Wherein our protagonist finds himself involved with sailing, psychology, and an inter-family feud done O'Brien style

By David Antolovich

January, 2039

Johnnie leaned casually against the stern rail of the Four Seasons and looked out toward the darkened sea as he heard a fog horn sound out mournfully in the distance. And well it should he thought. The fog and drizzle this night made maneuvering more of a hazard than the darkness and pollution here normally did. If the storm that had tracked them the last few days blew in it would clear it out quickly, and in return give its own hazards. Of course that was the way of the mariner. Bouts of danger interspersed with long stretches of boredom. Funny how closely that same existence mirrored his own life at times, but maybe that was why he related to sailors so well.

At least it was not his worry anymore now that the sleek trimaran they had taken passage on was safely tied to the pier. With her amas folded snug against the main hull and her foils retracted, the Four Seasons rocked gently on eager but greatly diminished waves. That was thanks to both the harbor's sound break wall and the marina's design. Certainly the Four Seasons moved much more gently now than she had the last few days at sea. Then, the forefront of the storm had driven what seemed like and endless string of 10 to 15 meter swells hard onto her stern quarter. Both the extra beam of the trimaran and her lifting foils had helped with the worst of it, but the ride had still proven both wet and wild.

Despite all that, he would still miss both the Four Seasons and Captain Stinky, at least until the next time he was on such a long passage in poor weather. Almost three weeks at sea was tight quarters for a crew of four on her 13 meter length. The ample trampoline space that stretched between both outer hulls and the main hull had helped, but was completely useless in bad weather. Right now, an endless hot shower followed by steak, baked potatoes and a few pints sounded damned good. Especially after the rationing they had endured when the water maker went tits up about five days out. He imagined that he looked like some giant white salt encrusted fish, scales and all and it made his skin itch when he thought about it. At least the storm had done some good in that regard with the intermittent rain having helped some in that regard.

"So Johnnie... Are we ready then?" asked a tentative voice that belonged to the somewhat shorter, thin and tussle haired youth who stood by his side.

"Aye Collin. I guess we are," Johnnie replied. Collin was a good lad as far as younger and somewhat nerdy brothers went. He was on the shy side, especially where girls were concerned, and was somewhat awkward physically. It was clear Collin would never manage to have a fraction of the same strength and poise that Johnnie had had at 16, or any other age. But, then again, very few men or woman did. Johnnie shrugged mentally, and then continued, "Well then lad, let us be abou' it. We should say our good byes tae Stinky an be off."

Johnnie turned with Collin in tow and hopped up from the cockpit to the cabin roof which encompassed the whole amidship width of the Four Seasons. He then moved nimbly forward so that his sailor's duffle bag easily dodged the main arm on the mast that now looked a bit like covered furniture with its' wing sail fully battened and tied. He paused a bit waiting for Collin to maneuver around the obstruction, then briefly grabbed a stay line to ease his way down onto the foredeck. There he walked toward the bow rail where a somewhat grizzled and older man stood looking out at Hong Kong's water line.

Johnnie stood still for a moment and looked at the city before he set his duffle down by the bow rail where Stinky stood and then offered, "Aye, a ports a beautiful site after a crossing, especially with tha storm still commin' on an all."

Stinky nodded and then turned to face them both as Collin arrived and said, "Port ken be nice. But after a week or so I start to miss the sea again... So, will you reconsider my offer Johnnie? Partners?" He glanced at Collin and nodded, "Even a place for Collin here if he wants. Someday he will be right good with diesels and the Four Seasons electrics if he keeps his practice up."

Johnnie sighed and seemed to shrink an inch from his 6'4" height as he replied, "Nae Stinky. It is kind enough I know. But I hae little enough of professional sailing, and sometimes think Shelly would kill me dead as tae look at me. She still has nae forgiven me for that night all those years ago. Dunnot worry yerself o'er me. I have always managed, and always will. Besides, Collin here hae the makings of a fine electrical engineer, and he has been accepted as a transfer student already. I will no stand in his way." Then smiling he continued, "Collin is deservin' of a clean life, even if we reprobates are nae."

"Well, I had to ask Johnnie. I owe you, and will nae forget it. Your right though, every time it was Shelly's turn to cook, I did noticed yer portion was always either crisp black or bloody", laughed Stinky and then he pontificated, "She can have a memory my Shelly can."

"They say wives are like tha, or so I hear," replied Johnnie as he reached to heft his duffle bag, and then continued, 'Well nae use in long goodbyes. We will stay in tooch as always."

"Aye, that we will Johnie O'Brien", Stinky agreed, and then added to Collin, "And don't you go forgetting the things I showed you about Four Season's now. That is useful stuff that is."

Collin looked at Stinky and answered, "I won't Mr. O'Shea, and thank Mrs. O'Shea for taking care of us."

"Oh, that reminds me", Stinky nodded acknowledgement at Collin and then faced Johnnie, "I almost forgot. You asked me to set you up with a place and I hae done so. There is this moderate to upscale apartment I rarely have time to use at a place called Mandarin Towers. A decent view, a fair location and its' titled in a trading companies' name tha Shelly and I own and so it won't have any trail to you." He eyed Johnnie expectantly and continued, "Its $2,500 a month, plus any damages or com charges. You might have to redecorate a wee bit though."

Johnnie paused for a bit in thought and then answered, "Why thank you Stinky. I think tha sounds excellent indeed. Doon," and then shook Stinky's hand. "Well now, with that last bit 'o business out of the way, I think we should be off before Shelly finds out."

Stinky replied and winked, "Don't worry about it. She knows and grudgingly approves, if only for Collin here. Besides, she and I will be taking a day or two R&R at a local resort instead. We have a delivery up country in a bit so we can nae hang around much longer than it takes to replace the water maker anyway."

"I see", Johnnie replied as he embraced Stinky, "Well then. It's off fer us. Take care Stinky and tell Shelly so as well."

Collin nodded and shook Mr. O'Shea's somewhat oil stained hand to say good bye as well. But, before they could turn and walk away Stinky reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a grungy wallet. He riffled though it for a minute before he took out a worn card and handed it to Johnnie. It read Sarah J Ferrari, Manager, Mandarin Towers. On the card was a number 902 and a poorly penciled in phone number that was mostly smudged to illegibility. Stinky announced, "She is a pretty good manager, she knows yer coming, and has the key. Although, she may be done with work already, and I think she was expected you a few hours ago as I was noone to specific. Still, I figure you will manage. Oh, and be nice, she is a fine Aussie sheila who gets the job done."

Johnnie laughed and took the card, "So sure that what we would accept tha offer that you called in ahead, eh Stinky? Weeel, one way o' the other we should be sleepin' there tonight. I will hae the payment to you in the next day or three by the usual way. Thanks again fer everything."

Johnnie finished picking up his duffle, and with the card in hand, reversed his previous course with a spring his step as he headed back toward the Four Season's cockpit. There he made right for the stern ladder and took a short jump out onto the concrete pier while Collin followed somewhat awkwardly behind. They both walked past the rows of quiet boats as they made their way towards shore. All the boats appeared haloed in an almost ghostly glow that fog shrouded marina lights cast on their damp exteriors. Beyond wind and waves, the only sound was from a scruffy looking dog that barked and ran onto the deck of a trawler as they passed. But, it quickly stopped and went below as the pair walked right on by its' masters livelihood without expressing the least bit of interest at coming aboard.

At the end of the pier, Collin paused and asked, "How did Stinky know we were not going to take him up on his offer? I mean his first offer? And why did you nae ask me about it Johnnie?"

Johnnie stopped, looked around a bit catching site of the marina security cameras and pointing them out discreetly to Collin as he said quietly and in somewhat leading way, "Collin. What do ya think Stinky is doing up north?"

Collin thought a minute and replied, "Well I am nae dumb. He is ah... well he is transporting people like he did for us and maybe other... stuff?"

Johnnie smiled briefly in approval at the circumspectness of Collin's answer, and then held out a finger in a 'wait a minute' gestured and started to walk again. He opened the tall razor wire topped gate as they left the marina. It shut behind them with several audible clicks as heavy electromagnetic locks automatically slid home. They walked a ways out of the small nearly empty marina parking lot and onto the cracked sidewalk of the apparently low class industrial / housing district that it fronted. Only then Johnnie continued, "Close lad. But, I doubt he was running anything tae the Chinese. More like he was running something out I think."

Collin thought a minute, "You mean like guns, bombs or something?"

Johnnie laughed, 'He has not the displacement or reserve buoyancy for much o' that, although I do nae doubt he do so from time to time anyway. Nae, more likely something small and valuable like drugs or better-than-life chips. That is why he knew I would say no tae his first offer, and why I did nae ask you. Stinky and I go way back. But there are still things he would do that I would nae, and vice versa I suppose if the truth be known."

"Drugs? Chips? Those are very bad thing to do. And here I thought the O'Shea's were nice people," Collin declared

"Oh, they are nice people, at least tae those they know Collin. Sometimes good people do bad things, and sometimes bad people do good things. Life is like tha. An besides which, Shelly really do have a bit o' mad on for me truth to tell."

Collin thought a bit and then chuckled, "I suppose she does at that. Although, even when she cooked for the rest of us, it was nae so great compared to you or mum. And, I noted she did get quite short with Mr. O'Shea time from time too... I wonder what he saw in her?"

"Well, he loves her, and she he despite all that. And, they do work well together, and...", Johnie smiled and trailed off letting Collin think a bit.

Collin blushed and tentatively offered, "And she did have nice tits as well. Bit big in the toosh though."

Johnnie replied in mock indignation, "Collin! Lookin' at another man's wife like that. Fer shame!"

Collin's blushed deepened and he protested, "Its nae like that Johnnie. She is old and all... I was not thinking about it myself. Just general observin...And there is Cindi back in Neo York... And... Hey! Johnnie O'Brien, your just trying to get me all riled is what! Ya Fooker!"

Johnnie held up his hands defensively and chuckled, "Pax Collin. No, I am trying to get you tae think a bit. 'Old' or no you looked anyway and liked it enough to look at the rest 'o her. There is nothin' to be ashamed about lad. Nothin' at all. She was a looker in her day that was fer sure. Also, she was fair with a knife too as I recall. So best watch it. Then again, maybe she liked the idea 'o a younger man looking a bit now and again. Hmmm?"

Collin clamed down and said, "This women business is not so easy is it Johnnie?"

Johnnie nodded, "Aye, no one ever said it woood be easy now. You hae to know who you are and what you want. And tae be confident, but nae arrogant. Then you have to figure out wha' they want. This is nae easy, because they do nae always know themselves. It could be anything from just compliment me, to I just want to dance or even lets go rut like 'o pair of wild animals. But, always remember that the lasses are the choosers."

Collin answered, "And so you have it all figured out then. Is tha' it?"

Johnnie looked around and then got a big shit eating grin on his face and said, "Fook nae! But I sure do have fun at the trying sometimes. Relax and do nae set expectations on things."

Collin queried, "So this is whole conversation is now really about Cindi and I then, is it?"

Johnnnie nodded, "Aye. Now that is using your head. You really do have tae figure out what you want tae start with. Otherwise you will be sendin' mixed signals and get nae where but frustrated."

Collin half asked and half declared, "I am doing that with Cindi?"

Johnnie replied, "Only you ken really answer that one. But nine months, and friends jus' the same as when you met her Collin? Hae she said she even loves you? Think on it lad."

Collin was about to answer when the sound of foot scuffling and a tin can clattering sounded somewhere close up ahead. They had moved about half a mile from the dock as they talked and walked. Now they were in an area that was visibly empty of active inhabitants at this hour, ill lit and still rather low class. They both saw a bright, and presumably still active, stretch of Hong Kong about a kilometer or two up the road. But that was cold comfort in the here and now. Collin said, "Ah Johnnie, maybe we best go back and ask Stin.. um... Mr. O'Shea tae call a cab? From what I read, the Chinese don't have that many animals runnin' around all over. That could be trouble."

Johnnie answered without sounding very concerned, "Aye, it could be at that. We made mistakes in tha' we are clearly foreigners, unarmed and walking with our bags in bad area. But, trouble could be behind as well. Jus' get behind me and troost me. We will be okay one way o' the other."

Collin, now aware of possible danger, barely nodded and tried to sound brave, but his voice shook a bit as he asked, "Johnnie are ya sure you know what your doing? This probably not just some school yard bullies or the like."

Just then a tired and somewhat unsure sounding Mandarin voice called out from a side ally about 8 meters ahead, "Leave your bags. Go peacefully."

Johnnie picked up on the voices lack of confidence and kept walking. He spoke in English again to Collin, "Now, you drop yer bag an let me look confused so as tae get closer tae them. They do nae seem very confident, nor bright given tha they are trying tae speak Mandarin to a pair o' obvious foreigners."

Collin was caught between allowing his admittedly bigger and stronger brother go into danger alone, and listening to his confident sounding order. And, like most with little combat experience, he took about the worst possible course of action and followed neither path completely. He took a just a half step forward toward Johnnie, and let one end of his duffle start to fall, even though he still griped the other protectively.

But Johnnie said nothing more about it for he was already in his own almost dream like combat mode which was something only another esper would have some version of. To Johnnie the world now appeared almost sepia colored, like something from an old time photograph. Here people and objects where somewhat hazy in outline and overlaid with mental resonances. Inside his mind he felt a flame that burned brighter and brighter with a fierce power that seemed to simultaneously warm and consume his consciousness.

Outside of his mind, time seemed to slow to a molasses pace, so much so that Johnnie felt he could count each and every drop of rain as it fell from the sky. Theory said this was a misperception, instead his mind and body were now accelerated far beyond what any normal human could experience short of massively invasive cyber ware augmentation. But, from his viewpoint it worked out the same, and that was good enough for Johnnie.

He clearly saw each disheveled individual of a group of four Chinese charge out of the dark ally one by one as if in slow motion action film. They were grouped in a lose diamond formation pointed right at him. This was tactically referred to as NEWS due to the fact that its users should be focused such that each individual was responsible for the threat vector that came from one point of the compass. But, this group was sloppily spaced, and all of them faced the forward threat arc. Additionally, such tactics were reserved for indoor use and so Johnnie concluded that their arrangement was the result of serendipity, rather then from any sound tactical sense. He noted that it gave them certain strengths, which they probably did not know how to use. And, also it gave them certain exploitable weaknesses, which he surely did know about.

Johnnie then evaluated and prioritized each of them individually as if he had all the time he would need, and from his perspective he did. The point of the diamond was occupied by an older man whose tired look matched his faded and dirty blue work clothes. Johnnie automatically tagged him Baba which was Mandarin for daddy. He noted that Baba was gripping a club two handed and that he was raising it as he charged. Baba would not be ready to swing at anything in close for bit yet, but was still a fair threat.

The side points of the diamond were slotted to two children. No, he corrected that assessment and made them as two malnourished teens instead. The right most one he tagged as Stupid for the vacant rabbit like look in his eyes and the way he held a poorly gripped rock. The other one he tagged as Scared. This one's face was ruddy with nervous fear and had pupils dilated even more widely than the darkened ally should have allowed for. Scared carried something slim that glimmered in the poor light and was therefore likely a blade or shiv of some sort. Blades were fast and good for the type of close in work this fight would become, and so Scared won the honor of being tagged a priority threat.

Bringing up the rear of the diamond was a woman whom he tagged as Mama, which from all appearances made this a family affair. She held a crude board ahead of her as if it were some sort of magical talisman that would somehow take her family from impoverishment to a happier place. Perhaps it would thought Johnnie with a grim mental chuckle, just not the way she thought.

As his tactical evaluation concluded, Johnnie reached out mentally with his esper talents. It seemed to him that his conscious became almost smoky and nebulous, as wisp like streamers of his subconscious snaked outward and enwrapped the faint warm glow of each of his foes' minds in turn. He felt fuzzy borrowing sensations immediately followed by a welling of power and understanding as his talent copied some of what little combat skill they had and added to his own already formidable stores.

It was time to act. He let go of his duffle and leaped, diving horizontally toward Baba and trailing drizzle in his wake from the speed of his passage. He ended up moving by Baba with scant centimeters to spare, just as intended. Johnnie was now right behind Baba and inside the diamond. He landed on his hands first, then tucked into a single roll to get his feet under him, and then started to stand.

He was now positioned between, and just in front of, both oncoming teens. An almost instinctive decision was made and two fists lashed out in almost simultaneous uppercuts, one aimed toward each young assailant. Both connected solidly before either teen even reacted to his arrival, and Stupid even sprayed blood in a glittering outward arc from the blow. That probably meant that he had bit his tongue or cheek when Johnnie struck him, because he had purposely pulled his blows to avoid serious injury to the children. He was no child murderer, at least not tonight. In any event, Scared and Stupid each took on the glazed looks of those going unconscious. Johnnie knew they would drop like sacks of potatoes in a second or two so his mental count of threats dropped by two.

He started his next move as the back of his mind cataloged the sound of his duffle finally thumping down solidly on the sidewalk. To Johnnie, it seemed that he had let go of it quite a while ago, but then gravity was just so slow sometimes. As he stood, Johnnie twisted his motion by torquing his hip around so that his was now sideways to Baba's back. Baba had slowed a bit to turn, and had apparently forgotten to finish raising his club overhead as the confusion of what had happened started to register. Johnnie mentally shrugged as it made little difference at this point. He economically used the last of his raising motion to move his move his torso past vertical, and toward horizontal. So positioned he launched a mule kick that sent both Baba and his club on an arc up into the night air with a woof of lost breath.

Although he was not able to see Mama with his eyes from his new position, he knew jus about where she should be and his mind tingled as he felt that she had slowed to a stop to instinctively switch to a futile defensive stance. He twisted his head toward her, and then let it hang there momentarily. She took the bait and jabbed at it with the board still held ahead of her like some sort of diving rod. He surmised that it would take God's own luck do more than bruise Johnnie with a blow like that, assuming she could even connect. Alas, God was apparently not manning the switch board for miracle requests made by stupid and desperate thieves today, for indeed she did not come very close to scoring at all.

Johnnie was still bent over at the torso from his mule kick, so he just raised his outstretched arm and grabbed the wrist she had so conveniently left out after her failed jab. He finally planted the leg he had used kick Baba and crouched back and down while he twisted her arm and applied pressure all in one smooth motion. This caused her to drop her board and bend forward with a small gasp of, "ohhh!" He then reversed his crouch and began to stand. He let go of her wrist and used his other hand to thrust forward to grab her right under the jaw as he lifted. That whipsawed her straight back up and then into the air as he continued his motion till she was off her feet.

As he stood with his outstretched arm holding her dazed form with feet dangling above the ground, he heard two softer thumps. That cataloged as the teens finally finishing their collapse. This was almost immediately followed by a heavier whomp from behind him as Baba's body came back down to earth at about at the same time as a metallic skittering sound began. Johnnie concluded that the club was sliding into the darkened street somewhere further on. He dismissed it other than to approvingly note that Baba had at least done one thing right. He had to have put some long nails in his club, otherwise it would have clattered, and not a skittered.

Johnnie took a breath and then walked with Mama held aloft into the ally her family had charged form only a few seconds ago. He pressed her body against a building wall as he heard Collin call out questioningly, "J... Johnnie?" But, he ignored it for now, as Collin was safe for the moment. Real thieves or ruffians would have driven off or killed this pathetic group long ago if they were operating in the same area.

Just then a fifth small shape appeared out of the darkness in the ally running slowly forward toward Johnnie while shouting in toddlers' voice, "Mama! Mama!" He ignored it for now and leaned right up against Mama, plastering her against the wall and stared her right in the eye. She gave back a look of dazed desperation at what might come next mixed with a look of growing determination, but did not even try to talk. He said to her quietly in Mandarin, "I am going to reach into my coat and pull out $500 and a card. I want to you to go to the man on the card now. He will heal your family on my tab if you tell him Ghost sent you, but be sure to describe me. You are to ask him for a job, and if he finds you worthy, then perhaps he will give it. Then you and yours go and eat."

His gloved hands reached into a trench coat pocket and pulled forth a packet that he pitched gently toward the toddler whom now stood uncertainly near them and had started to cry. As he did so, his very appearance begin to fade to into an almost ghost like invisibleness in front of Mama, and he continued in Mandarin, "I am half man and half ghost spirit. Never attempt to rob or harm the innocent again. If you do I will hunt kill you in this life, and then damn you to walk the earth on your deaths, for I am Ghost. You will close your eyes and now count slowly to 50. Then you will help your family go to that address. Do you understand?"

A second or three passed while she tried to sort out this unexpected turn of events and a sour smell reached his nose. She then tried to nod vaguely in his vice like grip. Unfortunately, his esper talent was weak with conscious thought and so he was unsure what she really believed or thought, beyond being scared. But, he was still convinced she would do mostly as he said, at least for now. The Chinese, especially the poor, were quite superstitious. So Johnnie had little doubt that she would believe he was a ghost of a sort. It was not even a lie in the sense that that was the name he used when working the seamier and more violent side of society. It would just have to do because he had no intention of trying to frog march four injured, reluctant thieves and a crying toddler to a street doc. Even in a city as shady Hong Kong that would cause too many questions.

He somewhat gently let her go and then trod invisibly toward the alley mouth. As he moved he heard a slow, almost unbelieving, counting begin in Mandarin from behind him, along with the sniffles and crying of a toddler. Once out of the ally he dropped the near invisibility his optical-camo trench coat had provided. Johnnie was not one to shun methods different from his own inherent powers, and that coat was a both cutting edge and useful technology. It was just too damned bad it took it a few seconds to warm up and sync its imagery with the area round him. But, he could live with it for the benefit of almost perfect invisibility at more than a meter or two range from any viewers.

As he walked Collin stared at him a bit slack jawed as his brother seemingly appeared out of thin air. Johnnie sighed, so much for secrets, and let go of his mental focus as well. The warm metal fire that radiated from within him died down to a mere gutter again. For each esper it was different, but all he accounts he had heard agreed that you generally had a real let down when you stopped using your powers. And indeed, that had always been the case for Johnnie. Such stories also said that those powers had no more respect for morality then the wielder who used them did, and Johnnie could sadly attest to that as well.

Collin asked, "What... Did? Johnnie did ye..."

Johnnie did not answer, but instead simply shook his head in negation at any implication of having harmed the mother or toddler. He quickly checked on Stupid whom it turned out had actually bit down on his lip when Johnnie hit him, and not his cheek or tongue. The good news was he would not choke to death on his own blood, the bad news was it would leave a nasty visible scar and need stitches. Thankfully, Scared was just out cold as intended. As for Baba? He probably had some cracked ribs, some road abrasions and was doubtless concussed. He would feel it for several days but should heal up just fine.

Things were funny that way. Drunks, stunned people, and martial artists like Johnnie, all tended to come out of accidents well. They never tensed up and tried to fight the forces affecting them, instead they rolled with them either purposefully or from simple inability to do anything else. Thus, a stunned Baba had likely escaped any serious broken bones on his landing. Something that would probably not have happened had Johnnie hit Baba any less hard, and thus failed to stun him.

With his cursory examination done, Johnnie picked up his sailors' duffle again and walked along with a visibly confused Collin toward the still busy section of Hong Kong in the distance. After some time, Collin offered, "I hae sometimes heard stories from your old friends back home after they had a pint or ten in them. But this... was... Well, I had thought them barroom exaggeration. The same as I thought most all those stories about what espers and cyborgs can do were. But that? It made even those fighting babes on Steel and Lace look so... slow. And that whole re-appearing bit was jus fookin damned spooky Johnnie."

Johnnie answered, "I will talk to you more abou' it some time later Collin. For now lets jus' say I am not actually tha much faster than the lasses on the holo, but I do know some tricks and so on. As to talking about this? Well how about you and I try tae keep it quiet, okay? Fer now at least?"

Collin thought and replied still a bit nervously, "All right Johnnie. But depending on what you say, I may talk about it to Mum, Da or Maggie at some time."

Johnnie said somewhat jokingly, "And nae Carolyn?"

Collin just shook his head and rolled his eyes with a bit more humor coming back now that they were on familiar ground. They both knew that Carolyn was... Well, you just had to know Carolyn and not have too high expectations of her as a sister, or even as person for that matter, was all.

After a moment Johnnie somewhat tentatively asked, "Nae afraid of me Collin?"

Collin answered, "Nae. Well, maybe a little bit o' afraid back there. Kind of scared at what you did and all I mean. But, I hae thought it through and realized that you hae not changed, and that it was just my perception of you that had... I mean you could do this stuff all along right? And you have been my big brother all along too despite it. Sometimes good, and sometime a pain in the toosh, but you have never harmed me or any of the family that I know of."

Johnnie chuckled and said, "Well Collin it appears that school has been good for yer thinking at least, and I am glad to hear yer feelings. Now lets get this blood on my coat cleaned up o' bit, and then get to our new home before it gets any later. I am still in sore needin' of a shower, food and a pint or six."

Collin agreed and moved to walk so that he partly obscured Johnnie's trench coat where some of Stupid's blood showed. The two made their way into the outskirts of a neon bedecked entertainment district that probably serviced one of Hong Kong's main ports. As such it had a wide variety of rather odd folk hanging around that conversed in all sorts of languages, including English. That reassured Collin to some extent for he had worried that Hong Kong's claim of dual lingual status was exaggerated. That would have sucked for he knew Cantonese like he knew how to fly to the moon by flapping his arms.

But, despite that reassurance, Collin still moved a bit closer to Johnnie. He recognized both inherent similarities with the slums of Belfast where they had both grown up, as well as differences. And he knew the differences got you into trouble quick in a strange place. So he wanted no part of an accidental encounter with any of the inhabitants or visitors. The memory of the ally way fight and what may have happened had the thieves been tougher was still far too fresh in his mind.

For Johnnie however, this was all quite familiar on many levels. He had both 'worked' and lived in Hong Kong before for several years, even if the port entertainment district was not his usual haunt. The rhythm of the street had changed some in that time, and of course the styles were different from his memories. But biz was still biz, and so mixed in the store fronts situated beneath the low rent housing were the usual assortment of sim-sense parlors, bars, brothels, gambling dens, pawn shops and seedy looking eateries. Many of which were open for custom 24 / 7.

Johnnie chose a shop that appeared to be a mid sized sim-sense store. He figured that would have the least chance for Collin to get into trouble and still be big enough to have its' own loo. As they stepped across the threshold that separated street from store a small bell made a gentle tinkling sounded. However, the bored clerk behind the counter did not even bother to look from what he was screeding on his portable electronic reader.

Johnnie walked over to him and said, "I need tae use the facilities."

The chubby teen clerk sighed and disconnected his reader from his data jack in his head put it down. That revealed that he was wearing a grungy tee-shirt that said Bishonen Explosion in big letters. Johnnie saw that the shirt's picture featured some over muscled handsome half naked guy with long red hair and sword as he hacked away at some encroaching tentacles. Just fucking great thought Johnnie. That could almost be my twin.

The clerk looked Johnnie up and down in complete surprise as if he still found himself in his very own fantasy and blinked twice. He seemed to recover and said with obvious brilliance, "Heeey, your new here."

"Yeah... I... need... tae... use... the... facilities", Johnnie replied even more slowly for Captain Oblivious whom still apparently suffered from being jacked in so recently.

The clerk smiled and shyly pointed above his head to the signs posted over the counter. As he did so noticed Collin for the first time, and a small frown appeared on his features. He focused back on Johnnie's tall athletic build and long flaming red hair. He was clearly mentally undressing Johnnie, but Johnnie deigned to ignore it. So long as the clerk paid attention to him, and not the blood that stained parts of his clothes, he could live with the looking.

Johnnie finished reading the posted signs. The relevant ones read; "Facilities are for paying customers!!", "Minimum purchase $20!" and one that said, "Cred reader broken! Cash only!!!!" Apparently the owner really liked to use exclamation points.

The clerk saw Johnnie had finished reading, and announced helpfully, "I can suggest a few." He reached over the counter to pull two packets from the display rack hung on the front of the counter. One featured the picture of a tall Caucasian man and an Asian boy sitting close together on a sofa in a romantic pose. The other, a well endowed young blonde woman dressed in a too tight girl scout uniform and... ahem accompanied by a German Shepherd. After he cleared his throat he added, "These are good. You can even sim-sense each role if you want." When Johnnie did not visibly get mad, he then went on more confidently looking between Johnnie and Collin, "Want to... I mean do you have anyone to ummm try them with?"

Johnnie was mentally counting backwards from four to one to calm himself before he would reply and purchase whatever it was that would get him access to use the loo. But, he was too late, for he had forgotten about his brother.

Collin was not experienced with this sort of thing, but was not dumb and the last bit made it pretty clear just what the clerk was selling, and what he had suggested. Collin moved aggressively toward the chubby clerk while he raised his fist said, "Jus' what the fook do you think yer doin ya 'lil bastard!"

The clerk snapped out of his reverie and probably realized that he had perhaps gone a bit too far in crossing his fantasy with reality. His look hardened into something ugly and serious as he started to back away from the counter to avoid Collin's advance. At the same time his leg stretched outward, questing for something on the floor, and he announced, "Hey! Back off boy toy. Or else!"

Bullocks, thought Johnnie, an alarm or worse. So, he moved between Collin and the clerk and looked daggers at Collin. Then he steeled himself mentally and said, "Collin is just a wee bit excited, right Coll? I will take 'em. Yer right, I think tha is jus' exactly what I really wanted. Those were some really good picks."

Collin and the clerk both stopped, and after a moment Collin calmed down somewhat and wandered over to look idly at some random section of the store with an angry look still on his face. Meanwhile, with his fantasy restored, the store clerk cast a jealous look Collins way and then smiled in satisfaction at his obvious victory over his perceived competition.

Johnnie paid cash for the sim-sense chips and then got the bathroom pass card from the clerk, whom managed to touch Johnnie's hand with his own sweaty paw in the exchange. Whatever, Johnnie thought as he made his way to the loo. He slotted the key and went in, and turned on the water.

The clerk picked up his screeder and went back to viewing. After a little while he adjusted something and then declared excitedly in surprise, "Hey... Wait a minute. That's blood!", as he absently licked his lips with a quiver.

Collin moved quickly over and saw that the flaming little perv must have wired the loo with a camera, as there was a picture of Johnnie as he cleaned some spotted blood off his trench coat in a rather dirty looking bathroom. This time Collin thought a moment before he declared, "I wonder what your boss would think if he knew you wired the loo like that?"

The clerk quickly cleared the view and dropped the screeder behind the counter as he replied half snottily and half nervously, "Wha... You! I am sure I don't know what you are talking about. Maybe you had just better leave."

What would have transpired next would never be known, as Johnnie emerged from the bathroom. Both young men turned their heads to face him as Collin took the opportunity to mouth the word 'camera.' Johnnie took the scene in and then walked quickly toward the two saying, "Weeel now, lets be going Collin. An this time ye can hit me harder okay? But first, maybe our new friend here can go over tae the special isle an suggest somethin' else really nice. You know, something for... all of us. Hmmm?"

Collins eyes went wide in shock, but he said nothing as had learned that sometimes the optimum response for something you did not understand was to simply shut up and wait. However, the clerks eyes practically bugged out of his head in excitement as he scurried out form behind the counter and went to wherever it was that the worst of the worst was stored. Johnnie used the opportunity to move casually behind the counter and then did something to the clerk's screeder. After that he announced loudly to Collin as if in an argument, "Well fine! Be tha way. Lets go then." And, then he and Collin moved quickly out the door and down the street.

The clerk heard that and ran quickly back to the front of the store holding four or five packets close to his pudgy chest like a mother cat nestling her young. He arrived just in time to see his fantasy walk out the door with that other... other... bitch! Yes, that was what that other kid was. Well, at least I still have that video he thought, I wonder what else it showed? That blood came from somewhere. So pretty. So painful. So delicious.

He hurried back behind the counter and picked up the screeder, pressed play and cursed fluently when it said <file not found>. What could he have done wrong? Fuck! It was probably that no good boy toy. He knew he should have called the yaks when he had the chance. Nobody messed with anyone in this strip of stores!

Well, at least he had stapled his comm number to the packages the tall pretty one had bought. There was still hope, yes there was always hope... and pretty dreams of pain. After all, that boy toy was so plain and low class, and the tall one was so... pretty and hard. What did he see in that other kid that he could not provide more of? In frustration he popped open one of the packets he held, inserted it into his screeder and jacked in. He promptly forgot about the two as the scene it contained unfolded before his mind's eye.

Johnnie dumped his recent purchase in the nearest trash bin and he and Collin both walked until they found a com booth far enough away that the clerk should not be tempted to follow. Since it was occupied, they stepped back to wait a moment as Collin said, "I hope that tha is not so common here Johnnie that clerk was fooked in the head."

Johnnie replied, "Same here as most places. Weeel, maybe a bit worse here, but there will be plenty of normal people fer ya to meet at school. Jus tha my friends are all a bit on the eccentric side. Pretty mooch like back in Neo York. Oh, and thanks for the camera tip. That was quick thinkin I might add."

Collin nodded and blushed a bit before he answered, "I am not stupid Johnnie. I may not be some martial arts terror or whatever, but I can keep my head." He amended with a bit of a blush, "Well sometimes anyway."

Johnnie smiled and said, "True enough Collin me lad. True enough. Ah, our com booth awaits." Johnnie went in and fed it some cash. Credit was easier, but cash was anonymous. He dialed up a local cab company and arranged a pickup. Then he called Mandarin towers. Apparently, Sarah was already off duty as he got some overly cheerful help desk attendant instead. She informed him that he would have to call when he got there and then someone would come and check his ID and open the door for him. Apparently it was passkey access only after 8 PM. He acknowledged that, disconnected and exited the both.

While they waited for the cab he started and then said, "Aye, I should hae got a new SIM card for my Net PDA. Would have saved the waiting for the com booth too."

Collin laughed, "So Johnnie O'Brein. Terror of the back allies made a mistake eh?"

Johnnie chuckled, "It was nae the first, nor the last I wager." And with that he went and bought a new SIM chip from a vendor across the street, careful to keep an eye on Collin and then returned. A few minutes later a light blue cab which had Peaceful Journey of the West Wind Taxi and Transport Ltd Co written on its' side pulled up by the booth where Johnnie and Collin stood. That worked out well as increasing wind and the gentlest of drizzle indicated the storm was definitely inbound now.

As they got in the back Collin commented, "Now that sure is a mouth full eh?"

Johnnie said, "The Chinese are like that. Names sometimes translate funny to English." He grinned and continued, "Also, biz names in traditional Chinese culture are a bit odd to western sensibilities as well."

The cab driver, an actual person it appeared, turned and faced them through the armor glass partition that separated the passenger compartment from the driver's area. He announced through the intercom, "Look, the meters running you two. So chat, or go, but I get paid the same. Just letting you know." Then he turned back and waited.

Johnnie said, "Now that is a refreshing attitude after that last clerk."

The cabbie just shook his head at the nonsense his clients spouted and eventually got the address to the Mandarin Towers from them. Johnnie also asked him to stop off at a liquor store and fast food chain along the way to tide them over. That met with another shrug of acknowledgement the cab zipped off to its various destinations.

In a fairly short order Johnnie and Collin stood outside of Mandarin Towers with both their duffle bags, and a fresh case of Fosters for Sarah. Johnnie opened his PDA and dialed the front desk. Or, he tried too. Collin wondering what was up leaned over and saw the access denied icon flashing on the screen. Johnnie said, 'Fookin Dog Eggs. Tha bastard sold me a bum SIM!"

Collin replied somewhat tiredly, "Well we can just find a pay booth or..." He stopped when he saw Johnnie had almost unthinkingly reach into his coat and with draw some strange devices and had moved next to the entryway. Then he continued quietly as he looked quickly around, "Johnnie are those what I think there for... I do not think that is such good idea. What if we get caught?"

Johnnie paused and put way the devices. He thought about old habits and how they died hard, and maybe he was more tired then he thought as well. Collin was right in a way. Although it was doubtful he would get caught breaking into something easy as an apartment complex. Still, if things did go wrong it would not be good, and Collin himself was not exactly stealthy either. Well a few minutes walk in the light rain would not kill them. He nodded to Collin, "Right then. Hae it your way."

As it turned out the nearest com both was a good ten minutes walk, but at least it was big enough, if cramped, for two to get out of the light rain that was now falling. Johnnie fed it some cash and dialed the front desk.

The vid screen cleared to show the same help desk worker he had previously called, and who announced, "Mandarin Towers. Can I help you? Oh... Aren't you the one who called earlier? Are you out by the door now?"

Johnnie replied, "Nae. We got a bad SIM so I am calling from a com booth. Can you be down in say ten minutes tae let us in lass?"

She digested this a bit slowly and giggled at being called lass. Then she answered in a happy tone, "Oh. Sure thing. I will do just that."

Johnnie was about to disconnect we she added, "Oh wait. I can't leave the desk unattended, and I am the only one on duty this late. Can you call when you get here? Oh, I guess you can't right?"

Johnnie replied and helped her along, "That's right. Can you try page someone tae come out an help then?"

The desk worker answered in a chipper tone, "Good idea! Lets see. In emergencies I the rules say I can page Sarah and she will come down. It will be a few minutes as I need to wake her up. It is an emergency right?"

Johnnie thought that one through quick. It was not a good idea. They were late already, and now were waking up Sarah too. He knew his lifestyle would at some point require the good graces of the manager, and this would really get things off on the wrong foot for any favors later. So, he replied, "Nae that's all right. Say, when do you change shifts?"

She replied, "I change shifts in two hours." Then as if a bright idea were forming, "Hey! I can come down and let you in then. But are you sure you don't want me to get Sarah? The weather is supposed to get very rainy. And, pretty windy too."

Johnnie looked at Collin who was clearly beginning to fade, and no wonder after their trip and the events of this night. Then he looked at his immediate surroundings and spotted salvation, at least of a sort. He said, "Nae lass. I think we will just stop by tomorrow mornin'."

The help desk worker said somewhat unsurely, "Well.. Okay." And then more resolutely as a full dose of chipperness returned, "Glad I could be of help."

Johnnie hung up and shook his head at the silliness of it all. He then said to Collin who looked at him questioningly, "Collin. We are goin' to experience something new for you. See that over there?"

Collin looked at the tall narrow building that Johnnie pointed out. It had a marquee that read Easy Dreams Inn in both English and Chinese. He replied, "I have stayed at hotels a time or two before Johnnie."

Johnnie answered, "Weeel it is a hotel of sorts. They call them coffin hotels because the rooms are a wee bit small. But it is cheap, here and gets us out of waiting for a few hours while standin in the rain."

Collin looked at Johnnie in somewhat resigned manner, "Well as long as I can get some sleep I am willing to try it. But I still don't see why you did not have that help desk worker page Sarah."

As they walked toward the Easy Dreams Inn he answered, "Because it would put her in a foul mood, an we may need a favor later. Besides, wha is one more night of roughin' it."

Collin shrugged and followed Johnnie into the entrance of the building. There a sour looking pot bellied old man stood behind a worn desk. As they entered he announced in a detached way, 'Rooms are $15 a night. $25 if you want them disinfected first. Half that hourly. Bathroom and shower privileges cost $5. No loud noises and no crap. I will taser you myself, call the cops or both if you really piss me off. Want one?"

Johnnie replied, "We will take two with disinfect and bath and shower privileges."

The man grunted and counted the cash Johnnie handed him twice before ringing them in he then handed both Johnnie and Collin keycards. Johnnie then led Collin up some stairs passed rows and rows of stacked 'rooms' until they reached 14A and 14B, which happened to be on top of each other. Johnnie popped both open to reveal 3 meter long rooms that were 1 meter wide and about 1 meter tall. Inside each was a floor/bed in the rear a small storage forward and a vid screen mounted on the ceiling. The smell of fast acting disinfectant wafted out as he did so.

Collin wrinkled his nose and said somewhat incredulously, 'That is damn small Johnnie. But right now I do not care a bit. Can we at least get cleaned up before we get some sleep?"

Johnnie nodded and had them stow their duffle bags before heading to the facilities. Based on some of the residents they passed, both he and Collin were glad to have he sprung for the disinfectant. After they cleaned up they returned to their rooms and opened their doors again. Before they got in Johnnie clapped a hand on Collin's right shoulder and said with a twinkle in his eye, "Welcome to Hong Kong Collin! Oh, and if you need to use the facilities? Weel then, best wake me up first and bring me along okay?"

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