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Our classroom at the beginning of the week. Tsukimori greeted me with a warm smile upon seeing me, "Good morning."
After wavering for a few seconds, I quickly replied, "Good morning," and hurried to my desk.
I didn't want to look like a coward, but neither did I feel like arguing with her early on a Monday morning. If possible I wanted to put some distance between us and not see her face for a while. Because looking at her face would remind me of that Friday night that had become a dark memory I wanted to bury as fast as possible.
However, Tsukimori is a girl who is unaware of your feelings at such times.
"Nonomiya-kun, your collar is awry," she pointed out cheerfully and stood naturally before me as if this had been her place for a hundred years. Then she fixed my collar with her white slender fingers.
Below my eyes was her white neck. I closed them firmly for a moment as if to shake off my stray thoughts.
My collar wasn't awry at all.
"When are you visiting me next?" whispered Tsukimori, moving her lustrous lips.
She just wanted to bring Saturday's business up again.
"As bright as you are you should be able to tell if anyone would ever come to your place again after experiencing such a night."
While I was helpless,
"I am free next week on Saturday evening. My mother should be late on that day, too, because of a meeting of the association,"
She couldn't have been more nonchalant.
"Do you even think I'd say 'Yes'?"
"Do you even think I'd want to hear 'No'?"
"It looks like I have to be clear to you since you seem to become dull when things don't go the way you want."
I approached until we were nose to nose, and declared point-blank:
"You won't see me there a second time!"
To top off my remark, I flashed a Tsukimori-like smile.
"You needn't be embarrassed."
However, the originator's smile was uninterrupted.
"From time to time you really behave idiotically, you know?"
"Whereas you are always mealy-mouthed, right?"
Others looking on must have seen best friends, smiling at each other from that close distance.
"Aren't Youko-san and Nonomiya kinda like... newly-weds...?"
And so some voiced unhappy, ill-informed comments with discontented expressions. Chizuru Usami had made the newly-wed remark.
I didn't know what a baby blow fish looked like, but I figured it must be somewhat like Usami just then, scowling at me with her chin on her desk and blowing up her cheeks like a balloon.
Usami really was a peculiar girl. I reckoned there weren't many people that were that adorable when in an ill temper.
While I was happily observing Usami with a sidelong glance, Tsukimori said embarrassedly, "Did you hear that? Like newly-weds!"
"A bad joke indeed."
If by any chance Tsukimori had blushed with at least one cheek, so to speak, I might have reconsidered and I might have admitted her cute sides. Unfortunately though, Youko Tsukimori couldn't be understood that easily.
The next moment, her eyes changed to moon crescents. The devil hath ascended to earth. In my eyes I could see a black pointed tail growing from her.
"Welcome home, darling. Would you like to take a bath? Or would you rather like... me?"
Then she giggled amusedly.
To the others that didn't know her real nature, she must have looked like the purest girl who had successfully played a little prank.
"...a bad joke indeed."
But to me it was a nightmare in many senses. One of them being that there was that one guy that couldn't keep quiet when the topic revolved around Youko Tsukimori.
There he stood, Kamogawa, with a grimace resembling the doorkeeper of hell.
"Of course it's the bath, right? You naturally go for the bath, right?"
Much to my chagrin, he was followed by a regiment of guys who were eager to support him, "Say it!"
"If you do not choose the bath... you know what happens then, right?"
The group exchanged glances and then simultaneously cracked a friendly smile. They were disgusting.
"Well, as a man it's clear what I take—"
It was up to me to choose, so what? Kamogawa and the others had no say about it.
"—as a man one must take the meal, right?"
But I didn't like trouble.
"A wise choice, Nonomiya-kun!"
"I'm so happy you understand what I mean, Kamogawa-kun."
"Then let's go over there and hear what you have to tell us, shall we?"
"...There are no words to express my current feelings appropriately."
This marked the start of a lot of wasted time, during which I was going to be questioned whether I dated Tsukimori and during which I would have to assure them over and over that that was not the case.
Good grief, they hadn't a clue. They could only act that frivolously because they didn't know about the murder recipe.
And without an inkling of my troubles, Tsukimori waved her hand cheerfully.
Therefore I gave her an appropriate answer.
"I'll be late tonight, honey."
Annoyance drove me to it.
I am sure that a blanket of grief must have enveloped me as I was led away like a low-grade employee who must obey his boss.
—At the time, I had already noticed that an usually noisy classmate of mine, Usami, had been silent the whole time.
But I had no time to worry about her because I had my hands full dealing with Youko Tsukimori, Kamogawa and the rest.
Well, it's hard to say if dealing with her then would have changed what happened after school.
Classes had ended and I was getting ready to leave when I was suddenly stopped by a timid Usami, "...Nonomiya?"
"What's the matter?"
"Err, I noticed that... you and Youko-san have been getting on quite well lately..."
"Not more than what's normal."
Annoyed at hearing that question again, a firm tone entered into my voice.
Usami registered that my mood wasn't favorable and thus got even more faint-hearted.
"...but you're always together."
As I was fed up of talking about Tsukimori, I quickly declared, "We simply see each other often at work and as class officers. That's all." Then I fetched my bag and hurried out of the classroom.
But in the next moment Usami had gone around me and was blocking my way.
"Come on, what is it?"
"Err, say, do you have a few minutes?"
"I-It's really just a few moments, honestly!"
My stare seemed to be intimidating; she averted her eyes and looked about in the room like a frightened pygmy marmoset.
I took a deep breath—inconspicuously enough to remain unnoticed.
"Depends on what you want."
When I contemplated that I had acted a little too immature and implied that I was willing to compromise, she was visibly relieved.
Usami wasn't at fault. I had just gotten tired of Tsukimori leading me around by the nose and of being picked at by Kamogawa and his followers. In short, I had taken it out on her though she wasn't to blame.
After peeking around at our surroundings, Usami whispered to me, "I'm uncomfortable here... can we go someplace else?"
As I was ready to accompany her for whatever she wanted from me — not least because I wanted to make amends — I nodded wordlessly.
"Shall we go then...?"
Her tense face and awkward gait had me a little worried about what was to come. Still I relaxed because it was only Usami, after all.
I was led to the back of the gym, which was unusually quiet that day.
"Club activities have been suspended starting today, because of the upcoming midterm exams."
"I see." Two questions of mine, namely why the gym was so silent and why Usami wasn't busy with her club, were answered at the same time. "So? What do you want from me?"
I sat down on the concrete edge of the gym, perking up my ears.
The standard line when calling someone out to such a place would surely be "You piss me off!", followed by a quarrel, and I would have found it amusing if that actually was her issue, but as I was likely to lose to her in a serious fight, with her being very athletic, I prayed that it was something else. Something peaceful.
"...It's just a continuation of our earlier talk," said Usami while peeking at me from time to time, "Say, Nonomiya, are you, and Youko-san, um... you know, a couple?"
I wasn't startled. Kamogawa and the others had asked me the same a few moments before. Though they had added "If you are, consider yourself as dead as a doornail" with rather serious bloodshot eyes.
"Don't be silly. Of course not!" I laughed, but Usami was still in earnest.
"B-But! You're the only boy she gets on with especially well!"
"As I mentioned earlier, that's merely because we often have to work together."
"But still! Lately, Youko-san has been mentioning you all the time when we talk!"
"Same as above."
"But then! But then, why does Youko-san gaze at you from time to time during classes?"
"...You're barking up the wrong tree. Go ask her!"
That was new to me.
"Say what you want, but I think you two are suspicious! I know it!"
"...eh? So what?"
Usami looked dumbfounded.
"What do you want to hear from me?"
Seeing the question marks above her head, I pressed for her answer.
"Will it make you happy if I say that we're dating?"
"No! You mustn't!" she shouted, just to make an 'Oh what have I said!'-like expression the following moment. "...Ah, n-naturally this is not something I have a say in, it's a problem between you and her after all, but, umm, I mean, isn't Youko-san, like, everyone's idol and all? So, you see,..."
Her choppy justification seemed to have no end if nobody interrupted her.
I tapped on the concrete next to me and signaled for her to take a seat. She obediently sat down while embarrassedly toying with her hair.
"Honestly, there is nothing between Tsukimori and me," I assured her firmly, looking into her eyes.
"I see... so there's nothing, huh."
Usami's face began to shine like a child who has been given candy. She was so easy to understand.
That was probably also the reason why I had easily noticed that she was attracted to me, even without Mirai-san's superior intuition.
"Very well then, it seems that I have gained your understanding."
When I was about to stand up, thinking that this was all, she seized my belt.
"Can I ask just one other thing?"
Originally, I planned on just ignoring her grip and standing up, after which I would take a look at her reaction, but since my hips didn't move a bit, I gave up and sat down again.
"...Please go ahead."
"Yeah, um, Nonomiya... you aren't going out with anyone at the moment, right?"
Usami cast her eyes down.
"Then—i-is there someone you like?" she asked towards the ground. Her face was tense and her lips pursed like a duck's bill.
Her question wasn't a remarkably rare one. At least to me it wasn't something to get that flustered about anyway. Usually.
However, because of a name that flashed through my mind for a split second, I forgot to answer her.
"...W-Why aren't you saying anything?"
Her anxiety helped me find my tongue.
"...that's already the third question!"
"Uwa! You distracted me! That means there is one! There is someone you like!"
Usami widened her round eyes and leaned backward, completely shocked. I was tempted to give her a push.
"Eh? Who? Who?! Ah! It's Youko-san, isn't it? It's Youko-san!"
"Now we're back where we started. What were those minutes just now? Give me back my time and labor!"
"But who else should it be!"
"Can you tell me what exactly makes you so sure, then?"
"My womanly intuition!"
Her prompt reply made me wonder what nonsense the pygmy marmoset was babbling, but since she really was a woman, I was powerless in front of the weapon called "womanly intuition", which remains a mystery to men.
On top of that, the name that had come to mind actually was Youko Tsukimori, so I couldn't bring myself to deny it.
"I think Youko-san sees you in a different light. I know she does, because we've known each other for a long time." The nervousness from before was disappearing. "Even if you deny it, I think she is different toward you."
Usami spoke staring straight at me with a resolute gaze.
"...and I understand you just as well, Nonomiya... You're always in my eyes, after all."
It was the gaze of someone who had made up her mind.
"I think you just aren't aware of it, but you consider her special too... I can't put it into words well, but I think you are kind of special to each other. Like, actually it would have been mutual for a while, you just haven't noticed, so what's needed is just a little push... and you know, I was like 'I have to hurry up now!', but then I thought that it would be sort of selfish of me. But then, instead of playing a good girl and having regrets, I thought that it suited me more to be a bad girl for once...go my own way and be straightforward, you know... so, umm..."
Usami hurriedly added, "J-Just a moment," took a few deep breaths and jumped to her feet.
"I, Chizuru Usami, love... you."
The way she confessed couldn't have suited Usami better.
I suppose there aren't any humans on this planet who would not like to receive such a confession from her. I became even fonder of her than before.
"Thank you," I said more or less automatically.
"Eh? Um, you're welcome...?" replied Usami, visibly confused.
I was genuinely happy about her confession since I liked her—a girl that couldn't be more different from me.
A soft breeze blew gently past us as though the school building had smoothed down its edges upon passing by. The back of the gym was so calm that the usual noise felt like a mere illusion.
Suddenly, Usami stretched herself hugely like a cat and—
—released a yell towards the blue sky that sounded like a cat's death cry.
"Aah! I feel SO liberated now! So glad I told you!"
Her face was literally shining.
"...Sorry for disturbing you while you're savoring your attainment, but what should I do now?"
"I haven't given you a reply yet, have I?"
I thought that I was supposed to return her straightforward ball, in whatever form—even if the ball went in a direction she didn't wish for.
The next moment Usami let out laughter like a baby frog.
I actually meant to be as considerate as my limits allowed, but it seems doing something you aren't used to always yields bad results.
"...No need to strain yourself. I'm not expecting a reply anyway. I mean, we're talking about you, Nonomiya?"
She was whispering. Since she was looking at the ground, I couldn't recognize her expression.
"I don't know what's that supposed to mean, but for now I'll just be shocked."
"...you've caught my eye ever since we entered this school, and I've long known that you're not that simple. I'm not expecting a favorable answer!"
My pride didn't let me admit that she was spot on.
"I have mixed feelings about being viewed as such a guy."
I automatically shrugged. So that's what they call a loss of face.
"But you know...," started Usami timidly while swinging her legs, "I still fell in love with you, so I had no other choice but to give it my best shot!"
Her earlobes were almost as red as a ripe tomato at that moment.
"You have rather peculiar tastes, don't you?"
"W-Whose fault is that!" objected the bright red Usami.
Even her sentimental and simplistic side, which would normally be viewed as a weak point, added only to her loveliness in conjunction with her straightforward and diligent nature.
She reminded me of a certain remark.
«Someone once said that girls in love are invincible.»
Usami pointed her finger straight at me before my nose.
"But one day I will hear you say that you love me! Definitely!"
Her timidness went somewhere far away, replaced by her usual vigor.
However, I noticed that her little finger was trembling slightly.
That pet-like girl named Usami struggles doing so many things I can do easily, but at times she accomplishes feats which I can only dream of.
As was true of her confession as well.
It might be a little exaggerated, but I admired Usami. Most likely, because she had traits I could not even wish for.
And so she looked most impressive to me at this very moment, making me want to just take her in my arms.
However, I deliberately went another way.
"Interesting. Please give your best!" I said, making an unimpressed face on purpose. "But let me warn you: don't think I'd fall that easily for a girl like you!"
"What did you just say?! Keep those words in mind!"
"Dammit! I'll show you what a good woman is!"
I couldn't help it. After all I am a "not so simple" weirdo who thinks an angry Usami is the cutest of all of them.
And once again I arrived at the same conclusion: I would have been so delighted if she were the one I loved the most.
It was also that moment when I became fully aware that there was one person on my mind whom I could not ignore.
The next day. It had been raining continuously since morning.
My feelings towards her were swaying in an unsure state. Too impure to be called love, yet too strong to be called interest.
It was the first time in my life that I was overcome by emotions. But if this was the price I had to pay for my autonomous mode of life, I was ready to accept and deal with that discomfort.
Of course, it was no doubt the murder recipe that put a brake on my feelings.
I am most definitely not averse to mysterious girls, but even I feel a tiny bit uneasy when it comes to endorsing a secret that exceeds the bounds of good sense.
Murder being one example thereof.
It is not easy to accept a person who may have killed someone. Not only because of ethical reasons, but also because one rebels instinctually, fearing that one might become the next target.
In any event, in fact there was a break-out solution.
It was simple actually: I just had to go ask her directly whether or not she had killed anyone.
If she answered "No", I could dismiss my exaggerated ideas with a sneer, send the crumpled murder recipe flying to the burnable trash and obtain an everyday life that was just a bit better than the status quo: a thrilling one including Youko Tsukimori.
Wasn't that sufficient to justify the venture? Asking for more would be greedy. There's always a straw that breaks the camel's back.
However, what if the answer were "Yes, I have killed someone"?
I gave thought to the fact that the content of the murder recipe was in line with the cause of her father's death. Anyone, even without a tendency to fantasize like me, should, provided these two facts, come to the conclusion that the murder recipe was written with the objective of killing her father.
Moreover, it is completely natural to consider the author of the recipe as the murderer as a consequence.
I dropped my gaze to my shoulder. Before my eyes and nose, there was a lock of black hair painting an elegant curve.
As if riding a roller coaster, a water drop slid along that smooth hair just to eventually arrive at its end and jump into the dark gray air.
I lost a little heart when I associated my own fate with the last moments of that water drop.
Probably noticing my gaze, "Mh?" she inclined her head slightly while wearing that caring sister-like smile of hers.
"I'm drawing a little nearer. Otherwise I'll get wet."
She happily snuggled up to me as though we were a couple. As a natural consequence, her handful-sized breasts were gently nudging the region around my elbow.
Devil that she was, she must have been enjoying seducing me.
But there was nothing I could do about it. It was raining and mine was the only umbrella, narrowing my options to one. Thus the distance between us was shorter than usual.
I suspected, however, that she was hiding a collapsible one in her bag. I couldn't believe that a forward thinker like her would forget her umbrella.
Of course there was but one girl in my circle of acquaintances that conformed to the above description.
We had ended that day's work and were walking toward the nearby station. Seeing her to the station after work had been a regular task of mine since the day she told us of her potential stalker.
After that night, Tsukimori had told me, "I felt really safe when I was seen home by you. If it's not a bother, would you mind accompanying me all the time?".
Naturally, I had immediately refused, "No, because it is," but sadly we had been in the staffroom just then, which had instead gained me the bother of turning the whole staff, led by Mirai-san, against me: "Come on, do it!"
I had not escaped without begging off with, "Please, let's compromise with seeing her to the station!" It was truly incomprehensible.
However, life sometimes takes an unexpected turn. To my great joy, the way to the station was ideal for talking privately with her.
I waited for the moment the traffic light turned red. "When I watched the news yesterday, I started wondering—," I began, "—why do people kill?"
Actually, I hadn't watched the news the day before. But well, there was bound to have been at least one murder, considering the current state of society.
"Oh, you're quite the philosopher today, aren't you? I like your contemplative face!" she said in a voice that was strangely wet, as if not only her hair but also her voice had been hit by the rain. "Is it because of the rain? One always gets into a somewhat sentimental mood when it is raining, don't you agree? It gets you in the mood to read books you usually wouldn't."
"Indeed, if I am acting unusual today, then it might really be because of the rain."
Her words gave me the hunch that I hadn't chosen the day by chance, but because of the bad weather.
"Anyway, would you mind sharing your thoughts?"
Our background music was composed of the rain drops lapping against my umbrella, the watery sound of tires on the asphalt and the blood circulating through my veins.
Tsukimori brushed away the black hair that had stuck to her cheek, releasing a scent of roses.
"—Because they feel like it, perhaps."
Her voice was indifferent.
"...Because they feel like it? That's all? Do you claim that that's reason enough to kill someone?"
I was offended by her obviously negligent answer.
"That's not it."
"What do you mean? Unless you elaborate some, a mere mortal like me can't comprehend your genius, I'm afraid."
"Oh don't be angry. I'm not joking, really. I do think so!"
She shrugged her shoulders slightly upon noticing my sidelong glare at her.
"You see, I think that in most cases the problem could actually be solved without resorting to murder, for example if it's a grudge or a fatal tangle of jealousy. Of course there are exceptions like life insurance murder."
The traffic light changed to green. A swarm of umbrellas was set in motion, leaving behind only the red umbrella under which we stood.
"Don't you think that there are numerous ways of taking revenge or venting a grudge which are more effective than killing?"
I had trouble thinking of one, but I had no trouble assuming that Tsukimori knew of some.
"Every murderer has to atone appropriately for his misdeeds, be it through the law or social sanctions. There is the saying 'Live by the sword, die by the sword'. I think that applies to murder as well. Thus it is a foolish and careless method and nothing more in my opinion. There are probably many ways to call it, 'fury' or 'impulse' for instance, but it sums up to a matter of mood—a matter of 'feeling like it'—for me," she said, then added, "I consider all irrational actions as a matter of mood."
"As you say, murder might indeed be a nonsensical conduct."
I concurred with her opinion. I was even moved. But that was probably also the reason that queerly comfortable moment seemed a bit off-kilter to me.
At first glance, her well-reasoned speech made her seem like an upright model student. However, upon further thought, she was only really talking about the means of reaching a goal.
Put in a nutshell, she had only argued about the effectiveness of murder as a method.
Didn't that mean that she was not absolutely disapproving of murder?
"But as you admitted yourself, there are exceptions, right?"
From my diagonal angle, I could not see all of her face. Only her mouth was barely in view.
And that mouth of hers was smiling.
There we stood together under a round, small umbrella, surrounded by a massive wall of rain and night.
Even though the town was filled with all kinds of sounds, painted in various colors and packed with people, I felt somewhat separated from everything, as if we were alone in an elevator at midnight.
"For example, if you were able to kill completely unnoticed."
The cause of that phenomenon was simply me: I had locked out the world.
At that moment, Youko Tsukimori was the totality of my world.
"Could you be a little more specific? Your twisted thoughts are too complicated for an honest person like me to understand, I'm afraid."
She affected a shrug, teasing me.
"I am talking of the perfect crime, as a third party in the know would call it if a premeditated murder was deemed an accident by all the world, rather than the crime it is."
When I was done with my explanation, Tsukimori answered, giving her full concentration.
"—Indeed, we need to draw a line between unplanned murder and a perfect crime, which you can certainly not commit just by feeling like it. You have to keep a cool head and be rational if you aim for perfection."
The focus of our discussion was fully and solely on utility and efficiency—ethics and morals were not under discussion.
"But our country's police are respected worldwide, aren't they? I hear scientific crime detection is making rapid progress, too, compared to the past. Isn't the perfect crime impossible in fact?"
She smiled as if to imply that it was all just a pipe dream.
It was then that I finally found a possible reason for the awkward feeling I had sensed earlier:
Our conversation was clearly too unromantic for two teenagers clinging together in the midst of the street under one umbrella. And yet there I was, absorbed in it, which was most likely because that's the kind of person I am.
The death or life of someone unrelated is of no concern to me. At most I would be curious about the death of such a person. No, my only response would be curiosity.
I was very well aware of my slightly unconventional sense.
But what about her?
Would the renowned, upright Youko Tsukimori really allow such an immoral conversation? For someone as tolerant and ever-smiling as her, talking about it with me without showing the faintest displeasure should have been no problem, even if she had to hide her disfavor.
However, it didn't look like that to me.
How so? Well, because I felt that, just like me, she—enjoyed immoral topics to the fullest.
"Okay, but then as a purely hypothetical question—"
I carefully touched the left pocket of my uniform from above. Inside it was a four-times folded scrap of paper.
"—what would you do if there was a plan that made the perfect crime possible?"
I always carried the murder recipe around with me.
The next moment, she gave a smile that reminded me of the sound of a bell.
"A good question. Indeed, I might consider murder as a means of achieving an objective if I were able to commit the perfect crime. But in my case," she said with a mischievous, crescent moon smile very much to my liking, "I would never base such a conduct on a written plan that might remain as proof later on. It would be ridiculous if a plan that makes the perfect crime possible caused it to fail. I think a plan should only and entirely be in one's head."
She pondered for a few moments, humming, and then added, "...if you ask me and think simply about it, it doesn't matter whether it is planned or just a product of coincidences. After all, it's a perfect crime if no one notices your willful action, right?"
Something unfolded before my eyes that exceeded my expectations. It almost went so far that I suspected I was dreaming while awake.
"It is entirely the result that determines whether a crime is perfect or not. However perfect a plan is, it's over as soon as someone else takes note. Put the other way, however 'flimsy' a plan is, it is a perfect crime as long as no one takes note."
Suddenly, I noticed that I was shivering.
"But don't you agree that mistakes are inherent if a human takes part? Humans are imperfect, after all. It's the imperfect human that makes the mistake in the very end. So, eventually I think it is the executor who holds the final key."
Not because I was cold. Not because the weather was getting dreadful. Not because she scared me.
"To sum up my thoughts, the most important condition for a perfect crime is neither a perfect plan nor a perfect execution, but a perfect human—"
I was probably trembling with excitement. Because I seemed to be extremely agitated.
"Laughable, isn't it? That's just another impracticable theory on paper; perfect humans do not exist after all. Well, of course the ones who are to investigate the crime are human, too, so there are mistakes on that side as well. But still I think that a perfect crime is infeasible unless you come upon a remarkable succession of coincidences."
Perhaps my warped personality was just playing with me, but I couldn't help thinking that that was what she proclaimed.
I shook my head strongly.
I turned towards her and looked into her big almond eyes. "Why?" she asked, giving a moon-like smile again, while reflecting me on her retina.
"You lied. You claimed there were no perfect humans in the world—but I know of at least one in my vicinity."
She didn't ask "Who?" but only nodded briefly, "I see."
...She got me there. That way it was only funnier!
It was all Youko Tsukimori's fault that I was more talkative than usual and felt my heart throb with excitement.
Why were the thrilling conversations with her so amusing?
Perhaps I was simply drawing pleasure from talking about immoral topics—but what if the other party hadn't been her? Would it have been just as enjoyable?
On the one hand, I tended to be annoyed by her behavior, but on the other hand, there seemed to be some anticipation of associating with her deep within my heart.
So did it even matter what we would talk about? By associating with her, wasn't I just seeking a thrill that hadn't existed in my previous everyday life because of the murder recipe? Wasn't that the reason why I—unconsciously—kept on walking a tightrope without getting to the point?
Wasn't I afraid of awaking and being drawn back to the boring reality if I confronted her with the murder recipe?
There was no sense of justice in my actions. There was only interest, curiosity and the desire to learn more about her.
So all I wanted might have been a link to the fascinating person named Youko Tsukimori.
However, at the same time I also wanted to make sure whether she really had used the murder recipe to kill her father. I contradicted myself.
—Yes. I was about to make the next step towards her.
I was craving knowledge of a face of hers that no one knew.
The green light of the traffic light started to blink again. The nth red light awaited us.
The rain still showed no sign of weakening and hit the asphalt in a steady rhythm. The crush of people heading towards the station, however, had become sparse as the temperature dropped in town.
I recovered my breath silently so that she wouldn't notice my growing excitement. Then I slowly led my fingers through between my buttons, reaching into my inside pocket.
—I had made up my mind. I intended to ask her directly about the murder recipe.
But then, all of a sudden, Tsukimori embraced me from the front. I was caught with my fingers still in my pocket, unable to take them out.
"...I'm cold," murmured Tsukimori along with a white sigh before I could raise my voice in surprise.
Her upward-glance was watery, her black hair soaked, the way she leaned against me with all her weight sexy, and her beautiful lips at my chin's height seemed to beg for a kiss.
The soft touch I could feel beyond her uniform was still the same, but she had grown cold indeed.
It was my mistake to have her talk that long in a wet state, but neither was I crazy nor so experienced in love matters as to hug a girl with all the eyes of the town upon us just because of that.
I put my hands on her shoulders, wanting to release myself from her embrace, but she immediately shook her head, stubbornly saying, "No!" and hugged me even stronger. Contrary to her childish attitude, her body was more than mature enough to give rise to some complicated feelings on my part.
It was then that I felt a vibration at Tsukimori's breasts, which were pressed against me.
"...what a shame for the good mood."
While making a regretful face, she took her mobile phone out of her chest pocket. It was quite ticklish when she operated it at zero distance.
I slid my hand out of my jacket and tucked it into a pocket of my trousers. My excitement was entirely spoiled by that intrusive phone call.
"...Yes, Youko speaking."
Her expression became earnest promptly after she had begun the conversation.
"...my mother? No, I haven't heard of anything. She was at home when I left for school this morning."
As they exchanged words, her expression got darker and darker. I couldn't perceive what the caller was saying, but it was obviously not good news.
"...Yes. I understand. I'll return. Yes. If I find out something I will immediately give you a call."
She cut the connection and let out a tired sigh.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
She gazed at me with watery eyes for a few seconds, hesitating.
"...my mother was absent without notice from the cooking school she works at," she replied at last, "She would never do that. Thus, someone of the staff was worrying about her and gave me a call."
"Maybe she's sick?"
I voiced a cheap word of consolation.
"I wonder... he told me that he has tried calling our home number several times. Of course, he tried her mobile as well. But it didn't connect, so he called me, her daughter, since I might know something..."
She cut off her sentence and started to ponder, furling her long eyebrows.
I let out a sigh. Somehow I sensed that nothing but trouble was waiting for me.
"Let's hurry home."
I grabbed her cold hand firmly and walked towards the station, pulling her behind me.
I heard her confused voice from diagonally behind.
"Seems like you're in for some trouble, so I won't stop you any longer and go home," I said quickly. "—Saying that would have suited me better, I guess... But seeing you make such a face, how should I leave you to your own devices? Besides, I don't even want to think about Mirai-san's reaction if I left you at this point."
To my plain remark, she replied: "This warped side of your personality is so lovely."
I heard her pleased voice from diagonally behind.
Thinking that she was teasing me, I promptly searched for a nice objection. However, when she whispered, "...Thanks," at my ear and I felt her freezing fingers that held firmly to me, I became unable to complain.
Not a soul was to be seen in the dark and cold residential area. The ceaseless rain falling upon us conjured up a sense of isolation in me, notwithstanding that Tsukimori was by my side.
We hurried up the long, steep stairs, at which end that house awaited us—with its very unique geometrical design that made it stand out from the rest of the rich neighborhood.
Tsukimori had tried countless times calling her home phone and her mother's mobile phone on the way, but the only voice she got to hear was the response of the answering machine. Because of pressing restlessness, I suspect, I heard none of her easygoing remarks anymore by the time we reached our destination.
Pathetic though it was, I found myself unable to find the right words to console her.
I followed Tsukimori through the entrance. There was an absolute silence inside.
The end of the long corridor blended with the darkness. The dire situation made it seem to me as if we had lost our way into an eerie haunt of devils.
When I took off my loafers at the entrance, she said, "...you'll catch cold. Wait a moment, I'll get you a towel."
While swiftly proceeding through the dark corridor, Tsukimori confidently flipped several switches on the wall, filling the house gradually with light.
I slowly walked through the lit corridor to the living room, where I started to wait for her.
I gazed at the arrangement which had remained unchanged from last time, and as it had then, the tranquility made my ears sensitive. Thinking back, we were alone that night.
So this time we were probably alone, too.
No one else was here. That's what my intuition told me the moment I had made my first step into the building.
Well, of course it was possible that her mother had collapsed somewhere in the house, but judging from what Tsukimori said when she returned, "When I went to fetch the towel, I also peeked into several rooms, but I didn't find her. She might not be here...," her mother was absent.
"I just hope she hasn't been involved in some accident..."
I smiled at the pondering Tsukimori.
"But maybe it's not such a big deal and she just didn't feel like going to work because of all the rain today, you know."
"You mean she simply ditched work?"
"Well, I, for one, often seriously consider escaping from school or work and going out somewhere when I ride my bike on nice days."
I found my own remark laughable.
"I hope so."
But thanks to her laughing faintly, I was spared from self-loathing.
"Perhaps there's a message for you somewhere? A note or something that says where she is and what she's doing?"
"You're right. I'll take a look."
Tsukimori nodded cheerfully at my suggestion. Apparently, she had regained her usual composure.
I unobtrusively followed Tsukimori into the kitchen.
As much as I felt bad about taking advantage of her worries about her mother's safety, I certainly did not intend to miss out on a chance to openly search her home.
An elegant system kitchen with a yellow theme filled my view.
"As expected from a teacher at a cooking school," I commented on the large fridge, the unfamiliar cookware and the various ingredients.
"Made in Italy if I remember correctly."
While Tsukimori was inspecting the kitchen, I looked around without anything better to do and took one of her mother's cookbooks to flick through it.
I didn't actually hope to find a message. Would be nice if there was one. Personally, I hoped much more to find something related to the murder recipe.
For example—a bit of new information about the recipe.
I was aware that I was being indiscreet. However, in all honesty I was fond of that kind of mood. I was enjoying a thrill comparable to detective work or exploring a cave for a treasure.
"It looks like there is nothing here. Maybe in her room...?" said Tsukimori gloomily and left the kitchen, wordlessly followed by me.
She opened one of the doors alongside the corridor. The instant the door went open, I could smell the overly sweet scent of perfume.
The walls were covered with white wallpaper, a curtain decorated with lace, a dressing table against the wall and a dresser that was laden with countless makeup goods. It was obviously the room of her mother.
"You get on well with your mother, don't you?"
"Yes, certainly not badly."
On the nightstand by the bed, which had a flower pattern, there were several picture frames, each of which depicted Tsukimori and her mother.
"Did your parents sleep separately?"
There was only one bed in the room - a bed for one person only.
"I have always thought this way was natural, but is it more common that spouses sleep in one room, after all? Well, it probably is. Perhaps they did so because both of them had to work, and I guess it was more convenient this way due to those circumstances."
"At my place, both the parents sleep together, whether peacefully or not I couldn't say, in a king-size bed. But judging from the 'I woke up in the middle of the night because you kept stealing my blanket', which I often hear my mother shout in the early morning, I guess they get on well."
She flashed a warm smile while listening to me.
"You have fantastic parents."
Therefore, I just answered expressionlessly, "They're normal."
"I don't want to stay too long in a lady's room," I said and left the room quickly to wait in the corridor. I was merely annoyed by the overly-sweet perfume.
I asked Tsukimori, who was searching the area around the dressing table in the meanwhile: "Where is your father's room?"
I can't say I had no ulterior motive.
"You can find it just on the opposite side."
Neither can I deny that this was a pretext to explore her house on my own.
"We should probably search separately. I'll look through the room of your father."
But it's also true that I wanted to do a good deed, much as it didn't suit me, and help her out at least a little after seeing her behaving with such maturity.
"That would be a great help. But his room might be a little dusty. It has been left untouched since his passing...," said Tsukimori apologetically.
"I don't mind," I replied and headed towards the door opposite.
My first impression was that it looked like a library.
All of the books that covered one wall of the room dealt with construction, which I noticed when I fixed my eyes on their spines. On the shiny silver desk was a large pile of books and a desktop PC. Both sides of the desk were equipped with a cordless telephone each. I figured that this room served as both his library and working area.
As Tsukimori had warned me, my steps left behind footprints outlined in dust on the floor. There was also a lot of dust on the window frames.
I stopped. I had registered a sound.
According to Tsukimori, that room was supposed to be untouched. But still a subtle sound resembling the buzz of a mosquito reached my ears.
It was the sound of a small fan.
I stood before the silver desk. The PC seemed to be turned on, though in sleep mode. I pressed a random key.
The instant I saw the display, I called her name.
She then came from the neighboring room and, squinting one eye, asked, "Mm?".
"This," I said, pointing at the screen.
Indeed, her mother had left a note with a message.
"That's...," she muttered, surprised, and kept silent, staring at the screen, as though time had frozen. The only sounds in the room was the rain hitting the window and the regular buzzing of the computer fan.
At the time, I could do nothing but watch her beautiful yet so sorrowful face from the side.
Her mother's name was typed in the "notepad" on the screen, along with the following short comment.
On that day, I didn't get home until past three at night in a police car.