She wasn’t going down without a fight. She kicked out, hard, but bare feet weren’t much of a defense, and whoever had been hiding in her car was strong, wrapping burly arms around her over the shroud and dragging her across the pebbles. She began to scream, loud cries for help, and something cuffed the side of her head beneath the covering. She could hear voices, low and muffled, and a moment later the unpleasant sound of a car trunk opening She fought back, but another pair of hands joined in, and she was dumped into the trunk, the lid slamming down on her before she could stop them.
She shoved the blanket away from her and began kicking and pounding on the lid of the trunk. She was in some kind of luxury car – the space was huge and carpeted – and she had a pretty good idea who had done this. The True Realization Fellowship had a reputation for getting what they wanted, and no one wanted anything from her but the Shirosama. She kicked again, screaming at them, when someone pounded back on the trunk, a loud thwack that would have dented the metal on a cheaper car.
And then a moment later the vehicle was moving, tearing down the long, curving driveway that led from the Sansone, moving at dangerous speeds, tossing her about in the trunk like a sack of potatoes. Her head slammed against the metal side of the car, and she braced herself, holding on. Screaming was a waste of time – they wouldn’t hear her over the noise of the road and the soundproofing. She needed to save her energy to escape.
She could feel the car turning onto the main road – the speed leveled out and whoever was driving was keeping a more sedate pace, clearly not wanting to get any unwanted attention with a woman in their trunk. She tried to listen, to see if anything would help her figure out what they wanted from her, where they were taking her, but there was absolute silence from the front of the car. She didn’t even know for certain whether there was one or more of them. Two people had tossed her into the trunk but that didn’t mean both of them had gotten in the car. If she had to deal with only one man and she was more prepared then maybe she stood a fighting chance whenever he decided to stop and…
Suddenly the car speed up, tossing Summer back against the rear of the compartment, slamming her knee against the locking mechanism. She cried out, but the sound was muffled in the carpeted back.
“Calm down,” she said out loud, her voice soft and eerie in the darkness. She took a deep, steady breath, and then another. She couldn’t just let herself be tossed around – she had to think of a way out.
Wouldn’t they have a car jack and tire iron in the trunk? Under the thick carpeting? She slid her fingers under the edge, to a latch, but when she tried to pull it up the weight of her body was in the way. She scrunched over to one side as far as she could go, managing to get the latch up far enough to reach under it, into the well of the car. There was a tire there, all right, and she could feel the scissors jack. There had to be a tire iron as well.
She almost missed the small bag of tools – it was to the far side of the tire and made of leather, and inside was a nice, solid rod of iron that could manage to break a few bones if properly applied. The very thought was nauseating, but not as bad as being kidnapped in the middle of the night, and she dropped the lid back down, rolling over on it, and tucked the foot long iron bar into her long, flowing sleeve. She could even jab someone in the eye with the end of it, though the idea was nauseating. But she could do what she needed to do.
They were going faster now, faster than when they’d sped down the road from the museum, so fast that she could barely maintain her balance in the huge trunk. She felt the car skid as the driver took a corner too quickly, and when he straightened out he sped up, and it wasn’t until Summer could hear the sound of an engine far too close to the trunk of the car that she realized they were being chased.
Not by the police – there were no sirens blaring, just the roar of an engine far too close to her head for her peace of mind.
The loud cracking noise was unmistakable, and she threw herself face down in the trunk, covering her head with her hands. Someone was shooting, and she sincerely doubted it was some white knight coming to her rescue. No one had been around to see her being hustled into the trunk of the car, and if anyone was trying to save her they’d hardly be firing a gun and putting her in even greater danger.
She felt the jolt as the car behind them smacked the rear of her prison, and everything happened at once. Time seemed suspended, slow motion. The sound of gunfire, the crunch of metal on metal, the screech of tires as the driver fought to maintain control and the car began to slide over to the side.
“Shit shit shit shit,” Summer muttered under her breathe, a prayer or an incantation, as she felt her entire world tumble down an embankment, finally coming to a stop against something immovable, throwing her against the front of the trunk, knocking the wind out of her. She lay there in stunned disbelief, as all went very quiet around her, just the sound of the car engine. It was probably going to burst into flames and explode, with her in it, but at the moment she didn’t care. She just lay still, trying to catch her breath, waiting for the explosion.
Instead the engine died, and the sudden silence was shocking, the most unnerving sound of all. There were no voices, but she could hear the footsteps outside the car.
She tried to sit up, to reach for the tire iron which was somewhere rolling around in the trunk with her. The car was half on its side, and she felt as if she’d spent the last half hour in a blender – she was a mass of pain and bruises, and she wasn’t safe yet. Whoever was prowling around the car had a gun, and there was no reason to think he wouldn’t use it on her.
She reached around her, looking for the tire iron that had disappeared when the car turned over, finding it under her back just as the trunk popped open.
She couldn’t see a thing – someone was standing there, but they were on a deserted back road and the lights from the car that had pulled up behind them threw everything into stark shadows. Not that she would have thought there were any roads this empty so close to LA, but they somehow managed to find one. She couldn’t get the tire iron out from under her, so she simply squeezed her eyes tightly shut and waited for the bullet.
Instead she got hands, reaching into the cavernous trunk and hauling her out, into the cool night air, setting her on unsteady feet, holding onto her until the trembling stopped.
It was the man from the gallery, the tall man with the sunglasses. He wasn’t wearing them anymore, and her panic increased.
Even in the shadows she could see that he was exquisitely beautiful. High, perfect cheekbones, exotic eyes of an indeterminate shade, narrow face and rich, full mouth. His hair was long and silky, black, and he was at least part Asian, despite the fact that he towered over her. Another of the Shirosama’s hit men? Because he did look like a hit man, that is, if she knew what one looked like.
“Are you all right?” He might as well be asking if she wanted sugar in her coffee. She tried to say something, but words failed her, and she simply stared up at him, silent, as he reached for the tire iron she still clutched in her hand. “You won’t need this,” he said. “Get in the car.”
That was enough to stir her out of her momentary shock. She wasn’t getting in anyone’s car. “No.”
“It’s your choice. I can leave you here, but there’s no guarantee who will find you first. If you don’t show up at the Shirosama’s headquarters then someone will come looking.”
“Is that who tried to kidnap me?”
“Unless you have any other dire enemies, which I doubt. Get in the car.”
It wasn’t much of a choice, and she moved toward the waiting car, limping slightly. She stopped, turning back to glance at the car she’d been trapped in. It was tilted onto its side, and someone was slumped over the steering wheel. Someone in white, with red staining the pristine robes.
“Shouldn’t we see if he’s all right?” she said, hesitating.
“Do you care?”
“Of course I care. He may have wanted to hurt me but he’s a human being and…”
She was very cold. It was a warm LA night and she was freezing. “Get in the car,” he said again, opening the passenger’s door like the perfect chauffeur.
She got in. The seats were leather, comfortable, and it took her a long time to get the seatbelt fastened. Her hands were shaking, and she couldn’t seem to make them stop. She ought to pay more attention, she told herself, so she could give a full report to the police, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She didn’t know what kind of car this was, though she’d recognized one of the Shirosama’s well-known white limos crashed on the side of the road, with a dead man inside. At least one.
“Was the driver the only one in the car? she found herself asking in a quiet voice when he got in beside her and started the car. A low, sexy rumble of an engine – it must be some kind of sports car. She didn’t recognize any insignia inside, and she didn’t care.
He put the car in reverse, backed up, and then took off into the night, moving so fast the road was a blur, the crash site vanishing into the darkness. “You don’t really want to know that,” he said.
Maybe he was right. She leaned her head back against the cushioned seat and closed her eyes, feeling dizzy. “Where are we going? Are you taking me to the police?”
“Now why would I do that?”
She turned horrified eyes on him. “To make a report. Some men tried to kidnap me. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.”
“Actually they didn’t try, they succeeded. And they didn’t get away with it.”
Immediately she could picture the man slumped over the steering wheel, the bright red blood against the white linen. Calm, she told herself. Deep, calming breaths. Think about more important things.
She forced herself to look at his impassive profile, fighting her panic. “And who exactly are you? Don’t try to tell me you’re a random passerby – I won’t believe you.”
“If I were a random passerby I wouldn’t know about the Shirosama, would I?” he replied, completely reasonable.
“You were at the reception. I saw you there.”
“Where’s your girlfriend?”
“The blonde with the boobs. You couldn’t keep your eyes off her cleavage … except it was you watching me, wasn’t it? I could feel someone staring at me, but every time I turned around I couldn’t find anyone. It was you, wasn’t it? Why?”
“Let’s just say I expected something like this to go down. The Shirosama and his bunch were practically drooling over the Hayashi Urn, and you were keeping it from them. I expect once his Holiness was through with you they thought they could get you to open up the museum for them.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. The Hayashi Urn? Do you mean my ceramic bowl?”
He shot a glance at her in the darkened interior of the car. He seemed perfectly comfortable at the immense speeds he was traveling – his hands were draped loosely on the steering wheel. Beautiful hands, with long, elegant fingers. All of them intact, which ruled out her sudden suspicion that he might be a member of the Japanese crime syndicate, the Yakuza. Most members of that organization were missing at least part of their fingers, a sign of atonement for mistakes made. Unless her rescuer never made mistakes.
“You have no idea what you have?” he asked. “Where it comes from, its history?”
“I know it’s something that other people want that I’m not about to give up. What’s the Hayashi Urn?”
“A part of Japanese history that wouldn’t matter to you.”
“Since the bowl is mine then it matters to me. I’d like to know why someone tried to kidnap me in order to get their hands on it.”
“It doesn’t make any difference – it won’t be yours for much longer. And you needn’t pretend you’re surprised – you put it in the exhibit just to keep it out of reach of the Shirosama. You decided it was best to hide it in plain sight. Unfortunately you underestimated your enemy. The Shirosama isn’t quite the philanthropic spiritual leader he presents to the world. He has no problem with killing for what he wants.”
“Neither do you.” She wasn’t quite sure why she said it.
“When necessary,” he said, unmoved by her accusation.
“So where are you taking me?”
His eyes were on the road. “I haven’t decided yet.”
There was something about the flat, emotionless tone in his voice that made her stomach knot even more intensely. “Just tell me one thing,” she said. “Am I better off with you than I was with those men?”
For a moment he didn’t answer, and she wondered whether he would. Finally he spoke, not even looking at her. “That’s up to you.”
And for the first time in that shocking, crazy night, Summer began to feel afraid.
Taka could see her hunch lower into the seat, and he couldn’t blame her. He wasn’t going to lie to her, not if he could help it. She’d somehow managed to get through being kidnapped and tossed in the trunk of a limo with nothing more than a few bruises, and even if she felt like throwing up it was a calmer reaction than he might have expected. He thought was he was going to have to deal with tears and hysterics. Instead she was shaken but calm enough, making things easier. Maybe.
She was a liability, and he’d learned long ago that you couldn’t get sentimental over individual life when the stakes were that high. There was an old Zen koan – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – and if he had to choose between mass destruction and the life of one spoiled California blonde then he wouldn’t hesitate.
Except she wasn’t what he would have expected. He’d skimmed the intel he’d gotten on her – daughter of a Hollywood trophy wife, product of eastern boarding schools and college, advanced degree in Asian art, with no scandals attached to her name. She’d lived a quiet enough life – maybe too quiet. It wasn’t her fault she just happened to hold the key to something that could tear the entire world apart.
His old friend Peter would be mocking him, telling him it was his damned Asian inscrutability that kept him so cold-blooded. The thought amused him, because Peter Madsen had been the coldest man Takashi O’Brien had ever known. Until he ran into of the wrong woman, the same woman who’d almost brought an end to Takashi’s life.
Taka wasn’t going to make that mistake again. If Summer Hawthorne had to die he’d do it quickly, as painlessly as he could manage, and with luck she’d never know what happened. It wasn’t her fault that hidden somewhere in her memory was the location of an ancient Japanese shrine. Not her fault that people would kill to discover it. And that he would kill to keep her from revealing it.
He could pull over to the side of the road, put a comforting hand on the back of her neck, and snap it. It would be instantaneous – she’d never realize what happened, and he could take her back and dump her into the trunk. The scandal attached to the Shirosama’s deluded cult would be an added bonus.
He should never have taken her away from there in the first place – he should have just done it and gotten it over with. If he hesitated much longer someone might discover the crashed limo with the two bodies in the front seat. As far as he could tell she had no more value. They knew where the urn was, and retrieving it would simple enough for someone with his talents.
Keeping her alive would only make things more dangerous. She knew where the site of the temple ruins were. One blonde Californian who’d never traveled farther west than Hawaii held the key to a location so valuable that hundreds of thousands of lives could depend on it. Better she die, and the secret with her, than risk Armageddon.
It was all made more complicated by the fact that she didn’t know what she knew. Hana Hayashi had left the secret with her, but so well-hidden that no one might find it, Summer included.
They couldn’t take that risk. Better to terminate her and all possibility of finding the hidden shrine, than let the Shirosama move ahead with his lethal, dangerous visions.
He didn’t even need to pull off the freeway to do it, or even slow his speed down from the seventy-five he was traveling. The technique was simple and he’d done it too many times already. He needed to stop thinking about it and just do it.
But then, his reflexes were still off from his … accident. His fuck-up, that had landed him in the hands of a sadist. There was no need to take chances, just to prove to himself he was still at the top of his game. He took the next exit off the freeway, heading west, while his passenger sat quietly in her seat, asking no questions, oblivious to the fact that she was about to die.
He turned onto a less crowded street, pulled over to the side of the road and turned to face her. She had blue eyes, and she was prettier than he’d realized. She didn’t wear make up, and she had a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. He’d never killed anyone with freckles before.
“So what happens next?” she said, looking at him, and he wondered if she knew.
He put his hand on the back of her neck, under the single thick braid that was starting to come undone from her active night. He could feel the nerves jumping through her skin, feel her pulses racing, though he didn’t know whether it was in fear of him or remembered panic. There was something there, in her eyes, that he didn’t understand, couldn’t afford to think about. Her skin was soft, warm, and his large hand could span her neck quite easily.
“Are you going to kiss me?” she said, sounding like it was a fate worse than death. “Because I know you saved my life and you probably figure that as a knight in shining armor you’re owed something, but I’d really rather you didn’t. I’d like you to tell me why you were watching me, why you were following those men, and what you intend to do about it.”
“I wasn’t planning on kissing you.”
“That’s a relief,” she said, despite the faint stain of color beneath the freckles. “So who are you, and what do you want from me?”
It wouldn’t take much pressure. He could even kiss her, if that’s what she wanted, and by the time he lifted his mouth she’d be gone. So easy, all of it. So logical, sensible.
He didn’t need her help in retrieving the Hayashi Urn from the museum – he was one of the Committee’s acknowledged experts at breaking and entering. When she died she’d take her secrets with her, the safest option all around. As long as she lived there was a good chance the Shirosama would get his hands on her and the secrets she didn’t know she carried. Once she was dead that danger was gone.
He tightened the grip on her neck, exerting just a tiny bit of pressure, and he saw the sudden doubt in her eyes. He needed to move fast, because he didn’t want that doubt to increase, to turn into terror before it went blank, and hesitation would only hurt her.
“I’m guessing you’re some kind of private security hired by my mother,” she went on, when he didn’t answer her questions. “She must realize how determined her precious guru can be when he wants something. They just didn’t realize how easy it would be to steal the bowl from the museum.”
He loosened the pressure an infinitesimal amount. Nothing that she would notice. “What do you mean? The Sansone has state of the art security.”
“Well, you’d think they’d at least try to get it,” she said. “Most of the security is focused on the more valuable pieces. It would have been a lot easier than they thought – I was kind of counting on that.”
“Counting on them to steal the urn?” He was totally confused by this point. “Why?”
“Because it’s a fake,” she said in that maddeningly calm voice. “The real one is hidden. Sorry, but I don’t trust my mother not to sell me out. I’m really quite touched that she hired you…”
“I don’t know your mother.”
Her smile faded. “Then why were you watching me? Why did you come after me? Who are you?”
Your worst nightmare, he wanted to tell her. But the game wasn’t played yet, and he still had a job to do.
He’d have to kill her later.