The casual diner in front of the station, Softpoached Land. Of all the national chains, it boasted a reputation of being the most unrefined one.
Chizuru and Ageha sat next to one another, at a table in the back. Around five minutes past nine, the store was empty.
“… Officer Atami is late.”
On Ageha’s words, Chizuru held the straw in his mouth, and gave a short, “Mmn” in reply. He sent his breath down the tube, causing his melon soda to bubble. Across his listless double eyelids, his eyes gazed blankly at the dark-green beverage.
Ageha languidly breathed out a sigh. For a while now, she had rested her chin over her hands in boredom. The words that suddenly came from the girl were a terrible trifle.
“Yeah, Officer Atami’s got that wimpy bottom vibe to him, right Chizuru?”
“… What were we talking about again?”
At times, she had a tendency to blurt out the strangest things.
While that was going on, Officer Atami entered the shop in great haste.
“Sorry! I’m running late.”
He waved his hand to cut the air in front of his face.
“I was put in charge of various odd jobs, and it took quite some time to get out of them. Real sorry, Chizuru-kun, Ageha-san.”
“He’s already calling Chizuru by first name? Officer Atami. He really is a special one.”
“Eh, well… Calling him Kirishima-kun just doesn’t seem right; can’t help but think of our section’s chief. Sorry if I’ve offended you.”
“Oh no one’s offended here! Continue on by all means!!”
“Just ignore her, Officer Atami. Have a seat.”
“Hey, Chizuru, wasn’t that just a little bit cruel?”
Facing Ageha’s outbursts head on didn’t put a dent in them, so in these cases, one’s best bet was to ignore them. Sitting across from them, Officer Atami was urged to go into the case.
“Um, then I’ll start with an outline.
The victim is Shinozaki Kouichi-san, 44. A social studies teacher at Shimoda Junior High, three stops down the line from Yumoto Station. The cause of death was a knife wound inflicted from behind. Estimated time of death was a little before you two found the body… a little passed six, perhaps.”
“I already knew most of that.”
“So how did you narrow down the suspects?”
“Ah, about that. The victim lived around a five minute walk from his place of employment, and he returned to his house around five. His next door neighbor witnessed it.”
“Oh? Isn’t it a bit early for a school teacher to get home at five? Aren’t there clubs and stuff?”
Officer Atami nodded.
“He was assistant advisor of the wind instruments ensemble, but it seems he was mostly irrelevant to their activities. So once his classes were over, he was the type of teacher who finished whatever work he had, and went straight home…
Anyways. After he returned, around thirty minutes went by, and around five thirty, his neighbor saw him go out again.”
“He seemed to be witnessed quite often, and these times are awfully precise. Who’s this man’s neighbor supposed to be?”
While Ageha said it in jest, Atami gave a serious reply.
“His neighbor- all the way from five to a little passed five thirty- was held down in the entranceway talking to a friend… a so-called exchange between housewives. So she witnessed Shinozaki’s coming and going. The accuracy of the time owes to the fact his movements coincidentally happened to coincide with the anime opening and ending themes she could hear from her son watching TV in the living room.”
“I see. From five to five thirty would have to be the American football anime, ‘Gaikyuu!!’ perhaps? I think I’d get along with that boy just fine.”
“Officer Atami, just ignore it.”
Chizuru getting the better of him, Atami returned to topic.
“Right, anyways, when he left, his neighbor called out and asked, ‘Going somewhere?’ and Shinozaki replied, ‘Yeah, one of my coworkers just called and asked for my help’. And he walked straight towards the station, is how the story goes.
Meaning it’s quite natural to think… the coworker who called him out murdered him in that vacant lot.”
“Our last record of Shinozaki’s movements comes from the security camera set at Yumoto Station’s ticket gate. It was recorded at five fifty. There’s quite a bit of distance from the station to that lot. If you calculate out the time, Shinozaki is thought to have been murdered as soon as he arrive. This is also part of our basis to assume he was killed by the one who called him there.
Now then, it’s finally come to it. Have a good look at the three suspects we got it down to.”
Atami took out three pictures from the pocket of his coat.
“By the phone records, in the space of five to five thirty when Shinozaki was home, these three were the ones who contacted him. They’re all, much like him, teaching staff at Shimoda Junior High. Ah, he also got a call from a car manufacturer, but that was most likely a sales call without any relevance to this case. Anyways, we have three suspects.”
Saying something’s not relevant is totally a forewarning that it will prove completely relevant in a mystery novel sense… or so Chizuru muttered in his heart.
“Let’s start with the first person who called. This person. His name’s Nakameguro Tsutome.”
Atami pointed at the photo to Chizuru’s left. Crew cut, a stern face, and muscular build, a man who gave off every indicator of teaching phys ed, but apparently an art teacher.
“Nakameguro is the advisor of the art club, but he isn’t very involved with the club itself. Like Shinozaki, he’s the type who goes home with a lot of time on his hands. According to him, with tomorrow being a weekend, he invited Shinozaki out to drink. But Shinozaki said he’d rather not.”
“Hmm. Did he give a reason?”
On Ageha’s question, Atami shrugged.
“From the start, Shinozaki wasn’t a particularly social person, apparently. Even in the school, he’d only ever conduct businesslike conversations with his fellow teachers. Well, he was a happy drunk, and an interesting person when he had a bit in his system, so they’d sometimes invite him out, or so Nakameguro had to say on the matter.”
“You’re an impatient one, aren’t you. Umm, the next call was from Mine Rikako. Despite the rika in her name, she teaches music. She advises the wind instrument ensemble.”
(TL: Rika means science.)
Displayed on the center picture was a woman in her early thirties who looked to have a good head on her shoulders.
“The reason she called was for the wind ensemble’s competition tomorrow; she wanted to use Shinozaki’s car… she called to ask, it seems. It was necessary to transport the instruments. Shinozaki’s house was close to the school, and he was assistant advisor, so she had all the reason to, I’d have to say. Anyways, based on her word, Shinozaki agreed in an instant, and the call was over in no time.”
Ageha stuck her mouth in.
“I was in the wind ensemble back in middle school, and even among the culture clubs it was a relatively strict one. Shouldn’t that Kuwabata teacher still have been at school around six?”
“I’m sad to say she has no alibi.”
Atami slowly shook his head.
“Tomorrow’s competition is set for early morning, and in today’s club activities, they just did some final adjustments on their performance, and called it a day early.”
“The third caller was this Hijikata Kenzaburou, a science teacher… ah, I’ll just say it now; this person’s advisor of the programming club, but as you might have expected, there were no club activities today. So he has no alibi.”
The man in the final photo looked to still be in his twenties. Sharp eyes under his glasses, with an overly logical air.
“Ah, that guy’s definitely a top. A super sadist in glasses.”
“? Beppu-san, what are you talking about?”
“Officer Atami, ignore her.”
Chizuru said in quick monotone.
“Y-yeah. Now returning to topic. Hijikata’s business on the phone was quite a heavy one… Truth is, in the class he was homeroom teacher of, there was an incident of bullying. Hijikata had moved to resolve the issue, but it was the first time he had ever been a homeroom teacher, and as Shinozaki was head of year, alongside issuing a report, Hijikata asked for various pieces of advice on teaching, it seems.”
“Bullying… yeah, that really is serious.”
Ageha groaned. Once that groan faded away, a silence dropped onto the table.
“So how is it, Chizuru-kun?”
Atami thought it was right time to ask.
“Nakameguro Tsutomu is T. N., Mine Rikako is R.M., and Hijikata Kenzaburou’s K.H.. None of them have the initial the victim left behind… an X in their names. What could this mean? Could that dying message have been a diversionary tactic?”
“No, it was real.”
Chizuru spoke slowly. Atami’s eyes opened wide.
“W-what do you mean? Could it be you already know the culprit?”
“The distinction is clear.”
Atami raised a cry of shock as he stood from his seat. Meanwhile, Ageha casually let out her opinion that she had heard that line somewhere before. To her, Chizuru’s words were in no way unexpected.
“How? How could you tell the culprit from that measly bit of information!?”
“I mean, of the three suspects one of them must clearly be lying, right? The reason the culprit actually phoned Shinozaki-san was to call him out to that vacant lot… are you following me?”
“I’m sure the culprit panicked when asked by you officers why they called the victim. So they lied. Badly. The culprit ended up telling a lie that was definitely impossible.”
“What do you mean? Then who would that make the culprit out to be?”
“… Fifty thousand yen.”
Atami blankly opened his mouth, but Chizuru replied in expressionless tranquility.
“Fifty thousand yen. That is the price of resolving this case…”
Bloody hell, said Ageha as she held her head.
“Come to think of it, you did say you found work… ‘a job where I don’t have to put in any effort at all, and can just use my mind for a high pay’… maybe you really have struck gold.”
“Hey, Officer Atami.”
Chizuru said it in a tone a child could understand.
“You entered the prefectural police investigation department on the detective track. But with one miss, you were put on grunt work. I’m sure you’re irritated. You want to quickly round up ten bad guys and clear up your name. If it’s for that sake, what’s a little bit of money to you?”
“No, but fifty thousand yen is…”
“I’ll give you a discount next time.”
“You’re working under a premise of a next time!?”
“Now, now, if you don’t hurry up, Officer Ibusuki and the others will catch the real culprit. What are you going to do?”
Atami was struck silent. Silence flowed by. A minute, then two.
Around the time Chizuru thought he’d count three minutes flow by, Atami slowly opened his mouth.
“You really know who the culprit is?”
“And the meaning of the dying message?”
“… Understood. Fifty thousand yen. I’ll have it for you by tomorrow. So tell me the truth you’ve reached. If your logic is off the mark, you won’t get any reward. How does that sound?”
Chizuru made a smile with enough leisure to spare.
“No problem at all.”