“So we’re here to figure out why people keep hearing a nonexistent baby cry?” asked Ayako. “That’s it? No knocking, no rattling doors, no cold chills—nothing?”
Naru had his legs crossed in a folding chair he had brought from the van. I had yet to see him sit on the much comfier, squishier couch, which I had fallen in love with and currently had my face pressed into it. “Well, seeing as one of the top ten things people fear is the sound of a baby crying, I would hardly call it nothing.”
“Tell me about it. It’s been waking me up on and off all night.” I rubbed a hand down my itchy eyes and let it flop to the side. Another reason why I had fallen in love with the comfy couch: I was exhausted. “If every night is going to be like this I’m going to die of sleep deprivation. Like dead dead. Super dead.”
Naru snorted. “Just don’t cause problems for me when you do. Either way I’d like to get this case done with as soon as possible. Lin and Mai have already set up cameras in all the rooms where the crying is said to be heard. Ayako, Takigawa, I’d like you to go up and get a feel for it, tell me if you sense anything. Mai, I’m going to need some temperature readings.”
“It’s been ten hours, most of which you were asleep.”
“More like wanted to sleep.” But at the pointed look he gave me I heaved a sigh. “Fine, I’ll move my weak body to get you your damn temps.”
Not caring how unprofessional it looked, I oozed off of the couch. Takigawa, or Monk as I liked to call him, snickered. He was wearing a long sleeved turtle neck sweater like me, which was the first thing we both pointed out on meeting this morning.
“Practicing for Flubber?”
“Get off it, Monk, don’t you have work to do too?”
“Sure you don’t need a cart or something?”
“If you’re done acting like children…” Naru’s voice had turned cold.
That got us out quick, and in normal, non-Flubber manner. I barely had the mind to grab the clipboard and thermometer on our way out.
“Jeeze, what’s up with him?” asked Ayako.
“He’s just being his usually grumpy self,” I said, rubbing my eyes again. “It isn’t like he could hear any baby crying, or if he has he hasn’t told me.”
Takigawa stopped with me at the foot of the stairs. “Is it really that bad?”
Ayako heaved a heavy sigh and flicked her red hair behind her shoulder. “God, I hate children. Well I guess I’ll look over the ground floor first, I’ll meet up with you two later.”
We waved her off and Monk and I headed up the red carpet of the golden oak stairs. Paintings of various mountain scenery in gilded frames hung high on the walls, and I could see the texture of the paints as we rose. One had a lone elk drinking from a crystalline stream.
“So…have you confessed yet?”
I lost my footing on the top step and had to steady myself on the balustrade. The same maroon rug spread out on the landing, which broke off into two different directions lined by more red carpet.
I wrinkled my nose at him. “Confessed to what?”
“You know, to Naru.”
I screwed up my face and tried to focus on marching towards the right hall. “I haven’t spat in his tea lately, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You know what I’m talking about Mai.” I could just hear the smug smirk on his stupid face.
I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t want to EVER talk about this. So I figured I might as well end it here and now.
“He rejected me. There, happy?”
An awkward silence followed me. The wall lamps lining the hallway had twisted, heart shaped brass holders that splotched red with reflections of my sweater. I pulled the sleeves back down over my cold fingers.
Takigawa jogged back up to my side, as though he had frozen in place at the landing. “Wait, are you sure? What were his exact words?”
“Monk, will you drop it? Besides, the whole house has microphones everywhere, remember?”
That worked well enough. Even Takigawa didn’t want to face the irritated ghost hunter of our conversations when he asked us why we felt the need to talk about our pathetic love lives.
He talked with me as we went from room to room, recording temperatures and letting him get a feel for spirits. I told him about how boring my classes were, how my old friends had sort of drifted away and how it was odd that I didn’t mind so much, and also how the water heater had busted in my apartment. Cold showers in the winter SUCKED.
“Do you need Bou-san to drop by and fix it?” he asked. “Poor little Mai, all alone with no warm water. You do have heat, right?”
“Of course, Monk, just because my apartment is old doesn’t mean I live in a hovel.”
“Still, you should have called. I told you I was here for you. You’re only sixteen, after all.”
I had to roll my eyes at that after I scribbled down my last six. No wonder my fingers were freezing off. The entire house wasn’t much warmer than it was outside. “I’ve been living on my own for a while. I can take care of myself, don’t worry.” I hesitated. “But…I would appreciate the help with my water heater. It is pretty bad.”
Takigawa beamed and flashed me a thumbs up. “You can count on me! How about after the case is done? Can’t have you catching a cold.”
“Isn’t getting sick from being cold a myth? My biology teacher was saying something about that.”
As I had wanted, I easily diverted the conversation back to normal things. My insides had already twisted into knots.
That’s right. I can take care of myself. I didn’t need Naru, even if he was the reason I had my own place. Even if he was the one supporting me, not the other way around, job or no job.
I shook myself and snapped the cap over the end of the thermometer.
“Well, that’s the last up here. Best we get downstairs, there’s a really beautiful library down there—”
My last words were cut off by a hair curdling yowl. Somehow, somewhere, an animal was being tortured to the last of its endurance. A split second later my heart stopped as I realized the animal was human—another infant.
Takigawa swore. But just as we turned to run out the door, the screaming stopped, leaving a hollow ringing behind. I put a hand to my thundering heart and exchanged a glance with him.
“Just crying nonexistent babies,” he said. “Bit of an under exaggeration.”
I raised my hands in defense. “Don’t look at me, Ayako’s the one that jinxed us.”
He sighed. “We’re getting too use to this. Ten bucks says she’ll try to expel an earth bound spirit.”
My chest felt ill. The scream still echoed in my head with terrifying clarity, so I threw myself into his invitation to dry humor. “That’s not even a bet. Ten bucks says Naru will have you exorcise the place before lunch.”
“Nah, before dinner. Fifteen.”
But even with the light hearted humor, my hands trembled in my sleeves, and the ice of my fingers had crawled up my arms.
What would have to happen for a baby to make such a sound?