Above the emergency operating room, the ‘operation in progress’ light was lit.
The members gathered at Yumoto General Hospital were all making dark expressions. Of course, Sorachi Aoi in the operating room had her heart pierced as she tread the line between life and death, so it was only natural.
Aoi’s mother Akari, who had been a mess, was now quietly sobbing to herself. Her husband Kisuke sat beside her on the couch in the hall, patting her back. He was there in body, but not in spirit, as he stared at the empty wall. Akari’s sister, Aoi’s aunt Momota Ai sat on the sofa next to theirs, holding her hands together in prayer.
… Kidnapped and then, ‘murdered,’ by some unknown culprit. But Aoi was still alive. In a prefabricated house situated in the copse behind Yumoto Music College, she was found with fatal injury.
By the doctor’s words, her wound wasn’t actually that deep, by with where it was situated, the blood loss was terrible, and if the ambulance had been only a few minutes late, perhaps she would have been beyond help.
Thinking back over that, Atami Itaru sat in a place separate from the other three. It was too painful to meet eyes with his relatives, and even when he didn’t smoke, he had fled to the smoking room. Because of the partition, he could stay without having to look at them.
“… Officer Atami.”
As he hung his head and sat, a voice came from overhead. The owner of the voice was Kirishima Chizuru. With hair long enough to cover most of his right eye, it was thoroughly difficult to read his expression. Both his hands were shoved unenergetically into his hoodie.
“… What is it?”
Honestly, Atami didn’t want to converse with anyone right now. The fact that a detective such as he had stepped forward to act as the ransom handler had called down the kidnapper’s imperial wrath.
“Let’s talk a bit. We’re away from the other’s eyes here.”
He sat himself down beside Atami, talking without waiting for a reply.
“How are the police investigations right now?”
“In progress. But as I was off duty to begin with, and I’m someone concerned, I was taken off the investigation. What’s more, because I didn’t contact the police at an earlier stage, Ibusuki-san glared at me. Since I solved two consecutive cases not too long ago, I wasn’t being oppressed at the workplace anymore, but… with this case, we’re back to square one. No, that doesn’t matter.”
Atami dug his nails into his two crossed arms.
“I really did something bad to Aoi. Just how much of a fool was I? The culprit’s letter said, ‘Don’t contact the police’ quite clearly. And yet why did I have to go step in? There should have been other ways to go about it… ah, because of me, Aoi…”
“About that, but can I say something? Think over it again.”
Chizuru turned his upper body towards Atami, peering into his eyes. Atami almost felt as if he was being sucked into that brown eye.
“Why did the culprit keep specifying the ransom handler as, ‘Sorachi Kisuke’s nephew’? He knew you were a detective, didn’t he?”
“As I said… Uncle Kisuke has another nephew. One called Takurou-kun… right now, he’s on a business trip overseas.”
“Then he could have just specified Sorachi Takurou by name. He knew there were two nephews, and one of them was a police detective. Knowing that, would he really give such a vague order?”
“… He wrote not to contact the police, so there’s no way I would be called. Perhaps he tied together the two notions?”
“But that’s no reason to purposely make the orders so vague. First off,”
Chizuru’s monotone finally grew stronger there.
“Why would someone who investigated the circumstances of the Sorachi House not know Sorachi Takurou was off overseas?”
“T-that’s… I wonder why.”
“There are still more peculiar points. Even before that comes into question, there’s the very fact the culprit specified someone from the outside to hand over the ransom. For a kidnapper who wanted to finish things in secret, keeping fewer people concerned would lower the risk.”
“… I thought perhaps he planned to make the delivery man do something only a young man could so. You often see it in movies, don’t you? Saying they have to evade the police, the kidnapper gives all sorts of unreasonable demands. That sort of development.”
“You’re right. And in those, the culprit often ends up being someone surprisingly close to the main character.”
Atami opened his eyes wide.
“What are you trying to say?”
“Preparing ten million yen at once is amazing,” Chizuru turned to the side and arbitrarily broke into speech. “Normally, there’s a limit to how much money one can withdraw in one transaction. And it’s golden week right now, so the manned bank tellers aren’t open. In such a situation, I’m surprised they could prepare such a fortune in under half a day.”
“My uncle’s the manager of a small factory, so he always has money for emergency’s sake. In the bank, he has his money spread across multiple accounts.”
“No matter how meticulous the culprit may be, would he be able to learn that much?”
Chizuru gave a bitter smile.
“Right, right, does Sorachi Aoi-san have a cellphone?”
“She has a smart phone. Well, since they found she was missing this morning, Akari-san did try calling it, it seems, but she couldn’t get through.”
“Hmm! So she had one. Now that’s a surprise. Then why didn’t the culprit use her smartphone last night to send the Sorachi residence an email?”
“I don’t get whare you’re saying.”
“I mean, the Sorachi couple slept without waiting for their daughter’s return so all was well and good, but what if they chose to wait? Worrying for the daughter who never came home, they might have reached for the police. The kidnapper should’ve pretended to be Aoi-san, and sent a mail that she would be home late in order to avoid that risk.”
“How would I know something like that? The phone was probably locked, so they couldn’t open it.”
“I see, that’s one way of looking at it. To look at another possibility… from the start, the culprit knew the Sorachis would retire without waiting for their daughter, perhaps? That’s something no outsider would know.”
Atami grew irritated at Chizuru, reflexively standing from his seat.
“Hey, so what is it you want to say? You want to say the culprit is within our family?”
Chizuru looked Atami straight in the eye and agreed.
“In the first place, I can’t feel an intent to steal money from the culprit in this case. They angrily cut the line the moment you answered the phone, and from there they waited forty minutes before calling again, going out of their way to tell us Aoi-san’s location. That isn’t quite normal.”
“A person with a decent head wouldn’t conduct a kidnapping to begin with. As a detective, I’ll assure you.”
“You’re not in a decent state right now either. I know you’re shaken. But are you listening? Try thinking about this calmly. The bizarre orders for the ransom handler inevitably called out a police officer, and taking advantage of that, they used a skillful lead to make sure negotiations had broken down.”
“From the start, their objective was Sorachi Aoi’s murder.”
“That’s not possible!”
After Atami cried out, he remembered he was in a hospital, and lowered his voice.
“… Aoi was treasured by both parents and her aunt Ai. There’s no way they would kill her.”
“So it’s impossible?”
At the time, outside the smoking room, they heard voices in conversation. As Chizuru and Atami peeked out, they found Momota Ai chatting with a middle-aged man. A suit wrapped tight around his body, his hair all swept back.
“Ai-san’s husband… Momota Tokihito,” Atami added in a comment, “It seems he works with an insurance company, and he looks after the insurance for the Sorachi household.”
“Is that so? Insurance, eh? How much life insurance does Aoi-san have on her, I wonder?”
Atami flew into a rage, lifting Chizuru up in the smoking room. He grasped the front of his hoodie, letting out an angry voice.
“Oy, don’t kid around. Where would you find a parent willing to kill their college daughter for money?”
“I never said the Sorachi husband and wife were the ones beh… Atami-san, it’s tightening, it’s tightening.”
“That’s because I’m tightening it!”
Atami loosened his hands.
“In the first place, there’s no way the Sorachi family would need to go so far to get money… their motive is…”
Atami suddenly covered his mouth.
With his chest area pulled up and tightened, “So there is,” Chizuru offered a careless reply.
“… At Uncle Kisuke’s factory, three months ago there was a problem where foreign material was mixed into their product. The claim was spread on a message board, and it became quite a big deal. The mixing was the blunder of a newbie, it seems, but the world isn’t so kind. On top of paying all sorts of reparations, the orders from their main contractor have dropped close to zero, and their sales figures are plummeting. They’re tearfully laying off their long-time comrades, and they even have some debt. Aoi’s continued attendance of the music school with its high tuition put the family in some severe financial straits. But…”
Atami’s words cut of there. The more words he added on, the more it seemed to prove Chizuru’s point, so he was afraid to say any more. Atami turned his back to the boy.
“I still think the culprit is an irrelevant outsider.”
“Is that so.”
Chizuru spoke as if he didn’t care what Atami’s opinion was at all.
“… But if you’re still suspicious of my uncle’s house… then you need only investigate. And if by that you prove your point, I’ll pay you as per usual.”
“Those were the words I wanted to hear.”
“You’re quite the lowlife.”
Atami couldn’t help putting his mind to mouth, but strange enough, he didn’t feel any anger towards Chizuru. Completely ignoring human emotions, living only for the sake of his desires, Atami found his way of life somewhat refreshing.
Perhaps due to the strange tone lurking beneath Atami’s words, Chizuru also lightened his voice.
“We’re in the same boat.”
At that moment, the smart phone in Atami’s breast pocket began to ring.
From his habits as a policeman, his instantly took it out, despite Chizuru cautioning him, “This is a hospital.” You can make a call on that terrace over there, he added on.
Going out to the terrace, Atami answered the phone at once. It was from his superior, Officer Ibusuki.
‘You took too long to pick up!’ Ibusuki, despite being a woman had a low voice that pierced through Atami’s ear. “Good grief, you’re properly staying on standby at the hospital, right?”
“Of course I am.”
‘I see… I hope you understand the weight of responsibility that lies with what you did, or rather what you didn’t do.’
“I understand it fully. If I had properly contacted the police the moment I knew a kidnapping had taken place…”
‘Looks like you’ve got it, good grief. Now we have a second death on our hands.’
“… What was that?”
‘No sorry, Sorachi Aoi isn’t dead yet, but so be it. You should come to the scene. At this very moment, in the copse you found Sorachi Aoi’s body, the remains of a young man were found… they seem to be the one who kidnapped Aoi.’
Atami dropped his smart phone.