I scanned the room, sizing up our competition while I waited for someone to say something, or make a move. There were five of them in total. Judging by the copper gleam of the bright red armor they wore, all but one of them seemed to be working as pure muscle. I made a clicking noise under my breath. Orichalcum armor. Just what we needed if things went south. For a small group, these guys were very well-equipped. Inordinately so, like a duck hunter with a punt gun.
As for individual identity, two of them seemed to have none, their faces and builds completely obscured by armor. The other two wore their gear more casually, revealing a taller, facemask-bearing clone of the suit-wearing one (who was presumably his brother and the brains of the operation) and a white-haired burgundy midget who I could only assume was some flavor of demihuman I hadn’t met before. Their weapons were large and distinctive, both spears. The tall one wearing the facemask used a Western style halberd while the midget used a traditional Japanese spear called a naginata.
… What? I found a book about Japanese history once.
The suit-wearing brother, the only one with a sense of fashion that didn’t begin and end with chainmail and furry halberds, raised an eyebrow at Marq, his hands folded in front of his mouth, leaving him expressionless.
“We’re flattered that you would go so far in your attempt to accommodate us, Mr. Allesandri, but we wouldn’t have been chosen for this job if we didn’t all speak perfectly passable English.” The one in the facemask made a silent pass at the midget. “… Mostly passable English then.”
The midget was too red for me to tell if that embarrassed her, but she was obviously ticked at the tall one in the facemask, growling and glaring at him.
“You want me to skin your ass, bitch? Keep talking shit and we see how it goes!” she threatened Facemask in a heavy accent. Facemask just chuckled, which only made her angrier. “Anywhere, any time, fancy man! I take you to red-light district and string you up like expensive prostitute!”
“Yōshiro, Ren!” the older brother, who I then realized must have been Kichirō, chided. “Enough with the shenanigans. You two are supposed to be professionals, not fools, so act like it!”
The red one immediately backed off, looking guilty, and Kichirō sighed.
“Forgive their rudeness, Mr. Allesandri. It’s been so long since these two last joined me on a job overseas, Ren in particular. She doesn’t get to leave home very often, so her business etiquette can occasionally be left… wanting.” Kichirō sighed. “Anyway, as I was saying, thank you for seeing us. Your attempts to make us feel more welcome are appreciated, but we’re perfectly capable of conducting our business in English. We wouldn’t have been chosen for this job otherwise, so please feel free to speak with us in whatever way makes you feel the most comfortable.”
“Well that’s good. My travel guide Japanese was just about running dry,” Marq joked. The humor seemed to be lost on Kichirō, but he pressed on. “Let’s get down to business then. I hear from my brother that your organization is requesting our assistance in finding a stable foothold for itself in America.”
“Yes, that is correct,” Kichirō responded. “Much like your mafia, the yakuza have established a sizeable presence in our home country, and business demands we expand accordingly. We are quite similar in this regard. I myself am nisei, a second-generation American citizen. My mother and father were first generation immigrants, and I was born aboard a ship bound for New York. My brother followed five years later. This city is just as much my home as Japan. It was only years later, on my tenth birthday, that we were allowed to visit the country of our father.”
“Really? That’s quite interesting. My brother failed to mention you were second-generation,” Marq said, annoyance slipping into his voice. “If I’d known that, I would’ve greeted you in our common tongue. I feel as if I’ve slighted you, Kichirō.”
“He likely told you of our home in Japan and left you to assume. It is an understandable mistake,” Kichirō said. “We seek your assistance out of respect for those who settled the American underworld before us, and in the hopes we may come to a… mutual understanding about our future.”
“A mutual understanding, huh?” Marq asked. “And what does that mean?”
Kichirō cleared his throat. “Right now, the yakuza are still a fledgling organization here in America, but that does not mean we do not still have our pride. We desire assistance, but not to enter into any sort of partnership with your organization. Consider this a business transaction more than a charity. We will accept any assistance you may have to offer us, and in exchange we will provide you with the usual payment as compensation. Consider it a debt.”
“So what you’re saying is that we should keep things professional between us.”
Marq sighed. “While that’s not my decision to make just yet, I have to wonder why you wouldn’t want to… combine our assets into a mutually beneficial partnership. We have a lot to offer you if you’d let us, you know.”
“As I said, we still have our pride. We will not be beholden to anyone, nor will we be forced to serve an unsavory lord.”
Marq frowned. “Are you implying you find us unsavory, Mr. Yamada?”
Kichirō shook his head. “Not at all. It’s just hard to judge a person’s character without getting to know them first, and I fear by the time we would know each other well enough to trust you, we would have already given too much of ourselves away.”
There was silence.
“.. are you familiar with the story of Karna, Mr. Allesandri?”
“Can’t say I am, besides having heard the name once.”
“He was an ancient king, and a demigod. Early in life he became beholden to a man named Duryodhana, who sought his friendship to use him for his own ends. He lifted the great warrior out of poverty and made him a king, and in exchange Karna swore to be forever by his side. Karna was a true and loyal friend to Duryodhana for many years, helping him to marry Princess Bhanumathi of Kalingas and establish himself as the Emperor, lord over all kings. For his sake, Karna waged war against his own brothers, and felled many kingdoms which would not swear allegiance to Duryodhana. Even though Duryodhana was a wicked man, Karna never once betrayed him, and in the end he died as destitute and alone as he had been born, beaten and humiliated by the very brother who had been set against him by Duryodhana. I hope you understand what I am driving at, Mr. Allesandri.”
“I think so. You don’t want our friendship because you don’t want to be in our debt. You think we may be deceivers like Duryodhana.”
“It is a fear we all hold. This is a strange new world for most of us, Mr. Allesandri. I may be nisei, but most of our number are issei, the first generation of immigrants, and they do not wish to lose sight of our heritage by becoming too friendly with our… competition. We may be similar, but we are not the same. We are yakuza, Mr. Allesandri. Not your mafia. I hope you will treat our relationship as such.”
“Are you threatening us, Mr. Yamada?”
Kichirō sighed. “No. Only voicing what I fear is a sad inevitability.”
Marq hoed and hummed for a moment, mulling it over. I think he was trying to select his words as carefully as possible before speaking, not actually giving consideration to Kichirō’s warning. Negotiations were beginning to break down.
Finally, Marq replied, “Like I said, Kichirō, I’m not the one who makes the decisions regarding the precise nature of our relationship. That would be between your superiors and my father. And while I’m disappointed you feel that way, I certainly understand your fears. The best I can offer you is my assurance that we will provide for you in whatever ways you need in exchange for what I hope will one day be a profitable working business relationship, and if you or your superiors ever choose to accept our offer of a more intimate partnership that you will be treated as equals. I hope this is acceptable.”
Kichirō nodded, a smile betraying his relief. “More than acceptable, Mr. Allesandri… I’m sorry, Marquis. You have our thanks. I am glad our negotiations proceeded more smoothly than they did with the Sartini family.”
“Yeah, I can imagine,” Marq said, laughing. “Now, before we call it a day Kichirō, there was one other thing I wanted to ask you about. You see, I’ve been hearing some rumors, and I was hoping you could maybe… substantiate some of them for me.”
Kichiroō frowned. “Hmmmm… rumors, you say. Like what?”
“Like that you happen to be in possession of a very valuable stone.”
Suddenly nobody was saying anything. Not a word. Kichirō sighed.
“And here I thought negotiations were going so well.”
Without any warning, he pulled a gun on Marq and shot him from across the table. Before I could react, Nayeli and Sostene were already in range to block it, the small lump of metal bouncing off Nayeli’s axe as they moved in on Kichirō. Sharp metal flashed in the dim warehouse lighting, and two spears blocked their path, pointing at their necks. For as fast as those guys were, Kichirō’s two guards seemed to be just as fast. Me and Marq? We only saw the aftermath. Our guns were drawn long after the Mexican standoff was declared.
“Well that was uncalled for,” Marq scowled. “Want to explain yourself before we put a bullet in you, Kichirō?”
“You seek to take the stone from us. That is reason enough for me to kill you.”
“Wow. Someone’s got an itchy trigger finger,” Marq said, sneering. “Shoot first and ask questions never, huh? Anyone who knows about the stone must die. I had no idea your organization considered it to be that valuable.”
“Not valuable to them. Valuable to me.”
Kichirō ignored him. “Now do you see what I mean by a Duryodhana, Mr. Allesandri? A deceiver who wishes only to use us for his own ends.”
“A deceiver, huh? Well, that certainly sounds like me. After all,” Marq said, laughing. “I don’t have an honest bone in my fucking body. Sostene!”
The very fabric of the room started coming apart like a painting someone had splashed water on and the illusion was shattered. The image of Sostene disappeared, and suddenly he was right behind Kichirō, stone in hand. Kichirō reeled, grabbing for the red gem. The veil came down, and a dozen or so Allesandri men all pointed their machine guns and rifles at the Yamada group, ready to open fire. They froze mid-sortie.
Marq smiled. “You see, we never had any intention of letting you leave here with the philosopher’s stone. Arriving to the meeting early to check the room for bugs was admirable of you, but you failed to think about what we might have brought with us.”
“A vampire’s illusions…” Kichirō muttered. “I did not think your friend was of that age just yet.”
“I’m an early bloomer,” Sostene snarked.
“Now, will you give us the stone or not, Mr. Yamada? If not, my men and I will have no other choice but to make you a better offer.”
Every man in the roomed cocked his gun threateningly. Kichirō chuckled, smiling even though beads of sweat were dripping down his face.
“Well played, Mr. Allesandri. Very well-played,” he begrudgingly admitted. “But I cannot afford to be stopped here. My journey isn’t over yet.”
Marq frowned. “What the hell does that have to with anythi-”
Without warning, Kichirō turned his gun on Sostene, who instinctively protected his face. Kichirō pulled the trigger, and shot the stone straight out of Sostene’s hand, sending it spinning into the air. And as it passed the girders closest to the ceiling, a lot of some things pelted us from above, set off by proximity alarm. They hit our men like tiny grenades, ripping through walls and our guys and throwing up clouds of dust and pulverized concrete.
“Al!” Marq yelled.
Kichirō jumped off his chair, and I pointed my gun at his silhouette, trying to hit him through all the smoke. Two shots, no, three shots missed, one shot through his coat, and the last shot clipped him in the forehead, drawing blood but doing nothing to slow him down. He grabbed the stone and ran past our hurt and confused men, his lackeys trailing behind him. The midget stopped at the door, looking for something to throw at us, and settled on lifting our car up by the front-fender and hurling it back at us one-handed. Our only hope of chasing them smashed through the warehouse like a skipping stone, taking out even more of our men before hitting the back wall and exploding into a ball of fire and gasoline. Marq looked back at the burning wreckage.
Sostene and I rushed out the front door. We could still catch them. But when we went to look for them, they were nowhere to be found. Disappeared right of fucking air, evaporating. Just like the crew of the Mary Celeste.
“Motherfucker!” I yelled, kicking a rusty barrel.
Soon we were both kicking the shit out the stupid barrel like a tin can, yelling stuff like “sonuvabitch!” and “you piece of shit!”. We looked like real fucking idiots.
Finally, when we calmed down, we heard Marq calling for us at the warehouse. The place was a real fucking mess after our friends’ friends crashed the party. What the hell was that?
“We got hit, Marq,” I said, looking around at all of our dead and wounded. “We got hit real bad. Any idea by what?”
“No,” he said, kneeling over something he’d found on the floor. “But I think I know someone who does.”
He held up a burnt piece of folded paper.