Translucent smoke wafted from the smouldering tip of her cigarette, tracing lazy curves in the air. As they slowly expanded and eventually evaporated above her head she felt a call to chase them, chase their pirouetting forms down, down. But she knew it would come to nothing: the dragon's smoke is not from tobacco.
She looked up from the table, brown eyes half closed by lids heavy from tiredness, from boredom, from depression, from the habit, from whatever excuse worked best at the time.
And who was to judge which excuse worked best but Hitomi herself?
Yes, that would be Ebisawa Hitomi, the shell of a pop idol whose fame was now locked away in jewel cases and jukeboxes. She had had a different name back then, something upbeat, catchy, and inspired by the kawaii-culture of the time.
But life wasn’t the sugar-coated pop song she once sang, that one-hit wonder scant years ago. Then again, sugar wasn’t what she was craving.
The tip of the cigarette glowed brightly as she inhaled, her eyes fluttered closed.
But they quickly reopened, wide as she could pry them, as a singular sound amid the din of the dark café assaulted her senses.
It was her song.
Hitomi looked around the small café, hoping someone would recognize her as the singer on the radio. Even in the soft light they must know her face, right? True, she wasn’t the young and energetic girl who peered, smiling, from glossy magazine covers for the short stretch of national fame, but she couldn’t have changed that much. Could she?
No-one seemed to notice.
Her shoulders slumped, her eyes closed once more, and she took another drag of her cigarette. Clasping it delicately between two nail-painted fingers she removed it from her mouth, the barest tinge of rouge where her lips had met it. With that she began to hum.
She pictured herself on stage, hair tied back in dark ponytails, costume cut short to flaunt and tease. It brought a smile to her lipsticked lips.
That smile, though, soon became a frown. She couldn’t hit that last note, couldn’t stretch her voice enough to reach it. She merely croaked.
And then she cried.
And still no-one seemed to notice.
She sat like this at the booth, head in her hands, sobbing, forgotten cigarette spilling ashes onto her shoulder as it burned.
“Gomen, okyaku-sama.” Excuse me, ma’am. One of the waitresses had stopped at Hitomi’s table.
The former singer looked up as the girl spoke to her, hoping that she had found a solitary fan. She managed to elicit a single “Hai?”
“You have a message from a man in another booth,” she said, producing a simple square envelope.
“Who?” Hitomi replied, bringing the cigarette back to her lips. Did it really matter, though? Fan mail is fan mail no matter who penned it, and even a nasty letter would be a welcome reminder that she was still remembered.
“In the booth behind me.” She took a step sideways so that Hitomi could see past her, into the booth beyond.
“There’s no-one there.”
“Oh?” The waitress replied. Stealing a quick glance to the empty booth she continued, “He must have left already.”
With that, the waitress turned and left, leaving Hitomi alone with the envelope. She opened the triangular flap at the top and withdrew the plain paper, creases pressed smooth where it had been folded. It rustled softly as she made it blossom in her hands.
Would you like to play a game?
1. Michelle Sanchez
2. Godfrey De Vries
3. Elias Heikkinen
4. Tony Blake
5. Kamali Ncube
6. Alexi Bogdanov
7. Yu Mei
8. Thiago Torres
9. Vahide Younan
Kill these people and we can restore your stardom, and bring you what you truly crave. Keep listening for the proof.
Her song was still playing, or was it replaying? Hitomi took another glance at the note, reading it through. At the end was scribbled a few chords, written in a mimicry of her own shorthand.
A chill shot through her spine.
As the song – her song – reached the chorus she knew what the chords were for: they were for her. She followed them along faithfully, her humming harmonizing with her recorded-self’s melody.
She reached the point she had faltered before, that point she had failed to hit the climactic note. The chord on the note was a drop down, though, something she knew she could manage.
And she did.
The chill became a rush, and her giddiness caused laughter to erupt from her lungs. She snubbed the butt of her spent cigarette in the ashtray, the last tendrils of smoke floating lazily in the air. A second fit of laughter caused her to collapse in her booth, leaving her lying across the old cushions that were chic back when she was still singing.
For once, the café patrons noticed, but for once Hitomi didn’t care. Lying in the booth, staring at the ceiling, she couldn't see the stares they stole. Cackling with manic laughter she couldn't hear their hushed voices whispering. She could see only the words of the note, and hear only her triumphant chord.
We can restore your stardom, and bring you what you truly crave.
With her confidence back, Ebisawa Hitomi felt ready to wrestle with dragons.
But first, she'd have to chase one.