By late that evening, no one had heard any crying, so we were hopeful that the exorcisms had worked. As Takigawa said, it was always nice to have a case that actually was as straightforward as it appeared. I was just happy that after an hour or so by the fire with my head in the last of my trigonometry homework, I was more or less back to normal and not hankering to stick myself to Naru’s shin.
Ayako and Takigawa headed to bed first. At the thought of the cold, fancy comforter on my grand four poster bed, I stayed put on the cushion of the couch that I had occupied since the end of dinner. A novel I had brought from home was open on my knees. I had already read it once, and I was enjoying the story at a slower pace.
Also, though I hated admitting it to myself, I felt safer at the base. Hopefully it wasn’t just because Naru was there going over the data for that day.
“We need a camera up in the attic,” he told Yui, who made a note on something nearby.
I fazed them out a bit as one of my more favorite parts of the book came up. The heroine was putting to action her plan of escape by first drugging the maid who kept tabs on her and cutting off her hair in order to complete the disguise. A small satchel of rubies under a stone, a dagger, a green dress that fit just right—hopefully she wouldn’t get caught.
A pair of fingers snapped between me and my book.
“Did you hear me?”
I blinked stupidly at Naru. He sighed.
“When did you have your vision in the attic?”
“Right after I lifted those boxes of newspapers. Have you found anything in them?”
“Besides mouse droppings, no. There are a few ads for what could have been the Thai antiques the previous owner would have been looking for, but unless we find one of them floating around here, I don’t see it as relevant.”
I pouted. Nothing I found was ever relevant, or at least he would never admit it as.
“If needed, you could take me to the exact place you found them, right?”
“Why? So you could test the dust?”
“No, so I could look for secret compartments. Really, Mai, whatever you’re reading it’s killing your brain cells.”
If I hadn’t been curious and tired and maybe a bit too attached to the story, I would have chucked my book at his face. I took aim with it, though, hoping that would get the message across. “Okay, smart ass, what are you thinking? Already have this case solved?”
“Yes.” He said in that smug little tone of his that suggested the rest of us should have caught on as well. “The vision you had was of a baby that died in the womb, so a stillborn or a late term abortion, and there is only one Thai talisman I can think of that could involved that.”
“Which would be?”
“A Kuman Thong,” said Lin from the computer. “Ancient Thai black magic, and highly illegal if it’s the real artifact. Most found now a days are plastic figurines used to make domestic shrines with much more docile affects, such as everyday good luck. Kind of like a pet talisman—if given the right offerings.”
“Let me guess: no offerings, bad luck?”
“More or less. Offerings to today’s Kuman Thongs consist of a sweet red beverage, like a soda or Kool-Aid, and small children’s toys.”
“If the previous owner had managed to figure out a trade for real Kuman Thongs,” said Naru, “it would have been highly lucrative. It would also explain why he would have hid them away where no one could find them and not have told anyone they existed before he died.”
“And what do stillborn babies have to do with all this?” I asked, if somewhat cautiously.
“Really, Mai, use your brain. Why would you offer a talisman toys?”
I shuddered. “Are you saying Kuman Thongs…are dead babies?”
“After the proper rites,” said Naru. “Surgically removed from the mother, roasted, soaked in Nam Man Phrai , covered in gold leaf—the details are hardly important.”
“Nam Man what?”
“It’s an oil gathered by burning a candle under the chin of a dead child or a woman who died in childbirth,” said Lin flatly.
I winced. “Oh gee, that’s the good stuff right there. This Thai black magic sounds pretty hard core.”
“It’s more or less necromancy,” said Naru. “And I would appreciate it if you didn’t take this so lightly. If there’s a real Kuman Thong tucked away in this house, it’s been neglected for quite some time.”
“But what harm could a little baby do? Besides driving people up the wall.”
“The more white the plain, the greater horror is the stain,” said Naru, his attention already drifting back to the screens and layers of data waiting for him on the table.
“Is that a limerick from somewhere or something?”
But neither of them answered, engrossed with their individual studies. I watched Naru’s back for a few seconds more, trying not to trace the lines of his broad shoulders, before returning to my book.
Lin eventually trailed off to bed while Naru stayed behind to make notes and click through more of the tapes. I closed my heavy eyes for a moment to gather the will power to smother the little butterflies in my stomach at the thought of being alone in the room with Naru late at night. The next thing I knew I was being woken up by a blanket being thrown over me and my book being slipped out from my hands.
The crinkle of the metal grate in front of the fireplace woke me up next as someone threw another log onto the fire. Sunlight tickled the back of my eyelids and I groaned.
“Any dreams, Mai dearest?” said Takigawa in a sing-song voice.
“Ugh, don’t call her that, it makes you sound like a dirty old man.”
“I was obviously joking, or do you not understand dry humor? Rise and shine, Mai, I’ve got pancakes for you in the kitchen! And I promise Ayako didn’t touch the griddle once.”
“That was one time! Screw it, forget you.” Ayako’s finely manicured nails scratched my back lightly. “Come on, Mai, Naru’s got some work for us in the attic today. Best get up before he realizes you slept in.”
I grumbled something under my breath about tight asses and smiled when Ayako and Takigawa laughed.
I felt more than a little frumpy in my pink plaid pajama pants and XL t-shirt with Tweedy Bird on the front and frayed edges when I walked into the bright, sparkling dining room. Naru sat at the head looking like the arrogant, handsome CEO he was, even if SPR wasn’t a multi-level corporation. The only difference was the newspaper in his hands was yellowed and had a suspicious stain on one corner. He didn’t even look up when I walked passed, yawning.
“It’s about time you woke up. I need tea.” The paper crinkled like candy wrappings as he turned the page.
“Were you seriously waiting till I woke up so I could make you tea? Why couldn’t you just ask Lin?” Despite it being winter outside, the sun had warmed the floor-boards and they felt good beneath my bare feet.
“Lin has better things to do then make tea.”
“Of course.” Or in other words: I was the under-peon and had nothing better to do than make him tea first thing in the morning. Freaking slave driver.
Takigawa picked up on my mood instantly when I slipped besides him in the kitchen where he flipped pancakes on a griddle. I started up a burner next to his and took up the stainless steel teapot to fill it up.
“He waited for you to wake up to have his tea?” said Takigawa, incredulous..
I just grunted in response and switched on the water.
A pancake sizzled as it’s wet side slapped against the hot metal. “I guess that could be sweet.”
“Sweet?” Had I heard right? “What’s so sweet about ordering me to make him tea the moment my eyes are open?”
“He wants tea from his dear sweet Mai.” Takigawa grinned. “I think I heard a little bird say that he didn’t drink tea at all while he was in London. Do you do anything special to it?”
I blinked. Hard. Water started overflowing from the teapot. “Who told you that?”
“Liar. We haven’t even seen Madoka in ages.”
“Correction, you haven’t seen Madoka. And you’re draining precious clean water there, Mai-chan.”
I snapped off the facet and drained out some of the water. I practically shoved on the lid and slapped it onto the hot burner with a hiss of water on fire. “She probably exaggerated. I don’t do anything special with that tea, and Naru’s already made it plenty clear how he feels about me.”
“You sure? What was it he said?”
I ignored that question. “Is something burning?”
He cursed under his breath. Pancakes, after all, did cook awfully fast.
Takigawa loaded me up a plate of pancakes and sausage while I waited for the tea to boil. I preferred eating on the kitchen counter than the dining room anyways.
“Has Naru eaten already?” I asked.
“Yep. Him and Lin were the first to receive of my pancake power.” He flipped a Mickey shaped pancake, which had been browned to perfection. “Unlike Ayako, I have a second sense for the griddle.”
I grinned and swallowed my bite of syrupy goodness. “You pay an awful lot of attention to Ayako’s little screw ups. You sure you don’t like her?”
“Nah, she ain’t my type. I prefer my women kind, gentle, and not physically abusive.”
“Who are you calling physically abusive?”
I had to laugh. Right on cue, Ayako stepped into the kitchen, her wet hair twisted up underneath a towel and dressed in designer jeans and sweater for the day. She had a familiar glower set at Takigawa, who was unfazed.
“Don’t give me that look. I got calcium deposits on my head from your fists, and newsflash, normal people don’t beat on anyone who pisses them off.”
“And news flash, grown men don’t usually tease women like ten year old boys and insult them as often as you do.” She took up her plate with her shoulders thrown back, as though that could enforce her point. “And don’t worry, I prefer gentlemen. Thanks for the cakes.”
“I made sure to spit in yours.”
“My point exactly.”
Just then the pot whistled and I jumped up to pour the water into the waiting mugs. After stirring in the appropriate sugar and cream (Naru had a secret sweet tooth when it came to his teas, but only ever his teas), I slid out to deliver it to my boss.
He had put down the newspaper and was marking something in a notebook when I walked in. The sunlight gleamed on the soft, combed black of his hair, bringing out golden-brown highlights. He glanced up as I set the mug down by the papers.
“Um…you’re welcome.” That was weird. “What are you doing anyways?”
“Wondering why someone would keep a box full of old classifieds.” He lifted up his mug to breath in the smell of the tea, then put it down to seep more.
I put a finger to my chin. “That is pretty weird. They’re pretty much useless after a week, aren’t they? They’re just local ads for stuff people are selling.”
“So why three boxes of them? And carefully ordered by date.” He tapped his pen against the table, but said nothing more.
I shifted from foot to foot, wanting to suggest something helpful, but knowing all too well that I’d just end up being annoying or getting insulted if I did.
“Guess I’ll go back to my breakfast then.”
He stood. “I’ll come with you. There’s nothing more I can get from these.”
In the kitchen, after I seated myself back at the counter where Takigawa and Ayako had sat down, not saying a word to each other, Naru leaned against the counter opposite of us so we could all see him and folded his arms.
“I have reason to believe we are dealing with a neglected Kuman Thong.”
Takigawa frowned. “Then that’s not so bad. They’re just figurines of children people keep in their houses for good luck, don’t they? Never heard of one making baby noises.”
“That’s because those aren’t real Kuman Thongs.”
That gave both Takigawa and Ayako pause. Naru once more explained what a Kuman Thong was, except in a much shorter speech than he had given me, and then started handing out assignments.
“Ayako, did you finish those charms?”
“It’s not like they take me all day, I’ve just been waiting for you to ask.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask. Mai, Takigawa, after you receive a charm from Ayako I want Takigawa to head up to the attic with me. Mai, I’m going to need you at the base to keep an eye on the cameras and let us know if you see or hear anything out of the ordinary. Ayako, I’m going to need you to pick up John at the airport. His flight lands at about eleven so you should head out as soon as you finish.”
Ayako scoffed. “I’m a priestess, not one of your assistants, stop treating me like I am one.”
“Fine. Please pick up John as a favor to me, as I don’t have a Japanese driver’s license and neither does Mai.”
“Ugh! Fine.” She dug her fork into the last of her pancakes.
Naru thanked her in the same somewhat awkward manner he had thanked me when I had given him his tea, which he had carried in with him and took a sip out of before saying, “Our goal today is to find the Kuman Thong. I have reason to believe it’s in a secret compartment in the attic, but there could be other hidden crannies somewhere else in the house.” He paused. “Has anyone heard baby crying since the exorcism last night?”
Ayako and Takigawa raised their hands, both with mirroring grumpy expressions. I stared.
“I didn’t hear a thing!” I cried.
“Neither did I,” said Naru, thoughtfully. “I don’t believe Lin did either, but then again, he was sleeping in the van .”
“In the van?” We all said as one.
“Doesn’t he have his own room too?” asked Ayako.
“Yes. Suffice it to say he finds the cries of babies a bit more unpleasant than most.”
What was it about baby cries that scared people? Babies were wonderful, beautiful little angels from heaven with soft little hands and gummy smiles. Just thinking about them brought a stupid little smile on my face. Was it the sense of helplessness? The idea of something so vulnerable and designed for love being neglected and tortured?
I shivered at that last thought. Dead babies, cut from their mother’s wombs and roasted, then painted with oil from a corpse’s chin and gold leaf…
I hoped I wasn’t the one to find the Kuman Thong first.