by Malcolm Ferrier
The four men circled the solitary figure warily. The central character in this unfolding drama stood immobile, apparently unconcerned about his would-be assailants. He radiated a sense of calm, but an attentive observer would detect a focus that seemed to take in the entire room at once.
Suddenly, with a shout, one of the four attacked. He rushed in with a powerful overhead swipe aimed at the defender’s head. Before the blow could land the attacker’s fist was redirected by the defender’s forearm, narrowly missing its target. The defender continued to apply force in the direction of the attack, twisting his body and throwing the attacker to the ground.
The attacker threw his arms forward and executed a roll that landed him back onto his feet. He rejoined the circling group as another of the four moved in with a sweeping arm attack. Again, the defender guided the force of the strike and sent the attacker crashing towards the floor. Another roll, and the attacker moved back to join the circle of four.
This pattern continued. One by one, the attackers would move in only to be directed outwards again through the manipulation of their own energy. It resembled a complex, free form ballet performed by pugilists.
A clap sounded. The motion stopped and the men stood, sweating but relaxed.
"Excellent, Jack. Those were random attacks at full-force."
The speaker was a middle-aged man with a British accent. He wore a traditional gi with the instructor’s black wide-legged pants, the hakama. Dave Petersen had taught Aikido, the “art of peace,” every Saturday morning for years at this community centre in False Creek. While still a young man, he had travelled to Japan to study with the founder’s son, Kisshomaru.
Morihei Ueshiba, or “the founder” as millions of Aikidoists around the world knew him, had developed the art of Aikido after a lifetime of practice. Born in 1883, Morihei was not a strong child. After witnessing a gang of thugs beat his father, however, he began single-mindedly studying the martial arts of the Samurai, including jujutsu and swordsmanship.
Stories of his exploits are legendary. While on a foray to Mongolia, the group with which he was traveling was attacked by bandits. He was somehow able to dodge the bullets of their rifles. When asked how this was possible, he replied, " Before the bullet could arrive I would see a beam of golden light. It was a simple matter of avoiding this light, and by doing so, avoid the bullets."
Like a gunfighter’s life in the old west, many martial artists came to test Morihei’s ability. Sometime in 1925, at his country home, a visiting senior military officer attacked him wielding a Samurai sword. He was able to avoid injury by dodging the officer’s attacks until his assailant exhausted himself. After the officer fled in shame, Morihei went into his garden to meditate. He felt himself bathed in a golden light and gained a powerful realization. From that point on, Aikido for him was a force of non-violence, a means of bringing peace to the world.
Jack Findlay walked from the middle of the circle of men towards the instructor. He felt that his situational awareness was improving. He had been able to mentally create a dynamic spatial map of the location and movement of each of his attackers. It was almost as if time had slowed, allowing him to more easily deal with changing events. He suspected his virtual reality training was helping his development in this arena. He stopped in front of Dave. They bowed.
"I think it’s time you started teaching here, Jack."
"Thank you, Sensei, but I can’t make the commitment right now. I’ve got too many irons in the fire and I wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it deserves. Someday soon, though."
Jack had been coming to Dave’s class for the past five years and considered it his home dojo. He had started practicing Aikido when he was fifteen. Twenty years later, he felt he was only now beginning to understand the subtleties of the art.
"Well, just keep it in mind. There’ll always be a place for you here."
Jack nodded and moved to the door. He turned, bowed to the image of the founder placed at the front of the sun-filled practice hall, and left. He entered the locker room and changed from his gi into a black Gazzarrini suit. Pulling his helmet and a briefcase from his locker, he left the building.
Waiting near the exit was his ‘94 BMW F 650 motorcycle. Bought used and in bad shape for a few thousand, Jack had spent a few happy weeks last summer cleaning the engine and replacing worn parts. Now it ran like a dream and made his excursions through congested Vancouver traffic much more enjoyable.
Placing his briefcase in the back compartment of the bike, he put on his helmet and climbed on. He started up the engine and made his way out of the parking lot onto 6th Street. Gunning the engine, he sped along, weaving through traffic. After a short ride, he signalled a left turn into the underground parking garage of an apartment complex overlooking False Creek. He parked his bike in a stall near the elevator.
Ignoring the lift, he entered the stairwell and jogged up the steps. He reached the top floor, the sixth, and pulled open the door to the corridor. Following it to the end, he unlocked 606 and entered his apartment.
The hunter entered Office Depot wearing Isotoner gloves. They were useful because, like the old TV commercial claimed, one could pick up a key from a flat surface while wearing the damn things. A measure of dexterity would be useful today. Though their most important feature was that they cover his fingerprints.
The man’s name was Richards and he was handling the stress well. The killing last night threatened to bubble up from the depths of his mind and steal his attention from the external world but he was able to keep it in check. There were more steps to take before the business could be concluded. He would have plenty of time to come to terms with his actions afterward.
He went to the stationery aisle and picked up an unopened box of envelopes and a shrink-wrapped sheaf of paper. In another aisle he found a pair of scissors and some glue. He went to the till, paid, and left.
Down the street he stopped at a corner store and bought both editions of the Saturday paper and a package of stamps. He had all he needed. He winked at the cute girl behind the counter on his way out. She smiled back.
He went to his car parked up the street and climbed in. A short drive up Oak brought him to the apartment hotel he was renting for the month.
He took the elevator up to his small suite and laid the morning’s purchases out on the table. He filled a glass of water in the kitchen and set it untouched by the supplies. Without taking off his gloves, he set to work. Leafing through the sections of the papers, he would pause and cut out a part of a headline. This continued until a small pile of words had formed in front of him.
He then removed the cellophane from the sheaf of paper and took a blank sheet from the pile. Covering the page with a thin layer of glue, he quickly but carefully took the headline pieces one by one and pasted them on the sheet in sequence.
He sat back after a time and looked at his work.
"Perfect," he breathed.
Pulling an envelope from the box, he addressed it slowly, using a Bic pen held in his left hand. He attached a stamp, moistening it with the water from the glass. Then he folded the now dry sheet and inserted it into the envelope before sealing it shut.
All that remained was a trip to a distant mailbox.
Could life be any simpler?
Jack stood in the middle of his living room, holding a glass of water. He took a drink. He asked himself this question frequently, and almost every time he returned to the apartment. He was not asking himself if things could be any easier, but instead if he could further simplify his life.
He looked around the room. He felt his home should reflect his state of mind, much like a Zen garden reflected the level of enlightenment of a Zen master.
It was furnished simply, with low wood furniture and hardwood floors. The walls were dark and there was a desk set up in the corner. It held a phone, a lamp, and a laptop computer, the latest Alienware.
He crossed over to the desk. Flipping up the cover of the laptop, he saw he had several email messages waiting. He opened his email application and his heart quickened. He had several messages, but the one that held his attention was a piece of spam with the subject line “Bu_y Yourse_lf a Piece of Pa_radise.”
He set down his water, sat down at the desk, and opened the email. He scrolled to the end of the message, past the contents describing a timeshare condo in Cabo San Lucas. The last two lines were gibberish, looking like the artifacts of a bumpy ride through the Internet.
He selected the two lines at the end and copied them with Ctrl-C. He then went to his start menu and opened a program buried in his System Tools folder called “Makeshift.” He entered a username and password and the program opened showing a large blank text field and an unlabeled button.
He pasted the two lines into the text field and pressed the unmarked button with his mouse. A simple message replaced the gibberish. It said " Most Urgent. 26/13."
"Once again," he thought.
Their meeting took place in Stanley Park. The interior trails were not crowded, even early on a Saturday afternoon, and it was unlikely that their muted conversation would be overheard. A directional microphone used from a distance was another matter, but if they kept moving and kept their eyes open such a listener could be detected and if necessary, detained.
It was easy for Jack to interpret the message he received through the spam email but almost impossible for others. The 13 indicated 1:00 PM; the 26 meant the twenty-sixth location on a list Jack had memorized years ago. In this case, the trailhead by the lake in Stanley Park. He was here to meet his CSIS handler.
CSIS, or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, was Canada’s secret service. An organization “with secrets to protect, not a secret organization” as was stated on the home page of its website. Little known to most Canadians, frequently forgotten by senior government ministers, CSIS was nonetheless an important element of Canada’s national security network.
Like any organization of its type, CSIS had a number of posts to fill, both visible and invisible. In addition to the entry level Intelligence Officers, or IOs, CSIS had on their books scientists, doctors, engineers, computer specialists, and other professionals. They also had some operatives who were not on the books. Jack Findlay was one of them.
On occasion, CSIS had a need for highly skilled, independent agents. These men and women were selected from the population based on characteristics that made them suitable for dangerous solo operations. They would be called upon in times of need when internal agents could not be utilized due to security concerns. Carefully screened by intensive psychological profiling, their motivations for doing this sort of work were not financial, but moral.
Jack’s handler was Steven Blake, a burly Newfie with white, receding hair and a missing left arm. He had lost it shortly before Jack had joined the CSIS independent network.
"How’ve you been, Jack? It’s been months."
"Well. Doing some consulting, trying to enjoy life."
"How’s the training?"
"Aikido or virtual reality?"
"They’re coming along. I’m plateauing with the martial arts, but that’s nothing new. I’ll just keep at it, and a spurt will come. The VR is another story."
"How do you mean?"
Jack paused. It was difficult to verbalize, but he had to try. "I feel like it’s changing me. I get so involved that I forget where I am. I think my reflexes are faster and my ability to handle stress is increasing. But it’s more than just that. I feel calmer, but more aware. It’s like having eyes in the back of my head."
"You’ll have to come in soon and we’ll run some tests. This may need to become part of standard training." Blake’s stride quickened. Jack knew it was time to move on to business. Blake’s voice lowered. "We’ve got a real problem."
Blake’s phone had woken him at 4:00 AM last night. It was Donald Grant, the Premier’s chief of security. As the Director of the BC section of CSIS, it was Blake’s job to deal with intelligence emergencies in the province. He listened as Grant outlined the events of the murder earlier that night.
"I’ll put all our available resources on it," Blake replied after the briefing.
"The Premier wants your best."
"He’ll get the best."
After the talk with Grant, Blake had called the night watch duty officer at CSIS Vancouver Section headquarters and put into motion the process that would get the regular investigative unit started on the case. Then he had gone to the computer at his desk and produced the encrypted spam that informed Jack of the meeting in Stanley Park.
After hearing the details of the assassination, Jack’s mind went into high gear. "This sounds like a real pro. No fingerprints or shell casings, and an inspired plan to get the target out of his car for an easy shot. I have a feeling Richard Deck may not be the last."
"That was our take, too. This may be some kind of extortion operation or even terrorist activity. That’s why I need you to look into this."
"Have you assigned other agents?" Jack had faced problems in the past when the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. Running into another CSIS independent in the field could have hazardous consequences.
"Just the usual staffers. Keep a low profile but get this resolved. Resources will be available as usual, but if I know you, you probably won’t call ‘til you need the cavalry."
Jack smiled. Blake knew that Jack relied on his own resources. Budgets were tight, even in the secret service, and Blake had no patience with agents who would call in a strike team at the slightest provocation. CSIS worked with limited resources but still had to carry out its objectives.
The concept of the CSIS independent network was developed with this in mind. A solo operative presented a minimal security risk while allowing maximum mobility. Anonymous because of their limited links to their agency, they could move in environments that would be treacherous for a known agent.
And Jack had moved in some very treacherous environments.
"I’ll keep you posted through the usual channels," he said. "Is there anything else?"
Blake handed him a file from his briefcase. "This is it. Some photos, the police report, and a dossier on Deck. Not much, but it’ll get you started."
"Thanks. I’ll let you know when something breaks."
"Great. And Jack?"
"Be careful. This one’s a killer."
Jack leaned back and stretched. The contents of Blake’s file covered his desk but it wasn’t much to go on. Pictures of the body slumped in front of the garage door. A police report describing the compromised garage window and door opener. The dossier on Richard Deck that gave the details of his political career. Of course a man makes enemies in politics, but how many would be willing to kill?
He’d have to visit the site. Try to put himself in the shoes of the man responsible for the murder. He would go at dusk tonight and try to duplicate the actions of the shooter. This method had worked as a starting point in the past.
He thought back over his time as an agent of CSIS. He remembered how it all started, almost ten years ago…