For a Yakuza shell company, Honuzawa Industries had one hell of a new building. The slender palace of glass and steel bathed in the morning sun. I entered, my boots thudding on the floor. The building’s bowels were designed in the company’s colors, bronze, and red.
People in business suits skittered around, rushing to the turnstiles to reach work before nine. Three paths led from the entry hall, one to the elevators on the left, another straight and the third were doors toward the cantina. Okay, there were also wide, curved stairs leading to the upper floor from which I could see only balconies, but that wasn’t useful to me.
The security guard stood outside the entry door, smoking while gripping his morning coffee. Perfect. He wouldn’t get in the way. I chose the forward path, walking as everyone else did. And then I vaulted over the turnstiles.
Some people gave me quizzical looks, but by the time anyone managed to say a word, I already entered the elevator. I jabbed the top floor’s button, and the door soon closed.
Two men and a woman were all staring at me in the elevator, not so discreetly. No wonder. I wore a cowboy hat, and a leather duster, which wasn’t the norm. On the plus side, I also wore a sharp, blue shirt, almost-clean, black jeans, and a black tie.
I glanced at the man with the widest eyes. He was mid-twenties, clean-shaven, and sweating excessively. “Is Mr. Muso’s office at the end of the hall to the left?” I asked. Gonnosuke Muso was the head of this Yakuza branch, the man I was about to meet.
The young man gulped. “To the right,” he uttered, beads of sweat forming above his brows.
Apparently, even people got subconsciously afraid of being near me. Great. As if animals being terrified of me wasn’t bad enough. “Thanks,” I replied and couldn’t resist a glance at the mirror. Everything looked normal except for my eyes, which were pools of pure darkness. Others didn’t see them that way, but mirrors were harder to fool.
After three stops, where the others left, I reached the top floor. In front of me was a pair of doors that required an access card. I stepped to the side of the tiny antechamber and waited. A few moments later, the second elevator arrived, and a woman walked out, her heels soundless on the carpet. She opened the door and entered.
After she passed, I caught the door before it closed and allowed myself in. Thick carpet covered the floor and vases stood as decorations between the offices. The Yakuza sure had money to spend. Good. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have the money to pay me.
I knew the correct hallway the moment I entered. Lined up by the wall stood men in suits, all eyeing each other suspiciously. Private investigators that have arrived for the same reason as me, no doubt. The Yakuza, sorry, I mean, Honuzawa Industries, has put up a fifty-thousand-dollar bounty for a private investigator job and the auditions were starting today at 9 AM, which was in about twenty seconds.
The Japanese were known to be precise, so I walked calmly through the hallway not to arrive at the door too early. When the ninth hour struck, the door at the hallway’s end opened, and a woman in a crisp business suit stepped out. She held a file in her hand and pushed thin glasses up her nose. “Good morning,” she said and bowed slightly.
I was about thirty feet away and walking slowly not to draw too much attention, prepared to bolt forward. I was here to make an impression, so my timing had to be impeccable.
“Thank you all for coming for the interview,” she said, continuing her speech. “I will call the names, and you will enter as I say. The first to enter is—”
“Me,” I said while brushing past her. The first office was hers, small, with a thin monitor on the table and stacks of binders piled in white cabinets. This wasn’t the office that interested me though, so I ignored the guard standing by my left and continued to the door to the right.
The assistant recuperated much faster than I expected. “Wait!”
The guard I ignored a second ago woke up from the shock as he heard her voice and rushed after me. “Stop!”
When he grabbed my duster, I spun and gently pushed my palm against his chest to shove him off. Okay, I tried to be gentle. My strength slipped. My palm hit his chest with a thud. Air blew out from his mouth, and he flew five feet backward, stunned and paling fast. The assistant yelped and dropped her files, frozen.
Despite my sinking heart, I put on a fake smile, opened the door to the main office, and walked through. This room was larger, featuring a round table with three chairs, and a mahogany office desk. The carpet was thicker than in the rest of the offices, and all the furniture was wooden.
Two Japanese men sat by the table, one with long hair tied into a ponytail, the second one with short hair and a scar over his eye. The long-haired one held a long katana next to him while the second one had a chain-sickle arrange by his belt. They rose instantly, placing their palms on their weapons.
Who the hell were they expecting that they carried weapons?
Mages or monsters, most likely.
By the desk sat an older man, his hair gray and suit impeccable, apparently Gonnosuke, the boss.
He did not stand up as I entered, measuring me with a cold glare. I grabbed the free chair from the round table and placed it to across the desk from the older man.
“Lucas Johnson,” I said as I pulled a stack of papers from beneath my duster. “Galen sent me to solve your safe problem. Here are my recommendations.” I put the papers in front of him and sat down, graciously showing my back to the two men by the round table while facing Gonnosuke. That wasn’t very nice of me, I knew, but it was all part of the act. He had hundreds of men working for him, covering all types of specializations and professions. If he posted a request for a private investigator, he was looking for someone he didn’t have. And so I couldn’t merely wait in line, bow and act polite. That was what everyone else was doing. Plus, if I acted normally, he would never believe what he just started reading in the recommendations.
To make sure he would read them, I dropped Galen’s name. Galen was the head of the Dewin Institute, which was the fancy new name for the Mage Guild of New York.
The assistant burst into the room, saying, “Awaserukaoganai,” while bowing.
I guessed that was an apology. Or she was asking the boss if she should have me shot. Japanese wasn’t exactly my forte.
She continued speaking in Japanese. The oldest man, Gonnosuke, raised his hand, his eyes fixed on the paper in front of him. The woman stopped talking, bowed, and left. I had no clue what the signal meant, but it also made the two men by the round table sit down.
Gonnosuke smiled. “Tell me, Mr. Johnson, how did you convince the Devil to sign you a recommendation?”
I returned his smile. “By more than satisfying her with my delivery.” That wasn’t even a complete lie. Yes, I did a good enough job for Lucielle, the Devil herself, to pay me. And then I had to do a couple of extras to get that recommendation. Together with the recommendations from Galen, Lucielle’s left and right hands and from the top paladin of the local branch of the Church, I had about enough paperwork to deliver the next line. “My standard fee is two hundred thousand dollars, and I will have your problem solved by tomorrow midnight.”
Gonnosuke laughed, but not mockingly. “What do you know about my problem?”
“Galen told me you complained about the mage you hired to put magical protections on your vault. In particular, that the mage left inside the safe runes that could be used as a back door. Now, you are hiring an investigator to find that mage and ensure he doesn’t rob you.”
“No, Mr. Johnson,” Gonnosuke said, his voice turning an octave lower. “I want that mage delivered to me.”
“So you can kill him?”
Gonnosuke shook his head. “I will have him interrogated and then delivered to Tul Sar Naar as the law of Secret Societies dictates.”
The usual. Tul Sar Naar was the prison for everything magical and unnatural. Established about four thousand years ago, it had yet to be escaped, so whoever entered never left. The Hand of God, which was the main ruling body of the supernatural world, was so confident in their prison they swore whoever would manage to escape Tul Sar Naar would be pardoned of all crimes. “Two hundred thousand dollars and you will have him by tomorrow midnight,” I said.
“Fifty thousand dollars, as advertised, but you might get a bonus if your delivery impresses me.”
Yeah, my standard fee may have been two hundred thousand dollars, but nobody ever really paid it to me. “Agreed,” I said with a broad smile. Fifty thousand dollars in for two days of work were still a steal. Not to mention that could open me more potential contracts for the Yakuza. “I will need full cooperation from your chief security officer.”
“Sasaki,” Gonnosuke said as he motioned toward the men at the table. “See that Mr. Johnson gets what he needs. Akiyama, reschedule the interviews for Wednesday, for the case Mr. Johnson fails.”
Judging by who rose, Sasaki was the long-haired man. We exchanged sharp glares.
“Good luck, Mr. Johnson,” Gonnosuke said and gave me back the recommendations.
I nodded, packed the papers, and left with Sasaki. He wasn’t much for talking. As we left the office, I verified the guard I touched was alive. He was pale with breath swift and shallow, but he wasn’t spitting blood and stood straight, acting as if nothing happened, so he likely hasn’t sustained a serious injury. Good.
When we walked through the hallway, I fuelled my eyes with aether to examine Sasaki more thoroughly. Aether was the essence of magic, the element that stood behind everything unnatural. The ability to see energy was my core ability.
The world’s colors inverted to my eyes. As dark became light, Sasaki’s aether revealed itself to me as white and crimson energy flowing through his body. He had aether spread in a thin layer through the muscles with the main reserve resting within his heart. A sensible strategy since that made him ready for combat but did not waste energy unless he reached out for the main reserve. The evenness of the spreading and its perfect circular pattern suggested experience with wielding the power, making him potentially dangerous.
Compared to his well-controlled stance, mine was a total mess. Aether was pouring out of me like water from a broken dam. My aether reserve has grown too large for me to control and thus aether kept overflowing through my body. A year ago, when a fallen angel made his home in my soul, I thought I could learn to handle the influx of power. Now, I knew better and resorted to trying to minimize the damage. The guardsman was far from the first person I injured because my strength slipped.
Sasaki saw no reason to pry and neither did I. Gonnosuke made the boundaries of our relationship clear and we respected the old man’s choice. I wanted to get paid, so I had a good reason not to act out of line. We arranged everything in Sasaki’s office, where he explained to me the vault was secured by four doors, each with a specific security measure.
I made him change the guard pattern, give me access codes to all doors, and downloaded everything on a USB stick.
Why did he trust me with all that? That was how Secret Societies worked. Promises meant everything in the supernatural world. If I broke their trust, I would destroy my reputation and thus never get a job from anyone from Secret Societies ever again. Not to mention they would send assassins to kill me. We parted in the early afternoon and I headed straight to the Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor.
The mage guild, sorry, Dewin Institute, lay hidden beneath the Low Memorial Library of the Columbia University. That made the location stylish, but also provided a limited selection of nearby bars. Not that they wouldn’t exist, but students swarmed the general area and youngsters weren’t the company a typical mage sought. The Mage Guild’s watering hole of choice became the Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor. The place was expensive enough to deter most students and featured a private, underground area permanently booked by the Dewin Institute.
So had Galen told me since I had never been there. Being a private investigator made socializing… non-strategic. Investigating people was a lot easier when they didn’t know who I was.
I entered the bar, slid through the students-infested area and descended the spiraling stairs. The private area featured a long, dark red, wooden bar, tall chairs and a line of tables separated with book stands. Waiters in tuxedos moved among the guests, all of whom wore the latest fashion. From what I heard, other cities had more classically dressed mages, robes and hats and staffs and all. In New York, however, the mage guild was so intertwined with the financial sector that the mages and witches had to look the part. An average New York mage wouldn’t leave Lower Manhattan unless threatened with violence.
My target was supposed to visit this place daily. A job like building the magical security for the new Yakuza vault was a rare event. Even though the Yakuza didn’t officially use the Institute to hire the mage, Milhamber was still a highly ranked mage of the Dewin Institute, so the backdoor Milhamber made into the vault’s defenses made Galen look very bad. Galen called me, gave me the tip for the Yakuza and info on Milhamber, saying, ‘Solve this.’
And I was going to do just that. Since Milhamber was working in the library, his girlfriend, Jocelyn, was bound to be in this bar, as always.
Thanks to the description Galen gave me, it took me almost an entire second to spot her. She was tall, platinum blonde, razor-thin, and wore a sleek, white dress adorned with diamonds. Her jewelry looked like it cost as much as a medium-sized apartment and her designer pumps didn’t look any cheaper.
Sure, mages earned a lot, but she wore at least fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry and didn’t look like the type to wear the same accessories repeatedly. This was apparently the reason why Milhamber double-crossed Galen and the Yakuza. He fell in love with a girl whose maintenance cost exceeded his means.
Jocelyn sat by the bar, flanked by two other women. By the amount of designer clothes they wore, they were also witches. Nobody followed the latest fashion like New York witches, and these also had the witch-standard jewelry—pretty, golden, but not too expensive. Ever since the old grandmaster died and Galen, a former movie star, replaced him, the times of the old men in robes were gone.
A woman sitting at a bar with two friends never wanted to be approached. But I didn’t feel like waiting for too long. I leaned onto the dark-red, wooden bar and ordered a glass of non-sparkling water. The control I had over my strength was terrible even when I was sober and alcohol did not help, so I dared not risk even a small whiskey.
When the waiter was passing behind me, carrying a pair of coffees, I kicked his back leg mid-step. He stumbled forward and hit Jocelyn’s friend, coffee first. She screamed out, he started apologizing, and I looked at Jocelyn with an arched eyebrow and a smirk, making it clear I was the cause. She understood. As her friend kept swearing at the waiter, who was apologizing, Jocelyn made her other friend help the first one and slid toward me.
Jocelyn measured me with an appraising stare of her sky-blue eyes and stepped to me. “That was rather rude.”
Her accent was British, but trained, not natural, which I knew by reading the folder Galen had on her. Otherwise, she would’ve fooled me. “Milhamber’s in trouble.”
“What do you mean?” she asked without pausing for a second. She either didn’t know what he has done, or she was that good of a liar.
I bet on the latter. If Milhamber was good enough to get the job without going through Galen, he was a reasonable man. Meaning he needed an unreasonable woman to convince him to put a backdoor into Yakuza’s safe. “Yakuza hired me to examine the vault Milhamber secured. And guess what? I found there runes that can be used as a backdoor. Though I haven’t told anyone, yet.”
That froze her. Her breath turned shallow and she held herself by the bar. “What do you want?” she asked, stuttering.
“A twenty percent cut.” I withdrew the USB stick I prepared with Sasaki and held it up in front of her. “I also heard the Yakuza boss started looking for a private investigator. Better hurry.”
She straightened her back, swept the stick from my hand and her lips curled up. “Deal.” She spun on her heel and went to tend to her friends.
Oh, she bought it like a discounted lipstick. No surprises there. Her goldmine of a boyfriend was about to dry up and, given she got him into this mess, he would make sure to drag her with him. To keep buying new designer shoes every month, she needed to disappear with a lot of money. And robbing a Yakuza safe would allow her to do just that.
I left the bar.
The soonest I expected Milhamber to move was an hour after sunset, which gave me about two hours to spare. First, I texted Evelyn, my roommate, sending I’ll miss tonight’s dancing lessons, sorry. L. I put the phone on silent and slid it into my pocket.
With that solved, I had some time to kill before catching Milhamber, so I went to see Vivian.
I got into my 1990 Ford Mustang. The car was four times crashed, but still somewhat functional. I drove to the Presbyterian Abbey in Queens. The traffic would be horrible for any other place in the world. But here in New York, the completely full street was moving was better than usual.
Last year, the Presbyterian Abbey fell victim to a battle I participated in. A friend of mine was punished by being forced to reconstruct the abbey. Given how many people she murdered around that time, she deserved much worse of a punishment, but she was also my friend, so I’ve been helping her with the reconstruction.
I left the car by the sidewalk and walked through the small park surrounding the abbey. Tall trees rustled in the evening wind, soothing my soul. The abbey was a frame with windows yet to be remade. But in comparison to the ruin this place was last year, things looked a thousand times better. In retrospect, it would have been easier to raze the building to the ground and erect the abbey anew.
I moved the cement mixer into the cloister. Encircled by the archways, tall grass surrounded the remainders of the fountain that once stood in the middle. I brought the necessary supplies from the chapter house, which we were using as the depot, and got to work. First, I would rebuild the statue’s rough shape and later, I would sculpt it to beauty.
Two hours later, sweat glued my shirt to my body. I didn’t finish restoring the statue, but this was a good start. Now, the time to solve the Yakuza thing has arrived.
I turned off the cement mixer and swiped the sweat from my brow.
“Done already?” a low, melodic voice said from the cloister’s side.
Of course, Vivian was watching me work. The slacker liked to do that. To her credit, I didn’t notice her presence until she spoke. “Need to go work.”
Soft steps shuffled on the ground and Vivian appeared from behind the archway. Dressed in the traditional nun habit, she appeared harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her sapphire eyes shone from her pale face, her midnight black hair neatly arranged. “Work? Didn’t you have dancing lessons with the pet tonight?”
“Evelyn’s not a pet.” I took a sharp breath and glared at her. “But we’ve been through this discussion a hundred times already.”
She approached me, stopping a foot away, looking up into my eyes with a wicked smile playing on her blood-red lips. “You know I cannot resist teasing you.”
I grabbed her by the waist and pulled her to me, pressing her body against mine. She grunted with pain. The move made her habit reveal the harness binding her body. Steel construction wrapped her torso, featuring dozens two-inch nails constantly digging her body. Such was her punishment, to wear this until she rebuilt the abbey she destroyed. Due to her perfect regeneration, the nails could scrape her bones without threatening her life.
She breathed deeply for a moment before she overcame the pain. Once she did, she placed her arms around my neck, smiling. “Was that you punishing me for the pet remark?”
“Yes.” I leaned down, stopping an inch before her face.
She closed her eyes and kissed me. Her hot lips pressed against mine and soon her tongue entered my mouth. My mind blanked for a second, forgetting the rest of the world existed. Yeah, I kind of loved her, and that was the main problem here. When my senses returned, Vivian’s arms clenched my neck as her kissing became hungrier.
That was about enough. I caught her shoulders and pushed her off me. As I did, she dug her nails into my neck and scratched, leaving behind searing trails.
She sneered. “I wasn’t finished.”
“But I’m going to work.” I detached completely and started walking away. “You can continue on the statue. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“You will pay for this.”
Oh, I’ve heard that a touch over a thousand times in the past year. With a broad smile, I got to my car and went back to work.
Time to catch Milhamber.