Disclaimer: No part of Digimon in general and Digimon Tamers in particular
belongs to me.
Author's Note: I do not know if this is accurate insofar as it represents how a repossession agent in Japan would work. Unfortunately, there isn't much information on the subject for me to check with, so I hope you'll forgive me if something looks out of place. I've done my best to ensure that it's at least close to how the system works in America. It's probably a little unbelievable anyway, but I assure you I did try!
The office was unusually quiet that afternoon. Not that business was ever really brisk in the daytime; night was when most of the work was accomplished, and Hirokazu was taking advantage of the relative peace to catch up on his sleep. Of course, once the night shift picked up, this would be the most exciting job in the world, but for now, all he wanted to do was relax and wait for the phone to ring. At the moment, he was kicked back at his desk, his chair expertly balanced on two legs, with his feet on the desktop and his arms folded behind his head as a makeshift pillow. A comic book was spread across his face to block out the light, and the desk was scattered not only with his office supplies and papers, but with a variety of empty soda cans, a pizza box, and the remains of a package of doughnuts. It was hard to believe he was as successful at his business as he was; many people would have sworn that, even at age twenty-eight, Hirokazu was still a teenager. Nevertheless, those he worked with swore he was the best in the business - a business that required a special kind of lunacy at which he excelled.
The phone rang. Hirokazu came out of his doze with a start, just barely stopping himself from falling out of his chair. He fumbled blindly for the phone with one hand while trying to remove the comic book with the other. A number of empty cans clattered to the floor as he reached blindly across his desk and finally found the receiver.
"Hello!" he said. "Shiota Repossessions - when they don't pay, we take 'em away! What can I do for you? ... A car? ... Uh-huh, cherry red, 2025 model, licence number... Okay, I got it. Uh-huh... Uh-huh... Okay! ... Soon as possible. All right, thank you! Goodbye."
He hung up the phone and looked down at the notes he'd hastily scribbled down. Even before the call, he'd had over thirty items on his list, and here was another thing he needed to pick up a warrant for, another thing to research and track down. Not that he minded staying busy, but even the best of the best had to sleep sometime.
"I'm going to have to go to work early tonight," he said, with a degree of unhappiness. "Otherwise I'll never get this all done. Oh, well, let's see what I can get on this guy."
He turned on his computer and began going through a set of indexes, tracking down what information he could on his latest target. That was his least favorite part of the job, but even it could sometimes have its rewards. Hirokazu was a repossession agent, a job that was one part policeman, one part con man, one part spy, and one part professional thief. At any given time, he had lists of dozens of people who were currently keeping items that they had failed to pay for, and it was his task to get the merchandise back by whatever means possible. He told his friends it was the sneakiest job he could have without breaking the law.
It was, at least, exciting work, much of it involving slinking around at night and making high-speed getaways. It was also occasionally dangerous; many people took exception to his appropriating what they saw as their belongings, and violent encounters were part of the business. Bearing witness to the fact was a necklace that was a permanent part of his outfit. Strung on the chain was a single bullet that had become lodged in his truck door after it had failed by mere inches to strike him. It had been a close shave, but as far as he was concerned, the danger was all part of the fun.
*It's fun when I'm not expected to do it around the clock!* he though in frustration, staring again at his list. *Oh, well, might as well see if I can get some of this done.*
He turned the sign on the office door to read "OUT" and left the room, heading for a garage in back. The garage was several times larger than his office, as it had to contain not only his own truck and trailer, but whatever other vehicles he'd picked up recently. At the moment, it housed a small family vehicle, a nondescript blue four-door, a white sports car, a limousine, a minivan, and a motorcycle, as well as a variety of smaller electric devices like televisions and computers. He ran a hand lovingly over the cycle's fender and entertained a wistful fantasy of buying it. If he could finish up everything on his to-do list, he might even be able to afford it. He could often get bargain prices on the reclaimed articles he picked up - after all, they were marked as purchased, and someone had to finish paying for them. It was how he'd been able to afford his own vehicle when he'd been just starting out. Reluctantly, he tore his eyes away from the vehicular luxuries occupying the room with him, instead turning his attentions to the things he could keep.
Sitting in pride of place was his own truck, a specialized vehicle designed to haul away anything that needed hauling. It was painted jet black, making it almost invisible during his chosen working hours of darkest night. Graceful cursive letters were painted across its front doors, spelling out the words, "Thief in the Night" in silver-gray paint. Sleeping on the back of the truck was none other than Guardromon, who was snoring with a sound of whirring gears. Hirokazu walked up and rapped on his side.
"Wake up call! C'mon, let's go!" he called.
"It can't be nighttime yet," Guardromon mumbled.
"It's not," said Hirokazu. "We've just got a lot to do today. Feel up to making a few house calls before lunch?"
"If you're going, I'm going," said Guardromon, coming awake with a creak of hinges. "Where are we going?"
Hirokazu fished around in a pocket, pulling up a wad of papers. "Let's see if we can pick up that pickup today... and there's a Volkswagen on that side of town we can check up on while we're at it."
"Very well. Let us be off!"
Hirokazu couldn't help but grin at his partner's enthusiasm. It was a source of eternal comfort to him that his Digimon loved the work as much as he did. Guardromon seemed to see himself as a kind of Robin Hood, and he relished the role.
"Okay, then, let's hit the road!" Hirokazu said, climbing into his truck. He gave the steering wheel a few friendly pats as he settled into place; to him, she was almost as alive as Guardromon, and just as good a partner.
"Come on, girl," he said. "It's time to go to work."
Hirokazu circled the block slowly, watching as the rest of the afternoon traffic swirled around him. Fortunately, most of the rush hour gridlock had cleared away, leaving him some freedom to move around, while still giving him an excuse to drive slowly. He didn't like working during the day if he could help it; it was so much easier to do this when there was nobody around. He would have to be very, very fast if he wanted to do this without trouble. He had already made one attempt on this particular vehicle, informing the owner politely that the truck was being repossessed and would he like a chance to remove his personal belongings from it first? The owner had responded somewhat less politely that the truck was going nowhere and would Hirokazu like a two-by-four shoved up his posterior? The person who owned the truck was a musclebound construction worker who looked fully capable of carrying out the threat, so Hirokazu had decided the wisest route was to resort to more devious tactics.
"Okay, there it is," he said, peering out the window at the truck. "No room to park here; we're going to have to swipe it the hard way."
"Are you sure that would be wise?" asked Guardromon.
"Not much else I can do," answered Hirokazu with a shrug. "I'll just have to be quick, that's all."
They parked the Thief in the Night and, with Hirokazu lugging his tools of the trade in a sack, they set out toward the target. Hirokazu tried the doors and found them locked. No matter; he slipped a thin strip of metal past the window and forced the lock open. Inside the truck, he found another deterrent: the brake pedal was locked to the steering wheel. Oh, well, that was no big deal.
"Guardromon, deal with that," he said, indicating the clamp. "I'll get the engine going."
He took out his master key ring, a collection of literally hundreds of keys that would unlock nearly any vehicle he would need to deal with. The trick was finding the correct key before anyone noticed what he was doing. While he was trying keys, Guardromon took the brake-lock and broke it, snapping it easily in half with a twist of his wrist and tossing the broken bits casually into the back of the truck.
"Great," said Hirokazu. "Now if I could just get this thing to-"
"What are you doing to my truck?"
Both of them jumped as the irate voice reached them. Hirokazu turned to see the truck's owner advancing on them wearing a ferocious frown.
"Repossessing it," said Hirokazu. "I told you I would. Would you do me a favor and gimme the keys? I'll figure it out myself eventually, but it'll go a lot quicker if you help me out."
"I'm not giving you anything! That's my truck! You can't take it!"
"Sorry, buddy, but I've got a warrant for repossession. It's not your truck anymore."
"But I need that truck! I need it for my work!"
"Then you should have paid for it," said Hirokazu, as he continued testing keys. "There's nothing I can do about it now. Talk to whoever you bought it from; take it up with them."
"The hell I will! You get out of my truck right now, or I'll take you out a piece at a time!"
The next think Hirokazu knew, a hand the size of a baseball mitt had latched onto his arm and was beginning to haul him forcibly out of the truck. The man's other hand was digging around in the back of the truck, which still contained a variety of carpentry equipment. The hand found a piece of wood and raised it like a sword.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Hirokazu yelped. "Put that down!"
"I'll teach you to steal my truck!" the man bellowed.
Hirokazu squirmed, but the grip that held him was like iron. The wood looked uncomfortably sharp-cornered and solid, and he was not looking forward to getting to know it better.
"Guardromon, some help here!" he shouted.
There was a great metallic crash as Guardromon leaped to his rescue. Giant steel hands planted themselves around the man's waist, pinning his arms to his sides. The piece of wood dropped from his hand, and Hirokazu managed to twist free. Guardromon stomped on the board and crushed it to splinters. Hirokazu retrieved his keys and went back to work. While the outraged owner struggled and swore, Hirokazu finished what he was doing, bringing the engine to life with a reassuring rumble. Once he was safely driving away, Guardromon set his captive back on the curb and watched with bemusement as the man gave him a final, terrified look and raced back into his home. Guardromon shrugged and flew off to join his partner.
He found Hirokazu getting the truck situated on the back of the Thief in the Night.
"He didn't give you any more trouble, did he?" he asked.
"Not a bit," Guardromon assured him. "Shall we proceed?"
Much to the droid's surprise, Hirokazu sighed and leaned against the side of the truck in an attitude of exhaustion.
"Nah, I think I changed my mind."
"Hirokazu, is something wrong?" asked Guardromon in concern.
"Maybe," he said. "You know, that would have gone so much easier if we'd waited for night. That guy would have been sound asleep, and I wouldn't have had any danger of getting my head bashed in."
"Why didn't we wait, then?"
"Because if we wait, we just aren't going to have enough time to do everything. We're already way behind," Hirokazu replied. "But if we start rushing, we'll be putting ourselves into more situations like that one back there, and I don't want that."
"It sounds as if we need more time."
"Yeah, but that's not something you can pick up at the corner store," said Hirokazu. "What we really need... is help."
"Yeah. A helper. Someone who can help cause distractions and drive getaway cars and pitch in with the paperwork, so I'm not stuck doing everything myself."
"Yes, that does sound useful," said Guardromon in musing tones. "Where will we get help?"
"Well," Hirokazu answered, "it doesn't hurt to ask around."
Three days later, an advertisement ran in the paper. It announced a job opening for an individual willing to work long and difficult hours with risks of physical endangerment. It did not, however, list the exact nature of the job in question. Risking your life in battle sounded heroic, but being a repossession agent didn't. Hirokazu wasn't sure anyone would reply if they knew what he wanted them to do.
Even as things stood, there were no replies. Hirokazu waited a week without one applicant, and the lack of response frustrated him. Part of him said that he didn't want to work with anyone who wasn't willing to take the same risks he was, and if there was no one in the city with any courage then he was better off working alone than with a coward or a weakling. The other part of his mind was having fits as work continued to pile up. He knew what would happen if he couldn't deliver: if he couldn't keep up with demand, then business would go elsewhere, and he might not get it back once he got the reputation of being slow or incompetent. He was starting to become desperate, and still, there were no answers.
Then, one day, as he was busy poring over a stack of notes and pondering the best ways of getting his most recent batch of requests worked into his schedule, the front door of the office opened. He looked up, surprised. People rarely dealt with him face to face - at least, not here. Normally, he either went to his clients, or he dealt with them over the phone. Walk-in clients were nearly non-existent. This person didn't look like his normal sort of client, either. They were wearing blue jeans and a black leather jacket, and their face was concealed by a motorcycle helmet. Even more surprising was the fact that the shape those jeans were fitting over was very clearly feminine - and, a small part of his mind observed, quite attractive.
"Uh - hi. Can I help you?" he asked. He had a notion she might have wandered in by mistake, and sincerely hoping that she was not here to complain about her vehicle being repossessed.
"Good afternoon," she answered, in a pleasant, slightly accented voice. An American, he thought distractedly. "I saw your ad in the paper. Is the position still open?"
"Um," said Hirokazu, nonplused. "Well, I did run an ad, but... maybe you're a little confused. This isn't a desk job, lady. This is rough, dangerous work. I don't know if..."
"I'm familiar with danger," answered the woman.
She took off her helmet, and a wave of pale blonde hair fell free. She fixed her eyes on his, and he stared. He had only seen one pair of eyes like that, colored palest blue like the far edge of the sky. It had been a long time since he'd seen them, but he still remembered. They regarded him solemnly. He swallowed hard and tried to find his voice.
"Alice?" he squeaked. "Alice McCoy? Is that you?"
A small smile. "Alice Nakagawa, now, but you can call me whatever you want."
"You're married?" he asked.
"It didn't last long."
Hirokazu wasn't famed for knowing when to keep his mouth shut, but even he could tell that was a subject best dropped.
"Man, I haven't seen you in years," he said. "I kinda thought you'd go back to America or something."
"Well, my father was so happy to be back with the rest of his Monster Maker friends, he decided to stay here a while... and then I started going to college here... and then my boyfriend convinced me to stay, so I did."
"Ah," he said.
"Anyway, I saw you needed a helper, so I thought I would apply," she said. "Is the position still open? If it isn't... would you consider taking me on anyway? I really need a job right now."
"Well, it's like this," he said. "The job's open - I need all the help I can get. It's just... well like I said, it's not going to be easy. I can't take on anyone who doesn't have the talent for it."
"Yes, you did say it was dangerous," she replied. "Nevertheless... I think I can handle it."
As she was speaking, something nudged the door of the office open. A large canine head peered inside. Dobermon peered down at Hirokazu through his glowing red eyes. Hirokazu stared back, dumbstruck once again.
"How about a trial run?" he asked.
Night had fallen over Tokyo city, and all those who enjoyed the night life were out and about. Also out were those who had to work at night, and as one who worked best under cover of darkness, Hirokazu felt impatient at the time he was wasting. He tapped his foot and glanced down at his watch for the twelfth time.
"It's almost time," he said, mostly to himself. "Wish she'd get here..."
To fill the time, he glanced into the mirror that hung on the office wall, checking his reflection. For night work, he always dressed in black. Since it was still early spring, the weather was cool, and he was dressed for the chill in black jeans and a black leather jacket, and he reflected that Alice at least had the correct wardrobe for the job. She had always favored dark colors, he recalled, even when they were young. That had been a long time ago, or so it felt to him. Even then, he hadn't really been close to her. She had simply been there, and he had registered her presence, but hadn't really spent more time talking to her than any given situation merited. He didn't think he could have described her personality beyond knowing that she was serious and quiet. That didn't sound like the right description for the kind of person he needed as his helper. He wondered for the umpteenth time that day whether she was really up to this.
He didn't know how long he'd been reminiscing when his attention was caught by the sound of the front door opening, and he turned in time to see Alice walk in.
"I'm ready," she said. "How do I look?"
She pivoted on her heel, spinning around and making her long golden hair swirl around her. Hirokazu stared. Now he knew what she'd meant when she had told him she wanted to go home and get ready. She had changed her clothing from her sensible jeans and sweatshirt she'd been wearing earlier. Now she had on a pair of form-fitting black leather pants, complete with high-heeled boots of similar description. From the waist up, she was only partially covered by something lacy and royal purple that left her shoulders and midriff bare. She wore matching purple gloves that covered her to just above her elbows.
"What is this?" he managed to ask.
"You told me you wanted me to cause a distraction," she said, perfectly factual. "This is distracting."
"Yeah, I guess it is," he said, making a valiant effort to keep from blatantly staring. "Well, I guess as long as you're comfortable... So, you remember the plan?"
"I remember," she said. "We went over it enough times. Don't worry about a thing."
"All right," he said. "If you're ready, then let's get moving. Come on. I want you to meet my girlfriend."
"Girlfriend?" That, at least, sparked a look of curiosity. "You've got a girlfriend in here?"
Hirokazu laughed. "Come and see!"
He led her into the garage, where the Thief in the Night was parked, flourescent lights beaming down on her, making her jet black paint glisten. Hirokazu stroked her nose fondly.
"Meet the Thief," he said, grinning. "The love of my life."
Alice was surprised into laughing. "I should have known! That's a guy for you - they always treat their machines better than their ladies, right?"
Her tone said she was teasing, and Hirokazu smiled wickedly. "Hey, it's not like I spoil her. She pulls a lot of weight around here."
Alice grimaced at the quip. "If you do your job as well as you tell jokes, it's no wonder you need my help."
"It's not about quality, it's about quantity," he said, contriving to look noble. "It just so happens that my services are so in demand, I had to hire help just to keep up."
"How many applications did you get?"
"Well... just you."
"That explains everything," she said. "Of course you're in demand - you're the only one stupid enough to take a job like this."
"I was until you came along," he retorted.
She laughed. "All right, I deserved that. Are we going to banter all night, or are we going to work?"
"Work," he said, moving to climb into the truck. "Want a ride?"
"No, I have ways of getting around," she replied. "Dobermon is used to carrying me... and on Friday night traffic, he'll probably get there faster than your truck."
"Humph. Let's see your Dobermon haul a two-ton truck around town," said Hirokazu.
They headed out into the night. As Hirokazu drove, he could see Alice and her partner reflected in his rearview mirror as they loped up the sidewalk. Now he could see why she wore the jacket and helmet - certainly the dog could move as fast as a motorcycle if he wanted to, judging by the easy way they kept pace with him.
*Maybe she'll work out, after all,* he thought. *I doubt anyone would argue with her when she has that dog of hers to back her up.*
Their target for the night was one he'd been plotting out for almost a month, now. It was another motorcycle, belonging to a young businessman who already had a long record of trying to live beyond his means. Hirokazu had had dealings with him in the past involving smaller items, and he doubted the man would be pleased to see him again. The man worked erratic hours, making it hard to catch him when he and his bike were both at home. When it came to repossessing things like television sets, all he had to do was get into the apartment and take it, but a motorcycle would involve a bit more planning.
However, a bit of research and covert watching had revealed the man's weakness: besides liking to spend money on expensive toys, he also had a bit of a gambling habit. Every Friday night without fail, he could be found at a local pachinko parlor, squandering his money on the fall of the silver balls. He probably played other games, as well, but that was the one he played most regularly and publicly. Hirokazu reflected that if he didn't spend so much time playing the machines, he might not be losing his bike now. Oddly, it made him feel better about the job; he wasn't always fond of taking from people who were honestly doing the best they could to make payments, but he didn't feel at all guilty for paying people back for being stupid.
He and Alice met in a small parking lot to make final preparations.
"Okay, here's the deal," he said. "The guy we want is in that pachinko parlor over there. The cycle is parked around the corner. That's where I'm going to be. Dobermon, as soon as you hear me honk my horn, you pick Alice up and we'll all get out of here."
The dog, never one to waste words, nodded solemnly. Alice did the same.
"And I keep an eye on the man and keep him from noticing you," she said. "I can do that."
"Fine. Let's get in position."
They moved. Hirokazu got back in his truck and drove away with Guardromon in tow. Dobermon faded into the shadows, leaving Alice alone in the parking lot. Slowly and calmly, she walked up the street towards the pachinko parlor.
It was bright and noisy next to the game room, and the lights made her feel self-conscious. She decided the wisest thing to do would be to find a quiet corner where she could wait and watch in relative privacy. Luckily, she could hide herself easily in the busy, crowded room. From there, she scanned the crowds, looking for the face that matched the picture she had been shown previous to the assignment. Yes, there he was, at that machine across from her. She noted with some amusement that he didn't seem to be having a lot of luck with his game; he kept feeding more coins into the machine. Even as she watched, he seemed to become frustrated and got up.
*That's my cue,* she thought. She shrugged out of her jacket and went to move into position.
The man was just reaching the front door, when he suddenly found himself accosted by a very pretty and rather scantily clad young woman.
"Hi there," she said. "Haven't I seen you around here before?"
"Well, yes," answered the man, looking rather flattered at her attention. "Actually, I come here all the time."
"I thought so," she replied. "I've just started coming here, myself. I thought I remembered seeing your face, though. I always remember what the cute guys look like."
The young man definitely looked flattered at that. He stood up straighter and ran a hand through his hair.
"So, anyway," Alice continued in her sweetest tones, "you must be an expert at this game, since you come here so much. I'll bet you win all the time."
"Oh, yes, all the time," he agreed.
"I'm really not very good yet. I just started learning... Maybe you could give me some pointers?"
"Well, there's really nothing to it," he answered brightly.
"Will you show me?"
"Oh, I don't know, I really ought to be getting home..."
"Come on! Please?" she begged.
"Well, maybe just a couple of games..."
The hubbub of the pachinko parlor was pierced by the sound of a blaring horn. Seconds later, a gigantic dog leaped out of the shadows and came to crouch at Alice's side. She leaped nimbly onto his back.
"On second thought," she said to the bewildered young man, "you're not that cute after all. Bye!"
They rode off into the shadows. The man simply stood there, thunderstruck. As he stood and stared, he saw a large black truck pull out from around the corner, pausing briefly in front of him. Hirokazu rolled down the window and waved.
"Hi there! Nice to see you again!" he called. "By the way, just so you know, I repossessed your bike!"
He rolled up the window and drove off, with Guardromon waving goodbye from the back of the truck. The giant dog bounded after them, carrying a girl in a black jacket and a motorcycle helmet. The young man continued to stand staring on the sidewalk for a long time before finally giving up and going to find a taxi.
Hirokazu arrived back at his office feeling far more cheerful than he had that morning. Completing a job always left him with a sense of elation, the reckless feeling of getting away with something mixed with the warmer glow of knowing he'd done his work and done it well. Now there was an added savor to his success: the knowledge that his new partner might just work out after all.
"So, how did I do?" asked Alice, taking off her helmet and shaking her hair free.
"Not bad," Hirokazu replied. "Not bad at all. Of course, that was a pretty easy job, but even so..."
"Am I not ready for unqualified compliments yet?" asked Alice coolly. "Or are you just trying to say it doesn't matter how good a job I do, because I'm still a girl?"
"Hey, I didn't say that!" Hirokazu protested, holding up his hands protectively. "Did you hear me say that? I never said anything like that. Don't go putting words in my mouth."
"All right, then," she said, crossing her arms and giving him a skeptical look. "Give me a good reason why you're so hesitant to let me work with you."
"Well, it's not so much that I don't want to work with you as it is, um..." said Hirokazu. He ran out of words, foundered a moment, and decided to take a deep breath and try it again. He took out the bullet he wore on his necklace and showed it to her.
"All right, do you see this?" he said. "Do you know what this is? This represents an attempt on my life. And this isn't the only one, either. This is what I'm talking about. Not every job is going to go smoothly. What I want to know is, are you really willing to risk people coming at you with bats and carjacks and knives and guns just to take back something that doesn't belong to them?"
"You do it," she pointed out.
"Yeah, I do," he agreed. "Then again, I've never been big on sanity."
Alice gave him a wry smile. "I'm not that big on life in general. A few risks don't bother me."
"Oh," said Hirokazu. "Well... if you're sure... okay. We'll start you first thing tomorrow."
"Not too early, I hope," she said, nodding to the clock on the wall, which was showing past midnight.
"Nah, we work at night," Hirokazu replied. "Work all night, sleep all morning. Where do you live?"
"Um," she said, startled by the unexpected question. "I have an apartment across town."
Hirokazu shook his head. "That's no good. You're going to have to keep the same hours I do if you're going to work with me. Would you object to moving in?"
Alice looked shocked. Hirokazu rolled his eyes.
"Not like that," he said. "There's a spare room upstairs. It's full of junk right now, but I can clean it out for you tonight and you can move in tomorrow."
"Oh," she said, looking relieved. "Okay. I can stand that... as long as the rent isn't too high."
Hirokazu grinned. "Rent is that you put in a full day's work, pitch in with the cooking and cleaning and like that. Sound fair?"
"Just as long as I don't have to do the dishes every night," she replied, with a hint of a smile. "Where will Dobermon sleep?"
"In the garage with Guardromon," Hirokazu answered. "Maybe we can get him a mattress or a blanket or something."
"I'll take care of that," Alice said. "All right, it's a deal. I'll be around tomorrow morning with my things."
"Make it tomorrow afternoon," answered Hirokazu. "We're both going to want our sleep, and I've got to get ready for you."
"All right, tomorrow afternoon," she agreed. "See you then."
"See you," he agreed.
She waved a silent goodbye as she left the office, shrugging on her jacket and pulling her helmet over her face, seeming to fade from view as her dark clothing blended into the night. A moment later, the thudding of giant paws on pavement told Hirokazu that she was truly gone.
"Well," he said, "that went better than I thought it would. What do you think, Guardromon?"
"She lacks not for courage," Guardromon replied. "Or intelligence, either. She might work."
"Yeah," answered Hirokazu. "Yeah, I think she will... Then again, we don't have much choice in the matter. Come on - help me get that junk out of the storeroom."
Just as she'd agreed, Alice arrived at the office at two o'clock that afternoon. She was surprised to find that the front door was closed, with a sign hanging on it with a hastily scribbled message taped to it: "Stepped out for a minute - be back soon." Alice peered through the window and saw that, sure enough, the lights were on but no one was home. She tried the door. She wasn't expecting much, but to her surprise, it was unlocked.
*He must have been expecting me,* she decided. After asking Dobermon to wait outside and guard her things, she pushed the door open and went in.
"Hello?" she called. "Hirokazu! Guardromon! Is anybody there?"
She was met with silence. Unwilling to give up now that she was there, she began poking around the office. She hadn't looked at it too closely the last time she had been there - she had been too busy negotiating with Hirokazu. Now she had the opportunity to see it as it really was: a wreck. Despite that, her attention was caught by a slip of yellow paper that had been taped to the mirror. She stepped closer to read it.
"Alice," it read, "if you get here while I'm still out, it means I'm picking up some stuff, but I'll be back soon. Until then, just hang tight. I shouldn't be gone more than an hour or two. Your room is at the top of the stairs, second door on your right, if you want to go look at it. See you soon. - Hirokazu."
Alice read the note twice over, frowning a bit. So, he'd gone to pick something up without her, had she? Well, that told her a lot about where she fit in the scheme of things. No matter how well she had done the night before, it was clear he still didn't think she was ready for real work. She felt anger beginning to smoulder and throttled it down. After all, he had hired her, and she knew she was competent. It was only a matter of time before he would learn to respect her.
*Maybe... and maybe not. You know how guys can be... maybe none of them ever really learn to respect a woman...*
To take her mind off such grim thoughts, she headed up the stairs to have a look at her new room, hoping it didn't look anything like the office downstairs. She was pleased to see that it was, in fact, clean. There was still a faint scent of soap and furniture polish in the air, and everything from the floor to the ceiling fan seemed to glisten. She was pleased to see that Hirokazu did know how to clean, after all. The furniture was minimal, but it would be enough to last her however long it took to spruce things a bit. The paint on the walls was a cool green color, suitable for a male or female guest. She would have been agonized if they had been pink.
A few minutes of quick unpacking got her settled in - after all, she hadn't brought much. Her last apartment had been pre-furnished, and her only luggage was her clothes and some assorted personal items. She had been doing a lot of moving from place to place as of late, and hadn't deemed it wise to accumulate a lot of hard-to-carry luggage.
*Maybe this will be home,* she thought wistfully. *Maybe this time I've gotten it right.*
She finished unpacking in a depressingly short time and found herself with nothing to do, and still Hirokazu did not arrive. She hung around the room a while until inactivity became intolerable, finally giving up and returning to the office. She looked around again, critically eyeing the varied assortment of trash and other odds and ends that were strewn about. She knew it would probably be a bad idea to start messing with his business papers - they might look disorganized to her, but she somehow didn't doubt that Hirokazu knew exactly where each one was - but surely he didn't need an empty doughnut box in the corner?
Some searching around produced a half a box of black garbage bags, so Alice whipped one out, rolled up her sleeves, and dove in. She dumped the contents of an overflowing wastebasket into the trash bag, then scooped up all the crumpled and shredded papers that surrounded it. Next went all the empty (and not so empty) food wrappers she could find, along with a heap of out-of-date newspapers and months-old magazines.
Among the stacks of automotive publications and computer catalogues, she unearthed a collection of less practical magazines in which females in scanty clothing featured heavily. She considered throwing those out, too, but something stayed her hand. Why shouldn't he look at swimsuit models? There was no real harm in it, and the way he talked, he didn't seem to have time for a real relationship. Who would, when their work involved working through the wee hours of the morning and sleeping through half the day? It was hardly an ideal system for meeting people, unless they were the people you were supposed to be retrieving items from, and that wasn't a good situation for winning someone's favor. She felt a bit sorry for Hirokazu; he was the quintessential people person. He deserved some enjoyment, and hers was not to question how. She stacked all the magazines neatly and put them away in a desk drawer.
As bad as it looked from the outset, she managed to finish cleaning in a surprisingly short time. It was, after all, a very small room - it didn't take a lot of clutter to make it look bad, but cleaning took a correspondingly small amount of effort to reverse the process. Within minutes, the trash had vanished and the desk was, if not spotless, then at least visible. She was just finishing up sweeping the floor when the door of the office swung open. Hirokazu stepped in, stopped, and stared. As she realized he was there, she suddenly dropped her broom and put her hands behind her back, as if she'd been caught doing something wrong.
"Wow," he said. "What happened in here?"
"I cleaned," answered Alice succinctly.
"Obviously," Hirokazu replied. "Man. I'd almost forgotten what that floor looked like."
"Oh, I don't know," said Alice. "When I got here, it was clean enough to eat off of. I saw potato chips, pizza, doughnuts, popcorn..."
"Ha, ha. Not only does she clean, she has a sense of humor," he said, grimacing a bit. He glanced toward the corner where the magazines had been stacked. "Hey, did you throw out my...?"
"Most of it. The spicy stuff is in the desk drawer next to the file on stolen merchandise."
"The one I marked 'Hot Items'? Boy, you are in a funny mood today."
Alice shrugged. "I thought it was fitting."
"Yeah. Well... You really didn't have to do all this, you know," he said. "Thanks."
"It was nothing. We did agree we would share all the work around here, didn't we?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued, "So, where have you been?"
"You mean you cleaned this whole room and never found my note? I was sure you'd find it if I stuck it to a mirror. Did you ever meet a pretty girl who could pass a mirror without looking in it?" Without waiting for her to answer, he added, "I've been out picking stuff up... And dropping stuff off, too. Here - this is for you."
He handed her a check. She took it and stared at it. There was a large number written on it. She couldn't quite understand why she was being handed this thing, but here it was with her name on it, and printed with the name of a company across the top.
"What's this for?" she asked.
"Payment," said Hirokazu. "For helping with the bike last night. We get payed by the job. That's half the payment for picking the bike up."
"Oh," she said. "This is what you went to pick up?"
"Part of it," Hirokazu said. "Mostly I've been getting stuff organized for you - letting my clients know you're working with me, getting your supplies, all that sort of thing."
"Oh," she said again. She was looking very abashed now. "I thought when you said picking things up, you meant things like the bike. I thought you were working..."
Hirokazu gave her an amazed look. "What do you think I went through all the trouble of getting a partner for if I wasn't going to use it? It wasn't just to keep me company, that's for sure."
"I'm sorry," she said, and she looked like she meant it. Hirokazu managed to get a look at her eyes before she lowered them. There had always been something transparent about those clear blue eyes, and just now they were showing flashes of being very sorry indeed, far more than this tiny lapse merited. Curiosity gnawed furiously at him, but he squelched it.
*It's none of my business,* he told himself. *Last thing I want is to lose a good partner by ticking her off.*
To change the subject, he said, "Come on - I've got some presents for you."
He led her into the garage, which was just as she had seen it the night before, except that now Dobermon was curled comfortably in a corner, listening politely as Guardromon regaled him with stories of some of Hirokazu's more daring heists. They both looked up briefly as their partners entered, and Dobermon wagged his stub of a tail in greeting.
Hirokazu went over to where his precious truck was parked and began digging around behind the front seat. With a cry of victory, he picked up a long, narrow case and handed it to Alice. At his bidding, she opened it, finding within a collection of slender, flexible bands of metal and, at the very bottom, what appeared to be a small clamp. She looked at Hirokazu inquiringly.
"Meet your new boyfriend," he told her. "His name is Slim Jim."
"He's cute," she answered wryly.
"You'll learn to love him," Hirokazu promised. "This is one of your most useful tools. It's used for getting into locked cars."
"How do you do that?" she asked, eying the metal strip dubiously.
Hirokazu gave her an I-thought-you-were-smarter-than-that look. "Do you ever get cheated at the car repair shop?"
"If I don't know anything about cars, how would I know if I was getting cheated or not? Anyway, I've never had a car. Dobermon takes me wherever I need to go."
"Ahh. I guess that explains it. Well, here, let me show you."
He walked over to one of the repossessed cars, the modest four-door. Alice followed expectantly.
"This is good enough to practice on. This one's used, anyway. Here, watch this."
With deft efficiency, he pushed the clamp into place, just above the spot where the window met the door frame. He gave the knob few twists.
"There. That holds the window out of your way - gives you a little maneuvering space. Then you slip the slim jim in and..."
Suiting action to words, he eased the metal strip between the window and the door, driving it toward the locking mechanism. There was a click, and the door unlocked.
"Easy," said Hirokazu, removing the tools and handing them to Alice. "Here, you try the other door."
It took her a couple of tries to learn how to get the clamp to stay in place, and a few more to learn where the lock was and how much pressure it took to release it, but Hirokazu was patient with her. She was grateful for that patience - she had always felt embarrassed at how little she knew about automobiles, feeling that she was somehow undermining her stance as an enlightened modern woman, leaving mechanics up to the men. Her teacher's supportive attitude made her see her mistakes as simply steps towards getting it right, and within a few minutes, she was undoing locks almost as swiftly as he could.
"See?" he said. "Told you it was easy. A little more practice and you'll be able to do it in your sleep."
"I might have to, with the hours you keep," Alice replied. "All right, what's next?"
"Umm..." Hirokazu considered a moment. Clearly, he hadn't made any structured lesson plans. "Oh, I know! Come on, you've gotta see this."
He took her back to the office, leading her toward a picture hanging on the wall. It was a fairly ordinary thing, a large plaque bearing a picture of a silver motorcycle and a working clock in one corner. However, he pushed it aside, revealing a small safe.
"Most dangerous thing I've got," he confided. "I figure, you can't be too safe."
He twisted the dial and pulled the door open, and Alice found herself standing on tiptoe to get a better look at what was inside. Her curiosity was heightened as she saw him remove a small black box - not, as she had suspected, a gun case, or anything else she could have immediately identified. Hirokazu slid it out carefully, handling it as if it were heavy. He set it on the desk and opened it. Alice blinked in surprise. The box contained, of all things, a box of keyrings, each with what looked like hundreds of keys on them.
"What's that?" she asked.
Hirokazu grinned. "Keys!"
"Keys to what?"
He grinned more widely. "Everything!"
"You're going to have to be a little more specific than that, if you don't mind."
"These are car keys. I get 'em direct from the companies. For every brand of car, there are something like a hundred and eighty different keys they use. If I need to drive away with someone's vehicle, I can use one of these to start it up. Handy, since most people don't leave their keys in the ignition. I figure I could drive off with about ninety-eight percent of the cars in Tokyo if I had to."
"All at once?" she asked in mock-innocence.
Hirokazu laughed at the sally, and she felt a smile creeping across her face. This was going to work out, she thought. She had come expecting only to be getting a job, somewhere to work that would put money in her pocket and food on her table. She hadn't really expected that she would be enjoying herself, but now she wondered if that might be what she would wind up doing.
*This might just be fun,* she thought. *It's been a while since I've had any fun.*
The thought, "I'm safe here," wandered through her brain and was banished before she could devote any attention to it. She let her smile broaden a little. It had been some time since she'd had anything to smile about, but just now, she thought she might be doing it much more often.
The first day was spent primarily on education. They did not go out to make any more of their raids, but spent the entire day going over the tricks of the trade. By the time the night was over and the first hours of morning had passed, Alice had a working knowledge of what her job would entail, and could, with some thought, identify most brands of cars and trucks by sight. She was still working on the other vehicles, but it was a good start for a single day's work.
The next day, she was greeted by golden sunbeams slanting through her window. She rolled over to look at her clock, and was surprised to find it was almost noon already. Normally, Alice wasn't a lazy person, and was used to rising early, but she reminded herself that she was living on Hirokazu's hours now. As late as she had stayed up, she deserved to sleep in a little. She might have actually stayed put a little longer if her stomach hadn't decided to remind her that her last meal had been a long time ago. She decided to get up, dress, and see if she couldn't find something edible somewhere.
*I should think about doing some grocery shopping, next time I get a chance,* she mused, as she brushed out her hair. While she and Hirokazu had agreed to share most of the household chores, not a word had been said about meals. She assumed she was to provide for herself, and she could only hope that he wouldn't mind sharing with her for a day or so until she could get all her affairs in order.
However, her worries proved groundless. The moment she opened her door, she was met by the enticing scent of something cooking, and she followed her nose up the hall to the kitchen, where she found Hirokazu flipping pancakes.
"Morning!" he said cheerily. "You're right on time. I was going to come wake you up as soon as these were done." He scooped a pancake off the griddle with a practiced flick of the wrist, sending it to join a pile of others on a platter. "Hey, now that you're here, could you set the table? The plates are in that cabinet up there."
Bemused, Alice did as she was asked. The cabinet proved to be full of plates and dishes. There didn't seem to be more than three of any kind that matched each other.
"I didn't know you could cook," she said, thinking of all the wrappers she'd thrown away yesterday.
"I can cook. Kenta taught me. He's the best cook. I still go visit him whenever I get the chance." He flipped another cake onto the platter. "Mostly I don't have time. D'you like coffee?"
"I'd be un-American if I didn't," she answered with the faintest of smiles.
He grinned. "Thought so. Good thing, too. Tough work getting through the night shift without it, sometimes."
A few moments later, they were both sitting down to steaming cups of coffee and pancakes drenched in strawberry syrup. After the first few bites had been eaten in silence, they began to talk about work.
"What are we going to do today?" asked Alice, eager to begin her new job as soon as possible.
"Well, I was thinking that while the sun's up, one of us ought to answer the phone and do the paperwork while the other one goes out scouting," Hirokazu replied. "Scouting's more fun, but the paper's been put off long enough already."
"Flip a coin for it," she suggested. "Loser stays in and works."
Hirokazu laughed a little. "Nah. You can go out this time. The only way some of these forms could be more complicated is if they wrote them in... hieroglyphics or something. It would take longer to explain them to you than to do it myself."
"Are you sure you trust me out on my own?" she asked.
"Sure. No problem," he answered. "Just go out, have a look around, and if you see an opportunity, grab it. Otherwise, just watch, take notes, and report back to me when it starts getting dark... or you get hungry... or bored... or whatever."
She smiled a little. "You're strict."
"Sure am," he agreed cheerfully. "That's why I'm going to make you wash the dishes."
"What? No fair!" she squeaked.
"Fair enough! I cooked, you clean."
"Oh, all right," she answered with a mock-pout, "but you'd better feed Dobermon."
Hirokazu grimaced. "He'll probably take my arm off."
"No, he won't. He knows better than to bite the hand that feeds him."
Hirokazu gave a melodramatic groan. He drained the last of his coffee and wandered off, still looking rather unenthusiastic at the prospect of having to feed a dog bigger than he was. Either that, or he wasn't looking forward to spending the whole day doing office work when he could be out cruising.
*I wonder if he was trying to be nice to me?* Alice thought, as she rinsed the dishes. *He might be. Then again, it isn't like scouting is a hard job to mess up. He might just be giving easy work to a beginner.* Still, he didn't act that patronizing with her. It was just so hard to keep her cynical side at bay sometimes...
After the dishes had been washed and put away, she walked down the stairs toward the garage. On the way there, she sneaked a peek into the office. Hirokazu didn't notice her, all his attention fixed on a form that he was filling out, with the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth as he tried to puzzle his way through the blanks and boxes. That settled the matter in Alice's mind. That was the expression of one who would gladly do anything to get out of what he was doing. There was no way he would have stayed in there when he could have left the work to her if he hadn't honestly been trying to be nice to her.
"I'm going out now," she called to him.
"Huh?" he said, trying to shake off his daze. "Oh! Here, wait a minute, I've got a list somewhere."
She watched him shuffle through the stacks of papers until he finally located a two-page printout and handed it to her.
"The stuff on the first sheet is our stuff," he explained. "Shows you the make, model, licence number, all that jazz. The other list I got from the police - it's stolen stuff. If you see it, don't try to take it, 'cause we don't have a warrant for it. Call the cops and let them deal with it. Got it?"
She nodded. "But anything on the first list...?"
"Is fair game if you can grab it," he answered, "but don't take any risks unless you're sure you can get away with it. Here." He pressed a sheaf of papers into her hands. "The warrants - just in case."
"Thanks," she said. "I'll see you later, then."
"Bye!" He had already turned his attention back to his papers.
She found Dobermon in the garage, happily licking up the last crumbs of his breakfast. She scratched his head affectionately, and he licked her face.
"What are we going to do today?" he asked, wagging his stub of a tail in anticipation.
"We're going scouting," she told him.
"What is that?"
"Well... We've got this list of stuff that needs to be repossessed, but we don't know exactly where all of it is, because it's stuff like cars that people move around a lot. Sometimes, too, when people know we're going to try to take something of theirs, they move it or hide it. We have to go looking for it, so we'll know where to find it. We have to know what people's schedules are, so we'll know when they're not around. That makes it easier and safer for us."
"Sensible," said Dobermon, nodding his approval. "Shall we begin, then?"
She pulled on her helmet and jacket, took a pair of binoculars from a hook by the door, and the two set out. Alice made herself comfortable; Dobermon had an easy stride, and she was quite used to it by now, but riding any type of animal for extended periods of time was liable to make a person stiff and sore. A car would have been more comfortable. On the other hand, she told herself, it would have been hard to drive and use the binoculars at the same time. Dobermon, at least, could choose his own course.
"Where are we going first?" he asked.
Alice skimmed her list. "It looks like most of these are going to be further uptown. Don't worry; I'll tell you where to turn off."
Dobermon nodded and lengthened his stride. While he was intelligent in most respects, his world was bounded largely by smells, and he had never learned how to guide himself by street signs. It was why he had needed Alice in the first place - if you couldn't tell him precisely how a place smelled, he would never find it without a competent guide. Only humans would rely so much on their eyes that they would designate one place from another just by putting up a plate with some painted marks on it.
On the other hand, his phenomenal nose had its uses. He could distinguish the scent of each separate human being in a crowd, and could follow a scent trail that was days old. Alice had no doubt that if she found any of the vehicles on her list, they would never lose it again - Dobermon would sniff it out anywhere in the city. He could sometimes tell a number of things about the humans he was dealing with that would escape a human's eyes. He had once told a friend of hers that she was sick long before she had started feeling unwell. The sickness turned out to be a cancer that might have killed her if the dog hadn't alerted her in time. And then there were more subtle things. Emotions, particularly strong ones like anger, fear, and lust, gave off their own particular scents. It was a good way of gauging a person's motives, to let Dobermon sniff them over.
*Lessons learned too late,* she thought bitterly. *If I had listened to Dobermon sooner, would I be here now? Oh, well, I was younger then, and in love. I'm smarter now.*
"So, what do you think of Hirokazu?" she asked.
"I like him," the dog replied. "He would make a good dog."
"What does he think of me?"
"He is friendly towards you," Dobermon replied. "No more. You can trust him."
"Are you sure? He was staring pretty hard that first night."
The dog flicked his ears a little, an expression of mild irritation. "You meant for people to stare. You can't hold that against him. He was reminded that you are female, and attractive, but that is all. He got his mind back on business quickly enough."
Alice blushed a little. "How do you know if I'm attractive or not? You aren't exactly the greatest judge of human beauty."
"No, but I can sense how people react to you," he answered, "and I know you are young and clean and healthy. That is attractive to all species."
"This is embarrassing."
"You started it," he reminded her. "Don't worry about Hirokazu. I believe he is worthy of trust. He is your friend, and he still remembers you as such. He needs your help too much to risk doing anything that would offend you."
"I suppose you're right," she answered. "You usually are. I forget how much more clearly you see things, sometimes."
"It always helps to have an outside perspective," Dobermon replied. "You worry too much, Alice. I'll look after you."
"I know you will," she said, patting his shoulder affectionately. "Oh, hold up! I think I saw something!"
"That blue car there - get closer to it. I want to see..." She ran a finger down her list. "Aha! Yeah, that's it! Wow, are we lucky or what?"
Dobermon wagged his tail, happy to see his partner's mood lifting.
"Should I bring us nearer?"
"No, this is fine. As a matter of fact, you can back off a little, now that I know it's the one we want. We aren't exactly inconspicuous."
"As you wish."
The dog obediently dropped back until the car was just barely visible ahead of them. Alice focused all her attention on keeping it in sight, making note of where it was going. Dobermon, for his part, was silent. It was his opinion that this job would be very good for her. It would give her something to think about besides her old worries, and she had thought about those enough already.
Alice stood confidently behind Hirokazu as he rapped on a door. So far, it had been a good day. Her scouting had located three of the vehicles on her list - a fair number considering what a densely populated area they'd been working in. When she had reported home to report her findings, she had found Hirokazu in a good mood, thanks to the fact that he had finally gotten the paperwork under control. After a quick meal, they had set out into the city to get some real work done.
The door was opened by a middle-aged woman, who stared timidly at the two dark-garbed strangers on her doorstep. Hirokazu flashed one of his official papers.
"Evening, ma'am," he said courteously. "Hirokazu Shiota, repossession agent. This is my partner, Alice Nakagawa. We're here about a home entertainment system."
"You had better take it up with my husband," she replied, backing away so they could enter the room. She shouted into one of the other rooms, "The repossession people are here! They want to take the television!"
There was angry muttering in the next room. Moments later, a man came out, with a half- empty bottle in one hand. He was rather on the short side, but built broadly, with the glinting dark eyes of someone who means business.
"What are you doing here?" he barked, glaring fiercely at Hirokazu.
"Come to repossess your entertainment system, sir," Hirokazu answered.
"You're not taking anything! I made my payments on time!"
"Sorry, sir. Records show you haven't made a payment in over three months. Policy says I have to take it back."
"You're lying! I payed my money, and I'm keeping that set! You get out of here!"
"Sir," said Alice softly. Her soothing voice silenced the angry man more effectively than a police whistle, and he turned to stare at the ethereal young woman with the crystalline eyes.
"Sir," she said again, now that she had his attention, "it's possible that the company has made a mistake. I think we have their number here with us. Why don't we give them a call and talk to them? Maybe we can straighten this out quietly."
The man thought this over and seemed to think it was a good idea. His wife indicated the nearest telephone, and Alice led the now docile man away to make his phone call. As she passed Hirokazu, she gave him the smallest of nods, and he nodded back his understanding. While the man went into the next room to argue with the appliance company, Hirokazu walked out of the apartment with a television and DVD player. Alice waited for the man to get interested in his argument, and then slipped quietly back out to follow her partner, waving a goodbye to his wife on the way out.
"Here, let me give you a hand with that," she said to Hirokazu, scooping up the DVD player.
"Thanks," he said, gratefully shifting his grip on the television. "That was some fast thinking you did back there. I should have thought of it myself."
"It seemed like the right idea," she said. "Kind of the good-cop, bad-cop game. Besides, I'm pretty good at dealing with angry young men by now. My ex-husband... he had a bit of a temper," she added quietly.
"Am I allowed to ask what happened to him?" asked Hirokazu.
"I left him," said Alice, with succinct sharpness that warned him not to ask any more questions.
"Okay," he said. He glanced at his watch. "I think we have time to do one more of these before people start going to sleep. What do you think?"
She relaxed a trifle, glad that he had changed the subject. "I'm up for it."
"Maybe this time I'll let you do the talking, and I'll do the heavy work." He flexed his biceps in a show of mock-vanity.
"So I'll use my brain and you'll use your muscles? That's fair. We'll play to our strengths," she said.
"Hey, I'm not stupid," he said, pretending to be insulted.
"I know you're not stupid. You hired me."
He laughed at her sally, and she felt her good mood returning. It was funny, she mused, what being around Hirokazu did for her personality. She'd never been much of a joker before, but when she was with him, she found herself tossing word plays and teasing insults in his direction, trying to make him laugh. She liked making him laugh. It made her feel clever, to be able to keep up with this clown in his own game.
*I think I've laughed more in the last couple of days than I have in the entire year before this.*
She pondered this phenomenon, hardly noticing that her new partner was being uncharacteristically silent. His line of work called for sharp observational skills, and since Alice was eminently observable, he had taken to watching her when she was nearby.
*Wish I knew what was going on in that head of hers,* he mused, feeling vaguely bothered. *Every time we start having a good time together, she goes off into her dream world or whatever, and leaves me hanging. What's she got that needs thinking about so much?*
He played with the pieces of the puzzle. She had arrived in his office out of the blue, claiming she had really needed a job, with an urgency that made him think she was talking about something more than just needing a little spending money. Then there was this mysterious ex- husband, the one who had "a bit of a temper," the one who made her turn moody and silent every time he was mentioned, the one whose name she never even spoke. Then, too, there was her hypersensitivity to certain subjects, such as her too-heartfelt apology for suspecting him of working without her. And, most puzzling of all, her cryptic comment, "I'm not that big on life in general."
*So she's running away from a bad husband. Wonder what he did to her? Maybe I don't want to know.*
"Hey, Alice," he said, "you know what? I'm really glad you decided to join me."
She turned faintly puzzled eyes on him. "Are you?"
"Yes," he said firmly. "I think we'll be good for each other."
She looked at the floor. "You sound like we're talking about dating or something."
"Is that bad?"
"It might be."
"Because... because I just don't want to think about seeing anyone so soon after my divorce. It's still too painful. Please don't talk about it."
"Well, if that's the way you feel..." he said. "But I hope you don't mind being friends with me, because I'm going to do that whether you want me to or not."
She looked at him to see if he was serious. His expression was set in the look of one who would be crossing his arms stubbornly if they hadn't been filled by a flatscreen television.
"You are the kind of guy who has to have everyone like him, aren't you?" she said.
"If I were that kind of guy, would I take a job like this?" he retorted.
That made her smile weakly. "No, I guess not. Well, a formal declaration of friendship sounds like something out of a juvenile novel, so I'll just tell you to do what you want and leave it at that."
"All right, all right, you win!" he said. "I'd just like to get the feeling, once in a while, that you trust me."
"I'd like to feel like I trust you, too," she said. "Unfortunately, it isn't happening. Give it time."
He frowned. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not the patient sort."
"Learn," she said.
"I'll try, but it won't be easy," he said. "Here's the elevator. Will you push the button? My hands are full."
She pushed the button and said, "How did you deal with elevators before I came along? I know you didn't bring Guardromon up these tiny little hallways."
Hirokazu grinned wickedly. "I set the stuff down and pushed the buttons myself. Thanks, Alice."
"You sneak!" she scolded. "I'd hit you, but you'd drop that TV, and we wouldn't get paid for it if you smash it."
Their next stop was to pick up an automobile. Hirokazu appeared to be somewhat unenthusiastic about this. Alice had gotten the impression that his favorite part of his job was the dangerous work of snatching a machine right out from under an unsuspecting someone's nose. This pickup would - hopefully - involve nothing of the sort. Policy recommended that the repossession agents give the would-be owners a chance to surrender willingly and to remove any personal effects from the vehicle before it was towed away. Hirokazu would have rather performed another daring heist, but Alice would have just as soon settled everything quietly. They walked up to the front door of a small house and rang the doorbell. It was answered hastily by a nervous-looking young man and an equally apprehensive lady.
"Evening," said Hirokazu. "We're from the repossession agency."
"Oh," said the young man, deflating a bit. "For a minute, I thought you were from the police."
"Police?" Hirokazu repeated. He and Alice glanced at each other. The wild surmises running through their heads were almost audible.
"Yes, we called them just a few minutes ago," said the woman. "We were hoping they'd be here soon."
"What did you call the police for?" asked Alice. Old hero-instincts were telling her that if she found someone in trouble, she ought to help.
"It's our car," the man explained. "It's been stolen."
Hirokazu blinked. "Oh. That puts a new face on things, doesn't it?"
"I suppose you were here to take it away?" asked the man, making a wry face. "Looks like someone decided to repossess it for you."
"Looks that way, doesn't it?" Hirokazu agreed. "Well, sorry, folks. We'll keep an eye out for it. Sorry to bother you."
"Sorry you came all this way for nothing," said the woman. "Won't you at least come in for a cup of tea?"
"We'd love to," said Alice, "but unfortunately, we have a lot to do tonight."
They said goodnight and walked back to the Thief in the Night and to the Digimon, who were watching the exchange with some puzzlement.
"What happened?" asked Guardromon. "They didn't give you any trouble, did they?" The intonation said if they wanted to give Hirokazu trouble, Guardromon would gladly give it back.
"Nah, but someone else did," Hirokazu replied. After a pause, he added, "Maybe."
"What does that mean?" Alice asked.
"Well, I've been in situations like this a few times before, and it means one of two things."
"The first is... the car's been stolen."
Alice made a face. "Thank you, Captain Obvious. What's the other possibility?"
"The other," Hirokazu replied, "is that they guessed they were about to lose the car, so they sent it out somewhere and hid it, and then reported it stolen, or just told us it was stolen. I've run up against that strategy a few times before. Usually doesn't work for long, unless a person is slick enough to get new plates and a new paint job, and that doesn't happen much. If they can afford a new paint job, they should be able to afford car payments."
"Any guesses as to which is the case right now?" Alice asked.
Hirokazu frowned a bit, the way he always did when he was thinking hard. "Well, the timing's more like fiction than fact... but I'm willing to bet these aren't the kind of people to fake a car theft. That's bad business. I've dealt with enough people to know a few things about them, and I'm willing to bet a lot that these are just your average middle-class folks with two kids and a mortgage and not enough cash to go around. They can't risk pulling a stunt like that."
"So you think it probably was stolen," Alice summarized.
"Yep." Hirokazu was plainly bored already and eager to go find a new job. "Well, better get going."
"Wait," said Alice. "I've got an idea. Why don't we let Dobermon sniff around a bit? He's got a nose the envy of any dozen bloodhounds. I may not be able to tell a Mitsubishi from a minibus, but he can tell you everything about a car right down to what kind of oil it uses just by sniffing the place it was parked."
"Really?" asked Hirokazu, looking interested. "Okay, let's have a demonstration."
Dobermon, always ready to be useful, trotted forward and began sniffing at the curb until he found the telltale odor of a car parking spot, fairly recently vacated. He gave a running commentary of his findings.
"Car, fairly new, leather interior, new tires... uses unleaded gasoline, not premium... male driver smokes Lark cigarettes... Woman wears vanilla perfume... Two children, one boy, one girl... Hm."
"What is it?" asked Alice.
"Someone has been here. There is something vaguely familiar about it, but it's very faint. I can't remember where I've smelled it before or what it is. It is very recent, only a few minutes old, no more than an hour. They must have driven away in the car, because their scent concentrates here and then ends."
"Will you remember the smell if you smell it again?" asked Hirokazu.
"He will," said Alice. "Of the person and the car. If he smells either of them again, he'll let us know."
"Nice," said Hirokazu, sounding impressed. "I could have used someone like him around a long time ago."
Alice beamed with pride in her partner. "Well, we won't find anything if we keep sitting here. Come on, let's get some work done before the sun comes up."
The next day dawned clear and sunny, the first really warm day they'd had since winter had set in. Of course, when it did dawn, neither Hirokazu nor Alice were awake to see it. Even when they were awake, they were both too busy to notice. It was Alice's turn to make breakfast, so while she was frying eggs, Hirokazu flipped through a newspaper.
"Anything interesting in there?" she asked.
"Wars, politics, crime - the usual mess," was the offhand reply. "Don't know why people want to read newspapers. They're depressing."
"You're reading one," she said.
"I have a professional interest, is all," he said. "According to this, car thievery is on the rise all of a sudden. They think there's a gang involved, somehow, but they can't pin anything down."
"And you're worried we're going to have more cases like last night?" she asked.
"Yeah..." he said slowly. "That, and I work with the police a little, too. You know we have to go down there to report anything we repossess anyway, and we kinda help each other out from time to time. They keep me posted on any stolen vehicles in the vicinity so we can watch for them."
"More work for us," said Alice.
"Right," Hirokazu replied.
"Well, worry about it after breakfast. It's ready."
She set a plate down in front of him, and he looked at her quizzically.
"Are you going to wear that today?" he asked.
"There's nothing wrong with what I'm wearing," she said.
"No, there's not," he said. "It's a nice outfit and all, but what I mean is, isn't it a little warm out there for long sleeves?"
She shrugged. "Maybe I just like long sleeves."
"Suit yourself," he replied, with mild irritation. He had never quite adjusted to the feeling that there was always something she was hiding from him. Just because he could make a few surmises as to what the trouble was didn't make it any easier; he disliked constantly slamming into walls he hadn't known were there. It was made even more irritating because her secrecy gave her an odd attraction. He had developed a compulsion, over the years, to try to acquire things that weren't his to take. Now he was fostering a desire to know what she had behind that wall.
"So, what's on the agenda for today?" she said.
"Work as usual. Could you do me a favor and mind the desk for the day? I feel like getting outside."
"I think I remember how," Alice replied. "If I run into something I don't understand, I'll give you a call."
"Thanks," he said. "I just love you, Alice. It's great to have someone to take over the chores once in a while."
She grimaced, unsure whether to take that as a compliment or an aspersion.
"Keep that up," she said, "and I'll see to it that Dobermon chews up all your records."
"What, you'd let the dog eat your homework?" Hirokazu teased. "Man, how many times did I use that tired old excuse in school? It was only true once."
"It was?" asked Alice.
"Well, sort of. Actually everyone in my Spanish class was supposed to bring in an authentic dish to a class party, and somehow Guilmon got hold of mine. A firebreathing dragon and chili peppers does not make a good combination."
Alice laughed. "I can imagine! Poor you. Poor Guilmon."
"I got off okay," said Hirokazu. "The teacher forgave me. Guilmon burped smoke for a week. But you know, he still hasn't figured out that just because something looks edible doesn't mean he should eat it."
"You should eat your breakfast," Alice told him. "Unless you really like cold eggs."
He went out on his rounds with a lot on his mind. Winding between more mundane thoughts about television shows, motorcycles, and crazy drivers who thought they had to try to pass him just because he was driving a truck, was the odd serious concern. He thought a lot about his new partner. The last few days had wiped away all concerns about her ability to do her job. She was intelligent, surprising him constantly with her memory, creativity, and observational skills. She was more thoughtful than him, but not so much that she backed down from taking a calculated risk. They worked well together - she was right when she'd said their abilities and personalities complemented each other. Despite his initial misgivings, she had turned out to be ideal as a business partner.
More than that, life was just more pleasant when she was around. Since she had shown up, the building was always clean, everything was always where he could find it, and the refrigerator was never empty. He never had to ask her to do any of this; she just did it. It was a relief to know someone else would sometimes take over the chores he didn't like so he would be free to pursue his own interests.
Mostly, though, he had to admit what he really liked was her company. He was a social animal at heart, and he had suffered more than he'd realized when he had left the constant companionship of school and pursued a job that was less than conductive to socializing. It was nice to have someone to talk to, laugh with, or just to keep his home from being empty.
*Doesn't hurt that she's easy to look at,* he mused. *It's definitely been way too long since I've had a girlfriend.* He thought wistfully of his college years. His looks, devil-may-care attitude, and status as local hero had combined to make sure he never had a shortage of eager dates. *Don't think she's too interested in me, though. Too bad. It would have been a nice setup...*
"You're quiet," Guardromon commented from the back of the truck.
"Just thinking," said Hirokazu. "No wonder you're worried, huh?"
"Is there something wrong?"
"Nah, not really. Just got a lot on my mind... Say, Guardromon, do robots have romances?"
There was a thoughtful pause. "Not like humans do."
"Well, then, how?" asked Hirokazu, curious.
Guardromon explained it to him, a fascinating lecture that took his mind completely off of any of his other worries.
It was nice to come back in the evening and see that all the work was done. Alice was sitting at the front desk, playing with the computer as she waited for something to happen. Her attention was caught when the garage door opened and Hirokazu stepped in.
"Oh, there you are!" she said. "It's getting dark. I was starting to wonder if something had gone wrong."
"You were worried about me?" he asked.
She gave him a teasing smile. "Sure. I don't want to do all the work myself."
"You're joking, right?"
"Yes, I'm joking. As much as you like to boast about how you escape people trying to shoot you or bash you over the head, I can't help but worry a little. I know how you like to take risks."
He assumed an exaggeratedly dramatic tone. "I would never risk not being able to return to your exalted presence."
"Now who's joking?"
"What, you think I'm not serious? For a glimpse of beauty such as yours, I would walk a thousand miles."
She threw a pad of sticky notes at him. "Now you're really being silly."
"I can't admit to that," he said. "If I did, it would sound like I meant you aren't beautiful, and then you'd be mad at me anyway."
"Then you should learn to keep your mouth shut."
"I'm never going to learn that one," he said. "Come on, let's grab a bite to eat and get to work. We need to make some hay while the sun doesn't shine."
"That's not how the expression goes," she said, but she turned the computer off and went to get ready.
A few minutes later, the pair had made a quick sandwich lunch, changed their clothes, and embarked into the darkness. Their target for tonight was a car - not flashy looking but very expensive. They planned their approach carefully.
"I've already talked to this guy's wife once," said Hirokazu, as he and Alice held their final conference on a side street. "He gave her the car as a birthday gift, and she refuses to part with the thing. She says her husband is a fine upstanding man who would never do a thing like missing a payment, and I'm a lying thief for suggesting it, and so on and so forth. I get the impression that he's the one who handles all the money in the house, and she wouldn't know if he spent every yen in their bank account gambling."
"Have you tried talking to him?" asked Alice.
"Can't. He works a night shift somewhere, and he's never at home when I come around," Hirokazu replied. "Anyway, I've given them their chances. Now it's time for drastic measures."
"Right. What do you want me to do?"
"Just keep that nagging woman off my case long enough to get the car hooked up to the Thief and haul it up the street. That should take... ten minutes at the max."
"Got it," said Alice.
She looked up the street at the house they were supposed to be targeting. The car in question was sitting in the driveway, gleaming softly in the light of a street lamp. Besides that, the street was dark, and the back yard of the house would be even darker. She considered a moment, then nodded.
"Come on, Dobermon," she said. "Take me around to the back of the house, and try to be invisible."
Dobermon nodded his ponderous head and loped off into the night. Hirokazu could only follow them for a few seconds as the black dog and his dark-garbed rider disappeared into the shadows. He turned to his own companion.
"Our turn," he said.
He drove the truck up the street and pulled slowly into the driveway, feeling the old rush of excitement. Would someone hear the crunch of gravel? Would they recognize him? How would they react? Would they accept the inevitable, or come after him with a handgun?
However, even as the truck was rolling up the drive, there was a commotion in the back yard.
"Woof! Woof! Woof!"
That booming voice could only be Dobermon, barking at the top of his considerable lungs. It sounded like a cannon going off, and would likely wake everyone in the neighborhood. Right on cue, the woman of the house put her head out the door to see what all the commotion was. Peering through the shadows, she could just barely see something moving out there. It was too dark to see exactly what, but it appeared to be a human figure, dressed entirely in black. She began to get nervous.
"Who's out there?" she quavered.
The dark figure slipped out of sight behind a shrub.
"I'm warning you," the woman shouted, "my - my husband is here, and he has a gun! If you don't get out of here right now, you'll be sorry!"
There was silence. The woman strained to see through the darkness, wishing she had a flashlight.
"Are you still there?" she called.
The shrub rustled.
"Come out and show yourself!"
There was an indecisive silence. In that silence, there could be heard the distant roar of an engine, as of a large truck driving swiftly away. The shrub rustled again, and a young woman stepped into the light spilling from the open door.
"Who are you?" the older woman demanded.
"My name is Alice Nakagawa," Alice replied. "I'm a repossession agent. I've come to assist in repossessing your car."
"I've already told you people, my car has been paid for! Besides, you ought to be able to see for yourself, it's not hidden in the backyard."
"No," said Alice calmly, "but I think you'll find it's not in the front anymore, either."
"What?" The woman hurried around to the front of her house. Looking out the window, she could see that the yard was empty. She stared around in furious denial, but all she saw was the young lady riding away on the back of a huge black dog.
Alice met up with Hirokazu a few blocks away, with the silver car hitched triumphantly to the back of the Thief. Hirokazu leaned out the window and flashed her the victory sign. She pulled up beside him as he stopped for a traffic light.
"Nice going!" he told her. "Everything went perfect. Wish I could have been there to see what you did."
"I just distracted her a minute," answered Alice modestly. "What now? Bring her home?"
"I want to stop at the police station, first," Hirokazu replied. "I have to report this job so nobody tries to claim I'm a car thief. Anyway, I want to hear the latest on the real thieves, and that's the best place to ask."
It took some doing to find a parking space close to the station that had enough room for the Thief and her cargo. In the end, they wound up having to walk a couple of blocks. They made a picturesque pair, a matched couple of dark-garbed figures walking side by side. A few people turned their heads to watch them go by.
They reached the station, and Hirokazu, comfortable with the routine, went to the front desk to have a word with the officer on duty. Alice, having not yet come in contact with this part of her job, stayed silent and looked around. Considering the ambiguous nature of her work, she wasn't sure whether to feel like she was one of these law enforcers or not.
Meanwhile, Hirokazu was chatting with the man at the desk.
"Just picked her up," he was saying. "Me and my partner, that is. You haven't met her yet - that's her over there. Her name's Alice. She's going to be as good as I am, someday."
The officer nodded and asked for a description of the vehicle to enter on the files. Hirokazu obliged, describing the make, model, color, and licence information.
"Do you know the owner's name?" the officer asked.
"Well, it was driven by the guy's wife, but it was really in his name," Hirokazu replied. "His name just slipped my mind. It was... umm... Oh, yeah, Sasaki. Hideki Sasaki."
The officer blinked. He opened his mouth to say something. Just then, another of the officers walked by.
"Did somebody mention me?" he asked.
Hirokazu turned to look. The name on the badge was Hideki Sasaki. Hirokazu gave a weak grin.
"Uh... hi there, officer. Just came to bring you some news."
It had been a long week. Alice dropped into her bed at six in the morning, too tired to even pull down the shades, and let herself unwind. One thing was for sure - her new job was certainly keeping her busy. With her help, Hirokazu had been able to nearly double the number of jobs he could handle in a day, which meant that there was seldom a moment of leisure. Besides their own job, they now carried a list of stolen cars everywhere they went, and were constantly watching the vehicles around them. Alice wondered if she'd ever again be able to look at another car without automatically checking its color, model, and tags against the list that seemed to be burned into her brain. So far, neither of them had had any luck, but they persevered.
Perhaps it was that exhaustion that gave her the nightmare. Sometime around noon, Hirokazu was jolted from his own dreams by the sound of a feminine shriek. He woke up instantly, wondering for a moment whether the sound had been just a part of his dreams, but was convinced of its reality when he heard a muffled noise coming from the room across the hall. It sounded like a sob. He pulled on a robe and went to knock on his housemate's door.
"Alice?" he called softly. "Are you okay?"
There was silence, punctuated by a few sniffles.
"I'm coming inside," he warned.
He opened the door. Alice was still huddled in her bed, curled into a ball, with her face hidden in the pillows. When he came in, she looked up at him, with an expression that was - what? Angry? Frightened? Yes, there was definitely a glint of fear in those pale eyes, but there was something else, too, that he couldn't pin down.
"You shouldn't be in here," she said.
"Well, I am." He picked up her desk chair and set it down next to her bed. "Is everything okay? I thought I heard crying. And no, before you say it, I'm not going to give up and leave you alone. I'm tired of this game. What's eating you?"
"It was just a stupid nightmare," she said. "Nothing serious."
"If it was so stupid, why are you crying?"
"It's none of your business," she said sharply. "Just because we work together doesn't mean I have to tell you everything about me."
"Do you think that's all we are? Well, let me set the record straight. You're more to me than just a - a business associate. I care what happens to you, and I don't want to see you hurt. If there's something wrong, tell me."
She lowered her gaze. "There's nothing you can do about it."
"I can listen. I can give you a shoulder to cry on, if you want it."
"I don't know if that would make things better or worse."
She raised a hand to rub her damp eyes and push her hair away from her face. As she did so, Hirokazu caught sight of something that made his eyes widen. He reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling it out so he could see it clearly. Running across her wrist was an ugly scar.
"Where did this come from?" he asked. "Alice, did you...?"
"No, I didn't do it myself," she said, snatching her hand back. More quietly, she added, "If you have to know, my husband did it. It was an accident," she added hastily.
"Sure. He slit your wrist by accident."
"He wasn't trying to hurt me - not really. He just wanted to scare me."
Quietly, Hirokazu asked, "Is that what you were dreaming about?"
"Kind of," she replied. She sighed deeply. "I guess I really can't keep it a secret any longer, can I?"
"I didn't think so. All right." She took a deep breath, trying to pull herself together. "I told you how I got married right out of college, didn't I? My family really didn't like that idea. They warned me not to do it. Not because they thought I was too young, though I think that was part of it. They told me I might be an American on foreign soil, but I was still an American and I thought like an American. They didn't want me marrying a Japanese man."
"Why not?" asked Hirokazu, surprised. "I thought your dad liked Japan."
"He does, he does! He just said - he said you all think differently. You have a different culture, and different ideas about marriage and how women should behave and all that. My husband came from a very traditional family. They thought women were supposed to obey their husbands and raise their kids and not really think for themselves. He promised he'd be different. He said he loved me, and he'd never do anything to make me unhappy. I believed him."
"And you were wrong?"
"Yes... Well, not right away. It was wonderful at first. I was so happy, for a while. He was the perfect husband when we were still newlyweds. Back then, I didn't do a lot but look after our home and try to keep it liveable. Then I got bored. I wanted to do something, so I started looking around for a job. When he found out, he got angry. He said he could take care of the money just fine, and I didn't need to work. I told him it wasn't about money - I just needed to do something to feel productive. He acted like it was a big insult, like I was saying he wasn't good enough for me because I wasn't perfectly content just to wait on him all the time. We had a big long shouting match. It was our first fight. I felt awful afterwards. He finally apologized and told me I could work if I wanted to, and he was very sweet for a while.
"But it kept happening, over and over. At first it was just once in a while, for big things, like the time I bought a bunch of new furniture without consulting him first, but after a while, it was like any time I ever had an idea or did something on my own, he'd get angry." She looked thoughtful. "I scared him. He couldn't control me, and I knew it, so he kept trying to put me in my place. We shouted at each other all the time. It was terrible.
"Finally, one night, he had been out with his friends, drinking. He came home late - he could barely stand up. I had been waiting up for him. He demanded I go to bed with him, but I couldn't - not with him smelling like a brewery and hardly talking straight. He got angry and started shouting. He called me all kinds of names - saying I was a snob and thought I was better than everyone - accusing me of having affairs with people at work. I snapped and started screaming at him. I don't even remember what I said. All I remember is him getting angry and snatching up a kitchen knife and waving it around. He tripped on the rug and fell, and I put up my hand to defend myself, and the knife cut me. He just lay there on the floor - passed out, I guess. I wrapped up my arm in a dishtowel and ran away. Dobermon took me to the hospital.
"After that, I just had to get out. I sneaked back into the apartment, grabbed what I could carry, and got out. I filed for a divorce. I got a new job and a new home. He tracked me down, though. He was furious at me for leaving him. I got scared and left again. I've been moving around ever since, trying to find a place where he won't find me."
"Why didn't you go back home?" Hirokazu asked. "You know, back to America, with your family and all."
She grimaced. "I don't know. I just can't bring myself to do it. It would mean that I've given up, that I was beaten. I don't want to have to go crawling back and say 'You were right, I was wrong.' Maybe it's just stubborn pride, but..."
"So you came here instead," Hirokazu finished.
"Now do you understand... why I can't trust people?" she said. "I feel like... I used to be such a nice person. Now I can't see a guy without wondering what's going through his head. I'm always thinking bad things about them, and I can't seem to help it."
"It's not your fault," he said bracingly. "Alice, it doesn't matter where you go - there's always going to be a few bad apples lurking out there. Not every guy you meet is going to be like that - even the traditional ones. I mean, look at Kenta. His family goes back as far as anyone's, and you know what he's doing now? His wife goes off to work every day and leaves him at home to clean the house and take care of the kids. He loves it. That's just how he is."
Alice shook her head. "I know, but... You know, the sad thing is, I really did love my husband. He had a great personality. When he was relaxed, he was the sweetest person. We had a lot of fun together when we first got married. I can't help thinking, if I can't trust someone I loved that much, how can I ever trust anyone else? And the more I like someone, the more suspicious I get. It hurt, leaving him. I knew I had to do it, but it still hurt."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I really am. And if there's ever anything I can do..."
"Please don't try to help me too much," she said. "Try to understand... it just really confuses me when people are nice to me. I don't know how to handle it anymore."
"Well... You do what's best for you, then. Tell me if I'm doing something that upsets you." After a pause, he added. "You know, if you want to take some down time today, I'll understand. Guardromon and I can manage on our own for a day..."
"No, that's okay. I need the work. It gives me something productive to think about."
He went back to his room and crawled back into bed, but he didn't go back to sleep. Now that he had a chance to process what he'd heard, he was shaking with emotion. There was a large part of him that wanted to find this ex-husband of hers and cut him to tiny slivers, to make him hurt as much as he'd hurt Alice. Another part of him just ached. Poor Alice. After hearing her story, he couldn't think of anyone who needed love more than she did... and that was the one thing she wouldn't be able to stand. What did you do when the medicine would kill as much as the disease?
*No, that's not right. It's the not trusting that's killing her - not knowing if she can trust anyone. So what's the cure for that?*
Turning it over in his mind led him to the unpleasant but inevitable conclusion that there was no miracle cure. The only thing he could do for her was to be as trustworthy as he could, and hope she would eventually learn that there was at least one man in this city who wasn't going to hurt her.
*She said she doesn't trust anyone, and the more she likes someone, the less she trusts them. She also said she can't trust me. I wonder what that means?*
An observant person would have been able to tell what kind of work was going on at the Shiota agency just by looking at what clothes they were wearing. For night work, both Alice and Hirokazu dressed in matte black from top to toe - black jackets, jeans, boots, even a black bandanna to cover Alice's shining hair. For scouting, comfortable clothes were the order of the day, particularly for Alice, who usually rode on Dobermon's back on all but the wettest days. Jeans and t-shirts were standard on those occasions. However, today was Alice's turn to mind the desk, and on those days, she tried harder. Anyone might walk in off the street, particularly now that business was booming like never before, and she wanted to look professional. Today she wore a ruffled white shirt with violet trim and a pair of lavender slacks. Hirokazu was in stark contrast to her. He was working in the garage today, and was therefore clad in his most ragged jeans and an old shirt that had once been white before who-knew-how-many years of sweat and motor oil had taken their toll on it.
*He still makes it look good,* she thought, pausing a moment on her way into the garage. Hirokazu had hooked a trailer up to the Thief, and now he and his partner were in the process of loading it with what Hirokazu called "little stuff." Little stuff, by his own loose definition, was anything that wasn't a motor vehicle, and could include anything from computer systems to furniture to expensive jewelry. Now she watched as he hefted a blocky stereo system with apparent ease, and her treacherous hormones called to her attention the way his muscles moved beneath the thin shirt. His work involved enough physical effort that he always looked in top condition, and he'd managed to keep his suntan even despite working at night. Even she couldn't deny he was nice to look at... She shook her head at herself. She felt more comfortable around him now than she had a month ago, but still... not that comfortable. Not yet.
"Hey," he said, noticing her for the first time. "Did you want to help, or are you just having fun watching?"
"I'm taking a coffee break," she said, "and I thought I'd look in to make sure you weren't loafing around in here."
"There's something a little off about that," he said, "but I don't know exactly what it is. How are things in the front office? Is the phone ringing off the hook? Are we millionaires yet?"
"No, so far we've only made a few grand," she answered flippantly. More seriously, she added, "actually, we've gotten three new orders - two for cars and one for a GoldWing, whatever that is. What's a GoldWing, please?"
"For your information, a GoldWing is a kind of motorcycle," he said loftily. His expression went misty. "Love to have one."
She stared at him. "I suppose next you'll start sporting tattoos and grow a beard."
"Come on, not everyone who rides a motorcycle is like that," he said. "Besides, it's not that kind of bike. A GoldWing is for traveling. It's got big soft leather seats and saddlebags to carry your stuff. These new ones they've got out now, they ride smooth as glass. Beautiful. One of these days," he told her, eyes shining, "when I've got some money saved up, I'm going to get one. Then I'm going to just close up the doors of this place for a month, and I'm going to get on that bike and just ride and ride - wherever I want to go. Total freedom. Wouldn't that be great?"
She nodded slowly; that was the kind of dream she could buy into. To tease him, she said, "And what will I do while you're gone?"
"That's easy," he said, grinning. "I'll get a two-seater. You can come with me."
She wasn't sure whether it was the suggestion, or the way he made it, that made her suddenly warm all over. She averted her gaze.
"Well, before you do any of that, you're going to have to get your job done," she said.
"Yes, sir, general!" he replied, saluting. "Come on, Alice, lighten up. I've got to tease you a little bit; you're the only girl around."
She started to say something, and caught herself.
*He doesn't mean any harm,* she told herself. She let herself meet his eyes again, and found only a faint hurt and confusion that she wasn't able to laugh with him. *He really doesn't.*
"I know," she said. "You really don't mean anything by it."
She turned and walked back to the office, leaving Hirokazu staring after her. He held up a hand and opened his mouth to call her back, only to hear the door being shut. He deflated.
"Women," he muttered. "Who can understand 'em?"
"I do not believe even Alice understands Alice sometimes."
Hirokazu jumped. He had become so accustomed to Dobermon's dark and mostly silent presence that he had nearly forgotten him. He turned to look at the beast. Though Dobermon was lying down on his mattress-bed, with his head raised, he was nearly at Hirokazu's eye level. It was amazing how kind and wise a pair of ruby-red eyes could seem.
"A dog does not always know what is best for a human," Dobermon continued, "but I am a pack animal, and I cannot help thinking that she will likewise be better off in the company of others of her own kind. Don't give up on her."
"I won't," Hirokazu promised.
"I know," answered Dobermon, letting his tongue loll in a dog's grin. "She needs someone like you - someone it is safe to trust."
"That's what it all comes down to, isn't it?" answered Hirokazu. "I try and I try, and I just can't get past that wall. Couldn't you talk to her?"
Dobermon tilted his head quizzically. "What would I tell her? That you are her friend? She knows that already. That you want to be more than friends? She's been afraid of that since the beginning. That she can trust you? Nothing will convince her of that but time. What else is there to tell her?"
Hirokazu was quiet for a moment.
"You're a very smart dog," he said at last.
"I have to be. I have to look after Alice," Dobermon replied. "Don't give up hope. She is much better now than she was before she came to you. More than you can know with just human senses."
He set his head back down on his mattress again, and that, it was clear, was the end of the conversation.
On the whole, Hirokazu was relieved when the sun began to set, and he could get to the more exciting work. All he had done that afternoon was load the truck and drive the assorted items back to their proper homes - both activities that left him with too much leisure to think. Not that most people would ever have accused him of thinking too much, but after his conversation with Dobermon, he found he had a lot on his mind.
*Though I don't know why I'm worrying,* he told himself, as he changed into his night-work clothes. *You'd think I was in love with her, the way he was talking. I should have told him. I'm just... concerned about her. And I'm tired of working with a sourpuss who gets mad when I joke with her.*
He was just putting the final touches on his outfit when he heard the downstairs phone jangling.
"I'll get it!" Alice called, and he heard the sound of her footfalls as she hurried down the stairs. Then the ringing abruptly stopped. Hirokazu finished dressing hurriedly so he could go down and hear what was going on. Who would be calling now, when most of his clients would know he wasn't likely to be around this late? When he made it downstairs, Alice was just finishing up her conversation. She hung up the phone and turned to him with a look of surprise.
"Do you want to hear something strange?" she said. "Another of our cars has disappeared."
"Huh?" he said, momentarily not understanding. "You mean - stolen? Another one?"
She nodded. He shook his head.
"That's weird," he said. "I don't think I've ever lost two of them in the space of a month like that. These car thieves are getting way out of hand."
"Too bad we can't take Dobermon out there and give the place a sniff," said Alice. "Maybe he could tell us something."
"Maybe we can figure something out," said Hirokazu. "I mean, car thieves or no, the percentage of cars we're supposed to be picking up compared to the number of cars in Tokyo is ridiculous. There's no way they could just randomly steal two of ours without some connecting factor. Which car was it?"
Alice recited the relevant information for him, and he looked it up in the computer.
"Hm," he said. "Well... they were both brand new, just bought... and they were both from about the same area. Maybe that has something to do with it."
"Maybe," said Alice. "I'm sure the police will figure out that much."
Hirokazu grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Who am I to do the police's job? I'm a lawbreaker by trade, anyway."
"Well, maybe we can still go out and look around, anyway," she said. "Do we have any other jobs to do out that way?"
Hirokazu stared at the ceiling, consulting his mental computer.
"There is one," he said. "Guy I've been watching for a while now, since before you came. He'll be home this time of night, but it should be okay with the two of us working together."
"All right, let's do that," Alice agreed.
They traveled at a leisurely pace into a residential part of town, the kind of place Hirokazu and his childhood friends had grown up in. It was a nice neighborhood for nice, law-abiding people - not the kind of place you would expect to be the scene of a crime, and Alice said as much to Hirokazu as they arrived.
"That's what makes it a good place to commit one," Hirokazu replied. "People let their guard down in a place like this. They feel safe, and people take advantage of it. Kind of the same reason kidnappers make their move in mall parking lots and cat burglars strike while the whole family is at home having dinner."
"That's sad," she said. "People ought to be allowed to feel safe in a place like this."
She slid down from Dobermon's back, allowing him free rein to investigate without fear of dislodging her. He crouched over the pavement, nose to the ground, sniffing and whuffling industriously.
"Interesting," he murmured.
"What's interesting?" she asked him.
"That same smell again," he said. "Only... not quite. It's not the same people as before, but there's still something similar..." He whuffled at the spot, flicking his ears back in annoyance. "It irks me. I know I've smelled this scent before, but it's so diluted and so faint, I can't make out what it is! I should know!" He whined, and Alice patted his flank to comfort him. There was nothing that would vex him more than failing his partner, particularly in an area where he should have been strongest.
"It's all right," she assured him. "We were just curious, anyway."
"I should know," he repeated, but his ears stood up again, and he no longer looked so distressed.
"Let's get out of here," said Hirokazu. "This isn't accomplishing anything, and we've still got a car to nab."
"Right," Alice agreed. She would have liked to spend a bit more time working on the puzzle - surely Dobermon would remember what he was smelling eventually - but she was practical enough not to want to waste time when she should be working. The police had more tools and contacts that two repossession agents and a couple of Digimon; they would figure it out eventually.
They traveled a few blocks, and Alice kept a trained eye on the scenery. She had always been a fairly clever girl, and her new line of work had sharpened her natural observance through constant practice. Now she observed that the houses they were passing were becoming larger, more elaborate, better kept. She also recognized the brands of cars sitting in the driveways, and knew that all of them cost serious money. This was a well-to-do neighborhood, not the kind of place she would have usually expected to be working. Surely anyone living here ought to have money enough to pay their bills! She shook her head; there were obviously some people who could get themselves into debt no matter what their income was.
The house they stopped in front of was one of the better ones on the block; it had a nice- sized lawn in front, and showed signs of having recently been renovated, in the form of fresh paint and new-looking siding.
"Hey, get a load of this dump," said Hirokazu, admiring the structure. "Sure beats an apartment over the garage, huh?"
"I wonder what they do for a living?" Alice wondered, peering at the garage. The door was open right now, showing not one but two fine cars parked there.
"Whatever it is, it's not paying enough," Hirokazu replied. "We're taking some of this with us, remember?"
"Right," she said, nodding. She patted Dobermon on the head and indicated that he should stay with the truck and Guardromon. "We're going to want to talk to these people, and you're a bit off-putting."
Dobermon licked her face to show his understanding and trotted around to the lee of the truck, where he wouldn't be seen from the house's front door. Hirokazu watched him get settled, and then began trudging up the front walk with a lack of enthusiasm. This would be his first face- to-face encounter with the homeowner, and that usually meant he wouldn't get to do anything more interesting than ask permission to haul the night's target away. Alice followed close behind him, ready to offer whatever backup was necessary, should the client prove intractable. She was so used to the routine by now that she hardly had to think about it. As she watched Hirokazu press the doorbell, he wasn't expecting anything more surprising than that the person in question might turn angry and violent, which was never fun, but could usually be dealt with peacefully. She and Hirokazu had discussed plans for how to deal with such occasions, and she felt confident in her ability to handle them.
Then the door opened, and all her plans crumbled.
"Good evening," said the man at the door briskly, with a brusque edge to his voice that suggested they were interrupting something. "How can I help...."
His voice trailed off. He stared. Alice stared back, her normally fair skin going wax-white.
"Alice?" the man asked.
"Jiro," she whispered.
The two of them continued watching each other in wary silence. Hirokazu fidgeted.
"Um... do you two know each other?"
The man whirled on Hirokazu, his expression turning ugly. "You have a lot of nerve coming out here like this! I ought to take you apart right here and now!"
"Whoa, whoa, easy!" said Hirokazu, backing away and holding up his hands in a placating gesture. "I haven't even said why I'm here yet!"
"You don't need to tell me," Jiro said. "You show up on my doorstep with my wife, flaunting her..."
"Jiro, it's not what you think it is," said Alice pleadingly. "Listen to me for once! It's not what you think!"
"That's what you always said!" said Jiro, turning on her. "You always said it wasn't what I thought, and then went right on doing as you pleased! You want to tell me now that you're running around at night with another man, and it's not what I think it is?"
"It isn't!" she said. "Hirokazu is my employer. We're just working together, all right?"
"That's what you always said," Jiro snarled. "All that nonsense about wanting a job, how you were bored... You always thought you were too good for me! Well, now I'm going to make an example of both of you!"
"Oh, no you don't!" said Hirokazu. He'd slipped in behind the man, and now he caught his arms, pinning them in place. Jiro struggled, but his desk job hadn't equipped him for a physical battle against a man who made his living hauling things around. "Alice, get in the truck! I'll keep this loser occupied."
"I said get in the truck! Go!"
Alice went. She made a dash across the yard, yanked the Thief's door open, and all but dove inside. Dobermon, sensing trouble, walked silently around the truck to put himself between Alice and Jiro.
"I've had about enough of you," said Hirokazu to his struggling captive. "If I thought I could get away with it, I'd make a few examples out of you. Lucky for you, I already washed my hands tonight, and I'm not getting them dirty by messing around with garbage... so I'm going to do what I usually do with garbage and throw you away."
He twisted unexpectedly, and Jiro found himself being tossed back through his own front door. Hirokazu slammed it and took off for the safety of the Thief. By the time Jiro had picked himself up off his carpet and opened his door again, the truck's engine was already revving, and all he could do was watch them drive off into the night.
They didn't go very far. They had driven no more than a few blocks before Hirokazu pulled over and parked so he could turn his attention to Alice.
"You okay?" he asked, surprisingly gentle.
She nodded shakily. Then she sniffled and shook her head. A whimper built in her throat, and the next thing he knew, she had thrown herself against his side and was sobbing bitterly. He was surprised at such an outburst from this normally self-contained young lady, but he did the best he could, awkwardly stroking her hair and rocking her until she got herself under control. She sniffled a few more times and hiccuped a bit, blinking tears out of her eyes. She pulled away and tried to wipe her damp face.
"Sorry," she said.
"Don't be sorry. You probably needed it," he replied. He dug a handkerchief out of his pocket and offered it to her. It was wrinkled and stained with grease spots, but she accepted it gratefully.
"You probably guessed who that was," she said at last.
"Your infamous ex?"
"Yeah." She blew her nose on the handkerchief, started to offer it back, and changed her mind with a slightly hysterical laugh. "Just when I thought I'd gotten rid of him..."
"We won't go back," said Hirokazu. "I'll call the company - tell them we can't take the job. Somebody else can do it. He can keep his stupid car."
"I'm okay," she said. "I just... It was the shock, that's all. I'm really okay."
"I know you are."
She hung her head. "I feel like I'm never going to get rid of him. I was just starting to feel safe, and there he was again, just like the last time I saw him, so angry... and you protected me... I'm all confused."
"Nothing to be confused about," said Hirokazu. "I'm your partner, remember? We're here to protect each other, and that's just what I'm going to do - from him and anyone else."
She looked up again, letting her eyes meet his. They were still red-rimmed from crying, but still remarkably penetrating. "You mean that, don't you. You really mean it."
"Well, sure I do. Why wouldn't I?"
"Because I'm a nasty, suspicious person who always thinks everyone means something other than what they say," she said. "But I believe you this time. I really think you mean what you say - maybe even more than you think you do."
He gave a baffled shrug. "If you say so. I was never all that good at telling lies. And you're not a nasty person, no matter what you think." Before she could respond, he continued thoughtfully, "Now, me - I'm a suspicious person. I can't help wondering... your ex has a pretty swanky setup. What's he do for a living, anyway?"
"He works at a car dealership," she answered. She gave another hysterical laugh. "It's fitting; we're always at opposite ends. He sells them and I take them away again..."
"Car sales must be going well, for him to afford all that."
Alice frowned a little as she considered. "You're right. We didn't live like that when I was with him. Of course, he was just starting out back then - he might have gotten promoted or something since then..."
"Maybe so," Hirokazu replied quietly.
They didn't say anything else for a while, which was probably just as well. Alice seemed to need to think, and Hirokazu couldn't think of anything to say to her that would be helpful. If only he knew how to comfort her... It had been nice, there, for a moment, having his arm around her, her clinging to him as if he were the last safe thing on earth... as if she trusted him... but no. She was only afraid then, and turned to the first person available to support her. As soon as she'd been back under control, she'd been quick enough to pull away. Still, it was a start. It was the first time he could remember that she'd ever voluntarily touched him. That had to mean something, right?
He looked back at her. She was looking out the window, her expression pensive. He was not going to get any answers from her tonight.
*To be continued,* he told himself.
The mood around the agency the next day was suppressed - not tense, just wary, with no one seeming to want to talk to anyone. Hirokazu and Alice moved around each other with exaggerated cautiousness, apparently afraid to infringe on any personal space. It left Alice feeling depressed. She could have used her mood lightened, but Hirokazu seemed reluctant to joke and tease her as he usually did for fear of somehow offending her. They had a silent breakfast, and Hirokazu told her he wanted to go scouting - a fairly good indicator that he wanted to think about something, since the matter of who got which job was usually decided between the two of them. She took over the desk work without complaint, and spent a dreary afternoon in solitude.
By the time evening came, she was ready to throw things. Not because business was going badly - she'd only gotten three calls that day, and spent the rest of it doing computer work. She was simply tired of being alone in a silent room, waiting for someone to come home so they could spend a tense, silent evening together. Someone was going to have to break the silence, and she guessed it was going to have to be her.
"There you are," she said, as Hirokazu stepped through the garage door. "I was hoping you'd be home soon. It's been too quiet around here today."
"It has?" he answered inanely.
She nodded, as if he'd said something profound. "Yes. Okay, we both know yesterday went wrong, but that's no reason for us to spend the next week or so walking around on eggshells. Let's do something fun. You know, to take our mind off things."
Hirokazu's expression lightened a bit. "Like what?"
"Umm..." She stared at the ceiling, waiting for inspiration to strike. "Oh, I know! Let's go look for that motorcycle you were talking about yesterday. The Goldbird, or whatever you call it."
"GoldWing," he corrected. "Well, I haven't had time to work much on it, so it might not work out, but... sure, let's go have a look at it."
She smiled, glad to see his mood was finally lifting. "You want to borrow my helmet."
"Nah," he answered, smiling back. "It'll mess up my hair."
She gave him a deadpan look. "How?"
Hirokazu laughed and reached over to rearrange her own hair, making the fine strands fly in all directions. Before she could retaliate, he had scampered for the stairs, dashing up two at a time, laughing all the way.
"I'm going to get you for that!" she called after him. Pleased with herself, she turned the sign on the front door to read "CLOSED" and headed up the stairs to change.
They returned moments later, now suitably garbed for sneaking around at night, and set out. It was a perfect night for an excursion: the air was cool and invigorating, and a few fragile- looking stars peered down amongst the skyscrapers. Alice smiled a little as she rode Dobermon up the empty sidewalks, feeling the night breeze whip her hair out behind her. This was going to be a good night. As they passed a stoplight, Hirokazu honked his horn at her, and she waved back with a grin.
The particular motorcycle they wanted was secured in a public garage - very well secured; a bike like that was a status symbol, and likely to be stolen. Getting into the garage was not a problem for them, not when all they had to do was find the people in charge and show them the warrant. Then all they had to do was pick up the bike itself... which would have been easy, had it not been chained in place.
"No chance of just wheeling it into the trailer," said Alice, giving the setup a wry look.
"I can take care of it easily," said Guardromon. "Chains must not stand in the way of the pursuit of justice!"
He moved forward, apparently ready to rip the chains apart with his bare hands, but Hirokazu stopped him.
"You can't do that," he said. "That's destruction of private property. You don't want to get us in trouble, do you?"
Alice looked at him obliquely. "You aren't giving up. You never give up that easily."
"Of course I'm not!" he replied. "I'm just saying we oughta be a little more subtle, that's all."
"You're not subtle, either."
"Oh, yeah? Just watch me."
Hirokazu knelt next to the padlock that was holding the chain in place. Rummaging in his pockets, he took out a few bits of wire and few small keys, which he began trying in the lock. The first few tries were unsuccessful, but Alice's opinion of her partner's stubbornness was merited, and after much persuasion with the thin wire, he finally managed to get the lock to release its hold. The chains slid to the floor with a metallic clatter, and Alice went to help him untangle them. Soon the bike was standing free.
"See, what'd I tell you?" said Hirokazu proudly, stepping back to admire the machine. "Man! What a beauty. What I wouldn't give to have one of these..." His gaze lingered on the motorbike for a moment. Then he raised his eyes again to give Alice a pleading look. "You know, I've got the key... Do you think it would hurt anything if I drove it home?"
Alice frowned a little, battling her conscience. "I don't know... if you wrecked it, we'd be in big trouble... and don't you have to have a special licence for those things?"
"Got one," he assured her. "Come on. It's not that far to go. Just a tiny little drive..."
"How will we get the Thief home?"
"Guardromon will take it. He knows how. Machines are second nature to him."
"Well..." said Alice, feeling her objections crumbling. "All right! But if you go even a hair over the speed limit, I'll... I'll key your truck!"
Hirokazu gasped in mock-horror. "You wouldn't."
"Well, then, I'll just have to watch the speed limit, won't I?" he answered. "Come on, hop aboard!"
He mounted the motorcycle with the practiced ease of someone who had done so many times before, beckoning for Alice to climb on behind him. She obeyed a little more awkwardly. She had never been on a motorcycle before, and furthermore, getting on to one required Hirokazu's help to stabilize her. She managed in the end, and slipped on her helmet.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be. Are you sure you know how to drive this thing?"
"Sure I'm sure! Trust me, you've got nothing to worry about. Just hang on and enjoy the ride."
"I don't know if I like the sound of that," Alice said.
"Too late now! Okay, Guardromon, Dobermon, we'll see you back at the garage. Hang on, Alice - here we go!"
He revved the engine, and it came to life with a deep purr that Alice could feel all through her body. In the next moment, the machine began moving forward. She squeaked in surprise and involuntarily clamped her arms around the nearest solid thing handy, which happened to be Hirokazu's waist. He laughed and began guiding the vehicle out of the garage and into the street. Despite Alice's initial misgivings, she found that the bike showed no inclination to tip over - indeed, it held quite steady, and Hirokazu handled it with confidence. As she gradually relaxed, she was able to loosen her death-grip on him and start to enjoy herself. There was something strangely exhilarating about riding this sleek metal beast. She thought she could almost learn to understand Hirokazu's obsession with the things.
"Yahoo!" he cheered. "Now, this is what life is all about - fast machines and pretty girls. It doesn't get any better than this!"
Alice laughed, catching his enthusiasm.
"Make it go faster," she said.
"You got it! Hang on - we're going around curve."
They leaned as one into the curve and came out on a smooth stretch of highway. Hirokazu gunned the motor, and the rumbling of the engine rose to a crescendo. The world rushed by them in a blur as they flew down the ribbon of asphalt.
All too soon, they reached the end of their journey, and Hirokazu regretfully guided the motorcycle into the garage. Guardromon, Dobermon, and the Thief were already there waiting for them. Alice wondered how the Digimon had managed to get home first, and suspected Hirokazu had purposely taken a longer route home than necessary, so as to spend more time with his borrowed bike.
"That was fun," she said, swinging her feet back to solid ground. "We should do it more often."
"One of these days, I'm gonna get one of my own," Hirokazu said, reluctantly abandoning his toy. "A red one, maybe. A bright shiny one."
"That sounds like your kind of thing," Alice replied. "I can't say I'd mind one, myself... So, now what do we do? I'm not ready to quit having fun yet."
"Me neither," he replied. "I never am. Hm... Hey, I know - let's go out for dinner," he said.
"Sure, I could stand a hamburger somewhere," Alice replied.
Hirokazu shook his head. "Nah, I meant somewhere good. Something like... oh, I know! Do you like Italian? I know this place - they have the best baked ziti you ever tasted."
"I don't think I've ever tasted a baked ziti," she answered honestly.
He laughed. "Well, you don't know what you're missing! I've gotta show you this place. It's just a little hole in the wall, but they're always jumping. Run by a guy and his wife - he cooks, she manages. It's a funny place. There are no menus, so you just have to eat whatever the chef feels like making that night, but it's all good. I eat too much every time I go there."
"Is that a recommendation or a criticism?" she wanted to know.
"How about we go and you tell me?" he replied.
"Deal," she said.
They went back home and changed out of their working clothes and into something more suited to dining in a fine restaurant. Alice was surprised to see that Hirokazu had dredged a dinner jacket somewhere, and had managed to put his hair into some kind of order. She herself had changed into a satiny dress of silver-blue that fit as sleekly as scales on a fish, as well as bringing out the color of her eyes. Hirokazu whistled appreciatively when he saw her, and for once, the attention didn't bother her. Tonight, at least, she found that she wanted him to think she was pretty.
"I'm going out tonight," she told Dobermon, as she paused to give him his own dinner. "You don't mind, do you?"
"I approve," he said, wagging his tail. "Remember to have a little fun. Fun is good for you."
She laughed. "I'll try to remember. Good night, Dobermon."
"Hey, are you coming or not?" Hirokazu called.
"On my way!"
Gallantly, he helped her up into the cab of the Thief, and then climbed less elegantly into place in the driver's seat. He started the engine, making the truck come to life with a gentle purr and the sound of the upbeat music he liked playing on the radio. They rolled out into the night and on their way to what promised to be an enjoyable evening.
It was no exaggeration that the restaurant Hirokazu had recommended was hardly more than a hole in the wall. It had no parking lot, forcing its customers to park on the curb and walk, and it didn't have more than ten tables, yet there were still customers even at that late hour. When Hirokazu and Alice arrived, they were met by a pretty young woman who greeted them with a smile.
"Hirokazu!" she exclaimed. "I was wondering if you'd ever come back. Business must be good if you can afford a night out."
"Sure is," he boasted. "It's all thanks to my new partner, so I'm taking her out as a reward."
"What's the reward? Our food, or your company?" the hostess replied. "If you ask me, a real reward would be to send her out with someone else so she could get away from you for a while."
Hirokazu just grinned. He'd been friends with the hostess and her husband ever since they'd moved in and started their business, and she had a licence to tease by now. He'd always liked her - she was pretty as well as personable, with a slender figure and long blonde hair like Alice's. The hostess's eyes were green, though, and lately he'd been thinking blue eyes were more attractive...
"I take it you two know each other," said Alice, with a raised eyebrow that asked for more information.
"I'm a regular customer. It pays to be nice to me so I'll come back. Don't get jealous; she's married," said Hirokazu teasingly. Turning back to the hostess, he said, "Why don't you show Alice here a table? I want to go say hi to your husband a minute."
"Sure thing," the hostess agreed.
She led Alice away, and Hirokazu slipped off towards the kitchen to greet his friend. In the kitchen, he dodged past a waiter and a few less consequential cooks until he found the master chef, who was busily stirring up sauce in a large bowl. He was a jovial-looking man with the kind of face that smiled easily, and the comfortably well-upholstered figure of one who enjoys his own cooking. In his white apron and chef's hat, staring at the concoction in the dish with utmost concentration, he was the very picture of a culinary artist.
Then he noticed he had a visitor, and his face split in a broad grin.
"Hey, there! Thought you'd be back here to see me," he said. "I saw you come in. Who's that with you, your new girlfriend? She's cute. I always did go for blondes... of course, I got the best one first, but you didn't do too bad."
Hirokazu laughed. "Nothing like that. She's my new business partner."
"All the best romances are partnerships. Ask me. I know." The chef accepted a plate of chopped herbs from one of his helpers and tipped them into his bowl. "So, what can I do for you tonight? Sorry, we ran out of Alfredo sauce and we won't get any more until tomorrow, so it'll have to be something else."
"What have you got?"
"Well, I've got a new recipe for bagna cauda I've been wanting a guinea pig for," said the chef thoughtfully, "and there are some strombolis that are just about ready to come out of the oven. Will that do?"
"Perfect," Hirokazu replied.
The chef's smile turned sly. "I'll try to do a good job. We want your business partner to be impressed, right?"
"I'm getting out of here," answered Hirokazu, "before I get too tempted to throw tomatoes at you. Nice seeing you, chum."
"Nice seeing you, too."
He left the kitchen and found Alice and the hostess happily chatting together; they seemed to have decided they liked each other. As Hirokazu drew near, the hostess noticed a customer arriving and hurried off, leaving Hirokazu to take his place across from Alice.
"She's nice," said Alice. "Pretty, too. She could be a model, if she wanted to. I wonder why she wound up working here?"
"Because she married a chef," Hirokazu said. "Don't kid yourself. They're devoted. He worships the ground she walks on... Can't really blame him there - she is a knockout. You're prettier, though."
"Oh, stop it," she said, half-blushing. "You know you don't mean it. Anyway... what's for dinner?"
"Stromboli - that's kinda like a pizza turned wrong side out - and bagna cauda."
"What's bagna cauda?"
"I don't know," he answered. "I guess we'll find out when it gets here."
Bagna cauda turned out to be a plate of uncooked vegetables like carrots and celery, served with a tasty dipping sauce, kept hot in its own little burner. They had fun eating it, exchanging scraps of conversation as they nibbled.
"This is really nice," said Hirokazu. "It's been a while since I've taken anyone out to dinner. Been even longer since I've taken a pretty girl out to dinner. Mostly I just hang out with Kenta and Takato and them when I get a chance to go out."
"There you go again," she said. "You ought to know better than to play with a girl's feelings like that."
He gave her a blank look. "Like what?"
"Telling me I'm pretty."
"You are pretty," he said. "Don't you ever look in the mirror?"
"Not like that," she said, blushing. "I mean, you say it like you're interested in me. I thought we'd already made it clear that - that things aren't going to happen like that."
"I know, I know," he said. "But I like to pretend. Can I just pretend you're my date?"
He put on his best sad-puppy face, and she felt herself smiling.
"Oh, all right," she said. "Come to think of it, I haven't been on any dates in a long time... and Dobermon did tell me to try to have fun. I guess I can pretend a while, too."
Hirokazu nodded. "Dobermon is very smart. I talked to him. I think he knows more about some things than I do."
"That's not hard," she answered, teasing, and the awkward moment was over.
They finished off the appetizer, and the empty dish was whisked away and replaced with the entree. This proved to be a platter piled high with pastries about the size of one of Hirokazu's fists, each one stuffed with spinach and cheese and bits of tomatoes. While Alice eyed them dubiously - she had never been a fan of spinach - Hirokazu picked one up and took a large bite out of it.
"Derishush," he said with his mouth full. He swallowed and tried again. "Delicious. Go on, try one."
She tried it and discovered he was right - they were good, spinach and all. He saw her expression light with surprise, and gave her one of his ten-dollar grins.
"Who says vegetables aren't supposed to taste good?" he asked.
The two of them chatted as they ate their meal and shared a bottle of red wine. It wasn't Alice's habit to drink, but she decided it couldn't hurt on a special occasion, and it helped her relax a bit. She could forget any anxiety she might have had, as she listened to her companion tell her what he knew of the remarkable couple who ran the restaurant, about the time he'd had to repossess a small airplane, the time he'd accidentally taken the wrong car and had to return it. She laughed and repaid him with stories about how she had briefly worked in a news agency and had gotten to meet a few celebrities - one of which had asked for her autograph - and of some of her father's more intriguing experiments. By the time the meal was over, they were both in good moods.
At last, their plates were empty. Hirokazu sat back with a contented sigh.
"Man, that was good," he said. "I couldn't eat another-"
He was interrupted by the arrival of the hostess, who had appeared out of nowhere to set two pieces of cake in front of them. Hirokazu looked up at her.
"What is this?" he asked.
"Tiramisu," she said.
"I know what it is. Why is it here? We didn't order any tiramisu."
"Compliments of the chef," she answered, smiling playfully. "Boun appetito!"
She scooted off again. Hirokazu looked at the confection in front of him and made a tragicomic face.
"Oh, well," he said, picking up his fork. "Sometimes you just can't win!"
Alice laughed at him and copied his example. The cake was delicious, but she had no desire to finish it all. Hirokazu ate his and the rest of hers, too. Then they paid their bill and hurried off, before anyone thought of any more surprises to spring on them. The friendly chef waved to them as they left.
They strolled slowly back to the Thief, enjoying the peace of the evening. It was late, and there were few people around, so that Alice felt no embarrassment at being walking so close to a young man in public. When they reached the truck, she climbed nimbly into the passenger seat, while Hirokazu sank into his own seat with a small groan.
"Oof," he said. "I told you I was going to eat too much."
She laughed. "Whose fault is that?"
"Hey, I couldn't turn down a gift! It wouldn't be polite."
"Ah, yes, I forgot - you're always perfectly polite."
He made a face. "All right, all right. I made a pig of myself, and I had fun doing it. Happy now?"
She giggled again. "Sure."
"I don't know about you, but I think I need a minute to sit and catch my breath," he said. "Do you mind?"
"No, go right ahead."
He settled himself more comfortably in his seat and stared off into the night sky. They were far enough removed from the city lights here that they could see the moon and a few stars peering through the windows. It was peaceful here, in this dark, warm, enclosed space. Alice let herself relax and turned her mind loose to wander.
*Funny, there was a time not too long ago when I would have been in a panic, being in a situation like this,* she mused. *Now I'm not worried. I wonder why?*
She looked back at him. He was still not paying any attention to her, looking off into nowhere. Maybe it was a trick of the moonlight that made his eyes seem particularly dark and deep. She wondered what he was thinking about, and whether it was her. He wondered if he could guess she was thinking about him.
*I'm slipping. Every once in a while, I start feeling safe.*
Well, why not? She had been living under the same roof with him for more than a month now - he had actually been in her bedroom at night - and he had never done anything remotely threatening. Oh, he had joked and teased, but even her suspicious mind had to admit that he was only playing, as he played with all his friends. For a long time, now, she had been terribly afraid of what would happen if someone started having feelings for her. Now, for the first time, she was beginning to remember how it felt to be afraid someone wouldn't...
"Hirokazu?" she called.
"Hm?" He roused himself from whatever he'd been daydreaming about and turned to look at her.
"Hirokazu, I've been thinking," she said. Taking a deep breath, she continued, "Do you really mean it when you tell me I'm pretty?"
"Sure, I mean it," he answered. "Not that I want you to get the wrong idea or anything..."
"I'm trying to get the right idea," she said. "I'm trying to figure out what's going to happen to us. I mean, if things keep going the way they're going... Hirokazu, if it were possible, would you want to...?"
"Want to what?"
She blushed a bit. "To be with me. You know, like we were a couple."
"I would," he said, "but it's not going to happen, is it?"
"I don't know," she replied. "That's what I'm trying to figure out. Ever since I came to stay with you, I've been so happy. Even when things go wrong, they don't go nearly as wrong as they used to. I've been thinking more and more that it would be nice... that I would like it if I never had to leave."
"You don't, you know. You can stay. I know I wouldn't mind."
"I know." She took a deep breath and let it out. "I guess what I'm really trying to figure out is how I really feel about you... and how you feel about me. Whether under all that joking and teasing, you're really serious about me."
He turned to meet her eyes. "How do you want to find out?"
"Well..." she said shyly, "we could..."
She didn't finish the sentence - not with words. She couldn't. She had pressed her lips to his, and then they were kissing, carefully, hesitantly... then, when nothing bad happened, more ardently. He slipped his arms around her, drawing her closer, cradling her against him, and she relaxed unresistingly into his embrace. They came up for air a moment, then kissed again, more passionately. Hirokazu felt the heat rising in his blood, and reacted without thinking, his hands moving to touch her face, her hair, running over the soft skin of her throat and past her collar...
She pulled away. Her face was flushed, and her neat hairstyle had come unbound under his fingers.
"Not yet," she said. "Not now. It's not that I don't... I mean... I'm just not ready. Not so soon after..."
"Oh," he said. He wasn't sure what else to say. "Well... if that's the way you feel."
"I'm sorry," she said.
He didn't say anything. He still wasn't sure what had happened, what had gone wrong. They drove home in a tense silence. When they reached the building, Dobermon raised his head and watched the pair disembarking from their vehicle, but did not say anything. His sharp nose was enough to let him discern, more or less, what the situation was, and he knew better to interfere. The pair said uneasy goodnights and climbed the stairs to their rooms.
Alice went through her nightly routine mechanically, slipping out of her lovely gown and pitching it over the back of a chair without any consideration for its welfare, brushing her teeth and hair without any conscious realization of what she was doing. It was almost a surprise when she found herself lying in her bed and staring at the ceiling. It was a confusing sensation, because she knew there wasn't much chance of her getting to sleep any time soon.
*I've really messed things up this time, haven't I?*
She had come so close, tonight, to slipping out of the cold prison she'd been locked into for - what? Months? Years? She almost couldn't remember, anymore, just when she had stopped letting herself feel things. She had felt something tonight, though, something so strong and right and good that it had broken through her shell for a moment and let her be free. She had been free to feel whatever she wanted for whoever she liked, and what she'd felt was...
She thought back to the kiss she and Hirokazu had shared, and she sighed. There was just no convincing herself that she hadn't enjoyed it - or any denying that she had been wanting something like that to happen.
*I guess I'm going to have to admit it... I'm in love with him.*
She almost expected earthquakes and lightning to accompany such a momentous admission as that, but nothing of the sort happened. She tried repeating it to herself, more certainly this time. It brought up memories of the way he teased her, the way she always seemed to laugh more easily when he was around, how comforting it was to know he was always there to back her up. She remembered how it had felt to have her arms around him, how he'd kissed her and touched her face...
*He's in love with me, too. I'd be willing to bet money on it. Rats!*
For the first time, she was starting to feel bad - not the usual, cringing-away feeling she got when she thought someone was interested in her, but a feeling of guilt. She had been pushing him away. He had been wanting her, and she'd been hurting him for it. Not because he'd been doing anything wrong, either. He had been better to her than she'd ever had any right to expect, and in response, she'd hurt and confused and rejected him because of something some other someone had done to her, someone with so many layers of remembered pain and fear cast over him that she hardly recognized him anymore.
*This could have been such a good night if I hadn't gotten scared and backed down. Instead, I'm lying here alone kicking myself, and who knows what's going through his mind now. I wouldn't blame him for thinking almost anything about me...* She sighed and summoned up her courage. *Maybe I can still make it right.*
A few moments later, Hirokazu heard someone rapping softly on his door.
"Hirokazu? Are you awake?"
"Can I come in?"
"I guess so. Why?"
"I want to talk to you."
She opened the door. The lights were out, but Hirokazu was still up, sitting by the window and watching late-night traffic roll by. It occurred to Alice that she had never actually been in Hirokazu's room before. It reminded her of a college dormitory, with a selection of mismatched furniture, including an old and threadbare sofa and a surprisingly new-looking entertainment system stacked on a battered shelf. The walls were papered with pictures of cars and motorcycles, to the point where she couldn't guess what color they were painted. She sat down on the edge of the sofa and tried not to look or feel too nervous.
"I want to apologize," she said.
"For - for the way I acted tonight," she said. "I just - I get confused, sometimes."
"I'm not quite getting what you're saying," Hirokazu answered. "Just what exactly did you do that you've got to apologize for?"
"Not just tonight, really. It's just... I know it must be frustrating, always being pushed away. That's what I'm sorry for. I never really wanted to hurt you. I was just scared, but... I really do think you're something special... and I'm willing to make up for making you wait."
Hirokazu couldn't have said afterwards what it was, but there was something about the look in her eyes or the inflection of her voice that set his warning bells off.
"Are you saying... that you and I could...?"
"We could... pick up where we left off tonight. If you want."
He looked at her. There was no doubt in his mind what the nature of her offer was. Part of him wanted very badly to take her up on the offer, but... sitting there sitting on that ratty old threadbare sofa, her hands folded nervously in her lap, her eyes looking more sad than ever in the moonlight, she looked so vulnerable and frightened that he didn't have the heart to try.
"You know what?" he said. "I'm going to stop letting you drink with dinner. You're not yourself tonight. You wouldn't be talking like this if you were thinking straight."
"Huh?" she said.
"Look - you're tired, I'm tired, we're both a little emotionally overwrought, it's four o'clock in the morning. We both need some rest. We can talk about this tomorrow when we're fresh, okay?"
By careful stages, with much convincing, he was able to guide her out of his room and back to her own. She was looking slightly dazed by the time she got there, and considering what she'd probably expected, it was hard to blame her. She looked so lost and confused that he couldn't resist trying to comfort her. Before he left her, he kissed the top of her head in a gesture that was as much brotherly as loverlike.
"Goodnight," he said. "Sweet dreams."
Then he turned around and left her standing in her doorway wondering what exactly had happened. She stood a moment, turning things over in her mind. Then, ever so slowly, she smiled.
"Goodnight, Hirokazu," she said softly, and slipped back into her room.
Meanwhile, with nothing left to do, Hirokazu dragged himself off to bed and attempted to sleep. His effort wasn't very successful. Now that the moment was over, he was beginning to feel a sense of letdown. Did he worry this much over things like this when he was younger? He didn't think he had. Then again, he had never dealt with anyone as vulnerable as Alice; most of his old girlfriends had shared his devil-may-care attitude. It had been understood that this was all in fun, that nothing they did was supposed to have any serious consequences, that it didn't have to be True Love Forever as long as they both knew it wasn't going to last. This was turning out to be something else again. If he played this game, it was going to be for keeps. Funny thing, though... it might not be so bad...
*What was I worrying about? I should have just taken the chance when it was offered. She would have done anything I wanted...*
He sighed. *Yeah, and she never would have spoken to me again afterwards.*
*You don't know that. It was what she wanted, too, remember? She said so, didn't she?*
*But that might not be what she meant,* he answered himself. *What if I made her mad and she disappeared? She could walk off and leave me hanging if she wanted to. She's done it before; she'd do it again if I scared her enough.*
*How could she blame you? It was her idea.*
*She might not think of that later.*
*So instead, you brush her off and make her think you're not interested. You just blew your big chance, genius. You might never get another one.*
*I know, I know. Me and my protective streak.* He sighed. *I admit it, you're right, so can I get some sleep now?*
He didn't answer himself. The silence was not especially comforting, but it was the best he was likely to get. Gradually, he was able to relax, and slipped into a welcome oblivion. What he'd told Alice was true - they could worry about all this in the morning...
When Hirokazu awoke the next day, he was somewhat dismayed to find that he had overslept. Odd as his working hours were, he still liked to have at least a little daylight to work with, and it was now well past noon. All the same, he got up with a lack of enthusiasm and left his room dreading what he might encounter.
What he found was Alice sitting in the kitchen, sipping at a cup of coffee and reading the paper.
"Oh, hello!" she said brightly. "I was wondering when you'd get up."
"Um... yeah," was his fuzzy-minded response. "So... you look cheerful today."
"Yes. You were right; I really did need a good night's sleep to straighten me out. I feel so much better now."
"Um... yeah," he said again.
She laughed. "If you're half as confused as you look, I owe you an apology. You helped me a lot last night - probably more than you know. So thanks."
She got up and kissed his cheek.
"What was that for?" he asked.
"Because you're sweet," she said. She grinned playfully and traipsed off, laughing at his thunderstruck expression. He watched her go, grinning foolishly.
*See that!* he told the annoying voice in his head. *I was right, after all!*
Things were much more relaxed around the Shiota residence after that. Hirokazu never fully understood the turnaround - asking for an explanation never got more than a reply of, "You wouldn't understand it if I told you." Truth be told, she was sometimes hard pressed to understand it herself. One thing she knew for certain: there was no room left for not trusting him. Looking back on that night, she had to admit that she couldn't have made herself more vulnerable without tearing off her clothes and throwing herself into his bed, and he still hadn't taken advantage of her. In her moment of greatest weakness, his instinct had been to protect her. How could she doubt he'd act any differently under ordinary circumstances? Unless, of course, she made it clear she wanted him to... Yes, altogether, the situation was a great deal less strained than it once had been, and they were both happier for it.
It was a week after the momentous evening at the Italian restaurant that Alice returned back to the office after a day of scouting. She felt particularly proud of herself, having come upon an opportunity to seize some expensive jewelry. In their way, little things like that were more difficult to reclaim than automobiles: a diamond and sapphire necklace was much easier to hide than a convertible. Hirokazu, who had been scowling at his computer screen when she entered the room, looked up at the sound of the door opening.
"Back so soon?" he inquired.
"I just had to show off," she replied. She slipped off her helmet, so he could see that she was smiling. "Look what I got!"
She reached into her pocket and took out the necklace in its velvet-lined box. When she opened it, the jewels flashed brightly even in the pale flourescent lights. Hirokazu grinned.
"Not a bad haul," he said. "I'd almost forgotten about that one."
"I'm not surprised. You prefer a good car chase, don't you?" she replied. She carefully lifted the treasure from its box and held it around her throat. "What do you think? Does it suit me?"
He nodded, trying to look serious. It wasn't easy; the elaborate jewelry, with multiple strands of blue and white gems worked into twining patterns, made a strange contrast to her leather jacket and T-shirt.
"Nice. Just your color," he said. "You ought to wear one like that all the time."
"I should have known not to expect a serious answer from you," she said. She sighed a little as she removed the necklace and put it back in its box. "I know it would be impractical to wear something like this all the time, especially with the kind of work I do... but it would be kind of nice to have one or two pretty things of my own."
"You'd better not be angling for a ring," he said with mock-sternness.
"Definitely not," she said. "Once was enough, thank you. I like the arrangement we have now."
"You mean you'd rather spend the rest of your life living in my spare bedroom and paying casual visits once in a while, instead of settling down and being respectable?" Hirokazu teased.
She laughed. "Me? Respectable? Who'd believe it? No, thank you, I'd just as soon keep things the way they are. Maybe someday I'll get married again... years from now, of course. Right now, I think I've still got a few adventures to go through before I settle down. Why? Do you really want to be committed?"
"The only thing I'm likely to be committed to is a mental institution," he replied. "The way things are sounds pretty good to me."
"So we have a commitment not to be committed, is that right?" she asked, teasin.
He grinned. "Yeah, that sounds about right... Hey, and speaking of adventures, I've got something for you. Picked it up yesterday while I was out scouting."
"Should I be afraid?" she asked.
"Yeah," he answered, getting up from his desk. "Hang on - I'll go get it."
He left the office and went bounding upstairs. She heard his door open and close, and then he returned, carrying a small object, cradling it carefully in his hands.
"Here," he said. "Merry Christmas."
Alice stared. She wasn't such an innocent that she didn't know a handgun's holster when she saw it. Hirokazu carried one, sometimes, especially when they were undertaking a job in a bad part of town, or any time he suspected a violent encounter might ensue. She accepted the gift gingerly. Its weight surprised her; she had expected it to be heavier.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" she asked dubiously.
"Hopefully, nothing," said Hirokazu, "but it's better to be safe than sorry. I've been meaning to get you one for weeks, now, but you know how my brain is. I don't worry about you when we're working together, but if you're going to be going out doing stuff on your own..."
"Dobermon protects me," she said.
"Yeah, but he doesn't fit too well into an apartment building," Hirokazu pointed out. "People see you and think you're practically a little girl. I know better, but they don't. This will give you some authority."
"But I don't know how to use a gun!" she protested.
"I'll make sure you get some lessons," he answered. "I'm not that crazy. Until you learn how to use it right, you carry it empty. Check it every time you take it out to make sure it doesn't have any bullets."
"A prop," she said, slipping the weapon out of its holster to have a better look at it. "Nobody will know it isn't loaded, so..."
"So maybe people will think twice before they decide to argue with you," Hirokazu finished. Seeing she still looked doubtful, he added, "Don't worry. You'll feel better about it once you learn how to use it. Hey, look at it this way - would I really do this if I didn't trust you? You're the first girl I've ever given a lethal weapon to."
She laughed. "I'd still rather have the jewelry, but this will do."
"Maybe next Christmas," he answered, grinning. "Here, lemme show you how it works..."
He took the gun from her and began instructing her on its features - how to lock and unlock the safety, how to load and unload it, how to clean it, and the proper way of holding it, making her repeat each lesson until she could do it quickly and confidently. He was right; she did feel a bit better about the weapon after she felt more certain she could use it. It was another tool of the trade, like the tools she used for unlocking car doors or removing brake locks. Once she had the rudiments down, Hirokazu gave her a brief safety lesson (never assume the safety will always work, never point the gun at anyone) and sent her upstairs to change into her night-work clothes.
"Leave it behind tonight," he called after her. "You're not carrying that thing anywhere until you've had some real lessons."
"Yes, teacher!" she called back.
She scooted into her room and shut the door behind her. Off went her T-shirt and jeans, and on went her matte-black attire. She tugged on a pair of black sneakers - soundless as well as invisible in darkness - a pair of thin black gloves, and pulled her bandanna over her hair. Then, on a whim, she picked up the gun in its holster and hung it from her belt, and studied the picture she made in the mirror. She had always liked the way she looked in her night gear - slim and dark and deadly. The addition of a weapon gave her an added authority, and she decided she approved. Suddenly, she found she was looking forward to those lessons.
*Only Hirokazu could give me a gun as a present and make me feel good about it,* she thought, smiling a bit.
"Hey, what are you doing up there?" Hirokazu shouted. "We're waiting on you!"
"Coming!" she called back.
With a small sigh, she removed the holster and set it on her desk. Then she hurried downstairs to join her partners in crime.
Despite the news in the newspaper, Hirokazu was at peace with the world as he finished his lunch. As far as he was concerned, life was as good as it got. Of course, a large part of that feeling probably came from the fact that Alice had dropped by his room yesterday to say goodnight and had hung around a few hours. He had to admit, it had been worth every bit of the trouble it had taken to get through to her. She could be very good company when she felt like it.
When he came downstairs to the office, he was mildly surprised to see she was not at the desk. They had agreed over breakfast that she would be minding the phone today, and since Alice was usually the most responsible person he knew (certainly more so than himself) he had expected to find her in the office doing her work. Instead, the room was quite empty, but a series of peculiar noises were emanating from the garage. Led by profound curiosity, he went to have a look.
Everything seemed to be more or less where he had left it, which was a small relief. However, there were a few unexpected developments. One was that Guardromon was cowering against a far wall, looking very nervous. The other was what appeared to be a child's plastic wading pool, which Alice was patiently filling with water. She was obviously prepared for an ordeal, as she was wearing her oldest, grungiest work shirt and a pair of much worn denim shorts, had her hair tied back tightly, and was barefoot. She finished emptying a bucket of water into the pool and looked up at Hirokazu.
"Do you mind telling me what you're doing, or do I have to guess?" he asked.
"I'm giving Dobermon a bath," she said factually, as if this were something he should have known all along. She nodded to her dog, who was relaxing on the mattress that served as his bed, watching her efforts with an air of resignation.
"A bath?" Hirokazu repeated.
"Well, he won't fit in the shower, will he?" she asked rhetorically. "He has to have baths just like any other dog."
Hirokazu imagined what it was probably like, trying to give a bath to a dog the size of a Clydesdale, and said, "Better you than me!"
She laughed. "It's not as bad as it sounds. At least Dobermon knows he has to do it. He doesn't put up too much of a fuss. If he were a normal dog, we'd have to call the fire department to hose him down."
"Have you tried a car wash?" asked Hirokazu jokingly.
"No," Dobermon replied. "I will tolerate being washed, but I refuse to be waxed as well."
Hirokazu laughed. "All right, all right. You two have fun. I'm going out. There's a washer and dryer set I want to grab. I'll be back in about an hour, okay?"
"All right. We should be done by then," said Alice. "Take Guardromon. I don't think he likes the idea of getting wet."
"Indeed not!" said Guardromon with a shudder. "Do you have any idea what it's like to have your joints rust out?"
"It's okay, big guy - I'll keep you safe from the nasty bathwater," Hirokazu teased. "Come on! I can't carry a washing machine without you, anyway."
Guardromon still did not look entirely comforted. He climbed onto the Theif's trailer muttering to himself. "Swimming pools... Washing machines... What next, a water slide?"
He quieted down as the truck rolled out onto the street; Hirokazu heard a clanking and shuffling as Guardromon settled down for the ride. Since the traffic was moving slowly as usual, Hirokazu took a moment to consult his notes. The people he would be dealing with was no one he knew. With some people, it seemed like he was at their doorstep every couple of months to cart away whatever they couldn't afford this time, but this name was new to him. That could mean just about anything, and he wondered fleetingly if he should have waited until Alice could come along for backup... but no, he had dealt with troublesome cases just fine when it was only him and Guardromon. This was just a one-time offender. Maybe they wouldn't give him too many problems...
A short drive led him to a rather shabby-looking house overlooking a narrow street. Hirokazu had difficulty finding a decent place to park his large truck and its equally cumbersome trailer, and he wound up having to walk the better part of a block to reach his destination. He was doubly glad of Guardromon's company; it would have been a pain to move the appliances all that way. He hoped the appliances weren't on the upper floor of the house.
"Wait here, Guardromon," he said to his partner. "Hopefully I won't be long."
Guardromon nodded acquiescence and leaned against the wall, flanking the door like some strange metal statue. He ordinarily disliked going into buildings like this one; even when the hallways were wide enough to accommodate him, he sometimes couldn't even fit through the doors.
The building, like so many others, was designed with the lower floor serving as a place of business - in this case, a small shop selling magazines, cigarettes, candy, and other odds and ends. The sign on the front door said, "OPEN," but peering through the window, he could see that the shop was deserted. With a shrug, he stepped inside and made his way to the back, where a curtained door led to a staircase. He climbed to the top, where a door blocked his entry into the living area. He knocked and listened for signs of life. There was obviously someone home: he could hear a child crying somewhere, and it sounded as if someone was watching television. He waited a moment longer, then rapped again, more urgently.
"Is somebody in there?" he called. "I need a word with you."
There was a shuffling, and Hirokazu heard footsteps approaching.
"Listen," a woman's voice was saying, "if it's about the rent money, I'll have it as soon as..."
She stopped as she opened the door and her gaze fell on Hirokazu. Hirokazu looked back, evaluating her. She didn't appear to be much older than he was - perhaps in her mid-thirties, but her face was careworn, and her eyes had the look of one who was not getting nearly enough sleep. Her clothing, though respectable, had clearly seen better days. Through the open door, he could see a painfully bare room, where an ancient television was flickering against a wall. Two small children, who had been playing with blocks on the faded carpet, looked up at him with wide eyes before scurrying through a door and out of sight.
"What do you want?" asked the woman warily.
Hirokazu showed her his warrant. "I'm from the repossession agency. I'm here to speak to someone about a washer and dryer set. Can I speak to your husband?"
She gave him a dark look. "I live alone. If you have something to say, say it to me."
"Sorry, ma'am. No offense meant," he said. "I'll just get this done quickly and get out of your way. As you can see here, I have a warrant for repossession..."
"I'll make the payments," she said. "I just need a little more time. Don't take them."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I'm afraid I have to. That's my job."
"A fine job, taking things from hardworking people!" the woman stormed. "Here I am, working myself to the bone-"
"I'm sure you are, ma'am, but I still have to do my job, so..."
"Oh, do whatever you have to," said the woman in frustration.
She backed off and let him come inside, glaring at him the whole time. Seeing that he wasn't going to get any help from her, Hirokazu found his own way into a back room, where stood a washer, dryer, a chipped sink, and a shower stall. He sighed and began unhooking the appliances. In the background, he could hear the woman continuing her harangue.
"All of you are the same," she was muttering. "Nobody ever gives me a break... First my husband walks off and leaves me with three kids to take care of... Having to work day and night just to keep a roof over my head... Now you're coming along and taking my things... How am I supposed to keep clean clothes on my children? ... Not like you care..."
Hirokazu did his work in silence. He wondered, *If things turned out different for Alice, would she have been like this someday?*
He looked back at the woman, who was continuing to talk, but quietly. A big-eyed child had appeared out of nowhere to cling to her skirt and watching him suspiciously, as if suspecting that Hirokazu was the cause of all his mother's troubles. Hirokazu was surprised to realize that the woman had probably been very pretty, once, before life had started to wear her down. He hurriedly turned his attention back to his work, trying hard to make enough noise that he wouldn't hear anything else, because he suddenly had the uneasy feeling that he was seeing a ghost.
With great difficulty, he managed to haul the appliances out of the room and down the stairs, dogged the entire time by the woman, who continued to tell him what a heartless creature he was for taking things from poor people who were doing their best to get by and look after their children. On the whole, Hirokazu was very glad to get out of the building and take refuge in the Thief.
"Are you all right, Hirokazu?" Guardromon asked.
He sighed deeply. "I've been better." He slumped over the steering wheel and rested his head on his arms.
Guardromon's protective instincts were aroused. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"I dunno," he said. "It's just... how did I wind up like this? I mean, I like people to like me. That's not such a bad thing, is it? So how come I've put myself in a job where all I ever seem to do is get people mad at me, huh? I've gotta be a real idiot."
"You aren't an idiot," said Guardromon. "And you love your job. You know that."
"Yeah," said Hirokazu straightening up. "I know. It's just jobs like this get me down."
"Maybe you should go home and relax a bit?" Guardromon suggested. "You did tell Alice you'd be home soon..."
"Yeah, good idea," Hirokazu replied. "Maybe if she's done giving Dobermon his bath, I'll send them out on the job for a while. Paperwork's no fun, but it's not nearly as stressful, either."
He drove home in thoughtful silence, mulling gloomily over the scene he'd just left. His bad mood lasted as long as it took him to pull back into the garage. Then he stepped out of the truck and immediately put his foot in a puddle. The better part of the floor seemed to be drenched in water. A few feet away, Alice was covered in head to toe with soapy water, and Dobermon seemed to have gone from a black dog to a white one, he was so covered in suds. He was happily splashing about in the wading pool, playfully avoiding Alice's scrub brush, and she laughed as water sprayed everywhere.
"You look like you're having fun," he said.
Alice looked around; apparently she'd been too wrapped up in what she was doing to take any notice of him.
"If you can call this fun," she answered, but she was smiling. "Did you get your job done?"
"Um... yeah. Yeah, I got it done," he said.
She eyed him thoughtfully. "Is something wrong? You look thoughtful."
"I was just thinking how lucky I am to have someone like you to come home to."
She blushed. "Come on. Don't get all mushy like that. It doesn't suit you at all."
"Okay, okay," he said. He grinned suddenly. "I was also thinking how lucky it is that you can come home to me."
She retaliated by seizing the nearest scrub bucket, scooping up some water, and attempting to douse him with it. He danced out of the way, slipped on the wet floor, and fell. She giggled, and he managed to sit up and laugh, too. After all, it would have spoiled his reputation if she'd known he had been being serious.
Bang, bang, bang!
Alice emptied a round of bullets, then lowered her gun to better evaluate how she'd done. On the other side of the room, a bull's-eye was now scattered with bullet holes.
"Hey, not bad!" said Hirokazu. "You're really getting the hang of that thing."
"Should I feel flattered? I'm not so sure," Alice replied.
Ever since the afternoon when Hirokazu had given her the unexpected gift, they had made weekly visits to a shooting gallery so that she could learn how to use it properly. She now knew more about the different types of firearms and ammunition than she ever dreamed she would want to learn, but it was still true that the more she learned, she more comfortable she felt with her new tool. She knew, for example, that the gun she carried was of a small caliber, and more likely to injure an attacker than kill him outright. It was nice to know she wasn't likely to accidently do real damage on purpose. That was good, since the whole purpose of the weapon was more to scare someone off than hurt them.
It was also nice to know that she could actually hit what she shot at. Right away, she'd shown she was a decent marksman, and over the last couple of months, she'd seen a marked improvement in her aim. Shooting at targets was almost fun.
"It was supposed to be a compliment," Hirokazu said. "You're as good as I am. Maybe better. But you knew that all along, right?"
She smiled at him. That, she knew, was a compliment, and it meant more to her than he might have guessed. It was so nice to have someone like him who treated her as an equal - not just a girl or a friend or even a lover, but an equal. He always talked to her as if he expected her to understand what he was talking about, even if what he was discussing was the construction of motorcycle engines or something equally esoteric. It made it so much easier to be around him. On the days when she was tired and grouchy and old suspicious habits tried to resurface, it was good to feel she had his genuine respect.
"So, what do you think?" he asked her. "Going to try another round?"
"I don't think so," she replied. "I'm getting tired. I still can't believe what a kick this tiny little thing has!"
"You'll get used to it," he promised. "On the other hand, a lunch break doesn't sound like a bad idea... and I'll bet Dobermon's getting bored."
"He probably is," Alice agreed, laughing a little. While Guardromon felt right at home on a shooting range, Dobermon complained all the noise hurt his sensitive ears, forcing him to stay in the back of the Thief while his human friends went inside without him. "He's so patient, though. He never complains. We should buy him a hamburger or something as a reward for putting up with us."
"I've got a better idea - how about we buy all of us some hamburgers?" Hirokazu replied.
"All right, but you're paying," she teased. He made a face, but since the two of them had agreed a long time ago to pay food expenses from a joint account, she knew he was only joking.
However, when they went outside, they found themselves faced with something that was no laughing matter. Dobermon, who should have been snoozing in the bed of the truck, was standing up in an unusual display of excitement, his paws planted on the roof of the truck as he stared down the street, his ears pricked forward and hackles raised. Gaurdromon was watching him with puzzlement that was clear even with his lack of facial expressions.
"Hey, what's gotten into you?" asked Hirokazu. "Did the dogcatcher drive by or something?"
"No. Something more serious," Dobermon replied, keeping his eyes fixed firmly ahead of him.
"Well, what was it?" Hirokazu demanded.
"It was one of the stolen cars."
"What?" Alice repeated. "You're sure?"
"Absolutely sure. My nose is seldom wrong about these things," he answered. "It was the same one you tried to pick up, and its owners said it had been stolen. I memorized the scent then, and I recognized it now. Someone has tried to hide it with new paint, and that awful new car smell, but it is the same vehicle."
"Right," said Hirokazu, making a bound for his truck. "Alice, hop in. Lunch is postponed."
"You can't be thinking of following it," said Alice, but she did as she was told.
"Darn right, I'm thinking of it," Hirokazu replied. "I'm getting sick and tired of these car thief people. The only ones around here who are supposed to steal cars around here is us. Can Dobermon tell us where it went?"
"Yes, but I'm not sure this is a good idea."
"Hey, don't worry," he said, gunning the engine. "I'm not planning on going in and kicking any doors down."
"You mean you have a plan?"
"Ha, funny. What I mean is, all I want to do is follow this car and see where it's going and who's driving it. Then we can tip the police off and let them handle it. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"No, I guess not," Alice replied, but she still sounded uncertain.
They drove, following the unimpeachable lead of Dobermon's nose. Hirokazu was astounded at how confident the dog was as he directed him to follow this street and take that turning. Somehow, he always seemed to know where his quarry had gone, even amid what had to be an overwhelming array of other scents from other vehicles, human beings, cooking food, and who knew what else. He imagined what might happen if the dog ever met the thieves themselves. Somehow, he didn't doubt that Dobermon would know them instantly, and would follow them to the ends of the earth if he had to.
"There it is," said Dobermon at last.
Hirokazu and Alice looked ahead of them. Winding through the slow city traffic was an automobile. After spending weeks memorizing lists of stolen vehicles, they recognized it at once by make and model... but not by color. It had apparently been repainted recently, as it gleamed like new even though the car itself was several years old. The two agents looked at each other, knowing they were both thinking the same thoughts. Then they turned their attention back to their quarry.
Gradually, their path led them out of the bustle of the inner city, towards a collection of shopping centers. The car pulled to a halt in a parking lot, and Hirokazu found a parking place nearby and leaped out of the truck so he could catch up to the drivers before they got away. He dashed up behind them and found himself looking at a bewildered pair of middle-aged citizens. He tried to compose himself as he shifted mental gears.
"Can we... help you with something?" asked the man uncertainly.
"I just wanted to, uh, ask a couple of questions," Hirokazu replied. "I'll try not to take up too much of your time." He spared a glance at the car and noted that it was sporting temporary tags. "New car?"
The woman nodded. "We just bought it a few days ago. Why? Is something wrong?"
"Not exactly," answered Hirokazu slowly. "Looks like a nice little car. I Hope you got a good price on it."
"Very good, considering the condition it's in," the man replied. "It's in wonderful shape for a used vehicle."
"I wouldn't mind having one like it," Hirokazu said casually. "Mind telling me where you got it?"
"Of course not," the man said. "As a matter of fact, I think I still have the business card with me. Would you like to have it?"
"That'd be great, thanks."
The man dug through his coat pockets and was finally able to produce a stiff sheet of paper, which he handed to Hirokazu. Hirokazu took it and stared at it. He felt a peculiar sinking sensation, as of the weight of Fate settling on him. He tried to keep his expression blank.
"I hope that will help you," said the man.
"Oh, yeah," said Hirokazu. "It's just what I was looking for. Thanks a lot. You don't know how much you've helped me."
"Any time," the man answered courteously.
He and his wife said goodbye to Hirokazu, but he was in too much of a daze to answer properly. He wandered back to his truck and dropped back into his seat. Alice eyed him worriedly.
"Things didn't go wrong, did they?" she asked. "Tell me you didn't say anything stupid."
"No, I didn't say anything stupid," Hirokazu replied. "I did everything just right. Compared to some people, I never do anything stupid. It's other people who are really stupid."
"What are you talking about? You aren't making any sense," complained Guardromon from the back of the truck.
Hirokazu sighed. "I don't want to say it. Hey, Alice, d'you feel like having your day ruined?"
"No... but I have a feeling I'm going to. Hirokazu, tell me, what did you find out?"
Hirokazu slapped the business card on the dashboard. Alice picked it up and looked at it, and her normally pale face went paper-white. The car had the name of a car dealership printed on it in colorful letters, along with a phone number, web site address, and the e-mail address of the dealer. More importantly, it had the name of the dealer written proudly across the center of it, demanding her attention. It said, "JIRO NAKAGAWA."
"Maybe he has nothing to do with it."
Alice laughed bitterly. "You don't really believe that."
"No, not really, but it's still possible," said Hirokazu. "It's possible we're making a big fat mistake, for all we know."
"The biggest mistake I ever made was to get involved with him," said Alice. "I wish I'd never met him."
"Ditto," Hirokazu agreed.
The two of them were back at home, sitting at the kitchen table, trying to make sense of this latest turn of events. Alice seemed to be having considerable difficulty dealing with the situation. She was not, as Hirokazu had half-expected, breaking into tears. Instead, she was trembling with anger. He had no doubts that if she had her ex-husband at hand, she would be making him feel every bit of the pain he'd given her over the years. Lacking that vent for her frustrations, she was apparently trying to shred his tablecloth without really realizing what she was doing.
"What are we going to do about it?" she asked.
"Who says we're going to do anything?" he asked. "What can we do? All we've got to go on is a business card and Dobermon's word. That's not exactly going to hold up in a court. It doesn't even prove he's in on it. For all we know, somebody... I dunno, traded in the car claiming it was theirs."
Alice didn't seem to be listening.
"I wondered how he was paying for that fancy new house and those new cars..." she said to herself. "If he was really paying for them at all..."
"Are you paying attention?" Hirokazu asked.
"Look, it's not that I don't trust you - or Dobermon, either, for that matter. I do," he said. "You know the guy. If you think he's got the instincts of a thief, I believe you."
"I don't know if he has what it takes to lead the whole operation," she mused. "But if someone told him... told him that if he helped them out, he'd get a cut of the profits, well... if they convinced him they could keep him from getting caught, he might go along with it." She gave a small, hysterical laugh. "It would be just too poetic, wouldn't it, if he were behind it all? I don't think I'd believe it..."
"Nobody's going to believe any of this. We can't prove it," Hirokazu reminded her. "Yet."
She looked curiously at him. "Yet?"
"Well, sure," he said. "I'm getting a little tired of this guy trying to lay claim to stuff that's not his. I don't put up with that kind of thing. That's why I'm here, right?"
"But, see, when I know someone's got something that's not theirs, I don't just go out and get it. I prepare a little first."
He gave her a meaningful look, and slowly her expression cleared.
"Scouting," she said.
"Right," he replied.
"Is that legal?"
"Probably not. If we mess this up, we're probably sunk."
She shook her head. "We both must be crazy."
"No surprise there," he said. "Does tonight work for you?"
"Good. Start getting ready."
Alice got up from the table and set out in search of a sheet of paper. She was still a little uncertain about everything that was going on, still not quite able to believe it wasn't all a dream, and activity would help her fix that. Trust Hirokazu to help her find something useful to do while she was straightening herself out - useful and crazy. Somewhere deep in the back of her mind, her most rational self was telling her to back off, to think this through some more, or better yet, to forget it entirely. It was none of her business; let the police handle it...
None of her business? There was a laugh. This was the person who had made the last few years of her life a misery because she had backed off and run away. Well, no more. It was time to stand up and do something, and now she had the tools to do it. She sat down at her desk and pulled out a notebook, where she began roughing out a map of the car dealership. Tonight, she was not letting anything go wrong.
When darkness fell at last, it was on a pair of rather nervous agents. Alice was walking in small circles in the front office as she waited for Hirokazu to finish dressing. They had spent the last few hours plotting and planning, and while their final plan was relatively simple, they still knew that once they set out, anything could happen. Nobody was pretending they weren't walking into a dangerous situation.
"Are you ready? Cause I am," Hirokazu called as he came down the stairs.
Alice stopped her pacing. "Ready as I ever am."
She reached for her pistol and began checking it for forgotten ammunition, just as she always did before setting out on assignment. Hirokazu stopped her.
"You used them all up at practice," he said. "Don't worry about it."
"What if I miscounted?"
"Then you've got some extra protection. You might need it. Come on."
They joined their partners in the garage. They looked somewhat less nervous than their human partners, and it made Alice feel better. Guardromon actually seemed to be in a very good mood; it had been a long time since he'd had any genuine bad guys to chase, and he was looking forward to it. Dobermon was silent as usual, but his poise was somewhat marred by the fact that his hackles were raised. Alice patted his head before she climbed into the truck, and Dobermon licked her hand.
"Last chance to turn back," Hirokazu said. "Any second thoughts?"
Alice shook her head. "None here. You?"
He grinned. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
They made the journey to the car dealership in silence. Oddly enough, Alice felt more calm than she had all day. It felt good to finally be doing something. As for Hirokazu, he kept uncharacteristically quiet and looked at nothing but the road. As they drew nearer to their destination, he turned out the headlights, letting his black truck fade into the night.
Even in the dark, the rows and rows of cars glittered with the reflections of street lamps and neon signs. The dealership should have been closed at this hour - past midnight - but nevertheless, Hirokazu's sharp eyes could pick out a dim light within the office. Oddly enough, he also saw another vehicle heading for the back of the building. It could have been a shopper having a look around the lot without the bother of salesmen and other customers... but somehow, he didn't think so.
"Looks like we picked the right time to come visiting," Hirokazu said. "Are we lucky or what?"
"Better than winning the lottery," answered Alice with nervous humor.
They parked the truck off to the side, shutting the doors lightly to avoid making the least amount of noise. Nobody needed to talk; they had all run enough missions together by now that they knew how to read each other, and they could see plainly that Hirokazu was gesturing keep down and stay quiet. Guardromon looked a bit sulky; he wasn't good at being quiet and unseen, and he didn't feel like being left behind. Seeing the expression in his partner's eyes, Hirokazu gestured that the robot should fly around and stand guard on the building's roof. Guardromon nodded. Standing guard was what he did best. Once he was safely on his way, the rest of the group picked their stealthy way towards the faint glow in the office.
For a short while, anyway, Alice caught herself thinking this might be the easiest night run she'd ever been on. With the rows and rows of cars to hide behind, she could get around easily without being seen. Even Dobermon could slip past a row of minivans, if he kept his head down. They had enough cover to get them within a few yards of the building, where they paused and held a whispered conversation.
"You know your way around best," Hirokazu said. "Where do we go from here?"
"Well... I was thinking we'd look in the office," she answered slowly, "but there's someone in there now... Maybe we should look around back. There's a garage back there for repairing cars. We ought to be able to slip in there - even Dobermon will fit."
"All right. Lead the way."
Alice did as she was told. She could feel her heart thudding - not just at the thought of sneaking into a place she knew she didn't belong, but at the idea of being so close to the life she'd left behind. She knew he was in there, as surely as if she could smell him like Dobermon could. She didn't want to see him again. She didn't really want to go in there and find out he really was taking part in all this, to find out that things were even worse than she remembered. There was a strange, backwards way in which she felt as if, if she could find a reasonable explanation that told her that he really wasn't at fault, that it would somehow outweigh everything that had happened, and maybe she could go back to thinking of him as being the young man she had loved...
*Get a grip. If he's innocent, then you're sneaking around in the middle of the night and maybe getting arrested for no good reason. You don't want that.*
They reached the garage - almost. As soon as they were in proper sighting distance, they realized that at least some of the faint light they'd seen was coming from here. There were people moving around in there, and a few metallic rattles like tools being moved around. Voices could be heard, but they were so soft and distant that the humans could hear nothing. Alice looked to Dobermon.
"What's going on?" she whispered.
Dobermon flicked his ears back and forth a few times, trying to hear more clearly.
"Someone is scolding," he answered in a nearly inaudible rumble. "I won't repeat the exact words, but it seems some work has not been completed quickly enough to suit him. Mr. Nakagawa is attempting to apologize. He says the paint was delivered late."
"Ah, that explains it," said Hirokazu softly.
Dobermon looked politely puzzled. "It does?"
"Well, sure. If you wanna steal a car and make sure it stays stolen, it helps to have a friend who's willing to do stuff for you like paint it a new color or forge some papers or maybe change some ID numbers around. This is a great place to do stuff like that. Talk about a used car salesman..."
"He just doesn't wait until you're finished using them," said Alice. Her eyes glittered with something hard to identify, but it wasn't humor.
"Now I recognize the scent that was bothering me," said Dobermon, raising his nose to sniff the air. "Our thieves had all been here; the scent was on their clothes."
"I think we've heard enough to be convinced," said Hirokazu. "I think now is a good time to go home and tip off a few cop friends of mine."
Alice nodded. Knowing Hirokazu, she'd half expected that he'd want to go bursting into the garage and start trying to capture people, and was rather impressed with his restraint. On the other hand, it was a little anticlimactic to have to go creeping off just as quietly as they'd crept in.
They slipped back into the night, working their way down a row of used sedans. However, before they'd made it halfway, they heard the telltale sound of a motor gunning. Hirokazu looked over his shoulder in time to see a car rolling out of the garage, heading their way.
"Freeze!" he hissed. "Get down!"
The two humans dove out of sight, ducking behind the nearest automobiles. Dobermon, however, was stuck; the cars were parked too closely together to offer any hiding places for a creature of his bulk. Knowing he was trapped, he pressed himself to the ground, slicking back his ears and huddling on the pavement as if trying to disappear into it. The headlights of the car swept over him, passed by... and stopped.
"What the hell?" someone was heard to mutter. A car door opened and closed.
"Now we're in for it," Hirokazu muttered.
Someone plodded across the asphalt. Now that the car had been turned off, the lot was dark again. Seizing his chance, Dobermon got up and began moving as quickly and quietly as he could across the lot, trying to find a shadow to duck into. By the time the driver arrived, there was no time for more than an uncertain glimpse as Dobermon vanished into the night.
"There's someone here!" the driver called.
"It's probably just a stray cat," someone else answered derisively.
"It was not!" answered the driver. "It was like a dog, but huge..."
"You've been smoking something," his partner answered.
"Wait." That voice was unmistakably Jiro's. "A dog? A black one?"
"That's right! It must have been big as a horse..."
"Dobermon," Jiro muttered. "It has to be. Search the lot! If he's here, Alice is here, too."
"Now we're really in for it," said Hirokazu. "Alice, clear out!"
Alice didn't need a second warning; she was already extricating herself from her hiding place under a car. It wasn't easy. Now she was uncomfortably aware that she had chosen the wrong place to hide. The gap under the car was a narrow one, and while it was wide enough to leave room for a slender young woman to hide underneath, it wasn't wide enough to allow her to crawl out easily. She was nearly out when she felt her customary leather jacket snag on something. She wriggled, trying to free herself, but it was no good. She couldn't even move her arms enough to shed the jacket. Somewhere ahead of her, she could hear Hirokazu's footfalls as he hurried away.
"Help, I'm stuck!" she cried.
The footfalls stopped. They came back to her hiding place. In the dim light, she could see shoes in front of her - white sneakers. Hirokazu never wore white sneakers on the job - they showed up too brightly in the dark. Even as she was realizing this, someone knelt down and grinned at her.
"I found her!" he shouted. "Hey, boss, come here - she's under the car!"
Hirokazu heard the shout, and it stopped him so fast he nearly tripped. Swearing under his breath, he pondered his options. Leaving Alice behind wasn't one of them - he had no idea what would be done to her, but if her previous treatment was typical, then he didn't want to find out. He turned around and went to see if he still had any daring rescues left in him.
Meanwhile, a small crowd had gathered around the car. Two shop workers grabbed Alice and hauled her out, dumping her at the feet of her ex-husband. Coming up behind him, with the air of someone who has just had important business interrupted, was a formidable looking man she didn't know, but she could guess by his demeanor that he was the man who had been scolding Jiro for slow work.
"What is this all about?" he demanded.
"We have a spy," said Jiro. "I should have known you'd be out here meddling with things that don't concern you, Alice. You never did know when to mind your own business."
Alice bit her tongue to keep from saying anything. Maybe if she stayed meek and quiet now, he wouldn't be tempted to do anything extreme.
"Well, we can't have any spies," the unfamiliar man replied. "We'll have to silence her."
"Right you are, Mr. Toshihiko."
One of the shop workers reached for something. However, before he could get to it, a voice in the darkness said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Action stopped. Some yards away, they could see the silhouette of a man. It was too dark to get a good look at his face, but the dim street lights managed to throw metallic glints off the gun in his hand.
"That's right," said Hirokazu. "Let the girl go, and we can all walk away from this with our skins intact."
"I wouldn't bet heavily on that, if I were you," answered Mr. Toshihiko, reaching for a pistol of his own. "Now, there seem to be four of us and only one of you. How much are you willing to bet that you can dodge all of us, but we can't dodge you? Or would you like to pretend that this is a movie, where the heroes never get shot?"
"Um," said Hirokazu. "Okay, how about this. How much do you want to bet you can get out of the way before Guardromon squashes you all?"
"Huh?" was all anyone had to say before a rushing noise alerted them to the arrival of Guardromon, who had sighted trouble from his perch on the roof, and was now sailing to the rescue. One of the shop workers lost his head and started firing at him, but the bullets simply clanged off his tough metal outsides. One of them ricocheted and went through the window of a convertible. Seeing that, the two grunts tried to flee. Guardromon landed on one of them and flattened him onto the ground. The man groaned and twitched, but made no further efforts to rise. The other, smarter than his companion, made a break for it, but was blocked as Dobermon bounded out to intercept him. The dog snapped at his arm and caught it, flinging him against the side of a minivan. The man gave a single cry before slumping, unconscious, to the ground. Both Digimon turned their attention to the two remaining men.
"I always knew you would be trouble," said Dobermon to Jiro. The other man backed off a bit, plainly unsettled by hearing human words coming from a large animal with sharp teeth. "I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. I am sorry to be proven right."
"What - what are you going to do?" Jiro stammered. "You wouldn't kill me..."
"If you hurt Alice, I will."
There was a moment of still silence. Suddenly, Jiro made a fast movement, lunging for Alice and whipping out a small pistol, pointing it at her head.
"All right," he said. "Neither of you monsters come close to me, all right? Stay back, or I swear I'll kill her!"
The Digimon paused, unsure of what to do. Slowly, Jiro got to his feet, dragging Alice with him. All eyes were on the two of them as Jiro led her away.
Suddenly, there was a crack, and then a scream of pain. While everyone had been looking at Alice and Jiro, the other man had fired his weapon. The bullet struck Hirokazu in the arm, and he dropped his gun, clutching at the wound. In that moment of confusion, Mr. Toshihiko turned and made a dash for it.
"Don't let him get away!" Hirokazu shouted.
Guardromon obeyed, clanking off after the running man as fast as he could go. Dobermon looked to Alice for directions.
"Get Hirokazu to safety!" she told him. "Go on! I'll be fine!"
Dobermon hesitated, but there didn't seem to be much else he could do. Any move he made towards Alice now would result in a quick expiration for her, and perhaps for both of them. He trotted over to Hirokazu's side and began trying to get him to his feet. Alice didn't see what happened next, because Jiro had jerked her around and was leading her away.
"How did you get here?" he demanded. "You took that truck, didn't you?"
"Yes," she answered, wondering why he'd ask such a question and trying desperately to think of a way to get out of this.
"Do you have the keys?"
"They're - they're in the ignition. We wanted a fast getaway."
"Good. Take me to it."
With no other choices, she did as she was told. He forced her into the driver's seat and climbed in next to her. He glared at her in irritation as she began doing up her seatbelt.
"Never mind that!" he snapped. "You're going to get me out of here - now!"
She revved the engine and began to drive. Jiro didn't seem to be paying much attention to where she was going - it didn't seem to matter, as long as it was away.
"You're never going to talk about this to anyone," he said. "We're going to go far, far away, understand? Far away enough that even your stupid friends won't find us. Maybe even out of the country. Maybe if you learn to behave yourself, you can come with me."
Alice didn't say anything. She turned the truck onto a side street, one with less traffic than the crowded road they'd been following so far. She began to pick up speed.
"This time around, I'll make sure you learn your lesson," he was muttering. "I'm not letting you get away this time."
"No," she said evenly. "I'm not running away this time."
"Good. Maybe you've learned something, after all," said Jiro approvingly. "Start acting like a proper wife, and maybe I'll be willing to forget all this nonsense."
"I'm not going to do that, either."
Jiro turned angry. "Now, listen here, you - you're in no position to be saying what you won't do!"
"Actually, I am," she answered, "because I'm the one who buckled my seatbelt."
"Huh?" said Jiro, nonplused.
All Alice said in reply was, "Sorry, Hirokazu."
Then she stepped one final time on the accelerator, and drove the truck straight into a wall. There was a colossal crunch as the nose of the truck buckled. Jiro was flung out the window to roll along what was left of the truck's front end and fall to the ground. Alice was jerked back by the seatbelt hard enough to knock the air out of her lungs, while simultaneously bouncing off the airbag that suddenly inflated in front of her. It took her a moment to get her bearings. She still seemed to be alive and relatively unhurt. Jiro was not so lucky; he appeared to have broken an arm or shoulder in the fall, and blood was sheeting down his face from innumerable cuts. Amazingly, he was still trying to get up. Hurriedly, Alice began trying to release herself from the safety devices and climb out after him. She jumped out of the truck and dashed around in time to see him dragging himself to his feet and trying to stagger away. Even as she began to draw near him, he found his center of balance and began to move away at a painful jog. Alice ran after him, cutting in front of him.
"Get out of my way," he gasped. "Just let me go!"
"No," she said. "You aren't getting away with anything this time. This is going to stop."
He snarled and tried to shove her out of the way, but even that was too much effort for him, and he stumbled. As he fell, he grabbed at Alice. His hand found her gun. He gave a wheezing laugh as he snatched it away.
"Now, let's try this again," he said hoarsely. "You're going to help me now, understand?"
Alice stared at him, thinking hard.
*I didn't empty the chamber,* she was thinking. *I don't think there were any bullets left, but I can't be sure... All it would take is one, at this range...*
"No," she said. "I'm not helping you do anything!"
Jiro growled and pulled the trigger. There was a click, and then click, click, click, click. He threw the pistol down in disgust and reached for her, his face wild... but his strength was spent. The pain and blood loss were too much for him, and he passed out. Alice backed away from him, watching to make sure he wasn't going to wake up again. When he didn't, she walked over to retrieve her gun. A compulsion made her check the chamber. Out of six chambers, only one had a bullet left in it. One more try... Alice shuddered, and went to call the police.
The doors of the hospital opened smoothly to admit the pretty blonde woman who stood outside. Alice turned to her partner and scratched his ears affectionately.
"Sorry, Dobermon, but they don't let dogs in hospitals," she told him. "Sit out here, and try not to scare the patients."
"I'll try," he promised, "but some people are so skittish."
Alice smiled and strolled into the hospital lobby. A nurse at the front desk recognized her immediately.
"You're miss Nakagawa!" she said. "I saw you on television! You want to see Mr. Shiota, don't you? He's in room number 318. Just take the elevator to the third floor and turn right - you can't miss it."
Alice thanked the woman and headed for the elevator. It had been a long night, getting everything straightened out, but she still felt wide awake and pleased with herself - perhaps Hirokazu had been on to something when he'd made her learn to stay up all night. Her only unpleasant after-effect was some residual soreness from surviving a small automobile wreck. While her human partner had been whisked off to the emergency room to deal with his gunshot, it had been Alice who had overseen the gathering of culprits and seen them delivered to the proper authorities. Guardromon had been successful in capturing the leader of the car thieves, and his still-unconscious helpers had been peeled off the car lot and carried off to be doctored. By some stroke of fate, Jiro had survived his injuries as well, though he would likely be in the hospital even longer than Hirokazu would. Speaking of which...
Alice knocked lightly on the door of room 318.
"I don't want any painkillers, I don't want any green Jell-O, and I really don't want to be stuck with any more sharp instruments!"
"Oh, well, then I guess I'll go away," said Alice.
"Hey, I didn't say I didn't want to see you!"
Alice laughed and stepped into the room. Hirokazu was tucked comfortably into a white hospital bed. Other than a collection of bandages wrapped around his arm, he looked healthy and in fairly good spirits. He looked even gladder to see her. She gave him a lingering nonverbal greeting; if he'd been hooked to a heart monitor, a swarm of nurses would have appeared to see what was going wrong. When they separated, he was grinning.
"Man, I'm glad to see you again," he said. "When that Jiro guy took off with you..."
"You should have more confidence in me than that," she said. "You taught me, remember?"
"Well, yeah, there's that," he said. "But I was worried anyway. You know, you're... pretty special to me."
She smiled. "I know. So are you... Anyway, I'm sorry about your truck. I kind of smashed it getting rid of Jiro."
"That's okay," he said. "I can get another truck, but I couldn't replace you. Besides," He added with a grin, "I only need one girlfriend, right?"
"Right," she agreed. "Hey, have you been watching TV? We've been on the news since early this morning."
"We have? Hey, cool - turn it on! Maybe we'll see ourselves."
Alice found the remote control and turned on the television, scanning channels in search of a news station. They sat through a few minutes of an overseas war and some talk about a new environmental study until the local news finally came on. Next to a picture of Jiro's car lot was a smiling lady reporter.
"Who ever would have thought you would want your car repossessed?" she was saying. "You would if they were repossessing your car from someone else! Early this morning, Hirokazu Shiota and Alice Nakagawa, the renowned Digimon Tamers and proprietors of the Shiota Repossession Agency, were able to corner a gang of car thieves at this used car lot..."
The reporter went on talking, briefly describing the ordeal as if it had all been quick and easy. There was a brief glimpse of a rather pale and disheveled-looking Alice telling an interviewer how she had gotten involved. She was glad to see that she neither looked nor sounded completely crazy; the night had been so surreal, she was having trouble remembering exactly how it had all happened. The newscast ended with a few words about the bravery of the young agents and their partners, and a cheery remark about how car owners could sleep soundly once more, and the programming turned to talk of an upcoming political rally. Alice turned off the television.
"Well, how do you like that?" she said. "We're heroes."
"Great," said Hirokazu. "Just what I always wanted."
"So, what are we going to do now?" Alice asked. "We aren't going to get much work done while the Thief is in pieces."
"We'll think of something," Hirokazu promised. "For starters... how are you feeling after being in that wreck?"
"Just a little sore. Why?"
"Come here and let me check to see if you're in one piece."
She smiled and leaned forward to let him kiss her again. A nurse, dropping by to make sure her patient was all right, peeked through the window a moment, and then walked off to inform the doctors that Hirokazu seemed in perfect health to her.
A few days later, the dust had settled, the criminals had confessed, the Thief had been sent to the shop, and the two repossession agents and their partners stood outside the agency looking forward to a relaxing day. Hirokazu had done some fast talking to convince the insurance people that his truck had been stolen by nefarious car thieves, and that he should therefore not have to pay for the repairs himself. They'd believed him. That was good, because as Alice had noted, it would have been a letdown if they'd been forced to spend their reward for catching the thieves on mechanical repairs.
"Are you sure we got everything?" Alice asked. "If we get out on the road, and you remember you've forgotten your - your toothbrush or something, I'll..."
Hirokazu laughed. Alice struggled to keep a straight face for a moment, then joined in the laughter.
"Don't worry about a thing," Hirokazu assured her. "Anything we forget, we can buy a new one. Anyway, if we don't get rolling soon, we'll miss our reservation at the hotel."
"Well, we wouldn't want that," Alice answered. She gave him a saucy look, and he grinned.
Even before Hirokazu had been released from the hospital, the two of them had been chatting about what to do with their reward money. Once it was clear that they wouldn't need it to repair the Thief, and since they obviously couldn't work while their primary tool was in the shop, a vacation had seemed like the logical choice. It hadn't taken them long to decide on exactly the best way of disposing of their newfound wealth. The result of that decision was sitting in front of the agency as they spoke. It was a shiny red, two-seater motorcycle. Hirokazu stroked the fender lovingly, hardly able to believe it was really his.
"Everything is secure!" Guardromon reported. "We may proceed!"
"Fantastic!" said Hirokazu, mounting the bike and pulling on a helmet. "Look out, road, here we come!"
"Right behind you," Alice agreed, settling into place behind him and slipping her arms around his waist.
There was a soft purr as the engine roared to life, and it was echoed by the rush of Guardromon's rockets as he took to the air. As the bike rolled gently into the street, Dobermon loped along side it, barking for joy. Hirokazu grinned at Alice over his shoulder, and she smiled back, secure in the knowledge that from now on, there would always be a loving home to come to at the end of the day, and between now and then, an open stretch of road, and nothing to do but ride and ride and ride...