“Quick, take off your shirt!”
Becky pointed to the mirror. “Look at us. You’re covered with sweat, your hair is a mess, and I look almost as bad. We’ve just been attacked by a ninja in a dark bathroom, and we look it.”
“You guys get attacked?” said Scott. He exhaled loudly, and his shoulders slumped.
Byron was still trying to catch his breath. “The cops are here – what are we gonna tell them?”
“I’ve got a plan…”
They heard the door to the main room opening. Scott ducked out into the hallway. “Officer Rodriguez, uh, hi…”
Becky grabbed Byron’s shirt and tugged, jerking it up over his head and arms. Without hesitating, she yanked her own shirt off, and tossed them both to the floor. Byron’s eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up.
An intricate, colorful tattoo wrapped from the center of her chest, around one shoulder, and across all of her back. The center piece of the ink work was a pulp art style, silver rocket standing on end and stretching from her lower back to just below her neck. Leaning with her back against it was a beautiful naked woman holding an oriental fan in one hand and a ray gun in the other. In the sky around the rocket, a green dragon wove in and out of clouds and in front of half-hidden, multi-ringed planets. The head of the dragon stared out at the world from just below her throat.
The shadows at the doorway began to shift and they could hear Officer Rodriguez just a few steps away. Becky pushed Byron against the wall with her body. Byron had an instant to register the determined grimace on her approaching face before she was kissing him, standing on tiptoes and pulling his arms around her waist. For a good five seconds, she writhed against him, making little moaning noises.
“What is going on here?”
Becky spun around as if surprised, covering her chest with her right arm. Officer Rodriguez stood just inside the doorway with one hand resting on the butt of his gun and looking like he wanted to frown at everything but wasn’t sure where to start. Next to him, his jaw halfway to the floor and his hands held open just in front of him was Scott.
“Oh shit – I’m so sorry,” said Becky. “I wasn’t cheating on you, Scott. It was just this awesome mockup of the ninja from the other night turned out so amazing, and you know how creature effects turn me on!”
Rodriguez turned to look at Scott.
“Uh…yeah, that’s one of the things that attracted me to you in the first place,” he said.
This time it was Rodriguez’s jaw that dropped.
“And, uh, and you know you don’t need my permission to do what you want with the body…your body.”
Officer Rodriguez looked at the ceiling and exhaled loudly.
There was the sound of someone else approaching, and then Officer Wayneford stepped into the room.
“The techs want to know – whoa! That fake ninja looks amazing!” He stepped past Rodriguez and Scott and went straight over to the stall, completely ignoring the shirtless couple. “Jeez, you guys did a great job. It’s the spitting image of the one we pulled out of here the other night.” He reached out a hand towards it.
“Don’t touch it,” said Byron. “They, uh, still need to spray it with some sort of clear sealant. If you touch it now, the oil from your fingers can make the chemical turn brown.”
“Oh,” said Wayneford, pulling his hand back. “Wow, you can even see a little blood trickling out of the wound.”
Becky opened her mouth to reply but nothing came to her.
“Yeah,” said Scott, jumping in. “That part was my idea. We’re using one of those pumps that come in those little waterfall-fountains you can get for your office.”
“Good idea,” said Wayneford. He leaned in even closer to the body. “You forgot something, though.”
“What’s that?” asked Byron.
“The ninja from last night had a throwing star in his right hand.”
Scott snapped his fingers and pointed at Wayneford. “He’s right. I forgot about that.”
“Officer Wayneford, you said the technicians wanted to know something?” said Rodriguez.
“They’re ready to move the body,” he said.
“Alright, let’s get over there.”
The two cops headed out of the bathroom and down the hall. As soon as Becky heard the door to the main room close behind them, she grabbed her shirt off the floor and pulled it on.
With quiet, slow movements, Byron pulled the cigarette pack from his back pocket, slid one out and set it between his lips unlit. Then from his front pocket, he drew out his black sunglasses, put them on, and leaned back against the wall.
“Well…” said Scott, exhaling as he said it.
“Yeah,” said Becky, emphasizing the word with a quick raising and lowering of her eyebrows. She wiped off her lips with the back of one hand. “You okay, Byron?”
He inhaled around the cigarette as if it was lit. “I’m cool.”
“You guys should join them out back,” said Scott. “They’ll want to get your statements since the two of you found her. I’ll stay inside and watch the bar.”
“What about your statement?” asked Byron. He lifted his sunglasses long enough to locate his shirt on the floor, grabbed it, and pulled it on.
“They can get it from me once one of you is free to switch with me.”
“What should we do with him?” asked Becky. “God that sounds like a line from a movie, doesn’t it?” She wiped sweat from her forehead.
“Can you lock the door?” asked Scott.
“There’s no lock on that door handle,” said Byron.
Scott turned to check. “Oh, right…” He looked around the room for a moment, his eyes finally settling on the stall. “I’ll go ask the crime scene guys if I can have some of that yellow police line tape for our, uh, recreation of the scene. We can hang that across the doorway.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll make a sign that says ‘Out of Order,’” said Becky.
Scott and Becky started for the door.
“Becky,” said Byron.
“Yeah?” she said, turning back. She shoved her hands into her front pockets and shifted her weight from foot to foot.
“Nice tattoo,” he said.
Her shoulders relaxed and a little bit of tension left her. “You like it?”
“I used to dream about space, but my mom’s the one who meets an alien and falls in love. Crazy, huh?”
“Maybe.” He leaned his head back. “But it’s some beautiful work, regardless.”
“Thanks.” She turned and headed out the door.
“I heard you guys found a dead body in the bathroom.”
There were two of them at the bar – one guy and one girl with jet black hair, matching spiked collars, and dark eyeliner.
“Uh, yeah. That was last night,” said Scott, glancing up from where he was half-heartedly wiping at the bartop.
“Did he sneak in here to kill you, or something?”
“Nope.” He leaned over the bar and propped his chin up with his right hand. “None of the ninjas ever want to kill me.”
“Nothing. Can I get you something?”
“Nah. I only drink absinthe,” said the guy.
Sure you do, thought Scott. “How about you Miss?”
The girl placed her index finger sideways between her teeth, bit down with exaggerated slowness, and shook her head from side to side.
“Can we see the place where you found it?” the guy asked.
“Uh, not right now. It’s out of order.”
“Come on, man. We won’t touch anything.”
“Sorry. If you come back tomorrow night, it might be open…” Scott glanced back down the bar, checking to see if anyone looked like they needed a refill. His eyes met those of the woman that had disappeared the night before. She seemed to be watching their conversation with unapologetic curiosity. When Scott turned back, the two Goth kids had wandered off.
He walked over to the woman, his eyes dropping for a second to take in her figure. “Can I get you something, Miss?” he asked, feeling a slight bit of guilt that she had probably seen him checking her out.
She placed her index finger sideways in her mouth, bit down on it, and shook her head in exactly the manner that the Goth girl had a moment earlier. Scott paused for a second, unsure of how to react. Was she trying to be funny? Was she messing with him for checking her out?
She saw the confusion on his face, took the finger out of her mouth, and said, “I mean no thank you.”
“Okay,” said Scott. He waited for a couple more seconds. She looked at him but said nothing. Finally, he forced a smile, turned, and walked over to pick up some empty glasses from further down.
Ten minutes later, Becky, Byron, and Officer Rodriguez came in from the back. Scott tossed the towel he had been wiping the bar with to Byron and stepped over to a spot near the door so that Officer Rodriguez could take down his statement. Scott faced Rodriguez who stood between him and the bar, so Scott had a good view of the woman who turned to openly stare at them.
“I’m sorry – what was the question?”
“When you looked into the dumpster, did you recognize the body?”
“No,” said Scott. He glanced at Rodriguez who was looking down at his clipboard and then back at the woman. She was still watching them.
“Is the name Natalya Smirkof familiar to you?” asked Rodriguez. As soon as he said the name, the woman twisted around on her barstool and faced away from them. Scott turned back to Rodriguez and found the policeman staring at him with wide open eyes and a serious expression.
“Never heard it before,” said Scott.
Officer Rodriguez gave him the serious business look for another two seconds and then went back to writing on his clipboard.
“Alright, thanks for your time,” he said.
Scott walked back around the bar and gave the other two a reassuring smile. “Did they figure anything else out at the dumpster?”
“They found a couple of passports in her bag,” said Becky in a quiet voice.
“Whose were they?”
“Don’t know. They didn’t let us close enough to see,” she said.
Officer Rodriguez finished writing and headed past them towards the back exit, oblivious to the patrons who watched him from booths and tables with a mix of curiosity of suspicion. As soon as he was out of sight, the woman at the bar stood up and headed for the door.
Scott leaned close to Becky and Byron. “There’s something going on with that lady. She was watching Rodriguez when he took my statement, and I think she recognized the name.”
“We should follow her,” said Becky.
“I don’t know,” said Byron. “It seems a little too obvious, doesn’t it? What if she’s just trying to lure us away so that more ninjas can attack us?”
Scott’s eyes unfocused for a second as he thought about the possibility. The corners of his mouth lifted a tiny bit.
The cool air cut right though the thin shirt Becky was wearing as she leaned around the corner of the brick building at the end of the block. Scott waited anxiously behind her, eager to look for himself but not wanting to invade her personal space. They had left Byron to watch the bar, and the two of them had followed the woman for a couple of blocks through Old Town.
“Anything?” asked Scott.
“She’s halfway down the block – still walking. How can she not be freezing in that dress?” Becky rubber at her arms.
She stepped back and let Scott have a look. A car drove past, and the two of them tensed, but it didn’t even slow down.
“You’re right,” he said. “A sleeveless, short dress like that… She should be cold. She’s two thirds of the way to the corner now.”
Becky rubbed at her arms one more time and then crossed them over her chest. “Well, I hope she gets to wherever she’s going soon.”
Scott gave her a sympathetic grin, and then turned back to watch the street. “Okay, she’s to the corner.”
They double-timed it around the corner and down the block. A cab crossed the street ahead of them heading in the direction the woman had gone. They exchanged a worried glance and broke into a jog for the last few yards. Scott got there first, and he leaned around the corner to scout the situation.
“Is it just me,” said Becky, “or is this lady leading us in a circle?” She looked around at the dark streets. “…or a big square…”
Scott straightened up, a determined look on his face. “I’m not waiting for her to reach the end of this block.”
“If she’s trying to lure us into a trap, then nothing is going to happen until we show ourselves.” He moved quickly around the corner, keeping his hands out and ready at his sides while his eyes scanned the rooftops and storefronts for a hint of a trap.
Becky hung back for a second, unsure of what to do. Then she hurried forward, sprinting a few steps to catch up with Scott.
“All I can say is, this woman better be up to something,” said Becky.
Suddenly, they heard the sound of a car accelerating from behind them. Scott spun around. A white minivan crossed through the intersection behind them, moving in their direction.
“No headlights,” said Becky. She looked around for something to use as a weapon. There was a metal trash can a few feet ahead by the bus stop. She ran over to it. Behind her the engine noise got louder.
“Come on, you ninja Bastards!” yelled Scott.
Becky crouched down, got one hand under the trash can, and pushed off hard with her legs.
“Unghh!” she groaned as she lifted the weight up and pivoted towards the street.
The car raced past Scott who was standing in a classic martial arts pose, past Becky who was ready to shot-put the trash can, and down another half a block. Then it slammed on the breaks and slid to a stop a few feet ahead of the woman who was still calmly walking forward. A man got out of the car, raced around to the passenger’s side, and pulled open the sliding door. Then he ran to the woman and threw her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. He shuffled back to the car, dropped her in a seat, closed the door, and ran back around to his side. The car screeched its tires, accelerating away from the curb and leaving them staring after it.
“Well that’s not what I was expecting,” said Scott.
“Uh,” said Becky, “I think I need help putting this down.”
“So Scott yells, ‘Come on, you ninja bastards!’” said Becky.
“Ha, ha, ha,” laughed Byron. The three of them sat on stools at the now closed bar.
“The van races past us – probably didn’t even notice us, and I’m stuck holding this frigging heavy metal trash can with no one to throw it at!”
“That story is gonna get funnier each time,” said Byron. “Aw, quit frowning, Amigo,” he said to Scott. “I got so confused in that bathroom earlier, I actually tried to bite the ninja on the neck.”
The corners of Scott’s mouth turned up.
“So this guy just grabbed the broad and ran, huh?” said Byron.
“The lady didn’t even seem upset,” said Scott. “She wasn’t struggling or yelling for help.”
“Hmm…” Byron took out his dark glasses, put them on, and leaned his head back like he was looking through the ceiling up at the night sky. “So where does this leave us?”
“Well, we’ve lost the girl, and we still don’t know how or even if she’s involved with the ninjas,” said Scott.
“Speaking of which, there’s still a body in the stall of the men’s bathroom,” said Becky.
Byron nodded. “Try not to think about it, and maybe it’ll go away.”
“We can guess that Natalya Smirkof was probably killed by a ninja – possibly the same one that attacked the two of you,” said Scott. “But what was she doing here?”
“She did have those passports on her,” said Becky. “Maybe she was here to meet a client. I don’t remember seeing her in the bar, though.”
“She never made it in,” said Byron.
“Maybe her client set her up,” said Scott. He leaned forward and rested his chin in his hands.
“If it was the client, then he or she would have taken the passports,” said Becky.
Byron pointed his index finger in her direction and nodded once in agreement. “So far we’ve got three bodies and only two explanations.”
Scott raised his eyebrows. “Who killed the first ninja?”
Becky turned to look at them. “You know what I don’t get? What’s the point of all this?”
“I’ve been asking myself that same question,” said Byron. “I mean, if a creator dreamed us up out of the matter of the cosmos, did someone do the same for it? And if there’s no creator, why does anything exist at all? Of course, it’s always possible that I am the universe, and you are all just figments of my imagination conjured into being to help me understand myself. But that still leaves me wondering why I exist.”
“Asshole,” said Becky with a grin. “I meant, what’s the point of these killings?”
Byron reached up and pulled his sunglasses down a half an inch. Then he turned to look at Scott. “What was it your uncle used to say about these types of situations?”
Scott’s eyes brightened. “He said that invariably there was money involved.”
Byron nodded. “We just have to find it.”
“Preferably, before the end of the month when I have to pay bills,” said Scott.
“And before we wind up like Natalya,” said Byron. They brooded over that for a minute.
“We should head back to the house,” said Scott.
THUNK, THUNK, THUNK…
There was a knock on the door. Byron pulled off his sunglasses, and the three of them exchanged glances.
“We’re closed,” yelled Becky.
“Please, I need your help,” said a man’s voice. “There’s not much time. They’re after me.”
Scott stood up and started fro the entrance. Byron looked at Becky with raised eyebrows. She nodded, grabbed an empty beer bottle by the neck, and joined him as he followed after Scott.
Scott glanced back at them and then opened the door. Standing outside was a tall man in a white dress shirt and khaki slacks with a lithe build and a substantial amount of grey in the hair at his temples. A half step behind him was the woman, still wearing the same dress.
Scott backed up and motioned for the two of them to enter. They came inside a few steps, the woman following right behind the man and even matching his facial expression – a determined tightening around the eyes with neither a smile nor a frown. Byron and Becky moved to flank them, relaxing only after Scott had closed and locked the door without incident. Becky reversed her hold on the beer bottle and stuck her other hand in her pocket, her eyes settling on the woman’s chest.
“Who are you?” asked Scott.
“I am the one responsible for the body that the two of you found in the bathroom yesterday.” He took in a breath like he was about to say more but paused, uncertain, before breathing out heavily.
“Why don’t we sit down and you can tell us about it,” said Byron. They pulled an extra chair up to one of the tables, and the five of them sat.
“My name is Dr. Spellstein. I was supposed to meet a someone here last night. I didn’t see her when I walked in, and I was nervous, so I sent Rosie to the bar,” he indicated the woman beside him, “while I waited in the restroom. I must have been followed, because a man dressed all in black with a sword – a ninja – came in through the bathroom window and attacked me. I killed him in self defense.”
Becky’s eyebrows went up. “He surprised you all alone in the bathroom, and he’s the one that’s dead?”
“I was more prepared for him than he realized,” said Spellstein. He held his right arm out for them to see. There was a slice in the sleeve just a few inches down from the wrist. Underneath the sleeve, they could see a series of thin metal rods running the length of his forearm. “I did my research. They used to call this ‘iron sleeves’.” He pulled back the edges of the sliced cloth so that they could see where something had made a deep scratch in the metal.
“If my contact didn’t show, I was supposed to return the next night, so tonight I sent in Rosie to watch for her while I kept moving in my van. Rosie never recognized my contact’s face, and when she saw the police, she left to report back to me.”
Scott folded his hands on the table in front of him. “The name of the woman you were going to meet with was Natalya Smirkof.”
“Yes,” said Spellstein. “Do you know how I can find her?”
Scott shifted in his seat, a sad look on his face. “She was murdered. We found her body behind the bar earlier tonight. That’s why the police were here.”
Spellstein’s shoulders slumped, and he rubbed one lined hand across his face. “Damn.”
“You were meeting with her to obtain passports,” said Scott.
He nodded. “She was going to get me out of here and off the grid.” His eyes settled on Rosie, and she looked back at him with a mirror of his frustration.
“What is she?” said Becky, suddenly. They turned to find her staring at Rosie.
The hint of a smile appeared on Spellstein’s face. “Yes, not who, but what…” He took in another big breath. “She’s a robot.” He stared into Becky’s eyes, daring her to laugh. She nodded as Byron had nodded at her the previous night.
“She’s a breakthrough, not only in mechanical design, but in software as well. She uses multiple neural networks that incorporate the behavior of those around her along with a large amount of predetermined imperatives to decide how she should move and act. She’s actually a series of networked computers all housed within this artificial body.”
He leaned towards Becky, with both arms folded on the tabletop in front of him. “Most of the time she can pass as human in public, which is a pretty big deal. What tipped you off?”
“Well, the programming isn’t perfect at understanding social situations. Also, her breasts look real, but her nipples didn’t respond to the cold outside, and in that dress, we should be able to see them.”
“You said that Natalya was going to get you off of the grid,” said Byron. “You’re not planning on taking Rosie with you.” He looked over at Scott. “She’s the money,” he said and then leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head.
Spellstein thought about this for a second before nodding. “I made a deal with Ms. Smirkof. She would get Rosie, and I would get a new identity and passage to somewhere tropical without much infrastructure.”
“So that’s why you came back tonight,” said Becky. “The deal you had with Natalya must have been hard to set up. It was worth too much to walk away without being sure. But how do you know they aren’t watching this place?”
“I made a credit card purchase – two tickets to the ballet. They’ll be tracking it, and they’ll think I’m going there to meet another contact. By the time they figure it out, I plan on being gone.”
Scott frowned. “But what if they left someone behind to watch this place just in case?”
Someone else was at the door. Byron stood up. He looked at Becky, pointed at the two strangers, and gestured towards the kitchen. Without waiting, he stepped closer to the door.
“We’re closed,” he yelled.
“I only need a moment of your time,” came the reply. “My name is Mr. Parks, and I’m here on a legal matter.”
“Well that’s a relief,” replied Byron.
There was a pause, and then, “What is?”
“I’m glad to hear that you haven’t come on an illegal matter.”
There was a chuckle from outside. “May I come in?”
“Don’t ask me, pal. I just work here. But hang on a second and I’ll get my boss.” He walked over near the bar. “Becky? There’s a man named Parks here to see you about something he claims is legal.”
“Let him in,” yelled Becky from the kitchen. She came walking out with some invoices and a pencil in her hands. Scott came out behind her with a broom and started sweeping.
Byron opened the door, and a middle-aged man in a stylish suit stepped inside. He was shorter than Byron by a couple of inches, and he smiled as he looked up at Byron through glasses with expensive gold-plated frames.
Becky set the papers down on a table as she walked towards them. “Can I help you?”
“I believe so. My name is Mr. Parks. I’m with Shultz, Westin, and Lake.” He stuck out his hand.
Becky gave it a firm shake. “Becky Walker. I’m with this bar.”
“Ha-ha. Ms. Walker, I’m working on a legal case right now involving someone I think may have been a customer recently.”
“You’re going to sue the bar?” Becky put a hand to her temple like she was getting a headache. “Look, I told that guy not to bring his chinchilla in here. ‘No pets!’ I told him. The fact that he got hurt is a direct result of his choice to break the rules. I am not responsible! I don’t care how expensive the surgery was!”
“Ms. Walker,” said Parks, holding his empty hands up like a shield. “I am not here because of a lawsuit.”
“Not at all. Tell me,” he added before she could say anything else, “do you consider yourself a forgetful person?”
He nodded. “So your memory is pretty good, would you say?”
“Adequate,” replied Becky.
“Then if someone was in here recently – within the last few days – you would remember them, right?” He waited with his careful, non-threatening smile.
“Well the only way to find out is to give it a shot,” said Becky. “Who are you looking for?”
Mr. Parks reached into his suit and removed a photograph. He held it up in front of him close enough to Beck that she could see it was a picture of Spellstein. She looked at it for a count of four, and then glanced back at Mr. Parks. Above his patient smile, his eyes did not blink.
“I don’t recognize him. Byron, Scott – you guys remember serving this man a drink?”
The two of them walked over for a look.
“Nope. Haven’t seen him,” said Byron.
Scott shook his head.
“How odd,” said Parks, furrowing his brow.
“What’s that?” asked Becky.
“His van is parked outside on the street,” said Mr. Parks. He held up a hand. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Thank you so much for your time.” He placed the photo back in his pocket.
“You can have a look around if you’d like,” said Becky.
“No thank you,” he said, turning away. “If he was somewhere in your bar, I’m sure you would remember.” He started for the exit.
“Should we call the police if we see him?” asked Byron.
The man paused a step away from the door and looked back over his shoulder. “Only if you catch him committing a crime,” he said with a grin. “But if you should happen to see him,” he removed a gold card case from his pants pocket and opened it. “My number is on the card.” He tossed one onto the nearest table. The door thumped as it closed behind him.
Byron crossed to the door and bolted it. He turned back to face them, the smile gone from his face. “We’d better have a chat with our two new friends.”
“Did you see how fast he got out of here?” said Scott, his eyes bright and focused.
“He’d gotten what he was after,” said Becky. “He wasn’t even going to leave his card.”
“No point,” said Byron. “He’d already decided to kill us.”
“Come on,” said Becky. She turned and hurried into the kitchen with the two of them right behind her.
At one end of the room was a wall of shelves full of supplies for the bar. On the wall perpendicular to that one, a dozen square card board boxes were stacked in three columns that rose almost to the ceiling. Becky walked right up to the boxes, got a grip on the corner, and pulled. The boxes swung out from the wall together. Most of the cardboard had been cut away and the façade glued together, leaving a hollow space in which Spellstein and Rosie had been hidden.
“Nice,” said Byron.
“And inexpensive,” added Scott.
“Yeah, and I didn’t even get the satisfaction of seeing it work.” She shook her head. “What an asshole.”
“Thank you for helping me,” said Spellstein.
“Mr. Parks wasn’t convinced,” said Byron.
“Then we don’t have much time,” said Spellstein, stepping out from behind the boxes with Rosie in tow.
“Okay, Spellstein,” said Becky. “I’ve got one dead ninja on the toilet pretending to be a reproduction of the other dead ninja that’s in the morgue – right next to the dead Russian, ex-KGB woman. Now you’re telling us some ninjas that are still kicking are after you, your robot, and, by association, us. And that they’re boss is something worse than a ninja – a lawyer. Any chance you could give us – I don’t know – an explanation…before they get here?”
All eyes turned to Spellstein. He nodded, lines forming on his forehead and around his eyes. “At last we get to the part that I should have begun with.”
Byron took a step back and leaned against the wall. Scott did likewise nearer one of the two large sinks, while Becky stood with her feet planted and her arms crossed in front of her.
“I was involved in a research project with a neuroscientist. He had been studying what happens to musicians who had lost their hearing. You see, the part of the brain that processes music does not stop working just because you can’t hear anything. It keeps looking for input that matches patterns of music that you have already heard. Many people who have become deaf late in life suddenly begin to hear music that they used to listen to. The brain makes a pattern match to some other stimulus – usually a vibration, and it’s as if the person had plugged in headphones directly to their brain. They hear music!”
The frown lines had faded from his face, and he was almost smiling. Byron pointed at Spellstein with his index finger. “This is interesting, Dr., but we’re short on time.”
He nodded. “It’s a common problem for us, wanting to explain all of the technical details.” He cleared his throat. “The end result of our combined efforts was a device the size of a quarter that when worn against the scalp would allow you to remember and re-experience a perfect copy of any music that you had heard before.”
He held up hand. “Let me be clear. This was not a tiny hard drive. It did not store music for you. It simply enhanced and stimulated the parts of the brain that processed music. With it you can remember perfectly any music that you have heard once, and you can listen to it again whenever you want inside your head because one part of your brain tells another part that you are hearing it right now!”
“Sweet,” said Becky.
Byron rubbed at his forehead. “This seems a long way from ninjas, Doc.”
“Vested interests,” said Scott before Spellstein could reply.
“What?” said Byron.
“Historically, the people that organize to fight against technological advances have been vested interests. They’re the ones with money or power to lose,” said Scott.
“So who would lose big from this and be crazy enough to hire ninjas to try and stop it?” asked Becky.
Scott raised his eyebrows at her.
“You’re kidding me,” she said.
Byron shrugged. “I wouldn’t put it past them.”
Spellstein looked from one to the other. “Now you see. It’s not Mr. Parks. It’s who his firm represents...the Recording Industry Association of North America.”
Becky whistled. “The RIANA… But it’s not like people would stop buying albums or going to concerts. I mean lots of people would pay to hear a really clean, high audio quality copy of a song. And concerts are a still a social event. A lot of people go because they like the atmosphere and the personal nature of the experience.”
“But they could only charge you one time for a song,” said Scott. “Their current growth is built on charging you multiple times – once for the CD, once each for each brand of digital music player you want to listen to it on, once for the computer you have now, and once more for the computer you’re going to buy in a year or two… Yeah, they could still make money, but their business would shrink.”
Spellstein nodded. “In their minds, the opposite of growth is death. There is no room for anyone who thinks about shrinking.”
Byron turned his head to the side and pressed an ear to the wall. He closed his eyes, not moving except to raise an index finger. Everyone froze. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes and stepped away from the wall. “Time’s up.”
Becky stared at the ceiling. “Should we run or stay and fight?”
“There’s too many to fight,” said Byron. “Unless…” He turned to Spellstein. “Is Rosie a breakthrough ninja-slaying robot?”
Spellstein shook his head.
“There’s too many to fight,” repeated Byron, turning back.
“I can lead them away,” said Spellstein, a serious look on his face.
Byron, Scott, and Becky made eye contact.
“We appreciate the offer,” said Scott, “but I think we’ll pass.”
Spellstein looked touched.
“Besides, we’ve killed one of their own,” said Becky.
“And we’re witnesses,” added Byron.
“So how do we get out of here?” asked Spellstein.
“From the roof, they can cover the exits with a crossbow or maybe even those throwing stars,” said Byron. “Hell, for all I know, they could have sniper rifles. We’ll have to get past that before we can make a run for it.”
Scott took a step forward. “Ninjas are careful and patient. They’ll only attack if they’re confident that they have defined situation. They’d rather wait for a better opportunity than jump into the unknown. All we have to do is confuse them enough that we can get away from the building without being picked off by whoever is on the roof. Then we run.” Scott looked around the kitchen. “I’ve got an idea.”
The door at the back of the bar burst open with a bang.
“Waaaaaaa…” A voice inside began to sing. It was joined by a second voice, and then three more voices tumbled into the sound all at once.
“Waaaaaaa…” They held the note, dropping out to take a breath and then jumping back in.
PANG, PANG, PANG, PANG
The sound of a big metal pot being used like a drum joined the singing, and then the five of them emerged, holding an old tablecloth like a flat roof above them and marching in quick time with the beat.
PANG, PANG, PANG, PANG
They were a strange, noisy square moving down the alley – their exact nature concealed from anyone who might be looking from above. When they were halfway to the end of the alley, one of the voices dropped out to sing a different note.
PANG, PANG, PANG, PANG
“Ai! Ai! Ai! Ayaaa!”
As if on cue, they broke into a trot. The street was quiet at this time of night except for them, but suddenly, they heard a car engine revving-up in the distance and the sound of squealing tires.
They ran for it, heading straight across the street towards the mouth of another alley. Headlights illuminated them as a big SUV came sliding around the corner. Wind caught the tablecloth and yanked it out of the hands of Byron and Spellstein in front. The others let go, and it billowed up into the air, then dropped to the pavement behind them. The SUV fishtailed, straightened out, and headed right for them.
Becky threw down the pot and spoon she had been banging together and ran for it. She was just behind Rosie who was still following Spellstein.
The SUV bounced as it hit the sidewalk with its front right wheel. Becky felt Scott shove her forward, and they both fell into the alley at the heels of the others as the vehicle careened past. Byron paused and started back toward them.
“Go!” shouted Becky, as she and Scott helped each other up. The others took off with Byron in the lead. Behind them, they could hear tires squealing again as the big vehicle turned around to line up with the alley.
Becky glanced back. “It’s too wide in here. It’s gonna mow us down before we reach the next street!”
The alley became brighter as the SUV completed its turn.
Suddenly Rosie stopped running. “Protection imperative…” she said, turning to face the SUV. Then she took off, running straight for it. Spellstein skidded to a halt and looked back, but Byron grabbed his arm and pulled him forward. Rosie raced past Becky and Scott just as the vehicle gunned its engines. She cleared the alley when the SUV was only seconds away from entering it. At the last moment, she threw herself under the driver’s side wheel. There was a loud thump, the right side of the vehicle bounced up, and it crashed into a corner of a brick building.
Becky stopped moving, staring in shock at the crash.
“Go!” shouted Scott, echoing her cry from earlier. They raced after Byron and Spellstein. The four of them made it out of the alley and across the next street before Scott yelled for them to stop. In the distance, they could hear a man’s voice shouting.
“Byron, about halfway down this alley it crosses another one that runs perpendicular.”
“Which way do we take?”
“None of them. You can climb over a wall into a parking garage. Follow the exit signs out, and then head for the house.” He tossed him a ring of keys. “I’ll meet you there.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Becky.
“Stall them – give you guys a chance to get clear…”
There was movement in the alley they had just left.
“Hurry! I’ll meet you there. Just go!”
Byron raised his index finger to his forehead and saluted Scott, then spun around and led the rest of them off at a run.
Scott turned and walked out into the middle of the street. He faced the alley, waiting.
There was a quiet little crack, and then something slammed into the left side of his chest, knocking him off his feet. He lay on the ground for a second, stunned. His right hand touched his chest. There was a rip in his shirt and beneath that the hard, smooth surface of the molded high-density plastic body armor that covered most of his torso. His left hand moved around until it found the black crossbow bolt that had hit him. He moved his head a little and felt the weight of the key to the trapdoor in the house. It was hanging off to the side, and he pulled it back around to the front.
It occurred to him that he might die tonight, and there would be no one to guard The Sacred.
“No one’s looking for it anyway,” he said to himself. “Besides, there’s the Walk of Death…”
There was movement on three sides of him. Lifting his head further, he could just see the black clad forms of three ninjas closing in on him slowly, swords up. He stood quickly. His right hand reached into a pocket and removed what looked like a sword hilt and guard with no blade. He pressed a button, and a metal baton telescoped out. The ninjas stopped when they were each about six feet from him.
Scott looked slowly to the left and the right. He knew they were about to attack him. A huge, beaming smile crept across his face.
The ninja directly in front of him dropped one hand from his sword hilt to reach into a fold of his costume. Scott readied himself, hoping he could knock a throwing star aside with his baton. Instead of a weapon, the ninja withdrew a black penlight and twisted it on. He pointed the tiny beam at Scott’s chest. There was a whispered conversation in Japanese. Then the ninjas each took two steps backward and lowered their swords.
“We can not kill you,” he said.
“Oh, come on!” said Scott.
“That key around your neck – you guard The Sacred.”
Scott felt tears forming behind his eyes. He tried to force them back down. “You’re not going to attack me?”
“It is forbidden.” He switched off the penlight and slid his sword back into its sheath.
“Hey! What are you waiting for?” shouted a voice. Mr. Parks walked out of the alley into the dim light of the street. “You’re under contract to terminate him and the others.”
“We can not kill him,” said the ninja. “He guards The Sacred. It is a law older than yours.”
Parks stopped a few feet away from the one with the penlight. He looked at each of them in turn for a moment. “Alright, I’ll do it.” He reached into his suit and pulled out a pistol with a silencer, taking aim at Scott’s chest.
Scott tensed. His body armor was much too thin to stop a bullet at this range. But then suddenly, the ninja was moving. He sprang towards Parks and grabbed the hand with the gun. He twisted Park’s wrist and the lawyer howled in pain, and then he twisted his whole arm in the opposite direction until Parks was pushing the gun under his own chin. The gun fired, sounding much louder than Scott thought it should with the silencer, and then Parks toppled to the ground.
Scott blinked, his mouth hanging open. The ninja turned back to him.
“The police will find a suicide note on his body. It will say that he was overcome with guilt for the murder of a Japanese tourist and a Russian American woman at your friend’s bar. We will remove the body of our brother from the bathroom and deal with it honorably. Keep The Sacred safe.”
Scott continued to stare.
“You should go now,” said the ninja.
Scott nodded, backed away a few steps, and then turned and ran into the alley.
“So that’s it?” asked Byron.
“That’s it,” said Scott.
The three of them were seated at the bar in the late afternoon on the day after the death of Mr. Parks. There was no one else in the bar yet, and they each had a full pint glass in front of them.
“Why are you so surprised?” asked Becky. “He told us what happened once already last night.”
“Yeah, but I’ve slept since then. I figured that maybe I had dreamed that ending.”
“I can’t believe they didn’t attack me.” Scott slumped forward with his chin in his palm and stared sideways into his beer.
“Be honest, Scott,” said Becky. “Could you really have taken three ninjas at once?”
“That’s not the point!”
“Well I can’t believe we lost a chance to acquire a state of the art robot,” said Byron. “Do you know how much that thing must have been worth?”
“Yeah,” said Becky. “And she was a real looker too.”
“At least Spellstein is on his way out of town,” said Scott. “Maybe he’ll make it out of the country before that law firm sends someone else after him.”
Byron raised his pint glass. “To Spellstein.”
Scott raised his glass. “To Spellstein and to the cosmic rejects.”
Becky raised hers. “To Spellstein, to the cosmic rejects, and to lesbian alien lovers!”
They looked at her, and she shrugged. “I’m just trying to keep the hope alive.”
“Maybe you could put some red food coloring in the beer…”
posted by D @ 6:38 PM
I love stories - especially speculative fiction, and I named this blog Brief Glimpses of Somewhere Else because I think of each story as a window into another world.
If this is your first time here, I recommend "Legacies" and "The Great Puzzle", both of which were nominated for a 2006 Parsec Award. You can also find "Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart" as well as "Late Shift at the Souleater" in the podcast anthology Voices: New Media Fiction available at podiobooks.com.
Legacies Part II
Legacies Part I
[About The Spirit's Dream (Version 2)]
The Spirit's Dream (Version 2)
Timmy, Jimmy, and the Beast of Tagmart
The Great Puzzle Part III
The Great Puzzle Part II
The Great Puzzle Part I
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