Chapter 1 | First Encounter at the Karaoke Bar
"Let's party, children of Eblis!" The slender, reptilian woman on the lit stage shouted as the microphone was grasped in her scaly mitts. A cacophony of hollering, cheering, and stamping of feet overcame the tavern with palpable excitement that buzzed through the sultry air, spreading infectious grins like a plague of happiness. Her allure reeled in the attention of the establishment's patrons, with noticeable glimmers of stupefaction in their eyes. With such a contradictory collision of charm and unorthodox beauty, who could possibly ignore such a spectacle? The answer was simple. The woman sitting before a polished, lifeless, mahogany bar counter at the far end of the cantina, facing the opposite direction from the boisterous and intense performance occurring several dozen feet away from her. The smoke from an overcrowded ashtray coiled and twisted in its untamable form, forming spirals and curls in the gloom, illuminated only by the age-speckled bar lights. Along the wall was every hue of amber liquid in their inverted bottles; every vice available.
"You alright?" The hulking bartender's raspy voice pierced through the booming sounds of the amplified music that drowned out any minor chatter between patrons. "Not a fan of Yofiel's music, Akane?" His scales wrinkled as he raised an eyebrow. His vertical, slit-shaped eyes constantly darted between the customer and the performer.
"No, especially since I hear her song every five minutes when I turn on the radio." The woman answered, adjusting the side flaps of the red hunting cap that struggled containing the outrageous amounts of obsidian hair its wearer concealed under it. She glanced over her shoulder, catching a glimpse of Yofiel strutting back and forth across the stage while she sang to the beat. Akane turned her head away from the parade of flashing neon, returning her focus towards the pay-per-view event that was broadcasted on the angled flat screen television that hung over the barman's poorly worn toupee. Two men grappled each other, exchanging jabs and kicks as their boiling strife raged on within the enclosed arena, with hemp ropes lining up the ring and turnbuckles in each corner. "Another crown and coke," she tapped the brim of her glass, "whenever you can."
"Crown and coke coming up." Within a fraction of a second, he swiped away the glass pressed his snout against it, cleaning the insides of the cup with his forked tongue. His eyes darted towards the television, watching one of the wrestlers carry his opponent over the top rope, slamming him against the padded flooring. "Why do you watch this? You know it's not real, right?"
"An acquired taste, you could say," Akane answered, "plus, it beats watching guys kick a ball back and forth across a field for three hours." She nudged the sling that covered her right arm, loosening the strap across her shoulder. The bartender let out a hiss, noticing Akane's arm.
"Your arm alright?" He pointed towards the sling, sliding the poured drink across the countertop towards her. "I always see you wearing that thing over it." He mentioned, causing a jolt to course through her body, erecting herself from her slumped position on the stool.
Damn, almost forgot. "Oh, yeah, yeah." She cleared her throat and repositioned herself on the stool, giving the bartender a rigid nod before taking ahold of the glass by its rim. "Just a bad fracture. Could take a while to heal." The bartender remained silent, folding his arms.
"Alright then." He returned a nod and flipped through the notepad stuffed into his breast pocket. The bartender opened his gaping maw and lifted up his tongue, reaching into his orifice, yanking out a pen. "Okay, so you had two crown and cokes, and a basket of fries." He pressed his thumb down against one end of the writing utensil, scratching off the items in her order. "That'll be twelve bucks."
"Twelve buckaroonies." Akane muttered, casually whistling as she slid her left hand into her right pocket, sliding out the plastic card that managed the treasury of her life. The bartender plucked it from her fingers and swiped it into the computer beside the collection of bottles. Card declined. He turned towards Akane, dropping the card onto the countertop with an indifferent expression smirched across his cold-blooded face.
"This card isn't working." He shrugged. "Have any cash on you?"
Declined? Dammit! I knew I was running low on cash since that last online auction, but I'm completely broke so soon? Shit, I'm hopeless! The shadows of fear that consumed her mind forced her joints to lock into place, with the thoughts of living in a cardboard box and brawling with local stray cats over scraps of food running through her mind. Come on, I need to have some cash on me at least! Please, please, please! "Yeah, I should have a bit somewhere." She attempted to maintain her composure despite the miniature meltdown going on inside her head. Akane felt around the pockets of her jeans, with her hand scouring across the denim wasteland for any surviving bills. The bartender's indifference wore thin as Akane's collected nature devolved into desperation. "Hold on, hold on. It's not a race." She patted her pockets for good measure before letting out a sigh. "How about you put it on my tab?"
"No can do. Manager just issued a new policy. I can't open up any tabs; every customer has to follow the rules." He shook his head, receiving a confused and frustrated grunt from Akane.
Are you kidding me? The one time I need to put something on my tab and I'm not allowed to? Today is not my day! Screw it, I have no choice but to use Plan B and test my luck. "What the fuck?" Akane slammed her hand against the countertop. "I'll have you know I fought in Vietnam and this is the thanks I get for serving my country?" Come on, take the bait. It's all about psychological intimidation, as long as I look like I mean business, he won't doubt me. There's no way in hell this plan won't work!
"You did? I was in the first battalion ninth marines, how about you?" He asked, raising an eyebrow. Akane returned to a slumped position, lowering her face and forcibly coughing.
"Uh..." She looked down at her sneakers, her whole plan crumbling before her in the span of a few seconds. Shit, people usually fall for that one. Akane raised her face and pointed at the bartender. "Well, I..." She paused and awkwardly tapped her fingers against the edge of the counter. "The little details aren't important, plus a veteran like me can't remember things like my battalion, I was on the front lines, what with all the... uh..." Akane hesitated. "Explosions." She waved her hand dismissively. Don't give up yet, if I stick to my guns, maybe I can still get out of this one. "What I'm trying to say is that I am a veteran and a senior citizen, so I should receive a discount for my meal."
"Senior citizen? You aren't fooling anybody! You have gray skin, I'll give you that, but you hardly look like you're even old enough to drink." He sneered, reaching for Akane's half-empty glass.
"First of all, it's not 'gray' skin, it's technically a steel-gray." Akane raised her index finger. "Second of all, I'm ninety-eight years old." She raised her middle finger. "And third of all, don't touch my drink just because you like to jump to conclusions or I'll turn you into a pair of boots." She raised her ring finger, pointing all three fingers at the bartender, who glared into her eyes that were colored with an overdrive of tangerine.
"Very scary, now pay up." The bartender opened his hand. Before Akane could answer with another comment, fueling the argument further, the intoxicating aroma of vanilla, jasmine, and bergamot caught her attention. She turned towards the source of the scent, noticing the eighth wonder of the world standing beside her. Akane's tangerine eyes widened with bewilderment with the growing warmth running up her body.
"I couldn't help but overhear your little feud." The dazzling woman spoke, with her voice as elegant and rich as the jewelry around her neck and wrapped around her fingers. "I'd like to pay for her, please." She opened her handbag and pulled out a crisp twenty dollar bill, handing it to the bartender, who nodded with a cold glance at the cup on the bar counter. "Keep the change." Her French accent was the verbal form of silk, capable to melt the heart and possibly other internal organs of almost any creature.
"Er..." Akane grumbled, darting her eyes upward, unable to muster an ounce of strength to speak. She admired her majestic curls, unable to even ask for the mysterious woman's name as she was too mesmerized by her pampered, platinum locks that curtained a side of her face, without a wrinkle or impurity anywhere to be seen. "Thanks." Thanks? That's the best I can do? Maybe she's doing this because she pities me, or maybe this is one of those hidden camera shows, but I don't see why someone like her would willingly pay for this.
"So I take it you've run into some financial troubles." The woman's azure eyes glanced at Akane, who sheepishly retreated to the farther end of the bar stool.
She's talking to you, she's talking to you. "Uh..." After a few nervous moments, her eyes instinctively met the woman's. "No, not at all actually." Akane shook her head, feeling the chills run through her as her eyes admired the sculpted curves of her body. Come on, just roll with it. I have nothing to lose. I don't even know her, what's the worst I can say? "Well, technically I do have a problem." The woman raised her eyebrow with curiosity, leaning against the edge of the bar counter. "I don't know whether I should buy a new vacation home in Prague or Vienna." Akane added, letting out a tense and short-lived chuckle. Stop talking, stop talking, stop talking. After a moment of silence, the woman gave Akane a lukewarm smile. Good, she hasn't just walked away yet. Maybe there's a small glimmer of hope for me after all.
"Oh, you're adorable." She spoke, slowly sliding her hand closer to Akane's on the counter. "Cute and a sense of humor? Very uncommon nowadays." Akane's pallid, gray skin blossomed into a rosy red, her breathing grew heavy, and a cerulean phosphorescence pierced through the confines of her wrapped right arm.
"M-me?" Why am I choking on my words? Is this some kind of secret technique she's using on me? Akane yanked on the collar of her shirt, feeling the claustrophobic fabric press down against her with each passing moment of conversation. Relax. Don't show signs of weakness, it's all about confidence. People with confidence rule the world. She felt her hair begin to pulse, trying to escape the confines of the hunting cap. Akane slapped the top of the hunting cap back down in its place, letting out another fit of anxious laughter. "Well, a sense of humor goes a long way, doesn't it, Miss... Madam." Akane's fingers nervously tapped against the side of her jeans, keeping her eyes away from the magnificent sight of the woman before her.
"Madam?" She giggled. "You make it sound like I'm an old woman." Using the tip of her index finger, she pressed it against the bottom of Akane's chin, lightly lifting up her head to continue sharing eye contact. "I'm Vivienne." Her smile grew, and her eyes provocatively gazed into Akane's. "What might I call you?"
"Acorn." Akane answered, as she quickly leaned away from Vivienne, forcefully exhaling a gust of air. She waved her hand across her face, trying to cool down her growing body temperature. Did I suddenly lobotomize myself halfway through this conversation? What's wrong with me? The growing light protruded from openings in the sling. "I mean, Akane, it's Akane." That's it. It's over. I had a nice run. Akane returned to looking at the aged wooden planks beneath her feet.
"You're just too much." Vivienne snickered, gently caressing one of the flaps of Akane's hunting cap, running her fingers down to the obsidian hair that eluded confinement inside the headwear. "Let's go somewhere where we can speak a little more intimately, yes?" Her hand ran down Akane's arm, silently inviting her to follow.
"Sure." Similar to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Vivienne led the mesmerized Akane through the crowds of bar patrons towards a secluded table located in the far corner of the bar. Confidence is key. Show her that you have control over the situation. As the two walked past a table surrounded by three corpses and a centaur playing poker, Akane tapped the shoulder of one of the players, pointing towards the card clasped between his thumb and index finger. "Get rid of the seven of diamonds and keep that queen of spades, that's a good card." The player covered his cards with a piece of rotted flesh, letting out a groan. I'll make sure to give myself a point for that one. Vivienne and Akane reached the table; its white cloth turned marigold by the insignificant candle flame placed in the center. Talk about intimate. The two sat across each other, separated by a mere couple of feet. Akane stared at the feeble flame, catching a glimpse of Vivienne's delicate fingers from the corner of her eye.
"This place is quite different." Vivienne scanned the area, noticing the variety of the customers in the tavern. "I don't think I've ever seen so many sub-species together like this." She folded her hands together, waiting for Akane to raise her head up. "You know, I was going to propose a business opportunity for you, but you're going to have to look at me." She leaned forward, feeling the pressure from the edge of the table press against her abdomen.
"You guys have been great, but I'm taking a break and heading for the bar. Goodnight, everybody!" Yofiel announced, wrapping her tail around the neck of the microphone stand. She walked off the side of the stage, pressing her claws over her lips and blowing a kiss towards those who viewed her performance. Her exit was followed by thunderous cheers and roaring applause from the inebriated flocks of bar patrons. The migraine-inducing music from the speakers was dramatically reduced, allowing patrons to speak without being drowned out by incessant, repetitive beats.
"You have my attention." Akane inhaled mightily, closing her eyes as she raised her head up. She sluggishly opened her eyes, noticing Vivienne's face dangerously close to hers, causing her jump back towards the recesses of her seat.
"I have to warn you, it is not the work of a commoner." Vivienne explained, folding her legs as she rested her back against the seat's cushion.
"Well, maybe I have the skills to fill the requirements." Please tell me you want to have a scandalous affair and you'll pay me to be your masseuse. Akane cleared her mind from the vast quantity of lewd thoughts that flooded her conscious. She cleared her throat, with her stooped position disappearing as she firmly sat in her seat.
"It's a dangerous job. Even a ghoul like you could die in this line of work." Vivienne angled her head to the side, resting chin on the back of her hands, raising her eyebrows as she waited for Akane's reaction.
Die? What kind of job is that? Akane remained silent, turning her head away from Vivienne. Her eyes darted towards the mysterious woman, who kept her gaze fixed on her. That's a morbid comment. I'm sickened, but curious. "Is that so?" She raised an eyebrow as she turned her head back towards Vivienne. "You're going to have to be specific. What do you want me to do?"
"Kill a ghoul." Vivienne answered.
Alright, she's obviously kidding. There's no way I am hearing that correctly. Akane eyes widened with shock. Her body began to feel a sudden tension, and an overwhelming sense of nausea churned her stomach. This has to be a hidden camera show. She can't be serious. Do I look like some killer for sale? "Kill a ghoul?" She repeated, forcefully blowing air from her nose. "Yeah, sure." With a scoff and a roll of her eyes, she dismissed the idea.
Vivienne's expression remained frozen with seriousness. "You don't seem like you're the kind of person who would work eight hours a day flipping burgers, correct?" Her warm smile faded, and her azure eyes turned into a tundra.
"No, but..." Akane crossed her arms, with a concerned look growing on her face. Oh god, she's serious. She waved her hand up defensively. "Okay, here's the truth. I don't own any vacation homes. In fact, I can hardly afford taking a vacation a block away from my apartment." She placed her palm against the edge of the table, pushing herself away.
"What if I told you there'd be a copious reward if you can do this?" Vivienne's cut through the thick air, stopping Akane from getting out of her seat. "I know this might be shocking to hear, but don't think your efforts will not go uncompensated." She watched as Akane remained frozen in her seat, her eyes darting between the candle's flame and Vivienne, who sat with a smirk painted across her lips. "How does twenty-five thousand dollars sound?"
"Twenty-five thousand?" Akane repeated, her brow furrowed as she allowed her mind to digest the amount stated. "What'd this ghoul do, exactly?" Akane muttered, resting her elbow on the tabletop. "I just want to make sure you know that what you're asking of me is illegal." Akane lowered her eyes, staring down at the laces of her sneakers. I'm not sure if this is an opportunity for money or signing my death warrant.
"I'm aware of that, but I'm not asking you to kill a generous, law-abiding citizen who holds the key to the city." Vivienne flaunted her hand back and forth as she spoke, with each of the rings on her fingers emitting a dazzling shine. "This is an evil waste of life. He is a danger to society."
"To each his own." Drop-dead gorgeous or not, this chick isn't going to make me fight every criminal in the city. Akane scooted herself away from the table. "As long as he doesn't bother me directly, it's really not my problem." She rose to her full six foot two inches, and turning away from the illustrious offer, commenced the first step in her refusal by planting her left foot forward. "I'm not going to be some vigilante, cleaning up the streets of Santa Vittoria."
"I never said you would have to do this more than once." Vivienne spoke. "It's a terrifying thought, but it's just once. Then, you will get your money and you will never have to hear from me again." She enticed Akane, who audibly groaned. She turned towards Vivienne, whose smile grew as she saw Akane's curiosity reach its peak.
"Hypothetically speaking, let's say I'm interested..." Akane strode towards the edge of the table, angling her head to the side as Vivienne reached into her leather handbag, pulling a laminated card with red embroidery decorating each of its corners. She tapped on the card with her index finger, sliding it across the cloth towards Akane.
"If you are interested, then just call me and I will guide you from there." Vivienne watched as Akane pinched the card between her thumb and index finger, methodically scanning its contents.
"Vivienne Chevalier." Akane muttered underneath her breath, receiving a nod from the elegant woman sitting calmly on the other side of the table. Holy shit, I'm really thinking about this? Gomory would nag at me for months about this! Then again, she's been asleep for... how long's it been? Never mind, I'm old enough to make decisions for myself. Twenty five thousand? That's nothing to scoff at, but maybe she can help me with finding that girl. She stuffed the card into her pocket. "Hey, I..." Akane paused and shook her head. No, there's no point. I'm way in over my head. What am I thinking? I don't think talking to some woman is going to help me find what I'm looking for. "Forget it. Thanks for the offer, but you're going to have to find someone else for the job." Akane prepared herself to head for the front doors of the establishment, never looking back; however, something stopped her. Somewhere, in the far recesses of her mind, she wanted to hear that there was something more for her other than the promise of monetary compensation.
"You want something else, don't you?" Vivienne raised an eyebrow, angling her head to the side. "If you tell me, I might be able to help you." Akane paused and returned a hesitant glance towards Vivienne, who awaited a response.
Is it worth even talking about? Is it even worth trying to search for her? Akane opened her mouth as if to speak, but was unable to form the words. Decades of wondering and wandering, asking where to start this search. Is this really the place where I'll get an answer? I won't know if I don't ask. She eventually gathered her thought and ran her fingers through her hair, taking a moment to exhale loudly. "I've been looking for someone." Akane rested the side of her head against the palm of her hand, her instinctively eyes darting towards the ceiling in contemplative thought. "Someone important who I have a lot of questions for."
"You want me to find that 'special someone', right?" Vivienne tapped a manicured nail against the table, capturing Akane's attention as her eyes returned their focus on Vivienne. "Well, I can do that. I have many contacts and connections, Akane. You do this job, and I'll help you find the answers you're looking for." She gave Akane a reassuring smile, the color of her eyes warmer and comforting.
Maybe she's telling the truth, maybe I'm an idiot for believing her. If she's lying, she's one hell of an actress, that's for sure. I wish I could stop time just to think about this. "Alright then." Akane murmured, clasping her hands together. I might as well give her an answer. For all I know, she's looking for one right now. "So let's say I'm..." Akane rolled her eyes and shook her head. I can't believe I'm doing this. "I'm accepting your offer. How do I..." Akane's voice trailed off as she looked over her shoulder, glancing around the bar and surveying the area before turning her head towards Vivienne, dragging her index finger across her neck. "You know, 'take care' of this guy? What about evidence? I don't want to have to live on the run, changing my identity and all that."
"Not to worry, I will make sure there isn't a single fiber that can be traced back to you." Vivienne returned to sharing a lukewarm smile with Akane. "You're in good hands, don't think you're alone on this."
"That's dandy and all but..." Akane shoved her hand into her pocket, tapping her foot against the floor. "Are you going to give me some sort of weapon?"
"Weapon?" Vivienne repeated. "Don't be ridiculous. Just get rid of him by any means necessary." She pouted as she watched Akane use her thumb to tip the peak of her hunting cap upwards.
"You've got to be kidding me!" Akane was stunned. "You want me to get rid of somebody and you're not even going to give me the tools for it?" She placed a hand on the top of her hunting cap, shaking her head. "It's practically suicide!"
Vivienne got out of her seat and wagged her finger. "We can't have any of this being traced back to me, so I'll leave it to your imagination when it comes to how you kill him." She bent down against the table's edge, moving herself closer towards Akane. "I wouldn't look good in a prison jumpsuit." She gently dragged her finger up Akane's neck. "I have no doubt you'll come up with something, tiger." She purred, dissolving Akane's frustrations. Damn, I can hardly remember what I was fussing about when she talks like that. Akane gathered the strength to constrain herself from any further embarrassment.
"Y-yeah, alright..." Akane nodded, turning away from Vivienne. "I'll give you a call and—" As she turned around, she noticed Vivienne's seat was empty. She sensed the absence of her heavenly aroma, with the thick tavern air surrounding her. There's no turning back now. What's been said has been said. Only cowards run from a fight! On the other hand, I've never been in a fight unless it's been in comment boards and forums online. Did she even know who I am? Maybe this is all a mistake, maybe it wasn't me she wanted for the job. I'm not qualified for this! I'll just let her know I'm taking this job first thing in the morning. Akane looked at herself in the reflection of the empty glass cup within arm's reach of where Vivienne sat. Look at you, looking for a way out! You've been doing that for years, you lazy shit! It's time to get off your ass and commit to something for once. You're taking this job, Akane and you're going to kick this guy's ass! Akane raised herself from her seat, nodding to herself. "Yeah, let's rock!"