We may never learn the precise reason for Spock-kun's reappearance in Meifu that night. Maybe, as Watari-san believes, like the dog on the RCA label he heard his master's voice crooning across the planes of space and could not resist the call. As for me, I'd rather subscribe to the theory that that night's conditions — being an almost mirror image to the night he disappeared — happened to be right to persuade him to trigger the TVC-15 and return, simply because some line of code in his programming told him so.
Whatever the case, memory is memory. And that night proved what a powerful force it can be — both manipulative, and manipulatable.
Needless to say, no one was in need of an engram reduction after that night, though some of us could have used one anyway. I never have been able to dine at an establishment that offers karaoke in peace since then. The damage to the engineering department and the surrounding buildings was estimated at more than the Judgment Bureau had funds for; but, with another long period of gradual reconstruction in sight, Tatsumi managed to keep a stiff upper lip. Perhaps a little too stiff.
And so everything returned to a state of relative normalcy — as normal as things can ever be around here. The strange events of that night soon became as fuzzy as a passing dream, and the pieces of our pasts conjured by them returned to their rightful places in our memories. Watari-san was content thereafter to concern himself only with probing worlds that were known to us — which were fraught with enough danger in their own right.
We never made contact with that dark universe ever again.
"Then, everything is taken care of?"
In the dimness of the Earl's dining room, the white gloves that were suspended over the table had an eerie glow. The calmness of their owner's manner — what could be discerned from his voice and what little there was of him to discern in the shadows to begin with — was one of the few things that moved Kira to a sense of unease. It was an irrational unease, and that was what bothered her. Maybe it was his impeccable dress and impeccable hair slick with oil, or the creepy grin he seemed to have on his shadowy face; but, then again, she could have been projecting.
"It is, Hakushaku-sama," she said, keeping her voice cold despite the formality. "Lord Enma has seen to it that Fluffy shall be confined to a more secure location until the date of his appearance in court. The disturbances in the basement of the Castle were deemed to be the doing of an invader who was never actually in it to begin with. Fluffy was merely using the frequencies it emitted for his own purposes."
"Clever little devil," said Hakushaku as he accepted a cup of tea from Watson. "I would be very interested in knowing how he did it. You don't suppose Enma would grant me an interview after all that, do you? Well, all things considered, probably not. —Watson, would you offer Miss Tsukiori a cup of tea for all her troubles this morning?"
"Smashing idea, Hakushaku-sama," the small man warbled, rolling his proportionately sized tea tray over to her end of the table.
Kira could not help an awkward stutter. "Sir, I-I really mustn't—"
"Nonsense. It's the first blush—"
"Hakushaku-sama and I are very proud of the leaves here. Do you know the master grows his own tea on the premises?" Watson echoed, standing on his tiptoes to push a cup and saucer before her on the table, and having a rather rough time of it.
"No, I mean I really must be going," she said though she helped the butler anyway. How could she adequately express her uncertainty about accepting a cup of tea from one of the most fearsome demons she knew of, even if also one of the biggest laughingstocks? "You'll find Tsuzuki-san and the others have managed to bring the real perpetrator and the mess it brought with it under control."
Hakushaku nodded with a hum. "So that's it, then."
Kira hesitated. "Yes, that's all I have to report at this moment. Now if you'll excuse me—"
"There is one more thing, Miss Tsukiori."
She stopped and slowly turned to look over her shoulder. She could feel dread creeping over her like a cold shadow. "Yes?"
"Do yourself a favor and loosen up. I can only imagine the stressful life of an exorcist such as yourself, but do remember you are human. Don't deny yourself things you like or want just because they might make you feel good. You are entitled to some pleasures in life."
She paled. That was the second time this morning she had received such a warning. "Sir," she began, "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
He tilted his face at that, and the candlelight on the table made his crimson eyes sparkle in a way that was strangely familiar. "Don't you?" he said in the deceptively smooth tone of voice. Then he made as if to change the subject. "How was Tsuzuki when you left him, anyway? I care for that young man like he was my own son, though he doesn't always appreciate it, and I do hope he's feeling better."
She started. What was that supposed to mean? Was he insinuating something? Hopefully not what she thought, because that would be utterly ridiculous. She frowned. "How should I know? We can hardly even stand to be in the same room together."
"Hm? Well, perhaps," Hakushaku said curiously. He did not seem to mind that his innocent manner of asking was so transparent. "But what does that have to do with what I asked?"
When Hisoka stepped into the office at eight a.m. that morning, this was the first thing he heard:
"Good morning, Dave. I'm ready for my first lesson."
He looked down, and found himself staring into the computer screen face of a little robot no larger than a sheltie. He was back. Spock-kun . . .
"Yo! Mornin', Bon," Watari said, his countenance as sunny as the sky outside the window. "Isn't this neat? Look how much the little guy's rememberin' already."
"Greetings, program," Spock said in a flat, electronic voice, still staring at Hisoka even as the young man stepped by. Riding on its back, 003 would have rolled her eyes, if she could. Watari was delighted. "You see? He's storin' your face and behavior in his memory bank already. He'll continue t' add ont' that information until he knows exactly how t' deal with you — which is more than I can say for some of the characters around here."
As though on cue, Tatsumi approached and woodenly raised a hand in greeting. "Good morning, Kurosaki-kun."
"Um, Watari-san . . ." Tatsumi set himself down on the edge of a nearby desk with as much care as the lunar landing, the ominous presence of the legal pad in his hand telling all. "I've been calculating the extent of the damage received by the Judgment Bureau's property last night, and I think it's time you and I start discussing ways of paying it off."
"Not now, Tatsumi," Watari said, trying to ignore the subject by turning his attention back to Spock. "Isn't there a more appropriate time, like durin' a meetin' or something?" He waved his hand with the screwdriver in it around to illustrate his busy state.
But Tatsumi went on as though uninterrupted. The two had this sort of thing down to a science. "There are some simple measures we can all take to trim our individual shares of the budget. For one, stop spending them on extravagances like new computer equipment when what you have, though maybe not the latest technology on the market, works perfectly well." He pointed his pen at the robot as illustration numero uno.
That got the scientist's attention. "I didn't spend a dime. These are parts I found, you know, just here and there. I mighta had t' hack up some equipment that was just gatherin' dust, nothing much, just one of the library's extra monitors . . ." he said under his breath, watching the secretary warily.
Now taking a good look at the robot, Hisoka noticed several updates to its design. It looked sleeker than before, the exterior technology more streamlined, yet still unabashedly 1979. "You did all this in four hours?"
"Yep." Watari nodded. "Spock-kun here's a whole new man. I updated his motherboard, increased his memory by, like, a billion, but that's a cakewalk with the kind of super-compression microchip technology they got out these days. Got him goin' wireless with infrared; no more messy cables. And I installed a high-definition monitor inside the old Commodore Personal Electronic Transactor classic white, trapezoidal chassis for sort of a retro feel; but really he wouldn't be Spock-kun without it. It was a little difficult findin' a screen the right size, but, well . . . let's just say I'm used t' workin' overtime. You know, they really don't make computers like they used t'. Back then, it was all about the pizazz."
Pizazz? Who talked like that anymore? "Well, it's nice," Hisoka said awkwardly. If a little creepy, the way it watched Hisoka with its unblinking camera lenses. As long as it didn't try to smell him up. . . .
That was when Watari noticed he was wearing the same clothes as last night. "Hey, Bon, I see you've got some nasty grass stains there. May I interest you in Professor Watari's super-new, super-strong stain removal formula?" He produced the spray bottle seemingly from nowhere and shook it. "Now formulated t' treat even the toughest dark matter, and yet gentle enough for repeated usage."
Hisoka sighed. "Whatever. Hit me," he said, and spread his arms while Watari sprayed his clothing liberally with the stuff.
"You know," Tatsumi said, "you could always apply for a patent on your AI technology. With the demand today, that would pay for the renovations to the engineering department and surrounding structure work in no time." He adjusted his glasses. "Or this tonic here. If indeed it works as well as you say it does."
"And more so, my dear Tatsumi. But let the livin' world piggyback off my years of hard labor? I think not." Finishing with Hisoka, Watari straightened up with a sigh. "They'll figure these things out for themselves in another hundred years. Until then, I'm happy just sittin' back and watchin' them try.
"Besides," he added, raising an index finger philosophically into the air, "you might not realize this, but I'm a changed man. A less meddlesome man. This whole mess with the TVC-one-five has taught me a lesson."
"With great genius comes great responsibility?"
"Close. You piss in God's eye one too many times and he just might blink . . . or something like that."
The door opened again, and the three turned to see Chief Konoe lumbering slowly into the room, looking oddly tanuki-esque with big black circles under his eyes. Spock went to approach him with his new greeting, but Watari quickly chased after it as though after a babbling child. The chief mumbled something that they thought might have been a derivative of good morning, and they smiled feebly back. "Heya, Chief," Watari said ironically. "Rough night?"
Konoe simply stared at them. His gaze slowly traveled down to the robot studying his leg. "Do I even want to know?"
"Nothin', sir. Just an old . . . invention."
He grimaced. "Why does Kurosaki-kun smell like he's been hitting the rye?"
"Oh, that? It's an experimental stain killer. Still got a few inconvenient side effects t' work out at this stage of development," Watari said. He and Hisoka added at the same time, "The smell means it's working."
"Just don't get too close to me," the chief grumbled to Hisoka as he moved past them, trailing off. "I'm gonna go get some coffee. . . ."
When he was out of earshot, Tatsumi let out his breath and looked down at his hands. "I haven't told him," he said under his breath. He got to his feet. "I've been putting it off as long as I can. I just hope he's shaken off this hangover before the you-know-what hits the fan." He sighed. "Someone's going to get fired over this."
Watari stared at him over the rim of his glasses, and Tatsumi frowned back. "Well, it is not going to be me."
Leaving them to their discussion of financial troubles, Hisoka made his way back to his desk, where he found the suit he had borrowed for 003 the night before folded neatly and set on the corner. There was nothing left to do but return it now; and embarrassing as that might be, trying to explain to Wakaba why he had her clothes — or, rather, trying not to explain — he was ready to bite the bullet.
He found Wakaba sitting with her partner at their shared desk, kibitzing about the previous night's events. One of these days, he would have to get the story of what happened down there from them, and use it to verify whatever account Tsuzuki gave him. For now, he remarked, "You two are in early."
They looked up, Wakaba smiling brightly, Terazuma trying unsuccessfully to smooth down his hair on one side, a finger of his other hand hooked around the handle of a coffee mug as though super glued to it. "Couldn't sleep?" Hisoka asked.
"I can sleep when I'm dead," Terazuma slurred ironically. "Thought I might as well finish my report while the whole thing is still fresh in my mind. Not that it matters. It isn't rocket surgery."
"That's science," Wakaba tried.
"Look, it's either brain surgery, or rocket . . . You know what? Never mind."
Her partner looked over. "Why? What did I say?"
She ignored him and turned to Hisoka, noticing the bundle in his arms. "Is that my suit?"
Hisoka handed it over. "Yeah," he said. "I hope you don't mind, but I borrowed it while you were out—"
"And you didn't tell us?"
He started to hear those two familiar voices, shattering the relative calm of the office in those still morning hours as effectively as though two crows had just entered the room. There was a crash in the chief's direction as he dropped the mug he had been holding in mid-pour at the noise and the certain doom it heralded, and then howled as steaming hot coffee splashed all over.
Hisoka's heart was suddenly racing with a dread he had not experienced for almost exactly twelve hours.
The names synonymous with eternal humiliation sprang off his tongue. "Saya. . . . Yuma!"
"Good morning!" said the former with an animated grin, completely oblivious to anything that had happened since their parting the evening before. "It is a beautiful morning, isn't it?"
"Who let you guys in?" said Terazuma, spinning in his seat.
"Don't be such a grump, Hajime," said Yuma, her mood not dampened by his sarcasm one whit. "We brought our badges this time. See?"
He glared right over the tops of them. "I'll have to have a few words with security over that," he grumbled. "And who said you could call me Hajime?"
Wakaba forced a laugh and scooted her chair away.
Remembering the issue at hand, Yuma slapped her palms down on his part of the desk and leaned over to stare down Hisoka. "Of course, I would have been here sooner if I knew I would see Hisoka in a young lady's business suit."
Hisoka jumped back a step. "No . . . wait! You've got it all wrong!"
"Can I see it?" Saya unfolded the jacket and held it up.
Wakaba shrugged and watched indifferently. She didn't have a say anyway, so what would be the use.
"Wa-a-a, what a cute cut! I'm so jealous!"
Yuma tried holding it up underneath Hisoka's chin. "Oh, this color is absolutely delicious on Hisoka-kun! Look how it contrasts your eyes. . . ."
"It must have been a true Kodak moment. Do you think this means after all our hard work we finally got through to him?"
"What?" Hisoka backed away from the clothing, feeling oddly violated being re-dressed with their eyes. "No, I wouldn't be caught dead in that! I was just borrowing it for . . ."
He trailed off, remembering. The girls looked at him expectantly.
"For a friend."
"Anyone we know?" said a skeptical Yuma.
Hisoka searched his brain, but he couldn't find an answer. What was he going to say, that he had taken the outfit to clothe a naked girl who was really an owl? He wasn't sure which part they would believe less, the owl part or the naked girl. He had nothing, and they knew it. Might as well let them believe what they wanted. Ignorance, in this case, would be bliss for all.
He sighed and looked down at his feet. "No. No one," he said, and as soon as he did the girls squealed.
"Hisoka-kun, you're not a very good liar, are you?"
"It's really nothing to be ashamed of."
They went on to jabber about how a more colorful palette was so in for young men these days, and how Wakaba's suit was nice and professional and all, but she should really consider getting an outfit from Pink House that matched theirs. Wakaba smiled and tried to politely decline, while Terazuma sat beside her with one eye twitching. It seemed to Hisoka that he hardly moved, as though, like tyrannosaurs on the prowl for man-meat, the two young women wouldn't notice him if he didn't move.
Taking a page from Terazuma's book, Hisoka slowly moved away. He dove for the safety of his own desk, pulling out the biggest book he could find and propping it open in front of his face.
He was a little ways through the beginning of his own report — and sidetracked wondering how much it would be wise not to include — when someone else came through the door. He only knew because right away Spock started up with his new litany of, "Good morning, Dave. . . ."
"My name's not Dave. The accident must have screwed up your information," Tsuzuki was saying back to it. "Watari, who's Dave and why did you teach him to call me that?"
"It's just a line from a movie, Tsuzuki," came Watari's self-conscious reply.
Tsuzuki left the scientist and his toys, bypassed Terazuma and Wakaba's desk with the two young women debating the new surge in the popularity of plaid around it, and flopped down in his usual chair, all with a practiced ease that said he probably could have done it in his sleep. Which, for a moment, Hisoka was concerned he actually might have done. He slowly lowered the book, staring at the uncombed hair on the top of Tsuzuki's head as his face was currently buried between his folded arms.
"How are you feeling, Tsuzuki?" Hisoka ventured.
"Like the living dead, but thanks for asking," came the muffled response. After a moment, Tsuzuki raised his head and met his partner's eyes, looking deep into them for some sort of support as he confessed, "Hisoka, I had the strangest dream."
Hisoka raised an eyebrow.
"You were there." Grasping something in his mind, Tsuzuki pointed at him — then at others around the room in turn. "And Wakaba, and Terazuma, and Watari's robot — but it was a lot bigger and louder and . . ."
He trailed off. And when he turned back to Hisoka, there was a look in his eyes that straddled the line between disbelief and distress. "It was just a dream. . . . Wasn't it, Hisoka?"
Hisoka sighed and patted his partner on the shoulder.
"Yeah, Tsuzuki. It was all just a really bad dream."
That seemed to cheer the man up somewhat. He looked a little less haggard as he nodded to himself and opened the drawer in his desk.
"By the way," Hisoka added, "the chief's gonna need your account of that dream on his desk by the end of the day."
"You've gotta be kidding me—" Tsuzuki's scrounging around in his desk drawer came to an abrupt stop. If it were possible, he looked even more dejected than before as he asked in a small voice, "Hey, Hisoka? Do you know what happened to the box of nougats I had in here? I was saving those."
Hisoka was spared from having to answer, however, for the chief chose that moment to stand by the window with his cup of coffee in hand and look out across the building complex. "What the hell happened to the lab?" he roared, making even Saya and Yuma cringe.
Perhaps with an air of assumed obliviousness this time, the survival instinct of the mad scientist, Watari chose that moment to say, "Hey, check this out."
Tatsumi massaged the bridge of his nose; while Spock-kun lit up in an array of colored LEDs and began to swivel back and forth in a robotic dance as his speakers projected the first few bars of the song that had caused it all, the Zun-Doko Bushi.
And that's why I hate enka.
. . . or is it?
Muraki raised himself to his feet, and right away put his hands to his head as the blood pounded back into his brain. If there was a way to describe how he felt it might have been the feeling of being squeezed out of a pastry bag. One moment he had been enjoying a pleasant midnight tea with his top rival beneath the cherry trees in full bloom, and the next thing he knew was waking up on this dark street. At least everything was still intact, both eyes accounted for.
He took in his surroundings. The street appeared to be that of a suburban residential complex. Monotonous concrete walls surrounded the usual duplexes and townhouses of the middle-class Japanese variety, and electrical lines criss-crossed the air above the narrow street. That was somewhat reassuring. At least he was still in Japan — and on land, for that matter — but where exactly within it he had no idea. Surely there had to be a school in this neighborhood or something that might indicate which city or province he had ended up in.
He caught the flicker of a light behind him and turned. A streetlight struggled to remain lit, then, abruptly died, its bulb imploding.
No extraordinary occurrence; but something beneath it drew his attention. Something that twitched and tried in vain to pull itself along the concrete. Out of the same curiosity that had made him so great at his profession, he approached. Though the thing moved organically, closer inspection revealed it to be a broken bit of machinery trailing cables and little wires; and it was these cables that inched it along, as it emitted a thin and broken sine wave.
Muraki did not have to know what it was to know it was evil. After all, it took one to know one. He stepped on it. Not grinding with unnecessary vigor, simply applying pressure with the heel of his shoe until it quit that horrid sound. Then he released it, and half turned as if to go.
However, what he also knew was that it came from the same place he had. So he bent, picked up the bloodless corpse, and slipped it into the pocket of his long, white coat.
He would remember this night. When he returned to that place the final time, and not of his own will, he would make sure to have this invaluable bargaining chip on his person. This reminder of Juuohcho's past sins. Then one Mr Tatsumi Seiichiro would see that he, Dr Muraki Kazutaka, would not go easily into whatever hell awaited him.
He kept walking through the eerily abandoned streets, until at last he came to the commercial part of town.
Then he was forced to stop despite himself.
Human figures were gathered on the sidewalk in aimless groups like young gangster wannabes out to express their boredom on a muggy summer night, but they were no ordinary young thugs. Their posture was terrible. Their fashion sense even more so; but that was not so unusual. What were were their eyes, which glowed with an unnatural and hungry light as they turned their heads toward the disturbance. One by one they sensed Muraki's presence and began to move toward him, dropping cans from vending machines and spray paint bottles and shoplifted pornographic magazines. They opened their mouths — dry, receding lips and decaying gums parting to show their eternally insatiable gullets — and raised the most horrendous yowl.
As they approached, Muraki smiled to himself and casually removed his cell phone from his pocket, dialing his own home number and putting it to his ear.
"Sakaki?" he said. "Can you hear me?"
That the butler merely answered was an affirmative.
"Listen. You won't believe where I am."
And now the story's over. I want to thank everyone who reviewed or just plain stuck with me for the two years plus I've been working on this. I've really appreciated the feedback and encouragement — and excellent puns, Literary Eagle — and I'm just sorry I didn't complete it in a more timely manner. It's been a fun ride for me, and I hope it has been for you readers. :)
A note on this final chapter: I angsted a lot over including the section in which Kira meets with Hakushaku, because it breaks up the flow, reveals too much obscure information, whathaveyou. (I think I know how Lucas felt about the Anchorhead scene now.) I've included it anyway, mostly cos I heart Watson, but feel free to disregard it if that works better for you.