Opening The Way

Chapter One

Blood stained the maps which hung across the room in long lines, splattered across them like filth on clean washing. It soaked into the paper as it slowly trickled down, leaving patterns on the carefully cartographed pages as though to mark a new set of mountains across them.

The man in the long white cape might have quoted Macbeth, but he saw little point in that sort of amusement -- and, besides, there was nobody in the room capable of hearing him.

The male target lay on the floor with one hand still reaching towards his computer; he had been taken by surprise, but even so, there had been enough life left in him even as the blade carved across his body that he had managed to stretch one desperate hand towards the meticulously clean keyboard. SETI danced across the monitor, unseeing, unhearing, uncaring, in a smooth pattern of coloured lines.

The female target was caught out of time, paused with her mouth open to scream. He had turned away when he swept his blade through the air to shake off the blood, so that it wouldn't spatter her. It was a small enough piece of courtesy, but it pleased him. A matter of style.

Well. Nearly done. The cameras in the area would be dead for another three minutes, even if Makubex should notice the interference and attempt to correct it. Time to remove her and leave, before Makubex or his group should investigate.

And then -- well. That was when the rites and ceremonies would truly begin.


There was a knocking at the door. It shook the car and jarred Ban out of sleep, echoing through the metal of the vehicle's structure and reverberating in his bones. He jerked upright with catlike speed, heels crashing to the floor from where they'd been propped on the dashboard, and stared at his reflection in the mirror blankly, trying to remember who he was, where he was, what time of year it was, and whether they'd managed to find a parking space.

"Ban-chan!" It was Ginji. He'd sent Ginji to get food. Yes. That was important. Ginji's face hovered outside the window, blond hair ruffled like the sun's rays, cheerful wakefulness just as much appreciated as the sun's light on a morning when he wanted to sleep in. "Ban-chan! They've got anchovies! Do you want anchovies?"

Anchovies. Little anchovies swam through Ban's sleep-clouded mind, flicking their fins and somehow mingling with images of Hevn's breasts. "Tasty," he muttered.

"I'll get them!" Ginji cheered, trotting back to the pizza shop.

The morning sun shone on the parking ticket which had been tucked behind one of the car's windscreen wipers, but Ban wasn't going to let that bother him for the moment. Certainly not while they were -- well, broke was such an unkind word. Financially inconvenienced was a more convenient way of putting it, and besides, as long as there was a scattering of change in their pockets, they weren't broke per se.

He could smell approaching anchovies and mozzarella and tomato and pepperoni and other good things. He quickly scrambled out of the car and moved to intercept Ginji before half the pizzas could vanish between shop and vehicle. "Oi! Did you think you were going to get to gobble it all?"

"Ban-chan!" Ginji retorted through a mouthful of cheese, eyes wide with shock and distress. "Of course I'd leave some for you . . ."

"Key word in that being leave," Ban muttered through a satisfactory bite of pizza. All right, so this pizza represented the last of their funds -- but how on earth could they be expected to do their usual brilliant job while fading away of starvation?

The two of them leant against the car, wolfing the food down, the empty pizza box propped behind them. "So," Ginji started, "we could go to the Honky-Tonk . . ."

"Where Paul said he'd kick us out if we tried hanging around without buying anything and he'd do it twice over if Natsumi felt sorry and started giving us coffee on the house," Ban pointed out.

"Um!" Ginji swallowed the last bite of his pizza. "Well, but where will people know to look for us if we aren't there? What if a really important case comes in and they can't find us?"

"Then we're out of luck," Ban said gloomily. "Though if it's Hevn . . ."

Ginji perked up. "Oh yes. Hevn-san can always find us!"

"Especially when it's a case so dangerous that you need a maniac to take it," Ban muttered. "That woman loves her commission."

"She's just being professional." Ginji licked his fingers, chasing the last echoes of mozzarella. "We could drop by to see Shido and Madoka . . ."

Ban perked up slightly. "I suppose we could see if she's got the monkey-trainer totally whipped yet. Maybe she's got him clearing out the gutters."

Ginji nodded enthusiastically. "And we could help!"

Ban hastily reviewed other options. Parading around the streets with signs wasn't yet a necessity. Himiko had relocated from the address he'd managed to discover, and he wasn't sure where she was living, even if she had expressed any wish to have them drop round -- though really, letting them use her shower and kitchen was the least that she could have done for them -- so that wasn't an option. Visiting Mugenjou wasn't even in the playing field. As for Maria -- well, that had been necessary during the affair with the playing cards and the children and Lucifer, but now the further he could stay from that side of things, the happier he'd be. "Well, we could always try the Honky-Tonk," he temporised. "We've got enough for one coffee each. Something might turn up."


The Honky-Tonk hadn't been open for long by the time that they got there. The smell of fresh coffee hung richly in the air, darkly glorious and magnificent, drawing Ban and Ginji to the counter like moths to a candle. Without having to be asked, Natsumi poured off two mugs for them. Paul tilted his newspaper to eye them both, sighed, and let the paper droop back again. From the kitchen came the sound of pans being scrubbed.

"You ought to get that poor girl a dishwasher," Ban commented, cradling his hands round his mug.

"No, it's fine, really!" Rena's voice came over the noise of running taps. "There really isn't that much to do!"

"Besides," Paul stared over his newspaper again, "I keep on getting stiffed on the bills. By certain people. Who are not far from here, and who, in fact, have a significant running bill, and have yet to pay for this morning's coffee."

With a haughty air, Ban slid the last few yen from his pocket and tossed them onto the counter. "There. As always, the GetBackers come through."

The door opened, and tiny bells whispered in the morning air that came in. Ban turned, but he knew who would be standing there -- Fuchoin Kazuki, pale blouse hanging loosely and baring his shoulders, hair dark and long as a woman's. Behind him, one careful poised step, was Kakei Sakura, her pink shawl gathered tightly around her hair and against her torso, and that was surprising -- both that the thread spool should be out and about without his usual samurai bodyguard, and that the woman should leave Mugenjou. Something was up. "Yo," he said cheerfully, hoping that this wouldn't be something that needed to involve Ginji.

"Kazuki-chan!" Ginji launched himself from the stool and caught Kazuki in a firm hug in a single rocketing movement, his coffee mug going spinning off the edge. Ban caught it and watched in resignation. "How are you! What's going on?"

"Ginji-san." Kazuki carefully pried Ginji's arms away, and took a step back. Sakura moved quietly to match him, keeping the same polite distance. "I'm very sorry. We've just had some bad news, and I wanted to speak to you about it -- both as a friend, and in the hopes that you'll investigate it for Makubex."

"Oi." Ban put Ginji's cup back on the counter. "If this involves Mugenjou --"

"I'm afraid it does," Kazuki broke in. "Ginji-san, Gen the pharmacist has been murdered, and his granddaughter Ren has been kidnapped." Now Ban could see the anger behind the other man's eyes, the tense fury which made those golden bells shiver. "We need to get her back. And we need to find out what's going on. Ginji-san, we need you."