Usual disclaimers apply.
The real McCoy – a Gatchaman mystery
Jinpei would probably kill me if he knew where I am right now. That is, if Galactor doesn’t get to me first. In my career as a member of the Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman, I have found myself in many hairy situations. My training, my capabilities, and my faith in my team-mates have always helped me get out of them. But this time, I am not sure whether my training covered this particular assignment. I am not certain that my capabilities are up to it. And my team-mates are not here. This, as they say, is the real McCoy.
Forty-eight hours earlier
Jinpei would probably kill me if he knew what I had planned for his sister. Which is why I didn’t tell him. Then I decided not to tell Ken, or Joe, or Ryu either, at least for the time being. In the end, it would be better if Jun set off for this assignment counting on nothing but her own strengths. I have always taught my children to work as a team. But I have to make exceptions, when the case demands them.
So I called Jun, and I told her I had an assignment for her.
“Sure, Hakase,” she said brightly. “What can I do for you?”
“You are to dress nicely, put on some makeup and fix up your hair,” I said drily.
She looked at me, wondering whether it would be okay to laugh. Something in my face told her it would not.
“Am I going to a party?” she fluttered her eyelids at me comically.
“As a matter of fact, you are. A weekend-long one. Without your uniform.”
“But, Hakase, that means…”
“I know what it means, Jun. It means that you won’t be able to transmute. In this case, I think it does not need to come to that.”
I could see that the “what if” question played on her lips, but she didn’t utter it. That’s what I like most about Jun, but it’s also what breaks my heart now. Jun does not question my orders, or her duty. She just does it.
“Good for me, then! Where shall I go?”
“Ah…this is the tricky bit. You are to go a bachelor party, at this mansion.”
I showed her an extravagant villa on my datapad. If she was impressed by it, she didn’t show it.
“Don’t tell me I have to go as the cake,” she tried to joke.
I guess my expression told her that yes, indeed, that would be her role…in a way.
“You will go as an escort girl. The owner of the house, the man throwing the party, is working for us undercover. One of his guests is a suspected Galactor collaborator. Your duty will be to watch closely in case he tries to make a pass to another traitor. Anything you see, a package changing hands, a datapad, you tell me. Try to copy it if it’s possible. We only have this opportunity, now, at this party, to do this, as you can have the perfect cover. It will be difficult to approach this man – I showed her a picture of her target – in any other environment. Besides, it will not be a real bachelor party, not in the old-fashioned sense. The groom’s wife-to-be will also be there. It’s more of an opportunity to wine and dine their friends. Calling it a bachelor party just gives it bit more of allure.”
I could see from the look on her face that she didn’t really see being an “escort girl” as the perfect cover. But she threw her hair over her shoulder, and sat in front of my desk.
“Where do I start?”
If you ever want to gatecrash a bachelor party, dress up as I did. Ken would not recognize me – I hardly recognize myself. Sheer panty hose, a black miniskirt that makes my uniform look long, a little sparkly top that reveals more than it conceals. High heels, killing my feet. And, worse of all, no weapons. Nada. I feel naked, and not because of my outfit.
The first hours were pleasant enough. I met our contact, Pieter Culconnen, in a little coffee shop, and he gave me the latest on our target, suspected Galactor collaborator, Briek Dolson. Pieter was a good agent: in less than ten minutes, I had filled the – limited – gaps left in Nambu’s briefing.
“Any questions?” he asked, as we were getting up.
“Just one: Are you really getting married?”
He smiled, a bit sadly.
“Actually, I’m not. But we’ve been setting this up for a long time, I have been dating a certain girl, and we pretend to be madly in love and getting married. She works for the ISO also – no, you won’t have heard of her – and a bachelor party is a good opportunity to have strangers, I mean strange girls, around. Which is where you come in.”
I nodded knowingly. Suddenly I remembered I had heard about an agent called Pieter a long time ago. Somehow, his name seemed to come to my mind together with that of Red Impulse. I shook my head to get the image out. The last thing I needed now would be to see Kentaro Washio. One secret agent – me! – would be enough for one bachelor party.
Twenty-four hours earlier
“Are you ready, Kentaro?”
I gave the final briefing file to my friend, agent, colleague, and most trusted confidant. I had decided, finally, to send someone as backup. Kentaro had worked with Pieter in the past. They knew each other, got along well. But it was vital that Jun remained focused on her own assignment. Kentaro would be there exactly like that, a backup.
“Don’t worry, my friend. I will be there to help Jun, if she needs it.”
“Just don’t allow her to recognize you. I haven’t told her you would be there. She thinks she will be alone.”
“Don’t worry, my friend. It’s not my first time in a similar situation.”
The first guests start arriving after a while, the men in black ties, the women in sashaying dresses, spikey heels and hairdos that I honestly admit I have never seen before. I am waiting in a little study, all decked out in my escort girl uniform. And feeling naked.
Pieter pops his head in the study.
“Ready, princess?” he asks me. I wince at the name, still not having gotten used to my new identity.
“As ready as can be, Pieter,” I say determinedly.
I come out of the study, and I see my target for the first time. Briek Dolson, in the middle of the room. I suddenly feel a surge of hatred for him: a successful businessman, Briek Dolson had no discernible reason to side with Galactor. And, unlike Joe’s parents, he doesn’t seem to have repented. My eyes scan the room, to look for a likely contact.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the evening’s attraction!” I hear Pieter call out.
“Straight from the most luxurious clubs of Ameris, the fabulous Arielle!”
He shouts like an emcee, and I make my entrance, slowly, no rush, taking a good look at everyone.
I start dancing – inwardly cringing as I remember the ISO instructor who had to teach me in one afternoon how to swing and sway – and I see Briek looking at me intently. This could be good, it could be bad. I continue swaying around the room, now and then pulling playfully at a man’s bowtie, touching a woman’s hair, all the time getting closer to the invitees. The song finishes, and Pieter offers me a glass of champagne. I touch it to my lips, take a sip. Then he takes my arm and starts guiding me around the room, introducing me to the guests.
Before long, we are standing before Briek.
“Briek, my friend, have you met the fabulous Arielle?”
Briek bows politely.
“I don’t believe I have had the pleasure.”
I smile – hopefully, in a seductive way.
“We can remedy that, Briek,” I say. I take his arm as, seamlessly, Pieter drops mine, and I propel him towards the bar.
“Could you get me a drink?” I ask him.
Ever the gentleman, he turns to the barman. In a flash, I slip a tracking device into his pocket. This was the only equipment I have been carrying with me, disguised as a stud in my belt. Now, if he decides to go for a midnight walk to meet his contact – we are spending the night in the villa – I can follow him on the monitor I have in my overnight bag.
We chat for a while, about nothing in particular, and then he excuses himself and goes to meet a newcomer – a woman in a striking red dress, who has just arrived. I am tempted to catch Pieter’s eye, but I don’t.
With a glass of champagne in my hand, I work the room, chatting pleasantly. Little by little, I slip into my undercover persona. If I don’t watch it, I will end up liking this job – this new Jun, who flirts openly and dances and generally behaves like a feather-headed bimbo.
And then Pieter draws me aside, and shatters the illusion.
“I just received a message. Galactor knows that the party is a trap. They know you are here – no, not you personally, of course, but they know that the ISO has sent someone. We have to work fast.”
I start to say “how fast?” when he pulls me back.
I peek around his shoulder. Briek is talking to someone – not the woman in the red dress, but a serious-looking man, who seems, somehow, familiar. I struggle to place him, but I can’t.
“Good. He’s here,” nods Pieter.
“You know him?”
“You don’t?” he asks, surprised.
“That’s Kentaro Washio. I’m sure you’ve met.”
My hear plummets. Yes, Red Impulse is here, and he will see me dressed in this skimpy outfit. Stupidly, I start to worry whether he will describe it to Ken, then pull myself together. Plus, for him to be here, it means that Nambu does not have full confidence in my abilities. Suddenly, I’m relieved. I’m not trained in undercover work. Kentaro is, and if he is here, it must be for a reason. Now that I look more carefully, I do recognize him. His disguise is very good, however. Much better than mine, if I may say so. His eyes rest on me, but then move away quickly. I am sure he is not deceived by the fabulous Arielle.
A commotion draws Briek to the balcony. Pretending to snuggle up to Pieter, I follow him, Pieter faithfully holding my arm again. We brush by Kentaro, ignoring each other. Then I look down and see a note in my hand.
I excuse myself and repair to the bathroom, while Pieter joins Briek. Curiously, with nervous fingers, I unroll the little piece of paper. I feel as if I’m part of a movie, one of those old spy films Nambu likes so much.
“Ten minutes. Hallway. Briek leaving. Stop him.”
Easy for you to say, Kentaro. Stop him how?
Ten hours earlier
“Do you understand your instructions, Jun?”
“If you are caught, the ISO cannot claim you. If they realize you are a spy, you are on your own.”
If Briek is leaving, it means that he either met his contact or that he will do so on his way out. Which of the two is it?
Pieter is still on the balcony with Briek, and I can see Kentaro moving towards their direction. No one else seems to be moving to the balcony. My eyes take in the crowd of revellers. Then I get a cold feeling running down my back. Suddenly, I know who the contact is.
I decide not to alert Pieter. Or Kentaro. This is something I have to deal with on my own. I approach Pieter’s “bride”, Lena, as she is graciously saying goodbye to some guests who will not stay overnight.
“Everything ok, Arielle?” she winks at me, playing with a little purse. I nod back, then wander aimlessly up and down the hallway, admiring the portraits hanging on the wall.
With the corner of my eye, I see Briek taking his leave and making his way towards the hallway. I don’t need to look – I know what will happen. The purse disappears from Lena’s hands and finds itself in those of Briek. If I wasn’t looking for it, however, I would have never seen the move. They are good, these two. But the Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman are better. As Briek leaves, I nod imperceptibly to Kentaro, who speaks into a mobile phone. Briek is attacked by a gang of hoodlums just as he leaves the mansion, and the purse is taken.
Jun has told me she doesn’t want to go undercover again. I agree, although, for a beginner, she did remarkably well. She explained to me afterwards that, when she saw Kentaro’s note, she started thinking about who would be the person who would, by necessity, greet Briek on his way out, and knew that it had to be Lena. She was arrested, of course. Pieter is broken-hearted: he didn’t love her, but he had grown attached to his partner. I suspect he’s more broken-hearted about the fact that he didn’t suspect her, but we all make mistakes. Briek was left to continue his work as a Galactor contact, but now we keep tabs on him.
Kentaro has asked Jun not to tell anyone that they met, as he wants to keep his secret role as a spy, well, secret, even from the ninjas. I cannot disagree. Jinpei would kill me if he knew what assignment I gave his sister. But there’s no need for him to find out.