Still-Life, With Pumpkins
"...Said that only made it worse, because she had to leave with his precious prize-winning Atlantic Giant's seeds before he would so much as sit up and pay attention to her. And then the ojiisan said no, that wasn't true, how could she think that after all that they'd—" A chime tinkled at the entrance of the Honky Tonk, interrupting Ginji's recitative. "Ah, Ban-chan, is that the last one?"
"What's 'ah' supposed to mean?" Ban said sourly, coming through the door with a pumpkin under his arm. "If there were another batch you'd be bringing it in."
"So did the ojiisan and the obaasan make up in the end?" asked Natsumi.
"Oh, they did," Ban said. "Believe me, they did, and we had to sit through every last damned second of it. Paid well, though, for a pair of old kooks." He set his baggage down on the café counter with a thump, next to the rest of their haul: half a dozen pumpkins of varying size and shape. Paul peered over the edge of his paper and raised an eyebrow.
"In yen." Ban prodded at his glasses airily. "The gourds are a bonus."
"Ban-chan said they're good to eat," Ginji put in hopefully.
"Saa... If you knew how to cook them." Paul rapped his knuckles against the nearest pumpkin. "These things take a lot of cooking."
"You can make stew out of them, right, Master?" Rena said, sticking her head out from the kitchen door. "I'll start the pizza dough, Sempai." Natsumi nodded, setting the coffee grinder to whirling with a practiced motion.
"Or soup. Or muffins, or nut bread, or pie..."
"Pie," Ginji repeated in a dreamy voice.
"Pumpkin pie," Ban said thoughtfully, almost despite himself. "With nutmeg and cinnamon and a spot of whipped cream."
"That does sound good," Rena said, "but wouldn't canned pumpkin be easier?" Paul gave Ban a look.
"Is this some sort of ploy for free food again?"
"We got the damned gourds to start with," Ban said. "I don't care, use them for decoration if you like. It's too late to try to sell them in this weather."
"We could carve Jack-o'-lanterns?" Natsumi suggested. "It's Halloween today."
"We could do both," Rena said. "There're so many of them."
"Jack-o'-lanterns?" asked Ginji.
The day had dawned foggy, which had been unusual in itself. Metropolitan Tokyo was a heat island, enclosed in a shimmering column of warm air that rose hundreds of kilometres into the sky, and since the turn of the millennium little weather but rain touched the ground beneath the shadow of Shinjuku's skyscrapers. But early that morning a shroud of dense white had descended over the highway as Ban and Ginji had been driving back from Saitama, snarling traffic with strategically-placed collisions and slowing even the faithful Bug to a crawl. Thankfully there was no rush hour to exacerbate the situation, it being Sunday; even so they'd only reached Shinjuku around nine in the morning, Ban profusing anathema all the while, and the fog had not let up by then.
It still hadn't let up. Paul kept the Honky Tonk's sign outside the window on, but it showed as little more than a diffuse glow, lettering invisible. A brighter white in the white mist.
"Wow, Natsumi-chan, it looks just like me!"
"Ginji-san's looks like me too! Well, except for the teeth... Wait, I'll get some candles to put in them. Master? Do we still have those little cup candles?"
Ban slouched a little further down on his stool. He stared outside, chewing on the end of an unlit cigarette and trying to ignore the chatter. He was aware that he was in an odd mood. Part of it was lack of sleep, he thought, part of it the end of a job not large enough to be cause for elation – or despair when the accounts were tallied after the fact. A simple retrieval occasioned by a family squabble, that paid just enough to cover food and gasoline for the rest of the week, plus a couple thousand yen to get Paul off his case. And costs. If only every job could be like this one; if only there were many more such jobs, many more of any kind of job.
It left him feeling strangely empty. Not so much that the work was boring; Ban's concentration was impartially professional, but the end of a retrieval gave him a sense of having been cut adrift, almost bereft. His usual solution was to throw himself and Ginji into a renewed flurry of activity – partying or canvassing for the next source of cash – but this job was too mundane to celebrate, and likely no other clients would come in this weather. A pity, that. Sunday was usually good for an interview, except when it wasn't.
Perhaps Hevn would show up. He was almost looking forward to it.
"Ban-chan?" Ginji leant against Ban's shoulder. "Ban-chan, look, we made jack-o'-lanterns. Isn't that cool?"
"What?" Ban turned around and barely contained a double take. Two jack-o'-lanterns sat side by side on the counter directly beside him: one cheerfully smiling from half-moon eyes and a gap-tooth mouth, the other... somewhat flattened, with button-shaped eyes and a spiky zig-zag top. The effect was one of counterintuitive cuteness. He blinked at it, cigarette dangling from his lips.
"They're... very nice," he managed finally.
"They're portraits!" Natsumi said, returning from the kitchen with a bagful of candles and a book of matches. "I did Ginji-san, and Ginji-san did me. See?"
"Don't they look like us, Ban-chan?" Ginji added.
"Very much so," Ban said, because it was indubitable, and Ginji smiled like a light coming on.
"All right! Ban-chan is next!"
"Next? Next for what?"
"My, my, what a lively atmosphere there is today."
Ban whirled, and Ginji froze like a rabbit in headlights. The front door's chime tinkled loudly in the sudden silence.
Akabane closed the door behind him, smiling agreeably at everyone in the café in turn. His gaze lingered on Ginji, who swallowed hard and scooted his stool a few centimeters closer to Ban's. "But then, things are always lively around you two. Isn't that true, Ginji-kun?"
"Urk," said Ginji. Ban's lips curled.
"What the hell do you want, Jackal?"
Akabane's smile didn't flag; if anything, it widened a little. "Nothing from you at the moment, Midou-kun. I'm merely here to meet a client; passing by on a point of business, as it were. I trust you have nothing against that?"
"Not when the customer is paying," Paul said placidly. Akabane touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgment and stepped up to the counter, long black coat swirling around his feet. He settled onto the stool next to Ginji, who squeaked and scooted back desperately until he was glued to Ban's side. Akabane appeared to take no notice, turning to Natsumi instead.
"An espresso allongé, miss. It's quite damp outside."
"Hai, coming up..."
An uncomfortable pause in the conversation ensued. After a minute or so Natsumi slid a cup and saucer in front of Akabane, who picked them up and took a delicate sip.
"Wonderful coffee as usual," he murmurs. "Isn't that so, Ginji-kun?"
"Tell me, by the way, I'm quite interested – did you make these fascinating pumpkin sculptures? Are they for All Hallow's Eve?"
"Ergh," Ginji said, then gulped audibly and tried again. "They're, um, Halloween decorations, Akabane-san. Natsumi-chan calls them jack-o'-lanterns."
"Jack-o'-lanterns?" Akabane turned in his seat, observing the pumpkins more closely. Ginji began to wiggle unobstrusively downward, so as to avoid his line of vision. "I see," he said finally. "Gourd portraiture. What an enchanting custom. Would you mind if I... participated? Just to while away the time."
Ban glared and took a deep breath.
"Please go ahead," Natsumi said bravely, and Ban deflated. He tried turning his scowl on her, but she only smiled at him with determined good cheer.
"Thank you," Akabane said – and it was as if the quality of light in the café itself changed, becoming strangely, dangerously brighter. The highlights reflected in glass and porcelain took on a wavering reddish tinge, as if traces of blood were seeping into moving water.
Akabane had fanned his scalpels out between his fingers.
Ginji's stool clattered to the ground.
Akabane turned, scalpel hand half lifted. "My, my, Ginji-kun," he said, "you should be careful with that. You wouldn't want to hurt yourself." He gestured, and the scalpels rose, circling neatly above his palm with blades centered downward. "Which of these do you feel most appropriate, miss?"
Natsumi pointed at one of the untouched pumpkins at random.
"Hmm," said Akabane. Another gesture, like that of casting a fistful of powder, and the scalpels descended on their chosen victim, humming like aerodynamic silver wasps.
After that it became difficult to make out what was happening.
Ginji picked up his stool and sat back down – on Ban's other side this time. "Eheh," he said sheepishly when Ban turned to shoot him a look. "Akabane-san seems to be really into it, doesn't he?"
They all sat in silence and watched the scalpels at work, because it was hard to pay attention to anything else in the room. There was nothing to be seen but a silver-and-orange blur, though, and a steadily growing heap of pumpkin chips circling the main endeavour. Akabane perched on his stool and nursed his coffee; occasionally he would wave his fingers as if directing the blades here and there, to no particular perceptible effect.
After about four or five minutes Ginji began to twitch, tapping his foot against the stool leg nervously. Ban bopped him over the head, not even turning around, and he subsided.
"Master," Natsumi said suddenly from the window, "there's a big black limousine idling at the curb. No one's getting out of it though." Akabane paused, the scalpels hovering frozen in the air.
"Oh?" he asked. "Is anyone else expecting company?" They shook their heads. "The gentlemen outside would be my clients then. The bill please, miss. I fear I shall have to forego the further pleasure of your company this morning."
"Don't let the door hit you on your way out," Ban growled. Akabane smiled merrily and placed a few coins on the counter beside his saucer. The hovering scalpels disappeared, seemingly somewhere up his sleeve.
"And a happy Halloween to you, Ginji-kun; Midou-kun," he said. Ginji smiled back weakly; Ban merely glowered.
Akabane took a step toward the door, paused, and the sliver of a blade glinted of a sudden between his thumb and forefinger.
The Get Backers tensed.
A tiny chip of pumpkin flesh joined the sizeable pile scattered on the counter.
"There," Akabane said, eyeing the result with satisfaction. Before the others had recovered the door was closing behind him, leaving nothing but stray tendrils of mist to dissipate in the café's warm interior.
Ginji's sigh of relief was audible.
"Well," Paul said to no one in particular, "at least he pays for his coffee."
Ban snorted. "For what it's worth," he said. "That goddamned Jackal—"
Heads turned to the kitchen doorway, in which Rena was standing stock still; Paul reached out, seemingly without looking, and steadied the plate between her hands before the pie could slide off.
"Careful there," he said. Rena gave herself a shake and set her burden down on the counter, eyes still fixed on Akabane's jack-o'-lantern.
"Sorry," she said, "it... surprised me. It's kind of an interesting shape, isn't it? What's it supposed to be?"
They peered at it collectively, Paul over the top of his newspaper. After a moment Ban's eyebrows twitched.
"That's a good question," he said.
"Faces," Paul said thoughtfully. "In a manner of speaking."
"I like the way the inside looks as if it's on the outside," Natsumi ventured. "And the little, um, sucker things. They're kind of cute."
"Do... do you think it's supposed to be a self-portrait too, Ban-chan?" Ginji asked in a slightly strangled voice.
"Would anyone like to try the pie?" Rena asked. "I put cinnamon and nutmeg in it."
The fog thinned gradually, until it lifted entirely by early afternoon. But the sky remained grey and unwelcoming, the clouds so low as to blur the tops of the highest buildings, and no clients came.
Natsumi put aromatic candles in the jack-o'-lanterns and lit them, filling the room with a cozy orange-tinted glow and the smell of warm spice. At first she stuck a candle in Akabane's jack-o'-lantern as well, seemingly not put off by its appearance – but the flame cast eldritch shadows through its jagged 'mouths' that flickered and crawled like mindless living things over the faded movie posters on the walls, and they put it out after a few minutes. By unspoken consensus they moved to the seats in the back of the room to taste-test Rena's pie, and left the jack-o'-lanterns on the counter well to themselves.
The pie was declared a qualified success, unparalleled in taste if somewhat mushy in form; Rena returned to the kitchen with a glint of steely determination in her eye, muttering something about cornstarch.
Around three in the afternoon the door chime tinkled again.
"Irasshaimase," said Paul, lifting his head from his paper. Shido nodded back in greeting – then stopped short, staring at the counter.
"Oi, Shido-han, you're blocking the doorway. What are you looking at?" Emishi poked his head around Shido's shoulder, eyes indistinguishable behind bright plastic sunglasses.
"Well," he said after a moment, "I'll be damned. That baby's the true Halloween spirit right there. I think I'm going to have nightmares tonight."
"You're going to have nightmares?" said Paul. "I've had three people walk past this afternoon, peer in the window, and run away in the opposite direction. At this rate I'll be out of business before these two layabouts can finish what they've started."
"I resent that," said Ban.
"You resent that?"
"That's a nice costume, Emishi-san!" Natsumi said.
"Isn't that right! RAAAWWRRR!"
"He insisted on stopping in just to show off that thing."
"Hey hey hey! My costumes bring joy to the hearts of young ladies everywhere!" Emishi lumbered in a circle, rubber tail swinging around and bumping against stools and table legs. "Godzilla versus Mothra – FIGHT! ...Oops. What's this?"
"Our special menu for the day," Natsumi said. Emishi lifted the wooden sandwich board.
"Roasted pumpkin gratin," he read, "pumpkin and sausage stew, pumpkin walnut bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pie with cinnamon glaze, spiced pumpkin cappucino. Huh. A theme; I like that."
"Would you like something, Emishi-san? A muffin, maybe? The muffins are good."
"They sound good, Natsumi-chan."
"I'll get you one! Rena made them, they're really chewy..."
"We have to get going," Shido said. "Now, before it gets too late. Got to see a man about a Christmas cake." Ban's eyebrows lifted.
"It's barely November, monkey trainer."
"None too soon," Shido said ominously. "Madoka's planning a party."
"Two months in advance? What's it going to be, a float in the Santa Claus parade?"
"A Christmas party!" Ginji said. Shido smiled, briefly.
"You're invited, Ginji. Oi, Emishi. Come back later on your own time."
"Yeah, yeah, all right..."
"Here, Emishi-san! Take one, my treat!"
"Why, thank you, Natsumi-chan! Truly, 'muffin' on earth compares to your kindness! Ahaha! Get it? 'Muffin'!"
The chime tinkled. There was a brief silence, broken only by the gurgle of the old-fashioned coffee machine.
"Did he just imply that I wasn't invited?" said Ban. "The bastard."
"Of course not, Ban-chan! Shido meant both of us. Right, Natsumi-chan?"
"Not that I want to go anyway," Ban added belatedly. Ginji sighed.
At seven on the dot Natsumi tossed her apron on the peg.
"I'm off!" she said. "Rena, have you got your stuff?"
"Are you going trick-or-treating, Natsumi-chan?" Ginji asked. He'd learnt all the vocabulary over the course of the afternoon.
"Well, sort of," said Natsumi. "A sempai from school invited a whole bunch of us. We're going to meet up and change at her place, and then we'll hand out candies and have a costume party. She says there're kids every year, from the apartment buildings along the block."
"Have fun," Paul said. "Take care."
"Hai!" The door closed.
"Feeding sugar to ungrateful little brats," Ban said. Ginji squeaked.
"Ban-chan, don't move! I can't see if you move."
"Ch'! What the hell do you need me to sit here for? You know what I look like."
"It's not the same," Ginji said seriously, and applied himself to the last jack-o'-lantern. Ban sighed and leant back in his seat, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes. He glanced at the jack-o'-lanterns on the counter: the candles in them had already been changed once, and one of them had burnt out again. The café window was a square of darkness and blurry reflections, outside world invisible.
It was hardly unexpected, he supposed, that the end of the day should provide him with a sense of futility; considering that he'd spent the entirety of said day sitting in the Honky Tonk and going nowhere. Life at a standstill, with pumpkins.
Better than running, though. He'd given that up, and figured he wouldn't ever miss it.
The door chime tinkled.
"Forgot something?" Paul said, then looked up from his paper and paused. "Ah, sorry. Welcome. What can I do for you?"
"I'm just here for the maps we talked about last time, Paul-san," Himiko said, dropping the furred hood of her mantle. "I—" She made a muffled sound of surprise, hand flying up to her lips.
"I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "That thing, it... what is it?"
"Bad for business is what it is," Paul said mournfully. "I've got what you want, just give me a sec."
"Lovely costume, by the way," Paul said, and disappeared in back. Ginji gazed, eyes childishly wide.
"Is that really a Halloween costume, Himiko-chan? Are you supposed to be a princess?"
Himiko smiled – involuntarily, a little uncertainly – and adjusted the fall of her antique rose silk pannier skirt. "Not really," she said. "I'm on a job and they said it was going to be a... What do you think you're looking at?"
"Nothing much to start off with," Ban said, grinning. "They do wonders, don't they? Those Louis-the-fifteenth corset-and-bodice numbers."
"They're practically at your chin, Himiko. Must be worth your while having to go through doors sideways."
Himiko glared at him. "This is for work purposes."
"Suuure it is. What kind of work?"
"Ahem," Paul interjected discreetly, poking his head out from the back room. Himiko sniffed and followed him without another word.
"Well," Ban said, "that was fun." Ginji wrinkled his nose at him disapprovingly.
"Don't be mean, Ban-chan. Himiko-chan looks really nice in that dress."
"Yeah, well," Ban said, "no use in letting her get a swelled head about it, is there? Oi, Clayman!"
"Evening, you two," Clayman said, letting the door swing shut behind her. She was dressed all in pale silvery-green: frock coat and stockings and buckled heels, a froth of lace at her wrists. Even the feathers falling over the brim of her felt hat were white and green. Ban peered at her over the top of his glasses, cigarette halfway to his lips.
"Let me guess," he said. "Work?"
"The Valendian ambassador's annual Halloween costume ball," Clayman said, smiling. "So, yes, in a manner of speaking. The business side of art is all networking, and hobnobbing with European contacts is – goodness. What is that? It's magnificent." Ban's mouth fell open.
"It's a jack-o'-lantern," Ginji said. "Um. We think, anyway. Akabane-san sort of dropped by and made it."
"Really? It's supposed to be a jack-o'-lantern?"
Clayman removed one silken glove and ran her finger over the sculpture's unpleasantly squamous surface. The Get Backers shuddered involuntarily.
"Why," she said, "it is made of pumpkin. What a cleverly macabre subversion of the folk-art ethos; you'd think it was intended as commentary on a constructed universe, a daily artifact not so much described as extrapolated into existence."
"Trick-or-treat time in Innsmouth," Ban muttered.
"Precisely Lovecraftian, isn't it? Faux-naif rarely attains significance as more than kitsch, let alone this level of artistry." Clayman bent, peering through one of the 'mouths'. "Not to mention the technical virtuosity involved in crafting the illusion of the gourd being turned inside out. You wouldn't happen to consider selling, would you? I could have it varnished."
Ban flicked the top off his lighter. "So you could display it in your gallery marked up to an obscene sum?" he asked around his cigarette.
"I was thinking of a private collector."
"Five thousand yen," Ban said. "Pretend I said ten and we haggled; just get it the hell out of here."
Himiko emerged from the back room, Paul in tow, as Clayman was placing the jack-o'-lantern in a shopping bag lined with waxed baking sheets. "You're taking it?" she exclaimed involuntarily.
"Thank Buddha for small mercies," said Paul.
"True works of art are always disturbing," Clayman said serenely. "But I think we'll leave it in the trunk. Have you everything you need, Lady Poison?"
"All here," Himiko said, flashing a zip disk before making it disappear into her be-ribboned bodice. Ban's eyebrows climbed within hailing distance of his hairline. "See you later, Ban. Have a happy Halloween."
The door swung closed behind them. There was a moment of silence before Paul coughed significantly and held out a hand. Ban scowled at him with bad grace and dropped a few bills into his palm.
"I wish we could go to a costume party too," Ginji said wistfully, chin on tabletop. Ban snorted and stubbed his cigarette out in the nearest ashtray.
"No you don't," he said. "They're only attending for business anyway, and unusual business at that. We're well out of it."
Ban stepped up to the counter, reached over and pulled out Paul's morning paper. "There," he said, folding the Arts and Literature section to a short article on an inner page. "Look at that."
"Valendian Museum Protests Auction: Demands Manuscripts' Return. Controversial 'grimoires' acquired by private Japanese collector," Ginji read carefully. He looked up at Ban. "Ban-chan? I don't get it."
Ban whapped him over the head.
"Never mind. Just trust me, okay?"
"All right." Ginji frowned. "But what about Himiko-chan and Clayman-san?"
"They're professionals, same as you," Paul said unexpectedly in answer. "They know what they choose to get into." It was Ban's gaze he met, though, and after a moment Ban shrugged.
"Saa na... Ginji, are you done with that already?"
"Yup! Wait, I'll put it with all the others..."
They contemplated the final line-up of jack-o'-lanterns in silence.
"I dunno," Ban said finally. "It's..." He tried to find a way of articulating what he thought without making it come out stupid. "I'm not that... that..."
Ban sighed. "It looks exactly like me, Ginji. Happy?"
"These things depend on the eye of the beholder," Paul said with impeccable blandness. Ban glared at him.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know. What did you think I meant?"
The door chime tinkled, and they turned.
"Hello, Gin-chan," Hevn said somewhat breathlessly. "Thank goodness you're back, I didn't think I'd be able to catch you two." Crisis seemingly averted, she sighed deeply – the effect was stupor-inducing – and smoothed at her spangled blue velvet gown. A matching pointy hat was tucked under her arm. "Can we talk in the taxi? It's a bit of a rush, but I have a job for you."
That was more like it, Ban thought, and had to fight not to grin. He turned it into a leer instead. "Sure you're not going to be straddling a broomstick instead?"
"Spare me," Hevn said, rolling her eyes. "Do you want it or not? It'd be dangerous—"
"—But the pay is amazing."
"We'll listen," Ban said. "Meter's running, isn't it? Let's go, Ginji."
The chime tinkled again, and then it was quiet.
— Montreal, October 2003