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by Michael Mendoza
PREVIOUSLY: Nyla visited Hong Kong for a weekend to make a guest appearance on the "Solar Flare Crusader" television show. She hung out with exiled yakuza and Time-Warner executives, and she couldn't decide which of them she liked less. That didn't stop her from busting up some bozos and learning Solar Flare's Secret Origin.
The Christmas season was a matter of pomp and circumstance at the Shapire household. Customs that were neglected during the rest of the year, like saying grace at dinner and calling distant relatives, were dusted off and polished for "'tis the season". Extravagant presents were great and the Jesus thing was important too. But the renewed interest in the details of life was Nyla's favorite part of Christmas. As far as she was concerned, the new year began the day after Thanksgiving. Of course, the five weeks' head start never made the New Year resolutions easier to keep, but that was besides the point.
All the seasonal niceties culminated in the annual Shapire holiday party, where Randolph Shapire's business associates mingled with Maire Shapire's artists and aristocrats. From the sidelines, Nyla watched the no-holds barred schmoozing and attempts at youthful revelry. She recruited Lexi Holden to help keep the wine and hors d'oveurs flowing. At the same time, she dodged the fawning affection and curiosity of an endless horde of aunts.
One of those aunts had caught Nyla off-guard and asked if she could look for her two missing sons, Jim and Kyle. She was now escorting the little sprites by the hand back to their mother. "Here's your pride and joy, Aunt Llewella," she announced with the holiday cheer in her voice.
"Oh thank you dear. Where have you two been? I've looked everywhere for you!"
"I found them in the den playing Tetris on the computer."
"No! You know better than to pry where you're not allowed."
"Sorry mommy," said Jim and Kyle in unison.
"It's really no big deal," said Nyla. "I guess the clown wasn't funny enough to hold their attention."
"Speaking of clowns, are there any new men in your life?"
"No... not lately, I'm afraid." Nyla strained to keep a bright face.
"That's just fine. You just save yourself for someone who's worth it."
As Llewella looked for a quiet corner to spank her children, Jennifer Dwierlest came to Nyla with two glasses of champagne. "Let me guess, you found the little monsters raiding the liquor cabinet."
"Even worse," she whispered as she relieved Jen of a drink. "They were in my bedroom. Rummaging through my underwear."
"Bwahahahaha! Nellie, you seductress!"
"Oh please, like you should talk."
"Hey, at least I wait for them to ripen first. Speaking of ripe, what do you know about him?" Jen pointed at a poster child for the Young Republicans, who was trading fraternity stories with men twenty years his elder, including Nyla's father.
"Andrew Kyrelan. Hot young turk at Dad's firm. Generally a good heart, if a little self-absorbed. We had lunch Tuesday, but I think he's just trying to get in good with Dad."
"Why is it that every time a guy tries to get to know you better, you assume there's some kind of hidden agenda that has nothing to do with you?"
Nyla couldn't help but think about her weekend in Hong Kong. She parted with Mitsuko on good terms, but it still bothered her a little bit that he was initially only interested in her as a sidekick for his American television debut. Why her? Because she was a Westerner? Because she was female?
"Look, it's nothing special, Jen. We're just friends who met through Dad. That's all."
"Fine. It's just that I worry about you sometimes. I mean, you haven't had a real relationship since... well, you know, since--"
"Just what the fuck are you trying to say?!"
Every time Nyla let another outburst slip, Jen came closer to giving up on her. "I'm going to get some fresh air," she said as she walked away.
"Fresh air," Nyla muttered. That was Jen's way of saying that if she didn't go away, she'd knock someone on their ass. Nyla resented the way Jen barges into her personal affairs without knocking first. Or maybe she was angry because those two brats might have seen her Recharger. Or maybe it was just the way her father kept calling Kyrelan "Son". Nyla made a mental note to apologize to Jen as soon as she checked on the DJ.
Mitsuko Hasegawa walked the streets of Tokyo. He had flown into Japan yesterday afternoon with his mentor Ichiro Shigemitsu. They stayed in the apartment of a young man who worked in a casino operated by the Yanaga-gumi yakuza family. That young man had moved into a capsule hotel for the next few days in deference to Shigemitsu, who still commanded a great deal of respect from the family he stopped working for years ago. In fact, he could have commandeered housing that was much less modest if he didn't require a low profile.
Mitsuko and Ichiro walked into the Kawashima-kyuu bar, which was unusually well guarded that night. Kawashima-kyuu was one of Tokyo's more successful hostess bars. It featured beautiful and sophisticated women who pandered to men who sought a passionate release from the rigors of the workplace.
In its fifteen years of operation, the Kawashima-kyuu bar had never seen a crowd as diverse as tonight's patrons. Most were yakuza from both the Yanaga-gumi and the Tokuyama-gumi, for whom Mitsuko once worked. Corporate executives and representatives from the National Diet traded jokes and drank with them. They were brought together by a common interest in the great Ichiro Shigemitsu, who exemplified honor for the previous generation of yakuza, and the Patroller who was the brother of the Winter's Blade.
One by one they presented themselves to Shigemitsu. Burdened by an uneasy sense of shame, Mitsuko quietly watched the parade of warm greetings, business cards and bawdy comments about their hostesses. While Ichiro was lionized by the men here, Mitsuko received only brief but polite acknowledgement from them. In that manner they expressed their contempt for the man they considered a strutting peacock who abandoned his employers and family for the glamour of television and the Patrol.
Through the conversation of the following hour, Mitsuko learned that his brother Sekino had been quite busy these past few months. When Mitsuko joined the Patrol, Sekino had already learned enough about the market to continue alone. His sokiya operation flourished and dozens of businesses, along with many politicians, fell prey to his blackmail. Then, Sekino turned his attention on the Tokuyama-gumi. Over the next few weeks, he acquired "private information" on many lower-ranking yakuza. The watchful eye of the Winter's Blade seemed to be everywhere.
Only one recipient of Sekino's scrutiny was unwilling to trade his loyalty for his privacy. Yoshiya Doi was the nephew of an advisor of the Tokuyama-gumi's obayun. Through his uncle, Yoshiya brought Sekino's actions to the attention of the entire family's leader. Sekino begged the obayun, his advisors, and the leading bosses for forgiveness. He said that many rival gangs envied their increased prosperity (increased mostly by him), and he feared that they would try to infiltrate the Tokuyama-gumi. Sekino claimed that he wanted to insure the loyalty of their own ranks as a way of atoning for his own great failure; his inability to instill in his younger brother his devotion to his obayun. Finally, he offered to submit to ritual yubitsume, but no self-mutilation was required. His public apology returned him to the fold.
That night, Yoshiya Doi's uncle died in his sleep. Dr. Kishi declared a natural death.
Now, the patrons of Kawashima-kyuu hoped that the Winter's Blade still held some filial affection in his heart. They asked Shigemitsu if Mitsuko would speak to his brother and persuade him to moderate his lust for influence over Nippon's power elite. Mitsuko surprised them with a quick commitment to visit Sekino tonight. They suggested that he speak to Yoshiya Doi first, to understand exactly what he was about to undertake.
As the night progressed, Mitsuko found his spirit untouched by the merriment around him. A bar hostess with short hair and a rose tattoo on her left hand tried to win the Patroller's affection, but her charms were wasted. Shigemitsu strolled up to them, his face painted red with intoxication. "You'll find no business here, girl. He prefers a lighter shade of skin." He pulled her away, singing "Oh my darlin', oh my darlin', oh my daaarrrlin' Aventine..."
Mitsuko stopped hiding his disgust and started hitting the bottle.
The festive fires had burned brightly at the Shapire household throughout the night. Families with children left before midnight, but the stragglers and party-hoppers arrived to pick up the slack. Nyla breathed a sigh of relief as she bid good-bye to the little tykes whom she'd been babysitting for the past few hours. The young and the lovesick seized control and danced into the twilight. Eventually, they trickled out couple by couple. Nyla bid goodnight to them all, and she gave Jennifer a big hug to make sure that all was forgiven. It was; Jen walked out hand-in-hand with Andrew Kyrelan.
Basking in the afterglow of another successful social event, Nyla stretched out on the living room sofa. She rested her head on the lap of her mother, who brushed her fingers through Nyla's hair.
"Dr. Valenti told me that you broke off your appointments, Nyla."
It had taken Nyla the first two hours of the party to work up the courage to talk to Dr. Valenti. In France, this man was her counselor and thus the one person with the clearest, most complete image of everything that troubled her. Here he was her guest and old family friend "Uncle Marcellus". They shared polite conversation just before Aunt Llewella asked her to find her sons. Nyla scrutinized every bit of small talk before she let it pass her lips. She was afraid that he would analyze every word and uncover some buried psychological crisis.
Once she had run out of chitchat, Nyla clung tightly to her wine glass, looked downward, and told Dr. Valenti that she wanted to discontinue appointments. She attributed her decision to a newfound appreciation of life. Actually, it was the newfound alien artifact which granted her unearthly powers, but she had never been able to tell him about that recent development in her life. It would have opened up a whole new can of therapy, along with a probable diagnosis of delusional psychosis. Her situation had never been encountered in the entire history of psychology, so she doubted Dr. Valenti's ability to help. Better to just cut off therapy quickly and cleanly, she deemed.
"Yeah, I called off the appointments," Nyla now said. "I can't explain why, but everything seems better now." She sat up and held her mother's hands. "I don't feel numb to everything the way I used to. I'm starting to trust myself again, to trust in my value as an individual." How much of this was genuine and how much was simple damage control? Nyla couldn't say.
"Really? Is this true?" Maire Shapire squeezed her daughter's hands tightly. Her eyes shone with the calm after a midnight thunderstorm.
"Yes," Nyla smiled. "I feel like I could take on the world."
"Marcellus was so modest when he told me," Maire beamed. "He said he didn't understand why you had gotten better. He thought he had little to do with it! That man has always been so modest! I knew deep in my heart that he would help you. That's why I sent you there. You know that, don't you?" Maire paused. She could hold back the tears no longer. "Nyla, how could you ever forgive us?"
"Mom, what are you talking about?"
"When you needed us most, we sent you away! Sent you to another country!"
Maire Shapire remembered the screaming pale ghost of her daughter who returned home from college last October. Nyla's friends didn't know why her usual moodiness had ignited into hysterics. When she was taken off medication a week later, Nyla was overwhelmingly reclusive. She could neither return to school nor put words to what ailed her. She'd just quietly given up.
Maire turned to the one person she could trust with her daughter's spirit, Dr. Marcellus Valenti. The charming Italian claimed Maire's virginity when they attended the University of Nice, and he still held a warm corner of her heart after she married Randolph Shapire. Since she left him, Dr. Valenti earned the reputation of an acclaimed psychiatrist. When he learned of Nyla's strife, he immediately volunteered his services to the young woman whom in another world could have been his own daughter. Although Randolph Shapire had always perceived Marcellus as a rival for what was his by rite of marriage, he graciously accepted Valenti's offer.
At this moment, the pain Nyla caused her mother was clearly evident before her. "Mom, you can't blame yourself like that. You did the right thing sending me back to Nice. I was so ashamed of myself that I couldn't bear for you to see how I was. You did everything you could. And I wasn't alone. I had Lexi and Jen there."
Hugging her mother, Nyla felt like she was pouring salt on the open wound that was their relationship. As long as she held back one bit of the truth about what happened to her on Mt. Alban, their wound would never heal. "Mom, I never would have recovered it you hadn't sent me back to France. Let me show you why."
Nyla led her mother to her bedroom and opened her dresser. The space between them was flooded by the warm glow of Nyla's Recharger.
Mitsuko wiped his face with a handkerchief for the fifth time since he and Shigemitsu left Kawashima-kyuu. He tried to ignore the queasy swaying of the hospital corridor, following Ichiro's slow and steady pace. Mitsuko wondered how Ichiro could be composing himself so well when just a half hour ago he had been carrying on like a drunken fool.
Shigemitsu walked to the registration desk and presented the business card of one of the higher-ranking yakuza he met tonight. The nurse seemed to instantly recognize the name on the card. She told Shigemitsu that Dr. Kishi was waiting in Room 762.
The identification card next to the Room 762 door read "Doi, Yoshiya." Shigemitsu knocked gently on the door. The elderly yet cherubic Dr. Hatayo Kishi opened the door and warmly greeted his two visitors.
Hatayo had always felt an affinity with Mitsuko. Like Hasegawa, he was entangled in the yakuza's web not by choice but by circumstance. Years ago, he had been rescued from a burning building by a young Ichiro Shigemitsu. Since then, Kishi has given private care to yakuza who didn't want their circumstances documented by hospital records. Although his patrons rewarded him handsomely for his service, he never fully accepted his contact with their violent lives. When Mitsuko came to him last October on the verge of death, Dr. Kishi healed and hid him at great risk to his own life because it comforted him to know that at least one of them could break free. Now that Mitsuko was back in Japan, Kishi realized that his comfort was empty.
Dr. Kishi invited Mitsuko and Shigemitsu inside the sterile cubicle which was Room 762. Under the harsh florescent ceiling light sat a man whose eyes seemed forty years older than the rest of his face. He played Go on a computer and stared blankly at the monitor screen. Dr. Kishi placed his hand on the man's shoulder and said, "Yoshiya, I have some friends who would like to speak with-"
"Do they dream the Serpent's fiery breath?" interjected Yoshiya. His gaze didn't leave the screen, nor did his hand move from the computer mouse.
"What is he talking about?" asked Shigemitsu.
"Are they marked by the Winter's Blade?" Yoshiya asked.
"They know of Sekino Hasegawa, yes," answered Dr. Kishi.
Mitsuko crouched down to Yoshiya's level. With a slight quiver in his voice, he asked, "Did my brother do this to you? What did--"
"Your brother?" Yoshiya grabbed Mitsuko by the shoulders. Shigemitsu stepped closer, but Dr. Kishi motioned to him that he shouldn't intervene. "Your brother is no longer with us," Yoshiya whispered. "In his place is something obscene, something which resembles your brother but betrays his facade by his own hand. He brings demons out of shadow, he knows the darkest secrets of men, and he courts the Great Serpent of our deepest nightmares!" Yoshiya began crying. "He revealed the Great Serpent to me. Forced me to look into her eyes. There was nothing there, a dark empty void which will swallow us all. Why did he do this to me? Why me?!"
Dr. Kishi picked Yoshiya off the floor. "I'm afraid that I can do nothing more for you gentlemen."
"Just one more question," said Shigemitsu. "Yoshiya. You said the Winter's Blade betrayed his disguise by his own hand." He grabbed Mitsuko's arm and pulled off his glove, exposing his Gauntlet. "Did his hand look like this, Yoshiya?"
"No," cried Yoshiya, "They've got you too! You're one of them!" He jumped off the bed and picked up the mattress. He threw the mattress at Shigemitsu and tried to open the window. Mitsuko restrained Yoshiya with a Gauntlet-generated straitjacket while Dr. Kishi called for orderlies to administer a sedative. "Please don't make me look," Yoshiya whimpered. "Please don't make me sleep..."
Dr. Kishi removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Forgive me, but was that really necessary, Shigemitsu-san?
"That," sighed Ichiro, "was simply the beginning. I thank you for the trouble you have gone through to accommodate us."
"Yes, thank you," added Mitsuko.
"You're welcome, of course," said Dr. Kishi. "Do not hesitate to call me if you need my service, although I fear that Yoshiya Doi will not be able to help anyone for a very long time."
The three gentlemen exchanged bows, and Mitsuko and Shigemitsu left Dr. Kishi to the remainder of his duties. "This is why we brought you back," said Shigemitsu as they left the hospital. "Sekino Hasegawa may be one of your kind, and he is terrorizing all of Nippon."
Mitsuko wiped the sweat off his brow and said, "That's impossible. If Sekino were a Patroller, he never would have been allowed to do whatever he did to Yoshiya Doi."
"Are you so sure of that?"
"Yes. His Gauntlet would have disintegrated as soon as he used it to harm anyone. And what are the odds of both of us getting Gauntlets? There are only a hundred of them on the whole planet, and most of them seem to be in America."
"In time," replied Shigemitsu, "you will learn to see the gameboard beneath the random face of life, and then question every rule of the game. Until then, do you still wish to confront your brother?"
"Of course, Shigemitsu-san." Mitsuko had no idea what would come of his reunion with Sekino, but he promised himself that there would be a reckoning for the pitiful ghost of Yoshiya Doi.
-> December 25 1993 <-
"Dad was just glad that he had a reason to be proud of me again," Nyla said. "He wasn't the least bit frightened of the Recharger until he accidentally activated it. You should have seen the look on his face when my Recharger pulled his arm inside and slapped on my Gauntlet! He hadn't looked so ridiculous since he used to play Booga the Clown for us!
"Mom didn't take things so well. She's afraid I'm going to get myself killed. She's probably right, but what am I supposed to do? Just give up the Patrol and live out the rest of my stupid life? The power, the mission, it's all too big to turn away from. It's my last call, my last chance to make up for everything I've screwed up in the past."
Nyla lay a single rose before the grave of her sister Lisa. "It's my last chance to make up for everything," she whispered.
The clouds parted and the moon shone over the wanderers in the night.
Next - North Ridge
Copyright © 1995, 1997 by Michael Mendoza