Tuesday, June 4, 2013

[Narise Konohara] In the Box - Pt. 6

("The Fragile Swindler" Part 1)
Here begins the second section of In the Box.

This is a continuation of PART 5.


It was the kind of wearisome day where it had been raining since morning, extinguishing any desire to go out. Rainy days were becoming more and more often since entering the last weeks of September. One’s wet umbrella had barely any time to dry before being drenched again.

It was past three in the afternoon when the doorbell in the Nishiyama Detective Agency rang. Michitoshi Oe was in the middle of typing up an investigation report on his computer. The template made his work easier, but he was not very skilled at composition to begin with. Twenty years of doing it had not made him like it any better. A sigh escaped his lips every time he got stuck on a sentence.

Oe continued to work, figuring Nobeoka the clerk would deal with any guests. These kinds of tiresome tasks tended to become even more tiresome if interrupted partway through.

The bell continued to ring―two, three times.

“Nobeoka, my man, there’s someone at the door.”

There was no answer. Oe tilted his head in perplexity. Something was wrong. Then, he remembered. About fifteen minutes ago, Nobeoka had told him that he was going out to “buy coffee, and all sorts of other stuff we’ve run out of”. Oe had brushed him off with an absent-minted answer and completely forgotten.

The chief was absent, and his junior Katori was out investigating. Oe emitted a long sigh, and reluctantly rose out of his chair.

The bell rang incessantly. Someone’s in a rush, Oe griped mentally as he pulled the door open widely towards him.

“Hello, this is Nishiyama Detective Agency.”

In front of him was a chest clad in a white shirt. Oe had to look up to see his face. The man was towering. He looked young―in his late twenties, perhaps.

“I want you to find someone,” the man said curtly.

“You’re here to request a search, then. Come on in.” As Oe ushered him into the office, he spotted the dirty umbrella in the man’s hand.

“Oh, if you would put your umbrella in the umbrella stand over there―”

The man shoved his clear plastic umbrella roughly into the stand. When Oe offered him a seat on the sofa, he seated himself squarely in the middle. The man was not only tall; he also had long legs. His knees were bent uncomfortably in the confined space between the sofa and coffee table. Oe sat down across from him.

Out of his usual habit, Oe discreetly checked his visitor’s clothes and accessories. The man’s watch was a typical fake, the logo one letter off from the actual brand. He was wearing canvas basketball shoes on his feet. His white short-sleeved shirt was spotless and pressed neatly, and his black pants were kept in good condition with no strangely shiny spots. The simple design of his top and bottoms made his outfit look almost like a student’s summer uniform.

The man’s hair was short. It suited him, but the style was far from modern. His plain outfit and hairstyle gave him the kind of classic atmosphere of an actor in youth films back in the sixties, when Nikkatsu and Daiei were in their heyday. Oe wondered if the man dressed like this on purpose, but his watch was too pitiful for that, and his shoes did not match his outfit.

“Please let me introduce myself. I’m Michitoshi Oe, an investigator at Nishiyama Detective Agency. Would I be able to get your name?”

“Kei Kitagawa,” the man answered. When Oe asked for his age, he replied, “Thirty-four.” He looked much younger than his age. His head was small, and the structure of his brow and nose was well-balanced. He no doubt fell into “handsome” category, but the man’s face was sorely lacking in expression. It was hard to discern what he was thinking.

Clients who came to detective agencies came because they were all more or less “troubled” about something. They came in with uncertain faces, angry faces; those who were weak-willed were often nervous out of their wits at being in a detective agency. This man fitted none of these patterns.

Whether he was brave or simply ignorant, Oe would soon find out by talking to him. He got a clipboard ready and prepared to take notes.

“So you were saying you were looking for someone. Let me assure you that we would be very happy to be of help to you. Allow me to jump right in. Could you tell me what kind of person it is you’re searching for―name, age, your relationship with this person―with as much detail as you can?”

Oe quit his company after two years to join the detective agency, where he was now fast into his twenty-fourth year. He was turning forty-eight this year. His long work relationship with Nishiyama, the chief, had given Oe a certain level of power to make decisions based on his own discretion.

No matter what kind of request it was, they were not to accept it until they had heard the story first. This was because some clients asked for things that were completely beyond the boundaries of common sense. Once, a mother had come in asking them to find her son. When she elaborated, they discovered that the son was in fact missing in the mountains. His body had not been recovered, and they had already performed his funeral five years ago without a body. The mother, still wanting to find it nevertheless, had come to them with this request. Live bodies were one thing, but searching for a dead body was beyond the field of detective work. In the end, they politely backed out of her request.

“The man I want you to find is an acquaintance,” the man said. “His name is Takafumi Douno. He turns thirty-six this year.” The man spoke abruptly, in a low voice. Oe took down the important points and predicted this man’s situation from previous experience. When men sought other male acquaintances, it most likely had to do with borrowed money.

“When and how did you meet Mr. Douno?”

“We first met six years ago. Douno came into the cell where I was living, in prison.”

Oe’s hand naturally stopped at the word “prison”. He looked up. Even when their eyes met, Kitagawa’s expression did not change. Oe slowly looked down again to avoid giving away his agitation. He had handled a number of clients in the past with criminal histories, but Kitagawa was lacking in the outlaw, devil-may-care attitude that was so common to them.

Oe felt the tension mount at his own cookie-cutter questions. He did not know what kind of crime this man had committed, but perhaps he was prone to angry outbursts. Caution was necessary.

“So this Mr. Douno whom you were in prison with―can you tell me why you’re looking for him?”

“Because I want to see him.”

Oe slowly twiddled his ballpoint pen from side to side.

“But there are a lot of reasons you might want to see him. For example, maybe you two had some money-related disagreement in prison.”

“I want to see Douno because he’s someone I like.”

Oe furrowed his brow. One would not normally pay the staggering detective fees to find an average, friendly acquaintance.

I liked her back in school. I want you to find a teacher who was good to me when I was a student. Oe could understand those kinds of requests. But the client and the sought person were both prisoners. What kind of respect could you have for a fellow prisoner? Oh, maybe if he was a prisoner who reflected on what he did, felt true remorse, and became a reformed man. If he was the type to be well-liked for his lofty morals, I could still understand where he’s coming from.

“You said you first met him six years ago. When was the last time you saw him?”

“Spring of the next year, about a month before he was set to be released.”

The two had interacted for less than a year, and had a five year gap of no contact. Oe knitted his brow. Searching for people and their whereabouts became more difficult as more time passed.

“Did you and Mr. Douno exchange addresses before he was released?”

Kitagawa narrowed his eyes slightly.

“In prison, inmates get punished if they exchange addresses. The guy who gets out first could fraud the other guy’s family out of their money while he’s still in prison. Or, if they’re thieves, they’ll team up and pull heists together.”

“I see,” was all Oe could say. Everything in the man’s first-hand account of prison was new to him.

“It’s forbidden,” the man continued, “but it basically means you have to make sure you don’t get caught or ratted out. If you write it down, it’ll get caught during spot check. Everyone used to memorize everything. I was thinking of asking Douno for his address, but I got thrown into a secure cell before he was released, and I didn’t get to talk to him at all.”

Oe felt chilled. He did not know what a secure cell was, but from the tone of the conversation, he could imagine it was not a place where a well-behaved inmate would be put.

“Then, can you tell me everything you know about Mr. Douno? Anything will do. Even if you don’t know his exact address, it can be a prefecture, or even east or west Japan.”

“I don’t know. Douno never mentioned anything.”

Oh, come on, Oe groaned inwardly. Detectives weren’t perfect. If he was given no information, he could not even begin to think about where and how to begin looking.

“Didn’t you discuss any personal things with Mr. Douno?”

Kitagawa seemed to lower his gaze slightly.

“I talked about myself. But Douno didn’t say anything.”

Oe posed him a few more questions. He found out that Douno had a younger sister, and that she and both his parents were alive and well, and that he had a lover whom he was planning to marry, but nothing else.

“Did you hear about what kind of job Mr. Douno had before he got into prison?”

“City hall.”

Amidst all the things Kitagawa claimed he did not know, this one was a quick answer. An occupation needing technical skill or qualification would create the possibility of Douno resuming a job in the same field; however, with city hall, once he was let go, he would never be able to go back. The potential path of finding him by his occupation ended abruptly and unceremoniously.

Oe stroke his chin, looking intently at his clipboard.

“His name, his age, and his former job is all we have. If you met each other in prison, you probably wouldn’t have photos. Allow me to tell you the truth: it would be very difficult to find Mr. Douno.”

Deep creases appeared between Kitagawa’s eyebrows. He had given up before even searching―Oe could understand why the man would be displeased.

“I’ll pay. I want you to find him.”

Oe hunched his shoulders slightly and spread his palms open.

“It’s not about the money. There are too few clues in the information you’ve given me, Mr. Kitagawa. I have nothing to narrow my focus on. If you’ll allow me to speak from past experience, the probability of finding someone in these circumstances is extremely low. Investigation also doesn’t come cheap. It’s best if you save your money for something else rather than a fruitless search.”

“You’re a detective. Isn’t it your job to find people?”

“Yes, but we’re not all-powerful. If there’s no information, there’s no way even we can find him.”

Oe sensed the man purse his lips in an angry line. Sensing the enormous torso slowly bend forward, he reflexively jumped backwards on the sofa. He had a feeling he was about to be punched.

“I’m begging you. Please find him,” the man pleaded, his forehead and hands touching the table in front of him. Oe stood up hastily and approached him.

“Please, lift your face, Mr. Kitagawa.”

The man slowly lifted his head. He did not so much as blink. Oe began to feel flustered, fixed with the man’s desperate gaze.

“The detective agency I went to last week, and another one the week before, both turned me down and told me they couldn’t find him. I don’t care how much it costs. I want you to find him, please.”

The tension radiating from the man was unsettling. Oe glanced left and right as if seeking help, but all of the other workers were out. He was the only one here.

“Just as the other agencies have told you, it will be difficult finding him.”

No matter how much explaining Oe did, the man only stubbornly responded with, “Please find him.” The conversation was going nowhere. Oe tried to think of an excuse that would send him home at least for the day.

“To tell you the truth, even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to take on your case on my own decision,” Oe explained. “All the power lies with the chief, and unless we have his OK, we can’t do anything. Since the chief is not here right now, would it be alright if I talked to him right after he comes back? I’ll ask him right away if we can take on your case, and I’ll contact you.”

The man gave a shallow nod, apparently satisfied with his hastily-composed excuse. Oe was relieved. He offered Kitagawa the clipboard he had been taking notes with, along with his pen.

“Anywhere there’s space, could you write down your address and name, and your cell phone number?”

The man’s writing was not exactly sloppy, but it was rather angular. His address read, “Maple On-site Dorm, Kitajima Steel Factory”. Here was a factory who had hired Kitagawa while aware of his criminal record. The man lived in an on-site dorm. Definitely not making big bucks, Oe conjectured.

He looked down at the clipboard that was returned to him, and questioned the man. Something important was missing.

“Could you tell me your cell phone number? I think you forgot to write it down.”

“I don’t have one.”

It was unusual for a young man like him not to have one.

“Do you have some sort of common telephone at your dorm, then?”

“Yeah, but someone broke it last month and it’s been like that since. Everyone has cell phones already, so people barely used it. That’s probably why they don’t feel like fixing it, either.”

“Isn’t that inconvenient for you? What about when you need to contact your family urgently?”

“I don’t have any family.”

For a moment, Oe’s words stuck in his throat.

“I have a mother,” the man continued, “but the last time I saw her was the one time before I got arrested. I probably have a father too, but I’ve never even heard about him.”

Didn’t mothers usually come to see their sons at least once, even though they were in prison? Was she so fed up with her son’s crime, or had she fled because she wanted nothing to do with it?

“Is there a telephone at your workplace that I can get hold of you through?”

“The company phone is for business. The president won’t like it if I get a call during work hours. But if it’s after work... oh, then the office would be closed.” The man folded his arms and knitted his brow, appearing to be deep in thought.

“I’ll come here tomorrow,” he said finally. ”Work ends past eight in the evening, so I can get here at eight thirty.”

Oe had been investigating an extramarital affair in the evenings since last week. If his target wrapped up at work by seven and went home straight without stopping along the way, it would take him about twenty minutes by train and fifteen minutes by foot from his office to his home. Oe figured he could still come back to the office after finishing the investigation. But if the target made contact with his illicit lover, Oe would have no way of knowing when he could get back.

In that case, however, Oe concluded that he could always tell the chief about his situation and have him deal with Kitagawa instead.

“Alright,” Oe agreed. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow at eight-thirty at this office.”

Once their discussion was over, the man strode swiftly out. He was just as impatient leaving as he was coming in. Oe drew up to the window and looked down at the sidewalk below. The dirty umbrella was easily spotted even from a distance as it grew smaller amidst the rain. The man seemed pushy, and it would probably be a hassle if he argued with the same stubbornness tomorrow. A heavy sigh escaped naturally from Oe’s lips.

What crime had that man, Kitagawa, been imprisoned for? He had been released four years ago, which meant he had been thirty. If he had been granted a release at that age, he could not have committed a crime that serious. Theft, fraud, assault, drugs―no, probably not drugs. Oe’s liberal assumption came from the man’s classic look.

He doesn’t seem like a bad man, but he was raised by a single parent. His mother doesn’t seem too affectionate, either. He looks like the straight-laced type, but maybe he had something in him that made him turn to crime, Oe thought casually, as if were none of his own affair.

It was past eight when Oe arrived home at his two-bedroom apartment. There was no phone call asking for backup from Katori, who was out tailing someone since the afternoon. Things appeared to be going well. Oe could have gone home earlier if he wanted, but he had gotten engrossed in a conversation with the chief.

When he explained his opinion to the chief, that the case for man with a criminal record who came in the afternoon would probably not end in a successful search, the chief agreed.

“It’s probably best if we turn him down,” he had said. When Oe told him that the man did not have a phone, and that he would come to the office the next evening to hear what he had to say, the chief reassured him that he would decline on Oe’s behalf if he was out investigating.

The rain had started in the afternoon, but continued well into the night, getting lighter and heavier but showing no signs of letting up. If tomorrow’s weather was like this too, Oe would have trouble tailing. The target would be easy to spot since he had an umbrella, but he could just as easily be spotted himself since he would be carrying his own. It was hard to keep the right amount of tailing distance.

Oe walked down the narrow hall while he loosened the knot of his tie. There was no dress code at work, but in the detective field, trustworthiness was paramount. Suits usually boded well for everyone, and they made their clients feel comfortable. In addition, detectives in principle had to go unnoticed because of the kind of work they did, such as tailing and stakeouts. Apart from theme parks, perhaps, the clothing that best blended in with daily scenery and was natural to see on a man of his age was a suit. More than anything, suits were the chief’s idea of “looking good”. However, Katori on the other hand never wore suits unless he had to. Opinions on aesthetics were scattered at this office.

Oe went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. He failed to spot anything he could eat right away, so he took a cup of instant noodles out of the cupboard and put on some water to boil. Oe always finished work at irregular hours, so as soon as his wife realized that any dinner left for him would only spoil, she stopped setting his portion aside.

Unable to wait for the three minutes it took to cook, Oe sat at the living room table across from the kitchen and began to slurp on his undercooked noodles. He had just started when he heard hasty footsteps in the hallway. His wife was peeking in from the entrance to the room.

“You’re home early.” She sat down across from Oe. Sometimes when she had a bad day, she would ignore Oe altogether when he came home, but today she seemed to be in a good mood. Oe’s wife was two years younger than him and beautiful in her own way when they married, but none of that beauty was apparent now. Her cheeks sagged and the wrinkles were etched into her face. Her body was shapeless. Oe did not even feel the desire to unclothe her anymore. She was becoming less and less of a woman to him. Oe figured that perhaps was no longer a man to her as well, for the same kind of reason.

Oe’s wife propped up her elbows on the table and rested her cheek on her hand, watching Oe’s face intently. However, when he turned away, she let out a long, long sigh.

“I talked to Miharu, and she still says she won’t be able to make it into a national university.” Their daughter, Miharu, was in her third and last year of high school. Next year, she was set to apply for university. She had said she wanted to enter the Arts department of a national university in the neighbourhood.

“You know she’s bad at maths and sciences. She says she won’t be able to pass the national exams.”

Oe furrowed his brow. In his opinion, they were already straining themselves considerably to pay for her to attend a national university. A private university would only increase that burden.

“We won’t be able to manage a private university with your salary, right?” his wife said. “I know. Even if I were to work part-time, it wouldn’t add much.”

It seemed his wife had internalized the fact as well.

“Can you seriously consider what we talked about last time?” his wife glanced up at him.

“What’s that again?” Oe bluffed. His wife clenched both hands and banged them on the table.

“What I said about you helping out with my father’s construction company!”

“I’ve already said no. I have a career I want to follow.”

His wife pouted.

“I’m not saying your detective work is bad,” she said. “But your salary hasn’t gone up in the past five years, has it? Some years you’re lucky enough to get a bonus, but some years you don’t get any. To tell you the truth, your salary is barely enough to sustain the three of us. For someone the same age as you working at a regular company, it would be normal to make at least three hundred... no, four hundred thousand a month... even more.”

Her voice was as sharp as needles. When Oe gave no answer, she grabbed his arm and shook it.

“Hey!” she insisted.

“Convince Miharu that she’s going to a national university or nothing.”

Suddenly, his wife’s expression changed. “It’s not fair that she has to give up on higher learning because we can’t afford it. The poor girl!” Her shrill, agitated voice was irritating to the ears.

“I’m not saying she has to give up. I can still pay for her to go to a national university.”

“I’ll make Miharu work harder, of course, but aren’t you willing even to bend a little?”

Oe averted his eyes from his wife and her tirade. “You can eat enough not to starve and you have enough to wear to keep you warm. Don’t be greedy.”

Hah. He heard an irritating laugh.

“What are you saying?" his wife said derisively. "That’s not enough, which is why everyone’s working. If we only needed food and clothes, we’d be no better than the homeless. Stop giving me nonsense and give it some serious thought. My father’s already told me that he’s willing to give you more than your current salary if you have any desire to transfer to his company.”

Oe was at once embarrassed and intensely angered that his wife had been snitching to his father-in-law about how her husband’s salary was too low. It was true that detective work could hardly be called high-paying, but he had worked diligently at his job. He had handed over all of his earnings to his wife, himself enduring an allowance of only ten thousand yen a month.

“It must be so hassle-free, living life just looking downwards at all the people who have less than us,” his wife said scathingly. “Well, reality isn’t like that. Consider what I said before, do you hear?” she spat before leaving the living room. Oe no longer felt like eating the rest of his cup noodles. His wife’s loud outburst at his ear had taken away his appetite altogether.

His daughter was still dear to him, no matter how underachieving she was, and he more than wanted to let her go to the university of her choosing. But realistically, he did not have the money. In addition to that, Oe was also not convinced that Miharu wanted to go to university that badly in the first place. If she really was serious, would she not have stayed home studying diligently during summer vacation instead of “taking a breather” and going away on a trip?

Oe had told his wife that he had a career wanted to follow, but he was actually not so attached to detective work. The majority of the cases that came into his office were investigations to do with love affairs. Dealing with these cases every day made him distrustful of people. There was no emotion more ugly than hatred and jealousy. Every time he encountered angry yelling, crying, and confrontations, he was overcome with futility. But he got used to it; it was shocking to see a river of sewage in a place one had never been to before, but one’s eyes eventually glossed over it once it became a daily fixture. This was the same thing.

Oe’s hesitation towards changing careers came from uncertainty more than his attachment to his job. After living so freely, he did not know if he could handle a regular company job. He knew nothing about the construction industry, and he had no experience in clerical work. Could he go from spending the majority of the day out and about to being chained to his desk? He figured his wife would not understand what it meant to find out he was not cut out for a job, or to be labelled as incompetent, at this age.

The woman’s eyes only saw the numbers on his salary slip. If he talked to her, then, would she understand? Would she say, “I guess it can’t be helped” and back down? Oe laughed to himself. He had a feeling about how this would end.

“You don’t know until you try,” his wife would insist, and she would cease to think any further.

Continued in PART 7.

* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).