chapter 16 - Revelation

Sanji sat still, frozen in shock and stared at the headline for a full minute. The large black and bolded letters reading 'Arson' sent a chill down his spine. He hurriedly clicked the article, feeling like the page took an eternity to load before he skimmed over it in horror looking for the address. It wasn't the Baratie or the bar where Chopper was staying, Sanji reclined in the couch, rubbing at his temples in relief. The address was on the other side of the neighborhood, close to where Rika and her mother's store was.

Sanji sprang back upright, scrolling up the page to read over the whole thing. It had been a vacant apartment, the cause of fire had been arson, and the owner of the apartment was not found. Sanji had a terribly bad feeling about this whole deal, it could well be the work of Baroque Works. After reading the article all the way through, Sanji got up and got dressed, making sure to lock his door before leaving.

The scene of the crime was swarming with cops. Sanji joined the crowd of people circling the yellow tape, stretching his neck out to take a look at the charred and black window of the destroyed apartment. The people in the crowd were muttering around him, exchanging details and theories that all sounded vague to Sanji.

"I heard a criminal used to live in that apartment." Some gossipy looking older woman muttered to a group of women her age. They all held shopping bags and covered their mouths with their hands as if they were trying not to stop themselves from gossiping. "The landlord said no one had been in this apartment for at least two weeks, the newspapers were all stacked up in front of the door!"

Sanji lit himself a cigarette, ignoring the nasty looks it earned him in the crowd. He was too busy listening to the ladies gossiping next to him to care. If they were on to something, this might have been the apartment of the missing Mr.4. But why would baroque works burn the home of one of their members? Did this mean Mr.4 had been killed already and Baroque works was trying to cover their tracks?

Sanji grit his teeth and elbowed his way a little further into the crowd, watching the police officers entering and leaving the building with notepads and cameras. He didn't see Smoker's chest anywhere and by extension; not the rest of him either. What he did see left his throat dry though, the lovely raven haired woman he'd been seeing around during his investigations.

Sanji withdrew into the crowd, moving to the side to get a clearer view of the woman's beautiful face. She was looking at the burned apartment in a disinterested way, standing at the back of the crows with her arms subtly crossed at her waist. All at once, last night rushed back to Sanji, he could remember looking out the window and seeing her standing there; watching his home.

She didn't seem to have noticed Sanji in the crowd, so the blond swallowed his urge to wave and smile to the woman, slinking back into the crowd and moving closer, making sure to keep as inconspicuous as possible. The woman pulled up a phone, keeping her mouth elegantly hidden with gently spread fingers across her lips as she spoke, watching police officers enter and leave the building.

All the other times Sanji had attempted to follow this woman, she had disappeared. The blond was certain the moment he took his eyes off her, she would somehow evaporate like a beautiful mirage in the ocean of people around them. Sanji made sure to keep a sensible distance, not letting her know she was being watched as he waited for her to finish the phone call and turn to leave. She cast a glance in his general direction, but Sanji darted behind a group of large men hiding from sight. When he glanced back from his hiding place, he was expecting her to be gone, but instead she was walking casually down the street in clear view.

Surely the lovely lady was going about her business, he couldn't possibly insult her beauty with his suspicions! How could anyone that stunning be up to anything but the very best? Sanji bit his lower lip, following her as inconspicuously as he could. He wasn't following her because he suspected her, he simply wanted to ask her out. Yes. That was it, such an innocent reason. Perfect.

Unlike all the times before, the woman kept to relatively empty streets, pausing occasionally at store windows and admiring the contents before she kept walking. With every minute Sanji managed to follow her, he grew increasingly anxious. This was too easy, if he wasn't following such a lovely angel, he'd suspect she was leading him into a trap. He had half a mind to call out to her and see if she was simply shy and disappeared when she was addressed by strangers on the street.

He followed her down the large crowded streets of Grand Line, she kept her lovely face shaded by a hat, moving through the crowd effortlessly in her elegance, while Sanji was forced to elbow his way through while apologizing to any lovely ladies and scowling at the men in his way. Just when he was about to give up and simply call out to the lovely flower he'd been following for the last hour, she disappeared.

He was far from home and much further down the Grand Line than he'd wanted to be, an hour worth of walking had him surrounded by large stores, exotic merchandise, people of all shapes and sizes. Bars open on a Sunday afternoon, loud music seeping through doors of various clubs and stalls selling fast food that seemed to be more like deep fried grease on a stick.

The smell of the people and food lay thick over the street in the burning hot sun. The streets were adding to the warmth, drinking in the sunlight and warming up the black concrete he was walking on. The sound of the crowd and music blurred together in a hazy tango that assaulted Sanji's senses. After a moment of taking in his surroundings, Sanji tore himself from his haze staring in disbelief at the place the woman had occupied a moment ago. She was gone.

Sanji cursed himself for getting distracted, lighting himself a cigarette as he hurried over to where he'd last seen the delicate black flower. As expected, she left no clues to her whereabouts and seemed to have vanished into thin air. Sanji ran a frustrated hand through his hair, looking around for a sign or something so he could find his way back home to East Blue.

As Sanji's eyes scanned the sun baked crowd, his eyes were drawn to the highest point, the shaved head of Mr.1. Sanji took a step back, hiding himself from the man's direct line of view as he watched the crowd split before Daz without being prompted. Sanji crushed his cigarette under his foot, following the mountain of a man as carefully as he could, slipping on his sunglasses to shield himself from the sunlight and suspicion. His body was thundering with adrenaline, Sanji felt the cold shivers of excitement and danger run down his spine.

It was much easier to follow someone of Mr.1's size, he towered over the crowd, head and shoulders casting shadows on those he walked past. Sanji kept a sensible distance, mentally cheering for the crowd that kept him relatively hidden from view. Perhaps Mr.1 was about to commit his crime, the job he'd been given by the mysterious Mr.0. The heat was making Sanji lightheaded, the sun beating down at the top of his head was probably going to give him sunburn on his scalp and his jacket was uncomfortably warm and heavy. His breathing was getting slightly heavy now, and sweat was making his bangs stick to his forehead. He'd been following this man for 15 minutes now, where could he be going?

Sanji tried to stick to the shaded parts of the street, elbowing himself past various shady looking characters, holding his wallet and phone close to his body as a man bumped into him and tried to dust him off as an apology. Any fingers sliding into his pockets were hastily withdrawn and Sanji snarled in anger, the man withdrew instantly, practically running away from Sanji who didn't have time to chase after petty thieves.

Just when Sanji had convinced himself that Mr.1 just happened to be on a leisure stroll, the massive man seemed to have reached his destination; shouldering the large glass door open casually and leaving it to swing in the faces of people about to enter after him. Sanji paused to glance up at the tall building, narrowing his eyes at the bizarre gigantic statue decorating the top, Sanji couldn't see the details due to the blinding rays of the sun. 'Rain Dinner's Casino' the sign read and Sanji took a few hesitant steps towards the entrance. Where had he heard this name?

Sanji wracked his brain as he entered the building, nodding to a lovely lady who bid him welcome as he stepped inside the blissfully air-conditioned hall. The casino was massive, decorated in marble and red velvet, with pillars and statues decorating the walls. Paintings and large shaded pot plants gave the place a sophisticated feel, only slightly put off by the slot machines and poker tables scattered around the hall. Mr.1 was nowhere to be seen, and Sanji grit his teeth, stomping over to the bar in frustration.

"Good afternoon, do you have anything non-alcoholic to offer?" Sanji sat down in one of the high chairs at the bar, glancing to the back of the barkeeps blond head. His voice sounded strange because of his dry throat. "Water would be great."

"Here you go sir, water is on the house." The bartender said calmly, pouring Sanji a glass from a nearby pitcher, passing it to the blond with a subtle smile. Sanji took it and cleared his glass in two large gulps, feeling his body reenergize as the cold liquid flowed down his throat. It only occurred to him after he'd swallowed even the last drops, that it was quite strange that the water was free during the drought.

"Anything else I can get you sir?" The blond man smiled to Sanji, refilling the glass halfway and putting the pitcher to the side, dropping an ice cube into Sanji's glass. The cook glanced around the hall, noting the few clearly addicted people playing the slot machines before 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon, beer in hand and stubble on their chin. The lovely ladies of course were just seeking shade, they weren't addicted or anything like that.

The casino had quite a few staff members, dealers and bartenders, waitresses and security stood idly around, serving the few customers that lounged by the casino's other bars, or spoke in muffled voices through the thick glass walls of personal booths, reclining on the couches and looking important while lovely servant women served them various snacks.

Sanji frowned as one of the perverted looking old men reached out to grope a lovely delicate angel, but he breathed a little easier when one of the guards grabbed the man's wrist and forced it back on the table. It seemed like the staff here didn't even take shit from the customers. The bartender was still looking at him expectantly, and Sanji took a polite sip of his water as he shook his head.

"Nothing right now, thank you." Sanji paused, looking the bartender over a little more thoroughly as he tried to remember where he'd seen him before. He looked familiar, but only vaguely. Sanji didn't want to stare, so he let his eyes wander across the hall to one of the lovely ladies cleaning the pool table in the corner. He had a vague idea he'd seen her before too.

There were statues of alligators everywhere... well not alligators, technically they were crocodile-

Sanji almost inhaled his water in shock, coughing on the ice cube as he attempted not to spill over himself as he tried to get coax some oxygen into his lungs. Rain Dinner's was owned by Crocodile! The man trying to destroy the Baratie and working with Mr.0. He was sitting and casually drinking water right inside the enemy territory!

The first thing that went through Sanji's mind was how desperately he had to get out of the casino. It wasn't until he was halfway out of his seat when he realized he didn't have a reason to worry, he hadn't revealed himself as an enemy to Crocodile, so at this moment, he was simply yet another customer. The perfect opportunity to do some detective work. Mr.1 had gone inside this casino, so Sanji had two main theories about the reason.

His first guess was that Mr.1 was reporting something to Crocodile on behalf of Mr.0. Possibly today's arson. If this was true and Sanji could record the report or better yet, get tangible evidence of Crocodile working with a known underground criminal, that hotel wasn't going to be built any time soon. Exactly what he wanted.

Sanji's other guess was that perhaps Mr.0 and Crocodile had a fallout and Mr.1 was sent here to kill Crocodile. Either way, he should try to get some evidence of Crocodile's criminal tie-ins. If someone busted him in a restricted area, he'd just tell them he was lost. It's not like they could hold him here if he was caught sneaking around. Better put his phone on silent though; no need to tempt fate.

Sanji excused himself from the bar, walking off to the side and trying to look as inconspicuous as a non gambler in a casino can look. Luckily the few patrons were too busy looking at their slot machines or watching each other's face for tells in a poker match that they didn't pay Sanji much attention as he walked around; the staff on the other hand did.

"Can I help you?"

"Just looking for the bathroom." Sanji fluttered for the lovely lady who just so kindly offered her assistance. The lady smiled subtly, pointing down one of the hallways at the back of the casino. Sanji would have loved to stay and flirt for a moment, but the guards at the far wall were giving him mean looks and he really should try to snoop around as much as he could before he goes to buy dinner for himself and Zoro.

"Thank you, beautiful flower of my heart." Sanji bowed to the woman, who looked at him in confusion as he walked down the hallway she had gestured, hopefully it held more than just bathrooms. He had clearly not roused any suspicion, since none of the guards followed him down the hallway and around the corner out of sight. There were no security cameras that Sanji could see, and the blond waited for a moment before slipping down the hallway away from the bathrooms.

Sanji was thankful for the thick red carpet muffling the sounds of his footsteps, he kept to the side of the rug, peeking around corners in the most suspicious way possible as he tried to open every single door possible. Not with his bare hands of course, he used a handkerchief to prevent his prints from getting on the doorknobs. Every single door was locked.

As Sanji rattled every doorknob, he heard a familiar voice echoing towards him from the marble hallway behind him, growing clearer with every second. With no places to hide and his black suit contrasting as much as possible with the white marble walls, Sanji's heart was hammering in his throat. He needed to hide and fast. The voices were growing louder and closer by the second; he had to get in somewhere!

In a rush of panic, Sanji attempted to shoulder the door open, regretting it a second later when the impact rippled his bruised ribs and felt like someone stuck his arm with a steel bar. Sanji held in his pained gasp, clutching his shoulder and biting his tongue to suffocate the scream of pain into a whimper. The sound of the door being struck silenced the voices down the hallway, and Sanji could swear he heard muffled footstep coming at him faster than before.

Sanji started running down the hall, trying to keep ahead of the footsteps behind him as he tried to rub some feeling back into his arms. Just when he was about to give up, a door clicked open in front of him, opening just a crack in an inviting creak. Sanji rushed towards it, listening closely to and sounds from inside before he took a peek inside. It was an empty storage room and smelled like cherry blossoms and floor polish.

After making sure there was no one hiding inside the storage room, Sanji slipped inside, closing the door as much as he could while leaving a slight sliver open to look outside. It wasn't long until Paula from the bar walked past his door in a lovely erotic sway, with her lovely blue curly hair bouncing in rhythm with her chest hypnotically. Alongside her was a man in an utterly horrendous outfit, tip toeing in ballerina shoes and twirling horrendously while singing loudly about the way of the okama.

Sanji shuddered, waiting until the two of them were safely out of sight before leaving the storage room to sneak down the hallway after them. Not he was sure that there was some sort of Baroque Works meeting going down, but with luck, Mr.0 would be there. Sanji tried to keep his breathing calm, sneaking along the walls and keeping his ears open for all and any sounds. He didn't want to think about what could happen if he was caught. It was a slight consolation to know Zeff was expecting him at work and Zoro was coming over for dinner, at least he'd be missed relatively soon.

Sanji felt a little bit braver when he thought about Zoro and the others. Hopefully the idiot marimo would be smart enough to find out where Sanji had gone if he didn't come back. Zeff would probably know, but Sanji would rather die than have his old man bust in here trying to get him out. The odds were against them right now. If Zeff had to choose between Sanji and the Baratie, the blond was almost certain the old fart would give up the restaurant. Guilt pooled in Sanji's chest, he was risking too much. He should go back while he could, if they found him he wouldn't even be able to fight back.

Just as Sanji was about to make a run for the exit, he heard the sound of a door slamming shut in the distance. Panic flooded his veins as he realized someone was coming down the hall towards him. Sanji turned back in the direction he had been heading, further down the snaking hallways until the marble walls simply ended in a massive set of doors. Dead end.

The large doorway almost filled the entire bottom of the hallway, large and intimidating and Sanji could hear voices from the other side. He couldn't go in there, he was sure that the room on the other side was filled with people who wouldn't think twice about killing him on the spot. But if someone was coming down the hallway behind him, Sanji didn't want to be cornered right outside the door eavesdropping on a no doubt super classified meeting of criminal syndicates.

So much for his promise to stay out of trouble.

Sanji started rattling the doorknob of all nearby doors that didn't lead to certain death. He was standing in the middle of the hallway, if anyone opened those massive doors they would probably hit him in the face. Sanji grit his teeth, muttering under his breath as he tried one doorknob after another, wondering why everything in this damn place seemed to be locked. If someone was coming in his direction he'd just be standing here like a sitting duck and-

One of the doorknobs rattled open, clicking softly as Sanji glanced inside hurriedly. The room was dark and smelled strange, but at least it was empty. That was all Sanji was asking for right now. The blond shed his sunglasses and slipped into the room, closing the door after him and narrowing his eyes as he peered through the darkness. Bags, large bags and books piled along the walls contrasted harshly with the elegant marble and carved pillars. There were no windows in the room, but it wasn't stuffy either.

Sanji raised his lighter, flicking it on as silently as he could. A storage room apparently, cluttered with bags filled with a strange and potentially illegal powder that Sanji desperately tried not to get on his suit or hands. He could hear voices too, they sounded close yet muffled enough to be illegible, Sanji glanced around the room in the glow of his lighter, walking over to the wall where the voices were the loudest.

There was no way he was hearing them through the thick marble though, there had to be something here that was carrying the voices. Sanji raised his lighter higher to try to illuminate more of the room, and the flame flickered and was almost snuffed out. Sanji quickly lowered it, climbing the bags and books until he found what he was looking for.

A metal grid covering what could only be a reasonably large ventilation shaft; exactly large enough to fit one lean adult male.

Sanji pulled his sunglasses from his pocket, feeling around in the dark and peeling off the rubber coating of the earpiece. After exposing the thin metal edge, he started working the screws loose from the metal, listening closely to the little he could make out from the conversation going on inside the other room.

Sanji left one of bottom corner screws in place, pocketing the others to fix up the ventilation when he was done snooping around. The metal grid slid to the side with only a slight creak and Sanji grit his teeth in pain when he hauled himself into the dusty and grimy shaft. He felt like an action hero without the glory, his fingers slipped on the layer of dust and he could feel greasy layer of dust stick to his hair. The tightness of the metal shaft made him uncomfortable as he made his way inside, the dust tickled his nose and twirled around and the air the ventilation was supposed to be carrying into the storage room hit his face harshly and dried out his eyes. Luckily the metal seemed to be thick enough to carry his weight, though that might have something to do with the fact he was inside the portion fit inside the thick marble wall.

He couldn't risk going further than the space of the wall in fear of the metal giving in from his weight, it was only designed to carry air after all. The dust was drying his nose and eyes out, so Sanji struggled to bend his arm in the tight space, holding his shirt over his nose as he inched into the shaft. He could hear the voices clearly now, they were coming from a grid in the bottom of the ventilation.

"The second part of the plan starts tonight, I've listed your orders here." A deep rumbling voice sounded from inside the room. "I will tolerate no failures." Sanji only caught glimpses of the people standing in the room below, the angle of the opening not giving Sanji the best view of the room below.

The person talking was definitely Mr.0, it was the same deep gravelly voice that had greeted him as Mr.3. He couldn't see him though, even if he lay his head flat down on the grimy surface he didn't manage to see the faces of any of the room occupants. Sanji wiped dust from the grate he was looking through, sliding his hand down into his pocket awkwardly in the tight space. His phone fit down the ridges, Sanji set it to camera, the live feed appearing on the screen waiting for him to snap a picture.

Sanji worried at his lower lip, sliding the top half of the phone down through the slits just enough for the camera to capture the group of people standing in the room below. He could see five people, Mr.1, Paula from the bar, the ballerina, Sir Crocodile himself and the lovely beauty with dark hair Sanji had been seeing around a lot lately. Mr.0 had to be somewhere else, the room could be full of people just out of Sanji's view.

"If you have any questions, I want to hear them now." Mr.0 continued talking, and Sanji almost dropped his phone in shock when he watched the voice rumble from Crocodile's mouth. There was no doubt Crocodile had been the one who just spoke, sitting lazily on a chair at the end of the room, leaning on his hooked hand with a smirk on his face. Suddenly it dawned on Sanji in a rush of cold paralyzing horror.

Mr.0 and Crocodile were the same person.

The beta for this story is VioletClockworker! thank you for the hard work!