19

…So, this is where you live.

The haggard-looking man’s heavy-lidded eyes bore a precarious mix of desperation, hate, and rage, along with more than just a tiny glimmer of madness, as they focused on the humble apartment a few feet away from him.

Where are you, you meddling little shit?

The man was 37-year old Todaka Tetsuya, a disaffected retail worker at one of Rakuen’s local convenience store chains. He’d gone well out of his way over the past 7 years to distinguish himself as the hardest worker among the service crew at his assigned branch, and the store owner reciprocated by treating them with respect and fairness for the most part. Not only that, the owner in question also gave Tetsuya the acknowledgment and consideration warranted by his hard work, which was evidenced by the speed with which he progressed through the ranks. By this time last year, the owner told him that he’d be on the fast track to becoming head of that particular branch if he kept up his good work. Seeing as it wasn’t long after that conversation that his only son was born, that particular development could hardly have come at a better time.

…So much for that.

Unfortunately for Tetsuya, his impending promotion never really materialized. Just a little over three months after that conversation, the owner suffered a stroke that forced him into untimely retirement, which in turn led to his eldest daughter succeeding him as head of the business. She then proved to be nowhere near as fair or magnanimous as her father had been, which the service crew painfully found out when one of the cost-cutting measures she implemented involved lowering their monthly salary. Not only that, their new boss also proved to be a slave driver and an all-around unpleasant person to work under by constantly requiring everyone to work overtime and cussing at them for the slightest mistakes.

And when he, Tetsuya, stood up for one of his junior colleagues as she was getting chewed out for being 5 minutes late for his night shift, the boss responded by grabbing his ID card, snapping it in two, and then firing him on the spot.

Fuck her.

To be fair, thought Tetsuya, it wasn’t as though he didn’t try to pick up the pieces after what happened. After a pity party that lasted a week or two, he started an online business that had him selling pre-owned clothes and accessories to bidders on social media. It was hard work – if not quite the same as his prior job at the convenience store – and even when he went the extra mile conducting live selling sessions over social media, the return on investment wasn’t much.

Fuck everything, really.

Worse, it was also around this time that his wife began to treat him in ways that spoke volumes about how her respect for him had diminished in direct proportion to his monthly income. She constantly belittled, demeaned, and talked down to him at a time when he needed her love and support the most. Before long, Tetsuya was awake well past midnight in their living room, where it wasn’t rare for him to down an entire bottle of rum before falling asleep after having had too much to drink.

Seriously, fuck the world.

On top of all that, there was that incident last week. Tetsuya wound up snapping after his wife finally made one snide comment too many while putting their baby boy to sleep, at which point his hand found the pistol he kept in his bedside table for emergencies. His memories of that night were a haze for the most part, but he distinctly remembered chasing her like a raging bull through this part of the city, where he wound up shooting some random kid after said kid had the bright idea to play hero by getting in his way. He’d only just snapped out of his stupor afterward when that kid suddenly got up, his eyes flashing bloody murder, before speaking the words that quite literally haunted him for the past seven days.

FEAR.

I WANT YOU TO FEAR.

Since that night, the nightmares and hallucinations refused to leave Tetsuya alone. If he wasn’t reliving the day he got fired or revisiting his drunken attempt on his now-estranged wife’s life, he was trapped in extremely vivid visions that involved the youth, along with a creepy-looking woman clad in a blood-spattered white kimono with long hair that reached all the way to the ground, inflicting all kinds of torture on him.

FEAR.

One vision had the terrifying twosome brandishing knives and then inflicting thousands of tiny cuts all over Tetsuya’s body, before planting their respective blades into his throat and his nether regions.

FEAR.

Another had him helpless as the two set about carving deep cuts all over his stomach and groin areas and then tying him to a wooden pole like a scarecrow, whereupon the crows and locusts descended upon him and literally ate him alive.

I WANT YOU TO FEAR.

Yet another waking nightmare saw the despicable duo tie barbed wire around his hands and feet and then impale a 10-foot spike up his rear end and out his mouth, before roasting him on an open fire the way one would roast a rotisserie chicken.

Hush now.

It was while Tetsuya was in the middle of one of those waking nightmares that that man showed up and laid a hand on his forehead, at which point both the visions – and the voice in his head that had sparked them in the first place – disappeared in a heartbeat. And unsurprisingly, his first action was to literally fall on his knees and embrace his saviour around the knees.

Shall we end your torment?

They then went out for a walk, during which the man led them here and then pointed out this house once they were mere blocks away.

Trust me, you’ll love it.

As the man explained, the respite was temporary, and would only last twelve hours tops before the nightmares made their return.

To make them go away…

For the nightmares and visions to disappear for good, Tetsuya would have to kill the person responsible for inflicting them on him in the first place.

It’ll be easy enough.

His saviour even gave him a gun – a Colt Single Action Army – with which he was to finish the job.

Six bullets.

Todaka Tetsuya carefully loaded the silver bullets into the revolver that had been gifted to him as he waited to repay his tormentor the anguish and suffering he’d put him through.

More than enough to kill anything – and anyone – that moves.

Supernatural powers and demonic possession be damned.

And when Tetsuya heard the sound of a car getting closer to where he waited, his heart began to race at the prospect of his impending retribution.

——

Shugo looked himself over the mirror once he’d finished emptying his bladder.

His outfit for that evening was a black, long-sleeved turtleneck sweater over black cargo pants and a matching pair of black-and-yellow rubber shoes. The sweater was something he’d bought earlier at the shopping arcade while Ayaka and Erina were busy window shopping at the neighbouring clothing stores, and sported a high collar that he could pop in order to obscure his face to a greater degree than his facemask would allow on its own. The cargo pants were an old favourite that he’d picked out of his closet for that day, and had numerous pockets that often came in handy. Additionally, his dark-hued clothes also had the added benefit of hiding bloodstains in the event of a run-in.

Not that I’m in any hurry.

I actually like these clothes, and unfortunately for me, my regeneration doesn’t extend to whatever I happen to be wearing.

Shugo then made his way back to his spot at the round table they’d picked out at the restaurant: a place called Café Momotaro, owned by one of the chief’s friends. His spot at the table saw him flanked by Ayaka at his left, and by Ayato to his right. Taro sat on Ayaka’s other side, just as Erina sat on her boyfriend’s right side. Riku was at Taro’s left, right beside two empty chairs that had been occupied by Ryoma and his friend the restaurant owner. As the two adults in question had gone ahead in the meantime to take care of some personal business, the detective and aide was left to look after Taro and the others.

“The chief told me this was where he and his wife, God rest her soul, had their wedding reception,” Riku explained to them once Ryoma and the owner had taken their leave. “He also said that this was where they had the baby shower for Taro here. The food’s pretty good, wouldn’t you say?”

Shugo couldn’t argue with that. Notwithstanding his wry observation regarding the inexplicable tendency for free food to somehow taste better than it normally would, it was quite easy to understand why Café Momotaro constantly appeared in the articles of the local food and lifestyle bloggers and magazines. Not only that, it also helped the restaurant’s case that their prices were fairly reasonable considering the quality of their offerings.

The chief’s got good taste, that’s for sure.

Unsurprisingly, there were barely any leftovers to speak of by the time they’d finished their meal. Once he’d finished off the last of his blueberry cheesecake, Shugo took a moment to look around at his companions. Ayato and Erina were sharing a quiet moment to themselves, while Riku, Ayaka, and Taro were in the middle of a lively conversation regarding her wire art. Based on what the detective had told him, this was where Ryoma had celebrated his recently-concluded wedding and the then-impending birth of his only child. And if Riku’s offhanded comment was anything to go by, the chief likely associated this restaurant with memories of Taro’s mother and his late wife.

And if he, Ryoma, had chosen this place to take them all out to dinner…

…Damn.

Just then, Riku’s phone rang, prompting him to answer it.

And once the call was finished, the detective got to his feet.

“Right, then, we’ll be going now.”

They were in the car not more than half an hour later. By the time the clock struck 10:00 PM, the dark red Mitsubishi Lancer had exited the carpark and was out on the city streets. As the Hikawa residence was closest to the restaurant, the chief’s instructions were to bring Taro home first so the household staff could put him to sleep.

“Wait just a minute, guys,” the detective told them just before he nudged the boy awake and beckoned him to get inside the house. “This shouldn’t take long.”

The next step after that was to drop Erina off at the dormitory not far from her place of work.

“Come to think of it, Ayato might want to let his girlfriend stick around,” Ryoma had added. “It’ll help keep her safe if we let her in on our arrangement, after all.”

Surprisingly enough, it didn’t take much for Riku to convince Ayato of the merits of that course of action. Erina herself wasn’t unwilling to discuss the matter, either; unfortunately, she had to politely decline the offer, on the ground that she had to report for work at 7:30 AM the next day.

“Alright, then,” both the detective and her boyfriend nodded in understanding. “Another time, Erina.”

From there, it was Shugo’s turn to be dropped off. After that, Riku was to take the Akizuki siblings to the police station, where they had important matters to discuss.

“Of course, you’re welcome to join us if you like,” Ryoma told him over Riku’s phone. “It’s about that public safety talk we’ve got scheduled for your school, anyway.”

Shugo thought it over for a moment, though it didn’t take him much convincing.

“Sure, I’m game.”

“But before we go there, could we drop my stuff off at home first?”

——

Barely 5 minutes away from the Furukawa residence…

“I sense an old enemy nearby.”

Shugo looked up as she whispered, his eyes widening just a little bit, before he let out a sigh and answered through their mental link.

Which old enemy? Think you can narrow it down?

The spirit’s answer didn’t come right away.

When she finally replied, Shugo couldn’t help but feel the beginnings of fear.

“Watch yourself,” she urged. “He means to end you.”

And when she elaborated further, the next words she spoke elicited a cold dread that caused the blood in his veins to turn to ice.

“And if he does, even I may no longer be able to save you.”

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