Chapter 9:

Under Pale Orange Light


John leaned over a standing table, thumbing the straw to his cola and admiring a group of young Nekos trying to convince drivers to get their car washed. Since District 1 was predominantly Neko, this was not an uncommon sight. College bound girls trying to raise a bit of money, hoping it’ll be enough to get them away from this hell hole of a city. Hoping for a better life. Very few would succeed.

Elle stepped besides him and handed him a hotdog. She insisted on paying this time, and the hotdog stand had been nearby. John pulled back the wrapping to reveal a quarter pound dog slathered in mustard and sauerkraut. He fetched a bottle of hot sauce from the center of the table and dosed the top of it.

Elle watched in horror. “That looks disgusting…”

“Not bad when you try it,” John replied with his mouth full, not even waiting for it to cool. Elle made notes of his terrible table manners.

Elle bought a standard sized frank with simple mustard and ketchup on it. She peered over John’s shoulder, looking past the girls and their carwash towards an unmarked door. John had been eyeing it since they got there. “That the place?”

“I think so,” John replied, “Asked around; that’s the only unmarked bar on Fourth. If it's not, that Brock kid’s life is about to get a lot more difficult.” Reaching into his pocket, he tossed out the polaroid photo of the strange symbol in Amber’s Apartment. “No luck on this though. None of my usual guys could tell me what it meant.” It had been two days since the apartment and Skeeters, and not a soul would divulge anything on it.

“I can always check the police database?” Elle said, “Maybe see if there are any records of it open to the public?”

It wasn’t a bad idea, and John had meant to do the same. However, preparing for this afternoon took priority. John brushed the holstered pistol at his side. Yeah… there was a lot to prepare for. “That’s Uppercity.”

“I was raised in the Uppercity!”

“Good point.” He bit down into his hotdog. “Actually, tell me why you’re here? Shouldn’t you be back at the office?”

Elle huffed, “Well, I decided to join you. Simple as that.”

“I said it's dangerous.”

“I can handle myself.”

“I could fire you, you know.”

“If you do that then I’ll just stalk you. I’ll solve the case on my own.”

John chuckled. “Well, no argument there…”

The night from two days prior was fuzzy. John remembered taking his medicine, and it sent him into a hazy daze. He talked with Elle about her involvement, but he couldn’t remember a resolution. The next morning, Elle was gone, leaving a note that read: Grabbing a change of clothes. See you in the office :). After that, they went about their day, dealing with other cases while John got his ducks in a row for today. Elle was there every step of the way, almost like glue.

“Do we know who we’re looking for?” Elle asked. She wore black slacks and a deep purple top. A white scarf was tied around her neck. John told her to “dress” down for the day. She had mostly taken his advice. If they needed to get a move on, her usual skirts and dresses would have got in the way. At least… he assumed…

John flipped open a small notepad. “Asked around about that too. No one could quite tell me anything about this ‘Addler’. My guess, it's an alias.”

Elle frowned. “We at least have a description.” She was right about that. The camera footage from Skeeters, which John had gone back through the following day, proved extra useful. Their perp was lanky, probably under 6 feet tall, and walked with a bit limp. His hands shook quite a bit, possibly the result of drug overuse. An almost military buzz cut would be easy to pick out too, but John wished the Servo footage had been clearer.

“What do we do when we find him?” Elle finished her hotdog and crinkled up the paper. She tossed it at an open wastebasket, scoring on the first try.

John smirked. “Nice shot. To answer your question, we question him. Don’t get too… involved, you know. We don’t want him to think we’re after him.” John decided to take a try at scoring his own trash. He tossed it and hit the rim. With a grunt, he picked his trash up and threw it away. Elle held back her giggles. “I checked this place out yesterday on lunch. It's small, underground. No windows or anything like that. One way in and two ways out. Not sure what's in the back. Hence two. It’s a Neko bar, surprisingly.”

“I’ve never interrogated anyone before!”

“Don’t get too excited. You won’t be.” Elle groaned in frustration as John continued, “Having two of us, a Neko included, would be weird. No. You go in first and get comfortable. I’ll follow after, so we don’t seem together. You mingle by the door and make sure he doesn’t leave.”

John passed Elle a small taser. It was palm sized, easy enough for her to carry and use. He quickly explained how it worked. “This is to protect yourself, if you need it.”

“Really… a taser?”

“Do you have a carry license?” Elle’s shoulder dropped; she shook her head. “That’s why it's a taser. Plus, I only ever carry and use it as a last resort. ONLY as a last resort.” John recalled eight he had ever had to use the gun. Only in two of those instances had it taken a life. They had been two of the hardest moments.

He continued, “If he makes a break for it, zap him with this. We obviously want the police to be able to take the guy in.”

“Ok. Can do!” Elle’s excitement grew again. “I’m gonna take down a bad guy!”

“If everything goes as it should, we won’t be ‘taking down’ anyone,” John said, finishing up his soda and dropping it into the waste bin. He checked his watch; Addler would be there in the next thirty minutes, assuming he didn’t get there early… or late. “We should get into position.”

Elle enthusiastically nodded; the irises in her eyes were practically sparkling. John took her by the shoulders and said, “Please promise me you will be safe. Even if things go south, do not do anything out there.”

“I’ll follow what you said. Geez… John, just because I’m willing too doesn’t mean I want to get hurt,” Elle snapped and shook away John’s grasp. With a wink and grin, she left John at the hotdog stand, making her way down the few steps and into the nondescript door. Elle entered the lion’s den.

John bided his time, taking out a cigarette and lighting it. It would take him around four and a half minutes to finish it, but if he really slowed, he could stretch it to about seven. After that, the cigarette wouldn’t last past the filter. John took all the time he could, counting each second in his head. Elle needed time to get settled in. He started to sweat. Was she doing fine? Got a drink ok? Got herself a seat by the door, with the perfect vantage point of the bar? A million thoughts raced through his head as he tossed the cigarette butt on the ground and stomped it out.

With around fifteen minutes drained and two cigarettes down, John cleared his throat and headed for the mouth of the beast. It was now or never.

The bar may have been unnamed, but it oozed personality. Given the general poverty around them, this was no “standard watering hole”. No, this was the type of place set up for “hip kids” to come and mill about an area they didn’t belong in. After stepping into the small entrance foyer, John passed by a restroom door and entered the bar proper.

A glowing, orangish-yellow light climbed up the back wall, illuminating a mass of shelves set-in behind the bar. Each shelf hosted a slew of different bottles, each one pumped full of liquor. A Neko stood behind the large bar counter, pumping away on a drink shaker and finally dumping its contents into a spiral glass. Hanging high above them, circular lights with the same glow offered a meager light source in the near darkness. John’s feet were lost in shadows; he teetered forward towards the bar. The walk up was simple enough as all the tables weren’t set into walls, surrounded by wrapping booths of multiple shapes and sizes.

For the time of day, John couldn’t tell if it was busy or slow. Almost every table was occupied, except for three. From the corner of his eye, he caught Elle, sitting alone in the corner, further from the door than he would have liked. The table he had hoped she could take was already full. It would have to do. Elle gripped onto a teetering glass of beer.

John would have never guessed her a beer drinker.

After finishing another cocktail, the Neko bartender turned his attention to John. “What can I get for you? You know, this is a Neko place. I could probably-”

“I’m here for work,” John replied as the bartender slid over a list of “specialty” cocktails. All were “intense” and over the top, with wild ingredients and even wilder presentation. John pushed it back to him. “Just a rum and coke, please.”

John thanked him and faced the other patrons. His contact would not be walking up to order a drink; he should move right to a booth and take a seat. After a moment, the bartender dropped off the rum and coke, which John sipped at from a metal straw. He and Elle would occasionally lock eyes; she was busy pushing off the advances of some guy in a business suit.

Then, he arrived. John took another sip and set the half drunk cocktail down. A far cry from the suit and tie at Skeeters, a lanky man stepped through the black curtain. He wore an oversized hoodie and sunglasses despite the immediate darkness. His jeans were poor fitting and his shoes mismatched. At first, John thought it impossible that this was the same man he saw on the cameras at Skeeters. When he stepped forward, the limp was too much to dismiss; the buzz cut was too obvious. He hobbled over to one of the empty booths and slid in. His hands folded together as if praying, and when the waitress asked if he wanted something, he refused.

John asked the bartender, “You recognize that guy?”

“Him? He comes in every once in a while. Sometimes meets with humans. Sometimes Nekos,” the bartender replied after giving the man a once over, “Why do you want to know?”

“Business. Sorry, I like to know who I’m talking with. Never can pass on having an edge. Know a name?”

“Sean Addler,” the bartender answered immediately, “Good luck. Guy’s a strange fellow.”

“I could tell…” John tossed down a “tip” for the information, shifted his coat, and stepped up to the booth. Sean Addler… huh? The name stuck in his mind.

When John approached, Sean looked up from his hands. He pulled off his sunglasses, and even in the incredibly low light, John could see his dilated pupils, reverberating madly in the center of his eyes. Two different colors: blue and green. They shifted left and right as if looking for help.

John held out his hand. “Afternoon. Sean Addler, I presume?”

His voice was higher pitched. “You are?”

“Bradley Jericho. I work with Mr. Hammer from Skeeters,” John said, sliding into the booth across from Sean. His target became more uncomfortable, even a bit agitated. “I apologize if this seems weird. Mr. Hammer had something come up with his family. I’m here in his place.”

“I never heard of no change…”

“Again, a massive apology from all of Skeeter’s management. This was a last minute thing,” John explained with a big grin. He reached into his wallet and tossed out a business card for a Mr. Bradley Jericho, a “talent assistant” at Skeeters. It was easy to get a hold of a business card by paying Skeeters another visit. Altering the text was a bit tougher, given the time, but Elle made a few calls.

Sean studied the card, glancing between it and John. He placed it back on the table, face down, and slid it back over. “What are you looking for now?”

Shit… John had hoped he would lead in a bit, that Brock would have already given him an idea of what they wanted. John cleared his throat. “Again, this must look very unprofessional, Mr. Addler. This was such a quick switch that I wasn’t fully able to understand the situation. I know Mr. Hammer is planning another show, but I didn’t get the specifics.”

“He said he needed more girls,” Sean replied, “Nekos again. How many? How old? Any specialties?”

“Just like last time,” John assured, “Singing, dancing. All good looking.”

“How many then?”

John wracked his brain. “I believe last time… we had around 10. Perhaps 15. Some new faces.”

“That’s not a problem.” Sean jotted the information down. John did his best to eye the content, but Sean kept it close to him. The lowlighting didn’t help much either.

He clicked his pen closed upon finishing. “Now… for payment…”

“Of course. I’m sure we would be willing to match it plus some extra for the new girls. What was the exact-”

Sean slammed his pen onto the table. “No talk of that here! We discuss that later. Brock knows that!”

“Apologies, friend. Didn’t mean any offense,” John said, “I’m sure that was in the notes. It’s my fault, really. I should have taken a look before meeting with you.” John yanked on the edge of his collar. It was getting hot in here.

“Don’t let it happen again.”

“Of course. Again, apologies.” John tapped on the underside of the table, a tick of frustration. This conversation wasn’t going the way he hoped. He needed more: something that pinned this asshole.

Pushing further could tip him off, but John needed to. “Can I have the names of the girls you’re thinking? I will say, they are all so beautiful. Where do you find them?” Sean’s eyes turned to slits at the question; John let up the gas. “Ah, I’m assuming that’s part of the nondisclosure. I’m only curious.” He breathed deep. Ok, time to poke the bear. “There was one I talked to. She was in a schoolgirl outfit. Really sexy. Amber Vallis, I think. Hard to remember names when there are so many.”

Sean tightened up. His fingers danced upon the end of the pen as his eyes widened. It was the exact reaction John hoped for. He continued, “She was a real fine girl. I was hoping to get her number, you know. Maybe a little extra curricular activities.” Sean’s breathing increased. “I’m sure a girl like her gets a lot of attention, you know. She’s gotta like it. All those guys, and she’s got a pick. Fuck man. Just thinking about some of those other guys, fucking her real nice. I get jealous.”

Sean shot to his feet as if on command by a button press. Every muscle in his body was wound as tight as possible. He could burst; John was hoping he might. Instead, Sean, through gritted teeth, said, “Mr. Jericho was it? If you’ll excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”

“By all means. Sorry, I was rambling there.” John offered a pleasant smile as Sean scooted out from the booth, headed for the bar, and went through a curtain to the left of it. In the low light, John hadn’t noticed it.

He glanced back to Elle, who was finally on her own and still nursing a practically full glass. Her full attention was given to their conversation, possibly a little too much. John gave her a confirming nod; things were going as expected. He would confront Addler in the bathroom, get him to spill his guts, and then call the police. Amber would be safe, and the case would be done.

Except the restroom was in the foyer… the entrance foyer…

John rose from the booth and the color drained from his face. Sean Addler had “gone to the restroom” in the exact opposite way, and John had been stupid enough to let him go.