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7

Seiji Kuwahara sat behind his desk, watching the waitress as she laid out the silver teapot and ceramic sake bottle. She lined up the little thimble glasses on the desktop so they were perfectly arranged. He knew that he could not have found an eighth of an inch difference in the spacing of the items before him; everything was ritual perfection, and therefore no more than commonplace.

The waitress finished, bowing her way out of the office. Kuwahara acknowledged her only with his eyes; it would be unseemly and humiliating for him to bow to a woman or an employee. She closed the door behind her, cutting off the normal clatter of the restaurant as suddenly as if a falling blade had severed all the sound waves in midair. His office had been specially constructed to provide him with a sanctuary in the rear of his establishment, the Lotus Garden. It was soundproofed, insulated — to keep out the riot of aromas that were sickening by day's end — and fortified, in case police or other hostile visitors came calling unexpectedly.

The single door would open only when Seiji pressed the electronic release on his desk.

Without it, cutting torches or explosives would be needed to gain entry, costing the intruder any small advantage of surprise they may have had.

And he had had no use for the small fortress up to now, but things were changing in Las Vegas.

The opening guns had spoken. But the first engagement, meant to be decisive, had resulted only in confusion and disappointment. Kuwahara did not think of it as a defeat — although a cadre of his handpicked samurai were stretched out on stainless metal tables in the morgue. He grimaced at the thought of the cruel indignities that medical examiners, with their shiny instruments, would visit on his soldiers after death in battle.

No matter.

They were gone. The essence of them had departed, leaving only empty shells behind. The round-eyed doctors with their scalpels could not do them any further harm.

He did not grieve for the commandos fallen in his cause. It would have been unmanly on his part, and they were all professionals who knew the risks and took them willingly, accepting death the way a lesser man accepts rush-hour traffic or a minor setback on the job. They had been ninja, and they were no more.

If he felt anything at all, it was regret that they had died without fulfilling their assignment.

Seiji did not count the mission as a failure — not entirely. The pig, Minotte, lay in the same morgue as Seiji's warriors, and others of that camp had fallen, also. Kuwahara knew that much by way of his informers in the city government.

He knew that the selected target had been badly wounded but Seiji had not meant to lose his first team on the opening mission. It would call attention to him now, before he was prepared to face concerted action on the part of Minotte's surviving associates.

At present they were still disorganized — a priceless lone informer in the hostile ranks had told him so — but given time they would inevitably close their ranks against him. Given time.

Seiji Kuwahara was not afraid because he did not plan to lose the coming war.

He had used the best he had against Minotte, and there were more where they came from in case he needed them.

A phone call to Tokyo and he could field a dedicated army, every man a fighter to the death. But it might be time to try a different angle of attack.

Perhaps he should have hired some free-lance Occidentals for the raid against Minotte, he reflected. As it was, the guilty finger pointed straight at him.

He sipped his tea, pushing the problem from his mind.

Now that all the simmering hostilities were laid bare, perhaps he could achieve a final resolution to the conflict. Tokyo was growing more impatient by the day, and so was Kuwahara — though for rather different reasons.

He had learned a lesson from his studies of the Mafia, acquiring insight that enabled him to climb inside the thought processes of his enemies, to see the world through their round eyes and to take their vision one step further.

He had learned the history of the Mafia Brotherhood — an ancient order that found more fertile soil in America. Transplanted from an old and decadent society, the Brotherhood found new vitality there. And with it came an independence that allowed a severing of old roots, the establishment on foreign soil of a distinct and separate empire, larger and stronger than its Old World predecessor. Rich and fat now, decadent itself, the Mafia was ready — all unknowingly — to cede that fertile soil to other, newer growths. To the Yakuza, for instance.

And to Seiji Kuwahara.

Seiji sometimes saw himself as an explorer, a trailblazer the Americans would call it, clearing out the forest with its tangled undergrowth and making ready for the cultivation of a brand-new crop. So far the clearing process had been sluggish, and he had been working with his hands bound. But he would be free soon, free to use his own initiative and work at speed.

When the crop took root and prospered in the new soil, he would be the man on the scene, holding the reins, the power of life and death. He was the pioneer, the pointman, and in time it would be he who issued terms to Tokyo.

In time.

But not just yet.

First he had a war to win in Vegas, and the initial skirmish — if not a defeat — was, at best, inconclusive.

He would have to do much better in the future, if he hoped to realize his dream and see it blossom in the desert.

Much better, indeed.

Seiji Kuwahara finished with his tea and reached for the sake. It was time to toast the future — his future and to honor those who were about to die in battle.


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