Mojibake Parade

As the last traces of solar afterglow vanished from the sky, traffic remained at a standstill. The driver’s jowls rippled with curses formed but unuttered, like a struck boxer's face in slow motion. From the back, Fumika was transfixed by a marquee inviting passersby to the C-A-F-E. Her day began pleasantly: ailing ficus on the first floor finally replaced, a new dictionary shipment, but now…

Watching exasperated hands clasping and unclasping the wheel, Rin broke the silence.

“Your vintage Crown is in excellent shape. Where’d you find it?”

“My pop used to drive this. He probably got it from one of yours.”


“Madam, the only fares at that loading dock on Kojimachi are actuaries and off-duty cops, and you seem too with-it for a number-cruncher.”

The warm smile encouraged the cabbie to continue.

“You're a Waseda lady… drifted into public policy studies and got scouted by the Force way later, no? You jog in the morning and wince at Murakami quotes. Growing up, you'd blow off comparisons to Rin Shibuya, while secretly enjoying them.”

It was Todai, but the gentleman with the golden Class 2 license certainly had a right to his air of self-confidence. Upon arrival, Rin knocked on the door of a nondescript 1LDK apartment.

“Ya-hoo, why so gloomy? Here's some candy to cheer you up!”

Rin collected the sweets.

“These Quattro chocolate bombs were part of a VIP-only anniversary release at the Nihonbashi Mason Caffet shop. You’re not fooling anyone, Sakurai-san.”

Momoka removed her colored eye lenses, crisply curtsied and ushered the visitors in.

Barefoot and in painter’s overalls, stretched askew on a leopard print couch, the subject of impersonation exhaled a robust cloud from an electronic cigarette.

“You goof! Yui has never heard of any choco-quattros. Let’s get to work.”

With Fumika pulled into Yui’s bedroom, Momoka cleared off a flimsy computer desk. Lava lamps shaped as a cactus and a pickle were moved atop a rainbow-backlit aquarium (filled with garish anthias to match) to make room for a neat pile of clothes.

“Here are some options. I suggest…”

Rin had her own idea.

“The sun’s a thief – she lures the sea and robs it.”

“Pardon me?”


Momoka blushed.

“In that case, may I—“


Rin fished out a pink and yellow vest from the pile, transferring badge and gun into its inner pockets. During the awkward exchange of clothes, Momoka asked:

“How did you recognize my candies?”

A one-time confectioner, Rin’s retired mother started a line of custom flower arrangements paired with famous couture sweets. Inspired by an anniversary re-translation of Huysmans’ A Rebours, the project was based on the notion that for every flower, there existed a matching flavor.

“You have to become a gustatory synaesthete,” the creator would muse at her sunlit station in the attic, fingering a nougat fox netsuke or a marzipan half-moon like a makeshift shougi piece.

“The candy’s looks are medium but not message. Let the flower speak, and the taste buds will resonate.”

Dainty and compact, the small-batch releases were sold in equally precious display boxes. Ancient Mongolian verse, or a bit of Mozarabic calligraphy on the package might provide an oblique cue to the links between the duo within — all fully wasted on the audience of trophy wives that seized upon the product for clicks, likes and followers on social media.

By the time Rin explained how star anise evoked a blooming chrysanthemum, Yui emerged with her ward in tow.

“Am I good or wh- wait… did you two…? Hahaha, OK, Yui can play this game too.”

She darted back in, abandoning her opus. Fumika's woven headband was replaced by a white bandana, its photo-negative rolled and tucked into the loops of denim shorts cut far above their dog-tongue pocket tips. A third layer of paisley print, in carmine, sat under a cropped peasant blouse.

The door slowly opened, and Yui meekly shuffled out, hugging a thick coral-pink 150 Mascara Tips That Zing folio to her chest.

“Good news, the Inejiro Asanuma biography is still in stock… I'll even cut you a great deal! Ahahaha, ahaha!”

“She’s had a few,” Rin whispered. More than a few, hand-signaled Momoka.

The make-up manual thudded atop Momoka’s clothes stash. Yui was catching her breath.

“Wheee, Yui’s a National Akutagawa Scholar. I’m Kenzaburo Oe. Hahaha, I’m Urashima Taro. Check out the sweet turtle I caught in my nets! No fair... She's two years older than Yui, and doesn't look close to it!”

She stabbed a candy-lemon nail into Fumika's thigh. In the kitchen, Momoka was pouring hibiscus tea into a gaggle of odd drinkware. Yui straddled a chair. Though labeled SANTASTIC!, the only hibernal imagery on her mug was a quartet of men in bulky parkas. Fumika sat down holding a Rastafarian R2-D2, its hinged lid crowned with ceramic dreadlocks.

“These granny clothes are actually super cozy. Fumika, who did you wanna be growing up?”

“Fridtjof Nansen.”

The odd sound they heard was Rin nearly choking on a succade.

“Excuse me?”

“One of the bravest polar explorers, this Norwegian zoologist and oceanographer became a humanitarian legend by establishing an internationally-recognized passport for persons left stateless by war, without which, famous creators such as-”

The Santastic Four came crashing down in protest.

“I have no idea what you just said, but Yui, like all normal girls, wanted to be a princess when she grew up. And you did it. In real life, not on stage for funny-looking smelly people. So go out there and be one!

Say, where are you two going?”

The Kamihara Complex, said, Rin, who'd finally come to terms with The Thinker having his cranium enlarged and bashed in to form the asinine chalice in her hands. Momoka gingerly held the curling edges of a clay marvel that bore no handle, on account of being a sombrero. Like the gaucho on one side (the other bandoliered by “FUTBOL” and “AZTECA” conjoined at the T) leaping at his ball, she was kicking herself for not bringing her own cups.

The complex belonged to Big Street Jimusho, the umbrella entity that, among a myriad similar operations, owned 346 Production. The site was part of a scheme to launder money using clever contracts to earmark top-talent booking fees for no-name indie bands. This setup also presented a sop to the incorrigible creatives in the organization, eager for alternatives to the soul-killing sameness of the idol factories. Refilling the megacephalic Rodin, Rin couldn't help but admire the setup: Big Street would really have to tick someone off to get caught and investigated.

Sitting at the periphery of a sparsely occupied corporate park, Kamihara had a dubious reputation. Pavilion I hosted hip-hop shows and was prone to gang clashes, while II and III (EDM and deep house) were subject to the occasional drug raid. Per Yui, wildcard Pavilion IV was the coolest and- huh?! Since when is there a Pavilion V?? While Yui furtively laced the tea with cognac, Rin sent messages from her phone to arrange the next leg of her plan.

Once Sergeant Sasaki pulled up, Fumika was ushered into the back, and Rin took the passenger seat. After the cruiser drove away, the blondes looked at each other and giggled.

“On vice duty today, Detective?”

“Something like that. I'm pretty sure where we're going is part of Sergeant Fukunaga's beat, and he's the sort that's going to ask questions.”

“Fukunaga's a fellow marksmanship instructor... he's a very thorough cop. The place is cursed, and it's getting late, so his people are gonna be out there. Do you have backup?”

Rin hesitated to acknowledge that she didn't.

“Let me think of who could help.” The Sergeant fell silent for a couple minutes, then his finger thumped the dashboard like a chess clock.

“I'm taking a detour. Hey miss, you alive over there?”

Fumika perked up. Framed by a grey buzzcut, the driver's oblong patrician face turned around and winked.

“Please forgive this humble chariot. It's not supposed to be pleasant in the back! But do take advantage of the scenic route. There's a comfy coat on the seat that you can throw on if you'd like.”

Made of hostile synthetic designed to resist thrashing miscreants and their bodily fluids, the surface was nothing like the plush reupholstered taxi backseat. The car boomed onto a suspension bridge, and downtown lights came into view like gems studding a treasure chest. Fumika doffed her black pumps and curled up under the tanned leather. The jacket enveloped her with a scent of tobacco and cologne, its bulky softness complementing the inner warmth from the spiked tea. As the city rolled by, she found herself enjoying the adventure. Even Rin shed her anxiety in jovial conversation with her golf announcer-voiced colleague. Fumika slipped back into her shoes and shifted closer to the half-barrier cage.

”-ten the last time Kirie and I took him to Friendship Day. He couldn't shut up about going aboard a real submarine, and now, he can barely fit into one! And these days, he refuses to go at all.”

“How come?”

“Well, he hates wearing his, ah, public uniform to an event that's all about openness and camaraderie. Says that it would run counter to the spirit, and that going in plainclothes would feel even faker...”

Rin rolled her eyes.

“He should wear a white suit, a nice linen and cotton suit that breathes in the heat. It's the color of naval tradition and a dignified look. Where's the deception in that?”

“You know, that's an idea. Maybe it'll be received better if he hears it from you? And, we're almost there... Fumika-san, mind reaching into the left pocket?”

Fumika handed over the hard pack of cigarettes and a lighter shaped like an antique bosun's whistle. The car entered an upscale urban district, illuminated by a neon aurora from the floodlit plaza filled with elegant pedestrians. Sasaki pulled into a valet lane in front of a luxury hotel and exited. Rin unlocked a rear door and relocated to the back.

“I'll never get used to sitting on this. It's worse on your rear than a misaligned bike saddle.”

Not long after Fumika wrapped the jacket around the other girl, the Sergeant showed up with a pair of intimidating young men, one with hair trimmed just like his own, the other fully shaved. Bald Jiro took the passenger seat, as Kensuke, doubled nearly in half, stuffed himself into the back.

“These fellows once served with me aboard a ship as cramped as this car is now. They won't let you down.”

The atmosphere shifted, and the five rode on in silence until turning onto a side road where Kamihara Complex could be heard before it was seen. Once the victorious V atop the mystery pavilion grotesquely pulsated into sight, all manners of visual nuisance assaulted the riders as if to mock the calm hues of the hotel district. Sasaki pivoted into a narrow spot behind a dumpster.

“If you need evac, I'll be on comms, but it won't be me coming. Good luck.”

Her door was opened, and Rin dashed out. Fumika scrambled to catch up.

“Sasaki-san seems like a really nice person. He's probably an incredible father.”

“That he is. He raised two teenage boys alone when his wife died of cancer. The younger son is even bigger than the guys behind us. I sparred with him once... it was awful. He threw me around like Hanako with her favorite rubber hedgehog.”

“And I bet you enjoyed every moment.”

They turned the corner, and the cacophony grew more oppressive. The crowds gradually streamed into queues. Rin was fumbling with her phone.

“Check out the older brother: 'It didn't take long after returning from Britain for our newest professor to earn the department's Young Faculty of the Year award. Dr. Hiroshi Sasaki has been teaching Comparative European Literature while completing a biography of Renaissance scholar D.J. Gordon (see the color inset in February's 'Vermilion Quill' for details). A Jin Masaoka Scholar, Professor Sasaki is currently accepting new advisees.”

“Is... he seeing anyone?”

“He was supposed to get married in England, but, mmm, something went awry, so he came home and threw himself into work.”

Rin's phone buzzed:

“ATTN 2 rich girls out on dads dime w guards cant u look like all the other sloppy couples thx”

Fumika appropriated Kensuke's shades, threading her arm around his.

“Tell me a story, sailor. I'll be your northern star for the night.”

The young man migrated his palm to her waist.

“We have this bozo living on the 14th floor who thinks he's Howard Hughes. One day, Jiro radioed me about a porter cart that didn't look right. It turned out...”

Rin texted her point of contact and they turned into a side alley where one of the lines tapered toward the tacky V sign. A rotund man in pale linen tumbled into sight like a parmesan wheel being hijacked from a fromager. The blob of sweat-stained beige led them past the line and around the metal detectors. Rin handed a small plastic baggie to Fumika, who immediately shoved in the earplugs, which were powerless against the cycle of spleen-rattling bassquakes. Colors and shapes gleefully challenged, mounted and obliterated each other around a mass of flailing bodies. The procession terminated behind soundproof vault doors.

“Your phones and guardians must stay here. Please proceed to the right, then press the purple buzzer on the wall.”

The attendant unlocked a rattling metal barrier, and the girls entered. Like a violet in a boutonnière, the doorbell was humbly tucked into the frame around a wide vertical gate. With an orchestral hum, the gate opened into an interstitial area, where a regular door unlocked with a click.

“Shoes off, please.”

A gym-clothed Makino Yagami welcomed them inside. Chihiro Senkawa, hoodie over skirt, stood up from underneath a kotatsu and bowed politely.

“Please join us. Tonight, I brought steamed pork buns with pimiento.”

“Do you, uh, work here too, Chihiro-san?”

Chihiro put out plates and utensils for the guests.

“I just like to come help out after putting the kids to bed. A little change of pace is nice sometimes.”

Makino knelt and filled whiskey tumblers from a giant bottle of aloe juice while explaining the mystery of Pavilion V.

The financial institution that owned Kamihara Complex bankrolled Big Street, and, rather than mind their shenanigans, injected its own parasite into the scheme. This mimic of a nightclub concealed the massive electric energy expenditures needed for cyber-endeavors of varied legality.

“That was us,” Makino pointed to a poster on the wall, titled “DO THE BARTMAN”, the letters ablaze in toxic magenta. The top of a maniacal, pancake-faced character's head was defined by a sawtooth curve that spiked upward, danced a tippler's unsteady jig, and fell back down.

Fumika's hand, aiming to harpoon a pork bun, clenched around the chopsticks like they were electrified.

“You destroyed MondoCoin?”

“Technically, MondoCoin destroyed MondoCoin. Nobody babbling about anhysteretic contracts ever thought the problem all the way through. Now, they're in textb- how do you even know about this?”

Already a borderline-obsolete entity, Sagisawa's Bookstore had to closely track dominant trends to stay in business. Once the “Crypto” section bloated to a quarter of the new book department, the owner felt too old to vet the goods and delegated the task to his niece.

Chihiro set out a tray of multicolored mochi that were destroyed at once. Makino stretched, kicked a computer mouse to keep the screen awake, and slinked back under the table's covers. Fumika, content to keep snacking and chatting, had already learned to sense the currents of tension powering Rin, who stood up.

“Find anything interesting in the data set? Anything my colleagues might've missed?”

Makino sat down at her computer, as Chihiro manned an adjacent station. A projector turned on, putting a sample of the data on the wall.

“We ran the standard steganalysis suites to idiotic precision to double check, and some relative entropy approaches from the literature. The mojibake aren't budging.”

Rin's department was assigned to investigate a snapshot from a suspect's computer. Data extracted from the memory featured large chunks of nonsensical Asian characters. The Chief was in the hospital with yet another liver problem, so Rin handled the administrative work. This backburner job was quickly forgotten after the inconclusive report from Forensics was archived.

“The linguists said that most miscodings tend to be all over the Unicode spectrum, but these are all CJK characters. They'd considered logography with alternative phonetics and found nothing... I'm assuming you haven't either?”

Chihiro shook her head.

“I checked against all available sinoxenic vocabularies. There just isn't nearly enough regularity in the structure.”

The room fell silent for a while. Makino cleaned her glasses with her shirt. Feeling the onset of a headache, Rin quaffed the remaining juice.

“Is there any kind of regularity, at all? What sort of patterns are worth looking at?”

Makino began to pull up various histograms when Fumika spoke up.

“I see really uncommon characters on the screen showing up over and over... very niche Unicode flavors. Would it be possible to bin them according to the proposal that introduced them?”

“Sure. Chi-chan, mind standing up an endpoint that maps ideographs to the corresponding Unihan info?”

The duo got to work. Fumika's face, enthralled by the shapes on the screen like an astronomer examining his favorite constellation, reminded Rin of the day she decided to enlist her. The bookstore's cornerside entrance opened into an alley formed by tall shelves filled with bestsellers, separating the general book aisles on the left from a roomy reading space on the right. That day, the chairs and couches were cleared away for a class of small children. An elder with a lunatic's beard and a prophet's voice spoke of bees and their role in the ecosystem while brandishing a trap nest pockmarked by a wood-boring species. Next to him, a young teacher gazed to the side, in vain, as his target was lost in admiring the color plates inside a Greek classics volume.

This time, Fumika noticed the questing eyes upon her.

“Chinese characters aren't modeled compositionally for two reasons. Capturing the dimensions of a subglyph in a given kanji would take a geometry model more complex than anything in the current spec. Also, most of what could be composed is nonsense, requiring a validation layer. Per my dissertation advisor, as documents fade away, people become less literate, and governments—”

Makino smacked her table. “We've got something!'

The display on the wall zoomed out over the entire dataset, coloring each character by originating amendment to the standard. From that rainbow, yellow stood out, in punctuated but steady spurts.

Now actively battling the headache, Rin asked, “So, what exactly is going on in the yellow band?”

“Characters from the L2/13-009 batch keep recurring in a somewhat organized fashion. Let's look this up.”

The projection zoomed in on a row of intermittent yellow. Fumika walked up for a closer look. Makino added an overlay to the display.

“They're used to transcribe Christian Orthodox documents for the Chinese... OK then. This one means 'Christos' but is pronounced 'ri'. Hee-hee, this one says 'rin', but is actually 'Corinth'.”

Hearing her name, Rin came over to the projection, as a distraction from the ringing in her head. Makino spun around in her chair a few times, then got up herself to stare at the letters.

”'Reya' as in 'Nazareyanin', or Nazarene, that's loony!”

Chihiro decided that she should also be standing along with the others.

“Say, how many of these... never mind, I think I see it. Give me juuuust a few...”

The guests returned to the kotatsu. Despite protesting, Rin found her nape in Fumika's lap, the black bandana moistened and applied as a forehead compress. It helped. She closed her eyes.

The keyboard fell silent.

“Chihiro, please fill out these stubs for me and run this for the whole set, I gotta hit the bathroom.”

The typing resumed, quieter and less frantic. Fumika reversed the compress. Rin thought back to guest-lecturing at her old grad department last month. It was fun to imagine what roles various audience members would play in the TMPD. The goliath with the barely-fitting jacket was born to bust up sketchy back-alley businesses. The frazzled twerp that probably cut his own hair seemed prime for bringing custom pincers and pipettes to the evidence lab. The indifferent fellow with the coiffure didn't count; clearly someone's son checking a box toward a sinecure. The handful of girls looked just like the frumpy pedants Rin avoided during her own stint there: lame hair, depressing makeup, and an air of ever-readiness to berate someone for a trivial misstep. The exception was a mousy but tidy personage with a fatigued face, who crawled into a chair and fell asleep perhaps five minutes after Rin started speaking. Three-quarters into the lecture, a bearded apparition walked in, in a taupe Nehru jacket with... a smoking pipe? no, a yatate! in his hand. Rin took a swig of water and slowly blinked, but the visitor remained, occupying a seat in the back. He patiently waited until the students that stuck around finished conversing with Rin and left (mystery girl woke up and ran off the moment the lights came on), and introduced himself.

“Good day, Detective — I see that you don't recognize me. I'm Zaemon Ozawa.”

It suddenly clicked. Of the linguists analyzing the captured data, two were aging department heads and the third a postdoc in a suit so cheap that a gentle drizzle was liable to melt it away, stepping in for Professor Shinnosuke Maeda from Language and Information Sciences at Tokyo University. Where the forensics team was concerned, this was an upgrade: old Maeda was a stagnant all-but-emeritus, while Ozawa lived on the cutting edge of computational linguistics.

The man placed an envelope on Rin's podium and handed her a printed letter, which claimed that the investigation was conducted in a manner that led him to question its integrity. Fully convinced of having witnessed deliberate tampering, he chose to bypass the existing mechanisms for feedback and take the matter to the lead investigator.

“You may indicate your intention by either remaining in the room or departing.”

Rather that refuse to accept the document, seize it and take it to a superior, or insist that Ozawa follow official protocol, Rin believed him. She even felt sorry that he was pulled away from trying to win yet another Knorozov Prize (a line in his resume that really got the techs buzzing) to document a grievance. She sat down. Without a word, Ozawa turned and walked out.

The report was bulky, meticulous and, counter to the author's kooky countenance, written in lucid and engaging Japanese. The linguists were denied access to computing resources, or an effective platform for collaboration, and by the time their requests were addressed, they were asked to wrap up and submit final reports. Any one of these failures could be ascribed to an overworked and/or ill-managed team. Together, they reeked of systematic neglect. All things the Chief had a reputation for preempting.

What do you know that I don't, Rin wondered. Two floors above her office, in a a corner alcove with glass stands full of yellowing photos, an oversize picture showed a wiry, steel-eyed Masahiro Iuchi balancing a motorcycle with one hand and holding a trophy from the All-Japan Safe Riding Contest with the other. Tell me, midnight cruiser, what was it that you smelled that made you literally drink yourself out of an investigation and let it land on me?

Rin felt movement under her head, opened her eyes and saw Makino in a magician's top hat standing above.

“My lovely assistant and I have something to show you.”

The image on the projection now displayed green bands interspersed among the yellow.

“Anything catch your eye, Fumika?”

Rin jolted up. For a while, Fumika's finger wandered across the letters as if conducting an invisible orchestra.

“These are streaks of multiradical characters with grapheme counts not exceeding a fixed minimum...”

Makino applauded, and sat down at her machine.

“The 13-009s popped up often enough that I knew they had to be some kind of marker. It turned out that they're a mask: elide the radicals in the same order as the phonemes simplified away by the pronunciation, and boom!”

The yellow characters vanished. The green sections decomposed into simpler forms.

“This still looks like nonsense, but all of these have phonetic mappings. Fumika, did you know that Zipf's Law- never mind, you're all eager to see the punchline. A bit of brute force and simple sanity checking get us here.”

The characters turned into Hiragana.

“And now, let's parse out the numbers and latinize the rest.”

Amidst the remaining gibberish, a tidy table of address pairs and amounts emerged, flanked by accompanying fixed-size chunks of legible but meaningless nonsense in Latin script. A ledger. Bart Simpson leered from his wall. With Fumika and Chihiro dispatched to find materials on blockchain analysis, Makino loudly railed at having to do math, while wondering as to who'd invent such a weird obfuscation scheme and why.

No answers came from Rin, face down and asleep on the floor. By the time she was awakened by Fumika, whose stockinged feet comically protruded from freshly-issued pajamas, the other two were bundled up on the couch. It looked like an ordinary sleepover, save for a projector screen busy with graphs and other visuals that Rin did not recognize.

“Once we got rid of the junk, it was easy to find on ChainSnoop and plug in.”

An executive summary was followed by an exasperated question: why, in a world where free robust encryption has been available to everyone for decades, would anyone deploy this lexical freak show?

Free of the headache, Rin took a moment to sanitize her answer.

“Because it's nothing but look-up tables. Imagine running this as a macro in a system with open access to the world, but with every bit of its memory monitored and analyzed.”

Makino could imagine a setup where the footprint of the transformation was easy to conceal, and the data flowing in and out had to be just obscure enough to bypass equally casual human and digital observers. Rin didn't need to imagine.

“Hey Chihiro, can we get a power test please?”

Chihiro gave a drowsy thumbs up.

“If you want, we've got enough juice to 51% the entire thing. I do find it odd that we cracked this in just a few hours, and a team of detectives and linguists didn't. What gives?”

Rin knew exactly what gave. She became convinced that the professors were picked as much for credentials as for a willingness to use them as a rubber stamp. Maeda's replacement was unexpected, so the ready and able Ozawa had to be resource-starved out of making meaningful progress. The more Rin thought about the situation, the angrier she got.

“Do it, Makino. Burn the whole thing to the ground.”

Rin climbed onto the sofa, careful not to disturb Fumika slumped over its side. She'd earned her rest. Rin claimed a portion of the blanket and leaned back, watching one slice of a pie chart grow larger and larger until becoming stably dominant. A round fixture in a corner of the room, previously unnoticeable, started to blink in an unpleasant caramel yellow.

“Uh-oh. Chihiro!”

Chihiro, already holding a large foam mallet, slammed the flashing disc. All the electricity in the room shut off. Makino was heard sliding off the sofa, to appear at the entrance with an LED lantern.

“It's been fun, girls. Now, go, quickly!”

Her guests sprinted through the pale crimson haze of emergency lights until reaching the unlocked metal barrier, where the beige man waved them through. Rin collected her phone, bid Sasaki's men to take Fumika home and sped off toward an emergency exit sign. The humid night greeted her with transformer booth outlines that lined a span of chain-link fence like buzzing tombstones, and tall grass that lashed at her bare shins. She ran in the direction of the parking lot until a pair of weapon-mounted flashlights flicked on.

“Stay right there!”

Rin pulled out her badge. The lights did not budge, as a figure walked up from her right.

“Chief Inspector Okubo. Please hand over your weapon.”

Rin smiled as her captors led her into the back of a windowless van. Noriaki Okubo of General Affairs wouldn't be caught planting his couture loafers on the ground for anything but truly major fish. This is a honeypot!

When a moribund desk rat of indeterminate age unlocked the back doors, blinding Rin with a burst of fluorescent lighting, she noticed that they were the only ones in the garage. After locking her into an interrogation cell along with pencil and paper, this walking gallery of dress code violations offered a cryptic warning to “stay tuned!” and left. Stay tuned for what? For whom? Somewhere under a rug way above Rin's pay grade, a bulldog fight was taking place.

Rin drew a rectangle, then a diagonal line, which became bookcase and ladder, Fumika at its foot wearing the night's outfit. The shelves filled up with potted plants, statuettes, and rows of book spines that echoed the transverse patterns in her father's home library. Perhaps three-quarters of the space was filled in when a fairy opened the door.

She had legs that should be patrolling runways rather than alleys, delicate hands that didn't belong anywhere near a firearm, and a face too pretty for police duty, Rin thought. Along with the shameful evidence bag that held Rin's sidearm, the visitor placed a canned vending machine beverage on the table.

“Please accept my sincerest apologies for being held up here. I'm Takako. Let's get you out of here.”

Rin cracked open the drink and channeled Dalí by sketching a disembodied magnolia blossom in the remaining blank space.

“Oh my gosh, I love your sexy librarian. Do you think I could have this picture?”

Suppressing a vestigial reflex to sign it, Rin handed over the drawing. She stood up, chugged the refreshment, and re-holstered the gun.

“No way, are those genuine Nephilim Hail Marys?”

Oh, the shoes. Whatever they are, Momoka would rather lose a hand than touch counterfeit merchandise.

“Yeah, I borrowed them from a friend.”

“Your friend is awesome! If I had a pair, and someone tried to take mine, I'd kill them!”

In the elevator, Rin openly ogled the girl like an aging lecher. Takako beamed back, the edge of Rin's folded sketch peeking from a chest pocket. Here's what I know, Rin concluded as they exited the elevator. She should be out there, coveting colorful sneakers, dancing to silly music, and enriching the world with her radiance. She should not be cramming for a term paper about early Showa incorporation of ius gentium, practicing running a spike barrier, or getting stonewalled by Hokkaido Prefectural as they scrambled to avoid an international incident, while the body of the colleague she loved sat in an unknown freezer.

They entered a side lot that featured a very familiar vehicle. Crowned by oversized loudspeakers, “Rise up, Japan!” written across its side, the black van was repossessed from an uyoku dantai. The Chief thought there was no better disguise than that of an idiot gang heading out to create pointless ruckus.

Takako took the driver's seat, and Rin figured that the girl is in good hands. Though a schemer and an alcoholic, Chief Iuchi always took proper care of his subordinates. And there he was in the back. The truck revved up in basso profundo.

“What do you think of the Ozawa situation?”

The Chief squinted.

“What do you think of the Ozawa situation?”

Rin was too tired to hide her confusion.

“OK, how about this: what's the last time you saw Shiro Nakajima make a mistake?”

“When he married a stupid and ugly woman.”

Rin was horrified by the outburst that snuck past her depleted decorum levels, but when the Chief started laughing in a raspy tenor, she too completely lost it. The back of the van was dingy with suicide-inducingly stark lighting, but it felt like a warm summer rain had washed over the two. The Chief knocked on the metal wall separating him from the driver. The vehicle stopped and they came out to face the ascendant sunrise, its yellow wings embracing a dense skyline.

“I thought this sight was worth pulling over for. Say, did you know that Shiro won the Knorozov Prize three years ago?”

The pieces were starting to come together, but cautiously and at some distance, like the dancing pairs at a formal ball.

“Whether or not Nakajima lives in the lab because he's afraid to go home, he's our top guy in Forensics. Okubo wanted the case supervised by the deadest dinosaurs in linguistics. So, I got Shiro the one guy he said was head and shoulders better than him.”

Behind them, the sounds of traffic grew louder. The sunlight let go of the rooftops and morphed into a triumphant halo. The Chief opened the driver's door, beckoned Takako to go watch the dawn apply its final spells, and then sat down at the wheel. Rin inspected herself in the passenger-side sun visor mirror.

“You decided that it was worth risking your health to bow out?”

“Anyone dealing with Okubo is already risking his health.”

The Chief had experience watching General Affairs push rigged investigations through the pipeline as a cover for applying their own murky methods. In the system, everyone had a role to play and Iuchi's was getting things done. After realizing that he was being used, he rewired the gears and made himself inaccessible to questioning and social pressure. What followed was outright sabotage and obstruction.

“So you dropped the enterprise on me, expecting... what exactly?”

“Not THIS scenario, that's for sure. I did expect you, Mr. Ozawa, Shiro, and the others to do the right thing. I bet on people, not outcomes.”

They returned to back of the truck, which grumbled and roared back onto the freeway. Rin didn't envy her supervisor, who signed up for a battle that seemed quixotic at best. What comes next is going to be—

“You'll have to sit the rest of this one out. Nothing on the record, nothing in the case file, just be somewhere else. Let me handle it.”


When the phone rang, Rin was marveling at the variety of bonsai trees she was tasked to tag with removable QR decals. Since the day it opened long before her birth, Shibuya Flower Shop wouldn’t sell any, per a gentleman’s agreement with the nursery of Chinese language scholar Tetsuro Satsuyama, a regular guest at family dinner and a madman. Dr. Satsuyama spoke French to Rin’s mother, brought exotic wares as props for impromptu show-and-tells, and, above all, showcased a discipline of horticulture that transcended mere experience.

“To worship impermanence is supremely human insofar as it speaks to our greatest weakness. Oh, let us adore ephemerality because, well, what else are we gonna do — cry about having to die one day? Nuts to that! Make every second count. And this little tree in its shallow planter, we’re the ones who bred it to be so minuscule, so dependent on us for its well-being. And yet, it can live for half a century, if – and only if – the caretaker has the skill to provide what it needs. Who ever said that finity implies incompleteness? And nuts to wabi-sabi, while we’re at it. Look at the characters: disappointment? solitude?? As virtue?! I am firmly of the opinion that life, whether yours or that of the bonsai, is too short for such lamentations.”

As it turned out, his most exquisite bonsais outlasted both the man and his business. The doughy, nondescript salaryman of a nephew who’d inherited the establishment was all too eager to ditch the operation and flip the lucrative real estate on the market. Shibuya wasted no time acquiring both assets and staff. Now, in the second week of leave, Rin was decorating bonsai bowls with stickers that made it easy for owners to re-order the proper kind of fertilizer.

All of the evanescent euphoria from a sorely-needed change of venue was now gone. When the phone rang, Rin peeled off her gloves, wiped the sweaty fingers with a towel, and dared to hope for something interesting.

It was Fumika. Hiroshi finally asked her out on a proper date with just the two of them, and she felt intimidated.

“What do you need me for? To watch two nerds gush about how Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose is unsurpassed in the original Japanese?”

Oddly assertive, Fumika was convinced that Rin’s presence would be for the best. It didn’t take many clacks of the mental abacus to tally in favor of the girl whom Rin owed one.

The fun of choosing an outfit was sapped by the shadow behind a notion, which eventually germinated into a question. Hiroshi’s gonna tell him everything. What I said, what I did, how I looked.

Rin asked the mirrored back wall of the closet, “Do I care?”

I do care. Let him hear about how hot I looked. The “sensible” pants were exchanged for a turquoise tulip dress Rin hadn’t worn in years. The rest came together quickly.

At the Basque restaurant, the front patio seating was packed with dapper Europeans. The hostess, canine in her peppy obsequiousness, (say, where’s Uzuki these days? Probably working this very kind of job) led Rin across a spacious veranda opulent with unfamiliar flowers and vines. In the rear, a punchline in loud, slurred Italian landed with an explosion of decidedly non-Japanese laughter.

This is an insider sort of place. Hiroshi’s got good taste, and, really, I can’t compla—

Rin froze, causing a tray-bearing waiter to halt and pirouette around her. Well done, detective. Two weeks off and you’re suckered into a kindergarten-grade setup.

Fumika was scanning the menu in a shoulderless silk blouse, a headband of rose gold, and an earthtone wool skirt showcasing the contours that gave it shape with the rustic panache of a charcuterie board. Minutes after Rin sat down, the glass door from the inside swung open, a conjurer’s prism splitting Sergeant — more precisely, Chief Petty Officer — Sasaki into a scholar and a barbarian.

“Sorry… I guess Hiroshi was nervous too.”

Yeah, and you’re an accessory to this, not even an accomplice. Hiroshi kissed Rin’s hand, and smirked at Fumika, whose subtle glow recalled Rin’s graduate lectures about micro-gestures telling the major truth.

Atsushi’s movements were all-macro. Once the immense body reached resting state and the gorilla arms locked behind his back, he once-overed Rin like an item of cargo.

“This suits you way better than a gi.”

The four awkwardly stood around the table until a server showed up to recite the day’s specials.


Crouched behind the polished funereal bulk of a century-old Steinway, Rin could watch without being seen. Hers was the right-hand span of the balustered twin stairways connecting this private dining space to the ballroom below. The tall doors of frosted glass leading to the garden remained open ever since the April morning greeted workers carting in a pipe organ. As it fiddled with the ribbon-festooned tulle curtains, grandfather Shibuya and his opposite number enjoyed the breeze, standing in austere kimonos opposite Drs. Sagisawa père et fils. The younger was tall and slim like the heron in the surname, a scaled-up replica of the curator for this mansion-turned-museum who secured the luxurious venue. To their left, Rin’s father was busy explaining something to dress-uniformed Sergeant Sasaki, who stood motionless as if refusing to be talked out of a traffic ticket. Hiroshi lolled in the middle, hands in the pockets of a chic charcoal suit. Atsushi stood at attention adjacent, his white tunic bearing tabs for ersatz merits concealing classified counterparts, clutching an heirloom IJN sword. Behind them, the audience waited.

Carpet-muffled footsteps came from the rear with a swish of fabric, and two silken hands gently landed upon Rin’s bare shoulders.

“You OK?”

“I’m about to place my life in the hands of that swordsman.”

“Isn’t that what you want?”

“He asked me to quit the Force.”

Rin shifted into a mock baritone.

“’Two healthy kids is priority one. At your age, we can’t afford to wait.’”

“Hiroshi wants to return to Oxford.”

“That’s what he said?”

“He can’t bring himself to voice it, but I can tell. His every thought is still back in England.”

“What are you going to do?”

“We’ll figure it out. So will you two. My mom always said that the man is the head, but the woman is the neck. Wield the sword together.”

Rin glanced at the parade glove gripping the weapon. She grabbed her bouquet and the hem of her dress.

“Saddle up, Cinderella. Let’s hit the marble.”