The note tucked under the base of the microphone is a mere three words long, but the origin, targets, and meaning are all quite clear. ‘Bed checks tonight.’ Hisao leaves it in its place, reckoning Neko might want to see it in its original state when she arrives. Unlike his own classes, hers are still being strict on release times, meaning he often has a three to five minute head start on her, and anyone else in the Radio Club (except Hanako, who has yet to rush to the top).
Having the head start, he flips straight to two meters and scans for activity. We’re probably going to end up at the ranch, he surmises, so I might as well seek out information they’re willing to leak. However, there is no sign of Jōji, and he heads back to six meters to CQ.
“Holy balls it’s cold,” Neko complains when she arrives.
“And you’re homeless for the night,” he replies.
Hisao beckons her over, then points at the note which she plucks so quickly the corner stays behind.
“I’m willing to couch-surf with you,” he offers. “I gather the important point is that you not be caught in my room tonight, and it doesn’t really matter if they find me or not. Abe can be in his technically correct place if he so desires.”
“Not bloody likely on a Saturday,” she says with a shake of the head before wadding the note up and firing it accurately into the waste bin a couple meters away. “I’ve got to find out whose idea this was. This would be the first bed check in almost two years, at least. I don’t rightly know what they did before I got here, but I’d wager it didn’t happen much then either.” She picks up the handset to the landline on the desk and punches in a number before holding it to her ear. “What’s all this about?”
Hisao can hear tinny speech at the other end, but can’t make out exactly what is being said until he turns down the volume on the radio.
It’s El Jefe. “…a concerned parent, backed by Miyagi. Or maybe it’s just Miyagi inventing an ‘anonymous tip’. Either way, I couldn’t reasonably refuse a request to do my job, even if it amounts to locking the barn after the horses are long gone. More than that, I am not at liberty to discuss.”
“You won’t have to worry about us,” Neko states with more than a bit of an attitude.
“I will have to let myself in, of course. Otherwise everyone caught out would just hide.”
It’s Neko’s turn to mimic Molly and her iconic catchphrase. “«Do the necessary.»” After hanging up, she turns back to Hisao and gestures at the radio. “Anything worth sticking around for?”
“I don’t know, I had just settled in myself.”
“Mmm. I’ll let Mum know to expect us.”
This time he leaves the radio muted to better hear the other end of the conversation, but Neko paces impatiently, causing her own phone to be well out of his hearing range much of the time. It seems to go to the answering service. “We’re coming up for the weekend,” she says with a large sigh, “and I was hoping you’d be there, or someone would, to rein in the dogs before we… Oh, hi Jōji.” She pauses. “Someone called in the morality police, but we got advance warning and would rather be somewhere else when it all goes down.” She pauses again. “Oh! I guess that means it’s not personal. Should we get…” She pauses again. “Right then. We’ll just pack and head up.”
“What was all that about?”
“There’s going to be a bit of a crowd – enough that they’re having trays sent up, including your favorite. We aren’t the only ones who got that warning. Suits me, we might as well head up while it’s still above freezing. Barely. Do you want to caravan with Suzu and Abe?”
Hisao raises an eyebrow. “In which car?”
“None, we have to ride if we want to stay tomorrow night. Mum’s not running a taxi service any longer. That’s why we might as well move soonish.”
Unable to find a flaw in this logic, Hisao switches off the rig and they head toward the room to pack. Along the way, Neko calls Abe and confirms they would indeed like to travel in a single pack – all five of them.
“Five?” Hisao asks quizzically. “Who’s the fifth?”
“Hanako. Suzu invited her, and I’m sure as shit not going to tell her no. I didn’t figure you would mind either.”
It takes but a few minutes to prepare, as they’ve both done it enough times, but they elect to wait on the message rather than stand around in the cold. As they are waiting, Neko opts to empty the contents of the safe into her bag. “El Jefe did say he would let himself in.”
“Into your safe? Even I don’t know how to open that.” By choice.
“Why take chances? It’s Mum’s money, I might as well hand it over.”
And quite a lot of it, too! He quickly eyeballs the cash as it gets packed away. If that’s all 10,000 yen notes, there’s enough there to buy a new car. He says nothing, but she catches him watching.
“She asked me to store it. I didn’t ask why.”
“Because you don’t want to know, or because she wouldn’t tell you anyhow?”
“Both.” Neko zips the bag just as her phone chimes with an incoming message. “They’re ready.”
The pace is leisurely, so nobody in their little peloton feels put upon, but it quickly becomes apparent that Neko is worse than useless at the front of the line, at least into the headwind they face today. She sits far too low to block a meaningful amount of wind for the riders behind, and tends to be the straggler as it is. She’s only out there for twenty or thirty seconds before Suzu makes the pass and lets her drop to the back.
“Leech!” Abe playfully shouts as they pass.
The ride is mercifully short, and Jōji is waiting in the guard shack, watching them climb the driveway. He opens the gate a couple meters and closes it again behind them, but does not follow them up. What’s he waiting for? They’re still getting their packs unhitched when the familiar Daihatsu rolls up the driveway, requiring the gate to be opened yet again. Ah, that.
As the car rolls to a stop in front of the house, the driver requests help from his passengers. “Come on, you said you’d help carry this in.”
Rika steps out gingerly, as if she was expecting thin ice or something similar. “I have a better idea. Wait here just a moment.” As she passes Neko on the way into the house, she declares ‘dibs’.
“No way,” Neko replies. “I have plans for that bedroom.”
“So do I,” Rika retorts, hooking a thumb over her shoulder to where the boyfriend-of-the-month waits with the restaurant employee for her return.
As the riders enter the house themselves, they can hear Rika headed out the back. When she walks through the front door for the second time, she selects her help. “You, you, and you.” She points at Abe, Suzu, and Hisao. “Grab a tray.” She picks one from the cart parked just outside the door and heads for the kitchen, the driver and her lost puppy of a companion hot on her heels with another tray apiece.
At least she’s leading by example, and I suppose someone has to do it. Hisao drops his packs at the base of the sofa and does as instructed. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
Neko follows close behind and whispers in his ear. “Are you going to let her boss you around?” She does not wait for an answer, instead peeling off to the bedroom to place her packs first.
Once he has delivered the tray, he takes a moment to remove his gloves and pick up his packs and set them alongside Neko’s on the waterbed. She is still inside, rearranging the decor, so he closes the door behind him. “Not as such, but I’m hungry. It’s not like she was standing around giving orders. She was leading from the front.”
“You’d best back me up on the room claim, because if we don’t get one to ourselves, «no soup for you». In case you hadn’t noticed, we are three couples and a single.”
When the two of them make the trip back to the kitchen together, the trays are being uncovered, Jōji has decided to come in from the cold, and Sally stands in the doorway to her restroom, watching.
“I have already staked my claim,” Neko states confidently, “and I don’t think it’s in dispute. Look in the closet and see whose clothes fill it. You got it the last time because stairs, but you can deal with them now.”
“Tell you what,” Rika responds with the arrogance dialed up to eleven. “You pick a contest, winner gets the room.”
Neko thinks for a second or two before grinning in a most disturbing way. “You’re on.” She holds out her hand for a shake and waits until she gets it to lay out the rest. “Pick any bike you want except mine. First one to the gates of the school and back, wins.”
What little color Rika’s face held to start with now blanches out of it. “I, uh… doctor’s orders, can’t do that. You’ll have to pick something else.”
“You could swim for it,” Hisao chimes in, then immediately feels guilty because Rika looks like she might actually chunder at the notion. Still, he persists. “You’re allowed to do that, right? I’ll be there to fish you out, just like last time.”
“Ganging up on me now, are you? At least give me a third option.”
Neko’s grin achieves Cheshire Cat proportions as she holds out her carbon fiber arm and raps her knuckles on it. “Rugburn contest. You can even go first.”
Katayama’s eyes go to Sally, watching from the periphery.
“Don’t look at me that way,” Sally lectures. “It was your stupid proposal, and you have to live with it. You can have the entire guest room to yourselves though.” Turning to Hanako, she softens her tone. “You can have the office. You’ve slept on that sofa before, although it was in Kat’s room at the time.”
Hanako nods. “That will be g-good.”
Due to the sheer size of the group and the quantity of food on offer, the kitchen table has to be pressed into service holding plates, utensils, beverages, and condiments, leaving all concerned to either use the dining room or wander away from the pack. Sally takes up her spot at the head of the table as she usually does, with Jōji directly to her right, and Neko, Hisao, and Hanako to his right in turn. Rika takes a place directly opposite Sally, as if to make a power play once again. Sadaharu, her current squeeze, sits to her right, more than a little bit intimidated by the company he finds himself in, followed by Abe and ending up with Suzu at Sally’s left.
Sally speaks up, addressing her protégé at the opposite end of the table. “Katayama, who would you say is the smartest person at this table?”
She doesn’t flinch. “You, of course.”
Sally nearly falls out of her chair with laughter. “Now is not the time for brown-nosing. That comes later. I didn’t say wisest, or most experienced, or even the most competent. I said smartest.”
“Oh.” Rika gives it more thought this time, and nods as she catches where this might be going. “I suppose you want me to say it’s Neko.”
“I don’t care if you say it,” Sally accentuates with a point, “but I want you to believe it, because it’s true. It’s a pretty safe wager that she’s the smartest person in the room, no matter who else it has in it. And if she’s not, grab some popcorn, because you’re about to get a show. Challenging her to a battle of wits is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. The only way you can win is if you set the rules. That’s why you’re sleeping upstairs tonight. Consider it a cheap lesson. Even if you do have someone covered, why offer them any advantage at all? The first step in getting the best of anyone is to make them play your game, not the other way around. It is better still if they don’t realize they’re playing a game at all. Nobody wants to join your private game of Calvinball.”
She’s absolutely right on both points. The easiest way to outsmart Neko is to make her do it herself, and the easiest way to win a game is to not tell the other party they’re playing one. Even if they figure it out, it’s still your game. The fifteen-watt light bulb over his head starts to glow dimly. How long have I been playing your game, Sally? No, better question – what exactly is your game, as far as I’m concerned?
At least he knows who he’s dealing with.
«Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name,
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.»
After a solid break-off shot which also sees the cue ball safely blocked by the green, Suzu attempts to nestle up to the pack off the cushion to her right but catches the pink instead.
“Foul,” Hanako declares, “and a m-miss.” She credits herself six points on the whiteboard, and leans over the table to put the pink back on its spot.
“A miss?” Suzu chirps. “Seriously? We’re playing with a miss rule?”
“Y-you have an easier shot that you r-refused.” Hanako pulls her hand away before touching the pink, and points out that the loose red to the left of the pack was visible. Attempting to play it likely would have pushed it over the corner for an easy starter, but it still qualifies as an easier shot.
“Damn, that’s harsh.” Nonetheless, Suzu takes the cue ball and positions it where it was before the shot as best she can remember.
Hanako eyeballs the line from behind the loose red and gestures that the cue ball needs to be moved a smidge to her right. “Y-you couldn’t see the p-potting angle before.”
“It doesn’t matter, I’m going to attempt the same shot again.” She moves the cue ball slightly anyhow. Although she sends it a centimeter further down the cushion, it somehow ends up exactly like the first attempt, only harder, cannoning a couple reds and driving the pink half a meter off its spot.
“Foul,” Hanako states as she inspects the position for a few seconds before starting to put the balls back. “And a miss.” She places the cue ball herself, and credits herself another six points once this is complete. “Another miss on the s-same shot loses the f-frame.”
“Well then,” Suzu says in mock surprise, “I guess I’ll play the other. I’m getting a strange bounce off the cushion.”
Hanako nods. This table has seen better days. The cloth is worn in places and slow everywhere else, and the cushions aren’t true. Easy pockets, though.
Suzu plays on the loose red with dead weight, hoping to catch it quite thin and push it safe rather than over the corner. Instead, the cue ball visibly drifts to the left and misses again.
“Foul, and a miss.” Hanako rolls the cue ball back slowly before crediting herself another four points. It seems to run true on the return trip.
“You’re enjoying this,” Suzu gripes.
“N-no, it’s not f-fun for either of us when the table is «pants».”
“I have to play a swerve, I can’t trust it to hold the line dead weight.” She gives it a good whack this time, likely expecting to drive the red off the top cushion and wanting it to run safe. Instead, it squirts straight into the pocket, and the left hand leaves her in position on the black. Suzu looks a bit bemused, but does not apologize. “One.”
I might have believed you meant to do that, if it had been your first choice. Still, flukes and slop count in this game. Hanako takes a seat at the rail of the balcony, but is soon back at the table as Suzu fails to gain position on any reds when she cannons into the pack off the black and is forced to play safe.
This is no time to panic, you’re ten points up without potting a ball, she thinks as the safety battle commences. Unfortunately, she simply hasn’t had the time at the table to work on this aspect of her game like Suzu has. It is readily evident that she stands to lose this sort of tactical battle – and she does, when she catches the blue on her third such shot and leaves the cue ball in the center of the table.
Suzu is off of her high stool fast enough to shake the floor when she lands, and has potted a red within ten seconds, screwing back to finish off the blue and get it back on its spot.
If I get in again, I have to push the boat out or I don’t stand a chance. Suzu realizes this as well, and refuses to take on a difficult black when she runs out of position. She’s not intimidated by me, but I can’t say the reverse is true.
“Green ball,” Suzu declares before driving it safe and snookering Hanako behind the brown.
After a lap around the table, the only escape that doesn’t look to yield a likely clearance is to play off four cushions and roll up on two reds to the left of the black spot. If she tries to roll up anywhere else, something will be left on. She is forced to place the rest on top of the spider to cue over the brown, and she holds her breath as she watches the ball run around the table. If the ball is skidding on one cushion shots, then expecting a four cushion shot to do even remotely what it should is a big ask, but there are no better options. Much to her surprise, it holds its line but carries far too much pace, catching both reds and driving one to the side cushion and the other toward the center pocket.
Suzu taps the table with her cue as she steps back up. “Good eye. I didn’t even see that escape.”
Fat lot of good it did me, I left you an easy starter. Indeed, Suzu pots it and has position on the green. She groans when she rams the green home with left-hand run-through taking her safely through baulk, yet still fails to get on any easy reds, until she spots a plant that leaves her on pink to the center and gets her off and running again. She comes up short of the half-century, but has the frame safely in hand just the same. “Again?” she asks when Hanako declines to come back to the table, but receives a moment’s hesitation and a shake of the head. “Suits me, might as well stop when we’re even. If we’re gonna trust to luck, we might as well play a game that’s designed with that in mind.” After pulling the remaining balls into pockets, she retrieves the poker chip case. “Let’s get this party started.”
Neko pulls numbered container after numbered container out of the cubbyholes, smelling each one until her eyes start to cross, but still can’t identify the one she wants. She uses the intercom, knowing Jōji is just beginning preparations for dinner, with a bit of guidance from Hanako – the catered leftovers will be saved for tomorrow, but tonight is his first major test.
“Customer service in the wine department,” she calls out.
If he’s doing something sensitive or has his hands full, he’ll ignore the call until he can break free, but he answers quickly. “What can I do you for?”
“I can’t find the sativa,” she complains. “Everything smells like indica, and it’s too early to zombify everyone.”
“Oh. Yeah. Give me a minute.”
While waiting, she takes note of the areas already searched so that she can point them out. The door atop the stairs slides open in its ominous yet amazingly subtle way, and she hears the footsteps.
“Is that where you were looking?” It’s Jōji.
“Yeah. Isn’t that where we keep the stock? It was a month ago.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry you weren’t told. Your Mum bought out a rival. It was her idea of an anti-depressant after she got the news.” He counts the boxes. “You didn’t actually take anything from those boxes, did you? If you did, I’ll have to weigh them all again. Those are outgoing orders.”
Neko recoils a bit before shaking her head to indicate the outgoing packages were unchanged. “The stakes have gone up. Those are distribution quantities.”
“Indeed. Your Mum figures she’ll have someone to assign this to in a bit more than a year, so she was willing to take the extra market share when it proved available. It’s not all gravy, though. Volume might triple, but revenues don’t. Anyhow, you were looking for…” His voice trails off awkwardly.
“Sativa. You know, we have sativa, indica, and hybrids?”
“Oh. Sorry, I’ve helped weigh and pack a bunch, but still hardly know anything about it. I know the kinds by name, and noticed they do smell different, but I couldn’t tell you which is which. Umm, here.” He walks to a cubby on the wall to the left and pulls out a laminated card containing numbers and names, both of the strain and of its origin. It also does not break out the categories.
She searches for Frosty Tree and finds it as entry #63. “Is there any logic to the numbers other than matching them to this card? And does this have anything to do with your ‘Accounts Receivable’ activity?”
“Not that I am aware of, and yes. We inherited the classification system along with the business. We needed old debts paid so we could pay the ransom.”
“So you’re going to need a test subject or two, to help classify them all, right?” She gives him a double nudge with her elbow.
“You’ll have to talk with your Mum about that. I don’t use it. I barely have time to drink as it is.” He nudges back with his elbow.
At least you’re happy with the benefits package.
Back from the cellar, Neko prepares the Bento style ‘party tray’, which contains two water pipes, several ordinary pipes, three small cubbies for holding materials, and a rolling mat. Either it is a custom job, or the pipes were chosen to fit it, because it’s a perfect match – nothing rattles and nothing falls out. It’s a weed ceremony. At first she chuckles, then she realizes that might be right. This may have been a ceremonial tray from the prior owner.
She gets a cheer from the group assembling at the kitchen table for poker. “Be gentle,” she admonishes. “This may be worth something.”
Sally’s hands may tremble, but her ears are still sharp as she enters from the hallway. “Damn right it is. If anything happens to that, I’ll have to commission another for ceremonies. Who knows how many that has done? Even old man Okita inherited it.”
Neko pulls out a water pipe and looks it over. “It doesn’t look that old.”
“Oh, no, not the hardware,” Sally says with a wave-off. “That’s replaceable. Just the tray itself.”
“Can I talk to you a moment, Mum?” Neko tips her head slightly toward the office.
“Sure you can, after I get a cup of coffee.” Sally pumps for herself, but Neko notices she is using a considerably larger cup than she used to, and taking the same amount as before. It only fills about two-thirds of the current container. “Let’s go.”
Behind closed doors, Sally mixes in milk and sugar but takes up her usual position behind the desk. Neko’s bedroom sofa is more comfortable than the old one, but also softer, so she has an even harder time seeing over the desk than usual. Instead she stands.
“I know I didn’t ask,” Neko starts, “but you told me to use my own head. El Jefe and crew have to actually enter rooms to check them, whether the tenants are there or not, so I brought the cash back with me. It’s in the upper right drawer of the waterbed.”
Sally nods. “Move it to the cellar when we get done here. I wish you had left some behind, but you did pretty well for guessing.”
“So there would be something to steal. Now we won’t know if someone tries.”
“Why did you have me holding it, anyhow? Something to do with this latest merger?”
Sally nods. “We wanted something more accessible than a bank if the price went up in negotiation, but we also didn’t want it here. In your safe, Okita’s boys couldn’t see it, didn’t know we had it.”
Neko nods, relieved that the reasons for a few million yen in cash were fairly innocuous. “The deal had to have cost you much more than that, though.”
“Sure. We just wanted a little cushion in case they wanted to add fees and surcharges and the like – and having you deliver it would have made the point that we could just make a call and more money would be on the way, if this were simply a down payment. I was planning on asking for it back in the next few days to pay the punters, and today is as good as any. Is that why you wanted to talk?”
“A lot of it, yeah. But I also wanted to ask if you need testers to sort through all these strains and tell them apart. Do you?”
“Yeah, maybe. We’re still dealing with merely catching up to existing orders, but it would be nice to have a bit more structure to build on. We pretty much just got their local dealer network, their inventory, and their market presence. Everything else is ours to figure out.”
“Let me know who to tap for assistance. I’m thinking mostly third-years, no tests to worry about right now.”
“Pick people who can tolerate Katayama. She’s really the one that needs to learn this shit, so she’ll be there to hear it all, and maybe to participate as well.”
“About Rika,” Neko remembers suddenly, “don’t you think her head is getting a little swollen?”
“Were you at lunch, or was I hallucinating? You think I’d call her out in public if she didn’t need it?”
Neko nods knowingly. “You might still want to talk to her. She’s fuming at Hisao right now, though she denies it.”
Sally chuckles. “What did he do?”
“All he said to me was ‘is it too late to throw her back?’ She didn’t take too kindly to that. She needs to learn the distinction between a joke and a threat.” It wouldn’t hurt to learn how not to be a cunt, but it may be too late for her.
“He does use that incident for leverage a whole lot.” Sally accompanies this with a sheepish shrug. “Then again, she probably deserved it.”
“She did. Look, she doesn’t have to like him, or me for that matter, just respect us. He has pulled her skinny arse out of the fire twice. She sure has gotten a sense of entitlement since then.”
“Hard shell, soft core. It’s still paper-thin, too. And you’re right, she assumes people will do what she says just because she’s carrying out what I say. Be ready to be her advocate when I ream her out later. I assume you can do that, be a Devil’s Advocate?” When Neko hesitates, Sally points out, “You’ve been doing it for me forever. I’m not asking you to lie, just cherry-pick the truth and find nice things to say. Practice your diplomacy.”
Neko decides to start immediately on the recruiting, though the diplomacy can wait a bit. She pockets several cheap pens and grabs a stack of sticky notes off the desk on the way out, then heads straight for the refrigerator message board and begins writing.
Smoothness (start): 1 to 5
Smoothness (end): 1 to 5
Head Effects: 1 to 5
Body Effects: 1 to 5
She addresses the group sitting around the kitchen table. “Congratulations, you’re all reviewers now.” She backhand tosses the sticky notes to a surprised Hanako, and the pens to whoever appears to be paying attention, then continues. “Please rate what you smoke. We don’t want your name, and we don’t need an essay, just four numbers. How pleasant – or not – is the smoke at the beginning and the end of the bowl, and what does it feel like. A head high is energetic and makes you think a lot, probably talk a lot too. A body high feels good but tends to produce couch potatoes. As you can see, this is strain 63. Include that somewhere or your review is meaningless.”
Hanako looks at the sticky notes in her hands. “There will be m-more?”
“Many,” Neko confirms. “I’ll be happy to tell you what everything was after the fact, but I don’t want it influencing your ratings now. Be honest. If you don’t like something, say so. Right now, let me through for a test. Where’s Katayama? She’s missing the party.”
Abe replies, “Upstairs,” as Hanako points a thumb at the ceiling. Suzu is less restrained, pointing her thumb at her own mouth while distending a cheek with her tongue.
At least she won’t get into trouble again that way. “If she and what’s-his-face come down for a smoke, make sure they leave reviews too.”
(To be continued next post)