Year of the Demon
A Novel of the Fated Blades
A MASK OF DESTRUCTION
Detective Sergeant Mariko Oshiro has been promoted to Japan’s elite Narcotics unit—and with this promotion comes a new partner, a new case, and new danger. The underboss of a powerful yakuza crime syndicate has put a price on her head, and he’ll lift the bounty only if she retrieves an ancient iron demon mask that was stolen from him in a daring raid. However, Mariko has no idea of the tumultuous past carried within the mask—or of its deadly link with the famed Inazuma blade she wields.
The secret of this mask originated hundreds of years before Mariko was born, and over time the mask’s power has evolved to bend its owner toward destruction, stopping at nothing to obtain Inazuma steel. Mariko’s fallen sensei knew much of the mask’s hypnotic power and of its mysterious link to a murderous cult. Now Mariko must use his notes to find the mask before the cult can bring Tokyo to its knees—and before the underboss decides her time is up....
Detective Sergeant Oshiro Mariko adjusted the straps on her vest, twisting her body side to side to snug the fit tighter. The thing was uncomfortable, and not just physically. Mariko
hadn’t had to wear a bulletproof vest since academy. Even then it had been for training purposes only; she’d never strapped one on in an- ticipation of being shot at.
“Boys and girls, listen up,” Lieutenant Sakakibara said, his voice deep and sharp. He was a good twenty centimeters taller than Mariko, with a high forehead and a Sonny Chiba haircut that sat on his head like a helmet. He looked perfectly at ease in his body armor, and despite the heavy SWAT team presence, there was no doubt that the staging area was his to command. “Our stash house belongs to the Kamaguchi- gumi, and that means armed and dangerous. Our CI confirms at least two automatic weapons on-site.”
That sent a wave of murmurs through the sea of cops surrounding him. CIs were renowned for their lousy intelligence. Narcs with hol- stered pistols, SWAT guys with their M4 rifles pointed casually at the ground, all of them were shaking their heads. They all spoke fluent covert-informantese, and in that surreal language “at least two” meant “somewhere between zero and ten.”
Mariko was the shortest one in the crowd, and if she looked a little taller with her helmet on, everyone else looked taller still. Police work attracted the cowboys, and the boys really got their six-guns on when they got to armor up and kick down doors. Being the only woman on the team was alienating at the best of times, and now, surrounded by unruly giants, Mariko felt like a teenager again, awkward, soft-spoken, trapped in the midst of raucous, rowdy adults and just old enough to understand how out of place she was.
It was no good dwelling on how she felt like a gaijin, so she re- turned her attention to Lieutenant Sakakibara. “There’s going to be a lot of strange equipment in there,” he said, though he hardly needed to. SWAT had downloaded images of all the machines they were likely to encounter. The target was a packing and shipping company, an excellent front for running dope, guns— damn near anything, really—and the machinery they’d have on-site would offer cover and concealment galore. Everyone knew that, but Sakakibara was good police: he looked out for his team. “Weird shadows,” he said, “lots of little nooks and crannies, lots of corners to clear. You make sure you clear every last one of them. Execute the fundamentals, people.”
Again, everyone knew it, and again, everyone needed the re- minder. Mariko mar veled at how some of the most specialized training in the world boiled down to just getting the basics right. In that respect SWAT operations were no different than basketball or playing piano.
“B-team, D-team,” Sakakibara said, “you need to hit the ground running. I want to own the whole damn structure in the first five seconds. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” said twelve cops in unison.
“C-team, same goes for you, but don’t you forget”—Sakakibara pointed straight at Mariko as he spoke—“Detective Sergeant New Guy is a part of your element. The Kamaguchi-gumi has put out a contract on her. I won’t have her getting shot on my watch, got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Mariko said with the rest of C-team.
The first of the vans started up with a roar, and the sound made Mariko’s heart jump. She chided herself; she was thinking too much about those automatic weapons, and now even the rumble of a diesel engine sounded like machine gun fire. She reached down for the SIG Sauer P230 at her hip, taking yet another look down the pipe of the pistol she already knew she’d charged.
“The seven-oh-three gets here in”—Sakakibara checked his huge black diver’s watch—“six minutes. That gives you five and a half to get where you need to be. Now mount up.”
“Yes, sir,” the whole team said, and Mariko started jogging toward the B and C van. The rest of her element fell in behind her.
When she reached the dark back corner of the van her heart was racing, and she knew it wasn’t because of a ten-meter jog. Her hand drifted to the holster on her hip, satisfying an irrational need to confirm that her SIG was even there. Running her left thumb over the ridges of her pistol’s hammer, she absently wondered why the movement should still feel strange to her. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t logged the hours retraining herself to shoot as a lefty; at last count she’d expended about two thousand rounds on the pistol range. She hadn’t yet hit the same scores she’d been shooting right-handed, and that idea weighed on her, heavier than the ceramic plating of the body armor that now made her shoulders ache. Despite all the training, somehow her brain couldn’t even get used to the fact that when she held something in her right hand, she held it with four fingers, not five.
Thinking about her missing finger made her think about the last time she had to point a pistol at a human being. Fuchida Shūzō had cost her more than her trigger finger. She’d actually flatlined after he rammed his katana through her gut, and she had matching scars on her belly and back to prove it. But more than this, he’d scarred her self- confidence. Everyone on the force knew they could die in this line of work, but Mariko had died, if only for a few minutes, and ever since then she wondered how things might have gone if she’d pulled that trigger even a tenth of a second earlier—if she’d put a nine-millimeter hole right in his breastbone, if she’d spared herself the weeks of rehab, if she’d earned herself a bit of detached soul-searching about the ethics of killing in the line of duty rather than ruminations on everything she’d done wrong to let things get that far.
Those ruminations plagued her day and night, and images of Fu- chida and his sword flashed in her mind every time she visited the pistol range. Sometimes it got so bad that she couldn’t even pull the trigger. The more she needed to hit the target dead center, the more she got mired in the fear of failure, and once she fell that deep into her own head, she couldn’t even put the next shot on the paper.
Her former sensei, Yamada Yasuo, had a term for that: paralysis through analysis. Swordsmanship and marksmanship were exactly the same: the more you thought about what you were doing, the less likely you were to do it right. So long as Mariko trapped herself in doubting her marksmanship, she was a danger to herself and others.
Now, listening to her pulse hammer against her eardrums, she worried she might freeze up when those van doors opened and her team had to move. Two thousand rounds she’d slung downrange, trying to train her left hand to do its job, and two thousand times she’d failed. Now other cops were counting on her, and if she failed tonight the way she did with Fuchida, it might be one of their lives on the line. She drew back the slide on her again, knowing it wasn’t nec- essary, needing to do it anyway.
She felt a tap on her shoulder pad and looked up. “Hey,” Han said, “you think you checked that weapon enough yet?”
It was a little embarrassing being caught in the act, but the fact that he’d noticed was reassuring. Han and Mariko were partners now, and his attention to detail might save her ass someday. She’d already made a habit of noting the details about him. He always put his helmet on at the last minute. He tended to bounce a little on the balls of his feet when he was nervous. He had an app on his phone that gave him inning-by-inning updates on his Yomiuri Giants. The TMPD patch Velcroed to the front of his bulletproof vest was old, curling at the corners. Hers was curling a bit too—the vests usually sat in storage, sometimes for years, and who would ever bother to peel the patches off ?—but Han’s patch had a weaker hold on his chest, probably be- cause he caught the curled-up corner of it with his thumb every time he reached up to brush his floppy hair away from his ear. He wore his hair longer than regulations allowed, and his sideburns—longer and bushier than Mariko had ever seen on a Japanese man—were against regs too. But violating the personal grooming protocol was one of the perks when you worked undercover, and Han made the most of it. He’d have worn a beard and mustache too, if only he could grow them, but his boyish face didn’t allow him that luxury.
“I’m pretty sure that chambered round hasn’t gone anywhere,” he said. “Then again, I haven’t checked it myself. You mind checking it for me?”
Han grinned. “Guilty as charged.”
She noticed he was bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, and since he didn’t make any noise Mariko knew he’d strapped everything down tight. The SWAT guys that filled the rest of the van were equally silent—no mean feat given the close quarters and the sheer numbers of magazines, flash-bangs, gas masks, and radios they’d affixed to their armor.
The floor rumbled, someone pulled the door shut, and they were off. The lone red lightbulb cast weird shadows. There was an electric tension in the air, a palpable enthusiasm silenced of necessity but champing at the bit. “Han,” Mariko whispered, “you ever had to wear a vest before?”
“Sure. At my brother’s wedding.” “You know what I mean.”
“Not since academy.”
“Me neither,” said Mariko. She lowered her voice even more and said, “Does it make you scared, knowing they have submachine guns in there?”
Mariko took a deep breath through her nose and held it awhile before blowing it out. It felt good to have someone on the team she didn’t have to be defensive with. With everyone else she was always on her guard, because everyone else was all too willing to see her as a girly-girl if she ever showed a moment’s weakness. But she and Han could tell each other the truth—even if only in private—and while she wouldn’t be caught dead whining to him, just being able to admit she was scared lessened her fear somehow.
“Jump-off point in one minute,” the driver said.
That palpable, silenced excitement mounted. It was strange, feeling that much nervous energy restrained by cops who were otherwise as rowdy as hormone-addled frat boys. She couldn’t see them well in the red light, but somehow Mariko knew even the SWAT guys were tensing up. “Han,” Mariko said, “you put your lid on yet?”
“Well, put it on, damn it. I don’t want to tell the LT C-team didn’t hit their door on time because my partner bobbled his helmet while he was getting out of the van.”
“Jump-off in twenty,” said the driver. The doors opened up and suddenly the cabin filled with light and industrial stink. Acrid paint smells told Mariko there had to be an auto body shop nearby, and a wind out of the west carried all the smog that should have been mari- nating Tokyo and Yokohama. Or maybe that was the exhaust from teams A and D, which pulled away faster and faster as Mariko’s van slowed to a halt.
Then she was following Han, her heart pounding just as hard as her heels pounded the pavement. She wished her gear wasn’t so heavy, wished her goggles weren’t fogging up so soon, wished she’d spent a little less time on the pistol range and a little more time training for her next triathlon.
But just like running a tri, this too proved to be a case of pre-race jitters. She overtook Han as they turned the corner into a narrow alley. She could have passed the SWAT operators too, but she reminded herself that it was their job to breach the target, her job to seize the dope once the target was secure.
As they passed a shabby, weather-beaten, wood plank fence, Mariko got her first look at their target. It was a two-story slab of beige bricks nearly identical to the buildings beside it. There were six of them, lined up like the pips of a die on a dirty, seldom-used lot. Apart from being a tenth as high as most of the buildings in the neighborhood, the target and its little siblings were utterly without character. Light shone through most of the windows, which was good; it was easy to see perps behind them.
Mariko kept the darkened windows in her peripheral vision as she ran. Her focus was on the back door, and on the empty expanse of concrete between her and it. It was the only exposed stretch of their approach, but there was no getting to the C-side of the target, the back side, except to cross it. If the buildings on this dirty lot were the six pips on a die, the target building was the lower right pip and C-team was just rounding the lower left. Running right past the two were the twin tracks of the Chuō-Sobu Line, where the clackety-clack, clackety-clack of the 7:03 was getting louder and louder by the second. There was no crossing the train tracks—they were fenced, and the chief of police had nixed SWAT’s plan to just cut through the fences and approach the C-side directly—and so the only way to the back door was to cross that shooting gallery of a parking lot.
Mariko’s team tucked themselves into a corner to catch their breath. They waited for the train for the same reason they’d been so careful in strapping their gear down tight: speed and surprise were their only sure defense against automatic fire. The helmet and vest were half armor, half security blanket; every cop knew there was no protection against a lucky shot. Submachine guns could spit out a lot of potentially lucky shots.
Mariko heard a little snik behind her and turned around to see Han adjusting the straps of the helmet he’d just put on. He shot her a wink and a grin. “Go time.”
The train was upon them before she knew it, and then they were running again. Off to Mariko’s left, A-team’s big black van roared through the parking lot and B-team was almost to the B-side windows. As Mariko’s element reached the C-side door, the SWAT guy with the ram—a heavy goddamn thing by the look of it; Mariko could hardly believe he’d kept pace with the rest of the team—charged the door and laid into it.
The ram bounced back.
He hammered the door again, but the ram bounced off like it was made of rubber. “Shit,” Mariko said. So much for owning the building in the first five seconds.
Now that the train had gone, she could hear shouting, shattering windows, the explosion of flash-bangs. Now two SWAT guys were on the ram, beating the holy hell out of the door. They were supposed to have made their breach by now. A-team would already have punched right through the front door, and if Mariko’s team couldn’t punch their door, their suspects would only have A-team to shoot at.
Mariko didn’t like the thought of volunteering to draw some of that fire, but the whole point of converging on the target at once was to overwhelm and confuse the opposition. Besides, the longer her sus- pects had to think, the more time they had to find weapons or flush product down the toilet.
She pulled a flash-bang grenade from her belt and set it on the windowsill behind her. “Get down,” she said, and she tried to hide her whole body under her helmet.
White light consumed the world. The concussion was enough to buckle her knees. It sounded like Armageddon, but it sure blew the hell out of the window. Mariko hopped through the gap, Han fol- lowing like her own shadow.
For Mariko the world narrowed to whatever her pistol could see. She put her front sight on the empty doorway, then this corner, then that one, not checking the other two because that was Han’s area and she knew he’d do it right. The furniture didn’t even register to her except as cover.
With the room cleared she and Han made for the hall, looking for the bathroom. When they raided residences, that was where perps disposed of product, and there was no reason a commercial storefront’s toilets couldn’t be used for the same purpose. Mariko reached the hallway just in time to see the C-side door exploding inward, finally succumbing to the ram. Two of her SWAT guys breached and held. The other two followed Mariko and Han.
Footsteps thundered on a flight of stairs somewhere nearby. So many voices were shouting through Mariko’s earpiece that she couldn’t keep them straight. She rounded a corner and saw a balding man in a maroon track suit closing a door behind him. She only got a glimpse of the room on the other side of the door, but she thought she saw some kind of heavy machinery back there.
In an instant Han had a pistol on the suspect too, shouting at him to get down, and both SWAT guys had him in the wavering glow of the flashlights undermounted on the barrels of their M4s. The man in the track suit gave all four cops a cocky smile, held his hands up near his head, and let something small and shiny fall from his right hand.
That arrogant smile told Mariko all she needed to know. Her suspect didn’t care about being arrested. All he had to do was stand there getting handcuffed long enough for some machine on the other side of that door to destroy all of her precious evidence.
She rushed the perp. Still wearing that cocksure smile, he stood with his hands in front of him, as if to offer his wrists. It was the sort of pose she’d only seen in people who had been handcuffed before. Mariko took the tiniest bit of delight in seeing his eyes widen a bit as she drew near. Apparently he assumed she’d slow down before she reached him. But body armor wasn’t just for stopping bullets.
She hit him like a wrecking ball. They crashed through the locked door, which, unlike the reinforced door that had repelled the battering ram, was just an interior door like the ones she’d expect to find in the average apartment. She let her shoulder pad sink into her suspect’s solar plexus, rolling right over it and up to her feet. Han would be on the guy; Mariko didn’t need to look back and check. She didn’t rec- ognize any of the weird machines standing in front of her—and there were a lot of them—but she didn’t need to. She just hit the stop button on the one that was mixing a bunch of white powder.
She learned afterward that the machine was for making those bio- degradable packing peanuts, and that doing so involved turning corn- starch into tiny little pellets, which were then subjected to extremely high heat to expand them to their peanutty volume. She also learned that mixing highly combustible amphetamines into the cornstarch wasn’t exactly a foolproof method to make a whole lot of speed dis- appear, but if you let the laced cornstarch hit the pellet processor, it was a great way to flood the building with noxious gases and make the whole neighborhood smell like ammonia for a week. In the moment, though, Mariko stood with her hands on her hips, panting a bit and smiling down at the guy she’d just blasted through the door.
Frowning at the splintered doorframe, Han said, “You know, Mariko, I thought we worked pretty well as a team, but I have to tell you I didn’t see that one coming.”
Mariko grinned at him, enjoying her adrenaline high. “Opened the door, didn’t it?”
“Yeah. But you know, these do that too.” He jingled the perp’s keys at her. “And these don’t give the SWAT guys heart attacks and make them hope they can clear the big roomful of weird-ass machines before someone puts a bullet in the chick they’re supposed to protect.”
SWAT had indeed cleared the rest of the factory floor, and judging by the chatter coming over the wire, the operation was over. It seemed impossible. “Han, how long did this thing take?”
“What, the op?” “Yeah.”
He shrugged. “Starting from when we first hit the back door? I
don’t know. A minute, maybe? No, less than that, I think.” “Me too. Call it forty-five seconds.”
“Okay. So what?”
“So,” Mariko said, “was that the best forty-five seconds or what? Damn, I love this job.”
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