"I want information."
"I figured as much," Inukashi said simply. "Even you wouldn't be foolish enough to come to me looking for groceries. So? Information about what?"
"The Correctional Facility."
"Correctional Facility!" he exclaimed. "You mean the one the Security Bureau presides over?"
"Is there some other Correctional Facility that no one knows about?" Nezumi said sarcastically.
Inukashi ignored him.
"So you want information... what kind of information?"
"Any kind, no matter how unimportant." Nezumi fished a white mouse out of his pocket. It was about the size of an adult thumb. Inukashi's eyes narrowed.
"Is that a robot? It's smaller than the one you gave me last time."
Pulling off his gloves, Nezumi gently pressed the mouse's head. Its back split open, and a yellow shimmer of light flickered momentarily before an image floated up into it.
"A hologram. The mechanism embedded in this mouse uses light to reproduce objects."
"I know what a hologram is," Inukashi said irritably. "It's my first time actually seeing one, though," he said as an afterthought. "But I'm asking about what's displayed there. What is this? A blueprint?"
"It's a floor plan of the Correctional Facility's inner structure, but it's pretty outdated. The structure itself might not have changed, but their administrative system has probably been improved."
Inukashi scowled at him in a way that said, 'you must be kidding me'.
"No can do. I don't care what kind of information you want, I won't be able to get it for you."
"Why? Don't ask me stupid questions. Do you know what kind of place that is? Of course you wouldn't," he said flatly, "I don't know either. No one knows, because there hasn't been a single person who came out of that place alive. ―Not even dead bodies can make it out of there. Once they pass through the Special Gates, they disappear. They vanish off the face of the earth. That's the kind of place it is, right? That's what the rumours say."
Inukashi gulped, and shuddered. Nezumi echoed his words back to him expressionlessly.
"Rumours say―" Inukashi began hesitantly, "there's a huge incinerator in the basement, and all the prisoners get thrown in there. They get burned like garbage. And the ashes that come out of there are scattered on the farm fields of the South Block, instead of going to waste disposal. They say it's good for the soil. ―Here, in this place."
Inukashi pointed at the bottom-most floor, presumably the basement, on the diagram that floated above the table, and shuddered again. It was a blank white space, and there was nothing written in it. This curiously empty space gave him an eerie feeling.
"There's no incinerator there," Nezumi muttered.
"What makes you so sure?" Inukashi said accusingly. "Have you seen it? How can you say that without even―"
Inukashi clipped his words halfway through and found himself staring at Nezumi.
There was no answer.
"You know what it's like inside the Correctional Facility? When―" Inukashi's hand thrust into the light, and clenched into a fist. The image jittered and warped.
"When did you record this?" he demanded. "This is internal data."
"Inukashi, I'm not paying you gold to answer your questions. I want whatever you can manage ― find any latest information about the interior of the Correctional Facility, and add it to this data. Specifically, if I were to be picky, I'd want accurate information about the operations and security systems."
"You stupid or something? Operations system? Only people in the highest classes have access to that, it's top secret. Tough luck if I can even get my hands on it."
"That's why I'm not being picky. Gather whatever you can manage. Any information that has to do with the Correctional Facility, and I want it ASAP. I'll leave you with this."
Nezumi turned off the switch, and tossed the small projector mouse to Inukashi. Inukashi wrinkled his nose at it as if it were a rotting corpse.
"Should I use the mini-mouse I got from you last time?" he asked.
"No, that won't work. The Correctional Facility is full of security sensors. Any robot, no matter how small, is gonna get blown up if it's caught scurrying around without proper recognition."
"Then use real mice," Inukashi continued. "They'll be able to get in much easier than dogs. A small living organism isn't a problem for the sensor, is it?"
"Not so fast. Forget mice, even flies or cockroaches would be exterminated automatically. Lasers burn them up so that there's nothing of them left. They don't let a single fly intrude into that place. And that's how it is."
"Then what am I supposed to do?" Inukashi said in frustration. "How am I supposed to sneak in and gather information from some place that's all computer-managed?"
"You don't have to sneak in. You're right ― pretty much all of the Facility's interior is managed to the tee. But there are still lots of areas that involve people, too. And information usually leaks through the mouths of people. If there's anything computers can't control, it's a man's tongue."
Inukashi hunched his shoulders exaggeratedly. He was beginning to make out, though vaguely, what Nezumi was trying to get at. He didn't want to see any more clearly if he could help it.
"Of course," he agreed promptly. "You need people operating the computers and humanoid robots. The guards would have to be human, and officials from the Bureau would be coming in and out of there. And we can't forget the prisoners, they're human too, right? But apart from them, the only people that can come and go from the Correctional Facility are people inside No. 6. You need an IC card to get through the Special Gates. It's impossible to create a fake No. 6 IC card. Which means no one from the West Block can get near that building unless they're prisoners. Not that anyone would wanna get near it, anyway. So ―" He was talking rather fast. "Well ― if we jump to the conclusion, pretty much it's impossible for us to interact with people inside the Correctional Facility because they're residents of No. 6, and that makes it an impossible case, right? You should know better than anyone. Those guys live in a completely different world from us. It's just different."
"You're talkative today."
Inukashi dropped his gaze. He knew that lowering his eyes signalled defeat, but he had no energy to glare back at the pair of grey ones that stared at him. He knew already who would win and who would lose.
Nezumi stood up and drew close to Inukashi, who was staring at the floor. He whispered in a voice raspy and low, but sensual ― a woman's voice.
"That's how you always are. When you've got something to hide, you suddenly become more eloquent. And then I realize the truth that lies in your heart ― that underneath that tongue of yours, flapping like a leaf in the wind, a furtive secret is curled up."
His fingertips stroked Inukashi's chin, slid up his jawline, and lightly pinched his earlobe. Inukashi shivered. The brief moment of ecstasy was followed quickly by a small, sharp pain. His earlobe had been yanked.
"Ow!" he said indignantly. "The hell was that for?"
"Don't underestimate me, Inukashi."
"What're you talking about? I wasn't―"
"Stop playing dumb. I know what you're using your dogs for. That's why I came here."
Inukashi tsked loudly, and roughly shoved Nezumi's hand away. Nezumi chuckled amusedly.
"You use your dogs to smuggle, don't you? You've been transporting leftover food and garbage from the Correctional Facility into the West Block. For years now."
"I am," Inukashi answered defiantly. "So what? Transporting goods is also part of my trade. A rat like you has no business telling me what to do."
"The Correctional Facility has full waste disposal functions," Nezumi continued. "They can dispose of everything inside that building. You just said that not even corpses can make it out of there. You're right. They even dispose of dead bodies inside that place. Which means there shouldn't even be a speck of dust escaping from there, much less leftover food. From that same Correctional Facility, you somehow manage to get periodical loads of leftover food, and sell it to the food stalls in the West Block. Makes good money, doesn't it? Maybe even more than your hotel-running business?"
"Is it not to your liking that I'm operating in the black market?" Inukashi said scathingly. "You must be kidding me. Since when did you become a Bureau lackey, huh, Nezumi?"
"Machines don't trade with black-market merchants. Once programmed with a set of rules, they'll never break them. If anyone's going to break the rules, it's the humans. There's someone in the interior of the Correctional Facility that's selling you leftover food, isn't there? No, not just food. He's probably passing prisoner rations and other belongings your way too. Anyway, the fact is, you have a contact inside the Correctional Facility. Sniff out a lead from him. Lure the information out of him."
Inukashi shook his head. The young man in front of him was trying to get him involved in more danger than he had expected. Inukashi broke out into a cold sweat.
"It's impossible―" he muttered. "The guys I deal with are the lowest of the low. They pretty much do the cleaning and waste disposal right alongside the robots. There's no way they would have any sort of useful information."
"That's exactly why you wanna ask them. The guys on the top tier are strictly overseen by the authorities. They can't risk the danger of letting any secrets slip. But management is lax with people in lower positions. And if their job is to clean the place, they've probably been everywhere inside the Facility. Who knows, they might have more information than you think. Your job is to sniff it out. Your nose is as good as a dog's, isn't it?"
Inukashi heaved a sigh, and vainly attempted at a last act of retaliation.
"I need money. To get any information from them, I'd need money. Two gold coins isn't gonna cut it."
Nezumi nodded, and passed a small leather pouch to Inukashi. In it, there were a considerable number of gold coins.
"I only have this much right now." Nezumi suddenly squatted down and peered into Inukashi's eyes.
"Inukashi, work with me. I'm begging you."
Begging? Nezumi, are you begging me?
"If you take the job, I promise I'll always rush to your side if you're overcome with unbearable pain one day. No matter where you are, I'll deliver a song to your soul. I promise."
"Who's gonna count on a promise between a dog and a rat?"
No one could guarantee it. But yet ― Nezumi would keep his promise. Almost instinctively, the feeling apprehended Inukashi's soul.
No matter where or how I died, if it was accompanied with suffering, he would always appear and put my soul to rest. He could be hard to understand as hell, but he would never break a promise.
Inukashi believed strongly in his own instincts. He extended his hand, and closed it around the leather pouch.
"I'll take the job."
"I owe you one." Nezumi breathed out shortly, and wound the superfibre cape around his shoulders. Then, he put a finger to his lips.
"I shouldn't need to tell you, but none of this―"
"I know. I won't let anyone get wind of the job. It's the cardinal rule for my work. I'll gather the information as quickly as I can, and contact you before anyone else can find out."
"I'm counting on you."
"Nezumi, I wanna ask you something."
"What are you doing this for?"
Silence. It was impossible to read a single expression from Nezumi's face. Inukashi licked his bottom lip, and continued.
"With this much money, you could live the easy life for a pretty good while. I knew you were a star actor and making quite a bit of money, but even for that, this is a lot. Putting this much money forward, and threatening me―"
"I'm not threatening you. I only came to you with a job."
"Hmph―whatever. Then, going as far as to request a job from me ― what makes you want to poke your nose into the Correctional Facility so badly? What's your reason?"
Nezumi didn't answer. He only made a slight half-smile. It was an artificial one, made for the stage.
"You don't need to know to do the job, do you, Inukashi?"
"Well, obviously," Inukashi said testily. "But diving into this kind of risky job without even knowing why is kinda harsh, man."
"Finding out why isn't gonna change how risky it is."
Tsk. This guy and his fondness of twisting arguments around ― I'm no match for him when it comes to verbal arguments.
"Fine," he said finally. "That's enough from you. Get outta here already." Inukashi flapped his hand to shoo Nezumi away. He caught a whiff of soap. The image of a face crossed his mind. It was the face of someone who was washing the dogs, covered in suds. The nonchalant question tumbled out of his mouth.
"Nezumi, this has nothing to do with Shion, does it?"
For a brief moment, the grey eyes wavered. Inukashi's eyes didn't miss their slight hesitation. The tip of his nose twitched. He could smell something.
"Shion?" Nezumi raised his shoulders slightly. "Where does Shion come into this? This has nothing to do with him."
"Just now, you told me not to divulge information about this job to anyone else. Do you mean that I can't tell Shion either?"
"Of course. There's no need to involve people that have nothing to do with this."
"Dear, dear, aren't you the gentle one?" Inukashi mocked. "Who knows how many dangerous jobs you've shoved into my hands, but when it comes to Shion, oh no, I can't get him involved. Hah, I see. I guess even you warm up to people if you've lived with them long enough. Is that white-headed weirdo of a little boy that precious to you?"
Nezumi vanished from before his eyes. Before he could even utter a cry, Inukashi's body was being pushed up against the wall, and a set of fingers were digging into his throat.
"That's enough smart-mouthing from you," Nezumi hissed. "Any more, and I'll make sure you can never speak again."
"Let's see you try," Inukashi said boldly. "These guys won't let you off for it."
Several dogs which were sprawled on the floor got to their feet, snarling menacingly as they surrounded Nezumi. Just as one of them bared its teeth, a small grey shadow darted out of a corner of the room.
A strangled yelp.
The large dog that had bared its teeth raised its voice in pain. A small mouse was latched onto its neck. The dog writhed, violently shaking its head from side to side, but soon collapsed forepaws-first. Its four limbs convulsed. The other dogs retreated fearfully. Inukashi shoved Nezumi aside, and cried out in the same strangled way his dog did.
"My dog, my dog!" He lifted the dog's body in his arms. A cold voice showered over his head.
"If you don't want to end up like him, settle your other dogs down."
"Nezumi, you fucking―"
The soft cry of a mouse. Inukashi lifted his face, and his breath caught in his throat. He looked about the room, and he was rooted to the spot. From the top of the cabinets, from underneath the table, from the shadow of the door, from various places in the room, countless small grey mice were staring silently at him. All their eyes were red, and glowed from deep within.
"Down," Inukashi commanded hoarsely. The dogs did as they were told. They returned to their spots, and lay low on their stomachs.
"He's not dead," Nezumi said. "He's just paralysed a little bit. Give him twenty, thirty minutes and he'll be fine. He's breathing properly, right?"
It was just as Nezumi had said. The dog's breathing was laboured, but consistent. It was struggling to get to its feet, but it looked like it had no strength to. It gave a pitiful whimper.
"You'll pay for doing this to my dog." Just as Inukashi clenched his fist, the door flew open with a bang. Shion came bursting in.
"Inukashi!" Shion stood frozen, still holding the doorknob. His gaze slid from Inukashi, who was hugging his dog, to Nezumi.
"Nezumi, what are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here? You shouldn't be abandoning your workplace like that."
"Well, I heard a dog howling, and I thought I heard Inukashi's voice too ― I thought something had happened ― Inukashi, what's wrong with that dog?"
"He's just paralysed," Nezumi answered for him. A brown mouse poked its head out from Nezumi's shoulder. It jumped down on the floor, and scurried up Shion's body.
"Hamlet, did you come along too?" Shion said to it.
"Hamlet? What're you talking about?"
"It's his name. Because he likes to be read Hamlet out loud."
Nezumi's face contorted.
"Don't go naming my mice without permission."
"Well, you wouldn't name them yourself," said Shion, unfazed. "―He seems to like it a lot. Right, Hamlet?"
The mouse nodded its head up and down.
"Ridiculous," Nezumi spat. "So if this guy's Hamlet, what's the other one? Othello? Macbeth?"
"Cravat? Was there a name like that in Shakespeare?"
"It's the name of a fried pastry. The colour of his fur looks just like one. It means 'tie', because of the shape. The dough has powdered almonds in it, and you twist it into a tie-shape to fry―"
"I get it, that's enough," Nezumi interrupted. "You go dream of filling your belly with those cravats, or whatever, when you go to sleep tonight. I'm going home. Talking with you gives me a headache."
"Are you sure it doesn't have something to do with your nerves? You're always irritated. Maybe you're tired."
"Whose fault is it that I'm irritated all the time? Besides, you―"
Feeling Inukashi's bewildered gaze on him, Nezumi shut his mouth. He re-wrapped his superfibre cloth, and strode out of the room without another word. Hamlet nudged Shion on the cheek and chirruped once before bounding after its master.
The grey mice that had been all over the room had mysteriously disappeared. Inukashi let a long breath escape his lips, and sank to the floor. The dog gave a low growl in his arms. Shion bent down on one knee and began inspecting the dog thoroughly.
"He looks like he's been paralysed with some sort of drug... but his heart's beating normally, and he's not vomiting. He should be fine."
"Really? He won't die?"
"He'll be fine. He's only mildly paralysed. We should give him clean water to drink. I'll go get some." Shion filled the pail that he had been using to carry water from the river, and brought it to the dog. The dog gulped the water down eagerly.
"See, it looks like the numbness is almost all gone. But this dog ― how did he get paralysed?"
"Nezumi did it."
"Nezumi? To the dog? No way."
"Yes way," Inukashi said angrily. "He did it. That bastard paralysed my dog. He wouldn't hesitate to do something like that. He's ruthless, cunning, and cruel. I'd watch out if I were you. If you let his pretty face fool you into thinking he's going to be gentle and kind like your Mum, you're in for a nasty surprise."
"I don't think he's my mother, but I do think he's kind."
Inukashi made circles with his index finger in front of Shion's face.
"Idiot. That's what I'm talking about when I say he's fooled you. You're too naive to notice how heartless he is."
"Nezumi isn't heartless. He's saved my life more than once. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have been able to survive."
"Nezumi, help a stranger? Without anything in return?"
"For nothing in return. On the contrary," Shion said reflectively, "I think he's brought a nuisance upon himself. It might sound weird coming from me, but I think I'm being quite a bit of a burden on him. After all, I don't know anything about how to live here."
Inukashi pursed his lips. He let his gaze hover over Shion's profile as he washed the dog's wound with water.
A nuisance? He was quite right. In these parts, someone who was as naive and gullible as he was, and was kind to everyone, was none other than a nuisance. And a nuisance often became the shackles that binded the hands and feet.
But Nezumi was living with this weirdo of a nuisance, looking for nothing in return. He wasn't chasing Shion out of his nest ― on the contrary, he was sheltering him there.
"Do you two always talk like that to each other?"
"Huh? Well ― yeah, I guess. Why?"
"Because Nezumi's usually not like that. He doesn't let his emotions show."
Shion cocked his head to the side quizzically, as if to say, 'really?'. The dog licked the back of his hand. It was its way of expressing gratitude for treating the wound.
Inukashi wiggled his nose and grinned. He was onto a scent.
Shion and that job concerning the Correctional Facility were somehow connected. For this kid, Nezumi was willingly stepping into dangerous territory.
Inukashi had no proof. He wasn't sure of any clear reason for why Nezumi was doing this. But he had grasped Nezumi's weakness now, and that was certain. My nose doesn't lie.
Nezumi, so this oblivious weirdo is your weakness, your Achilles' heel, huh? Heh, then things should be interesting. You said so. Let anyone find out your weakness, and it could cost you your life. You're damn right. And I've got your lifeline in my hands right now. I'll make sure you get rewarded handsomely for what you did to me. You can count on that.
"I might be wrong, but..." Shion's voice reached his ears. He was petting the dog, which had gotten to its feet and was wagging its tail energetically, apparently fully recovered from paralysis.
"Huh? Did you say something?"
"This dog ― is he related to you, by any chance?"
"Oh ―" Inukashi paused. "Yeah, he is. He's the last one that my Mum gave birth to. She had him, and got beaten to death shortly afterwards." There was a lapse before he said, "How'd you know?"
"I just had a feeling," Shion said. "He has really intelligent and compassionate eyes. It kind of reminded me of what you said about your mother, so I wondered if I was right."
Shion's hand stroked the dog's neck. The dog's eyes drooped half-closed, and a quiet sigh escaped from its mouth. From its peaceful expression it was hard to imagine that the same dog had bared its teeth at Nezumi earlier.
"Shion, you didn't laugh."
"Huh? About what?"
"About my Mum. Usually when I talk to people about my Mum being a dog, they laugh, or make fun of me, or treat me like a freak... but you ― you said my Mum was kind and loving. You're the only one who's listened to me without laughing or making fun of my Mum, apart from―"
Inukashi clipped his words, and swallowed hard. He had just noticed this fact. Simultaneously, he was overcome with a wave of agitation that threatened to suffocate him.
Shion, still on one knee, looked up at him with a concerned expression. Inukashi licked his dry lips, and slowly formed the rest of his words as if tracing the thread of his memory.
"You're the only one ― apart from Nezumi."
Read Chapter 2.