Wednesday Afternoon, January 4, 2017,
Guardian Resources and Trading Company, Kapalangpur.
Benjamin Keeling's office had all the prestige of a furnished jail cell packed into an intern's cubicle space. His senior coworkers refused to sit with their back either to the door or to two windows. So, the corner office was used for storage until Benjamin was hired. As the newest kid on the block, he made the perfect goat to shove into the glass target display case. Moreover, he couldn't enter or leave without walking past his boss's desk. It was almost enough to make an honest man give up picking pockets. Good thing he wasn't that honest.
Colombine pinged his earpiece, then rezzed to a perch on his desk. Not that he was short (he was fairly average for his age), but he still had to look up from his chair. The icy lavender plain-front blouse she'd chosen was in stark contrast to her burnt purple layered hair. All she was missing from the Girl Friday stereotype was a stenographer's pad. Business it was, then.
She said, "To our everlasting fiscal delight, Whateley Academy, Fields Distilling Company, and the IHA have come to a transportation agreement."
"The International House of Airplanes? I thought it was the DPA and MCO that screwed over international travelers?"
"The IHA is Japan's Imperial Household Agency..." The AI narrowed her eyes at the mirth in her human's green eyes. She'd be getting even with him for that. "Because you are in the same graduating class as the Voice of The Heavens, it's considered only appropriate for you to accompany Miss Myoujin and her classmates from Japan to New Hampshire. Mr. Fields – yes, as in owns the distilling company all by himself – has graciously arranged for the students to fly in his company's converted 767. Before you start complaining, you were going through Narita anyway. It would raise more suspicion if we didn't wrangle to put you on that plane."
"I know, what, two people in the entire country, yet it would be suspicious to take a different route?" It wasn't as if he wouldn't stand out as a British colonial in a crowd of native Japanese. His regulation-length blond hair was dark by northern European standards, but not for East Asia. Colombine's expression hinted that his input wasn't being asked for. "Fine." It wasn't, but... "When do we leave?"
He'd have to act his age around other teenagers too. That was sure to go so very well.
"You're booked for the afternoon ferry to Singapore. That's tomorrow. The flight from Singapore departs late Thursday evening, arriving at Narita in the morning. From there, we should arrive in Berlin, New Hampshire, after lunch on Friday. I've copied details to your virtual personal assistant."
"There's something else, isn't there?" In Benjamin's experience, there always was. Yet, people wondered why he didn't trust people much. People. Go figure.
"Mr. Jameson's superior has expressed her wishes that you not be inspired to your usual misfortunes."
Ouch. It was almost like they didn't trust him to follow directions.
"In fact, she said that 'Our travel agency has been informed that if Keeling's plans change for any reason, they are to only book an establishment that cannot be expected to have dead prostitutes stuffed inside their beds. Nor is the business to be known for hosting an entire gang of vacationing Yakuza.'"
"That's! I've never... That was not my fault!"
Colombine pinched the bridge of her nose, deciding against what she really wanted to say. Instead, she replayed the woman's exact words through Benjamin's desk speaker.
"We've relayed to the school our belief that the tuition that Whateley Academy charges should be more than adequate to cover the remainder of the year without diplomatic incident, outbreak of war, or natural disaster."
Benjamin's brows knitted together. "I thought I was being sent there for personal and professional development?" That was the human resources phrase for finally getting an education, wasn't it? Jameson the Junior had been way too amused by Benjamin's assignment. Bad enough that Jameson had told his son, but then the guy had to go into detail about how and why he'd hated boarding school. The stuff of nightmares, some of that was.
Colombine cleared her throat.
Someone's mind had started wandering again. Oops.
"The year before last, you and your team were sent to Tanzania on a basic security support contract for the purpose of your professional development. Remember how that turned out?"
Benjamin pouted, "Maybe it's just me, but nothing says 'Your services are no longer desired' like a helicopter rigged with C4 explosive."
"Benjamin, I have copies of the reports. However, despite my justified suspicions, I cannot fathom how "Best Atrocities of the Week" video clips from Unity State turned up in Al Jazeera's news feed. The odds of those incidents contributing to the destruction of that helicopter are compelling. Your driving record is best left undiscussed."
Benjamin's weak smile faded to a pained grimace. "You had to be there?"
"That is what everyone is relying on Dr. Mazarin to prevent!"
"Last winter's assignment went well!"
"You got shot in Darfur. How is that 'going well'?"
What's up with the reruns of Ancient History Week?
"Yes, I am happy that I survived and recovered too. Besides, I was just doing my job."
"Yeah. Right. Your job for the next three and a half years is to finally attend high school while you're still a teenager. Don't forget to drop off your suit at the cleaners before heading home."
"I heard that! You called it 'home'!"
"Albeit a cemetery, it appears to be the one 'safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned', where there are people who'll 'wonder where you are when you don't come home at night.'"
"Like I said, 'home'."
Benjamin had come home a time or two, but he'd had to risk losing all to find it.
Midnight, Three Years Ago.
Few cemeteries are welcoming places at night, less so the older the plots or more disreputable the deceased housed within their gates. The worst are scarred by the dread the locals hold for them. Others are distinguished by sturdy iron fences set in stone and mortar to keep hungry residents in their place. This night, in this place, two visitors in a murdered-out jeep bring their own kind of offering to the dead, something to be dumped and forgotten. After the jeep drives off, the only sounds left behind are raindrops falling through the tree canopy and maybe, if one listened closely, the muffled sobs of an abandoned child.
Moments pass in the night, and two other figures approach the body. One prods it with their umbrella, pushing it onto its back.
The other gasps in horror: the mangled wreck of the dying boy's face mirrors a bleak acceptance of its end, dying without ever having lived.
The voice of the older woman is cold darkness, burning no mortal fuel.
"Wu Huā, child, how long have you wished for a living child to hold?"
"Since before the Europeans came. You know this."
The dark woman nodded to herself at a decision made.
"There is an elixir that can be found in a place that I will tell to you. There will be three days of tending to the changing fever, but it may yet offer life to this one."
The younger said, "Then the child will go its way, and I remain here alone?"
She mourned her existence, but would it be so hard on her lonely mother's heart if she knew that even so much could be done?
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Two have brought the living here for burial. However, even as yours lies open, my husband opens only one grave here tonight. I leave their morning occupancy to your discretion."
"These things shall be tended to, Lady."
Morning, three days later.
Matthew's head ached. Kees! Kees Dekker! You stupid piece of shit! How is it that you can't even keep track of your name, let alone what you're supposed to be doing here? No. The hated voice ringing in his head was wrong. Kees wasn't a name that fit a place with drenching humidity, woodpeckers, and mosquitoes. Where the hell was he? He thought he heard traffic. Damn. No matter what he called himself, he was exhausted.
Before he could wrench his eyes open, he heard a man say: "Naomi! I dare say the boy is waking up for sure this time!" The same person must have been responsible for swatting his forehead, "Damn. I hate those blood-sucking buggers. Always have." Was that an English accent?
Oh. Mosquitoes. Another not-Case thing. Therefore? He must be Matthew. That name didn't feel right.
Now an accented female voice. Chinese? Matthew remembered a half-Chinese girl from somewhere, but the shadows in his head threatened to drown him out again.
"He looks better than he did when we found him three days ago."
"Luv, I was buried looking better than that."
That was a mental picture he didn't need. Matthew rasped out a "Thanks. I'll try to do better next time."
"Let's not have a next time. Come on, up you go, lad! We have got to get you cleaned up. Name's Reg. While we're on about who's what, mind telling me who this Andries Nieuwoudt is?"
"Nieuwoudt?" Matthew started, then hugged his knees, "Why would they know? No!" He rocked himself back into the darkness, far from the person They'd made of him. He must have failed Them. Failure is death. A mind wipe was for the useful. He wasn't useful. Never had been. There were so many things he knew he was supposed to remember; too many things he mustn't. He tried to disappear back into the dark forever, where no one could find him. Miss Rodebaugh had taught him about hiding. Wasn't she dead too?
He woke again, to a woman's face, later in the day. Or was it later in a day? Her eyes, set in a pale oval face, were kind but sad. What had he done now? Was he in trouble again?
The woman's heart ached at seeing the child shrink back as if he expected to be hit. Not wishing to confront whatever demons had caused such a reaction, she said, "Corporal Keeling has told me that this is not the time to use old names. If so, then what would you like to be called? I would help, but you don't look like a Xiăoláng, Găngshēng, or even Hépíng."
Was there any name that didn't bring bad memories?
His mind drew nothing but a blank.
What the heck? A... Abkedefgijeckelmenopquerstuvwyxiz... nothing. M, no. J hurt. B... B didn't hurt. What started with B?
"Benjamin. It was in a book."
The Chinese woman smiled, "Nǐ hǎo, Benjamin. My name is Naomi. I am happy to see you."
"No one's ever said that about me and meant it." Late afternoon light reflected on the water in and below the boy's remaining eye.
"Then let's make today a day for new things. Corporal Keeling could not stay. He said he'd seen young men pass out like that after waking up disoriented and being asked innocent questions. He said to tell you to take a new name, make a new life, let the past stay buried until you can look in its eye again, and spit."
"I'm not sure I understand, er, Naomi?"
"You don't need to. However, you do need a bath! We don't have heated water yet, but I was able to purchase soap. Unfortunately, we had to raid your wallet for the money."
Benjamin asked, "What was the name in the wallet?" He bit into his upper lip, waiting for the answer.
Naomi had heard the name many times in the past few days. Not once had she heard it when the child was doing well.
"A mystery for another time. Come."
Benjamin clipped his left shoulder on the door jamb. Minutes later, Naomi had to intercept him to avoid running into a tree. The boy didn't complain, staying silent instead. Inside the small bathhouse, Naomi realized she'd made a terrible mistake. She had left a mirror up on the wall. She'd grown used to ignoring what it wouldn't show her. Something so familiar, used for such things as combing hair or applying cosmetics: things that she'd once thought of as important.
"So that's me now."
Naomi made no comment on the tears running from both the whole socket and the wrecked one. At least the stone sitting in the place of the boy's left eye had stopped growing. "Yes. When we found you, you were gravely injured and dying. I was directed to find a medicine that would help you live. To my regret, I did not realize that it might not be a complete cure."
"My eyes weren't green before." He knew that much.
"Does that matter? Compared to all the rest?"
"Eyes changing color is usually a sign of mutation." Focus on the here and the now! "Most of my deformities are birth defects. It's not the same." Benjamin laughed a dry, mirthless laugh as he held on to the sink. "It wasn't the same, but maybe now it is."
Whatever a mutation was, they'd figured that his dark blood and doubled heartbeat weren't new.
"Who said you are deformed? Your back is straight. You have the same number of heads and fingers and toes as anyone else."
"People. Not sure who right now. My memories are all" fucked up "jumbled up."
Naomi shook her head and took a chance on approaching the upset teen, "That may heal in time. I've seen it happen with other head injuries."
"Too bad I didn't get any cool powers with it."
"Isn't it cool enough that you survived? A yaoguai's powers are varied, but they don't bring happiness."
Benjamin continued to stare at the stranger in the mirror.
Happiness was just another lie anyway.
Naomi spoke again, "Benjamin, you are hurt, and I am lonely. Can we not walk a while together until our pain subsides?"
"I can't promise you much in return."
"Then don't promise. For now, let's get you cleaned up."
Benjamin nodded. He didn't think Naomi wanted to know that he couldn't see her in the mirror.
Naomi didn't think Benjamin wanted to know she'd heard him cry himself to sleep that night.
The next morning – he had lost a day? – the guy who'd been there when Benjamin first woke up was back. Clean clothes that fit! The two adults avoided the topic, leaving Benjamin a suspicion the clothes belonged to that other person— the him he couldn't remember. Not that he had a problem with that, but with the reminder of this other person. This would be a time to change the subject. That's what adults did.
Benjamin asked, "Ma'am, why did you change your name to Naomi?"
The two adults shared a look. Maybe this wasn't the right subject to bring up? Would he be kicked out onto the streets? It wasn't like anyone owed him anything.
Naomi said, "That is a wise question. My old name would best translate to 'Mara'. Corporal Keeling, here—"
"Lance corporal, sorry to say, Luv, though I did have plans once."
"Forgive me, but foreigners' ranks all sound alike."
Reg bounced back with, "Argh! I'm cut! Cut to the very bone!"
Naomi didn't get the joke but soldiered on, "Very well. Lance Corporal Reginald Haynes Keeling, Royal Marines," The blue-eyed blond shook his head but smiled back at her nevertheless. "... has assured me that, given the turn of events, Naomi would be an appropriate name for a modern subject of the Crown."
That left Benjamin more confused. What was between the two of them? "Excuse me, but are you two married? "
"Sad to say, m'lady has rebuffed all my advances." Reg feigned heartbrokenness, but the words rang true to Benjamin.
"Futile as they would have been," replied said lady.
"But it would grant me a measure of peace to know my name didn't die with me."
"We are a long way from your Stoke-on-Trent, are we not?"
Reg shook his head ruefully but winked at Benjamin. "Oh, it's not the miles, m'lady, but the potholes and cobblestones in the road as hobbles the horse!"
Kapalangpur, Temple District
Benjamin sat in a shady spot, meters off from the foot traffic, perched on the back of a park bench. From time to time, he tossed a crumb of stale bread to the birds that dared come close. You'd think they'd know from the eyepatch that his aim wasn't what it should be! His friend and partner-in-crime sat on the ground behind him, dreaming up things he'd build if he had the money for parts. Between the boy on the bench and the shade of overhanging trees, Max was concealed enough to not draw unwanted attention. Just a slow day. If an opportunity to score some cash came up, great. If not, they'd cope.
However, Max was getting bored with Benjamin silently watching the crowd that scattered between Kapalangpur's city temple and markets.
"Dude, what are you looking for? You've been staring in the same direction for the last ten minutes. It's getting creepy."
Benjamin flicked a few breadcrumbs to the pavement.
"That's the thing. I don't know. See that woman over there? I can't make heads or tails of why only some people are avoiding her."
"Wrong time of the day for the rent girls. Out looking for her supplier?"
"She's skinny, but not that kind of skinny. Y'know?" Benjamin searched his memory as best he could before saying, "Besides, I could swear I saw Crankcase Aati cross the street to get away from her."
"Narc? Nah. Scratch that. Looks like she's missed too many showers. Woah. Did you catch that? Something's janky with the way she walks."
"So much for hooking up with... anyone."
Max didn't respond to that. Benjamin divided his waking hours between lifting wallets, clearing out forest close to home, and a brutal regime of exercise. Whether his right side would ever fully recover wasn't worth dwelling on. Max knew that that had to hurt in a way that didn't leave cuts or bruises. There, but for the grace of God...
Afterward, neither boy could say who moved first. If they hadn't been watching closely, they wouldn't have ever caught on anyway. The woman staggered just as the first thug passed her by. That was probably a stunner, setting the vic up to make an easy example.
A "concerned businessman" grabbed the woman's forearms, maybe hitting nerve points, maybe not. Hard to tell on the run. Max saw Benjamin dive to avoid an overweighted cane that clipped the businessman's leg right before Max's forearm smashed into the man's head. Max turned toward Cane Guy, hoping the woman could handle the other. Going by the crunching sound behind him, she did.
Cane guy must have figured that the big Oni might have reach and power but had to be slow. He was so wrong.
The intended vic yelled at someone, "Whoever you guys are! Go! Get out of here!"
She doesn't know Kap-Town that well, does she? At least she knows English.
"Take my hand and shut up. We go now."
It must be one of Benjamin's cranky days. Max chose a direction and took off. If the thugs chose to follow him, too bad for them.
Bukit Asing Cemetery
Reg Keeling put the new situation into perspective for former police officer, now freelancer, Yuki Takenaka. She could lie low and let her organic parts recover or try her luck again. Without being connected, that luck was sure to run out quickly. The boys would have to steer clear of the Temple District for a while, but they'd find a way to cover that.
"They aren't both yours, are they?"
"No. Benjamin lives with Naomi and me. Max tends to his own living arrangements," Reg said.
"Lovely. Look, I appreciate the offer, but I ought to be leaving you folks to your own problems."
Benjamin stopped her exit speech with, "You need to start eating again, or it won't matter what cybergear you're welded into."
"How'd you know about that?"
"A. You move like someone with a bad back or something out of alignment. B. I know what titanium alloy feels like when I try to duplicate it."
"You're a mutant?"
"Mostly for holidays and matinee showings. Anyway, for the jobs Max gets, he needs more convincing muscle as backup. Sometimes I need less intimidating backup or maybe a distraction. You need cash for repairs. My folks are offering you hospitality. I'm offering a job. Can you honestly say you have a better offer?"
"... No. Damn it."
"And if anyone asks what's the deal, just tell them I'm renting your services. There. Sorted."
Mama Joey's Coffee Shack, Kapalangpur
It was getting to be a habit, watching Benjamin scan the mid-morning crowd over the brim of his coffee cup. Right-handed this morning, so was he working on his motor control or trying not to draw attention to the new ink on his other wrist?
Yuki said, "You know, I'd heard that the Second House went all-in on that whole blood in, blood out bit. But, you're looking a quart and a half low on that crappy used motor oil you call blood."
"And me without a good dipstick. What can I say? I fucked around, and I'm still waiting on the finding out."
"Don't be. Please. It'll be cool when the skin heals up."
"Fine. Then tell me this much. Why did you and Max stick your necks out for me?"
"Why'd the two of you show up at the hospital after I got put down last week?"
"My question first."
"I could say that we were protecting our interests. The Temple does not tolerate people being assaulted on their turf or close enough to scare people away."
"You could say that, but I think you'd be lying to me."
Benjamin shrugged. "Maybe it's like that song that goes ... but I can't feed off the powerless when my cup's already overfilled."
"I don't recall asking anyone to go hungry over me."
"You didn't ask to be kicked while you were down, either. So, here we all are. Maybe it gets better?"
Two and a half years ago.
Months of working crowds and poker tables under Reg's watchful eye had taught Benjamin a thing or two about body language. The work had also kept food on the table. Tonight, Benjamin regretted learning that language. Naomi stood too rigid. Her well-honed knife bit into the cutting board harder with each chop than he remembered from before. That wasn't fair to say. He'd only been gone for a week or so, not a lifetime. If he'd been days 'late' getting back before, it didn't matter. His old parents had been happier seeing him leave than return.
Yet something had changed. He didn't know what that meant for a now-uncertain future. Change had always been bad.
Funny how sniping a multimillion-dollar shipment out from under the noses of multiple gangs wasn't half as frightening as the prospect of being thrown away. Thrown out?
It was always just a matter of time.
Back in the present (what had he just been thinking about?) Naomi continued chopping as she said, "Is there something you have to say?"
"I wanted to— I mean, I didn't, um, please don't be mad at me. Please? I'll..." He didn't know what he could do. He'd failed again, somehow. He knew things were going too well to be true. They would be mad, and he'd have to be punished, or, or maybe worse.
"What is there to be mad about? Do you know what you have done?"
"But, I told you that some of the jobs I'd be asked to do would be illegal. But this one paid! We managed to earn a bonus, which should help Yuki get some maintenance done, and maybe Max can stop pretending he has a place to sleep."
"Is that so?"
"I've never lied to you, m— Not that word! Now I've done it. —Naomi."
Naomi set the knife down and turned around. Benjamin didn't even look up from tears fallen to the cold stone floor. She didn't need to crouch down: the upset thirteen-year-old was barely taller than she was. Instead, she touched her fingers to the sides of Benjamin's head. Then, gently, she raised her boy's darkened face to look at her. His eyes widened in fear.
Would she start with a slap? Maybe the knife?
"Why wouldn't you look at me when you came home?"
"I'm sorry! I knew you'd be mad that I was late getting back, and now you are and I've screwed it all up, haven't I? Again. If not the knife... Should I get a switch or my belt?"
Maybe she should have expected that. Maybe not. Either way, for the first time in a millennium, Naomi wanted to kill someone.
"Benjamin, we have talked about what signing that contract with those people could mean for you. Do I wish that Reginald and I could work outside, and do I wish you could be free to grow into the man you should become? Yes. With all my heart. That's why it hurts me so much when you treat me like a stranger to be feared. I'm not mad at you. If I am angered? No. I am. But, I am angry that you were raised to expect nothing better than anger and punishment. If I could do anything—"
Her wish got no further before Benjamin's composure crumbled against her shoulder. His tremors returned soon after, making a long and tiring night for all.
The following day, Naomi and Reginald assigned Benjamin a list of extra chores to work on while they were out. After the recent excitement, someone was supposed to be lying low for a time. Thus, it was for his own good. Reginald also saw the problem in terms of sergeants and their soldiers: if Benjamin wasn't punished at all, he'd see their reaction as proof no one cared what he did. Reg had served with enough men of the type: if what Benjamin did for others had no worth to them, then neither would he have any worth, not in his eyes.
Naomi and Reginald first went to the city's main temple. From there, they could make further arrangements. After all, it wouldn't do much good to visit Benjamin's employers if they wouldn't be seen that day. By good fortune, they would be seen by the appropriate persons at Guardian Resources and Trading Company.
As a woman, Wu Huā once would have allowed the men to speak first as a measure of customary deference. However, that woman, and the China of her day, were long since passed. Today was a different country. Today was for Naomi's family. She got down to business with Richard Jameson, Sr., as soon as introductions were completed.
"We understand that you were interested in establishing identity documents for all of us. Such would support Benjamin's new... 'legends' I believe they are called? Is this still correct?"
The dark-haired Englishman allowed himself a thin smile. If these two were to cooperate, suitable solutions could be brought to the table. If they were to interfere? That could be a problem. Best to keep costs manageable.
Jameson said, "Yes. If nothing else, his is a case in which having two people standing in loco parentis would be more helpful than not. For one thing, Matthew Groenwald should not be returned to either of his birth parents, ever. For another, we don't know who set him up to kill Andries Nieuwoudt. But, under no circumstance do we want to make it easy for them to retrieve him. Third, Benjamin owes us, not any of those others, and we play to keep."
"So do we. Reginald and I are agreed that all practical barriers be put in place to prevent those people from ever laying a hand on our son again. However, we are also concerned about Benjamin's education."
Reginald added, "Over many, many years, we've known more successful people with a solid education than without. I doubt your experience has been different."
Jameson pursed his lips. "No, it hasn't." The more they waited on that, the more Keeling and Livingston would lag behind others their age. On-the-job training was good for some things, but not all. Yet, "There is a school designed from the ground up for teens with, shall we say, abilities."
"The school's research staff are required to examine each such student. If Benjamin attends now, they are sure to connect him to the missing Matthew Groenwald before we can legally block custody proceedings. However, the longer we wait, the harder it will be to tie Benjamin and his abilities to an experimental genetic serum that disappeared from a secure vault last year."
They didn't incriminate themselves. They also didn't deny involvement.
Jameson said, "So for now, let's work on making your son more of an asset. If you have time, I have some ideas about making that happen."
"Let's hear your proposal."
A year and a half ago.
Six months in Sudan had been sixty too many. The Kapalangpurans were meant to fill out a British 'irregulars' unit attached to the Tanzanian Army for interoperability training. Said army happily turned around and lent them to United Nations forces sitting on a smouldering powderkeg in the African desert. Former police officer Yuki Takenaka suspected that that had been for the best. Either way, she was proud that the boys had held it together through the whole affair. However, the less she dwelt on how easily the boys had passed for men ten years older, the less she wanted to scream at the insanity all their lives had become.
Back home in Kapalangpur now, the landscape was a refreshing green and the flowers bright under a generous dusting of volcanic ash. (Kapala was said to shower her people that much heavier when they returned home from a long trip.) All seven and a half orcish feet of Max Livingston securely rode shotgun while Yuki drove. Benjamin was banished to the back seat on principle, as English wannabe drivers should be.
The silence was starting to get even on Yuki's nerves when Max's stomach growled its own protest.
"Yuki! How about we stop for something to eat before we drop Gimpy off?"
"...I'm not that bad..."
Yuki ignored the backseat grumbler to say, "We could do that. I know a decent sit-down restaurant near here."
"Don't go out of your way."
Yuki favored her team leader with a one-fingered salute. "I'm not. Maybe I can wash the taste of MREs and camel fleas off my tongue. Don't even—" she felt a bump in the back of her seat. Damn it! "Max, keep an eye on the back until I can park this heap."
"Got it. He's safer there anyway."
"Not if it goes on too long."
Yuki kept counting seconds. ...fifteen, sixteen...
"We there yet? Huh? When did we stop?"
Under a minute. Thank god. "We were waiting for you to finish complaining, but it's settled now. First thing after we get seated, I want to see you take one of those Klonopin you've been hoarding."
"I don't need none."
"Max, I got forty-eight seconds. You?"
"Forty-five, but I started late. Dude, I'm with Yuki on this."
"Get a room, boys."
The unscheduled lunch break lasted until Yuki and Max agreed that Benjamin was as with it as he could be. Benjamin did not have a vote in this. Even so, Max kept him talking, all the way up to the small area cleared for cemetery guest parking. Max grabbed a duffel bag while its owner got situated on his crutches. Yuki went with. If anyone was stupid enough to steal the rental car here, she wanted to watch.
Benjamin's parents intercepted them on their way over to the caretakers' quarters.
Naomi cried out, "Benjamin! You're hurt! What happened?"
He started to reply, but Yuki beat him to the punch. Verbally, that is. She knew better than to beat a bitch in front of family.
"Someone I could name forgot the limitations of a vehicle they shouldn't have been driving."
"It wasn't like that."
Naomi put a finger to her lips, "Bide a moment, Benjamin. We will hear your side of the story. Before that, I would like to know how those vehicle limitations bear on an injured leg?"
"It turns out that bumpers can do that to a leg. Well, they do when the jeep you're standing in front of is rear-ended."
"Miss Takenaka, were those responsible reprimanded?"
"Not in so many words, no. They chose, unfortunately for them, to be unfriendly."
"Unfriendly. So, my son did what unfortunate things to them in return?"
"He assisted Max and me in speeding up their chances to try harder in their next life."
Trying for a positive spin, Max said, "Yeah! So, here we all are, returning Benjamin as we got him. Okay, he's maybe a little scratched and dented, but all in one piece."
"I am standing right here."
"See? He's even the same grumpypants we all know and want to strangle now and then."
Reginald picked up Benjamin's bag, saying, "The hole's deep enough, Max. He can take over the digging from here. I'm sure you have more lively places to be."
Yuki shook her head, "Not the way my love life's been going, but I can't blame that on Benjie."
"I wish you wouldn't call me that."
"Should I stick around to explain why you had to take a certain as-needed medication an hour ago?"
"Nope! I'm sure Mom and Reg have heard enough! Maybe I'll call you next week-ish. Try some R&R. I hear it works wonders! See ya!"
To be sure, Naomi and Reginald were unhappy with the risks he'd taken, even in the company of people who could pull the jobs off. They took pains to make clear that assassination attempts should be warnings that he can't let ego or overconfidence get the better of him. Benjamin supposed that he should feel bad about that. Truth be told, he felt: wanted, valued? Was that even it? Back in Japan, Fuji-sama had said that family was meant to be something like that.
Saying the word 'family' without breaking out in a cold sweat was a new thing. Maybe he could get used to that.
Increasing the time and difficulty of Benjamin's meditation practices might have been his mother's idea of punishment. However, Taoist practice dealt more with understanding outcomes of action than with literal punishment or reward. Or, it could have been something to keep him from harming his injured leg further. In that case, Jameson throwing the team a competitive retrieval and bodyguard assignment made sense.
Making him intern with Accounts whenever he was in the office? That was a punishment. Educational, maybe, but still punishment.
Six months ago.
Over the past couple of years, Benjamin Keeling and his team had their ups and downs. They've walked away from some jobs, run from others, or wished they had done so. Max even stepped out and became famous. Benjamin couldn't fathom how it could be fair that he got blamed for that. This time had been a solo assignment: leveraging Yuki's training on top of his own experience and talents. Six months and change playing ex-pat policeman in Tanzania should be no problem, right? Of course, he got seconded by the Tanzanians to the nearest United Nations mission again. This time he knew that chucking his uniforms into a trash fire wouldn't set him free. Part of him wanted to go back. Part of him wanted to run in the other direction and never, ever stop running.
A mile from home, Benjamin told the cabbie to let him out despite the ash fall. Does Mama Kapala ever cry? Maybe these are her tears? He paid the full fare and waved the taxi off.
Probably thinks I'm a tourist. How many tourists pack goggles and a powder-blue headscarf at the top of their duffel?
Green foliage everywhere, how he'd missed that so much. Coughing a dune's worth of dust and sand out of his lungs helped him miss home every day they spent Out There. Snatches of Cantonese around him replaced the Arabic-speaking ghosts in his head. Drinking in the sights, the sounds, and even the smells that reminded him of home, he felt safer. He was relatively safe here, among threats he could deal with. Benjamin pasted a glad-to-be-home smile on his face for the faces he recognized. Here, now, he could finally relax. Right? Or could he? Naomi and Reg would be in the caretaker's quarters and not at the iron gates, but what if something had happened while he was gone? He wasn't ready for that, couldn't be ready. How many children had he seen who didn't yet realize that their parents wouldn't come back or couldn't ever wake up, no matter how hard they cried? Halfway to the building, he was at a dead-panicked run.
Reg had called out, "Welcome home!" and would have left the talking to Naomi, but he'd seen that look in the boy's eyes on too many dead soldiers.
They were alive! Please be real. This was real, wasn't it? Please be real. Not a desert fever dream after another patrol in Hell On Earth? Please be real.
In spite of refusing to let either Naomi or Reg out of his sight, Benjamin never figured out whether or when he'd eaten supper that night. Afterward, He and Reg talked late into the night. Reg asked questions and kept Benjamin's cup filled until all the hidden words spilled out. There were words about grinding poverty, disease, homesickness, about the limits to what one person can do, and bailing water from the sea with a sieve. There were words about sticking your neck out and getting shot because some things could never be right. There were words about how nothing can be made right from a grave. There were even words about an intel operative (a lovely blonde if your tastes ran that way) who had suggested a new line of work at some posh school in The States.
The last thing he heard before waking up to a pounding headache were the words, "Stand down, son. I've got the watch."
"They used to call it 'shell shock'."
There's a time of day when it's cool enough outside to work on something but late enough that nothing can be completed before the day ends. Like an itch that doesn't need to be scratched; it's just there. There's a similar time between preparing for a job and being on his way that always left Benjamin restless. Thus, he happened to walk past the graveyard's shrine at the same time a stranger stepped out. She looked around as if looking for someone or something. Maybe she was? Her broad straw hat and sandals were a local Malay design, her vibrant floral sundress was more Western. It couldn't hurt to see if she needed help.
"Excuse me, er, sir?"
These 'I Don't Work Here Lady' situations kind of happened when Benjamin let his concentration slip. The other residents knew him better than that, but visitors expected someone older to be looking after the grounds. So, that's who or what they'd see. Maybe his sunglasses contributed to the effect? These days, he rolled with it.
"Do you need help, Miss...?" finding something or someone, or maybe help with what to do?
"Oh, please. Let's not be formal! Call me Paula, and you are?"
"Benjamin. Pleased to meet you, Paula. You were saying?"
"I had hoped to scout out good some places for a photoshoot – photography's one of my hobbies – and the maps show an old cemetery here, but it's not, how to say it..."
No offense, but it's "Bigger in person, and not the complete sh— dump the guidebooks claim?" Benjamin smiled and shook his head. "We, my family and I, have been working at getting things back in order. People are beginning to come back, so we must be making progress."
"I don't mean to get in the way of your work! I just hoped there might be someone around who knew this place and its history."
"I don't know it as well as my mother, but I'd be happy to show you around. I'm leaving for school tomorrow, so you aren't interrupting a thing. Did you get a good look around here?"
"It was a little confusing. The layout isn't what I expected."
"Yeah, we aren't the big Temple – you have got to see that before you leave – the folks here are mostly asing, or foreigners, and their customs differ. Some families need to wash their faces and hands before entering the grounds proper. Some wish to light candles or incense, so we have a place for that. For those who wish to leave flowers, sake, whiskey, et cetera, but didn't remember a cup, we have some that have been donated, left, er, returned." Seeing Paula's questioning look at that last bit, Benjamin hastily added, "We're here for the community, which has all kinds of people."
"I'd half expected, I don't know, whatever goes for black magic graffiti or something. Disrepair was the kindest word I'd read."
"There hasn't been a John Doe dumped on the grounds in just over three years, if that's what you mean." That didn't come out creepy at all. Jackass. "The weird stuff is more of an American thing, I think. We are open overnight for some holidays, so sometimes there might be leftovers or litter."
"I, er, I know people around here mean well," Benjamin blushed greenish-olive under his tan. "Sometimes Mom hears comments about me being too thin and how it would be horrible for all that food to go to waste while so many ghosts must go hungry."
"Let me guess: you can't help it?"
"It's not like I don't eat. Still interested in looking around?"
"More than I had been, if I'm being honest."
Seeing the markers and monuments through another person's eyes was like seeing them for the first time again, but cleaner. If Paula caught him returning a wave or smile she didn't see, she didn't mention it. Some paths through the grounds were, unfortunately, still overgrown. So, how had she even known about them? Well, LIDAR surveys work wonders for those who can afford them.
They stopped at a break in the foliage that opened to a magnificent view of the lagoon and the smoking volcano that stood vigil across it.
Paula asked, "Have you heard that a group representing themselves as The Keeling Group has taken ownership of this place?"
"Benjamin Keeling, at your service."
"You look a little young to be speculating in real estate."
"Someone has to be the legal owner." Benjamin carried on in his best posh accent, "I'm terribly sorry, madame, but the property owner is overseas and cannot be easily reached. If you would be so kind as to forward a written précis of your interests to our legal representatives, they are sure to facilitate any further communications in due order."
Jameson the Junior would have punched him for that. Paula laughed. Good.
Benjamin went on, "What outsiders don't understand is that this place belongs to the people who live here, whether they can buy out the high-dollar developers or not. I've seen places where people have forgotten that. No thanks. My place is here."
"So should I, or shouldn't I photograph the little girl who's been tagging along and making faces?"
And so, Benjamin 'Belfry' Keeling would leave home for Whateley Academy as if he'd been born a propertied scion of the East Indian Company he worked for. Syndicate member Matthew 'Cutler' Groenwald would be on sabbatical for the duration. Those that knew the difference (an intelligence agency in London, a self-styled Dragon in Beijing) approved. Others kept their own counsel.
Friday morning, January 6, 2017,
Narita International Airport.
"... No. Really, really, Max. This is an airport, and I am on my way. Yes, to Whateley. Where else would I be going in the dead of winter, other than some no-name boarding school halfway to the North Pole?"
Benjamin panned through a 360-degree turn with his cellphone-linked eyepiece cameras. Then he dumped the uncompressed image data into his friend's inbox.
"See? Doesn't it look like an airport?"
"Fine. Give me a minute." Looking around, he saw a handful of high schoolers, escorted close by a young woman in her twenties. A chaperone? Two of the younger women were obvious gaijin. Exchange students would be perfect! He walked over to intercept, taking care not to lose his shadow.
"Sumimasen, tasukete itadakemasu ka?"
The chaperone stifled a giggle as the other Japanese girl froze, then recovered. "Could you please repeat that in English? Taka-kun needs practice." She indicated the youngest Japanese boy with a nod.
Benjamin growled a low "Max. Not. One. Word." into his mic before repeating, "Pardon me, Miss, but could you please help? My friend refuses to believe that I am in an actual airport from which I will be departing on an outward-bound flight in a real aircraft. A photo shot by someone else might help."
Benjamin could feel the mischief glittering in the chaperone's eyes, but he was already screwed. She called out to someone behind him, < Mr. Nakaya! Did you get all that? On the airplane would be better, but then he couldn't send the picture, could he? >
< That would be troublesome, Akishino-sama. >
Watching the little foreign weasel's face catch up to the translation made Ryusei Nakaya's entire day. As if by unspoken agreement, he and Kako made certain that Benjamin and Taka posed with an arm around each other's back like dōmon, flanked by four beautiful and very, Very Famous young women. No opportunity for Hikaru to fade into the background was allowed (not that Benjamin wasn't trying hard on his own behalf). With cameras being exchanged, Ryusei took a picture of his own to send to a certain weasel-wrangler. The boy's brief scowl, as he caught on to the maneuver and realized there was nothing he could do about it, was priceless.
When he got his cell phone back, Benjamin could hear his friend still howling with laughter on the other end of the line.
"Max! So help me, Whoever, if any of those pictures turns up in a Super-Dance-Party production, I will have vengeance! Max! Are you ... listening? Aw, crap."
It was into complete silence that Max chirped, in accented Japanese, "I'm going to let my best friend handle my fans. Give my love to Japan! Have a great trip! Call me before you get here!"
To Hikaru's mind, Hell hath no tortures like a blood relative with fresh dirt. However, one must carry on. It was better to do so before the stranger launches into a demonstration of English's more colorful features.
Hikaru tilted her head. "May I ask which gate you're looking for?"
"The suspiciously empty one here?"
"Ah, so, I am Myoujin Hikaru, Melville Freshman Female RA, and you?"
"Benjamin Keeling, a freshman as well. My or-, er, introductory packet states I'll be in Twain Cottage. A pleasure to meet you."
"As well. I would like to introduce Laura Samuels, Tia del Bosque, and ..." so on through the small horde of students, pointing out who's in Twain.
Once the introductions calmed down, Tia drawled, "By Super-Dance-Party, you wouldn't happen to be referring to Maximillion A. Livingston, the Fourth? The emcee? My mother's worked with him a time or two. Oh! Come to think of it, there is a guy in Twain Cottage who could be mistaken for him... Exactly how did you claim to know him?"
"I didn't make any such claim!"
Benjamin hated this. It wasn't his fault! Not entirely, depending on how one looked at it...
"I might have edited and posted a video."
"'Dancy Dance Party In the House', about two years ago? That was credited to a 'B. Keeling' if I recall correctly."
"The hell it was!"
"I know it was. The agency through which you released the final cut made getting the rights to the original footage a legal pain in the neck for Mom. Be seeing you."
Dammit. Just because it might have been my idea, that doesn't make it my fault!
"Anosa, Keeling-senpai, but I wondering if you could, not that I wish to pry into personal matters..."
"Onishi Kiyoko, right? Does that mean I get to ask why you would call me senpai instead of Benjamin?"
"Okay? It's just that you look older than most of the other freshmen at school. Exemplars tend to look more adult, but you're not an exemplar, are you?"
Benjamin had to chuckle at the usual mistake. "As my father says, it's not the miles but the maintenance. I am sixteen –good eye, by the way– but I am registered as a freshman. I believe that that makes you my senpai within our graduating class."
It was the eyes that were too old, Kiyoko thought, but her nerves kept her to a positive nod. Myoujin-sama's more than Keeling-san's, but it was as if they focused on something beyond than the surfaces they saw.
Benjamin continued, "How did I meet Super-Dance-Party, and how has he kept incognito for so long? Ne?"
He looked up and off into the distance. "So here I am, minding my own business the best I can, and what do I see? Three street thugs beating the... beating up this big, tall guy. Like a complete idiot, I jump in. When I come to, I'm back home. The guy had carried me all the way to the cemetery grounds instead of leaving me in the street for trash pickup. The thugs turned out to be debt collectors. So, getting involved added my name to the loan, plus penalties." Benjamin smiled at some memory. "Since then, we have made good on all debts incurred."
Kiyoko nodded. "In interviews, he's said that he got his start on the streets. I had thought that that was an exaggeration. However, for him to be at our school, I would think that someone so easy to recognize should stick out."
"Not if he's spending all his time working on his projects! He wants everything to be the very best for his fans. There's also makeup, costuming, staging, and of course: attitude," Benjamin said. "I think it would sadden him if his peers were to distance themselves because of his outside fame."
"I see. Oh! Apologies, but I must see what Kobayakawa-senpai wants."
"It's been a pleasure."
Kiyoko didn't return. Either her curiosity had been satisfied, or someone (probably Kobayakawa) had discouraged her from associating with the outsider. No great loss to her that he could see, just something to take note of.
Boarding went smoothly. The aircraft's owners had modified the aircraft to carry the company's equipment and to make the remaining business class section meeting-friendly. There were more than enough seats for the Whateley students to sit together in their cliques. None of those included Benjamin, but he expected that. That he could sit with a window to his left would be good enough until the aircraft was at cruise altitude. Until then, he had "homework" to work on — not having a team in the field somehow required him to stay up to date on more topics, not fewer. He posted a query regarding social network overlaps between Kota Kobayakawa's projected contacts and Yakuza operations in and around Osaka.
Half an hour after the "free to move about the aircraft, but don't touch my stuff!" light was lit, he moved to the expanded galley area. Appropriating one of the tables large enough to seat four, he broke out a deck of cards and started shuffling. Two boring rounds of solitaire later, the casual "just watchers" were ready to propose something a little more fun.
"Sure. I'm always up for a friendly game of cards." Benjamin prompted Colombine, "Cee, please set up for four seats. What do you say, folks? Penny a point, five dollars a seat?"
"I wouldn't trust my money to someone who just happened to be at the airport at a convenient date and time to pose as a new student. There's no telling what questionable favors that may have cost such a person."
Kobayakawa-senpai is serving, and the crowd is tense.
"Fair enough. Does anyone here NOT trust Mr. Kobayakawa for banking duties?"
Keeling returns the ball.
"Now look here, I didn't volunteer to do any such thing!"
Almost out of bounds, but Kobayakawa stretches for the return volley.
"You've already volunteered your services at judging my character on others' behalf. Put up or shut up."
Back to Kobayakawa...
"Any fool who wants to throw away their money can do it without my help."
Fault: insult. Point to Keeling!
The bunny-eared girl spoke up, "I'll do it. Your PA's programs can work with that?"
Benjamin pulled a five from his wallet and handed it over. "Cee's never had trouble before."
Tia said, "With you? That's something I doubt."
Taka was first in. Win or lose, getting to know a fellow Twain resident would be good. Tia waved Laura over. With most of the table taken by freshmen, custom ruled out most of the older students. He hesitated at first, but Koichi took advantage of the opportunity to sit next to Laura. Or perhaps it was just that Hikaru-sama was wearing one of her scary smiles?
Benjamin called the game on his last deal "The buck stops here, folks!" minutes ahead of the aircraft's approach to Elmendorf AFB for refueling. It wouldn't have been professional to short Tia the time to cash out each player. PA-to-PA microtransactions for the all-around win, there. When everyone went back to the seats to buckle in, Benjamin wasn't quite as carefully avoided as before.
Colombine pinged in on Benjamin's earpiece while he was updating notes on his fellow students.
"Kurenai-senpai wishes to know how many casinos have banned you to date."
"You don't know?"
"We both want to hear it from you."
"... with voice stress analyzers at the ready? Fine. Zero."
Hikaru's elegantly choked "What?" from several meters away was music to Benjamin's ears.
"On the other hand, Lady Sally has offered a free vasectomy with a rusty spoon if the words 'Spades' or 'Bridge' are mentioned in connection with my name."
Colombine's voice jumped a good third or fifth of an octave. "Benjamin! She doesn't bluff about things like that!"
"Not to mention she knows my anatomy to too many decimal points."
"What is wrong with you?"
So much for those eardrums.
"Well, I'm sixteen, if that helps. And, apparently, I'm still a guy."
"Besides, licensed casinos can't openly run the unregulated poker rooms," mused Benjamin.
"Finish your damned notes and get some sleep while you can."
"What would I do without you?"
Colombine kept 'Let's not test any of the hypotheses that come to mind' to herself. So, Benjamin closed his eyes and willed himself to get some shut-eye while he could. She'd keep watch.
End of Part 1
"Luv, I was buried looking better than that."
That was a mental picture he didn't need. Matthew rasped out a "Thanks. I'll try to do better next time."
I really like this exchange. Made me chuckle.
Overall it's interesting and I'm very intrigued.
But it could use more details. What are Benjamin's powers? What does he look like? What is the group he's working with? Things like that. A few more paragraphs with those little details would help a lot.
Thanks! Of course, Reg is speaking the truth :)
Some of the details people have asked for are already in Part One. This is not the whole story, though.