Monday, June 10, 2013

[Narise Konohara] In the Box - Pt. 7

("The Fragile Swindler" Part 2)

This is a continuation of PART 6.

The next day, the man that Oe had been tailing finished work at ten minutes to seven and headed home without stopping anywhere along the way. Oe’s job was over the minute the man stepped into his house. The time was half past seven. It was approximately twenty minutes from the man’s house to Oe’s office. He could make it for his eight-thirty appointment without rushing.

In truth, Oe was less than eager to see the persistent man again, but he felt guilty pushing the burden onto his chief. Oe steeled himself and strode purposefully down the narrow path through the residential neighbourhood.

He was not in a rush by all means, but a sheen of sweat began to form on his forehead. The ground had still not dried from the rain, which had not let up until late last evening, and the humid air stuck to his skin. It felt like the rainy season was here already. When Oe boarded the train, he was momentarily released from the humidity by the cool air in the air-conditioned car.

Three high-school girls wearing the uniform of his daughter’s school were standing near the doors. Oe’s heart contracted for a moment, but Miharu was not among them.

The words “university admissions” rose in the back of his mind. Frankly, if Miharu had no particular desire to pursue further learning, Oe much preferred that she find a job and start working instead. It made things a lot easier. Further learning would be pointless without a goal. University was not a moratorium until working life came along. It would be much more beneficial to work and begin to learn about society instead of fooling around in the name of studying.

If Oe were to talk to his wife about his daughter’s finding employment, he was sure she would be outraged and insist that it was a cruel thing to do. To his wife, the daughter was not to blame for doing badly in school; the husband was ti\o blame for not making enough money. Oe himself did not want to prevent their daughter from going to post-secondary. The problem was that it cost too much. If he had the money, he would not mind sending his daughter to university, even though he was fully aware that she would slack off instead of study.

If only he had the money. Oe stared up at the white ceiling of the train. If he had the money, he would not have to quit being a detective to find other work. His wife would stop complaining about being poor, and his daughter would get the university student status she’d been wanting to have.

“It’s all about money in the end,” he muttered quietly.

When Oe got off at the station nearest to his office along with the three high school girls, the momentary cool relief vanished as he was closed in from all sides by the humid air again. A shortcut to his office was to walk along the riverside and cut through the park. Oe strode down the dark path along the river, which was dotted sparsely with street lamps. Once he entered the park, which consisted of a sandbox, a wooden bench, and two small swings, the number of street lamps increased for the purpose of crime prevention. The extra street lamps lit the place considerably better.

Oe saw a figure sitting on the bench. His face was indiscernible, for it was thrown in shadow, but the man appeared young. He was sitting with his head hung low. Oe passed the man quickly. God knew what could set people off nowadays. These days in this society, you could get stabbed just for making eye contact with someone.

“Oe,” a voice called just as Oe passed by. He stopped and turned around. As the man stood up slowly in the dark, a street lamp illuminated his mouth. The man’s awkwardly-parted lips moved.

“Mr. Oe.”

The man came nearer, casting a long shadow behind him.

“I was going to head over to your office in a bit.”

Kitagawa stood before him, in the same short-sleeve shirt and black pants. He had materialized without even a chance for Oe to mentally prepare himself.

“What are you doing here?” Oe cast a glance at his surroundings. There was nothing to be found in the park at nightfall but dim lights and dolefulness.

“I was killing time. I thought it’d be a nuisance for you if I went too early.”

Oe had initially thought the man was impatient, but apparently he possessed some courtesy as well. Now Oe did not even have to take him to the office; he only had to turn the man down right here. But when Oe thought of how Kitagawa might not take no for an answer, and instead continue to argue with him, he suddenly felt dismal. Then again, he could not simply put off things he did not want to do.

“This is a good chance for us to talk. Why don’t we chat right here?” Oe suggested. This conversation was not casual enough to have standing up, but he felt like if they sat down, it would only lengthen their stay.

“About what you asked yesterday,” he continued, “I’ve talked to the chief, and in the end we’ve reached the conclusion that we can’t take your case. The basis of our decision is that the information we have on hand is so little that a search would be difficult.”

The man took a step forward and clenched Oe’s right arm.

“I don’t care how much time or money it’ll take. I want you to find him.”

The man’s face was drawing closer to his. Kitagawa was younger, taller, and stronger―at least in appearance―than him. The necessities of Oe’s occupation had made him learn his fair share of self-defence and martial arts, but he had never used any of it in real life. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead.

“B-But you see, as I told you before, investigative fees are not exactly cheap.”

“I told you I would pay!” The man’s voice rose and his tone turned stormy. Oe wanted to run away with his tail between his legs.

“If we don’t find him in the end, you still won’t get any of those fees back.”

“It doesn’t matter.” The fingers around his arm clenched harder until it became painful.

“Please, my arm―” Oe implored. Much to his surprise, the man’s fingers instantly unclenched and drew away.

“Oh, sorry about that.”

At one point Oe had feared what would become of himself, but when he observed the man to be the type to keep his cool, he was reassured for the time being. The man stood with his arms close at his sides and his head bowed, like a scolded child.

“I’ve asked a lot of other detectives in the past, but none of them were able to find Douno. Every time, they told me I didn’t have enough information. I know it’s not going to be an easy search.”

The man lifted his face. His unsteady gaze put Oe under the illusion that he was this man’s last hope.

“But how am I ever going to find him if I don’t keep looking?” Kitagawa’s tone was desperate. Oe began to pity the man as he watched him slumped and standing forlorn.

“Let’s sit down for a bit, shall we?” Oe ushered Kitagawa onto a bench. He sat down beside the man. Kitagawa, looking completely extinguished, slouched forward and cradled his head in his hands.

“Is he someone you want to see that badly?” Oe asked.

“Yes,” came the man’s muffled reply.

If Kitagawa had turned up no results at the other detective agencies, it was clear that there was a definite lack of information. His own office, Nishiyama Detective Agency, was not exactly large, either. He was limited, to say the least, in the things he could do and the results he could show for it. Turning Kitagawa down was for his own good as well as out of Oe’s consideration for him.

“Don’t think that I don’t understand how you feel, Mr. Kitagawa. But the reality is that this is going to be an incredibly difficult search. It’ll be like sifting through all the sand on a beach to find one grain of rice. Instead of wasting your money on something like this, why not buy the things you want, take a trip or two, enjoy yourself?”

The man fell silent. A brittle scraping as he raked his nails through his short hair.

“I didn’t mind living in prison,” he began suddenly without warning. “I got three meals a day, and I could bathe. I had my own futon. I had a place to belong there.”

“You may have been cared for, but there’s no freedom in prison.”

The man nodded his short-haired head.

“After Douno was released, it took me almost a year until I was let out. I was angry at how long it felt for a day, an hour, a minute to pass. I finally understood that that was what it meant to have no freedom.”

The man looked up.

“It’s been four years since I left that place. I’m free now, and my body can take me wherever I want to go―but I can’t see Douno. I’ve been looking for him all this time, and still I can’t find him.”

If this man had been searching ever since getting out of prison, he was quite tenacious.

“So this Mr. Douno must have been very good to you while you were in prison.”

The man twitched a corner of his mouth up in a sneer.

“I’m the one that was good to him. He seemed smart, but he was weak, and didn’t know anything, and had no idea how to go about things. That’s why I shared my cold medicine and tissues with him.”

I thought he wanted to see Douno again because he respected him, Oe thought in perplexity, but continued the conversation anyway.

“Then I guess Mr. Douno is the one who has to thank you when you meet,” he remarked.

“Thank me? Oh. I don’t really care about that. I just want to see him. I want to see him, talk to him, and then...”

Oe doubted his ears when he heard the man’s next words.

“Do you think I’d be able to live with him?”

“I, er, don’t think that would be possible.”

“Why not?” the man tilted his head.

“It’s been six years since his release. I think he might have a life of his own now. If he had a lover then, they may be married now. Even if Mr. Douno was still single, it’d be unnatural for two men to live together, unless there was some special financial circumstance.”

“Are you saying I’m not normal?”

Oe swallowed his words at the man’s frankness. It went without asking: Kitagawa’s thought patterns were not defined by common sense, but Oe was reluctant to say so out loud.

“I’m just saying it’s not very common. Of course, there may be people out there who do,” he conceded vaguely. Kitagawa drew his eyebrows together and tilted his head slightly.

“Aren’t there a lot of homos out there in the world, and not just in prison? Don’t they live together? Or does one go over to the other guy’s house every day?”

Oe’s eyes bulged. He knew he was extremely unsettled, but he nevertheless made an effort to look unperturbed so that the other man would not notice. I heard “acquaintance”, not “male lover”. Oh, but he did say that he wanted to see him because he was “someone I like”. He had found it strange, but had convinced himself that it was a sort of affection between an apprentice and master. He had not expected it to be a romantic attachment.

Oe looked the man over. His stoic demeanour gave away not a speck of femininity. Did that mean the other man played the woman’s part? But didn’t the other man have a fiancee? He had a female fiancee, and yet was involved in a romantic relationship with Kitagawa―Oe began to spiral into confusion.

A man with a fiancee committed a crime and was put into prison, where he met Kitagawa in the same cell and became romantically involved with him. The man finished his term and was released first. Kitagawa, who was released later, was searching for the man who used to be his lover. Oe got the basic picture.

What he did not understand was this other man, Douno. He had a female fiancee, yet he had relations with a man inside prison. He was quite an unfaithful character. Let’s say... for the sake of argument, that Douno was actually in love with Kitagawa. If he was serious, wouldn’t he have come to pick Kitagawa up when he was released?

“Didn’t Mr. Douno know when you were being released, Mr. Kitagawa?”

The man pursed his lips grumpily.

“I told him. Maybe he forgot.”

“Do you think he’d forget the day his lover would be set free?”

Oe’s question was right to the point. A lover who didn’t come to see him released―perhaps Kitagawa did not want to face the inevitable truth that the fact implied.

“Maybe Douno doesn’t want to see me.”

Oh, so he knows, Oe thought, but Kitagawa did not appear affected as he stared blankly at the swings in the far side of the park.

“But I want to see him.”

Foolish, Oe thought. If the fact the they were two men did not make things difficult enough, they did not even have mutual feelings for each other. It was absolutely pointless. What could amount from spending money on a search? Even if the man was found and they were able to meet each other again, Kitagawa would only be shunned. But the man was aware of that, too.

“Was Mr. Douno such a great person?”

After a long silence, Kitagawa answered, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Douno talked to me about a lot of things. I didn’t even understand half of the things he said, but I felt happy listening to him.”


“Isn’t that what they call love?”

Oe failed to understand what Kitagawa was trying to get at. Was he saying they talked, got along, and therefore it was love? No―if Kitagawa said it had made him happy, perhaps Douno had said something that made Kitagawa feel that way.

“You know, it actually isn’t that difficult to say the kind of things that make people happy. Basically, you just have to compliment them. No one gets offended by compliments.”

“Douno wasn’t complimenting me.”

“He doesn’t have to do it directly. There are ways to stroke someone’s ego covertly.”

Kitagawa knitted his brow.

“It might have been that, it might not have. I don’t remember anymore.”

Just when he seemed stubborn, he would easily waver. Perhaps this man was the type to get tricked easily, and hence why he had been manipulated by Douno.

But Kitagawa was aware of it. It was not like he did not understand that he was no longer wanted. Yet, he still clung to the feelings of his past―it was a typical pattern of a bad relationship.

He should just quit searching. Instead of investing money in emotions that will never be requited, he should use it for other things. It was a waste of money, first and foremost. There were hoards of people out there who were scrambling for cash.

Oe gave a short sigh. He was one of those scrambling people. He was an unhappy man, forced into a career change by his wife because he didn’t make enough money. He did not think money was everything, but there were certainly things that money could solve.

“We won’t be able to take your case, Mr. Kitagawa. What will you do next?”

“I’ll ask another detective.”

“Even if you ask another agency, I don’t think they’ll find him.”

“That’s fine. It gives me peace of mind to have someone out there searching.”

Kitagawa would most likely act upon his word and commission another detective agency. Only malevolent agencies agreed to cases which were hopeless from the start, with the sole purpose of raking in investigative fees. Such companies certainly did exist in this industry. Considerate agencies turned down requests; untrustworthy agencies were the ones who always confidently declared that their search would be a success. This man, unknowing of this fact, would probably end up surrendering his money to these scams, where it would simply be swallowed up into the dark.

The base fee for searching the whereabouts of a person, depending on the content, was about 40,000 yen a week, give or take. If Oe had to take trips out of town, he could claim those expenses separately. He could make about 160,000 to 200,000 in a month. If he continued that for three months, it would add up to somewhat of a small bonus.

It was a reckless plan―Oe internally laughed off the idea which had sprung without warning into his head. It was not so easy to trick someone. Swindlers were careful and minute with their plans. Even if the target was easy to trick, a plan developed on-the-fly was not bound to go over well.

Kitagawa worked at a steel factory, but Oe had a feeling that his job did not require specialized knowledge. He guessed Kitagawa’s highest education level was high school, or vocational school at best. He was probably not well-versed in law, and seeing that he had a criminal record, he was probably reluctant to go to the police for advice about anything, for he would probably want to avoid being involved with them. To add to that, the man did not have a cell phone, and had no access to his company phone. His only method of contact was to meet people directly. Oe’s heart raced. Every fragment he pieced together of the man seemed to lead in a favourable direction for him.

Maybe it would work. No―he was positive it would. But no matter how much this man was willing to throw his money down the drain, it was still a crime to trick him out of it. ―But was it really? Kitagawa was satisfied with the situation of “having someone out searching”. His peace of mind came not from the contents of the search, but the act of searching itself. Oe would pretend to search to give Kitagawa peace of mind. He would receive money in return. Supply and demand matched perfectly. It would be under the pretence of a lie, yes, but both sides would attain satisfaction nonetheless.

But still―Oe struggled with his conflicting feelings. Even if this made all sides happy, if he was discovered, he would be arrested. Perhaps he could manage if he made a proper report. He was not being taped on surveillance, after all. If he flipped one page of a phone book each day, it could still pass as an investigation.

Could he try it out? If Kitagawa became suspicious, all he had to do was terminate the investigation. Oe clenched his hands into tight fists.

“―You want us to take the case, no matter what, am I right?” Even talking normally seemed to make his throat unnaturally dry. The man gave a shallow nod.

“We’ve concluded that the office cannot handle your case. But it seems to me that you have your own issues. What I can do is personally take on your case instead.”


Despite his attempt at a cool outward appearance, Oe’s heart was hammering like an alarm bell.

“Which means we’ll do this without going through my office. I’ll investigate on my own whenever I have time, and hand over the results to you.”

“I don’t mind what it is, as long as you’ll search for him.”

It was precisely the ideal answer he was looking for.

“Then let us do this: I’ll do everything within my power to search for Mr. Douno. But since I’m prohibited by my agency from taking personal cases, I would like you to keep this a business just between the two of us, which means I would appreciate if you didn’t contact the office at all about this. If my agency finds out, I’ll receive due punishment, and that will be the end of the investigation for you. ...Is that alright?”

Oe emphasized “end of the investigation” to eliminate the chances of Kitagawa contacting the agency.

“Got it,” the man said with a solemn nod.

“I also have agency work to do, so I won’t be able to devote all of my time to your case, Mr. Kitagawa. So I will report to you once every half-month. As for investigative fees, since I have no support from my agency on this, if I have to end up tailing someone by taxi I may not be able to cover the fees myself. So with that in mind, would you be able to pay me part of the investigative fee immediately, as down payment? Of course, I will return whatever I don’t use to you, and if I happen to spend over that amount, I will charge you separately.”

Despite his internal turmoil, Oe’s lips moved nimbly to recite an explanation he had gotten used to giving.

“How much would it cost?”

“Let’s see... a week’s worth of investigation is 40,000 yen, so a half-month’s worth is about 100,000 yen to start with. Would you be able to pay that much?”

The man dug into his pocket and pulled out some bare bills. They were ordinary 10,000 yen bills, yet the sight of them made Oe tense enough to feel his pulse in his fingertips. Kitagawa counted the crumpled bills and clicked his tongue irritably.

“I only have 83,000.”

“That’s fine. I can collect the rest the next time we meet.”

Kitagawa furrowed his brow despite the fact that Oe had reassured him he could pay next time. Oe panicked and wondered if his shoddy charade had been exposed. He gradually began to feel sick to the stomach.

Kitagawa stood up suddenly, the difficult expression still on his face.

“I have money back at my dorm. Wait here for a minute while I bring it. I’ll be back in about twenty minutes.”

“There’s no rush.”

Kitagawa shook his head, his expression still stiff.

“It’s important to start on the right foot for these things, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you be more encouraged to work for a customer who pays the whole amount completely, instead of a customer who doesn’t pay right from the start?”

Oe panicked. Was it this easy to make money? Didn’t this man feel any shred of doubt towards him at all? Perhaps he was only making an excuse to go back to his dorm, to call out and bring his brawny friends to beat Oe into a pulp for tricking him.

“Really, I don’t mind if you bring it next time. I trust you, Mr. Kitagawa, and I have no intentions of doing a substandard investigation just because of a late payment.”

For the moment, I just want to go home with as much money as I can get. That was Oe’s honest state of mind.

“Oh,” Oe added, “if you happen to have the reports from your previous detective agencies, would you be able to lend them to me next time we meet, so I can use them as reference? I would only be wasting my time if I did the same things that other agencies did. I would like to take a different approach.”

The brusque man appeared to smile.

“No, actually, I’ll get those now. Wait for me.”

The man left at a run, ignoring Oe’s protests. Oe was left alone in the park. After the man disappeared out of sight, Oe stood up and sat down repeatedly. His guilt at tricking someone, mixed with a strange excitement, made him jittery.

As a detective, it was common for him to lie, or to investigate under a false identity, but those were in the name of the investigation, and were not for his own purposes.

For an instant, he considered going home while Kitagawa was away. Then, he would not have to dirty his hands with such a despicable deed. But if Kitagawa came back to find him really gone, what would he do? Would he chase him back to the agency? Would he make a scene at the office with vengeance, claiming Oe had taken his case on personally? That would be trouble. Big trouble, indeed.

Was Oe locked in from escape, then, because he had put his promise into words about taking Kitagawa’s case upon himself? No. He could still cancel or continue this plan as he needed.

Oe’s superficial guilt was completely erased the moment he saw Kitagawa appear carrying a paper bag in his arms. The expression on the man’s face as he handed the papers over to Oe was like that of a child showing off his treasures.

“This is all of it,” Kitagawa wheezed, having returned three minutes earlier than his predicted twenty minutes. Oe peered into the paper bag and was shocked. There were more reports than he had expected.

“You're really proper,” Kitagawa said.

Oe looked up.

“None of them ever asked me to bring reports from other detectives.”

Oe sometimes asked for other companies’ results, but he never asked for the actual reports. Depending on the detective agency, the quality of reports ranged from superb to useless, and there was no guarantee that the reports were absolutely correct. Oe had requested materials this time only, because he still had to write a report even if he did no investigation. He had felt like he would be able to summarize materials from other companies to come up with something presentable.

“I found this while I was getting the reports together.” Kitagawa offered Oe a piece of paper folded into four. Oe unfolded it and was astonished at what he saw. On the scrap of paper was an incredibly detailed drawing of a man’s face, done in pencil, like the sketches that the police used for their investigations.

“What’s this?”

“I drew it from my memories of Douno.”

The man on the piece of paper had no notable traits apart from his shaved head, and was as average as average Joes came. The man’s facial features aside, Oe was more impressed at how good the drawing was. Oe himself had been part of the visual arts club when he was a student. He stopped drawing after he graduated, but to this day he still took outings to the art gallery when it held exhibitions of his favourite artists.

“You’re very good at drawing, Mr. Kitagawa. Have you taken lessons somewhere?”

“Will that help in your search?” was Kitagawa’s non-answer.

“I think it will. I’ll hold onto this, if you don’t mind. Say, Mr. Kitagawa, did you learn drawing somewhere?” he asked again out of curiosity.

“When I still went to school, I hated arts and crafts. I didn’t start drawing until I got into prison. It was because Douno told me I was good.”

“You haven’t taken any formal drawing classes, then.”

Kitagawa shook his head.

“It’s not too late to start. Why not start pursuing drawing seriously?”

Kitagawa shook his head again.

“I can’t. I can only draw what I see. Drawing is something you do with the heart, isn’t it?”

Oe was stuck for an answer at the man’s direct gaze.

“It said so in one of the books they lent out in prison,” Kitagawa continued. “It said to draw with your heart, no matter how sloppy it is. My drawings only imitate real life. Experts can tell these things right off the bat, right?”

Perhaps it was the truth. But it was superficial advice. It was superficial, but it was also the truth. The more Oe thought about it, the more confused he became, and in the end he could say nothing.

Mounds of reports, the sketch, and a hundred thousand yen―after collecting those items, Oe promised Kitagawa to meet here again at the same time, half a month down the road. Kitagawa left in a good mood, not knowing that he had just been victim to a fraud.

Oe, who had remained at the park, called the office on his cell phone. “I met the client in question at the park,” he told them. “I turned down his case on the spot. I’m heading straight home from here.”

Continued in PART 8.

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