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April 2 Yagokoro High School
The next morning, I rode Sousei-san as a bike, not to the main gate, but around to the back gate, where there were few students. “Behave yourself until afternoon,” I instructed Sousei-san more severely than yesterday, and parted with him.
“You’re annoying. Touko and Ai are too but you’re even more annoying than them. You’re just like ‘Yuuri’…”
A name I was not used to hearing had slipped from Sousei-san’s mouth. “…Yuuri?” I repeated, and Sousei-san immediately averted his gaze.
“I-it’s nothing! Don’t ask! Hurry and go! You’ll be late to cla.s.s!”
Sousei-san rudely talked on and on as if he were chasing away a stray dog. His expression was severe.
I was concerned by Sousei-san’s strange behavior. However, it was true that I would be late for cla.s.s, so I said, “I’ll contact you this afternoon,” and hurriedly headed to the cla.s.sroom.
At the same moment in which I took my seat, my cell phone’s mail tone rang. There was still a little time before homeroom, so I checked the contents of the mail. The contents naturally made me smile broadly.
“Naoto! How you doing? You’re not being bullied at your new school, are you? Tell me if anything happens! You don’t need to hold back! I’ll get over to you right away! Anyway, I’ll shove those rude guys down and tie ‘em together!”
“…That’s just like Tatsumi-kun.”
In the name field were the characters for “Kanji Tatsumi”. I immediately typed out a reply mail: “It’s all right. I’m doing well.” However, right before hitting the “reply” b.u.t.ton, I stopped my thumb. I thought it really was a wearisome answer.
After thinking for several seconds, I added, “…However, if anything is troubling me, I’ll be counting on you, Tatsumi-kun,” and replied.
Tatsumi-kun was a good friend for worrying about me like this.
Whether it was Kujikawa-san or Tatsumi-kun, even if they were far away, just remembering their faces gradually filled my heart with warmth. Just the thought that everyone was doing their best made me feel that I could also give it my all. My current self, who had friends that I could rely on, was very happy.
And sure enough – I wondered if Kaoru Hioka and Miyuki Midorikawa had had friends that they could rely on.
For example, friends who, with just the words “help me”, would come running at the drop of a hat, no matter how far away they were. If they had had friends like that, we might have been facing a different conclusion than we were now. I could not stop thinking about it.
Was it unavoidable? Reality, which did not allow for any chance at takebacks, harbored a bit of a nihilistic feel. However, I did not have the leisure to drown in sentimentality. There were four people remaining. I had to save them somehow. Also for Kyouhei Hioka’s sake, so that he would not make any more mistakes.
“Good morning, Shirogane-kun,” the girl next to me greeted me, smiling, as she sat in the chair next to mine.
So I would take action immediately.
“Do you have time during lunch? I must speak to you. If possible, I’d like it to be just the two of us.”
“Eh?” the girl next to me let out as her greeting was met with that question, and her shoulders stiffened. However, her face soon reddened, and she muttered with downcast eyes, “…Yeah, that’s fine. If you want, Shirogane-kun..
I could not help but feel that there was a huge misunderstanding, but I smiled at her.
“Thank you, ‘Takizawa-san’.”
April 2 Yagokoro High School Rooftop
Lunch break. Sending a backwards glance at the vigorous group of male students who were hurriedly competing as they rushed down the stairs to the school store on the first floor, and the lively female students accompanying them who were headed to the restroom, I determinedly ascended the staircases one by one. I opened the steel door and the figure of someone waiting was already on the roof. After confirming that no one else was around, I opened my mouth and spoke to the girl, who was fidgeting as if she could not relax.
“I want to hear about Kaoru Hioka-san.”
I got right to the point.
When I did, Takizawa-san’s face, which until then had been red with embarra.s.sment, went pale in an instant.
“…W-why me? I think there are a lot of people besides me who know a lot about Kaoru-chan…?”
She was in a state of considerable confusion, as if a switch had been flipped.
“You will do; no, it has to be you, Takizawa-san.”
I said while gazing straight at Takizawa-san. I was convinced.
Yesterday afternoon, the name “Takizawa” was present in Kaoru Hioka’s past conversation that we detected in this place.
When I investigated on the computer at the station, there was only one student at Yagokoro High School with the family name “Takizawa”. Incidentally, she had been in the same cla.s.s as Kaoru Hioka during their second year. I remembered that the girl in the seat next to mine had rapidly given her name as “Takizawa” on my first day here after transferring.
“Don’t worry. I only want to hear what you have to say.”
I addressed Takizawa-san, who was disquieted, as if to persuade her.
“I-I… don’t know anything… really…”
Takizawa-san’s hair, tied into two pigtails, violently swung left and right. Her overly strong rejection was suspicious and could be interpreted as proof of a troubling darker side.
“No, you should know, Takizawa-san – because you often discussed Kaoru Hioka’s worry about the slander with her on this rooftop.”
Her shoulders jerked violently.
“You were the one who told Kaoru Hioka about the ‘Midnight Site’, weren’t you?”
She was the one who had told me there was a Detective Prince fad on the Internet. She had also saved many of the images going around the Internet. Takizawa-san clearly knew much about the Internet.
Takizawa-san wore an uncertain expression. I waited patiently for her to open her mouth, and finally she nodded slightly. “…Yes.
“…I didn’t… I – I didn’t think it would t-turn out this way!”
Takizawa-san dropped roughly to her knees on the concrete. Then, just like that, she dissolved into tears.
“I – I didn’t mean it… Kaoru-chan was beautiful, and good at studying and sports, and popular with the guys, and she had a lot of things I didn’t… I thought it wasn’t fair… B-but I didn’t want her to die! Really! I just kind of wanted to see… I just wanted to see Kaoru-chan’s face when she saw the slander and got a shock…”
Her voice echoed, gloomy and completely at odds with the cloudless blue sky.
“Ka-Kaoru-chan was my friend, my best friend… But I was still jealous… It was hard always being compared to her… I was envious… But that was all… It wasn’t like I was bitter or hated her… Writing a comment on the Midnight Site, I only did that once… It was spur of the moment…”
It was a speech as painful as coughing up blood. I stepped up to Takizawa-san and softly placed my hand on her back.
“…It’s all right, calm down. I’m not blaming you. It was an accident that Kaoru Hioka-san died.”
I lied. So that she would, for a short time, have temporary peace of mind. I could only think that the truth would be cruel.
She had regretted it enough. In addition, there was no need to make her suffer under the cruel truth. It may have been cheap sympathy. However, I could not bring myself to be more coldhearted.
“I can’t trust anyone anymore! They say things that sound like they’re worried but they don’t get how I feel at all! I can’t take this anymore! I’d rather they insult me to my face! Give me a break! Anyone around me could really be Uzume… I’m jumping at shadows… Even you, Takizawa-san… Ah, sorry… Forget it… I’m sorry… I’m being weird…”
Remembering the contents of their conversation, most likely Kaoru Hioka had doubted her belief in Takizawa-san somewhere in her heart. She may have thought there was a chance that Takizawa-san was Uzume.
From the conversation, I could catch a glimpse of Kaoru Hioka’s conflict, as she did not want to suspect her. At the same time, she was emotionally trapped, believing she could not trust anyone.
In truth, Uzume was Miyuki Midorikawa, but Kaoru Hioka, who was no longer in this world, would spend an eternity never knowing that. Another quite cruel truth was that Kaoru Hioka had died doubting Takizawa-san, thinking she might be Uzume, and I was unable to say anything more.
It was just a little malice. Envy, bitterness, resentment. Those were ordinary malices that everyone had as humans in their everyday lives.
I thought this as I gazed at Takizawa-san, trembling in knowledge of her sins.
It may have been that the “Midnight Site” bore a role similar to a place of acc.u.mulation for the malice lingering in the world. Like dirt that had acc.u.mulated and acc.u.mulated, the hundreds and thousands of small malices had finally become a huge ball of malice, and in the end it had gained a gloomy momentum that was enough to drive people to death.
I had nothing but disbelief that a negative place like the “Midnight Site” could be popular, but I felt that I could understand people’s reasons for partic.i.p.ating just a little.
Surely, in their daily lives, everyone experienced malice born from within them that they did not know how to handle and were searching for an outlet.
And when I realized that, the “Midnight Site” became more frightening than before. As to why, the malice of each of the site’s users separately was extremely small, and it could only be said that their awareness of their sins was nonexistent.
Once again, I became strongly determined to bring this case to a swift conclusion.
To sever the chain of unhappiness – that was undoubtedly the mission given to me who knew the truth, me who held the special power known as Persona.
April 2 Yagokoro High School Rooftop
“Shirogane! See you tomorrow!”
To the male students who were hurrying to their sports club activities and cutting it close, and:
“We were thinking of drinking tea at the Junes food court on the way back. Do you want to come, Prince?”
To the female students who invited me: “Sorry. There’s something I need to do.” I saw them off.
“…Shirogane? You’re still in the cla.s.sroom? Don’t stay too late.”
Receiving that warning from the homeroom teacher, I read a book to pa.s.s the time. At last, when I estimated that all people had trailed out of the school buildings over which the sun sank, I joined up with Sousei-san. On the designated place, the rooftop, I spoke to Sousei-san about the incident that had occurred at lunchtime.
I had obtained two pieces of important evidence from Takizawa-san when she regained her composure.
The first was that, regarding the person who told Kaoru Hioka’s older brother Kyouhei Hioka about the “Midnight Site”: “…I told him.” The truth was that it had been Takizawa-san.
It seemed that Kyouhei Hioka had not believed from the very beginning that his sister’s death was a simple accident and had come to her friend Takizawa-san’s home to ask about the circ.u.mstances.
As had been in the past conversation, Kaoru Hioka had told her brother Kyouhei Hioka absolutely nothing about her worries about the slander. Even so, Kyouhei Hioka had vaguely realized that his sister was troubled by something. However, he believed a girl his sister’s age would only hate for her brother to meddle deeply in her affairs, and so he had not pursued the matter. “I really regret not pursuing it,” Kyouhei Hioka had told Takizawa-san in a hoa.r.s.e voice.
And then the other piece of evidence from Takizawa-san was that I now knew her conversation with Kyouhei Hioka was an incident that had taken place about two months after Kaoru Hioka’s pa.s.sing. In other words, Kyouhei Hioka had spent close to four months since learning of the existence of the “Midnight Site” until he reached Miyuki Midorikawa.
When I had finished speaking, Sousei-san nodded, unimpressed.
“But geez, it’s hard to understand. If she didn’t want to be compared to other people, she should’ve just not hung out with anyone. If she did that, she would’ve been able to go without having grudges or being jealous.”
Sousei-san threw up his hands in an exaggerated action.
“Even if they know that, people cannot live alone. It may be that, if a person compares themselves to others, they’re constantly confirming who they themselves are.”
I thought that, in Takizawa-san’s case, because she was inferior to the one she was being compared to, it led to a negative result.
“That’s what’s hard for me to understand. I’m a robot, but even if I wasn’t, I would be able to puff out my chest and say I’m Sousei Kurogami, you know? And also, you’re sure you’re Naoto Shirogane even if no one gives you proof, aren’t you?”
In truth, it was a speech very like Sousei-san. When I thought about it, he said much the same thing when he learned I was a woman. However, that was something he could say because he was Sousei-san. Not everyone could puff out their chests and say they were constantly true to themselves.
“…Let’s see. If I had to say, I wouldn’t be confident.”
I gave a self-deprecating smile.
“However, as a detective, I can be useful to someone – when I think that, I have a little bit of confidence that I am Naoto Shirogane. With that purpose, I can constantly, fully realize my existence in my interactions with people.”
I did not deny it. For better or for worse, I knew that to live was to be able to accept that all sides of me were still me.
“Hmph! That doesn’t help when you’re depressed. If you ask me, when I thought about the good and bad points, not knowing who you are is nothing compared to the inferiority complex you get from building up debts to other people.”
I looked up at Sousei-san. I parted my lips slightly and asked:
“…But, isn’t that lonely?”
There was no way that people could not know the loneliness of solitude once they had been touched by someone’s warmth. I thought that perhaps Sousei-san had not had that kind of experience.
“There are also times when I regret it, thinking that it may have been better if I had not been influenced by others. However, I think the joy and rea.s.surement that come from having friends I can trust and people important to me cannot be replaced. At the very least, it’s a feeling that I would not have were I alone.”
I thought it was an evasive, half-hearted reb.u.t.tal, but unexpectedly, Sousei-san mulled it over with a quiet expression.
“…Even I can understand that as a robot.”
Finally Sousei-san let out his feelings little by little.
“What I wanna say is that there’s no need to form crowds. You don’t need that many. Just one is fine. If just that one person is there, that’s enough, right? As long as they praise you, you’re happy. You humans ask for too much…”
On that note, Sousei-san fell silent. He had only been activated several years ago, but his words filled with emotion spoke to his actual experience.
Though he was a robot, Sousei-san’s personality was quite humanlike, and I wondered if somehow it was influenced by what he had seen and experienced in the past. The name “Yuuri” that he had inadvertently let fall. It was the name of a woman. It may have been the name of someone who had a deep connection to Sousei-san’s past.
I was becoming more and more intrigued by Sousei-san’s past, but I shook off the temptation and told him:
“In any case, let’s go around the school building and search for Miyuki Midorikawa’s past conversations.”
At present, that was our greatest priority.
“Well, the work’s a pain, but it’s fun feeling like we’ll definitely find treasure.”
Sousei-san answered lightly, as if his sullen demeanor until a little while ago was nothing more than an illusion.
“…I wonder. The situation right now is more serious than before. Personally, I already feel that we’re digging up live sh.e.l.ls rather than treasure.”
So I responded lightly, pretending I had not noticed.
April 2 Yagokoro High School School Building
We decided that the timeframe for detection of past conversations would be half a year ago to the present. It was determined that the only person related to Yagokoro High School who had pa.s.sed away during that period was Miyuki Midorikawa. In other words, by doing this, we would limit what we would detect to Miyuki Midorikawa’s conversations alone.
It had been about an hour since we had started investigating the school building. As planned, we had succeeded in detecting a number of conversations. However, unfortunately they were all normal, everyday conversations, and we did not obtain any particular information likely to be connected to the case.
–It was after using our Personas multiple times in succession. Putting aside Sousei-san, who was a robot, I, who had a flesh body, was just about to propose a break because my physical strength was exhausted. Sousei-san and I exchanged glances at the same time at the contents of a conversation we had detected at a certain place.
“…Whoa, what a scary face! Yeah, yeah, as expected of Mr. Student Council President, you’re really different from a low-cla.s.s girl like me… I’ll say it! It’s fine if I say it! The reason’s simple, I hate that girl! So I put her on the Midnight Site! That’s all!”
“Aah, geez! Shut up, shut up! You preach too much! Anyway, even you know we can’t do anything now that it’s gone this far, right? If you say you’ll stop it no matter what, then just shut up the jurors under the name ‘Sarutahiko’!”
“…I haven’t told anyone, you really are a wimp of a guy! Even though I’m following your orders and not talking to you at school at all! I pretend not to know you even if we pa.s.s in the hall! Say it straight out! I’m worried about that girl! I like ‘Kaoru Hioka’! I said it but you’re the one who thinks that! It’s because you’re making eyes at that girl…”
“…I-it’s not my fault! I only scattered the bait! The rest was the jurors just swallowing it and kicking up a fuss and that girl went and died on her own! …Hey… I’ll listen to whatever you say… So… Don’t abandon me…”
“This is suspicious… Have we found treasure?” Sousei-san grinned broadly.
“…Yes, we found a live sh.e.l.l. An extra-large one.” I nodded quietly.
It could be called a breakthrough in the development of the disappearance case. To calm my feeling of impatience, I took a single deep breath.
“…In this moment, you could say that we have overturned the known relation between Miyuki Midorikawa and Shirou Konno, who according to the police’s investigation and the information provided by the students, shared no common point.”
Sousei-san, who did not seem to comprehend, scowled at the words that appeared on Tsukuyomi’s headpiece with a grim look.
“Please look here.” I pointed out one phrase on the marquee with my finger.
“Hm? Mr. Student Council President…?”
Sousei-san repeated it curiously, but when he realized the answer, his expression instantly brightened.
“Oi! Naoto! Good job!”
He grabbed me by the shoulders. It may have been out of excitement, but in truth, it hurt.
“…Yes, as you’ve guessed, the student council president – you would be correct in thinking he is Shirou Konno.”
That the missing Shirou Konno was the student council president had also been specified in the case file. In addition, the place where we were at was within sight of the student council room. I hypothesized that Miyuki Midorikawa and Shirou Konno’s conversations had taken place inside the student council room.
“There is one more thing. In the case that the person Miyuki Midorikawa was speaking to is indeed Shirou Konno, there is something we can say with high probability – that Shirou Konno is alive.”
“…Right. ‘Cause we didn’t detect him in the past conversations!”
We had finally reached this wonderful result due to Sousei-san’s Persona’s ability.
“As expected of my great Persona! It’s really true, in the end, I’m a genius!”
Nonetheless, because the person in question was getting carried away, I thought to myself that I would definitely not praise him. Rather, I was of the opinion that I should remonstrate him.
“…Sousei-san. It’s not like the case is settled and you’re overcome with joy; if Touko-san saw you, she would roar with laughter, you know?”
“Don’t you have any confidence? If it’s like this, the case’ll be over in a flash, right? Or are all detective guys full of hot air like you?”
He spoke in a roundabout way, and Sousei-san gave a displeased snort of laughter.
“Please call it being cool and collected.”
As a detective, it was essential to maintain a way of thinking so sensitive as to be called excessively cautious. That was because the mistakes of a detective would not be forgiven. Especially for me, who carried the reputation of the Shirogane name, as one who was sought after for capability above that of the police. If not for that, my existence had no meaning. To exaggerate, the existence of the detective Naoto Shirogane was permitted only when someone needed her.
“What, that’s stupid.”
The rude manner of Sousei-san’s response as he spat that out, as if to say it was nothing but a pain, was impulsive and just like him, and I smiled wryly and gave up. It was proof that I was little by little coming to understand the person called Sousei Kurogami.
“The relation between Miyuki Midorikawa, who has pa.s.sed away, and Shirou Konno, who is missing, was in their conversation. The next question would be, ‘Why was it necessary for the two of them to hide their relation from those around them?’”
“If you just think about it, isn’t it the guy’s ego? If they knew the student council president was hanging out with a woman with a bad rep, it wouldn’t look good, right? And what they were talking about sounded like a lover’s quarrel. I can imagine a hysterical woman getting jealous ‘cause the guy’s fooling around.”
Sousei-san replied immediately.
“I think that possibility does also exist. However, the two of them unmistakably share another unknown common feature.”
I pointed out one word in the past conversation. “‘Sarutahiko’…?” Sousei-san tilted his head.
“Sousei-san, do you remember the name ‘Uzume’?”
“Huh? Don’t screw with me! Like I’d forget the stuff I just heard last night! Uzume’s that, right? The screenname Miyuki Midorikawa took as one of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’, right?”
“Correct,” I answered, trying not to laugh. Sousei-san’s childish behavior when he had become angry and answered was just a little bit funny.
“Then do you remember the name ‘Sarutahiko’? I explained it last night, if you recall?”
However, “…Guh.” Sousei-san unfortunately fell silent at the next question.
“By the way, Sarutahiko is also the screenname of one of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’.”
Sousei-san folded his arms and stroked his chin with his fingertips.
“…So that’s the way it is? That the past conversation is saying Shirou Konno is Sarutahiko.”
I nodded quietly.
“Miyuki Midorikawa and Shirou Konno’s common point is that they were members of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’. Wasn’t hiding their relationship from the people around them also a discreet cautionary measure taken so others would not be aware they were members of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’?”
Most likely it was Shirou Konno’s initiative. From both the case file and Miyuki Midorikawa’s past conversations, it was clear that Shirou Konno was a careful individual.
“By the way, what are these ‘jurors’? Someone’s name? Or is it also a screenname?”
“No, it seems the ordinary users of the Midnight Site are called ‘jurors’. The jurors hold the rights to vote guilty or not guilty. In j.a.panese, ‘juror’ is ‘baishinin’. And the judges are ‘saibankan’. In other words, one can deduce that the aim of the Midnight Site is to ‘Carry out judgment in the middle of the night.’”
“…Judgment, huh. The defendants the judges frame don’t get even a speck of fairness when their guilt is considered.”
“Yes, it’s more like a witch hunt.”
I nodded firmly. Miyuki Midorikawa, called Uzume, had fabricated completely false sins, and Kaoru Hioka had been made to suffer reasonless slander. Only she herself knew whether it had been an accident or suicide, but it was surely an unreasonable end.
Immediately afterward, Sousei-san shook his head as if fed up.
“…Hey, Naoto, can I say something here?”
I instantly denied him. That was because I could predict what Sousei-san meant to say.
“Let’s leave Shirou Konno. It’s fine. Let Kyouhei Hioka have his revenge.”
He ignored me completely.
“It’s not like I use the Internet all the time or looked into the ‘Midnight Site’ a lot either. Still, I get it. Those guys who have to do with the Midnight Site are a really tightfisted bunch.”
Sousei-san spat out.
“Starting up the Midnight Site, naming themselves the Five Togakushi Judges, I don’t know who the h.e.l.l you are, but who are you to judge other people? Can your actions be forgiven? Who’s gonna judge your sins? I wanna ask those b.a.s.t.a.r.ds that!”
“You’re going too far. They also have their own circ.u.mstances.”
I answered, taking it upon myself to strongly reprimand Sousei-san, who had lost his temper.
“Circ.u.mstances? Are you an idiot? Everyone alive’s got their own circ.u.mstances! Even I do and I’m a robot!”
I had added fuel to the fire.
“Don’t let yourself be controlled by your emotions. There are rules in this world. If everyone acted on their emotions, the order of the world would soon crumble.”
“You’re a cold human. Don’t you have any sympathy at all for Kyouhei Hioka?”
“Even I can sympathize with Kyouhei Hioka’s situation. However, this and that are really two different problems. In the end, a killer is a killer. Even if we have the luxury to take extenuating circ.u.mstances into consideration, his are not actions that can be forgiven by any means.”
“Geez, you really have an answer for everything!”
“I could say exactly the same to you!”
I was being quite frank. There was also a part of me that conceded Sousei-san’s point. However, those were my personal feelings. As a detective, I was of the belief that I could not overlook a crime right before my eyes.
I let out a single, small sigh.
“…As for ourselves, there is something only we can do.”
I looked straight at Sousei-san and told him.
“Let’s do what we can, believing that Kyouhei Hioka’s greatest hope of salvation is that we won’t let anyone else killed by him.”
“…I dunno if we’ll regret this.”
Sousei-san snorted morosely.
“…That’s true. I’ll endeavor to make the very best choices so it doesn’t come to that.”
I responded with a bitter smile. If I didn’t believe and take a step forward, I would definitely not be able to proceed onwards. I persuaded myself with a wavering heart.
April 2 Yagokoro Police Station Special Forensics Division Director’s Office
I returned to the Yagokoro Police station and searched for Touko-san. It was to report on the investigation up until now and to hear about what kind of person Kyouhei Hioka was.
I thought I might be able to see Touko-san if I showed up at the Criminal Enforcement Division where her desk was, but I was mistaken. Touko-san’s desk was empty.
I thought I would ask someone as to Touko-san’s whereabouts, but within the office, which was disorderly with mountains of case files and white tobacco smoke that obscured visibility, the detectives directed aggressive looks shot through with seething anger at me, an outsider to the division, and I hesitated to speak to them readily.
There was nothing I could do, so I went around the station myself. However, I went around and looked everywhere, but I could not find Touko-san anywhere. The place I reached at last was the director’s office of the Special Forensics Division under Tsuge-san.
“Touko? Dunno. Haven’t seen her since she came to drink coffee this morning.”
My last hope was swiftly dashed.
“Well, if you wait she’ll come back, right?”
Tsuge-san said carelessly as he processed the doc.u.ments on his desk.
“Geez, you’re useless, Gramps!”
Sousei-san was disgusted, but:
“Tsuge-san, I’ll be borrowing your computer again.”
I was going to investigate some details related to the case while waiting for Touko-san as Tsuge-san had suggested.
“Oi oi, what should I do?”
“Please stay quiet over there.”
As if my way of handling Sousei-san was entertaining:
“Right! Do what you’re told, Sousei!”
Tsuge-san’s large body shook as he laughed.
“You’re annoying! Gramps! Shut your trap!”
Sousei-san threw himself on the sofa as one would when staying in bed out of spite.
Their argument continued behind me as I started up the computer.
“Oi! Gramps! I’m bored!”
“Like I care, idiot! Go read the magazine on the desk or something!”
“That’s an idol magazine! Act your age, Gramps!”
“What! The kids’ll get upset if you’re like that! Women’s naked bodies are the last mystery left on Earth! It’s an eternal research theme needed to dispel doubts about your status as a man!”
“What research theme!? You dirty old man! Isn’t that just your l.u.s.t!?”
“I’m not denying there’s l.u.s.t, but I don’t like being insulted, so I’ll tell you the idol magazine isn’t mine! Touko left it here this morning, idiot!”
“…Seriously? Touko’s a good woman without any masculinity. To think these idols are her hobby.”
“…Even if you’re joking, don’t say such scary things. I’ll start imagining it. Uh, no, that’s kinda a turn-on too…”
I thought that if Touko-san had heard, the two of them would be sorry.
Finally, I heard the sound of the magazine pages being turned behind me. It seemed that somehow Sousei-san had begun to read the idol magazine as he spoke. It was at that moment.
“…Huh? What’s this about… Am I seeing things…?”
Sousei-san spoke in an uncharacteristically bewildered voice.
“Oi! Gramps! Come here a sec! Look at this!”
“I’m busy! What is it, idiot!? Who do you think I am!? I’m the director, you know? I’ve got more social responsibility than you think, okay?”
As he complained, I heard the sound of Tsuge-san’s footsteps as he stood from his seat and headed to the sofa.
“Huh? Huuuh? W-what is this… S’like I’m seeing things…”
Tsuge-san was immediately surprised just like Sousei-san.
Predictably, I started to wonder what in the world it was, so I turned my chair and looked back at the two of them. When I did, the two of them blinked and gazed at me fixedly.
“…Eh? What? What is it?”
I drew back in that instant, feeling something like dread. Instead of answering, the two of them looked back and forth between me and the magazine, comparing us.
Then, at Tsuge-san’s next words, I sprung from the chair without thinking.
“That surprised me! Boy, you’re – a girl!”
Fl.u.s.tered, I ran up to the two of them and peered at the magazine. In that moment, a sound rang out. That was the sound of the blood draining from my face.
On the open color pages of the magazine, a girl clothed in a red bikini and a girl clothed in a navy blue bikini were playing together in the waves. By the way, it could not be helped that the girl in the navy blue bikini’s smile was stiff.
I had a flashback to the memories of about a week ago. It was a shot from that time, when there was a photoshoot at the “Yagokoro Premium Gaia” of gravure photos that were to be published in a magazine.
My whole body was so hot it felt as if it were burning. My field of vision was distorted and my thoughts were jumbled together so confusingly I couldn’t think. It felt like I would unthinkingly scream because of this turmoil I had never before experienced. “Ah, oh, ooh…” However, I couldn’t even find my voice at such a shock.
“What was that! Gramps! You didn’t know Naoto is a woman! Can’t you tell just by looking!?”
No, even you didn’t know until yesterday.
“‘Cause Touko didn’t say anything! I did think she’s too slender for a guy, but she acts like one and they call her Detective Prince, so wouldn’t you normally think she’s one?”
“Yeah, well. But right now the issue isn’t something as boring as if Naoto is a man or a woman!”
Sousei-san pulled the magazine even further open and held it out.
“Look! At Naoto’s cleavage here!”
“Yeah! Not bad, not bad at all!”
With a lewd look on his face, Tsuge-san brought his face close to the magazine and looked between me and the gravure photoshoot picture, comparing us.
“…Hmph. I didn’t realize yesterday, but you’ve got some really impressive goods! Geez, say something sooner! I’m the kind of guy that thinks you should act like a woman if you are one!”
I only saw it out of the corner of my eye, but Tsuge-san’s face was very frightening as he bowed his head as if charmed, and I shuddered. I mustered up my willpower and s.n.a.t.c.hed the magazine from Sousei-san. I was exceedingly embarra.s.sed and was overcome by the urge to immediately put the magazine through the shredder.
“What’re you doing, Naoto! We were still looking at that! Give it back!”
“I — I refuse!”
“Hahaa, so you’re embarra.s.sed!”
Sousei-san raised his voice delightedly. In the next instant, my face became hot as if a fire had been lit.
“I-it’s a swimsuit! O-of course it would be embarra.s.sing!”
My voice cracked with agitation.
“There’s nothing to be embarra.s.sed about, right? ‘Cause you’ve got impressive goods.”
Sousei-san’s gaze was focused on my chest. I panicked and covered my chest with the magazine.
“P-please stop calling them ‘goods’!”
“Be more confident, Naoto! I’ve changed my opinion! Women with big b.o.o.bs aren’t bad at all! Big is good no matter what it is!”
“Yeah! Big b.o.o.bs are the greatest thing G.o.d created in this world! And they say too big is better than too small! If it’s just bust size, you don’t even lose to Touko! Whoa! It’ll be fun seeing what kind of good woman you become in the future!”
I wondered what it meant that this was the only time the two of them were in perfect accord.
“Oi! Give back the magazine! I’m bored!”
“I’m confiscating it! Just behave yourself over there!”
Shaking off Sousei-san as he approached, I turned on my heel and headed for the computer at a swift pace. I could not stand any further disgrace.
“Geez, what’s with you! What’re you getting mad about? Naoto!”
“…That’s not it, Sousei. That’s not anger. She’s embarra.s.sed. Isn’t she cute?”
“Hmm, I can’t tell the difference. Hey, Naoto, are you embarra.s.sed?”
“It’s supposed to be pretty popular with young people lately. That’s definitely that ‘tsundere’ thing!”
“What’s that about? Hey, Naoto, are you ‘tsundere’?”
…I couldn’t take it any longer, I didn’t know anymore, I didn’t hear anything.
“Anyway. She looks like she’s got her act together, but Naoto’s still a mature young woman. This is pretty tough. Be gentle.”
“That’s right. Let’s be gentle.”
…Calm down, calm down, you mustn’t get angry, ignore them, ignore, if you shout, you lose. If I didn’t tell myself that, I felt that I would forget myself and yell “Please be quiet!” in a loud voice.
Touko-san was Touko-san. Why did she leave that magazine here of all places? There was no way that Touko-san, who I had met on that day, did not know that my original purpose had not been to partic.i.p.ate in a gravure photoshoot.
…Ah, was that how it was?
I covered my face with both hands and let out a great sigh. Surely, at this moment, Touko-san was unmistakably gloating somewhere.
I pulled myself together and turned my attention to the computer screen. I moved the mouse and clicked once. The image of the Midnight Site came up. I calmly opened the message board.
In the next instant, my gaze was arrested.
“Sousei-san! Please come here!” I immediately beckoned Sousei-san over.
“Oi! What’s with you! Telling me to come here and go there!”
“It’s fine, hurry!”
I urged him, not caring, and the sound of his displeased footsteps echoed inside the room.
“…Look at this.”
I directed his gaze, and Sousei-san, wearing a sullen expression, scowled at the computer screen. When he saw what had been written on the message board, Sousei-san’s eyes also widened in surprise.
“MY NAME IS – KAGU-TSUCHI. MY GRUDGE IS BORN FROM THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN CONDEMNED. I HAVE COME HERE TO HAND DOWN JUDGMENT UPON THOSE WHO CALL THEMSELVES TOGAKUSHI AND DECEIVE WITH FALSE JUSTICE. I HAVE ALREADY DISPOSED OF ONE OF THE TOGAKUSHI, ‘UZUME’. I PROCLAIM HERE THAT THE REMAINING FOUR SHALL ALSO BE CONSIGNED TO OBLIVION. OMOIKANE, SARUTAHIKO, TAJIKARAO, FUTODAMA, TREMBLE IN FEAR OF YOUR IMPENDING DEMISE AT MY HANDS.”
[Kagu-tsuchi, a.s.sociated with death. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kagu-tsuchi]
“…Isn’t this a ‘declaration to kill’?”
Perhaps he had been interested by our extraordinary behavior. Behind me, a large man, Tsuge-san, was standing in a pose one might a.s.sume if thinking.
“…Yes. That’s the intention of the person who calls himself ‘Kagu-tsuchi’.”
The reactions of the jurors, the site’s users, were the same as our own. The declaration to kill was the main topic of discussion on the Midnight Site’s message boards. However, going back through the boards, it seemed they thought in the beginning that it was a prank.
However, what the person called Kagu-tsuchi had posted was a type of topic only the Five Togakushi Judges could start, and on top of that, the account that had been used was Uzume’s, so the authenticity of the post had risen at once. Even now, it was getting so much attention that the comments from the jurors increased by about ten or twelve whenever it updated.
“…It seems the prediction of a revenge tragedy was correct, though I did not want it to be.”
The reason that Kyouhei Hioka was still missing had become clear.
“So Kagu-tsuchi really is Kyouhei Hioka?”
“Considering Uzume’s case, I can only believe it’s a screenname he is operating under.”
In the next moment, Sousei-san laughed nastily.
“Ha! I don’t feel sorry for ‘em! This is what they call karma! They should be scared! If they are they’ll finally understand the feelings of the sinners they called guilty!”
“Sousei-san–” At Sousei-san’s way of speaking, like he was egging on the revenge tragedy, I opened my mouth and made to issue a warning.
“–Hey, did Kyouhei do something?”
However, before I could say anything, Tsuge-san asked, his brow deeply furrowed. He spoke as if he knew Kyouhei Hioka well.
“…Do you know him?”
“Yeah, we met ‘bout six years ago. It’s the sort of relationship where we’d get dinner together if he showed up.”
“What about his disappearance?”
“Yeah, I heard about it from Touko…”
It had been only a momentary slipup, but there was no way to hide it, and so I continued speaking.
“…The truth is, there is a high probability that he has committed murder to avenge his younger sister. In addition, there is also the possibility that he will continue to kill from now on.”
In the next moment, the crease in Tsuge-san’s brow deepened further.
“Why… That blockhead… Even though I told him nothing would come of getting revenge…”
Returning to the sofa with weighty steps, Tsuge-san then sat with the same heaviness. Though I felt it to be harsh, as a detective, I sat facing Tsuge-san. “I’ll explain,” I said, and summarized the chain of events.
“…It’s already been ‘bout half a year. The last time I saw Kyouhei, about two months had pa.s.sed since his sister’s funeral.”
When I had finished explaining, this time Tsuge-san began to speak.
“As soon as I saw him, Kyouhei said this to me: ‘Kaoru’s death wasn’t an accident.’ Seemed like he’d somehow heard about what was worrying his sister from the guys at her school. Kyouhei regretted it terribly. Blamed himself a lot for not doing anything even though something was bothering her.”
Right now, Tsuge-san had a quiet expression, so much so that I could not believe this to be the same person who up until now I had viewed as a bit boldly lecherous.
“…That man Kyouhei Hioka is excellent, but he’s so serious and inflexible he’s practically got a stick up his a.s.s. I thought Kyouhei shouldn’t push himself too hard, and I kept telling him ‘It’s not your fault your sister died,’ even though I knew they were just cheap words. But he said, ‘I’ll find out the truth, even if it’s by myself. If I don’t at least do that, I won’t be able to face Kaoru. I apologize, that’s just how I feel…’ and stubbornly refused to give in…”
Tsuge-san let out a large breath and shook his head strongly.
“…Wonder if it’s something like tragic resolve… I was so worried about Kyouhei I told Touko about it… I thought Touko could do it, but in the end, she couldn’t stop him, huh…”
“From the way you speak, I take it Touko-san is also an acquaintance of Kyouhei Hioka?”
At my question, Tsuge-san immediately nodded.
“Those two’ve known each other longer than I have. Seems like when Touko was a newbie, Kyouhei was her senpai and drilled her in the ABCs of being a detective.”
“…I see. So the two of them have a senpai-kouhai relationship.”
It was a bit difficult to imagine Touko-san as a beginner, but it made clear the reason for her selection as a princ.i.p.al member of the “Kyouhei Hioka disappearance case” team.
“…Also, I don’t really know much about it, but–”
Tsuge-san lowered his voice.
“–I kind of remember hearing from one of them that Touko and Kyouhei were living together once. It was when Touko was a newbie, so I guess about six years ago. Anyway, I met Kyouhei ‘cause Touko introduced us. It’s probably the truth.”
“When you say ‘once’, you mean they aren’t now?”
“Yeah, they broke up. Just that I don’t really know when they separated. But Touko and Kyouhei still go drinking together sometimes even though they’re not together anymore.”
“…Heeh, so Touko does that. With a man. You told us something interesting!”
“Oi, Sousei, keep it under wraps! If you tell her she’ll never acknowledge me!”
“Whatever you say, Touko doesn’t acknowledge you in the first place, Gramps!”
“That’s why I’m telling you it’s a secret! You know how Touko hates people sticking their nose in her business, Sousei!”
“Okay, what should I do! Hey Gramps, if you bow your head and say, ‘Please, Sousei-sama, I’m begging you!’ I’ll keep my mouth shut, okay?”
“Sousei! You b.a.s.t.a.r.d! D’ya know who you’re mouthing off to? I’ll turn you into sc.r.a.p metal right now!”
“Yeah! Bring it on! Do it if you can! You senile old man!”
What an unexpected result. That Tsuge-san had also been so well acquainted with Kyouhei Hioka.
It could be said that the fact that Kyouhei Hioka had also spoken with Tsuge-san about his regret at the loss of his sister was the conclusive piece of evidence that this murder case was fueled by revenge. In addition, the most important product of the conversation was that Kyouhei Hioka and Touko-san had once been lovers. It was becoming increasingly necessary to meet with Touko-san personally and inquire about Kyouhei Hioka.
Sousei-san and Tsuge-san continued to argue even as I put my thoughts in order. It seemed they would continue indefinitely if I just let them be.
“Both of you! This is not the time to be fighting! Our priority should be to think about how we should handle this situation!”
I forced my way between the two large men, who were glaring at each other. I may as well have stepped into a chasm between multistory buildings.
“Sousei-san, please think about it a little. And Tsuge-san, please lend us your wisdom.”
At that, Sousei-san and Tsuge-san both looked down at me and finally shrugged their shoulders as if giving up.
“Oi, Gramps. Let’s stop out of respect for Naoto’s ‘big b.o.o.bs’.”
“Fine. As a man, I can’t go against ‘big b.o.o.bs’ either. Let’s call it a truce.”
Wearing serious expressions, the two nodded at each other.
“…As long as you stop.” It would be foolish to become angry.
If I allowed myself to become caught up between them, the conversation would not progress no matter how much time pa.s.sed. This was the point at which I had to take command. I diverted the conversation to the issue at hand, even if it was against my will.
“Since persuasion is unfeasible, I think the first solution would be to secure Kyouhei Hioka himself. Then we would only physically put an end to his revenge tragedy.”
“I get that, but aren’t Touko and them looking for where Kyouhei Hioka is? LIke you said yesterday, Naoto, won’t those guys say it’s ‘a different area’ from ours if we stick our necks into the Kyouhei Hioka case?”
“The situation has changed since yesterday. It has been proven that the ‘Yagokoro High School student disappearance case’ we were commissioned for and the ‘Kyouhei Hioka disappearance case’ are in fact one and the same.”
“No no, if the situation really has changed, there’s still no way we’d abort our investigation, right? They’ll say it’s not your place, ya know?”
“Even so, I have no intention of backing out.”
I immediately shook my head.
“Even on Touko’s orders?”
“A foolish question. It is not my style as a detective to do something like abandon an ongoing case.”
My resolve was firm. It would be accurate to call this my belief. Of course, it may also have been due to my own nature.
“Tsuge-san, would you happen to have an idea as to Kyouhei Hioka’s whereabouts?”
“…Naah, even though I’ve been thinking on it for a while. Sorry, I can only think of things like his home and his favorite bar.”
Tsuge-san shrugged his large shoulders slightly.
“Geez, Gramps, you’re useless! They wouldn’t be having trouble if he was hiding in those obvious places! Touko’s looking into it, right? He would’ve been caught a long time ago!”
“Shut up! I know that much even without you telling me!”
“…In that case, we may instead take the option of sheltering Kyouhei Hioka’s ‘targets’ here.”
I continued, ignoring their argument.
“It’s clear that the ones Kyouhei Hioka is targeting are the members of the ‘Five Togakushi Judges’, so if we take the remaining four under police protection, it should prevent his crimes.”
“Oh! I get it! It’s the opposite idea!”
I nodded at Tsuge-san. The cooperation of those in question was indispensable, but if we had the members of the Five Togakushi Judges in our hands, we should well be able to limit Kyouhei Hioka’s actions.
“For instance, if we say ‘The police will guarantee your safety,’ I think they will accept the police’s protection as long as they aren’t exceedingly reckless, but…”
Of course, this idea was not without its flaws.
“…The biggest problem is that the whereabouts of the members of the Five Togakushi Judges are unknown.”
There was plenty of information to sniff out their whereabouts, such as the fact that, other than celebrities, the chosen sinners were residents around the Yagokoro area, but there was a limit to guesswork.
“Can’t we post a comment on the site message boards? We’re the police, but we’ll protect you, so tell us how to find you?”
I immediately replied to Sousei-san.
“They received declaration to kill from Kagu-tsuchi, an enemy whose true ident.i.ty is unknown. No matter what we post, I don’t think they would believe us.”
“Then how ‘bout we ask the police bigshots to appeal to the media to go, ‘You Five Togakushi Judge s.h.i.theads, get out here’?”
“That’s also impossible.”
Once again, I immediately replied.
“It’s difficult to believe that people such as they would readily reveal themselves publicly.”
“Even if their lives were in danger?”
“…Most likely. But frankly, I’m not sure either. How do they perceive the ‘lives’ contained within themselves?”
It seemed I would have to directly ask the people in question.
“Getting a taste of the feeling like they’re gonna die, isn’t that really necessary for guys like them? Isn’t it? There are definitely things you can’t convey through a screen, right?”
No matter how one looked at them, Sousei-san’s suggestions were much too drastic, but somehow, I understood what he was trying to say.
“That’s beside the point. The biggest flaw is that Kyouhei Hioka will also know of the police’s appeal. Kyouhei Hioka is certainly keeping an eye on the Midnight Site, so to avoid taking any risks, it would be to our advantage to operate secretly as much as possible…”
Sousei-san had his arms crossed, deep in thought. I was in the same situation. We were desperately racking our brains, searching for any effective method. Time pa.s.sed in silence as we could not easily find a solution.
And then “–Uh, hey.” Tsuge-san slowly opened his mouth.
“In the end my specialty is robot engineering, so I dunno much about recent Internet conditions and technology, but that Kirijo family’s got a world-famous guy working for ‘em. I can ask for his help if you want?”
Was this to be our hope? I nodded firmly. “Please do.”
“Ah, there’s just one problem.”
“That guy’s with anti-cyber terrorism, so he’s in demand by everyone. Runs all over the world. I dunno what country he’s in now. Could be even if I contact him, he might not be able to start this job right away…”
Even now, the threat of cyber terrorism was universal. If he was a skilled technician, he would be a.s.sured of a warm welcome no matter where he went. However, if he was that capable a person, he would not be defeated, even if the opponent was a hacker who evenly matched the police’s Anti-Cyber Crime Team.
Time was of the essence, but there was no other effective method. We did not have many other possibilities.
“Please, we’re counting on you.” I bowed my head to Tsuge-san once again.
That day, Touko-san did not appear at the station. So I made my report by phone late at night.
I proceeded to speak on a number of topics in turn: that Sousei-san’s “Past Reading” was powered up by my “Ability Tune” and we collected information at school and at Iwato Apartments, as well as the declaration to kill from the person who called himself Kagu-tsuchi, and the possibility that Sarutahiko was Shirou Konno.
“…Got it. I’ll explain the situation to the higher-ups and get permission.”
It was an ex-post-facto approval, but she did not seem to be particularly bothered by our judgment concerning the invitation of an anti-cyber terrorism expert and the security offered to the members of the “Five Togakushi Judges”. I inquired as to the reason.
“Why? I’m grateful to you. We were also stuck in a stalemate. That aside, Naoto, that your partnership with Sousei would yield such results after only two days is well beyond what I antic.i.p.ated. Since I was the one who thought of pairing you up, it seems like I have clear foresight beyond my Persona ability.
“Fufufu.” On the other side of the phone, Touko-san laughed a little. Far away, I could hear jazz-like music. She may have been drinking sake at a bar somewhere.
Next I reproached her for the incident involving the idol magazine, but Touko-san was not at all repentant.
“Wash it on purpose? Don’t be rude! I’m a detective who works hesself to the bone night and day for the safety of the citizens. There’sh no way I would do anything people would dislike, right?”
Parts of her articulation were suspicious. She was most likely very drunk.
“Well, in any case, it’s been a disaster, Naotoo! Good grief!”
[Here, Touko is mixing up words with similar p.r.o.nunciations. I’m not sure what the first word is supposed to be (“sainan”, disaster), but in the second line, she says “goshuushou”, “grief”, instead of “gokurou”, something like “good work”.]
A dry laugh echoed through the telephone receiver. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she showed herself to be a rambunctious drunkard who enjoyed doing things that people disliked.
I judged that I might be able to hear something at this time, and so I asked about the Kyouhei Hioka incident.
“…I was pretty young when I was with Kyouhei. Sorry I can’t live up to the Detective Prince’s expectations, but it’s a private matter that has absolutely nothing to do with the current case. Please forget about it.”
Her tone was low, like that of a completely different person.
Though they were apart now, the person she had once gone out with, the senpai who had taught her the ABCs of investigation when she was a newcomer, had committed murder. Touko-san’s heart must be unsettled. So much so that she was almost unable to hold her alcohol.
Quite frankly, she had evaded the subject, but when I imagined Touko-san’s feelings, I could not bring myself to press the matter.
“Well, we’ll continue this conversation later. Touko-san, I believe that you’ll talk about it someday, so I’ll wait.”
However, the only thing I would not forget was the way in which she had diverted my attention. My feelings of sympathy were separate from my feelings of wanting to discover the truth.
“…I’ll count on it. I still have a pretty discerning eye.”
On the other end of the line, Touko-san laughed like she was enjoying herself.
April 4 Yagokoro Police Station Special Forensics Division
Two days after the body of Miyuki Midorikawa was discovered at Iwato Apartments, several truths were coming to light.
From the autopsy results, the marks characteristic of the pistol, called “rifling marks”, were a match with the Sig Saeur P230 Kyouhei Hioka was carrying. It was also revealed that Miyuki Midorikawa was missing her cell phone. I was of the opinion that Kyouhei Hioka had taken it.
If I thought a.s.suming that the person who called himself Kagu-tsuchi was Kyouhei Hioka, it validated the theory that he posted a comment on the Midnight Site from Miyuki Midorikawa’s, that is to say Uzume’s, cell phone. If he had her phone, he would be able to access the site as Uzume, even if he wasn’t the person in question.
Whenever the truth became clearer, it supported the existence of Kyouhei Hioka’s crimes. When I considered how Tsuge-san and Touko-san must be feeling, I also held mixed feelings.
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