Beyond the Outer Gates Lies...a Phantom Thief?

"Well hello, Ise, Asia," I greeted them cordially as I opened the door. For some reason they both flinched back when they saw me.

"You two have such impeccable timing," I said happily, "I would hate to be late. Come in."

I stepped back, and they nervously followed me in. Reya was still a little red in the cheeks. And forehead. And ears. Ise caught site of her, and seemed to realize something. His expression changed from inexplicably worried to mildly chagrinned and regretful. And a bit lecherous.

"Sorry," my Bishop told them, "This took longer than expected. Would you two be willing to help us get these sorted?"

"Sure," Asia agreed easily.

With their help we quickly divided up the books between their proper owners, and loaded Reya's spoils into my reusable bags. I escorted Reya to the door, and Ise and Asia went into the kitchen to stow the Coke they brought and start a bag of popcorn.

"I'll get the bags back to you on Monday," Reya told me.

"Don't worry about it," I told her, "Are you sure you are good to teleport home?"

"Oh, yes," she said, somewhat evasively.

"Okay," I smiled, "I had a really good time today."

"Me too," she agreed. I gave her one more, quick kiss. Then she stepped outside of the fence, and vanished. Though I was guessing she wasn't going home.

I went back in and looked at the pile of books.

"I guess I'll just throw them in the library for now," I muttered. The former nun stepped up beside me.

"I can help you put them away, Dresden-kun," she said, "While Ise waits for the popcorn and then gets the movie ready to go."

"Thanks, Asia," I said gratefully, "I don't have time to reorganize my shelves now, but if you help me carry them, it will save me a second trip."

"Of course," she nodded

We gathered up all the books, and carried them to my office slash library. We set all the novels and game books on the desk. But the new spellbooks went onto one of the empty shelves in the bookshelf with the rest of my tomes and grimoires, since that specific piece of furniture had a bunch of enchantments. Both to protect the contents, and to protect the rest of the house from the contents. In case one of the books was possessed or enchanted or something. The ones I got from Sona were safe. And probably the ones from Az, too. But any book I bought off the internet, or, say, from a random vendor at a book fair, was met with due suspicion until I had a chance to properly scan it.

Asia returned to the living room while I changed into my reinforced jeans and shirt, and gathered all my party favors. I wasn't sure exactly what I was dealing with, so better safe than sorry. I double checked that a certain newly re-perfected old standby, plus a couple new versions of another one, were in my bag. I returned to the first floor as John Williams' score blasted out of my TV's speakers.

"Remember to keep an ear out for Mister," I reminded them, "And if you get done before I get home, just lock the door on the way out. But the wards won't let you back in, so keep that in mind if you run out of food. You should probably order pizza in that case."

"Will do," Ise said without looking at me.

I stood for a second, watching the Star Destroyer capture Leia's Blockade Runner. Then I forced myself to head out. I walked quickly down to the bus stop, and caught the west bound 7:24 heading for Tokyo.

My mind wandered as the bus rumbled towards the capital. I let my thoughts drift back to the past Wednesday, when this new job dropped into my lap.

My mind was still going over the summoning magic Sona and I had been studying. She and Rias were both thinking about having the newer members of their respective Peerages acquire familiars. Kaichou was hoping that the techniques magicians used might be useful in helping her Peers find and secure more powerful familiars. Though magicians here did not bond specific familiars like Devils did, they could summon some fairly powerful entities. I was thinking that combining summoning, Devil familiar contract techniques, and my own non-calculated magic, I might be able change that.

The chat I was having with Lash about that was interrupted when I saw someone lingering outside the fence. She quit talking, both so I could pay attention to him, and so I didn't react to her and potentially look crazy.

He was a bit above average height for a Japanese man, though at least a foot shorter than me. And he was already turning to look at me, half a block away. I might stand out, but he had been looking the other way and I wasn't making a lot of noise. He looked to be in his late twenties, with an average face and typical brown eyes and black hair. But he had a slightly tired expression and more than a day's worth of stubble.

He was wearing a nice suit, black; a higher quality cotton rather something really expensive like silk or cashmere. But definitely not a cheap synthetic. Probably the sort of thing you got from a mid-range suit store. Not custom made, but adjusted to fit you after the tailor found the closest match off the rack…

And I was suddenly glad Riser's order was basically done and I didn't have any more in the queue. My mind drifted way too naturally onto the track of sewing and fitting.

Anyway, his suit was nice, but a more than a bit rumpled. It matched his need for a shave.

I got the impression that he was acutely aware of things around him, but not about himself. Which gave me a good idea of what was going on.

"Is there something I can do for you?" I asked carefully as I reached my property line.

"Are you Dresden Harry?" he asked, though it was pretty obvious he knew the answer. There weren't any other male Caucasians at Kuoh Academy. Nor had I seen anyone of my height in town. Or any other place I had been to in Japan, for that matter.

"That depends on why you are asking, Detective…" I trailed off so he could fill in his name. If I weren't being cautious, I would have snarked about him introducing himself, first.

"Suzuki Yamato," he said seriously. Then he frowned slightly, and asked, "Is it that obvious?"

"Let's just say I knew what to look for, Suzuki-san," I answered evenly. Then I couldn't help myself and sarcastically asked, "Are you here to hire me or arrest me?"

"If you are in fact Dresden-san," he qualified with just a hint of humor, "I am here for a consultation, which may or may not leading to a consultant job. Are you available to talk now?"

"I am," I confirmed, "Would you like to come inside?"

He nodded, and I led him in.

"Please sit anywhere," I told him after we had removed our shoes, "Can I offer you something to drink? Pop, water… umm, I could make instant coffee or tea…"

"No, thank you," he said. He sat down on the couch, watching the door and the front window. I set my schoolbag on the dining room table and grabbed a Coke.

"So, what brings you to a Wizard, Suzuki-san?" I prompted as I dropped into the recliner, "I'm guessing you have a case with some element you can't explain."

He considered that for a moment. Then bobbed his head again.

"Over the last seven weeks, there has been a string of ritualistic robberies in Akihabara," he started. When he paused for breath, I jumped in.

"Ritualistic?" I noted with a raised eyebrow.

"Perhaps not the best word, considering present company," he shrugged, "Maybe habitual would be better."

"Like that's not even more confusing," I said.

"I cannot disagree," he said, "Each Saturday, for the last seven Saturdays, one store has been robbed. All on the same street, all in sequence."

"Go on," I prompted, considering that.

"The robberies took place after each store closed. In each case, the money for Sunday operations was removed from the safe, and a small amount of merchandise was stolen. However each of the stores was different, a convenience store, two sellers of computer parts, a game store, a book store, a costume store, and a store that sells anime goods. There is no sign of forced entry. The only fingerprints and DNA we found around the safes belonged to employees who were authorized to be there."

"So, are you thinking inside job?" I asked, "But that would be kinda stupid. It might work for the first couple, but after that they would have had to expect someone to figure it out. Especially if they spread it out like this. Do the stores have the same owner? Could this be some sort of slow play insurance scam? Rob a small amount from a bunch of your stores, and then make one big claim at the end?"

"The first electronics store and the book store are both part of the same large conglomerate," Suzuki sounded mildly impressed, "The merchandise and costume store are both owned by the same person. The remaining three stores all are unrelated. And so far, all of the employees have checked out and none of the stolen items have been found."

I considered that, "Okay, my next thought would be some new criminal group trying to force their protection racket on the neighborhood with a series of petty crimes. I don't know if they do that sort of thing here; though I guess they could have learned about it from somewhere else and be branching out… That still wouldn't explain the lack of evidence."

I paused again, and then continued, "But I guess I really should ask a variation of my original question; what did you find that makes you think something supernatural is behind these theft?"

"Two weekends past, we set up surveillance on the next store in the sequence. When they closed on Saturday night, I and one of Tokyo PD's best forensic accountants verified the money in the safe and their inventory counts. We escorted the manager out. We had officers watching both the front and back entrances. And Sunday morning, the same accountant and I met the manager again, before he opened the store."

"And it had still been robbed," I deduced.

"Correct. So this last Saturday, we checked the next store when they closed. We had officers on the street and on the roof, in addition to the ones watching all the entrances. We also set up cameras from multiple angles to cover not only the store, but most of the street. And again, when we entered the store in the morning, the money and four new top of the line video cards were gone. But this time, we might have caught something."

He reached into his jacket, and took out a thumb drive.

"May I use your PlayStation, Dresden-san?" he asked.

"Go ahead."

He brought up a video file. It showed a bunch of store fronts. It seemed to be from a fairly high end camera, despite the limited light from the street lamps, the colors were fairly crisp and the picture was sharp as any Blu-Ray.

"This is the store," he pointed at the one of the buildings. Then he fast forwarded, until the time stamp said it was 1:12. He let the normal playback resume, and stepped back, waving at the screen. I got out of the chair and moved closer to the TV.

After about ten seconds of nothing, there was smudge. That was the only way to describe it. It looked like when someone had brushed a finger on the camera lens, leaving a small mark behind. Expect this smudge was moving. It moved down the sidewalk at a brisk walking pace. It stopped in front of the store, and then vanished. He fast forwarded again. An officer walked into frame at high speed. Then Suzuki hit play, just as the smudge reappeared. It went back the way it had come, but seemed to step around the cop. Who, in turn, didn't react at all.

"No-one saw this." The detective told me, "And only one other camera caught this, but it wasn't as clear, and the others did not. But there is definitely something there."

"Yeah," I agreed, "It looks like you have an invisible thief."

"Not to doubt you," he started. He was trying to be a proper, skeptical, police detective, but I could tell he was hoping I could provide him with a concrete lead.

"But can you explain how you came to that conclusion?" he asked.

"There are three basic forms of magical invisibility," I told him. Then I frowned and added, "Well technically four, but the fourth one wouldn't look like that on camera."

"Why not?" he prompted.

"Well, that type of invisibility, called Someone Else's Problem or Perception Filter, depending on what flavor of British sci-fi you prefer, doesn't so much as render you invisible as unnoticeable. It's nice because people don't look directly at you or remember you were there, but they also don't walk into you. Unfortunately, it doesn't work at all on cameras."

"I see," he nodded, "So then these other three forms of invisibility do show up on camera? Like what we see here?"

"They can," I emphasized the qualifier, "Depending on the quality of the spell and the camera."

"The first form of invisibility is camouflage. Like a super-powered chameleon, you make yourself look exactly like whatever is on the other side of you. The second form is transparency, you make it so the light literally passes through your body, like glass. And the third is veiling, where you warp the light so it doesn't actually hit you."

He nodded, and then prompted, "So, how is it those show up on camera?"

"You probably know at least a little about how light works, right? How it is a wave, and the wavelength determines the color?"

"Yes, I remember that much from high school physics," Suzuki said.

"Okay, well let's just say the green light has a wavelength of thirty centimeters. I thinks it's actually a lot smaller, but just for the example."

'Visible spectrum light is all in the range of four hundred to seven hundred nanometers,' Lash unhelpfully supplied.

'Save it for the final,' I told her.

"And then yellow is 35 cm, and blue is 25 cm. If you have light that is 31 cm, it is a very yellow shade of green. But if it was 30.1 cm, it would be only slightly more yellow than normal green."

He considered that, seeming unsure where I was going.

"Now if you had two paint swatches, one 30 cm and one 30.01 cm, and you held them at arm's length, one at the right side of your field of vision, and the other on the far left. If you looked at them like that, you would think that they were the same color. But if you held them right next to each other, you would be able to tell that there was a small difference. Add another zero and make it 30.001, and even if they were right on top of each other you couldn't tell the difference, because Human eyes aren't that precise. But some animals could still tell the difference. Add enough zeros, and even if there is a difference, no eye can see it."

"I think I see where this is going," the cop said thoughtfully, "But please continue."

"So there is a point where even if the color wavelength isn't an exact match, it doesn't matter from a practical standpoint. So you can make the spell's matching a little less precise, and potentially save a lot of energy over the surface of your body and the duration of the spell. Your transparency can alter the wavelength a little, your veil can change the light a little when it bends it, etc. As long as it is good enough to fool most people and animals."

"Until you take a camera into account," he said, "They just capture light as it is."

"That depends on the quality of the camera," I said, "even if it captures it perfectly, with film it doesn't matter. It just records the light on the film. But digital cameras are a horse of a different color. They convert the light into pixels and store them as binary. Even more importantly, to save space, they compress the data. If a Human can't tell the difference, why save all those decimal places? Just round it. And they do other compression things like… uh… blending colors and stuff."

I didn't fully understand how it worked, being new to computers and not a programmer or doctor of Math.

"So in all the compression and rounding and such, the saved file suddenly has a slight deviation. Not enough to even tell that it is a person or ghost or monster."

"It just appears as a slight blemish on the file," he concluded, "like a bit of oil on the lens."

"Exactly," I confirmed.

"So you think this is another magician?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said, "If so, it could be a minor talent who needs a week to build up the power for the spell, or just works a Monday to Friday job. On the other hand, if it's a ghost it would explain the pattern. Some thief died on a Saturday night job, and now is trapped in the area, repeating the same thing over and over. There are also monsters and spirits that get locked into a pattern, except I don't know why most of them would steal these sorts of things. Unless they are being contracted."

"What would it take for you to tell?" he asked.

"I might be able to tell something if I checked out these stores," I frowned dubiously, "But after days of customers tromping through, any psychic residue is probably unusable."

"So if you saw it fresh?" he suggested, "Like the morning after?"

"That would definitely be better," I nodded, "though it would mean letting another robbery happen. But if you can convince your boss and the next store owner, I could probably catch the thief in the act."

"That is what I was hoping you would say that, Dresden-san," he smiled slightly, "Would you be free this Saturday evening?"

"I can be," I said somewhat regretfully.

"Are you sure about this, Detective Suzuki-san?" the candy store's manager asked nervously. He was a tiny, greying man, rubbing his hands nervously as I set up crystals at various points around the store. He had already rejected my chalking of a pentagram on the tile floor. Suzuki agreed, pointing out that the thief would probably see it.

"It will be fine," the cop reassured him, "If it does not help, at least it is easy to clean up."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," I shot back.

"No slight on your skills, Dresden-san," Suzuki said contritely, "It is just, as you said, the pentagram would be more certain as we do not know what this is. But since it would be more noticeable, and would be a bit of a mess, we must make do with what we can."

"Uh-huh," I grunted, and then silently prompted, 'are we good here, Lash?'

'The layout is correct,' she agreed, 'This will detect a magician, but may not stop teleportation, if that is how they are entering. If it is a ghost or youkai, it will hold them.'

'Great. Thanks,' I told her, 'Oh, and take a note, we should research a portable, permanent pentagram. Like a rug with silver stitching on the underside.'

'A fascinating idea, my host,' she mused.

"Okay, we are good here," I told the two older men.

"We are done as well, senpai," the junior detective said confidently as he stepped out of the back, with the police accountant. The cops gave the main room another once over, and then escorted the manager and I out. He locked up the shop, and then Suzuki and I casually crossed the street, walked to the small apartment building, and moved to the empty room we were using for the stakeout.

I had already stowed my bag here when we first arrived. I retrieved it and fished out my newish concoction. It was a new variant of my fae glamour breaking unguent. Except it used Vaseline as a base, and didn't stain the skin. It should have worked for its original purpose, but I wasn't sure if it would work against whatever kind of invisibility this was. It might not be a perfect penetration, but it should let us see at least a shadow of the perp. I smeared a small amount on my eyelids and under my eyes. The tingle let me know it was working. I passed the bottle to Suzuki, who duplicated my actions without any other further prompting.

"I have to say, you are remarkably open to all of this," I told him.

"Oh?" he asked, "What do you mean?"

"I mean you strike me as a fairly no nonsense, by the book, down to earth cop," I said, "And yet you approached me, you never seemed dubious when I brought up ghosts, monsters, and invisible magicians. You let me come along and now you are smearing a magical concoction on your face without even asking if I'm serious, or what it does. Usually I have to save a cop from a troll and fight a couple of werewolves with them before I get that level of faith."

"Ah," he said, "I suppose that would be the natural reaction. But I am not unfamiliar with the supernatural. My grandfather, uncle, and two cousins are caretakers of a shrine in Hokkaido. Though my mother came to Tokyo because she wanted to escape that lifestyle, she allowed my brother and I to spend summers there when we were younger. We met youkai who were friendly with the shrine, and I assisted in an exorcism once."

Then he smiled regretfully, and added, "To be honest, I called my uncle about this case first. He was the one who suggested I contact you."

"You already knew about the invisible thief," I accused him, but without any heat, "You were testing me."

"To a degree," he confirmed, "However, my uncle never mentioned the third type of invisibility you mentioned, nor was he able to explain why they were captured by the digital cameras. He was only able to tell me that it is what was happening."

The door opened again, and the junior detective joined us. Takahiro Hiro; poor guy. That was probably why he was so gun ho about his job and this case.

"Takahiro," Suzuki called him over, extending the jar of unguent.

"What is this, senpai?" he asked, glancing at me suspiciously.

"Rub a small amount on your eyelids and under your eyes," the older detective explained. Takahiro hesitated, but ultimately complied. After it was done, he gave the jar to me, gingerly, as if it were a bomb. Then he went back to check on the cameras again, and double check with the other groups.

"Now comes the fun part," I sighed, settling down to look out the window, "Just hope our thief has a sweet tooth."

It was just after one, when something appeared at the end of the street. Even though I wasn't looking right at it, I could feel the potion around my eyes start to tingle when it entered my peripheral vision.

"Suzuki," I said his name softly, as if it might hear me.

"What is that?" Takahiro gasped, loudly. He had not been willing to let me stand watch on my own, so he was also standing guard. And apparently hadn't seen something like this before.

The suspect was a girl, probably fourteen. She had light brown hair, in a ponytail and a fairly athletic build, though not without feminine appeal. The girl was wearing dark blue capri pants and a black windbreaker. And most importantly were the short tendrils of dull grey energy writhing around her arms, stomach, and neck. Suzuki stepped quickly over to the window, and I made way for him. And then looked over his shoulder.

"It's just a girl," Takahiro decided after a moment, though he did not sound like he believed it.

"Look at the cameras," Suzuki told his kohei sharply. Sure enough, the two cameras focused on the street were currently blank. Though I suspected a playback of the saved file from the more expensive camera would have a familiar blemish. Then I snorted.

"Cameras?" I said incredulously, "Look at her feet."

She was walking, in the sense she was putting one foot in front of the other in a regular, unhurried fashion. However, said feet were at least four inches above the sidewalk.

"So she doesn't kick up dust or leave footprints," I answered their unasked question.

"That is our thief?" the anxious detective said, still too loud, "Then let's go get her."

"Right," I drawled dismissively. Takahiro glared at me, but Suzuki nodded.

"She has not done anything illegal, yet," the older cop agreed.

"Unless there is a law against being possessed that I haven't heard of," I snarked, and Suzuki gave me a look that told me to turn it down.

"She could be a do-gooder ectomancer," I said more evenly, "who heard about the thefts and is trying to help. Even if that is our ghost thief, we don't have any way to hold them until they are in the store."

"Right," Takahiro deflated slightly.

"It's probably her," Suzuki told him, "But we have to handle this properly."

The girl and whatever was controlling her floated slash walked to the store we hoped was the target. She glanced at the stylized lollipop over the door. And then continued on to the next store, this one another bookstore, but one specializing in doujinshi. She turned towards it, and then lifted her right hand. She placed it directly in front of the lock. And then her body seemed to fade from view, becoming a mist. One I immediately recognized after recent events in my life. The smoky remnant of her began to pass through the door.

"Crap," I growled, grabbing my bag and glancing at Suzuki, "Time for plan C."

He and I were already rushing out the door, and I was digging through my portable supply locker, when Takahiro staggered to his feet and called after us, "What's plan C?"

"And what if you cannot draw your pentagram in the store?" Suzuki asked carefully, watching as I set out some supplies on the table. The TPD had stuck me in a small conference room while they prepared for the operation. Out of sight of the rest of the cops and detectives.

"Why wouldn't I be able it?" I countered.

"The floor may be carpeted, or you may not have sufficient space," he said.

"Haven't you been in there?" I asked dubiously.

"I have not," he said plainly, "I have been busy with other matters…"

He raised an eyebrow in my direction.

"… so my partner and the second team have been talking to the owner and the manager who will be working that night."

"In that case, I have plan B," I showed him a handful of small crystals.

"I can set these up around the store," I explained, "They just need to sit on a shelf or on the floor. They aren't as effective as a proper pentagram, but they're better than nothing. Which reminds me, do you have four officers who are believers? Or are just quick on their feet and willing to follow unusual orders?"

"I believe so," he thought it over for a moment, and then prompted, "Why?"

"Plan C," I told him, splitting up some color coded Ziploc baggies.

"What color?" Suzuki asked as darted into the empty street.

"Green," I told him. I passed him the sealed plastic bag, with a piece of paper of that color taped to it. Then I took out a large stone, and handed it to him. The polished marble was about half the size of my head and was a perfect pentagon. The bottom was flat but the top had a sixty degree incline from one point up to the opposing side.

"Right here," I tapped the road with my staff. Then I summoned a calculated circle over my right hand and closed my eyes.

"Holy…" Takahiro whispered as he saw the spell. It looked like he was capable of keeping his voice down when it mattered. Or I shocked him into silence,

"Wait for final positioning," I heard Suzuki say, "Green element."

I unleashed the Fae mandala 'Hawk View', and could immediately see the block and the one behind it from above, as if I were floating another hundred feet above the store's roof. And could precisely see the other four cops moving into alignment.

"Officer Jones needs to move thirty centimeters south, and five centimeters west," Lash whispered in my ear.

"Jones, 30 cm south, 5 cm west," I told Suzuki, who relayed it. The half-Japanese, half-British woman complied.

"Officers Akamasu and Watanabe are in the correct placement," the shadow continued.

"Akamasu and Watanabe are good," I told him.

"Detective Ito must come fifty centimeters north, and two millimeters west," she concluded.

"Ito, 50 cm north and a smidge to his left," I said.

"Officer Watanabe should rotate his obelisk seven degrees clockwise," she added, after the stones were in the right spots, "but the others are fine."

"Watanabe, turn it clockwise a little," I told Suzuki to tell him, "Okay, a little more… Good. Now sprinkle a handful of the dust from the green bag over the stone."

Each officer had five baggies, each with a different kind of dust. Green for ghosts, purple for youkai, red for stray Devils, yellow for magicians, and a blue catch all that would work okay against anything, but great against nothing.

The new version of my ghost dust was thirty-nine parts purified salt, nine parts aluminum dust, and one part depleted uranium dust, the latter courtesy of Second Amendment. The Gear had been able to summon DU bullets, which I had removed and shaved down. The current mixture was a derived from my original formula, Lash's knowledge, and a few things we had both learned here in Bizzaro World. It also managed to incorporate the magically significant numbers one, three, seven, and thirteen.

After the five cops dusted the marble markers, I opened my eyes. I touched my staff to the closest stone, and flooded my will into it. A giant circle of light connected the obelisks, while passing harmlessly through the theoretically impeding buildings. Once it was complete, an addition straight line extended from each point, creating the star that completed the pentagram.

Plan C was basically an alternate version of plan A, but since it was more noticeable and took more of my energy, so it wasn't ideal. At least it was more flexible.

The center of the star was a pentagon, and additional lines shot out from its vertices, forming a smaller pentagram. This repeated a third time, but the final pentagram was entirely within the book store, so it only appeared as a flash of light through the windows.

"Okay, we can go in," I said, "Just don't cross the innermost circle, and don't let anyone move the stones. You said you have the key?"

"For most of the stores on the street," Suzuki confirmed, as he handed the mostly full bag of ghost dust back to me, "Just in case."

I returned it to my bag, threw that over my shoulder, and steadied myself. Then I stepped in.

As I passed the edge of the outside pentagram, a foul screeching hit me. Suzuki followed, and frowned when he heard it. Takahiro came in third, and nearly fell as the partially psychic sound assaulted him. It only got louder as we approached the store. The head detective unlocked the store, and we all went in.

The girl was in one point of the final pentagram, crouched down. Both hands, both feet and her left knee were all on the floor. She looked like she was being pulled down by increased gravity or maybe pushed down by a telekinetic hand. I had never used ghost dust in combination with a marked point circle before. Or the circle on a possessed human, ether. So, it might being doing that.

At the same time, she could be faking. She was only a slight lift of her body away from a runner's starting pose. And she was facing the back of the store.

The ghost had partially separated from the girl. It almost looked like its knees were fused to her spine, but from the calf up, the rest of it was visible. He was also facing away from us, but in a different direction from the girl. From his hair and profile, he had been Japanese when he was alive. The visible part of his pants were black, and he was wearing a white button of shirt. The back of which was destroyed, mostly missing, with strips of ragged cloth around the hole. And the spectral flesh underneath was also shredded, looking more like ground beef than skin. And naturally, we could pretty much see through him.

He was also pounding on the seal. His right hand looked normal, and his left was skeletal. With each punch the normally invisible barrier glowed briefly. I could feel each hit, but even with as tiring as this form of pentagram was, I could easily hold him for a couple of hours. Of course, that was only if I just held them. He was also shrieking. The keening seemed to affect the detectives more. I might have been more sensitive to the mystical energy, but I also had the training to filter it out.

"Umm," Takahiro stammered for a second, and then drew his sidearm, "You, whatever you are… you are under arrest. Place your hands behind your head."

"That oughta do it," I rolled my eyes, "Thanks very much, Ray."

Takahiro looked at me in confusion. The serious Suzuki barely stopped himself from chuckling.

Junior's outburst did get the ghost's attention, however. It turned to glare at us, and the left side of its face was skeletal, the edges of his flesh looking gnawed on. It seemed more intent on the two cops. And it screamed even louder. But instead of pounding again, he lifted his hands and pointed them towards us.

On one of the shelves, a number of glowing handprints appeared on some of the books. Thick, expensive books, the collectable kind with heavy stock paper, and real or faux leather covers. Reya had one chronicling the history of the Zelda games, and it weighed close to five pounds. The ghost's power should not have been able to pass beyond the pentagram. But the sickly green hand on each book made me think it or the girl might have touched them on the way in. Maybe to mark them to grab on the way out. Or maybe in case something like this happened. The TPD had not been terribly subtle in checking out the stores when we got here.

Seven of the large books were yanked off the shelf. In the meantime, Takahiro had edged away from Suzuki and me. He was probably trying to flank the perp and provide a broader range of targets. Standard police tactics. Except this was hardly a standard situation. At least for them.

Three of the books shot at him. The other four came at us, though it looked like it was three for Suzuki and only one at me. I had planned to shield us, but Takahiro was far enough out that it would have taken too much energy and weakened the shield.

"Ventas servitas octavius," I called instead. Eight translucent hands formed out of the air. Seven grabbed the books while the eighth float in between us, ready. My spell quickly pushed the projectiles to the floor, neatly forming two stacks of the books. Then two hand held each set down, while the other three also took up sentinel. Adding them to the pentagram was taxing my focus a little, though I still had mana to spare. I could feel the ghost pulling at the books, and wonder if that was the only play it had.

"Suzuki?" I prompted.

"Yes," he said in a very official voice, "Dresden Harry, I deputize you under the Spiritual Defense Act, and authorize you to exorcise this hostile, criminal, supernatural entity."

"Huh?" Takahiro grunted, looking at us in surprise.

"Great," I grunted, "Then you two need to get out."

"Why would we leave?" the younger detective exclaimed dubiously.

"Because you are a liability," I said simply, "I can't hold the pentagram, and perform the exorcism, and protect your two. It's gonna be tough enough just shielding myself."

Suzuki nodded, but his kohai didn't look convinced.

"Besides that, I'm not sure you two can handle watching this," I continued.

"Why not?" this time Suzuki asked, but he sounded curious, not accusing.

"I'm not sure what a Shinto exorcism looks like," I told him.

"Not yet, at least," Lash whispered smugly from the back of my mind.

"But when I do it, it's not pretty," I ignored her, "Imagine the most scary, disturbing, disgusting horror film you've ever seen. That's a children's book compared to what you might see here. After all, the movie industry doesn't want to drive its customers insane, or have them puking all over the theater. Ghosts have no such compulsion. I don't need the distraction of you screaming when your mind snaps."

"And if you vomit all over the store," I added after a moment, "I'm not cleaning it up.

Takahiro still didn't look convinced. So I took the ghost dust out of my gym bag, and handed the portable locker to Suzuki.

"You can search me afterwards, and do an inventory of the store again," I told him, starting to lose my patience, "But if you're not going to let me do my job, then tell me, so I can stop wasting my time and energy."

The ghost regarded me nervously, and started banging on the seal again.

"Takahiro," Suzuki said reproachfully. The younger man scowled deeper, but turned and left. Suzuki bobbed his head again, and then followed. Once I was alone, I put up a veil so they couldn't see inside.

"Another Jedi truth?" Lash teased.

"You know as well as I do, that was all true. I just didn't tell them the third…"

"Main," she interjected.

"… reason."

I walked around the pentagram's edge, and once it was between me and the ghost's missiles, I let my wind spell lapse. I wanted to get a look at her face. Her expression might tell me if she was a victim or accomplice. If she was unconscious, definitely victim. Scared, probably victim. Angry angry could go either way, while annoyed angry meant she was probably in on it. Before I could see her face, I noticed a Pre-Cure doujinshi on the floor under her; had she been stealing it, reading it, or had she just knocked it down when she stumbled. The look on her face was one of resignation, which was also inconclusive. Maybe she was a part of this, and had accepted her fate. Or she could be just a normal teenager who did not trust adults or authority figures, and expected to get in trouble either way. So I bit then bullet and opened my Sight.

She was surrounded by two groups of other teenage girls. Two in Pre-Cure cosplay wielding PS Vitas, and three other wearing normal clothing and wielding fashion magazines. She was torn between two groups of friends, one side interested in geeky pursuits, the other side more mainstream. There was also spectral marks on her, indicating this was not the first time she had been possessed, though the last time had been a while ago, a couple of weeks or more. There was also something of interest in her jacket, or at least there had been at some point in the recent past. With more suspicions but no answers, I turned my Third eye to the ghost.

Since it was a spiritual being, my Sight was more telling. He had been a thief in Akiba, before he died. He had been caught but escaped conviction. The arresting officer had not taken it well. He shot the thief in the back with a shotgun, and then dumped him for dead. But the thief had clung to life, at least until after the animals had started eating his left side.

And his hooks were pretty deep into the girl. I could get rid of him, but it would be messy, particularly for the girl. So I took out my phone, scrolled down to the tenth number on my favorites list. I hit call.

"Hello," I said when she picked up, "Yeah, it is what I thought… No, it's got a good hold on the host, I don't think it is the first time she's been possessed, maybe by this same guy…. Okay… Got it… Thanks."

I hung up, and took a folded up sheet of paper out of one of my duster's voluminous pockets. I smoothed it out, and set it on the floor in one of the more open areas of the store. I focused on the magic circle on the page.

"I wish to exorcise this ghost without harming the girl," I said, sending a bit of my will into it.

The circle flared to life, and spread out until it was almost three fight wide. A familiar figure emerged, spear tip first.

I hadn't seen Tsubaki out of Kuoh's various uniforms that often. Maybe a half-dozen times we had met up on weekends or late enough after school that she was in street clothes. Now she was in full Shinto shrine maiden regalia; white top and red pants. And her naginata was in hand. She got the girl and the ghost's attention, though I wasn't sure if it was because of her arrival, or the large bladed weapon she was carrying.

The exorcist studied the situation, quickly and professionally. She scanned my pentagram, and considered the trapped pair.

"Your seal is excellent," she compliment me absently, as she looked at the ghost.

"It is good enough, considering what I had to work with," I shrugged.

"I would not have been able to teleport in," she told me, "Had you not used my flyer to summon me. And I do not think I will be able to leave until you drop it."

"Thanks Tsubaki," I told her, "But it is taking a big chunk of my energy and focus to keep it up. And even if I didn't have to maintain it, exorcisms aren't exactly my thing. I can do it, but probably not without giving her some significant psychological scarring."

"You were wise to contact me," she said, "And thank you for warning me in advance that you might need my help."

"No problem," I shrugged. Then I thought of something, "So what is this little wish going to cost me?"

I was mostly teasing, but she was still a Devil, doing Devils' Work.

"Nothing substantial," she dismissed it, "I am still an exorcist of the Shinra Clan at heart."

Then she gave me a slightly shy grin, "There is just a small matter with a certain Knight, that I would like you to help me with…"

I suddenly felt bad for Kiba. But it was cheap for her help with this. And better him than me.

"I'll keep up the pentagram, and protect us from any counter attacks," I told her, "you just focus on minimizing the feedback to the girl."

"Of course," she nodded, "Thank you for your help with this. It will be easier if I do not have to defend myself."

She held the spear in front of herself, like a more traditional miko would have held their paper wand thing…

"It is called a gohei, Harry," Lash pointed out, manifesting on the other side of the pentagram, and looking around carefully. I cast my previous spell again, already pinning the missiles and extra hands at the ready.

The books began to strain against my magical hands. Tsubaki started chanting in a mixture of ancient Japanese and ancient Sanskrit. Though Lash's power translated the literal words, the basic meaning waffled between simple commands to leave, and random seeming sets of unconnected words. The shelf the collectible projectiles had originally been on began to shake, and three of my unoccupied ventas servitas flew over to hold it down.

The girl and the ghost screamed in unison. The spirit's legs disconnected from her. She seemed to slump. I rapped my staff hard against the floor, in front of her face but just outside the pentagram. She might have been able to leave the seal now, and I didn't want her getting any bright ideas.

The ghost started to grow fainter for a few moments. Then it seemed to solidify again. And expand. The thing was blowing up like a balloon, and pushing hard on the walls of my pentagram. I wasn't sure if it was expected or not. Suddenly, Tsubaki shouted one last stanza, and stabbed out with her naginata. It passed through my seal, into the ghost. Which exploded. At first it looked like it had turned into a mass of confetti. Until I heard the tinging of metal striking the tile. I caught one of the pieces of paper, with my gloved left hand to be safe. It was 10,000 yen note. I dropped it, and looked at the other fluttering bills and piled coins.

"Okay, how the hell did I end up in the Scott Pilgrim movie?" I demanded of no-one. Tsubaki chuckled and stepped up beside me.

"Dresden-kun, that is…"

"I know what it is," I told her. Then added, "That was faster than I expected. And cleaner, sans the rain of cash."

"The ghost was not especially powerful," she said, "And it was easier with the duties divided."

Then she turned her back to the girl and said softly, "Dresden-kun, her left jacket pocket…"

"Yeah, I caught that, too," I nodded, "I'm waiting for the cops. You know, fingerprints, chain of evidence, all that."

"Of course," she seemed impressed by my reasoning. Then she gave me a twisted smile very reminiscent of her King.

"If I can return home, then?" she prompted. I released the pentagram, and she relaxed a little. I wonder if it had made her uncomfortable.

"Now, you have a busy day tomorrow, or rather later today," she reminded me, "so don't stay out too late with your police friends."

Before I could rebut, her teleportation circle flashed, and the Sitri Queen was gone.

"At least she's more profession than Mort," I noted, and then dropped my veil. I waved to get Suzuki's attention, and a few moments later, he and Takahiro rejoined us.

"What's all this, then?" the younger cop declared in amazement.

"Unless I miss my guess," I explained, "It's the cash from the previous robberies. I'm guessing you'll be able to match the serial numbers to the ones your accountants recorded before the last two crimes."

"How is it here?" Suzuki asked evenly.

"The ghost absorbed it," I told them, "It was using the money to help it stay in this world, both in terms of being solid matter, and because it was a link to the crimes. It also might have been able to draw psychic power from the emotions left behind when the money was handled. The ghost is gone, but the money stayed. After all, you can't take it with you."

"And what about the other stolen items?" Takahiro demanded, "The statues, computer parts, fabric, books, all of that?"

"Probably at her house, or her accomplices'," I said. And for the first time the girl reacted.

"Huh?" Takahiro grunted.

"You think she is involved," Suzuki said.

"Yeah, this wasn't the first time she was possessed. Got gloves and an evidence bag?"

He nodded, preparing both.

"Check her left jacket pocket," I told him. She twitched over onto her side, but did not resist when Suzuki searched her. He brought out a small, flat rock. There was a mandala etched on each side.

"It's a binding stone," I offered at their confusion, "Helps establish the possession, but protects her from being totally controlled. My guess is she and her two otaku friends hatched this scheme to get the toys they couldn't afford."

She looked surprised and asked, "How did you know?"

"Magic. Duh"

After Suzuki finished arresting the girl and taking my statement, I let him know if he had any more questions he could call me Monday, after school. Then I bugged out.

It was nearly three by the time I got home. Despite that, the living room light was still blazing through my front window. I opened the door, ready to thoroughly tease or scold the both of them. Depending on what I found. Instead I quietly closed my mouth, and then the door, at the adorable sight.

The main menu for Jedi was still looping on the TV, but Ise and Asia were obliviously asleep. He was upright, while she had her head on his lap. His right arm was draped casually and affectionately over her left shoulder and side.

And both were still fully clothed. Thankfully.

On the other couch, Mister was sprawled regally. He opened one eye at my intrusion. To let me know that he knew I was back. Then closed it again and lowered his head again.

I considered waking them. But I decided against it. Mostly because they were too cute. But also because getting them up and making them leave would delay my own journey to dreamland. So instead I took a picture, turned off the TV and PS3. I took one of the blankets out of the coffee table, and gently draped it over her. Then I turned off the light and went to bed.

Like Tsubaki reminded me, I had another meeting in only a few hours.

Next: Beyond the Outer Gates Lies...a Date and a Half?