19. Fight / Flight
Ever since the previous evening, when she had seen those melancholy photographs of Yamaku in Rin’s book, Emi Takada had been afraid.
Frustratingly, she didn’t know exactly why. Emi was a practical young woman; ghosts and bad omens were entertaining fictions to her, nothing more. The quite rational concerns of suffering a physical injury while breaking into an abandoned building, or infringing the law, or encountering the more reclusive varieties of local wildlife didn’t trouble her to any great extent. Even the events of the past few days weren’t a factor - after all, one of the reasons she had accompanied Rin to Sendai was to get away from that ugly business for a while.
But still, for no reason she could adequately name, there had been something about returning to the ruins of her old school that Emi had found deeply unsettling.
By the time she had parked outside the demolition company’s frog-green wall the feeling had solidified; a tightness behind her sternum, a crawling shiver between her shoulder blades that wouldn’t go away. It had caused her to snap so thoughtlessly at Rin outside the open board, to wander Yamaku's empty corridors with the frightened reverence of someone making their way through an ossuary. And, as soon she heard Lilly scream her name for a second time, it had sent her diving for the art room door faster than she’d left any set of running blocks in her life.
Emi didn’t have her blades on, but her everyday prosthetics were hugely advanced compared to the ones she had worn through school. She was out into the corridor within two seconds.
It was empty. “Lilly?”
“Second floor,” said Rin, barrelling out of the doorway.
They reached the end of the hallway together. Emi hammered down the stairs as fast as her legs could function, Rin at her side the whole way, then grabbed at the handrail and swung herself around into the corridor.
Lilly was there. She was standing opposite an open door, back pressed hard to the wall and hands to her mouth. “Emi? Rin, is that you? Are you there?”
“We’re right here, it’s okay.” Emi skated to a halt next to her, put a hand to Lilly’s shoulder. She glanced through the doorway; the room’s blinds were drawn, but there was a little light coming in from the corridor, enough to see that the interior was a jumble of discarded furniture. “Wow, it’s a real mess in there. Did you hurt yourself?”
Lilly shook her head. She was shivering visibly, her face paper-white.
Her cane was on the floor in front of her. Emi stooped to pick it up, and as she did so the smell issuing from within the room hit her.
“Ew, what the hell?” She clamped a hand over had mouth and nose. The air past that open door was rancid, thick with rot.
“This… This was our room, Hanako and I used to eat here.” Lilly choked back a sob. “My cane touched something on the floor, and the smell… Oh God, Emi. I think... I think there’s someone in there.”
“Seriously?” For several seconds Emi completely failed to grasp what Lilly meant by that – the idea of somebody choosing to remain in such a vile atmosphere didn’t make any sense to her at all.
Then she realised that Lilly hadn’t been talking about anyone capable of leaving. She swallowed hard. “Oh. Right. You mean someone… Oh shit.”
Rin leaned her forehead gently against Lilly’s shoulder. “Everything’s going to be okay,” she said. “Just stay here. We’ll investigate.”
Emi gave her a lopsided smile. “We will?”
“This requires investigation, so yes.”
“Okay. Fine.” She peered nervously back through the doorway. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Yamaku’s main building was far larger than it had ever needed to be; several of its classrooms and study areas had been surplus to requirements even before Nakai’s accident had brought it low. Back when Lilly and Hanako had been friends they had unofficially taken this room over for a while, eating lunch there together on most days, rather than in the cafeteria or on the roof like Emi and Rin.
Hanako must have liked the room because it was quiet, Emi guessed. And Lilly because it didn’t have Shizune in it.
Times have changed, Emi thought grimly. I bet we all wish Shizune was here right now.
After Lilly had left for Scotland the room must have fallen back into disuse. Perhaps it had been earmarked for storage – what little Emi could see of the far wall was heaped high with boxes and piles of furniture; cupboards and cabinets and stacks of chairs, school desks arranged into lethal-looking towers. An angular, glittering thing that might have been an old overhead projector.
Close to the door, though, was a very different kind of chaos.
About half the room had been hastily cleared, and then several of the desks and filing cabinets had been dragged into a rough circle and tipped over. Benches and chairs had been piled against them, braced in turn by boxes and sprawling piles of books and office supplies.
That unholy shiver was crawling up and down Emi’s spine again. Lilly’s tea-room looked, impossibly, as though something had tried to build a nest in it.
She stepped carefully over the threshold, still covering her nose and trying to breathe as little as possible. “Rin,” she whispered. “Be careful, okay? There’s stuff on the floor.”
Rin was turning her head this way and that, trying to see in every direction at once. “I think there’s stuff everywhere.”
Emi moved close to the circle, saw that there was an open side of it facing the door. Lilly must have walked right into the middle of the nest. Which meant that whatever she had found with the end of her cane was there.
“Hm?” She glanced over to where Rin was standing, saw the woman nod at something on one of the boxes. “What’s that?”
“Does it work?”
“I don’t know, I don’t want to touch it. It looks sticky.”
“Everything in here looks…” Emi trailed off. There was something lying inside the circle of furniture. Something lumpy and uneven and covered in what could only have been a stained nylon sleeping-bag.
The rotted odour was strongest here.
Emi could hear whispering. She looked back to the doorway, saw Lilly standing with one hand against the doorframe, the other raised to brush the small silver crucifix she wore around her neck. “Don’t let it be her,” she was saying, under her breath. “Dear Lord, please don’t it be her…”
Emi couldn’t make her wait any longer. Very quickly, before she had a chance to obey all her instincts and run right out of the room, she reached down and lifted the corner of the sleeping bag.
“What is it?” Rin was at the entrance to the circle. “Can you see it? What is it?”
“Ah…” Emi blinked. “It’s food.”
“What?” gasped Lilly. “What do you mean, food?”
“It’s… Aw man.” Emi stepped back, clamping both hands over her face. Lifting the nylon had sent a fresh wave of the odour wafting up at her. “Looks like a bunch of half-eaten lunchboxes, fruit, all kinds of crap. Rin, get out of the way.” She staggered back, away from the nauseating pile of leftovers. “It’s nothing, it’s just somebody’s garbage.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure.” Emi stumbled back to the door, sagged against the doorframe and dragged in a long breath of cold corridor air. “But if you wanna go rooting around in it, be my guest.”
“Skipping lunch was a good idea,” said Rin, emerging from the doorway. She looked a little unsteady. “I’m glad you had that one. You’ve gone a very interesting colour.”
Emi smiled weakly at her. “I guess that’s one mystery solved. The Ghost of Yamaku Academy is just some vagrant with bad food hygiene and a sticky flashlight.”
“I’m so sorry.” Lilly was still at the doorway, one hand clamped very hard around the frame. Emi could see that she was shaking.
She reached up to cover Lilly’s hand with hers. “Are you gonna be okay?”
The woman nodded, turned her head to Emi. Her cheeks were wet. “Thank you. Thank you both so much. And I’m sorry I startled you.” She drew in a shivering breath. “But for an awful moment, for some reason I thought it might be...”
“Easy mistake to make. None of us actually knows what a dead person smells like.” Then Emi saw the look on Lilly’s face, and realised what she’d meant. “Hey, listen. She’s safe, okay? She’s not even back in the country yet, you know that.”
“I know, I know. What I was thinking makes no sense at all.” Lilly turned from the doorway, squared her shoulders. “I’m sorry, I’m being so foolish.”
“Don’t mention it. We’re all rattled.”
“I don’t like this.” Rin was shuffling nervously. “There’s something not right about this. Emi, I’d like to go now, please.”
“You’re sure?” Emi checked her watch. “I know this was kind of a shock, but it’s just one room.”
“How do you know it’s just one?”
Emi opened her mouth to reply, then she thought about the implications of what Rin had just said, and closed it again.
For several long, uncomfortable seconds, nobody said anything at all. There was no sound in the corridor other than the last fading echoes of Rin’s voice, and the faint, rhythmic scrape of her sandals on the dusty floor.
Then Emi nodded. “You know what? This has been fun, but I think I’m done here. Lilly?”
“Oh, my curiosity has been quite satisfied, I assure you.”
“There are better places to be than here. I think we should go to some of them.”
“Okay, that’s a unanimous vote for getting the hell out of here.” She took Lilly’s arm. “Hey, maybe we could call Shiina and Shizune. If they’re done too, we could grab a late lunch.”
“Emi, honestly.” Lilly unfolded her cane. “Are you seriously telling me you’re hungry, after what you found in there?”
“No, but by the time we get together I will be. A girl’s got to plan ahead.”
By the time they reached the lobby Emi had almost gotten the reek of spoiled food out of her nostrils. The air down on ground level seemed fresher than in the corridors and classrooms, and walking out of the stairwell and into that high pale space felt like leaving a tunnel.
Partway down the ramp Lilly paused to call Shiina. Emi led Rin a little further down, then stopped at the safety rail. She leaned over it, blinking down into the gloom of the cafeteria level.
“Are you disappointed?” she asked.
“You know.” Emi nodded upwards, at the shadowed ceiling. “This. You don’t feel like we came a long way for nothing?”
Rin tilted her head quizzically. “It wasn’t for nothing.“
“Pretty sure,” mimicked Rin, cheekily. She stepped to the rail next to Emi, turned and put her back against it. “Consider cake.”
“I do that a lot.”
“Sometimes I’ll see a cake. And I’ll think, that’s a yummy looking cake. I want that cake. I need that cake.”
“Been there,” grinned Emi. “Done that.”
“Yes, it’s a fundamental human experience. And by the time I finally buy the cake it’s the best cake, a mythic cake. A cake of which songs will be sung by ragged bards in the ruins of future civilisations.”
“Then I eat it. And it’s just a cake. It’s a yummy cake, but no yummier than most other cakes. And now I’m sticky and a bit queasy and there’s cream on my nose.” Rin closed her eyes thoughtfully. “Sex is often the same.”
Emi coloured. “Let’s stick with the cake thing for now, yeah?”
“Coming back here was going to be amazing. It was going to change me, redefine me. But it’s just a big box.” Rin opened her eyes, turned to Emi. “It was quite a nice box before they started knocking it down, but no nicer than lots of other boxes. I could never be certain of that if I hadn’t come back. So I did and now I am.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling. Also a little hungry, maybe.”
“Talking about cake will do that.”
“Yes. And the other thing.” Rin paused. Then: “I’m not disappointed, because I learned something very important today. I learned that I didn’t start becoming me when I came here. I thought that was true but it’s not.” She smiled. “I started to become me when I met you.”
Suddenly, Emi found it rather hard to speak. “Me?” she managed.
“Yes.” Rin nodded. “I didn’t get to finish what I was saying up in the art room. I know it’s hard being my friend. But I’m really, really glad you are.”
Emi lurched forwards and buried her head in Rin’s chest, wrapped her arms around tightly. “Me too.”
She felt Rin nuzzle the top of her head. “I wish I could hug you back.”
“You are,” Emi whispered. “You’re doing just fine.”
There was a faint tapping from further up the ramp. Emi reluctantly extricated herself from Rin to see Lilly walking down towards her, cane in one hand and her phone in the other. “Hey.”
“Emi? Is everything all right? You sound, um…”
“Sorry.” She sniffed. “Didn’t expect to get all emotional here. I guess it snuck up on me. Did you get through to Shiina?”
“I didn’t, no.” Lilly slipped her phone back into her bag. “I tried three times - I’m sure I was making contact, but she didn’t pick up.”
“I’ll give her a try.” Emi took out her own phone, swiped it into life and checked the status bar. “Yeah, I’m getting a good signal. Hold on.”
Shiina’s number was on Emi’s speed dial; she tapped the icon, listened to the phone purr for a few seconds. “Maybe she’s busy?”
“Perhaps she left her phone in Shizune’s car.”
“Yeah. Or she might not hear it ringing if it’s in her bag. I’ve done- Oh, wait a second. I think I’ve got her.”
The purring had ceased with the faint, familiar click of connection. Emi waited for Shiina’s voice to follow, but for several seconds all she heard was silence.
Emi blinked in surprise. The voice had been male, deep and curt. No-one she recognised. “Ah, I’m sorry, I might have got the wrong number. Is Shiina there?”
Another pause. “May I ask who’s speaking, please?”
That hard, cold knot of unease was starting to form in Emi’s chest again. “I could ask you the same question, pal. Is this Shiina’s phone or isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t-” The man’s voice cut off, oddly. The phone was still connected, but he had simply stopped talking. Then, before Emi could speak, she heard a strange clattering noise from the other end of the line. A shout, too faint for her to make out, but sounding very much like a cry of pain. Scraping sounds.
And finally, Shiina Mikado’s voice, quite strained and almost painfully loud. “Let go! Give it back!”
“Shiina? Is that you?”
“Emi! Oh thank God, Emi…” Shiina’s voice had dipped a little in volume, but she sounded breathless, tearful. “I could hear the phone ringing but it was in Mrs Umeda’s office and I had to run out of the ambulance and the policeman wouldn’t give it to me…”
“Whoah, what?” Emi stared, then stepped closer to Rin and Lilly. “Hold on, I’m putting you on speaker. What ambulance, what’s going on back there?”
“Emi, he’s got Shicchan!”
“Shiina,” said Lilly, her voice very cool and controlled. “Please calm down as much as you can. What do you mean?”
Emi heard Shiina suck in a long breath. “That man, that one who sent the letters. He’s called Ryo, Ryoichi Umeda, Shicchan and I were talking to his mother and he attacked us. He hit me on the head, and Shicchan was on the ground, he was hitting her and hitting her and I couldn’t…” Her voice dissolved into sobs for a few seconds, then: “Oh Emi, I don’t even know if she’s alive. He dragged her into his car, he drove off…”
“When was this?” Lilly asked.
“About half an hour ago.” Shiina sniffed loudly. “Mrs Umeda called the police and the ambulance. They think he’s going to his grandfather’s place, they’re going to try and catch him there.”
“Umeda…” said Emi. “Wait, the rifle guy?”
“Yeah. The head caretaker at Yamaku was his stepdad, Ryo, I mean, but they didn’t get on, so he used to run away to Jiro’s place when they had rows.”
“Oh no,” Emi breathed.
The hooded man was the stepson of Yamaku’s chief caretaker. A caretaker would have access to keys and tools. Keys to open the lobby’s front doors and unlock storage rooms. Tools to switch the water back on. “Listen, Shiina?”
“You need to tell the police he might not be going there. Someone’s been hiding out here at the school, it might have been him. Tell them there’s a chance he might head to Yamaku instead.”
“More than a chance,” said Lilly quietly.
Emi looked up, saw her standing very stiff and upright, facing the lobby’s main door. Rin was staring in the same direction.
She turned, slowly, saw a dark figure waiting motionless at the base of the ramp.
“Tell them he’s here,” she whispered, and slipped the phone into her pocket.
The man must have walked through the doors with his head down, his view partly obscured by the hood of his thick black top. He’d gotten several paces into the lobby before noticing the three women halfway up the ramp.
Now he was standing, as still as a statue, between Emi and the door. He was quite tall, his broad shoulders sloping a little under the hoodie, and he was carrying something long and dark in his right hand; a crowbar, maybe. A large plastic bottle hung from the other, as though full.
What she could see of his face was a mask of shock.
He wasn’t expecting this, Emi thought wildly. He didn’t think anyone would be here. Certainly not us.
God almighty, he must think we’ve been tracking him down.
Lilly had taken a step sideways, towards the middle of the ramp. She was slowly folding her cane. “Ryo, is it?” she said. “Ryoichi Umeda?”
Emi’s eyes widened a little. “What are you doing?” she hissed.
Lilly didn’t answer her. Instead, she took a step forwards. “You know I can’t see you, Ryo. But I can hear you, standing there. I can hear your breath, your heartbeat. I know where you are.”
Very slowly, Emi reached into her bag, found the pepper spray and drew it out.
“So come on!” Lilly snarled suddenly, her voice echoing harshly around the lobby. “What are you waiting for?”
Impossibly, at the sound of her words, the hooded man actually flinched.
“This isn’t new to you, is it, Ryo? Attacking unarmed women?” Lilly stepped forwards again. “You’ve shot at us. You’ve driven at us. You’ve beaten us. When we’re alone. But we’re not alone now, are we?” She put one foot forwards, one fist bunched, the other clenched hard around the folded cane. “You are. So come on, scunner! Show us what you’re made of!”
The man took a pace back. Emi could see his hood moving jerkily from left to right. He was looking at all three of them, as if trying to work out what to do.
And then, before she could shout a warning, he made his decision. He drew his arm back and hurled the crowbar, as hard as he could, directly at Rin’s head.
Rin twitched aside and the crowbar hissed past. Emi heard it clatter onto the ramp behind her.
That almost effortless display of flexibility, along with Lilly’s defiance, must have been too much for the hooded man. Emi saw him jolt back in shock, and then he was turning, scrambling away, the plastic bottle thudding heavily onto the littered floor.
He wrenched the door open and stumbled through. It slammed closed in his wake.
Emi whirled. “Holy shit, Lilly!”
“Please tell me that worked,” Lilly whispered. “Please tell me he’s gone.”
“Gone? He went off like a jackrabbit! Probably thinks you actually can hear his heart beating, the idiot.” Emi saw a relieved, rather nervous smile appear on Lilly’s face. “And Rin, that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!”
Rin’s eyes were very wide. “Could you tell my legs that, please, because I don’t think I can move them right now.”
“That’s okay, you don’t need to. Lilly, call the cops, tell them what’s happened. Then both of you find somewhere to hide in case he comes back.”
Lilly was already dialling. “Where are you going?”
“After him.” Emi began to make her way down the ramp. “He might still have Shizune – we can’t let him get away now.”
“No, wait.” Rin was trotting after her. “Emi, you can’t. He’ll kill you.”
“He’ll kill Shizune if I don’t.” She paused at the door, peering through the dusty glass. “I’m just going to follow him, okay? To make sure the police know where to go. If they miss him he’ll get away and we’ll never be safe.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No, you need to be here with Lilly.” The way looked clear. She turned back to Rin. “I’m fastest on my own, you know that.”
“Emi, I’m scared.” Rin’s voice had dropped to a whisper. “I don’t want to lose you. I can’t lose you.”
“You won’t.” She reached up, pulled Rin’s head down to hers until their foreheads met. “Say Goodbye Emi.”
Rin’s shut her eyes tightly. “No.”
“Then I’ll just have to come back, won’t I?” Emi leaned up on her toes, her lips brushing Rin’s for a moment, and then she was turning away, opening the door and stepping out before she could change her mind.
The hooded man was making no attempt to hide his departure. The open board was hanging from one splintered corner when she reached it, as if Ryoichi had battered straight through it in his haste to get away. He was no longer interested in keeping his hideout a secret, that much was certain. With the police already on his tail, and after encountering three witnesses who knew exactly who he was and what he had done, it was clear that escape was the only thing on his mind.
That made Emi feel better about her chances of making it to the car without being ambushed, but it also gave her an unnerving insight into the man’s physical strength. Had Ryoichi decided to attack them with the crowbar instead of merely hurling it in a panic, he could probably have overpowered all three women with little effort.
If he caught her out here, alone, he would murder her barehanded. Emi had no doubt of that.
She scrambled up to the wall, almost colliding with the fibreboard in her haste, and pressed herself against the nearest unbroken panel. Through the opening, stacks of building materials threw long, hard shadows across the rutted ground, the trees beyond them dark and heavy with threat. Even without moving Emi could see a hundred places a man in dark clothing could hide, ready to leap at her as soon as she stepped into the open.
She raised the pepper spray like a talisman and ducked out past the broken panel, just as the sludge-green flank of Ryoichi’s car slid past the end of the wall. Picking up speed, but still slow enough for her to see something in the back seat; a dark form, rising up and then tumbling away from her.
Emi put her head down and sprinted for the Mazda.
The hire car was further away than she remembered, and she was sweating hard by the time she slid into the driver’s seat, her thighs aching, heartbeat a thudding clamour in her chest. The extra distance had cost her a minute or so, but Emi wasn’t sorry she had parked the Mazda out of sight. Any closer, and Ryoichi might have stopped to knife her tyres again.
Besides, she still had an edge on him. Ryo had driven to her right, towards the same twisting road she had taken to reach the school. But there was there was another way, a steep single-lane track that led up to the bus station, cutting across the main highway twice on its way from the far western edge of town.
Emi started the Mazda, swung the big car out into a tight left turn. The narrow road was one-way only, considered too steep for buses to drive safely down, but she didn’t care much about that right now. As long as she didn’t meet anything coming up towards her, she could still overtake the green car and be ready to drop in behind it at the lower junction.
She knew the roads well. In happier days she had jogged them both, dozens of times. “You’re on my turf now, you son of a bitch,” she muttered.
The turning was ahead of her, No Entry signs flanking a road so narrow and overhung it looked like a tunnel carved out of the forest. She slowed, pulled the car hard around, and felt the road drop from beneath her. For an awful moment she couldn’t see the way forwards at all, just the blunt red nose of the Mazda hovering in darkness. It was like driving over a cliff.
Her stomach lurched. Jogging up this route on her running blades had been hard work, but no preparation for steering a car back down the other way.
Then she was in shadow, between looming, overhanging trees, their bare branches so close they seemed to be knitting a canopy over her head. She caught a glimpse of metal barriers on either side of the car, hemming her in, and tried not to dwell on how dented and scratched they were. Instead she gripped the wheel painfully tight, eased her foot off the brake, and let gravity draw her down towards the foot of the mountain.
There was no sign of the green Ford at the first junction. It wasn’t until the second crossroads, only a few hundred metres above the town itself, that Emi saw Ryoichi’s car.
It wasn’t moving.
She cursed under breath, slammed her foot down hard on the brake. She had been expecting to wait for the hooded man to drive past below her, letting her follow unseen, but something must have alerted him to her plan. Perhaps he had seen her at the earlier junction, or been checking to make sure he wasn’t followed and spotted her driving down into the steeper track.
Had she underestimated him? Nothing she had seen him do up until now would have made her think he had the wit for such caution. But there he was, his ugly, slab-sided old Ford parked on a slip-road just shy of the crossroads itself, almost invisible against the wall of trees and scrub behind.
The Mazda pulled up. Emi reached into her pocket for the phone, but as her fingers brushed it, something in the back of Ryoichi’s car moved.
A face had appeared in the window, bruised and pale, one hand raised to hold a pair of broken glasses in place.
Emi gasped. Shizune was in the back seat, looking right at her. And there was Ryoichi, a dark, shapeless thing in his covering hood, hunched over the steering wheel to stare down the winding road.
He wasn’t looking up at Emi. He didn’t know she was there. He was looking at the flashing blue lights approaching from between the trees.
He was waiting for them to go past him.
Emi twisted in her seat, staring down the road towards the approaching police cars. They were seconds away, at most, far too close to warn. They would drive up the mountain road, past Ryoichi and his battered prisoner, and the green car would drive slowly out behind them, into the town and away.
Ryoichi would find a quiet spot, and rid himself of the one witness he still had power over.
There were no options left, Emi realised, save one. And the only thing she could do was the worst thing she could imagine.
“Rin,” she breathed. “I’m so sorry.”
She reached up, flicked on the Mazda’s overhead light to make sure Shizune could see her. Then, in an exaggerated mime, wrapped both arms over her head.
When she lowered them again, Shizune was nodding.
Emi sucked in one long, shuddering breath, then stamped her foot down hard.
The Mazda lurched, the purr from the big engine rising to a howl, and the car seemed to leap under her. She was still on a steep slope, the road was dry and the tyres warm. Gravity, friction and torque were all on her side.
Within a second, she couldn’t have reigned the car in even if she’d wanted to.
She saw Shizune surging up from her seat, reaching forwards to grab Ryoichi’s black hood and tug it down over his face. She only managed to hold on for a second or two before he wrenched himself free, but by then it was far too late. He just had enough time to turn, raise his fist in preparation to strike the woman again, before he noticed Emi bearing down on him.
And in that final moment, she saw him clearly for the first and last time; his hood down, his face turned towards her, eyes wide and mouth agape in disbelieving horror. He looked so unremarkable, so ordinary, that she could find no hatred in her heart for him. No pity, or curiosity, or anger. She felt nothing for him at all.
Perhaps there just wasn’t time.
Emi Takada closed her eyes. “Dad,” she whispered.