Paris is full of dingy cafés, but her contact seems to have chosen the dingiest of them all. The smell of tobacco overwhelms even the scent of coffee (never a good sign), and there are few customers – only a prim-looking woman sipping at a cup of tea and two middle-aged gentleman engaged in a quiet yet heated debate at a table near the door. The sound of Sheila’s “Les rois mages” filters in, sticky and warped with static, through the old radio on the counter.
Ruriko takes a table in the back; orders two cappuccinos from the bored-looking waitress and settles in to wait for the person she’s here to meet. It doesn’t take long, and she surveys him with mild interest as he stumbles his way through the maze of chairs. It’s always somewhat fascinating to her, the disguises used by Interpol agents. Today her contact has on thick glasses and a threadbare tweed jacket, his mousy brown hair askew, clutching a large black messenger bag close. A hapless, bumbling intern, perhaps, to anyone who might think to spare him a glance.
“Good to see you, good, good,” he murmurs as he takes the seat across from her. “Awful weather we’ve been having, isn’t it?”
“Only if you’re opposed to rain,” she replies. He catches her eye and his blundering façade drops for just a moment as he nods, before he is slipping back into character once more.
“Brought some new designs for you to look over,” he says. He opens his bag and takes out a sketchbook, which he slides across the table for her to peruse. Each page contains a simple fashion sketch – loose-lined feminine figures wearing patterned concepts for dresses and skirts. And at the foot of each one, a carefully printed note. “J = 198” reads the writing on the first page, followed by “N = 023” on the next.
“You… will be able to work with these?” the man across the table asks, sounding uncertain. He freezes up a bit as the waitress sets their cappuccinos down in front of them, but Ruriko doesn’t so much as react, continuing to turn the pages with a thoughtful ‘hm.’
Finally, she glances up at him with a small, sly smile. “No need to worry. I’ve stitched things together more complicated than this.”
The radio has been switched from pop songs to a local news broadcast, and the announcer’s muffled voice drifts across the room in snippets. A suspect is in custody for the robbery that took place last week in a quiet neighborhood in Reuilly… President Pompidou has called the construction of the soon-to-be-completed Marnee-la-Vallée “a modern triumph”… A man was found dead of unknown causes last night at approximately three a.m., his body floating in the Seine…
Ruriko narrows her eyes at that last one as she sips at her lukewarm cappuccino. Unexplained deaths have been more and more frequent in this city as of late. The talking heads on television have their theories as to why, but none of them are even close to the truth.
“Is… is it true, what they say?” the agent across from her asks. With no one within ten feet of them to overhear, he seems to be dropping his act a bit – when he looks at her over the rims of his glasses his curiosity is genuine. “That if you want to get in touch with,” and here he lowers his voice to a whisper, “with Kamen Rider, you’re the person to go through?”
Ruriko can’t help but laugh at that. “Is that what they say?” She leans her chin on her hand and taps a fingernail against the cover of the sketchbook. “I guess they’d be right, in a way. Though it’s not like I can just summon him up whenever I want to. He’s a tough one to keep track of.”
The agent nods, his eyes wide with interest. “And the things they say about him – are those true, too? That he’s immortal? That his heart is made of gears and wires?”
Ruriko arches an eyebrow. “You all spend a lot of time gossiping, don’t you?”
He has the decency to look somewhat contrite.
“Well, I guess that’s inevitable,” she muses. “I’ll tell you this much,” and here she takes one last sip of her cappuccino before setting it down with a decisive ‘clink.’ “You can still be human, even with a mechanical heart. That’s what I think.”
And at that she smiles; fishes two francs out of her pocket and leaves them on the tabletop as she tucks the sketchbook under her arm and heads for the door.
When she first came to Paris a few months prior, she had taken up residence in a strange apartment complex in Epinettes: an old, ramshackle place with ominously creaky wooden floorboards and water that occasionally ran copper and a stunning view of an abandoned textile factory through the window of her cramped kitchen. At first it had seemed ideal for her purposes, as few others lived in the building, and in fact she had had no neighbors next to or below her to take notice of her often peculiar schedule.
But perhaps it had been too ideal. Of course the enemy – with eyes and ears on every street corner, as Takeshi would say – was bound to take notice of a young foreign woman living alone in a place such as that, and on the day she glanced out the window to see an inhuman-looking shadow move about on the third floor of the supposedly abandoned factory, well. That was the day she decided to move house.
Which brought her here, to the rue St. Ambroise in Popincourt, where she chose a bustling building with plenty of young, chic, artistic-leaning tenants – the kind of neighbors who were much too absorbed in their own affairs to take much notice of her and whatever it is she might be doing awake at two thirty in the morning on a Thursday.
Which is, on this particular Thursday, a painstaking decryption of the Shocker cipher she was handed in the back of a gloomy café a few hours prior.
The cipher is simple, actually. Surprisingly simple, but she supposes even Shocker must grow weary of the endless subterfuge sometimes.
It’s getting closer to the time specified for the broadcast, and she secures her headset over her ears; fiddles with the knobs on the bulky surveillance radio that takes up most of her dining table. Shocker’s Paris branch has switched to an entirely new frequency for this broadcast, which she takes to be a sign. Today is hopefully the day she’ll finally get some genuine information about this “Operation Ballista” they’ve been namedropping in coded messages for weeks now.
At exactly 2:45 the transmission begins, an eerie monotone voice reading number after number, which Ruriko copies down precisely, mechanically, into the notebook in front of her. It’s easy to slip into a kind of dissociative state while on codetalker duty, and sure enough she gets startled back into reality by the “glory be to Shocker” at the end of the broadcast, her pencil still poised on the page. She glances at the clock to find that twenty minutes have gone by. Time she hadn’t even felt.
She’s stretching out the ache between her shoulder blades and setting aside her headset when there is a knock at the door.
A beat. She turns to stare at it, eyes narrowing and pulse jumping in her throat. “Who is it?” she asks, keeping her voice as steady and casual as she can mange.
“Just me,” a familiar voice replies, and instantly the tension leaves her body. She hangs her head with a sigh of quiet exasperation.
“You know you could call ahead, right?” she laughs, getting to her feet and walking over to unlatch the lock. “That’s what most people do.”
“Apologies,” comes the voice through the door. “But you know as well as I do the phones in this city aren’t safe.” She goes to take hold of the doorknob, but a force of immeasurable strength seems to be holding it in place. “Wait. How do you know it’s really me?”
Ruriko rolls her eyes. “Who exactly is going to be impersonating you?”
She can almost hear the plaintive frown in his voice when he says: “You never know, Ruriko. They’ve been getting bolder lately.”
“Alright, alright. How about… Who won our last race before we left Japan?”
This time she can hear a smile. “You did,” he says. “By point seven seconds.”
She purses her lips. “I still say it was point eight. But close enough, I guess.”
She turns the knob with ease, now, and opens the door to allow Takeshi inside. He always looks astonishingly put-together, all things considered, and today is no exception – perfectly clean-shaven and coiffed, his dark green suit immaculate other than what looks like a blackened singe mark on the right lapel. (His eyes look tired, though. As if he’d very much like to close them right this moment and sleep for a day or a week or a year.)
“Ran into a bit of trouble in Marseilles yesterday,” he says, noticing her line of sight.
“So that’s where you’ve been?” She bolts the door behind him and wanders over to the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea, then thinks better of it and instead rummages around through the cabinets for the bottle of pastis she’s been hiding away. Alcohol doesn’t seem to have any effect on Takeshi, but there are times when you just need a stiff drink nonetheless.
“In and around,” he answers, having taken a seat at the table. He gives her a small, grateful smile when she sets a glass down in front of him, the pale yellow of the pastis almost garish against the dullness of her apartment. “I’ve actually been working on something for you.”
She blinks. “For me?”
He nods and procures something from his breast pocket, which he then presses into her outstretched hand. It looks like a bracelet, she thinks, though upon closer inspection it’s unlike any jewelry she’s ever seen. The band is sturdy and plain silver, and the design – a sworl of red and white within a circle of black – is clearly more than just a design. It’s raised up in such a way that makes her fingertip hover over it uncertainly.
Takeshi takes a sheaf of folded papers from his pocket as well and slides them to her across the table. They’re blueprints, and Ruriko shuffles through them with her eyes widening gradually. She stares down at the sleek black design – the simple helmet, the lightweight chest armor, the reinforced steel in knuckles of the gloves – with a feeling she can’t describe prickling across her skin.
“I’ve been looking into reverse engineering my Rider belt in my spare time,” Takeshi is saying. “Of course, you haven’t been remodeled. You can only tap into a portion of that power, but it should be enough to get you out of predicaments that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”
For lack of a better reaction, Ruriko laughs – a sharp, taken back sort of sound. “Reverse engineering,” she echoes. “You know I always forget you’re such a poindexter.”
“Poindexter?” Takeshi rubs at his jawline, looking mildly amused. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been called that before.”
“What would you be doing right now, if none of this had happened?” Ruriko asks, raising an eyebrow. “Working on some kind of dissertation about cell biology, probably. Getting your name on a plaque in the dean’s office.”
Immediately, she can see a change in Takeshi’s expression, his smile faltering and turning down around the edges. He stares into the drink he’s nursing with a distant sort of look in his eyes. “I suppose I would be,” he says, soft and quiet.
Ruriko curses inwardly.
“But I’m surprised,” she says, overloud, “that you would make something like this for me. You were so reluctant to bring me to Europe with you to begin with. ‘You shouldn’t have to set your life aside to fight.’ Don’t I remember someone saying that? Hm?”
Takeshi looks pensive. “I wish it were that way, of course. I wish you were home in Tokyo right now, living your everyday life. But even there you wouldn’t be safe, would you? No one’s truly safe anymore. And the longer this goes on, the more I realize just how good it is to have others fighting the same battle as me. If there’s any way at all to give us an edge in this fight, I’ll take it.”
They lapse into silence for a time, and Ruriko sips at her drink, the bite of the alcohol heavy in her throat as she swallows hard. “Well I suppose I’ll need a name,” she says, her voice far too bright. “Not a Kamen Rider, but maybe… A Kamen Agent?”
Takeshi’s smile is back again. “That has a good ring to it.”
“Oh,” she says, shuffling the blueprints aside and pulling her notebook closer. “I may have something for you, too. Information, that is. Give me a couple minutes to run this through the cipher and I’ll let you know.”
Takeshi murmurs his assent, getting up and wandering over to peruse her record collection as she sets to work. She’s a third of the way through – something about transports of money arriving from Brazil – when she hears the first quiet notes of The Moody Blues float across the room. Her turntable is old, on its last legs, and the sound has a fuzzy crackle to it, but it’s a pleasant background hum all the same as she checks number after number against the cipher.
Halfway through, she freezes in her seat, with the tip of her pencil digging into the page hard enough to splinter the lead.
“What’s wrong?” Takeshi asks.
She makes a frustrated noise, harsh through her gritted teeth as she picks up the notebook and turns it in his direction, so that he can read the words she just now decoded:
We know you’re listening, Midorikawa Ruriko.
Takeshi’s expression darkens.
“We need to leave,” he says, all the good humor gone from his voice.
“How? You know how they are. The building’s probably already surrounded.” The words feel bitter in her mouth. She should have known. It had all been far too easy, hadn’t it? How did she not realize? Had Interpol been duped, too? Or perhaps that man in the café today asking her so sincerely about Kamen Rider’s heart hadn’t been Interpol at all.
Takeshi’s eyes flick towards the window – or more accurately, to the fire escape just beyond it, and Ruriko understands in an instant what he’s intending.
She can still hear The Moody Blues playing, the record stuttering and skipping, as she hoists herself over the windowsill after Takeshi, the metal of her bracelet cold around her wrist.
She’s never been to the roof of the building before. From here, the lights of Paris look hazy and muted, like smudges of orange paint against a dark canvas. It’s a mild enough night, for early spring – cool but not chilly, and the wind doesn’t so much whip through her hair as tug at it playfully.
She’s already feeling a bit less down about this whole thing.
“I was getting sick of listening in on them anyhow,” she mutters to Takeshi, whose back is pressed solid and reassuring against her own. On the roof opposite theirs, she can see shadows moving.
“Maybe we can find you a more hands-on assignment,” he says. “You press it like a button, by the way.”
There is a monstrous shape hauling itself up over the edge of the roof. A creature with the head of a jaguar and a body ridged with tough hide like that of a crocodile, its fingers tapering into curved claws.
Ruriko does as suggested, the raised portion of the bracelet sinking down with the satisfying sound of machinery clicking into place. She watches as the miniature turbine begins to spin, the metal suddenly warm against her skin, thrumming with a kind of mechanical pulse.
“Henshin,” she says, and smiles a bit as she draws back her fist.