Centrifuge

Chapter Two

Dever's Brief

 

Carver glanced at his Omega and rubbed the crystal: eight-oh-five. Dever was late.

The bar was about ten-minutes by shoe leather express from the metro station at Roppongi Hills. An integrated urban center surrounding the landmark Mori Tower, it was situated in arguably the most famous of Tokyo's entertainment districts of the modern era.

Aside from the noise and pollution from the traffic congestion on Roppongi Dori, Ruben liked the walk―especially that time of year. Japan was down shifting to winter, with the late autumn air clear, cool, and dry. The seasonal trees had turned crimson a few weeks earlier and were shedding. The morning breeze scattered the leaves across the sidewalks, and drifted them against the superstructure of the Shuto expressway, elevated above the broad avenue.

As he thought about it, Ruben figured Henry was probably with Junior driving up from the Yokosuka Naval Station to Hardy Barracks. A small U.S. Army-run compound only five- or ten-minutes from the bar, the barracks was run like a hostel for military personnel who wanted to visit Tokyo on the cheap.

The rest of the facility housed detachments of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and Army Military Intelligence, a two-man office of NCIS, the Stars & Stripes newspaper production site, and the Japan base of operations for the Naval Research Laboratory. It was also the only place in central Tokyo were the American military could land choppers. For Junior, the site's most important feature was the free and easy parking.

Carver finished his grande Pike's Place before he came through the door and was jonesing for another. There was often coffee left in the pot behind the bar―the remnants of an after hours business―but not this morning. He hadn't checked the register; however, considering the ashtrays had been emptied and the beer tap couplers were laying disassembled in a basin of soapy water, the late-nighters must have gone home early.

He occupied his time waiting for Henry by shuffling through mail Yuki left stacked on the bar, which was mostly bills and adverts. He also scrolled through the lefty google news on the Internet, and checked his email―three times.

Email, or the lack thereof, was becoming an obsession. He never let it go more than thirty minutes without checking for any word from Rivka Levitan.

She was a former Shin Bet officer he'd shacked up with for several months until she'd called a time out. As far as he knew, she was back in Tel Aviv doing contract work for the Israeli security agency. He hadn't heard from her since they'd parted in Paris, near the end of September.

It wasn't like they'd fallen out of love or anything―no vapid drama or hoary romantics. Circumstances around one of her assignments she'd pulled him into forced the separation. It was also the reason he'd retired.

He'd had long term relationships before she came along. Marriage had even been discussed on occasion, but the job had always gotten in the way. A couple of family men he had the sometimes pleasure to work with always called it an excuse. Ruben liked to think of it as salvation.

Now, without a badge to lean on, he found himself feeling…vulnerable. It was like a reoccurring dream he had when he was a kid. The one where he was caught out in public in his underwear.

He assumed there was nothing extraordinary about the sensation. After all, he wasn't the first cop to toss in his shield. What was bugging him was the incessant pining over the Israeli. He'd really swallowed the hook.

He moved the cursor to the little red dot in the top left corner of the screen. The window closed to the desktop, which had a picture of Rivka he used as wallpaper. Oh, man I really need a distraction.

Two seconds later, the door swung open and in stepped Henry Dever. He was alone. Be careful what you wish for asshole.

#

With a tinge of irritation, Dever said, “Do you know how hard it is to find this place?”

“Good morning to you, too.”

Ruben slid off his stool and took five steps to the end of the counter. He and his longtime friend had never been into the man-hug thing. Even with all the shit they'd been through together, a greeting with embrace seemed queerly pretentious.

They did grip hands with enthusiasm, though, and Carver couldn't hide his pleasure in seeing the man. While Dever appeared no less ardent, Ruben knew him well enough to recognize a forced smile.

When their hands came apart, Carver couldn't help tapping Dever on the shoulder. “Come on in and grab a seat at the bar. I'll make us some coffee.”

Dever stood rooted for a second, looking around the space. “Wow, dude. This place is really yours?”

“Yep, all fifty percent of it. Can you believe it? My partner Barry and I have had to pump a shit-load of cash into this little piece of heaven over the last couple years, but so far it's turned out okay.”

“That's cool, my man, but I wasn't kiddin' when I said it was hard to find.”

Carver took a half a minute to walk around the counter to the grind and brew. As he tore open a gold foil packet of coffee beans the lead bartender ordered in bulk, he said, “Yeah, well…that's kinda the idea. There was a time―back in the day―when this,” Ruben waved a hand at the dark side of the room, “was rated one of the ten best cocktail lounges in the world.”

He had to raise his voice over the grinder. “Hyperbole aside, it had overflow crowds on the weekends, and while it did great business, its regulars referred to it as the secret bar. That's 'cause first-timers invariably had to come with someone who'd been here before.

“It had a back alley, speakeasy vibe the monied clientele liked. You know…kinda like a clubhouse for local celebrities, pro athletes and rich ex-pats. It wasn't uncommon for politicians to wander in either. I used to come in here after source meets. It beat runnin' the gauntlet of Nigerian touts up at Roppongi crossing.”

Ruben could see Henry had no idea what he was talking about when it came to the Africans on the strip.

“Anyway, that's how I found out the owner died and it was available. When Barry and I took over, only a few of the regulars hung on. Since we turned it into a blues and jazz livehouse, we've had to rough out the last couple of years rebuilding the brand and customer base. We still make great cocktails, though. The martinis are the best.

How'd you find the place?”

“Your website. It has a google map linked to the address.”

“Oh, yeah…right.

Carver pulled a couple ceramic mugs from a dry rack next the wash basin. “So...you wanna tell me what happened to Junior and what kinda shit you're about to dip me in?”

Dever shifted on the stool. “How'd you know I was here about Junior? Did someone call you?”

“Hank, you and I have been friends for almost twenty-years. It's safe to say you probably know me better than anyone else in NCIS. It's one of those trusted relationships everybody covets so much.

“I checked out...what, six months ago?” He didn't wait for a response. “The only contact I've had with the Service, up until this visit, has been with Junior Prosser. When he didn't walk in the door with you, I figured it had to be about him. Especially after what happened a couple weeks ago. I'm assuming you know what happened?”

Henry nodded and Ruben continued. “Anyway, I'm bettin' he isn't dead. You wouldn't have bothered with the small talk otherwise. You always lead with bad news, Hank. You can't help yourself.

“So, since the organization wouldn't ordinarily send the global head of CI ops all the way out here to conduct a 2B, I reckon Junior, or someone close to his collection operation, must have fucked up big time.

So, what kinda jam is he in?”

Dever didn't answer immediately. He stared at Ruben with another expression the big Okie recognized. Henry was trying to decide how much he could reveal. Ruben was now convinced his reference to an NCIS internal investigation out of the Inspector General's Office, called a 2B, was on the money.

Ruben lifted the pot off the burner. “You still take milk in your coffee?”

Henry's response was a non sequitur. “What do you know about Prosser's operation?”

Ruben set a steaming mug on top of a coaster in front of Henry. “If you're askin' me did Junior get blabby about the particulars of his activity...the answer is no. I know a source meet when I see one, but I had the good manners to ignore it. He had the good sense not say anything to compromise it.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

Maybe I was wrong...wouldn't be the first time. Carver folded his arms across his chest and dipped his head right an inch. “Two weeks ago. He was in here with his asset. A couple ragheads got fresh with her on her way out the door. That's something Barry and I won't tolerate around here.”

“That's not exactly how Prosser described it in his ROI.”

“Oh?”

“The way the report read, you and your partner really tuned them up. You also prevented an apparent kidnap attempt.”

“That sounds about right. The cops never came around askin' about it and I can't see what we did would land Junior in trouble. You wanna tell me what this is about.”

“Two days ago Prosser was medevaced to Trippler. He's in bad shape.”

Carver's arms fell to his sides as he studied Henry's face.

“I'm not sure coffee's the right beverage for what's comin' next.”

At that, he turned and pulled a bottle of Jameson from the second shelf, and then grabbed two whiskey tumblers from a stack on the counter. He poured two fingers in each and pushed one toward Dever, who stared at it.

“It's okay, Hank. You're still on DC time and the bars around the Navy Yard already have happy hour crowds. Cheers.”

They touched glasses, and Henry sipped enough to wet his lips. “There're only a couple of people who know I'm here talkin' to you. Our Director for one. The other is Art Sheppard.”

Carver reacted to this news by knocking back half the whiskey in his glass. Hearing the name of the Deputy Director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, did not give him comfort. And for good reason.

His first encounter with Sheppard was on a hilltop fire support base in Vietnam on Thanksgiving, 1972. Sheppard was a young first lieutenant leading a Marine Corps mortar platoon. They'd been assigned to support an ARVN weapons company dug in five-kilometers from the Laos border.

Carver had walked out of the jungle in the morning with only two surviving members of his Army Rangers squad. Sheppard's hospitality included a dust-off for his wounded man and a turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

That night, it turned into a major dustup and turkey shoot. The ARVN company, along with Sheppard's platoon, were overrun by a North Vietnamese Army battalion. Causalities were high on both sides, with Sheppard taking a 7.62mm in the ass.

Thirty-three years later, their paths crossed again in China. Sheppard was the CIA Station Chief in Beijing. Carver was on the trail of a hacker who'd been picking the DoD's pocket of classified military critical technologies. The American computer genius had been coopted by an international cabal known as The Board.

The completion of that mission saw Sheppard get a promotion to head up the CIA's Near East and South Asia Division in the newly established NCS. Carver suffered one his many 2Bs, a slow knitting bullet hole that still ached when it was cold or rainy, and a phobia towards bald Chinese women.

The last time he had to deal with Sheppard was over a year ago. A DARPA scientist, who'd also fallen prey to the siren song of The Board, was living large in Istanbul. With a proclivity for bio-weaponry and genocide, he'd weaponized a bacterial agent that was a potential planet killer.

He may have met Rivka on that mission, but he was still having nightmares about a giant Corsican who could have doubled for Leatherface.

Ruben picked up the bottle and poured another ounce of who-hit-John into the tumbler and said, “Goddammit, Hank...did you drive a dump truck of shit to my door?”

“Now wait a minute. Just hear me out.”

“I don't know that I want to. Junior wasn't flow to Hawaii 'cause he stubbed a toe. You wouldn't be here on the qt, with the blessing of the Director of NCIS and a CIA Deputy Director, to tell me a one-time coworker got his ass kicked.”

Henry rolled the whiskey glass between his palms. “That's right. He didn't just get his ass kicked. He was tortured and is now in a coma. The doctors who examined him said it looked like whoever had him used a hammer and pliers. He also had burns from a blowtorch and a few fingers removed.

“Apparently, what saved his life is they shot him in the forehead. It was a small caliber subsonic that didn't penetrate the skull. When it hit bone, it ricochetted around the cranium beneath the dermis and exited out the back of his head.

“It seems they didn't realize they hadn't scramble his brain, and left him for dead on a backstreet behind the New Sanno hotel.”

Ruben moved to the other side of the bar to mount a stool next to Henry. It wasn't often, these days, he'd hear something that would cause a papillae reaction. The goosebumps on the back of his neck had caused the hair to rise and he felt a chill.

“Ya know...with the amount of time Junior spends everyday on the JWICS terminal, reading top secret message traffic, I reckon he's got a fair bit of actionable intel between his ears. But what could he have possibly known to warrant that kinda interest.

“I mean, torture is a risky business. It takes time, and a secure location. I don't suppose it's possible he was bangin' the wife of a Yakuza boss...”

Carver paused a few seconds to take a sip, but before he got the glass to his mouth, something dawned on him. “He was found on a backstreet behind the New Sanno?”

“Yeah.”

“There's at least a half dozen embassies within a quarter mile radius of the New Sanno. I know for a fact, Iran and Pakistan have their diplomatic missions within easy walkin' distance.”

Henry nodded. “Uh-huh, that's right.”

“You still haven't told me what you're doin' here Henry. Why aren't you out mobilizing the other military criminal investigative organizations, and the US Embassy country team. They live for this kinda shit. Even the assholes over at Army MI would fall in for a chance to showcase their intelligence collection prowess.

“You'd get coverage from the cops to the Coast Guard. Shit...you might even receive a cooperative nod from CIRO and the PSIA. Not that any of them would actually lift a finger to help find the jagoffs.”

Dever shook his head. “To the extent headquarters is comfortable in bringing in our counterparts to help find the culprits, we've done that. And you're right again. Our window sources at the Japanese National Police and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department have been very sympathetic. They've even done some door knocking in the neighborhood where Prosser was found.

“The Public Security Intelligence Agency and the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office have also expressed concern, but little else. We have almost zero confidence the Japanese will do anything more than check traffic cams.”

Carver set his whiskey down and plugged the hole in the mug handle with an index finger. The coffee was tepid and stronger than expected. “What do you think I can do for you?”

“In their last meet, Junior's asset provided information the CIA is not prepared for us to share with anyone outside their headquarters and ours. It's important to note, however, that the intel, while significant, couldn't be why they worked him over as hard as they did.”

“I don't get it.”

“Come on Ruben, it's simple. Do you think even for an instant, Junior wouldn't have given up everything he knew, when they were gonna take a pair of pliers to his nuts. Fuck no.

“He knew just enough to make them think he might know more. When they finally came to the conclusion he didn't, he was shot in the head and dumped at a garbage pickup point.”

“Henry...”

“No Rube. We'll cover all your expenses, whatever hourly rate you're charging and a bonus. We want you to find out who did this, determine what it is they thought Prosser knew, and since we can't depend on the Japanese justice system to work in our favor, we want some payback.”

Carver set the mug down and straightened his back. He squeezed his shoulder blades together until he felt a few thoracic discs crack into place and then rotated his delts.

“Okay...a couple things first. I wanna read Junior's report. Most of my clearances are still active, so that won't be a problem. My retirement creds should get me on the base.”

“I'll give you whatever support I can, but going on the naval base is problematic. The SAC of the Field Office in Yokosuka can't know about you for now. Since the report is marked SECRET, I can't let you read it outside a secure space.”

Pfff...you're probably already in violation of some security protocol just talkin' to me.”

“Doesn't matter.”

“How 'bout the Embassy?”

“Nah, the same holds true for the station guys.”

“There's the two man NCIS office at Hardy Barracks. Tell the SAC you need the space for an afternoon. You can come up with some scenario to clear the place out.”

“That might work. I'll see what I can do.”

“I also need you to set me up with a hardware vender on an open account.”

“Now that will be difficult.”

“Then tell Sheppard. He'll make it happen. I'm gonna brief my partner Barry in as well. I'll likely need his help. He's former OSI and a good hand.” Carver went silent for a few seconds thinking. “I also wanna talk to the asset. What's her name?”

“I figured you would. Her name is Lisa Chin."

Ruben twisted on his stool. "The name sounds familiar, for some reason."

Henry shrugged and continued. "Makin' an introduction will be tough without your involvement becoming known. She's scared and pissed and she wasn't happy about being placed in witness protection.”

“Witness protection? Have you got the Marshall's involved."

"No, it's not official. The SAC in Yokosuka made a few arrangements with the base CO. She got a new ID last week, and we've created some thin backstopping.

“The day Junior was medevaced we put her on an AMC flight down to Kyushu. She's got a room at the Navy Lodge aboard the Fleet Activities in Sasebo. 

"We're gonna put her to work with our cyber guy as part of her cover. The RAC in Sasebo has been requesting additional support for a while anyway, so it fits.”

Ruben drained his whiskey and chased it with a draw on his cold coffee. “Looks like we're goin' to Nagasaki.”

Centrifuge

CHAPTER ONE

November 22, 2006

When the door came open the place was pitch-black. It was seven-thirty in the morning and Yuki, the lead bartender had locked up and gone home an hour earlier. He'd turned everything off except the refrigeration units and Carver could hear the low whine of the fans.

The Joint was a blues and jazz live house he and his partner Barry Sullivan opened in 2004, right after Ruben came back from four months in Iraq. Located in the basement of the Dai-Yama building near the intersection of Roppongi Dori and Gaien-nishi Dori, the customer entrance was in the rear. It was down thirty winding steps at the end of a short alley.

For music aficionados of the America primitive, it was a great place to hang out. For folks looking to escape unwanted attention or enjoy a discreet rendezvous, they could hide out. Two innocuous reasons why he was about to be dragged into a shitstorm he went to Japan to avoid.

He flipped a switch hidden under a narrow rack next to the door. The strip lighting, attached to the liquor bottle shelves, popped on, giving him enough visibility to navigate around the bar. The control panel for the main lighting was in the kitchen at the far end of the twenty-foot long oak countertop.

After fumbling around for a few seconds he found the knob for the pendent lighting. Eight incandescent globe bulbs in stainless steel cages, illuminated the top of the twenty-year old solid wood surface. It had seen better days, but Carver liked the chips, dents and cigarette burns. It had character.

Each dimmable bulb, dangling on polished chains, was a hundred watts and he twisted the control to bring them to full brightness. The rest of the room he left dark. A pair of Gino Sarfatti chandeliers hanging over the hall were good mood setters, but left on during the day drove the utility bill up.

Retired from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in July, he'd been back in the land of the rising sun by early October. His partner Barry provided the vehicle for sponsorship that netted Ruben a Japanese work visa. He may have viewed the whole setup as a lifestyle cliché, but he was comfortable and more importantly...legal.

#

Barry was an interesting guy. A former Marine, he'd joined the Corps when he graduated from high school. While semper fidelis had become more to him than a proud motto, he'd decide early on he wasn't going to spend six years, let alone twenty, humping to someone else's cadence. He wanted to be an officer and a gentleman.

When his enlistment was up, he went back home to the northeast, and spent his GI bill on four years at Boston University. He walked out with a BS in Criminal Justice and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. After twenty years in the Office of Special Investigations, he retired as a Major.

He'd mentioned to Ruben once his only regret was a career free of controversy or scandal. Competence, skill and good leadership never seemed to be enough. If a guy wasn't stepping on his dick or sucking one with relish, promotions were slow in coming.

That's not to say he didn't have folks singing his praise. Barry had a knack for abstract thought and pattern recognition. An adept at investigations, his mental acuity with applied logic set him apart. It wasn't unusual for a flag officer to request him by name for a special project, or a high profile case. He'd even been grabbed up for a few tough staff jobs.

When asked why he didn't want to stay in for promotion to 0-5, he just shook his head and told his boss it was a road he wasn't willing to travel. He'd seen what happened to officers he'd liked before they'd begun to claw their way up to senior leadership. The unavoidable occupational hazard of becoming obtuse made him breakout in a cold sweat.

Barry was in the Far East when he'd pulled the plug, and had little difficulty getting a job in the security consulting industry. He used that platform to land a fat expat package in the Tokyo office of a giant U.S. based financial firm. He was in that position when he met Carver.

Ruben never bothered to analyze how he and Barry became such good friends. It was slow in developing, which is probably why their bond of trust became so solid. Their decision to open a bar together was nothing more than a natural transition in the relationship.

When Carver retired, he'd called Barry and told him he was heading back, but was worried about a work visa and resident status. It didn't take his partner long to find a solution.

Barry formed a corporation called Intelligence, Technology and Research, with its primary business declared as security consulting and private investigations. He'd listed Ruben Carver as a corporate officer responsible for business development.

It looked good on paper, and was instrumental in Ruben acquiring a resident card. He used Barry's address in Minami-aoyama and was camped out in the guest room, while he looked for an apartment he could afford.

He and Barry both knew, however, the competition in Japan for PI work and consulting made it difficult to put any real coin in their pockets. Their primary source of income, outside of their retirement checks and Barry's job as country head of security for an investment bank, was The Joint.

#

Ruben settled onto a stool in front of the beer taps, and pushed open an Apple laptop. As much as he felt right at home in that setting, nothing had a lonelier feel than a bar after closing time. He pressed the power button, and checked his watch as the OS booted up.

Another old friend and NCIS colleague, Henry Dever, had contacted him during a jam session the night before. Even though he could barely hear through the din of wannabe rockstars, Ruben could tell it wasn't a social call.

Henry was in charge of NCIS's global counterintelligence operations, Code 0022. He and Ruben had been tight since Henry's days as a boot agent, but it was three bloody operations in the last two years, which cemented their bond. Henry was in town and wanted to get together, but the tenor of his voice made it clear it was all business.

They agreed to a zero-eight confab at the bar. As Carver rubbed a few scuffed and bruised knuckles, he assumed this get together had something to do with another, more recent NCIS associate, Junior Prosser.

A special agent and counterintelligence case officer, Prosser had been coming to the club at least once a week since Carver's return. He was also aware Junior had been using the night spot for source meets.

He really didn't want to know anything about Junior's activity. He'd done his best to ignore it, but he assumed it was either a collection or a double agent operation.

On one occasion, Prosser was a little too loud in explaining the importance of following directions to predesignated cover stops. The woman to whom he was providing the remedial training, had apparently become too cavalier in running her surveillance detection routes.

Carver remembered the last time they'd been in was on a Wednesday evening, a week before last. They sat at a corner table, at the back of the hall. The house lights were down and the music up, giving everyone at the tables on the floor a sense of privacy.

The meet lasted less than an hour. He wouldn't have paid them any notice, if wasn't for the three swarthy characters parked at the bar. Carver made them for Iranians from their accents when they'd strolled in a few minutes after Prosser's asset.

They ranged between five-eleven and six-two. Two were stocky, but fit, with slim hips countered by thick arms and thighs. The taller of the three was leaner, with pronounced traps and delts his leather jacket couldn't hide. They all had lined number one cuts and trimmed eyebrows. The close shaves, however, couldn't rid the beard shadows overlaying their olive complexions.

Ruben had heard stories from a few of his close copper friends about Iranian drug dealers in Shibuya who fit their general description. He'd seen them a number of times when he went into Odagawachoan area north of the Shibuya crossing catering to high school and college age youth. It was jammed with arcades, record stores, and trendy junk shops.

The Iranians there had the feel of predators as they loitered around Gas Panic, McDonalds and Shakey's Pizza. The three kites leaning against the bar were different, though. They were...cleaner. The black leather jackets, crew neck T's, denim slacks and logo'd trainers didn't come off a sales rack at Don Quijote.

They'd paid for a round of beer, which sat untouched, as they pretended to chat. Initially, Ruben thought they may have come in to case the place. The tall one had quick, deep set eyes that checked for exits and other customers as soon as he walked in.

Ruben placed himself at the end of the counter, close to the cash register. It gave him an angle to keep an eye on them. Barry, who'd also gotten a hinky vibe about the three, joined him.

It didn't take long for Carver to realize their interest sat twenty-feet away, talking to Junior. He didn't know her name. Junior knew better than to introduce her and Carver knew better than to ask.

She couldn't have been more than five-feet tall, if that. Maybe ninety pounds fully dressed. She wore bluejeans, Converse hightop Allstars, and a grey cashmere turtle neck sweater under a long black wool overcoat. Her body shape was masked by layered garments.

Pretty in a no-makeup, fresh-faced sort of way, her skin was the color of caramel custard. She had almond eyes, with heavy epicanthic folds and thin arching eyebrows; all perched above round protruding cheekbones. From there her face sloped to a small pointed chin.

Her lips were full and seemed to remain crinkled in a pout below a nose without dorsum. Its apex was as round as a .30 caliber ball bearing, and the ala, like small wings, barely covered her nostrils.

Ruben thought her best feature was her hairstraight, thick and as shiny black as high gravity crude. With the exception of plumb cut bangs, it hung down her back to her waist. She could have been Japanese but Carver was betting Chinese. It was the way she movedher hand gestures and facial expressions. She lacked the acute self-consciousness most Japanese women are burdened with.

When they finished their meets, she always left first through the entrance leading to the back alley. Junior stayed behind to drink a beer and shoot the shit. When he left, it was always through the storage room and out the delivery door, which took him up to Gaien-nishi Dori.

That evening was no different. She slung a backpack on one shoulder when she stood, waved a hand at Prosser as she did a hundred and eighty degree pirouette, and headed for the door without looking back.

The three Iranians waited for her to get outside before they filed to the door. Their casual affectation disappeared as they moved with obvious purpose. Whatever their intent, Carver knew it wouldn't include dinner and a movie.

He squeezed behind the bar and retrieved the ASP he kept under the register. A sixteen-inch telescoping carbon steel baton he'd carried during operations since the mid-90's. Barry didn't need to ask. He pulled an aluminum bat from a coat cupboard behind him.

None of this had apparently escaped Junior, who'd gotten to his feet and approached the two.

“What's goin' on?”

Carver moved to the door. “I think your girl's in trouble. Didn't you see those three fucknuts at the bar staring at her? They just followed her out.”

The big Okie didn't wait for an answer. He and Barry were halfway up the stairs when he heard muffled screams. It took no more than a few seconds to reach the landing to the alley, where two of the thugs had put the grabs on her.

They'd already stripped off her overcoat.

The tall lanky one had her around the waist, while one of his pals gripped her legs. The third was standing at the rear of a car parked at the curb. The trunk lid was up.

Carver had slipped the ASP in a hip pocket and moved toward the two who were struggling with the woman.

“Put her down!”

The taller one must have been the leader. “Go back inside before you get hurt. This is none of your business.”

The guy speaks English. “No jackass, this is my business. The cops are on their way.”

When Lanky nodded at his friend, the guy dropped the girl's legs and rounded on Ruben. He was up on the balls of his feet, and his chin tucked. With his fists clenched, cocked at the belt line, he moved forward with a short, quick stride. What happened next surprised the pug.

In Carver's experience, most people didn't want to fight. Even when they get into heated exchanges, they avoid going to blows. It's was the natural fear of getting hit.

Folks invariably backed away or turned from an aggressive move, at least initially. That's why shitheads, like the one in front of Carver, experienced very little resistance when they stepped up for beat down.

Ruben, on the other hand, was itching for a punch up. These fucks had come into his place and were abusing one his customers.

He brought his hands up and closed the distance before the chump could react. He led with a right hand jab that spilt the dipshit's upper lip and followed it with a left cross. He twisted his hips into the punch and heard the septal cartilage tear away from the nasal bone.

As the jerk's hands came up, Carver drove a right hook into his left side below the rib cage. The chump's knees buckled and Carver finished the four punch combo was a right uppercut. A coup de grace that slammed the guy's mouth shut, shattering incisors and removing the tip of his tongue.

The turd's eyes glazed over and he crumpled straight down. It was a dance that took no more than three or four seconds. A brief interlude, before Carver once again demanded the lanky prick let the girl go.

Maybe the dude didn't speak English as well as Carver thought, or maybe the kidnapping was more involved than a night of Muslim style frivolity. For whatever reason, the guy called on stooge number three.

The Persian next to the car stretched his neck left, then right, with an audible crack. When he made eye contact with Carver, a lopsided grin formed as he skinned a flat-black, double edged dagger he had sheathed in his waistband. Six-inches of nastiness that would have made Fairbairn and Sykes proud.

Barry, a few feet behind Carver and watching the situation unfold, uttered a confident reproach.

“Boy, that was stupid...”

Ruben wasn't so optimistic. His only advantage was the narrow alleyway. The blade-wielder couldn't rush him because his rangy partner filled the lane, still tussling with Junior's asset.

Mr. Stiletto's stalled momentum, though, gave Ruben all the time he needed. In one motion he pulled the ASP from his hip pocket, extended the two rod sections with a snap and chamber the baton at his shoulder.

With two shuffle steps, Carver was in range. His first strike was a slash to the wrist of the man's empty hand. It was the closest target. He couldn't tell if he broke any bones but he hit it hard enough to know the dickwad wouldn't be able use it to grab or block.

The pain also forced the man to back up and go defensive. With the baton again chambered, Carver moved forward until he was at a distance to work on the guy's head. He flicked a feint, and Mr. Stiletto threw his knife hand up to block. Carver twisted his whole body into the next blow, bringing the baton down on the guy's knuckles.

The fight was over except for the howling and the big Okie put a stop to that with a finishing strike to the loser's forehead. Like the first guy, he ragdolled in a heap.

The message finally got through to the gangly dickhead holding the woman and he let her go. She adjusted her clothes with a few adrenaline fueled tugs and turned on her attacker. With a shrieking kiai that sounded more like fuck you, she front kicked him in the groin.

He bent over sucking air through grit teeth, cupping his crotch with both hands. She glared at him for a few seconds, then grabbed up her overcoat and backpack. Without another word, or even acknowledgement to the two men who came to her rescue, she stormed off.

Junior brushed past Carver saying, “Thanks, Rube. I better see if she's okay,” and was gone.

Barry's next comment brought Ruben out of a flummoxed disbelief.
“What are we gonna do about these three?”

“Well...I don't wanna kill 'em. Disposal's a hassle and the neighbors would be disagreeable.”

Lanky looked up with obvious concern etched on his already contorted face.

Carver cocked his head sideways studying the man and said, “The police are gonna be here soon and as much as I'd like to know what this was all about,” he pointed to two on the ground, “I'm gonna give you the opportunity to clean this mess up and get the fuck out.

“Hurry up and decide, asshole. I don't want to get cited for littering.”

To Ruben, the defiant answer came as no surprise. “You've made a big mistake, fucker. You don't know who you're dealing with. You've stuck your kafir nose in the wrong business. This is not the end of it.”

“You better hope it is.” Carver said, without much emphasis.

He then reached down and retrieved the dagger, gave Barry a nod and strolled back to The Joint.