VECTOR'S MEMOIRS: THE CHAOTIX THAT WAS (PART FIVE)
by Foxy Boy
What a card to be dealt, and on that of all days. Only minutes before, I'd been walking on air from the break I so desperately needed. Now, a thin veil of lingering smoke shrouded the scene I'd hoped never to see, accessorized by the piercing wail of a fire truck. Too little, too late.
Still stunned, my attention turned to Doones, who had made his way to the traumatized couple and was now speaking to them in low whispers. There was no question our names were being bandied about, and from his lips, it could be anything but positive. Not that any shining praise would come out of this.
My wits were only just starting to return, and as I turned back towards my right-hand men, I bit my tongue so hard I tasted blood. Everything in me wanted to explode; to bring the hammer of wrath down on their heads like I'm sure they expected. And in all likelihood, it was only Espio's appearance that saved them. His nature was the same as any ninja: quiet, meditative, and above all, slow to give in to emotion. To break that nature so completely, and without even a trace of resistance, he had to have been mentally destroyed. The whole situation was unthinkable, at best; but I'd never been one to kick a friend when he's down, or - as he seemed - borderline-suicidal.
Reining in my fury might've helped their tender psyche, but it did nothing to lighten my own load. How could I even begin to ask the relevant questions, in that state of mind, knowing how they must've felt. One of them was to blame, and it didn't matter how damaging it might be to find out; I would have to know, and for more than just one reason.
Let it never be said I'm an unfeeling monster. What they heard from me, was a voice softer and more sympathetic than I'd mustered any time before or since.
"Boys, I'm not gonna go mental over this. I can tell from the look on your faces you've been punished enough. I just want the-- no, I need the straight story."
No reply. They were clearly still miles from finding their composure. Charmy was just killing me... He looked like a little lost toddler in a supermarket, scared and miserable, with eyes big and full of smoky mist. In my mind, he was already guilty, and I fully expected him to come forward bawling with regret.
I was wrong.
"It was me," I could hear Espio finally moan through his hands. "I'm the one to blame."
It threw me for a loop, pure and simple. Any sliver of tact left in me at that point was no more.
"YOU!?", I almost roared. "H-how could this happen?", I continued, scowling like a demon as my voice deepened in rage. "How did it happen?"
His head slowly rose from his palms, revealing a storm of emotions, all battling each other for control. The voice he finally managed was so low and weak, it sounded like a totally different person.
"I-I went to lunch at around 12:30. On my way back, I started to pass by this house, and spotted Charmy out on the lawn talking to the husband. I walked up, introduced myself, and told them I worked with you. Once they knew that, they invited me in to take a look at the contract the scam artists drew up and had them sign. They didn't have lamps in their living room, only candles, so I held the paper over one to see if I could identify the ink used to print it. The next thing I knew, it was going up in flames, and when I dropped it the carpeting caught. I-it just snowballed from there..."
His last few words were broken and strained. I grunted impatiently, shaking my head in frustration at how simple and stupid a mistake it had been. "Geez, Espio. You're better than to do something like that. Are you sure that's all that happened?"
I could tell my choice of words had hurt him anyway. "Vector, I wouldn't lie to you," he returned meekly, "Especially at a time like this. That ambulance is carrying their son."
You could've knocked me down with a feather. "Y-you mean-"
"-Smoke inhalation," he continued, his tone still weak but even more depressed. "When they pulled away, he was barely stable."
Soon after he finished, I could see his eyes widen in panic. It must've been obvious I was sinking fast to their level of despair. I just sort of fell onto the curb next to them, in a kind of incredulous trance. I was aware of nothing around me for several long moments, until I heard my name piercing the abyss.
"Vector?" he called, "Are you okay? Oh no, he's freaking out. Oh God..."
His backsliding towards losing it again was enough to pull me back out, and my gaze immediately shot towards him. "I'll be fine. The last thing I want to hear right now is you moaning about me on top of everything else."
Charmy looked at me like I'd now completely lost it. "Wait... You're not mad?"
Heh, that's a good one. "Yes the fuck I'm mad!", I shot back, watching as he squirmed in dread. The statement was completely honest, but I still had the presence of mind to know when to tone it down. "But," I more calmly sighed, "It can't be taken back. It was an accident, and as bad as it was, I'm sure they understand that. If not, then fuck it. You know what really happened, and the authorities can't find anything but the truth."
They were gape-mouthed as I slowly rose to my feet, cool and collected. "I just wish it hadn't happened when it did. I was finally starting to make headway with my own investigation."
My reassurance had done just that; put them at much-needed ease. So when Espio's mouth opened again, I heard the same composed strength I'd grown to expect. "Well, I'd be glad to listen, if you're in the mood to dispense the details. I think good news is something we could all appreciate right now."
Charmy nodded in agreement. I wanted to oblige, but realistically it just wasn't time yet. I drew a deep, burdened sigh precluding my answer. "You'll find out once I know enough to piece together a theory. Right now, I'm just working with a few unlinked clues. Rest assured, though, it's even bigger than I'd imagined."
"...Oh." They seemed disappointed, and Espio glanced down uncomfortably. "Still, you're doing better than us."
Despite it all, a smile broke through the serious weight on my mind. "Yeah, I haven't destroyed any property that I know of."
My gaze shifted again, this time to the heavily clouded sky. "I don't know how the hell I could explain this to Rouge, though. Even if I can somehow get back in time tonight, she's gonna know something's up."
"In time for what?", Charmy innocently piped up.
I cut a sly glance at him and chuckled to myself. "Let's just say I have an appointment to sweep her off her feet."
It didn't surprise me to see the look of confusion on his face. Espio, on the other hand, had no trouble getting the obvious message. His smirk almost made me feel bad for choosing that time and place to come clean with it... Almost.
"Well, Vector, I didn't know you were even shopping around like that."
"Tch," I replied smoothly, "I wasn't, but she was in the mood to sell. Not that it matters..." I paused, looking back towards Doones and the worried parents. "... I don't think I'll be buying tonight, from the looks of it."
My eyes didn't move from the trio. They were still talking, and whatever he was telling them seemed to be helping. Classic police protocol would be to do the same for them as I'd just done for my associates. We might not have been off the hook, but it didn't look like we were going to have the book thrown at us, either... And if the kid made it through in one piece, who's to say we'd suffer any reprimand at all.
Once again, it was Espio who broke my stream of thought. "Vector," he called, and I turned to see he'd taken on a more wizened expression. "This is my problem, and I'll see to it things are taken care of. It's clear you have other obligations to attend to."
He knew what I wanted to hear. I started to open my mouth and humbly object, but his mind was made up. "If the Sheriff needs your presence, I'll make certain he knows where to find you."
All at once, I understood. It was his mess, and he would be the one to clean it up, come hell or high water. The kind of reparational initiative that's hard to come by, so I swallowed the rest of my protests whole. I took one last look at the charred house, then its recovering owners, and decided I'd put in my time at the scene.
"I'll catch up with you later, then," I smiled, guaging how much I'd actually helped as I started to leisurely walk away.
To my surprise, I didn't hear Doones calling angrily after me; even though there was no way he didn't see me strolling off. Maybe he'd just assumed I'd want to be there, and accepted that my part was done. Or maybe the pig was finally coming around.
It was now 3:00 on the dot, according to a bank marquee a third of the way back to my condo. There was really no point in swinging back by the office, except to drop off the camera, which I could just do on my way in the next morning. I couldn't possibly lose it in eighteen hours.
At first, it was hard to put the calamity aside in my mind; after all, it had sent someone to the hospital. But I never would've escaped them both so easily if Espio hadn't had a plan to make amends, and besides, they seemed fine with my absence. It hardly bothered me that I didn't get the full synopsis, and for good reason: I wasn't about to push them into recounting something that had likely terrified them. At least, not until they were ready.
As dumb as it sounds, I was more concerned with the terminal than anything else. Suspicion was eating away at me, and though I'd wanted to wait until nightfall or later to do a follow-up, now would really be a better gamble. Trouble is harder to spot in a crowd, but in the darkness of an empty building, I'd be an easy target for whatever had spooked me in the first place. Team Chaotix had enough problems on its hands, without its leader showing up in tomorrow's newspaper.
If it isn't clear by now, Doones and I weren't best buddies... But a thirty-block walk was enough to make me miss the convenience of his squad car. I reached the terminal cursing under rapid breaths, and made a pact with myself to embrace daily aerobics.
The lunch rush was long gone. A steady stream of daily riders had replaced the solid black of shoulder-to-shoulder business suits. The colours had also changed with the hour; a rainbow of poor, welfare-dependent and even homeless now dominated most of the walking space. The first time around, I'd been hard-pressed to spot any suspicious faces... Now, I could have my pick of the city's supply.
If there was any possible way to be organized about this, I hadn't the slightest of what that might be. I could hardly do more than wander aimlessly, in the hopes I'd find something to confirm earlier fears; ones that still lingered, even with the change of human scenery. I was really just killing time at that point, waiting to see if Doones would try to track me down. There was no reason to believe I could get off that easy. I could spare a half-hour, maybe a little more... And if I proved myself wrong, I'd head for home, to contact N with the bombshell I could barely wait to drop.
Fifteen fruitless minutes later, I'd come to the famous "waiting" benches. A staple of urban culture, and a sort of flypaper for trapping the early, the late, and those who weren't really headed anywhere at all. I took a silent head count; four hobos, two businessmen deep in regret for missing their shuttle, three overtired mothers, complete with their screaming spawn, and a tall figure with a fedora whose face was hidden behind the daily paper.
Wait... A fedora?
I strolled up casually, just in case I was mistaken. As my feet stopped in front of him, the paper lowered, proving my assumption. His gaze somehow managed to be both welcome and unsettling at the same time.
"N? I didn't think you were the type to ride the rails."
He let out a small chuckle, and his eyes went quickly back to the headlines. "I'm not, usually. Have a seat, if you'd like," he returned, gesturing toward the empty space beside him.
My feet had carried me halfway across town, so there was no chance I'd refuse. It was confusing, to say the least, but seeing a familiar face had helped to diffuse a good part of the day's anxiety. I started to ask a question, one of hundreds I intended to put forward, but I didn't get the chance.
"They had the news channel tuned in at the electronics store across the street. Your partners got a sizeable chunk of air time."
Just the thing I didn't need to know. And since I hadn't been there, I could only imagine how Espio and Charmy had presented themselves, and me, on a citywide broadcast. I could almost hear the death knell of our livelihood, in the form of N's harsh baritone.
"Unfortunate about their son, too. They made it sound like he'll probably pull through, so maybe it'll all blow over." He paused to flip the page. "I don't wonder why you'd want to take a short trip. If I were you, I'd be doing everything I could to escape the backlash for a while."
His assessment was dead wrong, and more than a bit annoying. "I'm more of a man than that," I scowled. "I'm here to find the reason I felt I was being shadowed earlier."
"Ah, strong instincts." He smirked and continued to read. "You were. I followed you out to Mystic Ruins and back, just to make sure you weren't in any danger. I'm afraid a few of my enemies might become yours as well, if they knew of our ties."
Another epiphany I didn't want, as the gritting of my teeth reflected. "You never said anything about my being in danger."
He finally wrenched his eyes from the print, to meet mine with a skeptical stare. "What, you didn't think it would come with the territory?" Rustling the page, he went right back to scanning it. "At least I'm looking out for you when I can. I probably could've had your kind of job by now, if my past wasn't what it is."
This was all too strange. I started to feel like a pawn on a chessboard, being moved and shuffled around in ways I might not even be aware of. I found it hard to even look at him as I spoke. "I guess that means you know about Sonic and Tails."
I could tell his interest had perked up, and he quickly sat the paper to the side. "I can't be everywhere constantly. By all means, elaborate."
"Well," I sighed heavily, "I wish I could put it in context, but all I know is I sat hidden and watched money changed hands."
"To Sonic?", he asked, almost eagerly.
I shook my head. "God only knows why he'd be greasing his furry sidekick's palm. I'm hoping that'll change, and soon."
"That makes two of us.", he returned nonchalant, and slowly leaned down to retrieve his seemingly-treasured issue. "I'm already feeling alot of pressure from the boat owners. Until you can dig up enough to sway the D.A. into backing any sort of legal action, I can't really tell them anything. You can see how I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."
I shot him an ironic smirk. "Well, if you fancy yourself an unrealized gumshoe, you could always pitch in. At this point, I wouldn't care if it meant a slightly smaller paycheck. The whole affair has me feeling kind of paranoid."
He laughed, and the sound was lower and more jagged than his usual voice. "I would, but there's a reason you couldn't spot me before. If I wasn't good at making myself scarce, I'd be long dead by now."
A good point for an ex-con to make. In a way, he was cursed, if his wrongs had put him in that deep. After that, I had no more questions about my purpose in this.
"Well, you know what I know," I mused, and slowly rose to my tired feet. "I'm gonna head back for home base. My day won't end when my work does." The meaning, of course, was both seedy and my own business.
He nodded, still entranced by the last bit of unread print. "I'll give your office another ring about this time tomorrow, if you don't see me before then."
"What, in this littletown?", I joked, and started off for the sunlit glass that surrounded the exit. My dogs were barking, but I could make it home, even if I'd have to collapse onto bed when I got there for a two- or three-hour nap. And though I knew better, I could've sworn I heard him mumble the words "Wear her out, chief," before I stepped beyond earshot.
I'm sure it wouldn't surprise anyone to say I wasn't at the top of my game. The day's events had left me feeling I'd lived a month's worth of bullshit in the span of twelve hours... And there was no guarantee I'd seen the end of it. If anything, that night could very well prove to be worse, with Rouge and her penchant for mischief to worry about. Being seen in public with a known thief would do nothing help my image, assuming it could still be salvaged after the accident and ensuing media frenzy. As I strolled along the dingy, gum-dotted sidewalk, two questions kept repeating in my mind, neither of which I could answer. Was there some reason I seemed to be fine with so many risks? And if so, at what point had it stopped mattering to me?
Above that, my only thought was how physically unprepared I'd been for a foot trek through half the city. My joints felt like they were screaming obscenities at me with every step, and the lack of any quality rest away from a hardwood desk clearly wasn't helping. Still, I had the benefit of knowing more trouble was unlikely to surface, at least until I was home.
That's what I believed, at any rate; but my luck quickly found me again. Half a block down from the terminal, I heard a sudden, unmistakeable squeal of auto brakes, and found a police car was pulling up beside me. Of course, it was the Sheriff. Every once in a while, I hated being right in a prediction.
He didn't get out, nor did he motion me in. Instead, he rolled down the passenger-side window, and proceeded to calmy but loudly shout every word he spoke.
"Can't believe I found you so quickly. Do you have a minute to listen?"
I crossed my arms and glared like he was a street punk offering to fight me. "Is that a real question, or am I going to end up across town again either way?"
He scowled like he believed I would care. "I should've known when I found you, I'd find your attitude, too. One of these days, you're gonna regret making everything harder than it has to be. I'm not taking you anywhere, just shut up and hear me out. You've already lost your right to say no."
I might've loved every headache I could cause him, but I could tell the time for games was over. "Alright," I gave in, uncrossing my arms as I approached his window. "You have my ears."
"Good. I just got off the horn with the EMTs that took the boy in to urgent care. He's doing better than they hoped, and might even be released tonight. On top of that, some philanthropist that wanted to remain anonymous has pledged the money to rebuild their home, so they're talking like they won't press charges after all. You dodged a major bullet, pal."
The way the last word had come out of his mouth hardly mattered to me. At that moment, I could've kissed him... In the most manly way possible, of course. I could feel a massive burden lift from my shoulders, and I wanted to smile, but that wasn't likely to happen until I could reach the joy of my own bed.
"Don't go celebrate just yet," he was quick to add. "The residence still burned down at the hands of your employee, so you can expect a good stack of paperwork from the city by tomorrow." He looked down to put the car back in gear, then shot one final glance my direction. "Just be glad that's the only reprocussion you'll suffer from this. And for God's sake, give your henchmen a primer on how candles work."
His point had been well-made, even with the ego he'd injected into it. I waited until he was too far to hear before letting loose with a good sarcastic laugh. It was only then that I started thinking about his whole speech, and all of the sudden it hit me; a philanthropist? Could it be...?
.... No, not likely. Real estate holdings usually aren't lucrative enough to allow sinking a few hundred grand at the drop of a hat, what I was sure the house had been worth. Then again, by his own admission he had been looking out for me. I couldn't exactly put it past him, no matter how little he'd seemed to care about my situation. Maybe I'd been wrong, and it was worth the stress after all.
To be totally honest, there wasn't much to say about the next twenty or so minutes, even if I'd wanted to recall them. I was still tired, I walked the rest of the way back in moderate pain, and once I was in my building and through the door I collapsed onto the bedsheets like a heart attack victim. I knew there was no way I could face the night without a little down-time, and I expected only to lie awake and slowly recuperate. But in trying to block out the soreness of my lower limbs, I closed my eyes, and a little down-time turned into a dead sleep.
I awoke to the sound of loud tapping from the living room. A drowsy glance at the clock radio revealed it was 8:03. Goddamnit, I'd done it again.
Unshowered, unchanged and unalert, I shuffled across the threshold to determine the source of the noise. It was Rouge, half-pressed against the glass like a cat waiting to be let in. It was almost unfair how sultry she'd dressed: A low-cut sequined dress in fiery crimson, with a neckline that could only be described as 'playfully revealing'. She was poured into every inch of fabric, as if she'd somehow reached into my mind to pull out the perfect fantasy. I walked starstruck to the glass doors, and placed a sweaty palm on the handles to slide them open. My pride was already destroyed; I just hoped she would understand.
The pout on her lips as she entered did nothing to quell my fears. "Well, I didn't think I was that forgettable."
I sighed, knowing I'd never live it down. "Trust me, you're not. I just need a moment, and I'll be ready."
"If you say so," she conceded, helping herself to a seat on the couch. "I'll spare you a big a fuss over having to wait. You are a businessman, after all."
I was definitely glad for that, as I slipped back into the bedroom for a quick change of wardrobe. She would have to put up with a me as unclean as my mind.
It was hard to pick anything out, not knowing where she wanted to go, but a simple black suit seemed a sure bet. Minutes later, I emerged from behind the door to find her back on the patio, leaned against the rail staring vacantly off into space. As I stepped out to join her, those tantalizing eyes met mine, and I was all hers.
"Not having second thoughts, are you?", I almost stuttered.
She exhaled like a true drama queen. "No, just trying to find the best way to the restaurant."
"Ah, so it is-"
"Three star only, and Italian," she interrupted. "I didn't forget." Her attention shifted back to the starless urban sky. "I only wish the air currents were different."
The side of her mouth curled upwards. "Take my hand, and you'll see."
I did as she told me, and instantly felt her twist around as she shot up like a rocket. A few seconds later, I found myself latched onto her ankles, watching as the concrete patio gave way to a bird's-eye view of the street below.
Thank God I had no fear of heights. It surprised me she could be so strong as to carry my weight in that manner, high above the blinking lights of traffic and night-owl pedestrains. But somehow, it only served to make her more alluring. I'm sure Freud would've had something to say about that.
She must've known I would love the experience. The view from the railing was nothing compared to what she saw every night. I would almost say my eyes were bigger than when they'd first been exposed to her wardrobe, but that's a pretty high bar to raise.
It was over long before I wanted, as she slowly descended to the sidewalk and set me back down on my feet. We'd landed across from a grand building, with class-dripping letters that spelled out "Il Forno Di Miracolo" in a muted cream colour. My wallet still might suffer for it, but she had good taste.
I felt her slip a hand around mine as crossed the street, like we were some long-established couple. I doubted we would ever be, but it was enjoyable to feel her skin against mine, so I made no attempt to wrench myself away. Even before we reached the door, I could tell the place was completely packed. If there were any tables left open, we could've violated the fire code by stepping inside.
Luckily, we weren't ushered out. The maitre'd, a gangly, effiminate prude like most in that line of work, informed us we had quite a wait to look forward to. With Rouge's hand still in mine, I started to take a seat on a nearby bench, but she just as quickly pulled me back up.
"I'll get us a table," she said matter-of-factly, and proceeded to stroll into the dining area like she owned the property. Halfway to the back, she stopped at the table of a young jetsetter couple, and promptly lowered her mouth to the gentleman's ear. The more she whispered, the more his eyes widened, until at last he abandoned his chair and high-tailed it past me, right out the front door with his other half following. I was dumbfounded as she headed back towards me, but when she motioned to follow I wasn't about to decline.
"What the hell did you say?", I asked, as we seated ourselves.
She grinned proudly. "That his Mercedes was being towed away."
My eyebrow raised. "You knew what he drives?"
"I did by the time I needed to," she quipped, nodding like it was nothing at all. "I could see the shape of the keys in his pocket. I have an eye for that sort of thing."
Whoa... Calm down, Vector, you're in a public place. From there on out, she had me by the throat with every word.
If the maitre'd had seen us at all after her bit of cheating, he must not have cared, and her explanation to the couple's waiter was that he'd been the unfortunate victim of a dine-and-dash. We opened the bill with two glasses of Merlot, which lasted through most of a very smooth and relaxed conversation.
From the very start, I'd assumed she was nothing more than a stunning body with a rakish mind to match her source of income. But as we shared the low lights, swapping stories, views and sarcastic asides, I came to realize how wrong I'd been. Behind her blazing blue eyes, she was deceptively brilliant, refreshingly open, and possessed an almost sinful charisma. I started to wonder just how I'd managed to miss this jewel of the night for so long... And why she didn't have a small army of admirers tripping over each other for her affection. Or maybe she did, and had held out for me instead. I would believe the latter, unless and until I was proved wrong... It was soul food for my ego to think I might be worthy of her time and attention.
I'd just reached the bottom of the glass when I started to feel the drink, in more than one way. Excusing myself like I actually had class, I started to make my way toward the men's room. By then, I was in a poor state to try and think, but couldn't help flashing back to Espio and the acrid smell of smoke. In his terrific mistake, he might've opened a door for us; the aftermath at the train station had proved just how far N was willing to go for our benefit. For all intents and purposes, he was an ally of untold value, and the connection we'd made might usher in more business than Team Chaotix could ever handle seperately. Our future, after a few potential hirings, was looking brighter than ever... And it was all thanks to a piece of paper I would've thrown away if I'd listened to them in the first place.
My business done, I pushed open the door and wound between tables on the way back to my own. I could hardly wait to refresh her voluptuous image in my mind, especially since the alcohol didn't do much to keep it sharp. Smiling ear to ear, I turned the corner of a decorative wall to see her loveliness... And to my shock, she wasn't alone.
Standing beside was a short figure, chatting her up with a look of dead seriousness. Blue, young, and somewhat different without a streak of orange trailing behind him.
To be continued...