Settling in the backwater town of Kyuunan with my human boyfriend, Jin, didn’t go smoothly. The move? It was fine. The kicker was that Hatoru Financial rescinded the accounting job offer when I admitted I was openly gay.
I wasn’t without means. Yokai have long lives. I’d accumulated a sizable nest egg and two degrees at top-notch universities in accounting and psychology. The lack of a job merely dinged my pride.
A few days later, we heard the town needed a clerk to investigate a tax discrepancy from MagiSecurity, the firm entrusted with the surveillance cameras for most of the Nonogawa river valley. Jin encouraged me to apply. The salary wasn’t great. But a mystery was a draw!
My interview was more of a formality. The manager, Narata, couldn’t hide his excitement that someone of my caliber was considering the city’s pay.
After accepting the position, I snagged my trusty notebook and dug into the company’s records. Local yokai confirmed a kitsune, a fox spirit being, owned MagiSecurity. Whoever filed had terrible handwriting. Unusual for an accountant. We like crisp characters and tidy sums.
So, I audited the business. The front desk attendant escorted me to accounting. She hurried, and I kept her pace. I’d looked at the floor plan from the city records before visiting. She’d avoided the hallway that went directly there. Odd.
“Is the company remodeling?” I asked.
Her brows furrowed. “No.”
Accounting? Che. No filing system. Missing receipts. Did they have a real bookkeeper? It looked more like a circus than proper paperwork! How could a thriving business allow this?
Sifting through their documents showed their tax filings were at least close to correct. Still, something niggled at the back of my mind. I informed them I’d return.
As I walked home in the warm twilight, foot falls clicked on the pavement behind me. I slowed as if lost and turned into an alley. A yokai like me didn’t fear a lone man. Spirit beings were more powerful than lowly humans.
A hand grasped my shoulder and a scratchy voice rasped, “Don’t go back tomorrow, if you know what’s good for you.”
Amateur. I let my human disguise fall, revealing my two tailed cat form. This should have been ample warning to back off.
“Little bakeneko, you have no idea what you’re digging into,” the man said. “Give up the hunt. If not for your own safety, consider that of your boyfriend.”
My tails flicked as I crouched to pounce.
“I am not your threat. I’m here to warn you.” His hands raised. This guy was the very image of a yakuza, a mobster. Tattoos extended down his hands beyond his white shirtsleeves and he lacked a pinky finger. He sported shades and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
His kind always has an angle. “Liar.”
His shrug contrasted harshly with his clipped words. “I lost my son to this mess.”
Viable. “What happened?”
“That company hired him. Said they’d give him a legit, livable-waged way out of the mob.”
In which universe did his son think that would work? Ex-mobsters get the low-paying jobs no one wants. I pasted on my best concerned cat expression. “And?”
“Shortly after he started, all communication stopped. No trace of him.” The mobster’s countenance turned dark.
This logic lane sent a shiver through both my tails. Was it madness to continue? No, I was on to something. “Did he say anything before he disappeared that might give a clue?”
“He mentioned a glowing ring everyone had to wear. A few guys had a strange reaction where their arm would turn bright red.” The mobster stuffed his hands into his coat pockets before he continued, “Was it some kind of pact?”
I shook my head. “Not likely. Did he mention a kitsune or anything illegal?” Would I be able to sift through this mystery’s many strata? So far we only had messy tax filings and a missing yakuza.
“A fox?” His face screwed up. “No. What would that have to do with anything?”
I huffed. Might as well explain. “It’s elementary. Yokai are aware of each other. One said a kitsune runs the business. Would your son recognize if someone was puppeteering employees?”
“My son wouldn’t be manipulated so easily.” He scowled.
“It’s not rocket science, rather a simple spell most yokai can manage easily. Unless humans ward against it, they’re susceptible. No need for offense.”
More vivid ink on his forearms showed as he put his hand to his chin in thought. He had a thing for bamboo leaves and tigers. The symbols probably had a meaning, though I’d never looked them up.
He said, “The ring. Would that have been the avenue for the controlling magic?”
“Perhaps. Or a binding of some sort. Were there any other messages from him?” I asked.
My boyfriend expected me home for dinner. He was making yakitori. Man could Jin grill well. My mouth watered just thinking about it. So, I turned to go. “I’ll keep your warning in mind.”
“You’re going to keep investigating? You’ll need someone to watch your back.”
Inquisitive and pushy. A protection racket? “Are you working for anyone that might be involved in this?” I asked. The material point was a yakuza’s criminal nature. He’d followed me here for more than a kind warning.
He scowled. “No.”
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, ‘Know thyself, know thy enemy.’ Even potential ones. “Then work for me.”
His answer? Rapid blinking.
“Che,” I grumbled. “Helping me investigate isn’t profound. You have a motive to learn more and you know the town.”
“The darkness has eyes everywhere. Can you guarantee my family’s protection?” he whispered. “If anything happens to me…”
His shuffling raised my hackles. The mobster’s afraid? A new section of the maze to navigate. “What’s your address? My associates will need to be fed well and housed.”
“Yes. If you don’t provide proper hospitality, I’m sure you’re aware of the consequences.” Humans say my species is vengeful. A little unfair. But those we reveal ourselves to are often particularly unsavory and have to be dispatched.
His scent switched from sickly fear to a catnip-like relief. “We will care for them as our own family.”
The wail of a siren on the next street over made both of us jump half a meter off the ground.
“Let’s get off the street.” He motioned toward the bar.
I switched back to my human form and messaged Jin I’d be late. “Shimosaki is so small. It shouldn’t have much police activity.”
He shook his head. “Sirens have become more common recently.”
We took seats in the back corner and kept our voices hushed. “I’m Haruki. I’ll work for you on the side, if you tread lightly,” he said.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Nabeshima. Any word on what the police reports say about your son’s disappearance?”
“Not yet. I’ve kept my head down, couldn’t go to the police. Leave it to me.”
Haruki and I stayed long enough to finish a beer. My stomach growled as I left and messaged Jin that I was on my way.
The next day, Haruki brought copies of the police reports. It was better not to ask how he obtained them. Each dispatch mentioned piles of ash. They assumed a perpetrator was robbing graves.
Something niggled at the back of my mind again and wouldn’t leave me alone all morning. At lunch, it clicked. The rings!
Haruki and I met outside the bar again that sweltering evening. The navy, noren shop curtain waved in the blessed breeze that kept the summer heat from melting us. We ducked inside.
My enthusiasm from figuring out a piece of the puzzle shut off abruptly when Haruki sat down, apoplectic.
Someone dropped Haruki’s son’s belongings on his doorstep. I kept his sake cup filled as he vented his grief. His motive now? Revenge. I asked, “This happened before we met, didn’t it?”
A vein protruded from his forehead as he nodded and tossed the ring in a plastic bag to me. “Will this help?”
“You haven’t put it on, have you?”
Haruki leaned in. “No.”
“Good. This ring may lead us to dark enough places. My assumption is it carries a binding. A specific one—to an oni.” The hulking red and blue yokai whose brains didn’t match their muscle mass.
The yakuza’s eyes scrunched shut. His hand crushed his sake cup.
The blood welling from his hand only magnified his pain. Perhaps I should have spared him the truth? “Haruki-san, you need to see a doctor for that wound.”
He muttered as he stood, “No one cares what happened to my son.”
Only a few would. Still, he needed a listening ear.
“What was his name?” I held out my handkerchief and he took it to bind the wound.
“Taka. Thank you for asking. I’ll take care of this.”
I offered to walk him to the clinic. He refused.
The next day, he didn’t show up for an assignment.
I slapped my forehead. ‘Taking care of it’ meant he did something stupid like go after the killers alone. Now, I’d have to rescue a mobster. Che.
When I returned home, I found a carelessly tied bundle on my doorstep.
Tell me this isn’t what’s left of Haruki! My heart lodged in my throat as I unwrapped it. Inside was a similar ring and a note. ‘Underground. Got too close. Isolate list of victims by disappearance from payroll.’
More than just one yokai had to be behind the disappearances for this much activity. Was it more than I could handle?
My hands shook. Reminding myself he was OK wasn’t helping, neither was saying he was just a yakuza.
I wavered between dread and determination. Even my boss seemed hesitant to pursue a warrant the next day, and I hadn’t told him everything. The fall out from this could be costly. Would it be more than I was willing to pay?
First, I stored my copy of the police reports in a safe deposit box. I didn’t want the files at home. If those who killed Haruki’s son thought my boyfriend had anything to do with the investigation, he’d be in danger, too.
I also begged Jin to visit his parents. It was one thing to put myself and fellow yokai in danger. But a fragile human, a rare one so kind and understanding? Out of the question. I had to keep him safe.
Ensuring I had several fellow bakeneko in the shadows, I mustered the gall to complete the task. My cousin Miki, in human disguise, accompanied me to MagiSecurity.
We showed our credentials and asked to visit HR. The front desk attendant’s confused reaction was genuine enough. The HR manager was another story. He gave no greeting. “The finances department is that way. We’re busy with a batch of new hires. What makes you think you have business here?”
Your reaction, fool. I grinned, allowing a hint of my razor-edged fangs to show for a second. Just enough to make him wonder at what he saw.
“Show me your hiring records and the taxes remitted for each employee in the last two years. There’s a discrepancy your financial department can’t explain. Or do I need to further involve the authorities?” Only a slight fib.
He had an assistant gather the files, but hovered. “As you can see, our records are impeccable.”
It took only a cursory glance at each file–less than 10 minutes total. The cycling of employees every few months was glaring. The ex-employees matched the names on the police record’s missing persons list. Haruki’s logic was spot on.
Bile rose in my throat. I had to steady my voice. “Your records are flawless, indeed. I don’t see a discrepancy here.” We rose and thanked him for his time.
The enigma wasn’t that ex-mobsters were victims. It was how the company kept the disappearances hidden.
Miki couldn’t tear her eyes off the security cameras. I kicked myself. MagiSecurity had installed them all over town, including in the government buildings. We couldn’t trust anywhere to be safe. This company watched everyone and eliminated any who got in the way.
Did they blackmail people to be quiet? That might explain the messy financial records. And did we have enough evidence to take them to court? I didn’t have the authority to push more.
Miki tapped my arm to open a telepathic connection. ‘We’re being followed.’
‘Crap. We can take these three, though I want to avoid it. We’ll go to the office, pretend to report in, and head to the alley bar.’ To keep our cover, I said aloud, “Too bad we didn’t find anything useful.”
She rolled her eyes. Though she played along. “Now, I owe the boss a drink. He said they were clean.”
At the office, Narata was surprised to see me so soon. I pasted on a neutral face as he tried not to stare at my fetching cousin. It wasn’t befitting to laugh at my superior, nor would it fit our news.
Miki asked via our link, ‘Is it safe here?’
I shook my head, trying a different tack. “Boss, Miki-chan and I are going for a drink. Care to join us?”
Checking his watch, he nodded. “I’ll buy.”
He probably didn’t get to take employees out often. My previous bosses enjoyed doing that on the company card, but this was a little government office. Today, his offer may have been simply to impress Miki. Either way, we needed to bring him up to speed covertly and decide if it was safe to bring the case to the police. ‘Miki, mind if we let him in on the link?’
As Narata gathered his coat and briefcase, Miki whined, ‘Do we have to?’
‘Have another idea?’
Her mouth opened as if to protest, then shut. ‘If he even thinks of flirting…’
‘Just don’t hurt him.’
‘You trust him?’
‘Yeah. He’s the one that sicced me on MagiSecurity.’
The sun sank behind the mountains that cradled our valley town. “Boss, can I be honest with you?”
Narata paused mid-step. “Sure. Is this why you wanted to go for a drink?”
Miki bobbed her head. ‘Ready.’
I took a deep breath and grabbed my boss’s hand. He jerked back. “Nabeshima-san, what is the meaning of this? I’m married, you know.”
I released him now that we’d activated the link. ‘Miki and I are sharing thoughts via magic. We’ve just added you to the conversation. It’s the only safe way to communicate.’
“What are you talking about?”
“I was trying to express gratitude for hiring me,” I said. Switching to the mental link, I added, ‘We’re being tailed. We can’t take long to get to the bar or it’ll look suspicious. Push your thoughts to us. We can’t read your mind or anything invasive like that.’
Miki explained, ‘MagiSecurity has cameras everywhere. Likely sound recording, too. We couldn’t report to you normally. We’re going to converse as if this mental conversation isn’t happening. Do you understand?’
With eyes going wide, Narata stammered, “I s-see. Glad to have you on the team.” A mess of his confused thoughts leaked through the link.
‘Boss, one thought at a time, please. Otherwise, we’ll all end up with headaches. Let us give you the lowdown. ’
He blew out a breath. ‘OK.’
We shared the relationship between the disappearances and MagiSecurity’s employee records, and that the only remains of those missing were ashes and rings. I planned to have my contact turn over the physical evidence he had. Chances of identifying the ashes were slim to none. On the other hand, the rings may have fingerprints.
Narata’s swirling thoughts assaulted Miki and me again until he forced them to coalesce. ‘Is it safe to go to the police?’
‘If we can share a link with them the same way. But, it’ll be harder. They’re a stubborn lot,’ I say.
Miki’s shoulders slumped. ‘I suppose I could flirt with one.’
My boss’s excited energy leaked through the connection as he suggested aloud, “The police will help get me home after drinks. Won’t be the first time. ”
‘Boss!’ I pushed my concern through the connection. ‘It could put you in danger!’
He chuckled, adding, ‘I don’t want to put Miki-san in an awkward position.’
My regard for Narata grew exponentially. If he’d not treated Miki with respect, I wouldn’t have been able to stop her from hunting him for sport. We cat yokai are a stubbornly independent lot. ‘My theory is that the rings turned the wearer into a host for a summoning, likely an oni. Is there a way to test that?’
‘Nothing Narata-san will want to see. Anything we put it on would be the host,’ Miki said.
My boss and I grimaced. Narata said, ‘You aren’t afraid of dealing with yokai?’
‘Don’t be silly!’ Miki responded. ‘A few of us could do it easily as it transformed.’
‘Us?’ Narata squeaked.
‘Miki…’ I growled. Don’t give us away!
Raising his hands, Narata said, “Looks like I’ll be ordering a lot of sake tonight. That’s more than enough for me to know.”
Narata’s plan worked. Though it was tricky to get the officer to believe us. I had to give them a written report the next day.
I included the test of putting the ring on a stray dog. As a feline yokai, I hated dogs. Still, I pitied the mutt. It had no willpower and immediately turned into an oni. Dispatching it left ashes as expected.
In record time, the police arranged for the warrant. The raid made headlines all the way to the Tokyo NHK offices. Miki visited that night for dinner. As we watched the news, Miki pouted, “They didn’t even mention us!”
“It’s better for the humans here that they didn’t,” I tutted and offered her another helping of fish before she could complain again. “It wouldn’t be safe enough for Jin to be back. I still feel I have to follow him everywhere.”
Jin patted my knee. “I don’t mind, Love. I hated being away.”
The police chief asked Narata and me to sort through the massive boxes of papers and help prepare the court report.
Haruki left another note. ‘Boss, here’s the latest intel. Police found rings and ash piles. Kitsune who owned MagiSecurity can’t be found. Your bakeneko friends are eating me out of house and home. Please ask them to leave me alone, now.’
Laughing, I penned my response to stop poking at the police reports for now. Miki, who was happy to get one more meal from the mobster before she stopped guarding his family, volunteered to deliver it.
Even after we shut down MagiSecurity, the town wasn’t safe. Yokai friends kept mentioning a disturbing presence that only grew after the raid.
Something else was out there watching us. We had another mystery to solve.