Nonna stopped the car. To the right was a green space full of shady trees bordered with tulips of various colors and patterns. To the left across the street was an ice cream parlor. It’s windows shown 3D images of fancy sodas and gloriously sweet sundaes.
Kaniko looked at her cousin, “Who’s here, is going to provide us useful information?
Nonna smiled, “An old friend.” She opened her door and climbed out. The others followed her across the street to the ice cream parlor. She looked in through the windows and turned back towards the park.
They began to walk through the park. At first, Nonna seemed to be wandering aimlessly along in random directions. It became apparent after a few minutes that she was looking for something or someone. Kaniko noticed a glass building up a head, and they seemed to be heading towards it.
Tomiroc touched her on the arm and silently said to her, “There are other Otokononeko here.” Kaniko followed his gaze and saw a female feline laying on her belly, with her tail curled up in the air. A young human girl sat before her looking down at her. Every so often the cat would laugh and reach out and touch the girl. In an open area of the park, two Otokononeko tossed a neon green disk between them. A blue-gray husky ran back and forth barking in pursuit of the disk.
Nonna turned more directly for the glass building. As they approached, Kaniko saw a small plaque to one side of the entrance which read, “Donated to the city of Freedom’s Rise for the children.” At the bottom was a name.
Kaniko stopped and stared, she read for Mathias and the others, “Nonna Koibito.” Nonna turned and looked at her cousin. Kaniko turned from the sign and looked at her. “What is this?”
Without missing a beat, “Just what it seems.”
Mathias looked at the plaque and turned to the older feline. Tomiroc continued to stare at the sign. Irritated, Kaniko said, “You donated a glass house to the park?”
She smiled and answered, “It’s an arboretum and yes I did. It is in remembrance of the children of this city that didn’t find freedom like I did.”
She moved to the door and held it open for them to enter. The air inside was warmer and humid than the cool of the park outside. The smells of dozens of flowers assaulted their senses. Kaniko stifled a laugh as Mathias’ nose lifted and swung around, catching all the various smells. Plants were hanging from chains and hooks all around them. Many were potted and displayed on long tables or shelves. Kaniko checked the citynet to identify the variety of plants in the place. Many were orchids, but not all. There were bulb plants, succulents, and a host of colorful perennials.
Nonna approached a human with his back to them. He was standing before a low table. Still a meter from him, she stopped and said, “Robert?”
The man stopped pruning the small green plant in front of him. He turned slowly around, still holding the plant shears in his left hand. He started, “May I help…” A look of shock passed across his face as recognition hit him. He smiled and greeted, “Nonna.”
Kaniko looked at the man and turned to her cousin, then back to the human. His hair had touches of gray at the tips. He was tall and thin. His skin was clear and his eyes were bright blue. He was disarmingly handsome for a human. She looked and wondered how this could be the same man from Nonna’s past. He didn’t seem to be a bad man at first glance. Her first impression was kind and peaceful.
Nonna asked, “How have you been?”
He gave a genuine smile. “Very good and you?”
He looked at Nonna and waited for her to say or do something. Then he became aware that he still held the scissors. He turned to the table, set them down, and turned back to find Nonna’s tall Otokononeko form standing close to him. He stood with his hands at his side. Kaniko wondered if it was the conditioning that prevented him from reaching out to Nonna. But as she watched, her cousin didn’t leave him a choice as she reached out to him and hugged him.
She said into his shoulder, “It’s been awhile, and you look good.” She pushed away from him and looked up into his blue eyes. “But I’m afraid we aren’t here on a social call to reminisce about the past.”
He smiled again. “Most likely just as well, I think.”
She nodded her agreement. She turned to the others and introduced, “Robert, this is my cousin Kaniko Gamble-Walsh and her two friends Mathias and Tomiroc. Guys, this is Robert.
Robert scrubbed his right hand on his pants and stuck it out towards Kaniko. He said as a greeting, “So you’re Persius and Dutchess’ daughter?”
Kaniko nodded and took the man’s hand to shake. His grip was soft and gentle. He shook hands with Mathias and Tomiroc, then turned back to Nonna. “So, what brings you back to the city?”
She turned and indicated in Mathias’ direction. “Our friend here. We think he may have originated here. He was a victim of forced transformation into his current form.”
The man looked at the wolf and then back to Nonna puzzled. “How can I help?”
She smiled nervously, “I need you to help us get in contact with some of your former associates.”
Alarm colored the human’s face, and he took an involuntary step back from the group. “You know I can’t do that. It would violate…”
“Yes, normally it would. But not today.”
He looked at Nonna. “How is this?”
Kaniko’s cousin pushed on, “Lynn has granted your release. I want you to assist me in the search for Mathias’ origins and the organization responsible for creating others similar to him.” She took a breath and continued, “Robert. Whoever transformed Mathias are doing so against people’s will.” She watched as he took that in. She added, “They are teens and young adults, Pol.”
He made eye contact, with the use of his old name. Ever since his capture, sentencing, and subsequent mind alterations, she had always referred to him, by using his first given name. He wasn’t sure, but he believed it was because he was no longer the same man that used to own her and run one of the largest organized crime families in the Bay area. Slowly he said, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
Nonna thought that maybe he would ask what he would get out of helping them, but he didn’t. She reached into her trench coat pocket and grasped the digibadge that Adrian had given her. By his response, she knew that giving him the electronic certificates that would free him from his sentence of servitude, that he would help her regardless. In his service to the city where he once was feared and respected as a crime lord, he was no longer feared, but, ironically, respected for his skills as a botanist and his selfless behavior towards others. His flowers and plants were displayed and admired throughout the city. The families that visited the park regularly respected him and knew him well, even trusted him to watch out for their children. It was a change in his life that maybe he didn’t ask for, but in the long run, it actually saved his life and most likely hers. She said, “We need to get in contact with someone who knows about the underground markets. Most specifically, human and animal slave trade. Gillian Grace is somehow involved or was about seven years ago.”
He asked, “You know that Gillian got out of the syndicate?”
“No, I didn’t. How long has she been out?”
“A while, but less than seven years. She still might be able to help us.”
He chuckled. “She is the mayor of Oak City now.”
“Oh!” Nonna said. “So, I take it. She’s not as clean as the white sheets in a hotel?”
He smiled, “What politician is.”
He smiled, she loved that smile. “She looks very respectful these days. Blonde hair, respectable clothes, and all the trimmings.”
“If she is mayor now, can we get into see her?”
His brilliant blue eyes looked down on her, and she felt small and young again. He nodded. “I planted a specially engineered rose garden for her at her mayoral residence. I’ll just make a service call to check on the roses.” His eyes unfocused, and he smiled after a moment. He focused on her again, “Is this afternoon too soon?”
Surprised, “No. That would be great.”
“Then we’re set.” Off somewhere in the city, a distant bell started to drone the mark of the hour. Robert smiled and offered, “Noon, lunch?”
Nonna gave him a cat grin, “Ice cream for dessert?”
“Of course. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Nonna turned to look at the others. “You all hungry?” Tomiroc and Kaniko nodded, and Mathias wagged his tail. The group started to turn, when Nonna realized she was still holding the medallion. She touched Robert’s arm to get his attention and stop him.
He looked down at her and waited.
“Pol.” She took his hand with her free paw and turned his hand palm up with his fingers laid flat. She pulled from her pocket the digibadge and gently put it in his hand.
Quietly, “Your free citizen ident.”
He looked at it for a long silent moment. Nonna began to worry that she should have maybe not given it to him. She watched as a tear broke from the corner of his right eye and ran down his smooth cheek. She reached up with her paw and wiped it away. He focused on her and smiled. “To think, here I hold my freedom. The freedom, I had wanted for you so long ago. A freedom that I could never have given you back then, not really.” Another tear broke free from his moisture laden eyes. “The irony my fairy princess is quite profound.” She reached and wiped the other tear away. He took in a breath, held it, then slowly released it. He took the medallion and placed it to his neck.
Nonna watched it change color, and a small tone emanated from it then it went silent. She said, “You’re free now to do as you please. Adrian told me to let you know that the mayor would like for you to continue to serve the city. But now with proper compensation, of course.”
With moisture still brimming his blue eyes, he smiled at her. “Thank you, Nonna.”
She shrugged, “I’m just the delivery service.” She smiled up at him. “My peppermint ice cream is waiting.”
He smiled and chuckled, “Yes, of course, still your favorite.”
“Nothing else will do.”