DISCLAIMER: I own nothing!
To my followers and reviewers, I am soooo sorry. I have been utterly swamped this past month. Between moving house, waiting for an internet connection, working long hours and a new baby in the family, it's been unbelievably hectic so I haven't had time to write anything! This chapter is long overdue but I really hope you enjoy reading it. As always reviews of all kinds are welcome :)
"So any ideas on what we're dealing with here?" said Mai around a yawn. She was mindlessly picking at some brioche Naru had pulled from the cupboard earlier as she stared down on several printed pages of information.
"I'll know more once I finish looking over the data sent over by Madoka," said Naru, not raising his eyes from the page.
"Data? The other team's reports, I take it?"
"Obviously," he grumbled. Mai knew his temperament was due to tiredness so she let him off with a simple glare. She, herself, was feeling particularly lethargic with the gloomy atmosphere of the castle.
"That woman…on the other team. Didn't she die? Mai asked curiously. She remembered Martin mentioning the sudden death when he first told them of the details of the case.
"She did," he sighed, dropping his pen and sitting back to roll his shoulders, "but unfortunately the autopsy was inconclusive. It was reported as another case of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome."
"And that's odd?" she asked, shifting on her chair. She knew she was prying but Naru seemed talkative and such a rare opportunity had never shown itself before.
"Not as a stand-alone case. However, there have been several instances in the surrounding area that require further investigation. From what I can deduce, none of the deceased have anything in common other than their proximity to the castle."
"Oh," she said simply.
"Why the sudden enquiry?" he asked, turning his attention fully onto the girl.
She shrugged nonchalantly, "No real reason. I jus' think it's important somehow."
Naru lifted a cool eyebrow, "Another of your gut instincts?"
The assistant wrinkled her nose in thought, "I don't know for sure. I've been feeling…off…ever since I set foot in this place. Like I've swallowed a lump of lead or something."
"I'll keep it in mind," he acquiesced with a nod. The two of them fell into a comfortable hush after that, flicking through pages and marking certain texts. They were each absorbed in their own thoughts until Mai eventually broke the silence again.
"Monk and Ayako sure are taking their time," she lamented, plonking her head onto an upright hand as she doodled. Naru ignored her as he flipped another page over.
"I wonder if they got lost or something. Or maybe they decided to spend more time together. I hope they become a couple, they're well suited for each other," she pondered with a gentle smile.
Feeling slightly uncomfortable, the ebony-haired man remained quiet as his eyes flicked up to watch her mark the corner of a page with inky squiggles. A brunette strand of her fringe slipped in front of her face masking her glazed eyes and instilling a foreign urge in Naru to simply swipe the offending piece of hair back around her ear. He didn't notice Mai stop in her doodling efforts and glance up at her boss. Only when she cleared her throat nervously, did Naru snap out of his hidden scrutiny with a dry cough of his own
"Mai, those are important files. Do I have to buy you a colouring book to keep you occupied?" he remarked suddenly, catching her off guard and perfectly covering his previous actions.
"Oi!" she chided, "I'm not a frickin' kid."
The room grew silent as she pouted childishly until she turned her head towards him again. She was surprised by the look he was giving her. His eyes were flicking over her facial features, painting her visage with an inquisitive gaze, "I know," he whispered.
Mai stilled, her breath hitching at his gentle tone. Did he just…?
Shocked, the brunette continued to stare, much to Naru's embarrassment.
"Mai, I know I'm handsome, but it's rude to stare," he said levelly, breaking the odd tension. His expression remained blank but his eyes now sparkled with a hidden mirth. Mai blushed, stuttering at having been caught in the act.
"I wa-wasn't staring!" she stammered.
"It sure looked that way to me," a voice snorted from behind. A bedraggled Monk stood tiredly against one of the vast countertops by the door.
"Wow, look at what the cat dragged in," joked Mai, ignoring her smirking boss and embracing the distraction of Monk's impromptu appearance wholeheartedly.
"Watch it, Missy," he warned playfully, "I'll have you know, soaked jeans and muddy skin are all the rage nowadays."
The brunette laughed, lowering her head onto her outstretched arm in a tired slump.
"Did you find anything?" asked Naru, his tone turning cold. Mai peeked an eye up, his expression was still placid but his stare had turned hard. She sighed. Looks like it was back to business as usual.
"Maybe," shrugged the hippie monk, "but that'll have to wait. There's a guy waiting for you in the base room."
The petite woman lifted her head just as Naru furrowed his brow. "A guy?" she asked.
"Yeah, he wants to talk to you, Naru" he yawned, sliding from his position against the marble surface and walking towards the door, "He's the groundskeeper, apparently."
There was a beat of silence until the scrape of stools against kitchen tiles could be heard. Both Mai and Naru walked briskly from the room, following Monk all the way back to base.
"You're the groundskeeper of this castle?" asked Naru in English, his trusty handbook once again open against his lap.
The dark haired man shifted nervously, clutching a flat cap in his hands, "Yes, that's me."
"Oh, um, Paul," he answered. Almost evasively, he turned his back on the assistant to look at Naru by the monitors.
"Perhaps a surname would be helpful," said Naru snidely.
Mai's gut clenched. She recognised him from somewhere but couldn't quiet place his face.
Naru's eyes widened as did Mai's. She knew who he was now, he was Tara's brother. She recalled meeting the young man with his brother when she'd visited Tara's parent's house the day before.
"My colleague informs me that you have something to share," stated Naru, his eyes narrowing. Mai nearly snickered at her boss's demeanour but feeling a slight sympathy for their visitor. Though she was listening to a foreign tongue, for some reason, a picture of a beagle hunting a timid fox entered her mind.
Paul cleared his throat and set his shoulders, "Not really. I only wanted to say that you shouldn't venture into the woods. It's not safe."
"Thank you for the concern," drawled Naru, "but I assure you, it's wholly unwarranted."
"I'm telling you to stay away from the woods," Paul's voice took on a hard edge, startling the group.
"Why?" asked Ayako in perfect English.
Paul turned his green eyes on the red-head, "Things happen…unexplainable things," he gulped, "The woods just aren't safe."
"Well, that was vague," snorted Ayako in Japanese.
Naru shot her a glare before turning to Paul again, "Can you elaborate on these "things"?"
"I-I dunno. Jus' things in general. I've found people in their pyjamas jus' wanderin' around like they're lost. When I bring them back home, the next mornin' they've no memory of even leaving their house!" the man took a breath to calm himself before continuing, "It's just weird. I can feel the danger in the air...so can the animals. It's almost suffocating. If I didn't find your two friends when I did, who knows what could've happened."
Naru was silent, contemplating the man's words.
"Sure it's kinda creepy in there," interrupted Monk, "but it's hardly suffocating."
"Speak for yourself," scoffed Ayako who was stretched out on the chair with her leg wrapped in an icepack.
"Hold on sec," baulked Mai, "You can understand him?"
Monk shrugged, "Mostly."
"But-but, back in the Davis'. You were just as lost as I was!" she argued.
The monk grinned, "Aw, that was all for you Mai. Didn't want ya to feel left out."
The assistant's astonished expression turned to one of insult. "You're an absolute jerk. You know that right?"
"Now, now," scolded Monk with a smirk, "It's not my fault you failed in English class."
"Oh, leave her alone," said Ayako with a roll of her eyes. "Languages just aren't her thing."
"I'm right here ya know…," she huffed with a scowl.
"If you've finished interrupting like a couple of idiots, may I continue?" growled Naru, putting a stop to the argument instantly. With on one last glower at the three wincing team members he turned to a bewildered Paul. "The people you found wandering in the forest, were they the same people that were found dead?"
Paul furrowed a brow, "Now that you mention it, yeah, they were." He swallowed nervously before staring imploringly at Naru, "You think there's connection?"
"I can't say without more evidence," waved Naru nonchalantly before continuing his questioning. To Mai it looked like he was completely oblivious to the groundskeeper's sudden pallid complexion.
"How long have you been groundskeeper?" he asked.
"About three months now," the young man in his twenties replied without pause. Something Naru was quick to notice.
"Your family seem closely tied to the family living in this castle," stated Naru.
"Um, well that's because of me Da," mumbled Paul, "He and Mr. Richards – the man that owns this place – are close friends so my family got first pick with the employment."
"I see," remarked Naru absently as he scratched a pen across the pages of his notebook. Just then Masako returned from yet another walkthrough. She stopped suddenly, lifting a sleeve to her mouth as she surveyed the man.
"Well, if that's everythin'," swallowed Paul taking a step backwards, "I need to get back."
Once the man had gone, the pretty medium drew closer to a seated Naru.
"Be careful of that man," she said stoically. Naru lifted his head in question.
"I sense a presence around him."
"So who was that guy?" asked Mai once everything had settled down again. They were all seated around the various chairs and couches, Lin by his trusty laptop and Naru by the monitors.
"We met him on our way back," explained Monk from beside her, "Ayako screamed like a little girl when we spotted his flashlight."
"I am a girl," barked Ayako as she readjusted her outstretch leg.
"Could've fooled me," smirked Monk.
"Anyway," said Mai loudly before another row could break out, "Did you find anything?"
Mai was surprised when Monk's demeanour changed. His shoulders hunched and a dark look suddenly graced his features.
"Yeah, I found something," he said garnering attention from the whole group – Lin included. "We went to the place Naru told us about. It was a bit of a hike but we got there in the end. There was a stream and a really weird cave."
"Yeah. It was giving off some funky vibes though," shivered Monk.
"Like what?" asked an enraptured Mai. She was leaning forward as Monk's story progressed.
The pony-tailed man swallowed, "They felt…dark. I didn't want to go in but something made me. So I took out my flashlight and searched the cave. I remember finding this really beat up looking sweatshirt."
"A sweatshirt?" asked Masako, intrigued.
Mai also seemed perplexed, "Why would there be a piece of mouldy old clothing in a cave in the middle of nowhere?"
"Why'd you think?" snorted Ayako. When Mai and Monk looked at her blankly she sighed. "Obviously, someone wanted a little privacy with their date. Somewhere secluded where they wouldn't be interrupted."
"Ew," Mai cringed.
"No." Monk shook his head, his brow furrowed. "That's not the impression I got from it. I can't explain it. The sweatshirt was blue, and it was a man's. the odd thing though was that it was charred and burnt like someone was trying to get rid of it."
"Where exactly in the cave was this sweatshirt?" asked Naru.
Monk sucked in a deep breath, "Right at the back."
Feeling the heavy air descend on the room, she quickly stood in an attempt to rid herself of the creepy feeeling. "I'm gonna go check on the cameras then hit the hay."
"Sounds like a plan," nodded Monk, "I think I'll join ya." The two then left the room quickly, clipboards in hand.
Mai exhaled loudly when she felt her tired body sink into the soft mattress. After finishing her roundup of the cameras and once again making her boss his damned tea, she finally trudged her way to her bedroom which she was sharing with the other two females on her team. At the moment though, both Masako and Ayako were still in the base-room. Mai could almost feel herself scowling at the thought of her pretty rival draping herself over Naru but to be honest she was too tired to really care. Thinking about exacting revenge on the medium at a later date, she slowly drifted off into slumber.
Mai's amber eyes snapped open. She was back in the place of blackness, floating white orbs drifting in a non-existent air current.
"We meet again," said a jovial voice causing Mai to spin. There was her friend, soft smile and identical features to his twin.
"What's with the gloomy face?" he asked gently.
Mai sighed. "Nothing. This case is becoming confusing. I could use some info to feed your brother."
"How about I show you something?"
"It's why I'm here, isn't it?" she chuckled mirthlessly.
"Let's go," said Gene wrapping his hand in hers and gently pulling her towards a light that had suddenly appeared.
Mai felt the familiar tug behind her naval as a rush of sounds and colours swarmed her senses. It lasted seconds until Mai felt herself bounce onto something soft. Quickly glancing around, she noticed they were in the back of car.
"I don't care, it's mine," said someone from the front seat. Mai's eyes immediately roved over a woman with blonde curly hair. It was the woman from before. Siobhan.
"For the love of God, Siobhán. If this gets out…," said a man Mai only noticed now. He was behind the wheel of the stationary car. She found it hard to distinguish his features seeing as it was night-time and he was wearing a baseball cap that further hindered her view.
"It won't. I couldn't do that to Paul," said Siobhán sadly.
"You can't guarantee that."
"Then what would ya have me do?" she said angrily.
"I can pay," he said seriously. Mai was completely lost at this conversation and she was becoming slightly frustrated with her inability to see the man's face.
"Pay for what?"
"England," shrugged the man. Mai heard the woman's sharp intake of breath.
"You've got some nerve. How dare you!" she spat, suddenly incensed.
"It's your own feckin' fault for opening your legs to every Tom, Dick and Harry that smiles at ya," scoffed the man harshly. Mai heard a loud smack as Siobhán's hand made contact with his cheek.
"Bring me home," she hissed.
"With pleasure," he growled and turned the key in the ignition. The engine roared to life just as the man pulled on his seatbelt.
"That's all for now," Gene suddenly whispered in Mai's ear.
She barely managed to squeak a reply before she landed back in the large empty expanse of her dreamscape.
"I take it, the banshee is the woman in the car," deduced Mai. Gene nodded with a smile.
"I wonder what they were talking about. Seemed important."
Gene coughed, and checked his imaginary watch, "Time's up."
"Hey, wait a minute," she panicked as Gene began to fade.
"Talk to my brother," he said just before he vanished completely. Mai felt her eyelids drag closed as she was consumed by the blackness once again.
The next morning, Mai awoke with a start. Her blurry eyes focusing on the dusty particles floating in the morning sun. The room itself was utterly silent, informing Mai that she was yet again the last to awaken. With a huff, she sat up and rubbed her weary eyes. For some reason, the heaviness that had plagued her sensitive stomach over the last couple of days had now grown into painful stabbing. The ache itself now seemed lower, almost like period cramps.
"I only had them last week," she grumped at the prospect of dealing with a snotty Naru and the irritability of a monthly cycle coming to an end.
It wasn't long before a touchy Mai entered the base room.
"Glad you could grace us with your presence," teased Monk with a smirk. She mainly glared at him and slouched into the sofa beside Masako.
"What's up?" asked Tara, who she only noticed now sitting in one of the armchairs behind a standing Ayako.
Mai shook her head, ridding herself of her irrational behaviour. "I'm fine," she smiled to the Irish girl, "I had a weird dream, that's all."
A snort, "Yeah, you're just the epitome of fine," tisked Ayako as she glanced at Mai's bedhead and pale face.
"You said you had a dream?" It sounded like a curious question from Naru but Mai knew better. The man's expression practically screamed his demand for her to elaborate.
"Hmm," she said as she scooted into a more comfortable position, "I was in the back of a car with two people sitting in the front. That Siobhán woman was there. She was chatting with an older man in a baseball cap about something."
Naru once again popped out his notebook. Mai was honestly getting sick of looking at the thing. "What did the man look like?" he asked, his stare now boring into her. Ignoring the uncomfortable pain tearing through her lower abdomen, she shrugged, "I dunno. It was night time and he was facing forward."
Masako sniffed in derision but remained silent. "What were they talking about?" asked Monk as he swung on an office chair.
"Well…it's kinda confusing really. She talking about owning something and he was warning her that if it got out then there would be trouble, especially with some Paul guy. Then he suggested paying for England for some strange reason and she ended up slapping him. That's when I woke up."
"You're right, that is weird," sniggered Monk as Ayako rolled her eyes.
"It was a quick dream," she sighed, feeling disappointed. The room lapsed into silence, only the tinkling of tapping keys from a typing Lin echoing in the room.
"I might have a suggestion," piped up Tara from the back of the room. Everyone turned to look at her.
"From what I can gather," she said, clearing her throat nervously at the unwavering attention, "I think he wanted her to have an abortion."
There was a moment of tense quiet before multiple bellows of "WHAT?!" filled the room.
A/N: please read and review. Thanks.