Track 14: Leave Your Lights On

As soon as our former captive was buried in the ground, Jen smiled and said, “Well, that was easier than I thought it would be.” She slipped her mask on. As it went on, the eyes began to glow blue and the mask began to filter her voice. “Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get into character.”

With that, she turned on her heel and walked to behind the Escalade. “Has…” Lydia asked, “has she ever needed to get into character before?”

Hirosama shrugged. “Not for this. I mean, she usually needs some time to prepare for talking to a court or her father.” His wife shot him a dirty look. “But she is our leader. We should not question her on this.”

I was listening to this, but only enough to hear if they noticed me moving after her. I doubted I was the only one who had noticed her voice crack, or how she was obviously lying when she said how easy it was. Or maybe they did. Jen’s pet supervillains seemed unquestioningly loyal, but they weren’t her friends. I thought it would be best to do a “perimeter check” and if I ran into Jennifer, maybe ask her how things were going.

When I got to where Jen had disappeared, I saw that she was leaning against the car, the horns on her mask touching the window. Her shoulders were also shaking. “Are you ok?” I asked.

She looked up. There was a long silence. I didn’t know what to think for those few seconds, apart from how genuinely terrifying she looked in that mask. I was starting to worry that I had offended her in some way when she suddenly hugged me.

“Um…” I said as our body armor clanked together. I was about to complain about how tight she was hugging or how I was currently dating someone else. Then I noticed how much she was trembling. There was also the strange staticky noise that I realized was what her mask’s voice changer did to sobbing. Hesitantly, I hugged her back.

“Everyone I love dies,” Jen said.

“It’s ok,” I said. “It’s ok…”

“And then I let them down!” Her sobbing doubled as she said this. “Every time!” Her hug tightened and then she said something that, between her voice changer and her sobbing, was incomprehensible.

I was unsure of what to do. On the one hand, at least for the moment, I need her badly. On the other, I wanted to avoid her. She was a liability, and not the kind I could (or wanted to) solve with violence.

Suddenly, there was a giggle. Jen let go of me like she had been burned and began adjusting her costume and looking innocent. I turned around. To my complete lack of surprise, Mayu was standing behind us, a hand covering her mouth. “I’m sorry to intrude,” she said.

“No you aren’t,” Jen said. A bit of her old self had returned.

“Are we needed out front?” I asked, trying to be conversational. Inside my head, I was thinking, Please don’t tell Eliza, please don’t tell Eliza, please don’t tell Eliza. Honestly, I think Eliza would have understood. I just didn’t want Mayu being the one to tell her.

Before Mayu could answer, Jen said, “I might as well head out. They’ll be here shortly.” She then walked off. I followed her. When she was back in front of the car, Hirosama opened his case he was carrying and presented what was inside to Jen. She nodded and took out two chrome and black Berretta 92G Elites. “Thank you,” she said as she holstered them. Hirosama then bowed and closed the case. After Jen had finished putting away the guns away, she said, “Well, our friends have another five minutes. I’m not really in the mood for games tonight.”

I relaxed. This was Jen getting back to normal. This was good, at least in this situation. Unless she started a fight, which would be bad. I pulled my mask down and arranged my PM-9 in a way that was easily accessible but not as threatening as it could be. I noticed that Jen’s associates were putting on surgical masks. We began to wait.

Around four minutes in, John noticed almost everyone else was wearing some sort of mask. Belatedly, he pulled his ski mask down. A few minutes later, Mayu began to realize she was the only one not wearing a mask and began to fidget nervously.

“Well,” Jen said, around ten minutes after they should have arrived, “this seems to be a bust.” At this point, it was almost dawn. The night was so dark that the eyes of Jen’s mask were really the only source of light. Apart from the wildlife and the occasional car, silence reigned. “I’ll give them another ten minutes, then we pack up and move to the back-up safe house.”

A few seconds later, I heard the sound of a group of multiple loud engines moving perpendicular to the freeway. “Wait,” I said, “how many people did you say were going to be meeting us?”

“I didn’t,” Jen said, “but there shouldn’t be that many.” I raised my PM-9 and John raised his Type 89. “Wait!” Jen said hurriedly, gesturing for us to lower our guns, “I didn’t say it wasn’t them!” We lowered our guns and took our fingers off our triggers, but didn’t take our hands of the grips.

As we did, a group of motorcycles turned down a corridor of corn farther up in front of us. Eventually, a formation of ten to fifteen motorcycles, two sports cars (I couldn’t tell their make and model due to the lights blinding me,) and one panel van were arrayed in front of us. The formation seemed to be set up so that the bikes acted as a screen for the sports cars and van. The bright halogen lights were good at preventing me from getting a good count on the men or a read on their equipment, but they seemed to be bikers. This assumption was based on the chains, pipes and giant pompadours.

The door of one of the sports cars opened, and a man exited the vehicle and began walking towards us. As he began walking towards us, four of the bikers got off their bikes and formed a sort of shield around him. “Hey, Jen,” I asked, preparing to raise my PM-9, “how close should we let them get?”

“Oh, stop being so jumpy, Nate,” Jen said somewhat dismissively. “They need more from me than just guns.” I nodded, noting that she had the straps of her holsters undone.

“Oi, Kagemoto-san!” the man who had gotten out of the sports car said as he got within ten meters, “you brought more people than agreed. What gives?” I noticed that part of the reason the lights of the bikes and cars were still on is that I could only make out the vague outlines of the people coming towards us.

“We ran into problems,” Jen said simply indicating John and me with a wave. “My two friends came to help, then they talked me into the rescue business.” She laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not going into the superhero business… at least not full time.” Her voice became serious again. “Anyway, I need a place to stay. In exchange, consider the guns a gift.”

The gang leader stared at John and me long and hard. “So,” he asked, “who are your friends?”

“Tourists,” John said. “Our AirBnB rating is five stars.”

“I highly doubt that,” the man said, “considering that either of you on your own outguns all of us.” He was right. I saw some chains, a few brass knuckles, and a lot of lead pipes and baseball bats. Not a single person, however, seemed to have any kind of firearm.

“Well,” I said, trying not to choke on my words, “if you want to change that, these guns we’re…” I actually did choke there. “…just giving away are very good.” I made them, I should know. “Just out of curiosity, why are there so many of you here? Do you really need this many people to make a buy?”

“Well,” the man said, “there was an incident in the city. Three cops are dead. Would you happen to know anything about that?”

“We want the same thing as you do,” Jen said. “We want a place to lie low and not have to worry about police officers. And honestly, I think we want to leave this country more than you want us gone. In exchange, I’ll send you a few gifts from time to time.”

There was a long pause “If I help you,” the gang leader said, “you will never set foot in this city again, you will never set foot in this prefecture again, you will never set foot in this country again and you will never contact me directly again.”

“Unless you change your mind,” Jen said, “I will never contact you directly ever again.”

The leader sighed and said something in Japanese that I hoped translated to “Good enough.” He then motioned for his people to check the boxes. They quickly broke into the crates and began picking up random and breaking down the guns or inspecting the bullets. As they did, they chatted to each other, expressing interest and surprise.

Eventually, one turned to me and said, “These kinds of guns, I’ve never seen them before. Are they good?”

“On paper?” I said, “very good. In practical terms? They’re still pretty experimental. I can’t give you any real details, I didn’t design them. You should note that they use proprietary ammunition and the pistols try to get away from you.” Yes, that’s it, Nate, keep badmouthing your own products. That way they won’t suspect who you are. “Also, I’m pretty sure the guy who made it is an idiot whose company gets by on child labor.”

“So?” the gangster said. Then he went back to talking to his friends. I went on looking for signs that the deal was going to go bad. There were none and the men packed the guns into the van. When they were done, the leader said, “Get back in your car. I’ll show you where the safe house is.” He turned around and shouted something in Japanese to his men. The other sports car, two thirds of the bikes, and the van scattered. A few motorcycles drove past us, but I noticed that they gave us a wide berth.

When we were finally in the car, we saw the sports car the gang leader had arrived in do a donut and drive back the way it came, albeit at a slower pace. The remaining bikes followed it and we followed those bikes. We drove through the maze of maize (ok, it might have been something else) until we got to a farm house. There, we could finally make out that the boss had been driving a Lamborghini.

“Ok,” the boss said as we got out of the Escalade, “this farm was recently abandoned. We bought it because we were going to see if we could grow weed here. There are other safe houses, but the police have been busy in the past few hours and started to set up road blocks and raiding places left and right. Something about a terrorist attack.” He turned to look directly at Jen. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you, Kagemoto-san?”

Jen simply looked at the farmhouse. “This is a very good hiding place.” She turned back to the gang leader and bowed. “Thank you for this favor. Someday I will return it.” She seemed genuinely grateful, but to me it sounded like a threat.

The gang leader must have thought it sounded ominous as well, because when he returned the bow he said, “Just don’t cause any additional trouble. That is all I ask of you.”

Jen, unable to keep her mouth shut, said, “Me, cause trouble? What makes you think that?”

 

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Track of the Day

Track 13: Too Late to Say Sorry

Shit.

That’s the last thing I had thought after the Escalade’s hatch opened. Lydia and Andrew threw the person face-first onto the pavement. The man landed face-first. As he lay face-first on the floor, I noticed that his legs were splayed at odd angles and the twist ties that bound his wrists were not only tight enough to cut off circulation, but they were also too tight for the old “dislocate your thumb and slip out” trick. I knew because both thumbs were broken, as well as both hands.

“Not so tough now, huh, bitch?” Andrew asked.

“Fuck you, monkey!” the man in the hood said in Japanese-accented English. I winced. I didn’t want to see what Andrew would do when pushed too far. “You think I’m scared of some scum American street sweepers failed to pick up?”

Instead, the woman with the burned face stepped in. Brutally, she ripped off his mask. Judging by the way he yelled and the marks on his face, some of his cuts had begun to scab up and mesh with the bag. Leaning in close, the woman said quietly, “Now this brings…”

She was interrupted by the man smashing his head into her face. Her sunglasses were knocked askew and she laughed. “Ha ha… this really does bring back memories!” She grabbed the man by the shoulder and squeezed. “Maybe you already figured it out by the accent, but I was an enforcer here.”

I suddenly realized what was going to happen. Not only was it going to be immoral, but it was going to be loud and it was going to be a freaking beacon for the cops. The problem was I didn’t want to undermine Jen. I didn’t understand the power dynamics at play. If I seemed to give orders, it could end up with Jen’s subordinates getting ideas or Jen shooting me to prevent the former.

I looked to Jen. She was staring at a point directly behind our captive, as if someone was there, trying to convince her of something. She frowned, obviously torn about something.

Meanwhile, her subordinate with the burned face continued her monologue. I swear, it was something she had rehearsed. “The first thing I always had to do with deadbeats,” she said, “was teach them respect.” As soon as she said “respect,” her hand burst into flames. The man screamed.

That snapped Jen out of it. “Kaori!” she said. “This isn’t the time or the place.” Kaori nodded sullenly. She turned to address the rest of her team. “Knock him out and put him back in the car. We need to get moving now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lydia said. She drew a tazer from a holster and shot the man in the back with it. He grunted and convulsed, then slumped down. Andrew drew a Glock, then he and Lydia both pistol-whipped the man in the head several times for good measure. Meanwhile everyone else piled into the Escalade. Luckily, there were eight seats in the monster. John and I sat in the rear on either side of Mayu.

“So,” I asked Mayu, “what the hell happened when we were away?” While I asked the question, I noticed Jen was busy texting someone from the row in front of us.

“Oh,” Mayu said, “the Defenders showed up.” I noticed she didn’t seem to be taking that too hard. “The Defenders seemed to have thought that they could use the same trick twice. I did not see how Kaori and Hiromasa restrained them. We just found them on the air vent at the top of the building.”

“What happened to the others?” John asked nervously.

From the front of the car, the burly man I assumed to be Hiromasa chuckled. “We made them disappear,” he said.

Doing my best not to shudder, I reached for my phone. Then remembered I had thrown it out a car window. I needed to tell John and Mayu what we were in the car with. John, seeing as he was from New Hampshire, probably had guessed already. Mayu, however might not have picked up how deep we were in.

Kaori and Hirosama Murakami had been indicted a little after I had started High School. They had been taken into custody after a member of the Minutemen, Massachusetts’s local hero group, had managed to temporarily unmask a female Fire Elemental working for the Kagemotos named Tatsu and get a picture of her face with his body cam. Then he had leaked it to the newspapers and police.

It was quickly determined that the person in the picture was Kaori Murakami, a woman who officially was a bodyguard to Mark Kagemoto. Her husband and fellow bodyguard, Hirosama Murakami was one of Kaori’s most vocal defenders… at least until a writer at the Globe pointed out that he was of similar build to another supervillain called Dokustsu. Then, probably under the advice of his lawyer, he shut up. Then the rumors came out that before he came to the US, he had been responsible for strange disappearances and his wife had been a particularly aggressive debt collector.

For a while, it looked like the Kagemotos were going to lose Tatsu and Dokustsu, two of their heaviest hitters. Then there were accusations that the image had been faked. The camera somehow went missing, and the leader of the Minutemen kicked out the member who had taken the picture. A few years later, it was reported that the member had gone missing. The Murakamis were somehow never indicted.

I looked at John. He seemed to realize the situation we were in, too. Mayu, meanwhile, just seemed her normally bubbly self. Then again, she had seemed her normally bubbly self while watching our prisoner get tased and pistol-whipped. It was obviously just an act, but I had no clue what was underneath.

Andrew probably was also wondering what had happened. “So, uh, Mayu, right?” He asked.

“Hmm?”

“You done this before?” he asked nervously, “I mean, I know Nate and John have done stuff like this before and… and I’ve known a lot of people in this business, but I’ve never seen anyone react like you, y’know?”

“Oh no,” Mayu said. “This is all quite new to me.” I doubted that. She was the last person to survive in a pocket dimension of assassins, the rest had been either murdered or had committed suicide. She must have sensed that people weren’t buying it, because she added, “I have spent a lot of time training for this. It is a shame that…” she paused, hand on her mouth, “…that the people who trained me wanted me to do something different then what I signed up for.”

I nodded. I knew what that was like. When I found out that the international Parahuman investigation agency UNIX had sent me to NIU just for me to die, I had become rightly pissed off. I had felt abandoned and betrayed. I also became a huge asshole and a danger to myself and others.

I was distracted by John saying, “Hey… do the seats seem kind of hard to you?”

I paused. John was right. The seats were harder than you would expect a luxury car to be. I wiggled my butt around and found that most of it was soft in some places. In other places, it was hard. The shape seemed familiar. Suddenly, it clicked. Oh shit, I thought.

“Oh yes,” Jen said. “That reminds me, I still think we should make the meet.”

“Please, please, please,” I begged, “tell me you aren’t gun running as well.”

“No,” Jen said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Why would I, an upstanding citizen with no need for extra cash stoop to gun running?”

“Well,” John said while Mayu giggled, “she did say she wasn’t smuggling in guns.” I just glared at him. “Hey,” he said, “when I’m negative about everything, things still go wrong. I’d rather be positive.”

The car drove on in silence for quite a while. Eventually, we came to a farm. The car pulled onto the dirt road and parked behind some tall stalks of corn or wheat. Outside, the sun was starting to come up. “Everyone,” Jen said, “get the product out and ready for display. We have time, so also please remove our friend from the trunk as well. I would like to change into something a little more… imposing.”

“And… where is the product?” I asked.

“Just cut into the seats,” Kaori said.

John and I followed her directions. It didn’t take long for me to see the dust cases and ammo tins. The extremely familiar dust cases and ammo tins. “Jennifer,” I said, my voice dangerous, “how the fuck did you get these?”

“Not from you.” Jen said. “Really, Nathan, haven’t you heard of the Second Amendment?”

“Are they a special type of gun?” Mayu asked.

“Yes.” I said. “I made them.” There, in the back seat alone, were at least six Maccabee assault rifles, six Ballpeen SMGs, and twelve Uilon Mangchi pistols, plus several tins of ammo. “I also specifically set up distribution so that civilians couldn’t get them.”

“I thought Kagemoto-sama was a criminal,” Mayu said.

“She should have gotten them in the same way as a civilian,” I said. “In other words, she shouldn’t have been even able to put down an offer.”

“Normally,” Jen said, “you’d be right. However, the Boston and New York police accidentally over-ordered your weapons and ammo. I took them off their hands. It was quite the steal.” She laughed at her own joke.

“Any reason I should help you sell them?” I asked Jen.

“Our next safe house kind of depends on selling them.”

I let out a growl of frustration and slammed my fist down on a Maccabee dust case. There was a tense silence. Finally, I said, “Fine. Fine. Let’s just get this over with.” I also made a mental note to do an investigation into the BPD and NYPD when I got out of this.

In the meantime, I helped everyone unload the car of all the contraband. In the end, we had around six Maccabee rifles, eighteen Ballpeen SMGs, twenty-four Uilon Mangchis, and a decent amount of ammo. Plus, our friends seemed to have gotten out their own weapons. The Murakamis didn’t seem to have any weapons, but Hirosama was carrying a black case. Lydia and Andrew both had Glocks and tasers holstered underneath their jackets. Lydia had also taken the grease gun from Jen.

When the product was all unloaded, Lydia and Andrew opened up the rear of the car and threw out our prisoner. We watched him groan a bit for a while. Finally, Andrew asked, “Yo, you guys think she wants this asshole conscious?”

John and I shrugged. Hirosama said, “It is not our job to guess what she wants. Do nothing except watch him.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said, “he’s just faking it.” His wrists were now bleeding and the zip tie was slightly frayed. “Apparently, this fucker found a sharp surface.”

The man opened his eyes to shoot me a dirty look as he got to his knees. I noticed that his eyes were different sizes. He said something in Japanese that I doubted was respectful. Even though my Japanese was terrible, I could tell that he was slurring his speech. He then spit at me. A spray of blood and a tooth landed halfway between us. I have to admit, I was impressed. Here he was, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Parahumans and armed thugs, wearing only his underwear, with both hands literally tied behind his back, and a concussion, yet he was still resisting.

Then the car door opened. Jen had changed from her street clothes into a dark red jumpsuit with bits styled to suggest or imitate Japanese samurai armor. A smooth, solid white mask with horns dangled from her hand. Our captive saw her and smiled.

“You know,” he said evily, “I think I met your brother.”

Jen just stared at him, her expression unreadable. Our captive continued. “The coward ran away when he saw us coming. When he died, he cried like a little girl.”

“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about Brian?” Jen asked, squatting down so she was at eye-level with our captive. I was suddenly struck by how tired she sounded. No anger, no sadistic glee, just a bone-deep weariness.

“Just that I thought he was such a woman that I decided to shoot him in the balls,” our captive said.

“You know,” Jennifer said, “I think you have an understanding of what is going to happen next, right?” Our captive nodded defiantly. Jen sighed and began counting. “So there were my four jailors… the six, right?” She looked at John and me for confirmation. “The six who met us outside the apartment… and however many my bodyguards killed back at the hotel…”

“What are you counting?” our prisoner asked.

“The number of your friends who died,” Jen said, “because you killed the wrong Kagemoto.”

“What do you mean?” Our prisoner was suddenly suspicious. “Surely you want the fortress? You want to reclaim your…”

“Dude,” I said. “I was at your fortress. I talked to some people who maintain it. Not even your elders want it.”

“But…” he said, “the Kagemotos…”

“Haven’t given a solitary shit about it since my father killed grandpa,” Jen said, still in that tired voice. “Hell, Brian didn’t even want the empire we did have.” She smiled bitterly. “That’s why my father tricked you into killing him.” She suddenly made a sound halfway between a chuckle and a sob. “I honestly was hoping I could tell you how badly you’d been manipulated and you’d help me kill my dad, but things somehow got fucked and…”

She stood up, took a moment to console herself, and said, “My brother would want me to let you live. Failing that, he’d like to me to at least shoot you somewhere you’d die instantly.” She stood up, a look of genuine anguish on her face. “I’m sorry I can’t give you either of those things. Hirosama?”

“Wait, what are you…?” Our captive began to ask, but before he could, he began to sink into the ground. He tried to scream or beg, but dirt filled his mouth before he could finish a syllable. In less than a second, there was nothing left of him or any trace he had ever been there.

 

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Track of the Day

Track 12: I Shot the Sherriff

After we called Jen’s people, we traveled in silence for quite a bit. Then, suddenly, John said, “Shit… Jen, you left that shotgun! Were you wearing gloves?” He shook his head. “No, you weren’t. They have your prints.”

Jen laughed. “Could you explain to me what’s so funny?” I asked her.

“Do you know how hard it is to get prints off a gun?” Jen asked, a note of amusement in her voice.

John and I looked at each other and shrugged.  “I have no idea,” I admitted.

“Honestly, neither do I,” Jen said, “but I have a team of lawyers that can convince a jury that it would be downright criminal to put an angel like me in jail because of that.”

“Are these lawyers certified to practice in Japan?” I asked. In the mirror, I saw Jen open her mouth to reply, then close it and consider something in what seemed to be a growing panic. “I see. I guess I should call Charlotte.” I pulled out my cPhone and dialed her number.

I was halfway through dialing when I said, “Wait, for all we know Charlotte and Eliza are still at Kage Fortress. I can’t ask her for a pickup if a bunch of Defenders are sitting around, waiting for us to slip up.”

“What.” Jen said, obviously dumfounded.

“Don’t ask,” John said, “it’s so stupid, I can’t even comprehend it.”

“Me neither,” I said. “I can just hope that…” My phone rang, cutting me off.

“Well,” Jen said, “that sounds like that problem has been taken care of, at least.”

“That isn’t Charlotte’s number,” I said. John and Jen both opened their mouths. “It isn’t Eliza’s either. It is a cPhone, though.” I put it to my head. “Who is this?” I asked.

“Jacobs-san,” Nakashima said with strained politeness, “you have been very busy, haven’t you?”

“I would apologize,” I said, “but you kind of took a friend of mine prisoner. The only reason I’m sorry is that if I knew you’d taken her…”

I heard Nakashima sigh on the other end. “Don’t… lie. We aren’t idiots. We know you helped my distant relative escape.”

“Before I throw my phone out the window,” I said, “can I ask your first name? It’s going to get confusing.”

“My name is Hiro Nakashima,” he said, “and I would like to point out that you are not the only student of NIU on this island. You cannot win. But you can…”

As he had spoken, I had been lowering the window. When it was done, I tossed the phone out of the car. For a few seconds, the car was silent. Then John’s phone began to ring. He took it out of his pocket and handed it to me. I checked the ID. It was Hiro’s number, so I tossed it out the window as well. As soon as it left the car, however, a third phone started to ring.

It took me a few minutes to find it, but eventually I found the third phone, buried in one of the glove compartments. I tossed it out the window. I only glanced at the caller ID briefly, but I didn’t need to in order to know it was from Hiro. “Guy doesn’t quit,” I said. “Jen…”

“Already ditched it,” she said. “Who was that?”

“Apparently,” I said, “while Mayu was in her little bubble with the other heralds, her ancestors went about life normally. End result is we’ve got another Nakashima who’s good with computers. Like, scarily good. Possibly also an NIU CompSci student.” I paused.  “Anyone have any devices that send or receive EM transmissions? Because we need to dump them yesterday.”

“Well,” Jen said, “There’s my tracker…”

“I heard its subdermal,” I said conversationally. “Does that mean…?”

“That I’ll need a knife and some bandages?” I could hear the grimace in Jen’s voice. “Yes. Yes it does.” I opened my backpack and reached for some bandages. I then handed them to Jen, along with my knife. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically as she took them. “Excellent bedside manners, nurse.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I just don’t someone to track us.” I turned to John. “How close are we?”

“About five minutes out,” John said.

“Ok, circle the block until Jen gets her transmitter out. I don’t want the Defenders crashing our RV.”

John nodded and began circling. I scanned the street, trying to ignore the somewhat disturbing grunts of pain from Jen in the back seat. This went on for a few laps. Occasionally, I’d look back and see Jen working on her forearm with the knife. Blood was getting everywhere, and it was starting to look like Jen had murdered someone in the backseat. Eventually, she started wrapping her bandage.

“Ok,” she said, “I’m bandaged up and I can throw this shit out the window.”

“That may be a bad idea,” John said, pointing at the rearview mirror. I looked at it. There, in the rearview mirror, was a cop car, its lights flashing. “What should I do?” John asked nervously.

“Pull over,” I said. “He may be going somewhere else.”

He did. I made sure to seal the bag with the Type 89, M-3, and the PM-9, just in case. For similar reasons, I put my SIG between my seat and the door so I could draw it easily. Then I began to pray that the car would pass us. It didn’t. Instead it parked and a police officer got out.

There was a tense moment as the officer walked towards us. During the time, I tried to see if there was another officer in the car. Eventually, I said, “I don’t think he’s got a partner, but I’m not sure.” Jen nodded.

Eventually, the cop stood out on the driver’s side. “Konbanwa,” he said, bowing. I knew that meant “good evening.” Then he said something else that I couldn’t make out, but I could guess translated as “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Or it could have been “Why is your backseat drenched in blood?” It could’ve been either one, really. Then he must have seen our faces, because he must have asked, “Anata wa nihongo o hanasemasu ka?” That, at least I knew, translated to “Do you speak Japanese?”

John responded in Japanese. I assume at least part of it translated to “I do, but my friends don’t.”

The officer nodded. “Ah. Excuse me. There is explosion. We are stopping everyone to find suspect. Pureasu step out of the vehicle.”

I came to a decision in an instant. I pulled out my SIG and shot him twice in the chest and once in the head. “GET US OUT OF HERE!” I yelled at John.

“What the hell, Nate?” John asked. He stepped on the gas, so I didn’t really complain.

“Do you really think he would have left us go?” I said as the car’s sudden acceleration threw me back into the seat. “And do you really think they wouldn’t have put two and two together and figured out we were responsible for that mess we left?”

“Honestly,” Jen said, “I was afraid you’d ask to keep him.” She shuddered. “God, can you imagine having two prisoners while every cop in the fucking country is looking for us? That’s the definition of a nightmare.”

John’s only response was to grunt mutinously. I sighed. If we were going to get through this situation, I was going to have to make amends with John. “Listen,” I said, “I admit, there were better ways of handling that.” Behind me, Jen laughed incredulously. “Or at least more moral ways. But the longer I spent thinking about them, the less likely they would be to work. Then we’d be in prison, and our only hope would be Charlotte.”

“You know,” Jen said, “I actually doubt Charlotte would have let us rot in prison. Eliza…”

“Has no control over the situation anymore,” John said. “And Charlotte only thinks she does.” He sighed. “You were right, Nate.” He smacked the dash. “God damn it!”

“Hey,” I said, “think of it this way: you’re the only one who hasn’t killed a cop.”

“So I’m an accessory?”

“Well, yes,” Jen said. “The good news is that this is a rather nice city. The cops shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Anyway, there’s the parking lot.”

John pulled into the parking lot. We got out and looked around. “Ah,” Jen said, looking up, “they’re here.” I looked too. There, towering above all the other cars, was the Escalade Jen had brought with us. Making it even more conspicuous was the fact that all the cars in the lot were cheap, tiny commuters and compacts that fit comfortably into their tiny spaces. The Escalade, meanwhile, was not only scraping against the sides of its space, but its rear also hung out over the edge, blocking the road a bit. Apart from the Maybach, it was the only car I had seen in the area over $50,000. Including the Maybach, it was the only one I had seen with windows tinted that dark. In fact, the windows were so dark I wasn’t even sure it was legal.

“Very inconspicuous,” I said as Lydia and Andrew got out of the car. In unison, they both smashed the doors into the cars on either side of them. “We blend in perfectly.” As the door opened, I could hear muffled grunts from inside.

“I told you,” the woman with the burned face said as she exited the vehicle, “you should have gone with something else.” On the other side, her hard-faced comrade also exited the vehicle.

“Hey,” Andrew said, “If we had just brought a sedan could we have done this?” With what seemed to be practiced fluidity, Andrew and Lydia opened the Escalade’s hatch.

I stopped and stared. Inside was a man with a bag over his head and his arms bound behind his back. Apart from his bag and some boxer shorts, he was completely naked. Judging by the smear of blood on the bag, he had been trying to open the hatch by banging his head against it. Or someone had punched him in the face repeatedly. The way the night had been going, I wouldn’t rule either possibility out. From the rear seat, Mayu was watching both us and the prisoner with her standard smile.

“Well now,” John said, a note of venom in his voice, “this, uh, complicates things, doesn’t it?”

 

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Track of the Day

Track 11: Breaking New Gate

Before we could ask Jen what she meant, there were the screech of tires. John and I looked outside. There, between us and the early ‘90s era Honda sedan we had stolen, was a white Toyota van illegally parked in the middle of the street. Two subjects, probably male and in their mid-to-late twenties, most likely locals, were getting out from the front.

Every instinct in my body told me that this was not normal. John’s must have been screaming the same thing because we both opened fire in unison. There was the sound of bullets hitting metal and shattering glass and the man closest to us fell down. We could tell he was still alive because he began trying to cover his wounds and calling out in Japanese. I noted, with some degree of relief, that he had dropped a modernized version of a PM-9.

The man who had been shielded behind the car was also gone. John and I, not wanting to be pinned inside, but also not wanting to be shot in the open, moved into new cover behind concrete pillars outside. This proved to be a wise move because not only did the subject we lost contact with pop back up from behind the van’s engine to take pot shots at us with an SMG, but three people with assault rifles and a fourth with a shotgun began opening fire.

I looked at John, who was blindly returning fire with the captured assault rifle (I think it was a Type 89-f.) This wasn’t good. They almost outnumbered us two to one, and I doubted they’d run out of assault rifle ammo before John did. Luckily, we still had some of the toys Lydia and Andrew had given us. I began to come up with a plan.

Before I could signal this to John, I heard several pops of gunfire. There was a weird sensation, like I had been suffocating without realizing it, but now I wasn’t. I tried to look back inside, but some gunfire made me realize what a bad idea that was.

Instead, I motioned my plan to John. Basically, what I was communicating in sign language was a typical plan called leapfrogging. I’d open fire, making the people in the van get down. John would use that as an opportunity to get to a concrete pillar closer to the stairs. Then he would open fire while I tried to get to the bottom without being shot.

When John nodded, showing he understood, I leaned out and began putting bursts into the car. Behind me, I heard John run down behind me. I had managed to time my bursts with most of them reloading. As I fired burst after burst, I suddenly became aware that the downed subject wasn’t the only one screaming. The civilians in the surrounding area had obviously noticed. We needed to leave.

My ammo, understandably, ran out rather quickly. Even with the fifty-round magazine and my trigger control, it was still an SMG with a high rate of fire that someone had recently sprayed and prayed with. Luckily, John had gotten far enough. He glanced up at me, waiting for confirmation. I reloaded, dropping the magazine, then nodded.

In response, John threw one of our party favors. There was a heart-shaking thud, then John leaned out and started firing.

I ran. The explosion’s bite, while impressive, wasn’t as big as its bark. The wounded subject was still alive, trying to drag himself to safety. The van was relatively undamaged, though some of its windows might have not been shattered before the blast. There was a nice crater in the middle of the street, however, around which bits of flames danced merrily. Huh, I thought as I ran down the balcony to the stairs, must be some sort of super-thermite.

As I got to the stairs, I noticed that the gunfire had slackened. I then decided to get greedy and continue down the stairs. It was all going well until I got to the bottom and started running towards one of the parked cars. The subject with the SMG saw me coming, turned to aim…

…And his head split open. Based on how it shattered, it had to be some kind of large, low velocity round from behind. The sound of an M3 chattering away backed that assertion up.

I just ran the final bits to a nearby Subaru four-door. Making sure to get down behind the wheel arches, I took out one of grenades Andrew and Lydia had given us. I flicked it on and rolled it down the street to the van. There were a few seconds where there was a lot of gunfire, but no explosion. Like Marvin the Martian wondering where his Earth-shattering kaboom was, I peeked out from behind the debatable safety of a boxer four.

I was just in time to see the Toyota’s front end rise into the air on a cushion of flame. It fell back to Earth with a massive crash. Then its fuel tank exploded. I remained crouched for a bit as the van burned, waiting for gunfire to start up again. All I heard was sirens. They were actually getting a little too close for my liking.

I got out from behind cover and began walking towards the flaming wreckage. A living column of flame staggered out. I drew out my SIG and put a couple rounds in the flaming subject. After he fell, I began walking towards the subject who had been screaming.

The subject had stopped screaming and seemed to be losing consciousness. He looked up to see me coming and said something in Japanese. I couldn’t make it out, but it didn’t matter. I shot him twice through the heart and once through the head with my SIG. It was both to end his suffering and ensure no witnesses.

“You two are very good at what you do,” Jen said. “Shame that you won’t take my money.”

Ignoring the heart attack she had given me by jumping right behind me, I said, “Honestly, as much as I pretend the difference between us is moral, I sometimes think it’s because I refuse to shit where I eat and sleep.”

“Interesting theory,” Jen said. “I’ll have to keep it in mind.”

I turned around. Not only did I see surprisingly sober and very tired-looking Jen holding an M3 grease gun and a double-barreled shotgun, but I also saw John running down the stairs. “We need to go,” he said. “The cops…”

“At this point,” Jen said, “it would be better to remain here.”

As if to punctuate her sentence, a patrol cruiser turned the corner. Two officers got out nervously, shouting “Anata buki no o otsu! Jimen ni noru!” repeatedly. Based on the context and how they occasionally flicked the barrels to the ground, that probably translated to get on the ground. I noticed that they were armed with crappy revolvers and they weren’t shy about pointing them at us. Unless someone had made a rimmed version of the Uilon Mangchi cartridge and given it to Japanese law enforcement without my knowledge, there was no way in hell they  could penetrate the armor John and I were wearing. That didn’t mean they couldn’t get us in the stomach, face or legs, or Jen in the everything.

“Ima sugu sore o doroppu!” Even in the dim light, I could tell that the cop who had yelled that would fire soon. I was honestly surprised the two officers hadn’t already opened up on us. NIU campus security would have already ventilated us.

“Ok…” I said soothingly, holding my SIG by the butt with my thumb and forefinger and shrugging off my PM-9. “I’m dropping my weapons…”

“Yukkuri!” one of the officers shouted, pointing his revolver at John.

“Hai,” John said, “Yukkuri…”

Suddenly, Jen was on top of the police car. The cops had just enough time to make noises in surprise before Jen opened fire. One got both barrels of the shotgun to the back of his head, the other received a five-round burst to his back. Jen then casually tossed the shotgun away and jumped off the roof of the cruiser. “Always a pleasure to deal with law enforcement,” she said. “Especially ones not used to Jumpers.” She peered inside the cruiser.

“Jen,” John said, “what the hell?”

“What?” Jen asked innocently looking up from the cruiser.

“You did just kill two cops,” I said. “That’s going to cause some problems.”

Jen turned back to the cruiser. “Yes, but we won’t be here long enough for it to matter in the long run. Besides, the easiest way for my former hosts to have captured me would be to have outbid the police.”

“Still,” John said, “what the hell?”

Jen rolled her eyes. “Could you be useful and either pass me a bomb or get a car? I don’t think this car has a dash cam, but I do want to make certain.”

I nodded. “John, get the car. Jen, catch.” Making sure I hadn’t activated it, I tossed Jen a grenade. I have to admit, it was quite funny to see the look on Jen’s face when she realized what it was.

“I thought you were trained to be careful with explosives,” she said dryly once she had recovered. I would have been impressed if she had recovered instantly. Instead, she had planted the bomb and ran back to the car. As soon as she sat down, a mushroom cloud turned the cop car into a convertible. A huge chunk of metal bounced off the windscreen of our stolen car, causing it to crack dangerously.

John, who had just started the car and gotten his ski mask off, said, “Fuck this shit.” I suddenly began to rocket forwards, nearly hitting the car we were parallel-parked behind. I heard the screech of rubber. As we hurtled down the street, I noticed the speedometer was hovering around 130 kilometers per hour. “Fuck Charlotte, fuck, the Defenders of Fuji, fuck Japan, fuck this place in particular, and fuck you.”

“John,” I said, noticing the sign with Kanji and a giant 50 emblazoned on it, “speed limit.”

John growled in frustration and put on the brakes. Luckily for us, he was going at a reasonable speed when what seemed to be twenty cop cars drifted around the corner and began heading to the explosion. I breathed a sigh of relief. Jen’s trick had worked on those two cops, but if there had been four, things would have gone to hell.

Speaking of Jen, she had been swearing ever since John had stamped on the gas pedal. It had been loud at first, but now, she was just hoarsely whispering “oh shit” over and over again. I checked back to see how she was doing.

“Do you need a paper bag?” I asked. She nodded. I reached down to the floor where the owner of the car had left his lunch. I emptied the assortment of half-eaten food into the cloth waste basket in the center console and handed the bag to Jen. She took it, then began fiddling with something. It wasn’t until I heard the click that I realized she hadn’t been buckled in.

When she was done, she said, “So, do you mind filling me in?”

She then listened somewhat dazedly as we filled her in. “Do you want to know…” she said, with both a mixture of slyness and lack of breath, “…how Kage Fortress got its name?”

“Let me guess,” I said, “it was named after the Kagemotos. Specifically, your family.”

“Got it in one,” she said wheezily. She coughed for a bit. “My however-many-times great grandfather was lord of the mansion long ago. My however-many-times great grand-uncle, however, was obsessed with some prophecy or something. They had a fight, uncle dies, grandfather gets kicked out, and some creepy Rasputin-like asshole takes over the castle. Despite my family eventually running all the way to the new world, the grudge carried on until my father.” She laughed. “I’m actually surprised. I would have thought he’d have fought them just to have someone to hurt.”

“So,” I said, “why are they after you?”

“My father,” Jen said, in a dangerously conversational tone of voice, “didn’t like it when my brother left. So he lied to them and told them my brother was planning to start the feud again. I’m here to find the ones who murdered my brother, make them talk, then go back home and finally kill my father.”

“Why talk to them?” I asked. “Vengeance? Evidence?”

Jen laughed. “Evidence? I’m a gangster, Nathan. I don’t need evidence. I just need to prove I’d be a significantly better boss than my father or the Jade Emperor to justify killing him. Luckily, at this point, a potato could justify being a better boss than my father.” She shook her head. “Honestly, I just want to know why.”

“Well, now you know,” John said. “Can we leave now?”

I didn’t see Jen’s glare, but I could feel it. “Actually, considering all the property damage and murder, leaving may be for the best. Do you have any idea how we’d do that?”

Then, after a slight pause, Jen said the worst thing I had ever heard up to that point. “I thought you two had a plan.”

John groaned. “Fuck me, right?”

 

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Track of the Day

Track 10: Let’s Jam

We stood outside the door to the apartment that Lydia had told us was the target. The building reminded me of one of those motels you see in America where the doors to the individual rooms are on the outside of the building. However, this building aggressively displayed the industrial late-20th century style unique to Japan.

As John put the small circle of plastic explosives on the door right above the handle and I drew my Beretta, I said, “I really hope that Lydia and Andrew are steering us straight. It wouldn’t be good to just breach and clear some poor asshole’s apartment all for nothing.”

“Do we still want to do this?” John asked.

I thought about this. Then I nodded, pulling down a ski mask over my face. “Ok,” John said, pulling a mask down as well, “On three…”

 

To back up a little, that text I had received while getting away from Kage fortress wasn’t from Jennifer. It was from Andrew, one of the obviously less experienced bodyguards. The gist was that Jen had disappeared and that we should meet “where we had last met.”

We had parked in an abandoned parking lot a few blocks from the Maid Café. As Mayu and John got out of the car, I texted Andrew to let him know we were coming.  He replied back, telling me to meet him and Lydia behind the café. That made sense, seeing as it was pretty late at night by the time we had arrived and the restaurant was a breakfast place. Still, I adjusted my sweater for easier access to my guns.

We found the two of them waiting nervously, two backpacks at their feet. They looked up in surprise. “Who the fuck’re they?” Andrew asked suspiciously, indicating John and Mayu. I noticed that he and Lydia were also armed. Despite being tightly buckled, Andrew’s pants sagged to one side and Lydia’s suit jacket bulged slightly under her arm.

“This is Mayu Nakashima,” I said. “We need to keep her safe and secure. John… If Jen hasn’t told you anything about him, you don’t need to know anything about him.” At that last bit, John nodded gratefully.

“I’m sorry,” Lydia said, “but we thought we’d get… you know, someone experienced. Where’s Eliza?”

“Experienced in what?” John asked.

“SWAT shit,” Andrew said. “You know, kicking down doors and shooting mofos in the face.”

“You lucked out then,” I said. “Eliza’s specialty is foiling the door kickers. John and I are the breachers.”

“Yeah, ok,” Lydia said, and I could hear the panic in her voice, “but we were expecting Eliza, y’know?”

“And I was expecting Jen,” I said.

“Yeah,” John said, “but life’s full of disappointments. Now, would you kindly take us to a safe house?”

“No.” That was Lydia.

John and I turned our gazes on her. Mayu giggled. “Excuse me?” I asked.

Quailing under Mayu’s creepiness, the negative attention of two trained killers, and whatever other pressures she was under, Lydia said, “Listen, Jen is the one who knows you. I don’t know what kinda deal she has with you two, but she’s gone. Someone gassed our hotel room and took her.”

I paused. John looked at them incredulously. “Excuse me?” he asked.

“There’s some good news!” Andrew said hurriedly. “Thanks to a subdermal tracker Jen had us implant, we know where she is, but the gas has still got our team’s power houses pretty fucked up. If you can get her back…”

“Ok,” I said, “get her,” at the word her I gave a shrug indicating Mayu, “to a safe place, and we’ll get Jen back.”

“We will,” Lydia said. “Meantime, we got some toys for you in those bags.”

 

“Two… One…” There was a thump and a flash of light, and a hole appeared above the door’s handle. In response, I kicked it open. Immediately, I saw a man staggering back, covering his eyes with one arm. The other arm was hanging loosely at his side and carrying what looked like a SIG-Sauer. Behind him were two other men.

My reaction had been drilled into me by a semester in what was called Kill House Lab. “Drop the gun!” I said in a loud, commanding voice. “Hands on your head, face on the ground.” John burst in besides me and repeated the commands in Japanese.

Instead of following our commands, the staggering man raised his gun. There were several gunshots, only three of which were mine. In between my second and third shot, I felt something hit the plate Lydia and Andrew had given me and I knew I would be feeling it tomorrow.

The man, however, would probably not be feeling anything ever again in a short while. Each of my three shots had hit him right in the heart. Judging by the red splotches on his once-pristine white dress shirt, he hadn’t been wearing armor.

Meanwhile, a table had been flipped over. Judging by the spray of blood on the window behind it, John had been able to get at least one of the guys who had been sitting there. A half-eaten meal of McDonalds had been scattered across the floor, the greasy smell of the food and the scent of the coffee already mingling with the coppery tang of blood and the smoky scent of gunpowder. Maybe that was the Japanese equivalent of bad Chinese food on a stakeout.

As we advanced, the other man popped up from behind the table. He had an assault rifle with a large, bulky silencer. There was more gunfire, not only from John and I, but from the man. Splinters and blood flew, and I was pretty sure that I saw the man fall back.

I hurried forwards to check the men. Both seemed dead, the one who had shot at us with the assault rifle had holes in his face, neck and chest, the one I hadn’t seen go down had a blood-stained hand clamped around his neck and a pool of blood nearby. I also noticed that a sawn-off semi-automatic shotgun had been taped underneath the table. Judging by the other bits of tape on the table and on the assault rifle, that gun had also been taped to the table.

I quickly kicked the assault rifle away from its former user just to be safe. I nodded to John, who had come up to me. As I did so, I noticed that he had a few holes where his plate was. He wasn’t limping, so I hoped that meant he was ok.

I did a quick scan. The room was a sort of kitchen-living room hybrid. There were also four Japanese-style futons and a strange device. Two security cameras, which I recognized as a popular model that could connect to the internet, were mounted on opposite corners of the wall. Off to the side were two doors. One was open to reveal a bathroom. The other was closed. I looked back towards the door we had entered from. There was an umbrella bucket, but instead of an umbrella, there was a curved, wooden handle indicating another sawn-off shotgun.

I indicated the closed door with a nod. We advanced on it from opposite sides, guns raised. We hadn’t even taken three steps when it opened and the fourth subject leaned out, an Uzi-like gun with a wooden foregrip built in, probably an early Minebea PM-9. There was an exchange of gunfire. I felt multiple impacts on my plate, but the padding stopped enough of the impact to keep me standing and my plate held. The fourth subject had ducked back into the door.

I looked at my gun. The slide was locked. I reached into a pocket and grabbed what Lydia claimed was a push-button flash-bang. I pressed the button and rolled it into the room. John reloaded while I was doing this.

The subject didn’t wait for the grenade to go off. He charged us, his right arm hanging loosely by his side, a bullet hole in that shoulder, and a cheap revolver in his left hand. John, by this point, had finished loading his gun. The subject fired once, his bullet hitting the floor. The grenade went off in a flash of light that blurred my vision and a thump that made my chest feel funny. It also caused my ears to ring. John fired five times, all of them hitting the subject in the center mass. All of this happened in such close proximity I wasn’t really sure what order these events happened.

I reloaded, careful to save the spent magazine instead of letting it drop to the floor. After all, the chances of getting another one were pretty low at this point. As I did so, I remembered that there were people who lived below the apartment. I seriously hoped they were alright. I also prayed to God they hadn’t called the cops.

When my magazine was back in, we entered the room. It was a bedroom with a Western-style bed, a dresser, a door into the bathroom, another web-accessible security camera, and nothing else. For a second, I panicked, wondering where Jen was. Then I heard a muffled voice say, “So, are you here to save me or kill me?” I looked underneath the bed. There was Jen, wearing the same clothes she had been wearing earlier that day when we had met at the maid café. She was looking the worse for wear, with her eyes looking slightly defocused and her clothes messed up.

“Rescue,” I said, holstering my Beretta. I turned to look at John. “John, check the bathroom. I wanna make sure we really are alone. Then gather up anything useful.”

John nodded. I turned to drag Jen out from under the bed. “Ah, Nathan,” she said muzzily, “howzzit goin’?”  In the background, I heard John kick open the door to the bathroom

“Have you heard the term ‘FUBAR?’” I asked as I dragged her out.

While I asked this, I heard John shout “Clear!” from inside the bathroom. While Jen tried to comprehend the question, I heard John move back into the main room and called out “Clear!” again.

After the second clear, Jen finally said, “Yeah… s’rry, jus’ got gassed, which messed wi’ my head. Then they drugged me with something. There’s also th’ ani-jumfield they’ve got.” It took me a while to realize that she meant anti-jump field. So that’s what that strange device was. “Fuckin’ hate ani-jumfields. Make me feel like I’m buried.” Noticing her arms hadn’t moved from beneath her back, I flipped her over. Just as I thought, she was zip-tied at the wrists. “Hey,” she said, “not until our second date!”

Ignoring her, I flipped out the knife and cut the ties. “Can you stand?” I asked her.

“Yeah,” she slurred, “buh walkin’s gonna be tricky.”

I was distracted by John calling me in from the main room. “Hey, Nate! You better come take a look at this.”

“Wait right here,” I said to Jen, who was busy trying to get up. On the way out, I grabbed the PM-9 and slung it over my shoulder by the strap and tucked a spare fifty-round mag into my pocket. When I was in the main room, I saw John standing over the corpse of the first subject, the shotgun and assault rifle slung over his shoulder. “What is it?” I asked.

“Take a look,” John said. “Recognize that face?”

I suddenly remembered our first day at Kage fortress. “He was one of the first Defenders of Fuji we saw…”

Suddenly, we heard a laugh. It was a hysterical, drug induced laugh. We turned around to the door to the bedroom. There, leaning against the door frame, was Jennifer. Finally, she stopped laughing. “Well,” she said, “it looks like we finally have a common foe.”

 

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Track of the Day

Track 9: We Have Words

We didn’t speak until we had left the keep, with me leading the group out of the castle and into the woods. Well, everyone except for Charlotte. For the entire time we walked, she was making comments on my rudeness. Finally, I turned around and said, “Do you realize how badly you fucked up?”

“Excuse me?” Charlotte said.

“You walked into a room with someone who’s clearly nuts,” I began, “with powerful people probably listening to every word you say, and told them a hell of a lot more than you should.”

“But…” Charlotte protested.

I cut her off. “Did I make a few mistakes? Yes.” I dropped my voice to a whisper in the vain hope that if someone were to eavesdrop on this conversation and the one we had with Mayu they’d miss crucial information. “That little picture of hers took me off guard…” then I resumed in a normal (ok, louder than normal) voice, “but what the hell were you thinking telling everyone you knew The Architect’s identity? And even worse, what do you think Bai would do if she heard that you…”

“That was a lie!” Charlotte said. “Do you seriously think me so low as to lie to a friend?”

“The question isn’t whether I believe you,” I said. “The question is whether they could make Bai believe it. Or anyone else believe it.” I paused, remembering how she hadn’t exactly convinced me when she had made the promise. “You have left it alone, right?”

“Well…” Charlotte said, “Mayu said it best. It would be irresponsible to just leave…” I tensed. If she said Mubashir’s name, there was a very good chance I’d kill her. “…our friend in the hands of people who had no idea what to do with him. I didn’t find him, I just laid a bit of groundwork.”

“Bloody ‘ell,” Eliza said. “You realize everybody’s going to be pissed with you now?”

“Only if they know the truth,” Charlotte said. “And even then, they would have to be rather unreasonable, wouldn’t they?”

“Ok,” John said, taking a deep breath, “what happens if Li finds out Bai told you who The Architect is? Do you think Li is reasonable?” He shook his head. “Not only that, but I don’t think Mayu’s even sane. There’s something seriously wrong with her.”

“Um.” We all turned to look at Charlotte. “The thing about Mayu… we think people in her own organization are planning on killing her. We… don’t want that.”

“Any particular reason?” I asked. Seeing that everyone looked at me with horror, I said, “Look, I know that all life is sacred and stuff. She’s also gotten a raw deal.”

“Fuckin’ A she ‘as,” Eliza murmured darkly.

I continued, “But to get her out, we’d need to kill a lot of people. Then what? What happens when she finds out we don’t want her anywhere near Mubashir?”

Charlotte cleared her throat, then said, “Actually, we may need her.” I raised an eyebrow. “You see, while we don’t need The Architect yet, we need someone who can put a stop to the Dragon’s Teeth and their Goddess… whether or not it they are related to prophecies, final or otherwise.”

“Ok,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean we need her. The Architect is in very good hands.”

“As far as we know,” Charlotte said. “That being said, any number of things could have gone wrong. His former caretakers may want him back, his new caretakers may find him unsatisfactory, he may leave in a fit of pique…”

“This is assuming that you have no resources,” I said. “But you do. You don’t need to take in Mayu.”

“What about control?” Charlotte asked. “If we need Mubashir, how do we control him?” I was about to say something, but Charlotte cut me off. “Oh, don’t tell me how we don’t need to control him. He bloody well admitted to not being able to control himself when his powers were activated. You even saw what happened when his powers manifest on two separate occasions.” It was more like three, but I didn’t feel that was important. Plus, I had only seen the aftereffects of the second time. “If he is provoked again… Well, from your own admission, his episodes seem to be getting bigger.”

I considered this. The first time I had experienced his powers, nothing dramatic had really changed. Yes, I had been felt up by millions of hands in a way that had traumatized me for life, and yes, a brick wall had been subtly altered, and yes, time and space had been bent to hell, but nothing really bad had happened. The next time I had actually witnessed his power in action, I had watched as three people had been turned into gym equipment. Also, thinking about it, I was now unsure if the bunker Mubashir had found had been there before. If it had been there before, I seriously wish Eric and his team had found it during the Hell Semester final.

I also considered something else. “If I’m going to help you,” I finally said to Charlotte, “I need to know, when Mayu told you that The Architect was a chance to make the world perfect…” I paused, because what I was saying sounded insane to me. “…how much did you believe that?”

“I think she’s exaggerating a bit, honestly,” Charlotte said.

“A bit?” John asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, a little more than a bit,” Charlotte admitted, “but I think she sincerely believes that The Architect could be a greater force for good than anything else. Between cultural differences and desperation to be part of something bigger than herself, one could be forgiven for thinking she lied.” The problem with that statement was that I didn’t believe Mayu thought she was lying or exaggerating.

“That isn’t what I was asking,” I said. “What I’m asking is how far are you planning on going with that line of thought.”

“Only as far as our friend wants to go,” Charlotte said. “I promise.”

“I will hold you to that promise,” I said. I wasn’t sure how, Mayu was right about how Charlotte was so powerful. After all, she had brought with her a significant chunk of the UK’s special forces. But this… I’d need to take a stand on this.

“Oi!” Eliza said. “You don’t get to threaten my sister!”

I took a deep breath, but John said, “Yeah, well, she doesn’t get to lie to people and then ask them to trust her. Oh wait! She’s been doing that for almost a year!” He stared directly at Charlotte. “If Bai asks if we kept our promise, I’m either going to have to lie to her or betray you, you understand that, right?”

“I do hope you’ll do the right thing,” Charlotte said.

“You don’t get it,” John said. “There is no right thing! I’m probably going to just flip a coin.” Even for me, someone who was extremely annoyed at Charlotte, this wasn’t good news. I wanted to know exactly what he’d do.

“Konbanwa!!” a bubbly voice behind us said. Charlotte, John and I turned around.

Eliza, who had been facing from the direction the voice was coming from, said, “Bloody fuckin’ ‘ell.” I also heard her flick off the safety of her CZ.

I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. “Mayu,” I said, “we were just talking about you.”

“Oh good!” She said, her smile growing to the eye-closing one I had seen before. “I hope you have found my proposal acceptable.” As we talked, I heard Charlotte call some of her bodyguards, giving them directions to bring a car. I also noticed that Mayu was bleeding from the eyes and nose.

“I’m actually a bit curious about how you managed to get out, actually,” I said.

“Yeah,” John said. “You were in the basement, and I’m pretty sure the entire building is jump-shielded.”

“I read about that while I was away…” Mayu said, putting a finger to her lip and staring off speculatively. “They work by flooding the area with particles to stop us from jumping… I wonder, did their machine create a less dense concentration? Maybe that’s why it felt like I was slipping through a crack? And why this jump was so costly…” Again, I noticed the blood running down her face like wet makeup. She smiled again, one of her big ones, and held up a small scrap of paper. “Or maybe I was just lucky! Just like how Charlotte warned me that the Defenders wanted to kill me!”

“I didn’t think she’d come now!” Charlotte said frantically. “I thought that the note would tell her I was working on convincing them not to, and I’d tell her if…”

“If you’d waited,” Mayu said in her innocent, girlish voice, “the faction that wanted to kill me would have done so, and no one would have been able to prove anything.” She gave one of her big smiles. “I could go back if that’s more convenient for you.”

“No…” Charlotte said. “It would be impossible to get you out then.” She turned to John and me. “You two… get her to Jen. She’ll know where to hide her.”

“And then?” I asked.

“We’ll contact you,” Charlotte said.

“And if you can’t?” I asked. “What do we do then?”

“Please…” Eliza said, looking uncomfortable, “can we just go with the plan? This is… we’re wastin’ time. I’m surprised that the alarm ‘asn’t sounded yet.”

Mayu nodded eagerly. “Yes. They should have sounded it by now.” She then looked at John and me. “Even if I wanted nothing to do with the plan, I would want to be far away from what is about to happen here.”

Check and mate, Nate, I thought to myself. Mayu had finally found my button, at least in this instance. I didn’t like her. She was too manipulative for my liking, and Charlotte seemed to have a profound weakness for her. I also didn’t like the fact that she could get to me.

“Fine,” I said. “You win.” For now. “I’ll take the car, and then John and I can stash her with Jen… If that’s ok with you, John?”

I was inherently when John glared suspiciously at Mayu and said, “Sure. I’ll come.” I nodded gratefully at him. I really didn’t want to be alone with a manipulative assassin who wasn’t quite stable. Especially seeing as how our interests didn’t align even in the slightest.

We were interrupted by Charlotte’s Maybach pulling up on the road nearby. One of her bodyguards got out. “Well,” Charlotte said, “as Miss Nakashima suggested, you three should probably get a move on. Again, we will contact you.”

We got into the car. Mayu, I noticed, got in the back. That defeated my half-fantasized, half-realized plan of wrapping my arm around from behind her and squeezing. You could be wrong, I reminded myself. She might not be evil. Still, I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check the rearview mirror every few seconds to see if she was trying something and lock the doors and windows just to be safe.

“Hey Jen…” I said as we started the car, “if you can hear us, please help. We’re kind of in deep shit.” We waited. “I got my cPhone, John has his, you gotta have one of our numbers…” Nothing happened.

“Who is Jen?” Mayu asked. I looked in the rearview mirror, partly to see her reaction, partly because I was due. John, to my satisfaction, was checking Mayu as well. Mayu, for her part, still had her typical smile.

“A person,” I said noncommittally.

“Are you seriously going to be that kind of asshole?” John asked.

I sighed. “Jen is… basically the only other person in this country we know. I’ve avoided her because even knowing her makes things… complicated.” Well, hopefully that wouldn’t be the case now. I mean, if she hadn’t ever gone to Japan before, the local law enforcement wouldn’t be watching her… right?

Then my phone beeped. Not wanting to crash, I pulled the Maybach over to the side of the road and pulled my phone out. It was a text from an unfamiliar number. I sighed. It could be Jen, so I took a look. After I stared at it for a moment, John said, “Judging by the look on your face, I’m guessing it isn’t good news.” I nodded. John sighed. “Fuck me, right?”

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Track 8: A Modest Proposal

We got back to the castle very late at night. The day had been very interesting, as well as somewhat nerve-wracking.  After all, not only had we been sharing a car with a Jumper, but a Fire Elemental (Jen told us when we asked) and whatever Lydia was (Jen said she was an inventor, but didn’t mention her specialty,) plus Jen’s other two minions following us in the Escalade. Of Jennifer’s two minions in the car with us, I had no idea which was scarier. I guessed the one papers back home called Hoka (which meant arson in Japanese,) so I had a pretty good idea of how to deal her if she turned on us, but Lydia changed the dynamic. At least we were sitting in their blind spot while they were in our car.

When Jennifer had finally let us go, she and her two female bodyguards got back in her Escalade and drove off. We didn’t mention her in anything except mildly approving terms until we had arrived back at Kage keep and were several hundred meters away from the car.

“Well, that was… nerve-wracking,” I said.

“Bloody ‘ell, that’s an understatement,” Eliza growled darkly. “I definitely don’t like that Elemental. Smells too much like petrol for my taste.”

“Well,” I said, “she’s a Fire Elemental, so…”

“I’ve been around those kinda Elementals before,” Eliza said. “the only other one ‘oo ‘ad that smell was a fuckin’ firebug. Fucker liked to burn people a little too much for the coppers’ tastes.”

“Well… that’s bad, but expected,” I said. “But what the hell are we going to do about the car?”

“We’re gonna ‘ave to rip it to shreds, aren’t we?” Eliza said grimly.

“What car is this?” We looked up to see Charlotte and a couple of Royal Marine officers.

“You know that party we went to in Boston?” Eliza said. “It got infested when we parked it there.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Charlotte said. She then turned to the officers. “Excuse us, gentlemen. My sister, Mr. Jacobs and I need to talk.” They nodded and walked off. Charlotte turned back towards us. “Now, if you two would come with me…”

She led us to a conference room. To my surprise, John was also in there. Charlotte motioned us to sit down. When we were all seated and the door was closed, Charlotte asked, “So, before we get into the real business, why do you think my car is bugged, and why do we need to take it apart?”

As Eliza and I recounted our encounter with Jen, I noticed Charlotte was a lot more thoughtful than I would be if someone had told me my $200,000+ car needed to be ripped down to its bolts. Finally, she said, “You know, there may be ways to make this useful.”

“Uh, how?” John asked.

“Never mind that for now,” Charlotte said. “In the meantime, I’d like to have a nice talk with Miss Nakashima.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Oh, no reason,” Charlotte said. “I just think she’s quite fascinating. And I do feel quite bad for her, what with her being trapped in some horrid alternate reality.” She checked her watch, then stood up. “I do believe our appointment is soon. If you would please follow me…”

We followed her out the door and down into the bowels of the castle. Eventually, we came to what obviously used to have been dungeons. Now, they seemed to have been refurbished into rooms for guests. Groups of three cells seemed to have been consolidated into one room. Judging by the heavy iron doors and the fact that two guards with pistols had been stationed by Mayu’s door, the guests may not have been as willing as someone staying in an equivalent room at a hotel.

The guards let us in, revealing that two of the three cells used to make the room had been turned into a good imitation of a hotel room with a desk, tatami mat, dresser and TV. The door to what had been the third cell was open and I could see it was a bathroom. The tasteful wood paneling was so soothing that at first I truly believed that this was a room designed with comfort first in mind. They had even put in a fake window opposite the door that mimicked sun rising and setting.

Then I saw the door close behind me. It didn’t look even half as intimidating as it had from the front. Hell, until you noticed that there wasn’t a door handle, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a normal door when it was closed and you were standing in the room. But that one missing feature changed everything. This room was definitely still a prison.

Mayu, though, seemed not to notice that. She was kneeling down at the low desk, a calligraphy brush in her hand, completely focused on what she was doing. I noticed that she was dressed in a much more Western style, with two tank tops (a white cotton one on top of a pink one) and a pleated blue skirt. “Please excuse me,” she said distractedly. “I’m just putting the finishing touches on this…”

“Certainly,” Charlotte said. “Please tell us when you’re done.”

We waited for a minute, watching Mayu work. Her long white hair made it hard to read her expression, but her body language was so focused that it looked like obsession. Finally, she put the brush on a tray beside the paper. Then, she stood up and bowed, smiling so wide her eyes closed. “Hello,” she said. “I apologize for my rudeness, but I was busy working on something and had almost finished.” She straightened up and her smile returned to its usual position, revealing her so-blue-they-were-almost-white eyes. “I hope you may forgive me and that the rest of your visit may be more pleasant.”

“As I said before, quite alright, dear,” Charlotte said.

“Hey,” John said, “do you mind showing us what you were working on?”

“Sure!” Mayu said. She carefully (in retrospect, reverently,) picked up the paper, removing the weights. She held it out in front of her with pride. “Do you like it?”

My breath almost caught in my throat. On the paper was a perfect drawing of Mubashir Mubarak, the man we now knew to be The Architect. His blocky head was not the most distinctive or handsome thing in the world, and the black ink couldn’t capture his brown skin, but it was definitely a three-quarters headshot of him. As casually as I could, I said, “That’s very good, Mayu. Where did you get the inspiration for him?”

Mayu stood there for a moment, her usual smile fixed on her face. Now, however, it seemed like it was masking a loading screen. Finally she said, “…I must have seen a similar face in a history book. Maybe American?” She then pointedly asked, “Why? Does he look familiar to you?” In that moment, I knew that she had seen each and every one of us recognize Moob. I also knew, short of getting her to confirm it, I could never prove it.

I’m not sure if John had come to the same conclusion as I had (namely to not mention Mubashir to Mayu) but he asked, “So, I see you decided to change clothes.”

Mayu smiled. “Oh, of course! I’m not sure if Nathan noticed the smell last night, but I hadn’t changed out of that kimono in hundreds of years.” Now that she mentioned it, I did recall a rather foul smell last night. “Besides, I want to get comfortable in these kinds of clothes.” She giggled. “After all, I’d look pretty silly going out in public in a kimono!”

“Of course!” Charlotte said. “But I am sure you could pull it off.”

Mayu smiled and bowed. “Very kind of you, Blackmoor-Ward-ojou, but I don’t want to pull it off. It… it would feel like stasis.” She pulled out of the bow, and I could briefly see a haunted look in her eyes. It was instantly gone and replaced with her usual grin. “Anyway, is there something your Ladyship would ask of me?”

“As a matter of fact,” Charlotte said, “I was wondering if you knew anything about The Architect.” John, Eliza, and I looked at Charlotte. This wasn’t the deal we had made with Bai. “The Defenders of Fuji have lost much information over the years. At one point, they knew more about The Architect than any other group in the world. They knew how to find…” there was a barely perceptible pause, “…it, how to control it, how to destroy it, things of that nature.”

Mayu giggled. “Well…” she said, “they last one is easiest to answer. You can’t.”

“But you can?” Eliza said suspiciously.

Mayu giggled again. “Don’t be silly! Your organization has the ear of a Queen of a great military power and an organization that can access the nuclear armaments of multiple nations. And if you are an example of your sister’s servants, I can tell just by looking at you there are only two situations in which I would be superior.”

I shot a look at Charlotte. I hoped it said, “She’s useless and we shouldn’t be talking to her.” I could see Eliza and John giving her similar looks.

Charlotte ignored these looks. Mayu, I’m pretty sure, saw them. “First of all,” Charlotte said, “Eliza is not a servant. She is my sister, if not in blood, then in spirit.”

“Oh!” Mayu said, bowing. “Please forgive me! I did not mean offense!”

“Sure…” Eliza said. With anyone else, she would have either made a joke or remarked how she was pretty much Charlotte’s de facto bodyguard to put them at ease. With Mayu, she just regarded her with suspicion.

“Second,” Charlotte said, “what are these two things you can do better than Eliza?”

“Well,” Mayu said, focusing solely on Charlotte, “the first thing I can do better than her, than anyone, is to find The Architect. I’m the only one on the entire planet who can find him because I’m the only one who knows what to look for.”

John chimed in. “How do you know it’s a him? Couldn’t The Architect be an it or a her?”

Mayu just smiled at him. “Didn’t I tell you I’m the only one who can find him?”

“We don’t need to find him just at the moment,” Charlotte said. “But…”

Mayu cut in. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Could you take out your phone or send an email and instantly know for certain where The Architect is?” Charlotte froze. I’m sure the rest of us did as well, and I’m convinced Mayu noticed it as well. Mayu giggled, covering her hand with her mouth. “Silly me! Of course you can. No responsible person would let someone that powerful fall into the wrong hands. Don’t worry, you don’t need to prove that to me.”

“Yes, quite,” Charlotte lied. “Of course.”

“The next question,” Mayu said, cocking her head, “is what are you planning on doing with him?”

“What we’re going to do,” I said, cutting in before Charlotte could say anything else, “is not any of your business. I’m sorry, but if we’re going to keep The Architect safe, we need as few people as possible to know about the situation as possible.”

“So you’re going to keep him locked away?” she asked. She sounded innocent as usual, but I could hear something else underneath. Something desperate. “You realize this is a god we are talking about. This is not some lost child or broken man. This is a chance to make the world perfect.” She paused, seeing that John and Eliza were looking at her with suspicion. As if she had planned it, she added, “He’s also the only one who can stop the Lady of Death and the Angels. You need him.” Not included in that speech, but heavily implied was, You need me, too.

I had gone very quiet and bland. That was because I had remembered what Mubashir had said to me the night his powers had been revealed: “At first, I thought Allah was just punishing me for my suicide. Now, I’m starting to wonder if he’s punishing me for telling Him I could do a better job.” He didn’t want to play God, and after Al-Qaeda, he probably had had enough of being someone’s weapon. Whatever Mayu had planned for him definitely involved both.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said, “you have an interesting proposal, but it’s the kind of thing we need to discuss in private.” I walked over and knocked on the door.

“Nathan,” Charlotte said reprovingly, “Don’t be rude. Surely she has more to say to us.”

“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” I said, “But she’s said enough.” I stared at her pointedly. “We’ve all said enough.”

 

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