Author's Notes: Yes, there is a sequel. However, itís only a sequel in the fact that it follows the previous one. Apart from that, donít expect the same from the first one. Thereís only a sequel because Detectives Kobayashi, Shigure and Ayako were too cool to leave alone. Of course, this means they get to meet more people Ö

Thank you to Anna of Onnatachi for giving me the name Kubo Masaki over MSN!


In My Line of Work II

By Leareth

       

The call came in the middle of the morning coffee break. Now out of all times of the day to get a call, thatís one of the worst because itís the time of day when youíre getting hungry and the most important thing on your mind is what youíre going to get for lunch. Getting a call before lunch means that you have to jump in the car and dash off right there and then, and you donít know how long itís going to be before you get a break. Sometimes itíll only take a few minutes, which is okay. When itís a murder, you can be hanging around for a couple of hours or more, and by then youíre hungry enough to eat the stiff youíve been called to look at.

Ö Alright, maybe not that hungry.

Anyway. Shigure and I got a murder call in just as we were discussing lunch plans with Ayako at just before ten. We headed off right away to uptown Tokyo and the flashy apartments there to the ninth floor. The usual crappy traffic system meant that we didnít get there until after ten thirty. Shigure forgot what number the apartment we were heading to was, but that didnít matter since all we had to do was look for the apartment door with police tape in front of it.

"Please donít let this take too long," Shigure muttered as we waved badges to get through. "I told Izuru Iíd meet him for lunch at eleven thirty."

We were pointed to the study. It seemed the stiff was still sitting in his chair. He was angled so that his profile was towards us, and even from here I could see that this wasnít going to be pretty. There was a funny smell in the room. "You sure you still want lunch after this?" I asked.

Shigure went forward and turned the chair around. When I said it wasnít pretty, I didnít mean the stiff himself was ugly. By Ďnot prettyí I meant that he was staring out at us, hazel eyes almost literally popping out of his grotesquely twisted face. His head was tilted over his shoulder slack-jawed. He was dressed in a dark grey business suit the coat of which was over the back of the chair, in his mid-forties with greying brown hair. There was a revolver on the ground by the chair. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldnít place him.

I called over the forensics officer to tell us about the facts we couldnít see.

"Kubo Masaki. Fifty-three year old political activist. Heís been in the papers a lot recently, making a lot of very right-wing speeches." Well, that explained why he looked vaguely familiar. "His wife went to look for him in his study this morning and found him exactly as you see here."

"I see a gun, but no gunshot. What killed him?" Shigure asked, looking at the body with morbid fascination. Weíve seen a lot of dead bodies in our line of work, but this wasnít anything we had come across before.

"Weíre still trying to figure it out, actually," the F.O. admitted. "Itís not a heart-attack or anything. From the looks of it I thought poison first, but initial tests arenít coming up with anything. Maybe the autopsy will. But Iíll tell you now, if itís poison, itís no poison Iím familiar with. I havenít seen these symptoms before."

Shigure and I looked at each other. That didnít sound good. "If not poison, what else could it be?" asked Shigure.

"Not sure. From the look on his face Iíd say he was scared to death, but whatís there in this city thatís that frightening?"

"You might be surprised," I said dryly. This wasnít sounding good at all. I hate unknown cause of death.

The officer must have seen the looks on our faces. "I wouldnít go calling the government sniffer dogs yet," he warned. "Wait til I get an autopsy done before you set a cause of death down in concrete. Besides, Iíve only been doing field work for a year, I could have missed something."

I sighed under my breath. Just my luck to get a relative rookie on this. "Look, kid, you go get the autopsy done and get back to us, okay? Not yet," I snapped as he instinctively turned towards the body. "After weíre done. Keep looking around, tell us if you find anything."

Shigure shook his head as the chastened forensics guy left the room. "You could learn to be a little nicer, Kobayashi," he said reprovingly.

I waved him off. Iím pretty sure Shigure rolled his eyes at me, but he let it go. He knows what Iím like when Iím working on a case. We started the usual deal; entrances, talking to neighbours, signs of suspicious activity, pulling the security tapes, places where fingerprints could be Ö Iím sure youíve seen enough cop shows to know what Iím talking about.

The thing with cop shows is that the actors usually find something. We couldnít. After over an hour of poking around (Shigure eventually called Izuru on his cell-phone to say heíd be late) we were back to where we started, in the study with the ugly-looking body.

"No sign of forced entry, the neighbours havenít seen anything, nothingís been touched," growled Shigure. He was getting twitchy wanting to go meet Izuru. "None of the neighbours heard or saw anything or anyone suspicious. You sure this guy just didnít have a heart-attack in his chair or something?"

"The F.O. already took a look at that theory," I replied. I wasnít in a much better mood. I hate non-progress. Plus I was hungry. "Itís definitely not a natural death."

Shigure sighed. "Okay, so what about the gun? From its positioning it looks as if Masaki was holding it, then he dropped it."

"Either that or it was placed there afterwards to make it look as if he dropped it," I replied, kneeling down to look at the gun. I sneezed, that funny smell was irritating me. The gun was a standard revolver; I picked it up using the corner of my coat so as to not get my prints on it, and opened the carriage. It was full. "Maybe someone held it to his head and forced him to take poison?"

"Then why leave the gun there afterwards?" countered Shigure. "Rather pointless, isnít it. People only deliberately leave the gun there when they want to make it look like a suicide, but Masakiís still got his brains intact."

"Point. Here, pass me a bag." Shigure did so, and I put the gun in it. When I stood back up again, Shigure was frowning. Then he stared at the ceiling and sniffed.

"Do you smell something?" he asked.

I sniffed and sneezed again. Something sweet Ö "Yeah, itís been getting on my nose. Some kind of perfume? Any idea what it is?"

"All I can tell you is that itís a flower perfume, not a fruit one."

I shrugged. "Should have expected you know more than I do about perfume."

Shigure lifted an eyebrow at me. "You implying something, Kobayashi?"

I wandered around the study, trying to find the source of the smell. "Nothing."

"Címon," Shigure pressed. "Youíre thinking thatís itís no surprised that a gay guy knows about womenís perfume, arenít you."

I waved it off. Itís not that I have anything against gays Ė hey, Shigureís one and Iíve worked with him without problem for several years now Ė itís just not something that Iím completely comfortable with. "Just let it go, okay?"

Shigure did let it go, but Iím guessing he was going to tell Ayako about it and they were going to have a laugh at me later on. Meantime, I found the place where the scent was strongest. It was on the stiffís clothes. I tried not to think too hard about what I was touching as I pulled the stiffís vest off with difficulty. By the time I had it the F.O. was back. I waved him over to the body. "All yours, kid. Weíre done here."

The F.O. came forward with a sheet and put it over the stiffís face, much to my relief. I handed him the evidence bag with the gun in it. "Understood. What do you want with that?" he asked, nodding at the vest in my hands.

"Smell it." I held it out to him and he gingerly leaned down with his nose. "Do you recognise it?"

The F.O. closed his eyes and inhaled deeply again. "Itís some kind of flower. Not a perfume, perfumes get distilled and have a whole bunch of chemicals applied. Plus they stink like catís piss. This is natural."

"The scent is all over the body. Any idea how that could have happened?"

The F.O. shook his head. "Nope."

Shigure shrugged. "Donít look at me."

I sighed. Great. I hate puzzles. I rubbed my temples and tried not to think too hard about lunch. "You said the wife found the body?" I asked the F.O.

"Yeah. If you want to talk to her sheís at the neighbourís upstairs."

I stuck the vest in a plastic evidence bag and handed it to the F.O. "Get someone on that to identify the scent ASAP and dust the gun. Shigure, let me give Ayako a quick call then weíll head upstairs. Hopefully this time we might actually get something useful."

       

I called Ayako and asked her (you always ask her, never demand, not if you want your ego intact) to do a more complete background profile on Masaki. She likes running the paper trail, unlike me; I much prefer being out there in the field. Then Shigure and I went up.

The upstairs apartments were pretty much the same as downstairs. On the other hand it was much quieter after all the racket we had been making tramping around looking for clues. There was only one police officer here, keeping a watch over Mrs. Masaki who was sitting on the couch with her neighbour beside her. She was still dressed in her sleep-wear and her hands were shaking.

"Masaki-san?" She looked up at us and blinked owlishly. Shigure and I showed her our badges. "Iím Detective Kobayashi, and this is my partner Detective Shigure. Weíd just like to ask you a few questions."

She stared at me with the kind of look I see on druggies I pick up after a long night on a high. I coughed and nudged Shigure to come forward. Heís a nice guy, so maybe Mrs. Masaki would be more comfortable with him. Pity Ayako wasnít here Ė Shigure doesnít like dealing with traumatised victims Ė but you canít get everything.

Shigure pulled up a chair and sat down facing the two women. The neighbour, a younger woman who kept an arm around Mrs. Masaki despite her nervousness, relaxed at his smile. "Iím very sorry about what happened, Mrs. Masaki. Weíre going to try our best to find the person who did this to your husband, but to do that we need your help."

Mrs. Masaki stared at him for a moment, then lowered her eyes down at her hands in her lap. "I just found him like that," she whispered, as if she had been screaming. "I just went into his room and he Ö he Ö" She shuddered and broke off. The neighbour worriedly went to hug her, but Mrs. Masaki shook her head.

"Did you see or hear anything suspicious at all the night before, Mrs. Masaki?" asked Shigure gently.

She shook her head again. "I made him dinner last night Ė steamed fish, thatís his favourite. I brought it to him in his room. He was sitting there writing, but the moment I opened the door he spun around and aimed his gun at meó"

"His gun?" I cut in quickly. Mrs. Masaki jumped. Shigure gave me a dirty look. Iím much better at interviewing suspects, because you donít need to be soft, and it shows. Unfortunately you canít apply the same tactics to victims.

Shigure turned away from me Ė I could tell by the set of his shoulders that Iíd better keep my mouth shut for the rest of the interview unless I wanted my head bitten off. "You said his gun, Mrs. Masaki?" asked Shigure.

"Yes. He bought it three days ago."

"Any reason why?"

Mrs. Masakiís eyes went distant. "Ever since five days ago Kubo-san had been on edge. He wouldnít leave the house, he kept saying that someone was Ďgoing to getí him Ö I tried to tell him that he was being silly Ė heís had death threats before, but nothing ever came of them Ė but this time he ordered in a gun. He even changed the alarm codes and got the locksmith to change all our locks; I had so much trouble getting used to the new system. That was when I started to really worry. But still, I never thought that Ö that someone would actually Ö" She choked a little then drew herself up again. "Towards the end Kubo-san became very paranoid. He would lock himself in his study for hours, sitting there with his gun. He kept saying that someone was coming for him, that he was going to be killed."

"Did he know who this someone was?" asked Shigure.

Mrs. Masaki shook her head. "I donít know. He kept talking about Ďsomeoneí, but no names. I sincerely thought he was going mad."

"You said that ever since five days ago, Masaki-san had been on edge," I said. "Can you remember anything that might have set this off?"

"No, I donít. All I know is that one day he came home from a GM and nearly threw himself through the door. He was white and shaking Ė I thought he was ill, but he shouted at me to leave him alone and went to lock himself in his study. I called Serika-kun, his personal assistant who Iím friends with, to ask what happened, but she told me that Kubo-san had been perfectly fine when he left."

Which meant that whatever it was that had gotten Masaki so frightened had happened on his way home. The chances of us finding witnesses or anything so late afterwards werenít good. Shigure and I looked at each other. "So for the past five days before your husbandís death, both of you remained in the apartment."

"Yes. Masaki-san hardly left even his study; I stayed at home to take care of him. The farthest I ever went was to the apartment lobby and the laundry room."

"Did you have any visitors in that time?"

"No."

"Not even the postman or anything?"

"Everything deliverable to the apartments here is sent to the lobby," the neighbour explained, the first time she had spoken the whole interview. "Any mail or food deliveries we have to go downstairs to pick up."

Shigure nodded in acknowledgement then turned back to Mrs. Masaki. "So that means there were no visitors directly to your apartment?" Mrs. Masaki shook her head. "What about the apartment block, did you or anyone else notice any strangers loitering around in that time?"

Mrs. Masaki shook her head again. Shigure and I looked pointedly at the neighbour. She blinked in confusion. "Oh, no, I didnít see anyone or anything unusual either."

I sighed inwardly. We had already asked the other neighbours and the security desk downstairs about loiterers, and they hadnít noticed anyone hanging around either. "Getting back to last night, can you tell me exactly what happened?" I asked.

Mrs. Masaki closed her eyes. "I made him dinner and brought it to him in his study. Kubo-san scared me by aiming his gun at me the moment I opened the door, making me spill the soup. I cleaned it up, Kubo-san merely sat in his chair with his gun. He didnít touch his food, and eventually he told me to take it away. I left him alone, closing the study door behind me and readied myself for bed."

"What time was this?"

"I went to sleep at about eleven, a little later than usual. Kubo-san was still in his study, he didnít come to bed, but itís nothing new. A lot of times he works late."

"And you heard absolutely nothing during the night?" asked Shigure.

Mrs. Masaki shook her head. "I have a cold, and the medicine I take makes me sleep very heavily. Iíve even been over-sleeping in the mornings as of late."

"What time did you wake up in the morning?"

"Usually I wake up at seven oíclock, but as I said, my medicine has affected my sleeping patterns. It was past nine when I finally got out of bed."

"Did you notice anything strange when you woke up?" I asked.

"Kubo-sanís study door was still closed, and also locked. Because he had been so difficult lately, I didnít knock, I thought he didnít want to be disturbed at all, so I went through my morning routine then made him breakfast. Only when it was a quarter to ten and he still hadnít come out from his study and didnít respond to my knocking did I get the key to unlock the door, and then I saw Ö I saw Ö"

"Itís okay," said Shigure gently as Mrs. Masaki began to break down again. Considering that the body had disgusted even me, and Iíve seen a lot of dead bodies, I could understand Mrs. Masakiís horror at the moment. "Weíll find the person who did this, Masaki-san," Shigure continued. "We will."

I raised an eyebrow at Shigureís back as Mrs. Masaki continued crying on her neighbourís shoulder. I know we try to do the best we can to give closure to the family left behind, and truthfully, a lot of the time we do, but there are cases that donít make the Ďclosedí section, and I could tell that Shigure was feeling about as confident as I was. Which meant, not very.

       

"I donít like it. I really donít like it." Shigure was still grumbling to himself even though we had finally gotten away from the crime scene and he had settled himself with his favourite okonomiyaki for lunch.

"Donít look so down, Mae." Izuru, who was sitting on the bench to Shigureís right still finishing his lunch, turned to nuzzle comfortingly into his partnerís neck.

"Can you two not do that in public?" I said in exasperation, trying not to look. Of course they ignored me. They always do. I donít know why I bother.

Iíll never forget the afternoon found out about Shigure being gay. We had been partners for about five months at the time, and by then we were pretty settled with working with each other. I found Shigure to be quite a likeable guy, so one day when he asked me to go for lunch with him and his friend, who had just come back from a trip, I accepted. We went to a food hall somewhere Ė we donít earn that much Ė and sat down waiting for Shigureís friend Izuru to arrive. He did, finally, a fashionably dressed, good-looking man two years older than Shigure, carrying a professional looking camera. I remember turning around in my chair to look when Shigure stood up to wave. To my surprise, Shigure left the table and went to meet him. Okay, I thought to myself, theyíre good friends. Then Shigure hugged him. Okay, maybe good close friends. Then Shigure, right there in the middle of the food hall, took the camera from Izuruís hands, wrapped an arm around his waist, and kissed him. On the mouth.

Ayako, I remember, had a good laugh at me when I told her about it. She had known the day Shigure walked in the door with his transfer papers that my new partner leaned that way. Well, thank you for telling me.

Anyway. It took me a little while (okay, more than a little while) to get used to the idea that my working partner had been living with a steady boyfriend for several years, but nowadays if I hear one of the other officers whispering something derogatory about my partner, Iím the first person to shut him up. Doesnít mean Iím comfortable when Shigure and Izuru start being cute with each other, though.

Thankfully Izuru, having cheered Shigure up a little, turned to me in serious mode. "So do you have any ideas at all, Kobayashi?" he asked me.

I threw my lunch rubbish into the bin beside me and sat back. We were sitting in the park opposite some big school, and it was a refreshing break, even if it was damned cold. At least it wasn't snowing. "Nothing Iíd stake money on yet," I said. I know weíre usually not supposed to talk about work to other people, but Izuruís a trustworthy guy, heís even done a couple of forensics photographs for us when our department photographer was sick for a couple of days. Plus it sometimes helps to have a different point of view. "Masaki obviously knew someone was going to come kill him, and was scared shitless enough to get himself a gun for protection. We couldnít find any evidence of a struggle or forced entry, which means whoever bumped Masaki off is damned good or cleaned up thoroughly afterwards. Thereís the smell of some flower in the room that Mrs. Masaki canít account for. If you see anything useful in all of that, feel free to tell me."

"Could it be a woman?" asked Shigure. "Since thereís a flower scent all over the clothes. Poisoning is usually a female method of killing too."

"Possibly. Jealous lover?"

Izuru shrugged. "You never know. But I find it very hard to believe that Masaki would be so frightened of a woman, especially if it is, as you say, an adulterous affair. Personally, though, Iím not that upset that Kubo Masakiís dead. I was at one of his rallies once for photos, and some of the things he spouted were pretty eye-opening."

"Like what?" asked Shigure.

"Basically heís a nationalistic, isolationist bastard."

"Is that so?" I said. "What makes him different from the usual far-Right national fringe groups, then?"

"Unlike the ones who cruise the streets in black buses screeching slogans from loudspeakers, Masakiís actually organised and has a brain. Correction, was."

"Ah," said Shigure. "How did the shoot today go?"

"Good! Iíll show you the photos at home when I develop them."

Izuru, by the way, is a professional photographer. Iím no expert on it, but he does some really nice black and white shots. I think heís made a few books of them and sold them for a more than modest profit. I saw them at his and Shigureís place the one time I went over. Actually, heís got a whole shelf of photo albums Ė I flicked through most of them, though there were a few collections that Shigure and Izuru wouldnít let me touch. From the cat-at-cream grins they gave me when I asked why, I can guess what was in them.

I was about to give Ayako a call on my cell-phone to ask if sheíd made any headway with the paper-trail for the Masaki case when Shigure suddenly pointed at the school gates opposite us. "Hey, isnít that Shiro?" he asked.

I shaded my eyes and squinted. Shigure was right Ė the short skinny kid by the gates was Kamui Shiro. Izuru looked at his boyfriend. "Shiro, you mean the kid you were telling me about, the cute one who came in with the rape victim?"

"Uh huh." Shigure nodded. "The victim whom we ended up trying to hold for murder, but had to let go."

"More like we let him get taken away," I growled. I remembered that case all too well, and not just because it was only three days ago that I did it. Shiro and a woman called Karen Kasumi had come into headquarters on Christmas Day bringing in a friend called Subaru Sumeragi whom they thought had been assaulted. Turned out that there was a dead body involved, which meant it turned from an assault investigation to a murder one, but Sumeragi hadnít been the one to kill the dead guy. There had been a third man mixed up in the whole thing, a man whom it turned out, had some creepy relationship with Sumeragi, and that third man I really hadnít liked at all. In fact, he was the kind of man Iíd love to have an excuse to put away.

"Ah," said Izuru knowingly. Obviously Shigure had told him the whole story. "Hey, whatís going on?"

"Huh?" I looked towards where Shiro was again. He wasnít alone. Another kid, taller with dark spiky hair, had come up to him. From the way Shiro was poised like he was about to bolt, I take it that Shiro wasnít that happy to see him. "Uh oh. School bully?"

"Probably." Shigureís eyes narrowed as the taller kid trapped Shiro against the wall and leaned over him threateningly, and he pulled out his officerís badge. "Come on, Kobayashi."

Before I could say anything Shigure headed towards Shiro and the bully, Izuru following. I rolled my eyes and came as well. As Iíve said before, Shigureís a nice guy, but really Ö

It looked like we got there just in time. The spiky-haired bully had his hand on Shiroís shoulder and was squeezing. Shiro looked like a damsel in distress. Yes, I know thatís a harsh comparison, seeing that Shiroís a guy, but really, thatís what he looked like. Anyway, Shigure quickly strode up and put a hand on the bullyís shoulder. "Hey, whatís going on here?" he demanded.

Spiky-haired Bully turned around and gazed at Shigure. He was tall for his age, and was able to look at Shigure eye-to-eye. He smirked in the kind of way teen drivers do when they get pulled over by street cops, thinking that theyíre better than us. They lose the smile real quick when we slam a fine on them.

"Police." Shigure showed his badge, trying to stare the other kid down. I didnít like the kid at all. There was something about him that reminded me of a serial killer I put away once. "We donít want any trouble now, do we."

The spiky-haired bully didnít move. Behind him, Shiro was looking like he was about to crack, he was that tense. Izuru looked from one to the other then moved quietly until he was between Shiro and the bully. I pulled out my badge too, making sure I did so in such a way that my gun was visible.

"Come on, kid," I said. "Move away from here and we donít need to charge you with assault."

The spiky-haired bully stared at me. He had scary eyes. Then suddenly he chuckled and turned back to Shiro. "Looks like weíll have to get together and Ďtalkí some other time," he said with a dark smirk. Shiro stared as the bully turned to go, sticking his hands in the pockets of his pants. "Until then, Kamui-kun."

Shigure and I watched him suspiciously until he turned the corner at the end of the block and disappeared. Then we turned back to Shiro. "You okay, Shiro-kun?" asked Shigure.

Shiro, who was still staring the way the bully had gone, jumped when addressed. "Y-yeah," he said.

Izuru laughed softly. "I see what you mean about him being cute, Maeda."

Shiro turned red. I rolled my eyes, then turned around. There were three people running towards us; three teenagers in school uniform. The first was a boy, he had his tie undone and cap backwards. The second was a girl, real pretty with long straight dark hair. The third was another girl a couple of years younger than the first two with short black hair and wide eyes.

"Kamui-chan!" The youngest girl came to a breathy stop beside Shiro. "Are you okay?"

The other two teenagers came to a halt also with worried looks on their faces. When Shiro nodded silently they breathed a collective sigh of relief. Then they saw us.

"Who are you?" the boy asked abruptly. He had a Kansai accent.

Shigure held out his badge. "Police. We saw what was happening and came over to help Shiro-kun out."

The long-haired girl frowned. "Do you know these policemen?" she asked Shiro.

"Iím not a policeman," said Izuru, smiling as he thumbed at Shigure. "Iím with him."

Shiro gazed at us with those big purple eyes of his for a moment before speaking. "These are Detectives Kobayashi and Shigure. They were the ones Karen-san and I saw when we took Subaru to the police station."

"Oh!" The youngest girl immediately smiled at us. Cute. "Nice to meet you, Officer-san!"

I tried to smile back. Iím not good with kids.

"So how have you been, Shiro-kun?" asked Shigure. "Everything going okay?"

Shiro blinked at us, as if he hadnít the faintest idea why we were talking to him of all people. "Uh, yeah Ö."

"Well, heís still in one piece, if that counts as okay," said the teenaged boy with a nervous laugh. I get that a lot. The moment people see police, they immediately get nervous trying to think of things they have or havenít done. Kinda like the way drivers immediately slow down to a snailís pace when they see a police car driving by.

"Shut up, Sorata," Shiro muttered. The long-haired girl gave a long give-me-patience sigh. ĎSorataí looked tragically hurt when she did that. Looked like a one-sided crush to me.

"What about Sumeragi-san?" Shigure continued. "Is he well?"

Shiroís eyes darted between us and his friends. "Heís ok Ö"

Shigure gave him a friendly smile. "Thatís good to hear. We were just wondering; he didnít look too happy when Sakurazuka picked him up andó"

"What?!"

Shigure and I blinked. So did Izuru. Shiro was staring at us, his face white, and it looked as if his eyes were about to pop out. His three friends didnít look much better. "Who picked Subaru up?" hissed Shiro. Okay, I take back what I said earlier about Shiro being a damsel in distress.

Shigure exchanged a glance with me. "Seishirou Sakurazuka came to the police department to fetch Sumeragi-san. You know; tall, good-looking guy with funny eyes Ö" Shigure trailed off as all the colour drained from Shiroís face, if that was possible considering how pale he was already. "Uh, he didnít tell you?"

The kid who had been addressed as ĎSorataí wasnít looking too happy. "And you just let Subaru-san go off with him?!" he demanded.

I lifted an eyebrow. Alright, things were getting very interesting. It seemed that Shiroís friends knew something too. "Shouldnít we have?" I countered, trying very hard not to remember that I had had that exact same thought when I had seen Sakurazuka guiding Sumeragi away with his hand on his bruised neck. As I said, there was something about the man that I did not want to antagonise. "Sumeragi-san obviously knew Sakurazuka. And besides, Shiro-kun was the one who told us to go talk to Sakurazuka about Sumeragi-san in the first place."

Now it was Shiroís turn to be stared at by his friends. "Kamui, you did what?!" Sorata asked incredulously.

"But Ö" The youngest girlís eyes were wide and uneasy. "Isnít the Sakurazukamorió"

Without warning the long-haired girl looked at her. "Yuzuriha-kun," she said quietly, but with an edge of steel in her words.

Sakurazukamori? What Ė or who Ė was that? I filed the word away in my head to look up later on.

"Whatís a Sakurazukamori?" asked Shigure.

None of the kids answered. In fact, they started looking downright nervous. Then the long-haired girl took ĎYuzurihaísí arm and tapped ĎSorataí on the shoulder. "Excuse me, officers," she said calmly. "I believe we need to be getting back to class."

ĎSorataí glanced at her, surprised, then nodded. "Yeah, yeah, weíre late, arenít we." He laughed forcedly and began dragging Shiro away, who kept staring at us with that really not-nice look. "Uh, letís go, Kamui."

ĎYuzurihaí waved at us. "Bye-bye, Officers-san!!"

Shigure and Izuru waved back. I made a half-hearted attempt at it. We all watched them as they disappeared very quickly into the school gates.

Izuru looked at his watch, confused. "I thought school lunch-break went on for another twenty minutes."

"Maybe theyíve changed school-times since we graduated," said Shigure.

Izuru frowned, looking where the kids had gone. "Was it just me or did they sound scared?"

"Scared of what?" I asked. "The fact that Sumeragi went off with Sakurazuka?"

"No, this ĎSakurazukamorií whatever."

Shigure and I looked at each other. Then Shigure grinned and kissed Izuru. "Sometimes youíre so intelligent I just want to do you right here and now!"

I groaned and turned away as Izuru laughed. "Can you two not?!"

       

Ayako, with all her usual efficiency, was waiting for us with a small stack of files when Shigure and I got back after dropping Izuru off at the train station. "Took you long enough," she called out without looking up from her desk.

"Sorry." I put a taco bento on her desk. "We ran into someone."

"Oh?" Ayako flicked a hazel eye at the bento then went back to reading. "Who?"

I looked at her. "Shiro Kamui."

"Howís he doing?"

"Apart from run-ins with the school bully, he looks fine," said Shigure, pulling up a chair. "One interesting thing we found out, though. Apparently Sumeragi told Shiro that we jut let him go due to lack of evidence. He said nothing about Sakurazuka."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, that Shiro didnít know that Sakurazuka picked Sumeragi up from the police department until we told him."

Ayako raised an eyebrow and put the file down. "Sounds like Sumeragi doesnít want Shiro to know about his relationship with Sakurazuka."

"Iím not surprised," I growled, pulling up another chair and sitting on it backwards. "Shiro looked as if he was about to commit GBH when he found out. Not only that, the school friends that Shiro was with? They knew about Sakurazuka as well. At least, well enough to really not like the idea that Sumeragi went off with him."

Ayako frowned. "Any specific reason why?"

"You saw him when he came here, do you even need to ask?" replied Shigure. "The guy epitomises the phrase Ďkiller good looksí. And donít tell me you think Sakurazuka had nothing to do with Tanakaís murder."

"Weíve been through this before, Shigure." I said patiently. "We donít have enough evidence. Havenít you learnt by now from all the prosecutors weíve worked with and all the trials weíve had to attend that in order to convict on a murder charge you need to prove beyond reasonable doubt? Even if Sakurazuka got the crappiest lawyer in town Ė which he wouldnít if he can afford to live in that neighbourhood Ė weíd get our evidence picked to pieces."

"I just think that youíre finding excuses to not go after the scary Sakurazuka person."

Ayako rolled her eyes. "This is all very interesting, gentlemen, but are you forgetting that Kubo Masaki is lying in the forensics lab getting cut open at the moment, and weíre supposed to be finding out why heís there in the first place?"

Shigure scowled. "Thank you for the overly-graphic description."

"Okay, okay." I turned my chair around and sat on it the right way, putting all thoughts of Sumeragi and his freaky stalker-boyfriend out of my mind. "So what did you dig up, Ayako?"

Ayako picked up the file she had been looking at. "As Mrs. Masaki said, there have been threats on Masakiís life before, only three of them being of any significance to record. Two of those were from extremist groups, and werenít taken too seriously even before the offenders were charged and restraining orders placed. The third was taken seriously, resulting in police protection for the Masakis for several days while the investigation took place. The investigation was completed successfully and ever since then there have been no other threats. Masaki from all appearances was never too fazed by any of these threats, in fact he gave the third the spin-doctor treatment and turned it into a publicity stunt for his advantage."

"Sounds like he was a hard guy to rattle," I commented. "So whatís it about this time that got him so scared?"

"From what his wife said, it sounded as if he knew the person coming for him," said Shigure. "What was it Mrs. Masaki said Ö he was going paranoid and babbling about someone."

Ayako leaned back in her chair. "If Masaki got so frightened about someone coming for him, I would infer that this Ďsomeoneí has a reputation. From what Mrs. Masaki said about her husbandís reaction when he learnt of the threat, the murderer wouldnít be someone personally known to Masaki, so thereís little point in looking to his social circle for suspects. Which means," she looked at us thoughtfully, "Iíd say weíre looking for someone unknown to Masaki."

"Like a hit-man?" Shigure asked.

"But we looked around the apartment and the apartment block; thereís absolutely no sign of forced entry," I pointed out. "No forced entry, no evidence of any kind of violence. Implies to me that whoever bumped Masaki off got into the apartment by deceit. Since Masaki must have been killed after Mrs. Masaki went to sleep at eleven, Iím pretty sure we can cross out a cleaner, door-to-door salesman, postman and the like, so must have been someone Masaki knew enough to let into the apartment himself."

"Yeah, but Masaki was jumpy enough to aim his gun at his own wife," replied Shigure. "If heís paranoid enough to point a gun at someone heís lived with for years then heís certainly not going to be opening the door to let anyone in. What about breaking and entering the apartment? The subtle kind, like picking the lock or something."

"The apartment had a full security and alarm system, one of the better ones Iíve seen, and youíd expect it to have been upgraded since there have been threats on Masakiís life before. The only entrance into the apartment was the door, and none of the security alarm flags for the door were tripped. The doorman in the lobby didnít see anyone suspicious go up."

"What about the security cams?" asked Ayako.

"We pulled them, but thereís ten hours of footage to go through from four security cameras, from the time Mrs. Masaki went to sleep to when she woke up. Iím going to hold on watching them until we can get a time of death to narrow the time frame down. Right now Iím still wondering about how a killer would have gotten in."

"Window?" asked Ayako.

"The apartmentís on floor nine, and the windowís arenít made to open."

"Are you saying that the doors magically opened or someone flew in?" Shigure retorted scornfully. "Címon, guys, think. Does anyone else have access to the apartment, like did the Masakis give a key out to any of their friends or the deactivation code for the alarm?"

"Masaki was paranoid enough to change everything; locks, alarm codes, you name it. Even if any of their associates had keys for their apartment they could have been useless."

"But Mrs. Masaki said that the study was locked when she woke up, she had to get the spare key to open it. Someone must have had a key in order to get in and lock the room from the outside afterwards."

"So, hypotheses wise, itís toss-up between a hit-man and someone Masaki knows, and weíre canít get enough solid reasoning to settle on either of them," I growled.

"Then what about a combination of both?" suggested Ayako. "Perhaps someone Masaki knows hired someone to kill Masaki, and provided the murderer with enough information to get into the apartment."

"That still doesnít explain how a hired killer Masaki has never met before in his life but knows enough about to be scared shitless of managed to get through the brand new security system only Masaki and his wife knew the codes for then close enough for Masaki to freak out and be killed without making any noise that could have woken the wife sleeping in the bedroom down the hall. And then lock the study door behind as he or she left."

"What about the wife herself?"

Shigure and I looked at Ayako. She raised an eyebrow at us. "We all agree that it seems extremely difficult to account for an outsider to get into the apartment and kill Masaki, so what about an insider? Weíve been hanging all our reasoning on the wifeís testimony so far, and itís not making sense."

"Itís possible," I said dubiously. "But she doesnít seem like the type. What does she get out of bumping off her husband?"

"She might not seem like the type, but you know this kind of thing, sometimes itís the one you never suspect," said Shigure.

"Better start a background check, then." Ayako sat up in her chair. "Marriage circumstances, do the interview round with friends and family, I want a complete picture on the Masakis as soon as possible. The mediaís already out in force, and Iíd like to be able to get some progress done before they make a mess of things."

       

"Kyoko-san, a suspect? No, thatís impossible!"

I shrugged as vaguely as I could. We were at Masakiís office talking to a Serika Ono, Masakiís PA. She was an attractive young woman in her late twenties. "Weíre just trying to cover all possibilities, Ono-san," Shigure said.

"Well, Iíll tell you right now that Kyoko-san canít be your suspect." Ono was organising papers, I got the impression she needed something to keep her busy at the moment as she came to terms with Masakiís death. Either that, or she was trying to ignore the media circus that was outside the building. We had had to barrel our way through them and all the mics getting shoved in our faces on the way in. "I still canít believe it Ė Masaki-san, dead? Whatís going to happen now?"

"Iím sure you can find another job," I offered.

Ono glanced up at me. "Thatís not what Iím worried about. Itís not about having a job or not. What I meant was, whatís going to happen to what Masaki-san was working for?"

Shigure frowned. "What was he working for?"

"A better future." Ono put the papers down, her eyes fierce. "You can see what things are like in our country. The morals of todayís generation. The way foreign nations whom we dominated in times past treat us. Washington dares to lecture us on what we do wrong in our economy. We need our pride as a nation back."

I exchanged a glance with Shigure, hitching an eyebrow. Shigure rolled his eyes. Sure sounded like idealistic right-wing bullshit to me, the kind that got everyone into trouble about fifty years ago. Thereís a reason why I donít like politics. "Ah, Ono-san, getting back to Kyoko Masaki, what were you saying?"

Ono smiled. She was actually quite nice when not being political. "Kyoko-san is a traditional wife; obedient, dutiful, quiet, and always supportive. There is no way that she would have harmed him."

"Ah." Inwardly I sighed; this was the third time we had heard this description of Mrs. Masaki. First it had been the neighbours, then one of Masakiís associates whom we had spoken to in the office first. As I had suspected, Mrs. Masaki didnít seem the type to bump off her own husband. "What about when you saw Masaki last, did anything seem out of the ordinary then?"

She shook her head. "Not at all. There was a meeting, then I handed Masaki-san his mail as he was packing up to go home. He took it from me, said that I was dismissed for the day, and that he expected me to be on time the next morning, which he always does. There was nothing amiss at all, until I came to work the next day and Kyoko-san called me up to say that Masaki-san wasnít coming in, that he was sick. It was a hassle, cancelling all his appointments, but I thought heíd be back the next day." She shook her head, eyes downcast. "He didnít. Kyoko-san called me up every morning for the next four days to say that Masaki-san wasnít coming to work. I asked her what was wrong, and she just said that he was sick."

"Did Mrs. Masaki sound agitated or anything?" asked Shigure.

Ono nodded. "Iíve known Kyoko-san for as long as Iíve been working for Masaki-san, which is several years. We meet up out of work sometimes for lunches. Over the last few days she began to sound frightened. She hid it well, but you can tell Ė she was pretending a bit too hard that things were fine."

So far everything was fitting with what Mrs. Masaki had told us about getting more and more worried and frightened. I was about to ask Ono more about Mrs. Masaki when my cell-phone buzzed. I flipped it open and walked a polite distance away to let Shigure continue the questioning. "Hello?"

"Kobayashi, itís me," said Ayako. "The lab just called; they want you and Shigure down there immediately."

Well, at least we had some progress. "Gotcha. Weíll go right away." I ended the call and turned back to the others in the room. "Shigure, Ayako wants us down at the lab."

"Right." Shigure bowed politely to Ono. "Thank you very much. We might contact you later for more help."

Ono bowed and the two of us left. The moment we were out of earshot heading towards the elevators I shook my head. "Geez. I see why your boyfriend wasnít too fond of Masaki."

"Izuruís very liberal minded, what do you think," Shigure replied. The elevator arrived and we went down to the lobby. Outside, the media circus was still there. He sighed. "Well, what do you think of Ayakoís killer-wife hypothesis now?"

"As I said, Mrs. Masaki doesnít seem the type to bump off her own husband, and Ono only reinforced that. But thatís a character analysis; we donít have any hard evidence yet to disqualify her from the suspect list. She was in the apartment when Masaki was killed, she had the key to the study, and weíre basing everything off what she told us. It may be true, but we donít know."

"Agreed. Anyway, at least it sounds like the lab is getting somewhere, which is more than I can say for us. Times like this that I sometimes think I should have stuck to patrol duty and not become a detective."

I wholeheartedly agreed, especially when we took a breath and walked out into the cameras. The usual flashbulbs going off and chatter and microphones gave me a headache, and no matter how many times we said Ďno commentí, they kept coming. Bloody hell. If it werenít for the fact that I know what happens to people who do wilful murder, I would have shot them long ago.

       

The rookie F.O. who had been at the crime scene wasnít the one doing the forensic analysis, something for which I was grateful. Instead, Ritsuko had taken charge.

"Hey, Ritsuko," said Shigure cheerfully. Cheerfully? In a forensics lab where dead bodies get cut up? How a nice guy like Shigure end up as a cop I donít know. "Whenís the wedding?"

Ritsuko looked at Shigure coolly from behind her glasses as she washed her hands. "Did I say that I was going to invite you?"

"Why not? Itís not as if Iíd want to steal the bride away."

Ritsuko ignored him and turned to me. "Why do you always bring me the difficult ones, Kobayashi?" she asked.

"What are you talking about?" I protested. "Donít tell me Tanaka was a difficult case."

"Iím talking about your partner. How did that Christmas Day case go anyway?"

I shrugged. "Still open."

"No arrest? After pushing that autopsy through Iím disappointed. Youíd better do better on this one." Ritsuko gestured to the bench beside her where there was a series of plastic bags. I recognised their contents as the suit that Masaki had died in. "Where do you want me to start? The victim himself or what we got from his clothes?"

"Masaki. Letís get the body over and done with."

"Fine. The victim shows symptoms of extreme myoclonus; the body is completely rigid, and there are microfractures on some of the more fragile bones such as fingers and ribs."

"MeaningĖ?"

"Myoclonus is a brief spasm of muscular contraction that usually involves a few or many muscle fibres. In most cases it only results in a twitching of muscles, in more severe cases it may be sufficiently violent to cause the person to fall over. In this particular case, all of the victimís striated muscles contracted at once, putting enormous pressure on his bone structure."

"Striated muscles?" repeated Shigure. "Explain in simple, Iím-not-a-doctor terms?"

"Skeletal muscles. The ones that enable you to walk and run and have fun with your boyfriend. Tell me when to stop the Physiology 101 lecture."

"Enough, you two," I growled as Shigure blushed a bit. Ritsuko is the only person I know who can make Shigure blush. "Continue."

"The abnormal rigidity of the body makes it difficult to establish a time of death, but, going by other factors which, judging from Shigureís face, will go straight over your head if I tried to explain, your victim died between one and one-thirty a.m. this morning."

"And this extreme myclo-whatever killed him, right?" asked Shigure, apparently letting Ritsukoís comment pass.

Ritsuko shook her head. "There are other things of note here. There was a significantly increased intake of oxygen into the lungs and circulatory system immediately prior to death, and also, there are symptoms similar to cardiac arrest. The heart muscles are overly-strained to the point of disintegration."

"And that means what?"

"His heart burst, causing death."

Shigure gave her a sceptical look. "You sure?"

Ritsuko raised an eyebrow at him. "Would you like to come see for yourself?"

"Ö Okay, youíre sure, great."

"So what exactly are you saying happened to Masaki?" I asked, starting to get irritated.

"Your victim was under stress of the most extreme kind just before death," said Ritsuko clinically.

I glanced at Shigure. "Stress," I repeated. "Like what?"

Ritsuko looked at me. "Fear."

There was a silence as Shigure and I tried to digest this. "He was scared to death," I said sceptically.

"You can look at it in that way if you wish. Iím still waiting on a toxicology report; it is possible that it was a sort of poison. Shall we look at the rest of the evidence now?"

I waved her to do so, wanting to rub my head. Great. What kind of cause of death was being scared to death? I deal in knives and guns, stuff you can actually handle. The toxicology report had better some up with something. "Yeah, what else is there? Did you manage to identify what the funny smell was?"

"That was the easiest part of the whole analysis. Itís a flower, and not a perfume, either."

"Thatís what the F.O. said," remarked Shigure.

"Of course thatís what he said. You could have been nicer to Sakano, you know, Kobayashi."

"Sakano?" I asked. "Whoís that?"

"The F.O. who was running the Masaki crime scene. The one you snapped at."

"Oh. Sorry."

"Hmph. Anyway, the scent is all over the victimís clothes, in fact it was even on his skin. Itís a natural smell, without distillation or processing. Here." Ritsuko handed me a card like the perfume sample cards annoying shop assistants hand out to passing women. I sniffed it gingerly. It was the smell from Masakiís clothes alright. "Guess what it is."

I gave the card to Shigure. "Uh, lavender?" I hazarded blindly.

"No way," said Shigure. He frowned and sniffed the card again. "Iíve know this one Ö where do I recognise it from Ö"

Ritsuko sighed. "Itís sakura."

"Huh? Why is Masaki smelling of sakura? Donít sakura bloom in April?"

"They do. Why the scent of sakura is present in the first place, let alone in such a concentration, I have no idea."

"Could it be a by-product of a type of poison?" suggested Shigure.

"There are some poisons that leave a smell, for example, cyanide leaves the smell of almonds. However, there is no poison that smells like sakura, and sakura isnít used in any type of poison."

"Is there anything else?" I asked. Sakura? Things werenít making sense.

"Not much. No fingerprints on the gun except the victim's. The carriage was still full when I opened it, and there wasn't any powder discharge or wearing down of parts, which means it was brand new and never used. I did a full scan of the clothes Ė no blood, skin fragments for DNA, and the only hair stuck to the fibres belonged to the victim. But I did find something in his pockets that you might be interested in." Ritsuko picked up a plastic bag from the sterile workbench and passed it to me. I looked at it; there was a folded piece of paper inside. "This was found in the inner jacket pocket. Iíve already gone over it for fingerprints, thereís only one set, the victimís. The sheet of paper doesnít make sense to me, Iíll leave it to you to work something out."

"Thanks. Weíll bring this back and look at it with Ayako." I put the plastic wrapped paper in my pocket and poked Shigure to get going. "Youíve got my number, right? Keep me updated on the toxicology report."

Ritsuko sniffed. "Where would you be without me."

"Probably doing traffic control. Letís go, Shigure." Shigure opened his mouth about to say something I donít know what to Ritsuko. I poked him in the ribs. "I said, letís go."

       

"Anything?" asked Ayako the moment we walked in the door. The pile of files I had seen her surrounded by last had spawned to twice the previous size.

"Yeah." I snagged the chair before Shigure could and sat down. Shigure looked Ayakoís desk, probably wondering if he dare sit on it before deciding it wasnít worth getting his head bitten off and settled for standing. "Ritsuko puts time of death at between one and one thirty a.m., so we can start going through the security tapes. Itís definitely not a time for visiting, which keeps the wife on the suspect list."

"What about cause of death?"

"Ritsukoís undetermined as of yet. Weíre still waiting on a toxicology report."

"What do you mean, Ďundeterminedí?" said Shigure. "Ritsuko had a theory already."

I glared at him. "You seriously buying that one?"

"What theory was it?" Ayako cut in.

I let out an exasperated sigh. "Apparently Masaki suffered some really extreme stress immediately before dying. Basically his heart burst. Ritsuko put forward the possibility of Masaki being scared to death, but as I said, sheís waiting for a toxicology report."

Ayako lifted an eyebrow. "Certainly exotic. Unfortunately exotic doesnít seem a word to describe Kyoko Masaki."

"So what did you find out about her?" asked Shigure curiously.

"To put it in a nutshell, she belongs to another era. Went through all compulsory schooling, seemed to go more for housework and cooking than sports, so she didnít go for university or anything. She comes from a traditional family that believes girls should be good wives, and thatís what she became, from all reports Iíve seen. Very dull school record, no criminal offences of any sort, hasnít even ever taken a flight out of the country. Met Masaki fifteen years ago when she was nineteen, married him the next year, and ever since then has been dutifully following him around wherever he goes as the image of a perfect wife. As I said," finished Ayako, adjusting her glasses, "she belongs to another era before female emancipation."

Shigure and I looked at each other, taking comfort in a moment of male solidarity. "So everything weíve found out about Mrs. Masaki says that she has no motive and is incapable of killing her husband, let alone in such an bizarre manner," said Shigure. "But even so, she was the only person in the apartment at the time of death. You said before Ė no one forced their way into the apartment, and Masaki was in no state of mind to let anyone in of his own accord. If we scratch Mrs. Masaki off as a suspect, who have we got left? Turn on the news updates and take a look; there are a lot of people baying for justice, and itís not going to look good at all if we canít give it."

"Itís too early to give up, Shigure," Ayako admonished. "What else did you get from forensics?"

I dug in my pocket for the paper. "The smell that was all over the body is sakura," I said. Where was that paper? "Ritsuko canít account for how it got there."

Ayako frowned. "Sakura? But itís the wrong season for it. Are you sure itís not a perfume?"

"Weíve had two forensics officers look at it, and theyíre both definitely certain that itís a natural scent." I found the paper; I had ended up sitting on it. "Ritsuko also found something in Masakiís jacket pocket, some writings or something. You can do the honour of reading." I threw the paper to Ayako, who deftly caught it. Opening the plastic sheeting, she unfolded the paper and read through it. She frowned.

"What?" asked Shigure.

Ayako turned in her chair to face us better. "Thereís only one line written here."

"Is that all?" asked Shigure.

"Uh huh. Cherry blossom guardian something or other."

I frowned. What the hell? "Pass it here." Ayako leaned over and handed the paper to me. I settled back in my chair and frowned as I read it. Then I blinked.

"Wait a sec Ė Ayako!" Surprised by the urgency in my voice, Ayako turned around. "You said Ďcherry blossom guardianí, didnít you?" I asked.

"Yes."

"It doesnít say that here. It says ĎSakurazukamorií."

"Yes, I know. ĎSakurazukamorií is the hiragana, but it didnít sound like a word to me, so I read the kanji, except the middle one is illegible. Literally it translates to Ďcherry blossom something guardianí, and thatís how I read it. Why?"

I stared at her. Then I stared at Shigure, who was staring back. Ayako looked from me to him to me then hitched an eyebrow. "What is it, gentlemen?"

Shigure had this really stunned look on his face. "Didnít Shiroís friend mention that word just today?"

"What word?" asked Ayako.

"íSakurazukamorií. When we let on that Sumeragi had been picked up by his stalker-boyfriend, one of Shiroís friends dropped the word ĎSakurazukamorií."

"Think theyíre talking about the same thing?" I asked.

"ĎSakurazukamorií isnít exactly a word you read in the paper everyday. I think we can assume thereís a connection. Masakiís trying to tell us something."

I looked at the paper again, squinting. "Whatís this middle character? I canít read it."

"Pass it here." I handed the paper over to Shigure, who frowned. "No idea. I think it has something to do with a house, but itís too badly scrawled to be sure."

Ayako looked thoughtful. "Cherry blossom guardian. Masakiís body had the smell of sakura all over him. From the word Ďguardianí I think we can say that this ĎSakurazukamorií whatever is a person, not an object or place."

"So is this person the person who was coming after Masaki, someone weíre supposed to talk to for information, or something else?" I asked.

Shigure chewed his lip. "ĎGuardianí. Someone who protects. Weíre police, we protect. People who protect are supposed to prevent someone getting killed. But what is this ĎSakurazukamorií protecting?"

"Ayako just broke the word down for us. Guardian of the cherry blossom whatever. Why cherry blossoms?"

"Maybe itís a code-word for something?" suggested Shigure.

"Cherry blossoms, sakura, symbolic of new life since they flower for such a short period of time," said Ayako. "Also the national flower of Japan. We have it on our police badges to mean that we protect Japan. Maybe Ďcherry blossomí in context of Masaki is something nationalistic? He was certainly a nationalist in terms of policy, all for the countryís pride and honour and so on."

"Maybe," I said dubiously. "Weíll go ask Masakiís wife and associates or something."

"Better yet, ask Shiro-kun and his friends, since they seem to know something about this ĎSakurazukamorií. Enough to be scared, anyway," added Shigure.

Ayako lifted an eyebrow. "Scared?"

"Uh huh. Which raises the question of why someone who is a guardian is scary."

I gave a short laugh. "Hey, technically weíre guardians of the law. Donít tell me that we donít upset people."

Ayako fired up her computer. "Alright. Give me a moment to find out Shiro-kunís current address then you two can get going. Iíll start watching the security tapes."

       

School had only just let out if the crowds of passing kids in uniform were any indication. They gave me and Shigure a few strange looks as we headed towards the house we had got out the listings. It was in the boarding area of CLAMP Campus, a district owned by some multi-millionaire family with a huge private school taking up most of the space. Iíve never really had occasion to go anywhere near the area, both as a kid Ė I went to a public school Ė and as a cop, because nothing much happens here, nothing that needs policing anyway. Besides, apparently thereís a damned good private security network in place.

Shigure and I ignored the schoolkids running by, and pressed the doorbell. We stood there for a minute, and I was beginning to think that no one was home, so we rang the bell again. This time someone answered.

"Yare, Iím coming! Yuzu-chan, donít tell me you forgot your keys Ė" The door opened and the teenaged Kansai kid from before broke off. He blinked at us for a moment. "Uh, can I help you?" he asked.

Shigure smiled. "Hello again. ĎSorataí, wasnít it?"

The teenager frowned. "Sorata Arisugawa. Wait a sec Ö" He took another look at us. "Youíre the coppers from before, right?"

"Right." I dug out my badge to help jog his memory. "Is Shiro-kun in? Weíd like to talk to him."

Arisugawa began to look wary. "Why do you want to talk to him?" he asked.

Shigure tried to look reassuring. "Donít worry, heís not in trouble or anything, we just want to ask him a few questions."

"Heís not back yet," said Arisugawa. He was standing in the doorway not letting us in. I looked over his shoulder; all I could see was floorboards and a table.

"When will he be back?" I asked.

Arisugawa shrugged. "No idea Ė"

"Tadaima, Sora-chan! Eh?" Startled, Shigure and I turned around. The cute girl from this morning blinked. Behind her, Shiro-kun and the long-haired girl stared at us in complete surprise. "Sora-chan, why are the police here?" asked the girl.

Arisugawa tried to laugh. "Aha, okaeri Yuzu-chan, Kamui. Did you have a good day, Nee-chan?"

The long-haired girl gave Arisugawa a look. "What are you doing back so early?"

"I thought Iíd run back and get ready to welcome you!"

"You skipped class."

"Uh Ö"

Shiro ignored them. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.

Shigure smiled. "We need to ask you a few questions, Shiro-kun. Donít worry, weíre not going to arrest you or anything."

Shiro didnít look convinced. "If this has anything to do with Subaruó" he began.

"Weíre not after Sumeragi-san either," I said. Shiro really seemed to worry about Green-Eyes. "Itís nothing much, really. All we want is for you to tell us about this ĎSakurazukamorií you mentioned earlier."

The effect was immediate. ĎYuzu-chaní began to look frightened. The long-haired girlís face didnít change, but she did stiffen. Arisugawa suddenly looked dead serious. As for Shiro, he just froze like a deer in headlights. Bingo.

Shigure looked carefully at each of them. "Well?"

"Why are you asking," asked the long-haired girl finally.

"Weíre conducting an investigation at the moment," I said. "Weíd appreciate it if Shiro-kun would help us out. Or, if not him, one of you, since you all seem to know something."

No one answered.

"Is there any reason why you all seem scared at the mere mention of this ĎSakurazukamorií?" asked Shigure. "What is he, like the bogey-man or something?"

Still no answer from anyone. I sighed. "Look, kids, we can either talk here, or we can do it down at the station. Itís really up to you."

"Um Ö" We all turned to look at ĎYuzu-chaní. "Weíre doing a group project."

"Project?" Shigure asked. Iím not sure, but did Shiro blink? "What project?"

The girl smiled. "Weíre doing a research project on the occult mythology of Japan."

I glanced at Shigure. Occult research project? Yeah, and Iím the next emperor. Tell me a new one. "Pardon me, Miss Ö ?"

"Nekoi. Yuzuriha Nekoi."

"Ö Nekoi-kun. It doesnít look like youíre all in the same class."

"Itís a program set up by the school chairman," Arisugawa said from behind us. "Basically you team up with students from other years to promote student relations. You pick a topic of your choice to research and do a project on, submit it, and which ever group does the best wins, uh Ö"

"A scholarship," supplied the long-haired girl.

"Yeah, that was it."

I raised an eyebrow and looked at each of them. Off-side, Shiro was looking nervous. Easy target there. "How long has this project been going on for?" I asked him.

Shiro jumped. "Uh Ö about a week?" he said, eyes darting to Arisugawa as if for confirmation.

"So itís been going on for a while." I smiled. "Why donít you tell us what youíve been able to find out about the Sakurazukamori, then? You must have found out something by now."

"Uh Ö" Shiro hesitated. "Actually Ö"

"Actually, weíre still working on it," said Arisugawa. "All weíve found out so far is that the Sakurazukamori wasnít exactly one of the nicer figures of the occult world."

"Oh dear," said Shigure, shaking his head. "Sounds like youíve got a lot of work ahead of you." He looked at Shiro Ė like me, he follows his instincts, and if there was any weak link in this so-called Ďprojectí, it was Shiro. "But Iím sure youíll be alright. You can just go to Sumeragi-san for help, canít you?"

No doubt about it Ė we definitely caught Shiro off-guard this time. "S-Subaru?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Shigure. "Isnít he the head of some old witch-doctor family or something? Iím sure heíll have lots of information available to you on occult stuff like the Sakurazukamori."

Shiro blanched. Before I could pick on that the long-haired girl spoke up. "We donít want to rely too heavily on Subaru-san. Weíre supposed to be doing the work ourselves."

"Besides, we havenít seen Subaru-san for a few days now," added Nekoi.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Heís probably working."

"Working, eh?" I dug in my pocket for my notebook. "Whereís he working?"

Again, we must have caught the kids off-guard. "Huh?" asked Shiro.

"Sumeragi-san. We just thought that since heíd probably know something about this Sakurazukamori person, weíd go ask him. Can you tell us where to find him?"

Shiro, Nekoi, Arisugawa, and the long-haired girl all looked at each other. "We donít know," the long-haired girl said.

"Subaru travels a lot for his work." I glanced at the Shiro and for once it looked like he was sure of himself. This, at least, seemed to be true. I was still harbouring reservations about their research project. A lot of reservations, but we couldnít really call them on it. Cross-examination is something we have to leave to the lawyers. "We never know where he goes."

"Does he have a cell-phone that we can contact him on?" asked Shigure.

"No, he doesnít."

I put away my notebook. Arisugawa looked at us. "We done?" he asked.

I sighed under my breath; there really wasnít much point in continuing this if things kept going on in this manner. I motioned for Shigure to start moving. "Yeah, I guess we are. Good luck with the project."

"Huh? Oh, uh, thanks."

"Bye, Officers-san!" said Nekoi, waving us off with a smile. She was the only one to do that Ė Shiro and the long-haired girl just watched us steadily until we turned the corner. I get the impression they didnít like us very much. Oh well, Iím used to it. It comes with the job.

"Well, now that was interesting," muttered Shigure. "Occult research project? What do they think we are, stupid?"

"Apparently most kids do think that adults are stupid. At least they gave us something. Now we know that this ĎSakurazukamorií person has something to do with occult mythology."

"Occult mythology," repeated Shigure, shaking his head. "Geez, what next? Government conspiracy theories? Vampires? Aliens from outer space?"

"Itís no less weird than a psycho going on a killing spree because he claimed the voices in his head told him to," I said. Remembering the case from three days ago, I lifted an eyebrow. "Or a homosexual with a stalker-boyfriend on the unhealthy side of the obsessive line and actually seems to like it."

"Hmph. Speaking of which Ö" Shigure looked thoughtful. "I think maybe Sumeragi may be of more help in this case than just a source of occult knowledge."

"Why?"

"Sumeragiís stalker-boyfriend. Sakurazuka. Sakurazukamori. Thereís just too much of a similarity of names for coincidence."

I stopped and looked at him. "There is, isnít there. Well, Sakurazukaís place if I remember correctly shouldnít be too far out of our way back. Letís drop by see and if heís in. And if nothing else," I added as we got to the car, "he might be able to tell us where Sumeragi is."

       

Shigure remembered the way there, so I let him drive this time. We went up to the top floor, found the right door, and rang the bell. We rang it several times, but no one answered.

"Heís not home," someone said. Shigure and I turned around to see a couple of young women looking at us curiously. The taller of the two had shoulder-length dark hair with highlights and was wearing a red woollen turtle-neck. The other girl had glasses and was carrying a large bag of groceries. "He went out this morning."

"You know who lives here?" I asked, pointing at Sakurazukaís door. I took a closer look at the kanji on it. Iím not the greatest with kanji, but the first character was the one for Ďsakuraí or Ďcherry blossomí definitely. As for the second one Ö

"Yeah, thatís Sakurazuka-sanís apartment. Weíre from across the hall," explained Glasses.

Neighbours. Hmm. "Any idea when heíll be back?" asked Shigure.

Red-top shrugged. "No idea. He goes out a lot. I even asked the security guard at the lobby desk if he had seen Sakurazuka lately, apparently he went out the whole of last night. Last time I saw him was in the laundry room on Christmas Day."

"You didnít tell me that!" Glasses objected. "What was he doing?"

"Oh nothing much Ö he was washing bed sheets, I think. I chatted to him the whole time, even though my laundry was practically done when he came down. He noticed my new haircut!"

Shigure and I tried to keep expressionless as Red-top and Glasses gossipped. Seemed that Sakurazuka had a couple of fans in the building. Well, as Shigure said, the man was hot, but as I said, even if I did lean that way, I wouldnít go near him. Speaking of which Ė

"Excuse me, ladies," I said, trying to politely interrupt. "Has Sakurazuka had any visitors lately?"

The two women looked at each other. "Donít think so Ö" said Glasses slowly. Then she clicked her fingers. "Wait a sec. Didnít someone come over that night?"

"Which night?" asked Shigure.

"Christmas Eve. Yes, thatís it." Red-top nodded in affirmation. "Sakurazuka must have gone out in the evening, because when we went to the lobby to the vending machine we saw him coming back. There was a young man with him."

"A young man?" Alright, we had something here. "What did he look like?"

Red-top and Glasses looked at each other. "Not sure," said Red-top. "We didnít see his face. But he had black hair and wore a long pale trenchcoat. He was holding some kind of box in his arms too."

"Was the box white?" pressed Shigure.

"Ö Yeah, it was."

"What time was this?"

The two girls looked at each other, then looked a little embarrassed. "Uh, not sure. It was Christmas Eve, we were drĖ celebrating Ö I guess we lost track of time. It was pretty late though."

I sighed. Great. "Did you see this man again? Like, any idea when he left or anything?"

Red-top shook her head. "No idea."

"Must have been early morning," muttered Shigure. I kept my face expressionless. Well. So much for Sakurazuka not having had any contact with Sumeragi.

"Early morning?" Glasses blinked from behind the grocery bag. Then her eyes went wide. "Youíre not saying Ö"

Red-top had the same Ďno wayí expression as her companion. "Oh my Ö" she breathed. "Sakurazuka-san?"

Shigure and I tried to look professional and didnít say anything. They ignored us. "Thatís just Ö" Suddenly Red-top giggled. "Well then, that puts a new spin on things! How cute!"

"It always has to be the good men," muttered Glasses.

"It does, doesnít it," said Shigure, grinning.

I rolled my eyes. "Well, if Sakurazukaís not in, then thereís no point hanging around." I got out my notebook and wrote my cellphone number down on it. "If you see Sakurazuka, give us a call, alright?"

I gave Red-top the number. She frowned as she read the name. "Detective Kobayashi?"

"Thatís me, yes."

"Is Sakurazuka-san in trouble or something?" asked Glasses.

I glanced at Shigure. "No, he isnít." Well, it was true Ė at the present moment we didnít have anything solid to hit him with. "We just want to talk to him."

"Okay. Oi, open the door," said Glasses to her companion. "This bag is killing my arms."

"Bye," said Shigure as Red-top, flustered and apologetic, got out her keys and unlocked the door opposite Sakurazukaís. She gave us a wave as they went inside.

"Well," I said the moment the hall was quiet again. "Thereís our answer to Sakurazuka hiding something. So much for broken relationships."

Shigure gave me a questioning look. "What are you saying?"

"Sumeragi and Sakurazuka are obviously going to great lengths to hide their relationship. That goes down as suspicious in my book."

"Your book. Just because a man conceals the fact that heís in homosexual relations doesnít automatically mean a criminal, Kobayashi."

"Itís the end of the twentieth century. You saw those two women just then; people are open-minded, so why hide it?"

Shigure gave me a dirty look. "Open-minded? What world are you on?"

"What? Youíre not hiding."

"I am aware of that, Kobayashi. However, I happen to be lucky in the fact that I have a steady relationship, a supportive family, and a job where my co-workers deal with people from all walks of life and therefore know there are some things in human nature more worthy of disgust than the fact that some men like other men. Sumeragi, on the other hand, heís the head of some old family, isnít he? Types like that usually have a duty to provide an heir, plus they have a reputation to uphold. If I were his position I wouldnít exactly be going about announcing that Iím sleeping with another man either."

I held my hands up in a gesture of peace. "Hey, I see your point. All Iím saying is that Sumeragi and Sakurazuka were not being square with us, and therefore you have to wonder if they were hiding anything else." Shigure was still glaring at me, and I knew that I was just digging myself in deeper. "Alright, Iím sorry. Look, can we just put that aside? Come here for a minute." I pointed at Sakurazukaís name-tag under his doorbell. "Whatís that character there?"

Shigure sighed and leaned down to look. Then he frowned. "Weird. Never seen this one before."

"You donít know it either? Makes me feel a little better." I got out my notebook again and copied it down carefully stroke for stroke. "Hopefully Ayako will know."

"Think it might be the unreadable character Masaki wrote down?" asked Shigure.

"Thatís what Iím betting on."

       

"Strange," said Ayako, peering at my notebook. We had pulled her out of the media room where she was going through the security tapes from Masakiís apartment block. So far she had gotten through two of them and hadnít found anything. I think she was glad to do something different. Believe me, Iíll you from experience that watching security tapes is very boring. "It clears up the middle character Masaki wrote down, no question about it. Still, you donít see this character often."

"Yeah, we kinda thought so." I sipped a cup of coffee, taking the advantage of being back of headquarters with all its luxuries while it lasted. "So what is it?"

Ayako swivelled her chair around to us, snagging a clean piece of paper as she did so. "The first half of the character is the character for Ďearthí," said explained, writing it down for us, three definite strokes, then started on the other one. She has great calligraphy. "The complicated one beside it means Ďtombí or Ďgraveí, so Shigureís mention of the Ďhouseí element wasnít too far off track."

"House for the dead, lovely," said Shigure dryly.

"Combine the two characters Ö" Ayako said, writing down both characters together to make up the one that appeared in Sakurazukaís name, "and you get Ďbarrowí."

"Whatís a barrow?" repeated Shigure.

"Burial mound."

There was a long silence.

"So literally, what Masaki wrote down is Ďcherry blossom burial mound guardianí," I said at last.

Shigure had a funny look on his face. "Well, that changes the nature of the Ďguardianí we were going for. Talk about creepy."

"Well, Shiroís friend Arisugawa did say that this Sakurazukamori person wasnít one of the nicer figures of occult mythology," I replied. "So, any occult mythology buffs here who can explain why Masaki wrote down the name of some mythological character?"

As I expected, no one answered. Weíre police, we deal with logic and the real world, what do you think. I sighed. "Great. So now what do we do?"

"I say we find Sakurazuka and talk to him," said Shigure. "Thereís got to be some reason why the names are so similar."

"I donít want to have to rely on his neighbours calling us up when they see him," I replied. "If the two of them only see Sakurazuka once in four days, then it could be a week before they call us back to say heís home. We need something more immediate. What about Sumeragi? We still need to clear up a few things from that Tanaka case anyway."

"Nice idea, but we have no idea of how to contact Sumeragi," replied Shigure. "Shiro and his friends said that he travels around for work, and he doesnít have a cell-phone to be contacted on."

There was silence for a moment as we all thought. Then Ayako sat up and started looking through her files. It took her a couple of seconds to find what she was looking for, but she did. She opened it and started skim-reading. I recognised it as Sumeragiís profile that we had drawn up a few days ago. "Here we go. The Sumeragi main house is in Kyoto. We can call them up."

I exchanged a sceptical look with Shigure. "You sure?" Shigure asked.

"Why not? If anyone can tell us how to get in touch with Sumeragi-san itíd be them. Who knows, he might even be there."

"Ö Alright." Shigure got off his chair. "Find me the number, and Iíll do the talking."

       

It didnít take Ayako long to find the right number, and once she did the three of us commandeered one of the interview rooms, bringing in a speaker-phone with us. The work-floor isnít exactly quiet, not with police talking and moving around.

Shigure had volunteered to do the talking, so we let him, sitting back around the table keeping quiet. The phone rang for ages before someone picked up.

"Good afternoon, this is Detective Maeda Shigure from the Tokyo Police Department," said Shigure to whoever picked up at the other end. "Iíd like to speak to Subaru Sumeragi-san."

"The head is not currently in Kyoto at the moment," the other person said, a man by the sound of it. "Is this about a commission?"

"No, no," said Shigure. Commission? Must be the work, and from the way the guy asked, it sounded like Sumeragi got a lot of them. "Iím just looking to ask him a few questions about a current investigation."

A pause. Then, "Can you hold for a moment?"

Shigure made a face at us from the phone. "Yes, Iíll hold."

There was a click from the speaker-phone, then the usual elevator music came on. I rolled my eyes. Geez, youíd think weíre calling up a bank or something, not a private household.

"Why are we on hold?" asked Ayako.

Shigure shrugged. "No idea."

"So Sumeragiís not in Kyoto," I mused. "Youíd think heíd go back to be with his family at Christmas."

"The Sumeragi are an old Japanese family, theyíre not going to be celebrating Christmas," replied Ayako. "Christmas here is just the present-giving among the younger generation."

"Besides, Sumeragi had other plans for Christmas Eve, remember?" said Shigure dryly.

I grimaced. No, I hadnít forgotten.

"Are you there, Detective?" the voice from the speaker-phone said.

"Yes, I am," replied Shigure, immediately back to business.

"Can you wait a moment? Iím going to put you through to Lady Sumeragi."

"Who?"

"The former Sumeragi Head."

Shigure blinked. So did me and Ayako. "Sure, Iíll wait," said Shigure, sounding only a little startled. Heís got good self-control. So, we were going to talk to number twelve, who, if I remember correctly from the profile we drew up of Sumeragi a few days ago, was Sumeragiís grandmother. This might mean that we wouldnít have to go hunt down Sumeragi after all.

We waited a couple of moments as presumably the servant or secretary or whatever passed the phone on or put us through to another line. Finally, someone spoke.

"Yes?"

The voice was an old womanís voice, but with none of the hesitancy a lot of members of the older generation had. Head number twelve may have been an old lady, but she was definitely someone still in full command. Shigure with all his usual skill picked up on it immediately. "Good afternoon, Lady Sumeragi. Iím Detective Maeda Shigure from the Tokyo city police department. Iím looking to speak to Subaru Sumeragi if thatís possible."

"Subaru-san is currently in Tokyo," Lady Sumeragi replied. Well, that was helpful. Not.

"Could you please give us any contact details?" asked Shigure.

There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Why do you wish to speak to Subaru-san?"

"Weíre currently undergoing an investigation, and we believe that Sumeragi-san might be able to provide answers to some of our questions."

"Is Subaru-san the subject of investigation?" asked Lady Sumeragi, her voice suddenly sharp.

"No, no, weíre not investigating Sumeragi-san at all," said Shigure hastily. Well, I suppose that was true. We werenít investigating him at the present moment. You learn the benefits of creative question answering when youíre a detective.

"Then why do you believe that Subaru-san will be able to help you?"

Shigure chewed his lip, probably regretting having volunteered for talking. Too bad, he couldnít get out of it now. "We were hoping to ask him to help us in regards to something called ĎSakurazukamorií."

The phone was completely silent. Meantime, I was making strangling motions at Shigure. Ayako didnít really react, but you could tell by the set of her mouth that she wasnít happy. ĎWhat are you doing?!í I mouthed at Shigure. Shigure looked guilty. ĎItís worth a try!í he mouthed back.

"Why do you wish to know?" asked Lady Sumeragi at last.

Shigure turned back to the phone. "Weíre investigating a murder at the moment, and the word came up," he explained. I gritted my teeth. I havenít had reason to chew Shigure out since he was a rookie, but it looked like one of the times had come.

Another pause from the Sumeragi end. "I canít provide you with any information," replied Lady Sumeragi finally.

I sighed, rolling my eyes. Shigure on the other hand, either exasperated or trying to make up for his slip, wasnít put off. "Look, maíam, weíre trying to work a murder investigation and you are not helping," he bit out. "Your grandson most probably knows something that could be of service to us, but heís proving very elusive to questioning. If heís worried about his relationship with Sakurazuka getting out to the public, we can assure you that we always take the greatest care when handling Ė"

He broke off as he realised that Lady Sumeragi hadnít said a word since he started talking. In fact, now that Shigure had shut up, it was completely quiet on the other end. I looked at Ayako, who was frowning. Shigure looked like a kid who was trying to persuade dad that no, he wasnít the one who threw the ball through the window. "Ö Lady Sumeragi?"

Long silence. I thought for a moment that the phone had gone dead, but there was no beep.

"Subaru-san Ö" she said at last, very slowly, "and who?"

If Shigure could have fallen through the floor, I think he would have. "Uh, you didnít know?" he said weakly. Off-side, I grimaced. ĎWe are so screwedí I mouthed at Ayako.

More silence. "Is Subaru-san all right?" asked Lady Sumeragi. Her voice sounded different. More distant or something, I donít know. I thought back to three days ago, when Sumeragi had been our Ďguestí while we went around trying to figure out what had happened to him the night before. I gave Shigure a shrug. We couldnít really dig ourselves in any deeper, so what the hell.

"Well Ö he was brought in three days ago," said Shigure.

"Brought in?"

Shigure took a deep breath. "He got brought into the police department on Christmas Day by a couple of friends suspecting that he had been the victim of sexual assault."

Long silence. There had been a lot of them in this phone conversation and I had the suspicion there was going to be more. "And?"

"No charges were brought against anyone," said Shigure.

"Ö Was Subaru-san all right?" asked Lady Sumeragi.

Shigure bit his lip, looking to me and Ayako for a moment. "He hasnít told you anything?"

"We get very little chance to talk."

Shigure looked to me and Ayako again. I glanced at Ayako, who shrugged. Resignedly, I waved to Shigure that it was okay to tell her. "Well, apart from some bruising that he refused to account for, he seemed alright," said Shigure hesitantly. "We let him go when his uh, friend picked him up."

"And this friend was who?"

"Ö Seishirou Sakurazuka."

The silence that followed this bit was the longest of the lot. Plenty of time for gut-grinding. Finally,

"Ö Subaru-san Ö did he look happy?"

Happy? What kind of a question was that? The three of us all looked at each other, thinking back to the highly charged interaction between Sumeragi and Sakurazuka in the interrogation room that we had witnessed with all its possessive intimacy. As I said, Sakurazuka was one scary man. Sumeragi had definitely not looked happy, but Ö

"Well Ö he wasnít unhappy if thatís what youíre asking," Shigure replied at last.

Another long pause. "That will have to do," said Lady Sumeragi with a sigh, more to herself than to anyone else, I thought. Without warning, her voice changed again, more business-like, calmer. "Subaru-san has a job at present," she said. "He should be finished by five oíclock. If you wish to speak to him, you'll find him at," there was a pause as presumably she consulted a diary, or got someone to do it for her, then she gave an address in Tokyo to write down.

"Uh, thanks," said Shigure once we had it, not knowing what else to say. Lady Sumeragi, however, wasnít finished with him yet.

"One more thing, Detective." The three of us fell silent. "I advise you Ė most urgently Ė to give up this investigation. For your own sake."

Before any of us could say anything, there was a click, then a monotonous beeping. The old lady had hung up on us. Shigure stared at the phone in his hand for a moment, then put it down.

"Why is it," he said to the room, "that I feel like Iíve just been through the wringer?"

I glared. "Why did you let slip that Sumeragi was with Sakurazuka?"

"I didnít know she didnít know!" Shigure protested. "I thought that since his grandmother was his only living family relative, that he would have told her. I told my grandmother about Izuru, in fact she knew even before my parents did!"

"Who was the one lecturing me on the difference between you and Sumeragi earlier on?" I sighed, it was done and there wasnít any point ranting on about it. Meantime, Ayako hadnít said anything yet. I turned to her and lifted an eyebrow. "Well?" I asked.

Ayako was frowning at the phone. "That last sounded like a threat."

"What, you mean that lovely closing line about having to give the investigation up for our own sakes?" replied Shigure. "Donít tell me that actually got to you."

"So youíre not paying any attention to it?" I asked Shigure.

The man shrugged. "Hey, no one ever said that our line of work was particularly safe. And, given what we do, there are probably a lot of people who would love to kick our butts in. What makes this threat any different from any of the others?"

"The fact that it comes from an old lady whose the head of a powerful family and is probably not happy with us poking around her grandson," I replied.

"Hmph. Iíd think at the moment sheís going to concentrate more on chewing out her grandson for his choice of partner than us."

"Speaking of her grandson," said Ayako, bringing us back on track with all her usual tact, "why does it seems that everyone connected with Sumeragi-san doesnít want to tell us anything about this Sakurazukamori?"

"They are proving rather cagey, arenít they." Shigure began ticking off his fingers. "Shiro-kun who seems to have a thing for Sumeragi definitely knows something but he isnít talking. Shiro-kunís friends, all who seem to know Sumeragi, all three of them were trying a bit too hard not to tell us anything. That Ďoccult research projectí thing I give about as much credibility as my local politician. And Iím pretty sure if those kids know something about this so-called occult figure, then Lady Sumeragi would know heaps more, except sheís definitely not playing ball. Well, thatís just great. Weíve talked to five people and none of them can or will give us any info about the name Masaki wrote down."

"Which means weíll have to find someone who isnít connected to Sumeragi to explain this Sakurazukamori to us. Who can we ask?"

Ayako looked thoughtful. "I have an idea."

"What?"

"A field expert. Someone who knows occult mythology. I say the best option is to try the university and ask someone there in the literature or history department."

"Right." I snagged the piece of paper with the address on it. "Well, the old lady told us where to find Sumeragi, I guess thatís one plus. She said heíd be there for another couple of hours, so we can drop by the university quickly, this address isnít too much of a ride away. Maybe by then weíll have some more ammunition to pump Sumeragi with."

"Have fun," said Ayako. "Iíll get back to the media room."

"Yíknow, we can swap over," Shigure offered. "I can do the tape-watching and you can go with Kobayashi."

"Thanks for the offer, but no, Iíll be okay," said Ayako. "The media roomís heated, and I think I can live with boredom if it means I get out of the weather."

"Donít rub it in," I growled. "Have fun."

       

My experience at university left me with the impression that all the staff in the literature history department were a bunch of weirdoes without a life and cluttered offices full of old books that they only had because nobody had any practical interest in them. Therefore it was a bit of a surprised when we contacted the head dean and he showed us to the office of someone who turned out to be completely opposite from what I had been expecting.

"Pleasure to meet you, Detectives." The man who rose from his desk to shake our hands was tall, late-twenties, blue-eyed and blond-haired. In other words, not Japanese. He had an engagement ring on his ring-finger. If we had been talking to him over the phone, however, you wouldnít have been able to tell. "Iím Robert Boolyn, but you can call me Bobby." He winked. "I hear itís an easier name to pronounce."

"Certainly is. Iím Detective Shigure, and this is Detective Kobayashi," said Shigure. He was as surprised as I was to find some foreigner in the Japanese literature department of Tokyo University.

"Great. Please, sit down." Bobby waved us to a couple of chairs. He had a small office, but he made it seem bigger since he kept it damned organised and neat. "Sorry about the mess," he said apologetically. The only Ďmessí was on his desk, which had a computer monitor, a photo, and a heap of paper scattered around. "My students just had to hand in an assignment yesterday, so Iíve been going through them. So, how can I be of assistance? I must confess that Iím completely at a loss as to why the city police would seek out my help."

Bobby had a flawless accent and grasp of the language. Almost made me feel ashamed. "Itís nothing much, weíre just wondering if you can tell us the meaning of this word," I said, handing over the paper we had found on Masaki. "We managed to find out that it has something to do with occult mythology, but not much more than that."

"Hm." Bobby read it and frowned. "Well, Iíll be damned."

I glanced at Shigure. Now that the guy had lapsed back into his native language, you could definitely tell he was American. As if sensing this Bobby switched back to Japanese. "Sorry about that, itís just that this was one of the last things I thought someone would bring me."

"So you know what it is?" I asked.

"In a manner of speaking, yes." Bobby leaned back in his chair. "Itís not something youíd come across in everyday life, in fact, even if youíre in the field it isnít really common knowledge. ĎSakurazukamorií, from what Iíve been able to gather Ė which isnít much, Iíll admit Ė is a pretty old word. I was doing some research on the onmyouji tradition of Japan Ė onmyouji, by the way, is a magician or practitioner of yin-yang magic. The earliest reference I found to ĎSakurazukamorií dates to sometime in the eighteenth century, but I have a feeling itís been around for much longer than that. The Sakurazukamori, it seems, was one of those little-known characters of mythology who played a part similar to that of the Furies of Greek legend. Basically the Sakurazukamori got rid of people who were a threat to the country."

I raised an eyebrow. "íGot rid ofí?"

"The murder-assassinate kind of Ďgot rid ofí. In a rather gruesome way, too Ė the person targeted would have his heart removed. Either that or a magical storm of sakura blossoms would appear to steal your soul."

"So heís not one of the nicer figures of occult mythology," said Shigure dryly, repeating what the Arisugawa kid had said earlier.

"Definitely not. Anyway, the Sakurazukamori was the personal family legend of the Sakurazuka clan, which might explain its obscurity."

"Sakurazuka?" I repeated quickly, jumping on the name.

"Yeah, that was one of the onmyouji families of old, but not one people knew about much, unlike say, the Sumeragi who had a long stint of serving the emperors."

I blinked Ė the name-dropping was coming way too fast and unexpectedly. "The Sumeragi?" Shigure said.

"Yes. The Sumeragi was Ė still is, actually Ė the premier onmyouji family of Japan. You might not think it nowadays, but there are still a lot of people who call on onmyouji for help with things. Why?"

I looked at Shigure. "We gave one of them a call while trying find out what this ĎSakurazukamorií is."

Bobby blinked at us. "You asked the Sumeragi about the Sakurazukamori?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"And what did they say?"

"She wouldnít give us any information."

Bobby laughed. "Iím not surprised. The Sumeragi clan and the Sakurazuka clan donít like each other very much."

I frowned. "What do you mean?"

"To be dramatic about it, the Sumeragi and the Sakurazuka would be the Capulets and Montagues of Japanís onmyouji world. They really donít like each other."

"Any reason why?"

"Well, as I said, the Sakurazukamori myth was perpetrated by the Sakurazuka onmyouji clan as a family person or entity who killed anyone who posed a threat to the country. The Sumeragi were the spiritual protectors of Japan who oversaw how onmyoujitsu was used by others."

"What do you mean Ďoversawí?"

"Onmyoujitsu is a type of spiritual magic. Ignoring whether it actually exists or whether you believe in it or not, such ability can be used for either good or ill. As the top onmyouji of the country, the Sumeragi clan kept tabs on all other practitioners, both individuals and other onmyouji families like the Sakurazuka. In a way, both families were protectors of Japan in completely different ways, which logically would result in conflict. The Sumeragi didnít like the Sakurazukamori myth, for obvious reasons, which meant they didnít like the family to whom the myth was connected. Throw in some members of the Sumeragi clan who die in suspicious circumstances and the Sumeragi pulling all their influential strings to oust the Sakurazuka, and thereís a lot of bad blood between them."

Well, wasnít that an interesting piece of information. Seemed that Sumeragi and Sakurazuka had a much longer history than first thought. No wonder he never told his grandmother about his boyfriend.

"Is there any evidence as to whether this Sakurazukamori person actually existed or not?" I asked.

"Well, all tales and folklore have their basis in reality. I wouldnít be surprised if there actually was a highly skilled and reputable assassin who was a member of the Sakurazuka clan. That, combined with the fact that the Sakurazuka clan is also known for their onmyoujitsu, might lead to the legend of an assassin who used onmyoujitsu to kill."

"Anything else about this ĎSakurazukamorií that you can tell us, Bobby-san?" asked Shigure.

Bobby shrugged. "As I said, thereís not much. Myths rarely go into much detail, and this oneís influence was confined pretty much to the two onmyouji clans. I doubt youíd find anyone today whoíd know of it unless theyíre like me and actually make a living out of digging up the literature of the past."

"How long did it take for you to find out about this Sakurazukamori?" I asked.

Bobby frowned, remembering. "About two months or so after I started the research into the onmyouji tradition," he said at last. "That was when I first came across the word. I continued the research for my thesis for another three months, and ran into it a few more times. After that I had to piece all the snippets of information together. Itís detective work of a different kind," he said with a grin.

"So about five months, then?" I asked. "With access to all the university resources?"

"The resources of this university, the resources of all the other major universities, even a few field trips out the temples and other traditional locations. Granted, I wasnít looking specifically for anything on the Sakurazukamori myth, but given how obscure it is, it still would have taken me at least a month, probably."

I looked at Shigure. If an experienced university lecturer took five months to find out all of that, then I would give anything to know how the hell Shiro and his friends managed to get their information in a week.

"Is there any particular reason youíre asking about this myth?" asked Bobby curiously. "Is someone else doing research on it? If they are, Iíd love to know who it is. Maybe they can help me out."

I discretely motioned to Shigure to get going. "No, the word arose in connection to a current investigation, and we wanted to know what it was. Thanks for the information."

"Youíre welcome." Bobby rose to courteously see us the few steps to his office door. "Glad I could help out, and I hope it all goes well."

We waved him goodbye, then left. There was a student outside obviously waiting to chat to Bobby, who gave us a curious glance. From the girlís stressed expression and the paper in her hand I got the impression she was handing a paper in late. Yeah, well, those were the days, when your only stress was trying to write three thousand words in five hours. I donít miss them.

"Well, I knew that Sumeragi and Sakurazuka had history, but I certainly never thought about several hundred years worth," muttered Shigure. "Things just get more complicated, donít they."

"Youíre telling me." I checked my watch; we were going to have to hurry it up a little if we wanted to catch Sumeragi. "Meantime, it does clear up a few things."

"Like what?"

"Letís think through this logically. Masaki knew the identity of who was going to get him, and was scared shitless of this person. However, the killer cannot be a personal or professional acquaintance of Masakiís, because Masaki was scared to the point of paranoid helplessness and he wouldnít have felt so helpless if the person coming to kill him was someone he knew personally and could take steps against. There is absolutely no sign of forced entry or tampering with the security system. Either the killer is top-skilled, or one of the Masakis let the killer inside. Masaki in a state of mind to aim a gun at his own wife would not have opened the door for anyone, and his wife was asleep at the time of death, and weíve already established that the likelihood of her being involved in her husbandís murder is extremely low. That leaves us with the idea that the killer made his own way inside, and since thereís no evidence of it, heís not going to be one of the more usual types of murderers; it was planned, plotted, and organised. That means a hit-man. Or," I looked at Shigure. "An assassin."

There was a silence.

"Oh, well, now thatís just great," Shigure growled. "You mention the word Ďassassiní, I start thinking governments, institutions, men in black and conspiracies. You know, the kind of stuff I really donít like because itís complicated and dirty and doesnít make sense?"

"You mean politics?"

"Exactly."

"Your feelings are noted. Let me keep thinking this out. Alright, so weíre looking for an assassin. Masaki getting paranoid all of a sudden says to me that this assassin has one hell of a reputation. Masaki wrote the name of some mythological figure called the ĎSakurazukamorií whom, weíve found out, was some scary bogey-man who killed people who were a threat to the country."

"Are you saying that someoneís going around calling himself ĎSakurazukamorií and killing people he judges to be a future threat?" asked Shigure dubiously.

"Possibly."

Shigure chewed his lip. "Well, it is likely," he admitted. "We could have some crazy guy who thinks heís a onmy-whatever it is and bumping off people. Youíre going to have a hell of a time finding enough evidence to convince a jury of that though."

"We are," I corrected him. "Anyway, Bobby said that the Sumeragi keep tabs on all the wannabe-magicians in the country. Hurry up, if we catch Sumeragi maybe he can give us a list or something."

       

By my clock we had about twenty minutes according to what Lady Sumeragi had told us to catch her grandson. I drove the car again Ė we needed to get to the address given quickly, and Iím a less polite driver than Shigure. I got him to call up Ayako and give her a run-down of what Bobby had told us.

"Right, so this ĎSakurazukamorií whatever the hell is some old mythological figure who went around killing people who were a possible threat to the emperor or something Ė watch it! Geez, Kobayashi, if youíre going to drive like that at least put the siren up Ė no, itís nothing Ayako, Kobayashiís just trying to kill meó"

"I heard that," I growled, weaving into the next lane much to the annoyance of the car behind me. Ah, what the hell.

"You were meant to," Shigure retorted. "Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, the myth is personally attached to the Sakurazuka family. Yes, Sumeragiís freaky boyfriend. And guess what? The Sakurazukas and the Sumeragi donít like each other very much. One of those long-running family feud things. Apparently the Sumeragi didnít like the idea of the Sakurazukas going around killing people using their magic or something, I donít know, but Ė Kobayashi, you do realise that youíre going twenty over the speed limit, right?"

"Yes," I replied, hitting the accelerator a little more.

"You do remember that weíre cops, right?"

"Yes."

"Ö Why do I bother. Stop laughing, Ayako. What? Oh." Shigure reached across and held the phone to my ear, hitting Ďspeakerí so he could hear as well. "Talk."

I tried to lean towards the phone and keep my eyes on the road. "Ayako?"

"Shouldnít you be setting a better example for other road-users?"

"Iím in an unmarked car, itíll be okay." I imagined her rolling her eyes, so I slowed down. We were getting to a red light anyway. "You got something?"

"Yes, the toxicology report has come back. It says Ďinconclusiveí."

"Inconclusive? Great, just great," I growled, stopping at the red light. It made it easier to talk. "That puts us back at square one for cause of death."

"Iím no happier about it than you are. On the bright side I think I got something off the security tapes."

"Whatís that?"

"There are four tapes; each showing different angles of the apartment lobby. One shows the entrance and the path outside, the second the security guardís desk, the third a wide view of the lobby floor, and the fourth the elevators and fire-escape stairs. At one seventeen a.m., each of the cameras has a little skip."

"Skip?"

"A flicker where the camera jumps forward and skips a tiny piece of footage. Itís so quick and short you usually wouldnít bother with it, but all four of the security cameras have it, and not all at the same time either. The entrance camera skips three seconds at one seventeen a.m. and two seconds to one seventeen a.m. and five seconds, the desk camera skips just over a second at one seventeen a.m. and five seconds, the floor camera four seconds at one seventeen a.m. and seven seconds and the elevator and stairs camera skips from one seventeen a.m. and eleven seconds to one seventeen a.m. and thirteen seconds. Put them all in sequence with someone walking at a stroll from the lobby entrance to the stairs, and that means all the cameras skipped recording at the exact moment the person passed them. Whatís more, it happens again in reverse order, at one twenty-nine am, eleven minutes later."

I frowned, tapping my fingers on the wheel while I waited for the lights. Shigure looked at me, shifting in his seat since his arm was getting tired holding the phone to my ear. Eleven minutes, certainly a decent window of time for someone to go to the Masakiís apartment and kill Masaki and get back, but not long enough for a thorough crime scene clean up, which meant that there hadnít been much to clean up in the first place, which meant a professional killer. Shit. "So all four security cameras shut down with precise timing to miss a very late-night visitor to Masakiís apartment block at his time of death, is that what youíre saying?"

"Yes."

The lights changed and I revved the car. Shigure got thrown back into his chair and pulled the phone away. "Can you reconstruct the lost footage?" I shouted towards the phone.

"Already got the technicians to try, and they canít," Ayakoís tinny voice came from the phone. Shigure retrieved it and went back to being a human phone-holder. "The best weíve managed to get is a split second from the entrance camera. Itís a long shot and blurry, but at maximum focus and filtering you can see someone approaching the door. From the height Iím guessing male, but you canít see his face. All I can tell you is that heís wearing a long black coat."

"Thatís great, but weíre in winter and blackís a popular colour, a man wearing a long black coat isnít much help. Are you sure you canít pull anything else?"

"Positive."

"But that doesnít make sense," said Shigure, speaking loudly so his voice would reach the phoneís receiver. "We talked to all the desk security guards who had shift that night Ė none of them saw anyone enter the place after midnight."

"Maybe they fell asleep," I said sourly.

"I doubt it," said Ayako. "After midnight common practice in apartment buildings is lock the lobby doors. The security guards have to actively get up to open the doors for visitors and tenants coming in after that time. Even if he had fallen asleep he would have had to wake up to let the person in."

"Then how could someone have just walked in past the cameras which mysteriously chose that exact moment to shut down?" asked Shigure.

I turned the car around a corner. We were getting to our destination. "I donít know, and I get the feeling weíd better find out. What about what the professor told us about the myth, do you think thereís anything useful in that?"

"From the sounds of it, it sounds like the person behind Masakiís death is going to be well-read if nothing else. More seriously, if someone goes around linking himself or herself to a myth implies that he or she thinks theyíre working for a higher cause of some sort. In this case, since the Sakurazukamori is linked with eliminating threats, Iím starting to think political."

"My thoughts exactly," I said. "Given that Masaki was a very visible figure of the public political arena, itís not an unlikely motive."

"All of the political groups who would have that motive have expressed their condolences. I know that may or may not say anything, but I find it hard to believe that a political group would have hired an assassin to get rid of Masaki. The only reason to go to that extreme would be if Masaki posed a very real danger to someone, and the only group that would be in that position is the actual government, and that I donít want to touch."

"Neither do I. What about internal politics? Did Masaki have any rivals or are there any overly ambitious members in his group?"

"Itís not impossible, but thatíll take a lot of time and effort to investigate since he or she would have definitely taken pains to hide their tracks. Leave the person holding the purse-strings until the assassin is found. Once weíve accomplished that, then we can interrogate the him for his employer."

"Kobayashi," said Shigure suddenly.

"What?" I looked at him, my train of discussion with Ayako broken.

Shigure was staring out the window at the cars passing by, but I donít think he was really looking at them. Theyíre not that interesting to look at. "What did Bobby say about the basis for the Sakurazukamori myth?"

"Uh Ö" I frowned, reaching for the actual specifics of the conversation, not just the general gist. "That such myths and tales have some basis in reality, and that itís likely that there was a member of the Sakurazuka clan who was a reputable assassin, but since the Sakurazuka clan is also an onmyouji family, then the combination of assassin and onmyouji might haven given rise to a legend of the Sakurazukamori. What are you thinking?" My eyes narrowed as I looked at his face. "Donít tell me youíre thinking about Seishirou Sakurazuka."

Shigure raised an eyebrow; I knew I had hit on target. Great. "Think, Kobayashi, when was the first time we heard the word ĎSakurazukamorií? It was in context with that little chat we had with Shiro and his friends, when we accidentally dropped the fact that Sakurazuka had picked Sumeragi up from headquarters."

"Also, you did say that the Sakurazukamori would have to be a member of the Sakurazuka clan," said Ayako, listening through the phone. "Sakurazukamori. Sakurazuka. We have a man wearing a long black coat on camera. Who have we seen matching that description, and didnít you say that the neighbour mentioned that he had been out the whole night? And donít tell me you think that Sakurazuka is harmless."

I made a face, changing lanes again. "I know what youíre saying, Ayako, Iíve already thought about it, and no, Iím not buying it. Weíre basing all of this on a myth from a few hundred years ago, and the rest of our evidence so far isnít enough to hang a cat from. The Tanaka case had much more substance to hold Sakurazuka against, and heís still walking free."

"Even so, it canít hurt to ask him a few questions about the myth and his whereabouts last night. Look, youíre going to see Sumeragi anyway, might as well take it one step further and ask him where his boyfriend is."

       

The address Lady Sumeragi had given us was in the inner-city suburbs. I parked the car outside a rather boring looking house that Shigure and I knocked on the door for. We had to knock a few times and still no one answered. Shigure tried the handle. It was open so we let ourselves inside.

"Hello? Tokyo City Police, is anyone home?" The inside of the house was just what youíd expect from the outside; plain and a bit on the spartan side. "Is anyone home?"

Still no answer. Now when people leave their doors open theyíre either stupid and forgot to lock it when theyíve gone out, or are at home, in which case theyíre still stupid because anyone can just walk in. Like we just did. My suspicious instinct was about to make me reach for my gun when we heard something from the back of the house where the kitchen was. I gestured to Shigure, and we headed over there.

This is where the strange stuff comes in. I know it was early evening, but the room was dark like it was midnight. There was some wind in it like someone had left the window open, but there hadnít been any wind outside when I parked the car. And there were weird lights going on inside the room as well, blue-white ones like off a disco mirror-ball, except these ones flew around the room like birds. Shigure and I stood in the doorway and stared. In the middle of the room was a group of people all kneeling in the middle of four daggers stuck in the floor with strings hung between them to make a square. There was a small family; husband, wife and two little kids, looking rather scared and staring at the wind and lights, and one other guy who had his eyes closed and concentrating real hard while chanting something weird. His back was towards us, but him I recognised as Subaru Sumeragi.

Looking back on it all, I donít think opening the door had been such a good idea, because the moment Shigure and I did, the wind screeched a little and something came towards us. I have no idea what it was, but it made me I reach frantically for my gun. Shigure yelped, but before we could do anything three white birds flew in front of us. The wind or whatever it was Ė it had eyes and a mouth, Iím sure of that Ė stopped. The chanting grew louder. Then there was the sound of something metal hitting something. Once that had happened, everything went quiet, and the room grew light again.

I looked at Shigure. My pulse, I realised, was going fast, like Iíd just been having a gun fight.

"Did you see that?"

Shigure looked a little shaken. "Yeah."

I chewed my lip as my pulse calmed down. Now, Iím sure thereís a perfectly logical and reasonable explanation for whatever it was we just saw, but right now my brain wasnít coming up with anything. In the meantime, we had something else to work on anyway. When I get a free moment without a case, I might go back and figure out just what had happened. Maybe. Meanwhile, in the kitchen the group was getting up.

"Thank you so much, Sumeragi-san," the husband said, bowing. Beside him his wife followed suit. The kids were still looking pretty wide-eyed. "Thank you."

Sumeragi nodded, but otherwise didnít respond. He started gathering up his stuff and putting them in a bag. He was wearing the same stuff we had seen him in last, either that or he had a lot of black sweaters and jeans, plus the red scarf. The husband seemed a little uncomfortable at the silent treatment, but out of respect didnít push. The wife hugged her children in relief for a moment, then saw us. "Excuse me, but who are you?"

Shigure and I waved badges. "Police. Weíre just here to talk to Sumeragi-san."

Sumeragi by now had seen us too. He wasnít looking too happy about it. I smiled tightly. "Donít worry, itís not an arrest or anything. We just want to talk."

Sumeragi stared at us for a moment, then sighed. "Your children wonít be disturbed anymore," he said quietly to the husband. "Payment will be as promised, to the Sumeragi Kyoto house."

"Of course." The man looked like he wanted to say some other stuff, but with me and Shigure standing in his door looking official it was kind of hard. Sumeragi didnít say goodbye or anything, he just slung his bag over his shoulder and walked out with me and Shigure following like a pair of bodyguards. When we got outside, he didnít stop walking.

"Hey, you, stop." Sumeragi stopped halfway down the road. "We need to ask you a few questions, Sumeragi-san."

Sumeragi didnít turn around. "I think youíve asked more than enough questions already, Detectives."

"Well, we have some more." Since Sumeragi obviously wasnít going to come back to where we were, we went to him. "We just need to know a few things."

"Like what?"

"Like oh, whatís a Sakurazukamori."

Sumeragi froze. I didnít miss that at all. "Iím sure thereís a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why a dead man would refer to an old mythological figure, but unfortunately weíre not coming up with one," said Shigure. "We understand that youíre the one to ask about this sort of stuff."

Sumeragi started walking again. "No."

"No? You donít know anything? Strange, I could have sworn you did, being hooked up with Sakurazuka and all."

Sumeragi stopped walking.

"So," said Shigure casually. "That scarf keep you warm on lonely nights?"

There was a rather drawn-out, tense moment of silence. "I donít expect you to believe me, but I saved your lives just then," said Sumeragi quietly. "Back there, when you interrupted my work. Iíd appreciate it if youíd extend to me the courtesy of not asking me any questions on this subject."

"Unfortunately, Sumeragi-san, we have a job to do and a murderer to find," I said. "We have the right to demand any answers that could have bearing on our investigation, and you, as a citizen, have the duty to cooperate."

"Actually, if I remember correctly, citizens are under no legal obligation to answer questions of any sort unless called up to be questioned in a court of law."

I whirled around with Shigure and instinctively reached for my gun. I didnít pull it out, but my eyes narrowed, and my wariness level upped itself to red. Seishirou Sakurazuka smiled at us, dressed in the same long black trench-coat we had seen him in before, though this time he was wearing a dark blue suit rather than the black. Didnít help the Ďthreatí aura much. "In such a situation," he continued, taking off his sunglasses and putting them in his pocket, "the person being questioned is under oath, and lying under oath is contempt of court, which is the crime of perjury, is it not?"

Shigure and I glanced at each other with a scowl. Damn wannabe lawyers. Lawyers know how to work around and slip through the legalities we use to arrest and make people cooperate. Sakurazuka was right Ė Sumeragi wasnít under any obligation to answer our questions. The whole being charged with obstruction of justice is usually just a bluff; itís really only used when people go into crime scenes and mess up evidence, you canít really use it against people who donít want to talk. Even when someoneís under arrest you canít make them talk. Defence lawyers always advise their clients to use the right to remain silent with good reason Ė weíre not kidding when we tell criminals that anything they say can and will be used against them.

Sumeragi, I noticed, had gone still, and was looking straight at Sakurazuka. "Seishirou-san," he said, without any inflection of pleasure or displeasure. More like just an acknowledgement of his boyfriendís arrival.

Sakurazuka nodded at us. "Good evening detectives. Subaru-kun." His eyes grew a little more intense when he said that name. Eye, rather. He walked straight past us to Sumeragi and placed a hand on Sumeragiís shoulder, standing behind him so that they were both looking at us. "Is there a problem?"

I had collected myself. Damnit, Sakurazuka had startled me popping out of nowhere like that. "íEvening, Sakurazuka-san." That was about as polite was I was going to get. Second time talking to this guy wasnít making me like him any better then when I had first talked to him, in fact, I liked him a whole lot less. Especially watching him standing like that over Sumeragi. "What a coincidence. My partner and I were just at your apartment a little while ago looking to talk to you."

"Oh?" Sakurazuka looked at me quizzically. "What for?"

Sumeragi, I noticed, was looking worried. He stepped away from Sakurazuka so that he stood in between his boyfriend and us. "Itís nothing, Seishirou-san. Let it go."

From the way Sakurazuka was looking at us, he definitely wasnít listening. "I thought that Subaru-kun was cleared of any suspicion."

"Weíre not here about that." Personally Iíd still like to hit Sakurazuka with Tanakaís murder, but gut-feeling doesnít hold up well under a lawyerís cross-examination. "Ever heard of someone named Kubo Masaki, Sakurazuka-san?"

Sumeragi started to look even more worried. Sakurazuka on the other hand, looked thoughtful. "Kubo Masaki. From what Iíve read in the newspapers heís the leader of one of the major right-wing fringe parties jockeying for votes."

"Know anything not read in the papers?" I asked. After that first Q&A session with him, I knew his tactics of creative answering and was quite willing to go along and duel it out.

Sakurazuka smirked. "I did hear that he was found dead this morning."

"That doesnít upset you or anything?"

"Well, I wasnít going to vote for him."

"Why not?"

Sakurazuka shrugged. "His policies donít agree with mine."

"Seishirou-san." We all looked at Sumeragi, who still had that worried expression on his face. "Itís getting dark, we should get going."

"Just a minute." I put some steel into my voice, and Sakurazuka and Sumeragi stopped. "Weíre not done with you yet."

It could have been the light, but Sakurazukaís weird eyes were looking weirder. "Are we under suspicion of anything, Detectives?" he asked.

Shigure smiled. "Now, now, no need to get jumpy. We just want to know what a Sakurazukamori is and where we can find him." He looked directly at Sakurazuka for some reaction. "Isnít that some family story of yours, Sakurazuka-san?"

There was an interesting moment of silence. Sumeragi, I noticed, was rather tense. He kept glancing from us to Sakurazuka with those green eyes of his. Sakurazuka on the other hand, didnít even twitch. "I know my familyís story, yes, but I fail to see what this has to do with anything."

"Really? You donít know a cousin or anything who keeps the story alive?"

Sakurazuka smiled enigmatically. "Are you saying that youíre looking for the Sakurazukamori in connection to Kubo Masakiís murder?"

"Seishirou-sanó"

"Worried about something, Sumeragi-san?" I asked, one eyebrow raised. Sumeragi jumped a little. Man, this guy was as tense as a rookie with a loaded gun. Well, I suppose he had good reason, seeing that he had gone to great lengths to hide that he was with Sakurazuka and we had just dragged it into the open, not to mention dropped it to Shiro and his grandmother. Not that I was going to tell him that of course.

"What do you want, Detectives," asked Sumeragi.

"We want to know what your boyfriend was up to last night," I replied, my voice hard. "More specifically, last night between the hours of one and two a.m."

Sakurazuka smiled. "What any normal person would be doing at that time of night. I was sleeping at home."

"You didnít wake up in the middle of the night and go out for a walk or anything?" asked Shigure.

"No, of course not."

"Strange," I said, returning his smile. "We met a couple of your neighbours. One of them said that you were out the whole of last night."

Remember what Iíve said before about Sakurazuka having something about him that made me want to reach for my gun? Well, the moment I said that we knew he had been out the whole night, things got to the point where my fingers were literally itching for my weapon, and only years of training and the knowledge that drawing my gun without sufficient provocation is against the rules stopped me. Shigure on the other hand, reached under his coat to where his own gun was in his shoulder-holster. I really donít blame him. Sakurazukaís eyes were damned scary right now.

I tried to cover up and press some more. "Doesnít make sense, does it, Sakurazuka-san. You say that you were in your apartment sleeping, yet we already know that you were out the whole night. So, Iíll ask you again. Where were you at one a.m. last night?"

Long silence. I was rapidly running over in my head if we had enough circumstantial evidence to arrest Sakurazuka on the suspicion of murder, when suddenly Sumeragi spoke up.

"He was with me."

Shigure and I looked at Sumeragi, startled. So did Sakurazuka for that matter, though it was so quick I could have been imagining it. Sumeragi gazed at us calmly. "Youíre right, Detectives, Seishirou-san wasnít at his apartment last night. He was at mine."

I blinked, then my eyes narrowed. "From when to when?"

"Seishirou-san came over at nine-thirty p.m. He left in the morning at eight when I went to a job."

"And what did he come over for?"

Sumeragi flushed a little. "Thatís a personal affair."

Ah. Well, I had already had an idea of what Sakurazuka would have gone over to Sumeragiís place for, I didnít need Ė or want, for that matter Ė any details. I just wanted to prod a little and see if Sumeragi was telling the truth and not simply covering up for his boyfriend. "Is there anyone who can verify your statement, Sumeragi-san?" I challenged.

Sumeragi looked from me to Shigure. "Iím sure that youíre aware by now that my Ö relationship with Seishirou-san isnít general knowledge," he said quietly. "We took pains to keep it that way. That is why Seishirou-san said that he was at home last night."

Hm. The alibi was holding up. And when you thought about it, it did make sense, given what Bobby had told us about their family history. Damnit.

Sakurazuka, I noticed, was looking strangely at Sumeragi, as if he had completely forgotten that we were there. Then he reached out, took Sumeragiís hand and lifted it before his face. He kissed the back of it and Sumeragi closed his eyes. Now, Iíve seen Shigure and Izuru be cute together. Thatís just embarrassing to watch. This display of affection was more sensual than anything else, and a heck of a lot more disturbing. Even more worse than that time in the interrogation room back when we had been investigating Sumeragi and Tanaka. At least that time they had been in a different room, and I could let myself think that they didn't know people were watching. With this performance, it was basically a blatant dare for us to do something. Of course, we didn't.

Sakurazuka glanced teasingly at us from between Sumeragiís fingers. If that wasnít laughing at us, I donít know what is. Iíve said it before, and Iíll say it again Ė I really didnít like the guy. "Well then, Detectives," said Sakurazuka cordially. "If thereís nothing further, weíd like to go for dinner."

I scowled. "Fine then." Shigure, I noticed, was already stepping away, so I followed him. No, I wasnít in a hurry to get away. "Enjoy your dinner, whatever."

Sakurazuka smirked, still holding Sumeragiís hand in that possessively tender way of his that Sumeragi seemed to like. "Donít worry, sousakan-san. I will."

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. I could feel those eyes laughing at us as we got in the car and began to drive away. Shigure wasnít looking too happy either, in fact he didnít even say anything when I revved the car too hard and jerked us onto the road. We drove off to HQ leaving our best suspect free to go to dinner.

As I said before. Shit.

       

"So heís got an alibi," Ayako mused after we had related the whole story to her. "You have to admit, it makes sense."

"I know it makes sense, but seriously, youíve seen how Sumeragi reacts to Sakurazuka," I shot back to her. "Iíll bet you a weekís worth of coffee that Sumeragi is covering for his freaky stalker-boyfriend."

Shigure looked morose. "Even if he is, how can we prove it? Itís not like either of them are living with friends or family who would notice if one of them didnít come home one night or had someone stay over."

"I donít know!" My mood was bad enough as it was, and Shigure and Ayako werenít helping it that much. "Go talk to Sumeragiís neighbours or something, anything, but Iím telling you, Sumeragi is not telling the truth!"

Shigure and Ayako stared at me. I admit I felt a bit bad for yelling, so I sat back in my chair and tried to calm down. "Why are you so sure, Kobayashi?" asked Shigure at last.

"Gut-feeling, okay? Iím telling you, Sakurazukaís our man."

"Are you sure youíre not just saying that because you donít like him and want to get back at him for walking out with Sumeragi and getting under your skin?" asked Ayako archly.

"Of course not!" I protested. Ayako Looked at me, and I sighed. "Alright, maybe a little. But I have good reason for believing it too, okay?"

"And that would beó?"

"Masaki was killed by a professional killer that he knew the reputation of. He wrote down the name ĎSakurazukamorií, which, weíve found out, was the title of some assassin of myth who apparently was a Sakurazuka."

"So why this particular Sakurazuka? Remember back when we were trying to locate him in the first place Ė there were heaps of Sakurazukas in the phone book and we havenít even looked at them yet."

"Are you playing devilís advocate, Ayako? Shigure said before; the first time we heard the word ĎSakurazukamorií was in context of a conversation about Sumeragi and Sakurazuka. Everyone connected to Sumeragi doesnít want to talk about the Sakurazukamori. As vague as that image you pulled from the security cams is, Sakurazuka does fit it." Shigure and Ayako were still looking at me, and I sighed, exasperated. "Címon, guys, you know where Iím going with this. Hell, you two were the ones who were all up for questioning Sakurazuka on those same suspicions before!"

"I know, but we didnít know that Sakurazuka had an alibi at that time," Ayako retorted.

"But Sakurazuka didnít tell us that alibi himself," Shigure pointed out. "He lied and said that he was at home first. Sumeragi was the one who spoke up, and Sakurazuka didnít look like he was expecting that. Maybe he didnít expect Sumeragi to cover up for him."

"Or maybe heís just surprised that Sumeragi came clean about their relationship, considering that before Sumeragi had concealed it from his friends and family," Ayako said. "Look, Kobayashi, I fully agree with you that Sakurazuka is suspicious and hiding something, but heís given us a very likely and realistic something Ė his relationship with Sumeragi."

I scowled. Ayako smiled. "On the other hand, we shouldnít discount your gut-feeling so quickly. Remember the Zama case?"

Despite my mood, I couldnít help but smile a bit. "Of course, itís the one I did with you that made our names."

Shigure looked confused. "Whatís the Zama case?"

Ayako turned to him. "The Zama case is a case I did with Kobayashi back when we were new to the job and had yet to prove ourselves. It was a murder case, a young woman who had her throat cut in her bed, very sad really. The thing is, whoever killed her cleaned up thoroughly afterwards, so you can guess how difficult it was to find evidence. On the other hand, we did find a very likely suspect, an Ochi Zama who was as unremarkable a person as youíd find. He and the victim had been seeing each other for a short time. Kobayashi fixed on him straight away, but seeing that we didnít have much evidence we couldnít do much about it, plus the fact that Zama had a solid alibi. Turns out he had been seeing another woman at the time, and the other woman said that he had stayed with her the night of the murder. Kobayashi wasnít too happy when he heard that. The thing is, when the crime scene is that thoroughly cleaned up, it implies that the criminal is highly experienced and has done this before. So I backtracked through the archives, looking for unsolved murders with similar crime scenes and circumstances, and put the dates and situations with Zamaís profile."

"So how did you get Zama?" asked Shigure.

I grinned. "Zama had an alibi for this murder, but to have an alibi for the four other murders we managed to connect to him going back for eight years is a bit more difficult. For one to remember that day so clearly means that they either have a fantastic memory Ė which Zama hadnít, since he fluffed some other questions I asked to ascertain that very possibility, or theyíre making it up. Zama was making all those other alibis up, so we hit him in interrogation with all his inconsistencies until he broke. And when the woman who had provided him with the alibi found out that her boyfriend was under suspicion for not one but five murders, well, she turned around and became very helpful."

Shigureís face grew a slow smile. "So this means Ö?"

"Similar situation, isnít it." Ayako winked at me. "Iíll hit the archives. You and Shigure can draw up a profile for Sakurazuka. Letís see we can get an Zama reprise."

       

It took ages but we managed it. Me and Shigure had the easy job; Ayako was the one who really had to work. I offered to help her, even though chasing papers isnít my thing, but she waved me off. She likes going through and old files and cases; itís the reason why we stopped being active field partners. I think it has something to do with the fact that she really likes that American show, the one where the two main characters go around chasing aliens with government badges.

Anyway. We all reconvened to discuss our findings with a late dinner that Izuru brought. Sometimes when Shigure works late his boyfriend brings him and the rest of us something to eat. Itís really nice and thoughtful of him, so I try not to say anything when Shigure sits on his lap to be fed. Ayako thinks itís cute. Me, it puts me off my food, but since Iím in a minority, I just make sure Iím sitting angled so that I donít have to look at them.

"So when are you guys going to finish?" asked Izuru. Shigure wasnít sitting on his lap this time, actually, the lap-sitting doesnít happen that often, but the time it did I remember, but yeah, Shigure was poring over the printouts in front of him and Izuru was sitting next to him reminding his boyfriend to eat.

"Not sure," said Ayako, cleaning out her box of takeaway with her chopsticks. I noticed that she didnít seem that satisfied either. Well, weíd find out why soon enough. "Donít worry, Izuru-kun, weíll let Shigure go home and Kobayashi and I can keep going."

"Thanks," I growled. I closed my box and threw it neatly into the bin on the other side of the room. Three points for me. It made me feel better since the profile-drawing hadnít gone how I had expected it to be, namely, not well. "So do you want to go first, Ayako, or shall we?"

"You can. What did you find out about the scary Sakurazuka person?"

"Not much, Iím afraid." Shigure sat back in his chair with the profile and coughed. Izuru put his chin on Shigureís shoulder. "Letís see. Seishirou Sakurazuka. Born in Tokyo, nineteen sixty-five, first of April."

"April Foolís Day," Izuru commented.

"Yup. Thereís no mention of a father anywhere, and the only mention of his mother was that she died when he was fifteen. No siblings of any sort. One thing of interest, though. Sakurazuka isnít just any old member of the Sakurazuka family. Heís the family heir."

"Youíre kidding," said Ayako in disbelief. "If heís the heir, then how come thereís no information on the parents and lineage?"

"No idea," I said. "I spent ages looking for more information on the parents, but seriously thereís nothing. Anyway, he went to all the usual schooling, and ended up with a degree in veterinary science. We know from before that he set up a small veterinary clinic in Shinjuku under his own name, and thatís when he met Sumeragi and his sister. After Sumeragiís sister disappeared, the clinic shut down, and Sakurazuka left the country. Visa application says his first stop was Hong Kong, but where he went after that is anyoneís guess. Return visa was in nineteen-ninety-five. No criminal offences of any sort, keeps to himself, and for a man of thirty-four has never been married."

"Given how hung up he seems about Sumeragi, thatís no surprise," Shigure said. "There wasnít much else, was there."

"What about employment?" asked Ayako.

"Apart from the veterinary clinic in Shinjuku, thereís no mention of any employment."

"No job? Then how does he maintain the kind of lifestyle that enables him to go around in Armani suits and live in that neighbourhood?"

"Well, we donít have clearance to poke into his accounts, but since heís the heir of the Sakurazuka family, which we know is an old family of nobility, then maybe he lives off his inheritance." Shigure shrugged. "Really, I donít know, Iím just guessing."

"Is that all you and Kobayashi managed to find?" asked Izuru dubiously.

I nodded. "Uh huh. Donít give me any weird looks, I know itís not a lot. Actually, I find it rather strange just how little there is, and what does exist is really vague and minimal."

"Maybe you didnít look hard enough." Ayako pulled over her findings. "My turn."

"I take it you did find some other unsolved mysteries?" Shigure asked.

"Oh, definitely. Whatís interesting is just how many there are."

I looked closely at the number of manila folders there were. There was a lot. "Uh oh. You sure theyíre all connected?"

"All of these cases are homicide cases with the same causes of death as Masakiís, namely, unknown. The symptoms are exactly the same; the damaged heart, stiff muscles, and so on. I agree that yes, there may be some similarities that are just coincidence but I havenít started elimination yet."

Izuru was frowning. "But still Ö that many? How could there be that many and still no arrest, assuming theyíre all done by the same person of course."

"I donít know, and I also find it disturbing." Ayako picked up a list. "Anyway. There was one similar case last year where the victim was found dead in his bed, and also the year before that where the body of a woman called Tohru Shimako was found in an alleyway, and the autopsy for both reports signs like that of Masakiís. Thereís a few more before that, though I couldnít find any between nineteen-ninety-one and nineteen-ninety-five. Other cases would be the Nagi Kumiko case, the lady who ran something called the MS Institute, and also that Cabinet member who died suddenly, you might remember all the news reports back then in nineteen-ninety. Turns out those were also deaths in very similar circumstances to this one, and there a few before that as well. One case I was able to get my hands on was in nineteen-sixty-seven."

"Nineteen-sixty-seven?" I raised an eyebrow. "I think we can discount that one; Sakurazuka was born in nineteen-sixty-five, and I donít think a two-year-old would be going around bumping off people."

"Thatís what I thought, but thereís a reason why I included it. The report of the crime scene mentions the smell of sakura."

I frowned. "And all the death symptoms are the same as Masakiís?"

"Uh huh."

"But Sakurazuka would have been too young at that time," Izuru pointed out.

"Thatís not even the earliest one." Ayako held up another folder. "This one describes the death symptoms just like Masakiís, and again mentions that there was Ďthe unexplainable out of season smell of cherry blossom on the bodyí. The year is nineteen-sixty-two."

I stared at her. So did Shigure and Izuru. "Now that canít be right," said Shigure. "Sakurazuka wasnít even born then."

"I know. Still, the similarities remain."

"But that just doesnít make sense. Címon, Ayako, why are you even including these cases? Weíre trying to connect Sakurazuka to other possibilities, thereís no point including cases from years before he was born."

"But the original myth Bobby told us about dates back to what, a few hundred years," Shigure pointed out.

I glared at him. "Itís a myth, Shigure. Look, Ayako, ditch any cases before say, ninety-ninety, and letís just focus on the most recent. Hand me that Shimako one whatever."

"Kobayashi, I agree that thereís no way that Sakurazuka can be involved in any cases that early," said Ayako patiently, "but the connections between those ones and Masaki are too strong to deny!"

"What are you saying, that it canít be Sakurazuka then?" asked Shigure. Izuru, probably sensing the tension and guessing correctly that he didnít really have any part in this, quietly excused himself and gathered up the rest of the empty containers, leaving the room in search of a bin and a probably a bathroom.

"But Ayako said that there werenít any cases between nineteen-ninety one and nineteen-ninety-five, which if you put it with Sakurazukaís profile, matches the dates that you said he took a flight out of the country. Coincidence?"

"Then how do you explain the cases in ninety-sixty-two and sixty-seven?" demanded Ayako.

"I donít know!" I snapped. "Maybe trying to see if there are any other cases to connect Sakurazuka to is the completely wrong direction in the first place. Maybe thereís more than one person. Maybe the Sakurazukamorió"

Whatever I was going to say I donít remember, because the last person I expected to interrupt interrupted me. It was so much of an unexpected interruption that all three of us stopped talking and turned around to look at him.

Chief Kaga Amamoto nodded to all of us. "Detectives."

The three of us stood to bow in greeting. Let me tell you a little about Chief Amamoto. Heís our direct superior, and Ayako and I have worked under him for quite a few years now. Heís an old dog in the game, and a damned sharp one too. Although he can be a bit crusty, heís as decent a superior as you could want; heíll stick to the rules like glue, but will be flexible if need be. Best compliment Iíve heard him give was Ďnot badí, worse chewing out Iím aware of resulted in the poor sod who received it transferring the day after. Weíve invited him out for drinks a few times, but heís not that sociable. If he drops in on us in HQ itís for work only.

"You three are working hard," he said, taking a look at our files and other paraphernalia. "Any luck?"

"Chief." Shigure looked around a little, probably making sure that Izuru wasnít anywhere. Weíre not allowed to have members of public sitting around the workplace for the fun of it. I havenít told Shigure yet, but I have the feeling that the Chief knew that Izuru dropped by quite often and just wasnít saying anything. "Is something the matter?"

The Chief didnít reply immediately. He picked up one of the files on Ayakoís desk. "Mind if I take a look?" Ayako gave him the go ahead, and the Chief opened it and flicked through. I think it was one of the nineteen-ninety cases, but from my angle I couldnít tell. What I could tell, though, was that the Chiefís face seemed to tighten.

"Youíre working the Masaki murder, arenít you." We all nodded, and he sighed. "I hate to do this, but Iím going to have to take you off the case."

It took a moment for that to sink in. "What?" said Shigure in disbelief. At least he could talk. I couldnít. Neither could Ayako for that matter.

"Sorry. Orders from above." While he left us gaping at that statement, the Chief started gathering up all the files Ayako had pulled out of Archives. "And Iím afraid that Iím going to have to take these as well."

"Wait a sec. Chief!" The Chief looked at me. "No disrespect meant, Chief, but whatís going on?"

The Chief sighed. "I told you, Kobayashi. Orders from above. Youíve all been taken off the case, with orders not to bother with it anymore, and Iím to take these Ė" he nodded with his chin to the files he was removing from Ayakoís desk, "Ė and similar ones and hand them all over to the same people who gave the orders."

"And who might they be?" asked Ayako.

The Chief lifted an eyebrow and gave her a significant look. One of those ones that said that there were some things better left unsaid. Ayako stared for a moment, then sat back in her chair with a dark look. Me, I couldnít manage even that.

The Chief finished gathering the rest of the files. "As I said, Detectives, I hate to do this to you. If it were me Iíd let you do all the digging you want. But," he shrugged philosophically, "we donít always get what we want, do we. Consider yourselves free for the rest of the week."

Carrying the stack of files under one arm, the Chief left, leaving us all sitting in stunned silence at the sudden lack of nothing to do. It was a weird feeling.

Izuru chose this moment to return. "Iím back." He stopped by my desk and blinked at the three of us sitting there as woodenly as perpetrators in a line-up. "Uh, what happened?"

No one answered. Suddenly Shigure stood up. "I can go home early."

Izuru frowned as his boyfriend got his coat and other things. "Is something wrong?"

"Iíll tell you later." Shigure put his coat on and put his chair back. "If the Chief says we get the rest of the week off, Iím going to take him at his word before he backtracks." He tossed us all a wave and a smile, but I could tell from the set of his jaw that he was pissed. "Iíll see you guys next week."

I half-heartedly returned the wave with a rather forced smile. Ayako was a bit more pleasant about it, and said something about wanting to see Izuruís next photo collection. Izuru slipped a comforting arm around Shigure as they left.

Ayako looked at me. I looked at her. She sighed and got her bag. "Come on, Kobayashi. Iíll walk you out."

       

"Get over it, Kobayashi, we canít do anything."

"Get over it? Me? Are you saying thereís something I have to get over?"

"Iím not saying it, I know it. Youíre stubborn; once you latch onto something, youíre not going to let it go until youíve finished it to your satisfaction. Getting pulled off this case when youíre in view of the finishing line isnít just getting to you, itís chewing out your liver and spitting it out for sushi."

"So maybe Iím a little pissedó"

"A little?"

I glared at Ayako. "Aw, címon, donít tell me youíre not pissed off."

"Of course I am. Iím just as pissed as you are. Iím just dealing with it better, because I know thereís nothing much I can do about it apart from grinding my liver into mincemeat, and Iíd rather not do that. So therefore I will get over it and find something I can do something about." Ayako sighed. "Where did you park?"

"Other side of the block, roadside. Couldnít find space in the car-park. Been pushing for years to get the car-park expanded, but no oneís listening."

"That kind of thing you have to submit as a formal request on paper."

"Been there, done that. Itís probably lost in all the other bureaucratic bullshit floating around. By the time they find it, read it, consider it and start, Iíd be retired. Thatís assuming they give it the green light in the first place."

"Haha. Anyway, I got parking space, so Iím going to leave you here."

"You did? Lucky bitch, arenít you." Ayako laughed, and I smiled. "Anyway. Iíll see you next week, okay?"

"Of course. Until then, Kobayashi."

"Later."

I waved Ayako goodbye, then resumed my own walk, my footsteps echoing in the otherwise empty car-park. There was an alleyway beside the police HQ that cut through to the other side of the block, and which I used regularly seeing that my luck with parking just sucks. The alley ran the length of the block and was pretty narrow, like some urban ravine with the police HQ rising up one side and the court of petty sessions on the other. Fire-escapes ran down both sides. It was the kind of place young women and other vulnerables get told not to walk through alone, but Iím a police officer with badge and gun, and always walked through it fine. Besides, I wasnít in much of a mood to care. I have never been taken off a case ever in my entire career. Ayako was right, I was pissed. Especially since I knew who had bumped Masaki off. Donít ask me how, I know the evidence was still on the sketchy side, but I knew. Sakurazuka may have Sumeragi covering for him, but thereís no such thing as an air-tight alibi when the alibiís false. Given a bit of time I could have broken that alibi, and make myself feel a whole lot better about the Tanaka affair as well. Thing is, I couldnít do that anymore.

Why the hell had we been pulled off the case?!

There was a sound, something like a shoe striking concrete, but due to the echoing effects of the alley I couldnít place the direction it came from. Still, it pulled me out of my liver-chewing and back to paying attention to my surroundings. The alleyway was dark and quiet. Too quiet. Usually you get at least the sound of passing cars, but there wasnít even that. The kind of atmosphere that sets my instinct off, as if thereís someone watching me. I stopped, and reached into my coat for my gun.

"Alright," I called out. "Whoís there?"

Nothing answered. Should have expected that. Feeling a little stupid, I started walking again, but the feeling of being watched didnít go away. Iím sure some people might think Iím being paranoid, but in my line of work over the years you learn to trust your instinct. My senses felt heightened, and my pulse was going faster, which only happens when Iím doing stakeouts or walking into dangerous territory. I kept my hand on my gun and walked a little faster.

I got about halfway down the alleyway when I smelt it.

Alleyways, you see, are fully of junk and refuse and other stuff nicely brought up people donít mention. At the best the smell is discomforting, at the worst you have to hold your breath until you get to the other side. This smell wasnít bad. In fact, it was rather sweet. And it was familiar. It was the smell from Masakiís body. Ritsuko identified it as sakura. Thing is, this was the end of December. Sakura only flower in April.

The hair on the back of my neck was standing up as I pulled my gun out and turned around. Again, there wasnít anyone.

"This isnít funny anymore," I said loudly. "Címon, Shigure. Ayako?"

The smell was getting stronger. I admit my palms were sweaty as I held my gun at the ready. There were only two directions that an attack could come, from in front or behind, and I kept turning around trying to look at both at the same time. Nothing happened, but the sakura smell was still there, and getting stronger.

I was about to pull out my cell-phone and call for backup when suddenly I heard something above me. I jerked my head to look up, finger poised on the trigger. Something was flying. I squinted and tried to follow it as it fluttered and perched on the rail of the fire-escape three stories above my head, and only then I managed to see it properly. A white bird.

I blinked at it. The bird looked at me. Now, Iím no expert, but growing up and living in the city I knew all the birds that hung around, and I had never seen this one before. For starters, thereís no way that a bird could have stayed that white in this smoky, industrial city. Secondly, Iíve never heard of any bird that glows. Only time Iíve seen anything close to it was this evening, when Shigure and I had blundered into Sumeragiís work. Sumeragi was a whatís-it, onmyouji or whatever Bobby had said that used magic. Yeah, whatever you say.

Still Ö

The weird bird looked at me a little longer. Then it just Ö vanished. Right in front of my eyes. One second it was there, the next it wasnít. Iím not kidding.

I blinked and rubbed my eyes. The bird was gone alright. So was the sakura smell, I realised belatedly.

The alleyway was still quiet, but my danger-instinct was calming down. Whatever or whoever had set it off wasnít here anymore. Still, I warily kept my hand near my gun as I hurried towards the other end and my car. I found it Ė with a parking fine that I ignored with the plan to hound the patrol officer who gave it to me Ė and unlocked the door, quickly getting inside and starting the ignition. I put the car into reverse, hit the accelerator, backed out, then changed gears and pushed my way into the traffic flow. It was slow, as usual, and I got stuck behind some food-truck, which I hate, but for once I found being surrounded by cars and angry drivers comforting. At least it was normal, which is something pretty lacking in my workday.

I sighed, leaning back in the driverís seat, suddenly feeling very tired. No surprise, really, seeing that I had been running flat out since this morning. On sudden impulse I reached out and switched on the radio. After a minute of some really annoying try-hard RínB monkey-wailing, the news bulletin headlines came on.

" Ö downturn in the national economy continues with the Nikkei index closing two and a half points down today, promoting calls for reform. More violence in the Middle East increases this weekís death toll to twelve. The police investigation report into the death of Kubo Masaki concludes that the political activist died of a heart attack Ė"

I switched the radio off.

For a few minutes I stared at the red traffic light in front of me, tapping my fingers on the steering wheel. I know that I had told myself that I would figure out what Shigure and I had seen that evening when we caught up with Sumeragi. Iím sure thereís a perfectly reasonable explanation for it as well. I wasnít coming up with any. It would have probably made me feel a lot better about what had just happened to me. On the other hand, my instinct was telling me that there were some things I was better off not knowing.

The lights changed. The cars started moving. The moment there was a space in the lane beside me I swerved into it to get away from the truck. When I got clear, I hit the accelerator. Some idiot behind me punched his horn in annoyance, which I ignored. Once the speedometer hit seventy, I put the car into cruise control and turned the radio back on, switching stations to the ball game.

I had the rest of the week off. Might as well start now.

 

~owari~


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