I didn’t actually go straight to Ricca. The Riccan delegation had a brief stopover in Los Angeles that was supposed to be kept under close scrutiny. Unfortunately for the FBI, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and Master Academy West, this one fellow had his intangibility powers. After stopping us at the airport and helpfully announcing that we would be spending the duration of our refuel inside the plane, he just smiled and came back to inform us about staying sequestered.
“I did have a little stop I wanted to make before we left the continent,” I mentioned.
He nodded. “Of course. You want to secure the bomb.”
I shrugged. “Something like that.”
He looked at his watch and tapped something, then seemed to examine it. “We have a team that should be able to move by water from here. Will that be sufficient?”
I nodded. “Yes. It’s accessible from the west coast. I’d like to go along, too.”
“Very well. I would be honored to take care of your gift and see it to Ricca in the meantime.” He played around in the air over the watch with his fingers. After a second, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pair of those segmented glasses. “Follow the yellow brick road.”
I took them and popped my helmet off. I noticed him take a step back, but not say anything. I’m sure I stunk a bit. I gave the glasses a try and they showed the world tinted slightly blue, with a glowing yellow line leading from the plane off into the distance. Augmented reality. Nifty.
“You have a way to get me out past all these people?” I asked.
“Oh yes.” He knelt down and touched the floor of the plane. A section of it gained the telltale translucence of his intangibility powers. I noticed as I looked through that it had another line going straight down, and through the ground.6
Before I could go, I felt a little extra weight on my leg. I looked down to see arms wrapped around it, one holding a juice box. Qiang was hugging onto me.
I turned around to the kid and peeled it off of me gently. I lifted it up so I could look it in the eyes. “Hey there, Qiang. I know you want to hang onto me, but this is just a side trip. Just go with this guy, and you’ll be ok, ok?”
No response. No languages I’ve tried have gotten anything like that. I set it down, patted it on the head, and turned to the envoy. He pulled his head up from the bottom of the plane. “It is clear. Ready?” I jumped. I landed on the tarmac under the plane. A moment later, the envoy joined me. He quickly pressed his palm to the tarmac then, doing the same to it. I saw tunnel underneath. “Remember, find the path and follow it. Off you go then.”
I dropped through and looked up. The ceiling had closed, and the envoy was likely hopping back into the jet. As for me. I slipped the glasses off and popped my helmet back on while I navigated the tunnel. I found my way, raising the glasses to get a glimpse at any kind of crossroads, eventually coming to an exit near the edge of the airfield where I could hop the fence and follow a route through the city and toward a dockyard. With all the super-powered people keeping an eye on things and the Pinkertons’ experience with supers, I thought it was going to get hairy there. Instead, it went as smooth as a Brazilian’s Brazilian.
The yellow brick load didn’t lead me by any strawmen without brains or heartless metal men, but instead to a nuclear submarine. From a yellow brick road to a yellow submarine. A yellow submarine. A yellow submarine. “We all live in a yellow submarine!”
“It is not yellow,” said the Captain. “And please get down from that console. You can’t even see out from here.”
I put my arms down and hopped to the floor. There really was a lot of yellow on the submarine from the uniforms of the Imperial Riccan Navy sailors. They got me to Vancouver lickity split, and all the easier due to recent intel showing submarines of the U.S. Navy were deployed elsewhere. Apparently the intel was obtained by someone just asking the President where they were. At least I didn’t pick the dumbest side out there.
The submariners kept a stash of regular clothing for covert shore party operations, which made the whole mess easier. I led them through the stormiest city in the world to one of my storage lockers. I know, minimal security, but also minimal notice. Hell, they won’t even open those things until years after the money’s run dry.
“Behold, my shit!” I said, throwing the door open.
“This is not the bomb,” said the sub’s executive officer. Indeed, he was correct.
“This is better than a bomb. This is my very own 3D printer; capable of building me some armor and all that. I bet y’all have good ones, too, but this one is mine. And that over there is my small-scale nanite thingy. You think I’d keep a bomb in this place, where anyone could stumble onto it?” I put my hands on my hips and tried to act like I was glaring at him through my helmet. Yeah, now way would I leave my bomb with this handy stuff. It might get sucked through if I ever fired it off. Nah, the bomb was in the unit next door.
“Too bad I didn’t move that drone I recovered though. That would have been handy to have. Still, this stuff is important to me, so get it loaded up in the sub. While you’re doing that, I have one last transaction to make.”
The bank was closed, of course. Even though no door is truly closed to a man with explosives, I opted instead to kill the power to the bank, knocking out those pesky cameras and alarms. Then all I had to do was pry open a side door and sneak through and avoid the guards, who weren’t overly concerned with getting out and patrolling the place. It was cold enough with the power on, and the vault was closed. The money was secured. The power was off to the computers, and there was only so much most people could do with a couple of towers.
All it took to accomplish my goal was find the fanciest offices in the place, open up their towers, and mess around with some flash memory on the circuit boards. Slip them out, hook them up to a modified laptop, screw around with the code, and shove them back into place. I suppose I could have just waited and held up the bank during the day, but that risked bringing those damn rangers around. This way, whenever the computers boot, it gives me a nifty back door to let me see things and work in the background. First thing’s first: a find the biggest accounts and empty them. Then go from there. I didn’t know what to expect in Ricca, but I knew I could handle it. The money is just a way to make sure of that. And even if it doesn’t work out, I’ve gone through a lot of money lately. Time to fill the coffers back up and see what I can blow it on. I wonder what would happen if I dumped all the cocaine in Columbia into the ever-present storm over Vancouver…
The Claw’s frustrated seamen weren’t happy about getting the runaround, as I saw from their faces. They expected a bomb. They expected glory. Instead, they got to be my chauffeurs in case anyone targeted the Riccan envoy’s jet on the way to the island. Did I not mention that concern?
My entry to Ricca was accompanied by a small parade of vehicles, I suspect more for show than security. I mean, I still had my armor on, so I was already pretty confident in my security. At least they helped with the equipment I brought. It wasn’t a big show with crowds of adoring fans or Moon Pies thrown from the vehicles or anything, but still nice of them to do it for me. More like a swift funeral with flags. Gotta get that casket in the ground before the person inside slips free of the straightjacket and starts banging on the lid. Just gotta make sure I’m the cause and not the effect.
So I got to see a relatively clean and modern city until we reached the palace, which served as their capital building while remaining attached to the imperial residence. The thing gleamed, which doesn’t usually happen to buildings more than a year old, let alone fifty. Bright, multi-colored tiles made the walkway and outer yard colorful us as we drove through the outer wall, a dusky red color with a little roof/awning thing up top of bright white. The cars stopped just inside and we got out. They ushered me on through a smaller door to exit into a courtyard where the tiles formed intricate patterns.
“This is impressive and all, but it sounds like the daily commute’s going to be hell,” I said.
“This the quadrant of retainer residency,” said a man who stepped out, wearing a robe. Thirties, maybe, with jet black hair. He spoke in the local mixed language, a fusion of Japanese and one of the Polynesian languages, with plenty of loanwords sprinkled in. I’d boned up on the lingo with the help of a language update to my translator program. Figured I’d need it.
The fellow moved smoothly, as if knowing he had absolute control over his body. Perhaps that’s what it took to work around this court. “I am Le Cong Lu, Majordomo of the Imperial Castle. You may call me Lu, or Mr. Lu if you prefer formality.”
I didn’t really go for all the bowing stuff, so I compromised. I brought my right hand in front of my chest, palm up and up, holding my left fist over it. Then I gave a short bow of my head. “I am Psychopomp Gecko. You can call me Psycho Gecko, Gecko, Gex, or White Chocolate.”
Lu didn’t show so much as a raised eyebrow at my take on the gesture, nor any major emotions. “If you please, allow me to show you to your quarters. You may refresh yourself after your voyage.”
“Sounds good. I assume my kid will be there?” I asked.
He turned, gestured for me to follow, and began to walk into the palace. “I am afraid there has been some trouble with the child.”
“Oh no, please don’t tell me it ran off or had to be executed or something like that,” I said. The sarcasm might have been easier to recognize in English.
“Nothing like that, Mr. Gecko. Your child has been trouble for the caretakers. Hiding, running off, locking doors, and refusing to bathe. I am deeply embarrassed that my staff have been unsatisfactory in this matter, and will be more than willing to make amends with their discipline.”
“Nah, don’t worry. I’ll handle the kid. The good thing about an uncultured barbarian such as myself is all the stuff I can get away with. The little one won’t find me as easy to evade due to my lack of propriety.”
“So you say, Mr. Gecko.” Neat. He found a way to avoid commenting one way or another on that. I hope they have good TV here, because watching politicized personal manners is going to get boring quick.
My quarters were simply magnificent. Big ol’ palace, and enough rooms to serve as my own mansion right there inside.
The Majordomo called out as he entered, “Attend!” Two women hurried politely out of the kitchen are, eyes turned down.
“These were the caretakers of your suite, meant to serve all domestic needs you wished. They will be properly disciplined, if not dismissed and replaced now.”
I raised a hand. “I just got here. I understand this is your area of expertise, but I would like to at least experience their competence or incompetence for myself. As I said, I will see to the child. Where is it?”
The majordomo looked to the two maids/housekeepers/cooks/bedwarmers. The older and thicker of the two spoke up, soft and quiet. “The child is locked in the pantry, from the inside.”
I nodded and walked past them. The majordomo stepped forward to have a quiet word with the pair while I walked to the kitchen. It took some doing, the kitchen being kept out of view, which didn’t seem to fit the rest of the place’s aesthetic. I’d boned up a little bit on the culture, too, though it didn’t help that Ricca had all sorts of imitations and homages from various captives, allies, and attempts to make captives and allies. It was nestled between the dining room and a room that could have been a study of some sort. One of those rooms a person could have a guest over with some minor privacy.
The kitchen looked absolutely new, like it had just been made and cleaned up. I knocked on a door I figured was the pantry. I got back a wordless yell. Yep, right door. Now, I figured I wouldn’t really find an axe in all that. Instead, I grabbed a cleaver.
Lu and the maids appeared with the swiftness of an Igor as soon as my hand touched the cleaver. “We would be more than happy to provide you the means to cook for yourself if that is a passion of yours,” Lu said. “If this does not suit you, your staff will serve in this capacity.”
I nodded toward him. “Noted. I do like cooking, but that’s not what I have in mind at the moment. Lu, you shall need to order me a new door. Oh, and someone draw a bath for me.”
I saw one of the women, the younger and slimmer one, frown slightly. I carried the cleaver over to the pantry door. “Little pig, little pig, let me come in. ‘Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin.’ Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in!” I swung the cleaver at the door.
I could have busted right through it in one hit, even with just my fists. I drew it out, hearing a few screams come from inside after I made a good sized hole in the door. I stuck my helmet against the hole then, looking inside to see Qiang stop screaming and look at me. “Here’s Johnny!” I said.
Qiang rushed the door, unlocked it, opened it, and hugged onto me. I gave it a pat on the head and swung the cleaver so it would stick in the door. Still speaking in the local language, I told it. “Hello kid. I hear you haven’t been taking baths.”
Qiang clung to me as I carried it upstairs to where the more muscular girl had gotten a jacuzzi tub filled up in record time. In a gold bathroom. I mean, probably gilded, but so much gold. Gold tiles, gold ceilings, a golden jacuzzi, and even a golden shower! “Wow, look at this.”
“If you will excuse me, Mr. Gecko, I will leave you to your hygiene,” Lu said, bowing out literally and figuratively.
“Sure thing. Thanks Lu, nice meeting you. Have a good one.”
Qiang looked up, saw where we were, and started trying to slip down out of my arms. I motioned for the girl, more like a woman in her case, to get out of the way. Managing to somehow face me the entire way, she moved past me. I tossed Qiang right in the bath. It gasped as it tried to swim to the edge. I stepped over toward the toilet and looked around. “Is there a bowl cleaner?”
The woman was right there beside me, holding out a golden-handled toilet brush. “This ever been used before?” I asked. She shook her head.
“Good,” I said, my helmet giving me a view of the kid halfway out of the bath. I turned and pushed it back in with the brush, then started scrubbing it as it tried to escape. Eventually it settled down and pouted at me angrily. “Brushy brushy!” I said all cheerfully. Then I tossed it aside, where it one of the maids caught it before it could hit anything. “Now come on, can’t bathe in those clothes.”
After handing Qiang’s wet clothes to the maids, I commented more for myself when I noted. “Huh. That’s one mystery solved. I don’t know if she likes whatever girls clothing is around here, so find me a selection of outfits. Girl, boy, neutral. Use your own judgment, and I’ll figure something out.”
The maids nodded. They shared a look then before the more petite one spoke up. “Do you require aid in your own bathing, lord?”
I cocked my head to the side, then popped my helmet. By the time I finished pulling it off, I noticed them both having taken a step back, the one who asked the question now squeezing her mouth shut.
“I suppose I could use one too,” I confessed, then looked back to where Qiang was trying to crawl out. “Nah. Like I said, I got this. You all go bring some clothes.”
Qiang at least settled down when I hopped in too, though she spat water at me. I responded with a splash. Soon, we were splashing back and forth. I gave her a little dunk. She tried to dunk me under, but I ignored her and laid back to enjoy a good soak with her trying to push my head underwater. She eventually gave up and hugged onto me again, soon falling asleep in the water. She didn’t even wake up as I carried her out and bundled her up in a plush towel for a night of sleep.
Well, perhaps it will throw suspicion off myself to be stuck taking care of this girl. That’s all. This has absolutely nothing to do with my own childhood. They almost certainly know I have thoughts about turning on them; I’m a villain. But perhaps they’ll doubt all that if they see me taking care of Qiang. They’ll never realize that she, too, is now part of Operation Deep Cover Mudskipper: the plan to assassinate the Claw and either stop or minimize the coming conflict. Hey, every great spy operation needs a cool nickname.
Though, if the female I’m in bed with is any indication, I’m not much of a James Bond yet. Because Qiang and I aren’t that way. If anything, I’m more of a professional, like Léon. Ah wait, that movie’s not so good an example either.