“It’s getting cold.”
“You’re right. Maybe it’s already turning to winter outside.”
“It’s becoming winter?”
“Will Christmas come even here?”
“I wonder if Santa will come again this year.”
“…That might be a little difficult.”
“I want him to come.”
“What are you going to ask him for?”
“…A lot of things. I hope he grants them all.”
For so long now.
It had been continuing for so long now. To the point that I’d long since lost awareness of it all.
It was what you might call l’harmonie préétablie, an unavoidable fate, something beyond my control which had forcefully entered the equation.
The last three weeks had been fairly unremarkable, an abbreviated history of the fragmented memories of my everyday life. There had been no glorious events to rejoice over, nor had there been any lamentable tragedies to mourn.
Mayu, calling me a liar, forcing me to take a week off from school and go on dates with her under the pretext of making up for lost time.
Mayu, asleep, as I attended my doctor’s appointments. Chatting with Dr. Koibi about manga until after dark, putting Mayu in a bad mood.
My struggles to get Mayu, refusing to get out of bed, to go to school, only to create misunderstandings when she woke up with only her skirt on, resulting in a chaotic situation that saw neither of us making it to school in the end.
I hope I haven’t put anyone off by describing myself as retaining only “fragmented memories” despite my detailed recollection of so many things. It can’t be helped. Mines is something of a finicky personality, after all.
In addition to what I’ve described already, during these last few weeks, I’d also played with the two siblings; Sugawara and his kendo club had had a stellar performance at nationals, all the while ignoring the periodic publication dates for distribution of the student council leaflet; and the ninth victim had been found.
At the end of these peaceful days, the sound of a phone beckoning me echoed in a room absent its owner; I answered in her stead.
“h.e.l.lo? This is Misono.”
“Why h.e.l.lo there. From your voice, I’m going to guess that you’re not Misono Mayu-chan. ‘Mii-san,’ I presume? I’ve been expecting you.”
“…Pardon my manners, but who are you?”
“I’m naught but a humble cog in the wheel of the police. My name is Kamiyashiro Natsuki. Your beloved Dr. Koibi and I are best friends.”
So this is the rumored officer of the law… I see.
“So, Mii-san, right?” she repeated.
“Mii-san the liar it is. h.e.l.lo. I’m glad I was finally able to reach you.”
“Y’all bein’ silly now. Our talkie ain’t been outta range.”
“You misunderstand. Every call I’ve made until now has been rejected by a very lovely girl. For some days now.”
“Ah, yes. That would be my wife: I’ve taught her to promptly reject calls from suspicious individuals.”
“‘Please kill yourself’ wouldn’t happen to be her signature phrase, would it?”
“No, it’s ‘you are already please die’.”
“Oh my, what a polite wife you have. I am simply overcome with admiration. So, Mii-san, would you be interested in having an affair with me?”
“I’ll pa.s.s; I get enough of that already.”
“Then you are the enemy of all women. I would like to volunteer as your number three then.”
“You have attempted to reach an invalid number. Please double-check the entered number and dial again.”
“You are quite the unique person. I wonder who you take after.”
“It’s often said that I bear some resemblance to the child next door.”
“A fabulous idea for a drama. If you don’t confess to being the father already, I’ll be forced to take you in for lèse majesté.”
“I refuse, Kamiyashiro-san. No matter what the DNA says, his current father will always be the only father for him.”
“You’ve finally made me angry, Mii-san.”
“Sure I have. That’s why I can hear you giggling.”
“I’ll steal your girl.”
“Oh, how scary.”
“To be specific, I’ll go after her the way a pizza delivery guy would. Success rates are as high as with major leaguers, you know?”
“Then I shall instruct my wife to aim for a base on b.a.l.l.s.”
“Now that’s no fun. Very well, Mii-san, I’ll have to go out of my way to visit you. I was thinking of meeting Mayu-chan at some point anyway, so this will be killing two birds with one stone.”
“…Fine. Out of respect for your enthusiasm, I agree to meet you. But we’ll have to keep it a secret from my wife.”
“All affairs are eventually exposed, you know?”
“By the way Kamiyashiro-san, have we met somewhere before?”
“A pickup line dating back to the Stone Age.”
“No, no, I definitely recall having heard your beautiful voice in the past.”
“What a coincidence – I was just thinking the very same thing. I’ve liked you since the first time I heard your voice!”
“Falling for someone’s voice, is it? Do beware of telemarketers then.”
“So where shall we meet? In thunder, lightning, or rain?”
“Somewhere dark.” [2.5]
“I see. Well then, I bid you adieu.”
She hung up.
Only to call back two seconds later.
“The department store nearest Mayu-chan’s house. This weekend at eleven, the cafe on the third floor,” she announced in a rush of words.
“…The one in front of the station, right? Then this is goodbye.”
I placed the handset down.
Though our school trip was but a week away, things had ever been thus. Not once had there been a time when things had worked out in my favor.
After the call ended, I went and opened the fusuma doors of the j.a.panese-styled room. Following the changing of seasons, the room’s temperature had dropped noticeably.
“Ah, welcome home.”
The sibling pair sat on the floor within the room, reading manga. As I entered, they greeted me, their gazes rising to meet me. At their side sat a pile of manga I had borrowed from a certain doctor. Sliding the fusuma door closed behind me, I sat down as well. Aimlessly, I reached for a manga and flipped it open to a random page. As my eyes locked onto the page in front of me, inwardly I gathered my thoughts. To put it simply, I began to think.
Kamiyashiro Natsuki, a police officer. Her childhood dream had been to become a detective. One who wandered the boundary between truth and lie. A schoolmate of Dr. Koibi. In other words, thirty-one years old this year. That was the sum total of the information I had on her. Oh and, according to Dr. Koibi, she was ‘a little like me.’
Well, when seeing the Moon from the Earth, you can’t really compare the two objectively. Similarly, it’s hard to directly reject the notion that we are somehow similar. However, from the conversation earlier, I had observed that she was a troublesome person to deal with. And as luck would have it, I now had the good fortune of having to rendezvous with this lovely lady. That thought couldn’t possibly have made me any unhappier.
“Is Onee-san asleep?”
Kouta-kun’s voice wrenched me back to reality. I closed the volume of manga with one hand as I answered.
“No, she’s pleading her case to our homeroom teacher.”
The two looked up at me, puzzled. These days, even Anzu-chan showed her innocent side.
“She’s trying to convince him to change her room so we can be together on the school trip. I told her it’d be impossible, but she wasn’t having it, so I came home without her.”
She hadn’t even noticed my departure so absorbed was she in protesting.
“Umm… So you left without her?” Kouta-kun asked, a hint of surprise in his voice.
“Is that strange?”
“Yes, since you’re always together,” Anzu-chan answered. Kouta-kun nodded his agreement.
“You’re right,” I acknowledged, “but spoiling her too much would be bad for her.”
Mayu was a little too selfish. After these three weeks with her, those parts of her personality had grown more noticeable. For example, if I failed to listen to her opinions, she would sulk. If I spoke to anyone besides her, she would be bitter, choked with rage once I was alone with her. For Mayu, the optimal situation would see me tied to her with a submissive att.i.tude.
“…I can’t stay at her side forever. I’m going to be under the care of the police eventually.”
I was a criminal, and punishment was inevitable. Mayu needed to learn to survive on her own.
And what that required was neither skill nor knowledge, but a resolution to enjoy life.
Mayu, I wonder if you have the heart to do that.
Kouta-kun showed an apologetic look, his shoulders drooping, as he heard the word “police.” Anzu-chan, too, averted her gaze. These two kind-hearted children seemed to feel responsible, despite the fact that I was not referring to them.
“It’s not something you guys have to worry about. Originally it’s… it’s Mayu’s fault, after all,” I said.
With that in mind, I wondered anew at the reasoning behind this kidnapping. Pondering this question had become a daily routine, though I had not once remembered to ask the actual kidnapper herself. It was low on my list of things to talk about with Mayu, after all.
“Rather than that, you guys, uh…” I started, before deciding against finishing my sentence.
Three weeks. They’d had three weeks to scream for help. At any point during the fifteen days that Mayu and I had been at school and out of the house, they could have easily screamed their way out of this prison. From my research of the building design, I had discovered that the walls were indeed soundproofed. However, unlike the bedroom in which Mayu had rampaged, but a single wall separated the j.a.panese-styled room and the room next door. They could have escaped their confinement without so much as lifting a finger. The fetters that had once bound their feet to the room’s pillars were no longer capable of restraining them, and had instead been downgraded – upgraded? – to naught more than fashion accessories. Nevertheless, the two had clearly chosen to allow the current situation to continue. That said, I, too, had made the judgment that they would not attempt to escape and hadn’t bothered to take any measures to prevent such an attempt.
This incidence of kidnapping simply made no sense. Then again, trying to understand the mind of a kidnapper was madness to begin with.
“Um, is something wrong?” Kouta-kun asked.
I waved my hands. “It’s nothing. Anyway, a crime should always be punished. There’s no doubt about that.”
Though only if it’s ever discovered.
This had to be kept from the world, no matter the cost.
Otherwise, there would be consequences.
Just as there had been eight years ago.
A rough calculation revealing that it had been more than seventy thousand hours since the kidnapping, I nonetheless remembered everything about that time in exquisite detail, as though it had happened just yesterday.
There were likely many who had experienced far worse, but that notwithstanding, there was no doubt in my mind that it had been and would be the single worst, most wretched experience I would ever live through.
If only I could travel beyond time and s.p.a.ce and find myself a trauma removal device.[2.75]
Anzu-chan called to me, as if to a friend. Realizing that it would be simpler still to remove the trauma itself beyond the bounds of time and s.p.a.ce, I turned to face her.
“Is it really okay to leave that Onee-chan by herself?” she asked, pointing to the partially-healed wound in my palm.
“That’s hard to say,” I answered.
The possibility that Mayu would grow furious at her request being denied, and that that fury would out itself as a physical a.s.sault on Kaminuma-sensei’s person, was undeniable.
As I’d climbed the stairs of this apartment building, I’d mused about how Kaminuma-sensei was a failure of a teacher who employed a policy of immobilism on various matters, whether it be bullying or students’ futures. However, if he were ever personally made a victim of violence, I highly doubted that he would hesitate in pressing charges. That was the type of person he was. In other words, he was the type of exasperating individual that made it easy to imagine that physical violence would be allowed if only against this person.
“It should be fine, though. To a certain extent, anyway,” I continued.
Even if she caused a problem, the fact of her mental illness could be used as a defense. If worse came to worst, she would be sent to a mental inst.i.tution, a compromise I was willing to accept. As long as others around her were capable of restraining her, it would be fine if she lacked the ability to live on her own.
Anzu-chan suddenly raised her index finger.
“One more question.”
“Oh, you sound like a detective.”
Anzu-chan flipped me a look of askance in response to my teasing tone, then continued, “Where did you go last night?”
My eyes constricted and, for an instant, my view was enveloped by a dense fog.
“Kouta said that you were out a couple of nights ago.”
Like a rusty surveillance camera, I awkwardly shook my head from side to side. Kouta-kun’s eyebrows were knit in an expression of incomprehension.
“Oh, well, you know, I went to the local convenience store.”
Yeah, that’s it. The convenience store a half-hour’s walk away, with their fans running to repel insects.
“I was eating bentos at the convenience store as a midnight snack. I’m still in the middle of my growth spurt, so I have to eat every thirty minutes,” I quickly improvised, in an attempt to stave off further suspicion.
“They say that someone who calls someone else an idiot is an idiot themselves. But even if that’s correct, it doesn’t mean that the one who was called an idiot is not, in fact, an idiot. Instead, it creates a senseless situation where the one who was first called an idiot calls the other an idiot as a comeback. This situation I refer to as the vicious cycle of idiocy,” I choked out, nearly biting my tongue in the process. My abrupt sermon on idiocy netted me dubious looks from the pair. I had just made myself seem even more suspicious than before, hadn’t I?
“…Um, I’d better go pack for the trip.”
I quickly stood in an attempt to make a quick getaway, but Anzu-chan lunged as if jumping at me, grabbing a hold of my uniform sleeve.
“Suspicious,” she remarked with a mischievous smile. Her grin, suitable for one her age, reminded me of Mayu.
“I’m not suspicious in the least. Nor auspicious. As a friend of someone who is clubmates with the president of the residential a.s.sociation’s grandson’s cla.s.smate, I’ve been on patrols every night hunting the murderer. I’m definitely not lying.”
“…Onii-san. You sure are poor at lying,” Kouta-kun commented.
From behind his fringe, which had grown long, Kouta-kun watched happily as Anzu-chan and his captor joked with one another. Had it never occurred to him that as their captor, I was a potential danger to his precious little sister? The putrid virulence that had made a home in my heart was nearly purged. Innocent trust could torment a soul as much as any touch on sunburnt skin would.
“Hey, what’s your name?” Anzu-chan’s “Q” was accompanied by a sober expression unrelated to her query.
“Uh… You mean me?” I questioned in turn.
“Do you see anyone else here?”
“Well, let’s take a look…”
I glanced about myself, a faint hope in my breast that I might find someone else. Perhaps a parasite within my body would present itself, volunteering to introduce itself in a gentlemanly manner in order to give me a helping a hand. “Allow me the honor of introducing myself,” it would say.
“I’m just asking for your name, what’s wrong with that?” Anzu-chan urged, since the “A” didn’t seem to be forthcoming. If I were to reply, “It’s a secret,” in a sultry tone, she’d probably hit me. Left without any other alternative, I decided to be honest for once.
“I don’t really like it – my name, that is. It doesn’t suit me and I don’t like calling myself that or being called that. So I don’t really like to tell people. I’m sorry.”
I placed my hand atop her head, on her hair which was far less oily due to the now daily washes.
“Anzu,” Kouta-kun called.
“I know,” she replied sheepishly. “It wasn’t like I really wanted to know, anyway,” she added, giving in without a fight.
I sighed, leaned back, and looked up at the ceiling.
“…I should probably drag out my suitcase and start packing.”
Suddenly the thought struck me… What do I do with the children while we’re on the trip? Should I remove their fetters? If I stock up on food ahead of time, and warn them not to open the door for strangers, they should be fine living however they want… Wait, what? Have I already given up on this situation? Is that really okay?
That would no longer be a kidnapping, and instead, more of a sleepover.
Everything was beyond my expectations.
Although that, too, would be quite amusing.
Roughly half an hour later, the sound of this home’s owner’s return echoed throughout the home. At the time, Anzu-chan and I were pinching one another’s cheeks as we engaged in a profound discussion on the philosophies of life.
With footsteps so loud that I could feel the floor vibrating underfoot, she appeared behind me.
“Weucome ome,” I said, in what barely pa.s.sed for human language.
Turning to face her, I quickly noted the complete absence of cheer in her expression. Not even pouting in disapproval, she instead maintained the statuesque look that typically adorned her face only while she slept. Without once gracing those present with that innocent voice of hers, she seized me by my collar and proceeded to drag me along the floor. Anzu-chan, who was still pinching my cheeks, came along for the ride. Unable to react to the sudden movement, my head slammed into the floor. Anzu-chan fell forwards as well, collapsing atop my chest elbow-first, forcing the air from my lungs.
“Oh my gosh, are you okay?” Anzu-chan apologized as she removed her hands from my cheeks. I attempted to give her a thumbs up to indicate that I was fine. My index finger extended instead, however, showing instead that I was anything but. Though not my original plan, I attempted to convey the sentiment through words instead.
“Gah, I can walk by myself, so please let go.”
My joking plea fell on deaf ears as Mayu continued to tow me across the room. At the step down, I hurt my tailbone and my elbow was smashed into the fusuma doors. On the way out, my eyes caught Anzu-chan’s. She met our parting with reluctance, but my vocabulary didn’t have anything for such a moment.
Once we reached the living room table, Mayu finally released me. I had the sulking Mayu sit as I adjusted my collar.
“What’re you so angry about?”
Although I was a hundred percent clear on the cause, I feigned ignorance.
“I can’t understand why it’s not allowed,” she responded.
Angry, she hurled her bag as she spoke. It collided with the shelf holding the house phone, causing the gla.s.s sphere beside it to leap to its death.
“Well, the groups were decided on a month ago,” I informed the peevish Mayu. “Please tell me you didn’t hit the teacher.”
“A month ago… Then Mii-kun, you should’ve come to see me a month ago!” Maa-chan vented unreasonably, ignoring my question completely.
…I couldn’t muster the strength to bother arguing.
“Sorry.” I lowered my head in apology. Heads weren’t all that useful; all you could do with them was lower them, think with them, headb.u.t.t with them, and eat with them. You really had to take every opportunity to use them to their fullest. That said, there was simply no way Mayu was going to calm down with just that. But, too dispirited to continue such a pointless discussion, and despite knowing that this wasn’t the best time for a change of topic, I did so anyway. “I’m going out tomorrow.”
“Then I’m coming with,” was the instantaneous reply.
Never bothering to ask the where, when, or why of my excursion, she decided she would follow.
Was there any value in such an action?
“This is somewhere I have to go alone. I can’t take you, Maa-chan.”
A dagger-like gaze pierced through me. But taking Mayu along was out of the question. In order to protect these peaceful days, there was no way I could reveal the details of this outing. If I were to reveal that I was meeting a police officer, she would only worry needlessly, and if she were to discover that I was rendezvousing with an older woman, I’d be dead meat.
“I’m going back to my uncle’s. That was the promise I made in order to live with you, Maa-chan. I’ll be back by nighttime.” One of those was a lie, though.
“Why can’t I go?” Mayu pouted, a sign that her anger had died down a little.
“Because that’ll cause a fight. Auntie is against me living here, you see. Even though Uncle pretends he understands, he’s actually against it too.”
That was actually true. I didn’t need ESP to predict the outcome. I did not want them to meet in my lifetime.
I brought Mayu close and embraced her. I ran my fingers through her hair as she settled in my arms without resistance. I found a strand of brown hair and entwined my finger in it.
“When it comes to the school trip, though we can’t stay in the same room, we can still spend our time outside together.”
I don’t even have anyone else to go out with anyway. Hahaha.
…Haha… I want to cry.
“We already live together so can you endure it just this once?” I continued.
I rubbed her back much like one would for a baby. I breathed deeply of Mayu’s scent, which no longer smelled of sweat due to the changing of seasons. Her aroma reminded me of a stick of incense.
“Alright, I’ll try and endure.”
As a selfish girl, that was the extent of her ability to compromise. She hugged me tightly, gently pulling her hands against my shoulder blades. For the next few moments, we simply embraced one another in silence.
And so we continued for the next ten minutes.
“…Right then. Let’s clean up a little.”
My ident.i.ty as a member of the clean-up committee prompted me to sweep up the shattered fragments of gla.s.s. I lowered Mayu to the floor and stood.
“I’ll do it,” she volunteered.
“No. It’s dangerous, so I’ll do it.”
“It’s fine! You stay there, Mii-kun!”
Mayu, so much like a princess in the way she liked to be clean and yet despised the act of cleaning, skipped happily toward the kitchen. She must’ve fallen, for I heard a dull thud as an elbow possibly collided into a wall, but she soon returned cheerfully. In her hands, she held a pair of long bamboo chopsticks and a plate. With the chopsticks, Mayu began to pick up the scattered pieces of gla.s.s.
Given her utter lack of depth perception, she struggled to pick up even larger fragments.
“Should I help?”
My offer was rejected with an intimidating meow, so I opted instead to warn her against picking up the shards with her hands. I lay down, my arms and legs splayed out across the floor.
The wooden floor was hard and cold.
And strangely comfortable.
My eyes locked on the cheap light hanging from the ceiling, I lost myself in my thoughts.
I thought of my lies,
envisioned my upcoming encounter with Kamiyashiro Natsuki,
pondered the victims of the murder,
and as if to chase all thoughts from my mind, closed my eyelids.
The residual warmth of Mayu’s hands on my back was eventually stolen by the chill of the floor.
Outside, it was pouring rain.
A torrential downpour.
The weather report had claimed that it would turn sunny by midday, though the reporting weatherman himself had seemed skeptical of the claim.
“Hey, you don’t have to go today, do you?” Mayu, so rarely awake by nine thirty, suggested after a glance outside the window.
“…Nah, I really ought to go at least once before the trip,” I gently responded before preparing to leave.
Mayu stood there with a docile expression.
Since the department store in question was a forty minute walk away, I needed to leave the apartment by ten o’clock. After taking the black folding umbrella Mayu handed me, I headed toward the door.
“Ah, wait a second,” Mayu called out as I put on my dirty shoes.
She quickly smothered her lips with a tube of lipstick she’d been holding.
Ignoring my confusion, Mayu, who’d dyed her lips rouge, sucked forcefully on my cheek.
It felt as though my skin was going to be pulled off.
“Ow, that hurts,” I complained.
Mayu pulled her lips from my cheek before stepping back to admire her handiwork.
“You’re not allowed to wipe it off,” she commanded.
“…Not even the saliva?”
She pinned my arms and raised a hand mirror to my face so that I could see.
My cheek was embossed with a lipstick kiss mark, slightly thicker than her actual lips. The mirror also revealed a trail of saliva, dripping down my jawline to my chin.
“…Alright, I’m off.”
Forced to leave in this humiliating getup, I left the room.
At a quarter to ten, I finally arrived at the department store in front of the station. The rain had formed puddles along the road deep enough to be measured, which had infiltrated my shoes and socks with a single step.
Though it might have been called a department store, it was nonetheless a building thoroughly ingrained with the smell of the country. Were it to be sandwiched by buildings from the city, it would look as though it were the victim of bullying.
Miserable though the department store might have been, I was surprised to find all types inhabiting its s.p.a.ces.
Shaking the water off my umbrella, I folded it and ducked through the automatic doors. The building was filled with cheerful music, light, and a cloyingly sweet smell – a glitz that drew a stark contrast to the dreary weather outside.
At the building entrance, I enclosed my umbrella in a plastic bag and moved to stand before the building directory. Glancing around, I found the origin of the sweet scent: a store specializing in a product formed from the kneading of flour in water, and later fermented in yeast. In short, a bakery. The first floor was apparently dedicated to food products.
A certain person in the bakery had caught my attention and held it captive.
There she stood, devouring every free sample. Her unique appearance revealed her as someone who either attracted or repulsed attention.
She wore a long-sleeved, black-and-white striped blouse with a matching skirt. Her shirt was slightly loose on her figure, and her bra strap was visible on her exposed right shoulder. Additionally, her platinum blonde hair was held in place with an ornamental hairpin, in defiance of current fashion trends.
The woman seemed to have taken a liking to the bakery’s green spinach bread. However, rather than placing it on a tray and purchasing it at the register, she doggedly and shamelessly demolished the bite-sized free samples of spinach bread one by one. She ate with such vigor that it seemed unlikely anyone would move to stop her were she to move on to target the bread on sale.
Despite my feelings of sympathy for the shop attendant sending pleading gazes every which way, looking for help from anyone contentious enough to intervene, I chose to turn a blind eye to the situation.
Suddenly, the lady turned to face me.
Sending the contents of her inflated cheeks on a one-way trip down her throat, she composed herself.
She reached for her umbrella, leaning against the wall, and approached me with light steps, her handbag swaying to and fro. Her blue runners looked completely dry, and were noiseless as she walked.
“Hi. I’m Kamiyashiro Natsuki.” She introduced herself with a gentle smile and a slight bow of the head. It seemed she’d already looked into the appearance of a certain Mii-san. That’s to be expected, though, I guess.
“Hi. I’m Mii.” I greeted the police officer dressed like a prisoner as I impudently examined her appearance. This new acquaintance of mine was not only dressed incongruously, but also had a rather striking face.
No, it wasn’t her small nose, thin eyes, glossy skin, or anything like that.
It was that… she looked way too young.
No matter how I looked, I could only see someone my age. Either this was a miracle of a makeup job, Dr. Koibi was the queen of repeating grades, or she was able to control her genes through a special breathing technique.
“Something wrong with my face?” she asked in provocative tone as she adjusted her hair.
“Well, if I had to be honest… It’s lacking in artistic quality. I was really hoping for something more avant-garde,” I replied.
“That’s quite the artistic opinion. I would have expected nothing less from someone who can shamelessly walk around with a kiss mark on their cheek.”
“Oh, this. It’s an occupational hazard.”
I lightly touched my cheek with my fingertips, almost as if to protect it from Natsuki-san’s gaze. Even as one who lacked both a sense of obligation and human emotion, I nevertheless could not bring himself to wipe it from my cheek. If you were to ask me why, I don’t know that I could answer you, though if I had to put it in words, I’d say it’s because of that emotion which engenders attraction; you know – xx××. That’d be a lie, though.
“When it comes to shamelessness, though, you are certainly a shining example yourself, Miss Policewoman. I am astounded at the audacity required to not only destroy those free samples but to also dine and dash with the bread on the shelves. It’s enough to make me question whether you’re confused as to the nature of your authority as a public servant.”
Natsuki-san’s smile didn’t waver. Her gaze dropped sadly to the ground though her smile lingered.
“I was rather overwrought this morning as to whether or not you would make our meeting, so my meal was simply too grainy for my throat.”
“And so you chose bread instead? How logical.”
“You flatter me.”
Natsuki-san’s chuckle was like that of the housewife from that famous anime ending. It seemed as though she might ignore the usual routine and simply continue playing rock-paper-scissors.
Ignoring the resentful looks coming from peanut gallery in the bakery, Natsuki-san and I ended our banter and headed for the escalators. It was unfortunate, but this being my first time in this department store, I had no choice but to follow Natsuki-san’s confident steps.
Without exchanging any words, we arrived on the third floor and entered the cafe that had been designated as our meetingplace. The shop, its white interior coupled with the view of the sky, presented a world of monochrome.
“So there really is a cafe here.”
Natsuki-san nonchalantly revealed her lack of planning. I was having a difficult time deciding if she was joking or just an airhead.
After placing her umbrella in the racks, she headed toward the back of the shop. I followed her in and took a seat on a dark brown seat.
“A weekend like this isn’t bad at all. While my schoolmate, under the lead of a haughty and hot-blooded club leader, is sweating enough to make a profit selling salt, here I am, on a date with a woman as pretty as you.”
I win, Kaneko. Oh wait, he and Sugawara had been soliciting freshmen to join their club so that they could peek on the girls changing rooms. Also, it’s hard to identify any positives about this date with this beautiful, yet suspicious lady, so I guess that makes us even.
“Oh my, you might anger Koibi if you keep whispering such sweet words to me.”
“I’ll anger the doctor?”
Before Natsuki-san and I had finished our game of verbal catch, the waiter brought over some wet towels.
I was impressed by his professional air as his look of confusion at the lip-shaped lipstick mark on my cheek disappeared after the briefest of instants to be quickly replaced with a business smile.
“I’ll have some cocoa and Kamiyashiro-san would like…”
“No, no. Please feel free to refer to me in the overly familiar manner you use in your inner monologues.”
“Well, if you insist. What would you like, Geronimo-san?”
Geronimo-san covered her mouth with her hand in a graceful manner.
“I’ll have a katsu curry, thanks.”
Hmm? When had she swapped places with the person who had been pigging out back at the bakery?
The waiter noted our orders and returned to the kitchen, keeping his business smile firmly plastered on his face.
“So. Where were we?”
Natsuki-san smiled slightly and replied, “I was saying Koibi would be jealous. Mii-san has been her favorite for a long time now. Thinking back, this first love of hers dates back to when she was a senior in high school. He was only a junior back then.”
“Thank goodness he wasn’t in elementary school.”
“But the most astonishing thing was that there was another girl in her cla.s.s who was also in love with him and it created a love triangle. All told, it was a rather pleasant school life.”
Pleasant? More like strange.
Natsuki-san chugged her gla.s.s of water down in one go, then wiped her mouth with the wet towel.
“Mii-san and I are both young people. That being the case, there’s only one thing for us to do.”
“You’re absolutely right.”
The j.a.panese of this lady in her thirties was slightly beyond my comprehension, but I agreed anyway.
“Mii-san, what are your hobbies?”
“I have to admit to being something of a spy camera of love.”
“My, what a refined person.”
Natuski-san smiled elegantly.
“And would you perhaps have a fondness for going on walks at night?” Natsuki-san asked without a hint of discomposure, her eyes revealing nothing of her thoughts.
“It’s because I’m a country delinquent,” I answered carelessly.
At that moment, Natsuki-san pointed at me with a triumphant expression.
“Objection, Mii-san. This isn’t a court so I won’t be needing any proof. But even then, Mii-san, you shouldn’t be lying.” [5.5]
Does she mean that with regards to what I just said or in general?
Natsuki-san interrupted my chain of pointless thought by continuing to speak.
“Mii-san, you’re a country punk.”
“…You’re quite the detective. You know much,” I replied, raising my hands in a show of surrender.
“Then as a penalty, would you please reveal the real reason?” she continued.
Hmm, the real reason, is it?
I picked up my gla.s.s of water, and as my lips touched the brim, I took in my surroundings from the corners of my eyes.
Even if I were to tell her the truth, there was no way she would believe me. I mean, this was the owner of a brain that had somehow come to the conclusion that I was the murderer, after all.
What this person sought was not a testimony of the truth but conduct born of lies.
“Very well. Then I shall tell only you, Natsuki-san.”
“Oh? Was I not Geronimo?” she answered while pulling out a pipe of mint tobacco which she lit. An unpleasant smell which gave me gooseb.u.mps drifted over. “Oh, I almost forgot, you aren’t fond of mint, right?”
“Yeah. I hate it.”
“Let me put this away then,” she said politely before returning the pipe to her bag.
Is that her way of letting me know that she knows even the smallest details about me?
I waited until the smell had dissipated before continuing where we left off.
“My motivation for roaming around at night is simple – I aim to catch that murderer.”
“Oh my, I didn’t realize that Mii-san was an ally of justice.”
“Yes, in fact I contribute to society at least five times a week by keeping away from other people.” I continued my empty responses. I could not allow myself to make the mistake of having a fruitful conversation with this woman. “It’s the protagonist’s duty to clear their name of suspicion with their own two hands, don’t you know?”
Although I’m not the protagonist.
Natsuki-san’s eyebrows twitched.
“That would be the emotion that Natsuki-san – excuse me, Geronimo-san – feels for me.”
Her face scrunched in a slight frown, but she forced a smile. She probably didn’t own any facial expressions besides smiles. Trying to express the mult.i.tude of human emotion solely through smiles sounds like it’d provide nothing but year-round muscle pain.
“What I feel… The word ‘suspicion’ has a negative connotation, and I don’t dislike you, so let’s go with ‘doubt’ instead.”
“Why, thank you. My feelings for you are enough to warrant welcoming you as my number zero.”
“I am overcome with emotion. But back to the topic of doubt, I believe I might have the slightest inkling of what you refer to…” Natsuki-san said, placing a hand on her cheek, and tilting her head innocently.
Would it be distrustful of me if I replaced her usage of ‘doubt’ with ‘conviction’ in my mind?
“It’s fine. Let’s just pretend that you don’t understand.”
I shifted in my chair to find a more comfortable position, and ending up leaning my weight against the chair back. Natsuki-san faced me, watching me through narrowed eyes. We locked gazes. I stared her down, inwardly chanting curses in hopes of turning her to stone.
“…My, my, even if Mii-san is a country good-for-nothing, to stare so menacingly at your date is…”
“Hmm? Ah, sorry. I got a bit too pa.s.sionate staring at your hairline…”
Natsuki-san shook her head magnanimously. “I guess it can’t be helped. I can understand why you find the police disagreeable. It was Mii-san who singlehandedly solved the case eight years ago while we failed to produce any results.”
I felt like my stomach had flipped inside-out, and I took a sip out of the water in an attempt to calm it.
Eight years ago, huh.
I see. So she wants to start there.
“It was Mii-san, right? Who called the police.”
“You know, I just can’t seem to recall. All I can remember is accidentally dialing the talking clock.”
Natsuki-san gave my contribution to the conversation all the deference you would the pitter patter of falling rain, and continued.
“Mii-san, you were brave. You calmly escaped across a corpse-riddled ground to report to us. Although, at the time, you’d mentioned that your memories of the events of that time were, shall we say… ‘vague’? Have you organized them now?”
“I wish I could say that I have, but unfortunately, it seems that some of those memories have been lost. Irretrievably so.”
“Do you really not remember who the killer was?”
“Unfortunately not. Might I, however, suggest the admirable ending where suicide was chosen to ease the suffering of a tormented conscience.”
A lie. I knew from experience that they were incapable of such responsible actions.
“I see… Well, it’s best not to forcefully recall such things. Misono Mayu-chan is a good – er, bad – example.”
Deliberately dramatizing the pain she felt over the incident, she nevertheless brought up a name that was beyond ironic.
As I did not respond, however, Natsuki-san let the matter go and moved on.
“On that note, the murderer on the loose at the moment…” She paused for a moment, her default smile blooming once more. “The criminal in question is a high school student.”
Not “a student,” but a “high school student.” I see.
“And upon what basis have you formulated that conclusion?”
“Well, let’s see. The first clue that it’s a student has to do with the timing of the crimes.”
“All nine incidents occurred either late at night on weekdays or on weekends, with the murders occurring most frequently during the day on weekends… It’s pretty straightforward, really.”
“Perhaps it’s an unemployed adult simply pretending to be a student.”
Her eyes narrowed as she smiled. A doll-like gesture.
“Of course that possibility must be taken into consideration. However, is the murderer really such a prudent person? Considering the many crimes committed by one who is presumed to be a student, the police have vastly increased the number of officers on the streets during that time. Given that, a thoughtful person would have come to the conclusion that committing additional murders during this time period would no longer be advantageous. The opposite, rather.”
“You’re right,” I agreed, not knowing what I was agreeing to.
“From the sheer number of corpses that have been mutilated, it can be seen that the criminal has a proclivity for the macabre. There were, however, victims whose corpses were left untouched. This killer of ours sure is capricious, isn’t he?”
“I have no clue.”
“Giving neither thought nor care to his kills, this deviant murders as casually as he might partic.i.p.ate in any other daily activity. Such a criminal, who clearly hasn’t put much thought into his crimes, would most likely be casual about the timing of his crimes as well. A murderer of this type would kill simply because the impulse struck them, simply because they had some time to kill – perhaps on their way to the convenience store, even. That is the type of student I envision this criminal to be.” Her soliloquy continued undisturbed, without concern for my input.
Did she really just use the convenience store as an example? She must’ve seriously researched every last detail of my life. Oh well, every man’s bound to have at least a couple stalkers in his lifetime.
“Do you watch the news? Or read the newspapers?”
Natsuki-san changed the topic, prompting a nod from me.
“Then you should be aware of the two most recent incidents.”
“I am, but not in any detail. If I remember correctly, the eighth victim was the president of the residential a.s.sociation, while the most recent one was a middle school student worried about upcoming entrance exams, right?”
Nodding lightly at my words, she paused for a moment. As I sat there, wary of the sudden silence, she unreservedly ran her eyes across my face.
“…Do you need something?”
“Don’t you ever get tired? Of, you know, being so expressionless all the time.”
“It’s a lot more tiresome keeping a smile plastered on your face all the time, I’m sure.”
Especially for me, seeing as I can’t recall smiling once in the last few years.
But back to the topic at hand.
“What I find particularly concerning about the two most recent incidents is the time the crimes were committed. Previously, all the crimes were perpetrated on weekday nights or during the day on the weekends. There were no nighttime weekend murders.”
Queen to H5, check.
The tense atmosphere created indicated that I had been driven into a corner. So much so that I could hear the sound of chess pieces being placed on the board.
“Now, if the criminal commits murder only in his spare time, that would explain the limited time frames within which the murders are committed. The sudden change in the timing of the last two cases would thus indicate a recent change in the murderer’s lifestyle, no?”
“Even if you frame that statement as a question, I have no way to answer.”
“Ah, my mistake,” said the person opposite me, as the corners of her lips upturned in a slight smile. “Though I have to say it’s quite strange to suddenly change lifestyles at this time of year. For the criminal, that is,” she remarked, meeting my gaze directly.
She sat quietly, watching me as the waiter brought my hot chocolate. She gave him a nod, despite the fact that it had been my order.
Raising the white cup, I placed my lips on the brim.
“I see you’re quite fond of hot chocolate,” she commented, as she waited for the waiter to depart.
“Did you hear that from Dr. Koibi?”
“No, from your aunt.”
A name I hadn’t expected left her lips.
“I’m acquainted with both your aunt and uncle. The connections in a small country town like this are really fascinating, aren’t they?”
“They speak of you often, you know, Mii-san. They lament their late nights working during the week. Because you are often out on the weekends, they rarely have time to spend with you as a family.”
“I should probably apologize for my part in that…”
So this is what it feels like to be a sheep being herded by a sheepdog.
On the other hand, there was no denying the joy I felt from feeling as though I were partic.i.p.ating in a high-stakes negotiation between two con men.
“In particular, they mentioned how difficult it was keeping you from going out at night since they’re never home.”
One by one, Natsuki-san’s words filled in the gaps of a cheap, sixteen-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Although the image painted on its surface was already obvious, each piece was lowered into place ever so slowly. As if to mock me.
“Although their biggest worry must be the fact that Mii-san is cohabiting with his girlfriend. From what I hear, they’re always together, 24/7. As a single woman, I must say I find the situation quite enviable.”
She grasped the last piece.
“I would really like to hear about Mayu-san’s living habits.”
From the very beginning, her thoughts had been obvious. Exposed. Annoying.
Running my tongue along the inside of my mouth, which had turned dry, I opened my mouth to speak.
“I’m sure you don’t need to ask,” I said, glancing outside, which could also possibly be interpreted as averting my gaze. Outside, the rain had slowed to a drizzle.
“Indeed, let’s end this conversation before my curry arrives.”
Natsuki-san’s flat gaze stared directly at me.
This conversation, its priority lower than that of lunch, was reaching its climax.
“You have recently experienced a drastic change in lifestyle, you enjoy taking walks at night… and most of all, Mii-san, you are a high school student.”
Since I’m a criminal, that makes me a student, huh.
Natsuki-san and I erupted in eerie laughter.
We laughed until our cheeks ached and the customers seated at neighboring tables moved away.
“A most delightful game of cat and mouse.”
“Absolutely. I was this close to confessing to a crime I have no memory of committing.”
As if to release the mirth that had gathered in my heart, my shoulders shook exaggeratedly.
My conversation with this person was comparable to a game of old maid, and yet had been accompanied by the irrationality of only one side unilaterally revealing their cards.
It had been irritating, confusing, sagacious, and, ultimately, enjoyable.
Fun enough for me to laugh aloud.
As if to protest the rare occurrence of my laughter, my parched throat cried out for a drink. I quenched my thirst with a sip of sweeter-than-usual hot chocolate, bathing in the afterglow of this battle of empty speculation.
It had been, in the end, nothing more than a game.
Because there was no proof.
Had there been any, we would not have held this conversation in private, but rather in a police interrogation room. And instead of hot chocolate, I’d have been served a bowl of katsudon.
I saw Natsuki-san’s nose twitch as the scent of curry, ignoring the current atmosphere, wafted across the room.
“Why don’t we go for a walk in the courtyard once we’re done here?”
Humbly, I accepted the offer that sounded like a line from a marriage interview.
That courtyard wouldn’t happen to be surrounded by prison bars, would it? I wanted to retort. I kept that to myself, though.
Upon exiting the cafe, I was escorted by the intelligent (self-proclaimed) and beautiful (I have to give her that one) Natsuki-san.
“The daif.u.ku here are delicious.”
“Western sweets are over that way; there’s even a store that sells tasty fruit jelly.”
“Ooh, they have samples of akaf.u.ku over there. Let’s go.”
The courtyard, was it? More like the food hall.
We circled the area once, buying both j.a.panese and Western sweets.
“Have you lived with Dr. Koibi before?” I asked, guiding the oobanyaki Natsuki-san had purchased for me to my mouth as we leaned against the fence on the building rooftop.
I’d forgotten my umbrella downstairs, in the cafe, but the rain had since stopped and I couldn’t be bothered to go back and get it.
“Yep, back when we were in college together. We both attended a university in the country where we lived a debauched life together sharing living expenses. Oh, but ‘debauched’ in a good way.”
Does that word even have a “good” meaning?
From the bag hanging in her hand, Natsuki-san removed another oobanyaki and took a bite. Her eyes drooped slightly, as if literally savoring a morsel of happiness.
“I’m surprised you decided to meet me outside. Was that preferable to letting me meet Mayu-chan?” she asked in a perfunctory manner after finishing her oobanyaki in two bites.
“Uhh… Um, well, it’d be troublesome if the two of you fought over me,” I squeezed out. How unoriginal.
Taking Natsuki-san’s personality into consideration, I had a.s.sumed that her reply would be along the lines of “Many thanks for your consideration.” Instead, however, she simply watched me in silence. It was abundantly clear that she no longer desired a battle of wits between the non-red fox and the racc.o.o.n that had not come from the future. That being the case, I had better spare a bit of honesty in order to achieve my own goals.
“There’s something I’d been planning to ask you once we were alone,” I said.
“And what’s that?”
“The missing siblings case… Is it being treated as a homicide?”
Probing for answers from the police woman before me, I felt as though I were an elementary school student on a field trip to a factory.
“Hmm. It’s hard to say,” she answered, c.o.c.king her head in puzzlement. It was only to be expected that she’d hardly be forthcoming when speaking to a suspect who had potentially committed the crime in question. However, she didn’t stop there.
“To be honest, there’s a good chance the Ikeda siblings ran away from home.”
“It seems their home environment is pretty bad. The parents often fight until morning, and the siblings were beaten on a regular basis, as if to relieve stress. They’ve already run away from home on multiple occasions, so it’s rumored that this is yet another of their escapes. The only thing is… It’s been a bit long this time.”
“On a regular basis…”
The information I had just received forced my lazy brain into action.
Runaways. Processing. A homicidal maniac.
Runaways processing a homicidal maniac… Why did I just connect those?
Let’s not worry about that for now, though. The thing from just now is more important.
I need a way to defuse the situation.
The most abhorrent method would bring about the best outcome.
The importance of bowers. To hide a tree, use a forest.
If you ignore both logic and ethics, this is the answer you’d naturally arrive at.
“Whether they ran away, or were murdered, or kidnapped, it’s already been a month. Their safe return is doubtful.”
“Tragic.” I gave a lazy reply as I contemplated the method that had come to me. Shifting blame, coercion, treating humans as p.a.w.ns… I was a failure as a human. Looking at this from other angles, it was clear that I had opened myself up to a mult.i.tude of criticisms.
Though that also came with three positives: safe, easy, and fast.
“I guess from where Mii-san stands, this is a pretty big deal, huh.”
What’s that supposed to mean? “Yesu, zatsu lighto.”
A high-pitched electronic sound, a pop song popular some five years ago, began to play, interrupting the demonstration of my fluent command of English. From the pocket of her skirt with the prison uniform design, Natsuki-san pulled a blue clamsh.e.l.l phone and flipped it open.
“My, how time flies.”
At her look of surprise, I, too, pulled out my phone and checked the time displayed on the LCD. It had been one hour since we had left the cafe: just past twelve thirty.
“If you’ll excuse me, I had better head back to work,” she apologized.
Where could she possibly be headed looking like that?
“I see. It’s a real shame, but I guess it can’t be helped.”
“After seeing how happy it’s made you, I’m glad I shared that information.”
“Please be careful and avoid getting arrested by accident.”
My warning was heartfelt. Natsuki-san accepted my advice with a big smile. What a comfortable atmosphere.
“Would you mind sharing your phone number with me?” she asked.
I accepted, and recited an eleven-digit number.
“Here’s mine. …If you ever feel the need to plead guilty, please talk to me. I’ll be waiting.”
Natsuki-san gave an elegant bow and began to leave.
Abruptly, she spun around as though on a rotating chair, and retraced her steps to stand by my side once more.
“I’m doing this for myself.”
In a moment, she’d closed the gap, and with a single, swift movement she pulled my head to her with her arms. Unable to react, my head was forcefully buried in a chest that couldn’t really be described as ample.
“Mm, you smell quite nice…”
“…Um, should you really be doing this to a murderer?”
“I’m simply apprehending my suspect.”
I could tell from her voice that she was thoroughly enjoying this.
I could feel gooseb.u.mps rising on my skin.
Ignoring my body’s instinctive rejection response, I stretched my arms around her back, careful not to dirty her clothes with my half-eaten oobanyaki.
“Uh, because, you know, um, it’d be dangerous if you were to be stabbed in the back…”
Natsuki-san’s only reaction to my incoherent response was a simple “Thank you.”
As I lightly embraced her, I could feel the bones on her back. Is this really someone who’s eaten bread and katsu curry and fruit jelly and akaf.u.ku and prawn crackers and silky fowl egg pudding and matsumaezuke and oobanyaki all within the last hour?
Her fingers ran through my hair. As her fingers combed through my hair, she scratched my head lightly, causing gooseb.u.mps to protrude further from my bare skin.
“…So um, how long are you planning to keep me in custody exactly?”
“You’re still under investigation. Anyway, you’d have to let go of me as well.”
“This is, uh, well…”
Natsuki-san giggled, and then murmured softly.
Her hands left my head. She then slipped out of my arms and retreated a step.
As I stood blankly, unable to hide my discomposure, Natsuki-san covered her mouth with her hand as her shoulders shook teasingly.
“You’re the type girls like.”
With those words lingering in the air, she exited the rooftop with light steps.
I grunted to myself as I turned to face the fence and lost myself in the verdant scene for a time.
After roughly a minute’s time, my discomfiture finally got to me.
Idly, I scratched my neck with my index finger.
What had just happened? Had she been trying to plant a listening device on me? Maybe a transmitter? Perhaps it’d been a physical exam of sorts.
I should probably toss my clothes in the washer and take a bath once I get home.
Yeah, let’s do that.
But enough of hiding my embarra.s.sment.
I tossed the last bite of oobanyaki in my mouth and turned.
To find Mayu standing there.
Black umbrella, black sweater, black skirt, black platform shoes, black hat, black hair.
Her arresting appearance contrasted sharply against her pale white skin.
Misono Mayu was standing there.
Someone stepped forward, shortening the distance between us to about thirty centimeters.
Someone opened their mouth and spoke.
“Liar,” they said.
Indeed, I was a liar.
Somewhere within me, a switch had flipped.
Forcefully. In the wrong direction.
“You followed me?”
Something in me had recovered. The words had been mine.
Wordlessly, Mayu raised her arm. Not a slap, but a clenched fist. An action sluggish enough that I had time enough to realize that she was about to strike me. Did she really think I wasn’t going to dodge? Without bothering to chew the morsel in my mouth, I swallowed it with a gulp.
“Maa-chan, you liar.”
Her fist came crashing down, landing on my cheek and impacting my front teeth, tearing skin.
Another cut on the hand of Misono Mayu.
“Was it fun playing detective?”
Her fist was brought down once more. Her eyes, beneath the brim of her hat, sitting low on her brow, were like stone.
Her fist was painted a b.l.o.o.d.y red, a canvas of crimson. That which was not to be erased had been painted and washed away by the very one who had ordered it so.
“What. Was. That?”
“You shouldn’t call your senior ‘that’, Maa-chan.”
She struck my temple with her umbrella.
It’s not what you think, Maa-chan. This is someone who seeks to uncover your sins.
So it’s got nothing to do with cheating, dammit!
“Why were you laughing?”
Don’t ask a human such things.
“Even though you never laugh when you’re with me.”