Settling in lengthwise on her sofa, Madeline draped a snuggly-soft, charcoal-colored, wool throw over her legs and grabbed the novel she had cracked open a few days ago. She’d hoped to read undisturbed for the next couple of hours, but it was only mere minutes before the sound of an email alert interrupted her. She wasn’t expecting anything, and selfishly hoped it was Levi even though she knew better by now. It had been a couple of months since she last saw or heard from him, and although Caslon and Maseo both confirmed on multiple occasions that he was fine and she should move on with her life, she just wasn’t able to put him in her past.
Tossing off the blanket, she begrudgingly got up to check her laptop. There was an unanticipated email from her broker.
I would like to contract you personally for a travel and delivery job.
A personal request? Madeline thought. How odd.
Suspicious, Madeline inquired for more information.
I need you to travel to Japan to deliver flowers to a grave in Aokigahara. My assistant is unavailable this year, so I am looking to outsource it. I usually arrange his flight, transportation, and lodging for a week so he can do some shopping and sightseeing after the delivery, and would extend that same offer to you. What do you say?
Madeline quickly searched the internet to map the location.
That’s a forest Northwest of Mount Fuji.
She clicked back into her email, fingertips poised to respond until she noticed a particular set of search results flooding her browser.
Aokigahara, Japan’s suicide forest.
Well, I suppose bringing flowers to a grave in a forest known for suicides isn’t too unusual, Madeline thought to herself.
The job was pretty straightforward, and there didn't seem to be anything remotely dangerous about it. Whatever the broker’s reasoning for not delivering the flowers personally was none of Madeline’s business. Not to mention, she’d never been to Japan, and outside of the delivery, it would be like a paid week off. She was comfortable with the language, and there was a decent amount of temples and historical places she wouldn’t mind visiting. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more reasons she had for going.
I accept. Please forward all pertinent information.
Looking out of the oval window, Madeline gave a thankful sigh as the jet’s wheels gently touched the tarmac, and the plane forcefully braked to a low roll with nothing more than a couple of bumps. It was a little after 2:45 p.m. local time, and although the business class seat her broker had booked for her was extremely comfortable and reclined into a bed, the redhead was much too excited to get a decent amount of sleep on the flight. She had been reading up on tourist destinations for weeks, planning where to go and what determined a must-see location. She was going to relax, go at her own pace, and thoroughly enjoy the cuisine.
Stretching, she decided to let the majority of passengers pass by in the aisle, taking time to gather her belongings and pack them safely away.
When she stepped out of the jet bridge into Haneda International Airport, the first thing Madeline noticed was the lack of carpeting. Compared to other airport terminals she had visited, it had a very sanitized and industrial feel to it. Rolling her carry-on down the white-speckled, black tiles, she checked the overhead arrival display to get her baggage carousel number.
Just a bit longer, she told herself, Then I can get to the hotel and get dinner and some sleep.
Her red hair managed to attract a fair amount of attention as she waited among the crowd for the luggage to emerge. Nothing rude, just curious glances. Smiling, she would offer a polite bow of her head and say good afternoon in Japanese, drawing friendly smiles. She only had to wait briefly for her two suitcases to make their way around the steel conveyor belt. As she pulled them off the baggage carousel and placed them onto a nearby luggage cart, unwinding at the hotel seemed finally within reach. All she had to do now was head downstairs and catch a taxi.
But as soon as she entered the arrival lobby, she could feel a set of eyes on her.
Casually holding a dry erase board with the words M. McCaffrey written on it, was a familiar, yet nameless, man. She remembered his spiky, amber-colored hair, and in the bright light of the airport, it was now clear that his dark roots matched her own. His features were much more angelic than she would have guessed, making him out to be more innocent than she knew him to be. Wearing the same leather jacket he had on outside the Orimura house the night of the katana job, there was no doubt in Madeline’s mind that this was that gunman.
His baby blue eyes were locked on her purposefully as he waited to catch her full attention.
She ran through multiple scenarios in her head. Was this a trap? Did the broker set her up? Doubtful. If this man meant her harm, he would have waited until she left the airport, avoiding security entirely. He certainly would not have gotten her attention first with a sign, showing travelers nearby her actual name. This stranger was trying to arrange a meeting, and consciously putting forth the effort not to spook her. But how did this person even know she was coming?
Madeline realized she hadn't booked under an alias, so anyone knowing her name and having the ability to access passenger information would know when she was coming. So either the broker shared that information, or the “interested third party” this person represented was keeping tabs on her whereabouts. Either way, much like Taro Tetsugawa, this third party was another piece occupying the gameboard she’d been placed upon, but the odds were firmly in her favor that this gunman was not here to hurt her.
Relaxing her posture a bit seemed to signal to this man that it was okay to approach.
“Have a good flight?” he asked in a husky voice that carried a hint of tobacco, placing his hand on the handle of the larger of her two suitcases and removing it from the luggage cart.
“And you would care because…?”
“Because I’m trying to be fucking nice,” he responded blatantly, turning from her and heading in the direction that the international terminal parking sign indicated. “I’m Cameron.”
Removing her other suitcase from the cart, she towed it beside her opposite her rolling carry-on and followed reluctantly after him.
“So where are you planning on taking me, Cameron?” Madeline caught up with him, making a point to emphasize his name. “I’m here on business, so if I don’t check in when and where I’m expected, flags will be raised.”
“Oh I’m well aware of your business,” Cameron replied with a throaty chuckle. “In fact, I’m going to be shadowing you. You can think of me as your bodyguard.”
“No,” Madeline said defiantly as she stopped walking. “You are not. I don’t need a bodyguard.”
“Just the fact that you are saying that tells me you have no fucking idea what’s going down,” he laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. “Aren’t you even the bit curious why I’m here? Why you’re my contract?”
“Your contract?” Madeline repeated, surprised, but she didn't show it outwardly. “Are you fucking serious?”
“I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” he confirmed. “So you can taxi your ass to your hotel by yourself and take your chances, or I can drive you to your hotel in my car, and you can find out more about your ancestors.”
Turning his back to her once again, he walked out through a pair of automatic glass doors, and out over a skybridge, her large suitcase still in his grasp.
Her ancestors? He had information about that? She already knew she was somehow related to the Orimura clan, but if he had more than that, it would definitely be in her best interest to hear him out. It wouldn’t be considered digging if someone flat out told her, right? Surely that wouldn’t incur anyone’s attention.
“Wait the hell up,” she relinquished as she started after him.
Madeline sensed no ill intentions from Cameron, not here at the airport, nor the night of the katana job. The fact that he specifically took the heaviest suitcase rather than the lightest off the cart was a subtle hint at his character. Not to mention he wasn’t mincing words or feigning politeness. He was straightforward with how he addressed her. He wasn’t threatening or lecherous, but was, in fact, dauntless and fiery.
It took about ten minutes of walking in uncomfortable silence to arrive at Cameron's car. Madeline was not expecting what she saw. It was a gorgeous Mazda; sleek, black, and customized.
“This is a surprise.”
“Are you trying to be funny?” he asked as he popped the trunk and placed her bags inside. “This is for your convenience. I prefer to take my motorcycle.”
“Nope. I just wasn’t expecting something this nice.”
“No wonder you’re single,” Cameron mumbled under his breath, too low for Madeline to hear as she slipped into the passenger seat.
After closing the trunk, Cameron got into the driver’s seat and started the engine.
“Go ahead and put the name of your hotel in,” he instructed, pointing to the GPS navigator built into the dashboard. “That way you can watch where I’m taking you.”
“I still don’t know what makes you think that I am just going to trust you,” Madeline remarked as she leaned forward in her seat and set the course.
“Well, I have some things to tell you that will change your mind about that, but not until we get you checked in and fed. Then you’ll need a drink, or four. But in the meantime, open the glove box.”
Following his instructions, Madeline couldn’t believe what she saw inside.
“This is so illegal. How do you even manage to have one?”
“Connections,” he smirked as he backed his car out of its parking space and headed to the exit and main roadway beyond. “It’s loaded, and the safety is on. I figured I’d have to give you a huge insurance policy on me, seeing as I am currently a stranger to you. This way, if you feel I’m a danger to you, you have the power to shoot me, plain and simple.”
“Are you fucking crazy?” Madeline asked out loud, shocked.
“Not any more than you are,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the road.
Closing the glove box, Madeline leaned back in the bucket seat and turned her head to look out the window. The unfamiliar scenery scrolled past whimsically as if she was watching a travel documentary and not actually here in Japan. Thankfully, Cameron said nothing more, he just turned on some Japanese rock music and let her sight-see through the glass.
They arrived at her hotel in about thirty minutes. After Madeline checked in at the front desk, Cameron helped her secure her luggage in the room, then they both proceeded to go looking for something to eat. Madeline suggested something simple and convenient at the hotel restaurant, but Cameron forbid it, making her start to feel like a hostage rather than someone who supposedly needed a bodyguard.
“Eating there would have been wise,” she furthered her argument, grumpy to be outside walking rather than inside eating. “You do realize I’ve been on an airplane for an unGodly number of hours, right? I thought bodyguards were supposed to respect the wishes of the person they are guarding?”
“Are you kidding?” Cameron responded in disbelief as they walked down a sidewalk bustling with locals. “How many times have you been to Japan? Wait. Let me answer that for you. Never. And you want to eat hotel food? Un-fucking-believable.”
“And you know better?”
“Of course I do. I live here. And I’m hungry, so I’m taking you to one of my favorite izakaya. You need food and drink that will comfort your soul. A hotel restaurant isn’t going to give you that.”
“Wait just a second,” Madeline said as she grabbed him by the arm and forced him to stop. “I don’t know where you’re dragging me off to, and you still haven’t given me any information like you promised. All you’ve been doing is barking at me.”
“Funny you should say that,” Cameron grinned devilishly, raising Madeline’s suspicions.
Turning, he pointed at one of the many trees planted between the sidewalk and the road.
“See that? That’s me...”
“You’re a tree,” Madeline interrupted flatly, crossing her arms unamused.
“For fuck’s sake woman, let me finish.”
Sighing, Cameron continued.
“See that large, sturdy branch that comes out from the trunk of the tree directly? That’s me. And that scrawny twig poking out from that thin branch on the other side is you. Our family tree is the same; we just come from two different offshoots.”
Madeline’s eyes widened. Was he joking?
“So you’re an Orimura?” she asked lowering her voice and stepping closer to him for increased privacy.
Cameron laughed loudly and ran a hand through his spiky hair.
“No. I’m not one of them.”
Seeing the look of confusion on her face as she tried to figure out if Maseo was misinformed, Cameron elaborated with a whisper.
“I’m a McCaffrey.”
Her dumbfounded expression was definitely worth all Cameron’s trouble.
“See this here?” Cameron continued, tapping the base of the tree with his leather combat boot. “This is the Elder. He’s an Orimura. One of the only three. The trunk diverges here, where Lady McCaffrey entered the picture. She was one very badass canidae. The offspring she had with the Elder are our ancestors, except my side over here is thick and strong from breeding only canidae to canidae, and well yours… yours just bred with whomever. Mostly humans. So you don’t have a hell of a whole lot of Orimura blood in you. Nowhere near enough to produce even the faintest canidae scent.”
Maseo was spot on about the small percentage; he just didn’t know all the details.
“So we’re related?” Madeline asked, arching her brow.
“Yes, we’re related,” Cameron confirmed, pulling out his wallet to show her his residence card. “You have to admit; there is a resemblance. And I’ve been watching over you longer than that dickhead cat friend of yours. Who do you think reported your kidnapping?”
“Yeah. The Elder had me watching you.”
“To be honest, I don’t know, but he does have us watching some of the non-canidae descendants from time to time. I don’t know why you were kidnapped. Not sure the Elder knows either, and if he does, he’s not sharing it with the rest of us.”
“Rest of us?”
“His pack,” Cameron elaborated. “The Elder has a hand-chosen pack of his descendants. I’m his beta.”
Madeline looked down at the pavement as they resumed their journey, thinking careful over what Cameron had told her. Seeing her heavy contemplation, he chose to remain quiet and let her digest it all. She could see a slight resemblance if she looked close enough, especially in the hair color and the facial structure, though Cameron’s eyes were a very light blue, and hers were more of a dark, stormy blue. And there was the swearing, but she wasn’t sure if that would classify as hereditary. She had no reason to doubt he was watching over her, especially since he’d already saved her from an early demise once already. She did, for a moment, wonder why Levi wasn’t able to determine it was Cameron that night, especially given the last name, but then again she didn’t exactly provide him with a decent description.
But apparently, Cameron knew about Levi.
“So you think Levi’s a dickhead, huh?” Madeline asked, putting her hands in her pockets to keep them insulated from the biting winter air as they walked.
“Of course I do. All he thinks about is himself, stealing, and women, in that order - for like hundreds of years. The guy never changes.”
“You talk as if you’ve been around as long as he has.”
“Me? Nope. There are no McCaffreys with enough Orimura blood in them to give them immortality. I’m just speaking from what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by the Elder.”
“Well, I think you’ve misjudged Levi,” Madeline defended. “He’s not like that. He always tries to do good, and he’s never lied to me. I trust him with my life.”
Cameron stopped in his tracks, annoyed by her last remark, but didn’t turn to face her.
“So tell me, where is he now? And why am I here keeping an eye on you, and not him? Whether you realize it or not, you put yourself in danger by coming to Tokyo. He would know that. He should have stopped you. But he can’t do that if he’s abandoned you, can he? You say you trust him with your life, but have you ever asked yourself if your life has any value to him?”
Madeline’s gaze faltered, dropping abruptly to the concrete once again. The truth was, Levi didn’t want his enemies going through Madeline to get to him. However, she couldn’t tell anyone that. Yet was Levi’s primary concern her safety? Or maintaining the reputation he wasn’t weak? Considering he left her in no one’s care, it was getting harder to justify the former.
“Let me tell you then,” he continued, not waiting for the half-assed excuse she would come up with if he gave her enough time. “He’s been too busy carousing the city with a model named Aya Yume. The paparazzi have been having a field day with all the public displays of affection they’ve been able to photograph over the past month or so. Oldest Daughter of Business Mogul Behaving Improperly - it’s quite the scandal…”
As Cameron finally turned around, the satisfied grin he had on his face from bad-mouthing Levi faded into a frown once he saw tears welling up in Madeline’s faraway look. Taking a few steps toward her, he wrapped an arm tightly around her shoulders, bringing her close in a rough, brawny hug.
“Geezus,” he whispered, “I honestly didn’t think you were in love with that asshole. Not sure why McCaffrey women always seem to fall for guys that are nothing but trouble.”
She didn’t fight him, just let him comfort her firmly as they walked through a doorway, ducking under the noren as they entered the izakaya.
“Ah, Cameron-sama,” the gentleman behind the long counter that ran almost the full length of the space greeted, seeing his regular customer passing through the threshold. “A date?”
“Family,” Cameron and Madeline replied in unison, both speaking Japanese.
“Ah, I see,” the gentleman replied in kind, keeping the same friendly smile.
The izakaya was long and narrow with a bar top taking up much of the available space, but the pronounced wood decor and the dim lighting allowed for a cozy atmosphere, one that Madeline easily melted into as Cameron led her to a seat. She stared blankly at the cookware, glasses, and bottles kept on shelves behind the bar, and the carefully written chalkboard menu, but saw none of it. Her mind was elsewhere.
Was that really what Levi had been up to? She remembered the girl he had in his room that one afternoon. Her name was Aya. Was this the same person? Was she the reason he couldn’t be bothered with something as trivial as answering her texts? Was Madeline that inconsequential to him? Would it have killed him to send her a text, or reply to an email? Would it have killed him to wish her well on Christmas Eve?
Cameron ordered himself a beer and then asked Madeline what she wanted.
“Whatever is fine,” she replied unemotionally.
She didn’t pay attention to what he ordered but was looking forward to drinking whatever it was, and in large quantities. As the drink was placed in front of her, she lifted it numbly to her lips and took a sip. It had a bit of a hard cider flavor about it, but a lot stronger. It was crisp and sweet and happily didn’t taste like umeshu, which she suddenly found herself repulsed by the thought of.
“Shōchū with bit of seltzer and fresh apple juice,” Cameron enlightened her.
“So your job is tomorrow, eh?” Cameron asked, taking another swig of his beer as the bartender set a couple of plates of yakitori down in front of them.
“How did you know that?” she asked, although the tone of her voice was so brooding that it didn’t sound like she cared what his response would be.
“Just by the date,” Cameron replied honestly. “When we caught the fact you were flying in, we figured it had something to do with the date, especially since you didn’t know Levi was here. You’re not the type to make impulsive trips unless it's for business, so I’m to see that you’re safe while you’re here. The date is significant to a certain group of individuals, the Elder included, but not all of them are nice people. You’ve already met Taro Tetsugawa, and the fact that he took time out of his ridiculously busy schedule to bother himself with you back in the States is very suspicious. We don’t think it's a coincidence that you were offered a job to come here.”
“Well, after tomorrow I’ll have the next six days off before my flight leaves.”
“Cool. Then I can show you around. Maybe take you to a host club. That’ll take your mind off that fucker.”
“You dislike him a lot, huh?” Madeline mumbled, taking another sip of her drink.
“Do I need any more reason than he’s disrespected a McCaffrey?” Cameron asked. “You’re not intimidating, but you're still family.”
“I may not be as powerful as you, but I am in no terms weak.”
“Of course you’re not. None of us are. I did mention that Lady McCaffrey was a badass, right? Well, it’s a consistent ancestral trait. Anyways, enough about Levi. I’m going to show you around, and you’re going to have a great time.”
As the two ate and drank, Cameron began to tell Madeline the story of Lady McCaffrey. About how she was so beautiful and tenacious, with her flowing red hair and brilliant blue eyes, that the Elder couldn’t keep his emotions in check. About how she was the alpha of her tribe, able to beat any man she came across until she met the Elder. It was a remarkable story, almost sounding too much like a twisted fairy tale than something that genuinely happened. When asked about what happened to such an amazing woman, Cameron simply replied that she never stayed too long in one place, her spirit was too wild, but she lived a long and adventurous life, passing away at a very old age.
After filling up on skewered meats and edamame, Madeline let Cameron know she needed to head back to the hotel. She was beat from the long flight and planned on turning in earlier than normal, making sure she’d be rested enough to be at her peak for the delivery job the next day. Without the slightest complaint, Cameron paid their tab and escorted her safely back to the hotel.
“Let’s exchange numbers,” he suggested as they entered the warmth of the lobby. “That way you can reach me if you need anything, and at least let me know when you get back from your job tomorrow. No pressure, but remember I am here to back you up if you get into anything dangerous.”
“Sure,” Madeline agreed, not seeing any harm in it. She’d been looking all evening for a reason, any reason, to be suspicious of him but came up empty. There was simply nothing about him that made her feel even the slightest bit uneasy. “I’ll call you sometime tomorrow evening, that’s when I expect to be back.”
Nodding, Cameron slipped his cell phone back into the pocket of his leather jacket and waved goodnight before heading out to the hotel’s parking garage to drive home. Finally alone, Madeline entered her room and began unpacking her suitcases. Knowing how exhausted she was, she made sure to set the alarm clock before taking a greatly anticipated hot shower. Then, crawling into bed, she fell into a deep sleep almost immediately.
Late the next morning, Madeline prepared herself for her contract job.
After setting the single-serving coffee maker brewing, she laid out a pair of comfortable jeans and a creamy-white sweater on the second bed. It was winter, and the temperature would be in the upper 30s near the mountain. By her calculations, it was going to take quite some time to hike to her destination, and being out in the elements meant making sure she was warm and protected.
She didn’t realize she’d made a mistake by turning on the television to provide some background noise until she heard Aya Yume’s name. As soon as she glanced up at the screen, Madeline was accosted by a reporter's photograph of Aya locking lips with Levi.
It was him.
There was no mistaking it.
The anchorwoman went on to comment on Aya’s lack of decorum and how her actions would “surely affect the reputation of her family's companies should she be appointed CEO.”
The months of silence between herself and Levi had forced Madeline to realize that not only did she love him, but that she'd have to learn to live with the void he left in her heart. Not having him in her day-to-day life helped numb the pain. She hadn’t been prepared to be blindsided by such a visual.
Is this really why you left?
Shaking her head violently, Madeline had to let this anguish roll off. The flowers would be arriving at any moment, and the car her broker arranged to drive Madeline to Aokigahara would be out front at 3 p.m. sharp. She calculated it would take less than an hour and a half to get there, and approximately the same to get back, but she wasn’t exactly sure how long it would take her to walk to the gravesite. She had the coordinates, but the terrain was uneven, so it was a wildcard. She had told Cameron to meet her for dinner at 8 p.m. just to play it safe.
It was only about ten minutes later that two delicately wrapped floral bouquets, arranged explicitly for presentation at a grave, arrived via messenger. Setting them carefully on the smooth surface of the in-room workstation, Madeline slipped into her hiking boots then grabbed a backpack containing her phone, credit card, passport, incense sticks, and a compass. After putting on her hip-length, black coat, she slung the backpack over her shoulder and headed down to the awaiting vehicle outside of the hotel. The driver opened her door explaining that he had brought the customary ladle, as well as a small scrub brush and bottled shrine water.
The drive out was a quiet and contemplative one. Madeline didn’t have much to occupy herself other than thinking about Cameron, about Levi, and her link to the Orimura clan. Letting the sound of classical music being played by the driver act as a soundtrack to her thoughts, she watched as the fog-blanketed hills roll by.
She should have immediately addressed the fact that something wasn’t right the moment she stepped out of the car.
There was a tension in her chest that hadn’t been there a moment ago. A foreboding feeling that stifled her breath. It wasn't quite the same sensation as being watched, but closer to feeling unwelcome, as if some larger and more imposing presence was applying pressure directly to her spirit.
Giving a passing glance to the driver, the calm bow he gave coupled with how he unassumingly notified her he would wait until she returned, indicated he was oblivious to the atmosphere she found herself struggling with.
After removing her cell phone and compass from the backpack, she slipped them both into the deep front pockets of her coat. Setting the jug of water, the ladle, and the scrub brush inside her backpack, she zipped it up and slid her arms through the straps, pulling the tethers snug. She paused for a few seconds trying to decode the unease weighing down on her.
What was this feeling?
The road behind her vibrated with the occasional car, but the forest ahead of her was quiet and still. Not even the chirping of birds could be heard. It was cloudy, and although she wasn’t a meteorologist, Madeline guessed the silence might be due to the threat of rain. Perhaps the animals were taking shelter because they sensed the coming downpour that Madeline could not.
The air she took into her lungs as she slipped her hands into a pair of warm gloves was crisp and clean, typical of what she would expect with so much greenery around. Flowers in hand, she pressed past the No Entry sign chained to the trail head.
Finding the grave was going to be a challenge, but she was confident in her capabilities. She only needed to get to the set of coordinates the broker had given her, with the promise that her cell phone service would hold out at least until then, at which point Madeline would head directly Southeast for a quarter of a mile.
Cradling the two bouquets in her left arm, she retrieved her cell phone from her pocket so she could keep an eye on her GPS coordinates. After twenty minutes of walking down a well-worn trail, she reached a point where she would have to leave the path.
Carefully setting down the flowers, Madeline retrieved a baby-blue scarf from her backpack. Not only did the deathly quiet maintain its presence over her, but there was also now a soul-chilling cold which permeated from the trees, seeping through her heavy coat. Madeline hoped the scarf would provide more warmth, but it did so minimally.
Picking up the flowers once again, she placed her phone back into her pocket and stepped off the trail.
Being aware of the general direction she needed to travel allowed her to concentrate on her footing. With every step, she felt as if she was walking on a brittle wicker basket. The ground off the main trail was worlds apart from the well-compressed footpath she’d been on. The unevenness was due to layers upon layers of snake-like vining roots, fallen branches, and hundreds of years of fallen leaves. It was spongy, slippery, and even though it was still early in the afternoon, it was hard to see the spaces in between the foliage which harbored the deepest holes. It would be easy to take a wrong step and end up knee-deep, caught in a nature-made trap with the risk of twisting an ankle, or worse.
Aside from scanning the ground before her, and feeling how it distributed her weight as she advanced, she noticed a bright pink ribbon tied around one of the branches she passed. Ribbons, she had read, were like breadcrumbs used to find one’s way out of the forest. Those who came to this forest to take their own lives used ribbons to find their way back to civilization in case they had a change of heart. But did this particular ribbon mark a journey to death or a return to life?
Madeline’s chest continued to constrict.
She didn’t want to come across anything else in these woods. Not tents, or discarded umbrellas, or personal affects - nothing.
Hands shaking, she removed her phone from her pocket to check her location.
Glancing back in the direction she had come, the well-worn trail was a distant memory, swallowed up by the curtain of trees surrounding her. At that moment, she could sense why people came here to die. This forest didn’t feel like it belonged in this world. It felt like an entity patiently watching from the shadow of every tree, and from beneath every moss blanketed root like a venomous creature which had already poisoned its victim and was now awaiting their last breath.
Turning back toward her GPS destination, Madeline estimated she only had about two hundred feet more before she would need the compass.
A quarter mile. I can do this. It’s just a forest. I’m letting rumors freak me out.
Madeline knew it was critical she pay close attention to her direction and the compass.
If she messed up…
No. That was not an option. Shaking the thought away, she walked on.
A quarter mile wasn’t a great distance, but uphill through tightly grouped trees and gnarled roots made it hard to stay in a straight line and still make good time.
And her hands would not stop shaking.
The altitude wasn’t that high, yet Madeline's breathing discomfort was increasing, and a horrible, horrible feeling churned in her gut. Disparity. Loneliness. Heartbreak. For a brief moment, she wondered if Levi felt like this when he had to deal with the misery of others. Before she could think about him any further, the sensation crushed more heavily on her spirit as if it was trying to punish her for her thoughts.
She couldn’t wait to get this over with and go back to the car.
“Why are you unclear?”
The sudden whisper in her ear made her lose her footing.
She stumbled towards one of the more massive tree trunks to catch herself, almost crushing the flowers she was holding in the process. The voice, if she could even call it that, was crystal clear and spoke in Japanese, yet there was no breath, or gender, to it.
Holding her breath, she remained still, listening for footsteps. In this forest, it was impossible for anyone to approach on foot without being heard.
Unless they weren’t earthbound.
Recovering her footing she continued, albeit shaken, in the direction the compass was leading her in. There were no more voices as she approached the grave, but her nerves were now prickling as her stomach continued to churn.
Then, at last, she reached her destination.
The gravestone was not in a clearing as she’d pictured it in her mind, but at the base of a medium-sized tree. It's dark marble foundation rose out of the tangled roots to a height of about three feet, perfectly level into the verdant slope. There were two steel vases set into each front corner, filled with the withered remains of last year’s bouquets, and between the vases were two recessed cylinders in which she was to place the incense. Adjoined atop the marble foundation was a two-foot tall onyx obelisk, its surface void of any name, leaving it a mystery as to who was buried here and why.
Slipping the compass back into her front pocket, she removed her gloves and began to retrieve the supplies from the backpack. She set the brush on the marble and poured some water from the jug into the ladle. Pausing for a second to clear her head, Madeline wanted to be in a state of reverence. Whomever this person was, they deserved the respect of a proper cleaning and flowers, not some unnerved girl that was in a rush to leave the forest.
She tipped the ladle slowly over the top of the onyx, letting the purified water bathe the stone before she began to scrub with the brush.
“You are distorted. Vibrating,” came the whisper again, right in Madeline’s head. “I can not see your face. Why?”
Her paprika-red hair fanned out as she whipped her head around, but there was absolutely no one there.
Could this be a ghost? She had yet to come face to face with one, so she couldn’t be sure, but so many people had taken their own lives in this forest that it would certainly increase the odds. If that was the case, she remembered from her training that she had nothing to fear. Common ghosts couldn’t do direct harm, and there was nothing in the vicinity that could be affected by psychokinesis resulting in injury to her person.
Pouring more water, she continued to scrub until the stone was free of all the dirt and moss that had gathered since last year. She then placed each bouquet into their respective vases, filling each with the remaining water from the jug. Reaching into her bag, she removed the small box containing the incense. The broker gave her specific instructions - three sticks in each censer. After lighting them together, Madeline gently blew the flame out and separated them into two sets of three sticks. Placing them in the censers, she clapped her hands together in prayer, prepared to offer the deceased the best wishes of her broker.
“WHAT ARE YOU HIDING??!!”
The scream caused Madeline to topple over, covering her ears tightly.
Unlike earlier, this frustrated screech pierced painfully into Madeline’s skull. It was so terrifying and nauseating that Madeline could feel her gag reflex triggering at the same time tears began to burn her eyes. Gasping for air, she pushed through the pain and the sickness forcing herself to maintain focus.
Should she respond? Would it even make a difference? Was this the deceased? Fettered to this stone?
“I am here to pay respects,” she managed, still covering her ears.
“To whom? There is only a stone here.”
Its words were just as clear whether Madeline was covering her ears or not. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a very, very bad one.
“Someone nearby will be dead soon. Would you like to pay your respects to them instead?”
Madeline could detect a touch of sarcasm in the words. This was definitely a very bad thing.
“No. I have a task here to complete,” she replied to the nothingness, carefully choosing her words. “Once I am done, I must go and report that my task is finished.”
There was no reply.
Cautiously, Madeline waited a few minutes and then apprehensively uncovered her ears and looked around.
There was still no sign of anyone nearby.
To steady her mind, she focused on the burning incense, inhaling the gentle fragrance and silently passing along the message of sincerity that the broker had wanted her to convey. Thankfully, no more whispers came. However, the external pressure she had been feeling earlier was condensing, maintaining her illness and sapping her equilibrium as if the oxygen around her was being vacuumed away.
Lightheaded and dizzy, she noted the incense was within half an inch of burning out.
Then off in the distance, she heard it - the strange echoing whimper of a dog.
This wasn’t like the whispers in her ear. This sound had the characteristic of distance. She attempted to ignore it, but it sounded like it was in such agony, giving way to a sharp inhaling cry as if it was being hit or kicked. Was this what the voice had meant? The death that would be coming?
Seeing as the incense was just about finished, Madeline turned away from the grave, taking a step in the direction from which the noise was coming, prepared to investigate.
Someone grabbed her wrist.
Instinctively, she spun around, twisting her arm to force whoever was restraining her to lose their hold. About midway into her action, she realized the grip was akin to solid stone, and she found herself facing none other than Taro Tetsugawa.
“Don’t,” he advised in English. “The kubikajiri is baiting you.”
As he released control over her, Madeline realized he was dressed much more formal than she was, holding two thin bouquets of his own in his free hand. Whoever was buried here was not only important to her broker, but also to Mr. Tetsugawa. As Cameron believed, this could not be a coincidence.
Levi’s parting words suddenly came to mind - Don’t trust Taro Tetsugawa. She knew she had to remain guarded.
“Kubikajiri?” she asked, unfamiliar with the term.
“A yokai that consumes heads, be they of the living or the dead,” Taro elaborated. “It attempted to speak to me as I assume it did you until it figured out what I was. You must pardon my surprise. Your arrival here has taken me completely unaware.”
Madeline didn’t believe that for a second.
“I take it you knew the deceased,” she asked, slipping her gloves back over her cold hands. She wasn’t sure how Taro approached without her knowing, but it wasn’t wise to mention that to him.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Taro replied. “But she’s not actually buried here. This grave was erected to allow those of us who were not on good terms with her to pay our respects. We wouldn’t be permitted to do so otherwise.”
So the kubikajiri wasn’t lying, Madeline thought to herself. There really is nothing here but the stone.
“Funny thing, we were on different sides since before I was even born. Still, she was such a shrewd and cunning woman. Protected her loved ones so fiercely. She truly was a force to behold. Beautiful. Deadly.”
Taro’s attention was someplace both continents and decades away. And for a few moments, a bemused smile curved his lips. He hadn’t been the only one bewitched by the raven-haired woman, but she allowed no one to tame her extraordinary spirit.
“Ah now, enough daydreaming on my part,” he said sweeping away the past as a broom would under a rug. “What happened to the usual gent?”
“I wasn’t privy to that information,” Madeline replied, watching as Taro stepped gracefully to the stone and arranged his flowers into each vase along-side Madeline’s. Bringing his slender hands together twice in a respectful clap, he bowed his head slightly and closed his eyes, lost in private communication.
She didn’t notice until then that the incense she’d placed had burned down to ash.
Feeling relief even as the strange sickness still gripped her, Madeline finished packing up all the gear she’d carried into the forest. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Taro was done with his prayer and was now approaching her.
“If you are going to be staying in Japan, I cordially invite you to peruse my family’s library. There are many different yokai in Japan, and for your safety, I recommend you read up on at least the more common ones. I have first-hand accounts, in Japanese of course, and you will even find meticulously gathered information on the more infamous non-humans, including your preceptor.”
“My what?” Madeline asked, feigning ignorance.
“Leviticus,” Taro replied without hesitation. “I believe our records go back to about 1000 A.D.”
Luckily, Madeline was still feeling well enough to easily mask her surprise at how far back Taro’s information appeared to reach, wondering if it was true. Was his library that extensive?
“My card,” he said, presenting her with a crisp business card out of his chest pocket. “You’ll find the address easily reached within Tokyo. I’ll notify my staff to allow you access to the library should you decide to visit us, and assign you an interpreter. And, as I previously stated, I recommend that you do so.”
“For my safety,” Madeline reiterated his words, swinging her backpack onto her shoulders.
“If you like, I could escort you down to the road,” he offered. “I am familiar with this area.”
“No, thank you,” Madeline gently rejected his offer. “I’ll be fine on my own, but I appreciate your kindness.”
“As you wish.”
Politely bowing her head in farewell, Madeline lined the compass up bearing Northwest and started walking, keeping her phone within sight for when it once again had a signal. The way back to the main trail was easier because of the trees and roots she remembered navigating previously. She passed the same pink ribbon as well, reinforcing her confidence in the path she was treading.
Once she was back on the main trail, Madeline was able to put both the cell phone and compass back into her coat pocket. The suffocating pressure diminished to a bearable discomfort the closer she got to the trailhead. She honestly wasn’t sure if it was due to the distance she was putting between herself and what she could only describe as malevolence, or the relief spreading through her mind and body that she was done with the job.
As she reached the car hired for her, she was greeted with a welcoming smile from the driver. He assisted in loading the provided supplies back into the trunk and opening the rear passenger’s door for her. Within minutes, the vehicle was traversing the roadways back to her hotel.
Unzipping her coat now that she was perfectly warm inside the car, Madeline removed the business card from her pocket and entered the address into her phone to see just how far away it was from where she was staying.
She was seriously considering Taro’s offer.
Although it was possible Taro mentioned it only to entice her into coming to his property, Maseo had told her that Taro’s strength was in the resources he had at his disposal. They were his weapons. Knowing what was in his arsenal might help Madeline piece together the reasoning behind his sudden interest in her, and she’d be lying to herself if said she wasn’t curious about Levi’s history. Perhaps Taro had information on Cameron and the mysterious elder he was always talking about.
Maybe he even had information on her.
It was settled then. In a couple of days, she would pay Taro a visit.
The pain was enough to wake Alesdair from his slumber.
Pressing his right hand firmly against his lower rib cage, he stared up at the intricate vines of carved wood that weaved their way through the exposed beams of his bedroom ceiling. Silently counting the moonlight-painted leaves one by one, the pain began to subside slowly. As each second passed, his weighted breaths became quieter and calmer.
He had dreamt of a dead forest, a disparaging place devoid of the pulse of the earth. He knew it was tied to her but didn’t realize such a sharing could be possible. In fact, it shouldn’t be possible.
He was frightened. For both Madeline and himself.
Had he made a mistake? Was there a flaw in his well-researched spellcasting? It was truly uncharted and forbidden territory, so the chance of a wrong stroke or a page with pertinent information left unturned, was undoubtedly a risk.
Rising from his bed, he walked barefoot across the warm wood floor to the cherrywood desk gracing the far side of his room. Opening the top drawer, he removed the seldom-used cell phone and dialed a particular number he knew would give him the answers he sought, and hopefully calm his fears.
“That’s a horrible plan,” Cameron assessed over dinner after listening to what Madeline proposed.
“But it’s in a public building in the city,” Madeline defended.
“You’re forgetting who you’re talking about here. It’s not like he’s some nobody. It wouldn’t take much to make a person go missing in that building.”
Madeline leaned back in her chair rebelliously, wondering if Cameron had done his research on her at all. She had been trained to handle infiltrations like this. She would be fine. Mouth twisted into somewhat of a pout, she was happy she didn’t tell him about her experience at Aokigahara.
Glancing around the hotel restaurant, she was drawn to a couple of Japanese girls wearing bright, lolita fashion, each devouring an ice cream sundae. The sight of their ruffled, feminine dresses reminded Madeline of the last time - the only time - she had worn one.
That gave her an idea.
Leaning forward, she placed her elbows on the table and stared at Cameron who was unenthusiastically eating what he had described to Madeline as “crap food.”
“What if I was able to provide you with a way to track me to within a foot of accuracy?” she offered. “Guaranteed.”
“I’m listening,” Cameron said, considering the offer.
“You would know if I left the building, even if I was unconscious, which would be highly unlikely.”
“Foolproof?” he asked, arching his brow.
“Foolproof,” Madeline confirmed. “And I will even give you a definite time I will be leaving so you can wait for me across the street or something.”
“I was thinking the day after tomorrow.”
Cameron mused over her suggestion. He could hang out nearby and keep an eye on her with tech like that. And if she agreed to a schedule, any deviation would be his signal to intervene. She’d have her phone with her of course, but he wouldn’t know until she got to this so-called library what kind of surveillance she’d be under. It was possible she’d be able to call or text him at will, but it was also possible they’d confiscate her phone to prevent her from taking pictures.
There was no telling.
While she waited for Cameron’s answer, her attention began to wander once more. There was so much around her that was new and interesting that she couldn’t stop herself from taking it all in. Behind the hotel bar, hanging up on the wall, a television was broadcasting the local weather and news. As if she should have expected it, an image of Aya Yume popped up in the newscast, only thankfully without being in a compromising position with Levi. Madeline strained to hear that the model was in town for a few days before traveling to Taiwan to begin filming a drama. She commented to the press she was in town “only for a photoshoot and a good time.” She made it clear she had no intention of attending the board meeting her family had insisted on.
“Sounds like she’s a spoiled little bitch,” Madeline commented, crossing her arms.
“Who is?” Cameron wondered. He’d still been weighing the pros and cons of Madeline checking out Taro's library, completely railroaded by the comment the other McCaffrey had made.
“Aya Yume,” Madeline said, spitting the name out.
Cameron glanced over his shoulder at the television and then back at Madeline.
“They’re two of a kind if you ask me,” he commented.
“I wonder where her photoshoot is? You don’t have any kind of intelligence network perchance? Some way to get me in contact with her?”
“Woah, wait a fucking minute. You’re not going to go cat-fighting on me, are you? I mean, as much as that would be expected of a McCaffrey, it isn’t your business. Leave them be.”
“You seriously think that’s what I was planning to do?” Madeline shook her head in disbelief. “I just want to talk to her. You’re an asshole.”
“In that case, I can likely get you the location of the shoot, but I’m not going to be able to put you on the staff list.”
“But what do I get out of it?” he asked point-blank.
And…. here it comes, Madeline thought.
“What are you expecting?” she asked carefully, narrowing her eyes in suspicion.
“I want full disclosure on anything you find in the library.”
“You do realize I will be looking into Levi, right?” Madeline responded. “So don’t expect me to give you any info on him. I won’t do it.”
“What if I asked you to look up mine then? And maybe a couple of others? Then we can compare and see just how accurate Taro’s information is. He could have volumes on Levi, but that doesn’t mean a thing if they’re all lies.”
“You have a point.”
“Of course I fucking do,” Cameron gave a deceptively boyish smile and quickly finished up his meal. He could tell Madeline was tired from her busy day, so he decided to wrap things up fairly quickly.
“I should have something on Aya for you by morning,” he said. “But remember what I told you - no screwing around. I don’t want to see you on the news tomorrow, and if that happens, you can forget about Taro letting you into his place.”
Edited by Sinajfae