Interlude Ⅰ: Underworld Dreams

Entry: 11 June, 2065

"Something is happening in Hong Kong. Local police are convinced that someone is trying to muscle in on Triad operations. In the past year, numerous low‐level criminals known to be associated with the Triad have been found dead or gone missing. The same has occurred to three high‐level kingpins. The killings have occurred up and down the East China coast, but they're concentrated in Hong Kong, which is logical. Law enforcement is pleased at the results, if not the methods, but privately there is worry of violence spilling into the streets."

"The evidence points to, incredible as it seems, some sort of Yakuza involvement. Ethnic Japanese, especially known gangsters, are not particularly common in the city, yet mixed among the dead are multiple such individuals. There is evidence that these specific killings are by Triad, intended as reprisal of some sort, and as warning. Others have been spotted by police, going about mysterious business in the city."

"Yet it can't be the 'Yaks'. That is the opinion of everyone I talked to, on both sides of the East China Sea. These people know what they're talking about. The two organizations, in the few areas where they have crossed, have always operated together amiably. And why not? They have little interest in each other's turf, and even if they did, they would find it practically impossible to accomplish anything. Language barriers and mutual antipathy between the two cultures immensely hinder attempts to operate. Even the lowest‐level Chinese thug would balk at answering to a Japanese master."

"But then why are Yakuza associates turning up dead in China? It makes no sense, especially given signs that, somehow, the Triad is losing on its own home turf. After all, most of the dead are Triad."

"An elaborate smokescreen? Someone else, paying off the Yakuza to help conduct operations and mislead police? Perhaps, but whoever they are, they are hiding themselves extremely well. Or maybe just collateral damage? But it would still take something severe to trigger deliberate Triad killings."

"It doesn't make any sense, and it might be international. That's why they called us, I guess."

Entry: 24 June 2065

"Signs of a crack‐up in the Triad. A sudden flood of criminals turning themselves in for old crimes, seeking 'protection' in the local jails. Upon interrogation, the stories are consistent: a new set of bosses pushing their way in, trying to replace or overrule the old ones. Obviously, the old bosses aren't too happy about this, but two have already conceded and switched sides. The Yakuza are involved; this is certain, but what they're doing depends on who you ask. Some say they're the puppet masters—that's what the old bosses insist anyway. Others say they're just allies to the new bosses, there to provide support in exchange for favors. Still others say it's nothing but propaganda by the old bosses."

"Whoever the new bosses are, everyone agrees that they're good. They do things that shouldn't be possible, kill people who should be unkillable. It's got people scared, hence the 'protection'. Many have switched to join the 'winning side'."

"Whether or not the Yakuza are important, it could make sense that they're involved: the Yakuza give technological and hitman support to locals greedy for power, and in exchange they get influence and favors. The association taints the new bosses, but it's hard to argue against a bullet to the face. If they're really as good as the rank and file seem to think, it makes sense."

"It might be worth looking into."

Entry: 10 July 2065

"Well, we have a lead, though like everything else about this, it's more confusing than anything. Something is up with the Yakuza, too, it seems. The customary leadership, the names of the former bosses, dropped off the map a decade ago. Eliminated, probably. In their place is: nothing. The National Police don't have any idea who heads the organization anymore. Superficially, it seems like the same story, only this switch happened long ago."

"Crime rates are down. Well, Japan's crime rates were always low, though I never really believed those numbers. But they're down, and the police at the precinct level are convinced something has changed. Prostitutes are disappearing off the streets, and the runaways who usually get lost into human trafficking are turning up at their homes again. Even the seedy pornography industry seems to have taken a major hit—holovideo production is way down."

"Here's the intriguing part. The criminals and thugs usually involved in this work seem to be closing up shop, as mentioned, but over the years quite a few have turned up dead—gunned down, or stabbed, or seemingly untouched—in their apartments and places of operation. And always scrawled somewhere nearby, sometimes in blood, the Kanji for 'Sakura'. The peak was a decade ago, so the police thought it had something to do with the change in power, but the murders have never entirely stopped."

"The police kept it quiet, to prevent panic about a new serial killer. They don't really think it is one, but you know how the media is."

"Sakura. Cherry blossoms? The name of an organization? A person? Why would the Yakuza voluntarily withdraw from one of their most profitable operations? Is Sakura a… woman?"

"Oh, this is nonsense. What does any of this have to do with the Triad? I need to think."

Entry: 28 July 2065

"Some new leads. Surveillance footage of Yakuza gangsters, accompanying teenage girls. The police see it and assume the worst, quite reasonably, but I've watched some of the footage. I don't think that's what's going on. It almost seems like… the girls are in control. The daughters of some powerful crime lord? A Sakura family?"

"There's some other things. I've tried the obvious routes, did some remote database searches. Twenty‐first century detective work, as I like to call it. But what I find… doesn't make sense."

"Old‐fashioned is the way to go. My colleagues think I'm on a wild goose chase, that I'm getting obsessive. Some are headed for China; others are already there, scouting out the new bosses to see if there's a way to hit them while they're weak, trying to get the local police to act. I'm convinced the answer lies elsewhere. I'm going to the epicenter of the Sakura killings. I'm going to Mitakihara City."

— Private audio notes, Special Investigator Ronaldo Rizal, Interpol, 2065

"Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!" his alarm urged, shrill and painful into the transmitter in his right ear. "It's a great day!"

His arm shot out from under the covers, stopping just short of the aggravatingly cheerful device to carefully tap the shut off button. He could have hit snooze, but he had already done that twice, trying to stay in his wonderful dream.

He could also have banged the damned anachronistic monstrosity. That was his temptation every day. But it was a gift. A precious gift, at that, from her. He was careful with it.

He sat up.

I need a smoke, he thought desperately, and managed to put his hand on the desk before remembering that he had quit.

He rubbed his eyes instead, reaching his legs for the floor. The same dream again. Always that dream.

It started off so happy. Early high school. A whole day spent with her, buying food and going to the fair and buying dinner. His heart thudding in his chest with happiness. Their first kiss, after two years. Other things.

And then it would end in nightmare. Nothing but a note in his desk, one to rip his heart out and stomp it into the floor.

Goodbye, it had said. I'm sorry.

It wasn't that she had dumped him. Maybe he could have handled that. It wasn't that he never saw her again, though that was technically true. It was that no one ever saw her again.

He had known something was up. Asked her about it. Thought about doing something, confronting her parents, skinning his knuckles on her father's face. It would have been oh so satisfying.

But he hadn't. And it had haunted him since. The third time his alarm had woke him, he had welcomed it.

Thirty‐one and still obsessing about his high school girlfriend. It was sad, in a way, he admitted, but he felt the circumstances of the loss justified it. Besides, it wasn't all bad; whenever he felt the urge to buy some cigarettes, he just had to imagine what she would say if she found out he was a smoker now. Quitting had been way easier than he had imagined. He couldn't die early; he couldn't take the risk of needing an organ replacement. He couldn't trash the body that had so miraculously recovered, that one day long ago. He needed to live his life in memory of her.

Even if she were still alive, somewhere out there.

Nakanishi Aiko, her name had been.

"You have three messages," his phone informed him, vaguely pleasant female voice smooth in his ear. "One is rated high priority. From Police Chief—"

"Yeah, yeah I got it," Inspector Kugimiya Ito said, holstering his personal firearm. "I know. I'm late."

"Look, it doesn't matter how good you are at your job," his boss barked at him, angry face glaring at him from inside his contacts, contrast‐enhanced against the sunlight. "It looks bad if you're always late. I can't make excuses for you every time, or the others will start wondering why they can't be late too. I know you've got issues. They've got pills you can take—"

"I wasn't drinking!" Ito protested. "Damn it, I don't know who start this rumor about me having drinking problems but I don't!"

He should have been paying attention to the road, but it hardly mattered anyway. Cars nowadays were damn good about driving themselves, but software glitches were still supposedly a rare problem, so technically cops were supposed to be on the lookout for people not keeping tabs on what was going on. In practice, the cops simply didn't care anymore. Besides, the roads had monitoring systems and things like that.

His car continued forward at a snail‐like pace. Somehow, there was still congestion. Cars that coordinated with each other, unemployment as high as it is, and still congestion. Population at a multi‐decade low, traffic and rush hour pricing that made everyone angry and still congestion. At this point Ito had it ranked up there with death and taxes.

"Sure you don't," his boss responded, sarcastic. "I'll let it slide this time, but if it happens again, I'm pushing you into an intervention program, whether you like it or not."

"I only drink when I don't have any cases," he defended. "And not that much, okay? Speaking of which, what were you calling me about? You don't call me just because you're pissed I'm late."

His boss gave him a look, deciding whether to let him off the hook. Clearly, the man was looking into some sort of screen rather than using VR; Ito could see the man squinting at him.

"We've got a new case," he said finally, face relaxing. "Right up your alley. Missing girl case. Sixteen‐year‐old. Parents called her in missing, but it was only forty‐eight hours at the time, and the family has a history of domestic violence calls. Uniform figured she'd be back. They usually come back."

"Except when they don't," Ito said, finishing the thought.

"Exactly," his chief agreed. "It's been ninety‐six hours now, so I'm assigning it to you. Don't waste time stepping into the office; just grab your partner at the station and head out. I'll load the navpoint and case profile into your car."

His specialty was Missing Persons. There was a reason for that.

Soon, Ito found himself in a rundown apartment complex just east of the city center. Well, the top part was rundown, at least, since no one lived there.

The practice was common. Japan's population had collapsed, which meant many empty flats, even if the government had managed to finally start stalling the nosedive. Many landlords had simply given up trying to fill it all.

Well, at least they had the consolation that the rest of the world wasn't doing much better. That was something, if one was into gloating over the misfortune of others.

The inside of his destination was rundown, too, but in a different way. Here there was an obvious attempt at maintenance, but the occupants just didn't have enough money to keep it spruced up.

Both parents were unemployed, according to the files, so all they had was government support, including the generous child stipend. Overall, more substantial than it used to be, but still not enough to live a comfortable life. The father drank away his inadequacies at a local bar, then came home and took it out on his family. That was in the files too.

"And when was the last time you saw Yuu‐chan?" Ito asked, seated beneath the family's small kotatsu. This apartment's AC wasn't running, despite the temperature, so he was forced to resist the temptation to pull at the collar of his dress shirt. At least he had invested in smart‐fabric, for exactly this kind of situation.

As he spoke, he kept his face carefully neutral, hiding his distaste for the man seated to his left.

Back in the day, in the immediate aftershock of Aiko's disappearance, he had been convinced she had been killed by her father. That was what he had told the police. It had to be what had happened. She wouldn't just run away. No one could convince him otherwise. The police had even entertained the notion for a while, holding the father for questioning. But in the end, they let him go, and Ito had been forced to choke down impotent rage when he found out.

Now, looking back at it with the eyes of a practiced investigator, he was forced to admit that the police had been right. There was no evidence, and the facts just didn't fit the case. Her father had probably been innocent. Well, of that particular crime anyway.

"Four days ago," the mother said, seated across from him, eyes pleading with him. She sounded numb.

"There was nothing special about it. She left for school, like she does every day. And then she just didn't come back."

Ito nodded and pretended to take notes, typing onto the keyboard his contacts projected into his vision. On the table, not in thin air; thin air just didn't work. He would take some actual notes, were he the recipient of some startling insight, but for now this was merely a repeat of the case report. On top of that, the EVIdrone next to him could and was taking new audio recordings. It wasn't really necessary to bring the full forensic power of an actual drone just to take some recordings, but it impressed people.

"What did you do after she didn't come home?" his junior partner, Minami Kaoru, asked, sipping some of the tea laid out in front of them. Ito, for his part, was abstaining.

The woman's eyes flickered downward briefly.

"Well, it wasn't for a long while before I thought something was wrong. The fact is, she doesn't come home sometimes, especially recently. I thought it'd just be that again. But she's never been gone for more than one day at a time. And after she didn't come home again, I thought it'd be better to just place a call…"

She says 'I' instead of 'we', Ito noted privately, letting his eyes settle on the woman across from him, eyes doing a quick once‐over. Long sleeves and an unfashionably high collar, in this heat. It didn't prove anything, but it was indicative.

"The brat is probably just hiding somewhere again," the father said. "This is an overreaction. When she comes home again, I'll give her a good talking to."

He said it mildly, without the growl the stereotype in Ito's mind would have had, but still, it made Ito grind his teeth.

"You were right to call us," Kaoru said. "One cannot make assumptions when it comes to safety. I don't want to panic you, but it is often the case that girls in these kinds of situations don't come back."

She said it while looking at the father in question, her feelings on the man obvious. Well, compared to Ito anyway. She'd learn, someday.

"Forgive me for asking a sensitive question," Ito said, making a gesture to get their attention. "But is there any reason you'd know of that Yuu‐chan would try to run away? Besides what is already on the police records, that is. It may not be easy to talk about, but every bit of information could be important."

As he spoke, he kept his eyes on the mother, whom he considered the more likely source of information. After a moment of eye contact, though, the woman shook her head and looked down.

"Nothing I can think of," she said.

"What are you talking about?" the father asked, surprising Ito by speaking up. "Have you forgotten?"

He turned to face Ito.

"It's true that she hasn't been coming home much, recently. One time I caught her coming home at two AM, wearing a shirt I've never seen before. You can guess what I thought of that. But then it turned out she had bruises and gashes all over her back. I don't know what the idiot was doing, but I told her to stop whatever it was. It looked terrible."

"You're lying," the mother said, looking at her husband, voice suddenly icy‐cold. "I didn't see any of that when I checked in the morning. Things like that don't just heal that quickly."

"I know what I saw, Yuka," the father growled. "I don't know how the—how it healed that quickly, but I saw them, okay? And no, it wasn't me. She's gotten damn strong recently. Guess she takes after me after all."

There was a pause, while they all processed that he had just accidentally admitted to something. Ito was also thinking about how the man had somehow known about the bruises on the girl's back, when a shirt should have hidden the damage. But no, there were alternate explanations. Parsimony. He couldn't get too carried away just yet. Technically, all those domestic violence calls had been with regards to the wife. No signs of child abuse yet.

"I'll keep it in mind," Ito said mildly, taking more notes, this time real notes, the text in his field of view scrolling directly over the other man's face. "What kind of wounds did you see?"

"I don't know," the father said. "It almost looked like someone took a knife to her, but it still didn't look right for that. I thought maybe she fell off of someone's bike or something. She wouldn't let me examine it. I wouldn't normally stand for that, but like I said, she's gotten damn strong recently. The cuts should have scarred. I have no idea how they disappeared."

Ito waited for the man to say something further, but he stayed silent.

Is there anything else here worth asking? Ito thought. Is there some angle I haven't covered? I don't think I'm getting more out of this.

He tapped the table restlessly.

"Alright, that about wraps it up," he said, finally, the senior inspector ending the interview. "Was there anything else you could think of?"

He looked around, making eye contact with both parents, but neither ventured a response.

"We'll leave you two alone then," he said, pushing himself up from the floor, pausing only to say his formal goodbyes.

He was inclined to believe the father about the wounds, even though it went against his prejudices. It was too unusual, too potentially self‐incriminating for him to have simply made it up. And why would he?

An abusive boyfriend? It made a certain kind of sense. But if the wounds looked "terrible", even to the kind of man that the girl's father was, then it went beyond just abusive. Assuming the wounds were real, or the man hadn't let his imagination exaggerate the damage. It didn't smell right.

"What do you think?" Kaoru asked him, as they walked down the stairs. "It seems pretty straightforward. Find out who this boyfriend is, and we'll probably find her. For once, she's probably better off at home, no matter what she thinks."

"That's an interesting way to put it," Ito said, noting that his partner had at least thought of the possibility. "Even supposing there was no abusive boyfriend, you know what the long‐run fate is for most runaways. Staying at home is usually the best of a set of bad choices. And we don't know there's a boyfriend. Maybe there is, but it doesn't feel right to me. Gashes like that is psychotic serial killer territory. I really hope that's not where we are."

"Maybe it's a red herring?" his partner suggested. "The guy got drunk one day, and started imagining things."

"Seems a bit vivid for that," Ito said. "But, sure, maybe."

They reached the ground floor, and found their unmarked vehicle waiting for them.

"Maybe she'll just come home again," Kaoru said.

"That's what we always hope for," Ito said severely, as the car doors opened for them. "But our job is to bring the ones who don't back. Whatever it takes."

"Whatever it takes," Kaoru echoing, making a crooked smile.

That was what had earned Ito his reputation in the police force, after all.

Once, as a young investigator, he would have barreled straight into the girl's school office, badge flashing, demanding of the secretaries and administrators there everything of relevance, and then moving on to teachers, friends…

Once, before his time, there would have been no obviously better options. But his senior partner, retired now, had pointed out to him that there was a better way.

"Central Station," he said instead, trusting in the vehicle to deduce from context that he meant the police station and not, for example, the central train station.

Kaoru didn't question the choice, this time anyway. She had, the first time, but now she sat quietly in the passenger seat, lips moving soundlessly, subvocalizing her search warrant request to the system via a stylish throat attachment, phone wiring it into the car's electronics. It was just one way to input data, but it was the easiest in terms of effort, though it wasn't anywhere near as fast as typing up a storm on an actual physical keyboard.

By the time they arrived at the station—no traffic at an off‐hour, thankfully—a judge had reviewed and granted their search warrant, a request for access to the surveillance logs of Miki Sayaka Secondary School—named following the wishes of some local philanthropist. By the time he and his partner mounted the stairs to the EER—or "Computer Room", as they called it—each bearing their own snack bun and cup of coffee, the station's computers had reviewed months of pre‐annotated footage, tracking the movements of a particular "Okamura Yuu" and anyone associated with her, looking for trends, unidentified individuals, anything unusual.

School surveillance wasn't all‐encompassing. Usually, it only covered the entrances, exits, and areas not usually under direct faculty surveillance. But, coupled with the copious amount of images uploaded publicly online by privacy‐careless students, it was often enough to get a lead or two or, at the very least, reliably identify who a kid's friends were, often more reliably than the faculty or other students could.

At thirty‐one, Ito could still barely remember when most schools didn't have the setups. It wasn't that schools were dangerous, but surveillance had gotten so ubiquitous that it seemed strange for schools not to have something. And so, those of Kaoru's generation, barely six years younger than him, didn't even see it as worth noting.

They took their seats in the darkened room, surrounded by a giant panoramic monitor that stretched in a semicircle in front of them.

"Report," he said simply.

The monitor sprang to life, color surveillance stills appearing and arranging themselves around a central informational panel. In front of the monitor, on the table, a human network appeared and grew, multi‐colored, displaying probable friends, teachers, friends of friends—

"But no boyfriend," Ito commented.

"Not in the school, anyway," Kaoru said.

"Inspector," a vaguely electronic voice began, "it is unlikely that a girl of her age group, demographic, and academic performance would maintain an off‐school relationship, and further, it is unlikely that any such boyfriend would never show up to pick her up after school. Given that we have observed no such male, the probability of such a relationship is less than one percent."

"Humph," Kaoru verbalized. "Well, not impossible, at least."

Ito just smiled slightly. Speaking with the Evidence Evaluation Machine was always an experience. It wasn't artificially intelligent, but sometimes it felt like it. Partly, it was the way it was programmed to talk, more human‐sounding than most machines, by far. Mostly, it was the fact that it had an entire floor in the basement devoted to its operation. If it weren't for the fact that every police department in Japan had one, he was sure the blood‐suckers in city hall would have found a way to cut its budget.

"However," the computer continued. "There are several possible candidates for a homosexual relationship, though the overall probability of any of them being a true relationship is still only between five and six percent. There are also two separate boys who appear to have a concealed interest."

The relevant teenagers in question emphasized themselves in the relationship cloud in front of them, growing brighter and more prominent.

"Do any of them show any signs of being abusive?" Ito asked.

"Not at all," the computer said.

"Go ahead with your report then," Ito said.

The goal of the exercise, besides gathering possibly useful information, was to get a feel for the ground: who the girl was, who her friends were, what her habits were, and so forth. It was very useful to have, before moving in for questioning. Sometimes, he could even catch people in a lie without them knowing it. Further, the EEM was very good at spotting the obvious in surveillance footage and public records, sparing Inspectors a lot of grunt work. As for detecting the non‐obvious—well, the machines weren't quite there yet. One of an Inspector's toughest tasks was distinguishing between when the machine was probably right, and when one should dig deeper.

"Okamura Yuu shows every sign of being entirely typical, for her age and demographic. Her level of academic achievement is higher than expected, and consequently, she has formed more friends of a higher socioeconomic standing than is typical. Other than that, the overall number, distribution, and degree of intimacy of her friends and acquaintances are unremarkable. No one she has had contact with on campus has a serious criminal record, all instructors have been screened in the customary fashion, and school records report nothing suspicious. Detailed surveillance analysis shows an instructive pattern of wearing unseasonably warm clothing on unpredictable occasions."

Related diagrams and images flashed by on the screen, and the hologram in front of them emphasized and de‐emphasized friends, acquaintances, and instructors in turn, as they were being described. None of it was particularly interesting given what had already been said. Still, it confirmed some things.

"Continue," Ito said, sipping carefully at his coffee.

"Re‐examination of records from the day of her disappearance reveals nothing not already contained in the previous police report. Okamura‐san arrives at school at the customary time, but posture analysis and size estimates indicate that her bookbag is significantly heavier than usual. There is very little footage of her for the rest of the day—nothing to form conclusions off of. At the closure of the school day, she departs alone from the school, in a direction that does not take her home. Street‐side surveillance loses track of her seven minutes later, and she does not reappear. No one she passes shows an unusual interest in her, and none of them appear in criminal databases, except one man who was arrested for shoplifting."

Consistent with someone who knew she was leaving. But as the EE Machine said, nothing that he hadn't already read in the police report. The shoplifting man who appeared in the hologram didn't look familiar, which was hardly surprising.

"In the context of her past behavior, her departure from the school was further unusual in two aspects. Firstly, it is not a direction she has ever headed before. Secondly, she is departing alone, which is not her customary habit."

Ito was tempted to ask questions, but preferred to wait and see if the EEM had already performed the analysis and was simply waiting to say it. An unusual direction was… unusual. That sounded like a tautology, but often, it was possible to deduce where a child was simply by noting the direction they had left in, then asking their friends what was in that direction. She was headed somewhere new. They rarely did that.

Unless… a deception?

Unlikely. The populace was not familiar with police methods. The writers of TV crime dramas were kept deliberately misinformed.

He glanced at his partner, and saw that she had caught the detail. Good.

Ito had to admit that the dress shirt and pants—standard Inspector attire—did a poor job of concealing her well‐formed—and endowed—body. But it did not matter. Firstly, he had abstained from relationships ever since his first girlfriend had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Secondly, that kind of fraternization was strictly frowned upon, and for good reason.

"An analysis of her recent behavior reveals a trend consistent with her parents' reports," the computer continued. "Over the past month and a half, she stopped regularly heading straight home at the end of the school day, instead opting to head in a different direction with some newly made friends. Her social interaction with her previous friends appears to have flagged, though there is no sign of a falling‐out. It is a meaningful change in behavior."

The faces and names of her friends, both old and new, popped in and out of the relationship cloud. It meant nothing to him at the moment, but he made a mental note to study them later.

"Anything unusual about these new friends?" Kaoru asked.

"Not particularly," the computer said. "The only remarkable feature is that this group of exclusively girls is significantly more diverse than the average similarly‐sized group of friends. Socioeconomic backgrounds, personality type, school year, elective classes, and body types are far more divergent than would be expected. However, it is unclear what this means, if anything."

Kaoru frowned, then made a shrugging gesture, looking at Ito.

"Perhaps a shared interest that is not obvious from the records," Ito said. "Participation in the same activity, maybe. One that could tie them all together, and drew Yuu‐chan's attention in the last month or so."

"I will run a further analysis for possible similarities," the EE Machine announced. "In the meantime, is there anything else you want to look at?"

"Let's glance through the surveillance footage a little," Kaoru said, leaning forward and gesturing at the hologram. "Show us the scenes with the highest information content."

Ito nodded, biting at his bun. It was mostly a ritualistic exercise, and not one they could afford to be at too long—they needed to strike while the iron was hot. Still, Inspectors occasionally found something of note, which was why it was still done. At the very least, annotation correction could improve EEM performance.

Ito admitted to feeling a bit sleepy and bleary‐eyed, sitting there in the darkened room, watching with detached eyes as holographic reconstructions of surveillance scenes flashed by on the table in front of them. They had specified high‐informational content, so the reconstructions tended to be the most meaningful images, but that didn't mean they told him anything new. He sipped desperately at his coffee, as images flew by: Yuu slipping out of school alone in a turtleneck, Yuu with an unusually large group of friends, Yuu alone with a friend making a gesture which could be interpreted romantically, if one was in the right mood…

And then he forgot the need for his coffee.

"Stop!" he ordered. "Back up. What was that last picture?"

One of the scenes appeared back in front of him, playing the full surveillance footage, rather than just the single still that had caught his attention. It showed Yuu with the same new group of friends, lounging around the school gate, waiting for one of their number to show up. That was what the caption said, though he hardly needed it. The caption also said: "The group appears to be greeting an unidentified girl across the street. Unidentified girl does not appear in any other images or records and rated unimportant."

"Can you try to enhance the unidentified girl?" Ito demanded breathlessly.

"I will do what I can," the computer said.

The fuzzy image of the face enlarged, replacing the still hologram, and got a little a crisper and a little more symmetric. Any more was not really possible, but he didn't need it. The image was more than clear enough for him to recognize the face, even unenhanced.

"Ito‐san, what is it?" his partner asked, as Ito felt around for his wallet.

It took him longer than he wanted to find it, but when he did, he flipped it open quickly to a now familiar spot, then shoved the holoimage in front of one of the EE Machine's visual analysis setups.

"What are the chances that this image matches that girl?" he asked, as the dual cameras came to life in their setup, rotating to get some good views.

"That depends, Inspector," the computer said. "When was this image taken?"

"It doesn't matter," Ito said. "Assume now."

There were a few seconds of silence, as the cameras continued their scanning.

"92.2%," the device concluded. "Assuming image was taken recently. There is an additional 7.1% chance that the two individuals are closely related family. However, Inspector, this does not appear to be a recent image. Among other things, the technology is out of date. Factoring in an estimate of the image's age drops the probability to effectively zero, though the probability of close‐related family rises to well over 80%."

"Ito‐san, what does this have to do with anything?" his partner demanded, trying to get a view at his holoimage. "Who is that?"

Ito rubbed at his hair, trying to get a handle on his emotions, pulling his wallet away from the device before Kaoru could get a good look. Of course it was crazy. There was a reason the supercomputer had asked the question it did. Age mattered, and the machine was right to suspect that he had been carrying the image around for a long time.

Did she have any relatives? he thought hastily. No sisters—I know that. Cousins? Not that I know of—

"Ito‐san," his partner repeated, grabbing him on the arm.

"I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head. "It's a little unsettling. Do you know what happened to my lighter?"

"Pardon?" Kaoru asked.

"My lighter," he said, feeling his pocket. "I keep it in my right pocket, usually, but—"

"You quit smoking, Ito‐san," his partner said, looking at him with worry. "Remember? Are you okay? Is something wrong? You look like you just saw a ghost."

He looked at the wallet in his hands, and at the holographic image of the face that still haunted his dreams.

"Maybe I did," he said.

"No, I told you. I have no idea who that is," the girl said, many seconds too late, eyes fixated on the image Ito was holding.

He had had copies made, so he wouldn't have to go around waving his wallet in front of everyone. It seemed more dignified that way.

"Yes you do!" Ito insisted, placing both hands on the school table they were seated at. "I can tell you're lying. We have surveillance camera footage of you waving to her! Or are the cameras lying too?"

He placed a nasty sarcasm on the last sentence, feeling a slight twinge of guilt at placing so much pressure on what was, after all, a teenager. But he needed the information. Now, more than ever. Especially after his search warrant request had been denied.

In addition to his previous request, he had asked for both more city camera footage, and for family information about his old flame, Aiko. The judge felt that he lacked sufficient evidence in both cases and, in one of the cases, had warned him about frivolous requests. That route was blocked, for now.

He understood why the procedures were necessary, but sometimes he had to work to remind himself of that. It was just so frustrating, to be so close, and be hamstrung by a system that didn't trust him.

"No, that's not true," the girl said, putting a hand to her mouth and shaking her head vigorously. "It's just not."

"We have videos!" Ito growled.

"I–I don't have to talk to you," the girl insisted.

Ito was about to continue, but felt Kaoru's hand on his shoulder.

"Let's consult for a moment, partner," she said, eyes sharper than usual.

She gestured at the door out of the school utility room.

Privately, he sighed. He knew what this was about, but he couldn't deny the request.

"Alright," he agreed, waving at the teenager to stay put.

"You're going overboard," Kaoru said, once they were out in the hallway. "I didn't want to say anything for the first girl, but to see you do it again… you have no evidence any of this matters. I agree the resemblance is compelling, but beyond that, there's no reason to believe it has anything to do with anything. You're letting your emotions cloud your judgment. We're already done with the interview. We asked everything that matters. Going into something like this will sound terrible if anyone looks at the audio recordings. This is quixotic, and you know it."

He stood there and took it, mentally predicting every word she would say, knowing it wasn't worth interrupting to rebut.

She stared into his eyes earnestly.

"I know," he said, finally, "but there's something here—I know it. All my instincts tell me the girl is the key to something. It's not just about me."

"And it's just a coincidence you happen to carry a picture of her around in your wallet?" Kaoru demanded, practically waving her arms. "Well, I guess it is. But you can't tell me this isn't personal. That's laughable."

"Okay, fine," he said. "It's personal. But that doesn't mean I'm not right. What are the chances—"

He stopped.

They turned to look behind him, down the hall, having both realized someone else had shown up.

A man in a snappy suit was walking towards them, strides confident and long. Handsome in a vague way, Ito couldn't help but be reminded of a shark.

That proved to be good intuition.

"Ozawa Takaharu, attorney at law," the man said, handing him his card, one of those fancy crystal holograms that you could insert into any device for more information. "And you are Inspector Kugimiya Ito, I presume?"

"Ah, uh, yes," Ito said, trying to split his brain into two distinct trains of thought. Firstly, how on Earth had the kid's parents heard about this and decided to hire a lawyer this quickly? Secondly, he had heard of Ozawa: he was a very high‐powered defense attorney, notorious for defending mobsters. What on Earth was he doing here? Was he really—"

"I believe you're interrogating my client in the room here?" Takaharu asked.

"Ah, your client?" Ito prevaricated. "But—"

"Is she a suspect in any crime?" the lawyer asked.

"No," Ito said, a bit more firmly, instinctively straightening his back. "But she may have valuable information about an active case, and this is a friendly questioning session. It shouldn't take long. We're almost done."

The lawyer gave him an appraising look, head tilted slightly back.

"This interview is over," the man said, coldly. "You cannot compel her to remain."

Ito narrowed his eyes, knowing the man was legally correct.

"It's a routine interview," he argued. "We're not accusing her of anything. We would view her cooperation favorably. Besides, she may not agree with you."

"Oh, I know she will," Takaharu said, opening the door to the utility room, then closing it firmly behind him.

Ito and Kaoru looked at each other, one with wide eyes, the other annoyed, but thoughtful.

"Well, damn," his partner said, finally.

"Still think nothing is going on?" Ito asked, as he leaned on the stucco of one of the school buildings. They had just gone through an additional frustrating hour of discovering that every single other one of Yuu's new friends had lawyered up, and wasn't talking.

"Obviously something is," Kaoru said, miffed. "It's damned mysterious. What the hell do the Yakuza have to do with this? And no, this does not bear out your theory."

"I can think of an explanation," Ito said, ignoring the last part of her statement. "Or rather one that should make sense. The Yakuza prey on runaway girls. It's exactly the kind of vulnerable population they can coerce to sell their bodies, not to put too fine a point on it. I have no idea why they'd go to the trouble to shield all these other girls, but it's the start of a theory. Maybe they're in on a scam or something. I don't know. But you'd think sending in a flood of lawyers would just draw attention."

"All it does is make us police more suspicious," Kaoru said. "They must really have been worried about what the girls might say. But what you're talking about is out of date. The Yakuza have pulled out of that kind of business. They haven't been involved in something like this since before I joined the force. Heck, almost before you joined the force."

"This could be a sign they're going back," Ito said pessimistically. "In that case, this girl is in bigger trouble than I thought. We've never really had a good explanation for their behavior."

And what have you gotten yourself into, Aiko? he thought. If that really is you, somehow.

"Even if that's true, that won't dissuade us," Kaoru said, sternly.

"Of course not," Ito said. "But I think we're at a dead end. The search warrants didn't go through. Now we have no choice but to try to do it the hard way. We're going to keep at it, keep on interviewing. Faculty, other students, local residents. Anyone even remotely relevant."

Kaoru nodded.

"We have to try," she said.

"Incoming Message," Ito's phone announced, into the earplug he had inserted in his right ear. "Rated high priority. Read?"

"Go ahead," Ito said, leaning over slightly and touching his ear to signal Kaoru that he was listening to something.

"EEM reports that it has found a point of similarity between the unidentified girl in the surveillance feed, Okamura Yuu, and her friends. Careful study of surveillance footage reveals that all the girls in question appear to share colored fingernail tattoos. Fingernail tattooing is not a common practice, and the markings have so far not been spotted on any other student."

Ito looked up and saw that Kaoru also had her finger on her ear, almost certainly receiving the same message.

Fingernail tattoo? he thought, dusty old images resurfacing in his memory.

That was right. Aiko had gotten one, hadn't she? All those years ago, right around when his leukemia had finally responded to treatment, its recalcitrant genetic profile finally submitting to the weight of modern medicine. She had said it was her way of praying for his recovery, and he remembered being bemused, since it seemed so out of the ordinary for her, so completely random.

But these other girls had tattoos, too? What on Earth did that mean?

"Ito‐san?" his partner asked, trying to get his attention with a wave of her hand. "What is it? I thought you'd be more excited at being vindicated."

"This is definitely some kind of lead," he said, distracted by his thoughts. "I hope it's enough to get a warrant."

It was, in fact, enough to get a warrant, though he had a feeling some of it had to do with his reputation with the local judges, rather than the intrinsic merit of the request. He left his partner to continue performing due diligence at the school, while he went back to the station to follow up—and incidentally send her another car. Fortunately, he was able to grab an empty slot on the EEM's schedule.

The first thing he did was look through Aiko's family. It took only a few minutes of glancing through the images to confirm that his former girlfriend had no known family members who bore her a startling resemblance. He could have taken the EEM's word on it, but he wanted to see for himself.

A part of him had almost hoped there would be one, just so the world would make sense again. Now he was left trapped between two possibilities: the impossible, which was that Nakanishi Aiko was here again, utterly unchanged and un‐aged, or the merely improbable, which was that he really had just happened to run into her perfect double. Or, actually, now that he thought about it… clones?

He knew what Sherlock Holmes would say to that, but somehow he just couldn't accept the improbable here, no matter how much he should.

The second thing he did was place a call to Yuu's parents, asking about the girl's fingernail tattoo. They had noticed it previously, yes, but didn't have any good ideas what it meant, either. Yuu's father suggested darkly that it had something to do with whatever nefarious activities she was engaged in.

Finally, he took advantage of his expanded surveillance access, and asked the EEM to scan the surveillance in the vicinity of the school for Yuu, as well as any of the other girls, and, last priority, anything of interest. Once again, the system scanned the internet for publicly uploaded pictures and videos it could identify as being from the area—technically, no police power was abused just browsing what was available in the open online.

Meanwhile, he personally tracked the path of "Aiko", on the one day where they knew she was there. He made it a point to check the girl's fingernail for the tattoo, but the resolution of the image was too poor for him to make out more than just that there seemed to be one there, even after image enhancement.

He swallowed his sense of surrealism, and focused on following the girl's actions in the hologram in front of him, quietly verbalizing the scene in annotation:

"3:10 PM‒She appears on the edge of one of the surveillance areas, striding down the street with an obvious sense of purpose. No obvious reason for her haste so far."

"3:14 PM‒She passes the school and, yes, stops to wave to a group of schoolgirls on the other side of the street. She keeps going, approaching the commercial center of the city—"

—and then she turned into a side alley, disappearing off the surveillance.

He grunted in annoyance.

"Does anyone have surveillance footage of that alley?" he asked.

"The D&E Corporation owns the buildings adjacent to that alley, so if anyone does, they do," the machine intoned. "However, they do not participate in the Selective Monitoring anti‐crime program, so there is no streamlined access to their surveillance. Would you like me to forward a formal request?"

"Yes," he said, thinking over the problem, "I suppose we might as well try. Where does that alley lead?"

"It dead‐ends," the machine said. "It is only there to permit service vehicle access to the rear of the two adjacent buildings, for loading and unloading purposes."

"So why would she go there?" he asked, gesturing for fast‐forward on the surveillance video.

"Perhaps she is an employee," the machine suggested. "Though her age makes that unlikely."

"Can you scan this video for the next day or so?" he asked, deciding not to bother watching the video manually. "Does she ever come back out?"

A brief pause.

"No," the machine said.

Ito drummed his fingers on his armrest.

"Did you discover anything else of interest?" he asked.

"With the new wider field of surveillance access, it is apparent that the same girl passes by the school on several other occasions, though at a distance. Once or twice, she stops and talks with the missing girl and her friends. She enters the same alley, without re‐emerging, on three occasions."

"Hmm," Ito vocalized, not in thought, but in slight annoyance at the realization that his personal watching of the video generated nothing the machine wouldn't have told him on its own.

"Would you like me to make a formal request to D&E for their employment records?" the machine suggested.

He shook his head.

"No," he said. "Not yet. D&E doesn't like search warrants, and they have lawyers capable of making this much more trouble than it's worth. I might have better luck going and talking to a manager myself before doing anything formally."

"As you wish," the machine said.

His phone rang as he was on his way to the D&E buildings.

"What is it, Kaoru‐san?" he asked, acknowledging the call.

Generally speaking, they no long bothered with greetings or other formalities, and video calling seemed pointlessly elaborate. Straight, clear, and to the point; that was how he liked it.

"Remember that five percent thing?" she asked, with her customary vagueness, as if to mock his previous sentiment.

"Uhh…" he prevaricated, while he tried to remember.

"The five to six percent chance of a homosexual relationship," she said, just as he finally managed to remember. "I was talking to some of the students and faculty after classes let out, and it turns out, there's quite a body of rumors surrounding our missing girl and one of her friends, Yamakami Yuko."

"I see," he said, thinking through the implications. "That could give us a motive… and a possible place where she could be."

"Yes," Kaoru agreed. "Yuu's father didn't seem like the type to tolerate something nontraditional like this, and they're not on good terms anyway. I could see her thinking she needs to escape."

"If true," Ito said. "It'd be due diligence to check the lover's home for the girl, though I doubt she'd be there. And this is just rumors, right?"

And, if we found her, and I charged the lover with obstruction of justice, I could hold her for questioning, he thought.

That seemed a little extreme, though.

"I have more," Kaoru added. "I took a guess. I visited some of the local love hotels. One of the managers recognized the pictures I showed him. He gave me some of his surveillance footage."

Ito thought through what she had just said.

"That was… inspired," he said, though he felt it a little strange. "I'm going to assume you found something, then. Do you mind going to take a look? You don't need to barge in or anything. Just look around, talk to the neighbors, then, at the end, talk to the parents."

"Yes, yes, I know," Kaoru said. "I've worked with you enough. Any reason you're sending me alone?"

"I'm following a lead," Ito said. "Oh, and get one of the UAVs to start following this Yamakami girl. I doubt she really hid Okamura in her own parents' home, but she'd almost certainly visit wherever the girl actually is, assuming she's really involved."

"Alright. Will do."

Before entering the building proper, Inspector Ito parked his vehicle in a discreet location a couple of blocks away and approached the area on foot.

He had more than one agenda for being here, after all. He wasn't just here to go inside and get the run‐around from secretaries and public relations people. He wanted to see the alley for himself.

At his hip, his personal sidearm tugged at his belt. It was gunpowder‐based, unlike some of the newer military models. The weight felt strange, seeming to almost unbalance him; he hardly ever carried it, but this time, he felt he should.

D&E doesn't like search warrants.

His own words echoed in his head. The truth was: it wasn't just that they seemed unusually hostile to police search warrants. D&E was a fabulously successful corporation, having emerged from nowhere to compete with and outperform experienced logistics companies, long‐standing package delivery services, and even—in the field of online goods—the likes of Amazon, though its international operations had not thus far managed to equal its Japanese operations. That was natural, he supposed.

It was, however, privately owned, and its finances and operations were a mystery, even to those who made it their business to know. It hadn't taken long for whispers of "Mafia" and "Yakuza" to set in, even though there was no evidence for it.

No evidence, yes, but Ito considered himself justifiably paranoid. A missing girl, friends shielded by Yakuza lawyers, and Aiko's doppelgänger disappearing into D&E logistics buildings…

Probably, it would just be a normal alley, and there would be no danger at all, but he still didn't feel it the kind of place to take a junior partner, especially—and here he had to admit some feelings of chivalry, or perhaps chauvinism—a woman.

At least not yet. Perhaps in a few years.

He took a breath, looked up at the building next to him, and slipped into the alley.

The alley was claustrophobic, but not unreasonably so. It was wide enough for a single small truck to drive through, but not any wider. There was no sunlight, and only at high noon would it have been reasonable to expect any. Small gutters on the side ran into small gratings on the ground, in case of rain.

Besides, he could see that there would only be a short distance to walk before the alley opened into some kind of larger area.

The "larger area" appeared to be a loading dock, which made sense, given what the EEM had told him. The large square enclosure was, indeed, a dead end, with elevated concrete platforms on both left and right, connected to their respective buildings. Each platform led into two garages, doors currently sealed. Auto‐cranes and a few inert cratebots completed what decoration there was to be found. Each platform also had its own small set of concrete steps leading into an access door, though they were low enough that he could push his way over the edge directly, if he really wanted to. On the far side, a simple chain‐link fence separated the area from a third building, serving no real purpose other than to indicate that this third building had no access to the dock.

As he looked around, he mused on how, for an active loading dock that supposedly served two major corporate buildings, it certainly didn't seem to be very busy. Especially for this time of day.

But he couldn't see anything of much interest. Certainly nothing that told him what the mysterious girl had been doing here. He didn't see any cameras that might have taken surveillance footage, but that didn't prove anything. In fact, he positively doubted D&E didn't have surveillance in the area.

Without giving himself time to have second thoughts, he bounded briskly up the left set of steps, then tried the corresponding door. It was locked.

Damn, he thought. Well, he hadn't really expected otherwise. He should probably try the other one, just for completion's sake.

"Inspector Ito," a male voice behind him said.

Ito froze in place for a moment, but unfroze almost immediately—the product of experience—turning to face its source.

Five men, impeccably suited, stood at the foot of the steps, watching him. They were arranged in a small semicircle, and while they varied in appearance and height, they all had the type of build not seen in the usual office worker—a bit bulkier, a bit more assertive and confident.

Somehow, he knew.

Ito slowly shifted his hand in the direction of his sidearm.

"A bit unusual for a detective to be sneaking around like this, is it not?" the one closest to him, apparently the leader, said.

"Minor misconduct if I had gotten in," Ito said, glancing around at each of them in turn. "But I didn't, and either way there's no grounds for you to be keeping me here."

"We just want to have a friendly chat," the leader said, smiling slightly, in that self‐assured way people had when they felt themselves in complete control of a situation.

"I'm not interested," Ito asserted, jumping off the steps and heading boldly around their flank.

But the man at the edge grabbed his arm, bringing him to a stop.

"I think you are," he said, voice less cultured than that of his leader.

Ito sighed, carefully.

"I am armed, you know," he said quietly.

"So are we," the man said, smiling slightly, mirroring his leader.

There was a flurry of drawn guns, accentuated by the rapid clicks of safeties being released, and Ito quickly found himself staring down five different gun barrels, opposed only by his one pistol. The man who had grabbed him made no effort either to keep the hold or to stop him, he noticed.

He took a moment to take in the situation. Ordinarily, his contacts would have placed a red targeting reticule over the spot where his gun's scanners expected its bullets would land, linking automatically to his phone's electronics, but he didn't see that here. Not that he needed it to fire at point‐blank range, but it was disturbing. He had heard stories about this kind of jamming technology, but he never thought he would have to experience it.

He wished he had some way to activate his phone's recording function without being obvious, but the gun was supposed to do that for him.

"What is this, fellas?" he asked, working to keep the strain out of his voice. "You types don't go after cops directly. Too risky. But here's five of you, who just happen to run into me, and just happen to know my name. I don't need to point out the obvious."

"Like I said," the leader explained, cool as if he had a gun pointed at him every day. "We just want to chat. How about let's all drop our guns and do that somewhere nice? It'll be my treat."

"And leave it five versus one?" Ito demanded. "No. This gun is my only leverage. Whatever you're going to say to me, start saying it now. What, I know too much or something?"

The leader smiled slightly, again with that maddening smugness.

"Something like that," he said. "Look, we know your history. We'll assure you the girl is safe, and in return you soft‐pedal this investigation. We don't do that kind of thing anymore. We can give assurances."

The offer was tempting, just a little. Ito felt a bead of sweat form on his brow as he tried to think it all through, trying to cram all his observations and deductions through his brain at once. Aiko disappearing down this alley. Yakuza lawyers everywhere. These mobsters following him or… knowing that he would come here?

Something was wrong. It just wasn't the Yakuza's style to be so blunt, and shove lawyers in the face of police. Not when they must have known he would question the girl's friends. The public didn't know police methods, but the Yakuza certainly did.

No, they must have known the girl's friends would come under questioning. So why do something so ostentatious, so attention‐drawing? Far easier to coach the girls into answering the questions the right way, and watch from a distance. The investigation would hit a dead end there, and nothing would ever be found.

The girls had seemed so willing to help, but, on reflection, nothing they had said was actually helpful. All they had given were pieces of information of very little worth. Almost as if, indeed, they had been coached. They had been so willing to help—

—until they started being asked about something completely unexpected, a girl that should have had nothing to do with the situation, that the police should never have realized was important. Then they had become flustered, because they were no longer prepared.

Then the lawyers had shown up.

"Nakanishi Aiko," Ito said loudly, testing the waters.

The leader stayed calm, but two of the underlings jerked in surprise, facial expressions briefly losing their unflappable calm.

That was when Ito knew that the bright veneer of the world he knew was flawed, and that through its cracks, something else shone through. An underworld where, somehow, his high school sweetheart was still walking around, still sixteen, impossibly young.

He felt surprisingly calm, all things considered.

"Nakanishi Aiko," he repeated methodically, coldly. "That's the key, isn't it? It's not about Okamura Yuu at all. You're trying to keep me away from this. What is it, fellas? I can't understand it. Are the Yakuza cloning Humans? Is that why you pulled out of prostitution? Is it easier to use the same girls over and over again? No need for risky kidnapping?"

No. That was wrong. He could see it in the confusion written into their faces, the beginnings of humor at an Inspector who had gotten it so laughably wrong.

Then… what?

"No. That's nonsense, isn't it?" Ito continued, before the humor could catch and they stopped taking him seriously. "It sounds like nonsense, for me to say it out loud like that. But then what is it? What is going on here? What did you do to her?"

He had allowed his emotions to tear through, on the last line, so that he shouted the question, a question made all the more powerful by the unexpectedness of its volume.

"I knew her, you bastards," he continued, voice shaking, hand shaking on his gun. "And I will find out what happened to her, whether you tell me or not. If you want to stop me, then shoot me now, but the police computers know where I was going. If I disappear, then they will know that cops vanish when they visit D&E. And then the hammer will fall. I want you to think about it carefully."

"You really do know too much now," the leader said, no longer cool and calm. Instead his voice formed a growl, and Ito thought he saw the man's hand tighten on his gun.

"We really ought to kill you now," he said. "The consequences be damned. You've gotten too smart."

"Stop this at once!"

The new voice was loud and piercing, and was not the voice of a man. Instead, it was the voice of a teenage girl, a voice Ito had known well, one that sent chills up his spine.

And the voice was coming from… above him?

Before he could react and look up, a crimson blur shot out of the sky, landing behind the five men in front of him with a flash of light, almost startling him into jumping.

Then he got a better look, and it took his breath away.

She looked just as he had remembered, face chiseled and beautiful, features hardened by years of surviving the beatings of her father, eyes that promised that no matter what happened, she would survive. Indeed, those eyes seemed more intense now, even more incongruous with that youthful face—but perhaps it was only his imagination.

There was no trace of crimson, though. Instead, she was implausibly decked out in the same kind of suit the men wore, properly resized to her smaller frame. Some small part of him opined that it suited her, somehow.

Ito checked her hand. Yes, the tattoo was there, the crimson amorphous blob, suggestive of a white blood cell, except for its color. Again, he felt a chill.

"Ye–Yes, Nakanishi‐sama," one of the underlings said, immediately turning and bowing, hastily holstering his gun.

The leader, who was standing still with the other three, made a sound of disgust.

"Idiot," he spat, while Ito looked around at the behavior of the men, eyes widening for the first time in this conversation. Again, his conception of the world shifted and reordered.

"Guns down, all of you," the girl from his dreams ordered sternly, and when they hesitated, she repeated:

"I mean it. The secret's shot to hell anyway, unless you kill him. And you're not killing him."

The guns went down, and then the girl locked eyes with Ito.

"You too, Ito‐kun," she said. "You look silly standing there like that."

Ito was, of course, still pointing his gun forward, though by this point he had nearly forgotten he had it. He dropped it downward hastily.

"It really is you, isn't it?" he asked breathlessly. "Ai–Aiko‐chan, what the hell is going on?"

He struggled with the absurdity of it all.

His former girlfriend shook her head, long hair flopping back and forth in the wind.

"If you won't trust them," she said, "then at least trust me. I'm fine. So is Okamura Yuu. Far more than she would have been had she stayed. Let it go. Let this investigation go. No good will come of looking any further."

"Aiko—" he began, reaching his hand forward—

—but the girl was gone. Vanished, just like that, almost as if she had never been there. The door to one of the two buildings was now open.

He blinked, wondering what the hell had happened to his life and world. In his eyes lay the after‐image of a teenage girl turning to sprint away—or maybe it was just his imagination.

The leader of the five henchmen who had accosted him straightened his tie and looked him in the eye, holstering his gun.

"So you really knew each other, huh?" he asked, as the other four filed up the steps.

"Yeah," Ito said, breathlessly, not really sure what else to say.

"She didn't tell us that," the other man said, shaking his head. "I guess it takes all kinds."

Without elaborating, the Yakuza henchman turned and headed away with the others, leaving Ito standing there alone, gun still hanging loosely in his grip.

I need a cigarette, Ito thought, feeling as if his world were now a dream.

"So I don't think the girl is staying with her friend," Kaoru said to him on the phone, as he was on his way back to the station.

"I see," Ito replied, voice void of affect. "Well, it was always far‐fetched."

There was a pause over the line.

"Well," Kaoru continued, answering the question he would normally ask. "The reason I don't think so is because—"

"No, it's okay," Ito interrupted. "I believe you. You've been doing this long enough now for me to trust your judgment."

Another pause.

"I know," Kaoru said. "But you always ask me anyways, just so you can hear about it. Is everything alright? You seem distracted."

"No, I'm—I'll tell you about it later, okay?"

"You sure?"


"Alright. See you at the station, I guess."

The conversation ended, and Ito was free to focus back on the road, for the one in hundred thousand chance the autodrive system failed and he needed to take manual control.

The four o'clock sun shone down from the sky onto his dashboard and, for the first time in a long time, Ito had no idea what to do.

He was within sight of cracking this case wide open. Aiko—Aiko‐chan, it still felt so novel to think of her as alive again, after so long—clearly knew where the girl was. She had essentially admitted it to his face.

But how could he convince anyone of the validity of what he had seen? He had no evidence, no footage, no recordings.

He had checked his phone logs, to see whether the gun encounter had properly triggered his phone's recording features, or at the very least logged the fact that he had drawn his gun. As he had expected, the answer was no.

All anyone had to go on was his word, that he had been accosted by a group of mobsters, and that a mysterious girl had admitted knowing Okamura Yuu's location, and then had disappeared into a D&E Building.

Thus far he had avoided admitting to anyone just who the girl in his wallet was, but he was sure the others, especially Kaoru, were more than capable of making a good guess. Now that he had investigated Aiko's family on the EE Machine, the record was there of who she was—it was elementary at that point to put the pieces together.

The questions would follow naturally. About his objectivity. About his mental state. Maybe he should take a break, they would say. He could see it already.

A part of him wondered if he really were crazy. After all, he had just seen a girl who hadn't aged in over a decade vanish in front of him, albeit while possibly flinging a door open. It sounded like a ghost story more than the account of a seasoned detective.

Even knowing where to look, he could see no routes of getting the proof he needed. He had no justifiable reason for getting an extensive search warrant for D&E, and it was clear now that the highly specific one the EE Machine had suggested would be dead in the water immediately.

Besides that, it was obvious that wherever Okamura Yuu was, she would be extremely well‐hidden. Barring an extreme stroke of good luck, or some major incompetence on the part of the Yakuza, he would never come close to finding her using traditional methods.

On top of all that, did he want to find her? Aiko's words weighed on him. He had never let anything get in the way of his professional commitment—it was a point of pride. But now… if there were some sort of real crime here, chances were that he would be hauling in the love of his life, a girl who had reassured him that Yuu was safe and being taken care of. He couldn't bring himself to doubt that—in which case, was it worth forcing the girl back to her poor and probably abusive family?

His objectivity was shot now. He knew that.

All of that ignored the real elephant in the room. That his girlfriend was here again, fifteen years later and not a day older. That it involved Yakuza would have almost been an afterthought, if it didn't make everything ten times more dangerous. Something was going on here, something big. Bigger than Okamura Yuu, bigger than Kugimiya Ito. Maybe even bigger than Nakanishi Aiko.

If he could see the heart of it, it was possible that his professional reputation would be assured forever. Yet precisely because it was so big, he feared the consequences of trying to dig into it. What would he be getting into?

What would it do to Aiko?

Let it go. Let this investigation go. No good will come of looking any further.

Nothing in his professional career had ever shaken him this much. He couldn't believe he was sitting here, taking a girl who associated with mobsters on her word, considering giving up an investigation and betraying his badge. It bothered him to consider that, without his suddenly burning desire to speak to her again, he might have given it up already.

I still love her, after all these years, he realized.

It was in that mood that he entered the police station again, shoulders slumped in thought, giving only a perfunctory greeting to those he passed. In truth, he just wanted to settle down in the office he shared with Kaoru and ruminate for another hour or so before going home. It would be earlier than his usual habit, and he usually spent very little time in his office, but he could surely afford to act unusual once in a while.

Eschewing the elevator, he mounted the steps two at a time, his mental faculties now too worn out to further consider his situation. Should he have brought some sort of constantly active hidden recording device, instead of relying on his phone? Yes, he should have, as a matter of good practice, even if the mobsters probably could have blocked that too. That was an oversight on his part, and one he shouldn't repeat.

Would it even matter if he had a recording? Would he betray her?

That was the question he didn't want to face.

"Kugimiya‐san," a voice summoned, as he reached the top of the stairs.

He looked up, startled out of his musings.

His boss, every bit the slightly portly police chief stereotype, made eye contact with him, making sure he was paying attention.

"Can we speak in my office?" the man asked. "It's important. And no, you're not fired."

"The thought hadn't even crossed my mind," he said, quite truthfully. You couldn't just fire an Inspector willy‐nilly.

"So how's the investigation going?" the man asked, as they advanced down the corridor.

"We have some leads," Ito said. "It's definitely not the typical case."

"I thought not," his boss said. "Minami‐san told me as much. Do you think the girl is alright? The runaway, I mean. Not Minami‐san."

"I think so, yeah," Ito said. "The evidence suggests so."

He glanced into his office as they passed by. Kaoru wasn't there. Come to think of it, where was she?

"And Kaoru‐san is doing well," he added. "It won't be long before I recommend her for a more senior role."

"Good, good," the police chief agreed. "It's important we get these girls home safely. Besides the obvious public service reasons, it makes good publicity for the department. The Kaneda case was a triumph. The mayor himself cited it while campaigning. These kinds of things raise our profile. Otherwise I'd have to put a talented man like you in Homicide."

Ito nodded along. Why was the chief taking the time to point all this out to him? Ito knew it all very well.

"Anyway," the chief said, making it a statement.

The man stopped abruptly, one foot on the bottom step of the stairs that led to his office.

Ito stopped in surprise, a moment later.

"You seem to have a knack for running into big cases," the police chief said, sotto voce. "I don't know what it's about this time, but I want to know that you shouldn't hesitate to call on department resources, if you need them. We've got your back."

"What is this about?" Ito asked, also quiet.

"There's a National Police agent waiting in my office," his boss said. "And a man from Interpol. It seems crazy, but they have an interest in your case. Minami‐san is already there. I was just about to call you back when you showed up."

Ito must have done a terrible job of hiding his reaction, because the police chief then said:

"Hmm, so you do have an idea why they're here," the man said. "I thought so. Look, you mind telling me what's going on here?"

Ito swallowed, knowing he couldn't lie to his superior, at least not wholly. National involvement meant it affected the department.

"There's Yakuza involvement in this case," he said. "I'm still getting a handle on it, but they have something do with the missing girl."

His boss rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"The Yakuza haven't done anything like that for a long time now," the man said. "But I guess I never really bought that, myself. Still, what is significant enough about this to draw in Interpol, of all people?"

"I have no idea," Ito said, and it was only half a lie. He had only an inkling.

"Hmm," his chief said. "Well, I guess I'll leave it at that. By the way, they don't want it widely known that they're here, so keep a lid on it, okay? That's why it's in my office."

"Okay," Ito said. "Will you be joining us?"

"No," the chief said. "They want it just you and Minami‐san. I'll just be shuffling around out here, trying to look useful. Anyway, we've dallied long enough. Go on up."

Ito nodded, then began to mount the stairs, wondering: What now?

"Inspector Kugimiya, we've been expecting you," the National Police agent greeted, standing up as Ito entered the room. Ito exchanged bows with the agent, then with the Interpol agent, whom he judged to be Filipino. The bow was smooth, without the hesitation foreigners often had. The man had been here a while, then, or had been to Japan before.

"I am Okuno Satoru, National Police," the tall, reedy man said. "And this is Ronaldo Rizal, Interpol."

The agent pronounced the foreign name smoothly. Ito was no judge, but he thought it sounded better than the mangle most Japanese‐speakers—including himself—would have made of it. Well, it made sense.

They took their seats.

"Rizal‐san is here to investigate a possible Yakuza connection to recent incidents in China," Satoru said. "You've heard of the Triad?"

Ito nodded.

"It would not be a good idea to go into detail, even with you, and it definitely should not go beyond this room," the agent said.

He looked around at Ito and Kaoru, hands clasped, until they nodded in assent.

"With that out of the way," he continued, "let me dive right into it. In a nutshell, it appears the Yakuza are trying to replace the Triad leadership. We do not know why, and we're having a hard time grasping anything non‐circumstantial, but that appears to be what the evidence suggests. What do you think?"

Ito stared at the agent for a moment, then looked at his partner, then made a show of beginning to think about it. In truth, the question and topic were so out of the blue that they had to struggle to get the right perspective.

"I think it makes no sense," Kaoru said, finally, voicing what Ito had been thinking. "With all due respect, since when do the Yakuza and Triad give a rat's—care at all about each other?"

"Yes, we think it's weird too," the agent said, face level. "But it is what the evidence suggests. Looking into it, we believe it has something to do with a similar change in Yakuza leadership that took place roughly a decade ago. It wasn't widely publicized, even among police departments, but at the time there was a sudden collapse in the Yakuza leadership structure. Most of the old bosses disappeared. Others seem to have now been relegated to subordinate roles."

Satoru paused, gauging their reaction.

"A decade ago," Ito repeated, clasping his hands, in unconscious imitation of the National Police agent. "Right around when the Yakuza terminated their role in human trafficking and pornography. I guess that change makes more sense now. A little. Who are the new leaders?"

"I know this will be hard to believe," Satoru said, "but we do not know."

Ito looked up in surprise.

"Sorry for being rude," he said. "But shouldn't ten years be more than enough to deduce something like that?"

"Yes," the agent said. "The fact remains that we have been completely unable to figure it out. Well, up until recently."

"Excuse me," Kaoru interrupted, glancing at the Interpol agent and pointing at her ear. "I'm sorry to ask, but do you, uh—"

The darker‐skinned man smiled and held up his phone.

"I'm working on it," he said, voice accented. "I've got this thing on translate mode. Besides, Interpol agents have language, um, teaching, but I let Satoru do the talking. I've gotten better, since I came here."

"I see," she said.

Ito, for his part, had stayed quiet, thinking. New leadership? He couldn't help but see the image pressed into his mind, of the Yakuza henchmen bowing to Aiko.

"In any case," Satoru said, leaning forward again. "You are probably starting to wonder what any of this has to do with you two."

Ito nodded, slowly.

"Frankly, yes," he said. "It seems rather random."

Satoru cleared his throat.

"For a long time, we have had many of the pieces in hand," Satoru said, "but we were unable to assemble them. It turns out that all we needed was a fresh perspective. We are indebted to Ronaldo here for our recent insights."

He gestured at the Interpol agent, who waved his hands modestly.

"You are too kind. Really, agents such as I do hardly any, um, fieldwork. I cannot take the credit."

Satoru pressed a button on a tablet lying on the chief's desk. A hologram flared to life above it. Ito leaned forward to look.

"Surveillance tapes such as this have perplexed us for quite a while," Satoru said. "Yakuza gangsters, and a teenaged girl, sometimes more than one girl. Perfectly understandable, except that the girls involved hardly look to be in dire straits. Indeed, some of the behavior is downright mystifying."

Ito watched as the girl on the "screen" appeared to say something, followed by an acknowledgment and bow from one of the gangsters.

He concealed his reaction as best he could, but he was beginning to understand, just a little. Kaoru, for her part, was watching the screen with a look of confusion.

"They seem to be taking orders from her," she said.

"Yes," the agent said. "That is the impression we got too. We speculated that these girls were all members of one or more crime families, and the real bosses were older adults, unidentified. But despite exhaustive searches of our databases, we were unable to find any matches to these girls. And we looked everywhere: school systems, social services, city surveillance, clothing stores that sell similar clothing, everything we could think of. We were often able to find the same girls again, but never were we able to attach a name. They always paid in cash, and never showed up inside any system that would have a name."

"We got lucky," Ronaldo said, interjecting. "I was doing a search with Satoru here, and I joked that it was hard for a foreigner such as me to know the ages of these girls by sight. They look the same from fifteen to thirty! To me, that is. We laughed, and then I said it was good that I had the machines to tell us how old they were, or I would have to take Satoru with me to every analysis. Maybe I would tell the machine a girl was thirty, when she was really thirteen."

"Then I said, given how much luck we've been having, it wouldn't give any different of a result," Satoru said.

"I said, let's find out," Ronaldo said. "We were frustrated, so uh, I don't know how to word this—"

"We were messing around," Satoru said, smiling. "We tried it, just to see. We didn't expect to start actually getting hits."

The moment Ronaldo mentioned age, Ito had started to feel a sinking feeling in his stomach. Now it was obvious: Aiko wasn't the only one.

"It seems absolutely crazy," Satoru said. "But all this time, we had been relying on our computers, and the computers assign the probability of someone showing no signs of aging over many years to be precisely zero. It's not improbable. It's impossible. Not once in ten years had anyone told them to explicitly turn this filter off. Once we knew the trick, we started identifying who these girls were."

"But how?" Kaoru asked, glancing at Ito, clearly remembering the girl in his wallet. "How can these girls not age?"

"We don't know," Satoru said. "We thought we were insane, at first. But the evidence is too overwhelming."

They sat there, for a moment, as Kaoru sat there in shock, digesting in one go what Ito had been slowly absorbing over the past day. She had never believed the girl in the surveillance to be the same as the one Ito knew, but he had, on some level, believed it the entire time.

At least I'm no longer alone, Ito thought dryly.

"It's the perfect disguise," Kaoru commented, finally, staring at the hologram. "They hide in plain sight. No one would suspect teenage girls of heading the mob, especially not teenage girls who were teenage ten years ago. It would make perfect sense, if it weren't so crazy."

"Yes," Satoru said meaningfully. "Though I'm also curious how they managed to take over in the first place, and how they maintain loyalty."

He cleared his throat.

"In any case, that is why we are here, Inspector Kugimiya," he continued, turning in his chair towards Ito. "You were flagged in our system the moment you applied for a warrant on your old girlfriend, who we've already identified as one of these girls. Now, we find that your case has hints of Yakuza activity, and that you, too, have realized what is going on."

Despite everything, Ito remembered to glance at Kaoru, who registered no response to the girlfriend comment. Well, she'd probably guessed at some point.

"It is a great opportunity," Ronaldo said. "For various reasons, it is frustrating to contact them any other way. We haven't found any on good terms with their families, even when the families still know they're alive. Looking back, it makes sense—it'd be tough to explain to your parents why you still look like a teenager."

"But you don't think us crazy," Satoru said, "and you are the former lover of one of these girls, who is apparently still in the area. By immense coincidence, you are assigned to a case that relates to her. You realized what was going on on your own. There'd be nothing more natural than for you to start asking around and trying to make contact. There'd be no suspicion."

"You want me to contact her?" Ito asked, feeling queasy.

"Yes," Satoru said. "It will be dangerous, I admit. They may try to eliminate you. But it is also possible that it will work, in which case we will have our first real opportunity to break into the organization."

The agent reached into his pocket and handed Ito a small metal object. Ito took it, and looked at it in the palm of his hand.

"If you do make contact," the agent said, "this is a scanning, monitoring, and transmission device you can use. In short, a spy wire. Just press and hold. It will vibrate briefly when it turns on and off. I know it seems crude, but trust me, it's the best technology we have. It would be too risky to try to connect to your phone, or anything like that and… you may not be able to hold on to a mere recording."

Ito nodded emptily. He felt a strange mix of fear, pain, and relief. Fear at what he might have to face, pain that he was being placed in this situation, and relief that, in some sense, the decision was being taken away from him. What was he going to say? No?

And then he felt disgusted at himself.

"Kugimiya‐san," Ronaldo asked. "Before we go too far with this, let me ask: Do you think it would work? Would she answer you, after all these years? Would she kill you?"

Ito looked down at the device again, forcing the correct expression onto his face.

"I don't know," he said, "but I can't believe she'd kill me."

Satoru patted him on the back collegially.

"I understand if you don't want to take this kind of risk," he said. "But the payoff could be enormous. This kind of thing is why we joined the police in the first place."

Ito continued to stare at his hand.

He was right. It was.

Wasn't it?

"And you might be able to get her immunity, if you can get her to talk," Kaoru said thoughtfully. "Maybe she just needs a way out. I doubt she had many choices when she ran away, with a family like that."

Ito looked at her in surprise.

"I looked her up," Kaoru said, meeting his look. "Don't look so surprised. Of course I had to know."

His partner looked down, while Satoru and Ronaldo gave them appraising looks. Ito wondered if they knew the dynamics at play here.

"Anyway," she said. "I won't speak for you. But it is the right thing to do. Like I said, maybe you can protect her, when this is all over."

Ito exhaled, then took a deep breath. He didn't really have a choice, at least not here. Perhaps he could make his choice later.

"Okay," he said, nodding in what he hoped was a decisive fashion. "I will try."

The question, of course, was whether he would truly activate the wire, if she really talked to him. But if he didn't, what kind of cop was he?

"In that case, Inspector," Ronaldo said. "We will give you a list of things to try and ask. Principally, we want you to find out about Sakura."

Ito blinked.

"Sakura?" he repeated back, thinking of cherry blossoms.

"To be clear, it's not the kind that falls off of trees," Satoru said, preempting the line of thought. "The phrase turns up in a large number of Yakuza assassinations of former sex industry personnel. At the moment, we're not even sure if it's the name of a person, an organization, or something else. But it may be a key."

Ito scrunched his face, thinking briefly.

"The Yakuza is killing its former members?" he asked.

"Those that didn't obey the new rules," Satoru said.

"I see," Ito said, blanking his face once again.

In his shirt pocket, his police badge began to weigh on him.

That night, he stayed awake long past reasonable hours, staring at his ceiling, thinking about Aiko. Where had she gone after she left? How had she fallen in with the Yakuza? What had she done since then?

It was questions like that he wondered about, rather than the truly big ones: How was she still so young? Was she involved in any of the murders? Did she still love him? Could he really betray her?

He couldn't quite face those yet, nor could he face the question of why it mattered to him.

Finally, as the alarm clock on his counter ticked to 3:00 AM, he turned over and picked it up, musing on the annoying mascot character design, colors washed out and gray in the minimal light.

Then he forced himself to think of the good times, and finally fell asleep.

"So the D&E Corporation, huh?" Kaoru asked rhetorically, as they walked up to the main entrance of the logistics building. "I'd heard the rumors. I didn't really think they were true."

"Apparently they are," Ito said neutrally. He had yet to mention that he had been here before, just not inside.

"Do you really think this will work?" she said.

"I'd be very surprised if she didn't know I was snooping around," Ito said, couching his words carefully. "In which case, it just very well might."

The glass double doors slid open at their approach, and an air‐conditioned breeze greeted them. The male security guard at the front desk looked at them skeptically.

"I don't think you two work here," he said, rather more suspicious than the average security guard.

"That is correct," Ito said. "Mitakihara Police."

He held out his badge for the man to see. He could see the man scan it quickly, then hide a look of dismay.

"How can I help you, officer?" the man asked, leaning forward. The man's left hand slid "subtly" under the table, probably pushing some sort of warning button. It didn't matter.

"Don't worry," Ito said, leaning on the counter with one arm. "We're not here to execute a warrant or anything. We'd just like to make an appointment with one of your employees."

"Oh?" the guard said, looking surprised.

"Yes," Ito said. "Tell Nakanishi Aiko I would like to arrange a meeting. It's important. Whenever she chooses. She can call me back."

He pushed his business card over the counter, and the guard took it and glanced at it suspiciously.

"My private number is written on the back," Ito said, smiling. He was starting to see humor in this situation, as inappropriate as it was.

The guard stared at the card for a long moment.

"One second," the guard said, reaching a decision. "Let me confirm that there is an employee by that name."

The man got up and walked away from the counter, deeper into the building. Ito had no doubt that the man could have called up an employee roster right from his terminal, if he wanted. Or heck, straight into his AR contacts, if he had them. More likely, the guard was leaving to ask someone whether he should lie or not, without having to sit around holding awkward conversation.

"Maybe we should sneak onto his terminal," Kaoru murmured, looking at him from the corner of her eye.

"I doubt she'd be in the standard employee list," Ito said.

A full twenty‐one minutes later, by Ito's watch, the guard reemerged.

"I passed the word on," he said. "Wait to be contacted."

"Thank you," Ito said.

The two men stared at each other for a moment, until he decided to relieve the guard of his agony and turned to leave.

"I can't believe it worked!" Kaoru enthused, the moment the doors closed behind them. "You two really were close, huh?"

Ito gave her a look.

"Oh, sorry," she said, rapidly subdued. "I wasn't thinking. Anyway, how do you think we're going to be contacted?"

"I have no idea," Ito said frankly. "But now that we have little else to do, why don't we go inform Okamura's parents about the progress on our search? The parts we can talk about, anyway. Just as reassurance we're doing something."

He liked to keep parents in the loop.

"I suppose," Kaoru said.

"Hey Ito," Kaoru said.

"Yeah?" he asked, looking at his partner. They had been quiet on this drive, mostly because he wanted silence.

"This doesn't look like the route I remember. Are you sure we're going to the right place?"

"Of course," Ito said. "It's in recent locations, so I just asked for the Okamura household. You heard me too."

He looked around at the area. He hadn't really been paying attention, but now that he looked, she was right. It didn't look like the rundown residential areas he was expecting. Instead, it looked like they were heading for the commercial and finance district, the vibrant heart of the boom that had made Mitakihara an economic powerhouse, despite its plummeting population and the sea walls that were now necessary to hold back the oceans.

She saw the skepticism appear on his face.

"Yeah, you should check," Ito said.

She nodded.

"Vehicle, what is our current destination?" she asked.

The car did not respond, leaving an awkward silence hanging in the air.

Kaoru and Ito glanced at each other.

She reached for the controls to Ito's left, trying to call up a holographic menu.

"Access denied," their patrol vehicle reported.

They glanced at each other again, more severe worry creeping onto their faces.

Kaoru leaned over and pressed some buttons on the touchscreen.

"Access denied," the vehicle repeated.

Ito took his left hand off the wheel and swept it over the screen, which still displayed the main access screen.

"Access denied."

"What is this?" Kaoru asked, starting to sound panicked. She thumbed the screen again, but was again refused access.

"I can't even get it to tell me where we're going," she said. "Much less change it."

"Don't panic," Ito reassured. "I'll toggle the manual override."

Privately, he hoped he still remembered how to drive. Or at the very least how to stop the car reasonably.

He reached for the gearbox, which only had three settings: autodrive, manual, and emergency stop, which required him to push extra hard.

Nothing happened.

He crinkled his brow and stepped on the brake. Nothing happened.

"Ito‐san," Kaoru said, now definitely sounding panicked. "What do we do? What's going on?"

Ito was also starting to panic a little. They were on a major street, and it wasn't fully safe to do so, but he slammed the stick into emergency stop.

Nothing happened.

"Alright, calm down," he said, swallowing his panic as much as he could. "Call for help. I'll keep trying."

She nodded.

"Phone, please call emergency services," she said, more loudly than necessary, while Ito shifted in and out of emergency stop.

"Sorry, there is signal interference," the device in her pocket said in response. "Please move to a different area."

"A different—" Kaoru began incredulously.

The pieces finally connected in Ito's head.

"The Yakuza," he interrupted.

A brief pause, during which Kaoru stared at him as if he had grown two heads.

"What?" she asked.

He looked at her, remembering that, yes, she wasn't as experienced as he was.

"The Yakuza sometimes hack into parked cars when the owners are gone, usually so they can crash the car with the owners inside," he explained. "We still don't know how they do it. I don't think we're going to get crashed, though."

"We got contacted," Kaoru said, catching the implication, eyes wide.

"Yes," Ito agreed. "And I think I know where we're going."

He looked meaningfully out the window, at the towering edifice of D&E Corporate Headquarters, just now coming into view.

Eventually, they finally pulled to a stop, inside a covered VIP garage, deep underground. As they pulled in, his partner nudged him to activate his surveillance, keeping quiet in case the car was bugged as well. Ito shook his head. He wasn't sure if the device could transmit through the interference, or without being detected. If it couldn't, he risked blowing everything trying to trigger it. Better to wait until it was important.

Besides, he didn't want to make that decision now.

He was still struggling with whether he really wanted to act as spy, though now that Kaoru was here, he couldn't hide having been here—though he could always lie and say the spy device failed somehow, due to interference.

Why would they bring Kaoru too? he thought.

There was no mystery as to where to go, at least. The empty spot they pulled into was already flanked by suited men. Indeed, they appeared to be the same men he had met earlier.

Suddenly, Ito realized that the situation created the strong risk that they would give away to Kaoru that they had met before, and that he had no idea how to avoid it happening.

"Inspector Kugimiya‐san," the leader greeted, bowing, as the car doors opened and they were allowed to step out. He seemed almost to be smirking. Still, Ito noticed that this time the greeting was much more proper and polite.

"Inspector Minami‐san," he said, bowing to his partner a moment later.

"Kidnapping officers of the law is a serious offense," Kaoru said indignantly. "Whoever you are."

"We prefer to meet on our own ground," the man said, without seeming fazed in the slightest. "We won't harm you. Not after Kugimiya‐san here accepted our offer to meet."

Kaoru frowned.

"Your offer?"

Ito put his hand on her shoulder to quiet her.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"Up the building," the man said. "Follow me."

As they headed for an exit elevator, the remaining four men flanked them on the sides and rear. Ito noted, however, that there was no attempt to disarm them. That didn't necessarily mean anything, but he would have expected it.

He thought back to Aiko, disappearing through a door faster than he could see. Maybe it had been his imagination, in the depths of his shock, or maybe these ageless girls had no reason to fear guns. It would also neatly explain how they had the Yakuza's loyalty, he had realized earlier. What were they, vampires?

They found Aiko waiting for them in the access room to the elevator, the security door opening as they approached, the elevator doors opening a moment later.

Their eyes met, and though the girl was smiling neutrally, he could see that she was hiding nervousness. Well, assuming his old ability to read her was still valid.

Ito didn't realize how much he had been holding his breath until he released it, rather more loudly than he would have wished.

He could feel Kaoru watching the two of them.

"So, we're going to meet in front of the elevator?" he said, making an aborted attempt at being jocular.

"No," Aiko said, mouth twitching slightly. "Just thought I'd meet you out here. Come on."

The eight of them crowded into the elevator, sorting themselves so that the four subordinate mobsters stood in the front, while the remaining four stood in the back. The leader watched the two of them carefully, head turned.

One of the men pushed a button for the very top floor, down near the bottom of the multiple columns of buttons.

Elevators had seen remarkably little change over the years, Ito mused. The button system worked too well to be worth replacing.

Why was he thinking about that at a moment like this?

Aiko leaned back onto the rounded back of the elevator car.

"It's a long ride," she said.

Even so, Ito and Kaoru remained standing.

"So, Ito‐kun," Aiko said, studiously watching the floor numbers. "The files they gave me say you began smoking. I disapprove, of course."

"I quit, Aiko—" he began, stumbling on the "—chan." It seemed so embarrassing to say in front of his partner, even more than being called "—kun" by someone who looked so much younger.

"—chan," he finished a moment later, anyway. "I quit."

"I know," she said. "I just wanted to remind you."

In front of them, one of the other men coughed slightly.

Aiko turned suddenly, looking at Ito and Kaoru.

"Well let's face it," she said. "This is awkward. And it's probably better not to do our catching up in front of my subordinates. I have a feeling it would make them distinctly uncomfortable. Isn't that right, Natsume‐san?"

She tilted her head back to look at the man Ito had started thinking of as "the leader". The man cleared his throat, looking quite embarrassed.

"Well, er, the men—we aren't used to thinking of you as anything but our boss, Aiko‐san, so it's rather strange. I'm not sure I approve. It's better for discipline if we maintain the mystique. Also, uh, I'd rather you hadn't revealed my name to these cops."

"They can't do anything to us," Aiko said, glancing back meaningfully at Ito and Kaoru to make sure they caught that. "You know that."

"He's my lieutenant," she explained, addressing the two of them again. "I tease him, but he'd never cross me. He's seen what we can do."

Ito glanced at his partner, who glanced back.

What we can do? he thought.

Aiko made a disappointed noise.

"I was hoping you'd be jealous," she said. "You know, I thought about kissing you when you got here, just to unbalance you, but I couldn't talk myself into it. I guess it would have scandalized your partner, too. What a dirty old man you'd be, then."

The five Yakuza men shifted awkwardly, while Kaoru looked distinctly uncomfortable and Ito blushed beet‐red for the first time in—well, since high school.

He cleared his throat, looking back at Aiko's suddenly impish face, and remembered that she had loved to embarrass him, and also that she had had little respect for social decorum. Things hadn't changed much, apparently.

It disturbed him that she seemed to not even be considering the possibility that he no longer cared for her, or that he might have other considerations in mind. Were the "files" on him that detailed? Or did Aiko understand just how much of a grip she still had on him, even after all these years?

He would have bet on the latter. It did not make him feel empowered.

"Where are we going, Aiko‐chan?" he said, clamping down on his emotions. He couldn't let himself get sucked into a fantasy, however much he wanted to. He had to remember he was looking at a mob boss, however unlikely that seemed, and that he was still a police officer. He couldn't let her dominate the conversation.

She held up a finger to shush him, then turned to face the back of the elevator.

"One of you, open up the curtains, would you?"

That statement seemed nonsensical, even after one of the men pushed a button, until a shaft of light from the bottom of the elevator startled Ito and his partner.

The round metal back surface was slowly lifting up into the ceiling, revealing a transparent second layer behind it, and behind that, the outside world. As the "curtains" rose, mechanical mechanism somehow avoiding the handrail, they were treated to a panoramic view of the city and its suburbs, and Ito could see that they were very high indeed, nearly at the top of the skyscraper. The sun shone cheerily, nearly directly above them, flooding the elevator car with light.

Aiko leaned onto the handrail.

"Beautiful, right?" she said. "I never get tired of it. Remember when we'd sneak onto the school roof, just because it was a little higher?"

She looked at him, and he felt obliged to respond:

"Yeah, it was pretty nice."

—because that was true, and he remembered it fondly.

"The city is doing well," Aiko said, looking out again. "Sure, some people are poor, and the residential areas look pretty trashy, what with the lack of population. But this city defies the general economic malaise. A lot of that is thanks to all the successful companies founded here, such as D&E. It's not as if we set out to save the city, but somehow we did. I'm glad. If only it were possible to save everyone."

This was new, and didn't sound at all like the girl Ito had known. She sounded weary, proud, old. Older even than she should have been.

"Save the city?" Kaoru said, sounding affronted. "Is that what you mobsters think you're doing?"

Aiko looked up, peering at the two of them, and seemed about to say something, but was interrupted by the chiming noise of the elevator reaching its destination.

Instead of saying anything further, they waited for the doors to open, and then they walked out onto the top floor.

As they walked down the corridor, Ito and Kaoru took in the views of the city out the windows, the paintings hanging from the inner walls, the dark wooden tables and elaborate presentation setups inside the meeting rooms that they passed, and the many, many monitors displaying proud corporate achievements and advertisements, usually in holographic form. The sterile, clean wealth of a corporation, rather than the more opulent or eccentric decorations an individual might have.

Finally, they stopped in front of a set of ornate double doors, the five Yakuza strongmen turning and leaving without any visible signal. At first, he was startled, then realized it was logical: What exactly was he going to do? Turn around and leave? Take hostages?

He took a moment to read the brass plate set into the door. It said:

Fukuzawa Anko
Chairman, CEO

Again, he was startled. He had had some inkling of where they would end up ever since the elevator button was pushed for the top floor, but he hadn't imagined he would be taken to see the big banana herself. Fukuzawa, the hard‐charging, crass‐spoken corporate mogul, who had inherited an already successful company from her mother and turned it into a true corporate giant. The eccentric CEO who was notorious for never showing up to press conferences without a food item, and drove society types to distraction with her "uncouth" behavior, despite her wealthy upbringing.

So the official narrative went.

Ito remembered the wire in his pocket, the one he was supposed to activate. His hand slid into his pocket, then froze, finger over the device, as he tried to decide what to do.

He gritted his teeth, eyes on the back of Aiko's head, fighting himself, while the least useful part of his brain called up memories of how much he had loved that hair.

Then Aiko opened the door, and he pulled his hand back out of his pocket. He couldn't do it.

He feared the ramifications, but his choice was made, for better or worse.

"You're supposed to knock, you know," a sharp woman's voice rebuked almost immediately, in a delinquent's accent that Ito realized must be Fukuzawa's signature style of speech.

Aiko ignored the comment, shuffling the two of them into the expansive office. Ito couldn't help but look around in amazement and slight envy at the wooden paneling, gigantic desk, holoprojectors, panoramic windows—heck, it even had its own bathroom! A far cry from his and Kaoru's cramped two desks and a wastebasket office.

And of course, there was Fukuzawa herself, feet on the table, making a show of reading through a paper document. In front of her was the monitor of a terminal workstation, one of those exceptionally fancy ones that could be tuned to look like the output hologram was floating in thin air.

Ito looked at her, with her extremely long hair tied up in a girlish ribbon, and decided that she was reasonably attractive, despite being somewhat lacking in the chest area. At close range, he could see for himself what people said: that she looked exceptionally young for a forty‐year‐old, and in fact looked hardly over twenty‐five. Now that he thought of that, the fact took on a new significance in his mind.

Despite the informality of the woman's posture, and all the particulars of the situation, Ito bowed politely, as did his partner. Aiko did not, he noticed.

"Go ahead and sit down," the woman said, still reading her document. "I ain't gonna keep you standing for no reason."

They did so, in the exactly three chairs that were available. Finally, the woman pulled her feet off the table and set down what she was reading, placing it into a drawer of her desk.

Then she leaned over her desk, peering at Ito carefully.

"So this is the boyfriend, huh?" she asked. "Doesn't look like much."

"Former boyfriend," Aiko corrected.

"Sure, whatever," Anko said, leaning back into her chair. "He have any taste for youth? We could make this work. Or you could just age a little."

Aiko blushed slightly, looking incredibly awkward.

"Can we not talk about this right now?" she asked.

Anko shrugged.

"Anyway, Inspector," she said, addressing him and his partner. "The first thing I'd like to say is that Fukuzawa Anko is not my real name. My real name is Sakura Kyouko."

She said it so matter‐of‐factly that Ito found himself waiting for her to continue, before finally processing what she had said. He wasn't able to suppress a slight expression of surprise, whereas his partner didn't even appear to be trying to hide her astonishment. He hoped Kyouko would ascribe the surprise to the fact that her name was fake, and not to the name itself.

"We know the police are on to the significance of my name," Kyouko said. "You guys would have to be stupid not to know, considering my subordinates insist on writing it on the wall everywhere. Instills fear, they say. Makes sure everyone knows who killed them. I let them do it, but it's no wonder they never managed to keep themselves secret."

The woman peered at the two of them.

"Yeah, you're cops alright," she said. "I can tell by the way your faces look. Well, the world ain't so black and white. It was necessary to maintain control, to ensure that no one dared go back into the sex business. You can't tell me you're sorry they're dead."

"We're not," Kaoru said. "But it's the wrong thing to do."

Ito could see her bite back the words "You murderer."

"Because of our intervention," Kyouko continued, as smoothly as if Kaoru hadn't said anything, "the sex industry in Japan is dead, and will never revive. The same gangsters who protected the industry in the past now ensure that anyone who tries, despite warning, will get everything they deserve. We give former prostitutes new jobs. You think it's a coincidence, Inspector, that the return rate on runaways has been so much higher in the past decade? It's because we convince them to go back, as long as the home is worth going back to. But some, like Okamura Yuu, we actively convince to leave and join us, because their families aren't worth going back to."

"The things the Yakuza did were the reason we intervened in the first place," Aiko said, looking Ito in the eye. "For a long time, we tolerated the Yakuza, and they tolerated us, even if they didn't know who we were, because we humiliated every attempt they made to restrain our underground operations."

She took a breath.

"After I left, I saw so many of them," she said, eyes downcast. "Girls, not that much different from me, trying to escape their families, and winding up in the fire instead. If my life had been even slightly different, I would have been one of them. And I had to watch, I couldn't intervene, all because we didn't think we were powerful enough. When we finally voted to take over, I've never been gladder to do anything in my life."

She shook her head, then looked up at him again.

"I killed two of the bosses personally, Ito‐kun," she said. "Yes, I'm a murderer, but I was just so angry. I wanted to try to find you again, but then you became a cop. How could that ever work?"

Ito just sat there, eyes wide, waiting for the indignation and outrage to flood him. It was an unforgivable act, but no outrage came. He couldn't hate her, couldn't bring himself to pity the men who had once preyed upon the girls he had tried to save. He couldn't find the moral certainty that he had just a week earlier.

"Who is 'we'?" Kaoru asked. "Are you saying that you run a rival criminal organization, Sakura‐san?"

The girl across the desk smiled slightly, displaying a hint of fangs.

"Criminal, yes, technically," she said. "But the majority of crimes we engage in are white collar. Money laundering, industrial sabotage, destruction of evidence, falsification of records, things like that. Things like murders only occur when they have to. And no, I don't run it."

She turned in her chair, so that she could point out her window.

"Mitakihara City is the economic miracle of Japan," she said. "This is our city. The corporations in the commercial district, the banks and the factories, belong to us, and they got where they are legitimately, for the most part. I ain't gonna explain what gives us our operating advantage, but D&E didn't become what it is by cheating. It did by being the best in the industry. And it is corporations like D&E that provide the money we use to run the Yakuza, so that we can dominate crime in Japan, and outline what can and cannot be done. The Yakuza doesn't make money anymore. It costs money, but we don't care."

She turned to pin the two cops with a look, and they didn't say anything, still absorbing what they were hearing.

"You police are so worried about the Yakuza that you haven't noticed what's right in front of your faces," Aiko said, eyes fierce. "When was the last time a shopkeeper had his store burned down for not paying protection? The last time a child was kidnapped for ransom, because his parents owed mobsters money? Even beyond that, you think it's a coincidence petty theft is down? Carjackings? Crime of every category has plummeted, despite the economy, and that's because we're keeping it down. We have saved more children than you ever could in your lifetime. I'm sorry to say that."

Ito looked down at the table, mind swirling with conflict, then looked at his partner. He found, to his surprise, that even her face looked conflicted. She was as idealistic as he had been when he first joined the force, even though she had worked with him for several years now, but he could see that even she was having trouble with the moral issues here.

"I want to call you a liar," Ito said, looking at Kyouko. "But I don't think you are. I know the crime statistics. No one has ever adequately explained why crime is down. But what you're telling me would be laughed out of every conspiracy theory convention. Who are you? How do you stay so young?"

In answer, Kyouko looked at the girl sitting next to Ito, who looked flustered, and finally said awkwardly:

"Ito‐kun, you remember your leukemia?" she asked rhetorically.

"Yes, of course," he said, after a pause.

"I was the one who cured it," she said, looking down at her hands.

Then, while he was still looking at her in confusion, she held out her hand, the one with the blob‐shaped mark on its middle finger. Seeing it, he immediately glanced at the hand of "Fukuzawa Anko", and saw that she had one too, oval in shape, and the same color. How had no one ever noticed that before?

"Cured?" he asked dumbly. "How is that possible?"

Now that she said it, he realized how much strange sense it made.

A few months before his disease had gone into remission, he had gotten exactly the opposite news. His leukemia's genetic profile was known to be extremely intractable, and had already metastasized. There were a few, highly experimental drugs he could try, but his doctor told his parents bluntly to prepare him for death. When Aiko visited him after that, he had broken down and cried in her arms, as unmanly as that was.

And then, a miracle: a local research lab announced the very next day that it had developed a treatment for exactly his type of recalcitrant cancer, and needed subjects to test it on. They rushed for it, hopes high, even though he had forced himself constantly to remember that it might not work.

But of course it had, and that was when Aiko had gotten the tattoo. In the heady happiness of learning of his remission, he still managed to have a weird feeling that she was hiding something, especially after she started routinely leaving on mysterious errands. But eventually he forgot about it.

As he watched, the silver ring on her finger, the ring he had never thought anything about, dissolved in a wave of red light and flowed into the palm of her hand, reforming itself into a bright red gem, encased in an ornate cage of gold.

The spectacle was so patently ridiculous that Ito stared for a full five seconds, blinking and trying to explain to himself what had just happened.

"I can't tell you the whole truth, not yet," Aiko said. "But the world is deeper than you know. This gem is my soul. In exchange for curing your disease, my soul was placed in this gem. I get eternal life, incredible powers—"

She disappeared from in front of his eyes, just as she had in the alley, and when she continued speaking from behind him he nearly hurt his neck jerking his head around.

"—but there's a cost," she finished.

Again, Ito and Kaoru found themselves in the position of staring speechlessly.

"It's a deal with the devil," Kaoru said, finally, clearly far beyond the point of trying to argue with anything.

Kyouko cleared her throat, demanding their attention. They gave it, even though they were now even more shell‐shocked.

"Maybe it is," the woman said, "but we're not evil, even though sometimes we do evil things. We do the best we can with what we've got. It's time to talk about why you're here."

Aiko reappeared in her chair.

"Don't delude yourself into thinking we were forced to grant you this interview," Kyouko said. "It would have been easy to lock you out entirely. You are here because your girlfriend wanted to try to deal with you personally, and because she wanted you here. I said sure, as long as we kept it deniable, and you were intelligent enough to follow the hints. In return for all we have told you, though, you ain't going to be telling Okuno or Rizal anything."

She waited until they developed surprised looks on their faces, and then continued:

"Oh yes, of course we know about them. And we also know about the wire you're wearing, though you're smart not to try to activate it. Your two little friends didn't tell anyone else about what they found, because they thought no one would believe them. I'll admit, that did make it easier. As we speak, all records of what they've found and what you found are being wiped, including all relevant surveillance footage. Don't be surprised we can do that. We can do a lot of things."

Kyouko leaned forward, not even giving them a chance to catch a breath.

"You see," she said, "without the evidence, nothing any of you say will be taken as credible. Chances are, you will be seen as crazy. Remember, I didn't have to tell you nothing. I'm doing it as a favor to Aiko‐chan."

She met his eyes.

Long seconds later, Ito clasped his hands, finally feeling recovered enough to consider an answer. Kaoru looked at him for guidance.

He wished he could truly be the paragon of insight all junior partners expected from their senpai.

"After all of this," he said, "I'd be inclined to agree, but I don't know what my partner thinks. I have personal ties here. It's not fair for me to speak for her."

He looked at her, and Kaoru appeared to struggle for a moment, before saying:

"Alright. Alright. It doesn't sit right with me, but I don't think we have a choice. I'll trust your judgment. But I don't know how we're going to lie to Okuno‐san and Rizal‐san like that."

Ito took a breath. At this stage, he had no idea how to think about the world anymore. He was running purely on instinct now, and his core beliefs. Those beliefs told him that, regardless of whatever insanity he found himself involved in, whatever the motives that now drove him, there was one thing he had to do.

"In that case, I have one request," Ito said, facing Kyouko. "This investigation started because of a girl, Okamura Yuu. I'm willing to let it go if I can confirm with my own eyes and ears that she's fine and being taken care of."

Kyouko smiled, the hint of fangs turning into an outright display.

"Aiko‐chan really does know you well," she said. "We anticipated this. Aiko‐chan?"

Aiko grabbed his hand.

"Come on," she said. "I'll take you to see her."

It turned out that Okamura Yuu was lying low in an apartment complex on the other side of the city, living with two college students near the University. She insisted she was fine, and that all her upkeep costs were being paid by "the organization." He decided not to press that particular point.

"You don't want to go home at all?" he asked. "Your mother will be devastated if you don't turn up."

"I know," Yuu said, eyes downcast. "I feel really bad about it. But I don't want to live there anymore. My parents are always fighting, and my dad gets violent and drunk. And then they take it out on me afterward."

"Wait," Kaoru interrupted. "They both take it out on you?"

"Yes," Yuu said, tilting her head. "Why?"

Kaoru shook her head, and waved for her to continue.

"I've heard what they say, when the news starts talking about gay rights. They're still so conservative. I can't imagine what would happen if they found out about me and Yuko. I think it's for the best. I mean, I wasn't going to do it, but then the–the organization's psychologists said that, in my situation, it'd be the best for my health."

"Psychologists?" Ito asked, looking at Aiko, who had come with them in their unmarked vehicle.

"We have professionals for this sort of thing," Aiko said levelly. "Since we're not bound by legal requirements, we can explore unorthodox options."

"Right," Ito said drolly.

Remarkably, they never saw Satoru or Ronaldo again. It was almost as if they had disappeared off the face of the earth, and only some surreptitious checking of personnel listings reassured him that they hadn't actually been killed. Privately, Ito wondered what it had taken to keep them from breathing fire on discovering what had happened. Just as amazingly, his boss made no move to try to ask him about it, which suited him fine.

He and Kaoru had two more cases that week, but while she seemed to still be dedicated to her work, his heart wasn't as in it anymore. He couldn't forget Aiko‐chan, nor could he forget what she had said.

We have saved more children than you ever could in your lifetime.

In the first case, the missing boy reappeared literally an hour after they were placed on the case. In the second, Ito called Aiko on a whim, since he had a number now. He didn't ask her to help—he just wanted to check if this was another Organization‐aided disappearance—but she insisted that she would, and the girl reappeared while they were still conducting school interviews.

The day after that, he received a long message from her in his inbox. He read it over carefully, twice, and stayed awake thinking about it. Finally, he got back up and drafted a response, and then a second letter of his own, recommending Kaoru for promotion to a senior position.

He turned in his badge the next morning.

Two Years Later

Sakura Kyouko sat at her desk, formal shoes up on the shiny, polished wooden surface, just the way she liked it.

Well, almost. Truth be told, she wasn't a fan of the suit, and she had some stylish new boots she wanted to try out, but today wasn't the day for that.

She was looking at a postcard, one of those new‐fangled holographic ones that made her head hurt. It showed a couple next to vaguely exotic‐looking trees, the woman carried in the man's arms, the man wearing an expression that, to her, seemed to say: "This girl can bench‐press a hundred times my weight. Why am I carrying her?"

"Greetings from Hawaii!" the card said.

It really was amazing how fast one could age, if one was willing to invest a little magic.

She had just been there recently, of course, to chat amiably with the man's parents, who couldn't shake the feeling that their new daughter‐in‐law looked very similar to this girl they once knew. She had been there to watch the girl's henchmen stand around looking awkward, and to shoo them away from the drink table. She felt too old to be a Maid of Honor or whatever the hell it was called, but she couldn't deny she looked young enough—though she had been obliged to take on yet another pseudonym. She would have liked to have stayed longer, but even being a partially fake CEO still involved some actual duties.

She twirled the card in her fingers.

Once upon a time, a boy had lain sick in his bed, crippled or critically ill, and had at his side a girl who loved him very, very much. Then, a magical creature appeared.

The story had two endings. In one, the love was unrequited, and the end tragic. In the other…

Well, come to think of it, "happily ever after" wasn't really an ending, was it? Just a suggestion of a continuous now. While she would have liked to have wrapped it up like that, she couldn't help but remember that the boy would die, eventually.

The girl might not.

It had been so obvious that her disciple was still lovestruck, from the way the girl stalked the boy from the shadows. It had grown wearisome. When the opportunity arose, it had been easy to perform a little manipulation, drop a little hint, give the girl a little push—even if she didn't quite execute the way Kyouko might have. Too much gun violence, for one thing. That was just risky.

What had changed? Was it the starting conditions? The new world they had built for themselves? Or was it that Kyouko herself now knew how to interfere?

A new world. A happier world. That was what they had talked about, all those years ago.

"Hey Chairman," a voice next to her summoned. "The Board is waiting."

She looked up. "Tomatsu Mai" frowned down at her, then bent down to look at the postcard.

"Hmm," Mami said. "So she got married, huh?"

"Yeah," Kyouko said.

She placed the postcard in her drawer and pushed it shut.

"Come on," she said, getting up. "Let's go see the committee."

End — Interlude Ⅰ: Underworld Dreams