Title: Riddled With White -- Part One
Pairing: UlquiHime (plus Tatsuki and others)
Warnings: Cracktacular contents. Language, mild violence. Gratuitous use of Starrk.
Summary: When the infamous scientist Mayuri Kurotsuchi disappears, it's up to private eye Ulquiorra Cifer and his Girl-Friday, Tatsuki Arisawa, to solve the case.
Note: I don't own Bleach, I just like playing in the Hueco Mundo sandbox. Also, thanks to nehalenia for suggesting such a brilliant-beyond-brilliant prompt.
RIDDLED WITH WHITE
The snake-pit at The Communicator was reeling. Phones ringing off the hook, palms sweating, reporters fumbling with their shorthand. So much fuss.
"Ulquiorra." The lead-faced Kira approached the elevator bank. "The chief's waiting."
He guided me through the throng to the editor-in-chief's office, which stared directly into the glass labyrinth of downtown. Hisagi spared no welcoming sentiments. Bent low over his desk, a fingertip traced over the copy in his hand, savoring every syllable, as if he had to feel the weight of the words in order to believe them. Kira closed the office door and motioned for me to sit. I declined with a shake of my head, hands sunk low in the pockets of my trench coat. Hisagi eliminated an awkward phrase with his pen.
"Well," I asked, "who died?"
"Nice to see you, too." He got to his feet and stretched, hands purposefully setting the black peaks of his hair at odds with one another. "Pretty gruesome stuff, eh?"
"I wouldn't know."
His head fell to one side, momentarily thrown."Then why--"
"Because, you only call me when an interesting corpse turns up."
"That's not true, Ulquiorra," said Kira.
Hisagi nodded in agreement. "This time, all they found were his fingernails."
A slow, rueful blink preceded the obvious question. "Whose fingernails?"
Kira handed me a thin file. "Dr. Mayuri Kurotsuchi, head of the Shinigami Research and Development Institute. Last seen at eleven-thirty yesterday, when his lab assistant went home for the night."
"His daughter received an unmarked package about an hour ago," said Hisagi. "Someone was kind enough to gift wrap dear old dad's fingernails for her, and deliver them just in time for breakfast."
I opened the file. The stock photo hardly captured the man's vast, blood-curdling intelligence. Everyone knew that the Institute's tests were more akin to torture. But the results overruled the cost.
His pallid skin rivaled my own. Seemingly lidless eyes leant menace to his exposed teeth. The photo of the girl bore no resemblance. "A daughter. How unexpected."
"My source at homicide--"
I cut Hisagi short. "When are you going to realize that Tousen is just pawn?"
Kira twitched, seeming to take all the offense. Hisagi simply smirked, closing the distance between the three vertical scars across his right cheek. The man knew how it was on the streets, and he knew that the police in this town were rotten from brain to bones. Worst of all was Detective Aizen, the head of homicide, and his cronies. There was a rumor, widely accepted as truth, that they committed more murders than they solved.
"You don't think the daughter's a likely suspect, then?" Hisagi looked at me shrewdly. He was a tough customer, the backbone of The Communicator, the last scion of truth.
I took in Mayuri Kurotsuchi's skeletal visage once more. "A familial dispute is not out of the question, and it's a good angle, as far as the press is concerned. But it won’t pan out."
"How can you be so sure?" Kira asked with a skeptical brow.
"Aizen enjoys diversions--which you should both know by now. He wants the press distracted, and the prime suspect hounded until she breaks."
"Well, if you're so smart," Hisagi said wryly, "bring me the freak's body before the evening edition goes to print."
The contents of the file were neatly creased in thirds and placed in the breast pocket of my trench coat. "Locating Kurotsuchi will cost you double."
"And the killer?"
"Really, Mr. Hisagi." I crossed to the door, taking the handle in my cold fingers. "After all the man has done for science, it's rather uncouth to wish his life away, don't you think?"
The morning sun had paled. No shadows crossed my path, not even my own, as I made my way to the subway. I descended into the metallic panic and buried heat, keeping my distance from the roving bands of trash that littered the platform. Their existence held no interest for me. They were unnecessary.
A lurch propelled the train forward into the darkness, bringing my thoughts back to the case. The assistant would have to be questioned, the daughter, too. Avoiding Aizen's homicide squad would prove troublesome, but not impossible. A man like Kurotsuchi would have a long list of enemies--plenty of leads to feed the wolves.
But first--Arisawa had to be brought up to speed.
I left the subway and its trash behind. A sleek black roadster with a red leather interior was parked outside the office. The lobby was deserted. I started up the stairs. On the second to last step, the anticipation hit.
The woman was stewing. I didn't pay her to overreact.
A flash of silver--the gilt lettering on the glass insert of the office door, Starrk & Cifer--announced my return. Arisawa sat with her feet on the desk, arms behind her head, wearing her usual uniform--trousers and vest, shirtsleeves rolled up the elbows, exposing well-formed arms. Her mood immediately shifted from agitation to triumph. Arisawa was under the impression that curiosity was a defining personality trait of mine, endlessly dangling limp carrots before me, so sure that I'd bite. I never could pass up an opportunity to disappoint her, especially when expectation seized her features just so.
"We have a new job." The information provided by Hisagi and Kira landed at her feet.
A heel guided the paperwork closer to her sharp gaze. Her triumph only grew. "Double-dipping, boss?"
"Out with it, woman. I'm in no mood."
Her thumb hooked over her shoulder. "Check your office, boss. All will be revealed."
I left her to study the file. Arisawa's memory was sharp, particularly when it came to names and dates, and she never seemed to forget a face.
Upon opening my office door, the cause of Arisawa's amusement became clear. Standing by the window was an unnatural beauty, edged in black--Nemu Kurotsuchi, the prime suspect. White gloves hid her palms, black silk skimmed along her arms, contradictorily modest to the amount of leg exposed beyond the hem of her fitted skirt. Harrowed green eyes settled upon me. I plumbed their depths for any flicker of guilt, even the slightest hint of relief. The girl was troubled. Her attention shifted to the open door. I honored her unspoken request for privacy, closing the door behind me.
"Detective Cifer," she said, her voice clipped, like the wings of a kept bird. "I was followed."
"A police detective?"
She nodded. "With silver hair."
"That's Gin Ichimaru, from homicide. He likes to watch."
"You must have noticed the car."
"There's no accounting for personal taste."
A faint flush took hold of her cheeks. "I wasn't trying to be discreet, Detective Cifer…I know things about the doctor, and his research. You might say that I'm his backup plan."
She took a step closer to the window. A shudder possessed her for a moment, exposing her barely contained dread. My limbs tensed. Whatever sins Kurotsuchi had committed in his laboratory, they had clearly not remained with the father.
"You see, Detective Cifer…I didn't call the police this morning. I don't know who called them." She looked me in the eye. "I didn't know where else to go…they say you're the best."
"Is that so? I don't remember advertising."
The sarcasm was answered with open disdain. "What is that you want to hear, then, Detective Cifer? That I have money?"
"There is no need for hysterics, Miss Kurotsuchi."
Her composure solidified somewhat. "Will you take the case?"
"That depends. Will you tell me the truth?"
She hesitated. "As much as I can."
"Then I won't pry. Three questions will suffice."
"I came prepared." The girl produced a small silver box from her purse and set it on the desk. "A sample of the so-called evidence--the doctor's fingernail. What else?"
"Do you think he's alive?"
"Of course the doctor is alive. Next question."
I took a careful step forward. "Has anyone ever trusted the doctor?"
"Trust?" Her eyelids fluttered. "How strange…even I have my moments…but, there is one man who trusted the doctor implicitly--Kisuke Urahara. He founded the Institute. I don't think the doctor ever forgave him for having the idea first."
Urahara. A dubious character at best. "Wait here."
Ignoring Arisawa's questioning frown, I crossed the main room to Starrk's office and entered without knocking. The lanky Starrk and his second-shadow, the blonde imp Lilynette, were absorbed in a poker game. A one -sided poker game. Nearly all the chips were piled in front of Starrk, who was too lazy to even look pleased with himself.
"Overworked, as ever."
"Don't start, Ulquiorra." He shuffled the pair of Queens in his hand. "That's what I have Lilynette for."
"You're just trying to rile me up."
"Try?" Starrk looked insulted at the very suggestion of effort.
"I have a job for you, Starrk."
"And I decline," he said without hesitation.
"Will you call already?" Lilynette kicked his shin under the table. He didn't even flinch. "A fucking poor sport, that's what you are."
"But if I call, the game will be over."
Red swarmed her cheeks. "You're bluffing!"
"Fine." A heavy breath, then his cards fell to the table. The girl began to spit obscenities, limbs recoiling, readying a strike. The optimum moment for me to intervene.
"Girl, how would you like to triple the amount of money on the table?"
Rabid pink eyes accepted before her mouth moved. "How--how?"
"Follow the nice lady in my office back to her mansion, sit around and do nothing. Except kill anything that moves."
"Deal!" She started towards the door, only to be seized by the collar of her shirt.
Starrk looked at me out of the corner of his eye. "Why didn't you say so?"
The keys to the roadster transferred from one gloved hand to the other. Starrk sped off, with Lilynette straddling the shift. A peculiar trio--but the Kurotsuchi girl would live to see another day. Starrk's mere presence would see to that.
"That was almost considerate of you, boss." Arisawa waved goodbye, but her attention was fixed on the lean figure covertly watching the fleeing roadster from a stoop across the street. Ichimaru. "But then again, I know how much you hate it when a piggy bank croaks before you get paid."
"Keep it up, and see how much you get at the end of the week."
"Then tell me where to start digging."
"Kisuke Urahara. A hard man to track down."
Laughter. My subordinate was standing in a city street, in broad daylight, laughing in my face. I could practically hear Ichimaru grin himself into oblivion. I started counting to ten. If I reached the limit, Arisawa deserved what was coming to her. The laughter continued. My hand flew, only to meet the slender steel of her forearm.
"Hitting girls? That won't do."
"Your simplistic humor is wasted on me."
"That's because I'm laughing at you, boss. And here I thought you saw everything that goes on in this city. Urahara, difficult to find…how pathetic." Laughter threatened to overtake her again.
"Oh?" The laughter died. Arisawa leaned in, suddenly all business. Ichimaru was on the move.
"You know the Boneyard, old man Baraggan's place?"
I nodded and turned away. "Seven."
"Sure thing, boss."
The pavement blended together, an inconsequential maze. It didn't matter where I was going. All that mattered was Ichimaru, and keeping him away from the Kurotsuchi girl. Three blocks stretched to ten, then thirteen. Finally, a police cruiser pulled up to the corner and Ichimaru slipped away, heading in the opposite direction Starrk had taken. For now.
Walking into the Shinigami Research and Development Institute was like stepping into a hive of mechanical drones. There was no evident delay in any of their actions. No worry tugged at their mouths. Even the last person to see Kurotsuchi alive, a particularly enigmatic oddity called Akon, was unconcerned.
"The doctor is known to disappear from time to time," he explained. "Especially after doing work on himself."
I looked pointedly at the three short horns protruding from his forehead. "Work?"
"These were a performance bonus."
"Is that standard procedure?"
"Only if you meet your quotas."
I removed the silver box from my coat pocket and opened it, revealing a blue fingernail, lying on a bed of cotton. "And what about this, Akon? Is this standard procedure?"
"To put it bluntly, Detective Cifer, there are bits and pieces of the doctor lying scattered all over the place. Miss Nemu would never take a loose fingernail or two so seriously." He studied me, as I was the rarest of specimens. "Don't you find it odd that someone reported the doctor missing after only eight hours, if that? That a few fingernails are being taken as evidence of foul play?"
"Why else would I be here?"
"Some people are fond of cages, and others are fond of caged animals. You never can tell."
I handed him my card. "Let me know if any more of the doctor's body parts unexpectedly show up."
"Unless the doctor's head winds up on a melon stand," said Akon, "nothing's wrong, as far as I'm concerned. Business as usual."
Slightly wary of Akon's definition of business as usual, I took my leave.
At six forty-seven, I walked into the Boneyard. Months had passed between visits, but nothing had changed. The same two-bit thugs swarmed around the billiard tables and bar, desperate for some scrap of notoriety. Everyone was competition. They stood around, eyeing their associates and enemies in the same light. A stab to the heart and a stab in the back both got the job done.
Old man Baraggan held court from the VIP section, guarded by a small army of brainless muscle. Women clung to his side. They were definitely his type--cheaply painted seconds.
I found a table near the billiards and its intentionally dim lighting. Scanning the main hall for Arisawa, I found my attention repeatedly drawn to a sharp-featured young man at a nearby pool table. He was no more than a boy, really, but the glare in his blue eyes aged him beyond his years. It was spiteful, verging on hate.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the emcee, "please welcome The Flash Goddess Three!"
Music swelled, velvet curtains parted, revealing three well-crafted silhouettes clad in white gowns, backlit for the utmost effect. The trash responded as expected, howling in abandon. A glance at the dour youth showed that he shared my sentiments, but a glance was all I could spare. The man of the hour had arrived, pale hair escaping from the brim of his hat.
Urahara found a seat nearby. A waitress approached, but a disturbingly witless smile from Urahara discouraged her. The smile then turned in the direction of the stage. A striking woman with dark skin and teased out black hair winked back. The Flash Goddess Three were certainly not Baraggan's taste. The blonde on the left was too comfortable in her own skin, confident to the utmost. Urahara's object of affection was clearly a force to be reckoned with. And the third…
She stood out like blood on whitewash.
Her ruddy brown had been pulled back to expose her neck, an obvious attempt to make her look more mature. Instead, every inch of exposed skin strained against its surroundings, so out of place that it was almost painful. Her entire demeanor was impossibly soft--not delicate, but malleable, almost fluid. It would be all too easy to tear her apart. Even her soprano lacked the others' conviction. What was she doing in a place like the Boneyard?
As if on cue, Arisawa arrived, still wearing her street clothes. Clearly expecting trouble.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "I was backstage with Orihime."
I blinked at her. Arisawa pointed to the anomaly.
"Orihime, boss. My best friend. Ring a bell?"
"I rarely find the details of your personal life relevant, woman."
She scoffed, sinking down several inches into her chair. The sharp-featured youth appeared at her shoulder.
"Evening, Ishida. I figured you'd be here."
"At least one of us is surprised." The boy looked me over, much in the same manner as Akon had. I couldn't help but bristle. A detective wasn't supposed to be on the receiving end of close scrutiny.
"What my associate is trying to say, Ishida, is that we're busy."
"Is an introduction too much to ask?" He began another detailed survey of my features. I glowered back.
"Some other time, Ishida."
"Doubtful," he said curtly and strode off.
The Flash Goddess Three continued their set. Urahara's attention never waivered. He didn't even seem to notice Arisawa burning holes in the back of his head. I kept tabs on Baraggan's limited movements, coupled with crowd surveillance, looking for anyone showing too much interest in the reclusive scientist.
The only unnaturally sharp gaze was Ishida's. He stood just shy of the exit, willing his body to move. But she had him. And I had seen enough.
"We're leaving." I expected Arisawa to protest, but she followed my lead. The side entrance opened into an alleyway. We settled into the shadows. "Is Urahara here every night?"
"Yes--well, every night that Yoruichi sings, that is. They're…old friends."
"And that boy?"
"Ishida's harmless. Brilliant, but harmless."
"That was not my impression."
"Why the sudden interest in Ishida?" She looked at me through her lashes. On Arisawa, such overtly feminine tactics strayed into intimidation, but she should have known better in my presence. I didn't give a damn.
"He is clearly an outsider here. The same goes for Urahara."
"Some men actually like women, boss."
"Focus. Or I will make you focus."
She leaned against the brick wall, hands clasped behind her head. "So, where do we go from here?"
"I'll trail Urahara, you check in with Starrk. If there's any movement tonight, it'll be at the Kurotsuchi place. I'll meet you there."
Raised voices seemed to throw the side door open, spilling a jumble of skirts and long hair into the alleyway. Two of Baraggan's girls, a cropped blonde and particularly unpleasant looking black-haired tramp, had the girl--Orihime--by the throat. I caught Arisawa by the wrist.
"Boss!" Her expectations were back, with a vengeance.
"If you must." The restraint disappeared. Finally, disillusionment surfaced in her brown eyes. A small victory.
"Some hero you are." She took off running.
The black-haired tramp didn't have time to breathe, let alone react. Arisawa forcibly introduced her face to the brick wall. Blood splattered. The blonde ran for it. Arisawa tried to lead her friend away, but the girl remained, staring at the pooling blood. She reached towards the injured tramp, only to find bloodied hands clawing at her eye sockets. Arisawa struck again. A heap of broken bones landed at her feet.
"No, Tatsuki! No more, please." The girl's voice broke. "She--she didn't really mean it."
I left Arisawa to clean up her mess.
To be continued…