Sneak peek of NO CHOICES – first two chapters….. [first draft] – let me know what you think:
Yoshi Watanabe had been an FBI forensic analyst for over a decade, yet there he was, sitting in the security office for a luxury apartment complex, staring at monitors for hours at a time. Despite the heat coming off the bank of computers and video recording equipment, the room felt cold. It was the temperature along with the aroma of the brewing coffee that helped keep him awake.
He glanced at the other security guard who’d fallen asleep in his chair and shook his head. The man was in his fifties, likely twenty years his senior, but out of shape and was practically useless.
Yoshi had been out of the Bureau for nearly two years. He’d left because of his older brother, but things weren’t that bad. He was being paid twice what he’d gotten as a federal agent, thanks to his family’s connections, yet it still troubled him that he was sitting in an office, like a veal, staring at monitors. If he allowed himself to dwell on that aspect of his job, he’d probably be depressed.
A familiar voice broadcast through the intercom’s speaker, it was coming from the property’s gated entrance. “Pizza delivery.”
It was almost 10:00 p.m., later than the normal deliveries. He glanced at the surveillance image just as someone buzzed open the gate to let the Domino’s delivery car drive in. He’d heard the same delivery man’s voice several times a night for nearly a year. But this time, there was something off about the man’s tone.
There was a tremor in the driver’s voice, almost as if he was extremely nervous about something. The hairs on the back of Yoshi’s neck suddenly stood on end.
He scooted his chair closer to the four video monitors on the desk and scanned the images, trying to follow where the delivery car had gone.
It was a sprawling apartment complex with two dozen different video cameras. As he flipped from one motion-activated feed to another, he spotted a man wearing a ski mask race from one of the apartments, a child’s limp body draped over his shoulder.
He glanced at the security feed ID along the top of the image.
With his heart racing, Yoshi took in the details of the image. The parking lot was visible on the far end of the hallway.
Definitely the first floor.
The door the man had run out of was the third one from the end.
Yoshi’s breath caught in his throat.
It had to be apartment 1C.
“No!” He yelled impotently at the screen, waking the other security guard.
“What? Who?” The bewildered guard blinked the sleep out of his eyes as Yoshi raced from the security office.
He blasted through the door leading into the apartment complex’s courtyard.
Tires screeched and he sprinted toward the security gate with his gun drawn.
That wasn’t just any child. That was the granddaughter of Shinzo Tanaka, the leader of one of Japan’s largest crime syndicates.
Yoshi winced as he heard the two-ton gate begin to move.
Panting, he arrived in time to see the back of a late-model Honda fishtail away from the apartment complex as the exit gate yawned open.
Gritting his teeth, he raced across the grounds toward building 3 and was greeted by one of the security guards. “Hey, Yoshi. What’s going—”
“Shut up and call the police. There’s been a kidnapping! Building 3, apartment 1C.”
A chill raced up the middle of Yoshi’s back. If they got away with the child, what happened to her mother?
Ryuki Watanabe waited in the Chairman’s conference room. He’d taken the first available flight to Tokyo after his brother, Yoshi, called with the news. He couldn’t let him take the blame, the kidnapping of Tanaka’s granddaughter was his responsibility.
It was late in the evening and he was alone in the conference room on the top floor of the Tanaka building in downtown Tokyo. Sitting at the conference-room table, Ryuki panned his gaze across the room and frowned. He preferred the traditional decorations of his Japanese ancestry, low-profile tables around which people would sit seiza-style, hanging scrolls with Japanese calligraphy, and silk-embroidered art. None of this was present.
Instead, Tanaka’s conference room favored a Western style. It smelled of the black leather high-back chairs that encircled the long table that dominated the room and could easily seat twenty. The table was made of some form of black wood that gleamed with a heavy polish. Maybe ebony?
Suddenly, the far door opened and Shinzo Tanaka appeared in the doorway. The man was in his mid-sixties, his stone-like expression was betrayed by his bloodshot eyes. He strode into the room, two bodyguards followed one step behind him, closed the door and effectively blocked the exit.
Ryuki felt a surge of anxiety as he stared at his long-time boss. He’d known the man for nearly a quarter century, yet he’d never seen him look as haggard as he did this evening.
The tension between the leader of the Tanaka Syndicate and his second-in-command was palpable.
“Ryuki,” the elder’s gravelly voice was heavy with emotion. “How … how did this happen?”
“I’m sorry.” Ryuki bows his head as he nervously traced the outline of the knife in his front right pocket. “It all happened very quickly. The man broke into the apartment, the child’s mother was knocked unconscious, and the child was kidnapped all in less than a minute. The American police are involved and I have our people looking into it as well.”
Tanaka’s face darkened as he pressed his lips together, struggling to maintain a calm exterior. “You’d promised me that my granddaughter would be safe in America.”
“I did.” A cool sense of resignation washed over Ryuki as he bowed before his boss. “I’m prepared to give a most sincere apology.”
Without another word, Ryuki laid a pristine white silken cloth about ten-inches square on the table. He placed his left fist on the middle of the cloth with his pinkie extended. Glancing up at Tanaka, he bowed his head with a deep feeling of regret. It was his first time ever disappointing the man. He hoped it would be the last.
Ryuki pulled a knife out of his pocket, and flipped open the razor-sharp blade. He gritted his teeth and without hesitation, sliced heavily across the furthest knuckle of his pinkie.
As the knife sliced across the fibrous tendons, he felt them snap, almost as if they were rubber bands.
He tightened his core, and barely suppressed a grunt of pain as the blade cut through the joint. The wound flared with heat as Ryuki used his right hand to bundle the tip of his finger in the white silk.
With his head bowed, Ryuki gave the grotesque offering to Tanaka, who grimly accepted the apology.
As Ryuki wrapped the injured finger with a gauze impregnated with a clotting agent and cleaned the blood from the table, Tanaka pulled out a chair and sat across from him.
“Ryuki, we must find my granddaughter. She’s my son’s only child.”
His hand throbbed with pain as he absorbed his boss’s words. Tanaka’s son had been killed in the U.S. during what the police had called a random drive-by shooting. Ryuki felt the man’s emotional pain. The elder man had sheltered his son from their life, just like he’d sheltered his brother. “I’ve already received the video tapes. I will get more of our people on this.”
Tanaka leaned forward and slid toward him a folded scrap of paper with handwriting on the outside.
Using his right hand, Ryuki leaned over and retrieved the note.
“I’m giving you permission to reach out to the Italians in our American territory. There is one there that I’d trust with this.” He pointed at the paper in Ryuki’s hand. “But get permission from his family first. Promise whatever you need to acquire his help. I’ll cover the expense.”
Tanaka stood and the bodyguards opened the conference-room door. “Take the next flight and arrange this with the Bianchi family from New York City.”
As Ryuki stood, Tanaka placed his hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Bring my granddaughter safely back to me. She’s my only living heir.” He spoke with a tone that brooked no argument. “Nothing else is more important.”
Ryuki bowed and Tanaka gave him a light shove toward the exit. “Go!”
As he strode quickly down the hallway, Ryuki unfolded the paper and looked at the English name scrawled on it.
He pressed the button calling for the elevator and wondered, “Who in the world is Levi Yoder?”
Levi watched as a statuesque woman in her early thirties stood at the head of the emptied common room in Harlem’s YMCA. She had straight shoulder-length black hair and mocha-colored skin that contrasted beautifully with the white gi she was wearing. She had a black belt cinched around her narrow waist as she put a group of nearly two-dozen neighborhood kids through several basic martial arts forms.
In his mind, Madison was the personification of grace and beauty in a slim five-foot-ten-inch package. Their relationship was complicated. To say they were friends was to make too little of it, but to say they were a couple … well, it wasn’t quite that either.
Even though Madison lived in D.C. while he lived in New York City, that wasn’t the most difficult thing to deal with, especially since it was just a couple hours by train. It was their jobs that made things complicated.
After all, he was one of the few people who knew she was a covert operations officer for the CIA. Her working for the government made things a bit awkward, since she pretty much knew he was at least involved with some less-than-savory characters. The fact was, Levi was actually one of the leading members of a prominent Mafia family based out of New York.
They’d met nearly a year ago while Levi was overseas. He’d found himself in a situation that ended up having him cooperate with what ended up being agents of the CIA. She was one of those agents and he’d been smitten from the moment he first saw her.
Since that time, neither of them talked much about work, it left things much easier that way.
It was hard for Levi to imagine a more unlikely pair. He wasn’t sure where their relationship was going, but she had his undivided attention, that was a certainty.
He stood with his back against the white cinder-block wall and watched as Madison taught the ad-hoc class. The ages of the students ranged from pre-K to late teens. They also seemed to represent the rainbow of races and cultures that made up the neighborhood and New York City itself.
“You know, if she really wanted to teach kids, I could probably find her a nicer place uptown.”
Levi turned to Carmine, one of mobsters who’d accompanied him, and shook his head. “Nah, she knows the guy who runs this place. The way I understand it, this guy saved Madison from an orphanage in Okinawa back when she was a kid and got her together with her grandma that now lives out in L.A.”
Paulie, the other mobster who’d accompanied them, remarked, “Is this what she does, teach karate?”
Levi turned to his left and craned his neck to face the giant mobster, who stood nearly six-foot-ten. “Nah, that’s just something she’s been doing since she was a kid. Probably longer than I have. She works out in D.C. doing political analysis and stuff.” Political analyst was Madison’s official cover, since her real job title was strictly confidential. “I don’t get too deep into her work, it saves some awkward questions, if you know what I mean.”
Paulie nodded with a somber expression. “Yup, it can be tough. My Rita and I have been married for almost ten years and she still thinks I’m an accountant. It’s just easier that way.”
One of the doors leading into the common room opened and a tiny Asian girl walked in. She couldn’t have been more than five years old.
She was wearing a yellow dress with a wide black belt and puffy sleeves. Her black hair was pulled back into two pony tails, each of which was tied with a matching yellow ribbon. She was carrying a small box in her hands.
The girl scanned the room and when her eyes landed on Levi, she walked directly to him. With a sense of curiosity, he knelt so that he was eye-level with her. “Hi there. Is there something I can I help you with?”
She held a serious expression, bowed and began speaking in rapid Japanese.
He blinked with surprise and wondered how she knew he’d understand her. After all, with dark-brown hair, blue eyes and a rather pale complexion, nobody would have confused him for Asian. However, having lived in Japan for a handful of years, he’d become fluent in the language and Levi smiled as the tiny doll of a girl spoke her memorized message.
“Yoder-san, my name is Kimiko and my father wishes you good health and prosperity. He hopes to invite you to visit so that you and he can talk in private.” She bowed her head and with both hands, presented a small hand-sized box tied with a red ribbon.
Levi took the package, returned her bow and said in Japanese, “Thank you, Kimiko.”
Untying the ribbon, Levi stood, opened the box and his eyes widened. Inside the box was a stack of one-hundred-dollar bills and a rolled-up parchment.
Levi thumbed through the stack of money and whistled with appreciation. He unrolled the parchment and realized it was a formal, handwritten letter. The Japanese calligraphy was gorgeously done with a brush, in a traditional style.
“I have contacted Don Vincenzo Bianchi and he has given me permission to formally reach out to you.
“I am Mister Shinzo Tanaka’s U.S. representative and would very much like to have a meeting between you and I.
“I would not reach out to you unless I felt the cause was justified. There is an innocent life at stake, and I humbly request your assistance on behalf of my superior.
“I’ve enclosed something to compensate for your time. I hope to hear from you tonight.
“Sincerely, Ryuki Watanabe.”
The rest of the note was repeated in English, gave an address and a time later that evening. It was signed with a thumbprint, whose reddish-brown color looked very much like dried blood.
With a sense of burning curiosity, Levi switched his gaze back and forth from the partially-curled scroll in his hand and the little girl who’d delivered it. He wanted to ask her questions, but he grudgingly left them unsaid. After all, she was just a little kid.
“Sir,” Kimiko tapped at Paulie’s leg as she stared up at the large man.
With an amused expression, Paulie leaned down. “Yes?” He spoke very softly with a warm tone to his voice.
“You’re very tall,” she said matter-of-factly in perfect English. “Can I sit on your shoulder so I can touch the ceiling?”
Levi watched with wonder as the large man engaged with the guileless little girl. For a man who could tear most people apart limb from limb, he was very gentle with the girl as he placed her on his right shoulder and stood.
Kimiko reached up, touched one of the ceiling tiles and laughed. “I did it!”
Paulie lifted her off his shoulder and carefully placed her on the ground.
She immediately held out her hand with a serious expression and shook hands with the giant man. “Thank you, Mister. I’m going to tell everyone at school about you, but I don’t think they’ll ever believe I saw a giant.” Kimiko shifted her gaze to Levi and again spoke in Japanese. “My Dad’s driver is waiting for me. I have to go. Maybe I’ll see you later?”
“It’s possible,” Levi replied in Japanese.
The girl rushed through the common room’s exit and disappeared just as the martial arts class began to disperse.
As he stared at the doorway that Kimiko had raced through, Levi felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see Madison smiling at him. “You made a new friend?” She nodded toward the exit.
“I suppose so.” He shrugged and gave her a peck on the lips. “We all done here?”
“Pretty much, it was fun.” Madison snaked her arm under his suit coat and around his waist, giving him a squeeze. “Though I think next time, you should teach the class with me.”
“I’ll go get the car,” Carmine announced and rushed out of the room.
They walked toward the exit as the YMCA staff began moving the common room’s furniture back into place.
“I don’t know, I kind of like watching you. So, what time do you need to be at Penn Station?”
“I’ve got an early day tomorrow, so my train’s scheduled to leave at three o’clock.”
Levi glanced at his watch. “Your bag’s in the car, right?”
He sighed. “Maddie, these weekends go by too quickly.”
She tightened her grip around his waist and leaned her head against his. “I feel the same way. But hey, unless something happens, I should be off for two weeks right around Christmas. If you think you can deal with me for that long, we should plan something. It’s only a couple months away.”
Hearing the conversation, Paulie suggested, “You know, the wife and I had a really nice time at the Poconos for our fifth anniversary. The resorts are all probably booked, but I know a few people. I can probably get you guys into one of those two-story champagne tub suites and stuff. It’s nice and romantic.”
Madison bumped her hip against Levi’s. “Hmm, romantic sounds nice.” She gave Levi a quick kiss on the cheek. “Let me go change and I’ll be right back.” She rushed off to the locker rooms and Levi’s gaze followed her as she darted past a few people talking in the hallway.
For a brief moment, Levi imagined what it would be like with Madison in a hot tub filled with bubbles.
He glanced at Paulie. “Okay big guy, if you have some strings you can pull, I’d appreciate it.”
Paulie looked down at Levi and grinned. “Not that it’s any of my business, but I think you two should make a more permanent arrangement.”
Levi laughed and shook his head. In his mind, he pictured the giant mobster playing the role of Yenta, the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof. An excellent play he’d seen on Broadway.
“It’s complicated.” He glanced again at his watch. “Paulie, can you go out there and make sure Carmine knows we’ll need to head straight to Penn Station before going to the Helmsley. I’ve got to talk business with the Don, and Madison can’t be around for that.”
Driving along Park Avenue, the sedan rolled just past East 86th Street and pulled up to a stately old building with two marble columns on each side of the entrance.
The words “The Helmsley Arms” were emblazoned in gold leaf above the ten-foot-tall doors.
Levi hopped out of the car and the cool damp of the late fall in New York City hit him. The earthy smell of fallen leaves and exhaust filled the air, an unmistakable signature of when and where he was.
As he approached the building’s entrance, the doors opened and he saw Frank Minnelli, the head of security, standing in the doorway. The man was in his early forties, the same age as Levi and dressed in an almost identical tailored suit.
He motioned for Levi and said, “We’re waiting on you.”
They both walked into the building’s marble-floored foyer, past the two burly mobsters who were guarding the entrance, and into the elevator to the top floor.
Levi glanced at Frankie. “So, I’m guessing someone reached out to Vinnie?”
The elevator doors slid open, they turned left and walked through the short wood-paneled hallway.
“You better believe it,” Frankie snorted. “But I’ll leave that for Vinnie to tell.”
Two other mobsters hopped up from their chairs as they approached a set of double doors.
The guards nodded and opened the doors as Vinnie and Levi walked into Don Bianchi’s parlor.
Levi couldn’t help but be amazed at how far up his friends had gone since they started out together in Little Italy over twenty years ago. He panned his gaze across the large, well-appointed room filled with ornately carved decor, beautiful paintings and a museum-quality marble statue of the Venus de Milo.
There were two fireplaces on either side of the room and a large ornately-carved mahogany desk on the far end of the room. Don Vincenzo Bianchi, the head of the Bianchi crime family was wearing reading glasses as he sat at the desk, poring over a sheaf of papers. He looked up as they walked in and motioned for them. “Come in guys. Frankie, you and I need to talk about a few things, but first let’s get this Tanaka thing out of the way.”
Levi took a seat in one of the reddish-brown leather armchairs in front of the desk, Frankie sat in the other. “Vinnie, so what’s this about getting your permission to reach out to me? Are these people who I think they are?”
Vinnie removed his reading glasses, tossed them on the desk and rubbed his eyes. “Frankie, how many made-men and connected guys do we have right now?”
Frankie shifted in the chair and frowned. “I think with Carlo Moretti last month, we’re at 127 made-men, and I’m not sure on the complete number, but we’ve got right around 1000 earners in total.”
The Don drummed his fingers on the table and turned to Levi. “I got a call this morning from the number two guy in the Tanaka syndicate. Not sure if you know who they are, but they’re a pretty serious group out of Japan. In the last handful of years they’ve expanded beyond Japan and have been muscling in on some of the Tong businesses on the West Coast and even have a presence here in the city.
“Levi, you and I have both agreed that it’s best you not be part of the day-to-day business dealings of the family, especially with some of the stuff you’ve been doing in the past with the feds. But you know what we’re dealing with when it comes to these other groups. Let’s just say this Tanaka syndicate has ten times our manpower, they’ve just spread out in a wider net.”
Vinnie leaned forward and poked his finger in the air for emphasis. “They’ve made us an offer contingent on your helping them out with something. It’s a really serious offer.”
Levi’s mind raced back to the text on the rolled-up note. “The message I got said something about an innocent life, do you know what they want from me?”
“Nope, I have no idea.” Vinnie shook his head. “These Yakuza types have pretty much kept to their own kind, but I hear things. They’re vicious when angered, and I’m not interested in sending you into a meat grinder.
“This Ryuki guy, he said that he’d guarantee your safety and wanted an opportunity to have a sit down with you. He was extremely polite, like a lot of those Asian guys are, but frankly, I don’t like it.
“Levi, you and I go back to the beginning. I love you like a brother and I frankly don’t know what to make of this. This guy was really vague and couldn’t even tell me why he was looking for you specifically. If you don’t want to go, you’ve got my complete backing on it.”
Frankie cleared his throat and frowned. “Levi, I did a little checking on this Tanaka syndicate. Their main guy was denied entry into the U.S. a handful of years ago, even when his son had been killed. That’s about the only thing I’ve been able to dig up. It’s kind of unnerving. This number-two guy is also a freaking ghost. No record. No beef with the local or Japanese law. Yet the word on the streets is to stay away from these Yakuza nuts. These guys make some of our folks look like choir boys.” He jabbed his finger in Levi’s direction. “Just be careful. I can’t read this one, and that makes me a little crazy.”
Why did they want to talk to him specifically? How did that little girl manage to pick him out of a crowd of people at the YMCA? She spoke English, yet how’d she know he understood Japanese? Coincidence?
Almost certainly not. These Yakuza must have done their research. But why him?
With curiosity gnawing at him, Levi glanced at Vinnie and smiled. “So, is the offer they gave for my help worthwhile?”
Vinnie leaned back in his chair and returned his smile. “I wouldn’t have told him how to reach you if it wasn’t a sweet deal.”
Levi hopped up from his chair, rapped his knuckles on the desk and said, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t keep the man waiting.”
Feeling a sense of uncertainty, Levi stepped out of the elevator on the 86th floor of the Freedom Tower, now known as One World Trade Center. He panned his gaze across the large lobby. It had a large sitting area with western-style decorations: plush leather chairs, a coffee table with business magazines stacked in an organized pile, next to them was a neatly folded issue of the Wall Street Journal.
He walked past the sitting area, toward the receptionist’s desk. Levi wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but when he’d mentally prepared himself to meet one of the top men in a notorious Japanese gang, he hadn’t expected a place that looked like a banker’s office.
The only reason Levi knew he was in the right place was due to the “Tanaka Industries” emblazoned in large silver letters on the wall behind the receptionist’s desk.
The receptionist stood as he approached, gave him a brilliant smile and bowed ever-so-slightly. “Mister Yoder, you are a bit early. Mister Watanabe hasn’t arrived yet.”
The woman was beautiful. She had only the slightest accent, likely born in Japan but came to the States as a young teen. The receptionist looked like she was in her mid-twenties, she was tall, had a willowy build and her pale skin resembled fine ivory.
Levi glanced at his watch. He was fifteen minutes early. “I suppose I’ll just—”
The elevator chimed just as it yawned open and two Asian men stepped through its doors.
The receptionist’s eyes widened as she motioned with an open hand toward the newly-arrived men. “Here comes Mister Watanabe.”
Levi turned and puzzled over the two men as they strode toward him. They looked a lot alike. Both were a few inches shy of six feet, they were dressed in business suits, but the one on the left, he looked a bit older. His suit was obviously custom-tailored while the other’s looked like it had been purchased off-the-rack. An expensive rack, but nonetheless, there was a clear difference. Brothers?
“Mister Yoder?” The man on the left extended his hand and Levi shook it. “I’m Ryuki Watanabe.” The man spoke in heavily-accented English.
“Please, call me Levi.” He responded in Japanese. “Was it your daughter that delivered the package?”
The man’s eyebrows raised and he smiled. A beaming sort of smile that betrayed an inner sense of pride. “It was.” Ryuki motioned toward the man standing to his left. “This is my younger brother, Yoshi.”
Yoshi shook hands with Levi and said in unaccented English, “It’s nice to meet you.”
Ryuki’s gaze shifted to the receptionist and he spoke in rapid-fire Japanese. “Hiromi, is my conference room prepared?”
“Hai.” Hiromi remarked in the affirmative and nodded curtly. “Everything is ready.”
Ryuki turned to Levi and extended his arm toward a nearby hallway. “Please, let’s talk in private.”
Levi followed Ryuki and noticed that the man’s brother wasn’t coming along.
They passed several closed doors and entered a sparsely decorated room that felt almost as if he’d walked out of New York City and into a traditional Japanese tea house. The floor was covered with a large tatami mat, and at its center was a tea kettle and several closed jars and service items that Levi recognized as being for a traditional tea ceremony.
Ryuki motioned toward one of the cushions arrayed on the floor. “Please, make yourself comfortable. If you don’t mind, I’d like to prepare tea before we talk.”
Levi kneeled on the cushion, folded his legs underneath his thighs and sat back on his heels.
He watched as Ryuki went about uncapping the canister of bright green matcha, a form of powdered tea. Levi had learned all about tea when he’d lived in Japan and had grown an appreciation for it. He felt an odd sense of wonder as he watched the man carefully prepare their beverage. The man was clearly not committing himself to a formal tea ceremony, however, the moves he made in preparing the tea were all deliberate and almost had a religious overtone to them. The mobster carefully scooped the bright-green tea into a bowl, tapped the spoon twice on its rim, and gently lifted the kettle of boiling water.
Even though Ryuki’s tattoos were all hidden from sight, Levi caught glimpses of the colors under his long sleeves as the man stretched his arms to whisk the tea.
On the man’s left hand, Levi noticed a gauze bandage wrapped tightly around Ryuki’s pinkie. From its length, he had to assume that the mobster may have recently committed yubitsume, a ritual act that literally meant “finger shortening.” As a member of the Yakuza, he’d have only done that as a means to atone for some great transgression.
As the number-two man in the Tanaka syndicate, he’d have only done that by disappointing Shinzo Tanaka himself. Was that why he’d been called in?
Pressing his lips together, Levi scanned the room and noticed several hanging scrolls of Japanese calligraphy. On the opposite side of the room there was a silk-embroidered dragon mounted in a frame. He’d never seen one that large, it had to be nearly fifteen-feet wide and nearly six-feet tall.
Ryuki leaned forward and placed a prepared bowl of tea in front of Levi. “I hope it’s to your liking.”
Levi lifted the bowl with both hands and bowed slightly to his host. “Thank you for this.” He closed his eyes and breathed deeply of the steam coming up from the tea. It had a fresh plant-like aroma that immediately brought him back to the tea he’d had when he lived in Japan. He sipped at it and sighed with satisfaction.
It had the same pleasant bitterness that he associated with high-quality green tea.
Ryuki tilted his own bowl back and drank deeply of the tea. He breathed in deeply and focused his gaze on Levi. The mobster’s lip curled in a half-smile of sorts. “I’m rather impressed that you seem comfortable sitting in a traditional style. That’s quite unusual for an American.”
“That’s easily explained. I lived in a kyokushin dojo in Tokyo for a handful of years.”
The mobster raised an eyebrow and nodded. “You’re a man of many surprises. That also explains your excellent Japanese. Anyway, let’s get to business. My superior asked me to solicit your assistance with someone who is quite dear to him. She’s been kidnapped.”
Levi sat up straighter and canted his head. “I don’t mean to be insulting, but why tell me? How can I help?”
Ryuki shrugged. “I’m not sure how Mister Tanaka got your name, nor why he specifically wanted me to get your assistance. However, he was quite insistent.”
Levi was about to say something when the mobster held up his hand.
“Please, let me explain a bit about the missing child. Her name is June Wilson. She is Mister Tanaka’s granddaughter. She’s five-years old, and my superior is willing to do just about anything to get her back.” For a moment, Ryuki’s face clouded and his voice grew deep with emotion. “My youngest, Kumiko, the one you met—she’s the same age as Mister Tanaka’s granddaughter. I have trouble imagining how I’d be if such a thing happened to my Kumiko.”
Levi’s stomach tightened with anxiety as he imagined a child being hurt or missing. “How long ago did this happen?”
“Just under three days ago. It happened in Maryland. My brother will show you the location.”
Levi sighed. “I didn’t yet say that I would help.”
In his mind, he raced through the statistics he’d read somewhere. Nearly three-quarters of kidnapping victims that were murdered were killed within the first three hours of abduction.
Ryuki leaned forward and spoke with an urgent tone. “What can I do to convince you to help?”
Feeling the heightened level of concern coming from the mobster, Levi shook his head. “I don’t know anything about what happened. Have the police gotten involved? Have they brought in the FBI or anyone else?”
“My brother. He witnessed the incident. We have the security tapes of the kidnapping and the mother, you can interview her. She was attacked, but ultimately left unharmed.”
Levi huffed with a sense of impatience. “Well, let’s bring your brother in here. I need to know everything about what happened for me to have any chance of helping.”
Ryuki nodded, but his brow wrinkled with obvious worry. “I must explain one thing before bringing Yoshi in. I’ve kept him from the type of life that you and I share. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
Levi nodded. Yoshi must not be a member of the Yakuza. He was a normal.
“Please, keep that in mind when talking with him. I want him to be kept out of the business that you and I have. There are some things he cannot know about.”
“When you find the missing girl, I need to know who it is that took her.” Ryuki’s eyes narrowed and his demeanor turned cold. Levi caught a glimpse of the predator hidden within his host. “I would like to have this kidnapper turned over to my men instead of the authorities.
“I will pay your expenses. Anything you need, whether it is information, weapons, men, I will do everything I can to provide it, as long as it’s in pursuit of finding Mister Tanaka’s granddaughter.
“If you manage to find her and bring her back alive, I will honor the deal I made with your superior.”
Levi had no idea what that deal was about. Was it about drugs? Prostitution? Territory? An alliance? Like always, he’d refused to get personally involved in that side of the business, and certainly didn’t want to know anything about whatever deal Vinnie and this guy had cooked up.
Picturing the mobster’s little girl as a prisoner, Levi felt a growing sense of anger building within him. He sighed. “Bring your brother in here. I have a bunch of questions for him if I’m going to try to help.”
“So, you will help?” Ryuki’s tone was hopeful.
Levi nodded. “I’ll do whatever I can.”
June held the stuffed Raggedy Anne doll and sat against the wall of her room. The room was almost completely bare, with the exception of a rubber mattress, three blankets, some old picture books and a Raggedy Anne doll.
There was also a toilet with a giant package of toilet paper next to it. It was the same kind Mommy would get from Costco.
She felt tears begin to flow. “Crying doesn’t help!” June admonished herself as she angrily wiped her face.
Focusing on the gray cinder-block walls, June wished she could see outside. The room was lit by a bare bulb hung in the middle of the ceiling.
June had no idea how she’d gotten there. She remembered Mommy going to the front door to get the pizza they ordered, opening the door, and she fell backward as a man in a ski mask caught her and broke her fall.
When June raced to see what was wrong, the man turned to her and sprayed something at her. It smelled weird, kind of sweet.
That was the last thing she remembered before waking up in this place.
“How long do you think it’s been,” she asked the unresponsive doll.
Suddenly, the light turned off and the room was bathed in complete darkness.
“It’s coming,” June’s voice quavered as she tightened her grip on the doll.
Chains rattled on the metal door at the top of the stairs.
The hinges creaked and there was the familiar sound of heavy footsteps approaching.
Then, somewhere in the darkness, she heard the robot’s voice. “Do you like the darkness?”
“No,” June responded with as calm a voice as she could muster. She didn’t want to sound scared.
“If you don’t do exactly what I say, I will leave you here in the darkness. Do you understand me?”
“Okay, I want you to say in a loud clear voice, ‘Mommy. It’s Tuesday and I’m okay.’”
She heard a spring-like sound, almost like when Mommy pressed down on the toaster when toasting some frozen blueberry waffles.
“Mommy. It’s Tuesday and I’m okay.”
She heard the sound again. It was nearby. Somewhere just ahead of her.
“Very good,” The robot voice declared. “Now I need you to stick your pointer finger up in the air. You’ll feel an ouch. It will be okay.”
June cringed as she slowly raised her hand.
She shrieked as she felt something grab tightly onto her finger. Something “clicked” in the darkness as she felt it bite onto the tip of her finger.
The robot’s hand squeezed hard on her finger and suddenly it let go.
June shoved her finger in her mouth and shuddered as she tasted something salty. Was it blood? What did that thing do to her?
The sound of the robot’s footsteps were getting quieter as it walked toward the stairs. The door opened, closed, the chains rattled and suddenly the room was lit with a blinding light.
Near her bed, the robot had again left food for her.
June crawled toward the bed and surveyed what he’d left behind. To eat, he’d left a packet of blueberry Pop Tarts along with two peanut butter and grape jelly Uncrustables. There were also two juice boxes and two whole-milk containers, each with a straw attached.
She stared at the food and wondered what Mommy would think. She knew Mommy would never have let her have that kind of food. It was “junk food.”
June hugged Raggedy Anne and whispered in her stuffed ear, “Do you think Mommy is okay?” Her vision blurred as tears fell onto the doll. She was trying to be brave, but she didn’t know how long she could do it.
She pressed her face against the doll and closed her eyes. “Mommy, where are you?”
Levi studied Helen Wilson as she sat across from him at her dining room table, staring suspiciously in his direction. “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure if it’s smart for me to be talking to you. I work at the FBI, and they’ve taken over this case. And besides, June’s grandfather isn’t someone I can trust. I’m sure you know, but he’s not exactly a good person. The only reason I even let you in was because I trust Yoshi. Him and I used to work together a long time ago.”
Helen was an attractive red-head in her late twenties, but the events of the last few days had clearly worn on her. There were dark circles under her eyes and Levi figured she’d probably not slept much. She was composed, much more so than he’d have expected for someone whose child was forcibly taken from her apartment only days earlier.
“Listen, I understand completely.” Levi felt a strong sense of hurt coming from the woman. “I’m here only because I’m personally invested in finding your daughter. Mister Tanaka has never made any other demands on me other than to get her back home and bring the man who took her to justice. Could you please just humor me? I’ve already seen the security tapes, we know it wasn’t the pizza delivery guy, he was found dead only fifty feet from this apartment—”
Helen gasped as her hand flew to her mouth. “Nobody told me that … oh, the poor guy.”
“Miss Wilson, can you tell me what you remember?”
Her shoulders slumped and she shook her head as she seemed to struggle with her thoughts. “I don’t know. I remember ordering the pizza. June and I were having a late Friday night playing Uno. The front gate rang and I buzzed the driver through. I opened the door and I don’t remember a thing after that. The next thing I knew, Yoshi was hovering over me using smelling salts to wake me.”
Levi had spent the last twelve hours with Yoshi. Hearing everything he had to say hadn’t helped much. The video tapes didn’t do much to clear things up either. The best he could tell was that there was an average-sized man seen escaping with little June Wilson slung over his shoulder. He was wearing a ski mask. Hell, it could have been a woman for all he knew.
“Please, just call me Helen.”
“Helen, how much do you know about kidnapping?”
“Nothing.” The woman shook her head. “It’s not what I do.” Helen’s voice quavered. “I’m just a budget analyst.”
“Well, kidnapping falls into three categories. Nearly half of all kidnappings are known as family kidnappings. Perpetrated by someone related to June. The others are pretty evenly split between acquaintances or strangers. So, the obvious question I have, and I’m sorry if it’s awkward or you’ve already told the FBI, but where is June’s father?”
Helen’s eyes misted over and she took in a deep shuddering breath.
Levi instantly felt for the woman as she struggled to maintain her composure.
“June’s father was killed before she was born in a drive-by shooting. He was a graduate student walking to his car from a class on the Georgetown University campus.”
“I’m sorry.” Levi scribbled some notes on his legal pad. “What was his name?”
“Jun Tanaka. And yes, I now know he’s Shinzo Tanaka’s only son. He was never involved in any of his father’s business. In fact, he’d been living in the States since he was old enough to go to boarding school. I never knew about what his father did until after Jun had been killed.”
“Are there any other relatives that you know of on his side? What about your family?”
“I don’t think Jun had any other family in the States.” Helen frowned. “I’ve got a sister who’s married, has four kids and lives in Arizona. My parents also live in Arizona and are usually on a golf course more than anything else. We don’t talk much.”
“Have you told them about what happened?”
She shook her head. “I probably should have called them, but I haven’t. I’m really not sure why, but I feel kind of paralyzed inside. It’s not—”
“Listen,” Levi reached across the table and patted her hand. “I’m not judging you. I think it’s completely understandable that you’re not in a normal state. I don’t know what I’d be like in your situation. So, when’s the last time you saw your family?”
“It’s November, so I guess almost a year ago. June and I went to Arizona to visit for Christmas.”
Levi sat back in his chair and for the moment, mentally scratched off the Wilson family. He needed to research the Tanaka family. He doubted they’d have done it, otherwise, why hire him to get her back?
He spent the next twenty minutes asking her about her friends, co-workers, the pre-school that June had attended. Levi was flipping through his notes just as there was a knock on the front door.
“One second,” she announced across the apartment. Helen got up from the table, walked to the front of the apartment, looked through the peephole and opened the door. “Hey guys, what’s up?”
Levi closed his notebook and walked toward the door as one of the men said, “Just here to check and see how you’re doing.”
The men wore FBI windbreakers.
He tapped on Helen’s shoulder and whispered, “I think I’ve got a few things I want to look into based on our talk. Are you going to be around tonight if I have more questions?”
Helen nodded and Levi excused himself as he walked past the two men standing in front of the door.
As Levi walked toward his car, he heard the fading voice of one of the men ask, “Who was that?”
Levi pulled his cell phone from his suit pocket and punched up the address of the pre-school.
It was just about noon when he put his car into gear and began driving toward the school. As he turned on Wisconsin Avenue, he dialed up Denny’s number.
The phone rang twice before a groggy voice in New York City answered, “Yeah?”
“Denny, wake up man, I need some of your skills kicked into gear.”
For the next ten seconds, all Levi heard was the muffled sound of Denny rolling out of bed and grumbling about never getting enough sleep. “Man, you do realize I also run a bar, right? I didn’t get home until 7:00 a.m., so cut me some slack. Okay, I’m up. What do you need?”
“Denny, this is important. There was a kidnapping Friday night around 10:15 p.m. in the 8000 block of Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland.”
Levi turned left on Montgomery Avenue.
“Damn son, you’re away from home base. Hold on, I’m logging into the computer. What do you need?”
“There was a Domino’s delivery car. It was Honda, that’s all I’ve got right now, but it was leaving the Flats8000 apartment complex and I need background video from anywhere in the vicinity, preferably a five-mile radius. I know the car was dumped in an open field five miles east of here. I’m figuring one of the security cameras from one of the buildings along the way might have caught something as the car was leaving.”
“Got it. All right, I’ll start plugging away and I’ll see what I can get through the online security systems. Do you care if I pull in some of my Maryland resources to help? There might be some tapes that aren’t hackable or online. I assume you need this yesterday, right?”
“I’ll cover whatever hours and expenses are needed for this. The faster, the better. We don’t have time to waste.”
Levi pulled into the parking lot of the preschool, put the car into park and turned off the ignition.
“How old’s the kid that’s missing?”
“She only five.”
“Damn. Okay, I’m calling the cavalry. I’ll let you know what we find.”
The phone clicked off.
Levi put the phone back into his inside jacket pocket, stepped out of the car and peered at himself in the side-view mirror.
He smiled and combed his fingers through his dark-brown hair.
“Time to sweet-talk the principal.”
Whether it was Levi’s true story about the missing child he was trying to help, his flirtation with the divorced fifty-something-year-old principal, or that he was dressed like a respectable person in a $1000 suit, he didn’t particularly care. Whatever it was, it had worked, because the head of the school had called June’s teacher and had given him the go ahead.
Levi heard the kids talking loudly as he knocked on the door to Ms. Ledbetter’s pre-K classroom. There was a shushing sound as the teacher’s voice clearly announced, “One two three, eyes on me.”
The class immediately became quiet and the door opened. He was greeted by a short middle-aged woman with round Harry Potter-like glasses. “Oh, that was quick. Mister Yoder?”
He nodded, leaned down and whispered, “This will just take a second, okay?”
“Of course. Please, come in.”
The woman led him in front of a group of twenty three-to-five year olds who were all sitting cross-legged in a half-circle. The teacher snapped her fingers three times and used a surprisingly commanding voice for someone her size. “Okay students, we have a visitor who needs to ask a very important question. I want you to show him how responsible you are and give him your attention. This is Mister Yoder. Class, what do we say to visitors?”
The kids all yelled, “Hello, Mister Yoder.”
“Hello class.” Levi smiled and pulled a pencil from his pocket. It was a trick he’d learned when training dogs on the farm, and he figured it would work with the kids. “Okay, can everybody see this pencil?”
“Yes,” they all responded enthusiastically.
“Okay, I want you to keep your eyes on this pencil and when it stops moving, I’m going to ask an important question. Here goes….”
Levi slowly moved the pencil back and forth until every single kid’s face was following where the pencil was traveling. As the pencil finally floated in front of Levi’s nose, he stopped and asked, “Has anyone seen June Wilson since you left school on Friday?”
Levi’s attention focused on each and every kid’s facial expression. He was looking for any unusual reaction: their eyes darting away, the child’s body tensing suddenly with the knowledge that they were keeping a secret, or maybe even one of them admitting they saw something.
But the only reaction he saw was confusion, shaking of heads and everyone saying some form of “no.”
One of the kids asked, “Is she sick?”
Levi smiled at the blonde girl who’d asked the question. “No, she just had to go somewhere for a little bit. I’m sure she’ll be back soon.”
He turned to the teacher, thanked her for letting him interrupt her lesson and walked out of the classroom.
As he walked to his car, he was about to pull out his phone to call Denny when three unmarked sedans with flashing lights came flying up over the curb and nearly ran him over.
Their doors flew open and someone yelled, “Hands up!”
Before he knew it, he had a half-dozen men with guns trained on him. He lifted his arms above his head and three men with FBI jackets approached and slammed him to the ground.
The side of Levi’s face connected with the pavement and it took every ounce of self-control he had to not fight back. One of the men trained his nine-millimeter Glock at his head while the other had his knee in the small of his back, putting cuffs around his wrists while someone else put them around his ankles. “What the hell is going on?”
“Shut up,” one of the men yelled as he quickly frisked Levi and seconds later, he was lifted up from the ground and carried into the back of one of the dark sedans.
Almost as quickly as the agents had arrived, Levi found himself with men on either side of him as the car pulled away from the school.
Levi’s cheek burned from a scrape he’d received on the pavement. He rubbed the side of his face against his shoulder and growled, “Can someone tell me why the hell you’ve picked me up? I haven’t done anything.”
The agent sitting in the front passenger seat turned and gave him a poisonous glare. “You have no idea, eh?”
“None. If you’re arresting me, I expect there’s some kind of charge. Why’d you guys pick me up?”
Over the last year or so, Levi had dealt a lot with federal law enforcement. They were usually pretty level-headed, but this crew was pissed. He knew not to push too far. He shrugged his right shoulder to work out a cramp that was developing and the agent on his right gave give a sharp elbow for his trouble. “Oh, sorry about that.”
“Well? Am I going to hear any reason why you guys have picked me up?”
The agent in the front turned once again and shook his head with an expression of malice. “Sure, why not. We got a call about a man half the Bureau’s been looking for, and lo and behold, you were exactly where they said you’d be.”
Levi frowned. “I don’t understand. Why would anyone be looking for me? I think you’ve got the wrong guy. What have I supposedly done?”
The agent on his left turned to face Levi and the man looked like he was going to spit in his face. “Special Agent Bruce Wei. Special Agent Tony Mendoza. Special Agent Tran Nguyen.”
Levi shrugged. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
The agent shook his head. “All murdered while off-duty. You’re up for three first-degree murder raps, my friend.”
Levi stared at the agent as the blood drained from his face and he thought to himself, “Oh shit, I’m being framed.”