Chapter 1: The Art of Respecting the Dead
AN: This is going to be a 5-parter, but as such each chapter is a tad lengthy (5,000-10,000 words), so if you decide to read this, I suggest that you set out some spare time (so I'm warning the readers as a preemptive word of caution.) I'm hoping you like it, at least a little bit and that will be enough for me.
Mai didn't know what to expect when she saw the house. Judging from the caustic words their young teenage client had used to describe it, specifically, decrepit, pile of crap, broken and the most important: 'should be burned to the ground,' Mai hadn't guessed just how beautiful and picturesque the place would be. Certainly it wasn't in the best condition, but the girl spoke like it had been a dump. This place was…oddly magnificent even in its minute squalor.
The teen had apparently wanted to let the workers of S.P.R. know just how fond she was of the place and exactly how much she wanted their help on the case; namely, not very much at all.
Mai paused at the gates as the others brushed past her. The tall wooden structures were traditional Sukiya style gates about eight feet tall, colored an aged brown and dark green from the fine layer of moss coating the wood. The others didn't seem to notice, but other than school field trips to a teahouse once and from photos Mai had seen in books, she had never been to an old-style Japanese house. Well, old to her, maybe not old to Japan. Over two hundred years was impressive enough for Mai.
Under her feet, the wooden walkway changed to gravel intermixed with sporadic weeds as she passed under the gateway. The rest of the house was no less aged, but the way in which the house had been left in such ill-repair made Mai turn melancholy.
The garden in front of her had probably been breathtaking at the high point of its care. There were two ponds in the front, one on either side of the Mai as she walked along the entrance path. The one on the left was smaller, but both were low on water and filled so heavily with algae that Mai couldn't see the bottom. The trees overhead had grown out of controlled as no one had trimmed them and didn't let any much sunlight pass through their giant boughs, swathing the whole property in a patchy shade. Mai imagined the pools having been crystalline at one point and mourned it.
As she walked along the path, she paused at the bridge and eyed the wooden structure carefully. It would be just her luck if it collapsed under her weight and so she resolved to test it. Carefully, she put one foot on it and put weight on it. The wood creaked ominously. A black blur swept past her without hesitation. He was a giant to her, that Lin. He turned to glance at her with a hidden smile on his face. It was barely visible under the sweep of side fringe that covered one eye. Mai scowled at him in return.
From the outside the house looked in decent shape, but with the way Yasuhara struggled with the front door, she guessed that it probably was worse off than even their client had guessed. Yasuhara looked to Ayako for help, but the miko merely shook her head before she started rolling up her sleeves.
Lin, merely put a hand on her shoulder and walked past the miko to wedge his shoulder and weight into the door. It slid open as the two men pushed it past the jam together. Tamako, the teenage client, hadn't mentioned the problem of the door. She'd only mentioned that she might be late and to start without her. She'd also mentioned that if they fell through the floorboards then she wasn't liable. She then added that if Naru fell through the floorboards, it was probably best to leave him. Tamako apparently held no fondness of their taciturn boss.
Charming girl, Mai thought.
"Mai, quit gawking and move. You're blocking the pathway," a sharp voice said. Mai slid an annoyed look over her shoulders, but quickly skipped along the pathway to the front door. At the entrance, she looked down at her feet, and back up to study the little empty cabinets to the side.
The same arrogant, grating voice lilted in Mai's ear. "Keep your shoes on, idiot. You do remember Matsushita-san mentioning the faulty flooring, right? Or have you already forgotten? As my assistant, you should really have more of a memory than a goldfish." Mai bristled at the sharp comments, but didn't saying anything.
Her boss, Shibuya Kazuya, and the source of the comments, wedged his way past her, bumping her shoulder briefly. Most everyone in her work referred to their collective boss as Naru as opposed to Shibuya or Kazuya. As far as she was concerned, neither one really fit him nearly as well as Naru, shorthand for narcissist, or for his real name, which Mai had only recently learned was Oliver Davis. It still irked Mai that she hadn't known his real name. She still hadn't let him forget all his many trespasses against the group.
"Mai." Again with the way he said it. Reprimanding, as if speaking to a child.
Mai grit her teeth, but smiled sweetly. "I thought I told you my name was Kanako. Call me Kanako-chan," she said, sarcasm dripping with every word. Her boss merely scowled before he about-faced and walked away, disappearing around the corner.
Just when she thought she might have actually won, she heard him say loud and clear, "Teinousha-san, unload the truck and bring in the towers first. I want to start working as fast as possible. Don't keep me waiting." She only heard footsteps for a moment before they disappeared altogether.
Clenching her fist, Mai only let the minor annoyance get to her for a slip of a second before she started recalling the zen ideas that Bou-san had imparted on her. Actually, they were calming techniques he'd forced upon her and it was safe to say, she hadn't really taken them to heart yet.
Mai walked distractedly back to the van and almost slid into the pond once when she wasn't paying enough attention. She quickly noted how close the pond was to the path, and passed out the gate. When she reached the van, she gripped the door handle. It clicked uselessly under her hand. Locked.
Growling, she stalked back to the house and walked around aimlessly looking for Naru. She found both Ayako and John checking out the place as she walked the halls of the dark, unlit house. Both exorcists looked at her quietly as she asked irately for their boss. They motioned back the way she came and she had barely walked out the door before she leaned back in and muttered a grumpy 'thank you.'
She pulled out her keychain flashlight to guide her way back. Dust particles floated lightly in the small beam of light, and swayed in her wake as she walked. She raised her hand to cover her mouth and nose, not wanting to breathe it in.
She found Naru back at the entrance waiting expectantly, leaned against the doorframe studying a clipboard—likely a preemptory checklist of what they needed. He glanced up when she huffed at him and he glanced at her speculatively like this was her fault. The small amount of light diffusing through the door lit his svelte frame that was covered by his familiar dark black jacket that reached his knees. He looked amused and annoyed all at once.
She held her hand out, waiting.
His gaze slid between her open palm to her face again before he tilted his head in false askance.
Mai wanted to stomp her foot, but resisted—barely.
"The keys," she explained, gratingly.
"I gave them to Lin a number of minutes ago." He looked to his clipboard again, crossed something off. Without looking up, he said, "he's been unloading by himself as he couldn't find you by the van."
Mai held in the childish growl and breezed by him without another word. Things between them had yet to be completely smoothed over. After all, how was she supposed to feel after she confessed to him—her boss no less—and for him to, for all intents and purposes, blatantly ignore her only to show up a couple months (five months, to be exact) later expecting her to work for him with no qualms.
Well, he can think again, Mai thought acidly. Mai was still a little sheepish and angry about his lack of response. (Denial of her confession by saying that she was in love with his dead brother was not only insulting, it was deflecting.)
Mai silently fumed as she went to help Lin unpack the van. She pasted on a stock smile, after all, Lin wasn't the one she was mad at.
Lin wasn't the one who had up and left her…on second thought, he had done exactly that.
Just like Naru.
Her smile fell rapidly. Today was going to be rather touchy.
"Mai, quit staring out the window. They're just Jackdaws."
Mai jumped, snapping out of her reverie. She'd been staring at the trio of black and white birds sitting outside the window for the last few minutes. They had been cawing noisily for a bit and had provided all the distraction necessary to pull Mai away from that paper.
Absently, she ran a finger across the window ledge and pretended that she hadn't just been sidetracked by birds. Turning her finger over, she frowned. No dust. That meant she had no excuse to clean instead of writing the essay that was currently uninspired and unfinished sitting idly on her desk. She wondered if she stared at it for awhile if it would spontaneously combust. Maybe she'd develop a new power—she was hoping for pyrokinesis at this point in time—if she tried hard enough.
Bolstering herself, Mai turned and smiled saccharinely at Yasuhara, who regarded her with a mix of interest and wariness. He folded his arms across his chest, preparing himself for whatever Mai was up to.
With that same smile, she paraded over to Yasuhara's side on the couch and plopped down beside him, tucking her leg under.
"What are you doing?" she asked in a chipper tone. Clearly, she didn't want to him to focus on what she wasn't doing.
He leaned forward, considering her skeptically, unsure of where she was going with this, but answered her by flipping over the cover of the book in front of him.
"16th century German w—wo—what does that last word say?" She read the title, but as it was in English, she couldn't make out the last word.
"Woodcuts," he supplied.
"Woodcuts," she repeated. She turned the cover and flipped through a few pages and grimaced. She tucked her head into her shoulder and mumbled something quietly to herself.
"What was that, Taniyama-san?" Yasuhara noticed her discomfort, but gave her credit for not looking away nervously like he had expected of her.
Mai looked mildly put out. "I said, a lot of them are naked," she noted quickly before taking a deep breath.
Yasuhara turned the page and set the book in her lap. Suddenly excited, he said, "Yes, they are! Particularly, this one." He pointed to three women, all naked and either sitting in front of a cauldron or dancing around the aforementioned cauldron. A skull made of smoke wove its away up the woodcut. Yasuhara started pointing at various parts of the woodcut, though Mai noticed he was dangerously close to the breasts and more private parts every time.
Probably on purpose, Mai thought exasperatedly. And then his finger landed directly on the witch's crotch. No 'probably' about that one. That was a direct shot.
"Witches of the Sabbath," he continued, gesturing about a bit.
Mai tried to keep up with him. She turned the page and hid the malicious grin threatening to blossom.
"And what's this one?" Mai's finger landed, more or less, directly on the naked man's groin. Yasuhara paused a moment, and coughed, looking embarrassed. Mai grinned victoriously.
Yasuhara coughed again, brushing her finger off the page with a slide of his hand. He slid her a covert glance, looking at her through his lashes almost shyly.
"Why, Taniyama-san, that's his penis." Mai's eyes widened, and she coughed once trying to stem the choking feeling she felt rising. Yasuhara shook his head theatrically. "I thought they would have taught you that in health class years ago," he continued dramatically. He put a hand on her shoulder and turned to face her with a serious expression. "As your sempai, I feel it is my duty to teach you about the art of reproduction. Such a shame, your schools haven't informed you, but you're in luck—"
"Yasuhara-san," Mai growled warningly while smacking him on the arm.
A pen struck the back of the hand that he had on Mai's shoulder hard enough that he winced. He withdrew the hand sharply, rubbing the smarting ache.
Mai paled a little when she saw it was Naru walking behind the couch and was barely paying them any attention. Obviously, he was paying enough attention to smack Yasuhara without looking, but that was about as much attention he warranted them.
Mai felt a chill in the air, but didn't comment. She always felt like the temperature responded to Naru's moods. Scientifically speaking, it was preposterous. Psychically, it was all too likely given his level of kikou, but Mai couldn't say for sure.
"Yasuhara-san. Mai," he began. "Don't both of you have things you should be doing? Like my expense reports…" His frosty tone belied the neutral words.
"Ah, Shochou, but this is a matter of the utmost importance." He put an arm around Mai who braced herself with both hands against his chest, readying herself to push away the moment he got out of hand…which, she weighed in her head dourly, could have already been passed.
"Taniyama-san is sadly lacking in the knowledge of procreation. Shall I defer to you and assume you'll do the honor of informing the poor, experience-deficient child?"
Unfazed, Naru didn't even glance up to take the bait. "Get back to work."
Mai studied the look on Yasuhara's face. Pensive, but not defeated. She could tell that he was filing this away for later. He turned a high-wattage smile on her and she couldn't help but smile back.
On the other side of the office now, Naru was rifling through the bookshelf again, looking for some hidden text he currently struggled to find. Again, it didn't take much for him to seem completely indifferent to them. Mai wrinkled her nose in annoyance. She was all for annoying Naru today. Ignoring his curt edict, she tentatively touched the pages of Yasuhara's book and started flipping through them again. Some were grotesque, some rather mundane and others very depressing. She stopped on one of a naked woman posing likely in her boudoir. She was standing slightly slouched over, and while the naked part was already fairly eye-catching enough to Mai, the part that caught her attention was the long knife whose sharp point was settled on the underside of the woman's breast against tender flesh.
"Who is this?" Mai asked.
"Lucretia, from Roman legends," Yasuhara explained.
"And she's committing suicide while naked because…?" Mai didn't understand the fascination artists had with the naked body. It was just a body. Though, Mai supposed, she liked to see the landscapes artists painted and that wasn't quite abstract, but…whatever, to each their own…
"Maybe it's an oddly freeing sensation, Taniyama-san. When she is dead, she may face judgment from the living, but it is judgment that she'll most likely be unaware of. It can be seen as a spiteful gesture as well to some scholars, but the exact reason for her state of dress is unknown except perhaps to the artist. And in other renderings, she's fully clothed," he added as a last thought.
"Maybe she's a bit loony," Mai offered, amused. "Or maybe those artists are just perverts." She stuck her tongue out.
Mai felt the air shift above her before a clipboard smacked her on top of the head. "Ow," she grumbled.
Above her, Naru looked down disapprovingly at her. "Respect the dead, Mai."
Mai met his gaze curiously. "She's real?" She looked to Yasuhara spitefully. "You said legend."
She shifted her gaze back to Naru. He looked pensive for a moment and Mai thought he might not respond.
"She might be real. The evidence is unclear if it is just a legend, or if maybe she is based upon a real person. History was a very clouded thing in Rome during that time." He shrugged.
Mai considered this. "True, or not, what a waste. I'm sure she was beautiful. Why is sh—why did she kill herself?" She scrambled to add, "according to legend."
"She was raped," Naru said simply. He moved again, heading back into his office.
Yasuhara tried to recover the moment from that depressing thought. "Indeed, it was contended that she was very, very beautiful. But beauty fades." Yasuhara rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then turned to Mai with a critical look. "Who would have guessed you were so vain, Taniyama-san?"
Mai rolled her eyes and tried to say, 'I meant what a waste of life,' but Yasuhara wasn't listening once again.
"Even our beautiful boss' face will one day fade. Wither. Wrinkle and fall apart—" Yasuhara punctuated each word and over her shoulder she knew Naru was listening. "—most likely because he frowns so much, but probably due to poor genetics as well. What a shame, but do not fear, Shochou, it is not for your face that we love you—well, mostly, but—"
Mai couldn't help but laugh pleasantly. She clutched her stomach as she curled over chuckling.
"Yasuhara-san," Naru said it tightly and Mai could sense that he was a tad exasperated, but not quite angry with them yet. Yasuhara had a way about him that could diffuse most any situation.
"Your reports are right here, Shochou. I didn't think you were speaking of this month's expense reports. My oversight." He stood and stepped over Mai's legs carefully. He gave her a hidden smirk as he passed her and she muffled a giggle again.
Naru accepted the files with a raised eyebrow, and leaned around Yasuharu to stare steadily at Mai.
Mai sobered immediately as he fixed his gaze on her. She cleared her throat and smiled minutely.
"The files on your desk, Taniyama-san." Naru's voice wasn't nearly as gentle as it had been a moment ago. Mai's mouth parted to speak, but she was cut off by Yasuhara.
"Aha, I forgot about those. I asked Mai to pull those as I had some interest in the cases we've rejected recently. Something had caught my attention, but now I can't quite remember what it was exactly. I'll file those back right away." He bowed to Naru and Mai relaxed as Naru's attention was diverted safely off of her.
Taking the distraction offered, Mai circled her desk and settled into her chair softly. Naru followed her for a moment, but finally, swept back into his office. When Naru was out of sight and his door was shut behind him, Mai sighed loudly and set her forehead against her desk.
A half hour passed and she had started to make some progress on her paper, but she was suddenly stuck as she had nothing left to write. Was it enough? Would her teacher want more? He hadn't stipulated how long he had wanted the paper.
She looked to Yasuhara. "Yas-u-hara-san," she said in a sing-song voice. He looked up at her inquiringly. "How long do your professors like your essays to be at the university?"
He pursed his lips and looked upward, thinking. "Depends…" Mai could almost envision the light bulb lighting up above his head. He smiled. "You know, my favorite sensei has what he calls 'the miniskirt rule.' He says the essay should be like a miniskirt. Long enough to cover everything. Short enough to keep it interesting." He smiled brilliantly over at her.
"Pervert," Mai grumped and tossed her paperweight at him. She tried to miss purposely, but almost accidentally hit him because of her poor aim. The metal piece skimmed by his head and landed heavily on the carpeted floor with a thump. The noise didn't end immediately as the paperweight bounced once and then rolled noisily around the office.
Both employees didn't bother looking at the fallen hardware; instead, both stared cautiously at the boss' door, waited and worried. Nothing.
And then the door whipped open, creaking on the hinges. They hadn't even heard his footsteps in his office. He'd moved as soundlessly as a cat. Mai cringed, preparing for the onslaught.
Their boss opened his mouth to yell when the front door opened, causing the bell on the door to chime. Mai and Yasuhara had to turn to see the door and who had opened it.
It was a young teenage girl, fifteen at most, and on her face was the most sour, repugnant look, framed with short, downy hair spiked at the bottoms of her ear. Mai swiftly stood from her desk and greeted her. "Welcome to Shibuya Psychic Research. How can we help you?" Mai didn't know the girl's face could twist any further into a scowl, but at the mention of their work's name, she grew further agitated.
"This is the place?" She sounded unhappy at the thought and turned to scowl as she assessed the writing on the door. She looked between each person quickly.
Between glances, Mai looked down at her calendar. She double-checked to make sure there wasn't an appointment today otherwise Naru would fillet her. Today's square was empty. There wasn't a meeting. Mai breathed a sigh of relief.
"Shibuya Psychic Research," the girl repeated. "You're the bunch of psychics that go around investigating haunted houses, hocus pocus, and see ghosts, right?" Her tone was caustic and it set Mai on edge immediately. She clamped her hands together in her lap.
Naru's cold voice spread over the room. "We are psychic researchers. We investigate strange phenomena in a scientific manner, none of your hocus pocus required," Naru said in thinly veiled distaste.
The girl pursed her lips, suddenly cowed, and looking like she wanted to leave. A frustrated blush was creeping up the sides of her neck. At her sides, her fists clenched into tiny balls as she searched for her resolve. "I'm not doing this for me," the girl started again. "My mother wants you to check a house for us."
"And where is your mother?" It was Yasuhara this time. His tone was vastly more measured than Naru's.
"She's at work. And she doesn't want her name to be involved with this," the girl added quickly. "She believes in phantoms and demons and such, but she doesn't want her work to think she's superstitious and paranoid. She loves her job," the girl explained. The girl took a deep breath. "But I don't," she said harshly.
"You don't what?" Mai countered softly. She was trying a softer angle, not wanting the girl to lash out.
The girl fixed her with an irritated glare. Mai smiled internally; this girl didn't hold a candle to Naru's glare. Mai merely kept smiling, and waited.
"I don't believe in these ghosts like my mom does. I'm not religious, or superstitious, but I want her mind soothed." Her brow wrinkled. "Go there. Investigate. I don't care if you actually do. I just want you to tell her there is nothing there, so it will ease her mind." The girl rifled through her purse and pulled out a checkbook, likely her mother's. "How much would that be?"
"Nothing," Naru said curtly.
"Nothing?" The girl questioned She looked up from the checkbook, confused.
"Nothing," he repeated. "We aren't going to take your case."
The teenager's eyes widened and she started to sputter. "W-why not?!"
"You haven't given us any evidence. You haven't told us anything about the place. Why would we take a case and waste our time investigating nothing? What else would you like? Are those three reasons not enough for you?" Even Yasuhara winced at his cutting tone.
"You want evidence?!" She yelled back at him. "Fine, here." The girl stalked across the room to the desk and tossed two dozen pictures across the coffee table. Mai eyed Naru, who hadn't budged, speculatively. She exchanged a questioning look with Yasuhara and he nodded. They moved to sit on opposite couches and started pawing through the photos.
The girl stood nervous and defensive, arms crossed across her chest with a dark look on her face.
Some of the photos were black and white, old as well as fragile. Others were newer, and the lighting in the photos were either taken with a flash, or with a flashlight highlighting a spot.
Mai studied the various photos and traded back and forth with Yasuhara briefly. A few caught her attention, others were harder to find exactly what the girl wanted them to notice.
Yasuhara saw her puzzlement, and said, "The curtains in the back. They're burned." He pointed them out for Mai and she nodded.
Mai separated ones she thought were important from the others. She extended them to Naru who looked at her pointedly and didn't' move.
"Naru," she intoned softly, but insistently. He merely raised an eyebrow. She dropped her hand and set them back on the table, looking forlornly at Yasuhara.
So Yasuhara tried. "Some of these are interesting, Shochou. This one, for example. Five nearly evenly spaced indentations in the wall, as if finger nails were dragged across." Mai shivered. She'd never seen those kind of markings at a case site, but she didn't want to add them to her repertoire of ghostly injuries. All too often, she would get injured and as she glanced down at her arms, she noted that all of her scars were a dim pink, already fading to a pale beige. Healing. She didn't want to add any new markings.
The girl started listing off other events not documented with photos. "It's my grandparents house on my father's side. We've had the footsteps, the creepy noises, voices, rattling drawers. The oil lamps won't light anymore. Fifteen years ago, one of the grandchildren nearly drowned when he said that someone was holding him down in the pond." She stopped, choked up a bit. "Another child was nearly strangled to death by the chains of the swing. It was gruesome, tore skin and ligaments. Their two parakeets were found torn apart with their heads placed under other grandchildren's beds."
"Did they have a cat?" Yasuhara asked.
The girl looked puzzled. "Yes, but the cat disappeared before that. They assumed it ran away when the events started happening." She struggled when it came to talking about things like the paranormal was a regular occurrence. She paused whenever she had to use the different terminology. "My grandmother was sent to the hospital due to a stroke. She said that something had been watching her that night. She was only 52." Naru looked unimpressed.
"Much younger people than that have strokes. For one so unconvinced that it's not ghosts, you are sure arguing passionately for its proof."
"It's not ghosts," the girl stated resolutely.
"Then you do not need our service," he said, again.
Mai glanced back to see Naru skimming the photos, leaned over her shoulder. She stiffened slightly, but didn't move as he was likely to notice her move.
"Well?" the girl bit sharply. "Say it is ghosts. Would that be enough evidence for you?"
Naru examined her for a second, and as if a thought struck him, he said shortly, "No."
The girl's mouth dropped open, but then she clamped her jaws together. With her teeth gritted, she seemed to consider something briefly before she pulled at the bow tied at her neck. It slid off with difficulty as she was too agitated to focus untying it properly. Then she quickly started parting the buttons from her neck down. Naru raised an eyebrow and Mai grimaced. She had no idea what this girl was about to do.
The teenager jerked the collar of her shirt apart to reveal heavy white scarring above her collar bone reaching to stretch around her throat. Mai's hand flew to her mouth trying to cover her reaction as she sucked in a sharp breath. Yasuhara manage to gasp quietly, but the revealing didn't budge Naru save for a small twitch.
With tears brimming her eyes, she said fiercely, "Is this enough?"
Rough start. I have this outlined for five parts with the second chapter in editing and the third under way. Hope you enjoy this.
Chapter 2: Predilection for Trouble