The next chapter of Hariyama-san will be out in the next week. The next two routes of GakuPuri will be done hopefully before the end of the month.
April 2 Yagokoro High School
The next morning, I rode Sousei-san as a bike, not to the main gate, but around to the back gate, where there were few students. “Behave yourself until afternoon,” I instructed Sousei-san more severely than yesterday, and parted with him.
“You’re annoying. Touko and Ai are too but you’re even more annoying than them. You’re just like ‘Yuuri’...”
A name I was not used to hearing had slipped from Sousei-san’s mouth. “...Yuuri?” I repeated, and Sousei-san immediately averted his gaze.
“I-it’s nothing! Don’t ask! Hurry and go! You’ll be late to class!”
Sousei-san rudely talked on and on as if he were chasing away a stray dog. His expression was severe.
I was concerned by Sousei-san’s strange behavior. However, it was true that I would be late for class, so I said, “I’ll contact you this afternoon,” and hurriedly headed to the classroom.
At the same moment in which I took my seat, my cell phone’s mail tone rang. There was still a little time before homeroom, so I checked the contents of the mail. The contents naturally made me smile broadly.
“Naoto! How you doing? You’re not being bullied at your new school, are you? Tell me if anything happens! You don’t need to hold back! I’ll get over to you right away! Anyway, I’ll shove those rude guys down and tie ‘em together!”
“...That’s just like Tatsumi-kun.”
In the name field were the characters for “Kanji Tatsumi”. I immediately typed out a reply mail: “It’s all right. I’m doing well.” However, right before hitting the “reply” button, I stopped my thumb. I thought it really was a wearisome answer.
After thinking for several seconds, I added, “...However, if anything is troubling me, I’ll be counting on you, Tatsumi-kun,” and replied.
Tatsumi-kun was a good friend for worrying about me like this.
Whether it was Kujikawa-san or Tatsumi-kun, even if they were far away, just remembering their faces gradually filled my heart with warmth. Just the thought that everyone was doing their best made me feel that I could also give it my all. My current self, who had friends that I could rely on, was very happy.
And sure enough – I wondered if Kaoru Hioka and Miyuki Midorikawa had had friends that they could rely on.
For example, friends who, with just the words “help me”, would come running at the drop of a hat, no matter how far away they were. If they had had friends like that, we might have been facing a different conclusion than we were now. I could not stop thinking about it.
Was it unavoidable? Reality, which did not allow for any chance at takebacks, harbored a bit of a nihilistic feel. However, I did not have the leisure to drown in sentimentality. There were four people remaining. I had to save them somehow. Also for Kyouhei Hioka’s sake, so that he would not make any more mistakes.
“Good morning, Shirogane-kun,” the girl next to me greeted me, smiling, as she sat in the chair next to mine.
So I would take action immediately.
“Do you have time during lunch? I must speak to you. If possible, I’d like it to be just the two of us.”
“Eh?” the girl next to me let out as her greeting was met with that question, and her shoulders stiffened. However, her face soon reddened, and she muttered with downcast eyes, “...Yeah, that’s fine. If you want, Shirogane-kun..
I could not help but feel that there was a huge misunderstanding, but I smiled at her.
“Thank you, ‘Takizawa-san’.”
April 2 Yagokoro High School Rooftop
Lunch break. Sending a backwards glance at the vigorous group of male students who were hurriedly competing as they rushed down the stairs to the school store on the first floor, and the lively female students accompanying them who were headed to the restroom, I determinedly ascended the staircases one by one. I opened the steel door and the figure of someone waiting was already on the roof. After confirming that no one else was around, I opened my mouth and spoke to the girl, who was fidgeting as if she could not relax.
“I want to hear about Kaoru Hioka-san.”
I got right to the point.
When I did, Takizawa-san’s face, which until then had been red with embarrassment, went pale in an instant.
“...W-why me? I think there are a lot of people besides me who know a lot about Kaoru-chan...?”
She was in a state of considerable confusion, as if a switch had been flipped.
“You will do; no, it has to be you, Takizawa-san.”
I said while gazing straight at Takizawa-san. I was convinced.
Yesterday afternoon, the name “Takizawa” was present in Kaoru Hioka’s past conversation that we detected in this place.
When I investigated on the computer at the station, there was only one student at Yagokoro High School with the family name “Takizawa”. Incidentally, she had been in the same class as Kaoru Hioka during their second year. I remembered that the girl in the seat next to mine had rapidly given her name as “Takizawa” on my first day here after transferring.
“Don’t worry. I only want to hear what you have to say.”
I addressed Takizawa-san, who was disquieted, as if to persuade her.
“I-I... don’t know anything... really...”
Takizawa-san’s hair, tied into two pigtails, violently swung left and right. Her overly strong rejection was suspicious and could be interpreted as proof of a troubling darker side.
“No, you should know, Takizawa-san – because you often discussed Kaoru Hioka’s worry about the slander with her on this rooftop.”
Her shoulders jerked violently.
“You were the one who told Kaoru Hioka about the ‘Midnight Site’, weren’t you?”
She was the one who had told me there was a Detective Prince fad on the Internet. She had also saved many of the images going around the Internet. Takizawa-san clearly knew much about the Internet.
Takizawa-san wore an uncertain expression. I waited patiently for her to open her mouth, and finally she nodded slightly. “...Yes.
“...I didn’t... I – I didn’t think it would t-turn out this way!”
Takizawa-san dropped roughly to her knees on the concrete. Then, just like that, she dissolved into tears.
“I – I didn’t mean it... Kaoru-chan was beautiful, and good at studying and sports, and popular with the guys, and she had a lot of things I didn’t... I thought it wasn’t fair... B-but I didn’t want her to die! Really! I just kind of wanted to see... I just wanted to see Kaoru-chan’s face when she saw the slander and got a shock...”
Her voice echoed, gloomy and completely at odds with the cloudless blue sky.
“Ka-Kaoru-chan was my friend, my best friend... But I was still jealous... It was hard always being compared to her... I was envious... But that was all... It wasn’t like I was bitter or hated her... Writing a comment on the Midnight Site, I only did that once... It was spur of the moment...”
It was a speech as painful as coughing up blood. I stepped up to Takizawa-san and softly placed my hand on her back.
“...It’s all right, calm down. I’m not blaming you. It was an accident that Kaoru Hioka-san died.”
I lied. So that she would, for a short time, have temporary peace of mind. I could only think that the truth would be cruel.
She had regretted it enough. In addition, there was no need to make her suffer under the cruel truth. It may have been cheap sympathy. However, I could not bring myself to be more coldhearted.
“I can’t trust anyone anymore! They say things that sound like they’re worried but they don’t get how I feel at all! I can’t take this anymore! I’d rather they insult me to my face! Give me a break! Anyone around me could really be Uzume... I’m jumping at shadows... Even you, Takizawa-san... Ah, sorry... Forget it... I’m sorry... I’m being weird...”
Remembering the contents of their conversation, most likely Kaoru Hioka had doubted her belief in Takizawa-san somewhere in her heart. She may have thought there was a chance that Takizawa-san was Uzume.
From the conversation, I could catch a glimpse of Kaoru Hioka’s conflict, as she did not want to suspect her. At the same time, she was emotionally trapped, believing she could not trust anyone.
In truth, Uzume was Miyuki Midorikawa, but Kaoru Hioka, who was no longer in this world, would spend an eternity never knowing that. Another quite cruel truth was that Kaoru Hioka had died doubting Takizawa-san, thinking she might be Uzume, and I was unable to say anything more.
It was just a little malice. Envy, bitterness, resentment. Those were ordinary malices that everyone had as humans in their everyday lives.
I thought this as I gazed at Takizawa-san, trembling in knowledge of her sins.
It may have been that the “Midnight Site” bore a role similar to a place of accumulation for the malice lingering in the world. Like dirt that had accumulated and accumulated, the hundreds and thousands of small malices had finally become a huge ball of malice, and in the end it had gained a gloomy momentum that was enough to drive people to death.
I had nothing but disbelief that a negative place like the “Midnight Site” could be popular, but I felt that I could understand people’s reasons for participating just a little.
Surely, in their daily lives, everyone experienced malice born from within them that they did not know how to handle and were searching for an outlet.
And when I realized that, the “Midnight Site” became more frightening than before. As to why, the malice of each of the site’s users separately was extremely small, and it could only be said that their awareness of their sins was nonexistent.
Once again, I became strongly determined to bring this case to a swift conclusion.
To sever the chain of unhappiness – that was undoubtedly the mission given to me who knew the truth, me who held the special power known as Persona.
April 2 Yagokoro High School Rooftop
“Shirogane! See you tomorrow!”
To the male students who were hurrying to their sports club activities and cutting it close, and:
“We were thinking of drinking tea at the Junes food court on the way back. Do you want to come, Prince?”
To the female students who invited me: “Sorry. There’s something I need to do.” I saw them off.
“...Shirogane? You’re still in the classroom? Don’t stay too late.”
Receiving that warning from the homeroom teacher, I read a book to pass the time. At last, when I estimated that all people had trailed out of the school buildings over which the sun sank, I joined up with Sousei-san. On the designated place, the rooftop, I spoke to Sousei-san about the incident that had occurred at lunchtime.
I had obtained two pieces of important evidence from Takizawa-san when she regained her composure.
The first was that, regarding the person who told Kaoru Hioka’s older brother Kyouhei Hioka about the “Midnight Site”: “...I told him.” The truth was that it had been Takizawa-san.
It seemed that Kyouhei Hioka had not believed from the very beginning that his sister’s death was a simple accident and had come to her friend Takizawa-san’s home to ask about the circumstances.
As had been in the past conversation, Kaoru Hioka had told her brother Kyouhei Hioka absolutely nothing about her worries about the slander. Even so, Kyouhei Hioka had vaguely realized that his sister was troubled by something. However, he believed a girl his sister’s age would only hate for her brother to meddle deeply in her affairs, and so he had not pursued the matter. “I really regret not pursuing it,” Kyouhei Hioka had told Takizawa-san in a hoarse voice.
And then the other piece of evidence from Takizawa-san was that I now knew her conversation with Kyouhei Hioka was an incident that had taken place about two months after Kaoru Hioka’s passing. In other words, Kyouhei Hioka had spent close to four months since learning of the existence of the “Midnight Site” until he reached Miyuki Midorikawa.
When I had finished speaking, Sousei-san nodded, unimpressed.
“But geez, it’s hard to understand. If she didn’t want to be compared to other people, she should’ve just not hung out with anyone. If she did that, she would’ve been able to go without having grudges or being jealous.”
Sousei-san threw up his hands in an exaggerated action.
“Even if they know that, people cannot live alone. It may be that, if a person compares themselves to others, they’re constantly confirming who they themselves are.”
I thought that, in Takizawa-san’s case, because she was inferior to the one she was being compared to, it led to a negative result.
“That’s what’s hard for me to understand. I’m a robot, but even if I wasn’t, I would be able to puff out my chest and say I’m Sousei Kurogami, you know? And also, you’re sure you’re Naoto Shirogane even if no one gives you proof, aren’t you?”
In truth, it was a speech very like Sousei-san. When I thought about it, he said much the same thing when he learned I was a woman. However, that was something he could say because he was Sousei-san. Not everyone could puff out their chests and say they were constantly true to themselves.
“...Let’s see. If I had to say, I wouldn’t be confident.”
I gave a self-deprecating smile.
“However, as a detective, I can be useful to someone – when I think that, I have a little bit of confidence that I am Naoto Shirogane. With that purpose, I can constantly, fully realize my existence in my interactions with people.”
I did not deny it. For better or for worse, I knew that to live was to be able to accept that all sides of me were still me.
“Hmph! That doesn’t help when you’re depressed. If you ask me, when I thought about the good and bad points, not knowing who you are is nothing compared to the inferiority complex you get from building up debts to other people.”
I looked up at Sousei-san. I parted my lips slightly and asked:
“...But, isn’t that lonely?”
There was no way that people could not know the loneliness of solitude once they had been touched by someone’s warmth. I thought that perhaps Sousei-san had not had that kind of experience.
“There are also times when I regret it, thinking that it may have been better if I had not been influenced by others. However, I think the joy and reassurement that come from having friends I can trust and people important to me cannot be replaced. At the very least, it’s a feeling that I would not have were I alone.”
I thought it was an evasive, half-hearted rebuttal, but unexpectedly, Sousei-san mulled it over with a quiet expression.
“...Even I can understand that as a robot.”
Finally Sousei-san let out his feelings little by little.
“What I wanna say is that there’s no need to form crowds. You don’t need that many. Just one is fine. If just that one person is there, that’s enough, right? As long as they praise you, you’re happy. You humans ask for too much...”
On that note, Sousei-san fell silent. He had only been activated several years ago, but his words filled with emotion spoke to his actual experience.
Though he was a robot, Sousei-san’s personality was quite humanlike, and I wondered if somehow it was influenced by what he had seen and experienced in the past. The name “Yuuri” that he had inadvertently let fall. It was the name of a woman. It may have been the name of someone who had a deep connection to Sousei-san’s past.
I was becoming more and more intrigued by Sousei-san’s past, but I shook off the temptation and told him:
“In any case, let’s go around the school building and search for Miyuki Midorikawa’s past conversations.”
At present, that was our greatest priority.
“Well, the work’s a pain, but it’s fun feeling like we’ll definitely find treasure.”
Sousei-san answered lightly, as if his sullen demeanor until a little while ago was nothing more than an illusion.
“...I wonder. The situation right now is more serious than before. Personally, I already feel that we’re digging up live shells rather than treasure.”
So I responded lightly, pretending I had not noticed.
April 2 Yagokoro High School School Building
We decided that the timeframe for detection of past conversations would be half a year ago to the present. It was determined that the only person related to Yagokoro High School who had passed away during that period was Miyuki Midorikawa. In other words, by doing this, we would limit what we would detect to Miyuki Midorikawa’s conversations alone.
It had been about an hour since we had started investigating the school building. As planned, we had succeeded in detecting a number of conversations. However, unfortunately they were all normal, everyday conversations, and we did not obtain any particular information likely to be connected to the case.
–It was after using our Personas multiple times in succession. Putting aside Sousei-san, who was a robot, I, who had a flesh body, was just about to propose a break because my physical strength was exhausted. Sousei-san and I exchanged glances at the same time at the contents of a conversation we had detected at a certain place.
“...Whoa, what a scary face! Yeah, yeah, as expected of Mr. Student Council President, you’re really different from a low-class girl like me... I’ll say it! It’s fine if I say it! The reason’s simple, I hate that girl! So I put her on the Midnight Site! That’s all!”
“Aah, geez! Shut up, shut up! You preach too much! Anyway, even you know we can’t do anything now that it’s gone this far, right? If you say you’ll stop it no matter what, then just shut up the jurors under the name ‘Sarutahiko’!”
“...I haven’t told anyone, you really are a wimp of a guy! Even though I’m following your orders and not talking to you at school at all! I pretend not to know you even if we pass in the hall! Say it straight out! I’m worried about that girl! I like ‘Kaoru Hioka’! I said it but you’re the one who thinks that! It’s because you’re making eyes at that girl...”
“...I-it’s not my fault! I only scattered the bait! The rest was the jurors just swallowing it and kicking up a fuss and that girl went and died on her own! ...Hey... I’ll listen to whatever you say... So... Don’t abandon me...”
“This is suspicious... Have we found treasure?” Sousei-san grinned broadly.
“...Yes, we found a live shell. An extra-large one.” I nodded quietly.
It could be called a breakthrough in the development of the disappearance case. To calm my feeling of impatience, I took a single deep breath.
“...In this moment, you could say that we have overturned the known relation between Miyuki Midorikawa and Shirou Konno, who according to the police’s investigation and the information provided by the students, shared no common point.”
Sousei-san, who did not seem to comprehend, scowled at the words that appeared on Tsukuyomi’s headpiece with a grim look.
“Please look here.” I pointed out one phrase on the marquee with my finger.
“Hm? Mr. Student Council President...?”
Sousei-san repeated it curiously, but when he realized the answer, his expression instantly brightened.
“Oi! Naoto! Good job!”
He grabbed me by the shoulders. It may have been out of excitement, but in truth, it hurt.
“...Yes, as you’ve guessed, the student council president – you would be correct in thinking he is Shirou Konno.”
That the missing Shirou Konno was the student council president had also been specified in the case file. In addition, the place where we were at was within sight of the student council room. I hypothesized that Miyuki Midorikawa and Shirou Konno’s conversations had taken place inside the student council room.
“There is one more thing. In the case that the person Miyuki Midorikawa was speaking to is indeed Shirou Konno, there is something we can say with high probability – that Shirou Konno is alive.”
“...Right. ‘Cause we didn’t detect him in the past conversations!”
We had finally reached this wonderful result due to Sousei-san’s Persona’s ability.
“As expected of my great Persona! It’s really true, in the end, I’m a genius!”
Nonetheless, because the person in question was getting carried away, I thought to myself that I would definitely not praise him. Rather, I was of the opinion that I should remonstrate him.
“...Sousei-san. It’s not like the case is settled and you’re overcome with joy; if Touko-san saw you, she would roar with laughter, you know?”
“Don’t you have any confidence? If it’s like this, the case’ll be over in a flash, right? Or are all detective guys full of hot air like you?”
He spoke in a roundabout way, and Sousei-san gave a displeased snort of laughter.
“Please call it being cool and collected.”
As a detective, it was essential to maintain a way of thinking so sensitive as to be called excessively cautious. That was because the mistakes of a detective would not be forgiven. Especially for me, who carried the reputation of the Shirogane name, as one who was sought after for capability above that of the police. If not for that, my existence had no meaning. To exaggerate, the existence of the detective Naoto Shirogane was permitted only when someone needed her.
“What, that’s stupid.”
The rude manner of Sousei-san’s response as he spat that out, as if to say it was nothing but a pain, was impulsive and just like him, and I smiled wryly and gave up. It was proof that I was little by little coming to understand the person called Sousei Kurogami.
“The relation between Miyuki Midorikawa, who has passed away, and Shirou Konno, who is missing, was in their conversation. The next question would be, ‘Why was it necessary for the two of them to hide their relation from those around them?’”
“If you just think about it, isn’t it the guy’s ego? If they knew the student council president was hanging out with a woman with a bad rep, it wouldn’t look good, right? And what they were talking about sounded like a lover’s quarrel. I can imagine a hysterical woman getting jealous ‘cause the guy’s fooling around.”
Sousei-san replied immediately.
“I think that possibility does also exist. However, the two of them unmistakably share another unknown common feature.”
I pointed out one word in the past conversation. “‘Sarutahiko’...?” Sousei-san tilted his head.
“Sousei-san, do you remember the name ‘Uzume’?”
“Huh? Don’t screw with me! Like I’d forget the stuff I just heard last night! Uzume’s that, right? The screenname Miyuki Midorikawa took as one of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’, right?”
“Correct,” I answered, trying not to laugh. Sousei-san’s childish behavior when he had become angry and answered was just a little bit funny.
“Then do you remember the name ‘Sarutahiko’? I explained it last night, if you recall?”
However, “...Guh.” Sousei-san unfortunately fell silent at the next question.
“By the way, Sarutahiko is also the screenname of one of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’.”
Sousei-san folded his arms and stroked his chin with his fingertips.
“...So that’s the way it is? That the past conversation is saying Shirou Konno is Sarutahiko.”
I nodded quietly.
“Miyuki Midorikawa and Shirou Konno’s common point is that they were members of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’. Wasn’t hiding their relationship from the people around them also a discreet cautionary measure taken so others would not be aware they were members of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’?”
Most likely it was Shirou Konno’s initiative. From both the case file and Miyuki Midorikawa’s past conversations, it was clear that Shirou Konno was a careful individual.
“By the way, what are these ‘jurors’? Someone’s name? Or is it also a screenname?”
“No, it seems the ordinary users of the Midnight Site are called ‘jurors’. The jurors hold the rights to vote guilty or not guilty. In Japanese, ‘juror’ is ‘baishinin’. And the judges are ‘saibankan’. In other words, one can deduce that the aim of the Midnight Site is to ‘Carry out judgment in the middle of the night.’”
“...Judgment, huh. The defendants the judges frame don’t get even a speck of fairness when their guilt is considered.”
“Yes, it’s more like a witch hunt.”
I nodded firmly. Miyuki Midorikawa, called Uzume, had fabricated completely false sins, and Kaoru Hioka had been made to suffer reasonless slander. Only she herself knew whether it had been an accident or suicide, but it was surely an unreasonable end.
Immediately afterward, Sousei-san shook his head as if fed up.
“...Hey, Naoto, can I say something here?”
I instantly denied him. That was because I could predict what Sousei-san meant to say.
“Let’s leave Shirou Konno. It’s fine. Let Kyouhei Hioka have his revenge.”
He ignored me completely.
“It’s not like I use the Internet all the time or looked into the ‘Midnight Site’ a lot either. Still, I get it. Those guys who have to do with the Midnight Site are a really tightfisted bunch.”
Sousei-san spat out.
“Starting up the Midnight Site, naming themselves the Five Togakushi Judges, I don’t know who the hell you are, but who are you to judge other people? Can your actions be forgiven? Who’s gonna judge your sins? I wanna ask those bastards that!”
“You’re going too far. They also have their own circumstances.”
I answered, taking it upon myself to strongly reprimand Sousei-san, who had lost his temper.
“Circumstances? Are you an idiot? Everyone alive’s got their own circumstances! Even I do and I’m a robot!”
I had added fuel to the fire.
“Don’t let yourself be controlled by your emotions. There are rules in this world. If everyone acted on their emotions, the order of the world would soon crumble.”
“You’re a cold human. Don’t you have any sympathy at all for Kyouhei Hioka?”
“Even I can sympathize with Kyouhei Hioka’s situation. However, this and that are really two different problems. In the end, a killer is a killer. Even if we have the luxury to take extenuating circumstances into consideration, his are not actions that can be forgiven by any means.”
“Geez, you really have an answer for everything!”
“I could say exactly the same to you!”
I was being quite frank. There was also a part of me that conceded Sousei-san’s point. However, those were my personal feelings. As a detective, I was of the belief that I could not overlook a crime right before my eyes.
I let out a single, small sigh.
“...As for ourselves, there is something only we can do.”
I looked straight at Sousei-san and told him.
“Let’s do what we can, believing that Kyouhei Hioka’s greatest hope of salvation is that we won’t let anyone else killed by him.”
“...I dunno if we’ll regret this.”
Sousei-san snorted morosely.
“...That’s true. I’ll endeavor to make the very best choices so it doesn’t come to that.”
I responded with a bitter smile. If I didn’t believe and take a step forward, I would definitely not be able to proceed onwards. I persuaded myself with a wavering heart.
April 2 Yagokoro Police Station Special Forensics Division Director’s Office
I returned to the Yagokoro Police station and searched for Touko-san. It was to report on the investigation up until now and to hear about what kind of person Kyouhei Hioka was.
I thought I might be able to see Touko-san if I showed up at the Criminal Enforcement Division where her desk was, but I was mistaken. Touko-san’s desk was empty.
I thought I would ask someone as to Touko-san’s whereabouts, but within the office, which was disorderly with mountains of case files and white tobacco smoke that obscured visibility, the detectives directed aggressive looks shot through with seething anger at me, an outsider to the division, and I hesitated to speak to them readily.
There was nothing I could do, so I went around the station myself. However, I went around and looked everywhere, but I could not find Touko-san anywhere. The place I reached at last was the director’s office of the Special Forensics Division under Tsuge-san.
“Touko? Dunno. Haven’t seen her since she came to drink coffee this morning.”
My last hope was swiftly dashed.
“Well, if you wait she’ll come back, right?”
Tsuge-san said carelessly as he processed the documents on his desk.
“Geez, you’re useless, Gramps!”
Sousei-san was disgusted, but:
“Tsuge-san, I’ll be borrowing your computer again.”
I was going to investigate some details related to the case while waiting for Touko-san as Tsuge-san had suggested.
“Oi oi, what should I do?”
“Please stay quiet over there.”
As if my way of handling Sousei-san was entertaining:
“Right! Do what you’re told, Sousei!”
Tsuge-san’s large body shook as he laughed.
“You’re annoying! Gramps! Shut your trap!”
Sousei-san threw himself on the sofa as one would when staying in bed out of spite.
Their argument continued behind me as I started up the computer.
“Oi! Gramps! I’m bored!”
“Like I care, idiot! Go read the magazine on the desk or something!”
“That’s an idol magazine! Act your age, Gramps!”
“What! The kids’ll get upset if you’re like that! Women’s naked bodies are the last mystery left on Earth! It’s an eternal research theme needed to dispel doubts about your status as a man!”
“What research theme!? You dirty old man! Isn’t that just your lust!?”
“I’m not denying there’s lust, but I don’t like being insulted, so I’ll tell you the idol magazine isn’t mine! Touko left it here this morning, idiot!”
“...Seriously? Touko’s a good woman without any masculinity. To think these idols are her hobby.”
“...Even if you’re joking, don’t say such scary things. I’ll start imagining it. Uh, no, that’s kinda a turn-on too...”
I thought that if Touko-san had heard, the two of them would be sorry.
Finally, I heard the sound of the magazine pages being turned behind me. It seemed that somehow Sousei-san had begun to read the idol magazine as he spoke. It was at that moment.
“...Huh? What’s this about... Am I seeing things...?”
Sousei-san spoke in an uncharacteristically bewildered voice.
“Oi! Gramps! Come here a sec! Look at this!”
“I’m busy! What is it, idiot!? Who do you think I am!? I’m the director, you know? I’ve got more social responsibility than you think, okay?”
As he complained, I heard the sound of Tsuge-san’s footsteps as he stood from his seat and headed to the sofa.
“Huh? Huuuh? W-what is this... S’like I’m seeing things...”
Tsuge-san was immediately surprised just like Sousei-san.
Predictably, I started to wonder what in the world it was, so I turned my chair and looked back at the two of them. When I did, the two of them blinked and gazed at me fixedly.
“...Eh? What? What is it?”
I drew back in that instant, feeling something like dread. Instead of answering, the two of them looked back and forth between me and the magazine, comparing us.
Then, at Tsuge-san’s next words, I sprung from the chair without thinking.
“That surprised me! Boy, you’re – a girl!”
Flustered, I ran up to the two of them and peered at the magazine. In that moment, a sound rang out. That was the sound of the blood draining from my face.
On the open color pages of the magazine, a girl clothed in a red bikini and a girl clothed in a navy blue bikini were playing together in the waves. By the way, it could not be helped that the girl in the navy blue bikini’s smile was stiff.
I had a flashback to the memories of about a week ago. It was a shot from that time, when there was a photoshoot at the “Yagokoro Premium Gaia” of gravure photos that were to be published in a magazine.
My whole body was so hot it felt as if it were burning. My field of vision was distorted and my thoughts were jumbled together so confusingly I couldn’t think. It felt like I would unthinkingly scream because of this turmoil I had never before experienced. “Ah, oh, ooh...” However, I couldn’t even find my voice at such a shock.
“What was that! Gramps! You didn’t know Naoto is a woman! Can’t you tell just by looking!?”
No, even you didn’t know until yesterday.
“‘Cause Touko didn’t say anything! I did think she’s too slender for a guy, but she acts like one and they call her Detective Prince, so wouldn’t you normally think she’s one?”
“Yeah, well. But right now the issue isn’t something as boring as if Naoto is a man or a woman!”
Sousei-san pulled the magazine even further open and held it out.
“Look! At Naoto’s cleavage here!”
“Yeah! Not bad, not bad at all!”
With a lewd look on his face, Tsuge-san brought his face close to the magazine and looked between me and the gravure photoshoot picture, comparing us.
“...Hmph. I didn’t realize yesterday, but you’ve got some really impressive goods! Geez, say something sooner! I’m the kind of guy that thinks you should act like a woman if you are one!”
I only saw it out of the corner of my eye, but Tsuge-san’s face was very frightening as he bowed his head as if charmed, and I shuddered. I mustered up my willpower and snatched the magazine from Sousei-san. I was exceedingly embarrassed and was overcome by the urge to immediately put the magazine through the shredder.
“What’re you doing, Naoto! We were still looking at that! Give it back!”
“I -- I refuse!”
“Hahaa, so you’re embarrassed!”
Sousei-san raised his voice delightedly. In the next instant, my face became hot as if a fire had been lit.
“I-it’s a swimsuit! O-of course it would be embarrassing!”
My voice cracked with agitation.
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, right? ‘Cause you’ve got impressive goods.”
Sousei-san’s gaze was focused on my chest. I panicked and covered my chest with the magazine.
“P-please stop calling them ‘goods’!”
“Be more confident, Naoto! I’ve changed my opinion! Women with big boobs aren’t bad at all! Big is good no matter what it is!”
“Yeah! Big boobs are the greatest thing God created in this world! And they say too big is better than too small! If it’s just bust size, you don’t even lose to Touko! Whoa! It’ll be fun seeing what kind of good woman you become in the future!”
I wondered what it meant that this was the only time the two of them were in perfect accord.
“Oi! Give back the magazine! I’m bored!”
“I’m confiscating it! Just behave yourself over there!”
Shaking off Sousei-san as he approached, I turned on my heel and headed for the computer at a swift pace. I could not stand any further disgrace.
“Geez, what’s with you! What’re you getting mad about? Naoto!”
“...That’s not it, Sousei. That’s not anger. She’s embarrassed. Isn’t she cute?”
“Hmm, I can’t tell the difference. Hey, Naoto, are you embarrassed?”
“It’s supposed to be pretty popular with young people lately. That’s definitely that ‘tsundere’ thing!”
“What’s that about? Hey, Naoto, are you ‘tsundere’?”
...I couldn’t take it any longer, I didn’t know anymore, I didn’t hear anything.
“Anyway. She looks like she’s got her act together, but Naoto’s still a mature young woman. This is pretty tough. Be gentle.”
“That’s right. Let’s be gentle.”
...Calm down, calm down, you mustn’t get angry, ignore them, ignore, if you shout, you lose. If I didn’t tell myself that, I felt that I would forget myself and yell “Please be quiet!” in a loud voice.
Touko-san was Touko-san. Why did she leave that magazine here of all places? There was no way that Touko-san, who I had met on that day, did not know that my original purpose had not been to participate in a gravure photoshoot.
...Ah, was that how it was?
I covered my face with both hands and let out a great sigh. Surely, at this moment, Touko-san was unmistakably gloating somewhere.
I pulled myself together and turned my attention to the computer screen. I moved the mouse and clicked once. The image of the Midnight Site came up. I calmly opened the message board.
In the next instant, my gaze was arrested.
“Sousei-san! Please come here!” I immediately beckoned Sousei-san over.
“Oi! What’s with you! Telling me to come here and go there!”
“It’s fine, hurry!”
I urged him, not caring, and the sound of his displeased footsteps echoed inside the room.
“...Look at this.”
I directed his gaze, and Sousei-san, wearing a sullen expression, scowled at the computer screen. When he saw what had been written on the message board, Sousei-san’s eyes also widened in surprise.
“MY NAME IS – KAGU-TSUCHI. MY GRUDGE IS BORN FROM THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN CONDEMNED. I HAVE COME HERE TO HAND DOWN JUDGMENT UPON THOSE WHO CALL THEMSELVES TOGAKUSHI AND DECEIVE WITH FALSE JUSTICE. I HAVE ALREADY DISPOSED OF ONE OF THE TOGAKUSHI, ‘UZUME’. I PROCLAIM HERE THAT THE REMAINING FOUR SHALL ALSO BE CONSIGNED TO OBLIVION. OMOIKANE, SARUTAHIKO, TAJIKARAO, FUTODAMA, TREMBLE IN FEAR OF YOUR IMPENDING DEMISE AT MY HANDS.”
[Kagu-tsuchi, associated with death. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kagu-tsuchi]
“...Isn’t this a ‘declaration to kill’?”
Perhaps he had been interested by our extraordinary behavior. Behind me, a large man, Tsuge-san, was standing in a pose one might assume if thinking.
“...Yes. That’s the intention of the person who calls himself ‘Kagu-tsuchi’.”
The reactions of the jurors, the site’s users, were the same as our own. The declaration to kill was the main topic of discussion on the Midnight Site’s message boards. However, going back through the boards, it seemed they thought in the beginning that it was a prank.
However, what the person called Kagu-tsuchi had posted was a type of topic only the Five Togakushi Judges could start, and on top of that, the account that had been used was Uzume’s, so the authenticity of the post had risen at once. Even now, it was getting so much attention that the comments from the jurors increased by about ten or twelve whenever it updated.
“...It seems the prediction of a revenge tragedy was correct, though I did not want it to be.”
The reason that Kyouhei Hioka was still missing had become clear.
“So Kagu-tsuchi really is Kyouhei Hioka?”
“Considering Uzume’s case, I can only believe it’s a screenname he is operating under.”
In the next moment, Sousei-san laughed nastily.
“Ha! I don’t feel sorry for ‘em! This is what they call karma! They should be scared! If they are they’ll finally understand the feelings of the sinners they called guilty!”
“Sousei-san–” At Sousei-san’s way of speaking, like he was egging on the revenge tragedy, I opened my mouth and made to issue a warning.
“–Hey, did Kyouhei do something?”
However, before I could say anything, Tsuge-san asked, his brow deeply furrowed. He spoke as if he knew Kyouhei Hioka well.
“...Do you know him?”
“Yeah, we met ‘bout six years ago. It’s the sort of relationship where we’d get dinner together if he showed up.”
“What about his disappearance?”
“Yeah, I heard about it from Touko...”
It had been only a momentary slipup, but there was no way to hide it, and so I continued speaking.
“...The truth is, there is a high probability that he has committed murder to avenge his younger sister. In addition, there is also the possibility that he will continue to kill from now on.”
In the next moment, the crease in Tsuge-san’s brow deepened further.
“Why... That blockhead... Even though I told him nothing would come of getting revenge...”
Returning to the sofa with weighty steps, Tsuge-san then sat with the same heaviness. Though I felt it to be harsh, as a detective, I sat facing Tsuge-san. “I’ll explain,” I said, and summarized the chain of events.
“...It’s already been ‘bout half a year. The last time I saw Kyouhei, about two months had passed since his sister’s funeral.”
When I had finished explaining, this time Tsuge-san began to speak.
“As soon as I saw him, Kyouhei said this to me: ‘Kaoru’s death wasn’t an accident.’ Seemed like he’d somehow heard about what was worrying his sister from the guys at her school. Kyouhei regretted it terribly. Blamed himself a lot for not doing anything even though something was bothering her.”
Right now, Tsuge-san had a quiet expression, so much so that I could not believe this to be the same person who up until now I had viewed as a bit boldly lecherous.
“...That man Kyouhei Hioka is excellent, but he’s so serious and inflexible he’s practically got a stick up his ass. I thought Kyouhei shouldn’t push himself too hard, and I kept telling him ‘It’s not your fault your sister died,’ even though I knew they were just cheap words. But he said, ‘I’ll find out the truth, even if it’s by myself. If I don’t at least do that, I won’t be able to face Kaoru. I apologize, that’s just how I feel...’ and stubbornly refused to give in...”
Tsuge-san let out a large breath and shook his head strongly.
“...Wonder if it’s something like tragic resolve... I was so worried about Kyouhei I told Touko about it... I thought Touko could do it, but in the end, she couldn’t stop him, huh...”
“From the way you speak, I take it Touko-san is also an acquaintance of Kyouhei Hioka?”
At my question, Tsuge-san immediately nodded.
“Those two’ve known each other longer than I have. Seems like when Touko was a newbie, Kyouhei was her senpai and drilled her in the ABCs of being a detective.”
“...I see. So the two of them have a senpai-kouhai relationship.”
It was a bit difficult to imagine Touko-san as a beginner, but it made clear the reason for her selection as a principal member of the “Kyouhei Hioka disappearance case” team.
“...Also, I don’t really know much about it, but–”
Tsuge-san lowered his voice.
“–I kind of remember hearing from one of them that Touko and Kyouhei were living together once. It was when Touko was a newbie, so I guess about six years ago. Anyway, I met Kyouhei ‘cause Touko introduced us. It’s probably the truth.”
“When you say ‘once’, you mean they aren’t now?”
“Yeah, they broke up. Just that I don’t really know when they separated. But Touko and Kyouhei still go drinking together sometimes even though they’re not together anymore.”
“...Heeh, so Touko does that. With a man. You told us something interesting!”
“Oi, Sousei, keep it under wraps! If you tell her she’ll never acknowledge me!”
“Whatever you say, Touko doesn’t acknowledge you in the first place, Gramps!”
“That’s why I’m telling you it’s a secret! You know how Touko hates people sticking their nose in her business, Sousei!”
“Okay, what should I do! Hey Gramps, if you bow your head and say, ‘Please, Sousei-sama, I’m begging you!’ I’ll keep my mouth shut, okay?”
“Sousei! You bastard! D’ya know who you’re mouthing off to? I’ll turn you into scrap metal right now!”
“Yeah! Bring it on! Do it if you can! You senile old man!”
What an unexpected result. That Tsuge-san had also been so well acquainted with Kyouhei Hioka.
It could be said that the fact that Kyouhei Hioka had also spoken with Tsuge-san about his regret at the loss of his sister was the conclusive piece of evidence that this murder case was fueled by revenge. In addition, the most important product of the conversation was that Kyouhei Hioka and Touko-san had once been lovers. It was becoming increasingly necessary to meet with Touko-san personally and inquire about Kyouhei Hioka.
Sousei-san and Tsuge-san continued to argue even as I put my thoughts in order. It seemed they would continue indefinitely if I just let them be.
“Both of you! This is not the time to be fighting! Our priority should be to think about how we should handle this situation!”
I forced my way between the two large men, who were glaring at each other. I may as well have stepped into a chasm between multistory buildings.
“Sousei-san, please think about it a little. And Tsuge-san, please lend us your wisdom.”
At that, Sousei-san and Tsuge-san both looked down at me and finally shrugged their shoulders as if giving up.
“Oi, Gramps. Let’s stop out of respect for Naoto’s ‘big boobs’.”
“Fine. As a man, I can’t go against ‘big boobs’ either. Let’s call it a truce.”
Wearing serious expressions, the two nodded at each other.
“...As long as you stop.” It would be foolish to become angry.
If I allowed myself to become caught up between them, the conversation would not progress no matter how much time passed. This was the point at which I had to take command. I diverted the conversation to the issue at hand, even if it was against my will.
“Since persuasion is unfeasible, I think the first solution would be to secure Kyouhei Hioka himself. Then we would only physically put an end to his revenge tragedy.”
“I get that, but aren’t Touko and them looking for where Kyouhei Hioka is? LIke you said yesterday, Naoto, won’t those guys say it’s ‘a different area’ from ours if we stick our necks into the Kyouhei Hioka case?”
“The situation has changed since yesterday. It has been proven that the ‘Yagokoro High School student disappearance case’ we were commissioned for and the ‘Kyouhei Hioka disappearance case’ are in fact one and the same.”
“No no, if the situation really has changed, there’s still no way we’d abort our investigation, right? They’ll say it's not your place, ya know?”
“Even so, I have no intention of backing out.”
I immediately shook my head.
“Even on Touko’s orders?”
“A foolish question. It is not my style as a detective to do something like abandon an ongoing case.”
My resolve was firm. It would be accurate to call this my belief. Of course, it may also have been due to my own nature.
“Tsuge-san, would you happen to have an idea as to Kyouhei Hioka’s whereabouts?”
“...Naah, even though I’ve been thinking on it for a while. Sorry, I can only think of things like his home and his favorite bar.”
Tsuge-san shrugged his large shoulders slightly.
“Geez, Gramps, you’re useless! They wouldn’t be having trouble if he was hiding in those obvious places! Touko’s looking into it, right? He would’ve been caught a long time ago!”
“Shut up! I know that much even without you telling me!”
“...In that case, we may instead take the option of sheltering Kyouhei Hioka’s ‘targets’ here.”
I continued, ignoring their argument.
“It’s clear that the ones Kyouhei Hioka is targeting are the members of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’, so if we take the remaining four under police protection, it should prevent his crimes.”
“Oh! I get it! It’s the opposite idea!”
I nodded at Tsuge-san. The cooperation of those in question was indispensable, but if we had the members of the Five Togakushi Judges in our hands, we should well be able to limit Kyouhei Hioka’s actions.
“For instance, if we say ‘The police will guarantee your safety,’ I think they will accept the police’s protection as long as they aren’t exceedingly reckless, but...”
Of course, this idea was not without its flaws.
“...The biggest problem is that the whereabouts of the members of the Five Togakushi Judges are unknown.”
There was plenty of information to sniff out their whereabouts, such as the fact that, other than celebrities, the chosen sinners were residents around the Yagokoro area, but there was a limit to guesswork.
“Can’t we post a comment on the site message boards? We’re the police, but we’ll protect you, so tell us how to find you?”
I immediately replied to Sousei-san.
“They received declaration to kill from Kagu-tsuchi, an enemy whose true identity is unknown. No matter what we post, I don’t think they would believe us.”
“Then how ‘bout we ask the police bigshots to appeal to the media to go, ‘You Five Togakushi Judge shitheads, get out here’?”
“That’s also impossible.”
Once again, I immediately replied.
“It’s difficult to believe that people such as they would readily reveal themselves publicly.”
“Even if their lives were in danger?”
“...Most likely. But frankly, I’m not sure either. How do they perceive the ‘lives’ contained within themselves?”
It seemed I would have to directly ask the people in question.
“Getting a taste of the feeling like they’re gonna die, isn’t that really necessary for guys like them? Isn’t it? There are definitely things you can’t convey through a screen, right?”
No matter how one looked at them, Sousei-san’s suggestions were much too drastic, but somehow, I understood what he was trying to say.
“That’s beside the point. The biggest flaw is that Kyouhei Hioka will also know of the police’s appeal. Kyouhei Hioka is certainly keeping an eye on the Midnight Site, so to avoid taking any risks, it would be to our advantage to operate secretly as much as possible...”
Sousei-san had his arms crossed, deep in thought. I was in the same situation. We were desperately racking our brains, searching for any effective method. Time passed in silence as we could not easily find a solution.
And then “–Uh, hey.” Tsuge-san slowly opened his mouth.
“In the end my specialty is robot engineering, so I dunno much about recent Internet conditions and technology, but that Kirijo family’s got a world-famous guy working for ‘em. I can ask for his help if you want?”
Was this to be our hope? I nodded firmly. “Please do.”
“Ah, there’s just one problem.”
“That guy’s with anti-cyber terrorism, so he’s in demand by everyone. Runs all over the world. I dunno what country he’s in now. Could be even if I contact him, he might not be able to start this job right away...”
Even now, the threat of cyber terrorism was universal. If he was a skilled technician, he would be assured of a warm welcome no matter where he went. However, if he was that capable a person, he would not be defeated, even if the opponent was a hacker who evenly matched the police’s Anti-Cyber Crime Team.
Time was of the essence, but there was no other effective method. We did not have many other possibilities.
“Please, we’re counting on you.” I bowed my head to Tsuge-san once again.
That day, Touko-san did not appear at the station. So I made my report by phone late at night.
I proceeded to speak on a number of topics in turn: that Sousei-san’s “Past Reading” was powered up by my “Ability Tune” and we collected information at school and at Iwato Apartments, as well as the declaration to kill from the person who called himself Kagu-tsuchi, and the possibility that Sarutahiko was Shirou Konno.
“...Got it. I’ll explain the situation to the higher-ups and get permission.”
It was an ex-post-facto approval, but she did not seem to be particularly bothered by our judgment concerning the invitation of an anti-cyber terrorism expert and the security offered to the members of the “Five Togakushi Judges”. I inquired as to the reason.
“Why? I’m grateful to you. We were also stuck in a stalemate. That aside, Naoto, that your partnership with Sousei would yield such results after only two days is well beyond what I anticipated. Since I was the one who thought of pairing you up, it seems like I have clear foresight beyond my Persona ability.
“Fufufu.” On the other side of the phone, Touko-san laughed a little. Far away, I could hear jazz-like music. She may have been drinking sake at a bar somewhere.
Next I reproached her for the incident involving the idol magazine, but Touko-san was not at all repentant.
“Wash it on purpose? Don’t be rude! I’m a detective who works hesself to the bone night and day for the safety of the citizens. There’sh no way I would do anything people would dislike, right?”
Parts of her articulation were suspicious. She was most likely very drunk.
“Well, in any case, it’s been a disaster, Naotoo! Good grief!”
[Here, Touko is mixing up words with similar pronunciations. I’m not sure what the first word is supposed to be (“sainan”, disaster), but in the second line, she says “goshuushou”, “grief”, instead of “gokurou”, something like “good work”.]
A dry laugh echoed through the telephone receiver. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she showed herself to be a rambunctious drunkard who enjoyed doing things that people disliked.
I judged that I might be able to hear something at this time, and so I asked about the Kyouhei Hioka incident.
“...I was pretty young when I was with Kyouhei. Sorry I can’t live up to the Detective Prince’s expectations, but it’s a private matter that has absolutely nothing to do with the current case. Please forget about it.”
Her tone was low, like that of a completely different person.
Though they were apart now, the person she had once gone out with, the senpai who had taught her the ABCs of investigation when she was a newcomer, had committed murder. Touko-san’s heart must be unsettled. So much so that she was almost unable to hold her alcohol.
Quite frankly, she had evaded the subject, but when I imagined Touko-san’s feelings, I could not bring myself to press the matter.
“Well, we’ll continue this conversation later. Touko-san, I believe that you’ll talk about it someday, so I’ll wait.”
However, the only thing I would not forget was the way in which she had diverted my attention. My feelings of sympathy were separate from my feelings of wanting to discover the truth.
“...I’ll count on it. I still have a pretty discerning eye.”
On the other end of the line, Touko-san laughed like she was enjoying herself.
April 4 Yagokoro Police Station Special Forensics Division
Two days after the body of Miyuki Midorikawa was discovered at Iwato Apartments, several truths were coming to light.
From the autopsy results, the marks characteristic of the pistol, called “rifling marks”, were a match with the Sig Saeur P230 Kyouhei Hioka was carrying. It was also revealed that Miyuki Midorikawa was missing her cell phone. I was of the opinion that Kyouhei Hioka had taken it.
If I thought assuming that the person who called himself Kagu-tsuchi was Kyouhei Hioka, it validated the theory that he posted a comment on the Midnight Site from Miyuki Midorikawa’s, that is to say Uzume’s, cell phone. If he had her phone, he would be able to access the site as Uzume, even if he wasn’t the person in question.
Whenever the truth became clearer, it supported the existence of Kyouhei Hioka’s crimes. When I considered how Tsuge-san and Touko-san must be feeling, I also held mixed feelings.
We received good news from Tsuge-san the next day. On top of managing to contact the anti-cyber terrorism expert, it turned out he was staying in Japan and could immediately take on the job.
Again on that same day. We received word that he had successfully broken through the security on the Midnight Site and gained administrator access. According to the expert, “...It was more troublesome than I expected.” It seemed the security on the Midnight Site was high level, for a first-class expert to say so.
When I received the e-mail from Tsuge-san during class, I impatiently said, “Sir! I’m not feeling well, so I’m leaving early!”, fled the classroom cheerfully, and hurried to the Yagokoro police station.
When the elevator door opened, I was surprised. The usually dreary Special Forensics Division floor was crowded with police and their associates. They were packed tightly into the director’s office like sardines, and my vision was clouded white by tobacco smoke. This could be called an indication of the degree of seriousness with which the police were tackling the “Kyouhei Hioka disappearance case”.
According to an active detective, it was a murder case. Furthermore, it was a lethal shooting case. The societal repercussions grew daily. The reports were top news day after day in the newspapers and on television.
Moreover, Kyouhei Hioka was still missing. The citizens’ feeling of endangerment was becoming stronger day by day, and their criticism of the police, who were unable to grasp any substantial leads, also heightened. It was top priority, where the police’s dignity was riding on being able to resolve the case as soon as possible.
As there was no place for them, Tsuge-san and Sousei-san were huddled in a corner of the director’s office. When I met Tsuge-san’s eyes, his large eyebrows knitted and he shrugged his shoulders. There was no place for me either, and so I pushed through the people, heading to where Tsuge-san was. Tsuge-san sighed, “Geez, I wish they’d forgive me,” and when I asked him about the situation, this was the result of attempting to quickly contact the administrators of the Midnight Site at Touko-san’s direction.
It seemed that the information about “being offered police protection” had been sent to the e-mail addresses of the site administrators, as we had spoken about the day before yesterday.
Would there really be a response to the police’s actions? Not even an hour ago, those worries of ours had been swept away. There was a reply from an administrator.
“I am one of the Five Togakushi Judges – Omoikane. I don’t want to die. I await detailed instructions.”
It was brief, but it was a promising response to the police’s offer.
Nevertheless, Omoikane was unusually wary and would not so easily swallow the terms dictated by the police. He was the person who had set up the strong security and protected the site from the outside. It could be said that ordinary methods would not work with him. They had spent the past hour on repeated fruitless disputes. At last, Omoikane suggested his requirement.
It was to send someone to the food court of “Yagokoro Junes”, the large supermarket in front of Yagokoro Station, on Sunday in three days’ time. Furthermore, he specified a woman. His true intention may have been to do something to her with brute force if necessary. If that was the case, it disagreed with me immensely.
“Oi, oi! Is it okay to meet up someplace as public as a food court? And on Sunday, won’t there be a bunch of families there?”
“That’s why. I think his suggestion makes sense.”
Touko-san calmly answered Sousei-san, whose voice was conspicuously loud even within the clamor.
“He seems like the type of person who would expressly specify a powerless woman. If you consider the worst case scenario, if Kagu-tsuchi targets his life, he can take advantage of the confusion, slip into the crowd, or possibly use a child as a shield. Didn’t he judge a food court as the most ideal place in which to protect himself?”
“Keh! He’s a complete shithead!”
“It’s all right. The worst case scenario won’t come to pass. The suspect we’re after is a murderer, but his objective is not to kill indiscriminately. He definitely won’t start anything in a place like that, where innocent bystanders might get involved. In the first place. We must not have the suspect know about our contact with Omoikane. For that reason... the one who will negotiate with Omoikane–”
At the continuation of Touko-san’s speech, all the police and associates gathered within the director’s office grew agitated.
“–I think I’ll leave it to Naoto Shirogane.”
Naturally, this was the also first I had heard of this, and so I wore exactly the same expression of shock as those around me.
“Assistant Inspector Aoi, what is the meaning of that decision?”
“Please wait! More importantly! Isn’t Naoto Shirogane a man!?”
“And isn’t Naoto Shirogane an outsider!?”
“That’s right! If we leave such an important job to an outsider, what do you intend to do in the worst case scenario!?”
Their sharp gazes simultaneously focused on me, and voices raised in dissatisfaction around the director’s office. It was like standing on a bed of coals.
“...It’s because she’s an outsider.”
Touko-san said as she brushed a strand of hair up languidly.
“Are you forgetting the fact that we’ve found absolutely no trace of the suspect, even though we’ve continued the investigation with several hundred people?”
Touko-san surveyed everyone in the room with a cold gaze.
“Isn’t that because the suspect, an assistant inspector, is reading our movements? The suspect knows the faces of the police. If we take conspicuous action, there’s the possibility the suspect will know that we have come into contact with Omoikane.”
Touko-san kept the same demeanor as ever as she held the attention of the veteran detectives, whose ages differed so much from my own that the gap was similar to that between parent and child, and the uniformed police officers, who at a glance seemed to be of high rank.
“In that case, the suspect won’t be able to recognize Naoto Shirogane.”
“You can’t believe the suspect and Omoikane don’t know about the Detective Prince?”
So asked a person who appeared to be a veteran detective.
“Of course they know about the Detective Prince.”
“So are there any among you? Anyone who knows that – Naoto Shirogane is actually a ‘woman’?”
For the second time, all eyes in the room were on me. Their gazes were obviously different from before, like they were seeing a strange thing. It felt as if I was being appraised to determine if I was actually a girl.
I immediately hid my face. I flushed red to the tips of my ears. My secret had suddenly been exposed in the presence of everyone, and I felt as if I would die from embarrassment.
“As you can see. If she dresses like a girl, she can deceive the eyes of not just the suspect, but any onlookers.”
Touko-san smiled fearlessly.
“And also, who was it that verified the relation between the Midnight Site and Kyouhei Hioka – everyone, I would have you not forget that it was the detective Naoto Shirogane. Incidentally, it would please me if you would remember who exactly it was who commissioned Naoto Shirogane, even though she faced opposition from those around her.”
Touko-san narrowed her eyes at the surrounding police, and the dissatisfied voices suddenly stopped.
“The person called Omoikane is an important person of interest for the resolution of this case. If we start with Omoikane and secure the remaining three, the situation will work overwhelmingly to our advantage.”
Touko-san’s explanation concluded. Everyone wore a complicated expression, but not a single person raised an objection.
We changed location from underground to a small interior conference room, and Touko-san led the meeting to discuss the details of when to meet with Omoikane, which took about an hour. Sousei-san could also be found in the small conference room.
It was decided that I would be wearing a wire on Sunday so that Touko-san and the others would be able to monitor the exchange between Omoikane and myself in real time. On the other hand, it seemed that those related to the investigation would absolutely not be allowed close to the food court, so that Kyouhei Hioka would not become suspicious.
I was nervous at having been given an important job. But more than that, I remembered with excitement that I played a role essential to the resolution of the case.
“In the worst case scenario, Sousei, please risk your life to protect Naoto.”
Touko-san clapped his shoulder strongly and Sousei-san snorted in dissatisfaction.
“Aren’t you gonna do your very best to make sure the worst case scenario doesn’t happen?”
“Of course. I think Naoto is cute too. I promise it’ll be perfect. It’s just that you never know what’ll happen in this world. I’m just saying to prepare for the worst and ready yourself mentally.”
Saying that, Touko-san bumped the top of Sousei-san’s shoulder with her fist. “Gonnn.” A dull metallic clank sounded.
I was the only person left in the small conference room. There, Touko-san said, “This is our secret plan,” and taught me a surprising strategy.
“If you’re in trouble, use the secret plan I gave you. The secret is to not hesitate. If you do that, that guy will definitely do what you want, Naoto.”
Touko-san was brimming with confidence, but it was a plan I did not want to implement under any circumstances, so I vaguely replied, “...I’ll remember that.”
April 7 In front of Yagokoro Station Yagokoro Junes Interior food court
The day specified was Sunday. The weather was clear. The current time was one in the afternoon. Even though the food court was inside the store, it was surrounded on all sides by glass and there was a clear view. The rows were lined with varied restaurants, selling everything from takoyaki and ramen to ice cream and cultural foods. It was peak hour, and the food court was bustling with activity from the groups of boys and girls who were probably middle-school students, families, and couples.
It may have been because of the dazzling sunlight shining through the dome-shaped skylight like a beam of radiance. For a while now, my forehead and palms and underarms wouldn’t stop sweating. My heart was racing, and my breathing was also a bit wild.
…No, in truth I knew. It was not because of the heat. I was nervous.
I was hyperaware of the gazes of the people around me. At first they only bothered me, but finally I began to be tormented by the twisted notion that each and every person was looking at me.
Touko-san and Tsuge-san had told me it suited me, but I felt that there may have been something strange about how I looked. That would be why everyone in the food court was sneaking glances at me. At the moment in which I thought so, I was tortured with embarrassment. I hung my head and reflexively tightened my grip on the hem of my skirt so as to endure the pain.
I was in a terrible state. Until just now, I had just barely managed to stand it, but like water overflowing from a broken-down dam, I found everything about my current appearance to be embarrassing. I thought my exposed legs peeking out from under my skirt were the most defenseless, and, flustered, I pressed my thighs close and rubbed my knees together.
…Ahh, I really couldn’t wear a sailor uniform.
Omoikane had specified a girl. I had consented to dressing as a girl for the purpose of resolving the case. Touko-san overrode my protests, saying, “You’re the best choice,” and I was made to wear the Yagokoro High School girls’ uniform. However, I was unaccustomed to wearing a skirt, and it was just too much for me.
My embarrassment was also due to the fact that the skirt of the sailor uniform was shorter than I’d imagined. Every time the wind blew, my heart raced. The space between my legs was cooler than usual, and it felt as if I would catch a cold.
Generally, one would not go to the food court wearing a school uniform when it was not a school day. That was why I stood out unnecessarily. I wanted to give in to the urge to change clothes immediately. Unfortunately, the sign given to Omoikane for this rendezvous was “a girl in a sailor uniform”.
The only choice I had been given was to “bear it.” To distract myself from my uneasiness, I looked beyond the glass enclosure. Outside, there was a red, streamlined sports bike and a pink bike that brought to mind the famous Italian Vespa. I relaxed somewhat upon confirming the presence of such familiar existences at the specified location.
From behind me came a weak, faltering query. I took in a small breath and looked over my shoulder.
A tall, slender man with silver-rimmed glasses was standing there. He was probably in the latter half of his twenties.
“...Ah, yes, I – I’m Nao.”
[Yay for untranslatable pronoun switches. Naoto starts with “bo”, about to use “boku”, her usual, masculine way of referring to herself; then she switches to the more neutral “watashi”.]
I started to use “boku” without thinking, and my face grew stiff. It may have been because he noticed my slight slip-up, but the man’s narrow eyes behind the lenses grew sharp as the tip of a sword. He was rather guarded, and so I endeavored to be as transparent as possible.
“Let me introduce myself properly. I am Nao Aoi, the representative of the Yagokoro police. Here is the proof of my status, a letter from the chief of police.”
The man was nervously, restlessly glancing around at our surroundings, and at last he took a seat at the same table. Then he took the letter and read it hungrily.
“...I-I’m one of the administrators of the Midnight Site – Omoikane.”
The man introduced himself, his eyes narrowed. We were meeting at last.
“...A-as promised, you’ll protect me... I-I don’t want to die yet...”
Omoikane revealed uneasily. To be honest, I was surprised that this high-strung, cowardly man could be an administrator of the Midnight Site.
“I-it’s weird, right? W-we were just the site administrators, s-s-so why do we have to be killed? Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!”
Omoikane yelled suddenly. It was so loud that his quiet voice up until now might as well have been a lie. The food court customers sent glances our way, wondering what was happening.
Omoikane’s shoulders heaved and he took several rough breaths. He was in a state of excitement bordering on hysteria.
“...Please calm down. It’s all right. The police will definitely protect you.”
I spoke to persuade him, and little by little, Omoikane’s breathing returned to normal.
“W-why do I have to go through this... I-if it was going to turn out like this I shouldn’t have become an administrator... I-I don’t want to die... I don’t want to die...”
Omoikane did an about-face and began to lament in a weak voice, holding his head in his hands and collapsing onto the table.
I was completely astounded. What a selfish person he was. Everyone put themselves before others. Even so, he was the type of person who would go so far in his own interest.
I had received orders to take him back to the Yagokoro police station, but I was greatly perplexed at how to begin to persuade a person such as him.
Of course, it wasn’t as if I didn’t have a plan. But nothing would make me happier than being able to complete this business without executing the “secret plan” I had received from Touko-san. I sincerely wished for that. However, there was no other effective method, so I did not have the luxury to complain.
“Umm, please wait a moment...”
I told Omoikane and stood from my seat. I desired a little time in which to reaffirm my resolve.
As I obtained water from the dispenser, I mentally rehearsed over and over again the secret plan that Touko-san had authorized, which she had said would “win hands-down against a man.” I doubtless looked suspicious: water was overflowing from my cup, but I paid it no mind as I grumbled under my breath.
Next I noticed, I was surrounded by people giving me dubious looks. In the end, an old woman I did not know asked with concern, “...Miss, is there something bothering you?”
“I-it’s nothing,” I answered, flustered. I moved away from the water dispenser, and clutching a paper cup with both hands, I returned to the table where Omoikane was waiting.
“...H-here. Drink some water and calm down.”
In the next instant, the paper cup I had held out to Omoikane toppled sideways onto the table and its contents spilled out.
“C-cold! W-w-what are you doing?”
Raising his voice unhappily, Omoikane stood from his chair. When I looked, his clothes were soaked with water. Immediately I knelt down at his feet. “I-I’ll dry it off right away.” I said, and began to wipe his soaked shirt and pants with my handkerchief.
“I’m sorry. I’m always a klutz, and I ended up causing you trouble...”
I told him apologetically, lifting my gaze to look at him. When I did: “Don’t screw with–” The man’s mouth, which had opened to issue complaints, uttered only, “Ah... oh...” and quickly closed again.
Without giving him a chance to respond, I clutched Omoikane’s hand in both of mine and pleaded in a serious voice.
“...Y-you might not be able to count on someone as clumsy as me, but even so, won’t you believe me? I definitely won’t do anything bad to you, so please...”
No sooner had I finished speaking than I tightened my grip on his hand. I snuck a peek at Omoikane’s complexion. He was stiff and unmoving, as if frozen in place.
...Would this really be enough? I had tried my very best.
It went without saying, but everything I had said and done was as Touko-san had instructed. According to Touko-san, “If he’s eagerly asked by a high-school girl in a sailor uniform, especially a naive one like you, Naoto, there isn’t any man who can readily refuse.”
I prayed and waited for Omoikane’s reaction. If this didn’t finally persuade him after I had acted in such an embarrassing manner, the regret from today would linger with me forever.
In the next instant, Omoikane had placed his free hand atop mine.
“...Got it! Nao-chan!”
I looked at Omoikane again, taken aback.
Omoikane seemed suspicious at my strange behavior, so I immediately replied with an ear-to-ear grin, “Oh, no, I’m so happy you understand.” It felt like the muscles in my cheeks were twitching.
“S-so, Nao-chan, w-what should I do n-now?”
Omoikane unhesitatingly shoved his face right in front of mine. The narrow eyes behind the silver-rimmed glasses were upturned in a smile.
“...Yes, now I will take you to the Yagokoro police station. There is no place as safe as there. We have arranged the preparations for your protection, so please rest assured.”
Just barely managing to maintain my smile, I gently untangled my hands from his and stood. “P-please come this way,” I told him hurriedly and headed for the exit of the food court at a swift pace.
It was the first time I had been watched so enthusiastically by a man, and it was such a frightening experience that goosebumps stood up over my whole body. I had persevered thus far for the sake of resolving the case, but I surely did not have the willpower to endure any more.
Upon reaching the bicycle lot, I pointed Omoikane to a red motorcycle. “Please mount this bike.”
“...W-wait a s-second, Nao-chan... I-I can’t really r-ride a motorcycle...?”
It was natural for him to be worried.
“That’s all right. This is a state-of-the-art bike prepared by the police, the pride of the Kirijo Group, so it possesses an auto-drive feature. It will take you to the police station if you just sit on it.”
There was a limit to the absurdities that could leave my mouth. It was just that if I explained that “This bike is actually a robot,” it would simply cause Omoikane unnecessary confusion. I had requested beforehand that Sousei-san do his very best to pretend to be a normal motorbike.
“...Keh! Why does someone as great as me have to let this asshole ride me?”
I will repeat this for emphasis: I had definitely asked that of Sousei-san.
“...Eh? H-huh?” Just as I thought, Omoikane looked surprised. “N-Nao-chan, did you say something j-just now?”
“N-no, nothing...” I smiled sweetly. “Maybe you’re just hearing things?”
Saying that, I kept my smile as I kicked the red bike with the toes of my loafer. Once again, a voice came from the bike. “Whoa!”
“...W-whoa?” Omoikane stared at my face doubtfully.
“...U-um, w-whoa... W-wow. Right! Wow! Wow, there really are lots of people everywhere on a Sunday! Ahaha!”
[Actually, she turns “oi” into “ooi”, which means “lots/many”, and then turns that into a comment about how many people they are. This was the closest equivalent I got off the top of my head. /o/]
I lied, a smile spread broad across my face as I desperately forced myself to explain.
“I-in any case, please, get on immediately. I’ll follow you on this pink bike.”
Omoikane looked suspicious. I pushed his back and forcefully made him mount the bike. “...Remember this later,” I whispered briefly in a low voice so that Omoikane would not notice and let go of the bike.
“W-w-waaah! N-Nao-chan, h-help me!”
Immediately, Sousei-san, who Omoikane was riding, accelerated full throttle as if to show his displeasure. He took off suddenly, running toward the public road with terrifying force. I promptly jumped onto the pink bike.
“I’ll be counting on you, Ai-chan.”
I gently caressed the body of the bike once. When I did so, I received an energetic, straightforward response: “Yeah! Leave it to Ai!” It felt as if my heart, which had been on edge, had been enveloped in pure white feathers.
Ai-chan, who was cute and honest. Sousei-san, who had a dirty mouth and did not listen at all to what I said. When I compared them again, I thought half-seriously, “...It would have been better if Ai-chan had been my partner.”
April 7 Yagokoro Police Station Interrogation room
Having accomplished my task of transporting Omoikane, I was relaxing in the director’s office within the Special Forensics Division as I drank the coffee Tsuge-san had made.
“...Hmph. When I look at you in a sailor uniform, I can’t believe I ever thought of you as a man.”
Tsuge-san said in an admiring voice.
“...Please stop staring at me. It’s embarrassing...”
Should I have prioritized changing clothes first over unwinding and relaxing?
“I’m praising you, ya know? Like how delicious things should be savored to your heart’s content. So how ‘bout it? Why don’t you go out on a date with this old man right now, wearing those clothes?”
“...You too, Tsuge-san? Please stop joking around and teasing me.”
“But it’s not a joke. Well, I think the look suits you, and you’re the right age for it.”
I thought Tsuge-san was absolutely correct when he spoke of my being the “right age”, but I could not simply respond, “That’s true.” I felt that it would be rude to “my self up until now”, which had been spent as a boy detective.
I was aware that it was due to simple physical growth, internal changes, and an improvement in circumstances – those very small parts of me that differed from “my self up until now” made up “my current self”.
“–So this is where you were, Naoto. I was looking for you.”
Touko-san threw open the door of the director’s office and swiftly approached the sofa on which I was seated.
“I’m glad you didn’t change clothes. Come on, you and I are going to the interrogation room where Omoikane is.”
I thought I had already completed my role. I became slightly worried that there was something I had done incorrectly.
Then Touko-san let out a disgusted sigh, scowling reproachfully.
“...Hey, I said to bring Omoikane to the police station, but I don’t seem to recall ordering you to wrap him around your little finger?”
I did not understand her meaning. I tilted my head, and Touko-san continued, smiling bitterly.
“Omoikane’s completely infatuated with you, Naoto. He’s being annoying and refusing to cooperate. ‘I won’t say anything if it’s not to Nao-chan.’ You really are a sinful woman.”
“T-that’s absurd. All I did was faithfully implement the secret plan I received from you, Touko-san...”
It shouldn’t have had that effect. Unthinkingly, I scowled at Touko-san, wearing a sulky expression.
Touko-san stared fixedly at me and did not answer. Perhaps she was insulted by my rude behavior.
“...T-Touko-san?” I asked quite fearfully.
“...Ah, I see. That face of yours when you’re wearing a sailor uniform is more of a turn-on than I expected. This really is troublesome. I’m a woman and even I’m tempted to do something to you.”
Touko-san unhesitatingly said such scary things with a straight face. In that instant, I felt a shiver run through my whole body, though I was not cold.
“Well, anyway, come with me. At this rate I won’t have any choice but to knock out Omoikane.”
“...Understood. Let’s go.”
Part of me was happy that I could be of use to Touko-san, but I was dejected that I once again had to play the part of “Nao-chan”.
When I showed up in the interrogation room, Omoikane grinned widely and happily. However, he sent a glance laden with wariness at Touko-san behind me.
“Ah, you don’t have to worry. This is Inspector Touko Aoi. She is the supervisor and my older sister.”
“Hello, I’m her sister,” Touko-san replied bluntly.
Touko-san crossed her arms and sat in a metal folding chair placed in a corner of the room. I made sure of that before slowly lowering myself into the chair in front of Omoikane.
“...Will you tell me about yourself?”
I delivered the line I had prepared with a meek smile.
Even though this was the second time, I could not eliminate the embarrassment I truly felt. Rather, it felt as if it had only increased. This time, I was being watched by not only Touko-san behind me, but doubtless by many policemen beyond the one-way mirror.
“...Ah, y-yeah, I-I also w-want to k-know... m-more about you, Nao-chan.”
Omoikane’s narrow eyes behind the lenses of his glasses restlessly moved as if to hungrily take in every detail of my body. I suppressed my desire to flee from the room by strongly gripping the edge of the desk.
“Um... I... So you mean you want to grow closer to me. I want to learn a lot more about you today so we can become closer.”
I suggested. Even I had to admit it was an awkward excuse.
“T-that’s right! F-first we should really start w-with y-you learning about me. T-that first!”
He agreed so readily it was disappointing. Tangentially, I did not want to imagine what kind of expression Touko-san was wearing behind me.
“...M-my name is Osamu Haida... I’m twenty-nine years old... R-right now I’m unemployed, but... I-if it’s for you, Nao-chan... It might be okay for me to do some work...”
It seemed he lived by running small errands each day and taking limited-time jobs. In addition, lately the users of the Midnight Site had been increasing, and the revenue generated from advertisements on the Internet had remained steady.
I asked about the motive behind starting the Midnight Site.
“...T-two years ago, I posted on a blog called ‘Slay Evil Immediately’ that was for sharing information on bad guys in town... I-I got lots of people posting back and the m-members i-invited me, and that was the start of the Midnight Site...”
[Original blog name was “Aku Soku Zan”, which is the same motto as Saitou Hajime’s in Rurouni Kenshin. Thus I blatantly ripped the hilarious translation from the English dub. You’re welcome.]
Those members seemed to be members of the current “Five Togakushi Judges”, the four people called Uzume, Sarutahiko, Tajikarao, and Futodama.
The blog in question did not have the present-day “Midnight Site”’s degree of popularity or the juror voting system and consisted of an extremely small community. As for their activities, in only two years they had cultivated a famous site, so this suspicious man named Osamu Haida may have been a talented person with substantially more practical skills than could be guessed from his appearance.
I tried asking about his impressions of all the other members besides Uzume, who was no longer of this world.
“A-among the members, the most r-radical one is Tajikarao; his favorite phrase is ‘This country’s police is shit. They’re too lenient.’ F-Futodama is a well-known hacker on the Internet, and he’s the core of the Midnight Site’s s-security. His w-way of thinking is relatively simple, things like ‘All the evil people should die’ and ‘I won’t do it if it isn’t fun’. S-Sarutahiko gathers the members’ opinions and l-logically helps them come to a compromise. H-he can be a bit high-strung, but that k-kind of person is needed in a group… H-he was the one with common sense…”
Listening to him, I felt that it was an unusually well-balanced composition of members. However, it was something of a wry thought.
In addition, his depiction of Sarutahiko’s nature was in agreement with that of Shirou Konno. It really did seem unmistakable that Sarutahiko and Shirou Konno were one and the same.
However, when I asked about Shirou Konno, Omoikane shook his head. “I don’t know him.” It seemed he hadn’t even heard the name. I asked if the members of the “Five Togakushi Judges” had met in real life, and he immediately replied, “We haven’t.”
It appeared that the members of the “Five Togakushi Judges” did not know each others’ offline personal information. Seeing Omoikane’s behavior, it seemed he did not particularly want to know.
I wondered if handling such secrets along with people whose true identities he didn’t know was not cause for discomfort.
“T-there would be no point in knowing who they are… I-it’s not like we’re friends or anything. We’re a group that shares the s-same ideology and goal of ‘punishing sinners’, s-so just as long as no one breaks the rules we decided on, there’s no problem and we can keep w-working together.”
In that way, Omoikane proudly answered the question I did not give voice to. I was astonished.
It could be interpreted as a way of thinking in which it made sense to leave behind human relations on the Internet. Even so, I did not want to accept it. There were things that could not be conveyed and could not be realized without speaking face to face. I believed that, even if it was troublesome and complicated, direct dialogue between people should not be made light of.
I wanted to tell him “Your way of thinking is incorrect,” but I swallowed down the words and conveyed our intention, that the police wanted to protect the remaining three people the same way as they were Omoikane.
“...T-the truth is there aren’t IDs or passwords on the site, b-but there’s a locked ‘Reverse Chat’. T-that’s where u-us members of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’ communicate and answer each other.”
Setting aside my personal feelings, it was a joyful matter that we had discovered a breakthrough we could use to resolve the case.
At Touko-san’s orders, a policewoman promptly brought a laptop computer into the interrogation room. We requested that Omoikane write a message on the “Reverse Chat” from that computer.
He posted a precise and thorough message prepared by the police, explaining the seriousness of the situation and that the police would take responsibility for protecting them. All that was left was to wait and see how the remaining three members responded.
“...M-make sure you actually protect me… I-I haven’t done anything wrong… R-rather, the police should be grateful to us… W-we were j-judging the evils of the w-world in place of the police!”
In the next moment, I felt despair. I realized that nothing I said would get through to him, who stubbornly brought up the appropriateness of his own actions.
“Naoto, would you be able to say the same thing even if he’s a completely worthless piece of shit?”
Mentally I recalled the question that Sousei-san had at some point posed to me. My own powerlessness was saddening.
Omoikane wanted to speak with me more, but: “...I’m sorry. I’m feeling a little unwell, so please excuse me for today.” I gently denied him and left the interrogation room.
To say that I was feeling unwell was not quite a lie. I was extremely exhausted. I wanted to go back to the dormitory and collapse into bed, postponing changing clothes and taking a shower until later.
When I exited into the hallway, Sousei-san was standing there in an intimidating pose, wearing an expression of displeasure. Perhaps he had been waiting for me to leave the interrogation room.
“...Oi, I’ll give you a ride to the dorm.”
I had thought unpleasantly that he would bring up the matter of what had happened at the food court again, but:
Right now, I did not have that much energy, and I nodded obediently.
On the way to the dormitory, which took around five minutes, Sousei-san fumed endlessly.
“Oi! What’s that about? That bastard? He’s more a piece of shit than I imagined, you know? How could you stand it? If that old man Tsuge and Ai hadn’t stopped me, I would’ve smashed in that mirror and beaten that dumbass to a pulp!”
I laughed against my better judgment.
“Huh? What’s so funny, Naoto!?”
“No, it’s nothing.”
It wasn’t nothing. I was just a little happy. I felt that Sousei-san was angry enough for the both of us, and the gloom that had pervaded my heart lightened immensely.
However, my heart once again grew heavy at Sousei-san’s words as he departed.
“...Hey, Naoto. Is that guy your ‘best option? Is there really any reason to protect that little bastard?”
I was not able to rebuff him instantly as I had up until now. I was tired, so I could not explain. Most likely, a great hesitation had been born within me.
“No way a robot like me can understand the rules of society. But fuck, I at least get good and evil. Since I’m not tied down by useless bonds like you guys, I’m pretty fucking sure I’ve got a better idea of what good and evil really are. So if I had to say, that Omoikane bastard is a complete piece of shit. To put it bluntly, the world would be better off with him dead!”
Sousei-san declared and shook strongly.
“...That’s much too extreme. In that case, you’re no different from the people of the ‘Midnight Site’.”
At present, this was the main point sustaining me. For the police, the police and myself, there was a task we had to carry out.
“Duty is duty. I’m a robot, so if you tell me to do something, I’ll work for you mechanically. But! Just remember there’s a shitton of your feelings I can’t agree with!”
With those words, Sousei-san went back. All I could do was gaze at the bike as it was swallowed by the crimson sun sinking into the horizon. I had been unable to come up with a reply. That was because, like Sousei-san, I had much to think about.
As a detective, I had pinned down the truth behind many cases. There had been no reason to doubt my stance. Adhere to the rules and preserve order. I believed that was the best method in order to preserve peace in the world. I could not easily cast away the creed of “hate the sin, not the sinner”.
To try it out, I brought up the people important to me in my mind’s eye.
For example, if I had lost those important people due to groundless slander and the person responsible had been a horribly selfish human being. Even I would not be able to keep a calm heart. There was no way I could do so. Most likely, I would burn with a strong fury akin to hatred.
If, at that time, my hand happened to be gripping a pistol and the target of my hatred was right in front of my eyes, if all that was left would be to pull the trigger – what would I do?
I imagined it as I looked up at the slowly darkening sky. After a while, I nodded confidently. “...Yeah. It’s all right.”
I would not pull the trigger. I could say it definitively. That was my pride as a detective.
April 8 Yagokoro Police Station Special Forensics Division
I was in the middle of eating with my classmates during lunch break when I received the message from Sousei-san that there was a post on the site’s “Reverse Chat”.
From what I heard, it seemed the post was from “Tajikarao”, one of the “Five Togakushi Judges”.
I was itching to ascertain the contents of the post. I told those around me that I was very sorry, but something urgent had come up and I had to depart early.
When I did, I was cheered on by my classmates. “Do your best at work, Prince!” Now it seemed that my detective work was supported by all the students. I myself held mixed feelings as to whether this had been easy or hard to obtain.
I ran down the stairs, feeling that waiting for the elevator would only be a waste of time. Whose idea had it been? There was a sticker on the door of the Special Forensics Division office reading “Five Togakushi Judges Emergency Negotiation Headquarters”.
When I rushed onto the floor, I located Sousei-san and asked about the post.
“Right now they’re in the middle of crazy negotiating.”
Sousei-san jerked his chin at the huge screen mounted on the wall.
The screen on the wall seemed to be serving as a computer screen. On it was projected an image of the “Reverse Chat”. The large number of police and associates on the floor were enthusiastically staring at the post contents, and standing in the middle of that group and giving orders was Touko-san.
“Where’s Omoikane?” I could not see him in this place.
“He was getting annoying about some stuff so we tossed him into one of the office rooms. That’s just like Touko.”
Sousei-san snorted with laughter, and I replied with a bitter smile, “...I see.”
Taking into account his behavior yesterday and Touko-san’s personality, I could easily imagine that they would be naturally incompatible.
What follows are the contents of the chat.
Tajikarao: Police protection? What kind of joke is this, Omoikane? [12:10]
Yagokoro police: I’ll be answering in place of Omoikane-san. I am Aoi Touko of the Yagokoro police’s Criminal Investigation Bureau. [12:20]
Tajikarao: The fuck are the cops doing here!? What did you do to Omoikane!? [12:22]
Yagokoro police: We’ve taken responsibility for Omoikane-san and he is now under our protection. [12:23]
Tajikarao: You mean you went and arrested him! [12:24]
Yagokoro police: Tajikarao-san, are you aware of the declaration to kill the Five Togakushi Judges that was posted on the Midnight Site’s bulletin board? [12:26]
Tajikarao: You mean the post written by that Kagu-tsuchi? [12:30]
Yagokoro police: Kagu-tsuchi seriously intends to murder the members of the Five Togakushi Judges. In fact, Uzume has already been shot and killed by the person we believe to be Kagu-tsuchi. [12:33]
Tajikarao: So what? [12:35]
Yagokoro police: Your life is in danger, Tajikarao-san. Please consider allowing us police to protect you, like Omoikane-san. [12:37]
Tajikarao: Cut the crap! Like this country’s lame police force has the power for that! I’ll kill that damn Kagu-tsuchi myself! [12:40]
“...Hmph. We didn’t come to an agreement, huh.”
Touko-san spat out, annoyed, as she gazed at the screen.
“–That’s right. Didn’t he agree to talk to us personally? Don’t forget to set up the phone number we prepared.”
Touko-san ordered, and a young man who seemed to be one of her subordinates answered, “Roger,” and typed on the keyboard of a laptop computer with practiced movements. What the man typed was reflected on the screen on the wall.
“Okay! It’s our turn! Don’t screw up, you guys!”
Tsuge-san signaled the people in white coats. Seeing the researchers with their ears covered by headphones and the multitude of cables connected to an undisturbed phone, it seemed as though they meant to trace the call.
All the people on the floor gulped and waited for Tajikarao’s response. However, even after waiting several minutes, there was no reply from either the chat or the phone.
“...He’s pretty cautious.” Touko-san snorted unhappily.
Soon after, Touko-san walked swiftly to the front of the laptop, and paying no attention to the nervousness of the young man who was her subordinate, unhesitatingly squeezed herself in right next to him, said briefly, “I’m borrowing your keyboard,” and began to type.
The words appeared on the screen, and everyone on the floor simultaneously turned their shocked gazes on Touko-san. The words “You scared?” were on the screen.
Her provocation had an immediate effect. Not even a few seconds had passed before the phone’s ringtone rang out across the floor.
“...So simple-minded.” Touko-san allowed herself a faint, contemptuous smile. She took the phone and said in her usual calm tone, “Yes?”
“Oi! You bitch! Who’s scared? Who the hell do you think I am!?”
From the moment he opened his mouth, a brash, rude voice flowed from the speakers beside the screen.
“It’s nice to meet you. I am Touko Aoi, the person in charge of negotiations.”
Touko-san was completely indifferent.
“I don’t know what kind of ‘man’ you are, Tajikarao-san, but you are aware of Kagu-tsuchi, the one who declared his intention to kill you.”
It was common knowledge among the people gathered in this place that “Kagu-tsuchi” was the same as “Kyouhei Hioka.”
“The person called Kagu-tsuchi is extremely sharp and possesses in-depth knowledge about the inner workings of the police. Furthermore, he is proficient at martial arts, judo and kendo, and is an excellent marksman. No matter how confident you may be in your physical strength, Tajikarao-san, unfortunately he’s not an opponent that your average person can hope to stand up to.”
His history of winning multiple awards was not just for show. He had been Touko-san’s senpai and former lover. Kyouhei Hioka was excellent – that is to say, she doubtless felt more fear than anyone when he became an enemy. However, Tajikarao laughed loudly and cheerfully, not at all intimidated. “What about it!?
“I’ll tell you right now, no one in Japan matches up to me! I dunno just who this Kagu-tsuchi is, but in the end he’s just some guy in this country, right? If you ask me, you peace-loving idiots are all big babies!”
Of course, Tajikarao did not know that Kagu-tsuchi was Kyouhei Hioka, a detective. However, as a result of this ignorance, he was acting differently, in a self-assured manner.
“...If you’re going to make such baseless claims yourself, you’re just going to embarrass yourself later, right?”
She must have been considering many things. Touko-san dropped her polite manner of speech, perhaps because she could not tolerate speaking ill of Kyouhei Hioka.
“Basis? There’s a basis for it! ‘Cause I used to be – a member of the Foreign Legion!”
[外国人部隊, literally (a mercenary in) the Foreign Legion. It doesn’t specify but is taken to mean the French Foreign Legion.]
The floor was filled with muttering at the unexpected reply.
“I survived life-or-death situations with bullets flying all around me. You really think there’s anything in this stupidly peaceful country that can scare me?”
“...Heeh, that’s interesting. You know, I like strong men. I want to know more.”
“...Che! I said too much…”
At last, Touko-san had agitated Tajikarao and had draw out some personal information from him.
“You’re tracing the call anyway, right? Ha! What a pain! Too bad, I’m calling you from a pay phone! Anyway, I don’t have to rely on you police bastards if I don’t want to. Got it? Don’t bother me anymore!”
Tajikarao finished in a threatening voice and hung up. Without wasting a second, Touko-san, who didn’t even flinch in the face of that intimidation, began to give orders to those around her.
“Tsuge-san, science team, it’s your turn!”
“Okay! If it’s on your orders, Touko, we’ve got no choice! You guys! That backwards guy thinks we’re stuck in the last decade and can’t do anything but trace the call! Let’s show him the skills of a modern science department!
“D team, see if there’s anyone with prior criminal offenses who used to be ‘a member of the foreign legion’!”
“Roger!” The male detectives sitting in front of computers nodded.
“The rest of you, A, B, and C teams, you’re going with me on patrol around Yagokoro Station!”
However, at this order, those around her, including myself, had to tilt their heads in confusion. Sensing that, Touko-san soon added:
“...On the other side of the line, I could faintly hear the Junes music. Also the slogan of ‘Yagokoro Electronics’, the appliances shop in front of the station. Most likely, Tajikarao was calling us from a public phone somewhere near Yagokoro Station. If I remember correctly, the recent injury case–”
“Supporting your comfortable lifestyle! Sincerity first, Yagokoro Electronics! Sincerity first, Yagokoro Electronics!”
[Magokoro ichiban, Yagokoro Denki~ Magokoro Ichiban, Yagokoro Denki~]
Though I had not grown up here, I had also heard Yagokoro Electronics’s catchy slogan in front of the station while walking around on my first day here, and it had remained in my memory ever since. The jingle “Every day’s great at your Junes! ♪” also went without saying.
“If you think about why someone would be at the station at this hour, there’s a high probability that it’s for ‘lunch’. If we hurry, we may be able to secure Tajikarao in front of the station. Question every suspicious person you see!”
“Yeah!” At Touko-san’s sharp voice, the brawny male detectives answered strongly.
I watched in fascination as Touko-san grabbed the suit jacket draped over the seat back and put it on in one fluid movement, then left the floor, taking with her a crowd of young male detectives.
“Oi! We’re going too, Naoto!”
Sousei-san offered a surprising suggestion to me as I watched Touko-san depart.
“...Why’re you looking at me so weirdly?”
“Well, of course I am.”
Thinking back on everything Sousei-san had proposed up until now, I only considered that he would choose to foresake Tajikarao, saying something like, “He says he’s fine, so I say we just leave him!” It was then my job to find a way to persuade him, or so I had thought.
“Huh? Of course I wanna go! It sounds interesting!”
When I inquired as to the reason, Sousei-san answered gleefully.
“Let’s catch Tajikarao before Touko does!”
“...This isn’t a game of tag.”
Surprisingly, Sousei-san was treating the situation as if it were a game.
“Anyway! Tajikarao sounds pretty full of himself! He talked big when it was to Touko, but this Sousei-sama will see if he matches up in reality!”
The spectacle, the pot calling the kettle black, was somewhat difficult to describe.
“...Putting aside your reasons, it’s wonderful that you’re taking an active part in the investigation. However, you shouldn’t interfere with work at the scene. Please wait to act until after I seek instructions.”
Tajikarao’s aggressive behavior had given me much to consider. If Sousei-san had taken offense at Tajikarao’s rude treatment of Touko-san, it was not like I wouldn’t cheer him on. However, I was greatly worried that this person, who was just as belligerent as Tajikarao, would do something rash.
“Shut up! I know! It’s fine, let’s go!”
“Ah, w-wait! S-Sousei-san, put me down!” As soon as Sousei-san spoke, he swiftly lifted me onto his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, rushed off the floor, and ran up the stairs at a ferocious dash.
It went without saying that I let a faint sigh escape me.
This person always did act as expected. I meant that in several ways. If I took my eyes off him for a moment, he would definitely run amok. If I didn’t keep a tighter rein on Sousei-san, I felt that I would be swept away like a village girl by a thief.
April 8 Around Yagokoro Station
I leisurely cruised down the public road in front of the train station on Sousei-san, who was in bike form. The threat of rain from the overcast sky mixed with my nervousness about the investigation, somewhat dulling my own mood.
The day was half over and it was already afternoon, but there were many pedestrians around the front of the station. Locating an unidentified man among this many people would be like finding a needle in a haystack. My own method was to construct a potential profile based on the information I had gathered about Tajikarao.
From his voice, I believed him to be a man in his late twenties or early thirties. In addition, the volume of his voice and his personal history seemed to indicate that he possessed a muscular physique.
From his exchange with Touko-san, his personality was impulsive and belligerent. He probably chose a location where he could clearly see his surroundings. I knew full-well that it could come to blows if I approached him the wrong way.
In the end, what I had to pay special attention to was the unique aspect of his personal history, that he was a “former member of the foreign legion”. That seemed to be the deciding factor in ferreting out Tajikarao from where he was hidden among the ordinary citizens.
Of course, contrary to Touko-san’s expectations, Tajikarao may have already left the vicinity of Yagokoro Station, but this seemed to be a more valuable use of time than sitting around at the police station.
Several minutes after we left the police station. We received the first report from the science team led by Tsuge-san.
“Bingo, Touko. The results of the phone trace say the source was a pay phone in front of an Internet cafe near Yagokoro Station. The chat was also from a computer at that cafe. The analysis of the background sounds included the Junes jingle and the Yagokoro Electronics slogan.”
It was immediately followed by the report from D team.
“In our investigation into former members of the foreign legion, a man named ‘Alex Brown’ stands out. He is thirty-three years old. His nationality is Japanese. He spent eight years in France starting when he was eighteen years old. When he was arrested in relation to the injury case at the beginning of the year, he mentioned he was a member of the army during his time in France. We will forward the image on file for reference. His father is French of African descent, and his mother is Japanese, so he is of mixed blood and his skin is dark brown. His height is over two meters and he weighs over one hundred kilograms. He should stand out.”
Upon receiving this report, Touko-san issued orders to each investigation team.
“From the information received in the report, there is an extremely high chance that ‘Alex Brown’ is Tajikarao. Therefore, search for and secure Alex Brown. A team, head for Alex Brown’s home. B team, head for his workplace. C team, continue searching around the station and interviewing witnesses. Each of you give it your best. That is all!”
I checked the picture of Alex Brown on the smartphone Touko-san had provided. He was of mixed blood, but his name and his picture did not at all indicate that he was part Japanese.
As a whole, he was as I had imagined him, from his fearless expression to his physical build. I had not predicted his dark brown skin, but one could say that we had a good chance of identifying him from his defining features.
Suddenly, Sousei-san slowed and the bike approached the shoulder of the road.
“–Hey, isn’t that kinda like the ‘man’ going into the station?”
I directed my gaze to the dim station entrance under an overpass to which Sousei-san was referring. His back was turned, preventing me from coming to a definite conclusion, but the person whom Sousei-san indicated indeed had the corresponding large build. I could not rule out the possibility that it was simply a “trick of the light”, but the back of his neck appeared to be dark brown.
I jumped off the bike, leapt over the guardrail from which the paint was peeling, and alighted on the sidewalk.
“Oi! What am I supposed to do?”
“Ah, Sousei-san, remain on standby. Please contact Touko-san,” I replied as I ran.
The person I was after was more conspicuous than anyone else in the hallways of the station. The man was so large that the nearby salarymen in suits may as well have been children, and his skin shone a deep chocolate color under the incandescent lights of the hall. He was an extraordinary match with the specified physical characteristics.
I gulped. I could not speak definitively without confirming his facial features, but there was a high probability that this person was Alex Brown.
I drew closer to the man, who was pushing people out of the way and advancing down the passage like a bulldozer, and caught my breath.
From up close, his big frame like that of a bear was overwhelming. I should have been accustomed to large people because of Sousei-san, but though they were about the same height, their musculature was quite different. Moreover, it was not just that he was of strong build, but even with his biker jacket I could tell that his whole body was brawny.
I took a single, quiet breath and said:
“...Excuse me, are you Alex Brown-san?”
I projected my voice at the back like a wall of rock. Immediately, the man swung his large body and looked back.
I confirmed his countenance with my own eyes and was convinced. He could only be Alex Brown.
Then Alex Brown stared at me with large eyes and grimaced, answering shortly, “...You got the wrong guy.” As expected, his reply was extremely brief, and I hesitated to conclude that he was Tajikarao.
“I’m here on behalf of the Yagokoro Police. There are a number of things we’d like to ask you. Do you have a moment?”
I carefully spun my words as I examined Alex Brown’s countenance. In the worst case scenario, if he resisted with brute strength, I stood no chance.
However, after taking in my entire body with a single glance, Alex Brown let out a snort and wordlessly resumed walking. It was clear from his behavior that he had labeled me a fool.
I moved to stand in front of Alex Brown as if to cut off his path. Bringing my anxious heartbeat under control through courage alone, I made my decision and spoke.
“–You’re Tajikarao, aren’t you?”
When I did, the man’s feet suddenly stopped. The moment I checked his expression, my entire body shivered in fear against my will. He resembled a black demon. The man wore a furious expression like a devil, looking down at me with such ferocity as if to kill with the force of his glare.
“Move! Damn brat!”
Alex Brown roared and swung his loglike arm at me in a rude action, as if brushing off a weakling. I promptly crossed both arms in front of my face and braced myself for the coming huge impact. I prepared myself for immense pain.
Contrary to my expectations, I remained standing. There was no impact. Even though I had imagined that I would tumble cruelly to the floor as if I had met with an accident.
Alex Brown let out in a surprised voice. I slowly lowered my arms.
“Oi oi, bastard, you’re joking, right? Tell me you’re joking?”
In front of me was a familiar broad back, and that tall, black and red person had grabbed Alex Brown’s loglike arm in a single hand.
“Is this all former soldier’s got? Don’t make me laugh! If all of them are like you, then someone as great as me can take on an entire division all by himself!”
It was the back of the person I could rely on most in the current situation. Even the impudent grin that I normally only considered to be arrogant seemed trustworthy.
Of course, it was only natural, but even as a former legionnaire, it seemed to be his first experience seeing a robot.
“W-what the fuck is this?”
Alex Brown pulled himself free from Sousei-san’s grip with all his strength and took one and then two steps back, wearing a shocked expression. However, his history as a former legionnaire was not just for show. After several seconds of discomposure, Alex Brown changed his posture, took a guarded stance, and let loose a straight right at Sousei-san with a speed that I would not have expected from his large frame. At once, Sousei-san twisted his body, and the rocklike fist just barely missed the tip of his nose.
“Hmph! Like you can hit me!”
Sousei-san’s tone was self-assured as always, but as far as I could tell, the two did not have much of a difference in ability. Sousei-san was the clear winner in terms of strength, but from his behavior, Alex Brown’s combat technique was obviously more refined.
In the next instant, many screams resounded through the station hall.
Somehow Alex Brown had drawn a survival knife with a blade over thirty centimeters long from his breast pocket. Seeing the blade, the surrounding people all tried to escape at once. In a single instant, the hall fell into a panic.
“I’ll turn you into scrap metal!”
Alex Brown glared at Sousei-san with bloodshot eyes.
“Ha! What an idiot! You think you can win against me just ‘cause you’re armed?”
They paid no mind to the chaos around them. It was as if the large man, the former legionnaire, was the only thing Sousei-san saw.
Did he not see the knife? Sousei-san casually drew closer to Alex Brown. That was why I clung with all my might to Sousei-san from directly behind and halted his advance. “Please wait!”
“What’re you doing? Naoto! This is the fun part and you’re getting in the way!”
If there was one thing I had noticed about Sousei-san from the moment I met him, it was his boastful attitude.
“Consider the situation! What will you do if normal people become involved and get hurt?”
His opponent was in possession of a knife. In addition, he was in an agitated state. If Sousei-san cornered him, I believed it could result in the worst possible situation.
At that moment, Alex Brown turned on his heel. He yelled “Move!” to the crowded hall and began running with an agility I would not have expected from his large body.
“Oi! He got away because of you, Naoto!”
“Don’t place the blame! To begin with, I thought I told you to remain on standby!”
“Fuck, I’m surprised you can say something like that after I came and saved you! It’s the biggest fucking surprise of the year!”
“All this talk is unnecessary. Be quiet and let’s chase after him.”
I left Sousei-san behind and started running after Alex Brown.
“Geez, you and Touko and Ai, why do all the women around me have to be so hard-headed!?”
He gave as good as he got. Secretly I was glad that Sousei-san had come to my rescue, but I could not bring myself to thank him frankly, half because his resulting arrogance would be irritating and half to hide my embarrassment.
“–Is this Touko-san? It’s me! Naoto! We’ve found Alex Brown! He is currently on the run and we’re giving chase!
I opened contact with Touko-san as I ran. I also quickly informed her that Alex Brown was carrying a survival knife.
“...Roger. I’ll have the investigators around the station head into the halls soon.”
I took comfort and reassurance from Touko-san’s calm voice.
We chased after Alex Brown as we were tossed about by the unpredictable movements of the panicked people. Fortunately, his large frame would not slip out of sight, even among the crowd.
–Nonetheless, Alex Brown was clever.
He easily jumped over the turnstiles just like a running back in American football, shaking off the attendents’ attempts to stop him and rushing onto the station platform.
He may have intended to board a train. In that case, he would be nothing more than a cornered rat, or perhaps a cornered badger.
However, Alex Brown’s actions were beyond what I predicted.
“—The limited express train to Inaba is passing through on the number 3 platform. It is dangerous, so please stand behind the white line.”
In the next moment, Alex Brown jumped down from the platform onto the track as vigorously as if he were making a touchdown.
My instant cry of “Watch out!” was erased by a deafening roar. All Sousei-san and I could do was gaze, dumbfounded, at the moving train that obstructed our path. Finally the train passed through.
I held my breath and looked closely at the tracks. Alex Brown was not there.
Then I noticed a large black figure sprinting away on the opposite platform. If that was Alex Brown, he had successfully escaped, but I was truly relieved to see that he was unharmed.
“...That soldier bastard, he has a huge body but he’s really good at moving around.”
Sousei-san spat out bitterly as he looked at the opposite platform.
His physical aptitude was out of the ordinary and could not only be because was a former legionnaire. Even if several of the muscular young detectives seriously tried to go against Alex Brown, subduing him would be a next to impossible task.
I was powerless, and so it was only in times like these was I glad from the bottom of my heart that Sousei-san was my partner. However, there was no way I would express my thanks. It went without saying that it would only cause trouble.
I was once again convinced. Alex Brown was Tajikarao.
Alex Brown’s voice and Tajikarao’s voice that I had heard conveyed through the telephone were exactly alike. In addition, it could be said that his reaction when I had asked “Are you Tajikarao?” and the fact that he had run away lent support to the theory being truth.
“...The entire place should already be surrounded by the investigation teams on Touko-san’s orders. Alex Brown cannot have gotten far. Let’s do a thorough search of the block.”
Leaving from the other side of the platform, the rear exit of the station opened onto the pleasure quarter.
The area behind the station was the pleasure quarter. At present it was midday, and so it was deserted. The only thing that greeted us was a black flock of unfriendly crows. With the ashen sky up above, the pleasure quarter resembled nothing so much as a ghost town.
When I thought of Alex Brown, who was armed, holding his breath in hiding somewhere on this block, the stillness seemed to be full of tension.
Several minutes passed as we walked through the shabby alleys. There was absolutely no sign of Alex Brown and we received no word from Touko-san that they had found him. In that case, I was beginning to suspect that Alex Brown was no longer in the pleasure quarter.
“Oi, come on! Soldier bastard! Stop hiding and get your ass out here!”
In the end, Sousei-san grew impatient and began yelling in the middle of the pleasure quarter.
“Are you scared of this Sousei Kurogami-sama? That’s a smart choice! ‘Cause I’m a hundred times stronger than you in a fight!”
Sousei-san’s loud voice may have been a nuisance to the nearby residents, but I did not attempt to stop him. Taking into account the other’s personality, I believed provocation to be a valid recourse.
At that moment, I heard a piercing sound from a back alley right next to a hostess bar. It sounded as if glass was being smashed. I thought it may have been a case of beer breaking.
[“hostess bar” is what comes up in my dictionary for “kyabakura”. it seems to be like a host club, except with female hosts and, well, a bar.]
Sousei-san and I exchanged glances, and Sousei-san quickly went ahead of me into the back alley from which the sound came. We jumped into the gloomy alleyway and found it to be a dead end.
There, the first thing my eyes landed on was a large black lump squatting on the asphalt. I immediately realized that it was Alex Brown’s back.
Fragments of brown glass from broken beer bottles were strewn about Alex Brown, who had curled himself up round like a rock, and the liquid contained inside had dyed the asphalt a dark color. There were still several plastic orange cases rolling around irregularly.
From the situation, it seemed he had panicked and knocked over the pile of beer cases while on the run.
“Oi, soldier bastard! You’ve got nowhere else to run! Just give up!”
“Please wait.” I immediately held back Sousei-san, who was in high spirits. “I’ll go first.” I implored him strongly with my gaze. Then, though he wore a dissatisfied expression, Sousei-san lightly shrugged his shoulders at me.
“...Brown-san. Please. Don’t run away anymore.”
I completely hid the anxiety I felt inside and spoke in as much of a gentle tone as I could.
“We are your allies. Please believe us. We absolutely will not do anything to hurt you, so please just listen to what we have to say.”
I slowly approached him, one step at a time. Then I realized that something was strange. Alex Brown had not so much as twitched.
“A-are you all right!?”
If, by any chance, Alex Brown could not move. In that moment, that suspicion crossed my mind. However, more importantly, the uneasiness that stirred within me was a predictor of the seriousness of this situation.
I knew when I rushed over.
The dark color spreading over the ground was not beer – the murky darkness was that of blood.
At the same time, I realized that the long survival knife was piercing Alex Brown’s fallen body, which resembled a beer barrel.
He had been stabbed once in the heart. I placed my fingertips on the nape of Alex Brown’s dark brown neck. Liquid clung to my fingers from the bare skin I touched.
“...Oi, he can’t be?” Sousei-san asked grimly from behind me.
I looked back and slowly shook my head. Unfortunately, he had already died. I let out a spontaneous deep sigh.
It felt like a bad dream. What had happened in the few minutes in which we had lost sight of Alex Brown?
“...Kyouhei Hioka.” I said that name thoughtfully.
Had Kyouhei Hioka killed Alex Brown, called Tajikarao, after killing Miyuki Midorikawa, called Uzume? If that was the case, from the lingering warmth of the body, Kyouhei Hioka might still have been near the pleasure quarter. But I was frustrated that I could not guess where. Not a single trace of him was to be found.
Kyouhei Hioka was clearly at the center of this incident.
However, I could not get a sense of his whereabouts, like grasping at thin air. I could find neither hide nor hair of him. Even so, the unavoidable truth was that he was definitely killing the members of the “Five Togakushi Judges”, one after another.
Who in the world was he? He excelled in many things, and he even had the ability to perfectly carry out crimes on his own.
For example, I would easily be able to understand if Kyouhei Hioka was not a person but an organization. That was how little I could grasp Kyouhei Hioka’s character.
Though I had understood the relationships and criminal motives of many people, I was slowly losing sight of who Kyouhei Hioka was.