“The culprit is in our midst.”
Kyouko-san declared it so.
It was like a spell handed down from the days of yore, a line a detective used to begin the traditional ceremony; but to me, Oyagiri Mamoru, I couldn’t feel any truth in those words, and at that point, it seemed far too excessive to praise the white-haired woman’s deductive prowess.
The reason being, what Kyouko-san pointed to wasn’t a group assembled in a room, but the entirety of a high-class, modern, thirty-floor apartment complex. Even if she said ‘in our midest’, I hadn’t the slightest idea how many suspects that would include.
Whatever the case, it didn’t seem she brought it up as a joke to lighten the mood, Kyouko-san’s expression was thoroughly serious… Following on from that old-fashioned, hard-to-call-appropriate-given-the-circumstances line,
“The problem is,”
She continued on.
“Whether or not there’s a painter present.”
Certainly… that was a problem. To Kyouko-san, and to me.
When scolding a child not to be picky with food, adults often use the logic that, ‘There are people out there who can’t eat it even if they wanted to, so don’t be picky,’ but when closely observed, that phrase is a false equivalency. Sure, regional food shortages and world hunger are pertinent problems one must be informed of from a young age, but does an environment where ‘people can’t eat even if they wanted to’ really develop into, ‘don’t be picky’ by any logical sequence?
Perhaps instead of entrusting ourselves to the bitter silence of liking what we like, yet being unable to say we hate what we hate, teaching children to create a world where they’re able to freely state their tastes is the proper way to raise them… of course, that’s plain sophistry.
Sophistry, or rather an empty ideal.
It merely shifts the problem.
Realistically speaking, the world isn’t a place to speak with such top-down morality… but also realistically speaking, the real reason an adult tells a child not to be picky is to make sure they get a proper nutritional balance to ensure healthy growth, or otherwise to restrain them from excessive nutritional intake, having absolutely nothing to do with fear for societal food problems. The one who shifted the problem first wasn’t the child, but the parent. Making a child listen by using moral words that were hard to speak up against, while I wouldn’t go as far as to call it hypocritical, it was part of the foul playbook of being an adult.
The point to all this is, putting aside whether they eat it or not, I really would just like it if they were free to say if they liked it or not… the moment I thought such a thing might have been around that time when I myself held a strong lament for my future.
The retirement money I got from the Oote Security firm was somewhat cut down by my payment to the Okitegami Detective agency, but it wasn’t enough to get me thrown out on the streets, nor was it enough to curb my anxieties about the future—perhaps the recent recession was the blame, or it may have just been my own lack of credentials, but I couldn’t see my second workplace anywhere in reach.
In that case, instead of retirement money, I should’ve asked my superior to write a letter of recommendation, I would think from time to time.
It did seem I was no longer in a place where I could voice my tastes, or rather fixation, on working a ‘job where I can protect something’. If I stopped being picky, surely there were plenty of jobs out there, or so it was finally my time to say that senseless line.
Abandoning my freedom in job selection wouldn’t only restrict my own life, it would restrict my place in society as a whole. I knew I shouldn’t submit to the dilemma, but the way things were going, forget having a choice of job, I would be cornered into a position where I couldn’t have a choice of the food I ate.
Unlike a child, the grown adult me doubted he had any more to grow, but no matter where I worked, my body was my main asset, so I had to take a nutritional balance into consideration. They say man forgets how to work if he remains unemployed too long and all—
So not just the competition of the security firm I worked at, I finally started looking into other jobs as well—the career requirements for a policeman or firefighter, and such; from how I was still trying to choose jobs close to my expertise, it couldn’t be helped that you point out I was still bound, but however so, it was around that time.
A call came to my cellphone.
The screen displayed the raw number of someone not registered in my address book, so I had some hesitation to answer the phone, but I was in the midst of job hunting… as someone hoping for reemployment, caution alone wasn’t going to get me anywhere. When I thought of how they might inform me of the results of an application or interview, I couldn’t neglect any call. Even withheld or private numbers couldn’t be ignored.
While it was a territory distant from the crime-prevention sense I was supposed to hold, it’s true that my wariness wasn’t very active on that call. The reason was simple, I had a slight recollection of the number displayed. To be more precise, at the level of, ‘I think I might have seen it somewhere before’, and truly an unreliable sense, mind you.
While a phone book makes a clear distinction between the numbers its registered and those it has not, the human memory is a peculiar thing. To register… even if I didn’t remember the number itself, I could recall things like the fact I had ‘seen it before’.
Though there were people who could cleanly forget like Kyouko-san, those were a rare case. I knew it. I knew that number. It was a number that tugged at my heartstings with such uncertainty— the memory ran so thin that a light tug was the perfect way to describe it.
Where had I see it… if I had, then where? It wasn’t a 090 or 080 number, so it seemed to be a landline, but what region was the area code from?
(TL: In Japan, cellphone numbers begin with 090 or 080, instead of having an area code. They move, so makes sense.)
I thought as I took up the phone, but,
“Hmm. So it’s that whelp from before.”
On the response I received from the other side, I understood who I was speaking to in an instant.
In that regard as well, the human memory is peculiar. Such slight triggers can suddenly revive memories so vivid. No wonder Kyouko-san who could forget all the previous day’s memories would be a national treasure. Anyways, I had to confirm it so, “Is this Wakui-san?” I replied.
“Indeed. This is Wakui Kazuhisa,” the man named himself.
Right, it was that old man who went on a rampage in the museum and cost me my job… rather than vigorous, I could remember his violent form all too sell. Of course, at the time he only gave his surname of Wakui. His full name was something I learned after hearing Kyouko-san’s deductions, when I went to confirm their validity.
Apparently, I was just ignorant, and framer was a traditional occupation that had existed for ages; and while I investigated into that occupation, I reached old Wakui’s name without even having to look for it.
The industry’s ‘old man of the mountain’, a mainstay among mainstays.
Providing frames that fit paintings better than any could dream, he was known as the most prominent framer. The number of painters who wished for him to make them a frame was beyond count—I see, in that case, there was no way a single museum could stand against him. No wonder they’d go take an interest in coverups.
He wasn’t a mainstay artist, but a mainstay craftsman… nay, the voices who claimed the frames he made had already reached the realm of fine arts were in no few numbers, apparently.
Meaning back then, I got an outrageous bigshot into a full nelson… as long as they wish to violate the target, then the sort of VIP they are is irrelevant. That’s the main essence of a bodyguard or at least the official stance.
… But why did that old Wakui put in a call to my line? I didn’t remember exchanging contact information with him.
Paying no heed to my confusion, with a tone of dignity rather than familiarity, old Wakui called me by my first name and asked.
“What have you been up to lately? Safe and sound?”
The question itself was what a youngster might ask his friend… from what I saw of him, he looked to be an old man barely past seventy, but while it was rude to call it a surprise, his sensitivities may be surprisingly youthful.
At the very least, his disposition was…
“If you want to know what I’ve been up to, I haven’t been doing anything particular…”
“Mn. That’s no good, no good at all. A youth at your age, loafing around, not working in the middle of the day, that’s a real waste.”
I didn’t say anything about loafing, and whose fault did he think my predicament was? If he wanted me to answer the safe and sound portion, the terrible calamity that visited me was too recent for me to laugh about it.
In the sense I was locked in place and complaining, I definitely was in a safe making sound… and I was running out of air. Come to think of it, a sound’s a body of water surrounded mostly by land. Seeing how I’m not getting anywhere, there really wasn’t any better phrase to describe me.
In self-admonishment for failing to prevent the painting’s destruction, I didn’t seek reemployment, but that doesn’t mean humankind is constructed such that they could hear it directly from the culprit who caused it all—and back then I was in front of Kyouko-san, so a part of me probably just wanted to look cool. I was almost about to roughen up my voice and shout back at him, but as if to promptly restrain me,
“I get it, I get it,”
Said the old man, his voice tinged with a laugh.
“Whelp, I heard you got fired from the security company because of me. My bad.”
When he apologized that easily, it was a real underhanded tactic, or rather a letdown, more so, it felt more like he was just pouring oil onto the flame. He really was in for it bad.
“Hey, I gave that fool Shikihara a stern talking to, so cut me some slack. You’ll find fools who don’t understand art in any generation, any age. You can also say it’s people like him that raise the value of art. The fewer people fighting over the pie, the better.”
What’s more, while just barely accepting his responsibility in the matter, in the end, he pushed it all onto the curator, Shikihara-san… I was taken aback, it was a shifting of responsibility so idiotic that it felt stupid to get angry. Well, it’s true the root cause was with the museum for arbitrarily changing out frames.
And there it hit me. It wasn’t as if I held round-robin deductions like Kyouko-san, and it was a flash of inspiration from my own complete lack of thought.
“Did you get my contact information from Curator Shikihara?”
My gut told me.
The security firm was also a possible route, but to that company, the museum was only a single place they were charged with, and it was hard to say old Wakui’s influence (or perhaps intimidation) would have a direct effect—I couldn’t think they would leak the personal information of a former employee. But the museum kept their staffs’ direct contact information in case of emergency, and finding it out from them wouldn’t be difficult for the man.
“Yeah, that’s right. What about it?”
Showing no signs of apologetics, the old man brazenly replied—if I was that shameless, then my life would be much easier; but when I considered how many people I’d have to collide with to maintain that shamelessness, it didn’t make me envious.
“No, nothing at all,” I evaded, “Do you have some business with me?”
I pushed the talk forward.
How should I put it, he went as far as looking into my number to contact me, so normally I’d deduce the old man got in the mind to apologize to me after reflecting on his violence with a level head, but from what I could tell from our conversation, it was clear that wasn’t all. This person was definitely not reflecting, first off.
I’m sure it wasn’t because of his obstinacy that even let one feel a form of conviction growing into that personality rather, I should see it as him climbing all the way up to his arrogance.
“Business? Yes, of course I do. There’s no way I’d call a whelp like you without any business. I’m a busy man, you know.”
“Mamoru, do you want to come work at my place?”
While I was quite fed up with the old man’s haughtiness, those words instantly sobered me up—what?
“Don’t turn me down here. It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do.”
“I’m free but–”
I answered on reflex, but strictly speaking, I wasn’t free. By that point, my job hunting schedule wasn’t planned out day by day, but hour by hour—even that day, I planned on going out to search. When I plainly informed him of that,
“In that case, it works out perfectly. Because I’m telling you I’ll employ you,” said old Wakui, ever triumphant.
While he sounded boastful of his own foresight, he was the very one who made me unemployed, so there was nothing for him to be proud of at all. I highly doubted he was employing me to atone for anything… in the first place, he said employ, but what did he intend to make me do?
If he judged me highly for my ability to see through that painting’s intent as the ‘earth’, and he wanted to invite me to the world of art, then he was overestimating me. That was a complete second-hand opinion.
“Hah? Wrong, wrong. What are you misunderstanding? I don’t need any disciple like you.”
The old man gave a hearty laugh—I was the one who didn’t want a master like old Wakui, but in that case, what was he trying to put me up to?
“That goes without saying. You’re a security guard, aren’t you? In that case, what other job would I have besides security?”
Those were strong words. As one who had started job hunting with other occupations in my field of vision, they were especially painful on the ears… at the very least, this was not the time to assert I retired so I was no longer a guard.
“Security… is it?”
“Yes, that’s right. You’ll take it up, right?”
He seemed impatient, one step away from telling me to just accept it already, but no matter how I turned my head, I definitely wasn’t getting the full picture… I was much too lacking in information to simply nod along to the word security.
“If it’s an official job, I think you’re better off asking a proper company…”
“Hmph, like I could trust an organization.”
The old man spoke disparagingly. They were words mingled with a harsh prejudice, but as the organization of the museum had just betrayed him the other day, I couldn’t rebut it so suddenly—Well, I was also abandoned by the organization I was employed by, so even if I didn’t sympathize, a part of me got where he was coming from.
“No matter what it is, I’ll see with it my own eyes and make a decision. I’m placing my hopes on you, think of it as an honor.”
So he really was judging me for seeing through the earth? Or perhaps he was referring to the price appraisal I did on that painting. While that one wasn’t second-hand, it was hard to deny the hint of desperation in my response, so even if he appraised me for that, it didn’t feel much different from being appraised on coincidence.
“So umm… what sort of painting do you want me to protect?”
Take it or not, I needed to asked—unless I heard that, I couldn’t make a decision. No, if I had to say, the side of me asking in order to decline was stronger. The old man criticized organizations, but there was a limit to what an individual could protect.
In the end, what opposes violence isn’t a single hero, but a faction with organizational capability.
When he called it security, even subtracting the fact of my unemployment, I felt I would latch onto it by instinct, but not doing what you’re incapable of is also part of the job.
“Who said you’d be protecting a painting?”
Said old Wakui.
“I’m not a painter—you didn’t know?”
“No… of course, I’m aware, err… you’re a framer, right?”
Though I only became privy of their existence quite recently… sure enough, it was too early to conclude I’d be protecting a painting.
Which means I’m guarding… a frame?
“Yeah, something like that. But it doesn’t exist yet—I’m going to make it now.”
“So you’re going to make… a frame?”
Still uncomprehensive, I repeated his words.
“It’s right about time I get to making a work that represents my life as a framer—until my work is complete, I want you to protect my workplace and make sure no one hinders me.”
When an old man speaks of his life’s work, a youngster swallows his breath. It practically meant it would be the last work of his life—a word too heavy for someone in his twenties. While old Wakui didn’t see the fact he got me fired as very serious at all, I see, perhaps from his point of view, I was at an age where I could start over as many times as necessary.
And to an old man who had tread the long path of life, one’s occupation must hold a far deeper meaning than I thought…
Protecting paintings, protecting frames, and protecting workplaces, the amount of work for an individual didn’t change much… but when it came to that point, it was difficult to decline his invitation.
At the very least, hard to do over the phone… and honestly speaking, I was simply interested. By a detective’s evaluation, he was a craftsman who could make frames that dragged the price of a two-million-yen painting to two hundred million. Just what sort of piece could be his life’s work
Even if the world of art was dark to me, as a person who worked at a museum for a period of time, I couldn’t help but be somewhat curious.
While at the current point, I couldn’t decide whether I’d take it up or not, I wanted to prolong the talk as long as possible to hear the details—the probability I would decline in the end was stronger, so I told him not to get his hopes up as my form of consideration, but,
“Oh! I see, I see!”
The old man innocently rejoiced. Rather than old, his conduct was like a child’s.
“Then we have to meet up and talk. We won’t get anywhere if I don’t have you see the workplace you’ll be protecting—oh, it’s nothing so grand. It’s not like I’m trying to decide your life with this job… think of it as a temporary part-time job.”
“Part-time… is it?”
“Yes. Of course, I’ll up your wages. You’ll get around double what you made working. Your period of employment will be a few months, half a year at most… for a youngster like you, that’s no time at all.”
Said old Wakui.
“But to an old man like me, it’s a life-draining period.”
To make sure nothing happens, I’ve got to do everything in my power to protect it—said old Wakui.
“… Where do I have to go?”
I asked… I had no choice but to change the day’s schedule.
To a laborer, double wages were honestly captivating but a job to protect an old man’s ‘time’ was definitely a worthy one… though I still couldn’t assent just yet.
After meeting him directly, if it came back around to refusal, while he was an old man who hated organizations, I’d introduce him to the security firm I used to work at—even if it was the organization that dismissed me, it’s not as if I didn’t have a single trustworthy superior or colleague I could consult with.
“Atelier House. Come to Atelier House.”
“Yeah, that’s right. It’s where I work—”
A large voice from beginning to end, as if he was constantly shouting, only there did old Wakui lowered his voice in thought.
“—And where I’ll die.”
Since he called it that, I ended up lured by the image of the word, picturing some two-story wooden housing complex, but when I arrived at the designated address, what stood there—what towered there was a high-rise tower I had to look up to see.
What’s so ‘house’ about it? I wanted to say.
This building was more suited to fanciful western words such as Maison or Chatelet, and for some reason, rather than a joke, that naming just sounded in bad taste.
“Ooh, good of you to come, Mamoru. Over here, over here. What are you dazing out for?”
As I looked up at this complex complex in timid bewilderment, a self-locking automatic door opened, and old Wakui emerged from within—it did seem I hadn’t mistaken his address.
Of course, the old man who exited the complete contemporary western-styled construction wore a monk’s working clothes, and that was in itself another mismatch—a bandana on his head, no, he had wrapped around a hand towel; that form truly was one of a workman of old.
When he came to the museum in a hakama, that was apparently his formal dress—yet his casual clothes or perhaps work clothes, these monk garments did suit the old man exceptionally well. If a painting’s frame could be likened to its clothing, then to old Wakui, that look was the most appropriate frame… thinking over the details, it may seem obvious, but he gave off a far more favorable impression than when I met him at the museum.
He had a mind of rage back then, and now as he welcomed me, his carefree smile was such a sociable one, I almost carelessly forgot it was thanks to him that I was driven into unemployment. I had to take care that, led along by the mood and led along by emotion, I didn’t thoughtlessly acquiesce to his job offer… I focused my mind,
“Is this your workplace?”
I asked the old man.
“Yeah, that’s right. A beau, ain’t it?”
“Yes… a masterpiece. But Wakui-san, telling me to protect it, no matter how you slice it, it’s too much for me…”
“No worries, no worries. It isn’t like I’m asking you to guard this entire mansion.”
The old man said, before forcefully shoving me into the building’s entrance—the autolocking automatic door came undone with a no-touch card key. On brief inspection, there was a dome-shaped surveillance camera in a corner of the ceiling, keeping watch of people coming and going—just from what I could see, this didn’t look like a complex with lax security, but… or so, as a habit from my security guard days, I carried out checks as I arrived at the elevator hall.
When Old Wakui pressed the button, the elevator immediately arrived—what’s this? The point that caught my attention was that he had pressed the down button.
“My atelier’s in the basement.”
While I doubted he sensed my question, Old Wakui said it anyways and boarded the box. I followed behind. The elevator’s insides were expansive enough for me to wonder if it was a service elevator—if they were packed in tightly it looked like it could board more than twenty people. Old Wakui pressed the B1 button.
From outside, the towering apartment complex looked to have too many floors to count, but now I was sealed away in this box, from the number of buttons lined vertically, the story was clear—thirty-two floors plus one basement.
Once again, the building went against the name Atelier House, I thought. No, when you got down to it, at present, the only contrary portion was the single syllable ‘house’, and I wasn’t yet at a stage where I could say anything about the ‘atelier’.
The elevator came to a complete stop. Once we stepped down and opened the door beyond it, what lay in wait was truly an ‘Atelier’.
A construction site as if the complex I saw from outside was a lie expanded before my eyes—across a full wall of the extensively vast entrance parlor, various tools and materials were narrowly packed and lined.
On the steel shelves lining the wall were various documents, binders. Two large work desks in the center of the room, on top of them the paint supplies to draft, and all manner of stationaries… bar and bench, rasps in shapes I’d never seen before, and vice… if I had to say, it had the air of an art room from my student days, but I had to guess the tools assembled were of a standard several tens of times higher.
The strongest impression was left by the giant power saw stationed directly to the right of the entrance—while it may be a tool to cut wood, it held a strange intensity which could only leave me to imagine it would split metal right in two.
A tried and true atelier. The word fit this place nicely—that being the case, if I had seen this room not knowing Old Wakui’s occupation, I doubt I would have any idea what sort of thing was made in this room. Even upon looking at the numerous frames casually littered around the room.
“… Is this your workplace?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Amazing, right? Normally, this isn’t somewhere a complete amateur like you should be allowed to enter, you know?”
Old Wakui said in high spirits.
Being called an amateur didn’t really irritate me—I was definitely an amateur, and even I had to question whether it was alright for me to enter such a true workspace of a craftsman. It may be an exaggeration to call it holy ground. But this definitely wasn’t the place for someone to just waltz into even if they had been invited—I was one-sidedly overwhelmed, and yet here I was, somewhere in my heart thinking, ‘the place is all jumbled up and scattered, it’s a right mess. It looks like it would be more efficient if it was put in order’. I knew it was boorish and profane—the point being, I lacked the capacity to accept this atelier as it was.
The old man, on the other hand, didn’t seem to intend to take my inner conflict into consideration,
He recommended me a chair—no, not a chair, a weathered wooden box of which I couldn’t really tell what it was used for. Taking my build and weight into consideration, I wondered if it was cave in the moment I sat on it, but that was a needless worry—the box was apparently sturdier than it looked. Of all else, after Old Wakui himself lowered his hips down onto a box much the same, I couldn’t quite complain.
His offer to give me tea wasn’t just social courtesy, and as truth would have it, he brought out two teacups form the backroom I assumed to be Old Wakui’s living quarters and placed them on a work desk. The liquid inside of them was pitch black, it seemed to be coffee—recalling Kyouko-san who enjoyed her share of coffee, I held it in my mouth with a, “thanks for the treat.”
While this was a practical room that could be called a land of dreams, it had some sort of otherworldly element to it, or perhaps I should say, struck by its atmosphere, my consciousness had grown hazy, and I wanted to stabilize myself through caffeine intake.
After drinking that hot coffee and cooling down a bit, I grew curious about something realistically.
“… They don’t get mad at you for overhauling the apartment’s basement like this? You’ve properly received permission from the owner, I’d assume?”
“The owner is me.”
The old man answered simply.
“The so-called landlord, that’s me.”
That response put me at a loss for words, but thinking back, that would explain the service-sized elevator. Without at least that much capacity, he wouldn’t be able to load in larger works—but that being the case, from a renter’s position, the inside of the room was one thing, but he wouldn’t be able to modify the shared space of the elevator.
Unless he was involved from the planning stage… but moreover, was it really possible for a single old man to hold ownership over this multistory complex? Normally, wouldn’t an apartment on this scale be managed by a real-estate company…
No, still, from what I’d found out, the earnings of a first-rate framer were apparently astronomical—while he might not be able to raise the value of every painting a hundred times over, with an alchemistic skill to produce value from nothing, would he be able to erect a building on this scale… in that case, Atelier House was a name given by him—it’s good I didn’t say anything unnecessary.
Whatever the case, as I was unable to give a decent reaction to a world so different from my own,
“Well, you can call me a landlord, but I’ve got no rental income.”
Old Wakui added on.
“No rent income…? What do you mean?”
I was under the assumption that this old man did apartment management, a job considerably distanced from the image of a framer, as one of those so-called tax avoidance side jobs, but…
“This is something of a hobby… I’ll explain that one as it comes.”
Old Wakui said something evasive. And,
“What I want you to guard is this basement room.”
He entered the main issue. Right, I wasn’t here to observe the worksite of a frame designer—while I wasn’t wearing a suit, if I had to say, I had come for an interview.
“As I told you over the phone, I am about to take on my largest job as a framer… during that time, I want you to make sure there is nothing to get in my way.”
“What sort of things… would get in your way?”
“No, I mean specifically, I was just wondering what sort of threats we might be dealing with… for example, the danger of a theft in the middle of work?”
I tried asking. From the time I entered to the time I reached the room, I thought the security was in order, for argument’s sake. If he wanted anything more, I was sure there had to be some sort of concrete reason
“Or perhaps, do you have someone in mind who would get in the way of you making your life’s work… a threatening letter or something?”
“A threat letter? Hahaha, what’s with that—you’ve got a wild imagination. Hey, you might actually be cut out to be a painter yet.”
He ended up telling me teasingly—the threat letter may have been my imagination going so far, but a name as big as Old Wakui— a lord of a landlord—about to make what would be the largest (and final) work of his life, while it didn’t hit home with a non-specialist like me, naturally, that should be a considerable affair in the industry.
There should be those that lose out, and those who gain from it—then there was no guarantee there hadn’t been any suspicious movements…
“This is just a precaution… I simply strive for perfection. It isn’t that I have any ideas.”
Old Wakui said. I couldn’t measure out his sincerity. I couldn’t determine whether he was telling the truth or not. I’m not saying I wanted to doubt Wakui. I mean, honestly, he didn’t look like the most honest old man, but ‘the client tells lies’ isn’t just an ironclad of the detective industry.
Those who seek out security should have enough reason to do so—of course, the reason of striving for perfection could be reason enough.
“In regards to your wages and term of employment, it’s as we’ve discussed… I shall pay double what you earned while working at that museum. Extraordinary for a part-time job. Not a bad deal, eh?”
“Wai, wait a second.”
“What. Does double not cut it?”
Whatever the case, I restrained the old man’s impatient attempts to press forward—it would be quite troublesome if the matter was settled without any plan.
“Then three times? You’re a greedy one. If you’re noisy about money too young, you’ll never grow into an adult, whelp.”
“No, I’m not criticizing the money…”
When he was pretty much smacking my face with money, I was surprised he had it in him to lecture me. Even so, three times is…
But if he managed an apartment complex on this level, perhaps he did just have that high of an income.
“I told you I have no rental income. This Atelier House is my hobby… no, half a hobby, half service-spirit perhaps.”
What’s that supposed to mean? A term inappropriate of this old man had come out, but—does he mean to say he’s managing this place as volunteer work?
“You’re lending rooms to people without anywhere to live free of charge… is that what you mean?”
If I considered it a temporary refuge or shelter; still, this tower complex did seem just a tad too luxurious for that—of course, I wouldn’t say luxury is a bad thing, but that would prove somewhat inefficient for volunteer work. If the grade of the institution was regulated, a far greater number of people could be helped—granted, you could also say looking at volunteer work through efficiency’s perspective was outrageous, and you’d be right. No matter, it seemed I had made some fundamental misunderstanding, and, “Hahaha,” the old man sent my incomprehension off with a laugh.
“Do I look like such an admirable person?”
“Not in the slig… whether you look it or not, in that case, what do you mean by service spirit?”
“The occupation of a framer cannot come to be without the painter.”
Old Wakui suddenly spouted what was in itself a laudable preface, and I stood at the ready for what was to come- while I thought that wouldn’t make for any answer to my question, the way he spoke gave me no space to weigh in.
“At my age, I’ve finally been lifted up at first-rate, but back when I started out, you can’t imagine the troubles I went through… though a young’un might not be interested in an elder’s hardships.”
With a quick glance, Wakui peeked at my reaction—rather than peeked, I got the feeling he was blatantly probing it out. What was the proper response in this scenario? I didn’t know if it was right, but whatever the case, I went with, “Oh no, I’d love to hear it”
It kinda felt like I was being dragged into a bog—or perhaps an antlion pit.
“I came to be like this- choosing work at my own discretion- only through the existence of the artist. That’s why, around ten years ago, was it? When I got a look at the life I had left, I got an idea in my head to pay it back to them—however, I’d be paying back their future.”
“Artist is yet another occupation that finds it difficult to stand and feed one’s self on one’s own, after all. I’ve witnessed many talented youngsters without savings distancing themselves from the path—talents unable to bloom are a tragedy, and having talents yet not using them is a condemnable sin.”
His words were strong—and harsh.
More so, in the current times, I think the way of looking at talent’s shifted towards the ability to make a living without exerting yourself to your best. Come to think of it, I had heard another harsh opinion in regards to talent—where did I hear it again? I tried to recall but, “therefore,” the old man’s words interrupted.
“To those still developing young painters unable to make a living, I decided I would rent out an atelier and living space free of charge—and what I built was this Atelier House.”
I looked up. I wasn’t looking at the ceiling, but seeing through to what was beyond it—the thirty-two story high-rise apartment. Then don’t tell me the denizens holding a residence in this tower, each and every one of them—
“Yeah, that’s right. The tenants are all painters—to be more precise, the eggs of painters.”
“Eggs of… painters.”
I see, then in that case, while luxury still wouldn’t be a necessity, a certain extent of vastness might prove indispensable—since it wasn’t just living space, but atelier space as well.
Would this be something different than taking on a disciple? Of course, for old Wakui whose livelihood lay in frame making, he may have a view of art incomparable to a layman’s, but it wasn’t as if he painted pictures himself—then was he something of a patron? I get the feeling his scale as a patron was too large, but…
“That’s not true at all. Generally speaking, even if their business is unrelated, a major corporation will sponsor a sports athlete—it’s not much different.”
The old man said, but taking that the other way, that would make Old Wakui an individual rivaling a major corporation. That in mind, I was facing such an outrageous individual, it made me want to correct my posture—but it wasn’t charitable work, and major corporations didn’t really support athletes out of a volunteer spirit. There was a meaning in raising a star player to serve as an advertising billboard; they supported them as a sound investment… then was that what Old Wakui’s apartment management meant as well?
“Hm. I can’t say it’s not an investment—among the painters who’ve left this Atelier House are some performing on the front lines. Those who I’ve personally prepared frames for as well.”
“Is that so…”
I tried nodding, but I got the feeling it wasn’t adding up as an investment. Rearing an artist couldn’t be too smooth of an enterprise, and growing one into an ideal form like that should actually be a rare case.
But, well, in this case, perhaps not making a profit was better—as a framer, providing such selfless investments towards artists with a future would improve his image considerably.
I’m sure it would lead to his next job opportunity.
… honestly, the reason I couldn’t obediently accept it as volunteer spirit had to be because I witnessed the scene of him losing to anger and smashing a painting—I didn’t think his gratitude to the artist was a complete lie, but I couldn’t help but think about the other components.
Even subtracting that, I still ended up thinking that, as a hobby, lending out a complex on this scale for free was overdoing it from a common-sense standpoint.
Of course, if hypothetically, his strategy was to improve his perverse and stubborn image, that wouldn’t make it bad. The train of thought that a volunteer must always be working under pure goodwill is narrow-minded and disastrous.
“Mn? What’s wrong, Mamoru. Do you have something to say?”
“Not in particular… then if I said I wanted to live here and strive to be an artist, would you let me?”
I couldn’t just ask him to his face if he was doing it to manipulate his own public image, so I tried saying something to change the topic—but while it didn’t incur his wrath and he didn’t yell at me, in a harsh tone,
“If you’re being serious, I would let you test it out—if you have a spirit strong enough to line up with the residents here.”
He told me.
His intensity caused me to hurriedly shake my head.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to anger him, I reflected that my statement was far too carefree—thinking of the weight of responsibility shouldered by the tenants living in such a complex free of charge, it couldn’t just be simple support.
And there had to be something like an examination… this wasn’t the sort of loose place where all applicants were accepted, it seems. If talent wasn’t just an ideal, then this Atelier House couldn’t be an ideal either.
“Is everyone who lives here a painter without exception? Or as long as they yearn for the arts, do you not care if they’re a sculptor or potter?”
“They’re all painters, not a single exception. There are some who sculpt statues to paint pictures of them, but their main field is painting.”
Which means there wasn’t the freedom of an arts college. While I was kinda getting around to thinking of it as a private school supervised by Old Wakui, as long as he didn’t take up the brush himself, I had to see it differently— but could I really conclude Old Wakui didn’t paint at all? There were paint tools and colors in this basement room…
“If I’ll be protecting this apartment, does that also mean I’ll be protecting its residents, those eggs of painters?”
“Mn? Aah, no, my request to you is no more than protecting this basement room.”
As if only now recalling he hadn’t called me here to show off Atelier House, Old Wakui returned to the conditions of my employment.
“Nine to six every day, you just have to stand in this room—I don’t mind if you take Sundays off. I’m getting on in years, it’ll be hard for me to work any more than that.”
So nine hours of labor six days a week.
Considering the time I worked in the museum, it was becoming a bit of, no a considerably high-intensity job, but it wasn’t to the level of unreasonable, and if the wages were doubled from that time, you could also call them proper employment conditions.
“Lunch and travel expenses provided separately… naturally, no disclosure of the job I’m about to accomplish. I don’t want the world to know I’m undertaking what will become the culmination of my life. You will be placed under a duty of confidentiality. Think of that as being included in your wages.”
The word made me recall Kyouko-san—the forgetful detective. Not wanting it known wasn’t particularly to make it a surprise at completion, if a frame making expert on Old Wakui’s level returned, that alone would cause a huge ruckus top to bottom.
If he was restrained, that might become a hindrance to the advancement of his work—his hiring of me included, one might call him oversensitive, but to the man in question, perhaps it was simply the natural level of vigilance.
“So how about it? I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. Forget the entire mansion, for just a single basement room, you should be able to protect it alone.”
Scale-wise, sure enough, I could conclude it wasn’t a problem—but as someone who had already failed to protect a piece of art (from none other than Old Wakui), I couldn’t adopt the decision so lightly. If I carelessly took it, it would be no joke if I couldn’t protect it once more—that was something that should never be allowed to happen a second time.
At that moment, there was something I suddenly noticed.
While it may be his culmination and his final work, as long as it entailed making a frame, it could not come to form on its own—yet that painting didn’t seem to be in this Atelier.
Just what sort of painting was Old Wakui going to furnish with his greatest work? If it was a painting of such an extent that a frame maker of his renown would swing his arms with all his might, naturally, it couldn’t be anything half-baked, but—
“What sort of painting are you making a frame for? You said I wouldn’t be guarding a painting, but in the time until the frame is completed, I do think that painting will be included among the targets I have to protect.”
“The painting isn’t here yet.”
“Not here yet? Yes, I can see it doesn’t seem to have been brought in yet… but when you get down to making the frame, it will be brought down to this basement room, won’t it?”
“Not that, I mean it doesn’t exist in this world yet—still in the process of being painted. Not in this underground, on an upper floor.”
“An upper floor…?”
Which means one of the painters’ eggs he supported was making it?
He did say that among the people who left this complex were some he provided frames for, but—while they still lived here, their talents were already discerned; there was an extraordinary painter from the egg phase?
His face got around the museum, he should have any choice of paintings to make a frame for, yet he took it upon himself to appoint an as-of-yet unknown painter, so they must be quite a talent.
“Then does that mean you’ll be waiting until the painting is complete before you get to work?”
“Yes of course, but it’s not like I have too much time remaining. There are some preparations I must carry in advance—the spadework so to say.”
“Which means you’ll be working concurrently. In that case, it kinda feels like a joint project. Sounds difficult…”
“If you look at it as a joint project, it might actually be easier. I mean, I get to see it being painted with these very eyes—I get to know just how the creator painted it. To a frame maker, this is valuable material.”
He had a point. If the object was in an incomplete form, that the outside border couldn’t be made was just my thoughts as an amateur, and if he could see it mature from its incomplete, rough unripened form from the very first step, that might increase the perfection of the frame he ends up with.
“So personally, as fast as possible—tomorrow even, I want to get to work. I’ve already ordered the materials, all that’s left is your response. If you’re unsatisfied with your terms, I’m willing to negotiate to an extent—say what’s on your mind.”
It seemed we were already at a point where I had to decide, so I thought.
Well, from what I had heard, in the end, whatever institution this Atelier House may be was irrelevant to the job I’d been given—what I had to consider was whether or not I as an individual could protect this work side. Judging by the conversation, it was hard to think there was any definite threat—this was just the caution of an old man, an investment so Old Wakui could concentrate on his work, and my actual job would probably entail gazing at him making a frame over the course of each day.
Following the logic that the frame wasn’t a complete piece on its own, there shouldn’t be anyone trying to steal it yet—but I couldn’t help but remain anxious.
That was of course because I had allowed a large failure once before, but before that, it wasn’t as if my experience as a security guard was too long; I was more on the shallow end. Even in a job of simply ‘gazing’ at this old man’s ‘final job’, I wasn’t confident I would be able to accomplish it, or rather my anxieties were—in that case, I just had to refuse, but things weren’t so simple.
I really shouldn’t have come here.
At the point I was offered a job with a duty of confidentiality, you could say I was already amply involved—even if I turned him down, now that my contact information had been leaked by the museum, the fact that some request was made to me would surely get around.
In that case, without Old Wakui’s patronage, it was unavoidable that the museum I once guarded would probe into the matter—when my employment was as of yet undecided, I didn’t want to be wrapped into something so troubling.
Just taking the plunge was a means around that—not that I thought it was alright to decide my next half-year over such ‘resignation’. The old man told me to think of it as a half-year part-time job at most, but looking at it the other way, that meant my loss of employment in half a year was guaranteed, and the job searching I had to do would be half a year behind—this wasn’t just a matter of half a year, whether I shook my head up and down or left and right would swing my life.
Life’s turning point.
In the end, would I slip up here and take a tumble— If I were to simply strip away all those calculated conflicts and weight it on pure curiosity and interest, it did intrigue me.
Just what sort of ‘job’ would bring a close to the life of a single human—I had only just found employment and gotten laid off halfway, it was something I had yet to see, and no matter how I worked in times to come, I couldn’t think I would be blessed with too many opportunities to witness it.
Perhaps these were imprudent feelings.
It wasn’t much different from a child saying they wanted to see the moment someone died. Perhaps they were a whim I should restrain, but— an investigator who had always probed out that single ‘path’, my desire to witness the instant they stopped in their tracks was uncontainable.
The opportunity had come to suddenly; I couldn’t decide whether or not to let it slip by.
… so suddenly? Come to think of it, I neglected to confirm that portion.
“Wakui-san. Could you tell me why you picked me?”
“Mn? I just couldn’t think of anyone else I could entrust it to. When I heard you lost your position, I thought it worked out just fine.”
“But to the contrary, you wouldn’t normally think to hire a security guard who got fired to guard a precious work. If you were using our exchange back then as a criterion—”
When I saw through that painting as the ‘earth’ and appraised the smashed picture at zero yen, those couldn’t serve as criteria. The former was second-hand, the latter was conjecture. Being evaluated for it would be troubling, honestly speaking—hypothetically, well, let’s say luck is a form of strength, but to be blunt, you could also say that ‘aesthetic sense’ has no relation to a guard’s abilities.
“Mn? Exchange? Did we discuss anything?”
“Back then, the blood rushed to my head, so I don’t remember whatever conversation I had with you.”
“B-but, in that case, even more so.”
“I said it, did I not? No matter what it is, I’ll see with it my own eyes … that’s all there is to it.”
Old Wakui said sounding irritated—but to me, that was the most important point.
“Unless you tell me why you can trust me, I won’t be able to work,” I hung on.
“To not even know what you’re being appraised for, you’re a pitiful one. Even the painters’ eggs living in this Atelier House, they all each have an understanding of their own worth.”
“It’s because it’s my fault you were fired.”
Old Wakui said. Then in the end, was he atoning? No, there’s no way with that laudable personality of his—as I quietly waited for his words to continue, reluctantly, as if not wanting to go out of his way to say it,
“It’s because, while unreasonable laid off because of me, you accepted it.”
He tried to make it easier to understand.
“… Does that mean you thought I was biddable?”
Sure enough, from the hiring side, a laborer who didn’t complain and just left when they were fired was a thankful thing to have—but if I was being hired under reasons such as ‘easy to discharge’ and ‘will fold to irrational orders,’ I’d much rather not.
But old Wakuirefuted my question.
“I don’t know how it really is. But I determined the reason you went with your firing to be because you ‘accepted it’—to you, that discharge was not unreasonable at all. I thought you had punished yourself for not protecting the painting you were charged with. That is the sort of person I can trust.”
Everyone fails, but it is in how they face that failure that a human shows their worth—Old Wakui declared so grandiosely I could no longer grasp the truth of the statement.
I couldn’t react.
By which I mean, I kinda felt like I’d been seen through—perhaps he really did evaluate me, but at the same time, it was the same as saying I was an open book.
In the first place, that was again hard to label as my own achievement—it wasn’t as if I had accepted being cornered into unemployment so easily.
Before I accepted it, I needed someone’s help.
I could only call it shrouded in mystery, I didn’t know what was going on; it was unreasonable and irrational, and it was precisely because a great detective pulled me out from the bottom of the bog—that I got to face my own failure.
However, if I said that here, it would only sound like an excuse—I now know what connected where, but it did seem I still had to give an answer here and now.
No matter how I might regret it later—either choice would be shadowed by regret, which in that case, might mean what I was really choosing was what regret I wanted.
With this decision here, just what sort of regret would I be satisfied with—
“… You said I could negotiate my employment terms, did you?”
“Yeah. Got something in mind? I’ll swallow down most conditions.”
“The scope of my guard duty aside, realistically speaking, I think it’ll be difficult for me to guard this basement room alone over the space of half a year. There will definitely be things I fail to see, and there’s no guarantee my health will never take a turn. At the very least, I want you to hire one more person and set up a shift.”
It seemed my request was unexpected, and the old man shut his mouth—before he said anything, I pressed for an answer.
“If you say you can triple my salary, then you’re better off using that amount to increase the number of people… if you swallow down that condition, I’ll happily work for you.”
Looking at it the other way, if that didn’t work, I planned to decline—that point was the common ground.
“You’ve put out quite a difficult one.”
He said, a little time passed. He wasn’t saying it as a negotiation tactic, he really did make a difficult face.
“… If you’re striving for perfection, I do think you’re better off the more people you have.”
“The problem’s not so simple—I said I’m imposing confidentiality. Unless I know I can trust them, it’s out of the question—and I don’t have anyone in mind. I told you, I don’t have any other candidates.”
“I do have an idea. Are you taking recommendations?”
“Mn? Some connection from the company you worked at? I told you that too, I can’t trust organizations.”
“It’s alright. The one I want to introduce isn’t an organization but an individual.”
“An individual… oh?”
Doubtfully, old Wakina looked over me scrutinizingly. While losing mentally to his dubious eyes, “Of course, I guarantee the height of their abilities,” I continued. “I think they’re far more reliable than myself—if I have their support, I think I can face this guard duties with no qualms whatsoever.”
“Hmph. In that case, I can’t say I won’t consider it… but before their abilities come into question, tell me if they’ve got a tight lip.”
With that as the premise to everything, Wakui sought confirmation—that question was one I could answer with confidence.
“Yes. I guarantee it.”
Strictly speaking, her lips weren’t tight—she was just prone to forgetting.
On the way back from Atelier House, I reunited with an unexpected individual—old Wakui came to greet me when I came, but he wouldn’t see me off (perhaps I’d ruined his mood with a difficult condition—in which case, from my point of view, the difficult one was the old man), so at the time I was alone.
A voice called over to me. For a moment, I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from, but when I tried dropping my gaze, I found a young boy carrying a sketchbook under his arm.
“It’s me, you know, me. Hakui Riku—don’t remember me? Well, we only met once anyways.”
“N-no, I do remember.”
As an episode, those events had left quite an impression—but sure enough, we only met once, and it wasn’t as if I clearly remembered his face, so if we passed by one another, I probably wouldn’t notice.
I was even surprised Hakui-kun remembered someone who was no more than a single security guard—did that part have something to do with the extraordinary memory power of one who paints pictures?
“What are you ding in these parts, in the middle of the day? Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Hakui-kun brazenly asked. It was quite apparent he had yet to develop the tact to understand an adult not working in the middle of the day usually involved some circumstances that should never be asked about.
“Yeah, truth is, I left my job at the museum.”
To be more precise, I was fired from the security company, but I thought explaining it all would just make it more convoluted, so I kept the details vague on that point.
“I failed a bit on the job. Right now, I’m in the middle of jobhunting. What about you, what’s brought you here?”
I couldn’t think there’d be any motifs for a painting in the middle of town, and if he kept walking, just about the only thing he’d run into was the high-rise complex—Atelier House.
“Nothing’s brought me here. This is the way to my house.”
“Hmm… wait, don’t tell me!?”
I turned to Atelier House behind me—a great many painters’ eggs, the housing complex receiving support from the renowned framer.
“Hakui-kun, you live there!?”
“Is it really that surprising…?”
Hakui-kun said suspiciously. There, it seemed he noticed, “Mn? What, old-timer, you know what sort of place this apartment complex is?” He asked another question.
“’n wait, there’s nothing but Atelier House down the road you came from… jobhunting? Then don’t tell me, old-timer, you had an interview with teacher?”
I cringed at the rapid succession of questions.
If I wanted to, they were all questions I could answer, but I had already been placed under confidentiality, and just because I was dealing with a child, I couldn’t just readily reply.
If Hakui-kun said he was a resident of that complex, all the more so—or could it be as a resident he already knew the situation? In this instance, it was clear that teacher pointed to old Wakui after all—at the museum, he used the word teacher I thought ill-matched to a cheeky brat, but it looks like he didn’t mean a painting teacher.
And late as it was, the number Wakui called from, that number that wasn’t recorded in my address book, I finally understood why I thought I remembered it— it was the same as the contact information Hakui-kun wrote on my hand at the museum.
But to think even a boy his age lived there—once again, I affirmed Atelier House was no game. Though old Wakui did say it was half a hobby.
“Errr… I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about.”
“Ah, I get it, old-timer. Were you fired because of teacher? Got to say sorry for that—it was indirectly my fault.”
The young boy said without particularly shying back—one could say that attitude was somewhat reminiscent of old Wakui.
“It’s got to be because I snitched to teacher. The painting’s frame was switched out, I said—but, well, if I noticed it, I couldn’t really keep silent. After that, before he had even finished the job he was working on, I heard teacher stormed into the museum and caused a ruckus. I can’t say I didn’t wonder what happened to you… so anyways, did teacher introduce you to some work?”
While it was rough reasoning, he was largely on the mark. When he wasn’t even a detective, what a sharp kid.
In this specific instance, rather than sharp, his frank manner of speech that came precisely because he was a child might have just made him sound sharper than an adult who would beat around the bush. My apologies to the word snitch, but if I had to deduce, it looks like the one who informed old Wakui of the frame change was Hakui-kun after all—thought it was a bit beyond my expectations that he had connections to Atelier House.
“Was Wakui-san the one who told you to copy that painting? He didn’t say anything that made it sound like he could teach art.”
Ahh, as a front, he’s not supposed to do that sorta thing, but over here, I’m someone’s he’s letting live there for free. No matter what he says, can’t go against the patron’s orders. This world ain’t so simple, you know?
That was something I experienced all too recently—the world was detestably convoluted, and you never know what connects where.
“And for the artists living in Atelier House, having teacher furnish them with a frame is one of their goals—learning from a picture teacher actually framed before is like a compulsory subject.”
Hakui-kun, said, flip, flip, flip, and showed me the contents of his sketchbook—the pages had increased from the time he showed me that day.
“Ah, then the paintings in that sketchbook are all…”
“Right. I guess I’ve pretty much finished copying all the ones open to the public… but, see, I can’t spot a single point in common.”
Haven’t really learned anything, Hakui-kun sighed.
He was cheeky, he didn’t go to school, and he was liable to look insincere, but his posture was earnest, and he seemed very serious—to think a person with talent who confronted that talent head-on could appear so radiant, without any particular reason, I fell into self-loathing.
And the fact that violent man was, at the very least, considerably respected by these painters (eggs?), it was pretty obvious if you thought about it, but I fully came to realize.
In that case, perhaps it was best I didn’t say anything rash. That Wakui was thinking of retirement, and that he was about to embark on the last job of his life—no way, but didn’t he say someone in Atelier House was painting it? At the very least, that tenant should know the situation—
Could it be that painter was Hakui-kun? My intuition led me along that tangent. The logic that he was just a child couldn’t apply the moment he was allowed to live in Atelier House.
With all the talent he had, what’s more, if he said old Wakui was treating him specially, then couldn’t he have the qualifications to tag along on the man’s final job—I thought, unconsciously staring hard at the boy.
He must have been well attuned to that look as sure enough, “It’s probably not what you’re thinking,” came his bored-sounding words.
“Eh… w-what could you be talking about?”
“No, I mean what teacher wanted… the reason he called you after you’d been fired, I’ve got a hunch—including the reason you’d want to keep it hidden for me. But I’m not even a candidate for that one.”
It was exceedingly difficult to maintain my poker face… of course, it wasn’t as if Hakui-kun was saying he had seen through everything but at the very least, he knew the circumstances—apparently. But still…
“You’re not a candidate for it…? What do you mean by that?”
While my guess Hakui-kun would accompany him seemed to have missed the mark, candidate was quite the peculiar word. Judging by old Wakui’s tone, I got the feeling he’d already decided who’d be painting the picture…
“That all comes down to teacher’s secretiveness. There was no way he could hide the fact he was going to get into a large job, so he had various residents get to painting paintings that fit the part—call it a secret project if ya want, but the walls have ears, so by putting out orders in bulk, he made it so even the one painting it doesn’t know which one is the real one—that’s how he set it up.”
I heard something like that happens in the filming of mystery and suspense dramas. By filming the last scene along numerous routes and numerous patterns, they make it so even the performers didn’t know which plot is the real one— by doing so, they’re able to prevent the information ever actually being leaked before release, if I had to say a risk that came with the production process…
He put painters up to it? While he called them candidates, the ones who weren’t the real McCoy were painting pointless pictures and—from the way he said secretiveness, you could also say it was already impossible to cover up.
To not even tell the one painting it, as a patron, he wasn’t being frank to the people he supported, and when it came down to it, it became hard for me to think that old man was managing Atelier House out of honest goodwill or repayment.
What’s more, that Hakui-kun wasn’t even included among the fake candidates was a shock that made me shudder—just what terrifying level were those painters’ eggs living in that complex at?
“Well… he’s going a little too far, is what I humbly think. I admit, just ‘cuz it’s art, doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to do with competition. Having us all live in the same place, and cultivate ourselves to set out for number one is a good idea. A management policy I’d even call too respectable for teacher. But when it comes to his handling this time around, in the opposite sense, I think it’s not like him—kukuku, though it’s got no persuasive power coming from a kid who they wouldn’t even let into that battle.”
“If he’s already at the stage where he hires an old-timer like you, teacher’s finally going to start moving for real—if today was the interview, did you get the job?”
I did, but when I heard it was such a terrifying place where man had to strive but to remain man, it brought a doubt to my choice. As if to boost that doubt even further, Hakui-kun spoke.
“You’re better off giving up on it. You’ve seen teacher’s intense nature, ‘r how should I put it, strong character or something; a good-natured-looking old-timer like you looks like he’ll get corrupted too easily.”
If that was where he was going, I was already corrupted.
Without any major experience, forget that, nothing but experience of failure, for me to personally take up the guard of a very important person on their very important job wasn’t a sane state of affairs—corrupted by the sort of VIP who could hold clout against a single museum on his own, perhaps I had also come under the misunderstanding I would be able to accomplish something on my own. When I left Atelier House and looked back on it rationally, that’s how I got to think of it.
At the end of the end, I succeeded in pulling the conditions out of the old man, but—apart from that, in the end, now that it was over, I was at the whims of that arrogant man.
I of course didn’t reach him in talent or artistic prowess, but to strive for perfection, as a stepping stone there just in case, perhaps I wasn’t too different from the young painters living in Atelier House.
“It’s not just talent or dreams or futures… perhaps working is surprisingly not an ideal.”
Old Wakui’s culmination, what would become his final work; as I listened to Hakui, I realized it might not be the sort of thing I wanted to watch over and see off. At the point I thought of labor as an ideal, you could also say I was still considerably young…
“Haha. Because the ulterior motives of all sorts swirl around. From my sense, it’s definitely not an ideal. It’s dirty and stained. Makes me want to paint over it all in black.”
“Whether you’re working or not, old-timer, if you think that Atelier House is where youngsters dreaming of a future gather, some group of creators overflowing with a creative spirit, then you should at least know that’s completely wrong. More than youngsters dreaming of a future, me included, this is where the monsters who live devouring dreams come together. Get it in your mind there’s no telling what that lot will do, ‘kay?”
Well then, I’ll be off, Wakui-kun said passing by my side—just as he said, he was returning to Atelier House. For argument’s sake, he did try to stop me, but he didn’t have a particularly strong opposition to my employment, it seems—I guess that part’s how kids are these days, a dry sort of feeling.
I simply saw him off… in the first place, even if it was still an oral promise at present, as I had already exchanged a contract of employment with old Wakui, it was impossible to scrap it. At the risk of my own livelihood, it would be possible to overturn it, but when I thought of my mental state, in a battle of lawsuits against that rough-tempered old man, that alone made me fed up.
If I had just met Hakui-kun before Wakui, and heard what he had to say, perhaps it would have been different, but come so far, I couldn’t take his advice—well, if I commuted here half a year, I would surely have another chance to meet him as a resident, so when the time came, I’d ask a bit more in depth.
Thinking back on it later, that was quite an optimistic notion, and far too late, yet I had not the sense of an artist nor the reasoning of a detective. No, on the contrary—as a security guard, I couldn’t even watch over the job of the old man who trusted me.
Without being shrewd, if I properly took Hakui-kun’s warning there, perhaps a different future would lay in store. But such a future wouldn’t come upon me.
The state of affairs developed rapidly—it developed, and fell.
While my final conclusion was that I never should have taken up the guard request, my calculations fell off on other finer details as well.
The sole right I won in my negotiations with old Wakui—it was the right to invite a capable person to help me out on the job, but it wasn’t long before I came to know I wouldn’t be able to use it as I wanted.
“My apologies, but our office will not be able to accept that request.”
While still listening to the important points of the story, the head of the agency, Kyouko-san, went beyond polite to respond in a tone as if it was someone else’s business.
No, it really was someone else’s business.
Kyouko-san only has today—not only that I made a request the other day, she had completely forgotten who I even was.
To her, every client was a first-time customer and a first-time meeting—the more you tried to act like a regular, the more embarrassing it was.
Naturally, I should have been fully aware of that, but when I actually tried experiencing it, it was a considerable shock. I felt like cold water had been dumped on me. Even if it was only over the phone, that tone and that reaction notified me Kyouko-san ‘really’ had forgotten.
That being the case, being shocked wouldn’t get me anywhere—the reason Kyouko-san declined the request wasn’t particularly because I was a ‘first-time customer’. If she did that, the forgetful detective would end up declining every case, and she would never be able to set up an enterprise.
“W-why is that? We’ll properly pay your regular fees. Your reward. Your wages. Your money.”
“… Please quit repeating money like that. Is that all you care about?”
She said coldly.
Personally, I thought I was matching Kyouko-san’s interests, but it seems I was acting too familiar as a first-time client over the phone—this sense of distance was difficult. For her to even doubt my character, I did the full rounds to a peculiar feeling.
“This is not a problem of money. It is the official regulation of our agency… generally speaking, we are only able to accept requests that can be completed over the course of a day. Requests that carry over day after day are mainly declined.”
That’s right. I forgot about that.
Rather than a sales pitch, the ‘We’ll solve your troubles in a day!’ on her business card was an indication of her demerit.
Once the day carried over, forget the truth of the case, Kyouko-san would even forget it happened, so no matter the incident, she had to resolve it ‘within the day’—in that case, with a job that could take half a year at most, without even listening to the details, she could only turn me away at the gate.
This was my overeagerness. If Kyouko-san, who had become a turning point in my life rivaling Wakui Kazuhisa, would guard alongside me, it would set my heart at ease, or so I thought it was a nice idea if I did say so myself. As truth would have it, it seems I said something completely absurd.
In the first place, the thought that a great detective on Kyouko-san’s level would be confined for an entire half year was exceedingly self-absorbed, or rather, self-centered—I wouldn’t blame you if I thought I got on my high horse, thinking we’d become close after making a single request.
“Is that so, then my apologies… sorry for taking your time.”
Discouraged, and more embarrassed than that, I was about to hang up the phone, but,
“Oh, no, well, no need to be in such a hurry. Oyagiri-san, was it?”
I was stopped by none other than Kyouko-san.
“I cannot accept a request on those conditions, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help you out in the slightest. Of course, you can consult with me if you wish.”
“Now about that money… no, when there’s a troubled person before me, it would desecrate my character as a detective if I were to be so cold as to be bound by trivial office regulations. I’m aiming to be a cheerful, fun, endearing detective.”
At the point she started off by bringing up money, I had to think she was distant from cheerful, fun, and endearing, but… if I had to say, I had a bad feeling the exchange rate would be high.
In the first place, great detectives never had an image of ‘cheerful an fun’… just what sort of thing could the concrete image of a detective Kyouko-san was setting out for be?
“The Okitegami Detective Agency is not a bureaucracy. It is the urgent care center of the detective agency. We must do things quickly, so if there’s something that can be done quick, we’re quick to do it.”
While it may have been a reliable statement, there was nothing more bureaucratic than the urgent care center… no, this wasn’t the time for such idle exchange.
If she was going to help me, there was nothing I could want more—I had made such a grand gesture to old Wakui, if I ended with, ‘my lead turned me down,’ it would be far too uncool.
“Well then, Kyouko-san, specifically speaking, what do you have in mind…?”
“Yes, well in the first place, you can’t call bodyguarding a detective’s field of expertise… I don’t have the confidence to involve myself in rough affairs. There’s no surprise twist I was actually a Kungfu master or anything of the sort.”
Not that I was expecting anything like that to begin with.
“However, even so, I think it’s possible for me to provide adequate advice. While it may be presumptuous for me to advise someone serving in the field, a pro in their own regard, perhaps I can give the sort of inspection of the guard site that can only be given from a detective’s perspective.”
A detective’s investigation—right, that was what I had originally been expecting from Kyouko-san. Even if she didn’t guard Atelier House with me for an entire half year, at least the first day—or perhaps, if I could indulge myself, she could periodically check to see if there were any holes at the scene, any openings in my guard, that would be enough.
“It would be a huge help if you could do that for me.”
“I’m just glad I can be of service—by the way, in that case, would that mean I would receive half a year’s worth of guard reward in just one day?”
“O-oh no, that’s probably pushing it. I think you’ll be getting a day rate.”
“Is that so… well, I was only joking.”
That was a joke?
She didn’t accompany it with nearly enough joy in her tone for that, but… I was beginning to suspect that rather than being firm with money because she was in charge of the finances for her own agency, this person just acted gentle, and she was simply that greedy.
Perhaps that she used her superior intellect to act not as a swindler but a detective was this world’s saving grace.
“Well then, if you’ll accompany me to the scene at a later date…”
“There is no need to wait for any later date. Will today, right now not work?”
When it came to taking action, Kyouko-san was speedy—today, now? I thought I’d make an appointment over the phone, meet her directly, and discuss the specifics—the terms of employment old Wakui presented and such— and that’s why I called her in the morning, but to think she would start moving immediately on the request she just accepted today.
Even if it was bad for a case to cross dates, I’m pretty sure she’d be able to manage without too much hassle if appointments straddled different days, but—when I heedlessly began thinking along those lines, the thought struck me it might be to prevent double bookings.
If my reservation met up with someone else’s she accepted on a different day, and she forgot when she booked both of them, there was no way for her to set precedence—in that case, perhaps she took a stance it was better off for her to work within the scope of her memory.
The fastest detective—and the forgetful detective.
“But if it’s going to be now… I’ll have to establish contact with Wakui-san.”
“Just leave those formalities to me—setting aside the fact I am the forgetful detective, I think we would be better off examining the state of Atelier House as soon as possible. While I don’t have any definite basis, when I was hearing your story, I felt a somewhat unrestful air—”
“An unrestful air, is it?”
“Yes… thought I can’t say it’s anything concrete.”
However, I feel it’s dangerous to take Wakui-san’s notion of hiring security because he’s undertaking his final job at face value—Kyouko-san said.
“The clients do lie, after all.”
“Of course, Wakui-san himself might not be aware he is lying. Perhaps he sensed some unrest with his sensitivity as a framer, a so-called bad premonition—if he just wished to strive for perfection, instead of hiring temporaries this time around, he should keep security guards employed on a regular basis and all.”
That definitely made sense.
For a framer on old Wakui’s level, apart from his grand culmination, in his standard work as well, shouldn’t he keep security in mind—yet this time specifically, that he strengthened it should be seen as him sensing some sort of risk.
If I had Kyouko-san reason out the reason to push his way through, taking in unreasonable conditions to hire me at urgent notice—I think it would make my job considerably easier to do.
“Yes… I think I can prove useful in that regard. If can I speak with Wakui-san directly and listen to the circumstances—that is a detective’s field of expertise.”
“… But he is an elder of harsh temperament, so if you try forcing it out of him, he might fly into a rage.He might end up screaming you out.”
“Ah, I don’t care about that. No matter how he screams, no matter what reckless words fly, in the end, I’ll have forgotten it by tomorrow.”
When she declared it quite indifferently, I had no words to return—still, as the forgetful detective, that forte was definitely a large potential advantage when hearing people out.
In communication, not giving a damn about the other person hating you was practically a monstrous strength—I thought that brazenness ran contrary to Kyouko-san’s calm, gentle demeanor, but rather than contrary, perhaps it was two sides of the same coin, and that nature surprisingly gave rise to Kyouko-san’s bafflingly strange shows of composure.
“To add onto that, apart from listening to Wakui-san’s story, I’d like to see Atelier House itself, the sooner the better.”
“? Ah, you’re right. If you can see from a detective’s perspective if there are any gaps in security as a whole…”
I answered, but it seems what Kyouko-san was about to say meant something else entirely.
From a more fundamental level.
“I think is an underlying factor.”
“Yes, the conditions to bring about an incident are all together… I don’t think that complex is the best of places.”
Not the best of places? What did she mean by that? She sounded like she was speaking off of intuition, but it was unclear where her misgivings were coming from, or rather… far too vague.
“Oh no, I think it’s something you’ve somewhat picked up on yourself—that’s why you hesitated to accept the extraordinary conditions he scouted you under, and why you thought to make a request to me.”
From what I have heard, that building is an extreme, with an immoderate inclination—Kyouko-san said. While that was also a vague expression, this time, I kinda understood what she was refraining from saying—a high-class apartment complex with nothing but painters’ eggs living there, no matter how anyone looked at it, was extreme. It was inclined.
“But is having an incline a bad thing? I think that’s something Wakui-san intentionally inclined it towards…”
“When it inclines, it makes it easier to collapse.”
Easier for an incident to occur.
The detective said—definitively.
“That is what I mean by underlying factor—offering a living and atelier space to youngsters aiming to be painters free of charge might look like an entirely good thing, but I think it’s considerably risky. No choice but to become a painter, excuses don’t work, placed in such a situation, sure it may be easier to become a painter, but it becomes hard to become anything else.”
“… But everyone moved in because they wanted to become a painter, so doesn’t it work out?”
“If the painters’ egg fails to incubate, that means it can’t hatch into anything. You can’t imagine how dangerous that is? They should be left with spaces for excuses, a path to run away.”
What Kyouko-san said didn’t hit right with me—the problem wasn’t evident. What speculation old Wakui made when he erected Atelier House, that idea in itself should be something desirable by youths aspiring to be painters.
“Don’t you think youths with a future should have other choices prepared for them as well? Even if a painter has talent, it is fine for there to be the path of not being a painter. That’s what I’m saying. Did you get that?”
I did not.
More than that, I felt it was what Kyouko-san was saying that put a hold on youngsters’ futures—in regards to old Wakui’s nature, I had a mountain of things to say, and I did incur actual damage from it, but was his way of life of pursuing a single path not something anyone could admire?
“Yes, it is because the institution was planned by this Wakui-san that the intention is reflected, however—that’s a considerably dangerous train of thought, you know? You can call it narrow-minded—”
Failing to gain agreement with Kyouko-san made me feel somewhat impatient—that was surely because her posture in her pursuit of a strange job like detective had many portions I found myself sympathizing with. She was young, and yet she had her path in life clearly decided, I felt something lose to respect—yet as she sai things so blatantly contrary to that image, while it was just my own selfishness at work, I couldn’t bring myself to accept it.
“Of course, until I actually see it, I can’t say anything further. All I can say now is that it’s easier for an incident to occur at an inclined place, a simple general consensus—there’s no guarantee anything will happen. To a detective, preventing an incident is a greater achievement than resolving it—it should be the same for a security guard. There’s nothing better than nothing happening.”
“Yes, you’re right… umm, Kyouko-san?”
Said I. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said it, but only wanting to wipe about this hazy feeling of our views not coinciding, I ended up saying it.
“Why did you decide to become a detective?”
Her answer to that question was truly to the point.
“The reason I work as a detective—is to find out the reason I work as a detective.”
There is a limit to human concentration; come to think of it, I’d heard that somewhere before—I don’t know how related that was to what Kyouko-san said, but in my exchange with her, that was what I recalled.
A human’s time is limited, and so is their concentration.
For that very reason, if they concentrated their attention in a single point, regardless of whether or not they were talented, an exceptional result would come about—what first-rate professionals shared had to be the overwhelming quantity of time spent in effort.
This was no ideal, it was simply as Hakui-kun said—meaning as Wakui asserted, ‘talent is a qualification to put in a higher quality of effort,’ that uncouth platitude. With that alone—when that piled up effort inclined, crumbled, and failed, what happened next was beyond anyone’s imagination. Was that what Kyouko-san wanted to say?
In that sense, certainly, excluding its basement, Atelier House was a building specialized solely in ‘painting pictures’, a sea to your back, enemies on all sides, all the escape paths sealed off. It might be cool when you succeed but on failure, all that was left was to drown—of course, the tenants may have been resolved for it, but whether that resolve weight up against the risk, in the end, no one could tell until the moment came.
Come to think of it, on her off days, Kyouko-san loitered around the museum, she went out for dinner with me, she was able to change gears—I certainly couldn’t say the same for Hakui-kun who didn’t go to school, pushing forward with nothing but painting pictures.
No, even I was the same—
“So this is Atelier House? It definitely is a high-rise complex difficult to picture from its name—that’s thirty-two stories.”
We arrived at Atelier House before noon—a wrap-around skirt and a pink blouse, a light sweater over that, Kyouko-san correctly guessed the number of floors at a single glance. Just how effective were her glasses, I wondered, but was this also part of an observing eye? I heard that counting things in numbers was actually considerably difficult.
A mere few hours after I called her for the request, we had arrived at the building in question, so I had to hand it to her. She really was the fastest detective. Her speed even dragged me into the midst… and not getting shaken off was the most I could manage.
To this point I had—put poorly, evasively—cautiously dealt with old Wakui’s offer, but the developments after consulting with Kyouko-san were terribly swift—perhaps her claim to be the urgent care of the detective agency wasn’t necessarily a joke.
No, in all actuality, when I’m the one who brought the talk to her, a part of me couldn’t keep up—and belated as it was, I reported.
“Umm… Kyouko-san. I know I should have said this sooner.”
“Oh? What could it be?”
“This is all happening so suddenly, I was unable to secure an appointment with Wakui-san. No matter how many times I call, he won’t pick up… so it’s possible he’s out at the moment.”
He didn’t carry a cellphone, it seems. I did put in a message with the answering machine for what it’s worth, but… well, he was getting on in years, so he couldn’t take long trips too frequently, I arbitrarily convinced myself and came all the way here.
“Is that so—you can’t get in touch?”
Kyouko-san said abstrusely, moving left and right to a grasp of Atelier House as a whole—it seemed her activity as a detective had already begun.
“Well, if he’s out, we can wait for him to get back.”
Instead of coming back later, how she chose to wait made me feel her strong mentality as a detective—that being the case, there would be nothing better than if he was at home, so I took the lead to enter the building.
At the entrance, I stood before the intercom button to summon old Wakui—the back room of his workspace was a living space, and that basement room was simultaneously his residence.
Come to think of it, it wasn’t just the basement, every room in Atelier House combined living and atelier space—I had somehow or another accepted that as natural, but to have where one slept be the same as their workplace would in itself destroy escape, perhaps it was structured to make one lose the right time to switch on and off.
In actuality, even if they had a job they could do at home, I hear a great many creators establish a separate workplace…
“What’s the matter? Oyagiri-san?”
As I indulged in thought before the intercom, Kyouko-san urged me from behind—perhaps that was also the fastest detective at work, but I got the feeling she was pushing it a bit too far. Rather than the fastest detective, was she the fuss-test detective, or so I thought something stupid as I pressed in the number of the basement room.
I tried waiting, but no response.
Once again, I repeated and tapped in the button, but the result was the same.—my misgivings were on the mark, it did seem Wakui was absent.
“Or possibly, he’s so enthused in his world, he’s pretending he isn’t there.”
From the side, Kyouko-san pointed out a possibility I didn’t even think of.
“Even if it isn’t a job, he could have a previous visitor.”
“I see—for now, I’ll try calling again.”
I took out my cellphone, and redialed old Wakui’s landline—but there was no response, and only the answering machine I’d grown sick of hearing played back.
“Then… let’s wait. If there’s a café or something around, we’re in luck…”
“From what I can remember from the way here, there wasn’t.”
Kyouko-san said—looks like she properly remembered the way. This was my second time coming, but whether there was a café or not, I didn’t remember in the slightest… what she forgot was only the events up to the previous day, and for the happenings of the day in question, she boasted memory capabilities far exceeding the average, it seems.
“It isn’t just cafes, there were barely any amusement facilities… in that sense, these are some harsh conditions.”
“Harsh… is it?”
“If you think of Atelier House as a company, they haven’t invested anything into their welfare plan—just where could the people living here be taking a breather, I wonder?”
She muttered as, not the road she came down, she began circling around the building—judging by her tone, she didn’t have a very good impression of Atelier House itself after all.
Not a place of dreams where youths desiring the arts gathered, she spoke of it almost like a slave labor camp—while Hakui-kun said something similar, I had to think it was pushing it to look at effort for the sake of dreams as slave labor.
Whatever the case, she looked like she’d disappear the moment I took my eyes off of her, so I frantically gave chase. Right around the center of the back side, she finally stopped her feet. It looked like a parking lot attached to the complex—I never noticed there was a place like this behind it. Of course, if you wanted to get in from here, you still had to clear a security check.
“Oyagiri-san. Can you stand in front of that fence for a second?”
“Pardon? Well sure, I don’t mind… but even with my height, I won’t be able to see inside.”
“I don’t mind. Just sand there, and take a stance as if you’re about to receive a volleyball.”
Kyouko-san’s starting dash came faster than my question.
She charged straight at me, and when I thought she jumped off her right foot, she used the hands locked in front off my stomach to jump another level higher, passing right over my upright head—by the time I turned in surprise, her body had already disappeared into the parking lot.
No, strictly speaking, she hadn’t disappeared yet. From the opposite side of the wall, she hung one arm over.
“Oyagiri-san, please take my hand. I’ll pull you up.”
From across the fence, I heard an at-ease voice I couldn’t imagine from someone who just pulled off such acrobatics. From my point of view, I had no idea what was going on, more so, I wanted to pull her back, but I couldn’t leave her hanging up over that wall forever.
“Hurry up, hurry up.”
Under her urgings, I clambered up the wall. I did try taking her hand, but to be blunt, her slender arm was of absolutely no use in pulling me up, and I scaled the wall pretty much on my own strength. I landed first, and upon that, Kyouko-san let go of the wall. ,
“There we go,”
She landed on her feet.
In short, all too easily, the two of us succeeded in infiltrating the parking lot—yet my heart wasn’t dancing at that success, more so, I was left wondering what the hell I’d let myself be drawn into.
“W-what are you doing, Kyouko-san!? This is trespassing!”
“In that case, you’re complicit, Oyagiri-san.”
Kyouko-san smiled sweetly, not one to shy back.
“It’s a security check, a security check—just because there’s an automatic auto lock door, as long as it’s not perfectly sealed, there are going to be gaps to exploit, aren’t there.”
A security check was definitely what I asked for, but if she was going to do that, I’d appreciate if she told me first—what was I supposed to think when she suddenly charged at me?
“I mean, if I told you, you’d stop me.”
Of course I would. But even if she said it as if it was the natural order of things, I couldn’t accept it—When I made that request the other day, and we finished matters talking in a café, I couldn’t tell, but it did seem this person boasted an unexpected degree of dynamism.
Climbing the wall was one thing, but would you usually consider jumping over a man of my height? She seriously jumped over me in a skirt…
“This way, right?”
No time to stop in the parking lot, Kyouko-san rapidly moved into complex—in the end, we reached the elevator hall avoiding going through any locked doors.
I see, with that method, you could avoid the auto lock… well, with how flashy her movements were, it was hard to call covert. With those actions, if there were any witnesses, it wouldn’t be strange if she got arrested.
“There is no guarantee a criminal will always move with secrecy on mind—more so, it is the culprits that move covertly, so as not to be seen that help out detectives the most. In most cases, their cover-up attempts end up adding to the evidence– and from a security point of view, what you should look out for is a hoodlum who will forcefully breach the defenses. Take it to the extreme, and an auto-locking automatic door will break if you smash it hard enough with a rock.”
While her opinion defeated the purpose, she did have some point—just like a security guard being stationed didn’t prevent a single old man from destroying a painting. There’s no perfect security, and it’s difficult to deal with a ruffian who thinks not of his own safety—if I wanted to guard to that extent, it really would be too much for me alone.
“The place Wakui-san works was in the basement, correct?”
Kyouko-san was already pressing the elevator button—even if she wasn’t a ruffian, this person was a detective who thought not of her own safety. Just because she would have it all wiped clean tomorrow, I do think there are things you just don’t do… and places where, ‘sorry, I don’t remember’ doesn’t pass.
“Yes, the basement… but.”
As I answered, Kyouko-san pressed the down button again, but that didn’t make it light up– -it was reactionless.
She mashed it, but still no response.
It wouldn’t indulge her in any way.
“Is it broken… it looks like the elevator isn’t moving.”
I recalled the service-size elevator I rode yesterday—at the time, I didn’t sense any defects. It would surely be inconvenient if the only elevator broke down, , I had nothing but sympathy for the residents, while feeling somewhat relieved—while Kyouko-san’s dynamism at a level that made me draw back, drew me into lending a hand in her trespassing, the elevator not working here could be interpreted as God telling us to go away.
I returned my eyes to convey it to her, she was already gone—she had already gone and opened a door at the side of the hall.
Blending in with the marble wall, that door whose existence was hard to make out, led to an emergency stairway—her eyes were way too sharp. She had no mind to lend any ear to God’s warning.
“This way, Oyagiri-san.”
She invited me without turning around, before immediately descending the stairs down—she didn’t even give me the opportunity to stop her.
Looking back on it now, at the time, Kyouko-san must have had a premonition—no, to speak of premonitions, at the point I made a request to her, she already had a sort of premonition. Ir could I call it foresight? A knowledge of the dangers contained within this building called Atelier House—by that point, she had already noticed the underlying factor.
Come there, perhaps she felt something serious at a situation where it was impossible to contact old Wakui, and forcefully breached the security—lending no ear to the divine.
Of course, speaking of possibilities, the probability that foresight ended in vain was far higher—the presumption she pierced forward under was based in an unreliable premonition barely worthy of consideration.
That day, the process of elimination, scratch that, reduction ad absurdum she showed at the café—no matter how trivial or small it was, it should have been part of her style to destroy possibilities one by one in turn, and yet. Only at a time like this—she hit the mark in one shot.
The door at the bottom of the stairs was thrown open, in the basement room Kyouko-san had reached not as a detective but phantom thief, old Wakui was collapsed, lying on his side.—a painting knife stuck into his lower abdomen.
A shocking state of affairs before my eyes, I came to know Kyouko-san’s dizzying movements to that point had been her slamming the brakes—what happened after that truly was the fastest.
“Oyagiri-san! There was an AED in the elevator hall, go get it!”
Just as she cried out, Kyouko-san raced towards the old man’s body—she didn’t freeze up for a single instant. Contrarily, unable to stir, I followed her order like a robot—AED? Was there one of those around? There was.
When I climbed back up the stairs, it was lined next to the fire extinguisher diagonally across the hall—so Kyouko-san even checked a place like that.
Confirming the location of an AED was admittedly, the basics of the basics, but in most cases, it’s a basic recalled alongside a feeling of regret—I should’ve checked where it was, that sort of sentiment.
Incorporating every possibility, it seems she had gotten rid of that regret beforehand—but now wasn’t the time to be impressed.
I opened the door to the base, carried out the AED, and brought it back to the basement—while trying my best to remain calm, I was flustered, and I ended up pushing the elevator button once; right, it wasn’t operational.
Calm down your heart, thing—as I recall, and AED should be a device to return a chaotic pulse to a normal state, and it won’t have an effect on someone’s whose heart has completely stopped. In that case, Kyouko-san determined old Wakui wasn’t dead yet?
When I saw him collapsed, pierced with a knife, I reflexively concluded he had been ‘killed’—but the knife was stabbed into his lower abdomen. Did it miss the vitals…? No, if any internal organs were punctured, that would still be considered a vital, wouldn’t it?
It seemed like I was thinking, but I really was not—my thoughts turning round and round in circles, by the time I returned to the basement room, I found Kyouko-san had already finished taking that appropriate measures.
Setting old Wakui face-up, she rested his head on the sweater she’d been wearing—with his monk work clothes torn open, the old man’s upper body was exposed.
A bandage(?)-like cloth had already been wrapped around the wound, she had done everything she could to stop the blood—however, the knife itself hadn’t been removed.
At a time like this, there are some who say it’s better off not to remove the blade, and some who’d disagree but by some criteria, Kyouko-san had chosen to firmly fix the blade in place.
I wondered what she used to cut open his clothes and substitute a bandage, but this was a framer’s workspace, with surely no lack of tools. Meaning Kyouko-san used anything she could get on hand for emergency measures—no, life-saving measures, apparently. Though for that, the old man’s face showed too few signs of vitality.
“—Is he alive?”
“His spontaneous respiration’s been restored.”
Kyouko-san answered to-the-point.
On close inspection, right beside him, a simple artificial respiration device likely fashioned out of a PET bottle was littered—It would also have to have been improvised.
“His heard had stopped, but it’s been restored with a massage. Please connect up the AED. Hurry! Get it moving, and the machine will tell you the rest!”
Kyouko-san said as she pulled out a cellphone—I thought it was a familiar smartphone, before realizing it was mine.
She must have swiped it from my pocket when she raced off—as modern-day phones were now more of a high-efficiency storage medium than a means of communication, the forgetful detective couldn’t carry one around. Of course, I considered myself more secure than average, and the phone was locked, but you didn’t need a passcode to dial emergency numbers.
While Kyouko-san placed a call to the fire department, I hastily stuck the defibrillator parts onto the old man’s body—at the time, my hands touched him, and from his heat, I finally knew for sure old Wakui was alife. But something felt strange—it probably happened when Kyouko was giving him a heart massage, but his ribs were broken. It told me just how much power Kyouko-san must have put into those slender arms when she massaged him…
“When there’s such a large wound in his stomach, is it alright to send electricity into him?”
I raised my face to ask her, and she wasn’t there—all that remained was my phone, discarded on the floor.
“It’s made to not flow a current if it’s not supposed to, you’re fine!”
The answer returned from a different direction—when I looked, Kyouko-san was restlessly moving all over the basement. She did seem to be gathering timber, but I couldn’t tell what exactly she was doing… just looking at her, it could also look like she was simply confused and taking meaningless action… the sort of panic that would have one make off with the blanket from the scene of the fire.
But when she had taken such pertinent emergency measures, there was no way I could shout something as off-the-wall as ‘calm down’—more so, the one who needed to calm down was me. Believing she was surely doing something meaningful, I entered the AED procedure, of which this would be the first time I conducted in a real situation.
Right, back when I worked at the security firm, I’d experienced it in practice—this was a device made so anyone could use it without specialist knowledge.
‘Preparing shock. Please move away from the patient.’
The sound played, as I quickly abided, a sound similar to hitting the floor with a blunt weapon resounded—the sort of sound that, forget his rib cage, made me wonder if old Wakui’s slender body itself would break.
Even if I knew what I was doing, I flinched, wondering if I might have used it wrong,
‘Heart rhythm restored,’
The sound flowed from the AED—putting me at ease.
Of course, it didn’t change that he was in critical condition, but whatever the case, if his heart was beating at a regular rhythm, it was certain we’d crossed one peak.
The rest had to be wagered on old Wakui’s life force. In the time I pat my chest, “Over here!” Kyouko-san cried. Her orders were to the point, with no space to mishear—while it was as if she was accustomed to this sort of situation, was it even possible for the forgetful detective who didn’t pile up experience to grow ‘accustomed’ to anything?
I moved as instructed, then doubted my eyes—something that made me doubt my eyes had been completed. A stretcher made out of cloth and wood that had been lying around the place. It wasn’t put together with nails, but with rope and thread, firmly fastening each part in place—it looked sturdy enough.
You’re telling me she made that in the few minutes I took my eyes off of her? No, it was definitely a simple construction, but there should be a limit to DIY—no matter, in the present state where the elevator was unusable, it was an absolute necessity.
Where we were in a race against every minute, every second, did she plan to get Wakui’s body aboveground before the ambulance arrived?
“Hey, quit spacing out! Gently place Wakui-san on top! We’ll be climbing the stairs, so you take the feet, Oyagiri-san!”
To make sure his body didn’t fall off by any mistake, Kyouko-san fixed it with spare cloth strips—she was too dexterous, at a level I couldn’t capture her speed with my eyes.
So expedited one was better off calling it violent. But at the important parts, she came with a carefulness that would certainly never rush. And when less than ten minutes had transpired since we discovered a collapsed Wakui, Kyouko-san succeeded in carrying his serious condition body above ground—it came at practically the same time as the ambulance.
“He’s seventy-two years old, blood type A. It seems he has a number of chronic ailments. Here’s his medication.”
Just when did she find that? Kyouko-san handed over what looked like his medical history to the emergency team.
Just how attentive could she be? Though it seems it was the professionals who wound up surprised,
“Please hurry. His consciousness level is dangerously low, there is no telling what will happen with Wakui-san’s condition.”
Kyouko-san urged them on—thus, with a flashy blaze of sirens, the ambulance with old Wakui took off for the nearest hospital.
Kyouko-san finally took a breath.
Perhaps with the recoil for moving at full speed, it seems she could no longer stand on her own,
“I’ll be borrowing your shoulder for a bit.”
She leaned against me.
With a plop, she wholly entrusted me her white-haired head.
As I hurriedly supported her up, I braced my legs, but there was no need—her body was too light to require it.
To think this small body showed such movements, such specs, such performance… while I do think I placed some part, I was fundamentally just following her orders, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to do much alone. No doubt I would have panicked every which way before a collapsed old Wakui—not to mention, if I were alone, I wouldn’t have even been able to discover him in his predicament.
“… Do you think he’ll be alright?”
I spat the phrase with a sense of powerlessness.
My formal employment had yet to begin, but that had nothing to do with it—once again, I failed to protect what I was supposed to protect. My apologies to my grandfather, but I wanted to throw away a name like Mamoru.
“I don’t know.”
The detective wouldn’t provide some arbitrary consolation.
While she certainly gave the fastest, optimum measures, there was definitely a limit to that—there was his age to consider ant all.
“But… Kyouko-san, are you sure we shouldn’t have gone with him?”
With that momentum, I was sure she’d board the ambulance, and follow him all the way to the hospital, but… id we really not have to explain the situation to the doctor?
“We’re not friends or relatives. Even if we followed, there’d be nothing we could do—and no circumstances we’d be able to explain.”
“You do have a point…”
“More importantly, how about we do our own job?”
“Yes. Our job.”
With that, Kyouko-san parted from my body—the fastest girl’s rest time didn’t fill thirty seconds.
With a strong pace, she turned—she turned to Atelier House.
When an ambulance had come and gone with a shrill siren, not a single soul had left its confines—perhaps it could be summed up in the apathy of the big city, but considering the circumstance this high-rise complex carried, and the eggs under its wings, that only made it all the more ominous.
Kyouko-san—the forgetful detective pointed out Atelier House, the embodiment of the danger of bad eggs, and strongly presumed.
“— The culprit is in our midst.”