Sunday, June 16, 2013

[Narise Konohara] In the Box - Pt. 8

("The Fragile Swindler" Part 3)

This is a continuation of PART 7.

Oe took the paper bag he had received from Kitagawa home to his own apartment. If it was found in the office by the chief or by Katori, he would not be able to account for it. He took a cheap dinner at a beef-bowl franchise for under 500 yen, and got home past ten o’clock. Only the light in the doorway was on, and it appeared his wife and daughter were already asleep.

Oe went to the kitchen and took out a beer from the fridge. He took a swig, then began to lay out the investigation reports from Kitagawa on the dining table. There were about twenty reports, and he sorted them out by year.

The oldest was from four years ago. In a year, Kitagawa had commissioned three to four detective agencies for two to three months each. He supposed price-friendly agencies would charge about 400,000 yen per case at the cheapest. Continue that for four years, and it added up to 6 million yen. Going by this calculation, it meant this man had already spent this ridiculous sum of money solely for the purpose of finding one man. Oe unwittingly sighed―out of exasperation.

Oe perused the reports in order from the oldest. He could sense from the writing the kind of difficulty each agency went through because of the lack of information.

Some agencies had searched for prisoners who lived in the same cell as Kitagawa and Douno. They had probably figured they could find out about Douno from other cellmates, but it was difficult to find cellmates based on just their names. They had found one man called Kakizaki, however―“Re-arrested and currently serving in prison. Unable to secure an interview,” said the report, and that was the disappointing end of that thread.

As he read on, Oe learned that Douno had been imprisoned for indecent assault. Since it was a light offence, he had come into prison after Kitagawa but been released before him in less than a year. With Douno’s criminal history as a reference point, some agencies had accessed sites for “train groping” enthusiasts to collect information, but none had reaped anything of use.

Some agencies conducted proper investigations by computer and footwork to base their reports on, while another chose the unbelievably inefficient method of calling every Douno in the phone book, adding a separate charge for the phone bill. Some reports were clearly from scam agencies. “We were unable to find the target of investigation,” the report said, without even giving details on what kind of investigation was conducted.

It was one o’clock in the morning by the time Oe finished browsing through all of the reports. All of the other agencies had covered the methods he had thought about using himself, and some had approached the search from a standpoint he would never have thought of. If Douno had still not been found after all of this, he was never going to be found. It was impossible, no matter how you looked at it.

Oe put the materials back in the paper bag, and drained the rest of his beer. In his head, he drew up a scenario for the next time they would meet. In one of the reports from two years ago, the agency had called all of the city halls in the four prefectures of the Kanto region, asking if a man called Douno had ever worked there. Oe could take that and arrange it a little, saying he had broadened the search by calling the Chuubu region, but had yielded no results. Next came the Kansai region. This method was unlikely to draw suspicion, too, since it expanded on an investigation that a previous agency had done.

Oe fished out his wallet from his pocket. He peered inside. The bills amounted to exactly 100,000 yen. It was ten months’ worth of his allowance. Tomorrow, he would deposit this into a bank account he had made without his wife’s knowledge. If he continued this for two months, it would add up to 400,000 yen. If Kitagawa was still not suspicious of him, he would continue for another month. That would make 600,000 yen. It would amount to a small bonus.

Oe leaned against his chair-back and stretched backwards. The chair legs creaked dully. The man with the white shirt and black pants flitted across his mind.

He was terse, but not a bad man. Even with a criminal history, he still had the wits to restrain his emotions.

“Homosexual, huh,” Oe muttered to himself. He was not well-versed in non-heterosexual society, but he at least sort of knew the difference between transvestites and gays. Kitagawa was probably the gay type, the kind of person who didn’t have to change his body to love other men.

Sex with another man―just the thought of it made Oe feel sick. He knew had no say in others’ preferences, and if some people were like that, he had no choice but to accept it. Nevertheless, it was not a good feeling.

When it came to romance, their feelings were probably no less different than those between a man and woman, but he could not help but think it futile. They couldn’t marry, nor have children, obviously. On top of that, Japan was not an accepting place for gay people.

Futile, futile, Oe repeated in his head, until he reached one conclusion: perhaps Kitagawa was the type to feel romance in misfortune. A futile relationship, a futile love, a futile search. Oe was merely a chess piece to satisfy the man’s romanticism for the futile.

If that was the case, he would investigate and use up the man’s money, just as Kitagawa wished. It was his goal to be futile, so the content of his investigation and the money didn’t matter. What was important was the miserable fact that he was spending so much money on the search.

Rattle, rattle. The kitchen window facing the passageway outside made a sound, startling Oe out of his seat. It was not very loud―perhaps it was just the wind. His palpitating heart, however, took a while to calm down afterwards.

No matter what kind of logical reason he attached to it, Oe was still tricking a misdirected homosexual ex-con while knowing the man was at a disadvantage.

But as the past investigation reports proved, Oe was not the only one to take advantage of this man.

“It’s his own fault for getting tricked.”

Oe wished he could have another beer.

Once past mid-October, the wind rustling through the falling leaves began to carry a sad note. No amount of strong sunlight was enough to cut the chill of the wind now, and the weather made one want an extra sweater to wear over one’s shirt. Since Oe spent a lot of his time out, he could physically feel the changing seasons. Slowly but surely, they were approaching winter.

Oe arrived at their meeting place in the park about ten minutes past eight-thirty. Kitagawa was sitting on the bench in a white shirt and black pants, so unchanged that it made Oe feel like he was having deja vu. The only thing that had changed was the temperature.

When they had first met, Oe thought Kitagawa was purposely going for the classic look, but his outfit this time made Oe sure that he was not. Kitagawa obviously had nothing to wear other than this white shirt and black pants.

As Oe approached and got a closer view of the man, he instantly noticed how much the man’s face had changed. Kitagawa had a sturdy build to begin with, though he was not fat. In the half-month that Oe had not seen him, Kitagawa’s cheeks had become more drawn, and his face more tan.

“Good evening,” Oe said.

“How’s it coming along?” Kitagawa asked immediately.

Oe smiled wryly. “I read through all the reports you gave me, and I’ve expanded the search to go a little further out than the suburbs of Kanto, which was the original range. Mr. Douno doesn’t work for city hall anymore, but if there’s anyone left at his workplace whom he used to be friendly with, they might know his contact information.”

Oe faithfully recited the scenario he had built inside his head. Kitagawa’s face, glowing with expectation, quickly turned crestfallen.

Oe had originally been planning to repeat the same tactic, but he wondered if he should give Kitagawa hope by lying about a lead if he had to. If Oe came back with failure after failure, it would only discourage Kitagawa. Dissatisfaction bred suspicion. Oe wanted to avoid suspicion at all costs.

“We’ve only just begun the search. They say a journey of a thousand ri begins from one step. If we keep focused on city hall, we’re bound to find a trail that leads to Mr. Douno.”

He put forth encouraging words. Kitagawa, who had begun to hang his head, lifted his face and murmured, “Yeah, I guess.” Then, he continued to stare at Oe, looking like he wanted to say something. Oe swallowed nervously at his gaze.

“―What’s ri?”

Oe blinked rapidly at the unexpected question.

“I’m not very smart,” Kitagawa said. “What’s ri? Some kind of drug?”

“Um, well, a thousand ri is... a measurement that was used a long, long time ago, and it’s about―I wonder how long it is in our measurements? Well, anyway, it’s a really long distance. So it’s a proverb that means that any kind of journey to a faraway place starts with the step right at your feet.”

“Ah,” the man murmured, as if impressed. ‘A journey of a thousand ri starts from a single step’ was a popular proverb that even primary school students would know. If this man did not know it, he either never read books, or was bad at Language Arts class in school, or was “not very smart” as he said, and had not studied much while in school.

Oe was terribly curious about Kitagawa’s education, but he was reluctant to ask such a direct question. Kitagawa’s education had nothing to do with the search, and it was possible that the man had a complex towards his lack of schooling.

“Mr. Kitagawa, whereabouts are you from?”

Kitagawa said he had lived outside the prefecture during elementary school, and had begun living in this area from middle school.

“And your high school?” From the outskirts, Oe directed the discussion to gradually narrow down on what he wanted to know.

“I never went,” Kitagawa said. “I was in an orphanage, and most people started working after middle school.”

Oe was suddenly overcome with awkwardness, along with guilt for his nosey curiosity.

“But I think I heard from you that you had a mother.”

Kitagawa shrugged casually. “Doesn’t do much to know she’s alive if she’s not around. It might’ve been better if I didn’t have one at all. I always thought she’d come to pick me up one day. And when she did show up, all she did was ask to borrow money. And that time―” Kitagawa began to say something, then clipped his words. The street lamp illuminated half of his face, which carried a hint of sadness.

“How could I have known what was good and what was bad?” he said to himself.

Kitagawa had a mother, but she had abandoned him; once he started working, she was back to wheedle money out of him. Kitagawa was the very picture of misfortune. Luckily for Oe, his own parents had been nothing like this.

Kitagawa stuck a hand into his breast pocket and retrieved a rolled-up wad of crinkled 10,000-yen bills, held together with an elastic band. He thrust it out in front of Oe.

“Your next 100,000. That means you’ll keep searching for another half-month, right?”

Oe accepted the bills from the man, counted them, and put them away in the inner pocket of his jacket. Kitagawa stood up from the bench, linked his hands high above his head, and did a big stretch.

“A journey of a thousand ri starts from one step huh...” Then, he turned back to Oe. “You remind me a little bit of Douno.”

Oe was not exactly happy to be compared to an indecent assault convict who fooled around in bed with both sexes. However, if Oe reminded Kitagawa of someone he liked, it was an advantage for him. It would make Kitagawa less likely to see him in an unfavourable light.

“Is that so?” Oe replied with an affable smile that even he knew looked fake.

The day after receiving Kitagawa’s money, Oe called a city hall outside the prefecture with a story.

“My father is ill in the hospital, with barely days left to live,” he told them. “He wants to see my little brother before he dies, but my brother’s been missing. A man called Takafumi Douno was my brother’s best friend, and I think he might know where my brother is. That’s why I’m looking for Douno. I heard from my brother that Douno is working at city hall. Does he happen to work at yours?”

His story about his father and brother was a lie, of course. But people were more likely to feel sympathy and listen to his story if he talked about ill family members. Just as Oe expected, the person on the other line even too the trouble to flip through the registry, but no Takafumi Douno had ever worked there. This was also within Oe’s predictions.

A single phone call was enough to make Oe sick and tired of the time he had to wait until he got an answer from the other end. He knew he could not complain―they were searching for his sake, after all―but he had been kept waiting like this for at least twenty minutes. He figured he should have hung up and asked them to call back, but was sucked in by the person on the line, who made it sound like he could pull up the information in an instant.

One phone investigation was over, and Oe was satisfied. He had no intention of making a second or third call. One call was enough to exempt him from any accusations of doing nothing at all.

Besides, phone calls to other prefectures cost money. Oe considered charging a couple of additional ten-thousands in the name of phone bills, but decided against it. He was already making Kitagawa pay 200,000 a month. The salary of a man living in a factory dorm, with a middle-school level education and a criminal record, could hardly be high. Perhaps the man had some additional savings, but if Oe charged too much, that would soon run dry, too.

Oe set his target search period to three months and 600,000 yen. Things were going well now, and he had a good feeling that he could extend this for one or two more months if Kitagawa didn’t get suspicious.

Oe told his wife that he had negotiated with the chief and could expect a bonus this year. Suddenly, the griping woman turned quiet. They had not yet settled on what university their daughter was going to, but his wife seemed to give him at least some credit for negotiating. Oe did not think that a mere 600,000 yen would be enough to cover tuition and other costs of a private university, but for the present, he was out of imminent danger.

That day, Oe went out for drinks at an izakaya with his junior, Katori. Katori was in gloomy spirits because a disagreement with the client had led to the client fleeing without paying his entire fee. From the looks of it, it seemed the client had intended not to pay all along, and was not a case of the quality of Katori’s investigation. The chief had considered taking it to court, but decided against it as they would end up paying more in legal expenses than what they had lost in the first place. Oe’s innards boiled with anger as he realized that their giving up on court was probably also part of the client’s plan.

Katori was apparently attempting to drown his sorrows in drink, for he drank quickly, and passed out before long. Oe delivered the drunkard to his apartment by taxi, then walked to the nearest station. The trains were still running, and his meagre salary did not allow him the luxury of taking a taxi home as well.

When he turned onto a main street, there were many people in school uniforms milling about, even though it was past eleven. Oe wondered why, then spotted a prominent cram school nearby. Some of the girls were wearing the uniform of his daughter’s high school. He wondered if he would have to send Miharu to a cram school like this in order to get her into a national university, but it was too late now.

Oe had approached the last thirty-metre stretch to the station when he noticed the construction sign. Pedestrians had to take a detour through a narrow barricaded passage, which would make it a slightly longer walk. From the other side of the barricade, Oe could hear the intermittent dull rattling of sledgehammers, and foreign workers wearing yellow helmets were labouring away, sweating even in this chilly weather. Oe stopped in front of the detour and thumped his lower back. Katori’s limp body had been heavier than he thought, and his back was suffering for it.

“Mister,” he heard a voice call nearby. Oe tuned it out, figuring it was not for him.

“Mr. Detective.”

Startled, Oe spun around. A tall man was standing on the other side of the yellow barricade. He was wearing a dirty T-shirt and light blue construction pants. He looked Japanese, but the yellow helmet hid half of his head, making his face hard to see.

“It’s me. Don’t you recognize me?”

He knew that voice. It was the sucker who brought him a hundred thousand yen every month.

“Mr. Kitagawa. You work here? What about the factory?”

The man pulled off the helmet covering half of his head. His thin face was blackened, from the dust, perhaps, and only the whites of his eyes glittered.

“This is a part-time job, because you guys cost a lot of money.”

Kitagawa’s day job was probably not enough to pay a hundred thousand a month. Oe tasted bitterness in the back of his mouth, and he remembered the guilt he had forgotten until now.

“Any luck finding Douno?”

Oe was stuck for words. When he remained silent, Kitagawa cocked his head.

“―We can’t expect immediate results,” Oe managed to utter. “Let’s be patient.”

“I guess,” Kitagawa nodded slightly. “A journey of a thousand ri starts with a single step... was it? It must be tough for you guys, too, working so late.”

Oe had only been drinking. It was probably even harsher for this man, working this night job after finishing his day job. It was already past eleven thirty. How much longer was he going to work for?

The weather out here felt chilly for Oe, but sweat was streaming down the other man’s face. Kitagawa rubbed his face against the sleeve of his T-shirt, like a cat.

“You’re sweating a lot,” Oe commented.

“Oh, it just gets hot under the light,” Kitagawa explained. “We can’t see much at night, so they shine the lights full force.”

A burly voice was calling Kitagawa from a darkened area further within the barricade.

“Please don’t strain yourself,” Oe told him. “And Mr. Kitagawa, can you make sure not to talk to me the next time you see me out in public?”

The man tilted his head curiously.

“Today I happened to be on the way home, but sometimes I tail people at night as well. If I’m stopped, or if someone calls me a detective, it might tip my target off and scare him away.”

“Oh, I see. Right. I’ll be careful next time.”

The voice calling Kitagawa from behind rose angrily. It was practically a bellow.

“Noisy bastard,” Kitagawa clicked his tongue irritably. “See ya, mister,” he said, raising his right hand. He disappeared into the intermittent clamour.

Oe swiftly left the premises. The guilt wreathed his heart like a haze, and remained there throughout the train ride and during the entire walk from the station to his house.

By the time Oe returned to his apartment, having completely worn off the alcoholic buzz in his body and brain, it was already one in the morning. He showered, changed into his pyjamas, and brushed his teeth. When he entered the hallway to go to his bedroom, he bumped into his daughter, who had a mug in hand. Perhaps she had gotten thirsty while studying.

“Good night,” he said to her, but she replied with a plea, her head slightly cast down.

“Dad, I have a favour to ask you.” Oe wondered if she was going to insist that she wanted to go to a private university, or something along those lines. He felt a pricking pain in his heart at being unable to live up to her wants.

“Mom said no, but I think I deserve a breather for all the university prep I have to do.”

A breather, Oe repeated mentally.

“There’s a concert next month for this indies band called Still Package. But I already spent all my allowance this month, and I don’t have money for tickets. But I wanna go. I know I’m gonna regret it if I don’t. I think going to the concert is gonna help me focus on my studying. So please, dad, can you give me 3,000 yen?”

So his daughter was more occupied and engrossed in going to some band’s concert, whatever their name was, rather than her university entrance exams, which were merely months away. Oe could not help but sigh. He felt ridiculous for seriously considering switching careers to send a daughter like this to a private university.

“Your mother said no, didn’t she?” Oe did not want to give her money, but since saying so to her face would only raise hackles, he transferred the blame to his wife.

“Yeah, but I really wanna go. Dad, please.”

His daughter put both palms together in front of her face in a plea. A man’s dirt-covered face flashed across Oe’s mind. A man who worked day and night, because ‘you guys cost a lot of money.’ Of course. When you wanted something, you worked for it. Before you start asking people for money, start thinking of how you could make it yourself, Oe thought.

“If you want to go so much, why not pick up a part-time job?”

His daughter furrowed her brow indignantly.

“You could buy that ticket with a day’s worth of work,” Oe continued.

“I’m preparing for university, dad. No one works a part-time job this time of year.”

“Then you’ll have to give up on going to that concert.”

His daughter pursed her lips sourly and turned on her heel. Once in front of the door to her room, she turned around.

“Cheapass,” she spat, before slamming the door shut.

“Miharu! Quiet down!” screeched his wife’s voice from the bedroom, putting the icing on the cake.

For an instant, Oe wished he could cast everything aside and run away. Right now, he had no attachments. He felt no necessity to nurture, to protect what he had here right now. But an impulse was still an impulse, and Oe had no intention of facing the criticism from all sides if he were to do something like that.

So this is the nest I spent ten-some-odd years to build, Oe thought bitterly as he stood alone in the hallway, his shoulders trembling in laughter.

Oe’s guilt towards tricking Kitagawa surfaced once in a while, then ebbed away, but the period of time between those impulses gradually stretched out. His guilt usually peaked the day after meeting with Kitagawa, but receded like the tides, and eventually he forgot completely until the day before receiving his next hundred thousand yen.

That day was the sixth cash payment. It was in the middle of December. The trees lining the streets were bare, their leaves having turned colour and fallen off a long time ago. Christmas songs were playing everywhere in the streets. However, once Oe walked out of the bright shopping district towards the riverbank, a suddenly loneliness choked the lights and sounds around him. The street lamps turned dim and vague, and the chilly wind that blew over the water blasted him directly in the cheeks. Oe unconsciously gathered the front of his wool coat closer about him. He was just reflecting on how cold it was when it began to rain. The water was frigid. The rain was not heavy, but bothersome nonetheless. Oe quickened his pace. Today he planned to say that he had gone further west than the Kansai region to search centrally around the Chugoku region, but had not found Douno after all. He would tell Kitagawa that much, and once he had the money, he would quit the premises quickly. Oe did not have an umbrella, and if he told Kitagawa he was in a rush, the man would probably not try to pry any further.

Kitagawa was sitting on the usual bench in the park, in a white shirt and black pants. The area was a little ways from the riverside, but the wind was still strong. Oe felt chilly just looking at the man’s sparse outfit. He approached, wondering if it was the man’s youth that made him unfeeling to the cold.

The man appeared to be sleeping in a sitting position, for even when Oe stood in front of him, he remained slouched over, facing the ground without looking up. His shoulders seemed to be trembling slightly.

“Mr. Kitagawa?” Oe called. The man finally raised his head. Oe was struck speechless. He had noticed the man growing thinner each time they met, but today Kitagawa looked in such appalling condition that he could pass for an invalid. His cheeks were hollowed out, his eyes were sunken, and his lips were purple. He even had a shadow of sparse stubble growing on his face.

“Have you found Dou―” Kitagawa dissolved into a fit of coughing before he could finish his sentence, and it continued for a while before he recovered. Oe did not even need to second-guess that Kitagawa was not well.

“A-Are you alright?”

“It’s just a cold.” Each time the man spoke, it was followed by a series of hacking coughs.

“You’re not dressed warmly enough,” Oe said. “You should wear something over your clothes.”

Oe noticed that Kitagawa’s shirt, which was usually pristine and white, was dirty. The man was usually clad in plain but clean and well-maintained clothes, but this time, the grip of sickness had apparently overpowered him.

“Have you found Douno yet?” Kitagawa asked again, shivering.

“Not yet. I didn’t turn up anything in the Chugoku region, so I’m thinking of moving further west and focusing the search on there.”

Kitagawa closed his eyes. “I see,” he mumbled in a raspy voice. He emitted a loud sneeze, then sniffled his nose. He plunged a hand into his pocket―to get a tissue, Oe presumed―and clawed out a handful of crumpled bills and held them out for Oe.

“I took time off work, so I only have 70,000.”

Oe hesitantly accepted the wrinkled bills, and counted them. He verified that there were seven, then hastily put them away into the inner pocket of his coat.

“You can bring the rest next time. Please don’t overwork yourself, Mr. Kitagawa.”

The man shook his hanging head.

“I’m sure you don’t like being kept waiting for these things, right? If you were a loan shark, you wouldn’t mind because you could charge interest, but you’re not.”

So monthly payments of 200,000 yen had been brutal for this man after all. Oe had noticed Kitagawa losing weight alarmingly, and he knew that it probably came from working day and night. But seeing how his half-month payments continued to come in without fail, Oe figured Kitagawa had been managing somehow. He had come this far on good terms. If he pushed this man too far, it would not last very long. If he got the man sick, it would be defeating the very purpose of this arrangement.

“You’re a proper man, Mr. Kitagawa, and I trust you that you’ll pay, even if it’s late. So please, just go home today and rest yourself.”

The figure in front of him swayed unsteadily. Oe stepped forward instinctively, thinking the man was going to fall, but Kitagawa only gave a large slump forward and managed to hold himself up.

“I didn’t have enough money, so I thought of going to a loan company,” Kitagawa said. “But I didn’t know how I’d be able to pay them back. I asked the guys at the dorm if they knew any jobs that paid well, and one of them invited me to sell weed with another guy he knew. But that can get you into trouble if you get caught. I have a record already, so if I get into the slammer again, who knows when I’d be able to get out.”

“Please don’t do anything bad,” Oe said, words that he supposed anyone with common sense would say, as he turned over an idea in his head. Suppose Kitagawa got involved in the “weed” (Oe supposed it meant marijuana) selling scheme. He would make money. Then, at a ripe time, Oe would report him to the police. Kitagawa would be arrested and sent to prison. Even if Oe’s fraud was exposed, the man would not have the power to harm him because he would be in jail.

It’s perfect, isn’t it? the devil inside of him whispered. No, wait, think carefully about it. It’s fine while Kitagawa’s in jail. But what about when he gets out? Would Kitagawa not come after him, filled with hatred and an intent to exact revenge on the person who had tricked and reported him behind his back? Oe had been able to collect enough cash already at this point. It was smarter just to get as much as he could without resorting to any clumsy tricks.

Oe grew afraid. He had nothing against Kitagawa; he appreciated the man, who was like a stork that brought him money periodically, but he had found himself wanting to ensnare the man and send him to jail. Oe felt both guilt and superiority towards the man. Kitagawa was, in the end, an ex-convict with a low education. He had no family. Some people would be inconvenienced by his arrest, perhaps, but no one would be sorry to see him go.

“I’ll pay you the rest next time. ―I’ll pay, I promise.” Still coughing, Kitagawa slowly got to his feet. He was staggering as he walked away. As Oe watched him, noting how unsteady he was, Kitagawa ran into a pole at the entrance of the park, then sank to his knees on the spot.

“Are you alright, Mr. Kitagawa?” Oe ran over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. It was startlingly hot.

“You have a horrible fever! Are you sure you can walk?”

“Sure I can...”

It looked like Kitagawa was attempting to get to his feet, but his body failed to rise. He was scorching to the touch, and he was shivering. Oe took off his own wool coat and draped it over Kitagawa. Then, he somehow managed to bring Kitagawa to his feet by supporting half of his body.

Oe knew of the Kitajima Steel Factory, where Kitagawa worked. It was not very far. Oe fully intended to take him back to his dorm, but taking even one step made Kitagawa’s knees buckle. It would be impossible for Oe to act as his crutch and walk him home. Oe struggled to bring the taller, massive man out to the road. He flagged a taxi. Kitagawa resisted just as they were about to get on.

“Please, just get inside.”

“No. I’m fine.” The man clung to the guard rails and refused to move.

“You can’t walk on your own, and I’m not going to be able to carry you home.”

“The taxi costs money.” Even in this condition, the man insisted on scrimping. Oe was, quite truthfully, irritated.

“Don’t worry about the money,” he said shortly. “I’m going home too, so it’s on the way.” He practically shoved Kitagawa into the taxi. Once inside, Kitagawa immediately lay down and curled up like a cat. The Kitajima Steel Factory was less than one meter-cycle away, and they arrived in mere minutes. No matter how many times Oe told the man they were getting off, Kitagawa only opened his eyes a sliver and mumbled, “Mmm, yeah,” vaguely. Oe managed to drag Kitagawa out of the taxi with the driver’s help, and supported the man with his shoulders. By this time, Kitagawa had become a mass of burning flesh.

A rusty plate that read “Kitajima Steel Factory” was nailed on the gate pillar. They entered through the wide-open gates.. Shadows of several buildings, large and small, loomed on the premises, but in the darkness it was impossible to tell which was which. To the right side, Oe could see a light on inside a single-story prefabricated building. He decided he would ask for directions there, and began walking towards the light, carrying the limp man.

The building had a sliding aluminum door, whose top pane was fitted with frosted glass. He could hear deep, booming voices laughing within. When he banged at the door, the noise inside ceased instantly.

“Who is it?” said a voice, sounding anything but welcoming.

“Excuse me. I’d just like to ask you something.”

He could see a figure approaching from beyond the frosted glass. The door slid open with a large rattling sound. Oe wrinkled his brow as he was met with a whiff of the sweaty odour of males.

“Whaddaya want?” The man was perhaps around fifty, with a muscular build. He had a ruddy face, and when he spoke he smelled of alcohol. When he noticed the patient Oe was carrying, his expression turned to one of surprise.

“Kitagawa,” he said.

“He wasn’t feeling well and he couldn’t walk, so I brought him here,” Oe said. “I heard he lives in the Maple Dorm of this factory.”

The man scratched his head, and powdery white flakes flew in the air.

“This is the Maple Dorm.”

“Here?” Oe murmured as he took in the inside of the prefabricated hut. Despite its “dorm” name, there were no separate rooms. Instead, there was one large room, about twenty-three square metres in area, with tatami mat flooring. The men inside ranged from about twenty to seventy in age, and there were six of them in total, including the brawny man. There were two long fluorescent tube lights on the ceiling, and underneath there was a network of ropes strung from wall to wall like a spider web, with towels and uniforms hung to dry from them like banners.

“Kitagawa’s had a fever and he’s been in bed these past two days or so,” said the brawny man. “At a little past eight, he suddenly disappeared. I was wondering why he was taking so long to take a shit. I guess he was out, huh? Oh, that’s his territory, so you can leave him over there.”

Oe looked at the spot the man had pointed at, but he only saw a duffel bag and what looked like a pillow. There was no futon.

“Right here?”

“You see his bag there, don’t you?” It was a careless tone, with a hint of annoyance at having to repeat himself. Oe laid the limp man down on the spot he had been directed to. The gasoline heater in the room made it much warmer than outside, but Kitagawa still curled up and shivered. Oe glanced around the room, but there were clearly not enough futons for the number of people. If there was a futon, someone was sitting on it as if to assert his ownership. There was also no closet in this hut that could store extra blankets.

“Would I be able to find futons somewhere?” Oe asked an ageing, mild-looking man beside him.

“Old boy Kitagawa always sleeps in a sleeping bag. You see it by his head, there?” He pointed at the oval object that looked like a pillow, placed beside the duffel bag. Oe took it out. It was indeed a sleeping bag. He unravelled it and draped it over the shivering man. Kitagawa rolled himself up in the sleeping bag like a bagworm.

Kitagawa was so weak he could barely walk, yet he had no friends who approached him to see how he was doing or to talk to him. Oe began to worry about leaving him in a group of such uncaring people. Perhaps he ought to take Kitagawa to the doctor, but Kitagawa was the kind of man to refuse a taxi because it cost money. Oe could imagine the rage he would be in if he took the man to a doctor without his permission.

But their association was something that could continue for a long time down the road. Oe did not mind paying for one medical treatment as a necessary business expense. Was Kitagawa even enrolled in national health insurance? He lived in horrid group housing, a dorm in name only. He did not even have his own futon. It would not come as a surprise if he was not enrolled in insurance, in which case, Oe would be footing the full medical bill. He was suddenly reluctant to go ahead with his act of charity.

They may be uncaring, but I’m sure they’ll take him to the hospital if it gets that bad. Just as Oe stood up to go home, he remembered that he had lent his coat to Kitagawa. He did not mind collecting the coat later; however, he did want to collect the 70,000 yen in the breast pocket. But Oe could not bring himself to roll the man over so he could snatch the money from him, especially with the man looking like he did now, wrapped up snugly in his coat and sleeping bag like a bagworm.

“Are yeh Douno, mister?” asked an elderly man, appearing out of nowhere. Oe flinched at the uncomfortably close distance. The old man peered into Oe’s face from below.

“No, I’m not.”

“Old man Tomi, open yer eyes and take a good look,” snapped the brawny man. “Not only is that guy old, he looks nothing like Kitagawa’s drawing.” ‘Old man Tomi’ furrowed his brow indignantly.

“I used to do the haircuts in the pen, so I’ve seen Douno’s face before," he protested.

Oe did not fail to catch the word “pen”.

“Alright, shut up, enough about haircuts. Just shut your mouth,” snapped the brawny man. Old man Tomi looked disappointed as he left Oe’s side. So this gentle-looking old man had also served time in prison, like Kitagawa had. Perhaps there were many ex-convicts employed at this factory.

Oe turned back to the muscular man.

“Do you know Douno? The person whom Mr. Kitagawa drew the picture of?”

The man narrowed his eyes and grinned, exposing a set of yellowed teeth.

“The guy Kitagawa’s always talking about, right? Everyone knows, hey, don’t we?”

Laughter erupted from the group. Oe had no idea why the name was enough to make them laugh.

“I’m always saying he should just get a normal girl since he’s out of prison now, but it looks like Kitagawa old boy can’t seem to forget his first fuck.”

It appeared everyone here knew about Kitagawa and Douno’s relationship. Seeing how easily Kitagawa had talked to Oe about homosexuality, it was no surprise that all of his fellow workers would know.

“Are all of you here... um, have you all served a sentence?” Oe had taken great care to choose his words, but the brawny man glared at him.

“What’re you gettin’ at?” he growled.

“I―I’m a detective,” Oe explained hastily. “Actually, Mr. Kitagawa has been asking me to find someone called Douno. If there’s anyone here who knows about Douno, or has met him before, I would very much like to speak with them.”

The six people in the room all looked at each other.

“Old man Tomi is the only one who’s been in the same pen as Kitagawa, right?” said the brawny man, who was apparently the dorm’s leader. “Yoshiki and I were in Yamagata. Kimura, you were in Ehime, right? Miyagawa was in Abashiri, and Tohda was in Tottori,” he told Oe.

The only person in the same prison as Kitagawa was “old Tomi”. He said he had met Douno before, but seeing as how he mistook Oe for him, it was clear his memory was not very reliable. Oe asked if he knew anything just in case, but Tomi’s answer was just what he expected.

“Sorry, I don’t remember much,” he said. “Kitagawa ol’ boy sure is faithful, though,” he murmured ruefully. The brawny man clicked his tongue angrily.

“He’s idiotic, not faithful,” he snapped. “The guy didn’t leave an address and didn’t come to pick Kitagawa up, right? The guy ran. Kitagawa just doesn’t wanna admit it.”

Oe looked down at the man curled up in a ball and asleep. His breathing, which had been fast and irregular when he arrived, had settled down considerably.

“Y’know something about Douno?” spoke up a long-haired man in glasses, the youngest of the six, who looked to be in his early twenties. “I think it’s better if he’s not found. Kitagawa’s usually quiet, but when he snaps it’s pretty scary. Who knows, if Douno happens to be married already, maybe Kitagawa’ll stab him.”

Stab. Oe felt a chill down his spine at the violent word.

“Oh yeah, Kitagawa was in for murder, right?” the brawny man said casually, as if he were recounting what he ate for dinner.

“Jack the Ripper,” said the long-haired man, hunching his shoulders.

“Ehm, and what is this, uh, Jack the―?” bumbled Tomi, tilting his head. The brawny man sighed impatiently.

“A guy who tears his victims apart.”

Oe swallowed the saliva that had pooled in his mouth. It went down his throat with a loud gulp.

Continued in PART 9.

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