Hajime had one of those in-car hands-free phone systems that automatically synched up the moment he turned on the engine. Sano restrained himself from asking if he could mess around with it, especially when, as Hajime backed out of the parking space, he was already starting his call.
Nobody answered, and Hajime hung up as soon as the voicemail connected, so Sano got no clue as to who might have been on the other end. But, “He’ll call back when he sees my number,” the exorcist said.
“Who?” Sano wondered. Hajime was glancing thoughtfully from one side of the street to the other as he drove, evidently trying to decide on a destination, and did not answer. This was, of course, very annoying, but instead of reiterating the question Sano just remarked, “Aoshi was way less helpful than I expected. I figured he’d be talking to that thing inside of a minute, and keep talking to him for hours.”
“At least he got through to him at all,” Hajime replied grudgingly. “That’s more than we managed.”
“I got all distracted by him fainting and talking about anchors and that woman and all that, and forgot to ask how a ghost can keep putting out shade energy.”
Now it was Hajime’s turn to look a little annoyed. “There were several things he probably could have told us if he hadn’t fallen in love with that ghost at first sight and forgotten we were there.” Sano took this to mean, “I got distracted and forgot too,” which could only make him smile. But if Hajime sensed and resented Sano’s interpretation of his statement, he gave no indication of it.
They ended up at a coffee place Sano had never heard of, though it was just outside the south end of the Asian district. Sano would have sat with idle hands at the table they chose beside the front window — gourmet drinks at pretentious little coffee shops were just too expensive for someone like him — if Hajime, somewhat impatiently, hadn’t insisted on buying him one. Sano never said no to a free… well, anything, really, but it felt a little weird to be accepting another favor from a man he technically should have been paying for his services instead of the other way around.
Hajime picked up on this and said dismissively, “Incidental expenses.”
Sano looked dubiously at his cup. “How often do you buy coffee for your clients?”
“Occasionally,” the exorcist shrugged.
“But they’re usually already paying you money.” Hajime hadn’t even asked if Sano could pay him, which was probably all for the best since Sano didn’t think he would have been able to refrain from making an only-mostly-facetious offer of gay sex in place of funds he didn’t have. (He felt he was getting the hang of controlling which thoughts went out and which ones stayed hidden, and to this one Hajime didn’t respond.)
“They also usually don’t give me the chance to talk to a real ghost.”
At this Sano mimicked Hajime’s shrug and decided not to worry about it any further. And the next moment, Hajime’s phone rang.
Sano sat forward, listening eagerly to this side of the conversation and what little he could hear from the other party — which wasn’t much, though he thought the voice was youngish and somewhat belligerent.
“Yes,” was how Hajime began the discussion. “It took you long enough to call back.” Then, after some apparently equally rude remark from the other end, “Of course. No, that’s over and done with. I need to know if there have been any Japanese men around here who have died lately under unusual circumstances. Yes. No. He’ll have left behind a woman, also Japanese — a wife or girlfriend or maybe a sister — someone close to him. Yes; when isn’t it? No, I’ve got a client being haunted by an actual ghost this time. Yes. OK, thanks.”
As Hajime replaced the phone — it was a nice-looking smart phone with a touch screen — Sano guessed, “So… cop?”
Hajime nodded. “He’s got no magical talent himself, but he’s been a believer ever since I dealt with a yellow shade he picked up somewhere. We have an unofficial arrangement that he can consult me on anything that seems magical, and in return he gives me information when I need it.”
“Sounds good,” Sano nodded. Actually he was more than a little impressed. Having a contact in the police like that was better than just knowing a good medium; not only did it sound like something super-cool out of a TV show, it also rather put Hajime into a higher league of effectiveness. He supposed that was one marked difference between a career exorcist and a guy that just happened, every once in a while, to absorb red shades for his schoolmates.
“So why are you an exorcist, anyway?” Sano had asked this question, or a variant, on Saturday, but now he was more interested in a more complete answer.
“It seemed interesting.” While Sano doubted this was Hajime’s entire reason for his career choice, he also got the feeling it was the truth.
Just then the ghost, in its sluggish circling of the table, moved right into the path of a customer getting in line, and Sano reached out and jerked the spirit toward himself to spare the poor woman some discomfort. Once she’d moved out of the ghost’s likely trajectory, Sano let the spirit go again. He was conjuring, wasn’t he? He’d never thought about it before; the action had always just seemed to come so naturally…
Hajime, who had been watching him with unreadable eyes, now asked unexpectedly, “What are you going to school for?”
Sano was always a little embarrassed when people hit him with that question. “I haven’t really decided. I’m just getting the general stuff out of the way right now.” He shrugged. “I should probably figure it out pretty soon here… but it kinda sucks how you only have a couple of years to choose what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.”
“You don’t necessarily have to do what you major in forever,” Hajime said with a skeptical expression.
Again Sano shrugged. “It’s easier, though. And it seems like the cooler and more fun a profession is, the less likely you are to ever be able to get into it.”
Hajime chuckled. “Only if you lack ambition and drive.”
“And luck!” Sano replied, stung. “People with cool jobs were usually in the right place at the right time.”
“With the right skillsets,” Hajime appended.
“Yeah, well… you can’t go around training for every cool job in the world just in case a good coincidence happens to come along.”
“Fortune favors the prepared.”
“What does that actually mean, anyway?”
“I can see that a strong understanding of the English language isn’t part of any of your skillsets.”
“I understand English just fine, ” Sano said hotly. “Just old sayings and shit don’t always make sense.”
Hajime only laughed at him again.
Sano’s hand clenched tightly around the coffee cup, warping the cardboard with his irate grip, but he strove not to speak angrily. “I mean, like, ‘cutting the mustard?’ What the hell does that mean? Or, why does it mean what it means?”
Derisive smile unfaded, Hajime did at least admit, “You have a point there.”
Someone was about to walk through the ghost again, and Sano stood abruptly as once again he pulled the spirit quickly toward himself. “Come on. There’s too many people in here; let’s go outside.”
The walk wasn’t exactly picturesque; next door to the coffee shop was a tire store that filled the air with an intolerable reek of rubber, followed by a gas station and then an apartment complex behind a tall fence. Sano was getting annoyed from dragging the ghost around so much, and it annoyed him to find himself getting annoyed for no good reason, and then he was annoyed at being annoyed at being annoyed. When Hajime evidently found this amusing, Sano at least then had good cause to be annoyed.
It was interesting how cheerfully Hajime took his abuse. Sano was aware — and grateful! — that the exorcist was and had been provoking him deliberately so he could work off some of the ghost’s stupid shade anger that he’d been absorbing; he figured Hajime would do that for any client. It was just that he seemed to enjoy it. Was he a masochist, or what?
This wasn’t all he wanted to know about Hajime. His earlier question about the man’s choice of profession had barely been answered, and he still wondered about the apparent improbable level of income, though he was perfectly well aware that it was none of his business.
“I guess if you want to know that desperately, I could tell you,” Hajime mused.
Sano swore under his breath. “I thought I wasn’t projecting that.”
“You were still giving off a general sense,” Hajime told him with a smirk. “That’s harder to control.”
With a growling expression of discontent, Sano threw him a dark look. “So you gonna tell me, or what?”
Deeming that as good an answer as he was going to get, Sano tried to decide exactly what to ask.