Hei Li Hu could feel it inside him, awakening, moving. It was an odd crawling sensation just beneath the surface of his skin, as though another creature inside him was preparing to emerge when he shed his outer layer. In this state of hyperawareness, his senses expanded far beyond the normal range and time slowed down. It had started when he was young, training the breath and the body together, training to new levels of awareness. It had grown into something far beyond what he could have imagined then. It had become the being inside, the hidden man, protecting him against all things, and leading him in all things. Empowering him above all others.
When he entered that state, he became a ghost, an Immortal. Invincible. Indestructible. Unseen but all seeing. It was how he survived. It was how he thrived.
He was already homed in on the target. He could see him five rows up on the flight from Taiwan to Auckland. He had been tracking the target remotely since San Francisco, waiting until Taiwan to close the gap. The gap would open again in Auckland, where the target would rent a recreational vehicle and make his way during the coming days to Dunedin on the South Island.
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Americans considered outdoor recreation their birthright, it seemed, and the world their playground. What arrogance. While much of the world’s population struggled simply to live, rich Americans scorched the earth with the exhaust gases of their travel and play. There always seemed to be a vehicle involved, a recreational vehicle for transport to and from the recreation. Often, that vehicle towed other vehicles also intended for recreation. Americans, it seemed, could enjoy recreation only if it involved a vehicle, and the more vehicles the better. This American appeared to appreciate the recreation as well as the vehicles. He was fit, athletic, accustomed to physical challenge. Would he, as a result, be harder to kill than one of the wheel-bound? Hei Li Hu hoped so. It was always better when the target challenged him. Ultimately, he would die. His prey always did.
He’d negotiated complete autonomy in deciding where the kill would occur. The client had demurred initially, seeking a quick resolution. That was unacceptable, carrying far too much risk and danger of exposure, so he’d set a price so high even the wealthy client was shocked. It had required little acting to manifest anger. He’d already turned down another proposal to entertain this one, and the fee they’d negotiated was substantial. Did the client really want to impose conditions that forced him to walk away? Why not simply let him do his job? He was the best at what he did, after all. If word got out that the client was intractable, it would be virtually impossible for him to hire another contractor. Of course, he did not tell the client that he was going to pass on the other job anyway.
Dunedin was what they finally settled on. The location and setting presented no great difficulty, but his objections had served their purpose. In the end, he had accomplished both his goals—driving up the price substantially and extending the hunt. He loved the hunt almost as much as the kill. Was it truly a hunt if there was never any doubt about the outcome? More like fate. Still, accelerating the pace until it reached its zenith in the climactic moment of death intensified the rush and satisfaction of the kill when it came.
That was good, particularly this time. He’d had to forgo his normal nonmonetary compensation—a memento from the victim—with this kill, but the elevated fee was some solace. Certain clients still had sufficient money, and more importantly, sufficient resolve to manifest their will. That was a good thing because although Hei Li Hu was already wealthy, this contract would ensure his financial security. He was retiring, insofar as anyone can retire from what and who he is. In fact, he would become invisible. Eventually, the world would begin to forget about him, and he would be free to harvest souls how and when he chose.
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He’d done this for a long time, longer than anyone. He had become a legend. But each contract exposed him in some way. When he took not just a death but his reward, it was unmistakable. The absence of life is one thing, the absence of essence, something else entirely. He often did not leave a body, so there was no way for the authorities to know of his involvement. Law enforcement and intelligence services thought they knew something but couldn’t believe what the evidence revealed. They caught his scent rarely anymore because they were too busy and preoccupied sniffing elsewhere. Terrorist organizations far outweighed the potential threat from a lone assassin. Or so the reasoning went. They could not grasp the idea that an individual could wreak far more destruction than an army of terrorists. Terrorists had their uses. They were easily manipulated by their own ideals and dogma, and their presence served to contaminate any scent he might leave.
Nowadays, of course, the human bloodhounds capable of following such a scent were rare, almost extinct. Some he’d lured close enough that he was able to dispose of them swiftly and silently with no traces. Good trackers weren’t necessarily good killers. Sometimes killers came in the wake of the trackers, and there had been many attempts on his life over the years. When the killers failed to return, it took little time for the people who paid for such killings to cut their losses and accept any uneasy peace. Those few knowledgeable, motivated, and wealthy enough to send someone after him knew he was capable of reaching them. And so fear gave birth to a tacit understanding that he would be used only outside their circle.
He was mutually assured destruction in human form. He alone maintained the balance of power, from the highest levels of government to the secret chambers of financial institutions and the inner sanctums of the largest corporations. They were all connected, of course. And among the very few, the masters who directed those institutions, there was an even more select group intelligent enough to understand his value and his threat. These few offered him if not exactly protection, at least selective blindness and ignorance. It was all he required.
But even as he slowly faded from view to most, two government-backed intelligence organizations—American and British—would not let go. They were like stupid dogs with the scent of blood driving them mad. But they were tenacious. And they were willing to send sacrificial lambs to him like an Old World offering. He could tell they were filling in the outline of who he was and what he did, and if he kept working, they would corner him eventually. What would happen then was anyone’s guess. For so many years, he had eluded his enemies. Or eliminated them. Perhaps it was time to confront them. His only death wish was to mete it out to those who would destroy him.
He saw the target rise, pivot from his seat into the aisle, and head for the water closet in the rear of the plane. He made no move to conceal himself by hiding behind a book or turning away toward the window. Let the target see him. Who he saw now would not be who he saw the next time. Or at the instant of his death. In the East, it was easy for someone Chinese to look like other Asians. With his skills and a few props—some scraggly facial hair, big black glasses, a ball cap—it was easy to become someone else. Someone invisible.
He studied the target curiously. He was a few inches over six feet. That was tall, even for a Westerner. Lines around his eyes and mouth belied his thirty years. He would not have believed the age if the information had not come from an impeccable source, verifying what the client said. It was prudent not to trust clients.
The target moved easily, athletically, readily compensating for the turbulence jostling the aircraft with no need to grasp a seatback for aid. His movement and his balance hinted at his rudimentary martial skill. That was, after all, the primary purpose of this travel: a seminar on Chinese internal martial arts at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
The thought of it provoked a tingle at Hei Li Hu’s third lumbar vertebra, the ming men. Using his breath-body skills, he directed the sensation to rise slowly along his spine, from vertebra to vertebra, to the jade pillow at the base of his skull and on to the bai hui, the crown point on his skull. Then it traveled down his forehead to his third eye, gradually creeping down his face to his neck and throat, down still along the sternum through the heart center until it reached his middle dan tien, directly opposite the ming men, where it had originated. He did not worry that someone would see what looked like a tiny snake moving beneath his skin. Most observers simply could not process such an obvious manifestation of qi. He could not explain how, but the sensation connected him to the target. It was as though his qi linked him to the target’s essence.
He wondered if the target experienced a similar sensation. Even if he did, he would have no understanding of its significance. Undoubtedly, he would be unable to direct the qi in the way of an experienced Neijia ren, but he might be sufficiently attuned to sense the connection. There! The target glanced at him and half-smiled, and he returned the greeting in kind, the intent in his eyes concealed behind the thick, distorting lenses of the glasses. The target would not know the eyes when he saw them at the moment of his death. But at that moment, there would be no mistaking the connection with his killer, a connection stronger than anything he had ever felt, a connection close to ecstasy. Hei Li Hu might have to forgo his reward, but he would still see into the target’s eyes and down into his soul at the moment of his death. That would be enough.
Hei Li Hu recalled precisely when he started down this path, this journey with death. It seemed at once like only yesterday and such a long time ago. He took the first step just as he was turning twelve years old. It was then he noticed something strange.
Price Colman, a veteran journalist and award-winning business writer for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, splits his time between the keyboard and the Colorado outdoors. En route to the writing career, Colman worked as a busboy, breakfast cook, bartender, roughneck on a gas-drilling rig in Wyoming, and trained to be a professional diver. Colman lives in Mancos, Colorado.