When Officer Atami returned to the living room, all the eyes present gathered on him.
“That was quite a long call.”
Said Officer Ibusuki, scowling at him. I’m sorry, he apologized before turning back to the suspects.
The culprit who inflicted such a severe wound to the house’s gardener Sazanami Tarou was using an innocent façade to blend in with the others. Atami made sure not to concentrate his gaze on them too much as he approached the table everyone had gathered at.
“Everyone, I have something I must say.”
At Atami’s utterance, Ibusuki raised her eyebrows. What’s this all of a sudden, her face seemed to say. To seal off her objections, Atami went into his next words.
“I have just now understood the truth of the incident that took place in this house. I’d like you to hear it out.”
“Eeeh!? Have you really, officer?”
Ushijima Miho’s eyes opened wide behind her glasses.
“Just who could have swapped out that vase?”
Kondou Bunji the conservator drew close to him. And then as if to correct himself, “No of course Sazanami-san’s injuries are also important,” he added on.
“First, let’s get the vase swapping event that occurred in this house in order.”
As Atami started off, Ibusuki gave an irritated, “Oy…” in a quiet voice to stop him, but she had no words to follow. It seems she also wanted to hear how Atami had arrived at his truth.
“A week from today, during the regular art maintenance, Kondou-san noticed the swapping of the vase. Meaning one of the valuable pieces stored in the storage had been switched for a cheap counterfeit.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
Kondou spoke in a withered voice.
“Then when was that vase switched out? In the appraisal just a month before, the vase was definitely real. In that case, there were only two with an opportunity to swap it. Either Tsukioka Kansuke-san who always kept the key with him, or…”
As Atami looked at Kansuke, his muscular body stiffened and his face went tense.
“The one who proclaimed it had been swapped in the first place, Kondou-san.”
“O-oy, sir. Wait just a minute there.”
Kondou stood timidly, but Atami raised both his hands to calm him.
“Calm down. Calling the two of you suspects is nothing special… for you’re just an addition to the other three suspects. Ushijima-san stopped by this house, and on that day came another chance to swap it out.”
Her name called out, Ushijima Miho’s body twitched.
It seems Ibusuki’s irritation was rising, “Why are you so knowledgeable on the matter?” she asked. He frantically gave an excuse of, “Oh, well, I saw the investigation reference data, so…”
As the two carried on that exchange, Kuragano Ryou cleared his throat to interrupt. The silver-spectacled insurance agent nervously hit his finger against the table as he spoke.
“Isn’t this a bit long for an introduction? To summarize, there are five suspects. That’s all you’re trying to say, right?”
“R-right, that’s right!”
Taking those words as his life boat, Atami returned to his explanation.
“Ushijima-san came to borrow a vase… a different one than the one switched out… and on that day, there were three people with a chance to carry out the deed. First, Ushijima-san herself, the housekeeper Wakamatsu Megumi-san, and the gardener Sazanami Tarou-san who’s currently out from a serious injury.”
“I’m sure everyone already knows that. Just get to your deductions already.”
Ibusuki spanked him with words. Atami’s body tensed as he unraveled the deductions.
Yet those threads of logic weren’t his, but Chizuru’s.
“All I noticed was the, ‘risk of the swap being noticed,’ you know.”
On the bench in front of the convenience store, Chizuru and Yuzuki sat. He had forcefully dragged along Yuzuki, who’d tried to stop him with words of, that’s a terrible idea, and escaped the living room alongside him. And now the sun was falling and the day growing thin; under the light leaking out of the store, the two sat and ate their frozen treats.
“What do you mean by that?”
“The swapped-out vase was noticed by Kondou-san. In his maintenance he carried out every month. If you think about it normally, that makes for two suspects. Because of Ushijima-san’s visit two weeks ago, that inflated the number to five.”
After answering Chizuru’s words, Yuzuki licked his vanilla bar with the tip of his tongue.
“Both you and Kansuke know next to nothing when it comes to ancient art. The owner- your parents- are out of the country right now. In that case, the only one who could have noticed was Kondou-san. Telling a counterfeit from a genuine article is beyond the distinction of an amateur.”
“… But there, another specialist comes on the scene. The curator of the Yumoto Museum of Modern Art, Ushijima Miho-san.”
“Yeah, come to think of it, she vouched for Kondou-san’s appraisal today.”
“Right. So try imagining the following scenario. Let’s say the culprit who switched out the vases was Kondou-san. And the swap had already taken place in his maintenance the month before…?”
“Ah, then Ushijima would have noticed the fake when she came in later and looked around. She’s a specialist, after all.”
“Right. Kondou-san knew Ushijima-san was coming beforehand, so I doubt he would swap it out with such a danger of being found out.”
“… But what if it was after Ushijima-san came? Meaning he himself switched the vase the day he said ‘This vase is a fake’? No, not that I’m doubting his words.”
“… But if you think about it, that would be strange. I mean, at that point he was the only one left who could have noticed the change. Your parents aren’t coming back for another year. The culprit would probably sell off the stolen vase, but in that case, they’d want to want some time to pass from when it was stolen. In order to contain the risk of anything pointing to them. So even if Kondou-san would profess his own crime, he had no reason to choose the exact moment of the act.
“Couldn’t it have been to frame Ushijima-san, who just happened to drop by?””
“He wasn’t there on the day Ushijima-san came to this house. He had no way of knowing if she had a chance to swap the vase out or not. If on that day, the storage’s key stayed in Kansuke’s possession, and there weren’t any with a chance to steal it, the suspects would still be Kondou-san and Kansuke-san in the end.”
“I see. Then Kondou-san isn’t the culprit.”
“Right. For the same reason, Ushijima-san isn’t the culprit either.”
Yuzuki stared blankly.
“She knew a specialist like Kondou-san came to look after the pieces at regular intervals.”
“T-that’s right. When she called, I told her Kondou-san makes regular visits.”
“Which means there was no way she would be able to swap it. I mean, she knew Kondou-san would come someday soon and notice the crime had taken place.”
“Y-yeah, that’s true… But even if the switch was noticed, there’s no guarantee Ushijima-san would be the only suspect.”
“That’s right. But when it comes to the others who were capable of doing it, they’re all limited to those involved with the Tsukioka House. For both Wakamatsu-san and Sazanami-san, while their days in service to your house may not have been long, they’re technically people of the inside. If listed beside them, an outsider knowledgeable on the vase’s value wouldn’t be able to escape the forefront of suspicion. And she had no way of knowing when the swap would be noticed. Is there really anyone who would commit theft under such a high risk?”
“You do have a point there.”
Yuzuki still didn’t seem satisfied. Perhaps he still suspected Ushijima-san, a complete outsider to the house, or so Chizuru couldn’t help but suppose.
“Then let me present another piece of evidence.”
Chizuru swung about the stick of his finished popsicle as he gave his lecture.
“Ushijima-san who dropped by the Tsukioka House was able to see the storehouse on your and your brother’s good will. Isn’t that right?”
Yuzuki licked up the last drip of his ice cream, as he assented.
“But what if she was told she couldn’t look around the storehouse? What if you didn’t let her stay there alone? Such a case wouldn’t be rare by any means. You could even call it rare you left her alone in a storehouse with nothing but valuables for a whole ten minutes.”
“That may be true. But she could have used that coincidence.”
“… Would she have brought along a counterfeit vase to switch out if she was just going to rely on coincidence?”
“In this incident, the vase wasn’t carried off, it was swapped out. Meaning the culprit would have to prepare a fake vase beforehand. As Ushijima-san didn’t have a grasp on the house’s situation, having her show suck deliberate action to bring in a fake is much too unrealistic.”
“I see, you’re right… so it isn’t Ushijima-san after all.”
“Yeah. Now then, next let’s think about your big brother, about Tsukioka Kansuke. He has the key to the storehouse, so he could have swapped vases all he wanted… but if you call him the culprit, the motive for the crime disappears entirely. Because he is a member of the house that faced a loss. It seems his relationship with the owners- your parents- was favorable enough. Insurance agent Kuragano-san ran his mouth on something like fraud, but to be blunt, that’s impossible.”
“W-why do you say that? I do believe in my brother, but I don’t think you’ve given any evidence to rule him out.”
As Yuzuki pouted, Chizuru lightly tapped against his arm.
“If he wanted to commit insurance fraud, he wouldn’t go out of his way to leave a fake behind. Normally, he’d just have to make it look like a theft. In the first place, it’s because of that fake vase that an insurance agent had to come over to see, ‘if a theft even took place at all’. Without any reason, he created a danger of the existence of the incident being overlooked in itself. There’s no way he put up a charade.”
“That’s right. No matter how sturdy the house’s security may be, as long as he lived there, he had as many opportunities to stage it as a theft as he wanted. Yeah, for example… someone disguised as a delivery man attacked my brother, stole the key and raided the storehouse. He could have nurtured a story like that.”
Chizuru leaked a smile.
“You’ve got quite a mind for improvisation there, Yusuki. Well, that’s how it is. And to take it back to the beginning, the ones who would get the insurance payout wouldn’t be Kansuke-san, it would be your parents.”
“Ahaha, sure enough… huh? But wait.”
Yuzuki’s expression suddenly stiffened.
“It isn’t Kondou-san. It isn’t Ushijima-san. And my brother’s out too… doesn’t that mean…”
Yuzuki opened his eyes wide.
“So that person’s the culprit, Chizuru-senpai!!?”
“So you were the thief who switched out the vase!?”
Kuragano pointed at Wakamatsu Megumi sitting beside him. The woman who hadn’t said a word to that point was flustered by the eyes suddenly gathering on her.
“I-I’m not. I haven’t swapped out any vases.”
“Don’t lie. Now that Officer Atami has rulet out all the other suspects, you’re the only one who could be the culprit!”
With his finger still directed at her, Kuragano pushed up his glasses with his other hand.
“You used your position as housekeeper. When the storage was left open to ventilate, you snuck in during the twenty minutes before madam Ushijima came by, and committed the crime. Am I wrong?”
Wakamatsu remained obstinate.
“Right, it isn’t her.”
Atami continued on. Everyone, Wakamatsu and Kuragano included, returned their eyes to him.
“Are you listening? We’ve used the basis of, ‘the risk of the crime being found out’, to narrow down our suspects thus far. And if we take it further, Wakamatsu-san is excluded as well… first off, she knew Ushijima-san was coming to the house.”
“And what of it?”
Ushijima asked in wonder.
“From then on, a specialist was coming to borrow an art piece from the storehouse. Would she really swap a part right before that? If she was found out, the suspicion would definitely be cast on her. Because besides Kansuke-san and Yuzuki-kun, she was the only one in the house at the time.”
“… I see.”
Ibusuki nodded. She too had been pulled into Atami’s logic.
“If she feared the risk of Ushijima-san noticing the switch, she would hav eto swap it out after she had gone to the storehouse… but after Ushijima-san came to the house, Wakamatsu-san didn’t have a chance to swap it out. Meaning she isn’t the culprit. But in that case, who is the culprit?”
Kondou, who had been exempted at the start, pressed Atami further.
“We don’t have any other suspects.”
“… Has everyone forgotten? After Ushijima-san dropped by the house and saw the storehouse, the other individual who came by the Tsukioka House. And when they entered the living room, they heard Ushijima-san say, ‘I’m glad I got to see so many rare articles’, so they surely thought Ushijima-san had already looked around the storehouse… He knew Ushijima-san would come by, and he knew the storehouse would be unlocked. With his position, he could loiter around the place without arising suspicions, and when no one was around, he could easily choose at his own discretion when to approach the storehouse.”
“Y-you couldn’t mean.”
Kansuke half-stood to his feet as he looked at Atami.
“That’s right. The culprit who swiped the vase from the storehouse was the gardener, Sazanami Tarou-san.”