"Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 26 (20190116)

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Re: "Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 22 (20180702)

Post by NekoDude » Mon Jul 02, 2018 10:58 am

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

2008-03-20

        “I’m so sorry we cannot attend the graduation ceremony tomorrow,” Hisao’s mother explains, “but it is bad timing. Your father has to have everything up and running in the new building by Monday morning.”
        “No, really, it’s fine,” Hisao responds. “It’s not like you can’t come see me after I move into the city.”
        “Do you need money for the movers? Where are you going to stay? Is there anything we can do to help?”
        He tries not to let his wry grin slip into his voice. “Only one thing, I suppose. Don’t be too shocked if I’m busy acting as Neko’s chauffeur while I stay at her house for the next week. The gal she rooms with is graduating too, so she has to vacate the premises and commute for the final week.”
        “She can’t ride? She made such a big show of it before.”
        “Oh, she can, and she has in the past, but I’m pretty sure she won’t, at least not all the time.” Not if the dogs are anywhere to be seen.
        “You’ll stay out of trouble?” Her intonation makes this come across as more of a command than a question.
        After a sigh, he decides it’s time to let some sunshine on his heretofore secret life. “No, I probably won’t, but that’s hardly new. I’ve lost count of the number of times she has slept in my bed, or me in hers.”
        His mother has the courtesy to pull away from the microphone a bit before whistling. “So that’s how she got her hooks so deep into you. I should have seen that coming – no, I did see that coming, I just hoped I was imagining it. Poor Iwanako never had a chance to –”
        “Yes, she did,” he interrupts, “and she took it. I’m not making my decisions based on who will sleep with me. There is a lot more going on than that.”
        “So it runs in the family. Does your father know?”
        “Some of it, and he may have guessed the rest, but I have now told you more than I have ever told him. I’m sure you remember the rollaway bed in the closet. That is here because she had trouble getting in and out of the waterbed when she was dealing with the broken arm. It is only still here because it wasn’t needed back at the ranch house. It’s not for my nominal roommate, and it never was. Well, at least it never was while it was here. I wouldn’t know if he ever used it at the ranch.”
        “Stay out of real trouble then, yes?” his mother implores. “You are at least careful?”
        “Oh yes, we both know better than to end up in that position, having witnessed it more than once. You remember the gal I rescued from the pool, and then had to rescue again when she went missing? That’s why she went missing, and once I knew why she was trying to hide, I also knew where I was likely to find her. It – ah – got dealt with, but it’s not something I would ever want to put somebody through.”
        “I am greatly relieved to hear that you have learned from the mistakes of others, instead of having to make them yourself. Sometimes things never do get put right after.”
        You might as well call Yoshizumi by name. “You can see a lot by just watching. At least I’d like to imagine that I have.”
        “I’d like to imagine that I have done my small part to help those in need, especially when that need is a consequence of someone else’s poor judgement, but also when it was their own. That is not the same as condoning such, but many are all too eager to point fingers for sins they are guilty of themselves. They just got away with them – to a degree, at any rate.”
        “Wait. I’m pretty sure I know who you were talking about, but not on this last bit. Who got away with what?”
        “Let me put it this way: we know the identity of a certain absentee father, and so do you. We used to be friends, back when you were still small, before we realized what he had done was not a mere lapse of judgement, but a pattern. He had no choice but to marry the second one, and neither your father nor I were terribly saddened when he decided to relocate.”
        “You mean ‘uncle’ Masuo? Is that why he missed my fifth birthday party? I knew he wasn’t really my uncle, but neither you nor Father seemed inclined to discuss the matter.”
        “And we’re still not. He possesses the power to make our lives – and Yoshizumi’s – difficult if he senses disrespect from us.”
        “Does she know?”
        “That I told you? I don’t plan to inform her. I don’t even plan to tell your father that I told you.”
        That’s not what I meant. “No, I… never mind. I think I got your main point. You’ve seen more than I am aware of, and I shouldn’t be so afraid of opening up to you.”
        The relief is evident in his mother’s voice. “Yes, yes, that is what I was trying to say. We’ll come up and see you at university some weekend soon, since you won’t be there for Tanabata.”
        Now I don’t feel so bad withholding the primary reason I chose Neko over Iwanako – one is in control of her many vices, and the other is not although she has fewer of them. However, that just replaces one guilty feeling with another. As soon as the goodbyes have been said, he’s back on the phone.
        “What’s up?” Yoshizumi answers. “You’re at least going to drop in for the opening tomorrow, right? I understand how you feel about packed crowds and wouldn’t expect you to stay, but you should at least see and be seen.”
        What? Oh, right, I’m considered an owner at the San Cristobal even though Sally advanced the money. “I don’t think Neko would let me not show up, even if she has to pack me in bubble wrap for protection. But, uh, that’s not why I’m calling. Are you in a position to speak freely?”
        “Give me a moment.” A door can be heard opening, then closing again. “I’m out back now, alone. What’s the trouble?”
        “The trouble is in my head. I know too much, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to not discuss it.”
Yoshizumi laughs. “Don’t worry. I know my boss is, shall we say, ‘connected’. He has promised it will never be my problem.”
        “And I believe he means it. I wouldn’t have introduced you if I thought he couldn’t be trusted.” And at this point, I’m nearly as complicit. “What is eating at me is not related to that.”
        “Oh. I have no idea what you’re getting at, then.”
        “Iwanako has a half-brother or half-sister somewhere.”
        Several agonizing heartbeats pass before a response comes back. “No, she has three. Two boys and a girl.”
        “I suppose you can guess how I just found out. Does she know?”
        “Yes, although I have always preferred that she refer to them as cousins. It saves a lot of explaining.” Ah, so she has actually discussed them with me, under their ‘alternate designation’.
        Hisao lets out a relieved sigh. “I can live with that, so long as she knows the truth.”
        “She knows what she wants to know. If she asks, I tell her, but she hasn’t asked in years. Maybe she is getting it straight from the source. She has always gotten along with them, if at arm’s length. I think that’s more a product of the age difference than the ‘situation’ though.”
        “And you’re not going to be angry at my, uh, source?”
        “I was, for a second. Then I was angry at myself for the next second. I’m over both of those feelings already. I think you can be trusted.”
        “Trusted not to misuse the information? Or trusted not to punch my so-called ‘uncle’ in the nose if I should ever see him again? Because I can’t absolutely promise the latter.”
        “That’s alright,” Yoshizumi says with a snicker. “Neither can I.”
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Re: "Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 23a (20180723)

Post by NekoDude » Mon Jul 23, 2018 5:44 pm

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

2008-03-21

        Jōji watches through the dark windows of the guard shack as the boy on a bicycle trundles up the drive. He waits until the intercom buzzer is activated, and a few seconds more for good measure, before stepping out the back and around the small building to make it appear he wasn’t inside the whole time. Reaching into his pocket, he thumbs a button on the keychain and the gate starts to roll open.
        “Thank you,” Junpei says with a nod as he walks the bicycle through.
Jōji thumbs the other button to stop the gate, then again to start it moving the other direction. “No, thank you. I have errands to run, but I was waiting on the relief crew.” He grabs a shovel which is leaning against the side of the guard shack and holds it out. “Watch where you step, and collect what you find. Bags are in the shack.”
        “I haven’t even had a chance to check in yet,” Junpei protests.
        “I took the liberty of doing that for you. You’re on the clock, so get moving.” Jōji waggles the shovel. “Make the grounds look like we don’t have dogs. That’s your assignment for the next two hours.”
        “I was starting to think you didn’t. Where are they?”
        “Staying warm. You can let them out as soon as I’ve departed, but if they don’t want to come out, don’t force them. I’ll call when I’m on the home stretch coming back so you can corral them.” Tired of holding the shovel, Jōji shrugs and jams it vertically into the dirt before walking away, sticking to the unmarked path he previously cleared between the house and the guard shack. After half a dozen steps, he is forced to suppress a laugh.
        “Shit!” Junpei exclaims. “You weren’t kidding!” He slips off his shoe and bangs it on the ground.
        “You need not bother,” Jōji says over his shoulder so that his grin cannot be seen. “There’s plenty more where that came from.”

        Akira waits for a response to her knocking, finally hearing the door being unlocked. “That seems like a lot of security for a place you’re about to vacate,” she says when the door starts to open.
        “It remains worth securing until we are completely packed out,” Lilly insists.
        “That won’t take long, I rented a truck so we can do this all in one go.” Raising her voice slightly, Akira targets Hanako in the background. “Speaking of which, you can probably make some spending money if you want to play mover for the rest of the day. You’ll have to split it with me, I’m the only one that can drive. My name is on the contract.”
        “Y-you really think there are people who h-haven’t planned for this by now?”
        “Seriously?” Akira’s look matches her quizzical tone. “I’d be exceptionally surprised if half the people moving out of here aren’t scrambling right now.”
        “We have until tomorrow,” Lilly points out.
        Akira nods, knowing half the audience will miss it. “That’s what they’re counting on too. Hey babe, you’re tight with El Jefe, right?”
        “K-kinda maybe?” comes Hanako’s feeble response.
        “Think you can borrow an electric cart?”
        Hanako’s brow furrows in thought. “N-no… but I know who can.” She holds up a finger as she smiles and reaches for her phone. “And n-now we have l-leverage.” She puts the phone to her ear. “Hi Neko,” she says, “I’m going to make you an of-offer you sh-shouldn’t refuse. We have a m-moving truck. If you can b-borrow us an electric cart, we’ll d-deliver a load to your house.” After a pause to listen, she continues. “Yes, now.” Pause. “Alright. W-we’ll be waiting.”
        “She can swing it?”
        “She promised a definite m-maybe.”
        “Alright, both of you start stacking things in the order you want them to go on the truck. We’ll hold off on dragging the hand cart down the hill unless and until proven necessary.”

        “Weeeeee!” Iwanako squeals as she opens the door. “I’ve been waiting for you!” She has already doffed her school uniform for the last time, in favor of a light dress with a floral print.
        Haruhiko plasters on a grin before he can let his concern leak through. That doesn’t extend to the drinking, I see. “Likewise, I’ve been looking forward to this in the worst way. The shuttle took for–” Whatever he had planned to say ceases to matter the moment she clutches onto him and quiets him with a sloppy kiss. Cinnamon schnapps, it would seem.
        When she pulls back, she puts a finger to his lips. “Follow me, I have something to show you!” Abruptly, she releases her hold on him and darts away toward her bedroom.
        Very well then, let’s see where this leads. He follows at a fast walk, arriving to find that the entire room has been fitted with new furniture, save for her overflowing bookcase which is a permanent fixture of the house. “Nice! You said you were going to refresh the place, but I didn’t think you meant everything.” He interprets her gestures to mean ‘go on, take a closer look’, so he does. The complete absence of cat fur contrasts with his recollection, although they had tried valiantly to remove it. Apparently, replacing all cloth surfaces, including the rug, was the only solution.
        “Yeah, nice, isn’t it? Since there is no need to move to the campus, I was finally given license to put my own stamp on the place. Also, I’m allowed to lock the new cat out, whenever Mom gets one, so it shouldn’t ever look like that again. Speaking of locks…”
        Haruhiko’s head turns on a swivel as he hears the click of a lock being engaged.
        “...we should have the place to ourselves until the wee hours of the morning, but…” She gives a wave toward the locked door as she approaches. “We can never be too sure.”
        “I see. Whatever shall we do?” He genuinely wants to know what he’s expected to do next.
        “I suppose we could… I dunno, stay inside and play games? ” She very nearly brushes him as she walks past on her way to her writing desk, where she pulls a pack of cards out of the drawer. “Perhaps with a prize for the winner?”
        The amount of tongue in her kiss leaves little doubt what that prize might be – and suddenly Haruhiko doesn’t know whether he wants to win or lose.

        Neko doesn’t even wait until she comes to a complete stop before running her mouth. “I got it, but there’s a bit of a catch. Two, actually.”
        “Should I be worried?” Akira asks with a raised eyebrow, noting that the front left tire had been close enough to kick a bit of dirt onto her shoes when the cart came in hot and skidded to a stop. She drives like me, only with one hand and the wrong foot.
        Neko shakes her head. “Not really, just plan accordingly. First, I have to drive, per El Jefe’s rules. I’m still a student here for the next week, and she’s not.” She nods at Hanako. “Second, that load you offered to carry will not just be things from my room, but Suzu’s as well. Aside from a rollaway bed, we don’t have that much that can go without being dismantled, and we aren’t doing that until tomorrow.”
        “It’s going to the s-same house,” Hanako says with a shrug.
        Neko shrugs back. “I reckoned likewise. Oh, just because I’m here, don’t expect me to lift or carry your cargo. I’m just driving.” She puts both her flesh and aluminum legs over the dash and reclines. “I’ll be waiting.”
        “Not for long.” Stepping through the door to the ground floor of the dorm, Akira grabs the handle to the hand cart from the rental truck, already stacked high with boxes. Carefully, she wheels it out the last five meters and begins the work of team-lifting each box onto the electric cart. Even after securing with straps, only slightly over half of the load fits in a stable manner, so Lilly is left to stand guard over the remainder as they pull away.
        “Do you ever slow down?” Akira suddenly asks Neko. “I don’t mean like that,” she adds when the cart lurches a bit. “I mean… I don’t know, I just feel old when I watch you.”
        “It’s hard work, but I don’t actually move that fast.” Neko waves the invisible hand in the air as she drives. “I just use radar to start moving before other people have time to process events. I don’t win with horsepower, I win with hole shots. It comes at a cost, though.”
        “You can’t shut it down to conserve some energy?”
        “I can, and I do. She’s seen it.” The invisible hand seems to pass right through Akira’s head before coming to rest, pointed at Hanako on the far left of the bench seat. “If I had to look two seconds into the future twenty-four hours a day, every day, I would have burned out long ago. I still worry that I might.”
        Akira’s tone becomes more skeptical. “You can see two seconds into the future? I think the English phrase that fits here is «citation needed».”
        Neko laughs. “You mean «bullshit». No, it’s actually much worse than that. I can see multiple two-second futures, and plan for all of them as best I can, given their probabilities. That way, once the waveform collapses, I can simply react instead of having to make my decision on the spot.”
        “That m-makes sense,” Hanako says with a nod. “«Speculative execution.» You don’t m-mispredict often, but when you do…” She suppresses a giggle with her hand as Neko shoots a glance at her. “You look rather s-silly,” she adds quietly.
        “That’s a very diplomatic way to put it,” Neko concedes. “I’d say I come off looking like a bloody imbecile. Some people know my inner process well enough to hack it and induce an epic fail.”
        “Your Mum,” Hanako mutters.
        “She’s undoubtedly the best at it, but that should surprise nobody. She taught me the concept in the first place. ‘If you can’t be strong, be fast. If you can’t be fast, be first. Otherwise, wear a helmet,’ she insisted. I don’t think she imagined I would take it to the level that I have, but she knows exactly how I do it. Hang on, it’s about to get a trifle bumpy.” It does indeed, as she steers the cart off the tracks worn into the grass by security and maintenance. “It works pretty well for her too, but her angle is to narrow the parameter space. Control the rules of the game, and you can probe more dark corners, peer further into the future, or a little bit of both.”
        “B-by being r-rude?” Hanako suggests.
        “That’s certainly one of her tactics, being rude or crass or loud, or any other mannerism you aren’t expecting. In doing so, she redefines the game, and regains control over a situation that perhaps is getting out of her grasp. Sometimes though, she’s just a bitch to get a rise out of you. That’s a generic ‘you’, not you personally – she likes you. It is wise to be wary of her, but a lot of it is just sound and fury.”
        Akira responds to the reference. “«It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.»” By the fifth word, Neko is reciting the line along with her. “So you knew I was going to say that.”
        “No, but I knew it had a reasonable probability of happening, and planned accordingly. I also made several other plans which were then discarded when their prerequisites failed. I had responses ready if you had nudged me with your elbow, called out the reference directly, responded with a non-sequitur, and a few other things. I did not prepare a response to you, say, trying to set me on fire. That is why Mum does random. She can respect and even like you, but she always wants to win – not every battle, but the war for sure. We’re here.”
        “Yes, we are,” Akira says in mild surprise as she looks around, having lost track of the surroundings. “I didn’t even tell you where we were going.”
        “It’s the only truck with rental tags.” Neko sets the brake and puts her legs back on the dash. “Have fun.”
        “W-what do we want to st-start with?” Hanako asks as she steps off the cart, but her hands are raised in front of her, palms forward and thumbs crossed. She flaps her hands twice as if they were wings.
        Akira spares the minimum possible head turn to determine Neko’s line of sight. It is unlikely she was watching. “Let’s see what falls off when we release the straps. We’ll take that first.” As she steps off the cart, she nods in a way that could easily be missed. Now that you mention it, I think you’re right. She’s flying, but on what? She’s definitely not drunk, and doesn’t seem stoned although it’s possible… wait, her braggadocio reminds me of Kenny – back in law school, back when I actually thought he was funny, and not just a dick. Akira mimes scooping with a fingernail and snorting from it, but raises an eyebrow to express doubt.
        Hanako apparently shares that doubt, as she gives the tiniest shake of the head as Akira opens the roll-up door at the rear of the truck. The loading process gives the pair further opportunity to carry on their double conversation, only now it is their gestures that are used as a decoy as they point and pretend to discuss where each box should go.
        When Hanako leans in close while placing a box, Akira ‘fails’ to get out of the way and is rewarded with a whisper in the ear. “X, m-maybe.”
        Unfortunately, Neko currently has her eyes closed as she reclines. Akira carefully chooses the box she knows to contain ‘toys’, as they will rattle but not break, and proceeds to drop it on a corner. “«Fuck!»” she exclaims, and the ruse works. Neko lurches upright, looking around and grabbing the steering wheel for support as she is unable to get her legs off the dash fast enough. Their eyes lock for the fraction of a second necessary, followed by a tiny but telltale twitch in Neko’s expression of alarm. It’s some sort of stimulant, could be MDMA. Akira allows herself to visibly relax as she picks up the box and peers inside, while Hanako’s genuinely horrified expression turns to relief only once the flaps are locked together and the box set in place. “I’m trying to hurry, before Lils dies of boredom.”
        Neko snorts. “Are you fucking shitting me? She was on her phone before we got ten meters away.”
        “Are you now adding clairvoyance to your claimed list of superpowers?” Akira asks skeptically, while she continues to pass boxes to Hanako for final stacking. “You never looked back.”
        “I didn’t need to, I could hear it. I could tell you how deep into her contact list she went as well, except we got out of range too soon. Even my rabbit ears can’t get around the noise floor – but if you doubt me, ask her yourself. She didn’t choose the first or second entries.”
        “I don’t need to ask her,” Akira sighs as she waggles her thumb between herself and Hanako. “We’re the first two entries.”
        “Well, there you go then.” Neko covers her mouth with the short arm as she yawns. “Bloody hell, I’m going to need something stronger than coffee and greenies to get through the rest of today and tomorrow.”
        “G-greenies?” Hanako asks as she stacks the last box of the load and carefully jumps out of the truck.
        Neko waits until Akira closes and latches the roller door before responding. “Ephedra pills. You know, the ones you can get at the convenience store, that Suzu eats like candy? We get them by the pallet, just for her, so I pinched a bottle.”
        It’s Akira’s turn to snort. “You must not have a tolerance built up. They haven’t hit me hard in years.”
        “Too right, I don’t generally care for them. It’s one thing for something to keep me moving, but something else entirely if it won’t let me hold still. I should have only taken one when you signed me up for this adventure, not two.” Neko holds out her hand as the passengers re-embark, revealing a mild tremor. “The real reason I’m dodging lifting duties is that I could easily bugger my back again and not know until tomorrow morning, at which point it would constitute a major crisis.”
        “A-again?” Hanako asks with concern as they begin the drive back to the dorm.
        “Remember when I went arse over teakettle while bowling?”
        “Oh, y-yeah.”
        “I haven’t bowled since. I will give it another go, but not until I can risk a few days of downtime should I suffer the same fate again.”
        When they return, Lilly is occupying her time by talking with Tadao, only it’s face to face.
        Akira hopes Neko can interpret basic charades, first pointing at Tadao, and then holding up three fingers. You were right, he’s the third person on her list.
        “I suppose I should let you get back to moving,” he says as he hears the cart roll up, and presumably spots the silhouette against the sky.
        “Well you needn’t go alone,” Akira answers. “We’ll ring when we need you, Lils. It should be at least twenty minutes, likely more. Perhaps a lot more. The load after this involves furniture, no?” She turns toward Neko.
        “That would be the one after next. Last in, first out, right? I’ll notify Suzu that she’s on deck.”

CONTINUED NEXT POST
Last edited by NekoDude on Wed Jan 16, 2019 4:37 am, edited 1 time in total.
Art is never finished, only abandoned.
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Re: "Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 23b (20180723)

Post by NekoDude » Wed Aug 15, 2018 1:47 pm

Chapter 23 Continued...

        When Suzu’s phone rings, Abe knows better than to ignore it. The Pink Panther ringtone tells him all he needs to know – that if he doesn’t answer, his phone will ring next. “Hello?”
        “She crashed, aye,” Neko’s voice responds with more than a trace of annoyance.
        “Indeed. I could wake her if absolutely necessary, but I wouldn’t expect her to be very useful.”
        “That’s up to you, but this is your wake-up call. Someone – I reckon that would be you – needs to pick up a hand cart so it doesn’t get ‘claimed’. Then you have perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes to prepare what you want to ship back to the house today.”
        “Let me get dressed.”
        Neko snickers loudly. “You’re not dressed? «I think I’ll have a heart attack and die of not-surprise!»”
        “You’re one to talk.”
        “I don’t have a habit of passing out after – or during. No matter, it’s your responsibility now. Meet us in front of the building.”
        Fair enough, I did complain to you about it the other day. By the time he dresses and makes the walk out, the electric cart is already loaded and secured.
        “It took you long enough,” Neko jibes.
        Abe takes a look at the hand cart. “I don’t really need that. It won’t even fit through the door, so I don’t see how it’s going to be of any assistance.”
        “Just secure it,” Neko responds, “so it doesn’t get borrowed.”
        Akira puts up a hand. “No need, we’ll just put it on the truck after this load. There is no sense in having to move it out of the way when we unload at your house.” She folds the handle and tips the cart onto its side, locking eyes with Hanako. “Help me put it in front of the boxes. We’ll have to hold it going down the hill.”
        “It looks like you’re off the hook,” Neko says to him with a wave of the invisible hand. “You can see how big our transport is, and you get one load with it. The last one is mine.” Once the hand cart is something resembling secured, and all riders in place, she gives him a wave of the visible hand before setting off for the parking area at the base of the hill.

***

        “I have never had an issue with our fellow investors popping in for a visit,” Sally says haughtily into the phone pinned to her ear. “It’s some of them who seem to think it’s a problem.”
        “Right, well, we’re not going to stay,” Neko replies with an apologetic tone. “I had an opportunity to move some of tomorrow’s work into today, and jumped at it. We’ve got most of Suzu’s books, clothing, and stuffed animals, three bicycles, and the rollaway bed. That leaves dismantling the bed and bicycle rack and moving the appliances for tomorrow.”
        “I’m sure Jōji will appreciate the gesture. Does he need to research how to disassemble a waterbed?”
        “Not particularly, just bring the tools and we can show him if there is any confusion. He might want to take pictures so he can remember how to put it back together, but that’s a different matter.”
        “How long will you be?”
        There is quiet murmuring to be heard as Neko lowers her phone and discusses the matter. When she returns, she has her answer. “Inside of ten minutes, unless something goes sideways.”
        “Right, I’ll take care of the details over here. See you soon.” The call concludes. Sally lays the handset on the desk behind her as she continues to gaze out the window. She has a direct view of the front gate, only occasionally interrupted by workers and/or horses going past.
        When the truck rolls up the drive several minutes later, Junpei responds at a moderate jog, with four dogs happy to run at the ends of their leashes in front of him. Even if he didn’t want to move that fast, they aren’t giving him much of a choice in the matter. She watches as he uses them as a living barrier while speaking with the driver. Finally he steps into the guard shack and gets onto the intercom.
        Sally allows it to buzz three times and start dialing phones. She answers about a minute later when it finally gets around to the land line. “What is it, Junpei?”
        “Uh, your daughter says she’s here to make a delivery, but nobody told me about it. I told her I’d have to get approval. She’s not happy.”
        “Approval granted. Restrain the dogs and let them in.” You’re not going to receive a more obvious hint that I’m watching.
The moment the truck is able to swing around and back up to the house, Neko hits the ground running and heads straight for the office. “I thought you were going to take care of the details,” she says with considerable annoyance.
        “I did,” Sally says with a gesture toward the window. “The details were to let Junpei make his own decisions while I watched from a safe distance. That went exactly according to plan, and I’m pleased to say that he passed that test. He is failing the second one, however.” She points toward where he stands beside the gate, unsure of what to do next. “Tell him to pull his thumb out of his arse and unload the truck. I’ll send someone around to assist him.”

***

        “We don’t h-have to wait in the queue,” Hanako half-whispers.
        Akira nods. “I know, but I want to see how they’re treating the clientele, not how they roll out the red carpet for us.”
        It takes nearly ten minutes to make it to the corner of the building, where they can watch the bouncer doing his job of asking for identification and then applying a Tyvek wristband to each person entering. That seems logical, but sometimes he doesn’t bother to ask. Finally they make it to the front of the queue, and Akira already has her identification in hand. The bouncer glances at it, then turns his attention to Hanako, who rapidly becomes uncomfortable with his inspection.
        “Can I see some proof of age, please?” the tall, thin man dressed in black asks. “Or are you here only for the dining?”
        Akira nudges Hanako gently with an elbow. “Give the man what he desires,” she says. “I’m getting cold.”
        Hanako fumbles with her small handbag, taking great care to conceal the fact that she has two such cards and needs to distinguish between them. Finally she retrieves the one that dates her two years older than she actually is, and hands it over.
        The bouncer looks at this one more closely than the last.
        Oh fuck, does he know it’s a forgery? She shuffles her feet nervously for a second before swallowing back her apprehension, and closes her eyes until she feels the card being rapped against her knuckles.
        “You want this back, don’t you?” he says with a broad grin. Once she accepts the card, he holds out a red wristband torn from a large sheet. “Right hand, please.” He applies the wristband and smooths over the adhesive to ensure that it will fall apart if removed. A glance reveals that Akira has been given the same red wristband. “I presume you ladies would prefer to go upstairs?”
        “I suppose we can start there,” Akira replies, “but we’d like to get a look at the whole place before the night is out. We haven’t seen it fully furnished and decorated.”
        It’s the bouncer’s turn to look concerned, as he pulls a list from his pocket. “What was your name again? I have to admit I wasn’t looking that closely at the name, just the date of birth.”
        “Satou. Akira Satou.” This causes Hanako to snicker, as she recognizes the James Bond delivery.
        The bouncer checks his list. “In that case, you definitely want to go upstairs. That’s where the other investors will be gathered. Have a nice evening!” He steps aside to let them in and turns his attention back to the queue.
        Akira leads the way. “Let’s have that little walkthrough up front, just in case, shall we?” Once inside, they step away from the staircase to the left and enter the main dining area where they are greeted by an elegantly dressed woman.
        “Two?” the woman asks them.
        “Oh, no, we don’t wish to be seated,” Akira says apologetically. “We just want a glimpse of the restaurant before we head upstairs. We haven’t seen it since last weekend.”
        The woman gives a smile and a hybrid nod and bow, waving them to pass inside.
        It takes a moment for Hanako’s eyes to adjust to the much more dimly lit interior, so she comes to a halt, recalling there is a downward step somewhere. She grabs Akira’s wrist just in time to stop her from tripping over the same.
        “Huh?” Akira can barely be understood over the murmur of diners and thumping bass coming from above, but she realizes her near mistake before Hanako can answer. “Thanks for the save. They’re missing a marker light.”
        “N-not ‘they’. We.
        Akira nods and leans in close so she can be heard. “You are correct. We’ll tell the hostess.” She nods in satisfaction at the way things appear to be going at present. “Aside from that, I’m impressed. It looks nice.”
        How can you tell in the dark? Or maybe that’s the point? “S-smells good too.”
        When Akira reports the missing embedded lighting, the hostess sighs. “We’ll fix it before tomorrow. Again. Could you kindly hold everyone for a moment?” She grabs a temporary barrier used to guide queues and sets off to mark the hazard.
        Akira chuckles. “Can you believe that? She left us in charge.”
        “I d-don’t mind.”
        “Neither do I, really.” A forty-ish couple enters, and Akira flashes them a smile.
        The man speaks first. “Are you waiting to be seated?”
        “Yes,” Akira improvises. “The hostess went to check on table availability.”
        He barely has time to nod before the hostess returns, slightly winded.
        “Thank you,” the hostess says, accompanying it with a small but seemingly genuine bow.
        Akira returns the gesture. “We’re all in this together.” She uses a tilt of the head to indicate she wishes to continue to the balcony.

Continued next post
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Re: "Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 23c (20180916)

Post by NekoDude » Sun Sep 16, 2018 9:57 pm

Chapter 23 conclusion

        Mariko easily senses the two figures approaching from their effect on the blaring dance music. Reflections mean they’re approaching from the front and I can separate them by the phase shift, nulls mean they’re coming from the back and I can’t. She gently pats Kenta’s knee to let him know she’ll field this. “Oh, hello,” she bluffs, hoping to be loud enough to be heard over the music, but not enough to come across as posturing.
        “So you can do that too?” It’s Akira. “I’ve seen your brother do that a few times now. It seems very useful.”
        The music is much too loud to allow for subtlety, and Mariko is in no mood to shout about the uses of passive sonar, so she smiles, gives a grateful bow for the compliment, and within a second, Akira breaks the imminent impasse.
        “I was –” she begins before coughing twice, promptly getting caught up in a feedback loop of coughing that has her bent over before she can catch her breath. “I was just thinking maybe we need to find a seat,” she mumbles weakly.
        Some wordless exchange takes place between Akira and the other figure. You know I can see you and you still do that. You must not mind that I know.
        Hanako takes the reins, hesitantly as usual. “I-is there a s-section for us?”
        Kenta can be felt, rather than heard, to laugh before speaking. “For same-sex couples? The entire balcony. Or did you mean for stakeholders? I don’t know, we seem to be unfashionably early. Maybe it will form ad hoc – probably near the food, for which we are also early.”
        When will the food be here? How late, exactly, is fashionable?
        “W-we would assume the same, thank you.” This might or might not have been accompanied by a bow, and the couple leaves to seek a place to rest and regroup.
        Kenta kisses her on the cheek and attempts to whisper in her ear. Specifically, he succeeds at conveying his message, but fails to whisper in the process. “You still surprise me. Every day. You knew there were two people coming toward us.”
        “Not exactly, but I knew there were at least two, and that the way the one on my left trailed the one on the right yet wasn’t screened meant it was most likely a couple. Did you catch what was wrong with her?” Both visually and biologically.
        “No, I fear epidemiology is not one of my strong points. You probably heard as much as I did, if not more, about the cause. I wouldn’t recommend crawling on the floor any time soon, but then I wouldn’t advise that in general, either.”
        “Darling,” Mariko asks with excessive charm, “could you, y’know, be a little bit less of an attorney?” I know it’s what you do, but right now I need a minder, not a lawyer.
        “Sorry. It’s how I roll.”
        “I know, and you do it well.” But I’m the one rolling, you’re supposed to have my back. “The Blind Radio Users Group proposal demonstrates it.”
        “Hey, they make it hard to start a club but easy to start a group within a club. It would be foolish not to take advantage, although you will have to make at least one meeting about radio.”
        Mariko laughs. “That won’t be difficult, Tadao is already preparing his mini-lecture on how the speech add-on works.”
        Kenta laughs as well as he backs away to a more normal speaking distance. “I fully believe it. Are you getting a general vibe? Because I’m not. There’s the club crowd, and there’s the dining crowd, and they don’t interact much. It’s tough to tell which way things would go if they did. Oh there’s a welcome sight, guys are setting up a table and catering trays in the corner. Well, not the trays yet, just the warmers, but I would have to assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire – or rather, where there’s fire, there’s hot food.”
        Mariko senses a pulse in the mood – anger, even hostility, which seems at odds with anything she had felt up until that point. “Who just came up the stairs?” she asks.
        “The Shanghai people, with their trays. Why do…” He pauses as Mariko gently grasps his wrist. “Ooh, yeah, even I just felt that.” Kenta bobs and weaves to see through traffic. “I can’t see anyone who looks the part. Wait, I think the problem is coming to us.”
        Two are approaching, one almost directly in front of the other. I can only track the second person this well because he or she is taller than the one out front. The aura of swarming bees surrounds the one out front. Before Mariko can come up with an action plan, Kenta has given her a squeeze on the knee. He’ll field this one.
        “Evening, Neko. Are you doing alright?”
        “Hardly.” The second figure has also arrived. “He’s making me do this.”
        “And as soon as we can «do the necessary»,” Hisao answers, “we can be gone. You’d make you do this, on any other day. «Harden the fuck up.» Look, you blow off some steam, I’ll go help unload the car so we can get out of here faster.”
        Mariko can sense both the air currents and the soundscape change as Neko takes a seat to her left. “Yeah, alright.” She blazes in non-specific fury.
        “What’s gotten under your skin?” Mariko inquires delicately. “Are you cross with him?”
        “«Yeah, nah.»” Neko answers paradoxically. “I mean yeah, I’m mad at him for dragging me along, but he’s also right, I needed to show up. It’s not his fault that I crashed and burned a few hours too soon. I fucked up, but it’s easier to pin the blame on him.” She laughs nervously. “He gets it, I think. I’m not drinking tonight, that’s the last thing I need, but don’t let me stop you.”
        Kenta laughs. “My bro is a dick sometimes. He black-banded both of us, and Yuuko is enforcing it from her little throne.”
        “He was following policy, and that is his job. Hers too. Hisao!”
        “Yeah?” he responds as he separates from foot traffic in front of them.
        “You have the event staff wristband, right?” she asks him. “In case I get challenged?”
        “Yeah, but a minute ago, you wanted to get out of here as fast as possible.”
        “I still do, but there is no sense in pissing away an all access, open bar pass. Here, it’s for you-and-one.” Neko is reaching across in front of her, and Kenta’s hands rise to respond.
        “You’re not going to stay long enough to eat?” he asks, as he fidgets with something.
        “We’ve been sampling liberally through the cooking process. I’m full of slightly undercooked mushroom risotto. Put it on her, it’s probably not going to fit you.”
        Kenta’s fingers close around Mariko’s hand, compressing it. “Slide your hand through, if you can.”
        After a bit of tugging, Mariko finds that she can. “What is this?”
        “The key to the castle,” Neko bubbles with false cheer. “You are now officially me, so have fun with it. I wouldn’t have. I’m still one step from a faceplant, so it’s time to say the rest of my hello-goodbyes.” She slides out of the booth. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
        Kenta waits a few seconds to offer his reply as he tears off Mariko’s original wristband. “I’m not sure what that is meant to exclude.”
        She needs us to drink on her tab to provide the alibi that she was here, instead of curled up in a blanket, strung out. It’s hard work, but I’ll do it.
        “Minefield ahead,” she hears Kenta mutter in her ear.
        Mariko jumps slightly in astonishment. “Did I just say that out loud?”
        “Say what out loud?” His voice clearly indicates that he is not within muttering distance. “I’m going to get us a plate now, unless you’d like to come along, that is.”
        “Someone has to hold the booth.” Mariko has no idea how many vacant booths remain.
        “Only if we want to keep this specific one all to ourselves – but I kinda do, it’s a good lookout point. I’ll be back in a few minutes, then.”
        Mariko leans back into the booth seat, bobbing gently to the music while monitoring carefully for anyone approaching. Several people or groups pass near enough to be tracked, but the only one to do more than step out of traffic momentarily comes from exactly the same direction Kenta left. She turns her face to the approaching entity and prepares to smile as required, but relaxes into a genuine smile when she hears plates being set down.
        “Did you miss me?” Kenta asks. “They were looking at me cross, so I said ‘When the boss shows up, do you want him to think people like his food or not?’ They must think I’m a pig. I had to pout to get that second shrimp. How are you holding up?”
        Mariko nods rhythmically, at first in time with the music and then not. “It’s… good to this point. What have you chosen?”
        “Wasn’t much to choose, more of a take it or leave it. They said the more delicate dishes didn’t have the shelf life to justify making them right now. I guess we can go back later, when the good shit shows up.”
        “Can I look?”
        “Yeah, give me a second.” Kenta can be heard shuffling the contents of the table. “Now you can look.”
        Mariko extends a hand, locating an inverted soft drink cup as her landmark. She can expect to find main dishes to the left of this, and condiments to the right. “How many?”
        “One big plate, one small plate with tempura dangling off of it.”
        She waves in the air. “So the big plate is here?”
        “Yeah. It’s risotto from three to nine, and a penne marinara on the other half. Then there’s the little plate with the tempura. I told you there wasn’t much. I put the sauce in a miso bowl.”
        “Did they look at you cross over that?”
        “Nah, I think I’d won that argument already. I said it was much easier to juggle than a shallow dish, even though he didn’t seem to care. I take the lack of carrying trays to be a deliberate design choice. They want everyone to get their own plates, so we might have to go back together later. Here.”
        The smell of fried sweet potato registers before she has a chance to ask, so she opens her mouth and receives the correct reward. I didn’t express a preference, so he just guessed. Correctly. She starts nodding again, once again starting in time with the music, but drifting out of phase. If there’s any difference I could use to form an image, I can’t hear it, at least not through earplugs. After taking care not to eat too quickly – she is hungrier than she realized – she waves a finger toward where the tempura should be. “Is there an onion in there?”
        “Yeah, yeah. Uh, two o’clock on the little plate.”
        Although her aim is pretty good, she takes a little chance to explore. Not that much more tempura remains. Three, maybe four vegetable pieces, but two large shrimp. Yeah, he scored. She locates the onion and hunts down the miso bowl simultaneously, then passes the onion ring from left to right for dipping. Oh my, is that good. Really good, she thinks as she flicks a drop of sauce from her chin with a finger before it has a chance to run down her neck. “I don’t remember them being this good.”
        “I think the secret is in the sauce, and that’s why they didn’t want me absconding with a bucketload of it.”
        Spinning the remaining bit around so that she is leading with the part she didn’t bite, Mariko dips again and takes the remainder in one bite. As soon as she can speak without her mouth full, she answers, “No, it’s just really good,” while gesturing toward the small plate.
        “Mmm, enjoy it then I suppose. It tastes like it always does to me, which is certainly not bad, but not exactly a sublime experience either. Given the circumstances, you take both of the shrimp. I know it’ll be pretty good, but if you’re in a state to enjoy it more than me… go for it.” He nudges her with his knee. “It’ll be my turn some time.”

        Yuuko glances at her watch to see there are still 45 minutes remaining until she can take her next dose, and groans. Working is painful and of questionable utility right now, but I need the money. No more library job after this month. Looking up, her worries change abruptly. Oh shit, here she comes. “Trouble?” she asks, half-shouting to be heard at all.
        Neko ducks under the swinging flap of the bar, shaking her head as she comes up. “Not for you, although I’ve got plenty to share if you want some.” After pausing with a raised eyebrow, she continues. “I didn’t think so.” She hooks her thumb over her shoulder toward Mariko’s booth. “To make a long story short, she’s me tonight.” She then holds out her arm to emphasize her lack of credentials. “It’s real, the tab will work just fine. Why are you even bothering, if I may ask?”
        “Accounting purposes – we need to know what proportion of our drinks are actually sold. To that end, we have to know what kind of tabs everyone runs up, even if they aren’t being paid. It’s also a painless way to dry run the system. Or as painless as anything can be, right now.” It may not be so painless when we cut off the biggest ‘spenders’.
        “The barcode thing?”
        “Yeah. I got the idea in the library, of course. All the books have barcodes inside the cover, so I scan that, and the computer tells me where it goes. I figured it could just as easily tell us who you are. Ben, as always, said we could do it if it was ‘revenue-positive’, so I’m trying to show that it will be.” Yuuko momentarily sits up straight to shout at one of the associate bartenders. “That’s Italian brandy! You can’t make a French Connection with that!” She wields a laser pointer to lead the associate to the correct bottle, then suddenly reverts to her normal awkwardness as she continues. “So… welcome to my experiment?” A wince of pain follows, as her change in posture shakes the cot-like support holding her casted leg.
        “I support your experiment, whatever the result may be. I’ve demonstrated a weakness in the system, but at least I’m not buggering your important data. I see you have actual work to do.” Neko leads with her eyes toward the associate bartenders. Leaning in close, she adds, “And call me if you can’t deal with the pain.”
        “Ben already offered to hook me up, but thanks anyhow.”
        Neko nods, then ducks back under the bar, traveling through traffic with a manner and pace that makes Yuuko wince, once changing her direction of travel ninety degrees from directly ahead to right in a single springing step. Even when I can do that again, I don’t want to. Things seldom go well when I rush.

***

        Sure enough, the barcode on the wristband literally acts as a key. Kenta holds the door to the chill-out room with one hand, and leads Mariko with the other. He can see stacked catering trays in a far corner, waiting to be washed after hours when the restaurant patrons have gone home.
        “Much better,” he says with genuine relief once the door is closed behind them. The reduction in noise is immediately met with a reduction in Mariko’s shivering. “Don’t you agree?”
        Mariko doesn’t answer as she stands with her eyes uncharacteristically open, with a distinct thousand-yard stare. She draws a deep breath, then nods. “Sit?”
        “Sure. I’ll have to move some coats, as this appears to be where people leave them. I kinda need both hands, so you’ll be alright without me for half a minute?”
        She resists his attempt to let go of her hand, so he leads her to the sofa, shoving all of the coats to one side so she can sit immediately. This finally prompts her to let go of his hand, and he wraps the bundle of coats in his arms and deposits them over the back of a recliner. As quietly as he can, he retrieves his phone from his pocket and sends a message to his brother. ‘It’s time to go, but she’s not in walking condition.’ He takes a seat next to Mariko, occupying the space he just cleared of coats, and she immediately clutches onto his left hand with both of hers. At least she’s not shivering.
        Minutes pass in this state, until finally the phone lights up with a response. ‘You dd? Take the car for an hour.’
        I’m sober enough to drive, I stopped after two in the first hour. Kenta chooses to omit this irrelevant detail from his response. ‘I could, but she’s spinning out. I shouldn’t leave her alone.’ He glances over to see if Mariko is interested in his activity, but she continues to blindly gaze into space. He follows it up with another message as soon as he can punch it in. ‘We found the chill-out room.’
        He can feel the unwritten sigh at the beginning of Kaz’s response. ‘It’s under control? We can drive her back after closing.’ This one is also a two-parter. ‘Tell me if you make other arrangements.’
        It’s only 12:45, and the place closes at 3. “Babe, it looks like we’re going to be here a while. At least it’s quiet.” By way of response, Mariko finally closes her eyes, curls up into a ball, and tips over. She nestles and twists her head in his lap as if she were an enormous cat. Aw shit. I have to pee.
        The agonizing impasse is broken by an unsolicited message from Kaz about five minutes later. ‘I found a ride home, come get the keys.’
Last edited by NekoDude on Wed Jan 16, 2019 5:01 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: "Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 24a (20181015)

Post by NekoDude » Mon Oct 15, 2018 6:51 pm

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

2008-03-22

        “I hate doing this to you,” Hisao explains as he tickles Neko’s foot, “but it takes over an hour to drain the bed. That means I need to start now.”
        “Boo, hiss,” she grumbles, pulling her foot away from his fingertips and clutching tighter to the pillow in her arms. “What time is it?”
        “Let’s just say you would already be an hour late for class.”
        “They already know I have to pack out, so my absence is expected.”
        “I know,” Hisao says with a sigh, “I was there when you announced it. I still have to evict you from the bed. It will take me a few minutes to borrow a hose from maintenance, but I expect you’ll be out of bed and dressed by the time I get back.” To drive the point home, he reaches under the headboard and unplugs the mattress heater.
        “You totally suck.”
        Hisao speaks quietly, but makes no attempt to hide his severely annoyed state. “Don’t try to pin this on me again. I let you whine and complain last night because it kept you moving, but I’m not putting up with it today. If you can’t be helpful, at least try to stay out of the way.” Is it going to be like this for the next week as well? We may welcome a break from each other. He pulls on a suitably warm coat and heads out into the chilly, misty morning air.

***

        When Kenta wakes up, his first stop is the restroom, where he sees the writing on the wall – or at least the mirror, which reads ‘She’s trouble’ in fifteen centimeter high characters. Swallowing back his reflexive anger, he reminds himself that it took Kaz a lot longer than it took him to accept that their parents were closet hippies. It should come as no surprise that they’re having a similar difference of opinion regarding his girlfriend. He wipes the message away so that he doesn’t have to see it again, and to acknowledge receiving it.
        Although he dreads the inevitable encounter to come, he may as well get it over with. It’s better than having it hang awkwardly in the air once Mariko is awake. He finds Kaz cooking fake bacon. Perfect, he’s preoccupied. Time to go on the attack.
        “Bro,” he leads, “I know you’re trying to watch my back, but you’re wrong on this one. We were acting on medical advice.”
        “Doctors generally don’t prescribe getting completely blotto in public.” Kaz keeps his voice low, but the bitterness is clear. “I’m not buying it.”
        “That was, ah… a miscalculation. The dose, that is, not the public part which was absolutely essential. She can’t work out her social anxieties by avoiding crowds. She has to seek them out.” And I intend to have a little discussion with Neko about that dose. “It was going rather well, until it went too far. In the future, we’ll have a more detailed exit strategy.”
        “How about ‘stop drinking while you can still walk’? How’s that for a strategy?”
        “She wasn’t drunk. Or maybe she was a little bit, and it was masked by the MDMA. She didn’t act drunk, that’s for sure. She just started to complain about the sound choking her, and within a matter of minutes she’d gone into full lockup. Once I had led her out of there and into a quiet space, and she finally began to come out of her shell, I wasn’t going to drag her back through it. That’s why you had to have the keys delivered to me, and we slipped out the back.”
        “You bought rolls at the club?” Kaz asks accusingly.
        “Gods no! Who knows what’s in street pills?” Besides, she didn’t want to snort a crushed pill, or even half of one.
        “Then who hooked her up?”
        “School psychiatrist. She couldn’t actually prescribe it for use outside a controlled clinical setting, but she did tell Mariko who to talk to.” As if we didn’t already know. “We were going to wait another week, but couldn’t pass up last night’s opportunity.”
        “Is this source someone I know or would recognize? Should I be on the lookout from now on, or should I be looking the other way?”
        “Yes,” Kenta admits, “and the latter of those two options, although you won’t have to worry about her much longer. I’m sure someone has been appointed to replace her, but I haven’t yet heard who.”
        “So are you actually going to tell me, or do I have to guess?” Kaz scoops the facon out of the pan and onto a paper plate. It doesn’t even curl up like proper bacon.
        “She got you the job.”
        “You mean…” Kaz goes through various charades. Short. Round. Short arm. Huge tracts of land.
        Kenta nods solemnly.
        “You’re telling me she’s a fucking drug dealer? And that school officials know this?”
        “Well, she was. She’s leaving in a week or two. As I mentioned, I am not privy to the identity of her successor.”
        Mariko groggily steps into the kitchen, guiding herself with a hand along the wall. “I am,” she says before yawning. “I wish it was someone I like, even a little bit, but hey.”
        “Did we wake you?” Kenta asks.
        “I was trying to be quiet,” Kaz says over him.
        “No,” Mariko says, yawning again. “The smell did.”
        “You like fake bacon too?” Kenta asks with theatric exasperation.
        “Pfft, no. That’s why it woke me up. It’s just wrong.
        “Kaz can make real bacon smell wrong too,” Kenta jibes.
        “I don’t like all the fat of real bacon,” Kaz objects, “and don’t eat it. I will eat all of this. That’s a better value, don’t you think?”
        “I favor quality over quantity.”
        “That’s what she said,” Kaz snaps back, before realizing that she is not metaphorical, but physically present. “Sorry, I didn’t mean you,” he directs to Mariko, “it’s just a thing we say.”
        “I know. My brother does too,” Mariko concedes, “and it sounds equally vapid.”
        “So how are you feeling this morning?” Kenta asks, hoping to deflect from the last exchange.
        “Remember when Neko crashed the bike at the beach?”
        Kenta nods out of habit, even though he is well aware that she can’t detect it. “Of course I do – quite vividly, unfortunately.”
        “I feel a little like I did the day after that. My whole body hurts, but only when I move.”
        “Mmm, I’m not surprised. You were pretty tense at various points last night. Vibrating, even.”
        “I remember, sort of.” Mariko’s head bobs back and forth. “It was going so well, until the thump caught up with me. I don’t know why it was too much then, but not earlier.”
        “Because they crank it the moment the restaurant closes,” Kaz replies with a mouthful of fake bacon, which he quickly finishes chewing and swallows. “Otherwise, people stop dancing. When they stop dancing, they mostly stop drinking. Occupying space while not spending money is worse than if they weren’t there at all.” He glances at Mariko, then puts a finger in the air. “Wait a minute, I’ve got just the thing.” Retrieving a bottle of sports drink from the refrigerator, he tosses it to Kenta who in turn hands it to Mariko. “That should help a little bit with tight muscles.”
        “And with a hangover,” Kenta adds, “if that is part of the problem.”
        “I don’t think so,” Mariko answers after a moment’s thought. “I was never drunk. At least I didn’t think I was.” She opens the bottle and chugs almost half of it immediately. “I was starting to believe they were sending me virgin drinks.”
        “They weren’t. I tasted them.”
        “This is why it’s hazardous to mix stimulants and alcohol,” Kaz says with a lecturing tone. “I’ve seen cases of alcohol poisoning where the victim is unaware right up to the moment they pass out. Luckily, there’s an Urgent Care facility less than a block from the club. Nobody has ever died from this, at least not under my watch. They do get some weapons grade hangovers, though.”
        “It would have been nice if Doctor Nishimori had mentioned that,” Mariko grumbles, holding out an empty bottle which Kenta takes. “I hereby claim the entire bed, now that you have vacated it.”
        You usually don’t wait. “If that’s what you need. When do you want me to wake you up?”
        “In time to make it to class would be nice.”
        Kaz laughs. “So… about three hours ago, then?”
        “Great,” Mariko moans, “I can expect the Spanish Inquisition from Tadao.”
        “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise!” Kenta corpses his own joke, unable to resist laughing. “Doesn’t he know what you’re doing, and why?”
        “In principle, but I don’t know if I mentioned the change of plan.”
        “Are you regretting that change?”
        Mariko sighs. “I don’t know yet. Ask again in a few days, after it catches up to me. I did get a warning about that.” Her fingertips can be heard brushing the wall as she leaves.
        As Kenta browses the refrigerator, he asks, “So who gave you a lift after work?”
        “Adidas,” Kaz snarks. “I walked. I used to do it when I’d go drinking, before they decided I might as well work there. What I forgot was that the drinking also kept me warm for those walks. Winter was working overtime last night, while spring is sleeping in.”
        “I’m sorry about that. If I’d have known, I would have picked you up. You said you had a ride.”
        “I thought I did, but he got released an hour early in exchange for giving the broken bird a lift home.”
        “Yuuko?” Kenta waits for and receives a confirmatory nod. “I was quite surprised to see her there at all, let alone behind the bar. Is she on duty again tonight?”
        “I would assume so. We’re expecting a crowd similar to last night, so running only one bar would be quite limiting. I’m sure Ben will send her home as soon as he can get by without her.”
        Kenta frowns at the selection of quick foods available. Everything requires more effort than he feels like expending, until he sees that there is a fresh pack of hot dogs. There are no buns, but there is a loaf of bread. Microwave hot dogs will do.

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Re: "Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 24b (20181116)

Post by NekoDude » Fri Nov 16, 2018 6:18 am

Chapter 24 - Conclusion

        “It’s fine, really,” Hisao says. “I might as well do it, since there is only one set of tools.”
        “I can at least haul away the pieces once you’ve removed them,” Jōji offers, “and load them into the car.”
        “Or you could take that apart,” a nightgown-clad Neko suggests from her seat atop the writing desk, pointing at the bicycle rack with the invisible hand while she sips coffee with the visible one. “It doesn’t require tools unless you need to completely dismantle it.”
        Hisao shrugs at Jōji. “No huge rush. As long as we’re out of here today, we’re golden.”
        “The safe and refrigerator are going to Abe’s room,” Neko points out, “so they can stay where they are for now.”
        “I’m supposed to retrieve the contents of the safe,” Jōji says apologetically, “since he won’t need them. How much of a hazard is that going to be?”
        Neko hops down from the desk, then walks on her knees to the safe before sitting on the floor to enter the combination. “See for yourself.” She swings the door open and scoots out of the way. The scent of cannabis quickly follows.
        “I’m gonna need a bigger, better bag. Let’s do that next trip.”
        Neko shrugs. “As you wish.” She taps at the keypad. “I just changed the combination to the current gate code.”
        “Why?” Hisao asks.
        “So he doesn’t need me to open it later, of course.” She swings the door shut. “I won’t be here.”
        “What.”
        “I’ll be going up to the ranch with the first load – and staying there, catching up on my sleep, out of the way. Just like you asked.”
        And leave the ‘boys’ to do the heavy lifting. That was your plan all along, wasn’t it? Hisao spares a moment or three to glare at Neko, and waits until she stares back before setting to work dismantling the waterbed. Your Mum gives you a lot of shit, but sometimes you earn it, he thinks, but knows enough to keep his cakehole shut and let her beg forgiveness later.
        From her knees.
        Forty screws and twelve brackets later, he stands triumphantly on a plywood platform. The hydra has been slain. Now it just has to be chopped up and hauled away. He wipes his brow theatrically with the back of his arm, cordless drill still in hand, and nods at Jōji. “She’s yours now, brother.” He carefully straddles the line of support the pedestal provides beneath the plywood, then shifts his balance to tip the outer edge to the ground, sliding down the ramp and tearing a small chip out of the board. “Oops.” I’m not worrying about trivial shit nobody will ever see. Not today.
        When his sliding foot reaches the ground, Hisao reacts too slowly. This causes him to stumble, and the moment he lifts his back foot from the plywood, it falls back into a flat position with a considerable whoosh of air being displaced. Meanwhile, he ends up with arms and face full of occupied coat rack.
        “Eight points for style,” Neko says with a laugh, “but I can’t give you any bonus for the landing.”
        “I don’t usually do skate tricks with power tools in my hands,” he answers as he sets the drill down and steps into the restroom. He makes it as far as ‘the position’ – pants down and bottom in motion toward the toilet seat – before the corners of the world collapse on the center in a wave of black and a crushing band of pain circling his head.
        Awareness returns with the feeling of a cool, wet cloth brushing his face. He opens his eyes to find a very concerned Neko kneeling over him. “How did I get on the floor?” he asks with trepidation.
        “I was hoping you could tell me,” Neko replies with an equally concerned voice, “because I didn’t see you do it. I reckon you blacked out on the loo.”
        “How long have I been lying here, then?”
        Neko shrugs. “I wasn’t keeping count.”
        “About thirty seconds,” Jōji offers from the door. “Maybe a minute, tops.”
        Hisao sits up, with only a marginal assist from Neko. “Yeah? You might wanna clear the area. I’m in danger of losing breakfast.”
        Neko scurries out of the path between him and the toilet. “Are you going to need more help?”
        “Just time. I should know better than to remain bent over at the waist for any length of time. I should have been kneeling. When I stood back up again, all the blood drained from my head, and, well, you saw the result.” He turns toward the open toilet and heaves, but nothing comes up. The second heave produces coffee, seemingly unprocessed other than the cream having curdled on exposure to stomach acid. Although he immediately feels better, it is too late to avoid the third heave, and he brings up a minor amount of protective mucus, which he has to spit repeatedly to clear.
        At the corner of his vision, a paper cup appears. When he turns to look, Neko is attempting to smile at him with tears filling the corners of her eyes. “Swish and spit, you know the drill.”
        Jōji claps his hands loudly, then rubs them together. “Executive decision! I need one of you here to direct traffic and make sure we don’t leave anything behind, and I choose you.” He points squarely at Neko. “We’ll leave the blankets and pillows for last and you can nap in the corner between runs, but if I can drag your Mum through her bad days, I can drag you through one as well. I’d greatly prefer if someone else can keep an eye on him,” he says with a flicking gesture toward Hisao, “so he’ll be the one going back to the ranch with me – or at least the one staying there, if you want to squeeze into the center seat for the trip out.”
        “How many trips is this going to take?” Hisao asks with a bit of concern.
        Jōji shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m guessing three, four maybe?”
        Neko snickers. “What did you rent, an ice cream cart?”
        Jōji shakes his head. “No rental, just Pearl, and an awful lot of blankets and ties.”
        “And the dogs?”
        Jōji employs an eyebrow shrug. “That’s up to Junpei. He’s much more convinced than I am that it’s good for their health to just let them be dogs for several hours a day. I fear they’re starting to make friends with people as a consequence.”
        “So they’re running.”
        “It means I don’t know, because they are no longer my direct responsibility.”
        Neko nods. “I’ll sit this ride out, but watch for that. I’ll be loads more helpful if I’m not preoccupied with avoiding them.” She scurries out of the way. “I’d stick around to help you up, but I wouldn’t be much use.”
        “I don’t need help up,” Hisao admits. “At this point, I’m just waiting for this to be over with so I can finish what I came in here to do.” He raps his knuckles on the closed toilet lid for emphasis.
        Jōji nods. “Ah, right.” When Neko nears the doorway, he extends a hand and helps her to stand, whispering something to her along the way. “But if you aren’t out in two minutes, I’m knocking to ask why.”
        “Fair enough. I’ll try to be quick about it.” He’s not quick enough to avoid being checked on twice, but a simple ‘I’m fine!’ response suffices in response to the knocking.
        “Next!” he declares as he finally vacates the restroom, fully buttoned up and under his own power. Jōji is nowhere to be seen, but it can be safely assumed from the diminishing pile of lumber that he is hauling a load to the truck. “So who was checking up on me?”
        Neko hooks her thumb at herself. “Who else? When Jōji says ‘make yourself useful,’ he really means ‘last chance to volunteer for something tolerable before I hand out assignments’. I didn’t break you again, did I?”
        Hisao shakes his head. “No, I’m pretty sure it was just a low blood pressure fainting spell. It’s not the first time I’ve had it happen, although it’s the first one where I’ve completely blacked out. I remember feeling vaguely like a bowl of petunias as the world closed in on me. ‘Oh no, not again.’ I knew what I had done to induce it, but it was far too late for corrections.” Apparently not too late to curl up for the fall, though.
        The door to the outside opens as Jōji returns. He nods at Hisao. “Good, you’re out! El Jefe wants to talk to you, outside.”
        “What did I do?”
        “I don’t think you did anything. I think he wants to make an offer.”
        Hisao is reassured, but confused. “What kind of offer?”
        “I dunno, why don’t you ask him?”
        With a sigh, he steps out into the late morning glare, to find that nothing has been hauled away – rather, everything has been staged on a tarpaulin outside the door. Momomoto exhales a cloud of smoke and starts speaking. Luckily, or possibly intentionally, the breeze carries it the other way.
        “I saw you packing out. Do you really have room for that big a bed in your new digs?”
        “No, but I only have to change a few parts to make a narrower version out of it. I reckoned I’d play it by ear.”
        “Mmm. How does this tune sound, then? I’ll buy it, and you could get something that fits where you’re moving.”
        So that’s why Jōji was just stacking up the parts out here. Because he had no idea what the offer was. Right. “I hadn’t anticipated this. I don’t even know exactly what it’s worth, or what a replacement will cost. I only looked up the cost of conversion.”
        “It’s on my computer right now. I’ll offer a fair price.” Momomoto crushes out his cigarette butt and beckons Hisao to join him next door.

        “How is he holding up?” Jōji asks as he holds both hands around his warm coffee mug.
        “I don’t know.” Neko stares at her toes for a few seconds, fighting tears with questionable effectiveness. “He seems fine, but that’s just it. I can’t tell if he’s being honest, lying to us, or lying to himself – and not knowing is worse than the truth, no matter how harsh.”
        “I agree.” Jōji leans against the wall as if exiled to a smoke break, even though he hasn’t had a cigarette in a year and a half. “That’s why I’m making you cover for him, because having to do this and watch him is too much for a lunkhead like me. Your Mum claims to need him, so she can make herself useful too. As for you, I want you assembled and operational by the time I get back from the first haul.”
        “How operational?” Neko holds up the short arm.
        “That part is up to you, but it would certainly be nice if you could walk. A bra wouldn’t hurt either. Or a hairbrush.”
Neko snorts. “Alright, if you insist, I’ll calm my tits. It’s not like you haven’t seen me in a bikini.”
        “But we’ll be out and about.”
        “And it’s not like they haven’t seen me in a bikini. Or like this. Whatever, I know you just want to get this move completed with as little bother as possible. So do I. We’ll do it your way.” Neko grabs her leg from under the desk and hops her way toward the restroom. Unexpectedly, the room phone rings, causing her to perform a one-legged hockey stop to reverse direction and rush to answer, tossing the leg aside along the way. “Hello?”
        “Good, you answered,” Hisao says with relief. “I didn’t think you would, and I didn’t feel like making the extra walk. I still feel woozy. Is it alright with you if I sell the radio rig to El Jefe? He’s offering a reasonable price, from what I can tell.”
        “Fine by me,” she replies, “but I don’t know why he waited so long to ask.”
        “He says he didn’t have the money. This is coming out of his pocket, not the school’s.”
        “What’s the offer?”
        “Half new for everything with an identifiable price, but he wants the antenna tuner you built thrown into the deal.”
        “Take it. That’s about what it would fetch on the open market, and almost as much as we paid for it in the first place. The antenna tuner is, well, tuned to that antenna. It would be silly to separate them.”

        Hisao returns moments later, looking and feeling considerably more lively than he did when he left, but is slightly deflated to find that Neko is in the restroom. He wanted to surprise her and had it all worked out, but now he’ll have to improvise. He also notices that the bicycle rack is gone, as is Jōji, and assumes the two must be related. He pulls up the only chair left in the room, which belongs to the school, and settles in to wait.
        Neko spots him first when she walks out. “Hey! You did well. That’s one fewer thing for any of us to worry about, except him.” She nods to imply the room on the other side of the wall.
        “Yeah, we did some searches of recent second-hand sales. Both of us were satisfied with the numbers we got back, so here we are.” He suddenly flips a well-stuffed money clip in her direction, having concealed it in his palm the entire wait. “I took the payment for the bed already, that’s yours.”
        After snatching it out of the air, Neko thumbs through the bills, then suddenly sniffs them. She pauses in thought and sniffs them again. “This is our money.”
        “Yes, it is. Don’t you have to pay back your Pops now that the gear has been sold?”
        “I will, but he has never asked me to. That’s not what I meant, though. This money was in my possession until fairly recently. It smells like the safe – green. Then I gave it back to Mum. All of a sudden, El Jefe is giving it to you. What does that say?”
        “That your Mum paid him for something?”
        “Too right. And I want to know why.” She heads directly for her phone. “Hey Mum, got a question about something business-related. Ring back when you can?”
        She must have gotten voicemail. The response comes by text.
        “Son of a…” Neko gripes. “Now I really need to know. Mind switching on my laptop? Just leave it open.”
        “Uh, sure, but you’re going to need this chair. Why?”
        “I have to use a secure channel if I want an answer.”
        “Oh.” Now I need to know too. He has to stand to watch over her shoulder as she logs into the ranch VPN and enters chat.
        ‘El Jefe is flush with cash. Your cash. Why?’ she types.
        ‘Mardy Fish’ is the cryptic response from ‘badgerbadgerbadger’.
        “I presume that’s your Mum?” Hisao asks.
        “Right. What the bloody hell is a Mardy Fish?” She also types the latter sentence verbatim.
        ‘Not what. Who.’ begins Sally’s reply. ‘Fish is a tennis player who faced a much higher ranked player yesterday, which means I had to give long odds. He won anyhow. I had the winnings delivered this morning, less a new wager.’
        ‘Really? I didn’t know that was his thing.’
        ‘Neither did I. He usually bets on football. Ah well, I’ll get some of it back today. Fish beat Nalbandian, but there’s no way he’s going to beat Federer. How did you know he had money?’
        ‘Because it was in my hand,’ Neko types. ‘He just bought our bed and our radio rig and paid cash. The scent was unmistakable.’
        ‘I warned him that I hadn’t had a chance to wash that out yet, but he said it wouldn’t matter. Now I see why. Is there anything else sensitive you wish to discuss?’
        ‘Perhaps, but it will have to wait. We have more packing to do.’

***

        “Well isn’t this just a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting?” Jōji snarks, although somewhat impressed. “Since when do the lot of you watch anything together, let alone sports?”
        “I’m very exposed here,” Sally moans. “There isn’t enough action on tennis to cover both sides at the best of times, but particularly not for a minor tournament in the States.”
        “I hate to say it,” Neko says as she turns her head to face him, “but this is kinda fun to watch. Even the commentators don’t seem to understand what is happening.”
        “What’s to understand?” Abe chips in. “The only guy I recognize is losing, badly.”
        “Dammit,” Sally mutters as another return sails wide. “Two hundred thousand was painful enough to hand over. A million is going to sting for quite a while. How’s your week going, Suzuki? Net positive?”
        Suzu’s expression says she is weighing her words carefully. “Not at the moment, but maybe by the end of the night.”
        “I can lend my cash,” Neko offers. “I know where you live,” she adds with a dramatic flair as she rises before disappearing into her bedroom momentarily. When she reappears, she flips the same money clip toward her Mum that Hisao flipped toward her hours previously. “There’s a hundred K. Work it out with Pops, it’s really his money.”
        Sally passes it immediately to Suzu. “Would you mind counting?” She turns to her daughter and smiles weakly. “No offense intended.”
        “None taken. I’d do the same.” The returned smile is equally weak.
        Suzu’s experience handling large quantities of cash is on display as she thumbs through the stack in a matter of seconds, collating the bills by denomination as she goes. “It’s all here.”
        The ink is barely dry on the results – Fish def. Federer, 6-3, 6-2 – when Sally’s phone chimes. She glances at the display and answers. “I suppose you’ve called to gloat, but you’d better be calling about business to use this line.” She plunges her hand between sofa cushions and fishes around momentarily before emerging with a notepad. “Yeah, I’m ready. Fish again, huh? Lightning can’t strike three times, can it?” She scribbles something down in her personal code. “Yeah, I’ll vouch for you. You do that.”
        “Do what?” Neko asks once the call is complete.
        “Run a tab at the club tonight, just him and ‘fifty of his gayest friends’ – his words, not mine. Hey, you know how to reassemble the bed he just bought, right?”
        “In theory, yes.” Neko glances at her short arm. “I’m not so sure about practice. I’m still not that right with Crabby, and may never be.”
        “Don’t worry, love. You’re his third hand and instruction manual.” Sally wags a finger between Neko and Jōji. “It looks like you have one more trip to make to the campus tonight, and you’d best fill it with warm water. He expects to put it to the test when he gets back.”

***

        Neko rolls into her bed in her usual manner, causing the water inside to jostle Hisao around. “I am going to sleep like the dead tonight.”
        “Does that make this necrophilia?” he asks as he gives her a hello squeeze. “Sure doesn’t feel like it.”
        “If I go cold, worry. Otherwise, don’t.”
        Hisao switches to whispering into Neko’s ear, aware that although the camera in the television is covered, the microphone is still functional, and probably being recorded. “El Jefe paid a hundred and forty thousand for the radio rig. You only gave your Mum a hundred K.”
        Neko nods and whispers back. “Correct. I needed to retain some to give to you. You know, to cover expenses on things I may ask you to do back here while I’m away. I wouldn’t feel right asking you to front your own money and do me a favor with it. I reckon I will think of something between now and August.”
        Delicate matters dealt with, Hisao no longer feels compelled to whisper. “My mother still half believes I won’t come back from Australia. Father says he thinks I’m smarter than that, but he doesn’t sound entirely convinced either.”
        “Maybe we’ll end up there together some day, but not so soon. We both have things we need to do in our separate places. A little time apart is probably a good thing. It gives us each a chance to survey the scene from somewhere other than the center.”
        “You’re saying you wouldn’t let me stay?”
        “The only place I could even make that call is at the ranch back of beyond, and I don’t want to live there longer than I have to. Once I’m out of there, I’ll have to pay my own way. So would you. Well, other than rent, that is. Pops isn’t that tight with vacant apartments.”
        “But if I did come up with something productive to do there,” Hisao persists, “you’d sponsor my application?”
        “Of course! You’d be a net improvement to any country you land in, so why wouldn’t I? Well, presuming you stay out of trouble here, that is. Being a felon is grounds to boot you out of the country now, not to lock you in. Keep your head down, and let Mum take the heat. She compensates herself quite adequately for her work.”
        “That’s why we’re funneling everything through the restaurant. It’s inefficient for all concerned, but that’s the cost of using proxies.”
        Neko squirms her way more tightly into Hisao’s arms. “That’s how these things always work. Misdirection is, by definition, effort not spent on the true business at hand.” She yawns loudly. “«Time to die.»”
        He spends a few seconds trying to remember the rest of the monologue. “«Like tears in rain»,” he says, giving up on recalling the rest. “We really should try watching movies while not baked. I might remember them better.”
        “Yeah, sorry. I’ve seen Blade Runner at least six times, so it doesn’t affect me much. It was your second time, so I thought you’d be in the same position.”
        “Maybe if it was in my native language, but most of your movie library is in English.”
        “Next time,” she says before yawning much less vocally than before, “I’ll turn on the captions. Sometimes I find I’ve thoroughly misunderstood something when I do that. Other times, the captions are wrong. Do you want to take brekky duty, or lunch?”
        “«¿Que paso?»”
        “Jōji’s rule, Mum endorsed it. If you stay here more than three days, you have to help cook. We’re both doing that, so…”
        I’m usually awake before anyone else, and make the coffee anyhow... “I’ll take the breakfast shift.”
        “Good. I’m not sure I want to deal with animal fat. When we went to set up the bed…” Neko shudders before continuing. “I’d never been in El Jefe’s room before. I’d looked in the doorway, but never actually stepped inside. He had a box of lard on the nightstand. Open.”
        “Yeah, so? Some people use it as lip balm.”
        “«Yeah nah.» That’s not what it was for.” She reaches behind her and grabs his member, causing an immediate response.
        “Oh.”
        She follows up by slapping her own behind before turning to face him.
        “Oh!” The fifteen watt light bulb finally goes on over Hisao’s head.
        “Yeah,” she adds. “I don’t know how he – or anyone else – finds that to constitute a good time. When we tried, it wasn’t the worst thing ever, but it wasn’t something I care to repeat, either.”
        “Stop and think about it. He can’t do it your preferred way. The parts just don’t match up. So he improvises a little. Who can blame him? What do you think your Pops does?”
        “I have spent years not thinking about that. I’d like to continue that streak.”
        “Well don’t fear, I won’t ask to try it again. It was alright for me, but not enough to override your discomfort. Not when you do other things so very well.” He guides her hand back to where she recently had it.
        “Excuse me,” she says while giving a firm squeeze, “but you phoned it in today, not me, although I admit I tried. I’m calling dibs.”
        “I did no such thing. I got fired. Ask Jōji.”
        “That doesn’t change the end result. I knew we’d end up here when you gave me that look this morning. But you ended up begging off, so now it’s all backward.”
        “Nobody is backward yet, but one of us is going to have to get that way, unless you want to sit on my face and tell me that you love me.”
        Neko pushes his right shoulder to indicate he should take up a position on his back. “Now there’s an offer I won’t refuse.”

NEXT CHAPTER
Last edited by NekoDude on Fri Dec 21, 2018 5:38 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Not a chapter post.

Post by NekoDude » Mon Dec 03, 2018 4:55 am

This is not a chapter post, but a dual-purposed "out of character" posting.

First, it provides a short post taking up one of the 15 per page, since it is total page length rather than individual post length that makes phpBB shit the bed.

Second, I wanted to announce a slight change in formatting which is being applied retroactively to the third and fourth books, but will not be applied here: while *** between paragraphs still indicate a POV change combined with a time skip, a single * (rather than a mere blank line) now indicates a POV switch without a substantial time skip. Future posts will use this new formatting, as will the eBook once all four volumes are consolidated into one. The first two books used first-person POV that was fixed for the duration of a chapter, and never had consecutive chapters with the same POV, so they are unaffected by this change. This stylistic discontinuity will not be amended for the combined volume, since the commercial possibilities are pretty much zero. The real value was learning the shortcomings of fixed first-person POV when narrators are disallowed, one that is more easily (but still not completely) circumvented with floating first-person without losing the intimacy of hearing thoughts.

I've also been quite prolific this past month (three songs 1 2 3 and a detailed character spec sheet for Neko, for a cameo appearance in someone else's project as well as the book writing), and now have the buffer up to 50-something pages (or about 20,000 words), but will keep updates about the same size because of the phpBB issues. I just might start posting them more often. However, the bulk of this occurs in one day, and I don't really want to start posting the beginning of that day when the ending hasn't been committed yet. I need more than 30 pages of buffer to allow for retconning when a single chapter starts getting to that length, so the new buffer rule is "30 pages or one complete chapter, whichever is larger".
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Re: "Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 25 (20181221)

Post by NekoDude » Fri Dec 21, 2018 5:37 am

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

2008-03-23

        Hisao spots the metal box in Neko’s hand. “What’s that you’ve got there?”
        “Antenna tuner.” She hesitates to let him pull alongside. “This one isn’t working, which is why I built the other, but El Jefe asked me to take a look at it, so that perhaps he can use it with the scanner.”
        “And what, if anything, does that have to do with the cardboard tray tucked under your arm?”
        “I’m not going to solder over a rug, silly. This is my working surface.” She nods at the plastic fishing tackle box she carries below the antenna tuner. “And these are my tools.”
        “Yeah, I’ve seen that box before,” he confirms with a nod. “I haven’t watched you solder, though. I’ve watched my father do it, so I’m curious to see how you tackle it.”
        “Be my guest.”
        “Where are we going?” he asks when they reach the back door, necessitating the addition of shoes.
        “Somewhere with better lighting – quite good lighting, in fact. We’re going to your office. I used to use the laundry room, but the rosin smell spreads, and I have a better option now.” She manages to turn the doorknob to the back door with thumb and forefinger, while holding the tool case and antenna tuner with the remaining three fingers.
        “I’ll get the next door.” Hisao takes a couple quick steps to get around Neko.
        “I wish you could. Here, take these.” She holds out everything in her hand. “The key is in my pocket.”
Instead of taking the items, Hisao takes a step to get back level with Neko, but this time on her right rather than her left. “This one?” he asks as he plunges his hand into her back pocket, but he realizes he guessed wrong and grabs a handful of the only thing he can: her.
        “You know better than that. I don’t keep anything in back pockets. They’re easily picked.”
        “I remember that, but who is going to pick your pocket around here? Other than me, of course, but I’m not trying to conceal it.”
        “Miura did, for the same reason she picked locks to places she didn’t even want to go: to prove a point.” She shrugs as he fishes around in the front right pocket, leaning and standing up straighter to make the pocket slightly less tight. “Sorry, they’re designed for slender little girl hands.”
        “Yeah, no kidding.” He manages to pinch the key between the back of his index finger and the tip of the middle, finally allowing him to retract his hand and still hold onto the key. “I see why you consider the front pocket pick-proof.”
        “It’s not for larger objects, but I still stand a better chance of noticing if someone dares muck about.” She resumes walking as he springs forward to open the door ahead of her.
        “It still smells like new counters,” he says apologetically. “Maybe we should leave the windows open.”
        Stepping inside, Neko’s brow furrows. “I just love the smell of formaldehyde in the morning,” she says with clear sarcasm. “Right, leave the windows open for now. Turn on the fume hood too, and leave it wide open.” She deposits her load on a brushed steel countertop and begins slipping off her shoe. “Bloody hell, I’m not working on the floor. It’s too far from the lights, and the power outlets.” She jumps up to sit on the countertop and remove her shoe there. She then opens the tool kit and extracts the rather ornate ‘helping hands’ tool.
        “So how do you do your soldering?” He switches on just one bank of fume hood fans, rather than all four available, because he’d actually like to hear the answer – and everything else.
        “The same way everyone else does.” She gets the soldering station from the kit as well, plugs it in, and sets the target temperature. “That thing holds the work if necessary, one hand holds the iron, and the other hand feeds in solder. I’m not even sure it will be required, but it’s better to warm it up and not use it than to wait when I finally determine I need it.” She grabs a screwdriver and begins dismantling the box, pinning it between her foot and her right knee before she sighs in frustration and removes the prosthetic leg.
        “You’re, ah, looking a bit immodest.”
        Neko pushes the loose legs of her shorts down where they have billowed out, with her thighs open almost ninety degrees. “I think I’m alright flashing you.”
        “Just saying.”
        “Look at that date code, it means the twenty-third week of 1969. This thing predates the moon landing!” The next thing out of the tool kit is a multimeter, and Hisao watches as Neko deftly holds the black probe in her toes while poking around with the red one, getting the occasional beep from the meter. “Mmm. Not learning much here. I have to test the inductors out of circuit.” She pulls the knob off the front panel, then removes the circuit board from the box. This is clipped into the ‘helping hands’ tool, and Hisao finally understands why it’s such a large and elaborate one, with six fairly hefty clamps on goosenecks.
        “I’m gonna have to get one of those. It would be quite useful under the fume hood.”
        “You can have this one when I’m done with it, unless Mum wants to get another. I’m not taking it along. While this is great, it’s also twenty dollars locally, not worth shipping. Neither is this.” She taps the soldering station with a knuckle. “I’d have to put it on a variac, so it’s better left in 100 volt land.” Neko shifts the soldering iron to her toes, and wields a solder sucker in her hand. “Darling, could you do me a favor since I’m disassembled?”
        Not to mention pretzel-shaped. “What’s that?”
        “I need a calculator. Could you find one for me?”
        “Right, no problem! Here.” Hisao extracts his phone, loading up the calculator app before handing it over.
        “That works.” She sets the phone to her left, lifting the iron so she can go under the cord rather than over it. There is a smell of old… something… burning, then a loud click as the desoldering tool is activated.
        “I see why you don’t like doing this in the house.”
        Neko’s brow and nose furrow in displeasure. “The wax on these inductors is rather questionable. I should melt it out and replace it with silicone, but I’m not going to, since it’s not my gear and never was. It’s not my fault this thing is older than Mum.” She pulls the lead out of the circuit board with a pronounced sprong noise, then clips test leads onto the half-removed inductor. “Six twenty. This one still seems to be in spec.” This repeats eight more times, complete with the smell of burning mummy. “Bloody hell. They’re all fine. I guess I have to check the capacitors. That’s probably what it is anyhow. Being nearly fifty years old, it is unlikely any of them are trustworthy or safe.”
        “Do you have to remove one leg of those to test, too?”
        “Worse. I have to remove both, because they’re mounted flush to the board.”
        “Well the smell is getting to me, so I’m gonna stand over there.”
        “I wish I could join you.”
        Unfortunately, ‘over there’ is less than three meters away, so he holds his sleeve over his nose as Neko announces the result of each test. “Hah! This one is practically a resistor. So is this one. This one seems to be alright, and it’s just a filter cap. There shouldn’t be any DC voltage across it.” She makes notes in the case itself with a marker, then begins soldering the inductors and the single good capacitor back into place. The shorter dwell time of the iron means less stench, but he keeps his already inadequate distance.
        Finally, Neko sighs and switches off the base of her soldering station. “I’ve marked the bad parts and left them out of circuit, but I don’t have replacements. I’m afraid I have to give it back diagnosed but unrepaired.” She mounts the circuit board back in the case and places the knob on the front, then tosses a handful of removed parts into the case before closing it.
        “I wager El Jefe is not going to be happy to hear that,” he answers as he dares to return to her side, accepting the phone she hands back to him.
        “Which is why I won’t give it back until toward the end of the week. Then he can’t pester me to fix it, or order parts in time.”
        “Who is going to end up doing it?”
        “I dunno. Maybe Hideki, maybe Tadao, maybe El Jefe himself.” Neko shrugs. “My personal expectation is ‘nobody’ and that this remains a paperweight, only now a much more rattly paperweight.” She wraps up the multimeter probes and places them alongside the meter itself in the tool box, then pulls another device out. “Ah, this one I’m keeping.”
        “What is it?”
        Neko smiles visibly at his interest and opens the black and yellow slipcover. “An oscilloscope. It’s not a particularly good one, as it tops out at twenty megahertz, but it’s good enough for basic radio frequency purposes. It has sentimental value as well. It’s what Pops got me in an attempt to make me forget about my confiscated chemistry kit. It only sort of worked.”
        “I see. Can it set a barn on fire?”
        Neko laughs. “I suppose if it were dipped in fuel it could. Otherwise, no. Any mains-powered equipment is more hazardous than this.” She checks inside the slipcover for all accessories before setting it aside, then repacks the toolbox without it.
        “You’re not taking the other meter?”
        “I can get a replacement for five dollars locally, and Mum occasionally uses it to see if connectors are broken. Chances are good that you’ll end up using it at some point, and you’ll be glad it’s here.”
        “Maybe, maybe not. What if I just end up wishing I was there instead?” I don’t care about test equipment, I’d rather have you.
        “Why not both? You can wish we were together, and still be glad you have my leftover tools to do your own work.” Neko reaches behind her for her leg, ultimately having to pivot in place to reach it. Once she has reassembled herself, she hops down from the countertop. “So was that what you expected?”
        “Pretty much. I was hoping for a bit of a surprise, maybe something you do without thinking of it that almost nobody else does.”
        “Like what? I already gave you a free show.”
        “I don’t know.” Hisao shrugs. “That’s why it would have been a surprise.”
        “Mmm. I have a plan.” Neko points at a stack of interlocking rubber mats intended to replace carpeting in places subject to liquid spills. “Wanna spread those out on the counter? We never did get a chance to root in the radio room. Let’s not make that mistake again.”
        “It might be better if I stood on them, and you sat on the counter. They’re pretty hard.”
        “I’d need a towel under me. My arse was cold at first, but now it is getting sweaty.”
        “Will a lab coat suffice? There are three.” Without waiting for confirmation, he retrieves one from the small closet, locking the main door from the inside on the way back. “Don’t worry about getting it dirty, they’re supposed to take the abuse.”
        “It’s going to smell like me for a long time. Maybe forever. I don’t wash out easily.”
        “I have no intention of washing you out.” He gives what he hopes is a sly, rather than creepy, half grin.
        “Oh. If that’s what you want!”
        I want every reminder of you. I want to remember your face, your voice, your laugh, your touch, your feel, and even your various scents and tastes. These artifacts are all I will have until I see you again, and there is so little time to collect them.
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"Out Of The Blue" (Neko Book 4) Chapter 26 (20190116)

Post by NekoDude » Wed Jan 16, 2019 4:12 am

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

2008-03-24

        I just knew she was going to make it awkward. “I told you days ago, it’s a client meeting.” Daisuke continues his final grooming.
        “And I checked the master schedule,” Emi replies. “There is no client meeting this morning.”
        “Not everything makes it onto the master schedule, you know. That would require cooperation rather than rivalry. Haven’t you noticed the tendency for meetings to appear minutes before, or even after they start?” He leaves his tie rather loose. “Or never appear at all, even when everyone can see the conference room is in use?”
        “So what am I supposed to say when asked where you are? It’s a secret mission?” Emi smiles briefly.
        “Just tell them you don’t know, but that I seemed annoyed. I’ll deal with the rest when I get back, or rather, if I get back. This may be an all-day assignment.”
        “Mmm. I’ll just wear a clueless face and shrug, then.”
        “Yeah, that’ll work.” Never meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with katsu sauce.
        “You’ll be back this evening?” It sounds almost as much a demand as a question, but it is followed by a kiss on the cheek.
        “As far as I know, but I’ll let you know if that changes.”
        “I suppose that’s all I can ask.” Emi pulls away. “I’ll let you lock up. Bye!” The front door opens, then closes.

***

        “You’re punctual as usual,” Akira says to Daisuke once they get far enough from the platform to converse.
        “This would be a bad day to be late,” he observes. “My probability of being on time is directly proportional to the importance of the event.”
        “As it should be.”
        “Where is this meeting?”
        “Someplace familiar to all parties. You’ll know it, even if you haven’t been there yet.” Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Hiroyuki spots them and slowly makes his way to his feet with a heavy lean on his cane. “I’m guessing this is the first time the two of you have met, so… Father, this is Daisuke Suzuki, my old friend from law school. Daisuke, this is my father, Hiroyuki Satou.”
        “I am honored, Satou-sama,” Daisuke says while bowing.
Hiroyuki answers in a slightly shaky voice. “Please forgive me for not returning the gesture, as I’m likely to topple over, but this degree of deference is simply not necessary. You won’t see much of it in our office, and you sure as shit won’t receive it from Corporate. You can call me Hiroyuki. Everyone else does – except her of course.” He nods toward Akira.
        “It’ll take me a few minutes to bring the car around,” she says apologetically.
        “I’m sure we can find something to discuss,” Hiroyuki replies while returning to his bench. His eyes beckon Daisuke to sit with him.
        Daisuke promptly takes a seat. Let the suffering man save face.
        “That’s what I’m worried about,” Akira deadpans before smiling. “Have fun telling stories about me.”
        “I would never. But if you insist…”
        Akira has made it less than ten meters before Hiroyuki can stand it no longer. “Work is going to be much more of a drudge without her around. It was before, but it wasn’t until we reunited that I realized the magnitude of the difference.”
        “You’re lucky,” Daisuke concurs. “I hardly ever see my girlfriend at work because she’s someone else’s intern. I don’t get interns.”
        “None of us have interns either, just a shared support staff. Well, maybe there are some specially assigned interns in advertising, or technical documents, or somewhere else I don’t pay much mind.”
        “I am guessing that is because your company’s line of business is not law. To a company that makes actual products, we’re nothing but an administrative cost – a necessary one to be sure, but a cost center nonetheless.”
        Hiroyuki nods his agreement. “Sometimes your value to the company is greatest when wearing your second or third hat. One major difference between Corporate and a branch office is that in the big office, you have one job, and that’s what you do all day. In the branch offices – at least Sendai and Shenzhen – you may have many jobs, but each one takes up only a small portion of your day.”
        “Unlike some, I don’t live for law. Asking me to pitch in somewhere else would be a welcome change, provided I’m competent in that task, or you’re willing to give me the time and training to become so.”
        “Almost nobody comes into our company fully qualified. The only way to find those people is to poach them from other medical product manufacturers, and what goes around comes around. So we do a lot of training.”
        “Almost nobody?” That sounds rather weasel-worded.
        “Well… the company was founded by former employees of another medical device firm, so I can’t say it was always the way it is now. It became a vastly different company when we acquired Imago and their international distribution network. It was almost as if they acquired us rather than the other way around, because we pretty much do things their way. We still use the Imago brand in some countries to this day.”
        Daisuke nods. “South Korea, for example. I saw an Imago defibrillator kit mounted to the wall at the airport the last time I passed through. I had no idea it was related.”
        Hiroyuki nods back. “You have to know your market, and for various unfathomable reasons, Japanese brand names have a hard time achieving market penetration there. European markets also seem to favor the Imago branding, likely because it is a European name. We do try to put our own name on the prestige items, however.”
        A tangentially related thought pops into Daisuke’s brain and worms its way to his vocal cords. “Ibanez.” Shocked to hear himself say it out loud, he explains. “Ibanez, or more properly, «Ibañez», was a Spanish guitar distributor who contracted work out to a Japanese luthier. When they couldn’t pay, the luthier sued and got the name, and it remains a popular brand to this day, even if nobody says it right.” Soft racism sucks, but shunning its few up sides won’t make it any better.
        Much to his relief, he sees Hiroyuki nod. “Yamaha still makes better guitars, though.”
        If this were an online forum, I’d suspect trolling. “And some wretched ones as well. Ibanez is very good at the price points where they choose to compete. Apples and oranges.”
        This draws a grin from Hiroyuki. “Good, good. You’ll get chances to flex your rhetorical wizardry: polite, true, relevant, but merely deflecting rather than answering the challenge. And here we are.” His head turns toward the pavement, drawing Daisuke’s gaze along with it. Akira smiles from the driver’s seat of a Lancer Evo. She locks eyes with Daisuke, then flicks them toward the handle of the front door.
        Daisuke stands and extends both hands. “Please allow me to be of assistance, S- err, Hiroyuki.”
        Just one hand comes back toward him, but the grasp is firm and confident, if somewhat wobbly. Between that and the cane, Hiroyuki gets to his feet with little apparent difficulty. Daisuke bursts ahead to open the front passenger door, and waits for Hiroyuki to confirm before closing the door. I’ve done all this before. Just last week, in fact. He takes a deep breath and a poker face, expecting a rush of anxiety-inducing hormones as his visual cortex dredges up an image of him holding the door for Julia. It’s a job, not a marriage. The expectations are different all around. But very little of the jolt materializes.
        Once inside the vehicle, the questions get tougher as Hiroyuki looks over his right shoulder at Daisuke in the back, behind the driver. “You know Sarii Tanaka-Rogers?”
        Daisuke laughs nervously. “Yeah, I’d have to say I know Sally reasonably well. I’ve been her primary attorney since she signed on with Muramoto. Needless to say, I am limited in what I can discuss about her.”
        “That’s commendable, and also should not be an issue. The questions are more about you than her. First, there’s a gal working for her that we’ve heard is your cousin. Is that going to be a problem?”
        “Suzu? I’m not the one to ask. She seems pretty harmless to me. I don’t know – and don’t particularly want to know – what her job description entails. The only topic we’ve discussed in any detail is our eccentric great uncle.”
        “So she’s not in a position to pull any family strings?”
        “I wouldn’t lend her money without a written contract, if that’s what you mean.” I mean, look who she works for.
        “And is there going to be any bad blood if you should cease to be Sally’s attorney?”
        “I think being her ex-attorney will be about as meaningful as being her ex-anything else. That is to say, it might get her to answer the phone if I call, but that’s about as far as I could expect her to extend a favor. She retains Muramoto, not me personally. Anything she has on the table, they will continue to handle so long as she continues to pay them.”
        Akira chimes in from the driver’s seat. “And your girlfriend?”
        “She’s safer in her position than I am in mine. They absolutely adore her. They aren’t going to stop if I leave. Besides, they’ll still have her case to follow up on, and it makes for good publicity.”
        Akira addresses her father. “Remember last year when I told you we had our own local version of the Pistorius controversy? This is what I was talking about.”
        “They’re going to win or lose that case on the judgement of the IAAF,” Daisuke follows, “whether I’m representing her or not. Besides, I probably won’t for much longer. The case has outgrown my pay grade. The moment there’s the slightest hint of trouble, or the merest gleam of glory, they won’t hesitate to replace me and take all the credit – and fees.” Hey, we’re transitioning onto Highway 31 South. “Please tell me we’re not going to the Shanghai.”
        Akira complies with the letter of his request. “We’re not. We’re going to the San Cristobal.”
        “Not the office?”
        “One of my job duties is inspector. The local subsidiary – not Corporate – is a stakeholder, and you’d be responsible for showing up every now and then to see to our interests. You’re uniquely qualified.”
        “I’m not in the real estate or restaurant business. I’m sure I can get up to speed, but I wouldn’t call myself qualified just yet.”
        Hiroyuki chuckles. “You are qualified in areas we can’t teach. You know what to watch for: potential bad faith on the part of fellow investors, namely Sally. She hasn’t tried anything, but she also knows we’re watching very closely. That means one of your hats will be snake charmer.”
        “Mmm. Your faith may be a bit misplaced. I’ve never known her to reject advice she is paying for, so I’ve not actually had to tell her no. I’m not sure how she would attempt a dick move, although I certainly believe her capable of that sort of thing.”
        Akira chuckles as well. “If she returns your calls more than half the time, you’re already doing better than me. I’ll be positioned to lean on Sam a wee bit, but ultimately, it’ll be your lookout.”
        “Hard as you may find this to believe,” Daisuke sighs as he relaxes back into his seat, “she and her representatives have always been cordial to me, even in some pretty harrowing circumstances. Of course, we’ve always been on the same side before.”
        Hiroyuki nods sagely. “Let’s see how long it stays that way.”

*

        “Holy balls,” Jōji grunts as he wipes sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. “That was fuckin’ heavy.
        “Like hoisting an engine,” Junpei affirms.
        Hisao nods from his out-of-the-way corner position. “That’s about right. It costs as much as an engine, too – and that’s just half of the apparatus.”
        “You mean we gotta do this again?” Junpei moans.
        Hisao waves off his concerns. “Don’t worry, the other half comes in pieces under ten kilograms each except for the helium tank, and that has wheels. I could still use some help from one of you to set it up, though. Some steps require three or four hands just to hold things steady.”
        “When is that coming in?”
        Hisao points at boxes tucked under the counter. “Last Tuesday. Who’s with me?”
        “It sounds like fun,” Jōji says while simultaneously separating from the scene gesturally, “but I have plenty of things to do today.” He points at Junpei as he exits. “I’ll leave you the cart. Don’t drop anything.”
        Junpei waits for the door to close. “He’ll never let me forget that.”
        “Not until you redeem yourself, at least. Have you fixed it yet? You can put it right where I’m standing once you do.”
        “Nah. I managed to crack the frame. I have to weld it, which I’ve never done on my own before.”
        Hisao nods. “Tell you what – you may as well fetch the bed here and repair it on the spot. Meanwhile, I’ll unpack the gas chromatograph, and we can assemble it when you get back. Then I’ll take off for a while, and you can perfect your welding technique without me or anyone else watching over your shoulder.”
        “Dude. I’d rather you were watching over my shoulder – with that.” Junpei points to the fire extinguisher clamped to the wall.
        “I don’t own a welding mask. Until now it had never occurred to me that one might be useful.”
        “There are two masks, one to wear and one to hold up by hand.”
        Hisao shrugs in resignation. “I guess I’m as qualified as anyone to be the fire brigade. Let’s get this shit done, then. I want to start calibrating after lunch, and knock off when the schools let out.” Four and a half more work hours today, five if I keep lunch brief, then I pick up ‘the kids’. I cease to serve Sally the moment Neko is available. That’s our bargain.

***

        The kitchen staff has clearly become accustomed to treating inspectors like umpires, tuning Akira and Daisuke out as they go about their business. “Just do the job right and it shouldn’t matter who is watching,” was how might Ben put it.
        Akira has mastered the art of not being seen, but Daisuke has not. “Whoops, sorry,” he says for at least the fourth time as he steps out of the ‘highway’ running through the kitchen to allow someone with a large tray to pass.
        “Staying out of the way is your responsibility,” Akira quietly reminds him.
        “I get that. I just don’t know what ‘out of the way’ is yet. The kitchen seems to be operating at capacity, and everywhere I go, someone else needs to be there.”
        “You’ll suss out the pattern soon enough. The layout is different between the two facilities, but the workflow is not that much different at this hour. That will all change, come dinner time. Once the lights go down here, the prices and the pressure both go up.”
        “Do you generally do inspections before opening?”
        “Here, yeah.” Akira points at the ground, then in the general direction of north. “But not at the Shanghai, since they’re open early for lunch. I generally inconvenience them between that and the dinner rush, after coming here.”
        “A good auditor should avoid patterns that could be exploited.”
        Akira nods. “If that’s what you wish to do, and can find the time to do it. It’s all I can do to get out here twice a week, so I have to visit both places on at least one of those.”
        Daisuke nods in turn. “Agreed. I must assume you have already optimized your workflow, and have done so conscious of the compromises, unless and until I see something worth pointing out. I mean, it has been working for you, right?”
        Akira sighs, long and loud. “Mostly. I can’t maintain the pace I had a year ago, though I continue to sneak up on my old self. My time management skills are still tied to that old self, so sometimes I put more on the plate than I can eat – speaking of which, this is generally the point in the trip where I do that. Eat, that is, not put too much on the plate.”
        “I’m fine with accelerating the pace of the tutorial.”
        Akira looks pained, having clearly hit some sort of wall she is struggling to push through. “And I’m fine with deferring or canceling the remainder. I figured it out from scratch, so I’m sure you can figure it out from my notes. Besides, you can always reach me if something eludes you. Let’s regroup with Father for a pound and a pint.”

*

        When Sally opens the door to the outbuilding, she expects not to be heard over the noise of exhaust fans. Unfortunately for her stealth check, the sudden change in air pressure from the door opening attracts the attention of the occupants much more effectively than any noise. Both Hisao and Junpei turn to face her as they assemble the foldaway bed.
        Sally switches off the ventilation fans to reduce the clamor to a tolerable level. “What’s that smell?”
        “Ozone,” Hisao says with a nod and gesture toward the switch that Sally just toggled. She gets the hint and starts the fans up again, waiting for them to finish so she can speak to them directly rather than from across the room. Once they have reinstalled the mattress and folded the bed away, she beckons them over.
        “I was just wondering where Junpei had disappeared to, and Jōji said to look here,” she says apologetically. She gestures at the fully repaired bed. “I have no issue with the reason why.”
        “Oh, no,” Hisao interjects, “I recruited him to help me with that.” He points to the gas chromatograph, partially assembled on the counter. “But I also wanted this bed, and he wanted a fire marshal to watch over him while welding, so this worked for both of us.”
        Sally nods. “I understand. He’s not to perform certain hazardous duties alone, in case he spaces out.” She nods at Junpei and keeps her attention on him. “Has Hisao shown you how to use any of this gear?”
        “No, but I don’t think it works yet.”
        “It does not,” Hisao addresses to Sally, “but it might by the time school gets out. He’s welcome to hang around and watch, and hopefully lend a hand, as long as he and you desire.”
        Sally nods. “That sounds like a plan. Junpei, you’re assigned here until he’s done for the day. After that, you’re back on general services duty.”
        Junpei looks worried. “What about stable cleaning?”
        “I’ll have Jōji reassign it for now.”
        He pumps a fist. “Yes!”
        “I’m glad it pleases you.” She suppresses a smile as she departs.
        Jōji was right. Make Junpei shovel enough shit, and he’ll jump at the first out he’s offered.

*

        “So everything passes inspection today?” Hiroyuki asks as Akira and Daisuke return to his table slightly earlier than he expects.
        “I couldn’t tell,” Daisuke admits. “It may be awhile before I can.”
Akira nods. “He’ll catch on, and I’m only a phone call away. I didn’t see the value in doing the Powerpoint thing then, or even now.”
        “You made a presentation on this?” Daisuke asks, allowing a hint of ‘seriously?’ to slip through.
        “Well, yeah. I had to plan for any random person getting the task. I was pretty confident it would suit you, but it was due diligence to prepare for the worst. There are disaster plans for all sorts of things, even if nobody likes to talk about it.”
Daisuke nods. “Smart. Muramoto also has scripts for various situations, and I have a bit of experience enacting them. One of them got... interesting.”
        “The punch heard across the nation?” Akira asks. “I wouldn’t have thought you had a script for that.”
        “We only had a week to come up with one, but of course we did. While we did not expect it to escalate into violence, we planned for it nonetheless.”
        Hiroyuki raises a hand to pre-empt Akira’s response, then speaks. “So did you go off-script with the client, or was that all part of the plan?”
        Daisuke cannot dodge the brown pants question. “That… was part of the plan. I may have recorded it as a ‘mission debriefing’ though.”
        “Has anyone told you that you talk too much?”
        “Quite often.”
        “That’s better.” Hiroyuki slowly rises to his feet, then smiles broadly and offers his hand. “You’ll fit in just fine, just stop talking one sentence earlier. You’d never make it out on the streets.”
        That gets a laugh out of Daisuke as he accepts the handshake. “Brutal honesty as a default position is both my greatest asset and my largest liability.”
        “And you chose law as your profession?” Hiroyuki asks, keeping his gaze directly on Daisuke’s eyes even as he returns to his seat.
        “I ah…” Daisuke stammers, before chuckling nervously. “You got me.”
        Akira takes up the banner. “Now we just have to teach you when to engage your diplomacy.”
        Daisuke hesitates a moment. “I think I have a phone call to make,” he says as he excuses himself from the table.
        Akira sighs with obvious relief. “Well that went about as well as could be expected.”
        A busboy gestures to her after waving a towel to catch her gaze.
        “Two pints or three?” he asks by pointing at empty glasses and holding up fingers.
        Akira holds up three fingers in response. “I’ll take responsibility for drinking it if he doesn’t.”
        The busboy draws the pints competently enough and has them loaded onto a tray for delivery just as Daisuke returns, looking pale and distressed.
        “Trouble?” Akira asks, sitting straight up in her seat.
        “You could say that.” Daisuke sets his phone on the table rather than pocketing it. “They already knew. They’ve got a mole working here, and they wanted to make sure I knew it before I moved on.” He looks around, finally taking a seat as the pints are delivered to the table along with a bowl of warm, salted edamame. He waits until the busboy resumes his ordinary duties before speaking further. “I thought you needed to know.” He then visibly deflates into his chair.
        “Do you feel they would go out of their way to cause you difficulty?” Hiroyuki asks.
        “No, not as such. The old man even said ‘sorry you didn’t get on with my son and nephews, but I think you’re alright.’ He still insisted I turn the lease over to my girlfriend, though. I don’t suppose she’s likely to boot me out, but you should be aware it is possible if we should ever end up on opposite sides.” He takes a sip from his pint glass, and gives an approving nod.
        Akira nods. “I reckon that to be your first assignment as project manager. Have a plan in place if they decide to force the issue. We couldn’t reasonably expect your insider contacts to come without a cost, you know. Now for your first assignment as field coordinator.” She places the keychain for the Evo on the table. “You’re the rookie, which also makes you the designated driver.”
        “Aww…” He sets down his barely touched pint with disappointment.
        “Enjoy that one. We’re going to be here a while longer.”
        “You’re not afraid to relax in the company of rivals?”
        “We’re not rivals any longer, we’re a cooperative. It wouldn’t demonstrate good faith to run from them, but keep your eyes and ears open.”
        Daisuke retrieves his pint from the table. “I’ll do what I can to make it last.”
        “The cooperative, or the beer?” Hiroyuki asks.
        “Yes.”
        Daisuke’s phone begins to rattle the table, so he takes a glance at the display. “It’s from Sally. Muramoto asked her if she still intended to renew her contract with them if he let me go, and she said she would. She closed it with ‘you’re welcome’.”
        Hiroyuki nods. Everyone is watching everyone else, while staking out territory and pulling strings. “As it has been, so it shall always be.”

***

        “I most certainly did warn you about this,” Neko insists over the phone.
        “You didn’t say it would be this bad,” Kenta complains. “She’s crying more than she did the night of!”
        “It’s never been that bad for me, so how could I warn you?” After taking a deep breath, she carries on. “I have an idea. I’ll have someone swing me by there and drop off my treatment.”
        “No, no more of your wonder pills.”
        “They’re just herbals, and they’re what I use to help recover. If you don’t trust me, you can go buy it yourself off the shelf. 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP for short. That’s what you want.”
        “What’s that supposed to do? And how quickly?”
        “It’s just a precursor to what her brain lacks right now, which is serotonin. This will just allow her to make it faster by starting with something that’s already close to it. It’ll start making a difference in two, maybe three hours, depending how good her body is at the conversion. You didn’t want her eating the stuff before or immediately after rolling because it can induce too much serotonin, but it’ll help now.”
        “Alright. I’ll pop out for it myself. I can get to a pharmacy and back faster than you can get here anyhow.” I live in a sea of convalescent homes. There’s a pharmacy every other block. “I’m sorry I shouted at you.”
        “I understood why you were bothered,” Neko says calmly and steadily, “even if I didn’t deserve to be the target. You are forgiven. Call me back if you need delivery service after all.”
        He still looks it up online before heading out. I have to know how to spell it. I wouldn’t want to look like a fool by not being able to find it in plain sight. Yeah, that’s the ticket. It’s not like I feel compelled to fact-check Neko’s advice.
        Mariko isn’t buying his explanation. “She may have told me that earlier today, but it went in one ear and out the other. I’m sorry I’m so scatterbrained. I thought I did well just to keep it together until the end of class.”
        “You did. Very few people know about this, and I can’t imagine any of them using the information irresponsibly. You can hang in there for twenty or thirty minutes without me, can’t you?”
        “No, I’m going to slash my wrists the moment you step out the door,” she deadpans. “Just don’t dawdle. Maybe I’ll still be warm when you get back.”
        Your gallows humor is not particularly welcome at the moment, but I get your point. I’ll hurry. “Let me put on running shoes.”
Art is never finished, only abandoned.
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