Chapter 1:

Hotel Watanabe

SYNCRETIC FAULT LINE: An Autonomous Conspiracy

 "Here for business with Miss Watanabe. Executive floor."

Bobby slunk into the elevator behind the young Japanese attendant. The man had a strong build and thin accent, likely a transplant from his island home. The clock struck ten on a dreary, unseasonably chill night. It spoke as a preview of the coming winter, every year they’d gotten colder. Bobby bundled up in his warmest clothes as quickly as he could, because his favorite client just had to have him so damn quick. The cold bit them both, Bobby pulling his jacket tight, the man looking as stoic as he could… even if he fidgeted in the cold air. Bobby leaned on the elevator, while his host stood at attention like a soldier. "What's your name again? I swear we've met before."

"Hikaru, sir." He wore a polite-looking suit. A worker fit for a 5-star hotel. Bobby noticed an engagement ring on his left hand, and by the way his jacket stuck out, a gun hidden in a holster. He leaned into an electronic panel that scanned his face, flashing a light in his eye. "Executive floor."

The elevator didn't lurch. It simply began upwards, accelerating to a slow, pleasant pace. It left Bobby to look out at the familiar hotel interior: a ring of rooms inside a massive central atrium. The place had once been the Marriot Marquis, until bought out by the Japanese on a half-million dollar deal. The owners were a business conglomerate making every odd product under the sun: Sakuya Watanabe and her extended family. They'd redone it with a few Japanese trappings but left it largely in its century-old form. The hotel had a mixed staff of Americans and Japanese.

Officially that was a token of cooperation between Atlanta and her sister city, Fukuoka.

Unofficially? “Preferred hiring practices,” in the words of one Sakuya Watanabe herself.

"I'm sure you've seen me around here before," Bobby spoke up, halfway through the ride. Hikaru turned his head smoothly. He had bright eyes, and while he didn't look tired… The staff here all had dark rings around their eyes. Bobby wondered if it was some uniform requirement, for everyone to wear eyeshadow. The company was big on the 'human touch' for their businesses. The elevator ride was getting a little too silent for his taste. His eyes darted around, and he spied the young man’s hands. “Huh. I don’t see too many youngin’s with rings nowadays. Who’s the lucky lady?”

"Oh-!" Hikaru nodded. They passed the concierge lounge on the 42nd floor. They had good cocktails. He should’ve stopped and gotten one on the way up. “I met her over here, she’s a student, at the college, you know. She was the one who proposed to me, actually.”

"Hey, lucky you!" Bobby chuckled. He rubbed the cold out of his fingers and looked down, shuffling awkwardly. Old surgical marks criss-crossed his digits like zippers and stitches.“Back in the day it had to be, you know, the man got on one knee and proposed. Big ole ring. Cost a lot of money. You know? You remember?”

"Ah, it isn’t like that anymore. It caught me off guard. She's very fiery, I like her." Hikaru smiled proudly. They passed into a new addition to the building- a set of executive floors making up the 'new' penthouse of the hotel. It served as an extra corporate floor to handle the affairs of the hotel and Watanabe's other businesses. "We’re having the wedding soon. Even Miss Watanabe is attending!"

“Well, congratulations, kid.” Bobby pursed his lips and felt his cold bare fingers, trying to rub some warmth into them.

The jacketed man sighed and the elevator stopped. Hikaru and Bobby stepped out into a clean, modern hallway with immaculately polished floors. At the end of the hall were Watanabe's offices, the two walking together. Hikaru's black shoes clicked- while Bobby's rubber-soled boots made more of a thumping sound that resounded against the walls. It was like a slab of a Tokyo finance institute had been skillfully grafted on top of the Coke-bottle shaped building.

The two ducked into Watanabe's office, passing under the red arch of the doorway to do so. Bobby

Teak flooring, gold filigree and a warm, cozy appearance defined it. He always wondered why Miss Watanabe decorated it so much yet she barely lived there. The woman had an eclectic collection of arts and statues from all around the world. She had a fondness for dogs and wolves and such. It was one of those neuroses that afflicted the executive class, Bobby figured, that one ought to decorate their spaces with inscrutable nick-nacks.

"You're running a little late, Mister Blackhill." Sakuya called out from behind one of the office walls. Bobby spied a thin man with sharp yellow eyes in the shadows. There wasn’t enough light for the man to get a good look.

He heard a fire crackling, and the two men stepped around the divider to see Miss Watanabe. Hikaru bowed, while Bobby gave her a wave. The warm glow of the fire lit her up in flickering tones. The woman wore a flattering, business-like dress that took cues from, well Bobby didn't really know, he didn't care for fashion. He figured she got it off a catalogue from some globe-trotting friend of hers It hugged her figure tightly, the pleasant, matronly executive looking magazine-ready. For such a simple meeting, she sure dressed to impress.

"My apologies, ma'am." He straightened up, the metal in his back clicking in the quiet room. "Traffic hasn't been very kind."

"Come, take a seat." She pointed to an armchair across from her. "I called you here so shortly, no, I don’t mind your slight tardiness. Hikaru, please call Butch and tell him to fix us up a Jack and Coke for Mister Blackhill, a pack of cigarettes, and the usual, for me."

The young man nodded his head and briskly walked to an intranet terminal. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a face flash up on screen. A few quick words and the terminal flicked off, leaving Hikaru to stand watch over the both of them.

"You know, I don't think I've seen that dress you're wearing before," Bobby drummed his pocket, making idle talk. She never wanted to get straight to business. It was always chit-chat and catching up on life. It put him in the mood for some tobacco. He usually picked his words more carefully, but… "It’s a very beautiful piece but uh, do you… mind putting a jacket on?"

"Oh, since when were you a prude?" She had a laugh like glass chimes, distant and ethereal. It was the one thing that never sat right with Bobby. Then again, a lot of those executive types never sat right with him. They all seemed like simulacra, smooth skin, not a single hair out of place, as if carved from a single piece of exotic stone. Even Sakuya wasn’t an exception. “Can’t a woman wear what she wants nowadays?”

He chuckled and exhaled. Then he tightened up his thick jacket and rubbed some of the cold out of his fingers. "Ma’am I ain’t got a dog in that fight, I’d just prefer you put something a little warmer on, you look cold and that’s making me feel cold. How’s the daughter?”

"Oh you, Hikaru, please get my jacket. It’s hanging by the door. She's doing wonderfully. Absolutely excelling with her classes. She’s even telling me she’s found a nice boy she likes." She had round, friendly eyes. If she put on an apron and cut the makeup, she wouldn't be too out of place as a cheery host on a cooking show. "I remember when she was just a little girl. They grow up too fast!"

“Yeah, they do.” I remember when you weren't in charge of this city, too, he thought. Sakuya's imports certainly had an effect on the town. 'Pharmaceuticals' remained the polite words for it, since the Big Split left this part of the country more… autonomous. Drugs and surgical laws ended up much more lax, for lack of a better word. "Well, let’s get down to brass tacks. You’ve called me here outside my normal business hours, so surely it must be important. What would you have me delivering now, papers of acquisition, discrete parcel or… a notice of termination?"

The smile never left Sakuya's face. "Large parcel, face to face delivery, in town, expedited. Everything above board."

Bobby blinked and ran up a potential invoice. Four digits, not accounting for package details. That was on top of the fees he charged for a visit on such short notice. She needed something important given to someone quick, and it needed to be closely supervised. That was a bit unusual for Sakuya, but she'd never done him wrong before. Whatever coffers the lady pulled from, they were deep enough that a number like that didn't faze her. "That's a pretty penny."

A small bell rang, notifying that someone was at the door. Hikaru walked over, disappearing from their sight. He returned with a tray in his hand, a pair of drinks sitting on it. The man bent over and set the glasses on the coffee table between them- Bobby's Jack and Coke and a bottle of a fine European wine of some description. There was an ashtray, a shiny brass lighter and a pack of Marlboro Reds, too. Bobby usually preferred a fat paycheck, but a pack of smokes could placate him enough.

Sakuya thanked Hikaru then sent him back to his post. The man stood dutifully at attention. "For such invaluable services as yours? There isn’t a cost too high."

"Invaluable is a strong word." Bobby cleared his throat and plucked the Marlboros up, thumbing out a cigarette. His client gave him a nod, and he lit one up. He was sure there was some fire code he was breaking. Corporations had enough money they didn't gjve a damn about fire codes. "I don't like strong words like that. Convenient is a much more appropriate word. I don't do anything nobody else can't do."

"Whatever you say, Bobby. You are just so convenient to have around." Sakuya thanked him and took her drink, leaning back. Bobby took a deep drag of his cigarette and puffed it out. Nice and rich, but not as pleasant as his usual favorite menthols. He downed it with his drink, feeling the whiskey burn his throat. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

The courier laughed. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. "You wouldn’t get a lot done. Now, if you don't mind me asking, what’s the hurry? This is unusual even for you, ma’am."

“Kobayashi.” Sakuya leaned back. With a wave of her hand she summoned a servant hidden in the shadows of the room. He had piercing yellow eyes. The fire gave them a wicked glow and showed a metallic sheen. In his hands he carried a large, tech-locked case big enough for a rifle. He didn't have the same professional attire as the rest of the hotel's staff. The man wore a three piece without a jacket: slacks, rolled up sleeves, and a vest. Everything about him screamed corporate samurai, from his gait to the gloves he wore, it was easy to tell just what his purpose was.

The two spoke in Japanese for a moment, exchanging words. The younger man bowed. He leaned in deep, practically kissing his own shoes, then set the case before Sakuya. Bobby thought he caught a few names, Sakuya-sama and Ōkami-kun. The man finished his conversation then returned to whatever shadowy corner of the room he belonged to. It looked like somewhere he belonged. Bobby thought- he sure did look like a Kobayashi. Sakuya spoke a Japanese phrase, then the case unlocked. She withdrew from it…

"Is that a sword, ma’am?" Bobby leaned forward, lighting up another cigarette. Flames jetted out of his lighter and lit up the cigarette. He sucked down on the end of the filter and eyed the blade. She pulled it from the sheath and let the fire’s light dance across its surface. It shined beautifully and seemed to cut through the smoke.

"A memento, for a friend of mine. It’s such a beautiful thing." She turned the curved blade over in her hands. Bobby figured it as a samurai sword, about three feet long, perhaps closer to four. It was antique, well-preserved. Despite the shine on the metal, he noted a few nicks on the cutting edge. It looked the part of priceless family treasure. "They just don't make them like they used to!"

Bobby wasn't unfamiliar with swords: he’d been some of the first to get a vibroblade in the army. It was a thick lance of metal, sharp on both ends and about two feet long. It shook so fast it carved through armor like butter. He’d cut up his fair share of Soviets, Jihadists and Chicoms before the end of his service using one of those things. But that sword was a crude implement compared to the sword before him.

Sakuya sheathed the blade, then offered it to Bobby. The sword in the scabbard had a nice balance to it, but holding it seemed to suck the heat from his palms. The flowers on the scabbard caught his eye. They were beautiful patterns that shone in the dim office, much unlike the blade. He felt the fitment of the sword in the scabbard: the two fit less like separate things, more like one complete item. The man wrapped a hand around the hilt and gave a gentle tug, but the blade didn’t budge. It remained fully sheathed, even as he pulled on it, feeling like a solid lump of steel. Damn, that’s in there tight, he thought.

"I thought Japan still had swordsmiths making these?" Not wanting to risk damaging it, he relinquished the blade back to Sakuya. He pursed his lips and sat back in his seat. "It’s beautiful, but these aren’t the types of sensitive items you… usually have for me."

Miss Watanabe leaned forward. "Ah, a very dear friend of mine is requesting its return. It belonged to her husband, many, many years ago. I’d like it to get to her as soon as possible, you understand? It’s just a favor I’m doing here, you know.”

"I see, I see." Bobby pursed his lips. Who got favors out of Sakuya? Must've been someone important, someone high level. Another crime boss, maybe. Childhood friend cashing in a promise? He wondered, but he figure the answer was something simple. If it wasn’t simple, then it wasn’t something he was being paid to know. "The earliest I can deliver this is tomorrow morning, by sunrise."

Sakuya's smile could melt the coldest ice. She clasped one hand on his and beamed. "Oh I know. Just make sure it gets to her, please. You don’t know how much this means to me."

He couldn't return that smile, but he just gave her a wry grin. “It’ll be taken care of, ma’am.”