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Thinner Than Water by JaneLebak
Thinner Than Water by JaneLebak
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Thinner Than Water
by Jane Lebak

As Dr. Tanela examined the stitches on Joe's chest and arms, Joe let her work without doing more than answering her questions and moving when she asked him to. Yes, he still felt stiff, and no, he hadn't taken any of the pain killers. She shook her head when he said this. As she probed, she said, "Dr. Nambu said you got these injuries going on a mission of your own. Please don't do that again, Joe."

Joe grunted his reply as she examined the wound on his back. He'd had to go. The whole matter of his family lay on his shoulders, his mother's spirit restless and his father's urging retaliation. Two weeks after the team pulled him from the wreckage of BC Island, Joe found himself just now able to get out of bed painlessly, to navigate his room without getting winded, and with a returning appetite and stir craziness. "When can I get back to working out?"

"The physical therapist said you're regaining motion every day. He and I are both concerned you'll rip the stitches if you exert yourself too much, particularly the internal ones. And don't protest--I know you'll tear yourself apart inside if you really get working." Dr. Tanela smiled as she patted him, her signal that the examination had ended. Joe replaced his t-shirt and sweatpants, then settled back into bed. "We both recommend you wait another few days."

Joe took her recommendation without more than a sigh. Dr. Tanela split her time between the team and a position as Director-Coordinator of the ISO Global Rapid Response Teams. She had served as the team's private physician for six years, recruited into ISO not only because she'd graduated first from her class in medical school, but also for her excellent work as director of several large cities' emergency rooms. "You guys keep me in touch with hands-on practice," she said often. A soft-edged black woman with a large smile and gentle eyes, she did a lot of touching during her exams, claiming her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother had each added to her family's legacy of a healing touch, but she had settled for medical school. The others wondered if her touch alone didn't heal. Dr. Tanela's young daughter Xhosa had passed Joe cradling his arm after practice once, certain Ken had broken it. She had spontaneously taken his arm in both hands (cool to the touch like her mother's) and kissed the ugly bruise. By the time the doctor saw Joe, the swelling subsided, and the bone turned out not to be even fractured. Not that Joe believed in faith healing--he understood with respect how she treasured her lineage. Dr. Tanela never annoyed Joe as she worked.

"You're bored, aren't you?" She smiled as she repacked her bag. "I thought the others visited."

"Jun and Jinpei did today--they're back at the Snack for the night." He shrugged.

"And Doctor Nambu is going to remain at ISO headquarters for another week for that conference." The doctor squinted. "He took a bodyguard along, didn't he?"

"Ken and Ryu both." Joe grinned. "It's just me here for now."

"Well, then." She laid a hand on his shoulder. "Tomorrow you'll be well enough for your first mission--I hereby assign you to patrol the mansion. Do some walking--it'll exercise your legs and maybe regain your full range of motion quite a bit faster. But take it easy. Sit and rest as often as you need to."

Once she left, Joe made his way to the hall. He'd long since taken to walking Nambu's seaside manor. After Joe had gotten bored with the television, his little recovery room had too quickly shrunk around him.

Today he headed upstairs, towards Dr. Nambu's office. The housekeeping staff always stayed out of Joe's way, not from fright so much as respect, and he got the sense of them vanishing from his path like mice and then reappearing in his wake, relieved he'd gone. At the end of the hallway, he reached the door to the office and tried the door. Locked.

Two minutes later, Joe had jimmied the door and found himself surrounded by bookshelves, filing cabinets, and large paintings of seascapes.

Last night, lying in bed without much to do, Joe had thought about his last conversation with Nambu. Standing in the hospital room with his back to the window, Nambu had flatly denied Joe's request to learn more about his parents. "You must have files on them," Joe had said. "All I want to do is read through whatever you have."

Nambu had shaken his head, not even confirming he had more information, and said only that Joe would have to recover more before he would even consider talking to him. Probably more of his opposition to Joe's vendetta. All the time, Nambu protested Joe's making the battle personal even as he silently permitted it to continue, stealthily feeding the rage. He showed photos of dead parents and bereaved children. Not a single orphanage bombing or school destruction went unmentioned in their pre-mission briefings. Gallactor had destroyed Joe's family. Joe would destroy Gallactor. Meanwhile, Nambu benefitted while claiming a dislike of the motivation.

"Screw that." He'd gone all the way to Italy. Four locked filing cabinets didn't stand a chance against him: he'd also learned enough about lock-picking to finesse open the first one after half an hour. Nambu didn't label the outsides of the cabinets, naturally, so Joe had to guess which one contained information on the Asakura clan--he assumed the As would be right at the top, right at the front, and for once Nambu didn't prove trickier than anticipated. The first drawer opened to the head of the alphabet.

Joe flipped through the files and swore lightly when he couldn't find any reference to Asakura. So.

An injured man out of breath from the stairs has plenty of time to sit in a chair in front of a filing cabinet and open locks. Well into his dinner hour, Joe fiddled open lock after lock on drawer after drawer. At P he found success. The files for "Project Phoenix" contained information on each member of the team, and Joe's thick file contained information on Catarina and Giuseppe Asakura.

After finding the files, though, Joe left them alone on the desk while he navigated the steps to his room where dinner sat coldly on a tray. He brought the tray back upstairs, then settled it alongside the files on Nambu's desk.

Again a winded Joe took Dr. Tanela's advice and sat for a while. Turning on the small desk lamp, he started at page one of his father's folder.

The contents proved more a scattering of facts than anything else. Nambu had dozens of jotted notes but nothing codified. Joe found places, times, people, scrawled initials, and that was it. No photos--Joe looked back as if he could have missed one among the different papers. The only solid information he found came in a few reports from Kentaro Washio. He and Ken would have been about three at the time.

His mother's file, on the other hand, proved different. Brimming with information, full of actual reports, hers told a different story. Dr. Nambu had actually met and interviewed Catarina Asakura, apparently on several occasions. The file contained photos, all of which Joe set to the side to take back with him. There weren't the scrawled pages of dates and times, nor the odd notes written on napkins or spiraling up the page as if written in the dark. For an hour straight, Joe sat reading the reports. Nambu had been reporting back to Anderson about his contact. Joe grinned--so Nambu had worked undercover? Who'd have thought it? Apparently he'd gone undercover into a proto-Gallactor for eighteen months to two years. Joe checked the dates and chuckled to himself--Nambu might have met him for the first time back then. But no, Joe would have been only a gleam in his mother's eye when Nambu's assignment ended and he'd returned to ISO.

In the file were photocopies of letters written by Catarina. Joe had never seen his mother's handwriting, and he studied the even, rounded script with an ache in his throat. The letters had come to a PO Box in the middle of Utoland City, to somebody Joe couldn't identify. Nambu's undercover persona? He decided that was so, as some of the letters mentioned incidents he'd read in the reports Nambu had written himself.

"My husband is back home now," Catarina had written. Apparently she'd been separated from Giuseppe for quite some time, either for work or personal reasons, but not to her displeasure. Joe hadn't realized the marriage was in trouble. She wrote, "Because I'm pregnant, he and I are going to stick it out."

This was more than he'd have expected an informant to be writing about, meaning she was probably desperately lonely and in need of a confidant. Maybe that was why she'd betrayed Gallactor and her husband to ISO in the first place. After a while, though, it became obvious that Nambu was so deep undercover that Catarina had no idea--she kept giving him assignments, urging him to infiltrate areas of the ISO to get certain information for her own organization. She headed up a team of Gallactor scientists who were studying a certain branch of rocketry, and the technical information she wrote to Nambu made Joe's head swim. She shared with joy when she'd solved a certain problem Joe couldn't even understand. In the next letter, Nambu must have critiqued her methodology, because her reply to him contained a flood of facts, theory, and results.

Joe found a letter with a baby photo of himself. An ugly little newborn--he thought he looked like a sausage. In the letter, she wrote briefly that he'd been born prematurely and was 17 inches long and four pounds, two ounces. Giuseppe was proud, she wrote, and after all their initial concerns, very happy.

After that, Catarina's letters cut off abruptly. She had said in the letter after his birth that she wouldn't be sending along any further assignments because of the baby; she had left the Gallactor science corps. Joe chalked it up and then skipped ahead to Kentaro Washio's reports: Catarina had gotten more involved in the management aspect of Gallactor, but she was growing restive there. She wanted to get out with her husband and son but thought no one could escape Gallactor alive. Kentaro said he had invoked Nambu's deep cover identity, claiming he knew that person and that Nambu's persona had escaped Gallactor. She could do the same. Catarina had insisted Nambu come talk to her. She said it was the only way she would believe it wasn't a setup by higher forces in Gallactor, and that he was the only one she could trust.

Joe chuckled at how hard Nambu must have worked to get his mother to have that much faith in him.

Following that report by Kentaro came a fairly official report, complete with death certificate and newspaper clippings, accounting the Asakuras' assassinations on the beach on BC Island. Joe shook his head and turned the page. Behind that, Nambu had inserted pages of medical records and still more photos--Joe presumed for himself in the future. He kept those as well.

Joe followed up Catarina's file with his own. He'd expected there to be reams of paper covered with notes, analyses, and scores, but instead he found very little. There were his early medical records. Apparently he'd been in equally poor condition both times he'd been brought away from BC Island.

All the normal things, Joe knew. Blood type A positive, for example. But he looked over his early weight, measurements, and test results with a hint of curiosity. He'd apparently spent the first month of his life in an incubator battling pneumonia, his reward for rushing into the world early. Typed into the comments section was a note, "Possible alpha thalassemia." On the next page came a long list of blood tests and results, and at the bottom, in another doctor's handwriting, "Negative for alpha thalassemia."

With Nambu away for an entire week, Joe felt safe leaving the files scattered in the office. The next afternoon, after Jun and Jinpei had ended their visit, after Dr. Tanela had come and gone, and after his physical therapy session ended uneventfully, Joe returned to Nambu's office and kept reading. He read up on early Gallactor, all the snippets of information they had regarding Katse's rise to dominance, on the relay seizures of power taking place for months during the spring and summer of Joe's eighth year. His parents had succumbed to the little civil wars strafing the organization.

The photos Joe carried back to his room with him at night. Nambu would return on Saturday after the conference ended, and with him Ken and Ryu. Joe might press him for more information then, but probably not. Not if the files sated his curiosity, and for the time being, they seemed to. He'd reread his mother's letters to Nambu several times. It was as close as he could come to hearing her voice.

Looking at pictures of his parents--Nambu had only one of the father, dozens of the mother, and none of them as a couple--held alongside a photo of himself as a baby, Joe found his jaw clenching. So useless, useless, useless--Gallactor liked reclaiming its own, but it seemed so pointless. What harm could Catarina have done? She had been out of the loop so long. Giuseppe was leaving, not trying to destroy them.

Catarina had a pensive smile in most of her photographs. In the one Joe looked at now, she had been surprised in her garden, so the half-smile blended with a weary annoyance. Joe almost remembered that look. A smudge of dirt on her face and a few escaped strands of hair marred her beauty only a little. The worn lines around her eyes showed the stress of a Gallactor leader. Joe could think it now with less rancor: this woman had conspired with her husband to lead Gallactor, and together the couple had nearly succeeded.

At age twelve he'd taken a vow to destroy the person or people who had broken apart his family. He'd grieved as a child, but only after three years did he really begin to feel the separation from his parents. He'd wanted so much to speak to his father, to get his guidance, even if only to look him in the eyes and analyze the young man he was becoming. As it was, the solitary relic left in the world of his father was half Joe's genetic makeup. Joe himself became Giuseppe Asakura's only legacy.

Even at that age, though, Joe had known the utter futility of a life filled with rage, and he hoped with a mad desperation that the way to extinguish the silent inferno lay in destroying the cause of it all. At times the vow felt like the only beacon in his life, the only guiding force and the goal which gave meaning to everything that lay in between. For that he could survive the pain of his thrashing at BC Island. For that he had managed to overcome his dizzy spells and vertigo. For that he'd even managed to choke down the indignity of what his repressed memories told him. Without it, Joe knew he would have turned into a loose cannon, restrained only by his loyalty to Nambu and the tenuous need to repay him for saving a broken boy's life on the beach.

With the photograph of his mother in his hands, Joe studied her face and renewed his vow, using the same words he always had. The person who'd robbed him of his mother, his father, would suffer at his hands. The person would have time enough to feel the fear and know Joe understood who he was. The person would have just enough time to wonder if Joe were really his death come to claim him. And then--

And then Joe closed his file and returned to his room for the night. He left the papers scattered again. Tuesday night, he had three more days until Nambu's return.

On Wednesday, Joe spent the morning deciphering his parents' medical records, figuring out what hereditary tendencies they'd bequeathed to him and if either of them had a condition that might explain the blurred vision and vertigo he'd suffered several weeks earlier. Nothing turned up, and at noon before Dr. Tanela's visit, he brought them back downstairs with him along with his own medical records.

The doctor chatted amiably as Joe complied with the examination routine. She liked his recovery, as usual, and she manipulated and prodded with hands cool to the touch. Whenever she treated Jinpei, she still asked him to envision his penicillin warriors or hedgehogs devouring his infections; with Joe she had graduated to commentary about how quickly the bullet wounds had knit. As she examined him, she said, "It looks as if you're going to be just about perfect in a couple more weeks."

Joe chuckled. "Time to donate blood again, then?"

"You donated blood enough a few weeks ago." She flashed him a smile. "If the GodPhoenix needed any A positive blood, it's in good shape now."

Joe said, "I'll just take some of Jinpei's if I need any more."

"I think you did on the flight home." Dr. Tanela looked at his arm and said, "These stitches can come out now, if you'll hold still."

While she worked, Joe said, "We had the whole alphabet in my family. I'm A, Mom was O, and Dad was B."

"What brought that up?" The doctor pulled out a stitch, then said, "Anyway, that can't be."

Joe didn't flinch as she cut another one and pulled out the nylon thread with a tweezers. "Why not?"

"A and B are both recessive types. O is dominant, so you can either be OA or OB and still be an O, but in order for you to be A, you'd need to be AA. That means neither parent could be a B or you'd have AB."

Joe's brow furrowed. "No--I've got it right here."

He pulled away from her as she tried to cut one of the stitches, and she scolded him under her breath while he pulled out the charts. "This is what it says, at any rate--my father was B positive."

Dr. Tanela regarded the paper for a long time. When Joe stared at her, she said, "I guess that's what it says."

Joe chilled. "What are you saying about my mother?"

"I'm not saying anything about her. What I'm saying is that blood tests were very frequently used to exclude paternity before DNA testing became mainstream because blood types inherit in a consistent manner." Dr. Tanela went back to removing stitches from Joe's forearm. "All you can interpret is that two people of this description would not have had a child of your blood type. Someone made a mistake."

Joe didn't pull away from her again. She said, "Where did you get those files, anyhow?"

"They're my medical records."

"I wasn't aware they made for keen reading." The doctor didn't sound at all angry, just amused. "What were you looking for?"

"Nothing in particular." Although Joe appreciated the doctor's talents, her loyalties lay first with Nambu. Regardless of common confidentiality standards, she shared every detail with him. Nambu would have found out about the filing cabinets anyhow, but Joe hadn't asked her about his vertigo for this reason, and he didn't mention it now. "Like you said, I was looking for something to read."

"Have Jun bring some magazines." Only three stitches remained, and she snipped again with the gleaming stainless steel scissors.

Joe said, "What's alpha thalassemia?"

"Thal-as-seem-i-a." As she corrected his pronunciation, she looked up suspiciously. "How many other medical records did you go sorting through?"

Joe shrugged.

"Thalassemia is a form of anemia which has your body producing a damaged form of hemoglobin. From the Greek word for sea--it means thin blood."

Joe said, "And do you think I could have it?"

"You'd have bled to death back on the island." Dr. Tanela finished with his arm and moved to check the injury on his side. "I think I can take these stitches out too, if you'll just move over--thanks. Firstly, you'd have iron deficiency if you had any kind of thalassemia, and secondly, you wouldn't have the alpha type. Alpha type is prevalent in those of southeast Asian descent. You're Mediterranean, and beta type is far more frequent among them. So rest assured, you're safe. With only the trait but not the actual disease, there's no problem. Life expectancy isn't shortened and there isn't even any iron deficiency." Dr. Tanela spared the stitches for a moment to pat Joe on the shoulder. "Please don't go reading the medical books, Joe. You'll end up diagnosing yourself with every illness you come across."

Joe said nothing. She continued, "And please leave everyone else's medical records alone. What goes on with them is between them and their doctors."

And of course, Nambu. Joe set his teeth and let her finish without saying anything further.

That night, as Joe made his little patrol of the mansion, he dissected Dr. Tanela's comments to him. The implication was that someone on the team had alpha thalassemia, but he couldn't remember any of them ever having a bleeding problem: he'd seen it often enough to know for certain. Maybe Ryu, who tended to get hurt less often because he stayed in the ship, but even Ryu had spent his share of time in the infirmary. If one of them did have the condition, though, and was hiding it, Joe knew that was dangerous. Bad enough that one member of the team kept hiding a possible threat to his health. Two members was untenable.

The Project Phoenix files quickly surrendered the charts on the others, but on none of them did Joe find any mention of alpha thalassemia. Relieved at first, Joe glanced over everyone's records with only a little curiosity. He sneaked a look at the others' blood types. The only other A positive on the team was Jinpei. Ken was an O.

From there, Joe made his way to Dr. Nambu's book shelf and found a thick medical textbook. He should have thought of that before Dr. Tanela told him not to--it annoyed him that he hadn't. Reading the section on blood types, then rereading it, Joe decided she was right. Someone had made a mistake. While a blood test could never tell an investigator who the father was, it certainly could point out who it wasn't, and Joe's father couldn't be a B type.

The book shelves dominated Nambu's study, and Joe sat towered over by volumes and volumes as he read in the slanting light of the lamp and the moon. Nambu saved all his books, and he kept them in an order no one but himself truly comprehended, including Ken. Each book case had a heavy glass door that glided open soundlessly on metal hinges, and while some of them locked, most did not. The priceless volumes, mostly first editions, had their own bookshelf at the end, nearest the door. Nambu's collection contained books in twelve languages, although he only spoke five. The foreign language books all lived together on one mostly unused shelf. The mathematics books: Joe almost understood their presence. The ones in Arabic with long titles Joe could never have deciphered--they seemed to be limited in their usefulness. Nambu said a lot of the foreign books were gifts from contacts in other countries, and he kept them all. He wouldn't let anyone touch them and had refused to let Joe read the Italian books even while exhorting Joe to read as much as possible in his mother tongue in order to keep it fresh and gain more than an eight year old's vocabulary. Nambu bought Joe a newspaper subscription and his own set of Italian literature even though it included one of the same books. That one, Il visconte dimezzado, proved deceptively dense, but Joe plugged through it because he remembered his mother reading Calvino, and he remembered several trips with her to the bookstore to pick up copies as a gifts. His father had often laughed that without Catarina, Calvino would have gone bankrupt. A young Joe had pretended the book he read was a volume she had selected. She'd have read to him in her steady story-telling voice about the man who had returned from the Crusades split neatly in half, one side good and one side evil. Nambu had merely complimented Joe on his growing Italian vocabulary.

The medical books reiterated Dr. Tanela's words about alpha thalassemia. Joe obviously didn't have it, but what gave him pause was how obviously he didn't have it. Why alpha, why not beta? Could Nambu have made a mistake and assumed one over the other, the one he was more familiar with, and had all of the kids checked out? But thalassemia wasn't very much a risk for just anyone, and the others had not, as far as Joe could tell, been screened. In fact, the only way one could get it at all was to inherit it. So said the book. Neither of his parents carried either the disease or the trait. Their medical records would have stated if they did so. Why else would Nambu have thought to screen for it?

Joe paced the study until he grew short of breath again. Damn this whole recovery period--he'd rather have remained unconscious until everything had knit fully so he could go back to work and not worry about how many steps he could climb before starting to wheeze.

Did Nambu think someone else had fathered him? Joe chuckled dryly: that would be rich, if the man Gallactor had killed hadn't been his father all along. He'd have done serious injury to anyone else voicing a question like that about his mother's fidelity, and even thinking it on his own, Joe felt a little uneasy. But Nambu might have seen the mismatched blood types and jumped to the same conclusion Dr. Tanela had, not thinking there might be mistaken documentation.

Kentaro Washio. Joe startled at the thought. But no--although Kentaro had gone undercover into Gallactor, he hadn't been there long enough to make Ken and Joe brothers in one more way than they had thought possible. Kentaro had most likely been in the bed where he belonged when Joe had been conceived.

And then Joe chilled.

Quietly, as if someone on the housekeeping staff would have come and stopped him, Joe made his way back into the files and began to hunt.

Nambu must have records on himself. Joe couldn't find them anywhere: under the Ns, under K, in the Project Phoenix section, even under M for Myself. Joe broke the lock on the desk with a quick blow that snapped Nambu's letter-opener, and he sorted through those files. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Joe hunted again, tossing the files out onto the floor. He had two days to reorder the room.

He thought of Dr. Tanela's office in the basement. She kept some notations of her own.

The trek down four flights of stairs left Joe shaking and unable to breathe. Despite himself, he rested on the last step for a few minutes before hauling himself to a stand using the railing. He leaned against the wall for the final part of the trip. Then, at Dr. Tanela's tiny office, he took a deep breath and kicked open the door.

The doctor hadn't locked her filing cabinets, supposing possibly that no one cared what she had on file. Joe did. One by one he opened and shut the drawers until he found what he wanted. Kozaburo Nambu.

His eyes blurred as he leaned unsteadily on the black four-drawer cabinet with two drawers ajar. His fingers shook as he opened the file and began sorting through the data scattered over dozens of letter-sized sheets. There, on the first page, he found blood type, A negative. Buried on page four, more words said bluntly, "alpha thalassemia trait."

 

Joe called himself an idiot fifteen times more heading up the stairs. Leaping to conclusions--maybe, maybe, maybe--but how often had he wished as a child that his parents hadn't really died that day on the beach? How often had he relived it and wondered if maybe his parents thought he was dead just as he thought they were? What if they'd all been split up, no one knowing the others survived, in order to protect them, and one day Nambu would reunite them all once Joe had done his job and destroyed Gallactor forever?

But now Joe could remember that Nambu's father had died young, and the book said patients with full-blown thalassemia lived only to age thirty or a little longer. Nambu had inherited the gene. He'd had Joe tested for it. That was all Joe really could prove. The medical records said Joe had a father his blood type said he didn't. But lots of people had A or O type blood, and people made mistakes doing blood typing or even just plain old typing, and possibly Nambu tested Joe for the disease he carried a trait for because he felt skittish after his own father's premature death. It was possible. All of this was possible.

It was possible, but Joe's ashen face and shaking hands said clearly it didn't look very likely.

Nambu hadn't done much in his own defense: why no photos of Catarina with her husband? That answer came easily. She hadn't lived with her husband at the time Nambu was around.

Joe sat down again with the letters, this time rereading them looking for red flags. Never once in all her letters did Catarina slip in anything sentimental, nothing like, "the baby looks like you after all" or even a half sentence about any kind of affair. She wrote as if to an employee with whom she shared a friendship, but certainly no tenderness escaped. In fact, the only moments of passion in her writing came during the most scientific moments. She sounded positively excited talking about the jet propulsion system under development.
Transcripts of their phone calls yielded no information either. Assuming Nambu hadn't dropped out parts of the tape, he and Catarina had conduced themselves only as professionals on the phone.

Joe chalked that up, at least, to the fact that Nambu was being taped.

Abruptly he realized, Catarina must have known it too.

Gallactor had the same respect for privacy as the KGB. Even nowadays they routinely opened their members' mail, routinely tapped everyone's phone lines and sifted through their email. ISO spies worked with extreme stealth, never speaking in rooms that might be bugged, using only public phones for their calls, paying cash instead of using a credit card, and never, never writing anything in a letter except for the most obvious and boring nonsense around what they managed to encrypt. Every third word, for example, take the letter after the first vowel and string those together.

Catarina would have known Gallactor kept tabs that way because she and her husband ran Gallactor. Particularly early on, when writing these letters, newly reunited with her husband, she had no reason to suspect he wouldn't screen all her correspondence.

The last letter lay in front of Joe, and he looked over it biting his lower lip. Maybe here? Maybe not. Maybe he'd never find it without the key to decode her words.

That's when his breath caught. The oldest trick in the book: right up the left margin, the first letter of each line read, "pagina ocenta due." Page eighty-two.

Page 82 of what?

Close to ten o'clock at night, Joe closed his eyes and rested his forehead in his hands on Nambu's desk. Breathing hurt a little. Maybe he'd opened the stitches after all following Dr. Tanela's suggestion to patrol the mansion. He folded his arms and laid down his head, letting his eyelids close the way they wanted to, letting his breathing grow deep and regular. His mind spun senselessly with words like thalassemia, like hemoglobin, like recessive. Hypnogogic images formed and dissipated nonsensically before him. His mother's photos. The solitary photograph of Giuseppe Asakura. Gutted filing cabinets. Cool hands removing black nylon stitches. Nambu's locked and imposing book shelves.

Joe startled awake and looked around Nambu's office.

The clock glowed a dull red 2:54 to the room, and Joe forced his body into a stand. Stiffly he walked to the study, to the shelf of foreign books behind the glass cabinet. Squinting, he studied the titles through the reflective glare. His side hurt. He let it. A moment later, he drew a sharp breath.

With an oath, Joe punched his fist through the locked glass door, sending tiny squares of glass shattering to the carpet like tears or raindrops, and even as they finished falling around his feet, he freed one volume from the others with blood-smeared fingers.

Il visconte dimezzado, by Italo Calvino. The Cloven Viscount.

Ignoring the blood, ignoring the fragments of glass imbedded in his fingers, Joe rifled through the book to page 82, and there, right after the end of the chapter, on nearly a full blank piece of paper, he read a love letter from his mother to his father. His real father.

Joe ripped the book in half along the binding, and when he clenched his fists, his hand dripped blood on the carpet.

 

In the early morning Thursday, Dr. Tanela rushed to Joe's room to find him sitting up in bed wearing his uniform t-shirt and jeans.

"Joe!" She looked frightened. "What happened here? Did someone break in? Have you called Dr. Nambu?"

"No." Joe's eyes shone on his pale face, outlined by the sleepless circles beneath. "No, no one broke in, and no, I haven't spoken to him."

She said, "My office--"

"I did that." She just now had glanced at his hand and seen the bandage. "You knew, didn't you?"

"What are you talking about?" Dr. Tanela's mouth opened in a terrified gasp. "Joe, please, whatever's happening, please tell me about it. What were you looking for in my records?"

Joe advanced toward her. "You told me not to go looking--did you know what I'd find?"

"I have no idea what you found!" Though she flinched, Dr. Tanela didn't step backward. "What is this about? Why didn't you just ask me whatever you needed to know?"

Joe said, "It was Nambu all along. You knew it."

"What was Nambu all along? What?" She reached for his shoulder with a cool hand.

Joe stepped backward. "Don't touch me." He turned away. "You mean you didn't know either? He's crafty. He uses everyone equally."

Dr. Tanela edged toward the door. Joe faced her again. "You'd better go talk to him, hadn't you? You always tell him everything I tell you, and he certainly won't want to miss out on this, will he, now?"

She fled the room. Joe grinned like a tiger in her wake.

 

In the last red-orange splashes of sunset, Joe watched from Nambu's window as the car pulled up the long curving driveway to the mansion on the seacoast. Three stories beneath him, Ken, Ryu and Nambu stepped out of the car, partly hidden in the shadow the house cast. They vanished from Joe's view as they walked toward the entry and made their way inside.

They would split up in the foyer. Ken would insist he be the first to find Joe, and Nambu would tell him where to look. Maybe Ken would obey, and maybe he wouldn't. Ryu would wait with Nambu, but Nambu would send Ryu away after a while, saying that he'd deliberately misdirected Ken because Ryu had the calming touch that would get Joe back into his senses. Pleased and proud, Ryu would head where Nambu instructed. Then Nambu would take his own path toward his office, the stairs barely yielding under his gentle steps, silent as a panther and unseen in the unlit hallways.

Joe would be waiting at his desk, dark in his birdstyle, gun in one hand, crumpled childhood photograph in the other, repeating his own eight year old vow to himself. The person who robbed me of my mother, my father, will suffer at my hands. The person will have time enough to feel the fear and know I understand who he is. The person will have just enough time to wonder if I am really his death come to claim him. And then--

And then.

Chapter End Notes:

My note: I've been taken to task for the lady-and-the-tiger-like ending of this story. One respondent was positively furious--you didn't give enough reason for Joe to kill Nambu! Well, then,that means you assume Joe was really going to kill Nambu after all, doesn't it? Going over this with others, we've come up with several plausible endings that either involve Joe really intending or not intending to shoot Nambu, Nambu being shot or not shot, and so on. As for what happens next...well, is it the lady or the tiger?

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