Case 1: Evil Spirits All Over!? (Part 10)
"So, your equipment… you have quite a collection of expensive gear." Ayako commented as she, Takigawa, and John followed Naru and Mai into their base. "How unfortunate that all of your efforts have been in vain." Mai frowned at the miko in annoyance at the way she so casually tried to dismiss their efforts. Who did she think she was!?
"I'm impressed. The president of a research center, with all of this professional equipment. He must know what he's doing." Takigawa said, reevaluating his opinion of Naru somewhat while he watched the stoic boy get straight to work, checking the different monitors. It still sounded like the monk was teasing them a bit, though.
"Did you come here to play or to find a ghost?" Naru asked coolly.
"Agh! This is why I don't like kids!" Ayako ranted as she stomped out of the room, vein throbbing on her forehead. Takigawa sighed and strolled out after her with his hands clasped behind his head, it seemed he had also decided to attempt to just take care of the haunted building by himself. John, however, hesitated.
"Aren't we all here to work together?" He asked, fidgeting nervously. Was it a good idea to separate like this? "Uh, I feel a bit awkward. I'd like to help, so do you mind if I stay?" John asked timidly.
"Please do." Naru replied calmly.
"Hey, guys. I'm back..." Hitomi announced, smiling wryly, as she finally rejoined them. "… And I've returned in one piece, amazingly."
"Ah, Hitomi sempai! Are you alright? Did you get scolded?" Mai asked, concerned. Their principal was normally a pretty nice man, but legend had it he would turn into a demon incarnate mad if you made him mad…
"Haha. No… but I think I unintentionally caught a glimpse of the politics behind the education system in this country…" Hitomi replied, sweat-dropping, as she laughed awkwardly. "I saw something I didn't want to see…" For some reason, it felt like she had just pulled the false beard off of a fake Santa… "So, what did I miss?"
"O-Oh… is that so?" Mai asked, sweat-dropping. She wasn't really sure she understood what Hitomi was talking about, but it sounded like she'd witnessed something unfortunate... "Well, it turns out Brown-san is an Exorcist, and he's going to be helping us out… but Matsuzaki-san and Takigawa-san apparently decided to work independently…" Mai explained, smiling wryly, as she remembered how the Miko had stormed out after Naru offended her. Naru was almost tempted to ask Hitomi to clarify what she meant, but decided against it. The odd senior was probably just exaggerating.
"Oh, you're a Catholic priest, Brown-san?" Hitomi asked, perking up. He must be older than he looked, then. "Wow… this is my first time meeting such a young priest, and you're a real-live Exorcist, to boot!" This was turning out to be a super interesting group of people the principal had gathered here…
"I'm nineteen, so I can't help but look young." John said a bit bashfully, rubbing the back of his neck. Such an enthusiastic reaction…!
"Haha, so you're a year older than me, then~!" Hitomi said, laughing lightly, as she smiled up at the young priest.
"Haha, I guess we both look young for our ages, then~!" John said, returning her sunny smile. If this were a manga, there would be flowers blooming out the top of their heads. Their combined innocence was so blinding, that Mai had to shield her eyes and look away for a moment… or maybe it was just the glare of the sunlight that was streaming in through the windows and reflecting off of their shiny blonde heads…
"Hey, what's this? This image…" Mai asked Naru, pointing at one of the monitors when she noticed something was different about the picture on the screen. The only answer Mai received for her trouble was a palpable glare of irritation. Mai flinched, somewhat taken aback.
'Agh! What's his problem...?' She wondered, chagrined. Hitomi glanced at the screen and sweat-dropped, instantly understanding the situation. Naru had most likely been annoyed, because Mai had just asked him about something they had already explained to her the other day…
"I believe it's a thermographic image." John said, coming to the rescue, as he leaned over to take a look. "The yellow represents higher temperatures, and, in contrast, the blue represents the lower temperatures."
"Thank you. You're kind, Brown-san." Mai told the priest, sending sardonically Naru a sardonic glare. Unfortunately, he just ignored her.
"It was nothing… and you can just call me John." John said humbly, blushing shyly, while he rubbed the back of his neck.
'Aww…' The two girls thought simultaneously, smiling contentedly. He was kind of cute… adorable, even. He reminded Hitomi of the fuzzy little teddy bear from that fabric softener commercial…
Hitomi glanced at another monitor when she thought she saw movement in it out the corner of her eye. Her eyes widened when she saw what was on the screen.
"—Naru!" She shouted as she pointed at it, startled. Was this for real!?
"!" Mai gasped, shocked, as she, Naru, and John all turned to take a look for themselves. There, approaching the camera by the old shoe cubbies on the first floor, was a pale girl, kimono clad girl, with short, black hair. Although watching the girl silently approach the camera over the monitor was somewhat eerie, Hitomi couldn't help but be reminded of the Ichimatsu doll her grandfather had given to her after she first came to live with him… The girl glanced briefly at the camera before continuing on her way, giving them a glimpse of her pretty face. Naru's eyes widened slightly in recognition.
"Ah… what was that…?" Mai asked nervously when the girl passed by the camera and disappeared from view.
The old sliding door to the base slowly inched open again, revealing the living Ichimatsu doll, in the flesh.
"—!!" Mai yelled in alarm, instinctively latching on to the nearest person, which just so happened to be John.
"Mai-san. It's okay, she's not a ghost." John said gently, trying to soothe the poor girl's frazzled nerves.
"… Ah~!" Hitomi exclaimed, hitting her hand on her palm, as her eyes lit up with realization after taking another look at the stranger's face. There was also another reason why she looked so familiar…!
"The principal must really want to demolish this building pretty badly if he invited you." Naru told the newcomer, smirking slightly, as he leaned back against the table. To think he would go through the trouble of inviting her…
"Seriously…" Hitomi said, smiling wryly. Was there gold buried under the foundation or something?
"You know her!?" Mai asked them, surprised.
"… Don't you?" Hitomi asked back, raising an eyebrow. There wasn't a person in Hitomi's class who didn't know who the medium was, but then again, that was partially due to the fact that the classmates of 3–A were abnormally (and sometimes obnoxiously) close to each other. If one person became interested in something, then the rest of the class would know about it before lunch. Hitomi didn't watch her show, but she had seen an article about the famous medium in one of her classmate's magazines once before.
"That's Hara Masako, the psychic medium." Naru stated knowingly. According to his research, she should be one of the best mediums in Japan. He was surprised the principal was able to get someone as famous as her to come.
"Psychic medium?" Mai asked, tilting her head slightly.
"It basically means she can sense and communicate with spirits and ghosts." Hitomi explained.
"Really? Wow…" Mai said, amazed and somewhat skeptical at the same time. 'Isn't this a bit much…? But how often do I get to meet so many celebrities? Hitomi-sempai, who's a major school idol… Naru-chan, who's a ghost hunter… A miko-san and a bou-san (monk)… John, who is a priest… A psychic medium… is it that serious that five professionals had to come here?' she wondered, swallowing the nervous lump that had started to form in her throat. '… I think someone's in serious trouble…'
They all flinched, startled by the shrill scream that suddenly echoed through the halls. Mai shuddered as Kuroda's ominous words came back to her:
'There are ghosts in the old school building…'
"What was that!?" Takigawa demanded as he came running back.
"It sounded like Matsuzaki-san's voice." John said.
"It sounded like it came from a few doors over!" Hitomi exclaimed and quickly followed Naru and John out the room. Mai and Masako decided to chase after them as well.
Someone was banging on one of the doors further down the hall.
"Over there." Naru said, leading the way.
"Open up! Please open this door!" Ayako shouted anxiously as she continued to beat her fists against the door. Naru stepped forward to let her out, but the door stuck fast. He couldn't budge it.
"Strange." He commented, wondering why it refused to open.
"Let me try." Takigawa said, taking over. No matter how hard he pushed, he just couldn't seem to get it to open either.
"Why won't it open?" Hitomi asked, puzzled. "There isn't even a lock on that door…"
"Either way, it won't open." Takigawa said, gritting his teeth. "I'm going to have to kick it in! Stand back, Ayako!"
"Hey, you don't drop honorifics with me!" She shouted back at him, chagrined.
"One, two…!" Takigawa counted off, backing up so he could swing his foot up at the door and kick it down.
"Heee!" Mai flinched, covering her ears, as the door gave way to the monk's mighty kick.
Hitomi let out a low whistle of appreciation when the door fell back and hit the ground with a thud, sending up a cloud of dust. Just inside the room stood a somewhat startled, but relatively unharmed miko.
Ayako sighed as she popped the top on the can of juice Hitomi had gotten for her from a vending machine that wasn't too far away. All that screaming had made her throat dry.
"I was checking out the classroom when, all of a sudden, the door closed by itself and wouldn't open." Ayako explained, pausing to take a sip of juice.
"… I that all?" Hitomi asked, raising an eyebrow. She screamed like bloody murder just because a door closed? Wasn't she supposed to be a professional?
"What do you mean, 'Is that all?'—What's with that disappointed expression on your face!? Ayako demanded hotly, vein throbbing on her forehead.
"Nothing. It's just that I've seen scarier things come out of the tap water at home…" Hitomi deadpanned.
"You…! Don't tell such an obvious lie!" Ayako shouted indignantly, fuming.
"You sure you didn't close it yourself?" Takigawa asked her, smiling wryly.
"Yes, I'm sure!" Ayako snapped, vein mark throbbing on her head. "There's definitely something in here." She insisted.
"I don't sense it at all." Masako stated calmly. "There are no spirits in this building."
"Who do you think you are?" Ayako demanded. "You're making light of my being a psychic, aren't you!?"
"Aren't you a little embarrassed of being scared by a door that wouldn't open?" Masako retorted, obviously sharing Hitomi's doubts about the miko's professionalism.
"Shut up, you little jerk!" Ayako snapped, vein throbbing on her forehead. "I'm a professional, unlike a fake psychic medium who got popular just because of her looks!"
"Thank you for the compliment on my good looks." Masako responded drolly. Ayako grit her teeth in annoyance. This little girl…! Both she and Hitomi were completely underestimating her!
"Hnh!" She huffed indignantly, tossing her head defiantly. "I think what I just experienced was caused by a chirei that lives on land."
"Chirei? You mean a jibakurei?" Mai asked.
"No, I don't. Jibakurei are spirits trapped in a particular location because of something that happened there. Chirei are spirits of the land… also knows as 'seirei'." Ayako explained.
"I think it was an act by a jibakurei." Takigawa said. "I wonder if something happened to this building in the past? My guess is, there's a ghost that's afraid of losing its home and is trying to prevent the demolition."
"What do you think, John?" Naru asked, turning to the priest. Hitomi sweat-dropped when she noticed Naru seemed to be playing around with a nail. Wasn't that a little dangerous? She hoped he'd had his tetanus shot recently…
"I don't really know. Isn't the phenomena of a haunted building usually caused by a spirit or ghost?" John asked.
" A spirit is a spirit (seirei)… A ghost is a ghost (yurei)…" Naru mused. He glanced at Hitomi, and was gratified to see her paying attention to this discussion. "Are you listening, Mai?" He asked, glancing at his other assistant.
"Thank you for caring!" Mai grumbled as a vein mark throbbed on her forehead, chagrined. Why was she the only one getting picked on!?
"So, if a psychic phenomena is caused by spirits, it would mean that chirei have a close connection with the land, or it could mean that the spirits have called for the devil…" John said thoughtfully. Hitomi shuddered a little at the thought of Satan appearing in the old school house. It was bad enough that he had used algebra to put the alphabet in math! "If the phenomena was caused by a ghost, that would mean it was an act by jibakurei." John concluded.
"So don't you think it was caused by a chirei?" Ayako asked urgently.
"It's a jibakurei, right!?" Takigawa pressed.
"Wa… I can't tell for sure." John said nervously, sweat-dropping.
"Anyway! I just need to exorcise it, right? I'll take care of it tomorrow." The miko huffed as she headed for the door. "I couldn't stand being involved with a crappy incident like this for much longer."
"What a waste." Masako sighed. "As I said, there are no spirits here."
"But there are so many stories about this building." Mai said, surprised. "Right, Sempai?"
"Sorry, Mai-chan… but I'm actually inclined to agree with Hara-san. All of those incidents had a clear cause and logical explanation. I doubt a this place is haunted." Hitomi said, also sighing, as she smiled wryly at her kohai.
"Then, how do you explain the miko-san getting locked in that room just now?" Mai asked stubbornly.
"That was her overactive imagination, clearly." Masako replied bluntly.
"Ah, I see." Mai said, sweat-dropping. 'But… both Naru and the bou-san tried to open the door, and they couldn't. And as the bou-san was saying… could the miko-san have locked it herself? Ah, but I remember Hitomi-sempai mentioning earlier that there wasn't supposed to be a lock on that door…'
"Well, this building is practically ancient… A lot of the wood has become warped and weathered over the years. It's possible the frame of the door shrank over time, making it increasingly more difficult to open again once the door's been slammed shut… though I guess there still remains the question of who or what slammed the door shut to begin with…" Hitomi said thoughtfully, sweat-dropping. "I wonder if the floor could be slanted…?"
"That is one plausible explanation…" Naru said cryptically. He didn't sound very convinced, though.
"I've been meaning to ask you…" Masako said softly, approaching Naru. "Have I had the pleasure of meeting you somewhere before?" Hitomi raised both eyebrows as she and Mai watched the scene unfolding before them with a sense of astonishment. Was she seriously hitting on him? Now?
"No, I believe this is our first meeting." Naru replied calmly.
"I see…" Masako said, looking somewhat disappointed.
"Oh…" Bou-san remarked, grinning, while John blushed slightly, and the two other girls sweat-dropped.
'This isn't the time to be picking up guys…!' Mai thought, irked.
"Oh, Naru! The sun is about to set." Hitomi informed him, surprised to realize it had gotten so late without any of them noticing after glancing at the windows.
"Ah… We need to put our equipment in the second floor classroom in the far west corner of the building." Naru said decisively. "Then we should get out of here."
"Oh, shounen, you're not staying over night?" Monk asked curiously.
"Not tonight… Mai, Hitomi." Naru said, glancing at the two girls to make sure he had their attention. "Tomorrow, after school, please be prepared to stay."
"Roger~!" Hitomi responded playfully, giving their boss a little salute. Unfortunately, Mai's own response wasn't anywhere near that easy-going.
"Huhhhhh!? But tomorrow is Saturday!" Mai shouted incredulously. Hitomi raised an eyebrow at that. She didn't see what the big deal was, since they already had to come to school for a couple of hours anyway.
"Come on, Mai! Where's your will to be weird?" Hitomi teased Mai lightly.
"Would you rather pay me back for my camera?" Naru asked her.
"Darn it… I'll be ready." Mai agreed reluctantly, clenching her fist, as somewhat comic streams of tears began flowing down her face. That jerk…!
"Hara Masako!?" Michiru shouted incredulously. "You mean the lady that's on TV?" She couldn't believe it!
"She was trying to pick up Naru." Mai said, sighing, as she leaned back in her chair.
"She's a very pretty lady…" Keiko said sadly, starting to get depressed. First Hitomi-sempai, and now a celebrity like Hara Masako… how were any of them supposed to stand a chance against that…?
"Ah, yeah…" Mai said hesitantly, sweat-dropping, surprised to see her friend so down over a jerk like Naru. "H-Hey, don't be concerned about him! He's dishonest, a liar, has a mean streak, is a narcissist, and…"
"But he's handsome." Michiru declared determinedly, clenching her fist. Mai practically face-faulted. No comment. "For women, it's all about the charm!"
"Right, whatever you say." Mai said, starting to feel a little jaded. She sighed and cast a casual glance around the classroom, only to have her eyes connect almost directly with Kuroda's. The bespectacled girl was watching them with a sort of wistful and lonely look in her eyes. For a moment, it seemed Kuroda wanted to say something to, but then she turned and ran from the room like a frightened rabbit. Mai was puzzled. 'Again… Lately, every time I turn around, Kuroda-san is staring. I wonder why… I hope she's not going to ask if she can join us.' Mai thought. It was kind of unnerving to be watched like that…
"Hello!" Mai called out cheerfully as she slid open the door to the base, expecting to see Naru or Hitomi. "!?" She gasped, startled to see Kuroda instead. "What are you doing in here?" Mai asked. She hoped Kuroda hadn't touched anything, because Mai had no doubt that if anything was out of place, she (not Kuroda) would most likely be the one Naru would blame.
"Nothing really… just looking around." Kuroda replied. "Shibuya-san isn't here yet, is he?"
"Hey! Sorry, I'm later than expected." Hitomi greeted Mai, sighing tiredly as she entered the room. "My classmates jumped me and wouldn't let me go until… Oh, Kuroda-san…" She said, pausing to blink, a little taken aback to see the other girl standing in their HQ. "What are you doing in here? Did you come to hang out with Mai?"
"She says she's just looking around… but more importantly, Sempai… Why are you dressed like that?" Mai asked, sweat-dropping. Instead of the usual uniform, for reasons unknown Hitomi appeared to be cosplaying as young courtier in casual clothing from the Heian era, complete with a tate-eboshi hat and everything… Only, it varied somewhat from tradition in that the tall, black hat was framed by what seemed to be two blonde kitsune ears, and her long hair was not stuffed into the hat, but pulled into a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck. She was also wearing a black eye patch that had a pentagram embroidered on it and a magatama rosary around her neck for accessories. Hitomi sweat-dropped and smiled wryly as she whipped out a paper fan and began laughing a little awkwardly while using it to hide her mouth.
"Ahaha… Oh, that. Well, like I said… I was jumped. It turns out those guys were upset with me for skipping class, because I missed the day we were supposed to sign each other's yearbooks… The girls sort of forcibly stripped me and confiscated my uniform so I'd have to wear this. It's supposed to be their take on Abe no Seimei. They promised to give it back after I signed everyone's yearbooks properly, but for some reason, we couldn't find my uniform when we went back to the ladies' room… We think someone stole it." Hitomi explained while two comical trails of tears streamed down her face.
'Uwaah…' Mai thought sympathetically, sweat-dropping, as she and Kuroda just stared at her, not sure what to say. Poor Hitomi-sempai... Her class was really… unique…
"And, to make matters worse, I found out those idiots made this…!" Hitomi exclaimed, holding up the two books in her other hand so they could see. The larger, thinner one was the school yearbook, and the smaller but thicker one had the extremely embarrassing and suspicious title: ~Hitomi-pyon's Magical Love-Love High School Career~!
"That is…?" Mai asked, almost dreading the answer.
"A special photo album featuring pictures of me during every single instance they ever made me cosplay… which typically means stuff from school events, like the cultural festival, but they have a few pictures of me in my archery uniform as well." Hitomi said, sighing tiredly again. "They've even laminated them!"
"Ah, b-but at least it's just the one copy, right…?" Mai said, trying to cheer her up.
Hitomi dramatically snapped her fan shut and pointed it at Mai.
"!?" Mai said, startled. There was a fierce look in Hitomi-sempai's eyes. All of a sudden, she looked a lot less like a sullen high school girl, and a lot more like a professional actor portraying a proud noble from one of those intense period dramas.
"Fool! You're underestimating them way too much!!" Hitomi scolded her seriously. "Knowing them, they've already made backups, for the backups, of the backups, of the backups! And they've already given away one copy to every third-year who wanted one! Next thing you know, they'll be selling them to the second and first years to cover the printing costs!"
"Eeehhhhh!?" Mai exclaimed, eyes widening in shock, as her mouth dropped and she turned blue with shock. "Th-That's amazing… and scary…"
"Tell me about it!" Hitomi huffed, sweat dropping, as she hung her head in defeat, depressed just thinking about it. She loved her class, but they just drove her totally bonkers sometimes…! She set the two books aside for the moment on the desk in front of the chalkboard since it was closest. "It's a good thing they lack ambition, because with that kind of coordination and willpower, they could probably take over Japan… if they felt like it." Now that was a scary thought!
"… But why Abe no Seimei?" Kuroda asked abruptly, reminding them of her presence.
"They said it was because they knew I was going ghost hunting again after class. You know, 'Kyaa, it's perfect~! You can exorcise the ghosts while you're at it~!' Harada-kun even stuffed the sleeves with talismans from his family's shrine for me…" Hitomi explained, smiling wryly, as she pulled out a few to show them. They were supposed to be for 'safety'...
'Wow, Hitomi-sempai's really loved, huh…?' Mai thought, also smiling wryly. Maybe a little too much, since their way of showing affection seems a little too much like harassment…
"Oh… Speaking of which, how did it go yesterday?" Kuroda asked, trying not to sound overly anxious or curious.
"Mai?" Hitomi asked. She hadn't actually seen Naru yet today since she went to class first thing, and was only just released back into the wild.
"Nothing new… Naru said there was nothing unusual." Mai explained hesitantly, wondering if it was really okay to tell other students like Kuroda about it. "You shouldn't touch anything. Naru would get upset."
"Anything else?" Kuroda asked, scanning the monitors. Mai and Hitomi shared a glance, silently deciding whether or not they should go ahead and tell her. They might as well. She'd probably end up finding out sooner or later anyway.
"… The miko-san got stuck in a room, but they couldn't confirm whether it was due to a psychic phenomena or not." Mai answered again.
"Why?" Kuroda asked. One would think it would be the obvious conclusion that something like that was the work of spirits.
"Because no one else actually saw it happen, and the psychic medium said there are no spirits here." Hitomi explained.
"By psychic medium, do you mean Hara Masako? She's a fake." Kuroda stated disdainfully.
"Huh!?" Mai exclaimed, shocked. What was Kuroda saying!? Hitomi didn't say anything, but she raised a rather skeptical eyebrow, finding it ironic that Kuroda, of all people, was accusing someone else of being fake psychic, despite knowing how terrible it felt to be on the receiving end.
"She's popular on TV because of her good looks, but she's not a real psychic." Kuroda asserted. "There are spirits here, very strong ones…"
"But you're the only one who's feeling it." Hitomi said, noticing that Mai was starting to look a little nervous. Besides, she doubted Naru would have been so interested in Masako's arrival the other day if he thought she were a fake.
"I was attacked by spirits a little while ago." Kuroda said gravely, narrowing her eyes slightly at the older girl.
"No way!" Mai yelled, appalled.
"Are you sure?" Hitomi asked, not wanting to jump to conclusions.
"It's true." Kuroda insisted. "I was walking in the hallway, and suddenly something started pulling my hair from behind. I tried to run away from it, it started to choke me… it said 'You're psychic power is too strong… You're an obstacle!'."
"…" Hitomi said, deep in thought, while she scanned Kuroda's neck for any signs of bruising. A bead of nervous sweat rolled down the side of Mai's face. Things were starting to get a little too intense for her liking… Mai gasped, caught off-guard, when a familiar voice broke the silence.
"What's going on?" Naru asked sternly, wondering why they had let Kuroda in the base, and why Hitomi was wearing such a strange getup. Did she lose her mind since he last saw her? "Those clothes…"
"I know. Please, don't look at me like that… It wasn't my idea…" Hitomi said, silently begging him not to say anything more on the matter. "I was forced, and it's a long story… I'll tell you later. I think you might want to hear about what happened to Kuroda-san first…"