By Rob Preece

Copyright 2005 by Robert Preece, all rights reserved. No parts of this book may be reproduced in any form without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is coincidental.

Chapter One only--if you enjoy this excerpt, you may buy the entire eNovel for only $3.99 by clicking the Buy Now button.

Chapter 1

Ellie Winters shifted to the right, bringing up her bamboo shinai to block and then counter the attack. Typically for her parents, they'd assigned her the biggest, ugliest man from the opposing team as her opponent. The seventh-degree black belt easily evaded her practice sword's cut, and whipped a kick into her helmet.

"Point and match."

Ellie yanked off her mask, barely resisting the urge to throw it in the corner. Her opponent grinned at her, his smile revealing a mouth missing about half its teeth.

She forced herself to bow. He had beaten her fair and square. Now she was going to get a lecture from her parents and would get to spend the evening running through her sword kata rather than chatting with her girlfriends on-line.

"Ellie, can I have a word?"

She knew her father loved her, but he treated her more like a student than a daughter.

"Sorry. I got distracted."

He nodded slowly. "I saw that."

"It won't happen again."

"It always happens again. Don't you understand, Ellie, that a moment's loss of focus could get you killed?"

Oh, yeah. As if every self-respecting hood cruises around L.A. with a sword stuck in his back pocket. Sometimes she wondered what world her parents lived in because they seemed to think this stuff really mattered.

"I said I was sorry."

He gazed into her eyes, and then nodded. "Go get changed. Your mother and I have something planned for your birthday."

Ellie's heart pounded for an irrational second. Most of her friends already had cars. Since her parents kept her busy in their Dojo, she hadn't ever had a chance to get a paying job. Maybe they'd bought a car for her eighteenth.

She'd stashed her schoolbooks in a closet behind the office and she went there to catch up on her classes rather than watch her father finish judging his tournament, hand out the oversized trophies that testosterone-laden martial artists coveted, and announce the promotions. There wouldn't be a promotion for her, of course. She'd needed to win her event, not get humiliated in the first round. Besides, she was really too young for fourth-degree Kendo black belt anyway.

She was so engrossed in Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that her mind dismissed the bell that rang whenever the Dojo door opened. The dull crack of multiple gunshots wasn't so easy to ignore.

Martial artists practice with guns a lot, but real gunshot was different. Something was very wrong. Her stomach felt queasy as she reached for her shinai and started for the door.

A second barrage of gunshots stopped her. Someone was shooting up the place and the only thing she could do by coming out was add herself to the victim list.

She turned off the light and huddled deep in the closet, doing her best to become completely silent.

Only seconds after the gunfire stopped, the office door slammed open and she heard harsh breathing. "There's nobody here."

Her heart almost stopped. She recognized the words, but they weren't in English.

The gunman had used the secret language she'd thought her parents had made up because it wasn't anything like any other language she'd heard. So why was some stranger using it?

"Finish, then, and go." A gunshot punctuated the second killer's words. Another followed moments later.

Ellie knew she should do something heroic. From when she'd been a baby, her parents had drilled her in self-defense. Years before, when she'd been six, they'd picked up from Chicago and moved to California, changing her name and their own in the process and letting her know that her life was in danger. But this was beyond anything she'd imagined.

Her muscles seemed frozen in place.

Only when she heard the chimes from the Dojo door closing did she free herself from the mass of old uniforms and retired pads at the bottom of the closet and find the strength to emerge.

She wished she hadn't.

Her parents' Dojo had been destroyed. Bullets had fractured mirrors and shredded Japanese art and bodies. The bodies of a dozen martial artists lay scattered like the detritus from a tornado. Each, she noticed, had a darkened hole in his or her forehead. They'd been shot, then executed.

She stifled a sob when she saw the sleeve of a red and blue kimono--the one she'd given her father for Christmas just two months earlier.

He lay close to the door, his antique Samurai katana lightly grasped in his dead hands.

A trace of blood on the edge of the sword let her know that he had struck before he had died. Maybe the sword against gun wasn't quite as impractical as she'd thought. But it hadn't saved her father.

A grim premonition sent a trickle of fear down her back. She punched the speed-dial on her cell and listened to the phone ring.

Her mother should have answered in seconds. She'd left the tournament early to prepare for Ellie's birthday, but she never strayed far from her phone. Ellie couldn't think of a single time she'd called and her mother hadn't answered.

To hell with staying around and waiting for the cops. Ellie needed to check on her mother.

She stared out the Dojo door, then stopped and scooped up her father's katana, slung it over her shoulder, and hopped on her bicycle. He didn't need the sword any more and she'd need a weapon if she were going to confront his killers.

Police sirens quavered through the smoggy evening air. Too late. The cops hadn't helped her father and Ellie felt a grim certainty that they would be too late to help her mother as well.

* * * *

Her house's front door hung open.

Chilled fingers crawled down her back. Her parents were obsessed with privacy and her mother would never have left their door open like that.

Ellie threw her bike against the porch and galloped into the house.

The acrid stench of black powder mingled with the bittersweet scent of fresh blood.

Shattered glass over the kitchen window told the story. They'd shot her mother through the window, then smashed through the front door to make sure they'd finished the job.

She knelt by her mother's body and felt for the pulse she knew she wouldn't find.

But there was something. A surge of hope, relief, washed over her like a wave over a surfer. Could she be alive? She pressed her lips to her mother's and breathed--and heard the gurgle of air through ruptured lungs. She'd only sensed her own pulse, not her mother's. Her mother had been shot down like an animal. And Ellie had no idea who had done it, or why.

What she did know was that, once they learned they'd left a witness alive, her parents' killers would come looking for her.

Her blood-covered hands shook so badly it took her three tries before she could open the hiding place her father had carved under the stairwell. She'd thought her parents were being paranoid when they'd drilled her on the routine, but now she realized that they hadn't been crazy. She'd been the one living in a dream world. It seemed that there really were people out to get them.

When she finally opened the cache under the stairs, she found thought she understood. Her parents must have been criminals on the run. Either fellow criminals, or some foreign government, had finally caught up with them.

Although her parents had been anything but rich, they'd hid a fat heap of hundred-dollar bills, drivers' licenses and multiple passports for herself and her parents documenting several nations of origin and several names, a hand-written book lettered in the strange calligraphy her parents had used as their secret code, and a small bag of what felt like jewels.

They'd been thieves, or spies.

A dusty note in her father's handwriting was taped to the wall. If you're reading this, Ellie, it means that we've been found. Hide, read the book, learn your destiny, trust no one. All in all, it was less informative than she could have wished.

She ignored the tears streaming down her face as she dumped her schoolbooks out of her backpack and filled it with the cash, passports, book, jewels, and note from her parents' stash.

With pretty clear evidence her parents were involved in something illegal, and with her father's warning note, she didn't dare go to the police. But Ellie wasn't going to just run. Somehow, no matter how long it took, she was going to find out who had killed her parents--find them and make them pay.

* * * *

It took Ellie almost an hour to walk the two miles from her house to a small motel in a run-down section of Torrance. She'd backtracked, cut through yards, and generally done everything she could think of to throw off any chase. She was tired and hungry by the time she paid cash for the room, picked up her key and television remote control from the desk, and walked into her room.

The motel room was horrid, with stained sheets, Astroturf-style carpet, and constantly running toilet. But Ellie had been in a hundred dingy motel rooms over the past several years she'd been on the martial arts tournament circuit, so even this place didn't bother her.

Instead, her frightened reflection in the wavery bathroom mirror reminded her of how horribly alone she was. She'd grabbed a couple of packages of peanut butter crackers before leaving her house and ate a couple to stave off her hunger pangs, but her stomach rebelled.

She spent a miserable ten minutes leaning over the toilet, barfing up everything she'd eaten in the past week before her stomach finally refused to yield anything else but dry heaves.

Finally, she flipped on the T.V. and dumped the contents of her pack out on the bed. She needed to decide what to do, figure out what an eighteen year-old girl could do when her parents had been shot down in cold blood.

Her mother's hand-lettered book seemed the most likely place to start looking for clues, so she flipped it open--just as the station broke into the reality-TV knockoff to announce, in breathless tones, that there had been a horrible massacre in an L.A.-area martial arts Dojo.

The police public affairs officer went through the body count, then stared directly into the camera. "Sixteen people are killed and the eighteen-year-old daughter of the owners of the martial arts studio is missing. Police refuse to say whether the teen, whom friends claim has been angry at her parents lately, is a suspect."

Ellie had to consciously force herself to stop looking at the door. She was as safe here as anywhere, at least for the night. Running through the streets of Los Angeles wasn't going to bring her closer to finding her parent's killers. With both police and spy gunmen after her, she needed to play it smart, rather than yield to her emotions.

Her father's words came to her almost as if he were standing behind her shoulder whispering in her ear. "Panic killed more warriors than any enemy. Always maintain your calm: react with training and thought."

Her eyes filled with tears as she realized he'd never lecture her again, but she swiped them dry on a threadbare motel towel. She needed to rest, to learn what was going on, to stay alive.

She had intended to read the notebook she'd found in her parents' stash but fell asleep before she'd gotten past the first page. It was going to be tougher than she'd thought because the book appeared to be some sort of fantasy novel rather than a spy diary. If it held any secrets about her parents' secrets, she'd need to be fresh to crack their code. .

* * * *

Ellie awoke the next morning with a splitting headache, a hunger that wouldn't take no for an answer, and a sharp anger at the world.

She needed to plan, needed to find a safe place to hide, but first, she needed something to eat. And the motel wasn't the kind of place that offered room service.

She pulled a baseball cap over her hair, stuck on a pair of sunglasses, and irreverently used her father's katana to hack off the bottom of her t-shirt, giving herself a different look than the sicky-sweet and too precious yearbook photo the cops had used on their T.V. warning. It wouldn't fool anyone who looked, but nobody looked at an eighteen year old woman's face.

Half an hour later, reinforced by a Grand Slam combo from the I-HOP, she had dealt with her hunger. She was still mad, though, and didn't think that would ever go away. Somehow, she was going to find out who had killed her parents and make sure they paid for it. But first, she needed some way to stay safe and out of police custody, and some time to figure out who might be behind the murders.

With a full stomach, it seemed do-able.

An hour later, though, her confidence faded.

The cops were everywhere. She did her best to change her look, again, switching hats at a Family Dollar and spraying blonde into her hair. She bought a Hooters t-shirt to replace the one she'd been wearing, but the cops were stopping everyone who looked young and female. Even with one of the fake I.D.'s she'd found in her parents' hiding place, Ellie didn't think she could talk her way past them. And her father's sword would send off alarms in even the densest policeman, even though it was fairly well disguised in its scabbard, or saya. Abandoning the katana made sense, but it would have felt like abandoning her father again. Ellie couldn't make herself do that.

What she needed was time to read her mother's book and for the police investigation to lose its intensity. She needed to go to ground and she needed to put some serious miles between herself and all this police attention.

For that, she needed wheels. A pickup with a camper would be an ideal solution to her need for someplace to stay and for mobility.

She slipped into a shabby used car lot about a mile from the I-Hop, continually moving north, away from her parents' home and, she hoped, the center of police attention.

A chubby redheaded guy with sweat stains on his long-sleeved shirt tossed a cigarette and hustled out to greet her. "You looking for something in particular? Interest rates are going up, but we've still got some financing at last month's rates. Easy payments."

"How much is that one?" She pointed at an aging Ford pickup.

"Well, that's pretty good transportation, but I'd like you to take a look at the Ram Truck. The extended cab will give you a lot more room for friends when you want to go on that camping trip."

She resisted the urge to glare at him. "I'm interested in the Ford. How much are you asking?"

"Okay. Excuse me for wanting to help." He mopped sweat from his forehead. "I could give you that truck for two-ninety a month. Your good job is your credit at Big Pete's."

If the circumstances had been different, Ellie would have enjoyed this. He was a lot older than she--probably late twenties, and was obviously attracted by her. Or rather, he was responding to the outfit and the blonde highlights she'd sprayed into her hair. She figured she could manipulate him until his tongue got all tied up and he cut her one heck of a bargain. But these weren't ordinary circumstances. She didn't want to negotiate with him and especially didn't want to call more attention to herself by flirting with him. She wanted to get a truck and get away from L.A. before she got thrown into jail.

"I'm paying cash. How much is it?"

"Oh. Cash." He said it like it was a dirty word. They probably made most of their money in interest and in repossession. "I guess I'll have to talk to the manager. See if I can get you a deal."

"All right." She followed him into the showroom and sat where he pointed, in a tiny cubicle with a tiny desk.

"Just wait here." He vanished down the hall.

Ellie recognized the talk-to-the-manager scam. She used the time to start reading through the hand-lettered book her mother had left. Once she got over the hard-to-read calligraphy, it was interesting, presented as if it were a journal of some famous Samurai-style warrior. She couldn't figure out what it had to do with spying, but her mother wouldn't have hidden it in the cache if it hadn't been important. The trick was figuring out what it meant, what message they'd intended to reach her alone.

It wasn't until the salesman had been gone for a while--too long--that Ellie came out of her reading trance and realized that something was wrong.

No salesman will ignore a paying customer. Yet she was being ignored. Which had to mean that he didn't think she was a legitimate customer.

Since she'd told him she had cash, that couldn't be the problem. Only one other possibility struck her. She'd been identified. And she'd been sitting there like a lump waiting for him to notify the cops.

She picked up her bundle and headed toward the back of the suspiciously quiet offices.

She opened the back door in time to see the last of the employees and customers being ushered off the lot by a group of cops. They weren't wearing SWAT uniforms, which might mean she had a few minutes before they moved in, but there was no way she was going to walk past them.

She rejected giving herself up. First, her father's warning had been to trust no one. Second, if the cops discovered the cash in her backpack, they'd almost certainly decide she had killed her own parents for money. The television spokeswoman had as good as accused her of murder already. If she surrendered, she could count on spending the rest of her life in jail. Which would mean that her parents' real killers would walk.

She shook her head firmly. When she found the real killers, she would consider turning herself over to the police. And only then.

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