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

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NekoDude
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter Thirty-two (comple

Post by NekoDude » Tue Sep 22, 2015 2:45 am

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

2007-11-18

        “It’s a trap.” Neko is quite sure of herself in making this declaration.
        “A trap? What is she going to do, shoot me with a tranquilizer dart and abduct me?” Hisao knows he’s letting the mask slip, but presses on just the same. “Who do you think we’re dealing with here, your family?”
        “Those fuckers deserved it.” Neko takes a deep breath and extends her lower jaw as she exhales, causing her bangs to flutter about in the breeze. “Fine. Take the car, but if you don’t come back, or it doesn’t come back with you, she will be dealing with my family – through lawyers, of course.”
        Your lawyers have proven capable of getting people out of scrapes without violence, so I’ll take that chance. “She didn’t specify that I had to come alone.”
        Neko tips her head forward and gazes at him through her eyebrows before shaking her head. “I see two possibilities. She could be alone, in which case she might feel outnumbered. Or, she might have Iwanako in tow, in which case you don’t want me there either.”
        “Hell, if she does that, I don’t even want me there.”
        As it turns out, Neko is wrong with both angles. Mrs. Endo is not alone, but her companion is someone Hisao does not know by name, and has only seen once before – yesterday. Although Gino’s is crowded, they have a corner booth to themselves, and the next one is notably vacant. She beckons him over, immediately pouring a glass of beer for him – not into a disposable plastic cup like yesterday, but an actual pint glass. He notices that there is only one other such glass on the table.
        “I appreciate you coming on such short notice,” Mrs. Endo tells him as he settles in. “I’d like to introduce you to Gino. If he looks familiar, he should. He owns the place.” That explains the name then, doesn’t it? “We have a problem, and by we I mean everyone at this table.”
        “Oh. Shit. Did someone report us?” He glances down at the beer in front of him.
        Gino chuckles. “No, you weren’t the problem. As a matter of fact, what happened in these walls wasn’t a problem. It rarely is.” He speaks with an American accent. “It’s what happened out there. I can’t control that very well, yet I’m still legally responsible for it to a degree.”
        “Someone reported her?
        “No, dear,” Mrs. Endo answers, “that wasn’t necessary. I am quite capable of figuring these things out on my own. She’s lucky, really lucky, that there was a friend to drive her home.”
        “It should have been me,” he says with a nod, “but I had already conceded the designated driver position for the day.”
        Gino nods knowingly. “I thought it was the same car.”
        It’s Mrs. Endo’s turn to be puzzled. “Wait. I already talked to the friend that drove her home, and she didn’t mention you.”
        “Like I said, I had already surrendered the keys.” He can’t read Mrs. Endo’s thoughts, but can easily discern that she is recalculating something. “It was probably better that way anyhow. I’m not sure she would have gotten in the car with me, as driver or passenger.” Then again, she wasn’t in much of a state to object.
        “So you lent Ikezawa your car?”
        “Not my car, Neko’s car. Her Mum got it for her as an early birthday gift, but she did it a birthday too soon, so someone else has to drive it around for her. Usually that’s me, but she trusts Hanako with this duty as well. Mrs. Endo –”
        She interrupts him with a wave. “Please, call me Mayuki. We’re going to have to work together on this, and I mean as equals, not as me bossing you around or talking down to you. You know as much about shepherding a troubled teenager as I do.”
        “I know nothing about that, except for being one myself.”
        “That’s exactly my point.”
        “I thought you worked with people my age on a daily basis.”
        “I do, but it’s almost always the ones that show an interest in the subject. I don’t make a point of reaching out to the ones who just want to survive my class, and dealing with the ‘good kids’ is really no different from dealing with my peers, aside from their lack of experience and cynicism. So how do you do it?”
        “Do what?”
        “Keep her under control. Don’t look so surprised. You don’t keep secrets very well, and I hear more than you give me credit for.”
        A server arrives with a large salad, and Gino quickly portions out a bowl for each of them.
        I guess we’re going to be here awhile. Hisao finally allows himself to taste the beer. “I should probably wash my hands. I read somewhere that steering wheels are among the grubbiest objects we handle regularly.”
        “Doubly so if you share the car,” Mayuki concurs.
        In the restroom, he quickly punches out a message to Neko before performing his actual functions. ‘No trap, just making intervention plans.’ He thinks back on something Mutou said to him as an aside when they were filling out his university application. Though delivered with a straight face, he assumed his mentor was jesting in his usual deadpan way. He is no longer so certain it was a joke.
        “Never stick your dick in crazy.”
        Too late, he had thought then, and that was before incrementing the counter from two to three.

        “Do you trust him?” Gino asks Mayuki as soon as the boy is out of earshot.
        “He’s a good kid, but he’s still a kid, so no,” she admits. “You still remember what it was like, don’t you?” Just in case, she gives him a reminder under the table.
        He tries to play it off casually, taking a sip from his glass and blotting the corners of his mouth with his napkin, which he then drops onto his lap and over her hand. “I remember like it was yesterday.”

***

        The table now seats just Mayuki and Hisao, Gino having left to take care of a malfunction in the beer taps.
        “I need your assurance that the prior arrangement still works for you,” she says, gesticulating with a floppy slice of pizza.
        “I wasn’t the one that backed out of it. Neither was Neko. None of us was completely happy with the deal, but that’s what it means to compromise. Besides, I don’t think Iwanako is going to back down.”
        “Maybe not, but she’s running out of options. I had the house on the market before she moved up here, and I can put it back on the market again. If I sell the house… well, you know the saying. ‘You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.’ Truth is, I’m no better at this parenting business than my own parents were, and that’s a pretty low bar to jump over. At least her mother cares enough to try whatever it takes, including sending her three hundred kilometers north to escape her tormentors.”
        “Neko was convinced that you were going to try to trap me, or lean on me in some uncomfortable way – but then, that’s how her Mum operates. She’ll ask nice first, but won’t take no for an answer, at least not on anything that matters.” He pushes the empty beer glass to the edge of the table to be picked up, not wanting it refilled.
        “This is a bit different. We have a backup plan. It’s disruptive, but at least it exists. Also, the deal from me isn’t open for negotiation, whether she gets back together with you or not. She stops getting drunk, or she finds somewhere else to live. It’s that simple. It just might be easier for her if she has you to lean on.”
        Hisao nods. “I want to be there for her the way she was for me, but it’s just not possible. We’re on different sides of the city, at different schools. I’ve always been willing to do my best, but that proved insufficient. I’m not sure I can take another beating.” His hand unconsciously checks to make sure his nose is still straight.
        “We’ll work on it, slowly but surely. What I do expect from you is that you level with me. I don’t expect you to write reports, but be honest when I ask. Can I trust you to do that? You’re not doing her any favors if you help cover things up.” After getting a hesitant nod in response, she continues. “I also need your assurance that someone else isn’t going to sour the situation.”
        “Huh? Oh, no, you don’t need to worry about that. Shit, it was her idea.” He covers his mouth, wondering if perhaps he’s being a bit too loud and a bit too chatty. That’s why they gave me a couple beers and she didn’t have any, isn’t it?
        Mayuki gives a look of combined mild surprise and amusement. “Really now. What’s in it for her?”
        He hesitates, then pulls out his phone. She has had time to respond, but hasn’t. She must be busy. If I’m wrong about why, it hardly matters. “Same as me – a girlfriend.”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter Thirty-three(compl

Post by NekoDude » Tue Sep 29, 2015 2:55 pm

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

2007-11-21

        “I’m sorry I couldn’t go with you, but being your driver isn’t sufficient reason to cut class,” Hisao apologizes yet again as Neko gets in the car and places a sturdy metal case behind his seat. “I suppose you can transform into a T-1000 again when we get home.”
        “T-800, you mean. T-1000 was the liquid metal guy.”
        “Oh, right. That’s a relief.” He shifts into Drive and pulls away in the first traffic break. “I wouldn’t want your arm to turn into a sword.”
        “Bloody hell, that was third on my to-do list.”
        “Third? Do I even want to know what the first two items are?”
        “Not while you’re driving,” she says with a wink. “It’ll have to wait until after dinner as well, as Mum won’t settle for anything less than a full celebratory meal and demonstration. You did take my suggestion, right?”
        “About what? You make a lot of suggestions, and I take most of them, but not all.”
        “The one about keeping an overnight bag in the car, just in case.”
        “Damn. I meant to.”
        “I figured as much – both that you intended to, and that you failed to follow through. I know you better than you know yourself sometimes. You’ll have to wear these pants again, but there’s a change of everything else under the seat. I packed something else to test as well. I will probably need your help fitting it.”
        “Hmm?”
        “The mannequin hand Kenji gave me, remember? I want to try it out, and the ranch is the only place I can do that – well, almost the only place, but when we go bowling, I’d rather bowl.”
        When they arrive at the ranch, the brr brr of the intercom at the gate is not being answered. It changes tone and continues.
        Hisao turns to his left. “Isn’t someone supposed to be listening for us?”
        Neko nods briefly. “It’s calling cell phones now, like it should.”
        At last, one of those phone owners answers. “Hello?”
        Neko leans across Hisao, to be better heard over the intercom. “Mum’s expecting us for dinner. Who is this?”
        “It’s me, Mareo.” There is a pause, likely as he glances at the phone display to check the origins of the call. “Alright, yeah. I’ll buzz you in, but the dogs are loose. Just stay in the car until I can call them off.”
        “Bloody hell,” Neko mutters as the gate slides open. Two dogs bark and jump at their windows as they enter, but not until they get inside the gate, as if restrained by an invisible force. She whines every time they leap, and soon two more join the party.
        Hisao quickly rolls up the window. “They don’t seem that bad. I think they’re just bored and want to play.”
        “You go play with them then. I’ll give a statement after they rip your throat out.”
        “Hey, hey, I was just trying to take the edge off.” He drives slowly, lest one of the dogs get in front of them, and then they wait. So do the dogs, standing guard two to each side. Suddenly all four heads swivel, and they chase after whatever grabbed their attention.
        “I’m guessing that’s what we were waiting for,” Neko says with a distinct lack of confidence. She doesn’t move until Mareo comes out the front door.
        “You know, they can smell your fear,” he tells her while escorting them inside. “That makes them more interested in you. They think you’re a meal.”
        “I don’t really care much what they think,” she says with more than a hint of bitterness. “They’re the reason I rarely come around anymore.”
        “They’re also why the Russians don’t come around anymore,” Mareo points out. “It’s a trade we have to live with.” He lowers his voice and glances around before continuing. “Truth be told, I wish we didn’t need them either. They spook the hell out of the horses.”
        Did you not want Mum to hear that? Don’t worry, she will – though she won’t care. “It’s the dogs that should be afraid. You weren’t here, but I’m sure you heard all about it.”
        “I didn’t just hear about it, I had to neutralize the acid in what was left of the carcass before burying it. Bone white, and turned to mush.” He briefly closes his eyes and shudders as Neko makes a momentary diversion to drop her cargo, then regains his practiced smile before they get to the kitchen. “Help yourself, you know where things are. Dinner is at seven, at the kitchen table.” He heads out the back to complete the stable duty he was on when they arrived.
        Neko heads immediately for the refrigerator, coming back to the table carrying both a carton of milk and a plate of small cookies. The rim of the plate is pinched between her curled fingers, as she supports it from below with the short arm.
        “Do you think this new arm will make things like this easier?” Hisao asks, nodding toward the plate.
        “Don’t know. Probably not, since it’s not that difficult now. I’d just have more reach.” She shrugs and slides the plate onto the glass table before setting down the carton. “This would still be a two-trip adventure, even if I had two of these,” she adds as she holds up her hand before returning to the cupboard for glasses and a tray.
        “Why the tray?” he asks.
        “Aren’t we going upstairs? You can juggle all of this if you want, but I have other things to carry.”
        “Oh, right.”

***

        Sally can hear the voices reverberating from above as she exits the office, so she heads up the stairs to the further sounds of colliding billiard balls. “Hey,” she says on spotting the milk and cookies on the corner table, “those weren’t all for you.”
        Neko looks up from her shot. “Sorry, we were going to return everything after this frame. It’s just taking a while. We’re not very good at this.” Grabbing the gloved hand, she gives it a twist to better support her cue, then leans over her shot before proceeding to miss everything off a rail.
        “Foul,” Hisao states, “four points.”
        “That was not a very nice spot to leave me in,” she complains with a pout.
        “That’s why it’s called snooker, love.” Sally puts two cookies on the tray and takes the plate and carton.
        Neko rolls her eyes as she steps away from the table. “Those taste greener than usual. The milk is not optional.”
        “Same punch, smaller package,” Sally says with a shrug. “Of course they’re going to taste worse.”
        Hisao rises from his crouch, apparently dissatisfied with his shot selection. “I told you we should have asked someone.”
        “How many did you eat?” Sally asks with a chiding tone. Hisao holds up one finger, but Neko holds up two. “Yeah? You’ll survive. Sorry it took me so long to greet you, but I had rather a serious negotiation to attend to. I’m going back to my office to tidy up the details, but let me know when you come down.” After picking up one of the two cookies on the tray and biting off a large piece, she heads back down the stairs while brushing off crumbs.

***

        Neko turns right at the bottom of the stairs, rather than forward-left toward the office. “Let’s set it up first, I have a feeling Mum’s a bit short on patience today.” Although her room is now forced to double as the guest bedroom, things largely remain as she remembers. She switches on adequate lighting before they take up the loveseat in the corner.
        As she partially undresses to make the job easier, Hisao remarks on the rectangles stenciled near her collarbones. “Are those going to wash off?”
        “They’re henna, so they won’t come off until that layer of skin gets shed. It might take a couple weeks, by which time I’m hopefully familiar with the placement. It helps right now though, doesn’t it?”
        Apparently it does, as he uses them to align the patches that sense the muscle movements while she installs the arm itself. Last, but certainly not least, she clips the external pack onto the waistband of her jeans, then threads its cable alongside the others, through her sleeve, and plugs everything in. The servos momentarily jump to life as the controller goes through its self-checks before emitting one long beep and two short ones.
        “What does that mean?” he asks.
        “I don’t know.” She grabs the reference card from the case. “External sensor two isn’t connected to its liking.” She unplugs the red wire and plugs it back in, causing the box to emit one long beep. At the end of the beep, the wrist begins to turn the thumb upward. “It’s working now.” She uses the mechanical hand to lift the second battery pack from the case while taking the charger with her real one. “The spare needs six hours of charging before it will be of any use at all. It just came straight off the shelf.” She holds out both to indicate that this is his job, taking a bit longer to release the battery than she would have liked, and causing him to tug at it a bit before it is released.
        “I guess I’ll just have to get used to that,” he says with a shrug. “I suppose that’s the cost of holding on firmly.”
        “It still needs calibration to balance these things out, but they gave me the software to do that.” She uses the back of the carbon fiber hand to gesture toward the case and the CD in the lid, the fingers extending fully as she does. “Until then, it’s going to err on the side of not dropping things. It’s up to me to back it off to the bleeding edge of control. I don’t recommend shaking hands with it in the meantime.”

        Sally hears them before she sees them, then her daughter’s face peeks through the door that has been left ajar. “Come on in,” she says with a matching gesture. Since Neko is already wearing the arm, she adds, “Take one of the objects off my desk. I just want to see you do it.”
        “Anything in particular?”
        “Something you won’t break would be nice.”
        Neko reaches for a pen, but it squirts out of her grasp. “I think I will have to go for something bigger at this point. Maybe once I get some experience, I’ll be able to do that.” Instead, she reaches for the softball-sized crystal ball resting in its pewter stand.
        If you drop that, I’m going to be upset. But not only does she get a good grasp, she keeps it very close to the desk until she can rotate the hand around to support it from below. “Great, now can you put that back? That wasn’t really what I had in mind.” Sally can hear the slight ticking of the pads of the fingers coming unstuck as she sets it back down and takes a seat on the red couch.
        “Well, I knew I wasn’t going to crush it, and right now the hand is set up to grab on firmly by default.”
        “Default?”
        “It allows three profiles, but right now they’re all set up the same. I haven’t quite decided what I’m going to assign to each one, or what mode I want it to start in. This is the cycling setup – grab on and don’t let go unless and until instructed to do so. It also has the option of gradually returning to some middle position when not receiving commands. I have a lot of options to play with.”
        “You make it sound like this is your latest toy.”
        “It is. Something can be both useful and a plaything.” She points at the subnotebook on the desk, which admittedly sees much less use than the business laptop. “Speaking of which, can I borrow that? I’ll need the optical drive too.”
        Sally nods, and checks the drawers to her left. “I don’t know where the drive is right now. It might be in the wine cellar.” She unplugs the power brick and sets it on the desk alongside the computer.
        Neko springs to her feet. “Thanks, Mum.” She grabs the power brick and transfers it to the new hand before taking the computer itself. “If we can’t find it, I might be able to get the stuff I need online.”
        “You need to read a disc? I could always copy it up to the network storage for you.”
        “That might be easier than tracking down the drive.” She skips away to retrieve the disc and drop off the computer. “Here you go,” she says upon her return, waving the disc in its paper sleeve.
        Sally loads the disc and drags the contents into a network share. “See if you can teach it any new tricks by dinnertime. You’ll be in the spotlight.”

        “Hey, check this out.” Neko gestures at the screen. “They call it ‘learn mode’. I teach it to make gestures the same way I used the mannequin hand earlier, by moving it around myself.” She glances around the room for something cylindrical and of appropriate size, but comes up empty. “Could you do me a favor and grab the bottle of Grey Goose out of the freezer?”
        He returns with the bottle, and a questioning look. “Am I going to regret this?”
        “Only if I screw it up. I thought I might make a show of pouring Mum a martini with it, and now I see that I can cheat and teach it the size of the neck ahead of time. I’d do the same with a wine bottle, but they’re all slightly different.”
        “How does it know when you want it to do that?”
        “I haven’t quite figured that part out yet. There’s something in here about code keying, apparently intended for people with extremely limited motor control. Maybe I can assign every move a letter in Morse, I should be able to remember that.”
        “I know what one of them is.” He waves at the bottle, which is rapidly gathering a layer of frost. “What others might you have in mind?” After she throws a sequence of gestures as if they were gang signs, he can’t help laughing at the last. “I knew you’d slip that one in there somewhere.”
        “«Rock out with your cock out!» Dun dun, da-dun dun da-daaa!” Repeating the ‘horns’ gesture, she gives a brief burst of headbanging, drawing a blank stare for a second before they both burst into snorts and giggles. “I’m way too high to be doing this right now. Let’s hope I don’t activate the self-destruct or convince it to be a kidney or something.”
        “Are you really going to put that other sign in too?” He hesitantly gives her an upturned middle finger by way of demonstration. “It could get you in more trouble than it’s worth.”
        “Not only am I going to include it, I’m going to attach it to a short code like ‘A’ - di-dah. If it misfires, well… I can blame it on a malfunction at least once. Or Tourette’s, that always seems to work for Hideki.”
        Hisao has to cover his nose and mouth with the back of his hand to prevent any spray from his reaction. “I’m sure that would work, dear. ‘My robotic arm has Tourette’s.’ Isn’t there a strange English saying that applies here?”
        “«You’re pulling my leg.» It’s probably bullshit when he claims it too, but it doesn’t stop him.”

***

        “Ew,” Sally says with a cringe as the hand rotates beyond supine and into the quarter-circle no human hand should reach. “That’s just wrong.”
        “It’s just another thing I have to do my own way. I’d rather have the palm under the bottle to support it, even if it looks arse-backward. Besides…” Her voice trails off as she concentrates on what she’s doing.
        “Besides, what?” Sally prompts, causing Neko to put up her real hand in response.
        “Sorry, I had to concentrate,” she says as she returns the bottle to a vertical position and sets it back on the table. “I’ve only had a few hours with this system total, so it’s very much a matter of conscious effort right now. As I was about to say, I can lift my elbow to rotate the bottle inward if the hand stops responding. I don’t know what I’d do if I had it tipped the other way.”
        “Could you dig an olive out of this jar?”
        “Not yet, but no matter. You wouldn’t want me to without a glove, since this hand can’t easily be washed. I could hold a fork and stab one, though.”
        “Good,” Jōji says from his place to Sally’s right. “You’ll need that skill tonight, to compensate for my lack thereof. Kiełbasa and sauerkraut is the limit of the cooking I’m willing to inflict upon this family so far.”
        “Don’t worry,” Sally says with a snicker, “difficulty cutting up food has never stopped her before.” She follows this by pretending to gnaw on a turkey leg or mutton chop or something similarly sized.
        “It’s sad but true,” Neko responds with a shrug. “Hunger and politeness are inversely proportional, and I think I could eat a horse right now.”
        Jōji looks at Sally. “I’m pretty sure I bought beef sausage, not horse.” Turning back to Neko, he gives a sarcastic grimace and palms-up gesture. “Sorry, you’re out of luck there.” He stands and begins collecting salad plates.
        “Wait!” Neko grabs the fork from hers and licks it clean before setting it back on the table. “It’ll save me from having to shift one fork back and forth.”
        “As you wish, Miss Manners.”
        Despite the wielding of dual forks, hunger soon crowds out politeness, and Neko resorts to stabbing long segments of sausage and gnawing at the end in her typical fashion, occasionally pausing to scoop up some mustard. “It’s going to take me some practice,” she explains, “and I’m hungry now.” (Sally shoots Jōji her ‘I told you so’ look.) She has no such difficulties with the dessert, which is a flaky pastry procured from a local bakery. The arm is at least good for holding a napkin and wiping crumbs from her lips.
        Mareo, who joined the party in progress, collects the plates. “I take it you found the fare satisfactory.”
        Neko burps, and tries to look embarrassed. “I ate too much.”
        “Me too,” seconds Hisao. “Sauerkraut is not usually my thing, but this was good.”
        “Good enough to take a jar with you?” Jōji asks with a wide grin. “I expected a bigger party.”
        “We can take two if you want,” Neko offers. “Abe probably wouldn’t mind getting one.” All eyes are silently on her as she reaches for her wine glass left-handed, but the last two fingers wrap firmly around the stem while the others cradle the bowl. She tilts the glass with a motion of her entire upper body, just as she did when forced to function with the dreaded split hook.
        “Don’t get too sauced,” Sally warns. “I have something very special for all of us, since I too had a pretty good day. Though the volume will necessarily be very limited, we have been selected as the importer for Sơn Tinh, a very hip drink from Vietnam. I figured I’d solicit your opinions before we make our pitches to the local bartenders.” She pours a bit more than a shot into each of five highball glasses and distributes them.
        “Is this what you were negotiating when we arrived?” Neko asks.
        “Yes and no. I knew we’d been selected, but I was trying to talk them into sending more than initially offered. They were forced to refuse, as they are already having difficulties keeping up with demand. They’re just now shipping batches started six years ago in the owner’s house. However, if I can move this fast enough, they’ll reconsider the allocations the next time around. Tell me what you think.” Sally gestures at the glasses and lifts her own.
        Though Neko and Hisao sip at the same time, she starts nodding as if already forming a judgment, so he takes a second taste as she starts to speak. “It’s… I don’t know, exotic but not strange? The base tastes like shochu – really good shochu, but still just shochu – and I’m not at all sure what the flavor is but I predict it will be big, if you can get it in front of the proper hipsters.”
        “‘Rose Apple’ is what it’s called. Will they like it ironically or properly?”
        “I can’t speak for hipsters,” Hisao offers, “but I like it.”
        “The youth votes yes,” Sally bubbles, “and the old fart contingent seconds their position. Guys, I think we have a winner.”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 34, 1/2 (20151009)

Post by NekoDude » Sun Oct 04, 2015 5:28 am

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

2007-11-24

        Neko expected a crowd, but not quite like this. Everyone wants to see the new arm up close and personal, which is largely why she refrained from wearing it to class until today, but she wasn’t expecting word to make it to 2-2 and 2-4. It’s not long before she finds the source of the leak.
        “My apologies,” Asamiya says with a nod of the head. In his position, it’s as close to a bow of contrition as he is allowed. “I merely asked that you be congratulated. I did not realize you would be swarmed.”
        It is the blind students that take the longest, since they have to get their ‘looks’ individually, but they’re also more fun to toy with. They jump every time she makes it move. “I’m sorry to do this,” she says with more than half the crowd still waiting for a close-up, “but I am supposed to meet someone.” The herd parts to let her escape, but a few follow her, asking questions all the while. She mixes garbage into her answers for her own amusement, except when the questions pertain to the source. They deserve the endorsement. She switches the control box to gestural mode along the way. Walking into the library, she spots Molly and has the hand waving all four fingers before she is spotted.
        “Oh cool,” says the boy at her side. “You’ll have to show me how to do things like that. Maybe I’ll learn to like wearing it.”
        “No promises,” she warns him as she lowers her arm. “I don’t know if yours is the same. You might need a new controller.” She glances down at the little black box clipped to her waistband, and he nods. It’s the first time he has dared to get this close since the end of our brief fling last year. While the other two followers take a hint and peel off, he makes it as far as the card catalog before she has to be blunt about it. “I meant some other time.
        “Oh, right.” He comes to a halt and bows, then turns and rushes away after she gets a couple steps past him.

        “I’m glad you’re here already,” Mayuki says as she answers the door and lets Hisao in. “I’ll be ready to go in five, maybe ten minutes, then you two can have the car for the rest of the day.”
        “That’s very kind of you, Mrs. E–” He pulls up short when she puts up a finger to stop him. “Err, Mayuki, but it’s not really necessary. We were only planning on watching movies and subjecting ourselves to our own cooking.”
        “And if that’s all you do, that’s fine with me. It’s just nice to have options, you know?” She heads for the restroom to finish her preparations.
        Iwanako leans in close, though the restroom fan is already running. “Since when are you two all buddy-buddy?”
        “Since last weekend.” He isn’t going to lie about it, but he also has no intention of volunteering details that aren’t requested – to either of them.
        Iwanako waits for him to do exactly that, and seems subtly amused when he does not. “The first lesson of not being seen is to not stand up,” she says, likewise not volunteering what she means.
        Great. We’re not even at the point in the relationship where we start repeating our old stories, and we’re already finding new and creative ways to not talk.

        “Really?” Neko grins broadly. “You want to see the place?”
        Molly nods. “I’ve never been on a horse before, either.”
        “I’ll have to arrange a ride. Neither of us can drive,” she says. Not legally, at least. “I don’t have the car tonight anyhow.”
        “I thought it was your car.”
        “It is, but the restaurant uses it far more than I do. I didn’t anticipate needing it today, so…” She waves the carbon fiber hand rather than swinging a fork around. “We may end up hitching a ride in it.”
        “This may sound strange,” Molly warns, “but could you do something to satisfy my curiosity? Could you put your hands together like this?” She places her own palms together, fingers matched.
        “Yeah, sure.” Neko sets down her fork and does so, showing that while the finger lengths are not a perfect match, the two hands are more or less the same size. “Interesting, it looks like they gave me a boy hand. I hadn’t noticed until now. Maybe they’re all like that.”
        “What do you mean?”
        “The ring finger is longer than the index. Is that what you saw?”
        “No. I asked because for some reason, it looks a bit too big for you. It obviously isn’t. Maybe it’s the shape or the color or something.”
        “We can test that hypothesis later. I’ll put on the skin and you can tell me if that makes any difference.” Or perhaps I’ve hypnotized you into seeing the invisible one as well. “In any case, I need to make a call.” She pulls out the phone and thumb-dials as usual, then shifts it to the other hand and compensates for the lack of precision control by holding her elbow high and head a little bit askew.
        “Hi Mum, would it be a good day for a visit? I’ve got a friend here who wants to see the place.”
        “A friend, or a date?” She sure didn’t waste any time getting to that one.
        “Umm, yes?”
        “Then you need to know your room is occupied. You can stay upstairs, but I’m not moving our guest.”
        “Oh. I think we can live with that, but who is the guest?”
        “Someone I think you’ll recognize. She’s still having trouble getting up and down stairs, and I won’t let her smoke in the house, so we compromised and I set her up downstairs. She just needed somewhere to relax after her release that wasn’t the school, you know? She’ll be rejoining your class on Monday.”
        Katayama is sleeping in my bed, and I’m not responsible? What is this world coming to? “Of all people, I won’t begrudge her a good night’s sleep. Well, I’d best arrange for a ride.”
        “Can you be at the restaurant in twenty minutes?”
        Neko laughs. “We already are.”
        “In that case, can you be back at the restaurant in twenty minutes? Unless you’re already packed that is.”
        “We’re not, and no, probably not. Wait, maybe. Why?”
        “Because we’ve already ordered lunch to be delivered. I’ll tell them not to leave until you get back – but darling, please hurry. There is a pause, and Sally drops her voice to a whisper. “Otherwise, Jōji might have to whip up a snack, and he only knows three decent ones. Don’t make me eat nachos again.
        After a quick discussion, Neko heads up the hill with Molly’s key, to fetch the bags for the both of them.

        Hisao waits at the curb until Mayuki waves goodbye to them from just inside the door, then pulls out onto the quiet street.
        “She’s right,” Iwanako says. “It would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t go anywhere today. It’s the first time in a while that it hasn’t threatened to rain.”
        “Do you have any destination in mind?”
        “A park, maybe? It would be nice to feel like we’re outside of a large city.”
        He nods. “I know just the place.”
        They head back to the house for blankets and picnic fixings, and from there it takes twenty minutes to arrive at Nanakita Park. The parking lot is not full this week and the baseball field is not in use, but they can see the lights over the tennis courts glowing even with the gray light of a late autumn afternoon.
        “I didn’t know you wanted to play tennis again,” she remarks, “after the way it went last time. I would have brought the gear.”
        “Believe me, I don’t, but there are people there worth watching.” He glances at his phone for the time. “Or rather, there will be in a few hours.”
        “I’m sure we can figure out a way to pass the time.” She giggles as she pulls him in close.

***

        “Thank you, but I’m fine,” Molly says with obvious restraint. “I’d prefer not to address this question again.”
        “Alright, I hear you.” Sally places a saucer with a single cookie on the kitchen table in front of Neko. “I take it you won’t be wanting any of these, either.”
        “Sweets? Oh I want them, but I have to ration them out. I’d rather wait for dinner.”
        “These aren’t just sweets,” Neko informs her. “They’re, ah, medicinal. We don’t eat them for the taste, that’s for sure. Shall we see what they’re doing upstairs?” She grabs her glass of milk, drinks a bit to make space at the top, and transfers it to the mechanical hand before picking up the saucer. Once standing, she positions herself next to Molly so that she can act as support for exiting the high chair.
        “Have fun up there,” Sally says as she retreats to her own room. “I heard billiard balls clicking earlier, so you should have company.”
        As the pair proceeds slowly down the hallway toward the stairs, Molly whispers, “What’s the deal with the booze? If I want it – which I won’t – then I’ll ask.”
        “It’s Mum’s idea of hospitality. She doesn’t want anyone to miss out because they were too polite to speak up. Also, right now she’s a little bit excited about the new distribution contract and wants everyone to have a taste.”
        Neko can feel rather than see Molly shaking her head. “I don’t care how sweet the hemlock is, it’s still poison.”
        The trip up the stairs is accomplished in a fashion Neko has not previously witnessed. Molly takes a seat on the second stair, facing downhill, and uses her hands to muscle herself up, backward, one stair at a time. Neko watches from the landing halfway up, before realizing she would be of more assistance if she had empty hands, causing her to race up the remaining stairs and drop off her refreshments before heading back down. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
        “Maybe if you had two hands and a strong back, but otherwise, no.” Molly butt-bumps her way up the final step to the landing. “Even then, I doubt you’re tall enough to make it work.”
        “Too right. That’s never been one of my strong points. I’ve never seen you do this before, so I didn’t know what I should do, if anything.”
        “I wouldn’t, if the stairs weren’t carpeted. It’s really easier to do this without the legs on, but even with them, I can’t fall off the floor.”
        Neko looks back over her shoulder at the half flight still to come. “It’s not too late. I can carry them up for you.”
        Molly gives this two seconds of thought at most before reaching down to disconnect the sockets from the tubes. “I tend to forget that you don’t mind stairs despite the leg.” After disconnecting one, she locks the knee and holds it up for Neko to take. When she does the same with the other, Neko tucks the first one under her half-carbon arm before reaching out, causing her to ask, “Did something happen to the hand?”
        Neko glances at the leg tucked under her arm, then at the hand, then turns back to Molly. “No, but I can’t feel it if the balance is wrong or the grip starts to slip, and I’m sure you’d prefer if I didn’t drop one of these to come tumbling down on your head.”
        “Say no more. Balance disasters are hardly unknown territory for me.”
        When Neko takes the legs up the rest of the way, she almost runs over Rika, who has taken a break from billiards practice to watch the proceedings. “Oh, hi! I wasn’t expecting you to turn up there.”
        “I was just wondering what all the commotion was, and it’s time to get some fresh air, if you know what I mean. You can have the table for a while.” Rika squeezes down the inside rail to avoid Molly blindly going the other way and Molly emits a small but obvious cough as she passes.
        “She smokes the same brand as Miyagi,” Molly mutters once Rika is out of earshot. “It’s as distinct as cheap perfume.”
        “Marlboro Red, soft pack?”
        “I don’t know about soft pack or box, but that’s it. How’d you know?”
        “I’ve supplied her before. What does it say about this country that I know multiple places to get alcohol, no questions asked, but those same places won’t sell me a pack of smokes? I had to shoulder-tap for them.”
        Molly makes it to the top stair and begins the process of reattaching her legs. “It reeks of hypocrisy. I’ve never heard of anybody getting too high on cigarettes and running someone over. That still doesn’t make her habit a good thing.”
        “No, but this is one of the few examples I can think of where it truly does not matter. Maybe she has picked up the pace since being released, but in the hospital it took her five days to go through a pack. That’s four cigarettes a day. This is unlikely to kill her any time soon, and frankly, that’s all she needs to be concerned with.”
        The snooker table is sporting an unfamiliar array of balls. Instead of fifteen reds and six colors, there are seven yellows, seven reds, and one black in addition to the cue ball. “Oh good,” Molly says, “a simple game. Snooker makes my head hurt, even just watching it.”
        “You know what’s going on here? You can set it up and explain it to me, because I don’t.” Taking a seat on one of the high bar stools, Neko resumes her interrupted partaking of milk and a cookie.

        “Want a bit?” Iwanako asks, as a flask seemingly materializes out of thin air.
        “Uh, no thanks. I’m driving, remember?” Shit, shit, shit. She has them over a barrel and he knows it. Even if he reports this, Mayuki won’t be able to mention it without divulging her source.
        “Are you expecting to leave in the immediate future?”
        “No, but there’s no guarantee the weather will hold, either. They’ll shut down this event if they see lightning, and I don’t think we’d want to stick around either.”
        She shrugs. “Suit yourself.” Her own ‘bit’ is rather restrained, but he wonders how long she can moderate her intake as she slips the vessel into her back pocket.
        I am absolutely certain that’s not where she was hiding it before, he thinks as he recalls how he had a hand there just minutes prior. He also feels a sense of relief as he picks up the scent on her breath. Midori. That’s only strong as most shochu. She’ll be fine unless she has another one of those stashed away. His relief is short-lived, however, as he realizes he didn’t know about the first one until just now. She could well have a holdout, even in the moderate purse she is carrying. Let’s get into the food. At least that will slow things down, and we can get something from the cart later. He lifts out a bag with red bean buns. “One or two?”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 34,2/2 (20151013)

Post by NekoDude » Tue Oct 13, 2015 11:39 am

(Chapter Thirty-four continued...)

        “One or two?” Rika repeats, as Neko shakes the cobwebs out of her head.
        “She made coffee, love,” Sally explains, her hair still wet from her swim.
        “Oh, ah, two for me and…” She wanders back down the hall to the bottom of the stairs and whistles, and soon sees Molly’s face over the rail. “There’s coffee. How much sugar do you want? Do you want milk?”
        “Make it sweet and about my color today.”
        So the same as mine, then.
        “Would you like a little coffee with your milk?” Sally heckles with a grin as Neko pours.
        “I probably should have put in the milk at the top. I can carry this cup –” Neko says, lifting her right shoulder “– full to the brim, but the other one, not so much.”
        “I can carry it,” Rika offers. “I was planning on joining you up there anyhow.”
        Neko recalls the reason for the room assignments. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
        “I wouldn’t dream of it,” Rika says with a wink. “I’ll save all my punishment for you two scrubs.”
        Don’t get too cocky, or I’ll call in a ringer.

        “You know,” Neko says after throwing the last of her darts without much success, “Mum has probably enjoyed having someone around who hasn’t heard all her stories a thousand times before.” She updates the score on the chalkboard.
        “She still has time,” Rika replies as she pots a yellow ball. “I plan to be a bit of a regular.” After missing the next shot, she pulls the darts from the board and takes her place at the line as Molly slowly stalks the table looking for a shot.
        It is Molly, rather than Neko, who notices the change in stance. “Look out Neko, it’s mirror universe Katayama.”
        “Hmm? Oh, yeah. When did you suddenly become a southpaw?” She watches as Rika puts the first dart in the heart of the triple 20, then just misses high with the other two.
        “One hundred,” is the announcement as the scoreboard is updated. “I’m not. It’s just a little something I picked up the last time I had a mishap. I fell out of a tree, broke my wrist,” Rika says while shaking her right hand, “and boredom set in, so I learned to throw darts left-handed. I’d dislocate my shoulder if I tried to do it with anything heavy.”
        “I’m pretty sure throwing for precision is something I won’t be doing with this hand,” Neko surmises.
        “You’re doing a bang-up job as it is,” Rika deadpans before cracking a sardonic grin.
        Molly focuses on the table, managing to get two good shots and a reasonable safety before handing the shared cue back to Rika, who she notes has retained her standard right-handed stance for this game.
        After a reasonably close game of eight-ball and an unreasonably lopsided pounding at the dartboard, Rika sits back for a moment to savor her double victory.
        Molly gives Neko a visible and affectionate squeeze to emphasize that there are other games at play here, and whispers, “I think it’s time to call in the cavalry,” which draws a brief nod. “Restroom break?” she adds at full volume after retreating to a distance where it won’t be painful. “Alright, I’ll rack for you.”

        “Do t-try to have fun, babe,” Hanako says.
        “Oh, I still will,” Akira reflects. “They’re a decent bunch of blokes, but it would be nice if I could choose my mates, ya know? I see them all week as it is, so it never entirely stops feeling like work. At least I’ll get to make the drive – one way. Sadly, it’s not my car. It may superficially resemble it, but there’s no comparison. This Lancer is a boring econobox.”
        “One way?”
        “As usual, Bartosz is our designated driver. I’ll give you a ring after I get back, if they don’t have to roll me home.”
        The pubs close at midnight, so I can expect that call somewhere between eight and nine in the morning here. “I l-look forward to it.” The phone on the desk vibrates. “That would be m-my mates.”
        “You try to have fun too.” Akira signs off with a kiss and the video box disappears with a bwip!
        Hanako grabs the still-buzzing phone. “H-hello?”
        “We’ve been requested to change plans,” Suzu starts, “but I didn’t want to approve without consulting you. They want us at the ranch. Apparently Katayama is making fools of everyone at every game, and they want to turn the tables. Abe will just have to be content with Wii bowling.”
        Sounds like fun. “What about transport?” We could still catch the bus, but it would be a bit of a waste and make it hard to get back.
        “Your bike still works, right? It’s not supposed to rain.”
        I can do that. “Y-yeah. What about the d-dogs?”
        “They’re on short leashes. They still unnerve Neko.”
        She’s not alone.

        The trio is relaxing between games and watching over the rail, two of them partaking of milk and cookies and the other just milk, when the front door swings open.
        Suzu enters first, waving to the balcony. “Look what the cat dragged in! Hey, I smell coffee.” She heads for the kitchen, a silver case tucked under her arm.
        I’ll let Neko have all the credit, Molly thinks as she waves back, or all the blame. At least Suzu will offer a challenge to Rika. Make that two challenges, she muses as she spots Hanako trailing, and finally Abe, who heads straight upstairs with their bags and turns toward his old room.
        “Wait,” Neko says, “you’re staying in your Pops’ room tonight. We’re bunked up in yours because she’s using mine.” She tips her head toward Rika.
        He stops to ponder this for a second or two, then makes the adjustment. It is not until he steps back out that he asks, “Where is he staying, then?”
        “Wherever he stays when he’s not here,” Rika answers, “which seems to be most of the time.”
        Abe slowly transitions into a broad smile. “I can’t say I blame him. Funny, I always used to think of her as closer to my age than to his, but I guess she’s right in between.” He crosses to a cabinet near the dartboard and retrieves sheets and towels, tossing them from the doorway onto the bed and then closing the door.
        “Nah, you were right with your first instinct,” Neko concedes, “but eight years is a lot when that’s half your life so far.”
        “For that matter,” he says while dipping his head and eyes to indicate he’s speaking of someone below, “so is three.” He heads down the stairs.
        “Who are we talking about?” Molly finally asks.
        Neko strikes the underside of the cocktail table with the mechanical arm, causing the other two to jump, before exclaiming “«Baka!»” and rubbing the back of her head.
        “No.” Rika shakes her head in disbelief. “You’re serious?”
        Neko grins and nods with enthusiasm to equal Rika’s skepticism. “I guess between the sheets, spastic is fantastic.”

        “What’s with all the weird rules?” Iwanako asks while gesturing at a player touching up after a dab.
        “I would imagine they just got tacked on over time,” Hisao answers with a helpless ‘don’t ask me’ posture. “I am guessing that one is to make it difficult to stand still and block shots, but you can ask someone with more of a stake in things pretty soon.” They’re already on the third match, and the final five minutes, so it comes as little surprise to see all three Pedal Bears players lower in the stands, watching their competition.
        The surprise comes when he notices Michio periodically turning around to glance up at him, but never holding it for very long. Finally, he gets the chance to make eye contact during one of these interludes, and Michio’s eyes flick over to Iwanako before returning to him. He thinks he’s seeing something he shouldn’t. Hisao makes a beckoning motion with his head, which Michio acknowledges with a nod, but it is not until the game becomes lopsided that he actually takes the invitation.
        “Iwanako, I’d like to introduce you to Michio, our cycle mechanic and the reason we were invited in the first place. Michio, this is Iwanako, just about the only friend I have left from my old home town.”
        “I always suspected you weren’t a local,” Michio says with a nod, “but you seem to have taken a liking to the place. What about you?” he asks, turning to Iwanako.
        “It certainly has its charm,” she admits, “though it’s a long way from home.”
        “We’ll be traveling ourselves next week,” he says, grinning broadly. “We still have one match left, as does «Blue Sky», but we’re mathematically certain to be the top two teams. All that remains is to find out who will be the top seed, probably them, and we’re off to Yamagata. We have to win our next match, and they have to lose theirs, for our rankings to swap.”
        “Is Yamagata where everyone holds their regionals?” Hisao asks, recalling the cross-country team and their odyssey.
        “Yeah, pretty much, or Fukushima. It would be considered home court advantage if the events were in the cities the teams typically come from. In any case, don’t come in for adjustments next weekend. There won’t be anyone covering for me.”
        “How many teams will be there?”
        “Six, just like here. We’ll play everyone except our own league, four matches in one day, then the best four of six will face off in elimination brackets on Sunday. We might end up facing off with «Blue Sky» then.”
        “It’s unlikely we can make the trip to see you, but certainly let us know how things go.”
        “It’s unlikely I could get you tickets anyhow. This is a commercial tournament, held indoors in an arena. There’s actually prize money. We only get one free ticket each, and I’m taking my daughter. Kenzō is taking his wife, and Nobuo is taking his mother, so she won’t have to watch alone. That wouldn’t work out too well, she’s only five.”
        “You promised me dinner,” Iwanako interrupts, poking Hisao with an elbow, “and the game is over.”
        “Oh, right.” He stands. “Watch our stuff, I’ll take care of the noms.”
        Surprisingly, Michio tags along. “Do I need to keep my mouth shut about this?” he asks once they duck under the stands. “She’s not just a friend, is she?”
        “No, she’s not,” Hisao admits, “but it’s not a secret. Neko has a girlfriend too – and you’ve met her.”
        “Oh!” Michio’s eyes roll momentarily in thought before he nods. “Yeah, I guess I should have seen that.”
        He thinks I mean Hanako! No harm done… it could have been.

***

        “Pfft!” Rika turns over her cards to reveal garbage, before tossing them to the next dealer.
        That’s fine, just keep stealing the blinds, Molly thinks while smiling gently. I’ve got a read on you, but you won’t know until it’s too late.
        Her chance comes soon enough when Rika pushes out a bet of ten chips from the big blind, and Molly has ♠A ♡J, with which she had merely called. “Raise,” she declares quietly before counting out forty and pushing them toward the center, the smile never wavering. Both Suzu and Hanako silently fold.
        Rika seems genuinely surprised, as this is the first time anyone has dared to push back at her in the half hour they’ve been playing. She counts out the size of the raise, then compares it to the remainder of her stack before committing. “Okay,” she says as she pushes the chips forward, which is enough to induce quick folds from Abe and Neko.
        You weren’t really thinking about coming over the top. Every time you have shoved before, you didn’t hesitate. If you had the hand for it, you would have done so to negate my positional advantage. Molly puts her on ace-and-a-rag, KQ, or a small pair.
        The flop comes down ♠J ♠10 ♢A, and Rika checks. If you’ve got KQ, that was bloody brilliant, but otherwise it’s time to separate you from any small pair. If you want to ride ace-rag to the bitter end, fine with me. “Twenty.” Molly pushes out over half of her remaining chips, and Rika instantly waves both hands in an all-in gesture. She either has a set of tens, or the straight. Pot odds dictate that the correct move is still to call, and she shoves in the remainder.
        Rika reveals ♡K ♡Q and Molly just nods as she turns over her own cards and mutters “nice hand”. Sometimes you do everything right and still lose.
        Suzu knocks on the table, burns a card, and turns ♠6. The back door flush has always been worth nearly two ‘outs’ to go with the two aces and two jacks, but now the total rises to thirteen. Suzu knocks on the table once more, burns another card, and time seems to slow to a crawl until the river hits the table: ♠2.
        Rika stares daggers and slowly turns red before muttering “nice catch” as Suzu pushes the pot to Molly.
        “Sometimes you do everything right and still lose,” Molly says with her unperturbed slight smile. And sometimes the hand breaks bad, then good again.

        “Dealer takes two,” Iwanako says before doing so. “Bet?”
        Hisao tosses in a single chip, and Iwanako pushes five more back at him, which he calls. “Kings,” he says, dropping his hand to the table.
        “Two pair,” she answers and shows aces and tens. “You’re out of chips, so off it comes.” She sets a stack of twenty in front of him in exchange for his sweater vest.
        Oh well. Even if I lose, I still win.
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 35 (20151022)

Post by NekoDude » Thu Oct 22, 2015 1:02 pm

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

2007-11-25

        Hanako is sneaking back to the couch from the restroom when she hears her phone chiming to indicate a missed call. She fumbles with it in an attempt to quell any further beeping, but it is too little, too late.
        “Don’t bother with the stealth,” Rika grumbles from beneath several layers of blankets covering the waterbed.
        “I’m s-sorry.”
        “Sorry enough to get me a glass of milk? If I’m awake, I might as well take my pills.” This seems a small price for absolution, so Hanako pours milk for the both of them and delivers Rika’s before stepping out to return the call.
        Lilly hates mornings. What would drive her to call me at 8:15? There’s only one way to find out. She taps Redial.
        Lilly answers on the first ring. “I just talked to my father, and she’s going to be alright.”
        “W-what.”
        “She has a broken ankle and a mild concussion, and they’re keeping her in the hospital overnight. Then she has to talk to the police.”
        “You’ve l-lost me.”
        “Akira has been in a wreck. Didn’t you listen to my message?”
        “N-no. I just woke up.” With a hangover.
        “C-could you…” Lilly’s voice breaks audibly. “Could you come over? Where are you? I don’t want to be alone right now.”
        “I’m n-not at the school, but I can b-be there in –” Let’s see, I’m in pajamas and I need an escort to get out the gate. “– thirty minutes. M-maybe less.” I suppose I should take my morning pill with milk too. It may be a while before I get a chance to eat.
        “Please hurry.”
        Since the house is still quiet, she steps through the sliding glass door into the pool area and looks out the rear window for someone she can flag down. Finally, she spots someone riding a horse at a slow trot and whistles through the screen.
        He turns the horse toward the house and dismounts on arrival, as this is the only way he can see through the window. Holding the reins, he asks, “You summoned?”
        “I n-need to l-leave. Someone needs to w-work the gate for me.” And leash the dogs.
        He takes one look at her. “Dressed like that? It must be some kind of emergency.”
        “It is, but I’ll ch-change first.”
        He nods. “Meet me in front in five minutes and I’ll let you out.”
        The glass door slides open, and Hanako spins around to find Sally. “What’s all this about?” she asks.
        “I have – I have to go. M-my friend has been in an ac-accident, and I have to get back to the sc-school…”
        “Another accident at Yamaku?” Sally asks with a note of alarm.
        “N-no, but I have to go. Her s-sister is waiting.”
        “Has she already been taken to a hospital?” Hanako nods, so Sally continues. “Then take a deep breath, go get dressed, and one of us can drive you to her. We’ll pick up her sister on the way. Where is she?”
        “S-Scotland. Inverness.”
        “Oh. On second thought, maybe we won’t drive you there, but we’ll at least run you back. If the bicycle won’t fit in the Bimmer, it will have to wait until later today. Nobody drives Pearl but me.” Sally extends an arm, beckoning Hanako back into the main part of the house.
        When Hanako emerges, dressed and packed, Sally hands her another bag. “It fits, barely. I took the liberty of packing you a lunch.” The clinking of glass on glass suggests it is a liquid lunch.

        Eighteen minutes have passed when Lilly hears the faint ticking of a bicycle freewheel, and it’s not at a walking pace. After another minute, there is a tap at the door.
        “Come in, Hanako.” Lilly waits for the door to open and close again. “Did you just ride through the dorms?”
        “I – You t-told me to hurry.” Hanako seems to be opening drawers, the third one remaining open.
        “What are you doing?”
        “Opening the wh-white before it warms up.”
        “Eh?”
        “I b-brought wine. One white, one red.” A cork is audibly pulled. “Sorry about the glasses, they’re p-plastic.” There is the sound of the corkscrew being dropped back into the drawer, then it is closed.
        “Would this have anything to do with where you were last night?”
        “Y-yes.”
        “Do I want to hear about this?”
        “N-no.”
        Lilly sighs. “Well then, let me bring you up to date. Apparently they were returning from the pub just a couple hours ago when someone on the other side of the road lost control and ended up in their lane. Their driver swerved, and they ended up in a ditch, upside down. The other driver fled the scene.”
        “Oh. Is that why she needs to talk to the p-police?”
        “No. She needs to talk to the police because it’s considered her car. They’re holding the driver on account of giving a false identification at the scene. They say he identified as Prawo Jazdy. They hauled him in on multiple warrants before he claimed that isn’t his name.” A cup is pressed to the the back of Lilly’s hand, so she takes it. “Hanako, do I hear you trying not to laugh?”
        “No. I m-mean yes. This will get s-straightened out, I’m sure of it.”
        “What makes you so sure?”
        “Prawo Jazdy is…” She has to stop to stifle laughter once again, succeeding only long enough to finish her sentence. “…is Polish for d-driving license.

***

        “Does the ride ever stop around here?” Molly demands to know, with more than a hint of bitterness to her voice. “It’s not even noon, and you’re all either two sheets to the wind, or busy hoisting those rags.” Even Suzu has a glass of wine in one hand, and coffee in the other.
        “It always seems to turn into a party past some critical number of people,” Neko observes. “If we’ve got enough for a good poker game, it’s probably a party. We’re one short now – I hope everything is working out for her – but we still have hangovers to nurse.”
        “Red wine is good for the heart,” Rika adds, lifting her glass before taking a drink. “And the head too,” she adds as she sets the glass down. “You weren’t complaining about it last night, when you were taking my money.”
        “I was hoping to make my statement by example.” Molly aims her glare at Rika, the newest addition to the bacchanalia crew. “Evidently, some people didn’t get the memo.”
        “Oh I got it,” Rika shoots back. “What was I supposed to do, snap my fingers and sober up? It would be a nice trick, if you could figure it out.”
        “I’ve got it figured out, alright. Don’t start. Then you won’t have to worry about it.” Molly storms out of the kitchen with even more of a clamor than usually surrounds her when she walks.
        “Who put a bee in her bonnet?” asks Abe, the only one of the bunch not softening his hangover this morning, instead choosing to just suck it up and ride it out.
        “You, and me, and Mum, and you and you and you.” She points at everyone in turn, waving at the bedroom door when speaking of her mother, as Jōji looks back over his shoulder from the stove to see if he is included.
        “What did I do?” he protests.
        “Right, maybe not you. It’s mostly my fault regardless. I brought Carrie Nation to the speakeasy. My only defense is that I didn’t know.”
        “You didn’t know,” Suzu asks while putting down the coffee to free a hand to gesticulate, “that the girl who lost her legs and her parents to a drunk driver has just a slight problem with alcohol? Don’t you do any basic background checking before you hook up with someone?”
        “Thanks for the heads-up. I could have used it some time ago. Let me see if I can do anything to salvage the situation.” Neko jumps down from the bar stool and heads for the stairs, catching Molly only two-thirds of the way up them. “I’m sorry, I had no idea. Is there anything I can do to –”
        “Yes,” Molly snarls. “Get me a ride out of here. Now.

        Sally pulls her feet off her desk and her hands from behind her head as she hears the door squeak, automatically pulling her line of sight down to the correct level. “Yes, dear?”
        “I’m buggered,” Neko says with the most downcast look Sally has seen since returning from South America. “Molly is demanding a trip out of here, like now. I swear I didn’t know she had such a traumatic history with alcohol, or I never would have brought her here.”
        Sally nods. “You have a decision to make, and fast. Either you stay here overnight and go back in the morning with Rika, or you go back now. Two trips today is one too many as it is, although I don’t blame you for the first one.”
        “I’ll start packing.”

        “I’m sorry you have to work for your brunch,” Neko says to Abe as she drags Jōji away from his cooking duties.
        “No worries, it feels like old times. Sorry you have to miss it.” He cracks two eggs into the bacon grease.
        “Me too, believe me.” Her stomach growls in confirmation.
        The ride back is filled with uncomfortable silence. When they disembark at the top of the hill, Neko attempts to offer support for Molly, who responds by wrenching her arm away and telescoping her walking stick. “I don’t want to see you right now.”
        “Fine. You know where to find me.” Neko takes a different angle toward the south side of the courtyard, and the room she calls ‘home’. Upon arrival, she sheds the excess layers of clothing that had substituted for a proper packing job and grabs her phone. If I’ve lost one friend today, the least I can do is try to help another.

        When Hanako’s phone chimes, both of them reach for it simultaneously, colliding and ending up in a tangled, laughing pile on the floor. Somehow within this chaos, Lilly manages to get a hand on the phone and thumbs the button to answer.
        “Hello?” she says, Hanako still giggling in the background.
        “Hey! G-gimme the phone!”
        “Oh, hello, uh…” Neko seems at a loss for words. “How are things going over there?”
        “Your concern is touching,” Lilly croons, knowing she’s a bit too drunk to completely conceal her sarcasm. “We’ve had better days, but we’ve had worse ones too.”
        “Everyone is still alive, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future?”
        “You could say – hey!” Lilly exclaims in surprise as the phone is plucked from her hand.
        “H-hello?” Hanako re-answers while scampering into the corner. “Relatively okay. N-nothing that won’t heal.” Lilly can make out the tinny voice at the other end, but not the words. “L-let me ask. Lilly, she wants to know if we w-wish to join her for l-lunch.”
        “Both of us, or just you?”
        “Both.”
        “Like the Rogers’ care if Satous live or die.”
        “She w-wants to talk to y-you.” The phone is pressed back into Lilly’s hand.
        “Look, I understand your skepticism,” intones Neko’s voice, “but it’s misplaced. I won’t try to claim Akira and I are the best of friends, but we get along, I respect her, and I do care about her well-being. She seems like someone I could really get to like, if given a chance. I even care about you, hard as you may find it to believe. If we didn’t care, would we have sent the wine? Look, I’ll be there in a couple minutes. If you want to come with me, that would be wonderful. If not, I’ll just leave my gift and go.” The call drops.
        “Hanako, where did you get the wine?”
        “Umm…”
        “That’s what I thought. But you know what? She’s right. The situation is stable, and we could use a little food.” Lilly attempts to stand up and ends up stumbling along, searching for a wall, a bookshelf, anything vertical she can lean on.
        “M-maybe it would be better if the f-food came to us.

        Neko taps quietly at Hanako’s door at first, then upon receiving no response, takes to knocking louder. She puts her ear to the door and still hears nothing until a persistent psst! grabs her attention. Turning to her right, she notices that the neighboring door is open, and Hanako’s head is sticking out about half a meter from the ground.
        “Oh, right. Derp.” She sets foot in Lilly’s room for the first time and takes in her surroundings. Aside from a heavily embroidered, quilted duvet, the place is devoid of any sort of decoration to speak of. Mariko’s spartan room looks like a holiday festival by comparison. “As promised, I brought a gift.” She places the small, hand-labeled bottle of Sơn Tinh on the desk next to the two empty wine bottles. “Go gentle on it, it’s rare stuff. You won’t find this in any konbini any time soon. Have you had time to consider my offer?”
        “L-lunch sounds good, but we, ah –” Hanako trails off.
        “Waiting for a call, are you? We can get a corner booth. After all, I won’t be the only one representing ownership.”
        “N-no, it’s just that, ah –”
        “We’re liable to fall over,” Lilly interrupts uncharacteristically. “Could we get it delivered perhaps?”
        “Sadly, no,” Neko says apologetically. “Not for nearly another hour. I suppose I could run down the hill and bring something back.”
        “Is that a p-problem?” Hanako asks, gesturing at Neko’s empty sleeve.
        “Huh? Oh, no. I ran both batteries down and forgot to take the charger with me. No point in wearing it if it doesn’t work. Just don’t expect me to get drinks too. The specialty today is Mexican, and burritos are quite portable.” After a brief discussion, the order is phoned in. Neko heads into the noontime haze with the seeds of a headache well in place. By the time she makes the trip back up the hill some twenty minutes later, the seeds have taken root and sprouted. Bloody hell, I missed my morning dose. While detouring to take care of this difficulty, she also grabs a previously opened but over half full bottle of wine from the refrigerator. She thinly disguises it in its own brown paper bag, the half-seated cork projecting out the top.
        Upon returning, she doesn’t bother to knock. “Did you miss me?” is how she announces her return, and she sets everything down on the desk before distributing the foil-wrapped meals-to-go. “Carnitas. That would be mine.” She sets it on the desk before reaching into the bag again. “Carne asada. Here you go.” She holds it out for Hanako to take. “Chicken and rice.” She holds it up, uncertain how to let Lilly know to take it, when Hanako breaks the impasse by assisting the transfer. “Thank you. Last, but not least, the menudo.” She sets it on the floor between Hanako and Lilly. “It’s supposed to be a hangover remedy.”
        “I don’t have a hangover,” Lilly insists, “but I’ll taste it anyhow.”
        “It’s h-hot,” Hanako warns.
        “Is that like ‘Lilly will find it hot’ hot,” Lilly inquires, “or ‘it makes vindaloo seem like milk’ hot?”
        Hanako takes one of the plastic spoons, peels off the lid, and dips carefully into the bowl, leaning forward and holding her hand under the spoon to prevent spillage before closing her eyes and raising her eyebrows. “It’s hot.
        “Just give me a tiny taste then.” Hanako passes Lilly a spoon less than half full, and she sips at it gently before declaring, “This doesn’t cure hangovers, it just puts the sufferer out of her misery. My God. My tongue is on fire.”
        “Maybe the problem is that you don’t have a hangover,” Neko speculates before taking a spoonful herself. With a tear running down her cheek, she admits, “No, you got it right. Bloody hell that’s hot.” She signals Hanako that she’s welcome to the remainder. It did make me forget about my headache for a moment, though.
        With each scoop, the spoon becomes coated with an ever-thickening layer of dark orange chili oil, but still Hanako goes back to the well, finally tossing back the last of the contents as if it were a pint glass in a beer-chugging competition. She points at the empty container and gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up, even with tears streaming down her face.
        To think Mum wants you to teach Jōji to cook. She would eat that without complaint, because she can’t let anyone know she’s not invulnerable. Moron Miura’s coronation may come sooner than anticipated – and if there’s anyone you’re not going to kill with chili peppers, it’s her.

***

        The light filtering around the edges of the curtain is somewhat dimmer but no less gray when Lilly puts a lid on things. “I can’t speak for you,” she announces, “but whatever adrenaline has been keeping me awake thus far has completely fallen out from under me.”
        “Have you been up all night?” Neko asks in surprise.
        “Close enough to it. I managed a couple hours, before I woke up at an hour when you probably hadn’t yet gone to bed.” She throws in another yawn for emphasis. “It wasn’t enough.”
        “I can sympathize,” Neko replies, nodding although she is well aware it will go unnoticed. “I had a lot of nights like that early in my recovery. I’ll let you get some well-deserved rest.” As she pieces herself back together, she catches motion in her peripheral vision. Hanako is gesturing, first to herself, then to Neko, and finally to the door before giving a questioning look. Do I still want some company? Sure, it beats brooding alone.
        Hanako stands and helps Lilly to her feet before sharing a heartfelt embrace. “This will all w-work itself out soon,” she croons softly. Once separated, she likewise offers a hand to help Neko, who offers only the short arm.
        “I’m not supposed to do that yet,” she explains while waving her hand, so Hanako grabs on tight to the nub and pulls instead. “Thanks, love.”
        “C-call me if anything ch-changes,” Hanako tells Lilly.
        “I’ll do that,” Lilly replies, “but I have a good feeling that we’re not in for any more big surprises today.”
        “Let’s hope she’s right,” Neko says as they step into the hallway and head next door.
        Hanako nods vigorously as she locks the door behind her. “She g-generally is.”
        A bit after four, as the two finish their leftovers and sober up, Hanako’s phone chimes to life again. “It’s her!” She answers instantly, putting it on speaker. “Hello?”
        “I promised I’d call when I got home,” Akira’s tinny voice rings out. “I finally made it.”
        “What about B-Bartosz?”
        “Yeah, he’s probably home by now too. Papa gave the police a gentle tip that they may have made a mistake. Hey, am I on speaker? Is Lilly there too?”
        “N-no, she’s asleep. N-Neko is here.”
        “Ah. Best to keep those two apart, I suppose.”
        Neko jumps in. “I thought the same, until today. We negotiated a peace treaty over burritos.” Let’s see if it holds when she’s not under fire from another side.
        “That is a pleasant, if unexpected development.” It is easy to imagine Akira cracking a smile. “I’m glad you have good news, because I’m tapped out. I’m afraid I’m going to be here a bit longer than expected. I’m off my feet for a while and can’t drive either, Colin’s laid up with a broken collarbone, and Bartosz is understandably sketchy about driving anyone more than himself around for a while, though his reflexes probably saved us all. Ian is the only one to walk away from this without physical or mental scars, and I’d sooner drive with one leg than hand him the keys.”
        “H-how much longer?” Hanako asks with trepidation.
        “Well, we were already running a bit behind schedule, so we’re probably looking at the end of January. Fucking ow.
        “W-what happened?”
        “It’s just my ankle. Because of the concussion, I can’t have any decent pain pills until I’m cleared. Paracetamol is as useful as wanking into the wind. I’m dipping into Papa’s private stash right now, but I won’t be able to do that during working hours. At least they’re letting me work out of his office for the week, and I may beg off tomorrow.”
        “Is d-drinking a g-good idea with a concussion?”
        “Who said anything about drinking?” There is the sound of a lighter being flicked, and water bubbling. Akira’s already husky voice switches into ‘minimum airflow’ mode. “I’m going to get some sleep, or try at least. Update Lils when she wakes, would you?”
        “Y-yes, certainly. I love you.”
        “I love you too, babe.” Akira signs off with a kiss.
        “A safety meeting sounds really good right about now,” Neko opines. “Shall I come back afterward?”
        Hanako finishes off the last bite of her burrito and crumbles the foil before tossing it at the waste bin and coming up short. “No, I’ll f-follow you.” She gets up, collects her own rebound, and puts it away properly before helping Neko to her feet again.
        “Should we wake her?” Neko tips her head toward Lilly’s door as they pass.
        Hanako shakes her head. “I don’t think she’ll be s-surprised by any of it.”
        “No, I suppose not. I’m sorry you’re going to be apart an extra month, but it could have been much worse.”
        It is quite a while before Hanako has a quiet response. “Y-yes, it could have. She could have ac-accepted the job in Ireland.”
        Arriving back at her own room, Neko unlocks the door and switches on the lights before shutting down half of them. Digging through the closet, she says, “This occasion calls for «Rogers Water».” She holds up a large glass bong, but gets a blank look from Hanako. “It’s a pun. You know, «Roger Waters» of «Pink Floyd»? No? Never mind. Would it bother you if I lit up here, rather than in the loo?”
        “N-no, it’s y-your room.”
        “Right. This will take a moment.” Neko grabs the empty coffee pot and takes it into the restroom, filling it part way once the water runs warm. This she pours into the stem of Rogers Water, while tipping it forward to keep the water from leaking from the carb hole in back. “I rarely use this,” she explains as she packs the bowl, “because cleaning it is such a pain. Or at least it was until I learned about the salt and alcohol method.” Covering the carb hole with the short arm, she sets the flame to the bowl and draws deeply before snuffing the bowl with the mint tin and opening the hole to draw out the remaining smoke.
        Hanako watches with a tilt of the head and an indecisive look before speaking. “C-could I t-try?”
        Neko holds up one finger until she is ready to exhale. “I thought you had a bad experience in the past.”
        “I d-did… but that was with M-Miura.”
        Neko chuckles. “Yeah, I can see how that might spin you out your first time. She throws off this vibe like she’s a lion and everyone else is a lamb. You’re really sure?”
        Hanako nods, stops, then nods again. She’s trying to convince herself.
        “There should be plenty left in the bowl for another hit.” She passes the glass and wields the lighter as Hanako struggles not to cough. “Let some air leak into the mix,” Neko advises. She caps the bowl once the bubbling ceases and takes the kit back for her turn, during which the bowl flames out and needs a reload.
        “That’s n-not so bad,” Hanako fibs while exhaling and blinking rapidly.
        “Yeah, you did alright.” Neko takes another rip from the fresh load, passing the piece quickly rather than snuffing it out, and finally killing the second bowl with one big drag once it is passed back. “That’s probably enough for now. Best you let that take hold and see where you are.” A few minutes tick by as Neko puts the coffee pot to work in its intended role, brewing Nakai’s Secret Recipe.
        “Wh-when should I f-feel something?”
        “Pretty soon. I can feel it coming up on me a little bit.” Spotting a package of rice crackers close at hand, Neko grabs them and pitches them over her shoulder. “When you have a sudden craving for these, it’s on.”
        “Then that would be n-now.”

***

        Hisao lets himself into a darkened room, surprised when throwing the light switch turns on only the bulb directly above the door. After locking up, he nudges the figure in the bed. “I’m home,” he whispers, before leaping back and nearly soiling his pants as Hanako rolls over and gives quite a similar reaction, retreating to the corner and pulling the sheets around her despite being dressed. “What the… Where’s Neko?”
        “She w-went for a ride. I don’t know wh-where.”
        Glancing around the room after regaining his composure, he spots the absence of the bicycle from the rack, and the glass bong on the desk. “I’ll call her, thanks.”
        Surprisingly, she picks up. “Hello dear. I didn’t expect to be away so long, but I have to wait for a bus.”
        “Where are you, and why is Hanako in my bed?”
        “Tsubonumahachiman Shrine, and she needed a nap. I thought I’d be back before you.”
        “Are you serious? That’s quite a road trip, especially in the dark.”
        “Tell me about it,” Neko concurs. “Eight kilometers, and some of those hills are brutal. It took me almost an hour. Still, I made it before my leg cramped up. Now I’m just waiting for a ride back. It should be here in about twenty minutes, so I should see you inside of an hour. Be nice to Hanako, we’ve both had quite a day.”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 36 (20151026)

Post by NekoDude » Mon Oct 26, 2015 4:10 pm

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

2007-11-26

        The note lands on Hisao’s desk during the first change-over. He assumes Lezard peeked at it, but Suzu moved it along without hesitation, not even picking her head up off the desk.
        “I’m ready to talk,” it says, and nothing more.
        He looks across the two intervening desks and locks eyes with Molly before nodding acknowledgement. I’ll let her know.
        Come lunchtime, he makes a point of delivering the message personally. Dropping into the Radio Room, he spots Neko with her feet on the desk, a plastic tray balanced on the artificial hand, and a spoon in the real one. “Oh good,” she says, setting down her lunch and putting her feet back on the floor, “it hasn’t even had time to get cold.” She picks up a similar tray from atop the transceiver and offers it to him before setting it back down.
        “Your other situation may be warming a little as well,” he says as he retrieves the note from his shirt pocket and drops it on the desk.
        After reading it, Neko folds the note and pockets it. “Mind if we defer that swim – maybe later today, maybe tomorrow? I’m rather sore anyhow.” She punches herself in the calf a few times. “There it goes again. That’s why I had my feet up.”
        “You’re lucky you had a backup plan for getting back last night. Imagine how you’d be feeling if you had been forced to return under your own power.” He kneels in front of her, picking up her left foot and placing it over his right shoulder before pulling gently down on the knee and working the knots out.
        “I couldn’t have. Well, maybe I could have walked up those steep hills, but I was in no condition to ride up them again. I was afraid I wouldn’t even get there, and would have to call for a rescue pickup. Since it’s set back from the road, I didn’t know how far I had to go until I was practically there.” She grins when she catches him peeking up her skirt as he works, and makes no move to block his line of sight. “Feeling hungry?”
        “Like the wolf.”

        Neko makes the walk to the library after class, each step causing two different kinds of discomfort. Right now, the muscle pain from the left calf dominates, but the twinge and wobble in the right knee is much more worrying. She can only imagine how much worse off she’d be if she had been able to stand and mash her way up the hills. Two hours. If I can bear it that long, I’ll take my evening dose an hour early, right after therapy.
        Upon arrival, she spots Molly, who acknowledges the eye contact and pulls out the chair to her left before spinning her own chair ninety degrees in small stages. I wouldn’t expect her to get up, but if she could, would it be to hug me, or to punch me in the nose?
        “I wanted to apologize again for putting you in a bad spot,” Neko starts as she accepts the offered seat. “I really should have done my homework.”
        Molly nods. “I’m sorry as well. I could have handled things better myself, but – but I panicked, basically. I went in hoping for a relaxing getaway and maybe a horseback ride, and instead found myself in Babylon. Katayama didn’t help. I merely found her annoying before, but now I actively dislike her.”
        “I can’t say she’s my idea of an ideal friend either,” Neko admits, “but we saved her scrawny arse, and Mum needs useful idiots – or at least believes it to be the case. Time will tell what does her in first: her heart, her hubris, or her ‘friends’. I wouldn’t bet against any of them.”
        “For her safety as well as my own, I would prefer to keep my distance going forward. She’s a time bomb, or a loose cannon, or a lorry without brakes. Take your pick. That’s not what really gets to me though.” Molly leans in close and speaks quietly. “When I watch her, I see you, taken to ridiculous extremes, so the more she gets on my nerves, the more you do as well.”
        “That’s all the more reason to keep the two of you apart. I’m quite capable of buggering things without external assistance, right?”
        “Don’t worry, it shouldn’t be difficult unless she starts showing up for Cinema Club meetings – which she never has before, so I don’t see why she’d start now unless she wanted to cause trouble. I would like to just back up a step or two and pretend the whole thing never happened. I didn’t ask to see your house, and you didn’t take me. Let’s keep this strictly casual.”
        “I live in my world, you live in yours, and occasionally our ships go bump in the night?” Neko doesn’t even pretend to not be surprised.
        “Something like that. Surely you knew a hook-up with a third year came with an expiration date, and that it doesn’t pay to take it too seriously.”
        Neko nods sadly. “That I did.” And I don’t mean just you.

        Lilly taps at Hanako’s door. “Hanako, are you in there?”
        Hanako rises from her seat at her desk where she is struggling to pay attention to her homework. Opening the door, she replies, “Yes, wh-where else would I be?”
        “I don’t know. You do have other friends, after all. Anyhow, I’m glad you are here. Akira is supposed to call back in a few minutes and she wanted us both if possible. It’s a handy end run around the office rules about phone calls during working hours.”
        “Oh! W-would you like to come in, or should I f-follow you?”
        “Do you have tea?” When Hanako hesitates, Lilly produces a tin from behind her back. “Now you do.” She edges through the doorway and takes a seat on the corner of the bed.
        “Oh, r-right.” Hanako fills her electric kettle and sets it safely out of the way. “This is Irish b-breakfast tea.”
        “Oh dear, I must have grabbed the wrong tin. You’re not going to report me to the Tea Police, are you?”
        Hanako giggles at the thought of Tea Police, monitoring to keep miscreants from drinking breakfast tea in the afternoon. “N-no. I mean it’s b-breakfast time in Ireland, r-right?”
        “Well played! Yes, that will work.”
        The call comes through while the tea is steeping, but Hanako continues the motions since they will in no way interfere with talking over a speakerphone.
        “Hello there,” Akira’s voice rings out. “Who do I have this morning?”
        “I’m h-here,” Hanako chimes in.
        “In honor of you,” Lilly gushes, “we’re making Irish breakfast tea.”
        “In honor of me? If I want to start my morning with something Irish, it’s Beamish or Bailey’s. None of that tea shite for me.”
        “You keep starting the day like that,” Lilly cracks back, “and they’ll never clear you of that concussion.”
        “I guarantee the NHS can bloody well tell the difference between drunkenness, concussion, and both at once. This is Scotland, for God’s sake! In any event, I did not call to discuss our morning routines. I called to ask some questions, and perhaps spur some action.” Akira’s first question completely blindsides Hanako. “Hey babe, do you have a passport?”
        “A p-p-p… no, I’ve never n-needed one.”
        “We’ll have to expedite then. I’ll let the office there know, and they’ll walk you through it. Do you need to do some shopping as well?”
        “Shopping? F-for what?”
        “Winter clothing, dear. Inverness gets bloody cold at Christmas time.”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 37 (20151103)

Post by NekoDude » Tue Nov 03, 2015 10:28 pm

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

2007-11-28

        The big black 750i rolls up to the curb, and a huddled, hooded figure rises from the bus stop bench. First approaching the left side of the car, she detours once the window is cracked.
        “S-sorry,” Hanako says as she climbs in on the right, sets her backpack between her feet, and gets belted in before waving toward the steering wheel. “I f-forgot. Thank you for this ch-chance, I need the money more n-now than ever.”
        “Oh? What’s going on now?” Sally pulls away from the curb and heads back down the hill.
        “I’m going to Scotland for C-Christmas.”
        “Well don’t thank me just yet, the job may be more involved than you expected when you signed on. He does alright when working from directions, but can’t improvise his way out of a wet paper bag – and I’ll be sitting in on some of it myself. But about this trip: is it a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, she’s going to make it, right?”
        “Oh, yeah, she’s n-not too bad. It’s just, well, she d-doesn’t want to fly on c-crutches, so she’s flying us to h-her instead.”
        “That sounds lovely,” Sally replies with a smile. “You get cash no matter what, but if you do a good enough job, you can have the bicycle too. I expect it will take all four of the sessions we tentatively agreed to, maybe more, so it’s a good thing we’re starting early if you’re leaving in less than a month.” As they roll up to the front of the house, there is nobody there to greet them – but there aren’t any dogs milling about, either. “It looks like he’s not back yet. That’s alright, it gives you time to choose your weapons for the upcoming battle.”
        “My w-weapons?”
        “I’m afraid the best blades went to the restaurant, so you’re left with steel rather than ceramic. Also, isn’t one of the unwritten steps in any recipe involving wine to sample at every opportunity to make sure it’s still good?”
        Hanako giggles. “That actually would be a b-bad idea. Most cooking wine is n-not fit for d-drinking. It’s s-salted to avoid taxes.”
        “You’d think I would know something like that,” Sally admits with a shrug as she opens the front door, “but that only shows how desperately you are needed. Anyhow, you’ll have the run of the kitchen, so if you don’t care for the way I set it up, you can move things.”
        “Are these knives sh-sharp?” Hanako asks when presented with several blocks adorned with blades.
        “Some are, some might not be. Jōji sharpened the ones he thinks are best, but you may want some specialty knife he overlooked. They’re all clean though, and in some cases extensively sterilized. He’ll sharpen anything you wish, so don’t be too concerned about it. He may not be much of a cook yet, but he certainly knows how to handle a blade. Oh, I just thought of something.” Sally snaps her fingers.
        “W-what’s that?”
        “None of your recipes call for rabbit, do they?”
        “N-no, why?”
        “He, uh, got rather sick of it in his youth and has never quite gotten over it. Don’t worry about it then. Hey, there he is.” Sally turns her attention on Jōji, who has a bag of groceries in each arm. “Glad you could make it.” She gives him a quick kiss. “I got her to reconsider the rabbit stew.”
        “Ugh,” Jōji says with a roll of the eyes. “Don’t even joke about that. I have two more bags still in the car, I’ll be right back.” As he retreats back down the hall to collect the remainder of the shopping, Sally winks at Hanako.

        “Do you mind if we turn on the subtitles again?” Hisao asks. “I’m only catching about half of what they say, and even less of what they’re doing.”
        Neko pauses the movie. “They’ll be in English only. This disc is actually not mine, it’s one Miki left behind, so it was shipped over from America.”
        “Still, that gives me two bites at the English apple. It can’t hurt.”
        Neko shrugs and changes the settings. “Do you want me to back it up any? We’re not even ten minutes in.”
        “Would it help? I mean, is it relevant to what comes later?”
        “Yeah, it is. I’ll just run it again from the top.”
        They have reached the point where Raoul Duke is waving a flyswatter at bats only he can see, and Hisao asks, “Why would anyone put themselves through this on purpose? It hardly seems like fun.”
        “It’s fiction, babe. It’s entertainment. Don’t take it too seriously, he was in the business of selling his writing. Not only that, but they were stacking God-knows-what. I won’t say these things couldn’t have happened, but they probably didn’t happen the way they’re portrayed here.”
        “I can sympathize with this poor hitchhiker, having jumped into this insanity. How did he get stuck out in the middle of nowhere to start with? It’s not like the previous ride could say ‘that’s as far as I’m going, good luck’, you know?”
        “I don’t know,” Neko admits. “I had a hard time with that one myself. Bad decisions I can accept. Complete logic breakdowns get to me. Still, just roll with it.”
        There are several more instances of Hisao shaking his head and muttering “What the fuck?” but the subtitles do seem to be helping. By the time they get to the scene where Duke has to extricate his attorney from the rotating bar, he seems to be enjoying the ride.

        “Take a s-spoonful of broth.” Hanako dips a ceramic soup spoon into the simmering liquid. “Add a p-pinch of the spice you’re t-testing, and t-taste it. Does it help? If so, in it g-goes. F-forget the book,” she adds with a dismissive wave.
        “But I generally get it right when I follow the book,” Jōji nervously objects.
        “We’ve already s-substituted pork for lamb. That will change the c-cooking time, and the s-spices. This is why I’m h-here, to help you understand the ph-philosophy of scratch cooking, and start to t-trust yourself.”
        “I prefer to follow directions. I worry less.” If they didn’t know what they were doing, why would they have put their orders in writing?
        “That’s f-fine, when you have what the b-book calls for. But remember, that book didn’t wr-rite itself. S-someone, or many someones, had to f-figure it out first. Why should you assume they l-like exactly the same things as you?”
        Jōji hesitantly samples from the spoon Hanako is holding out, then adds a pinch of spice and samples again. Nodding, he says, “This does seem to help, but how do I know how much to put in?”
        “Start small and s-sample often. It’s a lot easier to put in m-more than to try to t-take it back out.” She attempts to put Jōji at ease with a smile, but it only makes him take a small step backward.
        Please don’t stand so close to me.

        “You know, you asked an awful lot of questions during the film,” Neko observes. “Some of them I could attempt to answer, but really, there’s no substitute for experience. If I could assure you that it wouldn’t spin out of control like that, and that it’s no harder on you physically than a few bong hits, would you let me ‘turn you on’?”
        Hisao gives her a skeptical glare. “What exactly do you have in mind? I’m not too keen on mixing my cornucopia of meds with shady street drugs or stuff intended for animals.”
        “This would be neither. You could even go with me to pick the mushrooms if you like. They grow naturally around the horse trails. They’re kinda slimy and nasty fresh, but dried out they’re a bit like spongy sawdust – far from tasty, but also pretty easy to mask. It’s literally a day trip. If you eat them in the morning, your feet are firmly back on the ground by evening. Ask Mariko if you don’t believe me.”
        Hisao draws a deep breath and sighs loudly. “I’ll give it some thought. I’m not just saying that to get you off my case, I really want to do my own inquiries. I’m sure you believe everything you said, but you’re not the one with the heart condition.”
        “Fair enough, but if you take too long, I may do the picking without you. I have to grab them when they appear, which isn’t always when they’re desired.”
        “Oh. I can go picking with you, even if I decide not to try them. I don’t really see any downside to that. I’ll let you know on the rest.”
        “And if I eat them alone, you’ll do what, sit back and watch me?” Neko leans back perilously in the chair, as she so often does. “It’s not really that interesting as an observer, unless someone takes too much, too much.” She swings her arms from behind her head, throwing her weight forward and planting her feet back on the ground. “I wouldn’t make you babysit me, at least not yet. If we go into this together, I’ll also keep to a level where I can hold my shit together – for your sake.”
        “I said I’d think about it.”

***

        Jōji stares at the white ceiling, dimly and variably lit by the lava lamp beside the bed. “I don’t know what it is. I have nothing against her, she just makes me nervous. My head gets all foggy and I can’t think straight.”
        “Maybe you’re thinking with the wrong head,” Sally teases, accompanying the words with a grab. “I’ll make sure you’re out of supplies before the next session.”
        “Was it really just me? You were there, hiding behind a martini or three. You saw it.”
        “I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary from her, only you. Maybe I got things going in the wrong direction with the quip about rabbit stew. I was trying to be funny, not spin you out.”
        “I know, I know,” he concedes, “but you’re not the one who has had tularemia – twice.” He points at a scar on the webbing of his left thumb. “It’s not a pretty sight, and it feels even worse. I’m told the first time was worse, and that my life was actually in danger, but I don’t remember it all that well. The second time was pure misery. That’s when I decided that maybe I needed another path to follow.”
        “The wounds are much deadlier in this line of work,” Sally says as she thumps the back side of a fingernail against his ribcage, “although I’d like to keep you out of the line of fire as much as possible. We both know how well that has worked out so far.”
        “Yeah, well… you seem to get on reasonably well with those who I might otherwise worry about. The damn Russians are just a nuisance. It’s a shame you had to spend your one piece of leverage to get your position in the first place.”
        “I have one left in the chamber, even if I have to renege on someone else.” She runs a finger down his chest, drawing wavy squiggles as she goes.
        “You… no!” He propels himself more or less upright in horror. “These people would eat her for lunch and not even leave the bones! I like Neko, but I don’t think –”
        “Not Kat, dear, calm down. You’re not telling me anything Sam and I didn’t figure out years ago. She’s crazy smart, too smart for her own good sometimes, but she lacks the temperament for the position. You know damn well who we’re grooming for the job.” The look of panic and sheer terror on his face must say everything he dares not speak aloud. What can of worms have I opened? “That’s what I figured. Still interested in politics by marriage?”
        “Forget I ever said anything.”
        Sally winks. “About what?”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 38 (20151124)

Post by NekoDude » Tue Nov 24, 2015 7:52 pm

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

2007-11-30

        Neko catches up with Hisao in the halls, something that still surprises him, considering she has to come up a floor to do so, and he didn’t exactly dawdle getting out of class. “Where are you headed?” she asks.
        “Study group,” he answers with a non-specific wave of the hand. “The second baseline practice test day is tomorrow, then we have seven weeks, five if you don’t include vacation time, to cram for the big test.”
        “Well, today is the day for picking. It’s been unseasonably warm, damp but not too damp, and we’re supposed to get more significant rain before long.” She shrugs. “Sorry you’re going to miss it, but I’ll save some for you anyhow. I’ll be back tonight, I’m not staying over.”
        “Maybe if you’d have done it tomorrow, I could have joined you.”
        “No worries, I understand. It must be tough being a third year.”
        “You say that a lot.” Oops, I didn’t mean for it to come out quite that snarky.
        “Yeah? I mean it though. The whole testing system is kinda screwy, and I don’t think it needs to be – but nobody asks me. What tests are you focusing on today?”
        “English, the one where you might actually be most helpful, and World History, where you also might know more than half of us. I bet you were taught a substantially different angle on events, though.”
        “Just write down what they want you to write down,” she says, turning and walking backward so as to face him, and miming a writing motion against the palm of the dark gray hand. “Leave the reality checking for the ones going into that field. You don’t have to believe it, just know what they want you to think.” She does an odd-looking twitching of her shoulders (possibly representing a dot and four dashes) before raising the mechanical hand and touching him on the nose with a single extended finger – not the middle one – carrying a slight scent of gear oil. “I’ll bring dinner back with me!” She turns and darts away, dodging slower traffic through the hall.
        Damn, she sure has changed recently. Between the two new prosthetics, especially the leg, it’s easy to forget she hasn’t had them for years already. Yet at the same time, who she is hasn’t changed at all. It’s just that now there’s a bit less of a mismatch between the speed of her mind and the speed of her body.
        Arriving at the study room, he is amused to find Hanako serving tea, but then it is called the Tea Room for a reason. However, there is no sign of Molly. “Are we missing someone?” he remarks.
        “Molly won’t be able to m-make it,” Hanako answers apologetically. “She g-gave me the CDs and the key to the c-cabinet. She should make it to the the h-history group.”
        Great. So it’s just you, me, Taro, and Takashi. Come to think of it, that last bit may explain why Molly isn’t here. “In that case, I suppose you’re in charge. «Should we get used to speaking English?»”
        She shakes her head, her long, deep-violet hair lagging a half second or so behind. “N-no, the test instructions are in Japanese. The test starts c-cold.”
        “Wait, you actually got the audio for the test?” Takashi asks. “Is that legal?”
        Hanako nods assertively. “It’s l-last year’s test. They let a-all the students take it h-home, just like the test b-books, and s-someone copied it to discs.”
        Takashi gives a half a grin. “Maybe this isn’t going to suck quite as bad as I thought.”
        That depends on what you’re looking to gain from this, I suppose.

        Neko rides the last five hundred meters to the base of the hill whistling the harmonica lick from «Low Rider», as best she can remember it. She’s a bit too busy powering her way up to do so going up the long driveway from the road, but it’s still running through her head as she pulls up to the gate and dismounts. It is obvious that the intercom was set at a height appropriate for the average car, and is only moderately too low to be convenient from an ordinary diamond frame bicycle. It is completely unusable from the low perch of her recumbent, so she stands in an odd sort of crouch to operate it.
        To her surprise, it is answered after the first brr brr. “Hi, darling,” croons Mum’s already lubricated voice. “The dogs should already be out of the way, but take a quick look before I open the gate for you.”
        “I don’t see any.”
        “Right.” The gate starts to open, then stops a bit over a meter into its travel. “That enough?”
        “It’s fine,” Neko says while nodding. “I’ll whistle when I’m through.”
        “No, I’ve missed that in the past. I think the comms may strip out pure, high tones or something. Key in the current code at the guard shack. If the gate continues opening, do it again to reverse it. Remember, it’s still November. New codes tomorrow.”
        She does as instructed, despite the sound of a dog or dogs inside the shack that can be released by remote control – or by too many incorrect passcode attempts. As half-expected, the gate lurches back into motion the wrong way. She keys in the code again and watches as it groans to a stop and reverses direction with a clatter. She waits until it closes completely before re-mounting and riding up to the house.
        Sally meets her at the door. “Are you ready to go picking? We don’t have much daylight left.”
        “You want to join me?”
        “Of course! How many of our offerings can I say I farmed personally these days?” Just like that, almost as quickly as they were in the front door, they’re out back where the orange electric cart awaits. “You can drive.”
        I was going to insist on it anyhow, you’re ripped. Either that or I’d walk behind you and pick you up after you crashed or rolled it over. Right leg propped up on what passes for a dashboard, Neko crosses her left under it and mashes the pedal. It doesn’t take long to reach relative darkness, with the canopy overhead filtering the weak late autumn light. It will actually get somewhat brighter as the sun comes through the trunks rather than the leaves, before darkening entirely. If we’re still out here by then, we have the headlight, and the torches under the seat.
        Sally has the spotting job today, and makes the first call. “Stop! Ugh, not quite that fast.” She shakes off the jolt of the hard braking and leaps out of the seat with shears in one hand and a plastic bag in the other. She also makes the second call. “There!” she exhorts with a point, notably avoiding the word ‘stop’ this time. “It’s on your side, you get it.” As Neko rolls on a yellow latex dishwashing glove to protect the prosthetic hand, she adds, “one more find should be enough, these are pretty big hauls. I’ll have to thank Clyder again, I’ve never seen a horse that leaves larger piles.”
        Unfortunately, their luck doesn’t hold, and it takes three humbler finds to match the desired collection totals. “I think this will be more than enough anyhow,” Neko says, “presuming he even eats his share.”
        “Who said these were for you? You wanted them dried, right? You’re getting what’s left of the last batch, they’re ready to ship.”
        “Oh! That will simplify matters. I thought I was going to have to hide wet ones in something.”
        “Why, are you afraid he’ll back out?”
        “No – I’m afraid I will.”
        “Aww, come on,” Sally taunts. “They’re not that bad wet, and you could always do a milk chug with them.”
        Neko shrugs as she searches for a clearing large enough to turn the cart around without doing a five or seven-point turn. That’s not what I meant, but I don’t want to go there right now.

***

        “Do you want to drive?” Emi asks.
        “Could I? I always did want to drive this car, ever since they got it.” Daisuke snatches the flying keys out of mid-air and crosses over to the right side. “The extra controls aren’t going to get in the way?”
        “The hand controls are completely separate,” she replies, “and can be switched off easily enough. I have to admit that I did a little test driving in the parking lot without them, though I’d never try it on the road. My reaction time would be totally lame.” If her use of ‘lame’ was meant as a deliberate joke, she manages to keep a straight face as they get in the car.
        “Hmm, I guess that makes sense,” he says as he starts the engine and tracks down the locations of the various controls. “Ueda isn’t paralyzed, merely arthritic. He probably wanted the option of driving normally some of the time.”
        “Mrs. Wolfenstein in HR told me that if he comes out of his self-imposed exile, I have to give it back.”
        She does look like a wolf, but don’t ever let them know you think that. “Well then, let’s hope he really, really likes Italy. I guaran-damn-tee you, they wouldn’t get you another Nissan Skyline.”
        “I’ve been hearing rumors lately around the office,” Emi adds as they pull into traffic. Shit, have the girls been gossipping again? Which of them claims I’m looking her over this week? “Like, it sounds like they’re sizing everyone up for a new partner.” Oh, that.
        “That’s not just a rumor, it’s pretty much confirmed. Even if Ueda does come back, it will be as a senior partner. They need to replace him.”
        “I figured. It’s just that in all the chatter, you’ve gotten like zero mentions.”
        “Also not surprising. I’m technically eligible for consideration, but I’d be about fifth on the depth chart. Things would have to get pretty desperate for them to invite me into their ranks. I started a few years late compared to most so I’m not seen as the prodigal son, I insist on having a life outside of work now so I’m not their eighty-hour workhorse, I didn’t bring my own client base to the firm, I’m not family, and I haven’t been here long enough to get bumped up merely out of seniority. Frankly, the only thing I have resembling job security is you. We still have your case, although pretty much all that we stand to gain is a payout, but more than that they see me as the magnet keeping you in their sphere. They really like you, you know.” He waves a hand at the interior of the car to make the point.
        “It doesn’t feel like it.” He can hear the pout in her voice even without glancing over. “Like, I have to put on headphones and pretend to be listening to something before they’ll talk about anything interesting.”
        “Who, your fellow classmates and interns? They’re just a bunch of jealous, brooding hens – and a few henpecked capons. Don’t worry about them, they don’t make the decisions. Worry about Ozuka and the brothers. The senior partners will most likely do whatever they recommend. On second thought, just don’t worry. They’re already fighting to see who gets you on their team. You do my research job – though it really shouldn’t be my job – faster than I do. If I was a partner, I’d be doing everything I could to get you on my team, too.”
        Despite Friday afternoon traffic, they reach Meiko’s house in about 45 minutes – considerably better than if they had been forced to return home, gather their bags, and hit the road again. Koshi is there to greet them even before they step out of the car.
        “What is this?” he asks. “You’ve got a pretty sweet ride now.”
        “Not me,” Daisuke says, lobbing the keys over the hood and almost exactly into Emi’s waiting hand. “They assigned it to her.”
        Koshi turns his attention as the keys fly. “And what did you do to warrant this kind of treatment?” he asks Emi.
        “I got lucky, I guess,” she says with a shrug.
        Daisuke waits to see if she is going to continue the explanation before doing so himself. “We had a partner at the firm that used the same hand controls that she does. He’s away now – whether he’s on sabbatical or retired, we’re not sure – and in typical Muramoto fashion, the cheapest answer was to give her the expensive car they already had.”
        “Then why were you driving?”
        “Because it’s a fun car to drive. It’s sort of a sleeper version of the 350Z.”
        The look on Koshi’s face seems to say ‘that’s not what I meant’, but he holds any further questions for later and leads them inside.

        “I made it,” Neko announces as she carries the bicycle into the restroom to shower off the muddy wheels, dropping her cargo along the way. As soon as the water is off, she shouts, “Fancy some mushrooms for breakfast tomorrow?”
        “Gods, no!” Hisao exclaims. “That’s the last thing I need. It’s not so much that we have to do well on these practice tests – though that certainly wouldn’t hurt – but we’re supposed to be practicing how to take them without panicking or getting into time pressure.”
        When she comes back out of the shower, leaving the bike to drip-dry for a few minutes, she also stops to remove the prosthetic arm and all its extra rigging. “I feel five kilos lighter.”
        “That’s not too far from the truth, is it?”
        “It’s about half that, but it feels like more because it’s all dangling from the end of a short lever.” She flexes her elbow and stretches the shoulder before starting to unpack her bundle. “You like Hanako’s cooking, right? I’ve got leftover pork curry, sautéed green beans, and rice. I also have some cookies for tomorrow, and of course, the goods.” She holds up a bag of dried mushrooms that are somewhat smashed but still quite recognizable.
        “I take it this means you agree to our little bargain, then.”
        “I do,” she says glumly. “It has to be done some time, and sooner is better than later. It will have to wait for winter break though, it’s not something that’s going to happen in a weekend.”
        “You know I’m going home then, right, at least for the first week? I want to see the place one more time before they move.”
        “Yeah. You probably don’t want to be there anyhow. I will probably say a lot of things I don’t really mean, but that have some grain of truth to them. It’s really not a pretty thing to go through. Speaking of that, I brought home another movie if you’re feeling up to it. I’ll leave the subtitles on, because even though it’s in English, even I can’t understand half of what they say until my ears adjust.”
        How are these two subjects related? “Why is that?”
        “It’s the accent. I can wrap my head around it, but not immediately. It takes me twenty or thirty minutes before I can seamlessly parse Scottish English.”
        “Oh. Yes, please enable the subtitles or I’ll be hopelessly lost. What movie is it, anyhow?”
        “One that is both great on its own merits, and relevant to the situation at hand.” She digs out the case while he starts warming dinner. “After this, you should understand why I can’t just up and fulfill our bargain any old time I please.”
        Hisao pours two half-cups from a previously opened bottle of red wine, twisting the bottle at the end to keep the sediment from escaping. “That didn’t answer my question. What is it you want to watch?”
        “«Trainspotting».”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 39 (20151217)

Post by NekoDude » Thu Dec 17, 2015 6:06 am

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

2007-12-01

        “You weren’t kidding,” Hisao says while displaying displeasure on his face, “about these tasting like sawdust. It’s like instead of cereal, I’m eating the box it comes in. Whoever discovered these must have been very, very hungry to have tried them.”
        “Well, it’s not like they’re poisonous,” Neko says with a little shrug. “They won’t kill you at any dose I’m aware of, though taking too much still means you’re gonna have a bad time – or a very good one. It’s a bit of a crapshoot. No worries though, there isn’t enough here to spin one of us out, let alone both of us. If you had declined, I’d have eaten them all myself.” She gestures with the invisible hand, having ditched the prosthetic for the time being. ‘If things go arse over teakettle, I’ve had seventeen years to get used to this arm, and ten days to get used to that one,’ she had reasoned.
        Rather than trying to speak, Hisao merely answers by smacking his lips and gesturing at the glass of milk they are sharing, which is slightly out of his reach. After it is nudged in his direction and he gets a few sips, he visibly relaxes. “Too dry. They were sticking in my throat.”
        “Maybe you should break them up and slam them with milk, or we can find something else to disguise them. It just has to be less than hot, heat ruins them.”
        “Do we still have any of last night’s curry left? That should be tolerable when tepid.”
        Neko shakes her head. “We ate the last of it this morning. In hindsight, we probably should have saved it.”
        “Milk it is then, I suppose.” He begins breaking off small pieces and dropping them into the glass, only to find that they immediately float to the top no matter how much he stirs, so he alternates between adding chunks and drinking. “That’s not so bad I guess.”
        “Yeah, the cookies are actually worse if you ask me.” She takes the glass, still about a third full, and washes down the last of her share. “Do you want the cookie to kick in about the same time, or do you want to see what this is all about by itself for a while first? I’m going to eat one myself.”
        “I thought you were the expert.”
        “I’m an expert on how they work, not on what you want. You’ll be fine either way, it’s just a matter of preference. We’ve got a bail-out plan as well, if it becomes necessary. It shouldn’t, but it’s reassuring just to know it’s there.” She holds up an orange prescription bottle with small pills inside and rattles it before setting it on the bookshelf behind her.
        “Well, what do you advise?”
        “Personally, I like to know what everything does on its own before I start mixing things – but in this case I already do know. If you have similar designs, you should probably wait. If you change your mind, you can always smoke. I certainly intend to.”
        He nods. “Fair enough, I’ll wait. What now?”
        “You’re not going to feel anything for a while. We’ll head down the hill for lunch in a bit, but you want to let them digest first. I’ve made that mistake before, it delays things by hours and you can never be sure if you’re going to get there at all.” She deftly peels the plastic from her cookie halfway before leaping to her feet, arms extended for balance, to fetch more milk.
        Fifteen minutes later, it seems time to ask. “Has it been ‘a bit’ yet? I feel like I just had a double espresso.”
        Neko rolls her eyes, swinging them from side to side. “Not me. Then again, I had a cookie and you didn’t. Maybe we should head downhill. If you’re in the mood for coffee with lunch, I advise getting decaf today.”
        Once settled into the last available booth at the Shanghai, he finds that he has no real desire for coffee, as the ubiquitous green tea that is served regardless of the day’s cuisine seems unusually good today. “Is the tea always this good here? I don’t remember, I rarely drink it any more.”
        Neko smiles and fixes her gaze on his eyes. “We’d better order soon. I can tell it’s getting on top of you already.” She makes a hand gesture indicative of an aperture being opened. Returning her gaze, he sees nothing unusual in her eyes except perhaps a bit more sparkle than usual.
        As if sensing their summons, a waiter arrives to take their order, and Neko rattles off both their choices from memory, along with a decaf coffee for him and an atypical choice of orange soda for herself. Neither of them had so much as glanced at the menus since they arrived.
        The moment he disappears, Hisao leans over and whispers. “That was strange, the way he just showed up on cue. Do you find that this sort of thing happens a lot when you’re, ah…” He waves a hand in a tumbling motion rather than say words that might be overheard.
        She returns his gaze with an enigmatic half-smile. “Hard as it may be to believe, yes. I have long suspected that reality itself twists to accommodate my mental state, and you just confirmed it. How are you holding up?”
        “Up is a good word for it. It’s making me sit up straight, and I’m kinda tingly.”
        “That sounds completely normal to me.” She squeezes his hand in the crook of her elbow. “Breathe deep, it helps.”
        “So does this.” He sips tea. “I’m not normally this fond of it, but it’s working for me today.”
        “You’ll be gobsmacked by the food, then. Making merely good things taste great is one of the more pleasant side effects.”
        Bloody hell, she’s right. This is the best kalbi I’ve ever had, even though I’m pretty sure it’s exactly the same as I’ve had every few weeks since the place was overhauled. Even the salted edamame is irresistible. He quickly finds himself picking at the side of kimchi on an otherwise empty plate and savoring the hot-and-sour taste, even though he doesn’t feel hungry. “Could we get some biscotti?” he asks the next time he is able to flag down a waiter. His coffee has gone cold, but it tastes good enough anyhow.
        The waiter brings the check with the biscotti, a subtle hint that they are occupying a booth large enough for four. Once they’ve polished off the biscotti, both of them dipping into his coffee, Neko jibes, “We’d best be moving on before you explode like Mister Creosote.”

        “It’s agreed then?” Meiko asks Daisuke over the kitchen table. “You’ll photograph the ceremony, then switch hats for the reception?”
        “I might have to rent some gear, since you don’t want a flash used,” he answers. “That probably means a whole rig, since it’s not easy to rent lenses for my camera.”
        “I don’t know exactly what you mean by ‘fast’, but it shouldn’t be hard to rent a lens for a Nikon body, should it?”
        “No, not at all. I was leaning toward the F6.”
        Unannounced, Meiko pushes away from the table and pauses long enough to hold up one finger to forestall any questions before leaving the room briefly. When she returns, she has a black leather camera bag in hand. “Could you live with an F5?” Nodding toward Emi, she adds, “Because that’s what she has.”
        “Like, what?” Emi blinks in momentary confusion. “I have Dad’s old F3.”
        Meiko sets the bag in front of her. “And now you have his old F5. I’ve used it once or twice, but the results were less than spectacular. Had I known you were getting back into serious photography, I’d have passed this to you some time ago.”
        Emi opens the bag with great reverence. “You really mean it?” Her eyes well with tears. “He would never let me play with it.”
        “If he was here, he still wouldn’t,” Meiko answers, “but I’ve seen your work. You’re far beyond the ‘playing’ stage. It’s a shame he couldn’t tutor you on it like he tried to do with me. I have a feeling you would be much more receptive.”
        “Do you mind if I have a look?” Daisuke asks Emi. “After all, it’s yours, not mine.” She nods between sniffles, so he pokes gently through the bag and pulls out the largest lens, an 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom. “This will be exceptionally useful. Wonderful glass.” Next out of the bag is a somewhat worn manual focus lens, a 24mm f/2.0, followed by the obligatory 50mm f/1.4. “So might these.” His last pull is a small zoom lens, a mid-grade 35-70mm with variable aperture. “This one, not so much indoors. It would work outside or with a flash.”
        Meiko gestures at the long, heavy zoom. “I’m guessing that’s the prize of the lot?”
        “Indeed,” he answers. “It may have cost more than everything else combined, including the camera itself, depending on when and how he got it. Do you have any idea what he liked to use it for?”
        “I remember him taking it to a music festival. I got a bit annoyed, as he seemed to be stressing out over his photos and not spending enough time enjoying the music.”
        Emi giggles, then sniffles again. “I can totally see him doing that.”
        This makes Daisuke chuckle as well. “I can totally see you doing that. I can even imagine me doing that, if it was my job.”
        “So,” Meiko inquires with a wave of her hand at the gear now scattered about the table, “do you think this will work?”
        Daisuke makes a ‘well, maybe’ gesture with both hands. “I want a faster short zoom, perhaps a 24-70mm f/2.8, rather than having to shuffle these around, but they are easy to rent. I might end up renting another body to go with it, rather than swapping lenses all day. This certainly will work for the long end of the range, though I could make do with this kit for the whole operation if I had to. It’s just so much more convenient to carry two cameras and two multi-purpose lenses.”
        Meiko turns back to her daughter. “Can you use these with your old camera?”
        “I’m not totally sure, but I think so.”
        “Good, you can use them behind the scenes.” Turning back to Daisuke, Meiko continues, “Get an estimate for the rental costs and we’ll go from there.”

        “Babe?” Hisao calls out weakly as he lays flat on his back in a T-shirt and boxers, wondering if the waves will ever stop.
        “Yeah?”
        “What are we listening to?”
        “«Shpongle».”
        He watches ripples form in the previously smooth ceiling as white breaks into two complementary colors, lime green and magenta. “I keep seeing movement from the corner of my eye, but when I look, there’s nothing there.”
        “That’s normal too.” Neko makes her way back to the bed and sits on the rail, then detaches the leg before rolling in. “Since you’re aware that it’s an illusion, you’re obviously not that far gone.”
        Inside his head, thoughts start out as they usually do, but often become fragmented or seem to loop back on themselves. He has an almost visual appreciation of his own mental processes. “I haven’t seen people turn into lizards yet.”
        “You almost certainly won’t. It would take a lot more than we ate to cause that, if it wasn’t just made up for dramatic effect in the first place.” She snuggles up beside him, and he worries she can feel his involuntary muscle tics.
        A few minutes pass with nothing but music to fill the space, or perhaps it’s an hour. He can’t tell any longer. It feels like lunch happened yesterday, or last week. He catches movement from the corner of his eye again, and it begins flickering like light coming through a slowly spinning fan. He slowly turns to see if he can sneak up on the source, but finds only a stationary ceiling fan. Or is it? It seems to be twisting somehow, even though it’s clearly not rotating. He looks away, satisfied that his peripheral visions are just artifacts, but the flickering soon returns, and his eyes are drawn back to the fan, which now is clearly in motion, though not in a way that makes any sort of sense for a machine designed to spin in place. “Babe?” he calls out again.
        “Mmm-hmm?” She wriggles closer still.
        “Why is the ceiling fan trying to crawl away?”
        Neko slowly rolls onto her back and surveys the scene. He can feel her tilting her head to change her perspective before she answers. “Now that you mention it, I see it too. That’s crazy.” She turns to lay on her left side before working backward toward him, finally shaking her head vigorously. “I can’t watch that. It’s creepy.”
        “I know. That’s why I asked.”
        “So don’t look at it.”
        Easier said than done. “When I don’t look, I see even more movement.”
        “Mmm. I think I have a solution.” She rolls out of the bed and pulls the chain to switch the fan to its slowest setting. “Now when you look, you’ll see real movement and you can let go of it,” she says as she hops back in with him.
        “But now I can hear the music warbling as the reflections keep changing.”
        “That is not surprising, because it’s actually happening. You’re just sensitive to subtle little variations you’d normally tune out.”
        After another few minutes (judging by the fact that the song has yet to end), he starts hearing whispers without being able to pick out any meaning, as if he were wandering inside a crowded theater. “Are there voices in this song?”
        “Yes.”
        “Are they supposed to sound like a chorus of whispers?”
        It is a moment before she answers. “No, it’s a chorus of normal singing, and a little bit of throat-singing.” She seems to have anticipated the need to pause the music, as the remote is close at hand. “Are you still hearing the whispers?”
        He closes his eyes and slowly tips his head back and forth. “Yes.”
        “It’s probably just mechanical noise from the fan, and pareidolia. Psychedelics tweak your perceptual filters, weakening some and strengthening others. The safety meeting is probably making it even more intense, as it can do that all by itself at times.”
        “It’s very distracting. I want to know what they’re saying.”
        “Well all you’re going to get is whatever you generate between your ears. Pareidolia is all about ascribing meaning to noise.” She restarts the music and another unquantifiable bit of time slips by as the song changes to something based around acoustic guitar.
        “Babe?” he hesitantly asks again.
        “Yes dear?”
        “The ceiling looks like it’s made of wet leather. And it’s sliding past itself.”
        “I’m glad you’re getting strong visual effects,” she answers with a sigh. “That makes one of us.”
        “The elves are doing it.”
        “The el–” Neko stops abruptly and swivels her head to stare directly at him. “Have you been reading Terence McKenna?”
        “Who?”
        “I’ll take that for a ‘no’. I’ll point it out when they use some of his voice in the music. He calls them gnomes, but some other people call them elves.”
        “Maybe they’re the ones whispering?”
        “I have no idea, but if they start making some sort of sense, just run with it. Don’t try to tell me about it while it’s in progress. That’s a sure-fire way to ruin the magic.” She lowers the volume of the music a couple notches before setting the remote back on the headboard, then rolls back toward him, short arm across his chest.
        “I think this «Shpongle» is driving some of it.”
        “It should. It’s pretty trippy even when sober. That’s why I picked it.” Suddenly the music devolves to chaos, like some demonic clock being torn apart by being wound too tight. “Ah, here’s the song I was telling you about.”
        “This is a song?
        “Give it a moment. Just listen.” She bumps the volume back up.

        «The walls, such they be, are crawling with geometric hallucinations: very brightly colored, very iridescent. Deep sheens and very highly reflective surfaces. Everything is machine-like and polished and throbbing with energy but that is not what immediately arrests my attention. What arrests my attention is the fact that this space… is inhabited

        At the end of it, he’s pretty sure his elves aren’t McKenna’s gnomes. “That’s not what’s happening to me,” he finally says, “but you know the part where he says the space is inhabited? I understand that part. They want to talk to me, but they don’t know how.”
        “I know, I’ve been there. You just need to go out a bit further.” Neko’s ear rotates against his chest as she nods. “Unfortunately, we can’t do that today. We have no more mushrooms, and even if we did, boosting is wasteful. It’s really amazing how fast tolerance builds to them, but it clears quickly too. We can try again in a couple weeks, but get what you can out of this trip.”
        “What I’d like is to switch it off for a few minutes to gather myself, then dive back in.”
        “You knew coming in that it doesn’t work like that. Just be glad it’s psilocybin, rather than LSD that lasts about twice as long. I suppose we could use a bit of a holiday from our holiday though.”
        “Meaning what?”
        Neko slides her short arm under his clothing and grasps him as she did their first movie night. When he shows an immediate reaction, she explains. “Pills could make it stop, but that would be a waste. The next best thing is to think about something else for a while.” She releases him long enough to slip out of her own lounge clothes, and he hurriedly ditches his own.

        «There is a cheer. The gnomes have learned a new way to say hooray.»
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 40 (20151219)

Post by NekoDude » Sat Dec 19, 2015 5:04 am

CHAPTER FORTY

2007-12-02

        The knock at the door comes much too early for Neko’s tastes. It’s not even dawn yet. Unfortunately, it grows more insistent and cannot be ignored, and she’s closer to the door than Hisao. “Calm your tits,” she shouts as she hops to the closet for a bathrobe. He watches from under the covers as she opens the door as far as the chain will allow.
        When she sees who is at the door, she quickly re-thinks her plan of dressing down the interlopers. “Uh, hello?” she says as she spots the concerned face of art teacher Nomiya, and someone in the shadows behind him.
        He attempts to pass her a picture, but she doesn’t have a hand there to accept it. “Have you seen Tezuka recently? We were hoping she had found her way home.”
        Glancing at the picture, Neko waves it off with the invisible hand. “I don’t need the picture, we both know what she looks like. I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen her. What do you mean by ‘found her way home’?”
        The figure in back, a woman of similar age to Mum, drops her cigarette, crushes it under her heel, and steps out of the shadows. “She fled from the opening of her exhibit at the gallery tonight. We tried calling, but all that did was locate her abandoned phone. There are still people looking for her in the city, but we came back here figuring she may have headed for safe haven.”
        “Have you tried contacting Ibarazaki? She lives near downtown, maybe Tezuka went there.”
        After the search party trades looks, Nomiya asks, “Do you know how we might be able to do that?”
        “Uh, yeah. Give me a second.” Neko fetches Daisuke’s card from her purse and returns to the slightly open door. “I don’t have her number, but I do have her boyfriend’s. I hope that will suffice.” She passes the card through the opening, wedged in the crook of her elbow.
        The woman takes it by a corner, as if afraid to make contact with the short arm. “It’s a start,” she replies, tucking a card of her own into the same spot before both of them back up a step and bow. “Don’t hesitate to call if anything changes,” she adds before they move on.
        Neko closes the door and throws the deadbolt. “Do you need anything before I come back to bed?”
        Hisao’s full face pops out from behind the covers as he raises his head. “Maybe. I have a headache.”
        “Me too. It’s probably fifty percent dehydration, so here.” She picks up a small water bottle and tosses it underhand onto the bed. “I’ll help you with the other fifty percent in a moment, but drink most of that.” She fetches pills – one fairly large, one quite small – from separate pill bottles, then opens a water bottle and uses it to wash down the small one, tossing it into their recycling bin once emptied. After discarding the bathrobe and leaving it over the back of the desk chair, she heel-toes to the side of the bed. “Here.”
        “What is it?”
        “Vicodin. There is no aspirin or ibuprofen or anything, I remember what you said about that. Just hydrocodone and paracetamol, and not huge quantities of either.”
        “I’m not in any danger of getting hooked, am I?”
        Neko snorts. “Not unless you have a headache for the next month or two solid – and I’d worry about that long before I’d worry about the pills.”
        Hisao raises his eyebrows in a sort of facial shrug before popping the pill into his mouth and swallowing it with the last of his water.
        Neko takes the empty bottle and flips it backhanded at the bin, missing by twenty centimeters or so. “I’ll get it later. It’s not hurting anyone there right now.” It would have been a much easier toss for a left-hander, working around the closet. I bet Rika would have been spot on. She climbs into the bed and has just started to snuggle back in when there is a knock at the door again. “Oh bloody hell.” She playfully slaps Hisao’s hand away as he makes a grab at her on the way out. Hurriedly hopping to the chair where she deposited the bathrobe, and then to the door, leaves her a bit short of breath by the time she gets it opened up again. “Back so soon?”
        Nomiya attempts to hand back the card she gave them just minutes prior, before remembering she’s not in a position to take it and merely holding it indecisively. “We just wanted to thank you. It would have saved us a few hours if we had thought to check there first.”
        “So I guessed right? Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket too.”
        “Sort of. She didn’t run to the apartment, but they met up somewhere downtown. We still don’t know where she is, but we know who she is with, and that is good enough for the moment. We’re going to give her the breathing room she so obviously needed – right, Sae?”
        Nomiya didn’t look all that convinced about this plan, but Sae nods. “I think it’s for the best. Tracking her down right now wouldn’t undo any of the damage, and we know she made it to relative safety. Just let it go. We’ll use the next open house to let people meet her. Hopefully she’ll have her head screwed on straight by then.”
        If Rin’s head is on straight, it means her neck is broken. “Keep the card,” Neko says. “I’ve got plenty. I’m glad you located her, and thank you for the update.” She nods and starts to close the door.
        “Wait,” Sae interjects, slipping a hand into the doorway as well. “I wanted to ask if there is any harm in letting people know our tip came from you, or if you’d prefer to remain anonymous. I mean, with us finding you in a boy’s room and all, we –”
        If you want to keep your fingers intact, kindly remove them from the door frame. “It makes not a lick of difference to me, but it might to the man next door. Ask him.” Neko puts the door into motion again, quickly enough to make the point clear but slowly enough to give Sae time to withdraw her hand, which she does. No attempt is made at subtlety as the bolt slides into place.

***

        At least El Jefe has the good sense to wait for daylight before he comes calling. Neko squints through the crack, tilting her head to get both eyes into the narrow sight line. “Did they lose her again?” she snaps through a tight jaw.
        “No,” Momomoto replies with a shake of the head, momentarily breaking eye contact, “or if they have, they’ve not told me. That’s not why I’m here.”
        “I see. Why are you here, then?” She allows the door to open to the end of the chain.
        “I’m here to ask two things. First, if you ever get another unexpected visit after curfew, he needs to answer the door. It will save me a whole lot of explaining if it turns out to be someone not in the know.”
        “You hear that, babe?” Neko says over her shoulder via reflection off the back of the door.
        “Uh-huh,” emerges from the bed as a muffled mutter.
        Neko returns her attention to the outside. “Point noted. You said you had two.”
        “Yeah, I did.” Momomoto nods. “The other one is to keep your mouth shut. I get that you knew who one of them was, and had reason to believe their motives. In this case, it worked out just fine – better than fine, actually, you probably just saved a few hundred people from being interrogated, either in person or over the phone. But how could you know, how could you be absolutely certain that Nomiya wasn’t acting under duress? If anyone you don’t fully trust comes knocking at your door unexpectedly and asks you about a third party, refer them to me, especially if you know where that third party might be. If they head in any direction other than my door, call me immediately. If you can’t reach me, contact the switchboard. They will know where I am.”
        Neko has the mental image of Jōji being forced around at gunpoint, then of the moment she pulled the pistol out of the bag, and has to shake her head vigorously to clear these images. “I guess I wasn’t thinking straight. I get your point. I don’t think I’m the only one who would have reacted that way, though.”
        “Agreed, so when you hear about it again in class tomorrow morning, don’t take it personally. It’s not aimed at you. Everyone needs this lecture, including the faculty.”
        “Then why deliver it personally, now?”
        “Because I hope you can back me up. Maybe you know some horror story – hopefully not too personal – about someone coming to harm because an unknowing third party blew their cover. Telling everyone in situation X, take action Y is all well and good, but it sticks a whole lot better if they can extend that thought to because of consequence Z.
        “There have been times when I did not wish to be found,” Neko admits. “I’d have been cross as a frog in a sock if I’d been pointed out.”
        “It goes far beyond that. You are not the only ‘high value target’ wandering these halls, though you’re certainly among them. Loose lips sink ships is not just a lesson to take to heart in wartime. I don’t want to make you paranoid about your friends, but you should be paranoid about spouting off to strangers.”
        “I can assure you, the message has been delivered.” They exchange nods, and Neko closes the door with a sigh.
        “What was all that about?” Hisao asks as he stretches.
        “I snitched without even realizing it. Imagine for a moment that instead of looking for Rin, they’d come looking for me. Also imagine that instead of that chain-smoking friend of Nomiya’s, he was being held at gunpoint by a Russian. Would we want anyone flapping his tongue and blowing my cover?” She hops to the corner where she leaned her leg and works herself into it.
        “What would Russians want with you?
        “Ransom, revenge, and intimidation,” Neko says as she sequentially raises fingers, “just to name a few. Bloody hell, if they’re angry enough, even you’re not safe. They might want to grab you for exactly the same reasons.”
        “This sounds like a paranoid fantasy to me.” Hisao shakes his head in disbelief before yawning.
        “It’s paranoid, but it’s not a fantasy. I wish it was. It’s not worth disrupting our lives without further evidence of a threat, but it also doesn’t pay to ignore it when basic precautions can be taken. Besides, as El Jefe said, you and I are not the only ‘high value targets’ that could be grabbed.”
        “Now you’ve really gone off the deep end,” he says as he slides out of the bed. “You, me, Abe, and maybe Suzu. Isn’t that about the extent of the list?”
        “Far from it. You’re neglecting Shizune, Lilly, and anyone connected to them – Misha, Tadao, Mariko, and Hanako for starters. The latter three are also at marginal risk due to their association with me. I suppose you could add Katayama to the list, now.”
        “What.” He almost drops the empty coffeepot. “Are you seriously trying to tell me they’re of any value to your family at all? I don’t even –”
        “Not my family,” she interrupts, “and it’s not Russians in particular that are the concern, but do you really think the Satous are going to sit back and wait if Lilly gets snatched? Or her boyfriend, or her best friend? They’d be insane to grab Hanako though. The Satous might put up the ransom, but if there was so much as a scratch on her, Mum would pay for the hit afterward. You don’t fuck with her assets.
        “Assets? She’s on the team too?”
        “Of course, she’s teaching Jōji to cook without the book. That’s worth a lot to Mum by itself, but make no mistake, Mum is lining her up as a mole in case the ceasefire and grudging alliance with the Satous doesn’t hold.”
        “Bloody hell, does she sink her hooks into everyone who crosses her path?” He turns on the water to fill the coffeepot, so Neko has time to consider her reply.
        Once the water stops, she takes her time and lets him step out of the restroom before starting. “Yeah, that’s pretty much her «modus operandi». Recruit allies while trying not to spend too much on them, and try not to make too many enemies. If she does make an enemy, she then needs another ally to keep an eye on them for her. This is why the whole Russian thing is such a pain in her arse, there’s nobody she can buy off to get inside their ranks.” She waits until he has poured all of the water into the machine and replaced the pot before she delivers the zinger. “How much is she paying you? Aside from all this, I mean.” She waves at the room.
        “What? No, it’s n-not like that,” he stammers as he turns bright red. “The money is supposed to be spent on you, and of course for the cost of accompanying you. It’s not for me, and I’m not keeping anything. I have never seen it as my money.”
        “You should, at least a little. Retain a slush fund, shit happens. Still, what are we talking about?”
        “She asked that I not discuss that. She thought it might upset you.”
        “Bollocks. She doesn’t want you to discuss it because she knows she’s underpaying you. That’s why you haven’t been able to save anything. Tell me, would you still be here if it weren’t for that, or would you be across town?”
        His shoulders slump as he breathes deep and exhales in an immense sigh. “I don’t know. I do know it made a difficult decision a lot easier, and potentially saved me from an immense mistake. Were it a simple case of you or her, I don’t know which way I would have gone at the time. I had yet to take the blinders off as far as she was concerned, so things looked a lot rosier than they actually were. Add in the pressure from my parents, and I just might have leaned her way, even with the difficulties that would have created. Now that the blinders are off and I can look at the whole thing with 20-20 hindsight, I did the right thing, even if some of my reasoning might have been wrong.”
        “And the car?”
        “That didn’t enter into it one way or the other. It still doesn’t. I have believed for a long time that your Mum expected me to become your chauffeur as soon as I was able, that’s why she was always leaning on me to get licensed. I didn’t object because it’s something I needed to do anyhow. Then she bought the blue car and I knew for certain.”
        “That’s just another reason you deserve to pocket some of her money. You’re freeing up someone else on her staff by greatly reducing the need for them to transport me.”
        “I never looked at it that way,” he answers, hands extended. “Generally, when I take you somewhere, I want to go too.”
        “Whether someone has to drive both of us around or just me is of no consequence to her. Sure, being able to drive for yourself is as much a win for you as it is for her, but don’t feel like you owe her. She gets as much out of the deal as you do. When you strike a bargain with her, it may well be to your benefit. She’s not evil, she doesn’t feel a need to benefit at someone else’s expense – but ‘she always wins’ is Rule Zero.”
        “I can deal with that. At least I know what her motivation is.”
        Neko grimaces a bit. “«Never appeal to a man's better nature. He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.»”
        “«Hitchhiker’s Guide»?”
        “No, Heinlein. It’s cynical, but entirely accurate for some people. He also wrote, «Always keep your clothes and your weapons where you can find them in the dark.»”
        “Sounds a bit like the one about never sitting with your back to the door.”
        She nods. “He wrote that one too.” She waits until he empties and sets down his coffee mug before sauntering his way and spinning him to face her. “Wanna hear something else he wrote?”
        “Do tell,” he answers with an amused look.
        Neko slips out of her bathrobe, allowing it to fall to the floor around her feet. “«Always yield to temptation. It may never pass your way again.»”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 41 (20151223)

Post by NekoDude » Wed Dec 23, 2015 12:08 pm

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

2007-12-05

        “Miss Miura,” the nervous little boy standing in front of the desk asks, “can I ask you something?” He stares at his shoes intently.
        This double identity shit still feels strange, she reflects. To her classmates and adults, she’s just Miki, but to all the grade school students, she’s Miss Miura, Assistant Teacher. “Yes, Jimmy. You may speak freely.”
        “Wh-what happened to your hand?” His eyes flick in that direction ever so briefly before returning to his shoes.
        Let’s see, I already used fireworks, farm machinery, car accident, and snake bite as reasons. I still have crocodiles, aliens, drop bears, light saber, and… She holds up her handless arm and inspects it before standing and leaning over the desk. “Shark, Jimmy. It was a shark. Stay out of the water.” She reaches toward him while making a chomping motion with her hand and chanting ‘dun dun dun dun dun dun’ in her best Jaws theme imitation as Jimmy runs screaming from the room.
        Mrs. Turner, the grade school teacher, shakes her head in dismay. “Why do you do that? He’ll have nightmares for the next week now.”
        “What, why do I tell them all something different? It gives them something to gossip about, and if any one explanation becomes dominant, I know who spread it.”
        “No, why do you scare them with your stories? It’s a shock to me that Jimmy even found the courage to ask you. He’s bright, but not exactly sociable.”
        “And now he has a good story to share with his friends, one I guarantee they haven’t heard before. This should only help his popularity. Besides, I have to have some fun in this job. I can only take so much correcting of multiplication tables and long division.” Miki waves at the papers she scattered across the desk in the latest incident before reassembling them into a stack.
        “What really did happen, anyhow? I assume none of your fantastic stories to date have been true.”
        “I brought a knife to a sword fight.”
        Mrs. Turner shakes her head again and lets out a heavy sigh. “Just finish grading those and you can go.”
        See, I can tell you the absolute truth and you can’t bring yourself to believe it. When she reaches Jimmy’s test and finds it perfect, she marks it with a 20… and a shaky sketch of a shark chewing one point off the gold star he gets for good marks.

***

        Akira makes her way down the hall with great difficulty, and not just because of the crutches. The dizziness is almost overwhelming, and she wonders how long she’ll be able to keep down the small portion of breakfast she managed to finish. After another swerve and a moment of leaning on the wall, she makes her way to the home office and opens the door.
        “Morning, Papa,” she says as cheerily as she can manage while leaning on the door frame. “Have you been up all night?”
        “No, just half of it,” Hiroyuki replies, shaking his head. “I got ‘locked in’ again last night. What’s the matter with you? You’d better come in and have a lie down. You look like I feel.” He gestures at the couch but makes no attempt to rise and assist her, despite his observation.
        Akira makes her way to the couch, and is flat on her back no more than a second or two before sitting back up. “No, that’s worse. This is not what I’d call a good morning.”
        “Right.” He quickly types out a message and sends it off, then picks up the phone. Navigating through menus by touch-tone, he finally hangs up having not said a single word, then slowly stands. “You stay there, unless you feel a need to be somewhere else. I’ll fetch your mother to drive you over to the hospital.”
        “It will clear. I don’t know how long it will take, but –”
        “No,” he says firmly. “You should not be having post-concussion symptoms this severe at this point. You need to be checked, and the earlier we can get you there, the shorter the probable wait.” He grabs the cane leaning against the side of his desk and hobbles from the room, leaving the door open behind him. “Karla, are you dressed?” he can be heard calling as he makes his way down the hall. “I’m afraid I have a favor to ask of you.”
        Perhaps thirty seconds later, Karla arrives on the dead run, in her bathrobe and short of breath. She takes one look before making up her mind. “Oh God, you… you just hang on, right?” She departs as quickly as she arrived.
        Do I really look that bad? Nobody answers this unasked question as all three of them work together to get her into the car.

***

        Neko glances around the tight but friendly confines of the Radio Room, pleased that for the first time in a very long time, all official members are present. So are a couple of unofficial associates, which has forced Kenta to serve as a seat for Mariko. This has earned him the coveted desk chair, since double weight is liable to collapse one of the flimsy folding chairs. “Next order of business,” she proclaims as she triggers the extension of another finger on the upraised carbon hand. “How are we doing in the 10 and 20 meter bands? Any new QSLs to report? Anyone looking to upgrade so they can work solo?”
        Hideki answers, but keeps his eye contact with any single person brief. “It’s weird, I thought there would be more people there. There are a lot of stations I can copy, but it always seems to be the same handful of people, and they can’t hear me. I haven’t reached any place that I couldn’t hit at six.”
        Neko nods. “The longer bands seem to be more prone to camping, and there is almost double the bandwidth available at six, versus 10 and 20 combined. If you think it’s bad there, you should try 40 and 80. We’re also at a power disadvantage. Even if we could throw more into our antenna, none of us is qualified for much better than we’ve got. The guys you’re hearing are sending out a full kilowatt in many cases. Keep trying anyhow, especially if you’re willing to work CW. The opportunities to bounce 10 meters, and particularly 20, are much more prevalent than the times we can bounce six.” This is especially true this time of year.
        The next question come from a thoroughly unexpected angle. This time it’s Lilly, squeezed into a tight spot on the couch, that has her hand upraised. “Is there any chance we’ll be able to work any longer bands? You mentioned 40 and 80, but what of 160?”
        Neko has to restrain herself from shooting liquid out her nose before she can swallow, but makes no effort to conceal her mirth. “When pigs fly, perhaps one of them can hold the aerial aloft. I highly doubt we’ll be allowed to attach something to the building that is several times taller than the building. Sorry to shoot you down, but the chances of that are roughly on a level with Gojira coming to stomp the town. Fortunately, we can still hear them, inefficient though our system may be.” She watches as Hanako gives an ‘I told you so’ reaction, though aware it will completely escape the attention of the target, and everyone else remains quiet but for the muted sounds of sandwich munching. “If that’s it, I suppose we can adjourn. Don’t forget to update your time slots.” Everyone has had to relinquish a few to make room for Hanako – and El Jefe, who has been most enthusiastic about testing the HF bands.
        The room clears fairly quickly, except for Kenta and Mariko who remain to help pack up the food. Even Hisao drifts out, quickly attaching to both Hanako and Lilly, presumably for more test preparation.
        Kenta whispers something to Mariko the moment the room is left to the three of them, and she turns to the last place she heard Neko’s voice. “So, how was it? Did anything noteworthy happen, good or bad?”
        Neko glances at Kenta. So you’re not worried about him knowing, I see. “It was, ah, interesting. I had to help him relax a couple times, though I suspect he may have been embellishing the second time.”
        “Ah. No trauma then?” Mariko smiles gently. “I suppose this means you’ll give it another spin?”
        “Most likely, yes. We took it pretty easy this time, but now he trusts my judgment enough to get further out there – perhaps further than I took you.”
        “Well if it’s not too much to ask…” Mariko hesitates, and Kenta whispers in her ear again. Is she looking for a connection? She should know I’ll help her out. “If it’s not going to break your own flow, that is – do you think maybe we could join you?”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 42 (20151225)

Post by NekoDude » Fri Dec 25, 2015 3:00 am

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

2007-12-08

        Neko sighs in defeat and hangs up the headphones before finding a commercial broadcast to tune into and pipe over the speakers. She waits until Kenta has placed a stone and announced his move before speaking. “Propagation is bloody wretched today. So what was it that got you interested in the first place?”
        “Blame it on my folks,” he says with an uplifted hand. “Kaz and I were at a summer camp – I was nine, which would mean he was twelve – when suddenly all of us were broken into small groups of six or so and told to stay where we were. They had me with my brother, which was unusual because we rarely saw each other outside of mealtimes or bedtime, as we were assigned completely different activities. We both knew something strange was happening. We could feel it in the hushed tones the counselors were using as well. As we got to talking, we realized that all six of us came from the same general area. This was confirmed when they assigned each group one counselor and ours led us back to the barracks to pack. We were going home, and we didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to our friends.” He stops talking once Mariko places a stone, so as to concentrate on his own play.
        “So what happened once you got home?” Mariko asks in a gentle tone once he makes his move and whispers it to her.
        “We weren’t expecting anyone to be home on a Tuesday, so we just let ourselves in, and there were our parents, lying on a yoga mat in the middle of the floor and giggling their heads off in front of the television. They told us we needed to go play outside, but that we also needed to steer clear of other kids for a few days, because we might have been exposed to chickenpox. Understand that although the vaccine had existed for almost a decade at this point, it had only been approved for general use three years prior. It was not required, and many of us – Kaz and myself included – had not received it. As for what to do, we wanted more direction. I mean, what were we supposed to do that involved only the two of us while avoiding everyone else? It would be a lot easier if we stayed home, as Kaz rightly pointed out.”
        Neko chuckles. “But your folks were having none of that, I take it.”
        “Damn straight,” Kenta replies with a nod. “Papa gave us his box of fishing tackle and told us to go down to the stream and see if we could catch dinner. We soon tired of that, as there obviously wasn’t anything to catch that would be worth eating, so for a while we went swimming. This probably was a bad idea if there was any chance we were shedding viruses, but we didn’t know the first thing about how such things worked. Fortunately, if we were, it couldn’t have been much. We never got sick.”
        Suddenly the wind gusts through the open windows with a howl, and a few loose papers take flight about the room. The larger of the two antennas can be heard clicking as it whips around in the swirling winds. Neko jumps up, grabs the papers from the air or off the ground, and tucks them into a desk drawer before starting to close windows. Halfway through, Kenta takes the rod with the hook on the end and finishes the job, as even he is not tall enough to reach them without assistance.
        “It’s going to start getting warm in here,” Neko says, “so let me know if it’s too much for your liking.” Suddenly there is a clamor as something strikes the wall from the outside, causing her to step out momentarily before returning with a plastic bucket. “If you’ve got anything outside that isn’t tied down, you might want to take care of that.” After receiving disinterest from both of the others, she tries to steer the conversation back on topic. “So I take it your folks weren’t merely enjoying a personal day.”
        “Exactly right,” Kenta affirms with a strong nod. “Even when it got dark, they disappeared to their room and left us to our own devices as far as making food. That’s when I learned Kaz could not cook. He still can’t. After that, we still had to stick to our own company for a few more days. Although we were welcome to stay home, we now felt cooped up, with the abrupt end to camp and all. That’s when I realized I liked to run. Kaz took his bicycle and still wanted to go home first. Luckily for me, he knew the way. I hadn’t been paying attention. I think he took the scenic route back to see if I’d complain. I didn’t. I did, however, make lunch.”
        “Given how we got into this story,” Neko observes, “I think I can guess why they were avoiding you that evening. When did you actually find out what they had been up to?”
        “Not until just a couple years ago, actually. All the intervening time, we figured they had been watching porn and getting it on. It wasn’t until recently that they decided we deserved to know that they made a point of tripping annually, as a way to reconnect to one another, and had been doing so since I was a toddler. By all appearances, it seems to work, because they remain one of the happiest couples I’ve ever seen. That’s not to say they never disagree, because they do. They just find a way to work it out without making it personal.”
        “That sounds very healthy to me,” Neko opines, “and so does lunch. My shift ends in fifteen minutes so we probably would have to take this discussion elsewhere anyhow.” As if on cue, the door opens to reveal Tadao and Lilly, along with an enormous low roar as the wind hits the edge of the doorway. Neko pops to her feet and helps hold the door closed with her back as Tadao latches it securely. “You won’t be heard very well today, so you might want to just settle into listening as we have,” she tells him. “In fact, you can have the remainder of my shift.”
        “It must be bad for you to just walk away,” Tadao concedes. “Are you going to lunch?”
        “They are,” Kenta says while gesturing uselessly, “but I need to watch the track.”
        “In that case,” Neko asks Mariko, “could you live with my cooking? I’m not too good at walking down a hill and sideways against the wind.”
        “It can’t possibly be as bad as Kaz’s attempts at – well, anything, really.” Mariko nods.
        “Make enough for three,” Kenta adds. “I’ll turn up.”

        Neko may be leading, but Mariko is definitely lending material support against the wind as they cross the roof with arms linked. “Is it safe to put that tension on your arm yet?” Mariko asks.
        “Possibly not,” Neko allows, “but the other one will pop clean off and falling would be worse still.”
        Once they make their way inside, Mariko leads on the stairs while Neko remains silent to let her count the steps. It is not until they reach the first floor and level off that their conversation continues. “Did you get a chance to discuss it with him?” Mariko asks hesitantly.
        “I did. He has no problem in principle, but insists that we need a safe space large enough for all of us, and that our room is not it. I agree with him. We’d be tripping over each other literally as well as figuratively. While the ranch certainly qualifies as space, and is at least nominally safe, I don’t like contemplating the direction my mind might go with the dogs around.”
        “What about Kenta’s place?” Mariko offers as they step outside and brace themselves once again, though the wind is not as strong down here. “It’s only two bedrooms and one bath, but we should be able to keep from stepping on each others’ toes.”
        “Will we have private space? The last time, we had to take a couple sanity breaks, if you know what I mean.”
        “The living room couch turns into a bed, and he can put up a curtain between there and the dining area if you’re still worried about it. There’s already a chin-up bar there.”
        “It sounds like you’ve already discussed this.”
        “We have,” Mariko confirms. “The only thing yet to be decided is whether Kaz wants to come along for the ride.”
        “That would leave us with two virgins, and twice the potential for trouble.”
        “And three veterans,” Mariko points out. “We should be able to keep things under control.”
        “I don’t doubt your ability to soothe Kenta’s savage beast, but his brother won’t have anyone to run him out of supplies.”
        “No, but he has his own bedroom if he feels the need. Just because sex is your answer to everything doesn't mean that sex is the answer to everything.”
        Neko snorts and laughs. “Haven’t you just become the cheeky little bastard over the last few months? Something had to set this change in motion, so I am forced to conclude that for you, just as for me, sex is an answer to many things.”
        Knowing someone wants me just as I am has made all the difference, Mariko thinks as she feels her expression slip momentarily into a telltale smile, but the sex sure hasn’t hurt.

        “Instant yaki udon?” Kenta is unable to conceal his amusement at Neko’s taste in junk food once he arrives, but it doesn’t stop him from dishing up a share.
        “Hey, it’s all I had that was enough for three,” she says with a wave. “I’m used to cooking for two at most. I’ll admit this is pretty typical of my cooking though. I know a lot more about food consumption than I do about food preparation. There’s rice as well, if you’re still hungry.”
        “I’m willing to give you some tips if you like,” he offers. “I’m not great, but even my own mother thinks my cooking is good enough.
        Neko chuckles. “So does mine. That’s not a very high bar, in her case. Settle in and relax,” she says, with another wave at the table on the floor she had been sharing with Mariko. “Take the time to eat before we get into the important details.” She pours and places a clear plastic cup of white wine on the table for him.
        “This is not bad, actually,” he is forced to admit after he tucks into the first bite.
        “Wine and red pepper does wonders to liven up an overly salty sauce,” she agrees. “I didn’t just open that one on a whim.”
        The sauce does taste like the wine smells. “I guess it’s a bit like beer on meat.”
        “More like mushrooms on pizza,” Neko adds as she sets a bowl of furikake seasoned rice alongside the cup of wine. “It’s there more to take something excessive away from the flavor, rather than add its own.”
        “Thank you,” he says with a nod in response to the rice. “I wasn’t expecting table service.”
        “Neko isn’t the kind to do things halfway,” Mariko interjects, “or haphazardly.”
        “You give me far too much credit,” Neko says, “as I improvise often. I just make sure to finish what I start, if it is of any importance.”
        “It’s working for me,” Kenta says with his mouth full, the back of his hand making sure nothing falls out. He waits until he is finished chewing before continuing. “I heard about your little road trip a couple weeks ago. Even when you overstep your bounds, you seem to have a backup plan. That’s why I trust you. Well, that, and the fact that she trusts you.” He gestures at Mariko.
        “It wasn’t as brilliant as it appears,” Neko replies with a sigh. “My backup plan was to call for a rescue pickup if necessary. When I got into trouble along the way, I decided it would be far better to be picked up at the shrine rather than somewhere along the side of the road. That’s why I kept going long after I knew I couldn’t make it back on my own. It wasn’t until I got there that I realized that the bus runs straight here.
        “Having people who have your back is still a backup plan.”
        “That sure worked out well for the Moron,” Neko deadpans.
        “Yeah, well, they’re both still alive, right? She got the girlfriend she wanted, too.”
        “I don’t know for how much longer though,” Neko says with a shrug. “It’s starting to sound like the girl will be denied asylum because she isn’t running from her native country. They’re trying to get her into university so she can keep her student visa for a few more years, or even a trade school, but she’s not much of a scholar. You’d think a country originally populated by outlaws would have a little sympathy for people on the run.”
        “Sympathy is not something bureaucracies are known for, even if the people within them would like to be. If it can’t be defined objectively, it’s hard to turn into policy. When it can be defined objectively, it may remain possible to abuse that definition. That’s not to excuse what they’re doing, but allowing agencies and agents to interpret a policy adaptively has its problems as well. I’m not sure it’s a solvable problem.”
        By the end of his little soliloquy, Neko has a wry smile. “Are you sure you’re not already a lawyer?”
        That’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question, and it probably won’t be the last. “I seem to have inherited the characteristic of breaking every problem into solvable, bite-size chunks from my father. It made sense in his line of work, but I don’t have the right temperament to convince machines to do my bidding. I have to put it to use somehow.”
        “Perhaps you can analyze this: I’ve never met your brother. I’m sure he’s a great guy and all,” Neko says, accentuating with seemingly random gestures from the carbon hand (or perhaps it’s lagging by a few seconds), “but I haven’t a clue how I’d handle things if he started to spin out, or if I even could. You, as a Vulcan, I can deal with – unless you suddenly go into Pon Farr.”
        Mariko gets her hand up just in time to prevent spitting wine, but still coughs a few times and waves at the air in front of her face. “If he does, I’ll deal with that,” she volunteers after receiving a few sharp pats on the back.
        “There’s also the little matter of cost,” Neko continues. “Although they do just grow wild up there, anything we take is something that Mum can’t sell. She’s asking me to collect a thousand yen a gram, dry, and you’re going to want at least three grams apiece – I’m planning on taking five. If you care to ask around, you will find this is a very reasonable price, but it’s still considerable. I might be able to bring that down a bit if I go up and collect an equal quantity myself, but we’re getting toward the end of the season and I can’t guarantee anything.”
        “I thought mushrooms liked darkness,” Kenta states.
        “They do, but they also greatly prefer warmth and rain over frost and snow. We also keep the horses closer to the stable and in the sunlight when it’s colder, so they don’t drop the growth medium along the trails. In any event, the next harvest will probably be the last for several months.”
        Kenta nods in understanding. “I’ll have a talk with Kaz and see what he wants to do. I may just let the two of you guide me, then turn around and guide him on another day.”
        Neko nods back. “In that case, you need to secure your supply as soon as possible. It will quite likely be gone by the end of the month, and although there are other sources, they will be dear.”
        “So make up our minds quickly, in other words.” Waiting for a signal, he catches a slight dip of the head and closing of the eyes. “I’ll pass it on.”

        Iwanako nudges Hisao gently, then grabs hold of his shoulder and shakes him a bit. “What’s on your mind?”
        “Hmm?” He stares blankly across the low table where they are seated. “I guess I’m just overwhelmed by these tests. I mean, individually they don’t seem that bad, but coming one right after the other for two solid days just seems like they’re trying to make us fail.”
        She nods. “I know. You should hear the whining around my school. They’ve never dealt with anything like it. The Americans go on about how their tests are just one day, and can be taken multiple times in one year. I’m not sure that’s such a good answer either, it seems like it’s leaning a bit too far toward favoring those who can’t do things right the first time.”
        “How is that possible? I mean, there’s a reason we all have to take the tests at the same time.”
        “They don’t get to take them home, they just get a score,” she says with a shrug. “Also, there are multiple combinations of the test material, so even if someone does sneak a copy out, it won’t be an exact match for most people. Just the same, they apparently have special schools dedicated to drilling the question-and-answer combinations, at least for the multiple choice sections. Nobody has yet figured out how to keep those with photographic memory from using it.”
        “You can’t solve a social problem with a technical answer.”
        It’s Iwanako’s turn to be baffled by the conversation. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
        “It’s a saying computer science folks like to toss around. What they mean is that trying to put up technical barriers to bad behavior just changes where and how the rules get subverted. They still will, so long as the motivation remains. I don’t mind that we all take the same tests at the same time. That seems sane enough, given the obvious weaknesses of doing it any other way. It’s just cramming them all into two days that seems cruel. Couldn’t we get a Monday out of class and spread them over three days? It’s not like there’s much to do once we get back to school anyhow, except figure out where we’re going next.”
        “They must have reasons for keeping things as they are – and what are you doing hanging out with computer science folks? That’s hardly your thing.”
        He gives a chuckle and a weak grin. “Someone has to fix things when I break them, or they do it to themselves, or a hostile third party does it – not that I can usually distinguish between these possibilities. Letting them rant about how I could have prevented the problem doesn’t actually help me any, since the jargon goes right over my head, but it does make them more willing to help. It’s either that, or actually paying someone. A bottle of wine usually goes over pretty well – or whiskey, for the more intractable problems.”
        “You may have a point,” she concedes. “Better to give the job to someone who cares than someone doing it just for the money. Are there many hacker types around there?”
        “Oh yes, it seems to be a fairly common obsession with the partially sighted. How they manage, I don’t know, but they clearly do. I guess they don’t have much else to entertain themselves.”
        Iwanako recalls the boy with the thick glasses in her own class, and how they seem to be a social barrier between him and the rest of the world – not that he really has any alternatives. He is fortunate enough to see how different he is, and potentially do something to offset it. “At least they know where the target is, right?”

        “Frame five,” Suzu announces to nobody but themselves, “Ikezawa to break off, with a late lunch on the line.” She still wears a smirk from the frame she just pinched to tie things up at two apiece, having made a perfect clearance of sixty-seven after falling behind by sixty-four points with five reds remaining on the table. By all rights, this match should already be over, and she should be in the kitchen making sandwiches.
        Hanako places the cue ball just inside the green, and takes up an unfamiliar stance. What the… Suzu just watches as the cue ball catches the corner red a bit thicker than intended, pushing three from the opposite side of the pack, then catches the brown full-ball on its way back to baulk.
        “Is that a new trick,” Suzu heckles as she rises out of her seat, “or have you always been a switch-hitter?” She is well aware of the other implications of the term as she says it, even flicking her eyebrows as she walks around the table to see if any of the loose reds have a line to the corner. One does, but the other two will need to be developed to be useful. Take what you can get, but always have a graceful exit in mind. She takes on the long pot with enough pace to send the red well clear of the jaws of the pocket if she misses, but enough screw to stop the cue ball on contact in case it goes, making a moderately difficult shot that much more tricky – but it falls, after rattling around a couple times. Thank goodness for forgiving pockets. The cushions never get replaced around here. Having left herself short of the black, she has no way to cannon into the pack and settles for merely potting it gently, then sneaking up to the back of the pack to block the path to the two remaining free reds. After leaning over and shading the light with her hand to confirm, she announces “touching ball” before giving up her spot at the table.
        “I saw R-Ronnie doing it. L-learn from the best, right?” Hanako finally replies before figuring out how best to send the cue ball clear so as to maximize the inconvenience to her opponent. This takes a while, as it requires use of the spider to get over the pack of reds for access, and for the extension to be added to the cue. At first it appears Suzu will get away neatly, as there is too much pace to stop the cue ball near the bottom cushion, but it rolls on to rest a few centimeters behind yellow.
        Suzu makes two full laps around the table before selecting her indirect line to the two loose reds, catching the lower of the two much more fully than would have been desirable and bouncing it off the top rail to sit over the other corner. Although it will have to be accounted for, she is lucky that it is not currently ‘on’, and the only thing available is a very long pot to the yellow corner, which Hanako attempts because there is no more attractive safety play. The degree to which she misses the shot makes it almost as effective as an intentional safety, although there is little doubt she committed to the pot. “So which one sc-scares you?” Hanako asks as she puts the rest back in the cabinet on the wall.
        “Um, why should any of them scare me? Even if I lose this frame, I’m no worse off than if you had taken the last one, and you agreed to the deal before we started.”
        “N-no, I mean the t-tests. I’m a little bit afraid of…” Hanako stops and glances upward briefly. “...Of all except English I th-think.”
        “Oh, that. I have no fear, because it doesn’t really matter. I’ve got a job lined up right out of school, so if I have to give it another go in a year, so be it. In fact, if I do well, I’ll be hard pressed to make a decision anyhow. I figure a year immersed in a business environment is exactly what I need.” Still lacking a line to the red she previously drove to the right corner, Suzu plays a thin cut shot off of the much abused red on the left, narrowly missing the jaws of the corner pocket with the cue ball in doing so. She can’t quite get in behind yellow, but still manages to push the red safe.
        “You have w-worked all that out? What’s the j-job?”
        “The title is ‘accounts receivable processing’, but it’s Sally’s name for debt collection. Not everyone pays their bills on time, and it can take a reminder or two to see that they make good on the situation.”
        “C-can’t she stop sh-shipping to them?”
        “If it comes to that, yes, but she’d only do that as a last resort. If they have nothing to sell, they have nothing with which to pay their debts. Certainly, if someone gets in that far over their head, she cuts their credit and takes the loss – but she’d rather get paid late than never. Besides, not every bill is for moving a product. There are also, ah, services.
        Hanako’s look grows increasingly distressed as she sets up for, then completely bodges, her safety shot. “What k-kind of services?” she finally asks in a near whisper.
        It takes a second or two to understand the subtext, but when she finally does, Suzu throws back her head and laughs. “No, not like that! She doesn’t go there, and doesn’t tolerate others who do. I meant taking care of those guys, for example.” She waves in the direction of the stable as if the house was transparent. “Even if someone owes a lot of money, it’s a drawn out legal battle to claim their horse as payment. Unless it’s prime breeding stock, it’s usually not worth the effort.” A lap around the table reveals that the situation has changed dramatically. It’s time to start cashing in or die trying, so she puts away a red and holds for pink, though not in ideal position. The small errors in cue control accumulate, forcing her to end her break at twenty-six as she mercilessly tucks in behind brown and concedes the table.
        Just as Suzu’s game seems to be on the rise, Hanako’s seems to be on the decline. Perhaps it’s the way she lost control of the last frame, or perhaps she is overthinking the implications of their conversation, but she seems to have lost a small but critical amount of proficiency when she needs it most. Her attempt to escape the snooker is not just unsuccessful but disastrous, leaving a free ball because of the proximity to green.
        Suzu nominates brown, potting it in the left center pocket, following up with yellow because as far as she’s concerned, these are just extra points. What matters is getting in position to resume the attack on the reds – and attack she does, not stopping until she has put the frame several snookers out of reach.
        “I guess I’m c-cooking,” Hanako offers as a concession speech when she chooses not to come back to the table.
        And there was much rejoicing.
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 43 (20160112)

Post by NekoDude » Tue Jan 12, 2016 9:42 am

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

2007-12-09

        “What are you up to today?” Molly asks hopefully as the door opens to the end of its chain.
        “I could ask the same of you,” Neko replies with irritation, though she unchains the door. “It’s not even eight o’bloody clock.”
        “Cinema Club got bumped from the Tea Room today, something about security orientation. On the bright side,” she says with a sly smile, “if you want to cause trouble, today is the day, with most of the eyes occupied at any given time.” Molly gives Neko a stern look. “Are you hung over?”
        “Mmmaybe,” she admits, diverting her eyes momentarily in false shame, “but it’s an inopportune day in other ways, if you know what I mean.”
        “I figured as much.” Molly finds her way to the desk chair and drops into it none too gracefully. “You didn’t answer my first question.”
        “Recovery, I think – and maybe lunch down the hill, assuming it’s not blowing sideways like yesterday. Then I have an appointment to go bowling.”
        “That’s not exactly my strong point, but I don’t have much else planned. Have you any room on the trip?”
        “We should. They’ll come back from the house to pick up the car, but that only totals four. We can take a fifth, though it’ll be a little bit tight.”
        Molly gives a wry grin. “I have ways of taking up less space. Who are ‘they’?”
        “Hanako is the driver, and Abe and Suzu planned it. They aren’t intending to peel off for billiards either, they got that out of their systems yesterday. We’ll finally have a bowling foursome – or fivesome if you want to participate – though there’s little doubt who will dominate. I will not be very good, as I plan to try something new.”
        “Yeah, I heard about the last time,” Molly offers as she wiggles her thumb in the air. “What do you have in mind?”
        Neko waves her own thumb in response. “Not using it. It’s called ‘two handed’ style, though it’s not allowable to have two hands on the ball at release. Supposedly, it will take the stress off my arm – and when I’m strong enough, it should let me spin the ball like mad. Give me a moment and I can show you.” She opens the laptop and gets it started. “It’s the style of a fellow Aussie, and he’s quite the bishōnen. He also detests Vegemite as much as I do.”
        “That’s not exactly a high bar for the quality of a person, but I suppose it’s a start.” Molly leans in closer to the screen. “Bloody… My back hurts just watching him.”
        “Yeah, it’s going to take a lot more strength than I have to spin the ball anything like that, but it seems wiser to generate power from my core than from my arm. Last thing I need is to pop the screws.” Neko makes a point of inspecting the wide and oddly burned-looking scar along her forearm.
        Molly nods. “Count me in. I won’t play, but this I have to see.”

        “Are you ready?” Abe asks as Neko answers, then throws the door wide open. “Oh, hi,” he adds with a wave and a polite smile as he spots Molly. He leans in close and whispers. “Is she still mad at us?”
        Neko laughs and turns to Molly. “Hey, are you still cross with them?”
        “I never was. I was put off by some of their behavior, and I doubt I’ll ever care much for Katayama, but that has a bit of a history to it.” Molly leans far forward to get her balance to stand, and Neko extends the carbon arm crosswise in front of her to lend assistance, inducing Molly to render a recognizable imitation of Neko’s vocal style. “Thanks, love.”
        That will have to be good enough, I suppose.
        When they get to the gate, the car is already waiting for them as agreed when the trio divided. Neko claims the front seat as she generally does, placing her shoes – the one piece of bowling equipment she is unwilling to borrow or rent – on the floor with her. Suzu helps get Molly settled in behind the driver’s seat, leaving Abe to find his way to the middle. At least I have room for my knees today. Sitting three across could have been much worse. Still, it is quite apparent that he remains the narrowest of the bunch as the last door closes.
        He attempts light banter from the center position as they pull away. “So are we taking bets now, or waiting until we get there?”
        “Don’t expect a wager out of me,” Neko replies with a snort. “I expect I’ll be bloody awful today. If you’re expecting competition, it will have to come from these two.” She tips her thumb to her right and right flank, respectively.
        “You’re planning to fail?” Abe asks incredulously. “I’ve never known you to do anything like that before.”
        “I plan to start over and try something completely different, in the interests of long-term success,” she responds. “Sometimes you have to take a step or two backward to make forward progress.”
        “I’ve seen what she has in mind,” Molly contributes, “and it has every likelihood of being quite entertaining.”
        At the bowling center, they have to wait for the morning leagues to wrap up before they can get a lane, so instead they settle for a bit of billiards – or at least most of them do, as Neko goes in search of a ball she likes. They have time for two games of team nine-ball, and are setting up for a third when they get the call. As expected, the games consisted of watching as Suzu and Hanako made eye-popping exhibition shots, and he and Molly missed the easy ones.
        Neko queued up as soon as they were called, so the rest of them just hang back until she gets to the counter and receives their lane assignment. “We’re on number thirty-five. I asked for one near the end.” She pushes her chosen ball along the carpet with her foot until Hanako recognizes the situation and takes the ticket to free up her hand.
        “T-two hours?” Hanako reads from the ticket.
        Neko hoists the ball to cradle it between her head and shoulder for support. “That’s all I could get, as they have more league play starting up in the afternoon. When that happens, they only sell single games to the likes of us. We can think about it then.”
        Once at the lane, Molly settles into the scoring table seat, clearly claiming it for her own. “What is the order of players?”
        Everyone else just looks at each other momentarily before Neko takes control. “Don’t put anything in right now. We’ll let you know when we’re ready to roll.”
        “But…”
        “No worries, it will just put everything on one line by default.”
        Abe steps in to tie her bowling shoes, as they take thin laces and need to be tight to prevent slipping. He particularly concentrates on the right, as any slippage there would not be detected until it was likely too late to avert disaster. Even with two working hands, it is sometimes helpful to let another person handle this task. “You’re good to go,” he declares, just as Suzu passes behind him on her way to the deck to throw the first ball, giving him a carefully placed flick of her foot that makes him jump.
        Neko gives him a wink as he rises. “It was that kind of a morning, aye?”
        Suzu’s ball catches the pocket light, leaving a dreaded 6-7-10 split. “Good thing we’re not counting these yet,” she declares as she returns to wait for the ball. “Anyone fancy having a go at this shot?”
        “I’ll have enough trouble finding them when all ten are there,” Neko offers by way of declination.
        “It’s a big ask for a lefty,” Abe submits as his reason to bow out.
        When the eyes of the party land on Hanako, she doesn’t duck them. “S-sure, why not,” she says as she rises before proceeding to knock the 6 and 10 pins to either side of the 7. She just gives a shrug as she walks back.
        “Well then, let’s see your new trick,” Molly says, gesturing at Neko.
        “Right, right.” Neko sets up on the far left and drifts a bit to the right as she approaches, before uncorking a spinning two-handed delivery that skids a few meters along the boards on the right before falling into the gutter with a thunk, just about simultaneous with her own squeal as her right foot knocks her heel out from under her and sends her sprawling. Although the back of her head does seem to make contact with the floor, the rapidity of her rise indicates that the only thing hurt was her pride, so Abe rolls the dice.
        “We’ll give you a six for that,” he says from behind the back of his hand, there to conceal his amusement.
        “Six? I didn’t hit a bloody thing.”
        “On the Richter scale, that is.”
        She raps her knuckles on the carbon forearm. “Lucky for you I don’t have it in gestural mode, or I’d have a choice one in response to that.” She reaches up with the gray hand and musses his hair. “Now go teach the pins a lesson.”
        Is it wrong that I still find the Terminator hand creepy? He blocks the thought as best he can as he throws his first ball. The spin doesn’t catch the way he expects, and he clips off the 4-7-8. Move two boards left next time.
        Next time up, Neko makes progress. The ball stays on the lane most of the way before the spin takes hold and yanks it hard left into the gutter, but more importantly, she manages not to trip herself. The artificial trailing leg is still difficult to manage, but instead of catching the slide leg near the back of the ankle, she makes contact near the top of the calf.
        “I see getting rotation isn’t much of a problem for you,” Abe points out, “but if you were to transfer a little of that energy into throwing the ball faster, you might like the results.”
        “Yeah,” Neko concedes, “but I’m still working on not going arse over teakettle. One step at a time. I’ll pick this one up, or not,” she adds, with her thumb over her shoulder pointing to the lane. She fidgets with the control box on her belt as she waits for the ball to come back.
        Despite her protest, she seems to have taken the advice in mind as she sends the second ball down the lane with nearly as much spin, but a lot more momentum. There is an obvious moment when the ball stops sliding and the spin bites into the surface, but it’s just a split second late. Although she nearly misses the head pin entirely, the pins scatter in spectacular fashion, leaving a lonely 7 pin to be knocked down by the clearing bar. She responds with both fists in the air and lets out a whoop.
        Abe is merely nodding when she makes her way back. “That works,” he says. “If I’d have made contact like that, I wouldn’t have picked up nine, that’s for sure.”
        “That’s the whole point, getting mad stupid pin action.” She accepts a fist bump from Hanako and a pat on the backside from Molly.
        Abe takes his place at the line and throws his usual elegant rainbow curve. Although visually less impressive, the result is exactly the same, so he picks up a lighter ball for the spare pickup and launches it seemingly halfway down the lane in the air. What little spin it does have never has a chance to grab in, and he clips the 7 pin just before the ball would have found the gutter.
        “Yeah, that’s right.” Suzu lets her approval be known before taking her turn. “Last ups before we start scoring,” she adds before firing off a strike of her own. Everything about her run-up looks like a mirror image of me. For that matter, so do the results. She accepts congratulations including a left-handed fist bump from Neko, whose real hand is occupied mucking about with her phone. “What are you up to there?” she asks. “Messaging your secret lover?”
        “Naturally,” Neko deadpans. “That’s exactly what I need. No, really, I’m settling a bet. Mariko and Tadao bet that I was going to hurt myself within my first three attempts. I need to inform them that I did not.”
        So that’s why you bounced up from the floor the way you did. You couldn’t afford to admit that it hurt – but it did, and we both know it.
        “Wh-what about the r-rest of the d-day?” Hanako asks as she waits on a slow pinsetter.
        “Bloody hell, I’d bet on tweaking my back over that time span. Tomorrow will not be fun. Or maybe it will,” she adds with a curious lift of the eyes.
        I know that look, and it signals madness ahead. He has seen it enough times before Suzu attempts the impossible at the snooker table – a five-cushion escape from a hand-picked worst-case scenario, for example – but what makes it all the more maddening is that she manages to pull it off about a quarter of the time, just often enough to make her believe she is capable of doing it all of the time. I picked up a 7-10 split last week. You don’t see me expecting to make them all now. Oh well, this one is Hisao’s problem, not his, and there are worse problems to have than a partner with an abundance of confidence.

        Sally’s shout of alarm can be heard through a closed door and halfway across the house, even over the noise of the stove’s exhaust fans. Jōji has the good sense and just enough time to turn off the heat before making a mad dash to see what has happened. Finding the door to be locked, he takes a step back and prepares to kick his way through just as it opens before him.
        “Get these off of me!” Sally insists, drenched from chest to knees in steaming liquid, her hands held up like some sort of demented scarecrow. This is no time for subtlety. He tears through all five buttons on the front of her blouse with a swipe, nearly buckling her knees, unbuttons the trousers, and tears through the zipper with a yank, spinning her around in the process but leaving her exposed to the knees but for her pantsu. She steps out of the trousers on her own before turning back to face him again, glancing down at the damage. “If you take care of that mess,” she says with a gesture at the office, “I’ll take care of this one.” With great haste, she heads for the nearest shower, not hers, leaving the blouse on the floor as she goes.
        Inside the office, he takes a quick survey of the damage and decides his first action will be to keep the computer clear of the pool of coffee slowly rolling its way toward it. Next he grabs the trousers, likely already damaged beyond saving, and throws them into the pond to buy time. Her calendar will likely be a total loss as well, but she uses waterproof ballpoint pens on it (expecting significantly smaller coffee seepage to occur) and it should be legible enough to transfer to a new one. It can soak up as much of the mess as it pleases, so long as they remember to separate the pages before they dry.
        Running back to the kitchen, he moves the skillet from the still-cooling burner to the back, then heads to the laundry room for towels, grabbing the most disposable ones he can easily discern before making his way to start the cleanup process. He focuses on damage control rather than stain removal, as the latter will probably be a job for professionals (or at least a steam cleaner), before checking up on Sally in the shower. He brings one last towel with him just in case, but the bathroom is adequately stocked.
        “How are you doing in there?” he asks over the matte glass.
        “Son of a bitch, I’m starting to blister.”
        Well that’s bad, but it’s not the end of the world. “Is there anything I can do for you right now?”
        “There’s sunburn gel under my sink – but first, have a double martini waiting for me… and leave the fixings on the table.”
        “And the meeting?”
        “It’s still on. We can’t afford to look vulnerable.”
        Jōji grimaces. I hope you can strike a balance between analgesia and inebriation, but I suspect you’ve done this before. He glances at his watch. We have fifty minutes to conceal the damage in there. What the hell happened? “Anything special I need to plan for?”
        Sally laughs briefly. “Yeah. Plan to make them more drunk than me. Let them sample the other goods if they’re so inclined. Just draw their attention away from me. Clean up the best you can; I’m not ashamed to admit I spilled coffee on the desk. I am ashamed to admit I have second-degree burns because of my own shaky hands. At least they won’t be able to see them.” The water stops abruptly, and she steps out, giving him a chance to survey the damage. It looks painful but not disfiguring, though he has yet to see to what degree blisters may damage intense body art like hers. “Are you going to stare, or are you going to wrap me up?” she finally prods.
        “Oh, right.” He had forgotten he is carrying a towel, and she is reasonably expecting him to use it. “I only had time to throw down towels in there and walk on them a little,” he adds as he holds the towel open for her. “We’ll have to hang your papers up to dry so they can at least be copied later, and I’m afraid you may be in need of some new wardrobe elements.”
        “I figured as much. Mop up the wet spots, haul out anything you can’t dry, swap the chair for one of the ones upstairs, and throw a rug over the stain. That’s all we have time for now.”
        “That won’t leave me time to finish the snacks.”
        She nods. “Get on the phone while you’re doing it and have some sent up. I don’t want anyone else poking around in there. If I’m not out ten minutes before, come and get me. I may need your help, since I suddenly have the compulsion for formalwear. Never mind the burn gel, I’ll fetch it myself when I hunt down some gauze. Just make the martini, then set to tidying up.”
        Good move. It’s loose and hides what you may or may not be wearing underneath. With the phone pinned between his shoulder and his head, he is almost glad he is immediately placed on hold. Once he has mopped up to the best of his ability, he throws the towels in the wash pile and borrows the plush rug from beyond the glass door, getting back to the kitchen just as the restaurant finally takes his call. Sally signals from her bath for him to hold his position but remains silent until he finishes placing the order.
        “Your turn,” she says as she points at the empty martini glass on the table.
        “On duty? Is that really a wise –”
        She interrupts him with another wave. “Do you want them to think I’ve been drinking alone?”

        “Whee!” Neko lets out as she finds the pocket and the pins seem to explode. Her method is most definitely effective when it connects, but she has yet to do so with any reliability. Still, she knows that her old method (and Hanako’s tactic still) of connecting with a mostly straight ball for seven, eight, or nine every time but rarely striking was a dead end. She doesn’t want to be merely respectable, or show that she’s able to perform on equal footing with everyone else – she wants to win, and knew that something extraordinary would be required. Of course, if she proves the validity of her method, nothing stops the others from following in her footsteps. Still, that would be a win of its own, if the only way to beat her is to join her.
        “It’s certainly dramatic,” Abe allows, “if erratic.”
        “Yeah, it’s going to take some work, but at least I’ve proven the concept. Getting the speed constant is going to be the hardest part. Once I manage that, I can back off the spin if need be. Until then, I don’t even know exactly what my aim point is.”
        Suzu shakes her head with a faraway look and a grin. “Who would have guessed the first of us to take up two-handed bowling would be the one who doesn’t have two hands?”
        “It makes sense in a way,” Molly says, jumping to Neko’s defense. “Her inspiration started doing it because he was too small to do it the other way, and just never stopped. She’s not exactly getting any taller, so maybe it’s the right move for her too.”
        “Oh, I didn’t mean to imply it was a bad idea,” Suzu says apologetically, “merely ironic.”
        Meanwhile, on the neighboring lane, someone apparently decides to see what this is all about and tries his own luck with it. However, they missed witnessing the disastrous early attempts, having arrived a few minutes later. He manages to get it even more wrong, doing a face plant into the lane as the foul alarm blares and his friends guffaw, one shouting “Cleanup on aisle thirty-four!” He returns with forearms, chest, and chin all coated in oil, and a look of utter humiliation in his eyes.
        I suspect that will keep the others from trying it – at least for now, when we can all watch. This is probably true of her own party as well. Suddenly she feels the weight of a stare. The hapless bowler quickly looks away as she swivels around to meet his gaze, pretending to be occupied by toweling off the oil as best he can. Was he doing it to try to impress me? Her suspicions are confirmed when she decides not to press on with yet another game, although they still have over half an hour remaining. It’s not injury she fears so much as ingraining bad habits by compensating for fatigue, but both are probably valid reasons to quit.
        He chats her up over the back of the seat separating them. “What is it called, what you’re doing out there? I’ve never seen that before.”
        “You may be disappointed to find that it’s simply called ‘two handed bowling’,” she replies. “Pretty tame, huh?”
        “Yeah, but, umm,” he carries on, unconsciously or otherwise glancing down at her prosthetic, “it seems a bit daring, considering.”
        “Not as daring as putting all the strain on this,” she says as she holds up her scarred forearm. “It’s still not a hundred percent. I probably shouldn’t even be doing this, to be honest. It’s only been four months, or not even three since the cast came off.”
        This causes him to visibly flinch. “That looks like it hurt.”
        Neko nods. “Very much so. It still does, sometimes. It probably will tomorrow.”
        “Ah, I hope I’m not getting too personal, but ah…”
        Bloody hell, here it comes. Before she has time to consider whether her line will be ‘I have a boyfriend’ or ‘I have a girlfriend’, he scuttles her planning.
        “...does that have anything to do with that?” He gestures alternately at her two arms.
        Huh? That wasn’t what I was expecting. Still pretty cheeky though. “Only tangentially. I earned this in a bicycle crash, one that may or may not have been rendered less severe had I had two hands to stop with. This,” she adds while holding up the carbon fiber arm, “has always been this way. Well, not this,” she quickly adds with a rap of the knuckles, “but what’s under it. Or not under it, if you will.”
        “I – I see.” He blushes visibly, as if not expecting her to be so forthcoming about it. “Well, I work here. Actually, we all do.” He gestures over his shoulder at the other guys behind him. “I noticed you’re throwing a house ball, so once you get a feel for what equipment you want, you’re invited to the pro shop. We’ll get you set up right, and at a fair price.” He hands her a card, which she momentarily considers taking with the carbon hand, but she hasn’t yet put it into gestural mode as required to handle the necessary pinching motion.
        “Your name isn’t on here,” she replies after a brief reading of the card.
        “Oh, sorry… flip it over.” She can see that his name is indeed stamped onto the back. They must share one generic set of cards.
        “So it is. Yoshimatsu Matsumoto. I assume you have something shorter you prefer?”
        “Oh, yeah. They just call me Yoshi.”
        “Katelyn Rogers,” she replies, stuffing the card between two fingers of the prosthetic hand and extending the real one, “but they just call me Neko.”
        Yoshi’s eyes widen in surprise. “That name seems very… American?”
        Neko tries to suppress her laugh but succeeds only at converting it into a snort. “«Oi! I’m not a bloody Yank!»”
        “«Sorry, sorry!»” His accent is distinctly American. “«I didn’t mean to offend you.»”
        «No worries, mate, just taking the piss. What’s your story, are you a halfbreed too?»”
        He flinches momentarily at ‘halfbreed’, then realizes she is targeting herself as well. He nods while trying to recover his bearings. “«Indeed. My mother came over on a tour with an all-girl band and fell in love with the place. She managed to arrange a job playing piano and singing at a nightclub, and the paperwork was finished before the tour was. She has been here pretty much ever since.»”
        “«That’s more romantic than my story, to be sure. My parents are in the international cargo business, and I hardly ever see my Pops anymore because he’s at the other end of the line holding things together there. It would be fair to call their marriage politically motivated.»”
        Molly chooses this moment to wander over and take the seat adjacent to Neko, though the way the benches curve, this leaves her quite some distance from Yoshi. “They wanted to know if you’re taking one game off, or the rest of the day.”
        “I think it’s best that I call it a day.”
        Molly signals to the other three that they should go on with their next game, then locks eyes with Neko. Do you need rescue? she seems to be asking.
        I might as well shoot the poor guy down now. There’s no point in stringing him along. She gives a nearly imperceptible nod before both of them lean in for a purposeful kiss. “«Molly, this is Yoshi.»” Holding up the prosthetic hand causes the card to become dislodged, but Molly snatches it out of the air as it flutters, so she continues. “«He’s trying to talk me into buying some balls.»” She manages to keep a straight face long enough to sense Yoshi must be turning beet red behind her, so she turns around to face him. “Don’t worry,” she says while giving him a pat on the hand, “if I need one or two, you’ll be my first stop.”

        “Balls, balls, and more balls!” Iwanako exhorts in disgust. “These physics problems are always about balls and ramps and falling.”
        “Would you rather they were about spherical cows?” Hisao asks with his palms upraised. “Because that’s the alternative, you know. It wouldn’t help anyone if we had to worry about dice bouncing off each other.”
        “I don’t know, just something other than rolling balls and sliding bricks would be nice. I mean, at least when they make the problems about wheels, I can sort of see the point.”
        “Well this one isn’t so bad. If we look at the information given and plug it into the equations, we get the distance traveled. From the distance, it’s just a little basic trigonometry to convert that and the height change in the ramp into an angle.”
        “And this is supposed to be useful? Like we all need to know this?”
        It will be for me. I expect to do harder maths than this daily for many years to come. “No, and not everybody will. That’s why it’s on the test. If you don’t know it, you’re better suited for a profession where it doesn’t matter. The whole point is to sift candidates into those who actually might make it, and those who are unlikely to do so. You don’t see me complaining that I don’t expect to qualify to study linguistics, as you seek to do. You shouldn’t worry if you’re not invited to study physics.”
        “I’d be more worried if they did invite me to do so,” she says with a roll of the eyes. “Then I would know the world had gone completely insane. Maybe we should move on to something more important to both of us, since you don’t seem to be having a problem with this.”
        “Like what?” I thought we put off the physics as long as we could, and have burned through our other topics already.
        Iwanako has to put a finger under his chin to raise his sight line from the list he is inspecting, revealing that she has unbuttoned her blouse. “We have almost two more hours alone,” she says with a wink. “Maybe we should work on anatomy.”
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 44a (20160221)

Post by NekoDude » Sun Feb 21, 2016 4:17 am

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

2007-12-10

        It is still quite dark when Hisao feels the waves of Neko leaving the bed. Shortly thereafter, he is being nudged to further wakefulness.
        “Darling, I need you to open the bottle for me. I can’t get a grip on it, and my back is tightening up again.”
        He takes the prescription bottle, though it is too dark to discern the contents. He pushes down on the lid and twists, and the seal breaks with a slight hiss as he peels it off. “How many?”
        “Just one.” She holds out her hand as he fishes one pill out with a finger. “Thanks, babe. You can go back to sleep. I’m going to hop in the shower and hope some warm water helps.”
        He takes a moment to glance at the clock before accepting her suggestion. 1:17. When he opens his eyes again, the room is modestly illuminated from outside, and he is alone in the bed – whether again or still, he is not sure. Oh shit, what time is it? I must already be late for class if the sun is up. This time the clock reads 6:26. The alarm is set to chime in another four minutes. He’s not late for anything. Then why is it light outside?
        Climbing out of bed, he notices Neko has piled cushions on the floor and sprawled over them with all limbs dangling, cat style. It must have worked to some degree, she’s still asleep. He makes his way to the door and peeks outside to find the campus lighting on at maximum intensity. What the…
        He catches sight of Momomoto, who turns to check out the sound of the door opening. “Nakai! Either get back inside, or dress up warm and help us search. We can use all the help we can get.”
        He closes the door and debates his options. Waking Neko, he tells her, “They’re rounding up a search party – for whom, I don’t know, but I’m going to volunteer. Do you need anything before I go?”
        “Could you help me with my leg? Bending over is a problem. Then open the pills and I can manage the rest.”
        Pills. Oh yeah, I should probably take mine as well. No telling when I’ll make it back.
        Outside, once dressed in a trenchcoat and rain boots to ward off the frost in the air and on the ground, he sees one of the maintenance crew and heads in that direction.
        “You’re in Radio Club?” Getting a nod, the maintenance worker nods in return and thrusts a small radio transceiver and an emergency blanket at him. “Go join the group over by the stadium, they’ll bring you up to speed. Keep us informed. The phones have been less than reliable this morning.”
        He is not surprised to find Kenta among the searchers checking the buildings near the stadium, so he heads that way.
        “Good, another fully functional member,” Kenta says to greet his arrival. “Nothing against the others, but it would help if they could both see and hear, rather than just one or the other. Oh, you brought a radio. I told them I’d behave, but they wouldn’t give it to me.”
        “Who are we looking for? What’s going on?”
        “Katayama. Apparently she was trying to sneak into a boy’s room after hours by climbing a tree, and she fell out of it from a good three meters up, then got up and ran. She hasn’t been seen since, and the boy says she wasn’t dressed for the cold.”
        “Her phone…”
        “She doesn’t have it. They found it in her room. Anyhow, glad to have you along. You stand a better chance than most of talking her out of hiding, if you think you have found her.”
        “What happens when they do find her?” Hisao doesn’t follow through with the obvious ‘provided she didn’t crawl off and die somewhere’.
        “I’d imagine they’ll confine her to campus for some period of time, and only let her out of her room with an escort. It’s what they’ve done in the past. Anyhow, you go that way, and I’ll go this way. Take a report from anyone else you run into, provided you can understand them.”
        When he makes it to the locker room, he finds it already lit and reasonably warm, though not up to full operating spec yet. He heads for the phone and dials his own room, and the receiver is picked up in silence as usual before there is a slight click and Neko’s voice comes on the line.
        “Uh, hello?”
        “Yeah babe, it’s just me. Call your Mum and let her know Katayama may be on her way there – no phone, she left it behind – and will likely be in medical trouble by the time she arrives. I’m in the girls’ locker at the moment, but call me in the boys’ locker as soon as you know anything, would you?”
        He hears Neko mumble something in a whisper away from the microphone. “I’ll do that. Bloody hell, we should have let her sink.”
        He steps outside momentarily before heading into the other locker, to help with propagation as he fires up the handheld. “Girls’ locker clear. Checking boys’ locker next. Stadium crew has nothing else to report yet.” He feels like he’s forgetting something as he stares at the radio. Oh yeah. “«Juliet Oscar Seven, Tango India Tango»,” he adds before stepping back inside.
        The phone rings just as he gets within a couple meters of it, so he is in a position to grab it immediately. “Search party, locker room,” he answers.
        It’s who he expected. “Come get some warmer clothes, it must be cold out there.”
        “Will do.” He hangs up, using the radio to report in along the way so they know where he has gone and that he will be back.
        The door is unlocked, and Neko is now doing the cat sprawl over pillows stacked on the waterbed, still wearing the leg. She doesn’t even bother to look at him before speaking. “I don’t want to get out of bed to talk to you, and we can’t trust those lines anyhow.” She waits until he closes the door, and lowers her voice. “Mum’s out of it, medicated to the gills due to some kind of accident yesterday, but Jōji is going to round up a search party of his own and go looking for her from that end – on horseback.”
        “Accident? Is she alright?”
        “She’s probably feeling no worse than I am. She’ll make it.” Neko glances over and sees the worry on his face. “Household accident, not car accident. Something about scalding coffee. He was in too much of a hurry to explain it fully. You’d better grab a scarf or something at least, to excuse your diversion,” she adds as he pockets his phone.
        “I don’t know if classes are on, but you’d be safe to act as if they are and get yourself ready,” he suggests as he prepares to leave again.
        “I’m not going, at least not at the beginning. I was considering calling in injured anyhow, but with this going on, now I’m sure. I would need your help just getting dressed. Don’t look at me like that, you have a job to do. I’ll still be here when you get back. Now go.”
        Back at the track, it takes a while to locate and catch up with Kenta, but he finally manages to flag him down and waits for him to jog over. “How well do you know those hills to the north? Could you navigate them with just that?” Hisao gestures at the light strapped to his head.
        “Yeah, I should be able to manage. Why, do you think she went that way?”
        No, I don’t just think that. I’m almost certain of it. “Think about it. She’s not here – or if she is, a little more delay in finding her probably won’t matter. But if she panicked, where do you think she would go?”
        Kenta nods in understanding. “And you figure she didn’t take the highway, or they would have her already. Have you reported this?”
        Hisao shakes his head. “She’ll hide from them, and there are plenty of places to hide – and die of exposure. Besides, we’ve already got a team on the move from that end, and it’s probably better if they find her. She’d go with them, unless she’s unconscious or unaware of her surroundings.”
        “I’ll scout ahead, you just follow at whatever pace is comfortable for you. You’d better be right, or we’re both going to catch a lot of heat for this. We might anyhow.”
        Hisao swallows back the lump in his throat. “I know.”

        Jōji has to slow down to take the call, as he is still only a moderately competent rider, so he whistles to get the other two to pull up with him. “Do you see a flickering light in the distance? Should be south-southwest of you,” he hears Hisao asking on the other end. He does not, so he repeats the question to the other two riders.
        “There!” says one, pointing.
        “Good, you lead.” Turning his attention back to the phone, he finishes with “We do! We’re on the way.” It takes less than a minute and a half to close the distance, now that they don’t have to search. They arrive to find Rika huddled under two emergency blankets with not just Hisao, but also Kenta. “Can she stand?” he asks them.
        Kenta shakes his head, so one of the other riders jumps down to help lift her into position on Clyder, in front of Jōji. “Sorry we have to take the blankets back, but we’d be hard pressed to explain where they went,” he says as they leave her uncovered.
        “Understood,” Jōji says with a nod. “We’ll have her indoors soon enough.” As the cavalry turns to head back, he can hear the report being radioed in.
        “Stadium crew reporting in. We think we found something.”

        “You’re not making sense, Nakai. Neither did your official report, even if it’s consistent with Takei’s – suspiciously consistent.” El Jefe paces the room as Hisao and Neko look on. They have to be well aware he’s caught in a bind.
        Hisao pretends to be preoccupied with the back rub he is delivering before speaking. “I know, sir. We, uh… we let them take her. We found her first, and we let them take her before we called it in.”
        “You what?” This is just inconceivable! “What the fuck were you thinking?”
        “It –” Neko yelps before grabbing a breath and trying again at a calmer level. “It wasn’t his idea. It was mine.”
        “You two are trying to give me a heart attack, aren’t you?” He grabs the nearest chair, spins it around, and takes a seat. “You’d better have a damn good reason for this!”
        “I do. Or rather, Mum does. I’m sure you have to know that wasn’t her first visit to that room, by means of tree-climbing. It was just the first time anything went wrong – at least with that part of the mission.”
        “Yeah, fine. She had a secret boyfriend. She’s not the only one.”
        “You also know she is less than the best record-keeper, the kind that can forget about petty little things like deadlines, commitments, appointments… and contraception.”
        Fuck.
        Neko smirks wryly at his visible discomfort, or perhaps she is just grimacing at the deep tissue massage going on simultaneously. “That is why I thought it best she fall into Mum’s hands. By the time you get her back, there won’t be any problem. She already knows and accepts she can’t carry it. It would kill her. Maybe in a few more years she can survive one, but not now. She was making that last tree-climb to let the poor guy know. He closed the window on her unexpectedly, and down she went.”
        Momomoto is unsure whether he can swallow this tale, when he decides he doesn’t have to. Instead, he’ll get it from the horse’s mouth. “I have to make some calls,” he says as he stands up. “Don’t even think about going anywhere.” Then he remembers that both of his phones – the mobile and the landline alike – go through the switchboard. Even if they aren’t listening, they’ll know who he called. Sitting back down with a sigh, he asks, “Do you mind if I use yours?” Neko already has it set to dial the ranch when she hands it to him.
        “I told her to make the trip,” Sally confirms. “Although the matter had already been decided by her physical condition, she had to at least pretend to take his feelings into consideration, or there could be significant fallout. I did not instruct her to do it by climbing a tree in the middle of the night. It just needed to be done before winter break, when things could be taken care of. Now they will be accelerated significantly. You should be grateful. This could have gone a lot worse for you.”
        “For me?
        Sally’s tone is accusatory. “You’re supposed to know who’s sleeping with whom. Now you can claim any position you believe to be suitable, but you don’t have to worry about your favorite line-breeding experiment coming back a breeder herself.”
        “Did you know about this when you took her under your wing?”
        “Hell no. She didn’t even know yet.”
        “And these two, how long have they known?”
        “About an hour longer than you. This is a perfect example of information sharing on a need to know basis. It would have been better if nobody had needed to know, but they did, and now you do. If you’ve got half the intelligence you want me to believe, you’ll make sure nobody else needs to know.”
        I suspect my job security was never your paramount priority, but thank you for not undermining me, at least.
        After concluding the call, Momomoto makes one last statement to Neko. “You’re two for two now. Next time someone goes missing – and I mean anyone, from the Student Council to a lost pet – I’m coming to you first. Now get dressed and get to class. Both of you.

***
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Re: "Into The Dark" (Neko Book 3) Chapter 44b (20160301)

Post by NekoDude » Tue Mar 01, 2016 2:29 pm

Chapter 44 conclusion

        Hiroyuki rarely gets calls at 7:30 unless they are international, and thus of great importance, so he grabs the receiver without bothering to check the caller display.
        “Satou Medical,” he answers.
        “Sorry to call so early,” a distinctly Scottish, female voice begins, “but we are trying to reach one of your employees, a Miss Akira Satou. Could you be of assistance?”
        At this point, he spares a glance at the display. Advance Medical Imaging. Yep, we sell to them. “You should have her private number on file. Has there been some issue contacting her that way?”
        “Yes, we do, but we have yet to receive a reply. Do you know how she can be contacted? I must insist, it is rather critical.”
        Rather critical to you, no doubt. Urgency is seldom reciprocal. “I’m afraid she is not in the office yet. Can I take a message and let her know where to reach you?”
        “Would it be possible to contact someone at her residence perhaps? I cannot detail the nature of the call – confidentiality, I’m sure you understand – but it is most pressing.”
        Confidentiality? She hasn’t been handling the field response to the in-service recall, so this can’t be a legal matter. Then the light goes on in his head. “This is her residence, I am her father, and I can deliver the message personally should it be warranted.”
        The verbal runaround hits the floor like a microphone on Open Comedy Night. “Our automated systems flagged something that was not seen during her visit Saturday, and it could be extremely important. We need to get another image, soonest. Shall we send non-emergency transport to facilitate the…”
        “No,” Hiroyuki interrupts, “We can take care of the transport. One moment please.” He sets down the receiver and swallows hard before stumbling to the door. “Karla?” he calls out, his voice a guttural croak that causes him to cough and try again. “Karla?”
        He wanders out into the hall to find his wife sprawled on the couch, and an empty glass on the table. Fearing the worst, he takes a moment to sniff the dregs in the glass, then heads back into the office, using the walls for balance. One crisis at a time, please form a queue.
        “I’m afraid I didn’t get your name,” he says as he picks up the receiver again.
        “MacGregor,” answers the voice from the other end, “Mary MacGregor.”
        “Thank you for your patience. Miss or Mrs. MacGregor. I’m afraid I will have to back up on my previous statement. Please arrange for non-emergency transport, soonest. I will get the patient prepared, and please have the transport give me a call when they are nearby.” He gives her the private number to his mobile, thanks her again, and starts the slow and difficult trek to the other end of the house to wake Akira.

***

        Hanako pretends to have nothing more on her mind than the game of Freecell open on her screen, but she simply doesn’t want to interrupt anything that matters when it’s time for the call. She tries not to worry when the scheduled time passes without a sound. Sometimes she can’t get away for lunch on time. Be patient. She almost falls backward out of her chair when there is a knock at the door.
        Lilly has seldom looked so disheveled, not even when she returned from Scotland, half-drunk and fresh from sixteen hours on a plane. More worrying, she is rubbing her cross between finger and thumb like some sort of magical amulet. She doesn’t wait for pleasantries to be exchanged either, stepping inside and closing the door behind her. “If you have any faith left in me, you will follow me without question. Will you come?”
        Half of her argues that it it is almost curfew and there has already been a major incident today, but the other half points out that the head of security is her club leader. She is quite certain Lilly is aware of these facts as well. “Y-yes.”
        “Do you remember the last time I lost my composure, and what you did then to bring me back into the fold?”
        She knows we slipped her something, and she isn’t even mad. “Y-yes,” she repeats, unable to come up with something more original.
        “Good. I’m going to need another gin and tonic. We both are.”
        “It w-wasn’t the gin,” Hanako confesses. “I have no more.”
        “I know, it was the tonic. I also know you have to dip into your own regular –”
        “Oh! N-no, I s-still have samples from when we first t-tested it.” So Akira must have explained it to you. Besides, I don’t always take it, so I have spares. It tends to interfere with some other stress-relieving functions.
        Lilly nods. “Collect whatever you think you will require, and expect to stay the night. We will leave when you are ready.” She insists on standing in the middle of everything, making it impossible to forget that she is there.
        After dumping everything onto her bed, Hanako rolls it all up in her comforter like a hobo with a hoarding problem. “W-we can go now.” Lilly leads the journey, making ten meters feel more like ten kilometers under the load of the enormous bundle, but Hanako manages to make it without dropping anything.
        She is still getting settled in, occupying the region around the futon in the corner usually reserved for Tadao, when Lilly makes her call. “Hello Papa. Yes, we’re both here. I’m going to speaker now.” There is a beep and a rush of noise as she does this.
        “Girls,” Hiroyuki begins, “I have some scary news. It’s not necessarily bad news, considering, but it’s not good either. That aneurysm that showed up on the scan a couple days ago, it’s not stable, it’s leaking. It hasn’t completely burst, but it could have gone at any time. They have her in surgery right now. Initial indications are that there shouldn’t be any major damage, but we won’t know until she wakes up. I hope you don’t mind her with even shorter hair than usual,” he adds with a forced chuckle.
        “You’re right, Papa. That’s more scary than bad.”
        Hiroyuki sighs, and the environment on his end gets quieter as he closes a door. “There is some bad news too, but it’s not about her. Your Mama has fallen off the wagon, and that was before she knew about the latest emergency. How is the passport situation looking?”
        Hanako was unprepared for this sudden twist of topic. “It sh-should be ready this w-week,” she replies when she gets her wits about her.
        “Good. Do you think the school could manage without the two of you if we brought you up here a week early? I mean, I can hire some help until you arrive, if you prefer, but –”
        “Count me in,” Lilly says without hesitation, “even if we have to travel separately.”
        “M-me too,” Hanako quickly follows, “p-presuming –”
        “Of course. No point if they’re going to turn you around and send you home for a lack of papers. Do I need to make arrangements with the office there to assist you?”
        “Let me f-find out.” She breaks out her own phone and also puts it on speaker.
        “Hello?” Neko answers with apparent confusion.
        “S-sorry to call so l-late, but I have to ask a f-favor. Do you think I could b-borrow the c-car tomorrow?”
        “I’ve already committed it to the restaurant, but they may be able to part with it for a few hours if you time it right. If not, I have no doubt whatsoever you can borrow the Bimmer. Mum adores you. If she can’t lend you that for whatever reason, you may be getting a car and a driver.”
        After this call concludes, Hiroyuki breaks his silence. “Was that the Rogers girl?”
        “Y-yes,” Hanako answers with trepidation.
        There is a long, falling whistle on the other end of the line before he speaks again. “Wow. I mean, just… I knew there were benefits to approving that little peace treaty, but I never imagined it would come to this. Watch your back, darling. Not only is there no such thing as a free lunch, but that Sally character has a vested interest in making sure you think otherwise. I’ll talk to the office, but if this is what has to be done, do it. Just be careful. The girl may be okay, but her mother is a snake.” But is she a viper or a python? There’s evidence for both, and it could make all the difference. She doesn’t get a chance to ask before more voices erupt in the background. “I’ll have to update you in the morning – your morning and my late night, that is. I love you!”
        “I love you too Papa,” Lilly cheerfully responds before the call drops, though she looks anything but cheerful. “I’ll take that tonic now, if you don’t mind.”
        Hanako is pouring a sake cup’s worth of Sơn Tinh for each of them when the answer pops into her head. She drives a Viper. If men can overcompensate with their cars, so can women who act like men. Therefore, she’s a python who wants everyone to think she’s a viper.
Art is never finished, only abandoned.
Nekonomicon thread and downloads
White Mice music!

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