Take Me With You
X X X
"Sorry kid, we've got all the Christmas help we're going to need."
The aging man offered his best sympathetic smile to the would-be employee in front of him. It was a shame, really - he had a nice honest face, even if it was hidden by a fringe in bad need of a trim, and he had the kind of calloused hands which said that he understood work. His clothes were respectable though frayed around the edges, whilst skinny arms said he needed a week of hearty meals. Although Asian rather than French, it was obvious the kid was like many others in Paris: in desperate need of work during the oncoming winter.
But, it was true - and Claire would want to divorce him if he said 'yes' to another stray. It was only a modest bookstore; there were only so many extra pairs of hands that could be needed, even during the holiday season.
"I see. Thankyou, sir," came the fluent French reply. The young man turned to go, and the shopkeeper sighed. He couldn't offer a job, but... well, it was almost Christmas.
"There's a bin of books near the door," he said with a wave of the hand, "Take one for your trouble."
There was a pause and big brown eyes blinked at him slowly. The shopkeeper blinked back, struck by a strange feeling that he was being scanned. It passed after a moment and the young man offered a hesitant smile, a nod of thanks, and followed his feet to the bin near the door.
The shopkeeper sighed again, and went to answer the phone.
X X X
"Sir, 009's proximity beacon has changed status."
Seventh Commander of the European Division, Serge Rousseau pivoted in his chair to look at the soldier relaying this information. He made no effort to surpress the immediate grin.
This was the fruitition of a tedious eighteen month task that Black Ghost had 'allowed' him a week after the infamous "00-Incident". Everyone in the Organisation knew how, two summers earlier, nine cyborgs had broken out of the North-West Pacific Cyborg Experimentation Facility, denying their creators - and by extension, Black Ghost - the ability to control a team of super-humans.
Whilst Cyborgs 001 through to 008 had their tracking devices deactivated within twenty-four hours of escaping with that treacherous doctor, 009's had remained active - and, tasked with the duty of following 009's signal, Commander Rousseau had quickly discovered something remarkable.
009 hadn't joined up with the rest of the 00-team.
Though convoluted and at times completely wrong, reports from the Facility said that he departed the island separately to his comrades via one of Black Ghost's prototype single-unit aircraft. No-one had dreamt that such an action had been due to 009's decision to stay rogue.
Within forty-eight hours of this revelation, sixteen commanders had submitted strategies for either recapturing or destroying 009.
Serge would readily tell anyone that it was his plan that became reality. For despite the wide range of abilities bestowed upon the cyborgs, they all had one thing in common: the tri-beacon system. The device, designed activate when a cyborg was near a Black Ghost enemy, also projected the need for the team to stay together - or at least near to each other. The third function, for signalling when a comrade was under attack, was one that Serge cared little for. He was far more interested in the first two.
Indeed, it had helped them immensely over the course of the mission. By listing the rest of the 00-team as an enemy in passive status, 009 would be drawn to the beacons of the rest of his team, but once near them, their enemy status would trigger the first beacon, alerting anyone who followed it remotely. All that Rousseau's team had to do was track 009 until these things happened.
His comrades, instructed to forget about 009 and worry only about the 00-team had risen and fallen in a cycle of defeat, none of them successful at holding the elite team for any longer than a few hours. After almost two years of this, Black Ghost had begun to remind Commander Rousseau of the importance a completed mission had.
It was an anvil-sized hint that meant one thing only: hurry up.
With illusions of wealth and power that this success would bring him, Commander Rousseau stood from his chair. He crossed the metal dias with the cold clink of his boots on steel, and stopped once he could peer over the soldier's shoulder. Fanned out on either side, comrades did not stray from their tasks - but he knew they would be listening intently. Good.
"Where is he?" the Commander asked, english words heavily accented by his native French tongue.
"Paris, sir. The alert suggests just one other Cyborg, there is no information on the location of the rest of the team."
"It's good enough. Send the co-ordinates to the Jack. We will wait in the waters off Calais for extraction."
"Aye, sir," a nod accompanied the acquiesence and the soldier bent to his work. Satisfied, Commander Rousseau returned to his seat and the commanding underwater view it gave him. So long as the Jack did its job properly, by this time in two days he could be reaping all of Black Ghost's rewards.
X X X
Patiently turning the books over with his hands, Joe Shimamura tried not to appear too despondent. A book was not a job, but he appreciated the older man's generosity.
This was the fourth place he had asked for a job at, today, and the eighteenth this week. There was just no work for him - the closest he'd gotten was a baker who needed someone to watch the counter, but after a freak accident with a child and a display shelf, he'd almost used his Acceleration to get out of there.
Finding work without a visa was almost impossible, and over the last year and a half Joe had learnt that if he used his translation chip to at least sound like a local, less people asked - especially if they were a small business looking for seasonal help.
Unless it was Paris, apparently.
Although Joe had a small amount of savings from his work in London which afforded him two months rent and a meal a day, his luck had run dry since coming to the French Capital. All he could do was just keep asking for a job and hope that it changed - such was the story of his life, these days.
It crossed his mind regularly that he should have accepted 001's offer to go with the rest of the Cyborgs. The day (and the following six) had been so intense that he truthfully didn't remember much - but he remembered 001's invitation word for word. Ever since realising his mistake Joe had looked for them every where he went, going to the places his instincts told him to go - he'd gone across Asia, Africa, Europe.
His heart wanted to see Japan, but it was too dangerous to go back there yet, and certainly not on his own.
As if mimicking his thoughts Joe's fingers brushed the spine of a traveler's guide to the small but densely populated nation, paused, then turned the book over to see what might be beneath it.
His eye caught something that would be of far more use - a brief history of Europe in the twentieth century. The glossy cover promised a concise guide to every major event that had occurred over the past one hundred years, suitable for anyone who didn't feel like they knew enough already. Joe allowed himself a tiny smile, for it was the sort of thing that would keep him out of trouble until he left Europe - hopefully. He reached for it to get a closer look -
-- and his knuckles brushed that of another.
The hungry little orphan in him made a grab for the book before the other person could get it, and only after he had the guide safely in his hand did Joe look to the competitor.
Two things were immediately apparent: she was vaguely familiar - and very pretty, with shoulder-length blonde hair and an elegant posture that spoke of subtle sophistication. His stomach panged with regret at snatching the book away from her at the same time that it twisted in apprehension - why did he feel like he'd seen her before? That couldn't possibly be a good thing.
"Oh - excuse me," she murmured, the words perfect and natural in French tones. "--Are you buying that book?"
Aware of the fact that his cheeks were warm, Joe glanced down to the cover. He didn't stop to think, holding it out submissively. "You can have it," he replied, as fluently as when he'd spoken with the shopkeeper. "I can find something else."
His reward was a mildly baffled green-eyed stare - assuming that it was because he spoke the language despite his appearance, Joe shrugged and held the book out further, saying nothing more.
With hesitancy she took the book from him, turning it over in her hands to presumably make sure it was the one she wanted. With a dazzling smile, she gave him a soft thankyou and side-stepped him towards the counter.
Joe watched her go, unnerved by the experience. He grabbed a book without looking to see what it was, signalled to the shopkeeper that he'd taken something, and headed for the door.
Cool winter air rushed to greet him as he left the store, bringing an extra chill with it that hinted at snow later. Joe tucked his coat closer to his body and moved to the side of the footpath, out of the way of pedestrian lunchtime traffic. He turned the newly acquired book over for a closer look. As glossy on the front as the last book, it was a guide to the history of Paris - something he couldn't be seen to use too much if he wanted to masquerade as a local.
Still, it would be of some use, so he pocketed it for reading later - first, he still needed to find a job.
Realising that he was facing the way he'd come, Joe turned to head the other way down the street - and stopped, heart leaping to his throat. He hadn't noticed the bookstore's door opening a second time...
"Hello again," the young woman greeted, and this time Joe took the time to look at her properly. The buckskin coat hid the gentle curves of a figure he was sure would be athletic, black boots visible at the bottom. A neat handbag was tucked under one arm, whilst a gloved hand carried the paper bag her new book sat in. The pink scarf around her neck was a compliment to the green eyes he'd noticed earlier, which were visible under the fringe that her red headband couldn't keep back. There was a strange feeling that she didn't belong to this era, and as he tried to puzzle this out, Joe realised that he hadn't yet answered.
"Oh -- hello," he greeted sheepishly. "I -- uhm..."
"Thankyou for letting me have that book," she told him, the corner of her mouth curved in a gentle smile. Joe wondered for a moment if she knew how to not look happy. "I've been looking for something like that for a long time."
"But - aren't you from here?" Aware that his question had come out as a blurt, Joe lifted an arm and scratched the back of his neck with embarrassment. "Sorry, it's just - I thought someone like you wouldn't need a book like that."
"Well..." she looked a little awkward as she shrugged. "I want to learn more - I feel like I've missed a lot."
"Oh." Well, that did make sense. "So the book will help with that?"
"Oh yes, definitely." She brightened and he felt glad for giving it to her. "What did you buy?"
"Me? Uh..." he paused, unsure if he should lie or tell the truth. Finally, hoping to see her smile again, he pulled the small book out and held it out for her to see. "It's just about Paris," he explained as she took it, "I don't know how long I'll be here, so I wanted to know a bit more about the city."
The answer was a nod, and she passed it back with the smile he'd hoped would return. "Have you read much else?"
"A little bit," Joe answered, pocketing the book once more. "I, uh... wanted to explore a bit, actually."
"There sure is a lot to see in Paris," she agreed.
"Yeah - well, I read a bit about flaneur, and, uh - I know we just met, and all..." he had begun to look anywhere but her face, and chose to watch the passing cars as he tried to get the hasty invitation out. He couldn't articulate why he was trying to invite her to walk around Paris with him - it was like a driving force to keep her in sight, nearby, in touch.
Joe stopped talking entirely, and watched her with trepidation.
She grinned a little. "I don't know your name, but... yes, a walk would be nice."
"Uhm - it's Joe," he told her, dimly aware of the fact that she had said yes - she'd said yes!
"I'm Francoise," she told him, holding a hand out.
Joe shook it slowly. "Nice to meet you," he told her, letting go of her hand after a polite shake.
Francoise nodded with her ever-present smile, and gestured down the street. "There are some nice arcades this way," she told him. Joe automatically began to walk, still more than a little amazed at his success. Francoise fell into step alongside him, and like a picturesque couple they set off down the street.
X X X
"So have you lived here your whole life?"
By late afternoon, Francoise and Joe had wound up in a Parisian suburb, the rows of houses almost enchanting with their slightly crooked lines and a dusting of snow from a short fall promised earlier in the day. They walked closely but at a companionable distance, Joe with his hands in his coat pockets, Francoise swinging her bag lightly with the steps. They were both tired and cold from being out since the lunchtime, but they were happy - four hours had been just right for discovering that despite having seldom in common, each was immensely fascinating to the other. Joe had told her sparing details of his history - about being an orphan, of his recent travels, his quest for a job. They had just begun on Francoise's history, after a short detour through her surprising knowledge about the early twentieth century.
To Joe's question, Francoise shook her head. "When I was a little girl I lived in the country... but when I was a bit older, we moved to the city." She came to a gentle stop, Joe pausing a few steps after her. "See that house, across the street? It has a green door, and roses in the garden in summer."
"I see it," Joe nodded, studying the building. His Cyborg enhancements were automatically taking quick measurements of the home, calculating the route of quickest access, estimating a probable internal blueprint, and cross-referencing the address against his inbuilt database of Black Ghost employees, enemies and allies.
"That's where my brother, Jean-Paul lives," Francoise continued, and looking to Joe, offered a small smile. "Will you be alright finding your way back to the main street?"
Realising abruptly that they were about to part ways, Joe glanced distractedly down the road. "Yeah, sure," he told her, eager to dismiss it. He'd been lost so many times that it didn't phase him. "--you're going?"
"I have to get back," Francoise told him, "But thankyou for the company, Joe. It's been a long time since I've walked through the city."
"- What about tomorrow?" he asked, unhappy with the idea of losing all contact. "I mean, if you're not doing anything, we could do this again..."
Francoise bit her lip, obviously unsure of how to answer... and, Joe hoped, reluctant to say goodbye as well. "I don't know," she admitted finally, "I guess another day would be alright... can I meet you here, at this bus stop?"
--Bus stop? It occurred to him that he needed to pay greater attention to his surroundings, for they were indeed standing at a bus stop. That made it easy to find, he supposed, so Joe nodded an agreement. "Yeah, okay - when?"
"The afternoon," Francoise told him, becoming less hesitant with every word. "Five o'clock?"
"Five o'clock," Joe confirmed, storing it in his memory, "Okay."
"Alright." Francoise smiled once more, and turned to cross the road. Joe watched her slip through the house gate and turn to wave at him. He waved back, but his line of sight was cut off by the arrival of a bus. By the time it took on passengers and rumbled away again, Francoise was well out of sight.
Joe allowed himself a satisfied sigh, and set about finding his way back to the main street.
X X X
The following afternoon was preceded by a morning of more failed job applications. He only tried three, picking them from different streets near his flat so that it didn't look like he was just going from one store to the nearest neighbour. However desperate he was, he didn't want to appear that desperate.
Despite reaching a total of twenty-one refusals, Joe couldn't be depressed. His thoughts were dominated by the enchanting Francoise and as five o'clock drew nearer, he faced the occasional panicked moment that things might not go so well as the previous day.
At a few minutes after five he approached the bus stop, and leant against the wall of a near by building to wait. It was slightly warmer than the day before and some of the snow had begun to melt, which Joe found himself watching idly.
The minutes ticked by without Francoise appearing. He waited patiently at first, but worry set in. He hadn't been that late - three minutes at the most. He knew that she was patient, three minutes wouldn't have made a difference... but what if his watch was wrong? It was actually five o'clock, right? It was definitely this bus stop, it was across from a green door and frozen rose bushes... so where was Francoise?
Maybe she was running a bit late. Maybe her watch was wrong, or she was looking for him at another bus stop. With no way to contact her, Joe told himself he would have to be content with waiting.
When twenty minutes had passed without Francoise appearing, he began to worry a great deal more. She had been reluctant to meet him... what if she'd lied, and that wasn't her brother's house at all? What if her brother had said she couldn't meet him again today? Joe didn't have any brothers or sisters, but he knew from the orphanage that they could be very protective of each other.
Maybe if he introduced himself? .. No, he didn't want to be rude or impatient. He'd wait until it was half-past, then he'd go over and ask if Francoise was there.
The deadline of five-thirty came and went and the woman didn't show.
Thoroughly concerned by now, Joe left the bus stop with uncomfortable uncertainty. Living on his own he'd come to be very shy, and with no guarantee that this was even her brother's house, he was more than a little hesitant to demand the right to knowing her whereabouts.
Approaching the stone fence, Joe went to leap over the fence from habit and checked himself just shy of doing so - that was not a good way to start. Pushing open the gate with one hand instead, he followed the skinny path to the green door, and knocked carefully.
There was no response for a full minute. Joe waited as patiently as he could, glancing back to the bus stop routinely to make sure that Franscoise hadn't arrived after he had left. His sensors told him that there was an organic life form inside the building so he knocked again, and this time was rewarded with a muffled yell of something in French - a 'hold on', his translation chip told him.
In time, with a series of clicks that denoted a number of locks coming undone, the door was prised open. An elderly man stood there, nearly bent double with osteoporosis and arthritis, leaning heavily on a walking stick as he pushed the door open. A mop of white hair was combed neatly in a fashion that mimicked the 1920's, but his wisened eyes were as bright as a twenty-year-old's.
Taking in Joe's skinny, anxious appearance, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Yes?" he asked.
Joe was caught off guard - was this Francoise's grandfather, perhaps? He cleared his throat and said politely, "Excuse me sir, I'm sorry to disturb you... does Francoise live here?"
In a heartbeat the suspicion was gone, replaced by a look of deep ache. "...No, she does not," the elderly man answered, and Joe picked up on the slight quiver in the words.
"Do you know where I can find her?"
The weight of the man's sigh was alarming; it seemed to pull his shoulders into a heavy slump, eye contact broken. "Son, I don't know where you got your information from, but Francoise's been dead for fifty years."
X X X
To be continued.