I Know What's Beneath the Snow Fields -Chp.18

President ShinRa made no secret of his love for ostentatious luxury, as could be guessed from his enormous office which occupied the entire 70th floor.

This spacious office, bordered with glazed windows all around, betrayed every sign of incredible wealth and comfort. The marble floor was impeccably waxed everyday. Large, elaborate lanterns illuminated every corner of the office, for the sole purpose of showing off the magnitude of the room.

But most importantly, the President's impressive desk dominated the entire front of the office. It rigidly curved into a U-shape, with all sorts of screen monitors, buttons, and speakers adorning its interior. Many had described this famous desk as the symbol of the vast wealth ShinRa had accumulated in a mere three years.

Vincent marched into this office, looking as morose and serious as ever. The ShinRa President, who was ranting angrily into the phone, beckoned for the Turk to step forward. Vincent obediently stood infront of the large desk, and waited for the President to address him.

Though ShinRa was around twenty-eight years old, he looked much older. His short, corpulent figure tended to waddle whenever he moved excitedly about the room. His coarse, mustard-coloured hair had been forcefully combed back, while a trim moustache outlined his upper lip. Virtually everyone agreed ShinRa's most prominent feature was his nose. Indeed, it was a snub-shaped, stubby nose with wide nostrils. To be blunt, he was hopelessly ugly.

Nevertheless, what ShinRa lacked in looks, he cleverly made up in style. His smart, dark-pink suit was undoubtedly tailored in the very best of shops. He always propped the most expensive fountain pen in his breast pocket, even though he never used it. A magnificent moonstone ring adorned his fat middle finger, and magically shimmered whenever his hand moved.

But his most beloved article of luxury, besides his impressive desk, was his specially imported cigars. Vincent could not remember him without a cigar stuck either in his mouth, or between his clumsy fingers.

When finally done heckling, President ShinRa slammed the phone shut with a violent oath. However, on noticing the Turk, his face shifted from a scowl to a good-natured, hideous smile. He automatically reached for a cigar.

"Ah, Vincent," he greeted as he lit the cigar, "And how is our newly-appointed Turk doing? Enjoying your job, I hope?"

"Yes, Sir," Vincent replied coldly but respectfully.

The President huffed out three perfect circles of smoke, watching them disappear into thin air with absurd fascination. Vincent did not flinch a muscle. He knew the President didn't call him just for an idle chat.

"Davoren just finished his report about you, Vincent," ShinRa chattered on, "And what a delightful report! He was really impressed with your gun skills, obedience, and a string of other things I can't remember at the moment. Now that's what I need, by Juniper! Good Turks who can take orders!"

Vincent merely pushed his black hair out of his face impatiently. He didn't find this praise very meaningful. The President began to rummage through a stack of papers heaped on his desk, laughing as happily as ever.

"Mind you," he joked without looking up, "If Davoren himself says you're good, then you MUST be good. It's not easy to impress that man. No! No!"

"Thank you, Sir."

"But he also said your 'sense of tactics' could use some help, especially in open, all-out combat," the President remarked. He pulled out some papers, then added playfully, "but this isn't military school, you know! This is a company! And it's about to become a monopoly very soon."

The President suddenly pressed a button on the intercom, and ordered sternly, "Bring him in to me now, Katya."

"Yes, Mr. President. Right away," replied a woman's voice. She sounded very annoyed.

The President took a huge whiff at his cigar. As he puffed out an impressive amount of smoke, he eyed the Turk very keenly. His two piggish eyes instantly lit up with a dark, evil fire.

Vincent saw he was finally getting to the point. "Tell me, Vincent," he said at last, "do you know who Mr. Hawking is?"

"Yes, Sir. He's the President of the Hawking Industrial Corporation of Midgar."

"Right on the nail!" laughed ShinRa, shaking his filthy cigar in Vincent's face, "And I made Gerald kidnap a 'bairn', to use his words. Can you guess whose?"

Vincent paused a moment before he answered, "I assume it is Hawking's child, Sir."

"Very good!" he beamed delightedly.

ShinRa hopped into his dark leather chair, still puffing his cigar smugly. He held his hand at arm's length, so as to study his beautiful moonstone ring, then continued, "See, that Hawking geezer thinks he can stand up against ME with his out-dated scrap of garbage he calls a 'company'. Did you know he hired those terrorists to destroy my Reactor?"

"Yes, Sir. I did."

"Now, I suppose I could be an uncivilized ass and tell you to go shoot him, like you did with the Mayor. On the other hand, I got this brilliant idea to get even with him! Yup, hang me if I'm not a genius!"

Vincent hoped he wasn't expected to answer that last comment.

The President roared with laughter at his "brilliant idea" until Katya, his secretary, stormed into his office with a sobbing young boy. The child, no older than eight, screamed furiously as the woman dragged him forward. He clutched at his stuffed toy as though it would somehow protect him from these strangers.

Vincent looked askance at the small, shrieking child, then understood why Gerald had been so annoyed that afternoon.

"Mr. President!!" Katya declared, exasperated beyond limits, "This brat is driving everyone nuts!! He hasn't stopped crying since he got here!! We tried T.V, stories, even lullabies for God's sake!! He will not shut up!!!"

The angry secretary gave the poor child a violent tug, which made him scream at the top of his lungs. Vincent fidgeted uncomfortably as the child's shrieks hammered his ears. However, the President beckoned for Katya to bring the boy over to him. She silently obeyed, only too glad to rid herself of the troublesome burden.

"Hey, kiddo! Why are you giving everyone such a hard time?" the President smiled amicably. He perched the sobbing child on his knees, then laughed, "C'mon! Tell Uncle ShinRa why you're crying so much?"

"I wah..I WANT MY DADDY!!!" screamed the pitiful boy. He then buried his tearful face in his stuffed toy, unable to say anymore.

"Aw! We're going to see Daddy right now!" comforted ShinRa kindly as he stroked the little boy's hair, "We're all going to see him! C'mon, now! Big boys never cry!"

The boy continued to sniffle loudly, but his shoulders stopped shaking. That last piece of news had somewhat comforted him.

"Hey! I know what you really want!" the President cried happily, "Lookie! Lookie! Candy tarts!!"

His fat hand immediately reached for the drawer, and pulled out a neat bowl full of colourful candies. The boy marveled at so many sweets, his wet eyes dazzled by the bright colours. He then looked amazedly at this ugly man.

"Well, go on! Take one. Hell, take as many as you want!" the President laughed, "Take it all, if you can have it all! That's what I always say!"

After some hesitation, the boy snatched a handful of sweets, and stuffed them into his mouth at once. ShinRa only redoubled his laughter at the boy's childish greediness.

"Say! What a cute little bear!" he exclaimed as he patted the stuffed toy, "What's his name?"

"Woody," the boy sniffled with a mouthful of sweets.

"Here you go, Woody! Have some candy tarts too!" The President chuckled, pretending to give the toy some sweets.

So, in a mere ten minutes, the illustrious President ShinRa had not only silenced the sobbing child, but had also made great friends with him. The boy squealed with laughter, and prattled on about many things (like Woody, his best friend Mark, and Daddy's garden). Vincent was certainly impressed.

When the President finally placed the boy back on the ground, he slowly got up from his leather seat. He took a last whiff at his beloved cigar, then flung it away in a silver ashtray nearby.

"Katya," he ordered sternly, "Tell Davoren to get the car ready. We leave in fifteen minutes."

Katya, absolutely stunned by his success with the child, immediately scurried away to fulfill his wishes. ShinRa took the boy's little hand in his awkward paw, but stared straight at Vincent's face. That carefree, inane smile had been replaced by a serious, business-like expression.

"You're coming too, Mr. Valentine," the President stated, "We're paying a little visit to Mr. Hawking's mansion. Be sure you're downstairs on time. Dismissed."

Vincent, after a respectful bow, silently marched out of the luxurious office.

The child's happy laughter still rang in his ears, even after he had entered the glazed elevator and sealed himself inside. The slow elevator steadily journeyed down to the ground floor. Vincent leaned his back against the elevator wall with folded arms, and gazed meditatively at the grim Midgar skyline outside. It was already pitch black outside.

He had a vague idea what the President intended to do with that child: most probably some kind of revenge on Hawking for disrupting his Reactor. But Vincent also strongly suspected an ulterior motive for kidnapping Hawking's son. If not, then why didn't he order Gerald to just kill the boy?

Thus argued Vincent in his brain, debating about what secret motive the boy could serve. So engrossed in his private thoughts, he hardly noticed the elevator halt momentarily to admit another person inside. His idle eyes happened to glance at the new passenger. Much to his astonishment, it was Lucrecia.

The woman fidgeted at the far end of the elevator, staring timidly at the Turk from the corner of her eye. Her cheeks flushed when he had finally noticed her, but she kept her soft eyes fixed on his face.

Vincent, of course, straightened himself up at once. He ran his fingers through his thick, black hair as he cast his nervous eyes to the ground. Not knowing what else to do, he thrust both hands into his pockets, and turned away from the embarrassed young woman.

The pain of her slap prickled his cheek again. He could still recall how badly it had stung him for a full hour afterwards; he had even considered putting some ice on it.

Yet strange, he could not quite remember Lucrecia's actual face. In fact, she had been severely blurred in his memory during the last three days. Vincent glimpsed very quickly at her, but long enough to see all her face.

Gerald hadn't exaggerated one bit when he had described Lucrecia as "beautiful". Her long, brown hair had been carefully braided behind her head, with some loose strands dangling around her delicate face. Her gentle eyes shone softly through her smart glasses, making her lovely face appear even more graceful.

She wore a long, white lab coat which dismally failed to conceal the slimness of her body. Her hands struggled vigorously to carry several files and a large book, while at the same time balance her briefcase.

An extremely awkward silence dominated the elevator for a full minute. Vincent lacked the courage to open his mouth for fear of angering her (or getting slapped again). And besides, what could he possibly tell her?

Cindy's playful words floated back to his mind. It then occurred to him that *Lucrecia* had been asking about him just yesterday.

"How..how is your arm, Mr. Valentine, Sir?" Lucrecia asked all of a sudden. She looked anxiously at his face as she pushed her glasses up her nose.

Vincent stared blankly at her for a moment.

"My arm??" he echoed in amazement.

"Yes, Sir. The one that got shot."

"Oh! My arm!" he started, understanding her at last, "..er..it's fine, thanks to you. you warned me just in time."

"Good...I..I'm very pleased to hear that," she faltered nervously. Suddenly, one of her clumsy files crashed onto the ground, scattering all its papers around the poor woman's feet. Lucrecia's cheeks flushed heavily with complete mortification. Vincent automatically crouched down to gather the file for her.

"NO!NO! I'll get that!!" she cried in alarm. In a flash, she bent down to snatch the file out of his hands. Her nervous hands quickly stuffed all the dispersed papers into the file. She sprang back up to her feet just as the elevator door withdrew on the ground floor. After mumbling some obscure apology, Lucrecia bolted out of the elevator in a panic.

Without another look back, she dashed through the reception hall, nearly knocking over some employee with a stack full of papers. Lucrecia ran out the main entrance, and Vincent saw her no more.

He followed her a couple of steps, but soon halted in the middle of the reception hall, completely dumbstruck. He had only exchanged a few words with her; what on earth could he have said to upset her so badly?

As he scratched the back of his head thoughtfully, his eyes caught two yellow sheets of papers helplessly crushed underneath his foot. He picked them up curiously.

They must have slipped out of her file, Vincent reflected.

Even though they were two sheets of ordinary paper, he flicked through them with strange interest. Neat, tiny handwriting completely covered one page, while the other contained a little sketch with the name "JENOVA" scribbled underneath it. Vincent studied the sketch, trying to figure out what it should be. Unfortunately, his shoe had dirtied it beyond recognition.

After a moment's thought, Vincent carefully folded the two sheets and slipped them into his breast pocket. He would return them first thing in the morning...

But for now, he must concentrate on his job.

-End of Chp.18