The scent of smoke – Part 4

In the middle of the night Subaru slipped into the bedroom, silently joined his sleeping wife in their bed. They had separate covers; Jazz tended to toss and turn a lot and with their irregular hours they decided early to minimize the risk of waking the other up. But tonight he didn’t stay on his side of the bed, instead he snuggled under her covers.

With a tired grunt she turned around, inched closer, directly into his embrace.

“You’re back…” she slurred, voice laden with sleep, eyes still closed.

“I am. I missed you.”

In the darkness his lips missed hers, but he found her cheek. Her forehead next. She hummed, snuggled even closer.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Go back to sleep.”

They could talk in the morning, there was nothing left to say now. Subaru listened to the sound of her breathing until he fell asleep, too.

 

Miho stared at the screen, tried to predict the next moves of the organisation. It was impossible of course, they were all over the place. Drugs, guns, human trafficking – the worst kind of people. But professional, with an official front to cover up their illegal activities. A whole network of smaller and bigger businesses, more people than she could imagine in varying levels of involvement. No one they had gotten their hands on so far was high up enough to give them valuable information, most only knew their own small part and maybe their contact by name and that was all. Dead-ends wherever she looked.

“Dammit.” She pushed her chair back, away from the desk, rubbed her fingertips in circles over her temples.

“Stuck again?”

She didn’t even turn her head, although it was still strange to have Seiji at her department every now and then she gladly accepted the comfort he offered when his hands found her shoulders, kneaded the tense muscles.

“Yeah, they are – like ninjas. I hate it.”

“You hate that you can’t catch them?” After years of being together, working together occasionally Goto knew her better than anyone else. Better than Jazz even, although Jazz would deny it.

“I hate that I don’t even have a name! Not even a rumor, nothing. Someone has to lead this organisation, and it could be anyone. I could walk past them on the street and wouldn’t know. I hate not knowing things.”

She tipped her head back, rested it against his stomach. Closed her eyes and just breathed.

“How about we take a break? You’re sitting here for hours already.” He patted her shoulders, a sign he was done massaging.

“Coffee?”

“Whatever you want.”

Miho’s eyes snapped open, sparkled at the possibilities – to tease her husband.

“Whatever I want? Lieutenant, are you suggesting getting frisky here? At my desk?”

It was late in the evening, but there were still people around. This wasn’t a 9 to 5 job, crime never slept. And cops were supposed to be infused with coffee so they wouldn’t sleep either.

“You know very well that I’m not suggesting that.” His voice dropped to a low murmur. “At least not here, at your desk.”

Miho swiveled around in her chair, raised an eyebrow.

“But somewhere else?”

It was amazing how shy a man could stay despite being married to a woman like Miho. She was bold, loud, demanding – and he loved it, yet he was surprised by just how bold she could be sometimes.

Miho got ups, stretched a bit, kept her eyes on Goto.

“Meet me in the staircase in three minutes.” No kiss, just a promise sparkling in her gaze and she left, muttered something about more coffee to anyone who would listen.

Three minutes later the door to the staircase closed with a loud thud.

“Are you bolder here because it’s not your department?” Miho asked pushed Goto against the wall, kissed him before he could even answer.

“Cameras?” he managed to press out before Miho attacked again.

“Yeah, a few. Excited?” Her chuckle echoed through the concrete hoistway as she took his hand, pulled him with her, down the stairs, through another door and a hallway, dark and narrow.

“Where are we going?”

“Maintenance room. Not sexy, but pretty much private.”

“Pretty much?” His voice conveyed his doubts, she didn’t have to see his expression to know what he was thinking.

“Very private. I never met anyone else there during my short adventures.” Her cheekiness earned her a slap on the bum and a growl from her husband.

“Don’t even joke about it. You married me and now I’m the only one you have adventures with, got that?”

Miho turned around, cupped his face and pulled his lips against hers. “You’re cute when you’re jealous.” With a gasp her back hit the wall, pressed against it by her husband.

“I’m not cute… “

He swallowed up her giggles with his kiss, hands already tugging at her clothes.

“You are plenty cute… but also hot and handsome and very, very sexy.” Still, Miho put her hands on his chest, pushed him off her. “Not here. Come on, it’s just a few more steps.”

A simple door saying ‘Maintenance’ was their goal, Miho pushed it open with her hip, pulled Goto inside.

“It’s a – boiler room.” Goto took a moment to look around the room. Small, that was true, but dry and clean. Some heating installation, a locker, a table.

“You sound disappointed.” Miho grabbed a chair and blocked the door with it.

“More like the opposite. I expected a janitor’s closet, but this? Yeah, I can work with it.” That was all the warning she got before he was back, pressed against her.

“We better be quick about this. Don’t want anyone come looking for us.” Miho walked backwards until she met the table, hopped on it and pulled Seiji closer. He hummed, fingers busy tugging her shirt out of her pants to get access to her naked skin.

Miho was already a step further, her hands undoing his belt and opening his pants. In a fluid motion she slid off the table, pushed his pants down and opened her own. Wiggling her hips she got them as far down as necessary, turned around and braced her hands on the table.

No prompt needed. Goto cupped her butt the second he had a chance to, squeezed it with a satisfied hum.

“For a cop you really enjoy walking the fine line,” he pointed out, fingers finding their way between her thighs.

“For a cop you’re easily convinced to follow me on that line,” Miho shot back, hissed when he dipped a finger into her.

“I’m your husband. I’ll follow you anywhere.”

“Even into a boiler room?” She looked over her shoulder with a smirk, gasped when he pulled her hips back.

“For this? Anytime.”

 

Back in the office a familiar, scowling face awaited them.

“Captain Ishigami, sir. Any news?”

Goto stood straight, his clothes back to their impeccable state minus some wrinkles here and there.

“I was looking for you and Fujiwara. We caught another gang member.”

“High ranking?” Miho’s eyes sparkled, but her face fell when the captain shook his head.

“Unfortunately not. But not on the lowest rank, either. He’s still getting interrogated, I thought you might want to listen.”

“You bet I do!” She grabbed a notepad and her bag, nodded towards the men. “Ready when you are.”

“Good. Let’s leave right away.”

The elevator was quick for a change and they all piled in, accompanied by some other members of the special assault team.

“You’re looking a bit out of breath. Are you okay, Sergeant?”

Ishigami was perceptive, his rank as captain well earned.

“I’m perfectly fine, sir.”

The captain nodded, stared at Goto next. “Lieutenant, you’re not looking any better. I hope you didn’t catch anything.”

Goto coughed lightly, but shook his head. “No sir, not sick. Just-”

“We were working out earlier. Cardio.” An elevator full of cops and Miho lied without batting an eye.

“Keeping yourself fit. Good. Good job, officers.” Ishigami pushed his glasses up his nose, nodded once.

Someone in the back coughed again, it sounded more like covered up laughter. Miho’s pokerface was impeccable, but her elbow found the ribs of the meddlesome coworker.

 

The cherry blossoms had wilted already, left a carpet of dirty pink in the parks and some streets. Despite his efforts Subaru hadn’t been able to take Jazz on a date, but she had gone with Miho instead. The fragile, short-lived beauty of early spring was a spectacle many people in Tokyo didn’t want to miss and although she wasn’t exactly and outdoorsy person Jazz enjoyed the burst of pale pink after the grey winter.

But the hanami, the annual cherry blossom festival, was also an important date for the event season. It kicked off not only sakura themed parties, it was also the beginning for the wedding season.

Jazz was swamped with work. The little time Subaru had at home often didn’t match up with her schedule, they stayed in touch with calls and texts. A weak comfort after a hard day, but something she had gotten used to.

On the other hand she wasn’t willing to cut her hours, not that close to another promotion. Especially not when another job landed on her desk, this time not a wedding.

“Liana! We got the Graphics and Art award job!” With a wild grin Jazz found her assistant brooding over some calculations, papers strewn all over the desk.

“Wait, the big one? Good grief…”

The company had several teams, not strictly divided by field or theme. Performance was what resulted in better jobs and awards were highly coveted.

“The one and only. Four weeks, the basics are already done. Looks like Yamamoto couldn’t convince with his concept.”

Liana’s eyes widened, but quickly her expression fell. “That’s going to get ugly. Last time he lost a job within the company, he made a huge scene.”

“And almost got fired. I hope he learned from that experience. Anyway, we got it now and I’m going to start drafting right away. Can you take care of the Osmond/Nomura wedding on your own?”

Most of the planning was already done, and with the groom being a cop Jazz knew exactly what she had to do. Thanks to Miho and Goto she had arranged a handful of cop weddings, a cop ball and even – much to her dismay – a funeral or two. Cops were easy to please, a fact Miho liked to remind her every now and then.

“I’m confident that I can deal with it,” Liana assured her and Jazz suppressed the urge for a victory dance.

“Great. I need a location and I need a good idea. Call me if you need anything, until then I’m off to find inspiration.” No art gallery of the city would be safe, no museum off limits. This job could be her break though and she wanted it to be perfect.

Every day it was a little bit warmer now. Her jacket was unbuttoned and with a spring in her step Jazz walked towards the train station, smiled at the people around her.

She had already a few possible venues in mind; it paid off to be prepared after all. After the first two art galleries she went to a small museum for modern art and photography. The outside was already promising, brick walls and huge windows. Modern, with an industrial touch. Hopefully spacious on the inside. They needed a stage, tables and some free spots for people to mingle.

The entrance fee was moderate, Jazz could file it as business expense and get reimbursed by the company. Her shoes clacked on the concrete floor, her tap tap the only sounds on this lazy Tuesday morning.

Art installations and posters, photos and even some concept art she didn’t understand filled the first floor and Jazz took her time, paid more attention to the location than the exhibition. She wasn’t an expert when it came to art but she knew what she liked. For example some of the photos, black and white, shots of nature, landscapes and the urban jungle alike.

She just stared at a picture of what looked like the African Savanna when she heard the voices, turned towards the entrance area to see two men approaching.

“We could free some space over there, at the northern wall. That way you could also separate your work, arrange it by topic.” The smaller man, with salt and pepper hair and deep wrinkles, smiled politely when he spotted Jazz. But her gaze was fixed to his companion, tall, broad-shouldered, with a familiar face and ponytail.

“Now that’s a rare sight. It’s still light outside and you are already up and about?” His smile matched hers and for a second Jazz had no witty retort.

“I am. Unfortunately I don’t have a beer in my purse for the off chance to meet you somewhere.”

“Yushima-san, you know this young lady?” The older man followed their short exchange, confusion creeping into his expression at the casual tone.

“Yushima-san, huh?” Now he had a name and Jazz savored the fact that she knew something about him while he had still no clue about her. Like a game and she was leading.

“’Know’ is too much, but we met.” Yushima-san tilted his head in an almost bow without taking his eyes off her.

“Oh. And here I thought you would be here for Yushima-san’s new exhibition.”

That got Jazz’s attention, she looked from Yushima to the other man, smiled widely.

“No, but this seems to be a lucky coincidence.”

“Ah yes, serendipity it’s called, isn’t it? Well, I have to discuss some exhibition related questions with Yushima-san, but maybe afterwards he can show you around?” The excited glimmer in his eyes made him appear starstruck and Jazz smile.

“Sounds perfect to me. If Yushima-san is okay with it, that is.”

“Yushima-san would appreciate if you don’t talk about him as if he’s not here,” Yushima grumbled, scratched the back of his neck.

“Awww, are you embarrassed? Don’t be, I’m just here, looking upon your photos, complete enthralled and deeply impressed.” She winked, but the exaggeration wasn’t enough to register with the fanboy next to Yushima.

“That is the usual reaction, yes. Now if you would excuse us.” Again the smaller man bowed and Jazz mirrored the gesture, her amused grin unwavering.

The photos were indeed impressive and very diverse. Animals, plants, landscapes. With half an ear Jazz listened to the conversation, about lighting, frame size and format. Every now and then she risked a glance, caught Yushima-san’s gaze, shared a smile and looked away again.

Like a giggling school girl she played this game, slowly walked around the exhibition room, casually checked if he was still watching her. His steps echoed through the empty space, stopped short behind her.

“You like it?”

The picture in front of her was impressive, a huge tree, just the wood, no leaves, almost completely white in an otherwise green forest.

“It’s beautiful. Not my favorite here, but yes, I like it.” She turned, flashed him a smile.

“Which one is your favorite?” He brought with him a smell almost as earthy as the forest in the picture, wood and leaves, some notes of soap.

“Over there.” She motioned towards the other end of the wall, went the picture without waiting for him. “Here. This is – incredible.”

One of the few colored photos, a blue sky and vivid green fields. Bushes and trees. And at the right side a huge mountain. Smoke rose into the clear sky from its peak.

He hummed, caught up with her in front of it.

“What is it that you like about it?”

Jazz tilted her head, picked the right words from with care. It didn’t happen often anymore that she got reminded of her status as foreigner, but poetry was fickle.

“The contrast and the balance. Peace and danger. It’s like – look how lush the vegetation is. Probably because of the volcanic ashes, it’s great fertilizer. But at the same time there is this constant threat that the volcano could erupt and destroy it all. Isn’t it fascinating how life can thrive even under the direst circumstances?”

“So you like danger, is that what you are telling me?” His voice had dropped, sent a tingle through her spine. Her light chuckle was the contrast, just like in the photo.

“Controlled danger, maybe. But actually I like to play it safe.”

“But you still like to play,” he concluded to which she couldn’t object, just shrugged and spun around.

“So, some of these photos are yours? Which ones?” Hands behind her back she wandered along the walls, pointed at different pictures.

“Those over there. The whole wall. And these here,” he explained, waited at his spot for her to finish her rounds. “Your favorite is actually one of mine, too. And one of my faves.”

“Good taste.” No need to clarify which one of them she was talking about. A glance at her watch and she sighed, squared her shoulders. “As nice as it has been, I have to go back to work now. Maybe we’ll run into each other again, Yushima-san.”

“How about we meet on purpose next time?” he suggested, one hand in his pocket, reaching for his phone.

“Hmm… nah. That would ruin the thrill. No, I like it the way it is. I start wondering where you will pop up next time.” She waved briefly, left with the same tap tap she had arrived with, but more sway in her hips.

 

“What do you mean, you met him again?” Liana frowned, some florist offers in her hand.

“Like I said, I ran into him in that museum. Great location, by the way. I got the number of the owner on my way out, hopefully he will agree to such an event in his rooms.” Jazz hummed lowly, jotted some notes down into her planner.

“Yes, great, but back to the ponytail guy. Don’t you think it’s getting suspicious that he shows up wherever you go?” Several sheets of paper slapped on the surface of Jazz’s desk as Liana let go of them and plopped into a chair.

“Turns out he has a name and he actually is some kind of artist, so no, it’s not suspicious at all. He’s showing his work in art galleries and museums, so he has every right to be there. Planning a new exhibition if I’m not mistaken.” Jazz signed some of the papers, boldly crossed out some of the offers. “If they can’t guarantee us lilac I don’t even want to deal with them.”

“Jazz!” Liana’s voice rarely reached much volume, as assistant she wasn’t supposed to yell at her superior anyway.

“What?” Still her pen in her hand Jazz looked up, met Liana’s angry gaze.

“You don’t even take this seriously! He could be a stalker!”

“Oh come on.” The swivel chair creaked when Jazz leaned backwards, head tipped back, eyes to the ceiling. Her deep exhale made the papers tremble, but she met Liana’s eyes again. “He’s not a stalker. He’s a photographer, and actually a pretty successful one. Jetsets all over the world, had covers in the most big magazines. Won some awards. He’s not the stalker type.”

“That’s what everyone says and then it’s too late. ‘Oh, he didn’t seem to be the stalker type.” Liana snorted, her furrowed brow unfurled only when her eyes went wide. “Wait, how do you know that all about him? Did you look him up on the internet?”

“Maybe.” Acting casually with a constantly growing grin was impossible, Jazz quickly gave it up.

“Oh my god, you’re not – you’re not stalking him are you?”

“What? No! Of course not! I just happened to catch his name and was curious, so I checked his wiki bio. And yes, he has a wiki bio.” She picked up the strewn papers, arranged them into a clean stack.

“Do I have to remind you that you’re married?” Her arms crossed Liana raised her eyebrow, refused to take the papers.

“No, you don’t. God dammit, I’m just flirting a bit with him, it’s completely innocent. I could tell Subaru and he wouldn’t even say anything. There’s nothing to it after all.”

“But you haven’t told Subaru yet,” Liana pointed out.

“Why should I? He’s not telling me about every time he smiles at a woman either. That’s not how our marriage works.” Trust was the base, not strict rules and secretiveness. “I wouldn’t do anything I couldn’t tell him.” In a sugarcoated way maybe, but she did tell him that she met this man the first time. At least that someone helped her with that drunk guest. If Subaru forgot about it after a few weeks…

“But you haven’t.”

“Would you stop it already? Fine, I’ll tell him tonight. You feel better now?”

The stack of papers wandered from Jazz’s hands to Liana’s.

“I just don’t want you to risk your marriage over some crush.”

“I know,” Jazz softly admitted. Liana was divorced after all, although Jazz didn’t know all the details. A failed marriage wasn’t easy to stomach, no matter whose fault it was.

“And I’m not crushing on him. He’s just one of the few men I met here who didn’t directly ask for my name and number just because I smiled at him. Just a chat, nothing more.”

MJS – 6 Feet: Part 2

Both Ishigami and Kaga were more than excited to see the figure on the other side of the door, leaping at him with reckless abandon, but Miho slumped against the door frame. Jazz appeared behind her, biting her lip as Subaru fought the puppies off to wrap Miho in a tight embrace.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered into her hair, shoving the foil covered casserole he had in one hand at Jazz.

This time, Miho didn’t cry, even if Subaru did.

“It doesn’t have coriander in it, does it?”

“You love coriander!” he attempted to joke, but the look on Jazz’s face told him he’d made a terrible blunder.

“No,” Miho disagreed quietly. “That’s Seiji.”

“Oh,” Subaru dropped, cringing a second but he had a smile affixed when he finally brought Miho to arm’s length.

“It’s fine,” she smiled back. “Everyone’s in a bit of a tizzy at the moment.”

“Except you,” he noted a little quizzically. “The very picture of calm and collected.”

“How many times has he nearly died?” she asked, turning and heading into the living area with the pups on her heels. “Every other week, really, right?”

Glancing sideways at Jazz, Subaru followed, shrugging awkwardly. It was clear to Jazz that Subaru didn’t have the words, not to comfort Miho, or himself. True, Subaru and Goto always bickered, but their actions had proven time and time again they were best friends.

“Tea? Coffee?” Miho chirped, obviously attempting to change Subaru’s grim expression.

“Yeah,” he answered ambiguously, scrutinising the house’s interior as he trailed Miho and Jazz into the kitchen.

“Yeah what?”

“What happened here?” he replied, only looking more confused. “This place is spotless.”

Another blunder for anyone who knew Goto was a bit on the untidy side.

“Are you suggesting my home is usually a mess?” Miho sniffed.

“Well, no,” he stumbled. “But there’s clean, and then there’s I could eat off the tiles clean.”

“We’ve been keeping busy,” Jazz clarified.

“Because work isn’t enough to keep us occupied apparently,” Miho dropped sarcastically.

“Should you even be wandering around?” he then asked of Jazz, who while obviously pregnant did not seem to be in any discomfort.

“Being pregnant isn’t a disability, you know,” she grunted, then dropped her voice. “Unlike being an idiot.”

“I heard that,” Subaru grated sourly, but his brows lifted when Miho let out a chuckle.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think this comedy routine was for me.”

Both her friends fell silent.

“Oh, cut it out will you?” she huffed, throwing up her hands in annoyance. “Come on, Subaru, you’ve known Seiji far longer than me, so you should know this is bullshit.”

“Um…” he squirmed. “I’ve seen the evidence, Miho, the forensics…”

“Yeah?” she snorted. “You know who saw the evidence for Daisetsu’s ‘death’? The forensics? I did, and we all know how that ended.”

Knowingly, and not very discreetly, Jazz rolled her eyes to Subaru.

“Cut that out,” Miho snapped. “He’s not dead, and that’s all there is to it.”

She left them both standing in the kitchen a little bewildered by her curtness, but Jazz eventually let out a heavy sigh.

“I tried to talk to her about funeral arrangements, but she just shuts me down,” she explained solemnly. “I get where she is coming from, what with Daisetsu’s faked death, but if Captain Ishigami and the whole of Public Safety is sure, then…”

Helplessly, she shrugged.

“She doesn’t want me to comfort her,” she exhaled, her eyes misting over a little, and Subaru drew closer. “I don’t know how to comfort her, and I’ve always known.”

“We just be here,” he said, offering his arms and an awkward but honest hug. “So, when she figures out what she needs, we can be there to give it.”

 

People came and went, but it was the arrival of Goto’s parents and brother that complicated the situation more. Under any other circumstance, the presence of family might have brought some solace, but Miho was… as Miho was – forward about her opinion.

“I’m not interested in burying an empty casket,” she declared stubbornly.

Haruka looked tearily helpless.

Shinichi scowled.

Issei became angry.

“I thought you loved him!” he barked, and Miho’s face darkened in response.

“I love him, present tense,” she snapped. “And it’s because I love him, know him, trust him, that I can’t and won’t believe he’d be stupid enough to get killed.”

“But Miho,” Shinichi beseeched, and in an unusual sign of physical affection he attempted to hug her.

Miho dodged.

“No, Dad,” she argued.

“You’ve always known his work was dangerous,” Shinichi continued, his tone settling back into something gruffer. “As much as we might want this not to be true, there are things beyond our control, beyond Seiji’s control.”

“You go,” Miho told them, nodding emphatically. “I understand. If you believe this, then you need to find closure, but I will not put another box in the ground.”

The door slammed, Kaga and Ishigami lucky to scoot through with tails intact.

In the bedroom, Miho paced back and forth until her eyes came to rest on the pinstripe suit laid out across the grey duvet.

Haruka had picked it out. Even though there wasn’t a body as such to put in it, she’d felt it symbolic of his professionalism, of his nature, and an important part of letting him go. Kaga and Ishigami, however, thought the suit made perfect bedding, and curled up together to watch their mother scowl.

“What the hell, Miho?” Issei charged, bursting into the room. “Where do you get off talking to Mum like that?”

His eyes were red – he had been crying, but now he was just angry.

“You think you’re hurting? What about us?” he snapped, spittle peppering the air between them.

“He’s not dead, Issei!” Miho shouted, right into his face, then pointed at Goto’s suit. “It’s empty, you see that? EMPTY.”

“Because what’s left of him is locked up in a mortuary!” Issei fired back, not backing down – but that only drew him into striking range.

Redder still, Issei looked absolutely shocked with Miho’s palm print emblazoned across his left cheek.

“Your brother would be heartbroken you’ve so little faith in him,” she hissed, her eyes wild and her tone low, seething. “Go pick a casket, choose music and scripture and flowers to lay at a hollow grave, but do not think for a moment I will partake in such a farce.”

She moved so quickly her puppies didn’t have a chance to catch up. Bursting from the bedroom, she stalked to the front door past a bewildered Shinichi and Haruka and snatched her jacket.

 

After stomping several blocks, Miho hailed a taxi, glad she left emergency money secured in the inside pocket of her coat. It was enough to get her to Station, where Agasa raised an eyebrow at her in recognition. The death of a police officer, regardless of what department they belonged to, did not remain a secret for very long, and though Agasa might have seen Goto and Miho only a handful of times – if that – Second Unit had raised more than a few glasses in honour of a fallen comrade and a good man.

“Mrs. Goto,” he greeted softly, as Miho sat herself down on a stool at the bar. “What can I get you?”

“Enough whiskey to make it all go away,” she replied, not questioning how he knew her, just tapping the bar with her fingertips expectantly.

Agasa knew well enough when to argue with a customer and when to let them drink. At least if she was there, he could keep an eye on her, call in backup if things got a bit too ugly. He placed the bottle down beside her, though it was only a third full, then a glass.

“Don’t go too overboard,” he warned her softly, and in response she grunted and poured for herself.

As she drank, she muttered, but she was not looking for a response from Agasa or those who came and went.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” she murmured, shaking her head.

Hitting Issei like that – she knew she’d done a bad thing and would have to apologise.

“How can I convince them?” she sighed, staring into her glass but quickly turning her head when she sensed a presence close behind her.

“Convince who of what, Princess?” Baba enquired in his usual happy tone.

“You know what,” she replied dryly, taking another sip as he sat down beside her. “You know everything.”

“It is true I know a lot of things,” he smiled, waving to Agasa before pointing at Miho’s glass. “Not quite everything, though.”

Working with Baba at the agency had proven both a blessing and a curse at times. He had this infuriating way of being jovial no matter what happened, this ability to see the upside in even the darkest of situations. It could be both uplifting and excruciating at the same time. There was also the fact that he had made himself available on and off through Miho’s single years as a physical comfort: the best kind of friend with benefits.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him, still not looking into his face.

She wasn’t sure she could stand to see the sparkle in his eyes or the playfulness on his lips.

“You know this is a police bar, right?” she added.

Baba shrugged.

“I don’t know why I should be concerned,” he smirked. “I’m a law-abiding citizen; besides, I don’t think Detective Ayase meets the height requirement to get in.”

Miho might have snorted, but the air in her lungs was lethargic, morose.

“Come on, Princess,” he crooned, giving her arm a gentle nudge with his, as Agasa put a tumbler down in front of him. “I tracked you down because I thought you’d have given me a call by now.”

“I’ve been a little preoccupied,” she pointed out, emptying her glass and pouring herself another, then one for Baba.

“Yes, yes, funerals – so many little details to plan for,” he agreed, one hand moving in an animated way as he spoke. “Eulogies and floral arrangements and boxes for burial.”

Now, Miho looked at him, her eyes narrowed. But she said nothing, studying him, searching him. What he said was not meant to hurt her; no, he was teasing her because…

“Tell me,” she demanded in a cold hiss, turning her body to his. “Tell me I’m right.”

“Right about?” he poked, obviously enjoying the little game, pushing her because he indeed knew her well enough he knew her limits.

“I will fucking deck you, Mitsunari,” she growled, leaning forward and baring her teeth. “Tell me I am right. He isn’t dead.”

“Hot damn, you’re sexy when you get angry,” he grinned. “You really ought to wear more leather.”

Limit.

He probably could have dodged, but he didn’t, so when Miho grabbed him by the tie and dragged him off his barstool, he slid off easily.

“Riding crop, too,” Baba added, allowing himself to be dragged to a booth and shoved into it.

“Cut the shit,” she hissed, dropping in opposite him. “Playtime is over.”

“A little birdy told me something fascinating,” he admitted finally, triumphant. “Did you know that DNA identification of burnt bone can be pretty reliable?”

Eyes sharp, Miho brain raced ahead to find Baba’s point before he voiced it.

“In extremely bad cases though, if someone was to use, say, white phosphorus or thermite, for example, bones don’t leave much at all – no nuclear DNA – and even mitochondrial profiles are sporadic in their reliability at best.”

“The gang he infiltrated had access to thermite and white phosphorus?” Miho blinked.

Of course, she knew Public Safety worked dangerous cases chasing really dangerous people, but for criminals to have and use dangerous chemicals like those put a whole new perspective on it.

“Maybe,” Baba mused noncommittally, “but I think the point is more that it’s highly unlikely any remains burned to that extent could be positively identified.”

Miho licked her lips.

She knew better than to ask about Baba’s sources, and knew through experience – even if she didn’t know how – that his information was always accurate.

“Captain Ishigami wouldn’t, he wouldn’t tell me it’s him if he wasn’t sure,” she exhaled to herself. “He wouldn’t accept the death of a subordinate if there was any doubt.”

“You know the guy that well?” Baba posed. “I mean, these Public Safety guys lie for a living, right?”

“To me? About that?” Miho wondered, her throat dry.

Trembling hands took her mobile phone from her pocket.

“That I don’t know the answer to,” he admitted, leaning a little closer to see what Miho was texting. “Going straight to the top, huh?”

“No, Namba’s out of town,” Miho murmured, as she fired off her text message to Liana, “but Captain Ishigami will do.”

“I wouldn’t want to be him,” Baba smirked swirling the drink he hadn’t touched yet. “You have a plan?”

“Yeah,” Miho rumbled, slipping from the barstool and throwing a fist full of money for her drinks on the counter. “I’m going to get really, really angry.”

 

Rationality still existed, Miho felt it tugging her in the opposite direction to her destination, but she ignored it. Her rage was a blaze bringing warmth back to the numbness of her flesh, and she allowed it to fill her to overflowing before she arrived at the restaurant Liana had unwittingly revealed as the location of Miho’s target.

“Miho?” Liana blinked, as Miho stalked between the tables – definitely a woman on a mission.

“Mrs. Goto,” Ishigami added, seeming surprised but quick to rise to his feet. “Are you alright?”

“Out of respect for our friendship and your personal and professional relationship with Seiji,” Miho began, her tone an ice-pick: cold, pointed, “I’m going to give you the opportunity to step out with me and have this conversation.”

Understandably, Ishigami looked surprised, but Liana appeared downright shocked and both their mouths hung open too long for Miho’s liking.

“Very well,” Miho grunted. “Explain the conviction you have Seiji is dead, when the extreme heat you’ve admitted rendered the remains you found to nothing but bones?”

People looked in the direction of the standing pair as they remained facing one another, though the volume of their voices was not especially loud.

“I’m no scientist, Captain,” Miho went on to fill the void once more, “or a weapon’s expert, but to reach the kind of temperatures needed to reduce human bone to the condition you found them in, in an open space like that warehouse, you’d need some seriously restricted firepower.”

“Where did you get this idea from?” Ishigami asked finally, his expression a good approximation of concerned.

“You mean, how do I know you grossly overstated the certainty of my husband’s death?” she snapped, the crack of a whip that silenced everything else in the restaurant.

“Miho,” Liana whispered, reaching for her hand, but Miho yanked it away.

“Look into his eyes, Liana,” Miho growled, pointing into Ishigami’s face. “Imagine Seiji is telling you your husband is dead, all the while you’re holding evidence it isn’t true in your hand.”

“I know this is very difficult for you,” Ishigami attempted, watching the maitre’d cautiously approach in his peripheral vision. “No one wants Lieut..”

“I am his WIFE!” she roared, and people at nearby tables flinched at the violence of her retort, the rawness of her emotion. “Difficult is an understatement I will not bear when you know he’s alive.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you t…” the maitre’d interrupted, but the freeze of his jaw when Miho’s eyes fell upon him made it clear he saw death in them.

“Tell me where he is,” Miho demanded on little more than a breath, an imperative she exhaled into Ishigami’s face. “Give me the truth.”

“I can see, Mrs. Goto, the truth is too much for you at present,” Ishigami said evenly, but Liana saw him adjust his glasses – noted and filed it. “Grief is…”

“I will not mourn the living,” Miho snarled, blind to the much larger man who had come to back the maitre’d.

“Ma’am,” came a firmer, warning voice.

Miho tilted her head in some form of acknowledgement but maintained eye contact with Ishigami.

“I will never forget this pain,” she hissed, gaze like razor-wire. “And I will never forget your part in it.”

Before she could be manhandled out of the restaurant, Miho turned on her heels and strode out, to bystanders a vengeful force of wrathful energy.

 

(GUEST WRITER @BelXsar! Scene RPed)

There was a full moment of silence, then another, and another, before the interior of the restaurant finally started to return to its former activity before the human whirlwind that was Miho Fujisawa Goto had blown in and then just as dramatically swept out.  The restaurant staff resumed their former duties, and the other patrons’ gazes went back to their dining companions, while Liana studied her husband with hers, even as he just as studiously avoided it. They had just been contemplating what to have for dessert when Miho had arrived, but it was clear that any appetite for sweets had vanished just as abruptly.  With a sidelong glance towards the discarded dessert menus lying on the table, Captain Hideki Ishigami emptied his water glass, then signalled their waiter and coolly asked for the cheque. The bill paid, he got up, and his wife followed him out of the restaurant.

His hand reached out for hers on the street outside, and Liana took it, noting his grasp was on the cool side as usual but his grip a bit tighter.  They strode silently, hand in hand, to where their car was parked, and he opened the door for her before sliding into the driver’s seat. As the car pulled into traffic, he still had yet to meet his wife’s gaze which had remained mostly fixed on him all the while.

On the silent drive home, Liana pulled out her phone and tapped a quick text to Jazz Mann Akiwa, hoping their shared friend would update her on what was going on when clearly her husband had no desire to do so.

Ishigami remained silent even as they arrived home.  It was after they entered their flat, taken off their shoes, hung up their coats, and he seemed to be heading towards the bathroom, that Liana finally quickened her stride and cut in front of her husband, putting her hand against the wall to block his path.

Enough was enough.

She had given him the appropriate discretion while they had been in public, despite the maelstrom of questions running through her mind.  Now, in the privacy of their own home, she could remain silent no longer.

“Hideki,” she said quietly, softly, yet no less firmly.  “What is going on?”

Her dark blue eyes sought out his grey ones, intent.

His hand was half-way to his glasses before he actually stopped himself.

“I thought perhaps I would take a shower,” he explained, as if as much was obvious. “I have an early meeting tomorrow and will not have time in the morning.”

If he knew what she was actually getting at – and the man wasn’t a moron, so he knew – there was not a single hint of it in his expression.

Liana tilted her head slightly and gave him a look, one eyebrow raised.  “Please don’t insult me, and I won’t return the favor. You know very well what I mean.”

With practised zen, Ishigami’s expression didn’t so much as twitch; still, when he spoke again, there was at least a little emotion in his tone.

“It is understandable Mrs. Goto would not wish to believe Lieutenant Goto is gone,” he explained, “and regrettable her desire seems to have manifested so strongly. You are right to be concerned; I shall organise for a counsellor to touch base with her tomorrow.”

Liana’s eyebrows drew together a little.  “As passionate as Miho can be, she’s not a woman prone to hysterics.  And I think you appreciate that, Hideki. This is not just a grieving widow deep in denial and going off the deep end.  She said something about extreme heat, and remains being reduced to nothing. Which you didn’t deny. You’re deflecting.  Whatever it is, I think Miho has proven in the past she can handle it, any truth, rather than a bunch of lies. As Lieutenant Goto’s wife, she deserves that much, at least.”

Responding seemed a little difficult for Ishigami – not because he didn’t know what to say, but because saying it to his inquisitive wife would not be easy.

“You know I cannot discuss an ongoing investigation,” he told her gently, his brows lowering just a little bit.

He wasn’t without empathy.

“Doing so could put further lives at risk, and that is the very reason rules and protocols exist.”

“Then she’s not wrong.”

Liana’s words were murmured to herself as much as her reticent husband, said in confirmation more than any triumph.  She looked back up at Ishigami. “You don’t have to tell her any details. But can’t you at least indicate you’re still just trying to confirm the identification of the remains, and that it’s still an ‘ongoing investigation’?  If you tell her to keep things to herself, she will. She understands the importance of discretion, as much for her husband’s safety as the case itself. Just don’t add to her trauma, Hideki. You know she’s not someone you want on the warpath against you, and that’s what’s going to happen if you keep lying to her and suggesting she’s crazy.”

His wife calling him a liar was something he knew he just had to weather. Despite his absolute devotion to the job, it hurt no less.

“I do not believe she is crazy,” he said carefully. “Grief takes a great many forms and denial can be a natural part of the mourning process.”

This wasn’t anything Liana didn’t already know.

“If I lost you,” he continued, hazarding to raise his hand toward her cheek, “I would not wish to believe it, either; I would do anything to undo it… But I cannot give this to Mrs. Goto, or to you, no matter how much we both want to alleviate her suffering.”

She looked down for a moment, shaking her head briefly before taking a breath and looking back up at her husband.

“Things don’t always have to be zero sum, you know.  I believe rules exist for the spirit of such protocol rather that the strict letter of them.  You don’t want to compromise an ongoing investigation, I understand that. So does Miho. But in this case, especially for her — and I’m not just saying that because she’s my friend; I think she’s proven herself in situations like this –, I think you can maintain the integrity of the investigation while not having to deceive her at the same time.  Rules are a dead and static thing, made by humans to serve the needs of a situation. And by the same token, situations can change, and so we can be flexible to adapt while remaining true to overall protocol. It’s not ‘either or’ in this case, Hideki, you must be able to see that. Things need not be robotic; in fact, I think something as dynamic as a complicated investigation is best served by anything but.”

Her look was beseeching as much as it was resolute.  She wanted, needed, him to understand that there was more than one alternative, and indeed, a better one existed than what dead, strict rules dictated.

His hand had reached her cheek, his thumb had been lightly grazing the skin as she spoke, but the moment she’d mentioned his way was ‘robotic’, his arm sank back to his side.

“You are operating under the assumption I do not know how to effectively perform my job,” he stated, and indeed, this time he sounded more mechanical, “that I am intentionally wounding Mrs. Goto. Please do not forget our duty is not without risk – risk Lieutenant Goto has always accepted as a necessary evil in the pursuit of people who want to destroy our way of life (writes a presidential speech). Lieutenant Goto’s death will not be in vain provided the integrity of this investigation is not compromised, and in time, Mrs. Goto’s pain will diminish.”

His stoic mask was now firmly affixed, a sure sign to his wife he had been affronted. It was rare he showed anger, whether he felt it or not; it was far more common for him to shut down.

Which is what he did – and before she could speak again he had stepped away.

“I am going to take a shower now,” he asserted.

“Is that part of the fake eulogy you’re going to give?” she threw at his retreating back before she could stop herself, her sarcastic side finding voice in her frustration.

She almost wanted to throw something at the firmly closing bathroom door, but knew it would accomplish nothing but a momentary childish satisfaction of noise to punctuate her ire.  She thought she understood her husband enough to get beyond the “cyborg” persona his colleagues often referred to him as, but now she wondered how much she was really able to understand him in the dire situations when she felt she should most.

She bit her lip, and after only a moment’s thought, grabbed her phone to text a quick thanks to Jazz for what she was able to surmise by now.  She followed this with a quick text to Miho:

“I believe you.  I’m sorry about him.”

Liana didn’t want to go more into it than that, over what was really essentially not that secure a channel.  She hoped her friend understood the “him” was her infuriatingly stubborn husband.

Liana stood halfway between the hallway and her bedroom, wondering whether she should get ready for bed or go to Miho to apologize to and try to comfort, and help, her friend.  She doubted if she would get much further with Hideki tonight, though a tenacious part of her wanted to try, as well as to make him understand she was not against him, but trying to help him as well as her friend and Lieutenant Goto.  Or if it would be more helpful to the situation as a whole to go to discuss things over with her friend. A chime from her phone alerting her to an incoming text helped make up her mind.

“I’m going to need more ice cream.”

It was Jazz, and no doubt Miho had chowed her way through all available potential sources to cool her ire.

“Will hijack an ice cream van and be right over. Preferences?”

“Surprise me.”

The scent of smoke – Part 3

“Jazz! Hurry up now or I’m leaving without you!” Subaru closed his cuffs, checked his tie in the mirror.

“Not my fault that you hogged the bathroom for that long,” she grumbled and rushed past him, grabbed a pair of earrings to put them on.

“You know how my father can be. We mustn’t be late.”

“We won’t be late and even if, it’s not my fault that you need an eternity for your hair. It only took me ten minutes to get ready.” His nervousness was contagious but not unfounded.  Ichiyanagi-san was a strict man, especially when it came to his son. High expectations, fueled by Subaru’s success so far, burdened the relationship between father and son. It also affected Jazz as Subaru’s wife. In the beginning his father was less than pleased, his plans for his son didn’t include some foreigner, especially not without any political influence or money.

Ichiyanagi-san seemed to warm up to her lately, though. Jazz liked to think it was because of her positive influence on Subaru and his life in general, but it was probably something else. Saving his energy for important battles.

“How do I look?” She focused on her husband again, the pondering wouldn’t do her any good anyway.

“Why don’t you wear the green dress?” Subaru took his jacket, grabbed his keys.

“Because we don’t have the time for me to change and I like the red one.” She accepted the coat he offered her, checked her purse one last time.

“I like the green one better but you look great in this, too.” A quick peck on her cheek and they were good to go. One of these days she would conquer the heart of her father in law just like she had conquered the heart of Subaru – with a smile, lots of charm and the patience of a saint. Which she didn’t have.

But this was their last night together before Subaru had to go on a week long business trip,  Jazz wanted to get over with the official part and jump to the goodbye session she had in mind.

 

It was almost midnight when they came back. Jazz kicked her shoes off the moment the door closed behind them, sighed when her aching feet made contact with the fluffy carpet.

“That was a really nice restaurant.”

Subaru took her coat, hummed lowly.

“It would have been nicer if the waiter hadn’t ogled my wife all night.”

Jazz snorted, turned around to face him. “Is that why your mood was so sour in the end?”

“See? That’s why I wanted you to wear the green dress. The neckline is more modest.”

“Oh.” She nodded slowly. “So you don’t like the red one because it’s showing off my body too much?” Her hands followed the lines of her curves and she swayed her hips enticingly.

“You look fabulous in it and you know it. But I’d rather be the only one enjoying this view.” He couldn’t stay grumpy, not with the way Jazz moved her body. So he stepped closer, put his hands on her hips and pulled her against him.

“Let them gawk. In the end you are the one I’m going home with.” Her arms wrapped around his neck she smiled up at him, her body pressed flush against his.

“I just think it’s shameless to drool over another man’s wife while he’s sitting right there.” His hands slid towards her backside, squeezed her butt.

“And I think you are exaggerating but if it’s bothering you so much, how about I take your mind off of things for a while?” Her voice dropped to a low, sultry whisper, she stretched up, on her tiptoes, and brushed her lips over his.

“Are you feeling bad for flirting with him in front of me?” The accusation was mellowed by the smile tugging at his lips.

“I didn’t flirt. You should remember how it looks like when I’m flirting, and if I’m not mistaken you enjoyed it very much last time I did that with you.” Her lips traveled up his neck, nipped here and there.

“Usually I enjoy everything you do with me,” he admitted, tilted his head to capture her lips again.

“Mhm, same.” His tie didn’t put up much resistance when she loosened it and pulled it off him. It ended on the floor, followed by his jacket.

“When do you have to leave tomorrow?” One by one the buttons of his shirt gave way to Jazz’s nimble fingers.

“10 am. Kaiji is picking me up here.” His hands searched for the zipper of her dress, a triumphant grunt marked his success.

“Oh good. That gives me enough time to tire you out properly and for you to sleep afterwards.” Jazz stepped out of her dress, took his hand and tugged him towards their bedroom. They had to make up for a week’s worth of physical affection in advance and that was a challenge she gladly accepted.

 

The police department was always busy. Special departments were smaller than the general police department, but there was never a break, never a lull.

Miho actually liked it that way, no matter what day or nighttime she came into the office, there was always someone working. There was a picture of her, Goto and Subaru as rookies on her desk, another one of her and Jazz at a party, pulling faces for the photographer.

Her nameplate read “Sergeant Fujiwara”, despite being married for more than five years she never took Goto’s last name.

“Hey, Fujiwara! New case, briefing’s in five!”

She waved at her coworker, grabbed her notepad and the pen Goto gave her for the start of her service in the SAT two years ago and made her way over to huge table in the middle of the office.

A tall man with glasses and a very strict expression waited for the team members to assemble, his gaze zeroed in on Miho when she arrived.

“Captain Ishigami.” She greeted him formally, despite knowing him for years already. He was a stickler for rules and she would know, since he was also Goto’s captain.

“Sergeant. Take a seat, we are starting in three minutes.”

If Goto was there, too, he would have told her in advance so Miho just did as told, opened her notepad and waited for the briefing to start.

 

“So both of your teams are working together for a case? Wow, how are the odds,” Jazz wondered and took another gyoza from the plate.

“Actually not that low if you think about it. She’s in a special assault team, I’m in Public Safety, there are a lot of common operations.” Goto still waited for his ramen to cool off.

“You spend too much time with your captain.” Miho snatched a gyoza from Jazz, grinned when her friend shot her a glare. “She didn’t mean it literal. No need to actually calculate the odds for this.”

“I just mean, you never worked together since Miho started this new assignment. Is it strange now?” Only vaguely aware of what exactly they did at their jobs Jazz kept her questions superficial, there was a lot of confidentiality when it came to police work after all.

“Not strange so far. We haven’t really worked together yet, just our departments. I guess Captain Ishigami doesn’t approve of distractions at work coming from working with your spouse anyway, so we won’t exactly go on shared missions.” Finally the food had the right temperature for Goto so he grabbed his chopsticks and dug in.

“So no hanky-panky at work?”

Goto choked on his noodles, living with Miho should have prepared him for direct questions but hearing them from Jazz still made him uncomfortable.

“Never say never,” Miho piped up, angled for another gyoza but wasn’t fast enough.

“Order some for yourself next time,” Jazz advised while chewing on the last dumpling.

“How long is Ichiyanagi away this time?” Goto ignored the food related quarrel, looked at Jazz for an answer.

“Just until Friday. Three more days, no big deal.”

“And what are you doing those three days?”

“Work, mostly. Deep cleaning the apartment. Sorting through some old stuff. You know, keeping myself busy.”

Goto’s brow furrowed but Jazz just shrugged.

“Deep cleaning in a house that Ichiyanagi lives in? Does that even make sense?”

Jazz laughed at his question, but he wasn’t wrong. Subaru really was a cleaning maniac of sorts.

“Well, there might not be dust or dirt, but someone has no clue how to keep their paperwork organised. I thought about getting everything ready for the taxes. Maybe even organise his closet. Some of his clothes are not fit to be worn out of the house anymore.”

“The mighty Ichiyanagi, so he does have a weakness after all.” With Jazz distracted Miho launched an attack on her ramen toppings, swiped a fried shrimp, much to Jazz’s indignation.

“Hey! Your husband is sitting right there, why don’t you steal his food?”

“Because he has the permission to wear and use a gun. You really think I’m messing with him?”

In retaliation Jazz grabbed Miho’s sake cup and downed it.

“If they kick us out of another ramen place I won’t ever take the both of you out for dinner again,” Goto warned, didn’t even flinch when Miho stole a mushroom from his bowl.

“Then we are just gonna take each other out, what do you say?”

“You know I’d take you out whenever you feel like it,” Jazz confirmed, clinked her sake cup against Miho’s and with that they continued eating and chatting until it was time to go home.

 

“Good job today.” Jazz bowed to her team, clapped a few times. “You better go home now before you get locked in over night.” There was a big birthday party planned for the next day, but for now all the preparations were done.

“Liana! Do you have a second?”

While the rest of the staff left Liana waited for Jazz who locked up and smiled at her assistant. “Later tonight I’m meeting with a friend for a drink or two. You wanna come, too?”

They had worked together for several months already, chatted during breaks and after events, but not usually spent time with each other outside of work.

“What about work tomorrow?” Liana asked, looked back at the just finished location.

“We won’t get wasted, just have a drink or two. We will be back home and in bed way before midnight. It’s not even fancy. I’m going to take a dip in the public bath on my way back home, just change into something comfortable and hop over to this nice little bar we know. Snacks, drinks, girls’ talk.”

“Are you sure your friend will be okay with it? I don’t want to impose.”

Jazz reached into her purse, took out a small business card. “You wouldn’t. I just invited you. And I asked Miho in advance, she said she wants to meet you anyway. Probably will try to make you spill some juicy work stories.” Quickly she scribbled some instructions on the card, handed it to Liana. “Just think about it. You don’t have to, but I guess it would be fun.”

Liana turned the card in her hand, read the name of the bar and nodded slowly. “Le Renard Noir? Sounds good. See you later, then, I guess.”

They parted ways and true to her words, Jazz stopped a small public bath on her way home. Whenever Subaru was away she went to a public bath at least once. Not that he was against it, he just didn’t care much about bathing in company. Jazz enjoyed the space, their own bathroom lacked a big tub and she just loved to sink into hot water every now and then until only her nose was still showing. Especially after a long day at work it was a blessing and one of the few things she looked forward to.

Japanese bathing culture was different from what Jazz knew from home, but since there were separated baths for men and women she didn’t mind going in naked. After a long soak she stepped back out on the street, her skin still flushed, the damp hair piled up on her head, secured with a scrunchie. Her high heels were stashed in her bag, the ballerina flats on her feet so much more comfortable.

She checked her purse for her keys, rummaged through the depths of her bag.

“Hey, you dropped this.”

“Oh, thanks.” With a polite smile she looked up, from the pack of tissues someone held towards her to the face of the helpful person.

“Oh, it’s you again.” Grey eyes widened in surprise, matched Jazz’s. Mr. Ponytail grinned, motioned towards the public bath.

“Don’t tell me there’s a party going on in there, too.”

“I let you know, there’s a party wherever I am.”

His laughter was loud, bounced off the buildings around them.

“Yeah, I can see that.” He reached into his jacket, came back with a box of cigarettes. “You want one?”

“No thanks, never got the appeal of it.”

“Oh. Well…” He shrugged, put the box back again.

Jazz shifted from one foot to the other.

“Okay, it was nice meeting you again but-”

“Have you always been this short?”

She blinked up at him, her brain needed a moment to catch up. “Um, no. At work I’m usually taller, but you know, in my free time I like to shrink a bit. The water must have been too hot.” She motioned towards the bath behind her.

“Huh. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess.” He scratched his goatee, looked down at her feet.

“Like smoking?” Her question drew his attention back to her face, the teasing smile on her lips.

“Nah, that’s not a hobby. Just a bad habit I can’t kick.”

“Too bad. There’s so much better things to do with hands and lips.” She winked at him, adjusted her bag. “I’m sorry, I must really go now. Got a date later. See you soon, I hope.”

“Oh, yeah. Have fun at your – date.” He reached for his cigarettes again, this time actually took one out and put it between his lips.

Jazz lazily waved at him over her shoulder, grinned on the whole way home.

 

The bar wasn’t too crowded, but Jazz was still glad she had called and gotten them a table. Miho was already waiting, a glass in front of her.

“Hey, have you been here long already?”

“No, just long enough to order and take a sip. I got you a Gin and Tonic.”

“Great!” Jazz plopped down, relaxed in her seat. “Liana will probably come, too. You’ll like her, she has a very practical mindset.”

“From what you told me about her so far I’m pretty sure we’ll get along just fine.” They clinked glasses, Jazz strained her eyes to read the menu written on a blackboard next to the bar counter.

“Yummy, it’s gonna be katsudon today.”

“You are so chipper, did something good happen?” Miho narrowed her eyes at her friend who batted her lashes innocently.

“Dunno what you mean.” She motioned for the owner who nodded, grabbed a notepad and trudged towards them.

“Oh god, you didn’t just have phone sex with Ichiyanagi, did you?”

“Shhhh!” Frantically Jazz shook her head, smiled at the bar owner.

“Hey, Kashibawara-san, how are you doing?”

“Great!” The man tapped his pen against the notepad. “How about you?”

“I’m fine. Would be much better with a bowl of katsudon, though.” She tilted her head, put on her trademark innocent smile, watched him laugh.

“Sure thing, buttercup. And what else should it be for your grumpy friend?”

“I’m not grumpy, just not as stupidly cheerful as the Lil’ Miss Sunshine here.” Miho downed her drink, handed him the glass. “Another one of those and some chicken. Oh, and a bowl of soba.”

“Coming right up.”

Jazz waited until he was gone before she turned to Miho again. “Hubby’s coming back tomorrow night, so that should be reason enough for me to be happy.”

“It’s still creepy when you casually refer to him as ‘hubby’. I bet he just got the shivers and has no clue why.”

Jazz snorted, took a sip of her drink. “You always act as if he’s the devil but I know that you actually consider him a friend, so save your breath. Oh, there’s Liana!” Wildly waving Jazz jumped up, spilled a bit of her drink.

“Hi. Sorry for being late.”

“No, it’s fine, it’s fine. It’s not work after all. Come, have a seat.” Casually she grabbed a napkin, wiped at her shirt and the table, showed Liana a seat before she got back into her own.

“So, what’s your poison? The cocktails are good here and so is the beer. Not sure about the wine, though.”

“Can I get a margarita?”

Kishibawara came over with a tray, just in time to hear Liana’s order.

“No problem. You want something to eat, too?”

She squinted in the direction of the menu while Kishibawara served food and drinks.

“The soba looks good. Could I get a bowl of that?”

“Yep, coming right up.” He slinked away again, followed by three pairs of eyes.

“Nice little bar,” Liana said, still looking around.

“Yeah, we come here every now and then. Mostly just us girls, without the husbands.”

Liana’s listened to Jazz’s chatter, kept checking out the bar. “Because of the hot guys here?”

“What hot guys?” Miho raised her eyebrow, looked over her right shoulder, then her left. “The owner is nice, but a bit dorky.”

“The other time he had a karaoke battle with a regular. It was actually hilarious, but neither of them could sing.”

The man in question came back with Liana’s order, asked if there was anything else he could do for the ladies and left when there wasn’t.

“Here’s to us and girls’ nights out,” Jazz announced, raised her glass.

“And to booze!” Miho’s glass met Jazz’s with a light clink.

“And to food?” Liana asked, brought her glass up, too.

“Oh, you won’t believe who I ran into earlier today.” Jazz took her chopsticks, sorted through her bowl. The onions to one side, the pork cutlet to the other.

“Who?” Miho asked, fulfilling her duties as best friend/cue supplier.

“The ponytail guy. Met him in front of the public bath.”

“The guest who helped you with that drunk a while back?” Liana let her chopsticks sink, narrowed her eyes at Jazz. “Wasn’t he on that other party, too? He’s not stalking you, is he?”

Miho’s head shot up, the same suspicious expression Liana was wearing on her face.

“No one is stalking anyone, we only met like – three times now. Can’t forge a criminal case out of that yet, can ya? Nah, we just happen to live in the same city.”

The pork cutlet was delicious, Jazz munched on it and smiled.

“You say you met him in front of the bath. Was he wearing a yukata?” Miho waggled her eyebrows, snatched a piece of pork cutlet.

“Your obsession with male chests is duly noted, but no, he wore a shirt and pants. Not that I paid much attention to his outfit, I was busy checking if mine was okay.”

“You’re married to Ichiyanagi, no wonder you don’t have a thing for male chests,” Miho dryly remarked, laughed when Jazz threatened to poke her with the chopsticks.

“Don’t pay any attention to Miho, she’s just being her usual mean self.”

“Have you met her husband, Liana?” Choosing to ignore Jazz Miho turned to the new arrival in their group.

“I did. He picked her up from work a few times. A very pleasant man.”

Miho snorted. “I see, so you don’t really know him yet.”

“Hey, I married that man! Stop badmouthing him when he’s not around to defend himself.” This time Jazz reached over and took a piece of Miho’s chicken.

“Why don’t you defend him? Could be entertaining.”

Jazz shrugged. “Nah, he’s all grown up, he can fight his own battles.”

They ate and drank, chatted about everything and anything and after two hours Liana asked for her bill and called it a night.

“Thanks, I had lots of fun tonight. Not even sure when I went out the last time.”

“Not that much of a party animal?” Miho asked, looking for her wallet in her purse.

“No, it’s more like my ex got our friends after the divorce and I got the collection of vintage tea cups. Unfortunately it’s a bit like in the 60s here. People think a divorce is contagious, married couples avoid me in case my bad single vibes could ruin their happiness.”

“Wow, that’s some very old-fashioned love superstition.” Jazz handed Kashiwabara some money and smiled at him.

“Yeah, that’s lame. Well, if you don’t get annoyed by us being all married and domestic-” At this point Jazz interrupted Miho’s speech with a loud ‘Ha!’

”What?”

“You’re not domestic at all.” Unfazed by Miho’s glare Jazz grabbed her jacket and put it on.

“Hey, I can make some great pancakes!”

“Doesn’t mean you’re what we would call a perfect housewife.”

“Anyway, I’m not afraid you’ll jinx us so how about we do this more often? Go out, have some drinks and good food?”

Liana nodded, waited for the others to get ready. “Sounds good.”

“Great, but for now we better go home. We got work tomorrow,” Jazz reminded them, waved at the bar owner and followed Miho outside. They parted ways, all three of them going into different directions.

The whole evening Jazz hadn’t stopped smiling.

The scent of smoke – Part 2

Liana rushed around the venue, making some last minute changes to the decorations while Jazz talked to the bar staff. Ever since she had been assigned to Jazz as assistant her days were busy, but also rewarding. Jazz gave her a lot of freedom but also expected professionalism and if not perfect, so at least working solutions to whatever problem might pop up.

“Did you take care of the flower arrangements?” The list in her hand got shorter and shorter, a check mark after every task already done and the sight made Jazz smile. Everything was under control.

“Yes, all done. And I moved some candelabras, they were too close to the flowers.”

“Good job. Anything else I should know?” Jazz handed the list over and clipped her earpiece on, checked the channel.

“Nothing so far. What’s still left to do?”

“Take the guest list over to the entrance. Can you brief the crew on who to let in and who not?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course Liana could. She nodded, stepped aside to let some staff carrying crates of wine and champagne through.

“Okay, I’m going to check on the kitchen staff real quick. First guest should arrive in ten, we better be ready by then.”

Before an event started Jazz was the most nervous, it only got better about halfway through. Burden of being the person in charge, but she wore it like a cape, not a yoke.

Another important business party for some important company, only important people were invited to eat snacks and drink imported wine. One of these days her bosses would give her the really big events, not only the good paying ones. Jazz was good at raking in the cash from CEOs who were convinced that their parties were the highlight of the year, she combined traditional elements with influences of her western heritage to some impressive and unique venues and performances. And although she had fun planning and organising these parties she wanted more. She wanted the crown.

For now she had to make do with crown roast; its fragrance wafted around her when she opened the door to the kitchen. Japanese foods and some western specialities were lined up to create the perfect fusion of east and west, fitting to the location and decoration.

She snatched a bite, deemed it worthy to get served, asked the chefs if they needed anything and with the assurance that everything went according to plan she rushed out again, always on the go.

Liana found her giving the staff a last pep talk, not standing out in her black skirt and blouse combination in a sea of waitstaff dressed in black pants and shirts. The only difference was the missing red tie around Jazz’s collar, the earpiece and of course the clipboard.

“Be polite and smile, but if someone crosses the line, don’t hesitate to get help. We rather take care of problems early. Discreetly of course. Any more questions?” She looked around, nodded a last time. “In that case, have fun and do a good job.” A round of polite applause and Jazz spotted Liana, shot her a questioning look.

“The host has arrived and he’s asking for you.”

Her clothes hastily smoothed down Jazz straightened up, all confident event planner now without any traces of nervousness.

“I better go and greet him.”

During the planning phase she had mostly dealt with his secretary, a competent and efficiently working young man named Osanai. Mr. Aikawa himself had talked on the phone with her once or twice, but Jazz recognized him from some pictures in the media. Tall, dark, handsome and one of the youngest clients she had so far he was the CEO of a company that seemingly dealt in everything.

“Aikawa-sama? I am Jazz Mann, the party coordinator. I hope you enjoy the event.” Her perfect bow was well practiced, Subaru had made sure she knew the etiquette after once seeing her bow sloppily.

“Ms. Mann, glad to finally meet you. And don’t be that formal, this is a party after all.” He smiled, slight dimples showed on his cheeks, and offered her his hand. “Mr. Aikawa is more than enough of formality.”

“Thank you, sir. Anyway, if there is anything you need tonight, don’t hesitate to tell me.” It was a phrase she had only reluctantly taken into her usual speech; it often sparked the wrong responses but her bosses insisted on it.

“Thank you, but so far everything is looking really great. I’m sure you did a great job.” He bowed his head lightly and she smiled.

“Well, your secretary was a big help of course. We can work best with clear instructions and he has been very specific in his ideas of this event.”

Mr. Aikawa laughed, shook his head lightly. “He is pretty peculiar, but I’m glad he was of help and not making things harder for you.” Once more he scanned the room, smiled as he took in all the details. “I just want my employees to enjoy this night. They do so much for me and the company, they deserve some appreciation every now and then.”

Rare words. Planning events for new ventures and fusions, sometimes to celebrate milestones and anniversaries – that was Jazz’s bread and butter work. A party for the employees to thank them for their hard work was new.

“I’m sure they will enjoy it. And I hope you will, too. If you excuse me now, sir, I still have some things to check.”

“Yes, of course. After all you are still working, aren’t you?” His laughter was happy and Jazz wondered what working for such a laid back boss would be like. Hers were constantly breathing down her neck.

With Liana in tow she made some last adjustments, more to keep her distracted than out of necessity.

The karaoke booth was constantly in use, the waitstaff was busy serving drinks and clearing glasses away and Jazz had reached her personal Zen moment while watching people having fun without crossing lines.

“A great party, Ms. Mann.”

Her polite smile widened a fraction when she recognized Mr. Aikawa, a glass in his hand. “Everyone is praising you and your work.”

“Thank you, sir, that’s the best reward. After getting paid of course.” Now that not much could go wrong anymore she was more relaxed, took things less seriously.

“Skip the sir, please. I feel so old.”

He didn’t look that old, maybe in his early 30s. Jazz raised an eyebrow, gave him a once over.

“Please, you can’t be much older than me.”

He hid his chuckle with a sip from his drink, followed her line of sight towards the crowd on the dance floor.

“I start to regret that I didn’t play a more active part in the whole planning process.”

“Why? Are you unhappy with how the party turned out?” Now both of her eyebrows shot up, after his praise earlier this came out of the blue .

“No, definitely not. It’s just – I could have met you more often.”

It was impossible to tell what was in his glass but Jazz assumed it was some kind of alcoholic drink. Wouldn’t be the first time a client hit on her after too many drinks.

“To discuss the order of courses and the venue?” Innocent blue-ish eyes came in handy when playing dumb and Jazz used it to her advantage if she had to.

“I guess I would have feigned interest in that, too, if that meant talking to you more.” A small smile on his face he watched her eyes widen.

“Mr. Aikawa, that’s very flattering, but I guess you should have a glass of water and some fresh air.”

“Oh, I’m not drunk. Actually I never drink.” There was enough space between them to pass as appropriate yet it just got too intimate for her.

“Is that so?” A tiny step back and she felt safer already. He really was handsome and his undivided attention boosted her ego.

“Maybe we could meet up after the party,” he suggested, tilted his head slightly.

“Sorry, but we don’t do evaluations after an event.” Again she flashed him an innocent smile, followed by her wedding ring. “And my husband doesn’t like it when I meet other men for anything else but work.”

“Oh.” His smile faded, he furrowed his brow. “Sorry, I thought because you are ‘Miss’ Mann and -”

“No, it’s fine, don’t worry. That happens a lot.”

“I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“No, if anything you flattered me, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m married. Happily.” At least he wasn’t creepy about it, some men didn’t even respect her marriage.

“Your husband is a lucky man, if I may say so.” His smile was back, but his body language had changed. Leaned back a bit, not fully turned towards her.

“You may. Tell him if you ever see him. He tends to forget it,” she joked. It was always tricky to turn down a man, even more so a client.

“Well, I better go and talk to someone else before I embarrass myself any further.” He gave her a short nod, a last lopsided smile before he wandered off.

She was a married woman but that didn’t mean she couldn’t watch. For work she met so many interesting men and although she loved Subaru with all her heart, sometimes she wondered why she couldn’t have met these interesting men sooner? Like when she was still in college?

“Miss Mann, we have a problem with the karaoke machine.”

Her earpiece cut her musings short, with a sigh she rushed over to the karaoke box, hoping it was an issue that could be solved by simply rebooting it.

 

“Jazz?” Liana checked the storeroom for her superior, frowned when she wasn’t there. “Where did she go?”

It was no surprise Jazz didn’t answer her phone, it currently was in Liana’s hand. She had found it on the bar counter earlier, but no trace of its owner. Usually Jazz told her when she was going on a break but this time she just vanished.

Liana could handle most of the work on her own, only sometimes she needed a signature to authorize orders and decisions. Still, after working with Jazz for months now and becoming friends, at least work friends, she worried about her. At least when Jazz broke her own patterns.

“Maybe in the kitchen,” Liana mumbled, made her way over there. Sometimes Jazz swiped some food at the end of the events, she didn’t eat much before due to her nerves. Liana had no problems eating before events, but she wasn’t the one with all the responsibility.

“Jazz? Are you in here?”

In the very back of the kitchen Jazz sat on a counter, a plate with appetizers in her lap, a napkin in one hand, a spring roll in the other.

“I was looking for you. You left this on the bar.”

“Oh, thanks.” Her voice muffled by the food in her mouth Jazz smiled sheepishly, offered Liana the plate and took her phone back.

“Party’s winding down. People are still having fun, but some are leaving already.” It was past midnight, so that was normal.

“Good. I’m beat. Hungry, tired and my feet hurt.” She set the plate down, hopped off the counter on her bare feet.

“Why don’t you wear comfy shoes then?”

“Because I’m short and need the additional height of my heels.” Jazz slipped back in said heels, winced briefly but shook it off. “Did you need me for something?”

“No, just wondered where you are since you weren’t hovering around your phone like you usually do.”

Jazz made a dismissive sound, she wasn’t clutching her phone all the time. Only when she was nervous.

“Fine, since my snack time is cut short I can just as well go back to work.”

Under Liana’s laughter Jazz swaned out of the kitchen, head up high, struggling to keep a straight face but failed. Back behind the bar she was smiling again, slipped her phone into her waistband and checked on the barkeepers. She only noticed the guest staring at her when she looked up and met his gaze.

“Oh, hi!” Her smile widened when she recognized the ponytail and the scruffy goatee of the helpful guest back from her encounter with the drunk man in the closed off bar.

“Oh, hello. Didn’t think I would run into you here.”

“Well, here’s a bar and a party. My natural habitat.” She motioned for him to wait a moment, ducked under the counter and came back up with a bottle of beer. “Here, but don’t let the others see it.”

He cracked a smile, took the bottle and looked around. “You’re not getting into trouble, are you?”

“For offering you a beer? Depends. Are you legal?”

He spluttered, covered his mouth with his free hand, coughed and turned away. “Goddammit, you can’t make me laugh when I’m just drinking something!”

Jazz snickered, her professional facade crumbled; apparently she wasn’t meant to act cool and collected around him.

“What? I’m supposed to make sure not to give alcohol to minors.” Her wide eyed innocent look coupled with the batting of her lashes got another laughter out of him, but this time without almost spraying his beer all over the counter.

”You are quite entertaining, anyone ever told you that?”

“I consider myself funny,” she shrugged. “Most other people don’t. I’m fine with that.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s the same for most people.” He took another sip of beer, set the bottle down again.

The party was slowing down, about half of the guests gone already so Jazz had time to kill. And there was no harm in having some fun, was it?

“Most people don’t care that I’m not funny, though. Not as long as I’m wearing tight clothes.” She took a step back, gestured with a flourish to her black ensemble.

“Which look great on you, I gotta admit. But only looks won’t get you very far.” Still, his eyes followed the path of her hands, once up and down her body.

“Well, in that case I guess I’m lucky for my great personality and my incredible charm.”

“Don’t forget your modesty,” he pointed out only for Jazz to grin even wider.

“Exactly.”

He huffed a laughter, drained his bottle. “Definitely entertaining.”

“Thanks, we aim to please.” She took the empty bottle, shook it once midair, one eyebrow arched at him. “Another?”

“Nah, shouldn’t push my luck. But thanks, that was exactly what I just needed.” He tilted his head and Jazz bowed slightly. When she raised her head again she was still smiling.

“You’re welcome.” And for once she meant it.