Sunday, June 30, 2013

[Narise Konohara] In the Box - Pt. 10

("The Fragile Swindler" Part 5, final)

This is a continuation of PART 9.

On Saturday, March 27, Oe participated in the gathering as Taketoshi Matsuzaki. His wife stopped him before he left the house.

“I have something I need to tell you tonight,” she said. Oe assumed it was about their daughter’s university admissions fee, tuition, and other such things.

“I don’t know what time I’ll be back. Can we talk about this next time?” Oe managed to defer the topic, all the while feeling just a little bit weary of it all.

Oe arrived an hour early at the hotel in Omiya, Saitama, where the gathering was to be held. It was a small venue, like an extension of a business hotel. Oe had researched the scale and size of this event beforehand, but he was nevertheless relieved upon seeing the real thing. A hotel like this, with only one entrance, was much easier to stake out than a luxury hotel with multiple entrances and exits. The only fault he could find was that the entire lobby, which was small like the rest of the hotel, could easily be seen from the reception desk. However, his stakeout was not going to be several days long. Most likely the people at the front desk would only think of him as a loitering customer. Oe had actually wanted to stake out the venue entrance, but the place was cramped and there were no chairs nearby. He would end up making himself conspicuous if he lingered for an hour or more. The last thing Oe wanted to do was leave some sort of impression on Douno, who was possibly attending this gathering as well.

Oe sat on the sofa in the lobby and pretended to read the newspaper while observing the people coming in. Kitagawa’s sketch was already engraved into his memory. Thirty minutes before the gathering was to begin, there was a sudden surge of people passing through the lobby towards the elevators. Oe waited it out until five minutes before the event started, but no man resembling the sketch appeared. He wrapped up his stakeout in the lobby and took the elevator to the fourth floor, where the gathering was being held. Everyone had already gone in, and the only people at the check-in desk were Oe and a young man who looked like the attendant. Since registration was already done beforehand by e-mail or postcard, all one had to do was write his name on the list to check in. There was a minute left before the gathering was to start.

“Oh, yeah,” Oe said loudly after writing his name. “I’d like to see if Mr. Saito is here. Mind if I look at the list?” He put on an act of being a pushy man as he grabbed the name list without permission. The young man in charge looked clearly annoyed, but since there was no one else there to do his job, he did not attempt to childishly snatch the list back.

Oe flipped the pages backwards from where he had written his name. Douno, Douno. Oe focused all of his mental faculties on the name list. Finally, on the first page with today’s date, on the fifth line, he located the name he had been searching for: Takafumi Douno. His fingers shook. Oe had had nothing to back up his claim; this whole investigation had been based on his deductions―but he had been right!

“It’s starting soon. Please go inside,” the man said to him. Oe thrust the name list back at the young man and stepped quickly into the room. It was not very large. Upon counting the number of long meeting tables and chairs, he guessed there were about sixty participants or so.

The room was nearly filled, but there were a few empty seats here and there. Instead of sitting down, Oe stood at the very back looking out over the entire room. He was unable to find the man from where he stood.

During a brief gap in the programme, Oe took a seat in the middle of the room. It was the very opposite of his place at the back of the room, and he could see people’s faces much more clearly. Despite his scrutinizing eye, he spotted no man with Douno’s face. At the halfway point of the programme, there was a fifteen-minute break. Oe immediately hurried to the front and looked out across the room. He found no face which matched the sketch in his mind.

Before long, the break was over, and Oe was forced to resume his seat. Douno was here, yet Oe could not find him. He began to feel a slight onset of panic. Why wasn’t he able to find the man? What if Kitagawa’s sketch actually did not resemble Douno, and it had been a completely useless lead?

The gathering was over in about two hours. Oe immediately exited the room, then leaned against a nearby pillar to watch for a man resembling Douno to come out. He checked each and every person carefully, and even remained until the doors to the room were locked, but he did not spot a man that matched the sketch.

He had failed. As soon as the fact hit him, Oe’s mind turned blank at the shock of missing his biggest chance. But he knew standing here in a stupor would do nothing. The gathering had ended at five in the evening. If Douno lived far away and had come out to participate in this meeting, there was a chance he would be staying the night. Oe hastily took the elevator down to the first floor and headed straight for the reception desk.

“Excuse me, I think there’s a Takafumi Douno staying at this hotel. We were supposed to meet in the lobby, but he hasn’t shown up. He’s not picking up his cell, either. Would you be able to call his room for me?” he asked.

“Just a moment, please,” said the man at the reception desk as he operated the computer screen at his fingertips.

“You’re sure it’s Mr. Takafumi Douno?”

“Yes, Douno, that’s him.”

The man tilted his head in perplexity. “There’s no one named Mr. Douno staying at this hotel, nor have there been any reservations for him.”

“Hmm, that’s strange. I wonder if I got the wrong hotel,” Oe muttered loudly enough for the man to hear. He apologized, then walked away from the reception desk. Douno was not staying at this hotel, which meant he was planning to go home the same evening. Oe pressed a hand to his forehead. If he had missed Douno leaving the room, there was no hope for him. The gathering had ended forty minutes ago. It was a ten-minute walk to the closest station, Omiya Station. It was a three-minute walk to the bus stop. Douno had most likely already gotten on some form of transport. A stakeout at the station or the bus terminal would be meaningless now.

But no, there was still a possibility. It was a vague hour of the day, but if Douno’s trip home was going to be a long one, perhaps he would take a meal on the way back. The station―I’ll head-first to the station. Just as Oe was about to set off, he felt the presence of a knot of people near the elevators.

Oe turned around to see a group of about seven people in suits standing in front of the elevators. He spotted the young man at check-in among them, and his heart raced. Perhaps this group had something to do with the group, Support for Victims Falsely Accused of Molestation. Oe drew up against the wall and observed the approaching group.

The check-in attendant was in his twenties; the man beside him in his fifties; the man beside him in his thirties ― Oe stared intently at that man. He wore a grey coat over a navy suit. His hair was grown out, but he somewhat resembled Kitagawa’s sketch. No―he was a spitting image. Oe’s heart hammered like an alarm bell, and a sheen of sweat coated his brow.

The group of seven, including Douno, stood chatting near the wall a little ways off from the reception desk, about five metres away from Oe. The man whom he suspected to be Douno stood with his back to him.

“So now we’re heading over to the wrap-up dinner?” said the voice of the young man at check-in.

“Looks like it. Kimijima’s made a reservation. Does anyone know where the restaurant is?” The man in his fifties looked around at the group.

“I’m sorry, but I have to get going.” Oe could see the man, who was probably Douno, bow his head slightly. “I said I would make it home today.” The man spoke in a slow, mild manner.

“You’re in Kanagawa, right, Douno?” the man in his fifties asked.

“Yes, I am,” said the voice of the man with his back to Oe. Maybe it was him, it was probably him―now, he was most certain. That man was Douno.

Douno said his goodbyes to the group before leaving the hotel briskly. Oe began tailing him a distance away. He sent his heartfelt gratitude to the man in the lobby who had asked where Douno lived. Oe had no idea what method Douno would use to get home, but at least now he knew for certain where he was headed. Kanagawa.

Douno walked for about ten minutes before arriving at a Japan Rail station. He went straight inside the station building. There, he bought a small box of sweets and a stuffed toy rabbit about the size of one’s hand. Once he finished his shopping, he headed for the ticket stands. Oe drew right up diagonally behind Douno and checked the price of the ticket Douno had bought. He quickly bought a ticket of the same price, and followed after him.

Douno proceeded to the platform and waited for about ten minutes before boarding the 18:33 train. There were a handful of empty seats in the non-reserved car, and Douno took a seat in the middle of the second car. Oe sat behind him, near the automatic doors. From this spot, he could keep a constant eye on Douno’s head. Oe looked up the route map on his cell phone. This train was a direct line from Omiya bound for Odawara in Kanagawa. Judging by the price of the ticket, Douno was most likely to get off at Yokohama. That would make for a one-hour train ride. Oe was positive that the man would not get off before Yokohama, but sometimes targets did unexpected things. He fixed his eyes intently on the back of Douno’s head.

When the train stopped at Ikebukuro, the few empty seats left filled up completely. Moments after the train began to move, a young mother with a child about three years old passed Oe’s seat. The mother glanced left and right as they walked down the aisle. Both mother and child stopped about midway down. Douno had offered the mother his seat.

Douno exited into the passageway between the train cars. Oe panicked. There were still thirty minutes of travel time until Yokohama. Perhaps Douno had given up his seat simply out of kindness, but it was also possible he was planning to get off before Yokohama. Once Douno was in the passageway, Oe would not be able to check when he was getting off.

Oe’s hesitation only lasted for a moment. He stood from his seat and headed to the passageway where Douno had gone. Douno was standing beside the handrail near the right-hand exit of the second car. Oe stood on the opposite side, near the left-hand exit. It was a complete failure in terms of tailing distance, but it would be impossible to see Douno in the alcove if Oe stood near the doors of the first car. It would also be unnatural for him to peer in at each stop to make sure Douno was still there.

In this case, it was natural enough just to stand near the opposite exit pretending he was just another passenger. Besides, if this mission was successful, he would never have to see Douno again.

A shuffling sound came from Douno’s direction. Oe glanced over using just his eyes. Douno took out a small paperback book out of his bag and began to read while standing up. There was a cover on it, so Oe could not catch the title. Douno leaned against the wall of the car and swayed along with its movements as he continued to read in silence.

The sun went down, and Oe could see Douno’s profile reflected in the darkened window pane on Oe’s side. There were no facial characteristics that set Douno apart. His eyes, nose, and mouth were all of a harmless shape, settled in a harmless fashion across his face. He looked exactly like the sketch. Though the man was not ugly, he could hardly be called good-looking; his impression was much too vague and hard to place.

It was hard to imagine from Douno’s ordinary-looking profile that he would have had a relationship with a man in jail, much less manipulated or seduced him. Or was it another case of deceptive appearances?

What part of this man had attracted Kitagawa so much? What allure had Kitagawa found in him to make him want nothing else, to want to do nothing else?

If thinking didn’t help Oe figure it out, no amount of staring probably could, either. He figured it was something he would never understand, and looked away from the face in the window.

The train stopped at a station. A cold draught came seeping into the passageway. There were more people getting on than off, and soon even the passageway became crowded. A young man with earphones on, who looked about college-age, stood across from Oe.

The temperature was chilly for March, and the heating was turned on in the train; however, it was slightly cooler in the passageway than in the car. Oe had only taken slight notice of the cold, but ever since sneezing twice in a row at the last stop, his nose would not stop running. If he sniffled too much, he would attract attention, so Oe held it in. But this time, his nose began to itch unbearably.

Before he could even attempt to control himself, Oe found himself releasing a spectacularly loud sneeze. As if the noise wasn’t enough, Oe’s covering his mouth with his hand resulted in him spraying snot out of his nose.

“Ew,” the young man across from him wrinkled his brow in disgust. Oe felt himself turn red to his ears. He hastily unzipped his bag to find something to wipe his nose with, but lost his grip and ended up dropping his bag upside-down and spilling its contents everywhere. His digital camera and notebook went tumbling across the floor, and his ballpoint pen rolled out into the passageway. It could not get worse than this.

“Use this, if you like.” As Oe knelt down to pick up his things, a pack of tissues was held out in front of him―the kind of tissues often handed out for free on the streets.

“I’m sorry. Thank you.” Oe looked up, presuming it was the young man standing across from him. He froze when he saw who it actually was. Douno smiled briefly, then went back to the opposite exit.

The pack of tissues was from a consumer financing company. Oe remembered the tissues being handed out at Omiya Station, and Douno accepting a pack. Oe had been offered one, too, but had ignored the person out of annoyance.

The train bumped along as if this small incident had never happened. Oe finally recalled what Shiba had said about Douno being compassionate.

Douno got off the train at a station in Yokohama, just as Oe predicted. It was a little past seven-forty in the evening. Once out of the station, Douno headed straight for a bus terminal. There were three other people waiting below the placard showing the destination and time schedule.

Oe had already flubbed and left an impression on Douno by sneezing and receiving a tissue from him. If he boarded the same bus, Douno would probably not be suspicious of him, but he would definitely recognize him and think, “It’s him again.” Oe switched to tailing by taxi, and waited in the car until Douno boarded the bus. He used the zoom on his camera to take a few pictures of Douno. It wasn’t necessary, but Oe thought he might as well do it since he was at a good distance. He was most certain that the man was Douno, but if he had photos, he would be able to make doubly sure about it.

Douno boarded the bus, then rode it for about fifteen minutes before getting off at a lonely, deserted bus stop. Oe continued to tail him at a distance closer than usual. This territory was new to him, and he did not have a good grasp of the area. On top of that, it was nightfall. If he lost Douno once, he was afraid he would never find him again.

Douno entered a dusky park, then suddenly vanished from Oe’s view. Oe hurried to catch up, but he could not spot the man anywhere. There were multiple entrances into the park; perhaps Douno had used a side path. Oe could not bring himself to give up after having followed him this far. He did one round of the area, but could not find Douno after all.

Oe wanted to investigate the surrounding houses, but it was impossible to do this late at night. He was sorely disappointed at losing Douno halfway, but he had at least been able to identify what region Douno lived in. He also knew that Douno staffed the support group for falsely-accused gropers.

For today, Oe would go home and contact the person in charge of the support group website. He would claim he had found something left behind at the meeting venue which appeared to belong to Douno.

“I want to send it to him, so would you be able to tell me his address?” he would ask. Since they were fellow group members, anyway, Oe was sure they would tell him Douno’s address.

Today he had not only left an impression in Douno’s mind, but he had failed to track him down all the way to his house. Oe’s performance today as a detective was in the gutters. However, he was happy to find the man he had previously thought impossible to locate. Oe was one step away now. If he could find out Douno’s address, he would be forever relieved of the threat of being handed over to the police. Half of the weight was off his shoulders now. On the train back home, Oe reclined deeply in his seat and let out a long sigh of relief.

The train jostled and clattered along the tracks. Lights swept by in the dark window pane. The sight of Douno’s face up close flitted across Oe’s mind. Some attendees of the gathering had been in casual clothes, but Douno had been wearing a suit and tie. His hair was neatly groomed, and when he had handed Oe the pack of tissues, his fingernails had been trimmed neatly. Douno was most likely living a proper life. He had bought a souvenir and a stuffed toy rabbit―perhaps he had a wife and small child.

There was the man who searched blindly and intently out of the singular desire to see the other person again. Then, there was the man who lived a grounded life as if nothing had ever happened. Even though their paths had crossed once in the past, their ways were now clearly parted.

Did Douno wish to be found by Kitagawa? Did he intend to repeat his past homosexual relationship? What place did Kitagawa occupy in his heart?

If Oe told Kitagawa where the man lived, he would probably drop everything to go to Douno’s side. There, he would see the reality of Douno with a wife and child. Then―then, what would happen?

It doesn’t matter what happens. Oe did not have any other choice but to tell Kitagawa everything.

Lulled by the gentle bumping of the train, Oe slowly began to slip into unconsciousness. He decided to stop thinking of a future he could not imagine for the two.

Immediately after getting home, Oe wrote an e-mail to the person in charge of the support group. “When I attended the gathering, I picked up a card with the name ‘Takafumi Douno’ on it,” he wrote. “I’d like to return it to him, in case it’s something important. If he’s a member, I’d like you to tell me his address.” In the morning, he received a reply. There is someone by that name registered as a member. It is most likely him, said the e-mail from the person in charge. I will return it to him in person. Please mail it to our office. “It will only be more hassle for you. I can send it directly,” Oe wrote back. The person in charge wrote him a polite reply:

Under the Personal Information Protection Law, we are not allowed to give out addresses even between fellow members. I’m very sorry.

If he was unable to get information from them, Oe decided he had no choice but to head out to Yokohama again. With a residential map in hand, he would walk door-to-door within a generous three-hundred-metre vicinity of the park where he had lost sight of Douno. But it was already the twenty-eighth. He had two days, including today, until his deadline. Investigations like these, requiring eyes and footwork, tended to take longer than estimated. To be truthful, he was tempted to call for backup, but the chief did not know that Oe had given up his day off to search for Douno. Off days were off days; with most cases, there was no need to be devoted entirely to a case.

Upon thorough consideration, Oe decided to call Shiba. It was a Sunday, and apparently Shiba was off work, for he answered the phone himself.

“I found Takafumi Douno. I’ve narrowed it down to the region he’s living in, but I need a couple more days to figure out his exact address. Would you extend our three-month deadline by three more days?” Oe pleaded.

That afternoon, Oe headed out to a coffee shop near the closest station to his office. He sipped a coffee while he waited, and momentarily Shiba appeared with Kitagawa in tow. Kitagawa was wearing his usual white shirt and black pants. He was not wearing the black coat anymore. His cheeks, which had been getting hollower with each meeting as if the air was being sucked out of them, looked a lot more fleshed out now.

Kitagawa was unaware of what happened between Shiba and Oe. He appeared surprised to find Oe was the man they were meeting.

“Oh, Mr. Detective. What’s going on?”

Shiba, who stood beside him, thumped him on the shoulder. “This is the guy I’ve wanted you to see. See, Oe is my cousin. We bumped into each other the other day. We went out for drinks, and lo behold, your name comes up in the conversation. You wouldn’t believe how surprised I was. I’d heard your story before, but I had no idea you were talking about Oe. Apparently he married into his wife’s family and changed his last name.”

Oe and Shiba were not cousins, nor had he changed his last name from marrying into his wife’s family. Shiba ushered Kitagawa into a seat. The man sat down across from Oe with a dubious look on his face.

“It really is a small world, like they say.”

Shiba spoke naturally enough to make his lie sound like truth, and grinned at Oe in a friendly manner. He was quite the actor.

“You know how I know a lot about your situation, right, Kitagawa? That’s why I asked Oe to keep an eye out for Douno even though the investigation was over.”

Throughout the conversation, Kitagawa still appeared not to understand why he was here, nor what was about to happen next as he gave brief responses with a blank face.

The waitress brought them glasses of water. The two of them ordered coffee.

“I was concerned about you myself, Mr. Kitagawa.” Oe said. “You were very dedicated to searching for him.”

From his bag, Oe took out a memo folded in half.

“On other business, I met someone who works in my field... I can’t tell you the details, since it’s an issue of privacy, but... he happened to know Mr. Douno.”

The man across from him widened his eyes.

“Mr. Kitagawa, you’re a lucky man. Mr. Douno is in Kanagawa right now. I don’t know his exact address yet, but he’s in this district of N City... he lives in the vicinity of this park. There’s no mistake about it.”

Oe took out a photocopy of the residential map, his own copy which he had shrunk to B5 size for his own investigative purposes. With a red ballpoint pen, he drew a circle around the predicted area, and coloured in the park where he had seen Douno vanish.

“You can keep this copy, Mr. Kitagawa. Here you go.”

The long fingers which took the map from him seemed to be trembling. Kitagawa stared at the copy in his hands without even blinking.

“Ain’t that nice, Kitagawa?” Shiba clapped him on the shoulder. Kitagawa folded up the copy into a small square and clenched it in his right hand. But soon he unclenched his hand again and peered inside. He did the same thing twice.

“That was a long search, huh? I guess things turn up when they turn up.”

Despite having threatened Oe with reporting the fraud to the police, and having made him throw everything into searching for Douno, Shiba seemed to emphasize how chance had played a role.

Kitagawa, having finally acquired the location of the man he had been searching for, neither jumped up in glee nor broke into a smile. He remained with his head bowed, looking stunned.

“...I feel like I’m dreaming.” He vigorously scratched his head of short hair with his right hand. “What is this?”

Shiba gently shook the hand he still had on Kitagawa’s shoulder.

“What’s what? Pull yourself together. This isn’t a dream. You’re going to see Douno soon.”

“...My saviour.” Trembling slightly, Kitagawa repeated the same words. “My saviour,” he murmured. He lifted his face, and looked Oe in the eye.

“I don’t know much about religion, but starting today, you’re my God.”

Kitagawa stood from his seat and bowed deeply to Oe.

“Please lift your face, Mr. Kitagawa. You’re exaggerating, calling me God. It was a coincidence that we were able to find Mr. Douno, after all.”

“But if it wasn’t for you, I might’ve never seen Douno again. ―Hey, isn’t there anything you want?”

Kitagawa placed his left palm on his chest.

“Tell me what you want. I’ll give you anything other than my life, if you’ll just ask.”

Shiba yanked his shirt, and Kitagawa collapsed back into his seat.

“Don’t be so abrupt,” Shiba said. “Oe wouldn’t know how to answer that. You can take your time and think about thank-yous later.”

“Oh, right... that’s how it works...” Kitagawa scratched the back of his head. Oe felt some guilt towards being called “God” by a man he had tricked and syphoned money from, despite the fact that Kitagawa himself was unaware.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” Oe took out his digital camera from his bag. “I have a few photos of Mr. Douno. Would you like to take a look?”

Kitagawa hesitantly lifted Oe’s camera from his hands as if it were a fragile piece of equipment. He stared at the photo of Douno in the display as if to bore holes into it with his gaze. With his finger, he stroked the display over and over.

“....Takafumi,” he murmured, then stood up. “Takafumi, Takafumi, Takafumi,” he repeated like a child, his face alight in a smile. With the map firmly grasped in his hand, he proceeded to burst out of the coffee shop.

Through the window, they could see the man’s tall figure running down the sidewalk. It grew smaller into the distance, and in moments, he was gone.

The two men left behind in the coffee shop sat across from each other, looking somewhat at a loss of what to do.

“He ran off like a bullet,” Shiba muttered as if to himself. The man was long gone, but Shiba’s eyes were still trained on the spot down the road.

“Should we have let him go? He doesn’t even know the exact address.”

“If he’s okay with that, it’s okay.” Shiba extracted a cigarette and lit it.

“I didn’t tell Mr. Kitagawa about this, but I think Mr. Douno is married with a child.”

“Uh-huh,” Shiba said, not looking particularly surprised.

“Do you think it would result in some kind of dispute over there?”

“That’s their problem.”

Shiba was the very man who had made Oe search for Douno. There was a chance Douno’s family life would be disrupted and ruined, yet Shiba talked as if it were none of his business.

“Douno might find it a fine pain in the neck to deal with,” Shiba said, “but until Kitagawa gets to see him, the man won’t be able to move forward or back.”

Shiba let out a short puff of smoke. Although Oe had been able to find Douno within the promised three months, he had not been able to pinpoint his address. Shiba’s decision had been to tell Kitagawa anyway.

“I guess I should keep searching for Mr. Douno’s address as well?” Oe said.

“I don’t need you anymore. If Kitagawa knows that much already, he’ll find out the rest on his own.”

The search for Douno was over, which meant the promise would be kept. Oe couldn’t help but make sure, just in case.

“Um, what you said in the beginning about going to the police...”

The man glanced at him. “You kept your promise. I won’t report you.”

Relief overcame Oe as the tenseness was lifted from his shoulders. Now he had nothing to fear, or to worry about.

“As for the expenses for Douno’s search, you can pay that out of the amount you pinched from Kitagawa.”

Oe was prepared for Shiba’s statement. His actual expenses would probably exceed 565,000 yen, but in turn, he had avoided becoming involved with the police, as well as maintained his social position. In that aspect, the extra expense was well worth it.

Shiba continued to smoke in silence. There was only one thing about this man that bothered Oe.

“Couldn’t you have told Mr. Kitagawa directly about Mr. Douno instead of me?”

Only Shiba’s eyes moved to acknowledge him.

“That way, I wouldn’t have been called God and given such misdirected credit. You would have earned that gratitude instead, Mr. Shiba.”

You must be kidding me, Shiba spat as he scowled.

“Why would you say that? I think you deserve to be thanked by Kitagawa more than anyone. You might’ve threatened me, but as a result you were able to find Douno in the end.”

Shiba maintained a disgruntled silence and brought his cold coffee to his lips. Oe had only asked the question out of genuine curiosity and had not meant to say anything offensive. Faced with a sudden change for the worse in the man’s mood, he was at a complete loss of what to do.

Now that their transaction was complete, Oe had no reason to be here. He wondered if he should just head home, and glanced at his watch. It was a little past two in the afternoon.

“―In the days up to Douno’s release,” the man spoke, just as Oe was about to propose going home. “Kitagawa was in the secure cell. So Douno tried to give me his address. Said he wanted me to tell Kitagawa when he got out. That’s when I told Douno, ‘If you’re not prepared to live the rest of your life with him, don’t even bother.’”

Shiba clicked his tongue angrily.

“It might work in prison, but things like that never work out once you’re outside. It doesn’t take much thinking to figure that out, does it? So when I warned him, Douno didn’t say anything. He was a guy who understood things like that, and I think he made a fair choice not to tell.”

Shiba fidgeted irritably in his chair. It creaked with his movement.

“I still don’t think I did anything wrong. But when I started working at the same factory as Kitagawa, and found out that for the past four years he’d been putting all of his wages into searching for Douno, I just couldn’t sit still anymore. No matter how many times I told him to give up, he wouldn’t. That’s why I thought, if he could see Douno married with a family, and see reality for what it actually was, he’d finally go and find another way to live.”

Shiba’s gazed shifted to the window. Of course, Kitagawa was no longer there. Perhaps he was already on a train to Kanagawa.

“If I’d just told Kitagawa Douno’s address without meddling, he probably wouldn’t have had to waste four years searching for him. As if it’s not enough that he’s spent his best, youngest years rotting in prison... just when you think he’s finally out―”

His gaze, which had been directed outside, came back to settle on Oe in a glare.

“He ends up working his ass off to the point of collapse to pile all this money onto a detective who’s a fraudulent bastard. ‘He reminds me of Douno,’ the guy says, without suspecting a thing. You two don’t even look alike. Is it your voice? Your mannerisms? Whatever it is, I don’t care. A guy who reminds Kitagawa of Douno has no right to be tricking him.”

Oe suddenly understood why Shiba had not told Kitagawa about him.

“...It hurts to be betrayed by someone you trust.”

Shiba fell silent, as if he had worn himself out talking. It was a spring afternoon, and the gentle rays of the sun poured down on the table. A coffee shop employee, apparently noting their empty cups, picked both of them up and took them away.

“Hey, Mr. Oe. Do you have any idea? What kind of guy is Kitagawa exactly? Love between two men? Bullshit. But that fixation... can you call that love, too? It’s a load of unwanted trouble for everyone else, frankly. It’s not right. Oh, I don’t care anymore. Whatever happens to those two is none of my business. I’ve got nothing to do with it,” Shiba spat as he looked down.

“As for Douno, he was the kind of guy you’d find anywhere. Anyone would wonder what was so special about him.”

Once out the coffee shop doors, there was a pastry shop to the immediate right. Oe bought three pieces of shortcake there, remembering he had not done anything yet to celebrate his daughter’s admission to university.

He also remembered his wife saying she had something to talk about. Oe’s spirits dampened as he figured it was most likely about admissions fees and tuition. However, since his search for Douno had been concluded, he understood he had to sit down and have this talk properly.

Oe thought to himself on his way home. He had a hunch that the Shiba’s anger and threats towards him and Shiba’s own regret were two sides of the same coin. Shiba’s belief that he had torn Kitagawa and Douno’s relationship asunder had driven him to action.

Oe had perceived through talking with Shiba that the man carried a considerable burden in his heart over not telling Kitagawa. However, Oe believed Shiba had no obligation to tell Kitagawa the address in the first place. Douno only had to pick Kitagawa up the day he was released. This was not Shiba’s fault; this was all due to Douno’s choice.

Shiba had said he did not know whether Kitagawa’s attachment was love or something else. Wait, I remember, Oe thought to himself. Kitagawa had likened his relationship with Douno to the relationship between Oe and his wife. He had said something along the lines of his feelings for Douno being as strong as those between a married couple.

Feelings harboured in an unusual environment like a prison, in a relationship that did not even last a year, were not even worth comparing to the love between a married man and wife, whose feelings steadily accumulated and grew like falling snow. Kitagawa did not understand this.

As Shiba put it, Kitagawa would be faced with reality once he met Douno. But whatever emotional outburst that might happen, or the atrocity that might ensue, was out of Oe’s range of responsibility now.

When Oe arrived home to his apartment, it was as silent and still as the bottom of the sea. He vaguely remembered his wife had been home when he left for the coffee shop in the afternoon, but he was not sure. His head had been too full with thinking about meeting Kitagawa and telling him the truth that he had not had the room for anything else.

It was Sunday today; perhaps his wife and daughter had gone out. Come to think of it, there had been no shoes in the doorway. As he entered the living room with the box of cakes in hand, he found a piece of paper left on the kitchen table. He peered at it, wondering if it was a note explaining their absence―then his mind went blank.

Divorce papers, filled in with his wife’s name and stamp, glared silently back at him.

Continued in PART 11.

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