Moving to the curb Casino is ready as the automatic Red Cab rolls to a stop in front of him. Without any further pause, the big solo seats himself in the cab and gives the order to return to Charlie’s apartment. Taking out his new agent, he quickly dials, calling Ghlahn.
“Meeting’s over and I’m free, what's your location?”
Ghlahn answered the call within moments, Casino could not help thinking the cyborg sounded annoyed.
“Well we ran into some traffic, but we found a way around that, just now getting to the Heights. How are things on your end?”
“For the moment good but that could change on a coin flip. When you're in place, call me back at this number and I’ll rejoin you.”
Hanging up the big solo had to make one more call and was glad when a sexy voice answered.
“You ok Casino?? Echo asked before Casino had a chance to say anything.
“Yeah it’s me, Yak meet is over and I’ve got news and possible passive work to mix in with any other work. I’m on my way to the Heights to link up with Ghlahn, see you there or at Charlie's apt….. You ok?”
“Charlie’s on his best behavior” Echo took a quick look over at the fixer. “We will most likely meet up at his apt. Good luck getting Vegas back” A slight pause. “Be safe call me if you need me”
“Will do stay healthy”
Hanging up the Agent the big solo started changing out of his suit into his street clothes and was ready for action when he got the call from Ghlahn. However it seemed there would be no need for the ballistic clothing as Vegas was already with Ghlahn having used a fake ID provided by Blossom and Cipher to just walk out of the compound and the group was already headed back to Charlie’s apt. Redirecting the cab away from the heights and back to the Edgerunner enclave.
Timing it, some would say perfectly, he reaches the garage of Charlie’s apt as Echo and the fixer roll up.
By the time the Temecula Heights team rolls their stolen van into the garage at the enclave Charlie has them set up and Blossom has already filled the fixer in on their situation. Now, everyone is gathered back in the small apartment Charlie calls home. Some back and forth has apparently already taken place between Charlie and Vegas as well because once everyone has seated themselves, the fixer speaks up.
“I’m glad no one got dead or wounded these past few hours,” Luther slicks his hair back with his left hand and drops his hat on the counter. “I’m sure we’re all curious about Casino’s dinner date and then Vegas has an idea on how we can make our next payroll. Casino?”
Looking at the group before him taking a deep breath the Big solo starts from the beginning............ …..................................................................................................
Time has a way of crawling when a person is waiting for a specific cue, and if that isn't sadistic enough of a trick when the event is close Time decides to speed up. She is a vicious dominatrix.
Leaving Charlie's apartment, Casino knows he has very little time to waste if he's going to pick up the language chip and make his curbside rendezvous with the cab. Thankfully, detailed directions to the vendor have been pushed to his stolen agent giving him a concise route.
The nano-builders have been at work removing older, decaying parts of the building and repurposing the materials for their continuous building project. Areas deemed unsafe by the enclave are blocked off using Plastek cargo crates, particle Plaswood palettes, or old broken down pieces of furniture. Regular rainfall causes leaks to flow like blood from a wound throughout this and neighboring structures creating sublime conditions for earthy smelling mold to prosper. Humidity levels are higher than average due to the storm leaving the solo feeling sticky and unclean despite his recent shower and the stifling stale air trapped behind his filtering combat mask forces the dangerous man to breathe deeply and slowly lest he succumbs to the pressing desire to strip the protective accessory from his rugged face and possess the acidic, putrid, polluted air.
At irregular intervals, Casino is looked upon by wide-eyed innocence peering out from underneath disheveled black hair as children stop their playing or chores to stare at this very well-dressed masked man, packing a large tattered heavy duty tote bag. Adults have far less innocent expressions and tend to not allow their narrowed eyes to linger on Keith's imposing presence for long.
Arriving at his destination results in the agent chirping and vibrating, notifying him of the accomplishment. Consisting of a rusting, poc-marked, yellow and white VW van set on cinder blocks, the shop is marked by a Chinese symbol matching the one currently displayed on the agent. The van windows are all covered with interior drapes of a rotten banana peel color and pattern. Twisting in a four inch spiral of free falling madness from the underside of the building's overhanging architecture, a silver and white pour of rainwater beats a constant percussion on the shop's roof. Only the minuscule shelf surrounding the sliding door frame keeps the sheet of overflowing liquid from spilling down over the entrance like a ghostly sheet. As it is, when Casino enters, he receives the unpleasant sensation of cold H2O down the back of his neck.
Smoked motor oil and ozone mixed with the sweet odor of decaying metals within the tight confines of the vehicle. With barely a meter squared to arrange his bulky, hunched over body, Casino finds himself surrounded by the clutter of an electrician's shop mixed with a sprinkle of computer programmers. Across the desk from him sits a wiry Chinese man with a near bald head except for the white lambchop sideburns and a black soul patch.
Withdrawing a translucent chip from an imprinter, the older man swivels in his dirty old office chair and rests his elbows on the only clear space on his counter. Holding the prize between his index and middle fingertips, he smiles broadly at his customer revealing a Shark Grin cybernetic implant consisting of a few rows of pointy teeth likely embedded in a reinforced jaw rig that would allow his bite to extend out of his face when he bites. When he blinks, his eyelids close down over the top of another transparent set of kids that hurriedly close in from the sides. The purpose behind this enhancement is an enigma but for the educated guess from the solo that those eyelids and likely the eyes, aren't cybernetics but are bio-splicings.
"You must be Casino," the vendor huffed past his teeth. "Show me your dog tags."
Loosening his tie, the big solo pulled them out on the medium length extra hardened chain cord. Leaning closer to the man Casino showed him his tags. Not saying much Casino took note of the shop, two questions on his mind.
“So how often do you get chips and such in here”? I could be looking for more. Also, who would I talk to about housing?”
“Mmmm,” the storekeeper hums as he scans the tags with his agent. “Depends on need. Hmmm? Sometimes every week. Sometimes longer.”
With a brisk nod at the results on his screen, the old man releases the dogtags allowing Casino to stand upright again; at least as much as the van interior will allow. Picking up the chip once again he places it on the counter in front of the blonde solo.
“Give chip time to activate. No refunds. Not responsible for any brain damage if it happens. Yes?”
“Understood and thank you”
Standing in front of the old gentleman, Casino clicks the chip into his single one-way chipware port and waits for it to lock into his head. Hopefully, during the drive to the meet, the chip would activate and the solo would be language proficient in Japanese. With a bow to the storekeeper to show his respect, he picks up his tote and heads for the curb.
Stepping back into the rain, the solo leaves the shopkeeper sniffling at his desk and makes a hard line for the enclave exit where Charlie has set the cab pickup. The smells of the enclave change to the rank sewage odors of the street but Casino doesn’t have to wait long. The strange-looking, boxy Red Cab swooshes in next to the curb and stops, its side door opening to reveal the stained gray upholstery of the U-shaped bench with the reinforced glass barricade between the passenger cage and the AI dashboard.
The interior of the cab isn’t much better than the street. The cushion is rough, scratchy, and Casino quickly dismisses the thought of what he’s sitting on from his mind but he can’t get the moldy interior to stop assaulting his nostrils despite his mask. As the door closes, locking the humidity in the cabin with him, the AI-driven mannequin in the driver’s seat turns its head and speaks.
“You’ve scheduled the cab to take you to The Eastern Courtyard restaurant, in High City, within the Night City Integrate. Is that where you still desire to go?”
With the affirmation from the solo registering in the AI’s system, the cab turns from the curb and rushes into traffic without so much as a hesitation, maybe even a little reckless.
“Thanks for tuning in,” the radio spits out. “This is Brian Friar with KXOP-FM and The Meter satellite with a quick news update before returning you to some endlesssssssss music!
“Woman with an epic holographic back tattoo was recently arrested for killing thirty-seven people in Chinatown just five minutes ago. This brings the day’s Kill Count to sixty-two and it isn’t even noon, people! Gonna be a heavy day at the body banks if you ask me. As a matter-of-fact, I’m predicting that our Kill Count will exceed yesterday’s by at least fifteen. You heard me! I’m saying the number will be two-twelve. Bad Dead Girl, Lena Forsythe, will have that number for you on the Midnight Holla so don’t miss it!
“Stocks have dropped by two points due to a recent announcement by Paris-based company, Orbit Bios that they missed a recent deadline due to what they are claiming is corporate espionage. Of course, we all know what really happened. If you, my Metered Monsters, will recall the story from five weeks ago when I reported that Orbit Bios V.P. of Operations, Megan Anatolli, had been headhunted by rival biotech company, Simfantastic. If I have any idea what’s going on in the big, glass towers—and I do—Mrs. Anatolli came away from that divorce with more than a severance party…”
Only about an hour more of this radio show… heavy metal mixed with alternative digital rock and the occasional news update. About ten minutes after the cab ride began, Casino feels the knowledge in the chip seeping into his noggin. Resisting the urge to say “I know Japanese,” the solo settles in for the remainder of the ride.
Passing into High City is as impressive as ever. The streets of Mid-City don't even compare to the glitz and glamor of the High City. The smog, the horrible weather, the lawlessness, they have all disappeared being replaced by the clear, blue sky, the sparkling star scrapers, and the feeling of security. The Eastern Courtyard is embedded one such starscraper made of an alabaster stone-like substance with a facade of oriental decor. The Red Cab pulls up in front of the establishment and parks between two overly large lion statues. A tuxedo-wearing valet approaches the sliding door just as it opens. With nothing to do, he just steps aside and waits for Casino to step out into the brisk, clear air.
Addressing the Red Cab’s mechanical driver, Casino gives it further instructions.
“As I will need you later this evening, allow the valet to park you. When I exit the restaurant, allow him to bring you back to pick me up.I will pay the extra cost when finished. Is that understood?”
“Confirmed, Mr. Passenger,” the robo driver acknowledges.
A last look to make sure his Gibson gear was well out of sight he stepped aside to allow the valet to do his job as a second valet moved up to take his place. Adjusting his suit’s jacket he made sure that both Armalites were secure in place under each arm.
The dulcet sounds of Japanese Koto music waft through the air as Casino enters. Unlike the lower cities, he’s greeted by a young Japanese woman of impeccable style. Her hair is pulled back in a tight bun, black as midnight. Her uniform is a mixture of a traditional Japanese Kimono and a black business suit.
“Kon’nichiwa, sensei. Welcome to The Eastern Courtyard. Do you have a reservation?”
“Hai, gogo 7-ji ni Akagi-shi to menkai shimasu (Yes, I have a meeting with Mr. Akagi at 7 PM),” Casino responds, putting his language chip to use for the first time.
“A! Anata wa nihongo o hanashimasu. Nante tanoshi. Akagi-san, kitai s***e imasu. Ko no yo ni s***e kudasai. (Oh! You speak Japanese. How pleasant. Mr. Akagi is expecting you. Right this way, please.)”
Stepping from behind her counter, the elegantly dressed woman leads the broad-shouldered solo through the maze-like labyrinth of aisles until they are standing before a private dining room, the gold inlaid white doors closed to the public. Two very solid looking Japanese men stand outside wearing black pin-striped Budisho Silk Suits and Tamakashi black leather shoes with white silk dress shirts and silk ties the brand of which Casino can’t tell. As the hostess and Keith approach, the men close ranks, blocking the doors.
“Akagi-san wa, dareka o kitai s***e iruto watashi ni tsutaemas***a. Kono shinshi wa kare ga kitai s***e iru hitodesu (Mr. Akagi ------ me ---- he is -------- ---------. ------- --------------- is the one he is -----------.)” For some reason, Casino’s chip doesn’t translate the whole statement.
“Hmmmmfff,” the man on the left abruptly pushes air through his nostrils and the two step aside, opening the doors in the process.
The private dining area isn’t a grand hall but more of a cosy corner space with an impressive view of the starscrapers and glowing lights of the city below. The table to which Casino is directed is round and draped in a white tablecloth. A centerpiece carved wood tray is set with a number of sushi dishes and the three men at the table leave one seat open to the solo.
To his right, the man is of average build, probably middle-aged—though with body sculpting so readily available no one can be certain—slicked back black hair, a narrow, clean-shaven face, and ghostly blue-white eyes. Lines on his face and the glimpse of bracers under his overly expensive attire speak of a NuCybe presence.
To his left, Casino observes a practical twin to the man on his right. Yes… an identical twin if Keith isn’t mistaken.
Hmm interesting, Casino muses, you don’t see that everyday and clearly packing the NuCybe. Hell, why not? Their house, most likely pro bodyguards, for Akagi~
The man seated across from him is in his late thirties, early forties with a pleasant face that Casino imagines women would find very attractive. His dark brown, almost black hair is parted on the left and shows no sign of a receding hairline. Of average build, he might be a little taller than most Asians, and he carries himself with confidence.
No one rises when the hostess presents Casino with the open chair and steps back to allow the big man his maneuvering room. Instead, the twins seemingly ignore him while the man across the table—whom Casino can safely surmise to be Akagi, the big solo can see a resemblance to the older Akagi— settles back in his chair, both hands on the table, his chopsticks resting on the right edge of his plate.
“Domo Arigato,” the well-dressed visitor addresses his host.
Turning to the hostess, the big solo thanks her in Japanese, then turns back to the men seated at the table. With a slight bow of respect to Akagi and the twins, Casino unbuttons his suit jacket and sits down, the hostess pushing the seat forward to catch his weight. Though some would understand if Casino were to feel nervous or tense to be seated with such a powerful man, they would be wrong. The big solo has seen so much in his years and had faced impossible odds, the ER room one example, that very little scares him anymore. Some would say his lack of emotions at times is due to all the cyberware packed into his body, and there is truth to that, however it is more. Casino has killed plenty of adversaries, the six in the ER only adding to his count, and death, no matter the numbers, has a way of turning a man cold and hard. In truth, in the end, this is just another possible opportunity to make a powerful ally and a man in his line of work can never have enough. Quietly, Casino waits for one of the three to speak.
“Welcome,” Akagi smiles softly, his intelligent eyes resting their focus on the craggy features of the solo’s tanned and weathered face. “Proper introductions are in order. I am Tomas Akagi, and you are?”
“Keith Story, Mr. Akagi, they call me Casino on the street.” Casino is not sure if the prefix of Mister is the right title but he is showing as much honor and respect as he can, and at the moment Mister is all he has.
“Please, Mr. Story,” Akagi spreads his hands wide indicating the buffet. “Enjoy. The seafood is fresh with no substitutes. Brought in from the best farms in Japan.”
The Yakuza sits back comfortably in his chair and waits for his guest to serve himself some dinner.
Smiling Casino picks up the chopsticks at the side of his plate, unwraps them and breaks them apart. Taking them both in his right hand he reaches over with his left to adjust his grip on the chopsticks before moving to the food before him. Grabbing some rolls, Casino places them on his plate. Then, he picks up some of the wasabi from the center lazy-Susan and sits back in his chair. The big solo has to admit the sushi is quite good, very different from the normal soy-based stuff found in the lower city. Lifting another roll to his mouth he gently places the last of the sushi on his tongue, chews, and then swallows it down. During this time, Akagi and the Twins remain politely quiet enjoying their own meal.
Adding more of a variety to his plate, including some more wasabi, he continues to eat using the chopsticks. As Casino enjoys the food presented to him, he says nothing. He knows the Yakuza boss will let his feelings be known shortly. Finally finishing, the big solo places the sticks at the right side of his plate and leans back to match Akagi’s posture.
“Domo arigato, Mr Akagi. The food, as you said, was quite good.” A pause to clean his mouth with a napkin, “May I ask how your father is doing?”
Akagi smiles softly and lifts a small cup of saki to his lips, taking a sip before answering, “He is well thanks to you.
“We’ve reviewed the security footage and I have to admit, I’m quite impressed. An individual of your skill could be quite useful to my organization. From what I’ve been able to learn, you are currently unaffiliated, a ronin, a samurai with no daimyo. Tell me, Mr. Story, what exactly went down in that hospital?”
“It was by chance that I myself was even there. I had been shot in my arm only 45 minutes earlier while running down a lead in the current job I was on. While waiting for a delivery, I was forced into a gunfight outside of a club in which I was wounded. When the police arrived I was taken into custody and handed off to a pair of detectives.”
Casino pauses to drink some of the warm saki before him.
“Well, seeing as how I was bleeding the two detectives stopped at that ER to get me stitched up. It was during this time that the group sent to kill your father stormed in and took over the ER. In the course of the next 15 minutes the group—they called themselves the Soil Liberation Group and stated they were there to make a statement. Their leader decided instead of killing your father himself he wanted me to do it. By this time it was clear to me that your father, not any sort of political statement, was the actual target of the group. Their leader had given me a gun with a single round, and once we were at your father’s room the leader ordered me to shoot him. I said no and the security footage tells the rest.”
Reaching slowly within his suit jacket, Casino retrieves the bodyguards’, two black agents as well as those of the leader and his number two. Placing them on the lazy susan, Casino spins all four agents towards Akagi.
“I believe these black ones belong to you,” Keith explains. “I’m sorry for the bodyguards’ deaths. I also took these two off the one calling himself the Leader and his number two. I hope they can help find the person actually behind sending those men after your father.”
The Yakuza leader stares down at the agents for a moment and then reaches forward with determined ease and spins the rotating tray around so that the phones reside in front of the solo once again.
“I have a proposition for you Mr. Story,” Akagi smiles again and focuses his attention on his guest. “Keep the one that I contacted you on. That way I’ll know how to reach you without having to expend any additional resources tracking you down.”
“Sell the others and consider that a thank you, paltry though it may be. As for the people sent to kill my father...I’m hiring you to find out who is behind it. Take the time you need. I’ve moved my father to a much safer facility and I cannot afford for this to be sloppy. There are many, many enemies to investigate, Mr. Story, both within the Yakuza and outside. Keep me informed of your progress through that agent. Discretion is paramount as I’m sure you understand.
“I’m hiring you, Mr. Story, because at this time I cannot be seen looking into the organization. Nothing you do can lead back to me. There can be no paper trails, no digital traces… nothing.
“I’m sure you’re wondering what’s in it for you.” Mr. Akagi leans forward, placing his right elbow on the table. “Besides my gratitude, of course, there’s gold at the end of that rainbow. How much depends a lot on whether you eliminate the threat altogether, deliver the threat to me for justice, or just point me in the right direction. Let’s just say that the first two are my personal preference.
“What do you say, Mr. Story?,” Akago settles back again and casually looks out the window. “You have three high-end agents to sell—once you get what useful information you can off the two—to get you started.”
Well there it is, what Casino has been hoping for. Staring at Akagi, Casino is thrilled but hopes he hides it well. No need to let Akagi know he’s been hoping for such a result. However, before he says yes, he needs the Yakuza chief’s help and the agreement of the rest of his team. In the long run, having the Yakuza backing them, if even in secret, could be a big unifying factor in turning this team solid and keeping them in work. Plus, ever since Starlight had left him behind to be arrested—even if the pick-up was only for her, she could have insisted seeing as she was the paying customer—he has wanted to find a different fixer, or at least have the choice of more than one to get jobs from and not be reliant on just Starlight. Well, no time like the present.
“Mr Akagi, I’ll take your offer. I want nothing more than to help you find the people behind those who tried to kill your father. By getting me involved they endangered my life—and I like my life—and made me public enemy number one with the police and the news media. I, unfortunately, am not as unknown to the police as I wish I was and that’s where a few problems may come up in seeing me get this completed for you, Mr Akagi. I’m not sure if in the next few days I’ll still be mission capable or in a cell. Also during my last run one of my team members was captured. The people who currently hold him, a security company named Falcone Security, associated with Daltdom Corporation, are holding him in their compound, Temecula Heights. The leader of the sec team who has him has threatened to kill him slowly and painfully if we don’t give ourselves up in retaliation for the death of eight of his people in the course once again, of this last run. Once we get our teammate out, I still need to run it past my team.”
At least Vegas for sure will, and possibly a better than average chance Echo will also, the big solo thinks as he pauses to take a sip of his saki and awaits Akagi’s reply. Hopefully, the Yakuza leader will offer some help in getting Vegas out and Casino out of the news.
“Your predicament with the police is really nothing new to me, Mr. Story,” Akagi waves the thought away with a casual flick of his right hand. “But it is also for you to navigate and shouldn’t ever become my problem. What you decide to do with whatever earnings you procure through this investigation is also not my concern so long as it doesn’t connect to me in any way. If you have a team and wish to include them in your work, figure it out. Again, this is none of my concern.
“On one hand, you say you’ll take my offer, and yet, on the other hand, you say you’ll need to run it by your team. Which is it, Mr. Story?”
“Mr Akagi, I have miscommunicated. I’ll take your offer. Running it by my team is just to see which of them will help me gain the information you seek and the rewards. Not if I need their permission to do so.”
“Then we’ve an agreement,” Akagi stands and makes his way around the table, offering his hand as he does so. The Twins also stand but remain in their places at the table and respectfully fold their hands in front of them while watching Casino closely.
Standing Casino easily takes the Yakuza chief’s hand and gives a small bow.
“I promise I will do my best to find these people and do what I can to give you the results you're hiring me for. Just a few questions, how often do you wish updates on our progress? If I come across important time sensitive information that you can better handle, do I risk informing you or attempt to take care of it with my team. If I find I need something that I do not have may I ask of it from you. One last thing, Mr Akagi, could I have a copy of the ER’s security footage and any other information you may have already found out between the incident and up until now?”
Akagi retains the grip throughout the questions and though he is smaller in stature and build than the well-dressed solo, he emanates power and control. “That agent is a secured line, so you may reach out to me whenever you have something new and relevant to report through it. If what you come across is something you can take care of with your team then I’m sure you have enough discernment to determine whether it is worth my time, Mr. Story.
“Our relationship should be treated as if we don’t know each other, Mr. Story. I am utilizing your skills in a freelance capacity outside of my organization. The less connections between you and I, the better for all of our sakes. As I said before, there are many, many enemies to watch out for. So, if you need something you will need to utilize your own resources to procure it.
“I will provide you with a link where you can collect a copy of the footage,” Akagi pauses, his hand still gripping Casino’s. “I don’t think I can emphasize enough, Mr. Story, the importance of your discretion. There are very powerful people who want to see me dead and would not hesitate to steamroll right over the top of you and your team just to see how it damages my operations. I’m afraid that I will not be able to assist you with your celebrity status but this is a big city… I’m sure you don’t have all that much to worry about.”
“Domo Arigato, Mr Akagi.”
Delivering a slight bow to show his respect, Casino accepts the implied invitation to leave, the meeting now subtly being declared over by Mr. Akagi. Moving past the doormen, he stops once more before the female valet.
“Kon’nichiwa, sensei.” The pretty young woman states with a pleasant smile. “How may I assist you?”
“Yes, I’m leaving now,” Casino remarks. “thank you for your hospitality. Will you bring my Red Cab up, please?”
“Of course, right away,” Motioning to a young man standing by a key chart she watches to make sure he moves quickly.
“Will that be all, sensei?” she asks with that pleasant mask still painted on her pale face.
“Yes, thank you. The food was quite good.”
The hostess graciously accepts the compliment with her hands pressed into a temple before her chest and a slight bow. Moving to the curb Casino is ready as the automatic Red Cab rolls to a stop in front of him. Without any further pause, the big solo seats himself in the cab and gives the order to return to Charlie’s apartment. Taking out his new agent, he quickly dials, calling Ghlahn.
"And of course after that we all met back here for this retelling." Casino waited quietly for any questions.
(March 10th, Day 4 - Monday, Time is 11:48 PM PST - Mid-City, Edgerunner Enclave (China Town), Charlie’s Apartment X00050:2.Y00310:08.Z00410:15, South Night City Integrate.)