"A Worm Revolts"
Gods, he felt
dirty. A gritty, wet blackness permeated the air around him, infested each
breath he took like invisible filthy hands desirous to taint his lungs. He
wiped a trickle of sweat off his clammy forehead, then immediately rewrapped
his right hand about the grip of his gun, clutching it hard and confident.
That gun was like an extension of his arm.
"Yo Vincent, ya ready?"
"The poor bastards oughtta be walking out that
door any time now."
Two men stood with their backs flat against the
brick wall of a dripping alley, the first, a heavy-set young guy with a shock
of short red hair, gripped a shotgun firmly in two hands while his companion,
a raven-haired teenager with a pale complexion and a distant look in his
brown eyes, cooly gripped a shiny silver magnum .357 and watched the simple
wooden door set in the wall with an expectant gaze. The air around them stank
of sour milk and human filth. City smells.
"Five, I think. . . "
Vincent darted his eyes to his red-headed partner,
lifting an eyebrow, but immediately turned back to the door.
"Five, "the man repeated, licking his lips. "I
think Zawa said five. Did he say five?" He blinked hard to clear the stinging
sweat from his vision, shifting the shotgun around slightly in his hands.
Vincent watched him expressionless.
"He said five, Mick."
"Yeah. You sure?"
Mick didn't seem to believe him for a second,
his pale blue eyes looking from the blank door to his friend's apathetic
face a few times uncertainly.
"Are you nervous?"
Vincent asked the question as though he didn't
particularly care what the hell the answer was. Mick scowled, immediately
straightening. "No!" he hissed, then winced and lowered his voice, "Dammit,
of course not. You think this is the first time I've iced a few pricks in
Zawa's name? I thought you knew me better than that, Vincent. No. . . " Mick
settled back further against the uncomfortable wall, "No, it's just. Aw hell,
I don't know. I was watchin' the six o'clock news this evenin' 'fore I met
ya at the hall and there was this story. Remember Johnny Wynn? Quit last
year to go off and be with that chick from Junon?"
"Oh. Well, I guess it was before your time. Anyway,
a few guys he screwed over while workin' for Zawa caught up with him. They
slashed her throat, left her sitting up at their kitchen table for Johnny
to come and see when he got home from work. They were hiding off in their
bedroom, three of them. They let ole John get a good look, then they put
thirty bullets into him. Left their little baby screaming her head off in
the cradle. 'Course, the news didn't know Johnny Wynn was a former yakuza
or anything. They just reported it as a freak burglary gone bad. But I knew.
I knew because they said that his right trigger finger'd been cut off and
burned. Only the Manooks do that. And the Manooks hated Johnny."
"Manooks, "Vincent said icily, "Superstitious
idiots." Mick laughed nervously, gripping his shotgun tighter, eyeing the
closed door desperately.
"Yeah, superstitious. Believin' in ghosts, thinking
they can stop the ghosts of the guys they kill from hurting them in the afterlife
by taking their trigger fingers. Retards, I swear. But Vincent. . . man,
I dunno. . . "
Vincent leaned his weight on his left leg, breathing
deeply of the putrid night air, trying not to gag on the pungent alley smell.
"A friend of yours?" he asked noncommitedly.
"Johnny? Yeah, we used to look out for
"Aw, don't worry about it, "Mick tossed half
a smile in Vincent's direction, then straightened his shoulders and stood
determinedly against the wall, renewing his sweat-slicked hold on his weapon.
"These pricks inside this cafe aren't even Manooks, just a coupla bastards
thinkin' they can screw Zawa over on his rent." The red-headed young man
sighed smally and blinked a few times, "I almost wish we were about to take
out the bastards that did Johnny. I have half a mind to get a couple of the
boys together and head out to Doroboo no Mori tomorrow night to find them,
to make em see what happens when you mess with Zawa." Mick paused for a moment
and looked to Vincent, wondering if the young man would volunteer to lend
his gun to the effort. But Vincent didn't even meet his eye. He kept his
attention fixed on the door. Sweat beaded out on his pale skin but it was
only from the wretched heat, Mick saw no unease, no worry in his hooded brown
eyes. As he gazed upon his partner though, there suddenly entered a look
there that made Mick swallow hard: anticipation.
"Shuttup, "Vincent said softly, "I hear
Mick strained his hearing, whipping his eyes
about and pasting them firmly on the door in question. Behind it was a smallish
cafe, a normal enough looking place that the little old ladies liked to frequent
on Sunday afternoons. The main entrance was out front, nestled between two
large, honest, unconcealing glass windows that allowed passer-bys to see
inside; that view offered nothing but simple wooden tables and chairs, clean
and pretty linens, a counter with baked goods and coffee pots that would
fill the air inside with fragrant steam and pleasant smells. This little
cafe was quite the charmer and rather famous in Wutai, despite its dubious
location in one of the city's trashiest neighborhoods. Even this side exit
that the two armed men stood outside had a pretty painted sign stuck upon
it. Bea's Bakery and Cafe. Very cute. Very sweet. Very innocent. Very
brilliant, Vincent thought to himself darkly.
The owner of the place really was this wrinkly
old broad with a matronly smile and a kind word to everyone, Vincent knew
her personally, she was a friend of his mother's. But the old woman's son
on the other hand, well, Vincent knew him too. That was why he had absolutely
no qualms about the fact that he was about to blow a few rounds into his
head. The man was a snake, a bastard, an extortionist who used his elderly
mother's old cafe as a center for operations, working out of the place's
backroom even as Wutai's idiot cops drank coffee at the front counter, oblivious
to him. And that was all fine, Vincent's boss, Tetsuo Zawa, didn't really
give two craps about what the petty little fellow was doing. He wasn't about
to cut into his profits with his small time gambling and loan sharking, no
way. But now, it seemed he was getting ambitious. And Tetsuo Zawa was convinced
no one in Wutai was allowed to be ambitious but him. So he had to go. And
Vincent and Mick would be the ones to see him off. With a little help from
a shotgun and a .357 Magnum of course.
"I think that's him, "Mick whispered, trying
to clear his mind and prepare himself for action. He glanced quickly to Vincent
who nodded, eyes narrowed as he tried to make out the voice of their target,
Tito Verne. Zawa had briefed the two of them the day before. He'd had Tito
watched for a week now and had his patterns down. The man would be exitting
the cafe through the side tonight, along with four of his goons, on their
way to perform a hit of their own on a fewdeviant "customers". When Zawa's
spies had informed their boss of that fact,it had sealed Tito's fate. No
one died in Wutai unless Tetsuo Zawa had himkilled, he wasn't about to let
someone else muscle in on the fear his namecommanded in the city, no way.
Vincent knew full well in his mind that whatwould happen tonight was Tito's
"Gimme a minute, mate. . . "
A faint, gruff voice floated to the two waiting
men's ears from behind the door. They heard footsteps die away back into
the cafe, then the sound of a few men conversing lowly on just the other
side of the wall. Mick looked to Vincent who nodded.
"Ya know, man, "the red-haired gunman mumbled,
his voice so soft Vincent had to strain to make out his words, "It ain't
fair, Johnny was a good guy. I'm sick of seeing us taken out. God damned
Manooks. . . don't they piss you off?"
"I think you need to shut up before they hear
us, "Vincent whispered, a stern look creeping into his eyes. Mick ignored
him, blue gaze riveted on the door. He shook his head, knuckles whitening
through his flesh as his grip on the shotgun tightened.
"I hate 'em, Vincent. You don't know, you only
been workin' for Zawa a few months, you don't know yet what it's like. .
. it gets worse, you know. The more people you kill, the more other people
want you dead. And you ain't ever safe. Like Johnny, ya know? He thought
he could settle down with that chick, hide from the Manooks and all the rest,
but he couldn't. They ferreted him out, and reminded him real good of his
past. There ain't no where you can hide from what you've done Vincent, not
once you've started down this path. God dammit, it's hot."
Mick stuck a twitching finger between the collar
of his teeshirt and his throat, hoping the humid, dirty air would cool him,
but it only made the running perspiration there even stickier. He breathed
hard, blinking sweat from his eyes, watching the door with slightly trembling
shoulders as images rushed into his mind. Johnny's face, that sweet girl
he'd married, their little baby. He'd gone over to his place a few weeks
earlier, a humble little apartment down by the pagoda. It was nice, stark
but nice, and they'd had a few beers, talked about old times.
"You just don't get it, Vincent. . . "Mick muttered,
"You can't hide. There ain't no where you can hide. Except maybe in a wooden
box. A coffin. You go there and they can't get you anymore. But who wants
to be there, eh? Dammit. . . " Vincent eyed his partner curiously, not even
bothering to shush him. There was something in Mick's eyes that the young
man had to almost respect; it was an emotion he couldn't relate to, couldn't
even begin to understand, but he marked it for its intensity and was able
to appreciate it for that. "Fuck those Manooks. . . "Mick spat, moving the
cool steel of the shotgun's muzzle up close to his feverish cheek, letting
the metal meet his flesh and then shivering at the sensation, "I'm going
to kill every last one of them. I asked Zawa last night, after you left,
I asked him to lend me a few of the boys, let us go over there, clean up
real quick and easy. He wouldn't do it though. No, no, he said it was too
risky. Heh. How can he say that, eh? Johnny was a hell of a yakuza, one of
the best gunmen he had, one o' the most loyal, woulda taken a bullet for
any of us. And Zawa's gonna just let the pricks that did him in walk off?
Dammit, Vincent, how fair is that? You know why, don't you? Well, I know
why. It's cause we're worms. Everyone of us. Me, and Keen, and Johnny. And
you too, Vincent, don't forget it. We're worms and Zawa's king. You may be
a hell of an assassin, his current golden boy, but you'll always be a worm.
To him and to everyone in Wutai. And when some lucky bastard finally blows
you a third eye, ain't no one gonna run to avenge you. No one avenges a worm.
You see? You see what I'm talking about?"
Vincent looked him briefly in his pale blue eyes,
eyes lit with something akin to insanity, then glanced towards the door.
He held a hand up to Mick, silencing anything else the incensed man was going
to say, then gestured towards the door, a controlled, cold look on his face.
Mick turned, brandishing his shotgun, holding it convulsively. The gruff
man's voice had returned. It addressed someone inside harshly, scolding him
for something or other. Many muffled voices then, talking, laughing, jeering,
not knowing that they would so soon be dead. Vincent tensed, hearing them
grow louder as they approached the door. In the humid, still air, the grating
of a sticky doorknob being turned drifted to the two men's ears. Its rotation
completed, there was a crack, a muffled groan as the seldom-used side door
parted from the frame just a slit, golden light slicing the dank alley air,
then slowly it opened until nearly a foot away from the wall.
Then it stopped.
"Tito, you're going to get my medicine while
you're out right? You have to hurry, the chemist closes at ten, alright?
I have to have my pills."
"Yeah, yeah, ma."
Vincent could see a man's thick, gloved hand
poised on the doorknob, leaning on it slightly as it stood half-opened. He
raised his gun out level before him at head-height, narrowing his eyes cooly,
clearing his mind, focusing his concentration on the task at hand. The disgusting
leech-like night air encompassed his body, sucking at his flesh, infinite
damp warm tongues licking at him sickeningly. He could feel uncomfortable
hot sweat trickling down the clammy skin of his back, sticking against the
fabric of his black shirt and making him shiver in discomfort.
"God, it's disgusting out here. . . "the gruff
voice mumbled, opening the door fully and stepping out onto the front step,
"Ya feel that god damned humidity rushin' in 'ere? Jeez, it's only just may
and already it's like a friggin' sauna."
"Move ta Icicle Inn, Tito."
"Can it, Shard. C'mon, let's get this over
"Don't forget my medicine, sweetheart."
Vincent pressed back into the shadows of the
alley, melding with them, the perfect black of his clothes and hair transforming
him into living darkness. Zawa called him his "Little Raven". Though Vincent
hated the nickname, it was fitting. Mick fidgeted at his side but was silent
as Tito stepped from the building, four burly men on his heels. In a fraction
of a second, Vincent looked his target over; young, cocky, brown hair, black
eyes, dark complexion, massive build. His right hand was in the pocket of
his flowing green trenchcoat, the side of which bulged in a strange way.
Doubtless a gun. Vincent calculated these things rapidly, finger twitching
on the trigger as he prepared to fire.
"Burn in hell, you fuckers!!"
It happened before Vincent even had time to think.
Screaming bloody fury, insane grief in his blue eyes, Mick threw himself
from the shadows and began firing violently towards the group of five, filling
two of the men with buckshot before they could even draw their guns. Cursing,
Vincent leapt after him, raising his pistol and planting a bullet firmly
between a third man's eyes. The back of the guy's head ripped away and his
body flew backwards, leaving a spray of red against the dull dirty brick
of the alley. Tito gulped, seeing the two assassins darting towards him,
guns blazing, cold indifference in one man's face, rage and madness in the
other's. He wasn't sure which scared him more. Glock now firm in his grip,
he dove behind a thick green trash bin just as Vincent had fired off a few
rounds into where his head had been and Mick had released a shell that would
have hit his midsection. Instead it hit Tito's right-hand man Shard, sending
him to the littered ground where he lay twitching, fingers moving uselessly
over the grip of his never fired pistol. Tito glanced to his dying friend
anxiously, then looked around the side of the bin, bullets hitting the steel
with a sharp ping. He saw the black-haired assassin suddenly swear violently
as he ran out of ammo, crouching down defensively and digging around in his
coat for a fresh clip. Mick stood at his side for a moment, shotgun half-raised,
looking down at the four dead bodies with a confused look on his sweaty face.
Tito frowned, shaking his head to rid his eyes of the perspiration running
down into them, then lifted his gun.
"Yo Vincent, "Mick said softly, shivering as
a cruel, stray breeze ran over his damp neck, "Didn't Zawa say there'd be
Vincent looked up as he snapped the fresh clip
into his Magnum, then stood, head jerking around to take in the sights of
the alley. A sudden silver flash assaulted his brown eyes, and then the pale
knuckles of a hand wrapped around a gun made him throw himself to the ground
and cry out a warning to Mick as sizzling white bullets suddenly screamed
towards them. Vincent watched, expression amazingly calm, his eyes like two
bright pools, as Mick flew backwards beneath the impact of two merciless
rounds. Not even waiting for his partner to hit the ground, Vincent flew
to his feet and raised his own gun towards Tito, who'd exposed himself to
fire the shot. Their gazes met for a fraction of a second, two upraised guns
between them. But it was Vincent who fired first. Tito died with a strange
expression on his face. Shock, fear, and a look of inevitability.
After the noise of the shots had echoed away,
the alley was strangely silent. Pipes dripped in the background, car engines
roared in the distance. The lilting strains of Vaughn Williams' Lark
Ascending drifted to Vincent's ears from above, one of the seedy
neighborhood's more cultured thugs must have fallen asleep with their radio
on and a window open. He stood for a moment, listening to the soft sound,
the gentle melody, the sudden swelling of strings. So beautiful amidst all
this. The noise of a groan at his feet disrupted the music suddenly and he
looked down to see one of Tito's men flopping about like a beached fish.
A single bullet finished his struggles. Wiping sweat and flecks of blood
from his forehead, Vincent shoved the music from his mind and surveyed the
dark alley, walking around the bodies, making sure his job had been completed.
He noticed the cafe door had been shut and knew the old woman was likely
inside with her ear to the phone, summoning every pig in Wutai. Pocketing
his warm gun, Vincent turned briskly for the exit of the alley, strands of
his short black hair sticking to his neck.
"Vincent. . . " Hearing his name, he turned abrubtly
about, the hint of a frown on his thin, pale lips. He'd been hoping to avoid
any sort of big final farewell with Mick. He hardly knew the man.
"Just assumed I was dead, eh?" Mick asked as
Vincent approached him slowly. He lay on his back, an ever-widening pool
of crimson spread about his chest, his red hair redder with blood. "Cold
bastard. . . heh, but don't worry."
Vincent frowned for real now, crossing his arms
and eyeing his surroundings a little nervously, sure he'd hear sirens at
any moment. "Don't worry about what?" he asked petulantly.
With a faint smile, Mick stared beyond his partner
and towards the dirty dark-grey sky. A washed-out moon shone feebley from
behind the scrim of clouds, casting a pale white light that saddened the
night instead of brightening it. "Don't worry, "he said again, "Don't worry
about avenging me. Heh. Remember. No one avenges a worm."
Closing his blue eyes, Mick softly died. Vincent
turned around to face the alley exit again. He shut his vision and breathed
the filthy city air, tried to calm himself by listening to the reassuring
city noises and the last dancing strains of the music as it died away into
silence. And then, after he'd pushed things from his mind that he customarily
kept shoved away, Vincent donned a pair of sunglasses and stepped out onto
the sidewalk. Immediately a black caddy pulled up and stopped abrubtly before
him, a door swinging outwards and nearly clipping him in the shin. Without
a word of greeting, Vincent stepped inside and shut the car door behind him.
The caddy sped away, leaving the alley and its occupants to the all-consuming
Zawa's office fit Zawa, Vincent had always thought
so. It was situated in the back of a poolhall on Mikan Street, a poolhall
that had every appearance of being an average, seedy poolhall, but everyone
in Wutai knew that it was about as much a poolhall as the HoneyBee Inn was
a motel. Inside, beyond the tables and the bar, behind an unmarked door,
Tetsuo Zawa ruled the city with a stern fist. Stern enough to keep the gil
flowing into his bank account, but just loose enough to keep Mayor Kisaragi
from taking interest enough in his activities to truly harm him. Vincent
stood before Zawa's massive desk, a scratched, beat-up old antique that Wutai
feared. That desk held more significance than the Grim Reaper's sickle or
Atropos' shears. Countless people's fates had been decided over it. Vincent
thought the thing was rather ugly. It was more ornately carved than most
cathedrals. And in serious need of polishing.
"So, my little raven, Mickey fell to Tito, eh?
A great loss, he'll be missed. You must go and tell the news to his sister,
I think she lives somewhere downtown. But another day, another day. For now,
tell me all that you overheard before the actual shooting. Every detail."
Vincent complied, reciting the petty conversation
his sharp hearing had picked up just before the five men had opened the door
to the cafe and he and Mick had blown them away. As he spoke, Zawa eyed him
intensely in that unnerving way that he had and Vincent felt like a kid being
drilled. Still, he kept his cool and gave the report smoothly, professionally,
as though he'd been a hired assassin for Zawa's yakuza for years and not
months as was the case. When he'd finished, including the part where Mick
had snapped, his boss nodded sagely, steepling his fingers before his face
and sucking on a cigarette.
"He took Johnny's death harder than I'd thought.
Ah well, he was a loose cannon, that one, I always thought so. I took him
up off the street because I thought I could harness that stifled insanity.
And in a way, I suppose I did. He managed to take three of the enemy down
with him, eh? Heh heh, poor Mickey. I'll say a prayer for him tonight. You
say a prayer too, little raven. Another little orphan out of his misery."
Unsure of what to say, Vincent only nodded. Zawa
eyed him for a moment, briefly running over the man's stats in his mind;
eighteen years old, expert marksman, remorseless, stealthy, loyal as a puppy.
One of Zawa's current favorite assassins. Of course such rankings meant nothing
in Wutai. Vincent could die the next day and he'd quickly find a new young
gunman to place on a pedastal.
"I've told Mr. Hia to double your check, "Zawa
said, a smile stretched across his smoke- concealed face, "I think you deserve
it. Mickey's share, you know. He won't be needing it. Tell me, how do you
feel taking money from a dead man?"
"I. . . "Vincent stuttered, blinking slowly,
unsure how to answer, "I don't feel anything at all particularly, sir."
Zawa apparently found this answer funny as hell.
He burst out into a stream of chuckles, each rolling over the next messily
from his red lips. Vincent winced at the horrible sound. "Dammit, my little
raven, you don't feel anything at all, do you? What an appropriate answer.
I want to know though, do you feel, youngster? Do you have any remorse
for anything at all? I do wonder. . . heh heh. You could almost be a Turk,
you compose yourself so well. You've heard of the Turks of Shinra, haven't
you, young raven? An amazingly efficient organization. Each member is a walking,
talking robot, committed to their duties, committed to the task to be completed
moreso than anything else. Shinra really has himself a force to be reckoned
with in those Turks. They hide under a title, let's see, what is it. . .
ah, the Department of Administrative Research. They're called that out of
mere convenience though, less threatening to the ears and imagination. I've
been reading up on them, making sure that that fuck of a fat president doesn't
send any of them to Wutai. I don't need any extraneous noses butting into
business here. Perhaps I should take you and start my own little group of
Turks, what do you think?"
Again, a question that Vincent had trouble answering
with a "yes" or a "no". Such questions seemed Zawa's specialty. Feeling daring,
he decided to attempt a conversation with the most powerful man in the city.
"I've heard of the Turks, sir, "he began hesitantly, "They walk Midgar and
demand respect with their very presence. They have reputations, sir, people
know who they are by their suits, their attitudes."
"I admire them for their efficiency, you admire
them for the respect they recieve. Hmm. Don't you feel you are respected
Vincent sighed smally, so smally that Zawa didn't
catch it. "Yes, sir."
The yakuza boss stared at his employee for almost
a full two minutes, scrutinizing his expression, sniggering every so often
to himself. After what seemed an eternity, Zawa snapped himself out of his
reverie and swiveled around in his chair to face the rear wall of his office.
A huge painting of a naked woman was hung there. Vincent knew full well what
his boss did inside the room when it was empty and the door was locked.
"No, little raven, perhaps I'll leave the Turks
to Shinra. I don't think he knows what he's getting into. The employees can't
begin to carry more weight than the employer. The people should fear the
name Tetsuo Zawa, not, not. . . I'm sorry, what's your name?"
"Vincent Valentine, sir."
"Ah, that's right. We can't have people fearing
Vincent Valentine and not me. 'Twould disrupt the balance. There's an order
to things. A hierarchy. You understand, don't you?"
Vincent stared at Zawa, his arms rigid at his
sides, his mouth a tight line. "Worms and Kings, sir."
"Yes, that's right, "Zawa nodded, breaking into
a wide grin, "Very perceptive. Heh." The two men stared at eachother for
a moment longer and the office air grew still, expectant. Zawa broke the
brief staring contest by flicking the spent butt of his cigarette into a
nearby trashcan and gracefully going through the procedure of lighting another
one. Vincent watched him soberly. His boss was acting strange tonight, saying
things he didn't usually say. Customarily it was all business, all protocol,
but tonight something seemed to be troubling him. His behavior was making
Vincent nervous as hell but he hid his unease well, sticking a hand in the
pocket of his slacks and breathing shallow to avoid the stifling cigarette
smoke. Zawa ignored him for a little bit, absorbing himself in his cigarette
and in the headlines of a newspaper spread out before him on his desk. Vincent
ran his eyes over the bold headline: "Jeffrey Manook buys out Toshitomo
Industries. Hundreds of jobs lost." Zawa glanced up and saw his employee
reading the article, keen eyes narrowed into black slits to make out the
"You've heard of this?" the man asked him and
Vincent looked suddenly startled, but quickly composed himself. He shook
his head, black strands falling before his vision. "Manook found dirt on
our good friend Mr. Toshitomo a few weeks back. He used it to convince the
man to sell him the steelworks over on the east edge of town. Do you know
why this is bad news for us, little raven?" Zawa eyed Vincent intensely and
the young man fairly squirmed.
Taking a luxurious drag off his cigarette, the
yakuza boss smiled broadly, menace in his beady eyes. "Toshitomo was my own
little slut. The dirt that Manook got on him was dirt I'd had for years.
He was a pimp twenty years ago, one of Wutai's most successful. But his wife
doesn't know this, see? He cleaned up, became a steel tycoon and got hitched
to a pretty little thing from the aristocracy. If his past was discovered,
she'd leave him, take their kids, and he'd fall out of favor with Kisaragi,
lose his government contract, go bankrupt. One fragile flick at the ace of
spades in the card house and the whole bloody castle would come crumbling
down around Toshitomo's head. He knew it. For fucking years I kept him on
a leash with it and he was my inside informant to the house of Godo. When
the pigs raided the docks last spring, Toshitomo was the one who informed
me ahead of time, giving us the oppurtunity to clear out of the warehouses.
That saved our ass. My little raven, Manook has that leash I'd kept so tightly
entwined about Toshitomo's neck in his own hot, sweaty little hand now. And
he's using the information in such a short-sighted way. Using it simply to
get him to sell his company for dirt cheap so Manook can make a little extra
cash. That's not tactics, that's greed and incompetance. It's a waste. A
god damned waste. I hate waste, raven, more than anything. Well, almost anything.
I hate traitors most of all."
Vincent kept his calm brown eyes fixed straight
on his boss, refusing to turn away though Zawa now cast such a scrutinizing
gaze upon him that it could have burnt a hole straight through his head.
"Someone leaked Toshitomo's past. Do you want
to know how I'm sure of this? After discovering his dirty little secrets
myself years ago, I had every trace of his old life smeared away. I must
have had a dozen old whores killed, burnt down an entire neighborhood in
old NorthEast. I went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make the fact that
Toshitomo was an ex-pimp very exclusive information. But somehow, Manook
got a hold of it. And he could have only done so from someone working for
"I'm sorry, sir, but what are you leading up
Zawa chuckled softly, sure he saw apprehension
in his young employee's pale features. "Don't get defensive, little raven.
You're but a common hitman, I'm well aware of that. You've only been here
a few months, hardly time enough to acquire such priviliged information.
But I want you to keep your eyes open, your ears open. Find the son of bitch
who's caused me this aggravation. Then come to me and tell me his name. So
I can carve it in his forehead."
"Yes, sir, "Vincent replied curtly, exhaling
in relief. There was a bead of sweat trickling down the back of his neck,
winding its way through the stray hairs and tickling him unbearably. Still,
he was glad Zawa couldn't see it. The yakuza boss sat back in his seat, his
swiveling chair creaking softly in the still atmosphere. He turned back to
the painting behind his desk and stared at it for a minute thoughtfully.
"That is all."
Vincent blinked a few times then turned to go,
crossing the office to the door with muted steps.
"Oh, and little raven, enjoy dead Mickey's money.
In this line of work, enjoyment is for the living, enjoyment is the reward
given after you've survived another day. Treat yourself to a fine cigar,
a bottle of cognac. Reward the instincts that keep you alive. Perhaps Mickey
didn't treat his well enough. Perhaps that is why his enjoyment is over now.
Hmph. 'Evening to you."
Vincent opened the door and quickly stepped outside
as Zawa launched into a fit of laughter, laughter mixed with the raspy sounds
of a smoker's cough. And the imperialistic chuckles of a man sure he was
as omnipotent as a god. After he'd calmed himself enough to think straight,
he picked up the phone on the corner of his desk and punched in a few numbers.
"Mars. . . " he began once someone on the other end had picked up, "Have
Vincent Valentine followed."
Mr. Hia handed the black-haired young man a fat
check, a frown souring his wrinkled features. Vincent took it with an equally
sour frown which immediately turned into a shocked grimace upon seeing how
many zeroes were scrawled after the initial five.
"Are you sure this is right?" he asked, rubbing
at the back of his head in disbelief. Mr. Hia harumphed and nodded.
"Why don't you just rub it in, you cocky young
bastard, "the old man snapped, turning around and plopping back down at his
desk. He dug about in a pile of papers scattered there, searching for something,
then made a small sound of triumph as he dug a dirty yellow post-it note
out and tossed it to Vincent. The young gunman snatched at the floating paper
and shoved his check securely in his front pants pocket. "Message came for
you while you were out, "Mr. Hia explained impatiently, turning down to his
desktop and beginning to scrawl the daily expenses out in the books. He was
Zawa's accountant and it was a consuming sort of job. "I've told you punks
not to give this number out. Don't you have a phone of your own,
Vincent glanced at the paper. A phone number
and that was all. He shoved it away then turned to Mr. Hia. "You have a bad
attitude, "he remarked, and left the room with a sniff.
The front of the poolhall was a frightening place.
It was frequented mainly by Zawa's yakuza, other customers were usually persuaded
to leave. Most wouldn't even walk past the front of it, any poolhall with
a bodycount seemed an unhealthy place to get too close to. It was dimly lit
inside, the faint yellow light that did filter from the lanterns was absorbed
by the black- painted walls or obscured by the thick clouds of cigarette
and reefer smoke. Vincent entered the place cautiously, a hand stuck inside
his jacket, close to his gun. By rights he was perfectly allowed to be there,
but he still felt ill at ease the way so many of his "co-workers" looked
at him sometimes. Features lit by the soft yellow candlelight, he made his
way to the bar and took a seat at the very end, propping himself delicately
upon a ripped stool. He tucked his feet up under him and leaned his elbows
on the counter, ordering a quick shot of scotch from the beefy bartender
once he'd condescended to glance his way.
"Hey! Vincent! I been looking everywhere for
Vincent didn't move his head, only turned his
eyes in their sockets to see the source of the young fellow addressing him
now. Blonde hair, green eyes, dark complexion covered with a three day growth
of beard, Keen was probably his only real friend in the yakuza. Vincent offered
a small smile as he sat down beside him and ordered a beer.
"So, how'd it go, eh?" Keen looked at his morose
friend with eager eyes, a grin on his rather handsome face.
"It was interesting, if nothing else, "Vincent
replied, fingering his shotglass, "Mick is dead."
"Oh." Keen's grin fell and he leaned heavily
on the bar, green eyes losing a fraction of their sparkle. "Tell me about
"He flipped out. He was talking about that Johnny
Wynn fellow, the one that got shot up, then he went beserk and leapt out
without signalling me, ruining our advantage. We managed to do the job alright,
but Tito Verne took him out in the process. It was funny though, Keen. It
seemed to me that Mick saw Tito raising that gun, he could have avoided it.
Perhaps, he could have even gotten off a shot before him. But Mick just stood
there, watching that handcannon coming around to steal his life away. I don't
get it. Crazy idiot."
Vincent gulped his drink irritabley and Keen
popped open his bottle of beer with a practiced flip of his wrist. "He get
a chance to say anything about it?"
Vincent looked up in mild surprise at the question,
"He was babbling about, about worms or some bunk.
He never was the sanest guy in Wutai."
"You don't seem too worked up over it, man."
Keen half-shut his eyes wearily, his heavy head sinking between his shoulders
as a yawn wracked his frame. "But then, I'm forgetting who I'm talking to.
I doubt you'd bother to bat your eyes if someone set your hair on fire."
Vincent shrugged as Keen laughed at him, downing the last of his scotch and
then getting up abrubtly from his stool. "Aw, man, I'm just screwing with
ya, don't get offended and leave. Nothing worse'n drinking alone on a saturday
night, er, morning."
Vincent shook his head slightly, then walked
towards the door leading outside, saying quietly, "Keen, we need to talk."
The words sobered Keen right up. He plopped a few gil on the bar and followed
Vincent out of the poolhall, throwing a wave or two to the few men inside
whom he knew. Once outside, he saw his friend walking quickly down the deserted
dirty sidewalk away from the place, his hands stuck in the pockets of the
black jacket he always wore. His narrow shoulders were drawn up and his eyes
were cast to the ground, his entire form illuminated by the pale white moonlight
trying its damnedest to squeeze through the clouds. Keen jogged up to walk
beside him, resuming his grinning.
"What's up?" he asked, nose wrinkling distastefully
as the full force of the humidity struck him dead on. Vincent was silent
a moment, some thought heavy on his mind, and then he sighed quietly, looking
up briefly at his friend. "It's getting dangerous, Keen, "he whispered, eyes
"Dangerous?" Keen answered back, his voice just
as low, his eyes suddenly darting all about their empty surroundings. It
was something like three in the morning and the streets were vacant, the
sidewalks clear of people, but Keen knew the very walls had ears. He himself
had overheard a lot of sacred information in his days. He knew that complete
safety from prying ears was a myth. "It's always been dangerous, Vincent.
Why you bringin' it up now? I told you, goddammit, not to worry about it.
Not to say anything, not to do anything, not to even frigging think anything.
This. . . this is all my situation, my business. Let me deal with it. Nothing
to do with you."
Keen kicked at a crumbled coke can lying forlorn
on the sidewalk. It shot away before him with a terrible racket that made
the two men wince. Vincent eyed the ground as he walked, all emotion cleared
from his face. "Zawa is getting suspicious." Keen looked up but Vincent wouldn't
meet his gaze, "He's asked me to keep my eyes open. He told me to report
anything I found to him immediately."
"And will you?" Keen ran a hand through his
sweat-matted blonde hair, keeping his green eyes fixed dead on his friend's
face. Vincent shrugged.
"Of course not. I swore to you that what you
told me would be sacred. Not for an instant, Keen, not for a fraction of
second did I ever even consider telling Zawa that. . . that you did what
you did. I just wanted to warn you though that not every man working under
Tetsuo Zawa is as loyal to you as I. Watch your back."
"I know to watch my back, "Keen grumbled, "Dammit,
of course I know that. Don't you think I've been fuckin' sweating like a
pig in a slaughterhouse ever since I made that call to Manook? I sleep with
my gun on now, did you know that?"
Vincent shook his head but didn't reply. He couldn't
feel pity for his friend. Keen had brought it on himself. He'd given Manook
the information on Toshitomo, he'd played the role of a traitor and a backstabber
to Zawa, and if such a thing was ever discovered, Keen would pay the reckoning
in blood. And Vincent couldn't pity him. In his calculating mind, Keen's
sufferings were his own fault. Just as Tito Verne's had been. "I hope he
appreciates this. . . "Keen muttered, walking a little faster down the sidewalk,
making Vincent double his pace to keep up.
"You're saving his life, I'm sure he does."
Keen chuckled, throwing a wink to his friend.
"I've saved my father's life more times than I can count, Vincent, and he's
yet to buy me a thank-you card. I should stop hoping that he'll ever begin
to realize the sort of crap I've had to drag myself through to keep men from
putting bullets in his brain. Gods, of all the people for him to fall into
debt with, he had to welch out on Jeffrey Manook. Do you think Manook knew?
Do you think that's why he let my father fall so far into debt with him?
Almost two million gil, Vincent, two million. The standard limit is 500 K,
then Manook's men take you out if you can't pay. It's that simple. But for
some reason they let my old man fall four times deeper. Do you think he
"What, that you were his son and you worked for
Zawa?" Vincent half shut his eyes wearily, black stands of hair falling in
his face, "I'm sure he knew quite well, Keen. Manook isn't stupid."
"No, the prick's not stupid. Vicious, but not
stupid. S'funny, y'know. I went to Zawa, asking him if he'd ever be taking
Manook out. His entire organization is growing larger every month. Him buying
out Toshitomo only adds to it. But Zawa's so cocky, so damned sure of himself.
He won't even bother with Manook. I wonder if he'll bother now, now he's
gotten his hands on that steel company. Now that Zawa's own employee played
the part of a traitor just to keep his old man alive."
"Watch it, Keen, "Vincent said sharply, "Don't
ever say that outloud."
"Yeah, you're right. If I can make it through
the year, I'll have enough money to relocate pops and myself to Kalm. I've
always wanted to live in Kalm. You ever been there?"
"That's right, you've never been out of Wutai,
have you? You should see Kalm some time, Vincent. The entire town exists
in a tint of blue. Every little house is a work of art. There's no slums,
no dirty alleys, no killing feverishly in the hopes that one day you won't
have to kill anymore. Kalm is beautiful. And I'm going to live there one
Vincent nearly smiled at his friend's enthusiasm,
yet anxiety settled heavy in his heart. If Zawa discovered that Keen had
leaked the information on Toshitomo's past to Manook, he'd have the man blinded,
castrated, and cooked alive. It didn't matter that Keen's actions had been
performed out of a love for his father and not a lust for money. Treachery
was treachery no matter what light it was viewed in.
Keen halted suddenly outside of a beat up old
apartment building standing featureless and grey against the dark empty streets.
"Welp, here's your place. What's the plan for tomorrow, you wanna go to Eddie's,
he's throwing a party. Good opportunity to get laid, throw back a few."
Vincent shrugged, pulling his keys from his pocket
and tossing them back and forth in his hands. "Actually, I have some work
to do tomorrow." Keen shot his friend a knowing look, grinning savagely.
"I don't know why I even ask you, Vincent, I
don't know when I'll ever realize it's a waste of breath trying to get you
out and get you to have a good time. You need to lighten up, man. You're
about the gloomiest SOB I know. I'm the one with my neck always on the line
over my dad and I never stop smiling. But you, you're sitting pretty, you're
Zawa's golden boy and pulling in fifty thousand dollar paychecks. Yet you
never goddamn seem to be happy."
"If you're trying to boost my ego you're doing
a terrible job."
Groaning, Keen clapped Vincent roughly on the
back then took off whistling down the street. Though he joked about it, he
really was tired of always getting the brush-off from his friend. Hell, he
wasn't even sure if Vincent was his friend, he never wanted to spend any
time with him, or go out anywhere, or even frigging speak more than two sentences
at a time to him. He preferred to either work or sit hibernating in his
apartment. Keen wished he'd learn how to cut loose, learn how to start acting
like a real pal. There was something in the man's eyes that made Keen want
to see him happy, really happy, if only once. He just had to figure out how
to make that happen.
Vincent watched his friend go with unease in
his eyes, then turned and entered his apartment building. It was dark inside,
dark and featureless and grey except for the scatterings of drunks and transients
spread out in the hallway. One was throwing his meager dinner of cheap whisky
up against the wall and Vincent sidestepped the widening puddle with a disgusted
sneer of his lip. The hall was encrusted in such filth, both the human sort
and the regular kind; caked trash and year old bottles of beer, black mildew
formed around the dead husks of vermin and shoved in the corners. Vincent
could have afforded something better, especially with the bulging check in
his pocket, but he didn't care enough to move. He'd lived in that apartment
for three years and any ambition he'd ever had to leave it had flown away.
Besides, he didn't usually notice his surroundings. He spent most of his
time in his head anyways. Though that wasn't the cleanest of locations either,
it beat out the filthy old building easily.
Vincent entered his dark, cramped apartment and
flung his jacket and keys on the scratched kitchen table. He hated being
home, the place was like a tomb. Three rooms with one window. The light it
shone in during the day was barely enough to read by and at night it was
perfect black. It used to be that Vincent never turned the lights on, he
couldn't afford it, but now, even though he made enough working for Zawa
that such a simple thing as light was no longer a luxary, he was used to
the darkness. In fact, anything else made him uncomfortable.
Sighing, he flung himself on the mattress he
used as a bed and lay there for a moment, staring through the air, going
through the events of the day. He filed everything away neatly in his mind;
the bodies of Tito's men laying bloody and twitching on the ground, Zawa's
praise and Zawa's request and Zawa's money, Keen's indifference, and then
Mick's last words.
"Worms. . . "Vincent breathed aloud, moving an
arm back behind his head, "I'm not a worm. I'm the best damned assassin in
this stinking city. I am not a worm."
Wutai was a mecca of garbage, a nice place to
visit but a terrible place to live. An even worse place to grow up in. Vincent
had had nearly nineteen years to figure that out. The city was structured
in a hiercharchy that even Midgar would've envied. There was the fathead
house of Kisaragi, the rulers of the little kingdom, and then of course the
scattered "aristocracy", those families rich enough in gil and breeding to
influence Godo whenever their petty wants called for it. Everyone else was
a peasant. The peasants worked and slaved and died in the seedy parts of
town, in the NorthEast, in the Doroboo no Mori, the dark places that the
aristocracy whispered of to eachother but that people like Vincent knew as
"But I'm not a worm. . . "
Breathing deep of the stale apartment air, Vincent
turned his head to look out the tiny window. It was hardly discernible from
the rest of the wall, the building right next to his was only a foot away
and stifled most illumination from outside. Still, a small amount of starlight
filtered down from above. It was something, at least, that broke the monotony
of the inky blackness. He could of course just flick his desklamp on, but
something tonight made him want to avoid harshness, made him want to hide
away from things. He didn't know what it was, just some stupid feeling, this
hinderance of a sixth sense that he got sometimes about things. So he remained
sprawled on his bed, staring off at nothing, Mick's words occasionally floating
into his mind and screwing with his thoughts for reasons he couldn't even
An hour or two passed and when the phone rang
Vincent wasn't sure if he'd been asleep or not. He sat up suddenly, blinking
hard, looking around for the little red light that bleeped on his phone when
it rang. He groped about in the dark for a second and finally held the receiver
in his hand.
"Yeah, who's this?"
He ran a hand over his face, yawning wide, trying
to wake himself up. With the lights off and the room black it was as though
his eyes weren't even open.
"It's Arthur, how ya doing?"
"Arthur. . . " Vincent ran the name through his
mind and then suddenly straightened, instantly awake, "Uncle Arthur? Oh,
hey there. How are you doing?"
"I've been trying to get a hold of you for the
last twenty-four hours, son. Don't you ever answer your phone?"
"I work a lot, sir."
"I left a message at that emergency number you
gave me. Didn't you get it?"
Vincent suddenly remembered the little yellow
post-it note that Mr. Hia had thrown at him and sighed. "Yes, I'm sorry.
I forgot to call back. What's the matter? Is everything all right?"
There was a pause on the other end, a pause long
enough to allow a million horrible possibilities to form in Vincent's mind.
He'd never heard his uncle sound so upset. He was usually a pretty lively
guy and since it had been nearly five months since they'd last spoken, Vincent
figured he should have sounded somewhat happier to talk to him.
"Vincent. . . "his uncle began, his tone soft
and strained, "There's been an accident."
"Your father and mother were on their way to
their lawyers. Nothing serious, your dad was looking to file a suit against
a few former clients. Well, something happened and. . . and there was an
"Are they all right?"
"No, son. They took your mom to the hospital.
. . but she only lasted a short time."
Arthur waited for a response, listening to his
nephew's breathing on the other end.
"They're dead, Vincent. They're gone."
There was a long silence on both sides of the
connection then. Arthur stayed quiet, letting the sobering news sink into
his nephew's senses, while tears came into his own eyes, tears he'd thought
were spent. But then he'd had a feeling they'd come again once he had to
tell his sister's only child that she and his father were dead. He waited
for a long time, waited for Vincent to give some sign that he understood.
"When's the funeral?" he finally asked in a calm,
"This all happened on Friday, so it's tomorrow.
At Marlbury Fields."
"Alright then. Thank you for calling me, sir.
I'll see you in the morning."
And Vincent hung the phone up before his uncle
could get another word out.
Mars was a big guy. He had to walk sideways through
most doors to avoid scraping the hell out of his shoulders. He sat now in
a chair before Tetsuo Zawa, with his feet propped up on the man's awe-inspiring
desk. Every so often he gave his tobacco a chew and raked a hand across a
few mosquito bites on his chest then moved up to rub at his stubbly chin.
Zawa had his back to him and was staring up at that painting of the naked
chick. Mars looked up at it too but didn't find her particularly hot. Bad
"So, Mr. Zawa, what do you want me and the crew
to do next?"
Zawa stood silent for a few moments, deep in
contemplation, a thin line of cigarette smoke rising up from his head and
disappearing into the black ceiling of his dim office. He turned slowly around
and depressed the play button on a tape player laying on his desk. After
a few grainy moments of tape fuzz, it began to play.
". . .Gods, of all the people for him to fall
into debt with, he had to welch out on Jeffrey Manook. Do you think Manook
knew? Do you think that's why he let my father fall so far into debt with
him? Almost two million gil, Vincent, two million. The standard limit is
500 K, then Manook's men take you out if you can't pay. It's that simple.
But for some reason they let my old man fall four times deeper. Do you think
"What, that you were his son and you worked for
Zawa? I'm sure he knew quite well, Keen. Manook isn't stupid."
"No, the prick's not stupid. Vicious, but not
stupid. S'funny, y'know. I went to Zawa, asking him if he'd ever be taking
Manook out. His entire organization is growing larger every month. Him buying
out Toshitomo only adds to it. But Zawa's so cocky, so damned sure of himself.
He won't even bother with Manook. I wonder if he'll bother now, now he's
gotten his hands on that steel company. Now that Zawa's own employee played
the part of a traitor just to keep his old man alive."
"Watch it, Keen, don't ever say that outloud."
"Yeah, you're right. If I can make it through
the year, I'll have enough money to relocate pops and myself to Kalm. I've
always wanted to live in Kalm. You ever-- ?"
Zawa stopped the tape abrubtly, jamming the button
with a petulant figure. He had a look on his face so icily furious it made
Mars shiver. The beefy man squirmed in his seat, then gingerly took his feet
from his boss's desk, planting them firmly on the floor. Zawa sucked deep
of his cigarette, releasing a delicate cloud of blue smoke into the air.
His black eyes glimmered.
"Keen Vera, that's his name?" the yakuza boss
"Yeah, from NorthEast. Works with Berno in the
IA. He'd have access to the Toshitomo information. I'm pissed at myself for
not realizing it was him before. It makes sense, it would have to be someone
from IA, no one else knew."
"All to save his daddy. . . "Zawa said in something
like disbelief, "Rather low of Manook, eh? As Keen said, he had to have known
the man worked for me. He milked his father dry, then threatened to kill
him if Keen didn't come up with the money. And of course he couldn't come
up with two million gil so he had no other choice but to find . . . an
alternative method of payment. Tricky, tricky." Zawa chuckled darkly, lowering
himself into his deskchair and swiveling slowly back and forth, a hand to
his chin, stroking it thoughtfully. The way he was acting, Mars thought that
maybe Zawa would feel compassionate for Keen and let him off, seeing as how
he his actions were done only to aid his father. It would have been a first
for Tetsuo Zawa, compassion wasn't exactly his defining characteristic, but
Mars thought that it would be perfectly understandable. He knew he'd do the
same if in Zawa's shoes.
"So what'll it be, sir?" the beefy man asked
hesitantly. Zawa stared at the painting a moment longer, licking his lips
"Well, they have to die, obviously, "Zawa began,
"Say the word, Mr. Zawa, and they'll be dead
in ten minutes."
"Don't be ridiculous, I can go down the street
and kill a couple of tourists if I want to. But they didn't fuck with me
like Keen Vera did. No, Mars, we have to do something a little more interesting.
Something that Manook'll see and remember. Something I can take a polaroid
of and send to him. Let him hang it on his fridge."
"I can have Nengasai go at them with a piece
of paper and a lemon if you want. But sir, Valentine too?"
At the mention of the name, Zawa nearly cringed,
feeling a dangerous anger mounting in his chest. He pressed a button on the
tape player again and listened to a snippet of the conversation, listening
especially close to the sound of Vincent's voice. His fists closed around
the edge of his desk, gripping it so tightly he left indentations in the
soft wood. There was his number one assassin, helping someone plot against
him. Gods, it made him want to tear the man apart with his bare hands. He'd
stood right there and looked him square in the eye, saying he knew nothing
of the Manook/Toshitomo deal. A lying, treacherous snake. Zawa would have
his head for it.
"Sweet-faced little bastard. . . "he hissed.
Mars looked upon him warily. "For some reason this Keen fellow doesn't irritate
me nearly as terrible as my little raven. I feel I should pluck and cook
that bird myself. Yet. . . " Zawa turned away and rubbed a few fat fingers
against his forehead, as though there was a pain there, "I don't want him
punished, not really. He's only a child. Yet. . . god dammit! Follow me,
Mars. And call some of the boys. Call Nengasai."
Zawa stalked forth from behind his desk and headed
towards the door, Mars on his heels with his cellphone out and already pressed
against his thick lips. The yakuza boss gave a clock on the wall a glance
as he thundered past it. It was late as hell. But that was good. Predators
came out at night.
Wutai sweated. The sticky, humid breeze that
had blown through the city the entire night now subsided, letting the full
force of the summer heat blare its fury onto the sidewalks. The streetlights
seemed hazy shining through such hot wetness; they shimmered and wavered
like candles in a zephyr. The unmarked buildings of Vincent's dirty neighborhood
stood like faceless soldiers in a lineup of dead men, awaiting coroners that
would never come to give them identities and lay them to rest. Mosquitoes
buzzed restlessly, flies settled and resettled on the heaps of garbage piled
around the buildings while two stray dogs, their coats matted with so much
mud it seemed they didn't even have fur anymore, fought over a few pizza
crusts, whining and snapping at eachother's faces.
Inside one of the buildings, on the third floor,
laying half naked diagonally across his mattress, Vincent Valentine stared
into the darkness. A thick sweat stood out on his bare chest and brow, ran
cold down the sides of his face, matted his fine black hair against his scalp.
His beautiful brown eyes looked at nothing, wide and unfocased as a turmoil
of thoughts ran behind them. The phone had rung almost ten times before they
blinked softly and Vincent shook his head, eyeing the flashing red button
on the console in something like fear. It could be his uncle again and Vincent
just didn't want to bother. His insides felt too numb to deal with his own
grief much less anyone else's. Not a flicker of emotion had crossed his pale
face since hearing the news of his parents' deaths and this bothered him
more than if he'd suddenly burst into tears.
The phone kept ringing and Vincent pushed his
thoughts aside, his fears too, and picked up the receiver.
"Hey, Vincent, you weren't asleep were you?"
It was Keen. Vincent ran a hand over his dripping
face, flinging sweat away disgustedly, then rested his head against the wall,
shutting his eyes.
"No, Keen, what is it?"
"You sound weird, are you all right?"
"Yeah, just tired."
"I didn't think you'd be asleep, you don't usually
pass out until dawn. I thought you'd wanna come over and order a pizza.
Something's screwy with my cable and I have free porn, how tight is that?"
"You're screwed up."
"Hey, I'm going to take advantage of this while
it lasts. You game?"
Vincent leaned back heavily, taking a deep breath.
He was hungry. And he was tired of sitting in the dark thinking about his
parents. "Yeah, I'll be over in a minute. Pineapple and ham on the pizza,
"Yeah, on your half maybe. Later."
The connection went dead with a click and Vincent
tossed the receiver back on the console, rising from his mattress with a
popping spine. He stepped into the bathroom and cleaned himself off, drawing
a sinkful of water and immersing his head into it. Glancing in the dirty
mirror he saw he looked like hell. His eyes were more bloodshot than normal
and his skin was ghostly, especially against the strands of snake-like black
hair sticking against it. He reached a shaking hand out and laid it on his
reflection, the cool, smooth surface of the mirror feeling good against his
feverish fingers. He almost couldn't believe such a spectre as he existed.
After drying himself off and tossing on some
clothes, Vincent walked the three steps from his bathroom to his front door,
grabbing his jacket on the way. Something felt weird in its pocket, smacking
him in the hip as he tried to throw the garment over his arm. At first he
thought maybe he'd left a spare clip of ammo or something in it but as he
reached inside the pocket, his fingers closed around a very flat, inch-wide
tablet. One side was all over with circuitry. The other side was a round
speaker, the size of a five gil coin. Vincent turned the tiny object over
and over in his hand, a frown slowly spreading across his fine features.
Throwing his jacket aside, he immediately dropped
the device to the floor and smashed it to pieces beneath his shoe. Then he
checked his Magnum and tucked it into his pants, walking quickly to his closet
and pulling out a trenchcoat. He pulled it on calmly, flipping the collar
down and loading the pockets with ammo. Finally, moving cool but quick, he
withdrew a Barrett M82A1 rifle from the darker confines, gave it a once over
with expert hands, and tucked it into his coat.
Without a word of banter, without a single glance
at his room, he was suddenly out the door and creeping downstairs.
Face a mask of emotionless stone, Vincent exitted
his apartment building from the side, coming out in one of Wutai's innumerable
allies. Dark wetness spread to his left and right, humidity smacking him
roughly upside the head, sending the sweat soaking through his clothes. Melding
with the shadows, he made his way towards the street, stepping softly to
avoid rippling the puddles of anonymous liquid laying pooled in the cracked
pavement. The street before his building was deserted, silent, just as it
should be at four in the morning. He stood stock still just inside the confines
of the alley shadows, looking out with narrowed eyes, one hand fingering
the handle of his gun. The night buzzed all around him, pressed in on him.
He didn't have any idea what he was looking for, what he expected to see.
That is he didn't until he actually saw it.
A sleek black cadillac, amazingly enough the
same that had picked him up after he'd offed Tito Verne and his men earlier
that evening. It glided down the street like a silent black panther, its
windows tinted, its occupants unknown. It slid to an arrogant halt just across
the street from his building and Vincent watched it in sickened anticipation.
It remained parked there for a long time and the man began to tire of standing
after a while, the sweat rolling off and dampening every part of him till
it felt like he'd never be dry and comfortable again. Just when he thought
he could bear it no longer, the left passenger window slid down halfway and
he was able to see inside somewhat. With the limited light and the distance
between them, Vincent couldn't make too much out. But he saw clearly the
back of the driver's head. White hair. He recognized him as a guy named Smith,
Zawa's own chauffer. Was Zawa there himself? Had he come personally to shoot
down his little raven?
Vincent pulled out his rifle, raising the scope
to his eye. Through the crosshairs he saw someone raising something of his
own out of the window of the caddy. A goddamned rocket launcher. They had
it pointed right at his apartment window. Thinking fast and licking his lips,
Vincent aimed for the barely visible top of the driver's head and pulled
the trigger, just as the man inside the car did the same. All in the same
instant, the world turned to hell. The top of Smith's head was peeled off
like the cap of a beerbottle, flying forward and splattering on the front
windshield in a spray of thick red. At the same time, a plume of smoke poured
out the barrel of the rocket launcher followed by a stream of sparks that
lit the night brilliantly. In the glow, through the magnification of the
scope, Vincent saw Mars, Zawa's personal bodyguard behind the weapon. Before
he had time to even mutter an oath of surprise, the missile shot out of the
launcher and screamed towards the building, striking with an impact that
shattered the night and threatened to send every star in heaven raining down
around his head. But Vincent didn't wait around for the shower. Returning
his rifle to his coat, he took off running at full speed, an explosion of
cement, glass, and steel raging around him. The entire apartment building
burned and the wretched occupants streamed out the doors, screaming and swearing
and shaking their fists as their faces were lit up red by the roar of the
Vincent only hazarded a quick glance at the black
smoke billowing up from his former home. It stood stark and ugly against
the dark blue sky, lit orange in places by the blaze. So Zawa knows, he thought
to himself numbly, Zawa knows because of me and that damned wire.
He had to get to Keen.
In the distance he heard the screech of tires
and redoubled his efforts, shooting down the sidewalks of the dark neighborhood
like an uncaged demon. He had his Magnum gripped in his hand, it was a blur
of silver as he pumped his arms and ran. Streetlights, mailboxes, payphones
and the mocking, gaping faces of buildings flashed by him as he steered his
way to old NorthEast. He had to get to Keen.
Selfish, Vincent, selfish. I don't know why
you turned out this way. Your mother and I gave you everything, so much more
than we ever had. The best clothes, the best school, everything anyone could
ever want. And what did we ask in return? Only that you grow up and make
something of yourself. I don't understand you. We don't understand you. Why
can't you act like a human being? Like a son of the aristocracy?
It was a spiel he'd gotten from his father a
lot when he was younger. He was selfish. He was starting to believe that
It would take so little to make us happy.
I've had to work my entire life to gain acceptance by the Kisaragi. And now
it's starting to get a little easier. With their influence, the jobs are
rolling in. But to keep that we need to get you in there! Go to Godo, Vincent,
join the army! He can get you in as an officer! That's all your mother and
I have ever asked of you. Please, don't be selfish, do this for us. .
As he ran the noise of the fire died away. Glancing
back he saw the skies lit up a brilliant red and the perfect black of the
smoke blotted out the light of heaven. The night sky was so gorgeous, a tapestry
of blue velvet punched at intervals by the divine white light of stars. But
the fire roared up into it, and hell overpowered heaven, taking control of
the sky. Vincent didn't know if the cadillac was following him or not. He
had no clue if he'd been seen when he'd taken out the driver. He only knew
that his short span of employment for Tetsuo Zawa was over. And so was his
They would kill him, Vincent had no doubts about
that. Even if he hadn't just blown off Zawa's chauffer's head, he was still
a traitor who'd withheld information, who'd known of Keen's betrayal and
not acted on it. The judge's signature was on his death warrant. His neck
was in the noose. He wondered briefly when they'd planted the bug on him
and how long he'd had the device in his pocket. It didn't really matter.
Wondering was useless. There was nothing to do now but wait for that bullet
that would still his heart. It was a queer thought, that. The fact that there
was a bullet, or a knife somewhere right then that would soon kill him. An
emotionless piece of metal now sitting on a shelf, or in someone's pocket
or waiting in the chamber of a gun. A queerer thought was the fact that Vincent
was now seemingly seeking it out. He was running to Keen's.
A wooden sign flashed by his eyes, a battered
board nailed into a brick wall. Old NorthEast, it read in cracked and running
paint. Some idiot had written "Abandon all hope, Ye who enter here" beneath
the name. Looking over his shoulder, Vincent saw the fire was only a dim
orange glow in the sky now, a nearly invisible imperfection in the blue.
Everything he owned, every measley possession, was burning in the blaze.
The only pictures he had of his parents were curling and turning to ash amidst
the inferno. But it didn't matter. He was going to die anyway. No one escaped
the wrath of Zawa, no one. And he was going to die.
Keen's apartment building loomed in the distance,
a grey featureless structure just like every other one in old NorthEast.
The windows of the top two floors were hidden by boards, mildew ran black
down its sides, it was a generally ugly piece of architecture. Vincent slowed
his gait as he approached it, breathing hard, blinking sweat from his eyes.
His right hand moved to grip the cold steel of his gun. He ran his fingers
over the pebbled handle texture, taking a deep breath through his nose. His
head was pounding for no apparent reason. Ducking into an alley only a block
down from the building, he leaned heavily against the wall there, trying
to catch his breath, trying to get the ache in his head to subside. He listened
to the noises all around him; distant cars, distant sirens, distant shouts
came from the far away fire. A dog barked in a nearby yard, a radio blared
jazz a few buildings down. It was almost peaceful out. Almost dawn.
Why was he here? He could duck out, buy passage
to out of the city, take advantage of his early discovery of the wire. Instead
he was about to enter the wasps' nest to save a friend who was probably already
dead and whom he couldn't deliver from his inevitable fate anyways. Was it
for loyalty? Was that it? Gods, he didn't know. Keen deserved all this. Vincent
himself deserved it for not revealing to Zawa what he knew. Why then was
he here? Why?
He supposed it was because he had no where else
He would face his fate dead on. And spit in the
devil's eye. He didn't mind dying. He minded the possibility that he'd have
to face his parents again in the here after. They'd scold him for wasting
the life they'd worked so hard to give him. But oh well. He supposed they'd
gotten themselves killed just to spite him, perhaps knowing somehow that
his own time alive was drawing to a close. They couldn't let their son escape
that easily. They'd go ahead of him and warm up the fires of hell. Movements
careful and muffled, his form like a living, breathing shadow, Vincent stepped
slowly from the alley, his hand wrapped about the reassuring handle of his
Magnum. It all seemed now like a simple matter of how many people he would
take with him to meet his folks.
It was a quick walk down the sidewalk to the
apartment building. Vincent noticed one of Zawa's caddy's parked out front.
They'd even stuck a coin in the meter. A quick inspection showed the car
to be empty, so Vincent knelt down and neatly slashed the tires. As he was
rising from his stoop, the glimmer of another vehicle parked a few blocks
down, hidden in the shadows between two buildings, caught his eye. The black
cadillac from before. It must have taken a different way there and not passed
Vincent up. This just wasn't working out well. They'd know he was coming.
"This is suicide. . . "he mumbled to himself,
gripping the handle of his gun tighter. But for some reason, it didn't matter.
The thought of fleeing right then was disgusting, it made him want to retch.
He had no idea why, but he immediately began making for the front door of
Keen's apartment building. He opened the sticky door slowly, pistol arm held
out rigid before him.
Keen's building was infinitely nicer than his.
Parts of old NorthEast were rather upper-middle class in character and this
neighborhood was of that disposition. The white walls of the hallway were
freshly painted, the aroma of it tickled his nose. There wasn't the scuttle
and scurry of rats and roaches that he was used to hearing, nor were there
the occasional screams and gunshots. It was nice inside. A baby cried in
the distance. The sound made his eyes open wide. A family lived there. Moving
his booted feet soundlessly over the newly-polished planks of the floor,
Vincent walked the length of the hall towards the stairwell at the very end.
He paused once there, and listened intently again to the night. Silence.
Peace. But they were lies, he knew for a fact that Zawa's men were there.
Vincent saw his hands trembling around his gun and scolded himself. Damned
coward, he cursed mentally, A Shinra Turk wouldn't be nervous. A Shinra Turk
would put all personal issues aside and concentrate solely on the job at
hand. Worrying about dying is a personal issue. Stop thinking about it
The door to the stairwell opened without a sound
and Vincent leapt inside, brandishing his gun in all directions, nearly blinded
by the sudden light that met his eyes. Once he was certain it was safe to
do so, he calmed down. The cold, echoing stairwell was empty. The lights
were on, were obviously left on all night, but there was no one there. However
he kept his guard up as he ascended, eyes narrowed ferociously.
The second floor of the apartment building was
every bit as nice as the first. And every bit as empty. Where were the hitmen?
Where the hell was Keen? If he was going to die, he wanted to hurry and get
it over with, the anticipation was giving him a headache. Features beginning
to give away his irritation, Vincent walked rather quickly down the hallway
towards Keen's room at the very end. He was itching to shoot something.
The noise was very loud in the still air. It
was sharp, metallic, lethal. It was the sound of a gun being cocked. Vincent
threw himself to the ground just as a flurry of rounds whizzed over his head.
They were being fired from an open doorway only ten feet away, the flash
of a pistol going off revealed the gunman's location easily. Vincent rolled
forward, returning a few shots of his own, knowing he'd feel hot lead in
his flesh any instant. There was no cover and no where to go. He'd failed
Keen's voice bellowed his name like a prayer
and he hazarded a single look towards its source. Keen had opened the apartment
door right beside him just a fraction of an inch and had his eye pressed
against the crack. He threw the door opened wide and Vincent flung himself
inside, a snapping mad line of bullets nipping at his heels. Keen closed
the door with a crash and sealed the deadbolt, backing away from it and
swallowing hard. Looking uncharacteristically perturbed, Vincent picked himself
off the carpet of the apartment he now found himself in and looked around,
breathing quickly, immediately reloading his gun.
"I'm sorry, but I never got around to ordering
Keen grinned weakly, clapping his friend on the
back. Vincent shot him an uninterpretable stare then shrugged, clicking the
clip of ammo neatly into place.
"They had me bugged, "he remarked, walking quickly
towards the nearest window and looking out. Keen nodded, taking the room's
"I heard an explosion, got up and looked outside.
I saw them pulling up. Zawa, Nengasai, and two others. I figured unless they'd
heard I had free porn and wanted in on the action, they were here to kill
me. So I appropriated Mr. Norton's appartment here and waited for the bastards
to come up the stairs, hoping to surprise 'em. But they wanted me to see
'em first, I'm sure of it. I don't know why but they did or they wouldn't
have been so sloppy with their entrance. Anyway, they came up here with a
couple of frigging submachine guns so I knew I had no chance of cracking
open the door there and popping shots off at them with my piddley little
10mm. They've been in my place, waiting to make their move. And then you
showed up. Are you okay?"
Vincent nodded, eyeing the shut door in
"That explosion came from my apartment. They
blew it up. I managed to get out in time and then made my way here. I got
Smith but it was Mars, you know, that big guy with the scars, who took my
place out. They're here too, I saw their car."
"But why are you here, Vincent?" Keen
asked the question softly, looking at his friend in the dim moonlight. Vincent
shifted uncomfortably, fidgeting with his gun.
"That's a stupid question, Keen. You know why."
"I'm not sure I do. Since the day I met you four
months ago, you've acted as though you didn't give a damn for anyone, not
even yourself. Why then are you here tonight? You could have headed straight
for the docks after fleeing Mars. But you came here, into the heart of the
madness. What's up?"
Vincent turned and looked outside, into the dirty,
humid sky. The stars winked at him weakly, asking the same question. What
was up with Vincent Valentine?
"You're a comrade, "he answered stiffly, "I watch
your back, you watch mine."
"There's another word for that you know, "Keen
said lowly, "It's called a friend."
Vincent shrugged, uncomfortable with the
conversation. He didn't like having so much attention on himself. "Whatever
you want to label it, Keen, "he said dismissively, "If it makes you feel
better to hear it, then fine. I'm here because you're my friend. Probably
the only one of Zawa's bastards who's every condescended to talk with me."
"Heh, you're human afterall. I suspected as much,
"Keen said with a brief smile, "Friends for real now then? You'll tell me
about yourself? Actually listen to me when I talk?"
"I always did listen. And I looked out for you,
I warned you this evening about Zawa. Don't say I haven't acted like a
"You haven't acted like a friend. You've acted
like a comrade. Ha, don't worry, Vincent. It seems to me you haven't spent
a very large portion of your life concentrating on learning how to be friendly.
I'll have to teach you a trick or two. It isn't hard once you get started."
"I wouldn't worry too much about the lessons.
I doubt there's much time for them."
"Hmph." Keen looked to the door, shifting his
gun around in his hands. It seemed clear outside the windows, but they
were on the second floor. The apartment door protecting them from
the hallway however was nothing but flimsy particle board. He was surprised
Zawa hadn't blasted his way inside already.
"Do we wait here for them to make their move?"
Vincent asked coolly. Keen shrugged, helpless, and leaned back against the
"We can't afford to play anyway but defensively.
I want to stay alive long enough to go to Eddie's party tomorrow. And you're
Vincent didn't even bother arguing such an absurd
statement. He felt strange, waiting there for death, for life, for whatever
would happen. Waiting there with a friend. Gods, it was weird to use that
word. But it seemed the mystery had been solved. He'd come here to help a
friend. A strange thing for him to admit to himself but it was true. He just
hadn't recognized such an unselfish act. He shot a quick glance to Keen.
The man looked rather calm, standing there with his arms folded across his
chest, jiggling his gun and staring stoicly at the door.
"I hope my old man appreciates this. . . "he
mumbled, smiling slightly. Then, though the situation was dire and uncertain,
their fates all but sealed, for the first time in a few months, Vincent laughed.
"Mr. Zawa, sir, Valentine is here."
At the words, Zawa frowned so hard his eyes squeezed
"Did my little raven fly into Keen's nest then?
That is unfortunate."
Mars cleared his throat, wishing his boss would
cut it with the metaphors. "Yes, sir."
Zawa stood from the swivel chair he'd been perched
in and began pacing the length of Keen's small apartment. The lights were
off, the only illumination was a blue-tinted one from the television, where
a really bad porno flick had been left on to play itself out. Mars' eye kept
straying towards it. Arms crossed close around his chest, Zawa gave his employee
a disgusted glance. And then he sighed, a soft, almost sad sigh that made
Mars look up, curious.
"I wanted him dead, Mars, "Zawa said viciously,
turned around to face the man, nearly snarling his words, "I wanted him dead
quick, easy, no fuss. Why couldn't you manage that?"
"He must've known we were comin'!" Mars stuttered,
taking a step back, "I didn't think it was such a great idea planting the
bug in the pocket of his fuckin' coat but you didn't give me very much time
to arrange anything else, sir."
For a moment, Zawa looked like he'd rip the man's
head clean from his neck and dunk it in a trashcan. But the stormclouds suddenly
parted and his features calmed. "You're right, of course, Mars, I apologize.
Still, this only. . . complicates things."
Mars scratched at his hairline then stuck his
hands in his pockets, examining Zawa's profile once his boss had turned to
stare off into the empty air. His gaze lingered there, brows furrowing together
in confusion. His boss was acting really weird about this whole thing. Could
it be that he felt more than just professionally betrayed by Valentine's
actions? Could this sadness in his voice be from a feeling of personal
betrayment? Gods above, that was bizarre. Mars didn't know much about Vincent
Valentine but he did know just from talking with some of the boys down at
the poolhall that evening that he'd only been with the organization a few
months and kept more or less to himself. Word was that Zawa fancied him,
gave him choice assignments as though to test his mettle, but had the yakuza
boss really put that much stock into the man?
"Sir?" he began hesitantly, "What made you call
me earlier? What made you think Valentine knew?"
Zawa didn't answer for a moment.
"He said he felt respected working for me, Mars.
And I knew he was lying. I felt the contempt in his voice. God dammit, why
couldn't you have just killed him?"
This answer didn't help Mars in figuring his
boss out at all. But it didn't really matter, he shoved his questions from
his mind and blinked a few times, trying to settle into action mode.
"Well, sir, we do have Keen Vera isolated as
you planned. Since you insist upon carrying this out tonight, we should be
able to take him out quickly and quietly without incriminating ourselves.
I have boys posted at the exits of the building and then a sniper across
the street. Pitiful residents here are too scared to come outta their apartments.
They heard the gunshots and know enough to leave it alone. We're only waiting
on your word, sir."
Zawa picked a framed photograph up from Keen's
desk and ran his eyes over it, licking his lips. "This is father, "he said
to Mars and tossed the picture to him, "He'll die tomorrow. We'll take care
of all this thoroughly, I don't want any loose ends hanging around that my
fingernails can get snagged on. We plug the leak from the inside and then
we go for Manook. This all ends. That smug bastard already took Toshitomo
from me, he won't have anything else. I won't let him get a hold of Wutai.
I've been boss of this god-forsaken city for twenty years, it isn't going
to end because of one man's pathetic past. This is such a fucking blow. I'd
like to tear Keen Vera's head off, he's lost me my most important informant
and placed him into the hands of the only man who can even come close to
threatening me in this city."
"Yes, Mr. Zawa, "Mars replied stoicly, quickly
removing the photo from the frame and sticking it in his pocket. He nabbed
Keen's address book too.
"Perhaps I should be thankful, "Zawa muttered,
crossing his arms and eyeing the door, "Maybe this is what I needed to make
me realize that Manook is a threat." Sighing quietly, he suddenly withdrew
a pistol from his jacket and checked the ammo. "But that's thought fodder
for tomorrow. Right now we take care of the traitors. Eh, Nengasai?"
The man spoken to was short, skinny, and had
been sitting in the shadows, perched upon the arm of the couch. He stood
and stepped forward, nodding to his boss, blue eyes glittering through skin
that seemed too yellow. "That's right, Mr. Zawa, "he answered, adjusting
his hold on the black bag in his hand, "Traitors."
"Do you have any suggestions?"
Nengasai pushed his long, wiry black hair back
behind his ears and shrugged. "I'm not creative, sir. I only do what is told
"Perhaps that is why I am ruler of this city,
"Zawa said with a mirthless chuckle, "I am the creative one. Traitors should
be made to suffer. Treachery is a crime, is worse than murder, worse than
torture. It's born of cowardice, deceit, and hypocrisy. I hate traitors."
Zawa eyed his gun viciously, twisting the weapon
in his hand, allowing it to glimmer beautifully in the flickering tv light.
"Perhaps my little raven wouldn't have made such a fine Turk afterall, "he
said softly, "He's come back to help a friend. Such personal trifles have
no place in this world. You have to be cold, you have to be hard. You must
protect yourself above anyone else. Hmph. Keen could have used such advice.
They both could have. Come along, Mars, Nengasai. Let's get this over
Mars eyed his boss as he stepped from the apartment,
puzzled at his solemnity. It isn't so terrible, Zawa, he thought darkly,
You could just not kill them if the thought of doing so makes you feel so
down. Traitors, yeah, but they both had their reasons: Family and friendship.
Seems nothin' is sacred in Wutai.
Mars followed Zawa out of the room and into the
hallway. After a moment or two, Nengasai crept from the concealing shadows,
clutching his shiny leather black bag convulsively, then ran quickly after
them like an eager little boy. The man loved his work.
"Do you wanna go to Kalm with me?"
The apartment was quiet, dark. Each man still
stood cautious guard at the windows, guns drawn, nerves on edge. The attack
could come at any time. Every second that passed without a move from Zawa
and his men was a miracle. Vincent looked at Keen, expressionless.
"Yeah, "he said, "Sounds good."
"I figure if we get outta here, we can go nab
my old man and take off. Never look back. Be nice to get outta this
Vincent nodded, not really listening. He was
peering off into the blackness outside the window, scanning the rooves of
the building's around them, looking for threats. Keen was more a paperpusher
than a skilled gunman, the thought of snipers hadn't even occured to him.
However, it was nearly all Vincent could think about.
"I have an aunt that lives in Kalm, "Keen went
on, oblivious, "My pop's sister. She still sends me five gil on my birthday
and Christmas. Still thinks I'm a nine year old, I guess. Nice old lady though,
she's always telling my old man he can go retire up there with her anytime
he's ready. I was thinking we could stay with her for a while, till we get
some money together, ya know?"
Keen looked to his friend for confirmation but
Vincent was focasing on something else, something drifting in the air, muffled
and soft. Footsteps. Keen noticed he'd turned around to stare at the
door and jerked his own head about and swallowed hard. The footsteps, the
owner's feet clapped in dressshoes that clacked against the hard wood flooring
of the hallway outside, stopped just before the door. A suit jacket rustled,
then two more pairs of feet approached and stopped. There was sudden silence.
Vincent and Keen looked at eachother, guns raised.
It was Zawa's voice. Pleasant and business-like
"I'm sure you both know why I'm here. It was
brought to my attention tonight that Mr. Keen Vera has leaked very valuable
information on a certain client of mine to Mr. Jeffrey Manook." Zawa kept
his voice low, almost a whisper. The other tenants in the appartment building
were cowering in their rooms, listening to every word and he knew it. Nengasai
had cut the phone cords and his presence was enough to keep the men and women
inside and out of his way. Yet he kept his words quiet, to avoid giving the
listening people any incriminating evidence as to just who he was.
"I run a business, gentlemen. You are both my
employees. However you have lied to me, you have betrayed me, and you have
attempted to undermine me. So now, as your superior, I must terminate your
employment in my organization. Mr. Vera, I understand quite well why you've
done what you've done and I'm sure you expect me to believe you had no choice
in the matter. However, you did have a choice. There is always a choice.
And you made the wrong one. Now you have to pay for your actions. Little
raven, I was setting you up for great things. You had so much potential.
Skilled and heartless. You could have been the best. But you've acted
unprofessionally and revealed a weakness. There is no room in the yakuza
for weakness." There was steal in Zawa's voice, each word like a blade. The
empty hallway echoed around him, the bare floor and walls making his whispers
"I'm sure you've anticipated what's coming next."
Zawa half-lowered his eyelids, staring at the blank door before him with
an unwavering stare. "One of you will die in this room, one of you will come
with me. Mr. Nengasai is here, waiting to escort that man into death. However
the road he leads him down shall be a long one. An example needs to be made
to Manook. A graphic example of what happens to men who cross me."
Behind the door, inside the apartment, Vincent
and Keen's faces were frozen. Nengasai. Everyone who worked for Zawa knew
that name. It was like a curse too horrible to utter. To die in Nengasai's
hands was to die a thousand deaths, each more horrible, more tortuous than
the last. Vincent snapped himself out of the reverie the name had put him
into. He'd listened to Zawa's self-indulgent speech emotionlessly until the
end. His brain was still humming, trying to find a way they could escape
the situation. But Nengasai. . . those three syllables were more a death
sentence than anything else he'd heard.
Outside, Zawa gave Mars a glance. The beefy man
was listening intently to a small speaker attached to his right ear. He whispered
a few inaudible words into the microphone that sprang down around his face
from it, then nodded to his boss. Which one? he mouthed silently. Zawa closed
his eyes, sighing quietly. After a moment, he held up one hand with his middle
and forefingers raised. They made a V.
Keen stared at nothing. The blackness all around
him seemed to seep into his eyes, into his brain, freezing his thoughts,
his actions as though he was already dead. The sudden silence from behind
the door had him sweating. Licking his lips, fingers trembling around the
handle of his gun, he shot a quick glance over towards Vincent. The man seemed
so calm, so peaceful. Why? How was he able to keep so cool when they were
going to die?
He doesn't care what happens because he's done
his best to help you. If nothing else, he can die in peace.
The inner voice answered him so matter-of-fact
that Keen blinked twice, suddenly turning around as though something had
called to him. Ignoring the words, he remained still, on his knees, staring
at Vincent. His friend finally looked at him, shrugging. And then Keen
The sniper fired only seconds after Mars gave
him the order. Vincent's dark head had been almost perfectly framed in the
window, an amateurish mistake but one the gunman didn't mind at all. He cursed
loudly, making Mars wince on the other end of the earpiece as Keen suddenly
leapt up and knocked his target aside. They were both out of his view before
he could reload.
Vincent swore as his friend knocked into him,
realizing what was happening with a painful snap. Keen gave a strangled cry
as a bullet ripped into his back. He collapsed on top of his friend, gasping
as waves of pain tore through him.
Though bursts of shouting had suddenly broken
out on the other side of the apartment door, Vincent ignored them, panic
pushing into his brown eyes. He tore off his coat and pressed the black fabric
into the his friend's wound, pushing hard, trying to keep all the warm life
from spilling out onto the carpet.
"You idiot!" he hissed, pressing hard, making
Keen cry out, "You damned stupid idiot! Why did you do that?"
Gritting his teeth, clenching his fists, Keen
shook his head and gasped. "I don't know, "he sputtered, "I don't know. Vincent,
forget about me and run. Just get. . . just get the hell outta here before
Vincent frowned deeply as the blood soaked through
his balled up coat and dampened his hands. He redoubled the garment and pressed
harder, blind and desperate in his attempt to keep his friend alive.
"Mr. Zawa, Takashi said Vera was hit, "Mars reported,
pressing the earpiece close as the sniper spoke, "Fuck this, sir. Let's ice
'em both before anything else goes wrong."
Mars looked at his boss expectantly while Nengasai
shuffled in the background. Zawa stared at the blank door, the wood only
an inch or two from his face. A growl ripped from his throat.
"Fine then, my little raven, "he rumbled darkly,
"I give up trying to spare you the pain of this. If you wish to suffer alongside
your friend, so be it. Nengasai, it seems you'll have two traitors to play
Vincent heard the low words. He stared at Keen
and shook his head fiercely, hands still pressed on the ever dampening coat.
"They're not going to get you, Keen, "he muttered, eyes moving from the door
to his friend's face, "They're not going to."
"It doesn't matter, Vincent. . . "
Keen's voice was soft, his blue eyes clear. He
threw his friend a reassuring grin. "Neither of us matter. We're just two
of many." He looked away, hand straying towards his bulletwound. "This is
my fault, this is all my fault. I never should have told you what I did.
That was selfish of me. I just thought that maybe you'd open up a bit if
I trusted you with that kinda secret. I thought I was putting myself in danger
telling it to ya. But no, it was friggin' selfish of me. I was putting you
"I'm glad you told me, "Vincent answered, listening
to guns being drawn on the other side of the door, "I'm glad I came back
here, glad I didn't run for the docks like a coward. I'm just sorry I was
such a failure."
"Mick was right. . ." He looked down as Keen
whispered the words, a ghostly smile flitting across his lips. "It's really
amazing how much clearer everything becomes when you have a bullethole in
you. What you told me Mick said, he was right. Johnny, Mick, Tito Verne,
you, me, Smith, Mars, Manook, everyone. We're all worms. Dammit, Vincent,
why's it gotta be like that?" Keen's breathing quickened as he heard Zawa
bark orders to Mars. He heard Nengasai's sadistic giggling and began to
physically tremble. "I wanted to live in Kalm, "he whispered, "I wanted to
take my father there."
"Go there now, Keen."
He looked up and saw Vincent on his knees, bloody
hands wrapped around the grip of his Magnum. The gun was in his face, unwavering.
"I won't let Nengasai get you, "he said calmly, cocking the weapon with his
thumb, "I can give you that. Get out of this god damned city, away from the
Keen watched the gunbarrel quietly. Then he refocased
his vision and looked up into Vincent's stoic face, straight into his eyes.
He smiled. And his life ended in a loud shot and a flash of red.
"We're not worms. You can be anything you want
to be now, Keen. Go anywhere you want. And I'll avenge what you were, whatever
it was. Because we're not that insignificant, we can't be. We're all kings
because we can all grant freedom. Freedom at the cost of a single bullet.
You're free, Keen. And I'll avenge you."
Vincent stood suddenly, pistol in one hand, his
rifle in the other. He backed into the furthest corner of the room, allowing
his black-garbed body to melt into the shadows. His wild hair fell over his
face but he could feel his pale throat exposed to the light. He would grow
his hair out longer with his jacket and his overcoat ruined. He would make
himself a more efficient killer. Gunshots resounded in the air as Zawa and
Mars blew away the locks on the apartment door. The wood splintered, bullets
blew holes in the walls. Chips of the door flew forward into his face, cut
into his brow but he didn't feel them, didn't flinch. His hands only closed
further around his weapons, knuckles whitening, veins sticking up stark through
his pale skin. Keen lay there on the floor, still, quiet. Vincent looked
at him calmly, so at peace with it all he felt nearly sleepy. Eighteen years
was long enough, wasn't it? Who wanted to live longer than eighteen years?
Who wanted to be a worm all his life, controlled by kings? Better to die
young in a desperate attempt to fight back against tyranny than to live a
long, subservient life under another man's bootheel.
A heavy foot kicked into the apartment door,
sending the bullet-riddled slab of wood rocketing forward to crash into the
opposite wall. After a moment, Mars stepped into the room, an assault rifle
poised in his hands. Vincent watched him, looked right into his eyes. In
the corners of his vision, he saw Nengasai and Zawa just behind him. Nengasai
twirled a small stiletto. The yakuza boss popped a fresh clip into his gun.
"My little raven. . . "he muttered, pushing Mars
aside, squinting to see Vincent's form through the shadows he'd cloaked himself
He stood with his gun aimed squarely at Vincent's
head for a moment and merely stared, arm wavering. As though he couldn't
quite bring himself to do the deed, when he did fire, the shot was off, hitting
the man squarely in his left shoulder. Vincent staggered backwards beneath
the blow, spitting curses, yet he stayed on his feet and raised his own two
weapons, not a single tremble in his arms.
"No, Mr. Zawa, "he said quietly, "I'm not your
'little raven'. My name is Vincent Valentine. I was a worm. You were the
master. Well the king is dead now. Long live the king."
Gunshots and smoke choked the stifling air of
the apartment. Outside, oblivious to it all, the sun began to rise on another
day. The humans below could classify themselves any way they wanted. When
all was said and done, the sun was lord over them all.
The room throbbed under the grief it held. Arthur
thought the setup of the place was rather nice, though the room was tacky
as hell. Wood-panelled walls, carpet the same shade of green as three day
old vomit, and a nasty, tomb-like musty smell, as though the place wasn't
exposed to the lungs of the living that often. Yet, how nice could he expect
a funeral parlor to be? If it was too pleasant, visitors might start getting
the urge to come back too soon.
Thirty or so mourners crowded the small viewing
room. Closed double coffins dominated one half, people crying and conversing
took up the other. Arthur and his wife moved among them, consoling some,
making casual chat with others. They'd been closest to the dead couple so
they felt it was their place to keep the funeral-goers entertained. It was
wearying work. Arthur would have preferred to curl up in one of the stalls
in the bathroom, stick his head in the flap of his jacket and cry
"Did you ever get a hold of him?" Arther looked
over his shoulder. He'd been taking a breather at the rear of the room, leaning
hard against the back wall and trying to keep his eyes from straying towards
the two coffins. One of his dead brother-in-law's business partners stared
back at him sourly. He nodded his head.
"I called their son last night. He said he'd
"Good. I wonder if he knows how in debt his parents
were. They can't just die and escape it, someone has to pay."
"Do you really think this is the place to approach
him about it?" Arthur asked, leaning close to the man's unpleasant face.
The deceased couple had been quite wealthy at one time, had nearly wormed
their way into the aristocracy. But because of their son, they'd fallen from
grace. Vincent had insulted young mayor Godo Kisaragi to his face, right
before refusing to join the city's army. In an attempt to win back Kisaragi's
favor, his parents had disowned him, threw him from home at the age of fifteen,
but Godo wasn't about to forgive such a travesty. The couple had lived these
last three years in agony, watching business trickle away, watching their
bank accounts drain. But they hadn't been able to accept it. They'd maintained
their extravegent lifestyle, keeping up an egotistical front, as though nothing
had happened, as though they hadn't been snubbed, forgotten, and left as
the dogs of society. Someone had to pay for those delusions now. The debts
didn't die with the debtors.
"What does he do?"
"What?" Arthur pulled himself out of his thoughts
and looked questioningly at the man.
"I said what does he do now? Their son?"
Arthur shrugged, sticking his hands in the pockets
of his dress slacks, "I'm not sure. He was always a good marksman, that's
why Mayor Godo wanted him so badly for the army. I think he does something
with guns now. I don't know how he supports himself, he's never once come
to me for money though I've offered it a million times. He has a lot of his
parents' stubborn pride. He'd starve before he took a handout."
"His parents were idiots." The businessman leaned
back against the same wall as Arthur and surveyed the mourners with hooded
eyes. This whole funeral atmosphere was making him uncomfortable. Yet he
knew it was the best place to confront the dead couples' son. The man had
heard he was a hard fellow to get a hold of. He'd been living on his own
since he was fifteen, he was doubtlessly good at disappearing into the city
when he didn't want to be bothered. And with the size of his parent's debt,
he'd probably be attempting to do just such a thing very soon.
An hour passed slowly as the man leaned against
the wall. Grieving people came and went, he must have watched fifty different
ways to wear the color black flit past his eyes. Arthur had moved off again
after a moment to take up his hosting. Time passed and he'd yet to see the
young man he was waiting for. The room grew hot and cramped as more people
shoved into it. The actual funeral was going to start soon. Out of the corner
of his eye he saw two of the funeral parlor's employees waiting in the hall
to begin transporting the coffins outside. He ran his gaze over the things.
They looked extravegent enough but they were cheap, as cheap as the old clothes
the man and woman inside of them were wearing. Their life insurance had barely
covered the cost of all this.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think he's going to
The man turned around and saw Arthur suddenly.
His wife was at his side, her eyes puffy and exhausted. "He must have gotten
held up somewhere. Or maybe he decided they didn't deserve his presence.
Not after what they did. But that's not like Vincent. I just don't know."
"Well, I suppose that's that, "the man said
irritably, pushing himself up from the wall, "Do you have a number where
I could reach him?"
Arthur pulled his wallet out and dug around in
it, looking for that inch wide rectangle of notebook paper he kept all his
numbers on. He felt a sudden tugging at the cuff of his jacket and shrugged
it off petulantly. His wife tugged again and gave a little noise of surprise.
"What is it?" he finally asked, snapping his tattered old wallet closed and
glancing up. Her face was drawn and ghostly. Swallowing hard, he looked off
to where she was gesturing. The businessman followed his gaze.
"Who the hell is that?" he asked, his lip curling
up in disgust and unease.
"That's. . . "Arthur took half a step forward
but froze as some emotion suddenly made him shiver. "That's their son, sir.
Vincent entered the funeral parlor on unsteady
feet. He didn't know where he was. He'd just started walking after leaving
that apartment building. He'd thrown his spent weapons away in an alley and
just started walking. Three different bulletholes emptied dark blood into
his clothes. A knife slash was hidden in his scalp, red dripping off the
ends of his hair. But it didn't hurt. Nothing really did. Everything was
dark, everything was cold. The tips of his bare fingers trembled.
The bunched mourners parted before him as though
he carried a plague, whispering among themselves, pointing out the trail
of glistening crimson he left on the lacquered wooden floor as he walked.
Vincent couldn't really hear them, the reverberations of all the shooting
still echoed in his ears. The screaming still echoed there. He'd done things
to Zawa and his men that he didn't even like to think about. He'd bashed
the yakuza boss's head in with the butt of his rifle, hitting him again and
again and again until he'd dropped the gun from sheer exhaustion. His actions
were fuzzy to think upon now, like a black nightmare. He was awake now, wasn't
Awake, yeah. But still in a room of death.
The two coffins loomed huge in his sight. He
kept walking towards them, knowing what they were, who was inside. People
flanked his vision. But what were they? Just worms. He knew now the god awful
truth. A far away voice called his name but he ignored it. Something else
called much much louder.
He put a bloody hand on his father's coffin once
he stood before it. The red smeared on the perfect white. Strange, he didn't
feel sad that the old man was dead. Maybe just envious. How easy it must
be to leave behind all your troubles for a wooden box. To sleep while time
rolls on with all its struggle, all its strife on the outside of such warm
walls. Well, his father and mother could have that shit, he didn't need it.
He'd just killed a king, he didn't need protection from anything. He'd defied
the reaper, he'd defied the touch of three bullets. Vincent could nearly
feel the lead rolling around inside of him. It didn't hurt, he told himself
it didn't hurt. Nothing did. Not the death of his parents, not the death
of his one friend, everything was outside, nothing could get in. Behind his
eyes it was icy cold and the hurt couldn't hope to melt it. That was fine
with him. You couldn't hurt ice.
The sudden touch of a hand on his shoulder sent
a shiver through him, yet he didn't turn around.
"Vincent, son, what's wrong? What the hell happened
"Nothing. Nothing happened. I'm sorry I'm late."
Arthur nearly gibbered at the words. He forcibly
turned his nephew around and looked into his brown eyes, shocked by the deadness
he saw there. "Go home, "he whispered, "If you're in trouble, call me later,
Vincent took his hand from the coffin and let
it fall lifelessly to his side. "I'm going to Midgar, "he said softly, "I'm
Arthur didn't know what to say. He stepped back
and let Vincent push his way past him towards the exit of the wood-panelled
room. The young man saw now that the entire place was like a coffin. Yet
he felt no security behind these walls because he wasn't alone. There were
these worms all around him. These insignificant people with their insignificant
lives. His parents were dead but they hadn't mattered. No one mattered but
the kings. The ones who granted freedom at the cost of a bullet.
The businessman watched the dead couple's son
trudge by and tried to make himself approach the man. Vincent's legs even
gave out for a moment and he fell to his knees, breathing hard and holding
his wounded chest, right in front of him, yet he couldn't bring himself to
utter a word. The businessman only watched him slowly pick himself up and
continue on his way. As he left the room, it was as though a shroud of death
had been lifted off the group of mourners, though the deaths they were mourning
were still very much present, wrapped up in those warm wooden boxes.
The air outside the funeral home was choked with
humidity. The morning was bright and luminous and hurt his eyes. Vincent
pulled on a pair of shades and made his way for the docks. He wondered if
President Shinra could make him a king.