Disclaimer: I don't own the DCMK characters
It was a different café from the one that he had met Aoko in last time. This one was half the size but twice as noisy. It wasn't just that the place was packed with customers. It was also that the music had been cranked up to the point where it was just shy of bone-rattling. Letting the door swing shut after him, Kaito hid a grimace behind his Poker Face. Too long submerged in this cacophony and a person could definitely start going deaf. On the other hand, the chances of being overheard were practically nonexistent. That was, he suspected, why Aoko and her partner had chosen this particular venue in which to conduct their meeting.
Scanning the tables, he found his quarry in the corner. The two undercover police officers had claimed one of the café's only tables for four. They were seated side by side with cups resting on the table before them along with two neat stacks of folders and notebooks. The blonde was scribbling away in one of those notebooks while his brunette partner read over a file. It seemed neither was going to waste any time doing something as unproductive as waiting. Shinichi would approve.
Shaking his head in mild amusement, Kaito made his way across the café to join them. He made a brief stop by the counter for a cup of hot chocolate and a brownie. He hadn't had lunch yet.
Two pairs of eyes looked up at him as he pulled out a chair. Then, in perfect unison, both pairs of eyes swiveled to look behind him.
"Shinichi didn't come with you?" Aoko asked in surprise.
"He wanted to, but he's a bit too caught up in his current project," Kaito explained. "He's determined to finish it before our next race."
"What is he working on?" asked Hakuba, brown eyes sharp and just a little bit suspicious.
Kaito met his stare with a bland smile that gave nothing away. "It's just a little something my dad started. He didn't get to finish it. We're trying to complete it in his stead."
"May I inquire as to what the purpose of this project is?"
"You may, but you'd save yourself some trouble if you don't as I won't be divulging any more information on it until we finish. Call it an inventor's precaution."
The blonde's eyebrows drew together, and it looked as though he was about to protest, but Aoko elbowed him.
"We're not here to talk about that anyway," she said. "We're here about the attempt made on your hover craft."
Kaito leaned forward in his seat. The smile fell from his face to be replaced by a much more focused intensity. "Did you find out who sent him?"
"We have two suspects," the girl replied. Flipping open one of the files, she turned it around and slid it across the table to him. "We think this guy's the more likely of the two to be our man. He's the manager of the Red Hawks. They're a small team that's been struggling in the rankings for years. This is the first Red Diamond where they've managed to survive all the way to the semifinals. Their sponsor has told them that if they don't at least make it into the finals this year then they'll be withdrawing their support."
"Even though they're already doing better than they ever have before?"
The girl nodded. "They're doing better, but their showing has still been mostly mediocre at best."
"So they might be getting desperate," Kaito summarized. "And we probably look more vulnerable because we're such a small team."
"Is there more? I mean, I guess you could say he'd have a motive, but he can't be the only one with pressing reasons to want to thin the competition. I'd like to think that most of them wouldn't go around smashing hover crafts because of it."
"We were getting to that part," said Hakuba. "The man we arrested at your hangar picked this manager out of a lineup as being of a similar physical build to the man he spoke to. He also believes that the voice is similar, though he's not a hundred percent certain on that point—which is where our other suspect comes in. But more on that one later. This man is also a frequent patron of the bar where he allegedly met our culprit. What's more, we found that he won three grand on a private race recently. That's the exact amount he offered to our culprit."
"But if he kept that kind of money, he wouldn't have to stress so much about the sponsor withdrawing. It's not a huge amount for a team to survive on, but if used carefully, it could last him and his team long enough to find other sponsors or join other events that allow teams to fundraise."
"That's true," Aoko conceded. "But people don't like change. That kind of shift from being supported by a long term sponsor to having to fundraise for yourself, well…it's not easy, and most teams prefer to attach to sponsors because of that. It's a lot less work and a lot more stable."
"Only as long as your sponsor likes you."
"Unfortunately. It's a tough world out there."
"What about your other suspect?"
"This other man is also a patron of the same bar. He's there almost every day, so the chances that he's met our culprit are high. The culprit also said that his voice was the most like what he remembers hearing. He's not affiliated with any teams or sponsors. He's a gambler. A lot of people bet on these races. He's one of the biggest organizers of such events. There's currently an ongoing bet about how long you're going to be able to hang on to that perfect score of yours. Actually, there are a lot of bets going on right now about you and all the other top rank pilots."
"I assume it's not just about who's going to win."
"Nope. It's a lot more complicated than that. There're people betting on exactly how many points different teams are going to finish the semifinals with and people betting on who is going to be the first pilot to steal a win from you in the semis—"
"What?" Kaito drew himself up in indignation. "I am not planning to lose!"
"No one does," Hakuba said dryly. "That's the point. If the future was a certainty then gambling would soon go out of fashion. It's a shame we can't do anything about it ourselves. We shall simply have to work around. The point is that many of the bets would suddenly make certain people very wealthy if you two were to be dropped out of the running one way or another. And this man has all the cards, so to speak. He could be manipulating the pools and the odds to help himself make a fortune off just this one Red Diamond."
"I would have thought that fixing bets would be bad for business in the long run."
"He's never done it before," Aoko admitted. "But his daughter recently fell ill. We don't know much about it, but we do know it's serious."
"So he now has a motive," Hakuba concluded. "Although I admit that I feel our first suspect is more likely the guilty one."
"Though we wanted to ask you first if you knew either of these people."
Kaito shook his head. "Never even heard of them. I might have seen the Red Hawks' manager in passing since we came to this city, but we've never spoken."
"I see. What about his team?"
"I've raced against them, but that's it. One of them has real talent. She'll be a real contender in another year or so if she keeps up her practice. The rest of them are too flighty though. They have a hard time keeping their crafts steady."
"So you don't know them personally." Aoko wrote a few notes down on the edges of her notebook.
"Nope. Sorry I didn't have more to tell you."
"Oh, no, really, every piece of information is useful. Did you have any questions for us?"
"Not at the moment. I'll let you know if I think of anything."
Later, after taking his leave of the two officers, he found himself strolling through the thriving commercial districts of the city. At midday, the place was a living sea of cars and pedestrians alike, all headed out for some fresh adventure through the shops or a hunting for a good meal. Laughter rang like bells over their heads, punctuated by the occasional shout or honk of a car horn. Many of the people he passed by stopped to stare at him. Others waved or called out excited greetings. Those he returned with his usual good cheer, though he was operating more on autopilot right now than on thought as his mind worked over the events of the past few weeks with the mental equivalent of a fine-toothed comb.
It was true what they said, it never rained but it poured. Ever since they'd arrived in this city, it had been one thing after another. First the foundation and then teaming up with the police, then discovering they needed to find a team to ally with for tag races, then Shinichi running off to talk to the Foundation, figuring out what that old scribble of his dad's was supposed to be, and the attack on their hover racer—everything was happening one after the next, leaving them with little to no breathing room. So he had to take advantage of all the moments like these on the walks between places and the pauses for meals to turn over, digest, and organize it all into a more coherent picture.
Catching that man at their hangar had bothered Kaito, though he had done his best not to show it. Imagining anything so terrible befalling the hover racer his father had left to him had set his teeth on edge, and the thought that the man might have come in on Shinichi alone in the hangar… Well, Shinichi was not the kind of person who would hide or run away when a big stranger came in with violent intentions for a hover craft in his care. No, Shinichi would have tried to stop the man, and it was very likely that things would have gotten messy real fast.
It was a problem, he mused, pausing in front of a shop selling mirrors and lamps of all sizes and shapes. He and Shinichi made easy targets for any team desperate and underhanded enough to think of plans like smashing competing crafts. After that last attempt, at least, that particular type of assault should be less of a problem as the police had set up a guard for them that would respond if the surveillance equipment detected anything untoward. They were protecting their investment after all.
Thinking about it all now though, Kaito found himself starting to feel just a little bit angry. He and Shinichi had worked hard to get here. And they'd come here to play a good game. It was about winning, true, because competitions had to have winners, but it wasn't just supposed to be about that. It was supposed to be about true skill and the mutual respect developed between people who recognized each other's abilities and passions. He'd come here all fired up to go head to head with the best of the best, win or lose, he'd be damned sure to have the time of his life and leave a better pilot—maybe even a better man—than he had been. Instead, all he'd learned was that there were bastards around every corner, and winning had become about stopping cheaters and catching criminals and hoping that you and your partner got out of it all in one piece when the day was over.
This was not the Red Diamond he had envisioned.
But he wouldn't let it defeat him. It wasn't what he'd wanted, but he would make it so. If he had to do it the hard way then so be it.
Things were going to change.
"Shinichi? I got us some fried rice and this mixed vegetable thing the waitress recommended." Setting the takeout bag on the counter, Kaito glanced around. The suite was so silent that he half expected to find that Shinichi had left for the hangar in his absence. But no, the mechanic was still there.
The boy was sitting at the coffee table with his laptop open in front of him, just staring at the screen. He wasn't moving at all. He didn't even appear to be blinking. The only sign that he wasn't a sculpture was the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.
Kaito's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. "Shinichi?"
There was no reaction.
Curiosity melting slowly into concern, Kaito made his way through the mess of research material still littered about their suite until he reached Shinichi's side. He looked first at the computer screen that had so captivated his mechanic's attention. The laptop appeared to be running one of Shinichi's simulation programs. Turning back to his partner, Kaito tapped him lightly on the shoulder.
Shinichi jerked violently at the touch and almost fell off the couch. Wide blue eyes swiveled to meet Kaito's indigo orbs.
"Kaito! When did you get back?"
"Just a few minutes ago," the pilot replied with an easy smile. "You were totally out of it. What's up? Did you forget to eat and pass out from hunger or something?"
"No of course not," Shinichi huffed, face reddening. "Just look." He pointed a defiant but excited finger at the computer. "It's working. I mean, I know it's only a simulation, but it's working!"
This time it was Kaito's eyes that widened. Slowly, he looked back down at the laptop screen. He hadn't really been paying attention to it before, but now that he was really looking… He sat down abruptly, one arm wrapping itself automatically around his companion in a grip that was just shy of being too tight. "You did it," he said finally, voice quiet and just a little bit awed. Then the tension snapped and he let out a whoop of laughter. "You did it!" Turning, he yanked Shinichi into a tight embrace. It wasn't enough though. Leaping to his feet, still holding both Shinichi's hands, he yanked the mechanic off the couch and spun them both around in a mad jig as an equally mad grin broke across his face. "It works! It really works! Man, Dad was a genius! And you, my dear, are amazing."
Now blushing for real, Shinichi tried in vain to pull himself out of Kaito's iron grip. A part of him was thrilled at the praise, and the excitement of finally having worked out the puzzle behind the generator was still buzzing in his veins, but at the same time—
"This model can only cover a two inch radius."
Kaito stopped in mid jig. "You're kidding."
"No." Ducking out from under Kaito's arm, Shinichi set about straightening out his clothes, blue eyes fixed on the floor. "It works, but that's as large as the shield it can generate gets."
"Can we make it bigger?"
"That's the next step. And of course we still have to build it too."
"But we're getting there. That's what's important."
"Yeah, we are…" Silence fell once again. It was a silence full of contemplations and suppressed thrills and the gleam of dreams on the horizon as they raced towards its endless promise on wings of hope and ingenuity.
"Let's eat. Can't think on an empty stomach." Grabbing the takeout bag from the counter, Kaito began to unpack its contents into two large plates. A dome of friend rice garlanded with stir fried vegetables soon occupied each plate. He handed one to Shinichi and immediately dug into his own. He was ravenous despite having eaten that brownie earlier.
Shinichi was picking at his food as usual, his mind still off in la la land.
"What's bothering you now?" Kaito asked finally when he noticed that his own plate was almost empty and Shinichi's was still practically untouched.
Shinichi laid his chopsticks on his plate. "I was just thinking. When we get the generator working, it's going to block out all outside interference."
"Like the disruptor's broadcast, yes. That was the whole point."
"so once we get it working, we'll be protected."
"And if the Foundation tries its disruptor on us again…"
"They'll get the nasty surprise of their little lives as I leave 'em in the dust."
"What's with the long face? Isn't this what you've been working towards these last few weeks? You were so excited about it just a moment ago."
"I know, I know. It's just that, well, I was thinking about that monitoring device we've been using."
"The one from the police."
Shinichi nodded. "It was supposed to record any activity that could prove the disruptor's existence so that the police can have evidence that will get the courts to issue them a warrant. If our shield works then that monitor isn't going to get that information even if the Foundation does show up with their device. We'd be losing the evidence we need to convict them by protecting ourselves against it. But we can't not use the shield just for that. It would be too dangerous. I just don't know how we're going to compromise, I guess. We need that monitor to record evidence of the Foundation's disruptor, but we also need to keep ourselves safe."
"What if we attach an antennae to the hover racer and clip the monitor to it so that it pokes out of the shield or something?" Kaito suggested, snickering at the thought. "Or we can dangle it off the back like a tail."
'Seriously, Shin-chan. You're thinking too much. Just work on building a real generator that can actually function with more than a two inch radius. Then we can worry about everything else. Take it one step at a time and you'll always be moving forward."
"I…guess you're right. I'll need your help to actually build this."
"My skills are at your service! So where do we start?"
Ten minutes later, the entire suite had been transformed into a workshop. Shinichi's mostly untouched meal had been boxed and put in the suite's small fridge. The two young men were in the middle of the maelstrom, pouring over diagrams and an array of tiny tools, wires, chips, and disks. As they worked, Kaito told Shinichi about his conversation with the faux journalists.
"So they're still not sure who sent that man," Shinichi concluded, not particularly pleased but also not particularly surprised. "I think it's the manager."
"Oh? And why's that?"
"Being closer to the teams, he'd know where our hangar is and how to approach it as well as when it is most likely to be unoccupied. People who aren't in the business aren't allowed into most of these areas, and they would have a much harder time getting their hands on information like which team was assigned which hangar and what kind of equipment you'd need to bring to do the damage you want to do." Shinichi's face twisted in disgust. "I can't believe anyone could be so—so crass! How could they even think about destroying such beautiful crafts? It's—it's criminal, that's what it is!"
Kaito laughed at his partner's vehemence. Shinichi sure loved his hover crafts. That would never change.
"Let's leave those people to the police," Kaito said soothingly. "We have our own jobs to do."
"Yeah, you're right." Shinichi picked up his cup and took a large gulp of coffee before setting it aside with a final sounding clunk. "Okay. Hand me the copper wire."
Turning at the sound of his name being uttered by an unfamiliar voice, Shinichi was mildly taken aback by the sight of a glossy black car parked by the curb where no car had been just a moment ago. The car's back door was open and a young man with pale hair was standing beside it. It was he who had called out. Shinichi searched his memories but came up with a blank. Who was this man?
"Can I help you?" he asked politely.
"Yes." Leaving the car behind, the blonde took a step closer. "I am a representative of the Noir Foundation. I believe you have spoken with one of our agents. Chris Vineyard."
Shinichi nodded. "I did."
"Well, there was a minor incident the day of your meeting. Since you were on location at the time, we would appreciate it if you would come with us and answer a few questions."
"Answer a few questions?" Shinichi repeated, feeling just a little bit uneasy. "What kind of incident was this?"
"It would be best not to discuss it out here in the open." The man stepped back and gestured for Shinichi to get into the car. "I'll take us to somewhere more private where we can talk in earnest."
Shinichi stood his ground, eyes fixed on the open car door. "I still have a few errands to run for my team."
"We aren't going to hurt you," the blonde said with a smile that looked both amused and condescending to Shinichi's eyes. "We just need a word on a few things people saw so that nothing has to get blown up out of proportion. I'm sure you can appreciate the need for discretion in touchy situations where reputations are involved." He let the question hang, baiting. Shinichi knew it was a lure, a subtle threat even. Things that people had seen on the day of his visit… Had he been seen snooping after all? Shinichi resisted the urge to bite his lip. He did not want to look nervous in front of these people. He had never liked feeling forced into doing things by other people. Still, it would make more sense to hear them out, he decided. If he heard them out then maybe they could come to a peaceable solution for everyone and no one would have to lose anything.
"Can I take these bags up to my suite first?" he asked, raising the bags he'd been carrying for emphasis. "I need to drop them off in my room. Then I can go with you to talk to Miss Vineyard."
The blonde considered this suggestion then nodded. "Yes, well, as long as it doesn't take you too long. Miss Vineyard doesn't like to be kept waiting."
"It'll only take a moment." Running up the steps to the hotel front doors, Shinichi raced through the lobby and opted for running up the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. By the time he'd reached his and Kaito's rooms, he was breathing hard. Upper floor rooms were nice and all, but they definitely had their disadvantages. Throwing open the door, he set the packages down, grabbed a sheaf of paper, and scribbled down a quick four lines of code. Sensing a presence coming to look over his shoulder, he quickly ended his words and slid them under the magazine Kaito had been reading on new craft innovations and innovative tracks. That done, he turned, placing himself between the blonde who'd followed him and the rest of the suite and smiled. "So you said we shouldn't keep her waiting, right?"
"Yes." The blond cast another critical look over the contents of their suite before giving in. "If you'll just follow me to my car, we should be able to make it to the meeting in ten minutes."
Sitting in the back of the black, black car, Shinichi found himself holding himself in a rigid, upright position with his hands fisted on his knees and his eyes fixed straight ahead. There was no one else in the back seat. The only other people there was the blond man who was driving and a bulky man who hadn't said a word and gave Shinichi the impression that he might be hiding weapons under that heavy coat. He tried not to think about it though as the car pulled away from the curb and started carrying him off in the direction of the Noir Foundation headquarters.
Having expected to be taken back to Chris Vineyard's office, he was slightly confused when the car didn't stop before the Foundation's grand main building. Instead, the car continued on past it and down a much narrower street before coming to a stop in a rather dark garage that had to be some distance underground. The blond man opened the back door for Shinichi, gesturing for him to follow.
"Visitors are not allowed into these areas of our facility," he said, and Shinichi wondered what that meant he was. He wasn't a visitor apparently, but he wasn't one of them either. That didn't leave a lot of options. The only word that was coming into his mind right now was prisoner.
The mountain of a man who Shinichi now suspected was a guard positioned himself behind the mechanic while the blonde led the way through the maze of corridors that riddled the building. Shinichi was completely lost five minutes into the walk. He had his doubts that they were even still in the same building they'd parked under. They could have wandered back into the main building or possibly even out back into the research areas, he really didn't know.
He was almost relieved when the blonde stopped in front of a light colored door and opened it, revealing a moderately sized conference room and a familiar, platinum blond woman.
"You're late," Chris Vineyard informed them as they filed into the room.
"We took a brief detour," the blond man replied with a shrug. The last man said nothing. He only stood by the door, eyes sharp and jaw set.
"Please have a seat," Chris Vineyard said to Shinichi, gesturing to one of the many plush seats around the small conference table. "This may take some time."
Shinichi hesitated only a heartbeat before sitting down. "So what did you need to ask me about?"
"A drive containing important information was recently discovered to be missing."
Shinichi looked back at her blankly. "What does that have to do with me?"
"It was discovered missing shortly after you visited us." Picking up the small remote that had been sitting by her elbow, she pressed a button. The screen in the front conference room wall blinked to life. Shinichi recognized the hallway being displayed. A cold knot settled in the pit of his stomach. He was proven right an instant later as he saw himself appear on that screen. His image made its way down the hall to disappear from sight before coming pelting back the other way at top speed.
"As you can see, we were a little concerned when the data drive was found missing after your harried departure."
"I didn't take it," Shinichi said immediately, seeing where this was going. "I was just looking for the bathroom and got lost."
"And yet you ran away rather than ask for directions. Why is that?"
"I…I…" He had run because he'd seen their tests, but if he said that…if he admitted to knowing more than he should, what would they do? They could charge him for spying in addition to trespassing. They were already trying to charge him with theft.
So what should he do?
"I didn't steal anything when I came," he said finally just to make his stand absolutely clear. "I came here to see what working with your teams would be like. I wasn't trying to take anything from you."
"Then how do you explain the missing drive?" the woman inquired. She didn't sound mad or even particularly distressed. If anything, her tone was almost amused touched with curiosity. It made Shinichi's hair stand on end. "It has vanished from where it was supposed to be, and your fingerprints where found at the scene."
Wait. What? Shinichi stared. "You found my fingerprints?"
"On the safe where the drive was kept, yes."
"But—but I never…"
"Really, don't make this worse for yourself. We haven't contacted the authorities yet on this matter because we feel that we, as civilized parties, should be able to handle this debacle on our own. Don't you agree?"
Shinichi took a moment to collect his thoughts. Was she lying about the prints? Well obviously she had to be. He knew for a fact that he'd never been near any safes. And even if they'd found prints, how did they know they were his? He'd never been involved in any investigations so he'd never had his fingerprints taken by the police. But surely they weren't stupid enough to just make up a lie like that to threaten him with. If they were trying to frame him, they must have fabricated some evidence too. Could they have planted his fingerprints? His thoughts raced. Being something of a mystery fan, he read a lot of crime novels. It was possible to create fake fingerprints, but they would still have had to get his prints from somewhere. That moment in the hall when the ground had heaved beneath his feet flashed across his mind's eye and he grimaced inwardly. He could still remember the smooth, cold texture of the wall under his hands when he'd used them to stop himself from falling. They had probably caught that moment on camera too. Could they have gotten his prints from there?
"What are you suggesting?" he asked, trying to buy himself more time.
"It's nothing much," the woman assured him with that saccharine smile that he was starting to detest. "We simply ask that you stay here and cooperate with our investigations. Once we have asserted your innocence, you can go, and the matter will never have to be broached again."
"Stay here?" he repeated, not sure if he'd quite understood.
"Yes. We have rooms. You will be provided with any necessities you may require, though we are afraid that you will not be able to send out communications as that may compromise the investigation. I'm sure you understand."
"You can't imprison me here."
"My dear boy, I never said we were going to imprison you. We simply ask that you stay and help with our investigations so that we don't have to bring the problem to the authorities. But of course, if you would prefer that, we can call in the police right now. We will also have to inform the race committee of course. The choice is yours."
Looking into the woman's placid face, Shinichi knew that it wasn't really a choice at all.
"Shinichi? Are you in there?" Kaito rapped on the door to his mechanic's room again before pausing to listen. Still, there was no sound. Fed up with the waiting, he opened the door. "I'm coming in."
He was greeted by an empty room. Part of him wasn't all that surprised. Shinichi was a sound sleeper, but even he should have reacted after all the knocking and calling Kaito had been doing at his door. The other part of Kaito was, however, inclined to be worried. He and Shinichi had split up that morning to go collecting supplies. Shinichi had gone grocery shopping and sent Kaito to buy more raw materials for their machines. The pilot's assignment had taken him much farther across the city, and so he had fully expected Shinichi to be back and making lunch by the time he returned. When he'd entered the suite to see the groceries on the counter but no Shinichi, he'd assumed the boy had gone back to the hangar. When the hangar too had come up empty, Kaito had returned to the suite wondering if his partner had decided to go back to sleep. He'd been yawning all that morning after all. But here, again, the place was deserted.
Indigo eyes narrowed. Where could Shinichi have gone? He'd obviously come back first since the groceries were present and accounted for, but the fact that they hadn't been sorted into the refrigerator and cupboards implied that Shinichi had left again right after bringing them in. Whatever had called him off must have been urgent, Kaito mused, peering into one of the grocery bags and finding a small tub of chocolate ice cream in it. Prying open the lid, he saw that the contents had already begun to melt.
"But what could it have been?" he asked the empty suite, making another slow circuit of the room as he searched for some kind of note. That was odd. Hadn't he left that magazine lying open when he'd left that morning? He distinctly remembered doing so because he hadn't finished the article he'd been reading at the time. Reaching over, he picked up the magazine. Tugged along by the motion, a piece of paper slid off the edge of the table and fluttered to the floor.
Kaito's unease grew as he picked it up. Shinichi wouldn't have hidden the note without reason.
He skimmed over the message then reached for the phone.
"I don't get it," Aoko said, reading over the note again. "What about this makes you think he's in trouble? All it says is that he was invited to talk to some people in this Tropica place. It sounds like a restaurant or maybe another inn."
"That's precisely it. Tropica's not a place in the city. It's the name of a town we were in a while back," Kaito explained. "We were in the middle of competing there when we ran into some serious trouble because of some muggers who assaulted him. The name's become kind of a code word for trouble for us. So I talked to the hotel staff, and a few of them remembered seeing Shinichi getting into a black car with a blond man."
"Did they get the license number?"
"No. They didn't have any reason to."
"What about this man they saw with him?" Hakuba asked. "What did he look like?"
"They said he was young and his hair was short, but that was all any of them remembered."
"Not someone famous then."
Kaito rolled his eyes. "What kind of idiot would send a famous guy to kidnap someone?"
Aoko blinked. "Wait, you think he was kidnapped?"
"Well he hasn't come back, and I can't reach him."
"Have you received any demands?"
Kaito bit back the urge to say something sarcastic. "No." He had to be calm. He breathed in deeply then let it out slowly. He could feel the anger and anxiety like a cold fire burning deep in the recesses of his mind, but he couldn't afford to lose his cool. He needed to figure out what was going on, and he had to do it fast.
"This isn't much to go on," Aoko murmured, her own features clouded with concern. "If we knew the exact time the car picked him up at the hotel, we might be able to see if there are more witnesses who might be able to help us trace its route."
Kaito slid a paper across the table to her. "I got a time frame and a list of descriptions about the car from the staff here. Not all the details agree, but there are some points that match between the testimonies that should be usable."
"We'll see what we can do," Aoko promised, marveling on the inside at how quickly the pilot had acted.
We'll see what we can do. He'd certainly heard that before. While he appreciated the thought, Kaito had learned by now that waiting around for someone else to solve the problems was a slow, strenuous, and unsatisfying path. He just wasn't the kind of person who liked to sit around. He preferred to be out there doing things. Perhaps it was a type of arrogance, but he always felt more confident in the possibility of success when he did things for himself. The problem was that this time he wasn't entirely sure where he should start.
The second half of Shinichi's note flashed through his mind. He'd only given the first half to the police. The second half had been different. Thinking about it now, he realized that Shinichi had been casting his vote on what he thought their next move should be. That half of the note had been instructions for completing the shield generator.
He listened with only half an ear as Aoko mentioned having some good news. It seemed the police had closed the case regarding the attempt to wreck their hover racer. Kaito thanked them on autopilot before excusing himself. He had work to do.
It had been three days since Shinichi's disappearance and he had yet to return or even call. The suite had become eerily silent, filled with the chilled emptiness that only the memories of warmth could induce. Kaito had taken to spending most of his free time in the coffee shop branching off the hotel lobby. There he didn't have to listen to the silence of Shinichi's absence. The aroma of fresh coffee that pervaded the area was both soothing and aggravating. The fact that something as trivial as a smell could affect his mood so much was almost as vexing as any of the other problems currently piled on his plate. He'd always been able to face problems with a level head. He felt, obviously, he was human after all, but he had inherited his father's famous ability to keep it all hidden behind a calm façade that allowed him to meet each challenge with the clarity of thought that it deserved. He was not enjoying this new experience of having something actually breaking through his Poker Face.
"Hey there, Kuroba!"
Looking up from his bagel and iced coffee, Kaito spotted two familiar figures approaching his table. Both were wearing too bright smiles—or perhaps it was he who was in too somber of a state of mind for this sun drenched day.
Hattori's grin faded a little until it became a frown of concern. "Hey, you okay? You don't look so good."
Kaito shrugged and pulled on a semblance of his usual smile. "Guess I got up on the wrong side of the bed."
"Some days are just like that," the other pilot agreed sagely. He dropped into the chair across from Kaito without asking. Kazuha claimed the seat next to him, also uninvited. Kaito didn't comment. He wasn't really in the mood for company, but he didn't want to drive them off either. Maybe a little company was what he needed right now anyway.
"Your performance yesterday was good," he told them. "It looks like you're a sure in for the finals already."
"We sure are," Kazuha cheered. Her elation cracked and folded down into a much muted form however as her gaze fixed on Kaito. "But what about you? Your race the other day… Were you feeling okay? I've never seen you fly so…erratically. It was like you were distracted."
"I was," he conceded with a shrug. "I've—had a lot on my mind. I know I was terrible yesterday."
"Don't let it get to ya. Everyone's got off days. I should know."
"Yeah, he should," Kazuha agreed. "He has off days all the time. That's why his record's so inconsistent."
Hattori made a face at her before turning back to Kaito. "Where's Kudo anyway? I haven't seen him at all lately."
"He's not sick, is he?" Kazuha added, large, dark eyes full of worry. "I hear there's a nasty flu going around right now."
Kaito kept his expression neutral as he shook his head. "No, he's not sick."
Hattori peered curiously at him, perhaps sensing the dark undertone to his words. "Did you two have a fight?"
"The best thing ta do is apologize," the dark-skinned pilot advised.
Indigo eyes grew steely. "We did not have a fight."
"But why else would ya be here by yourself?"
"Heiji!" Kazuha elbowed her friend before leaning up to hiss into his ear. "Don't be so insensitive."
"What? I wasn't being insensitive," the boy protested in the same hushed tones. "I'm trying ta help."
"Since when did you become an expert on relationships?"
"I don't have ta be an expert to give advice."
"But he didn't ask you for advice. Getting unsolicited advice when you're upset sometimes just makes it worse."
Kaito wondered if the two realized that he could still hear every word they were saying. He didn't mind though. They meant well. He gazed over his glass of iced coffee at the furiously whispering pair. In the past few months, he'd come to really like these two. They were an open, enthusiastic pair full of vim and vigor and the same love for the race that he and Shinichi had. Maybe…
His hands tightened around his glass. He made his decision. "I need your help."
Two pairs of eyes blinked at him in a fashion that would have been comical under different circumstances. Right now, however, mirth was the last thing on Kaito's mind. The two then traded glances before responding.
"This is serious, isn't it?" the dark-skinned pilot asked, his own features settling into a serious expression.
"And possibly dangerous," Kaito agreed.
"Is this about why Shinichi isn't here?" Kazuha asked.
"Is he in trouble?"
He hesitated a moment before answering. "I'm not sure."
"But you believe he is," Hattori observed.
"We'll help if we can," he declared, green eyes full of determination. "So what's the problem?"
"Do you two have time to come up to the suite? I'd rather not talk about it here."
Twenty minutes later, the three of them were seated around the coffee table in Kaito and Shinichi's suite. They'd brought their respective coffees up with them so he hadn't offered his guests any drinks. Instead, he'd gotten down to business and gave them a somewhat summarized version of the story starting from his father's accident all those years ago.
"So Shinichi's been kidnapped?" Kazuha's face was a blend of incredulity and horror.
"Shinichi would have come back by now if someone wasn't stopping him," Kaito replied. The grim certainty in his indigo orbs sent an odd chill up the girl's spine, and she found herself shifting closer to Heiji.
"I don't want to jinx it or anything, but couldn't he have just been in an accident?"
"No one fitting his description has been admitted into any of the city's hospitals. I checked. And like I said, he left with someone. He also wrote me a note."
"I can see why you're concerned," Hattori said, frowning. "But I'm not sure how we can help if the police can't. We don't really know anything about these Noir people. I mean, I've heard of them, obviously, but most of what you just told us was news to me. I suppose we could ask around, but…"
"It's not information I need your help for." Rising to his feet, Kaito paced over to stand in front of one of the large, sun-filled windows. The light cast his shadow long and dark across the floor behind him. "I've been doing a lot of thinking about this, and, if I'm right, then Shinichi isn't currently in any danger. They wouldn't have let people see who'd taken him away if they were going to hurt him."
"So they need him?"
"That is a possibility. They've shown a lot of interest in the technology we have, and without the hover craft itself to analyze, Shinichi's their next best source of information about it. As long as they have Shinichi, it won't matter if our hover racer is totally wrecked. The important stuff is all in his head."
"What's the other possibility?"
"That they need him not to be here." Kaito gestured one-handed at the suite around them. "Without my mechanic, the chances of me running into trouble on the tracks increases threefold with every race. They may be hoping to pressure me into failing to qualify for the finals by keeping Shinichi away."
"That makes sense," Hattori muttered, looking down at the white lid on his to-go cup. More than the technical support issues though, he had the feeling that the stress from being worried about a close friend's whereabouts and wellbeing were already showing themselves to be dangerous weapons. His gaze flickered back up to the back of the other pilot's head. The two were close, he thought. He'd noticed it before, but now he was almost positive that they were more than just good teammates. His heart went out to them then, seeing that lonely silhouette against the window and hearing the silence that had moved into the room. He could imagine being the one standing there surrounded by empty spaces, knowing that the one person closest to you, who had been with you and supported you for years, had been taken away by some inhuman, corporate entity with no soul and no coherent reason that could be bandied with. How did one man or even two or three fight against a monster like the Foundation? It was too large, too powerful, too cold and inhuman…
It was Kazuha's soft voice that broke the somber silence. "What are you planning?"
Kaito turned to face them then, his back to the golden glass. His face was a veil of black shadows in which a pair of sharp, indigo eyes gleamed.
"I'm going to make them bring out their trump card. I'll show them that what they've done isn't going to pull me down or out. I'm going to run them all into the ground. And when they can't help but use their secret weapon, I'll be ready to catch them red-handed. That is where I'll need your help."
"Man, I don't know how he can be so calm about this," Hattori said as he and Kazuha stood alone in the elevator on their way back down to the lobby. The floor hummed softly beneath their feet as it descended. "If I was in his shoes and—I don't know—you had been kidnapped, I'd be out there right now combing the streets or marching into that foundation place's headquarters."
"I think, on the inside, that's what he wants to do too," Kazuha said softly. "But he knows he can't because the moment he loses his cool is the moment the other side wins. So he's trusting that Shinichi will know what he's supposed to do, and that they'll meet at the end as they always do."
"Oh I understand the why and all, I just don't get it, you know?"
It wasn't really a question, and Kazuha didn't answer it. Dark brown eyes fixed themselves on the metallic face of the elevator door. It gleamed dully in the flat, surreal light all around them.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" The question emerged as little more than a whisper, perhaps because she wasn't sure herself if she wanted to ask it or not. But it needed to be asked. That, at least, she knew.
"You sayin' you don't want ta help them?"
"No, no, I do," she said quickly. "It's just… It's going to be dangerous. I…I'm worried about you. I don't want to see you get hurt." Her face grew warm as she spoke, and she stared determinedly at the elevator door.
"It's a risky plan," Hattori admitted. "And I know that this technically isn't our battle. But, well, I don't wanna be the kind of person who'd turn my back on people who ask me for help. It'll be our battle sooner or later anyway," he added, tone increasing in confidence. "That's the thing about ambitious creeps. Sooner or later, they're everyone's problem. It's only a matter of time."
Kazuha nodded slowly. "You're right."
Her companion snorted. "Of course I am. I don't make decisions this big without thinking 'em through first."
Kazuha hid a smile. "That's news to me."
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Come on," she added as the elevator doors slid open before them. "We still have to finish getting those supplies."
A.N: Wow, just one more chapter to go! ^_^