Mixed Signals (3): Opportunities
everybody's story is more
interesting than mine
it took me twenty-some-odd-years
to see i'd been born blind
so i just feel my way to you
i try to keep you close
i'm never very good at getting
what i need the most
-Over the Rhine, "Farpoint Diary"
Reno blinked awake to the sound of a cell phone ringing.
Every other time, Xi had been long gone by the time he woke up. His pay, the breakfast tray, the Midgar skyline, all of it was repeated perfectly as though it was a replay of a surveillance video, and Reno could not say that one thing was ever out of place.
He felt the motion of the bed as Xi got up, heard the "Yes?" as he answered his phone. So much for Xi saying his name. Reno kept his eyes open a slit to see.
In the gray light of the penthouse, it could not be dawn yet. Xi was silhouetted against the shadowy window, his undone hair covering his face and hiding the strange mark between his brows. Reno wondered about that mark, and about the scars again as the dim light caught them. They looked like nothing so much as bullet kisses along his client's ribs. There were no other marks on him. Reno had looked, but had never been willing to risk asking. "You found it, I hope?"
Reno's fingers curled involuntarily in the coverlet. He could not hear the other end of the conversation, but Xi's voice was the same toneless one it had been when they first met, impersonal, cold.
"I don't want him talking, Raife."
Reno's eyes flicked to the half-empty hotel glass of water on the side table, his suddenly dry throat constricting with longing. But he didn't move.
Xi drummed his fingers on the back of the armchair, frown tugging at the corners of his mouth. "...Erase him. Now."
Suddenly Reno's heart was going so loud, he began to wonder if Xi could even hear the conversation over it. Reno prided himself on keeping tabs on his situation, just like he had seen the thug on the train, reflected clearly in the window before he had tried to jump Reno. He thought himself cool under pressure, capable of sliding through most danger unscathed. But part of that was knowing when he was outclassed, when to surrender, when to fight, and when to run. The urge to run was very strong, now.
It wasn't it the first time that he thought Xi was probably involved in something monumentally illegal, or quite possibly in charge of it. Drug runners and felons were one thing though, professional hitmen--or worse, people so above the law that they ordered professional hitmen around-- were something else entirely. There was a level of expertise there that under-plate thugs lacked, as calm as Xi's order to end a man's life.
"I'm on my way." Xi clicked the phone closed and reached for his shirt, folded neatly with the rest of his clothes on the chair. Xi had never let Reno so much as loosen his tie, and Reno had wondered if it was just a matter of personal preference, or something more interesting.
He had his answer now, as Xi buttoned the cuffs of his shirt, slid his tie clip into place, and then carefully checked the clip of an elegant, snub-nosed pistol before thumbing the safety off and slipping it back into its shoulder holster.
Reno was used to clients who carried weapons. None of that was particularly off-putting to anyone who had grown up in the slums, where most of the doddering grandmothers packed an old buntline .45 along with their walkers. But the fact that Reno never once for a second suspected that Xi might be armed made his stomach do a funny little sideways jiggle. Xi's holster had passed totally under Reno's radar, even though he had actually watched the man undress the night before, and other nights besides. Not to mention groping him on a regular basis.
Xi caught up his hair in both hands, sweeping it back and looping the ponytail holder around it with the ease of long practice, then shrugged into his suit jacket and zipped it. Reno flattened against the pillow as Xi reached into his jacket as though for his gun, but he only pulled from the inner pocket a pair of simple, black fingerless gloves and buckled them around his wrists.
Reno suddenly decided now would be a good time to pretend to be asleep. His heart almost stopped when he sensed Xi coming close to the edge of the bed, and he wondered if Xi had known he was watching, and if he might have found out more than he should know.
Reno was braced for a bullet, but what he got was one of Xi's hands brushing his hair back from his face, the scent of leather from his gloves as he ran a fingertip over Reno's lower lip. A moment later, the front door of the penthouse closed with a decisive click.
It was still a long time before Reno felt like it was safe to open his eyes.
Wall Market was starting to die down for the night when Reno left the Silk Pavilion at the end of his shift. It was his floating night and for once, he wasn't sorry at the lack of walk-in clientele. This close to the holiday it wasn't uncommon for business to slow down a bit, and it usually put a real crank in his family plans. But adding Xi to his schedule meant he didn't feel the pinch quite so hard when nobody hired him for hourly rates in the Pavilion's upper rooms. He was halfway down the steps and considering a cold beer before catching the train back to fourth when he heard one of the new boys call after him.
Reno turned around and scanned for a name in his memory, and caught it right in time. "Hey... Vic. Something wrong?"
Vic was sixteen, the same as Reno had been when he was legal to start, but somehow with his huge dark eyes, he managed to look younger than Phoenix. He was pulling on his coat as he came out the door. "Hey, Reno. You live in fourth, right? You mind if I catch the train with you?"
Reno shrugged. "I was gonna head to the bar first, izzat okay?"
Vic nodded. "If you don't mind me coming along?" He glanced uneasily into the dark alley next to the Pavilion's neon-lit steps, and Reno raised his eyebrows.
"Nooo. But maybe you should tell me what's going on, first?"
Vic raked one hand through heavily gelled dark hair, obviously uncomfortable. "They ah... they had to ban my regular, after tonight." He rolled back one sleeve, enough for Reno to see the ugly purple splodges of recent bruises. "I finally reported him." Vic shucked his sleeve back down hastily, as though he didn't want anyone else passing by the entrance to see. "I don't want him to find me on the way home."
Reno's face softened. "C'mon. I'll buy you a coffee."
Reno's bar of choice was a hole in the wall joint tucked into an alley behind the Honey Bee. It had never, to Reno's knowledge, been closed. It also never carded, since most of the patrons didn't have their own names on any of their many id cards anyway. Its prominent feature was the pool table in the center of the room, with exactly ten barstools, and mismatched chairs and tables.
At this hour, there wasn't much of a crowd to speak of. Most of the regulars were leaving as Vic and Reno came in, and only a few of the barstools remained occupied. Reno got a cup of hot gritty coffee for Vic, and a bottle of Sylkis Green for himself that might, almost, have been cold.
"It was brave," Reno said, after Vic had spent ten minutes slowly turning his mug around without drinking it. "What you did."
Vic shrugged with one shoulder. "Just couldn't take it anymore," he said, smile flickering and then gone. Reno felt a twinge of pity. "You know how it feels, when you get pushed to that point, you know? Like you can't bend anymore."
Reno considered the wrinkled label of his beer bottle. "...yeah." He paused, laughed into the bottle. "At least, I used to. Maybe I broke a long time ago."
Vic shook his head. "No way. If I was half as... tough..." Vic's voice died at exactly the same moment Reno noticed someone was blocking the light from the bar.
"Geeze," he said, glaring up. "Get your own table--" Reno checked himself, realizing that the closest of the three unsavory men was familiar in a way he didn't like, and that next to him Vic had gone an unhealthy shade of white under his eyeliner. "Hey, have I kicked your ass before?"
The man put both hands on the rickety table, ignoring Reno entirely and bouncing Vic's coffee onto the floor. The mug broke with a crash in the suddenly silent bar. "What's the matter, Viky? You're not glad to see me?"
"I've got a restraining order," Vic said, his voice ghostly in his throat. "You keep the hell away from me, Taj."
Reno blinked down at the artless tattoos snaking like graffiti up Taj's arm, and remembered them reflected backwards in a train window. His eyebrows went down. "Let me guess, you're the bastard that likes beating up on kids."
"Taj ain't talking to you, bitch," one of the cronies snarled at Reno. "This is private business."
Reno stood up slowly, and there was more than candathine in his glare. "You beat up one of our boys, and I make it my business, asshole."
There was a quick, surprisingly graceful motion of wrists and elbows and Reno was suddenly facing a shining array of butterfly knives and spiked knuckles. The silence in the bar became a hasty roar as the few remaining patrons made a judicious exit.
"You want to start some shit, huh?" Reno growled. "Do it and I'll finish it for you."
Taj snorted. "What, you gonna do, girly boy? Wave your underpants at us?"
Reno had a very good comeback for that that he never made.
"Leave them alone."
Taj whirled, but the only person left in the bar was a hunched figure on a stool near the door, tilting his bottle back. Dim light flashed over sunglasses and the bristling ear piercings glittering on a shaved head. He wore a dark suit that Reno seemed to recognize, but he didn't have time to consider that.
"Mind your own business, shithead!" Taj growled, while his friends made supportive obscene gestures. The man at the bar lowered his bottle, unperturbed, and didn't bother answering.
"Vic," Reno said in an undertone, while Taj and his compatriots were occupied. "I want you to go out the back and have Alec take you to the station. He's the bouncer, he's got a green mohawk. I'll make sure they don't follow you."
Vic glanced once at his tormentors, but Reno jerked his head to the back door, and Vic bolted. One of the cronies saw him making a break for it, and took a step after him, but Taj threw up one of his badly-illustrated arms to stop him.
"Let him go," Taj said, summing up Reno with yellow eyes. "I think I'm in the mood for something with a little more spunk."
Reno heard the back door slam, and managed to show every single one of his teeth in his grin. "You gotta catch me first, fuckers," he said, and flung the table up in their faces.
Dammit, I didn't even finish my beer, Reno thought, skidding up against the bar and groping under it for a projectile. They better not go for the face-- I need it in one piece for work. Getting killed didn't even cross his mind. His fingers latched on something promising and he swung his arm back, putting a bottle of 1000 Needles Tequila square in the face of the nearest thug.
"Shiva's skivvies, Montague," he muttered, to nobody in particular, "did you have to grab the good stuff?" He made a face at the loss and hopped the bar right past the shaved guy in the suit, who was still drinking his lager as if there was nothing more exciting than a game of pool going on around him. Gotta give the guy points for cool, Reno thought, flinging bottles at Taj and his one active peon, diving back under with a wave of auburn ponytail as a trio of throwing knives splintered the bar next to his head.
The guy at the bar wrenched them free one-handed, and passed them blandly to Reno. "Here."
"What?" Reno said, all innocence from under the taps. "Those aren't mine." He accepted them with a grin. "But I'll be happy to give them back!"
Taj made a dive behind a booth as his knives whizzed back at him.
The guy at the bar made a noise that might actually have been a chuckle.
Reno vaulted over the bar on the opposite side, coming up around the corner, grabbing a barstool, and swinging it into the stomach of the closest assailant.
It was only enough to slow him down, and things were getting really sticky now, as the first thug had shaken off broken glass and tequila and was moving forward to extract damages from the other side, and Reno was stuck in the middle, with Taj pulling something that looked alarmingly like a handgun out of the waistband of his pants.
Shit, Reno thought, with feeling. He was almost convinced that it was his subconscious that said above him, "Duck." A beer bottle was placed carefully on the bar, empty.
Far be it from Reno to ignore promptings from above... even only about six feet eight inches above. He dove as the guy in the suit made a quick deft gesture above him, and the two cronies' skulls cracked together. They crumpled in an unattractive heap at Reno's feet.
"Thanks--" Reno began, but was stalled in his gratitude, as the empty bottle and several pilsner glassed exploded next to him on the bar, and Taj took aim for another shot.
Reno quite simply stopped thinking. He was closer, and he still was holding the barstool. He blocked out the tiny bursts of wood and glass around him, bullets coming for his life, and just ran. Low on ammo now, Taj suddenly chose the other target that was twice as big as Reno, and wasn't moving.
The guy at the bar.
Time ground to a halt. Reno gathered up everything he had in a last volley of speed, and lunged.
The next time the gun went off it was slightly off target, knocking the sunglasses off of Reno's unexpected ally and shattering the mirror behind the bar. It would have taken off the guy's entire shaved head, except that Reno's barstool landed on Taj at that exact moment, breaking both the seat and the thug's face.
For a moment there was no sound in the bar except for the slow drip of a punctured keg, Reno's heavy breathing, and glass sparkling down out of the mirror frame. Reno looked at the broken stool leg he was still holding, and threw it away with a noise of disgust.
"Ramuh," Reno said, and kicked the unconscious Taj in the ribs for good measure. "You okay over there, buddy?"
Reno's taciturn companion carefully replaced his shades, and brushed idly at the glass powder on his sleeve. "I don't suppose you're looking for a job?"
Reno said, eloquently, "Bwuh?"
"It's none of my business if you prefer your current occupation." The guy in the suit reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, and flicked open a silver card case. "What's your name?"
"Reno," Reno said, automatically. "Reno Montague."
A business card was flicked into the hand Reno had held out for an introductory shake, and the stranger reached up to adjust the slightly warped earpiece of his shades. "I'm afraid things are busy at the moment, Mr. Montague, but I'll pass your name along." His boots crunched on broken glass and the spring on the front door shrieked rustily as he pushed it open, adding, "Come by the office the day after the holiday, if you want an interview."
The door banged shut behind him, and Reno was left in the wreckage of the bar with three out-cold thugs and a business card that read:
ShinRa Electric Power Company
Department of Administrative Research