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A Strange Adventure with Mrs. Nakamura the Safety Consultant

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When Mrs. Nakamura had grown too weak to walk, Haruki had picked her up. She was lighter than he had thought she would be, somehow. Not so light that it was easy to carry her slung over his back, lashed to him with the remains of what had been a very good suit-coat once. Hanging from her spear he carried the heart of the Mihama leech, in four pieces, each carefully separate from the others and wrapped in a lead veil.

She had told him where to go, before losing consciousness, and he followed her directions—walking along the coast to where the ground grew marshy, to the outcropping of land called Swamp Bottom.

The witch's hut was where Mrs. Nakamura said it would be, with a warm light in the window. Haruki had been living off of traveling rations for nearly a week; the smell of home-cooked food drifted out to him and hunger seized his stomach like an iron claw.

The witch was as ugly as promised, a squat and monstrous hag, but it had been a long week. Haruki didn't have any surprise left, or fear for strange things: he had seen too much. He bowed politely to the hag, instead.

"My name is Haruki, and this is Mrs. Nakamura, who said that you would know her. She was poisoned by the Mihama leech, and only the spirit of coal can save her. She begs for your help."

Then the witch's huge, wrinkled face had contorted in sadness and she had taken him into her cottage, laying Mrs. Nakamura gently on a couch with a cloth on her head. The hag fed him, and coaxed medicines down Mrs. Nakamura's throat.

Then she had made a boat for him. A paper boat, like some children would make, but when she set it in the water it had grown until it was big enough for a tallish secretary and a shortish safety consultant.

Now he sat in the prow of the paper boat, rubbing the deep raw places where Mrs. Nakamura had been tied to him, gently daubing them with the very last of the anti-biotic.

This had not been in the job description.

 


 

Haruki was by and large a blameless man and had not done anything to deserve his new assignment. His only transgression was that he was not indispensable. And it had been explained to him three or four times that this was not a punishment, as far as that went. Not for him. Still, it smarted to be called before the board of directors and reassigned to a woman with a reputation as odd as Mrs. Nakamura's. She had no friends in the company.

She was a normal kind of woman: her eyes were dark brown and always moving; her hair was tucked back into a bun. She was shortish and neither slender nor fat, with a face just too long to be pretty. She was well spoken and dutiful, polite – 'To a fault,' they would say. 'Polite to a fault.' Mrs. Nakamura was so polite that she could freeze a man's blood in his veins at ten paces.

But there was no reason that she should be followed by a reputation for oddness and unreliability, a very vague reputation, because there were never specific charges. It could only be agreed that she was strange, and the exact manner of that strangeness had not been quantified yet to anyone's satisfaction. Her work was certainly reliable. The sites she oversaw remained safe and productive, and if she was sent to a plant plagued by accident and bad luck it often cleared after her visit.

But everyone agreed that she was odd. And she did not like a partner or an aid, especially one who had been sent to watch her and tell the board of directors if she did anything particularly strange

She had not done anything particularly strange in the five months that he had been assigned to her. She did sometimes come back to walk through a plant at sunset, speaking to no-one, simply peering into the shadows. Haruki had adjusted to this, as he had adjusted to the rest of his new routine. He followed Mrs. Nakamura as she toured power plant after power plant, through echoing hall after echoing hall, lulled by cool, conditioned air and the clip-clip-clip of her sensible flats on tile floors. It was all very normal.

But one day, in a season of storms, Mrs. Nakamura received instruction to go and inspect a potential site for the company's experimental tidal power systems. Haruki found himself following her to a small town in the Kōchi prefecture, a tiny collection of houses and low buildings wedged between a great rocky cliff and the sea.

At first, things seemed almost the same. Instead of cool halls, now they walked along a rocky beach wearing hard-hats, accompanied by the top-top-top of Mrs. Nakamura's sensible hiking boots. Instead of a plant technician, Mrs. Nakamura talked to a surveyor in a little shack. They toured the paths on the cliff and walked along a finger of rock that reached out of the water. There was a gatehouse at the end, a little wooden hut with two doors. Past that, up a precarious path cut into the little jetty was a shrine. Mrs. Nakamura noted this, and they turned back.

The next day she went to the library with a thick stack of reports that the surveyor had given her, and the day after that. On the third day, she interviewed the people in the town, asking about the weather, about the shrine, if they had ever heard of earthquakes or tidal waves here. She seemed pleased by the answers she received.

During this time, Haruki had had a great deal of time to himself; he enjoyed the town, warily. It was as rural as he felt he could easily stand, and it didn't have the coffee shops he was used to. Home cooked meals were all right, if you liked that kind of thing, and the sea breeze almost made it tolerable that their guest accommodations did not have any sort of air conditioning. He was used to the city, however. The empty expanse of the sea made him somewhat dizzy.

"Will we be here long?" he asked one evening, surprising himself with his forwardness.

They had taken refuge in a little bar against a sudden, driving rainstorm. Mrs. Nakamura was sitting ramrod straight in a chair and dripping stoically. "A week, maybe. Then we'll see the other sites, and I may be called back to oversee for a month at the favored one."

Haruki shivered, and sneezed.

"I'm going out tonight," Mrs. Nakamura said. "It isn't company business. You don't have to come."

Haruki nodded and shivered again.


That night Haruki dressed in his cheapest outfit, because it was still raining quite hard, and took his umbrella. Mrs. Nakamura didn't want him to follow her—he knew with a thrill of excitement that he had to. This was one of the things that he was supposed to be observing—some really interesting secret. It made him almost happy to go, despite the rain.

At sundown, Mrs. Nakamura left the hotel. Haruki followed, creeping through the village, ducking behind buildings and crouching behind bushes as the safety inspector went forward.

She was dressed in shorts and a loose casual shirt, he noticed, and was carrying several oddly shaped bags—one looked like it might be a tent. She walked with her shoulders high, not seeming to mind the rain.

Haruki's heart fell: she was going to the rock beach. Worse, to the jetty. He followed behind her, the black beach pebbles slithering under his slick-soled shoes.

She vanished into the gatehouse, and he hopped after her, trying not to slip and fall, and peeked through the door—she wasn't there. She must have gone on through the second door.

When he stepped through the door to the shrine, a cold breeze caught him—it pulled his umbrella out of his slick hands and whirled it away towards the shore. Looking back miserably, Haruki noted how much further away the land seemed. The very shape of the coast looked wrong.

A wave caught him by surprise, splashing against his leg. He looked down and with horror realized that the water was higher than it had been. The tide. It would come and push the doors of the gatehouse shut, and sink it—but the path led up! The shrine wouldn't be sunk.

He didn't care if Mrs. Nakamura saw him anymore—as another wave lapped at his shoe he gave a panicked yelp and bounded up the narrow jetty without stopping to worry about the slippery rocks and the wind.

The light of the setting sun shone faintly through the gray, drizzling cloud cover—then the last little glow was gone. Haruki hurried to the shrine, leaning against the old bleached wood as he looked through the door.

Mrs. Nakamura was there, talking to an old man in a gray robe. She had taken all the things out of the many bags; a projector! A very old one, with slides, still. And a projection screen, which must have been in the bag that looked like a tent.

She was giving a presentation. The old man was listening intently, and combing his dark gray beard with his fingers. On his wizened face, Haruki could see an expression of benevolent puzzlement.

"This is our tidal fence. The water washes through these slots," Mrs. Nakamura was saying, as calmly as if she were in a board room, "and spins the turbines. They'd be wired to shore, undergo occasional maintenance..."

The old man harrumphed and shook his head. Mrs. Nakamura calmly advanced the slide; now she stood beside a picture of little turbines, shaped something like the motor of a boat.

"These are tidal turbines. They're set into the surface of the seabed, and move with the tide, on both the inflow and the outflow."

"I like them," the old man said, his voice very deep. "Like little flowers. Are they all red?"

"They're color coded based on rated power output. A tidal farm would have staggered colors." Another slide, and Haruki recognized a chart the foreman had given her. Sea bed depths, perhaps.

"I like the little flowers," the old man said, steepling his hands. "I would not mind them. But you cannot build them."

"Oh?" Mrs. Nakamura seemed politely curious, but Haruki could see that she was surprised.

"The leech will not let you."

"Leech!" Haruki had never seen Mrs. Nakamura look this way before. Surprised, and angry. Her eyes blazed, and she tensed from her heels to the tips of her dark hair. "What leech?"

"The leech has been hunting up and down this coast for four and five months," the old man said solemnly. "To bring men with boats and construction equipment would surely draw it."

"Where did this leech come from?"

The old sage shook his head.

Haruki, with one eye fastened intently to the crack in the door, had been listening so intently that he had almost forgot how miserable he was, and how wet and dark it was.

But something had been niggling at him—something was trying to catch his attention. There was a light behind him. Slowly, Haruki turned.

It was fully ten meters long and thicker than he was tall. Its body was as clear as a bag of water, but glowing yellow veins pulsed on the surface of it, and inside of it he could see a grotesque, throbbing ball of malevolent light.

It opened a flabby, toothless mouth, large enough to swallow him whole, and the clear sludge that dripped for it hissed and bubbled on the rocks.

Haruki screamed again, and threw himself off the rock path and into the water.

Things moved quickly, then. Mrs. Nakamura came flying out of the shrine, one hand behind her back, and what Haruki had taken for a poster tube slung over one shoulder was in fact a long, heavy sword in a scabbard—she drew it out, and it gleamed in the yellow light of the monster. With her hair plastered across the face and the sword held gracefully over her head, she looked like a painting of Tokoyo in sneakers—then she lunged, ducking away from the gaping mouth, and hacked into its side. Clear fluid oozed out of it, and it hissed again, brightening even more.

It lunged at her, not aiming to swallow her but simply to flatten her under its bulk, and there was nowhere to go-

Something boiled out of the shrine, a long serpentine thing covered in green scales and maned with shaggy gray hair. It hit the flabby glowing thing like a bullet, flinging it away from Mrs. Nakamura—the two things tangled, the flabby glowing thing trying to bite with its poisonous mouth, the green serpent thing ripping at it with its clawed feet and snapping with its wolfish head. They thrashed together, flinging rocks off the path, and the quiet rain started to whip down like hail.

Haruki gaped; a wave washed water into his mouth, and then the one after it slammed him forward onto the rock he was clinging to; the water was bitter cold, his hands already numb. He did not feel so much as see his grip fail. He shouted for help, but it was cut off by another mouthful of water.

The waves dragged him away.

The last thing he saw was Mrs. Nakamura, silhouetted in the ugly glow, sheathing her sword and plunging into the water after him. Then everything went black.

 


 

The dreams were dreams of water and glowing waves with huge mouths, but they were better than the waking up.

Haruki had as a child once climbed up and run along a stone wall about two meters high. And he had fallen, face first, and bashed his elbows open and knocked all the wind out of his chest. It was, until now, the most pain that he had ever been in.

This was worse.

His throat was raw, and there was a watery feeling in his lungs that made him want to cough—but he knew what would happen if he did. His head was pounding, and he dared not open his eyes; even through his eyelids he could see bright sunlight, and it made the headache stab even deeper into his skull. He was lying on the grass, and there was a stick digging into his back. It was a welcome distraction from what felt like an all-over bruise.

He coughed. It hurt as much as he'd been afraid it would.

"There's aspirin," said Mrs. Nakamura, from somewhere by his head. Her voice was very quiet and low, which he appreciated immensely. But then she rattled something, and his good feelings evaporated. Whatever it was rattled inside of his skull.

"Only one," she mused. "It will have to be yours. Open your mouth."

He did. His jaw hurt.

"You'll have to sit up." A slender, strong arm slipped behind his back, and levered him upright. He could swear he felt muscles tearing in his back; he whined.

"You're just stiff, with a bruised rib or two at the very worst. I've had worse," the safety consultant said, sounding unimpressed. She dropped a pill into his still-open mouth, and followed it with a trickle of water. Then she lay him back down to whimper; swallowing had hurt too.

"Where?"

"We're in the spirit world," Mrs. Nakamura said tersely.

"We're dead?" Haruki asked disbelievingly.

"Did I say that? No. I said that we're in the spirit world."

This made just as little sense to Haruki as anything about cooling systems or control routines, so he stayed quiet. The pain eased away, just a little, and he fell asleep again without having opened his eyes.

 

 

When Haruki next woke up he was cold, the grass under him unpleasantly wet. But the world was not as full of pain as it had been before, and he allowed himself to open his eyes—and then, encouraged, to sit up.

It was night, and the sky was clear as if it hadn't been raining at all a day ago. All that he could see in any direction was grass, knee-high and golden—or a river, flowing to the sea. Flat and empty, except for the dark smudge of the guardhouse, the path, and the shrine.

There was no jetty in the spirit world. There had been a bridge, once. Recently, even. There was barely anything left of it now, though, just a few meters jutting into the sea, trailing off into a ragged, splintered wreck.

Mrs. Nakamura was sitting with her sword in her lap, looking out at the shrine.

"We could swim out there," Haruki suggested meekly. "It isn't so far. I had swimming in school."

"We could," the safety consultant said coolly, "but we wouldn't get far." She pointed at a patch of water.

What Haruki had taken to be a reflection of the full moon on the waves—moved. Slithered through the water with disturbing speed, past the shrine.

"Oh," he said, his voice coming out a squeak. "But—but it can't get onto the land, can it?"

"It can," she said. "But we aren't enough of a meal to bother with."

He whimpered, and she gave him a disgusted look. "If you had stayed at the hotel, you wouldn't be here. Try to be less trouble from here on out."

"But it was company business," Haruki objected, sounding timid even to himself. "You were showing that man our turbines."

"Shimanto. The spirit of the shrine and the river," she said. "We did mean to plant them on his front lawn. It seemed polite to ask."

"Where... is he?"

"The leech hurt him badly. I hope he's reached safety." The little woman looked grim. "That makes two quarrels I have with the leech."

Haruki very deliberately did not ask about it.

Mrs. Nakamura spoke anyway. "It was much smaller when I first met it. Perhaps twice as long as a man, but fat and bloated. It was lodged in the exhaust pipe of our Mihama plant, sleeping in the hot water and feeding off the plant.

"The blockage caused a steam leak, nearly a meltdown. Men were hurt, badly: I was sent for." Her dark eyes flashed. "I thought that I killed it then."

"Is... is that why you need a spear?"

"I have to cut its heart in half. My sword won't reach deep enough into it." She gave him a sudden sharp look. "Did you see its heart?"

Haruki nodded. It would haunt his nightmares, that ugly, pulsing ball of light.

"How big?"

Haruki held his hands apart, nearly the width of his chest.

Mrs. Nakamura put her head in her hands. "Three pieces at least," she muttered. "Without letting it bleed enough moderator to melt down. Clean power my foot."

"I'm... sorry?"

She slowly looked up at him and he could feel the frost forming on the inside of his veins.

"We won't find a blacksmith sitting on our behinds," she said, and sheathed her sword before hopping to her feet. "Let's walk. It will keep us warm."

They had walked.

He had never considered that walking could be an activity measured in days. It was sore and monotonous work. Except when they met other travelers.

Had he doubted that he was in the spirit world? A wizened old lady with a frog's face gave Mrs. Nakamura a heavy satchel of food, coarse bread and dried meat. Mrs. Nakamura paid her in the tiniest nugget of pure gold, taken from a small purse around her neck. They met tall, graceful women with teeth like needles. Mrs. Nakamura asked for news and directions. Small things with huge eyes bartered news for food, pots, bowls, and one clear evening, Haruki saw his second dragon swimming across the eastern sky.

She taught him how to build a fire with nothing much, although he never managed to start one without a butane lighter. Fortunately, she kept one in the same hip pack with her aspirin—the empty bottle, at least—and some anti-biotic. He vaguely remembered a first aid kit; it was long gone in the shrine now.

They followed the coast, and when they walked at night, Haruki could look to his right side and see the glow of the leech following them.

Haruki fell into a terrified daze. He was so far beyond what he knew that he didn't know how to function—easier to do exactly as he was told.

Mrs. Nakamura told him: "Don't make bargains if you don't have to. Don't accept anything you haven't paid for. Don't offer anything if you don't know its worth. Don't tell anyone your name if you don't have to."

Easily done. He simply didn't speak to anyone.

After five days, Mrs. Nakamura brightened, and pointed to a cabin with smoke billowing from a bricked chimney.

"There. Half done."

The blacksmith had bull's horns and no neck at all. He at first turned Mrs. Nakamura away, laughing.

"A spear? You're too small. Bring me your husband, I'll make a spear for him."

Mrs. Nakamura gave him a polite smile. "I need a spear that won't burn," she repeated. "And six lead veils as light as feathers and as hard as nails."

The yoni shook his bull head back and forth, and Haruki felt a little sorry for him. He knew that the demon could feel frost forming on the inside of his veins.

"Why? What's it for?"

"A spear. Which will not burn. Six veils, lead, light as feathers. Hard as nails," Mrs. Nakamura suggested, sounding nothing but utterly reasonable.

In the end, Mrs. Nakamura walked away with a black, wood-handled spear easily half again her height, and six sheets of lead as light and giving as silk. These she folded neatly and gave to Haruki for safe keeping. They tucked neatly into a pocket, and he washed his hands carefully after he had touched them. She also walked away with a severely lightened money-pouch. Spears that did not burn apparently weren't cheap.

"Cadmium would be better," she mentioned that evening, as she tested the heft of the spear, swinging it in a graceful arc. "Just pierce the heart once with some cadmium steel. Or boron. But good luck finding it. So it will have to be done the hard way."

Whatever that meant. Haruki was distracted by the familiar way she handled the huge spear, and the weary tone with which she said 'the hard way.'

Her shorts revealed more of her legs than Haruki had ever had cause to see before. They were covered in faint scars which he was noticing more and more often.

How many times had Mrs. Nakamura had to use the hard way?

He was still scared of her. But he felt at least secure; she would tell him what to do, and he would do it. And he would be all right.

 


 

Mrs. Nakamura prepared for battle by first taking Haruki's suit jacket, rolling it into a pillow, and falling asleep. Deeply.

"Don't wake me up," she told him before she closed her eyes. "My body will rest until it's done resting. And you don't want me tired tomorrow."

She slept on her back with her hands folded over her chest, and Haruki watched her nervously until he fell asleep too, curled up in the sun with a hand over his face.

She was still sleeping when he woke up, which hadn't happened in all the time that he knew her, and she slept on even when he went a little ways away to eat some of their traveling food. She slept through the following night, lying as still as if she was dead. She began to shiver; Haruki built a fire near her and fed it through the night.

Sometime after dawn he started on his dinner.

When he looked up, Mrs. Nakamura was sitting across the fire from him, wide awake. He yelped and started back, splashing dinner across himself.

"I need meat and carbohydrates," she said simply.

What they had was rice and dried meat. It was all they'd had for a very long time, but he offered it to her and she ate slowly. Not a whole bowl of rice, either: "Enough to take the edge off. Not enough to slow me. Damn, I'm hungry."

She looked irritable and rather beautiful, in a fierce way.

"I'm going to go a down the coast a little and lead it up into the hills. You stay out of my way. If I win, I'll need the veils."

"If you lose?"

"The leech will probably eat you," she said, not unsympathetically. "I'm sorry. Here, if this makes you feel better..." She handed him her sword and her hip-pack with the anti-biotic in it, and he stared at them as she got to her feet, using the shaft of her spear to pull herself upright.

Then she walked away. Haruki trailed behind at a distance, perhaps a hundred meters further inland; when she stopped down close to the ocean he stopped too, and watched her nervously.

She threw a stone into the ocean, shouted something profane and insulting. Then she walked away and sat down in the grass. They waited.

It came out of the ocean with the waves, almost invisible; it was clear as a jelly-fish. But Mrs. Nakamura had been waiting; she sprung to her feet before Haruki even realized it was there.

He was far enough away that almost no sound carried to him. The grass swallowed it. So it was silent, like a pantomime; the leech lunged at her, and she smacked it with the shaft of her spear, and dodged away. Again, and again until it was right on top of her—she thrust for the first time, straight up into it, and the leech bled clear ichor and thrashed. Then again; smack, wait, and thrust. Mrs. Nakamura was fast.

The spear struck home and the leech jerked. Haruki leapt to his feet to cheer—too early, the leech was still moving. It oozed a trail of ichor wherever it went, and even in the sunlight he could see that it was getting brighter.

Mrs. Nakamura thrust again, into its heart—

Haruki's heart plummeted. The leech twisted away from her, and the spear ripped out of her hands, tumbling her to the ground. And it was all so quiet!

Even Mrs. Nakamura's scream, when the thing dropped its bulk over her and swallowed her arm to the shoulder, was faint and distant.

Haruki's was louder, much louder, and the sword was heavier than he'd expected but he took it in two hands and ran towards the woman and the leech.

When he was close enough to hear the leech hiss, he saw Mrs. Nakamura work a leg free from the coils of the leech and kick the spear in the leech's side, a jerky downward hammering motion. He imagined rather than heard something break.

Then he was close enough to hit it, and he did; he sliced and sliced and what poured on him felt like a syrup and tasted like nothing but hot water.

It had been slowing down before he touched it. It was its broken heart that killed it, not anything he did with the sword—by the end, he was hacking at a still and quickly dissolving hump of nothing much at all.

The body dissolved away like water, and all that was left was four chunks of glowing stone and a battered safety consultant. Haruki knelt beside her, cradling her head.

She was pale, but she opened her eyes. "Wrap the heart in the veils, you idiot."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Don't touch it with your hands. And don't let the pieces touch." Her eyes shut again.

"Yes, ma'am. What is it, ma'am?" he asked, carefully tying each piece in a lead veil, and then wiping his hands on his trousers.

"I'm not sure. It could be one of two things." It sounded as if it was hard for Mrs. Nakamura to breathe; Haruki waited politely.

"It could be enriched uranium. In which case I am already dead, and you should tell my husband that he can use my pension to buy the boat. I know he wants it, but he'll be too guilty to use the money if you don't tell him."

Haruki gulped. "What else could it be?"

"It could be the spirit of uranium. The essence. Then... I am poisoned, but there could still be a cure. The rules... different."

"What cures the spirit of radiation poisoning?" Haruki asked dully.

"Acupuncture with cadmium needles could suck the poison out. But..." She shrugged weakly. Where would they get cadmium needles? "But carbon could moderate it. Ah... graphite. Or coal. The spirit of coal."

She jerked, and sat up. "Yes. There's a chance... if I don't die. Come on, we have to go."

And Mrs. Nakamura walked very well on her own for almost six hours, but then she had to lean on him. And soon after that, she couldn't walk at all.

"Mrs. Nakamura, what do we do?" Haruki knelt beside her. "I don't know where we're going."

"We're going to Zeneba's house. It's on a marshy finger of land that pokes into the water..." Mrs. Nakamura was beginning to lose coherency. "She's a witch. She can show you the way home, if I don't survive."

"No-"

"Hush. Tell her that I've been poisoned, and I need the spirit of coal. The boilerman's coal, at her sister's bathhouse. She'll know..." And then Mrs. Nakamura fell unconscious, and Haruki couldn't wake her up again.

 


 

And that, all of that, had led them here, to this paper boat that was sailing them towards what did look encouragingly like a bathhouse. And Mrs. Nakamura was still breathing.

"We're close," he told her, trying to wake her again. She didn't stir. The sun was setting, smoke starting to rise from the huge chimneys. He'd have to do this on his own. ...he very much didn't want to.

A light fell on him and he whirled, nearly capsizing their paper craft—he steadied it, and tried to steady his pulse too; not a leech. A ferry loomed over him instead, hung with ornamental lamps and crewed apparently with shadows. There were marks of corrosion, like bites or swipes, very new. Waiting on the dock were a host of familiarly strange spirits, waving flags and cheering.

"Mrs. Nakamura? Please wake up," he said, rather resigned and not surprised when she didn't. The wind blew a strand of confetti into his hair. Well, they were all very happy, at least. He snuck ashore while the bathhouse spirits were occupied waving the ferry in.

He waited in a corner a while, watching the celebration warily. He didn't know where to go, or even who he was looking for.

What would Mrs. Nakamura do, in his place, if she'd come to someplace new and foreign to her?

No matter how he looked at it, he knew she certainly wouldn't crouch in the shadows.

Haruki straightened his ragged shirt as best he could, buttoning the one cuff that remained intact, and smoothed down his pants. He took Mrs. Nakamura into his arms and walked out into the light.

"This is Mrs. Nakamura, who killed the Mihama leech. But it poisoned her, and she needs coal for medicine. Now who's going to take me to the boilerman?" he asked the demonic assembly.

His brusque, no-nonsense tone wasn't quite up to Mrs. Nakamura's standards, but he thought she might have approved, a little, if she'd been awake to hear it. And after only a short staring match, Haruki against the crowd, a child-sized frog in a blue tunic had waddled forward to guide him.

The key was two things, Haruki decided. The first was to act as if you absolutely knew what you were doing.

The second, which he would have to practice at, was to know absolutely what you were doing.

The boilerman was an old man with as many long arms as a spider. Of course he was. At least he didn't have the teeth like needles. He grumbled a while, whisking things out of drawers with his many clawed hands and muttering about the expense, but he did the grumbling while he was brewing tea out a piece of quintessentially coal-like coal, which was all Haruki had asked.

The thick, black sludge looked nothing like medicine. After some horrified contemplation, Haruki poured the tarry stuff down Mrs. Nakamura's throat.

She stiffened, and started to go red almost immediately; within minutes, she was running a fever that made the water he poured on her hiss and steam. He waited very quietly, cooling her with buckets of water, sure he'd killed her.

In two hours the fever had broken, and she opened her eyes to demand 'ice, damn it.' In four hours she was on her feet and busy. In four and a half hours, every ailing spirit in the place had the coal-tea medicine.

That very night Mrs. Nakamura personally found the spirit of the Shimanto river resting in a huge tub of salts, and dosed him with the cure. Once he had stopped steaming, he thanked her and invited her to build all the flowers she liked in his harbor.

 

"She seems to know everyone," Haruki noted that night, eating a rice dinner in the boiler-room.

"She worked here as a little girl," the boilerman said. "Of course she made a few friends. She's not bad for a human." The suspicious look he gave Haruki indicated that he didn't extend Haruki the same consideration just yet. "Always did what needed doing."

"I'm beginning to see that."

Mrs. Nakamura and the bath-house witch walked past the door, deep in conversation, and Haruki caught the word 'reactor.' He listened closer,

"-the pieces of the heart ever touch, there will be a blue flash and this whole bathhouse will burn to the ground. But if maintained, it will do the work of twice the coal you'd be giving out."

"I'm not convinced. I can't just go giving things away."

"If you do, practically everyone will owe you a favor. I don't know if you'd be interested in that, though," Mrs. Nakamura said innocently.

Haruki went back to sit in the warm, fragrant boiler room for a while, and finish his rice.

"I wish I had done something," he said finally.

The boilerman chuckled. "I think you did do a good deal, young man."

"I didn't, not really. Not like killing a leech or healing a dragon. Nothing dangerous." He broke off at the flop-flop-flop of sensible sandals, but it was too late. Mrs. Nakamura gave him a short look as she stepped inside, carrying a few new bags, and her sword sheathed across her back.

"On your feet, Haruki. We're going back tonight. You will."

"Will what?" he asked, scrambling up.

"Do something dangerous."

"But what?"

The safety consultant scowled. "You'll explain to Expenses why we need train tickets back to the turbine site, and why I need a new projector, and find some decent explanation as to where we've been for the past week. And that is going to be just as bad as killing the damn leech in the first place. Come on. Goodbye, Kumaji--I'll be back, soon, to check on the new boiler."

Haruki hurried out after Mrs. Nakamura, who couldn't even move slowly after she'd nearly died, waving to the spider-armed boilerman as he went.

 

She was wrong, as it turned out. The expense department was quite reasonable, for once, and Mrs. Nakamura got her new projector without so much as a raised eyebrow. So that was the end of Haruki's adventure with Mrs. Nakamura.

The first one, at least.