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A House Made of Cards

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Reigen can smell the bloodlust at his door.

It claws down his back in icy, anxious trickles, and it chills him out of groggy stupor on this sleepy, quiet Tuesday morning. Mob looks up from the reception desk where he’s stacked up a careful tower of playing cards, a three-story high triangle. Mob greets the man, and Reigen can’t seem to speak.

The man steps in, removes his hat, and bows to Mob with a warm smile. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the man. But Reigen’s raw intuition is screaming.

“Do you have an appointment with Master Reigen today?” Mob asks, and he’s calm when he speaks, and he feels nothing from the man.

“No, sorry, I don’t. I’m a walk-in. Can you take me now, or do I need to schedule something now and come back later?” The man shrugs off his light coat. The threads along the hem glisten with just a light brushing of dew, and he hangs it on the coat rack beside the office door. When he turns back around, he extends an apologetic hand to Mob. “Sorry. My name is Ito. Nice to meet you.”

Hesitantly, Mob takes it. “Nice to meet you too.”

“So the uh…the appointment? Can I make one…?”

“Oh. Yes. Master Reigen takes walk-ins. I have a form here you can fill out. Also pamphlets. They have Master Reigen’s rates in them. His consultation at the beginning is free.”

“Thank you, young man.” Ito takes the forms with fingers too thin. He’s cautious in his movements, so the air currents don’t disturb the tower of cards hiding the bottom of Mob’s face.

Reigen stands. His skin crawls. Words fail him. He cannot trust the man for reasons he can’t understand. So he breaks protocol, and moves in silent steps to the reception desk. The humid air sticks in his throat, and sweat glistens along his brow.

The man, up close, is old. His jowls stretch down, and his small eyes stare out from shadows. They are set deep into dark, purpled sockets. Rivulets of dark veins web from the corner of each eye. He cuts a small frame, hardly an inch taller than Mob, and his suit hangs loose about his body. It falls away from his form at the hips, buckled as if to suggest something concealed beneath the fabric.

Reigen is scared of this man.

“I manage a law firm just a few blocks from here. Or, well, hardly manage these days. I’ve got a spirit haunting me there. It’s the ghost of a victim killed by a client I took on. I didn’t mean any harm taking on that case, but I’m paying for it now. Moaning in the walls. Whispers from all the pipes. No new clients will hire me. I can hardly sleep at night with it echoing in my head. I’ve heard such good things about your agency. Such good things.”

“Master Reigen does ghost exorcisms. The courses are in the pamphlet. Then you can speak with Master Reigen himself to decide—oh, he’s right here now.” Mob turns, just a bit startled by the tense hand gripped against the desk. Reigen stands stock-still at his side, eyes unblinking against the old man.

“That sounds wonderful. All these good things I’ve heard, I’m sure you can handle this. Here, I have these.” Ito drops his pencil. His hand wriggles beneath the fold of his coat, and Reigen’s blood flashes to ice in the time it takes Ito to pull out a thin red folder. Ito opens it in his hands, still careful to leave the house of cards undisturbed, and pulls out a stack of newspaper clippings twenty sheets thick.

“I read the newspaper a lot these days. I’ve always been a news-reader. I found all these cases—a possessed cat, a haunted garden, a spirit of a man who died when he saw a cockroach—all of these things your agency solved, didn’t it?”

Ito leafs through the first half-dozen clippings and hands them off to Mob. Reigen leans in to read over Mob’s shoulder. All of them are just a few sentences, buried in the deep back pages of newspaper publications. Reigen recognizes every case. None of them are explicitly credited to Spirits and Such in their text.

“It took a lot of research, but what’s an old lawyer to do without any work? And these—these too. Oh yes these.” The next stack he hands to Reigen. Reigen takes them mutely, and a new wave of clammy anxiety washes over him. His heart picks up as he leafs from one to the next: a small blurb about the disbanding of the LOL cult, a black and white image of the black vinegar middle school tearing apart by pieces and tumbling into—perhaps down from—the sky, fractured streets and hacked up buildings, miles of dead brush and razed farmland.

No, these aren’t cases.

But in his gut, Reigen knows they are all still Mob.

He holds them close to his chest, shielded so that Mob cannot see.

Mob, with just the first few clippings, slides them back to the black-suited man. “Yes, these are Master Reigen’s cases. We did exorcisms for these people.”

A spark of interest lights in the man’s sallow eyes. He leans in, curious. “Both you and your master? You’re quite young to be exorcising.” And he laughs. “Unless you’re the psychic really powering this place, huh? Or both you and your master. Tell me young man, are you psychic?”

Mob blinks, and straightens his back, and glances for a split second to Reigen. “Oh, I—“

Reigen grabs Mob’s shoulder, fast, forceful, and the careful house of cards on Mob’s desk flutters into collapse.

“HA! The kid? No of course not! He’s just a middle schooler—wouldn’t be employing anyone that young to exorcise spirits! No no, he’s my receptionist. He does all the paper filing and coffee runs. Very organized, very mindful, speaking of—“ Reigen loosens his hand. He grabs a blank consultation form and tears off the corner. He takes Ito’s pen, and on the scrap paper, he scribbles down an address that does not exist. “Go ahead and buy two coffees for us at this shop. It’s a few blocks north. Just discovered it. Black coffee, if they ask!”

Mob hesitates. He rubs absently at his shoulder, free of Reigen’s grip, and his wide eyes investigate his toppled cards. He says nothing about it, and takes the torn scrap of paper into his fist instead. Mob nods then and tries to hide his confusion as he lowers himself from the chair. “Okay. I’ve never been there.”

“It’s easy to find. And if you can’t find it, just circle around a few times okay?”

“Yeah.” Mob’s eyes linger on the client, who watches with a muted smile. Then Mob untangles his own thin coat from the rack and shrugs it on. His other hand, still clamped around the paper scrap, twists the door handle. He looks back once before vanishing.

Reigen slumps. A trickle of relief runs through his body as Mob disappears. He presses his hand against the newspaper clippings stacked on the desk, and hides the panic on his face behind a cordial smile. “Sorry about that. The kid’s new—son of a friend of a friend. I owed a favor so I’ve got him working reception between school terms. He’s a little jumpy about this exorcism stuff—freaks him out a bit—so I try not to talk too much in front of him.”

“Oh…Oh, my apologies!” Ito answers. He bows, but there’s something new and excited—manic—in his dark sunken eyes. “So then you’re the psychic doing all the exorcisms.”

“The one and only,” Reigen says, and his own smile makes him nauseous. “But, judging from your story, that kind of job may be a bit beyond my scope. It’d be cruel of me to waste your time and money. Why not try another office in the area and maybe they—“

“—Oh nonsense! You’ve done so much here. So much…”

Reigen tightens his fist, slick with newspaper ink bleeding into his palms.

“I need to know though, Master Reigen, about the collateral damage.” Ito walks beyond the reception desk. He moves with a limp, like a thing made of wires and strings, draped in a suit too large for his body. He lowers himself shakily into the client chair. Reigen clenches his hand around the clippings and follows in silence. Numb hands pull out his own chair and he falls into it. He pulls himself in, sets his elbows to the desk, and meets Ito’s eyes straight-on. He sets the clippings face-down. Reigen decides to not look away—to not blink—until he can explain to himself why the man fills him with such terror.

“The…what?” Reigen asks, and his voice is a listless whisper.

“You’ve done…impressive things, Master Reigen. Very impressive. Very huge. And yet, some of them, in some ways, I can’t understand. You’ve looked at the clippings, yes? You recognize the clippings?”

Reigen reaches beneath his desk. His hand surfaces with a three-inch-thick manila folder held together with a rubber band. He slides off the band, smooths down the folder, and pulls documents from inside. Case files: the possessed cat, the haunted garden, the cockroach jumper…

“These are all from my agency, yes. They were clients. I exorcised the spirits haunting them, very low collateral damage, very high success rate. But if you’re worried about damages, I advise you to find another psychic then. I already think I can’t help you.”

“No…No, you’re avoiding my question. Sly man…” Ito points a bony finger to the clippings upside-down on the desk. His picks up the top one: a shattered street, like the aftermath of an earthquake, rivulets tearing through concrete, uprooting trees, sidewalks fractured into wanton hunks of stone.

One of Mob’s explosions. Which one? When? Who saw?

The next clipping has buildings, ground down into saw dust. Felled trees. Telephone wires threaded through branches like spider webs.

More than a year ago, that one. Some case that Mob couldn’t—Mob didn’t–

Black Vinegar middle school, twisted piece-wise into the sky, dark clouds splitting around a single eye that consumed the rubble. A single silhouette, way at the bottom, with its face hidden against the ground.

“These…they are all from the same esper profile. The possessed cat, and the floating school, they were the same person. They were…you? Master Reigen?”

Reigen doesn’t hear much over the blood pounding in his ears. The chill seeping from the man is stronger, and clenches like a vice around Reigen’s heart, and brings his breathing in short.

At this moment, Reigen can run. He can make it to the door and out into the street. Reigen has perfected the art of escapes, and he knows he can pull it off.

His eyes twitch to the window, to the street where he’s sent Mob. Mob would return. If Reigen ran, then Mob would come back alone. And all the clippings, all the details of the destruction Mob’s caused, would be waiting here with this sallow-eyed man.

Reigen does not run.

“Psychic powers are…complex things. They are otherworldly. It’s quite a burden, being a simple human tasked with keeping something so god-like under control. I have never done irreversible damage to anything. I’ve never done intentional damage either. Please, I don’t think I can take your case. I need you to leave.”

“So these. These,” Ito taps the newspaper clippings with urgency. His eyes shine. “These are your doing, yes? It is you. It is you who’s done all this.”

“I need you to leave. I will force you out if I must. I can’t take your case.”

“I…will leave, Master Reigen, rest assured.” The man pushes his chair back. He shifts a hand around inside his coat, and his hand locks to something.

Reigen does not answer. Reigen does not move. He feels the phone in his pocket vibrate, a muted, visceral thing against the pounding of his heart.

“Please, Master Reigen, just tell me this. And then I will go.” Ito, with his free hand, gathers up his pile of clippings. “Are you responsible for these incidents?”

Reigen’s phone stutters in his pocket. He presses a hand against it, and looks to the empty streets below the window.

“Yes. Those things. All of those, I did. I’ve told you. Now please. Please. Leave.”

His phone quiets. A cold breeze, wet air, sweeps in through the open window. The fire escape sits just outside the window. Reigen can still run.

“Okay. Thank you. That’s what I needed to know.” Ito remains seated. He looks up, grim, suppressing a childish victory in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Master Reigen. I’ve misled you.”

Reigen does not run.

“That’s alright. Just leave. Please.”

“No, you see—I don’t own a law firm. There’s no ghost haunting me. I’m not here for assistance. I came for confirmation, so thank you.” Ito stands. He smiles. His hand remains buried in the fold of his coat. “I didn’t lie about reading the newspaper, though. I do a lot of that. I read about a lot of incidents like these. I’ve met a lot of espers. I don’t know why no one is ever concerned enough. You do things like this—things without meaning to—that can ruin so many lives, and kill so many. You’re terrifying, Master Reigen.”

“…Please.” Reigen’s throat is dry.

He does not run.

“You seem like a nice man. You seem like a really nice man, Master Reigen. I believe you when you say you don’t mean to hurt anyone. It’s your powers, not you. I know. I understand. But even then, whether you mean to or not, you do destroy things. You try to help people. But what you CAN do, Master Reigen, is an evil so much worse than the little bits of good you try to do. Do you understand what I mean?”

Reigen does not look at Ito. He watches the door. He prays it won’t open.

“You think I’m dangerous because of these powers.”

“I know you’re dangerous. And I know you’re a good man, but it makes no sense to let you go free and just sit, and wait, until your powers do something unfixable.”

“I…won’t do any of that, though. I wouldn’t.”

Ito’s hand eases out of the fold of his coat. His bony wrist appears, and trailing in his grip is a simple gun. Its handle is wrapped in carefully-crafted spirit tags. Reigen gauges them—he’s seen so many. He knows how to judge the sigils. On rare occasion, he’s even seen Mob’s powers buckle beneath them. There are a few runes that Reigen has committed to memory, because he’s seen them fracture through Mob’s shield before.

Reigen is glad. The spirit tags wrapped around the pistol are genuine. The rune that meets his eye could have shorted Mob’s powers. Just a bit, just enough to fracture the shield like before.

Just enough to work against Mob.

Ito raises the weapon. He aims it, and closes one eye, and mouths a voiceless apology.

And a gun, spirit tags or not, works against Reigen.

It’s a single noise that follows, and a recoil, and a burst that tears through the air in the room, only powerful enough to flutter the edges of Mob’s fallen house of cards.

Mob stands at the edge of a sleepy intersection. He eyes the grass beside the sidewalk, slick with dew, and hold his phone to his ear.

He looks again, for the hundredth time, between the two buildings ahead of him. One is an old mechanic, closed on Tuesdays, building number 46. Its neighbor is a barbershop with harsh slants of sunlight reflecting off its wall-length mirror, building 48.

Mob reads the crinkled paper in his hand again, in case he’d misred it. He hasn’t. Master Reigen had written 47 as the address of the coffeeshop. Mob looks up again, and there is no 47.

The ringing of the phone stops. Master Reigen’s voicemail chimes in, a crackling, cheery recording advertising half-off séances. Mob closes his phone, shivering, and redials.

It rings, and rings.

And goes to voicemail.

…Are you missing a loved one? Looking for closure? Leave your information at the tone to schedule—

Mob shuts his phone.

He opens it.

He dials.

He feels nothing when it goes to voicemail.

…missing a loved one?…

It has been going to voicemail for a while.