A Perfect Circle

by Eddie Nygma

A gun is a beautiful thing. Eight and a half inches of cold steel and alluring composite, finished in a black so deep it could drink a manís soul in and leave him dry and hollow...empty. Taro supposed that was what had happened to so many people since firearms had been invented. It was certainly what had happened to him.

Taro turned the gun over and over in his hands. He stroked the slide and sighed as the metal leached the warmth from his fingers. Comforting, yet disquieting. Loving mother...lethal succubus.

Heckler & Koch USP Tactical, loading .45 ACP. At just under twenty-two centimetres in length, the pistol was large and heavy, but Taroís powerful build and big hands made it look almost like a childís toy.

The clip carried twelve of the .45 calibre bullets, plus another in the pipe. Taro deftly cocked and released the hammer, over and over again. The familiar action brought the tiniest of smiles to his cold, cold lips.

The barrel measured in at thirteen centimetres. Taro touched the cool metal of the slide to his forehead. Hot...he was so hot. He was sure he had a fever. The heat of his body clashed with the coldness in the pit of his stomach, sucking away his strength.

From the top of the sight to the bottom of the clip, the gun measured a full fifteen centimetres. Taro pressed the pebbled grip to his cheek. It was rough, scratchy - but it was also familiar. The sensation reassured him.

All told, the pistol weighed just over a kilogram. Taro hefted it in a practised grip, sighting down the barrel and gently squeezing the trigger, but releasing it before it broke. Without the silencer, it would be too noisy.

Taro heaved a tired sigh and drew the gun back. He looked down the barrel steadily. He knew that it was only about eleven-and-a-half millimetres from rim to rim, but this close it looked like a vast, gaping chasm...endless...eternal...the midnight sky; the depths of the earth.

Taro loved that gun.

Simon Phillips, newly promoted Head of Internal Security, steepled his fingers. A tiny smile drifted over his lips as he turned his head. "You donít like me much, do you, Taro?"

Phillipsí primary enforcer and personal bodyguard looked at him impassively through his mirrored sunglasses. He didnít respond to his superiorís question, which Phillips found telling. He just wasnít sure what, precisely, it said. That was the drawback to working for a zaibatsu, he mused. All the inscrutable Orientals. Taroís silence could easily mean that he was too respectful to reply to a question like that. On the other hand - and as Phillips found more likely - it could mean the bodyguard just wasnít willing to waste his time answering. Then again... Phillips sighed. The possibilities were endless, really, and he just couldnít figure out which one was right. For a man who had gotten where he was because of his ability to read people, that was a problem, to say the least.

Normally it wasnít an issue. Phillips worked out of an office in Los Angeles, which meant he was usually dealing with whites, blacks, Hispanics and the like. A few Arabs, a few Chinese, some Eastern Europeans...a bit of a hodgepodge, really. Not a lot of Japanese, though. After the occupation of San Francisco, the Japs werenít really the most popular people in California, so for the most part they stuck to San Fran. Not all of them, though, and there were enough of them around to be a headache for Phillips.

It was their culture. That was it. Phillips had gone through the corp indoctrination like all the good wageslaves did, but it was still a mystery to him. Of course, heíd listened and parroted back what the execs wanted to hear, but that was as far as it went for him. A concept like loyalty - sure, he understood that. He didnít really buy into it, but he knew how to use it against the people around him. Same with duty. You did what was right by the corp, you got ahead. That was his duty, as far as Phillips was concerned, and his definition certainly hadnít hurt his career any. Except for that one time... Things like honour, though...loyalty and duty to the point of self-sacrifice...and face; now those just didnít make any sense. The point of life was to get ahead, not to subsume your ambitions for the betterment of a monolithic organisation like the corp.

The Japanese just didnít get it, as far as Phillips was concerned, and he didnít get them. Of course, there were exceptions - there always were - but they seemed few and far between in his office. That only made sense. LA was a dead-end in the corp - Phillips had been working to get back out of the hellhole for years - and a Jap would have to be self-sacrificing in order to consider working there.

It was the ones like Taro that really got to Phillips, though. The little samurai, as he liked to call them. They were the ones who got into the duty and honour thing full bore. The corp was their master and theyíd do anything their master asked of them. Yeah, that was something Phillips could use, because it made them predictable. The problem was, he could only push them so far. Then they started worrying about honour and face and loyalty and they started getting in the way. They were just too inconvenient to be worth the effort.

Taro was a special case, though. A very special case. Phillips hadnít known whom Taro was when heíd first come to work in the Internal Security Department. Heíd disliked Taro on principal, of course, but he disliked all Japs. He was nothing special.

It was only when heíd take over from the previous department head and had gone through all the personnel files that heíd learned just who Taro was. Heíd been stunned, but that had soon given way to malicious delight.

Taro and Phillips were virtually strangers - but Phillips knew Taroís father all too well. It had been Taroís father, Kenichi, whose actions had exiled Phillips to the corporate wasteland that was Los Angeles. It had been Kenichi, whose unbending, self-righteous sense of duty had practically destroyed Phillipsí career, and had come perilously close to costing him his life as well.

Phillips was a survivor. Heíd pulled himself out of the gutter and gotten on with his life, but almost twenty years later, he still hadnít regained the lofty heights from which heíd once fallen.

But now Kenichiís son worked for Phillips...and Taro was ignorant of all that had gone before.

"You donít, do you?" Phillips grinned at Taro, a shark-like expression that had little, if any, warmth in it. "Thatís okay, though - I donít like you either. Of course, weíve both been too polite to say it plainly before, but here itís just you and I. We can be honest with each other."

Phillips rocked back in his chair, stretching out comfortably. "But donít you worry about that, Taro. Itís time to make some changes - bring my own people in - but youíve done a good job in the past. So Iíve decided to do you a favour. Iíve arranged for a transfer for you. How does the Tokyo office sound?"

Silence was his only reply as he stared idly up at the ceiling. After a while, he glanced at Taro sourly. "You know, youíre supposed to answer when I ask you a question."

Apparently Taro didnít feel that he could ignore Phillips anymore, as he nodded his head sharply. "Hai, Tono!" he barked.

Phillipsí frown deepened. "Whatíve I told you before? English only, right? You know I donít speak Japanese."

Taro bowed his head submissively. "Hai...yes, sir."

"Thatís better." Phillips looked back to the ceiling. "Whatís the time?"

Taro didnít have to turn his head, simply looking at the clock sitting on Phillipsí desk. "6:53, sir."

"Good, good." Phillipsí chair returned to the floor with a click and he looked directly at Taro. The bigger man never took his eyes away. "Let me tell you how it is, Taro. You want to be out of my hair, and I want you gone. Now, I could fire you...but I wonít do that. Youíre very good at your job and exceedingly loyal to the company. Firing you would really be a terrible waste. So, like I said, Iíve recommended you for a transfer to the head office. Sound good? Iím sure it does. All you have to do to get the transfer is take care of one, last job here. Something that requires a delicate touch. Wakarimasu-ka?"

Phillips grinned as Taro flinched almost unnoticeably. One thing he knew about the Japanese was that they hated having their language mangled by mixing it up with other tongues. Taro quickly covered the reaction, though, nodding his head again. "Hai."

"Good. Now, Iíve got a seven oíclock appointment coming in soon. Itís a woman - one of the scientists. We suspect sheís been passing information to the competition. Proprietary information. We think sheís about to jump ship. Canít have that, can we?" Phillips absently scratched an itch on his stomach. "I want you to go and wait in your office while I talk to her. If I call you in...well, you know the drill, donít you?"

"Hai, Tono!"

Phillips decided to let it slide this time. "Good to hear."

Taro remembered when heíd first seen his gun. His father had been cleaning it in the kitchen when he had woken from a nightmare and wandered out. Heíd only been five. Kenichi had taken him on his knee and told him proudly of the weaponís history. It had belonged to his father before him when he had served in the United States Army and had seen him through many dangerous times. Grandfather Shoji had passed it on to Kenichi on the day Taroís father was accepted into the Airborne Rangers. Kenichi had carried it through his military career and into his life with the company. It served him well as he rose through the ranks to become the Head of Security for the San Francisco office. Kenichi had told Taro all that, and then heíd told his young son that one day he would inherit the weapon. The tool of a modern samurai.

When Kenichi was killed in the line of duty, it was Grandfather Shoji whoíd cared for him, bringing him up in the traditional way. Taroís mother, Melinda, was a highly placed researcher for the company. Sheíd had little time for Taro even before his fatherís death. Afterwards she immersed herself in her work. Taro had been lucky to see her one day in five. That was not an adequate environment for a young child, so Grandfather Shoji had come to live with them. They all felt it was the perfect solution; Taro loved his grandfather, Shoji doted on his grandson and Melinda didnít care what they did, as long as they left her in peace. Or so it seemed. Taro vaguely remembered a number of occasions, when he was younger, on which heíd heard his mother and grandfather arguing late at night. Theyíd never spoken about it to him, however, so heíd done his best to forget it. Many children might have resented a mother who ignored them so thoroughly, but not Taro. He understood the concepts of ninjo and giri - humanity and duty. His father had taught them to him and Grandfather Shoji had continued his instruction. In a way, he was even proud of his mother - in putting the company before her family, she was doing her duty. Giri before ninjo - the way of bushido - the way of the samurai.

It was only later that Taro came to understand that it was not duty that had driven his mother from him.

Phillips smiled his shark smile as he waved the woman to the chair before his desk. "Please, Dr. Kincaid-Takahara, have a seat."

"I prefer Dr. Kincaid, Mr. Phillips."

The scientist tucked her suit-top against her flat stomach as she slipped into the chair and regarded Phillips coldly. She was pushing fifty - her file put her at forty-eight years of age - but she could have easily passed for someone ten or fifteen years her junior. The marvels of modern cosmetics, Phillips mused. It truly is a pity. "Thank you for joining me, Dr. Kincaid," he responded. "I do apologise for taking you away from your work, but Iím afraid this simply couldnít wait."

"I believe Iíll be the judge of that." Dr. Kincaidís eyes sparked angrily. "Weíre in a very delicate stage of our research at the moment. If this meeting interferes with my project in any way, let me assure you, you can lose your wonderful new position as quickly as you gained it. Are we clear?"

Phillips coughed. He hadnít expected so sudden an offensive. A smile of admiration curled his lips. Heíd heard the good doctor was a predator and so far she wasnít disappointing him. "Oh, perfectly, doctor. I donít think thereís any need for belligerence, however. We have a serious problem here and weíre going to need to work together to sort it out, so thereís no point getting each other offside."

Dr. Kincaidís expression was sceptical. "Really, Mr. Phillips. And what kind of problem would that be?"

Phillips leaned forward, beckoning Dr. Kincaid closer. "A serious problem," he reiterated. "Renraku."

Dr. Kincaidís eyebrows arched as Phillips invoked the name of one of the corporationís primary competitors. "Iím not hearing anything that would warrant my time being wasted, Mr. Phillips. Please tell me you didnít call me hear to talk about the bogeyman."

Phillips laughed hollowly. "Hardly, doctor. Iím afraid one of your people has been passing secrets to the opposition. They may even be planning on defecting."

Dr. Kincaid shifted ever so slightly in her seat. "Those are serious allegations, Mr. Phillips. I do hope you have something to back them up."

"I wouldnít have asked you to join me if I hadnít." Phillips smiled easily. "We have evidence of this matter. Some of your project has been duplicated and passed to known Renraku operatives."

Dr. Kincaid tapped her fingers against the arm of her chair thoughtfully. "Are you quite sure one of my people is responsible? I trust them all implicitly. Theyíre some of the best scientists Iíve ever worked with."

Phillips smiled politely even as his thoughts churned madly. She was good; he had to give her that. She wasnít giving a thing away. If the situation had been different, he might even have considered recruiting her for his department. "And I donít dispute that, doctor, but that doesnít mean they couldnít have been...tempted, now, does it?"

"But equally, it doesnít mean they have been."

Phillips nodded. "True. However, weíve investigated every other possibility. There have been no outside intrusions and everyone else with the necessary clearance level to access the data has been cleared. That only leaves your team."

The barest hint of a smile, dry and rueful, came to Dr. Kincaidís lips. "So you donít know who it is. Youíre still guessing."

Phillips returned her smile with an ironic one of his own. "Not exactly. We have our suspicions, doctor, but nothing concrete. Yet. Thatís why I called you in. Of all the people in the corporation, you know your colleagues the best. I was hoping you might be able to give us some insights into their characters, or tell us if any of them have been acting suspiciously. Iíll also need to account for their whereabouts at particular times on a number of days - perhaps youíll be able to help me with that, too."

Dr. Kincaid looked at Phillips for a long moment, then sighed resignedly and settled back in her seat. "Where do we start, Mr. Phillips?"

Taro had always wanted to be like his father, his grandfather, his mother. Duty ruled their lives - their path was the way of loyal service. He admired them and their devotion, whether it be to country or corporate home. In a world where social mores were constantly devolving, he was taught that such a person was to be valued.

Taro wanted to be valued, admired - he wanted his family to be proud of him.

His father had shown him the meaning of family; his grandfather had taught him the code of bushido. It was the company, however, that had molded him into what he was.

Taro had been educated in company schools, both in San Francisco, and later, when his motherís work had forced them to relocate, in Los Angeles. The company had provided the pension that supported Grandfather Shoji, and paid his motherís salary. It was the company that had recognised his talents and had paid for college and further training when he graduated from high school. It was Grandfather Shoji who had passed to Taro the family daisho, the paired blades, katana and wakizashi, which was the symbol of their samurai heritage; but it was the company who had shaped him into a living weapon, an instrument of its will.

Taro wasnít sure when it was that the company had become everything to him, but he knew when he had realised it. When Grandfather Shoji died, he had been shattered. He had not seen his mother for more than three years by that time and she had not come to Grandfather Shojiís funeral. Her reply to Taroís messages had left no doubt as to what was most important in her life.

Taro had been left feeling alone, abandoned. His work had suffered as he did. A month after Grandfather Shojiís death, his principle had been attacked by an assassin in downtown Los Angeles. Taro had thought the end had come that day, when his principle had died less than an armís length away from him. Shamed and despondent, he had been prepared to take his own life. Instead, he had been offered a second chance, a second opportunity to serve. He had taken it with all his heart and had never failed again.

The company had given him life and worth. The company had given him everything. How could he do any less?

"Ah, it seems he was in hospital that day," Phillips noted as he flicked through the file before him. "A stomach complaint of some sort." He shook his head almost disappointedly. "That rules out Dr. Sears, then. So who does that leave us with?"

Dr. Kincaid shifted uneasily, her hands twitching over her suit-top before smoothing it down again. "Well, thereís Fletcher Kennedy...Mrs. Beaumont, the secretary-"

"I donít think sheíd have the required clearance level, do you?" Phillips cut in. Dr. Kincaid gave a subdued shake of her head and he smiled. "No, I didnít think so. And...?"

"And Mitchell Crean," she finished.

Phillips waited for a fraction of a second before adding, "And yourself."

Dr. Kincaid hesitated, then slowly nodded. "And myself."

Their eyes met gravely for long seconds, until, with almost alarming suddenness, Phillips looked away. "Well, letís have a look at Dr. Kennedy then," he said, shuffling through the files on his desk until he found the correct one. "What are your impressions of the man?" he asked as he opened the file and began to go through it.

"Well...Fletcher is a brilliant man."

"Youíve said that about all your colleagues," Phillips reminded her with a sly smile.

Dr. Kincaid coughed softly into her hand. "Yes, well...I hardly would have requested them for my team if they werenít, would I?"

Phillipsí smile broadened. Her tells were becoming more obvious as they worked their way through the members of her research team. It had taken some effort, but she was finally starting to crumble. A formidable woman indeed, Phillips thought. A true pity. "A very good point, doctor. Please, do go on."

Dr. Kincaid gazed at Phillips steadily for a moment before she began to speak again. "He can be somewhat erratic at times."

"In his work, or his personal life?" Phillips enquired, flipping to a new page.

"Both." She smiled wryly. "He hasnít had a single relationship thatís lasted more than a month in all the years Iíve known him, and while heís-"

"Oh, no, heís not our man either," Phillips interrupted as he trailed a finger down the page, looking at nothing in particular. Closing the file, he lifted his head to Dr. Kincaid. "I guess that means it must be Dr. Crean." Regarding her with a half-smile, he folded his hands atop his desk. "Mustnít it."

The silence that settled over the office was grating. Dr. Kincaid fidgeted uncomfortably, her hands soon in near constant motion. Phillips noted the tiny beads of sweat that sprang to her forehead with something approaching satisfaction. Gotcha. He wasnít about to break the deadlock, however. He was having far too much fun.

"How long have you known?" Dr. Kincaidís voice was tired, defeated. Her face was worn, drawn into haggard lines by the strain she could hide no longer, and her shoulders slumped despondently.

Showing our age, arenít we, doctor? Phillipsí smile turned harsh. "Long enough. Really, doctor, whatever made you think you could continue to hide your activities? You should have gotten out long ago."

Her laughter was hollow. "They wouldnít take me until the project was completed." Suddenly a desperate light came to her eyes. "Let me go, Phillips. Iíll leave; youíll never see me again. No one will. As far as anyone will know, youíll have done your job."

"And what do I get in return?" Phillips asked thoughtfully.

"Anything! Iíve got money - lots of it! Iíll give you a million...two! More if you want it! Just let me go."

Phillips rubbed his chin, his look speculative. "Thatís a very tempting offer, doctor." He leaned back easily, letting his eyes roam over her. "What if I donít want money?" he asked.

Dr. Kincaidís cool demeanour had returned and she sat upright, seemingly in control of the situation once more. "You want me, Mr. Phillips? Donít deny it - Iíve seen you watching me. Yes, even that. Just let me go." Her hand came up to the neck of her blouse enticingly.

Phillips smiled again. "A very tempting offer, doctor. Let me think on it a moment. In the meantime..." Leaning forward, he tapped the intercom open. "Taro, would you come in here, please?"

Phillips found it interesting watching Dr. Kincaid crumble in stages, as the realisation of her doom came fully over her. "Taro?" she asked, her voice hitching, as the door to Taroís office swung open.

Taroís office was situated to Phillipsí left when he sat at his desk. Because of that he was afforded a good view of both of their faces as the bodyguard entered. Dr. Kincaidís, pale and stricken as she continued to stare at him; Taroís, calm and purposeful as he strode forward, his silenced pistol clasped in his hand. That purpose faltered as she turned to face the younger man.

Concealed as they were behind his dark shades, Phillips could make out nothing of Taroís eyes; yet what he could see was certainly expressive enough. Phillips saw Taroís face slacken in shock and horror, and a strangled whisper rose to his lips. "Iie!"

Dr. Kincaid was speaking, her tone frantic...terrified. "Taro, no...please, no. Donít do it. Please!"

Taroís jaw set as he visibly drew himself together. "Did you do it?" he asked. "Did you do this thing?"

The woman flinched, unable to meet his gaze. "No, Taro, no. I didnít. I swear it!"

Phillips could see the telltale indications that revealed her lie for what it was and he realised Taro could too, when the younger manís face hardened. "Iie! Do not lie to me!" Taroís furious scream shook each occupant of the office. His gun rose halfway, then dropped again as he turned to face Phillips, tears rolling down his cheeks.

"Please," whispered Dr. Kincaid, her eyes fixed on Phillips again. "Donít."

Phillips ignored her, instead watching Taro. He did well to mute his smile, but inside he could hardly contain his glee. Itís amazing what you can do with the right amount of power, he thought. He was the one in charge now, and it was time to close some old accounts. This was just the start. He was startled out of his introspection when Taro met his gaze and echoed the doctorís plea. Not a sound escaped the bodyguardís lips, but Phillips knew what he was asking. Please. Donít.

Phillips shook his head. Slowly, with great finality, he pronounced Dr. Kincaidís fate.

"The company demands loyalty."

The muffled thump of the pistol was almost anticlimactic.

Life comes full circle, Taro thought.

His eyes settled on the two bodies, lying side by side on the office floor, slowly cooling in death. Shame begets shame. I have shamed my family. I have shamed the memory of my father, of my grandfather. Yet I have only done what is right. All I have ever striven to do is what was right.

A torrent of grief, of pain, rolled up from within him and exploded in a great wail of agony.

"Why? Why, mother?"

His sobs overcame him for a moment, tears blinding him to the world, but he quickly schooled himself. Wiping his eyes, his gaze was drawn inexorably to the gun on the desk before him.

I have shamed the company.

Reaching out, he lifted the gun. A bitterly ironic smile twisted his lips for a heartbeat. It would have been more appropriate if he had had his blades, his daisho, at hand, but there was no time for that. He wasnít even sure he deserved them.

Taro looked into the circle of the gun barrel, gradually letting his eyes drift closed. Full circle.

Icy fingers clawed at him as he pressed the cold ring of the barrel to his temple.

A perfect circle.

(c) 2000. Used with permission.