Sasayama had seen a lot of really weird shit in his life, but this had to be somewhere on the list of top ten of “really fucking oddball things humans do.” Okay, maybe top twenty. Didn’t want to exaggerate anything, especially with the weirdos he hung around with.
Still, pulling open a cupboard to find that someone had single-handedly carved a whole underground network under most of Shinjuku was kind of unusual. Maybe an seven-point-five out of ten on the unofficial Sasayama scale for weird-ass things. It ranked a solid nine, at least, on the paperwork scale, though. Seriously, he couldn’t even count how many municipal ordinances this was contravening. There was probably someone at the office that could even reel them off, and produce a form for each one.
Fuck his life.
Oh yeah, and there was the dead body with its head chopped off. That was pretty standard, though. He sighed and hit speed-dial for the Scooby-Doo gang. Sometimes, you just had to go with what worked.
What worked, however, sometimes involved losing Karatsu in underground tunnels after the head started talking and simply croaked out “Follow,” rolling away down the dark corridor that stretched beyond the doors of the cupboard.
Karatsu glanced at the head cartwheeling rapidly away from them, and then at Sasaki. “I’m going,” he said, shrugging helplessly. Before anyone could object, he flipped on his flashlight to step into the closet, his silhouette receding down the rough slope of the tunnel and then disappearing in an unseen turn.
Sasayama opened his mouth to call out, and then closed it again. That kid, man. Gave all appearances of being sensible and grounded (or, well, as sensible and grounded as you could be while working with corpses), and then went off chasing heads. He should have known that something like this would happen.
“Fuck,” said Sasaki, her hand still outreached to catch Karatsu’s shoulder. She rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a set of walkie-talkies, pushing one of them into Yata’s hands and nodding at Numata. “Follow him, okay? The walkie-talkie’s got a tracker in it, so we’ll follow you above ground.”
“Wait, why do we have to go into the creepy tunnel?” Numata said. “I’m way too tall for this hobbit stuff.”
“Because you’re the one who can follow the head?” Sasaki said, already pulling a laptop out of her bag and balancing it on one arm. “I’ve got your position, so get going.”
“If this thing collapses in on us and we die a horrible death, pour one out for me, Makino,” Numata said, grasping his sunglasses and striding into the tunnel. Yata shrugged philosophically and followed, clearly deciding that this was no more bizarre than their usual run-of-the mill dead body hunt.
“I will!” Makino called. “It’ll be really cheap beer, though, given our budget.”
Sasayama sometimes wondered what it was like to have a normal life, with people who didn’t take chasing heads into tunnels as a matter of course. Probably really boring, to be honest, but there might be some novelty in hanging around with people where the topic of the weather didn’t naturally turn to body decomposition or suchlike. “You do know that I probably need that head back at some point. We have time before the lab notices that it’s gone missing, but I don’t think that they’ll appreciate me losing it,” he said, resigning himself to the fact that these were the kinds of conversations he had.
“And hopefully the dude following it, too,” Makino said cheerfully.
Sasaki walked out the door, still balancing her laptop on her arm. “Do you have a car? We’ll follow their signal to see if we can intercept them at some point.”
Sasayama’s old rattletrap of a car was parked around the back, to try and make their investigation a tad more subtle. Or, well, as subtle as these things got.
“Think we’re dealing with a murder here? Suicide is a possibility, but chopping your own head off is a job and a half,” Makino said, hopping into the back of the car and heaving the creaky door shut. Sasayama really had to get that looked at when he got the chance. Hah, not that he ever would.
Sasayama shrugged. “Not sure. Don’t want to rule it out yet, because you never know with these things.”
“You said he used to work for a university medical department, didn’t you?” Sasaki said, after a few moments bonding with her laptop—how she managed to get a connection, Sasayama had no idea. His computer expertise—or lack thereof—was mostly limited to hunt-and-pecking around until the thing cooperated enough to spit up whatever he was looking for.
“Yep. Retired awhile ago, but apparently still had contact with a few friends in the medical community, as far as we know.”
“Hm,” Sasaki said. “He was still in contact with his old job, it seems.”
Makino drummed her fingers on the back of the car seat and picked up the walkie-talkie again. “Everything okay, guys?”
“We... might have lost Karatsu in the tunnels,” Yata said, his voice scratchy through the walkie-talkie. “He was following the head, and he turned down a corner, and now we can’t find him.”
Sasayama slapped his forehead. “You guys need one of those kiddy leashes. For all three of them.”
“God, tell me about it,” Sasaki muttered under her breath. “Use Numata, then! Have him follow the body, for god’s sake,” she said into the walkie-talkie, kneading her temples. If he didn’t know better, Sasaki sounded worried.
“Uh, yeah, about that,” Numata said in the background. “The whole tracking-a-body thing gets harder when there are a bunch of bodies around. Just saying.”
“Bodies?” Sasayama said. He was pretty sure that the point of the exercise was to decrease the amount of bodies on his hands, not increase them, but okay, what did he expect.
“There are these piles of skulls and bones down here. It’s kind of weird,” Yata said.
Sasayama rubbed his eyes. “Skulls. Right. You couldn’t have mentioned that earlier?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Well, they weren’t like, menacing skulls or anything. They’re pretty nicely arranged, actually--” The line cut out, leaving only static.
“Shit. Are they that far down that the walkie-talkies don’t work anymore?” Sasaki muttered to herself. “The tracking signal still works, at least.”
“It sounds almost like the Paris catacombs,” Makino said curiously. “Or, like, the DIY version.”
“These people need better craft project ideas,” Sasayama said.
“Okay, so we lost Yata and Numata in the catacombs, and who knows where Karatsu is,” Sasaki said. She sounded perfectly composed, as usual, but Sasayama knew that tone of voice well enough to grasp the undertone of someone who needed a drink.
It wasn’t that he was concerned—the kid had found his way out of way worse situations than this one—but you couldn’t help but be a little concerned when you lost a guy in the craft project of a probable serial killer.
Sasaki seemed to agree. Her typing sped up, and her eyebrows creased together slightly. “We’ll head towards Numata and Yata’s last location,” she said after a moment, nodding decisively.
The trail of the tracker led them weaving crazily through the streets, sometimes ducking through alleyways only slightly larger than his car's mirrors. How big was this thing, anyways? And why had someone thought it was a good idea to build a crazy network without having the courtesy to provide tourist maps? At least they knew more or less where Numata and Yata were, while all they knew was that Karatsu was somewhere below them, wandering through the tunnels.
They turned down another tiny alleyway when Sasayama’s cellphone beeped, and Sasayama attempted to answer it while easing the car into a very recalcitrant fourth, his phone jammed between his ear and his shoulder. “Hello? Hello? Fucking hell, can’t you pick up the phone properly?” He juggled his phone to the other ear to take a drag of his cigarette, shift down, and turn down the next narrow alleyway.
There was a scratchy silence over the line, before Karatsu’s voice came through. “Hey, um, sorry for ditching you guys. That head was pretty fast, for something that isn’t attached to any legs,” he said, sounding sheepish. Sasayama let out a breath that he didn’t know he’d been holding.
“You’d better be sorry!” Makino said, leaning over Sasayama’s shoulder. “Way to make us all worry, you doofus!”
“Where the hell are you?” Sasayama said, gritting his teeth and taking the next turn perhaps a bit too fast. Damn kid. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sasaki’s shoulders slump slightly, perhaps in relief.
They finally found Karatsu in a park a few kilometres away, sitting by a bush with the head in his lap. (The head had Karatsu’s cap on it, possibly in an attempt to make it more inconspicuous.)
“Hey,” Karatsu said, grinning at them when they approached. “So, the good news is that it wasn’t a murder. For any of them, I guess, unless there was something hinky going on that we don't know about. Just a dude who’s spent years gathering old skulls and skeletons from medical institutions that were closing down because he felt bad for them. And, um, making really elaborate catacombs because he felt like it? I didn’t quite get why the tunnels were necessary.”
Sasayama glanced at the head. “Wait, so he just wanted to take you for a tour?” Fucking hell. Somehow, it always held true that people were at once more mundane and more weird than you would expect.
Karatsu shrugged. “Knew he was going to die soon, and didn’t have much of a family, so he apparently wanted his body stuck with the rest of them to keep them company, and decided that taking his head off was the simplest way to get there.”
“That’s... weirdly sweet? The maceration process is, like, really simple, if that’s what he wants,” Makino said offhandedly, looking at the head.
“’Course, there’s also the question of whether we can deliver all those skeletons to wherever they want to go, or if they’re just happier in that place, crazy as it seems,” Karatsu mused.
“Hey, my job was to clear up the matter of the tunnel, not to provide counselling to a bunch of skeletons and macerate a guy’s head so he can be buried in there too,” Sasayama said. “That part isn’t covered in the fee for your services.”
“Yeah, yeah, but it just seems right to take care of them too, right? Besides, you’re paying us in takeout, as far as I’ve been told,” Karatsu said. Cheeky fucker. Sasayama poked him with his cane, which Karatsu swatted away before scooting over to show the head to Makino for her professional opinion.
“That kid’s going to sink your operation through sheer unintentional altruism, you know,” Sasayama said, moving next to Sasaki, who was sitting in the car with her laptop still open. “If he ends up going to Iraq again to deliver some bones, I’m going to have to laugh pretty hard.”
Sasaki was a tough broad, but Sasayama thought there was a moment of softness in her eyes. “Fortunately, we have me to keep us mostly in the black,” she said. “Besides, there are worse business reputations to have than rumours of a little altruism.”
“Ha, good luck advertising that to your target audience,” Sasayama said, taking a drag of his cigarette. “Still, we need people like him to balance out old, bitter cynics like me. And young, spry cynics like you.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Knowing these kids, they would end up halfway across the world, delivering bones back to India and trying to pass it off as a club expense. Sasayama ground out his cigarette under his heel and lit another. He was getting old, and the future looked a bit shit, but sometimes, it managed to spit up people that weren't half bad. Maybe one day it would even surprise him.
(Another conversation taking place at the moment, approximately twenty metres below and one hundred and thirty-two metres southwest:
“We took a left turn at the last pile of skulls, I’m positive,” Yata said. “We’re going in circles.”
“No, no, but that pile of skulls was, like, lumpier or some shit. This pile of skulls was clearly put together by some dude who likes his skulls neatly organized,” Numata said.
“I can’t tell the difference,” Kereellis said. “You humans look way too fucking alike. Especially when you’re missing your skin. Whatever, turn right.”
“Numata, why do you still have that skull with you?”
“We’ve bonded. We’re buddies now. Hey, you’ve got Kereellis, so I need a wacky buddy, too.”
“The skull is distinctly lacking in my cutting wit.”
“What’s that, Mr. Skull? Kereellis is a rude motherfucker? Yeah.”)