Jazz Firebrand's Last Dance
A story in two parts
Masahiro is an artist with secrets. He draws Japanese-style manga comics, full of intricately crafted characters armed with knives, guns, and hi-tech spying equipment. The title of his comic is Jazz Firebrand Za Spectacular, a small-run publication featuring the adventures of the heroine, Jazz Firebrand. Very few people know Masahiro is the artist. This is his first secret. He doesn't talk about it, not even to Yuki, the girl he loves. Perhaps Yuki does not know that Masahiro loves her. This is another secret.
Jazz is a spy, a mercenary for hire, and sometime assassin; a woman for whom life is an endless series of ever-heightening crises. Jazz faces death page after page, urged ever onward by the stroke of Masahiro's pen.
These days a single scene blooms from the ink again and again. The same scene repeats--unbidden--as if his life depends on it. As if the life of someone he loves depends on it.
A dog-eared sketchbook rests on Masahiro's knees. He's been sitting there so long he's lost all feeling in his buttocks. Usually when Masahiro draws he is relaxed, but today he is wound tight, teeth clenched so firmly the muscles of his jaw creak in protest when he opens his mouth to lick his lips. Each detail must be just right, every patch of shading just so. He presses down so hard with the pencil that the tip breaks off, flitting across the stiff card stock.
The page is broken into panels, some half-erased where Masahiro has changed his mind part-way and tried to start again. The bottom of the page is almost entirely taken up by a close-up of an open female eye.
Masahiro's hand trembles.
Masahiro breathes in the aroma of coffee and banana cake. He is sitting in a mangakissa--a café stacked to the ceiling with volume after volume of Japanese comics, close-set cubicles reeking of sweat and cigarette smoke. The smells are thick and have seeped deep into the fabric of the chairs and the grain of the pine tables. Above, the tick, tick of a wall clock punctuates the percussive scrape of chairs, and the variable hum of a bevy of PC fans straining against the dense air. The clock face shows a faded decal of Atom--aka Astro Boy--his hands pointing the time. With each tick, Masahiro's art progresses. His pencil flies across the page, adding a detail here, a line there. The scene begins to take shape.
Jazz Firebrand hangs suspended on a spider web-thin Kevlar line from the bell tower of a chapel somewhere in the mountains of Spain. Below her are the men she's come to find, inspecting cases of smuggled Russian weaponry. She recognizes them immediately, some from photographs she's studied, others from having crossed paths with them before.
Domingo Parco, an arms dealer from the Ukraine, better known of late for his deals in Afghanistan, picks his nose, then straightens his tie. He is Jazz's main target.
Then there are his buyers, all of them somewhere near the top of Interpol's World’s Most Wanted list.
Letting off some of the slack from her belt-harness, Jazz pushes a button and drops toward the men, weapon fixed on the chest of her mark.
The motor on her harness catches, jerking her to a halt. The men look up. For a brief moment Jazz wonders why there are no looks of surprise on their faces. It was almost as if they were expecting her. Her mouth is dry. A set up.
Domingo Parco applauds.
Masahiro takes a swig from his can of premixed coffee. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. He realizes his hand is shaking and drops the pencil in alarm. This was supposed to be the final scene. Jazz would make an arrest, put the bad guys away and move on to her next adventure. Yet, somehow it had all gone wrong. Domingo Parco and the rest were waiting for her.
He pants, adrenaline coursing through him. How had this happened? When had it all gotten away from him? That was the wrong way to think, of course. There was still time to make it right. He was in control after all. He picks up his pencil, steadies his arm.
Jazz Firebrand lies on the ground, gritting her teeth, one arm wrenched behind her back. Without her winch, she'd been stranded in mid-air, helpless to stop herself from being lowered to the ground. A squad of guards poured out of the vestry and took up positions around her. They seemed poorly trained, little better than boy scouts, but among them--much to her disgust--they did an admirable job of incapacitating her.
"Let her up." It is a new voice. A female voice.
Jazz tries to turn her head but one of the guards is standing on her jaw. Eventually the order filters through and they back off enough for her to stand.
The newcomer looks oddly familiar, but Jazz cannot remember seeing her before. Still, there is something about her.
"Jazz, darling. I'm so pleased you're predictable. Parco told me you wouldn't come, but I said you would." The woman smiles at the weapons dealer then turns back to Jazz. "He really is a dear when you get to know him." She winks. "And he should have known better than to bet against a Firebrand."
Masahiro sits on a bench on the single platform of an abandoned railway station. He likes to come here because it reminds him of Yuki. The station is so old and unkempt that even the name has worn off its sign, disappearing beneath strips of curled and faded paint. Buckled tracks lead past a crumbling platform, hedged by overgrown weeds strewn with empty plastic bottles, splintered disposable chopsticks and other rubbish. Smoke drifts lazily from a nearby garden.
Masahiro checks his watch. It is nearly time. Three years since Yuki went away. Three years to the day when he and Yuki had sat together for what felt like hours on that bench, snow drifting through the rusty hole in the sheet iron roof, him oblivious to the fact that it would be the last time he saw her, her sitting quietly beside him, bag in her lap.
The hole in the roof is still there, but it's not cold enough to snow anymore. It doesn't snow now the way it used to when he and Yuki had spent their winter holidays together.
Yuki disappeared while he'd been following the rusted tracks with his eyes, wondering how they could have buckled so. Iron was so strong, yet there it lay, twisted and broken.
He'd felt her warmth, and enjoyed the pressure of her leg alongside his. And then when he looked up to see her face, she was gone. At least he thinks that's what he remembers.
Masahiro knows that memories are a tricky thing. If you don't clamp down on them they can slip away from you, like a cat wriggling from your grasp when it sees the bathwater closing in. Memories must be curated, caressed. That was how he treated his recollections of Yuki, grooming each of them in turn like long-haired Abyssinians.
Not a day went by that he didn't think of her. He remembered the way she wore a red comb in her hair every day for a year before she'd lost it in a storm-water drain. They were ten years old. She'd begged him to go in after it, and of course he had. But he couldn't find it, and ended up in the hospital with a lung infection from swallowing too much water.
When she was fourteen, Yuki asked him to pierce her ears. He remembered the way she gasped as he pushed the needle through her soft earlobe, and the faint metallic scent of blood.
Several times a day he coaxed her image from his memory, teasing it out until it filled the screen of his inner eye.
Masahiro knows he needs to be able to draw Yuki just right, and worries that if he ever forgot the way she looks she really would disappear, this time for good. In his mind, he makes sure that Yuki continues to play the way she did when they were kids: splashing through puddles, muddy water soiling the cherry-blossomed hem of her yukata, stealing sticks of dripping, syrupy dango from the brightly-colored yatai street stalls, and then running off with him in tow through the crowd. That was the way it had been. The way she was before Kei.
"He's the one."
Masahiro forced himself to breathe before he answered. Had he imagined that slight hesitation, the catch in her breath? "You always say that,” he said. “How can you be sure this time?" She'd said the same thing about the last one and that didn't end well.
Yuki smiled, smoothed her skirt and sat down. A finch hopped in closer to have a look, jumping away when Yuki threw a piece of lettuce at it. "It's just...I know, okay? I know. That's what my heart tells me."
Masahiro thought he was going to be sick. He could feel the sushi roll he'd just eaten being forced up into his throat on a jet of bile. Should he tell her how he felt? But if he did, what would she do? What if she rejected him? Wasn't it better to keep things the way they were? He swallowed the lump in his throat, forcing the bitterness down. "You're sure?"
For a moment he entertained the thought that perhaps Kei loved Yuki as much as he did, but how could that be? Kei had not been there for Yuki when she called after one of her nights out, barely aware of where she was. He’d never had to see her lying on some love hotel bed awash in the sour stench of salaryman sweat, as disheveled and crumpled as her school uniform. He'd never had to steel himself to carry her to the shower to wash clean her flawless skin. It was always so hard to keep from peeking, but Masahiro managed to keep his eyes glued shut. Most of the time. Kei couldn't love Yuki the way he did. No one could.
"Well," Masahiro said in a low voice. "No matter what, you still have me."
Yuki smiled, but it was a sad, weak thing, like a wilted daffodil. "That's true."
Masahiro loves Jazz Firebrand too.
Jazz was everything he could ever want in a woman. She was everything he could conceive of ever wanting in a woman. Just like Yuki. Charming, bright, and tender, her mind was able to whirr faster than the blades of one of her opponent's razor-sharp knives, and yet there was a steel-hardness about her that left him in no doubt that if pressed to the wall, Jazz could fight back and win. He loved that about her. Jazz was infinitely resourceful.
"Why do you read that trash?" Yuki asked him one day at school.
"Hmm?" Masahiro was deep in the story, barely aware that everyone else had left for sports practice. Masahiro always avoided sports practice. Reading Jazz Firebrand was much better than that, even though he already knew how the stories ended.
"I said, 'Why do you read that--'"
"It's not trash." For all their closeness, Masahiro had never told Yuki his secret. He drew the stories after school, away from prying eyes, using the ideas he scrawled in his notebooks during class and bringing them to life in ink. His friend, the manager of the mangakissa helped him get a publishing deal. It was small circulation, but so far it paid better than a part-time job. He pulled one of the earlier editions from his bag. "Here. Why don't you take a look and see?"
Yuki took the comic from him. She spent a long time staring at the front cover. Masahiro could understand the attraction given that most of the page was filled with a close-up of Jazz Firebrand's breasts.
Masahiro did his best to guard his secret closely, but he knew he wasn't cut out for secrecy. Quite a lot of people knew the truth: Taka, his friend at the mangakissa, the publisher, and a handful of regulars. There could have been a few others. Masahiro's byline said only "Piero.” He'd chosen it himself. To him it meant "clown".
Yuki raised an eyebrow and began to read. A little while later Masahiro got tired of watching her and went back to his own issue. It was the latest one, where Jazz meets up with her old enemy, Dr. Nightwing, the serial killer.
It was nearly dark and bitterly cold when they finally walked outside. Most of the other students had already gone home. They stopped at the corner, both having to go in different directions.
"I get it," Yuki said.
Masahiro knew she was talking about Jazz Firebrand. He'd seen her devouring it, flipping to the next page before she'd barely finished with the one before. His body seemed to swell with elation. "Good," he said, doing his best not to let his emotion show.
After that, he and Yuki spent a lot of time together. They'd talk a lot, but sometimes they would just read. He loved those times. Yuki would put her head on his shoulder, giving a little nod when she was ready for him to turn the page. Masahiro never got impatient waiting for her to finish. She wasn't slow, she was thorough. They only ever read Jazz Firebrand Za Spectacular together. Masahiro had never seen Yuki read anything else.
At that time Yuki lived with her aunt and so many cats they were almost impossible to count. One day Masahiro tried and got to twenty-five before he gave up. Masahiro loved the scent of Yuki's room. It smelled better than anything in the world. It smelled just the way he imaged Jazz Firebrand's room would. Sure, the air would hold just a hint of cordite tang, and there would be a neat rack for all her ninja gear, but the homey smell of wool and the scent of her shampoo would definitely be the same.
Masahiro dreamed that one day he and Yuki would marry and move in together. There were no cats in Masahiro's dream. And no Kei, either.
To be concluded in Part 2...
I posted an early proto-version of this story episodically a few months ago, but this is a new and much improved version after having passed through the cleansing fire of the PALnet MSP Fiction Workshop on Discord. While the framework is the same, I hope you'll agree that this is now a very different, much improved version of what I'd originally come up, with all thanks to the talent of our workshop crew. All errors are my own.