I rubbed some plaster dust between my fingers. The wall had exploded, but there weren’t any scorch marks that would indicate a bomb. Instead, it looked like something massive had smashed its way through.
Any giant could have made this hole. Tezuka’s name, I probably could have made this hole, with effort. The wall was just cheap sheetrock. It wasn’t designed to actually defend against anything. It may as well have been made of paper.
“Aunty, what are we doing here?” Yuuki asked with a sigh.
I looked up. He was standing in the middle of the chaotic apartment, looking around with disdain. His hand was on his sword, but he flicked his red hair-ribbon off his shoulder in an absent-minded way.
The two of us weren’t the only kensei here. Yuudai wasn’t here, but there were three more, all baseline, who had come with me when I asked. They were currently trying to look like they weren’t eavesdropping on our conversation.
“We’re looking for clues,” I said.
“The Gravers did it,” Yuuki said.
I smiled. “Yes, I know.” The corpse covered in petrakinetic stone armor had been a red flag. “But why were they here? Who managed to kill at least one of them, and why didn’t they police the corpses? These are all questions we need answered.”
“I heard Anders call them a cult worshiping a ghost.”
“Even cults have reasons,” I said. I frowned and blew some of the dust away, revealing a spent shell casing. I picked it up with a pair of tweezers and slipped it into an evidence bag. It wasn’t a make I recognized, but there were lots of bullet makers in this city. “Even the truly, completely insane have patterns. We just need to find it.”
“Then why are we here? Why not Butler’s CSIs, or Miss Medina?”
“Laura is busy, and I know Ling better than the CSI team.” I took out my phone and took a picture of a bootprint that we had missed when we first came in. It was only partial, but it was better than nothing.
“But Miss Yu is dead.”
I smiled sadly. “I know. But the Gravers are trying to emulate her.” I stood up and looked around the apartment again. “For some reason, they thought the people here needed to be killed. But why?”
There was a brief sound of rushing air. I turned to see one of my kensei standing out in the hall. She was a fel, but just the ears. Hopefully her sudden arrival hadn’t disturbed the scene at all. I didn’t chastise her, since she clearly had something important to say.
“Report,” I said.
“Records indicate that the apartment was bought in cash,” she said. She had a slight Romanian accent from growing up in one of the vampire domains. I didn’t know which one. “No names, of course. But the thing is, the landlord doesn’t remember selling the apartment. He could be lying—”
“No,” I said, frowning. “That’s unlikely.” It would gain him nothing, and he likely wasn’t happy with these tenants. They had got a giant hole blasted in the wall and left him with the bill. “Get a hacker on it. Call the changelings.”
She nodded, pulling a cell phone out of her gi and walking further down the hallway for some privacy.
“Kenkami,” one of the others called. “Come take a look at this.”
I stepped around the shattered television and ripped-up couch. One of my kensei led me into the sole bedroom.
There was no bed. There wasn’t much of anything. No cabinets, no suspicious stains or ashes of burned letters. As far as I could tell, this was exactly what it looked like right before anyone moved in.
“Sam,” I said curtly.
He nodded. “Sorry. Look here.” He knelt down on the floor, and I followed suit. I immediately saw what he meant—big, square indents in the floor. Some of them had the circles of little rubber feet. “This place was filled with computers. I can’t give you an exact number, but I’m guessing it’s ‘as many as they could get their hands on.’ You can even see where they sat on the floor, here.”
I raised an eyebrow. I could see a small butt imprint in the carpet. Now that I was looking at it correctly, I could see it. There were all the signs of someone surrounding themselves with a ring of computers. Just as many as they could.
I sniffed the air. Yes, and there was that stench of ozone. The smell of computers not quite overheating, but running for long and hot.
“A hacker?” I asked.
“I checked with MC. No internet usage in this apartment for the last week.”
“Well maybe—” I blinked as the sentence caught up with me. “None?”
“None,” he said. “Somebody opened up the Fundie login page on Christmas Day, and then nothing ever since.”
Christmas Day. The day of the war.
That had been a confusing day all around. But still… they wouldn’t be that stupid…
But that was just it. They weren’t being stupid, were they? They had managed to remain in hiding for a week. Most spies from outside the city barely lasted two days.
I chided myself. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. There were plenty of other explanations. Maybe some changeling had been perfecting his rig in private. They sometimes had odd, almost religious reverence for their machines. Staying unconnected from the internet for a week was pretty tame compared to some of the things I had heard.
“Yuuki,” I said.
He immediately poked his head into the room. “Yes?”
“Have you determined how many people were involved in this fight?”
His lips moved slowly. I could tell he hadn’t been paying attention to the crime scene after all. He had been treating it as something he just had to grin and bear, like a dentist’s appointment. “Uh…”
“Start with the bootprints,” I said. “Not as good as fingerprints, but they’ll give us a number. Then we’ll try and sort them between the Gravers and the residents.”
Yuuki glanced behind him, back into the main room. I pretended not to know that the other kensei were frantically signaling him with the answers.
He looked back at me. “Six in the apartment. Not sure how many outside. Not as much dust. There’s just the golem’s footprints.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe the golem was the only attacker? It would explain why the Gravers left the bodies.”
“Gravers attack in groups,” I said. “Ling was smart enough to never go alone if she could help it. Her cult—or college, or whatever—seems to have learned that lesson well.” I groaned and rose to my feet.
“So… a few Gravers attacked six people, got fought off, and the people ran before they could come back with reinforcements?”
“Sounds about right.”
“Probably within the hour,” Sam said. “That butt imprint wouldn’t last long.”
I smiled. “Sam, we know already.”
He frowned, then blushed. “Right. The landlord said it happened an hour ago. I forgot.”
“It’s fine.” I turned back to my nephew. “Have you seen any other signs that might indicate who was here?”
Yuuki tried to think. “The corpse next to the door. Killed with a single shot to the head.”
I nodded in what I hoped was an encouraging manner.
He continued, but still looked like someone was torturing it out of him. “Um, that means that was one of the Gravers, right? Because Gravers don’t use guns. They’d do the golem-armor, or throw rocks.”
I nodded. “Very good. Search his pockets for anything useful.”
Yuuki paled. “The corpse? Search the corpse?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Is that a problem?”
He glanced at the body, then back at me. “No. No, it’ll be fine.” He walked over to the body, and I carefully pretended not to notice how he was clearly trying not to throw up. At least the smell wasn’t bad yet.
I pointed to one of the other kensei. “You.” I pointed to the golem. “Get the armor off.”
She nodded and pulled out a knife. “Yes, sir.” She knelt down, paused for a moment, and then seemed to blur as she activated her power. At that speed, the little knife might as well have been a chainsaw.
The kensei I had sent away earlier returned. “Eccretia said she checked with her men. She confirmed that this wasn’t a changeling operation. From what her hackers could determine, this apartment was never actually paid for. Someone hacked the accounts to make it look like it was occupied, then just started squatting.”
I frowned. That made things a little more difficult. “Fine.” I waved my hand at the room. “Sniff. You have the best nose.” I stepped aside to let her in, then walked out into the hallway myself. I needed a moment to think.
Work backward. Assuming that the residents were American spies, or leftovers from the war or whatever, would all this make sense? The Gravers would have motive to attack them, but the Gravers attacked pretty much everyone except for Necessarius. That wasn’t proof of anything.
This would be so much easier if the Gravers would just talk to anyone. But they refused to let any of us get within a hundred yards of the Grave. MC said they didn’t even bring their phones in.
The internet, though, that was something. Everyone in Domina used Fundie. Absolutely everyone. Even hardened criminals on the run from Necessarius used it. Butler was emphatically not allowed to use it to track people down. But on the other hand, criminals might be paranoid enough to avoid it anyway. And they’d probably be right to. So again, that didn’t prove anything. Weak evidence.
The computers were odd. If they had only been here since Christmas, how had they managed to assemble a rig that fast? It was doubtful that they had brought it with them. The Americans had invaded, they hadn’t brought hackers and data miners. Besides, what would they even do with an overpowered rig if they weren’t connected to the internet? It would have made so much more sense if it was just a weird changeling.
I flipped out my phone and dialed MC.
“Yes, Akane?” her fake voice said cheerily.
“Were any computer stores robbed in the past week?” I asked. “In a ten-block radius.”
“There were eighteen robberies in the specified time and location range.”
Of course. There was Domina City for you. “What about big robberies? A thousand dollars minimum.”
“There were twelve robberies in the specified time, location, and price range.”
I sighed. “Ten thousand, then.”
“There were two robberies in the specified time, location, and price range.”
“Send me both locations.” I hung up. “Yuuki!”
He jumped up from the corpse and saluted so fast I heard the air crack. “Haven’t found anything yet!”
“We need to check out some robberies,” I said. My phone buzzed in my hand, but I didn’t even bother looking at it yet. “Might be related. Maybe we can get some security footage on the robbers. Could be the ones who were squatting here.”
Yuuki relaxed visibly. “Okay, sure. Sounds good.”
I nodded. “Sam!”
He stood up. He had been observing something on the ground, in the corner. “Sir?”
He beamed, and saluted. “Yes, kenkami!”
Yuuki and I headed down the hallway. He was quiet as we reached the elevators.
“Something wrong?” I asked once we were inside. “Worried about your brother?”
He shook his head. “He’s in good hands. And it’s not anything dangerous, anyway.”
True enough. “What, then?”
He sighed. “It’s about Saki.”
Saki Akiyama. Murasaki Akiyama’s daughter, Yuuki’s cousin, and my niece. She had been one of the first people tossed into the CS cells. She had a dangerous power. She could make anyone treat her as the most important thing in their life. They became willing to kill anyone—including themselves—if it kept her safe.
It was one of the strongest powers I’d seen. She had lost her voice in exchange. That was called a discord, losing something in order to boost the power in some way. Laura had theorized that Derek’s shields were a discord. She had observed similar powers, and thought that the power was the ability to create shaped energy barriers. The fact that he was limited to just shields instead of swords and knives like Elizabeth was his own limit, not one of the power itself.
I forced a smile on my face. “What about her?”
“I haven’t been to see her since that first day,” he said. “Have you?”
I shook my head. I had considered it, but with so much lost time between us… it felt like an impossible gap to bridge.
“Yuudai has,” Yuuki said. “A bunch of times. I think he’d go every day if Mister Sifu wasn’t pushing him so hard, keeping him busy.”
The elevator dinged. We stepped out onto the ground floor.
I checked the addresses on my phone and started heading outside. “What does he do? Talk with her?”
“Not with her, I don’t think. To her, maybe. She doesn’t talk back.”
I smiled, then glanced up the street and figured out which way we were supposed to go. “You know what I mean. She writes.”
“I do know. Knew. And she doesn’t write.” He shook his head. “She doesn’t seem interested in any kind of redemption. That’s why I’m worried. I think she’s biding her time, just waiting to get out of there. And she’s going to use Yuudai to do it.”
“You shouldn’t talk about your family like that,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had treated my own mother worse over the years. It’s just… I thought maybe things would be easier with my nephews. And my niece.
“Yeah, well, the world doesn’t operate as it should,” he said cynically. “Better safe than sorry is practically the family motto.”
“The family motto is Ketsueki no yōna aka.”
“Sure. Anyway, I’m not going to sit by and let my brother get enchanted by some witch. I don’t care if she is my cousin.”
I nodded glumly. “I’ll speak to Yuudai. Failing that, I’ll ask the CS squad to keep him out. That should be enough.”
He took a deep breath and nodded. “Thank you. That will have to be enough.”
I pulled out my phone and checked the addresses MC had sent me. “This is taking too long. Follow me.”
I activated my power and ran off, followed by my nephew’s surprised laughter. I smiled as I heard it. It warmed my heart.
I had far too many worries these days, and he had just added a few more.
Behind the Scenes (scene 297)
Akane and her nephews always end up going to odd places. We’ll revisit these two and the Americans later, but for now there are other things to worry about.