Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren't my characters, I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. That's it, typing practice. I'll return them to their actual owners (relatively) undamaged. This is an amateur work of fiction; no profit beyond pleasure was derived from the writing. Originally published in Compadres #24, from Neon RainBow Press.
Central Park Waltz
Beauty and the Beast/The Master
by Susan M. M.
"This is crazy," Max Keller protested.
"Suicidal," the young, curly-haired man corrected himself. "Nobody goes to Central Park at night. Nobody but muggers."
"We don't want anyone around to watch," John Peter McAllister reminded him. "And we don't need to worry about muggers."
"You don't, maybe. You're the ninja. Me, I'm not bullet-proof," Max informed his teacher. He was an ordinary looking fellow: brown hair, denim jeans and jacket, Nikes, good-looking in a guy-next-door kind of way.
"Neither am I, Max," the older man pointed out. His face was hardly wrinkled; only his white hair and bald pate betrayed his sixty-plus years. Blue eyes peered earnestly into his pupil's brown ones. "But I am good at avoiding bullets, and that's what you need to learn."
"Yes, Master," Max muttered sarcastically.
Ignoring the young man's tone, the ninja continued, "You need more night work. Literally translated, ninjitsu is 'the art of invisibility.' You must learn to use the darkness as a tool, the way you would your shuriken or your katana."
Max swore as he tripped over a rock.
"We also need to improve your night vision. You look, but you don't see. You listen, but you don't hear." Of course, you're the same in the daytime, McAllister thought. "God gave you five senses. Learn to use them."
"What about your sixth sense?" Max asked him.
"Nothing a ninja does is supernatural. We've simply developed our minds and bodies beyond what most people bother attempting, so it looks that way."
Max snorted with disbelief. He was convinced his teacher was half-psychic.
"It's a lot like women's intuition," the Master explained. "Ninety percent of that is just applied kinesics."
"Kines-what?" Max asked.
"Kinesics. The study of body language. Most women do it subconsciously, almost automatically – observing and analyzing nonverbal clues. Haven't you noticed how much better Cat is at reading people than you are? She probably couldn't tell you what she's doing, or how, but she does it. You need to learn to do it on a conscious level," McAllister told his apprentice.
"Great, more homework."
The Master smiled. He was used to his companion's griping.
"In that case," the twenty-something man asked after a moment, "why didn't we drag Cat out of a nice, warm bed, too?"
"Cat Hellman is a strong and spirited woman," the ninja admitted, adding teasingly, "and a very pretty one." He'd seen the way she and Max eyed each other, and although he chaperoned them strictly, he approved of the budding relationship. "However, I have no intention of training her as a kunoichi. She doesn't need these lessons. You do." He did not add that he didn't think Cat had what it took to become a ninja, whilst Max – just possibly – might. He changed the subject. "That clearing over there might do."
Max followed his sensei to a flat, grassy area. A ring of maple trees half-hid the glade from the main path.
"About fifteen feet across," the Master estimated, eyeballing the clearing.
"Should give us plenty of room for sparring. You'll want to watch out for that rock over there."
Max looked to where the older man was pointing. "Rock? That's a baby boulder."
"Try not to trip over it, then," McAllister suggested dryly. He looked around, smoothing his white mustache with one finger. "This'll work out just fine. It's dark. It's deserted. The trees and bushes over there. . ." And that 'baby boulder,' he thought. ". . . should make a good obstacle course."
The apprentice ninja sighed. "It's your life's ambition to turn me black and blue, isn't it?"
"You were the one who wanted to learn ninjitsu. Insisted upon it, as I recall."
"So who said I was a rocket scientist?"
Blue eyes shone merrily. He looked like a harmless old man when he smiled – someone's great-uncle dressed up for a costume party, perhaps. He didn't look like one of the world's most dangerous men. Then he pulled his mask up, covering his face and hiding his smile.
Max peeled off his denim jacket. Without waiting to be told, he began his warm-up exercises.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Good night, Vincent. Thank you for dinner, and for inviting me to the concert." Catherine Chandler smiled at the leonine man-beast, and her hand lingered in his paw.
"I'm glad you were able to come. You've been so busy of late, I was afraid you wouldn't be able to make it." Concern showed in his inhuman eyes. He looked like a were-beast, a changeling prince from some forgotten fairy tale. His face was covered by golden downy fur, and was humanoid rather than human. His long golden hair was vaguely reminiscent of a lion's mane, but perhaps closer in style to the coiffures worn by Charles II's cavaliers. His hand-stitched garb would not have been out of place at a RenFaire.
The blonde attorney laughed. "Didn't I tell you? I was here tonight under orders. Joe told me, 'Radcliffe, you're working yourself too hard. You get yourself frazzled, the only one you do any good is the Public Defender. No more working late. Go home at five tonight. Catch a movie, go dancing. Relax.'"
Vincent bared his fangs, smiling at her imitation of her boss' Brooklyn accent. A pity, he thought, that I shall never meet this Joe Maxwell who is such a part of her life Above.
Her hazel eyes sparkled as she looked up at him. "So I'll tell him I had dinner with a friend, then attended a Mozart recital. It's just a pity I won't be able to tell him about Arthur. He was the best part of the concert."
Vincent chuckled, a curious sound that was half-laugh, half-growl. "Mouse chasing that poor raccoon all over the chamber."
"And Arthur running between the musicians' legs, and then trying to climb up Pascal's cello!" Catherine giggled.
"Pascal didn't think it was so funny," Vincent reminded her. His chuckle took on more of a purring quality. "It's good to hear you laugh. Your Joe is right; you need to relax more often."
She sighed. "My job doesn't let me. I'll say one thing about corporate law. My old job gave me more free time, and a higher salary."
"Do you miss it?"
"Not really. It was so . . . empty. With the DA I'm doing something. I'm making a difference." She brushed a wisp of ash-blonde hair out of her eye. "I've finally gotten my father to accept that. He still doesn't understand, but he respects my decision. And I think," she added, "he's just a little bit proud of his daughter, the crusader."
"I'm sure he is," Vincent agreed. "And probably more than just a little."
"However, Dad's let me know my old desk is waiting for me if I change my mind," Catherine informed him.
"Fathers don't like to let go, do they?" He shook his golden mane. "Sometimes Father seems to think I'm still ten, skinning my knee in the Cave of the Winds with Devin."
Catherine laughed again. "Speaking of letting go, I should say good night and go home. It's getting late."
"I wish you'd go by the Tunnels. Central Park at night–"
"I'll be fine, Vincent. Don't worry," she chided him. "It's a beautiful summer night, and it's much quicker if I take the shortcut through the park."
"We do have a tunnel that leads directly to your basement," Vincent reminded her.
"That way takes twice as long. Besides, a night like this, it would be a crime to stay indoors and underground. And I'm an assistant district attorney; I'm supposed to stop crime," she teased him.
He sighed. He knew how stubborn she could be when she wanted to. Her inner strength was one of the things that had attracted him to her, even if it meant he seldom won an argument with her. "Be careful."
"I will," she promised. "Good night, Vincent."
"Good night," he echoed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It was a beautiful night for a stroll through the park. The moon, when it stopped playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, was almost full. The stars were bright. The smell of fresh-mown grass filled the air. Catherine hummed to herself as she walked.
Movement up ahead caught her eye. She stopped to see who or what it was. She took a few cautious steps forward. Eight men were ahead of her and to the left. They seemed to be divided into three groups, three on either side, and a pair in the middle who were discussing something, no, exchanging something. She inhaled sharply as suddenly the pieces clicked into place. The trios on either side were bodyguards. She was witnessing a drug deal going down!
Catherine backed up slowly. Just because she was a crusader didn't mean she was stupid enough to try to take on eight men by herself.
Eight heads turned when she stepped on the branch. Catherine ran.
"Get her!" the pusher yelled. Three of the bodyguards took off after her.
She wasted no breath on screams, but she concentrated on Vincent. His empathy should sense her distress. She tried to call him mentally to attract his attention. In the meantime, she ran. Perhaps she could lose them where the trees were thicker. If only the moon would hide behind the clouds again! Darkness would've been a better ally.
She tripped and fell, but quickly scrambled to her feet. There was nowhere to run. Her pursuers were gaining on her and the trees in this part of Central Park were too few and far between to provide a hiding place. She reached into her purse, pulled out her gun, and aimed carefully. She fired.
Her first shot grazed one. He screamed profanities and clapped a hand to his wounded arm. Her second shot missed completely. She never got the chance for a third shot.
They grabbed her and dragged her back to their bosses. All four, Catherine and her captors, were bruised by the time they reached the drug dealers.
"Got her, boss," the man she'd shot announced unnecessarily.
"Pretty mama," another of her captors stated. He wore gang colors. "Maybe we have some fun with her first?"
Catherine glared at him coldly, determined not to let the fear she felt show.
"Fool!" the younger of the two 'negotiators' scoffed. "Ain't you never heard of DNA testing? You wanna get caught?"
He, too, wore gang colors, as did his guards. Catherine guessed that he was a retailer, getting his supply from his wholesaler. The other dealer was a decade older and better dressed.
The retailer stared at her. Catherine met his eyes; he looked away first. "I know her. I've seen her before." He looked at her again and snarled, "The bitch is with the DA. She helped put my brother away."
The wholesaler grabbed her jaw. "Who else knows you're here? Where are they? Check to see if she's wired."
Catherine jerked her head down an inch and bit his hand. Simultaneously, she raised her left foot several inches and came down hard on her captor's foot. He howled with pain. She broke free. Running, she screamed Vincent's name.
The dope pushers pursued her, all eight of them. Suddenly a cloud of smoke erupted between them and their prey. Two men appeared out of nowhere, one in blue jeans and a tee-shirt, the other in the traditional black garb of the ancient Japanese assassin-cult.
Max ran directly toward the drug dealers. He dropped, rolled and knocked two over as though they were bowling pins.
Another cloud of smoke erupted directly in front of Catherine. Under its cover, McAllister grabbed her and hustled her over to a lone oak tree twenty feet away.
"Are you all right?" he whispered.
"Stay here. It's not much shelter, but it's better than none."
Max scurried to his feet. A karate chop to their necks rendered both his foes unconscious before they could do the same to him.
McAllister drew a pair of shuriken from an inner pocket. He took aim, then let them fly. One throwing star sunk deep into a gang member's left shoulder. The other buried itself in his right arm. The punk screamed.
McAllister sprinted back into the fray. The wholesaler pulled out a gun and fired at him. The bullets flew harmlessly through the air. Although the pusher was known in the underworld as a crack shot, McAllister just wasn't there when the bullets reached what should have been their target.
Max leapt and kicked. The shuriken-pierced punk fell flat on his back. "Check out, Jack," he murmured triumphantly.
The Master cartwheeled into the middle of the action. He was everywhere. He was nowhere. The wholesaler aimed again, but suddenly the ninja was gone. His bullet hit his own enforcer, the one Catherine had wounded.
"ARRRRR!" A sudden scream, like the cry of a wild beast, pierced the air. Out of the darkness, Vincent appeared as if from nowhere. The young gang leader pulled a switchblade on him. Vincent brushed him aside, breaking the hoodlum's arm.
One of the gang members threw a knife at McAllister. He caught it. "Didn't your mother tell you that you shouldn't play with knives?" he chided gently. He grasped the blade in both hands, broke it and tossed the pieces on the ground.
The punk stared for a second, then turned and ran.
Vincent grabbed the last of the gang leader's three bodyguards and shook him like a rag doll. He growled, then tossed him down five feet away. He turned to the wholesaler. The dope pusher fired at him, but the empty gun clicked harmlessly. Desperately, he threw the gun at Vincent. The lion-man batted it away as though it were a fly. Vincent strode toward him, seized him with his left paw, and struck him with the right. He drew back to strike again, claws spread for maximum damage.
Vincent's arm swung, but McAllister caught it. Despite Vincent's strength, the ninja gave no sign of having felt the impact, nor could Vincent break free from McAllister's grasp.
"You don't want to kill him."
Vincent growled. Fury distorted his normally handsome (but inhuman) face. His fangs clearly showed as he retorted, "They hurt Catherine."
"She's all right. Don't lower yourself to their level," the Master said. He turned to the drug wholesaler. "Do you mind? This is private." Reaching out, he pinched the nerves at the base of the man's neck, rendering him unconscious. "You can set him down now."
Vincent let go and the pusher fell to the ground.
"It's easy to start killing. It's hard to stop." The Master peered up into Vincent's face, the only part of his own face visible were his cobalt blue eyes, earnest and persuasive. "I know."
Catherine and Max walked up to join them. Max stared at Vincent, but said nothing.
Vincent grasped the attorney and held her tightly. "Are you all right?" he demanded.
"Just a few bruises. I interrupted a drug deal." She turned to face McAllister. "You saved my life. Thank you."
The ninja shrugged. "Rescuing damsels in distress is part of the job. Max, run back to the clearing and get my bag of tricks. There's some rope in there and a first-aid kit. We can tie these creeps up and leave them for the police."
The gang leader sat up and spit out a cussword. "I know who you are, lady. What the cops gonna think when I tell them 'bout this? What they gonna think when I tell them 'bout you?"
McAllister wandered over to the punk and knelt beside him. He raised a silver-gray eyebrow inquiringly. "You're going to tell the cops that your illegal transaction was interrupted by a petite little china doll, a ninja, and a sasquatch? They're going to think you're sampling your own goods. Especially when you try to tell them that the ninja used a Vulcan neck pinch to knock you out." His fingers found the pressure point and the punk was out cold.
"A sasquatch?" Vincent was unsure whether to be insulted or amused.
"A china doll, a ninja and a sasquatch?" Max repeated. "What am I, chopped liver?"
"Do you really want me to answer that?" the Master teased.
"You are a knight in shining armor," Catherine told him. "Both of you." She kissed both ninja master and apprentice on their checks.
"I'll go get your bag," Max offered hastily.
As he hurried off, the Master turned to Vincent and chuckled. "The boy's brighter than he looks. He knows that jealous boyfriends are more dangerous than scum like them."
Catherine blushed, but did not deny that Vincent was her boyfriend.
"I shall escort you home," Vincent told her. "And we will go through– we shall take the longer route."
Catherine nodded, too shaken to argue. "Let me get my gun. It might be . . . more convenient if the police can't trace me to all this. It's registered in my name."
McAllister nodded approvingly. Although she was tired, sore, and frightened, she was thinking logically. In another time, another place, he might have considered her for ninja training. She had the potential to be kunoichi.
"Who are you?" Vincent demanded.
McAllister pulled down his mask so Vincent could see his smile. "Do you really want to ask me that? I'm likely to return the favor if you do."
Vincent grinned wryly. "Touché."
John Peter McAllister extended a hand. "Let's just say that I'm a friend."
Vincent clasped his hand firmly. "That you are. Thank you, or should I say domo arigato?" McAllister smiled and Vincent continued. "Thank you for rescuing her from them . . . and me from myself."
The Master arched an eyebrow. "Rescued you from yourself, or reminded you of yourself?" His eyes caught and held Vincent's. "If you were nothing but a vicious animal like those scum, nothing but a killing machine, a few words wouldn't have been enough to stop you. And the lady wouldn't feel the way about you she obviously does."
Vincent looked away for a moment and the Master had the impression he was trying to hide a blush.
"Go on and get the lady to safety. My partner and I'll keep an eye on these clowns until the police arrive. Because if I walk her home, I may forget I'm old enough to be her father. If I were twenty years younger, I wouldn't let the claws and a jealous temper scare me off from trying to steal her away from you."
Catherine returned. Her purse hung over one shoulder and her gun was safely tucked away in her purse. "Thank you again," she told McAllister.
The ninja raised her hand to his lips. "My pleasure." He glanced at Vincent. "You'd best get out of here before I forget the past twenty years."
Max returned with the Master's bag just in time to see Vincent and Catherine walking away. He handed McAllister the bag and together they bound, gagged and bandaged their foes.
After a moment or two, Max looked off in the direction Vincent and Catherine had taken. "Who – what – was he?"
"What, I don't know, except that he's obviously more human than these hoodlums are. As to who. . ." McAllister followed Max's gaze, looking where the pair had disappeared in the darkness. "He's a samurai named Vincent."