The man across from him was large, built tall and heavy in a fashion mostly alien to Japan. He crammed himself into the corner of their wall booth to fit, with his knees rucked up and one foot brushing Akabane’s. He had a foreign name as well, something German in flavor, and he smelled overwhelmingly of old cigarette smoke.
The remains of their meal lay on pushed-aside plates, forgotten by his host and apparently by the sullen waitress who’d served them. His companion was now nursing his sixth beer, tottering on the edge of being a loud drunk. Akabane, who refrained from both alcohol and tobacco, did not comment.
“It’s an easy job,” the man said, and slammed one heavy fist against the tabletop for emphasis. Their plates jumped a little, and some water sloshed out of Akabane’s glass. His companion did not notice, too infatuated with his sales pitch to recognize the courier’s subtle distaste. “All you have to do is deliver the books to my cousin and then get paid. If you work for me, I’ll take care of you.” He waggled his eyebrows and grinned, already shaking hands in his mind’s eye.
Akabane picked up his glass and sipped delicately. The smoky ambiance of this little bar made his throat sting a little. He did not like to be around people who smoked as a general rule, and forgave the act in only a small handful of people. He decided he much preferred the little coffee shop where the GetBackers conducted business, even if he found the location unpleasant. Both Midou-kun and the master smoked in the café, but two men, even regulars, could not completely fill the place, and at least it had proper lighting.
He personally liked clean bright lights, the sort that exorcised all shadows — like the ones used in hospitals. It made his reading much easier.
“I am a very expensive person to hire,” he said, and tilted his cup a little, so that the ice clinked to emphasize his point. The water tasted of metal and minerals, straight from the tap, but it made a decent prop. “If this is such an easy job, you’d be better off hiring a … smaller name in the business.”
The comment earned him a self-righteous sputter. He did not bother to hide his smile, because the expression was no different from his regular “pleasant business face.”
It took a moment for his potential client to calm down, to fortify his irritation with another deep gulp of beer. “Look,” he said, his broad face now stained red, “I only hire the best, no matter what. Even if the job’s easy, these books are important — ”
“Of course they are,” Akabane interrupted smoothly. His smile never faltered. “I simply wanted to suggest that for such a simple operation, it might be better to save your funds. I meant no insult, truly.”
Narrow, bloodshot blue eyes darted from one corner to the other. The other man hunkered over, as though trying to make himself appear smaller. Hiding in plain sight took a talent he did not possess — but he tried, and received points for that. “Look,” he said, in a voice that was meant to be low and secretive, “all you gotta do is take these books to my cousin, all right? No harm in that. Naota Hiroshi. He’ll be waiting for you.”
Akabane looked at the man, with his white-blond hair and pale blue eyes. “You have a very diverse family. Truly, you do,” he said mildly.
The other man smiled uneasily, as though waiting for the catch. When Akabane said nothing else, he reached down and pulled up three books, which he put down and pushed across the table. Their covers were blank and solid blue, devoid of any title or decoration.
Akabane picked up the top one, about the size of a writing journal, and turned it over carefully. He did not miss the way his companion tensed up, large heavy hands curling into unsubtle fists on the tabletop. He let the book balance between careful fingertips for a moment longer, then set it down. “Perhaps a delivery such as this is left to more universal governmental services,” he said. “Truly, mailing this would cost a great deal less, and it would arrive just as — ”
“NO!” The word burst out of the other man as a pained help, which he immediately tried to cover by straightening and coughing into one thick fist. “I mean — that’s not plausible, Akabane-san. I don’t — um — the truth is, I don’t trust the postal service, because of bad experiences in the past.” He smiled, but it looked sickly, and Akabane could see the sweat beading his forehead and upper lip. The smell of his fear crowded out the stink of old cigarettes.
“Is that so?” Akabane asked smoothly. “Well, the truth is, I’m not terribly fond of it myself. I simply wanted to give you a cheaper option … truly.” He did not tap his fingers or even change his expression, but each long passing second wore on his potential client’s nerves like steel wool.
After the interval of delicately spaced waiting, Akabane said, “Perhaps if you could explain the significance of why these books are so important — ”
“It’s vital these get to Naota on time, all right?” He spoke brusquely, as though trying to override Akabane’s soft voice. Given the otherwise low buzz of noise from the bar around them, he did not have to strain much. “They’re, um. They’re family items, from my father, who just passed away, and — ”
He said nothing, just waited. After a moment, the man’s face twisted and he tried again. “My sister-in-law, see, she gave these to me the last time I saw her, and I know that Nao — er, Hiroshi — is always looking for new journals and — ”
Akabane sipped his water again, then put the glass down. The clink it made against the table shot through his companion like an electric current: he stiffened, then slowly unwound in a moment of wide-eyed desperation. “Akabane-san, please! I told you the job will be easy, and it will pay well! What more do you need?” He reached out and snatched one of Akabane’s slim hands between both his own, pressing it with ordinary brute strength. Compared to the inhuman force of Midou-kun’s Snakebite, Akabane was unimpressed.
He raised an eyebrow, never breaking eye contact. It took him a moment to realize the problem, and once he did, he dropped Akabane’s hand as though it were red-hot. “Oh, no, I’m — I’m so sorry, Akabane-san, I didn’t mean — ”
“While it is customary to shake hands when sealing a business deal, I have not agreed yet.” Akabane did not rub at his freed hand to return feeling to the long fingers, nor did he yank it protectively to his own breast. He simply set it back onto the table, palm down, and changed his expression by raising an eyebrow. “Please, don’t insult us by assuming my acceptance that quickly.”
“No, no, of course not!” It was distantly amusing, how quickly the man tripped over his own tongue to apologize. His big hands roamed, too heavy to flutter, trying to find a safe place to rest. “I’m sorry, Akabane-san; I didn’t mean to — ”
The apologies came fast and blurred, and Akabane finally put his cup down and got to his feet. He picked up his hat and smoothed the wide brim, then held it to his chest. His potential client’s words trailed off to an uneasy silence. Around them, the noises of the little bar seemed to pick up, crowding into the gap between them.
He pressed the hat to his chest, like a man ready to bow, and smiled politely. “I regret to say that I must refuse this offer,” he said calmly. “I do not appreciate my clients withholding important information from me, and this job does not seem as though it would be very interesting.”
A flurry of emotions chased their way across the large man’s red face: embarrassment, disbelief, and finally a settled, burning anger. He shoved up from his seat, and ended up banging his knees where there wasn’t enough room for his bulk. The small stinging pain only added to his anger; his fear fell drowned victim to his rage. Akabane let it strike him and part around him, like river water around a rock.
“You — you can’t just — ”
“I fail to see any interesting challenge to this particular job,” he said, and knew the man heard the implied insult. “I take jobs for what challenge they may present me, and so I must regretfully decline your offer.”
He watched in mild fascination as the man’s red color only deepened, livid against the paleness of his hair. The wide mouth worked soundlessly, trying to articulate the range of his anger. Akabane continued to smile pleasantly, and nodded once as he left.
Outside, the air nipped sharp and cool, smelling of rain. The moon lay half-hidden behind a veil of clouds, and Akabane, feeling whimsically, tipped his hat to it.
Footsteps started after his before he’d even crossed the street. Akabane let the shadows hide his smile. Perhaps he’d underestimated the entertainment this rejected client could provide; as a large man, and visually obvious in his strength, he might even prove something of a challenge.
Then again … Akabane rubbed his fingers together, and remembered the feeling of metal ripping out of his own flesh. Amano Ginji looked like a healthy young man, but with no particular outward indication of his abilities.
It was slightly distressing, that so many things bored him now, after the opportunities to fight both Raitei and an enraged Midou-kun had been snatched from his fingers. That pique was, perhaps, the reason why he would encourage such an otherwise boring man; it had been weeks since his last truly engrossing job, and he was running out of ways to entertain himself.
You have ruined me, Ginji-kun, Midou-kun, he thought whimsically, as he deliberately turned and walked into the first alley he crossed. Conveniently, he recognized it as a shortcut to his own modest apartment. Therefore, he would not have far to go after disposing of his desperate follower. I’ve become so bored when you’re not around. Truthfully.
The alley amplified all the small sounds of the night — including those of a big man trying to sneak. Akabane’s own boots made no noise against the pavement.
He’d almost made it to the end of the alley when the man made his move. The footsteps behind him sped up, and Akabane allowed the man to drop a heavy hand on his shoulder, then to pull him to a stop. Smiling, he looked up into pale, bloodshot eyes.
“Akabane-san,” the man rasped. “Please, I’m begging you — you have to reconsider — ”
“Please let go of me,” Akabane interrupted, still smiling. “I believe I have terminated our association, sir. Perhaps, if you prefer, I could offer you the recommended names of some of my colleagues — ?”
“You don’t understand,” the man said, his hold on Akabane’s shoulder tightening. “It has to be you, or else — ”
“Unfortunately for you, I have already refused.” Akabane brushed at the hand gripping him, and was not surprised that the careless movement didn’t loosen his companion’s hold. “It’s most unprofessional of you to keep insisting like this.”
In the darkness, he saw the way the man’s eyes rolled — not out of sarcasm, but rather ordinary animal fear. The stink of it seemed to fill the entire alley, stronger than the scattered trash. Akabane waited.
“It’s your fault,” the man blurted. “I need — I need — don’t you understand? It has to be you, I’ve already told my cousin that you’d come; he won’t accept anyone else — ”
“I believe you’re quite trying my patience,” Akabane murmured. “Please let go of me.”
His request earned him a single hard shake. “You don’t understand,” the man groaned. His breath smelled like alcohol and tobacco, and Akabane resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose. Endearing as it looked on Ginji-kun, he did not quite have the face for it.
“So you’ve said,” he said demurely. “However, I — ”
The man released him in a sudden, hard shove; Akabane took a simple step back, rather than stumbling. As he adjusted his hat, he saw the man pat himself down, searching for something, without ever taking his eyes from Akabane’s face. The smell of his fear-sweat mixed with the lingering traces of his indulgences — quite stomach-turning, really.
A rustle, a hoarse cough, and Akabane found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He raised an eyebrow.
“Is this a hint?” he asked smoothly. “Then I’ll give you one, too. I am not interested in doing business with you. I would rather we parted on amicable terms. Life is much easier that way.”
And I am not currently working, right now, he added to himself. Disposal may be a problem.
“Akabane-san, please,” the man pleaded, looking straight through him. “Hiroshi will kill me if you don’t go to him; he wants to see you — he’s heard all about you, and I — you’ve got to help me, I can’t — ”
“What you can or cannot do is none of my concern,” Akabane said, almost gently. “Good-night, sir.” He turned and began to walk away, one hand braced against his hat for the coming shot. Though the slit in the brim was an agreeable addition, he did not want to deal with any gaping holes to join it.
“Akabane-san — !”
He turned the moment the gun went off, ducking smoothly under its trajectory. He did not so much leap forward as flow, years of liquid practice honed on his muscle and bone. Without pausing, the scalpels pulled out of his flesh, and after that — it was no difficult thing, to sign his work on the dead man’s body.
Behind him, the bullet pinged loudly off a brick wall. He rather hoped none of his neighbors heard.
A huge, heavy hand grabbed the hem of his jacket, tugging it rudely askew. Akabane looked down into the dead man’s eyes. They stared back up at him, begging.
“A — Akaba — Akabane-san — ” he gurgled; blood frothed pink at his lips. Akabane frowned. This was a sloppiness he was unaccustomed to — really, seeing that mess made him ashamed of his signature on this piece. Very calmly, he stepped out of the man’s reach. His mouth moved silently, trying to force a voice for desperate last words — and then failing.
His head and hand thumped heavily to the pavement. The clean metallic scent of blood cut through the lingering stench of fear and cleared his head.
Akabane dusted himself off, tucked the scalpel neatly back under his skin. It burned going in, white-hot and clean. When it was safely back in place, he tugged at his gloves to straighten them, and turned. However irritating, it seemed he would need to pull some strings and call in a few favors; he did not, as a rule, enjoy any interaction with disposal agents. They were crude in their efficiency, with no sense of elegance in their souls.
Still, leaving a body this close to his own apartment was not a viable option. He, at least, had a sense of courteous obligation to his neighbors, and in his own experience, unexpected bodies being discovered nearby tended to make people nervous.
Truthfully, that was so.
” — I’m telling you, I heard it!”
“What’re you talking about? Who’s gonna have a gun out here, of all places?”
“Ban-chan, I know what I heard, and it came from this way … c’mon, we should at least look — ”
Akabane glanced up in time to see the two figures appear at the mouth of the alleyway. Enough clouds had moved away from the moon to provide a clear band of light across their faces, and he saw each minute detail as Amano Ginji’s face went from determined to surprised to fearful within seconds.
“A — Akabane-san?!”
He smiled pleasantly. The evening no longer seemed like such a loss. “Ginji-kun.” He looked past the blonde, and saw another face scowling back at him, blue eyes flinty behind violet sunglasses. “Midou-kun, as well. It’s a pleasant evening, isn’t it? Truly, worthy of a nice long walk.” He took a step towards them, and was amused when Ginji-kun automatically stepped back. The movement carried him into Midou-kun, who stood ramrod straight and did not budge.
“What the hell d’you want, you damn zombie?” Midou-kun spat the words out, like an attack. He did everything on the offensive, even when he spoke to Ginji-kun — though the difference between the two was like a hunting cat baring its teeth at danger, and in play.
Akabane did not slow or stop; he continued walking towards them. Ginji-kun now stood partially behind Midou-kun, and though barely taller, he hid surprisingly well.
“I?” he murmured. “Midou-kun, you and Ginji-kun were the ones who came bursting in on the scene. It seems impolite to make such demands.”
Midou-kun’s blue eyes narrowed. He always heard a challenge in even the most innocent of phrases, and it was amusing to see how easily he could be provoked.
“But if you must know,” he continued, smoothly, “I had dinner with a potential client, and that did not turn out well. And then the night was so pleasant that I decided to take a walk. He followed me.” Akabane chuckled suddenly, the sound whisper-soft. “Perhaps he was worried for my safety. However,” and here he turned his head just a little, studying Ginji from the slit in his hat-brim, “he had no need of that. I am, after all, a professional. Truly.”
Ginji-kun swallowed hard, but did not back down. “And where is the client right now?” he asked, in a voice that — almost — did not shake.
“Not a client, Ginji-kun,” Akabane corrected gently. “I refused his business.”
Midou-kun’s eyes darted to the side, to the stretch of dark alley visible behind Akabane’s slim form. His lips compressed sharply, the ice in his gaze sharpening when he met Akabane’s eyes. The transporting agent continued to smile gently at them both — but especially Ginji-kun, who looked more in need of a kind face than his partner.
“I was not hurt, if you were worrying, Ginji-kun,” he said.
Ginji-kun winced, jumping like a startled puppy. He stared at Akabane, white-faced, and said nothing.
“And then, if that is all … ?” Akabane began moving forward before he finished the question, with Midou-kun surreptitiously pulling his silent partner out of the way. Their instinctive, bristling mistrust amused him; it was like dealing with a pair of untrained, unreserved puppies destined to be guard dogs.
Still, and he knew this well, there were truly sharp teeth hidden in those young faces. The anticipation of future battles stirred his blood — and this was far more stimulating than the quiet, uneventful death of his unfortunate would-be client. If he strayed too close to the two of them, standing so close their auras blurred, it was like some sort of potent alcohol. The night was young, and every breath left the tang of blood and electricity in the back of his throat.
And yet … it was bad manners, not to mention poor professionalism, to pick a fight with people he could be easily working with, when the next assignment rolled around. From the looks of them, however, they were certainly expecting some kind of attack. It was unfortunate, how easily their young emotions could tip so precariously one way or the other, depending on the breath of the wind.
Yet tonight, he’d leave them disappointed. He’d had his fun, and it seemed rude, really, to ruin their evening by pushing it.
Akabane smiled, then tipped his hat to the GetBackers both.
“Until the next time, Ginji-kun, Midou-kun. I will be looking forward to it. Truly.”
Then, without a backwards glance, he strolled back out into the cool, damp-scented night.
A different place, a different potential client.
The outside café was much more to his tastes, even in the unpleasant air of Tokyo. They met in broad daylight, when salarymen and office ladies and other members of the working class appeared for a brief, frenzied rush for food, then disappeared again. Natural light made his eyes hurt in a way artificial did not, and he was glad for his hat.
She’d already been drinking coffee, something with a richly potent smell, when he arrived. He’d ordered black tea without looking at the menu.
The intermediary agent’s hair glowed pale in the late afternoon sunlight, combed out shining and loose around her shoulders. Today she dressed with surprising modesty, with a high-necked cream-colored sweater and a long, dark brown skirt. She looked at him over her cup, resting her upper lip on its edge, her eyes shrewd as she met his gaze.
When they’d first met, Akabane had wondered, just briefly about that long fall of gold, as well as at the strange color of her eyes. Coupled with a flawless Japanese accent, it was a vaguely intriguing puzzle — and one that he dismissed immediately after considering. They were not professional. It did not matter where she’d come from, only the jobs she found him.
He put down his tea cup gently. “It sounds interesting,” he said at last. Even watching under the brim of his hat, he didn’t miss the way she flinched at his choice of words. Akabane smiled a little. He rather liked this one: she found his work distasteful, but could not fault him for being one of the best, and so treated him with respect. So many of her fellows did not understand enough to do the same. “You’ve always done good business with me, chuukaiya-san.”
She smiled thinly at him. Even without the fighting ability to back up her threat, it had the same feel as Midou-kun’s more bloodthirsty smirks. “I’m doing my job, Doctor Jackal,” she said. “I’m nothing less than a professional.”
“Of course,” he said. “I’m sorry, I did not mean to offend.”
The intermediary agent leaned back in her chair and set down her own cup. She laced her fingers together, resting them lightly on her stomach as she looked him over. “Fine. The delivery is scheduled to begin in two days, at six in the evening; I’ve taken the liberty of contacting Mister No-Break as a partner for this job. Lady Poison was contacted as well, but declined for another job. I’ll call you later with locations.” She pursed her lips, tapped long fingers against the side of her coffee cup. “Hiruta-san will be counting on you to deliver her safely.”
Your boredom must not touch her. That was what the intermediary did not say, but he heard it clearly. Akabane touched his hat, tipping it a little.
“I will perform to the greatest of my ability,” he said. “Truly, I shall.” He did not say trust me, did not push her tolerance with that. However, like himself, she was very good at hearing implications. She relaxed a little, enough to offer him a faint smile.
“Very well, then.” She got to her feet, put some money on the table. “If you’ll excuse me, Doctor Jackal. I have a meeting in half an hour.”
“Do take care,” he said politely. “Chuukaiya-san.”
She nodded, and turned to walk away in a flare of gold. Heads turned to follow her departure, and he drank tea to hide his smile. The intermediary agent was admittedly a very beautiful young woman, even if she had none of the grace or poise of a “true” fighter. He would be surprised if she did not use her body as a weapon in its own right, especially in a business overrun with would-be GetBackers, young men lured by the supposed glamour and independence. Truly so.
Akabane put his share of the money down and stood as well. The ripple of his long black coat drew the eyes that had followed the intermediary’s hair; he could sense the awe of the crowd all around him as he walked — fascination tinged with (to their own minds) unreasonable fear. It amused him. These were people safe in their cotton-wrapped worlds, sometimes dreaming of excitement without ever finding the bravery to simply reach and take it.
The world was full of people who were not useless, as many cynics were inclined to believe, but merely boring. People who sleepwalked through their lives, occasionally glimpsing something fascinating before it slipped through their fingers.
Perhaps, he mused, that was why the scenarios Midou-kun created with his Jagan were so violent, often ending in a flare of dramatic deaths. In a society of repressed sensibilities, the protective veils could wear thin so easily — so it was not a “dream” the Jagan shared, but “reality” torn into free and bleeding life.
… or, perhaps that was not the case. He’d only been subjected to the Jagan once, and that was not enough to fully comprehend a weapon of that magnitude and complexity.
He smiled to himself — and this was different than the normal upturn of his mouth. He could feel the ripples in the crowd, a confused jumble of emotions that heaved in an ocean’s wave. Like one of his scalpels, he sliced through it and passed into cleaner air.
Which, given how bad the overall atmosphere in Tokyo was, was not really saying much.
Maguruma was a solid man, and a good one — as much as any man could be “good.” He was dependable, surprisingly well-read despite his day job as a taxi driver, and understood the value of silence. They were friendly as they could be — Akabane knew Maguruma had family somewhere overseas, and Maguruma knew that Akabane had three separate apartments throughout Japan.
Casual small things, offered as tokens of free will and then set aside, because they were things that lay outside of a business context — and the two of them never interacted on a personal level. He was one of very few in all the branches of their underworld businesses who had no fear of Akabane.
For that, though Maguruma eschewed all actual combat, Akabane respected him. They greeted each other with pleasant nods when they met, at some obscure little garage that the intermediary agent had found near the outskirts of the city. Dusk was already beginning to darken the sky, the brilliance of sunset gentling out.
They did not speak as they waited for the intermediary agent, though the silence between them sat comfortably.
She appeared at six o’clock sharp, dressed in low-cut, high-riding black leather, long golden hair twisted up into an elaborate swirl. Behind her came the “goods” they were to deliver, such as she was — Hiruta Kaede, a young, fragile-looking woman with huge dark eyes too much makeup. Pretty, in a glass flower sort of way, and dressed in an ornamental kimono that seemed almost too heavy for her.
“Good, you’re both here,” the intermediary said crisply. As always, she appeared oblivious to her own near-nudity, despite the growing chill. “This is your client and what you’ll be delivering, Hiruta Kaede. I’ve mentioned her name before.” She looked at them both evenly, waiting until they both nodded before she continued. “There will be someone waiting for you at Hotel Fujita in Nara when you arrive. Hiruta-san will direct you accordingly.”
“And how do we know we won’t be handing you off to the wrong person?” Maguruma said directly to Hiruta herself, who blinked those huge eyes and shrank back a little, behind the intermediary.
“I think this would be a case of simply trusting her to make the right call, Mister No-Break,” the intermediary said. “You will receive your payment directly from him once Hiruta-san has been safely delivered.” Her mouth twisted into a wry grimace. “As per part of the arrangement, however, I won’t be paid until you are. Don’t cheat me out, either of you.”
Maguruma chuckled faintly. Akabane tipped his hat to her. “We wouldn’t dream of it, chuukaiya-san,” he said. “As I’ve said before, you are always fair.”
She smiled, then stepped aside. Hiruta looked at her with something akin to betrayal as she was pushed forward.
Maguruma opened the door to his truck, and held out his hand to her. “There’s a sleeping area in the back,” he said. He studied her pale face for a moment, then said, more kindly than before, “Akabane and I are professionals. You’ll be fine.”
Her chin lifted, then tilted imperiously. “If I am — violated, in any way,” she said, in a shaking voice, “Naota-san will see to it that you both pay dearly.”
Akabane moved his hat just so, and let go of the brim. “We are professionals in a modern world, Hiruta-san,” he said smoothly, and felt more than saw the way she jumped and whirled. “I hope you will not continue to find such an old-fashioned attitude necessary. It is a long drive to Nara.”
He could feel the intermediary agent’s radiating disapproval, but he felt it important to establish the fact early on. Despite the girl’s beauty, she struck him as painfully boring, and she was young enough to be one of Maguruma’s granddaughters. A temper like Hiruta’s could be amusing, but that was entertainment that wore out quickly and soon grew irritating. He could feel the girl’s offended stare burning into him, and was glad the angle of his hat’s brim hid his smile.
Finally, Maguruma cleared his throat. “Miss, if you’ll please,” he said. Akabane watched those delicate little feet, half-hidden beneath the folds of her kimono, whirled sharply and she stalked towards the truck. Only then did he straighten, smiling at the intermediary agent’s frown as he swept past.
Maguruma raised an eyebrow at him as he climbed into the truck. He didn’t smile, but something in the slant of his mouth implied silent amusement. They understood each other, Mister No-Break and Doctor Jackal, even if they didn’t really know each other. Akabane tipped his hat, then leaned back so that Maguruma could close the door.
Hiruta had settled into the front passenger seat, her chin defiantly lifted. Her back was ramrod straight, and her small hands were folded tightly in her lap. She looked at Akabane, saw his smile, and glared. It reminded him of Lady Poison’s self-righteous anger, the first time she’d seen him kill a man. Truly, very similar.
Maguruma’s truck started without a cough or sputter; it was far from new, but lovingly kept, even in the long months when it was not in use. He had understandable pride in the vehicle that helped build his reputation. If Hiruta only saw its plain, undecorated interior and deemed it beneath her, then her high-class, overacted pride would be far more trying than amusing — Akabane only hoped that she would drop the façade before they made it very far.
Her act was good, enough to fool the intermediary agent — and almost Maguruma himself. Akabane saw the quirk in the man’s heavy eyebrows when he looked back, and answered it with a slightly different smile. She tried a little too hard, exerted herself a little too much, and now the proverbial chessboard lay open to his next move.
Akabane did not doubt that there would be complications on this job. In fact, he’d been relying on that when he accepted the intermediary agent’s offer. Originally, though, he’d expected the trouble to come from the tricky nature of transporting people. Humanity’s self-love declared they only suffered such objectification when their survival instincts ran truest.
Recently, business had been so slow. He was looking forward to this kickstarting it again.
After about an hour of driving, Hiruta said, “Stop the car.”
She did not look at either of the transporters when she gave the command, apparently fascinated by the way her hands looked against the pattern of her kimono. Maguruma met Akabane’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Akabane leaned forward, and though he did not touch Hiruta, his gloved fingertips just barely missed brushing her shoulder. He tipped his hat so she could see both his eyes clearly.
“We’ve barely started,” he said. “If it’s not an emergency, we can’t just stop. You’ll insult Mister No-Break’s reputation this way.”
Her head snapped up. Furious spots of color burned in her cheeks, but she continued to look only straight ahead. “I am the client, am I not?” she asked, voice sharp. “I am the one paying you. Stop the truck right now.”
Akabane sank back a little and chuckled. “Oya oya,” he said, “you sound a bit rattled, Hiruta-san. We cannot be expected to deliver you in a timely fashion if you continue arguing like this.”
Her hands clenched.
Maguruma-san has a bed set up in the back, and we have plenty of supplies for this drive,” Akabane went on. “Should you wish to eat or retire, there are the proper facilities in the back.”
Hiruta glanced at him for just a moment, then snapped her head back forward. The heated anger in her eyes might have scorched a lesser man to charred bones. Akabane just held onto his hat and continued to smile at her.
“If it’s so important, then,” he said, “surely you can explain the gravity of the situation. We are not unreasonable men, Hiruta-san.”
She flinched as though struck. Maguruma, who’d been ignoring their conversation for the most part, looked at Akabane again. He gave the tiniest of shrugs.
“As transporter agents, we have promised to take you anywhere, and with the guarantee that you will reach that destination safely, and within a reasonable time frame. Why did you hire us, if you did not wish to make it to Nara as quickly as possible?”
Hiruta scowled fiercely, the expression contorting her pretty face, and said nothing.
“Keep driving, Maguruma-san,” said Akabane, and sat back again.
Maguruma grunted agreement. Hiruta seethed visibly, but remained deliberately quiet, staring straight ahead.
After another hour and sixteen minutes, her hands suddenly clenched. “Stop the truck,” she said again. Her face turned, but her eyes continued to slide away from either transporter’s face. “Please, it’s important — ”
“We are delivering you from Tokyo to Nara,” said Akabane, without moving. “Not somewhere in-between. That is what you have paid us for.”
Hiruta bit her lip, held it sharply between her teeth. Blood drained from her narrow face, so that her skin looked nearly translucent under the layer of her makeup. Under the heavy kimono, her narrow shoulders hunched and her eyes continued to wander restlessly everywhere but on human faces. She began to wring her hands slowly, so that the skin stretched taut and relaxed into red streaks.
After a moment, Maguruma glanced at her sideways, one heavy brow cocked. “You’ll hurt your hands like that,” he said gently.
She stiffened, and quickly moved her hands to rest stiffly against the seat by her hips, continuing to stare blankly ahead. Maguruma looked at her thoughtfully for a moment longer, then returned his attention back to the road. In the back, Akabane continued to sit utterly motionless, though he kept one eye on Hiruta’s stiff back under the wide brim of his hat.
The third time, she waited almost two full hours before she turned again. Before she could open her mouth to speak, Akabane said, “Hiruta-san, we have not reached Nara yet.”
She shot him a withering glance. He merely tipped his hat to her, untroubled by the fierce stab of her anger. Then she turned her attention back to Maguruma, reaching out to tug on his sleeve with one tiny hand. “Maguruma-san, please, I’m begging you — I know how important reputation is in your line of work, but — ”
Akabane lifted his hat a little, brow furrowing just a bit. Then he smiled a little. “Maguruma-san,” he said, cutting through Hiruta’s words, “I believe the ride is just about to get interesting.”
Maguruma grunted. When he looked in the mirror, his expression was wry. “The problem with your idea of ‘interesting,” he said, “is that you’re rarely wrong.” Then he spun the wheel abruptly to the right, with enough speed that the enormous truck lifted its left wheels, briefly, off the road.
Hiruta shrieked as she was tossed to the side, and groped at the door for purchase. Her hand found the handle and squeezed it open; Akabane put a hand to the top of his head to keep his hat from blowing away. One gray eye slitted open, and he caught sight of Hiruta’s pale face, glaring defiantly back at him.
She let go, then, and was gone. Maguruma muttered a curse and hit the breaks; the giant truck’s wheels protested loudly as they ground against the street, and the whole thing tilted dangerously, as though ready to simply fall over. Akabane held on to his hat and waited for the world to come to a stop.
When the truck had finally stopped moving, Maguruma sat back heavily in his chair and sighed. “Maybe I should stop taking jobs with you,” he said. “You’re bad for my no-break reputation.”
Akabane stood smoothly, and offered him a polite smile. “That would be very unfortunate, if you did,” he said. “I assure you, I truly enjoy your company on the road.”
Maguruma waved a broad hand. “Go get her,” he said, his voice wry. “Any cuts the delay takes will come from your half of the payment.”
“Of course,” Akabane said, and slipped out the open door, and down onto the asphalt.
He walked very slowly: there was no need to hurry. They were far from the nearest city, and the evening was turning the wind cold. Carefully he followed the tracks of burned rubber, his footsteps to the exact edge of the lines.
Maguruma’s truck was almost out of sight when he stopped and looked up. Wind rippled the edges of his coat out into a wide flare, and he flicked the brim of his hat, so that he could glance up through its narrow slit.
“I was wondering when you’d actually give it up,” Akabane said pleasantly. “Aoyama Eriko-san, the Puppet-queen.”
She unfolded up out of the shadows. Her ink-dark hair had been loosened from its traditional bun, so that it could flow loosely down her back, and she’d discarded the outer jacket of the kimono, bundled in a compact knot by her feet. Around her finger were wide loops of silver-shining wire.
When he named her, Eriko snorted disdainfully. “Should I be impressed?” she asked. “I don’t think so. A professional like yourself should be smart enough to figure these things out, Doctor Jackal.”
Akabane tipped his hat. “Nice to meet you, at last,” he said. “As a woman who uses herself as a lure in the most special of delivery cases, you don’t work often. How much did Naota Hiroshi offer to pay?” He began to walk slowly towards her. The movement caused his coat to billow widely open. “Three million yen? Four? Perhaps five? Greed is a dangerous beast, Eriko-san; she will devour you before you can satisfy her.”
She just smiled thinly. “A job is a job, Doctor Jackal,” she said. “You know this.”
“I do,” he said. “But I also know when to pull out — if money is all you work for, your life must be quite dull, indeed.”
“Not just money,” Eriko said, sidestepping his approach. “Naota-san offered me a few other things to sweeten the deal. And besides — ” here she tossed her head, arrogant in the way of the very young, “I had this chance to meet you.”
He tipped his hat. “I’m very flattered by your interest,” he said. “But I’m not that interesting. I’m simply a working man, like any other.”
“Fhn!” Eriko tossed her head. “Not to hear Naota talk. To him, you’re the most fascinating creature that’s ever existed — the retriever whose reputation has spread so far and fast that not a single person in the business hasn’t heard of him. They say you’re so dangerous that no one’s fought you and lived.”
He flexed his fingers. “On the contrary,” he said, “I’ve already had the pleasure of fighting my equal already. It was a very interesting battle, Eriko-san, one of my best. It’s too bad you never got to see that.”
“Why should I care?” Eriko shot back. They were circling each other now, and she was bristling, like a threatened cat. “I’m not interested in fighting you, Jackal.”
“Unfortunately, Eriko-san — ” He shifted his weight, moved until he was standing before her, smiling down, “my own pride as a professional would not allow for that. Truly.” He flexed his wrist, then splayed out the three scalpels he’d produced between his fingers. They were bright enough to glow, and he saw the points of their light reflected in Eriko’s eyes.
To her credit, she rallied bravely. “Just be good,” she said, “and — ”
“Eriko-san,” Akabane said sternly, “you should remember to do your homework before taking on any job.” He stepped back and pressed the scalpels back into his flesh, both eyes open on her pale face. “If there’s anything I hate, it’s being bored.”
Her mouth dropped open, then trembled, as though trying to work for sound. One of her hands reached up to press at her chest, her fingers dragging at the material of her shirt. She toppled forward, and Akabane politely stepped aside, in order to not ruin her dramatic fall.
He bent, felt at her throat and wrists, then hoisted her up onto one shoulder, carrying her back to the van. Maguruma had politely left the door open, and only glanced up briefly when Akabane deposited Eriko into the seat.
“This time,” he said, “please make sure she buckles her seatbelt, Maguruma-san. All sorts of unfortunate accidents may happen, otherwise.”
Maguruma sighed and put his magazine down. Broad square fingers grasped Eriko’s chin, lifting it to the light. There were black smudges in her makeup, and the beginnings of a bruise on her forehead. A “J” had been cut into her shirt, but not the skin itself.
“Neat work,” he said.
Akabane tipped his hat. “Our job was to deliver her alive,” he said. “Besides, Eriko-san is not a fighter. There would be no challenge.” His free hand flexed gently, as though practicing the familiar motions. “I do believe in professional courtesy.”
Maguruma pulled the last buckle tight. Aoyama Eriko’s arms were crossed in an X over her chest, the rest of her body secured in place by five evenly-spaced belts. The look he gave Akabane, as he straightened and turned back to the front of the truck, was wry. “Go ahead and get in,” he said. And then, almost under his breath, “You have strange hobbies.”
“People live a very long time, if they’re careful, Maguruma-san,” Akabane said. “All of us need to find something that can break up the monotony.”
“I think I could live with monotony,” Maguruma said, “but like Eriko-san, I’m not a fighter either.” He turned the key in the ignition and started the truck again.
“We’re here,” Maguruma said, and pulled the truck to a stop. He looked at Eriko, who had not said a word since she’d woken up. “Do you think we need to bring her inside?”
“I suppose we must,” Akabane said. He looked at the stiff-lipped young woman as well, and sighed, and adjusted his hat. “Eriko-san, do you think you could cooperate with us?”
She snarled something very rude at him. It was a pity, truly, when Japanese was such a noble language, and she lacked the finesse to even pull off rudeness properly. Midou-kun had a much more elegant style than she did. With a sigh, Akabane leaned forward and touched the edge of one scalpel to her long pretty neck. Eriko froze, a small high sound escaping her.
“If I move this, I will touch the external jugular vein,” he told her. “Please don’t give us any trouble.” Keeping one the scalpel steady, he reached over with his other hand and undid the first set of buckles that held her in place. Her nostrils flared and her lips tightened, but she didn’t try to move.
Maguruma looked at the two of them, then sighed and undid his own safety belt, leaning back in his seat. “I’ve done my part,” he said. “Will you need a ride back to Shinjuku?”
“I would like one, yes,” Akabane said, freeing Eriko’s legs, now. In her lap, the young woman’s hands shook fiercely. “If you don’t mind, Maguruma-san.”
Maguruma reached over and picked up a newspaper — yesterday’s, Akabane saw. “Do as you like,” he said. “I would like to leave before it’s too late.”
“Oh, certainly,” said Akabane, and opened the front door of the truck, then considered the logistics of the situation. “Actually, Maguruma-san, if you could help Eriko-san down from the truck, I would appreciate your cooperation.”
“Beast,” Eriko snarled. Both men ignored her. Maguruma put his paper down and opened the door on his side; he said nothing, but there was a faint sigh in his breath. Akabane was sorry, of course; Maguruma’s joints were usually unhappy after a long truck ride, and the enforced stop had probably done little to please him. But he was professional as always, and a moment later he appeared on the other side of the truck, holding up his arms.
Eriko started to shrink into her seat, and froze when Akabane shifted the scalpel minutely. In a single smooth motion, he pulled it away and pushed her hard, toppling her out of the truck and into Maguruma’s rock-strong hold. She shrieked and flailed, but he simply wrapped one broad arm around her waist and put the other hand over her mouth.
Lithe as a cat, Akabane leapt down and smoothed the edges of his coat. Truly, he thought, this job was far more trouble than it was worth. He only hoped the man who’d gone through so much trouble to arrange two meetings would be even just a little more entertaining.
“Now, Eriko-san,” Akabane said cheerfully, “let’s deliver you to the person who hired us.” He flexed his hand, and produced two more scalpels to accompany the one he’d had before; they seemed to have their own light, and he saw that both Eriko and Maguruma looked at them immediately, as though hypnotized. He nodded to Maguruma, who let her go, and stepped back.
At least she was smart enough to not try running. He was grateful for that, truly so. Akabane gestured towards the lights of the hotel, sketching a proper Western-style bow as he did. “Shall we?”
She lifted her chin, haughty as any queen, and stalked before him. It was, perhaps, foolish to let her go first, but he would cheerfully admit that he hoped she would try something. Other than the brief diversion, he’d found this entire job remarkably boring; the next time he spoke to the intermediary, he would have to request she find him something more interesting, the next time there was a job.
Together, they walked into the hotel lobby. There was no one at the receptionist’s desk, but there was a skinny, small man walking towards them, wearing a long gray coat that ballooned out behind him as he walked. Undisguised anticipation gleamed in his moon-shaped pale face, and Akabane thought that, truly, this young man did not understand what he was wishing for. He completely ignored Eriko, reaching past her as though to touch Akabane’s face, before letting it fall at the last moment.
“Ah,” he said. “You, you must be Akabane Kuroudo. It’s an honor to meet you, finally.”
Akabane said nothing, but gave Eriko a gentle push, so that she stumbled into the man. For a moment, the stranger looked genuinely surprised, fumbling the young lady before setting her back on her feet and nudging her aside. He smiled at Akabane, eyes shining, and reached down as though to clasp Akabane’s hand in his own.
“I’ve delivered Hiruta Kaede, as you hired me for,” he said formally, looking at a point on the man’s forehead, rather than square in his eyes. He saw Eriko look at him with open hate before she drew back slowly, and then slunk away out of the hotel lobby and back into the night. “I apologize for the delay, as we ran into a few complications –”
“But you dealt with them, yes? Yes?” The man juggled his weight nervously from one foot to the other, still looking at Akabane with something dangerously akin to worship. “Whatever troubles get in your way, they never stop you, and you’ve only failed at a job when you found it boring and walked away …”
Akabane tipped his hat, more to the now-absent Eriko than to his employer. “If you will excuse me now,” he said, “I mustn’t keep my ride waiting.”
“No, wait,” the young man said, and this time he did manage to catch hold of Akabane’s sleeve, plucking at it with fingers that resembled stick branches. They looked like any applied pressure could snap them easily in two, but held on with surprising strength. “Wait, I wanted to be able and talk to you –”
“Naota-san,” Akabane said calmly, “I really must be going.
Naota’s eyes lit up. They were veiny and red, as though he had not slept for days, perhaps imagining this moment. “You knew my name,” he said, excitement bright in his voice. “Oh, you knew who I was, even though I said nothing — Akabane-san, you really are such a professional!”
“Indeed,” said Akabane, “I am. You may pay the intermediary, and she will see to it that the money gets to me.” He pulled gently on his hand, and Naota grabbed for his wrist. Those pale thin fingers were cooler than Akabane’s own skin, and soft as though the man had never done a day’s work in all his life. A gleam lingered in his eyes, along with a basely-crude hunger.
“Please,” he said, rubbing the pad of his thumb along the line of Akabane’s pulse, ignoring the way Akabane’s gray eyes narrowed at him, “please, listen to me. You and I, we share something special, don’t you see? As one artist to the other, you must understand the things — the things we must endure, for the sake of our art.” Naota breathed in short, harsh bursts, and his breath smelled cold and sour, as though he had not eaten anything for hours.
Akabane looked at the shaking hand on his arm. “Naota-san,” he said, “I think you might be mistaken.”
“I’m not,” Naota insisted, taking a step closer; for a Japanese man, he seemed to have no concept of personal space. Akabane’s upper lip curled fractionally upwards in disgust. “You have to understand. I’ve seen your work. It’s beautiful.”
“I am simply a delivery agent,” Akabane said calmly. “I make sure items will get there on time. Unfortunately, it seems as though the lady you requested I safely escort has escaped you.”
“Forget her.” Naota flapped his other hand dismissively. “I wanted to talk to you. Akabane-san, I have a proposition –”
“You conduct business very poorly, Naota-san,” Akabane said. “If you wished to make an arrangement with me, there are better ways than this charade of delivering someone to you. The intermediary has my contact information, if you wanted to get directly in touch.”
“That’s not the point,” Naota breathed. In the fluorescent lighting, his eyes gleamed. “I want to — to work with you. To create with you, to make more beauty out of what you already have wrought –”
“I beg your pardon?”
Naota smiled, and something twitched in the corner of one eye — a nervous tic, and Akabane focused on that, rather than directly on Naota’s face. “You create such beauty in what should be such a painful thing,” he murmured, fingers tightening on Akabane’s wrist. “I … have my own small practice, you understand, and I feel that together, we — we could — we could make something wonderful. Truly.”
His lips were shaking. Under his fingernails were dark brown crescent moons, though the rest of his fingers were clean. There was a strange, shaking light in his eyes, which make Akabane think of the Mugenjou, and the strange shadowy things that had peered out at him from the shadows, the first time he walked through. He resisted the urge to curl his lip, and thought himself disappointed anew by this job.
“Naota-san,” Akabane said firmly, “I am a retriever. What you’re suggesting would take up far too much of my time.”
“No, see, see,” Naota said, leaning in close. His cold breath touched Akabane’s cheek as he did, and a strange sort of lust gleamed in his pale eyes. Akabane found it distasteful “You — could bring them to me, yes.” The brush of fingers against his wrist bordered on reverent. “You could bring them to me, and I — I could make them beautiful.”
He looked hungry, Akabane thought. He looked like a man starving for something, and lacking the strength to seek it out for himself.
Akabane look at him for a long moment, at his hard-blinking eyes and wincing smile. He was glad he was wearing gloves when he reached up and gently pried those fingers off of his arm. “I’m sorry,” he said, though in truth, he was not. “The truth is, I have no interest in an arrangement like this.”
“But!” Naoto looked horrified like this, and tried to reach for Akabane again; before he could, Akabane took a smooth step backwards. “But, Akabane-san, it would be beautiful, it would be wonderful — you’re an artist, you must understand –” He caught the edge of Akabane’s long coat, whimpering.
“I’m not an artist,” Akabane said. “I am a retriever.” He reached down and pulled Naota’s clinging fingers from his coat, then tipped his hat politely. “However, I wish you luck in the future. Truly, art is so under appreciated these days.”
“My ride is waiting,” Akabane said. “Good night, Naota-san.”
He did not look back when Naota wailed his name, walking at an easy pace through the parking lot. The door on his side swung open as he approached, and he saw Maguruma lean back, and put his newspaper down.
“I regret to say,” Akabane told him, climbing into the truck, “that I don’t believe the client will be paying us.” He closed the door, then did his seat belt. “There was a catch that the client failed to mention before time, and I chose to decline.”
Maguruma’s eyes flickered, but if he was annoyed, it didn’t show in his face. “Perhaps you’ve been working with those GetBackers young men too often,” he said, as he started the truck. “It seems their luck is rubbing off on you.”
Akabane chuckled, flipping the brim of his hat down, over his eyes. “Perhaps,” he said.
They were silent for the rest of the ride back.
“I suppose it can’t be helped,” the intermediary said, her voice tinny through the phone line. “I should have been more careful in asking him questions.”
Akabane sipped his tea. “It was unfortunate. Truly so.”
“I hope this won’t be a trend,” she fretted, and he could imagine her pacing, free arm crossed beneath her breasts for extra support. “I have enough problems trying to deal with Ban-kun and Gin-chan –”
“I’m sure you have no need for worry,” Akabane said, soothing. “Setbacks are all just part of ordinary business.”