For a long time now. So long in continuum I was losing my awareness of it. It was always a pre-established destiny, something beyond my control would mix itself into my affairs.
These three weeks weren’t bad. A past composed of the sort of peaceful life that can only be recalled in fragmented moments. No moments wonderful enough to be proud of, no tragedies terrible enough to lament.
Mayu called me a liar and forced me to take a whole week off from school for dates under the grand banner of making up for lost time. I would go get my checkups when Mayu was switched off, having lively conversations about manga with the doctor, only to ruin Mayu’s mood when I returned home late. When Mayu wouldn’t get up in the morning no matter what I did, I tried to get her changed and drag her to school, only for her to wake up in only a skirt and misunderstand, the situation became nonsensical and in the end we never went to school that day.
While I tried playing it cool, writing it all off as fragmented, I couldn’t contain my disappointment in myself for remembering every bit of that trivial nonsense in detail. Not much I can do about it, I’m well aware of my own fastidiousness.
I also played with the Ikeda siblings; while that was going on, the Kendo club let by Sugawara achieved a high rank at the tournament, causing the man himself to completely ignore the standard schedule for student council announcements and put out some overblown extra. The ninth victim was found.
At the end of those peaceful days, the sound of a phone called out to me, beckoning me to the room absent of its owner. I picked up the landline in her place and pressed the answer button.
“Hello, this is Misono.”
“Oh why hello there. That voice can’t be Misono Mayu-chan, I see. Mii-san, perhaps? I’ve been waiting for you.”
“… Pardon my manners, but who might you be?”
“The name’s Kamiyashiro Natsuki, but a humble cog of the machine that is the police force. Best friend of your dear Dr. Koubi.”
Oh, so this is that rumored detective… I see.
“So Mii-san, correct?”
“Mii-san the liar it is. Pleasure, you finally picked up.”
“Ey now, y’all gotta be messin’ wit me. Our line ‘ere’s never gone outta service.”
“Oh no, a fine little lady’s been promptly hanging up these past few days.”
“Ah, must be the ol’ wife. Taught her to mercilessly slam down the phone on those pesky conmen.”
“Would your wife’s catchphrase happen to be, ‘please kill yourself’?”
“No, no, it’s ‘Please be already dead’.”
“What a courteous wife you have there, you have my utmost respect. So anyway, would you consider having an affair with me?”
“Got enough of those already.”
“You’re an enemy of humankind I see; complete and utter trash. Let me be your number three, by all means.”
“That number’s been retired. All involved parties agree: never again.”
“You’re pretty unique, I wonder who you take after.”
“Word on the street’s the neighbor’s kid takes after me.”
“A charming soap opera you seem to be involved in. If you don’t admit to being the father soon, I’ll have to take you in for lese majeste.”
“You must be joking, Kamiyashiro-san. No matter what the DNA evidence says, to that child, his daddy’s his one and only daddy.”
“You seem to be intent on getting me angry.”
“And failing badly, going off the chuckles.”
“I’ll steal your girl.”
“Wow, how scary.”
“It will be a surprise blitzkrieg as the deliveryman, to be precise. The success rate of that strategy is in the major leagues.”
“Then I’ll tell my wife to take the walk.”
“How cold, Mii-san. I’ll just have to drop by your place at a later date. I always did want to meet Mayu-chan so it’s two birds with one stone, two rabbits one hunt.”
“… As you wish, then you leave me with no choice but to answer to your passions, Kamiyashiro-san. But we’ll have to keep it a secret from the wife.”
“All affairs come to light someday.”
“Incidentally, Kamiyashiro-san, have I by any chance met you before?”
“Quite a primitive pickup line. I can’t say I’m impressed.”
“Oh no, I’m just sure I’ve indulged in your beautiful voice before.”
“My, I was thinking so too. I fell head over heels the moment I heard your voice!”
“Falling for a voice, eh? You better watch out for scam callers.”
“Where shall we meet, dearest?”
“Understood. Until then.”
The call cut. Only to ring again in two seconds.
“The closest department store to Mayu-chan’s residence, the café on the third floor. Tomorrow at eleven.”
“… The one in front of the station? Very well. If you’ll excuse me.”
I put down the phone.
When our field trip was supposed to be next week, things just wouldn’t go my way. I’ve never been able to steer things in my direction, not once in my life.
Once the call was over, I slid open the screen to the Japanese room. The room itself was greeting the boundary between fall and winter and its internal temperature was following a downward trend.
“Oh, welcome back.”
And in the room, the two of them sat there quite naturally, raising their eyes from their manga to greet me. The large stack of volumes I’d borrowed from the doctor towered right beside them. I returned the greeting, closed the door and took a seat myself.
I snatched the nearest book and opened it to some arbitrary page. In around the time it took me to read a single page, I had concentrated my mind on internal thoughts rather than any outside information. To put it broadly, I was submersed in thought.
Kamiyashiro Natsuki. Police detective. Wanted to be a detective from early childhood. An ambiguous personality on the boundary of lies and truth. The doctor’s classmate. Meaning she would be thirty-one this year. That was all the information I had on her. Apart from that, according to Dr. Koubi, she was a little like me.
Well, if you gazed upon the earth from the moon, you wouldn’t be able to observe humanity, so perhaps it would be hard to judge if we really were similar. However, from that previous exchange, the first impression I got convinced me she was a troublesome individual.
I had a rendezvous with such a charming lady at the café this weekend. Oh, how my heart did race.
“Is that onee-san asleep?”
Kouta-kun’s voice had me change gears. I shut the manga with both hands before answering.
“Nah, she’s protesting our teacher.”
Anzu-chan looked up too, tilting her head. Lately, I was catching glimpses of a more innocent side of her from time to time.
“You know the field trip? She’s demanding to stay in the same room as me at the inn we booked. I told her it wasn’t going to happen, but telling her that’s like talking to a wall, so I just left her and came home.”
Even when I left, she was so entranced in her selfishness going by the name of peaceful discussion she didn’t even stop to take note of my absence.
“Oh… you just left her there?”
Kouta-kun seemed quite surprised.
“Something strange about that?”
“Yeah. You’re always together.”
Anzu-chan answered. Her brother nodded, and personally, “Well you’re right about that,” I could only concede.
“But it’s not good to spoil her too much.”
Mayu was a little too selfish. That side of hers was starting to stand out in our three weeks of living together. She would sulk whenever I didn’t unilaterally accept her opinion, and if she saw me talking with anyone else, she would snap the moment we were alone together.
This goes to show that to Mayu, the most desirable position for me to be in would be in complete subordination.
“… And it’s not like I can be with her forever. The police will get involved eventually.”
I was a criminal, it was certain I’d stand trial someday, so I needed Mayu to relearn how to live on her own. That was neither skill nor wisdom, but a resolve of acceptance.
Was Mayu’s heart capable of that?
Putting all that aside, the word police had Kouta-kun apologetically lower his shoulders. Anzu-chan’s eyes wandered with no destination. It did seem these truly kind children felt some misplaced sense of responsibility.
“There’s nothing for you to worry about. This was originally… yes, it’s probably Mayu’s fault to be honest.”
Come to think of it, what was the point of this kidnapping to begin with? It had become a habit for that question to cast a shroud over my mind, but as of yet, I’ve still forgotten to ask the perpetrator herself. It was far too low on my priority list and did little for my or Mayu’s survival.
“So anyway, you two…”
I swallowed down my words. I scratched the back of my head to restrain myself.
Three weeks. Fifteen days where Mayu and I had attended school, and they were left here alone. They definitely had the opportunity to scream out at their predicament. I did a bit of digging into the construction of this apartment complex and it definitely did have soundproofing measures. However, unlike the bedroom where Mayu screamed out, the location of this Japanese room was just one thin wall away from the neighboring flat. Breaking out of this situation could have been accomplished without raising a finger. The metal fetters binding them to the pillar had practically become a fashion statement that did little to restrict their actual actions, whether that was an upgrade or downgrade.
Even now, they were obediently resigned to their fates. I personally concluded without evidence they wouldn’t take any action, so I haven’t put up any countermeasures myself.
This was a kidnapping that made no sense at all. No, there was little point in making sense of a kidnapper’s inner workings, I guess.
“What about us?”
I dismissively waved my hand to Kouta-kun’s question. “It’s nothing.” I declared.
“A crime must be punished. That is a statement of fact.”
Only if it’s recognized as a crime, that is. I just had to make it so everyone recognized it. If I couldn’t accomplish that, I’d be condemned by public opinion or personal vendetta. Just like what happened eight years ago.
A rough calculation told me more than seventy thousand hours had gone by since that life in confinement, yet I still remembered every minute of that time in perfect detail. I’m sure there are plenty worse situations out there in existence, but I know I’ll never feel so wretched ever again.
Aaah, if only I could leap to the furthest reaches of space to retrieve a trauma removal device.
Anzu-chan called like she was talking to a friend. Upon noticing it would be far more efficient to send the trauma itself across space, I turned to face her.
“Is it alright to leave that Onee-chan alone?”
She pointed at the joint of my middle finger where the hole had already closed.
“I wish I could say yes.”
There was a possibility she would get violent with Kaminuma-sensei when he didn’t take up her proposal. I had my misgivings about that when I pressed the floor button on the elevator. Kaminuma-sensei was a failure of a teacher who took a complete laissez-fair attitude when it came to both bullying and students’ futures, but I could see him threatening court the moment he was on the receiving end of harm. That was the sort of person he was. Well, you’d probably have a valid legal defense if it was only two to three punches. That was just how much he rubbed people the wrong way.
“But it’s alright. To a certain extent.”
If she did resort to violence, her mental insanity would become her strongest weapon. She might have to resolve herself to a mental ward, but worst case scenario, that was an acceptable alternative. If Mayu had people by her side who would stop her, even if she couldn’t live alone, she could manage one way or another.
Anzu-chan stuck up her index finger inquisitively.
“One more question.”
“Oh, acting like a detective, are we.”
She seemed to question my teasing statement by went on regardless.
“Where did you go last night?”
I felt a pressure from the insides of my eyeballs. For an instant, my vision was covered by heavy fog.
“And you went out a few days ago too. Kouta told me.”
Vrrrr, I awkwardly shook my head like a surveillance camera that had deteriorated with age. How peculiar, Kouta-kun’s furrowed brow seemed to say.
“Oh, I was just at the convenience store in the neighborhood.”
The convenience store that kept the fans on at full throttle to ward away bugs, thirty minutes one way.
“At the convenience store, see, I bought a midnight snack bento and ate it. I’m in a growth spurt, I have to eat once every thirty minutes.”
To play it off even further, I blurted out any word that came to me on the fly.
“They say whoever calls someone an idiot is an idiot. Perhaps this is correct. But this is no defense to say the person who was called an idiot wasn’t an idiot either. Meaning an idiot who calls someone an idiot is calling an idiot an idiot and all it makes for is an idiotic grand festival of idiocy.”
I finished that in one breath, the whole time on the verge of biting my tongue. My incoherent ramble on idiocy had managed to narrow their wide acorn eyes into burred chestnuts. Why was I making them even more suspicious?
“… Aaah, I really must prepare for my trip.”
I immediately tried to leave, but Anzu-chan’s body shot up like she was taking a leap as she grasped the sleeve of my uniform.
She said, with a mischievous laugh. This smile that actually suited her age was quite similar to Mayu’s.
“I’m not suspicious in the slightest. Not auspicious either. I, you see, I’m friends with the neighborhood council’s chairman’s grandson’s classmate’s club member, I’m out every night hunting down a murderer, that’s not a lie.”
“… You really suck at lying, Onii-san.”
From beyond his growing fringe, Kouta-kun seemed to stare fondly at the scene of his little sister playing with one of their kidnappers. Did he honestly never suspect for a second I could take any malicious action against her? I was on the verge of losing the miasma settled in my heart at this rate.
Innocent trust tormented the heart like a brush against sunburnt skin.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
Anzu-chan asked, a child-like curiosity being the furthest thing from her sober face.
“Oh… you mean me?”
“Who else do you see here?”
“Well let’s take a look…”
For what it was worth, I did try searching on a faint hope. Perhaps a true gentleman parasite would dig its way out from my body with the words “Very well, let me name myself”.
“I’m just asking for your name, what’s the problem?”
The person with the answer held firm, only prompting Anzu-chan to urge harder. I got the feeling she’d punch me if I told her ‘It’s. A. Secret.’ With a wink, so I tried being honest for once.
“I’m not very fond of my own name. It doesn’t suit me at all, and it’s embarrassing. Both to call myself, and to be called by. That’s why I don’t really want to tell you. I’m sorry.”
I placed my hand on her hair that had lost some of its stickiness through daily bathing. “Anzu,” Kouta-kun called her and, “I know,” she replied sheepishly.
“It’s not like I really wanted to know,” she thankfully fell back with seemingly little lingering attachment.
A breath. I planted my hands behind my back and gazed up at the ceiling.
“… I should pull out my travel bag and start packing.”
Come to think of it, what were we going to do about these kids while we were away? Was it about time to remove the chains? If we just stocked up on food beforehand and warned them not to answer the door, then they could just… no, hold on. Wait a second. Do I already accept that as fact? Is that really alright? That this is already no longer a kidnapping, it’s just your run of the mill homestay?
Every piece was straying from my expectations. Albeit, that was pleasant in its own way.
Around thirty minutes later, the sound effects that signaled the homeowner’s return banged out one after the next. They had come right around the time Anzu-chan and I were pulling at each other’s cheeks, deliberating the profound philosophies of life.
Her footsteps so loud her strong will carried through the air, she appeared behind me.
“Wewcomf dack, Maa-chn.”
I turned to find absolutely no joy on Mayu’s face. Her cheeks were not puffed up like a child. Her features were just as blank and set in stone as when she was turned off, asleep.
Her thoughtless voice not resounding in the room, she grasped the scruff of my neck. And just like that, she dragged me off, Anzu-chan attached to my cheek and all. As I was unable to respond to her abrupt action in time, my head smacked into the floor. Anzu-chan fell into my torso. Her elbow embedded itself right into my solar plexus, forcefully removing the air from my lungs.
“A-a, are you alright?”
Anzu-chan released my cheek and showed genuine concern. When I tried sticking up my thumb to show I was alright, I ended up protruding my index finger instead, proof I wasn’t okay at all. Imprudent as it may be, “I’m fine,” I verbally informed her.
“Guh, I can walk on my own, let go.”
My joke of a protest was ignored as she went on to drag me right out of the room. My bottom smacked into the step out, my knee into the sliding screen. As I vacated, my eyes met with Anzu-chan, who looked strangely reluctant to part, but the words to reach out to her weren’t in my vocabulary.
She released me in the vicinity of the living room table. I corrected my collar as I seated a sour-faced Mayu.
“What are you so angry about?”
The reason was obvious, I tried playing dumb.
“I can’t understand why it’s not allowed.”
The end of her words was accompanied by the lobbing of her bag. That bag collided with the shelf her phone receiver was kept, and the impact compelled the glass sphere beside it to jump off in an act of self-destruction. It came out miraculously half-intact.
“Well yeah, the groups were decided a whole month ago.”
I faced this raging bull head-on.
“Did you end up hitting the homeroom teacher?”
“A month… that’s right, Mii-kun, then you should have come over a month ago!” She ignored the question for some more unreasonable anger.
… I failed to muster the motivation to argue this one out. “I’m sorry,” I lowered my head. Heads are pretty useless; they’re only really good for lowering, thinking, headbutting and eating. You had to make use of them whenever you found the right opportunity, but I knew none of those uses would get Mayu to accept it. Carrying on with this unproductive topic would only get me more depressed, so I changed the subject knowing full well this wouldn’t turn out well for me.
“I have to go out tomorrow.”
“I’ll go with you.”
She was going to follow without asking the reason, place, or intention. I had to wonder what value such an action even held.
“It’s somewhere I have to go alone, I can’t take you.”
A needle of a gaze stabbed into me. But it was impossible to take Mayu. In order to protect our peaceful days, there was no way I could even tell her about the details of this excursion. Telling her I was meeting with the police would just make her anxious, and if she found out I was going to enjoy a little tryst with an older woman, I’d be dead on the spot.
“I need to drop by my uncle’s house. That was the promise I made so I could live with you, Maa-chan. I’ll be back by night.”
One of those was a lie.
“And why can’t I go?”
Hmph, she pouted. A sign her anger had abated somewhat.
“Because a fight will break out. My aunt is already opposed to me living here. My uncle pretends to be understanding on the surface, but he’s actually opposed to it too.”
That was the truth. So set in stone I didn’t need precognition to see. I didn’t want them to meet in my lifetime.
Mayu hugged her knees close. My fingers ran through her hair as she settled passively into my arms. I played around, entwining one of her remaining brown hairs around my finger.
“Hey, we might not be able to stay in the same room, but we can still play together.”
It wasn’t like I had anyone else to go around with. Hahahahah.
… Yeah, can I cry?
“We already live together, can’t you put up with it, just a bit?”
I pat her back lightly like I was pacifying a toddler. Now that it was finally the right season for winter clothing, Mayu was no longer sweating in her long sleeves; her scent could be used as a perfume and no one would be the wiser.
“… Fine. I’ll put up with it.”
The maximum concession this selfish lass could make. She firmly shoved her face into my shoulder and wrapped a hand around my shoulder blade. We silently held one another a while. Ten minutes, just like that.
“… Alright, then let’s get cleaning.”
My awareness as a member of the cleaning committee demanded I take care of the glass. When I placed Mayu on the floor and tried standing,
“I’ll do it.”
“Nah, it’s dangerous. Don’t worry.”
“It’s fine! Mii-kun should just go to sleep!”
A purveyor of cleanliness who detested cleaning and putting stuff in order, her majesty Mayu triumphantly jogged off to the kitchen. I heard a dull sound, she’d either tripped on the way or hit her elbow into the wall, but she was back in a few seconds.
She was carrying long bamboo chopsticks and a plate. She began using those chopsticks to pick up the glass fragments.
Due to her lack of depth perception, it required twice the effort even to pick up the larger pieces.
“Need any help?”
She intimidated me like a cat. I decided to stop at warning her not to pick them up directly. I stretched my body out, right where I was. The wood floor was hard, clad in a certain cool air. It was strangely comfortable.
My thoughts turned as I gazed up at the cheap-looking lights fastened to the ceiling.
I thought over my lies,
I envisioned my upcoming chance encounter with Kamiyashiro Natsuki,
I thought over the murder victims,
I closed my eyes to drive them all away.
The lingering heat of Mayu’s hand on my back was swallowed by the cold of the floor.
Sunday came around. It was a day of heavy rain. A terrible downpour.
The forecast said the clouds would clear up in the afternoon, but the meteorologist himself had seemed skeptical of that claim.
“Hey, you don’t have to go today.” Mayu proposed with a glance out the window. She was awake before nine thirty for once in her life.
“… No, I need to get it taken care of before the trip.” I softly declined as I got my appearance in order. Mayu stood still with a meek look on her face.
As the department store took a little over forty minutes to reach on foot, I would need to leave the apartment complex by ten. I borrowed a black folding umbrella from Mayu and made for the front door.
She cast the words, just as was about to slip on my muddy shoes. In no time at all, she had smeared a tube of lipstick over her mouth. Regardless of the tilt in my head, a rouge-painted Mayu adhered herself to my cheek.
She sucked and sucked, I thought my skin might peel away.
“Hey, that hurts.”
Mayu parted her lips. She glanced over her work with a satisfied smile.
“No wiping it off.”
“… Not even the drool?”
She brushed aside my hand and held up a hand mirror. My cheek had been firmly embossed with a kiss-mark just a little thicker than her lips. The mirror additionally reflected a line of saliva trailing down the side of my face to my chin.
“… I’ll be off.”
I left the room obligated to expose my shame to the world at large.
I arrived at the department store by the station at ten forty-five. The road was ridden will puddles of water deep enough to measure the water level, and one step had soaked me to the tips of my socks.
While perhaps it called itself a department store, it was still a structure that was steeped in the stench of the country. So unimpressive and small it would look like a scrunched up bullied child had it had the misfortune of being sandwiched between buildings from the big city.
While it was that sort of department store, I was surprised by the masses of people, men and women of all ages, I could see gathered under their retractable rain awnings.
After shaking the water off my umbrella, I folded it and ducked through the automatic door. Soon, a cheerful tune, a bright light severed from the outside weather and a sweet scent would greet me.
I stuck my umbrella in a vinyl bag so it wouldn’t drip and stood in front of the guide board. I took a look around. It was at that moment that I learned the source of this sweet smell. A store that specialized in the sale of goods formed from wheat or other starches kneaded in water, fermented with yeast then ingenuously baked: shortened to six letters, a bakery. On closer inspection, the first floor was mainly a grocery market.
A certain peculiar individual in that bakery held my attention. She was silently devouring the free samples, a woman whose attire would either force a look or force someone to look away. She wore a long-sleeve blouse with around five horizontal black and white stripes running across it in total. Her skirt shared the same design. The shirt’s size was considerably large, the straps of her undergarments peeking out only at the top of her right shoulder. In addition to that, the back of this woman’s nearly white platinum-blonde hair was fastened with an ornamental hairpin from a bygone era.
The woman had developed a particular fondness for the green spinach bread. By no means would she ever actually place it on her tray, take it to the register and pay for it. Only the bite-sized samples were shamelessly eradicated one by one. She ate with such vigor it was hard to believe anyone would hazard an objection should she mistakenly move on to the actual merchandise.
Despite my sympathy for the store clerk desperately searching out a good Samaritan to step in, I was about to avert my eyes when the woman suddenly turned her whole body towards me. Sending the contents of her bulging cheeks on a one-way trip to her stomach, she collected herself.
She snatched up the yellow umbrella leaning against the wall, her handbag swinging as she approached with light steps. Her blue sneakers showed no signs of moistness from the trip here, nor did they squeak against the floor.
“Ah, why hello there. I’m Kamiyashiro Natsuki.”
She stopped right in front of me and lowered her head with a gentle smile. She had evidently already looked into the appearance of this supposed Mii-san. Can’t say I didn’t see it coming.
“A pleasure. I’m Mii.”
Whatever the case, I returned the greeting of the police officer dressed up like a prisoner all the while brazenly analyzing her appearance.
The person waiting for me was definitely dressed strange, but what put me off more was her face. Not a small nose, or small eyes, or glossy skin, it came before any of those trivial details. She was far too young.
No matter what angle I exercised, I only saw someone my own age. Was this the magic of makeup? Was Dr. Koubi a master of being held back? Were her cells activated by a special breathing technique?
“Is there anything lacking in my face?”
She provocatively asked, sweeping aside the hair over her eye.
“Well let’s see… it’s lacking in artistic value. I was looking for something more avant-garde.”
“Quite the artistic opinion. I’d expect no less from someone who can shamelessly walk the streets with a kiss mark on his face.”
“Oh, this? It’s an occupational disease.”
My fingers stroked my cheek, protecting it from Natsuki-san’s watchful eyes. I was a third-rate human being completely devoid of honor or humanity, but I could never bring myself to wipe it away. Ask for a reason all you want, but I don’t have one. If I had to say, it’s a fashion statement. I lie.
“But I do see you’re quite the paragon yourself, dining and dashing not only with the free samples but even the merchandise on the shelf. Such foolhardiness leads me to believe you’ve mistaken the duties of your public office.”
Natsuki’s smile didn’t waver, though her eyes were sadly cast down in her laugh.
“I was feeling so very, very down this morning worried whether you’d show up or not, I could barely eat anything.”
“So you went to the baker for a rise? How logical.”
“You flatter me.”
Ufufufufu, her chuckle reminded me of a housewife’s laugh from the ending of a certain nationally-acclaimed anime. Perhaps she would break procedure and break into rock-paper-scissors this very instant.
We suspended the conversation; I tagged along with Natsuki-san, ignoring the resentful eyes from the bakery as we headed for the escalator. I am ashamed to confess that was my first time in that department store, and Natsuki-san’s gait overflowing with confidence seemed perfect to entrust the way.
The third floor came before us without any words exchanged, we entered the café set as our meeting point side by side. A store interior that emphasized white, coupled with the dark look of the sky peeking in through the window made for quite the gray-scale world view.
“Oh, I see there really was a café here.”
Natsuki-san off-handedly leaked her lack of foresight. It was difficult to judge whether she was joking, or an idiot.
After leaving our umbrellas at the stand, she made for a seat in the back. I followed behind, pulling back the olive-brown chair and lowering myself down into it.
“These days off aren’t half bad. When my classmate is losing so much salt he could perform an exorcism with an overly hot-blooded captain, I’m out here on a date with a woman as pretty as you.”
I win, Kaneko. Oh wait, when he was recruiting for the club with Sugawara and the others, I remember him hooking along freshmen with the tag line, ‘you can peep at the girl’s changing room’. In addition to that, it was hard to discern any merit in going on a date with this pretty woman of dubious age, so I guess we’re even.
“My, my, you’ll make Koubi angry if you keep hitting on me like that.”
Before Natsuki-san could play catch with my question, the waiter came over with water and wet towels. He took one dubious look at the lipstick occupational hazard stuck fast to my cheek but had his business smile back up by the time he was taking our orders. I had to applaud his professionalism.
“I’ll have a hot chocolate and Kamiyashiro-san…”
“Oh no, please feel free to refer to me with whatever fond name you’re using in your inner monologues.”
“If you insist. What would you like, Geronimo-san?”
Geronimo-san elegantly covered her hand with her mouth.
“One order of katsu curry please.”
Huh? When did this mysterious figure swap out with that woman chowing down at the bakery? The waiter took our orders with an unerring smile before disappearing into the kitchen.
“So what was that about the doctor?”
Natsuki-san formed a reserved smile.
“Oh yes, we were talking about how she’d be jealous. You’ve been her favorite from way back, Mii-san. You know, Koubi’s first crush came around when she was a senior in high school, and the kid was a middle schooler.”
“Well I’m just glad he wasn’t in elementary.”
“But the amazing thing is there was another high schooler attracted to him, there was a whole triangle and everything. Quite an enthralling school life.”
More outrageous than enthralling. Natsuki-san downed her glass in one breath and wiped her mouth with the towel.
“We’re both young here, Mii-san. There’s really only one thing for us to do.”
“You’re right about that.”
I was having a little difficulty understanding this thirty-year-old’s Japanese, but I pretended I knew and tried agreeing.
“So Mii-san, what are your hobbies?”
“I do consider myself somewhat a spy camera of passion.”
“Oh, how modest.”
She elegantly smiled.
“Would you also happen to enjoy strolls at night?”
She calmly declared, her smile standing strong. Eyes were said to say just as much as the mouth, but she had closed them to make sure nothing was revealed.
“I am a country delinquent, after all.”
I arbitrarily answered. At the moment, like she was holding up a commitment, she triumphantly thrust out her index finger.
“Objection, I say. We’re not in court, so I don’t need evidence, do I? You really shouldn’t lie, Mii-san.”
Now was I supposed to take that in a general sense, or was she referring to what I just said?
“You’re a country street thug.”
“… As expected of a detective. I’m surprised you knew.”
You got me, I lightly raised my hands in submission.
“Now as a penalty, how about you tell me your real reason?”
The real reason, eh. I picked up my water glass, touching it to my lips with a glance at the outside scenery. Whether I spoke truth or lie, it wasn’t like this person would believe me. She was the possessor of such brain matter that labeled me with suspicions of murder.
What this person wanted wasn’t testimony of the truth, but conduct born from a falsehood.
“Very well, Natsuki-san. I’ll tell you and only you. Just this once.”
“Was I not Geronimo?”
She said as she produced a pipe from her bag and lit it. Immediately, an unpleasant stench drifted over making my hairs stand on end.
“Ah, I almost forgot. You never did like peppermint, right.”
“Can’t stand it.”
“Then let me put this away.” She politely accepted my objection and withdrew it. Was that her roundabout way of getting across that she knew every little detail about me? The conversation was put on hold until the stench dispersed.
“There is only one reason I walk the streets at night. It is to catch the murderer.”
“My, my, do you fancy yourself a hero of justice, Mii-san?”
“Yes, precisely. In fact, I contribute to society at least five times a week by keeping away from other people.” I carried on with my unproductive counterattacks. I would never be as foolish as to have a serious dialogue with someone of her stripes. “It is a protagonist’s duty to clear the distrust placed on him with his own hands.”
Not that I’m a protagonist.
Matsuki-san’s eyebrow quivered ever so slightly.
“The feelings that you, Natsuki-san… my apologies, Geronimo-san, hold for me.”
A wrinkle graced her brow but she smiled through it. She apparently hadn’t brought any other expressions with her. If every aspect of human emotion could be displayed with a smile, I got the feeling she would be having facial muscle pains all year round.
“I do…? Well I don’t hate you, and distrust carries a negative connotation. How about we go with doubts?”
“Thanks for that. You’ve made me so grateful I just might accept you as my number zero.”
“I’m glad you think so highly of me. Even so, doubts, is it? What could you possibly be talking about…?”
Her words trailed off, her hand crept up to her cheek. She cherubically tilted her head.
Was it distrustful of me to imagine her muttering, ‘It’s not a doubt if it’s already certain’?
“It’s fine. Let’s just leave it at that.”
I shifted in my chair and ended up entrusting all my weight to the backrest. Natsuki-san right across was observing me with closed eyes. We ended up in a staring contest, and I tried putting power into my eyes wondering if she could just turn to stone already.
“… Dear me, you may be a country good-for-nothing, but you can’t just stare at your tryst like that…”
“Mn, ah, sorry. I just became so engrossed observing your hairline…”
She shook her head, “Then I guess it can’t be helped. I’m well aware of your distaste for the police. When were at a standstill eight years ago, in the end, it was pretty much you who singlehandedly resolved the case.”
Something went wild in my stomach. I took the cup and shoved water into my lips to quell this insurgent.
Eight years ago.
I see, thought I. So we’re starting from there.
“That was you, wasn’t it? The one who called the police?”
“Was it now? I can’t recall. The only time I remember ever phoning the police was by mistake.”
Natsuki-san didn’t stop on my words any longer than the sound of the rain.
“You were brave, Mii-san. All those corpses around you, you calmly escaped and made the call. Ah, come to think of it, you did testify your memory from the time was hazy… have you gotten it a little in order?”
“I can organize them all I want, the pages you want are missing. They’re impossible to restore.”
“You really can’t remember who the killer was?”
“Unfortunately not. Are you certain it wasn’t something so beautiful as a suicide driven by a deep-seated sense of self-condemnation?”
Though that was a lie. I understood down to my bones those folks were the furthest you could get from anything so admirable.
“Is that so… you’re right, it’s best not to dredge up bad memories. Just look at Misono Mayu-chan.”
She put on a play, emphasizing the tragedy element all while raising a name that was beyond ironic. Since I didn’t show any particular reaction, Natsuki-san didn’t linger any longer on Mayu than necessary.
“Come to think of it, in regards to this more recent string of murders…”
She quickly returned to her standard smile to declare.
“The culprit is a high school student.”
Not just any student, a high school student?
“What’s your basis for that?”
“Well let’s see… the first thing that hinted they were a student was the timing of the crimes.”
“How very cliché.”
“All nine incidents occurred either late at night on a weekday, or at any time of day on a weekend. They occurred most frequently on a weekend afternoon… quite straightforward.”
“It could just be some unemployed man or woman pretending to be a student.”
Her eyes opened halfway, her shoulders shook a bit. These were the gestures of a doll.
“You’re right, we should take that into consideration. But that begs the question, is the culprit really so prudent? To feign a student’s schedule across numerous incidents, and keep that constant despite the increased security during these timeslots? If they wish to keep their secrecy, then they must surely be attentive to the demerits of continuing this common trend.”
“You do have a point there.”
Even I was unclear on what I was agreeing to.
“Going off the state the corpses are left in, it is clear the culprit has a tendency towards the macabre. But there are also victims that haven’t been dissected at all. The culprit must possess quite the whimsical nature, wouldn’t you say?”
“Who knows? It’s beyond me.”
“No thought or consideration is paid. Our culprit commits murder as if it is but an extension of his everyday life. A criminal who clearly hasn’t put thought into his murderers, naturally pays no thought to the timeslots either. He murders at his own convenience, when he has the free time. It might come on a whim all of a sudden on the way to the convenience store. That is the sort of student I imagine to be our perpetrator.”
This had turned into a solo recital with no space for my input. What’s more, did she really have to bring up the convenience store as an example? She really had looked into every last detail of my life, hadn’t she. But hey, every man has a stalker or two—it’s the true big-shots that accept it with a positive attitude.
“Have you been following the news? The newspaper counts.”
I nodded along to a welcome segue.
“Then you must be aware of the details of the most recent two cases.”
“I don’t know enough to call it detailed, but more or less. The eighth victim was the chairman of the neighborhood council, the latest one was a middle schooler high strung about his exams, I believe.”
Her chin bobbed lightly at my words, after which she left few seconds of empty space. The moment I had my misgivings about the silence, she rudely ran her eyes all over my face.
“… What is it?”
“Does it ever get tiring? Always being so expressionless?”
“It must take far more effort to constantly keep up that smile, surely.”
I can’t remember smiling once these past few years. Let’s return to the main topic.
“The part I want to emphasize about these two victims is, as you might have guessed, the time slot. They both occurred late night on a weekend. All seven cases before them took place either a weekday night, or a weekend morning or noon. Not a single weekend nighttime murder.”
Meijin’s move, Lance to 4-3.
I felt so cornered I could hear the sound of the pieces hit the board.
“Now let’s look at this from the viewpoint that he’s killing in his free time… a change in his available free time might indicate some part of his living situation has changed within the past month he committed these two incidents, correct?”
“You can phrase that statement as a question, but I really don’t have an answer.”
My apologies, the person across from me let a thin smile float over her lips.
“Quite a peculiar one we’re dealing with, this culprit, to welcome such change in their life at this time of year.”
She phrased it almost as if my name was interchangeable with the culprit’s.
Natsuki-san finally rested her conspiratorial mouth. She had apparently taken the waiter bringing the hot chocolate into consideration. Despite the fact that wasn’t her order, she gave a welcoming nod.
I took up the white cup left behind and touched its rim to my lips.
“You like hot chocolate, don’t you.”
She was back up again once the waiter was far enough away.
“Did you hear that from the doctor?”
“No, from your aunt, Mii-san.”
An unexpected bolt from the blue.
“Truth be told, I’m acquainted with both your aunt and your uncle. The connections in a small country town are quite fascinating, wouldn’t you say?”
“They often talk about you. They lament all the night shifts. As you’re always out on weekends, they barely have any chance to interact with you as family.”
“That’s something I should contemplate as well…”
I was forced to go through what it felt to be herded by a sheepdog. Although one corner of me felt the joys of being a skilled snake oil salesman.
“They’re never at home at night, making it difficult to stop any nighttime outings you might feel obliged to.”
Each line of Natsuki-san filled in a slot of the dirt-cheap sixteen-piece puzzle.
The picture it depicted already clear as day, she went at it carefully. She made sure not to rush.
“Oh, but their biggest worry is the fact you’ve taken up a residence with your girlfriend. I’m sure Misono Mayu-chan is stuck to you around the clock. As a single woman myself, you could color me envious.”
The last piece was in her hands.
“I am terribly interested in Mayu-chan’s daily schedule.”
That was check.
This person’s heart was clear. She was always keeping it fully exposed. How truly unpleasant. I ran my tongue along my dry mouth to provide the slightest bit of moisture before it became my turn to speak.
“I’m sure you hardly need to ask.”
My eyes darted outside. You could also say I averted them. The rain was already a light drizzle.
“You’re right, let’s finish this conversation before the curry arrives.”
Natsuki-san’s lusterless eyes seized grasp of my core. And. A topic of lower priority than her midday meal had reached its end.
“A culprit who’s recently had a limit placed on his conduct, with a habit of night strolls…and Mii-san, you’re a high school student.”
“… I see.”
I see. Because I was the culprit, the culprit had to be a high school student. How efficient.
“U kuh kuh kukukukukuh.”
Abruptly, and in unison. No attempt made to cover our voices, Natsuki-san and I shared a pleasant laugh. Mine was long. Hers was short.
We laughed until our cheeks were hurting, only after the customers from the neighboring table had evacuated did Natsuki-san finally bring it all together.
“Quite the intriguing game of cat and mouse.”
“You’re telling me. Searching for motives that don’t exist; I quite nearly confessed to a crime I have no recollection of committing.”
Our shoulders shook grandly, emanating the joy and the thrill that had built in our hearts.
Talking with this person was like playing old maid with two people, under the irrational tantalizing dread that only the opponent’s hand was decreasing. It was depressing, misleading, a learning experience, and ultimately enjoyable.
Amusing enough to warrant a laugh.
Perhaps because I had raised a laughing voice I was in no way accustomed to, my throat cried out in thirst. I moistened it with the hot chocolate, a little too sweet, my heart basking in the afterglow of these empty speculations.
Right, this had been little more than a game. There was no evidence.
If she had any, she wouldn’t be meeting me on personal terms today. We’d be confronting one another professionally at the station. The item on the table would have been not hot cocoa, but a katsudon, undoubtedly.
Natsuki-san’s nose twitched, so I tried working my own nose to herald the drifting scent of an uncooperative curry that completely ignored the theme this store was going for.
“Why don’t we have a walk in the courtyard once we’ve finished up?”
I reverentially accepted her marriage-interview-esque invitation. Is your courtyard surrounded by iron bars? Or so, I kept that boorish retort tucked away in my chest.
After leaving the café, I let the wise (self-proclaimed) and beautiful (I’ll give her that one) Kamiyashiro Natsuki escort me.
“The daifuku here’s delicious.”
“Western sweets are over there. They’ve got a shop with great fruit jelly.”
“Ah, they’ve got akafuku on free samples, off we go.”
Natsuki-san’s courtyard was more precisely a food court.
We did a full round buying up all manner of eastern and western confectionaries. After which.
“You used to live with Dr. Koubi?”
An oobanyaki she’d treated me to in hand, we stood side by side by the fence on the roof.
While I had forgotten the umbrella at the café, the rain had already abated, and it was a pain to go get it.
“Yes, back in college. We were both admitted to a local university, and taking both our living expenses and festering relationship into account, we decided to live together. Ah, I mean fester in the best possible sense.”
Did that word even have a good sense?
From the bag hanging from her hand, Natsuki-san produced the second oobanyaki and shoved it into her mouth.
The corners of her eyes drooped, as if she was biting down on pure happiness extract.
“I’m surprised you agreed to meet me outside. Was that preferable to letting me meet Mayu-chan?”
She posed the slapdash question after she’d finished her oobanyaki in two bites.
“Oh right… yes, it would be quite a hassle if you started fighting over me.”
I could only think up such an unoriginal reason. Going off of Natsuki-san’s personality, I was sure she’d play along and say ‘Thanks for the consideration’, but she simply stared at me without a word. She didn’t demand any further competition between a fox that isn’t red, and a tanuki that didn’t come from the future. In that case, I was better off wielding a sliver of truth to accomplish my objective.
“There was something I wanted to ask you when we were alone.”
“What would that be?”
“It’s about the siblings that went missing. In the end, was it classified as a homicide?”
I probed this policewoman for answers. For some reason I got a sense of déjà vu, a flashback to asking pre-drafted questions at the factory tour our elementary school field trip had taken us to.
“Hard to say,” she tilted her head. It was difficult to believe she would offer information to a suspect, or so I thought.
“Truth be told, there’s a good chance the Ikeda siblings just ran away from home.”
“…………………… Ran away.”
“Their home situation was pretty bad, by the look of it. The parents would be arguing until morning, their anger would turn to the kids, and they’d be beaten as a stress reliever. They’ve run away from home before, and it’s possible this is another one of their escapes. They’ve just been away a bit too long this time around.”
“They’re habitual offenders…”
The information whipped my lazy brain to work.
Runaways. Search radius. A homicidal maniac.
Runaways searching for a maniac… why did I stick those together?
Putting all that aside, there was a more pressing matter. How to pacify this situation. How to use the worst means to derive the best result. The importance of a bower. If you wish to hide a tree and its origin, it was best done in the forest.
The answer was quite straightforward as long as you removed any fixation on morals or ethics.
“It’s already been more than a month, their safety is questionable. Whether it be running away, murder, or kidnapping.”
I mustered a template reply, rolling the method that came to me around in my head. Shifting responsibility, imposing, inhuman, treating people like pieces, failure as a human being. A more multilateral examination would probably just yield more criticism.
But through the pursuit of it, I could earn the trinity of safe, easy and effortless.
“But from your position, Mii-san, you can’t help but wonder?”
In what sense did she mean?
“Exactement, ma chere.”
A shrill 8-bit rendition of a song that was popular five years ago chimed out, completely overriding my display of fluent French. From the pocket of her striped skirt that resembled a terribly popular design in prison, Natsuki-san pulled out a blue flip phone and opened to the standby screen.
“Would you look at the time.”
She made it seem like a bit of a big deal, so I took out my own phone and checked the digital clock on the LCD. Around an hour had gone by since we left the café, it was just passed twelve-thirty.
“I’m sorry, I need to get to work.”
She sounded apologetic. Where exactly was she allowed to work, dressed like that?
“Is that so? Truly a shame, but there’s little to be done about it.”
“Seeing how happy that made you, I’m glad I shared that information.”
“Please watch out for police cars, you might get arrested by mistake.”
My warning was sincere. She accepted it with a smile. What a good atmosphere we were building up here.
“Would you mind sharing your cellphone number, Mii-san?”
I obliged and quickly listed out ten digits.
“Thank you, have my number too… well then, if you feel like turning yourself in, just call me and confess. I’ll be waiting.”
An elegant bow and she was off.
But, just as suddenly, she turned back like a swivel chair, returning right to the same spot with the same steps.
“I’m doing this on my own time.”
She entered my bosom in an instant and tightly embraced my head. My knees reflexively buckled. The surface of my face was buried in a chest I would hardly call abundant.
It had come with no warning, her body movements with no tempo or telegraph prevented me from moving a muscle.
“Hmm, you smell nice…”
“… Should you really be doing this with a murderer?”
“I’m apprehending my suspect.”
I could tell from her voice she was thoroughly enjoying this. I was going to get goosebumps. In complete defiance of my body’s rejection reaction, my hands stretched out to her back. Carefully making sure my half-eaten oobanyaki didn’t sully her clothing.
“Ah, well you know, I wouldn’t want you getting stabbed in the back…”
I tacked on a reason, quite confused myself.
“Why thank you,” she replied.
Her back in my loose embrace was largely defined by the texture of bone. It was hard to correlate this with the body of someone who had polished off bread, a katsu curry, fruit jelly, akafuku, shrimp crackers, silky fowl egg pudding, Matsumae pickles and oobanyaki within the span of one hour.
Her fingers entered my hair. As she combed her way through, her nails lightly scratched against my scalp, only worsening my goosebumps.
“… Umm, how long are you going to keep me in custody?”
“You’re still under investigation. And Mii-san, you’re not letting go of me either.”
“This is, well it’s…”
She broke into a laugh.
Her hand left my head. She smoothly slipped out of my arms and left a step between us.
One back glance at my failure to cover my unrest, Natsuki-san covered her mouth, her shoulders shaking mischievously.
“You’re the type women like.”
She left those words as a parting gift. With light steps, this time she left the roof behind her.
I groaned as I corrected my posture, turned to the fence, and looked out over the majority-green scenery a while. Once about a minute had passed, I finally got flustered, a bit too late. I scratched my neck with my index finger.
What was that? Did she plant a listening device on me? Perhaps a tracker? Was that some sort of physical examination? Whatever it was, once I got home, I was going to throw my clothes in the washer and take a bath.
Yep, sounded like a plan.
I was finished with hiding my embarrassment. After shoving what was left of my oobanyaki in my mouth, I turned.
To find Mayu standing there.
Ever fiber of my being came to a complete halt.
Black umbrella, black sweater, black skirt, black platform shoes, black hat, black hair.
A get-up so muted it had become a black hole sucking in attention, all fashioned atop her pale white skin.
Misono Mayu stood.
Either Mayu or I took a step towards the other, the distance between us now closed to thirty centimeters.
Between me and Mayu, one of us opened their mouth and spoke.
Liar, someone said.
Right, I am a liar.
The switch was flipped. In the opposite direction, forcefully.
“You were tailing me?”
Something came back. This one was my voice.
Mayu silently lifted up her arm. Not a slap, but a clenched fist. Her movement so slow and dull I could see it coming a mile away. Did she honestly think I couldn’t dodge? I swallowed everything in my mouth without chewing.
“Maa-chan is a liar.”
I was hit. Her clenched fist landed on my cheek and ran across my front teeth, tearing her skin. Yet another cut on the hand of Misono Mayu.
“Was it fun playing detective?”
I was hit again. Her eyes beyond the cap she wore low over her brow were cold and stagnant like stone. Her fist was painted with blood red and crimson rouge. That which should never be erased was deleted by the very person who had painted it.
“What. Was. That.”
“Don’t call her a that, she’s older than you.”
She smacked my temple with her umbrella.
You’re wrong, Maa-chan, that was someone who was trying to expose your sins.
This isn’t about cheating or anything so silly.
“Why can you smile?”
Was that the right question to ask a human being?
“You never smile when you’re with me.”
Oh, I see.
She was… Jealous.
Right, jealousy. An emotion I detested.
I tried laughing.
I was hit.
I held her close.
Mayu thrust my two arms away and took distance.
“You smell like that woman.”
Had she ever taken in the scent of Kamiyashiro Natsuki?
Yes, it was possible she had.
“You’re not Mii-kun.”
So that’s all it took for me to no longer be Mii-kun.
If I’m not kind, I’m not Mii-kun.
If I’m not always paying attention to Maa-chan, I’m not Mii-kun.
If I show good will to anyone else, I’m not Mii-kun.
If I’m not Mii-kun, I’m not myself.
I took a look around.
Wire mesh, huh?
It’s pretty low.
I’m sure they had no precedent, so they hadn’t even thought of placing countermeasures.
I snapped my neck around to look at Mayu.
“I did it for you. It’s because I XXXX you, I had no other option.”
Though that’s a lae…?
That’s A ly THAT’sa lieTHAT’s A LIEALLYALYE that’s a lhy. XXXX exexexexLIE It’s a ligh lye laye kiemieliedelete
Delete. Delete. Delete.
Space, correct. CORRECT, CORRECT, CORRECT, CORRECT.
That’s a luy. That’s a lai. That’s a li. That’s a lie.
There we go, that’s it. That’s the one.
That’s a lie.
I planted one foot into the metal mesh and used it as a springboard to leap up. I grasped the top portion to pull my body up. Once my feet stood on top, I had abandoned all sense of stability in the world.
I turned to her, my hands not supporting me up.
My XXXXly Maa-chan opened wide her incomprehensive eyes. What do you think is going to happen? You’ll see soon enough, you don’t have to think anything, Maa-chan. You just have to bear witness.
Bear witness, and please live a happy life. I’ll be praying from the next world for your health and longevity.
Before anyone could say anything, I had jumped over the boundary.
So began the most unfettered time in my life.
I fell head first. The blood drained from my head.
I heard the sound of the sky.
Ah, I forgot a bungee cord.
The Tenth: ‘the questioning murder’
This murder has been postponed due to the state the culprit is in. We apologize for any inconvenience.