Meet Lawson. A cynical, wise-cracking vampire charged with protecting the Balance between vampires and humans, he is part cop, part spy, and part commando -- James Bond with fangs. Lawson mixes shrewd cunning with unmatched lethality to get his job done. He tries his best to dismantle conspiracies, dispatch bad guys, and live long enough to get home. InThe Kensei, a battle-weary Lawson heads to Japan for a little rest and some advanced ninja training. But he no sooner steps off the plane than lands in the midst of a Yakuza turf war orchestrated by a shadowy figure known as the Kensei. With the help of Talya, a former KGB-assassin, Lawson must put a stop to the Kensei's organ trafficking networks, prevent the creation of an army of vampire-human hybrids, and save his own skin in the process.
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St. Martin's Griffin
January 17, 2011
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Excerpt from The Kensei by Jon F. Merz
"Welcome to Japan, Mr. Lawson."
No accent. There never was. And despite the fact there's no l sound in his native tongue, the immigration official pronounced my name like he'd been born to say it.
I took my passport back, bowed once, and thanked him before moving down the escalator to the baggage claim area. It rode smooth. They oiled them twice a day here. Below me I spotted two teams of sweepers pushing their brooms along the floors. I could eat off that floor if I wanted.
I didn't. After the fourteen-hour flight from Boston, followed by an impromptu extended layover in Manila that damn near killed me, all I wanted was my hotel. And a long, hot shower.
The thing that always impressed me about Japan was how utterly professional and polite it was. Didn't matter what the job was. Everyone took an obvious amount of pride in their work. I had a flashback to the kid who took my burger order back at Logan Airport like I'd asked him to contort into a pretzel and then beat off an elephant in his spare time.
But Boston was thousands of miles and a hundred nightmares away from where I stood now. I got through the baggage claim with no problems. Just another gaijin--Westerner--come to town to do some business and eat some noodles. Maybe take in the nightclub scene in Rappongi or set the schoolgirls on the subway giggling in their white tube socks and short skirts.
That was what they saw anyway. For me, this trip was different.
As I walked, the sheer weight of everything that had transpired in my life the past few months seemed to catch up with me. I was beat to shit. My body felt tired. My head swam with too many thoughts about conspiracies and people who would like nothing better than to see my body being used as food by a community of ravenous earthworms.
And my spirit?
That was about as down in the dumps as you could get.
I needed redemption in a big way.
I'd come to Japan looking for that. Over the years I'd found that the best way to elevate my spirit was to get involved in some physical training. The problem was I didn't always have access to the kind of training I longed for.
But here, I could have it. Tucked just north of Tokyo in a dingy little town called Noda-shi--a place that stunk like the soy sauce they brewed at the town factory--there lived a wisp of a man who could kill easier than he blinked. What he taught was about more than just killing, however. Any damned fool could do that, as I'd managed to prove so often before.
He could teach me so much more.
I caught the Keisei Limited Express train. The gleaming Keisei Skyliner sat on the next track and that ran direct to Ueno Station about twenty minutes faster and ten bucks more expensive than my train. Money wasn't an issue. But accessibility was. The Limited made a few extra stops. I always prefer having the luxury of jumping out on a platform if the need suddenly arose, as it often did in my godforsaken life.
I ducked inside the train and collapsed onto the heated seats. A pair of young twenty-something Japanese lovers with their hair colored to a bright reddish brown--what they called chappatsu because it resembled a dark tea color--was already fast asleep across the aisle. That's the way it worked over here. Heated seats knocked you out. I tried to fight it when I first came here years back. Now I welcomed the heat creeping up my spine like some kundalini yoga experience. God knows I could use a lot more sleep than I'd been getting lately.
My eyelids dipped on reflex, but I took a moment to study the couple. Japanese youth seemed almost too anxious to rid themselves of their natural looks. Girls dyed their hair as soon as they could. They got surgery to make their eyes look rounder and more Western. The boys spoke hip-hopese in a vain attempt to sound like they grew up in Compton rather than Shinjuku. They wore bright pink billowing parachute pants and spun on their heads at improvised break dancing sessions set up on the street. I heard more old-school rap in Japan than anywhere else in the world. Not necessarily a bad thing if you happened to appreciate the lyrical stylings of A Tribe Called Quest like I did.
Disdain between the generations existed, but only if you looked for it. On the surface, Japanese society would never tolerate open ridicule. It just didn't work that way. Face was everything over here. You didn't do anything to embarrass another person unless you'd had copious amounts of alcohol. Liquor gave you a bit of a safety buffer zone for your behavior.
Not the easiest way to live.
I could have used a buffer zone myself.
But not from anything in particular. Maybe just life.
Overhead, the conductor's voice came on. We'd be moving out of the station shortly. I found myself switching over to Japanese fairly easily. I spoke over a dozen languages and could have mastered more if I cared enough to learn them. They didn't pose much difficulty for my race. We could pretty much move around the world without trouble. It came in handy sometimes, even more for those of my race who held the job I did.
The doors chimed and started to close, but at the last second a man shoved his way on to the train car. His hair was cut extremely short. Crisp. His features were thin and narrow, but he had a lot of strength packed into his wiry frame. I could see his sternocleidomastoid neck muscles standing out in sharp relief, the razor edge of his jawline, and the way his eyes instantly swept over the entire train car like some futuristic cyborg.
Then there were his shoes. Thin-soled rubber slip-ons.
Designed to make very little noise.
He also stood, despite there being no one else but me and the couple in the car.
And as much as I fought it, my alarm instincts started shouting at me.
I sighed. I didn't want to deal with this right now. Not for a long time, in fact. I just wanted to relax.
I shifted in my seat and stretched my right leg out a bit to better position myself. When he came at me, I'd have to go for a kick to his knee to slow him down. I wasn't packing any weapons aside from what I could do with my bare hands. Usually, that was enough.
Then again, lately it seemed like I needed to start hauling suitcase nukes with me to take care of my ever-increasing fan club.
He didn't look at me. In fact, my movement didn't draw so much as a blink from him.
He was good.
I used my peripheral vision to take in the rest of his details. He held the pole with his left hand but kept his fingers loose and relaxed so he could better shift with the fluctuations in the train's movements. He kept his knees bent and loose as well.
Judging from the way he rode the train, the guy knew martial arts.
That in and of itself wasn't necessarily something unique. A lot of people in Japan studied something. Martial arts was a throwback to the warrior culture that had thrived here for centuries. The trick nowadays was reading enough about the person in question to be able to decode what type of martial art they studied.
A lot of office lackeys--the sararimen--took kendo. After hours spent slaving away in the corporate machinery, they put on padded armor and took turns shouting and whacking the snot out of each other with bamboo swords called shinai. It wasn't even close to being like real sword fighting, kenjutsu. But it was still considered a martial art.
Other people took aikido. In the United States, those people are easy to spot. They're usually New Age types who think that the guy who started aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, is some kind of saintly figure. In reality, the guy was a fruitcake. And like their founder, most aikidoka are fruitcakes, too. They're the ones who constantly espouse being gentle to all creatures. Go into any health food or organic store in the United States and I guarantee at least 20 percent of the clientele study aikido. And while they're being all super-duper nice and as enlightened as their tofu-laden brains will allow, someone is usually knifing the ever-loving crap out of them.
In Japan, those people are tougher to pin down. Over here there are a bunch of branches of aikido and some produce fairly good fighters. The Yoshinkan aikido guys are among the toughest.
I didn't think the guy on the train fell into either of those categories.
That left a whole bunch of other systems ranging from types of Okinawan karate to some real esoteric arts like koppojutsu and older styles of jujutsu.
That would make this guy a lot more dangerous than I felt comfortable dealing with at the moment, considering I was supposed to be on vacation.
My best bet seemed to be to pretend I was sleeping. Lure him in. Just another stupid gaijin asleep on the train.
It was the Lawson come-hither stare. And I didn't even have to shave my legs.
I yawned again and then closed my eyes almost all the way. Over the years, I'd worked hard on perfecting the appearance of having them closed when in fact I had a sliver of space with which to see.
He let go of the pole and started moving slowly toward me. He kept his knees low and bent, shifting in time to the train's motion so I wouldn't sense anything out of the natural rhythm.
He was good.
I saw a slim stiletto blade appear in his hand. Where the hell had that come from?
I'd heard a report a year back that this was the new way killers worked over here. They'd get close enough to stab right into the heart. A quick couple of thrusts and their victims bled out so fast they never had a chance to fight for their lives.
It took a lot of skill to get that close--to shut down the distance and get into the kill zone--without tripping any alarms on their victims.
Unfortunately for this guy, he'd picked the wrong guy to fuck with.
Worse, his knife blade wasn't going to do all that much damage to me.
His world was about to go badly wrong.
Something tickled my subconscious and I made sense of it pretty quick: if this guy was here to kill me, why hadn't he been properly briefed? Anyone who wanted me dead would know they'd have to use a wooden blade or bullet. Curse of being born a vampire instead of a human.
Maybe he just wanted my wallet.
He was a professional hitter. I'd been around enough assassins to know what the good ones looked like. This guy was no street urchin.
Someone had put him onto me.
My Control, Niles, the guy who got my assignments from the Council and passed them down to me, had worked hard to keep this trip off the books. No one back home even knew I was gone. And if the Council had found out, they'd probably be relieved, given the love-hate nature of our relationship.
Niles had promised he'd run interference for the ten days I was overseas. And so far--apart from him diverting me for a quick and dirty operation in the Philippines--he'd been true to his word.
He'd seen me off at Boston's Logan Airport. "Relax, Lawson. Anything comes up, me and Arthur can handle it."
I'd seen Niles handle himself well enough back when we dealt with the crazy half-vampire-half-lycanthrope assassin, Shiva, who'd come into Boston to take out the head of the Council.
And Arthur was top-drawer stuff. A grizzled ex-Fixer from London long since supposedly retired, he handled security at the Council building on Boston's Beacon Hill. The way he wielded a pump-action shotgun, there wasn't much he couldn't take on by himself.
If things really got bad, they could always pull Wirek into the mix. As an Elder charged with preserving the ancient rites and rituals of the vampire race, Wirek had been trained in an obscure old martial art specializing in the use of a three-foot staff. He'd been indispensable in Nepal a few years back.
It felt pretty good knowing I had friends like them to take up the slack while I scored some rest for a change.
But now this.
I fought back the surge of anger at having to deal with this so soon into my vacation. Emotion was lethal in combat. I had to stay calm. This guy would smell any change.
I could feel the adrenaline dripping into my bloodstream. My heart rate kicked up some. My legs muscles spasmed a bit. I breathed deep down into my belly and fought to get control.
Despite it all, when the killer moved, I was completely surprised.
Because he didn't go for me.
He went for the young kid across the aisle asleep with his girlfriend.
I responded automatically as the killer lunged. I came alive and out of my seat, aiming a kick at the underside of his knife arm.
His skill became apparent fast. Without any visible stutter, he shifted targets to handle my sudden involvement.
Dammit. Once again, I'd gotten myself into a situation that didn't concern me.
But even as the killer lunged at me, I knew that wasn't entirely true. There was no way I was going to let a murder happen in front of me on a train in Japan. Cripes, the police would haul my ass in for nonstop questioning if I'd let this guy complete his assignment.
I pivoted and chopped down on his wrist with a sword hand strike. He grunted but held onto the knife. Damn. I must be getting soft. My strikes usually knock blades out of attacker's hands.
He turned and cursed at me under his breath. "Kuso yaro!"
Hey, how'd he know my mom?
He kicked up, aimed at my groin. I shifted to the outside and punched down hard to the side of his thigh. He yelped and his leg went numb; it buckled underneath him as he tried to get his footing.
The couple woke up.
The guy scrambled away. The girl started screaming. Wonderful. Now I had a soundtrack while I worked.
Of all the train cars I could have picked, I had to choose this one.
The killer swiped at me with the blade. It caught a piece of my jeans and sliced a slash open above the knee. He wasn't fooling around. He'd been aiming for the femoral artery. Slicing that--even on me--would cause me some serious problems.
Time to end this.
I stomped down at his arm and nailed him above the elbow. His hand jumped open and the blade skittered out, across the aisle.
The killer winced--I could tell he was close to passing out from the pain. He fought it back and got to his feet again, his right arm hanging limp and useless.
He'd earned my respect--the guy was a fighter.
He kicked, shooting his left leg out, and then tried to close with a left punch to my face. He caught a part of my chin and I saw stars. Damn, this guy could hit. There must have been a lot of banged up trees in his neighborhood because he punched like he spent hours working them over.
I dropped and elbowed him in the stomach and heard his wind rush out of him. I shifted and got him between me and the couple he'd been after.
The killer's eyes widened. I could see the sweat along his hairline. I could smell what he'd had to eat. I knew he was close to losing consciousness, but he was trying to draw deep on his warrior spirit to come up with another attack.
It never happened.
Even as he started to shout and rush me, he stopped. Air flew out of his lungs, followed by a reddish pink trickle of foamy saliva from his mouth. I heard the raspy breath.
And knew even as he fell.
His own knife stuck out of his back. It had punctured his heart and right lung.
The young guy stood behind him.
Hands still shaking.
The train rolled into Jimbocho Station and the doors opened.
The young guy and his chick bolted.
Leaving yours truly and the dead killer on the train car as swarms of people started coming aboard.
I took a last look at the killer. Something drew my eye to his wrist. It had been concealed during most of the fight but now I could see the faint black ink of a tattoo poking out from his cuff.
The yakuza. Japanese mafia.
That was about the very last thing I needed.
Check that, the last thing I needed were a whole bunch of Japanese getting an eyeful of me standing over a corpse.
I grabbed my bag and hoofed it out of the train station, too.
The immigration official's voice echoed in my head. "Welcome to Japan, Mr. Lawson."
Yeah. No shit.