If I'd thought that joining a team working on unsolved cases would give me a much bigger challenge, I was wrong. Over the next few weeks, the police uncovered four more bodies, but forensically, the findings were exactly the same. Enough of a pattern had surfaced that we knew what to expect: the victim would be poor and marginalized - the kind of person whose absence would go by almost unnoticed. In fact, I suspected that the only reason the victims' bodies were even found was because the police were actively looking for corpses. Patrols were increased, but Fuka was a large city with sprawling slums, and it was virtually impossible to monitor all the relevant areas.
Still, despite the lack of progress, the case was unusual enough to engage my professional interest. I took to reading literature on vampirism in the hopes of finding something that the police would find useful. Mai had found the topic thoroughly revolting but had been cautiously encouraging.
"It's just like you to find something so grossly morbid so fascinating, Natsuki."
She'd wrinkled her nose then, but I could tell that, for all the disgust she proclaimed, she was relieved that I was actually taking an interest in things again. Later that evening, on her way out of my apartment, she paused at the doorway and impulsively gave me a hug. All she said was, "You've gotten too thin, Natsuki. Next time, I'll leave you some of my cooking." Then she gave me a jaunty wave and left.
Mai. I have no idea how I would have survived those months without her.
The break, when it came, was hardly illuminating. When I arrived on the scene, the officer-in-charge quickly filled me in on the details.
"We have a live one this time. Survivor is a forty-plus-year-old, homeless male. A couple of other beggars found him - said they heard some terrible noises and decided to investigate when it got quiet. He was in shock from blood loss when we got here; same two wounds on his throat. He's on his way to the hospital so we can't talk to him yet, but there's the crime scene to handle now in any case."
The scene, as he put it, was an absolute wreck. In contrast to the previous scenes where the victims had looked as if they had all peacefully gone to sleep, this one looked like the site of a train crash. Barrels and fences had been shredded, concrete slabs had been smashed, and the asphalt actually looked torn in places. But there was none of the usual evidence of what had caused the destruction - no blood, no hair, no prints, no torn clothing and no discarded weapons. My partner and I spent hours minutely examining the area, photographing the damage and bagging materials. It was only during my third survey of the alley that I noticed something just the slightest bit unusual - a film of gray powder that I had first dismissed as residue from the broken concrete. On closer inspection, it proved much coarser and was dispersed over a fairly small area. I bagged as much of it as I could, glanced around the alley one last time, and nodded at my partner.
It wasn't promising, but it was the only new lead we'd discovered so far.
The news when we got back to the lab wasn't good. After having been treated at the hospital, our survivor had woken up - only to start screaming hysterically. It had taken three nurses to restrain and eventually sedate him. The next time he had woken up, he had curled into a fetal position and begun rocking himself back and forth. The police had not been able to get anything intelligible out of him.
As for the powder I'd found, even that had turned out to be a dud. Just plain crushed rock, one of my fellow technicians told me. Its appearance at the site could be explained by any number of reasons. I nodded, but made a mental note to look out for the substance in any case.
From that point on, the incidents became even more mysterious. The deaths stopped, but we began to get reports of strange noises in abandoned slums, and of lots and alleys that turned into wrecks overnight. Rumors began to surface of ghostly chain gangs, political vandals, mini-tornadoes - the usual speculations of tabloid scum. Yet in all of the sites I investigated, there was the gray powder: plain, banal and perhaps all too readily explainable, but also too consistently present to simply be coincidence. It was the closest thing there was to a signature.
But as the weeks dragged on with no new information, interest in the case flagged. The fruitlessness of the search frustrated me, but only because I was desperately seeking a diversion then. For some reason, my dreams of Shizuru had become darker and more vivid.
It had begun the night after I had visited yet another scene of wreckage. In the middle of photographing the area, I had had a distinct feeling of being watched. The feeling had returned several times since then, and each occasion would always be accompanied by a night of restless dreaming. The dream was always the same. In the dream, I would be in a garden, desperately pulling out weeds. Shizuru would be in front of me - a strange, feral Shizuru that filled me with dread. She would taunt me over and over. It's not that easy to kill a weed. I would ignore her and continue pulling up the thorny stalks, the stems chafing my hands until my palms bled. Then there would be only one weed left, and the moment I would pull it out, there would be Shizuru, the real Shizuru I knew, smiling at me sadly. Every weed is a flower in someone's eyes. Then I would look down to see blood dripping - not from my hands, but from the weed I'd pulled, and the sight would fill me with such a devastating pain that I would wake up gasping, my pillow stained with tears and my sheets soaked with sweat.
It would take me a long, long time before I could go to sleep again.