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.