A Withering Sakura Tree
Whispers filled Koji’s thoughts.
Stories not his, ideas full of hope, some worry, others decisive. Closing his eyes, he took in a deep breath and closed the path in his head. Calm filled him, an immediate relief.
It was six in the morning. The sun rising in the horizon. A soft mist hovered over the Sukiyama Estate. Each breath he took fresh and invigorating, renewing his energy. Occasionally, birds chirped, singing in the morning. Keeping his pace to their song, Koji ran along the tarmac road on the outskirts of the estate.
His black sweats kept him sufficiently warm in the cool morning. They absorbed his sweat as he exerted his muscles to their fullest potential. This morning ritual kept him fit and cleared his mind. There was always so much clutter—
‘Damn mud will be all over me by the time we get to the house.’
Koji turned his head to his right to look into the bamboo forest. He caught a shadow: a man running through the trees. The forest ground was always wet in the morning. The trees thick and the terrain rough. Not a good morning for the one cluttering Koji’s mind with his thoughts.
Tama was at it again, torturing men in the name of safety. Funny, the anger had disappeared overnight. There were truths he couldn’t change. His brother was his guardian, his light—a sigh escaped…his warden in this gilded cage. It was easiest to live through it.
Koji continued his run, determined to expend his frustrations. He was passing the old shrine steps when he saw the tree.
A very old sakura tree in full bloom stood in a field of vivid green grass. It was so beautiful, Koji slowed to a stop to stare. His shadow in the forest stopped too, unable to move forward and leave him behind. Koji ignored him and kept his gaze on the tree. It was a stunning vision, wondrous. He couldn’t remember the tree being there, but the trunk was thick, indicating the tree was old.
It belonged there.
Koji took in every detail. The delicate pink petals on the cherry blossoms, sweeping branches and the absolute green of the grass. This tree deserved to be immortalized. The painting would need to be right. He stood for a couple minutes simply taking it in. When Koji was sure he would get it right, he resumed his run, veering off the tarmac road onto a small path that went across a large lawn.
A noble three-story structure built in a mixture of traditional and modern Japanese architecture came into view. It was an old house. One that had stood for two centuries: weathered the tides of time and undergone innumerable modifications to accommodate countless Sukiyama generations.
The familiar clay tiles, the walkways connecting different sections of the house, the turrets on the third floor. The outside walls painted white. Trees and flowers growing in natural design around the house. The complicated mixture of styles…all of it, was simply home.
And Koji loved every inch of it.
Slowing down to a walk, Koji followed a cobbled path to sliding doors that would take him into the kitchen. He paused at the entrance to remove his running shoes. He slid his socked feet into sandals and entered a short hallway that opened into a large warm kitchen.
Tomoyo, Tama’s girlfriend, maybe to-be-wife – which was still in consideration—, stood at the cooking range stirring soup in a pot.
Koji paused at the entrance watching Tomoyo.
This morning she was dressed in a pair of black khaki pants and a fitting white t-shirt, the seams pinned together with safety pins. Her short hair in fluffy spikes. She had earrings running down her right lobe. Koji smiled. He didn’t think he’d like it very much if Tomoyo changed.
“You’re late,” Tomoyo said in greeting. She turned to look at Koji and flashed him a wide smile. “How was your run?”
“Good,” Koji said, walking to the refrigerator. “I’m not so sure it was fun for my bodyguard.”
“You saw him,” Tomoyo sighed. “He’s not very good at his job if you saw him.”
“You and my brother deserve to be together,” Koji said. Opening the fridge, he reached in for a yogurt container.
“Whatever,” Tomoyo grumbled.
Koji didn’t miss the flitting look of hurt on Tomoyo’s face. He had known for a while now how much Tomoyo cared for Tama. It hurt her, having Tama keep her close but at arm’s length. His gift was a torture some days. He didn’t like knowing such secrets about the people he lived with. It made life difficult.
“I’m sorry.” Koji apologized, staring at the pack of yogurt he held. “You didn’t deserve that. You all need to take a step back with the protection agenda. It’s driving me insane. I’m going to take a shower, and head to the art room, at least there I will be alone.”
“Your brother is doing what he thinks is right,” Tomoyo said, her tone gentle.
“I’m trying to survive it,” Koji said.
Giving Tomoyo a small nod, he left the kitchen and headed into the dining room. Off the dining room, was a corridor with a staircase going to the second floor. Koji took two steps at a time, eager for a shower.
The art room was Koji’s haven. He spent hours in here. The scents of oil paint filled the room, telling tales of old and new paintings. There were drying canvases on easels, carefully covered with white sheets until they could find a new home. Large windows on the western side of the room thrown wide open, allowing in the cool afternoon breeze. Dipping a brush into a carefully mixed shade of green, Koji brought the brush up to his canvas, and made a series of sure strokes on the image coming to life. He had been painting all morning and the sakura tree was beginning to take shape.
That blooming sakura tree he saw this morning, surrounded with lush green grass. The image filled his mind.
How breathtaking it was, Koji thought, taking a step back from his canvas.
The painting wasn’t bad, he judged, but still a mere shadow of the real thing.
Dropping his brush into a can of solvent, he grabbed a cloth from the worktable beside him and started cleaning his fingers. He was blissfully daydreaming when the door to the art room slid open and a young girl stepped into the room.
“Koji-chan,” she greeted her gaze on the finished painting. “It’s time to eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” Koji replied, taking the rest of the brushes and putting them all in the container with solvent.
“You’ve been in here all morning. You have to eat sometime,” Kouya insisted. She seemed mesmerized by the cherry tree. “It looks so real, I could touch the cherry blossoms.”
“Don’t touch, the paint is still wet,” Koji said, cleaning his paintbrushes.
When he was finished, Koji removed the apron he wore to reveal a blue men’s kimono, modified to look like an oversized overcoat, over ripped blue jeans. A wide belt tied at his waist.
Kouya moved away from the painting and looked at him. She was a student at the adjoining Seiryu Academy where Saya spent most of her time. Kouya’s gaze moved over him as if taking inventory.
Koji sighed at the familiar glance. He knew what Kouya saw.
His eyes with their rare azure color unnerved many. His black hair too straight and over long since he hated visiting the barber, and he’d rather run from Saya than have her holding scissors to his head. He was short for his age, and didn’t eat nearly enough, as everyone in the house said, so he was too skinny by their standards. Koji had long decided the women in this house had impaired vision. He was perfectly healthy and strong enough to keep up a grueling workout with Ogun.
“Did Tomoyo send you?”
“She insists I tell you that if you don’t come to eat, she’ll call Tama-san.”
“That little brat,” Koji said with a glare. “Unbelievable.”
“Koji-chan, Tomoyo is only worried for you,” Kouya soothed.
She smiled and moved to take his right hand. Her slender fingers sliding over his paint-stained ones. She headed for the door, pulling Koji along. Koji smiled at Kouya’s determination and gave in only because he adored the younger girl.
Kouya called him Koji-chan because she truly thought him family. He paused to slide the doors to the art room closed, locking them with a key on a chain on his wrist. He followed Kouya, his bare feet silent on the wooden walkway leading to the inner part of their home.
Kouya kept up a steady stream of conversation. Telling him about school, and her gymnastics club. His aunt, Saya Matsumoto, ran the Seiryu Academy. Saya allowed students who didn’t have a home to return to like Kouya to stay at the Sukiyama home.
“Okaasan says I’m a natural at gymnastics.”
“Of course, you are,” Koji murmured, amused by the fact that Kouya called Saya, mother. A habit Tama started, but one Koji found hard to adopt. He couldn’t call Saya, mother. He had tried.
It just didn’t ring true, so Koji called her Sensei instead.
“Koji-chan, do you think I’ll ever be as courageous as you?” Kouya asked, when they stepped up into a hallway leading into the main house. “I heard you can jump off a tall building and land on your feet with grace.”
Gods, more like with broken bones, but he loved heroic stories with his name, so he wasn’t going to correct her.
“You are courageous, Kouya,” Koji assured her. Saya would have his head for this pointless encouragement, but what the hell. “You’re already jumping on the beams without fear of broken bones. You will be following in my footsteps very soon.”
Koya chuckled, pleased.
They entered the kitchen and Kouya let go of Koji’s hand, hurrying to Tomoyo’s side. The scents in the kitchen were delicious enough to whet Koji’s appetite. The wide kitchen windows thrown open to let in the afternoon. Tomoyo stood at the counter pounding garlic. The scent filled the room, stinging his nose. She looked up when Kouya greeted her and turned to scowl at Koji.
“Sit down,” Tomoyo ordered. “That’s a week now that I’ve had to threaten you to eat.”
“Don’t be mad at me,” Koji said, moving to sit at the long kitchen table in the middle of the room. “By the way, blackmailing me with Tama is not very nice.”
“It works,” Tomoyo said. She stopped pounding garlic and moved to a steaming pot on the cooking range. “There’s beef stew, eat it while I brew tea.”
Koji felt his stomach reject the idea of stew at the mention of it, but he stilled his protests. He needed to eat to keep his strength up. One couldn’t survive on tea and yoghurt alone. This lack of appetite was a new struggle.
One that had appeared three months ago after a jaunt outside the estate. Every time he returned from an excursion outside, his body seemed to lag and go through general discomfort. Dizziness, feeling restless, not wanting to eat, the longer he spent outside the estate, the worse the symptoms. He kept the struggle to himself, but Tomoyo saw too much.
Tomoyo placed a bowl of beef stew before him and met his gaze.
She pulled up a chair beside him.
“Kouya, pour your big brother some tea,” Tomoyo instructed, pointing to a kettle of hot water on the counter. She turned to Koji with a frown. “What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing,” Koji said, focusing on eating a spoonful of the delicious beef stew. “I was painting today. Lost track of time.”
“What did you paint?” Tomoyo asked with interest.
“I saw this very stunning cherry blossom tree and had to render it.”
“Cherry blossoms?” Tomoyo asked with a frown. “Where? When?”
“By the shrine, this morning, during my run,” Koji said, swallowing the stew. He started to take a second bite.
“Are you sure?” Tomoyo’s frown deepened. “There are a bunch of bamboo trees and the garden kept by the shrine priest. He has no cherry trees there. Did they transplant one?”
“There is a tree,” Koji insisted, he had seen it this morning. “Surrounded with the greenest grass you’ll ever see.”
Kouya brought him a cup of tea and sat down beside Koji.
“Our club visited the shrine earlier and there is no tree.”
Koji placed his spoon down and stared at the bowl for a moment, a frown creasing his brow.
“Are you sure?” he asked, meeting Tomoyo’s gaze.
“Yes.” Tomoyo and Kouya both answered.
Koji pushed back his chair and ran out of the kitchen. He paused at the back door to wear sandals, and then took off in the direction of the shrine. It took him four minutes to get to the front of the old shrine. He stopped and stared at the ordinary gardens surrounding the shrine gates, bereft of his tree.
Behind him, Tomoyo and Kouya caught up with him.
“It can’t be,” Koji murmured, moving closer to the gates. He stared at the messy gardens, no grass, no tree…he closed his eyes.
Why had it seemed so familiar, like it was always there?
Opening his eyes again, he gasped when he saw the tree again. The delicate blossoms moving in the breeze.
“Can’t you see it?” he asked.
Kouya gripped Tomoyo’s hand when Koji looked at them in question. His usually light blue eyes were a rich, vibrant azure. They seemed too bright, their color too brilliant.
“It’s a large tree,” Koji said, turning back to study the Cherry Blossom tree. “The flowers delicate and bright.”
Koji frowned as one side of the tree started to wither and die, the blossoms falling to the ground as dark as coals. The decay continued until the tree was a charred mass, before it crumbled to the ground in dark ashes.
Koji closed his eyes and turned away from the sight.
Usually plants withering and dying meant destruction, but why the tree first?
Opening his eyes, he looked again and only saw the Shrine Priest’s flower garden.
There should be charred remains.
“What is it?” Tomoyo asked, filled with curiosity. “What did you see?”
“The tree withered and died,” Koji replied puzzled. “A strange sight as spring is just starting, that doesn’t bode well.”
“Our plans fell through,” Daye Chang reported, his head lowered. “We had planned to grab him on the way to the gallery, but when it got difficult, my men opted for a full on assault. Sukiyama’s security was thorough. They had him away from the scene in minutes.”
“It’s good to test their defenses,” Takino Yuki said. “Thanks to Teri Aoyagi we now know there is a second son, one Tama Sukiyama invests in keeping protected.”
“What’s next?” Daye asked.
“The Seiryu Academy was the way in last time,” Takino Yuki said, his gaze speculative. “The school is elite, designed to protect and nurture children with special needs. Ran by a woman who is more paranoid than the defense forces. This is the reason why I have you chasing the leads in Kyoto. How goes the search?”
“We’ve managed to capture all the names on the list,” Daye said. “If nothing happens, or we made a mistake, they can turn into merchandise and we’ll ship them out with our next cargo.”
“Perfect,” Yuki nodded. “Once again, we’re only testing their security measures. Record everything that happens. I need as much detail as possible.”
“Yes Sir,” Daye left his office with a small bow.
Once alone, Yuki moved to the windows in his offices, his gaze on the building directly across the street. The Sukiyama Group corporate building was majestic with its thirty floors, boasting ocean green glass from top to bottom. Yuki had acquired the high rise across the Sukiyama building to be closer to his enemy. To better understand them while he planned his next attack.
“The sins of the ancestors befall the children,” he murmured.
It had taken twelve years to get this close. Sukiyama’s new head was more cautious than his predecessor. Tama Sukiyama never allowed the inner workings of his family into public notice. To the point that a shootout outside the Sukiyama building had gone unrecorded, unreported. The damage repaired within the hour. Mighty indeed.
Yuki had found no Sukiyama family registry, and no formal education records to trace the members of the family. Tama gave no personal interviews in business, mentioned no girlfriends, no wife. It was as though the family didn’t exist.
Yet, they clearly ran such big business.
Yuki had tried twice to find the Sukiyama Estate, and been lost for days. It irked him. He ached to enter that fine property and take what Misato had surely left in the care of her family.
Daye’s plans might have failed, but they revealed that Misato had two children. Yuki now knew a second son existed and Tama protected him fiercely.
Useful information, Yuki nodded.
If the plan to enter the estate using the Seiryu Academy failed, Yuki would focus on finding this second brother. Tama couldn’t hide him forever.
A week after Tama’s lockdown started, Saya and Ogun met in the living room early on a Thursday morning. Koji was out running, one of his longstanding morning rituals, which left Ogun and Saya time to talk.
“Fourteen students missing plus one unknown.” Saya stared at the pictures on the glass screens in the corner of the living room. “They were due for enrolment next week. Why would they disappear?”
“Their parents filed missing person reports through the last month,” Ogun said. “The investigation is ongoing, but so far, no hard evidence, no witnesses.”
“What is the Kyoto Seiryu branch doing to help?” Saya asked, moving to touch the screen on the youngest child in the group. She was the unknown. Saya did not remember accepting this child into the school.
“The investigation team is at a dead end,” Ogun said. “Without evidence, or witnesses, they can only keep searching along with the police.”
Saya studied the young face on the screen.
Sakura Toshiro, age eight, she reminded Saya of Koji, when his parents died. Innocence was so easy to rip away. Saya rubbed her eyes with her fingers and squelched thoughts of abominable crimes that came to mind. The missing children cases were taking a toll on her. The number of cases connected to the Academy had increased in the past two years, and she worried.
“I want you in Kyoto,” Saya said, her tone heavy with exhaustion. “These parents came to us seeking entry into the Seiryu Academy for a reason. Their children cannot be left lost. Use your best men; we will have Koji go with you.”
“Is that possible? Tama said Koji’s not to leave the estate,” Ogun reminded her.
“I’ll handle big brother,” Saya said. “Should be easy as Koji will be in Kyoto and not Ginza. The boy needs an escape from all the restrictions; otherwise, we will have no peace. This lockdown is getting weird as Koji stays in his art room painting dead trees. He needs to get out more.”
“I agree,” Ogun said with a nod.
“Get everything ready, and wait for my go ahead,” Saya said, and watched Ogun leave the living room with fast strides.
Saya returned a frowning gaze to the pictures on the screen. Why these children? Each one chosen by the Seiryu Academy board. How specific, with the exception of Sakura, the eight-year-old Saya had never seen.
“If you keep frowning, your age will start showing,” Tama said, coming into the living room. He picked up the morning paper from the coffee table and gave the headline a cursory glance. “Is Koji up?”
“He’s out running. Tama, I need to talk to you,” Saya said. “Come here and take a look.”
Tama folded the paper and moved closer to the screens they used to display quick information.
“Are you giving prizes already? Don’t make demands on my time this week. My schedule—
“These are missing potential students. They were to join the academy next week,” Saya said. “We have a problem if they were taken against their will. This could be Plexus.”
“That’s absurd, what would they want with children?” Tama asked. He gave the pictures a final glance and headed to the kitchen. “Have our people investigate. I’m sure this is a coincidence. You’re too paranoid, Okaasan.”
“Tama,” Saya followed him into the dining room then into the warm kitchen. Exasperation growing when Tama sat at the kitchen table, unconcerned. “Doesn’t it seem odd that children we chose to join the academy have now disappeared?”
“Maybe you’re overreacting, and this is a case with no ties to us,” Tama suggested, opening the paper to the business section. “Not everything revolves around us.”
“I’m sending Koji to Kyoto,” Saya said, sitting next to Tama.
“Over my dead body,” Tama responded, without lowering the newspaper.
“You know this is important,” Saya said. “Don’t fight me.”
“There are a few hundred people who work for that academy you run. I don’t see why you won’t utilize all that labor. My brother doesn’t need to go to Kyoto.”
“Controlling me again?” Koji asked, coming into the kitchen from his run. His forehead coated with sweat, he held a bottle of water in one hand.
“Koji-kun,” Saya greeted. “Have a seat. I have a job for you.”
“A job?” Koji asked, drinking his water. “Is it dangerous?”
Saya winced. Did Koji need to raise his brother’s ire?
“No, it’s not dangerous. I only need you to check on students expected to enroll next week. Their parents have reported them missing.”
“Missing?” Koji asked. “Maybe they chose another school?”
“Unlikely,” Saya said. “The police are involved and so far, nothing has turned up.”
“We would need police reports,” Koji said, pulling out a chair at the kitchen table. He continued drinking his water, clearly running with this. “It’s always easier when we know what the police know.”
“Ogun has them already,” Saya smiled.
“I like how you two are going on as if this is happening,” Tama sipped tea that Tomoyo had brought him. He turned the page on his paper and continued reading.
Koji slammed his bottle of water on the table, giving Tama a sour look.
“How many students?” Koji asked Saya.
“Fourteen,” Saya answered. “There is a wild card, though. A young girl named Sakura Toshiro. She was not on our lists. She lives in the Gion area, and is only eight. She makes the number fifteen.”
“What can she do?” Koji asked, aware the missing children worried Saya because of their hidden abilities. He accepted a tray of food from Tomoyo, and flashed a smile when she glared at him. He picked up the spoon she handed him and took a bite of rice porridge.
“Sakura has no special abilities,” Saya continued. “She is simply a young girl caught up in a strange web. I don’t know where she came from or why she’s part of the missing children. You’ll have more insight when you get there.”
Tama placed his paper on the table and looked squarely at Koji.
“You’re not going to Kyoto,” Tama said, his tone hard, not inviting an argument. “Have you forgotten the conversation we had a week ago?”
“How could I?” Koji asked. “Still, I want to go.”
“I’ll have you locked up in your room, and the door boarded,” Tama said. “In fact, I think that’s a very good plan.”
“I’m not fifteen,” Koji snapped.
He pushed his chair back and stood abandoning his food. Folding his hands against his chest, he moved to lean on the counter.
“You can’t keep me here forever, Nii-san. Besides, you said you didn’t want me in Ginza. I’ll be in Kyoto, that’s cities away.”
“Are you happy now?” Tama turned to Saya. “This is your doing.”
“I only need information,” Saya said. “Ogun will be with Koji the whole time, there is no chance he will be in danger.”
“Koji is not meant to be running around saving the world,” Tama said, shaking his head at Saya. He turned to Koji to find his brother glaring at him, irritation etched on his face.
“Can’t you understand me, Koji? It kills me trying to be this person to you. I also just want to be your big brother, you know.”
“Tomoyo can come along. You trust her, don’t you?”
“With your life,” Tama answered. “Don’t smile at me like that, Koji.”
“Tomoyo, will you come along?” Koji asked, turning to look at Tomoyo.
“Yes,” Tomoyo answered, meeting Tama’s dark gaze.
The shift of emotions between them left Koji breathless. He knew Tama would agree if Tomoyo came along. Tama rarely refused Tomoyo anything, which was cruel of Koji to use her, but he wanted out of the estate.
“There, are you happy now?” Koji asked his big brother with a smirk.
Saya hid a smile when Tama sighed. Koji thought Tama had agreed because of Tomoyo but Saya knew better.
Tama was protective of Koji, but he was also the one who could never deny Koji anything. Koji got his way when it mattered, but always with a price, Saya thought, turning to look at Tama expectantly.
“You can go if you tell me what you saw by the shrine,” Tama kept his gaze on Koji. When Koji feigned ignorance, Tama scowled. “Everyone knows you saw something at the shrine, Koji. What was it?”
Koji dropped his arms to his sides and stared at the floor.
“There was a very large and old cherry tree. It was in full bloom, the flowers beautiful and many. Later in the afternoon when I returned, the tree withered and died. Seemed to burn from the inside out, the flowers withered last.”
Tama kept his gaze on Koji, though he spoke to Saya, “What does it mean?”
“Foreboding death, mayhem, or simply a tree withering,” Saya provided with a shrug. “You shouldn’t use it to hold your brother here. That isn’t right.”
“Okaasan is always pushing her own motives,” Tama mused, then turned to Tomoyo. “Nothing happens to Koji, not even a paper clip pinch.”
“I’ll protect him,” Tomoyo promised her gaze on Koji who looked unimpressed by his brother’s fierce warning.
“Don’t do anything unnecessary. If you see trouble, call me,” Tama continued. “Koji, don’t give her a hard time.”
“Yes, Master,” Koji said, his tone mocking, earning a scowl from Tama.
Tama rose and left the kitchen without another word, thoroughly won.
The Damsel in Distress
The Blue Dragon club was nothing to write home about, Andre thought, his fingers wrapped around a warming beer bottle. He leaned on the wall in the darkest corner. Not hard to find, as the club barely had any light to start. The D.J. was good: good enough to draw in a crowd. The dance floor was packed.
The beer was cheap, the spirits pricey, but still affordable, all in all, a perfect synergy, business wise. Andre appreciated effortless business plans, and the owner of the Blue Dragon had one going. Problem was, two days haunting this place, and he’d yet to catch a glimpse of the secret world Henri said existed here.
Bringing his beer to his lips, Andre shifted his legs, and took a healthy sip.
“Want a fresh one?” a sultry, sexy heavily accented voice asked.
Andre looked up to see a beautiful woman in a short green dress standing a few feet from him. Her long hair a thick curtain of silk, her phoenix eyes beautiful, she smiled and Andre understood why Henri had fallen for this deep seduction. She was hard to ignore.
“Why are you standing alone?” she asked. “Don’t you want to dance?”
“I’m not much of a dancer,” Andre answered.
“You’re new here.”
She moved closer and leaned on the wall next to him.
“I’m a tourist,” Andre said, shifting to look at her in the flashing lights of the club. “A gaijin.”
She chuckled, the sound of it musical.
“It’s funny when you refer to yourself that way. You call it being green. I’ve met many like you before. Men on the move, always looking for the next excitement.”
“Is that so?” Andre returned her flirtatious smile, and placed his beer on a table close by. “In the spirit of finding excitement, why don’t you help me out with a problem?”
“What kind of problem?” she asked, her voice smooth and decadent.
“I am,” Andre shifted closer to her until their faces were inches apart, “looking for someone.”
“Really?” She grinned, bringing her hands up to his arms. Her green dress shimmered in the flashing lights, and her hair sifted over her shoulder like fine silk. “Could this someone be me?”
Andre wrapped his left arm around her waist, pulling her even closer to whisper in her ear.
“You tell me, Seiren,” he said.
She tensed against him and started to struggle out of his arms, but he tightened his hold and turned to press her against the wall.
“Don’t make a scene,” Andre warned. “I hear your boss is a pain in the ass. I’m not ready to meet him yet. You on the other hand—
“Who are you?” she hissed. “How do you know that name?”
“Henri Lacome,” Andre said, and she seemed to wilt in his arms at the mention of Henri. “I see you remember him.”
“He was good to me,” Seiren said, her voice filled with tears and fear. “Is he here? If he is, tell him to go home. It’s not safe. They will really kill him this time.”
“Why are you back here?” Andre asked, letting go of Seiren when it was obvious she wouldn’t run away from him. He braced his hands on the wall behind her, so that they would look like lovers. “Did you work with your boss to drag Henri into trouble?”
“No.” Seiren almost shouted the word at him. Her eyes wide, she shook her head and he frowned when tears slid down her cheeks. “I would never. Henri helped me see my daughter. No matter how short it was. My poor girl, we had a precious two hours together before they caught up with me.”
“Why did they look for you so much?” Andre demanded, sure that Henri’s case was tied to this woman. “What for? Why drag Henri into trouble?”
“I know too much,” Seiren said, trembling. “I have seen too much in this club, you understand. They use my daughter to control me, keep me from leaving. After I ran away with Henri, they took my precious Sakura. I don’t know what to do. I must do all they say to keep her safe. They punish Henri for daring to steal from the Blue Dragon.”
Andre cursed under his breath. This story was filled with too many victims. He could only save Henri, the woman and her daughter seemed like a complication he didn’t need. Shaking his head, he started to step away from her, but she grabbed onto his shirt as one would a lifeline.
“Help me,” Seiren said, desperation clear in her eyes. “I know you’re here because of Henri. Please, don’t—
“I can’t afford to draw attention—
“If you want to save Henri, you’ll help me,” Seiren said, discarding the plan to beg, jumping straight into bargaining. “Daye Chang will use Henri as a scapegoat for his trade with children. He has powerful friends, so it will work. It will be difficult for Henri to escape Daye Chang’s plot. I can help.”
“Why should we trust you? For all we know, you helped Daye Chang frame Henri. Why do you know so much?”
“Because I do,” Seiren snapped. “I know every part of this club, even the parts hidden from stupid gaijin. I will open all the doors, if you help me save my daughter.”
“Merde,” Andre cursed. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“Find my daughter and I will make it worth your time,” Seiren said, and leaned up as though to press a kiss on his cheek but Andre shifted away from her kiss. “What?”
“I don’t want your brand of thanks,” Andre hissed, just as a burly man showed up on Andre’s right. The man’s gaze on Seiren.
“He is here for me,” she said, her gaze challenging. “Fine, don’t get a fuck. We can discuss other means of payment. Remember, you don’t have much time. I heard them discussing evidence to tie Henri to the warehouse with the children. They will turn it in a week. Find my daughter before then and I will help you get it. Now kiss me.”
Andre stiffened, hating the thought. Her gaze narrowed as she studied him, then a slow smile curved her lips.
“It’s not that disgusting,” Seiren teased, “we’re just pretending, gaijin. You must really not like women. How different you are from Henri.”
Andre hissed and dug his fingers into her thick hair, bunching it tight as he leaned in to brush his lips on her cheek.
“If you’re lying to me,” Andre said, wrapping his arms around her, miming a passionate embrace for their voyeur. “I will kill you, Seiren.”
“You won’t have to,” Seiren said, barely moved by his threat. She kissed him hard on the lips and murmured. “Find my daughter first.”
Seiren then stepped away from him, and Andre brought his right hand up to his lips. She winked at him as she hurried to the big burly man who took her arm. Andre watched them head into a corridor leading deeper into the depths of the club. He wanted to follow, but it wasn’t time yet. He needed more information, more evidence.
Minutes later, Andre left the club, hurrying down a deserted alley. He heard footsteps behind him as he reached the end of the alley, and broke into a short run when he joined the main street. Darting past pedestrians on the busy streets, Andre hurried to the rental car Leon had parked in the corner of a street and slid in to the passenger seat breathing hard.
“Trouble?” Leon asked, shifting gears and joining traffic as quickly as he could.
“Dark clubs, damsel in distress, and a burly thug, what do you expect?” Andre took a water bottle from the console between them and drunk thirstily. “I found Seiren.”
“She’s a looker,” Leon said. “Our contact suspects she actually lives in the club.”
“Seems like it,” Andre sighed. “She said she would help get the evidence they want to use against Henri.”
“Really,” Leon frowned. “That seems almost too easy.”
“Yes,” Andre chuckled, though the sound was without any ring of joy. “We just have to help her find her daughter.”
“That’s what I said,” Andre sighed. “This trouble is like a massive fuck hole, with no end, just more fucking turns and crevices without the bliss.”
“You can be really crude,” Leon said.
“Henri’s troubles draw it out of me.”
Andre ran his fingers through his hair in frustration.
“How does he manage to get things so fucked up we have to rely on a hooker we can’t trust?”
“The warehouse ownership documents lead back to Henri’s firm. Such physical evidence is hard to ignore and the investigators are not willing to compromise.” Leon gripped the steering wheel tight. “Seems someone powerful is pushing for prosecution. Worse, child trafficking cases draw attention, and everyone wants answers fast. The easiest thing to do now is pursue Henri’s firm and Henri.”
“Yes, yes,” Andre said. “My brother’s innocence has become a liability. No one wants to take the time to make sure they’re getting the right guy. We need the hooker we can’t trust to introduce a new path to follow.”
“Well, at least we have a strategy,” Leon flashed him a smile. “What did the damsel/hooker say her child’s name was?”
“Some sort of flower,” Andre said, snapping his fingers as he replayed everything Seiren had said in his head. It took a minute for the name to click. “Sakura.”
Leon smiled. “Sakura, that’s pretty.”
“How did you know that Seiren would approach me in the club?” Andre asked.
“Henri,” Leon said.
Andre cursed again and Leon chuckled.
“You might not want to talk to him right now, but he’s a great source of information. I called him to discuss his firm, so, it was easy to ask about Seiren. Henri said she liked talking to foreign men because they made her feel different. All you needed to do was show up, and stay separate from the crowd.”
“Well, it was luck she was back at the club.”
“I don’t believe in luck,” Leon said.
Andre scoffed. Yes, luck was a childish way to view life.
Instead of luck, it was better to rely on great planning.
“Where to?” Andre asked.
Leon glanced at the rearview mirror, prompting Andre to do the same. A white van followed them. The driver was no expert. He made it too obvious that he was following them.
“Well first we’re going to lose our tail,” Leon said, increasing his speed. “Then, we discover this Seiren’s last name. It can’t be that hard to find Sakura. The faster we finish, the better.”
“Yes,” Andre agreed. “I already miss home.”
Seiryu Spirit Chapter 3