by Nene Adams ©2004 - All rights reserved

Losing my reason
I was driven to such behavior;
illusion?
I don't know--
let someone else decide.
-----Ariwara no Narihara (825-880)
 

Tokyo, the 22nd century

The woman was beautiful, as only those who have endured extensive body sculpting can be. A life-sized doll in tinted wax and plastic, flawless, breathtaking, and completely unnatural. Someone's fantasy made flesh. A rich man's toy.

She was nude.

She was also dead.

Makiko looked around the apartment. Hair, fibers, trace DNA, air samples had been taken already - the Department's sniffer 'bots were very thorough. Holographs of the crime scene were already being examined by human experts as well as AI's. Fingerprints were logged. Techs had come, collected evidence, and trotted back to the office with their prizes. Within an hour, the dead woman would have few secrets left.

Now it was Makiko's turn to pry what she could from the cold flesh.

The woman's body, sealed in a stasis field, lay in situ on the floor. Arms at her sides, legs spread, eyes wide open and fixed on the ceiling. Mottled bruising was present around the lower half of her face. Her lips were raw, slightly parted. The pose was disquietingly sexual.

Makiko glanced at her partner, Abby Sullivan. "What do you think?" she asked.

Abby wrinkled her nose. "That this place costs more in a month's rent than I make in a year." Her hands were shoved in the pockets of her uniform coverall.

"I know what you mean." Makiko shook her head. "Looks like she paid the price, though."

"It was her choice."

"The mannequin job, perhaps. But not this. Not death."

"You're the expert, 'Kiko. I'm just along for the ride." Abby punched a button on her com, activating the small hover-cameras that would record their part of the investigation. "You ready?"

Makiko knelt down beside the dead woman, pushing her hands against the stasis field. It was invisible, but she could feel pressure against her palms. Slowly, Makiko forced her fingers through the field, until they touched the corpse's forehead. Generated electrostatic tingled against her wrists, made the hairs on her arms stand up and quiver. "I'm ready."

"Good to go. We've got real-time upload."

Makiko closed her eyes. To her physical vision, Abby was sturdy, auburn-haired and gray-eyed. Comfortably solid. A no fuss, common sense presence in a chaotic world. Psychically, Abby was surrounded by a shimmering green aura, tinged with orange, yellow, and lilac. Tendrils thrust deeply downward, anchoring her to the earth. Abby was the most well-grounded person Makiko had ever known. That they were lovers had nothing to do with her admiration.

She focused her attention on the victim. Chi, qi, bioplasm, prana, kundalini, shakti, vitality, life force, chakra, akasha, aura - whatever the term, it referred to the bioelectric impulses which were present in all living matter. Death released the majority of this energy back to the global etheric body. The personality or consciousness did not survive, although many religions continued to believe it did, despite advances in Kirlian field technology.

Some traces of these energies usually remained in the human body, lingering hours after brain wave cessation. These could be read by gifted psychics, especially in the case of violent death. 'Recorded' impressions, images, sounds, scents - memories created in a last, desperate struggle to stay alive - were there to be retrieved, if one had the ability.

Makiko specialized in gleaning broken pieces of information from the dead.

From a distance, she heard Abby murmuring.There was a brief sensation of spiky reds, murky pumpkin and brown. Their supervisor, Chief Egami, had arrived.

She tightened concentration, making a connection to the murder victim. Life energy was present but dissipating. Makiko would have to do this quickly. She opened herself up, mental shields dropping. Immediately, she began to feel dizzy, a touch nauseous. There was a strong smoky odor, which she tentatively identified as incense. A rustling sound, like beating wings. The smell grew stronger. A series of images flashed through her mind, one after the other, so swiftly that her dizziness increased.

Vermilion peonies bursting open, petals unraveling from the center

The moon/chopsticks stuck upright in a bowl of rice/the number four

Irregular shape blotting out the ceiling, fluttering, too big to be a moth, wrong shape, swooping down

Feel of something soft against her face. Too tight. Can't breathe.

Peonies

Yin-yang symbol, black and white, dissolving into the moon

Residual empathy blocked Makiko's throat. She coughed, so caught up in trance that she did not realize it was affecting her physically. The flickering pictures were repeating, faster and faster, appearing and disappearing like playing cards flicked by a practiced thumb.

Chopstick/rice/moon/four blood red peonies/a black poppy

A woman's voice said: "Hyakki yako."

Makiko took a shuddering breath, then gagged. She was viewing through a tunnel, bright pinpoint of light at the end of gathering shadows. A stinging sensation in her nose was followed by the taste of blood in her mouth. Makiko couldn't breathe. For the first time, she felt panic, but it was too distant to rouse her to action.

A brilliant explosion of white light sent her reeling backwards, breaking contact with the dead. The stasis field snapped away from her hands. Sparks flew, burning her fingertips. Makiko fell heavily on her side. Years of training made her automatically raise her shields. As soon as she did so, the pressure on her throat subsided, and was gone. She sucked in air, fighting the urge to vomit.

Slowly, Makiko realized that her partner was kneeling down, putting a pulse monitor on her wrist. Her head throbbed. Her nose burned. There was blood on her lips. She swallowed. The salt and iron tang made her tongue feel raw.

"You came close to flatlining," Abby said. "I had to hit you pretty hard to knock you out of it." She was an exceptionally powerful telepath. Office legend said that she'd once 'shouted' at a would-be rapist so loudly, his ears had started bleeding. Makiko could believe it. Abby's mind-voice had an impact like a sandbag, when she chose to exercise it.

"Do we need Medivac?" Chief Egami asked. There was stern disapproval in his tone.

Makiko flushed, feeling sick and stupid. What had happened was a newbie error. Experienced investigators knew better than to get trapped in a cycle. Death energies faded fast; the instinct was to chase after them, grasping at smoke that trickled through one's fingers faster than it could be gathered. Go too deep, and you could die. Slip away into darkness while your heart stops. It was a gentler ending than most - an absent-minded type of suicide - but she should have been more cautious. The nosebleed was a warning that she had ignored, almost to her peril.

Residual empathy was another problem - the inability to separate yourself from the victim's psyche. Cellular memory was far stronger than most people realized. It took time for the body to forget trauma. Readers were clairvoyant with minor empathetic gifts. They could get sucked in, experience the trauma as if it were first hand. There were stories told in the Department about Readers catching fire while probing arson victims, or having wounds appear, or limbs fall off, or any of a thousand gruesome cautionary tales. While the details might be exaggerated, there was a kernel of truth in them all.

Makiko had been a Reader for ten years. This shouldn't have happened. I've never had an Incident Report, not even during training. It was something of a shock to find out that she was fallible after all.

Egami hovered above her, scowling. His tie was askew. "What am I touching in my pocket?" he asked.

Makiko smiled. He was giving her a simple test for psychic burn-out. "A card with an infinity symbol on it."

"And now?"

"A condom. Cuttlefish flavor. Ribbed for extra pleasure."

"Can this wait?" Abby slapped an endorphin patch on the side of Makiko's neck. "I think she should have a full medical work-up."

"I'm fine. What I need to do is make my report, while the information's still fresh." Makiko sat up. Abby put an arm around her shoulders.

Egami's scowl deepened. "Officer Makiko doesn't seem to be in shock," he said to Abby. "Take her back to the Department.  I want her examined tomorrow, even if she doesn't exhibit further injury."

Abby nodded. "Can you stand by yourself?" she asked Makiko.

"I think so." Makiko slowly got to her feet, leaning heavily on Abby's arm. Her nosebleed had stopped. The headache was beginning to fade, thanks to the 'dorphins. "Will you both stop talking about me like I'm not here?"

The coroner's assistant came in, followed by an auto-gurney. He used the manipulator arms to load the body, stasis generator and all, onto the flat steel platform, then left as silently as he had arrived.

Abby steered Makiko out of the apartment to the express elevator. As soon as they stepped inside, a sultry male voice said, "Thank you for visiting Tokugawa Tower. May I offer you a complimentary hot towel, cool refreshing beverage, or chakra adjustment? I have a degree in from Dr. Bardo University. Are you still paying off bad karmic debts? I can help. Easy rates."

"Lobby," Makiko ordered shortly. Interactive systems were bad enough, but there was no need for personality-programmed elevators. Especially overly educated ones with a consumer fetish.

The doors did not close. There was an air of expectant waiting. Finally Abby, chuckling at the look on Makiko's face, said the magic words: "Lobby, please."

"At your command, gentle beings. Enjoy your stay aboard Tokugawa Tower's patented Long Neck Passenger Car 323. My friends call me Lenny." The elevator doors shut. No discernible movement accompanied the start of their journey, but a holographic geisha in the corner began chirping numbers. The geisha's kimono was displaying the latest adverts, mixed with a montage from samurai splatter flicks.

As if this wasn't bad enough, a nozzle emerged, spraying a gentle mist over both women. Abby sniffed, clearly amused. "Flora Flora Flora. The world's most expensive perfume. Attar of nectar roses, grown only on Orbital Colony Four."

"Perhaps you would prefer a different scent?" Lenny asked. "I have genuine Jokhang temple smoke, imported this morning. Or Eau de Lawrence, the distilled essence of pure British stableboy pheromones, available in our gift shop. I also carry a selection of the finest sex toys. Try them now, no extra charge. Rubber mats provided by Otsuki-Vishnu, a subsidiary of Tokugawa, Inc."

Makiko groaned. "Do you have another 'dorphin patch, Abby? My headache's getting worse."

The latest hit song from Cat Shit Pie: The Musical began playing. Lenny recited, "Specially selected for your enjoyment and amusement. Tickets may be purchased at the online Box Office, please enter cash transfer code."

"Forget the endorphins. Just give me something sharp, so I can end my misery now." Makiko leaned her head against Abby's shoulder.

"Poor baby. It's almost over. Hey, Lenny, do you have stimulant drinks?" Abby jumped slightly when a tray popped out near her waist. She rummaged among plastic containers, chose one, and popped the seal tab. "Try this."

Makiko took a swallow. The liquid was cold, tasting faintly of lemons and honey. "Not bad." A second drink was an explosion of synthetic strawberry. "Eww!" A third, tentative sip produced aniseed and a fishy flavor she suspected might be trout. She eyed the container. Micro-Bead FlavoRama: One Hundred Tastes for One Hundred Tastes. A different refreshment in every mouthful.

Makiko turned to Abby with a mournful expression. "Am I being punished for something?"

"Sorry. I thought I grabbed Fujiyama JavaMocha."

"You know I hate canned coffee."

"How about..." Abby grabbed another contained, squinted at the label. "...Brain Food Super X with Real Herb Droppings? Huh. I wonder who Herb is. Doesn't say."

"I hate you, too." Makiko tossed the container of Micro-Bead over her shoulder. It passed through the holo-geisha, landing with a wet splash in the elevator's hastily extruded recycler bin.

Abby shrugged. "I love you anyway. Ah, looks like we've finally arrived."

The holo-geisha bowed, flickered and vanished. Lenny the elevator said, "Lobby level. Please wait for doors to open before attempting exit. Visit me again! Or you can contact me personally: LennyLongNeck323. Join my fan club! Special offer, this week only - buy one club membership, get the second for half-price." The doors opened to a trumpet fanfare. "It is my fondest wish that we meet again, in this life or the next. Enjoy your evening, and grateful good-byes from Tokugawa Tower."

Makiko restrained herself from putting a foot through the elevator's brainbox. Instead, she hopped out and muttered to Abby, "Stableboy pheromones?"

"Don't ask." Abby took her arm, leading her across the lobby. "You seem to be feeling better."

"Actually, I'm hungry."

"We'll stop on the way back." Abby stopped, turned Makiko around to face her. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes, momma-san." Makiko sighed. "Really, I'm not injured or distressed or suffering burn-out. I got a nosebleed. That doesn't mean I'm about to blow a cerebral vessel."

"You'd better not." Abby kissed her forehead. "Want to tell me about the Reading?"

"Not right now."

"Fine."

The car was a standard model, nothing special - two seats, barely enough leg room for a pygmy, and an onboard computer system with satellite link-up. Abby got Makiko strapped in, then punched in their destination code to Tokyo Central. The car smoothly pulled into traffic, following magnetic lines embedded in the street. Colorful adverts swirled through the air, winked from the sides of buildings, blazed across the night sky. Pedestrians scurried on the sidewalks in protective clumps, constantly harassed by gang members, religious cultists, and purveyors of everything from fake celebrity DNA to the latest black market software. Neon and grime, business and crime.

Makiko closed her eyes. "A hundred demons march at night," she said. "Hyakki yako."

"Is that from your Reading?"

"Among other things." Makiko shook her head. "Leave it for now. I'm just thinking out loud." She settled back, ignoring the sprung seat spring that was slowly grinding its way into the back of her leg. They always seemed to get assigned the crappiest vehicle from the motor pool.

The car slowed and finally stopped. Makiko remained quiet while Abby ordered food from the drive-through vendor. She opened her eyes when the other woman thrust a waxed cardboard carton into her hands. Steam curled up from the vent in the lid. She pried it off with a thumbnail, revealing ramen in salty pork broth, covered in green flecks she hoped were scallions. Makiko snapped plastic chopsticks off the side and started slurping noodles, holding the carton under her chin to catch drips. Every now and then she dipped into the bag of fried tempura crusts that Abby had placed between their seats. The rest of the journey to the Department was carried out in silence as they ate.

The Department of Order was located in downtown Tokyo, in an out-of-date plascrete building. It was a squat black box lacking nano-pixels on its outer shell, making the Department an ugly duckling compared to its neighbors. Seiko-Nintendo headquarters had a skin that changed constantly, screening classic films like Yojimbo or I Spit on Your Grave to admiring crowds below. Even the ultra conservative Sony building used haiku written by its corporate AI, elegant if gigantic hiragana characters scrolling from rooftop to ground level. The Department remained the same - silent, inartistic, grim.

Makiko thought the look was well suited to what went on behind its scarred metal doors. No glitz, no glamour, no sparkly glitter-fest to make you 'ooh' and 'aah'... just plain old death. The ultimate party downer.

From the parking garage, she and her partner took the thankfully silent elevator to the forty-sixth floor. Egami was waiting for them. "We have an I.D. on the victim from Tokugawa Tower," he said. This week, his dreadlocked hair was dyed magenta, a color that contrasted nicely with his shiny yellow rayon suit. "Her name is Perdita O'Toole. Worked at Equilibrium in the Ropponji district."

Abby whistled. "Living in that apartment with that mannequin job, she was working in a Ropponji sleaze club? No way she could make enough in salary and tips to live so high."

"Perdita's lifestyle certainly suggests her income was being subsidized by a wealthy person."

"Who probably had her body sculpted to his specifications."

"Most likely. At this stage, the investigation remains open. You'll find a copy of the preliminary reports in your data terminals. Officer Makiko, I would appreciate the results of your Reading as soon as possible."

"Of course, Egami-san." Makiko peeled the spent 'dorphin patch from her neck and dropped it in a recycler bin. "I got mostly visuals, with one aural retrieval and one scent. I think it was incense, but I don't recognize the brand."

"Abby, spread that scent around to the other 'paths," Egami said. He wanted her to read Makiko's mind and share the scent impression with the rest of the telepaths in the Department. "Maybe somebody can identify it before we have to search the whole city. Could save a lot of trouble. Now, what about the aural retrieval?"

Makiko said, "A woman's voice saying, 'hyakki yako.' One hundred demons march at night. Could be Perdita's voice. Do we have any recordings for comparison?"

"I'll find out from the techs." Egami straightened his tie. "Visuals? I'll take an oral report now and wait for the official version."

"Peonies. Very red... red as blood, if you'll forgive the obvious metaphor. A full moon. Yin-yang symbol. A bowl of rice with chopsticks sticking straight up in it."

"Extremely bad luck," Abby noted. "A funeral offering to the dead."

"There was something else, too." Makiko paused. "It's difficult to describe."

Egami seized her elbow, drew her to a chair in an empty cubicle. "Does it have to do with the unknown subject or the victim?"

"The killer," Makiko answered without hesitation. "The unsub. That's when I started getting residual empathy problems."

"Go on."

Abby knelt down, put a hand on Makiko's knee. Comforted by her partner's presence, Makiko said, "Very difficult to say exactly what it was. A sensation of something flying, but not with wings. Irregular. Like a moth or a butterfly. But it wasn't. The shape wasn't right. Kind of long, almost rolling through the air, over and over. It swooped down. There was pressure against my face, and I couldn't breathe."

Egami exchanged a glance with Abby. "Perdita O'Toole died of suffocation, according to the autopsy report. She had recently had sex - probably within a couple of hours before the murder took place. I'm waiting for lab and technical analyses to be processed through the database."

"I don't suppose you could give us the unsub's name, address and communication access number, Officer Makiko?" Abby joked.

Makiko snorted. That was the oldest jest in departmental history. The public might have the idea that 'psychic cops' were able to pinpoint criminals with the merest flexing of their mental muscles, but the truth was far more prosaic. It was only combining psychic talent with forensic investigation and hard work that achieved results. Sometimes, however, despite every resource, a murderer really did get away with it.

"Go read the reports. Get back to me as soon as you can." Egami pointed a finger at the seated woman. "Schedule yourself for a medical check. And go home as early as you can. Take a day off tomorrow. Relax. That's an order."

"Yes, Egami-san."

He scowled. "Don't pay me lip service. Just do it."

"I'll see that she does," Abby said. Makiko's automatic protest was cut off by Abby's hand over her mouth. Egami stalked away, muttering to himself.

On the way to their office, Makiko stopped at a vending machine and bought a pack of cigarettes - genetically modified, carcinogen free tobacco. The brand she chose, Bungadab, was of Indonesian manufacture. Polite Flower, with a picture of a pretty girl on the stiffened paper box. She reached for the pack and stopped. "What am I doing?"

"That's what I want to know. You don't smoke." Abby had her arms folded across her chest.

Makiko stared at her own hand, frozen in mid-air. Her gaze shifted to the cigarettes. "Should I be worried?"

"Probably." Abby leaned over and took the Bungadab box out of the vending machine slot. "Any reason why you suddenly felt the need for 'fragrantly flower-spliced soul smoke?' Twenty New Yen's worth, at that."

Flowers? Makiko snatched the pack from Abby's grasp, peered at the illustration. The pretty girl had a crimson blossom behind her ear. A peony? She tore the box open and sniffed. Bitter whiff of tobacco with a thread of cloying sweetness. Not the scent she'd gotten during the Reading. "Okay. I am definitely wondering what the hell is going on."

"'Kiko, let's go see the docs." Abby's auburn brows drew together.

Makiko stuffed the cigarettes into the pocket of her coverall. "I'll do the report first. You'd better get that scent memory from me and distribute it like Egami said. The sooner we get started, the sooner we'll be finished. Then we can go home, drink some Tsingtao beer, and go to bed."

Abby laid her hands gently against either side of Makiko's face. "Drop your shields."

Makiko did so. There were few people she trusted enough to allow unlimited access to her mind. Abby was one of them. She barely felt the probing mental touch. While she remained in contact with the other woman, she could sense Abby's concern - a dark red blotch marring her usually placid aura.

"All done," Abby said, removing her hands. Her eyelids quivered for a moment. She exhaled, a long breath that made Makiko's hair flutter around her shoulders. "And sent to the 'paths on duty tonight. Sammy says 'hi.' His cat had kittens. Do we want one?"

"Absolutely not. Bubbles doesn't like cats." Makiko referred to their only pet, a guppy whose tank was located next to her prized collection of antique Powerpuff Girls merchandise. "I'm not going to let our fish get turned into kitty sushi."

"Ah! Confirmation that you haven't lost your mind after all."

When the partners reached their shared office, Makiko settled in to program search parameters into the departmental computer. She was looking for images that matched, as closely as possible, her Reading of the victim. She put a data-band around her forehead, adjusting the holo-projectors so that they were the correct distance from her eyes. A click, and tri-dee pictures appeared, floating in front of her face. Makiko continued to refine her search, murmuring commands into a throat mike.

Abby was busy reading the preliminary reports, until she noticed Makiko had absently removed the Bungadab pack from her pocket. She watched in dreadful fascination as Makiko put a cigarette into her mouth, made the motions of lighting it. Inhale, exhale, tap imaginary ashes into a non-existent ashtray.

The pantomime continued until Abby said, "That's enough, 'Kiko."

Startled, the cigarette fell from Makiko's fingers. "What was I doing?" She stared at her partner, horrified.

"I'm not sure." Abby tapped her keyboard, scanning scrolling text. "Did you know the victim smoked Bungadab?"

"Perdita O'Toole smoked this brand?" Makiko ripped off the headband. "This is crazy."

"No, crazy is when a trained, experienced, empathetic Reader goes so far into a dead person's residual memories that they start displaying secondary personality characteristics of the Read. Oh, wait. That's you." Abby stood up. "I'm calling the duty doc. Do not argue with me, 'Kiko."

"I'm not arguing."

Abby angrily flipped her auburn braid back over her shoulder. "I'm so glad to hear it." She hit the medic alert button on the com unit. A man's face swam into view on the small monitor. "Doctor Howe? Abby Sullivan, section 42. My partner, Makiko, is showing SPC transfer symptoms." In response to a question that Makiko could not hear, Abby continued, "Yes, she did a victim Reading about two hours ago. A hot op." Meaning the case involved violent homicide.

Makiko felt her eyes burning, the precursor to tears - part distress, part anger, part embarrassment. I've worked hundreds of cases, most of them nastier than Perdita O'Toole's murder. Serial homicides, suicides, the torso killings last year... why am I being affected now?

Abby disconnected her call. "Doc Howe says to come up right away. He'll run some tests."

"But my report..."

"I distinctly remember telling you not to argue with me. Chief Egami can wait." Abby's gray eyes flashed ire. "Do I need to drag you there by the hair?"

"I'm coming, momma-san." Makiko started to pick up the cigarette pack as she rose. "Shit! I'm doing it again." She crumpled the box in her fist, crushing it. Flakes of tobacco rained down on her desk. "Shit!" Panicked tears began to flow in earnest.

Abby hurried over. She gathered the shuddering woman into her arms. "Shhh, sweetie. It'll be okay, I promise."

Makiko buried her nose in Abby's ample bosom. It was a supremely comforting feeling, holding and being held by her lover. Having intimate knowledge of the warm, solid flesh beneath the uniform.  "I don't know what to do," Makiko said. "I'm scared."

"We'll go see Doc Howe. I'm sure it's just stress." Abby put on a smile, meant to reassure. "Okay? You with me, 'Kiko?"

"Uh-huh." Makiko groped for a tissue on the desk behind her.

Abby produced one, and waited while Makiko blew her nose.

"That better?" she asked.

Makiko nodded.

"Good." Abby wiped a stray tear from her partner's cheek. "Doc Howe's waiting."

The Department's medical facility was located in the basement. Makiko walked past the silent surgery, isolation cells, a sensory deprivation tank, and a freezer unit where egg and sperm samples of all employed psychics were kept. Hefty bonuses were paid for office romances leading to viable offspring, whether the children showed talent or not. Gifts were known to skip generations. It was rumored that upper management ran a secret breeding program, pairing up genetically compatible candidates.

Makiko wondered if that was why Sammy Huatare kept trying to give her gifts. Like sweet fluffy kittens. Or chocolates. Or that flimsy nightie he claimed was a joke. Abby liked it, though. She sighed. I'm a lesbian, dammit. Sammy might be cute, but I am not even remotely interested. Management knows where they can put that bonus. I donated my posterity for posterity. That's as far as team playing goes.

Before she knew it, they were in Dr. Shen Howe's domain. He was tall, skinny to the point of emaciation, with skin the color of chicken fat. In a bizarre piece of elective surgery, Howe had had all his teeth pulled and replaced by clear lucite implants. The sight of his transparent smile could make sensitive souls reach for a tranquilizer.

"I understand you're having a little problem, Officer Makiko?" Howe flashed his awful grin.

Makiko was calmer now. She told him about the O'Toole Reading, and the later episodes with the cigarettes. Abby added her impressions. Howe listened intently. When they finished, he waved Makiko towards a scanner bed. "Undress, hop up and I'll take a look."

Howe attached electrodes to different parts of her body, while barking instructions into a throat mike. Various machines awoke, hummed, buzzed and pinged. He left the scanner bed to consult a bank of monitors along one wall. "Intellectually, your biorhythm is entering a peak period, while physical and emotional are down-cycling. I advise you to avoid operating heavy machinery, initiating new relationships, or watching tri-dee soaps in excess."

"Not a problem," Makiko dead-panned.

"According to Lobsang's Virtual Karma, you are entering an unlucky phase." Howe was oblivious to her sarcasm. "Contact with the dead should be limited. This is supported by the fact that you were born in the Year of the Ox. Astrology forecasts for Ox this month indicate that bad fortune can be expected. You've had too much yang in your diet, not enough yin. Fire and Water must balance for good spiritual health."

He moved to a monitor that showed pictures of three ancient Chinese coins, spinning against a black background. "Ah, the I-Ching oracle says K'uei, hexagram 38. 'Watchful ancestor's eyes. Special grasses, arranged specially. Strange signs in heaven and earth.' Officer Makiko, you are definitely under an influence of some kind."

Abby sat down on a stool. "Is it SPC transfer?"

"I'm getting to that," Howe said testily. He clacked his lucite teeth together for emphasis. "I detect no sign of physical trauma. There is a slight anomaly in her brain wave pattern, but it's well within normal parameters. Judging from the symptoms described, the officer is likely suffering a mild case of SPC transfer, which should dissipate of its own accord in a few days. I'll prescribe a tea that will help."

Makiko made a face. The doctor's herb teas were infamously noxious and bad tasting. She had to admit, though, that they did work. Even if they do make you feel like puking up your toenails at first gulp, she thought.

"I want a full Kirlian analysis," Abby snapped. "You're not going to send her off with sack of dried snake heads because you've got dinner plans with your mistress. Do your job. And yes, I read your mind, you didn't have adequate shields, so don't complain."

Howe showed her his most intimidating smile, but she remained adamant. He murmured an insult in Mandarin, to which Abby replied sweetly in the same tongue, "That would greatly surprise my mother. Unless, of course, she knows your sister that well."

Defeated, Howe gave his computer the necessary orders. A rectangular slab of metal emerged from the ceiling, directly over Makiko's prone body, and lowered until it was about an inch away from her nose. She closed her eyes, as did Abby and the doctor. A hum was generated from somewhere beneath them, then a bright flash that left sparkling after-images on the backs of their eyelids. The metal slab withdrew, leaving Makiko free to sit up.

"Wow," she said. "Now I know what looking at the sun feels like, just before your eyeballs go poof." Makiko was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, white panties and socks. Perched on the edge of the scanner bed, legs crossed at the ankles and swinging back and forth, she resembled a teenage schoolgirl. Young, innocent, vulnerable, and with immense naughtiness potential, all at once.

Howe shook his head. "I hope you're not wasting my time, Officer Sullivan."

"There's no point in doing a medical work-up unless you're going to be thorough," Abby said. She quoted from Lao Tse, "In the perception of the smallest is the secret of clear vision."

"I'd make a pithy remark about teaching grandmothers to suck eggs, gweilo, but I see the Kirlian is ready." Howe sniffed, turning back to his monitors. "What have we here... hmph. What a surprise. Completely standard."

"Allow me." Abby shouldered him aside. Makiko hopped off the scanner bed, joining her partner.

Kirlian analysis was accomplished via a device that could detect and record electromagnetic emanations. These appeared as bands of color surrounding the body - like an aura, but a far more detailed display of living energies. Abby pointed to a section. "What's this?"

Howe leaned forward, following her finger. "Nothing of importance."

"It's black."

"So what?" The doctor clicked his teeth together. "A thin black line, cutting horizontally through the Kirlian bands. Probably an interrupt in the pattern display, a computer glitch. The software is obsolete, you know."

"Can we enhance it? Here... this looks like a white butterfly."

"Only if you squint. This is the best you're going to get." Howe glanced at Makiko. "Have you recently suffered an extreme shock? Could be you've lost one of your hun or po." At the women's uncomprehending expressions, he added, "Every human has three souls - the hun - and seven po animations. One can be driven from the body in a moment of shock or terror. This leads to sickness."

Makiko was suddenly exhausted. "Just give me the tea so I can go home," she said. "I was over-confident and careless. I admit it! The Reading went badly. First residual empathy, now SPC, but it's not fatal, right?"

"Of course not." Howe and Abby spoke simultaneously. After a brief glare match, Abby subsided, allowing the doctor to continue, "As I said before, the symptoms will fade in a few days of their own accord. I recommend supervised rest and medicinal tea, which does not contain dried snake heads."

Abby shrugged, unaffected by his sharpness.

There was an ebony cabinet standing near the scanner bed. The top was shaped like a pagoda, all five levels ornamented with brass dragons that breathed green smoke. Hundreds of tiny drawers filled the interior. Howe took a sheet of rice paper from a lower shelf, quickly folding it into a cone shape. He filled it with mysterious leaves, roots and other ingredients from the drawers. When finished, he twisted the cone closed.

"Take this tea three times per day for the next three days," Howe said, handing the packet to Makiko. "Drink plenty of water. Eat only 'cool foods' such as steamed vegetables, noodles, fresh fruit, tofu, green salad, shellfish or duck meat to increase your yin. You may also consider a reiki session for energy healing." He took an interactive business card out of his pocket.

Makiko took it with both hands as etiquette required, thumbs and forefingers pressing the bottom corners. This activated nano-pixels on the card. A multi-colored mandala burst into view. Black kanji characters scrawled across the front, as though written with an invisible brush: Dr. Chuck Lam-Magillicuddy, Reiki Specialist. Free MicroBead Flavo-Rama with each visit. She resisted the impulse to toss the card on the floor and stomp on it.

Abby was talking to Dr. Howe. "Leave a red tag on her file for your shift replacements, just in case there's trouble and we have to come back."

"Eggs, the grandmothers sucking thereof. I think your emotional attachment to Officer Makiko has affected your judgment. You're blowing this out of proportion. I see mild cases of SPC transfer all the time. It's not serious. Stop worrying. Your partner will be fine."

Behind the doctor's back, Makiko delicately slid the card into his pocket before putting her coverall back on. Tightening the velcro fastenings on her shoes, she said, "I'm for home and bed. Who else is coming?"

"Okay, okay." Abby threw her hands up in a gesture of surrender. "I'm just a mother hen with one chick who can't tell the difference between healthy concern and obsessive anxiety. Fine. If the doctor will kindly send a copy of his non-findings to Chief Egami..."

"I will do so immediately, if that gets you foreign devils out of my office," Howe replied.

The partners left, but not before Abby said something over her shoulder in Mandarin that made Howe flush bright red, his transparent teeth grinding together audibly.

Makiko insisted on delaying their departure long enough to send her partial report to Egami. "I haven't matched the pattern on the rice bowl yet, but the peony I saw is nearly identical to a breed called Sword Dance that's native to Japan. Can't quite figure out what the rectangular flying shape was, but I need to run an in-depth search. Maybe I can do some work at home tomorrow."

"Don't get too esoteric," Abby cautioned. She wasn't a Reader, but partnering one gave her certain insights. "The simplest and most obvious explanation, remember? Dying people don't have time to get fancy. Impressions should be judged at face value."

"You're quoting the Operations Manual to me?" Makiko closed down her terminal. "That's really momma-san behavior."

Abby rubbed her forehead. "What else can I do? Dammit, you seem almightly cool and collected for somebody who was bawling in my arms not half an hour ago."

"Temporary freakiness tolerance overload. I'm new to Reading trouble. In ten years, I've never experienced even a trace of SPC. I guess I thought I was immune."

"Well, you're not."

Makiko presented her partner with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'm sorry. For what it's worth, I believe Doc Howe. This'll blow away in a few days and I'll be my normal cranky self again."

"You're never cranky." Abby returned the smile. "Unless I play with your Powerpuff Girls action figures," she concluded slyly.

"Ack! You'll ruin the finish!"

"Gotcha."

Makiko slumped in relief. "I think all three hun and seven po just flew out of my ear."

"They probably went home, where we should be going. You done?"

"Yes." Makiko jumped when the com buzzed loudly.

Abby clicked it on. Egami scowled from the monitor. A blinking case number in the corner showed this was a recording sent to every member of the investigation team.

"Update from forensics," he said. "Male DNA recovered from victim's body and apartment has been positively identified as Ito Akashi, owner of several Ropponji clubs including Equilibrium. Ito's file includes charges of criminal assault, organ smuggling, illegal psycho-software, drug peddling, and chemical enslavement. He has never been convicted. Ito is a known member of the Godo yakuza family."

"We can forget about questioning Ito. He's got too much juice," Makiko commented.

"The Godo family? They own half of Tokyo. More money than all the gods rolled together. Even if you caught Ito standing over the victim's body with a signed confession in his hand, he'd get off." Abby rolled her eyes. "C'mon, 'Kiko. You can listen to the rest later." She disengaged the com, cutting Egami off mid-sentence.

Abby and Makiko lived in Qing City, a business district on the fringes of the Tokyo sprawl. It was an urban neighborhood occupied mainly by Chinese immigrants, with Indonesian, Ethiopian and Indian illegals who lived in the basements and alleyways. Qing was always noisy, busy, bustling day and night. Slum factories hummed. Entrepreneurs pushed carts that sold cheap food. Prostitutes pushed cheaper sex. Black market surgeries flourished. A healthy kidney was worth five thousand New Yen. Many illegals - especially poor women with children to feed - were minus non-vital organs, and plus a few scars.

Their rooftop apartment was cozy, but it had a small glass conservatory attached to the back. Makiko had filled the space with plants and installed a hot tub right in the center. At night, sitting in the tub, surrounded by rustling leaves, gazing up at the sky, Makiko knew peace for a while.

"What else was in the preliminary report?" she finally asked, breaking the silence that had persisted since their arrival home.

Abby slid down further in the water, until her chin touched the steaming surface. "Do we have to go into this now? I was just starting to relax." Auburn hair, released from its braid, swirled around her shoulders.

Makiko leaned her head back against the rim of the tub. "Okay. It's your turn to get the beer."

"On second thought..." Abby sat up. Water slopped over the cedar sides. "Perdita O'Toole, twenty-four, born in the Kansas-Oklahoma-Texas arcology. No formal education. No criminal record. Came to Tokyo two years ago on a work visa, sponsored by Shi Enterprises. Huh. Inauspicious name. I can't believe that's a local company."

In Japanese, shi was the number four. However, the word for death was pronounced almost identically. Hospitals in particular, and businesses in general, avoided using the numbers 24 (ni-shi, double death), 42 (shi-ni, to die), and 43 (shi-zan, stillbirth) on their rooms. Temples did a thriving business in charms and amulets to ward off evil, proving that superstition was alive and well in the digital ultra-interactive age.

"My mother never served eel and melon at the same meal," Makiko said. "She never whistled at night, because that meant a snake would get into the house."

"When I first came here, I was warned by my boss not to enter a tunnel under construction. It might anger some mountain goddess, who would cause disaster. And to tuck my thumbs into my palms if I saw a hearse, to protect my parents from death." Abby picked up her plastic beer carton, shook it hopefully. She grimaced upon finding it empty. "Who's crazy enough to name their company Shi Enterprises? That practically guarantees nobody'll want to do business with you."

"I need another Tsingtao." Makiko rose from the tub, water trickling from her naked body.

"Bring some of those wasabi peas. I just bought a new bag," Abby said shamelessly. It really had been her turn to fetch more beer, but Makiko was not inclined to call her on it.

The Japanese woman padded into the apartment, which was actually a small house constructed on top of the building's roof. In the floors below them were single-room flats whose Turkish occupants had spawned a rug weaving industry, and an Ethiopian coffee shop. She loved the aroma of roasting coffee beans that filtered up every morning. It temporarily blotted out the stench of factory emissions that hung in a fog over Qing City.

The kitchen consisted of a cooler unit, a tiny sink/recycler, solar hot water tank, and a set of shelves that Abby had pieced together from plastic crates. Nano-pixels embedded in the material still remembered their programming. Colorful gods rode giant carp, white cats beckoned, anime figures fought and flew and fucked with silent intensity. The slogans of a dozen different products crawled along each shelf. Makiko had found the display fascinating at first. Familiarity, however, had rendered her immune. She hardly spared the wriggling, flickering show a glance.

Retrieving two beer cartons from the cooler, Makiko reached for the sack of wasabi peas on a shelf.

Perdita O'Toole suddenly appeared in front of her. Not with the disheveled hair and limp wrists of a traditional Japanese ghost, but as she must have been in life. Tawny gold hair rippling to an impossibly tiny waist. Swell of hips and breasts. Heart shaped pubic mound, neatly clipped. Smooth taut flesh, tanned to perfection. Oval face with rosebud mouth, gilt eyebrows arched over big blue eyes. Inhumanly beautiful. A living doll.

Although they not alike physically - two more different women could hardly be imagined - Makiko had the eerie feeling that she was looking in a mirror. Oddly, she was not afraid.

Sheer terror hit when something wrapped around her face, cutting off her air.

Beer cartons hit the floor, splattering their cold contents on her legs. Makiko let out a muffled scream, immediately choked off. She clawed at the tightly wound fabric, struck out heel and elbows, hoping to make contact with her assailant. Nothing. Her eyes were wide, filling with tears. She reached back, groping for hair, clothing, anything she could grab. Still nothing. Makiko spun around, skidded on spilled beer, and fell heavily on her side. Something cracked.

She thrashed, rolling over. The white hot spike of pain in her ribs was a minor problem compared to the burning coals that were her lungs. By chance, her foot struck the shelving unit. It fell over with a crash. Raw sticky rice poured out of a broken bag. From the conservatory, Makiko heard Abby say, "Sweetie? You alright?"

Her vision was blurred, a pinpoint of light at the bottom of a dark tunnel. Makiko struggled, legs kicking, chest heaving. Her pulse was a deafening tsunami-beat that threatened to rupture her eardrums. She dropped mental shields, screamed for help in the silence of her mind. A red mist descended over her eyes. She was dying.

Then she was alive. Makiko drew a deep, shuddering breath. Oxygen-starved airways protested violently. She coughed, retched, and brought up the Tsingtao she'd drunk earlier. Hearing returned in time to catch Abby saying, "God!"

Abby's hands supported her, holding Makiko's head out of the mess. "Computer, medical emergency," she snapped. "Hang on, 'Kiko. Hang on!"

Makiko could not speak. It was all she could do to stay conscious.

After a moment, she couldn't even do that anymore.


Makiko woke up in the hospital.

Abby was sitting next to the bed, clutching her hand. "Sweetie? How do you feel?"

"Like Toshiro Mifune and Gojira just beat the crap out of me." Makiko tried to smile. Her face felt too tight, her lips chapped and close to cracking. There was an ache in her side that warned against moving.

"God give me strength!" Abby exploded. She had bruised circles beneath her eyes, a sure sign of stress. "You scared the shit out of me. What happened?"

"I'm not sure."

Abby rarely lost her temper. When she did, it was awe-inspiring. "This is the second time you've nearly died in less than twelve hours," she said. There was a deadly razor-sharp edge to her voice that could make a yakuza assassin cower. "Tell me everything that happened from the moment you left the hot tub until I found you half-dead on the floor."

Makiko obeyed. Not out of fear - Abby would never hurt her, that fact was as sure as the sun rising in the east - but because of the pain and dread in her partner's expression. Abby had been terrified. She could only imagine how she'd feel if anything happened to the woman she loved.

"I saw Perdita O'Toole," Makiko said. "She was standing right in front of me. In our kitchen. She just appeared."

"And?"

"And something was on my face. Wrapped tight. A cloth. I couldn't see it, but I felt it." Makiko held out her hands. "You'll probably find fibers under my fingernails."

"I already did. They match the fibers found in the victim's throat. Forensics did some further testing after Egami lit a fire under their asses. Whatever cotton material the assailant is using as a murder weapon, it's nearly four hundred years old." Abby sat back down. Her eyes were stormy gray. "Screw the Department. When we find this unsub, I'm going to make his brain bleed out of his ears."

Makiko felt a brief pang of sympathy for the killer. Abby never made empty threats. "First we have to catch him. Or her. How did the unsub get into our house?"

"Nobody can figure that out. No sign of forced entry. Nothing on security cam. No strangers witnessed in the building. You know our neighbors. The Ataturk  women are in and out of each other's flats all the time. Their kids play in the stairwell. Menalik and Yeshi on the ground floor have their big guard dog in the back. Who could've gotten past that without being eaten alive?"

The Ethiopian couple owned a savage rottweiler/bull mastiff, guardian of the coffee shop after hours. The animal had jaws like a great white shark, a temperament like well-aged dynamite, and a hefty grudge against strangers. Only once had a burglar attempted to break into the shop; what remained of the unfortunate criminal idiot could have been buried in a matchbox. Word spread quickly in Qing City.

"I take it that Son-of-Bitch hasn't devoured any vital evidence, like invisible assassins?" Makiko was only half-joking.

Abby frowned. "No such luck. Our doors and windows were locked. The house computer hasn't been hacked - I had John Po'okela do a complete systems check. There's more weirdness, too."

Makiko nodded for her partner to continue.

"I went over the security footage from Tokugawa Tower," Abby said. "Track by track. Every inch of that building is under surveillance, except the apartment interiors themselves. No one came near O'Toole's door, except Ito Akashi. He was admitted at eleven p.m., left at eleven fifty-eight. There's a beautiful shot of a very much alive Perdita O'Toole holding the door open as Ito walks out. And calling 'thank you' as he goes down the hall. Unless she's got an identical twin sister whose voice print is also identical, Ito couldn't have killed her. Whoever did must have flown to the three hundredth floor and squeezed through a sealed window."

"Could our unsub have tampered with the time index?"

"Tokugawa Tower is run by their corporate AI. Really hefty security. The kind that backtraces a hit, then sends polite vat-grown ninjas to the hacker's house in order to eliminate him, his family, friends, pets and casual acquaintences. The footage is pristine."

"Has Ito been questioned?"

"Egami spoke to him and a flock of lawyers over the com. Ito admits he was paying the victim's expenses. They were lovers. He met her at a convention, sponsored her over here. The mannequin job was part of their deal. When he left the apartment, she was alive. That's confirmed by building security. And before you ask, the Department hasn't been able to trace any personal connection between Ito and the Tokugawa corporation."

"Shi Enterprises?"

Abby shrugged. "Ito Akashi - or I should say, his legal advisors - claim Shi Enterprises is a legitimate business, licensed to operate clubs and bars in the greater Tokyo area. Ito is the CEO, but Godo owns 51% of stock." She stopped. "What the hell do you mean, invisible assassins?"

"Took you long enough." Makiko chuckled at the look on Abby's face, then gasped, turning pale. The ache in her side had turned into excruciating agony. She could swear there were iron jaws grinding on her bones.

"You've got two broken ribs, dammit. Take it easy."

A panel swung open near the bed, and a scorpion 'bot crawled out onto Makiko's shoulder. Shiny chrome, marvelously articulated, with a red cross enameled on its flat head. The tail quivered, a drop of liquid welling at the needle-like tip. It struck swiftly, driving the stinger deep into Makiko's arm.

Makiko sighed in relief as the pain killer took effect. The 'bot hesitated a second before withdrawing back into its housing. The panel closed.

Sensing her partner's unspoken question, Abby said, "You're in a very expensive clinic in the Shinjuku district. Non-human staff, fully automated, virtual docs, gourmet catering, the works. Egami's going to swallow his tongue when he sees the bill."

Makiko plucked at the cool white sheet that covered her body, finally pushing it down. Her torso was covered in a transparent cast, running just below her small breasts to her slender waist. Bruises bloomed darkly on her skin. She knocked the cast experimentally with a knuckle. "Is this necessary?"

"Do you want a punctured lung?" Abby countered. "It stays on for ten days."

"I can't bend."

"You don't have to. That's my job. Now quit stalling and tell me about this invisible assassin."

Makiko described her terrifying experience in the kitchen. She concluded, "Nobody was there, Abby. Nothing human, anyway. No flesh and blood attacker. Just me and a wet floor and raw rice and a piece of cloth that was suffocating me. It was soft, dense, heavy. Exactly what I felt when I did the Reading on Perdita O'Toole. Don't tell me I was hallucinatin or that this is another SPC episode. I had fibers under my damned fingernails! You said they matched the ones recovered from the victim. You want weirdness? I saw the woman. O'Toole was standing right in front of me. Then the same thing that killed her was on my face."

Abby was silent. "The moon. The number four. Yin-yang. Red peonies. A funeral offering," she said at last.

"There has to be a connection to Shi Enterprises." Makiko thumped her fist into the mattress. "Shi. Number four. Death."

"Could it be some kind of remotely operated murder device?" Abby ventured. "No. That would require real-time surveillance. Pre-programmed coordinates? DNA tracer?"

"Made out of 400-year old cotton? I didn't feel wires, power links or control boxes. Just cloth. Am I losing my mind?"

Abby had obviously prepared herself. Consulting a mini digital display strapped to her wrist, she said, "Well, I may be able to talk, but I sure as heck can't drive."

"Season one, 'Bubblevicious.' The talking dog."

"I wasn't born a super-villian chimp with an oversized brain, you know."

"Still season one, 'Mr. Mojo's Rising.' Mojo Jojo." Makiko couldn't help it. She snickered. "I can't believe you're quoting Powerpuff Girls."

"The best test I know to determine your mental state. Although your perverted devotion to big-eyed pastel super-heroines remains questionable, 'Kiko."

"Hey!"

"I love you despite your funny little ways."

Makiko smiled, but the expression turned serious after a moment. "I am not staying here. The unsub - whoever or whatever that may be - tried to kill me once. In our home, Abby! Since I'm obviously not safe anywhere, I'd rather be working."

"What makes you think the unsub will attack again?"

"Why not? None of this makes sense, anyway."

Abby folded her hands together in her lap. "The Department's precogs haven't picked up anything yet."

Makiko rolled her eyes. Precognition was an unreliable talent at best. "Find me some clothes or watch me parade through Tokyo naked."

"Fine. But when broken ribs start making mush out of your internal organs, don't come crying to me." Abby got to her feet, clearly disapproving but equally aware of her partner's stubborn nature. "Promise you won't push yourself too hard, or I'll beat you unconscious and leave you here."

"Powerpuff Fan Club oath of honor." Makiko raised a hand, palm out. "Do you want me to sign it in blood?"

"Not necessary. I'll be back soonest. There's a boutique on the ground level. I'll buy you something trendy and charge it to Egami's expense account." Abby left the room.

While she waited, Makiko found a room service menu. After letting out an involuntary curse at the prices, she decided to place an order anyway. Machines can detect pain, but they don't have a clue about appetite, she thought, pressing the interface. Five minutes later, a catering cart wheeled in, stopping next to her bed. The domed cover folded back. A tray bearing a black lacquer bento box extruded across her lap. There was also a pot of tea and a carafe of water.

She admired the golden pinwheels and mother-of-pearl chrysanthemums inlaid on the lid's glossy surface. A genuine antique. Edo period, Makiko guessed. Nothing but the best for the clinic's clientele. There was a hot towel in a dish beside the box. The sight made her shiver involuntarily.

Ignoring the towel, Makiko inspected the bento box's contents, divided into six compartments - thin slices of raw Kobe beef, steamed rice, radish pickles, grilled scallops, teriyaki salmon, and vegetable tempura. Soy sauce for dipping. The chopsticks were made of chestnut wood. She smiled at this subtly ironic touch. When given as a gift, chestnut chopsticks were meant to attract wealth to the recipient.

Black persimmon, rare as jade, means long life. Cypress for hope. Pine for good fortune. Superstitions. The more modern the times, the more people clung to ancient deep-rooted beliefs.

Makiko ate carefully; her mouth was still sore. She suspected she had the same sort of facial bruising that had been evident on Perdita O'Toole's body. Nevertheless, she enjoyed her meal immensely. At a thousand New Yen per gram, this would be the last time she'd ever eat Kobe beef. Makiko finished every bite with guilty glee. Abby's going to kill me when she finds out I didn't save her any. And Egami will really kill me when he sees the bill.

Abby returned as Makiko was drinking a cup of tea. "I bought you the simplest thing I could find," she said, stopping short of the bed. A bag swung from her hand. It did not have the usual nano-pixel display rioting from its  paper sides. Instead, calligraphy-brush kanji proclaimed simply: Lotus Zen.

"That bag looks like pure money," Makiko said, pushing the tray to one side.

"Yeah, really expensive shops don't have to stoop to vulgar consumerism." Abby snorted. "The boutique assistant was so polite, it almost verged on rudeness. Still, I managed." She pulled a knee-length tunic out of the bag. It was lilac silk, long sleeved, with a darker plum collar and wide cuffs. Micro-projectors woven into the fabric broadcast a swarm of white butterflies around the wearer. Loose trousers in lime green silk and a pair of sturdy slippers completed the outfit.

"Ma! This is supposed to be simple?" Makiko stared.

"Believe me, the other outfits were much more elaborate. They had this dress - a Devi original, no less - that projected a holographic singing, dancing, sari-wearing Bollywood chorus line. Complete with funky masala mix soundtrack. Very retro-chic. The price would've made me gnaw off my tongue, except I saw something twice as expensive on the next rack." Abby pressed hard on a tunic button, and the butterflies sizzled out of existance. "See? On/off switch."

Makiko sat up, hissing between her teeth. The movement had been accompanied by a warning twinge. "Get me up and get me dressed."

Abby put the outfit on the edge of the bed. As she was helping Makiko stand, the tunic slipped unnoticed to the floor. Abby stepped on it, and suddenly a host of white butterflies began flitting around her. "Shit. I hope it isn't torn." She steadied her partner, who was swaying slightly. "Sweetie? What's wrong?"

Makiko's face had turned pale. "Superstition," she whispered.

"What?"

"White butterfly," Makiko said urgently. She clutched Abby's forearms. Her eyes were wide open, fixed on an empty point just beyond the other woman's shoulder. "Do you remember when Dr. Howe did my Kirlian analysis?"

"How could I forget? What does that have to do... oh, wait. There was a shape, like a butterfly."

"In Japanese superstition, white butterflies are the souls of the dead."

Abby grimaced. "Are you sure oxygen deprivation didn't damage your brain?"

"Listen to me." Makiko shifted her gaze, dark eyes boring into her partner's. "A white butterfly connected to me by a black line. The cigarette episode. My vision of Perdita O'Toole. I'm not suffering from SPC transfer. I'm being haunted."

"There's no such thing as ghosts," Abby said flatly.

"Oh? Two hundred years ago, people with psychic talent were thought to be frauds, freaks, or pathological liars. There was no Telekenitic Olympics, no Department of Order. Telepathic and psychometric evidence wasn't accepted in a court of law. Feng shui, chakra adjustment and reiki were not government sanctioned manipulations of living energy. I-Ching, tarot and astrology weren't recognized precognative tools."

"So-called channeling and mediumship is the product of a minor Reading talent with more imagination than actual skill. This has been proven."

"Elementary physics - energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It merely converts to another form."

"Consciousness does not survive death. While the bio-essence is released, the personality - the collection of life experiences that molds us into unique individuals - dies with its creator. Elementary psychics."

"What if it did survive? Not always. Just... sometimes."

Abby gripped Makiko firmly. "We all enjoy a good ghost story. That doesn't make it true."

"I want to go to the Equilibrium club." At Abby's thin-lipped expression, Makiko continued, "Look, I think Perdita's spirit is trying to make contact. She's trying to tell me something."

"Hearing voices in your head is a sign of schitzophrenia. Auditory hallucinations."

"Can you explain the four-hundred year old fibers under my nails? The unsub who doesn't exist, as he leaves no DNA trace, and apparently walks through walls? And can fly? How victims get suffocated by a cloth with a will of its own? Dammit, Abby! I thought I could trust you!"

"You can." Abby released one of Makiko's arms, bent over and picked up the tunic. She clicked the butterfly projection off. "I believe in rational explanations, not fairy tales. However, I also believe in you. So I'm willing to see this thing through with an open mind, if we can make a deal."

Makiko realized that she was shaking. "All right," she said, forcing her trembling muscles to still.

"Since you insist, we'll go to the club. If the victim is really connected to you - if you're truly being haunted - then I want proof. I'm not asking you to start blowing ectoplasm out of your nose. Just get your hitchhiker to show me something that I cannot explain using rational deduction. I still think this is some exaggerated from of SPC, but as I said, I'll keep my mind open."

"What if nothing happens and you aren't convinced?"

"Then you will voluntarily go to the Farm," Abby said grimly.

Makiko closed her eyes. The Farm was a special medical institute for psychics. Talent was not exercised without cost. Nervous breakdowns, psychoses and other psychological problems were a hazard of the job. Going there wouldn't necessarily end her career in the Department, but it would mean less chance of promotion. Supervisors were skittish about giving too much responsibility to an employee whose mental stability was uncertain.

I can't guarantee that anything will happen. I have no control. That was a terrifying thought. Makiko lowered her shields a trifle, hoping Perdita would give her a sign. Hello? Anybody out there?

No reply.

She tried again. Hello? Ms. O'Toole? My girlfriend thinks I'm insane. She doesn't believe in you. Please... I want to help, but you must help me first.

Abby said aloud, "Sweetie, this is the most pitiful thing I ever overheard. Close your shields before another 'path wanders by and thinks you've gone over the edge."

Makiko threw her shields wide open instead. The first thing she sensed was Abby's aura. Not so comforting now, the deep-rooted green energies gone murky, swirling clouds of melancholic blue, agitated reds, worried oranges. As she watched, the field went completely black from one instant to the next - the most extreme form of psychic protection.

Shocked, Makiko's eyes flew open. The first thing she noticed was Abby's pinched white face. Then she realized why.

The room was cold, freezing cold. Ice crystals had formed on every metal surface. Abby's breath issued in a fog past bloodless lips. Her teeth were chattering. A tear slid from the corner of her eye, ran sluggishly down her cheek, and dripped off her chin. The droplet froze in mid-air, shattering when it hit the floor.

Makiko felt cold, too, but dimly. Muffled as though body, mind and spirit were insulated against outside interference.

"C-c-close your s-s-shields," Abby stammered. "Do it!"

In a kind of daze, Makiko pulled free and walked stiffly across the room, towards a mirror that stood above a porcelain sink. She used her hand to wipe away a thin layer of hoarfrost. Her familiar reflection stood in the silvered surface. Same high cheekbones, same old scar slicing through her left brow. Fresh bruises dappled her jaw. Crusted scab on her lower lip. Her almond-shaped eyes were supposed to be dark brown.

But the eyes looking back at her were blue.

Perdita O'Toole. Somehow, although science said it was impossible, there she was. A dead woman clinging to existance, connected to Makiko's body. A thread spun into her soul.

The mirror cracked, then shivered into a hundred pieces.

Abby grabbed her arm, spun her around. "Close your shields, dammit!" The woman's other hand came around in a slap that connected solidly with Makiko's bruised jaw. Simultaneously, Abby used her telepathic 'voice' to broadcast the same command.

Bright light exploded in Makiko's head. A solid decade of training made her shields snap closed. Headache pounded her temples, a relentless drum-beat echoed by her pulse. Her whole face hurt abominably.

The temperature in the room was normal again. Water dripped, pooling on the floor. A maintenance 'bot glided into the room, began mopping and polishing. Abby was still pale. "Holy shit! What the hell was that?" she asked.

Makiko lifted a large mirror shard out of the sink. She held it up, so that she could see her eyes. Dark brown. The impossible blue color was gone.

She let the shard drop, where it shattered against the slivers already piled in the porcelain basin. "Your proof," Makiko said. "Perdita O'Toole wants to go to the club. She needs our help." She paused, added, "Now do you believe?"

"I don't... I can't..." Abby swallowed. "Okay. I can't explain what happened here. You're right. SPC transfer would not account for this phenomena. We'll go to the club. I'm not admitting anything. I'm keeping an open mind."

"Fine. Just as long as it isn't so open your brains fall out." Makiko took an endorphin tab from a nearby dispenser, peeled off the backing, and stuck it on her neck. "Science doesn't have all the answers yet. Sometimes, humans need to operate on faith."

"If you start staring at your navel and mumbling sutras, I'm going to kick your ass," Abby said.

"Sorry." Makiko wrapped her arms around the other woman in a fierce embrace. "I'm so sorry. I wish..."

Abby rubbed her cheek against Makiko's. "Put some clothes on, woman. We'll figure this out, I swear."

"We'd better. I'm not sharing my Powerpuff dolls - or you, for that matter - with a ghost."

"I'm not reporting this to Egami. He'd lock me up in the Farm right next to you." Suddenly, Abby shuddered, her control gone. "God! Your eyes were blue, 'Kiko! Blue!"

"I know." Makiko held her partner close. Stroking hands on her back, wordless solace like a mother to a frightened child. Soothing. Taking away the pain. That was Abby's usual role in their relationship. The healer. Rock-solid, well-grounded, roots planted deeply. Was it only last night that her aura had been a wholesome living green?

I'll be the strong one, even though I'm so terrified, I'm close to soiling myself. I can't let her break. She's my anchor to the world. If anything happened to Abby, I'd be lost.

After a while, Abby raised her head. She was not the sort of woman who cried elegantly. Her nose was brilliant crimson, her eyelids swollen, cheeks blotchy. She sniffled. "Sorry. I'm a mess."

"No, you're not. Well, yes, you are, but I love you anyway." Makiko smoothed a strand of auburn hair from the other woman's forehead.

"Even more than your digitally restored season seven PPG collection on super mini-disc?"

She must be feeling better if we're playing The Great Game. "Even more than my rare copy of Powerpuff Girls vs. Long Dong Silver," Makiko sighed. "The one dubbed in Tagalog."

Abby stirred in her arms. "Your limited edition quartz watch with glow-in-the-dark dial?"

"Even more than that."

"How about the mint-in-box Buttercup doll with real k'ung-fu action?"

"Now you're pushing it." Makiko smiled. Be strong. "Do you think they'll let me into the Equilibrium club dressed like this?" She indicated her naked form.

"Sweetie, they'd fight for your right to do so. So would I, and that's pure love talking." Abby disentangled herself, walked over to the bed. She picked up the lilac tunic. "Dressing 'Kiko, take two."

The Ropponji district was young, brash, and bright. Hostess clubs, cocktail bars, cabarets, restaurants, snack shacks, gambling dens, brothels, arenas - all had holo-signs designed to draw in customers and cash, gigantic jellybean colors projected against the night sky. Music blared. Lights flashed. Gladiator sumo warriors did blood-soaked battle every night, right next door to virtual tea ceremonies, cock fights, pachinko and family fun palaces. Street theater and theme park, with a splash of red-tinted violence to spice up the masala mix.

Makiko walked around a pair of earthquake phobics, dressed in their signature inflated suits. From neck to toes, they were swathed in pink plastic, blown up like beach balls, arms and legs sticking out stiffly. The couple bounced from foot to foot with exquisite coordination, holding hands, crash helmets almost touching. Abby whispered in Makiki's ear, "Isn't that sweet?"

"They'd better be careful in this part of town. Youth gangs like to snatch 'quake phobes and drop them off buildings. Will they rebound or go splat?"

"And there will be tsukkomi working the gaping bystander crowd, taking bets," Abby said, referring to the loud, pushy, one-man betting operators who lived and worked on the streets. They wore high wooden geta to raise themselves above the crowd, and were infamous for stomp-kicking competitors. The word literally meant 'bully. Makiko thought they must have some precognitive ability. Tsukkomi could get to the scene of an accident and start laying odds on victim survival well before peace agents arrived.

An aidoru and her retinue breezed across the street, ringed by security 'bots. A curious news float swooped down, camera eye angling for a shot of the pop singing idol. It jinked to one side to avoid laser flash from a 'bot, skimmed the street in a shower of sparks, then zoomed away in search of more tidbits to feed its live link-up subscribers. The aidoru gathered her boy toy's leash with a jerk and went on.

The Equilibrium club's entrance was in an alley. Makiko and Abby had to squeeze past a group of nude Butoh performers who appeared to be standing completely still. They were actually moving, but so slowly and subtly, the illusion of motionlessness was almost unbroken. A Thai vendor was selling fried banana fritters from a portable wok nearby. Bored, the vendor flicked sizzling oil droplets onto one dancer's bare buttocks. He did not flinch, but Makiko saw the promise of future pay-back in the Butoh's black eyes.

Further down the alley, Abby stopped in front of a blank wall. There was a sand-filled iron pot that held bundles of lit incense. "That's the scent I got from the Reading," Makiko said. Somehow, she was not surprised.

"I did a little research on this place." Abby dug a fistful of Hell money from the pocket of her coverall. "You have to make an offering to get in." She touched a corner of the brightly printed currency to an incense stick. When it began to burn, she tossed it into the pot. Makiko noticed that the sand was littered with ashes and bits of unburned paper.

Funeral offering, Makiko thought, for the Festival of Hungry Ghosts. Spirit cash. Chinese custom, but the theme of death seemed to be continuing.

The wall shimmered. A series of images formed, disappeared, and re-formed. Nuclear explosion, corpses laid out in a row,  skeletons. Close-up of a bloody birth, head crowning between splayed thighs. A laughing child playing with a puppy. A bride in white kimono. Superimposed over it all was a spinning yin-yang symbol. Makiko blinked. The display ended with an almost comical fizzle, a string of cartoon firecrackers popping in slow motion with muted bangs. The door was revealed, and they went inside.

Inside, the decor was dark, walls showing grainy clips from a classic pinku eiga. Softcore porn in flatscreen dimness, the actress suffering a lengthy bondage session with her sexually voracious captor. On stage, the action was carried out in much more explicit detail by a masked androgyn wielding dildo and bamboo rod on his/her hapless victim. A thumping musical beat with thunderous synth-melody was intercut at random intervals with selections from Verdi's Aida.

Silk banners hung from floor to ceiling - Makiko and Abby had to negotiate their way through the slithering fabric to find a table. As soon as they were seated, a woman appeared. She was nearly seven feet tall, lean to the point of emaciation, and her bald head was covered with garish tattoos. Belled ankle rings chimed with each step she took, as did threaded bells on the chains linking pierced navel, nipples, nose and ears.

"Judith Moon," she said, giving a slight bow. "How may I serve you this evening?"

Makiko noticed that Moon's fingernails were six inches long, covered by protective sheathes that ended in sharp points. They looked as dangerous as the woman's hip bones, revealed by a low-slung sarong. "Pink gin," she said.

Abby made a 'yuck' noise. "What's the house special?"

"Kamikaze cocktail with a shot of taurine, animo acids and guarana," Judith Moon replied. "Purity guaranteed."

"Leave off the sidecar," Abby said. "Energy buzz keeps me awake."

"Is there any other service I can provide?" Moon's voice lowered to a seductive purr. "Paper fetish wear? Shiatsu massage? Neural aphrodisiacs? Sexual compatibility horoscope?"

"No, thank you." Makiko was firm. Moon gave her a professional smile, put a woven reed basket on the table, and undulated away.

Abby pulled the top off the basket. "Fried grasshoppers and cassava chips. Oooh, what's this?" She pulled two tiny bottles from the interior. "Flavored oxygen samples. Ginseng/deer antler or black licorice."

It was Makiko's turn to make a 'yuck' noise. "If you use either of those, you're sleeping on the couch for a week."

"We don't own a couch."

"Then you'll have to sleep on someone else's."

Abby returned the bottles to the basket. "By the way, I'm carrying a panic button." This was a tiny transmitter that was stuck to the skin over her heart. If her pulse and respiration accelerated or slowed beyond an acceptable level, the Department would receive a priority red-alert. "Egami knows we're here, but he thinks we're still on the investigation."

"We're not? That's news to me." Makiko took a crispy grasshopper, crunched it noisily. "When did you call him?"

"From the car. He's a 'path, remember? Egami's not too excited about it. The language he used was vivid." Abby smiled slightly in remembrance. "I told him that you'd had a mild premonition."

"I'm not a precog."

"Talent develops talent. You could be latent. It wasn't quite a lie."

Judith Moon returned with their drinks. "Is there anything else you desire?" She wet her bottom lip with her tongue.

Makiko swirled her pink gin around in the glass. "Did you know Perdita O'Toole?"

Moon's mouth dropped open. She recovered quickly. "Who?"

"Perdita O'Toole worked here. Did you know her?" Makiko persisted.

The woman drew herself up to her full height, a hand pressing the ridged bones above her breasts, nail sheathes digging into her throat. "I can't talk about it."

"Can't or won't?" Abby removed a card from her coverall pocket. "Officer Abigail Sullivan, D.O.O., Special Branch. I'm a trained telepath questioning you in the course of my duties. Should you refuse to answer, I am authorized to retrieve the information without your consent. You're impeding a murder investigation, madamu Moon. I suggest you cooperate."

"I can't!" Moon was almost frantic. "Ito-san will have me killed if I tell you anything."

"Ito Akashi has a very good alibi. He's not under suspicion right now." Makiko nodded towards her partner. "Abby won't kill you, but a mental search-and-seizure is fairly painful."

Moon dropped her hand, leaned closer to Makiko, bending in half to reach the seated woman. "You want to talk to Peony," she whispered. "She's a dancer."

"And?" Makiko whispered back. She had just enough empathy to tell if someone was lying, or if they were holding back the entire truth. She didn't need to drop her shields to exercise that touch.

"She's from Tokyo, a wajin. I don't know her real name. People say she practices black magic. Everyone's afraid of her." Moon swallowed hard. "Except Perdita. They used to do an act together, until Perdita broke it off."

Abby and Makiko exchanged a look. "When was this break-up?" Abby asked.

"About a week ago. Their act was really hot, brought in a lot of regulars." Moon frowned. "Funny. Ito wasn't angry. He was pretty happy about it. You'd think he would've committed VR seppuku when he lost his top draw."

"Where can we find Peony?"

"She's here tonight. Not working, though. I saw her in the back room. Now I've got to go. Leave me out of it, okay?" Judith Moon's bells jangled, and she was gone, lost among the banners.

Makiko took a big gulp of her drink. Gin and angostura bitters, her father's favorite. He'd gotten a taste for it while stationed in New London. "What do you think?" she asked.

"I think we should find madamu Peony. My curiosity is killing me." Abby finished her cocktail. "Black magic? Is this more superstition?"

"Peony is a Tokyo native, ethnically Japanese," Makiko said. "She could be practicing onmyo-do."

Abby widened her gray eyes. "That's a new one."

"Taoist sorcery and astrology, some Shinto, some esoteric Buddhism. Also called 'Yin-Yang Way.'"

"More superstition. Or religion?"

"Some would say there is no difference."

"Yeah, some would also say that there is no difference between illusion and reality." Abby shook a fist in mock threat. "More facts, less Zen."

"There are stories, legends about an onmyo-ji named Abe no Seimei who lived in the 10th century. His shrine still exists in Kyoto." Makiko stood up. "Technically, I don't believe in black magic. But I didn't believe in ghosts, either, once upon a time. Still keeping an open mind?"

"I'm trying like hell." Abby rose, stretched, and snagged a cassava chip before joining her partner. "Shall we go?"

"After you, momma-san."

Compared to the front, the back room of Equilibrium was unnaturally subdued. Roving spotlights illuminated vertical tanks where customers were submurged in a solution of medical-grade perfluorocarbon. Fluid breathing. A return to the womb. On the other side were old steel autopsy tables, each bearing a silent occupant. Men and women experiencing clinical death via chemical injection before being automatically revived by medi-bots. A trio of Tibetan lamas in maroon robes jostled each other nearby, taking notes on prayer-wheel interfaces.

Abby and Makiko were greeted by five hostesses - all Nordic blondes, quadruplet clones with sleepy bedroom eyes, dressed  in white Nehru jackets. "Life or death," they chanted in unison.

Prompted by instinct (or possibly Perdita's influence), Makiko said, "Life and death."

"An ever-turning wheel," the hostesses replied. "Beginnings and endings. This way, please."

The partners were shown to a door. Hanging on it was an eight-sided Taoist mirror. After the hostesses retreated, Abby opened the door and walked through, Makiko on her heels.

The room was empty, except for a table and chair. Light came from halogen inserts in plain plascrete walls and ceiling. There was a woman seated behind the table, watching them. She was dressed entirely in blood red - breastband and baggy trousers, soft-soled slippers. A peony of the same hue was behind her ear.

"Is your name Peony?" Makiko asked. Beside her, Abby tensed.

The woman's eyes narrowed to slits. "What if I am?" She shook a cigarette from a box, lit it with a slim gold cylinder.

Bungadab. The same brand Perdita smoked. "If you are, we'd like to ask you a few questions about your friend, Perdita O'Toole. She was found dead last night in her apartment."

"I was nowhere near Tokugawa Tower." Peony inhaled, exhaled a long smoke plume. It smelled flowery, almost sweet. "And I was not friends with that whore." There was a great deal of venom in her voice.

Abby said, "Officer Sullivan, D.O.O., Special Branch. I'm a telepath. And you're lying."

Makiko could sense darkness in Peony, a pool of negative energy crackling behind her pretty face. She tried to see further, but was limited because of her shields.

Peony flicked ashes on the floor. "I used to know Perdita. We had an act together." She did not seem daunted by Abby's observation. "We were lovers, if you must know. But I haven't been with her in... oh, about a week. She decided we shouldn't see each other anymore."

"Did this have anything to do with Ito Akashi?" The words popped out before Makiko could consider their wisdom.

"Yes!" Peony hissed. She tossed the cigarette down, ground it out beneath her heel. "I loved Perdita. I thought she loved me. We had something special together, only Ito was paying her bills. Perdita liked her apartment, loved the clothes, the luxuries, the lifestyle. I couldn't give her any of those things. She made a choice." Bare shoulders shrugged. "So be it."

Peony pressed a console panel beneath the table. A section of the wall swung out, revealing shelves. Glass apothecary jars held powders, dried herbs and roots, bizarre things suspended in oil or colored liquids. Wooden swords. Ink and brushes, yellow paper, a stack of white silk robes. Rolled scrolls. A vase containing four blood-red peonies. Edo-era hina dolls, male and female courtiers dressed in stylized court fashion. Smouldering incense in a pierced brass box.

Black poppy, whispered the ghost in Makiko's mind. Same as the musky, tangy incese used outside.

The wall behind the floating shelves was papered with scroll illustrations. Makiko recognized the sections as copies of Hyakki Yako Zu, the Night Parade of a Hundred Demons by Takemura, early 20th century.

When she turned her attention back to Peony, the room had changed. Crisp tatami mats on the floor. Shoji paper doors, a gilded copper teakettle on a charcoal brazier. Thatched roof with blue oil lanterns hanging from the beams. Peony, too, was transformed. She wore the flowing robes of a Heian lady, crimson and vermilion and white. Her eyebrows were shaved, smudged beauty marks like commas painted high on her powdered face. Peony's hair was longer, flowing free to her heels. She smiled, showing blackened teeth.

"Immersive environment," she said. "Fully interactive. This is one of my favorite programs."

Abby stared down at herself with an angry scowl. She was wearing virtual samurai fashion, an illusion of wide-legged trousers, green yakuta and happi coat surging with Hokusai waves. "We didn't come here to play games," she said. When she spoke, cherry blossom petals fell from her lips in a pink-white shower. "Very funny."

Makiko's appearance remained unchanged. "You're an onmyo-ji," she said to Peony.

The woman made a mocking bow. "Correct. Black magic is akin to a computer virus, infecting the human psyche rather than a network. One need only know the proper codes to re-program or destroy the mind." She laughed softly. "Demon. Death curse. Spirit possession."

Superstition as viral code, Makiko thought. Our deepest lizard brain instincts resist rationality. Nightmares are as much a part of human programming as reproductive urges. As breathing. Peony is a hacker of the soul.

Abby snorted. "You call this magic? I've seen better graphics in Dreamtime VR at half-price hour."

Makiko put a hand on her partner's arm. "Don't." She had  a yawning feeling in the pit of her stomach. There was something groping at the edge of her shields, intoxicated moth wings beating against a paper lantern. A memory surfaced, grew clearer.

Her mother and father had had a tradition of hosting a party for their friends every summer, where people gathered around one hundred blue candles and told ghost stories. After each story was recited, a candle would be put out. The scariest tales were saved for last, when the candles were few, and everyone huddled together around the diminishing circle of light. Like Peony, Makiko was wajin - a Japanese whose cultural roots reached deep into her people's collective consciousness. She had absorbed legend and myth and history with her mother's milk.

"Why are you still alive?" Makiko asked, still restraining Abby. "Your shikigami failed to kill me."

Peony was so stunned, she momentarily lost control of the program. Her robes flickered, her face went through a series of transformations, from withered crone to a grotesque hannya she-demon. She recovered quickly, however, lips creeping up in a sly grin. Peony's blackened teeth were tiny as a child's. "You must be mistaken."

"Oh? You didn't conjure a monster to kill me? Smother me in my own kitchen?" Makiko pressed. Abby turned to her with a frown, but she silenced the other woman with a tap of her finger.

Peony sucked in a breath. Makiko continued, "It's funny how things you thought you'd forgotten sometimes surface at odd moments. I always enjoyed a good ghost story when I was a child."

Abby was looking from one to the other with clear impatience. "Will someone please explain to the ignorant gaijin what all this means?"

"Onmyo-ji - sorcerers - can use their magic to create a supernatural servant called a shikigami," Makiko said. "They take different forms, can possess animals, even people. Shiki are often used to assassinate rivals. They consume a lot of their master's power, however, and are difficult to control." Her attention shifted back to Peony. "Four-hundred year old fibers in Perdita O'Toole's nose and throat. Under my fingernails, too."

"But why would my ittan-momen attack you?" Peony muttered. "I don't know you. I've never met you." She seemed genuinely confused. "How did it escape?"

"I've had just about enough of this." Abby put out a hand, reaching for Peony. The woman made a tiny gesture. Abby bit off an exclamation, ruefully withdrawing bleeding fingers.

"Keep your distance," Peony warned, flourishing the fan she had pulled from her sleeve. The edge glinted, razor sharp. Not an illusion, but a real weapon concealed behind a brocade facade.

"Ittan-momen? A length of cotton cloth?" That was the literal translation. Makiko glanced at Abby's wounds. They were minor cuts, already closing.

Peony darted to a box that lay on a nearby table. Cedar wood with iron straps, a circle of mother-of-pearl inlaid on its lid. The moon, Makiko thought.

"My servant killed Perdita," Peony said. "I loved her. Now I hate her. 'Dita deserved to die." She lifted the lid, and an impossibility slowly emerged.

Meter of white cotton cloth, rising vertically, ripples moving all along its surface. The ittan-momen floated in mid-air, undulating gently. A simple article, almost contemptibly familiar, yet possessed of terrifying purpose.

A lightning-fork whiplashed down Makiko's spine, pure adrenal reaction - the lizard brain perceiving danger before rational mind caught up to the present. Her fingers moved, forming the Tarjani mudra, a Buddhist gesture to ward off evil. Pinky and forefinger extended, middle and ring fingers folded under, with thumb holding them in place. Another throwback to childhood, and a religious mother.

"What the hell?" Abby waved a dismissive hand "Parlor tricks. We're in an immersive environment. You want to start farting thunderbolts, too? Ride a cloud like Monkey King?"

Makiko said, "Use your talent, Abby. That thing is real."

A heartbeat later, Abby staggered backwards. "Shit! It's intelligent! Not human but..."

"Evil," Makiko finished. "Do you happen to know the Heart Sutra? Or Emptiness of Forms?"

"No, and I don't have any sticky rice, either," Abby retorted, drawing on her limited knowledge of Hong Kong occult comedies. Her hand stole up, stroked an area that corresponded roughly to her heart. Manual activation of the panic button. Probably not necessary, since she was close to hyperventilating.

Makiko knew that Department agents would be ill-equipped to deal with a living myth. Her stomach quivered.

Peony's smile widened. "Now you see, madamu Sullivan? Now do you believe?"

Makiko's shields were vibrating beneath psychic blows. Not from an outside force, but from within. "Are you certain you know the truth, Peony? Do you know what to believe?" She closed her eyes, mental shields thrown entirely open - another instinct that she prayed was correct. "I love you, Abby."

"Dammit!" Abby cried. "You're vulnerable, 'Kiko!"

Several things happened simultaneously.

Ito Akashi walked into the room. The ittan-momen struck, coiling around Makiko's face. And the ghost of Perdita O'Toole appeared.

The temperature plummeted to freezing.

Abby let out a mental shriek that could have melted glass. Ito went down on his knees, clutching his head.  A gush of blood flowed from Peony's nostrils, staining her elaborate robes. In spite of the agony that the 'path's scream must have caused, her eyes remained locked on Perdita's perfect form. "You! You're dead!" she spat.

Makiko couldn't breathe. The demon squeezed, cutting off her air supply. She could hear Abby in the background of her mind, a slush of white-noise gibberish. Explosion of red in her eyes, blood vessels succumbing to pressure. In desperation, Makiko scrabbled through her own aura, searching fluctuating energy fields for the one thing she thought might stop this madness - the link to Perdita O'Toole's soul. That was why the ittan-momen continued to attack her. Perdita was a parasite, feeding on her bioplasm, contaminating her aura. In spiritual terms, the living and the dead had become Siamese twins.

Wait, Makiko heard in her mind. She knew it was Perdita's voice. I need you. A moment longer, and it's done.

Abby was tearing at the wrappings. Close your shields! she ordered. Her fingernails scrabbled at the cloth, inflicting no damage at all.

"I love you," Perdita told Peony. Her voice was high, fragile as a tern's call. "I never stopped loving you. But Ito... he swore he'd kill you if I didn't break it off. I had to hurt you to save you."

"Lie!" Peony's eyes were filled with tears. She blinked them away.

"The truth. Only the truth. I'm sorry, love." Perdita's exquisite face was filled with sadness. "I was afraid. I couldn't run. Ito would have found us. It was the only way."

Peony reached out. "Don't go," she pleaded. "I'm sorry. I thought..." Snow flakes trembled on her lashes.

"I can't stay. But I love you. Forever."

"No!"

Perdita said to Makiko, Set me free.

With the last of her failing strength, Makiko snapped the connection. She sagged into Abby's arms, barely conscious.

Ito pulled a flechette gun out of his jacket. He shot twice at the fading ghost. "I own you!" he said. "You belong to me!" The darts burst through Perdita's form, buried themselves in Peony's chest with meaty thwacks. She let out a half-cough, half-scream, blood bubbling over her lips. The immersive environment program ended; both she and the room returned to their normal appearance.

Perdita's ghost vanished. The ittan-momen released Makiko, climbed into the air, spiraling aimlessly. Abby spared another telepathic whiplash that made Ito's head rock back on his shoulders, his finger spasming on the gun trigger. Two more darts popped from the barrel, shattered on the floor. Oily yellow fluid amid the wreckage showed the flechette rounds were poisoned.

Abby put Makiko on the floor, slapped her face lightly. "C'mon, sweetie. Breathe!"

Makiko's chest heaved up and down in quick shallow jerks. Her face was colorless, lips as blue as lost Perdita's eyes. Abby inhaled, covered her partner's mouth with her own, and exhaled. The kiss of life. "Dammit, 'Kiko!" she raged between breaths. Accidently activated, holographic butterflies danced around their faces.

From her position high above the room, Makiko watched the auburn-haired woman's efforts. She had slipped the surly bonds of flesh, her spirit floating free. She felt regret at leaving Abby, sympathy for her mate's sorrow. But those emotions were tempered with fascination - in her newly altered state, Makiko was more able to appreciate the life energies that swirled in kaleidoscopic glory around her.

Perdita was visible, a silver butterfly that slowly leeched onto Ito's spiky reds and dull yellows. The demon was a gray thunder-bolt, circling the unsuspecting man like a hyena scenting a meal. Peony herself was a collage of color that flashed into pure white as she died.

Makiko saw butterfly-Perdita insert a coil of black into Ito's aura, delicately as a surgeon's needle. Sipping his prana, contaminating his chi, creating a bond not unlike the one she'd shared with Makiko. But now the butterfly had a deliberately poisoned sting.

The ittan-momen zeroed in on Ito, drawn by Perdita's tasty bait. She oozed her spiritual wings to ragged thinness, cloaked Ito's own energies with her own. That was all the demon needed. It struck, pouncing on the man with horrid eagerness.

Abruptly, Makiko was aware of Peony standing next to her. The onmyo-ji gave her a beatific smile. I did wrong, she said, communicating without words. Makiko could understand her perfectly, however. You were never meant to be drawn into this. I went mad for a time, I think.

Makiko silently agreed with her.

Peony continued, We're both free. Another flash of purest white, and Ito was gone. So are you.

The demon was a spent force, crumpled on the ground, a steel-hued nasty bleeding into nothingness. Incense smoke in a hard wind. Scent of burning poppy seeds.

Makiko felt a push that turned into a hard shove. Butterfly wings filled her vision, rustling gossamer, brittle yet strong as spider silk. She grasped at them in wonder. Iridescent luster, like perfect Mikimoto pearls. Sensation of falling, spinning in space like a maple leaf, downward until she landed with a thump... back in the land of the living. Re-embracing flesh. The saring pain in her lungs as she drew a deep sweet breath with a sound that was almost a sob. Her eyes were wide open, skin covered in cold sweat, burn in her ribs. The air hurt, biting cold but returning to normal.

Abby was not crying, but her cheeks were wet. "Goddammit, 'Kiko! You ever pull anything like that on me again, I'll burn your Powerpuff collection, I swear!"

Makiko gasped, "You do and I'll haunt you, I swear."

Reinforcements arrived, bursting into the room with drawn weapons. Egami was right behind, scowling like a bakemono ogre, magenta dreadlocks practically standing on end.

"I love you anyway," Makiko whispered. A black tunnel opened up and she fell through, straight to oblivion.


For the second time in as many days, Makiko woke up in a hospital.

The first thing she saw was Abby, smiling. "I sold the dancing/singing Storytime Blossom interactive doll to pay your medical expenses."

"Very funny." Makiko spotted Chief Egami, lurking behind her partner. "Konnichiwa, Egami-san. How's business?"

"Inscrutable and unknowable, much like the rest of life." Egami tugged his tie into place. Today's suit was plaid, manga characters racing along each line with bewildering speed. "Madamu Peony - her real name was Oyama Kaou - was found dead in the Equilibrium club. Tetrodotoxin poisoning. Delivered via two flechette darts fired by Ito Akasi, who was himself suffocated to death. Fabric remains we found are identical to the weapon used to kill both Ito and Perdita O'Toole."

"Do we have to talk shop?" Abby asked. "She just woke up."

"Remains?" Makiko was puzzled.

"The towel collapsed into dust when the techs tried to move it," Abby said, giving her partner a warning glance.

Egami found a stool and sat down, legs spread, hands on his thighs. "Officer Sullivan has given me a report, which I'm prepared to accept. Precognitive intuition on Officer Makiko's part - confirmed by her earlier Reading of the victim - led the investigators to the Equilibrium club, where they subsequently learned about O'Toole's intimate connection to a woman named Peony. During questioning of the suspect, Ito Akashi entered the room. Clearly disturbed, he became violent and attacked both Officer Makiko and Peony. During the struggle, Peony was shot and killed, but not before she somehow smothered him to death." He stopped, head cocked expectantly.

Makiko nodded. "Hai, Egami-san. That is correct."

Abby gave her a slight nod of encouragement.

"Perdita O'Toole was killed by Ito in a fit of jealous rage," Egami continued. "How he managed to elude the building's security sensors is unknown. Perhaps he bribed a smart elevator named Lenny?"

Makiko cut a quick peek at Abby, who shook her head imperceptibly. "Of course not," she replied with all the false confidence she could muster.

"Well, we'll never really know. That information died with him. It's too bad you were injured and unable to do a Reading. By the time a Department Reader arrived, Ito's energies had completely dissipated."

"Yes, very bad," Makiko said, "but it's an old story, isn't it? Crime of passion."

Egami adjusted his tie again. "Ito also attacked you at home, but fortunately he was frightened off by Officer Sullivan's arrival. A truly disturbed individual. His motive is unclear, but I suppose he may have learned of your involvement and feared discovery."

"Hai. A reasonable explanation."

"Tell me, Officer Makiko... why do I have the feeling that you're not telling me everything you know?"

"I don't know what you mean, Egami-san." Makiko gave him her best 'no idea whatsoever' expression.

"Unanswered questions. Your behavior lately has been erratic. Worrisome, to say the least."

Abby spoke up. "Makiko has been under a great deal of stress. She's been injured twice - no, three times - in the course of her duties. She may also be developing new precog talent, which is a strain. Doctor Shen Howe did a medical and psychic examination, and he's under the impression that she needs rest."

"And medicinal tea which does not contain dried snake heads," Makiko said, trying to be helpful. "I'm pretty sure I have all my hun and po, too. But I need to eat more yin. Lots and lots of yin, good for health." She winked at Abby, who blushed and rolled her eyes.

Egami was oblivious to their by-play. "I received the doctor's report. Mild SPC transfer. Which probably explains the strange energies other Readers have been complaining about. Strong energy patterns lacking a familiar signature, attached to you, Officer Makiko." He waited for a response.

"Do you believe in ghosts, Egami-san?" Makiko asked.

"Absolutely not."

"I had SPC transfer, sir. I'm better now."

"I hope so." His hand started to make a mudra, then stopped with a twitch. "There are some Tibetan lamas eager to speak to you. They have questions about your experiences in the chi kha'i bardo, as they call it. Did you see wrathful dieties, saints, and so forth. They were taking bioplasm readings as part of a study for Dharma-U."

"You died," Abby explained. "Your pulse stopped. I thought I lost you."

"I came back." Makiko sighed. "And I'm very tired."

"Rest," Egami said, standing up. "Have some more Kobe beef on me. Just don't make a habit of near-death experiences, eh? My expense account can't afford it." He squinted at her, moved closer to the bed. "Maybe I should say, near-life experience. What did you see, 'Kiko?"

Abby was also watching her expectantly. Makiko said, "Butterflies. Two beautiful white butterflies, dancing together." There was nothing else to say.

Egami scowled again, clearly not understanding. "Oxygen deprivation." He studied the mini-digital display on his wrist. "Two weeks off on medical leave. Don't come back until you've gotten an okay from Doc Howe." He left the room.

As soon as he was gone, Abby sat down on the edge of the bed. She picked up Makiko's hand, entwined their fingers together. "I still don't believe in ghosts. I don't believe in demons walking at night. Mutual hysteria, mass hallucination, short-range neural control... I'm not sure. There's got to be a rational explanation. Chemically induced insanity. Or maybe Peony was a rogue 'path, and we were dragged into her delusions."

"Maybe."

"What happened there, 'Kiko? What's the truth?" Abby searched her partner's face for answers.

Makiko smiled. Abby was so very beautiful, so solid, so comforting. "Moonlight and blood red peonies, momma-san. Strange signs in Heaven and Earth," she said, and closed her eyes.

Outside, it began to rain.

THE END

<~~~~~ Return to the Library

 

 

 


 

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