Five Favorites about the Assassin

May is swinging by to the end and I am delighted to discuss one of Sui’s upcoming e-books.  The Assassin is not yet available as an e-book, although if you search it out, you can find it to read on GA.  I’ve had the privilege of reading this story, so here is a list of my favorites about The Assassin.

  1. I’m in love with Kian Raja – He is dangerous, handsome, and makes my heart ache I'm Your Assassinas he does not believe he deserves anything good that happens to him.  He loves strawberry milkshake, coffee and a certain man with dreadlocks.  He is breathtaking.
  2. Daven Noland is a doctor who has gone to the darkest depths in strange corners of the world and come back braver.  One of Kian’s friends calls him a man with a bleeding heart.  I love how he loves, without any reservations and that’s the best thing you can hope for in life.
  3. The Assassin sweeps you across the globe, city to incredible city.  Daven and Kian’s time in Amsterdam remains my most favorite as it is both beautiful and heartbreaking, which is all I look for in a story.
  4. The Action! Kian is badass.  If I was in trouble, and needed a rescue, he would be the guy I would seek out.  Of course, you have to make him care about you first to get him to move a finger, but once you do, he will take a bullet for you.
  5. Diversity – Sui does an incredible job of mixing cultures in her stories, but with The Assassin, she’s gone ahead and created such a great cast of characters.  I love multi-culture stories, and the great melting pot they create.  It paints a world that is fundamentally about accepting who people love, and not where people are from, or what they are.  The Assassin does that without much thought.

Sui is at hard work editing The Assassin.  It should be available to download on Smashwords in June.  Meanwhile, enjoy this cover, and a great Daven and Kian scene.

The Assassinexcerpt from The Assassin

Daven cleaned Kian’s wound, concentrating on removing dirt from the raw skin to prevent infection.  He used warm cotton balls, at times forced to scrub at stubborn bits.  Kian made no sound through the process: no groan, no wince, and no sense of discomfort.  Daven stared at the pile of dirty cotton balls on the napkin on the sink.  By now, any patient would have cursed him out, or cried out for him to end the torture.

That level of control should have disturbed him.  Instead, it reminded him of Musimbi.  The young man he met in Dadaab.  Musimbi was fearless, immune to pain, his heart hardened by a lifetime of hardship and political wars.  Daven first met Musimbi on a field trip on the outskirts of the camp.  The first vehicle in the security convoy went up in a bomb explosion and despite protests from the security officers in his vehicle, Daven jumped out and rushed to help any survivors.

Musimbi appeared out of nowhere, clutching a young woman with blood trailing down her face.  ‘Help her’, Musimbi told him, his voice bereft of emotion.  Daven remembered wondering who the woman was to Musimbi.  He should have seen through Musimbi in that moment.  Seen the cruelty behind those eyes, instead, Daven only saw the wounded woman.

Daven sighed and applied ointment on Kian’s bruised skin.  Placing clean pads over the wound, he taped them into place with care.

“We’ll need to keep checking on it,” Daven said.  “Taking a shower will sting, but you don’t have to worry about that for the next few hours.”

Daven smoothed his palm over Kian’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” Kian said, bending to pick up his t-shirt.  He wore it in one swift shrug and remained seated on the toilet seat.

Daven washed his hands and disposed off the dirty cotton balls, wrapping them with napkins and throwing them in the trash.  He closed the first aid box, and stared at Kian’s bent head.  Kian’s silky straight black hair called to his fingers.

Daven frowned.

“I want to trust you,” Daven stated.

Kian remained silent.

“You confuse me,” Daven continued, leaning on the little sink.  “One minute you’re pointing guns at me, pulling the trigger, the next you save me.  You get hurt in the name of protecting my profession.  I can’t read you, Kian.”

“You’re not meant to.  I’m well trained, that’s all you should care about.  Keeping you functional is a plus for me.  Any minute wasted worrying about your health, be they your hands or other injuries, delays us.  It makes handling you difficult.”

“Handling me?” Daven frowned at the sting growing in his heart.  “I’m not a sack of potatoes—

“You are a target, one I need to keep moving.”

Kian got up from the toilet seat.

The space between them disappeared, and Daven met startling brown eyes.

“Trust is not easy,” Kian said.  “Still, I only tell you the truth.  There is nothing to read with me, Daven.  It will benefit you to think of me as walking armor to get you to your destination.”

Kian opened the bathroom door.

“Try and sleep,” Kian advised.  “Who knows what we’ll meet in Europe.”

Daven stared at the open door.  Kian’s little tirade stinging more than he dared confess.  Here he was, trying to connect.

What the hell?

Handling, Daven scoffed.  As if!

Enjoy your May!

Keep Reading!

love Moon

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Seiryu Spirit – 8

The World is Surely Small

Chapter 8 – Koji’s First Kiss

Koji dropped the drawing pen on the table and flexed his arms, to relieve tension from his shoulders. The borrowed office was dark, save for the small lamp on the corner of the desk. It cast a yellow shadow over the hardwood table he was using. Koji studied the drawings spread out on the table. Each one a true render of the scenes from Maki’s memory. Every blade of grass, nails on benches, the swings in motion, kids running, parents talking, the drop of ice cream falling from a little kid’s cone…many scenes.

A moment stopped and immortalized on the sheets of paper on the table, approached from different angles, as Maki’s gaze swept the park. Before Sakura’s disappearance, then right after the realization of her disappearance.

A soft knock on the office door broke into his bubble, then the door swung open without his response. Koji blinked when the lights came on and he looked up to see Tomoyo standing right at the desk.

“You need sleep.”

“I’m missing something. I’ve refined Maki’s memory, drawn it a few times until it is just right. Something out of the ordinary should have appeared already.  I can’t see it, I’m too close. ”

Koji shifted drawing sheets, seeking matching scenes. He tried to align them on the desk, BvtPDRFCcAAwaz6but he didn’t have enough space.  Koji stood and gathered the drawing sheets, heading out of the private office.

“Koji?”

“Saya’s investigators brought fancy equipment with them, didn’t they?”

Koji hurried toward the dining room.

“Do you think they have something that can project these sheets on the wall?”

“It’s late. We can do this in the morning. You should get some sleep,” Tomoyo said, when they reached the dining room.

He couldn’t sleep right now. He felt so close to the breaking point. So close.

Hisao sat at the dining table, busy typing at his laptop, uncaring that it was almost two in the morning. Beside him, his partner sat at a chair, head resting on his arms, deep asleep.

Koji ignored Hisao’s curious gaze, and headed for the table laden with office equipment. He rarely spent time in offices, so all of it looked complicated. Tomoyo was no better. Her specialty was the kitchen, present her with the most advanced kitchen equipment and she took to it like water. Office equipment, not so much.

They both stood staring, stumped.

“What do you need?” Hisao asked, coming up behind Koji.

Grateful that he had thought to put in his earplugs earlier, so he read nothing from Hisao. Koji handed over the drawings to the amused Inspector.

“Place them in order and project them on the wall,” Koji said, moving to lean on the large dining table.

Hisao worked fast, the drawings appeared on the wall, and Koji sighed in relief.

Koji folded his arms against his chest, moving closer to the lighted wall, pointing at drawings, so that Hisao arranged them as he wanted.

The result was a panorama of the park as Maki saw it the day Sakura disappeared.

Koji searched the scene, taking in each face, each movement and action.

“This is incredible,” Hisao said, coming to stand next to him. “Look, there is Sakura, playing on the jungle gym. How is this possible?”

“It’s a memory,” Tomoyo said, standing next to Hisao. “Maki’s memory, as she sat to answer her phone. Look, everyone in the park is dressed down, laid back, enjoying the day.”

“What about the two men in combat boots and green jackets.”

Hisao pointed them out on the screen. They were walking into the park as Maki sat. They carried gym bags, as though they were walking across the park to their destination.  The shoes were wrong though for a gym session.

Koji had noted the two men, but he had seen them in the memory after Sakura’s disappearance. Never paying them mind because those two—

Koji moved around Hisao, finding the two men in combat boots, in the memory where Sakura has disappeared. They were crouched over a manhole in the middle of the park. The duffel bags missing.

“Hisao-san,” Koji touched the two men in the drawing.

“Yes?”

“Where do you think their duffel bags went?” Koji asked, studying the two men.

They were crouched on the ground, their heads bent, and their bags missing. Nothing in the vicinity to suggest they had placed them down on the ground.

Hisao hissed and hurried back to the dining table. Getting his phone, he dialed the team leader and in minutes, most of the investigating inspectors came into the dining room.

Tomoyo’s phone beeped and she hurried off to answer it, after giving Koji’s left shoulder a squeeze. Koji listened as the investigation now focused on the two men in the middle of the park. Their identities, the reasons why they were in the park. The manhole.

“We’ll take it from here,” Hisao said to Koji when the team leader finished with assignments and the investigators left the dining room with renewed energy.

Tired, Koji sat on the closest armchair, and closed his eyes. Tension drained from his shoulders, and he was asleep in a millisecond.

***

Andre and Leon tried to get a room at Hotel Mume, only to discover that the hotel was fully booked. Desperate to stay close to the investigation, Andre talked Tomoyo into finding them space for the night. Leon bunked in with Ogun, while Andre got the couch in Koji’s suite.

Andre fell asleep waiting for Koji to come upstairs to rest, and only woke up when the suite door opened with a small bang at around five in the morning.

Sitting up, he stretched his arms above his head, and stared at Ogun who looked frantic, his gaze on Koji’s empty bed.

“Where is he?” Ogun asked, staring at him.

“I—I don’t think he came up.”

Andre got to his feet, when Ogun left as fast as he had arrived.

Wiping sleep from his eyes, he grabbed his jacket from the armchair and hurried after Ogun. Taking a stick of gum from his jacket pocket, he popped it into his mouth, the taste of mint chasing away his morning breath.

Downstairs was chaos. Investigators hurrying in and out of the dining room, excitement heavy in the room. Ogun had stopped in the reception hall, talking to Tomoyo who was still in the clothes from yesterday. They looked deep in conversation, so Andre ignored them and entered the dining room.

His gaze found Koji the second he entered the dining room. Sleeping in an armchair set by the wall, undisturbed by the jumble of activity around him. Andre walked to his side, and crouched before him, staring.

Dark hair a mess, falling over his forehead. Andre reached up and gently pushed it away from a smooth forehead. Eyes closed, eyelashes forming a half-moon on soft skin. There were dark shadows on the delicate skin there. Koji was not getting enough rest. Andre’s gaze dropped to parted lips, a smile filling him up at the soft breaths Koji took. In and out, his chest moving in gentle motion.

Koji shifted, and brought his hand up to rub at his nose before settling in again. Andre frowned when a dark smudge was left on the tip of Koji’s nose. Wiping it off with a finger, Andre took Koji’s left hand and stared at the black charcoal coating Koji’s fingers.

“From the drawing,” Tomoyo said, startling Andre.

He looked up to find her leaning on the wall a step away from the armchair. Her arms folded against her chest. He had not seen her join him.

She nodded to her right, and he followed her gaze to a panoramic drawing of a park on the overhead screen.

“He found the culprits,” Tomoyo said.

“Did he draw that?” Andre stood, staring at the picture. The details so clear, it felt as though the swings the kids were using would start moving in a minute. Was this–,

“When did he do this?”

“Through the night,” Tomoyo answered. “He’s obsessed with Sakura and after talking to Maki, he thought putting her memories on paper would help him find a clue.”

“Is she found?” Andre asked, hope blooming wide.

“She will be.” Tomoyo winced when Koji shifted in the armchair, trying to get comfortable. “We can’t move him. He always wakes up with one touch from Ogun or me. How you’re able to touch him without waking him is a mystery.”

“I can take him upstairs,” Andre offered.

Tomoyo frowned, her gaze on Koji as he shifted again to get comfortable. She looked indecisive, and then with a sigh, she nodded and walked away as though trying to stop herself from refusing him.

Andre’s gaze returned to the drawing on the overhead. The details so clear, almost as though he could step into the scene and listen to the children playing. To have done all this so quickly, and from just talking to Maki, Andre looked at Koji a bit stunned. Andre leaned down and picked up Koji into his arms. Koji’s head resting on his shoulder as he carried him out of the busy dining room.

Ogun and Tomoyo followed him, hovering, Andre paid them no attention as he headed to Koji’s room. Upstairs, he laid Koji on the large bed. Glancing at his hands, Andre hurried to the bathroom and returned with a wash cloth wet with warm water.

Ogun and Tomoyo sat at the chairs in the small living area. Andre frowned at their over concern. Well, he hoped they would leave him alone with Koji, if only for a moment. Taking Koji’s left hand, he concentrated on wiping away black charcoal from Koji’s hands.

Andre took Koji’s right hand, cleaning black charcoal from his palms, then his fingers, smallest to index finger. He passed the damp cloth over a gold ring with blue stones intricately embedded on its surface. Light shimmered over the large blue/green stone set as the centerpiece and Andre frowned, leaning over it, turning Koji’s hand to the light. When the shimmer disappeared, he thought it a play of light.

Finishing with the cloth, he placed it on the bedside table, pulling the covers over Koji, he sat on the side of the bed, simply watching Koji sleep.

***

Koji woke to silence. A first in his life. Even with every device Saya and Tama had installed into the house to help him cope, there were always distant whispers. Distant, niggling at the back of his head, so very consistent.  The silence was a welcome blessing.

Opening his eyes, he stared at Andre. The French man was comfortably sitting on his bed, reading an English copy of Norwegian Wood. Koji shifted on the bed, so that he lay facing Andre, openly studying him.

Andre was handsome in an enticing, aristocratic way. His features calm as he read away, quite comfortable leaning on the headboard in his tailored slacks and shirt. His hair combed away from his face, Koji wondered what it looked like disheveled. What did Andre look like without his neat, tailored clothes? Koji thought he would love to paint that. Andre in dishabille. Did Andre ever lose his temper? Koji imagined he would love to see that too. Would that be the time when Koji would get to see what Andre was thinking?

Andre turned the page, clearly immersed in the book, and Koji closed his eyes, enjoying the silence. It was so effortless, so unexpected, he never wanted it to end.

His stomach growled and Koji rubbed it opening his eyes to find Andre watching him.

“Hungry?” Andre smiled.

“A bit,” Koji answered, not wanting to move.

Andre closed the book and placed it on the bedside table. Koji wondered if Tomoyo and Ogun were in the little living area. That he wondered was a marvel, not knowing was new.

“Tomoyo and Ogun are downstairs,” Andre said, as though reading his thoughts.

Koji smiled.

“I’m sure they’ll be up here soon. They rarely leave me alone.”

“It’s very inconvenient.”

“Is it?”

Andre shifted, sliding down on the bed until they both lay facing each other. Andre’s eyes were brown. Koji stared into them, wanting to commit them to canvas. Their color deep, he would have to mix paints to get the right shade.

His fingers moved to trace the dark stubble on Andre’s chin before he knew what he was doing. His index finger tracing Andre’s chiseled chin, the stubble rough against his fingers, up to the sides, and right under Andre’s bottom lip. Even with touch, the silence remained, no whispers, no inner thoughts, no images, Koji met amused brown eyes and his fingers stilled.

“You are tempting me,” Andre said, taking Koji’s hand. “Don’t fault me for this.”

“What?”

Andre leaned closer and before Koji realized what he was up to, soft lips brushed his in a soft, gentle kiss. His eyes wide in shock, Koji almost forgot to breathe. Warmth spread through him, and Koji leaned into the kiss, wanting more, his heart racing when Andre sealed their lips into a proper kiss.

Koji clutched Andre’s shirt, eyes closed, his body tingling with sparks and heat. Andre’s kiss tasted of mint, and dark chocolate. Koji pressed closer, wanting more, only to have Andre end their kiss, leaving them both breathing hard. Koji hid his face into Andre’s shoulder, and tried to still his heart. His body trembling, he closed his eyes when Andre held him tight, offering comfort.

His first kiss left him shaken.

***

Andre was unhappy when Ogun and Tomoyo returned to Koji’s room. The door opened and Koji pulled away from him too fast, not giving him time to accept that he could let go. He sat up with a scowl, watching Koji hurry to the bathroom. Clearly running away.

Andre sighed and slid out of bed, his socked feet firmly on the floor, yet he felt he needed to hold on to the bed. His heart still racing with the thrill of kissing Koji. How he wanted more, how he wanted to feel Koji shift into his arms, how he wanted to wrap Koji in his arms and not let go.

“Andre? Are you alright?” Tomoyo asked. She was busy arranging plates of food on the coffee table. Ogun, already seated, held the day’s newspaper, a frown playing on his forehead.

“I’m fine.”

Andre straightened to his full height, adjusting his shirt. His gaze on the closed bathroom. Koji was hiding. He smiled. He wondered how long his baby would stay in there.

“Any news?” he asked, moving to join Tomoyo and Ogun at the table.

Koji had slept for five hours since this morning. Glancing at his watch, it was ten-thirty.  He nodded in satisfaction.  Koji would at least look rested now.

“Yes.” Ogun picked up his cup of coffee. “Investigators found the two men in Koji’s drawing. One is dead after trying to put up a fight with police, the other is in custody. He says an unknown man hired him for the afternoon. His job was to get the girl, Sakura, to a storehouse a few blocks away from the park. They’re checking out the storehouse.  We think he is lying about knowing who hired him.”

“Koji will want to talk to him.” Tomoyo shook her head. “I wish this ends quickly. He’s overworking. We can’t expect Andre to watch over him as he sleeps each time.”

“I don’t mind it,” Andre said, taking the cup of coffee Tomoyo placed before him and sipping it without looking at them.

When they both stayed silent, Andre glanced up to find Ogun and Tomoyo looking at him. They shared a glance, then Tomoyo sat opposite him, her gaze on her own coffee. Ogun cleared his throat and smiled at Andre.

“Once the investigation is over, we’ll leave first, and head back to Koji’s home. You two will not see each other again.”

“Who says?” Andre asked, not sure what Ogun was trying to say.

He liked Koji.

After their kiss on the bed, he imagined Koji liked him too. It was a long time since he felt this kind of attraction. Truthfully, he tended to be very choosy with his partners. Always wanting more from his partners than they dared give, when they did give the more, it felt flat and he was disappointed. So he tended to walk away first.

Yet with Koji, he felt caught in a web, unable to cut away. Two days of knowing Koji and he wanted to unravel the mystery of him. Each part he discovered only led him deeper into a bigger puzzle. Koji was intriguing, and enticing…Andre doubted he could walk away now.

The bathroom door opened and Koji came out looking refreshed. He had taken a shower, his hair still damp. Dressed in jeans and a grey t-shirt, Koji walked to them, rubbing his head with a towel. Andre placed his coffee mug down, and started to get up to help, only to have Tomoyo beat him to the task. She took the towel from Koji and went to the bathroom. She returned with a hairdryer.

Koji stole a glance at Andre, and he shrugged as Tomoyo got to work drying his hair.

Andre was surprised by the surge of jealousy that filled his chest. He sipped his coffee watching Koji fit hearing aids into his ears, carefully pressing a tiny button to turn them on.

“Koji, I noticed those hearing aids before. Not to sound rude, but can I ask why you are hard of hearing?” Andre asked.

“You can,” Koji said with a grin.

Andre grinned.

“I’m asking,” Andre insisted.

“He was too young to remember,” Tomoyo answered for Koji, after turning off the blow dryer. She returned it to the bathroom, and Koji grinned back at Andre.

“It’s not something to worry about,” Koji said to Andre. “They are now part of me, so I don’t think about why I need to wear them.”

Andre frowned, wanting to know, but clearly, this was a topic no one wanted to discuss. He would have to wait until later to know the truth. Until Koji trusted him.

“Why don’t you tell me more about this man they found, Ogun-san?” Andre asked instead. “Why would he agree to take Sakura?”

“Money,” Koji answered before Ogun could, staring into his coffee. “I’ll find Sakura today.”

“You sound sure,” Andre said with a frown.

“Yes.”

Koji looked up then, a small smile on his lips, though it hardly reached his eyes.

Tomoyo sighed, and arranged dishes before Koji. She knocked his head with her knuckles, and Koji reached up to rub his hair.

“Before you go overworking, have food. Your stomach is probably growling in protest. One of these days, it will jump out and eat you in revenge.”

“You’re so frightening,” Koji said in response.

Andre couldn’t help the chuckle watching Tomoyo push chopsticks into Koji’s right hand. The bowl before him had chicken and eggs on rice, a bowl of miso soup to the side. Andre was still getting used to the idea of eating full on meals in the morning. Tomoyo was a great cook, and Andre loved her food, so maybe he didn’t mind a huge breakfast too much.

Although, Tomoyo bulldozing Koji into eating all his food was infinitely more entertaining.

An hour later, Andre sat in a waiting room at the police station they had first visited, with Leon keeping him busy authorizing various project payments. Koji was inside talking to the arrested suspect. Andre paused in the middle of authorizing repairs for a warehouse in Manila, his gaze shifting to the door.

“He’s only been gone twenty minutes,” Leon said, with a chuckle. “You should be worried about what he’s going to say about you finding Sakura for her mother. Do you think Seiren will keep her promise?”

“Even if she doesn’t, I got Koji to promise to help clear Leon’s name,” Andre said, with a sigh. “I’m more concerned with what happens after.”

“After?” Leon frowned.

Andre looked at Leon.

“I want him.”

“Who?” Leon asked, confused.

“Koji,” Andre said with a small blush. “He—

“Lives in Japan, and you live in the French Riviera,” Leon said. “Worlds apart, Andre. Don’t get your heart broken. Now, let’s concentrate on work.”

Andre sighed, and returned his attention to his business.

***

Koji sat in the interview room with the man named Tonsu. Early thirties, fit, he looked like he worked hard for the look. His hair cut close to his head. His hands in fists on the table. Koji kept his gaze on the tight fists, his thoughts on Andre and their kiss this morning.

The pleasure that exploded through him at the simple touch of lips, it was like nothing he had ever experienced. Clinging to that warmth, he reached into his ears and pulled out the hearing aids, turning them off and slipping them into their box. He held it tight and focused on Tonsu.

Tonsu’s thoughts were a mass of fear, anger. Refined anger, so profound it made Koji shudder under its onslaught. Bordering on rage, he thought, trying to push it off. Tonsu’s anger was born from a struggle to survive. He was responsible for the care of his mother, and five siblings. Their father unknown. Tonsu was the sole source of income. The number of jobs he had tried since he turned sixteen staggered Koji. Fourteen years of working double time, not ever doing what he wanted, the money earned ending up with the family.

Tonsu was exhausted. So, when his friends asked him for a simple favor, and gain a large chunk of money, Tonsu did not hesitate.

“Your choices led you here,” Koji noted, meeting Tonsu’s dark gaze. “You could have walked away.”

“You look like a rich brat to me. What would you understand about me?”

“A lot,” Koji said. “You have spent so much time being angry that you don’t take time to enjoy what’s important. Tonsu-san, your anger will be the end of you.”

Koji closed his eyes, focusing on the day Tonsu and his friend stole Sakura from the park. Tonsu was the one to stuff her into his duffel bag and lower it into the manhole where his friends waited to take the bag. They closed the manhole and walked out of the park minutes later.

Koji saw Tonsu follow his friend into a black sedan. They drove to a storehouse near Katsura River. The meeting point. There were five others on the team. Their conversation spotty as Tonsu’s nervous nature kept him from paying attention. Koji heard them discuss fourteen children on a list, and realized Tonsu had been assimilated into the team last. The team leader needing a new face, after suspicion arose as the fourteen children went missing in the same area.

Koji grabbed a pencil from his pocket and pulled the drawing book Tomoyo placed on the table for him. It took a moment to get a clear picture of the storehouse where Tonsu and his friends took Sakura.

Koji leaned closer to Tonsu, and touched Tonsu’s fists with his left hand. Koji’s right hand moved fast over the drawing book, sketching the dozen faces in the storehouse. When he was done, he sat back and Tonsu gave a startled shout at the color of Koji’s brilliant blue eyes.

On the drawing book, Koji had drawn Tonsu, talking to his friends after they received their share of money from a man with a scar on his left cheek.

The door into the interview room opened, ushering in Tomoyo, Ogun and Hisao. They all stared down at the drawing book.

“Daye Chang,” Ogun said in shock, touching the scarred man’s face. “Why is his face damaged?”

“Are you sure this is him?” Tomoyo asked, looking at Koji.

“I cut him in Kobe.” Koji dropped his pencil on the table, his gaze still on Tonsu. “When I was helping you save the children and diverted to escape on the motorcycle. He attacked me, and I swiped his face with my dagger.”

“You didn’t mention this,” Ogun said, in irritation.

“It was a small thing,” Koji said. “Tonsu’s buddies were responsible for the other fourteen too. They took them to the storehouse, and Daye took over from there. Now we know who has the children. If we don’t find them first, they’ll end up on the black market.”

“How did you know?” Tonsu asked, also staring at the drawing book. “No one knows—

“Sakura is eight.” Koji stated. “Her grandmother is worried sick. The girl who took her to the park is breaking apart because of you. You have much to be sorry for, not to mention your family that will now have to do without you. How will you atone for this?”

Tonsu looked away, his fists clenching tighter.

“They said she would not be harmed. Sakura was a bonus. She was going to be used to keep her mother in line—

“Her mother?” Koji frowned, studying Tonsu. “A bonus?”

“She was not in the original list,” Tonsu elaborated.

Koji blinked and stood. Andre’s presence in this investigation finally making sense. Koji left the interview room and hurried to the waiting room where Andre and Leon worked. Flinging the door open, Koji stared at Andre.

“Sakura’s mother,” Koji said, his gaze on Andre, his heart beating too fast. “What is her name?”

“Seiren,” Andre answered, handing the tablet he was using to Leon. He stood up, facing Koji full on. “She works at an underground club called the Blue Dragon. She asked us to find Sakura so that she would give us information to clear my brother, Henri.”

“Do you know Daye Chang?” Koji asked.

“I met him once, when he was looking for investors. I declined his offer, but Henri jumped in and that is how he is now tangled in with Daye Chang’s terrible business. Why?”

“Daye Chang has the children,” Koji said, studying him. “If only you had told me Seiren’s identity when we first met. We would have found those children much faster.

“It—

“Secrets,” Koji sighed in disappointment. “More harmful than actual poison. It is your turn to make a statement, Andre Lacome.”

“Koji—

“The faster you get it done, and you take us to this club, the faster we can end this,” Koji snapped.

Andre sighed as Koji left the waiting room angry.

Koji hurried out of the police station, needing to be outside. Needing to breathe unrestricted. He wished for the open grounds of the Sukiyama Estate. What he wouldn’t give for a run right now. Just to clear his head. This wasn’t Andre’s fault. It wasn’t, yet, after their kiss, he felt Andre should have told him the truth. Told him why he was looking into Sakura, and his involvement with Daye Chang.

Why was the world so small?

What were the odds that the man who could silence his mind, fill his head with peace, also knew Daye Chang, that devil who loved to enslave the innocent?

Koji slid down the side of the building and sat on the pavement, his head filling with whispers of Gion city.

***

Book Cover Surprise

Today is Sunday, and as always, most of Sunday mornings, you’ll find me at my desk.  So, today, I’m deep in the mind of Koji from Seiryu Spirit, and sudden inspiration strikes in the form of a book cover.

I get excited every time my favorite person designs a cover and it matches the story.  So, I have this story we call Hitokiri (The Assassin).  I finished it sometime last year, and I’ve just been sitting on it, not really editing it.  Though I love those characters dearly.  L, who makes most of my covers attacked this morning with the cover for Hitokiri, and now, I feel I need to edit it, turn it into an ebook and that’s just a lot more work, but okay.  I’m for it.

Hahaha…

I’ve decided to attack you too with Hitokiri’s cover and hopefully the next little e-book I make. Okay, it’s a definite, I’ve been asked to stop saying hopefully and be definite, so here is the definite next e-book coming your way.

The Assassin

May you have an amazing Sunday!

Seiryu Spirit – 7

The Truth about Koji Sukiyama

Koji insisted on taking Maki back to Hotel Mume.  He didn’t trust her alone, and frankly, Andre didn’t either.  Maki needed an appointment with a psychiatrist, and her mother around her.  Andre’s gaze shifted to Koji.

Koji looked tired, exhausted.

When they entered the dining room, Tomoyo ordered a cup of hot tea for her, and settled Maki at the dining table.  The place was quiet, investigators already out chasing leads.  Koji sat at the head of the table and rested his head on his folded arms.  Andre frowned when Tomoyo patted Koji’s shoulders.

“I’m going to the kitchen,” Tomoyo said.  “Koji, you need food, to restore your energy.  Rest for now before you talk to Maki.”

Koji nodded his head but didn’t raise his head.

Andre frowned; Koji really did look too tired.  Andre thought of the traces of blood on Koji’s nose earlier and wondered if they shouldn’t take him to a doctor.  Leon touched his elbow, and Andre turned to him.

“There’s a call from Lacome Villa.  Confusion with a supplier, I’ll deal with it.”

Andre nodded, watching Leon hurry out of the dining room to find a private place.  He hoped it was nothing too serious.

Ogun followed Tomoyo to what Andre assumed was the kitchen.

Andre watched Maki sipping her tea; she looked drained too, tear tracks staining her cheeks.  Left in a room with a young man with a mysterious identity and a woman who clearly wasn’t sure about living, Andre could only sigh.

Fantastic turn of events.

Koji lifted his head from the table, his attention on Maki.

“Maki,” Koji started.

“Koji, I thought Tomoyo said to rest?” Andre asked.  “Are you sure you shouldn’t take a nap?”

“There are children missing.  Who has time?” Koji asked, his gaze still on Maki.

“But—,” Andre started.

“Andre, help out and get Maki a sandwich from the kitchen.  It is way past lunchtime, and I’m sure she’s starving.  Tomoyo only knows to worry about me.”

Andre knew Koji was sending him away, and wanted to protest, but then Koji turned his blue eyes on him.  Oh, what did he know?  He decided to find Tomoyo and bring her back to deal with her strong-willed charge.

“Maki, why don’t you tell me your version of the day Sakura disappeared?”

Andre heard Koji prompt Maki as he headed to the kitchen.  Maki spoke in a low tone, so Andre was unable to hear her answer.  He hurried to the kitchen wanting to get Maki’s sandwich fast and stopped short when he found Ogun and Tomoyo arguing in the kitchen.

“Don’t include the suicidal witness in your report to Tama,” Tomoyo said, her tone severe.  “One word and you’ll have him coming here to take Koji back home.  Ogun—

“I don’t need you to tell me what to keep out of my reports,” Ogun snapped.  “I’ve looked out for Koji a long time.  I know what to say and what not to.”

“Yeah, then how come he ended up in a shootout that day?”

“That’s a low shot,” Ogun said with a scowl, he leaned on the counter, watching Tomoyo slice egg sandwiches.  “Anyway, why is Koji so tired today?  I thought I saw a nosebleed.  Is something wrong with him?”

Tomoyo kept silent, and Andre leaned on the wall outside the kitchen doors, curiosity turning him into an eavesdropper.

“This Seiryu jobs drain him too fast.  Anyway, I think his abilities are growing stronger.  Or have grown stronger, and he has hidden it from Saya and Tama.  We were in a small shop today, and he stood there for a few minutes.  I could tell he was doing his mind-reading thing.  His eye color changed too fast, and I had to shove dark glasses at him to hide them.”

“The eyes are always a surprise,” Ogun agreed.

Andre bit back a laugh at the conversation in the kitchen.  Mind-reading thing?  Did they know he was eavesdropping?  It seemed like a thing to makeup if you thought someone was eavesdropping on you.  Yet, he couldn’t stop eavesdropping, watching the two through a gap on the door.

“How does it work?” Ogun asked, taking a small slice of egg sandwich and taking a bite.

Ogun started to sit on to the counter but Tomoyo smacked his arm, stopping him.  He sighed and concentrated on eating the sandwich.

“I mean, I know what he is capable of doing, but not how or why.  Tomoyo, is he really possessed by some sort of dragon?  Does it come out when he’s sleeping and haunt the house?  I wouldn’t be surprised you know.  Weird things happen in that house, you know.  And who can ignore Saya, she’s creepier than everything else.”

Tomoyo burst out laughing.

“She better not hear you say that,” Tomoyo said, shaking her head.  “No, Koji doesn’t have a dragon that comes out when he’s sleeping.  That’s absurd.”

“Everyone in the Seiryu Academy sure thinks so.  It’s the freaky blue eyes,” Ogun said, finishing his sandwich.  He leaned closer to Tomoyo and in a dramatic whisper, begged.  “Please…tell me.  I don’t want to freak out every time his eyes turn.  It hurts him, but I can’t help it.  It’s weird thinking that a dragon is looking back at me.”

Tomoyo finished with the sandwiches, and placed them on two large plates.  She took the kettle and went to the sink to fill it with water.  When she placed it on its pad and turned it on, she stared at the red button.

“Let’s just say that Koji is blessed with great genes.  His mother’s bloodline guards what they call the Seiryu spirit.  A guardian spirit, or will, a serious large force of good karma.  If you have Koji on your side, you will always have good fortune.  This is why the Sukiyama clan is so prosperous no matter the era.  One like Koji is born as a second child in each generation.”

Tomoyo turned to face Ogun, her dark gaze seeing through him, and resting on the kitchen door.  For a second, Andre imagined she had seen him, when she didn’t speak, but then she shrugged and continued.

“But the gift of sight comes from his father’s bloodline,” Tomoyo said, with a bit of reverence.  “Coupled with the Seiryu spirit, it turned Koji into a very powerful telepath.  With a touch, Koji will tell you your past, what you’ve been up to today, or might do tomorrow.  That’s why he is perfect for these types of cases, though they tend to wipe him out.  Koji overextends himself in an urgency to solve the case.  I imagine using your brain to invade thousands of minds for too long, will take a toll.”

Andre stepped back, remembering Koji sitting on the ledge, his hand on Maki’s leg, blood running down his nose, Koji turning away from to hide it.

“That makes sense,” Andre heard Ogun say, as though it was perfectly normal to discuss a man who can read thoughts.  “No wonder Tama-san is always worried.  This case, I wish it ends fast.”

“We just need to find Sakura,” Tomoyo stated as the water kettle stopped.

Andre stepped back from the door, thinking them crazy.

Koji, a telepath?

An unbelievable explanation, what was crazy was that he believed it.  Or wanted to, somehow, wouldn’t it make clearing Henri’s name easy?

Deciding Tomoyo would bring out the food when she was ready, Andre returned to the dining room to find Maki alone with Leon.

“Where is Koji?” Andre asked, wanting to talk to Koji alone.

“He went upstairs, something about washing up,” Leon said.

How perfect.

“I’ll be right back,” Andre said, heading out of the dining room.

“The flower room is on the third floor,” Leon called after him, and Andre gave him a thankful grin.

Andre took the stairs one at a time.  It wasn’t until he reached outside the flower room that he wondered how he was to get in to Koji’s room.  The door was closed, and for a moment, he hesitated.  Then he tried the lock, and the door opened easily.

Entering Koji’s room, he paused taking in the subtle elegance.  Papers scattered on the glass coffee table at the small living area.  The bed was neat, and beyond that was a small balcony with a view of the river below.

No Koji…Andre started to turn, thinking he had missed him on the way up, then he heard water running in the bathroom.  Andre let a soft sigh of relief escape and moved to the balcony to wait for Koji.

***

Koji washed off blood from his nose.  When it was clean, he cupped his hands under the water and splashed cold water on his face, hoping to clear his head.  Shutting the water, he stared into the mirror.  His eyes were back to normal, the dry blood gone.  His headache was still present, though manageable.  Maybe a nap was in order, and a pair of painkillers.

He thought about Maki waiting downstairs, and the missing Sakura, and sighed.  Maybe just the painkillers he thought opening the cabinet above the sink.  He found the bottle he had brought with him and swallowed two with water directly from the tap.

Wiping his face with a small face towel, he closed the cabinet, meeting his gaze in the mirror.  He wanted this case to end fast.  Wanted to head back to Tokyo and talk to the woman who knew his mother.  The woman who might give him some small insight into his mother.

He spent so much time doing what other people wanted: what Saya wanted, what Tama wanted…what about what he wanted?

“Okaasan,” Koji murmured.  “I only want to know who you were, and where I fit.”

Such a simple want. Why was it so hard to achieve?

Koji dropped the face towel into the laundry basket in the corner and paused when he heard movement in his m_pic1suite.  He couldn’t seem to get a minute to himself on this trip.  If it wasn’t Ogun, it was Tomoyo, or one of the academy staff bringing him information.

He needed to finish with this case.

Opening the bathroom door, Koji paused when he saw Andre sitting in the chairs by the balcony windows.

“Feeling better?” Andre asked, looking him up and down.

Koji slipped his hands into his trouser pockets and stared at Andre Lacome.  While he couldn’t read anything from Andre, Leon Baptiste was easy prey.  Leon had returned while Andre was in the kitchen looking for Tomoyo.  All it had taken was a handshake, and Koji discovered all there was about Andre Lacome and his dear small brother, Henri.

Looking at Andre now, he wondered what he should do about a suspect’s brother meddling in a missing person’s case.

“Koji?”

“Much better,” Koji answered Andre’s question, looking around his suite.  They were quite alone.

“Ogun and Tomoyo are still in the kitchen.  I snuck up here.”

Andre confessed with a playful grin.

“You also forgot to lock your door,” Andre provided.

There was no point locking his door with all the traffic that passed through it.  Koji shrugged and went to sit in the chair on Andre’s left.  The silence in his head was welcome, it was blissful to sit and simply watch the river flow, no stray thoughts intruding in his head.  Andre was both a treasure and a torture.

Andre cleared his throat when Koji settled and broke the silence.

“I think we should get to know each other.  I have many questions about you, and this case—

“Andre Lacome.”  Koji stated, his gaze still on the flowing river below.  Thinking it was better to set boundaries with this one.  Koji did not want to rely on Andre and the comfort he clearly represented.

“Your younger brother is Henri Lacome, owner of HL Capital, an investment firm involved with the child trafficking mess in Kobe.  The warehouse where the children were found is said to be owned by your brother.”

Andre stilled, shifting to face Koji.

“Why are you in Kyoto?” Koji asked.

Koji lifted his hand to stop Andre when he started to talk.

“Henri is framed by Daye Chang,” Koji said.  “Daye Chang is using HL Capital as a shield.  You should be worried.  The people behind Daye Chang are quite capable.  You want to clear your brother’s name, and the Lacome name, and then return to your Lacome Villa in the French Riviera and tend to your many family businesses.”

Koji smiled.

“Your friend downstairs, Leon Baptiste, is your business manager/cum lawyer.  He is quite capable and very loyal to you and your family.  I’m inclined to like you, as your favorite investment preference is art.  You own a painting named A Woman’s Heart, auctioned at a private function in New York.  It didn’t come cheap, but you love art so you bought it.”

“For someone I met last night, you know an awful lot about me,” Andre said, chilled by Koji’s speech.

Thinking about Tomoyo’s explanation downstairs, Andre found he didn’t like not having any defenses against Koji.  The absolute lack of privacy unsettled him.

“You walked into a high profile investigation, asking questions about a victim.  If we can’t figure you out, we have no business finding missing children.”

Andre folded his arms against his chest unable to argue with that logic.

“What is intriguing is why you are so curious about Sakura Akino.  Why is a man here to prove his brother innocent, interested in a local girl’s disappearance?” Koji continued.  “I should pursue it, but not yet.”

“Why?” Andre asked.

“Because, you’re a piece that doesn’t fit the puzzle, yet. So, I will let you stay close.”

“Hmm..,” Andre frowned.  “What about you, Koji Sukiyama?”

“What about me?” Koji asked, finally looking at him.

“You seem to know everything about me,” Andre said, unable to keep accusation out of his voice.  “Won’t you tell me about you?  What do you gain from being here?”

“I gain nothing here.  I’m helping find lost children,” Koji answered, his voice thoughtful.  “Sometimes, I find people and things.”

Andre narrowed his gaze.  “Do you like it?”

“Like what?”

“Finding people and things?”

“I—

Koji broke off, thinking.  Then he stood up from his chair and gave Andre a small smile.

“I’ll tell you when I find little Sakura,” Koji said, moving to take a green sweater over a suitcase in the corner.  He seemed to favor the color green.

As Koji wore the sweater, Andre stood too.

“Will you help me clear my brother’s name?” Andre asked, knowing this was the request he had meant to ask.  The request that had brought him up here to find Koji.

“Henri,” Koji said, testing out the name.  “Is he innocent?”

“Henri is many things, but he is no child trafficker.”

“You love him.”

“He’s my brother.”

Koji smiled.

“You remind me of someone.”

“So…” Andre prompted when Koji remained standing without answering his question.

“Will you help me?”

“Depends,” Koji said, stretching his arms above his head.

“On what?” Andre asked, frowning again.

“On where this case takes us,” Koji said, dropping his arms and heading to the door.

“I’ve made a gamble focusing on Sakura, while there are fourteen other children missing.  It could be the wrong choice.  I might be on the wrong track, and have to start again.  I won’t know until I talk to Maki.  If I’m wrong, then this will take longer—,”

“You think following Sakura’s last day will lead you to the rest of the children.”

Koji flashed him a smile as he stepped out of his suite.

“You catch on fast.”

“You still haven’t told me about you,” Andre noted, watching Koji lock his door this time, and then they headed to the stairs.  “Only that you find people.”

“What more is there?” Koji asked, taking the lead down the stairs.

Is it true you can read people’s thoughts? Andre wanted to ask.  For a second the words were at the tip of his tongue.  He swallowed the question though.  It seemed too crazy, even for this situation.  Tomoyo and Ogun must have been putting him on for eavesdropping on them.

“Where are you from?” Andre asked instead.

“Japan.”

“Ok, I deserve that.” Andre chuckled. “You seem too young to be involved in a police investigation.”

“I’m a child genius.”

“Really?” Andre stopped.  Koji was clearly playing with him.  “That’s not an answer.”

“Isn’t it?” Koji asked, looking at him, as he continued down the stairs.  “I’m twenty.  Of course, only elites are allowed into Special Investigations.  I’m helping seasoned police officers solve a case.  Don’t you think that makes me a genius?”

“Way to be modest,” Andre scoffed, and followed the child prodigy down the stairs.  “All the twenty year olds I know are neck deep in college, and getting hammered in underground clubs.”

“Depends on which twenty year olds you know,” Koji answered.

“You’re frustrating,” Andre decided.

“I’m told that often.”

They got to the ground floor and Koji reached for the stairs door.

“Hey, there is a thing to know about me since you’re so curious.  I’m a frustrating child genius.”

Andre grabbed Koji’s left wrist, stopping him from opening the door.  Koji’s gaze fell on the spot where Andre held his hand.  His gaze shining brilliant blue for a moment, but then it could have been a play of light, Andre couldn’t tell.

“Koji.”

“Don’t,” Koji said, meeting Andre’s gaze then.  “Don’t try to jump into the deep end.  The deep end is full of sharks.  Where you are now is safe.  Stay in the shallow waters, Andre.  I’ll do what I can for your Henri; get you out as fast as I can.  Then you can go back to Lacome Villa.  It feels like a happy, warm place.”

With that speech, Koji pulled his arm out of Andre’s hold, opened the door and headed to the dining room.

Andre followed him at a much slower pace, his heart uneasy at the clear rejection in Koji’s eyes.  So intriguing and frustrating at the same time.  Andre sighed, then stopped in the middle of the hallway.

If he were to believe Tomoyo about Koji reading people’s thoughts with a touch—

Andre gaped, his hand covering his mouth.

What had Koji read in that moment Andre grabbed his hand just now? 

For a millisecond, his heartbeat sped up, but then a laugh bubbled out of him in the next minute at the ridiculous thought.

 Tomoyo had gotten him good.

***

Seiryu Spirit – 6

The man offering silence and relief

“Koji Sukiyama.  What is his role in all this?” Andre paced his hotel room.  “And the way he ran off, as though he couldn’t stand me.  How maddening, n’est-ce pas?”

“What’s maddening is watching you wear a hole on the carpet,” Leon replied.  “Please forget him, and focus on the problem at hand, Andre.  We’re in a clusterfuck.”

“What else is new?”

Andre moved to the coffee table where Leon sat, gadgets of all kinds cluttered before him.

They had finally made it back to their hotel.  Leon insisted on a few hours of sleep before they could talk about the briefing at Hotel Mume.  Too tired, Andre agreed.  Leon woke him eight hours later, with a knock on his bedroom door, and the scent of coffee from a cart laden with food.

Andre sat now across Leon.  It was almost one o’clock during the day.  Leon was sliding his finger over the tablet screen.

“Sakura’s case is bigger than we thought.  We can’t meddle from the outside; it will make us look suspicious.  We have to help the investigators at Hotel Mume,” Leon said, when Andre had a few sips of his coffee.  “I know you wanted quiet, but that’s not going to be possible.”

Andre met Leon’s gaze.

“Henri’s case is progressing too fast.”  Leon sighed.  “They’re going to start a search for him, soon.  The amount of money poured into the shipping business allows for it.  The children found in Kobe were to be shipped out of the country, probably to Europe.  The case is career-making for any investigator.”

“You never have good news for me,” Andre complained.

Leon lifted the tablet with a slight smile.

“I got information from one of the investigators last night,” Leon said.  “It seems that once Koji Sukiyama is involved in a case, resolution comes in very fast.”

“Why?” Andre asked, curious about the man with eyes so blue they haunted him.

“Don’t know, great intuition?” Leon asked.  “Anyway, we have a date in an hour with an Ogun Sato.  They are all very curious as to why we are interest in Sakura.  I think we should tell them a bit of the truth.”

Andre nodded.

“Not all of it though, it will be hard to explain why a suspect’s brother is involved in the search.”

Leon took his own cup of coffee and sipped.

“We can say Sakura’s mother asked us to help find her daughter.”

“That is true.”

Leon grinned.

“We can include an incentive.  Are you willing to go all in?”

Andre narrowed his gaze at Leon.  This whole trip to Japan was costing him money.  Each day spent searching for a solution for Henri kept him away from the family business.

“I suppose pouring funds into such a vital investigation is essential,” Andre said.

Andre stared into his coffee.  Well, at least it would buy him time with the mysterious Koji.

Leon studied him.

“Still thinking about Koji?” Leon asked.

Andre couldn’t help it.  The sight of Koji hurrying out as though Andre had done something bothered him.  He wanted to know why.  Wanted to look into those blue eyes again.  There was something so ethereal about them.  Ethereal…was that the right word?

“He makes me wonder,” Andre mused.

***

Gion was busy during the day.  Tourists browsing the many shops and museums, Koji followed an English couple into a wood block museum.  He paused to admire the pieces on display, using the tranquil setting to anchor

gion
Gion

himself.  His gift was getting stronger, and though he hadn’t told Saya, the effects were getting harder to hide.

Pausing by a set of wood block prints depicting stars in the sky over a turbulent sea, Koji allowed in all the noise in Gion.  Conversations filled his head, people doing business, tourists asking for directions, their excitement and anxiety on equal level.  Whispered words, a sense of fear in them, Koji closed his eyes, concentrating on the fear.

“Did you see what they looked like?”

“They were dressed in black, hoods over their heads.  It seemed like army, but who can tell?  Children are going missing.  I don’t let mine out carelessly.”

Koji opened his eyes and wasn’t surprised when Tomoyo shoved a pair of dark glasses at him.  Putting them on, Koji looked around the shop hoping no one had noticed.  Nodding to Tomoyo that it was time to leave, she smiled at the owner of the shop and nodded to the woodblock print he’d touched.

Koji left her purchasing the print, and stepped out into the warm day.  Taking in a deep breath, a throb already developing in his head.  He wondered how long he could keep this up.

“What did you hear?” Tomoyo asked, when she came out of the shop.

“Someone saw a kidnapping, but they couldn’t see the faces.  Let’s go to the Akino home.”

“They run a sushi shop,” Tomoyo said, as they started down the street.  “Your eyes might startle them, Koji.”

“You do the talking then, pretend I’m blind,” Koji joked with a small grin.

Tomoyo adjusted the bag she now carried from the little museum shop.

“Koji, this is exhaustive for you.  Do you see why Tama worries?”

Koji sighed.

“I know he worries, but it’s also tiring for me when he treats me like his little prisoner.”

“I’ve known you two for ten years now,” Tomoyo said.  “Ever since Saya brought me to the estate and gave me a home.  You’re my family and the last thing I want is you unhappy, Koji.  You’re a brother to me, you know that.”

“I know.”  Koji gave her a sideways glance.  He valued Tomoyo’s constant support.  She made life with Tama easier to handle.  So, he owed her a bit of truth.  “When I was younger, Nii-san’s protectiveness was endearing.  It meant a great deal to me, and still does, but now—,”

Koji broke off as they approached the sushi shop belonging to the Akino family.

“I have a lot of questions about our past; our parents and how they died.  I need information.  The only way to get it is out here.  Tama does his best to stop it, he won’t tell me the truth but his attempts to stop me won’t make me give up my search.”

“But you know how your parents died,” Tomoyo said, puzzled.  “Yuki Takino murdered them, with the help of his black-market organizations.  For money, Tama and Saya have both explained.  You have read the police reports.”

Koji stopped in the middle of the street, turning to Tomoyo.

“Why would he need to murder our parents for money when he has tons of it?  What about the barrier over the estate?  Why would mother make it?  Why can’t I remember her?  I know her from pictures, but I don’t remember her, when I should—,”

“Koji,” Tomoyo frowned.

“I can’t remember her.  She is a blank space in my head and it frustrates me.  I—I sometimes feel like she is alive.”

Koji swept fingers through his hair, gripping soft strands tight for a minute, feeling insane.  He breathed out then glad to have his thoughts out in the open.

Tomoyo gaped and the expression on her face was enough for Koji to guess she thought him certifiable.  Koji regretted his confession instantly.

“Don’t look at me that way.  I shouldn’t have told you.  Look, forget I said it.”

“Why would you think that, Koji?”

“I said forget it,” Koji said, dropping his hands to his side.  Pedestrians walked around them, their gazes curious.  Koji sighed and shook his head.  “Don’t go telling Tama what I just said.  He might really lock me up in my room.  Let’s just concentrate on the task at hand.”

Koji started toward the sushi shop, shaking his head.  He couldn’t imagine why he had blurted that out.  It was a thought that had filled him of late, and it bothered him more than he could define.  After all, he knew where his parents were buried.  He visited their graves everyday he was home.

Coming to a stop at the sushi shop entrance, Koji allowed Tomoyo to go in first.  The place was busy with customers.  Tomoyo recruited help from one of the shop’s assistants.  The young man smiled and led them through the back to the Akino main house.  Most shops in the Gion area were family owned.  Koji loved the set-up, and imagined he would have loved growing up in such an open setting, instead of the gilded cage that was home.

Kaede Akino came hurrying out of her house to the courtyard when the assistant called her.  She looked eager, no doubt thinking they were here to bring her good news.  The assistant hurried back to the shop and Tomoyo took Koji’s right hand.

The gesture surprised him.  He hadn’t thought she would take his joke seriously.

He was to play the part of a blind man.

Kaede reacted accordingly.  She helped Tomoyo lead him into the Akino house, and helped settle him on a comfortable cushion at the low table in the middle of the living room.  Kaede rushed off to get refreshments while Tomoyo sat beside Koji.

When Kaede came back with a tray laden with sweet cakes and green tea, Koji allowed Tomoyo to do all the talking.

“Kaede-san,” Tomoyo started, lifting the bag of woodprints.  “Please accept this.”

Kaede took the bag, placing it aside, without looking inside.

“Thank you.  Please, have some tea.” Kaede urged.

“Thank you.”

Tomoyo pressed a cup into Koji’s right hand, and he brought it up to his lips for a sip.

“We’re here about the investigation into your granddaughter’s disappearance,” Tomoyo said, keeping her tone gentle.  “The police thought we might be able to help find her.  I hope you don’t mind our intrusion.”

“But who are you?” Kaede asked, her gaze turning wary.

“We’re from a private organization that specializes on investigating difficult cases,” Koji said.  “We are here to help.”

Kaede looked at them conflicted, but her worry for Sakura won.  She didn’t care who found her granddaughter, as long as Sakura was found.  Kaede nodded her acceptance, and Tomoyo prompted her into talking about Sakura.

Koji used the easy flow of conversation to explore Kaede’s memories.  His eyes safely hidden behind dark glasses, he had no fear that their changing color would surprise Kaede.

Worry weighed on Kaede, a heavy rock on her soul; she found it hard to breathe.  She blamed herself, and thought there was something she could have done to stop her granddaughter’s kidnapping.

Koji frowned, following the thread of guilt to the day Sakura disappeared.  Kaede woke up, made breakfast as usual for Sakura.  Sakura’s tutor came to help her with homework.  Kaede left them working and went to the shop to help.  After the tutor left, Kaede asked one of the girls at the shop to take Sakura on a walk because the day was lovely.  Sakura disappeared in the park.  Kaede regretted the decision to let Sakura go out that day.

Koji touched Tomoyo’s right arm.  Tomoyo paused in her easy questions to allow Koji to talk.

“Kaede-san,” Koji said.  “Tell me about the girl who was with Sakura when she disappeared in the park.”

“Oh,” Kaede’s tone faltered.  “She won’t come to work anymore.  I’m unable to comfort her until we find Sakura.”

Koji understood her regret.

“What is her name?  Can we talk to her?”

Kaede got up and moved to a small desk in the corner.  She wrote out the girl’s name and her address and brought back the card.  She handed it to Tomoyo.

“Don’t be hard on her,” Kaede said, wringing her hands on her lap.  “I have tried not to be, but—, it’s difficult to keep my wits about.  I worry about my Sakura.  It’s too hard to look at Maki and not blame her.”

Koji frowned when a wave of anger flooded Kaede.  Anger was always too strong, so defeating, he breathed out and closed his eyes.

“Where is Sakura’s mother?” Koji asked.

Kaede’s eyes filled with alarm that was then carefully hidden.

“She’s always working,” Kaede answered, her tone careful.  “Her job does not allow her to come home often.”

“Would she take Sakura without telling you?” Koji asked, curious about this absentee mother.

Kaede hesitated, and then shook her head.

“No.  She would tell me.”

Koji felt doubt fill her and he wondered even more about the mother who wasn’t here worrying about her missing child.

“Is she still at work?” Tomoyo asked.

Kaede sighed.

“Yes.  I have asked her to come home, but she says it’s easier for her to keep busy.”

“Understandable,” Tomoyo said, though Koji doubted she thought so.  “Well, Kaede-san, thank you for your time.  I promise that we will do the best we can to find your granddaughter.”

“But—,” Kaede started to protest, and then stopped.

“Will you keep me informed?” Kaede asked.  “The police keep saying they are looking.  There is no news on Sakura and it’s very frustrating.”

Tomoyo stood, taking Koji’s arm to help him to his feet.

“We will do the best we can to keep you informed,” Tomoyo assured Kaede.

After a quick goodbye, Tomoyo led Koji out of the shop and to the street.

“An unavailable mother,” Koji frowned.  “Does that strike you as weird?”

“Maybe her company is strict, it happens,” Tomoyo said, reading the address on the card Kaede handed her.  “Life is hard on career women, Koji.  Too much time off and they may lose the job.  I hope you get more from Maki Kiyamoto.”

Koji watched Tomoyo search for the address on her phone.  She found it in less half a second. Koji smiled and followed her into a busy street, filled with tourists.  His thoughts on a woman who still worked despite her missing daughter.

***

Maki Kiyamoto lived in a small apartment tucked into a hostel unit.  She was attending Kyoto University, training to be a teacher.  She worked at the Akino sushi shop, but all that mattered to Andre, Leon, Hisao and Ogun was that Sakura disappeared while under her care.

“Have the police questioned her?” Andre asked.  “Why do we need to do it again?”

“We’re not here to question her,” Ogun replied, his answer too cryptic even for Andre.

Andre met Leon’s gaze, shaking his head.  Ogun was trying his patience, since the moment they had met him.

“Why are you looking for Sakura?”

That was Ogun’s first question when they met him and Hisao at a small jewelry shop in an alley.

Leon answered Ogun, telling him Sakura’s mother had asked them to find Sakura.

One single piercing gaze leveled at Leon, and then Andre and Ogun had shrugged and urged them to follow him.  That was the extent of their talk.

“Then what are we doing here?” Andre felt compelled to ask, as they climbed short stairs to Maki’s front door.

Ogun opened the door without knocking, leading the way into a messy tiny house.  Dishes piled on counters and in the sink.  Clothes on the single couch, and the floor.  The bed was unmade.  Maki had obviously not cared about chores in a while.

“To get this,” Hisao said, taking a framed photograph with two smiling women.  “Is this it, Ogun-san?”

“Yes.”

Ogun took the photo frame and led the way out the back kitchen door into the back of the building.  Andre stopped short when he looked up and saw a woman standing on the ledge of the five-floor hostel building.  She looked ready to jump.  The fall would be fatal.

Surprised, Andre felt fear fill him when he saw Koji perched on the ledge beside Maki.

“Shit,” Andre said, already running, following Ogun and Hisao up the fire escape to the top of the building.

They found a woman in black jeans and a green t-shirt connected with pins standing at the entrance.  She held out a hand when Ogun started to head toward the two on the ledge.

“Stop,” she said.  “You will spoil it.”

“We need to help—

“You will complicate the situation,” the woman said.

“Tomoyo?” Ogun asked.

“Koji’s almost talked her off the edge.”  Tomoyo took the photo frame from Ogun and handed it to Andre.  “He said you should take it to him.”

“Why?” Andre asked, taking the photo frame.

“I don’t know,” Tomoyo said.  “Go.”

Andre gave Leon who had come up behind him a skeptical glance.  Gripping the photo frame in his right hand, he walked up to the slender man seated on the ledge of the building, and the girl who looked ready to jump.

***

Koji pushed through Maki’s dark resolution, willing her to stop.  Not to choose the fall, but to think of her mother.  Finding that spark of hope was hard when all Maki felt was that she had failed everyone.  Failed herself.

“Maki, remember your mum.  Her smile when you go home to visit her,” Koji said, keeping his tone conversational.  “You don’t have to worry about what she will say.  I will make sure you have nothing to be ashamed of, Maki.”

Koji felt a small tinge of hope start but it was faint.  His head hurt from trying to take on some of Maki’s pain.  So heavy was the burden on her heart, he could barely breathe at the weight of it.  Maki’s emotions were chocking.  Her despair hard to take.

Then silence enveloped him, pulling him out of the dark, bringing him relief.

Andre.

“Koji,” Andre said, in a soft voice, as though afraid if he spoke louder, they might jump.

Koji hid a laugh and held out his hand to Andre.

“Give me the photograph,” he said in English.

Andre pressed it into his hands, and didn’t leave.  Koji was grateful for it.  He needed reprieve from Maki’s dark pain.  Turning to Maki, Koji showed her the picture of her and her mother smiling into the camera.

“Do you remember this day, Maki?” Koji asked.  “Tell me about this picture.  Isn’t it beautiful?”

Maki sighed, her gaze on the picture.  Tears spilling down her cheeks.

“It was the day I entered university,” Maki said.  “She was so happy, so proud…”

“She still is,” Koji soothed.  “I think that we should get off this ledge, so that you can help us find Sakura.  Don’t you think so?”

“We’ve tried everything,” Maki said, her voice ringing with frustration.  “Everyone thinks it’s my fault—

“It’s not,” Koji said.  “And I will help find Sakura, Maki.  Please trust me, can you do that?”

She held his gaze for a full minute, judging his sincerity.  Koji smiled at her then reached out with care and wrapped his fingers around her left ankle.

Koji closed his eyes, testing the silence still enveloping him.  He pushed through it, wanting to read Maki’s memory of the day at the park.  The silence opened like a veil, taking him specifically into Maki’s memory.  Keeping the noise out.

For a moment, a clear picture filled his head of Maki and Sakura playing in the Gion Park.  Sakura had gone to slide with the other kids when Maki got a message on her phone.  Maki sat on a bench to read her message, and when she looked up from her phone, Sakura was gone.

The silence slid back pulling him away from Maki’s memory.

Koji let go of Maki’s leg feeling drained.

“Andre, help Maki off the ledge?”

Andre wrapped a strong arm around her waist, lifting Maki off the ledge to place her on solid ground.  Ogun and Tomoyo hurried forward to take Maki, and Andre turned to Koji.

“What about you?” Andre asked, moving to stand right behind Koji.  ‘Do you like the view?”

“I need a minute,” Koji said.  Liquid slid down his left nostril and he reached up to wipe it off.  His fingers came away with blood and he sighed.  “I might have overdone it.”

“Overdone what?” Andre asked, leaning over his shoulder to peer at Koji’s face.

Koji turned his head away to hide the blood.

“Do you have a handkerchief?”

Andre reached into his pocket and held out a blue one, with an L embroidered on the corner.  Koji took it fast, and pressed it to his nose.  He pressed hard, hoping the nosebleed would stop.

When it felt under control, he turned to Andre, only to have Andre wrap a strong arm around his shoulders.  One moment he was sitting on the ledge, the next, he was lifted up and standing, looking up at Andre Lacome.

Andre tilted Koji’s face up, a frown appearing when he saw the blood on Koji’s left nostril.

“What did you overdo?” Andre asked, his eyes stormy.

Koji pushed Andre’s hand away from his chin and shook his head.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Koji said, taking a step away from Andre.

He was starting to like the silence in his head.  The relief of not having other people’s thoughts in his head was so tantalizing.

“What are you?” Andre asked, his gaze intent on Koji.

What a question, Koji thought.

“Even I don’t know sometimes,” Koji answered, with a slight smile.  “Thank you for coming here.”

He started to turn away, but Andre held on to his left arm.

“Are you running again?”

Koji glanced at the spot where Andre held his arm.  Heat sipped into his skin, Andre’s heat.

“I still need to talk to Maki,” Koji said.

“Right,” Andre let go of his arm.  “I—

“You may come along if you want.”

Koji headed for the fire escape, a part of him hoping that Andre would follow.

***

Seiryu Spirit – 5

Eyes Filled with the Bluest Water

Scratching his day-old beard, Andre shifted on the bench at the police station, and watched Leon talk to a police officer.

They were working on the premise that if Sakura was missing, as Seiren said, her caretaker would have filed a missing person’s report.  It was a guess, based on…the natural order of events if this were a normal case.  Andre frowned.  There was the chance that because Sakura’s mother was a hooker, she might have asked the person taking care of Sakura not to report to the police.  God, he hoped not.  It would make the situation more difficult.

“Yes, we have Sakura listed in our missing persons’ case,” the police officer said to Leon in heavily accented English.

Relief flooded Andre at the positive starting point.

“Her guardian reported her missing, then withdrew the case, before she filed a second time.  Her full name is Sakura Akino, she’s eight years old.”

“From where?” Leon asked.

“Gion area,” the police officer said.  “She has been missing for three weeks now.  We’re doing the best we can to find her, to find all of them.  Why do you ask?  Do you have information we can use?”

“All of them?” Leon asked with a frown.

The police officer launched into rapid Japanese to answer Leon’s question.  What would he do without Leon who spoke fluent Japanese?  Whatever the police officer said, had Leon turning to look at Andre, his gaze alarmed.  Andre smiled, giving Leon thumbs up, encouraging him.  Leon’s alarmed gaze turned into an amused sigh and he turned back to finish with the police officer.

Leon came to sit next to Andre after a few minutes.

“They have fourteen other children missing,” Leon said.  “A huge case that has a special investigation team working it.  He says to wait, and we can meet the team.”

“More missing children,” Andre frowned.  “We’re not looking to get involved with anything flashy, Leon.  We just need to talk to Sakura’s guardian, and figure this out.”

“Hard to do when Sakura’s name is on a list with fourteen others,” Leon said, leaning his head back on the wall behind him.

They hadn’t gone back to their hotel yet.  After escaping their tail, Leon had suggested visiting the police station to ask about Sakura.

Leon looked tired.  Momentary guilt flooded him looking at Leon, but then a short man in a long dark coat entered the police station, drawing his attention.   All thoughts of getting Leon back to the hotel disappeared when the police officer Leon had been talking to stood up to meet the man.  They talked a few minutes, and then the police officer pointed in their direction.

“Leon,” Andre said, prompting Leon to sit up.

They stood when the police officer motioned for them.

Andre wondered at the nervous energy that suddenly coursed through him when the man in question indicated for them to follow him out of the police station.

***

Ogun entered the flower room at the charming Hotel Mume and took the suitcase he carried to the corner of the room.  Koji sat in the living room area surrounded by police files, reading glasses perched on his nose.  He looked like he might be studying for exams.  Ogun sometimes hoped Koji would be burdened with such regular expectations, instead of the crazy life he lived.

“Tomoyo is coming up in a bit,” Ogun said, coming to sit in the chair across Koji.  “She has taken control of the kitchen.”

“Hmm…,” Koji said, going through the last file.  The one with Sakura Akino.  “What does the staff here know?”

“They think we are on an assignment from an office,” Ogun shrugged.  “I wasn’t specific on the project.  The owner is very helpful, as we booked all the rooms for the week.  Tomoyo has charmed her way into the kitchen.”

Koji removed his reading glasses and placed them on top of the documents on the coffee table.  He rubbed his eyes, and then stretched his arms above his head.

“Sakura-chan is the easiest to follow,” Koji announced, sitting back in his chair.  “Her guardian is clearly worried for her.  There is fear in her statements, as it is with all the others, but Sakura’s guardian withdrew the report two days in, and then filed again a day after.  Curious.”

“The police questioned her on that,” Ogun said.  “She wanted to withdraw the case when she thought Sakura was with her birth mother.  When it was clear that Sakura was not with her mother, she hurried to the police station and asked help to find her.  Obviously, the investigators hadn’t stopped searching, but her actions are suspicious.”

“Makes me more curious,” Koji murmured, rubbing his forehead with his right index finger.  “Sakura-chan doesn’t fit.  Why is she included in our list?”

“Other than she’s missing in the same time frame as all the other fourteen, there’s no other connection,” Ogun replied.

The door opened and Tomoyo came in carrying a tray laden with green tea and neat sandwiches.  She placed the tray on the coffee table, moving Koji’s papers to the side.  She handed Koji a cup and Ogun smiled when Koji brought the cup to his lips when she scowled at him.

Tomoyo nodded in satisfaction when Koji took two healthy sips and sat next to Koji.  Easy access for her to force-feed him, Ogun mused.  The woman was obsessed with feeding Koji.

“I want to visit the Akino home,” Koji said, placing his cup on the coffee table.

“Right now?” Tomoyo asked, glancing at the time.  It was thirty minutes after midnight.  “It’s kind of late for that.  Why not in the morning?”

“I didn’t say I was going now,” Koji replied.  “Besides, don’t we need to meet the rest of the team?”

Tomoyo nodded, and turned to give Ogun his mug of coffee.

“They are having a late meal downstairs,” Tomoyo said.  “Discussions are always more productive on a full stomach.  I made sure they had a delicious meal.  We need to make a good impression before they all meet Koji.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Koji scowled at her.

“That Tomoyo will need to break out her cooking skills more than once this trip,” Ogun said, standing when his phone buzzed a message.  “Looks like they are ready, we should head downstairs.”

Koji started to stand but Tomoyo grabbed his arm, forcing him to sit.

“After Koji has eaten,” Tomoyo stated her tone enough to keep Ogun from arguing.

He hid a laugh when Koji scowled at him, as if he was a traitor.  Reaching for his own cup of coffee, Ogun took a sip, enjoying the start of a new adventure with Koji.

***

Andre realized following a man they didn’t know into a dark parking lot in the middle of the night was taking a mad risk.  They should have asked for more information before they blindly got into their car and followed the small Mazda now parked across them.  Yet they hadn’t.  Too eager for answers, too eager for progress.

Andre couldn’t help the chuckle when he and Leon stopped to make a stand.  They stood leaning on their rental car refusing to take another step to follow the mysterious short man in a black coat.  Andre folded his arms against his chest caught between irritation and amusement by the whole scene.

Leon spoke in Japanese as he delivered their refusal to continue without more information.  It was refreshing when the short man spoke English in reply.

“I’m sorry for the cloak and dagger,” the short man said.  “I’ve always wanted to act out a James Bond movie and wanted to see how long I could push it.”

“Depends on which one you’re acting out?” Andre said, deciding to be amused.

“Of course, the dark haired one…hmm…Pierce Brosnan,” short man answered with a snap of his fingers.  “I love his Bond.”

Leon cursed softly.  “What’s your name, Bond?”

“Hisao.”

“Hisao,” Andre said.  “Where are we going?”

“You are asking about Sakura-chan,” Hisao answered, and waved toward the exit.  “I am taking you where you can get answers.”

“This late at night?” Leon questioned.  “Why don’t we just—

“The team works twenty-four hours, seven days a week,” Hisao explained.  “Thanks to a special team created by officials above, we are well-funded and have the will to keep searching.  No worries about overtime.”

Andre frowned.  “Private funding?  From powerful political allies?”

Hisao grinned.

“I’m a low-paid police officer who wouldn’t know these complicated matters.  Please, let me lead you to investigation team.  I need to catch a few hours of sleep tonight.  It’s been a tough week.”

Hisao started walking to the exit forcing both Andre and Leon to hurry after him.

“Why are we leaving the car?” Andre asked, when they stepped into the cool night.

“No parking space, and we’re going to need more than two hours in the meeting,” Hisao answered.  “I hope you don’t mind the walk.  It’s only three minutes.”

“Not at all,” Leon said, though his tone sounded like he did.

Andre on the other hand hoped that they’d done this during the day instead of late in the night.  He itched to take photos, but he’d left his camera at the Hyatt when he’d left to go meet Seiren.

Hisao was right on the walk time. It took them exactly three minutes.  Their destination turned out to be a charcoal IMG_7363grey building tucked in between a row of houses.  The door into the building was blood red with a gorgeous black seal for a knocker.  A single name on the top floor of the building read ‘Mume’.

Hisao led the way to the red door and rang the doorbell.  A cheerful young woman opened the door, ushering them into an elegant bright reception area.

“Welcome to Hotel Mume,” she said.  “Are you here for the team meeting?”

“Yes,” Hisao nodded.

She smiled and led them to the right into a neat dining room and sitting area with floor length windows showing off the lighted river in the back of the hotel.

Andre took in the elegance and enchanting mood, finding it hard to reconcile it with the number of serious people sitting at the long dining table.  Their expressions solemn, the screens projected on the wall full of children’s faces and scenes.  Gloom in splendor.

The woman who had led them in left.  Leon touched Andre’s arm when the picture of a sweet smiling eight-year-old girl came up on the screen.

“Sakura Akino,” the team leader was saying, and then paused, his gaze resting on Andre and Leon.  The momentary pause attracted attention, and Hisao smiled lifting his hands in apology.

“Sorry for being late.  These two gentlemen are looking for Sakura-chan,” Hisao said.  “Our man at the desk thought they would get more information here.  No Japanese for the taller one.”

“Welcome,” the team leader said, “Take a seat.  The briefing continues as is, we can talk after.”

Andre nodded, and Leon moved to take the only empty seat at the long table.  Satisfied, the team leader continued his briefing.  While Andre headed to the sitting area, removed away from the intense group.  One other person sat at the wicker chairs by the windows.  A young man in a pale green jersey with the hood pulled over his head.  His hands folded against his chest, his right leg resting on his left knee.

Andre sat in the chair next to him, curious.  Glancing at his wristwatch, Andre frowned when he saw the time.

“How odd to have a briefing at this hour,” Andre murmured. 

“It’s only one o’clock,” the young man answered, his tone low, so that he wouldn’t interrupt the ongoing discussion.

“You speak English,” Andre said.  “What a relief.”

“Most of us can,” the younger man said.

“Then why is it so hard to get into a good conversation here?” Andre asked, thinking apart from Seiren, he had relied on Leon to get around.

“Your accent sounds French,” the younger man said.  “In France, does everyone speak English at will?”

“I suppose it depends who you are with.”

“As it is here,” the answer came and Andre found himself smiling.

“Andre Lacome,” he said, extending his hand out to the youth.

There was hesitation, and then long elegant fingers closed over his. 

“Koji Sukiyama.”

“May I call you Koji?  Your surname is a mouthful.”

“It’s a burden to me too,” Koji said, with a small chuckle.  “Yes, Koji is fine.”

Andre shifted in his seat to face Koji.

“As happy as I am to have been invited to such a briefing, why is it happening at this hour?” Andre asked, his gaze sliding to the long table, and the screens showing off information ahead.

“During the day, they are out chasing leads,” Koji said.  “This is the only hour to regroup and share what has been discovered.  They have been at it for almost two weeks.  Now it’s about reviewing the data they’ve amassed and looking at it through fresh eyes.”

“Two weeks,” Andre frowned.

That was a long time to go missing.  He had hoped they’d find Sakura fast, and get to saving Henri.  He had a week to find the child, if there was any hope of getting help from Seiren.  If the police had been on the job for two weeks, how were he and Leon to pull this off?

“Your sigh sounds disappointed,” Koji said beside him. 

Andre wiped a hand down his face, suddenly tired.  “It’s been a long week.”

“You make me curious,” Koji murmured, and pushed back his hood to reveal a head full of messy silky hair.

Andre watched Koji reach to his ears, removing what looked like hearing aids.  Then Koji turned to meet his gaze, and he stared into the deepest azure eyes he’d ever seen.  Surely, his heart had no defense against this kind of assault.  No escape from the depths of those blue pools, so beautifully rendered, he never wanted to look away.  How beautiful Koji’s eyes were, filled with the bluest water, Andre could not look away.

***

Koji’s presence in the large dining room slash sitting area was not to listen to the team leader repeat the case details.  No, he had wanted to poke at their thoughts as they had been chasing down leads for weeks.  Sitting in the corner, no one paid attention to him, too involved in the puzzle of this case.

Tomoyo sat at the long table getting to know the investigators.  Ogun leaned on the wall closest to Koji, never too far, just in case.  The hood over his head was more to hide his eyes, as he allowed his senses free reign.  When he was twelve, he had needed to touch a person to know their thoughts, get a feel of their mood.  His teenage growth spurt had evolved his gift though, now all he needed to do was stand in a room and allow everything to sip into his thoughts.  People thought loudly, and it was always easier in a focused group like this.

Sitting alone in the corner, Koji sifted through passing thoughts as the briefing started.  Whispered words, frustration, closing his eyes, he concentrated on the frustration.

‘She said she thought she saw a black van on the edge of the park.  If only she could remember…we would have a solid lead.’

Koji frowned, wishing he knew the investigators well.

‘So many kids missing, the residents don’t even want to talk to us because they’re afraid.’

Koji opened his eyes then, his thoughts on the woman who might have seen something on the edge of the park.  If he could meet the woman in question, maybe he would get more insight from her.  Pushing his noise canceling hearing aids in, he was about to stand and leave the room when the two white men walked in with Hisao.

Sitting back, Koji watched the room turn to stare at both men.  Hisao smiled and made apologies for the interruption.  When Koji heard they were looking for Sakura, he gave up on the idea of leaving.  Sakura was the way to crack the case, so it was curious that two foreigners were also interested in her.

The shorter one chose to sit next to Tomoyo, while the taller man came to sit beside him.  Koji crossed his arms against his chest, and wondered if he shouldn’t just read their thoughts.  He was tired from all the traveling and should really rest, still—, it was good to know what the tourists wanted to learn here.

Curiosity had him sitting through Andre’s conversation.  He was glad for the years Saya had insisted he learn English as it came in useful now.  Andre’s voice was soothing, calm.  He reminded Koji of a man who would not panic in the middle of a storm.  Then, Andre sighed, the sound of it heavy.  The kind of sigh one would give if the weight of the world rested on the shoulders.  Heavy and full of meaning.

Koji found he wanted to listen to Andre’s thoughts.  He wanted to know what would make a man like Andre sigh so deeply, so—

Removing his hearing aids again, eager to listen.

Only to be met with absolute silence.  The complete stillness in the room surprised him.  Koji gaped when all he

large
photo courtesy of B.E.I.

heard was the intense discussion at the long table.  No internal thoughts flooded him, not a stray emotion filled him that wasn’t his.  It was absolute quiet.  The kind he only found with the use of the hearing aids he held.

Koji turned to stare at Andre in shock.

“Your eyes are stunning,” Andre said, the awe in his voice clear.

Koji tried to find his voice, but he couldn’t formulate a word.  He didn’t know what to say, this complete silence so unfamiliar, he didn’t know how to bear it.

Andre leaned closer and Koji blinked, shock bringing him to his feet fast.

Ogun pushed off the wall, but Koji ignored him and instead rushed out into the lobby. In the bright reception hall, Koji took in a deep breath, then another, and almost cried in relief when the receptionist turned to him and her internal appreciative sigh filled his head.

“Koji?” Ogun hurried to his side, concern on his face.

“I’m fine,” Koji said, breathing out his surprise.  “Just tired.”

“Are you sure?”

Koji rubbed his forehead.  No, he was freaking out.

“I—,”

Koji broke off, not sure what he wanted to say.  Maybe foreigners were wired wrong.  Andre Lacome was a fluke.  One he had not expected, once they got used to each other, he’d get to hear Andre’s thoughts.

This was nothing.  He was just tired.

“I’m heading upstairs,” Koji murmured.  “The foreigners, find out why they’re looking for Sakura.”

“Koji?”

“It’s been a tiring day,” Koji said, forcing a smile for Ogun.  “I’m going to sleep first, goodnight, Ogun.”

Koji ran up the stairs to his suite grateful for every soft whisper he heard in his head on the way upstairs.  He had spent so much time wishing he didn’t have this gift, yet in that moment, facing Andre Lacome, hearing nothing had almost undone him.  He wondered if he shouldn’t stay away from the gaijin altogether.

****

gaijin – foreigner

 

Seiryu Spirit – 4

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.

Koji sighed.

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 absolutecherry blossoms 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.

Traditional-Japanese-Style-House-PlansSlowing 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?”

Kouya smiled.

“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 sighed.

“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.”

Koji sighed.

“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.”

Andre hissed.

“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.”

Merde.”

“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