"Time is up! Please hand in your papers," the teacher answered. Riho Yamazaki set down her pencil and joined the line of other students moving to the front of the room to hand in their answer sheets, falling in before old Mrs. Kawamura and behind Mr. Izumi, a factory worker from the city's industrial district. She hoped that she'd done well; midterms were no laughing matter and she'd nearly exhausted herself cramming. Still, it was finished now, and she could look forward to the first night in a week she hadn't spent curled around books.
The cool night air was refreshing as she left the building and strolled through the parking lot. All around her, the other students were getting into their cars and starting the drive home. Riho didn't have a car, or a license for that matter, so she considered taking the bus versus just walking. It was a nice evening, and she certainly had no fear of the streets at night, very much unlike a few months ago.
Now I can go wherever I like. That's a good thing, isn't it? Sometimes it was hard to find good things about her present state, but she was fiercely determined not to have any regrets.
The shrill sound of weeping combined with the clatter of metal pulled Riho out of her reverie. The parking lot had emptied but for the teacher's car and a small blue Honda that Mrs. Ishida, one of Riho's classmates, was obviously having trouble getting into, rattling her keys against the lock in a futile effort to get one to fit. Her shaking hands made it all but impossible for her, and finally with a scream of frustration she hurled the key ring through the driver's-side window, shattering it.
"Mrs. Ishida!" Riho dashed over to the other woman. She didn't know any of her classmates well, but she could hardly ignore that. "Mrs. Ishida, are you all right? What's wrong?" The other woman was sagging forward against the car, her body wracked by sobs; Riho caught her by the waist so she didn't fall to her knees into the broken glass.
Surprised, the woman turned her tear-stained face to the girl.
"Miss Yamazaki?" she choked out.
"Uh-huh," Riho nodded. "Is there...is there anything I can do?"
"You-you wouldn't understand. You're a kind child, but you wouldn't-you can't help."
"Please? You shouldn't be alone right now. At least let me get you a cup of coffee."
Mrs. Ishida looked at her for a long moment, then gave in. There was a point of despair where anything, any human kindness was enough. Riho had been there herself, after her parents' deaths. She'd been kneeling at their grave marker, the rain pouring down on and around her, when a stranger had offered his umbrella. That one tiny thing had prompted her to fling herself into his arms.
How different would it have been, had I not met you there, Mr. Shido?
Since it was a clear, quiet night and Mrs. Ishida looked like the presence of too many other people would be intolerable for her, Riho bought her a cup of coffee at a convenience store and the two sat on a bench near the school's playground. The older woman drank, letting the wind play at her shoulder-length brown hair, a shade lighter than Riho's.
Riho supposed she expected some outpouring of emotion, a sudden torrent of facts and feelings as Mrs. Ishida explained everything that had caused her sudden breakdown. Instead, she asked questions.
"Riho, then. I've always wondered about this...Why is a girl your age in our class? Shouldn't you be in a normal high school, instead of taking night school courses?"
That was a sticking point. Mrs. Ishida needed answers, maybe to feel closer to Riho, maybe for some other reason, and she needed truth. Riho was a bad liar.
On the other hand, I can't tell her that I'm a vampire, so I can't go to school in the daytime!
But perhaps part of the truth would be enough.
"My parents were killed about a year ago," she began. "I was left on my own, since I don't have any other family."
"Oh! I'm so sorry. I should never-"
"I have a job to support myself now! Mr. Shido's been really great; he took me on as an office assistant even though I didn't have any experience, and now I'm actually able to help out on cases! But I can't go to school any more, not with my new life, so I'm taking courses now so I can qualify for the college entrance examinations. They have part-time tuition at many schools, and even Internet courses! I'm sure I'll be able to get my degree."
Not that it necessarily made any difference for her future; she was hardly going to be applying for a job, entering a career. But she felt like she had to do something, to improve herself with knowledge just as she was trying to improve her understanding and command of her new nature. She couldn't be a burden to Shido forever.
"Riho, please believe that I didn't mean to pry into painful memories. I shouldn't have been so rudely curious."
"But it's all right, really, Mrs. Ishida. You can't escape your life just by not talking about it. The bad things are still there, and so are the good. Besides," she added shyly, "while I've had sorrows, there have been things about what's happened in my life that have made me really happy, too."
"I see. You clearly like your job; what kind of work do you do?"
"Mr. Shido..." Riho couldn't very well say that he hunted the supernatural parasites called night breeds. "Oh!" She fished through her purse and found a small packet of his business cards. "Here you are."
"Tatsuhiko Shido Private Detective Agency," Mrs. Ishida read, then looked wide-eyed up at Riho. "A private detective? Maybe this is fate."
"Fate? Did you need to hire a detective for something, Mrs. Ishida?"
The older woman trembled, an emotional spasm running through her.
"It's my husband, Riho! Every day he seems to become more and more distant, more and more preoccupied with something. I've tried to help, but he just brushes me away! It's like his soul is being eaten alive right before my eyes, and there's nothing I can do alone. I have to know what's happening to him and how I can stop it, before...before...oh, God, I'm afraid this is killing him!"
The dam broke, and she dissolved once more into a frenzy of despairing sobs.
"Don't...don't worry, Mrs. Ishida," Riho stammered out. "Mr. Shido is a great detective. I'm sure he can find out what's troubling Mr. Ishida."
Tatsuhiko Shido was leaning back in his chair, hands folded behind his head and a top hat tipped down over his eyes when he let out a sudden sneeze that made his head jerk and the hat go flying. It hit the top of his antique desk, bounced once, and sent a pile of documents flying out of an open case file. Guni immediately cracked up, the fairy's tiny, green, devil-winged body doing midair somersaults as she laughed.
"Someone must be taking your name in vain, Shido," Yayoi Matsunaga said. The beautiful, dark-haired NOS agent picked up the fallen hat. "Either that or the dust gathered on this thing has finally reached the terminal stages."
"Nah, Riho always insists on keeping his hat clean; she's worse than a wife," Guni quipped. "If there's any dust piling up around here it's on him, 'cause we haven't had a case in a week."
"When you live for centuries like we vampires do," Shido said, "you learn patience. Besides, no work for us means that there haven't been any recent night breed incidents, and I'm not going to complain about that."
"Yeah, but if it keeps up like this, Yayoi's going to resent being a blood bank on legs without getting anything in return."
"That's right, Shido," Yayoi teased, perching on the desk corner and leaning close. "The terms were payment for services received."
"And here I thought the act itself had its own compensations," Shido flirted back.
"Sorry; I've never been an easy mark for cheap thrills."
Shido glanced towards the office kitchen, remembering the numerous times such an exchange had been followed by the clatter of a dropped kettle or tray. When she'd been alive, Riho had had a serious crush on him-in spite of his subconscious mind's best attempts to hide from it-and had reacted towards the sexy Yayoi's flirtations like any teen who fancied herself in love would. Since then she hadn't been so demonstrative, probably due to the stress of adjusting to her new life, or rather unlife. He, in turn, knew that he had to think about what was best for her, regardless of his own feelings.
Nonetheless, it still reminded him that she was away at class. The office seemed darker, more lifeless without Riho in it.
"Still, you're right; breed activity has been down a bit of late. There have been a couple of body-snatching incidents where a breed went and possessed a corpse, but nothing we in the NOS couldn't handle."
"You mean you don't need Shido to solve all your cases for you?"
"Guni," Shido chided.
"Are you trying to pick a fight with me because Riho isn't here to tease?"
"Well, yeah, mostly. But Shido does do an awful lot for you."
"The NOS is a national organization; we solve cases all throughout Japan. Still, here in this city we have access to Sherlock Holmes, so why should I leave things up to that pack of Lestrades back at headquarters? Besides, weren't you the one complaining because you didn't have any work?"
The door burst open and Riho dashed into the room.
"Mr. Shido! I'm back!"
"It's good to see you. How did exams go?"
"They were really hard, so it's a good thing I spent all that extra time cramming. I did much better with my English literature than I thought I would; I've never been good at foreign languages."
"You'll be better now. Vampires have an instinct for communication, picking up languages, customs, and body language."
"Oh, I see. But that's not the big news. Mr. Shido, I found us a job!"
"You did?" Guni asked excitedly. "What kind of breed is it?"
"It's...not a breed."
"Oh?" Now Shido was curious.
"It's for one of my classmates, Mrs. Ishida. She's terribly worried about her husband."
Guni cracked up laughing again.
"Her husband? Oh, this is rich, Shido! The little pipsqueak went and brought you a divorce case!"
"It's not a divorce case!" Riho flared back. "Mrs. Ishida is sincerely worried about her husband! And I don't think anyone under a foot tall should be calling anyone a pipsqueak!"
Shido smiled to himself as he watched their byplay. Riho was really the must un-vampirelike night walker he'd ever imagined. Now, he himself was a different story. He looked like the popular conception of a vampire, with his elegantly handsome face, long nearly-white hair, and even his slightly archaic mode of dress-three-piece suit and string tie. Riho, though-who ever heard of a vampire who looked like a wide-eyed schoolgirl? Who wore her hair in a waist-length foxtail tied back by an oversized blue bow? Even her complexion wasn't as pale as it had been in the first few days, now that she was feeding regularly.
"Please, Mr. Shido? She doesn't know where else to turn." When he didn't respond, Riho quickly told him the entire story of her encounter with Mrs. Ishida after class. He had to admit that it did sound like the woman needed help, and that it didn't appear to be an ordinary marital squabble. Still...
"Riho, this really isn't the type of case that I work on. I run this agency to help protect humans from the night breeds, not to settle their own problems. There are plenty of other detectives in this city, human detectives who are better suited for this kind of work."
"But, Mr. Shido, she doesn't know any other detectives. And think of how hard it was for her to talk about her family problems to me. How can she open up to a complete stranger?" She glanced aside, not meeting his eyes. "And, I said I was sure you could help her," she added in a very small voice.
"Riho, you shouldn't be making promises in Shido's name," Yayoi said. Shido was surprised by his first instinct, which was to leap to Riho's defense, despite the fact that Yayoi was completely correct.
"Still, it's not like we have any other work," Guni pointed out. "At least this is a paying job-she did say she'd pay, right?"
"Mrs. Ishida insisted on it. She even gave me a twenty thousand yen retainer."
"All right! We can't turn her down now!"
"And you were just saying how bored you were about not having any jobs," Yayoi chipped in.
"I don't recall saying anything of the kind."
"It was between the lines, Shido. We women can pick up on these things."
Sounds to me like an excuse for ignoring what a person says, Shido thought. Still, the odds were clearly arrayed against him. Now could he ignore Yayoi's encouragement, Guni's avarice, and Riho's heartfelt pleading all at once.
"All right, Riho; we'll take the case. There's a condition, though: if a night breed incident comes up while we're working on this, that has to take first priority."
"Thank you, Mr. Shido!" She opened her purse. "Here's a snapshot Mrs. Ishida gave me of her husband. She's in it, too, so you can recognize them both. I wrote down their home address, and she also gave me his business card. He's an architect. And here's the retainer she paid." One by one she set each item on the desk.
Shido picked up the photograph, which looked to have been taken at an amusement park boardwalk. Ishida was an ordinary-looking fellow with close-cut dark hair, but both he and his wife were laughing in the shot, which lent them animation.
Maybe Riho was right. There were other reasons why human lives were pulled into the darkness besides the breeds. Keeping these two people's hearts within the light for whatever reason was worth doing.