G. Lynn Meadows

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HIDDEN DRAGON - THE NOVEL

Chapter 4 - THE BLUES BROTHERS

          "Come on," he said with that tone in his voice.  

            Just that tone and she was wanting him again.  It wasn't fair.  "No," Tara pouted, wiping away the sweat.  Her hand came away from her body wet, and she glanced up accusingly.  He didn't look sorry at all.  "I'm tired.  I've had enough."  

            Randy did not believe in limits.  He put one hand on his slender hip and growled deep in his throat.  She loved that sound and he knew it.  His eyes twinkled bright with mischief.  It wasn't fair, the pleasure he got from making her want him was equal to the pleasure he got putting out the fire. 

            He came close, eyes and mouth soft with desire.  She saw her wanting mirrored there, and smiled as he whispered against her lips, "Never enough."  She wrapped her arms around him and his mouth came open beneath the pressure of her own.  She always marveled at the way he just gave himself to it.  No limits.  No barriers.  She felt his breathing quicken, and broke the kiss.

            He sighed, shaking back his hair, then went back to his place.  The beginning of a little lopsided smile was the not only outward sign of his desire.  She would let him be.  For now.  "Come on," Randy coaxed from behind the heavy bag.  "Again." 

            She shook back her hair, sweating hard, breathing harder.  They had been practicing for over an hour, in another hour, Brian would be up from his nap and Mei home from school.  She could think of better ways to spend their time. 

            "Randy," she began, but his eyes stopped her protest.  His eyes ran like fingers over her body, and she felt the hot blood rush through her all over again.  She throbbed inside with remembering.  Last night's pleasures had not been enough.  He was right.  There was never enough. 

            Randy smiled and raised his chin in challenge the same way he did last night when he would not let her go.  His smile was repeated in the mirrored walls of the exercise room around them.  The mirrors showed them to themselves, very pretty people, smiling as they remembered last night.

            She took a step towards him and he shook his head, sliding away as she advanced.  He moved behind the heavy bag, using it as a shield.  "Not yet," he said again.  "We need to practice."  

            "You can be a real bastard sometimes," she said, still breathing hard, casting a significant glance at his loose grey sweatpants.  She wanted to pull the drawstring open and just lie back across the padded weight bench, and. . .  She let her eyes travel slowly up his hard body.  

            "Yeah."  He gave her a slow look from beneath slanting black brows, the look that went right to the marrow of her bones.  Her nipples hardened as he brushed his eyes across them. 

            "Harder."  He knew what she wanted, and she knew she wasn't going to get it until she gave him her best - her absolute unmitigated best.  He was not an easy man to satisfy, and he prided himself on it.  Randy smiled, making a show of bracing himself behind the heavy bag.  "Once more." 

            With a look more eloquent than a curse, she turned away.  Taking a deep breath, she slid her feet into ready stance, then a quick side step.  Crossing one foot behind the other she launched herself into a sidekick.  With a thick slapping sound she connected with the bag he braced against his thigh.  The force of her kick knocked him backward, and he smiled.  "Not bad." High praise indeed from the master.  "Take a break."

            This time Tara shook her head.  Coming forward, pressing him back against the mirrored wall, she reached for the drawstring of his pants.  "No breaks.  We need to - practice." 

            Blinking back the tears, Tara shook the memories out of her head and threw herself into spinning back kick.  The thud of slipper against heavy bag brought her back to herself, back to the here and now.  Turning away from the swinging bag, dropping into horse stance, she moved through her workout like well-oiled machine.  The room was full of rhythmic sounds.  Slap, strike, slap - sharp sounds echoing beneath the loud rock music.  Iron palm training and Phil Collins.  Like always. 

            One hundred reps and done.  Now, onto hand conditioning.  One blow from a toughened hand is worth four from a normal, soft hand.  If her hands and feet were her only weapons in the game she entered last night, they had better be good. 

            She advanced to the woven straw board with a serious expression, taking a deep breath.  Facing the makiwara, she shook her body loose.  Sinking, sinking, rooting in the earth's energy, she reached deep inside to a place where there was no mind.  No difference between without and within.  Breathing out, breathing in, that is all - being breathed. 

            Raising the arms, inhaling, lowering them as the breath leaves, hands together in the ancient position.  She felt the chi flow up strong and vital from the soles of her feet.  From the earth, through the bubbling wells, life strength flowed strong into her center.  And she remembered.  As if it were last night.

            She was tired.  She'd had enough, she said, rolling away from him on the rumpled bed.  "Not just yet," he said, catching her ankle. "Not yet."  Randy did not believe in tired.  He knew she'd never get enough, but she wanted to save his strength for the match tomorrow.  It was a loving, unnecessary, consideration. 

            He pulled her toward him.  The first time was so tender, now he wanted to play rough.  His idea caught fire in her eyes and she struggled with him.  She fought valiantly, wrestling naked against him, pitting her strength against his, fighting hard, but not for long.  Catching a handful of her hair, he pulled back her head.  The silvery whiteness of her throat gleamed in the candle light, and her hard-tipped breasts jutted out towards him. 

            He smiled.  She whimpered, collapsing slow back against satin sheets he had picked to match the color of her nipples.  He growled deep in his throat as he watched her surrender.  Randy pressed her back against the satin sheets, and bit into the smoothness of her throat until she slapped the mattress twice. 

            He won, as he always won when they played this way, as she always wanted him to win.  Randy raised his chin and smiled.  He loved winning.  He pulled her to where he waited, kneeling.  He pulled her towards him, slowly, so he could enjoy watching her thighs opening around his own.

            Holding her down like a captive barbarian, deliberately pushing her past her limits, making her cry out, thrusting into her with his hard body, then drawing back - Randy waited.   "Now," she whispered.  He was watching her with his coal black eyes as she thrust up to meet him.  Hungry eyes.  "Now," she moaned, taking him in.  He was like supple steel, smooth skin moving liquid, filling her with unbelievable heat.  "Now."

            Now.  Her eyes snapped open, focused on the target, she struck.  Over and over.  With force.  Punching out her passion, as if she could drive it that demon from her body, she struck. Staying loose until the moment of contact like a coiled spring.  Over and over.  On the rhythm - now off of it.  Break it - Ride it.  Keep moving.  Stay elusive.  Coil, strike, spring.  Strike. 

            The door opened.  And she spun.  Eyes wide and pale - like the eyes of a jungle cat.  She lowered her head breathing hard - ready to pounce.  It is only Mei balancing a tea tray.  Tara   swayed backward, feeling the sweat coursing liquid beneath her breasts.  "You scared me," she said for both of them, laughing. 

            "You think you're scared?"  Mei said with heavy irony.  Rolling her eyes, the girl set the tea tray on a weight bench, and gave Tara a hug.  Tara held on too long, so that she didn't have to look into those grave and worried eyes.

            Megan butted her head against her mother's chest, catlike.  "You okay, Mei Mei?"  Tara asked, using the girl's Chinese name, the one they both preferred and never used in front of strangers.  "You okay?"

            Mei nodded.  She was brave.  After last night's conversations, Tara was terrified herself, and tired. 

            It had been a very late night.  After the conversation with Jake, Tara sent Gina home abruptly.  Gina had to go - now. The night's hardest work lay ahead.  She promised to call and explain.  As if she could even explain it to herself.  Tara was blown away, and what was left of her mind was reeling with the aftershock of the adventure she had launched herself into.  But telling Mei was the most important part. 

            Mei was more than a daughter to Tara , she was best friend and trusted companion.  They'd lived on the run for two years, and young as she was, Mei never forgot.  So, she ran when she saw Jake.  It was part of the plan.  Stay low, don't talk to strangers, and never, never, tell anybody your right name.  It was a heavy burden, especially for a ten-year-old, but carrying it kept them alive.  Mei never lost her grace under fire.

            "Mommy, what are we going to do with me?"  Mei asked quietly.  The time for tears was past.  They had cried together last night, cuddling in Tara's bed, talking about Daddy, and Brian, and how Mommy was going to go after the bad men who did that terrible thing.  "Where am I going to go?"

            Tara sighed and hugged her.  She looked up at the photo of Randy.  No answer was forthcoming, but still she stared at the picture.  It was the way she liked to remember him. 

            Tara figured if she stared at the picture long enough it would blot away forever the memory of the last time she saw him.  Through the car window, through the flames, a blackened bobbling shape struggled to get out as she ran simple-minded towards the car.  Then the final explosion came, and the blackness. 

            Somehow, Tara lived.  If you could call it that.  Expelled from the golden fog to fight through pain, and wake to white.  In the hospital room, through the bandages, they told her she was lucky.  Leaving the light, and awakening to lie; welcome to Hell. 

            And Hell was white, all white, muted sounds, muted senses.  Nothing was real but the slash of severance.  Nothing could touch her, nothing could tear her inner eyes away from the last scene.  She was a bloody stump, but no one appeared to notice.

            She breathed, spoke words, walked through the unreality they called life, touching hands at the funeral, staring unbelieving at two closed coffins; one big, one little, both white.  Drugs only blurred the edges of the scene.  There were words of praise.  Tears.  It didn't matter, she was listening for his voice in disbelief.  Waiting.  He was silent, unseen. 

            Someone pulled her away from the shiny boxes, and put her in a car.  Men spoke words that didn't matter.  White flowers shriveled in the sun.  Ashes to ashes, earth to earth.  Her funeral rose crushed in the paralysis of her grip.  Sunlight on white coffins.  She would not let this be, would take no action to permit this most dreadful lie.  She clutched the blood red rose in protest, would not cast it on the coffin.  The silence was thick, matched by the pressure of their eyes on her.  She was frozen.  Somewhere a dove cried.  Lee Kuan looked up, gazing at her across the fresh dug graves.  There was nothing but compassion in his eyes as he tossed the flower he held into the grave.  She would not let this be.  Thorns bit deep.  Lee turned away.  She stared at the white box in the ground as flowers fell to cover it.  She would not let got the rose, and still the flowers fell.  Blood seeped through the white cotton gloves that hid her bandages.  Tremors rocked her.  Screaming silent.  Lee spoke to her gently, turning her away, whispering her into cool shade and silence.   Nothing was left.  But Mei.

            Now she held her daughter tight and shook her memories aside.  She spoke honestly.  "I don't know sweetheart.  I'll think of something safe.  Something good."  Kumiko had expedited their initial escape, producing falsified IDs like bon bons.  Each package was so perfect, that the wait did not matter.

            They stayed long enough to satisfy the relatives and the insurance companies, then just - disappeared.  Randy's family didn't look too hard for them, she hadn't expected that.  Like Jake, they never felt she was good enough for Randy.  Maybe she wasn't.  But they were good together, her and Randy - so good.

            It would never be that good for her again.  It didn't matter.  She had Mei, and she had a job to do.  That was enough.  It had to be.

            "Hey, how's it goin'?"  Tara took a sharp quick breath and Mei sprang away from her immediately.  Tara saw her little fists come up - ready.  This was Randy's child, no mistake.  "Sorry," Gina stuttered, uncertainly.  "The door was open, and I-"

            Megan's big dark eyes filled with tears.  "I'm sorry, Mother.  I should have-"

            "Yes."  Megan hung her head.  Only Gina's reproving glance made Tara soften her tone.  "It turned out this time, just don't do it again, okay?"   Mei nodded, without raising her head.  Tara's tone was stinging and she knew it, but she could not let them forget for a moment that this was a household under siege.  "We have to be careful."

            Gina shook back her long brown curls, as she entered the kwoon.  Her Jersey accent was thick today. It always was when she was tired, and they'd on the phone until three.  Tara had to censor what she said to Gina for the first time.  It was hard, but too much information was dangerous for everyone.

            "It's only me," Gina grinned, putting her arm around Mei.  "I'm not gonna hurt ya."  From the look of her thin, cheerful face, the seriousness of their situation had not sunk in. 

            Gina's ability to stay loose in extraordinary situations amazed her.  Maybe it came from being a fifth grade teacher.  It was a damn useful skill, and one Tara didn't have.  Naturally intense, stress only made her more so.  She sighed, pushing her messy morning hair back beneath the red bandana.  Maybe Jake was right, she could blow sky high on this mission.  It was possible.  It was okay.  Shrinks and hospital food didn't scare her as much as living with this beast of rage buried within her.

            "So, yer at it again?" Gina murmured, threading her way carefully through the exercise equipment.  She could never get used to this room - it gave her the willies, like it was spooked or something.  "Practicing to be some kinda Ninja killer?"

            "Every day," Tara said.  Even she was amazed at her consistency.  Gina shook her head, looking at the grey sweats Tara had cut into shorts and a skinny midriff top, and the toned body beneath.  "Every day."  Mei took her hand, and the look of pride on the small heart-shaped face made Tara go all orange and liquid inside. 

            "Why do ya do it?  Why not be a designer or somethin' more - normal?"  Wrinkling her nose as she said the taboo word, Gina smiled.  Tara and Mei turned thumbs down and made rude noises

            "Normal," Mei tossed her head.  "In the suburbs, is BORING.  We are only pretending to be normal.  It's better that way."  To her, it didn't matter why Mom did it, it was the thing her Mom did best and besides the dog was barking.  She went to give Lady a bone. 

            Gina watched the girl leave the room and glanced up at Randy's picture.  "Why do ya do it?"  She asked, staring at the vaguely handsome man with piercing black eyes.  Gina wondered if it wasn't somehow easier to have a husband die than have him run off to find himself.  With a blonde.  At least, death was really final.  Sighing, she turned to Tara, "Ya do it ‘cause he did?"

            "No, not anymore.  We always did.  Together."  Again the memories, and again she shook her head.  "And after. . ."  Gina nodded, sitting side-saddle on the padded bench, she nodded so Tara did not have to say the words.  "It was a way to stay close, and, then, it was a way to save my life."  Tara spoke with utter conviction. "It keeps me sane, clean and clear, within myself."

            "That's what runners say about running.  And dancers about dancing, and-"  Gina let her words trail off and traced a pattern on the brown vinyl of the weight bench.  Her tone very soft, very casual. "So, ya think you're going to have to use it?"

            Tara  refastened the leather band around her left wrist.  It supported nothing but her confidence.  She needed that now.  She met her friend's brown eyes straight on.  "Yes, I do."

            Gina dropped her eyes and examined her flawless manicure.  For several seconds.  "You, ah, gonna be gone long?"

            "I really don't know."  I really don't know if I'm coming back.  The unsaid words telegraphed throughout the room.  Gina received her message in silence.  Tara wandered over to the weapons rack and retrieved a bottle of brown hand conditioning ointment.  Silence ticked within the room like the beat of a clock.  Silence. 

            "And ya mean to tell me it has nothing to do with that cute guy?"  Gina's insinuating smile was meant to lighten a room gone so suddenly grey.   "The one that was here last night?"

            "Jake?  Cute?"  Tara  looked baffled.  "He's okay, I guess, for a white boy."  Gina'd caught a glimpse of Jake through the door, and was instantly smitten.  "No, nothing at all," Tara said dryly.  Jake's physical appearance had nothing to do with her decision to go, that was a fact.  Long, blonde, lanky, he was not her sexual ideal.  But his desire was so strong, unmistakable.  The way he looked at her, the fact that he knew who she was, even the adventure - it was all seductive to her.  It had been so long, it wouldn't take much.  But she shook her head.  "No.

            "Not after Randy."  She paced away, rubbing the herbal ointment into her hands.  No one could follow Randy.  Nothing could make her forget.  Sometimes she almost hated him for that.  Sometimes, she beat against the bars of the prison his love and death built for her.  But not for long, never for long.

            "He was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."  Gina glanced at the photo, and shrugged.  Tara watched her friend's flat reaction.  "To me," Tara said, without apology.  "To me." 

            "He really was your perfect lover, wasn't he?"  Her husband had not been that to her, not nearly, but he had been there warm for a while and now he'd left a hole in her that no amount of freedom could fill.  At least, she could hope love would be kinder next time, better, stronger, bigger.  Tara didn't have that.  "Is it a blessing, or a curse, that you met him?"

            Tara paced away.  Gina watched the back of her, straight, and strong, and tense.  "Say, listen, Tara , I was thinkin'-" Tara  spun, like a tiger in a cage, incandescent green eyes snapping wide.  Gina tried a soothing smile.  It was hard not to be afraid of the tiger who wore her friend's face.  "Maybe Mei could go with me.  I was going to spend the summer in Florida with my folks."  Her smile broadened the hope in her friend's eyes.  "The Yakuza wouldn't go lookin' for a kid in Sun City, would they?"

            Coming forward, Tara wrapped her best friend in a sweaty hug.  "Thank you.  Thank you."  She made herself small and sat on the bench with Gina, taking her hands and looking at her with gut level sincerity.  "Thank you.  All I need is a safe place for her.  But, Gina, do it soon.  Do it real soon."

            Tara leaned in, all green eyed intensity.  "I feel something - moving.  Coming down.  Soon."  Gina raked curls away from puzzled eyes with lacquered nails.  The doorbell rang, and Tara sprang up from the bench.  "Fix your hair, honey, it's Jake."

            Mei looked up from the kitchen floor where she knelt beside the dog.  Lady barked like a windup toy gone wild.  Mom went to the door in her cut off sweats and red bandana.  She walked fast, but not scared.  That was nice.  Gina came out of the kwoon looking like she wanted to make someone happy but was scared to, while Mom opened the door and started laughing.  Mei held the little dog, soothing her, while Mom just laughed and laughed.

            "Were you mobbed by the Hare Krishnas or what?"  Tara came in, holding a tired bunch of blood red roses.  Jake Milner followed with his briefcase.  His suit today was navy pinstripe.  Suffering from the heat and last night's wretched excess, his tie matched the cherry red streaks in his thin cheeks.  They went into the living room that nobody lived in.   Mei did not follow.  He did not acknowledge Gina.  It was obvious they wanted to be alone.

            Gina glanced down, embarrassed, while Megan smiled reassuringly.  "Oh, well."  Slowly, Gina sat in a kitchen chair, sighing as she gently smoothed Mei's hair.  "Oh, well."

            "It's sweet, really."  Tara laughed from behind the roses.  She gazed over the blossoms with eyes that matched the long stems.  It was the exact shade of green that made him tongue-tied.  Jake could kick himself.  But he was too tired.  Jake collapsed into a camel backed chair.  Limp from the heat, he dangled his long hands between his knees. 

            "It's not sweet, it's self-preservation.  I presume there's a possibility that you may've been offended by something I said or did last night.  For some reason."  For the life of him, he couldn't recall.  Not exactly.  Not after seeing Ettienne again. 

            Ettienne had left him shaken, not stirred.  The old man took an early flight out, leaving Jake to try and wash away their history in Stoli.  It didn't work anymore than it ever worked.  But he kept trying, kept failing.  He was sickeningly consistent.  As if she, too, had his pattern down cold, the raven haired waitress offered to comfort him.  She did.  All night long.  Neither she nor the champagne came cheaply or were what he truly wanted.

            Sick of his own sick lies, Jake smiled, wiping his reality away.  "Besides, if you know all the kung-fu you say you do-" 

            Tara lunged.  Feinting a vicious backfist to his jaw, she followed with a spear hand that stopped one inch from his Adam’s apple.  "Oh," Jake couldn't help but swallow hard.  Tara laughed.  Jake sat coolly in her green chair.  He'd gotten used to this sort of thing with Randy long ago.  Getting excited only made them go at it harder, so it was imperative to remain calm.  

            Slowly, Tara lowered her hands to her sides and her eyes to the carpet.  Her style was good, from what he recalled of the martial arts.  Obviously, she had learned a lot from Randy.  But Randy's form never looked quite so tasty as hers did now.  Of course, Randy had never thrown a punch while holding a bunch of roses.  Jake coughed instead of laughing.  "Anyway, I'm sorry, so I brought you guns and roses."

            "Guns?"  Jake picked up his case, and snapped it open.  Inside the case, a gun glistened.  Tara shook her head, and walked away.  "No guns."

            Jake slammed the lid shut.  She spun to face him, red hair flying from her red bandana in a tangled mass of curls.  "Then you're not going.  In the world we're going into, everybody has guns.  Comes with the territory, kid.  Take it or leave it."

            She swallowed hard.  She would have to take it.

            "Sure, you can punch and kick.  But guns have distance that hands and feet can't cross as quickly, or as effectively.  The Yakuza has guns.  So do we.  You will learn how to use one.  Properly.  And you will carry it.  Or you will stay home with your kid in the suburbs.  Got it?"  He watched his comment lash her.  Unlike her, he had not pulled his punch.  "I'm tired of dead agents, Tara.  Real tired of it."

            She heard his honesty, and knew his concern was correct, and logical.  She spoke only from personal prejudice.  "I hate guns."

            "You will get over it."  He left no room for debate.  "This is a 9 caliber Remington.  It'll suit you." 

            She wrinkled her nose.  "I won't need it.  I've got-"

            "Your training," Jake finished for her.  He raised his voice in anger.  "Well, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, lady, and if you insist on relying on kung-fu then you are a fucking liability to this mission, and I'm-"

            "Stow it," she shouted back.  She drove angry eyes into him like stilettos.  Her chest was heaving like a cornered animal.  "I'll do what you say.  You know I will.  This mission is that important to me."  She had to cool out, or kill him.  "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going out to get the goddamned paper.”

            Jake watched through the picture windows as she walked away.  She paused on the front porch step, in the sunlight, and watched a raven fly across the field.  It was obviously true what they said about redheads and their tempers.  And their appeal.  Jake watched her take a deep breath and slowly walk the twenty five feet to where the rolled newspaper waited. 

            Reaching the paper, she turned, following the raven’s flight over her house, shielding her eyes as she gazed into the sky.  She did not see the Trans Am pull to the curb, or look when the car doors slammed.  After all, this was the suburbs in the middle of the day, it was safe here.

            Two Asian men in business suits got out of the car.  Their faces were not Chinese faces.  Jake rose quickly from his chair, crossing to the door in a burst of speed.  Gina called from the kitchen, as the dog began to bark, "What's up?"

            "Trouble.  Get out of sight.  Both of you.  Now," Jake barked.  He reached into his jacket for his gun.  Jake quickly checked his automatic, feeling safer with it in his hand.  Maybe he wouldn't need it, maybe he was just overreacting.  Maybe not.  He waited behind the screen door, out of sight, watching.  The two men walked over to Tara as she bent to get her paper.  

            "Mrs. Leong?"  The Japanese businessman said to her back.  Jake watched from the darkness inside the doorway as Tara's eyes got very wide.  Jake hesitated.  If they were Yakuza, they would know his face, and a battle would begin for sure.  Jake held his breathe.  Maybe Tara could talk her way out of it.  After the last few days, Jake had every confidence in her ability to talk her way into, or out of, anything.  He watched from the cool darkness, ready to intervene if it got too weird.

            The eyes of the tall man in the shiny black suit were on her ass as she bent over, Chicago Tribune in hand.  His heavy partner was dressed in the same uniform, black suit, white shirt, narrow tie.  They could be the Japanese version of the Blues Brothers, all they needed were the sunglasses and the hats.  The fat one could be Elroy, and the other could be Jake.  Jake was glad he still had a sense of humor.  Last night's waitress must have helped. 

            Tara took in a deep breath that seemed to go on forever, then she straightened, still holding the newspaper.  Jake saw her begin to shake.  But her voice remained steady.  "Say what?"

            "Excuse me," the short heavyset man said in his lightly accented voice.  He made a feeble attempt to smile.  "Mrs. Leong, we'd like to ask you a few questions."  Tara squinted at him.  His broad, impassive face gleamed like a bronze mask in the suburban sunlight.  And Jake's fingers tightened on his revolver.

            "Ask her when you find her.  My name's not Lung.  Have a nice day," Tara said, pleasantly enough, turning to come back inside.  She was twenty feet from the front door.  Her face betrayed nothing.  Until Elroy grabbed her arm.  She made an effort to shake it loose but the fat man was having nothing of it.  Jake slipped the safety off as the man's partner closed ranks with him.  With a grimace, Tara drove her elbow into his solar plexus.  Elroy collapsed forward with an airsick sound. 

            Tara threw the rolled newspaper into the tall man's face and sprang for the door.  She got as far as the front porch.  Long legs covering the ground faster than hers, he grabbed her from behind.  Red hair flying, she drove her elbow into his stomach, stomping down hard on his instep with her heel as she did.  His arms snapped open and she slammed the thin yellow face with a vicious backfisted blow.

            “Hiya!”  Jake's pulse jumped with the sound of it.  The fat one, Elroy, stood grunting and clutching his midsection, obviously confident that his partner could handle this hellcat while he composed himself.  He couldn't have been more wrong.  The tall one pivoted around her.  She reached for the doorknob. 

            And he reached for her throat.  She stood her ground, green eyes wide and gleaming in the sunlight.  Jake drew his gun.  With another fierce kiai!, she drove her hand like a spear into the thin throat.  Jake toppled gurgling, falling away from the step.  He laid on his back in the grass very still, very silent. 

            The narrow brown eyes of the fat man snapped wide, and Tara came forward, pausing on the porch stoop.  He reached inside his thin black jacket.  Jake came to the door, flinging it open.  It banged solid against the bricks.  Tara pivoted, as if she would run inside.  The Japanese man glanced up at Jake, and Tara  used that exact moment to deliver a stunning sidekick to his head.  

            He reeled back, blood and spittle draining from his open mouth.  Black suited arms flying akimbo, narrow tie dancing in the warm summer breeze, he wobbled.  Tara sprang, not giving him a chance to grab his weapon while she closed the distance.  He reached with his right, pushing her away with his left.

            She trapped that arm easily, sinking down, into a crouch, pulling hard and twisting on his arm as she did.  Jake watched Elroy's eyes roll around in his head.  He was stunned into inaction.  Elroy was obviously not trained for fighting, it took him far too long to reach for his gun.  He wavered, retreating, but did not fall.  Tara pivoted again, taking three lightning fast side steps before she launched herself into a sidekick. 

            Jake did not see her foot move.  But he saw her bare leg extended and her fighting stance as she recovered from the kick.  He saw the fat Japanese falling.  The man's scream and the sickening sound of breaking bones cut through the quiet suburban air.  His useless arm dangled at an awkward angle as she came at him again, punching high - kicking low.  The fat man collapsed in a writhing heap next to his motionless partner. 

            Tara looked down at the two Japanese men lying like broken toys on her neat suburban lawn.  Overhead, a dove cried.  The fat man moaned.  With the expression of a librarian squashing a bug, she kicked the fallen man hard in the neck.  It was a thick sound - sudden.  His moaning stopped.  She turned to Jake, breathless.  "So, you still think I'll be a liability on the mission?"

            "Not at all.”  Jake looked from his gun to the small woman before him.  "Lady, not at all." 

             “What now?”  Chest heaving, she ran a shaking hands through her auburn mane.  She gulped in the hot O’Hare air while it spun around her.  She’d never had to fight for her life before; it was an interesting feeling.  Dazed, Tara looked down at the men in the dark business suits who sprawled under the impeccably blue suburban skies.  “What now?”

            Jake dragged the bodies to Tara’s front porch.  He’d watched the whole thing from her doorway, just watched and never moved.  Maybe he wasn't here to do anything but what he was doing now.  He locked the men to the railing with handcuffs he pulled out of his suit coat.  Wonderful.  Limp spies on the lawn and handcuffs on the porch.  The neighbors were going to love this.  So much for a low profile. 

             “Yakuza," Jake grunted as he cuffed the thin man to the iron porch railing.  "See?"  The thin man’s little finger was cut back to the second joint.  “In the Yakuza, if you disobey your Oyabun, you get to chop off your own fingertip and offer it to your boss.  Or die.  Nice, huh?”

            Tara shuddered. Sunlight caught the silver metal in Jake’s hands.  Jake’d come prepared, with guns, roses, and handcuffs.  Why today?  Tara wondered how he'd known. 

                             Jake checked the pulse of the fat man, as fresh red blood dribbled onto his white shirt.  "I don't know if he's going to make it."

            Shock ran through her like an electric eel swimming through her guts.  “What?"  Swallowing down sickness, she heard the door open.  Mei peeked out of the doorway.  “They're the bad guys, honey.  Go inside."

            As the door swung shut, Tara  touched her face.  It was unchanged.  But, inside - where it counted - she was permanently disfigured.  Couldn't they see it, with their probing eyes?  She turned away, remembering glances and gazes.  Images came together like a kaleidoscope.  And she felt Jake's eyes on her. 

            Tara turned slowly into his blue gaze.  She shook with rage.  "You set me up."

            Jake looked up without denial, without apology.  “Congratulations, you passed the test.  The Organization will accept you.  And from here on out, babe, we’re playing for keeps.“

            Swallowing down sickness, she heard the door open and she spun.  Her little dog ran towards her barking frantically.  Bending, she scooped Lady up.  The squirming body in her hands felt like a feather.  She had just possibly killed a man. 

            Gina was behind Mei, peering from the darkness of the doorway.  And for the first time, she could not meet her child's gaze.  She looked at the ground, tears of shame and terror burning hot behind her eyelids.  "Go inside," she ordered.  Her voice was harsh and guttural.  But the curious, frightened eyes did not disappear. 

            "They're the bad guys, go inside."  She walked from sunlight into cool darkness.  She walked tall so that they would not be afraid.  Giving them that reassurance, she handed over the yapping dog.  She could not bear the pressure of their eyes.  Her voice was the voice of an old woman.  "Go inside."

            Gina drew Mei away from the door, and into the darkness, leaving Tara standing on the porch.  As the door swung shut, Tara touched her own face.  Still the same.  But inside, never the same again.  Couldn't they see it, with their probing eyes?  

            So many eyes.  Jake's eyes, sad blue under silvery brows as he said those awful words.  She remembered.  She didn't want to remember.  And the images came together like a kaleidoscope.  The intensity of Jake's stare over the gun case.  The X-ray eyes of Ettienne.  Domingo's piercing gaze, the way he looked at her as prey, more than a sexual game.  The veiled recognition in Ettienne's grey eyes as they touched Domingo's for that one instant.  Jake - Domingo - Ettienne.  It all came together in her head.   And she felt Jake's eyes on her. 

            Tara turned into his blue gaze.  "You set me up," she whispered.  He glanced at the ground, then at the blood on his hands.  "You set me up," she insisted.  He looked up, without denial, without apology.  "You bastards set me up!"

                                    

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