Mello slips the envelope of cash into his briefcase and shuts the door to the hotel room behind him. This was one of the stranger scenes he'd ever done. Not technically; Ito didn't require anything extravagant in terms of being tied up and flayed. But every scene Ito did required a narrative.
"I want to do a re-enactment," he said, his voice quavering slightly over the phone.
"You mean, like, something from history?" Mello's mind raced. He had all manner of military uniforms in the closet of his apartment, and a growing assortment of weapons, real and fake. But he always went with aesthetics over accuracy.
"No, something from my childhood, in Japan," Ito said. "Well. I want it to start out that way."
Which was how Mello found himself dressed as a librarian, correction-less glasses and all, standing under a vent pouring forth arctic air conditioning at the end of a long hotel corridor. Ito shelled out extra for the effort. Mello found a vintage suit based on a grainy photograph of Ito's from the 1960s. He spent an hour fast-forwarding through films to get the style of speech right. Mello never does this much for anyone. But this was not about money. He hadn't needed the money in a long time. And it wasn't reputation management, either; the only other thing that could prompt Mello to go out of his way was a threat to his status as the the best male professional dominant in Southern California. Mello harbored no such fear.
"He was the youngest of the staff as I recall," Ito said about the librarian. Mello sat patiently on the phone and pretended to give a shit. "Just finished with university," Ito said.
And the reason you knew you were into men, Mello thought.
"I got caught stealing a book from the library..." Ito said.
Which I'm sure you did on purpose, Mello thought, in order to see him, because simply going to the library wasn't enough.
"Well, the reason I thought of it, is that you remind me a little of him. It's in the voice, mostly. When you speak Japanese, you sound alike..."
Mello sank his face into his palm. For fuck's sake, he thought; I ought to bill for this time on the phone, too.
"In fact, even now, talking to you, it gives me chills..."
No, fuck that. I'm totally billing you for this.
But for Ito, it was worth it. Ito was an executive of one of the largest shipping and transport companies in Japan. Never married, deeply closeted, and depending on the day and the performance of his company, needed to be told he was either a good boy, or a very bad one. Ito paid a premium for the companions of his preference and to have his secrets kept. A regular, top-paying client for the last two years.
"You ought to come with me to Japan," he said on a number of occasions.
Not yet, Mello thought. But one day soon, I'll cash in all the favors. There's only so much information I can get from the West Coast. Rod's connections in Japan are not enough.
The inside of the hotel elevator is lined with spotless mirrors. Mello examines himself. You really can pull of anything, can't you, he thinks. His hair is slicked back neatly, and the glasses suit his face. But the cut of his vest and his tie call back to another era. A far cry from his normal leather get-up.
You look like an actor, Mello tells himself. Guess you already are one. What a rotten shame you can't be photographed. Aiko was right, you would have made an excellent model. You would have been the best at that, too.
But that was a path for some other life, some other world without mass killers hiding behind screens. Nothing else mattered but this. Kira.
The bank sign across the street from the gleaming hotel reads 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Autumn is the worst time to be in this city. Mello stands on the street corner in the blazing afternoon sun and lights a cigarette. A woman in a tight dress walking a black greyhound walks up to him.
"Got a light?" she asks.
Mello flicks open the gold butane lighter with his blackletter initial 'M' engraved on the side. He lights her cigarette and catches a whiff of clove.
She looks him up and down. "You're not dying in this heat, wearing that?"
"Work uniform," he says and takes a drag.
She laughs. "Really. And what do you do?"
Mello glances at her. "I'm a librarian in hell."
The heat rising up from the pavement warps the light, and the midday sun makes a blinding glare on Mello's vinyl pants. Mello sits down in a small wooden booth in the ramen shop and lays out a newspaper. His iced matcha and steaming bowl of noodles arrive without him having to say anything. He and Aiko had both been creatures of habit. They had always come here, and always ordered the same thing. By now the waiters understand. They don't ask what he wants. They don't ask about Aiko, either.
Mello's phone rings before he can tear the paper off his chopsticks. He squints at the caller ID. An unlisted number. "This is Mello," he says, his voice flat among the chatter of the restaurant.
"Mello, it's Halle."
He hasn't heard that voice since the funeral for L and Watari, the last time he saw anyone associated with Wammy's. Halle had introduced herself as Ryuzaki's former doubles tennis partner. Mello suspected, but couldn't confirm, that L was the reason Halle began working for the FBI. Halle made an eloquent case for why Mello should join her. Mello stuck to his plan and left anyway. He cut off all ties, and any possibility of funding from L or Watari's estates.
"Halle? Why are you calling me?" And how did you get this number? The thought makes his stomach turn with anger.
"You know why I'm calling you."
"Then you know what my answer is," Mello says. So it must be true, he thinks: Near joined up with the FBI after all. Well. I hope they enjoy babysitting.
"I'm not working with Near. You know this."
"Then at least work with me," she says.
"What are you talking about?" Mello sneers.
"Are you still working alone?" Halle asks.
"Of course not." But Halle's question makes Mello pause. He has what he would consider assistants. Accomplices. But Rod and his cronies are one-sided, weak-minded people, no matter how good they are at hiding from the law. There's no one in their entourage that Mello would consider a peer. No one he doesn't secretly want to get rid of.
"I'm not giving you any information," Mello says.
"I'm not asking you to," she says. "But I'd encourage you to keep your mind open to the possibility of a trade."
Mello scoffs. "Does Near know you contacted me?"
"No," Halle says. "He doesn't need to know. Mello," her voice is unsettlingly calm, "You know I don't care who solves this case. I care that it gets solved. If there's something you need to know, then I'll contact you again. You know what day tomorrow is, don't you?"
"Of course I fucking know what day it is." November 5th is the anniversary of L's death. "You need to stay in your lane," Mello says, "and leave me the fuck alone."
"I'll talk to you later, Mello," she says, unperturbed.
Mello slaps the phone shut against the table and dives into the ramen before it gets cold.
Mello's copy of Yomiuri Shimbun stains his hands gray. There's only so much the newspapers can tell him, but it's better than nothing. And good to keep his finger on the pulse of public opinion.
Mello picks the meaning slowly from the characters, always better at speaking than reading. One story mentions the head of the Japanese police, who announced withdrawal from investigating Kira shortly before L died. So. He's putting pressure on the government to make an official statement in support of Kira. He's making public statements to law enforcement in other countries. These cowards will never cease to amaze me, Mello thinks; how these pathetic, cowering assholes get elected and promoted, I will never understand. Has Kira really become that influential? Mello doesn't want to believe it.
Possibilities form branches and chains in his mind. It must be blackmail, he thinks. Kira is within the Japanese police. Mello sees no other possibility. All signs, all of his research points to this. Mello stirs the matcha with his straw and drums his fingers against the table. The name Takimura sounds familiar.
Yes, Ito's business partner, Asahi, the contractor. He had bragged loudly about the opulent vacation home his company had built for director Takimura.
Takimura's someone I can reach. Swipe him out of the picture, force the Japanese police to move. Reveal the factions that remain, like stripping the bark of a tree to show the termites underneath. Mello scans his mental list of contacts. The scheme plays out in his mind. Yes, disable the security system. Or cut power to the neighborhood entirely. Pluck him out that way. Good. When Rod calls this afternoon, I know what to tell him. Make him feel useful.
"You want another tea?" the waiter asks.
Mello snaps out of his trance. "Uh...yes," he says. It's only then that he notices he's been sitting with his knees to his chest, his feet on the edge of the little bench.
Mello leaves the newspaper on the table with the check, and walks through the shopping center. Spray from the huge stone fountain in the center of the courtyard makes a rainbow. November 5th isn't just the anniversary of L's death. It will also mark exactly six months since Kira eliminated Aiko.
Mello assumed L would be the only person Kira could take from him, one of the only people who ever mattered to him. He believed this until Aiko dropped dead from a heart attack in the Borrego County Women's Detention Facility, one of twenty-six people to die from Kira that day.
Mello sits on a concrete bench across from the fountain, in the shade of a brilliant red maple, and remembers.
He sat hunched over his laptop, his knees to his chest, when Aiko snuck up behind him. She blew on the back of his neck and drizzled her long, painted fingernails down his back. Mello nearly kicked the computer off of the coffee table in shock and Aiko cackled with laughter.
"Mello, do you believe in shinigami?" Aiko wiggled her fingers and made a spooky, wide-eyed face.
"What the hell are you talking about," Mello said. He had heard of shinigami. When Mello was eight, L brought back a book of Japanese folktales from one of his many trips, along with copious, eccentric sweets, covered in labels that Mello couldn't yet read at the time.
"I swear to god, these Kira forums crack me up," Aiko said, nodding in the direction of her own open laptop, glowing in the low light. She pulled a bottle of wine from the cupboard and poured herself a glass. "There's all these threads about the 'gods of death,' people going off about all this this supernatural stuff." She sank down into the plush couch across from Mello, with no idea how much he already knew. On her night off, she lazed around her apartment in a long black satin dressing gown and yellow slippers.
Mello wasn't sure what to say. He had recovered transcripts, clips of footage of the man called the "Yotsuba Kira." There were ravings about giant monsters. Whether it was a code language, mental illness, deflection, or some other part of Kira's power, Mello didn't know.
"Hey Mel," she said. "What do you call a crackpot idea about Kira?"
He rolled his eyes. "What?"
"A cons-Kira-cy theory!" Aiko laughed hard at her own joke.
Mello gave her a few unenthusiastic claps. "That's...wow. You spend all this time improving your English, and this is what you give me?"
"But I have improved, right?" She flashed a devilish grin. If she was aiming to sound native, she was getting close.
"I'm so proud of you." He said it dryly, but they both knew he meant it.
Mello watches the water gush forth from the fountain and squints. His mental image of Kira is a nondescript Japanese man in a suit. Maybe with glasses. When you wrote her name down, Mello thinks, what script did you use? Aiko was from Fukuoka, but Mello could find no record of her death in the Japanese news, only in America. It was only on the fanatical Kira forums that Aiko found so funny that he found the kanji for her name, in a detailed list of victims compiled by Kira's rabid, idiotic fans. Mello wrote it down, the strokes awkward to his unfamiliar hand, so as not to forget it.
In London, Matt ignores the sunset. It's not until he hears the sound of his own stomach growling that he pauses the game on his computer to walk to the kitchen. He opens the door to the refrigerator and pulls out a bottle of milk. He unscrews the cap, sniffs the contents, and takes a sip.
Matt spits sour milk all over the floor of the otherwise immaculate, barely used kitchen.
What did you expect, he thinks as he brushes his teeth. You haven't been in this flat for days.
Matt pushes a disinfectant wipe around the kitchen floor with his foot. He rubs his stinging eyes. Immersed in the world of the game, time passes so quickly. The rest of the world disappears. He prefers it that way.
He picks up his phone and summons Chinese takeout. He stands at the kitchen window and observes the noisy street below, everything bathed in garish orange light.
He's been putting off answering emails for several days. Why he decided to take a last minute trip to Belfast, he couldn't really say. Something about being finished at Wammy's forever made him want to go back and see the place where they found him. Matt sometimes wondered what would have happened, what his life would have been like, if the old man in the bowler hat and the young man with wild dark eyes had never showed up that day.
"You were lucky," Linda said. "They put me on a train from Cardiff by myself, and when I met Ryuzaki at the station, I'd never been so scared in my life."
"You can call him 'L' now, you know," Matt said.
"I know, but I don't think I'll ever get used to it."
Several times a year, L came back to visit Wammy's. But it wasn't until the kids in Matt's cohort were 12 or 13 that Watari told them who Ryuzaki really was. Matt didn't understand why Linda was frightened at first. The others all instantly gravitated to L. Who wouldn't like the grown up who was basically a giant child, who always brought all kinds of chocolates, and unusual books in different languages? Who would stay up all night telling stories in a blanket fort? Who was smarter than all of the other adults and seemed to listen to none of them?
L. Tomorrow it'll be four years, Matt thinks. Matt touches his forehead to the window glass and feels cold. In his email inbox are offers from representatives from the FBI, the CIA, the British Secret Service, and Kreuz, the notorious private security firm based out of Zurich. Matt knows he needs to answer them, and make a decision. On the coffee table is a brochure addressed to his most recent alias, Mattias Jensen, announcing a new program at King's College London: Game Design and Virtual Environments.
They trained me to be just like you, L, Matt thinks. They taught me German, Japanese, and Russian. Deduction, mediation, conflict resolution, persuasion techniques, strategy. Every rhetorical and analytical skill they thought I could have needed. So what now?
The money from Watari's estate was generous, but it was given to the Wammy's alumni on the condition that they make some kind of progress, some contribution to L's legacy.
Nothing, Matt realized, could have prepared him for this. The feeling of paralysis and emptiness. The feeling that none of it matters. Drinking sour milk alone in a rented flat and mourning.
For a moment, Matt feels a surge of jealousy toward Linda. You knew you weren't cut out for it, he thinks. You knew when you needed to switch tracks. You never wanted to be a detective. And you had the guts to say it.
On the train back from Belfast, Matt resented being given no say in life, being brought to this institution and expected to perform. But it hadn't really gone that way, had it? You could have left, like Mello did, Matt thinks. You could have struck out and done your own thing, like Linda. Even Olga had said 'to hell with people' and put all her focus on computers, the thing that suited her best.
There was no official requirement that the kids at Wammy's train to follow L. But there was the tacit understanding that if you were chosen to be there, it was because you had potential. If you weren't going to use that potential to be a detective, then you'd better put it toward something. No wonder Linda painted up a storm. She left a year before Matt, already represented by galleries across Europe. Matt looks around the flat. It's so empty here still. A piece of artwork wouldn't be the worst thing.
Matt sits back down at his computer and tentatively opens his email. He expects the message at the top of the list to be from Olga, telling him again to come work with her at Kreuz. Instead it's a forwarded message, first in Japanese, then English.
Opening next week at Tokyo's Gallery 119: Linda Quill: Transformation.
Matt's face peels into a smile. Linda's note follows the graphic of the exhibition poster.
I didn't know where you were living these days, I wanted to mail you the invitation! I know Japan is far away, but I had to at least invite you. Hope you're doing ok Matty. It's been too long, let's catch up soon.
You gave me too much credit, Linda, Matt thinks.
The day she left she threw her arms around him and said if it hadn't been for him, she would have given up when they were kids. Matt had virtually forgotten the day she ran into the room crying because Near told her she wasn't good at drawing. Matt frowned and said Near wasn't good at drawing either, and unless he practiced every day, he never would be. It was enough to set things straight, in Linda's mind. If you only accomplished one good thing in life, Matt tells himself, at least you were a good influence on someone.
Matt wonders what Japan is like this time of year. How long does the exhibition run? He clicks through the images on the gallery's website. Birds and other animals, dying and dead things, saints and gods and other religious figures fill the huge, exuberant canvases. An unexpected thought strikes him. The paintings seem like something Mello would like.
Keeping chocolate from melting in this insane heat is no joke to Mello. But it's better than letting it freeze. Mello prefers the heat. He would rather wear his leather, fur, and vinyl in the California sun than in the constant, miserable fog of England.
Mello steps back into the courtyard with a plastic bag of Meiji chocolate bars from the grocery store at the edge of the complex. The chocolate is good, but unremarkable. Mello buys it because it was what L used to buy them.
Aiko noticed this. Each time Mello came to her apartment for a "lesson," as she called it, she made a point of leaving the chocolate visible on the table.
"You always do that," Mello said. He stood naked in front of her floor-to-ceiling mirror as she unwound a coil of red silk rope.
"I pay attention to detail," she said. "You'll never get good at this kind of thing if you don't."
If only you knew, Mello thought, how much training I have had in paying attention to detail. He saw no point in telling her. The less she knew, he thought, the safer she'd be. It was bad enough to need her help. He felt no need to explain why.
Aiko explained the steps of her rope creation, the knots and twists to create the harness around Mello's body, more complex than the previous ones. Aiko kept herself in peak condition; reaching thirty, she looked closer to eighteen. Mello felt no arousal looking at her. It was an aesthetic response, the way one might feel looking at an elegant wild animal or a beautiful painting. But it had no effect on his body. Not like the bite of the rope or the pressure of the cuffs; the heat of the wax, the sting of the whip or the flail...
"It's all right if you like it, you know," Aiko said, noticing the flush on Mello's face and chest, his growing erection. "In fact, it's probably better if you do. You have a sense of what it's like for your clients, what they like about it."
Mello didn't give a shit what it felt like to his clients. He cared about who they knew, what they knew, how much they could pay, and how much it would take to control them, whether through seduction, or blackmail, or both.
"Your turn." Aiko finished untying him. Mello glanced down at the piles of rope on the floor and began to loop them around his arm. "I'll give you a hint," she said. "Act like you know exactly what you're doing, even if you don't. It's the confidence people want to see."
But that was easier said than done. Mello growled with frustration each time he had to fix a mistake or start over. Aiko smiled, amused at his impatience and the lopsided harness emerging on her body.
"I'm going to guess, you were never a boy scout," she said.
Mello glared at her. "Yeah, you know, I never did get my Shitty Human Macrame badge." He pulled the ropes a little lighter, and she laughed.
"I'll tell you something else," she said, once the rope harness was complete. "There's really only one skill you need to know, and everything else is just details. If you want to make yourself indispensable, and have people coming back to you over and over, you have to figure out what people need. Not what they say they need, or say they want, or even what they think they need, but what they actually need. And then, you have to be the one person who can give them that."
Mello wondered what it was she thought he needed. What was she doing besides buying chocolate that made her apartment feel like home? What was watering that feeling of fraternal devotion that kept building each time he saw her? Part of him was afraid of what she might have said. But looking back on it now, he wishes he had asked her.
One thing was clear. Ito needed stories. Elaborate escapes from the pressure and disappointment of his life. Each scene was another space he could retreat to. Which was fine, Mello thought with a disdainful smirk on his face, if your goal was to run away from your life instead of facing it head on.
Ito wanted to try blood play, he said. He had done it before with another dom, but it had been several years ago. He wanted to see what Mello would come up with.
I don't need this bullshit to deal with right now, Mello thinks as he walks past a gift shop by the courtyard. But Ito is a key to Takimura. And a ticket abroad without documents, if the time comes.
Lucky cats wave at Mello through the window. Colorful fish flags hang from the ceiling. L had brought one back for each of the kids in his cohort from another Japan trip. Or had he? Two red fish flags hung in the little bedroom Mello shared with Matt. Had L really picked them out just for the two of them? Mello assumed he'd gotten them for everyone. Olga got a stack of gilded origami paper for her fascination with geometry. For Linda, bamboo brushes and ink sticks. For Mello and Matt, the flags, and books, and chocolate.
Mello scans the window of the shop when something else catches his eye. Little straw dolls, wara ningyo, stand in a neat row in a corner of a shelf. Of all the stories L had told him, it was the BB murders that captivated Mello the most. Mello always thought it would have made a fascinating novel, or even a film. If Mello weren't so fixated on Kira, he'd think to perhaps sit down and write the book himself. But it had been so long since he'd written anything. Not since before he left Wammy's, not since before L passed.
I could have written down every story you told me, Mello thinks. I can't even read a fucking mystery novel at the airport because they're all so stupid and predictable compared to the kinds of things you used to tell us. It's not fair, Mello thinks. You should have had decades' more stories to tell us. You should be here. They should have trained us to be your assistants, not your replacements. Nobody should have had to replace you so soon. But now I have to do it. And I'll do whatever I have to. I don't care about taking on some stupid client. I could whip Rod Ross until he bleeds to death if it would get me closer to Kira. I'm the best actor in this entire fucking city, and there's not a headshot of me anywhere.
Mello buys two of the wara ningyo for his next scene with Ito. Ito doesn't deserve such a fancy setup, but Mello knows he'll love it. One of BB's victims had been Japanese-American, with a cryptic message carved into his body. Mello can draw Roman numerals with his scalpel on Ito's skin, shallow enough not to scar.
He pulls one of the dolls from the bag and turns the little figure over in his hand as he walks to the parking lot. The dolls were a critical detail that L missed. L solved his case, but only because of the agent Naomi Misora.
If the world's greatest detective can have an assistant, then so can I, Mello thinks. L won because he chose correctly. He chose someone who could keep up with him.
Mello steps onto the infernal pavement, liquid in the rippling heat, and unlocks his car. He puts the chocolate in his lap to keep it from touching the searing leather seats.
Near is getting warmer, and I am running out of time, Mello thinks. I need a Misora. I need someone outside Ross's circles who can be my eyes when I'm not around. Fine. If I'm going to get revenge for L, then I'll do things the way he did, and choose a partner.
Only one person comes to mind.