Editing of prior chapters is temporarily on hold as I double-check something about how I'm using honorifics. I was called out on a possible error in how one group of characters refer to another character, and I need dig out my DVDs.
Anyhow, here's a return to the actual mystery plotline! Rest of the author's notes (including much groveling about the long delay) are at the end, where they're easier to skip.
Disclaimer: Characters and concepts from "Sailor Moon" (and a few that were borrowed from "Homicide") are not mine. This story is written for entertainment purposes only, and not for profit.
Sunday, July 8
Jason was knocked back into consciousness with the slamming of cupboard doors. It was a sound he instinctively associated with angry females--mother, sisters, girlfriends. It meant someone was mad at him about something that may or may not have been his fault. It also meant that someone was going to find some way to make him pay.
To his infinite relief, the sound was only annoying, not painful. He didn't think he'd had enough to drink last night to result in a hangover, but he'd felt so wretched by the time he passed out on Seidou's couch that he wouldn't have been surprised if he'd woken up with a splitting headache.
He did wake up with a stiff neck, though, no doubt because he'd used a small needlepoint chicken as a pillow.
All it had taken was two or three stiff drinks, and he'd been able to get out the rest of his story without feeling too much pain. He'd been a little tipsy, but not so much that he couldn't find his way back to Seidou's apartment or that he forgot to get her cigarettes.
Even so, he wasn't sure how much sense Seidou could have made of his ramblings. All he did know was that whenever she wasn't stabbing questions into his monologue, she was watching him through narrowed eyes, no doubt making due note of his transgressions like some malevolent Santa Claus adding names to the 'naughty' list.
Not long after he'd caught the story back up to where he'd woken up in Norfolk, he'd fallen asleep on her couch. God knew what Keisuke and Akiko would think of his absence last night. He hadn't even bothered to let them know he wouldn't be there for dinner, and he didn't think Seidou would have been charitable enough to cover for him in any way that would make him look good.
As he got up, he noted that no one had tenderly covered him with a blanket as he slept. No real surprise there. Seidou may have had about a billion hand-sewn quilts stashed around the place, but he got the distinct impression that she valued even the plainest one of them far more than his miserable, stinking life.
Before braving the beast making noise in the kitchen, he went in search of the toilet and then to the bathroom to wash up. As he feared, he had faint indentations all down the left side of his face from that damned needlepoint chicken. The red spot in his eye hadn't faded any, either. Great. He had no idea how he was going to explain that to Makoto tonight.
When he finally mustered the courage to enter the kitchen, Seidou greeted him with a mug of coffee and a wary look. Jason tried not to notice that the mug was emblazoned with a parade of chubby little geese. He especially tried not to notice that the geese wore cute blue ribbons around their necks.
Of course, Seidou was already showered and dressed. Her brown pantsuit did nice things for her eyes, but otherwise only served to accentuate her almost aggressive plainness. He vaguely wondered why she was dressed for work on a Sunday, but wasn't curious enough to ask.
"You realize that with everything you told me yesterday, this case has become a hell of a lot more complicated," Seidou accused him without any other preamble.
Jason accepted the coffee gratefully and took a seat at the kitchen table. He was tempted to make some crack about her remark being the understatement of the century, but if Seidou was in a halfway decent mood, he didn't want to wreck it.
Seidou poured herself a cup of coffee and joined him at the table. The pack of cigarettes Jason had bought for her sat unopened between them on the table. Seidou reached out and flicked her finger against the corner of the pack, spinning it around a couple of times.
"Keisuke called last night after you passed out. He's got a possible lead on how Renko may have gotten his Japanese citizenship. He had to get my permission to call a couple of bigwigs at home at some ungodly hour. Once he gets his hands on some concrete information, he's going to call me. And, speaking of Keisuke, you and I have to figure out how to tell him about all this--monsters, Senshi, everything. He needs to know what we're up against."
For a moment, Jason could only stare at her. "Are you nuts? You want to tell Keisuke about this? About me?" He struck out desperately for any safe haven. "What makes you think he'll believe you? He'll think you've gone completely 'round the bend."
Seidou grinned devilishly. "No he won't," she said.
Her hand jerked up, dashing the contents of her coffee mug right at his face.
A reflexive mental push deflected the scalding hot coffee away from his face and onto the floor.
The fact that he also ducked and raised his arm as if to protect his face had more to do with his father's coaching than any natural reflex.
"What the hell was that for!" The coffee pooled at his feet.
"Huh. Nice work," Seidou said, nodding in grudging approval. "The flinching was a nice touch. I think once you've treated him to a little demonstration of what you can do, Keisuke will believe that we're up against something a bit out of the ordinary."
Jason's face grew hot with anger. "Look, Seidou-san. Last night was a big exception. I don't go around telling just anyone about--"
"I trust Keisuke," she said sharply. "More to the point, he trusts me. I am not about to betray that trust and let him blunder into a situation like the one we got into yesterday with no idea of what to expect or what to do. So, you'd better get used to the idea that you're going to perform a couple of your party tricks for him, because I'm not giving you a choice in the matter. Meanwhile, we've got to consider the very unwelcome possibility that this case is tied up with the fact that our boy Chiba is the reincarnation of this Endymion person you've been telling me about."
Seidou got up and refilled her mug. She then tossed Jason a couple of rags. He made no move to catch them.
"You were the one who threw the coffee," he pointed out.
Seidou simply glared at him until he picked up the rags and bent over to mop up the remains of the coffee. Just once, he thought, he'd like to stand up to her and remain standing.
Seidou picked up her coffee, and blew on the surface to cool it. "So if Chiba's the reincarnated Prince of Earth..." Her brows drew together and she looked at him over the rim of her mug. "Hold on. If there's a Prince, does that mean that there was also an Emperor?"
"We--they--always referred to him as 'King'," Jason said, supplying the English word that best matched the term his memories wanted to use. 'Emperor' sounded too warlike and somehow, not sacramental enough. Seidou might well have thought the opposite, but they weren't there to debate etymology. "I'm not sure how or when the title would have been passed on to Endymion. I'm not even sure which of them died first--Endymion or his father."
Even though his memories of that time had been returned to him, those last days were so chaotic he wasn't entirely clear about what had happened when. The important thing was that it had happened.
"It's probably not important," Seidou said. "Back to what I was saying: If Chiba's supposed to be the crown prince of the entire planet, do you think that could explain why someone might want him dead? Maybe he was the target all along, and the parents were just collateral damage." She stopped and frowned at him, more curious than concerned. "Hey--you okay?"
Jason didn't think so. His vision had grayed out for a moment, and he clutched the edge of the kitchen table to keep himself upright. All he could do was close his eyes and wait for the chills and dizziness to pass.
"Yeah. Just give me a minute." He took a deep breath. "It's weird... When you mentioned the possibility of him dying, I went all loopy for a second."
"What? Why? Are you that fond of the guy or something?" Seidou asked.
"That's not it. Like I told you, I've only met him a couple of times in this lifetime, and not under the best of circumstances at that." He ignored the churning in his stomach. "Let's just say that the idea of the King or even the Prince dying... It's pretty damned unsettling, that's all."
It was a piss-poor explanation, and he knew it. Still, he didn't know how to get across the gut-deep knowledge that if the Earth's rightful king were to die, truly and permanently die, the entire planet would suffer immensely.
Seidou picked up the pack of cigarettes and toyed with the tab that would rip off the cellophane. She very ostentatiously refrained from pulling on it, however. "Huh. Funny you should say that. The kid actually did die on the way to the hospital--a couple of times, in fact. Fortunately, the paramedics were able to bring him back."
Jason shivered. Hard to believe that... He sat up sharply. "Hold on. This was August, fourteen years ago, right? August sixth?"
He would have been fourteen. It was early morning in Baltimore, which made sense given the estimated time of the accident here in Japan.
"I think I may have felt something when he died," he said, more to himself than to Seidou.
He had been running downstairs when it happened. Mom was making waffles for Missy's birthday breakfast, and he wanted to get to the kitchen before one of his brothers snagged his share. He was only a third of the way down when he was slammed by a shockwave of pain that hit him like a baseball bat upside the head. He didn't remember anything after that, but apparently he'd fallen the rest of the way down the stairs and conked his head but good on the newel post.
He'd taken worse falls than that and walked away from them without a care, but this time, he'd been knocked stone cold unconscious. From what Jake told him later, Mom was checking his pupils when he suddenly went into violent seizures--so violent he wound up thwacking her across the face and giving her a massive nosebleed.
According to Josh, who'd had the common sense to keep well back from the excitement, things just went downhill from there. Missy was huddled in a corner and screaming so hysterically that when the ambulance came, the paramedics at first tried to take her instead of Jason. Then, while prying open the old metal box that held the first aid kit, Emma somehow managed cut her hand badly enough to require stitches, and then she started screaming and flailing around, splashing blood all over the living room, so much so that they were still finding spots in odd places years later. Poor Jake was so freaked out by everything that when he called 911 he started babbling at the operator in Japanese. Meanwhile, James and Jeremy, who were still too young to understand the seriousness of the situation, kept demanding to know when the waffles would be ready.
Then, as if to add the crowning touch, the waffle iron--totally forgotten in the chaos--caught fire.
All in all, Missy's ninth birthday had been a most memorable day, so memorable he'd almost forgotten the wave of pain and anguish that had literally knocked him off his feet.
And, now that he thought about it, it was possible the handful of massive, blinding migraines he'd had after his shooting might not have been related to stress or trauma after all.
"Huh. Interesting," Seidou said. He wasn't sure if she really was interested or not. "So, to go back to my theory, if they were after Chiba himself, and not... Damn!" She tossed the cigarettes back onto the table. "It doesn't work. Whoever engineered the accident took the time to remove the parents' identification and disfigure the bodies, but they left the kid alone. It would have taken less time to kill him or to get him out of there than it did to do all that other fancy messing around with the crime scene. Hell, they even removed the VIN numbers from the car."
"That could have been done when they cut the brake line," Jason reminded her. "Maybe whoever it was who hid their identities ran out of time."
Seidou thought about it, then shook her head. "Good point, but remember that the guy who called in the wreck is also our number one suspect for having caused the wreck in the first place. You think he would have waited to make the call until the job was done."
"Maybe Renko's hand was forced and he had to make the call earlier than planned. It's possible someone had parked at the overlook on the other side and he didn't want to risk them seeing something they shouldn't."
Seidou leaned back in her chair. She picked up the cigarettes and tapped them against the edge of the table. "Two points to Detective Wright. That's a good theory. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense that Renko and his cronies--or bosses, for that matter--lost control of the scene."
"Maybe they didn't want to kill Chiba," Jason suggested. "If they knew he was going to be Earth's king, that would be a pretty powerful motive for wanting him alive."
"When I was growing up, the Catholic chaplain at Yokosuka was a Jesuit--a real hard-ass--and he had this creepy little saying that went something like 'give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.' Think about it for a minute. What if they wanted to be able to raise Chiba to be their loyal stooge? That would give whoever took him access to a whole lot of power."
Instead of praising him for his brilliant conclusion, Seidou looked at him as if he'd just fallen off the short bus. "That's a pretty theory except for the fact that they sent him off a cliff. The odds of him surviving that would have been pretty low. Of course, it could just be they weren't expecting him to be in the car in the first place..." She sighed deeply. "I can't begin to tell you how much I hope I'm wrong about this and that Chiba's parents died because they pissed off someone in the Yakuza or something like that. Then we'd at least stand a chance of putting together a case that might actually make it to trial."
"I hate to break it to you, Seidou-san, but the instant those things attacked us at the nursing home, the chances of this being a normal case went down to about zero."
"Oh, come on, Wonder Boy. Be a sport and let me wallow in denial for just a little while longer, huh?" She drained the rest of her coffee. "Should I make another pot?"
"Please. I generally need about three cups to get going in the morning."
"I already gave you two," she said innocently.
"Yeah, but only one of those was actually in a mug," he shot back.
"Details, details," she sang. "Anyhow, I got the distinct impression you recognized those mud creatures. What were they?"
While Seidou prepared a second pot of coffee, Jason did his best to explain. The concepts were relatively simple, but to get at them, he had to dig deep into the memories that had been shoved into his head after he'd been shot.
"There's a couple of different words that were used for them, depending on who you'd ask," he explained. "My past self would have called them eidola. Basically, they're a sort of evil spirit that you can bind to an object. The marking you saw on their foreheads is the thing that makes the binding stick."
"So you think your old buddy Michel made these things?"
Jason hesitated. "M-maybe."
Seidou raised one eyebrow.
"Okay--the markings on their foreheads looked like his signature, but other than that, they just didn't seem to be his style. For one thing, the creatures that attacked us didn't seem to have any will or intelligence of their own. They acted more like they were operating off some sort of computer program."
While he thought through the next part of the explanation, Jason got up and helped himself to another cup of coffee, pushing the carafe aside so the coffee dripped straight into the cup. A small flick of his gift kept any splatter contained. "Basically, there are three kinds of eidola. With the most common kind of eidolon--that's the singular--the maker binds an intelligent but intangible spirit to an object that already has something in common with that spirit. In other words, you wouldn't try to bind a water spirit to, I don't know, a furnace or something like that. You'd hook it up to, I don't know, a hydrant, a swimming pool, a fountain--you get the idea. The spirit then shapes the object into a body that suits it in some way. That's the kind that Michel's past self used to make. You get a lot of bang for the buck, since the bound spirit's what provides all the energy for the eidolon."
"What's the catch?"
He shrugged. "Lots of power, not so much control. That's where the other kind of eidolon--the kind we saw--comes in. It's harder to make than the other kind from what I understand. For one thing, a body has to be crafted for it, and there are certain rules as to what needs to go into that body to make it work. Blood, mud, shit, clay, minerals, crystals, stuff like that. In other words, there's a physical limit on how strong you can make the things. The other problem is that instead of binding an intelligent spirit to the body, you have to put a bit of your own energy into the thing along with whatever commands you'd want to give it. You get more obedience, but it also takes a lot out of you and you can't give the things very complicated commands, or ones that require them to have to figure stuff out."
Seidou was watching him, cheek resting on one fist, entranced by the explanation. When she had her eyes half-closed the way she did, it paradoxically made her pale hazel eyes appear even lighter, almost golden. He was certain that some poor perp had made the mistake of assuming that half-closed eyes meant half-asleep detective.
The occasional flicker of those hooded eyes suggested that she was getting some commentary from the voices in her head. "Tell me about the third kind," she said, and he wasn't entirely sure the request had originated with Seidou.
He shrugged. "Dunno. All I know was that making the third kind of eidolon was considered to be a bad thing the way that eating babies is generally considered to be a bad thing. Mukhtar--I mean Michel, the guy he used to be, that is--went into this big, dramatic 'Ptui! We do not foul our mouths with talk of such vile things!' routine when my past self asked him for details."
"Ah." She seemed satisfied with his non-answer.
"Anyhow, the other great thing about the kind of eidolon we saw is that if you destroy its binding mark, you also destroy the magic that binds the energy to its physical form, and the whole thing falls to bits. All you need is good aim and a decent amount of force, and there you go. The first kind's a bit trickier to get rid of. You generally need some powerful and specific mojo to break the binding and get rid of whatever's animating the eidolon. Bullets won't work." He shrugged. It felt weird to talk about this stuff as if it was normal. "Unless they're magic bullets, of course."
Seidou moaned and let her head sink forward into her hands. "Spirits? Magic? Telling Keisuke about all this stuff is one thing. But trying to explain it to Harada-san? Hah! I'd rather shoot myself."
She sat back and looked Jason square in the eye. "Forget bringing it to trial. Harada-san officially hates stuff like this. You should have been here when all the craziness was going on at the Infinity Delta or when that freaky circus came to town and we had that big outbreak of totally random violence in Juuban. Oh, and don't even get me started on the whole UFO scare a few years ago!" she said, slicing one hand through the air as if to strike the notion dead. "I thought Harada-san was going to have an aneurysm any time anyone brought it up."
Jason tried to imagine how Gee would have reacted if Baltimore was suddenly invaded by a flock of dragons or something. That thought was then derailed by a weirdly entertaining image of Frank Pembleton dragging a demon into the Box and getting into a wrangle over ethics and theology.
Obviously, he had gotten nowhere enough sleep last night.
"How did you deal with it?" he asked. "Blame it on gang members who were high on PCP?"
"Heh. Cute. He'd like to, I think. Anyhow, whenever it looks like something might be the fault of ghosties and ghoulies, official policy--in the Homicide department at least--is just to ignore it until it goes away. Then, when it does finally go away, we get to bitch about the Sailor Senshi hogging all the glory." Seidou slid her pack of Mild Sevens back and forth across the table. Jason wished she would just light up and get it over with. "There's a handful of Senshi fans on the force, including Superintendent Sakurada--and how that dimwit got to be Superintendent, I'll never know--but most of us don't like dealing with the weird shit if we can avoid it."
His own experience on the force had taught him that most of his fellow detectives got distinctly twitchy whenever the 'woo-woo' factor got too high on a case. He'd nearly screwed himself but good when he used his gift to retrieve a bit of evidence that was about to be blown clear across Charles Street by a gust of wind. He'd been careless, but he still wasn't sure whether it was accidentally or on purpose.
In the end, it didn't matter. Rene Sheppard had gotten a good, long look as the scrap of paper had jinked perpendicular to the wind and landed right in Jason's hand. Rene never said anything, not directly, but not long after, she'd requested a new partner. Everyone assumed it was because they were sleeping together, but that part of their relationship broke off along with their work partnership.
"All weirdness aside, it sounds like Keisuke might have dug up an old fashioned, weirdness-free lead for us to follow." Seidou turned to look at the kitchen clock. "You may want to head back to Keisuke's place and make yourself presentable. I want you along with us in case the lead isn't as weirdness-free as I'm hoping."
"How long do you think this will take?" Jason asked before he realized what he was getting himself into. "I've got a date tonight, and I'd rather not cancel if I can avoid it."
"You're going out with the Kino girl?" Seidou asked with deceptive casualness.
"How did you know that?" he stammered. Just how talkative had he been after those drinks, anyway?
No, just two (okay, three) drinks wouldn't have made him that stupid. He'd just been suckered in by the oldest interrogation trick in the book. "You didn't know, did you? You guessed."
"It wasn't hard," she said, smirking at him. "Unless you hit things off better than I thought with Mishima-kun, Kino-kun is the only girl you've met around here. You two seemed to click when you met in the hall the other day."
"Look, I'm not going to ask how you found out about that little meet-up in the hallway, because I'm pretty sure I don't want to know."
"Okay, I do want to know, but only if it doesn't have anything to do with the thing in your head," he said, circling one hand at his temple. "You're scary enough as it is without being psychic."
Seidou's smirk grew even more pronounced and she looked far too pleased with herself. "Nope, nothing wrong with me besides having an uninvited imaginary guest." She looked up and to the side as he'd seen her do a few times before, then grimaced. "Oh, dear. I think I've hurt its feelings," she said sweetly. "As for how I knew, it's simple. Surveillance tapes."
"I also noticed that you seemed to recognize a couple of her friends. So, do you want to tell me--"
"No." He held up his hands as if to ward off a blow, and prayed that Seidou would cut him a break on just this one little thing. When he started speaking again, he could barely keep the tremble out of his voice. "I don't want to tell because it's not my place to tell. Look, if there's even a chance it has some bearing on the case, I'll tell you what I know about Kino's friends, but I don't want to drag them into this if I can avoid it."
For a moment, he was afraid she'd press the issue, but she seemed content to let it lie. For now.
"You've caused them enough trouble already? Is that it?" she guessed, once again hitting frighteningly close to the mark. He could detect neither approval nor disapproval in her voice.
"Yeah." He smiled weakly. "Something like that."
"Oh, and as for that date tonight? Call it off."
"What? Why?" Until then, he hadn't known just how much he was looking forward to getting together with Makoto that evening. Seidou was crazy if she thought he--
"Listen, Wonder Boy. I don't know her all that well, but I do know that I'm not crazy about Kino-kun getting involved with you, even if all you're after is dinner and a movie. Let's just count the reasons why, shall we?" She started ticking off the reasons on her fingers. "You're ten years older than her. You're a gaijin. And there's a damned good chance that you're a borderline alcoholic and an accessory after the fact to murder. I wouldn't call those the ingredients for a good match, and that's before we get into anything even resembling the paranormal."
The accusations stung, of course, but only one of them came as a surprise. "Gaijin?" He looked at Seidou through narrowed eyes. "Funny. I never would have pegged you for a bigot."
Seidou turned the unopened pack of cigarettes over and over in her hand, overtly taunting him with her self-control. "I'm not, but for you, I'll make an exception. Also, in case you didn't notice, the gaijin thing was the least of my objections, Wonder Boy. If you really want to avoid causing more trouble for her friends, then stay the hell away from her. Also, I--not you--will decide if I need to hear more about Kino and her friends. Anyhow, there's no time for that now. You need to get going and--"
The phone rang. Seidou eagerly got up from the table, holding up one finger to tell Jason not to go anywhere until she got back.
"Seidou here..." She grinned. "Keisuke! Just the man I wanted. Do you have anything good to tell me about Renko's citizenship?" As she listened, she grabbed a pen and an index card, and began jotting down notes. "National Museum, Western... Uh huh... Okada Yuuto, ten o' clock... Yeah, I got it... Well, that's interesting! Even though he's dead, it'll be fun to put another nail or five in his coffin." She was positively purring. "I know where get hold of Wright, so don't worry about that."
She hung up and sauntered back to the table, her face alight with malicious glee.
"And then some," Seidou said, grinning like the proverbial canary-eating cat. "We've got a beautiful and not at all supernatural paper trail on Renko's citizenship and tangible evidence of a nice, juicy bribe in the form of lots of artwork. Russian artwork. Do you know where the National Museum of Western Art is?"
Before Jason could answer, the phone rang again. Seidou glared at it.
"This had better not be a snag," she snarled as she snapped up the phone. "Seidou here."
Jason tried to follow the sequence of expressions that crossed her face. Puzzlement. Shock. Anger. Then, finally, a twisted sort of amusement.
"I'll be there as soon as I can. I'll be sending my forensics team as well, so make sure your people give them full access to the scene when they get there... No, that is not negotiable. Full access, and you'd damn well better keep your detective from messing up the scene before I get there."
She hung up the phone and ran both hands down her face in exasperation.
"What's up?" he asked. "Nothing good, it sounds like."
"Someone torched Renko's nursing home last night," she said, nearly giddy with frustration. "Renko's dead. I'm off to Kamakura. You get yourself back to Keisuke's house and make yourself presentable. I want the two of you at the Western Art Museum by ten o' clock to meet with this Okada Yuuto person."
It may have been suicidal, but Jason couldn't resist getting at least one jab. "You really want me to go? And here I thought you didn't trust me."
"I don't, but if one of those pieces of art turns out to be hosting one of those 'idol' things you told me about, I want someone there who has half a chance of dealing with it. Besides, even though I don't trust you, I haven't written you off completely. Yet."
Sunday, July 8, 8:40 a.m.
They had only been on the bus for five minutes. It felt more like hours.
Rei made a conscious effort not to keep looking over at Hotaru. From time to time, though, her glance flicked sideways, always showing her the same thing: Hotaru, sitting primly with her chin pressed against folded hands, staring down the length of the bus at nothing in particular. Hotaru's face was perfectly still, but it was hardly peaceful.
Other than reaching out to rest her hand on Hotaru's shoulder, just as a way of reminding the other girl she was there, Rei left Hotaru alone. Last night, a casual "are you all right?" got a snap and snarl in response.
Other than that, though, Hotaru had been the perfect houseguest, unfailingly and naturally polite, if a little withdrawn. She'd had a long, long bath, then sat with Rei and shared a pot of chamomile tea out on the porch. They could hear the sounds of late-night celebrations in the distance, and the occasional pop of fireworks, but it was all distant enough that it faded into the white-noise hush of traffic and cicadas. It was peaceful, and comfortable.
It was also when Rei made her one mistake. Hotaru had apologized quickly and mostly sincerely, and Rei thought they would spend the rest of the night in not-quite-comfortable silence. Still, Hotaru seemed to relax a little as she breathed in the grassy-sweet smell of her tea. It hadn't taken Rei long to see the sense of Hotaru's request to stay at the shrine. Hotaru wanted quiet, and comfort, and a small measure of peace without having to demand or fight for it. Oh, the others meant well, of course, but if Rei's simple question could set Hotaru off like that, then Ami's curiosity, Mako-chan's or Usagi's solicitousness, or her adoptive parents' worry would have been like a match thrown into a pile of dry leaves.
When Rei got up to refill the teapot, Hotaru broke the silence so gently her question seemed to be an echo from the tap of her cup being set on the table.
"Rei-san, have your dreams told you anything about who Saturn used to be? Back when we were first..." She shrugged with just one shoulder, as if it were the least important question in the world. Her voice betrayed no curiosity, just a tight thread of anxiety. "Look, of course I know what happened in the end, but was there anything else?"
Rei's eyebrows went up and she blinked a few times as she froze in place. "Hold that thought," she said at last, and went to get more tea.
Was there anything in her dream that might signify Saturn? Not for the first time, Rei wished her dreams were as prosaic as Ami's.
When she returned with another pot of tea (and a small plate of florentines, just because) Rei had her answer prepared. It hadn't taken long.
"To be honest, nothing has jumped out at me. I saw more than a few of images of destruction," she admitted without fanfare, as Hotaru would not appreciate being coddled or 'protected' from the truth, "but nothing that made me think of the Glaive."
That got a frown, one Rei couldn't decipher. "I didn't mean the Glaive," Hotaru said, clearly fighting not to sound petulant. "I meant Saturn. The old Saturn. Saturn wasn't just the Glaive-bearer."
There was a brief pause, then a "was she?" that Rei wasn't even sure she heard.
Rei sipped at her tea and thought things over. The fact that Hotaru was having this sort of, well, existential crisis at this time was troubling. Rei remembered having more than her share of such moments at Hotaru's age, but the timing was not reassuring.
It would not be safe to ignore the question. A fire reading would bring the fastest answers, but that thought brought with it the prickle of thousands of insect feet and was dismissed in a trice.
"I'll do a tarot reading for you," Rei said. Then, at Hotaru's hopeful look, she added: "Tomorrow. I need to be rested to give you a proper reading."
There was a flicker of rebellion in Hotaru's gaze, but she accepted the answer with a sharp nod.
Besides, Rei would need time to think of the proper signifier for Hotaru. For some reason, one did not leap immediately to mind.
They went to bed not long after that. Rei started to offer Hotaru a choice between staying in her room or one of the shrine's guest rooms, but she barely even offered the first alternative before Hotaru agreed to it. Rei chose not to comment. She simply pushed her futon aside to make room for the spare and let Hotaru take care of arranging the covers.
For a long time, Rei listened to Hotaru force her breathing into a regular pattern. Sham sleep, she thought, and before she could tell if Hotaru had passed into real sleep or not, Rei herself fell asleep.
That night, she dreamed of cool dry air and a sky that shaded from lavender down to rusty pink at the horizon. She dreamed of a grove of trees, heavy and bronze with ripening fruit and dying leaves.
Beyond that, nothing. Nothing to tell her about their current situation or Hotaru's dilemma. She still didn't even have a good idea of what signifier to use for the reading she had promised.
When she woke up around six-thirty--late, for her--Hotaru was already up, her bedding neatly folded and placed against the wall. Rei sighed and got up to see where she'd gone to. On her way out, she grabbed the silk bag that contained her favorite working deck.
The card most closely aligned with the planet Saturn was Death. It was the first one that came to mind, but Rei didn't feel entirely comfortable with that choice. Unfortunately, there was no way to be sure if her discomfort was due to intuition, or due to the events surrounding the last time the card had appeared. Death didn't always mean 'death,' but when Galaxia attacked, they had all died. Unless she decided to go with the 'Hello Kitty' tarot Minako had gotten her as a joke, there was no way for the card not to look grim.
Three other cards had come to mind, one major and two minor arcana. None of those seemed entirely right, though. One, in fact, seemed laughably wrong, but Rei couldn't shake the notion from her mind.
When she entered the kitchen, she found Hotaru staring grimly at a half-brewed pot of coffee as if willing it to go faster.
"How did you sleep?" Rei asked. "Oh, the coffee maker has a thing on it so you can take the carafe out before it's sfinished brewing."
"Badly." Hotaru didn't even hesitate before pulling the carafe and pouring a cup. Without being asked, she poured one for Rei (who honestly would have preferred tea). "I couldn't stop thinking about what happened yesterday."
"I'm not surprised. Did you still want to try the tarot reading we talked about?"
There was a brief pause, then a hesitant nod. Hotaru didn't meet Rei's gaze, instead staring blearily at the steam rising up from her coffee.
"After breakfast, then?" Rei suggested.
Hotaru looked up then, smiled faintly, and said that would be fine, and did Rei need any help getting breakfast ready?
Fortunately, Hotaru thought miso soup and rice sounded wonderful, and she pretended to show interest in how Rei prepared it, even though Rei knew perfectly well that Michiru at least was comfortable with traditional cookery.
Once the breakfast dishes were put away and the table wiped down and carefully dried, Rei put the blue silk bag at the exact center of the table. She and Hotaru sat opposite each other, Hotaru keeping her hands tightly folded in her lap. She did not take her eyes from the bag.
"We don't have to do this, you know."
Hotaru licked her lips, opened her mouth to say something, then shook her head. "I do. Let's start."
Rei pulled the bag towards her and slid out the deck. She riffled through the cards until she found the four she wanted. Deliberately, and without letting Hotaru catch a glimpse of their faces, she tapped them together until the edges were perfectly even with each other, then slid them across the table until they were at dead center.
"This is you," she said. "A representation of you, that is. You don't know who you are, or what you're supposed to be, right? That's why you're doing this?"
Hotaru's eyebrows drew together. "Shouldn't I just pick one at random, then?"
Rei had already thought about that, and she debated whether or not she should just go with the idea. But she dismissed it once more, and wondered if it was only out of cowardice. She did notice that Hotaru hadn't asked what the four cards were.
"I'm hoping which one will become clear through the reading--of course, it could be that it won't be just one of them," she said primly as she shuffled the deck back into random order. She then handed the deck to Hotaru. Hotaru didn't take it. "It's not an exact science. You might have a different signifier depending on where you are in life, or you truly might be two in combination. Go on--you need to shuffle them while thinking of your question."
Hotaru took the cards and tried to shuffle them in classic fashion, but the size of the cards and thickness of the deck stymied her. In the end, she simply intercut them with each other, much like a young child with clumsy fingers might try to deal with a traditional deck.
"Here you go. I hope I didn't bend them."
Rei shrugged, dismissing Hotaru's concern even though she'd been thinking the same thing herself. "Let's start with your basic situation, then."
The first card went out, face-up on top of the stack of four.
Hotaru rolled her eyes. "I could have told you that," she muttered.
Rei's first thought was something along the lines of could be worse, but any second thought was interrupted by an all-too-familiar beeping. Hotaru was on her feet and out of the room before Rei could gather her wits.
Leaving the cards where they were, Rei followed. When she got back to the bedroom, Hotaru had her communicator out of her bag.
Rei held her breath. She couldn't hear what was being said, but she recognized Setsuna's voice.
"Is something wrong? You guys aren't mad that I stayed at Rei-san's last night, are you?"
"Oh, for goodness sake," Rei muttered. She was about to ask what was going on, but Hotaru's face went from simply pale to ashen as Setsuna spoke. Even after Setsuna went silent, Hotaru remained still, shaking herself back to attention at a faint query at the other end of the line.
"I'll be right there. Is Haruka-papa going to be okay?"
Rei inhaled sharply, breath hissing between her teeth. Hotaru clicked off the communicator. Before Rei knew what was happening, Hotaru had pulled her into a swift, rib-cracking hug.
"Hotaru-chan?" Rei's hand hovered over Hotaru's back hesitantly before coming down to stroke slow circles. "What is it? What did Setsuna-san say?"
"I need to go home. Setsuna-mama says they need me," she said into Rei's shoulder.
They left quickly. The tarot cards remained where they were placed, five cards pulled out from the deck.
Once they got off the bus, they slipped out of sight and took on Senshi form to cover the last half-mile as quickly as they could. It also allowed them to take a shortcut, traversing a small gorge and coming at the house from the back. Once they leapt the hedge bordering the back of the Outers' property, the piles of rubble, torn up ground, and big hole in the kitchen wall made it clear what had happened to Haruka.
Saturn shifted the Glaive to a ready position, and made a point of walking past the rubble as if she didn't even notice it.
When they walked in, Setsuna came running from the front of the house. No one bothered with any greetings. "I've got her in the living room," she said quickly.
Saturn pushed past Setsuna and hurried to where Haruka was, transforming out of Senshi form as she went. Setsuna caught Mars's eye and the two of them held back just a moment.
"Thank you for looking after her last night," Setsuna said. "How do you think she's doing?"
Mars shook her head. "Not well. The fact that her attacks don't work on the golems... It has her badly shaken."
Setsuna's expression shifted from worried to simply grim. "We may have an explanation for that. Not a full answer, but an explanation. A Dead Scream and a World Shaking had no effect on the two golems that attacked us this morning. I had to use my staff to eradicate their marks. One of them nearly broke Haruka's neck before I could destroy it--she's not out of the woods yet. Ami-chan said she might have a crushed trachea, and who knows what else might have happened." Setsuna dragged her fingers through her hair. The usual tidy bun had slipped apart into a loose coil with a stray lock pointing straight out to the side. "We've been through worse, oh, much worse, but this... I can see why Hotaru-chan was so rattled. It was like being in a dream where you need to run, but you can't get your legs to move. I can't explain it."
Setsuna shook her head, and the two of them finally followed Saturn into the living room. "I know, I know. I was holding it together until now, but now that Hotaru's here to look after Haruka..."
Mars couldn't get a good look at Haruka, because Hotaru was by her side, already at work. Still, the glimpse she caught of deep red and angry purple--so livid and harsh in contrast to Hotaru's pale fingers.
Those fingers seemed to be having a hard time remaining steady.
"Why didn't you call 110?" Mars demanded. "You had no idea how quickly Saturn and I were going to get here! An ambulance would have gotten here faster than we would have, even in Senshi--"
"What would we tell them when they did show up?" Setsuna asked wearily. "Besides, if I called 110, it wouldn't just be an ambulance. We'd also get the police."
Mars huffed in disgust at her own stupidity. If she'd thought about it for more than a second, she'd have realized that for herself.
Other than a quick shut up glare at the two intruders, Hotaru remained focused on her work. Haruka's breathing began to sound less labored, and the bruising faded noticeably with no warning. Some darkness was still there, places where the blood had pooled under the skin and could not be coaxed back into place.
Hotaru shuddered as another wave of power left her. The transfer of power was something that Mars felt rather than saw, but the sensation suggested a heat shimmer going out from Hotaru's heart and down through her arms and hands into Haruka's neck.
"That felt like bones healing," Hotaru said, a little hoarsely.
Mars and Setsuna exchanged horrified looks.
After a few minutes, Hotaru slowly lifted her hands from Haruka's neck and chest, and she slumped down to sit on the floor, head resting against Haruka's shoulder.
"That's all I can do for now," Hotaru said, weariness overtaking any sound of anxiety in her voice. "In a couple of hours, I might be able to do a bit more. Where's Michiru-mama?"
Setsuna shook her head slowly and hugged herself. "We don't know. She's not answering her communicator. I tried again just after we called you and Rei, and then just five minutes ago."
"She's at rehearsal," Haruka rasped.
"No talking," Setsuna said in a fashion that suggested she'd had to say that quite a few times already that morning. "I would have thought she'd have her communicator on and with her, rehearsal or not, but who knows."
Habit ran strong, Mars thought, but the older senshi had always seemed far more professional. "Is there any other way to get hold of her? Something with the talismans, maybe?"
Setsuna blinked a few times. "Possibly." She sounded more intrigued than dismissive, but did not pursue the idea any further.
"Setsuna-mama, do you need any help?" Hotaru asked. She sounded half-asleep.
Setsuna's grasped her own left wrist loosely, and she started to say something, but cut whatever it was off with a shake of her head. "When you're rested, make sure that you've done all you can for Haruka, first." Then, as a pre-emptive strike, she pointed at Haruka and said, "NO talking."
Haruka sneered and rolled her eyes.
The doorbell rang, and Setsuna nodded to Mars, silently asking her to deal with it. On her way to the door, Mars shifted back from senshi form, just in case.
When she opened the door, Ami and Makoto were standing there, mid-conversation.
"...didn't have time to tell me much more than that," Ami was saying. "But if she's right, and it is him... oh, hello, Rei-chan."
Makoto echoed her greeting. Both looked sounded a bit shocked and shaken, with wavering smiles and clipped voices. Ami, normally the more composed one, was more rattled than Makoto.
"Come on in," Rei said, stepping back and pulling the door wide open. "Who's 'him?' What's going on?"
Rei's eyes went wide with shock. Ami just nodded grimly in response. Neither of them had to say anything about those oh-so-familiar marks on the golems or explain what was now painfully obvious. Makoto just stood there, trying not to look too confused.
"Usagi-chan was the one who figured it out, believe it or not." Ami and Makoto came inside and slipped off their shoes. They both seemed a little out of breath. "There's more to the story, from what I gather, but we need to wait for Usagi-chan to get here. She wasn't all that coherent--I haven't heard her that upset in quite a while."
Well, having one of their first enemies return from the grave could explain that, Rei supposed. Ami plunked her bag down on the hall tree and pulled out two small specimen jars. Each had what looked like a few shards of glass rattling around inside.
When they got to the living room, a pointed glare from Haruka indicated that expressions of sympathy were not entirely welcome.
"Sorry we couldn't be here to help out," Makoto said.
Haruka waved a hand in a classic 'whatever' gesture.
"Setsuna-san, where did you put the crystals you and Haruka found?" Ami put the two specimen jars down on the counter.
"They're on the kitchen counter. We didn't check the other golem for anything. I hope that's not a problem."
Ami shook her head. "I'll go out and look later, but I think I know what we'll find." She went out to the kitchen. There was the sound of drawers and cabinets opening and closing. When she came back into the living room, she had a juice glass with her. She placed it on the table next to the specimen jars, and Rei could see the four not-quite-clear fragments of crystal inside it. "Setsuna-san, would you mind?"
Setsuna stepped forward and leaned over the coffee table. As she drew near, one crystal in each set of four darkened. When she held her hand over the crystals, they went the rest of the way to utter black, releasing a pulse of red-violet light as Setsuna drew back.
Hotaru left Haruka's side reluctantly, and held her hand out over the crystals. Three more crystals glowed in the same dusky violet color as Saturn's sigil.
At Ami's prompting, Hotaru brought one of the jars over to Haruka. One of the crystals turned a deep, gold-flecked blue.
"Four crystals in each group," Rei said, looking at Setsuna, Haruka, and Hotaru in turn. "One for each of you and Michiru. I think it's pretty obvious what color the fourth crystal will turn once Michiru gets here."
"I'm going to try her again." Setsuna jabbed at the buttons on her communicator.
It beeped once. Twice. Three times.
On the fourth beep, there was an answer, and Setsuna's knees nearly gave way in relief.
"Michiru! Are you all right! I've been trying to get hold of you for hours!"
That wasn't entirely true, but Rei knew it must have felt like it.
Rei was standing close enough to hear Michiru's dozy response.
"I'm fine. I was at rehearsal, and my communicator was in my purse. It was probably drowned out by all the noise. Is everything okay?"
Setsuna headed into the kitchen, talking into the communicator as she went. "Haruka's been injured, and it looks very much like the same people might be after you. I think you'd better get back here as soon as you can..."
Setsuna's voice faded away as she disappeared into the kitchen, but then it grew louder again for a moment before dropping off suddenly. It almost sounded as if Setsuna was giving Michiru a piece of her mind. Given the circumstances, Rei understood the need to yell at someone for a bit.
"I should have brought the first crystals I found over to the shrine the other day." Ami sounded dangerously morose. "I suppose we should test things futher to see how they work, but it's probably safe to say that these are what kept you from using your powers on the golems, and why the rest of us didn't seem to have a problem."
Makoto had claimed the large armchair and was now curled up with her feet tucked up on the seat. "Okay, but the other thing is why you guys," she said, waving in the general direction of Haruka and Hotaru, "and not the rest of us?"
Ami didn't respond. She stood by the coffee table, hand curled against her mouth, eyes flickering back and forth as she thought, considered, rejected, deferred.
"I really don't like to be the one to point this out," Rei said, attention fully on Hotaru, "but the way those crystals responded with your signature colors reminds me of that crystal Sailor Sun showed us."
Hotaru leaned forward so quickly she had to grab the edge of the coffee table to keep her balance. "Just because they're like her crystal doesn't mean she's--"
"I didn't say that. But you have to admit there's a similarity."
Ami shook her head. "Not entirely." She sounded distracted, as if only giving a fraction of her mind to what she was saying. "Sun's crystal responded to all of us. These seem to be specifically keyed..."
Her voice trailed off again as whatever she was about to say got pulled along onto whatever train of thought she was riding.
"I'm not trying to say Sun is working with the enemy," Rei said.
Hotaru pressed her lips together and cast her eyes to the side, tense with the effort of not speaking.
Rei had to bite back a few words of her own, including an 'oh, thank goodness' when the doorbell rang. She waved Setsuna off and went to see who it was.
Minako, Usagi, and Chibi-Usa all pushed past her the second she opened the door, nearly pinning her against the wall. Usagi started talking a mile a minute as soon as she was inside, waving a CD case around (and nearly taking Minako's eye out with one particularly grand gesture).
It was like watching a pot of water tip from a simmer to a boil. Usagi went straight over to Ami and pulled out the CD insert. Hotaru started asking what was going on, and was that her Kathy Celeste CD, and when she got no answer, kept on asking. It didn't help that Makoto kept talking over her, trying to get Usagi to slow down and get her story straight. Minako, on the other hand, had buttonholed Setsuna, and kept asking for details what had happened with the golems. As for Chibi-Usa, she tried to take advantage of the rise in noise level to duck back into the foyer and ask Rei if Hotaru was okay.
At least, that's what Rei thought Chibi-Usa was asking; there were too many conversations and she was trying to pick out what Usagi was saying about Nephrite and some woman and... a child?
"Hold that thought, Chibi-Usa," she said, and walked back into the living room.
"Who's Kathy Celeste? I'm lost. I'm totally lost here." That was Makoto, voice raised to be heard over Hotaru's increasingly louder interruptions
"Yes, Uranus tried to use her sword to take out the druj's mark. We do know how these creatures work." That was Setsuna, getting testy with Minako. "And we would have called for help if we'd had time."
"I knew it looked familiar, and so did Ami-chan, and doesn't she look like Naru-chan, and Chibi-Usa was showing me about that when I saw this, and maybe it's just me, but doesn't it look like him?" That was Usagi, bending the liner notes from Hotaru's CD.
At last, Haruka whistled sharply through her teeth, catching everyone's attention. She held up her hands, squaring one against the other in a classic 'time out' gesture.
"Who the hell is Nephrite?" she croaked.
"No talking!" Setsuna and Hotaru snapped in unison. Hotaru looked over her shoulder at Haruka and mimed zipping her lips shut. Setsuna on the other hand, visibly collected herself, taking a deep breath and rolling her shoulders back slightly. When she spoke, her voice was as placid as ever. A little tight, perhaps, but placid all the same.
"He was one of Endymion's... generals? confidantes? companions? back in the Silver Millennium." Setsuna inclined her head slightly, and she smiled. The smile had an edge to it. "Endymion would have relied on him the way Serenity--Usagi--relies on Mercury, or Mars, or any of us."
"But..." Hotaru frowned, and her eyes flickered back and forth as she tried to piece together what she had heard. "It sounded to me like you were talking about a villain you fought way back when. Or am I missing something?"
Rei wasn't sure what to make of the 'way back when' comment. It hadn't been that long ago. "No, you're not missing something. He was."
She got a few odd, startled looks in response to her comment.
"Nephrite used something very much like the golems, back when we first fought him," she continued. "Same mark, same feeling of corruption. He and his friends were the first people we ever fought."
Ami spoke warily, glancing at Rei sidelong all the while. "Y-yes. That's true. Of course, we had no idea who they were at the time. It wasn't until afterwards that we knew who they had been."
Hotaru still seemed confused. "Okay, but if they were your enemies, then why was Mamoru-san friends with them? Or was this when he was brainwashed?"
Both Minako and Makoto seemed to hold themselves back from making the obvious joke about 'which time?' It may have been because Rei met their eyes before a single word could be uttered.
It was disconcerting, she thought, how someone with Mamoru's supposed power could be so vulnerable.
She would never say so to Usagi, of course, but there were times when Mamoru's connection to the Moon Princess was much more of a liability to their team than a help.
"It's more the other way around," Ami explained. Her gaze cut over to Setsuna, just this side of accusing. "I don't know the full story, but Endymion's generals weren't always villains. They weren't exactly allies, if I'm remembering my history correctly..."
Setsuna nodded, both confirming Ami's hypothesis and gently urging her to continue.
"But we were on good terms with them, as best as I can tell. In fact--" Ami started to say something, then her face went bright red. Minako looked away, shifting from foot to foot, and Rei thought--and almost said--that's enough, I don't want to hear any more.
"While there was an explicit ban on collaboration and alliance between the Silver Millennium and the Golden Kingdom, that applied only to royalty--and any official alliances." Setsuna slid into the conversation so neatly it seemed planned that way. Rei felt relieved and didn't want to think about why she felt relieved.
"The ban also didn't apply quite so strongly to the planetary kingdoms. The House of Saturn had ties to the Earth Kingdom, and Nephrite--since we're speaking of him..." and not of anyone else at the moment, Setsuna carefully did not say, "he had blood ties to the ruler of Jupiter.
Makoto blinked a few times at that, but then shrugged it aside. If anything, Usagi looked far more upset at this revelation, and her gaze turned back to the CD case as if it had some answer to their questions.
"We should have known." Usagi's voice was tight, in that trying-not-to-cry way. "We thought they were the enemy and we thought they were evil and we tried to destroy them..."
"They mostly destroyed themselves," Rei snapped. They didn't have time for this. "Jadeite got killed by his own stupid trap, Zoisite killed Nephrite, and we have no idea what happened to that creepy little guy."
"But I thought Zoisite..." Ami started, then thought better of it. "Oh, never mind. I do think you're right. It probably was Beryl. It was obvious something happened, judging by the way Kunzite acted afterwards."
"You mean, like he was trying to lose?" Minako said. Her voice and smile were both sharp, striking Rei as both alien and familiar at the same time. "Idiot plan after idiot plan?"
Ami tapped a finger against her mouth as she thought. "Yes... yes. That does make sense. Nephrite was pushing against the hypnotism or brainwashing or..." She looked up at Setsuna, but Setsuna only shrugged.
Usagi was the one who answered. "It was Naru." She took the liner notes from Hotaru's CD and passed them to Ami. Ami thumbed through them. First, she gave a little huh of surprise, and then her eyes went wide. She held the booklet out to Rei.
Rei took it, and just like Ami, was surprised by the singer's resemblance to Usagi's friend. Then she opened the booklet.
"They were reincarnated? Just like we were?" Rei demanded. The thought clanged in her head, seemingly new but devastatingly familiar.
"Well... yes?" Ami was surprised at her surprise. "I thought you knew that."
"Of course I knew!" Rei tossed the booklet down on the coffee table. It was too light and too flimsy to thwack down in a satisfying manner. "I just didn't think..."
Usagi picked up the booklet, turning through it again as if doing penance. "They had lives. They had families."
Three of Endymion's guards had fallen by their own hands or by the hands of their supposed allies, but Sailor Moon been the one to fling Kunzite's own weapon back at him, killing him.
Rei could explain until her throat was raw and bleeding that it was self-defense, that Kunzite had nearly killed them all and was still trying to kill them, but Usagi would never see it that way.
Then there was the thought she never would voice, not to anyone:
They deserved what they got.
She didn't even want to say it to herself, and she had no idea what to do with the strange mix of shame and satisfaction that accompanied the sentiment.
"So, if Nephrite is dead..." Makoto let the question trail off, and Minako picked it up without hesitation.
"Who's sending the goblins after us?"
"And why?" Ami's addendum was a distracted whisper. She was certainly starting to put pieces of the puzzle together, but Rei had no idea how close she was to an answer. She picked up one of the specimen jars. The crystal shards chattered faintly as she tipped the jar from side to side. "And why are they only targeting some of us?"
"Endymion's generals wouldn't have been aware of us," Setsuna said. She moved over to Haruka's couch and half-sat on one of the arms. "But that type of magic was so particular to a small part of the Earth Kingdom."
Minako jumped in, more aggressive than Rei was used to seeing her. "Which you still need to tell us more about! I don't get why all the years you've known us, you never told us--"
Setsuna cut her off without remorse or gentleness. "How many times did Nephrite come up in casual conversation with your friends? From what I've been hearing, not that many." She didn't wait for a response. She simply ignored Minako as if Minako had never even spoken out.
"Usagi-chan," she said, her voice once again soft and kind, "have you told Mamoru-san about this? He does need to know."
Usagi's face went as red as Minako's. "I left him a message," she mumbled.
Mamoru finished getting dressed, poured himself a cup of coffee, and dished out some leftover rice for breakfast.
He had had a nice night out with Usagi. Oh, he could tell she wanted to ask about the detectives who were investigating his foster care record (he'd decided that bit about his parents' accident not being an accident was just Artemis getting ahead of himself--the cat had obviously spent much too long playing detective alongside Sailor V). She hadn't pushed, though.
He wolfed his meal while standing (nearly choking when he fought back a yawn mid-mouthful), not because he was in a hurry but because the habit was already ingrained. Grab food between shifts, as much as you can, wash it down with coffee, move on to the next crisis and try not to fall asleep on your feet.
Mamoru got halfway through his coffee before realizing that he didn't have to be at the university hospital until noon ad [and] actually had time to enjoy a decent cup of not-instant tea. It didn't entirely make up for the fact that he could have slept in for another two hours, but it was something.
He dumped the coffee down the drain and went to grab the electric kettle. As he grabbed it, he saw that the message light on the phone was blinking.
There hadn't been a message last night--he'd checked when he got home. Maybe while he was in the shower...?
He pushed 'play.' There was silence, a hitch of breath, then the silence of disconnect.
Probably just a wrong number, he thought.
Mamoru filled the kettle and, despite his lingering fatigue, felt pleased with himself for having nothing important he had to do that morning.
Skotos drifted down a back stairwell to the school basement. It could see the tell-tale signs of Kakos's recent passage: insect shells, a few fresh acid burns, cigar ash.
What it could not sense, however, was the sound of any activity. So, it was only mildly surprised when it insinuated itself under the doorway to find Kakos sitting on the sculpting platform, calmly reading the morning paper.
"No golems?" it asked.
"Not 'til I hear otherwise." Kakos got up and dimmed the light out of courtesy to Skotos. Even so, it was still too bright for Skotos's taste, so it merged with the shadows under the sculpting platform.
"I thought the plan was to keep making them until Saturn and the others were destroyed."
"It ain't workin'," Kakos said. He waddled back over to the platform and sat down heavily, sending hundreds of beetles and other insects to a crunchy death. "Them girls figgered out how to bust 'em up, and y'can't do nothin' to the forehead marks without screwin' up the magic. So, I ain't wastin' any more of my valuable time 'less Herself tells me otherwise."
"They didn't manage to hurt any of the Senshi?" Skotos asked in disbelief.
Kakos's laugh sounded like a septic tank gone bad. "Oh, one of 'em is hurt all right. Tall girl, nice legs, got a way with wind and the like. Y'know, the one what got the Sword. The outcast got away without a scratch, more's the pity, and I dunno what happened to the ocean girl. Saturn had a bunch of others protectin' 'er, so that was a wash. The bit at the old man's place didn't go so good neither." Skotos heard the sound of Kakos lighting up another cigar. "Funny how that last one was the only bit where Herself got real mad. Good deal I got her that blood from the skeeters, or I mighta been sealed right back up, huh?"
Skotos shifted uncomfortably in the shadows. After millions of years of imprisonment and less than a century of freedom, the thought of going back into that hell of light was more than unpleasant; it was terrifying, especially for a creature that was the embodiment of all the fears that darkness had ever spawned. How on earth could Kakos joke about such a thing?
In their suits and ties, Jason Wright and Keisuke Takamori stood out from the crowds of Sunday sightseers leaving Ueno Station. Once they cleared the station, more people seemed to be interested in heading to the zoo than to the museum, so they had a small measure of quiet in which to discuss the case.
"So, Keisuke-san. What's the deal with this Kusonoki Seiichiro person, and why was Seidou-san cackling--and I mean literally cackling--with delight when she heard he was involved?"
"Ah, the late and distinctly unlamented Minister Kusonoki," Keisuke mused. "Let's just say that Seidou-san has a serious dislike for corrupt politicians, or indeed anyone who breaks the rules. Kusonoki-san was a particular... favorite of hers. He was constantly under investigation for one form of corruption or another. There was talk of insider trading and graft, but nothing ever came of it."
"Right. Because judges can be bought, just like anyone else." Jason knew more than he wanted to about that particular brand of sleaze.
"I wouldn't say anyone," Keisuke said a little primly. "During his lifetime, no one found any evidence of outright bribery, but Kusonoki-san definitely lived a life that was beyond his apparent means, and yes, he did die with massive debts, but not nearly as massive as one would have thought."
"Well, if he had ties to the Russian mafiya..." Jason gave the last word a little push as the end to indicate that he wasn't talking about the mafia of Don Corleone. As far as he was concerned, that mafia was something that happened mostly in New Jersey. Or Hollywood.
Keisuke shook his head. "Doubtful. Perhaps the investigators going through his accounts will find something more, but if the only Russian connection is a collection of artwork? It seems a bit paltry. And yes, there has been a problem with Russian syndicates bringing Russian women here as prostitutes and smuggling Chinese immigrants into the country, but for a politician of Kusonoki's stature--tarnished though it was--to be involved with them? It would have been political suicide if anyone found out."
"Money's money," Jason pointed out. "Plus, those mafiya guys can be some scary sons of bitches--the stories the guys on the vice squad tell would turn your hair chalk white, no lie. If Kusonoki was stupid enough to make one deal with them, chances are, he'd have been afraid to say no to other offers. I don't care how much he was on the take, I don't think he'd want to get bits of his family members shipped to his office in a series of little boxes."
Keisuke grunted in reluctant agreement. "Perhaps. The other problem with that theory is that according to what I found, Renko got his citizenship in 1982. We didn't start having a problem with the Russian syndicates until the early nineties, from what I recall. Besides, wouldn't a cash bribe be harder to trace than artwork? After all, we were able to follow the trail years after the fact, with relatively little trouble."
They walked on in silence for a while. Jason had only a vague idea of where the museum was, but Keisuke led the way as if he knew exactly where he was going. After all, the man did have four kids, and Akiko was the sort of parent who insisted on balancing trips to theme parks and ball games with more educational (i.e. boring, according to Misako and Daisuke) outings.
The National Museum of Western Art had supposedly been designed by some famous architect, but Jason thought it looked like a corrugated concrete shoebox set up on pilings. A smoother concrete balcony and stair anchored one end of the building and framed a large window.
By rights, it should have been ugly, sitting there in the wooded serenity of Ueno Park, but something about its proportions and placement made it appear as if it belonged there. Okay, so maybe the architect knew what he was doing, Jason thought, but he still refused to admit that he liked it.
The entrance wasn't through the big glass wall, but was instead beneath the looming bulk of the museum, sequestered somewhere between the pilings. Jason squelched a brief flutter of claustrophobia and followed Keisuke.
As instructed, they went straight to the entrance, bypassing the ticket desk outside. Inside was a vast expanse of whiteness and light and frighteningly shiny brown floors, but somehow it all managed to avoid seeming cold and stark. Jason made a note to revisit the place if he had a chance to play tourist during this trip.
Jason was wondering if Keisuke would have to flash his badge to get in, but it turned out that the lobby of the museum was free admission. Once you got past the museum shop, cafe, and other bits where casual browsers were likely to get trapped and spend money, then you would have to fork over a ticket.
Keisuke must have gotten specific instructions on what to do next, as he headed straight towards a glassed-in area that appeared to be some sort of reading room. They were met by a tall, elderly man who Jason couldn't help thinking of as a bespectacled crane with a silvery-white pompadour. The man blinked a few times at seeing that a foreigner was part of the team, but recovered his composure with hardly a stutter.
"I am Okada Yuuto, curator of Eastern European art," he announced with a perfect balance of pride and humility, bowing in greeting. If he was surprised by Jason's own neatly executed bow, he hid it well.
"We appreciate you taking the time out of your day to meet with us, Okada-san," Keisuke said.
"Anything to be of assistance to the police," Okada replied.
There were a few more exchanges of that sort as Jason stood in the background, enjoying the little display of etiquette. After a morning in Seidou's less than tender care, it was both refreshing and reassuring.
"Takamori-san, Wright-san, if you two gentlemen would follow me, we can review the Kusonoki collection and its history while we enjoy some tea. Also, if you are hungry, I would be more than happy to send up to the cafe for something to eat." He led them past the main exhibition hall and its broad, sweeping staircases to a discreetly placed door that led to a more institutional stairwell. From there, they made there way down to a generic conference room decorated with framed posters from past exhibitions. A pull-down screen covered the rear wall of the room, and a projector was noisily idling at the far end of the table. As they got settled around the table, a quiet young woman with a businesslike smile brought them tea.
Once the tea was served and a few more rounds of small talk were attended to, Okada's demeanor changed slightly. He was still scrupulously polite, but his manner became noticeably more brisk. He scooted his chair over to where a computer sat waiting on a side table. A quick tap on the space bar turned off the screen saver and revealed an array of computer icons. As he began clicking and typing with finicky precision, Okada began his narrative.
"Normally, I would prefer to meet in my office, but there's no room for the projector. Also, I beg your forgiveness for having to resort to a digital presentation, but I'm afraid that the actual collection is in several different places. Some of it is in the custody of the government, a few pieces are at the Setagaya Art Museum, and the majority of the sketches are currently on loan to the Tokyo University botany department."
Jason and Keisuke exchanged glances. They weren't going to see the actual pieces? In one way, Jason was relieved. Seidou's crack about works of art coming to life and attacking him wasn't as silly as it had sounded. One of the last things he wanted was for any innocents to get caught up in all this, especially innocents who had four children and a wife to support.
Unfortunately, if there was any evidence to be found in the actual works of art themselves, digital photos were only going to be of limited help at best. Still, their best chance of finding clear ties between Renko and Kusonoki, and maybe even something about Chiba's parents would be in the paper trail associated with the art rather than the art itself.
"How difficult would it be to get access to the actual pieces for forensic analysis if we need to do so?" Keisuke asked, careful to pitch his voice so that it came across as a supplication, not a demand. If demands were needed, they'd drag in Seidou, and poor, courtly Okada would never know what hit him.
Okada winced and drew a sharp breath through his teeth before putting his manners back on. "You are, of course, free to examine anything on the premises as long as you work in concert with one of our conservationists," he said smoothly. "As for the other pieces, granting you direct access could be rather...complicated."
As he continued to set up the computer, he went on with his lecture. "I must admit some concern about your interest in this collection. We've had enough trouble with it already."
"What kind of trouble?" Jason asked, doing his best to make it sound like a casual inquiry.
"I am ashamed to say that the collection first came to us with something of a... tainted reputation," Okada said. "Kusonoki-san's reputation as a politician was not exactly what one would call exemplary."
Okada went on to tell Jason nearly everything that Keisuke had already told him, but with a few extra details. For one thing, the lawyers settling his estate kept finding out about bank accounts and investment portfolios that should not exist. Even now, large parts of the estate were still in probate, and the man's widow was now living in seclusion and serious denial somewhere outside Nara.
"His art collection was handed over to us a few months after Kusonoki's death in 1998. The letter accompanying the collection implied that he hoped it would one day become as highly regarded as the Matsukata collection."
Jason nodded as if he knew exactly what Okada was talking about. The name 'Matsukata' was featured prominently on more than a few of the posters, so it had to be one of the museum's bigger draws.
"As soon as we learned of the bequest, we immediately began work planning an exhibition to take place on the two year anniversary of Kusonoki's death."
"Two years? Why so long?" Jason asked.
"Exhibitions are scheduled years in advance," Okada explained with polished patience, "Even small exhibitions need to be planned with great care--not just exhibit space, but publicity, catalogs, audio tours, educational programs, and so on. And then of course there's the matter of cataloguing all of the pieces and seeing to any necessary restoration work. There was some thought of rushing things to hit the one-year anniversary, and I sincerely wish we had."
"Why? Did something happen?" To a casual listener, Keisuke would have sounded more solicitous than curious, but Jason could tell that he was starting to push the curator just a little. He hoped he had a chance to see Seidou and Keisuke tag-team a suspect; it would be fascinating to see how their different styles meshed in interrogation. It wouldn't be a match for the dynamic duo of Pembleton and Bayliss, but it would still be something to see.
Okada fiddled with the computer some more, clearly not wanting to move on to the next part of the discussion.
"We had hoped that Kusonoki would come to be more highly regarded after his death," he said stiffly. "Unfortunately, this was not the case. Also, the contents of the collection itself proved to be even more problematic than his reputation. Takamori-san, would you be kind enough to dim the lights?"
As Keisuke turned the lights down to low, Okada clicked the mouse so gingerly that Jason wondered if the man expected to get an electric shock.
The projector lit up the screen with an image in dulled but rich primary colors. Winged figures and haloed saints stood around a figure swaddled in blue and lying on a white bed that stood out in stark relief against the rich reds, golds, bronzes, and blues of the rest of the piece. The faces of the living were just as static and emotionless as the face of the dead woman at the center of the picture, but the way they leaned in around her gave the whole piece a feeling of quiet expectation.
"The problems started when we brought in an expert in Russian iconography to appraise this piece and several others. It's a fifteenth-century icon of the Death of Mary, and while it's not an exceptional piece in its own right, our expert identified it as matching the description of an icon that was last known to have been in a museum in Stalingrad--right before the Nazi occupation."
Keisuke let out a low whistle of astonishment, while Jason just groaned in disgust. Well, they'd wanted proof that Renko was dirty, didn't they?
"Now, it's not definite that it's the same piece," Okada said with an amazing lack of defensiveness, "and it was never proven that it was taken by the Nazis. It could have been stolen by nearly anyone during the chaos of the war."
"Right. But as soon as anyone mentions Nazis, rational discussion goes right out the window," Jason said. He leaned forward over the table. "You said that the problems started with this icon. I'm guessing that means that other problems came up not long after."
Okada nodded so emphatically that his pompadour wobbled. "Oh, yes," he said. Now that the most shameful bit of his speech had been gotten out of the way with little trauma, he relaxed visibly.
He clicked on the mouse again, and the picture changed. It was another icon. This one showed three haloed figures gathered around a table. A chalice sat on the table, serving as the focus of the tableau. The soft pinks and blues and the flaking gold leaf were beautiful in their own right, but their gentle decay suggested that the icon had once been a riot of light and color.
"The Holy Trinity?" Keisuke guessed.
"Painted by none other than Andrei Rublev, sometime in the early fourteen hundreds." Okada handled the Russian name perfectly and without hesitation. He chuckled ruefully when the announcement was not met with the appropriate reverence by his audience. "Rublev is the Russian equivalent of a Giotto or even a Leonardo DaVinci, if one is feeling generous. The former Soviet republics tend to be rather, ah, reluctant to let any of his work be exported, even if it's a matter of one private collector selling to another private collector. In cases like this, where there's no record of the provenance, it obviously raises any number of suspicions."
Okada showed three more icons: a portrait of Christ, a diptych of Saints Peter and Paul, and a depiction of the Annunciation.
The icons looked impossibly old to Jason, even though they had been painted less than six hundred years ago. He had vivid and very present memories of temples and towers that had been built a million years before any modern historian or scientist would have said was possible, but these bits of wood, pigment, and gilt seemed to him as if they had come from a time far more exotic and distant than that.
"The first two are verifiable Rublevs, while the Annunciation is most likely the work of one of his students. Even if it's a student work, it still would have been difficult to get it out of the country legally, before or after the Soviet Union fell. In any case, the papers that came with the bequest stated that the first icon was acquired in late 1980, with the others being purchased for a pittance over the next nine months--all from different galleries."
"Wait--he bought them?" Jason asked. "They weren't a gift?"
Okada looked at him almost pityingly. "At the prices he supposedly paid for them? It would have been like buying an original Van Gogh for the price of a cheap lithographic reproduction, and while it's possible that one gallery grossly underestimated the value of a piece, it's hard to believe that four different galleries would do so."
"And let me guess. Not one of those galleries is still in business, right?" And, thought Jason, there was a better than even chance that they'd never even existed in the first place.
Okada closed his eyes and nodded gravely. "The last icon--the Annunciation--was purchased in June of 1982," he said.
That would have been right after Renko got his citizenship. A few pieces of prime artwork would have been handed over at intervals to keep the wheels greased while things were being processed, and a larger final gift would have been given right as everything was wrapped up.
So now the question was why Renko was so eager to get Japanese citizenship.
"Do you have copies of those bills of sale, Okada-san?" If they were lucky, there would be information on there that could lead them to more information about Renko or his associates. Given the importance of some of those icons, Jason would not have been surprised to find that Renko's was not the only citizenship Kusonoki had pushed through.
"I'll be sure to provide you with copies of all the relevant paperwork. Maybe you'll be able to find something our investigators haven't. Now I'm afraid that this next part probably won't be all that interesting to you, but I know that the police would prefer a thorough overview." Okada quickly flipped through a series of paintings of happy farm workers, obedient schoolgirls in institutional classrooms, gleaming combine harvesters, and pristine factory complexes. "Prime yet dull examples of Soviet Socialist Realism. From a technical standpoint, they're not bad, but they're really more valuable as cultural artifacts than as works of art. This part of the collection isn't under any shadow, I'm happy to say. The gallery that sold them did exist, but it went out of business in the early nineties."
"I have to admit, when my contact said Russian art, I was hoping for Faberge eggs or something like that," Keisuke whispered as Okada went on about a planned joint exhibition with the Art Institute of Chicago.
"What? Nazis not exciting enough for you?" Jason whispered back.
"I'm sorry, did you have a question?"
Jason and Keisuke sat bolt upright in their chairs like a couple of schoolboys who'd just been caught passing a note.
"As I was saying, we're at the part that most directly concerns your investigation. All of the pieces I'm about to show you were gifted to Kusonoki by their original owner, a man named..." he checked a piece of paper, "Semyon Fyodorivich Renko. That is the person you are investigating, yes?"
"Original owner?" Jason asked. "Does that mean that this Renko person was the one who commissioned the works?"
Okada paused, then tilted his head to one side in partial agreement. "One piece, yes, he commissioned. The other two appear to have been family property."
Huh. And here he'd thought that communists didn't do the personal property thing. Maybe he should have paid more attention in history class.
"Before we get to the portraits, we'll take a look at the botanical sketches. They are most undoubtedly from the Renko family, and date back to well before the Revolution," Okada said as a series of pencil and pastel sketches of various mosses, grasses, and weedy looking flowers followed each other on the screen. In the lower right of each sketch was a word that Jason read as PEHKO, but which Okada assured him was the name 'Renko.'
"These were done by Fyodor Alekseev Renko, undoubtedly the father of your Semyon Fyodorovich, if the patronymic is anything to go by. Fyodor was a noted Russian naturalist who would have been far more well known if his career hadn't been eclipsed by the Russian Revolution."
Right. Because the Russian Revolution was a noted career-killer, thought Jason. It certainly had been one for the Romanovs.
The various sketches started to blend together in his mind, but in the middle of it all was one group of sketches that caught Jason's eye. Instead of the usual weedy things that Renko was hung up on ("an outstanding catalog of native Siberian wildflowers"), these showed a large group of felled trees, cleared of their limbs and fanned out on the ground along a curved hillside. Here and there amidst the fallen trees stood a few dead trees, also limbless. In the margins of one of the pictures were a few doodles of a young woman. The doodles were interesting, but they also suggested that Renko should have stuck to drawing plants. They were sketchy, without the devotion to detail seen in the other pictures. The woman was nude, or mostly nude--it was hard to tell--with something about the pencil strokes that suggested rapid movement or some sort of heat haze.
The figure of the woman was certainly odd, but there was something else about the tree sketches that fidgeted at the edges of his memory. Jason endured a few more examples of Weeds of Siberia before the fidgeting got to the point where he couldn't stand it any more.
"Could you go back to the picture of the trees for a moment, Okada-san?"
Okada flipped back without comment. Jason looked more closely at the picture. "What's that writing in the corner?"
"'July first, 1908,' I believe. Does that have any significance?"
Jason shook his head. The date didn't ring any bells, but something about the fallen trees was definitely familiar. He had a nagging feeling that he'd seen this picture somewhere before. Oh, not this exact sketch, but something very much like it. A photograph? Yes, that was it. He was almost positive it was something he'd seen recently. In a book? No. That wasn't it. Television? That seemed more likely, but he couldn't be sure.
This was going to drive him crazy. He was going to pick at this like a scab, and that was stupid, because a photograph that was taken in 1908 wasn't likely to any bearing on a case that only dated back a decade and a half--or possibly millions of years. Something that happened at the beginning of the last century just didn't fit.
"What do we know about these pictures, Okada-san? They're not like the others."
Okada stared at the picture for a while, then peered over his glasses to check the file name on the computer screen. "Our cataloger referred to these sketches as 'Siberian logging camp', but there's nothing in the sketchbook to indicate that's what they are."
That was the obvious answer, but Jason knew it was the wrong answer.
After a few more minutes of botany, Okada was ready to move on to the last two slides.
"This may be nothing more than an old man's folly, but there's something of a mystery about these last two paintings. Oh, nothing sinister," he said as Jason and Keisuke perked up, "but it's intriguing, and we certainly would have played it up for the exhibition. The first one is by Zinaida Serebryakova--she's easily one of the best Russian artists of the twentieth century--and was painted in either 1910 or 1911."
Without further ado, Okada flipped to the next slide. It was a portrait of a woman. She stood with her back mostly turned to the viewer, and she was looking over her shoulder, smiling gently. Everything except the woman's face was treated almost impressionistically. The background was filled in with rough brushstrokes of dark brown paint that hinted at a warm, wooden interior, one lit only by candles and hearth. The woman wore a simple white garment that seemed to glow against the dark background. It could have been a dress, a peasant's smock, or even just a sheet that had been draped over her shoulders as she posed for the artist. Her hair was brushed back from her face, and the shadows made it impossible to tell if her hair was dark red or firelit brown.
The detail on the woman's face was soft, but defined enough to create a vivid, life-like portait. The woman had a heart-shaped face and fair skin with a golden glow from the unseen firelight. Dark, almost heavy eyebrows that arched like a seagull's wings gave her an expression of wary delight. Her smile was gentle, almost hesitant, revealing just a hint of teeth, while the almond-shaped eyes were focused on someone or something just to the right of the artist, as if seeking reassurance or perhaps just a familiar face. A small but emphatic dash of paint beneath the woman's left eye was too prominent to be just a stray brushstroke--a scar, perhaps? Like the background, the woman's eyes were a dark brown that appeared almost black, but had an unexpected complexity and richness to their color. For the first time since the slide show began Jason, wished he could see the actual painting and not just a digital photo.
"She looks like she has an old soul," he said, earning startled looks from both Okada and Keisuke.
"Very interesting that you should say that." Okada's voice sounded strained. "Take a look at this next painting. It's by Alexandr Segal, and was painted in the late nineteen-fifties, nearly a half-century after the Serebryakova."
The next picture popped up on the screen. This one was of a red-haired woman at an upper story window of an old apartment building. She wore a short-sleeved white blouse, and was bent forward slightly as she tipped a glass of water into a window box full of geraniums. Something about the fresh morning light, the open window, and the cozy domesticity of the scene reminded Jason of one of those old Dutch paintings that his mother liked, but those generally didn't include details like pigeon-laden power lines and shiny red busses in the street below.
Keisuke's grunt of surprise came barely a second before Jason noticed what was truly startling about the painting. The hair was styled differently, and was clearly identifiable as deep red, but the thick, arching eyebrows, heart-shaped face, and rich brown eyes were the same as in the Serebryakova painting.
"It's the same woman," Keisuke said, and it was not quite a question.
Jason shook his head. "No way. It's got to be a family resemblance. I mean, more than forty years later? The woman in the first picture would have been ancient by then, wouldn't she?"
But even as he said this, part of him remembered a time when humans measured their lives in centuries, not decades.
"It can't be the same woman," he insisted, but there was no point. The thin slash of paint under the woman's left eye was unmistakeable.
"You see it, don't you?" Okada asked, and there was something almost apologetic in his voice. He clicked something on the computer screen, and the Serebryakova and Segal paintings were displayed side by side on the screen. "It's possible that Segal was told to make the woman resemble the one in the Serebryakova painting, or that someone altered one of the paintings to heighten the resemblance..."
For Okada, the idea of the same woman appearing in the two portraits was romantic, even though he knew there was a 'rational' explanation.
Jason, on the other hand, knew those explanations were nothing more than a comfortable fiction. That slash of paint was no accident.
"Is there anything else you do know about the paintings?" Keisuke asked. "Anything that we could present as verifiable fact to the senior detective on the case?"
Okada thought for a moment. "The documentation on both paintings is pristine. The first painting--titled 'Zorya,' by the way--was a gift to Fyodor Renko from the artist. As for the Segal painting, it has a rather prosaic title--'Serafima Renkova at the window.'" He paused, waiting for a reaction. "'Renkova' is the feminine form of 'Renko.' It's entirely possible that this is a portrait of Semyon Fyodorovich's wife."
Three miles outside of Kamakura, Taiyouko swerved off the road and skidded to a stop on the gravel verge.
A few passers-by noticed her sitting in her car, fuming silently, then launching into what looked like a violent tirade directed at someone who wasn't there. For the most part, those who saw her assumed she was using a cell phone.
"What the hell is it about Kamakura?" she demanded, even though there was no one else in the car. No one that anyone could see, that is.
The lurker was full of piss and vinegar. It filled her head to the point where she felt she was wearing a hat that was too tight--except the hat was inside her head.
The god-damned psychic parasitic uninvited freeloading guest indicated it felt very at home here, and Taiyouko would just have to get used to the idea.
"So help me, if you screw up this investigation for me..."
It curled up in her head, contented as a well-fed cat, and lazily indicated it would stay out of the way and would only offer suggestions if it felt Taiyouko was missing something. No more outbursts like the one from the other day.
Taiyouko didn't believe it for a second.
"Right. Like you'd ever tell me anything useful." She reached into her pocket for a cigarette and huffed in disgust when she encountered a tin of mints. "Hell with it. Let's go."
Too bad the lurker didn't come with any nifty superpowers. Wright had a good thing going for him, that was for sure.
She got back on the road, and within minutes she reached the visitors' lot where she and Wright had pulled off the road just yesterday. A police car from the local precinct was conspicuously parked, and when she pulled up, an officer got out and walked over to her car in full swagger. She had her badge out and her window rolled down before he got halfway to her car.
"Tokyo Metropolitan," she said with no further explanation. "Where's everyone else?"
The officer's expression grew pinched and Taiyouko could tell that some dick-compensating behavior was about to surface, but she glared at him and was aware of the lurker somehow flexing right behind her eyes.
The officer seemed to shrink several inches (in more ways than one). He pointed down the road and babbled something about a turn-off and how it was masked by a big rock, and sorry for the confusion ma'am and have a good day ma'am and many other things that meant oh god, please don't hurt me.
Taiyouko nodded her thanks, then took off, car sputtering and transmission whining as it climbed the steep upgrade.
So maybe this thing did come with some nifty superpowers. She'd have to play around with this a little.
Not now, though, she told the lurker as they passed the rock and found the nearly hidden but surprisingly wide driveway. A small sign said DELIVERIES AND EMERGENCY VEHICLES ONLY.
Well, there were plenty of emergency vehicles to be had. Three fire engines and four marked police cars that she could see. Any ambulances would have been long gone by now. Then there were two other cars--dark blue and sober gray sedans whose only marks of officialdom were the metal grates that separated the front seats from the back. Her little econobox fit quite tidily behind them.
For a moment, Taiyouko wondered where the hell the nursing home was. It didn't make sense to have the loading and unloading zone so far from the building.
That ended when she saw how the far edge of the drive cracked and buckled before flowing into something that looked like lava. And then there was ash-white stump of concrete and twisted rebar next to the edge of the drive. It might have been a pylon that held up a carport (ambulances probably came and went from this place on a regular schedule) but it was now impossible to tell for sure.
The nursing home was gone. Barring the concrete stump and its twin twenty yards further along the drive, all that was left of the place was a large, strangely textured patch of gray earth. One section--maybe twelve feet across--was cordoned off with bright yellow tape wrapped around stanchions that had been placed in a rough octagon. As far as she could tell, the tape surrounded a whole lot of nothing.
Taiyouko blinked a few times as if clearing smoke from her eyes. She'd seen arson scenes before, but unless it was an old building that was mostly paper and ancient wood, there was always something left. Stone walls. Steel girders. Pillars. Something more than this.
She tried to imagine heat that intense, but simply could not. The lurker, on the other hand, shrugged and said nothing. There was a slight pressure in her throat, but it didn't manifest into a coughing fit.
A large man with close-cropped gray hair strode towards her car. Taiyouko recognized the challenge in his gaze, and once again got her badge and I.D. ready as she got out of the car. She felt the lurker shift to the front of her mind, but there was a big difference between scaring some little plebe with a Napoleon complex and dealing with someone she wanted to regard her as an equal or better on her own terms. She told the lurker to stand down as she presented the man with her identification. Fortunately, it did not force the issue.
The man stepped back in surprise, then leaned forward, his puzzlement clear as he glanced back and forth between her and her I.D.
Taiyouko smirked. As fun as it was seeing Officer Wannabe nearly wet himself, seeing this sort of mental realignment was far more satisfying. "I know. Not what you expected, huh? I'm looking for an Inspector Tsukigawa."
"That would be me," he said in a voice that was surprisingly light for such a big man. He also seemed to have recovered quickly from his confusion. He bowed slightly. "Tsukigawa Ken. Arson."
"Seidou Taiyouko. Homicide."
She enjoyed the introductions that took place when meeting detectives from other divisions. It always ended up sounding like they were comparing hobbies.
"I appreciate your coming all the way out here on such short notice, Detective Seidou."
Taiyouko's return bow was little more than a curt nod. Tsukigawa was at least thirty centimeters taller and twenty years older than she was, and built like a brick wall. If she was the one to break eye contact, she was screwed. This was going to be her crime scene.
She smiled when Tsukigawa looked away and hunched forward a bit, as if to make himself smaller on her behalf.
Not bad, the lurker said with surprising sincerity.
Just be on the lookout for any more of those idol things, she told it.
There was a short, brisk flash of agreement, and the weight of the lurker's attention lifted from her without warning. Taiyouko wondered if it actually needed her eyes to read its environment, but before she could get a response, she let it know she'd rather not know, thank you.
Introductions complete, the two detectives crossed back over to the actual burn site.
"Other than the fact that the entire place burned completely to the ground, what have you found that's unusual, Tsukigawa-san?"
"Where do I begin?" he asked, wry rather than frustrated. A sweep of his arm indicated a sharp demarcation within the burn pattern. It formed an almost perfect circle. Within the circle, everything had been reduced to ash. No, not just ash. Taiyouko could see what looked like grayish, hardened lava in places where the breeze and human interference had brushed the ash aside. And then, in the very center, the cordoned-off section. It glittered.
"The burn pattern is just the beginning. Let's go take a look at the periphery first. We'll come back to the scene itself in a bit. There's something I want to show you, but it'll make more sense after you see the rest of this."
In a younger man, his manner might have come across as eager and enthusiastic, but Tsukigawa mostly came across as tired but determined. As he changed course and headed out towards the garden, Taiyouko hurried so as not to fall behind. The ground was iron-hard and deeply crazed, and the grass was crisp beneath her feet. "It feels like this got about a year's worth of hard sun in what, an hour?"
"Thirty-seven minutes from the first alarm to the structure being declared a total loss," Tsukigawa said. It appeared he was going to stick to facts for now and hold the theorizing until later--probably until he got to whatever it was he'd saved for the final course. "It took another hour before anyone could get close enough to the fire to start containment procedures. Despite that, other than three residents, a visitor and two nursing aides, they got everyone else out safely."
That would include people who probably couldn't get very far under their own steam, and some who might have been frightened and confused enough to give their would-be rescuers a hard time. Taiyouko imagined the situation had been only one step away from turning into the sort of nightmare that would be on the national news for weeks.
According to Tsukigawa, it nearly had. One of the aides had been trying to get a patient with severe dementia out of the building. At least, that's what the last person who had seen both aide and patient reported. Another patient died of acute respiratory distress shortly after being evacuated, largely thanks to her oxygen tank being left behind as a safety measure. Four other patients were currently in the ICU with little hope of pulling through.
As they crossed the fire-baked grounds Tsukigawa went on with his description, and Taiyouko continued to build a picture of what had happened. She concentrated on that 'what' for the moment, putting the 'how' off for later. She only interrupted the arson detective when she wasn't sure she was picturing things correctly.
According to one of the survivors, a smoke detector went off shortly before eight last night (he remembered the time only because his favorite television program was due to start). Instead of starting the proscribed evacuation procedures, someone had been sent to see if the wiring had shorted out again. At most, maybe two minutes had been lost between the alarm going off and someone yelling that there was smoke coming from hallway two. The designated fire warden reported that the evacuation took only twelve minutes. Despite breaking protocol with the actual alarm, the facility was rigorous about its fire and earthquake drills. Thanks to a combination of circumstance and professionalism, the managed to get everybody out in near-miraculous time.
Everybody minus six, that was. Of the three victims Tsukigawa hadn't already mentioned, there was no way of knowing exactly what happened. All the warden could say was that one patient was unaccounted for as was one of the aides who was responsible for clearing Hallway Two. Caught in the fire, no doubt. As for victim number six, she wasn't on the fire warden's list. They only knew about her because the nurse on reception duty said they had a visitor sign in shortly before eight.
"I'll want to talk to the receptionist," Taiyouko said. She'd need a name and description of Victim Six. It was more than possible that Victim Six wasn't a victim at all. Unaccounted for and dead were two very different things. To her surprise, Tsukigawa didn't push back. He nodded in agreement and that was that. "Anything else you can tell me about how the fire spread?"
"We had two other eyewitnesses, both from Hallway Two. One is a resident of the home--dementia. Luckily for him, his daughter was visiting, and she was able-bodied enough to get him clear once the alarm started. If they'd waited for help, they'd be dead."
The fire had gone from smoke to white-hot blaze in an instant with no warning. According to the daughter (now in the burn ward with only a seventy percent chance of survival), they'd just made it outside when they were hit with a wave of blistering heat.
"What's strange is that there was no flash of light and no shockwave--and no flying debris. They were badly burned, but they weren't knocked off their feet--and the man is in his late eighties." Even though Tsukigawa had to be in his sixties, he made eighty sound impossibly old. "Hard to believe, really."
After that initial burst of heat, the temperatures had continued to rise and rise, practically vaporizing the building within a matter of seconds. "We did check for radiation, of course," Tsukigawa said before Taiyouko could ask.
"Of course." Taiyouko had already figured as much given that they were walking through the crime scene without any protective garb. She did see someone off to the side in what looked like a Level B hazmat suit, but the woman's gloves and hood were off and she was chugging from a water bottle.
"There were fewer secondary fires than expected. Most of the debris was simply vaporized by the heat before it could blow off and start other fires. And the evacuees retreated--as procedure dictated--to the far edge of the parking lot." Here, Tsukigawa turned and pointed behind them. Other than the very edge of the lot, the parking area was intact and untouched. The trees on the far side had no damage. "If the temperatures were as high as we think they were at the point of origin, it should have been close to unbearably hot. But other than the people who got burned getting out, no one reported any discomfort. It was truly strange."
"So you're saying there's nothing you know of that would cause a burn that was so contained?"
He shook his head. "Only if there was advance preparation--say a controlled burn on a movie set. But with this level of heat? And that sharp a demarcation between temperature zones? I can't think of any rational explanation for that." Tsukigawa paused in a manner that suggested he was waiting for a response, but Taiyouko did not oblige him. Instead, they continued on towards the garden. Taiyouko thought she recognized a bench. At least, the angle at which it was sticking out of the ground was remarkably familiar. "In addition, the only sign of disturbance was this."
'This' was a swath torn up ground, piles of mud and rubble, and uprooted statuary.
"Any idea who's responsible?" Taiyouko, of course, knew exactly what was responsible, but she knew how to keep her voice level and not betray that she knew something a perp didn't know she knew.
At the same time, she gave the lurker swift instructions to see if it noticed any footprints (ladies' size twenty-two, men's size clodhopper). Thank goodness, she thought, for the usual contamination of arson scenes. Thank goodness, also, that she hadn't traded in her trusty revolver for the automatic she could have taken when she started working organized crime cases. There wasn't nearly enough heat damage out here to eliminate ejected shell casings.
"All we know is that it happened before the fire. There was a call at twelve-thirty reporting a disturbance, but the noise stopped while the caller was still on the line."
The timing sounded about right for her and Wright's presence. Still, she said nothing.
"Another call went out shortly after at thirteen hundred reporting extensive damage to the garden. They'd taken some residents out for some fresh air shortly before lunch and nothing was wrong. Lunch is at noon, so whatever happened, happened in less than an hour."
Taiyouko raised an eyebrow at a stone lantern that now lay in pieces a good ten meters from its starting place. "Industrious vandals. You'd need quite a crew for this kind of damage. Any sign it was connected to the fire?"
Tsukigawa was being awfully free with his information. He also kept looking at her with mild expectation from time to time, as if waiting for her to pick up her cue and break into his near-monologue with her own commentary. It was a subtle press for whatever information she had, and Taiyouko had a feeling things would become less subtle before too long.
Still, Tsukigawa didn't push her question right back at her. "Industrious and unusually strong." Again, he looked at her as if daring her to comment. "It's just as unusual as the fire itself, in my opinion, but I'm reluctant to draw any connections unless I have more than just coincidence."
There was much more than coincidence, Taiyouko thought, but she was at a loss how to explain it without being hauled off for psychiatric evaluation. Well, unless the mud-things came back. If they did, she had a pair of fully loaded moonclips in her bag in case she needed to reload in a hurry. The revolver itself was snug in its shoulder holster. Things could get ugly, fast, but at least she wouldn't have to worry about Tsukigawa thinking she was nuts.
"So, have you come up with any theories about what caused this blaze? Or why?" she asked.
They passed the remains of one of the mud men. A crime scene tech was picking through the mud and putting various oddments in baggies for later analysis. As they passed by, he held up a shard of glass in a pair of tweezers. Taiyouko heard him hiss in surprise at something, but with the very next step she heard him mutter something about a trick of the light.
The lurker suggested they see what the tech was doing, but both she and it were distracted by a sharp whistle, and a cry of Shiro! Come!.
A black dog--overfed Labrador from the look of it--barrelled past them, heading straight for a safety-vested firefighter. The dog dropped to a polite sit in front of him. He reached down, and after petting the dog, held her head still as he yelled to someone on the other side of the garden to go ahead and hide the bait.
"Search and rescue? Or cadaver finder?" Neither seemed likely, given the extent of the destruction.
"Shiro's trained to find where accelerants were planted. Location can tell us a hell of a lot about who may have had the opportunity and means to set a fire."
"Shiro, huh? Nice name for a black dog."
To his credit, Tsukigawa laughed softly. It sounded genuine enough.
"That dog has more pride in her job than most people I know," said Tsukigawa. He nodded towards the man who was in charge of the 'bait,' namely a wad of dripping wet cotton that he shoved deep into a hole in the ground.
Taiyouko flinched as a flash of memory replayed the moment when an iron bench had plowed into the ground, creating that hole. If things had gone differently, Tsukigawa's crew might have been scraping bits of her out of there.
Fortunately, she was distracted from that cheerful line of thought by the jingle of Shiro's collar. The dog followed a line of scent right to the cotton and barked sharply when she got to the hole. The bait-placer rewarded her with disgustingly lavish praise. Taiyouko turned to Tsukigawa, one eyebrow raised rather pointedly.
"If she doesn't find something at a scene, she gets depressed," Tsukigawa admitted. "Funny, how even animals can feel that frustration."
Taiyouko ignored the second part of what he said. It felt like another one of his not-quite-questions. "So in other words, today was a big old goose egg for her. Have you ever found accelerant at a scene when Shiro couldn't?"
Tsukigawa actually thought it over for a moment rather than responding in knee-jerk defense of the dog, thereby going up several points in Taiyouko's estimation.
"Only twice," he finally admitted. "She's trained to identify thirteen different accelerants. The times she's failed is when the arsonist used something out of the ordinary, but when we're dealing with the usuals--gasoline, kerosene, lighter fluid, paint thinner, things like that--she nails it every time. Most of the time, when she doesn't find anything, it's an accidental fire."
He looked at the white and blasted patch of ground at the point of origin. "Getting back to your question about what I think started this, I'm getting pressure to write this off as an electrical fire caused by faulty wiring or as some resident smoking in bed, but I've never seen a fire get that hot without some sort of chemical assistance." He shook his head and sighed roughly. "The last time I saw burn patterns like this was after the refinery fire at Niigata."
He probably wasn't aware of reaching over and rubbing his right thumb over the shiny pink scars on his left hand. Taiyouko would have bet cash money that she was not the only one who was thinking about close calls that day.
"Okay, so you obviously didn't need me to figure out that this isn't just a case of some old duffer forgetting a cigarette and torching the mattress. Why'd you drag me out here on my day off? Need someone to help push back against the people who are pushing you?"
She could tell he was pissed, but she didn't think he was pissed at her. "The receptionist told me that you had called here the other day asking about one of the residents. Renko something, I think it was."
Tsukigawa didn't wait for confirmation. Instead, he made a sharp left and crooked his finger, signaling her to follow him over to one of the unmarked cars. He leaned in through the open window and pulled out a large roll of paper. He unfurled it across the hood of the car, revealing a detailed floor plan.
"I had the director of the home bring me the blueprints and a list of who was in which room. Based on the eyewitness reports and what little we could decipher of the burn pattern, we think we know where the fire started." He smiled crookedly and tapped a particular square on the plan. "Guess whose room was the point of origin?"
Taiyouko sighed. "My guy, right?" She pulled her hands down her face, trying to wipe away the frustration. "Doesn't that just figure. Renko was my best--maybe my only--lead on a case that went cold fourteen years ago."
The soft, rhythmic rustle of blueprints being rolled up stopped suddenly. "You were the primary when it went cold?"
"Yeah." It was only one syllable, but it told the whole damned story.
Tsukigawa finished rolling up the blueprints. Instead of putting them back in his car, he handed them to Taiyouko. "I'm supposed to retire at the end of the month."
He didn't have to say anything else. This was probably his last case. Something big had happened, but it could take months or even years to solve, but instead of being given that time, he'd been handed an order to take a nice big lid and cover up the stink. He was to play nice, and then he could go retire to the countryside and try to drink away the 'what ifs'.
Taiyouko, on the other hand, had been given the order to dig. She took the blueprints.
Tsukigawa remained stock-still while she put the blueprints in the back of her car. He stood straight, but his head was bowed, and he seemed intent on the tips of his shoes. As she walked back over to him, Taiyouko could see the tightened mouth, and the tensing of muscle as his jaw clenched and released over and over again.
He startled back to attention, but seemed amused--or at least not offended--by her bluntness.
"There's one more thing I need to show you." Something about the way he said it made Taiyouko feel as if she was being set up. The lurker's focus shifted back to Tsukigawa, orders to look out for mud-men be damned.
He headed back towards the center of the crime scene, Taiyouko followed, hurrying to catch up.
When she drew even with him, Tsukigawa began to speak, words being chosen with the sort of care a bomb-squad tech would use when disconnecting a fuse mechanism. "You may already be aware of this, but police in other cities joke about what you have to deal with in Tokyo."
"Giant radioactive lizards on Sunday, magical girls in short skirts on Tuesday, and the apocalypse rolling through town the first Friday of every month? Yeah, I've heard the jokes."
He chuckled and waved aside the officer who'd been standing guard by the taped-off area of the burn zone.
"You forgot to mention the alien invasions," he said.
"That's on Wednesdays," Taiyouko deadpanned. "Overrated, if you ask me. So, yes, we do get more than our share of weird shit. Or at least, we have more than our share of people who come up with creative explanations for things. What's your point?"
Tsukigawa said nothing. He simply held the tape up so she could duck under. She did, and it was like hitting a wall of heat.
"I see." She looked around, moving constantly because the heat bled through the soles of her shoes so quickly she might as well have been going barefoot. "You're sure there's no radiation?"
Tsukigawa hunkered down so he could get under the tape. "That's exactly what I asked, right before you got here. This is where Renko's room was, by the way."
She'd figured as much. "You've never seen anything like this, you said?"
"I've seen heat like this, but never anything so contained. Or so intense."
The area was not only completely wiped flat of any features, it was slightly hollowed out, as if someone had come in and neatly scooped out the ground. The indentation was perfectly smooth and perfectly round, dipping down to a depth of maybe a half-meter in the center. Other than glassy gray and fine ash, all she could see were a few footprints in the ash and a bright orange evidence tag. A plastic container sat upended next to the tag, one side already caved in from the heat.
"The bucket-thingy was put there later, yes?"
"Right. What's under there isn't something we want too many people to see." He nodded towards the guard who had re-stationed himself by the cordon.
Taiyouko walked over to the evidence tag, wondering what the hell they found that could possibly survived such heat.
"You asked me what my point was," Tsukigawa said. Taiyouko had crouched down and was reaching for the bucket, but stopped as soon as he spoke. "I suppose my point was that I'm wondering how much you believe in that sort of weirdness. Some people think it's a joke, or a hoax..."
"Let's just say I've had a few moments." Taiyouko spoke warily, not looking over to the inspector. The lurker coiled and tensed. "I know there are things out there I can't explain."
Including this thing riding in my head right now.
"Are you familiar with those girls who call themselves the 'Sailor Senshi'?"
Taiyouko stood up slowly. Every inch was a battle. Keeping her mouth shut was a battle. She wasn't sure her motions were her own. She knew that if she opened her mouth, her words would not be her own.
She was scared shitless and she was furious.
The lurker waited, crouching, poised.
"You are, then," he said.
Taiyouko managed a brusque nod. It was almost enough to shake her control. Over and over she yelled at the lurker to stand the hell down, she was in control of the situation, this man wasn't a danger, they needed someone on the ground here in Kamakura to find out about this visitor, this was her case, damn it. Hers.
The lurker hissed in disgust and sidled off to the rear of her mind.
"They might have something to do with the case I'm working on," she admitted. The lurker's departure had left her knees wobbly, and when she crouched down to pick up the bucket, it was almost a collapse. "You think they're involved here?"
She picked up the bucket and almost dropped it again. The smell it released nearly knocked her back millions of years into the past.
"Not the Senshi as such," he said, "although the strange burn patterns--inexplicable containment, residual heat that doesn't seem to transfer as it should--remind me of what a couple of fire inspectors have told me about Sailor Mars. All secondhand, of course," he added wryly.
Giant trees, reaching so high into the sky they seemed to curve overhead. An orchard, trees heavy with apples that gleamed like antique gold. A narrow moat circling a small island, four streams pouring down from the island pavilion to feed the moat. A rustle of silk and a friend leaning over to whisper something in her ear. A wave of scent-borne memories so strong it nearly erased the present. But then the lurker took the memories, folding and bundling them up like a cloth, and the world returned to what it was.
She was at an arson site, sitting at the point of origin of a fire so hot that it had burned down to and vaporized bedrock, and she was looking at something that should not exist. Not here, and not now.
"It was covered by ash and debris." Tsukigawa sounded as if he still didn't believe it. "I'm still tempted to suggest that someone placed it there after the fact, but the fire was still going strong when we got here. We checked for any signs of footprints, but..." He shrugged. "You know how it goes."
Taiyouko gathered her wits and reached into her pocket to grab her latex gloves.
"Anyhow, this goes far and beyond what I've heard about Sailor Mars, but what you see there suggests a 'friend' of theirs might be involved. Not that I've heard much friendly about him."
She reached out and picked up the rose. It was perfect. Unblemished.
Author's notes: My most abject apologies for such a long absence. A combination of real life distractions (job loss, cross-country move, and subsequent job hunt), having my notes packed away for a long time (see: cross-country move), being distracted by other shiny fandoms, and losing my sense of the characters' voices for a while all contributed to a long absence. I won't say that a long hiatus won't happen again, but I do plan on finishing this story. If, for some reason, I have to abandon this, I will be sure to post a synopsis of what happens from that point onwards. That said, it feels wonderful to be working on this story again.
Other notes: Moonclips have nothing to do with how Usagi pins her hair up. They're little gadgets that can be used if you need to reload a revolver in a hurry.
In case you were wondering, yes, that was a small "Buffy" shoutout in the Jason and Taiyouko section.
Many thanks to Aishuu and Megan for hand-holding, beta-reading, and general encouragement.