theremedy: (smoker)
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Past Interlude: How do you sleep while the city's burning?

Where do you go when you can't go home?



 

July 3rd, 1994. A year before the beginning of the past.

 


The Better Days is a dark, whiskey soaked dive, full of sullen drinkers, brooding at the end of long hard shifts and not in the mood for any more noise than is necessary to order a drink-- or hear the grumbling blue grass blues spurting out of the abused jukebox. Smoker likes it. Not only is the bar a cool relief from the dust and heat of the trip, it reminds him of home. Granted it isn’t quite the Gold Roger right before closing when all the assholes had cleared out leaving him relatively alone in the peaceful thrum of the air conditioner and a bottle of whiskey, but lightning doesn’t strike twice.

Gloomy cragged faces peer up at him as he makes his way to the bar, but no one he recognizes and no one who seems to recognize him. Though he can usually only tell that by when he sits down and sees who bolts for the door. There are also no teenagers, thank god. No pimple laced string beans who babble about them actually being twenty-one, cross their hearts, while their voice cracks like thin ice. They wouldn’t be tolerated here, he thinks. Another reason to like this place.

He orders himself a bottle of Tombstone Blue whiskey, a tumbler to go with it, and swipes a bowl of shelled peanuts before picking a scarred table where he can see the door and the bar clearly. An old brown phone hanging on the wall nearby also pleases him, but he doesn’t think he’ll need to use it. Anyway by the clock on the wall above it, he’s a little early, so Smoker settles in, propping his jitte against the wall, kicking his feet up on the opposite chair, pouring some Tombstone Blue and lighting a pair of cigars. The smoke curls up and around and he imagines them coalescing into a cloud above his head.

It’s been a little over a year since he first started searching for that brat, Garp’s grandkid, Monkey, Luffy D. and so far the most he’s been doing is running into walls. He’s managed to stumble on one or two of the parties advertised on fliers, but even stalking them all night gets him nothing more than a headache from the moronic beat pulsing in his ears. He can’t even arrest anyone since the only parties he’s been able to get to have been held on private property, leaving him annoyingly on the other side of the gate and unable to prove blasted anything. And so far as he’d seen, there is nothing to prove. Kids go. Have a good time. Probably get drunk and then go home. And if one or two fall through the cracks into some other life, Smoker hasn’t managed to find out where they go or who takes them. Though he knows it’s happening. His gut tells him so and he’s never doubted it before… Though he is starting to….

Going at the circuits was also a damn joke since there were about half a dozen of them in any state alone, none of them sanctioned, but passing themselves off. often as private clubs. The small no account ones occasionally had kids who staunchly insisted they were eighteen and since they didn’t seem to be on the grid, Smoker couldn’t prove it one way or the other. No point in arresting them either since they hadn’t broken any laws.

And all through that mess and months of combing through the whole damn state of Oregon, Smoker hadn’t been able to come up with a single hair of Monkey, Luffy D.’s. Damn kid. Then five months in, some big tournament in Vegas had sent, it seemed, every damn fresh faced gang from Washington State to California pouring eastward through Reno for a shot at the big time-- and more importantly through Carson City. And since the capital had more truck than anyone else, Smoker had been called back to bring some order to the growing chaos.

So he had, not even that reluctantly, and had enjoyed it since he’d known what he’d been doing and even had the grim hope of an end goal, or some kind of peace being reached anyway. Major Garp’s request had never fully left his mind however, and he’d sent out feelers to keep the search going in the background… but after a few months had passed, he’d all but forgotten as he wrestled control back from the gangs, inch by precious inch.

Smoker grumbles to himself and lets one foot drop so he can lean forward, and stack the peanuts on top of their fellows’ dimpled shells. It’s not as satisfying as rocks and a lot more finicky and he has to squint at the damn things but he’s getting itchy. The man’s not late. Not yet. But it’s getting close to the time. He had information, he’d said. About the kid. And if it was anyone else Smoker would have told him to mail it in. But there was something else. Something lingering in the air. Something that is making his gut twitch with sour anticipation.

After a few false starts, he manages to start a sizable stack of peanuts as the time nears, and grinds the cigars between his teeth as it passes. Three minutes. Five. Ten. He’s just about to get up and go look when the door opens shedding in scraps of tired yellow sunlight around the somber duster wearing figure of Roland Dadi. A man otherwise known as Dadi the Parent. Smoker sits up, clandestinely scattering his peanuts back into the bowl as Dadi comes over to him, sliding into one of the well worn chairs.

Been a while,” Dadi says a smile on his face and his eyes like flint.

It has,” Smoker says. He hasn’t seen him in person since the end of Bloody December, which had been, what five years ago? It makes him feel old to remember. They’d fought side by side to help stop the biggest gang war that Utah had ever had; and though it had only lasted a few months, Dadi had left a tired man; disappearing into retirement as all smart bounty hunters do.

Still carrying that thing around, are you?” Dadi says with a wry smile, gesturing to the jitte. Smoker smirks a little.

Not everyone can be crack shots.” He salutes the man with the tumbler of whiskey before slinging it back and pouring a little more.

Smoker notices one of the waitresses making her way toward them through the smoky gloom.

Can I get you anything?” Smoker asks.

Milk would be fine,” Dadi says with a wave to the waitress. She looks astonished and then skeptical. Someone coughs a laugh in the dimness. Dadi breaks a peanut between his fingers and pops the meat of it into his mouth ignoring everything. When the waitress moves off, hopefully to get Dadi’s milk, he says:

How have things been?”

Alright,” Smoker says, already itching at the banal conversation. “With you?”

The lines around Dadi’s eyes deepen as if he knows Smoker’s torment and is enjoying it. But then he says:

I’ll mail you the pictures.”

Thanks.” And weirdly enough, Smoker enjoys seeing pictures of Carol growing up and Dadi’s family life. It gives him a strange sort of hope. That there is more than busting heads and ekeing out justice on dusty streets. That even a man like Dadi, who had been a hard worn veteran and then a feared, whiskey swilling bounty hunter who could put a hole through a dime even when hip deep in grog; could change into something different. Something warmer. He is sill as deadly as a cobra, Smoker knows, but there is a softness to his face as he drinks the white frosty milk that’s presented to him. The rough brown hands that killed now kept a little girl safely on the saddle of a horse or pushed her on a playground swing in somewhere USA.

But even if Smoker admires the softness, he has limited patience for it. He guzzles his own whiskey and debates whether to stack peanuts again and Dadi bedamned, when he decides the man has had relaxing enough and so it was time to nudge him to get on with it.

Surprised you went to the effort. Thought you were retired.”

Still am,” says Dadi, claiming another peanut. “I heard from a friend you were looking and heard from another that they’d found something.” He cracks the peanut apart. “Why are these always so good?”

Who knows,” Smoker says, refilling his glass. “And it seems like an effort in any case to come out all this way.” Not that he knew where Dadi lives. Not precisely. But he knew it wasn’t here. A few states up and over if he was guessing.

Dadi grunts in a way that neither confirmed or denied Smoker’s suspicions. But there had to be some other reason. Smoker knew it and he knew Dadi knew. But first thing’s first, he knows that too. The man is damn methodical and it’s a good thing to be in times like these, in a place like this.

Dadi sets his empty glass down, wipes milk from his mustache, then pulls a photo from his shirt pocket and sets it on the table.

Familiar?”

Smoker doesn’t even have to squint to know. Though it’s a small picture, the lighting is good and the kid’s face is clear. He’s even smiling. Damn he didn’t look much older than he had before.

That’s it,” Smoker says with a nod. “Whose this?” No need to even point at the other guy in the picture. Male. Early twenties. Green hair. Earrings. Looked suspicious.

Some up and comer. Didn’t catch the name.”

Think there was coercion involved?” Because if it is a kidnapping, Monkey, Luffy D. looks to be enjoying himself entirely too damn much. But anyone could be enticed. Especially some lonely kid who is missing his older brother and needed someone to look up to.

From what I’ve heard they seemed normal enough.” Dadi shrugs. “Just two kids eating lunch on the sidewalk.”

Which isn’t a yes and isn’t a no. Smoker supposes it doesn’t matter either way since he can find out once he bags the kid… and with any luck his ‘friend’, too. And then what…? Garp couldn’t just want him to find the brat right? It has to tie into everything else, doesn’t it? Could he be overestimating the old man? Could he be underestimating him?

Smoker’s thoughts are scattered when Dadi moves the peanut bowl to the side and shoos Smoker’s arms off the table with a flap of his hand before setting out a map of Utah, two overlapping circles formed a diagonal, one brushing up against Salt Lake, the other coming down to the South-West edge of the state though not over the line. Smoker notices the name of the town they are in right now sitting almost dead center in the lower of the circles and his gut clenches again. Neighborly, Utah. The names not familiar or significant but something has started to niggle in the back of his mind.

They were seen just outside of Cedar City, then headed North on 15.” Dadi traces the route with one stubbed finger, missing a tip, to where the red line of the interstate ran into Salt Lake; passing through both circles along the way.

Hm,” Smoker says. What do the circles mean? Were they different locations were Monkey, Luffy D. had been sighted? The green haired man? Is there something Smoker is supposed to be getting? He feels there is. His gut tells him there is. But what it is he can’t figure out. Dadi taps a town in the upper circle called Elwood Rapids and Smoker sits straighter. Is that where he should be now? Is something important there? That he should see? That he should do?

I grew up right here,” Dadi says. “First through junior high, anyway.” He swallows and says a little roughly. “Met the missus.”

It’s all very sentimental and if Smoker didn’t respect the man or his methods so much he’d be really tempted to club him over the head and tell him to get on with it. But he suspects. Suspects. That this is all going to tie in somehow.

Couple of these kids did, too,” Dadi says, dropping a small pile of newspaper clippings on the table. Smoker grunts to show that he’s still following and sorts through them. There are around thirty in all. All the dates are current more or less. The oldest ones dating to about two years back. And they mostly consist of photos of kids. Well, teenagers. Ranged about fourteen to seventeen with the youngest a twelve-year-old and the oldest nineteen. A favor toward boys though there are girls mixed in here and there, all at least fifteen. Most of the kids were missing, a couple found beaten, one found dead… some from orphanages, but with a striking number of them having dropped off the face of the earth just out of juvie. The clippings had been dotted with different colors in the corners, and when he peers closer at the map, sees corresponding marks clustered together at various points, but no obvious pattern other than that. Where they left from, he assumes.

Kids go into gangs all the time, is Smoker’s first instinct. Nothing unusual about that.

Except this is Utah. It has the some of the lowest gang related crime rates in the country; as HQ keeps touting. All due, they like to say, to agents doing their job. Also Salt Lake Arena, the first officially sanctioned arena in the country, was a milestone, they say. A road toward peace. Though that had been a few years ago now.

They don’t say that this ‘milestone’ let that criminal asshole open up an arena in Vegas which has been a constant thorn in Smoker’s side. So maybe these kids did join gangs. They definitely fell into the “high risk” category. But that this many were coalescing at once in such a relatively gang free state…

You think someone is starting something again?”

You tell me,” Dadi says, leaning forward and staring over the map with his chin on laced fingers as if he’s trying to puzzle it out for himself. “According to my colleagues, the job market is pretty slim around here, seems there’s not much call for that kind of work, and what call there is is usually from out of state. Or one of these.” He taps a long brown finger on one of the clippings.

Not much of a place for bounty hunters, he means. And not much of a place for bounties either, unless someone crosses the state line and causes trouble. Though hunting kids….? That is kind of unusual for a state so supposedly gang free. Smoker rolls the cigar to the other side of his mouth, hissing smoke through his teeth and Dadi leans in.

One of my colleagues started this job.” Dadi slides a clipping closer with a single finger. “But they weren’t the ones that finished it. They want to know why.”

Sixteen-year-old boy. Found beaten to death by the side of the road just outside of Shell’s Town. Of course it would be that town… Smoker shakes his head and instead unpacks what Dadi has just told him. Some kid had a bounty on his head. At a hell of an age to have it. Was captured alive since the Child Criminal Welfare act of ‘89 prevented lethal force in the case of under 18s, presumably brought to the attention of the local NGTF agent and then after an indeterminate amount of time was found dead. That didn’t have to mean anything, though. The only thing that Smoker could see was that he was a native of Gorsebush and Shell’s Town was about a two and a half hours North of that. Not a huge distance for a kid to go. Hell, Smoker hitched his way cross-country when he was thirteen, just to see if he could.

It could be a new gang was forming. That is a very real possibility. Dadi seems to be hinting at something different though Smoker is damned if he can figure out what it is. There’s not enough information for him to go on. He understands Dadi’s want to protect a place that has nostalgic memories for him, especially considering what happened to his wife not so long ago. But with just this… He shakes his head.

This isn’t my jurisdiction.” Literally. If this were near Reno or, hell, anywhere in Nevada he could at least look into it. And would frankly want to. But then the question is, if Dadi’s colleague was so worried about the fate of this kid and couldn’t ask the people they presumably turned him into, that either meant that Dadi’s colleague had something to hide or the NGTF staff did.

I’ll look into it,” Smoker says, folding the map around the clippings and shoving it into his inner pocket.

Happy hunting,” Dadi says and Smoker snorts. The man is smiling though and looks relieved in a way. As if some tension has leaked out of him. It’s then that Smoker decides that whatever this job is, it’s worth it. Dadi took a great risk coming out of hiding to give him what he needed, so the least Smoker could do was ease his mind somewhat.

I’ll write you,” Smoker says, knocking back another tumbler of whiskey before refilling it. “Planning on hanging around?”

No I have to get back,” Dadi says, sounding mildly pleasant. “Sacramento is too nice this time of year.” Smoker nods. Last time he’d hinted he lived somewhere outside of Boulder and before that, Montreal. A man’s former life doesn’t leave him easily.

Dadi claps him on the shoulder and rises. Smoker is somewhat relieved to catch the glint of one of the man’s many revolvers tucked on the inside of his duster. He still knows how to take care of himself.

Thanks for the milk,” Dadi says. “Take care.”

Smoker grunts in acknowledgment, smirking a little as Dadi strides back toward the door, orange sunlight catching the unicorn sticker which he’d apparently sat on at some point and making it sparkle. He’s a good man. And has a good nose. Smoker would trust him on a scent, even if he can’t catch it himself at the moment.

Still he takes the time to think of it, nurse his whiskey, enjoy his cigars. Day falls to night and the bar picks up a little, a couple of rowdy kids who speak just above a murmur coming in to shoot at the sagging pool table. Smoker feels sufficiently relaxed and is about to pay his tab and go when he decides he should leave a message for Tashigi in the morning, just in case he forgets about it. It’s not urgent enough to call her home phone so he dials his desk at the office since he can’t remember hers and she always answers his messages anyway. She even left a voice mail message for him since he couldn’t be bothered.

Thank you for calling the desk of Captain Smoker.” Thank you. Smoker snorts. Why the hell should he thank anyone for one thing? Most people who called were just there to waste his time.

Can I take a message?” her voice continues. Smoker waits patiently for the beep.

Waits.

And waits some more.

Beep already damn you,” he grumbles. When he gets home he’s going to throw the damn machine through a window.

Sir?” Tashigi’s voice says. And Smoker blinks. Wait--

Tashigi?”

Yes, sir.”

Why the hell are you still at the office.” It is going on to eight. She should be home having a damn social life or whatever it was she did in her spare time. Polished a sword. Tripped over something.

I was expecting you to call. Also sorting your desk. Can I respectfully ask you to stop putting Commander Shepard’s memos in the … the ‘screw it pile? They’re kind of important.”

Well you bitched when I put them in the trash.” Where they belonged. He doesn’t care what that damned weasel faced bastard has to say. None of it is important and most of it is about protocol. Dress code. Sucking up. Nothing he gave a rat’s ass about.

Well then have someone send it to my desk. The ‘screw it’ pile is too large to keep going through for just these, sir.”

Smoker grunts. Maybe he’ll put them on top of the pile instead or something. In any case that’s neither here nor there.

I’m going to be here for a little while,” he says. “A few weeks on the outside.” But probably no more than that. He can’t really indulge in this and hunting for that brat and managing his territory at the same time. He doubts he will need that long, though.

Understood, sir. I’ll keep you informed.”

Smoker is about to hang up when a thought occurs to him.

What’s the closest office around here?” He realizes he should specify and opens his mouth to do so but she speaks first:

Near Neighborly, Utah, sir? Let me check.”

Smoker grunts and turns into the shadows as the grin twitches the corner of his mouth. Damn woman. Who the hell told her to pay so close attention. Fortunately he’s saved from too much affection as there’s a thump and a caterwaul and a crash and he can just see papers flying around his office like snowdrift as Tashigi whimpers on the floor. How can she be such a klutz and yet one of the best swordsman they have? Damned woman.

After a moment or so she said breathlessly into the phone:

It looks like Ceder City is the closest office, sir. Though I’m not sure if Captain Nezumi will be very accommodating.”

Nezumi…” Smoker stares at the stained ceiling in thought. “Do I know him?”

He was the one you said to: ‘shut up, you needle nosed pissant’, at the last regional meeting, sir.”

Oh right. Him. Smoker faintly remembers it.

I’ll call back later,” Smoker says. “Keep an ear out.”

Yes, sir.”

Smoker hangs up, feeling settled and now finally sleepy from the whiskey. Fortunately a room at the Ramada next door was all booked and ready for him to collapse onto the lumpy bed. He hadn’t thought he’d needed a room but Tashigi had insisted. Just in case, sir, she’d said. And she’d been right as usual.

There’s no greater thing in the world than a competent subordinate.


****


Smoker taps his fingers against his knee and tries to be patient. Tries to resist the urge to get up and go past the bland door and the hawk-eyed receptionist into the information stocked rooms beyond. Nezumi is a colleague after all, and more to the point, someone who could be a pain in the ass roadblock to Smoker if he felt like it. It’s not a roadblock he can exactly punch his way through, either. He’d already got two warnings about that from other instances.

So he sits back in the stuffed starched waiting room chair, chewing on his cigars and glaring his irritation at the ceiling. He can’t even light the damn things. No ashtrays. He can’t even run what information he has through his head because he’s done that so much already that it’s just like old bath water, warm as spit and irritatingly present though it doesn’t bring the comfort of heat or the thrill of cold. Stagnant. That’s what it is.

Also he wants a bath. The make those damn hotel ones too small. He dwells for a moment fondly of his whirlpool back home, but all too soon even this line of thought gets insipid.

It’s been two hours. Where is the man?

In a meeting,’ is all the hawk-moth receptionist would say if he asked her, with increasingly dry irritation in her sandpapery voice. He can respect that level of casual belligerence but at the moment he’s harboring fantasies of putting pepper in her thermos like he used to do when he was a kid. The phone rings and he hates himself for the faint surge of hope that rises in his chest. He listens to her answer it, without the customary greeting, and then the annoying reiteration of “uh huh” so that he wants to grab the phone and take the call himself. Apparently it’s no one important to Smoker’s situation though because a few moments later she hangs up and swivels her back to him once more.

Her thermos is unguarded.

She should feel fortunate he doesn’t have anything on hand but cigar ashes and a roll of antacids too precious to waste.

God, he needs a smoke if nothing else. Anything to cut the boredom.

I’m going out,” he says to her, trying to keep the snarl out of his voice though he doubts it’ll bother her. “I’ll be back.”

Don’t let the door hit you,” she says. Irritation and admiration war in his gut once more as he goes out to the concrete stoop in front of the building. A lit match dances between his fingers even before the door has hissed shut behind him and he puts it to his cigars, puffing to keep them alight with no small amount of relief. Soon lazy smoke is drifting from the ends of his cigars and he feels something in his core unwind a little. He folds his arms and rests his hip against the equally concrete balustrade, squinting down the road though not expecting to see anything.

It’s a hot day and dry. And still. Low clouds lay on the horizon, a tumbleweed rests listlessly by the side of the road waiting hopelessly for a car to pass; but none do. This seems to be an unpopular part of town. Not a great place for an NGTF office, though not a bad one either. Not that anyone can tell what it is. As suggested in the stupid manual, there are no signs to blatantly spell out what this place is. Not even a yellow decal on the inside of the door. The only reason he’d even found the damn place was by going in and asking; even then he’d had to flash his badge to get a reluctant:

One moment please.’

Smoker snorts.

On top of that the parking lot is fairly empty. There are only two cars and his bike, and one of the cars has a wilted for sale sign on the windshield. He can’t imagine that Receptionist Hawk-Moth is the only person on duty in a central office on a Tuesday afternoon. Unless they’ve really gotten that lazy. But he suspects it’s more of a case of either a hidden entrance or garage or both. If it is both he wouldn’t be surprised. There’s too many ways to hide around here and that just means it’s easier to keep things hidden.

Not that he cares what Nezumi is hiding or not. Not unless it effects him. And right now the only thing effecting him is being polite while the scent gets colder by the hour. He can feel it. His chance slipping away like sand grains. Maybe he’ll go look for that secret entrance. And if he can’t find it then he’ll go right through the inner door and Receptionist Hawk-moth be damned.

Smoker immediately feels better now that he has a plan of action and jogs down the concrete steps, taking the left wall just because. There’s not much to look at here. Just a narrow alleyway between two old buildings. Some trash cans. Air conditioning units sticking out of the windows at various intervals.

What do you mean she’s not picking up?!”

Smoker pauses as the words garble through the unit closest to him, distorted a little and tinny but not hard to pick out at all. The voice is somewhat familiar too. Curious, he leans against the wall, smoking idly and staring up at the slice of hard blue sky between the eaves.

We’ve been trying since yesterday, sir. We’ve even called other contacts in the neighborhood. No one’s seen her since yesterday either.”

Damn. Of all times to disappear….” A chair squeaks. “… If Alvida thinks she can slip one past me she’s going to regret it.”

Yes, sir,” says the other, unhappily. Alvida… Smoker recalls the name only faintly but he’s definitely seen it somewhere before. “Should I contact Captain Morgan?”

At that Smoker perks up, suddenly having a hunch about the two circles that had been drawn on the map. Morgan’s territory is also in Utah and he thinks it’s North instead of East. In fact he’s pretty sure it’s Shell’s Town because that would make the most sense. He’s tempted to dig out his map and check but doesn’t want the rustle of paper to attract their attention.

No, not yet. He’s insufferable. He’ll want what he paid for before the season--not that he cares what a pain it’s going to be to bus all of them now.”

Paid for? Season? Smoker narrows his eyes.

He… can’t force us, though, sir,” says the other, sounding as if he’s unsure about it.

No but he can make finances damned unpleasant.” A gusty sigh. Another squeak of the chair. “Go see about chartering a bus then. Make it fast and make it cheap.”

Sir!”

What the hell is that all about? Smoker thunks his head lightly back against the brick wall and buries his hands in his pockets. It’s not a whole lot to go on. Unless he wants to jump to conclusions with both feet. Nezumi could be talking about missing kids-- but he could also be talking about swapping around personnel for baseball teams. It’s been known to happen. Or maybe moving gang members from the holding cell here to Morgan’s cell so the man can meet his quota. Also been known to happen. Smoker’s been asked to do that a few times and he hasn’t minded really. Yeah the higher ups frown on it but he’s always happy to clear out space in his holding cells. And it’s usually only a few stringbean punks that will get off with a slap to the wrist and be back in his holding cell in a month anyway. Though really Nevada justice is slow and backlogged and hard and he’s not even sure what Utah justice is like.

And it’s true they may be trafficking kids-- though Smoker sincerely hopes not because he’d like to maintain at least a pin-prick of respect for his colleagues.

In either case he’s not going to find any information out here. He’s tempted to knock on the window when Nezumi speaks again:

Is that idiot still in the waiting room?

An even more garbled voice, too faint for Smoker to hear.

Good. I’m going to lunch. If he comes back tell him I’m done for the day.”

A click and then rapid footsteps toward the door. It takes Smoker a moment to realize the asshole is probably talking about him and grinds his cigars between his teeth.

Fine.

It just means Smoker can drop his own courtesy.

He waits until he hears the grumble of a garage door and sees a silver Jaguar whip out into the street on the other side of the building before turning on his heel and going back through the main doors. Receptionist Hawk-Moth gives him one of her narrow-eyed glares.

He’s not--” but her words turn to a startled ‘yawp’ as he goes around her desk and presses the door release under it.

What do you think you’re doing?!” she snaps as he jerks the door open. “Security!”

The jug-eared kid at the security desk on the other side is startled by the shrill voice and nearly sends his Playboy flying. Which gives Smoker just enough time to get out his badge as the kid fumbles for the gun at his hip.

Just who--” the kid says, then pauses, pimples blanching as Smoker’s ID flops open in front of his face. “Ah, Captain Smoker!” He salutes but the color doesn’t come back to his face. Instead his cow-brown eyes dart nervously back and forth. “Captain Nezumi isn’t here.”

I know,” Smoker says.

And neither should you be!” Hawk-moth snaps. “I don’t care who you are, you’re not allowed.”

Go to hell,” Smoker says automatically. Then has a sudden vision of Tashigi frowning and mouthing ‘protocol’ in his head before adding: “I’m taking over as acting captain until yours returns.”

The kid’s mouth hangs open but Smoker interrupts him before any stupid can come out.

I’ll take responsibility. Sit.” The kid sits.

Then I will have to accompany you,” Receptionist Hawk-moth says with a sniff. Smoker sighs, picks her up by her frail narrow upper arms and deposits her on the other side of the door before closing it on her outraged face.

She doesn’t get in,” Smoker says. “That’s an order.”

Y-yes, sir,” the kid says, though looks uncertain. Smoker’s not sure how long he’ll obey it but all he needs is a little time away from those piercing eyes. He strides down the hall, acting like he knows where he’s going and slows only a little when he hears the kid get up.

Sir, if you know what you’re looking for I can--”

Sit!” Smoker snaps, and after a moments pause hears the dutiful scrape of chair legs.

No one seems to hear this little drama, though. In fact the hallways are deserted as well as the offices. There’s a burst of laughter from the door that leads the holding cells which gives Smoker pause. It’s not generally a place where laughter comes from unless that laughter also means trouble. But he can also hear the rattle of the TV and some game being played and a decided lack of screaming or angry threats-- so he moves on for the moment.

Nezumi’s office is roughly where Smoker expected it to be in relation to his earlier eavesdropping. And once more Smoker is a little surprised by it. Though not very. It’s an expensive office. The desk is some delicately carved embossed wood. There is a leather swivel chair that seems like it would charge toy a thousand dollars just for putting your ass on it. Even the filing cabinets look pretentious, solid wood instead of thin metal. A treadmill with a hundred buttons on it occupies one side of the office and in the center of the desk, a computer. Smoker scowls at the big blocky pain in the ass machine, complete with the obnoxious scrolly word things of “Nezumi for President”.

Tashigi says that computers are the wave of the future and he hates how right he suspects she is. She is looking forward to it but she is also a giant nerd. Smoker has the feeling in his gut that those damn things are going to piss him off for a good long while.

But enough of this.

Smoker closes the door and locks it for good measure. Then flips on a row of security monitors absently before noticing the map on the wall with various NGTF areas highlighted. First things first then. He unfolds the map that Dadi gave him, comparing it to the one on the wall. Morgan is the other circle, just as he thought. Not that it tells him much of anything. Kids going missing from these areas are just kids going missing from these areas and it’s not part of the NGTFs obligations to track runaways unless there is suspected gang activity.

His next task is to tackle the filing cabinets. But it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to realize that’s a useless task. It’s a rats nest in here. Nezumi seems to have decided just to throw files anywhere, and free papers floated in between manila folders. Didn’t he have anyone who knew how to sort? Or is he just trying to hide something? There are also a few dossiers of people he can’t identify, a mix of ages and genders, with stamps he can’t identify. It’s nothing they use in Nevada but for all he knows Utah has a different system. He roots around until he finds a manila envelope, dumps its contents into an open drawer and slides some dossiers into it to mail back home, just in case it’s anything suspicious.

And that is something at least, but now he’s back to square one --unless he wants to dig through the files for the matching kids-- but even then whats’ that going to tell him? Maybe that they went through this office, maybe that this office was tasked to find them… But he isn’t sure that’s what Garp wants to know.

Smoker huffs, sets his jitte against the wall, and sits back in Nezumi’s too narrow chair, kicking his feet up on the desk and smoking idly as he tucks his hands behind his head. The air conditioner is a racket in his left ear, but that doesn’t stop him from hearing the muted murmuring out in the hall as the agents outside mutter about what the hell they’re going to do about Smoker in here and daring one another to rattle the door to see if it’s locked. Smoker can’t blame them for being twitchy. If Nezumi had done this to him he would have raised hell. But then, he feels, his staff is cleverer and would make the rat bastard go through the proper channels rather than succumbing to intimidation.

He supposes he could wait until Nezumi returns and try to wring information from the weasel himself, but it would help to know what the hell he is looking for other than a couple of missing kids. His gaze flits to the security monitors out of habit. The whole place is bugged, as it should be. There is a hidden garage, as expected. But there’s something off about the picture he’s seeing. What is it? Most of the place is abandoned, but in reality most of the personnel have congregated in what seems to be one hell of a break room--which is divided up into about five large cubicles for some reason, with black walls spray painted with various designs and band posters. There are plush carpets on the stone floor, slouchy chairs, two tvs, a fooseball table and something that looks like air hockey.

Except wait… Smoker narrows his eyes, There are bars on the windows… A quick glance at the other screens show him that most of the windows are unbarred except for here… so that must be the holding cells. Why the hell had he retrofitted the holding cells? And now that he is looking, not all of the people there are personnel… At least he doesn’t think so. Some look too young… but then new recruits looked younger and younger these days. So are they off duty personnel? Is this some kind of themed party? Are they going to have some kind of party with Morgan? Are they trying to ‘fun in’ some new recruits? That is becoming a stupid popular trend. He actually got the memo of ‘funning in’ being the new thing to try before Tashigi had a chance to shred it. Just the fact that it was out there gave him a tension headache.

Smoker leans back again, gnawing on the cigars in irritation. It could be some kind of event for the local kids, to keep them out of trouble. Or, yes, he thinks, they could be trafficking the local kids for some reason. It seems a hell of an effort if that’s the case, but if it is, a damn effective one. Half of the problem was these idiots trafficked themselves. Get them into a party, show them a fun time, a road to a seemingly easy life full of money and not having to go to work or school. The dream of making a name for yourself and your own label when all too many kids had these days had labels of orphan or miscreant or problem child. Smoker doesn’t blame the kids completely because all kids are idiots, that’s how they learn--or don’t. And the cold reality of the future is hard to think about until it’s biting you in the ass. But it makes his job a hell of a lot more difficult.

He wonders if he can ask Nezumi what’s going on. But if it is something illegal he can expect a lie too. Which won’t actually tell him the truth unless it’s a good enough lie so that’s also out.

Map is gone, files are gone, weird jail party is gone.

What’s left? He crosses one ankle over the other, accidentally kicking the mouse. The computer screen blinks on, a blazing white and he glowers at it until his gaze settles on a name and a phone number.

Alvida…

They had been talking about her and that name is so damn familiar.

Sitting up he picks up the phone, wastes a few moments trying to figure out how to dial out and has to stop himself from bellowing Tashigi. Getting the “TA” part out before realizing and clamping his teeth shut as he feels his face heat. Damned woman.

Finally he gets it and dials his desk.

Yes, sir,” Tashigi says promptly after three rings, though sounding harried. Smoker blinks.

How did you know it was me?”

Caller ID, sir.”

Oh.” Damn technology. “I need information.”

I’ll patch you through to Holland then. It would be Dropplemeyer but she started maternity leave yesterday.”

Oh…” Who knew that? Did he know that? Was he supposed to? He knew it was traditional to give some sort of gift or something something.

You gave her a baby blanket, sir.”

Was it cute?” Smoker asks. Since babies should have cute things.

Very. Hold please.”

A couple rings later and a male voice he assumes is Holland answers.

Yes, sir.”

Tell me what we know about Alvida.” Because he knows they know something.

One second.” There is the ticky ticky tapping of keys and the hum and creak of a computer as it searched. Smoker decides to hate the things all the more to balance out the very grudging respect he’ll have for them later.

There are several Alvidas sir, with variants in spelling, as well as Alverazz, Alivia, Alcyone…”

Shut up,” Smoker says, rubbing his forehead. He’s missing Dropplewhosit already. “A-l-v-i-d-a. Maybe regional. Probably no further out than Colorado.”

There’s one listed in Caliente, Nevada. Is that who you want?”

Probably.” Hell if he knew but Caliente isn’t far from the Utah border. Just outside of Hina’s territory, he thought, though he could be damned if he remembered who commanded that territory. Someone new. There was silence on the other end. Smoker grinds his cigars.

Anything else, sir?” says Holland nervously.

Tell me about her.”

Five foot nine, two hundred ninety seven pounds, black hair, brown eyes, born March 14th. That’ll make her a Pisces, sir.”

RELEVANT INFORMATION, DAMNIT!” Smoker only regrets roaring a little if only because it’s making the tension headache worse.

Yes, sir! Sorry, sir! Uh… it seems she was a gang leader in Utah for a while starting in 1989 before she tried to set up territory over the border and was imprisoned in the state penitentiary. She was released in ‘92 for good behavior and providing information.”

Any idea where she went from there?” Smoker says, massaging his forehead yet again.

No, sir. Record’s blank. It seems like she gave them the slip.”

Blank is annoying and illegal but irritatingly common.

Can you tell me where this phone number is?” Smoker says, reading it out to him.

A few more ticky taps and Holland says:

Unlisted but it looks like it’s Corkscrew, Utah, sir.”

Smoker gets up and peers at the map. Corkscrew falls roughly in between Ceder City and Shell’s Town.

Even more suspicious.

Anything else, sir?”

Smoker grunts and hangs up the phone. Then grabs the envelope and puts the jitte at his back before striding from the room, scattering Nezumi’s worried personnel like pigeons. They would probably tell him everything but let them. The fallout would be telling. For now, though, Smoker had found a scent and he is going to chase it down.


***


Corkscrew is a nothing place. A ghost town of long ago, with splintery wooden houses, falling in and baking in the Utahan heat, filling with dust that is picked up by the restless eddies of breeze. It’s tucked up against a tired dusty mountain, nearly scrubbed of all vegetation and gapped here and there with old mine shafts like missing teeth. It’s a mining town. Smoker thinks. Or was sometime back in the the wilder days. The gold rush days. The only indication of its once upon a time existence is a creaking sign, obviously put up by some recent historical society or the other, though recent being sometime in the last twenty years or so because the chains are old and looking rusty. Soon no one will know it’s here… Unless they read a map.

Smoker leans his arms on the handlebars of his bike and rubs his thumb absently over his lower lip as he stares at the house resting just at the fringes of the ghost town, soon to be in the shadow of the mountain as the afternoon wears on. It’s a modern house. More or less. Kept up. Almost opulent looking. There are small trailers scattered nearby, too. A rusted out volkswagon sitting in a patch of tall weeds… and …the smoldering remains of something. He can’t really tell what it was but it’s fairly large. A barn perhaps? Though what a barn would be doing all the way out here where nothing grows is beyond him. Maybe a warehouse then.

Probably a warehouse since this patch of land is supposedly connected to Alvida. Smoker remembers her now--what little he knows of her from the reports. Iron Mace Alvida they called her, named because of the mace she used to crush her enemies and get around Utah’s recent stringent gun laws. She had a reputation of ruthlessness, brutality, and forcing small, unprotected and spineless towns to buy her beauty products. She’s also known, Smoker remembers vaguely, as the Avon Lady from Hell. And he can see why. It’s bad enough to have to suffer under her brutality without the further indignity of buying overpriced products you didn’t even need.

Knowing all that, Smoker is still debating on whether to approach the hideout or not. It doesn’t seem as if she’s there, but there’s no way to know for sure. If she is, there’s a chance he may be recognized. Which is fine if she has a legitimate working relationship with Nezumi. It also may be fine if they are into shady dealings… so long as Nezumi doesn’t call ahead and order a hit or she decides to take initiative for one.

Of course if she’s turned against Nezumi completely, she might intend to use Smoker as a bargaining chip for whatever and that would just be damn embarrassing. But maybe if he could play dirty cop or NGTF agent if cornered, he could get himself out of a hole if he got in one. He might even be able to glean some useful information that way.

Smoker nods to himself and pulls his helmet on. It’s the only thing he can do bar turning around and heading the other way to get backup… and no time for that. And he’s not letting this trail go cold.

As he draws closer he expects a sentry to come out of the house or one of the trailers, or emerge from the scrubby bushes dotting the landscape. He even squints upward to look for any snipers hiding in mine entrances, but there’s nothing. He pulls in at a respectable distance from the hideout and when he kills the bike’s engine, he hears…nothing. Nothing but the wind. The faint creak of sign. The thrum of a distant generator, the hissing of coals. It seems abandoned.

Well he may as well take advantage of that.

The first order of business is to check the burnt possible warehouse. It’s on the smaller size of a warehouse, though, about a 1,000 square feet give or take. Burnt to damn cinders and ash though and some of it still smoldering, releasing small smudges of black smoke into the air. Whatever it was burned hot and burned fast. Though for how long, Smoker can’t really tell. There’s no immediate signs of human or animal remains which is a relief so he pulls the small disposable camera he got in Cedar City and snaps a picture of it. Then as he struggles to work the tiny damn wheel so it’ll be set up for a new shot, wonders just what the hell happened here.

Did Alvida burn this herself in an effort to destroy evidence? Or did someone else do it for her? And if it was her, was she destroying evidence for herself to hide from Nezumi? Or for the both of them? And if it was someone else, why? Did Alvida have an enemy? A rival gang staking a claim? He couldn’t imagine they’d want to here in the dog’s ass end of nowhere. It had taken Smoker almost a full hour to get here once he’d gotten off the interstate. Moreover, as far as he knew, there was even less beyond.

He grinds his cigars between his teeth and after another glance over to check for bodies, goes toward the trailers. Small as they are, they all have little generators of their own which is smart in this kind of place. Even more intelligent, though somewhat suspicious, is that the doors are all locked. It’s a smart thing to do, but here in the middle of nowhere, who are they trying to keep out? Also the doors are flimsy enough so that he can break the lock with a quick tug.

The trailers only tell him a little more than he knew already. She has roughly twenty men, split among five trailers. She’s also been to Disneyland--as he can tell by the commemorative mouse ear hat photo that hangs in every trailer, showing the whole gang- who look more nervous than excited. That doesn’t tell him anything really new, though. Not exactly. Going to one of the Disneylands is practically a cliche for gangs of this size and if he ever has to see another mouse ear hat commemorative photo in his entire life it’ll be too soon.

Still he doesn’t find anything that gets him any close to Monkey, Luffy D., nor to Dadi’s missing kids. There aren’t any trophies of any kind and he has no time to look for convenient diaries detailing crimes. But he takes pictures anyway because anything might come up… and does find a flier on one of the kitchen tables that makes him frown. It’s an advertisement for one of those parties, but it doesn’t specifically say Alvida has anything to do with it- - but it doesn’t say she doesn’t either. He leaves it where it is but takes a photo, just in case.

After that the only thing left to do is to check the main house. Smoker steps back outside into the day and the silence greets him once more. He scowls and rolls his shoulders as a restless itch starts in his spine. Where are they? Why didn’t they at least leave a sentry? If they’d abandoned it entirely, why leave the house still standing? Unless they are trying to look innocent, but then why burn anything at all? If he doesn’t find an answer soon he’s going to arrest them all just for the principle of the damn thing.

He stalks to the main house, tries the door but it’s locked and debates on whether to jerk it open or kick it down. Boobytraps are not uncommon, and are easier to set up in houses rather than trailers. Though he hears… noises inside… Smoker cocks his head and then presses his ear to the door. There is rustling. Faint moaning as if someone in pain. He can practically feel his brow furrow from the confusion of it all. Though not really wanting a deadbolt to the chest, he moves to one of the windows, holding his cigars in one hand so he can rest his face close, shielding the glare with the other….

And…

He’s not even sure what the hell he’s looking at to be honest.

Well he knows on the basic level… He is looking at Alvida and her gang, bound, handcuffed or otherwise tied up in the middle of a living room, and looking like they just got thrashed. Nearly every one of those bastards has a black eye or two and Alvida is stone cold unconscious, lying on her side.

Who the hell did that?!

Why did they do that?!

It doesn’t make any goddamned sense! If it was a rival, why did they leave them there? Was it just to steal things? Did their rivals expect them to die? Clearly not because they’re not tied to anything but one another so they could get up enmasse and get water or food. Maybe steal valuable information? Maybe just to burn down the warehouse? Looted the warehouse maybe? Of what?

There are too many questions and not enough answers. His mission to find that damn Monkey, Luffy D. has just become a gigantic knot. But on the other hand he feels like if he can just find the right string to pull, everything will unravel and he’ll see. He’ll understand. Though right now he can’t even guess what the hell that string would be.

Smoker turns away from the window and leans against the wall, lighting his damn cigars again as he tries to figure out what his next step should be. Releasing them is out of the question because he doesn’t even know why they’re tied up to begin with. And as far as he knows officially, without having eavesdropped on Nezumi, she is a former gang boss engaging in suspicious gang activity. And as much as she might be reformed, there are twenty of them and one of him and it’s more of a pain in the ass than he wants to deal with right now as they probably won’t be very happy to see a stranger.

But what is he going to do?

Smoker chews on his thoughts a bit, absently listening to the faint wail of approaching sirens. After a moment it occurs to him to startle and wonder why the hell they are sirens all the way out here but by that point he can see a line of police cars barreling down the small two lane road, bumping through potholes and stirring up dust. There are two police vans in the procession. They came expecting to get company…

Well isn’t this a hell of a coincidence.

Too much of a coincidence.

But considering they have police vans, Smoker is reasonably assured they’re not here to take him down.

The cars come to a stop, parking in a defensive blockade, the words Millard County Police written across the sides. Not state police then. He doesn’t know Utah well enough to tell whose jurisdiction that falls under. Though it’s either Nezumi or Morgan and at this point he’s not sure if he can trust either of them.

The police emerge from their cars, slowly, cautiously, more than one wielding a shotgun. They definitely came meaning business. They watch him with wary curiosity but don’t seem to immediately recognize him.

Hands in the air,” says a man who Smoker assumes is the deputy.

Smoker,” he says to their unasked question as he raises his hands. “Nevada, NGTF.”

They seem startled at this. Maybe they don’t even expect him to be here. He’s sure Nezumi knows of his presence by now but could they have been sent by Morgan? Or some third party?

Have any proof?” asks the deputy. Smoker nods.

Right jacket pocket.”

He’s not stupid enough to reach for it himself. The deputy nods to an officer on his left and she moves forward with cautious confidence, reaching a meaty hand into his jacket pocket and pulling out his ID. She looks at it, looks at him, then takes it back to the deputy who takes it himself. Suspicion is radiating off of all of them. It’s a value Smoker can appreciate. The deputy hands it to another officer who slips into the car and radios for conformation.

And what brings you all the way out here?” the deputy asks, lifting his head so the light slips off his mirrored glasses.

Chasing down a suspect.” He’s not about to offer any more info than that, primarily because he’s not sure how to parse it in a way that wouldn’t sound suspicious and partly because it’s none of their damn business. The deputy looks like he’s going to ask but the one in the car says:

It checks out, sir.”

The officers all visibly relax, though Smoker doesn’t lower his hands until the guy gives him a wry smile and says:

Sorry for that.” He doesn’t sound apologetic but Smoker doesn’t fault him for it. He grunts and shrugs. The deputy holds out his ID and Smoker moves to take it and jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the house.

Incidentally, the ones you’re looking for seem mostly secured, but I’d be careful.” Again, checking for a reaction.

The Iron Mace Alvida Gang?” the deputy asks, mouth flattening into a grim line as Smoker nods. The deputy returns the nod then makes a circling gesture with his fist toward the house. An unspoken signal to move in.

Smoker gets out of the way to let them do their work, but hangs by close enough to the house to see if they need any help. They’re a brisk force, and efficient and it helps that most of the gang seems too worn out or bludgeoned to put up even a token resistance. Alvida though, comes to as they’re bringing her out; though not enough to wheeze a paltry, cliched:

You’ll pay for this!” before being loaded into the van with the others. The officers just seem grimmer and grimmer as the work goes on. Finally though they shut the door to the vans and the deputy comes up to him, taking off his sunglasses and running a hand over his head before setting the hat back on.

Thank you for the help, sir… But I have to say you sound a lot different over the phone.”

It’s nothing.” Then… “What?” Phone? Were they listening to his conversation with Tashigi somehow? Or in the Better Days Bar? None of that makes any sense.

Ah, never mind,” says the deputy, seemingly embarrassed. Then straightens. “But we took heart at what you said. And we’ll take the consequences of it-- because we’ve let corruption overrun us for too long. You’re were right to say we had to be brave enough to take the hard road if we wanted to enforce a thing called justice.”

Smoker stares at him. That sounds like something he would say, maybe, but he’s pretty damn sure he hasn’t. Before Smoker can bring this up, the deputy continues.

And don’t worry about them getting back. We’re shipping them up to Montana State Penitentiary. Just for a while.” He taps the side of his nose, saying this is hush hush and Smoker can only blink at him.

Montana.”

The man nods. “I don’t know how it is in Nevada, sir, but in Utah NGTF has precedence over police. Mostly on account of that damn ordinance.”

Smoker remembers that one. The Utah Protection Act or something like that. It’s only been four years since then and he doesn’t blame the guy for chafing under it. Even more so all the NGTF officers that the government imposed on Utah were from out of state except for Morgan. For Utah’s own good, they had said, but of course the real reason was they wanted to wrest control of gang related policing from the state before there was another bloody uprising.

Aside from history, what had happened here was either a case of Utahan law enforcement politicking or… or something Smoker couldn’t even begin to guess at. He suspects they aren’t lying though. That there was corruption. Alvida was left to run loose and Nezumi resisted interference. They are standing up for their own.

But then who in the hell had tied Alvida up in the first place and called them? What was their game?

And wait a second…

Smoker looks around and up. There are no vehicles other than the rusted out bug and the cop cars. So…

Doesn’t Alvida have a bus?”

She sure did… We heard it was heading North on 15, probably toward Shells… We thought maybe there’d been a snitch, or one of her own turned on her. But naturally…” and he made a gesture at Smoker that Smoker didn't get and didn’t have time for.

Maybe one of her punks stole it and took off.”

Could be. Still missing about four of them.”

Smoker grunts. Well probably a punk then. Though he couldn’t imagine a punk-- or even four of them, setting on their comrades and boss and succeeding in tying them up and calling the police on them. Especially since no one is dead or even maimed as far as Smoker can tell.

Well we have it all in hand here,” says the deputy. Then hesitates and adds: “Thank you again for everything. It’s good to know that not all NGTF are corrupt scum.”

Smoker raises his eyebrow at the last, but the first part has to be addressed before he does any such thing.

I didn’t do anything.”

The deputy looks startled, and then the wry smirk is back.

Of course not.”

It was probably one of her subordinates.” Since, that makes more sense. And otherwise it’s insulting. If Smoker had been going after Alvida or even just stumbled on her he’d be much more efficient than those punks.

Got it,” the deputy says. Smoker doesn’t think he gets it at all. The man is still smirking at him in a friendly way and the others are smiling too, seemingly relieved as the vans along with a sizable escort bump back along the way they came.

Smoker decides to let it go. The trail is getting cold and he’s sure that the thorough investigation that followed would show that Smoker didn’t have a single finger in this mess other than being there at the end of it. Though he is curious about what they do find.

He grumbles around his cigars and gets on his bike, pausing before pulling his goggles down.

Do me a favor and send a copy of your reports my office, would you? Reno office.”

Will do.”

Smoker nods, pulls down the tinted goggles and slips on his helmet. He turns the key and revs the engine, relaxing a little as the bike roars to life underneath him. He kicks off tearing down the road himself, and happens to glance in the rearview mirror to see the cops saluting him solemnly as if he’s some big damn hero. Heat stains his cheeks and he forces his gaze straight ahead. Idiots. Are they so desperate for a hero?

Maybe they are, Smoker reflects grimly as he turns on to what he can only marginally call the main road. Maybe Nezumi and Morgan are as seethingly corrupt as he fears they are. Maybe they’re transporting kids to a hard life in the circuit, using Alvida to cover up their dirty deeds, and making money off the vulnerable brats who end up missing, end up beaten, end up dead. The willing kids, the strong ones, the desperate ones, they could pass off in the Salt Lake Arena. The others? Well there were other places. Worse places.

He doesn’t want to believe it. He doesn’t like Nezumi and Morgan and they wouldn’t be the first NGTF agents to be corrupt. But he doesn’t want to believe that they’d sunk this low. He doesn’t want to believe that the two other agents in this state are either too stupid or too lazy to notice; or worse, part of it. He doesn’t want to believe that it took some punk to finally have enough to galvanize the police to action, to take down a gang from the inside; because no one else will do their job.

If it’s true it means that the entire state is corrupt from within. That resentments are boiling. That kids who might otherwise choose differently don’t. It’s easy enough to convince them with parties and dreams, but how much easier if you have authority? If you can promise them that no trouble would come from it and why not trust the law? Especially if they could make it difficult for the kids otherwise.

And the most unsettling question, cold in his gut…

If the NGTF uses the gangs for their benefit, what’s the difference between them and the gang? And how many others are there, seeping tendrils of power across their territories? And those who gather power want to use it. He can see another Bloody December. Another Red War.

He doesn’t want to believe it, but if turns out to be true, he will do everything in his power to stop it; regardless of consequence. There are too many already in the lost generation. There doesn’t need to be more.

Smoker shakes his head. There’s no point in worrying about all that now. All he can see are the tracks right now and soon he will see what beast made them. But first he has to get to Shell’s Town.


***

The shopping district of Shell’s Town hasn’t changed much in the five years since Smoker has been here. There are shops lining either side of the pedestrian area which is laid with red and white bricks in rings of circles like ripples. The bricks are flecked with something, too, that catch and glitter in the late afternoon sunlight. At intervals, wrought iron arch ways cross over from building to building, depicting curling iron leaves and some kind of ammonite in a circle in a center. Lot of fossils around here, Dadi had told him once. Fossils and shells. As if it had once been part of some prehistoric ocean.

The main difference between then and now is that the shops are open and buzzing with a thin crowd of people, not closed with shattered windows lying like mirror fragments or curling with acrid smoke into the frost bitten air. There are shoppers and families eating ice cream at the parlor, rather than exhausted; dead eyed agents and bounty hunters waiting for the next inevitable wave. There is a distinct lack of gunfire, a distinct lack of blood. And in that store directly to his left, couches of a variety of shapes and sizes have replaced blood soaked gurney tables, weary medics, and rows of still forms, covered in the white and blue of the NGTF, and then blankets of whatever they could find.

They had called it Hell’s Town then, Smoker thinks, staring at the innocuous couches. One is plush and purple and the cushions are so stuffed they remind of him of squarish grapes. He’s not sure if he wants to sit on it or eat it. They would have been happy to do both back then when rations got low. Hell’s Town. Hell HQ. The last bastion of hope and the final retreat.

Smoker thumps the twist of flowers absently against his thigh and moves to the alley beside the store. They’ve white-washed over it by now, but he can still make out the indentations of names, drawings, marks of anger and resentment. The filing cabinet, they called it. When someone said they were going to file a report, they were coming here, to lament their fate, the fate of their friends, the expected massacre which had felt inevitable at the time.

And if Smoker stood to the right, pressing his back against the wall, he can just see the entrance to the alley where he and Dadi stood back to back on that last day; surrounded by the more bloodthirsty contingent of the Senor Pink Gang, gritty snow, dirty with ash had swirled down on them. They hadn’t said their goodbyes to one another but they’d thought them, Smoker was sure. And was more than sure they’d both thought of Dadi’s small struggling family. What they would do when his body arrived with a note of apology and a small renumeration for a few years. But not much. Not then. Barely any now.

Smoker remembers his life flashing in front of his eyes--and being annoyed as he’d considered himself above the cliche. He’d remembered growing up in the small ragged streets of Reno which had barely been a town then but a gang war waiting to happen. Of meeting Roger. Of hitching his way cross-country the next year to see him executed with that damn smile on his face. That one night with Hina when they’d gotten completely wasted on tequila and had woken up naked on the other side of the border with policia glaring down at them, and then having to spend an embarrassing weekend in a Mexican jail.

Admittedly that wouldn’t have been a bad memory to go out on. And yet they hadn’t. Gunfire in the distance had marked the arrival of the calvary….supposedly. And though any other self respecting gang would have taken their vengeance on at least one of them, they’d scattered--with a strange reluctance. Though why they had been so… eager to leave when they had no idea who the gunfire had come from Smoker still hasn’t been able to figure out.

And it had all been due to Morgan… somehow. Who Smoker frankly thought had died a few weeks into it. But he’d came back and saved everyone one handed; not that he’d had much choice in the matter at that point. Though it had never been quite clear how he and his bunch of shockingly well trained new recruits had managed it. Smoker had smelled a rat. But back then he’d just been glad to get somewhere warmer and drier and have a good night’s sleep without risking being shot in the head in the middle of the night.

Still, something must have checked out because Morgan had been promoted to captain and had been called the hero of Utah or something stupid like that. Which is fine. Sure. Okay. Utah needs a hero, he supposes, even if it is an idiot. But he can’t help but think the statue is a little much.

Smoker is standing in front of it now, just to the left, refusing to be in its shade. It’s about ten feet tall, made of stone on a stone plinth, making it even taller, and almost disgustingly detailed. Every muscle is outlined, every vein, even the tiny one that seems to continually throb at his temple.

Equally lovingly detailed is that big stupid ax that Morgan has in place of a right hand, the stone there is even flecked with the same mica stuff that the brick is made of so that it glints in the sun. Smoker scowls at it. He hates that stupid thing. He hates the sound it makes when it screeches across the linoleum when Morgan pulls in his chair in regional meetings. He hates the sight of that thing resting on the table, blocking the view and eating through the wood. He hates the sight of it resting at Morgan’s side near the floor and casually threatening every trembling intern who comes in to pour coffee with blood loss and third degree burns. He hates the way that meeting Morgan on the opposite side of a doorway or unexpectedly around a corner feels like a death sentence waiting to happen.

Watching him trying to get through the regional office’s tiny revolving door is a riot though. No one has told him about the back entrance and Smoker sincerely hopes no one ever will.

All that, though, Smoker can tolerate. It’s fine. He doesn’t even scowl too much at the words “Utah’s Greatest Hero Ax-Hand Morgan” placed in gold letters just under the statues entirely too detailed shoes. What pisses him off the most and what makes him want to bury a fist into that obnoxious face whenever he sees it, is that below all that stupid grandeur are the names of every agent and cop and bounty hunter who died during or because of that damn gang war. Names just etched into stone, lost in shadow. As if they didn’t fight the three grueling months. As if they didn’t have family. As if Morgan who had survived and hell-- even if he had been the greatest hero Utah had ever known--was more important than the people who had been killed so that he could take the credit.

Smoker sighs and unclenches his jaw, reminding himself that this probably wasn’t Morgan’s decision. He tells himself this because otherwise he’d seriously consider-- if not homicide than at least very aggravated battery.

He shakes his head and looks down at the names instead. Reading them. Remembering them as best he can. As much as he has time to. There are a few he doesn’t know. More he doesn’t remember. A few which still sting like a closing wound pulling open unexpectedly. He puts the flowers at the base of the plinth along with a few paltry others, and rests there for a moment and then stands and moves on, not even casting a backward glance at that stupid statue.

He has to go to the NGTF office for one and try to talk to the jerkoff without giving him a black eye.


***


As it happens it’s pretty easy not to give Morgan a black eye as he’s not there. Smoker stomps through the headquarters once more, clenching and unclenching his hands. In fact no one is here. Not even a receptionist. Not even any one in the cells. Nor a janitor. In fact it looks like it hasn’t been used for some time. There’s dust everywhere. The filing cabinets are empty.

Did they move their base of operations to a different town without telling anyone? Or is Smoker just out of the loop? He wants to call Tashigi and ask only there doesn’t seem to be a damn phone anywhere around the place. Maybe there’s one in the waiting room, or outside it. There had better be, Smoker thinks as he slams back into the waiting room. Or he is going to take Morgan’s ax and shove it so far up his ass--

A quiet yelp diffuses his anger somewhat and he looks around to see a woman, leaning back in the starched chair with a white knuckled grips on the chair arms. She is pale and seems terrified; her face getting even paler as he stares at her waiting for her to say something. A tremble works up her arms and he has the feeling if she wasn’t holding on to something she’d be shaking like a leaf in a hurricane.

Don’t faint,” he says, maybe a little harsher than he meant to because she flinches like he’d hit her. He probably had said that a bit harsher than he meant to. Smoker looks away and slowly counts to a hundred forwards and backwards until he feels calm enough not to want to beat Morgan senseless with a jitte immediately after he sees him. Maybe he’ll wait a few minutes. Then turns to look at the woman once more who has been staring at him as if she’s plucking up the nerve to do something.

What?” he says. Then realizing that too might be a bit harsh, adds. “Can I do for you?”

That doesn’t sound stupid at all.

The woman swallows and stands, folding her hands in front of her. He tries not to stare at her too hard because Tashigi says that sometimes it makes people feel uncomfortable. Not that Smoker usually gives a damn but this woman seems to have it hard enough.

W-well. It’s… just that… my daughter is missing, sir,” she says softly.

Have you checked with the police?” If it was gang related, sometimes police deferred the case to the NGTF. If they weren’t in the gang’s pockets or otherwise assholes. She shakes her head, tucking her hair behind her ear.

They’re gone…”

What?

What do you mean gone?”

They’re not there. I’ve…checked the station but…”

“…What the hell is going on here?”

She shrugs, looks away, bites her lip. Maybe she knows something. Maybe she’s just terrified.

Have you called 911.”

They won’t come… Not for this…”

This…?” She definitely knows something. She’s terrified of knowing it. Though she’s looking at him as if she’s surprised he doesn’t know…

You… are you new?”

From out of town.” He flips open his ID. “Nevada NGTF.”

She peers at it and then seems to relax somewhat but her shoulders are still angled and her fingers clenched together. Then she nods and digs in her purse, holding out a wad of money to Smoker, cheeks flaming with determination.

Than please take this for the Lemonade Tax and help me find my daughter.”

Lemonade Tax?” What the hell is that? And does she not get he’s from out of state? No she must. She’s not stupid. Smoker rubs a hand through his hair. “I’ll help you find your daughter,” he says because apparently no other asshole will. “But I won’t take your money…”

But…” She swallows… then looks away and hurries over to the receptionist desk and stuffs the money into a slot by the wall. Smoker narrows his eyes. That should not be there. He folds his arms and tries to appear relaxed as she turns back to face him.

Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

The woman takes a deep breath then lets it out.

Yesterday… my daughter set up a little stand to help raise money for a school trip. It was just in our yard. I didn’t think it would cause any problems but… Well… Sir Helmeppo came along and…”

Sir Helmeppo?”

She nods. “Captain Morgan’s son.”

Sir Helmeppo.” He snorts. “Sounds like a damn muppet.”

A startled laugh chirps out of her and she covers her mouth in an instant, face pale. Then she shakes her head and grips her purse strap with both hands as if trying to anchor herself.

Well… she gave him lemonade… and you know he just about drank all of it and… well wanted more and took her money for the lemonade tax which I swear we didn’t know about…”

She’s looking to him as if seeing how he’ll react and he grunts and nods. Even if that wasn’t the most bullshit tax he’s ever heard of, he’s damn sure the NGTF doesn’t have the power to tax anyone even in Utah.

And well… she’s a very placid girl usually but… she…called him… Well…. a stinker.”

Smoker snorts a laugh at that.

Apt.”

A nervous smile twitches from her and she seems to relax even more. But then her face goes downcast.

Well he took affront to this and set his dog on her.”

Smoker decides he’s going to give that muppet a very bad day, but just grunts and nods and leaves all thoughts of retribution for when he can actually utilize it.

And then…this man…” the woman holds up a hand. “I swear we’ve never seen him before. He’s probably someone from the circuits because he was carrying some swords around. But we have no connection with him other than what he did…”

What did he do?” Smoker asks, feeling something dark curl in the pit of his chest. He can already smell blood in the air.

He… well… he…he killed the dog.”

He blinks in surprise. That he didn’t see coming.

I’m sure he didn’t mean to… but… that dog has been known to leave grown men with stitches and Rika is only eight. Of course Sir Helmeppo was rightly furious and had him arrested. “

Poor bastard.

And … well…” she takes another breath. “This morning she… well we thought she went to school, but then a few hours ago we found a note saying she was going to go rescue him.”

He likes that kid. Brave of her.

She’s just a little girl,” the woman says in a rush, coming closer and raising a hand as if reaching for him. “I know what she’s doing is illegal and tarnishes the pride of someone as great as Captain Morgan but…”

Smoker holds up his hands. He gets what she’s doing but if he hears any gushing about that bastard he’s going to have to put his fist through something.

I’ll bring her back,” he says. “You don’t have to convince me.”

She blinks, clearly startled by this and then her eyes go glassy as she puts a hand over her mouth. Oh damn. Smoker looks away. Crying anyone just…just makes him damn uncomfortable. He wants to tell her to hold it in but refrains and instead chews on his cigars.

Well she’s not here,” Smoker says, trying to stave off the storm and hopes that if she keeps her engaged she won’t cry.

No… I don’t think they use this place… Except there’s usually a liaison at the desk.”

Liaison huh? He’s liking this less and less.

Where is he usually found.”

The woman stares at him. Presses her lips together. Looks away. Her hands clenching once more.

I won’t let him hurt you,” Smoker says evenly. She seems startled at this and then, nose flaring, nods and grabs his sleeve. She pulls him outside and then stops short, clearly surprised once more.

Just turn left on this street and head down Clover Road. Going west. It’s where the old prison used to be.” And she points. And above the houses, he can see a roiling cloud of black smoke rising into the air against the hazy backdrop of a snowcapped mountain.

Something else is burning…

He can’t jump to conclusions. It might not be connected to Morgan… But what if it is? And what if it’s further tied to Alvida. Could Alvida’s punks have a grudge against him? It would have to be a hell of a grudge. And it doesn’t sit right. Maybe if this had happened in the span of a few weeks but at most it’s only been three days. Anyone who is that strong is not going to be so casually part of Alvida’s gang. But who else could it be?

Are you alright?” the woman asks tentatively. Smoker nods. Then turns toward her.

Wait for me--” Here… but no that isn’t a good idea. Her address? No he might be tracked. “…Is the Sunshine Cafe still operating?”

She nods.

Meet me there. There’s still a payphone outside right?”

Another nod.

I’ll use that…” Oh wait… He pats around for his notebook and holds it out to her.

Put a number.”

Thank you,” she says faintly, voice tremulous as she wipes at her eyes before jotting down a number. “Thank you so much…”

He grunts. And takes it back, glad she didn’t stain the book with her tears. He’d have to get a new one after that and….and give this one to Tashigi or something because something about a notebook stained with a mother’s tears gives him another case of… of something unnameable.

He’s just about to go when another thought occurs to him.

Do you remember the man who saved her? What he looked like?” With any luck he can rescue that guy too. He can’t like him for killing a dog-- but there’s something to be said about justice and extenuating circumstances. At least there better be. If he killed the thing just because he’s some nut job who says he likes to help but really enjoys the hunt, Smoker is going to leave his ass where it is.

Let’s see… It all happened so fast I….” She shakes her head. “I don’t remember much but he was about…so tall…” About a head taller than her. Okay. He jots this down. “His early twenties or so…” he jots this down too. “Green hair, I remember that.” The pencil pauses. Green hair?

No…

It can’t be…

It would be way too damn much of a coincidence if…

Earrings….” She says. “Three of them…” and she holds three fingers up to her ear as if showing how dangly they are.

He blames Garp for this brain breaking coincidence. He really does. He’s not sure how but that man has somehow engineered the exact situation to drive Smoker absolutely bonkers. Nothing should be so easy, his instinct tells him. Nothing so connected! Unless his green haired ‘friend’ is trying to use him for something. Show up. Make a good show. Attack Morgan’s base of operations…if that’s what he did… and how they slip under the radar? Well an unassuming kid… thirteen, fourteen, with that big of a smile… who would suspect a thing…?

Yes….

Except what does any of that have to do with damned Alvida?! Or the missing kids?! And why is everything burning?!

Um…” the woman says, sounding unnerved again.

I’ll be back,” Smoker says and then hates himself for sounding like an American Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then he heads toward his bike, trying to focus on the task at hand.

Helmet on.

Goggles on.

Bike started.

His head clears a bit as he starts down the road. Waits for an impala to make a right on Clover Road before he makes a left. The song ‘Wayward Son’ begins to roll sweetly into the air, probably from the impala, and somehow calms him a little.
They have bad taste in cars, but good taste in music.

He focuses on the road then, relaxing by degrees though never quite losing the tension.

He’ll find the answers when he gets there, he tells himself.

He better find some answers when he gets there.

Because if he doesn’t he’s pretty sure he’s going to lose it.


***

Smoker folds his arms and leans against a concrete post as he stares at the scene in front of him. He’s not enraged at being clueless. He’d almost rather be. Instead there is a knot in his gut of a deeper kind of anger. Something cold and slow burning and isn’t going to be released by locking up a few punks. Mostly because it seems that he’s going to be right in every way he does not want to be.

The old prison is still burning, sending cinders and smoke into the air for miles, though being attacked by a contingent of resident firefighters. He’s fairly sure it once belonged to Morgan, not that he can prove it in court, but there is another statue of the man lying on its side in the prison yard, thoroughly beheaded. The asshole is not subtle.

Morgan is also there, lying on his back on the cracked concrete, obviously slugged to unconsciousness-- and even his stupid ax is cracked. Smoker has a grudging respect for whomever did that. But only grudging because he suspects he knows. The other NGTF agents in Morgan’s entourage are lying more or less where it appears they’ve fallen and some of them have been tied up as well. He doesn’t want to feel so approving of that, either, but he’s never liked them anyway. They had been part of “Morgan’s Charge” back then, and were just scrumbly no accounts, deputized into the force because of outstanding courage and so on and so forth. Smoker had only heard about it second-hand but it had still smelled fishy to him. Maybe if there had been one or two of them burning to join the overworked and underfunded force, but all twenty? They were up to something, Smoker was sure. And now he’s even more sure.

Standing over them and more or less guarding them are the town’s police. He doubts it’s the entire police force. Or if it is, it’s damn small. Ten, fifteen guys at most. Of course Morgan could have deliberately been keeping the police force small since it was cheaper than keeping them in his pocket-- or the woman could have been lying about everyone being gone from the station to push Smoker into going. He hopes it’s the latter. In any case he knows some of these guys from that time. Ripper, obviously in charge, whose gotten into that whole square facial hair thing-- Rokkaku, a little older, who had always been into that facial hair thing-- and the iron-haired Ukkari who is nervously bouncing a truncheon against his palm as he stands over a heap of tied up agents. He likes them. They’re good men. … Or were when he knew them.

Among their number is a member of Alvida’s gang. Another weight of evidence against Morgan, and another weight where the connection would be difficult to prove. Smoker takes a clandestine picture of him. Pink hair, thick glasses, the scrawny intense type that looks to be a calculator away from wearing a pocket protector. He doesn’t look like any of the other members of Alvida’s gang, but he is wearing a violently purple shirt with the words: Gorgeous Self by: Alvida, written across it-- which matches the words and the design scheme on the equally violently purple bus parked nearby.

Smoker’s not quite sure what to make of it, honestly. On one hand that he seems part of the police group doesn’t bode well. But on the other, he’s the only one Smoker knows about who could have betrayed Alvida, made the call and stolen the bus. If it was one of her minions that did it. There are no other purple shirts around though and Smoker can see this kid losing a fight with a pigeon provided it is angry enough. Maybe someone had had him act as a plant in Alvida’s gang? But who? And why? Maybe Smoker can interrogate him later and suss out the truth. Or at least narrow it down from the lies.

He’s more inclined to believe the kid is on the up and up, as much as a former gang member can be, because of the most damning piece of evidence against Morgan.

That is the mess of teenagers of varying ages, resting on the far side of the prison yard away from the smoke and ash. Some of them are chained against the fence, looking sullen and resentful. But more are being treated by a foursome of EMTs. Some of them looked like they’d been beaten fairly recently, or gotten into a fight. Not in the past few hours but a day or so ago. One was missing a limb. A few of them had gaunt faces and hollow eyed expressions that seemed like they hadn’t been fed in a while. But all of them looked dazed and lost. Smoker wonders if he sorts through Dadi’s clippings, how many of the faces will match.

Not that he can prove Morgan has a hand in this, Smoker thinks, grinding his cigars a bit. At least not with what he has now which is a whole lot of circumstantial evidence. He takes a picture of the kids too. And the bus. And the fallen agents. The burning building. At most he can make a tentative Alvida connection. But even photographs would only get him so far.

Another part of the problem is he is missing the biggest piece of the puzzle. Something has changed drastically from what the status quo had been. That much is obvious. But who is behind it? Who thrashed Alvida? Who thrashed Morgan’s men? Who set the building on fire? Who kept setting things on fire? And, more importantly, why? What was their angle? The only connection he has to any of this throughout is the green-haired kidnapper. But what could he have to do with all of this? He doesn’t seem to be here to wring the answers out of though. Nor Monkey, Luffy D. Smoker chews on his cigars a bit in frustration, then decides to let it go for now. He takes a few more pictures for posterity and then makes his way to where the police and the scrawny gang member are standing.

What are you going to do now?” Scrawny is asking. Ripper takes off his hat and wipes the sweat from his forehead.

Not sure. We can’t arrest him.”

Not legally anyway,” one of the officers grumbles darkly.

Why not tie him up and leave him in the desert?” suggests another. The lack of grim laughter that follows this statement makes Smoker think at least some of them are seriously considering it.

No,” Ripper says. “We have no choice but to tell Pudding Pudding and hope for the best.”

Smoker’s pretty sure he’s the region leader if only because with a name like that he can only be from California and those bastards always got high placements. Nepotism is, as always, alive and well.

He has it too good with Morgan around,” Ukkari grumbles. “He wouldn’t want to miss another ski vacation.”

What about Fullbody?” suggests an officer.

He wouldn’t notice anything unless it’s has the word ‘resort’ over it.”

Smoker snorts. He’s starting remember why he liked Ukkari. It’s all very informative, though. If a bit too informative. It’s always possible it’s being staged for his benefit. Either way, he’s not so easily lead.

We’ll put them in a holding cell for now I suppose,” Ripper says, sounding strained but resigned. “Though the question is, where?”

Have you tried Montana?” Smoker says.

It’s almost comical the way they all whirl to face him at once. Less so that more than half of the police pale and get the sudden guilty/ horrified expression of men who know they are in deep shit. Even Alvida’s Scrawny knows he’s in trouble, blinking at him behind thick glasses and holding a broken piece of wood in front of him as if it’s a weapon.

Who are you?” Scrawny asks.

Sergeant-Major…” Ripper says with a tense nod.

Captain now,” Smoker says and then to the wary question in Scrawny’s eyes. “Nevada NGTF.”

A ripple of tension goes through the officers who obviously didn’t know that before now and Scrawny swallows and then hefts the wood.

Congratulations,” says Ripper stiffly and Smoker waves it away.

I’d-- “ Scrawny starts than swallows, then squares his shoulders and hefts the wood a bit higher. “I’d get out of here if I were you.”

Would you.” What is his deal anyway? Might as well take a stab in figuring it out. “You’re really hell bent on defending Alvida’s property, aren’t you?”

Scrawny’s face goes red.

No! This isn’t hers! It’s his!” And he jabs the wood at where Morgan is lying. “He’s the one whose behind all of it.”

Trying to defend Alvida’s honor then?”

No, I--!” The kid stops, looks away, sweats, adjusts his glasses. “I have no idea who that is.”

Smoker stares at him. Really? Is that really the line he’s going for?

And this is--?” he plucks at the collar of the shirt.

I-- I -- I like ironic t-shirts.”

Bullshit,” Smoker says, leaning in a little. And then, just to see: “Did the green haired man help you?”

Green haired man?” Scrawny says, sweating and laughing and rubbing the back of his head. “I don’t know any green haired man. What are you talking about? Haha”

Smoker looks up at the police who straighten and look to the side sweating as well. They really can’t lie worth a damn but why are they protecting the green haired man? Unless he really did pull their asses from the fire.

Look,” he says, and everyone tenses, but then he’s distracted by a high scream directly behind him and everyone jolts.

Stop!” Scrawny says.

No!” the officers say, or variations of.

Smoker turns just in time to be hit in the chest with a baseball bat. It’s a pretty hefty bat, too, if on the small side. It doesn’t hurt more than a sting though considering the height of his attacker he’s glad she didn’t jam it into his stomach instead. He grabs the bat, just to still it and prevent her from enacting that sort of plan. It’s Rika, he thinks. Or at least she fits the bill. Eight years old. Girl. Wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle hoodie and a corresponding mask. He’s even more impressed she picked the smart choice. Even if he’s seen far too much purple today, Donatello is the brains of the outfit and not like that Raphael punk that every wanna be badass on the playground wants to be like.

I won’t let you hurt them,” she says, struggling to get the bat away.

I’m not going to,” Smoker says. Since for right now he has no reason to, and if they were going to attack, they would have already. He crouches down to her level, holding the bat against his shoulder and holds out his other hand.

Name’s Smoker.”

She gives him a dubious look before taking it.

Rika…”

Your mother is worried about you.”

She nods. “I wanted to help Zoro. No one else would…”

The police look down and away, shame radiating off them. Smoker can’t blame them too much. There isn’t much they can do short of starting something and starting something around here could be seen as a rebellion; making it all too easy for Morgan to quash them. It’s the system that failed her, not them. And also…

Zoro? Green haired man?”

Rika opens her mouth, then closes it.

Don’t know.” And she looks away, filling her cheek with air. Smoker kind of wants to poke it but lets it go. It answers the question anyway.

He stands, letting her have her bat back and she grips the bottom of his jacket.

But Morgan is a really bad man,” she says earnestly. “Mom is always worried about taxes and stuff like that and if you don’t do what he wants or his stinky son wants then he’ll do bad stuff to you.”

It’s true,” says Ripper. “We preserved most of the documentation to prove it.

Fine,” Smoker says, not sure if he entirely believes them even if he mostly does. “But why burn down the place to begin with.”

The officers look at one another. Sweating again. Clearly hiding something. Smoker folds his arms and glowers at them.

To prevent anyone else from using it,” Scrawny says, drawing Smoker’s attention back to him. His shoulders are slumped, piece of wood fallen to the ground as he rubs an arm. “It…it’s more than just him. Nezumi is in on it too. They … Alvida…” he swallows. “… We brought a lot of kids here. At first I thought it was just… bringing dumb kids to fight in the circuits but…” Scrawny’s voice went rough. “He was selling them to other people. I don’t know who. You can ask them. They say there were auctions sometimes. Some… some of them have numbers tattooed on their backs… they say… they were told the only way of getting out if they changed their minds was to die.”

Smoker can’t even make fun of the melodrama of it all… Because he feels more and more it’s the truth. He can see it in the face of this scrawny kid. In Rika’s distant sad stare at the teens across the way. The officers shame. And the hollow faces of those who were still sitting against the fence, likely still in shock.

Still, even though Smoker mostly believes them-- people can say anything. Documents can be forged or corrupted. All that is for the courts to decide in the end, but as he sees Morgan stirring, he sees an opportunity for his own satisfaction and moves to stand in front of the man. Morgan sits up, grumbling and rubbing his head with his non-stupid hand. Smoker stares down at him, waiting for the man to realize he’s there and acknowledge him. Morgan blinks. Narrows his eyes.

You… What are you doing here?”

Are you going to give me a cut in this deal or what?” Smoker says, gesturing to where the teenagers are. Morgan looks over and clicks his tongue.

Greedy bastard. Is that what you came out here for?” He rises to his feet and cracks his neck, immediately wincing after. “Fine you help me clean this mess up and I’ll let you in ten percent.”

Smoker nods. In a way it’s almost a relief.

In that case you’re under arrest.”

If Morgan’s jaw could actually move, Smoker is sure it would be slackjawed. The man sputters a bit and then the white is replaced with scarlet rage.

Who do you think you’re going to arrest?!” Morgan roars, coming after him with the ax. No subtlety. Not a damn ounce. Smoker steps back from the first strike, though it’s close, and then catches the second in the crook of his jitte. The ax rings against the metal and more cracks form in it, Smoker notes with pride. Then he twists the jitte before Morgan can pull away, twisting the man’s arm with it and he yelps in pain, before throwing a wild punch with his free hand. Smoker catches it with a grunt. He may be an moron but he’s a fairly strong one.

Fine! Fine!” Morgan says, struggling to pull away and scowling. “Fifty percent! You scum!”

Idiot,” Smoker says mildly as he tries to figure out what he’s going to do. In his wilder days he might have gone for a headbutt but he’d like to think he is more refined now and in any case, he’d be headbutting that damned iron jaw of Morgan’s and he doesn’t want that kind of headache.

So he takes a lesson from Rika and plants a booted foot in the man’s sternum, and then getting his target, gives it a good hard stomp. Morgan wheezes, eyes bulging and bloodshot. Then his head rears back. Smoker realizes what he’s going to do but there is no time to get away before the man’s forehead cracks down on the top of his head, sending splinters of light across his vision. Smoker has the presence of mind to kick Morgan away from him even as he staggers back a few steps, his head reeling.

Morgan staggers but doesn’t fall, though he’s panting hard, ax at his side.

Sergeant-Major!” Ripper calls, alarmed. “Do you--”

Smoker holds up a hand. No he doesn’t. If they try and help they’d only make it worse and he needs focus.

What is it…” Morgan says; wheezes. “You…think you’re doing? Justice?” He spits blood on the ground. “There is no justice in this world. There is only money. There is only pride! Respect!” He hammers his fist against his chest. “ If you expect anything else you’re deluding yourself.”

Babble all you want,” Smoker says, unimpressed. “You’re still getting arrested.”

Morgan scowls at him, wavering. Then turns and charges for the huddle of teens against the fence, ax raised. Smoker curses and takes off after him. The mobile teens shriek and try to scramble and the EMTs form a brave line in front of them.

Smoker is not going to let Morgan get that far.

He can’t sprint fast enough to catch up so he throws his jitte between Morgan’s legs.

Morgan curses and trips, giving Smoker just enough time to leap at him, jamming a knee into the small of his back and sending him crashing to the concrete. Morgan stirs but Smoker punches him in the back of the head and he goes still.

Not that he trusts this asshole.

Get me something strong to restrain him!” he barks.

A moment later Ripper and Scrawny come running up to him, carrying heavy chains that Smoker doesn’t even want to know where they got it from.

Ripper give me a hand,” he says, pulling Morgan’s arms behind him and cursing as he nearly cuts himself on the stupid life decision that lead the bastard to give himself a goddamned ax for a hand. He holds them there just in case as Ripper wraps the heavy chains around Morgan’s arms. Scrawny is standing by anxiously and Smoker nods at him.

Tie his legs.”

The kid nods and bolts off to get some rope.

Working together it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to tie Morgan up and then for good measure, Smoker sits on him, lighting a fresh pair of cigars and feeling the trickling, tickling sensation of blood starting to come down his forehead.

Um…” Ripper says, pointing. Smoker grunts and moves to wipe it away when a small voice shouts:

Don’t!” And Rika comes running up to them, looking concerned. “It’ll get infected.” She says. “You have to be careful.” And then she pulls a Ninja Turtles bandaid out of her pocket and Smoker holds still so she can stick it on.

Thanks,” he says and she grins wide.

Smoker can’t quite help not smiling back, but then covers it as he lifts his head and blows a stream of smoke skyward. The sun is starting to set. The first streams of gold and amber competing with the tired blue sky. He rolls his neck back and forth. It’s been a hell of a day.

After a moment he realizes how quiet it has become. The sound of the hose and the roaring of the fire has stopped. The firefighters are packing up wearily, shooting him wary glances. The EMTs are also glancing at him as they go back to tend the teens…who are looking at him to. And so are Ripper and the other officers and Scrawny kid and Rika but then she turns and sits beside him so at least maybe she was debating if she could or not.

The others he has no idea.

What?” he says to Ripper since he’s closest. Ripper spreads his hands.

What should we do?”

Oh right, as ranking agent here it’s his jurisdiction… And it’s a hell of a decision and he doesn’t want to think it all through right now. Mostly because the more he gets into it the more he’ll be into it and he doesn’t want to be stuck doing the paperwork.

Your discretion. I’ll take responsibility,” Smoker says, trusting the guy enough that he won’t decide to go on a bloody vendetta. “But I suggest?” He jerks his thumb at the teenagers. “Don’t treat those kids as criminals unless they decide to act like them. Give them a place to stay. Medical treatment. Solid meals. Someone to talk to. Help them find their families if they want. If they want to leave, let them go.”

Let them go? But…”

What are you going to do otherwise? Send them into the system they just left? They’ll just leave again and be even more resentful. But if you treat them with respect…” he shrugs. “Maybe you’ll be surprised.” But maybe not. Some teenagers could be outright assholes until they decided that growing up was better than pushing everyone away. Some never grew out of it. But that is just the way it is.

Ripper gives him a dubious nod. Whether he’ll listen to Smoker or not is up to him and Smoker can’t really fault him for whatever he decides. These kids are such a mess it’s hard to tell good decisions from bad ones.

And them?” He gestures to the NGTF agents.

Lock them up in your cells. I’ll get someone down here to take care of them. This is an order,” he says. “They don’t get calls. They don’t get contact with the outside world. Who knows who they know? And don’t fall for any Miranda Rights bullshit. For agents it doesn’t count.” Which is in and of itself a flawed system but justice had to flow and shift with circumstances or it would just run into the brick wall of the bureaucracy.

Ripper nods again and then walks away, calling orders in a brisk voice.

Rika leans against him and he has the feeling she’s tired, too. Scrawny is still there though, watching the goings on. Then whips off his glasses and makes a show of cleaning them on his shirt, his back partly to Smoker.

Can I ask you something?” Scrawny says distantly. Smoker grunts.

I don’t like what Morgan stands for… but… isn’t it true in a way? All this started because people cared about money more than justice… It… seems stronger…”

Smoker snorts.

"It's not. Justice is about fighting for what you want to because you know it's right.  Fuck the rest."

Scrawny nods, sniffs, puts his glasses back on and looks up into the sky what Smoker imagines is an inspiring moment he didn’t exactly intend to bring about.

Right… that’s what he said too.” A kind of wet laugh. “More or less.”

He? Probably not Morgan unless Smoker was really mistaken about a lot of things.

Who?” And then, trying to make a guess. “Zoro?” He had to find out if that was his first name or last because it sounded like a first and calling him by that was just damned awkward when he didn’t even know the dog killing kidnapper. Scrawny laughs again and smiles at him.

No… someone else.”

Huh?”

Rika giggles and Scrawny grins and Smoker decides he doesn’t really give a damn.

Not that much anyway.

It was probably Zoro.

Or Ripper. Hell. Go with that

Way to go Ripper.

Or was it?

Well who else could it be?

Smoker shakes his head. Going down that road leads to insanity and it’s not even a productive one so he’s just going to let it go. For now he’s just going to sit here and smoke until Morgan gets packed away-- and then he has a little girl to get home.


****


Smoker sits in the quiet darkness of Morgan’s air conditioned office, his hands behind his head and his feet kicked up on the desk. It’s been about two days since the chaos, and he’s only now starting to unwind from it. It didn’t help that between calling Garp and getting everyone wrestled into prison and listening to their endless bitching; he suddenly realized that whatever trail greenie kidnapersson and Monkey, Luffy D. had left, it was completely cold by now.

Well… almost…

He eyes the third page article of the Sports Section, buried deep, talking about the recent upset at the Salt Lake City arena due to an up and comer swordsman and a complete newcomer no one had ever heard of before. No names, which meant that they were underage. But he’s pretty sure the swordsman is this Zoro person. As for the other, Smoker isn’t inclined much to care…

But now that he knows… he can think on where Zoro would go next… He can track him through articles, find his pattern, see what he was up to. If Zoro’s involvement here was a fluke or part of some greater scheme he’d cooked up…. He’ll find out what it is, though. Sooner or later. And he won’t give up until he does.

In the distance he can hear cars pulling up. The soft hiss of the inner door opening, and the tapping of feet. Not furtive feet. Nor authoritative. Just the calm tapping of people who knew they belonged here. Smoker stretches and grunts when there’s a knock on the door, opening both eyes to see who it could be.

He’s relieved to see the fedora’d silhouette of Bogart standing there, his jacket hanging loosely around his shoulders, katana in his hand. Smoker knows next to nothing about him except he is Garp’s right hand man. Which means that this mess is being taken care of seriously and by someone who has more thought to the people rather than whatever political bullshit HQ cares about.

You did well,” Bogart says and Smoker snorts. At most he just stumbled into things. But kicking Morgan’s ass had been nice and a great workout besides; so he’ll take the compliment.

I thought you’d like to know that Morgan and his subordinates have been transferred to our custody and the others are under investigation.”

That’s going to be a mess.”

Hm.”

Another thing Smoker likes about Bogart. Keeps his cards close to his chest though not in any suspicious way. Just doesn’t babble about details that haven’t happened or that Smoker doesn’t care about.

He slides is feet off the table and picks up the newspaper before standing and is about to head out when a thought occurs to him.

Who’s filling in here? Someone out of state?”

Bogart eyes him, shifting back to let him by.

It was a consideration…” He tilts his head slightly. “Do you have someone to suggest?”

Smoker hesitates. It’s not really his business, but… ah hell with it.

Chief Ripper is a good man. Local.” Smoker can’t be entirely certain Ripper would be good for the job or if he has skeletons in his closet. But he feels like Bogart will vet him thoroughly, especially in this situation. Besides which, if Ripper does get promoted into the NGTF, he can’t be sued for assault of an agent.

We’ll look into it.”

Smoker nods, grabs his jitte and leaves the room to start down the hall, each step making him feel a little lighter in a way he can’t explain.

Is there anything you want me to tell Major Garp?”

Smoker considers.

No.” Nothing to tell the old man really. Not yet. But soon.

Happy hunting,” Bogart calls. Smoker waves at him over his shoulder. Then shoves his hands in his pockets and proceeds to ignore everyone else settling in. They are mostly from California, though, so they seem to be content at ignoring him too. Which is one thing to like about Californians he supposes… Well that and Tashigi…

Outside, it’s a nice night. Balmy. A nice wind blows up from somewhere, smelling faintly of water. The sky is speckled with stars, settling in to watch over the world at the end of the twilight hour. No moon, though, but that suits Smoker fine. He gets on his bike, lights his cigars and then tilts his head to the breeze, closing his eyes.

First he’ll go home. Tie up a few loose ends.

And then…? Out. Hunting down that brat a little, but most chasing down the tangled ball of wire that the world has become. Someone is selling kids. To what end, Smoker doesn’t know. Who is buying, Smoker doesn’t know. But somehow or another he intends to find out.

For right now though… Smoker throws his helmet in the storage compartment and kicks off, roaring out of the parking lot, past side streets and soon is out on the open road with nothing but the desert and the mountains, the wind and the stars. And just for a little while…

He is free.

 

 
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The Remedy

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