A sound like a half-dozen tree branches cracking under the weight of ice fills the room, lesser crunches and pops ricocheting off the still machines and bouncing back from the distant bare walls. The scarred man turns away, raising a hand to shield his face as blood splatters across his shoes, his shirt, his outward-facing palm, red ribbons thrown across the room in a whipping frenzy. When the room falls still again, he surveys himself, frowning in distaste at the stains on his clothes before turning to his companion.
“You’re sure this will go to them?”
The little girl smiles, hopscotching to his side across the bloodied floor. “Who else? Karatsu Kuro could never resist a trapped soul.”
On the edge of the man’s hearing, a woman screams, a terror in her voice that nothing living could understand. The little girl smiles, head tilted up to listen.
“Could he, Yaichi…”
Sasaki got the call from Sasayama at nine in the morning—body found at the Tokyo Spinning Company’s factory, get our unemployed butts down there on the double—but by the time we got there, there wasn’t much to see.
“Like, of course they already have it cleaned up. Typical.” Makino peered around through the rattling, clanking din, hands on her hips and pouting. Women and kids working the machines ducked their heads when they caught her staring at them, but as soon as she looked away the glances would come back. I guess the rest of us didn’t stand out as much as spit-curled blonde hair, strings of pearls and a knee-length red skirt.
»Not quite all of it! Look!« Yata staggered forward a few steps as Kere-ellis snapped out, pointing its face at a girl kneeling on the ground with a bucket, scrubbing at the floor and cringing every time she pushed the sponge closer to the base of the machine. I could see why, too, when we got closer—she was doing her best, but the stains were everywhere. Yeah, they’d gotten the machines cleaned off, but you could see the arcs on the floor where the blood had landed, sprayed out in every direction. I wouldn’t want to get my hands too close either.
“So where’s the body at?! I thought we were here to get a job!” Rummaging around in his pants pocket, Numata went to pull out his pendulum before I got his arm in both hands.
“Would you cool it in front of the crowd?” I hissed at him, then shot a grin at the staring workers. “Don’t mind him, ladies; it’s the unemployment. Makes him hungry, and being hungry makes him testy.”
“I’ll get testy if you don’t let go of me, man.”
“Would you four get off the work floor and get in here!”
And there was our friend Scar-Face, coming across the floor like Raijin with a limp. I wondered how long he’d been here today already; his cape had so many cotton fibers sticking to it, it looked like a family of cats had been using it to sleep on.
“How many times do I have to lecture you about making a scene in public, idiot?” The cop thwacked Numata in the forehead briskly with the head of his cane, scowling. “Come on.” He turned around and strode back the way he’d come, the end of his saber wagging back and forth behind him. Yata and me dragged a grumbling Numata along after him to a line of doors. The sign on the one he headed through said Storage, and we followed him down the hall past a few more turns until we got to a room with two male workers standing at the door looking like they wished they hadn’t gotten out of bed this morning. Sasayama stalked on past them with a muttered, “They’re with me.”
I could smell the blood here just fine, because here’s where they’d dragged the body—and it was definitely a body, because people weren’t alive who had that many bones sticking out of them in every direction. Yata made an urp sound and stopped walking; I edged around him to get a closer look, and yeah, you’d have to be pretty steely for your gorge not to rise at that.
Whoever’d found the body had done their best to load it all onto the pallet, but odds were they were still going to be finding pieces in or under their machines for another month. There was a basic torso shape in there somewhere, yeah, but that was about all you could say for sure. The chest was caved in, bits of ribs sticking out like broken knives, and the skull had been crushed completely, just a mess of blood and hair where a face should have been. One arm had been severed completely and laid beside the body along with a tangle of fingers (reminded me a bit of some squid with cocktail sauce I had once, and since I thought that I’ve never had it again); the other was still in the sleeve, but you could see by how flat the shoulder was that it was only just connected. The legs were hanging in there, but twisted around the wrong way and snapped up—more bones sticking out through skin and cloth. The clothes used to be a kimono, probably a woman’s, though most of the pattern was too shredded or soaked with red (and some purple over the abdomen where someone hadn’t had the guts to push back in guts) to say for sure.
“So I take it this is your first time seeing the colorful underbelly of the textile industry,” Sasayama said, humor black as ever, fingers wrapping underhanded around the hilt of his saber like always when he’s uncomfortable.
»You think that’s colorful, you shoulda seen the yarn!«
“Yeah, we tend to see more the jilted lovers and the people who suck at gambling and cheating at it,” I confirmed, ignoring Numata collaring Yata to wrap his hands around his sock’s tactless neck. Makino bustled in—we’d lost her out on the floor—balancing her open medicine bag on her hip while she pinned back her hair. “You’re late,” I told her as she pulled on her heavy leather gloves.
“So’s the client,” she drawled back at me. “He is a client, right? Sasaki’s gonna be mad if you guys took yet another charity case.”
“This one’s on the owner,” Sasayama answered, leaning over her as she started methodically arranging limbs.
“Hey, no looming!”
“The owner can afford it?” I asked as Makino waved bloodied hands near the old man’s pants menacingly. He shook his cane once at her and backed off, leaving her to start piecing flensed skin and dislocated limbs back into something like human.
“It’s cheaper than closing down for a week while the Special Police interview all your employees and want to look through your books,” he answered sourly.
“Since when do the Tokkou care about industrial accidents?” Numata piped in, pushing the cheap round sunglasses he’s always wearing up the bridge of his nose.
“They happen all the time, right?” Yata seconded, the puppet on his hand adding, »Unite, ye meatbags, against the machine oppressors!«
“You oughta sew that thing’s mouth shut if you want to stay out of the shipyards,” Sasayama snapped. He pulled off his cap and rubbed at his scarred head as Yata hurriedly covered his puppet’s mouth. “Normally they wouldn’t care. Normal, if that’s what people today want to call losing limbs to machines instead of vigilante samurai, is not opening the factory door to find a corpse gumming up your equipment.”
“You mean she died during the night?”
“Give the man a prize.”
We all glanced at each other (except for Makino); I got to the conclusion first, and felt my eyes get narrow. “That’s why the owner doesn’t want the Tokkou in here. He doesn’t want them finding out what he’s using the space for after-hours.”
“He claims he’s not doing anything after hours.” Sasayama shrugged. “You can hardly blame him for saying so, can you? You know where labor dissidents wind up.”
“The shipyards…” Yata’s voice trailed off uncomfortably. Numata looked pissed. Then Makino sat back on her heels abruptly and looked up at us.
“She did die during the night,” she pronounced. “But not because she got fed through a drawing frame.”
“Dare I ask how you figured that out, from that?” Sasayama gave her a disbelieving look, waving his cap at the body.
“Lividity always tells!” She smiled brightly, one shoulder hitching up. “I talked to the girls on the floor. They said she was found pulled up on her right side.” She held up her hands palms facing each other to demonstrate, then turned them so the back of one was facing the floor, the other facing the ceiling. “Right shoulder down, see?” She leaned back in, fitting her fingers beneath the corpse’s shoulder, and held it up for us to look. “But this is her left shoulder, and it’s showing lividity, too. There’s bruising all down her back and both shoulders.”
“Which means, for the rest of us?”
“Duh, blood pools down. It means that she was lying on her back for at least a few hours after she died.”
“So someone killed her and did this to hide it?” Yata asked.
“Unless we think she walked in herself post-mortem.” Makino shrugged.
“We’ve seen weirder things.” I looked over at Sasayama’s expression and rolled my eyes. “Not much weirder, but weirder.”
“So what killed her?” Yata still looked a bit green, but you can usually count on him to try to keep things on track.
“That’s going to take way more reconstruction than I can do here.” Makino looked over her shoulder, pinning me with a stare. “Like, it’s about time to ask the witness, isn’t it? She’d know best.”
“Right…” I knelt down by the body, rolling back my sleeves and touching her shoulder. And you know, for all the times I’ve done this, it never stops feeling so fucking creepy. All my hair tries to stand up (there’s a reason I shave my head and it’s not just a Detachment From Material Longing thing), ice goes down my spine like someone dropped snow down my shirt, and just for a few seconds I’m not alone in my head.
That’s how it goes normally, anyway.
After a few seconds, I looked up with a frown. The others stared back like the impatient jerks they are at times like this, and I shook my head. “She’s not answering.”
“Oh, come on, did the drive over put you to sleep?!” Numata demanded. “No way has she moved on after getting mangled like that! That shit is so unclean, man."
“That’s not what I said,” I snapped at him, uneasy still from what I’d felt. “I said she isn’t answering. She’s in there, I just can’t get through.” It was a bit like seeing a candle through a paper door--you can see the light moving around, but you can’t touch it, you can’t look at it directly, and in this case something’s telling you the candle’s screaming. Numata’s thick as a post sometimes, but when he’s right he’s right. This was unclean.
We went to pack up the client, taking a rear exit out, while Makino and Sasayama haggled with the factory owner over the tab. I helped Numata get the body into the back of the van then left him and Yata to secure it, heading back in to retrieve Makino. A woman was hanging around the back and, just as I went to open the door, her hand caught at my sleeve. I looked back at her, and found a worker about our age. She was skinny, a thinness that had nothing to do with heredity and everything to do with twelve hour work days seven days a week. Her hands were red, and chapped around the knuckles, white splotches scattered on her skin like patches of lichen. She tucked them away when she saw me looking at them and bowed her head, wisps of her hair sticking to her damp face.
“Yeah?” I asked. Not the most sensitive answer in the world, but at least I dropped my voice when I asked it.
“Ichiyama Rei,” she whispered, looking furtively over one shoulder. “I think that’s who it is.” She jutted her chin briefly toward the van.
I followed her glance around, then gestured her towards the building, where I leaned up against the metal wall and hunched up like someone stopping for a cigarette. She took the cue and ducked in in front of me, fidgeting with her tied-back sleeves.
“Did she work here?” I asked. “When’s the last time you saw her?”
She shook her head, mouth compressed in a tense line. “I met her…” She trailed off, looking over the lot of us again. Ah. I saw what the problem was.
“We’re not really with the police,” I said under my breath. “Nobody’s gonna hear about it from us if you met her at a rally.”
She looked at me with hollow eyes for some of the longest seconds of my life, but finally nodded. “Two weeks ago—there was a rally in one of the warehouses down at the docks. My brother is friends with the man she was with. She was wearing the same kimono that night.” She ducked her head, swallowing, and said faintly, “I recognized the wisteria.”
It wasn’t conclusive, not with modern clothes-making techniques—who knows where the fabric came from and how many other things got made with it?—but it was a better start than anything else we had so far. I nodded. “Do you remember the guy’s name?”
“Ito,” she answered, then shook her head. “I don’t remember his given name. She stood out more. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. You probably really helped us out.”
She looked up at me. “You’re going to find out who killed her?”
“Ma’am, we’re just here to get her where she’s going.” I slipped her a smile that I hoped suggested shit-stirring mischief. “No telling where that’ll wind up.”
After I got Makino we headed back to the office, fighting through the morning traffic. It’s always slower when we have to drive, and it’s not exactly low-profile, especially with Numata always getting into shouting matches with the rickshaw drivers. Honestly we probably didn’t need the van today--you could pack that body into a portable shrine no problem--but I was glad the old man had told us to bring it. This client’d been disrespected enough.
“A whole hundred yen,” Makino chirped, riffling bills in her hands, when Numata started pestering her about how much we’d gotten. “And what do you know; we’ll make rent this month.”
“How about food that’s not pushcart ramen?” Numata asked hopefully. “There’s this new Western place by my apartment I’ve been dying to try.”
»And now we know where to take you when you keel over, Numata.«
“Hey, Yata, just for your peace of mind, when you kick off, there’s a sock-eating laundromat a block from my place. You and your alien buddy won’t be apart for long."
“Watch the road, idiot!”
I swear the way Numata drives is taking years off my life.
Anyway, we managed to make it back in one piece and Makino bustled off for some personal time with the deceased, Numata carrying the body, while me and Yata filled Sasaki in on the details.
“Ichiyama Rei, hm?” she asked when we finished. She looked thoughtful, then stood and walked over to the rolodex on her desk. I eased around behind her to look over her shoulder as she flipped through it.
“You’ve got something? ‘Cause I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to going to a labor rally with Numata.”
“Hold onto that thought,” she deadpanned, pulling out a card labeled Ken Nishioka. “But yes, I remember the name. You don’t usually hear reports about women with a gambling problem.”
“Numata’s going to have a gambling problem if we have to stake out another casino parlor.” Yata obviously agreed with my eloquently expressed sentiment.
“Please tell me you’re calling her boyfriend or dad or something,” I pleaded.
“As if our cases are ever that easy.” Sasaki leaned her hip against the desk, picking up the phone--a prize from that time we helped Nire out with his possessed Hina dolls problem. “You two had better start airing out your good pants.”
I took the hint and caught Yata by the collar on my way out the door. I’m pretty sure most of the people in Sasaki’s files are government employees or government informants, and either way the shakedowns in the name of public service give me the heebie-jeebies. We went to go collect Numata.
“Now this is more like it!”
“You know we’re not here to actually watch a movie, right?” I rolled my eyes. Still, at least it wasn’t a gambling den, yet. We’d gotten lucky—it turned out Rei had a younger sister, Takako, who “works at a local theater and doesn’t get into any trouble,” according to Sasaki’s contact. Leaving the girls to keep shaking the metaphorical tree to see if anything else gruesome fell out, we took the streetcar over to break the news.
“Local theater” was underselling it. The Musashino Hall is huge, a corner building with open entrances, three stories and a balconied dome on top. It’s lit up like New Year’s every night and there’s always some new sign hanging down the whole length of its wall promoting whatever new film or locally famous screen reader they have in. Tonight’s combination must have been a doozy, because there were people milling around every entrance, modern girls and boys like Makino and Numata, a healthy mix of school uniforms, some dressed up families, even a few foreigners.
Other than looking weirdly cross-sectional, we didn’t stand out any. Yata had gotten out what probably passed for his nicest haori coat to wear over his usual hakama pants and kimono get-up, and all you really have to do to make Numata presentable is make him tighten his tie and close his jacket. Putting him in a hat looks ridiculous, and you couldn’t take his sunglasses off without him twisting your arm into a pretzel, but it’s an improvement, anyway. Reluctantly, I’d put on the school uniform Sasaki got for me the first time we had to infiltrate a university campus—the button-up coat and dark pants look too military for me. I don’t like looking like authority.
The cape is nice, though. When you really need to make a dramatic entrance, nothing beats it, at least until the shambling corpse shows up.
We forged a path inside, Numata diplomatically elbowing people out of the way, and made for the nearest employee, a girl wearing a frilled apron over her kimono and handing out programs. She smiled when she saw us and handed me a pamphlet—or went to, before Yata intercepted it in a dive.
“They’re showing Woman in the Moon?!”
“Yata, get off!” I scraped him off of me with a kick, leaving him turning eagerly through the program, and turned back to the girl, who was clutching her papers to her chest and looking like she was about to make a run for it. “Sorry, miss. We’re looking for someone. Ichiyama Takako?”
“Oh! Um, I think she’s checking tickets tonight. At the stand back there?”
We looked to where she was pointing, and yeah, there was a girl back there, but behind a huge queue. I grabbed Numata before he could rush off.
“Privacy for the soon-to-be bereaved,” I hissed in his ear. “Let's find a manager.”
So, one manager and several pleas about shorthandedness later, we found ourselves up in one of the projection rooms, talking quietly to our client’s sister as she watched the film reel. She took it calmly, like it was bad news she’d known she was going to hear eventually, but her hands kept closing into fists whenever she didn’t have them actually on equipment.
“She’d been getting into a lot of trouble lately,” she told us, sounding shaky. “She gambled, she drank, sometimes she wouldn’t come home at all. The police came by a few times to ask about it.”
“Anybody she’d been fighting with?” I was doing a lot of the talking because Numata and Yata were squeezed over by the projection window trying to watch Woman in the Moon, shushing each other or Yata’s sock every few minutes.
Ichiyama shook her head. “Not that she told me about.” She swallowed and looked down at her lap. “She always thought she was trying to protect me.” When she laughed it sounded desperate, and she added, “Even if she went out again after, she always walked me home from work.”
I looked over at my supposed coworkers—Numata wiped an arm over his nose, grimacing in his about-to-start-bawling kind of way and Yata was listening to Kere-ellis on some cynical rant about doomed interplanetary romances. I rolled my eyes—fat load of good they were being—and looked back over at Ichiyama.
“We can walk you home if you want. It’s not like the gambling parlors are going anywhere.”
She smiled shakily. “Thank you. I’m sorry you’ll have to wait.”
“No big deal.” I shrugged and grinned. “We’ve never gotten to see inside a movie booth before.”
I called Sasaki to check in before we headed out, trying to keep things vague thanks to the occasional rubberneckers curious about how telephones worked.
“They live up in Marunouchi,” I told Sasaki, reading off the Ichiyama sisters’ address. “We’re gonna bring her home tonight. She says her sister always did. Has Makino got anything yet?”
“The murder method, she thinks.” Sasaki’s voice crackled roughly on the other end of the line. It’s a bit like how bodies talk, the way people sound over the phone. A little tinnier, maybe. “Marks around the neck suggesting strangulation with twine or cord. And she fought back—there was skin under her fingernails. Did the sister give you anything to go on?”
“Just that some people had been by about where she’d been going at night, if you know what I mean. I’ll get some more specifics on the way, see if she has a picture we can ask around about.”
“Mm.” Typical neutral Sasaki, but before I could ask her what rabbit she was chasing, she said, “Try not to get arrested. Makino’s got the client looking better, so I’d like you to see if you can get any more out of her when you get back. So long.”
“Nngh,” I said to the dial tone. Why doesn’t anyone ever believe me when I say the soul isn’t talking? I hung up and picked my way through the thinning crowds to a side hallway, where Numata was inhaling popcorn he’d picked up from a vendor and Yata was animatedly talking at Ichiyama about canals on Mars and black body radiation. She had on a pained smile, but Kere-ellis takes a lot of people like that.
»Wells had one thing right, though: air filters! You germsacks have no idea how good your air is! So good all kinds of crap lives in it! Co-existing with invisible parasites is one of the most accepted signs of a lower life form.«
“So what’s that make Yata, huh? Numata sneered sloppily, and that seemed like a good time to break it up.
“All right, we’re all up to date. Let's get going.”
We headed out, Numata pulling his tie loose and bickering good-naturedly with Yata about the movie. It was a warm night, and the district was still busy around us, food carts and vendors and the odd shop or bar—not much more sordid than that, out here on the main road—that had bought a record player spilling out American jazz or homegrown folksy stuff, crooners and old love songs. Ichiyama stayed quiet on the trolley, fidgeting with her bag, and I didn’t really want to make it worse with pushing. She was a bit folksy too, actually; there were amaryllis flowers on her kimono and her hairstyle was more complicated than I’d thought at first, braids looped around a big layered knot. She didn’t have bangs or shorter locks framing her face or anything, just wore it all piled up in the back.
"Miss Ichiyama,” I said finally when we climbed off in a residential neighborhood—big Western-style houses with fenced yards and hedgerows, which made Numata whistle enviously. “Do you know any of the names of the places Rei went? It’d be a help.”
She jumped at the sudden address, looking up at me with weirdly panicked eyes, then forcibly averted them and gave me a stiff nod. “Yes. Kurokaba was her favorite, and she said she liked the Dutch beer that The Artois gets. There was a waitress she liked at Club 8, but I think she stopped going there after she quit.”
“Where was she getting all the money to spend on that?” Yata asked, trotting to catch up with us, leaving Numata strolling on behind.
“She worked three nights a week at the Moon Viewing Room—it’s a club that stays open late. And I worked too, so we had enough. We have a house, so we weren’t paying rent.”
It sounded kinda pat for somebody hooked on the dice. And on a closer look, Ichiyama was starting to look a lot less grief-stricken relative and a lot more cornered animal. She must have picked up on something when I didn’t answer, because all of a sudden she whirled on me, one hand raised. I ducked back quick, but she didn’t follow through; her hand just hung there trembling.
“She was a good sister!”
Yata’s free hand was up and Numata was on his toes; I stood there half-ducked and we all stared at each other, unmoving. Finally Numata put a hand on my shoulder and tugged me back.
"Who was she really in trouble with?” he asked, serious. It’s pretty ridiculous once you find out he was raised by a shrine full of elderly nuns, where he still spends every other weekend doing repair work, but Numata’s actually got a fairly good eye for this kind of thing. It’s because his fashion sense and his bad attitude get him mixed up with gang trouble every once in a while.
Ichiyama’s hand clenched in the air, then she dropped it and her head to whisper, “The Special Police.”
“…We’d better get to your house for the rest,” I said after a minute to let the pervading air of Well, fuck reeeaaally sink in. “Is it safe there?”
She nodded without looking up again, which I didn’t like, but there’s no getting Numata away once he’s heard something like that, so we walked the rest of the way without speaking.
The Ichiyama house was huge, the kind of house that can support a gambling habit just because there’re so many family heirlooms to go through before funds start to run out. No wonder the Tokkou were interested. We took our shoes off in the foyer and followed Ichiyama’s gesture into the living room, her trailing behind to run one hand up the wall, patting for a light switch.
»Hey, girl, why didn’t you tell us you had company?«
I saw them just before the ceiling light came on, two shapes against the far window, but my brain went to cops, not Frankenstein tried again. And as a nice added way to further everything going completely to hell, the guy had a gun, which he lifted and pointed at us with a smile that probably would have looked a lot easier if it didn’t have so much scar tissue to get out of the way. A little girl perched on the sill next to him, a big purple bow in her hair and matching butterflies on her kimono. She smiled too, but it was a whole lot more cunning on her than on him.
All the furniture in the room was covered, and the dust we’d stirred up coming in swirled around in the light. No one had been living here for a good long while—part of the point, I guess.
“Gentlemen of Kurosagi. Why don’t you all come in,” the man invited, gesturing with the gun. “Stick together now. And don’t worry,” he added as Numata cursed, “this shouldn’t take long.”
I looked over my shoulder at our one good escape route, but Ichiyama had slid into the center of the entryway, clutching her elbows. She shot me a distraught glance, then looked back at the other two. “I did what you wanted. Now let her go.”
“There is one more part, girl,” the little girl said, but she was staring at me, fixed as a snake. I backed up into Yata, not looking away at the pinched, shallow breath and the rustle behind us.
“Hey, what the hell is this about?” Numata demanded, taking a step forward but stopping when the gun pointed his way. There were only two exits in the room, the entry by Ichiyama and the hall into the rest of the house, closer to the pair in front of us than it was to us. We could go through Ichiyama, yeah, but not fast enough, and there were the windows, but if I was feeling suicidal, getting shot would probably be faster than bleeding to death in the yard.
Something that wasn’t wind stirred around the room, riffling the drop cloths and making the light flicker with an electric whine. This time when I looked back, Ichiyama wasn’t looking at anyone. She had her head bowed in concentration, arms spread defensively across the hall, and she’d let her hair down. It was long, almost to her knees, and floating around her as the temperature in the room dropped.
“Holy shit,” I heard Numata stammer. “Uh, Kuro? You got a—a thing, there, man.”
I looked down and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a kid standing next to me, dressed in judo gi and a black coat and drawn in close, white from the top of his overgrown hair to his pale toes. He was staring across the room at the new companion the girl had sprouted, a nun—black robes and white headwrap and all—who stared back at him with fury twisting around the edges of her lips and lowering dark eyebrows over her eyes. However the rest of her looked, the eyes said she wasn’t human—the irises were gold, and that was weird enough, but not half as weird as the completely black scelera.
⸗Yaichi.⸗ Ice dropped down my spine and I hissed in a breath—it felt exactly like it does when I talk to the dead, goosebumps and the sense of somebody looking over my shoulder and all. Only in this case the somebody was peeking from behind my waist. The kid—who had the same eyes as the nun and, for some damn reason, the same scars as the man—rubbed one arm at his cheek and answered dispassionately, with the same ghostly sound backing his voice, like somebody dragging their nails down a chalkboard a few rooms away.
⸗You will never leave this cage again.⸗ The girl and the woman spoke at the same time, both raising their right hand, fingers spread down.
Pain shot through my nerves, everything firing at once, and I folded up. I heard Yata hit the floor next to me, but it all sounded distant and distorted; the air felt wrong, not too hot or too cold, but just a temperature-null gel, viscous and resisting movement. When I cracked open my eyes, I could see the back of my own head and the kid looking up at me, frowning faintly and reaching up to touch my arm. I could feel it now, the way his fingers ran down to curl just below my elbow.
“Holy shit, holy shit, stop the ride, I want to get off--!” Numata yelled on my other side. He was floating half out of his body, too, arms frozen mid-flail. White lines of energy crawled around the walls in a helix of power, spinning slowly and spitting out threads that sank into his body—his spirit body, and mine and Yata’s too—like harpoons, pinning us out to where we could hardly move. Even trying felt like fire under the skin; distantly, I could hear Yata gasping in pain.
“It’s done,” the girl told Ichiyama, words cracking through the shrill white-noise buzzing that filled the air. “Your sister’s spirit is free now.” She kicked her bare heels against the wall and looked over at the man, who still had the gun trained on the tumble of bodies on the floor. “Take them and leave them somewhere.”
The man holstered his gun and took a careful step forward. “Are they going to wake up?”
She looked up at the nun, who was still staring at Yaichi with a hatred that had no time for anything else in the world, then shrugged. “Probably not.”
»All right, that does it.«
I don’t know if there’s a good way to describe how Kere-ellis’s voice sounds halfway into an out of body experience, other than I’d avoid it if I were you. It’s kind of tinny normally, but right then there was more to it, deeper and riper—not ripe in a good fresh fruit kind of way, but like week-old sour milk. If a ghost’s voice is a knife cutting the skin, Kere-ellis’s voice is something crawling under it.
I strained my head to the side. Yata’s puppet hand twitched and jerked like someone had hooked it up to electrodes, and the heavy hemp fabric, normally an eye-searing lime color, darkened as trails of ooze seeped down the sides and onto the floor. Kere-ellis’s hands folded in on themselves, then distended outward, a shape dragging itself out of the puppet’s skin. Bony, dark green arms scrabbled at the floor for purchase, straggly straw-colored hair slicked against the noseless face that pushed itself out of the shapeless mass. It turned four huge, staring eyes at the girl, bulbous and murky brown, lids all blinking independently, and a red slit cut across its face as it opened its mouth, a purplish tongue spilling out onto the floor.
»Hey, lady. Kids are easy, you wanna play with someone more your speed?«
It gathered itself into a misshapen ball and launched across the room, landing on the nun and bearing her to the floor in a screaming, furious, terrified whirl of kicking and scratching. My heart clenched in my chest like an engine about to burst when she went down and for a second everything went dark, end-of-the-line red.
The next thing I knew Numata had one of my arms around his neck and was kicking open the front door, shouting at me to wake the fuck up and get moving. Nausea surged up and sweat broke all across my skin like a sudden fever, but I choked the bile back and obeyed. A glance over my shoulder showed Yata bringing up the rear, dragging Ichiyama by one wrist. The kid, Yaichi—and shit, I realized, he’s the reason I can do it all, isn’t he? It’s all him—ran alongside us in a fast but unconcerned gait, arms trailing out behind him.
We hadn’t staggered more than half a block down the street when the delivery van turned around the far corner almost on two wheels and zoomed towards us, honking.
I caught a glimpse of Makino behind the wheel, then Sasaki was throwing open the back door and pulling us in by scruff and sleeve. Numata dropped me into a corner next to a body-shaped lump under a drop cloth then climbed into the front seat.
“A man just came out the front door,” Sasaki reported, pulling the van door shut behind an anxious-looking Yata. “Makino, drive.”
“You got it, Sasaki-chan!” I gripped the wall when she slammed down the pedal, sending the van lurching back into movement.
“Makino, you drive like a maniac; let me!”
“Oh, like you’re any better, Mr. Sidewalk-is-still-technically-a-thoroughfare! Get your hands off the wheel; we can switch when there isn’t a crazy gun-wielding special forces officer chasing after us!”
“Kere-ellis? Hey, Kere-ellis? Kere-ellis!”
I tried to focus through the spinning. One part of that sounded more important than the rest. With a glance at Ichiyama, who’d knelt down by Rei’s body, I asked Sasaki, “They really were—?”
“Tokkou? Yes.” She didn’t break the stare she was levelling at Yaichi, who sat on my right side crouched on the balls of his feet and looking back at her with—acknowledgment? Challenge? Something knowing, anyway, and what was up with that?
“Uh…” I tried, and she finally looked back at me. “How’d you guys know to come?”
“A young heiress involved with labor rallies? The address didn’t match the story.” She gestured at Ichiyama. “I called my contact back and pressed a little harder. He told me the Tokkou had called everyone else off the case when they found out about the rumors of the younger sister’s special ability.”
“She threatened to leave a bunch of pictures of dead bodies with a ‘per our arrangement’ note in his mailbox if he didn’t dish about the address,” Makino chipped in. Sasaki shrugged, accepting the charge.
“You guys, Kere-ellis is—”
»Wa-yow! That tingled! Feels like all my tubes threw a bubble at the same time!« The puppet, which had been sitting loose and unresponsive on Yata’s hand, jerked once, then its eyes turned up to Yata. »Sorry about that, Yata. I had to wait for your theta rhythms to calm back down!«
“…What exactly happened back there?” Sasaki asked, raising an eyebrow.
“It was my fault,” Ichiyama said, the first word she’d spoken since the house. “They said…” She broke off, taking a breath and wiping at her eyes to compose herself. “I have the power to manifest spirits. That girl has the power to trap them. I was told that something had happened to Rei and that I needed to go to the factory. But when I got there and tried to manifest her soul to say goodbye—” she swallowed “—they appeared and trapped her there.”
“And told you to bring the people who came asking around to that address,” Sasaki filled in. “Why there?”
Ichiyama shook her head, shrugging.
“No one lived there,” I said. “All the furniture was covered up.”
“Nice thick Western walls to muffle the screaming.” Numata gave up on pestering Makino and turned to face the back, slinging one arm around the seat.
»Good thing for everyone,« Kere-ellis added, following the words with a thick, burbling laughter.
As Sasaki’s skeptical eyebrow crept higher, Yata explained, beaming. “Kere-ellis saved us! He used the open signal to come to our world!” The puppet’s head turned up higher at the praise. »They weren’t expecting anything like me.«
“Yeah, who could figure for anything that ugly?”
I rolled my eyes as Yata and Kere-ellis both turned on a grinning Numata to protest and/or start cursing. “Knock it off, Numata. None of the rest of us could do anything. Anyway, we’ve still got a job to finish.”
“We’re going to have a lot to sort out,” Sasaki agreed darkly—you could see why, with the Special Police suddenly way too close to our business. “But yes, the client comes first.”
“The client?” Ichiyama looked around at us.
⸗She’ll answer now.⸗ The kid sidled crabwise over to Rei’s body and, after I just stared at him, wondering how this looked from the outside, looked at me over one shoulder. ⸗Why do you wait?⸗
I blinked at him. “You’re not the one that does it?”
He hitched up one shoulder, head tilting. ⸗I need you to work through. The dead do not answer the dead.⸗
“Should I, like, pull over somewhere?” Makino asked from the driver’s seat. “We’re back into the shopping district.”
Sasaki moved the curtain back from the rear window, angling her head to look out. “Go ahead,” she confirmed as I knelt down across from Ichiyama. “We should finish this before we go anywhere else.”
I bowed my head and touched Rei’s wrist, and the kid reached up to clasp my shoulder. I couldn’t feel it physically anymore, so I guess as solid as he looked, he really was still just a spirit, but the ice-down-the-spine feeling was the same as ever.
“Rei Ichiyama?” I asked, voice low. “Answer me. What do you need to be at peace?”
Her body twitched beneath the sheet, and Ichiyama’s breath caught in her throat.
“I’m right here.” Ichiyama dropped her hand on her sister’s other arm and closed her eyes. It stirred the air up more than mine, her power, moving her hair and making the cloth on Rei’s body ripple.
Rei’s spirit sat up from her body with a gasp and looked around. She had her hair pulled back in a twist, wore a clean version of the kimono we’d found her in, and, thankfully, had all her limbs attached and facing the right way. She looked at her sister, then at me—then, with a hiss, at Yaichi. Her arms came up defensively in front of Ichiyama at the same time I put mine (my free one, anyway) in front of him. He backed off with an unmoved look, scratching his neck.
"Rei, it’s okay! They helped us; you don’t have to—protect me.” Ichiyama’s voice strained on the words.
I put my hands up, spread and empty. “We’re just here to help you pass on. We’ll help get your sister sorted out.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sasaki’s lips purse. “Is there anything else?”
She opened her mouth and I just knew she was going to ask for revenge, and man, how equipped are we not for dealing with whoever the heck those two at the house were? But then she looked down at her body and shuddered. For a second her whole image distorted, flickering like a loose film reel between her living shape and the grisly wreck Sasayama had called us in on. She was facing me for that, thankfully, not Ichiyama; I was even more grateful that she shook her head.
⸗No. I don’t want to be trapped again. Just take care of Takako.⸗ She turned to face her sister again, who was crying mutely. Rei held her hands up and cupped them close to Ichiyama’s face. ⸗I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t do better.⸗ She was already starting to fade out.
“It’s okay. I forgive you, Rei. It’s okay.”
The ghost bowed her head to Ichiyama’s and mustered up a roguish smile, lips pulling up unevenly. ⸗I’ll find us someplace better on the other side. A celestial palace, just you wait. A bunch of heavenly bureaucrats can’t stop me.⸗
Ichiyama smiled back up at her, eyes wet. “I’ll look forward to it.”
Rei pulled one hand back to fist-pump, grinning, and faded out into nothing. We sat for a minute in the bubble of silence, listening to passing foot traffic and bustle, before Sasaki looked up from the lot of us in the back.
“Let's get going, Makino.”
The rest of the drive didn’t take long, and when Makino pulled to a stop again I tugged the curtain aside and blinked up at Sasayama’s apartment building. Sasaki popped open the back door, but before we could even start climbing out, he came peg-legging it across the yard with temper to spare. Turns out Sasaki had called him before she and Makino left, and our friend the beat detective was not thrilled to hear about us having the Special Police on our tail, to say the least. He and Sasaki started arguing almost as soon as they saw each other, not leaving the rest of us much to do but sit and watch the volleying. The kid had taken one look at Sasayama and started giggling; all I could get him to say was that Sasayama looked like a priest.
The debate about what to do next went on for a solid twenty minutes, and it got very procedural and very boring very fast. In the end, the compromise was, “Get out of Tokyo for at least a few months.” Sasayama would take Rei’s body—Makino had done her best, but cremation had always been the end of the line there—and look after Ichiyama for a few days while she got in touch with some family in Toyama.
After we said our goodbyes and good-lucks, Numata drove us back to the office in an awkward silence.
“So… Like, what are we gonna do?” Makino ventured eventually, curled up against the back of the driver’s seat.
“We have some money put away,” Sasaki said from the passenger seat, brushing her hair back over one ear. “We’ll be all right.” Color me unsurprised that Sasaki has slush funds, yeah.
“I’ll have to go tell my Grandmas I’ll be leaving for a while,” Numata said, then perked up. “But hey, it could be fun, right? We’ll be like, a roaming band of mysterious but helpful nomads! Just like in The Moon Riders.” He shaped his hand like a gun and aimed it at the window, mouthing “bang!”
»Only with five times more death. ‘Strangers to everywhere but the undiscovered country!’« Kere-ellis mocked, raucous, from where Yata had his arms crossed over his knees, head down—I guess theta wave transmission or whatever had tired him out.
“Shut up, sock; you don’t even know how cool that sounds.”
“Stuck in a van with you guys for days on end with no shower. Yeah, that sounds like a real trade-up.” Makino sighed heavily. “Goodbye, Tokyo fashion. Goodbye, metropolitan life.”
I didn’t say anything—actually, I thought it did sound pretty cool—but looked down at Yaichi again. He was watching us with focused, staring eyes, fingers curled over his drawn-up knees, chin resting on the back of his hands. He still looked awfully solid for a ghost.
“Hey,” I asked him quietly. “So are you gonna be—sticking around for a while?” His gaze flicked up to meet mine and he shrugged. “What happened back there with—was she really your mother?”
He nodded shallowly. ⸗She is angry that I lived,⸗ he answered, inflectionless. ⸗That I continue to ‘live.’⸗
His voice drew the attention of the others, and Makino stopped bickering with Numata to look at the two of us instead. She crossed her legs and dropped her hands to her ankles. “So you’re Kuro’s friend, huh? Like, thanks for all the help so far.”
“Yeah, should we be making offerings or something? Family shrine, kinda thing?” Numata adjusted the rearview mirror to look into the back.
⸗I don’t need anything like that.⸗
»How come you never offered to build me a shrine, goat-chin? I’ll take offerings; I’d like bird’s nest soup twice a week and all the spare radio parts you can find.«
“Hey, you’re already got room and board courtesy of Yata, there. Like you need anymore of a foothold.”
The puppet covered its mouth with its hands. »Buhahaha! Foolish human, I’m already on track to becoming this sector’s alien overlord!«
Sasaki sat watching the kid, not commenting. Shifting under her stare, I rubbed my head. “You really don’t need anything, huh?”
He shrugged, finally looking a little bemused. ⸗I like dogs. You could get a dog.⸗
Makino giggled, and even Sasaki cracked a smile, raising an eyebrow. “Well,” she allowed, “we can look into it.”