With a heel turn, John bolted for the curtain to the left of the bar counter, ignoring as the “cocktail artist” yelled that it was for “employees only”. He hadn’t said shit when Sean opted to take his leave. This place had to be involved somehow, but for right now, none of that would matter if their mark got away.
The backroom was nothing but storage. Crates upon crates of liquor bottles were stacked high over John’s head, and several shelving units hosted even more, smaller boxes that were equally as full. The small labyrinth, poorly lit by only a single bulb, proved twisting and winding. John assessed his situation: one way in and out and a host of shelves that created a maze. Sean was here; he had to be. Unhooking the flap on his hostel, John pulled up a handgun and slid a magazine in. He loaded it and flipped the safety off.
Worse, the bartender wasn’t going to let him hangout and yelled for John to come out. With no desire to get into a shouting match, he slipped between two of the shelves, venturing back into the dark warehouse like space. Away from the overhead bulb, a spattering of floor lights served to create a path, and John found this space much larger than originally thought. The cavernous, near tunneling labyrinth carried on and on.
Only the pitter-pattering of footsteps gave John any clue to where Sean could be. Yes, it may have been from the bartender, who changed his threats to calling the police. He had little time, but if the cops showed up, they could deal with Sean then and there.
Peering around shelves, John checked every corner, unless Sean waited to ambush him. Nothing… Eventually, he was spat out on the other side of the maze: an equally bleak and dark realm where he could barely see his nose in front of him. His gun was but useless, and John inched forward, reaching out for what he hoped would be a wall. He found it, but not just a wall, a door, slightly cracked open. A wrenched smell of sewage wafted from the slight crack. He coughed, pressed his ear to the wall, and listened.
Running… someone was running. That was all he needed. John threw the door open and charged forward. How Sean was able to see to this point was beyond him… unless he had been outfitted with some sort of implant. It wasn’t common amongst people who couldn't afford it, but a back-alley dealer could easily outfit someone with a piece of tech. Sure, the risks of infection or improper installation were sky high, but a lot didn’t care. If Sean was augmented with anything like that, it made this all the more dangerous.
The sewer corridor was at least lit, but John could barely tolerate the smell, which was a mix of raw sewage, grime, and stagnant death. There would be no holding his breath either as he pushed forward. The tunnels would be a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare; its circular, metallic walls crafted an almost “winding” feeling. A steady stream of water and sewage trickled along in a filth-ridden river. A mud-like substance was splattered upon the walkways and walls. It may have been an easy escape for Sean, but he did not account for the echoes that bounced off the tight halls. It gave him away almost immediately.
John gave chase, both hands upon his pistol, and doing his best to avoid any of the sewage chunks on the floor. He was fully aware that if he could hear Sean plodding about; Sean could hear him. John’s mind was clouded. With each tip-tap, growing closer to Sean, he worried less and less about his surroundings, passing multiple offshoot hallways. He knew where Sean was… He didn’t need to worry about them.
Except Sean was clever. He also realized that his pursuer was painfully aware of the echoes. He had run these halls before, not in danger like this, but as a test run. He knew the ins and outs of the corridors and how they roamed. Sean slipped down one of those offshoots. He slid out a large combat knife from his belt, hidden just under his shirt where it was difficult to see. Sean pressed himself against the moist, filthy wall. He had no care for his clothes or the smell or grimy feel. He would kill this “Bradley Jericho” if that was even his real name.
John would fall right into that trap. He jolted past Sean’s hiding spot, where the shaky handed man hid. He just caught Sean from the corner of his eye, jerking back as a combat knife came shooting out at him from the dark. John’s pistol discharged; a bullet collided with the wall. A sharp pain ran up his arm as the combat knife cut into his forearm. John gritted his teeth. Minor pain… It wasn’t bad…
Sean swung the knife with the ferocity of a wild madman. It took John every ounce of concentration to dip out of the way, still suffering a few minor scratches and cuts. His arms became battered shields, taking the worst of it as he tried to protect his head and neck.
It all left little time to find an opening. John prayed that Sean would tire, slow just for a second. Whatever god existed answered those prayers… Against the wet ground, Sean’s foot slipped, only a fraction of an inch, but it was just enough for a stumble. The knife went wide of John’s leg; he tackled Sean into the wall.
The knife clacked against the ground as John beat Sean against the cracking tiled wall can that surrounded him. His gun dropped to his feet, discharging again into the hall. His ear rang as Sean dropped to the floor, flailing like a fish out of water. Their legs became entangled; John felt the floor kicked out from under him. He joined Sean in a ball on the damp sewer corridor; they pounded fists into each other until John could feel himself turn black and blue.
Sean lacked the knife wound, however. Seeing a deeper cut embedded into John’s elbow, he reached up, digging his claw like fingers into the open wound. John screeched, reeling back as he thought his whole arm would be torn off. Sean pulled his leg back, freeing it, and then sending it straight into John’s chest. The force knocked the wind from John and sent him to his back. Sean clawed for his knife… and found John’s gun.
Sean scooped it up and scrambled to his feet, digging his fingernails into the wall until they turned raw and bloody. He checked the pistol; it was still loaded. Still ready to kill. To kill this bastard. Right here. Right now. John struggled to recover, trying to force the air back into his lungs with long breaths that did little to help his plight. Sean aimed the barrel right at John’s head. His finger danced on the trigger, edging closer until enough pressure would discharge the bullet and end this fight.
The gun struck the edge of the platform and bounced into the sewage stream. Sean dropped hard to the floor, striking face first with a loud crack and a low groan. A small pool of blood formed from the gash set into the back of his head. Slumped over in an unmoving state, Sean could be considered dead if not for the low humming groaning out from his throat.
John gasped for air, amazed that hadn’t been the end of him.
“Took a bad guy down…” Elle said, clenching onto a pipe.
John checked his wounds. Nothing was quite as deep as he thought, but his brain said the opposite. It all burned like hell. Worse, they didn't have anything to help, and time was short. The police would immediately arrest Sean, which would solve Amber’s problem but give them little for the “why” of it all.
Elle had bound the dazed Sean, and with John’s help, carried him back to the bar. The bartender was shocked to see them carrying a body, but John knew performative denial when he saw it. John barked orders with a quick “If you haven’t, call the cops, and don't bother us!” Seeing the bloodied John, the bartender was not going to argue with him and assured him the police were already on their way.
Time really was short then…
“Someone needs to look at you,” Elle said, eyeing John’s arms and bloodied shirt.
“I’m fine,” John assured as he shook Sean violently until he awoke, “Good, you got some sense about you.”
As he came too, met with a throbbing headache, Sean realized the situation he was in. He struggled instinctively, but his binds prevented him from going anywhere. His assailant and some Neko stood over him, and Sean settled into his predicament.
“I wasn’t 100% truthful with you,” John said, crouching down to meet Sean eye to eye. He instructed Elle to keep back in case Sean lashed out. “My name’s John Darcy, a private investigator.” He nodded at Elle. “My assistant. She got you real good there.”
“What’s a PI want with me,” Sean spit, “I just hire girls for shows…” His off-colored eye twitched; John was right. He was augmented slightly, but his general shakiness was surely the result of drugs. Possibly related to the augments.
“Yeah, I think you got a lot more going on,” John said, “Why’d you run? What’s the point in that? I was only asking for girls for a show.” Sean had no response for that, which John was fine not wasting time on.
He continued, “I’m working for Amber Vallis.” Sean’s eyes widened. “Yeah, you seem to connect with that name quite a bit. Someone’s been following her, broke into her apartment, made some threatening messages, stole some stuff from her… That you?” Sean offered no response. “Yeah… I think it's you. Got you caught at her show, already got your buddy at Skeeters to sell you out.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about… I was at the show, but that’s it.”
John pulled out the collection of photos from Amber’s apartment. Again, Sean’s breathing increased as he was forced to look at his handiwork. “All look familiar, eh?” John pulled up the photo of the schoolgirl outfit. “That one too? Brock was real nice to give it to you. What’s even funnier… you came back to drop it off. So, why? Why Amber? Where did you meet her? What do you want? Or, are you just some perv?”
Sean averted his eyes, biting down on his lips. John clutched his cheeks and forced him to confront him. “Now, now. None of that.” Instead, Sean jerked his head away, lashing out with his teeth. It just caught John’s fingers; he yelped as he pulled back from the bite. In reply, John slugged him across the face. Elle gasped.
“The police will be here, in my guess, ten minutes,” John said, “That gives me more than enough time to get you to talk.” With his thumb, he pressed it into Sean’s green eye. He didn’t immediately recoil. It was mechanical. “Like this… Might not hurt now, but what would happen if I decided to tear it out?”
“John, do you really need to do that?” Elle asked.
Sean smirked. “Listen to your Neko there, PI.” John pushed in with his thumb; Sean fought back the pain and terror. He couldn’t hold it for long.
He was pleading, “Ok, ok! Stop! Stop!” John didn't stop. He kept pushing his thumb in, slowly inserting the false eye further and further into the socket. All the wiring and binding to the flesh started to tear. The hookups to the nervous system, though limited, now could pick up on the pain. And oh, how painful it was. “Please! Stop!”
“Want to talk now?”
“Yes! I’ll talk.”
John let up on the pressure but didn’t remove his finger. “There. That was easy. Now, on Amber.”
“You don’t get it…” Sean groaned, “Amber Vallis… now there's a girl… She had a show in District 2, and she talked to me. I could tell. She wanted me. She was into me. But she was just playing, you know. Leading me on… I tried to talk to her, but she ignored me…” He began fidgeting, drooling. “They said I could have her. They never let me have any of the others.”
“Who are they?”
Sean was lost in his intoxicating thoughts. “Amber’s a real woman. I got her clothes from Skeeters. I got into her apartment! Oh, it was wonderful. I had to let her know that I loved her. She had to see me. She had to know that I loved her.”
“Then why’d you leave the message? Neko Whore Dies Tonight. Really says ‘I love you’…”
“No. No! That wasn’t me!”
“You said you broke into her place?”
“Yes! But that wasn’t me.” Sean was almost foaming at the mouth, “I didn’t want to say that. I love Amber! They told me to put it there. They said I couldn’t have her if I didn’t!”
And again… there was that “they”. “Who are they?” Sean started babbling on again about his undying love; John struck him again. “Focus! Stop being cryptic. Who the fuck are you working for?”
Sean’s labored breathing increased. Sweat piled at his brow as he fought back saying anything. John raised his fist again; he relented. “I don’t know… They pay me… They pay me to get the girls.”
Sean grinned. “After shows. Some perform. Some don’t. But they want those girls. And I want Amber.” Sean sat back, sliding down against the wall. His laughter carried throughout the warehouse, drowning into the bar proper. “Ever have a part of a girl you love? I gave her back her costume, but I took something else.” A sly smile overtook his lips. “Something very close to her.”
“I don’t give a shit…” John muttered. He fished out one final photo from his pocket and showed it to Sean. “Look at this. You leave this weird symbol?”
Sean watched it closely before twitching wildly like a caged beast. John lurched back before getting struck by the flailing man, and as Sean calmed, he jerked his head up, staring straight at Elle. A toothy grin met her. “They are coming… For you… For every Neko.”
Sean’s laughter was drowned out by police sirens.
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