Story: Red Dresses at Ayame's
Summary: -AU- The missing heiress to a crime family, a mysterious Chinese woman, a rising rebel faction, and a 'neutral' arms dealer: private eye Neji Hyuuga has never had a case like this.
Notes: Inspired by Denzel Washington's absolutely amazing performance in The Devil in a Blue Dress, which is set in 1948 and made of cool.
Because, honestly, who doesn't see Tenten as a femme fatale? I mean, really?
CHAPTER ONE - In which Neji tries to turn down a case, and fails
"Hey there, Silver Eyes." She smiled very slowly, flashing white teeth between painted red lips. Her dress was red too, as well as her shoes. Keeping the possibility of a red knife close in his thoughts, he moved carefully around her.
"Hello," he said.
"You need to understand," she continued, one hand steady on the knife, the other pressing a short rope of pearls against the dip in her throat. "This isn't personal."
"For you it isn't," he said, and she lunged.
Two days earlier
"Oi, Hyuuga. Get your ass down here."
Head tilted back, cigarette burning air, Neji Hyuuga observed the ceiling. There was a brown water stain growing by the old molding in the corner. He wondered for a moment if he could harangue the landlord into fixing it himself, and then figured that the effort of bothering Sarutobi to do anything would never be worth the results he grudgingly produced.
"Hyuuga." Sasuke Uchiha slouched in the doorway of Neji's office, hands in the pockets of his suit pants. He'd lost his jacket and tie, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows. There was a yellowing bruise skimming his brow and down the side of his face. "Client," he said. "Girl."
Neji grunted, minutely lifting his head.
"She asked for you," continued Uchiha. "By name. Almost took Uzumaki's head off in the process."
"Show her up," said Neji. Uchiha disappeared from the door and Neji straightened in his chair, adjusting his tie and smoothing his hair back into an inconspicuous tail at the back of his neck. Even in 1949, people were suspicious of obvious signs of foreigners. The forties were not a good time to be Japanese in America.
He was stubbing out his cigarette and opening the window to dispel the musty smell when she appeared in the doorway. She was slight and somewhat short; red hair, light enough to almost be called pink, styled to wave and a knot, framed a delicate, pale face. Her eyes were big and green, and would have been too large if they hadn't been set off by her pale dress. She was clutching a felt hat with a swath of netting.
"Mr. Hyuuga?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, standing. "Neji Hyuuga. And you are?"
"Sakura Haruno," she said, striding across the room. "I need your help."
They shook hands. "I imagined," he replied, and gestured for her to sit.
"My friend is in trouble," she said. "But first – out of curiosity – you aren't related to the Hyuugas, are you?"
"No," he said. It was a common question.
"Good," she said. "You see, Mr. Hyuuga, my friend was. And now she's disappeared."
"Not that strange," pointed out Neji, wishing he still had his cigarette. "Inasmuch as when it comes to that family."
"She's the heir," said Sakura, shifting in her seat and lifting her eyes to meet his. Pale green met pale grey. "Hinata always has at least twelve goons following her when we go out. There is no way that someone could have gotten to her – unless they were in the family."
Neji wasn't really the sort of man whose physical movements gave away what he was thinking. Had he been, he would have shifted in his seat or cleared his throat. Sakura's implications seemed perfectly tailored to securing that he would be soon getting an ounce of lead buried in his back.
"Are you saying," he asked with his typical bluntness, "that someone in the Hyuuga family purposely made the heir disappear?"
"Maybe," she hedged. In her lap, she smoothed the felt hat with her fingertips.
"Hn," said Neji.
"Yes," she finally said. His quietness got to them all eventually, an effective tactic with new clients and old informants. "I believe that someone in the Hyuuga family has made Hinata disappear." She leaned forward, her hat tumbling out of her lap and settling on the floor by his desk. "Hinata is the sweetest person in the word, Mr. Hyuuga. And there aren't a lot of sweet people around nowadays. She isn't cutthroat like the rest of them – she wouldn't last two weeks as the head of the family."
"Ah," said Neji. He was already ninety percent certain that the best course of action would be directing Sakura Haruno and her pretty eyes towards someone with half a brain who wouldn't mind – or wouldn't be smart enough to realize they were – being cannon fodder.
"Please," she said, "you need to help me. Hinata is like a child sometimes. So naïve, so trusting. Her family is full of heartless bastards and no one gave a damn about her. We were trying to get her out."
Neji's ears prickled. "We?" he asked.
"To meet your price," said Sakura stiffly, back straightening, "I had to bring a few friends in. All of us are interested in Hinata's wellbeing."
Yes, best case scenario would be foisting her off. Neji had his own code of honor, but Neji also had self-preservation instincts and first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Hyuuga family. The mob was messy, annoyingly persistent, and always in bed with the best weapons dealers in the city.
"I know someone—" he began, but Sakura cut him off immediately.
"Mr. Hyuuga. I can pay you a lot. We can pay you a lot. More than your usual fee – because God knows working with the Hyuugas, you'll need it." She was eyeing him rather desperately by then, and it was pure chance that had his boss appearing in the doorway.
Take it, Sarutobi mouthed extravagantly. Fucking take it, Hyuuga.
"Fine," sighed Neji. "You've got yourself a deal, Miss Haruno."
"Wonderful," she beamed. "Where do I sign?"
His blue pen capped and a pretty contract burning a hole in his drawer, Neji grabbed Lee and set off. Uchiha and Naruto Uzumaki, bickering like three-year-olds, escorted Sakura back to the apartment she shared occasionally with the Hyuuga heiress – that is, when Hinata wasn't rubbing elbows with the mayors, lawyers, and judges that the Hyuugas had in their back pocket.
"What's the news?" asked Lee, snapping his suspenders with his thumbs. The nervous tick was a cover for his hand staying close to the pistol under his dark green jacket.
"Hyuuga heiress is missing," said Neji. "Friends came for help."
Lee whistled through his front teeth. "That's a suicide job if I ever heard one. You angling for your own plot at the bottom of the river, Neji?"
His partner smiled humorlessly.
"Oh," said Lee, instantly understanding. "Boss appeared in your doorway, and, ah 'convinced' you to take it on?"
Neji grunted in agreement. All of the private investigators at Konoha Investigations had, at one point, signed onto cases where their instincts had screamed to run the other way and Sarutobi had screamed to dive headfirst into them. Most of the time, the cases didn't turn out half as dangerous as originally presumed.
Most of the time, anyway.
"Great," sighed Lee. "Well, I guess you and I are going to get to know those fish pretty well, eh?" His pessimism was uncharacteristic; normally it was Neji who gloomily projected bad ends to their cases. They were, however, waltzing with the Hyuugas. Lee's cracks about taking an underwater walk with some cement feet were, unfortunately, not jokes.
Neji chose not to comment – unsurprisingly – and they turned the final corner before the park. Ahead of them stretched the arch of trees lining the gravel walk that bisected City Park. Hiding behind the scattering of pines and maples were old money homes, built like temples in bright colors a hundred years before. Most were mausoleums now, but even their stalwart presence didn't keep people out of the park.
The pair didn't stand out from the strolling lunch types, and they avoided young mothers and nannies that chased each other's children across the grass. Eventually the wandering line of trees dumped them into the chess square, and there, meandering between three of the nine tables, was their contact, wearing his usual palate of brown and grey. His hair was spiky from prolonged lack of a hat.
"Tch," he said upon sighting them. "Fucking troublesome."
"Your move," said the first of the three chess contenders, hunched and swathed in a musty sweater. He tugged at the woolen hat pulled low over his eyes. Shikamaru Nara, the contact, turned from his unwelcome guests and said, "Knight to E4."
"Fucker," grunted the man.
"Check," added Shikamaru absently a moment later.
"Nara," spoke up the third challenger, and Shikamaru didn't bother looking at the board before offering his move. The second player appeared terrified and cowed, and he didn't even try to speak before Neji and Lee cornered Shikamaru at one of the empty tables.
"What now?" sighed Shikamaru, slumping against the table.
"Hyuuga heiress," said Neji, sliding his hands into his pockets. His stance was casual, but the posture was impeccable.
"Not even bothering," replied Shikamaru, gazing between their shoulders at the trees. "What's the point? The chief's in their pocket and the straight ones are too scared to do anything. Idiot just off the street tried to go in and question the family and got slammed. Chief took his badge."
"Do you have anything coming from outside the precinct?" pressed Lee. Flick, flick went his thumbs.
Shikamaru sighed again. His shoulders bowed. "Wherever she went, thirteen Hyuuga lumps went to hell behind her. Her sister's supposed to be terrified and locked up in the compound – not that anyone believes it, the sister's supposed to be a battleaxe. Friends are getting hysterical, though. Came downtown and tried to stir up trouble. Got stonewalled for their trouble, of course. Tch."
"Do you know much about these friends?" asked Neji.
"Your move!" interrupted the first man, having outmaneuvered Shikamaru's knight.
"Bishop to king," said Shikamaru. "Checkmate."
The crumpled old man swore.
"Friends?" reminded Lee.
"Sakura Haruno, bombshell with pink hair. Trained professionally as a nurse, but took an indefinite leave of absence from the Daniel Crowne Geriatric Home to find her missing friend. Ino Yamanaka, blonde, runs the family flower shop over on Seventh. Both are single. Went to school with the Hyuuga heir – you know, the fancy Academy on Sixteenth."
Shikamaru's finish was awkward and he was twitching minutely.
"And?" asked Neji tonelessly.
"I didn't get a name," said the brunet police inspector eventually. "Looked Chinese, dressed entirely in red. Didn't speak, barely blinked. Would've thought she was a goon, 'cept she was tiny, tinier than even Haruno, who I assume hired you."
"Hmm," said Lee. "That it?"
"For now," said Shikamaru. "You'll be back, of course."
"Of course," agreed Lee.
Turning to his two remaining games, Shikamaru said, "Here's hoping I won't be seeing you at the morgue."
Neji and Lee spent the rest of the afternoon doing paperwork they couldn't put off any longer, and once the night was dark enough that the stars shone outside of the false glow of the streetlights, they pulled down their ties and put on their hats and headed to Ayame's.
Ayame herself was manning the bar, and she had the girls out with cigarettes by the tables. There was a husky singer on the stage making love to a microphone, and a few more women in slinky dresses pressed to the richer guests.
"Want a light?" purred a girl whose eyes rivaled Nosferatu's. Her talons were curled around a cigarette, and she puffed smoke to the right of Neji's face, smirking at him.
"He's fine," said Lee. "Thanks."
"All right," she shrugged, the straps of her dress sliding across her shoulders. "I'm Cecily, by the way. Just in case." She winked a line of thick black lashes and slunk off.
Lee let out a quiet whistle, and Neji had to forcibly steer him towards the bar. Ayame, juggling expensive bottles of rum and a bucket of ice, noticed them but didn't say anything. When she had finished serving a prominent judge groping a stick in stilettos who probably wasn't over fifteen, she turned to them and smiled. "My two favorite private dicks," she said, her voice an octave lower than the singer onstage. "Can I help you boys to something wet?"
"Bourbon," said Lee, leaning against the bar. "Neji'll have a gin and tonic."
"Fancy schmancy, boys," she said, and half a second later the drinks were on the bar, tumblers cut heavy on the bottom. With clientele like hers, Ayame could afford to splurge on the glassware. "Enjoy," she said. "And make sure you come back later for refills." She winked. The implicit message – I'll talk to you later – hung in the air.
"Thanks," said Lee, toasting her with his glass, and she turned to stun a group of university boys with her smile and cleavage.
"What should we do?" asked Lee, and Neji took a small sip of his gin and tonic before answering. He'd scanned the room twice by then, and he already knew that Hiashi Hyuuga's normal box above the floor was empty. With the way business had been going lately for the Hyuugas, the balcony was probably dusty from disuse. The other boxes, padded with rice paper walls and smoky gas lanterns to give a cheap imitation of a Japanese geisha house, were all filled and leaking drunk men. Ayame must have been scared of something to purposely keep the Hyuuga box empty.
Neji also knew that an irritable blonde in a backless blue dress was harassing Shikamaru Nara and his partner Chouji Akimichi in the corner. "Ino Yamanaka, I'd guess," he said, gesturing with his glass.
"You never guess," pointed out Lee, casually turning his head. "And I'd have to agree with you. She look pretty cozy with Nara to you?"
"Yes," said Neji absently. "We should join them."
"I will," said Lee. "Since I assume you want to talk to the Chinese woman who just came in." Neji's head swiveled towards the door, and locked his eyes on the small, slim figure. His eyes started at the bottom – red dress, embroidered with gold dragons – and moved up. The last thing he noticed was her hair, pinned up in twin buns with tinkling pins, and brown eyes that were giving him an equally assessing glance.
"Split up," he agreed.
I've always been a huge fan of noir-esque mysteries, and while I realize that the prose isn't quite . . . jilted enough to manage a proper narration, I'm also trying to keep in mind that this is set during the very end of the noir-mystery period. Which is just a fancy way of saying I tried and failed, so I set it later in the 40's.
But I'd love feedback - anything at all is appreciated!