|"Martin Pay" <email@example.com>
A few preliminaries:-
1) Take as read the usual copyright acknowledgments. We all know who owns the rights; I'm just borrowing for a while.
2) Where does this come from? My desire to know what happened between the 'Asu e Touchdown' segment of Hurricane Live 2032 and the first episode of BGC. I didn't know, so I had to write it myself.
For the record, my interpretation is based solely on the 8 Crisis and 3 Crash (yes, I consider them canon) OAVs. I haven't read the B-Club Specials and have no idea what they contain. Any errors are therefore completely my own... Comments and/or criticisms welcome; flames will be treated to a dose of fire-foam.
This story originally appeared in the UK fanzine 'Tales from the Cajun Sushi Bar', Issue 4, 1994. With no modesty at all I decided it could stand a wider audience.
I make no apologies for using a UK English spellchecker.
Prelude - A Story of the Knight Sabers
She was nervous; honesty compelled her to admit that. She had almost been overcome by second thoughts during a mostly sleepless night, but curiosity and desire had warred with trepidation and the curiosity had finally won out. The elaborate and curious puzzle that had appeared in the municipal datanet had been the first intimation that something unusual had entered her life. It had been couched in the form of a computer game, and Naoko had laughingly suggested that not only would the challenge be too much for her, but also that an attempt to decipher the program while at work could only get her into trouble; the double dare had proved irresistible.
On the night that she eventually solved the game she had been working late, and it was almost midnight when the screen cleared to display a woman's face and the message 'Welcome to the Knight Sabers' followed by 'I want you'. Both pronouncements had given her considerable pause, and were the cause of her present worry; there were outstanding warrants for the arrest of the 'Knight Sabers' on various counts including Felony/Assault, Extortion, Reckless Endangerment, and Damage to Public Property.
There had followed instructions for the following morning - to go to a particular news-stand, where she would be met - and an injunction not to reveal her secret to anyone. The warning had been couched in quite specific terms that had convinced her that its author was indeed in earnest, although in fact she had no intention whatsoever of talking to anybody about anything; other considerations aside, being seen to consort with people on the Police 'Most Wanted' list was hardly a good career move for an ambitious junior officer.
After only a couple of hours sleep, 6.00am found her at a news- stand in the heart of the city. The vendor gave her an envelope; she opened it. Then the chase, from news-stand to 'phone kiosk, 'phone kiosk to news-stand, in a bewildering pattern that crossed back and forth over the city, leaving her breathless, sweating and sticky in the summer morning's heat and humidity, giving her no time to think, to plan, to do anything but react.
And so finally to this shabby hotel in a run-down, prime-for- redevelopment part of town - somewhere on the edge of District Two, she thought. She leaned on the door-frame for a moment, trying to recover her breath, then pushed open the grime- dulled glassed panel and stepped across the threshold. The lobby was dingy, papered and painted in dull beige and chocolate brown. The carpet was faded and threadbare; she noticed a small hole just inside the door. There were dust motes dancing in the dim light and a film of dust on almost every surface except the front desk, where previous guests' arms and elbows had left patches rubbed clear around the register, the old-fashioned brass bell and the battered credit terminal.
The desk clerk was a kid, a teenager, wearing scruffy jeans, a grubby singlet and a bored expression. He scowled as she entered, looked up from his pocket TV then leered at her and winked.
She glared back at him and crossed quickly to the desk before she could change her mind. "Excuse me..."
He scowled at her again; she could swear that he thought she habitually came to places like this.
"Payment in advance without luggage." He quoted a price by the half-hour, making it obvious that her first guess about the normal patrons of the establishment had been correct.
"No, no, you don't understand! I have an appointment..." She trailed off, face burning, as she realised just how that sounded. She tried again. "I was told to ask for room 309."
She glanced back at him; was it her imagination, or had his attitude subtly changed? He seemed suddenly charged with anticipation, a sharp clear-eyed gaze behind the surly indifference previously on display. His voice was unchanged, however, as he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the stairs. "Third floor, turn left."
"Thank you." She walked quickly across the lobby and started up the stairs, conscious of his eyes tracking her progress. When she reached the third floor her heart was racing again and her palms were clammy; she grimaced and wiped them down her jeans in a futile attempt to dry them. Outside room 309 she stopped again, hand raised to knock on the door. She had the curious feeling that this was a point of no return; that if she were actually to enter the room beyond, her life would never again be the same. She shivered slightly, and rapped smartly on the door.
"Come in." The voice was soft, calm and definitely female.
She opened the door and slipped inside, only to be brought to an amazed halt by the sight that confronted her. The room was a complete contrast to the rest of the hotel. The walls were coloured a delicate jasmine, the furnishings were of soft leather, sparkling chrome and glass, the lighting soft and indirect. The smoky-grey curtains were closed.
Standing by a table against the far wall, pouring coffee, was the woman from yesterday's video message. She was tall and slim, with short, dark, lightly waved hair, and dressed with impeccable and expensive good taste. "Coffee?" Refused with a shake of the head, she took the cup herself and sat in the closer of the two chairs. "I'm sorry about the way I've run you around town, but it was essential to make sure that you weren't followed here. I prefer to keep what secrets I have."
Unsettled by the last forty-eight hours, discretion failed at last. "Are you yakuza?"
The woman smiled, just a twitch of the lips. "No. Let's just say that my friends and I are ... free agents." She leaned back in the chair, put down the coffee cup. "By cracking that computer message, I believe that you've earned the right - and I think my friends will agree - to seek membership in our little group. I have to warn you, though, that what we do is often illegal and frequently dangerous. Very dangerous. You're a Police Officer, so you've already accepted some physical risk. Sometimes we take money for what we do, sometimes we don't; it depends on the circumstances." She sighed. "We desperately need a computer and communications expert, and you're ideally placed to help us. As I said, you've passed the first stage initiation, if you will. Are you interested in the rest?"
Still standing by the door, her eyes had not left the mystery woman's face. She was aware of her heart surging with a rush of adrenaline, her mouth dry, her palms clammier than ever, a burgeoning exhilaration in her soul. She had been looking for something to do with her life and her skills ever since leaving school and leaving home. Now she felt a sudden flash of inspiration and of hope; she truly felt for the first time that she might have found an answer here, in this hotel room. "Who..." She faltered, started again; her voice trembled slightly. "Who are you?"
Her emotions must have showed in her face; the woman in the chair touched an elegant finger to the button in her lapel. "Priss! Linna!" She smiled warmly, rose from the chair and held out her hand. "I'm Sylia Stingray." Two more women walked in through a connecting door at the other end of the room.
"Nene Romanova, welcome to the Knight Sabers!"
After a journey of well over an hour in the back of an outwardly ordinary semi-trailer - but which inside contained more sophisticated surveillance, monitoring and maintenance equipment than the ADPolice laboratories - Nene could see that the Knight Sabers were very far from being just the new mercenary group in town as the official bulletins proclaimed them. The dark-haired girl Linna spent the entire trip watching a bank of VDU's, listening on headphones and making comments into a throat microphone so softly that Nene could make out nothing of what was said except the name 'Mackie'. She could also see that the other girl - Priss, if she had caught the name correctly - was pretending to ignore her while covertly watching her very closely indeed.
After a while Nene became annoyed, particularly as Priss had not troubled even to introduce herself as Linna had done.
"Huh?" Priss looked directly at her for the first time since the journey started.
"If you want to watch me, go ahead. It's stupid trying to pretend you're not."
Priss smiled, an expression that transformed her otherwise rather sullen face. "Okay, you've got me there. I admit, I don't think you're likely to attack us, or to try and jump out." She leaned back in the swivel chair and raised her booted legs to rest her feet on the edge of the console. "I'll grant you seem a nice enough kid - "
"Kid!" Nene leapt to her feet, fists clenched. "I am not a kid!"
Just then the truck hit a ramp. Unprepared, Nene lost her balance and, arms flailing wildly, toppled straight into Priss' outstretched legs. Priss tipped back in the chair, then fell sideways to the floor with Nene on top of her.
"Shit! Get off me!" Priss struggled to sit up but Nene, momentarily panicked by her clumsiness, lost her balance again as the truck stopped and sat down hard on Priss' stomach. Linna meanwhile, attention attracted by the commotion, was laughing helplessly; noticing Priss' furious glare, however, she stood up and went to their aid.
At this point the side panel slid open. "Priss! Linna! What on earth...?" Sylia's bemused voice drifted in from outside.
"Linna! Get this stupid little idiot off me before I kill her!" Priss now sounded really angry.
"Oh God, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," wailed Nene. "I didn't mean..." She trailed off, embarrassed, humiliated and miserable, hot tears of frustration welling in her eyes. Priss gave her a disgusted look, vaulted cleanly from the truck and stalked off without another word.
"Oh dear." Sylia watched her leave, face carefully blank. "I don't think you've made the right sort of impression on Priss..." She helped Nene down from the truck and guided her over to a bank of elevators in what Nene could now see was a large underground parking facility. Linna thumbed the call button; an elevator car arrived almost immediately. Once inside Sylia slid a magnetic key into the slot and pressed 'penthouse'; the car moved off so smoothly that at first Nene did not realise it had moved at all.
After a swift ascent the door opened to reveal a lobby which Nene instantly dubbed to herself as the 'successful corporate' style; thick silver-grey carpet, walls the palest of blues, and a pair of Hokusai prints hung on either side of the double doors at the end.
Sylia turned to Nene. "You'd probably like a chance to freshen up." She opened one of the side doors. "When you're ready, please join us in the lounge."
"Thank you," replied Nene, and went into the bathroom. She splashed water over her face and pulled a comb quickly through her hair; reasonably satisfied with the result, she went back into the hallway and walked up to the lounge, where one of the doors had been left ajar. She nonetheless knocked softly then, hearing the murmur of conversation, went in without waiting for a response.
The Knight Sabers were waiting for her, Sylia sitting in an easy chair by a large picture window and Priss and Linna on a sofa in the middle of the room. Nene was surprised to also see the clerk from the hotel sitting at the far end; when he noticed her gaze, he grinned so cheerfully that she could do nothing but smile back. Sylia waved her to an empty chair and she sat nervously on the edge, then willed herself to relax and sat back.
"Welcome to my home, Nene," said Sylia, "and to the headquarters of the Knight Sabers. This building is the ... nerve-centre of our operation. My brother Mackie looks after it when I'm not here." She gestured to the teenager, who stood up, bowed slightly and grinned at Nene again.
"You didn't tell me she's pretty, sis."
Sylia rolled her eyes in exasperation and made to throw a cushion at him; he raised his arms in mock surrender, still grinning cheerily. Linna laughed, and even Priss smiled. Nene stifled a giggle.
"You'll have to excuse him, Nene. If he gives you any trouble, just throw something at him." She turned to the small table at her side and poured coffee. "Would you like a cup? And smoke if you like. Priss and Linna don't, but I admit it's a vice of mine."
Nene accepted the coffee, sipped at it - and almost choked. Sylia's idea of coffee was a brew so strong Nene thought it would probably strip the varnish off the table if she spilt it. She darted a glance at Priss and Linna and saw they were both watching her reaction, Linna with a slight smile. She realised then that neither had taken coffee for themselves; Linna had a glass of water, while Priss had opened a can of beer.
Sylia drained her cup, poured another, and leaned forward slightly. "I imagine you have a number of questions you'd like to ask. Please feel free..."
"How did you decide it was safe to let me meet you? You must know there are several outstanding warrants on the Knight Sabers, and you know I'm in the ADPolice. I might have arrested you on the spot."
"Hah! You might have _tried_," muttered Priss.
Sylia chuckled. "Priss has her own views on the ADPolice - with some cause, I'm afraid," she added to forestall Priss' angry reaction. "What you couldn't know, of course, is that we were watching you the whole time after you went to the first news-stand, and when you got to the hotel you were scanned very thoroughly by our equipment in the lobby. If you'd been carrying any form of recording device or transmitter you wouldn't have got further than that. If you'd brought your gun I would still have allowed you up, but I'd have had more ... security." She glanced across at the others. "Priss and Linna weren't at all happy when I told them what you do for a living - "
"I'm still not," growled Priss, "and I still think we're making a big mistake."
Sylia held up a hand. "We've been through this, Priss."
"That was before she tried to cripple me on the journey here!"
"Priss, enough. Please?"
Linna leaned forward. "I have no worries about the ADPolice. I just don't think they can do their job - which is to stop boomers."
"We do the best we can," protested Nene. "We just don't have the equipment because the army gets all the best stuff. And _they_ aren't allowed to operate inside the city limits without special authorisation from the Diet."
"That's true, of course," said Sylia. She sighed sadly. "But Linna's right about boomers. I admit I'm biased, but they're a very mixed blessing."
Nene watched her silently for a moment, then said quietly, "Why do you do what you do? Reading between the lines of the reports I've seen, you often risk your lives fighting boomers when you could just leave it to the Police ... it doesn't make sense."
"We all have our reasons for being here, Nene. Mine ... let's just say it's a matter of personal honour. Priss and Linna can tell you their reasons themselves, if they want to - it's not my place to do that. The question now, though, is why are _you_ here?" She fixed Nene with a suddenly-hard gaze.
"I - I couldn't resist the challenge on the computer, at first," stammered Nene. "Now I know who you are, I really want to join you if I can. I hate the way the Police can't do anything because of stupid rules - and when they _can_ act, they usually screw up."
"You're a cop," said Priss pointedly.
"Yes, because I wanted a challenge. I didn't want to work all day in an office ... so they stuck me in Communications," she finished bitterly.
"If you're just looking for excitement, then this is as far as you go," said Sylia cautioningly.
"No, no, I didn't mean that. It's true that I didn't - I don't - want to work in an office all day, but I joined the Police because I wanted to help people, to actually make a difference."
"Well, I can't fault that as a motivation. All we have to see now is whether you have the physical aptitude to ... do what we do, you put it?" Sylia stood up. "Come with me, and we'll find out."
The four women descended to the next floor of the building, and Nene discovered that Sylia was evidently even wealthier than had first been apparent. She actually owned the entire building, retaining the top two floors for her own use and leasing the remainder out as shops and offices.
"Most of our 'extra-curricular' work is done at night, so it's easier if there's no residential use," confirmed Sylia. "The businesses here also help to conceal our communications net and rather large electricity demands."
"But that's hardly foolproof," protested Nene. "If anyone were to compare the daytime and night-time figures, for example ..."
"That's just one fairly minor example of why we need you," replied Sylia. "You broke my puzzle in less user-hours than I would have believed possible, so I hope you can improve my computer security by a similar measure. I'm a good programmer, if I say so myself, but I don't have the talent for 'hacking' that you showed."
"It'll be easy enough to fix that sort of thing," said Nene eagerly. "All I need is to access the power and 'phone companies' systems." She grinned suddenly. "I could make it so you never get another bill again!"
Sylia laughed. "That would be rather conspicuous, I think! It would be too suspicious if Sylia Stingray didn't pay for anything. I can't just disappear, after all - too many people know me."
"I can," broke in Priss. "You can fix my 'phone bill any time you like."
"And mine!" cried Linna. "My boyfriend's in the States at the moment and it's getting rather expensive."
Sylia laughed again. "Which boyfriend is that, Linna?" she asked innocently. "I think I've lost count ..." There was a heartbeat's silence, then they all burst out laughing at the indignant expression on Linna's face.
A couple of hours later, Nene was beginning to think that she had made a huge mistake in taking up the Knight Sabers' offer. She had been weighed and measured with micrometric precision; much to Priss' amusement she was apparently a little over the ideal weight for her height.
"Sweet tooth!" grinned Priss, prodding her none too gently in the midriff. "You'll pop the seams in your suit!"
Worse than the measuring, however, were the physical tests. Nene had always believed herself to be in better-than-average physical condition, but she quickly discovered that she was strictly ordinary in most things - and below average in a few. Sylia was rather disappointed. "I must say, Nene, I expected you to be more fit than this, as you're a Police officer. You're not a very good advertisement for the Force ..."
"That's not really fair, Sylia," said Linna. "You heard her say she's always worked in Communications, not on the street. You don't have to be super-fit to sit behind a desk all day." She paused, then grinned. "Anyway, if you look at some street cops ..." She eyed Nene thoughtfully, then grinned again. "I run a couple of aerobics classes, and I'll be happy to enrol you!"
Nene's face fell. "Oh... thank you. If you think it'll help ..."
"Linna says aerobics are a cure for everything," laughed Priss. "Personally I prefer a good - "
"We can guess!" interrupted Linna crossly.
" - sauna!" finished Priss triumphantly. She winked at Nene, then turned back to Linna. "Just because you're sex-mad, you don't have to make her think we all are!"
Sylia coughed lightly. "Yes, well ... You're not giving Nene a very good impression of us, are you!" She stood up and beckoned to her newest recruit. "I think it's time we showed you just what you'll be getting into - literally. The hardsuit hangar is down here ..."
Later that evening, back in her tiny apartment, Nene was able to reflect on the events of the day. The Knight Sabers and Mackie seemed almost like a family, and she felt a sudden longing for something to which she could again belong. In some ways she still missed her own family desperately, although after living for so long on her own she could not envisage returning to her parents' house, to their rules and restrictions on her life - and to the traditional education and career path which they had attempted to force on her and from which she had finally fled. Sylia reminded her of her mother in some ways - calm, poised, unflappable - while Mackie and Linna already felt like the brother and sister she had never had. After only a few hours in their company she felt a ... rapport ... that she could not remember ever experiencing before. As for Priss ... she unconsciously squared her shoulders. She was determined to succeed, and if that meant working harder to win over the moody, aloof biker then she would do her very best. The Knight Sabers represented everything she had been seeking but had failed to find when she joined the ADPolice, and she refused to allow an unfortunate first impression to spoil everything...
She sighed, momentarily dispirited, and glanced around her. She also longed for the day when she could escape from the over-priced sardine can which her landlord insisted on referring to as a 'luxury bijou apartment'.
Off-duty the following day, Nene resolved to seek out Sylia again as there were still many questions that she wished to ask. She also felt a strong desire to visit 'Silky Doll'; every woman in Mega-Tokyo surely knew of the high-class boutique, but Nene had never been there herself as the advertisements in the glossy magazines had made her feel that she would be out of place if she so much as crossed the shop's threshold.
As on the previous day the weather was hot and humid. Weaving her way through the mid-morning traffic on her little Genom motor-scooter, Nene was glad not to be at work, especially as the office air-conditioning had failed yet again. If the pattern of the summer's earlier such failures was maintained, it might be days before an engineer arrived to fix it.
When she arrived at 'Silky Doll', she was pleased to be lucky enough to find an empty parking spot in a side street almost immediately. The blast of cool air as she entered the building was a refreshing relief from the sticky heat outside, and the sudden cessation of the traffic noise was equally agreeable.
Inside, the store was quite busy. Sylia, positioned strategically behind one of the sales counters facing the door, spotted her immediately and beckoned her over but had to decline the younger girl's impulsive offer to buy lunch due to pressure of business; a mid-season sale was in full swing.
"You can take me instead!" Linna had entered just after Nene, and had heard the end of the conversation. "Anyway, Sylia's idea of lunch is coffee and more coffee. It's very boring!"
"Okay," replied Nene cheerfully. She liked Linna, and in any event felt that some of the questions she wanted to ask were not things she could ask Sylia directly. At least, not yet. "I know a good little cafe just down the street," said Linna. "It's too hot to walk far just for lunch."
"I'll second that," agreed Nene fervently. "Lead on!"
"Enjoy yourselves," said Sylia as they left, giving a rueful shrug. "I'm sorry I can't come with you, Nene. Next time!"
Linna's concept of 'just down the street' turned out, to Nene's dismay, to be just over half a mile. Once they arrived, however, she had to concede that the choice was a good one; comfortable seats and a pleasant atmosphere of unhurried calm combined with enough tempting aromas to please even the most demanding diner. After a quick mental review of her bank balance Nene decided to treat herself and ordered steak. Linna chose chicken ("Too much red meat is bad for your digestion!") and at Nene's invitation also chose the wine; Nene's strict upbringing had left her inexperienced on the subject of alcohol, and she hesitated to display her ignorance.
Following half an hour of smalltalk, most of her steak, and two glasses of a light white wine, Nene felt sufficiently emboldened to ask Linna the question that was uppermost in her mind.
"Why does Priss hate the Police so much? I really don't think she likes me at all."
Linna put down her knife and fork. "To be honest, I'm not really sure. I think Sylia's the only one who knows the whole story." She paused, eyed Nene carefully. "Don't breathe a word of this to anyone, but I think it has something to do with the murder of her boyfriend and a bungled investigation. And I think boomers might have been involved."
"What? Are you sure?"
"Not absolutely," admitted Linna. She leaned back, gazed up at the ceiling. "I like Priss, I've known her for nearly three months now, but she's still as tight as a clam about her personal life. I think I know her as well as anyone does, except perhaps for Sylia, then sometimes I think I don't know her at all. I do know she'll do anything for you if you're her friend."
Nene sighed heavily. "I hope I can be her friend," she said sadly. "I don't think I made a good impression yesterday."
Linna laughed. "In the truck, you mean?"
"Don't worry about it, she's probably already forgotten that. As for the uniform, she'll see past that in time. It's not the clothes but who's inside them that counts."
"I hope so," said Nene doubtfully. "At least Mackie seems to like me."
Linna laughed again. "Don't take this the wrong way, but Mackie likes anything in a skirt. Just keep your eyes on the CCTV's when you're changing!"
Over coffee Nene broached the other subject on her mind. She felt increasingly comfortable in Linna's company, and another glass of wine had relaxed her to the point where anything seemed possible. "Who exactly is Sylia? I mean, she obviously has money - lots of money - but that doesn't explain the Knight Sabers. She said you sometimes charge for what you do, but from the warrants I've seen the sort of money you make couldn't possibly finance you ..."
Linna frowned. "I don't really know. She sometimes talks about her father's legacy, and I'm pretty sure that a lot of our technology came from him, but actually she's worse than Priss for talking about her private life. I do know she's very unhappy about boomers." She drained her coffee cup, looked at her watch. "Good grief, is that the time already? I'll be late for class - and I'm the teacher!" She stood up. "Thanks for lunch. Say, are you working tonight?"
"Great. I'll buy you a beer. Meet me at the 'Hot Legs' at... umm... 9 o'clock. Dress is casual!"
"What? Where - " But Linna had gone.
Reference to the 'phone book and a city street map enabled Nene to locate the 'Hot Legs', on the edge of District Three. Reluctant to ride her scooter into that part of town she hailed a cab, and arrived almost half an hour early - which was perhaps just as well, as there was already a queue at the door. The crowd seemed to be about half bikers in leathers despite the heat, and half young salarymen out on a jaunt; a mixture that seemed very strange to Nene and which made her distinctly uneasy. Part of neither group, she felt horribly conspicuous. She was quite relieved when Linna arrived a few minutes later, especially after she had rejected two offers of various illegal substances in as many minutes. Also, although Linna had specified casual dress, Nene suspected that the shorts and tee-shirt she was wearing in deference to the heat of the evening were a touch too casual; she had been expecting a pavement cafe, not a night-club. Her clothes were certainly gaining her a degree of attention from the young executives that she would have preferred to avoid.
Linna's first words confirmed her suspicion. "Hi! I didn't realise you're a raver! Come on!" She pushed her way blithely through to the head of the queue and brandished a pair of passes under the bouncer's nose; he opened the door and ushered them inside.
The first thing that hit Nene was the noise, an almost physical wall of sound that battered at her eardrums. The second was the heat; the interior of the building was hot, dark and crowded, lit by flashing strobes and lasers that created a surreal effect. A band on the stage was thumping out a hard rock number with more enthusiasm than talent, a judgement apparently shared by the majority of the patrons as very few were actually paying them any attention.
Linna put her mouth close to Nene's ear and shouted, "Let's get a drink! The main show doesn't start for a bit!" She grabbed Nene's wrist and pulled her through the throng to the bar, where she ordered two beers. Nene took one, sipped at it, and hid a grimace; she really did not care for beer at all. She fended off a too-friendly hand that snaked out of the crowd at her and was about to suggest to Linna that they go up onto the balcony when the band suddenly fell silent and left the stage to a smattering of applause.
She wiped her face with the back of her hand and turned to Linna again. "Why are we here? This isn't really the most comfortable place to be on a night like this!"
Linna grinned at her. "There's someone I want you to see. She's due on any minute."
"Okay." Nene put down her beer and grabbed a handful of nuts from the dish on the bar. She could feel the sweat trickling down her back and the tee-shirt sticking to her unpleasantly, and was rather wishing that she had declined Linna's invitation. Anxious not to upset a potential new partner, however, she did not actually suggest that they leave.
After another twenty minutes or so she was beginning to have serious doubts, and was only dissuaded from making her apologies to Linna by the slow filing onto the stage of another group of musicians.
Linna elbowed her in the ribs. "This is it!"
The band struck a few chords, paused while the bass guitar retuned his instrument, and pitched into a plaintive melody. The vocalist then stepped forward from the shadows to the microphone, and Nene blinked hard. She was tall, slim and sexy, her appearance enhanced by a very short leather skirt and bandeau top. The crowd was mesmerised, and after a moment Nene could see why; although (in her opinion) the girl did not have a particularly wonderful voice she had a powerful charisma that drew all eyes to her.
Linna leaned closer, whispered, "Great, isn't she?"
Nene nodded, eyed still on the singer. "Yeah. Who is she?"
Linna laughed. "Look again," she invited.
Nene looked - and then realised with a sudden start that the singer was Priss, amazingly transformed from angry biker to seductive entertainer.
They stood while Priss performed two more songs, then Nene turned to Linna again. "She's terrific!"
"She certainly is," agreed Linna. "I thought you might like to see another side of her ..."
The two girls remained in the audience for the whole of Priss' set, then Linna insisted that they go backstage. Nene was enthralled by her first brush with show-business, and greeted Priss with a rapturous enthusiasm that had the singer quite taken aback, and not a little embarrassed.
"Hold on a minute!" Priss took off the blonde wig and hung it carefully on the stand on the tiny dressing-table. "Let me get changed, and we'll go for a drink. I'm parched!"
"Okay," cried Nene, throwing caution to the winds. "When does this place close?"
"Actually, I don't think she really likes it her," said Linna.
"Hell, neither do I," said Priss, looking at Nene with a grin. "But they pay me to sing, and it's a place to start while I try to line up a recording contract."
"Priss Asagiri, Japan's newest idol singer!" said Linna mischievously, winking at Nene.
"Not bloody likely!" responded Priss crossly.
"No, I suppose it's already too late for that," laughed Linna, and ducked as Priss threw her towel across the room.
"Aaargh, you're hopeless! C'mon, let's go get a drink!" She threw one arm round Linna's shoulder, the other round Nene's, and the trio launched themselves into the Tokyo night.
The alarm woke Nene the next morning at 7.30, and after rather less than four hours sleep the fierce electric buzz resounded through her head like a jackhammer. She reached out, eyes tightly closed, to turn off the little unit but caught the wire instead, and in trying to stop it hitting the floor got her arm and both legs tangled in the sheet and fell out of bed. The impact of bare skin on the cheap carpet shocked her more-or-less awake - and it was only then that she remembered she was working the late shift and had forgotten to switch off the alarm before falling into bed. Her head was pounding, and her stomach felt queasy; she could not recall how much she had drunk the previous night, but it had clearly been too much. She staggered blindly into the shower, turned the water on and stood under the stream, face upturned, for several minutes without moving, simply allowing the hot water to soothe and relax her.
While standing there quietly memory reasserted itself suddenly and she blushed furiously as the events of the evening rushed back to her. She had a vague recollection of a karaoke bar, a challenge from Linna (to Priss' considerable amusement) and a disinterested audience that livened up dramatically when she started to take her clothes off to get their attention. The cheers had served to encourage her, and she dropped her head into her hands as she recalled just how far she had gone. Priss and Linna had bundled her off the stage and out of the back door wrapped in a table-cloth ... *Oh my God. They'll probably never speak to me again!* She turned up the water flow, allowing the pummelling from the jets to blank her mind again. *I swear I'll never touch another drop ... *
Just when she was beginning to feel that she might be able to face the day after all her reverie was interrupted by the sound of the 'phone. She invited it pithily to do something impossible to itself, but when it failed to oblige she turned off the water, wrapped a towel around herself and went to answer it.
"Nene! Hi! What a terrific morning!" Linna's breezy tones burst from the earpiece like wasps from their nest, and Nene moved the handset further from her head.
"Linna? What - " She stopped, unable to get a word in against the flow.
"I've got a class at 9 o'clock, and a space with your name in it if you're not working. When are you on duty next?"
"Uuuhh ... I'm not ... 2 o'clock this afternoon. Oh God, you're a _morning_ person, aren't you!" She groaned softly, but Linna overheard.
"Are you okay?"
"Just peachy, except for a hangover and only four hours sleep."
"Is that all? Wasn't last night great, though? We'll do it again sometime soon!" carolled Linna happily. "Have some breakfast, and meet me at the gym. You've got plenty of time."
"Uuuhh ... okay. 'Bye." Nene put the 'phone down, padded into the kitchen and switched on her coffee-maker. She added extra coffee, almost wishing for a cup of Sylia's corrosive brew. Unable to face breakfast she nevertheless forced herself to nibble on a piece of toast between sips of coffee, and then reluctantly got dressed and set off for Linna's class. She had a feeling it was going to be one of those days ...
The day actually turned out better than the unpromising beginning had implied it might - although Linna's class was not only less fun than Linna had indicated it would be, but was in fact as least as bad as she herself had feared. Although the exercise seemed to help combat the after-effects of the alcohol, the only comparison she could think of was a form of unpleasant medieval torture; she was not at all sorry when the class finished. There was simply something about mindless jigging up and down to banal music in the company of total strangers that she found very difficult to appreciate or enjoy.
"Never overdo it at first," warned Linna seriously. "If you're not accustomed," and she prodded Nene cheerfully in the stomach just as Priss had done, "there are proper ways to work up to a full routine. We'll get you there in no time!"
"If you say so," replied Nene sceptically. "But right now the only place I've got to get to is work!"
During her mid-shift coffee break she was able to look back on her life with a more objective eye than she had hitherto managed. She realised with a little surprise that she was almost ... lonely; the double disadvantages of being a police officer and working shifts meant that like many cops she found it difficult to maintain friendships outside the job. Her closest friend was Naoko, who had been in her enrolment class; but _she_ had a steady boyfriend in the traffic division, and the girls rarely saw each other outside the office. None of her childhood friendships had survived her abrupt departure from her parents' home and relocation to the city just after her sixteenth birthday. She sighed softly; at least attending Linna's classes would enable her to meet some different people.
When she returned to her console she discovered that the workload was even slacker than usual. Her mind turned to what Linna had said in the restaurant, and she started to scribble notes to herself about boomer crime and unsolved murders, particularly as they related to one Priss Asagiri ...