There was something not quite right about the window. Misane peered at the milky white glass, looking for anything out of place. Her bitphone didn’t beep in detection, only laying out the data of a normal window. Glass and rotting wooden panes, carved into a cross design; curtains a breeze away from disintegrating into dust. A cracked vase cradled a few stems, long past dead and without petals. Instead, they lay curled and stiff along the windowsill, a brittle red so deep they looked black.
The hair on the back of her neck stood on end and there was a curling in her stomach. This would be it.
In the past, before Bitphones, detectives relied on information gathered with their own hands and heads. No fancy machine. At least, that’s what Misane’s father had said, sipping his glass while looking over reports. Misane sat in the chair beside him, investigating the spread out police reports covering the table before her. The words were stark against the white background, deep and unpassionately describing death. How tragedy could become dispassionate, Misane mused; small and fumbling with the manila folders, was a real tragedy.
Her father went on to describe some of the great detectives before his time, how their cases came together like a messy outfit. The details sometimes stuck out like a messy stitch or a testimony that was too long and full of holes like a moth eaten sweater. He always spoke so passionately about his work. It was one of the many reasons she wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a detective. Misane snuggled into the plush seat, eyes half lidded and heavy as her father’s voice rose in a gruff pitch at a particularly nasty case. Other kids got fairytales before bed. She got mysteries to resolve. Not that she ever got the full details.
Even as she grew, climbing through the ranks of junior detective, beat cop, cop, and real detective, her father never gave her full details of old cases. He’d always see her as a kid, even if he treated her like an equal. A weird mixture of respect and parental affection she supposed.
He plucked the manila folder out of her tiny fingers, gave a terse smile and replaced it with a different file. There were no pictures, never were, and the words were black and small. Misane leaned into his side and decided she liked this case much more. There wasn’t death in it.
The wood creaked beneath her boots as she crept further into the house. Her Bitphone buzzed low in her ears, sweeping and scanning for something out of place. That twisting in her gut never left as she checked the living room. It was cramped with multiple pieces of chairs and chaises and couches in separate degrees of decay. The fabrics were eaten by tangles of wild flowers, most noticeably roses. Their stems pushed in and out of the furniture, making them gigantic pincushions displaying heads of unfurled buds. The sickly sweet smell of rotting flowers made Misane lift a sleeve to block the stench.
It smelled of rot.
It smelled familiar.
The carpet was nothing more than a few fray strands held together by roots. Her heels crunched them and petals into dust. They were deep red, the color of dried blood. The photographs on the wall were skewed; yellowed with age, curling against the broken frames. The faces were nothing more than smears, swept away by the ticking of a clock.
Misane continued on and up the stairs.
Her father was proud, beaming when she said she’d signed up for an apprenticeship at the precinct. It wasn’t often she saw his face so open. It came with the job, he said. To be guarded. Still, that didn’t stop him from taking her out to dinner. Nor did it stop him from administering stern warnings about the work and her future.
She remembered cases on the table. She remembered the papers disappearing, replaced by electronic files. She never remembered them getting any smaller.
The news reported a drop in crime each year. A percent that shrank before Misane’s fingertips as she tapped the holoscreen. A percent that she couldn’t picture. A drop in crime… what did that mean? A drop in petty theft? Of murder? Hit and runs? Could one really pluck a statistic from the blood and pain and tears of the country and say it was shrinking?
The holoscreen blinked blue and purple; the text small and white puncturing the screen in a neat row. Even if it was just a little, Misane wanted to help shrink that impossible percentage. Perhaps all of her efforts would only amount to a hundredth or thousandth of a decimal point, but even so. That hundredth, that thousandth was a person who could breathe easy.
Misane lay back in bed, fingertips hovering a few millimeters from the screens edge. It cast a blue glow against her hand and forearm making it look sickly. It shut off with hardly a thought plunging the room into a deep darkness. She shifted, the sheets crinkling with her movement as she hugged a cat stuffed animal and tried to fall asleep.
The familiar petals lead her to a room in the back. A lone window shed light in the dim hall. One pane was missing completely like someone had taken a hammer or a fist to it. The rest was grainy with dirt or soil. Through the hole she could see the outline of a tree, branches swaying to an unfelt breeze. The house was stuffy, air heavy with fragrance and death. Misane’s coat stuck to her back uncomfortably, but she never moved to adjust it.
She approached the window slowly, eyes scanning her surroundings. It was a narrow hall only able to fit her and possibly someone at her side. Many of the doors were locked, knobs jiggling uselessly in hand. The metal were dull and grimy and she hesitated to touch any of them. On the windowsill was another vase, cracked and old. The stone wearily held dark green almost gray empty stems in a puddle of sunlight. The summer air caressed Misane’s cheek as she bent down to peer out the window.
There was something off about it too, she decided. A small slant where the wood sagged, old and wet and unable to bear any more weight.
She wondered if there was any real importance to this doll house full of roses. If it really meant something to him. The old faded portraits, the old destroyed furniture, the old caving floors. Or maybe it was another face, personality, factory made thing. The petals were certainly a call back, the first time the two met face to face. Or, perhaps the second. Or third. Who knew with as many masks as the man crafted.
There was a naturalness to the house, like time had just decided to let nature take its course as much as it wanted. None of the furniture placement or flowers themselves felt artificial like she’d come to associate with him. Certainly not like a well-tended garden, each bud turned carefully, each stem pruned in calculated cuts, each plot sewn and tended in a neat little box. The house was all he needed at this point. Nothing more, nothing less.
The Bitphone beeped in her ears. Someone was standing in the door to the left. The rose petals beneath turned that direction, continuing down under the doorframe.
One could say that Misane’s career was partially shaped by the Third Party Murders. Since she was fifteen she’d chased him. Or perhaps it was apt to say he chased her. A game of cat and mouse. Mouse and cat. The two interchanging the positions each meeting.
She’d find him, following the crumbs of data and any evidence he deemed enough to leave behind: a corpse, a broken person; an unforgivable feeling in their chest, coiling like roses with thorns, blocking all thought with vicious petals.
He’d find her, escaping with honeyed words, dripping with the taste of overripe fruit. Manipulating any and all, he’d tug at his puppets with the necessary fingers- just the ones perfect for that job- having them dance before her.
For all the cases she’d solved this was the one that meant the most to her, she thought. The one that she followed closest, searching and searching and searching for a clue; an ace in the hole, to crack him open. It was the longest case she’d worked, the files of murders spanning a fleet of screens in her office. This was ignoring the ones at home. The one she’d pull up on sleepless nights, staring at faces and wondering, is that him? Is that him?
A scattered trail of corpses and ruined lives followed the both of them, red like the petals beneath her shoes.
The door opened with a creaking moan. Lines of thick sunlight cut through the thick dirt of the room, fracturing the space into multiple pieces. The furniture sagged on uneven legs, fabric ripped but uneaten by flowers. Directly in line from the door was a high backed chair. The wood curved across the legs and back, ending in four protruding points of the top. Even from the doorway Misane could see the room had been rearranged. She entered, closing the door behind.
“Ah, we meet again, Misane.” A man leaned against the top, languid and with a half-smile. He had changed his appearance from Shinobu Kasuga once again. He was almost unrecognizable from the gardener she first met. Gray hair was now black, parted completely to the right. Clothes that once screamed free spirit and nature; open and airy with light cloths were now tight and dark, making him look withdrawn.
Misane didn’t respond verbally, only inclined her head in a tight nod.
“You’ve caught up to me again. Should I give you some praise?” The man tilted his head, the smile becoming mocking.
So that is what he wanted to do? This same old circle? Misane squared her shoulders and stood taller.
“How many time does this make? Have you been keeping count?” He twisted around the chair and plopped down, casting a plume of dust into the air. The dust tickled her nose, but she forced the itch away. She wouldn’t be mocked by him. Certainly not today. “I have. This makes… number ten.” He clapped softly, the noise the echoing hollowly in the air.
Her boots clacked against the wood when she shifted her weight, placing a hand further back along her side. Already, she could feel the conversation swimming in her ears, growing thorns inside the soft flesh of her canals.
"Well? How’s Nanase? Still his partner?” When she didn’t answer his smile dropped. He was quite good at expressions, Misane noticed. The subtle tilt of his head, the curve of his eyes and lips as they pulled into a nearly perfect frown.
To an outsider he might have actually looked sincere. But, Misane knew him. Or, at least ten different versions of him. Ten puppets that played their parts perfectly; entering the play unnoticed and exiting just the same. Ten little listeners who swooned when needed and parted advice that twisted the best people.
“Of course I’m still his partner,” Misane answered. He settled further back in the chair, folded his hands in his lap and looked the picture of relaxation. As if she weren’t a threat and she wasn’t here to arrest him.
As he opened his mouth a melody filled her ears. Her bitphones started a tune with a twitch of her fingers, the holoscreen disappearing against her fabric in a low flash. It was peppy and loud, synthesizers and brass instruments starting with a loud boom. Any words he wanted to say were drowned out.
He talked a lot. If there was one thing that all his little puppets had in common it was that they talked a lot and listened well.
She reached further back and unclipped the weapon on her belt. He continued to throw questions into the air, tilting his head and smiling the entire time. His eyes flickered towards her with each dragging silence.
The song reached its crescendo. The instruments thundered and bellowed, fake and controlled. Each note was perfect, lasting the second it should and dying without disturbing the other notes blooming to life. The singer sung his heart out, voice swelling with each rising note.
Nanase had better stop adding music to her playlists without telling her. She’d have to scold him after this.
Misane read her name on his lips. The man moved to stand from the chair, eyes finally narrowing in suspicion, but didn’t get far. In one fluid movement Misane yanked the Taser out of the belt and shot. The multiple points struck him in the chest. A charge tickled her skin, the air full of electricity. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end and her hands went numb.
The man once called Shinobu Kasuga let out an uncontrolled choke and fell back into the chair writhing. Perhaps for the first time since Misane met him, he appeared genuine.
Misane lay back in her bed. Multiple screens of tiny punctured print and gifs met her eyes. They colored the dark room in a purple hue, throwing the shadows into deeper shades. One by one they flitted off until only the screen directly above her head was on. It was the oldest by date and by far the largest. Digital string and code sewed the pictures together. Once neat boxes crowded the screen, fighting for any free space.
For the first time in ten years, Misane breathed out and shut the screen off.