Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away… whups, sorry, wrong fandom! Okay, a few weeks ago in my series' timeline, in a land a few thousand miles away…

VINNIE'S LUCK

By Kimberly T. (e-mail: kimbertow at yahoo dot com)

(Author's note: I have been to Japan, and I want everyone to know before they start reading this that I do NOT share a lot of Vinnie's opinions, okay? But I've done my best to write this story from the perspective of an ignorant 'Ugly American', the infamous tourist who judges everything he sees by American standards instead of making an effort to understand and appreciate the foreign country he is traveling in for its own sake, let alone comply with its native customs. At least Vinnie's better than some people I've had the misfortune to travel with… This story is a prologue/companion story to "YAMA'S PATH".)

oo00oo00oo oo00oo00oo oo00oo00oo oo00oo00oo

"You and me, we come from different worlds

You like to laugh at me when I look at other girls," Vinnie sang absently and more-or-less in tune with the "Hootie and the Blowfish" tape playing on the car stereo, as he peered through the driving rain pounding down onto his tiny Toyota, and all over the Japanese countryside he was driving through. It was raining so hard that his visibility was beyond 'poor' and right into 'what-the-Hell-are-you-doing-driving-in-this-weather', and Vinnie was beginning to have the sinking feeling that he'd missed his turnoff for the coliseum at Ishinomaki.

He should definitely have asked some native guy to go with him for this trip. What the Hell had he been thinking, going off on his own in a rented car when he'd only been in Japan for a total of twenty-eight days! Just because he'd survived a few weeks in downtown Tokyo, and he'd learned to find his way around the apartment building for a few blocks in all directions, did not make him a friggin' tour guide. But he'd had only one ticket for the big Sumo match, so how could he invite some other guy along, then leave him outside in the cold?

Maybe he should have just sold the ticket to somebody else, the same way that ticket scalper had sold it to him. Yeah, he should have known that the deal was too good to be true; the ticket to a Grand Sumo Tournament had come pretty cheap, considering that most of these big Sumo tournaments sold tickets for as much as he made in a week, and this one was guaranteed to have both Akebono and Musashimaru in the lineup. But then he'd found out that this tournament wasn't being held in the giant arenas of downtown Tokyo, or even Osaka, but just outside Ishinomaki, over 400 km (250 miles, to his American way of thinking) away. But he'd gritted his teeth and rented the car, 'throwing good money after bad' as his old man would say.

Well, maybe Mama Gregarino hadn't raised any geniuses, but she hadn't raised no quitters neither. Besides, he was a little leery of hanging around Tokyo any longer… and he really wanted to see these particular Sumo dudes stomp butt. He'd almost bust a gut trying to keep from laughing when he'd found out that two of the biggest rising stars in Japan's biggest homegrown sport weren't even from Japan! "Akebono" was really a guy called Chad Rowan, from Hawaii, and "Musashimaru" was some other guy from Hawaii. US of A! Kings of the world, dudes, he'd thought very smugly to himself after finding out.

He supposed he could have taken the train again instead of renting a car; he'd tried the train system in Japan a couple of times already, and had to admit that, unlike New York's subway and 'El' systems, these trains usually ran on time. But they were usually packed even tighter than a New York subway at rush hour, like friggin' sardines in a can, and as soon as the people packed up against him had figured out he was an American they all wanted to try their broken English out on him. (Cripes, and he used to think Mr. Fujikawa, who ran the corner grocery store back home, was hard to understand sometimes!) He'd rather spend all day driving than even half a day of listening to busted English and stupid questions about New York again, and he'd already gotten the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road from getting around Tokyo on a bicycle. Besides, he liked driving, getting behind the wheel and being in control of a car; it wasn't as great as driving his old 'cycle had been, but he needed more room than a motorcycle would have for this trip, and it was still good to have that feeling of 'owning the road' again. So he'd rented the car and bought a bilingual map of Japan, then hit the road for one last adventure before heading back to the U.S. of A.

He still couldn't figure out exactly what had gone wrong during his interview with his new boss, Mr. Taro, three weeks after he'd arrived in Japan and settled in. (Or maybe it was supposed to be Mr. Taganaka. That was another example of what was wrong with this screwy country; they put their names backwards!) When he'd first walked into his office, Mr. Taro had been all smiles, bowing and shaking his hand; they'd even had tea together, which he'd seen enough Oriental action movies to know was actually a big honor.

Mr. Taro had explained that he'd had other business in Hawaii and California to attend to, which is why he hadn't been there to welcome Vinnie personally to Japan, and he hoped Vinnie had enjoyed his country so far. (But Vinnie knew enough to keep his mouth shut about the screwy bathrooms and everybody driving on the wrong side of the road and always having to take your shoes off and no football teams worth spit, and had just said that he'd enjoyed his stay so far.)

Then Mr. Taro had asked about all his past encounters with the gargoyles… He'd acted all sympathetic when Vinnie had told him about the motorcycle that had been wrecked by a gargoyle, and how the authorities had thought he was drunk when he'd been telling them the honest truth and had taken away his driver's license for a year. He'd been even more sympathetic when Vinnie had described how the gargoyles had trashed the first Cyberbiotics Air Fortress, and Vinnie had been laid off afterwards. He'd even been sympathetic when Vinnie had related about how a gargoyle kidnapping a scientist, when Vinnie had turned his back for only a split-second, had cost Vinnie a second job. He'd appeared downright pleased when Vinnie had explained how he'd had enough of them messing up his life, and had gone out to get revenge. But his face had gone expressionless when Vinnie had gone into detail about just how he'd gotten his revenge…

Maybe it was just that nobody really understood the whole deal behind "Mr. Carter." Even Mr. Acme, the guy who'd made his special gun to order, hadn't really understood. But it was all about 'counting coops', like the wild Indians used to do back in the Old West (though Vinnie had never quite understood the reference, since chicken coops weren't involved.) If a guy makes you feel like a jerk or an idiot, you get even with him, but you don't actually hurt the other guy; you just make him feel like a jerky idiot right back! It would have been better justice if Vinnie had made the big purple gargoyle lose his job, too, but since they didn't work for a living (as near as he could tell, anyway) that was kind of hard. So he'd just smacked him with a cream pie to humiliate him in front of the other gargoyles, just like Vinnie had felt humiliated when the cops had taken his license and when the chief of security at Xanatos Enterprises had bawled him out before firing him. Once he'd done that and the big purple gargoyle had an idea of what it was like to be humiliated, that was that; no reason to keep going. Of course, if the gargoyle hadn't learned his lesson and had gone running for something else to dump on Vinnie, he would have reloaded "Mr. Carter" in a hurry…

He'd tried to explain that to Mr. Taro, but his boss had brushed his explanation aside and said that the very fact that he'd attacked a gargoyle was an indication that he didn't fear them anymore, which Vinnie mostly agreed with. But then he explained that gargoyles had once made him feel like a fool as well, and cost him a ton of money to boot, and he wanted to know if Vinnie would be willing to capture some ofthose gargoyles for him… Well, Vinnie had to turn him down. After all, even if he wasn't basically a peaceable dude, he'd just saved the life of a gargoyle just before coming to Japan, for crying out loud! It wouldn't be right to go about throwing in jail or into a cage some gargoyle he hadn't even met before. And even though he tried to explain that to Mr. Taro as politely as possible, he still ended up losing a third job on account of gargoyles. Man, those creatures were really cramping his style…

Well, he still had some money left from the expense account Mr. Taro had set up for him to use when he'd come to Japan; after he'd walked out of Mr. Taro's office, he'd gone straight to the nearest bank and withdrawn the rest of it before Mr. Taro could put a freeze on the account. (Hey, Mama Gregarino hadn't raised any total idiots.) He had more than enough to buy a plane ticket back to the U.S.; enough to do a little sightseeing before he went home, and get some souvenirs for his folks and cousins (some of those nice silk kimonos for the ladies, and maybe a cool samurai sword or two). And attend a big Sumo match, just so he could say he'd done it and compare it to real wrestling, like the WWF.

In a way, it was a good thing that this tournament was so far away from Tokyo, because it gave him a good excuse to leave the area. After Mr. Taro had started talking about gargoyles, Vinnie just had a sinking feeling that if he hung around Tokyo much longer, he'd find himself running into one of them ugly suckers again. He just had lousy luck that way… So he'd cleaned out his tiny apartment when he'd rented the car and thrown all his stuff in the trunk, figuring that after the Sumo tournament was over he'd just find a pad in Ishinomaki to rent until he left the country; places were probably cheaper to rent outside Tokyo anyway. Of course, first he had to find Ishinomaki…

The driving rain let up for a little bit, long enough for him to glimpse a huge dome dominating the landscape several miles off to his left. Must be the coliseum, he thought to himself. Whaddaya know, he was on the right track after all! He warbled along with the stereo, "You can call me a fool; I only wanna be with you!" as he looked for the turnoff that was sure to be coming up soon. Soon he'd find a good parking spot, curl up in the back seat with the sleeping bag and picnic food he'd bought, and tomorrow morning he'd be right there in line to get in and see two Americans stomp butt in a Sumo tournament! Yeah, life was pretty good…

Half an hour later, his confidence was starting to waver again. He still hadn't seen a turnoff for the coliseum, and it was getting so dark now, the sun going down behind the stormclouds… Then he saw a turnoff coming up on the left. The sign by the turnoff was partially obscured by a flapping black garbage bag that the wind had blown and plastered up against it, but he made out the first couple of English letters below the Japanese characters on the sign: Ishi-something. "Ishinomaki!" he cheerfully assumed, and took the turnoff. He'd just stop at a gas station in the city, and get directions to the coliseum from there.

Ten minutes later, he rolled into the center of a town that he was pretty sure was not Ishinomaki. Ishinomaki was supposed to be a major city in the Miyagi Prefecture, and this town—not even big enough to be a town, a village—didn't look to be major-anything, except maybe a major Dullsville. And he was majorly lost now, no doubt about it. He slumped in his seat for and sighed, "The Gregarino luck strikes again…" Then he pulled into the village's only gas station, a one-pump wonder, and got out to find out just where he was and ask for directions to where he needed to be.

As he got out of the car and went up to the gas station's office, he thought to himself that this place must not get many American tourists coming through; the old dude who ran the gas station looked so surprised to see him there he almost looked scared. Vinnie dug into his pocket and got out his stack of 3x5" cards, bound together at the top like a recipe book, and flipped through them to find the phrase he wanted.

He had to admit, Mr. Fujikawa's parting gift to him when he'd found out that Vinnie was going to Japan had been downright useful. Mr. Fujikawa had painstakingly recorded about a thousand useful phrases in Japanese for Vinnie, writing the English translation right above each one, and the exact phonetic way to say each phrase right below that. With this stack of cards, Vinnie was able to order food in restaurants, shop for clothes and stuff and get directions to places he wanted to go. On the few occasions when, judging by the totally mystified expression on somebody's face, he just wasn't getting the words right for what he wanted to say, he just showed the card to the dude and let them read what he wanted.

He found the phrase for 'good evening', and read aloud to the old man, "Cone-ban wah." Then he remembered to hastily bow; the Japanese were real big on bowing all the time. Then he flipped to the next page he wanted, and read aloud the phrases for "I am lost" and "where am I?"

"Ishimura," the station attendant said with a returning bow. As he straightened up, he accidentally hit the volume button on his radio so it suddenly increased in volume, blaring out some latest "Japanese Top 40" song.

Vinnie got out his map of Japan and looked it over, not seeing the name "Ishimura" jump out at him anywhere. He pointed to himself, then his car, saying slowly and loudly, "Ishinomaki." Then he handed the map over to the attendant, with a raised eyebrow as he said, "Ishimura?"

The attendant pointed out where the village would have been on the map, if it had been big enough to be worth noting, and Vinnie almost groaned out loud. He was over a hundred miles from where he was supposed to be! He must have taken a wrong turn back there at Abukoke.

The attendant started pointing to roads on the map, evidently showing the best way to get to Ishinomaki from Ishimura. Just then, over the noise of the radio Vinnie heard a distant roaring, sounding a little like the lions in the Bronx Zoo sounded when their keeper (one of Vinnie's cousins) was late getting their food to them. He glanced questioningly at the station attendant, wondering if this place was big enough to have a small zoo, but the dude had an absolutely inscrutable expression on his face and acted like he'd heard nothing. Vinnie shrugged and went back to studying the map.

Five minutes later, Vinnie was getting more than a little frustrated. The bilingual road map only showed the roads for Tokyo and the major towns and highways for the rest of Japan; as near as he could tell, the gas station attendant was trying to give him directions for roads that simply weren't on the map. Just as he was about to say 'screw it' and just get in the car and backtrack a hundred miles or so, another dude came in through the door and bowed to them both. "Pardon my intrusion. I am Fukuda Hiroshi," he introduced himself.

"Great, you speak English! Hi, I'm Vinnie Gregarino, and am I glad to meet you!" Vinnie said with real gratitude. This Hiroshi dude had 'cop' written all over him, but right now Vinnie didn't mind a bit; he hadn't broken any laws that he knew about, and right now anybody who could speak English was a godsend.

Mr. Hiroshi bowed again as he said, "I humbly offer service, as translator."

"Hey, I really appreciate that. Listen, I'm from Tokyo, and I'm trying to find my way to Ishinomaki for the big Sumo tournament…"

With Hiroshi's help, they eventually had written directions in English for Vinnie to follow, as well as pictures of the Japanese characters he'd see on the road signs between Ishimura and Ishinomaki. So long as Vinnie followed his own written directions (and he'd written them down really carefully this time, so he could read them again later) and matched up the characters with the signs, he'd be in Ishinomaki before midnight. "Hey, I really appreciate this," Vinnie said as he folded up the directions and put them in his pocket. "But, uh, while I'm in town here, I'm kind of hungry already. Is there, like, a McDonald's around here?"

It took a little bit longer for him to explain just what a 'McDonalds' was supposed to be, and for them to make clear that not only did such an establishment not exist in Ishimura, but the town only had one real restaurant in it. But Vinnie had eaten enough Japanese food by then that he had an idea of what stuff was actually pretty good and what stuff was to be avoided at all costs, so he asked for directions to the restaurant too.

A little while later, he was walking into a restaurant with a rumbling stomach, and more than a little annoyance that once again, he had to take his shoes off as soon as he came through the door. What was it with the Japanese and shoes, anyway? It wasn't like he'd spent hours wading through mud and crud or anything, he grumbled to himself as he kicked them off and went into the main dining area.

Almost an hour later, the pouring rain had finally stopped, and Vinnie's mood had improved considerably. For a country diner, they had pretty good food here, including all the stuff he'd already tried with coworkers in Tokyo and found out he liked; miso soup, chawan-mushi (sort of a cross between an omelet and a soufflé), maguro shioyaki (broiled tuna) and yakisoba (Japanese fried pasta). He gave a contented burp as he leaned back (at which the waitress' face went expressionless again. Geez, didn't anyone around here understand that was supposed to be a compliment to the meal?) Then he paid his bill; that was the one good thing about Japan, that you weren't expected to tip in restaurants. With a full belly and a wallet only a little lighter than it had been when he'd blown into town, he walked whistling back out to his car.

He put the car in gear and started driving, while fishing the directions he'd been given out of his pocket and looking them over. Let's see now; he'd take a right at the second intersection; then he'd--

"HYOTARUUU!"

Vinnie almost jumped out of his socks when he heard that loud and agonized bellow, seemingly coming from right overhead, and looked up to realize three things:

He'd fallen back into his American habits, and was driving on the wrong side of the road for Japan.

There was a really old guy just standing there on the road with his back to him.

The really old guy and his front bumper were about to get up close and personal.

Vinnie spent a split-second just being horrified before slamming on his brakes, and realized even as he did so that the split-second's delay was going to cost that old guy his life, because there was no way Vinnie could stop in time before he--

WHRUNCH! as something came down hard on his back end, hard enough that the front end of the car jerked up off the road for a moment, just as a gray-green form swooped down out of nowhere and grabbed the old guy to carry him away. Vinnie's head jerked hard enough to almost give him whiplash, but he instinctively grabbed the wheel and fought the car that was now slewing crazily to the right. He had a moment's impression of another form flying past him from behind, this one bright blue and howling like a banshee as it slammed into a building wall, as the car finished spinning around and the engine stalled and died, just a hair's breadth before he would have slammed into the wall of another building.

Vinnie spent a few seconds just sitting in the car and shaking, then got out of the car and leaned against it to shake some more. He could hear his heart thundering hard enough to beat clear out of his chest, and concentrated on that for a moment instead of the bright orange creature that was currently scrambling after the fallen blue creature, helping it get away from the scene. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he'd almost killed somebody, and then he'd almost been killed himself… But the old guy had been saved, by…

Yep; there it was. Running at him on all fours from one direction, while Mr. Hiroshi came running at him from another direction, and both of them plainly really unhappy with him…

And right that moment, Vinnie wasn't too happy either. "Great. More gargoyles. What do I have to do to get away from you guys!"

TO BE CONTINUED IN… YAMA'S PATH

P.S. I usually keep the in-jokes in my stories to Disney cartoons and movies, but this time I'm awarding brownie points to the first person who caught the subtle Bugs Bunny in-joke! –KYT