In one way or another, we all try to fit in somewhere we don't belong: Maybe it's a city, a group of people, a job... or an escape.
Ramón downshifted as he came into the curve, eyes flicking across the display panel. He still had 15 seconds on Mansell and only three laps to go. He grinned, swinging smoothly into the curve, hugging the inside wall like a surfer in a tube.
He'd been running the Grand Prix every day for two weeks, and this was the first time he'd ever been out in front. It was the first time he'd lasted this far into the race.
Normally, Ramón stayed away from arcades. Once you found your game, it put a hook in you every bit as sharp and unshakable as synthetic cocaine. Just another way to escape the grind. Another way to kill time while you waited for death to catch up with you.
Ramón preferred to keep moving. Besides, he didn't have that kind of disposable income.
But Grand Prix was different. It was more than a game. It was real. More real than the twilit world of concrete, glass, and hurtling machinery outside the cubicle, the gray half-life that haunted him like the fading memory of a bad dream.
Grand Prix wasn't an escape into fantasy. It was an escape into reality of a higher order. A world where the sun still shone and being alive was the biggest thrill of all.
He'd been introduced by a skinny Japanese biker boy with long orange hair and amphetamine eyes. He sold the drugs Ramón brought him to bike gangs up in Kawasaki. "Magic," the kid had said. "Pure magic, you gotta try it."
It didn't look like much. A black plastic injection-molded cubicle with a flex-chair, steering wheel, floor pedals, and a stick shift. There was a thin white jump suit hanging on a hook. It was sour and sticky with the sweat of a hundred drivers and disinfectant. An equally foul-smelling full-face headset was clamped to the console with a pair of data gloves. Bundles of fiber-optic ribbons were attached to everything. The clothing was lined with electrodes.
The kid grinned, giving Ramón the thumbs-up. "Go ahead," he said in English. "It's oh-my-god totally fucking brilliant."
Ramón was unsure. A half-gram of synth -- synthetic cocaine -- cost less than a ride in this machine. And Ramón had tried VR games before -- a kick at first, but the thrill wore thin. It was like swimming through a computer-generated swamp. Moving was awkward and touching something just gave a mild electric shock, no real sense of touch.
He told the kid no, it was too expensive.
But the kid was eager. The absolute latest in VR technology. Real drivers used it for training. He started reading off the tech talk on the hype sheet taped to the side of the cubicle, rattling it off like it meant something. Explaining how newly-developed ultra-precise synchrotron rings had made it possible to pack billions of transistors onto microscopic protein chips capable of cruising along at something like a trillion instructions per second. How comprehensive brain-mapping allowed new micro-accurate electrodes to stimulate appropriate neural receptors and delude your brain into believing the simulation was real. How the latest sensory recording devices had been used to capture vast quantities of actual visual, aural, and sensory data that was then used to generate complex, interactive sensory fields so true-to-life you could feel the wind on your cheek and the grit in your eye.
"No way," said Ramón.
He offered to lend Ramón the money. If Ramón liked it, he could pay him back. If not, no problem.
And Ramón decided to give it a spin.
He was hooked immediately. Hooked so deep he was soon "borrowing" a little money from his employer -- not a smart idea since he worked for the Kotobuki branch of the Yamaguchi-gumi. But, then again, nobody ever said Ramón was smart.
All he wanted was to win. Just once. Then he'd stop. He would return the Yakuza's money before they'd even noticed it was gone.
He saw the plume of smoke as the voice crackled in his headset. "Crash on the inside corner at K 2.3! Watch out, Ramón -- Andretti's gone down."
"Shit!" He was all the way around the curve now and Andretti's Ferrari was right there in front of him, sheets of orange flame and oily black smoke rising from the wreckage. He saw Andretti somehow pulling himself from the twisted metal, thin tongues of flame licking at his crash suit.
Ramón slammed down another gear and swerved hard to the right. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Andretti scramble to the embankment, rolling in the grass, slapping at the flames on his suit. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could hear a siren, a mournful wail like the plaintive lament of some sad, wandering spirit.
He realized he'd over-steered too late. His British-built Fondmetal X6 spun wildly in a double 360 and slammed rear-end first into the crash wall on the other side of the track. The engine gave a desperate gasp and stalled. He quickly restarted it, watching as the other cars flew by, waiting for a chance to slide back into the slipstream. The warning display was blinking wildly. The tire indicators flashing red. The crankshaft an ominous yellow. He'd have to pit now.
He punched the display, calling up the lap times. He still had seven seconds on Mansell. If he moved now.... He flattened his foot on the gas pedal and popped the clutch, squealing back onto the track. Two cars were coming up fast. He flipped into third and peeled down the straightaway, waiting for the tach to hit 12,000 before shifting into fourth. He was doing 120 now. Maybe fast enough to stay out of trouble. The two cars roared past him.
He checked the lap times again. Now he only had two seconds lead on Mansell. That wouldn't be enough if he had to pit. He had to figure seven to ten seconds just to change the tires. And if the crankshaft went, he'd be out of the race.
He had about a kilometer of straightaway. A few seconds to think before he came around the final turn and to the pit-stop pullover. What to do?
He had to go for it, that's all. If he pitted, he was finished anyway. He just had to pray to God that his tires could hold on for the last two laps.
"Ramón, your tires are torn up," came the voice on his headset. "Your shocks are practically gone and your crank's looking iffy. You're gonna have to come in."
"Forget it," said Ramón. He glanced at the lap time readout. He was still holding his two-second edge on Mansell. But Yoshida was coming up fast behind them. Barely a second between him and Mansell. "I can still win this thing. The tires'll hold up. It's only two more laps."
He was turning now and sailing past the pits. His crew were flagging him. Fuck them, he thought. It's me who's gonna win or lose this thing, not them.
He careened into the hard right just past the pits and headed into the penultimate lap. He could feel the adrenaline juicing through his veins, steeling his nerves, stoking his will. 260 KPH. Pure speed. The purest rush imaginable. A flood of endorphins washed through his body. Goddamn but he felt good. Nothing could beat this sensation. Not even sex.
Two seventy-five now. The track was just a crazy gray blur sliding beneath his eyes. The people in the stands lost their individuality, blending into an amorphous multicolored mass. He glanced at the readout. He'd picked up half a second on Mansell. Yoshida was starting to fall further back.
He thought about that movie The Right Stuff. He and Jinky had rented it from the disc shop the other day, watched it on Jinky's big-screen. The picture was a little shaky; she'd scavenged the TV and it must have been 20 years old. It couldn't pick up satellite broadcasts. But that didn't matter -- it still beat the hell out of anything the other Kaitai-boys had. It was big and bright and it took the edge off those cold, homesick nights in their one-room mansion down in Kotobuki.
He remembered how the test pilots in the movie talked about a demon that lived beyond the sound barrier, inhabiting some kind of magical hyper-dimension where speed and time fused, a place just a step beyond human comprehension. He felt like he was heading for that place now, that if he just went a little faster, he would break through that barrier and speed effortlessly to the finish line, flying on some kind of spiritual automatic pilot.
He was coming into the triple hairpin now. He'd have to take them pretty fast if he wanted to keep his edge on Mansell and Yoshida. Both of them were old pros, much smoother on tight corners than Ramón. The acrid smell of burnt rubber was sharp in his nostrils.
The voice in the headset was shouting urgently, telling him to slow down, telling him his tires would vaporize if he didn't drop down to at least 180.
He shook his head, licked his lips, leather-gloved hands wrapped tight around the wheel, roaring into the first turn, easing off slightly on the accelerator, slowing to 220. The car's composite plastic frame shrieked under the strain. He breathed slowly, deeply. In. Out. In. Out.
He came out of the first turn, breathing hard. The linings of his gloves were slick with sweat. His heart was pounding so hard against his ribs it felt as if it were trying to smash its way through.
Second hairpin. Everything running in slow motion now. His concentration narrowed to a pinpoint, focusing on the thin line of probability that would take him safely through the turn. The smell of burnt rubber was overpowering now. It seeped in through the air vents in his helmet, stinging his eyes. Trails of black sooty smoke streamed over the chassis. The engine's whine had reached fever pitch.
"Slow down! Slow down!" screamed the voice in his headset.
He twisted the wheel to the right. The car shuddered, bucked violently, and flung itself forward. Metal ripped into the blacktop. He felt himself rolling, the car spinning around him. The warning display was an angry mass of flashing red indicators.
Finally the spinning stopped. The car creaked gently, leaning slowly into the embankment. Ramón cursed, blinking through tears, watching helplessly as Mansell sailed by, a chrome-edged streak of blue and white light.
Then everything went black. Red letters flashed in the darkness.
Ramón pushed up the LCD visor and pulled off the headset, careful not to get entangled in the bundle of ribbons connecting it to the console. He hooked the helmet onto the clamp next to the console and stood up, unzipping the electrode jump suit and carefully sliding out of it. The display monitor blinked harshly at him. "No. 18 R. Ventura. Disqualified." Then it ran through the top ten finishers. Yoshida had won it. By a fraction of a second. It took a little of the edge off his disappointment -- at least it hadn't been Mansell.
Ramón stepped out of the cubicle and lit a cigarette, still trembling. It was the best race he'd ever run and he hadn't even placed. Next time. For sure next time.
A swarm of tiny silver spacecraft from the Earth Defense Force holo game buzzed past his head, laser cannons shooting needle-thin beams of light at an approaching Death Star the size of a baseball. He blinked, startled. A couple of Japanese kids in tight black shorts and thigh-high socks giggled, jerking their joysticks frenetically.
Ramón put on his sunglasses, muting the blaze of flashing neon, and walked unsteadily past the holos, legs like jelly, weaving a circuitous path through the dim, smoky arcade. A big-breasted, life-sized blonde woman in a bikini floated in the air just above him, arching her back like a cat. A gang of blue-suited sararimen were gathered around Desert Storm! The Holo Game, shouting loudly as wave after wave of sleek attack planes dove down on Iraqi positions.
Ramón didn't think much of these holo games. Just gimmicky versions of old video games. If anything, the added dimension merely emphasized the fakery. Cheap, dime store illusions with no style, no grace.
VR, on the other hand....
Ramón wondered what would happen when they down-sized the high-end VR sets for the mass market. How would they keep the economy going? How would they get people to leave their homes? With the option of tuning into a private reality at the touch of a button, living a life on the edge without ever leaving your sofa, why would anyone spend time in the "real" world?
Ramón supposed they'd figure something out. They always did.
Outside, a cold drizzle fell on the litter-strewn sidewalk. The smoky smell of meat on charcoal braziers filled the air. Ramón winced with hunger, but he wasn't in the mood for yakitori.
He hurried down the narrow sidewalk, deflecting the bristling arrays of out-thrust umbrellas with a practiced arm. Several wizened Japanese day laborers clustered on a blue plastic tarp near the yakitori stand, half-pint glasses of sake in their hands, giving up their day's wages to a hemiplegic Yakuza who waited there every day with his loaded dice and plastic cup stuffed with crumpled yen notes and black market cashcards. The Yakuza's paralysis made him look curiously unfinished, one side of his body hanging loosely from his skeleton like wet clothes, his face twisted in a perpetual sneer. He looked evil, fraudulent, deceptive. As if his character flaws had somehow been imprinted in his physical appearance.
Ramón stepped out onto the road, giving the group a wide berth. With his long straight hair, sunglasses, and all-black Japanese designer knock-offs, most Japanese didn't peg Ramón for a Filipino -- not at a glance anyway -- but these ones knew him and today of all days he didn't need the aggro. A smoke-belching delivery truck that must have been doing twice the speed of light screamed angrily at him with its horn, slapping him with a wave of muddy water as it sped by. The Yakuza laughed shrilly, calling him a Firupinjin baka -- Filipino idiot. The words were distorted, spat half-formed from one side of his mouth, inflections lost in a bubbly gurgle of saliva.
Ramón ignored him. He hurried on down the street, pushing his way through a raging tide of amplified noise and flashing lights. Blood-spattered fish mongers chanted out the day's catch, fierce-faced nationalist storm troopers screamed out for the return of the Northern Territories, elderly sweet potato sellers wailed discordantly about the deliciousness of their wares, whispering Iranian cashcard dealers offered discounts on stolen cards, and leering teenage touts in tuxedos jumped out in front of him singing the praises of the weary, soft-bellied women who stared mournfully from the dimly-lit windows above. And, through it all, the searing beat of some old hard-core metal rap blasted from 200-watt speakers hanging outside a disc shop, imposing a harsh rhythm on the swirling cacophony.
Ramón ducked down a side alley and cut through the grounds of an abandoned shrine. The silence was so sudden and the darkness so complete it was as if a soundproof door had slammed shut behind him.
He slowed down, breathing easier now. Rain splattered like a spray of spittle on his face. In the distance, the edge of the darkening sky began to glow orange with the city's lights.
He was soaked through by the time he got back to his apartment building, a gray and unwelcoming, six-story terraced concrete block. The foyer was covered in strips of wet cardboard and smelled faintly of mildew and cat piss.
A sheet of paper covered in scrawled Japanese characters was taped to the elevator door. He couldn't read it but he knew what it meant. Out of order.
He took the stairs, loping up them two at a time, pulling himself along the handrail. A wide crack -- a relic of the big quake last summer -- meandered up the side of the pitted concrete steps like a dried-up creek bed. The ammonia reek of cats was sharper here, stinging his nostrils. Fading scatological or sexual slogans in Japanese, English, Farsi, and Tagalog were scrawled on the walls.
He was panting lightly when he reached the fifth floor. A miniature crone, barely up to his waist, her head wrapped in a stained blue scarf, was pushing a stringy gray mop across the concrete floor. Her watery eyes flickered with animosity as he walked across the wet concrete. She grunted sourly when he greeted her.
Ramón shrugged and slid his card-key into the slot by the door to his apartment. The thick gray metal door wheezed heavily and clicked open.
Some Russian blues singer was on the mini-disc player. A hoarse rasping voice as cool and barren as the tundra. Arkady Somebody-or-other. Jinky's latest fave. She played it over and over again. Discs weren't supposed to wear out but Jinky's did.
Jinky was in the bathroom, doing her hair. Rainbow-streaked blond waves coiled high on her head, a few twisting strands artfully curled against her cheeks. The place reeked of hair spray. It made him sneeze. The bathroom floor was so coated with the stuff it was like some new high-tech glaze, slippery and indestructible.
Jinky was Israeli. A hostess, a hooker, and occasional performer in low-budget video porn. Her white skin and blonde hair assured her a remarkably high status -- where Japanese women were madonnas and Filipinas were whores, Western women were both. The fact that Ramón both slept with this woman and lived with her elicited respect and resentment from his fellow Filipinos. It also made him an outsider. And Ramón liked that just fine.
Jinky wasn't the only thing separating Ramón from the close-knit Filipino migrants. His discreet appearance, the easy way he blended with the Japanese crowds, and his near-flawless command of the language freed him from the hide-and-seek life of his compadres. He was taller than average and lacked the half-grown, underfed look of other illegals. His smooth, square-jawed face exuded an openness, a confidence that was almost American in its assuredness. It had none of the fatigue and bitterness so deeply etched in the harsh, hollow-eyed faces of the men who unloaded the freighters or carted away rubble from the construction sites.
Ramón never dirtied his hands at the docks or the construction sites. His conveniently illegal status and suave anonymity had caught the eye of a local crime boss; now he ran numbers and synth-cocaine for a local syndicate. The work was easy and the money was decent, but he knew it couldn't last. His value to the Yakuza rested solely in his expendability.
And if they found out he was stealing from them....
Jinky had told him if he wanted to live a life of crime, he should hook up with the Russians and Israelis in Shinjuku. The Russian mob was easily the world's most powerful crime syndicate. An international conglomerate headquartered in New York, it was everywhere -- Tel Aviv, Moscow, Berlin, Montreal, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo... the exuberant Russians showed an acumen and flair that made the more insular and tradition-steeped Italian, Chinese, and Japanese mobs look like small-time hoods. Join up with the Russians, Jinky said, and you can travel the world, go where the action is, see real glamour. You don't want to stay in Tokyo; it'll just suck you dry. Sure, it'll dazzle you with glitz and hyper-tech, spin you around so fast that you'll never see that the whole city's just an endless hall of mirrors.
Reflections of reflections of reflections.
Truth was, Ramón didn't want to live a life of crime. He didn't know what he wanted. In Manila, he'd been part of that city's tiny but tenacious avant-garde. A DJ and sometime band manager, he'd come to Japan out of an urge to get closer to the heartbeat of the modern world, a world that in Manila could only be experienced secondhand via bootleg discs and high-priced foreign magazines. Listening to the music, watching the videos, or reading the magazines stirred a lonely excitement in him, a wistfulness like a rummy standing outside an art gallery window, staring into the warm brightness where the rich and beautiful gathered, sipping champagne and popping designer drugs. People whose lives were so far removed from his they seemed to be in another dimension, glassed off and boxed in by reinforced steel and molded concrete.
Coming to Japan had been Ramón's way of stepping through the door. He was inside now, though still unsure of his welcome. Hugging the shadows along the walls, trying not to be noticed, reveling in the heat and scent of the bright and beautiful, admiring their easy elegance and polished pretentiousness, waiting for a word, a sign. Just a casual nod or a passing smile, anything acknowledging his existence, validating his reality.
The TV was on, the sound turned down, showing footage from the latest war in the Gulf. Part 4 or 5, he didn't know anymore. It went on and on. A big-budget spectacular for the jaded masses of North America and Europe.
The picture was grainy, unreal, wobbling. A target grid was superimposed over shadowy outlines of buildings. Petals of light blossomed in the night sky. Searchlight beams swung choreographed arcs through the darkness.
Arkady played the blues.
Jinky came out of the bathroom, her small body wrapped in a thin beige towel, made-up eyes bright and startled in her delicate oval face.
"Did you bring cigarettes?" she asked. "I'm out."
Ramón fumbled in his pocket, staring at the faraway explosions on the TV. He found a crumpled pack of cigarettes and gave them to Jinky.
"I might not be home tonight," she said, lighting a cigarette. "Sato-san's booked in."
"He the Mitsubishi one?" said Ramón distractedly, still staring at the TV.
"Yeah," she nodded, sucking in a lungful of smoke. "Big tipper."
Ramón picked up the remote control and turned off the war. "We've gotta upgrade," he said.
"What? The TV? What's wrong with it?"
He turned to face her, looking into the startled eyes. "No. Not the TV. Us. You and me. We gotta upgrade."
"Don't start pulling any macho possessiveness trip on me. What you do is just as sleazy as what I do." She ground out the cigarette in an empty sardine tin. "I gotta get ready."
He followed her into the bathroom, watched as she built her face, layer upon layer, with delicate pencil lines and sweeping brush strokes. She pursed her lips, studying herself carefully. The raw-boned Slavic prettiness had disappeared. In its place was an older, more elegant face. High-contrast cheekbones had magically arisen. Pale, colorless lips now bloomed red and seductive. "How do I look?" she asked.
"Beautiful," he said, putting his arms around her, feeling the radiant heat of the flesh beneath the towel. He buried his nose in her neck, breathing in the mingled scents of lavender soap, talcum powder, and tobacco.
She pushed him away. "I'm late."
He watched as she slid into black fishnet stockings, standing poised, one foot on the lip of the toilet, as she attached the garters. The classic movie pose. It was the first time he'd ever seen anyone actually do it.
She put on a black lace bra that hooked up in the front. It pushed her small breasts up, squeezing them together. She dusted them with powder.
"There's some egg salad in the fridge," she said. "You could make a sandwich if you're hungry."
"Why don't you call in sick?"
She frowned, stuffing herself into a tight black leather miniskirt. "I don't get paid if I'm sick."
After she left, Ramón rummaged through her red cardboard dresser, looking for money. He'd dropped his last twenty on Grand Prix and he wasn't due for another handout from his oyabun -- the local gang boss -- for another week. And he couldn't risk stealing more from them. Not for the time being.
He felt a vague sense of guilt. Jinky was saving for a holograph recorder -- an expensive piece of hardware, but worth it if she could come up with some marketable programs. Once, in an Akihabara electronics shop, she'd shown him a program she'd done at college in Tel Aviv -- a very high-resolution, diamond-scaled dragon that coiled long and serpentine on the shop floor, ruby eyes fierce and glittering, spitting out flickering flashes of blue-white flame. The salesclerk hadn't seen her stick the program chip in the player and it scared the hell out of him. Red-faced and furious, he had chased them out of the shop. Obviously, Ramón had thought, not an art lover.
His hands were moving through densely-packed piles of underwear. Lacy and insubstantial, they didn't seem like real clothes at all. The bottom of the second drawer was layered with newsfax. He pulled out the drawer and lifted the edge of the newsfax. Dozens of 10- and 20-thousand yen cashcards were spread thickly underneath. There was even some paper currency. He caught his breath, exclaiming aloud. "Jesus, there must be over a million yen here."
A couple more nights with Mr. Sato and she'd have enough for her recorder.
She'd be ready to upgrade.
He grabbed a handful of cards, brushing aside the nagging reproaches that buzzed through his brain.
She was probably going to dump him anyway. Trade up for a new model.
He ran the formula one grand prix twice that night. Once in Monaco and once in Montreal. He made it all the way through both races, placing 13th in Monaco and seventh in Montreal. Not bad considering the smash-up he'd had that afternoon.
Sooner or later, he was going to win. He could see himself up on the podium, cradling the trophy in his arms, the crowd roaring his name, a couple of surgically-enhanced Eurogirls in bikinis clinging to his elbows while he grinned through a cascade of champagne. It was only a matter of time.
Still hyped on adrenaline, he hurried past the pachinko parlors and yakitori bars, heading for Imelda's Revenge. The place was always packed with pinoys -- short-fused country boys from Luzon and Bataan stoked on cough syrup and San Miguel, flashing butterfly knives and skeletal grins.
The pinoys didn't like Ramón. They didn't like his city manners and Japanese clothes. They didn't like his white girlfriend and his cushy job. Most of all, they didn't like his arrogance.
Usually, apart from a few sneering insults and muttered comments, they left him alone. He was a friend of Juan's and that made him inviolate. Juan had been here so long that the Japanese had made him a sacho, a kind of low-level foreman. And that made Juan a powerful guy. He could pick and choose his crews on a daily basis. It was simple, really. You mess with Juan tonight, you don't work tomorrow.
The only reason Ramón was going to Imelda's was because he owed Juan 60,000 yen. He could use what he had left from Jinky's stash to pay back the debt.
Ramón stared at the blurred holo dancing on the bar. It was Tiny Christina doing her hit "Make Me, Make Me, Make Me" -- a chart-topper in the Philippines the year before. The pinoys were gathered around her, cheering and singing along. Someone asked if her clothes could be removed. The bartender, a long-jawed old-timer with a Japanese wife and a spouse visa, said no, the projector was just a player. It didn't do special effects.
Ramón sipped his San Miguel, wondering if Juan would turn up.
A couple of Japanese sat in the corner with three Filipinas. The two men looked like Yakuza. Ramón thought he recognized one of them. Both men were red-faced and drunk, shouting slurred insults at the holo, calling her an ugly Filipina whore. The Filipinas sat quietly, absently stroking the men's crotches, smiling nervously and smoking cigarettes.
One of the Japanese, a thick, burly man with a short bristling haircut, shoved the girl sitting next to him. "Why don't you go dance for us?" he shouted.
She stood up languidly, her smile bored, her eyes somewhere else. She started rolling her shoulders and shimmying her hips.
"No, no," shouted the man. "Strip tease. Take your clothes off. Come on."
"Hey, why don't you fuck her?" shouted his companion, a thin, ratty little man with a punch-perm and a neon-green polyester suit. He flashed a gold cashcard. "Live sex show. I'll pay."
The Filipinos at the bar were quiet, watching the Japanese through hooded eyes. Though most of them didn't understand much Japanese, they knew an insult when they heard one. In the Philippines, such flagrant disrespect could be justification for murder. Imelda's Revenge was considered de facto Philippines territory.
Ramón eased slowly along the wall, moving closer to the door.
Tiny Christina dissipated into the smoky haze as the final bars of her song faded into silence.
"Come on! Fuck her!" yelled the skinny Yakuza, his voice too loud in the sudden quiet.
Ramón saw a glint of steel. A short cadaverous man with a squashed nose named Bino stepped forward, shrugging off halfhearted attempts to restrain him. He bared his teeth. They glowed like old ivory in the dim light. His baggy suit ballooned around his bony frame. His narrow ugly face was blank and grim behind dark glasses. He held the knife behind his back, cupped in the palm of his hand. The steel glittered cool and precise.
Bino ran long, thick-knuckled fingers along the edge of the blade, as if confirming its sharpness, then strode rapidly towards the Japanese. He pushed the girl out of the way, approaching the larger of the two men.
The Japanese struggled to his feet, still cursing. Bino put his arms around him. The Japanese swayed, pulling at Bino's arms.
For a long moment they stood like that. Frozen. Two old friends embracing.
Then, suddenly, movement. Bino seemed to climb up the big man's chest, left arm wrapped tight around the thick neck, right arm swinging in flashing strobe-like arcs, the knife burying itself repeatedly in the man's upper back.
The Japanese bucked beneath him like a wild bull.
The girls screamed.
Bino released his grip on the Japanese, stepping back. The big man crumpled, slamming into the table. Blood spurted in torrents.
The other Japanese stared curiously at his companion for a moment, eyes wide. Then he looked at Bino.
Bino stepped forward, grabbing the man's hair and forcing his head back. He drove the knife into the jugular. Blood sprayed Bino's suit. The Japanese watched Bino through rolling eyes, hands fluttering weakly at his neck. This his head fell forward, lolling limply on his chest.
Ramón slipped through the door and ran out onto the street.
The air was cool and crisp. Drunks staggered along the sidewalk. Puddles of neon twinkled on the rain-slick street.
"There's gonna be a pogrom," jinky said. She was lying on the futon, wearing a threadbare blue and white yukata, smoking a THC-laced cigarette and holding a wet towel to her left eye. Around the towel, Ramón could see the flesh was swollen purple and yellow, vein-streaked and tender like the egg of some strange amphibious creature.
Sato-san had been especially vigorous last night.
"What's a pogrom?" asked Ramón.
"It's what they used to do to the Jews in Europe. Everybody gets together whenever they're pissed off and they go and kill all the Jews they can find."
"So?" Ramón stared out the window, eyes wandering across the shambling blocks of concrete that stretched from here to Chiba and beyond. He felt like a rat caught in the middle of a gigantic maze. A maze with no exit.
"So," she sucked noisily on her cigarette, then exhaled. "So that's what the Yakuza are going to do to you Filipinos."
Ramón shrugged. "I didn't have nothing to do with it. I wasn't even there."
"You were so. You told me."
"Shut up," he said, eyes following the meandering path of an old Japanese woman on the street below. She hobbled past every day, punctual to the second, bent over double, a huge mysterious bundle strapped to her back. Her cane tapped out a solemn rhythm on the pavement.
"I wasn't there. You understand? I was never there."
"Your Yakuza friends are going to want to know who did it."
"Shut up," he said again, still watching the woman below, crawling along the street like a crippled ant. In a few hours, she would make her slow way back through these same streets, her mysterious bundle still on her back, her cane tapping out the same faltering beat.
The Yakuza headquarters in Kotobuki was a triangular slab of black reflective glass wedged into the corner of a three-point intersection in the heart of the entertainment district. A line of gleaming black Mercedes and Lincoln Continentals were parked illegally in front of it.
The oyabun had sent for Ramón as soon as he got the word.
"I wasn't there," Ramón told him.
The oyabun was a small, birdlike man with a shaven skull and a sharp, beaky nose. He suffered from Graves' disease and his eyes bulged out of their sockets like light bulbs. He was as lean and tough as a turkey. He kept cracking his knuckles. They went off like gunshots.
"This is a problem of international communication," said the oyabun. He was wearing an expensive-looking charcoal gray suit and a blue-speckled burgundy tie. He picked up a peanut and cracked the shell between his thumb and forefinger. "I shall try to clarify the situation for you."
Posters advertising golf resorts in Hawaii hung on the wall behind the oyabun. Ramón assumed the resorts were owned by the gang.
"I did not ask," the oyabun continued, "whether or not you were present at last night's incident. This fact is not of interest to me. What I want to know is very simple: who did it?"
"I am very sorry," said Ramón, head bowed in deference. "I do not know."
The oyabun sucked air in through his teeth. He groaned, as if faced with a very difficult and unpleasant task. "You do not know," he said. He pronounced the words stiffly, carefully, as if trying to assess their meaning.
"I do not know," agreed Ramón.
The oyabun groaned again. "You are confused, I think. Unsure of your loyalties." He paused and lit a cigarette, a foul-smelling filterless brand called Hope. "Let me clarify the situation for you. You are loyal to me. You work for me. You are under my protection. There is no question here of national pride or ethnic loyalty. Your people are not your people. You are one of us."
"Yes, your honor, I understand. But they would kill me if they thought -- "
"You are afraid of your people?" interrupted the oyabun. He stood up, his fierce little face thrust forward, eyes bulging, lips quivering. "They are not the ones you should fear." He slammed his fist down on his desk, knocking over a thimble-sized cup of sake.
Ramón flinched. The histrionics were overdone, but there was no doubting the man's seriousness. Ramón was, after all, expendable. He could be snuffed without a thought. Since, officially, he did not exist, it followed that it was impossible for him to cease to exist. Which meant that his death or disappearance would never be investigated. Just another nameless migrant found washed up in a sewage canal. They would bury him and bury his file. He wouldn't even be a statistic.
Ramón looked away. "I'll find out, sir."
The oyabun sat down again, his expression suddenly sad. "There is... another problem."
Later, Ramón sat at a white plastic table in Mos Burger, his head cupped in his hands. A sharp, throbbing pain resonated over his left eye. The cold draft from the air conditioner chilled his spine. He kept reading the little poem printed on the coffee cup. It was in English, expounding on the joys of sharing a burger with someone you love. Beneath the poem there was a Jack-and-Jill-type picture of a boy and girl holding hands. In their free hands, each held a basket of burgers.
The last line read: "Beautiful Friend. Beautiful Burger."
The burgers were sloppy, thick with mayonnaise and chili sauce. Ramón wondered if young lovers were supposed to lick each other's hands afterward.
The automated table-clearing servo kept trying to snatch his cup away. He slapped at the machine distractedly. It whined metallically, spraying him with liquid soap, then jerked away, rolling towards another table, ungreased wheels squealing on the ceramic tile.
The boy and girl gazed at him from the cup, smiling cheerfully.
Ramón suspected happiness was a marketing ploy, a clever sales strategy conceived in some overlit conference room by glib executives looking for something people wanted so desperately its promise alone would compel them to buy, yet so intangible that its failure to materialize would only prompt them to buy again.
Happiness was hope.
And Ramón's hope had suddenly evaporated.
He edged along the sidewalk, trying to lose himself in the deepening shadows. His hands were cold and sticky with sweat. Maybe he should just hop the mag-lev to Tokyo. Go to Shinjuku. Talk to the Russians.
Talk about what? What did he have to offer them? More to the point, what did they have to offer him?
He should have stayed in Manila. Maybe he'd be running his own club by now.
He should have stayed home last night.
A fat pigeon waddled out his way, puffing out its chest and fluttering its feathers, squawking with annoyance.
He figured Jinky would have taken in at least five hundred thousand for her night with Sato. Put that together with what she already had stashed and there was easily enough for an airbus ticket to New York or St. Petersburg or somewhere. Plus enough left over to cover expenses for a few weeks. Long enough to get settled.
"Hey Mister Fashion Model!" somebody shouted in English.
He looked up, face taut, skin stretched tight like plastic wrap over clenched muscles. It was Bino. He was standing with three other pinoys, leaning against the streaked glass window of a pachinko parlor. Strident marching music warbled through a loudspeaker above the door. Inside, dozens of Japanese sat enthralled, staring at the tumbling ball bearings. Bells and whistles chimed. Cascades of metal balls flooded into plastic receptacles.
"Hey Mister Fashion Model," Bino said again, rolling his dentures inside his mouth. A thin sheen of sweat coated his pockmarked face. His dark glasses gazed emptily at Ramón.
Bino's hands were behind his back. Ramón thought about the butterfly knife, remembered how it flickered in Bino's cupped palm, how it flashed as it drove into the Japanese man's back. Again and again.
He nodded uncertainly at Bino. "Hey Bino. How are you?"
Bino grinned, clicking his teeth into place. "How I am is not the point. The point is how are you?" The three men with him shifted against the window, straightening their shoulders, pushing out their chests, watching Ramón through cold lunar eyes.
"I'm OK," nodded Ramón. "Yeah, I'm OK."
"And your Japanese friends?" Bino asked. "How are they?" He was still grinning, the lips pulled back in a rictus.
"Hey listen, don't worry. Everything's under control. You can count on me." He glanced along the street. The hemiplegic Yakuza squatted on his blue tarp, rolling the dice in his cup.
"You bet," said Bino. He hawked, spitting out a stringy mess of greenish-yellow phlegm. It was flecked with blood.
Ramón started to walk away.
"Hey," Bino called after him. "Don't bother going to Imelda's tonight. Did you hear? Some lousy gangsters got killed there last night. The cops have closed it down."
The money was gone.
Ramón emptied the contents of the drawer on the floor, pawing frantically through delicate lingerie and thick wool socks.
The jagged pain above his eye throbbed more fiercely now. Colored underwear slid through his hands.
"Bitch, bitch, bitch," he repeated loudly, obsessively, like a mantra. He sat back on his haunches, staring at the piled clothing, the empty drawers jumbled beside him like discarded Christmas presents.
He had maybe fifty thousand left. Enough for a mag-lev into Tokyo. A night in a capsule motel. He'd go see the Russians. Offer his services. He spoke Japanese. He had an inside line on the Yamaguchi-gumi. He didn't stand out in the crowds like the big pale Russians and their leathery Israeli enforcers. Maybe they could use him.
Anyway, what choice did he have?
He heard the door close behind him.
"Bastard," she said, her voice flat. "You cheap, lousy, thieving bastard." She delivered the words without emotion, enunciating them with care like a language teacher.
He twisted around to face her. "I'm sorry, Jinky. Really, I am. I'm in deep shit. You've gotta help me."
"Deep shit is right." Her eyes were hard, locking him out like closed metal shutters. He thought he saw someone move in the shadows behind her.
Ramón stood. He put on his best hangdog expression, gazing pleadingly at her. She was so small and soft. "You've gotta help me, Jinky. I need the money."
"Take a hike, Ramón. You're outta here."
"I'm stuck, Jinky. The pinoys'll kill me if I talk. The Yakuza'll kill me if I don't."
"Sorry," she said.
"You've got to give it to me." He stepped closer, clenching his fists.
She smiled sadly, shaking her head. "I really thought you were different, Ramón. But you're not. You're worse. At least the others don't pretend to be what they aren't."
His face tightened. A muscle in his cheek started twitching. "Bitch," he hissed. "Give me the money."
"Sorry," she said, stepping away from the door as Ramón advanced.
A man stepped in through the open door. Tall and dark, dressed in a biker jacket and black jeans. His faded blue eyes were as hard and pitiless as the desert sky. He held a short-barreled automatic pistol leveled at Ramón's midsection.
"You are to return this lady's money," he said. His English was clipped, precise.
"This is Benjamin," said Jinky. "He used to be with the Israeli Special Forces. He doesn't believe in peaceful negotiations."
Ramón swallowed, stepping back. "I've only got fifty thousand," he said, the words catching in his throat.
The Israeli moved towards him, raising the pistol. "Don't kill him," he heard Jinky say as the handle of the gun collided with his face. He felt the cold grinding clash of metal against cheekbone, felt his face fragmenting, shivering apart in a thousand tiny shards.
A streak of white light seared his brain as darkness closed in.
He clawed back to consciousness through a haze of pain and pulsing light. The naked fluorescent bulb on the ceiling glared down at him, bright and unforgiving.
His face was screaming. He touched it gingerly. It felt huge, swollen and tender as an overripe melon. His left eye wouldn't open, soldered closed with dried blood.
He staggered to his feet, went to the mirror. He looked like some mutant from a horror holo. The left side of his face had swelled to the size of a hydroponic tomato. A crushed one. Pulp leaked all over his face and the collar of his jacket.
He checked his pockets. Nothing. Not even his wallet.
Heartless fucking whore.
He saw his hands around her neck. Crushing her windpipe. Her eyes even brighter and more startled than usual.
Maybe Juan could help him. Hide him from the Yakuza. Keep the pinoys at bay.
He washed his face carefully, wincing. The pain was excruciating.
Afterward, he headed out into the night, not bothering to close the door behind him.
They were waiting for him in the foyer. Two of the oyabun's enforcers. Oversized slabs of meat and gristle in Indonesian silk suits and cheap plastic sandals. They leaned against a wall of gaping mailboxes, grinding their cigarettes into the green linoleum floor.
Ramón followed them out to their hydrocar, a fat black Mercedes, bulging with armor plating, tinted windows as thick as aquarium glass.
One of the men opened the back door and shoved Ramón inside. Juan and two other pinoys were already sitting on the lacy white seat covers that protected the expensive leather upholstery. They squeezed over to make room for Ramón, glancing briefly at him, then looking away.
The car smelled of pine freshener and sweat.
"Hey Juan," whispered Ramón. "What's going on?"
Juan stared at him glassily. There was no sign of friendship there. No sign that there ever had been. Juan shrugged, narrowing his eyes.
One of the Yakuza closed the door behind Ramón.
"It's not what you're thinking, Juan," Ramón said urgently as the car sped off down the narrow street.
"What I am thinking," said Juan coldly, "is that you are a piece of shit."
"You're wrong," said Ramón. "You're all wrong."
The other two pinoys sat with arms folded, staring blankly at the headrests in front of them.
Ramón sighed and sat back in the seat.
They drove down to the waterfront and pulled up on a deserted quay. Ramón shivered in the cold.
So this is it, he thought. What a fucking waste.
The gangsters ordered the four men out of the car and marched them over to a stack of container boxes.
There was a flash of color at the base of one of the containers. Cloth flapping in the wind.
The Yakuza urged them forward, barking harshly, slapping the backs of their heads to encourage them.
It was Bino. He was lying on his back, sightless eyes staring at the murky ultraviolet sky. A round hole in his forehead glistened darkly. His broken dentures lay on the ground beside him, gleaming like a handful of dice.
The pinoys were quiet, hugging themselves against the cold. Water lapped softly against the side of the quay.
One of the Yakuza clapped Ramón on the back, slipping a cashcard into his pocket.
"Severance pay," grunted the Yakuza, then walked away, leaving Ramón alone with his countrymen.
Juan turned his head. They started moving towards him.
"It's a setup," Ramón said. "They set me up because I wouldn't tell them."
Knives flashed in the darkness.
"You gotta believe me," Ramón whispered hoarsely.
He ran. It seemed like he had been running for hours. his throat and lungs were raw. He gulped for air, his breath getting shorter and shorter. His legs were leaden, his shoes clung to the ground, refusing to move.
He could still hear them. The shouting had stopped but their heavy footsteps echoed relentlessly off the concrete. Their laboring breath scorched his neck like a volcanic wind.
Ahead the lights of the arcade beckoned. Bright and vibrant, pulsing with life. He focused his gaze on the sparkling holo that danced above the entranceway, trying to push everything else out of his mind, to ignore the sharp stabbing pains in his chest, the hammering of his skull.
Just keep moving.
Just keep moving.
Finally, he was there. He pushed through the door, panting hoarsely, his head reeling.
The cashcard the Yakuza had given him was worth twenty thousand. Not enough for his life. Just enough for one more run at the Grand Prix.
He stumbled down the aisle, pushing past startled game players, wading through shoals of bright holo space ships.
The Grand Prix cubicle was empty. He shoved the card into the slot, hearing a wash of street noise flooding the arcade as the doors crashed open and a gang of shouting Filipinos forced their way in.
He climbed into the cubicle and closed the door behind him. He quickly pulled on the jump suit and the data gloves then sat down, jamming the headset hurriedly on. He pressed the start button, letting all his breath out in one big huge sigh of relief.
He punched through the options and course selection, pausing only to enter his name. He'd take whatever the machine decided to throw at him.
The car took shape around him. The instrument panel glowed. The day was clear. The sun warm. The air was thick with the smells of motor oil and adrenaline. Colorful crowds lined the slopes above the track. He heard people chanting his name.
He checked the starting grid. He was in the Number Six spot. That would give him a real shot at winning this time.
Then the call came. Loud and clear through his headphones. Echoing through the stands. A hush fell over the crowd. "Gentlemen, start your engines."
He turned on the ignition. The engine growled confidently. Its vibrations calmed him, smoothing the edges of his shattered nerves, dulling the pain in his face.
He slowly began to accelerate, starting to roll around the track with the other cars. Keeping pace with them. Waiting.
The flag came down.
Ramón yanked his foot off the clutch, simultaneously smashing the gas pedal into the floor. The car surged forward eagerly. People were shouting his name.
The car roared out of its starting lane and began moving through the cars ahead.
Ramón laughed out loud. This time there was no question. He knew it, sure as he knew his name.
This time he was going to win.
Christopher Hunt (firstname.lastname@example.org) was an encyclopedia salesman, waiter, cook, clerk in a porno bookstore, and factory laborer before ending up in Japan, where he taught English and later worked as a copywriter with a Japanese ad agency. He's now a Vancouver-based freelance writer and library junkie who wonders why he has to work so hard to make a living. When he has time, he edits the Web 'zine Circuit Traces.
InterText stories written by Christopher Hunt: "Game Over" (v5n3), "Dust" (v5n6), "Autoerotic" (v6n3).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Christopher Hunt.