Fiction

The Chromatic Graft Part 1

a Nick Beat EP

Nick Beat lounged on the edge of the second story fire escape, his black wing-tipped shoe dangling into the space above the small alley, lost in the embrace of the music. The guitars of ‘The Piston Falcons’ bounced off the low-rent industrial Japanese buildings, letting their geometry create a chaotically reflected soundtrack to the electricity in the night air. The skylanes above were buzzing with flyers, the running lights on their undercarriage streaking a pastiche of neon blues and yellows across the sky. All his weight propped up by his left arm, he started flicking his foot when the guitars burst into drums. ‘Falcons’ was executing on one of the functions Nick had designed it for: he was getting pumped for the task ahead.

From his place on the darkened rail, Nick had a clear angle through the window of the small office across the alley, his eyes solely on the cabinet prominently in its frame. A balding man sat at a tidy desk and Nick watched him slip a large wad of money into a bank deposit bag and put it and a stack of paper in a briefcase he lifted from the floor. Checking his watch, the man stood, singled out a key on the ring, grabbed the case and his coat, and walked out the door.

When it shut, Nick started tapping his finger, each beat landing exactly one second apart. Thirty eight taps later, another door at the base of the building opened and the moneyman stepped through. He passed a pile of black shiny trash bags on his way out to the street.

Nick hopped over the railing and slid down the drain running to the ground. He gathered the trash bags underneath the window and wedged the pistol he’d been keeping at his beltline underneath.

Beat was ready. He walked around to the entrance as ‘The Piston Falcons’ entered its last period, his steps hitting bap bap bap babap bap, bap bap bap babap bap, bap bap bap babap bap and rapped on the unmarked metal door with the back of his knuckle clack clack clack clacklack clack. He stood there a second before realizing what he’d done. He clicked the back of the plug in his right earlobe and the music from the speaker in the front cut. For the first time since Nick Beat strut in, silence settled over the alley.

A small panel at eye-level slid open on the door and Nick met a pair of blood-shot irises. They looked him up and down. The face they were set into nodded its chin upward, asking a silent question.

Nick took a gamble on the password he’d been given: “The moon in the sky.”

It paid off and the slot closed back over the eyes. Three mechanical clicks sounded their release on the heavy door as it opened with a sigh. Nick stepped into the dark entrance, taking TPF from the top.

He was spun around inside, the man’s hands scanning his back for a hidden weapon. They squeezed his leather jackets pockets for brass knuckles. They moved down one pant leg and up the other in search of a gun. Nick took it upon himself to lift his newsboy-styled beret and prove he wasn’t concealing a grenade on top of his short brown hair, flashing a playful grin. Begrudgingly, the doorman thumbed deeper into the building. Nick obliged, whistling to the melody rattling around in his head as he sauntered in.

It was pretty obvious to Nick that he’d just stepped into a yakuza joint, a conclusion reinforced with every step. The entrance opened to smoky pachinko machines, poker tables and paid companions lazing about. Well-dressed people walked, gambled, and drank. A waiter passed by holding a servers tray stacked with dirtied dishes. He walked to a guarded elevator and stairwell at the back. The waiter stepped inside the box and hit the button. The doors closed and took him up.

Keeping a low profile was the key to making it out of here. Nick needed to get upstairs and that meant past the guard. He could get away with punching a hole in the security but would need to control it. He’d have to create a small diversion and draw attention to it to cover his larger move. The trick was creating the right one. As if on cue, a beautiful brunette woman and her handsome suitor stumbled towards the stairwell.

The guard stepped in their way and shook his head. The brunette leaned in to his ear and whispered through a mischievous smile. Getting the hint, the guard nodded and pointed away. She grabbed her beau by the collar and pulled him in the direction. She received no resistance- his feet didn’t require much convincing.

The ding of the elevator button drew the sentry’s attention away from the scene. If he wasn’t expecting the waiter so quickly, he really wasn’t expecting to find Nick standing at the door, his hands in his pockets, blowing a melody through his teeth.

 “The elevator’s off limits.”

The whistle disappeared. “Oh, sorry…hey, what the hell is this?” Nick questioned, motioning to the statue to the right of the elevator. He assumed it was an animal but could only identify teeth, tails and claws.

When the elevator came to rest and the doors slid open, the sentry was more aggressive. He intended to yell “Don’t touch that!” but only managed to cough out a “dunh” after Nick popped him in his Adam’s apple. Quickly reaching in and slapping a button, Nick turned back and found the man predictably clutching his throat and gasping for breath. It looked painful but less so than if his head had been slammed against the horrendous monster statue, which is what happened next with a whap. The porcelain figure shattered on its pedestal with a loud crack. By now, the guard was rather uncomfortable. Nick pushed him into the box right as the doors closed and a moment before a second guard rounded the corner to investigate the commotion. The timing was perfect.

“What happened here?” the recently arrived guard asked, noticing the mess on the floor.

“Hm?” Nick said, feigning ignorance by picking up the largest fragments and trying to deduce just what in the hell it was. “Oh, the guy that was just here broke whatever the hell this isn’t anymore and went upstairs to get something to clean it.” The man squinted at the piece in Nick’s hand. It made Nick more than a little anxious. “I’ll just, er, leave this with the rest,” he said, delicately tossing it onto the ground where it joined the rest in their broken-ness. “Uh,” he added, “it might be a while.” The man snarled and went back around the corner to what he was doing.

Leaning to watch him leave, Nick booked it upstairs, past another statue labeled ‘The Priestess’, rounding the corner between floors and making it to the elevator at the top just as the doors opened. The guard was on his knees in the middle of the metal box. He hungrily gulped down a few delicious breaths as Nick clapped him on both ears. Nick grabbed the incredibly dazed man before he fell over and pulled him up and over his shoulders. Turning around made him almost drop his cargo- the waiter stood in the kitchen across from them, his back turned, garnishing a sushi roll. Nick darted from the elevator and stashed the guard in a nearby broom closet, putting the mop in his hand so its head would cover his.

The act of filling a large pitcher with water diverted the waiter’s attention, so he didn’t realize he was being snuck up on until after he was in a headlock, being deprived of oxygen. Waiting for the man to pass out, Nick spied the room at the end of a hall.

“You have the key for the office?”

“Ngh.”

Fighting to retain his hold on the struggling waiter, Nick slipped his free hand into the jackets pocket but only found a bottle opener and lint. Beat switched chokin’ arms and checked the other. Nothing. He set his eyes on the roll topped with unagi a few feet away. He reached out for it but he was only close enough to scrape a few seeds off the top with his fingertips. Shuffling the waiter over a few steps, Nick swiped a slice. It was bliss in his mouth.

He would have taken another but the walk-in refrigerator opened and a white-jacketed chef emerged. The trio was surprised, but the waiter showed it by gasping, his ears popping, and finally going limp. Nick was the first to formally speak.

“Did you make that?” he asked, nodding his head toward the roll.

The chef answered by pulling out two cleavers.

Nick let the waiter fall. “Can I get the recipe?”

The cleavers responded by lunging toward him. Shifting all his weight to his back leg, Nick pushed forward. Not having anticipated being rushed, the knives extended safely over his back.

As if possessed, Nick’s right foot bounced at the toes to the rhythm in his head. While effortlessly evading the chefs attempts to dice him, Nick contemplated if his attempt to break in unnoticed would be undermined by turning his music back on: when the chef swung down in a long arc, Nick lamented how the confined quarters of the kitchen would have been ideal for grooving to his song ‘Freestyle,’ where TPF was about forward momentum; as the edges of the blades split air inches from his throat, Nick calculated the odds that he would end a talented culinary career by crippling one or more of the chefs hands; and as he caught a wrist and diverted an elbow, Beat resigned himself to keep his mind occupied by continuing to play his song from memory. Nick heroically suppressed his foots movements.

They circled the butcher block clockwise, locked at the eyes in anticipation of the others move. The chef was so focused that he forgot about his colleague until he clipped his toes on the still unconscious body. His hands occupied, the best the chef could do to stay on his feet was bury the blades into the far edge of the surface.

“Damn it, give me those!” Nick yelled, swatting his hands away. Reaching over the embedded blades to the handles, he pulled them over themselves and out of the wood. “No more of this.” Using one knife to indicate the other, Nick shook his head to indicate he was giving neither back. He tossed both into a trash can as a fist punched the switch at the back of his skull that turned on the lights in front of his eyes.

The music rose and the drums hit bap bap bap babap bap. Nick swung around in time to get another set of knuckles in the stomach. Bap bap bap babap bap. The chef clasped his hands behind Nicks head and kneed him in the stomach. As a general rule, if Nick could smell his opponent’s breath, they were too close. This one’s smelled of seaweed. Beat wasn’t a grappler; he needed to widen the gap.

Nick stomped the chef’s foot with his heel, punched his unprotected kidney, blocked the feeble counter it elicited, jumped and feathered a left and right kick midair that set the rhythm more than hurt, and used the stunned opening they created to pull his fist far back and snap it forward.

There was so much force behind the punch that its recipient was knocked out cold on his feet, his jaw popped open, and his tongue whipped from his face like a bungee cord. Nick could only sigh as he crunched chin-first to the floor, his teeth shearing a third of his tongue clean off. Nick hadn’t considered that possibility. With that much pain, the first ability you gain is superhuman alertness so the chef bolted fully awake, but the fifth ability you lose is balance, so he fell against the oven, smacked a frying pan, and splashed oil over the burner and his white coat, sending it up in flames. He shrieked and flailed about.

With the latest turn of events, the fear of attention ran parallel to the concern for the chef’s well-being, so Nick did the only sensible thing available to him: he punched the man across the face again, knocking him on top of the waiter. He grabbed the water pitcher and dumped it, extinguishing the flames.

Reason convinced Nick the job wasn’t going perfectly, but his ego assured him it was going well overall.

Then the fire alarm went off.

It blared throughout the entire building. Sprinklers dropped from the ceiling and shot water in an arc that drenched everything. Nick sighed and searched the chef’s pockets but turned up no keys.

Shouts echoed from downstairs. Nick rushed to the office door and kicked at the bolt. When the two remaining guards appeared at the doorway with semi-automatic infantry weapons, Nick kicked again. The men were in the kitchen, standing over both bodies when Nick kicked a third time and both turned his way. Collapsing their eyes to the sights of their guns, their barrels flashed in time. Nick jerked away to the wall opposite the door as the bullets flew down the hall and safely past. He righted himself and threw all his weight at the door, splitting the wood at the lock.

Inside, he slammed the broken door shut and tossed the large, bulky object at the left down to block it. Flipping the light on, he frantically swept his gaze over the office, from the large safe to the computer terminals and the surveillance system, in search of the filing cabinet, only to sigh and turn back to the floor where he’d just tipped it. Sliding the top drawer out, he sifted through the names sideways.

Nick knew what he was looking for but folders indicating other businesses, real estate ventures, and plans for a new line of vodka drew his attention. He threw the drawer back in and went down to the next one. Employee files. Jamming his hand in and pulling the mass of folders from the back, he walked his fingers up from ‘R’ to ‘T’ and the two items listed under Tsukino: Masanori and Yuki. The info he’d been given was spot on.

Suddenly, the cabinet slid up the drawer like waves up a jetty, as feet kicked the door from the other side. Knowing that he could help it but deciding not to, he yelled out a “can you give me a moment?” only to get a melody of bullet fire in return. Nick yanked the file, ran to the window, secured his hat under his palm, and jumped, right as the door was beaten down.

He landed safely on the pile of trash bags in the alley. Grabbing his stashed pistol, he rolled to his back and sighted down the barrel to the open window above. One of the guard’s heads popped out and Nick buried two shots in the top of the frame to chase it away. He waited. And waited. Then he heard something and turned to see the gamblers and drinkers herded into the back alley staring at him. Nick self-consciously leapt up, stuck the gun in his beltline, and ran onto the bustling city street as the last guard ran out the entrance. He disappeared into the foot traffic.

The bars were letting out and the streets were filled with intoxicated youth. They stumbled past buildings plastered with old-school electric signs flashing kanji and hip reactive-sensory advertisements featuring beautiful and smartly dressed people peddling irresistible lifestyles with the purchase of new cars and the consumption of fashionable beverages.

After a few blocks, Nick found Ariel’s white dirt bike under the street lamp where he’d left it, the light illuminating the ‘62’ decal on the side. Stepping a leg over the seat, he opened the file. Glancing over the contents, the girl’s photo caught his attention and held it for a five count.

Yuki Tsukino was more attractive than he’d expected. She had full lips in a smirk and piercing hazelnut eyes. Her current employment was listed on the next page: a night club deep in the city.

Nick Beat kicked the starter, opened the throttle and set off into the night back to his hotel.

*

Ariel Moxie awoke more at peace than she had in years. Minutes after dawn, through the shutters above her head, came a breeze carrying into her room the scent of cherry blossom from the courtyard outside. The nights had been crisp, but not cold enough to need to wear much more than her white tank top under her heavy blankets. Since her arrival, she had settled into that tranquility that added calmness to her eyes and fluidity to her movements.

What had become more severe was the palpable sting on her left arm from an intense two day’s work. She pulled it out from under her covers, looked up and down at the bandages wrapped from shoulder to wrist, and flexed the muscles in her hand.

Unfolding her laptop from where it lay next to her mat, she found Nick’s message from the night before. There were only two sentences. She put her hair into a ponytail as she read and stood when she was done. She slipped into her jeans and rolled the pant legs up above her ankles.

The front room was warm, the fire lit. From the house built into the side of the mountain, Ariel could see out across the region- to the snow-capped mountains to the north, down at the lush green forest that grew below sea level, and to the launch pads of the space port in the east. The cherry blossom tree cast its branches over the roof. Petals blew across the grass. There was a painter’s throw on the stone immediately out the door, blotched with ink of all colors of the spectrum. The breeze rang the wind chime hanging from the tree, seeming to harmonize with the distant chirp of cicadas.

Inside, the chimney cut into the dividing wall separating the living room from the kitchen. She went to the fireplace, knelt down, and agitated the dying coals with the poker resting against it.

From behind her came the strong, assured voice. “Don’t stoke the fire too much, you’ll-“

“-burn the sausages,” Ariel interrupted without looking from the embers. “I smell them. I won’t.”

Ueda stood at the threshold of the sliding wood-paneled door off the courtyard. He was holding two white paint buckets in each hand and set them onto the throw. The large man smiled, his eyes sparkled.

He stepped into the house and went to the kitchen, leaned over the counter and pulled a pan out of the recess of the chimney at counter height. Ariel went to the cupboard, retrieved two plates ornamented with delicate violet floral lines in the ceramic lip, too feminine for the man who owned them. They ate in silence and got up in kind.

Ariel went to the buckets, Ueda went to the sink. She took the two buckets and poured each into the empty while he plunged the dishes into the sink. She blended the ink in time to his sponge rotating around the plates. She was thorough and firm, he precise and delicate. She carried the buckets into the house and placed them several feet from the fireplace to keep it from thickening up but not cook.

Ariel crossed her arms in front of her, took the bottom of her shirt in her fingers and pulled it over her head and off. She lay down on the cushion.

Ueda dropped down to her left side. To give Ariel something to do, he flipped to Ellie Fogarty’s newscast, turned it to silent, and put the captions on. Settling in cross-legged, he carefully unwound the bandages from her arm and lifted it closer to his eyes. Looking at the two, their differences were striking. The tattoos of her right had faded in the years since they were first set while the fresh application on the left had grafted to her skin nicely; the colors were rich, the blacks bold, the lines thick. The flesh underneath was inflamed, but had never bled.

Ariel watched his face as he looked at it. “Thought it would look worse?”

“We’re doing much in a short time.” Ueda massaged deep into the arm’s muscles for several minutes to re-stimulate blood flow, then rewrapped it with clean bandages.

“Regretting giving me a full sleeve?”

“No, it had to be nagasode; at least nagasode. If the binding were any less, it might not be strong enough.” Ariel had no idea what that meant.

He repositioned himself on her right and studied the arm. She wondered if he would ask about an update on Nick, but a look at his face showed that his mind was focused. He rested her arm on the wood floor, picked up a hari needle, dipped the points in the brown ink, and made the first insertion of the day.

The pain started immediately. It caught her off guard at first but her well-practiced control let her grab hold and push it down until it was barely a tickle. She turned away and looked into the bandages wrapped around her arm.

She and Nick had been just off the coast of Hawaii when they got the call. In the years since she’d last seen Ueda, they had only ever communicated by mail. So when her phone rang and he asked her to come, they immediately set The Bassline’s sail to the wind and made their way further west.

His greeting had been warm. He gave Ariel a long, tender hug and shook Nick’s hand for the first time. He sat them on the couch and took a chair opposite. He stared into Ariel’s eyes. “I’m going to spend the next week redrawing your tattoos. We won’t stop until we’re done. But first I’m going to tell you two a story and then ask a question.”

“Many years ago, the heavens were set ablaze. Past the thick carpet of clouds in the black sky, people for hundreds of miles away could see a rainbow of colors reflecting in the atmosphere, they could feel the air pulsating around them. Suddenly, the cover evaporated and a massive ball of fire cut through, casting a tail almost a mile long. It was a comet. Standing at its front, screaming at the world, was a hideous Beast. The monster rained brimstone down on the land, laughing harder with every inch closer he came.

“But all was not lost. A group of angels followed his trail. The warriors took up their golden bows and launched a volley of energy. The arrows detonated on impact, taking chunks from the rock and knocking the demon from his perch. Hurtling through the sky, he crashed to Earth and fled into the countryside. He’s out there to this day, collecting souls for his army, roaming the land in search of his comet.”

“Why?” Ariel asked.

“Because it was made of solid gold. The legend says that a maiden will appear, and show the way to its crash site, and its fortune.” He looked at Ariel. “You and I are going to sit here, no matter what answer I get for my question.” He looked at Nick. “What are you going to do?”

Nick Beat snapped his fingers. “I’m gonna hear more, then go find a girl.” Ueda gave him an address and Nick was on his way. That was two days ago.

A knock at the door came several hours later. Ueda had made it a third of the way down her bicep when Ariel watched him open to a courier dressed in a neatly-pressed uniform and blocky hat. When his clipboard was signed, the delivery man bowed and disappeared from sight. Ueda returned with a small package wrapped in brown paper, bound in twine. The large man took it to his room carefully, almost reverentially. He didn’t speak again until he had finished her upper arm and the sun had set.

That night, Ariel placed the board with toolkit and soldering iron Ueda had provided her on the floor in her room. Holding the frame of her left plug still, she unspun the speaker from its lock. Cracking the metal casing at its ridge like a fortune cookie, she delicately unfastened the wire from the battery to the small chip inside with the pinch of her tweezers. Inspecting inside, Ariel was proud to find that the connectors were still holding, despite being predictably weakened. She took the soldering iron and expertly reinforced the circuits with a short cut of copper wire. After three days of relaxation, her active brain was glad to have something to keep itself busy.

Her skin was bare the first time she had hiked to this house high in the mountains and found Ueda chopping down a small tree for firewood. She had heard stories of the famous horishi from those who sought his talents but was unprepared for the strong eyes that looked back. Ueda had invited her to stay the night while he came to a decision but she expected to be sent home the next morning. Why shouldn’t she? Everyone who related their stories had been. They had eaten dinner in silence and she had cleaned the kitchen unprompted. He had observed her all night but only spoke every several hours. The next morning, he had breakfast ready.

He was much more talkative that day. They had walked his property together and he asked about her life. Ariel had answered directly, openly, revealing information that only those who had been witness had known. She spoke of ‘The 62’ and of how she felt when she tuned it. It was the first time she had been at peace for a long time. For a week, he had sketched out the designs for her tattoos, explaining the history of irezumi. On the first day of the second week, he had taught her how to mix sumi and it went to the first etching. It was of a man, his face obscured in shadow walking outward from a green forest, holding a helmet with a ’62’ emblem on its forehead. In the background was the outline of a woman, a snapshot of her dancing, frozen in time. Her left arm was a monument to her past, one she had never known how to embrace but learned to recognize. She lived in that house for two months and when she hiked back down the mountain, her arms and across the top of her back were no longer blank.

Ariel set the copper wire on the board and stuck the iron into the damp sponge to a small tzt. She reconnected the wire from the battery into the chip, set the top of the plug onto the bottom, took them in between her first two fingers and thumb, and snapped the halves together. Spinning the piece back into the circular frame in her right ear, she pressed the back and Rumble played in stereo from the small tweeters, proof that her chips still both worked.

She returned to the living room in sweat pants and saw Ueda standing in the courtyard sipping tea under the cherry-blossom tree. Pouring herself a cup from the kettle on the stove, she went out to stand by him.

The moon was crescent in the sky and the lights of Lunar City glinted in the darkness. As awesome as the sight was, Ueda wasn’t looking its way. His eyes were locked across the Japanese expanse before him, on the shuttle being prepped on the spaceports central pad. The flashing red and blue lights on the two smaller police cruisers told Ariel that the ship was headed to the ArrisCo Penitentiary on the far side of the moon, rather than a commercial flight docking at the city. The escorts would ensure that every convict served their sentence. Ueda was lost in thought.

“I’d almost forgotten how beautiful the nights were,” Ariel said.

“They are,” he said, coming back but continuing to gaze as the platforms exhaust ports opened and the stabilization gear retracted. “As I have gotten older, I have become aware of a change inside myself. When I was young, I thought to spend my life staring out at this view because I wanted to be surrounded by its beauty.” The engines ignited, shooting a pillar of smoke into the tracts beneath the facility, dispersing it upward as four plumes. “Now, I question whether a thousand beautiful nights in one place is better than an ugly night in a thousand different ones.” He paused. Force overcame weight and the ship slowly gained lift. “Even now, I’m unsure.” He followed as the ship climbed into the sky. “Maybe one day, I’ll find the answer.”

Ariel gave him a sideways glance. “Is that what you’re doing with your share of the treasure?” Ueda took a sip of his tea. “Nick found the girl. He should be making contact any minute. What happens next?”

Ueda placed his cup in the saucer. “He’ll have to get her naked.”

Ariel smiled devilishly, pointing her left eye brow up as she pulled the right corner of her lips to the side. “I’m sure he’ll do that twice,” she said.

*

If you were to ask anyone about the man with the hat sitting in the corner booth of legendary night club The White Tiger of Dance Strong, they would tell you that he was probably too busy having a seizure to take his eyes off the dancer on stage. Leaning back on the couch with his arms spread out on the backrest and leg kicked over the corner of a cocktail table, he expressed a different form of joy every time one of the multicolored strobe-lights brushed his face. If Ariel Moxie had been there, she would have told you that’s just how Nick Beat gets around a pretty face. He’d been like that for three songs.

The young woman on stage wore an orange-and-white-striped vinyl dress and coordinating white boots up to her knees. Her movements were sharp and punctuated yet fluid and transitioned well into the next. There was fierceness in her stance, defiance in her aura. She danced, and danced well, but she was intentionally going off beat. It was rebellion and celebration. That took tremendous focus and would appear sloppy to most.

Something blocked the flashing lights and broke the spell. “What are you drinking?” came a catty, high-pitched voice somewhere not in his direct field of view. Nick turned to a petite dancer with straight black hair pushing a cart topped with glasses and bottles.

“Nothing tonight.”

Noticing that Nick’s interest was elsewhere, she looked to the stage and frowned. “Girl’s got no rhythm. Good thing Yuki’s almost done up there.”

Yuki swept her gaze out and, for a second, she and Nick locked eyes. In that moment, he knew he was right about her. A second was all he got, then it was over.

“I’d watch out,” the server recommended. She stepped away, exposing Nick to the strobe-light once more and flicked her head to the bar. “Her boyfriend won’t let you get close.” With the lights change to a deep red, Nick’s expression went on point, his eyes narrowing, searching over the bar.

The man was sitting half-assed on the stool, partially facing the stage and Yuki but mostly pointed at the attractive lady bartender pouring drinks, who didn’t appear too receptive to his twisted smirk, his arrogant eyes, or his wandering hands. Nick didn’t like the guys swagger or his size. From where he was, he could make out large arms that filled the sleeves of his jean jacket, a broad chest that kept it from buttoning up, and the glint of a metal handgrip hanging in the holster inside the left breast.

“They showed up out of nowhere a few weeks ago,” she went on.

The band ended their set with every member knocking out a final bombastic chord. The audience clapped and the performers bowed as front man put his hand out to acknowledge Yuki before they all strode from sight. Yuki’s boyfriend stood and walked through the Employees Only door. The server winked, spun on her heels and made for the back. Nick jumped up and snaked his way through the guests on the dance floor in pursuit, ducking through the door before it closed.

At the far end of the hall, Yuki’s boyfriend opened a dressing room door, let her slide past and closed it behind her. Backstage was busy with the set changeover. Two identically-dressed musicians stood at the rear entrance talking to what looked like a chrome robot with a dome speaker for a mouth and pipes leading from its back to its forearms.

“Hey!” A third musician cradling a guitar appeared. “For the last time, no! Get out of here!”

The robot sunk its shoulders and The Guitarist kicked it in the metal pants as he walked away. The Guitarist turned to the others, too eager to notice that they were frowning disapprovingly. “All right guys, this is my-I mean our big chance. Let’s go out there and give them a performance that’ll have everyone talking.” The spotlight swept up to the outside of the curtain, casting a thin sheet of light. The musicians stepped through. The coast clear, Nick noticed that Yuki’s door was unguarded. Getting closer, he saw Yuki’s boyfriend trying to flirt with the bartender in the stockroom. Nick slipped past the entry and into Yuki’s dressing room.

Yuki was standing at the clothes rack. She had completely removed her Go-Go outfit and slipped on denims. She was turning her long-sleeved, dark green shirt inside out when Nick came in. Startled, she said “Bosa, you know better than to-” and clutched her shirt over her bra. It was reflexive. It took her a second to process that Nick had casually strolled in. “What are you doing here?”

“Just looking for directions.”

Her eyes narrowed in comprehension. “I see.” She turned her head and twisted her body to follow. Nick whistled. There, across the whole of her back, was a map of Japan. In the center sat a pink marker.

“Who sent you?”

“A man named Ueda.”

“I don’t remember a Ueda,” she said, slipping her arms into her shirt, “but if he had known the secret of my map, I would be with him right now. So he must not be the right man.” She brought it over her head and pulled down. “There have been so many- so many men, so many guesses. None were correct. Will yours be?”

“You have no idea why you have it,” Nick said, his answer freezing Yuki in place. “It’s been there your entire life.”

Yuki spun his way with desperate eyes. “You know what it is?! Tell me!”

“It’s the location of a treasure,” Nick said coolly.

Yuki was stunned. “A what?”

The door gingerly opened and the boyfriend’s red cheek with white handprint poked in. His eyes were closed but he turned away respectfully regardless. “Hurry up; we’re getting out of here.”

Yuki went to reply but Nick beat her to it. “That looks like it stings.” The man’s eyes went wide and his neck swiveled. He reached for the pistol inside his jean jacket but his arm was pinned against his side as Nick kicked the door shut. He put his mouth to the man’s left ear. “You must be Bosa.” Nick grabbed the gun and tossed it by the vanity along the right side wall, pulled the large man in by the collar and threw him to the floor in the one opposite. The stretched shirt exposed the man’s chest and Nick saw three jagged lines like tears over his heart. By the time Bosa had collected himself, Nick had drawn his gun from his waistband.

“A cat scratch?” Beat said disapprovingly. “That the best tattoo you could come up with?”

“You’re making a mistake coming here,” Bosa said, pushing himself up.

Nick knew he couldn’t fire the pistol but it offered a chance to size the big guy up. Bosa obviously wasn’t agile, but he could definitely do some damage in the cramped room. Nick would need to stay in motion if he hoped to leave. He pressed the back of his right lobe and ‘The Piston Falcons’ continued from where it left off the night before. Wrong song. He switched gun hands and pressed his left lobe. ‘The Piston Falcons’ changed to ‘Freestyle’. Wrong phrase. Nick rotated the backside of the plug counterclockwise with his thumb and rewound the song to a stream of distortion. He released mid trumpet blow.

“You shoot and every guard will come running. You want to get out of here you’ll have to go through me.”

Nick nodded. “That’s the exact same conclusion I just reached.”

Yuki had been pulling on her second leather boot when the tune started but stopped to channel the effort into pinching her lips together in bewilderment. She watched Nick’s foot bounce to the music. When he found his note, she saw him jam his pistol into his beltline and rush. He moved so quickly that as Bosa bear hugged the air where he thought Nick should be, Beat was sliding his legs out from under him. ‘Freestyles’ drums started as Bosa smacked the ground. Nick put his hand down and vaulted his legs up and over himself, changing his direction in sync to the beat. Putting more weight on the palm, he swung his legs out in a scissor, both shoes having their own opportunity to crack Bosa as he came about. Yuki started to suspect that he was attacking to the rhythm, but dismissed the ridiculous thought. Instead she stomped her foot into the boot and pulled the zipper up her leg.

In, out, and around. In, out, and around. In, out, and around. Nick’s circular movements matched the composition as he had written. Yuki slipped both her arms into the sleeves of a small puffy winter jacket she removed from the clothes rack and extended her arms out, using the leverage to pull it over her shoulders. She ran to her bag on the makeup counter.

Nick somersaulted onto Bosa’s back, reached backwards to the underside of the big man’s chin, peeling him off the tile and centrifuging his feet in an arc. The body was chucked into the air and belly flopped on the ground in front of Yuki. Scrambling for his discarded pistol, Bosa pointed its muzzle square at Nick’s center.

Yuki’s bodyguard was bruised and beaten but not out. “Don’t worry,” he valiantly said to her, “he won’t lay a hand on you.” But Yuki laid her hand on a bust another performer used as a wig stand and head butted the back of Bosa’s. He was out before he hit the floor. She threw the plaster head on the counter.

“Get me out of here,” she said with determination.

“Hope you don’t mind motorcycles, sister.” He extended his hand and introduced himself. “Nick Beat.” They shook until he opened the door and pulled her through. “You’re in good hands.”

Nick took most of one step out the door before stubbing his toe on the mangled melody drowning out the hallway backstage. The drums were clean. The piano was crisp. The guitar was sadness incarnate. Nick clicked ‘Freestyle’ off and sighed. He and Yuki opened the Employees Only door onto the main hall and found a restless cadre of guests milling about. The band ended their song to a flaccid fanfare and understandably weak applause. The Guitarist was visibly shaking. He shot angry glances at the other members and they reset.

Nick looked to the entrance only fifty feet away. “This’ll be easy,” he reassured her. As if to rebut his observation, members of staff security to his right, left and straight ahead put their fingertips to their right ears and scanned the room.

He tried ducking through the closest door but fidgeting with the knob produced nothing but a voice shouting “Private party!” He was shoved against the door from behind, knocking again with his forehead. “Did you hear what I just said? Kick rocks!” the voice yelled angrily. Nick spun around to look into the nose hairs of another largish thug. He tried to cock his fist back but only managed to smack his elbow into the door. “That’s it, now I’m pissed!” The man pulled his hand far back and launched his fist at Beat. Nick sidestepped out of the way just as the door yanked open.

The ball of knuckle cracked a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and nailed the bridge of the reddened nose holding them up. The man seeing through them toppled backward onto a table covered in drinks, sending every drop over a dozen men in blazers, all with their shirts untucked and ties loosened. In unison, they turned first to their friend laid out on the floor and then back to the yakuza standing in the doorway with his arm extended.

Since Nick hadn’t seen most of this go down, he’s rather surprised to see two salary men tackle the thug through the door and more flood out. Nick looked concernedly at the other three bouncers and saw them staring menacingly back. One man motioned for the others to help their colleague make the fight a fair 3 – 2 and turned his attention to Nick.

Onstage, The Drummer clacked his sticks in the air one two three four.

The piano starts the next song and Nick falls into the music as he watches the man charge his way. He heard the drums and saw the bruiser’s sprint land four per beat. Sixteen steps gave Nick four beats to make a decision. He saw the arms forking up and down and realized it would take one and a half beats at best to throw a full punch. He was a righty and that was the offbeat so would be just short or just long of that sweet spot. Then the guitar cut in, a jumble of missed notes and flat chords. It broke Nick’s concentration. He had to focus. He tried to focus. Man, that Guitarist really should get more lessons, he thought, and pondered what the going market rate for that was right now. Hmmm… Where was he? Oh yeah- but the subject was changed again by a blow to his jaw.

He went around and down, catching his weight by digging the balls of his feet into the floor. He wiped the split in his lip. He moved up, jabbing at the man but whiffing big, a mistake punished by a karate chop to the ear. Nick was officially irritable. He didn’t know where Yuki was but he hoped she was staying out of trouble.

The reality was that, at that moment, Yuki was kicking a leg off an upturned chair to use as a weapon. It was a practical move considering the havoc the drunken group was wreaking. Yuki saw a metal drink cart behind them and ditched the chair leg over her shoulder. She got to the cart and flicked the first wheel lock with the toe of her boot. She looked to Nick as he was thrown into a booth.

Nick Beat wasn’t feelin’ it before his back smashed into the table but felt several something’s after he was socked in the kidney. He slumped over. The thug set himself and swung his foot backward, leaning for extension so far forward that his black shirt sagged and Nick saw a familiar icon inscribed on his chest.

The guitar track mutated, the volume and balance phased in and out. The effects dampened the shoddy picking and unified the composition into a piece tangible enough to grab onto. Nick’s wits sharpened as a large out-of-control metal box came racing directly for him and in time to jump to the table and lift his legs. The box crashed into the table and the tip of the thugs shoe buried into its reinforced side. Nick kicked out over the box and hit the bouncer square in his grimacing face. He followed the boxes path up and saw Yuki mouth “Maybe I should just save myself.” Nick shook his head. He’d found a flow. The turntable spun. The bouncer shook off the blow and executed a jab/cross/hook combo that Nick batted away and countered with a heel to the knee which dropped him, an elbow to the top of the head that staggered him, and a cross to the forehead to put him away.

He tumbled into a young woman at the back of the audience trying to get a look at the band. She in turn bumped into two others, each falling into someone else in a domino that started as an accident and ended as a mosh pit in the center of the floor. The turntable pulled and now that Nick had the chance, he set eyes on the DJ. In all his life, Nick didn’t think he’d seen anyone as happy as the salary man with the headphones. The Guitarist was playing next to him, red-hot with rage.

Nick squatted down and pulled the bouncer’s shirt up to the claw tattoo. “What is this?”

Yuki looked coldly at the man’s chest. “Every member gets marked when they join the clan. It’s a reminder of who owns them and what will happen if they displease him.”

Nick knew it was time to go. He wouldn’t be able to get Yuki through the mob and didn’t like the only other option available to him but knew he had to do it anyways. He jumped on stage for every man and woman to see and pulled Yuki up beside him. The Pianist’s hands recoiled away from the electric keyboard in surprise. Nick pointed his index finger at the musician. “You, keep playing.” He moved his finger to The Guitarist. “You-” and punched him across the face. The audience applauded. The Guitarist stumbled to the edge of the raised platform and fell onto the waiting hands of the audience at its border. Slowly, his body was crowd surfed to the back of the club. Nick and Yuki were halfway across the stage when they were informed:

 “The boss wouldn’t like it if his favorite dancer got away.” Bosa stood on the end of the stage, limply waving his pistol in the air. “He’s her biggest fan.”

Yuki was visibly concerned, so Nick comforted her with a hand on the shoulder. “I dunno,” he said, surveying the scene for options, starting with the gun and ending on the overstuffed electrical outlet for the bands equipment. “She should be shared.” He pushed Yuki from the stage.

She fell onto the carpet of hands, doing her best to stabilize atop the bouncing. Surprised, she looked at Bosa, who moved towards her now that she was exposed. She appealed to the crowd excitedly with “Back, back, back!” and was swept away and from Bosa’s ineffectual grab. Angry, she looked at the jerk that had put her in the position, and saw him lunge at the large man. Nick grabbed Bosa’s gun hand and bent it around, using the pain it caused to force him around. He brought Bosa’s gun up and pinched the tip of his finger on the trigger. The bullet buried into the breaker and killed the lights. Yuki could only see the reflecting silhouettes of bodies wrestling on the stage.

The drums and piano heroically carried on.

Over the sound system came beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep, and from the edge of the stage a small light blinked with each syllable. Just like that: one-two and, one-two and, one two and. Nick looked for the source and found a rectangular pair of glowing emerald eyes. Then came boop-boop, boop-boop, boop-boop. Three sets of two flashes with a slight pause between each.

The balcony spotlight burst and illuminated the microphone. In its light, Yuki could see two technicians at the breaker, trying to bring the rest of the power back online. There, in the place where The Guitarist had been was the chrome robot with a dome speaker for a mouth. Inscribed on his chest was the name ‘J04-3 Mainframe’. J04-3 raised its ten fingers in a row palm down, flush with his triangular chin, beep beep, and then dropped them to the data port in his lower stomach, boop boop. Two compartments on opposite sides of his head opened and shot four beams of colored light. He swayed his head back and forth and the lights swept out in figure eights. J04-3 brought his arms up and pointed them out over the audience. Beep-boop-beep…beep-boop-beep, beep-boop-beeeeeee… Foil cones launched from his arms and unfolded with a snap, the light sparking off the metal and reflecting in a dazzle of color as they drifted down.

It wasn’t until Nick was on his back, taking a third punch to his grill, that he was willing to accept the idea that the battle had turned against him. Maybe it had something to do with not being able to see in the dark. But then the mechanical notes brought the composition together. It wasn’t ‘Freestyle’ or ‘The Piston Falcons’ but Nick was fully into it. He kicked Bosa away and got to his feet, his toes starting to bounce in time. Yuki watched him, trying really hard to figure that part of all this out.

Bosa and Nick stared into each other’s eyes, color dancing against their bodies.

Bosa smugly called his shot: “I’m going to kick you in the head now.”

To which Nick gave his approval: “I don’t think you can get your leg that high.”

And Yuki shouted her support: “This isn’t a great idea.”

Bosa put all his power behind a 360 spin. Nick caught the shoe inches from his chest with his right palm, held the leg taught by pulling the kneecap in with his left hand, stepped on the man’s left foot with his own, hooked the back of his right knee behind the thick head and brought everything down in a crunch. The move took a second and a half to complete.

Yuki was impressed so said “Wow, I’m impressed,” but so softly that only a few in the crowd below her could hear. A young woman holding her up looked at her from between her legs and nodded too.

Bosa got to his feet. The band cut and J04-3 went solo. Beep-beep-beep a beep-beep boop. Nick Beat was drawn into the rhythm. “This needs to end.” Beep-beep-beep a beep-beep boop. Nick smiled at Bosa. “Ready?” Beep-beep-beep a beep-beep boop. At the next beep, Nick charged toward the man and on boop jumped into the air.

The piano introduced Nick’s leap into the new measure. Corkscrewing his left leg out, he swiped Bosa across the face with the outside of his shoe on boop, turning him clockwise. Landing in a sweep that expanded his legs out and up as his arms wound in and down, Nick collapsed, windmilling his legs. With the addition of the kick pedal into the mix, the beep-beep was accompanied by a boom as his shoe clipped Bosa’s right shoulder and brought him back about face. The final move of Nick’s dance curled his knees to his chin and let him snap upwards like a spring, slamming accelerated mass into chest boooo…forcing Bosa off the ground and from the stage. As if on cue, the strobe and interior lights flared back on and accentuated his flight in a kaleidoscope of color. Coinciding with Mainframes puh, the club exploded with sound; the piano hit a five finger chord, the turntable pulled, the drum hit bass and Bosa crashed into the bars top shelf, shattering the glass, breaking the other two below, and colliding with the spill mat on the floor.

Everything came to a standstill.

Nick bounded from the stage and the audience parted for him. He reached out and the current changed to accommodate, sliding Yuki into his waiting arms.

The band was unsure of what to do. The Pianist looked questioningly to The Drummer. The Drummer lifted his sticks and smiled deviously at the DJ. The DJ put his hands back to the platter and looked to J04-3 Mainframe. J04-3 grabbed the mic and sang beep beep, beep beep, beep-beep-beep-a-beep boop. Everyone on stage plunged back into the music. The club was alive again.

Nick and Yuki ran. The door was right there in front of them. They were so close…

Nick grabbed the door handle and wrenched it open. They were about to step through when “The Beast has your scent” made them skid to a stop. Standing there, soaked in booze and covered in glass, was Bosa. He fell to his knees and coughed blood. He just keeps coming, Nick thought, could his boss really be that-

“Wait,” Nick said, interrupting his silent monologue. “This Beast ride a comet?”

Bosa leaned back and cackled into the sky. “And you walked into his den…and stole his cub.”

Nick looked to Yuki. “His what?!”

The beaten man reached his arm out, trying pitifully to reclaim the young woman. “I will get you back.” He fell limp to the ground. Nick was done. He opened the door and they left.

The music stopped and The White Tiger of Dance Strong erupted into cheers. The four musicians took it all in, pure happiness on the faces that had them.

It was a few hours before morning when Nick found himself staring at Yuki’s long, slender back as she lay naked on the top of the hotel’s red silk sheets. He quietly slid off the bed, grabbed his camera from the desk, and snapped a close up of the map. The room flashed. Nick turned back to the desk.

Nick connected the camera and opened a new message. From over his shoulder he heard Yuki’s voice. “You plan on making a break for it?” In the reflection of the screen, Nick saw that she’d sat up and pulled the sheet over her chest.

His fingers played over the keys. “I figure you don’t want to take your shirt off every time we make a wrong turn.”

“You have more important concerns, Mr. Beat. You’re on my father’s list. It’s not pleasant, believe me.” She fell back down to her side, trying to calm herself. “The Beast is coming for me, and he’ll tear you to shreds when he does. You’ll die because you were stupid enough to think I can bring you fortune.”

Nick broke his typing and slammed the enter key. He stood, swiveled the chair, and slid back into the bed beside her, working his hand up her thigh. “It’s a big fortune.”

She smiled. “Then where are we headed?”

He placed his hand on her shoulder and rolled her flat onto her stomach, throwing her hair aside. “Right here,” he said, putting his index finger on the pink marker. “We’ll have to take the train,” he said, tracing a curved line along the muscles in her lower back to the middle of her right shoulder blade, barely making contact with her skin. He felt her brace under his touch, her breath catch and her hair bristle. “From here, it’ll take a few hours.”

 She twisted around. “When do we leave?”

He caressed her cheek, drew her chin close and said “After we get a few hours’ sleep.” Then he kissed her hard on the lips.

Part 2

© Dane Thomsen 2014

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