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This was the part I had been dreading most since before I took a single step away from HQ. Every attractive bargain came with some drawback. For instance, my apartment was ‘free’, but I was one of the few permanent inhabitants, crammed into a room by bureaucratic decree. Though the manager-cum-owner was civil, I was more of nuisance than anything, taking up space that would be better used lent to short-term visitors. My reward for this dubious achievement was having to hear all sorts of unmentionable sounds coming from all corners of the block. I felt much the same being there in the soba shop.
Karen had been nothing short of accommodating, but I could tell it was to one end: prying privileged information out of me. Every morsel of soba was kneaded and massaged with her hands for that purpose alone, and her every expectation was that I would oblige her in return. Of course, this thought had been furthest from my mind as I ate. Now that I was at least fed, and not beholden to my belly’s demands for the moment, the reality of it all had slowly seeped in.
I sat ramrod straight in my seat, eyes trained on Karen as she hook a leg over the counter. My ears stood erect, my tail laid down in back. I had adopted the classic formal seated pose of the academy, in short. That was the only way I knew to steel myself for what I had to do. Even so, I had to swallow my tension as Karen finally sat on the neighbouring stool, facing me eye-to-eye, my wolf sensibilities telling me it was aggression even when I knew it was attentiveness.
A moment passed in silence with Karen’s attention remaining unwavering. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to speak first, she smiled nervously. “So, uh, I think you said something about facts?”
“Yes,” I said, my ear twitching, “I did, didn’t it? Pardon.”
Digging in my pocket, I found the notebook I’d got at the start of training, partially filled with notes I’d yet to consult, along with a pen. Karen seemed to be fidgeting in her seat as I flipped through the notebook and found a blank page. I set it and the pen down on the counter and jumped from my seat to give a steady, professional bow, holding my hat abreast.
“While it’s a bit late, I ought to formally introduce myself. My name is Iwabori Koyomi, Officer of the Amaden Mountain Outpost Peacekeepers, Junior Patrolwoman, Fifteenth District. As a servant of the public, I vow to help how I can.” I squared my hat as I sat back down.
Karen broke into giggles at my introduction, only catching herself when she noticed I didn’t share her amusement, at which point she bowed from her seat. As an afterthought, she reached up to undo her kerchief. Her earthen hair spilled free with a gentle shake of her head, falling down around her shoulders. With the way it framed her face, the freckles on her cheek, like flecks of buckwheat, stood out a little more. More than that, there was a greater sense of youth in her face; thoughts of my sister bit at the back of my mind.
“Beg your pardon,” she said, flashing a smile while smoothing her hair out. The stool creaked a little as she sat up to give me her full attention. “You already know this, but I’m Karen. Tomari Karen, if you need my whole name. Pleased to meet you. Again.”
My ears twitched again. Reminiscing would have to wait until later. “Likewise. Now, let’s start from the beginning. Would you mind talking about your reports? I’d like to hear about the circumstances around them.”
Karen leaned forward. “I’m sorry?”
“In other words, the story of this crime. What exactly happened, Miss Tomari? That’s what I’m asking.”
“The file should have everything, shouldn’t it?”
“The most general facts, yes.” Somewhere deep in my gut, a knot was forming under growing tension. I tried to keep any trace of impatience out of my voice. Pushing things along was a matter of picking my words carefully. “For instance, you testified that something was stolen from your father. That much I’m clear on. But a second-hand statement only goes so far. Especially when there are still some points left unclear.”
For a moment, I almost thought that Karen had stopped responding altogether. Her eyes were still trained on me, but she had gone still, no sign that my words had reached her. It was only when her eyebrows made the slightest movement, sliding closer together, that I knew she was still with me.
“I’m not sure I get what you’re implying,” she said, her voice shifting up a fraction, a subtle notion of disbelief coating her words. It was far from an explosive reaction, but the same danger lurked underneath.
“What I’ve seen suggests you’ve reported your father dead by foul play. If you could explain that a bit furth—”
The tension in the air was cut apart by a horrendous noise, like soup slurped from an empty bowl. Its source was obvious enough but I turned to look anyway.
Not a foot away, Kokoro and Hinawa were hunkered down over the table, their faces practically buried in their baskets of noodles. Their chopsticks raced up and down, carrying unbroken chains of soba straight into their mouths, their mouths too busy to allow more than a quick gasp for air every few seconds. The air around them was a storm of heavy nose-breathing. Kokoro’s eyes shimmered, the normal dull pink brightened by some spark. It was the look of competition in her eyes.
Hinawa looked to be less involved in their little race. Despite putting up the appearance of keeping pace with Kokoro, the lack of green onions and seaweed dotting her face, not to mention the fact that she was chewing her food, made it clear she was purposefully lagging. I even noticed the slightest trace of smile aimed my way. My ears were less inclined to stay standing. This was exactly why Hinawa and alcohol were never a good mix.
The last strand of soba vanished. Chopsticks clattered, dropped on the table. The race was won. Unchewed bits of noodle littered the table like debris in the wake of a storm.
Kokoro jumped up, fist held in the air, her face as placid as ever. Flecks of seaweed fell off of her cheek. “Told you I’d win!”
Seconds late, Hinawa finished her share, beaming in spite of her loss. She didn’t even wait to confirm anything before reaching over for the flask of shochu. Her right ear sagged in a lopsided gesture of cheer. “Oh, dear, dear. You’re just too strong for me. I guess I ought to hold up my end of the bet, then!”
I felt like heaving a heavy sigh as Hinawa quaffed straight from the flask, emptying it almost immediately. Her face a bit rosier, she looked to Karen, raising the empty flask.
“Karen, dear? Another, if you would,” she cooed.
Compared to her rather severe look from moments ago, Karen shared Hinawa’s loopy grin. She laughed, clapping her hands at the spectacle before leaping from her stool, collecting the flask from Hinawa, and zipping back into the kitchen. I took the opportunity to shoot Hinawa a look of disapproval. Naturally, she waved it off.
Though it had erased some of the tension, the sting of embarrassment at my senior’s antics made me all the more eager to get back to talking. My tail twitched as I saw patiently, wondering when Karen would reappear from the kitchen. I wanted one of us to keep our dignity, so I kept my pose and didn’t let my tail move an inch, which only made it want to move more. By the time Karen’s smiling face poked over the counter again, my backside felt like it was on the receiving end of a thousand pinpricks.
“Shochu, hot water!” she sang, bestowing an eager Hinawa and Kokoro with a new flask. I silently hoped it might occupy them enough to not bother me, but I knew that it wouldn’t last.
With a glance my way, Karen found her seat, saying nothing right away but taking her time to find her discarded kerchief and fold it into a square. A quiet hum resounded from her like she was mulling something over. All the while, I kept my decorum and tried not to let my discomfort show.
“Right, well,” Karen said after some time, “I can’t say I really get it, but it sounds like you’ve got doubts. That right?”
I nearly burst into a defensive bluster, but I took a sharp breath instead, letting it seep out through my teeth. “Not doubts as such. It would just be… well, helpful to know more. In order to pursue an investigation.”
She twisted the corners her newly-folded kerchief in her lap. Though she was wearing her customer service smile, it seemed a lot more hollow. “All I have to do is tell you my story, then?”
“If you would,” I replied with a measured nod.
“That so? In that case…” She leaned back in her seat, letting her short legs stick straight out, leaning her head to one side. Then, she leaned her head the other way. It was hard to not watch the way her hair waved. “Lemme start by asking: The name Meguro Kashou mean anything to you?”
I shook my head. I’d never heard the name before. A quick look at Hinawa, who had one ear perked up, seemed to say she had.
“There’s some nostalgia. Been years ago now, back before Amaden was even a thing!” Hinawa butted in. The drink was already working well enough that she didn’t even care to keep the veneer of politeness to her speech or actions. “I was working the frontier, you know. Loads of humans running around even in those days. Mostly humans, in fact.”
I tried to seize the reins of the conversation before Hinawa derailed things any further. “Meguro Kashou, yes. I take it that’s supposed to be a noteworthy name with humans. Is that someone famous in the Human Village?”
“Ah, I wouldn’t call him famous so much,” Karen said, laughing. “And he’s been dead for some years.”
“Eighteen years, in fact,” Hinawa chirped.
Karen giggled, about to respond when I stopped her. I shot Hinawa another disapproving look. “Hinawa.”
“Let me handle this, please. You can talk to Kokoro if you’re that desperate for a conversation.” I pointed at Kokoro, who was poking at the incapacitated Utsuwa’s face, seemingly oblivious to his groaning.
She gave a pouty look far from appropriate for her age but complied anyway, joining Kokoro in the Utsuwa poking. I really needed to hurry this conversation up so I could get him into safer hands, even if the only ones around were mine.
Turning my ears to ignore Hinawa starting up her own conversation, I cleared my throat. “Alright, so who is this Meguro Kashou, and what does he have to do with you?”
“I’m getting there, don’t worry,” Karen said with a carefree wave of her hand. “Meguro was a… can’t say he was ‘big-name’ so much as just well-liked. Had a bunch of fans. His little old soba shop did pretty okay business, and he was happy with that. And he had some students, too. Three of them.”
“So it was soba,” I muttered. Remembering my notepad, I took the opportunity to scratch out a note about Meguro Kashou, drawing arrows leading to the words ‘soba’, ‘Human Village’, and ‘three students?’ I circled the last word. “Having students makes it sound more like a dojo than a shop.”
“I guess it is a little weird, isn’t it? Still, Meguro didn’t have any family. Never married at all, either. I think that’s why he took on students. The soba was supposed to be his legacy.”
“You make it sound like you’re awfully familiar,” I remarked, drawing an arrow between Meguro and Karen.
Karen chuckled, fiddling with her apron in back. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve never met him myself. This all just came from my daddy.” She looked at me head-on. Her eyes glowed with a note of pride. “Daddy was one of those students. In fact, he was the one who got everything.
My pen stopped mid-stroke. I hastily struck out the original lines I put down and interposed Karen’s father between her and Meguro. A student with an inheritance. New facts were scuttling out from the cracks for once.
I adjusted my glasses while I thought of how to push on. “Alright, that establishes your father. What about the other party? The man named Shinbei.”
The mention of Shinbei’s name sapped most of the cheer from Karen’s expression. Her brows knitted together in a look that tried to show contempt but fell short thanks to her half-smile. Regardless, the name was no doubt a negative in her mind.
“He was another one of the students. A worse one,” Karen said, playing with her hair. “He was stupid jealous of Daddy because he was younger and more successful.”
“Is that based on what your father said or…”
The facade of strained cheer finally broke, turning Karen’s face into a full-on scowl. “If only. I got to see it first-hand. I got to hear him say horrible things to Daddy. Stuff like ‘I wish I’d stuck your coward head in the pot and boiled you to death when I had the chance.’ Absolute son-of-a-bitch.”
I caught a sigh trying to sneak its way out my nose, turning it into a quiet huff. It was obvious that I needed to tread carefully or risk setting Karen off. With what I’d seen of her temper, dealing with the fallout had the potential to outdo the trouble of dealing with Utsuwa, though there were deeper and much worse problems there. In that sense, it made me wonder why I was still here and not trying to work things out on that front instead. Public safety trumped personal drama any day.
Shaking my head quietly, I noted the conflict between Shinbei and Karen’s father. What I needed to establish quickly was an intent to harm and a credible motive, assuming an assumption of murder held up. “Now, Karen, I can tell this is a hard subject,” I said, pulling from the field manual’s phrasing, “but I’d like to press you a bit further on that. Please tell me about what happened between your father and Shinbei.”
Karen’s head sank. My ears pricked up. The only sound in the shop was Karen’s co-worker chopping away. I looked to the side. Hinawa and Kokoro were watching us. I already didn’t like the pressure being put on me.
Karen reached up to run her fingers through her hair, propping herself up on the counter, her eyes on the floor. “It was already bad, but it got worse when Meguro died. He named Daddy as the successor on his deathbed. Then, that man—” Her eyes narrowed. She clearly meant Shinbei, though she was avoiding his name. “That man started trying to claim everything was his because he was the oldest student. The fussing got bad enough for the local council to step in. Even then, they couldn’t get him to shut up, so they called in the Hakurei maiden instead.”
As if the atmosphere wasn’t heavy enough, the shop went dead silent. Even the sound of chopping ceased for the moment. A low groan emitted from Utsuwa broke the painful silence, Hinawa setting her glass down to stroke his arm. Kokoro stared at the table in front of her, not unlike what she’d done yesterday. I took the liberty of noting the shrine maiden in my notepad. It probably had nothing to do with Karen, but it was something I wanted to remember later.
“What then?” I asked, tearing my eyes from Kokoro.
“To her, the problem was about the shop, so she got rid of it. They had to watch while she tore it up.” Her scowl softened into a deep frown. “After that, each student got a share of the profit left over, minus her cut. Plus, Daddy got the other piece of his inheritance. Meguro wrote himself a little journal. Daddy said it had all the secrets of his soba in it.”
“The stolen writings.”
Karen’s eyes shut. She breathed in deep, letting out a loud sigh, preparing for the most painful parts ahead of her. “Mm-hmm. That man wanted them bad enough that he… Oh, that sack of filth. I could just wring his wicked neck right now.”
“Something else happened between them,” I prompted.
“A lot of things.” She took in another deep breath, shuddering this time. “That goddamned slug haunted my Daddy to the end. Daddy was such a gentle man that he never fought back. Not a single time. Not even when he got hit.”
Suddenly, I noticed that Karen had gone from leaning on the counter to burying her face in her hand. Even as unreliable as they were, had I not had a wolf’s ears, I wouldn’t have heard the sniffle she was trying to hide. She was just holding back a torrent that would inevitably break out. I sat frozen, terrified of the idea of what that might look like here and now. Through the slit of her fingers, a trace of bloody red gleamed.
Another sniffle came. Her whole body jerked once in a poorly-restrained shudder. A tear rolled down, falling off of her chin and staining her kerchief. Many more came after it.
“Daddy. Oh, Daddy,” Karen croaked. Her hand fell aside, showing a face twisted in grief. A shrieking sob ripped from her throat. “Daddy was so bloody. That bastard. That bastard walked out. With the journal. I ran in. He was on the floor. I-In a pi—”
“Oh, dear, dear,” came Hinawa’s voice.
Hinawa slid out from under the low table and shuffled over, completely ignoring her discarded shoes. I barely registered what was going on as Karen was wrapped in Hinawa’s arms, her sobs quickly muffled in Hinawa’s collar as they grew even louder. It was so far and away from what good decorum would demand, yet I couldn’t raise any objection. I could only watch while the unease of watching someone wail in front of a virtual stranger with no inhibition gnawed at me. Even averting my eyes felt like a breach of etiquette — for as much as etiquette applied here.
The moment stretched on as I sat locked on Karen and Hinawa. By the time I even noticed time had passed, I caught Hinawa looking at me over Karen’s shoulder. I stopped restraining my ears and let them fall flat as they wanted to. Silently, I pleased to Hinawa for some swift resolution. Her answer was a shake of the head while she patted Karen’s back.
“It’s okay, dear. You’re doing good,” she whispered
The cries trailed off into sniffling. Karen’s face gradually emerged from Hinawa’s embrace, peering up at Hinawa like a child might look at its mother. She sniffled again, rubbing her reddened, puffy eyes. “Really?”
“Mm-hmm. It’s all okay.” She gently stroked Karen’s hair. “You’re safe here.”
Karen nodded in acknowledgement and wiped her eyes again, sitting up, still leaning against Hinawa. “S-Sorry. I think I’d like to finish what I-I was saying,” she said through a fit of sniffles.
Hinawa’s eyes flicked to me. I nodded.
“Whenever you’re ready,” I muttered.
“Um, so, I guess,” Karen began, stopping to dig a handkerchief out of her pocket, “I never really explained this because… I was a little afraid. Maybe you guys wouldn’t call it a crime. Even if it was.”
Reassuring her, Hinawa stroked her hair again, giving her shoulders a squeeze. Karen’s cheeks reddened a little, but she looked determined to press on. I readied my pen.
“My dad died because he caught sick. It was right after that man beat the daylights out of him and stole the journal. Me and Mama kept watch on him while he healed up. Except he never did.” Her face fell and she gave another loud sniffle. “It was like he gave up. Then he was gone, just like that. It’s been a couple of years now, but that was like yesterday for me.”
I stared at my notes. There was the admission I had been waiting for the entire time. I’d had my doubts from the beginning, and the files had done nothing to change that. This entire time, we were looking at what amounted to a years old case of theft. Any deaths occurred were incidental.
My eyes drifted over to Utsuwa. He was the only real case worth pursuing here, and this was the confirmation. With his vengeful spirit possession, we were talking a potential public safety risk. We didn’t need to be wasting time and resources on anything else. It was just unfortunate that we couldn’t do anything without approval from above. A sigh crept through my lips as I shut my notes.
“And that’s it?” I asked, adjusting my glasses.
“More or less. Thanks for listening to the end.” She nodded, an expectant look in her eye. It was a tacit signal that she hadn’t forgot the terms of my free lunch. My turn to talk had arrived.
I cleared my throat. “Right. Well, if you’re ready to hear it, then I suppose I should speak my part.”
“Please,” Karen said.
Doing my best to be quick about it, I recounted what I’d read from the case file, omitting a few details such as the various notes; I didn’t want to worsen the already bad impression that the Guard had made. Considering much of it was merely about Karen’s various reports, she didn’t seem particularly impressed. The most marked reaction from her was a bitter smile when I brought up the lack of cooperation from the districts.
As soon as I’d come to the end, Karen jumped up from her seat and stormed past, up a flight of stairs, her footfalls heavy on the steps. I glanced at Hinawa, who shrugged her shoulders in response. Above us, loud rustling sounds came through the ceiling. Karen was digging around frantically from something. I could faintly hear her muttering and cursing to herself.
“Pardon me,” said a voice next to me.
I whipped around to see Karen’s co-worker standing behind the counter, a tray with a wad of coins in his hand. He slid the tray over, picking up my dirty dishes. I flicked between him and the coins with a questioning look.
“Ah, your friend just left a moment ago. She said she was paying for all three of you, but she didn’t take her change, so…”
I looked over where Kokoro had been seated. Sure enough, she was gone.
“Incidentally,” the bony man added, “I know it might be troublesome, but if you could handle Karen’s troubles, we would all be grateful. The girl tries her best to be cheerful, but she carries a real burden.” He bowed solemnly. “Please consider helping her.”
Having spoken his piece, he retreated back into the kitchen with the dishes, leaving me with Kokoro’s change. Soon after, the sounds of footsteps ringing off the ceiling turned into footsteps on the stairs, and Karen came rushing back down, a folded piece of paper in hand. Compared with minutes earlier, some of her old cheer had come back.
“Sorry about that. I had to find this,” she explained, holding the paper out to me. It looked like some kind of letter. The faint smell of buckwheat and some other unidentifiable scent came off of it.
I flipped it open without much enthusiasm. The hand was uneven. Whoever had written this letter had awful handwriting, and that was saying something considering my hands were far from dextrous. I couldn’t help wondering if whoever wrote it hadn’t been caught in an earthquake. Then again, there hadn’t been many quakes in Gensokyo in quite some time, so that couldn’t have been the case.
Taketo, my dear friend,
I know it’s been ages. Just so you know, I’m alive. I went to Amaden after Master died. Shinbei might have told you. He says you’re in a rough spot.
Let me know if you need help. I’m pretty hot on the dice these days. I’m thinking about taking my earnings and opening my own shop now.
I’ll help you out like you helped me, so don’t hesitate to rely on your old pal.
Instead of a signature, there was a crude picture of a dog drawn in. Apparently, this author fancied themselves above a simple stamp.
I started to hand the letter back to Karen, but she pushed it back into my hand. “What exactly is this about? I see the mention of Shinbei, but that’s about it.”
“It’s a letter from my uncle to my dad. Or, well, that’s what Daddy called him. He also seems to have been Meguro’s third student, going by this,” Karen explained.
“I’m not sure I get where you’re going with this.”
Karen grumbled. “I’m not sure either myself. What I know is that Daddy told me that my uncle knew that rat better than he did. I only met him once when I was a little girl, and they weren’t both there, so I don’t really know. Anyway, I’m sure if anyone knew how to find that bastard, it’d be him.”
I blinked at Karen. It was clearer now what she was pushing towards, but I decided to try and confirm it anyway. “So, you’re saying you want us to help you find Shinbei. And this uncle of yours is a possible lead.”
“Exactly! You can do that, right? I know it sounds like small potatoes, and the everybody’s brushed me off about it, but it’s real important to me. I need to give that man a piece of my mind. You’re the only one that cared enough about that file. That’s why you can help!”
“I’m still not sure—”
Karen grabbed the letter from me, opened it, and pointed to the picture of a dog. “Just look for a dog-faced man. I mean, a guy with a really sharp face like a dog. Got that?”
The same familiar twinge stabbed me in the skull. If all she had to offer was some vague information about a long-lost uncle in Amaden, I was pretty sure this was a waste of our time. We were only Patrol, not a couple of detectives.
Still, there was a hopeful look in Karen’s eyes. Some part of me knew that if I extinguished that hope, I would feel guilty about it later. Even if the guilt didn’t come from me, Hinawa would be happy to provide it. A lose-lose situation, in other words.
“Got it, a dog-faced man,” I conceded. My eyes fell to the change left by Karen’s co-worker. “If that’s it, then we have to go catch Kokoro.” I nodded to Hinawa. “Right?”
Hinawa flashed a doubtful smile. “Yes, I guess she probably won’t be waiting around forever.”
I got up and made my way to the door. Karen’s co-worker gave me a nod as I passed by, which I returned. I had little intention of abiding by that requestion, but I wasn’t about to start any more drama over it. The best thing I could do at this point was get back to helping Utsuwa.
“Take care!” Karen called from the back.
“You too, dear. Chin up. We’ll get this all figured out,” Hinawa chimed back, coming along with Utsuwa slung over her shoulder. I was surprised she wasn’t waving his arm at Karen.