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THE SILENT MAN

by Mike Oakwood

I can hear the chainsaws getting closer, rolling through the valley like a thundercloud of angry bees. Soon they will be here, and I will walk among them, sharing the land's pain.

I mustered out of the army after the Gulf War. I flirted with the idea of staying until I got a pension, "retiring" to the double income of a civilian job and monthly checks from Uncle Sam. The faces of the Iraqi prisoners changed those plans. I expected to see the horrors of combat, the blood and splattered brains of both friend and foe. My time in the field was relatively bloodless, an answer to the common religion suddenly found in foxholes. Perhaps it would have been better if God hadn't been listening. Relentless aerial bombing with the most accurate ordinance in history reduced our prisoners to haunted shells, hardly worth calling soldiers. I saw hundreds of eyes staring beyond the horizon, calling for the return of the souls that had been blasted from their bodies. Those prayers went unanswered.

So when my hitch was done I returned to civilian life. After several fruitless months scouring Silicon Valley I had yet to find a corporation willing to take the bait of my honorable discharge and army electronics training. Swallowing the little pride I had left, I talked my way into a position with a security consulting firm, shading the truth a bit about how much MP experience I had in the service.

Janus Security is a mid-size firm, large enough to handle serious accounts overseas, yet small enough that the owner knows everyone by their first name. Mr. Cocheran started the firm in 1980, and enjoys a hands-on style of management. I was fortunate in that he took an instant liking to me, partly because we'd both been in the army. When he landed our first account in Japan he decided to take me along for the trip to Kyoto, along with Jensen, who spoke Japanese, and Hargrave, who was our chief engineer. I was supposed to handle the electronics in conjunction with Hargrave, and develop the plan for the personnel requirements. Figuring out how many security guards they'd need wasn't going to be hard, but I knew I was in over my head on the rest. I think the boss knew that too, and just wanted to see what I'd do under pressure.

The long flight over gave us plenty of time to brush up on Japanese customs and etiquette. There wasn't much else to do until we got there. Kubai International Bank hadn't faxed us a copy of their blueprints, so Hargrave and I would just have to go in stone cold. All we knew was that it was a new building, open in the last month.

Kyoto is the city that beat Detroit at its own game. Sprawling factories greeted us as we descended from the clouds, the origin for the tidal wave of cars destined to come ashore back in the states. A limo picked us up at the airport, saving us from a hideously expensive cab ride.

We were greeted at the bank by a Mr. Tanaka, who shook hands rather than bowing, and spoke flawless English. He introduced us to his assistant, Miss Yamura. I knew that most Japanese women in business were relatively young, simply biding time until they got married. Miss Yamura appeared to be no exception. She was dressed in the standard female business uniform of plain white blouse, calf-length black skirt, and sensible flats. The air-conditioning made her nipples erect, pointing in opposite directions like two disinterested strangers. I idly wondered if that was true for all Asian women.

Tanaka gave us the fifty-cent tour of the building. With twenty-seven stories (a lucky number, according to Tanaka) it was hardly imposing on the Kyoto skyline. The building had opened a month earlier, apparently with some controversy. The problem was that the site was formerly a Shinto temple. When they could no longer pay their property taxes, the city sold the lot to Kubai, much to the dismay of many Shinto faithful. Tanaka spent about ten minutes assuring us that the difficulties had been smoothed over, a speech I mostly ignored while I contemplated Miss Yamura's small, firm breasts.

We arrived back at the lobby. Hargrave was suggesting we look over a copy of the blueprints when the shouting started, followed by a short burst of automatic gunfire.

It's funny how old instincts kick in. While the rest of the group looked around in surprise, I was flat on the ground, ready to roll behind any cover I could find. Three men in blue coveralls were charging towards us, shouting some sort of orders. Tanaka stepped forward and said something angrily. The nine-millimeter pistol chattered briefly, and Tanaka fell back, an arc of arterial blood seeming to hang in the air for a moment, until that splattered down on top of his lifeless form. Miss Yamura screamed, quickly cowering on the floor.

The gunmen hustled us off to the receptionist area at the corner of the lobby. I counted five total; two were busy sealing the front doors with heavy chains. A short gunman with greasy hair said something to the other two. One remained to guard us while the other left with him. From this I deduced the short guy was the leader.

They hadn't started to take any valuables from us, nor did they seem interested in the teller booths. Since they had killed Tanaka they either didn't have designs on the vault, or they didn't need information from him to open it. After a few minutes a message came over the building intercom system. I recognized the short one's voice.

"They're clearing out the building." Jensen whispered to me. "Everyone's supposed to leave out the loading dock, except for top management."

"Great." I said. That meant they weren't robbing the bank. I had hoped they were simply doing a clumsy job, especially considering the time they already spent there. A smart crew would have been in and out with the money long ago. At least then it would be over. It looked like they planned to stay for awhile, which meant we'd still be in danger. It also meant they had something on their minds besides theft.

Twenty minutes later a group of middle-aged men were herded in our direction, which I assumed was the top management of the bank. They took us all around the corner to a small office, and instructed us to sit down. The short one said something, then left, closing the door behind him.

"There's a guard outside the door." Jensen translated. "He'll shoot us if we try and escape."

"What do they want?" I asked.

"He didn't say." Jensen shrugged.

The phone on the desk rang.

"Don't pick it up." I said. All eyes in the room were focused on me. "You all speak English?" I asked. They all nodded. "Good. Is there a way we can listen in on this phone?"

"Yes." Miss Yamura replied. "The green button there."

"Will they know we're listening? Is there some kind of indicator light on their set?" I asked.

"It depends on which phone they're using." she said.

"Hmmm. It's a chance we'll have to take." I punched the green button. A smooth-sounding voice was speaking in Japanese.

"Jensen?" I prompted.

He frowned for a moment. "I think he's some sort of negotiator. He's urging them to give up."

The short one's voice spat back a response, followed by a staccato phrase, then he hung up. The managers in the room winced. "What was that?" I asked.

"I'm not sure what that meant, but it was something like 'piss off.' Then he said the Golden Light never fades." Jensen replied.

My eyes narrowed, taking in the assembled managers. They looked sheepish. "OK." I said. "Who's this 'Golden Light,' and what do they want?"

"They want the temple rebuilt," A gray-haired manager replied. "We had thought it unwise to tear down the temple, but Mr. Tanaka thought differently."

"Ah ha. And that's why you needed security, because you knew these guys would be pissed, am I right?" Downcast eyes were my response.

"We thought an overseas firm would be best. It lessened the chances for security leaks," the manager said.

Hargrave began looking over the intercom system. "I think we can hear what's going on out there," he said.

"How so?" I asked.

"Well, see that keyboard there? They put us in the telephone reception office. All the calls in the building come through here, and they can be routed to any office. I think I can configure this to open the speaker phones so we can hear what's happening."

"Do it," I said.

The next half hour or so we spent huddled together, the temperature slowly rising despite the air-conditioning. Not much was being said out there, which worried me.

"What do you think they'll do?" Hargrave asked me.

"Good question. I'm not so worried about them as I am the Japanese version of SWAT. They'll give them some time, but at some point either one of two things are going to happen. Either they give up, or SWAT takes them down. The only question is how many people die in the meantime."

"That's a rather·" Hargrave started to respond. He was interrupted by the lights going out.

"They cut off power to the building," I said. "That's pretty standard. I suggest you guys all get rid of your ties and jackets. It's going to get hotter in here." I smiled.

A voice barked across the intercom, followed by Japanese disco music. I could hear it playing in the hallway through the intercom. Apparently SWAT was careful not to cut the power to the phone system.

"That's funny," Jensen said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, before the music came on they said something about keeping some noise in the building. Something about avoiding 'The Silent Man.'"

The next three hours fell into a frustrating pattern. The phone would ring, answered by our captors. The smooth-sounding negotiator would urge them to give up, to no avail. After about 15 minutes of sweating to the music, the phone would ring again. I was beginning to contemplate which was worse: getting shot trying to escape or listening to more Japanese disco.

Suddenly static filled the intercom, then quickly faded to silence. The short one's voice could be heard, sounding a bit frantic.

Jensen laughed. "Well, the music is done. They were feeding it into the system through a portable, and the batteries are dead. Hmmm."

"What is it?" I asked.

"They are really worried about this Silent Man. They figure he's going to show up now, and they're scared."

That wasn't good. I didn't know if this Silent Man was a SWAT agent, or some famous cop, but having our captors panicked could only lead them to do something rash. The short one gave more orders.

"They're dispersing throughout the building," Jensen said.

"That doesn't make any sense." I said. "If this guy's going to bust in here they're better off facing him as a group. Either they're not too smart or they know something we don't."

The first scream came over the intercom ten minutes later.

I wasn't sure where in the building it came from, but it was followed by the frenzied voices of the others. The second scream followed two minutes later. It was longer and higher pitched than the first, and made Miss Yamura bury her face in her hands, crying. A lone voice was shouting, sounding boldly defiant. Jensen didn't bother translating. I knew what he was saying, anyway; the Japanese version of "here I am, c'mon, give me your best shot." His scream didn't last quite as long as the other two.

"That's three out of five," I said. "I bet they're isn't anyone outside this door." I listened for a moment, then cracked the door open. I was right, our guard was nowhere to be seen.

The rest of the group quietly hustled out of the office. Sure enough, the SWAT units were waiting just beyond the windows. I counted four APCs. Upon seeing us free they smashed the front windows, allowing the top management of Kubai to escape.

I hung back and watched the others go. I was always fascinated by the special ops guys in the service. Here I was in a classic hostage situation, and somebody was taking out our captors one at a time. What was more remarkable was that they weren't being especially careful about it. Most special ops prefer to kill silently, keeping their position hidden. This guy didn't care if they knew where he was, in fact it sounded like he made his targets scream. I had to meet this guy.

I faded back down the hall, unnoticed in the commotion by the windows. I wasn't worried about being mistaken for a terrorist, having confidence in the professional aptitude of our rescuer. The two remaining terrorists were more of a problem. I figured I'd wait for the next scream, and head in that direction.

I didn't have long to wait. I barely made it to the elevator when the next scream echoed down from an upper floor. Despite the closed doors it was still frighteningly loud. The numbers above the right elevator showed it was stopped on the fourth floor. I summoned the other car, stepped in, and pressed four.

I stayed crouched off to the side as the door opened. Nothing appeared amiss in the hallway, so I cautiously stepped out. I could see the other elevator door was stuck open. I craned my neck around, looking inside.

The short terrorist lay sprawled on his back, his head resting against the far wall, the gun laying next to his limp hand. I expected to find him dead, but not like this. There was not a drop of blood, no powder burns or cuts, and he didn't appear to have a broken neck. The method used to kill him wasn't obvious, but the effect made me step back gasping.

His face was hideously drawn back, the muscles of his cheeks flattened to the bone, the mouth frozen in a wide, eternal scream. His tongue lolled on one side, as if it had been dislocated by the force of his vented agony. The tendons in his neck were strained, still taut in death. But the worst part was the eyes.

Something had been done to them. They were unnaturally large, seeming ready to burst from his head. Whatever means this guy used left no physical marks that I could see, but it must cause unbearable agony. Now I was frightened as well as curious.

I continued around the corner, staying close to the wall. Suddenly a shadow appeared, the silhouette of a gunman slowly backing away. I crouched down and waited, watching as another shadow came up, this one of an unarmed man. Smoothly he reached out and touched the gunman's shoulder. Instantly I heard the scream, loud and long, a sound that still echoes in my darker dreams.

I stayed crouched, deciding now that I really didn't want to meet this guy. The gunman fell to the floor, and the shadow drew closer. I resisted the impulse to run, thinking that I might be mistaken for a target. The only thing I could do now was wait for him to see me. I kept my head down, not wanting to present a threat.

Soft footsteps came around the corner, and stopped in front of me. I was surprised to see a pair of sandaled feet. Looking up revealed an elderly man in blue robes, the wizened skin of his face graced with a long white mustache. I don't remember his other features, as I was immediately drawn to his eyes. They looked the same as his victim's; unnaturally large, and filled with pain.

With the same smooth motion he reached down and touched my forehead. At once I was filled with an oppressive pain, as if I had suddenly been buried in an avalanche. The weight pressed on me, dragging me down, burying me alive. I tried to scream but found that I couldn't exhale, my mouth widening in a vain attempt to give my suffering some voice.

Suddenly he took his hand away, and I collapsed backward. The pain subsided to the point that it wasn't debilitating, but it remained.

He took my hand and pressed it to the wall. The oppressive weight returned. He removed it and half-dragged me down the hall, to the corner where a ficus tree stood in a large ceramic pot. He put my hand on the tree. The effect was amazing.

All the pain left, replaced by a wonderful calm. He looked at me intently, seeing if I understood.

"You're the land's pain, aren't you?" I asked, hoping he understood. He nodded in response. "So long as I am in nature, I'll be OK, is that it?" He didn't nod, but I knew this was true. "What's the point of this?" I asked.

He took me to a window and pointed out at the city with a sweep of his hand. Then he turned to me, his lips trembling, and a single tear escaped down his cheek. I traced it's path as it fell to the floor. When I looked up, he was gone.

The return home was horrific. Mr. Cocheran did what he could, making sure I saw a doctor and took lots of painkillers before we left Kyoto. They didn't help. Despite my sudden muteness I sat and whimpered the entire flight, keeping down the screams that tried to escape. They were the only sound I could make.

When we landed I ran from the airport, and kept running until I got out of the city. It took me nearly a month to walk up the coast, until I came to the forests. Although I had to stop to rest, I'm never hungry or thirsty. All that exists now is either pain or peace.

That peace is being threatened. I don't know if the lumberjacks are simply harvesting trees or clearing the forest for some project. It doesn't matter. The land can't take anymore, and neither can I.

The smoke of their camp is on the horizon, and I am coming to visit them. Voiceless I will walk among them, and leave in the echoes of their screams.*

Story copyright ©1999 by Mike Oakwood <starcat@avci.net >

Artwork "Silent Man" copyright 1999 by Duncan Long <duncan@kansas.net>

 

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