"I think I'd like to go to 93U tonight," Zenshou said. "To see how the new me works out.
"NoIdon'tthinkthat'ssuchagoodideaImeanit'sadangerousplaceandallwedon'twanttoriskit!" Gem looked nervous.
Zenshou raised an eyebrow. "What have you done now?"
"Well," Zenshou prodded. "Is it going to cost me a lot of money to bail you out?"
Gem blushed furiously. "Well it was my day off and all..." She twiddled her fingers. "So I went and just... kinda... enjoyed myself...
"I see..." Zenshou paused. "So how naked did you get when you were dancing on the tables?"
"Not me," Gem replied. "It's just... someone who works there..."
Gem got the feeling that Zenshou was not going to let this go, and she blushed bright scarlet.
Zenshou chuckled. "So what's the problem with that. Or... Did you put on a show for the club?"
"No," Gem replied in a very small voice.
"So what's the problem," Zenshou asked. "There's nothing to be embarrassed about."
Gem rapidly shakes her head. "It's just... who."
"Um... one of the workers..."
"Spill it, Gem. If you don't tell me, I'll go to 93U and ask everyone there," Zenshou threatened.
"Well... do you know the name "Silver?"
"Hmmm.... I think I've heard the name."
Gem slowly nodded.
"Wait a sec... She's one of the... dancers, right?"
Gem wanted to sink into the ground in shame.
Zenshou shook her head. "Oh Gem... Why?"
"She was in trouble, so I stepped in. She was grateful, and..."
"One thing led to another..." Zenshou prompted.
"I'm not usually like that, y'see..." Gem tried to explain.
"What, sex with women?" Zenshou looked at her petite bodyguard.
"Yeah," Gem replied.
"Were you forced," Zenshou asked with a frown.
Gem shook her head.
"Then what do you intend to do about it," Zenshou asked.
"It's just that she might spot me and all," Gem explained.
"So? Did she give any indication that she wanted more than just that single encounter," Zenshou queried.
Gem nodded quickly.
"Then let me deal with it." Zenshou smiled that smile Gem had learned could mean trouble.
"Don't worry, I will not harm her in any way," Zenshou explained.
"What are you going to do," Gem asked worriedly.
Zenshou shrugged. "I'll just have a little talk with her if she approaches you, that's all. She won't be harmed in any way, physically or mentally."
"I just didn't want you to get involved," Gem said.
"I am your employer. What affects you affects me as well. It is my responsibility."
"What's wrong," Zenshou asked. "I am NOT going to hurt her. Gem, to me, to my family, anyone who works for us is family. To not do what it is needed to help a family member is dishonorable."
"Sorry," Gem said. "I just should've thought before I did anything stupid."
"Gem, what is stupid about what you did? If you feel it was a mistake, then it was a mistake."
"That's the thing really. I don't know."
"Did you enjoy it while it was happening?"
"Yeah," Gem replied reluctantly.
"And are you feeling shame now because you enjoyed it?"
"Yeah. I guess. It's just not like me," Gem tried to explain.
"So you acted out of character. She smiled gently. "What do you think all of this is." She gestured at her outfit. "Acting out of your nature is not something to be ashamed of."
"That was an act. This... I don't know. I think I was sincere."
"And the idea of gaining physical pleasure from another woman is disturbing? Gem," Zenshou continued, "there is nothing shameful about what you did, unless you did it to gain some power or unfair advantage over the woman. That's not what it was, was it?"
"It's not that. That I'm just not used to. The problem is... that... I think... I like her," Gem finished.
Zenshou was silent for a moment, watching the emotions pass over Gem's face. "I see... Well, you can't avoid 93U forever. If we're going to succeed in our goals, we're going to have to go here, if only to meet with contacts. Besides, she might not be working tonight."
Gem reluctantly agreed, and the pair walked out the door.
93U was packed, as usual, and the two women had to force their way through the crowd to the only open space they could find - a small corner near the bar. As they twisted, slid by and outright shoved people out of the way, Gem and Zenshou saw that Silver was indeed working, and that Silver had spotted Gem. As Zenshou watched, Silver winked and blew a kiss at Gem.
Zenshou looked at Gem. "At least you've got good taste in women,"obviously teasing.
"Good taste? But she's a stripper."
"So? Weren't you the one to tell me that what you see on the outside might just be a disguise? Look at me now, if you didn't know the real me, what would you think? Maybe that's her disguise."
"Well I did see a little deeper," Gem admitted.
"You see? A good negotiator knows that there are appearances, and there's the truth. Appearances can be anything, a weapon or a defense. Put on the guise of a stereotype and people are likely not to look beyond it. It's camouflage."
"I was just surprised to hear you say that."
"Why? Didn't think someone like me could learn a couple of new tricks? Broaden my mind?" Zenshou grinned.
Gem simply stared at her.
"What? Did I suddenly grow a wart on my nose?"
"You're just full of surprises," Gem answered simply.
"Oh. Is that good?" Zenshou asked.
Gem scratched her head. "I guess..."
"Okay," Zenshou said. "I promise I'll try to be more predictable, if that makes you more comfortable.
"I didn't mean it like that," Gem explained. "I just thought you'd get angry or something."
"Why? You yourself warned me that something like this could happen. I'm just glad it happened the way it did, where it didn't blow up completely in our faces and no one got killed.
Zenshou looked around, and then gestured for Gem to follow her into a relatively secluded area so they could talk. Gem collected their drinks and followed, keeping a wary eye on Silver.
"My father always taught me that each person has at least two people inside them," Zenshou explained. "There's the face that they present to the public, then there's the real them."
Gem was silent and watched Zenshou speak.
"Appearances are a weapon," Zenshou continued. "The face that you present to the public is as much a tool as a gun or a computer. What's important is that you look beyond the public face because it's what's hidden that can kill you—or help you."
Gem bit her lip to avoid speaking.
"What," Zenshou asked.
"It's more true than you believe," Gem replied.
Zenshou raised an eyebrow. "It is?"
"Um..." Gem glanced around and nodded in Silver's direction. "I mean Silver. When she's not showing off at the club, she can be real cold and mean."
Zenshou nodded. "Question is, which is the real her—the person we see dancing, or that other face."
"I think it's the dancer," Gem replied. "The other one... She became that when she came to the Zone."
Zenshou paused for a moment and looked thoughtful.
Gem scratched the back of her head. "So yeah, you're right," she said smiling. She immediately looked away, her face expressionless.
"It's best not to think about it really," Gem said. "Sometimes, people need those outside faces. They can't handle what's happening to them, but they need to be strong."
"I'm not saying that the outside faces are wrong," Zenshou said. "But if you're going to let someone get close to you, you've got to know how to tell those faces apart." Zenshou paused for a moment, then continued. "Do you have any idea how terrified I am right now?"
Gem nodded solemnly. "I know what you're saying." She turned back to Zenshou, and looked her straight in the eye. "All you need to worry about is that your bodyguard is loyal and obedient."
"It's not you I'm scared of," Zenshou replied softly. "It's ME."
Gem looked at her. She could feel the fear in Zenshou's voice, the desperation on her face. "You're fine, trust me."
Zenshou gave a tense laugh. "You sure?"
"Yep." Gem nodded. "You worry at times, but you're a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for. It must be that corp background."
"What, the toughness or being a worrywart?" Zenshou gave a weak smile.
Gem chuckled. "Both." She smiled and leaned forwards. "Corpers always worry far to much; higher placed corpers more so. Heck, I thought I needed to relax once in a while."
Zenshou couldn't help but chuckle. "So," she said. "Shall we see how much fun we can have tonight without getting into too much trouble?"
Gem cocked her head to the side. "What have you got in mind?"
"See how well this disguise really works? Pick up a couple of guys and dump them callously, declaring they're boring? I don't know. I think I need a night off."
"You definitely do," Gem replied. "But we'd do better off being loud at the bar than tucked away in a corner."
"Hey," Zenshou said with a brilliant grin. 'We could go shopping! On second thought, let's stay here, or hit some other clubs. I want to have a proper plan of 'attack' when we hit the shops."
"Attack? Plan? Suddenly I'm scared."
"After all," Zenshou continued, ignoring Gem's comment for the moment, "we'll need to get out of the Zone to do it." Zenshou grinned. "Any good shopping trip has a plan. How else are you going to know how much you're going to have to smuggle back in? But don't worry, Gem. I'll be gentle with you, just like you were with me and these clothes." The esper gave Gem an innocent look.
"Me? No way. My look doesn't change," Gem said emphatically.
"Think of it as a new 'face', Gem," Zenshou replied with a confident smile.
"I don't need a new face," Gem protested. "We're working here; I blend in fine."
"Yeah," Zenshou replied, "but some day we're going to have to leave the Zone and go after some people. That's when you'll be in my world. You fit in fine here, but you'll stick out like a bloodied thumb in my circles. Just like I've got this face," she gestured at her outfit. "you'll need a different one out there."
Gem couldn't help but look nervous. "Come on, I'm in street wear. Street wear is the same all over."
"Remember what you told me about what I looked like when I first arrived?" Zenshou looked at Gem pointedly.
"Yeah..." Gem replied.
"It's going to be exactly the same, but for you," Zenshou explained.
"Gem raised her hands as if to ward off Zenshou. "We really don't need to do this."
"Yes we do," Zenshou replied. "Where we're going to be going, we're going to have to make them look at you at dismiss you. If you're looking like someone straight out of the Zone, there's no way they're going to miss you. Wait a sec... Are you afraid I'm going to dress you up in frills and bows?"
Gem just laughed nervously.
"Oh gods no," Zenshou replied. "I don't wear frills and bows. Nor would a good bodyguard."
"I mean... would I still be posing as a bodyguard," Gem asked nervously.
"More than likely," Zenshou confirmed. "Bodyguards have a kind of code of dress out there."
"What's that like," Gem asked.
"Well," Zenshou said. "All the human ones I've seen at formal functions or other corporate gatherings have worn really expensive designer armored clothing. Custom holsters and sheathes for their weapons, that kind of thing."
"What," Gem said, "not the typical black suits?"
"Hey, those are the black suits." Zenshou grinned.
"So plain black suits are now formal wear?"
"It's conspicuous consumption," Zenshou tried to explain. "If you've got the money, you pay for the best, especially if you're top rung."
"Makes sense," Gem said. "So what would you suggest for me?"
"Pantsuit definitely," Zenshou replied without hesitation, "for ease of movement, and I don't think you'd be comfortable in a dress. As for the designer, I'm not sure, I've got a couple of ideas, but that can wait. And not because you don't look like a woman," Zenshou finished sternly.
"That I can deal with," Gem replied.
"So," Zenshou said, downing a third of her drink then tossing her hair back behind her shoulders. "What do you say about starting my night off here, and then seeing where the evening takes us?" She was determined to have a good time and blow off some steam before she cracked under the weight of her sworn duty.
For a change, the band was actually playing something that could kind of be... moved to, so Zenshou took advantage of it and lead the way back out to the main floor of the club.
After her conversation with Gem, Zenshou was acutely aware of the eyes in the club, looking at her and doing instant judgments, but this time, for tonight, she didn't care. So what if the scarlet fabric of the too small blazer she wore was cheap and rustled when she moved, and if the matching strip of fabric that Gem called a skirt just barely covered the essentials. She didn't care. It was her armor, her disguise, and like the neon green streaks almost glowing in her shoulder blade length white-blonde curls, she'd wear them tonight like a badge of honor.
Zenshou made a beeline for a just vacated table. With a long red polished fingernail, she flicked a bit of trash onto the floor then slid into the seat.
The week had been ugly. No, scratch that: not the week, but the case that had taken up most of it. Simon needed a change of pace, and the Underground was right. For one thing, he hadn't been there in a couple of weeks. For another, he'd just been through an affair that was unpleasant, even by his standards. That was a good reason to celebrate, even if no one else knew. Or rather, because no one else knew. With luck, no one would find out how close a call they had all had in the past few days. No one needed to know that he was there to celebrate the joys of life going on for all of them.
He checked in his guns with a smile to Duke, and strode into the club proper. The sustained blast of noise that hit him could have been a testament to Lou Reed, during his "white noise" period. The difference was, the critics had reamed him at the time.
He made his way to the bar before he could reconsider having come here at all, however symbolically appropriate the gesture might be. And it wasn't as if he didn't notice the attention he got from those he passed by. He just didn't let it distract him, the way his height and almost defiantly natural good looks affected others. And that was even before that magnetism of his, which made it possible for him to flag down a bartender on only the second pass, ordering a Rum & Coke, and a Planter's Punch to follow it down.
On his first visit, he had been frankly amazed that they even knew what a Planter's Punch was, let alone that they made such a good one. Ever since, he'd made a point of having one whenever he was there. As he waited, he lit a cigarette (managing to make that look good too). He turned his back to the bar, resting his elbows on the edge, one foot propped on the rail, as he surveyed the place with a practiced eye. He took a swallow of his drink as he noted the dancer currently on stage—April, if memory served. He savored the sight of her in motion for a few moments, even as he remembered which way she swung.
From there, Simon made a casual sweep of the room. He didn't think in "pickup" terms, but there were plenty of other possibilities. Or rather, there were, until he saw the girl—no, the young woman. He hadn't seen her before; he would have remembered that mane of long blond hair, streaks or no streaks—especially with Asiatic features. Her appearance spoke of either corporate slumming or else a wannabe, depending on which side of the bridge she came from. There were plenty of both types, to be sure. That was nothing unusual. What really intrigued him, however, was that someone like her was sitting by herself. No one was approaching her, despite an outfit that screamed come-on, even in a place like this.
Simon gave it another two seconds of thought. Then he waved another bill at the bartender. "Give the lady another of whatever she's having," he said, nodding in her direction.
Zenshou was looking around at the morass of people in the club and tried not to wince when the band switched back to playing their regular brand of music. Haven't these people ever heard of Chopin, Mozart, or Yo-Yo Mah, she thought, then tried to see where Gem had gotten to. She had hoped that Gem would join her and that they'd have some fun as friends, rather than as employer and employee, though she doubted Gem would ever stop acting as her bodyguard—something that Zenshou found very comforting.
Her musings were cut short by one of the scantily clad waitresses bringing her a drink, who indicated the man at the bar who had bought her the drink. She looked over, keeping a bored look on her face and she was suddenly very glad that her father had insisted on those lessons in composure.
Now that is a man, she thought quickly. I wonder if he's real... Zenshou slipped her sunglasses down her nose slightly so her piercing blue eyes could look at him unhindered. What the heck. I'm here to have some fun, and if I don't like the way things are going, I can blow him off.
She slipped the sunglasses back into place with a long, lacquered nail, took the drink from the waitress' tray and lifted it in a toast to the very handsome stranger.
Simon tipped his glass in return, with a smile. Now that he'd had a chance to see clearly what she looked like from the front, he was even more impressed. It was rare to find eyes that shade around these parts. He reached back and stubbed out his cigarette, then headed over to her table, tipping the waitress as she passed by.
On the way, someone else he'd noted earlier crossed his field of vision again. A tight body, all in black leather, also Oriental, with a short cut... either a cute boy or a butch. Impossible to tell for sure, what with that jacket. What got his attention that second time, though, was the flash of recognition, the "smell of gunpowder," as old soldiers called it. Whoever this was, he—or she—had seen action somewhere, and had apparently come out of it better than some of the club's other regulars. A dancer cut across his path, and he filed the person away for future reference. His priorities, just then, were elsewhere anyway.
As the man approached her table, she was able to get a much better look at him. This was no playboy, nor corper or wannabe. Zenshou thought she even know who his tailor was. Whatever he did, it obviously paid well. Bodyguard maybe, security specialist perhaps, she thought, as she watched the way me moved through the crowd. Definitely a predator. This should be fun, she mused as a slow smile curved her lips.
Once he arrived at the blonde's table, Simon looked directly into the stranger's shades. "Pardon me, is this seat taken?" he said, gesturing at the empty chair. His voice was husky, but he was smiling again, and that took the edge off it.
"If you think you can handle it," Zenshou replied, holding his gaze with a touch of humor and the hint of a dare. "Thank you for the drink, Mister..." She took a sip from her glass, the bright green lipstick leaving the faintest of marks on the glass. Zenshou was definitely enjoying herself. She lounged backwards in her chair, the blazer falling back and giving everyone nearby a better view of her well-shaped torso.
"Heller. Simon Heller," he replied as he set his glass on the table. He sat down across from her, tacitly picking up the gauntlet, adding, "And the pleasure was all mine."
"I'm sure it is," Zenshou replied, her voice practically a purr.
"So, what's that next line supposed to be... Oh yes. Do you come here often," Zenshou asked amusedly, her eyes still on Simon, as her long red fingernail absently traced the rim of the glass.
Oh yes, she's a playful one, Simon thought as he surveyed the view. He suspected she knew what she was doing, but he enjoyed the effect she was having. He glanced at her finger, then back at her face. One thing's for sure: it isn't the alcohol talking. Thus emboldened, he replied, "Not often enough, seeing as how we haven't met before, Miss..." And he took another pull of his drink, still meeting her gaze over his own glass. He'd moved into her space; now they began circling around one another.
"Zenshou Shinju," she replied, extending the hand that was teasing the glass. "If all the gentlemen I meet here are like you, I may just come here more often. I was beginning to despair that no one might wish to talk with little ol' me."
"Zenshou," he repeated, trying the sound of it in his mouth. "I'm glad you don't have an ordinary name. It wouldn't suit you." He took her hand in his own. His grip was assured, like his overall manner—assertive but not forcible. "And I can't say much for the manners of any gentleman who would let a lady like you go unappreciated, by the way." He still wasn't sure what her story was—whether she was self-supporting or someone's expensive hobby, for starters—but there would be time for that later.
He's certainly good for the game, Zenshou thought. I did say I wanted to have a good time tonight, and he's probably the ticket. She took another sip of her drink.
"So, Mister Simon Heller. What brings you to 93U?"
"Tonight?" Simon settled back in his chair. Just then, a waitress came by with his Planter's Punch. He took the opportunity to think about his answer, and to offer to freshen Zenshou's own drink as well. When the waitress went away, Simon was ready. "I needed a change of atmosphere. After working hard these past couple of weeks, I felt I owed it to myself. And I'd been away from here long enough for it to feel fresh again—and your presence has only made it more so."
He leaned forward again, sipped at his Planter's Punch. "And I haven't had one of these that was this good since—well, long ago and far away, anyway. Now what about you, Miss Zenshou Shinju? Somehow, I imagine you wouldn't have to settle for a place like this if you didn't want to."
"You're right," Zenshou said, "I don't have to settle for anything. I get what I want, or I go without." Her smile turned playful. "And I don't often go without. My needs are simple. This evening, it is a bit of entertainment and conversation with a delightful stranger." Her gaze flickered over towards the bar, then she looked back at Simon.
"Now, it's your turn to answer another question. What is it that you do that has you working so hard?" Zenshou took another slow sip of her drink and peered at him over the rim of her glass. As she set it down, her lip darted out to catch a stray drop of liquid.
Simon's eyes narrowed at the gesture. "I like women with simple tastes," he said, smiling again. Then he pulled a small billfold out of his jacket. "I'm a private investigator," he replied, snapping it open so Zenshou could see his badge and registration. "But I'm off-duty right now. You could say I'm between clients at the moment. Now at the risk of repeating myself, what about you, Zenshou? What do you do when you're not hanging around places like this? And please, call me Simon." With that, he put his ID away again.
"But I did tell you why I'm here at 93U, Simon," Zenshou replied. "I'm here for some entertainment. I decided I deserved a night off, so to speak. As for what I do," she waved her hand negligently. "I what you might call... a lady of independent means. I do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. If you're asking about a specific employer, I have none." Her mind worked quickly.
Gem glanced over in Zenshou's direction. She seemed to be enjoying herself, and a man at the bar had just caught her eye. She decided against interfering. After all, how could Zenshou have fun with a bodyguard lurking over her shoulder all the time?
"Hiya," Gem heard. She glanced up and around, and her eyes quickly settled on Silver. The stripper was standing by her table, in the see-through shift and G-string Gem was all too familiar with.
Gem blinked at the sight of her up close, and returned to her drink. "Hi," she said quietly.
Silver leaned down closer to the bodyguard. "You look kinda lonely," she said. "Mind if I join you?"
Gem shrugged noncommittally. "If you like."
Silver sat opposite Gem, where Zenshou had been mere minutes before, and peered over at the morose woman. "You doing okay?" she asked in a cheerful voice.
"Yeah," Gem replied. She nodded over to where Zenshou was now chatting with the stranger. "Just working."
Silver gave a little laugh. "So am I."
"It's a bit different," Gem replied with a minute smile.
"True enough." Silver mused. "When I start taking this job too seriously, it's time to do something else." She paused. "You on the other hand can't stop taking your job seriously."
"I'd get fired if I did," Gem replied.
"I know." Silver paused, then added "You're in a serious business." Gem remained quiet, and Silver added, "It's okay. I understand."
Gem nodded slowly and turned back to Silver. "Can I ask you a favor?"
"Certainly," Silver said cheerily.
"It's an odd one." Gem paused for a second, then continued. "When I was doing some business recently, the trader had nothing to call me but 'Ms. Gem.' The boss," She nodded towards Zenshou, "Said we may need to head over to the city some time soon, in which case I can't expect my name to be indiscreet."
Silver smiled. She was becoming interested in the two women's' affairs. "Right, so how do I figure into this
Gem sighed. "The problem is, I need a 'normal' name."
Silver leaned back, honestly surprised. "Normal?"
"Normal," Gem said. "As in, it's got two parts, and people don't sound silly adding 'Ms.' to it."
"Oh, okay." Silver sat back and thought for a moment. "How about something Japanese?"
"That's what I was thinking," Gem said, "But I was hoping you could come up with something. You're more of a..." She shrugged. "A people person."
"Thanks!" Silver almost squealed in delight with the complement.
"So yeah," Gem said. "Any ideas?"
Silver mused for a moment, "Sakari came to mind, but I' not to sure"
Gem rolled it over. "Hmm..." The name meant 'at one's best;' quite a complement from the other woman.
"Gem Sakari," Silver mused, "Doesn't sound quite right."
Gem shook her head. "I think I need two names."
"Ahh, gotcha," Silver replied. The two sat in silence for a minute, pondering their options. "How about Yuki for a first name?" Silver mused. "It means snow."
"Why that?" Gem asked.
"It sounds nice, and it's a fairly common name." Silver, paused, "You wouldn't want something like Teruko, which sounds unusual."
"True," said Gem. "I'm not sure that it suits me, though."
"How about Yoko?" Silver, just listened to herself. "Ahhh, no."
Gem shook her head. "No, maybe not."
"Kiko sounds better." Gem simply shook her head. "Perhaps Aoi?"
Gem pondered the name. It had a number of meanings, including the colors blue and green. "I like that," Gem said, to herself more than Silver.
Silver giggled a little. "Now we need a last name. How about Hari?"
Gem paused in thought. The name also had a few different meanings, but the one that caught her eye was 'crystal.' "You know..." she began.
"Putting them together..." Silver continued.
'Green crystal.' Gem thought of her eyes, her most distinguishing feature. She nodded and said, "I like it."
"Aoi Hari it is," Silver responded with enthusiasm.
Gem nodded and raised her drink. She was surprised when a voice entered her head. Gem, it's Zenshou. Is everything okay?
"You know what?" Silver said, gazing at Gem. "How about we go on a date?"
Confused by both conversations, Gem muttered, "Fine," hoping it was the right way to respond to Zenshou.
"Really? Great!" Silver replied.
Zenshou's voice ran through Gem's head again. You don't need to talk out loud. Just think the words and you'll do fine. Remember, if you need me, I'm here.
Sure, Gem thought, hoping her boss would pick it up. She blinked and saw Silver looking at her in delight. "What?" she asked the stripper, clearly confused.
"You know, a date. We go to a bar and hang out," Silver replied.
"We're at a bar," Gem shot back, somewhat irritated.
Zenshou interrupted her thoughts again. I'll leave the link in place, if you want. I can't hear anything that you don't deliberately send me.
That's a definite relief, Gem thought back.
"I meant a different bar," Silver responded with a chuckle.
"But..." Gem began, but was interrupted by an impression of Zenshou making a face at her. How do I do that back? Gem replied. She glanced at Silver, who was clearly looking for an answer. "I'm working," she said abruptly.
Do what? Talk?
"So that's your excuse?"
"What?" asked Silver. Pull a face, Gem thought back.
I don't know? I just thought of the facial expression and it got sent. It's hard to explain.
"You won't go out with me because you're working."
"Yes!" Gem snapped at Silver. She thought of herself poking out her tongue.
"Great!" Silver said. "So I'll put you down for 'As soon as you're off duty.'"
Very good. Now, I'll leave you to play with your new friend while I play with mine.
Gem got an image of Zenshou as a cat, stalking around a new toy, very happy with the game she's playing. Gem smiled broadly. She looked at Silver for what seemed to be the first time, only to notice her smiling back at Gem.
"Uh... What just happened?" Gem asked.
"You agreed to go on a date with me," silver beamed back.
Gem sat in silence, gaping at Silver. She'd missed something along the way - it was confusing enough with Zenshou popping into her head without having to deal with Silver's attention.
"Look-" Gem began, but was cut off by another message from Zenshou. Gem, it appears that my playmate is a private investigator. Perhaps he's the one we should hire. Would you hate me if I drag you away from Silver to join me at the table?
Gem gasped for a second, then slowly nodded her head. "I've got to go."
"Sure," Silver replied. "Pop by here when you're off duty and we'll go from there."
Gem simply nodded as she stood and headed for Zenshou's table.
"So," Zenshou said, folding her hands in her lap. "You are a private investigator. As it so happens, I find myself in need of such services. Might you be interested?"
"I'm not drumming up business," Simon replied, mentally shifting gears to meet this new development. "I don't have to. And I usually see prospective clients in my office anyway." He exhaled sharply. "But seeing as how you've got my attention, OK, talk to me." And he took another sip of his drink.
"I didn't mean to imply you were, Simon," Zenshou replied, "for you would have had no way of knowing I was looking. If you wish to delay this conversation until a later date so we can meet in your office, then that is perfectly acceptable to me." She paused. "Please forgive me. I did not intend to ruin your enjoyment of the evening."
Simon dismissed her concerns with a shake of his head. "It'd take more than this to throw me off my stride. Besides, you've piqued my curiosity. I won't just leave it at that."
"I have been asked by a business associate to hire someone to investigate an... incident at the HariChem arcology."
"HariChem? Wait... You mean the place where somebody whacked the boss's entire family?" Simon's expression hardened. "The way I heard it, nobody saw or heard anything until after it was over. Very professional."
As he spoke, Simon was also activating the cybernetic link implanted in his skull, and a machine in orbit was answering:
CONTACT: SURVEILLANCE SATELLITE EPSILON II
INITIATE NETWORK SCAN, NEWS AND BUSINESS WIRE SERVICES, 60-40 WEIGHT TO LOCAL AREA CONTENT
SUBJECT: INCIDENTS CONNECTED WITH HARICHEM CONCERN WITHIN PAST 90 DAYS--DIGEST HIGHLIGHTS FOR IMMEDIATE ACCESS, BUFFER FULL CONTENT FOR LATER REVIEW
EPSILON II: INSTRUCTIONS CONFIRMED--EXECUTING
The command and confirmation took place in a fraction of a second. Without missing a beat, Simon went on, "Is that the incident you're referring to?"
The smell of gunpowder was there again, as soon as Gem approached. Zenshou wouldn't notice, but Simon was sure that the newcomer sensed it as well. At this distance, he could also tell that she was female after all, probably a baby dyke. Their eyes met for a moment as they sized one another up, then he returned his gaze to the blonde. "Your bodyguard knows her business," he said. "I can't imagine what I did to set her off, though."
"You didn't," Zenshou replied. "She has instructions to come over to the table once someone has been here for a certain length of time." She smiled. "You're one of the few who lasted that long. And yes, that is the incident of which I talking about. It was very professional. I need you to get me anything and everything you can, no matter how trivial. If you require access to the scene, my employer can get you there. Based on what information we have been able to acquire, it appears that the Black Company might be involved." Zenshou sat back and watched Simon's reaction.
"Black Company," Simon repeated. "'When you care enough to send the very best.'" He leaned back in turn, folding his arms across his chest.
CONTACT: EPSILON II
SUBJECT: BLACK COMPANY. PARAMETERS AS PER PRIMARY SEARCH. CROSS-REFERENCE RESULTS; RANK BY RELEVANCE.
EPSILON II: INSTRUCTIONS CONFIRMED--EXECUTING
"If that's the outfit that did that job, it would explain a lot." Simon ticked off the points on his fingers. "There's no doubt that they could have done it, from what I've heard. If it was them, finding out who hired them will be somewhat easier. The pool of likely clients is pretty limited. It would have to be those who could afford them, and who would expect to benefit by doing so, directly or indirectly."
He leaned forward again. "If it is them, you and your principal are wading in shit up to your pretty little asses. But that's enough of the obvious. You know these things as well as I do. The question I have is, what was the point? Any of the Ten could have done it without the mess and for a fraction of the cost, though still not cheap. And anyone who tried to track them down would still be gambling with his life. Hell, I'm not sure even B. C. would be that messy about it, unless that was part of their contract. So why do it that way? I have a feeling that's important."
After another glance at the bodyguard, Simon made his decision. "I get 20 large a day, plus expenses. For that, you get my undivided attention."
Zenshou simply nodded. "Your fees will be paid," she replied without the blink of an eye. "I can give an answer as to what might be part of the why—there were recent attempts at a takeover of HariChem, all of which were resisted. Whoever hired the Black Company must have decided that the only way to get control of the company would be through the death of the controlling family.
"Obviously that failed, since there is no evidence that Midori Harihatu is dead, and they do not have control of the company," Zenshou continued. She paused, and looked at Simon closely.
"You asked why this is being pursued. Loyalty, Mr. Heller. Loyalty and duty. They slaughtered the Harihatu family, murdered everyone they could find in the house, from the head of the family to the youngest child of one of the housemaids, and put some of the bodies on grotesque display." Zenshou's voice caught in her throat, and Simon and Gem could hear hints of rage and a deep, slow burning hatred. "Whoever was responsible is going to pay." She finished simply.
Simon stared at her in silence for several moments. The news scans he had called for had come in, and he ran over the highlights. They substantiated her story, as she must have known they would. He redirected the focus to unearth what would make this company, which was by all accounts a fairly unremarkable, albeit commercially successful, biochem firm, such an appealing takeover target. Had they been on the verge of announcing a major innovation of some kind? Were there any rumors? The available data would need a second pass, at least. There was something else going on here.
The real reason he was staring, however, was to transmit her image through his cybernetic eye, and up to his pet satellite. The data retrieval had also confirmed Zenshou's statements about persons whose whereabouts were still unknown at this point, and certain details indicated to him that an identity check was in order. But that would be for later, once he took the case, and had a chance to talk with his sources elsewhere. Besides, he wanted to give her the chance to confirm or deny his increasing suspicions herself, without making her any more spooked than she must already be.
"I don't work blind," he replied at last. "I'll need to meet your principal in person, so there's no misunderstanding about whose interests I'm representing. We can do it tomorrow, at my office, if you like. Also, we need to know what there is about this company that would make it worth a buyout, let alone killing for. Can you find out anything about that? If there had been a recent breakthrough in research of some sort, for example, that could help point us in the right direction."
What do you think, Gem? Can we trust him? Zenshou kept her eyes on Simon's as she sent her words to Gem's mind. Left hand on my shoulder for yes, on my right shoulder for no, if you'd rather not speak this way. If he betrays us, he'll be treated no better than the people who killed our friends and family.
Simon reached out and covered Zenshou's hands with one of his own. "I know this is hard to talk about," he added, looking her directly in the eye. "But I'm talking about why someone would hire someone else to carry out murders like these, not why you or anyone else would want to do something about it. By the way, I will need to check out the crime scene, as you suggested."
The bodyguard gave him a quick look up and down. She glanced down to her employer, and gently placed a hand of her right shoulder. Don't blow your cover, she replied to her employer.
"We will meet you at your office tomorrow. You'll get the information that you need, and meet the principal behind this venture," Zenshou replied. "You'll also receive $60k as a retainer, if that is agreeable."
Simon nodded. "I think we can come to terms," he said. He had noticed the gesture, if only because it struck him as unusually intimate for an employer—employee relationship. If a signal had passed between the women, however, it seemed to him to have been a good one. Letting go of Zenshou's hands, he decided it was time to change the subject. "Here's my address," he added, handing her a card. She recognized the area. It was an apartment in one of the better residential areas of the city proper. "And now that we've established that," he finished with a smirk, "how would you suggest we spend the rest of the evening? I think we've talked enough business for one day."
"I intend to finish my drink," Zenshou replied with a smile, "but I'm afraid if I am to get that information for you, I have to cut my night off a bit prematurely. Places to go, people to see, that kind of thing. I'm sure you understand." She finished her drink. "I try not to mix business with pleasure. Perhaps when this is finished..." Zenshou's voice trailed off with the hint of a suggestion.
Gem, Zenshou sent with a smile on her lips. We have to go talk to the 'boss'. If he sticks to his routine, he should be in his office going over the accounts right about now. Did you wish to say goodbye to Silver, or are we free to leave directly?
We're gone, Gem responded. she kept her eyes on Simon as she followed Zenshou's lead.
"'And miles to go before I sleep.'" Undeterred, Simon got to his feet as Zenshou stood up to leave. "I look forward to it," he said. With a mischievous glint in his eye, and fully aware of Gem's attention on him, he leaned forward smoothly and kissed the blonde's hand before her bodyguard could react. "Until tomorrow." He waited until they were out of sight, then he picked up his weapons and left the club also. The night was not likely to get any better.
As he walked back to his Porsche, Simon lit another cigarette. Then he spotted the blonde and her as-yet nameless shadow, and instructed Epsilon II to track them. He wasn't convinced that this meeting had been coincidence, and he wanted to know where they were going. While that program was running, he peeled out of the garage, heading in the direction of the city. His prospective clients weren't the only ones who now had things to do and people to see.
Zenshou chuckled as she and Gem walked out of 93U. "He was rather daring, don't you think," she said with a soft laugh. "Practically daring you to do something when he kissed my hand like that."
Gem nodded. "He was rude, pushy and brash. I'm glad you were the one dealing with him, not me."
"So, we've got a bit of traveling to do," Zenshou said, looking around. "I don't want, and we don't have the time, to deal with the checkpoints."
"Come on," Zenshou said, heading down the block. "I think there's an abandoned building near here that we can use. I don't know what gang claims it, but we won't be there long enough for it to matter."
They walked for about five minutes, then Zenshou stopped and looked at one of the buildings. "There," she said as she nodded in the building's direction, "that should do just fine. We just need to be alone and out of sight. Would you check it out, Gem? We don't need a bit spot, just enough for the two of us to stand side by side."
Gem nodded and headed for the building. A light shove swung the door silently open. The place was abandoned, the roof caved in up the back and signs of an ancient fire. The floor by the door was clear. "We can use this place," Gem said back to Zenshou.
"Good," Zenshou replied as she followed Gem into the building. She walked into the center of the cleared area, then turned and looked at her companion.
"Have you ever teleported before," Zenshou asked softy. "It's the only way I know we can get out of the Zone quickly and without much fuss."
"Nope," Gem replied. "You're only the second PK I've ever worked with. But it should be okay, right?"
"Just hold onto my arm, and you'll be fine. It's going to feel a bit weird, like you're going to be sucked up and then spit back out again. You may experience a bit of disorientation, but it should pass quickly."
Gem stepped forwards, close up to Zenshou. She held on to both her employer's arms, her hands shaking ever so slightly.
"Okay," Zenshou said. "Here we go." The esper closed her eyes and concentrated for a moment. The air around the two women began to swirl, creating a vortex around them and picking up small pieces of debris and flinging them around.
"Now," Zenshou warned Gem a split second before it happened. It felt like they were suddenly surrounded by a cool gel and were sucked into... someplace else for a moment before being spat out on the other side.
When Gem's vision cleared, she saw they stood in a very large bedroom that probably would have been describe as exquisite if it didn't look like a disaster area. The place looked like a tornado had gone through, destroying everything in it's path.
"It was like this when I got home," Zenshou said as her knees weakened and she sank shakily onto the bed. She looked dazed, and a small trail of blood flowed from her nose.
The first thing that hit Gem after the scene of the room was the smell. The only way it could be described was the faint scent of death.
Gem stepped out of the bedroom, glancing around for threats. The sight before her was appalling. The walls were marked with energy burns, and the floors were stained with blood. Gem could make out the faint outlines of where the bodies must have fallen. "Oh god..." she muttered.
"That's where I found my six year old sister," Zenshou pointed at one of the large bloodstains on the floor, her behavior almost abnormally calm and cold. "My mother, brother and other sister were over there, and my father..." Her voice caught in her throat. "My father was hanging over there."
Gem could see the spot on the wall, and realized that Zenshou's father must have been hanging there, nailed to the wall in the form of a cross.
"Why in hell did you come back here?" Gem asked.
"I had to," Zenshou replied. "The information about what special projects the company is working on is hidden here. I didn't think to take it when I left last time..."
Gem nodded gravely and surveyed the carnage. It was a credit to the bodyguard that she kept her face completely neutral.
Zenshou walked carefully into a small room, just off the living room. Gem could see that it was a family shrine, where offerings to the Harihatu ancestors would be made.
Gem followed in silence.
Not even this sacred place had been spared. Delicate ceramic vases were smashed, icons defaced. Incense sticks broken and scattered on the floor.
"A clear message," Gem finally muttered.
With a shaking hand, Zenshou cleared away a small space in front of the remains of the altar and knelt down. Her bodyguard knelt beside her, head silently bowed.
"Beloved and Honored Ancestors, your child, Midori, kneels before you and asks your forgiveness for allowing such an act to have occurred without swift vengeance. I swear upon my honor and my life that I will see whoever did this, regardless of who they are."
Zenshou found a single stick of undamaged incense, lit it and placed it in a burner.
"Mother, Father, Naruchika, Izumi, Katsura," Zenshou said in a soft voice. "I grieve that your spirits will be tormented until the guilty have been punished. I swear that you will be avenged, or I will lose my life trying. Beside me is Gem, a friend. Hold her blameless should I fail. While she has agreed to help me, this is not her fight."
Zenshou leaned forward and pressed her hand against the base of the altar. "I am Midori," she intoned. "Honorable to my ancestors, and my father's little pearl."
Gem could hear the sound of an electronic system activating, disarming, and the soft whooshing sound of small compartment opening. Zenshou reached inside the compartment and removed several optical storage disks. She pressed another spot on the altar and the compartment closed, disappearing again into the altar.
Gem stood beside her. "I have a question."
Zenshou looked at Gem. "Yes?"
"Who outside of your family knew of your esper talents?"
"In corporate circles, it is known that HariChem has an esper on staff, but very few people are aware of the fact it is me, and no one knows the full range of my abilities. Not even I do. Only my father and you know of my telepathic abilities."
"Good," Gem said, almost as to reassure herself.
Zenshou smiled slightly. "Don't worry. When we're wandering around, I am always dampening my psychic field, so no one can tell I'm an esper unless I'm actively using my powers."
"Then that's a definite relief," Gem said. "Are we done here?"
"Almost. " Zenshou sat back and bowed one last time to the altar, then stood. "There, now we can go. Next stop, the home office of Nakata Miro."
Gem simply nodded, and drew closer for the teleportation.
Zenshou closed her eyes and concentrated. The now familiar sensation of being sucked into a cool place, being twisted and turned around and ejected into the world again came over them.
The room the found themselves in is like an old-fashioned den—lots of paper books on the wall, a huge ass wooden desk, that kind of thing.
I'll never get used to that, Gem thought to Zenshou as she stepped back.
"What the..." A good looking man in his fifties sprang up from behind the desk. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"Calm down, Uncle Naka," Zenshou said. "And please, don't summon security. I don't want anyone to know I'm here." She waved hand and created a bubble around part of the desk, preventing the man from hitting the panic button next to his computer.
"Uncle Naka... How dare you call me... Wait a minute..." Nakata Miro sputtered.
Zenshou removed her sunglasses and looked at the man her father had called friend, and was now running HariChem in the week following the death of the rest of the Harihatu family.
"Midori? Is that you?" Nakata rushed out from behind the desk and grabbed Zenshou up in a bear hug. "I've been so afraid for you... What happened? Where did you go? Where are you staying?"
"I'm fine," she replied. "I can't tell you anything else. I'm here for a few reasons. First, to let you know that I am alive and well. Second, I am now CEO of HariChem, but you are to continue to act as my proxy and run the company. You are under absolutely any circumstances to allow HariChem to be sold, become partners with any other company or otherwise join in business with any other firm unless directed by me personally. Do not accept any directions to perform those transactions unless I am standing here in front of you with this woman standing next to me. Finally, I am working to find out who is responsible for what has happened, and to make them pay."
Zenshou held up her hand, cutting off Nakata's protests. "I'm not going to tell you anything else, for your own safety. A man by the name Simon Heller will be contacting you tomorrow. He has been contracted to investigate the attack, and he will be told that you hired a woman named Zenshou Shinju to act as an intermediary. You have no other information about this woman other than she has been recommended to you as someone very reliable. His fee is $20K per day plus expenses. He is to be giving $60K up front, to be drawn from the legal department funds, and he is to be given access to my home so he can gather evidence."
It might get awkward if he asks about me, Gem thought to Zenshou. If you need to, use the name Aoi Hari.
I understand, Zenshou replied.
"But... I understand, Midori, but what are you going to do? How can I reach you? Where are you staying," Nakata asked.
"I've got a small place in Hong Kong," Zenshou replied smoothly. "And you don't contact me, I'll contact you. Whoever killed my family is likely still after me. The less you know about where I am, the safer it'll be for you and your family."
"I don't like it," Nakata said, "but I understand. Be well, and be safe." He paused. "I've looked after the preparations for your family's..."
Zenshou nodded. 'Thank you, Uncle Naka." She gave him a quick kiss in the cheek. "Remember, Simon Heller, tomorrow. You are the one who hired him because you wanted an independent investigation."
Nakata nodded. "When will I see or hear from you again?"
"I don't know," Zenshou replied honestly.
"Time to go," she said, turning to look at Gem.
Gem nodded respectfully to Nakata, then stepped closer to Zenshou. She placed on hand on Zenshou's shoulder, and waited for the teleportation.
Zenshou started to turn away from Nakata, then looked back at him over her shoulder. "I'm sorry to have to do this, Uncle. "
"Do what Mid..." Nakata's words were cut off as his eyes suddenly glazed. After a few moments, Gem heard Zenshou suppress a whimper in her throat.
"We're going now," Zenshou said in a rush, and Gem felt the sensation of being sucked into that other place...
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