Once upon a time, there was a ■.
My heart raced. A familiar fairy tale.
But the familiar sentences began to change halfway through.
One day a new pit was added to the graveyard.
The coffin was filled with the smell of blood.
The ■ asked the girl, who was burdened with a painful sin.
If the death of a friend begets grief, let’s undo it.
But it needed the missing ingredient.
One for the body, one for the soul.
The girl tried to gather the materials.
For her very precious friend.
She could have done anything.
The message ended there. I stared at Mayuzumi. Alarm bells rang in my head.
She was wearing an animalistic grin.
“I’m coming with you,” she said in a voice filled with anticipation.
Higasa’s eyes widened. He too understood the grimness of Mayuzumi’s words. He regarded Mayuzumi fearfully. Ignoring his gaze, Mayuzumi fanned her face with the construction paper.
“What’s that letter about?” I asked softly. “Why did you decide to accept a case that has nothing to do with you?”
Mayuzumi froze. From behind the construction paper, her cat-like eyes glinted.
“Please answer me.”
I had to get an answer from her this time.
“I’m confident, but I don’t have proof,” she said. “I’ll keep quiet until the last minute about cases that would only make you uneasy if you knew about them. But one thing’s for sure: this case will be interesting. Clearly, the plot is meant to be my cup of tea.”
Mayuzumi reached out her hand. Milky fingertips picked up a new clown. Standing on one leg, it had an expression that was neither smiling nor crying, but its eyes were wide with shock.
She crushed its head. “If you want to stop, now is the time. Stop the gruesome tale before you read it. If you turn the page, you’ll see the story whether you like it or not. It’s best to stay away from something you can’t enjoy.”
Mayuzumi licked the broken neck. The nasty scar glowed with saliva.
Higasa looked puzzled. He pulled his eyes away from Mayuzumi and closed his eyes. Then he raised his head. “Mayuko. If you’re willing to take the case, can you assist Akari? And if there’s anything that she can eat, I want you to feed her as quickly as possible.”
“Oh? Are you that desperate? Let’s see. Physical food is not enough to keep the beasts in check. Sometimes you have to give them more appropriate feed.” Mayuzumi snapped the clown’s upper body, then went on in an amused tone. “But if Akari-kun is so exhausted that she can’t even choose a case, then she’s probably almost reached her limit. I think it’s better for you guys to head back to—”
“Mayuzumi.” An icy voice cut her off. Higasa regarded Mayuzumi silently. His face was expressionless, but his eyes held a vicious, almost lethal glint. “Shut it.”
Mayuzumi bit the rest of the chocolate off nonchalantly. She turned her gaze back to me. “What about you, Odagiri-kun? I wouldn’t recommend peeking at something you don’t need to look at.”
I looked away from her cat-like grin. She was right. Besides, I would not be of any use to her in a case that she liked.
But Higasa and Akari were coming.
And Mayuzumi, physically, was just a helpless girl.
I don’t want to see gruesome things. I don’t want to learn cruel truths.
I don’t want to be involved in anything tragic.
Still, it was better than running away. Back at the sea, I thought it would have been better if I wasn’t around. But that doesn’t mean I should give up everything.
I had to believe that I would regret running away.
“I’m going, Mayu-san. I can’t just run away alone.”
Mayuzumi shifted her gaze from me and picked up a different clown.
“If that’s what you’ve decided. I have no say in the matter. Everything’s set. I’m so excited.”
I looked closer and realized that it was the last clown. I didn’t even notice she had eaten so much. Mayuzumi pressed her teeth against the clown’s neck and gave a gentle smile.
Her curved lips were breathtaking.
“It’s the perfect case to stave off boredom.”
Mayuzumi snapped the clown’s neck.
We took Higasa’s car to a quiet residential area. The neighborhood was developed at the same time, it seemed. Rows of similar houses lined the paved road. The pristine, white-walled houses presaged a bright life. But the beautiful structures looked cold under the overcast sky.
The house was at the far end. For some reason, I felt distinctly uneasy. It shared the same structure as the other houses, but I couldn’t rid my mind of the initial impression it gave me.
It looked somewhat dark.
“The client is Shiraki Masumi, forty-six years old. She has a seventeen-year-old daughter named Aya. The cause of the rapping sound is probably the daughter. Usually this kind of case can be chalked up to a slight change in the mental state of the person. But honestly, lad, I’m terrified. Whole thing gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
Higasa took a long drag of his cigarette. I suppressed the urge to smoke as well. Akari, sitting in the passenger seat, didn’t move. She was staring blankly ahead, her tired eyes not looking at anything in particular. Mayuzumi got off the back seat and opened her parasol. It looked like rain would spill from the dark, heavy clouds at any moment.
Higasa rang the doorbell with trepidation. He pressed it deep before releasing his finger.
I waited with bated breath. Moments later, I heard quick footsteps, and the knob of the front door turned.
“Who is it?”
A bewildered gaze greeted us.
It was a young woman.
Rain was falling.
As soon as we were ushered inside, the sound of quiet rain filled the house. We were served tea and some snacks. Steam rose from the cups. The woman was sitting with us.
“I see. My mother contacted you,” she said with a grave look. “Thank you for coming all the way here.”
The woman lowered her head a little. She was a beautiful woman with distinct features. She occasionally shot us quizzical glances, but she didn’t seem to be too suspicious about the case itself.
“My mother said lots of strange things are happening in the house. She said she was going to ask a psychic to do something about it. I told her it wasn’t good for Aya, but she wouldn’t listen to me. I’m sorry. I hope you don’t take any offense.”
The woman smiled apologetically. It was an understandable response. We thanked her for welcoming us anyway.
The woman bowed again. “I apologize for the late introduction. My name is Shiraki Aya. I’m Aya’s older sister.”
Aya and Aya.
A similar sound. For a brief moment, I couldn’t process what she just said. Expecting my reaction, the woman smiled.
“My sister’s Aya is from the character 彩. While mine is 綾. They’re pronounced the same way. Unusual, right? We had a bit of trouble when we were younger. We’re twins, so we were together a lot. I’m Aya, and my sister is Aya.” She chuckled. “It’s always been that way.”
She gave a wistful smile. Mayuzumi reached for the plate in front of her and picked up a chocolate cookie.
Crushing it between her teeth, she smiled. “Where’s your mother?”
The soft sound of rain filled my ears. There was no sign of anyone else in the house.
Aya’s face clouded over. “Actually, I haven’t seen her.”
“…You haven’t seen her?”
“Not for a while, no.”
She shook her head. There was confusion in her eyes.
I looked around. The spacious house was dim and cold.
“I actually live alone. When I heard that Aya wasn’t feeling well, I rushed back to my parents’ place. But my mother was already long gone. I’ve been waiting for her for a while now, but she hasn’t returned yet.”
Higasa and I exchanged glances. The client, her mother, had disappeared. A chill crawled down my spine. Butterflies fluttered in my gut. But I couldn’t tell what was wrong exactly. Not yet.
Aya looked around in confusion. Mayuzumi suddenly raised her head. The last bit of cookie disappeared into her mouth.
“Aya-kun, was it?” Mayuzumi said, licking her lips. “Can we see your sister?”
Aya furrowed her brow. Before she could respond, Mayuzumi pressed on. “Your sister is probably the cause of the hauntings in this house. A person has disappeared as a result. She might just be out, but I highly doubt that.” She stopped abruptly, and in a grim whisper she added, “We have to hurry, or it’ll be too late.”
She didn’t expound on the matter.
But the moment I heard her firm declaration, all the hair on my body stood on end. My instincts told me that she wasn’t just lying to scare Aya.
She was merely stating facts.