Chapter 16 Kyokotentai
Two types of bars exist in the world: the quiet, smoky bar where old men go to forget their troubles through serious, hard liquor, and the energized bar where young men caused them. This was the latter. The blue atmosphere was also hazy; though, perhaps for a different reason. Flashing lights blinded the newcomer and blaring music filled his head so quickly he could not hear his thoughts.
In one corner of the club hid those who were already starting their troubles, cuddled up to their drunken infatuations, getting in too deep. Across the way, in the main room was the dancefloor, filled to the brim with people still conscious enough to stand but not much else. They were the cause of the intolerable sound, as their minds were void anyways and they needed the excuse. Scattered about were booths crowded with groups of friends laughing and falling all over one another. Along the back wall was the actual bar, where the whole process began with one horny boy and one lonely girl sharing the same drink and deciding to hook up.
Saburou sat down there and, without giving it any thought, ordered a drink. When it was served, the same one it always used to be, he was kicking himself over the second-nature action. He was here for work; he couldn't drink. Staring down at the beverage, though, he recalled that, not long ago, this would have been where to find him at times. He chuckled at how far he had come since the days when Takeshi came about, and passed his drink over to some girl who seemed to be having a particularly bad day.
Sometimes he thought he had changed for the better. Other times he seemed worse.
Casually, he made his was to the other side of the bar and sat at another stool. Only a moment later, a man joined him. It was the one who had informed him of the infamous Kento. Before he had been open and helpful. Now he looked nervous and suspicious, typical characteristics of someone being followed.
"Why did you choose this place?" Saburou questioned as the man sat, hoping to break the ice.
"It's loud enough to not be heard, and full enough we won't be seen...at first," the man shouted back. He acted like he was seriously in danger. Could it just be the imagination of a journalist? The club was clean, at least as far as he could tell.
"Who is following you?" He had to know what he would be dealing with, if anything at all.
"If they catch me here with you Kyoko-san, I'll be fired for sure. They don't want me to give you this."
Saburou could just barely make out the words well enough to regret having taken the threat seriously. The guy was afraid his boss would catch him sharing information. That was the most ridiculous thing ever. Discretely, the journalist passed over a napkin. It was the crucial moment of the exchange! If this didn't go down right... Catching himself right as his mind began to mock, Saburou picked up the blank napkin.
"What is this?" He wondered, just as a fingerprint covered in tape slid exposed from between the folded paper.
"I lifted that from my desk. It might be useful to your investigation," the man explained. Then, he proceeded to state the real reason they had met. "Saturday night, I was alone at the office. I stepped away from my desk and left the file open. While I was getting coffee, I almost thought I heard the alarm sound for a second. The ice maker is so loud, though, and when I got back to my desk, everything was still in place. I assumed it was just my imagination, but someone definitely entered the office that night."
You thought that was your imagination, but all this about being pursued is clearly realistic? The investigator pondered in wonder, perplexed by the bizarre man. Just then, the journalist stood to leave, showing no visual recognition of Saburou.
"Time's up, Kyoko-san," he concluded.
As his unusual contact walked away, Saburou realized he hadn't even gotten the chance to ask how he figured out his name and cell number. Strange man, he decided, exiting from another door. Time to take Nori home, at last.
Man was he surprised upon returning to the lab, to find neither his son nor the temporary guardian. The whole place was empty, dark, and silent. Saburou's files were all neatly aligned in one stack on the table, but all of Nori's things were missing. Assuming Yamada would not be stupid enough to go any farther than his own home, the father still wasn't worried taking out his phone. He would just call the baby-sitter and pick up his kid.
On the screen was already a missed call from his coworker, but since there was no message left, he didn't think much of it.
"Oh good, Kyoko-san, it's you," were the relieved words of greeting as Yamada began the conversation.
Without wasting a moment, Saburou informed, "I'll be at your house in like five minutes to get Nori-kun."
An awkward pause revealed what the baby-sitter was about to say long before he ever got out the words. "We're not at home, Kyoko-san," he admitted.
"Yamada, Taro, where the hell did you take my kid?" He demanded, fury and fear instantly entering his tone. Here was someone would not be watching Nori again.
It all began in the break room. The short notice guardian was watching the six year old fit pieces together, hoping he would do good enough to complete it by himself. In the mean time, the man figured he might as well separate the mess of paperwork from the scrap paper Nori was supposed to be using for his drawings. Fortunately, it seemed only a few files had been vandalized. He really didn't want to, but he set about to refile them.
Just about that time, Suzume cornered him. "It's time to go."
Unsure of exactly what she meant, he pointed to Nori and stuttered back, "Hmm? I--"
"I tracked our truck driver's credit card. The last purchase he made was at a truck stop out of town Saturday at midnight. It seems he stopped there regularly. I want to talk to the night shift employees."
"Go on then," Yamada urged her on. She didn't need his help, and he wasn't leaving.
"I'm not going to a truck stop by myself at midnight," she insisted, as if she was actually scared of anything. That onna could scare a monster, the man muttered to himself. Suddenly, an unwanted image of Suzume with eyes glowing red and teeth as sharp as canines frightened Yamada into making an offer.
"What if I go, and you stay to watch Kyoko-kun, then?"
Having noticed the fear on his guardian's face, Nori tried to reject the idea, but Suzume got to it first. "Yamada-kun, you don't know how to ask the right questions," she laughed out.
So she only wanted him to come for mindless, witless, brute force? The realization sent a sharp, stabbing pain through his heart. Of small stature, he wasn't even that strong or intimidating, and she was implying that was his only useful quality. Even worse, she knew perfectly well what she was doing. Killed by the monster again.
"How far away is this place anyways? It's only eight o'clock now. Midnight is still four hours from now," the defeated man inquired for more details.
"The truck stop is in Oume. Just this side of the mountains to the northwest, it's the first place to stop for gas. It's a two to three hour drive, depending on traffic, but the night shift begins at ten, so we'll be there right on time," Suzume explained.
"Right," Yamada agreed sarcastically, "And it lasts all night long after that. Don't you think it's better to wait until after Kyoko-san takes his kid before we head all the way up there?"
"Do you know how long Kyoko-san will take?" Suzume asked. Of course, Yamada had to respond in the negative, which led her to her next question. "Don't you want to get home as soon as possible?"
"Yes, but isn't this pretty much kidnapping?"
"Call Kyoko-san," Suzume proposed. "Ask him if he's done yet."
The man did as asked, but Saburou did not pick up his phone. "No answer," Yamada informed.
"We don't have time to wait for him," the evil woman decided. "Come along. Bring the boy. You're driving."
He looked with pity down at Nori, considering asking, "What now? I can't claim I don't want to solve the crime as quickly as possible. How do I get you out of this?" In the end, he simply state, "Bring all your things. We won't be coming back here."
As soon as they climbed into Yamada's truck, Nori squished between the two adults on the bench seat, the boy wondered, "Will Chichi be okay?"
"What are you worrying about Kyoko-san for?" The young man replied.
"Come alone," Nori repeated his father's words. "That's always a trap. Who wants to kill him?"
Surprised by the discernment the child had shown in drawing that conclusion by whatever means he had used, Yamada couldn't help but ask, "Where did you get that idea?"
"That's what happens,Nori answered surely. "They get you to come by telling you they have something you think you need. They hide all around you, and as soon as you show them the money, BAMN, they shoot."
Yamada jumped when the boy held out his hands in the shape of a gun and shouted the sound effect to end his story. A shiver unintentionally found its way down his spine. Of course, with those thoughts on the matter, any kid would be scared for their dad. Nori had managed to make him worry about Kyoko. His mind almost got lost in wondering, What if—
Clenching his hands on the steering wheel, the young man tried to laugh and reply, "That's not going to happen." He didn't sound so confident, but it convinced Nori.
Rolling her eyes at both of them, Suzume focused in on some research on her phone, as the kid moved on to a next question, "Where are we going?"
"A truck stop in Oume," Yamada answered.
"Where is Oume? Nori inquired further. "Is it a fun place?"
"Probably not. We're going there for work."
"When will we get there?" It seemed that Nori was going to be one of those kids who made trips unbearable. The male investigator was tolerating it for the time being, but Suzume could not stand much more.
"A couple hours," Yamada's responses were getting shorter.
"Will we sleep there? I have school tomorrow."
"Don't you have something to do?" The lady asked of the boy, hoping he would stop talking.
Nori was quiet for a few moments. At least for the time it took him to dig through the bag at his feet, she had relief. Even though the pack was a complete wreck, Nori knew exactly how to find what he was looking for. Grabbing a stack of papers and a random writing utensil, he was prepared for his next task.
"Puzzle-oji-san, how do you write your name?" The questioning continued.
Glancing away from the road for a split second, Yamada informed the boy, "I can't show you how while I'm driving."
Obviously, Nori understood just fine because he turned straight to Suzume to ask the same of her. "It's bad for your eyes to write in the dark," she replied disinterestedly.
The boy's shoulders slumped disappointedly, but he compliantly stuffed his papers back into the bag. Again a few moments passed without Nori's interruptions. He was busy trying to think of anything else he could do during a long trip in a car. There weren't very many things that wouldn't cause a distraction, especially in the dark.
He asked, "What can I do?"
"How about, you stay quiet while the grown ups work," the lady suggested unpleasantly.
Nori understood her quite well. She was more like his mom was. Stay out of the way. Keep quiet. He didn't like it, but he expected it from adults. By now, he was pretty good at it.
Stuffing his hands between his thighs, the boy sat like a perfect little statue. He kept all his inquiries to himself, wondering silently when it would be over. The longer it lasted, the more his mind shifted toward sleep. Nine o'clock passed, and they escaped from the grid lock traffic of Tokyo. Smooth, winding roads along with the adults suddenly deciding to talk work easily lulled him into an unconscious stupor. He collapsed in sleep against Suzume's arm.
She sent a glare over to the driver who responded with a shrug. They both knew she was the one who suggested this in the first place. Complaining about the harmless boy on her arm was not acceptable. She wouldn't be pitied. Heaving a large sigh, she went back to discussing the case.
Yamada's phone rang right as they pulled into the truck stop. With reason, their coworker Kyoko was furious.
He pretty much expected to hear, "Yamada, Taro, where the hell did you take my kid?"
Fearing the reaction to his answer, the man stated nothing but, "Oume."
"Oume," Saburou repeated, almost in disbelief. "You're kidding, right?"
"No," Yamada countered. It was true. "Suzume-san and I had some business to take care of."
"So you took Nori-kun clear across town? Now you won't get back until way past midnight. He has school tomorrow, you know!"
"I-I didn't much have a choice," Yamada defended; though, he really had just as much choice about leaving as Saburou had about who to leave the boy with.
Suzume glared at him again. "Don't blame me," she ordered.
"I am coming up there right now to get Nori-kun," Saburou decided. "If you even--"
Yamada interrupted him. "What good would that do? But the time you get here, we'll be on our way back already."
"Stop the chit chat so we can finish what we came here for," Suzume added her input, all ready to interview so gas stations attendants.
"Just chill at the lab for a little while," Yamada suggested, feeling torn in both directions. "We'll be back soon."
"I hope you know how dead you are," Saburou growled his last words, but Suzume was already sliding her partner's phone closed.
"Come on,she ordered, exiting the car. "Let's go."
"Are we going to wake Kyoko-kun up? We can't just leave him in the car," Yamada pointed out.
"Asleep or awake, that's where we leave him. We can watch the car from inside the store." Suzume whose psychology training allowed her to understand every thought that crossed a person's mind--including children--seemed to struggle with the practical application of her learning. Even Saburou was more suited to parenthood. Shaking his head, Yamada complied, making his way inside the small convenience store at the truck stop.
It was only a few minutes before two large eyes drifted open. Drowsily, he wondered what he was doing in a car. As he sat up, giving a huge yawn and stretching, the boy remembered how he had come here with his father's friends. Had they arrived already? He wondered, curious about why he was all alone. Glancing around at the new surroundings, he finally caught sight of that blue sign with the people on it.
"The toilet," Nori whispered, crawling sleepily from the car toward his destination from hours before.
Entering the store, he could hear the adults talking with the night supervisor about video recordings. The guy explained to them that they only had enough footage for a couple hours. If something suspicious happened, they would set the tape aside. Otherwise, the feed would just continuously rewrite over the tape. Nothing remained of Saturday night.
The next question posed was if the manager recognized the driver, and if he came in frequently. As Nori came closer, traversing the store towards the restroom, his mind was once more hooked and reeled in by the much more intriguing conversation. He found himself drifting over to them.
"Yeah, his route came through here a couple times a week. Always Saturday night. I saw on the news what happened. It was a terrible shock, but I can assure you nothing happened while he was fueling here that night. He came in to pay, bought a soda, used the can, and was on his way. I saw it with my own eyes. I hate to think, we may have been the last people he spoke to."
A soft tugging on the bottom of his jacket disrupted the runaway emotions. The worker glanced down at a young child who had every innocent intention of asking for the key to the bathroom. What came out of his mouth was quite different.
"Who else was working that night?" He asked, sounding mature and perfectly ready to interrogate.
Embarrassed at the sound of his voice, the investigators were too stunned even to scold as the man chuckled and answered, "That night it was Egor--Gregory. Strangest guy ever, he quit suddenly and then closed his bank account, so he left town without his last pay."
Nori stroked his chin thoughtfully as he had seen a thousand times on television. "He's running away," the boy presumed based on the information given.
"Kyoko-kun!" Yamada broke free of his surprise enough to shout Nori's name. "What are you doing in here? You can't interfere with our work like that."
Instantly, Nori remembered why he had come inside. "I gotta potty."
"Again?" The man inquired, doubtful it was true. That was the same thing the boy had said last time Yamada had caught him playing detective.
Shaking his head, Nori countered, "Still."
"Well go kid, before you burst," the baby-sitter ordered. Nori looked up hopefully at the gas station worker who kindly handed over the bathroom key and pointed to the door. As the child ran off, Yamada let out a sigh and apologized about the interruption.
"Is it possible, the child was right,Suzume picked right back up on the questioning. "Could this Gregory have run because he committed the crime?"
The manager laughed. "Our Egor? No. Sure he was weird as weird comes, but he would never hurt a thing. He was only here for a few months, but everyone loved him."
Suzume still had a few more questions to ask, but it seemed like their interview would be finished as quickly as it would take for Nori to complete his task. Right on time, the boy burst out of the back room, water dripping from his hands. He was running, and there was a sense of urgency on his face.
"Puzzle-oji-san, come! He shouted, grabbing Yamada by the hand. "Come see this!" Tugging roughly, Nori struggled to drag his baby-sitter back to the bathroom, completely unaware of what he would be shown.
Yamada just apologized in embarrassment as he reluctantly allowed the boy to lead him away.
"Look," Nori commanded, pointing to the bottom of a sheet of paper taped to the door. It was a signed sheet of who had cleaned the bathroom and when. It didn't look at all as important as Nori thought it was. "That name isn't Japanese," he revealed, unable to reach the name he was referring to.
Since it was easy to find, Yamada quickly agreed, "Yes Kyoko-kun, that says Egor."
The boy put his hands on his hips and informed, "I know. That's why I told you."
"Well of course we would find his name there. He worked here," Yamada assured, trying not to show that he was irritated.
"But the guy who died was in here too! They both were," Nori really thought such a small connection mattered to the case.
"It's a bathroom, Kyoko-kun. Lots of people go in there," the man attempted to explain. He finally decided to wipe the wetness off his hands that Nori had left there, which caused him to stop in the middle of his next sentence, "You went in there--"
An image of the process flashed into his mind. Anyone who wore a ring would take it off to wash their hands. Otherwise they would be hard to dry. Then, if the truck driver forgot, just once, to put it back on, it would be easy for the next person who came in to take the ring. Instantly, the case returned to an indiscriminate murder. Anyone could have taken the ring. Gregory could have taken it. They were back to square one on this case, again.
The buzzing of a few machines could be heard in one of the rooms of the abandoned lab. Most of the lights remained off to conserve electricity, but Saburou figured, if he had to wait around, he might as well process some evidence. In particular, the fingerprint he had received from the bizarre journalist had his curiosity awakened.
He scanned the results into the computer to check the database and waited impatiently for it to sort through all the entries. What eventually came back was almost a surprise. Saburou could only shake his head in sad disapproval at the picture glowing on the screen. It would have been expected from that man, that he would lift his own print from the desk. Apparently, the journalist had a traffic record from many years past. That was the farthest any of the supplied information led.
Glancing at his watch, Saburou checked to see how much time had passed. Not enough had, but seeing the late hour reminded him how upset he was. That Yamada was going to pay! Since he knew fuming over it wouldn't bring his son home faster, the father slumped onto a couch. Trying to relax was hopeless, though. He was too worried about Nori.
Finally, the miss-matched threesome arrived at the lab. Despite its being officially the next day already, Nori was totally wound up. He was far from tired. The day had been so exciting! Spotting a dim light in a back room, he ran full speed through the hallway, his backpack overflowing with papers. Saburou's ears perked up as soon as he heard them approaching. At last they could go home and get some sleep.
Meeting the boy just outside his door, he quickly realized Nori was no longer ready for sleep. Together they headed back towards the exit, and Saburou got the chance to send one long glare Yamada's way. Nori was just bursting with things he wanted to say, stories he wanted to recount. So many, in fact, that he had no clue where to begin. He decided right as they were pulling out of the parking lot.
"You're not police, Oto-san," he stated surely. "figured it out! You're Kyoko-tentei."
Saburou's shoulders dropped visibly. It wasn't like that. He wasn't that special.
"I think I can be Kyoko-tentei too, Nori continued. Then, he proceeded to explain all that happened in Oume.