Ranma scanned the crowd of people gathering in the street. There were about forty of them now with more wandering in from all directions. Men and women, young and old, black and brown, but not one Asian face amongst them. He positioned himself between the crowd and Akane, preparing for the worst.
"Get in the car, lock all the doors and see if that damn computer can call the police."
"Ranma, I'm not leaving you out here alone."
"Akane, I need you to protect Ranko-chan and the boys. I can't do this unless I know they're safe!"
"We'll be safe, Dad!"
"We're gonna help!"
Masato and Hideto had hopped out of the front seat and taken up fighting stances on either side of their mother.
"Get back in the car this instant!" Akane hissed at them.
"No time for that now," Ranma said. "Just close the door and lock it."
He didn't sense movement behind him yet he heard the car door slam shut followed by a loud thunk as all the door locks dropped into place. There was no time to regroup his little family now because a single black man had separated from the crowd of onlookers and was approaching them.
He was a huge man, easily over two meters tall and maybe twenty or twenty-five years old. He wasn't wearing a shirt and the well defined muscles of his sweaty chest let Ranma know he was no casual weight lifter. He moved with a grace not usually associated with tall muscle-bound men, his steps purposeful and precise. With a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, Ranma realized this man was a true martial artist.
The man reached the ruins of the bus shelter where the two would-be muggers lay unmoving. He bent over the Latino man and felt his neck for a pulse then stripped the red bandanna off the fallen man's head. He examined it with a scowl and then ripped open the unconscious man's shirt, exposing his tattoos.
"Damn Blood trash ain't got no business here." The big man stood up and looked straight at Ranma, his fist clenched around the red bandanna. His large dark eyes were cold and emotionless like those of a shark. He easily outweighed Ranma two to one and if he were half the martial artist Ranma feared he might be, Ranma was going to have his hands full.
That meant Akane and the boys were at the mercy of the ever growing mob. An image of them fighting for their lives and another of the mob attacking the van with Ranko-chan inside popped into his head. Instantly and unbidden his battle aura exploded into full force. He needed to eliminate the threat to his family and do it quickly. Anxiously he eyed a three story brick building on the far side of the street. He might be able to knock it down on top of the crowd before they or his opponent had a chance to attack. He began to focus his inner determination and confidence in preparation for the Moko Takabisha.
The crowd reacted to Ranma's battle aura by taking a collective step backwards, except for one old black woman with wiry white hair who actually stepped towards him. Ranma automatically assessed her threat level, but she was showing no battle aura of any kind. She looked like any other old woman, wise with age and gentle in her walk. She approached him slowly and he relaxed without dropping his guard. When she was just beyond his reach she stopped and squinted at Ranma with wrinkled old eyes.
"I know you," she said in a voice as fragile as dried seaweed. "My grandson was in the gangs. They had him selling drugs when he was just eleven year old. Then that martial arts school opened up with your picture in the window. Most of them boys in the gangs are all dead now, but my Henry growed up to be a good man thanks to you, Mr. Sowtomay."
Ranma was stunned. He looked from the old woman to the powerful black man who was now standing at attention with his left hand covering his right fist. The big man bowed respectfully and Ranma numbly returned it. He looked at the old woman again and stuttered, "Y-you are welcome. I-I glad to have your grandson in my school."
"Oh Henry's not in school no more. He runs his own school now."
The big man now approached Ranma and offered his hand. As they shook he said, "I'm Henry Watson. I got an e-mail saying you were in town, sensei, but I never expected to see you in a place like this."
Ranma grinned sheepishly. "Not really plan on being here, get lost on way to Las Vegas. Sorry we make such big mess."
"Don't you worry about that, sensei. Gang trash like them ain't welcome here and they know it. This is a clean hood and we aim to keep it that way."
"Hey, Henry," someone called out. "Since when do you know the Incredibles?" Laughter ran through the crowd whose anger Ranma now realized was directed more at the criminals than his family.
He tried to imagine what they must look like to these people. The four of them standing there in various fighting stances could easily be taken for the superhero family from the animated movies. He wondered what Mr. Watson would look like dressed in a bright blue jumpsuit and laughed at the image in his mind.
"Tell me, Henry-san, you own Anything Goes franchise?"
"Well, not really a franchise. The kids in the hood can't afford to pay nothin', so we train 'em in the Art for free. We get some support from the cops, some more from the community center, but mostly Anything Goes gives us what we need for free. We got three dojos here now and we're tryin' to open up another one over in Watts."
"You know Jeffu Atsukins?"
"Oh yeah, Mr. Jeff's always sendin' us posters and equipment and stuff. He's a straight up guy."
"Yes, he is," Ranma said with a smile, but he was thinking Jeff might have mentioned they were supporting free dojos in the ghetto. "You call Jeffu tomorrow and tell him I come back do demo just for kids. He make all arrangements."
"Really, sensei? That would be great!"
"And after demo I show you few things about Art you may not believe." Ranma winked and the big man's eyes went wide.
"Wow! I don't know what to say, Saotome-sensei."
"Well I do!" his grandmother said swatting at the big man's arm with her handbag. She stepped right in front of Ranma and planted a motherly kiss on his forehead. "Thank you Mr. Sowtomay and God bless you."
Ranma was too astonished to move, Japanese people just didn't up and kiss strangers. It was Akane who broke the ensuing silence. "You're very welcome, ma'am. My name is Akane Saotome, I'm Ranma's wife. I think what your grandson is doing is wonderful and of course Ranma will continue to support him in anyway he can."
"Are those your boys, sweetie?" the old woman asked pointing to the twins and Akane nodded her head. "They sure do look like their daddy, don't they? I bet they're a handful. Don't suppose you boys would like some ice cold lemonade? Just made some up fresh…"
Henry interrupted her. "Ma-maw, they don't have time for a visit. Didn't you hear Saotome-sensei say they're headed for Las Vegas?" He turned to Ranma. "You best get back on the road before the cops show up. Don't worry about this mess, the L.A.P.D. know me and I'll make sure you ain't mentioned in the report."
"Thank you, Henry-san. What Akane say true. You have my full support."
They shook hands again and the big man bowed to each of them before turning back to the carnage that had once been a bus shelter. His grandmother also made a bowing motion, but then waved at the boys who giggled and waved back.
Ranma turned and herded Masato towards the car whose doors unlocked just before he touched the handle. Akane led Hideto to the other side and after the boys were settled in, Ranma met her by the passenger door.
"Akane, you drive."
She smiled at him. "Really, are you sure? I promise I won't say anything unless you start driving us into the ocean or something."
"No, I read car manual and listen for while, maybe stupid car not so like our car back home after all."
They climbed in and Akane ran through the registration process to make her the second driver. They rolled down the windows and waved to the crowd as Akane pulled away.
"Are we resuming our trip to the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas?" Adam asked.
Ranma started to answer, but stopped and began rummaging through the glove compartment looking for the user's manual. Akane smiled and answered, "Yes, Adam. That's where we're going."
In the silence that followed, Akane could just barely hear Ranma grinding his teeth.
o o o
Nabiki stood in the lobby of the Bellagio hotel absentmindedly counting the arriving guests. She knew, based on industry figures, what their gross annual family income was, how long they were likely to be staying in Las Vegas, the proportion of their time here spent gambling versus doing other activities, the ratio of winners to losers, she even had a good idea how much cash each one had in their pockets.
She knew the ethnic breakdown of guests staying at premium versus budget hotels and didn't expect to see many Asians in the crowd. That was one figure she intended to change soon. She'd already spent millions advertising Samurai across Asia and the media blitz that was to follow its opening would be unprecedented in the industry. By the end of the year every man, woman and child in China, Korea and Japan would know just where they wanted to spend their vacation money.
And at the heart of it all, directing every phase of construction, staffing, promotion and security was Nabiki Tendo-Kuno. Wife of internationally renowned real estate developer Tatewaki Kuno, she was already a regular feature on many of the celebrity gossip webzines. E! Entertainment had done a piece on her for the hotel's opening and she'd heard from 60 Minutes earlier in the week.
She felt an adrenalin rush at the thought of what the next year would bring and something close to an orgasm when she thought of all the money to be made. It was a long way from hustling Tate for his lunch money in middle school, but with his help she was finally living the life she'd always dreamed about.
She saw Akane and Ranma crossing the casino floor towards her and cleared her head. Her sister arrived late the previous evening after a long drive over the mountains and through the desert. She'd arranged for them to stay in one of the hotel's condominium suites. Most of the big hotels had begun selling off their upper floors to offset the drop in tourism over the past few years. She and Tate had been one of the Bellagio's first residents.
She'd offered her sister and brother-in-law a tour of the Samurai construction site, but suggested they drop off the kid's at the hotel's daycare center first. Akane agreed to that plan, so it was a little surprising to see her sister carrying a diaper bag and Ranma with a baby slung across his chest.
"What happened?" Nabiki asked, her hands going instantly to her hips. "I thought you were leaving the kids at the day care center?"
"We did," Akane said cheerfully. "Last we saw of the boys, they'd hooked up with a little girl their age and were crawling around inside of a giant hamster maze."
"Well, what about that one?"
"We not sure staff able to look after Ranko-chan," Ranma said, patting the baby's fuzzy red head.
Nabiki sighed dramatically. "Look, Ranma, I know you're all full of maternal instinct now, but the Bellagio has been running that nursery since the day they opened and haven't lost a baby yet."
"Maybe not," Akane interjected. "But have they ever gone to feed a little red haired girl only to find a dark haired little boy in her place?"
A vision of a CNN news scrawl ran through Nabiki's mind; "Las Vegas baby swap scandal enters second bewildering week. Owners of new casino project implicated as whereabouts of martial artist's daughter remain a mystery."
"We think this way is best," Ranma added. "Is okay to take baby to construction site?"
"Ah… sure…" Nabiki said hesitantly, while insurance policy details were playing out in her brain. "We'll just have to avoid the hardhat areas. We better get going; I promised we'd meet Tate at noon for lunch in the boardroom. He's entertaining some investors today."
"Maybe we shouldn't go then," Akane said looking at Ranma with a frown.
"Oh no, sis, by now Tate's already told them all you're coming. As much as he wanted to kick Ranma's butt in high school, these days he really gets off on telling people he's the brother-in-law of a famous martial artist."
"Bet he not tell them how many times I leave footprints on his face," Ranma chuckled.
"Or me," Akane added with a grin.
They piled into a limo at the side entrance and headed west along Tropicana Avenue, under the Interstate. Nabiki knew she was taking a big risk building her hotel so far from the established 'strip' along Las Vegas Boulevard, but she was counting on the new bullet trains from LA to bring even more people into Las Vegas and Samurai was right next door to the new terminal building.
The triangular shaped lot at the corner of Valley View and Tropicana had once been home to a warehouse and the town's largest adult video store. Now it was a frenzied collection of construction trailers, landscapers, cement trucks, forklifts, cranes and pickup trucks. Out of the midst of this chaos arose a towering twenty one story gleaming white edifice loosely based on Himeji Castle west of Kobe. Its graceful curving rooflines stacked one on top of another gave it a mountainous feeling.
Nabiki had to smile when she looked at the peak of that mountain and saw her new home sitting atop it. The ten thousand square foot multi-level penthouse was an eclectic mix of western and eastern styling and every inch of it had received her approval, as had just about everything else in the hotel.
She'd only relinquished creative control over the design of the casino itself where a global team of experts had masterfully combined the gambling habits of two hemispheres. There would be more ways to lose your money at Samurai than any other place in North America.
"How long you been building this thing, Nabiki?" Ranma asked as they drove up to the construction entrance.
"We broke ground a little less than six months ago. Construction has been on a twenty-four hour schedule ever since. The parking garage is being held up by the city because they're dragging their feet on the Shinkansen terminal, but we'll manage to push that through. Both the hotel and casino should be ready for the opening in October."
"I can't believe you're really doing all of this, Nabiki," Akane said. "It all seems so unreal."
"You'd be amazed what you can do with other people's money, little sister." Nabiki grinned. It was true she and Tate had everything riding on the success of this venture, but the Kuno fortune was a drop in the bucket compared to the money invested by other syndicate members.
"Where's big cherry tree from video?" Ranma asked looking out at the front of the hotel where a tower of scaffolding rose up from a half empty concrete lake.
"You're looking at it," Nabiki said with a smirk. "You can't grow giant trees in the desert, so we're building one. It's going to be over a hundred feet tall too. They're making it out of steel and some sort of concrete just like the one at Disneyworld."
"So, will the blossoms be fake too?" Akane asked.
"Nope, they'll be so real we've had to install special robots in the lake to collect the falling petals. You see, the limbs of the tree will support thousands of little growing pots filled with genetically engineered cherry blossom plants. We had a hell of a time importing them from China, but they bloom all year around and never grow taller than a few of inches. Here at Samurai it will always be spring!"
The limo pulled up to the main entrance, which was flanked on either side by huge stone lions. A steady stream of workmen flowed in and out of the hotel and the signs of frenzied construction were everywhere. As they piled out of the car a young man in a white hardhat jogged up to them.
"Excuse me, Ms. Tendo?"
"Yes, Eddie" Nabiki recognized the young engineering student who acted as the chief contractor's assistant. "What is it?"
"Your husband asked if you could meet him in the boardroom right away. They had to cut their tour short. One of the Japanese gentlemen had mobility issues."
"You mean he's crippled?" Nabiki never understood why Americans were so reluctant to just say what they really meant.
"Um… yes, ma'am. They're up there waiting for you right now."
"Thank you, Eddie. Would you tell your boss I'd like to review the tiling schedule this afternoon? I think we may need to bring in a couple more subs."
"Yes ma'am!" The young man did everything but snap to attention and salute before he turned on his heel and jogged off in the direction of the construction trailers
"You run tight ship, Nabiki." Ranma said with a grin.
"I have to. A lot of very scary people have invested a great deal of money in this place. Someone's got to make sure it opens on time. You don't think Tate's going to do that, do you?"
"Guess not. Who these people we meet today?"
Nabiki began walking towards the entrance as she talked. Just being here on the jobsite made her want to rush around. "A big investor from Japan. Even though he's been in the deal from the start, this is the fist time he's been to the site. They were never clear about why, but I guess he has some health problems. Anyway his yen are healthy enough, so I'd like to make a good impression on him."
Ranma bent his head forward and wrinkled his nose. "Then maybe I should change little stinker before meeting. Is toilet near boardroom?"
"Uh, no," Nabiki tried to remember the last status report on the plumbing she'd received. "The only working restrooms are here on the first floor near the reception desk. Or at least where the desk will be someday. Just turn right when we get to the lobby. When you're done take the elevator up to the twenty-first floor. The boardroom is right across the hall. Akane and I will go on ahead, okay?"
Her little sister laughed and handed the diaper bag to Ranma who looked confused. "Nabiki, you're sounding more like an American every time I see you!" Then she turned to her husband and repeated the instructions in Japanese.
Ranma nodded and then followed a group of construction workers into the hotel. Akane turned back and cocked her head to one side. "Don't look upset sis. You were just talking a little too fast for him. You've lost a lot of your Japanese accent too, so when you get this wound up its even hard for me to understand you."
Nabiki suddenly felt this was the right time to bring up a touchy subject, one she'd been avoiding for years. She braced herself for her little sister's reaction and said, "Akane, I'm… I'm not coming back to Japan. Tate and I have decided to stay here permanently."
Akane looked at her blankly for a few seconds, then threw back her head and laughed. "Well duh! Kasumi and I had that figured out years ago. It's daddy who won't accept it. Just promise me you'll come home every now and then for a visit and I'll break it to him gently. You belong here, Nabiki, you always have."
"You… you knew?" Nabiki was actually stunned. She'd been certain she had the whole family fooled. What other little 'secrets' did her sisters know about her?
"I've been saying it since you left for college. I didn't know if it would be Europe or the United States, but Japan was never big enough for you, onee-chan."
Nabiki looked at her little sister and smiled in wonder at the woman before her. When had Akane grown up? Where was the tomboy who hated every boy in school except one? She was a mother now, with that same calm motherly demeanor Nabiki could just barely remember their own mother having. For crying out loud, Akane even looked like their mother!
"Come on, sis," Nabiki said, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice. "Let me show you my new dollhouse."
Once they were alone together in the elevator, Nabiki gave her little sister a long hug. She missed her sisters terribly, it was the hardest thing she'd ever given up, but with her dream in sight it was good to know they believed in what she was doing.
When the doors opened on the twenty-first floor, she was ready once again to play the role of unemotional businesswoman. Nabiki walked confidently through the double doors of the boardroom, watched the five men in suits stand up from the table as she entered, heard her sister gasp and then froze in her tracks.
Nabiki had never learned martial arts. She resisted all of Soun's attempts to teach her anything. She'd used Akane's interest in the Art to shield herself from the physical demands of training. But seventeen years in the Tendo household had managed to leave her with at least one crucial talent of an advanced martial artist. Nabiki could read a person's battle aura better than anyone in the family.
She'd used the ability to capture Ranma in hundreds of compromising positions over the years. She could read her little sister like a book, always knowing when the youngest Tendo was angry, upset, frustrated or… at those times when Ranma had found a chink in her little sister's armor and gotten Akane excited.
Since leaving home this ability of hers had become even handier, both for pleasure and business. She could tell instantly which potential business partners were planning to screw her out of a deal and turned the tables on them before they even knew what hit them. She'd become such a good poker player, she was banned from all but the most exclusive tables in Las Vegas.
Right now she could sense Akane's anger. It had slammed into her back like a hot wall of fire. Whenever Akane was this mad it was usually accompanied by frustration, but this time the underlying emotion was fear. Akane's battle aura was not what had stopped Nabiki in her tracks however. It was the equally strong and equally angry aura originating from inside the boardroom. One of the five men facing her right now was mad enough to kill. She scanned the line and settled on the one standing next to her husband.
He was about average height for a Japanese man and very thin. The Armani suit he was wearing looked as if it had been tailored for a much larger man. His black hair was slicked back from his forehead and he wore a silk eye patch elegantly over his left eye. He was trembling and at first Nabiki thought it was from rage, but then she noticed he was leaning on a silver topped cane. He looked for all the world like the villain in a cheap spy movie.
Tate was of course totally unaware of the angry forces at work around him. He stepped forward with a big smile and began introductions in Japanese. "This is my beauteous and talented wife, Goddess of the Nevada Desert, Nabiki, who most of you know already. And the vision of loveliness at the door is her adoring little sister, Saotome Akane. Nabiki, my ever alluring spouse, I'd like you to meet Nabe Yoshi. Nabe-sama is the head of the esteemed Yakitori Investment Group. Akane, let me have the honor to introduce…"
The awkward silence that followed was only broken by the ringing of a cell phone. When Nabiki recognized the theme song from 'Shakespeare In Love' she coughed dramatically and looked imploringly back at her sister. Akane never took her eyes off the stranger as she reached into her pocketbook and flipped open the phone.
"Yes? ... I don't know, I'll ask. Nabiki, the hot water doesn't seem to be working in the first floor men's room. Is it working in the lady's room?"
Nabiki realized instantly who was on the other end of the call and the implications behind the question. She shook her head slowly. "There's no hot water anywhere in the building. The boilers won't be installed for another two weeks."
o o o
Ranma stood impatiently in the elevator as it slowly made its way up to the twenty-first floor, a baby cradled in her left arm, the fingers of her right hand drumming nervously on the wall padded with cardboard. Something was wrong. She'd heard it in Akane's voice. Her wife's blunt response, "Never mind, just get up here right now. And don't put Ranko-chan in the sling," had been filled with tension.
Akane might just be pissed off at Ranma for being stuck in girl mode, but what was she supposed to do? Not wash her hands after changing the baby? It wasn't her fault there was no hot water in the building. Nabiki might have mentioned that before sending her to the toilet with a messy child.
As the floor numbers continued to climb on the digital readout, she became more and more anxious. Something was very wrong about this situation, something beyond her spouse's usual hot tempered responses. As the doors began to open, she sensed Akane's battle aura and knew she'd been right.
The doors of the boardroom across the hallway stood open. Akane was standing just inside and beyond her Ranma could see Nabiki. They were both facing to the right, looking at something at the far end of the room. Ranko-chan squirmed in her arms and began making a sound she recognized as the prelude to a crying fit.
She squared her shoulders and strode into the room, deposited the whimpering baby into Akane's waiting arms, pushed past a stunned Nabiki and came face to face with the man she thought she'd killed months ago.
"Hello, Chanko," Ranma said in Japanese, trying to make her soprano voice sound even higher and more irritating than usual. "I hope you enjoyed your flight."
"Saotome," Nabe wheezed out the word as if struggling to catch his breath. "Did you follow me all the way to Las Vegas just to finish me off?"
"I was about to ask you the same thing. Just what the hell are you doing here?"
"Ranma," Nabiki spoke quietly from behind her. "Nabe-sama is here representing one of our Japanese investment companies. He was responsible for putting together the Samurai syndicate in the first place."
"Oh…" Ranma was suddenly disoriented. If Nabe was here on business, why were he and Akane squaring off?
"Young lady." She turned back to find one of the other men addressing her in English. "Mr. Nabe has every right to be in his own hotel, but just what do you think you are doing here?"
"Are these your new gang members, Nabe?" Ranma looked over the three other men, the one who'd addressed her was middle aged with an obvious paunch beneath his expensive looking suit. The other two were younger, but didn't look to be in much better shape. "Kind of scraping the bottom of the Yakuza barrel, aren't you?"
"Red haired goddess," Tate said with a nervous look around. "These honored gentlemen are lawyers representing Nabe-sama's interests here in Las Vegas. They are all of Japanese-American birthright and decidedly not members of any criminal organization."
"You see, Saotome, you're out of your element here," Nabe hissed. He began to laugh, but it quickly deteriorated into a hacking cough. He half sat, half fell into the chair behind him. He looked like an old man and Ranma knew for a fact Nabe was several years younger than she and Akane.
"What happened to you, Nabe? How did you survive the Hiryu Shouten Ha?"
"Mr. Nabe," one of the lawyers said. "You do not have to answer this woman's questions. We would advise you to say nothing and have her removed…"
"Shut up," Nabe barked at the man. "When I want your opinion, I'll pay you for it." He turned back to Ranma and pulled himself up to the table. "I got lucky, Saotome, my men fell into Tokyo Bay and were drowned. It took my family weeks to find their bodies. But I fell onto a dredging barge full of sand. I broke half the bones in my body, but I survived."
He tried to laugh again with the same result. After another coughing fit he continued. "Do you know what kept me alive for months in the hospital? Trying to figure out how a scrawny little pregnant woman could have beaten me with my own technique."
"Oh my god!" Nabiki gasped from the doorway behind her. "Is he the one?"
"Yes, Nabiki," Ranma said icily. "Nabe-kun here kidnapped your sister and tried to kill me and the baby. And the Hiryu Shouten Ha is not your technique, Chanko. You should have paid more attention to what Cologne was trying to teach you. Or did Shampoo show you how it was done?"
"What are you babbling about?" Nabe said, looking confused. "Cologne, shampoo, what have cosmetic products to do with martial arts? You've been a woman too long, Saotome, it's affecting your mind. Who I learned the technique from is my business. But I'll tell you this much, I'm not the only one in the world who would like to see you dead."
"Mr. Nabe, please!" The middle-aged lawyer pleaded. "I really must warn you that such statements place your investments here in jeopardy. We are already under severe scrutiny by the Nevada Gaming Commission because of your associations in Japan."
Nabe looked at the man and scowled, but then his face softened. "You are correct, Shiromori. This not what I come for. Kuno-san, we continue now with your wife here. Can have these… relatives removed?"
Tate looked uncomfortable as he turned to Ranma. "Ranko, would you mind? You and Akane can wait for us in our apartment. It's down the hall to the right. And would you ask Ranma to wait there as well?"
Ranma blinked and turned to Nabiki, "He still not get it?"
"No and apparently neither do you." Nabiki stepped forward and grabbed her arm. She dragged Ranma into the hallway and Akane followed along with the whimpering baby. "Look, I had no idea this guy was the one who came after you, but we've been doing business with his company for almost two years. Mr. Nabe has pumped over a billion dollars into this place and I'm not going to let you turn this into another one of your martial arts challenges. Now please just go wait for us in the apartment. I'm sorry there's no furniture yet, but there are some benches out by the pool."
Nabiki stalked back into the boardroom closing the doors behind her. Ranma turned to Akane, but before either could say a word Ranko-chan began to cry at last. Ranma reached out for the baby, whose jet black hair surprised both parents.
"You know," Ranma said thoughtfully as they turned and walked down the hall. "Maybe he change because you get angry. Why you about to fight Nabe anyway?"
"Me? What about you, charging in there ready for a brawl? I wasn't going to fight the little twerp, but I had to be ready to defend myself. He took me by surprise, that's all."
"You surprise too easy, Akane."
"You're right, after living with you all these years nothing should surprise me."
o o o
Ranma paced the length of their hotel suite's living room again with the screaming baby on her shoulder and stared out the windows. The lights of Las Vegas had not dimmed even at this late hour, if anything the town appeared more alive then ever. In her arms Ranko-chan seemed to share the city's excitement as he wailed on.
A bleary eyed brunette appeared at the bedroom door. At least Akane's sleeping schedule had finally overcome the effects of jetlag. She walked up to Ranma and held out her arms. In Japanese she said, "Need a break?"
"Thanks, Akane." Ranma handed over the crying baby. Ranko quieted for a second as he reassessed who was holding him and then started crying again, apparently unsatisfied with the change of venue.
"How long has he been like this?" Akane was stroking Ranko's face with her fingertips, a strategy that sometimes distracted their baby but now only seemed to aggravate him.
"Ever since I fed him, nearly two hours ago."
"Really?" Akane looked shocked. "I haven't heard a thing."
"Nabiki said these suites are designed so a rock band can hold an all night party in one room while their kids are sound asleep in the next. She said it's a welcome change to the paper thin walls back home."
Akane snickered. "She made a lot of money listening through those paper thin walls. Why don't you go test it out? You look exhausted."
"No," Ranma said as she pressed her hands into the small of her back. "I think I'll change and take him for a drive. That's all that ever seems to work when he gets like this."
"Maybe I should come along." Akane said looking concerned.
Ranma stopped stretching and straightened up, her braless breasts bouncing ponderously beneath the 'Mommy needs a break' tee shirt. "Look, Akane, I'm just going to get on the highway and drive in a straight line for an hour and then come straight back. That stupid computer doesn't even need to be turned on."
Ranma took a quick hot shower and emerged from the bedroom fifteen minutes later drying his damp black hair with a towel and wearing a rather tight fitting black and red tracksuit.
Akane giggled. "Ranma, isn't that an outfit from your female suitcase? It doesn't really fit, you know?"
"I know," he said as he bent over and opened the mini-bar. He took out a bottle of cold spring water, holding it carefully away from himself. He dropped it into Ranko's diaper bag as though it were a live hand grenade. "I wanna be able to change again in case this doesn't work."
He looped the bag over his shoulder and then began searching for the car keys. Akane laughed then walked over to him and held out the noisy squirming infant. "No car keys. Remember?"
"Oh, yeah. How could I forget?"
He felt self-conscious walking down the hallway and hoped all the doors on this floor were as soundproof as the ones in their suite. The elevator was thankfully empty, but when its doors opened up on the main lobby, Ranma would have sworn it was the middle of the day and not four AM. The casino was as packed as ever.
He'd have to ask Nabiki why these places were designed so you had to walk through the casino every time you needed to get anywhere. Why not just build the parking garage next to the hotel where it belonged? For the most part, Ranko-chan's cries drowned out the sounds of people losing money. He guessed there weren't many jackpots given out at this time of night.
The parking lot attendant wanted to bring the car around for him, but he explained as best he could that the car wouldn't allow it. Ranma's English always got worse when he was tired, so the whole exchange took twice as long as it should have. Meanwhile Ranko's cries echoed through the parking garage and seemed to amplify as they bounced from concrete to steel and back again.
He found the Highlander and strapped Ranko into her car seat. He paused with his hand on the driver's door handle and took a deep breath. "It's only a computer."
"Good morning, Mr. Saotome. What is your destination?" Adam's cheerful voice rang out in English over Ranko-chan's screaming. It did nothing more than grate on Ranma's already frayed nerves.
"No destination. Just drive for baby to sleep."
"Very well then, the navigation system is in stand-by mode. Do you wish to disable any other systems?"
"Can disable talking?"
"If you wish, I can use visual prompts and respond vocally only to direct questions."
Ranma smiled. The thing was finally making some sense. "Yes, do that!"
Text appeared on the central console screen: 'Voice prompt mode disabled.' Adam didn't say another word and Ranma's mood was greatly improved as he backed out of the parking space. By the time he'd driven down three levels to the street exit, Ranko-chan was already beginning to quiet down.
When he stopped for the automated gate to rise, he noticed a black Mercedes sedan parked at the curb across the street. What caught his eye were the headlights. They were dark in spite of the obvious exhaust fumes rising into the chilly morning air from the tailpipe. To his knowledge all cars in America had been built with automatic headlights for many years now. This looked like a pretty new model, so they really ought to be on. In the backseat, Ranko began crying again. Ranma quickly forgot about the black car and returned his focus to the mission at hand.
As he drove down South Las Vegas Boulevard he marveled at all the world famous landmarks located along this short stretch of road. The Luxor's black glass pyramid, the gaudy façade of the MGM Grand, and the towering minarets of the Arabian Nights all passed by outside. Ranko had fallen asleep by the time they reached the famous 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign and the entrance to Interstate Fifteen.
He drove east and used the buttons on the steering wheel to manually set the cruse control to the speed limit. Outside of Las Vegas the road became almost arrow straight and he was able to relax and drive along with just one hand. He glanced over his shoulder and Ranko was sound asleep. To him, this was transformational magic far more powerful than any Jusenkyo curse.
After about twenty minutes he found his eyelids getting heavy and he yawned several times. When he did this back home, he'd plug his music player into the car's stereo. Classic British rock was his favorite and he could play it as loud as he liked and it never seemed to wake up the baby.
Akane spent a lot of time figuring out how to get the boys' games working on the video system, but she hadn't checked to see if his digital player was compatible as well. As he dug around inside the diaper bag on the passenger seat for the little music player, he looked at the console screen for the first time since leaving the hotel.
'Warning! We are being followed. Engage pursuit mode?'
Ranma blinked. "What you mean being followed?"
With what sounded like relief in his voice Adam said aloud, "A late model black sedan has been following us since we left the parking garage. It is now two hundred yards to the rear and closing."
The console screen changed to the backup camera. At the center of the nighttime enhanced green image was a car. The distinctive Mercedes grille and darkened headlights were clearly visible and growing larger as it drew nearer. Ranma recognized it as the car he'd seen outside the hotel and frowned.
"Who follow us?"
"Identification is not possible at this time. However, a scan of the Nevada State Patrol web site would suggest it is not a police vehicle."
Ranma watched in fascination as the image grew on the monitor. When it nearly filled the screen, flashing red letters appeared: 'Collision warning!'
The Highlander lurched forward as the sedan smashed into its rear bumper. Ranma grabbed the wheel with both hands, struggling to keep the big car on the road. He floored the accelerator and glanced at the monitor. The Mercedes fell back momentarily, but then quickly closed in again. Once more the warning message flashed on the screen just moments before they were rear ended a second time.
"Why you not tell me before?"
"By your request I can only respond verbally to direct questions."
"Well stop that! Talk to me."
"Voice prompt mode enabled. Pursuing vehicle at eighteen yards and closing. Do you wish to engage pursuit mode?"
"What?" the computer was spewing out English so fast Ranma couldn't understand half of what it was saying, but he caught the part about the other car closing in again. Even with his lightening fast reflexes Ranma couldn't keep the van on the road for long. He'd never had time to learn how to drive properly. Genma taught him everything he knew, but that was mostly how to steal a car not how to drive it.
"Ten yards and closing… five yards… three yards… Collision warning!"
This time the Highlander went careening off onto the shoulder, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel that forced the Mercedes to fall back briefly. Regaining control, Ranma got the big car back on the road and floored it again. In frustration he shouted out in Japanese, "Can't this thing go faster?"
"Pursuit mode engaged."
The windshield instantly lit up with a grid of bright blue lines. The road ahead suddenly glowed green and details along the roadside stood out like it was noontime. Around the edges of the window glowing words and numbers appeared in various colors.
"Amperage limiting switches disengaged. Primary engine locked into transmission mode. Nitrous oxide reserve level at eighty six percent, this will yield a boost duration of nine point two seconds. Please ensure your seatbelt is securely fastened and both hands are firmly on the steering wheel. Press the accelerator all the way the floor and hold for two seconds to engage the booster system."
Ranma didn't hesitate. He gripped the wheel tightly and pressed down on the accelerator. He'd thought he had it floored, but now the pedal moved an extra couple of millimeters and he felt something go 'click'. He waited in silence, the only sounds being the noise of the tires against the road and Ranko's waking up gurgles from the backseat. The backup camera was now displayed on the windshield under the rearview mirror and the image of the Mercedes was growing larger again.
Pure nitrous oxide at two atmospheres of pressure flooded the fuel injectors turning the sedate sixty-four horsepower engine, which was designed only to generate electricity and occasionally provide torque for acceleration, into a one hundred and forty horsepower growling tiger. Adam had reprogrammed the transmission to accept the massive increase in power and add it to that of the four electric motors now operating at one hundred and ten percent of their rated amperage.
Smoke began to billow from underneath the Highlander as all four tires immediately started spinning wildly. The outer layers of rubber began to melt and when enough had liquefied for the force of adhesion to overcome the weaker force of inertia the car took off.
Ranma was pressed into the driver's seat as the car rocketed forward. He'd identified the large blue numbers at the bottom of the heads-up display as the speedometer. It had topped out at '91' before, but now it rapidly increased past '100' to '102'… 104'… '106'. The image of the Mercedes began to get smaller and then its headlights came on. It became nothing more than two bright dots on the screen that merged into one dot and then was gone.
In the backseat, Ranko screamed in delight and Ranma could clearly hear his laughter over the sound of the roaring engine. Ahead the green image of the roadway blurred as the speedometer passed '126'… '129'… '132'.
There was a bright blue line running down the center of the windshield display that was lined up perfectly with the center of the highway. A small red circle appeared over this line with crosshairs inside. It started moving slowly to the right and when the edge of the circle separated from the blue line a large flashing red arrow appeared pointing to the left. Ranma carefully nudged the steering wheel to the left and the little circle moved back over the blue line.
"Booster exhaustion in 3… 2… 1…"
The blinding acceleration suddenly ceased and with it the sound of the engine. The little red target and the directing arrows reappeared and Ranma was kept busy keeping the drifting vehicle centered on the road.
"Exit onto Hidden Valley Road in three point two kilometers. Please prepare for emergency braking."
A huge green sign flashed by on the right, but all Ranma could make out was a white circle with the number '78' inside and the words 'Exit 2 miles'. Suddenly he was thrown forward, his shoulder digging painfully into the seatbelt. The Highlander began to lose speed rapidly, but was still going over ninety when a big red arrow appeared pointing up and to the right.
Ranma eased the van onto the exit ramp and held on for dear life. Up until now the car had been in regenerative breaking, using the electric motors as generators to convert speed back into power for the batteries. But now the four big aftermarket competition racing brakes kicked in and once again smoke billowed from the tires.
The ramp dipped downwards ending at a four-way intersection below the level of the Interstate. Another big flashing red arrow appeared on the heads-up display indicating a hard left turn and Ranma yanked the wheel in that direction. The Highlander fishtailed through the intersection, but stopped short of making a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn. It straightened out and raced below the highway. They flew under the eastbound overpass and then skidded to a halt underneath the westbound bridge. All the lights went out at once and they sat in sudden darkness.
Ranma let go of the steering wheel reluctantly. His fingers where nearly numb from gripping it so hard and he worried he might have left lasting impressions in the leather. He was breathing rapidly and his heart was beating like a Taiko drum. He tried to calm down and listen for the squeal of tires that might indicate the Mercedes had followed them down the exit ramp, but the only sound was Ranko's continuing laughter.
He turned around in his seat wishing he could see his son's grinning face in the darkness. "You liked that, didn't you, Ranko-chan? I see we're going to have to sneak you onto roller coasters the same way we did your brothers." In response Ranko shrieked with glee. Shaking his head, Ranma turned to the darkened console and asked rhetorically in Japanese, "I wonder if we lost them?"
"There are no indications of continuing pursuit, Saotome-sama."
"Good," Ranma nodded at this news. Then he did a double take and asked in stunned English, "What you just say?"
"I said there are no indications of continuing pursuit, Mr. Saotome," Adam responded in English.
"No, no! Say it like before!"
"That would require me to answer an English question in Japanese."
"You speak Japanese?" Ranma shouted in amazement.
"Of course, Saotome-sama. I am able to respond in fourteen different languages including Chinese, Korean and, of course, Japanese."
"But you're an American car, right?"
"I may have been assembled in Tennessee, but I'm a Toyota after all."
"Why didn't you say anything in Japanese until now? I can hardly understand what you say in English."
"I'm just a computer, Saotome-sama, not a mind reader. Until tonight you have only made one request in Japanese and I followed your directions at that time."
"The car doors, in LA, you're the one who closed and locked them. I'll be damned!" Ranma sat back in his seat and laughed. "Stupid tomboy insisting I use English and all the time the car speaks Japanese. Hey, that was a pretty neat trick you pulled just now. How fast were we going?"
"Our top speed was one hundred fifty four point six miles per hour, a new record for me."
Ranma whistled. "Not bad! Are you okay? That other car slammed into us pretty hard."
"There was no serious damage from the collisions. However, I registered three impacts on the rear door panel that are consistent with gunfire. My armor was not breached, but there may be paint damage."
Ranma turned involuntarily to look out the back window. "They were shooting at us? Maybe we should call the police?"
"I do not believe that will be necessary, Saotome-sama. The Nevada Traffic Advisory database has just registered a high-speed pursuit of a vehicle matching the description of our pursuer and two patrol cars. They are approaching the town of Mesquite, Nevada where a roadblock is being set up. Now might be a good time to return to Las Vegas, if that is our destination?"
"It is," Ranma said with a smile. "Tell me something, Adam, do you have an on-line user manual?"
"Yes I do. I also have descriptions of all the modifications that were made after I left the factory. Would you like me to review them for you?"
"Can you do that in Japanese?"
"Of course, Saotome-sama."
"Adam," Ranma said as he put the car in gear and turned onto the ramp to West I-15. "From now on, you can call me Ranma."
x x x
(1) Shinkansen – Japanese bullet train. There have been several real proposals to build a high-speed rail line to Las Vegas based on Japanese designs.
(2) Taiko drum – Traditional Japanese ceremonial drum, usually very big and very loud.