Monday, June 24, 2013

[Narise Konohara] In the Box - Pt. 9

("The Fragile Swindler" Part 4)

This is a continuation of PART 8.

It wasn’t until he got home that Oe realized his wallet was missing from his back trouser pocket. He did not remember putting it in his coat. Perhaps he had dropped it on the way home ― but at this point he did not care much. There was not much cash in the wallet anyway, and as for credit cards, all he had to do was freeze them. He didn’t need the coat that Kitagawa was curled up in, nor the 70,000 yen inside it. He didn’t care about the pittance. He wanted to sever all relations with that man. Right here, right now, if he could.

Oe sat down, propped his elbows on the dining table, and cradled his head in his hands. He had gone too far. He had never been more wrong in his choice of victim.

Oe had no idea that Kitagawa had killed someone, and not even in the normal sense of stabbing someone in a fit of passion. The man ripped people apart. No one in a stable state of mind could do that.

He had not expected Kitagawa to have committed such a serious crime, considering his age and demeanour. He had left prison five years ago, which meant he had been thirty. Was it possible to get out of prison at thirty for killing someone in such a cruel manner? Wasn’t it normal to be imprisoned for fifteen or twenty years for that? Or had he been a minor? Was he still in his teens when he had torn enough people apart to be called “Jack the Ripper”?

Oe sprang out of his seat as if he had been burned, checked the locks on his door, and chained it. He checked the locks in the kitchen and bathroom windows, and as for the living room, he even closed and locked the shutters. He knew that there was no way Kitagawa could come murder him in such a weakened condition, but Oe did not feel rested until he had fixed the locks.

He would be losing his life over a mere five, six hundred thousand yen sum. Absolutely ridiculous, he thought. He had to stop the search for Douno before he was discovered. But Kitagawa was sorely attached to the searching for the man. He would probably not be convinced if Oe suddenly brought up the topic of quitting. More than anything, Oe feared that Kitagawa would fly into a temper. In that case, it was not entirely impossible that Oe would get killed.

He heard pattering footsteps. They were coming closer. He could not tell whether they were his wife’s or his daughter’s, but Oe kept his head down. He was called, but he did not answer. He did not feel like talking to anyone.

A piece of paper was slipped across the table into Oe’s vision. On it was a series of numbers. For a moment, Oe could not comprehend what they were.

“I want you take a look at this. Miharu’s grades aren’t very good.” At his wife’s words, he finally realized he was looking at a percentile chart. An intense loathing overtook Oe towards the woman for coming to him about such an insignificant matter when there were more important things at hand.

“I’m thinking of sending her to short-term intensive cram school, even just for the winter holidays. They’re still taking registrations. It’ll be about forty thousand yen, though.”

Money again. Money, money, money....

“Besides, she would need to learn the tricks on how to pass the entrance exams.”

I didn’t care. I never cared about money, but that was all she talked about, so I was forced into frauding a dangerous guy like him.

Oe swept up the percentile chart in front of him and threw it on the ground.

“What the hell was that?” His wife’s usual high voice turned so low, it seemed to crawl across the ground.

“If she’s not going to study, make her go to work,” Oe said.

“Miharu says she wants to go to university. It would be unfair to make her work.”

“It’s for her own good if she gets out into society, instead of studying pointlessly.” When Oe looked up, his wife’s face was twisted in fury as she glared at him. Oe felt neither panic nor fear. This woman was not Jack the Ripper. In the end, this was all she amounted to.

“It’s your fault that we’re poor,” she accused. “Do you know how humiliating it is that we can’t even give her an education because we can’t pay for it?”

Shut up, shut up, shut up! Oe plugged his ears. This isn’t the time to be having arguments like this. I’m going through hell of a lot more right now. If I take one wrong step, it could cost me my life. This and everything is all your fault.

His wife changed tactics when she saw Oe’s stubborn attitude. Suddenly, her voice turned sickeningly silky.

“Please, will you let her go to cram school? I’m begging you.”

Oe’s brain began to ache dully. His hands were already full with his own affairs; he wished she would not bother him with trivialities.

“Why don’t you use the money that you’ve saved up behind my back?”

His wife’s face suddenly blanched.

“You keep it behind the frame of the painting in the bedroom, don’t you? Last time I checked, you had 140,000.”


“This conversation is over. Get out. I still have work to do!” he snarled at her. His wife bit her lip angrily, then stormed out of the living room. As if fearing for his life wasn’t enough, his wife had to add to his troubles with trivial concerns like percentile grades and cram school. If his wife were to die right now, Oe knew he would probably not shed a single tear.

How would he evade Kitagawa? No matter how many possibilities he pondered, the only conclusion he reached was that he would have to stop the search for Douno. If he were to stop, he would have to discuss it with Kitagawa at least once. He would also need a report. Oe brought out his laptop to the living room and began to type up a report at the dining room table. He had not collected his sixth payment yet, but having already received 500,000 yen, he was afraid of what Kitagawa might say if he came out with a report that was half-baked.

I wish Kitagawa’s cold would just get worse until he died. Then everything would come to a clean close, without any loose strings to take care of.

But no matter how hard he wished for the man to die, he knew people did not expire that easily. Oe knew it well, which was why he pressed on in his efforts to put a decent-looking report together into the wee hours of the morning.

Every day, in a continuous stream, the television broadcast news of murder. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, people both young and old were killed. And for the number of people who were killed, there were always killers. Even if they were caught and imprisoned, once they completed their sentences, they came out again. It was a perfectly logical thing, yet Oe had never thought about it. It was unpleasant. No one liked the idea that someone beside them could be a psychotic killer.

Perhaps the temperature had dropped early in the morning―there was a layer of frost over the grass at the side of the road. Oe sat being bumped along by the train, staring absently out of the windows, which were clouded white with water droplets.

It had been five days since he took Kitagawa back to his dorm at the Kitajima Steel Factory. The following day after he had found out Kitagawa was a murderer, Oe was constantly on guard, thinking Kitagawa would come bursting into his office or apartment in a rage, but as one day passed, and then another, Oe began to feel reassured that it was not going to happen.

He had done nothing suspicious around Kitagawa. He had met the man at the park, just as he promised, and had reported his progress. He had neither fled nor hidden. He had never pressured Kitagawa, even if payments came late, and he had even been considerate and told the man not to overwork himself. Unless something could convince Kitagawa that Oe was suspicious and make him dig deeper, Oe would never be exposed.

Oe got off the train and made his way down the sidewalk. This morning, he was planning to hand over a report of an extramarital affair investigation to his client. The husband had commissioned the investigation. His wife turned out to be deeply infatuated with a host who was five years younger than her.

Oe had no idea what the husband planned to do once he received the report. When Oe had reported the progress to him over the phone, the man’s responses had been calm and unruffled. Perhaps he was going to get a divorce.

Oe admitted that he was also tempted to cut off the shackles that bound his feet in the form of his wife and daughter. In his opinion, if it weren’t for these two existences in his life, he would not have had to resort to criminal fraud.

His wife stopped complaining after he pointed out her secret savings. He had no idea whether she was still planning to send their daughter to cram school or not. Either way, he did not care.

He turned a corner, and was not more than twenty metres away from his office when a voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Mr. Oe.” Oe flinched and turned around. Standing beside a vending machine near the hedges of a five-storey building was the last man he had wanted to see.

Kitagawa was wearing an old-fashioned black greatcoat.

“Are you working right now?”

Oe’s violent palpitations made his chest hurt. Unable to speak, Oe half-trembled, half-shook his head.

“You told me before not to talk to you in public, so I was wondering what to do. But I wanted to give this back as soon as I could.”

In his proffered hand was the wallet Oe had given up for lost.


“You must’ve been in trouble without it. I’m sorry. Old man Tomi got his hands on it when you brought me back to the dorm the other day. I was wondering why he had a wallet exactly the same as yours, so I pulled a bluff on him and he spilled the beans. He might be a frail geezer now, but he’s still got his light touch. He said he couldn’t help it when there was such a fat-looking wallet dangling in front of him. I told him off good, and I replaced whatever the old man spent. So please, I wanna ask you not to go to the police about this.”

The wallet Oe had thought he lost had actually been stolen by a pickpocketing old man, and Kitagawa had brought it back. It was such a simple diagram of events, but Oe’s nervous mind struggled to sort it out.

“Old man Tomi’s a ripe age now, and if he gets put into jail again he’s never gonna be able to get out. That’s why―”

“I―I won’t go to the police. I didn’t have that much money in there anyway, and you gave it back to me in the end.”

Relief crossed Kitagawa’s face. “I’m really sorry,” he said, bowing his head deeply. Oe wondered why he was being apologized to, then realized he was now in a superior position. He had been stolen from, been apologized to, and he had forgiven, which made him superior.

“And I’ll give this back to you. Sorry for keeping it for so long.” The dry cleaner’s bag that was handed to him contained his wool coat.

“And this.” A wad of bills held together with an elastic band was held out also. “I took out 5,000, so it’s 65,000 now. I bought some food and medicine with it. For the rest of the amount, can I give it to you in instalments? Of course, if I make more, I’ll pay you each time.”

Oe had wanted to end the investigation, but now Kitagawa was talking of paying in instalments.

“My cold’s much better now. You took me home from the park that day, right? Sorry for the trouble. I knew it was starting to get cold outside, but I had nothing to wear because I sold my coat. But now I know that nothing’s gonna come of it if I get sick and can’t work, so I’ll be careful next time.”

The wad of crumpled bills seemed to carry an immense weight. Oe remembered what he had said to his wife a good while ago.

“You have enough to wear to keep you warm. Don’t be greedy.” His wife had argued back with, “That’s not enough.” And because it was “not enough” by his own standards, Oe had driven a total stranger into selling his coat in order to pay him.

Oe’s head drooped, and his line of sight caught the fray on the mouth of Kitagawa’s coat sleeve.

“You can actually find a lot of stuff to wear from things that people’ve cast off. Old man Tomi found this for me on garbage day. Oh, right. Old man Tomi is also the one who paid for your coat to get dry cleaned. He says it was the least he could do to apologize.”

Stop putting your poverty on display, Oe thought contemptuously. You should know how embarrassing it is to wear something that’s been thrown out once. You have no common sense. You have no dignity.

But it did not matter how much Oe placed the man below him. Kitagawa was a decent working man. He was only poor because Oe was syphoning all of his wages. If Kitagawa had a net income of close to 200,000 yen a month, he would probably have no problem buying a coat or a futon. If he saved up a little, perhaps he could even move into an apartment.

Oe’s fear towards Kitagawa’s Jack-the-Ripper persona had not diminished; but the more he talked to the man, the weaker the impression became. Perhaps it was because he could not detect any evil in the man’s words.

Oe knew that now was the time he could bring it up; now was the only time to say it.

“Mr. Kitagawa, are you off work today?”

“By the hour,” Kitagawa said, with his hands still in his pockets. “I wanted to see you, so I took the morning off.”

“Would I be able to take you out for a bit? There are... things I’d like to discuss with you.”

Kitagawa tilted his head slightly. “Sure,” he said nevertheless.

They entered a cafe called Royal, situated in a back alley behind the station. One could tell it was run down from its very storefront, and it was a cafe Oe had never entered before. If he went to a cafe he frequented, he would probably run into his chief; if he went to a slightly fashionable one, there was a possibility he would run into Katori or Nobeoka. He wanted to avoid both situations at all costs.

He had not chosen to go to the park today partly out of consideration for Kitagawa, since being in the cold would not be good for a man just recovering from an illness. The other part, his honest reason, was because he did not want to be alone with this man in a deserted park. If by any chance they should get into an argument, he knew as long as he was surrounded by people, someone was bound to help.

Kitagawa hesitated slightly before entering the cafe, which caught Oe’s eye. He was reminded of the man’s saving habits, which were so strict he refused to take the taxi even when he was too ill to walk.

“I invited you out, so I’ll handle the bill,” Oe said, one step ahead of Kitagawa.

“I’m not penniless, you know,” the man answered, smiling wryly.

The sign outside was so faded it was hard to make the name of the cafe out, and the interior was just as pitiful. The light-green vinyl couch had turned dark from grime, and there were conspicuous tears in the upholstery. The menus wedged into the holder were also dirty with fingerprints and food stains.

Kitagawa kept his coat on even after entering the cafe. The front was buttoned up, which made his whole outfit black. He looked like a bat.

They both ordered coffee. The owner of the cafe, a bald, surly man perhaps in his sixties, took their order with an almost angry expression on his face.

“Up until now, I’ve been searching for Mr. Douno with a focus on city halls,” Oe began. “Yesterday, I finished the search in the Kyushu region, but I wasn’t able to find any new information about Mr. Douno. The only regions that are left are Okinawa and Hokkaido, but since you’ve told me Mr. Douno had no strong accent, I’m sure we can exclude the far north and south regions from our search. From experience, I have to say that without new information, it will be very difficult to find him.”

The man listened to Oe solemnly.

“Mr. Kitagawa, you’re straining yourself considerably to pay for my investigation fees, aren’t you?”

The man blinked in surprise. “Not really,” he said.

“You were working night and day. All that exhaustion must have led to your bad cold.”

“But my cold has nothing to do with you, does it?” the man asked in bewilderment. Oe was slightly irritated at the man for not picking up his cue.

“Alright, then let me say this plainly. No matter how much we continue the search, Mr. Douno will not be found. Mr. Kitagawa, you’ll only be creating more burden for yourself. Why don’t we call off the investigation for now? You should work on regaining your strength, then when you have a little more money to spend comfortably, you can have someone resume the search in a way that won’t tax you so much.”

Kitagawa tipped his head and scratched the back of it.

“I know you guys cost a lot of money. I’m still asking you despite that.”


“I know I won’t have to work night and day if I stop searching. But I want you to search for him. It’s my own selfishness. And since I’m being selfish, I have to deal with it if I’m sleepy or if I’m hungry, or if I’m cold.”

This man understands―the fact suddenly dawned on Oe. He did not have to go out of his way to explain each and every thing; this man knew what he had to do, and how to do it.

“I understand your dedication to this, Mr. Kitagawa. But it’s been hard on me to investigate Mr. Douno alongside my main job. Since I’ve just finished investigating the Kyushu region, I think this is a good place to draw the line. ―Please, let me end this investigation.”

Kitagawa remained silent and refused to give assent.

Oe’s pressuring tone still yielded no answer from him. Their coffees were brought amidst the silence. Oe was prepared for the instant coffee that was served, but it was still disgusting to taste. Kitagawa did not even touch his. Things would go nowhere if they continued in silence.

“I’m sure Mr. Douno is living his own life out there somewhere,” Oe said. “Mr. Kitagawa, you deserve to start living your own life, too.”

After a long, long silence, Kitagawa finally opened his mouth.

“You’re telling me to give up,” he said bluntly, in an almost sullen way.

“I think it will make things easier for both you and Mr. Douno.”

The man fell silent again. It was quiet inside the cafe. There were no other customers inside, nor were there any coming in. The owner was reading the newspaper behind the counter. Oe glanced at his watch. He had to get back to his office within the next half-hour to meet his client who was coming to pick up his report.

“Are you married?” came a sudden question after the long silence.

“Me? I am. I have a wife and daughter.”

“How would you feel if someone told you to divorce and marry someone else?”

Oe cocked his head.

“Would you do as you were told and divorce her?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Why would I have to divorce my wife and marry another woman?”

“Because that’s what you’re telling me to do.”

Apparently Kitagawa was using Oe’s marriage as an analogy for his and Douno’s relationship.

“Our situations are totally different, Mr. Kitagawa.”

“They’re the same.”

“We’re proper husband and wife under the law. It’s not a romantic relationship.”

“I’m not talking about rules. I’m talking about the heart.”

Oe hesitated at Kitagawa’s claim about the heart. He had wasn’t sure what Kitagawa was trying to say, but he could infer the gist of it.

“I go to work because I want to see Douno,” Kitagawa said. “If I don’t work and make money, I can’t pay to have him looked for. Everyone tells me to give up. But I have nothing else I want to do or buy.”

Oe’s throat was parched. He had drained his coffee during their silence. Oe swallowed a mouthful of water, which was revolting and gave off an odour.

“I always think about it―about what I could do to find Douno. No matter how much I think, I have no idea what I can do. But you guys can find him because you’re pros, right? If I study and become a detective, would I be able to look for Douno myself?”

Oe could not give an answer.

“Do I need some kind of license to be a detective? Do I have to be out of university?”

Oe realized that “giving up” was simply not an option for this man. An unhappy, pitiful man for being unable to give up―that was what Oe thought.

“I think I’ve told you this before,” he began, “but detectives aren’t all-powerful, nor are we perfect. And in this world, there are things that can be done and things simply can’t. As proof of that, I was unable to find Mr. Douno.”

He saw Kitagawa chew his lip.

“Give up on Mr. Douno,” Oe said. “You say you don’t have anything you want or want to do, but if you keep on living, that will change. I’m sure you’ll find something to replace him.”

Oe spoke tentatively towards the man who sat staring silently his feet, a man for whom giving up was not a choice. He earnestly thought he was doing what was best for this man by placing a concluding period on his futile feelings.

The day after talking to Kitagawa, Oe sent a package to the Maple Dormitory of Kitajima Steel Factory, containing the borrowed reports and his own report, which spanned twenty pages. “If you have any questions, please feel free to ask,” he wrote, with his cellular e-mail address. He knew Kitagawa did not own a cell phone, but he did not want to give the man his number.

A week passed after mailing the report, and there was no contact from Kitagawa. If the man really had to contact him, he would probably use an Internet cafe or borrow someone’s cell phone. Oe interpreted his lack of communication as a sign that Kitagawa was satisfied with his report.

Thus, his short relationship with Jack the Ripper came to an end. Oe managed to garner the entire amount of five hundred and sixty-five thousand yen without being exposed for fraud. He would be lying if he said he did not feel guilty, but in the end, he had still given valuable life lessons to that man.

Oe felt like Kitagawa would continue his search forever, unfazed by failure. Perhaps the man was happiest while he was searching. Happiness for him was probably waiting and longing for the day to be reunited with Douno, or an idealized figure of him which his memories had created. However much money that man ended up spending, or whether he fell ill from overwork, was none of Oe’s business now. The man had already exited the stage on which his fraud had been enacted.

The year was coming to a close, with only three days left. One afternoon, and Oe was in the middle of putting his arms through his coat sleeves to go out for some questioning when the doorbell of the office rang. Nobeoka went to get it immediately. The man who entered was of medium stature and build and appeared to be in his sixties. He was bespectacled and holding a small black leather bag. He was dressed smartly, and had a dignified air. His aura bespoke a president of a town factory.

“I’m here because I heard that a detective by the name of Mr. Oe works here.”

Oe was surprised to be specified by name. It looked like the bespectacled man did not know him by face, for he made the smooth explanation to Nobeoka even while the man in question was standing close by.

“An acquaintance of mine had his case taken care of by Mr. Oe. I’ve heard he was very nice to him, so I was wondering if I might ask Mr. Oe to take my case.”

It was common to get clients through word-of-mouth. Nobeoka was glancing this way. Oe’s questioning today only consisted of going around to random houses in the vicinity of the target’s neighbourhood, and he had no set time schedule. He made a circle with his thumb and forefinger in an “OK” sign to Nobeoka, then slowly approached the man in the glasses.

“Hello. Nice to meet you. I’m Oe.”

The man opened his mouth as if surprised.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Shiba,” he said immediately afterwards, offering his hand for a handshake. Oe directed the man to the guests’ sofa, and sat down across from him.

“May I ask, just for reference? Who did you hear about me from?”

Shiba placed his bag on the table as he spoke. “Seiichi Saito,” he said with a smile. In Oe’s twenty-plus years as a detective, he had had several dozen clients with the last name of Saito. He did not remember full names, unless they were particularly memorable clients. But Oe could not bring himself to say he didn’t know.

“I see,” he smoothed it over.

The man, who had been smiling pleasantly until now, suddenly leaned forward and dropped his voice.

“Now, you see, it seems like this acquaintance of mine, he’s... how shall I say this? I think he’s been victim to a fraud. But I don’t have any definitive evidence. This is where I’d like for you to come in and investigate, Mr. Oe.”

What a troublesome job, Oe thought. All fraudster types tended to be extremely careful. They were cautious not to leave any clues behind.

“I’d just like to know before I start discussing things with you,” Shiba began, “ah, around how much is your fee? Is it really about 200,000 yen a month, like they say?” The man looked concerned. Investigation fees were not cheap; Oe could understand Shiba’s apprehension about the price.

“Well, let’s see,” Oe began, stroking his chin with his fingertips. “It can range depending on the type of investigation, which would affect the number of people working on the case. For example, an investigation using only the phone and computer would come to about a 150,000 to a 160,000 a month, plus necessary expenses. Investigations that need footwork―tailing, and such―will require more manpower, which would drive up the price.”

“A hundred and fifty to sixty thousand. That’s rather expensive,” Shiba sighed, then hunched his shoulders. “Do you also happen to charge by the half-hour for consultation, like some lawyers do?”

Oe laughed. “Consultation is free. We only start charging after we’ve contracted with the client and begun the investigation.”

“That’s a relief,” said Shiba, his face relaxing.

“For fraud, depending on the details, it may be better to leave things to the police rather than asking us to investigate. Would you be able to tell me some specifics about your situation?” Oe proposed. For some reason, Shiba grinned.

“The person I want you to investigate is actually a detective. My acquaintance asked a certain detective to personally investigate the whereabouts of a certain man. The period of the investigation was two and a half months, and the fee was 565,000 yen. In the end, the man was never found, but I did get to see the detective’s investigation report.”

Oe clasped his hands tighter in his lap. It wasn’t even hot, yet sweat was pouring off his back. Who was this man? What was he?

Shiba let out a testy sigh, then rested his chin on his right hand.

“And what this detective did was he called city halls all over the country to see if he could find any acquaintances of this man. The report had a list of all the city hall names and telephone numbers. The ones that he called but couldn’t get a good answer were marked with an ‘X’. At first, I was impressed at how detailed and thorough detectives were, but there was one town which he mistook for a city. It happened to be near my wife’s hometown, which is why I noticed. But you see, that box was also marked with an ‘X’. If the detective had actually looked it up and called, he would have found out that it was a ‘town hall’ and not a city hall. I thought this was very strange. So I called up some city halls on the list, and all of them claimed there had been no phone call inquiring about a Douno. I could understand maybe one or two―maybe they’d forgotten―but all of them told me the same thing. Sounds kind of fishy, doesn’t it?”

Oe’s saliva made a loud gurgling noise in his throat as he swallowed it. He was terrified of this man in front of him. He had no idea what the man was thinking. The man knew the truth about Oe’s fraud, yet he was not angry, nor did he seem to intend to blame him. He spoke calmly of it as if it were someone else’s affair.

“I think writing a report saying you investigated even though you haven’t is a clear act of fraud. If this detective actually did the work, the numbers that he called should be in the call history of his phone at home, on his cell phone, or on the phone at his office. If we could look into that, I think we could prove that the detective was conducting a fraud, don’t you think?”

Oe’s hands, his knees, began to tremble. What should I do, what should I do, what should I do... just the thought made his head feel like it was about to explode. One look at his call history and everything would be over for him. Would he be able to scrape by by saying he called from a public telephone? Perhaps he could force his way past the telephone issue with that argument, but if someone were to verify the fact with all of the city halls in his list, he would not be able to explain it away.

Oe was overcome with regret. He had done it to make the report look thick so it would visually satisfy Kitagawa as well. He had made the list of city halls to gain pages, not bothering to look it over once, assuming Kitagawa would not scrutinize a list of place names and phone numbers.

The sofa on which Shiba sat creaked slightly.

“But what irks me the most is that I smell some bad intentions coming from this detective. He claimed it was a personal contract, so he didn’t draw up the paperwork. He didn’t issue receipts for the cash payments he received. It kind of makes me wonder if he didn’t go in planning to trick his client from the very beginning.”

Their conversation lapsed momentarily. As if to seize on the opportunity, Nobeoka brought them tea.

“Oh, why thank you,” Shiba said, inclining his head politely. He took a sip. “Well, but it’s true that I don’t have any proof. A verbal agreement was all the detective and client had between them. The report’s also not handwritten, and there’s no name attached. If the other end were to say he knows nothing about it, and that I’m making stuff up, that would be the end of that. But the thing is―the detective’s met with the client’s co-workers, and told them he was a detective and that he was looking for a certain man. They’ve all got pasts they’d rather not talk about, but numbers speak loudly. If we get five or six of them to testify, I think we’d be able to prove it somehow.”

An image of himself getting arrested for fraud flashed across Oe’s mind. The disappointed gaze of his chief, who had trusted him. The disdainful gazes of Katori and Nobeoka. He would get fired from his job and his income would cease altogether. His wife would divorce him, and his daughter would be unable to go to cram school, much less university. For mere pocket money, a measly 600,000 yen, the entire forty-eight years of his life that he built up would be negated because of one rash idea.

Oe looked up, but he could not meet Shiba’s eyes. He was like a frog being stared down by a hungry snake. He didn’t feel like he could escape once he was reported to the police. Perhaps―perhaps it wasn’t too late. He could smooth things over before the matter ballooned out of hand, before the police got involved.

“―I’ll... I’ll give the money back.” Oe shook like a leaf as he stuttered in a voice barely louder than the chirp of a bird.

“Of course he’ll pay the money back, if we manage to nab the detective,” Shiba said in a matter-of-fact way. “That’s beyond question. But to be done with that? Well, my acquaintance might be willing to forgive and forget, but it just doesn’t seem like enough to me. I want the man to really know what he’s done.”

Shiba smiled pleasantly at Oe.

“If you do something bad, you should be punished equally under the law. As humans, we need to follow these rules. Don’t you think so, Mr. Oe?”

Ignoring Oe, whose lips were trembling for an answer, Shiba got to his feet.

“Alright. I guess that means I should really go to the police instead of a detective agency. We didn’t get any further than a consultation after all, but this has given me a very good picture of things. Thank you.”

But I haven’t said anything. I haven’t said anything. However, Shiba inclined his head as if they had just finished a very productive discussion indeed, turned on his heel, and made for the exit. Oe sprang to his feet to go after the man, but he lost his balance and ended up tripping head-first over nothing between two desks.

“A-Are you alright, Mr. Oe?” Nobeoka ran up to him, but Oe violently pushed him aside and half-tumbled down the stairs. He burst out of the office building and glanced left and right. Across the street was Shiba about to turn a corner.

“W-Wait! Wait a minute!” Oe ran as fast as his unsteady legs would carry him, and caught Shiba by the arm just as he went around the bend.

“Whatever you do, please don’t go to the police. I’ll pay the money back. I’ll compensate, pay extra for the trouble I caused. Please, I have a wife and daughter at home. My daughter’s going to university next year, and―”

A look of contempt. The man’s thick eyebrow twitched.

“It would cost money to send my daughter to school,” Oe continued, “and I needed the―the money―that’s why―”

The corners of Shiba’s mouth jerked up as if he were smiling. Oe’s clinging hands were roughly shaken off, and Oe collapsed to his knees on the cement sidewalk.

“Does everyone who’s in need of money trick other people to get it, like you did?”

The sky was leaden. The wind whipping his cheeks was icy.

“Yours is just an excuse.”

The statement sliced through Oe’s heart. Even his fingertips felt the pain. But he could not let this man leave, no matter what. Oe clung to the feet of the man who carried his fate in his hands.

“I’m―I’m begging you. Please forgive me. I’ll do anything―anything, so please, just don’t go to the police. My daughter, my little girl―agh!”

A kick sent Oe crashing backwards into the guard rails. The impact made his breath catch.

“You should be apologizing to Kitagawa, not me.”

Tears sprang to Oe’s eyes, tears of pain and humiliation. How could this happen? he thought. Why―? The passersby threw curious glances at the bawling middle-aged man not even attempting to hide his tears. Their gazes pricked Oe in passing.

“Tell me something, Mr. Oe.” Shiba’s eyes were now level with Oe, who sat slumped on the ground. “Do you know how much Kitagawa makes in a month?”

Trembling violently, Oe shook his head.

“At the steel factory, he works six days a week, from eight in the morning to eight at night. That’s 110,000. Still far from the 200,000 he needs. So from nine at night to five in the morning the next day, he worked at construction sites. Three days a week of that, and that’s 70,000 a month. But that still wasn’t enough, so he worked all day on Sundays, too.”

The image of Kitagawa’s dirt-stained face at the nighttime construction site crossed Oe’s mind.

“But all that work still couldn’t buy the man a decent living. He couldn’t even get a decent meal. When I saw him, he was nibbling on mouldy bread crusts like they were the best things he’d eaten, you piece of shit!”

Shiba’s angry yell sent spit flying into Oe’s face.

“Tell me, shouldn’t you have been the one nibbling on bread crusts, hm?”

Oe’s gritted teeth chattered, but not from the cold. Kitagawa had been growing thinner each time they met―he knew. He knew, but had pretended not to notice.

“I―I’m sorry.”

Shiba opened his leather bag in front of Oe. He took out a voice recorder with a microphone attached to it.

“Our conversation at the office should be in here, too. You said you would pay the money back. That’s hard proof right there. You won’t be able to talk your way out of this one. This is the end for you.”

The end, the end. The words spun around inside his head. Oe cradled his head in his hands. Fresh tears spilled out of his wet eyes.

“Gh... agh... augh...” Noises, somewhat akin to whimpering, spilled from his half-open mouth.

Shiba, who had been looking at him in disgust, narrowed his eyes.

“Do you want me to call off going to the police?”

Oe nodded vigorously as his whole body trembled and snot dripped from his nose.

“I’m the only one who knows you’ve been tricking Kitagawa,” Shiba said. “I heard his story, read the report, and did research on my own because it was bothering me. Kitagawa doesn’t suspect a thing about you.”

Amidst despair and tragedy, Oe’s heart gave a painful throb.

“I’ll keep quiet to both Kitagawa and the police. But in exchange, you’re going to find Douno within three months from today.”

“Th―That’s impossible!” Oe shook his head jerkily. “I only know his name, his age, and his occupation before he went to prison. There’s no way I can find him with this information alone. Larger agencies have tried searching and failed.”

“That’s none of my concern.” Shiba shrugged lightly. “I’m giving you a suspension on your sentence, and this is it. You better search as if your life depended on it. If you can’t find him after three months, I’m tipping the police off. Enjoy your time in the slammer.”

Oe was given no choice. If he wanted to protect his family, his current life, he would have to do whatever it took to find Douno, even if it was like combing through all the sand on the beach for a grain of rice.

“Alrighty,” Shiba grunted as he straightened out of his crouch. He looked down at Oe, who was still squatting on the ground. “Shall we go back to your office, then? I won’t tell you to do the work for free. I think I can tolerate an agreement to be your client, and that way you can be open about the search. And let me remind you that I’m not threatening you. This is a legitimate job.”

Shiba underwent all the necessary procedures and became Oe’s official client. Oe had no time to lose to uncertainty or hesitation. He had only three months. If he could not find Douno within three months, he would be reported to the police and would lose everything he had. All the time he could get was not enough for an investigation with as little information as this, and he could not afford to waste a minute.

Oe had officially taken the case on December 29, right before all of Japan entered the year-end holidays. Immediately after opening the case, Oe made a furious succession of phone calls to city halls in the Kanto region and surrounding areas. In five continuous hours of calling, he had only been able to confirm a response from four locations. Starting the next day, all of Japan’s city halls closed as they entered their New Year holidays, forcing Oe to suspend his investigation temporarily.

The New Year dawned, and business resumed on the fourth. Oe plunged himself again into the task of bombarding city halls with phone calls. He had considered writing e-mails instead, but written language carried less of an impact than a direct vocal conversation. Most likely he would be brushed off politely by e-mail. It took Oe a month to cover all of the city halls in the nation, calling every day from nine in the morning to when the offices closed at five in the evening. Even after all the effort he had expended, he was unable to acquire any information about Douno working at any of those locations.

Oe pleaded with Shiba to borrow Douno’s search reports from Kitagawa without letting him know who was asking for them. The reports had been left in the same state as when Oe gave them back, for the scrap of paper with the sketch of Douno was still left inside. Oe scattered the reports across the living room, taking point-form notes of snippets that caught his eye, and thought hard. His wife and daughter regarded him apprehensively from afar.

Just as an agency had done in a past report, Oe tried frequenting Internet sites that attracted groping enthusiasts. He pretended to be a forum-goer, and made a lighthearted post asking if anyone had gone to jail for groping. He received many replies, and a few among them had been arrested before, though they had merely been indicted and charged a fine. They had not served jail sentences. In fact, those who got themselves into jail were criticized for being “clumsy”.

According to groping enthusiasts, there were far more disadvantages to serving a sentence. One would lose his job and social status, and if one was married, he could possibly be pushed into a divorce. If things could be settled with a mere couple ten-thousands in fines, there was no reason to do otherwise. Then why had Douno gone to prison for groping? Oe could think of no other reason than that Douno’s case had been malicious enough to warrant it. However, according to the references he had on hand, Douno was a first-time offender, and there was nothing to confirm the possibility of him being a habitual groper.

An upright man working at city hall who transformed into a malevolent groper. Perhaps Douno was two-faced. And surely his groper side was his true self.

A man as malevolent as him was bound to frequent enthusiast websites like these, but no matter how many juicy topics Oe dropped, he failed to catch anyone in his net suggestive of Douno.

His prospects, his future, his life, depended on it. As Oe continued the desperate search for Douno, he was simultaneously aware of his growing hatred towards the man. If Douno looked seedy enough to match his personality, it was consolation enough; but Kitagawa’s sketch showed a man who looked like he wouldn’t hurt a fly, and was average as average could be. Yet the man coolly and brazenly engaged in these appalling deeds. Kitagawa adored Douno, but the fact that Douno had seduced another man while having a female lover already gave a glimpse into the kind of immoral man that he was.

What would ever come of finding a man like him? Every time Oe hit a wall in his search, he mentally badmouthed the man between his masses of scattered research material. Douno had the man so in love with him, but had not even come to pick him up when he was released. Even if Douno was found, and even if he and Kitagawa were to meet again, Kitagawa would probably only end up being politely brushed off. Just imagining what was waiting for this man at the end of his desperate search made Oe feel pity for Kitagawa, although as one who had tricked him, he was not entitled to say much. Nevertheless, Kitagawa did not deserve this.

Douno should never be found. They should never meet again. But despite what Oe personally thought, his assignment still had a deadline, and his future still depended on it. For his own sake, Oe had no choice but to devote his entire being into searching for Douno, this despicable man.

Oe’s daughter had apparently applied for both national and private universities, but Oe himself had no idea. The results from the private university came first, and she had successfully been offered admission. Oe found this out through a congratulatory phone call from his wife’s mother. His wife had told him nothing. According to his wife’s mother, the results from the national university were yet to be released.

Oe had previously thought it flatly impossible to send his daughter to a private university, but at this point he did not care anymore. If it came to it, he would make her work a part-time job, and he would start working for the construction company. It would work out somehow.

What wasn’t going to work out was the search for Douno. No matter where he looked or what stone he turned over, he was unable to find even a fragment of a lead. He was doing anything but whiling time away, but time still seemed to whizz by. By the time he had entered the last month of his investigation, Oe’s stress level had reached its peak.

It was already March, yet it had been snowing since morning. Oe used his lunch break to call Shiba out of work and meet him at a coffee shop close to the factory.

Shiba worked at the same Kitajima Steel Factory as Kitagawa. Kitagawa had been working there first, and Shiba had come into the factory in December of the last year. The two had apparently first met in their shared cell in prison, but had grown distant after being released. When they reunited at the factory, Shiba was so shocked by how thin Kitagawa had become that he thoroughly interrogated him on why he had become that way. The resulting end point had been Oe’s fraud.

“I've exhausted my options.”

It was lunch hour, and the coffee shop was crowded. The sign outside fashionably indicated in French that the shop was a cafe, and many of the customers were young. Amidst them, the harrowed-looking detective in his forties and the man in his sixties across from him, wearing a jumpsuit embroidered with the words “Kitajima Steel Factory”, were sorely out of place.

However, at this point Oe had no energy to spare in selecting a suitable coffee shop, nor did he care whether they would stand out or not.

“Run out of options, huh? Isn’t it your job to find people?” Shiba exhaled a short puff of cigarette smoke. His cavalier tone only further irritated Oe’s wrung nerves.

“I’ve said this many times before, but we simply don’t have enough information. I can’t even narrow down the search range. I need to know more about Douno. Even whether he had a slight accent or not. Anything, no matter how small.”

“Douno? He spoke clean, standard Japanese. He didn’t have an accent.”

“Are you sure he didn’t have any kind of accent at all?”

“You’re a persistent one,” Shiba smiled drily. Upon thorough consideration, Oe decided to conduct the investigation again focused on city halls. Yes, it was over six years ago, but Douno had definitely worked at one. There had to be some remaining proof of it. If Oe could find out which city hall he worked at, he would be able to find Douno’s acquaintances. If Douno kept in contact with them, he would be able to find out Douno’s address.

Oe mentally abandoned the regions far-flung from Tokyo. Some people spoke standard Japanese in non-urban areas, but he had to narrow it down to the more urban centre, where he had a better chance.

“Douno was imprisoned for indecent assault, right? Did he say anything about whether it was in a train or in a park, and if it was a train, did he mention which line it was on?”

Shiba knitted his brow and folded his arms. “Hmm,” he quietly thought aloud. “He wasn’t the type to go on and on about himself much.”

“Even the tiniest thing. Please try to remember.”

The man lapsed deep in thought. “Come to think of it,” he said finally, “I remember Douno saying he was wrongly accused.”

“Wrongly accused?” Oe repeated.

“The pen is full of people claiming false accusations, but Douno might have been telling the truth. There was no way to tell, since his sentence was already finalized, but...”

“Why did you believe Douno was falsely accused, as opposed to everyone else?”

Shiba scratched his temple.

“That’s not an easy question to answer,” he said. “I guess it was because he was normal. He was honest and compassionate. There are a lot of guys in the pen who seem like good people, but fakers will always let slip somewhere. Douno was never two-faced like that, and I suppose he’d always lived in a way where he never had to fake himself.”

Shiba left the coffee shop first, mentioning that his lunch break was only forty minutes. Oe bent over double the table, staring intently at the words he had noted down.

“Standard Japanese, Kanto region, city hall, honest, not two-faced, falsely accused.”

Oe put himself in Douno’s shoes. Perhaps Douno was actually guilty, but for the sake of argument, Oe simulated a scenario where Douno was innocent.

He was an honest, normal man who worked at city hall. He was accused of groping, but because he was unable to prove his innocence, he was imprisoned. As a result, he was forced to terminate his job. His social status plummeted to the ground. He was left with a criminal record. Now that Oe thought about it, it was a cruel story, indeed. He had done nothing. Douno’s anger at the unfairness of it all must have been enough to keep him awake at night.

Even after finishing his sentence and being set free, he would probably not be happy. Why? Because his time in prison and his criminal record would all have been “unnecessary” if it was indeed a false accusation.

Why did he have to get arrested? Why did he have to go to prison? Who was to blame? To whom was he to direct his anger? Was it the police, who mistakenly arrested him? If it was a groping incident, there must have been a victim. Would it be the victim, who wrongly thought he was the groper? What could he do to relieve his mind of this irritation?

Oe left the coffee shop trapped in his agonized thoughts. He continued to imagine, still in Douno’s shoes. If the police had done a proper investigation when he was arrested, they would have been able to find out that he was not the perpetrator. However, his sentence had been finalized and he had served it; even if he claimed a false accusation now, no one would take him seriously.

This is unbearable. Oe ground his teeth. The only people who would understand how I feel, who would understand this suffering I’m going through, are people who have fallen victim to the same situation as me―only other people who have been charged with a crime they didn’t commit because the police didn’t investigate properly.

A beacon suddenly flared in Oe’s head. What if―what if there was an advocacy group for those who had suffered false accusations? Wouldn’t that be all that Douno wished for and more? They were fellow comrades who carried the same wounds as him.

Oe had broken into a sprint. He tore up the stairs of the building and burst into the office. In his frenzy he almost crashed into Nobeoka, and as he hastily veered to the right to avoid him, he banged his ribs against the edge of the desk. It was painful, but he had no time to stop and feel it.

He could barely wait for the computer to start up. As he sat in his chair, he slapped the desk impatiently with his hand. The keywords he entered into the search engine were “train groping” and “false accusation”. A sliver of light had shone into this chaotic darkness. For the first time in several years, Oe was feeling a rush of anticipation course through his entire body.

What surprised Oe was that there were actually many cases of false accusations over groping―he had just never heard about them. He also learned that there were many groups supporting those who had been falsely accused.

If one was arrested for groping, all he had to do was admit the crime, which would make it a light offence. The case would end in a summary indictment and a fine. On the other hand, if he did not admit to the crime, the case would be taken to court. The victim, unable to prove his innocence, would follow the worst-possible route of a guilty verdict and resulting imprisonment.

Douno had probably continued to plead not guilty, but gone unacknowledged and been imprisoned as a result. Yet, despite his imprisonment, he still fought. For a man with a will as strong as his, it would only be natural to join a support group for the falsely-accused after getting out of prison.

Oe fabricated a back story for himself: he was Taketoshi Matsuzaki, a forty-five-year-old salaryman. He had been arrested for groping when he had done nothing. When he continued to deny the crime in the face of the police’s intimidation, he was slapped with a guilty verdict based solely on the woman’s testimony, and as a result he had gone to prison. Armed with this story, Oe contacted a group called “Support for Victims Falsely Accused of Molestation”.

“If there’s someone in your group who has served time in prison for a false accusation of groping, like me, I want to talk to him in person. Could you introduce me to someone?” Oe proposed. The vice-manager of the organization called Kanou appeared hesitant on the other line. He explained that the group was particularly strict with the management of privacy, especially because they dealt with false accusations of sex crimes. In addition, there was also the Personal Information Protection Law, which prevented him from easily giving out members’ addresses and names.

“But I do understand how you feel about wanting to speak to someone who has gone through the same thing as you, Mr. Matsuzaki,” Kanou said. “Would you consider registering as a member? We’re actually hosting a gathering in Saitama in the end of March. If you could come out for that event, I’m sure you’ll be able to hear the stories of people who have been through the same ordeal.”

Oe immediately signed up. He received information about the gathering by e-mail the next day, and he registered to participate. The gathering was on March 27. He still had two weeks ahead of him, and it was two days before his three-month time limit.

Even if Oe were to participate in this group’s gathering, there was no guarantee that Douno was even part of the group. Even if Douno was registered, there was no guarantee that he would come to this gathering. At worst, Oe would come away with nothing. There was a possibility of finding Douno, but it was a mere possibility. Oe continued to sift through city halls for one that Douno had worked at, and contacted other support groups for the falsely accused. However, every inquiry to city hall was met with disappointment. As for support groups, only SVFAM seemed to be active enough to hold regular gatherings.

All the while Oe was hellbent on finding Douno, his daughter received an offer of admission to a national university. His wife, with whom he had barely conversed these past few days, reported to him in a clerical way.

“Miharu has successfully been admitted to ―― University,” she said, just as Oe was about to leave for work. Oe had resigned himself to sending her to a private university, so news of her being in accepted into a national school was a great relief to him.

“That’s great. I knew Miharu could do it if she put her mind to it,” Oe said enthusiastically. His wife responded in sharp contrast.

“I thought you didn’t care about your daughter,” she said in an oddly formal tone.

“Of course I care,” he retorted.

“So you say.” With this last offending comment, his wife turned her back to him. Her distant attitude bothered Oe slightly, but now was not the time to be appeasing his wife. If he did not find Douno by March 29th, he would be reported for fraud.

Oe pondered every spare moment he had. He deduced what Douno might do. Oe finally realized that his dire situation and impending doom were not the only reasons why the search consumed him―he was also thoroughly hooked on the search for Douno itself, deadline and all. The exhilaration of finding a lead was something Oe had long forgotten over the course of his lengthy career.

Continued in PART 10.

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