Fear and Loathing in South Figaro Chapter 3
The Big Day
I remembered waking in the midst of hearing some two-bit rendition of an old Marandian folk song and I thought to myself 'What kind of rat bastard psychotic would play Too Hot To Cactrot' at that particular moment in time?'. I was busy battling withdrawal, here! Withdrawal, as any drunkard or druggie will tell you, is a very painful process. There's no finite beginning or end to the pain in your head and you're constantly struggling to reclaim memories from whatever binge episode you were engaged in the previous day, or night, or in my case only a few hours ago.
I was sprawled out on my bed in our room at the Figaro inn. The Marandian tunes were emanating from an old transistor radio across the threshold of our large and (almost) luxious suite. Zen was over by the door, waiting placidly for the guy from room service to finish unloading his order of club sandwiches and Hoover burgers from a nearby trolley. How are we supposed to afford all of that, I thought? Ah yes. Headquarters was paying for it.
Or so we thought.
I offered no appraisal of the situation. I was busy musing over the green swirling vortex above my bed. Cool. A tear in the fabric of space-time. I wondered what was on the other side of it. The esper world? The master of the simulacrum? The Phantom Train waiting to take me to the Hereafter? The bellhop, somewhat disturbed from my delirious juxtaposition, hurried along his room service routine so that he could leave as soon as possible. With that, Zen confronted me.
"Don't get too close," I warned him, gesturing to the whirlpool overhead, "It might be a ploy from those goddamn imps. They're trying to fool us with curiosity. I know it."
He shook his head sadly. "Man, I can't leave you alone for five minutes before the manager comes along and tells me your down in bar screamin' your fool head off about giant turtleback imps!"
I raised an inquisitive brow. "What are you talking about?"
He gave me a cantankerous sigh. "You scared the shit out of those people, man! They were ready to call security! Yes, sir! You're lucky I came back when I did!"
"No security left," I heard myself say, "They've all fallen prey to the epidemic."
Zen ignored me. "Sure, the only reason the manager gave us those press passes for the conference was to get you out of there, man That shit's makin' you paranoid!"
I tried to remember just what it was I had done. Unfortunately, the juices of the Green Cherries were still running strong in my system, obstructing my memory. "What do you mean? All I was doing was engaging in some friendly conversation with a fellow journalist."
My assistant crossed his arms in a malcontent fashion. "Yeah, well that 'fellow journalist' of yours is now up in his suite recovering from a broken nose."
Did I do that? Jesus! Talk about exercising your right mind!
My associate was in the process of asking his next question when suddenly there was a knock at the door. Must be the imps, back to perpetuate the pestilence which had broken out down in the bar several hours earlier. I pulled the bed covers over me, hoping that this awful drug provided me with a high enough serotonin level to sleep out our assimilation, as well as whatever cosmic terror the whirlpool over my bed was going to bring about.
Zen, in the meantime, grabbed his crossbow, an old Samantra prototype that employed a fine, flat trajectory with quicksilver arrows. He crossed the room and held it against the door, ever so cautious as to who it could be at such a late hour. The rancher pulled the door open a crack and an overweight, blond-haired man with a black painter's beret poked his face in. "Hi," he said. His voice was almost nonsensical, with his buxom cheeks being trapped between the door and the frame. "I'm Owzer. I'm the artist that hired you?"
Momentarily, Zen closed the door to uncouple the latch. Owzer waddled in, only just missing the crossbow which Zen stowed back into his duffle. He was calling my name out loud. "Goldfist? Goldfist...hi!" he cried, catching sight of me. He laughed in a jovial manner that made his shoulders jostle. "Enjoying your stay, I hope! We gotta big day tomorrow, huh? Wait until you hear their testimony of the battle with Lord Kefka. Man! You'd never believe it! Ultima blasts, chain saws, lightning bolts. . ."
It went on like this. To Zen, Owzer was nothing but a very large man who carried the faint redolence of acrylic paint on his clothes and garlic on his breath. Yet, I could almost read how passionate the man's dreams were just by looking into his glistening, stormcloud eyes. It struck me as funny why an artist of all the people called upon us to take on this assignment. The gross overall appraisal of this mission was that the statements offered to us from the slayers of Kefka would undoubtably go down in history.
Was this truly the break we were waiting for?
". . .couple of close calls here and there," Owzer continued, "And then, good old Locke Cole delivers the Coupe de Gras with an expertly timed swipe of his Illumina. You'd never believe such a story until you've heard it from them."
Silence ensued for a short while later. I wanted to be professional at this juncture, to reassure the man before us that we were the ones most suited for the job. These wonderful psychedelics, however, were still doing a number on the chemistry of my brain. At the very least, I managed to stand, saying something like, "Well, I never believed in chimeras before I took the job in northern Thamasa. Who knows? If I can believe one half-cocked story, I suppose I could be taught to believe another."
That's what my sentence sounded like, at least, that's what I HOPE it sounded like. Apparently I got through to him, for three seconds later he had his hand outstretched, offering me the best of luck for tomorrow. I accepted the gesture, planting a kiss on the man's hand in closing. Mother of God! What a fool I must have been! Well, the gesture was a sign of good fellowship at any rate, for we were both the top mines of our profession. To be brutally honest, I was actually looking forward to seeking his artistic conception of the Returners tomorrow.
"I'm telling you," Zen interjected once Owzer was gone, "He's hiding something! I can see it in his eyes."
My friend, the conspiracy theorist! We closed the night with a toast to new beginnings, for it very well could be just that if our chips were played right. How wonderful these wines do taste when you know that they had been bottled prior to the whole doomstruck era of Gestahl. I do not wish to further divulge into the details of my associate's suspicion regarding Owzer for reasons that need not be explained here. Of course, anyone in our position would be inclined to have 'some' uncertainties when it came to trusting an artisan who did nude paintings for a living. But what are two struggling post-renaissance men in a renaissance world supposed to do?
Daylight that morning did nothing for my hangover, though it wasn't anything that a little coffee couldn't fix. I must have been the first one up, for the streets were bare when I finally ambled out of the inn. Funny for such a momentous occasion about to take part in our world's history. Oh well, I'd wait. There was little else to do. I had no side projects to work on (unless, of course, you considered 'Zozo's 101 practical uses of chocobo dung' work!).
I still remembered the atmosphere of that midsummer day. The sun was a brilliant crimson disk on the eastern seaboard. Tendrils of sunlight poked fingers through large hovering cumulus clouds. Those who were unable to get a room at the inn (and there were many) were left to the laughable comfort of sleeping in the piazzas and bathing in the brooks like a sort of anti-Imperial hippy movement. Nothing new, I thought to myself.
I've seen it all before with the Returners.
We were all gathered here to witness this very special moment in the history of might and magic, despite the insistence of others that 'magic' had ultimately been exiled from this plain of existence. Zen was over at the stables. He had unfinished business to settle with the proprietor of the place, and I was certain many others had similar sentiments toward that bastard stableman. He would be joining me later. Until then, it was just me and an indeterminate ratio of locals and tourists, waiting in eager anticipation for our saviors in the Figaro sun.
The darkness dawned on us suddenly, like an eclipse that encompassed the entire town. Everyone, even I, was in awe. It took us all a long while for our eyes to refocus on the blimp looming down out of the heavens. It was a long propellered craft with all the esoteric earmarks of a vessel forged by the hands of dreamers. It's elliptical golden exoskeleton glimmered in the early morning rays. Secured below was what looked to be the body of a small wooden schooner, its landing gear lowering every so gradually as it descended into a wood glen just outside Figaro.
Despite the caffeine and alcohol that was infusing an unhealthy marriage in my head, I knew this was no hallucination. They had come, and South Figaro was alive with shouts and cheers and deafening war whoops. I couldn't help but participate in the celebration. These kind-hearted folk, whoever they were, had saved me just as much as they had saved everyone else. Well then, Mr. Goldfist, I guess that means it's time to pull out the big guns for this story. It's the least you can do for them.
Alright. Enough of this prattle. It was showtime.
"Make way, you monkey swine!" I yelled over the rowdy spectators. I was practically bodysurfing my way through the mob. The once-lacking attendance down in Figaro square was now in full swing. The idea of trying to cover the arrival in any conventional press sense was absurd. "I said make way, goddamn you!"
I pulled my way up past the encumbrances of cramped bodies and onto the piazza where the Returners were pouring out from the deck of the Falcon. Guards lined the makeshift barricades but flashing them my press pass got them out of the way instantly. Ripley was there also, though he recoiled instantly at the sight of me. I did likewise. The tourniquet in the middle of his face said that his nose was hemorrhaging if not dismembered completely.
And now came the time to demonstrate proper decorum and etiquette. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, especially with paladins. Aside from the mayor I was the first one to shake their hands. They were a motley team, consisting of ex-Imperials, a moogle, a yeti, even the Figaro brothers themselves. Even now, I wonder how they saw a fellow journalist like myself. I was but a hired geek. I couldn't have meant that much in their eyes.
"And you must be Mr. Goldfist!" said a strong, blond-haired individual. I was, needless to say, speechless. The notion of a trailworn relic hunter of all people recognizing a doctor of journalism was more than unusual in my books. "I've followed a lot of your work."
My brow creased. "Really?"
"Oh yeah," he said, "I still remember that little piece you published back in Kohilegen. You know! That bit you did on the Phoenix Cave? It actually helped me find the esper. Taught me one hell of a lesson, too!"
I sighed happily. I was going to make a field day out of this one.
"That artisan gentleman holds you in high esteem." Locke and I were in the bar. The manager let me back in on a probationary basis and for some reason they never served Green Cherries at all the whole time I was conducting my interview. "You're amongst the upper echelon of the whole lot. Would you mind explaining why?"
"Because I delivered the crushing blow," he replied, laughing in retrospect. The answer sounded familiar, as if someone had disclosed it before. "In all seriousness, though, Owzer instilled me with trust since I protected one of his most valued possessions. A painting of his if I remember correctly. I used to be like him once, always putting up a fuss over material things."
"But your reputation as a treasure hunter precedes you, Mr. Cole. Are you insinuating that you are no longer a treasure hunter?"
Idly, he sipped his drink, a non-alcoholic beverage of some sort. "Well, I'm not gonna lie to you, Lothar, if I may call you that." I nodded, eager to get everything he said down on my notepad. "I DO miss the adventure and all, but there's just no need or demand for such exploits anymore, now that Kefka has been defeated. Besides, I've already found the most valuable treasure in the world."
"What might that be?"
With his chin, he gestured to a lovely young ex-Imperial whom I had met a little earlier on, the one named Celes Chere. Currently, she was busy learning a card trick or two from the gambler of the group. According to Mr. Cole, she had been forcibly infused with magic as a child by the late Empire. How he had taught a general of all people to trust the Returners was a small miracle in itself. It all made for a very interesting tale but it was going to take time. A 'lot' of time.
"We first met in this very town where she was tried as a traitor and sentenced to death. I never thought that there could be anything between us because we came from such different worlds. Of course, I was always. . ."
But I had already lost interest in the topic of conversation. I guess it was because I wasn't satisfied with his answer to my previous question. 'There's just no need or demand for such exploits anymore' had been his exact words. I didn't understand it. Locke and I were stars of the same constellation. We had both traveled the world over looking for the grounds which explained why this world had turned out the way it did. Suddenly, it was as if treasure hunting didn't matter anymore.
Suddenly, it was as if 'journalism' didn't matter anymore.
Poor Locke. He must have been talking for at least fifteen minutes before he realized that no one was listening to him. He just missed me; my mind was a million miles away. I was a doctor of present day journalism, even mythological journalism, but not one of love. I never paid any mind to relationships. They were, in all fairness, death traps conceptualized by antsy homo sapiens who were bent only on perpetuating the species.
My kingdom for some Green Cherries right now.
The interview continued despite my train of thought inadvertently derailing. At some point along the line, the interviewee requested to have the general involved into the piece, a piece which was strictly for Locke Cole. Mustn't have been party to many interviews I suppose. He may have been a veteran to exploring but as far as the dynamics of journalism itself was concerned, he was but a hopeless rookie.
"We're almost done," I said, tossing out an empty inkwell and producing another from my sash. "I'll interview Celes just as soon as we're through here, okay."
Keep your cool with this gentleman, I said to myself. He 'did' save the world and he 'is' a fan of your work. Just roll with the punches so you can interview these two people and get out of here some time tonight. I made a call for another tonic. The bartender was the exact same woman as it had been last night, though she never acknowledged me at first. Probably still upset from the show I had put on the other day.
After a lot of noise, Locke offered to pay for the drink himself, provided I hurry along the questions I was asking him and move on to Celes. Apparently, there was a certain bent appeal for the star-struck lover in seeing their sweetheart answer questions regarding their life and allegiance, as if they needed constant reassurance. It wasn't something I'd ever figure out. Maybe the two of them just wanted to get these questions over with so that they could spend more time with each other.
"Celes Chere!" I cried, concluding the treasure hunter's interview. She smiled and got up from where she was sitting at a slot machine next to the silver-haired gambler. "Nice to see you again! You're all Locke talks about, you know that?"
She laughed and sat down beside me. Locke stood up and said that he'd go and play some slots with Setzer (the gambler, no doubt). Of course, it was no where so far that he wouldn't be able to overhear the interview.
"Well, first thing's first," I said, flipping to a new piece of paper, "What's your full name and birthplace?"
She made a quick order for a drink before answering. "Celes Maria Chere of Vector. I'm nineteen years old. Wanna know my measurements, too?"
Alright. I admit it. She was a ravishing woman, despite her reputation as a cold-hearted Magitek knight. Pretty much everything any heterosexual man would give their soul for, though she was one who could break more than your heart. Even now. But I knew women, and they could be potentially fatal milestones around the necks of the wrong men.
Especially this one.
I drew a smile from her quip. "That won't be necessary. So, tell me something. The whole world is curious. You're amongst the last of the Imperial breed. Would you say you were fighting Lord Kefka more as a General of the late Empire or as a Returner with your cohorts?"
"That's a difficult question to answer." She took a hearty swig of her tonic. "I suppose you could consider me both. I mean, I knew Kefka. He always had a bit of an inferiority complex. He killed the Emperor for Odin's sake!"
"He killed Gestahl?!" This just kept getting better, didn't it? "I'm sorry," I said, "Go on. You were saying?"
"Right. Well, I guess in the heat of such an important battle, you don't think of that kind of thing. We did it because we had to, not because we wanted to. From an Empire sense, though, I was doing what any Imperial soldier would do to one being insubordinate. And from a Returner's sense, I was doing it because it was what Banon stood for. So, for Gestahl, it was honor. For Banon, it was freedom."
I quickly scribbled her words down, almost capsizing the inkwell on the counter in the process. This was good stuff. "Interesting analogy. Maybe there's a future for you in journalism."
She smiled. "Really? Well, thank-you."
I noticed from the expression on her face that Celes' mind was wrapping around the possibility of selecting a future profession. I knew. I was a student of human nature after all. She wanted anything that didn't involve fighting. She had done quite enough of that as it is. Pure Laguna Loire, I thought. A fighter gone journalist.
"Moving right along," I remarked, turning the page. "What are your feelings toward the late General Leo. What's your affiliation with him?"
A long and uncomfortable pause followed. Was that the red button?
"No comment." she said at last.
I instantly apologized for my question. "Was that something I shouldn't have asked?"
She leaned forward. "It's nothing I can talk about with Locke around. Perhaps we should go somewhere else and talk."
I detected a tryst, though it was nothing I could openly agree to at first. A secret rendezvous with a Returner while the rest were unaware wasn't an easy thing to execute.
"I'm not really sure I can," I admitted. "It is very late and I still have to go and check on my assistant. You know how things are. I gotta make sure the poor fucker doesn't get lost in this place. Maybe we could pick this thing up again tomorrow."
I moved to leave but she took hold of my arm. "Please? I'd really like to get this off my chest tonight if possible. Think about it. If you take care of this tonight, then it's one less interviewee you have to take care of tomorrow."
Indeed, she had the makings of young journalist imbued in everything she said. Such a clever and articulate young lady with her entire life ahead of her. How could I not agree to her terms after she displayed such tenacity in revealing whatever skeletons were still in her closet.
"Alright," I said, shrugging, "Shall we say in an hour or so?"
"Where should we meet?"
"I would have recommended the Falcon but the other Returners would have probably turned in by then. I don't suppose you have a room at the inn, do you?"
I remember consciously telling myself that she was spoken for and that I had to keep things professional despite my sudden tryst with these savagely enticing drugs. Without giving a second thought to my assistant, I conceded.
"Room 32," I subconsciously said, "Shouldn't take too long. I don't have many other questions to ask you after the whole General Leo enigma."
She smiled at me prior to heading back over with the gambler and treasure hunter. "What could happen? I mean, It's not like you're a raging druggie or anything."
I felt raped. With that one last closing remark, the general had figured out everything that had become my life in the past forty-eight hours. But I remained stable despite the possibility that she may have possibly found out my secret shame. Get a grip. Maintain. It was only meant as a joke. It wasn't as if the sudden revival of freedom would help me inspire some crude generation of ether-inhaling and Green Cherry Tonic binging.
Or would it?
I went to the Item Shop before heading over to the stables and see how my assistant was faring with the stableman. I needed a writing stylus. Feathered quills were beginning to give me hand cramps. As well, another pad of paper would be an order. I had only interviewed five people in total between those at the bar and those at the mayor's house where the actual conference had taken place. That meant there was only nine more Returners to harangue with my polling before returning to Maranda and basking in the glory of my exclusive story. It didn't seem that anything could go wrong with this day.
Then, I made it to the chocobo stable and everything changed.
Complete and total disarray. Several of the chocobos in the very back of the building were squealing, although whether it was from fear or injury I could only speculate. The cupric tang of blood hung in the air. Most notably, there was no stableman behind the desk, just a heap of hay and scattered coinage. Who could perpetrate such a heinous crime? There didn't appear to be any possible motive for killing or even kidnaping the proprietor of this place. He was a cranky son of a bitch, admittedly, but certainly not dangerous.
Jesus God Almighty! Was Zen responsible for this?! Impossible! No, Zen! Not now, not when my career is so excruciatingly close to peaking! Did he go back to the inn? Was that his refuge from the law (what law?) until it all blew over? But what of Celes? She was probably on her way over there right now!
Something bad was going to become of this. I was sure of it. . .
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