[ AKAI NOROI 赤い呪い ]
Byakuya Togami and the Mystery of Devils’ Village
Chapter 1: Devils’ Village
“It's true that the assignment was not given by you, but being that Abe-san is your assistant, our father feels that you’re the best choice to follow up on his disappearance.”
Haruna Togami (22) was Byakuya Togami’s (21) immediate elder sister and currently fourth in line to inherit the Togami name and empire.
Byakuya was currently first.
However his assistant’s sudden disappearance now put that status in jeopardy, despite his own lack of involvement in the matter up to that point.
Quiet forest rolled by outside the window as his sister’s admonition rang in his mind. There had been a long train ride up to Hokkaido first, and now Byakuya was approaching the hour-mark of a car ride into the depths of the countryside with an unfamiliar driver.
“Fukawa-san will pick you up at the station,” Haruna had told him. “Employed at our northern branch for several years now. Capable and loyal; though I doubt that once you retrieve Abe-san you’ll have any need of an additional assistant.”
As they passed a crumbling old statue of white stone at the edge of the trees Fukawa glanced at him in the rear view mirror, and then nervously away.
The assistant from Hokkaido couldn’t have been more different to Toru Abe. Abe-san was a pin-neat man in his 30s with a stern expression and a handsomely kept beard. Fukawa, on the other hand, was a sharp, nervous looking young woman in a slightly rumpled skirt-suit, who didn’t look like she could be much older than Togami himself. Not that age was any judge of ability of course, but….
But it certainly was different . than Abe-san. This Fukawa woman would take some getting used to.
Byakuya Togami sat with his long legs crossed , his posture not quite tensed--not quite relaxed-- with his gaze halfway out the window, and halfway on his driver herself.
Regardless of how young she was, or how experienced she may or may not be, until he found Abe-san, she would have to do.
He reached up, readjusting his glasses with a soft 'hmm' as he met her furtive gaze. "Is there something you want to say , Fukawa-san?"
She glanced at him, and then back, squeaking as the car hit a slight bump in the gravely roadl.
"Eep!! S-sorry Togami-sama... Togami-san..." she squeaked. "Um, n-no, nothing to say really, just that... I think we're almost there."
The road they were on didn't have any turns, and hadn't in a few miles. This was probably a good thing, since Fukawa's phone gps-- mounted on the dashboard-- had gone blank and was displaying a large question mark.
Togami-sama. So that's the sort of branch employee Fukawa-san was.
A smile played at the edge of his lips, just the barest hint of amusement on his otherwise cool and composed expression. Long lashed, lidded eyes watched her through the square lenses of his glasses as he nodded.
"You think, or you know, Fukawa-san?" He gestured towards her GPS. "Our satellites don't seem to know the answer."
She glanced at him again-- she had big grey eyes with long, thick lashes-- and then at the GPS.
"I-I mean I know," she sputtered out. "It said 20 minutes before it cut out, and that was a little more than fifteen minutes go, sir...."
"Excellent." He leaned back against the seat. "I'd very much like to see the state of things when we arrive."
He was quiet a moment more before he continued, glancing sidelong at the anxious employee.
"So. My sister neglected to tell me what exactly it is you do in the Hokkaido Branch. Tell me, Fukawa-san, what's your area of expertise?"
"O-oh, well, I'm you know, an a-administration and coordination specialist," she replied. "I take care of... things that-- that need t-taking care of."
The forest around them had grown so dense that it was difficult to see the sun, forcing the headlights of the car to cut the path ahead of them in the velvety green umbra.
A choking natural aura.
As much as Togami enjoyed the occasional walk in the natural elements, something about the density of the forest felt stifling. LIke it was closing in around him.
He adjusted his tie, and turned his attention back to Fukawa.
"An administrative worker, interesting. My sister tells me you're both loyal and capable."
"I certainly t-try to be, sir," she promised. "I'm being pr-promoted to head of the Northern Admin team after this project. Um... supposedly anyway."
They crested a hill neither had quite realized they'd been climbing, and for a moment overlooked a valley that opened out below them. The trees thinned and parted on either side like a drawn away veil, and a small village lay nestled in the valley on the shore of a glassy lake, at the edge of the forest. The lake was covered in a sheet of drifting fog, gathered in the shadow of the bald mountain on its far side.
Togami took a moment to appreciate the view. After all, it wasn't every day one got to see such a striking vista, not when one lived out in the steel and concrete jungle of the city.
It was beautiful, and more than a little haunting in it's own way.
After a moment he spoke up again. "If you do a good job, Fukawa-san, I'll ensure it happens."
"Oh! Th-thank you, sir..." She bit her lip, knuckles tightening on the wheel as they dipped down the road toward the little village
A pair of tall pillars flanked the road into town, each broken away at the top, though long weathered. The town itself seemed to contain only one main street, and a rambling collection of houses. Toward the lake, at the far side of the town were a couple of larger, old style buildings, as well as what seemed to be a radio antenna, and a tall, cylindrical building with a domed roof.
Togami shifted, finally uncrossing his legs as he leaned to look out over the town below. "What a... quaint little town. Are you from around here?"
"OH, um, n-no, actually, I was just thinking the same thing, Togami-sam... I'm from Tokyo-- I came up to Hokkaido to work for your company."
"Ah." Togami chuckled "Born and raised in the city. Something we have in common. Well. I'm certain the company appreciates your commitment, moving out to the sticks like this."
They drove through the main street, past shops and little buildings. A video rental and arcade shop, a laundromat, a doctors office. A daycare. A tea shop. A noodle shop. A grocery store.couple of unmarked little studios, a fortune teller...
He watched the stores crawl by "This really is out in the middle of nowhere."
"We really are..." Fukawa admitted quietly as she slowly drove through the town. "Mashinnomura... Devils' village..."
".....I'm sorry, Devils' Village ?" Togami asked with a raise of his eyebrow.
Fukawa squeaked. "Y-yeah! That's the way it's written anyway-- it might be wrong because the lake is Mashu ."
The road curved at a rambling fence a bit back from the lake, and they turned back into the shadow of the trees, where tucked away between them, Togami could see the handsome structure of a classical style japanese inn built halfway into the hillside.
"Well" Togami snorted, glancing over at the inn. "Wrong or not, it's certainly an ...auspicious start to our little outing." He shook his head. "Find my missing assistant in the Devils Villiage."
"I was t-told that Abe-san departed for the village a week ago for some kind of real estate acquisition... I-is that accurate?"
She pulled into a barely marked parking area to the side of the inn.
Togami leaned his head back, his eyes half closing as he ran over the facts he was given.
Abe-san had in fact been on a real-estate acquisition of some kind. Details were thin on the ground, but it seemed that he had been looking over some old Togami documents and found something of interest in Mashinnomura. Byakuya's sister had made it sound as though he'd been on a mission to purchase the town outright for the family.
"That's correct," Byakuya replied, pushing his glasses up as he tipped his head back down to look at her.
"He found something of interest in town and sought to purchase it for the family. I don't have all the details, but I know enough to see that his disappearance is...inopportune."
"I-inopportune... yeah," she nodded, and glanced down at her lap, flushing as he looked at her.. "I wonder what's keeping him?
She turned off the engine, and mumbled. "This is supposed t-to be the inn. They didn't have online reservations, b-but it seemed to be the only place in town to stay. S-so Abe-san's likely to be here.":
"Likely. At the very least someone's likely to have heard where he might have gone. I imagine word travels in a town like this." He unbuckled, and looked out the window at the inn with a pensive frown. "Comfortable looking inn. I can't imagine he didn't stay here."
"It certainly looks like the kind of place I'd book for a fancy vacation," she said dreamily, following his gaze. And then suddenly-- "Oh!"
With the sudden outburst she hopped out of the car, and ran around it to the other side to pull Togami's door open.
Togami stepped out, gracefully rising to his feet and smoothing out his deep green suit with the back of his hand as he stood to his full height.
"Thank you." He glanced up at the inn , tucking his golden hair away from his face. "And...yes. It does have that 'vacation' kind of air. Like the sort of place one of my siblings might fancy for a weekend trip."
Fukawa closed the car door gently once Togami had stepped away, and gazed up at the inn along with him. "Your siblings... n-not you, Togami-sama?"
"I haven't really had cause to," Togami said, pushing his glasses up. "I'm next in line for the Togami name, after all. It doesn't leave a lot of time for weekend trips abroad. "
She nodded, her hair falling slightly in her eyes. "O-of course. You're as dedicated as I've heard...."
"One has to be. To be a Togami is to be among mankind's finest." Byakuya shook his head thoughtfully. "Regardless--despite all that, I'll likely be spending a night in a vacationer's inn anyway. At least until we find my wayward assistant."
"Yes, sir," she agreeed, folding her hands together nervously in front of her.
Ahead of them was a neat stone path that led through the neat little garden, to the imposing old double doors of the inn.
Togami glanced at her, before he started walking down the stone path towards the front doors.
"Come along, Fukawa-san."
She hurried after him doggishly to the steps, past the spot in the garden where the little bamboo slide was rising and tipping back and forth into a small pond. It tapped with an eerie sound.
"On your lead, Togami-sama," she chirped hastily.
" Togami-sama ." He chuckled under his breath, a slight smirk crossing his face. "Alright then. Keep close. I don't want you deciding to vanish as well. They'd never forgive me for losing two assistants."
"I wouldn't dare get l-lost, sir," she promised, catching up to him just in front of the doors.
As they stood in front, Togami could see a narrow slit between them-- already slightly open. There was also a large knocker on each door.
He paused a moment, before peeking between the gap in the doors.
For a moment, he saw the handsome entrance hall of the old inn, its stone and bamboo walls adorned with old paper murals, and a desk in front of a sweeping staircase that led up at the back and split into two.
And then suddenly there was a dark eye and a narrow slit of face staring back at him, pressed up to the gap, curtained by long dark hair.
Byakuya hissed softly between his teeth, jerking backwards with his hands raised as the eye stared him down " Damn ."
He felt a heat come to his face as he worked to compose himself, straightening out his suit again "...Hm. Fukawa-san. The door please."
"O-oh! Yes sir!" She stepped in front of him and moved to push the door open. Unfortunately, just as she did, someone pulled it open from the other side. Fukawa stumbled and waved her arms, in a desperate bid not to trip. "H-hey!"
Standing beside the door with her hand on it was a small, delicate looking woman with a ruff of short dark hair, and a kimono patterned in scarlet flowers.
"Welcome to the Mashinnomura Inn," she said pleasantly.
Togami reacted quickly, grabbing Fukawa by the shoulder to keep her from tumbling over.
If nothing else it'd be a poor introduction to the Inn.
"I speak for both myself and my ... enthusiastic assistant when I say thank you. Is this where we check in?"
Fukawa trembled slightly and made a soft gurgling noise as Togami helped right her. She stood, practically at attention, and looked like she was going to yell at the woman in the kimono, before Togami took control of the situation. She relaxed toward him.
"Right this way sir," the woman said. She bowed, and led them toward the desk, glancing curiously at them as she did.
Togami led Fukawa into the room, his hand leaving her shoulder as they passed the threshold.
HIs arms crossed as he looked around the lobby of the inn, following the woman towards the desk. "Indeed. and I'm afraid that while we check in , I'll have a few questions for you."
"I'm happy to answer questions for honored guests," the woman cooed. "My name is Reiko Nishizawa. This is your first time in the village, isn't it?"
She stepped behind the desk, which was flanked by a pair of large bamboo plants in pots, tied with ribbon. There was a computer on the desk that looked like it was from at least twenty years prior, but she didn't touch it anyway. Instead, she opened a large red book, and took out a pen.
Fukawa, who was staying close behind Toagami, peered at the book through her large spectacles.
"N-not exactly on the cutting edge here," she mumbled.
"I suppose it'd ruin the ambiance." Togami replied with a sly smirk, as he took the pen and wrote his name in the book. 'Byakuya Togami'.
"A pleasure, Nishizawa-san." he said with lidded eyes. "And as a matter of fact yes, it is. I'm here to meet up with an employee of mine."
As Togami signed the book, he noticed the name written neatly above his. Abe Toru.
And just as he noticed that.
"Oh! You wouldn't be Abe-san's boss, would you?" NIshizawa gasped.
Togami tapped the pen against the paper before he placed it down and folded his arms "That's right. Abe-san is my personal assistant. I imagine you met him when he checked in?"
"Yes sir," she said, bowing deeply. "Abe-san was a wonderful guest, and a wonderful person too, I'm sure. Oh-- but you'll have to hurry, sir!"
Fukawa narrowed her eyes at the woman, frowning.
"...." Byakuya glanced down at the book. Abe-san, it seemed, had not signed out. "And why is that, Nishizawa-san?"
Was a wonderful person. Why the past tense?
Nishizaswa glanced at a clock, and made an apologetic face. "I'm afraid the funeral started twenty minutes ago, sir." she bowed regretfully.
"T-the what ?" Fukawa demanded.
Byakuya frowned sharply.
"I'm sorry ?" He slapped his hand on the book, suddenly animated. "I expect an explanation, Nishizawa-san. You mean to tell me my personal assistant is dead and nobody had the sense to call the Togami family offices to report it? The funeral will not let out until I've arrived to assess the situation. Am I clear?"
The woman jumped in surprise and bowed again.
"I'm sorry, Togami-san! I don't have any control over the funeral! Inspector Akagi would have the contacts in Abe-san's phone, but all our phone service has been out since the big storm three nights ago!"
"As if that's an excuse!" Fukawa blustered. "Th-this inspector should have driven to the next town to make the call then!"
"He certainly should have." Togami said with a frown. "But there's nothing for it now. You're forgiven, but I'm afraid now I have to get to the bottom of this."
He tapped his finger on the book. "....take me to the body, and while we walk, I'd like a rundown of what you know of the incident."
Nishizawa held up her hands and shook her head. "I'm sorry Togami-san, but there's no way I can abandon my post at the inn. But I can't tell you anything you want to know."
"Tch..." Byakuya pinched the bridge of his nose. "Indeed. My apologies for getting short with you, but I'm afraid this has all come as a bit of a shock." He tapped the desk. "Thank you for the information. Can you point me to the funeral? I would like to speak to the Inspector as well."
"Of course, sir!" she nodded, bowing again. "If you follow the road outside, you'll come to the town shrine where its being held. I suspect Inspector Akagi will be there, too, but if he isn't, I'll try to contact him for you."
"Understood. Thank you for the directions." He sighed. "I'll be back later if I have need for a room or any further questions. Good day for now, Nishizawa-san."
“Of course, sir,” the innkeeper nodded. “There will certainly be a room if you need it.”
He turned and gestured to Fukawa "Fukawa-san, come with me to the funeral, would you?"