every three weeks or so. The second the engine caught, she threw it into gear and hit the gas, her tires squealing all the way.

She bought herself some time, but it would not be long before they followed.

As if in answer to her thoughts, she heard a couple of bullets ping off the side and back of the car. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she could that the one man was still on the ground, the other holding his nose with one hand, but both were aiming their weapons at her.

As soon as they were able, she knew that they would be close on her trail in their own vehicle. She had just run out of time.

* * *

Over the next several days, she kept on the move, going around aimlessly, not daring to stop in fear that they would find her. Everyone that she came across was suspect, no action or word, however well meant, could be taken to be as innocent as it appeared. She was tired, she hurt, and she was still shaking. Her eyes felt gritty from the lack of sleep, but she pushed herself to stay awake.

At the first opportunity, she ditched the car, knowing that it was her biggest liability, and their biggest hope in being able to find her fast. She hopped onto the first bus she came across, and switched buses several times, not having a care for the destination, just so long as it took her away.

Now, as she finally allowed herself to rest, having taken a room in a small motel several hundred miles from where she started, she found that sleep would not come. Her mind raced over the recent events, and what it would mean for them. For her.

The USB key and the chip from the cell phone were already on their way to Nambu; she sent them knowing that, even if they did catch up to her, at least he would still have the information and this would not have been an exercise in futility.

She closed her eyes and flung one arm over her face, in an effort to try to block out her thoughts as much as the light that she had purposefully left on in the bathroom. She had no intention of being taken by surprise ever again.

Kaori had been through some hard training; she had taken falls, been hit, sparred with men twice her weight and strength. She had been in combat situations, hand-to-hand at times, but never before had she had a reaction like she had in that parking lot.

Instead of just thinking about her own survival and simply doing her job, what her training dictated, in that split second when she was grabbed, there was only one thought that flashed through her mind in that parking lot.

Ken …

Her mouth trembled in remembrance and she fought the urge to call Nambu, to demand to know how her son was … to hear his baby-bright voice call out to her – Mama! Mama! – as he had on that day … to see him again … and, with the realization of just how much time had passed since last she saw him, the tears finally fell, and were then followed by a deep, dreamless sleep.

* * *

She woke up disorientated and confused, but only for a second before it all came back to her in a rush. Once it did, she pulled herself off the bed and began sorting out the items she had purchased in various small stores along the way at different bus stops and rests.

The first thing she dealt with was her hair. At the beginning of the mission, she had dyed it a middling brown, nothing eye-catching and, with her skin tone, it made her appear almost washed out, especially when paired with the hazel colored contact lenses that she wore. Without makeup, she was entirely forgettable.

Now a light ash blonde, she gathered up her shoulder-length hair in one hand and, with a pair of scissors in the other, cut it. The short strands fell around her face in a modified bob. It was the shortest she had worn her hair since her tour of duty in the military ended.

Kaori fussed with the ends for a moment, trying to at least even it out and make it not look so choppy. She was tempted to go to a beauty parlor, but she had limited funds and no idea of how long she would be on the run. For right now, this would have to do.

The next bag she opened contained two changes of clothes and a small, cheap overnight bag in one of those fussy, busy prints that some women seemed to favor. After a long, hot shower, she put on a new set of clothes and placed the other set into the overnight case. Her old clothes she simply stuffed into the now-empty plastic bag and knotted the ends, planning to discard them at the first available trash bin.

She applied the makeup with a heavier hand than she normally would have and, when she was done, she stepped back to review the overall result.

To her eyes, and to anyone who looked at her, she was just another approaching-middle-aged woman, hair blonde enough to hide the beginning gray, enough makeup to presumably hide the effects of aging (but in reality, to obscure the bruise marks left by her interrogator), and wearing a twin sweater set and matching pants, ending with low, flat shoes. Contact lens changing her eye color from blue to brown completed the image. It was a far cry from how she looked just a couple of hours ago.

And hopefully, she thought running a critical eye over her hair, enough to throw off any who might still be looking for her.

Kaori quickly packed the makeup into the case with the clothes, then gathered up the remainder of items to be thrown out. Sitting in the shabby room’s only chair, Kaori carefully opened the small slit she had made in the lining of her purse and removed the fake IDs that Nambu had provided to her back at the beginning. Good forgeries all, and Kaori did not even want to know how Nambu had managed to obtain them. They even had her own photo, digitally altered, on them.

She sifted through the three remaining sets, then chose the one that most closely matched her current look. Her eye fell to her new name – Kelly Winslow – and smiled at seeing that she would regain her old initials.

She glanced at her watch, then reached for her new disposable cell phone and dialed Nambu’s number.

* * *

He had nothing to say that she wanted to hear.

“So all of that was for nothing?”

“I didn’t say that. What I said was that if this is all you were able to get, it isn’t going to get us very far.”

“Meaning what?” she demanded. “I’m telling you, there was nothing else in that room, unless they were using the office equipment as part of the design.”

“Meaning that Galactor probably farmed out pieces,” Nambu said, then mused, “the company you were at probably only had one piece, while another factory somewhere else probably was given a second piece, yet another company could have a third. This project could have been sliced any number of ways and divided between who knows how many people.”

“But why do that? Wouldn’t it be easier to just keep it all at one central place?”

“No. Think about it. All of this has been engineered specifically so that Galactor can keep a tight rein on all those involved. Without all of the pieces, it makes it easier to insure that even if a single company sold them out, they wouldn’t get very far.”

“So all of this has been for nothing?” she repeated.

“No, not nothing. What you’ve given us is more than what we had, and, while not complete, and we can’t make them so, it at least gives us an idea of where to start looking and focusing our own efforts.”

A brief silence, then Kaori asked, “So is this it, then?”

“No,” Nambu answered almost immediately.

“You want me to try to infiltrate another company?”

There was a slight pause before he answered again. “No. The other parts could be spread out around the globe and I don’t want you to waste time trying to track down each and every one of them. Besides, I need you to remain in Hontworl.”

“All right,” she acquiesced reluctantly. “May I ask why?”

“Because I want you to get in as close to the government as possible. You know who all of those players at those midnight meetings were, so now we need to know who is paying them, who knows what, and who’s doing what to whom and when.”

“And then?”

“And then get the evidence we need to stop them.”

“Please tell me you’re joking.”

“You know I would never do that. Not about something like this.”

“But I know spit-all about politics,” Kaori protested.

“Then you’ll fit right in with them,” Nambu shot back.

“Seriously, the whole idea is insane. I don’t do politics …”

“Then learn it fast,” Nambu replied crisply. “I need you in there for this. Like I said, we still need to know who’s profiting from this, and who the main contacts are for Galactor. Not to mention the fact that we still need to establish the identity of that blonde woman, and you’re the only one who saw her …”

Kaori frowned at his reference to that woman, the thought still rankling that she never did find out who she was. “So, then, that Galactor reference? They are the ones behind this? Who are they anyway?”

“They are … the organization that I had originally suspected to be involved,” Nambu partially answered, “but the bottom line is, we need to get proof establishing the connection between Galactor and those players; to prove that there are those currently in the Hontworl government who might possibly be setting things up for a hostile takeover from the inside. And since you’re already in deep, you’re the best one we’ve got to go in.”

Kaori closed her eyes, her mind already calculating out how much she would need in order to return to the capital city.

“I will expect a full update once you get established.”

“Understood.”

* * *

There were days when Kaori almost missed the anonymity and repetitive work of the factory. Today was one of those days.

With both the President’s Cabinet and the Council sessions in full swing, with all parties present, the pace in the government offices was dizzying. Drafts of proposed amendments and bills were expected to be prepared and ready for review almost the moment the Council agreed on the last terms, then copied the 59 times needed and run over to the Council for their final review and approvals. All this, in addition to their normal workloads, telephone calls, and dealing with the “concerned public.” By 11 AM, Kaori was ready to throw herself out the first available window. Instead, she jumped at the opportunity to hand deliver some documents to the courthouse.

In the three years since she managed to procure a job within the aides for the general Council members, Kaori had found quite a bit. Embezzlement, larceny (petit, grand or otherwise), fraud, perjury, blackmail, even bribery – what she had turned up so far read like a laundry list of crimes in a student attorney text book; unfortunately, none of it even vaguely related to the missile plan or Galactor.

She also found that she had to exercise extreme caution in her activities, even more so than when she worked at the factory. The people in the government had the latest and best in security measures and they were not shy in employing every new trick and device that came out. Kaori was forced to continually keep pace with the security technology – laser scanners, heat and motion detectors, mini and micro cameras … they had it all and then some.

Upon her return to the Government Building, she found Janine, the secretary who sat directly across the room from her desk, in tears. They had struck up a friendly acquaintance of sorts and, since Janine had a good twenty years experience in her position, Kaori found her to be a wealth of information, especially in the beginning. Janine’s basic good heart and general maternal instincts made her want to help everybody, but where their co-workers found Janine to be sometimes overbearing and pushy, Kaori welcomed her help.

So it was a surprise to see the older woman, normally unflappable, in the state she was in. Tears trembled at the edges of eyes and her quivering lower lip stuck out.

“I don’t want to go,” she said softly, in answer to Kaori’s inquiry. Her eyes dropped to her hands, which were folded in her lap. “I love my job. Love it here. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

“But I don’t understand,” Kaori said, rolling her own chair closer to Janine’s desk. “Why would you need to go anywhere? You will still be a Council aide, right? Wouldn’t you stay with the rest of us here, regardless of who your new boss is?”

Janine’s mouth pursed. “But that’s just it. It’s who my new boss is. Didn’t you hear?” Kaori frowned and shook her head. “It’s him.” Janine stuck her chin out towards the doorway. Kaori turned only slightly, only enough to see the man now standing in the door frame. And her heart skipped a beat. It was him. The seventh man. The one who always seemed the closest to the blonde woman.

“Your new boss is him?”

Janine’s eyes flooded with tears again. “Armand Boritz,” she spat the name as though it were poison. “He’s just been named as the Director of Security, and I’ve heard things about him, Kelly. Awful things. I know that no one can replace Councilman Stefan, he was a wonderful boss, may he rest in peace, but I never thought that they would actually see fit to move me to a different secretarial position.”

Kaori mulled this over a moment. For years, Boritz had remained inaccessible to her, though she carefully monitored his rise from Commissioner of Police to Secretary of Security. Because those positions were outside of the present Council and Cabinet, they were, of necessity, located in a different building. Now, however, if Janine was that close to him …

Janine swallowed hard and dropped her eyes to her hands again. “This means that I have to move, because all of the support staffs for the Directors are close to them. I won’t be able to see you or the other aides anymore. I’ve been sitting at this desk for twenty-two years and now … now …”

“And the other Directors are fine with this appointment? Does the President even want him that close?” Kaori mused out loud, not really following Janine’s train of thought.

“Apparently, they’re supposed to be very good friends,” she said with a wet sniffle.

“Really?” Kaori’s mind began turning over the possible implications. To know someone so close to this man, this Armand Boritz, would finally be a break in the right direction for her. “So … what are you going to do?”

Janine shrugged. “What can I do? I need my job. My pension won’t start for a few more years and we need the money. I have no choice.”

“Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

Janine and Kaori glanced up at the sound of a loud, rough voice boomed through the open space of the aides’ work area.

“Yes, sir, I intend to make my position count,” Boritz bragged. As he spoke, he swept his gaze around the room … and stopped. A frown deepened the creases that bracketed his mouth. His small eyes narrowed. Taking the cigar out his mouth between two fingers, he pointed at Kaori. “I know you?”

“Apparently not, if you have to ask,” Kaori replied sharply. A few woman giggled nervously.

Boritz’s face turned a dusky red. “And to whom do you report?” he demanded.

“Councilman VanVelding.”

Boritz stuck his cigar into the corner of his mouth. “I see. And he appreciates that his aide is so disrespectful to Directors of the State?”

“When it is warranted,” Kaori replied coolly.

“If you were my secretary, I wouldn’t put up with such insolence. Don’t think I won’t be having words with VanVelding about this.”

At his loud declarations, the room fell silent. Janine’s eyes were large and frightened. Boritz stabbed the air with his thick index finger at Janine next. “You. There. You – are you the one to be my secretary?” Janine nodded helplessly. “Then grab what you need and let’s go. I want my office and staff set up and ready for work by the end of the day.” On that note, Boritz turned on his heel and left.

“Please don’t make me go alone,” Janine whispered to Kaori, alternately wiping away her tears and gathering up her personal effects.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Kaori promised, her mind already trying to find a way into Boritz’s office.

* * *

It was the perfect plan, really. The only small, minor detail was that she had to be sure that she would not kill him within the first hour. All she had to do, though, was to just keep reminding herself what better way to keep an eye on him, to know exactly what he was doing and where he was going and who he was seeing? As his secretary, she would be privy to [i]everything[/i]. Or, at least, that was what Kaori intended. She also knew she was playing with fire, especially if he should actually remember where he had last seen her.

But, Kaori reasoned, that was years ago and even she did seem familiar, there were lots of people in the world who resembled someone else. The coincidence could easily be explained. She hoped.

With her back straight and her head held high, Kaori walked into the Director of Security’s office and took possession of the secretary desk. When Boritz barreled through the door, slamming with such force that the frosted glass, which bore the stenciled title of his office and its official seal, rattled in its frame. He saw her sitting there and stopped in his tracks.

“What are you doing there? Where’s Jane?”

“Janine.”

“Whatever. Where the hell is she and why the hell are you here?”

Kaori calmly gathered together the phone message slips into a small, neat stack and held them to him, looking him straight in the eye. “Janine requested that she be returned to the aide secretarial pool, which request was granted …”

Boritz’s eyes narrowed. “No doubt by VanVelding.”

“ … and so I have been sent in her place,” Kaori finished. “Here are your phone messages. The top three are the most important and you are scheduled for a phone conference at ten, lunch at one, and a meeting with the other Directors at three.”

Boritz snatched at the messages with one hand and scratched his chin with other. “I suppose you’ll do. But you keep that tongue of yours curbed or you’ll find yourself out in the street. I will tolerate no insubordination. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

“Yes, sir,” Kaori said, nearly choking on the words.

Big picture, big picture, she chanted to herself as she sat back down. Just concentrate on the bigger picture.

* * *

The small boat chugged along, taking the choppy waves on Hontworl’s largest lake hard. Kaori gripped the rail near her seat with one hand while keeping a tight hold on the file she was to deliver to Boritz with the other. The last thing she wanted was for the lake winds to scatter three hours’ worth of work across the scenery.

Kaori glanced over to her left, the darkening expanse of Lake Chantrain in the dusk like a pool of spilled ink over the land. She remembered vacationing here as a child with her family, and for a few summers with Ken, though they had always stayed at the southern end of the lake, and not here at the northern end, which catered more to the tourism business.

Now, though, a chill breeze was announcing summer’s end and, with it, the end of the bustling summer season. The far-off shore beaches were swept clean of sunbathers; the pleasure boats dry-docked and shrink-wrapped against the elements, leaving the only boats out on the lake belonging to those die-hard residents who refused to give up their hobbies of sailing or fishing until winter’s teeth bit into the lake and frosted it over with ice.

The boat approached the small island and Kaori turned her attention to the sheer rise of stone walls, slick with moss and algae at the water’s edge, that was Boritz Castle. From her research on it, Kaori was surprised to find that it had actually been in the Boritz family for centuries and that Armand Boritz was the last of the line who held title and possession of it. Though a section of the large building had remained as a private residence, one enterprising generation of the Boritz family opened the larger area, hoping to cash in on the tourism.

It proved to have been good decision, as it quickly became a popular place for students, families, and history buffs for several decades. However, five years ago it was closed to the public for “renovations,” or so the message on their web site said. It had remained closed ever since.

Kaori blinked out of her thoughts when she realized that they were now moving parallel to the building, instead of towards it.

“Where are we going?” she yelled out over the engine and wash of waves against the boat’s body.

“To the dock,” the man behind the boat’s controls yelled back. “It’s on the other side. Can only get to it by circling around.”

“There’s only one?”

The man turned and gave her skirt and high heels an apprising look. “Yeah, unless you want to wade in.”

Ignoring his dig, Kaori turned back to her study of the castle, though the name was not quite accurate. It had been built as a fortress, with only narrow slits cut into the rock to serve as windows … and look-out posts. Surrounded by the deep water of the natural lake, it was impenetrable and stood through several centuries of wars that had stormed through Hontworl before its leaders declared it to be a neutral country. Now, it sat like a crouching beast, hunching its shoulders in against the onslaught of the modern world.

It also served as Boritz’s private residence and as his main base of operations. Although he still maintained an office within the government building, he made it clear to Kaori that now, with his recent appointment as Defense Minister, he would be required to work steadily, round the clock if necessary, and that he expected her to do the same.

Which was what brought her here, in a small, outboard motorboat, at the edge of night, heading towards Boritz’s home. It was the only area of his life that she had not been able to touch in the four years since beginning her work with him, and she was eager to finally breech that last wall.

She had had glimpses, a few potential leads, over the years – meetings he deigned to schedule himself, yet refused to tell her with whom; telephone calls that took place not on the office land-line phone, but on his cell, which would then be replaced with another – all of which panned to dead ends. He had been careful to make sure that nothing stood out beyond the normal work for which one in his position would expect to have.

This new turn of events, however, brought her that one step closer and, as it was a well-known fact that people were generally more relaxed in their own homes, Kaori was hoping that the tight control he maintained in public would be slightly loosened here. Just enough for her to get what she needed. That’s all she wanted.

The man motored towards the slip, which winked in and out of the boat’s lights, then, when they were only a few yards away, he cut the engine. As they bobbed there, he threw out a line around a mooring post and slowly guided the little boat in. Though rough in tone and manner, he was still a gentleman at heart, and he held out his hand to help Kaori keep her balance as she stepped from boat to dock.

For just a moment, she glanced over towards the far shore and could see the silhouettes of a flock of migrating birds perched on the empty tree branches, as though filling in for the leaves newly lost. An inexplicable wave of sadness swept through her, causing her to hesitate, stumbling slightly on the rough wood boards.

“Watch your step,” the man said, stating the obvious.

“Thank you,” she murmured in return, then turned to stare at the front of the castle. A coat of arms, presumably of the Boritz family, hung over the large stone portico that served as a cover for those who may have had to wait in line before being able to enter through the large wooden door, complete with black iron work forming the hinges and door knob. It was not a door that exuded any type of warmth or welcome and, as Kaori approached it, a movement high up on the exterior parapet caught her eye. She squinted, not sure if she saw correctly or if it was just the darkening shadows playing with her.

As she came to the door, it swung open. Of course, her approach and arrival had been seen and anticipated. It was something to keep in mind. A dour-faced man who she had seen a few times previously, usually serving as Boritz’s chauffeur, greeted her now.

“I’ll just take that,” he announced. “No sense in keeping Harry waiting with the boat.”

But having come this far, Kaori was not so willing to give up that easily. At least, not until she had seen more.

“No offense, but I’d rather not give this to anyone except directly to Minister Boritz,” Kaori said coolly, “especially since he did not give any instruction to do otherwise.”

A look of annoyance flicked over the man’s face but rather than argue, he simply turned on his heel and disappeared down the hallway, leaving Kaori alone.

Though not completely, she noted. While she had expected to see a staff in a place this large, and this old, she did not anticipate that some of them would be armed with semi-automatic weapons. She mentally heaved a sigh. Nothing was ever easy.

As she waited, Kaori casually strolled down the corridor, her steps loud against the cold marble floors. Doors were closed, presumably to block out drafts and to keep heating costs down. Of the rooms that opened out into the foyer, Kaori could see that they still had their velvet ropes up, still doing their duty to keep the non-existent sightseers away from the antiques and treasures contained behind them.

It was all very ostentatious – lots of gilding and velvet, elaborately carved, dark, heavy wooden furniture, every available surface of the room’s walls, ceilings and floors decorated in some way or fashion. The thick layer of dust covering these surfaces, however, attested to the fact that there were obviously no housekeepers as being part of staff.

Or perhaps, Kaori considered, they simply did not come into this part of the castle. The foyer ended in a wide expanse of stairs covered in carpet worn at the treads. So much for the promised “renovations.” So, then, what was the real reason the castle was closed?

The sound of approaching footsteps made Kaori turn around.

“Follow me,” the dour man said, not looking too happy that his own judgment had just been overruled.

Kaori briskly stepped after him as they ascended the stairs and came out onto the second floor. Here, too, the entire length of the hallway had marble flooring, long rows of Doric columns lining each side. Just as Kaori was hoping to continue down a hallway that opened at right angles to the one they were in, the man stopped short at a door.

“What’s down there?” Kaori asked innocently.

“Nothing,” was the short reply.

With one sharp rap, he opened the door without waiting for an answer and walked in, Kaori following, her heart pounding so hard that she was surprised the others could not hear it.

If she did not know where she stood, she could have been any man’s office anywhere in the world. Bookshelves crammed with books lined the walls, dusty spines proving that they were more for decoration than actually read, a large desk piled high with papers, at least two old-fashioned telephones perched at one side of the desk, and a large humidor on the other. Boritz glanced up from the document he was hunched over, an unlit stub of a cigar clamped between his teeth at the corner of his mouth. He did not even bother looking up as she approached the desk.

“Here’s the file you asked me to compile,” she said by way of greeting.

“Let me see it,” he ordered, holding out a hand. Kaori snapped it into his palm, then waited as he perused the contents. She spent the time trying to read the documents scattered around. Most she recognized, a few she even typed up, but there were some others …

“What do you think you’re doing?” he snapped, finally looking at her.

“Just thought I would straighten things up …” Kaori offered, her hands still tapping a small pile into a neat stack.

“Don’t. Just leave it.”

Kaori gently placed the stack back on the desk with a sigh and went back to standing there, her hands loosely clasped in front of her.

“Is the affidavit in here?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t see it.”

Then open your eyes, Kaori wanted to scream. Instead, she said, “I know it’s in there. Near the top.”

“Well, I can’t see it. Here,” he said, handing her the file back, “you find it.”

Kaori opened the file, flipped over two pages and handed him the affidavit. He glanced at it and handed it back to her.

“You have the report in there as well?”

“Yes.”

“Two copies? I need two copies.”

“Yes, there are two copies in here,” Kaori reassured him. Actually, there were three; she had tucked a third into the back of the file, not trusting that he wouldn’t lose the other two.

Boritz picked up the document he had been reading when she first entered the room. “Just leave the file there then,” he instructed, indicating the far corner of his desk.

And just like that, she was dismissed. Any further investigation would have to wait for another time.

* * *

The room was a near duplicate of Boritz’s room, with the exceptions of a cleaner desk and a smaller humidor. There were the same bookcases lining the walls. The only feature of the room that was different, and which now had Kaori’s attention riveted to it, was the large, bank-style vault door set into the wall behind the desk.

A vault that size on the second floor of a building? Kaori’s eyes narrowed in thought. Typically, such vaults were set on ground floors or basements due to their sheer weight and size. Even in a place like this, such an item would create undue stress and strain on the building’s main supports. Which could only mean that it was just the door set into place, not the whole vault.

So, unless the entire Boritz family had a deep distrust of banks and kept all of their money close to them, Kaori concluded, that door was currently holding a secret of a different type …

Just as she leaned in to examine the type of lock on it, she heard sharp steps and an angry voice behind her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the chauffeur-cum-butler demanded as he entered the room. “I told you before, this area is off-limits.”

Kaori straightened up and smiled sweetly as she walked over to where the man stood. “My apologies,” she demurred, “but the Minister was taking so long to review those contracts, and there was no one else around to ask, so I just thought I could find a bathroom on my own.”

The man scowled. “And you thought there would be one in here?”

Kaori shrugged. “Well, one never knows in a place like this. They tuck things away here and there, repurposing them from one thing to another. So, what is behind the vault door, if not a bathroom?”

“Nothing. You should not have come in here,” the man reiterated, watching her as she walked up to, then past him, to step back out into the columned hallway. He followed her, slamming the door on his way out. She heard the door latch catch, but was curious if it locked as well. She would have to find out on the next trip down.

“I am sorry,” she repeated, “but I really do need a lavatory.”

“You should have waited.”

“But it’s one of those …,” and here Kaori gave him a coy look as she dropped her voice to a near whisper, “women’s issues, if you know what I mean.”

The expression on his face did not change, but his face paled. “Uh, see that door, second to the left? There’s one just in through there.”

“Thank you ever so much,” Kaori said brightly as she headed in that direction. She had yet to meet the man who was willing to deal with anything even remotely connected to women’s issues and it always amazed her that not one of them ever questioned it yet.

She sighed as she walked into the bathroom. She was so close …

* * *

He pinched her rear at the same time he handed her the paperwork and walked away chuckling. Fighting the urge to stuff the documents in his mouth and break every bone in his hand, Kaori turned … and walked straight into the arms of the man who had seen the entire exchange. She instantly recognized him as Warren Sayer, the newly appointed Minister of the Interior.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured under her breath, regaining her balance and trying to step around him.

“I’m not,” he quipped, holding out his arms to prevent her passing by. He tipped his head to one side. “May I see you in my office for a moment?”

“But I really need to – ” she started to say, then stopped. Would serve that odious little man right to have the delivery of his proposed amendments delayed. “Certainly, Minister.”

Kaori followed Sayer into his office and he closed the door behind them. Leaning against the door frame, he casually crossed his arms over his chest and studied her a moment.

“You seemed to be having a bit of a problem out there. Is there something you would like to share?”

“Not particularly,” Kaori replied, “but I thank you for your concern.”

He chuckled lightly. “You are an amazing woman, do you know that? One minute, you look as though you’re going to rip a man’s head off and the next, you’re all prim and manner proper.”

Kaori felt her cheeks burn, and dropped her head slightly. “He only pushed his luck because he knew there were others in the hallway.”

“Is Boritz like that with all of the aides and secretaries?” Warren asked concernedly, his dark blue eyes riveted to Kaori’s face.

“No. No others. Mostly, just me,” Kaori confessed.

“He targets only you? Have you reported his behavior? If this has been, and is, an ongoing and repeated situation, then it should be stopped …”

Kaori shrugged. “He’s more annoying than anything else. Besides, Frogface was only trying to antagonize me. I think he’s trying to get me to quit.”

He blinked, then burst out laughing. “Frogface?”

Kaori felt her cheeks burn for the second time since entering his office. “It’s just a …”

“Term of endearment?”

No,” she answered swiftly and emphatically. “Most definitely not.”

Sayer grinned. “Good to hear. You had me worried for a moment there.”

Kaori reached around him for the door handle. “Well, if you’ll just excuse me, I really should be going …”

“I’ll excuse you …” he said, arresting her hand by the wrist, “but only if you’ll agree to go to lunch with me.”

Kaori looked him square in the eye. Sayer had been asking her out on dates for weeks now, ever since he came in as Minister, and she always turned him down. She needed to concentration on her job – both of them – and she did not want or need any distractions …

“Please, allow me to at least make up for the boorish, inconsiderate and inappropriate behavior of my colleague.” Sayer playfully held up his hands. “I promise, we will be in a public place at all times, in full daylight, and I will be the soul of politeness. Besides, I’m willing to bet that you haven’t had lunch yet either, and you need to eat.”

…simply cozy up to one or another of them, any one of them, and be able to get in and get what we need …

Nambu’s words suddenly echoed through her mind.

“Well, I …” she hesitated. Could she do it? She studied the man before her, his open, trusting face, his eager expression. Could she do it to him?

“Please, give me just this one,” he appealed, placing a hand over his heart.

He was na´ve and innocent. To use him to further her own ends …

But, she quickly rationalized mentally, it’s only lunch we’re talking about here, not an affair. What could it hurt?

“Please?” he prodded.

“Oh, all right,” she capitulated with a sigh. “Just let me get my purse.”

Warren grinned like a boy who just got what he wanted for his birthday. As she stepped through the door, she heard him speak.

“You’re a hard woman to pin down, Kelly Winslow.”

She turned and glanced back at him over her shoulder, her lips curved into a playful smile, though her words were anything but. “You have no idea, Minister Sayer. No idea at all.”

* * *

Kaori was almost sorry when the hour was up and they had to return back to their offices. It felt good to share a meal with someone again and have the light, bantering conversation that went along with it.

“Thank you, Minister,” Kaori said as they walked back into the government building, “this was very nice, and I would very much like to continue our conversation some time.”

“Then how about tonight?” he asked in a rush. Kaori blinked.

“What?”

“Well, I am presuming that you will need to eat dinner tonight as well, so … how about we continue then?” he offered, then stopped as a thought crossed his mind. “Or, if you’re busy, tomorrow night?”

“I thought there was a special session slanted with the President and all of the Directors for then.”

“Oh. Right. Well, then, what about the night after that?”

“Won’t work for me,” she replied, even though she had nothing in particular to do. It had been her experience, though, that it never paid for a woman to make herself seem too available all the time.

“Okay, what about the next? No, wait. Not then …”

“Why not Sunday?” Kaori asked out of curiosity, her eyes narrowing ever so slightly.

He grinned at her sheepishly. “Because I promised my grandmother that I would dine with her.”

“Oh, well, then you definitely don’t want to disappoint her …”

“But she might understand if she knew the reason. Hell, she might even insist …”

“I will hear of no such thing,” Kaori said firmly. “If you cannot make Friday and Sunday, and I cannot do Saturday, then I suppose we will simply have to have dinner tonight, then.”


* * *

Kaori leaned back in her chair as the waitress placed their desserts in front of them. Warren immediately picked up his spoon and began fixing his tea to taste.

“…so by not only limiting the amount of commercial traffic on the lake, but also placing strict guidelines on the boats allowed on it …”

Kaori stirred her tea, impressed at how vehemently and passionately he spoke about his duties to his country. Listening to him speak, there could be no doubt that Warren had entered the political arena strictly with the goals of helping to preserve the land and resources that kept Hontworl what it was.

“…that’s not to say that I’m against progress, or big corporations, mind you. I thoroughly believe …” he trailed off. Kaori quirked a brow in question. He smiled at her. “I thoroughly believe I’m boring you to tears.”

“Not at all,” she averred, taking a testing sip of her tea. “I find your opinions fascinating and you have some very good ideas for going forward.”

“But I’ve done nothing but speak of work,” Warren chastised himself, “and I apologize. I tend to get carried away on that particular subject.”

“So I’ve noticed.”

Warren grimaced. “I’m doing very badly here, aren’t I?”

“Not at all.”

“Nothing more about me,” he declared, lightly slapping the table with a hand. “What about you?”

Kaori lowered her gaze. “What about me?”

“What do you do? What about in your free time? What do you like? What are your passions and your joys?”

Kaori shrugged. “What I do is work for the Defense Minister. As for free time, I have none. For the reason, see the answer to the first question. And … that’s about it, really.”

“But there must be something else?” he pressed.

“No, not really. Guess I’m not as exciting as you thought I was.”

His eyes darkened with emotion. “On the contrary. You are still every bit as mysterious now as you have been since I first saw you. I want to know you, Kelly. Everything about you. All of your secrets. If you’ll let me.”

“Really, Minister …”

“…Warren …”

“Warren, there’s nothing to know,” she insisted, not liking this new turn. “There’s nothing at all to know about me, really. I am just plainly what you see.”

He leaned back in his chair, then gave a light shrug. “We all think that there is nothing special about us, Kelly, but there usually is, and I, for one, think you very special.”

The waitress appeared then with the check, saving Kaori the trouble of having to reply to that. Once outside of the restaurant, they paused for a moment.

“How about a walk before heading back?” he suggested hopefully, offering out his arm to her.

“That sounds lovely right about now,” Kaori replied lightly, sliding a hand into the crook of his elbow. “I could use the exercise after a meal like that.”

As they strolled along the edge of a park, neither of them seemed to be in any hurry to end their time together. In silence, they watched others in the park, who were likewise taking advantage of a night that seemed more fitting for summer than autumn.

As they reached the park’s center, a boom and a spark of light streaked across the sky. Heads craned up at the sound, which was then followed by another. A red firework was followed by one that seemed to send glittery bits showering down from the heavens.

Warren smiled at the sight. “Must be a wedding at the Chateau d’Orzae,” he speculated. “They offer a fireworks package, to be set off at some point during the reception.”

“And you know this how?” Kaori asked, angling her head slightly to see his face, which was still tilted up to the sky, watching intently.

“My little sister,” he replied. “She must have dragged my parents and me to every venue possible around here when she was getting married. I remember that was one of them.”

“Is that where she had her reception?”

Warren sighed melodramatically. “Alas, no. I guess she wasn’t feeling the fireworks thing as much as I was.”

A movement caught Kaori’s eye and she watched as a mother pointed out the fireworks to the small child in her arms, while a group of children who had been playing as their parents stood chatting nearby, also stopped to watch them. Her heart contracted at the sight and her arms ached with the want of holding her own son. She watched as a golden firework bloomed in the night sky. Would Ken enjoy the display as much as the other children here?

But no, she caught herself. Ken would not be so young as them any more. It was hard to remember him as anything but the four-year-old he was when she left. She quickly calculated the years. He was a teen now; his childhood already left behind. She glanced up to prevent the tears that stood in her eyes from falling.

“I guess it’s over.”

“What?” Kaori asked, startled, his comment almost echoing her thoughts.

“The fireworks. They seem to be over,” Warren clarified, then gave her a concerned look. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yes,” Kaori bluffed, clearing her throat. “Fine. So, anyway, you’re going to be presenting that new bill tomorrow?”

“That’s right,” Warren said, taking the cue of subject change. To Kaori’s relief, he continued to talk of it until he brought her to the front of her building. They stood there awkwardly for a second or two.

“Well, this was fun,” Kaori said, glancing at the door.

“Yeah, it was,” Warren agreed, then hesitated. “So … any chance I’ll be able to see you again some time?”

Kaori smiled warmly at him. “There’s always tomorrow at work.”

He laughed lightly. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“We’ll see,” she hedged. “Good night.”

“Good night,” he repeated, then took her hand in both of his and raised it to his lips, placing a soft kiss on the back, his eyes never leaving her face. “Until then.”

He waited until she opened the door and stepped into the lobby, then she watched until he got into his car and drove away.

When she was sure that he would not return, she rapidly walked through the main lobby of the building and then exited through the rear. Keeping as close to the shadows as possible, she began the long walk back to where she actually lived.

Trust did not come easy, plus she could not be sure that they were not being followed. Either one of them. Still feeling the pressure of his lips on her hand, she again began to question the wisdom of this newest plan of hers. Though she did not think it possible, it seemed that perhaps she had more to lose than she thought.
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