Kazuto sat at the bar, a shadow under the amber lights of the Lucky Dice Café. He took a long pull from his cigarette, letting the smoke sear his lungs before exhaling through his nose, twin jets of smoke adding to the cloud of noxious fog that hung in the bar like a bat suspended from the ceiling. Agil, the bartender and owner, diverted his attention from the glass he was polishing as Kazuto ground the butt of his cigarette into a nearby ashtray and proceed to rap his knuckles on the polished mahogany. A glass slid down the length of the bar and found its way into Kazuto's hand. Ice cubes clicked like castanets as he fired back the strong liquor and shook his head as the drink burned a line down his throat.

A quiet murmur filled the bar as the few scattered patrons chit-chatted among themselves while a jazz band played a sultry slow rhythm from the corner stage. Agil looked over at Kazuto again and made his way over to where the raven-haired man sat. Agil leaned over the bar next to Kazuto, making it look like he was simply surveying his establishment.

"Another one, huh?" Agil murmured, hardly moving his mouth.

"Yeah," Kazuto said to his glass. "Third time this month." The corners of Agil's mouth turned up.

"That a fact? Sounds to me like APD is getting awfully chummy with their new consultant." Kazuto shot a glare at Agil out of the corner of his eye. The big black man pretended not to notice.

"I prefer working on cases myself."

Agil snorted. "Just like everything else you do. You need to get out more."

"I am out," Kazuto retorted. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"Working on a case. Any other time you're down here, it's because you're about to pass out from staying cooped up in that office too long." Kazuto finished his drink and set it down hard on the bar.

"You're not my mother Agil, back off," he snarled. Agil slowly stood up and coolly took the empty glass from in front of Kazuto and refilled it.

"I am, however," Agil murmured. "Your friend. I'm just worried about you."

Whatever comeback Kazuto was about to shoot off was cut short by the bell over the front door ringing as someone came inside. Out of the corner of his eye, Kazuto saw a figure in a long red coat take a seat at the bar next to him as he glowered into his drink. Agil addressed the figure with a smile and a polite nod.

"Good evening, Captain. Can I get you something to drink?"

"Manhattan, on the rocks, two cherries," a tired female voice answered. Agil gave a curt nod as he reached one hand under the bar to grab a glass while the other picked up a bottle of sweet vermouth, flipping the container with absent-minded practice.

Kazuto turned to the figure next to him and nodded an acknowledgement to its existence. "A pleasure as always, Captain Yuuki." Asuna Yuuki, captain of the Aincrad Police Department, looked over at him with a small chastising smile.

"Come on, Kirito. You don't need to be so formal. We went through basic training together after all, and we've been working together almost this whole month now. You can call me Asuna."

"If you say so… Asuna."

"Hold on, you're friends with Kirito too?" Agil asked as he handed Asuna her drink. Asuna smiled over the rim of her glass as she took a sip.

"I guess you could call us that. Most people would," she answered, shooting a coy smile and a sidelong look to the man next to her. Kazuto grunted and swirled his drink.

"I don't have any friends," he muttered sullenly. Asuna and Agil rolled their eyes and looked at each other knowingly.

"So what's the reason behind yet another outside call to an independent agency, Captain?" Agil asked. "Kirito's been so busy he's hardly had time to come in here and sulk in his drink."

Asuna smiled apologetically and shifted on her barstool so her coat opened to show her white APD uniform and silver cross-shaped badge. "Sorry, but that's-"

Agil cut her off with a dismissive wave of a large hand as he turned away and walked further down the bar. "Official APD business, yeah, yeah. Should've known when the other one wouldn't tell me even after he was full as a boot."

Asuna raised her glass in a good-natured salute as the bartender retreated from earshot.

"Full as a boot, huh?" Asuna asked Kazuto as soon as nobody could overhear them. Kazuto pointedly finished his drink and set the glass down on the polished bartop with an audible thunk. "You're still searching, aren't you?"

"So why did you call me?" Kazuto asked stiffly. "Another robbery? Missing person?"

Asuna's eyes lay heavy on him for a silent moment before she turned back to her drink and took a long sip before answering.

"I wish that was all it was," she muttered darkly.

"Well what is it?" Kazuto repeated, tension starting to make his gut writhe.

The captain was well known in the city for her ironclad confidence and ice cold calm under all kinds of pressure. Seeing her so beaten down made Kazuto's danger sense start to buzz like a beehive at the back of his skull.

Asuna finished her drink and dug some loose bills out of her coat pocket, placing them gently under the glass on top of the bar.

"Come on," she said as she shrugged her coat tighter around her on her way towards the door. "I'll show you."

The rain came down in a thin dreary mist as Kazuto rode along in Asuna's cruiser. The police scanner remained fairly quiet as they drove, the silence only being broken by idle chatter of officers updating their positions. Streetlights flickered to life as the overcast sky began to darken, each being haloed by the nonstop precipitation.

Asuna finally pulled the car over to a stop outside of an apartment complex on the rougher side of town. She parked next to a uniformed officer who was hailing the car from the sidewalk. She killed the engine and exited the car with Kazuto. The uniformed officer quickly fell into step on the other side of Kazuto, who watched the young man puff out his chest with poorly concealed contempt.

"It's alright, Corporal," Asuna said quietly. "He's aiding me with the investigation." The young corporal's chest deflated like a balloon.

"Forgive me Captain," he replied meekly. "I just wanted to help."

The trio finally reached the complex entrance and came to a stop. Asuna turned to the man and placed a firm hand on his shoulder, causing him to jump slightly and look up at her.

"I know, Randy," she said softly. "You're doing a great job. This one's going to be for the big kids though." She gave a nod in Kazuto's direction. "That's why I brought him. I do have something for you to do, though. Something important." The corporal, Randy apparently, perked up a bit.

"What is it, Captain?"

"I need you to stand here and stop any paparazzi that show up from coming in. Nobody without a badge comes in, got it?" Randy nodded furiously and gave Asuna a salute.

"I won't let you down, Captain?" Asuna patted him on the shoulder.

"I knew you wouldn't, Randy," she said as she turned towards Kazuto. She brushed by him as Randy took up a position in front of the entrance, spreading his feet wide. "Come on, let's go up."

"Someone should tell that kid's mother he's playing cop up past his bedtime," Kazuto commented on their way up the stairs. "How long he been on the force?"

"Today's six months out of the academy for Randy," Asuna murmured. She shook her head slowly. "Hard to believe that was me just a few years ago; bright eyed and bushy tailed. Practically itching to do the right thing."

"You still do the right things, Capitan. Overall crime rates have gone down twelve percent since your promotion." Asuna's eyes never left the stairs.

"Then if I'm doing such a great job, how could this happen?"

They finally reached their destination: an apartment door that was flanked by two more- slightly beefier- uniformed APD officers. One saw the pair approaching and wordlessly lifted the yellow caution tape that barred the doorway so that they could pass under.

The apartment was a hellscape. Blood was smeared along the walls and cheap linoleum floors. Kazuto swallowed back bile that crawled up his throat at the stench. Forensics crew members tread silently as wraiths through the wreckage of overturned furniture and splotches of blood, only making noise when the shutters of their cameras clicked.

Asuna led Kazuto further into the apartment and down a hallway where more blood adorned the walls and floors. Kazuto thought quietly to himself that all of this blood seemed to be far too much from one person. Asuna stopped in front of the door at the end of the hall where the trail of blood ended ad turned to look at him.

"This is why I called you," she murmured and opened the door. Kazuto kept his gaze on the red floor until his boots squelched on the carpet of the bedroom. Slowly, after taking a shallow breath to steady his nerves, he raised his eyes.

A man lay face up on the bed in the center of the room. Blood was everywhere. It soaked the sheets, pooling under the deadweight that occupied the bed. It covered the walls like a demented splatter paint exhibition. Kazuto stepped closer to examine the body.

The victim was young, and looked to Kazuto to be in his early twenties. His eyes had glazed over and his flesh had already begun to stiffen and turn blue. His chest was an unholy mass of stab wounds so voluminous in number that Kazuto couldn't distinguish individual entry points. The rest of his body seemed untouched: no bruises or slash marks marred his legs or his hands.

"Didn't defend himself," Kazuto noted. He heard Asuna's coat rustle as she moved to stand next to him.

"Techs said no sign of forced entry either."

"So he knew the killer?" Asuna shook her head as she pulled out a small notepad out of her pocket and passed it to him. He took it with a sidelong look and a raised eyebrow, but Asuna continued to stare at the corpse without a word. Kazuto frowned slightly and looked at the pad, which had been written on in Asuna's elegant script.

My forensics tech already checked the guy out. No friends, worked from home, and had all his essentials mailed to him. Name was Ryuji Sabato. We're working on figuring out his online footprint, but it's gonna take some time. We're keeping everything about this quiet. This is the third murder carried out like this in the past three months.

Kazuto's eyebrows rose at the last sentence but he remained silent as he tucked the notepad into his coat pocket.

"Seen everything you need to?" Asuna asked. Kazuto nodded.

"Yeah."

Together, they left the room and exited the apartment. Once they were alone in the stairwell, Kazuto turned to Asuna.

"This is the third time in three months that something like this has happened?"

"No," she answered tightly. "This is the third time in three months that something exactly like this has happened."

"Holy shit, Asuna, You've got a serial killer loose in Aincrad."

"Thanks for the brilliant intellect, Sherlock.

"Why haven't more people been involved in this?" Kazuto asked. "There needs to be a manhunt or a task force. Hell they could bring special agents in from the Cardinal Bureau of Investigation for this!"

"Only problem with that being a state of panic in Aincrad. Plus the fact that bringing more people on makes it more of a mess of red tape and time consuming protocol where the killer could get away. Not to mention the possibility of copycat killers popping up, and a city losing its newly restored faith in it's police department." Asuna looked away from him. "Aincrad APD is supposed to be the most capable people involved in protecting this city. We can't let them down," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. Kazuto grimaced.

"Gah, this is why I work alone. I could've kicked this up to someone else." He crossed his arms over his chest. "What about witnesses? Someone had to have found these bodies."

"There haven't been any-"

"There haven't been any?!" Kauto burst out incredulously. "There have been two other murders like that shit show upstairs and nobody has seen anything?!" Asuna's hand clamped firmly over his mouth, stopping him dead in his tracks on one of the landings in the stairwell.

"First of all, keep your fucking voice down," Asuna growled as she glared daggers at him. "One of the reasons nobody's heard anything about this is because we haven't gone shouting it to the whole world. Second, the only people who know about this are me, you, the chief, and my people securing the scene, and it's gonna stay that way if you want to keep your tongue inside your mouth, got it?" Kazuto nodded slowly. "Good. Lastly, you didn't let me finish earlier. There haven't been any witnesses until this murder. My boys found the previous two bodies on their patrols and only found this one because we got a call about a burglary in the complex and caught the perp trying to duck into the apartment to try and hide." Kazuto took Asuna's hand off of his mouth.

"Sounds like you've been extremely lucky." It was Asuna's turn to grimace as they resumed their descent.

"Too lucky," she said sourly. "I got a feeling that this guy is toying with us."

"How do you mean?" Kazuto asked. The two of them finally reached the bottom of the stairwell and exited the complex back into the night. Corporal Randy still stood guard outside even though the rain had solidified into a steady downpour. The corporal turned as he heard the pair approaching.

"All clear, Captain. Nobody's come knocking to see what's been going on so far. Did have a guy drop a message off for you, though."

"A message? From whom?" Asuna asked. Kazuto rolled his eyes on reflex in response to Asuna's immaculate grammar.

Randy shrugged as he produced a white envelope from the inside of his coat. "He didn't say. I couldn't really get a good look at his face under the hood he was wearing either. Mentioned it was for your eyes only though." Kazuto immediately felt a sense of uneasiness wash over him.

"What exactly did this man say, Corporal?" Kazuto asked as Asuna opened the envelope.

"Just told me to give it to Captain Yuuki," Randy replied. "Also mumbled something before he left. Sounded like 'time is up'? I don't know if he meant to say that to me though. He was definitely an odd one."

Kazuto immediately whipped around to look up and down the street as his pulse skyrocketed.

"Kirito," Asuna said "Do you know this person? Or what this symbol is?"

As he turned to look back at the paper Asuna was holding, a gust of wind snatched it out of her hand. Randy stooped down to pick it up.

"Oh, here you are, Captain. Don't wanna lose tha-"

A shot cracked through the hiss of the falling rain ad Randy's shoulder erupted in a shower of scarlet and the corporal was thrown to the ground. Randy cried out as Kazuto instinctively dropped into a crouch and dove at Asuna's waist, knocking her down to the sidewalk as well. Staying low, he drug Randy and Asuna by the scruff of their necks to the shelter of Asuna's cruiser. Pushing his own coat aside, he drew his .44 revolver and peered over the roof of the car.

Rain poured down onto the dark street, the shadows broken by the intermittent streetlamps. Kazuto searched the inky blackness for any signs of movement, but saw nothing.

"Clear," he panted. "Shooter must've ducked right after firing." Asuna nodded an acknowledgement as she checked on Randy.

"Come on, Corporal, suck it up. Let me see what we're working with." She shucked the writhing man out of his coat. Randy sucked in a breath and groaned through clenched teeth as Asuna rolled his sleeve up to inspect the wound.

"Medium caliber, whatever it was." she announced. "It's a through and through. You got lucky it didn't hit you anywhere important." She grabbed his opposite hand and placed it over the wound. "Keep pressure on that and try your best to take slow deep breaths." Randy's face was pale, but he nodded weakly.

One of the two officers who had been stationed at the apartment burst through the front doors of the complex with his gun drawn and scanned the scene before him. He quickly holstered his weapon and met Asuna halfway as she stood the injured corporal up and braced him on her shoulder.

"See what the techs have to stabilize him while I radio for help. Anybody asks, there was a second burglar."

"Yes, Captain," the officer grunted as he helped Randy indoors. Asuna stood silently in the rain as she watched the two men enter the shelter of the building, then sighed and turned on her heel to make her way back to the cruiser. She opened the car door and picked up the radio.

"Dispatch, this is Car 10. Code 1100 on Adam 11 at King-3. Requesting medical aid. Scene is contained." The radio squawked as multiple responders tried to answer. "Dispatch only!" Asuna barked into the receiver. "All shifts that are 10-8 remain on beat." She shook her head as she released the transmission button. "God-damned rookies," she grumbled under her breath.

"Car 10, this is Dispatch. Medical is en route to your location. 10-97 expected in five minutes."

"10-4, Dispatch. 10-17 Adam 11 to nearest triage once stable."

"10-4, Captain."

"That's gonna turn some heads," Kazuto said as Asuna closed the car door. "Captain calling in an officer down and denying backup."

"I said that the scene was contained," she answered, leaning back against the car. "They know it means there are already officers on scene and it's where the burglary was called in earlier. Most of them will probably think we found a second suspect while on that call."

"Still, pretty risky for you, though," Kazuto commented as he leaned against the car next to her. "You always planned everything out at the academy. Flying by the seat of your pants undercover like this has got to be a stretch for you." He noticed the envelope and paper that Randy had dropped when he got shot and stooped to pick it up.

"It's a lot more dangerous out here than the academy," Asuna said. "A lot more goes wrong." She glanced down at Kazuto, who was still kneeling on the wet sidewalk and staring intently at the piece of paper. "Oh, that. What does it mean?"

"It means," Kazuto whispered "I'm finally going to get some answers." The symbol on the paper grinned gruesomely back up at him; a skeleton's smile that decorated an all- black rendering of a coffin. "Laughing Coffin has come out of hiding."