Paradise Hotel 51

Where Gaming Dies

The Silver Case #4.5: FACE

Release Date: November 4th, 1999
Page count: 190
ISBN: 978-4757205574

MAGNIFICENT CITY
MAGNIFICENT SYSTEM
MAGNIFICENT GOVERNMENT
MAGNIFICENT MUNICIPALITY
MAGNIFICENT LIFE
MAGNIFICENT EDUCATION
MAGNIFICENT FUTURE
MAGNIFICENT PRESENT
MAGNIFICENT PAST
MAGNIFICENT DAYS
MAGNIFICENT PEOPLE
MAGNIFICENT I AM

This novel, written by Naoko Korekata, takes place in the Silver Case setting, Specifically between the fourth and the fifth Transmitter case. It follows Sakura Natsume while she investigates a series of murders during her time as a police traineé.
The novel has been fully translated by FFTranslation.

Prologue – In Cold Blood

The hand that reached around from behind pressed the sharp chill of a blade beneath her jaw. At the time, she must have tried to scream, but wasn’t even granted a chance to do so. The sound of bubbles gurgling forth from the wound in her throat, a gaping, horizontal tear, could be heard. It was the sound of arterial blood flooding her severed trachea and being expelled along with air.

I still can’t believe it. Why…?

The incident had come so out of the blue that she must not have even had the time to comprehend just what was going on. The expression upon her face, mouth agape, was more akin to shock than anguish.

The woman pitched forwards and collapsed to the ground, turned black by water from the cold, incessant midnight rain. Rust-coloured liquid flowed across the surface of the asphalt along with the rainwater. A dark stain began to seep through her bright-hued blouse. She managed to raise her outstretched arm a little, as if crying out for help, but it immediately plopped back down upon the ground. The woman was already a lifeless shell. The pool of blood surrounding her quickly began to spread outwards.

The man stood within the pool of dark red water, staring intently at her back. His gaze was fixed upon the red fluid that was her life’s blood oozing from the woman’s face-down body. In his right hand, mostly concealed by the sleeve of his raincoat, he gripped a small, sharp blade. The red film that had been covering the blade was washed away by the continuing rain, and was already heavily diluted. He slowly raised his arm and looked down at its point, restored to its silver glint.

“The messiah isn’t coming…” the man murmured, an absentminded expression on his face. Finally, he shifted the blade from one hand to the other, and began to set about his usual “ritual” with careful movements.

1 – Contact

Sakura stood before the large, full-length mirror in the entrance hall of the training institute, staring intently at her reflection. She wore a white blouse under a navy, three-button suit and knee-length skirt. Not a hair in her short, ear-length cut was out of place.

It’s okay. Nothing seems off, and I look intellectually solid. Appraisal passed, she finally managed to relax a little. Resettling the bag on her right shoulder and holding tightly onto a plastic folder with her left hand, Sakura turned towards the front door and began to walk. Taking a step outside, beneath a cloudy sky, her skin was prickled by the chill of the October air.

Six months had already passed since Sakura had been admitted to the Institute for the Training of Special Agents. Since they were going to be drumming all of the know-how required to become an investigator into her in just half a year, she had anticipated that the curriculum would be a tough one. As such, the promise of a career in the big time awaited all who managed to graduate from the place.

Even then, actually experiencing it first-hand had been fairly intense, with densely-crammed lectures, practical drills, and a veritable mountain of report-writing assignments in between. And not only that but, fortunately or unfortunately, those the instructors saw promise in were even often assigned various odd jobs to accrue practical experience. As these were of course non-compulsory, the students were free to refuse. Taking their future careers into consideration, though, while some would take the initiative and put their names forward, none would ever turn the opportunity down.

All of the trainees had volunteered themselves, overcoming the many obstacles in their paths to enrol at the institute. They were a world apart from the thick-headed university students who spent all their time wondering how best to slack off. If you lost your nerve or took your foot off the gas, you would instantly be left in the dust by the competition. As soon she had entered the institute, Sakura had realised that that was what it meant to be a career agent.

Sakura took the subway from the station a short walk away. Her destination was the Ward 24 Eradication Target Holding Facility #1 in the northern section of Area A. She had spent a few days there in between lectures as requested by her instructor, interviewing several criminals currently being detained there and recording their responses to several items on a questionnaire. Their goal was to gather more detailed data in order to revise and reinforce the databank on criminals created by the police department.

Several days had passed since beginning her work, and her whole body no longer stiffened with nerves at the mere prospect of making her way towards the detention centre. She still grew tense each time she conducted an interview, but that seemed to have begun to ease up a little, too. Even still, now that it was time to meet with the final person on her assignment list, Sakura found herself growing incredibly nervous. Staring out of the dark train window, she thought back on the data concerning the criminal she was about to meet.

Sumio Kodai, age 26. Born in Mikumo Village in the mountains of northern Kanto. After graduating from his hometown high school, he enrolled in the Central Police Academy within Ward 24, from which he graduated with excellent grades. Later assigned to the Heinous Crimes Unit after being hand-picked by Chief Kotobuki, where he served for five years. Displayed remarkable work during several big cases such as the Ayame Shimohira case. With a background like this, he would appear to be an exemplary, above average police officer. However…

July ’99. Yukimura Mansion is blown up, and a series of incidents follow: the Yukimura conglomerate’s president is kidnapped; Snow Tower, headquarters of the Yukimura Group, is bombed; and the entire Mikumo region, now abandoned, is bombed and burned to the ground. He is then arrested as the ringleader of the criminal group behind these incidents by Tetsugoro Kusabi, a detective in the Heinous Crimes Unit who had up until then served as his partner. Even as he was being taken away, he is said to have remained calm and unflustered from start to finish.

How? Sakura wondered. How could someone so dedicated to maintaining order so coolly tear it down like that? She couldn’t understand. It just confused her. Not only that, but Kusabi, Kodai’s former partner, was an old friend of Sakura’s father, who had himself been a police officer. Sakura remembered something her father had once told her.

“I ran into Mr. Kusabi today. It sounds like he’s found himself a good new junior. He tells me he’s got a young kid over there who shows promise,” he said, his tone wistful.

That “promising young kid” had been Sumio Kodai. He was too close to home for Sakura to regard him as just another criminal.

That spring, Sakura’s father had been killed in the line of duty while hunting down a fugitive. He had been murdered by a heinous criminal. To Sakura, Kodai’s actions seemed to be fundamentally against the way of life of her father and his friend Kusabi.

Why?

That was the word that had immediately entered Sakura’s mind when she had spotted the name Sumio Kodai on the list. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that she had taken the job in order to ask him directly.

Surfacing from the underground station, Sakura saw the large, grey detention centre building looming ahead in an inconvenient spot a good 20-minute walk away. As long as she wasn’t especially squeezed for time, she would walk rather than take a taxi.

Her instructor had contacted reception, and her interview had been booked in. Since she passed through there almost every day, the guard, by now acquainted with Sakura, merely glanced at the ID papers she held out, letting her through without issue.

She had also by now memorised the process for getting into the visitation room at the end of the hallway. The long, narrow room was divided in two vertically by a counter, the upper half fronted by reinforced glass. On the other side of it was a plain folding chair and a small desk for the supervising guard to sit at. Under the white fluorescent light, Sakura waited for him to emerge from the steel door ahead.

A few moments later, urged along by a uniformed guard, a man clad in work clothes entered the room. He was somewhat thinner than he had appeared in the photograph, and his hair was longer, too. His uneven fringe fell over his forehead, casting a shadow that made it difficult to tell from her position what the expression in his eyes was. His features were handsome. He was clean shaven, but that only made the contours of his cheeks, angular is if planed down, all the more pronounced. In the file photo, his hair had been carefully combed back, and he wore a close-fitting suit. He’s like a totally different person, Sakura murmured internally.

The man sat down on the folding chair that had been set opposite Sakura on the other side of the glass. He laced his fingers, resting his arms upon the counter. He looked up and stared at her. His calm expression unshifting, he looked straight into Sakura’s eyes, his gaze intense. Almost overawed momentarily, Sakura cursed herself.

“My name is Sakura Natsume. I’m a trainee at the Institute for the Training of Special Agents.”

As stated in the manual, Sakura removed her student ID from the card holder that contained it, holding it up at eye level so it could be easily seen from beyond the glass. The man displayed no reaction.

“Sumio Kodai, isn’t it? I would like to ask for your cooperation in creating a database regarding crimes by answering my questionnaire. Most of the questions are simple psychology tests and cases about individual crimes.”

As always, she spoke briskly. She had never been expecting proper interaction. Sakura was used to rebellious behaviour, too. She planned to sit there and wait until the man decided he felt like answering her questions.

“It’s pointless, isn’t it? A database about past crimes,” Sumio Kodai said, his expression unchanging. His voice was bass-baritone, his pronunciation clear, hiding any fluctuations in emotion. The immediate, distinct answer caught Sakura off guard.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Exactly what I said. Analysing the past has next to no merit in the practical investigation of diversifying heinous crimes. If you’re angling to become a commentator on a talk show or write a thesis about it for your criminology class, then it will come in very handy. It’s also perfect for instilling the endurance needed to continue a possibly futile investigation into trainees such as yourself. A lot of the elite types who come from the training course are big fans of assignments that do neither harm nor good, but do take a lot of time and work. I wonder why that is? Maybe they had too much endurance drummed into them during their own time at the institute.”

He spoke in the same fixed, calm tone, his face still. Sakura took his words as contempt towards herself.

“So you can decide, as a rule, that it’s all meaningless? Don’t you think that grasping a thread of truth from amidst a pile of seemingly meaningless things is the basics of investigating? I thought that was something you’d already know, being a former investigator for the HCU and all.”

Sakura feigned composure, but her tone was somewhat cutting.

“You’re a strong-willed one. Prideful, too. Lacking in cunning thanks to your youth, though. That’ll get you knocked down a peg or two one of these days. However angry you get, that day will eventually come. It’s one of life’s inevitabilities.”

His composed assertion and emotion-masked tone made Sakura unable to argue any further.

“…So, would you lend me your assistance?”

“I will, gladly. Looking for meaning in all actions is itself wrong. Hit me with your questions,” Kodai said, his face unchanging.

For a moment, Sakura was dumbfounded. He was deviant. She couldn’t get a read on him. Couldn’t fathom him. She just didn’t understand him at all. Or is he simply messing with me as a way to kill time? That must be it. He’s been making fun of me from the start. Even if he claims that he’ll cooperate, he has absolutely no intention of taking this seriously. Of course he doesn’t.

She didn’t even feel like being angry anymore. Sakura let out a small sigh, suddenly feeling as weary as she had been enthusiastic.

“What made me expect so much of this guy?”

So dejected was she that the words, intended to be an internal mutter, accidentally slipped out of her mouth. Kodai’s expression shifted slightly in response. Sakura’s mouth flew shut in shock, but it was too late.

“What do you mean? Who are you?”

Sakura steeled herself. “Like I said earlier, my name is Sakura Natsume. My father is Daigo Natsume. He was commander of the Secret Security Division’s Special Forces Unit.”

“Natsume from the Secret Security Division? Ah, the one who was killed in the line of duty while apprehending Ayame Shimohira.”

“Yes, my father passed away. He was an old friend of Tetsugoro Kusabi from the HCU. I met him a long time ago when I was a child, too.”

“Tetsu? Huh. And that’s why you expected something from me?”

The robotic aura that had surrounded Kodai was swept away in an instant. His cheek muscles relaxed a little, revealing a flash of white teeth. That alone caused a surprising transformation in her impression of him.

“That can’t be the only thing you came here to tell me. The questionnaire is just an excuse. Am I wrong?” His tone remained calm. To Sakura, though, there seemed to be some sort of emotion contained somewhere within.

“Something I want to tell you? Perhaps. I just don’t understand. Why would you, someone who has taken part in and solved so many cases in the name of maintaining order, do something like this? I wanted to ask you myself.”

“Does it hold some sort of meaning for you?”

“It’s pointless looking for meaning in actions. You said so yourself.”

“I see,” Kodai responded with indifference. “You’re pretty smart. You win this round.”

“Is this some sort of word game?” Sakura asked, irritated.

“Is it? Games are a good way of keeping the boredom at bay. They may seem meaningless, too, but they’re not.”

“You’re just avoiding the question.”

Kodai fell silent for a while, not taking his gaze off of Sakura.

“What do you think of the thing we call ‘crime’?”

“I think it’s something that should be eradicated,” Sakura answered without hesitation.

“If that’s your answer, then anything I say will be a waste of breath. ‘Why?’ is a question you should be asking yourself first. As long as you are unable to connect with the darkness within yourself you will never be able to understand what goes through the mind when a crime is committed, and you won’t be able to grasp the behavioural patterns of the criminals who commit them. You can’t make it as an investigator like that.”

“…The darkness within myself…”

Kodai’s words spread through Sakura’s mind, tracing ripples as they went, like the water’s surface after tossing in a pebble.

“Anyway, you came here under the pretence of conducting that questionnaire of yours. Perhaps we’d better get that out of the way. Visiting hours don’t last forever, after all.”

At Kodai’s mention, Sakura remembered her task. “…O-oh, right. First of all, then, the psychology test.”

Flustered, Sakura took a stack of papers out of her folder.

When Sakura exited the detention centre, the autumn sun was already setting. By the time she had returned to the institute, reported to her instructor and made it back to the entrance hall, the area was shrouded in twilight. Even still, she was quite a lot earlier than usual. On more than one occasion, she had lost track of time while in the reference room and had to make a dash for the station not knowing whether she’d actually make it onto the last train.

Taking a connecting train on the subway, she travelled in the opposite direction from her house. When Sakura arrived, it was in Area C, the commercial sector and most bustling place in Ward 24. Kana Makino, a friend of hers since high school, awaited within an Italian restaurant inside a high-rise building.

The restaurant interior was chic, illuminated by indirect lighting, with olive green cloths laid out on top of each table. Kana sat at a window seat, resting her chin in her hands and admiring the nighttime scenery of Area C. Although she wasn’t wearing anything particularly showy, she drew attention like there was a spotlight shining upon her and her alone. She wore a tight-fitting, knitted jumper of wine red silk that drew attention to her shapely figure. Her light brown hair was well-groomed, and looked glossy in the light of the candle upon the table.

Sakura reflexively drew her fingers through the short hair she hadn’t combed since before leaving for her interview at the detention centre. She wanted to do something about her face, sweaty from the jog over there, but it was too late for that now.

“Sorry I’m late.”

Watching the out-of-breath Sakura sit down in the seat opposite, Kana puffed out her cheeks. “You’re super late. The only ones who would keep Kannie waiting a whole 30 minutes are commercial sponsors and Sakura Natsume. Unbelievable!”

Kana had been gracing the pages of fashion magazines as a model since her university days. As of late, she’d also been appearing on TV in commercials and minor roles in TV dramas. Sakura, who was overly-serious, and Kana, who was flashy and loved being the centre of attention, seemed at first glance like they would have nothing in common. But Kana was much smarter than she let on to those around her, and was a solid, hard-working woman. The pair were very similar in their resoluteness and strength of will, and in the way they were stubborn and refused to take no for an answer.

“I said I’m sorry. I’ll treat you to dessert tonight.”

“No thanks. What would people say if they knew I had a pauper paying for my meals?” Kana said insultingly, opening the menu.

The pair placed their orders, and aperitif champagne cocktail in front of her, she finally settled down. Kana watched Sakura closely, her eyebrows knitted.

“What’s with the outfit? You look like you’ve been to a job interview.”

“I didn’t have time to go home and change.”

“Do you always go to the institute dressed like that?”

“Not always. What’s wrong with it? It makes me look intelligent, and it’s practical, too.”

“What a waste. Being a trainee doesn’t mean you have to throw away your femininity. You have such a great canvas to work with, too.”

“I’m not throwing anything away. Don’t go doing it for me. You can just leave me alone. Anyway, what was the ‘important thing’ you mentioned on the phone that you wanted to talk about?” Sakura asked, changing the subject.

Their food was brought over. Picking up her fork, Kana began to speak enthusiastically. “Oh, yeah! The most important part. Actually, a little while ago I had to go to this birthday party of someone in the industry I know. They had a whole restaurant on the waterfront reserved. It was this stupidly flashy affair, but such a drag. I could hardly even force a smile, so I just tucked myself away in a corner so as not to be seen, which is totally out of character for me.

“There was someone else next to me who was fed up, too. Looked like he’d been dragged along against his will, just like me. He’d been up all night, and was wearing this worn-out jacket, so he stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all of that flamboyance, but he seemed like the most normal out of all of them. I tried talking to him, and it turned out that I’d been pretty on the mark. Turns out that he’s actually a pretty big deal, but not that he beats his chest about it or anything…”

Kana told her story passionately, embellished with gesticulations. Picking at her antipasto, Sakura made interjections when appropriate, but hardly took in anything that was actually being said. Inside her head, she was going over and over her meeting from that afternoon. Sumio Kodai. What was he trying to tell me? Our conversation can’t have just been a word game to kill some time. Does he mean that the key to solving the mysteries of his actions is hidden within the darkness of my mind?

What, specifically, was he referring to? And how, for example, would it manifest in an individual’s behaviour?

“Hey, are you paying attention?” she heard Kana’s voice say.

Sakura looked up with a start, and saw that Kana was peering straight at her face. “…Oh, sorry. I was listening, though. About this bigwig boyfriend of yours, right? Tell me more. What’s he like? What does he do for work?”

Kana smiled wryly. “I just told you.”

“…Sorry. One more time?”

“It doesn’t matter. We’re not even properly dating yet. I’ll be sure to come bragging all about it to you again if anything comes of it. Anyway, are you really that busy? You’re too spaced out to listen, and you look kind of pale, too,” Kana said, now sounding concerned. She was well aware that Sakura had lost her father that spring, and just how rigorous the training required to become a special agent was.

“It’s not that. Well, I am busy, but I can cope. I’m used to it. There’s just sort of… something on my mind…”

Sakura faltered, and Kana leaned forwards, her eyes shining with excitement. “What what what? Is this about love? Did you find yourself a nice guy in your class at the institute!?”

No! Everyone else in my class is just a competitor, anyway. It’s not like that. …It’s about someone I met for the first time today. It was only for a little while, but due to my curriculum I got the chance for the two of us to talk.”

“Somebody involved with the police?”

“You could say that,” Sakura said vaguely, dodging the question. She wasn’t lying, and she couldn’t simply go about announcing that the person to whom she referred was a prisoner.

“And?”

“…Yeah. I just can’t get what he said off my mind. I can still hear it in my head.”

“What did he say?”

“He told me to connect with the darkness inside myself.”

Kana made no attempt to hide her disappointment, her shoulders slumping. “What’s that supposed to mean? It makes no sense at all. I was hoping he’d said something more romantic than that. …Come to think of it, since you can’t stop thinking about what he said or get it out of your head, maybe it’s love after all.”

This time, it was Sakura’s turn to be disappointed. “Oh, come on. Why do you always have to drag things back to that?”

“I’m not dragging anything. Oh, wow, something smells yummy. Let’s eat!” Kana took up her fork, looking excitedly at the pasta that was set before her.

Looking sullen, Sakura took a sip of wine from her glass. …Love? Between a trainee special agent and a former detective who committed a crime? This isn’t a book or a movie. So stupid.

“Now that I think of it, there’ve been lots of disturbing incidents happening lately, huh,” Kana said, as if suddenly recalling something.

“You mean the serial murders?” Sakura responded without hesitation. Kana nodded.

“Yeah. ‘Jack the Ripper’.”

Sakura scowled at Kana’s words. “Cut that out. That’s just what the third-rate journalists are calling him.”

“It doesn’t matter what he’s called. Is it true that both cases were the work of the same person?”

“A second victim turned up at the start of the week, and as of right now it seems like they’ve concluded that the killer is the same as in the last case, yes. Both victims were young women, both 22 years old.”

“22. Scary, huh? We’re both 22-year-old women. And I’m a 22-year-old woman of unparalleled beauty.”

“As usual, I find myself wondering where that confidence of yours comes from.”

“It’s only the truth.”

“Whatever. We still don’t know whether the victims’ ages matching is a coincidence or not, though. In both cases the crimes occurred within Ward 24, are estimated to have been carried out late at night, and the murder weapon was a sharp blade. It seems pretty safe to assume that these are serial murders committed by the same criminal.”

“You sure are clued in. Insider info?” Kana asked, seeming impressed.

“Don’t be silly. Check the news faithfully and it won’t take you long to pick up this much information. Those thick-headed instructors aren’t going to be leaking any details to trainees,” Sakura grumbled, pouting.

“But once your training’s over and you formally become a special agent, won’t you be working on heinous crimes like these?”

“Probably. It looks like the HCU is mobilising on this case, too.”

“Then how about a toast to our future famed investigator?” Kana joshed, lifting her glass. Sakura laughed, raising her own.

2 – Nightmare

By the time Sakura made it back to the apartment she inhabited alone, it was already close to midnight. She entered the dark room and turned on the lights, taking a sip from the bottle of mineral water she’d left out that morning in her hurry before putting it away inside the fridge. After a quick shower and face wash, she changed into pyjamas and began preparations for the following day, pretending not to see the pile of laundry or the dust that had began to become noticeable upon the wooden flooring. Surely the tableware that had been soaking in the kitchen sink for two days now, too, could wait until tomorrow.

Sakura flopped into bed. It was the first time in ages she’d gone to a fancy restaurant or chatted about meaningless nothings with a female friend. Remembering her carefree student days eased the stress she’d constantly been under as of late. Even the weight of the particulars of her meeting with Kodai, which had left a lingering discomfort in her chest, had been lessened thanks to Kana’s teasing. Before the feelings of warmth could vanish, Sakura sank into sleep.

A frail grey light shone down from somewhere high above. It was gloomy. Before her stood rows of buildings like towers, which were covered with a dome-like roof. The area was huge. Several faint lights shone from the tower-like buildings in yellow, red and green. They looked almost like giant Christmas trees. A low sound, like the buzzing of a bee, could be heard. The space was open, yet closed.

Many small things moved about within the gloom. They were children. The children, with their vacant stares, were performing some sort of task with sluggish movements.

What are you all doing? Where are your parents…?

Sakura awoke in a cold sweat. For a moment, she wasn’t sure where she was. Still lying down and moving only her eyes she surveyed her surroundings, seeing a cloudy grey sky through the gap in the closed curtains.

…Right. This is my room in Ward 24. Where did that dream come from? And after I got to see Kana for the first time in ages and had so much fun, too.

Her heart was still pounding. What a horrible dream. It was a familiar nightmare, one she’d had on occasion since childhood. It wasn’t like there were any scary monsters, and she wasn’t being chased by anybody, but whenever she dreamt of that dark place, it was always a bad one. Once, she had suddenly begun to cry and yell in the middle of the night, and had to be woken up by her father. But her father was dead, and her mother had died long ago, before Sakura could even remember. No matter how unsettling the dream, there was no one around to wake her up anymore.

“Gotta get ahold of myself,” Sakura said aloud, gathering her strength and sitting up. Checking the clock on the bedside table, she saw that for some reason it read 3AM. She reached out reflexively and grabbed it with both hands, pressing it to her ear. It had stopped.

“What!?”

Sakura ran to the living room in a panic and turned on the TV. “7:15” showed in the upper left corner of the news programme on screen. Her lectures for the day began at 8AM.

“No goddamn way…!?”

Perhaps thanks to her daily discipline, Sakura somehow managed to get herself together in 15 minutes. In exchange, her room looked like a burglar had been rifling through it, but it wasn’t like there was anyone around to complain. She locked the door and ran down the hallway, hurrying down the stairs. Sakura’s apartment was on the fifth floor, but she had absolute confidence that taking the stairs would be faster than waiting for the elevator.

As she made it to the entrance hall, she saw her neighbour, Chinami Ohtomo, coming in through the front door. Chinami was the proprietor of a late-night diner on the outskirts of Area C. It was a cosy restaurant, primarily serving sandwiches, burgers and homemade pies, and despite being open into the night never stocked so much as a drop of alcohol. Even still, the diner had seemingly become popular with those who worked the graveyard shift. The party people who stayed out all night seemed to have good things to say about it, too, and business was said to be booming.

“Good morning. Are you going somewhere?” Chinami asked.

Her face seemed tired, probably since she was just getting home from work, but her make-up was still flawless. It had just gone six months since she had moved to these apartments and made Chinami’s acquaintance, but Sakura had still never seen her without it.

At first, she had always thought of her as a mysterious woman who always stayed out all night and returned first thing in the morning, but upon striking up a conversation had found her to be a charming and friendly woman, and they got along well. Sakura, who rarely got out of the institute at a time when going shopping was possible, also found herself stopping by the diner often. Sakura guessed that she was roughly in her mid thirties, but still wasn’t sure whether or not she was correct.

“Good morning. Yeah, I’m just barely going to make it on time.”

“Your face is so pale. Are you eating properly?” Chinami asked disapprovingly, looking closely at Sakura’s face.

“I’m fine. I just haven’t eaten today because I overslept. Alright, well, I’d better get a move on,” she answered hurriedly and walked out of the door.

“Come by my place one of these days. I’ll fix you up a proper meal.”

Tossing a wave back in the direction of Chinami’s voice, Sakura began sprinting towards the station.

Her schedule for the afternoon was hastily decided to be field training in the form of observing an autopsy. When a body requiring an autopsy turned up, the institute would be contacted and the students would attend one small group at a time when it was carried out at the medical university hospital. That afternoon, it was Sakura’s group’s turn.

The white-tiled autopsy room was filled with the smell of blood and chemicals. The surgeon sliced efficiently through the cadaver’s skin with a frighteningly sharp scalpel, scooped out the internal organs, and examined the location of the fatal wound. The body was that of a young man who had been shot to death using an illegally-owned handgun.

“Here, this is the gunshot wound. You can see burns from the gunpowder here on the skin. The bullet entered here, passed through the lung like so, and came to a stop after shattering the vertebral column. He probably died instantly,” the doctor explained to the students as if it were a chat, pointing at locations on the body. Some of the trainees averted their gaze, but Sakura kept her eyes open and stared fixedly at the bloody corpse.

People die so easily. No matter how much time you spend building up your station, it takes only a second to die. Could those who steal away others’ lives with their own hands not feel the weight of all of that accumulated time? Did they not hesitate when cutting off the flow of one’s life in the blink of an eye?

Sakura hadn’t even been able to say her final goodbyes to her father’s body. The top brass from Public Safety had decided that the state of his body was unfit for viewing by the family, and so the lid on his splendid casket had been nailed shut, sent straight into the crematorium’s incinerator after a lavish service.

What state had her father been in when he died? For a moment, she saw the body lying on the autopsy table as that of her father. Her vision flashed white. Somebody screamed, and she heard the loud sound of something collapsing, but to Sakura it all seemed like something taking place in a far-away world.

When she opened her eyes, Sakura found herself lying on a stiff sofa in an unfamiliar, stark room. She quickly remembered collapsing during the autopsy, and thought in an easygoing manner how glad she was that she’d worn a trouser suit that day. As she sat her body up, the area around her right elbow throbbed with pain. She must have banged it when she collapsed.

“Oh, you’re awake.”

A desk stood on the opposite side of the room, from which the doctor who had earlier performed the autopsy looked over at Sakura. She appeared to be in the doctors’ lounge.

“You fainted. The others left already. What a cold bunch.”

“Oh, no, I would’ve done the same. Thank you for taking care of me. I’m so embarrassed,” Sakura said, getting to her feet and bowing her head.

“It happens all the time, don’t worry about it. Whether you like it or not, after a few years as a full-fledged investigator you won’t so much as flinch at the sight of a body. You still look pale. Should we run a blood test? I’ve got students loitering around who want practise drawing blood samples. If you let them do it, you can have it for free. You’ll end up with a bunch of failed needle-marks on your arms that’ll bruise you up nice and good like a junkie, though.”

“I think I’ll pass, thank you.” Sakura smiled, and bowed her head once more. “Excuse me, then.”

Retracing the route she had taken to get there, Sakura walked down the hall and got into the elevator. Disembarking on the first floor, she entered a reception area packed with general outpatients. As she headed for the front entrance, she was struck by mild dizziness. To tell the truth, she hadn’t had a proper meal all day. She had been summoned immediately after her morning lecture had ended, and come here. She hadn’t even had time to grab lunch. All she’d had were boiled mint sweets she’d got from another member of her group on the way there. Even without the autopsy observation, she probably would’ve at least been anaemic.

With a quiet sigh, Sakura bought a carton of milk from one of the vending machines in a corner of the room. She wanted to hurry back to the institute, but if she were to collapse again here she would look pathetic. Fainting just observing an autopsy was mortifying. Annoyed at her own weakness, Sakura let out another deep sigh.

As she walked across the floor, looking around for an empty bench, Sakura bumped into someone who had been walking towards her. The momentum caused the folder she had been holding in her left hand to fall to the ground, scattering textbooks and notes all over the place.

“Ahh, I’m sorry!” the person said, immediately getting to their knees and beginning to gather up the fallen papers.

“No, it was my fault,” Sakura responded, scooping up several handouts that had landed by her feet.

Beginner’s Guide to Forensic Pathology…? Are you studying medicine?” the person asked in surprise, looking at the cover of a retrieved textbook.

“I’m not. Thank you,” Sakura replied shortly, holding out her hand. For a moment, the other person stared blankly at Sakura.

“Huh? O-oh. Right.” Face reddening, they quickly handed over the gathered textbooks and folder to Sakura.

He was a tall young man. Even calling him young, he still seemed probably a few years Sakura’s senior. He wore a white shirt under a white coat, and had a blue tie fastened around his neck.

“Um, well, are you a doctor who just started here?”

“No,” Sakura replied, expressionless.

“You came for an examination, then? Or someone from a pharmaceutical company? Or someone who does clerical work?”

“No. I’m sorry for bumping into you. Goodbye,” Sakura said with a smile, spinning around and turning her back to the man, resuming her search for an empty bench.

“…Uh, that one over there’s free.” He walked around in front of Sakura and pointed at a bench.

Sakura considered ignoring him, but everywhere else was taken. She sat down on the bench, and the man sat next to her as if it were only natural. She scowled a little, and he smiled back.

“It’s good to take in calcium when you’re annoyed. You should drink that,” he said, pointing to the milk carton Sakura still held in one hand.

That’s none of your business, she almost said, but managed to choke the words back down.

“If you’re not any of the things I mentioned earlier, then how about… counsellor, engineer, inpatient’s attendant, just a visitor, store employee, professor’s secretary, or hospital administration accountant? Or maybe, hmm…”

He went on, his tone serious. He was stubborn, now, and seemed absolutely determined to figure out just who Sakura really was. Sakura let out her dozenth sigh of the day. She had to tell him. Otherwise, she was going to be stuck there until he managed to guess it by himself.

“I’m with the police.”

“Wow. So you’re here on some sort of investigation?”

“I’m still a trainee. I was observing an autopsy here as part of my training.”

“Observing an autopsy! How horribly unfortunate.” The man grimaced, making no attempt to hide his displeasure.

“Horribly unfortunate? But you’re a doctor, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sort of.”

“Then you must be used to the sight of things like blood and dead bodies, surely?”

“I am, yes, but that doesn’t mean I like it. Besides, I’m a physician. I don’t have to see blood very often. Were you alright seeing something like that?”

“Well, yeah…” Sakura said vaguely. Her pride wouldn’t allow her to admit to a complete stranger that she had fainted.

“That’s amazing. I passed out stone cold the first time I had to attend an autopsy when I was a student. You should drink that before it gets warm,” the man said, once more looking over at the carton in Sakura’s hand.

She did as she was told, inserting the straw and beginning to drink the milk. He was right; it was a little tepid already. Her companion took a red package of chocolate from out of his white coat. Sakura had eaten it before, but packed with nougat and peanuts, it was sweet enough to make her head hurt.

Noticing Sakura’s gaze, the man smiled bashfully. “I have a real sweet tooth. Sometimes I can feel my brain crying out loudly for sugar.”

“Do you always walk around with that in your pocket?”

“Not always, but a lot, I guess. It’s convenient to have one of these on hand when I don’t have any time to eat. I can have this instead of a meal, right?”

“And this is today’s lunch?”

“Ahh, now that you mention it, I suppose it might be. It’s already 3 PM, though. We had an emergency come in during lunch.”

“You sound rushed off your feet.”

“No more than usual,” he replied casually, stuffing his cheeks with chocolate. Sakura remembered anew that she wasn’t the only one who didn’t have time for lunch. “If only I had the time, I’d rather go for a delicious pie, but I have to get by with this.”

“Pie? You like it?”

“I like most sweet things, but American-style pies are the greatest. It’s a real bummer that there aren’t any good places around here. Apple pie with ice cream, or cherry pie… Pecan nuts have such a rich flavour. Banana and chocolate are tasty as well, though.”

He looked so excited talking about his favourite foods that Sakura couldn’t help but break out in a smile. Noticing this, the man smiled wryly.

“…Ahh, I’m being laughed at again. People often tell me that a man of my age shouldn’t talk so passionately about pie.”

“Sorry. Why shouldn’t you, though, if you like it that much? Okay, to apologise I’ll tell you about a place that’ll knock your socks off.” Sakura tore a page out of her notebook and drew a simple map of the place where Chinami’s diner was located. “They don’t have many varieties, but they have a different homemade pie every day. Their specially-made club sandwiches are really tasty, too.”

“Huh, in Area C? I had no idea. I’ll have to check it out soon.”

He carefully folded up the map, tucking it away inside the chest pocket of his coat. Suddenly, a shrill, electronic sound rang out. With conditioned reflexes, the man pulled a pager out of his pocket. After glancing at its LCD screen, he switched off the beeping.

“They’re calling me. I’ve gotta go. I’m Minato Sawaguchi, from the number one department of internal medicine here. Please come and have me examine you the next time you catch a cold. We can go and grab some pie together.”

Sakura simply smiled, not responding. The man waved lightly, then began walking quickly towards the elevator landing. Picking up her textbook in one hand and now-empty carton in the other, Sakura stood from the bench. She had dawdled for much too long. She’d better get back to the institute, and fast.

In the end, Sakura was extremely late for her next lecture.

“It seems like one of you decided to take the very scenic route,” the lecturer said sarcastically, but she had come expecting this, and didn’t let it bother her.

Even after her classes for the day were over, Sakura stayed behind in the reference room using borrowed notes and the materials there to refresh herself on what she had missed of the lecture.

As usual, it was quite late into the night when Sakura finally returned home. She unlocked the door and went inside, noticing that the green light indicating a message on her answerphone was blinking. Turning on the lights, she played back the message as she changed.

This is Kana. Are you out again? You really should go home early sometimes. There’s something I wanna talk to you about… Maybe I’m just being overly self-conscious, I dunno, but… Sometimes, I feel like somebody’s following me. There are other things that’re kind of bugging me, too. Call my mobile when you get back. I’ll try again soon, too. Laters.

Sakura’s hands stilled as she went to put her suit back into the closet, and she replayed the message one more time.

“…I dunno, but… Sometimes, I feel like somebody’s following me…”

Kana was a model, and she’d recently started appearing on TV, too. Maybe occasionally a fan would spot her out and about in town, take things too far and follow her around. If that was all, then it wasn’t really all that worrying yet. But if somebody took it to the extreme…

Sakura picked up the cordless phone and dialled Kana’s mobile number. After ringing a few times, she was connected to the answering machine. Apparently, either her phone was switched off, or she was in a place where she was unable to receive calls.

“It’s Sakura. I got your message about feeling like you’re being followed. Whether you’re imagining things or not, try to avoid going out by yourself right now, especially at night. You must have your manager, someone from your agency or someone like that, right? Even that supposed boyfriend of yours. Have one of them escort you home, and don’t let them out of your sight until you reach your apartment. Don’t let them out of your sight until you’ve unlocked the door and looked around inside. It might be a good idea to put in a call to your local police station, too. It might be making a big deal out of nothing, but do it anyway. Don’t leave it until something’s happened and it’s too late. You said yourself that you’re a 22-year-old woman of unparalleled beauty, Kana. You can never be too careful. I’ll check back later. Be sure to take care, won’t you?”

Sakura spoke without pause, wondering if she had forgotten to mention anything. That should do for now. Time to wait to hear the full story from Kana directly, and then discuss it together.

Even after she had hung up the phone, Sakura was unable to swallow her unease. Rationally speaking, she knew that she was probably just overthinking things. There was still no proof that someone was out to get Kana, either. But even still, she felt an odd sense of foreboding. Searching for its source, Sakura flashed back to the words she had uttered moments earlier: a 22-year-old woman of unparalleled beauty. Those were the words Kana had used before when they had been talking about the serial killer, “Jack the Ripper”.

…No way. It’s not possible. I need to stop letting my thoughts get so negative like this. Kana has always liked lighting up the room, and she said that she hasn’t been going out much by herself since she started accruing a bit of name recognition. …It’s okay. I’ve just been reading too many criminology texts, and it’s making me jump to conclusions associating everything with heinous crimes. Such a bad habit. Kana would be pissed at me if I told her. Actually, no, I’m pretty sure she’d laugh it off.

Sakura tried to reassure herself, but struggled to quell the anxiety once it had reared its head.

“…Oh, right, I’d better do the laundry. I don’t have any blouses to wear tomorrow. I should do the dishes and tidy up, too. Much more productive than sitting around overthinking things,” Sakura said to herself, forcing her thoughts to turn towards housework.

The woman pulled into the underground car park beneath her apartment building, parking in her own space. She got out of the car and locked it, shouldering a well-used Boston bag and walking towards the nearby elevator hall. The bag was crammed with items such as make-up tools for work, and was quite heavy as a result, but she was used to it.

The woman’s movements were graceful, the heels of her flats clicking as she went. Her well-proportioned body and long legs were clad in a rough jumper of grey cotton and black trousers. Her well-groomed light brown hair was swept back simply with a clip.

It wasn’t far now until she made it to the brightly-lit elevator hall. That was when, all of a sudden, the man appeared from the shadows of the pillar right in front of her.

“What are you doing here?” She looked up at the man’s face with an expression of puzzlement. He was tall.

“I suddenly had to see you.” He smiled.

The woman hesitated, but reluctantly reciprocated the smile. “I wish you’d called first.”

“I wanted to surprise you. I remembered the place from when I saw you off before, so I thought I’d come directly.”

Sensing something odd in his tone, she frowned. “Well, you’ve surprised me plenty, so run along home. And don’t go doing something like this again, okay? That would be a real shock.”

The woman approached the elevator hall, irritated. He’d seemed so lovely when they’d first met, but right now he was really starting to creep her out.

“…Don’t make that face at me,” the man said in a sad-sounding voice. “There’s something I want to ask you. It’s very important. Come a little closer, okay…?”

She tried to turn and flee, but the next second she felt herself being grabbed tightly by the arm. The bag on her right arm fell to the ground with a heavy thud. Just before she could scream, something cold was pressed flush against her throat, and her voice caught with fear.

“Don’t make a scene. …Come on, what are you so afraid of…?” he whispered next to her ear.

The woman prayed frantically for one of the other residents to come out, but nobody appeared in the deserted car park.

3 – Obituary

The institute’s firing range was in the annex basement. Its interior, designed purely for functionality, was the colour of lead from wall to wall, and the lighting was dim. It was the type of place where spending a few hours might turn you dark and moody – but perhaps that made it easier to focus on hitting the target without distraction.

At the end of the day’s practical training, it was announced that Sakura’s score was at the top of her class. She still held onto the consecutive number one position she’d held ever since her training had begun. Her firearms instructor looked at Sakura with admiration.

“If you performed like this, I think you could even clinch the top spot in a competition, if you were to enter one. Want to give it a go?”

“Um… I really don’t have that kind of time right now, so I’m not sure…”

“I see. Yes, you’re right. Well, have a think about it.”

The instructor gave a short nod and left briskly. He must have assumed that it was only natural for a trainee not to have enough free time to consider taking on anything extra. It certainly hadn’t been a lie, but Sakura had no interest in competitions. She was learning how to shoot a gun so she could be of use in the future during investigations, not to compete with others, and she didn’t particularly like shooting anyway.

Perhaps Sakura had always had an aptitude, since she was able to hit the centre of the target without putting in any particular effort. Since she wasn’t putting in the work, it didn’t feel like hitting her shots was such a big deal.

She made her way up to the first floor lounge, and was taking a break with her fellow teammates and a weak coffee purchased from a vending machine when suddenly a campus-wide announcement played. It singled out Sakura Natsume, telling her to come straight to the registrar’s office.

“Uh-oh, not the dreaded registrar’s office summons. What’ve you been up to, Natsume? Did they find out that you’re secretly working behind the scenes as a part-time hitman or something?” Mocking voices filled the room.

“Sounds like decent part-time work. I’ll consider it,” Sakura dodged casually, tossing her half empty paper cup into the dustbin and making her way briskly down the hallway.

The registrar’s office was right inside the front reception of the main building’s first floor, connected via a passageway. The interior was visible through a wall whose upper half was made of glass. Inside, she could see her principal instructor standing opposite another man, with whom he was conversing passionately. His companion had his back turned to Sakura, making it impossible for her to tell what sort of person he was. The instructor noticed Sakura quickly, gesturing for her to come inside.

“Sorry I’m late. I’m Sakura Natsume,” Sakura said, giving a brisk introduction as she walked through the door.

The man turned around. His double-breasted suit, giving off a high-quality lustre under the white, fluorescent light, was the first thing that caught her eye. It was clear at a glance that the suit was an expensive one. The collar of his shirt shone pearl white, without a single crease. His tie, a chic hue with even its folds balanced, seemed to have been tied with plenty of care. She looked down at his feet, and saw black leather shoes polished to such a shine that she might even be able to see her own face in them. He stuck out horribly in the registrar’s office, with its steel desk and disordered clutter.

“So you’re Sakura Natsume. You’re Daigo Natsume’s little girl, currently in training to become a special agent, is that right?” the man asked Sakura, his voice gentle.

“Yes,” Sakura replied concisely.

“Were you in the middle of your firearms lesson? I can smell gunpowder smoke on you.”

“No, my practical training just ended now.”

“The smell of gunpowder smoke is just like cigarette smoke. It ingrains itself into your hair and clothes, even the fingertips that touched the gun. You should be careful. Even if it is part and parcel of the job, women who give off that sort of stench aren’t particularly desirable,” he said, plucking a piece of lint off the sleeve of his suit with precise movements and dropping it into the bin.

Sakura began to grow irritated. Had she been summoned just to stand around chit-chatting?

“Natsume, this is Special Agent Nakategawa from the HCU. He says there’s something he needs to discuss with you.” As always, the instructor’s words were short and to the point.

The three relocated to the reception office on the opposite side of the hall. With a pretentious gesture of the hand, Nakategawa prompted Sakura to take a seat first. She gave a slight bow of gratitude in response, settling on the edge of the sofa in front of her. Nakategawa sat down on the opposite side, a table sandwiched between them, and the instructor left the room. Somewhat tense, Sakura waited for Nakategawa to begin.

“Let’s cut right to the chase, shall we? In the early hours of this morning, the body of a young woman was discovered. We managed to identify the body quickly by her possessions. It was Kana Makino, a model. She was a friend of yours, wasn’t she?”

Sakura froze on the spot. She opened her mouth in an attempt to speak, but couldn’t find the words and shut it again. The air in the room suddenly felt very thin.

“Are you alright?” came Nakategawa’s voice. Sakura nodded reflexively. “What a tragic incident. I won’t let the perpetrator of these crimes get away with it. We will catch this guy and make him pay – for the sake of your friend, too. I promise,” he said, his voice forceful.

Sakura’s face shot up. “‘These crimes’? You mean you think this was the work of that serial killer? The one who only goes after 22-year-old women?”

Nakategawa paused briefly as if in thought, before finally nodding. “I guess it can’t hurt to tell you that much. Yes, due to the circumstances, we are currently viewing this crime as being the work of the same killer.”

“…What kind of state was Kana in when she was found?”

Nakategawa took out a notebook, shaking his head. It wasn’t his police ID, but rather an organiser bound with caramel-coloured leather.

“I think it would be better if I didn’t answer that. I came here to ask the questions, not to be questioned myself. We actually looked into the call records on the mobile phone that was in Kana’s bag, from which we learned that she had made a call to you approximately three hours prior to her estimated time of death. Specifically, that was at, uhh… 9:20 PM. That was the last call she made using that phone. The details of it were incredibly interesting, which is why I came here to discuss it with you.”

Incredibly interesting…? Exactly what had she said on the answerphone message? For a moment, in her confusion, she was unable to recall, but soon remembered.

“You were very insistent in the message that she keep an eye out, weren’t you? Did Kana feel like she was being stalked often?”

“…Last night, there was a message from Kana on my answering machine. She said she felt like someone was following her. I thought it would be too late if she waited until something happened, so I called her back immediately. I couldn’t get through, so I thought I’d leave her a message for the time being.”

“I see. So you didn’t speak with Kana directly yesterday?”

“No.” Sakura’s voice was slightly shrill as she replied. If only she’d come home an hour earlier, she would’ve been able to take the call herself. She would’ve been able to give her more useful advice, too. Maybe Kana really did have proof somewhere that she was being stalked and simply hadn’t mentioned it at the time. If she knew what it was, there would’ve been something she could have done – before it had been too late.

“Is the message from Kana still on your home answering machine?”

“Yes.”

“Would you be willing to turn it in as evidence for the sake of the investigation?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll send someone to pick it up later. When was the last time you saw Kana?”

“Two days ago. We had dinner together.”

Nakategawa continued, asking many more questions – about Kana’s friendships, behaviours, recent circumstances and more. Sakura told him everything she could remember, but couldn’t imagine that anything within served as a clue as to the killer’s identity. Finally, Nakategawa closed his notebook quietly.

“That will be all. Thanks for your cooperation.”

Had Nakategawa picked up on something from Sakura’s answers? She couldn’t read anything in his expression. She saw him off at the front door, wanting to somehow drag even a little more information out of him.

“Why was Kana targeted? Do you think there’s some sort of significance in the fact that all of the victims, Kana included, were 22-year-old women?” Sakura asked as they walked down the hall.

“Who knows? The victims have all been 22-year-old women so far. That is a fact. Nobody can say any more than that,” Nakategawa replied bluntly. They soon reached the front entrance, giving her no further time to dig. “You should hurry back to your lecture. Trying to get info from me is a waste of time. Just so you know, if I were you I’d make sure not to go getting emotional and running around doing my own thing. I understand how frustrating this must be for you, but to be blunt, it’ll just get in the way of the investigation. As long as you’re a trainee, you should be dedicating yourself to your studies instead of dwelling on things that don’t concern you. I’m sure your father would have wanted the same.”

Leaving her with this, his face composed, Nakategawa clicked his way out of the door in his beautifully-polished shoes. He got into a car that had been waiting out front and drove away. As soon as he was out of sight, Sakura kicked the pot of the decorative plant next to her with the sole of her shoe. The pot, a large ceramic one containing a sturdy rubber tree, didn’t budge an inch. That got on her nerves, and she was about to kick it again when she realised how stupid it would be for her to sprain her ankle in such a way and changed her mind.

She was utterly furious at everything else, too: herself, for helplessly letting Kana get killed, and the snobby investigator who treated her like a little girl. Still standing in the same spot, Sakura closed her eyes, breathing slowly in and out. She repeated this over and over, beginning to feel herself gradually calm down.

She opened her eyes, stretched her back, and glared out of the glass door at the now-empty spot. Intense determination burned within her eyes. Finally, Sakura began walking energetically down the hallway in the direction of the training room.

For lunch, Sakura decided to go out to eat. The institute was itself equipped with a cafeteria which served passable food for its staff and students. There were a number of eateries nearby, but most of the students, squeezed for time, would dine on the premises.

Even if only for a little while, Sakura wanted some time alone. She wanted to go back over the details of her conversation with Kana, try to figure out whether any clues lay within. She exited the building and began to walk briskly. Her plan was to buy a sandwich or something like that and take it to the park. There was a sizeable park adjacent to the grounds of the institute.

As she was about to cross the street and head to the convenience store on the other side, someone suddenly grabbed Sakura by the shoulder. Her body moved with conditioned reflexes, elbow ramming back and feeling sure resistance. A moment later, an unfamiliar man was writhing on the pavement, clutching his solar plexus.

“…That’s just cruel… You can’t just go doing that out of the blue…” the man said, sounding pained.

Sakura remained on alert. Still standing at the ready, she put some distance between them and looked down at the man.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“…Is that all you’ve got to say to the guy you just violently assaulted out of nowhere? This country really has gone to the dogs.”

The man finally got to his feet, although his brow was still furrowed in pain. Was he so pale thanks to the elbow Sakura had rammed into his solar plexus? His short hair had been casually combed down. He was forcing a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Perhaps it was only natural for a man she’d just flattened to be shooting her dirty looks, though.

“Well, I guess I should’ve said hi or something first. I just wanted to get ahold of you before you crossed the road and, ya know. I forgot I wasn’t just dealing with some little girl.”

“You haven’t answered my question. Who are you? Let’s clear that up first.”

The man smiled wryly, holding out a business card. “And all I wanted was to have a nice, friendly chat. Oh, whatever. I’m Tokio Morishima, a reporter with ** News Agency.”

Now it was Sakura’s turn to frown. “A journalist? And just what are you prowling around here for, exactly? This is a training institute for cadets. We don’t have any juicy stories for the likes of you.”

“Hey, don’t get so pissy with me. Just give me a second to explain. I think you’ll find it quite interesting, too, Ms. Sakura Natsume.”

Hearing her name come up out of nowhere, Sakura was bewildered.

“How do you know my name?”

Morishima grinned. “I have an intelligence network. You’re a friend of Kana Makino, the one who was killed, right?”

Sakura glared daggers at Morishima.

“…Where did you hear that?”

“I know that Sakura Natsume was the last person Kana Makino called, too. Don’t glare at me like that. The info was gonna get out eventually anyway. So I wanted to have a little chat with you. I’m convinced that this is the work of that ‘Jack the Ripper’ guy. The police seem to be on the same page. Right now, I’m looking into that murderer.”

“‘Jack the Ripper’, huh? The case is causing quite a stir amongst the public. I’m sure something like that would carry a pretty hefty price tag,” Sakura replied coldly.

“Well yeah, I guess, but I’m not in this for the money. Not that there isn’t any on the table, mind you, but there’s another reason. I believe that these serial murders are closely tied to another case I’m looking into. That’s why I want information. Will you lend me a hand?”

“There’s nothing in it for me, and none of this has anything to do with me. Is there some reason why I have to help you?”

“Don’t you want to know all the facts of this case, too? Even if you say you’re just a trainee, don’t you want to solve this case as someone who has intentions of becoming an investigator?”

“Investigating is a job for the police, not a journalist,” Sakura asserted curtly. Morishima sighed.

“You’re one stubborn lady.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. Let me tell you one thing. Kana, the dead girl, was stubborn enough to give me a run for my money. Everyone was fooled by her outward appearance, thinking she was a fragile woman. But she wasn’t like that at all. She was strong, smart, pretty, and ambitious. …There’s no way she should’ve been killed so easily…”

Without realising it, Sakura had begun to cry. She swiped at the falling tears with her fingertips, but they continued to spill one after another, and she was powerless to hold them back.

“H-hey, uh, don’t go crying here. I’d rather have you beat the crap outta me again than cry,” Morishima said, mild dismay audible in his voice.

“…It’s not like I’m crying… because I want to, either…!” Sakura choked out in reply.

“Ah, goddammit… Guess it’s time to pack it in for the day. I know a few little tidbits that the police still haven’t made public. I know you probably want to know all of the details about the case, and I just thought we could work more efficiently if we exchanged information. Well, your friend was killed. I’m sure you’re not in any frame of mind to be thinking about this right now,” Morishima muttered, scratching his head.

“Wait,” Sakura called as he went to leave. “…Fine. Let’s exchange information. Under one condition, though.”

“Yeah?”

“You buy me a sandwich and coffee from that convenience store over there.”

In the end, Sakura settled down in the park’s picnic area, Morishima in tow.

“First of all, the murder weapon in each case was an exceptionally sharp blade. Like a surgeon’s scalpel, or something in that vein. That’s what it seems to have been. So far, we have three cases thought to have been the work of one perp. There are questions about whether there might be more we don’t know about, as in more bodies that haven’t yet been discovered, but that’s just speculation.”

Morishima paused for a moment, taking a pack of cigarettes out of the chest pocket of his worn leather jacket.

“You mind if I smoke?”

“Go ahead. You’re more polite than appearances let on.”

“Could’ve done without that last part.”

He plucked a cigarette from the pack and held it between his lips, lighting it with an old Zippo. He exhaled a cloud of smoke, not seeming to especially enjoy the taste, and went on.

“All of the victims are 22-year-old women. Some might suggest that it’s a mere coincidence, but now that a third victim has turned up, people seem pretty convinced that this guy’s intentionally going after 22-year-old women. Anyone who checks the news could’ve figured this much out. You knew all of this already, too, right?”

Sakura nodded, bringing her styrofoam cup of coffee to her lips. Warmth spread through the cup into her fingers. Steam drifted faint and white through the slightly chilly air.

“Alright, here comes some info that hasn’t been made public. Right now the police are moving in secret, trying to keep this from getting out. Not that I have any idea why.”

“Sometimes they’ll keep important evidence a secret, so they can use it to figure out what is and isn’t true when they arrest a suspect. Plus, in a situation when it’s decided that releasing the information in a particularly macabre case will have a serious negative effect on the general population, that information is restricted.”

“Aha, I see. You sure do know your stuff, trainee. So they’re not just being stingy, then. It’s only a matter of time before this is all exposed, though.”

“I suppose so. The media aren’t exactly known for doing as the police tell them.”

“You don’t survive in this line of work by being well-behaved. Here goes, disobedient media info numero uno: the condition of the body. Each one of the bodies was spotless.”

“Spotless? Then why is the information restricted?”

“Just listen. They’re too clean. Aside from the fatal neck wounds, there’s barely a scratch on them. Their throats are cut cleanly in a straight line from ear to ear, with the trachea and both the left and right carotid arteries sliced through simultaneously. After he kills them with a single slash, the perp tidies up the body. He lays them down straight, fixes their clothes and puts their hands together on top of their chests, then leaves them there – just like a body lying in rest at a funeral home. And one other thing: each of the bodies have cross marks carved into their foreheads, like some sort of engraving. We’re still not sure what that means.”

Morishima took a break, sipping his coffee.

“I think I’ve got a handle on the general outline of the case. What state was Kana found in, then? When and where? If you know the specifics, tell me,” Sakura enquired of Morishima. Morishima glanced at her, as if trying to assess the situation. “If it’s me you’re worried about, don’t be. I won’t cry or make a scene again.”

“You do seem a lot calmer now. Kana Makino’s body was discovered this morning, at around 4 AM. The body was behind a bakery a block away from the apartment building where she lived in the southeast part of Area B. There’s a space out back where they store wheat flour and stuff like that, like a little vacant lot. You can’t see it from the front. As usual, her body was found there, lying like a corpse in a morgue. Judging by the amount of blood left at the scene, she appears to have been killed there. The first person to find the body was, of course, an employee at the bakery – more specifically, a baker. Their main selling point is their freshly-baked bread, and it’s open from 7 AM until 6 PM. Obviously, the place is empty at night. There were no witnesses. They apparently start preparing at around 4 AM. Their diligent work ethic backfired, and ended up with them stumbling upon something terrible.”

“…Something terrible.”

“Come on, now, don’t go crying on me.”

“I’m not going to cry. Lay off.”

“I hope not. So anyway, it looks like Kana was kidnapped from the underground car park of her apartment building, then taken to the scene of the murder. The Boston bag she used a lot was apparently found lying on the floor of the car park. Earlier that day she’d finished up a glamour shoot, leaving the studio after 9 PM. After that, she seems to have driven her own car straight home. Somewhere along the way, she probably called you. Then she left the car, planning to head for her apartment, when…”

“Got it. That’s enough.”

For a few moments, Sakura closed her eyes, trying to set things straight inside her head with as much composure as she could muster. She looked up, suddenly feeling eyes on her, and saw that Morishima was watching her with a nervous gaze.

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not gonna cry!”

“Please don’t. Okay, this time I have a question I want you to answer. What did Kana Makino say in her final phone call to you?”

Sakura recounted the same thing she had told the HCU investigator that morning to Morishima.

“Alright. Kana sensed that she was being stalked by someone. But she was killed before you could extend a helping hand.”

Sakura bit her lip and nodded.

“The commonalities of the marks carved into their foreheads, and the fact that the victims are all 22 years old. You could say that these are the key. The investigation squad are desperately searching for anything besides this that the victims had in common, but nothing has turned up so far. In terms of occupation and residence, they’re all scattered to the wind.”

“…The cross marks. What are those? Christian crucifixes? Or the kanji for the number ten?”

“If we’re just throwing out possibilities, it might also be a plus sign.”

“What could the perp possibily mean by it? Some sort of message?”

“If it is a message, then surely he’d leave the bodies in more conspicuous places? In each case, they were found in locations that wouldn’t attract much attention.”

“So the other clue is that they’re 22 years old?”

“Now that you mention it, how old are you?”

Sakura scowled with displeasure, looking at Morishima.

“I turned 22 on my birthday this year.”

“Quite the coincidence, huh?”

“But you’d already looked into that, hadn’t you? That felt like it was on purpose.”

Morishima grinned. “Yeah, maybe. So is there anything you, as a 22-year-old yourself, can think of? Something only someone of your age would know? Something that happened in the same time, or your upbringing, whatever – maybe there’s something hidden within that.”

Sakura silently shook her head. She had tried thinking about it before, too, when she had learned more about all of the victims being 22 years old, but hadn’t been able to come up with anything.

“I see…”Morishima picked up his sandwich as he pondered, tearing off the vinyl wrapper and beginning to chew. Sakura too, lured in, took a bite of her own sandwich. The convenience store sandwich was the same as always. The bread was squishy, the ham wispy thin, and it hardly tasted of anything. She brought it mechanically to her mouth, washing it down with coffee.

Surrounding the picnic area was a plaza, where straggling conifers such as fir, pine and cedar trees had been planted. As it was lunch break, people could be seen here and there sitting at the benches and eating lunch. Children who appeared to be about pre-school age trailed after a young woman wearing a nursery teacher’s pink apron. The children ran and played beneath the conspicuously tall, thick-trunked fir. The fir tree’s branches spread out majestically, thick with leaves, seeming like it would make a fine Christmas tree come December.

Sakura watched the children absentmindedly. The sky was a dismal shade of grey. The children’s shrill squeals echoed throughout the lead-coloured sky. The tall trees seemed to pierce the cloudy, overcast heavens. I’ve scene this view before, she thought.

A dark sky, trees like Christmas trees, children’s voices… There was a buzzing in her ears.

a crowd of children doing something in a dark place

For a moment, Sakura hallucinated that she was inside her dream. It was the same nightmare she always had. It made her feel like her heart would be crushed under the anxiety.

Somebody, please, hurry and wake me up. That place is scary…

“…A dark place, buildings like Christmas trees…”

“Huh? Hey, what did you just say!?”

“What?”

She looked up, jolted by Morishima’s voice. He was staring straight at Sakura, his face serious. The half-eaten sandwich he had held in his right hand now lay on the ground.

“U-um, it’s nothing.”

“Nothing? Listen, just repeat that thing you said one more time.”

“A dark place, buildings like Christmas trees. I remembered a bad dream I have all the time. There’s no deep meaning behind it.”

Morishima was apparently no longer paying attention to what was coming out of Sakura’s mouth. “22 years old, a dark place, buildings like Christmas trees… No way. The shelter kids!? Then that means the perp must be Kamui…!?”

“Hey, what’re you talking about? That Kamui Fujiwara guy? He’s currently being detained under heavy surveillance at a mental hospital. It’s impossible for him to have done it.”

“Don’t worry about it, I’m just talking to myself. Forget what I just said.” Morishima got to his feet swiftly. “There’s somewhere I need to go. Sorry to leave you like this. Contact me if you remember anything.”

“Wait a sec!”

Paying no attention to Sakura’s words, Morishima quickly vanished into the distance.

4 – Resonance

The moon’s cold light shone through the valleys between the buildings. Even the areas that would normally be packed with office workers during the daytime were devoid of human presence once night fell.

A huge steel dumpster sat behind the rear of one of the buildings. Beside it was an empty space for making deliveries. The surface of the grey concrete now shone a wet dark red. Someone lay in the centre. It was a young woman, hair falling to her shoulders, wearing a suit and mini skirt.

Her eyes and mouth were closed. Her face was perfectly still. A gaping slit ran across her neck below the jaw, marked with bloodstains. Her clothes were dyed completely red from the blood that had gushed over them, making it difficult to tell what colour they had been originally. Her hands were pressed together on top of her chest, as if she were praying.

The man stared at her, illuminated by the light of the white moon, in a daze. His hands were stained with blood, the right one still gripping tightly onto the small, sharply-glinting blade.

“…Still not right. Why is it never…?” he muttered softly, stooping over her sluggishly.

He took a small piece of hair between his fingers, cut it off and tucked it carefully into the pocket of his raincoat. He believed that it would serve as a charm, protecting him until he located his next target.

He held her face, spotted with blood, in place with his left hand, bringing the blade in his right closer. With deliberate handiwork, he carved a small cross into her forehead. Perhaps crazed by the red liquid covering her skin, the point of the blade grazed his fingertip. His movements slow, as if he felt no pain, the man stared at the small cut on his finger in wonder.

The woman’s blood, which had thickly coated his hands before, had already dried out and hardened dark red. A trickle of his own blood ran over it, flowing like a florid thread. His fingers were long, nails neatly and skilfully clipped.

At long last he stood, looking up at the night sky.

“Where are you? Please show yourself to me. This is my prayer. I dedicate this offering to you,” the man whispered softly. Only the lying body and the moon heard his prayer.

Even after several days had passed since Kana’s murder, there appeared to have been no developments in the investigation. Sakura had handed in the tape from her answering machine, and since then had had complete radio silence from the HCU’s end. There had been no word from Morishima, either.

The funeral had been held, and day by day coverage of the story on talk shows began to fizzle out. Even still, Sakura couldn’t forget the horseplay that had occurred right after the announcement that Kana’s body had been found. Since the crime was linked to the “Jack the Ripper” who had been causing a stir, plus the fact that the victim had been both a model and a popular TV personality, a flood of reporters had barged uninvited into Kana’s funeral.

Kana’s parents lived in the district adjacent to Ward 24, long known as an exclusive residential area. Sakura, who had been in attendance at the service that had been held at a nearby funeral home, even felt anger at the clamour of the reporters who converged upon the hall.

Kana’s private life was dug through in the blink of an eye, splashed across all of the gossip shows. Even former classmates of Kana’s could be seen talking about her on some of them. Sakura had looked on in disgust. She wanted to avoid seeing it if at all possible, but recorded the TV shows on video tapes and checked as many as she could, wondering if there had been any new developments in the investigation.

But even that effort had been in vain. There didn’t seem to have been any new discoveries whatsoever about the killer.

After the funeral, Sakura headed to the crime scene, still in mourning dress. A makeshift barricade had been erected around the empty area behind the shop that Morishima had told her about, making it difficult to get inside. It had most likely been installed after the incident. Maybe some rubberneckers had gone poking around and caused a fuss.

Rather than attempt the feat of vaulting the barricade, Sakura surveyed the scene from the outside. They seemed to have made a rather desperate attempt at cleaning up after the police had concluded their investigation. No bloodstains were visible on the concrete floor. As she stood there absentmindedly, an employee who had come out of the back door watched her with suspicion.

“Um, excuse me. Might I have a minute of your time?” she asked, but the worker ignored her, shutting the door roughly.

The man seemed to have mistaken her for a reporter or something like that. It was likely that once rumours began to spread that there had been a murder right behind a shop dealing in foodstuffs, they would see their profits plummet. Of course he would look annoyed. With this in mind, Sakura now entered from the front door.

“Welcome,” said a different, female employee with a smile.

Just as their reputation for freshly-baked bread suggested, the shop was filled with the fragrant aroma of it.

Sakura explained her business to the female employee. The woman’s face stiffened suddenly, but apparently feeling pity for Sakura after being informed that she had been a friend of the late Kana, she went into the back to fetch someone. Perhaps the mourning dress she wore on her way back from the funeral had lent credence to the story.

In the end, however, even speaking to the baker who had found Kana’s body turned up no more information than she had heard from Morishima. Sakura thanked him and left the shop.

Her legs carried her in the direction of Kana’s apartment building. Anyone who wished to could get inside the underground car park. The entrance gate was automatic, and cars without a special card key were unable to get inside, but a person could nimbly pass through.

Sakura entered the car park the same way. She remembered roughly where Kana’s parking spot was located, having come here before in Kana’s car. Sakura strode from Kana’s parking space over to the elevator hall. Kana, with her long legs, had been a brisk walker. It took just 33 paces. The hall, much like the first floor entrance, had an automatic lock that required a key to get inside.

At some point during those 33 steps from there to here, Kana had been abducted by somebody. That person had probably been hiding in the shadows of a pillar, or something like that, lying patiently in wait for Kana’s return…

Sakura stood before the elevator hall for some time, almost as if she were waiting for the killer to reappear. Finally, her stride sure, Sakura began walking towards the car park exit.

Even afterwards, Sakura continued her own independent investigation. She attempted to look into the pasts of the previous victims during the gaps in her training schedule, but all this resulted in was fatigue and sleep deprivation, turning up no new information.

That day, about ten days after Kana’s funeral, Sakura finally left the institute at a fairly late hour. Thanks to her investigation into the serial killer, her homework and reports had begun to pile up quite significantly, and she could no longer even remember the last time she ate a proper meal. She was, not too surprisingly, growing fed up with reading all she could of the data detailing the bloody affair. All she wanted was a normal, peaceful conversation with someone that had nothing to do with the case or the investigation.

On her way home, Sakura headed for the diner run by Chinami, her neighbour at the apartments. There, she would be able to enjoy both a solid meal and solid conversation. Getting off the subway earlier than usual, she transferred to another train. Three stops later she disembarked, making the roughly five-minute walk to Chinami’s diner.

The lights inside the diner spilled out through the large glass window that faced the street, illuminating the pavement in yellow. Each time she visited the diner, she thought about how coming here felt much more like a homecoming than returning to her dark house. Sakura vigorously pushed open the red plastic-coated door. Perhaps she had arrived at a quiet hour, as the diner was empty.

“Evening, Chinami!” she called cheerfully.

Chinami, standing behind the counter, turned around. A smile appeared on her perpetually perfectly made-up face.

“You finally showed. It’s been a while since I told you to come here and grab a bite. Look at you, pale like you’re malnourished as usual. You’ll make yourself ill one of these days.”

Sakura seated herself upon the stool opposite Chinami, resting her elbows on the counter. “I told you, I’ve been busy. I’m so fed up of those nasty convenience store sandwiches. They made me pine for the food here.”

“What’ll it be?”

“Coffee, club sandwich, tuna salad, onion soup, hash browns… and I think I’ll take a pie, too.”

“You think you manage all of that? Don’t overeat and give yourself a stomach ache.”

“It’s fine. I’m making up for about two weeks of malnutrition in one go.”

Chinami shrugged, taking her order to the kitchen. The diner had two employees, Chinami included. The silent, strapping chef in the back made her sandwich and soup. He rarely showed his face to the customers, but would apparently repel drunks and others who came there by mistake without a word.

Large-framed and solidly built, he was a fairly bizarre, middle-aged man who looked more like a martial artist than a chef, probably a little older than Chinami. She had asked Chinami in the past whether she managed the diner with her husband, but Chinami had instantly laughed it off. Boyfriend, then? she had continued to dig, and had been informed that he was simply an employee; that she trusted his skill as a chef, but that was all. Sakura was still suspicious, but decided not to press her any further.

Chinami set a cup down on the counter, filling it with coffee. Its fragrant aroma filled the room. As Sakura cradled the cup in her hands, taking small sips, she heard the door slam open behind her.

“Welcome,” Chinami said in an affected voice, looking over in the direction of the door.

Another customer had probably entered. Sakura didn’t pay it any particular mind. But when she realised that the customer had taken a stool one spot away from her, she looked over at them. Why do you have to sit so close when the place is totally deserted? she wondered, irritated.

“Oh, what a coincidence,” the young man said, looking Sakura in the eye.

“…?”

The man had a gentle smile on his long face. He wore a knitted, black cotton turtleneck under a tweed jacket. She did feel like she’d seen him somewhere before, but couldn’t remember who he was. The man seemed disappointed.

“You don’t recognise me? That’s understandable, I guess. We’ve only met once, after all. I was dressed differently, too, and I suppose I don’t leave quite as much of an impact as an autopsy,” he muttered despondently, his shoulders dropping slightly.

At the word “autopsy”, her memory came crashing back.

“Wait. Are you that doctor!?”

“That’s right. …Ahh, I’m so glad you haven’t forgotten all about me.”

“I mean, you were in your white coat last time. And today you’re dressed normally, so…”

“Did you think doctors wore their coats everywhere they went? Maybe I should’ve come in mine today, too.”

“Yeah. I’m sure I would’ve recognised you at first glance if you had.” Sakura smiled, holding the menu out to him. “You must finally have made time to come and try the pie here, then. It’s really good, but it’s worth giving the rest of the menu a go, too,” she said, and Chinami shot her a fleeting, suggestive look.

The man’s face reddened. “…Actually, I’ve already come here a few times since you told me about it, so I’ve already tried most of the menu.”

“Oh, really?”

Sakura, a little surprised, looked between the man and Chinami, who hovered wearing an expression suggesting that there was something she wanted to say. Chinami walked over, setting a cup in front of the man and pouring in coffee even though he had not yet ordered.

“You know, when he first came here he was asking about you, Sakura. He mentioned a girl of around 20 who was training to become an investigator, and you’re the only one of my customers who fits the bill. I didn’t know whether you actually knew each other, though, so I didn’t give up much. He’s come here a few times since then. I suppose it must have been you drawing him here rather than our exquisite flavours.”

Chinami shot him a joking scowl, and the man leaned forwards, making hurried excuses. “Uh, no. I love the pies here too, of course. If the food tasted like crap then no matter how much there was a girl I wanted to meet, I wouldn’t go to all the trouble of coming here once my shift’s over.”

“A girl you wanted to meet?” Sakura asked, flustering him further.

“No, listen… It’s true I thought that I might be able to see you again if I came here, but look, it’s not like that’s the only thing I was after. Today really was a total coincidence, and it feels like a stroke of luck, but…”

“You certainly have plenty to say for yourself. People will get sick of listening to all of your excuses,” Chinami declared flatly. He fell silent, overpowered by her punch, and gulped down a mouthful of coffee.

“Agh, hot!”

In his hurry to put down the cup, he managed to splash coffee all over the place. Although she felt bad about it, Sakura couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

“No composure at all… Who is this guy anyway, Sakura?” Chinami asked in amazement as she mopped up the spilled coffee with a cloth.

“He’s a doctor at the university hospital who I bumped into recently. He said he liked pie, so I told him yours were delicious,” Sakura answered with a laugh.

“Hmph. A doctor? He doesn’t look anything like one to me,” Chinami said bluntly. “What’ll it be today, then, Doctor?”

“What would the pie of the day be?”

“Halloween is close, so it’s pumpkin.”

“I’ll take that, then.”

Having made his order, the man finally seemed to relax a little. He turned to Sakura, giving her a bashful smile.

“This got pretty weird, huh? …If I’m being honest, I’ve been coming here because I wanted to see you again. The pie is great too, of course. I got to see you, so I was hoping to style it out and pass it off as a coincidence or something, but…”

“Sorry for spoiling it,” Chinami said teasingly, placing a plate of pie in front of him.

“If you are, could you not get in the way?” the man huffed. Chinami’s eyebrows shot up, but she left without further comment. “Are the two of you close?”

“Yeah. She’s sort of like a big sister to me, even if we aren’t related by blood.”

“It’s a good thing you aren’t.”

“She’s a good, caring person. And she makes a killer pie too, right?” Sakura said, her face sober, and the man rushed to agree.

“Oh, no, of course. I don’t mean to be disparaging, not at all. …Um, by the way…”

“What is it?”

“I was hoping we could drop the formalities. I feel kind of like I’m speaking with a patient. Expecting you to suddenly come out with something like, Doctor, I’ve been feeling dizzy lately, what’s wrong with me? is making me nervous.”

“Me, too. I get a lot of people saying, I got a ticket for illegal parking recently, and I was wondering if you could do something about it for me? all the time,” Sakura replied with a laugh.

“And one other thing.”

“There’s more?”

“I still don’t know your name.”

“You don’t? Sakura. Sakura Natsume.”

“So it’s Sakura, huh. I’m…”

“Minato Sawaguchi. I remember.”

Minato looked pleased. “Great. I was sure you would’ve forgotten it.”

Sakura couldn’t help but smile back. She had thought that the doctors at the university hospital were all self-important, but this one didn’t seem quite like the others. Everyone called him Doctor, and he really was one of the elite, but she didn’t get a sense of eagerness from him at all.

He doesn’t look anything like a hotshot, Sakura thought, and suddenly the words Kana had said before came flooding back from the depths of her memory. She met him at a party… A guy who’s a pretty big deal… She had forgotten until now. Kana had been talking about her new boyfriend. In the end, though, she wouldn’t divulge much. All she would really say was, We’re not even properly dating yet. I’ll be sure to come bragging all about it to you again if anything comes of it. Why was she remembering this now? Had the word “elite” triggered it?

“Sorry to keep you waiting. Our special club sandwich, onion soup, tuna salad, and hash browns.”

Chinami set each dish, piled high on large plates, in front of Sakura one at a time. Minato watched in amazement.

“That is a lot of food. Are you gonna eat all of that?”

“Yeah,” Sakura answered coolly. “I normally eat twice as much as this.”

“What!?”

“I’m kidding. Don’t take it seriously. I was hungry, so I ended up ordering loads. I think I can manage it, though. Being a trainee is pretty hard labour. What, do you actually think all women are constantly fretting about their diets and eating like little birds?”

“Gimme a break. I was just a bit surprised. I wouldn’t make such a stupid misunderstanding as that. I see my colleagues do it. You have to eat whenever you can, since you have no idea when you’ll get another chance. Man, woman, it makes no difference. Just ignore me and eat up. Go on, before it gets cold.”

“I will. Shouldn’t you be getting stuck into your own pie?”

As instructed, Minato took up his fork and began pecking at his pie. Sakura opened her mouth wide and took a bite out of her sandwich, which must have been five centimetres thick.

“…You know, though, if you put it really generally, the man and woman would be the other way around. In terms of your orders, I mean. But as long as it’s okay with you two, I guess it doesn’t matter,” Chinami said, refilling Sakura’s cup of coffee.

In the end, Minato also added a sandwich to his order, and some time later the two were left sitting before a mountain of empty plates. If Chinami hadn’t cleared every one, they would surely have looked like a gluttonous couple to the other customers. As the hour grew late, the diner gradually began to fill up, and Chinami had no time to stand around eavesdropping on their conversation. As a result, the pair had begun to relax.

“This isn’t just me speaking as a doctor, but your colour looks better than it did last time. Maybe it’s thanks to the food here,” Minato said, watching Sakura’s face closely as if observing her.

“You think? Was I really so pale last time?”

“Yeah. You looked like someone who’d just passed out due to anaemia.”

Sakura was shocked by his accuracy.

“You even saw that? Doctors really are observant.”

“You mean you actually had fainted due to anaemia? So the autopsy did make you feel sick. Just like me,” Minato said happily.

Sakura scowled. “Could you not sound so happy about it? I hadn’t eaten anything, and I was sleep deprived. I ate properly today. I’m fine now. Still sleep deprived, though.”

“You’re so busy that you don’t have time to sleep?”

“No, I don’t mean it like that. …I have this dream. It’s always the same, uneasy dream. They’re called nightmares, right? I’ve been having it continually as of late. It’s always waking me up in the middle of the night, and then when I wake up in the morning I feel absolutely exhausted.”

“A dream? What kind?”

“I’m in a gloomy place. It’s a wide open area, like a dome, with several tall, conical buildings beneath a large roof. They look just like Christmas trees. There are lots of kids around them, and they’re all doing something with vacant stares. I can hear a sound like the low vibrations of some sort of machine.”

As she spoke, the unease she felt during the dream began to return, and Sakura trailed off.

“Then what? What else is there?” Minato urged, encouraging her to continue.

“…I don’t remember the rest,” Sakura replied in a mutter.

Even Sakura herself didn’t know whether she couldn’t remember or just didn’t want to remember. She wanted to forget the dream, but she couldn’t. Why did simply recalling it like this make her feel so anxious? Minato fell silent for a while, as if deep in thought.

“Hmmm. I don’t know much on the subject, since I don’t specialise in psychology, but maybe it’s some sort of obsessive thinking?”

“Obsessive thinking?”

“Yeah. You’re so busy every day and pressed for time, aren’t you? You feel cornered, with no time to even decompress. That pressure manifests itself as the insular space within your dreams. The buildings like Christmas trees you mentioned… I wonder what those are. Maybe a symbol of something authoritarian?”

“Wow. Ever thought of becoming a counsellor?” Sakura responded, impressed. “But I’ve been having this dream for a long time. Ever since I was in elementary school, even.”

“Maybe you have it when you’re stressed or anxious somehow. Like before an exam or recital, for example?”

“…Now that you mention it, maybe. …Yeah, it might be.”

“See?”

Minato smiled. Sakura smiled back. She hadn’t totally swallowed his analysis, but she still felt ever so slightly as though the fog in her heart had cleared.

“With anxiety, you get even more anxious because you don’t know what it really is. If you can figure out the cause, then it’s as good as halfway solved. You can face up to it. You just need a bit of a change of pace. How about chatting with your family sometimes, or going out with friends?”

“I have no family. I do have friends, but…” Sakura swallowed the rest of her words: I do have friends, but my best friend isn’t here anymore.

“Let’s go somewhere together, then, to take your mind off things.”

For a moment, Sakura stared back at him blankly.

“You don’t have to look so shocked, you know.”

Minato watched Sakura, looking surprised. Sakura finally realised that he was asking her out on a date. Amused by her own slowness, Sakura let out an involuntary smile.

“What? Did I say something funny?” Minato seemed perplexed, but couldn’t help but smile wryly.

“No, nothing like that. I just don’t know what I should do.”

“Don’t think so deeply about it. When you find the time we can go on a little trip, somewhere you usually wouldn’t really go, and forget all about work. What about grabbing a bite to eat?”

“We just did that.”

“A movie, then? Anything. The important part is that it’s out of the ordinary,” Minato insisted.

“Why not? Go on.”

Unnoticed by Sakura, Chinami had come to stand before the pair.

“You really are in need of some R&R. Every time I see you these days you have a frown on your face. Go out and enjoy yourself once in a while,” Chinami told Sakura, refilling her coffee yet again. Sakura hesitated, looking up at Chinami.

“Maybe. If you say so, I guess maybe I should.”

“Chinami puffed out her chest, looking victorious. “You, young man. See the influence of my words. You’ll pay if you don’t take me seriously.”

Minato bowed his head, laughing. “You’re right. I confess to thinking you were a nagging old lady, and apologise for it.”

Chinami glared sharply at Minato. “Don’t you dare date a guy like this!”

They left the diner, Minato telling Sakura that he would see her home in his car. Plenty of time had passed as they were deep in discussion. Not liking the idea of hurrying around worrying about the last train, Sakura gratefully took him up on his offer. His car, parked close to the diner, was a completely average car of domestic make, which Sakura actually found relieving.

“Where do you live?”

“The north side of Area B.”

Minato nodded, pulling out of the parking spot. He was a better driver than she had expected. Sakura had obtained her licence during her time at university, but didn’t own a car and had hardly driven at all during the past few years. Despite recognising that she should practise from time to time, the chance never presented itself.

Minato appeared quiet and not possessed of good reflexes, but he operated the gear stick smoothly, his steering technique precise, too. Sakura watched his hands with admiration. They looked so clean. Perhaps as a consequence of his occupation, his nails were clipped short and even. She noticed a plaster on his left thumb, which held onto the steering wheel loosely.

“What happened to your finger?” Sakura asked casually.

Minato raised his left hand, keeping his eyes on the windscreen. “Oh, this? …How did I get that? Maybe I cut it at work. That’s probably it. I don’t really remember.” There was a curious ambiguity, almost confusion, in his tone.”Hmph.”

Sakura’s attention had already turned elsewhere. She was more preoccupied with the blue bruise she couldn’t remember sustaining. Intense concentration had a way of dulling minor pain.

Sakura got out of the car right in front of her apartment building.

“See you again next week, then. I’ll come pick you up.”

“Yeah.”

Sakura waved casually, Minato too leaning a little way out of the driver’s side window and waving back.

After watching the car leave, Sakura walked cheerfully inside the apartment building. That night, she managed to fall asleep in high spirits for the first time in a long time. And yet Sakura, as always, found herself standing in that very same place within her dreams.

A gloomy space. A sound like a low moan.

Ahh, I’m back here again. Gotta get out of here, fast. I wonder where the exit is.

Looking up, Sakura saw conical buildings lit with dim lamps. There seemed to be ten of the buildings in total. They stood in a triangular formation, almost like bowling pins. Sakura stood in front of them, in a plaza-like area. She walked around, searching for an exit. Several apathetic-looking children drifted around, too, but none of them looked at Sakura.

Sakura made her way over to the entrance to one of the conical buildings. She peered inside, seeing that there was an atrium in the centre with a spiral staircase crawling up the surrounding wall and leading high into the distance. A row of small doors were set into the wall. The buzzing in her ears grew stronger. Sakura hurried out of the building.

Approaching the central building, she found someone standing before it. The figure was tall. Their back was turned to her, but it seemed to be a young man. He gripped something in his right hand. It glinted faintly in the reflection of the dim lamp on the building’s outer wall. A pool of black water spread out around his feet like darkness. Although concealed by the man’s shadow, she could see something lying on the ground beyond.

…Has somebody collapsed…?

The collapsed person had long, light brown hair, and seemed familiar to Sakura. She wasn’t sure who it was, but they were someone important to her. As she watched carefully, the man slowly began to turn. Sakura felt like she was freezing over with terror.

Don’t turn around. Don’t look at me. Please, don’t see me! I have to get out of here, and fast. No, I have to wake up. Wake up, self! What’ll happen if he catches you? …I’m scared.

Sakura sat bolt upright. Her heart beat at an unusual pace, pounding hard against her chest. She felt like she’d been running with all her might. As was always the case when she had the dream, her whole body was drenched in a cold sweat. Her cotton pyjamas were wet, clinging uncomfortably to her skin.

Still sitting up on the bed, Sakura gathered the blanket around her and waited for her heart to stop racing. Finally, she slowly got to her feet, turning on all of the lights in the room and heading for the bathroom. After a hot shower, she finally felt like one of the living again.

Donning a bathrobe, a towel still wrapped around her wet hair, Sakura sat down on the living room sofa. It was still dark on the other side of the blinds. The hands on the clock pointed to 5 AM.

That dream had been different from the others. Had it been “Jack the Ripper” who had been standing in that place? The person lying on the ground had been Kana without a doubt. The pretty, light brown hair was definitely hers. The murder weapon in his hand, the black pool of water resembling darkness at his feet. Was it blood? What was he doing inside her dream?

Dissecting that morning’s dream calmly like Minato had shown her the day before, Sakura decided that it wasn’t unreasonable at all for the person she’d been investigating with such fervour recently to appear in her dreams, since she was afraid of both. But oddly enough he didn’t look out of place there at all, almost as if he had returned to the place where he belonged all along.

“What about me, then? Seen through someone else’s eyes, would I look like I belonged in that place, too?” Sakura murmured aloud.

Even though the place had been lit by dim lights, it reeked of darkness. Sumio Kodai’s words swam through her mind.

“The darkness within my own heart…”

What if that very scene itself was the “darkness” within Sakura of which even she was unaware? A sudden chill ran down Sakura’s spine. She realised that in the time she had spent deep in thought, her still-wet hair and body, clad only in her robe, were chilled through.

Sakura stood in the kitchen, using her towel to dry the water from her hair. She put on the kettle, changing into a thick hoodie and jeans while she waited for the water to boil. Making up some instant coffee, she settled back down on the sofa. Sakura had disposed of most of her furniture when she had moved from the spacious family apartment she had shared with her father to this one dining, one kitchen apartment where she lived by herself. No matter what, though, she couldn’t let go of this battered old sofa that had been she and her father’s favourite. The cloth-covered cushions were faded and stained in places, but it felt almost the exact same to sit on.

Sipping at her flavourless, too-hot coffee, Sakura turned on the TV using the remote control. The first news broadcast of the day was just beginning. The female newsreader was reading out the top news item of the day in a calm tone. It was an announcement stating that a new victim of the serial killer known as “Jack the Ripper” had been found. Sakura set the cup down beside her, engrossed in the images playing on the screen.

The screen cut to a distant shot of an old building somewhere. The body had supposedly been discovered on the other side of it. The crime scene was covered with a huge blue tarp, and the only things visible were the investigators coming and going. They didn’t yet seem to know the identity of the woman who had been found dead in the early hours of that morning, but from the way she had been killed they had apparently surmised that this was probably the work of the serial killer. None of the particulars were being reported by the press, but this, at least, seemed certain: she would be 22 years old. Her throat would have been slit, her hands folded upon her chest, before being laid down.

“The darkness,” Sakura said to herself.

What was the perp trying to achieve through his repeated crimes? That answer lay within the darkness inside the heart of the killer himself. Just what kind of form did that take?

“If you can’t connect with the darkess inside your own mind, you can’t understand the mind of a criminal,” Sumio Kodai had said. If Sakura could figure out the true form of the darkness within her own mind, would she find herself a little closer to the darkness within the killer, too? Then that was where her pursuit would have to begin.

Also on her mind was the phrase “shelter kids” that reporter named Morishima had uttered when he had come to speak with Sakura. It certainly did seem like he had come to some sort of realisation. Sakura had done some investigating of her own since, but was unable to find a trace of anything related to the words. She had tried calling Morishima, too, but despite his informing her to contact him, no matter when she called she was only ever greeted by his answering machine.

The screen changed to the next headline, but Sakura didn’t notice, curled up on the sofa and deep in thought.

5 – Memories

Sakura had spent roughly the past 15 minutes staring at the screen of the PC in the reference room. The data on criminals for the database, the deadline for which was tomorrow, had been perfectly compiled. She had been pushing herself to the limit for days to get it done. Later, she would submit it to the instructor and have him check it. Then it would be all over with… but.

“Nothing else for it.”

Sakura had made up her mind. Tapping at the keys, she deleted several items, shut down the system and stood up from her seat. She ran a few already-input pages of data through the shredder in the room’s corner, cutting it up into tiny, unreadable little pieces, and left the reference room with the remaining data in her arms.

As she declared that the data from her meeting with Sumio Kodai was inadequate, Sakura’s instructor frowned.

“How had you not noticed this before now? Didn’t you check it?”

“Yes, I thought I had, but… This is entirely an oversight on my part.”

Sakura bowed her head deeply. She had already destroyed the evidence for when she was told to hand over at least what she had managed to finish. As she was neither a relative of Sumio Kodai nor his lawyer, this was the only way she had of securing visitation with him. He was the only one whose opinion Sakura could ask regarding the darkness within the criminal’s mind.

A fully-fledged investigator would probably be able to meet with him as many times as was necessary, but that sort of privilege was not available to the likes of a trainee. And even if it were, Sakura would have been warned off it by that pompous special agent. She wanted to avoid standing out.

Even while muttering complaints, the instructor had gone about securing her visitation. A few days later, Sakura returned to the detention centre for the first time in a while. The visiting room looked exactly the same has it had the last time. She could observe no changes in the appearance of Sumio Kodai as he was led in by a guard, either. It’s like time has come to a complete standstill here, Sakura thought. She had heard that the greatest punishment to a prisoner was boredom. The monotony of living every day under the complete control of someone else was apparently the most painful thing of all.

Just like on her first visit, he was completely expressionless as he entered the room. When he saw Sakura’s face through the glass, however, his face flickered slightly.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Sakura said in greeting to Kodai, who sat opposite her, separated by the glass.

“Haven’t you finished your work already?” he replied in an even voice.

“I have finished writing up the data. I came here today on a different matter. There’s something I just have to ask you.”

“Hmm. And what might that be? I’d rather not answer any personal questions.”

“It’s not that. Have you heard about the serial killings that have been taking place recently?”

“Is this about Jack the Ripper?”

“That’s right. It seems as though some third-rate journalists find it amusing to call him that. The last time I met with you, you told me that I had to connect with the darkness inside my own mind in order to understand criminals. Is the same true of the killer in this case, too? I’d like to hear your thoughts on what form the darkness inside his mind takes.”

Kodai set his perfectly laced fingers upon the counter, watching Sakura intently.

“I have a question of my own.”

“Yes?”

“Is the dark area around your eyes a case of failed make-up, or are those dark circles from fatigue? If it’s your make-up, you’d better stop doing it like that. It doesn’t suit you.”

Sakura took a deep breath, leaned forwards and brought her face closer to the glass partition. It was red with rage.

“I see you’re still good at making fun of others. But I don’t have time to be playing your silly games anymore. My friend was murdered. My very best friend. Even if I wanted to help out with the investigation, that gross, up-his-own-ass old cop would just tell me not to stick my nose in like I’m just a little girl, and that shabby reporter just squeezes the information out of me without returning the favour, and I’m so exhausted that every night when I go to sleep I’m tormented by bad dreams, and there are always cockroaches in the reference room, and my martial arts training gives me bruises, and every single day it’s just more of this bullshit! Even just to get this meeting with you, I had to destroy the data I’d worked so hard to collect. I can’t live a life of luxury right now. Even if it gives me dark circles, even if it gives me pimples, I don’t have time to be fussing over my skin!!”

Sakura had intended to hold back quite a lot, bearing the guard in the corner of the room in mind, but couldn’t help her voice becoming rough near the end. The guard glanced over, but quickly returned his attention to the log in his hand upon confirming that Kodai appeared calm.

Once she was done speaking, Sakura sat back in her chair. She closed her eyes, trying to calm herself down somehow. Before, she would have already thrown in the towel and gone home. Today’s Sakura, however, planned on persevering for as long as it took.

Suddenly, she heard a small laugh. Looking up in shock, Sakura saw that Sumio Kodai was watching her with a smile upon his handsome face.

“You’re right. Life is mostly bullshit, but even if you shout and curse, you have no choice but to keep going. That’s what you believe, isn’t it? Just like I used to.”

A twinkle of enjoyment shone within his formerly clear, emotion-devoid eyes. For the blink of an eye, Sakura felt like she glimpsed the look he had worn when he had worked as an excellent detective with a bright future.

“Everyone has darkness within their minds. The form that darkness takes differs from person to person,” he began, maintaining his calm tone. “My own darkness was within Mikumo forest. My light, too, existed there at the same time. You’ve already looked into all of my records, haven’t you?”

Sakura nodded. Sumio Kodai was from Mikumo. He had been caught up in the conflict that had occurred there 20 years earlier as a result of an issue involving pollution and lost his hearing. Two other boys, childhood friends of his, had also lost their sight and vocal organs respectively at the same time. Another child, a girl they were friends with, had been murdered.

Later, he became the ringleader of a criminal group which was responsible for a string of events – including the kidnapping of President Yukimura and the bombing of the company’s headquarters – which were assumed to have been carried out in order to exact revenge upon the Yukimura Group, the owner of the factory that was the cause of Mikumo’s pollution.

The reason this remained mere speculation was because the investigation headquarters sealed the file without ever releasing the information pertaining to it. The entire media wrote scandalous articles about the case, the criminal having actually been one of the investigators himself, but hardly any dug deep enough to connect these incidents to the one that took place in Mikumo 20 years earlier. Some said that political power had been in play, but the actual truth of the matter remained a mystery.

“20 years ago, when I was six years old, we were captured by a mob of people who had been driven mad by waste liquid discharged by the factory. I lost sound, and my two friends each lost their sight and words. At the same time, the life of the girl who had shone like a beacon of hope was defiled in the worst possible way, and stolen from her. The light left, and a deep darkness took root within me. The days between then and deciding to go through with the incident were a fight to seize that darkness haunting me from within and wrangle it into submission.”

“…Did the friends you met after leaving Mikumo not support you? Mr. Kusabi, for example?”

“Once it’s been broken, something can’t go back to the way it was ever again. However well you mend it, you can’t say it’s identical to what it used to be. People are the same way. Even once a wound has healed, its memory lingers. You can’t go back to that unsullied state. Just like the way someone who has been killed is never coming back. You should understand that better than anyone.”

Sakura was unable to reply. Kodai continued.

“At the end of a fight, you are left with two choices. Do you carry the darkness within yourself, living on while you wait patiently for the day when it eventually rots and corrupts you? Or do you annihilate everything, the darkness along with it, before the rot progresses? I chose the latter. My friends supported me in my decision. They were being consumed by the darkness, too. To put an end to it all, we blew up the entirety of the village of Mikumo, the entirety of that darkness, without leaving a trace. The darkness vanished, and now nothing is left of me but a dried-out husk. …I still dream, though. I think it’s strange. Everything returned to nothing, and there should be nothing left inside me now, but I still have them.”

“What do you dream about?”

“Mikumo forest. The place where it all began, and where it all ended. Our hallowed ground, enclosed by thick greenery. For a while, our hope definitely existed there. My beautiful recollections and sinister memories intermingle in the scenery of that forest. My darkness still exists there, and it always will.”

Kodai suddenly trailed off. He was facing Sakura, but he had a faraway look in his eyes. He must be seeing Mikumo forest, Sakura thought.

“You said earlier that you have bad dreams, too. I’d like to hear about these nightmares,” Kodai said, his expression suddenly reverting back to what it had been before.

“…It’s a dream about a dark place. It’s gloomy, wide open, with a high ceiling. It’s like a sort of huge shelter. There are tall buildings like Christmas trees inside it.”

“Christmas trees?”

“Yes. The buildings are conical, and there are several dim lamps in red and yellow on their external walls. There are lots of small children at this place, but they all have vacant eyes and are eerily quiet. And I always hear a mechanical vibration, like the buzzing of a bee. That’s what the dream is like.”

“That doesn’t sound like a bad enough dream to be keeping you up at night.”

“I don’t understand it, either, but that place scares me. It makes me so anxious. It’s always been like this. My dreams of that place have always been pretty much the same, but yesterday’s was a bit different. That man was there.”

“Jack the Ripper appeared in your dream?”

Sakura nodded. “Mr. Kodai. You told me to focus on the darkness within myself. You said that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to understand the state of mind of a criminal. I think that my own darkness is inside that nightmare. I just don’t know exactly what it is yet. That darkness is somehow tied to Jack the Ripper. What I think is that if I can grasp the darkness inside me, I will be able to see something about the killer I’ve been blind to up until now. I wanted you to help me do that, which is why I came here.”

For a little while, Kodai remained silent, staring Sakura straight in the eyes. His gaze was direct and transparent, like he could see straight through her.

“You’re 22 years old, aren’t you?”

“? Yes, that’s right, but…”

“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘shelter kids’?”

Sakura leaned forwards. “You’ve heard it, Mr. Kodai!? Please tell me. What is it?”

“Trace back the roots of your own past. Your father must have known everything. Look for any records he left behind; somebody who remembers something from a time when you were too young to. That’s where you’ll find all of the answers you seek.”

Sakura got to her feet enthusiastically.

“Wait. Sometimes there are things you’re better off not trying to recklessly expose. Do you know the Greek myth about Pandora’s box?”

“Yeah…”

“When she opened the lid, all of the calamities were loosed upon the earth. In the blink of an eye they ate away at all things, filling the once pure lands with cries of suffering.”

He suddenly trailed off. Sakura waited for him to continue, but Kodai didn’t seem to have anything more to say on the matter. Sakura searched his face for any sign of his intentions, but Kodai simply stared straight back at her with the same blank eyes she had seen when they had first met. Finally, he opened his mouth as if suddenly recalling something.

“One more thing. There’s something I want to ask you out of sheer curiosity.”

“Yes?”

“Jack the Ripper is a case that should obviously be handled by the Heinous Crimes Unit. That ‘up-his-own-ass old cop’ you mentioned earlier must be an investigator there. Who did you mean by that?”

“Special Agent Nakategawa.”

“Hmph. I knew it.” He nodded, as if in understanding.

“…Thank you for all of the advice.”

Sakura bowed her head and left the visiting room.

As soon as she had finished reporting back at the institute, Sakura made her way home. When she had moved here, she had put all of her father’s records and such into several cardboard boxes and stuffed them into a closet, where they had resided ever since. She had stowed them away mechanically, without properly checking their content, and as such didn’t even know what they were about.

Back then, she hadn’t been able to handle going through each of the records her father had left behind. Sakura wanted to quickly forget that pain and get back on her feet. This had been the only thing on her mind at the time, and there was no way she would have been capable of going back over the past.

The closet in her bedroom was normally used in place of a storage room. From deep amidst the out-of-season garments and junk that had been tossed in at random, Sakura dug out the boxes she was looking for. Fragments of her father’s left behind past had been packed into two large cardboard boxes. She peeled off the tape sealing them shut one at a time.

As anticipated, inside were items such as photo albums and data regarding the cases her father worked on. Amongst the albums, she found one showing her father from the time when he had been assigned to Precinct 24 as an officer, as well as photographs of her mother in her youth. The rest were all albums filled with photographs documenting Sakura’s growth in order from her birth onwards.

As she flipped through the pages of the albums, Sakura noticed something: there were no records of her between the ages of two and four. Each of the albums had consecutive numbers written on their covers in her father’s orderly hand. Each individual photo had its own caption, too, sorted by year. But after the album titled Sakura’s second birthday, all of the remaining pages had been left blank. Checking through the next numbered album, she found that it abruptly began with a photo titled Sakura, four years old.

Since she had never taken a good look at her own childhood photos before, Sakura had never noticed. She had looked through the albums several times in the past in search of photographs of her mother, who had died mere months after Sakura was born, in her younger days, but had never been interested in photos of her own young self. She looked around, wondering if perhaps they had simply fallen out and got mixed up inside another album, but found nothing. The records for those two years were completely blank. But why?

Sakura decided to check the other records, but found nothing of note. Most of the other items were records of old cases her father had worked on, or correspondence about old report cards of Sakura’s.

“I understand the case records, but why would he keep something like this stashed away for safekeeping in his study? That would just be confusing,” Sakura murmured in shock, staring at the correspondence notebook from her kindergarten days.

“Last night, Sakura fell over in the bathroom and gave herself a lump. The doctor said it was nothing to worry about, but if anything seems unusual about her, please contact me immediately. – Daigo Natsume”

Sakura read it aloud, giggling. It was a note to her preschool teacher, written neatly in her father’s square handwriting. Tears suddenly threatened to spill out as she laughed, and Sakura hurriedly closed the book.

“I’m not going to cry anymore. I don’t have time for that,” she said to herself, opening the next box.

This time, the box was filled with items that had belonged to her father and been returned to her by the police, such as his uniform, change of clothes and notebooks. Consciously shutting off her emotions, Sakura examined each article, but made no new discoveries.

Sakura let out a sigh. What if her father had hidden something amongst the many books that had been kept in his study? If he had, this was going to be a real headache. When she had moved, Sakura had given all of his books to a second hand bookshop. She had let them go for dirt cheap, but was glad not to have to go to all of that trouble herself. The trader and Sakura had briefly checked through the books together at the time, but hadn’t looked too closely. If, for example, something had been slipped between the pages of one of the books, she might have overlooked it. Should she contact the trader and ask?

“Is this my punishment for getting rid of your treasured books? I mean, it’s not like I had a choice!” Sakura grumbled to her unseen father, checking the interrupted album once more.

The album was an awfully elegant one, apparently received as a birthday present from somebody to Sakura, the sort you wouldn’t see often these days. The cover, bound with faded pale pink silk satin, had flowers and angels embroidered upon it in gold and silver thread, with Sakura’s Growth stitched in fancy gold lettering.

Sakura stared closely at the bulky cover. She had seen an album like this somewhere else before. It was when she had gone to celebrate the birth of a child to a friend who had got married right out of high school. The album she saw then looked like this one, its cover heavy and bearing pictures and letters, and a small key on the inside which would play a lullaby when wound. A music box was contained within the bulk of the cover.

Sakura opened the album she held in her hand again. Taking a closer look, she saw a tiny indentation in one area. She pushed it with her finger, and discovered that there was a hole roughly two centimetres in diameter beneath a covering of cloth. Someone had replaced the cover’s lining from above. The hole was exactly the right size to fit a music box winding key.

“Somebody tore off the lining and took out the music box mechanism. What for, then? Taking out the mechanism would create a gap, and you could put something else inside in its place. Of course.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Sakura gripped the cover’s lining, tearing at the edges of the cloth with her nails, and the rest easily followed in one go, revealing thick cardboard with a hole in it. Peering inside, Sakura found that something was indeed in there. The card was tough, and wouldn’t come off. Finally, she managed to force it open using a pair of scissors.

“I’ll fix it right up later,” she said in excuse to no one in particular, and looked inside.

What she found within was a single disk. It seemed to be a fairly old make, but was probably usable. The one Sakura used now was a new version of one from the same maker that her father had also used long ago. If luck was on her side, it might just work.

Sakura headed to the living room, disk in hand. She tossed it into the disk drive of the PC that sat on the desk in the corner of the room and booted up the system. Sakura acknowledged that she was being overly rough in her handling of the disk, but lacked the time to check it out in detail. If it crashed, she’d deal with that when it came to it. She could come up with something later.

Sakura moved the mouse, directing the PC to open the contents of the disk. A list of files began to appear on the screen.

“Score!” Sakura blurted jubilantly, her gaze fixed upon the screen.

According to the titles, the files seemed to contain things such as her father’s notes dated 20 years ago, several pieces of image data, and an investigation report about a kidnapping case 20 years ago. Looking further down the list, Sakura spotted one entitled Outline of Primary Shelter Kids Policy. In the row immediately beneath this, she saw the title Secondary Shelter Kids Scheme.

“There it is. This is it…!”

Sakura first opened the file reading Primary. Somebody – most likely her father – had gathered a variety of data and summarised it therein. According to that data, the Primary Shelter Kids Policy had been enacted 24 years prior. It had been planned as a programme “to raise creative and productive children for the future”, its aim being to revitalise the entire nation, and had been carried out on a large scale basis as the “Primary Shelter Kids Scheme”. This test involved a broad appeal seeking male children aged two nationwide, with the 1440 children who passed the examination being assembled at an educational institution equipped with cutting edge facilities, spending two years there undergoing special education that extended to every part of their daily activities. The children who participated in the project continued to receive benefits even after its conclusion, with their tuition paid as a bonus through middle and high school.

Accompanying the project file were newspaper articles, official government bulletins and more from the time it had been announced. Each of the articles dealt heavily with the effectiveness of the project, as well as several of the children who had been assembled from all over the country to undergo the examination and their families.

But there was more inside the file. This data was noted to have been acquired via the group of educators that was actually involved with the project, but there was no mention of the specific route by which it was obtained. The means, therefore, seemed certain to have been unlawful. Its content was shocking.

What they had actually been trying to achieve through the Shelter Kids Project was a special kind of psychological manipulation. The children were housed inside the educational facilities created for this purpose, undergoing a variety of experimental schooling. The purpose behind all of this was to implant loyalty to the TRO/CCO alliance, an influential group within the government who were the project’s sponsors, via psychological manipulation. Their ultimate goal was to create people who would even carry out crimes under government orders, should it prove necessary. It was for this reason that they had gathered children possessing superior attributes from all over the country, hand-picking the best of the bunch and “educating” them. The children had the necessary intelligence, force of will and athletic abilities instilled into them on a subconscious level in order to accomplish this.

The base for this pattern had been a person named Kamui Uehara. He was the perpetrator of a series of assassinations of high-ranking government officials that had occurred approximately a year prior to the SCP being announced, after which he had been shot dead by Tetsugoro Kusabi, an investigator who had been on the case. There had been a shooting at the TV tower, where the headquarters of the at-the-time influential political force of the TRO/CCO alliance (tech faction/civic faction alliance) were housed, in which a dozen of the top brass had been murdered. This later came to be known internally as “the silver case” to the police.

That killer had been Kamui Uehara. He was assumed to be a contracted killer acting alone, but the client was ostensibly unknown. However, many assumed that he had been hired by the FSO (frontier faction), which possessed influence rivalling that of the alliance at the time. As a result of this incident, the FSO lost the public’s support, and its influence waned overnight.

The Shelter Kids Policy project team had their eyes on Kamui Uehara’s superior criminal abilities, and examined the patterns of his behaviour, daily life and thoughts for analysis. These attributes were incorporated into the programme given to the children. In other words, the children had been artificially implanted in a thorough manner with the habits of a criminal.

Having read this far, Sakura was left dumbfounded. How had such a thing been allowed? The government had selected and segregated children with promising futures, planting the sprouts of a criminal within them…? It was horrific. She could think of no other word to describe it. Was this what that reporter, Morishima, had been talking about? In terms of age, the male children who had participated in the primary phase of the policy would now, 24 years later, be 26 years old. It would make sense if the killer had been a participant in the project, too. His efficient MO was viewed by many as the work of a professional whose job involved the handling of blades. Sakura sighed, running her hands roughly through her short hair in irritation.

“…I still don’t get what any of this has to do with me. Or why my father was secretly investigating the Shelter Kids and hiding all of these documents…”

Muttering to herself, Sakura looked at the list of remaining files. She opened the file titled Secondary Shelter Kids Policy. Its contents were even more abhorrent than that of the Primary Project.

For this project, there didn’t seem to be any publicly released data. All of it had been plotted and executed behind closed doors. Her father must have obtained these documents through the same route as those for Project One.

Project Two had been proposed by the influence who were opposed to the powers-that-be within the government who had set up Project One, in order to oppose it. Project One had been intended to continue into the future with the same staff as Project Two and Project Three and onwards. Once the two-year project had concluded, however, the situation changed, and the project was put on ice. Apparently, it had no longer been possible to secure the budget for its continuation. The facilities were shut down and left unused, handed off to another jurisdiction. It was planned to eventually be sold off and privatised, in an attempt to supplement the national budget in any way possible.

The opposing influence to the central government took note of this, using several shell corporations as intermediaries and gaining control of the facilities. They continued to gather staff through methods such as buy-outs, creating the Secondary Shelter Kids Project for them. That had been 20 years ago. The second wave of staff gathered only baby girls aged two using unlawful methods, carrying out their education as planned.

Unlawful methods? What does that mean?

Sakura figured that out very quickly as she read on. Using the network of educational organisations nationwide, they had selected promising-looking children who met the criteria and kidnapped them. 1000 children had been made to participate in Project Two. That meant that there had been an incident in which 1000 two-year-old children had been serially kidnapped nationwide.

As for the children’s education and psychological manipulation, they were programmed to follow the same conditions as in Project One, with the only difference being the subject to whom they swore fealty. In Project Two, these female children were educated to stand in opposition against the copies of Kamui Uehara that were created by Project One. Emulating the way in which the boys of Project One had been known as Kamui copies, the girls of Project Two were called Ayame copies. It was unsure where the name Ayame had come from, exactly, but it was conjectured to be in reference to the word ayameru, meaning “to kill a person”.

For two years, the children were confined there, after which they were returned to their parents. The children who had been kidnapped and vanished had miraculously been found safely two years on, they said. Sakura gave it a cursory run-through and closed the file.

Sakura had already realised a certain fact: 20 years ago, for two years. It perfectly matched with the missing records from Sakura’s album.

She opened a file entitled Serial Kidnappings Case. It consisted of thoroughly put-together newspaper articles from the time and police investigation records. Roughly midway down the alphabetically-sorted list of names, she found “Sakura Natsume”.

Then… That means that I was one of the children who were kidnapped, too…? Her ears began to ring.

a dark place. where did Dad go…?

With such calm that it baffled Sakura herself, she accepted this as reality.

“I have to make sure,” she said to herself, opening the remaining file.

It was a note that her father had written. According to it, he had volunteered himself to join in with the investigation, but had been taken off the case due to the consideration of his private affairs. It was a case in which his own daughter had been a victim. Apparently, it had been decided that there was a risk of his personal emotions disrupting the investigation.

But even later on, in the intervals between future cases her father worked on, he had taken several leaves of absence and continued the investigation privately. He seemed to have been of the mind that it was down to cleverly orchestrated sabotage that the investigation had stalled. If such a large-scale kidnapping were to occur all over the country, there would be public outcry. No matter how much pressure the government applied from the very top, there was simply no way they could abort the investigation.

And so, while making it look to all appearances as if a frantic investigation was ongoing, terrible turmoil continued to erupt internally. In the end, by the time the children were released from the project two years later, the investigation had hardly progressed at all. Sakura felt as though she could sense her father’s regrets and gruelling efforts in between the lines of the note.

Finally, via a certain route, her father had finally sniffed out the existence of Project Two. At the same time, he had learned of the terrible intentions hidden away within Project One, too. But it wasn’t until after the children had been released that he determined the location of the facility where the project had been undertaken. Although Sakura had been returned to him safe and sound, once he had learned of the inhumane nature of the project, his pride as a police officer made her father feel compelled to lay it bare in its entirety.

In the end, however, the notes that her father had written faithfully for the two years and some months following Sakura’s kidnapping ended abruptly. Afterwards, he had stowed the data on a disk, sealing it inside the cover of Sakura’s photo album. What had led to him doing such a thing, and what internal conflict had he struggled with? She had no way of knowing for certain, but Sakura could take a good guess.

The people he was dealing with were an organisation that could casually pull off even kidnappings in order to accomplish their goals. They wouldn’t so much as hesitate to use the life of his daughter as a bargaining chip in order to threaten him.

Finally, Sakura opened the attached video data. Displayed upon the screen was a crowd of Christmas tree-like buildings standing in a place resembling a dimly-lit dome. She didn’t need to check to know that this was all footage of the facilities that had been used in the project. The ringing in her ears that had been continuing for some time grew louder.

Waah, waah, waaaaaah…

It went on, sounding almost like children crying. Was it the children in that place who were crying?

No. Sakura’s childhood memories, which had up until that point been hazy, suddenly came flooding vividly back. Amongst them, she recognised the scenery from her dreams. The children there didn’t cry. They couldn’t cry. They always appeared both sleeping and awake, all the time in that gloomy space. How long after leaving that place had Sakura regained her tears? It must have taken incredible effort on the part of those around her, her father especially.

With a start, Sakura came back down to earth, realising that she was crouching curled up tightly in front of the desk – just like a frightened child. She covered her face with her hands. Her fingertips were as cold as ice.

“…It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s not scary like it used to be. After all, if you can figure out the cause, the anxiety is as good as halfway solved. If you can figure out the cause, you can face up to it…” she recited to herself in a mutter.

Who said that to me again…? Oh, right, that sweet-toothed doctor.

The sight from the diner surfaced in her mind. The bright restaurant; Chinami taking her order in a lively voice. The aroma of coffee. Minato sitting there, a golden pumpkin pie before him, listening to Sakura speak with a grave look on his face.

The warmth gradually began creeping back into her fingertips. Sakura stood up, stretching and taking a deep breath. All of a sudden her shoulders, back and muscles were stiff as a board. Come to think of it, she had begun looking around for the documents as soon as she had got home, and hadn’t even changed yet. She had just barely had time to take off her navy blue jacket, but her cotton jumper and grey woollen trousers were caked in dust.

Sakura padded slowly towards the bedroom. A few minutes later, having changed out of her clothes, she sat on the living room sofa with a warm cup in one hand. She finally felt as though she understood the meaning behind the words that reporter, Morishima, had said before. She didn’t know how Morishima had got his hands on the info, but he knew all about the Shelter Kids Project.

Had he guessed that the victims had been participants in Project Two using their all being 22 years of age and the description of Sakura’s dream as hints? The participants of Project Two would turn 22 that year. Was it a Kamui copy who was killing the women? Or could several Kamui copies be killing off the Ayame copies in succession? But if so, what significance did the ritualistic manner in which the bodies were left bear? The corpses had been left as if in rest, crosses carved into their foreheads. There must be some deeper meaning behind this than simple extermination.

“Kamui… Could it be Kamui?” she tried murmuring aloud.

Sakura thought back to the incident that had occurred that January. Sakura had still been at university then, not long before her graduation in March. Kamui Fujiwara, a serial killer being held at a mental hospital, had escaped and killed five people before being abruptly arrested. Two years earlier, Kamui Fujiwara had been the source of many incidents within Ward 24, committing murder after murder. After many people fell victim to him, he had been apprehended by the Heinous Crimes Unit, but had been diagnosed as having diminished capacity and therefore legally unaccountable during the ensuing psychiatric examination, leaving him detained at the hospital under heavy police supervision.

Then, that January, he had killed a member of hospital personnel and broken out, after which he set about one by one murdering the women he had engaged in prior relationships with. The following investigation, however, determined that it had been a former girlfriend of his named Ayame Shimohira, 21 years old at the time, who had guided him in his flight from the hospital and murdered the victims.

As she underwent questioning, Ayame Shimohira had attacked a police investigator and made her getaway. Three members of the Secret Security Division’s Special Forces Unit, including Sakura’s father, were mobilised in her arrest, and all of them had been killed by Ayame. Afterwards, following Ayame’s trail, it had been Sumio Kodai who had cornered and apprehended her.

When Sakura had heard the news of his death, she had thought that there was no way he could possibly have been killed by a lone young woman of her own age. It had been impossible for her to accept. But what if Ayame Shimohira had been an “Ayame copy” created by Project Two? What if she had had latent criminal abilities planted within her?

Society ran rampant with a variety of speculation, nobody knowing the exact motive behind the two killers’ crimes. What would happen if one thought of all of the facts together?

The children who had been made to participate in the first and second Shelter Kids projects had the pattern of Kamui Uehara, the culprit in the “Silver Case”, sown within them 20 years earlier. For Project One, boys were brought together and referred to for the sake of convenience as “Kamui copies”. They would be 26 years old by now. For Project Two, on the other hand, girls had been assembled, and were known as “Ayame copies”. They would currently be 22 years old.

Amongst the children who were Kamui copies, was it possible that there had been Kamui Fujiwara, who would later go on to become a serial killer? The Kamui copies had had the behaviour of a criminal thoroughly embedded into them by the project, after all.

Kamui Fujiwara, too, had been a name he had gone by in the days before he committed crimes, and his actual identity remained unclear. Databanks of municipalities all across the country had been scoured, but his family register supposedly did not exist. Kamui Uehara, who committed a crime approximately 20 years earlier and was shot dead, and Kamui Fujiwara, who had committed murders two years ago and was guessed to be roughly 26 years of age – what did the similarity of their names mean?

Ayame, on the other hand, had her own family register, and although both of her parents had already died of illnesses, records of them as a family did exist. Was her name being Ayame and the naming of “Ayame copies” a coincidence? She was currently 22 years old, too. Her age matched perfectly. It would make sense for Kamui Fujiwara and Ayame Shimohira to have been participants in Project One and Project Two, respectively.

If there were a contradiction, it was that Kamui Fujiwara and Ayame Shimohara were lovers. The Ayame copies had been created in opposition to the Kamui copies. If the psychological manipulation that was part of the project worked properly, they must surely be antagonistic with each other. Since there are still so many unknowns regarding human psychiatry, could some sort of error have occurred? When you are conscious of a person, inducing some sort of emotional swings blurs the line between love and hate. Maybe it wouldn’t be so unexpected that a tiny error in a programme designed to make them hate one another could actually end up creating the exact opposite type of relationship.

Somewhere during the process of investigating Ayame Shimohira’s past, had Sumio Kodai, the cop lauded for having been the one to apprehend her, learned about the Shelter Kids Project?

Kamui was now, as before, being held at a mental hospital. There had been no word of him attempting to escape. His personality had completely disintegrated, and he was unable to speak anything intelligible. Aside from that, she knew nothing of his current status. Ayame Shimohira, on the other hand, remained in police custody, and her trial was underway.

Did that mean that there truly were other Kamui copies, then? And were they still hunting down the young female Ayame copies? Yes, they probably were. Countless people would continue to be killed, now and in the future, until the person responsible was caught.

I need to report these deductions to someone in order to stop that from happening, Sakura thought, but couldn’t bring herself to make any phone calls right away. If she contacted the Heinous Crimes Unit, someone would come immediately to take away the disk as evidence, and Sakura would be forced back onto the sidelines as usual. No – if they suspected that Sakura herself was an Ayame copy, they would have her tailed by a police escort, leaving her even more helpless. In the worst case scenario, it was even possible that they might have her put in isolation somewhere else under the pretence of protection. Actually, she could think of even worse things than that, too.

Why had her father sealed away those documents? With that question in mind, she couldn’t go carelessly revealing their existence. From her father’s notes, she inferred that there were others within the police, too, who were under the thumb of the political powers who had been the string-pullers behind the first and second Shelter Kids projects. Openly letting the police know of the existence of those documents would be tantamount to loudly announcing her location to the poachers who might be lurking anywhere. It was also a certainty that some sort of pressure would be applied to Sakura herself, and if she didn’t go along with it she would be expelled from the Institute for the Training of Special Agents.

“I definitely wouldn’t have the time to sit back and think about something at my own leisure like that,” Sakura muttered dryly.

Yes – it would turn into a huge issue that would make all of those people who had been involved with the projects withdraw from society if it went public. They would resort to threats, abductions, confinement, murder – anything to avoid that. That was why her father had backed down – most likely in order to protect Sakura’s life.

What do I do? What should I do?

Sakura held her head in her hands and let out a deep sigh that made her felt as though she would sink into the depths of the earth.

When dawn came, she had still hardly slept. Sakura dressed herself, leaving home a fair bit earlier than usual. She stopped by the row of mailboxes standing in the first floor foyer, peering inside the one marked with her apartment’s number. She had remembered that she had forgotten to check upon arriving home the previous evening.

Mixed in with a bundle of junk mail was a single fairly large envelope made of high-quality white paper, which caught Sakura’s eye. The name seemed to have been typed out using a PC or word processor. It read SAKURA NATSUME in black print, but there was no written address, and of course neither a stamp nor a postmark. That meant that someone had personally come to deliver it and put it inside her mailbox. She checked the back, but found no sender’s name. A chill ran down Sakura’s spine. She had a bad feeling about this.

She tried holding it up to the light to see through it, but the paper was thick and no light would pass through. She shook it next to her ear and it rustled, like something light was inside. Still standing in the tiled, penetratingly cold entrance foyer, Sakura boldly opened the envelope with slightly trembling fingers.

There seemed to be a folded slip of paper inside. She inserted her fingers and fished it out, and as she did so, something smoothly slipped out of the envelope along with it. The thing, like thin, black thread several centimetres in length, fell to the tiled ground, fanning out lightly where it lay.

Sakura fought to remain calm as she observed one of the strands that had become wrapped around the slip of paper. It was a tuft of cut-off hair. From it, she could smell a faint floral scent. It was a woman’s hair.

All at once, Sakura felt like throwing up. She pressed a hand to her mouth, fighting it back, holding herself there and opening the folded paper. Typed in the same black letters as the recipient’s name was a single brief row of letters.

Is the messiah coming?

She had no idea what that was supposed to mean. There was one thing she knew for certain, though.

“…It’s my turn next.”

She couldn’t drag anyone else into this. She didn’t even know who she could trust. Even the urge to throw up had vanished. Sakura stood frozen to the spot.

6 – Messiah

Several days passed. Even if Sakura had her own worries, her training course continued. No matter what was going on in her personal affairs, that didn’t mean she could slack off.

Even after the events of that day, nothing around Sakura had seemed apparently different. The only difference from before was that Sakura herself was jumpy and extremely on edge. Once, she had actually seriously wondered whether she might be able to somehow sneak home the pistol she used for shooting practise, but came to the conclusion that it was just impossible. A scandal at the institute would turn into a huge issue. Firearms were particularly strictly controlled. If even one were to go missing, it would be discovered within the day. It didn’t matter that they would have to go through all of the many people involved with the institute, trainees included; it would take them no time at all for her to be found out.

For the time being, in order to protect herself, Sakura purchased a small survival knife at an outdoor gear shop, keeping it inside the large bag she always kept on her person. She also made sure to walk around with her personal attack alarm in her pocket at all times. It drove her mad to know that she was in danger, but not being able to do any more about it than this. Maybe she would have a nervous breakdown before anyone had the chance to attack.

But Sakura still couldn’t decide what she should do next. She hadn’t found anyone whose advice she could seek, either. It seemed like if she were to divulge everything to Sumio Kodai in his detention centre and talk it over with him, it would probably stay between them. Despite being a cop, he had used his position and committed crimes in order to bury his own past. It was unthinkable that he might have joined forces with a political power to climb the career ladder or for his own security.

Still, Sakura had already compled her data on criminals and handed it in to her instructor. She told the instructor that she would like to meet with Kodai, but he obstinately enquired as to what she could possibly want to see him for, as she was already done writing up the data, and her request was denied. With no one to open up to, Sakura was isolated.

Finally, the weekend arrived. Sakura holed herself up inside her apartment. She had felt a little relief at not having to go outside, but was still left anxious by the idea of someone trying to force their way in while she was home alone. She considered asking a friend whether she might be able to stay over at their place, but was afraid of getting someone else mixed up in it and gave up on the idea.

In the end, there was no place where Sakura could feel at ease right now. Ever since that morning, she had spent half the day wandering restlessly around her one-room apartment, from the kitchen to the living room to the bedroom, unable to settle in one place due to unease and irritation.

As evening began to approach, she finally grew tired of walking circles around her cramped room. The time on the clock was close to six. Now that she thought of it, Sakura realised that she hadn’t eaten anything all day. Perhaps due to the nerves and anxiety, thirsty was all she had been, gulping down coffee and cola and water, but feeling no appetite whatsoever. Thanks to all of the drinking, Sakura still had no appetite, but headed to the kitchen, deciding that she should try to eat something anyway. She would be in trouble if she came down with anaemia at a critical moment. She was determined to eat when she was able.

…Or that had been the plan, at least, but she probably didn’t even have the proper ingredients. The last time Sakura had visited the supermarket and bought proper food, rather than ready meals and instant products – in other words, meat, vegetables and fish – had been around the start of last week, hadn’t it? She opened the fridge and, as expected, all she found inside was margarine, stale cheese, and yoghurt long past its expiration date, along with some plastic bottles of water and cola.

Completely losing her motivation, Sakura filled the kettle with water and put it on. She still had a spaghetti ready meal in the cupboard. Anything would do at this point. As she waited for the kettle to boil, she sat on the living room floor and turned on the TV with the remote control. Perhaps due to her nerves, even the slightest of noise bothered her, and she hadn’t put the TV on all day.

The six o’clock news was about to begin. The news reported that the fourth victim in the “Jack the Ripper” case had been identified. As suspected, it had apparently been a 22-year-old woman. The reason why it had taken so long was seemingly because the victim had nothing on her person that would prove her identity, she lived alone and had no family, and no one had reported her missing.

No further victims had been found since then. The investigation had probably hit a wall. That was all the news there was to do with the serial murders. The investigators of the Heinous Crimes Unit must be desperately going about their jobs right about now. They were likely looking into even the smallest of clues or vaguest of testimony, fumbling their way through the investigation.

She changed the channel, and saw that they were showing a special feature on the serial killer Jack the Ripper on another station. They had gone back as far as the very first victim, using a combination of footage from the time of the victim’s discovery and stories from the people she had known.

A video was shown of the Chief Director sitting on stage and explaining a summary of the case to a group of journalists. Sakura had met him once, at her father’s funeral. Beside him sat that creep, Nakategawa. Also visible in the corner of the footage, mostly cut off, she could see Tetsugoro Kusabi. He, who had been a friend of her father, had of course also attended the funeral that January, yet he didn’t seem to have changed much at all since she had met him as a child. The face of the Kusabi pictured on-screen now, however, appeared strangely old.

Since the last time Sakura had seen Kusabi’s face, he had hunted down and arrested the younger detective he had had great expectations of by his own hand. He must be involved in the investigation of this case, too. Of course he couldn’t hide the hints of exhaustion at the case coming to a total standstill. Sakura saw her father in Kusabi’s haggard expression.

I should talk to him about it, she decided. Even if Kusabi betrayed her, she would cross that bridge when she came to it. And if she were betrayed by someone her father had considered a friend, that would just mean that they were both terrible judges of character.

Sakura hurriedly made print-outs of the disk, storing them inside a clear plastic folder. She stuffed the folder into a large bag she rarely used, large enough to hold A4 size documents. She hesitated momentarily, slipped the disk back to its spot inside the photo album, and put it away in the closet. Still wearing her jeans and jumper, she donned an olive green nylon hoodie.

I should take the knife and alarm with me, just to be sure.

As she went to dig the alarm out of the pocket of the jacket she had been wearing the day before, the intercom bell chimed. Sakura jumped in shock. She stiffened up, and another chime sounded. Pressing her hand to her still-racing heart, she slowly walked over to the intercom on the wall.

“…Yes?” she said into the receiver cautiously.

“This is Sawaguchi. I’m at the entrance downstairs right now. Maybe I’m a bit early. We agreed on 6:30, right?” she heard him say in a carefree voice. Sakura just now realised that she had completely forgotten about the date they had made that day.

“I-I’m sorry!” she said, reflexively apologising into the receiver.

“Huh? What for?” he said, sounding bewildered.

“I want to cancel our date for today. I’m really sorry!” she blurted, and was met with silence from the other end.

“…Alright. But if it’s okay with you, I’d like to at least see your face,” Minato said with a sigh, unable to conceal his dejection.

“Okay. I’ll be right down.”

Sakura lifted up her bag, hurriedly pulling on her favourite sneakers and leaving the apartment. She took the elevator down, and on the other side of the auto-locking glass door she could see Minato, standing in the foyer, looking like he wasn’t sure what to do with his lanky frame. He didn’t seem particularly dressed up, just like he had perhaps paid a little more attention to his appearance than he had when she had seen him before at the diner. He wore a dark orange jumper under a charcoal grey leather jacket, chinos and brown loafers.

“I’m sorry, I really am.”

She apologised as she opened the door and stepped out into the foyer. Minato appeared surprised at her holding a bag and wearing a hoodie.

“What’s wrong? Did something urgent come up?”

“Yeah. I’ve gotta go out right now. There’s someone I need to see and speak to as soon as possible.”

“…Hmph. Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“Is it a guy?”

Sakura burst out laughing at Minato’s strangely grave expression. “No! Well, yeah, but not like the sort you’re thinking of. He’s with the police. He was a friend of my dad… Anyway, sorry about today. I’ll make up for it some other time.”

As Sakura tried to hurry away, Minato called her back.

“Are you in a hurry? Let me give you a ride, then. Where to?”

Sakura hesitated for a moment.

“But…”

“I’ve come all the way here. Might as well make use of me. It’s not like I have any plans, now, anyway,” Minato said miserably, letting out an exaggerated sigh. Sakura smiled wryly.

“Alright, then. Please.”

“Great. I’m parked out front.”

The pair left the apartment building side by side.

“I wanna go to Precinct 24 headquarters.”

“Area A, right? Got it.”

Minato drove off right away. The autumn sunlight dimmed in the blink of an eye, and evening fell. The lights on the street corners were already on. With it being a day off, the route leading to the government district was deserted. Who would spend their day off in a place with nothing to offer but rows of dreary buildings by choice?

Along the way, Sakura watched the lights of the showy roadside shops and the figures of the people gathered there as they passed by, like they were in another universe. She, too, should have been spending her weekend night having some carefree fun, just like them. This had been the first time she had agreed to a date with somebody since she had joined the institute. It wasn’t that none of her fellow students hadn’t asked her, exactly, but Sakura hadn’t felt like it.

“You’re pretty quiet. What’s wrong?” Minato asked, breaking the silence.

“I was just thinking about how much I want to get this over with and deal with this nuisance.”

“Something is being a nuisance for you?”

“I wouldn’t be going to talk to the police if something wasn’t up.”

“Well, yeah, I guess. I hope you get it dealt with soon, too.”

At the intersection close to the area where the Precinct 24 building would begin to come into view, Minato unexpectedly turned onto the road leading in the opposite direction from the station.

“You’re going the wrong way.”

“Yeah. …Do you mind if we take a bit of a detour?”

Sakura looked dubious. “What for?”

“There’s something I’ve been really wanting to show you. Honestly, I wanted to take you there casually after we’d grabbed something to eat today. It’ll only take about ten minutes. That’s okay, right? It’s right over there. We’re already here.”

Minato stopped the car in front of a building as he spoke. He was right; Precinct 24 was still within walking distance.

“Alright. But really just for ten minutes. Sorry.”

Sakura nodded reluctantly, and Minato gave her a happy smile.

“Then let’s go.”

At Minato’s urging, Sakura got out of the car.

“This is the building,” he said, and Sakura looked up at it.

It wasn’t tall enough to be called a high-rise, but the building was a fairly imposing one, more than ten storeys high, constructed on a large lot.

“We can go inside? It looks shut to me.”

“We can. I have the key.”

Minato took out a card key, sliding it through a slit beside the front door. The automatic door opened quietly.

“Why would you have something like that?” Sakura asked, confused.

“This place belongs to my family, after all.”

Sakura almost made a noise in surprise, but hurriedly suppressed it. He was the son of the people who owned a place like that?

“Your folks are rolling in it!?”

“That’s right,” Minato said in response to Sakura’s query, not seeming particularly shy about it.

“Then what’re you doing working at a place where you don’t even have time to eat properly!?”

“What do you mean, why? Because it’s my job. Whether or not my parents own a building has nothing to do with my job, does it?”

Sakura felt like she sort of understood what he was saying, even if not totally, but he didn’t seem to be nothing more than a spoilt little rich brat.

“Did you bring me here to show me this building?”

“No. What part of looking at a building like this would be in any way enjoyable?”

Minato beckoned to Sakura to go inside the opened door.

“After you.”

“Oh, okay.”

The main lights in the ceiling of the entrance atrium were off, making it gloomy, but the underfoot lighting and elevator signal light were on.

“It’s upstairs. The elevator still works, so we’ll be alright.”

Still unable to recover from her shock, Sakura followed after Minato. The two got off the elevator on the 15th and highest floor. They walked down the hallway, and Minato opened a heavy iron fire door at the end.

“The emergency stairs?”

“Yeah. They lead up to the roof. We could’ve used the emergency stairs on the outside, too, but that would involve 15 flights’ worth of climbing.”

After climbing about a single floor of stairs, there stood a large iron door.

“Isn’t it locked?”

“Don’t worry.”

Minato ran the card key through the slot beside the door, pushing it open with a loud creak. A gust of cold air suddenly blew inside.

“After you.”

Minato took a step forward, holding the door and turning to Sakura. Sakura did as she was told, stepping out onto the roof.

A strong wind blew on the roof of the tall building, making the hem of her hoodie flutter. As she looked beyond the railings that surrounded the roof, Sakura gasped. Before her spread a view of Area A through to Area C, studding the night skyline like jewels. Right in the centre was the Ward 24 Symbol Tower, beautifully illuminated and glowing magnificently.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Minato said from right behind her. Sakura nodded, not taking her eyes off of the scenery. “I wanted you to see this, just once.”

Sakura turned around. “Thanks.”

The lanky Minato’s jaw appeared close by, where he could almost brush against her cheek. Sakura looked up at him, but it wasn’t Sakura he was watching. His gaze stared straight beyond her, resting upon the Symbol Tower in the middle of the night skyline.

“…It’s pretty, isn’t it? Don’t you think the tower looks just like a Christmas tree?”

For a moment, something lurking within Minato’s tone felt off to Sakura.

“Like a Christmas tree? Yeah, it does,” she agreed, ignoring it.

“Right? I love this view at night. I feel calm when I come here. The view looks a lot like the scenery of the place where I come from. You remember our old home, don’t you? That dark, silent place with the buildings like Christmas trees is our home.”

Minato slowly looked down at Sakura. A subtle yet huge change had overtaken his features. It was definitely Minato’s own face, but now it was like the face of someone else entirely, a side of him Sakura had not seen before. A smile appeared upon his thin lips. It was an icy cold, merciless smile.

“…How?”

Sakura was instantly lost for words. From the second the words left his mouth, she should have known everything, but she still didn’t feel like she properly understood. She didn’t want to understand. Still with the cold smile on his face, Minato bent forwards and moved his face closer to Sakura’s.

“I thought you of all people would understand. I knew all along. I knew that you were the messiah.”

“Messiah? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sakura said, backing away with small steps.

She had to get as far away from this place, from near Minato, as possible. She had to flee. As Sakura wondered whether she had anything on her that she could use as a weapon, she remembered that she had left both the alarm and the knife at home in her hurry to leave. She had gone to switch them from the bag she always used, and just left it there. Kicking herself for leaving herself defenceless like an amateur, however, wasn’t going to do her any good now.

Minato suddenly grabbed Sakura by the arm and pulled her towards him, as if knowing what was going through her head.

“You’re not gonna go running away from me or anything now, are you?”

“I won’t run. Just let go of my arm. You’re hurting me.”

But Minato didn’t let go. Still gripping Sakura’s arm with his left hand, he slipped his right hand into his jacket pocket and produced something. He held a small, sharp blade that reflected the light, glinting silver in the moonlight. It was a medical scalpel. Minato pressed its point against the base of Sakura’s throat. A shudder ran through her whole body.

“…You killed them all, didn’t you? Those four women… And Kana, too.”

“Because they were all wrong. I just wanted to be saved. They said they didn’t understand. And they tried to run away from me. So I made them into offerings. Offerings for the messiah I knew had to be somewhere out there, watching,” Minato said, his voice child-like.

“What do you mean?”

“Because I’m gonna break soon. I had to find them, before I broke. I had to find the messiah. You’re gonna save me, aren’t you?”

“Break? Why?” Sakura asked calmly, watching for a chance to shake him off.

“There’s something inside me that’s not me, so I’m always getting confused. I don’t know what to do. So I do all kinds of things without knowing about it. I pushed one of the kids in my class in elementary school out of the window. I said it wasn’t me, and the kid didn’t say it was my fault. He was too scared to say. But I knew what I did, what the me inside me did. That time my dog died, too, I ended up somehow with blood on my hands, but nobody knows about that. It wasn’t my fault. Somebody else writes in my diary without me knowing, too. They tell me to do all these things, and they write it in there. But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault that I do all these things. It’s because I’m broken.”

“You’re a Kamui copy, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. And you’re Ayame, right?”

“Did you kill those other women because they were Ayame, too?”

“No! Don’t you get it yet? I told you already. They were all wrong. They didn’t know about the dark place or the Christmas tree buildings. So they couldn’t save me. So they all died.”

Minato’s speech grew more and more awkward and childish.

“They didn’t die. You killed them.”

“Killed them? I did…? Oh, right. Why did I kill them…?” Minato murmured, sounding bewildered.

The next moment, there was a sudden shift in his expression. A grief-filled light dwelled within his eyes.

“Run,” he said in a strained voice.

The point of the knife pressed against her throat moved away slightly. Sakura didn’t pass up the chance. Shaking off his scalpel-holding right hand, she twisted her body around and freed her gripped arm. Now that her body was free, she ran over to the door they had come from, but the iron door was already locked.

Turning around, Sakura saw Minato approaching slowly. She scanned the area. There was a spot in the corner of the roof where the fence cut off, with a low door set into it. Did it lead to the external emergency stairs?

She swiftly evaded the lanky frame of the approaching Minato. He grabbed onto the strap of the bag hanging from her shoulder. Sakura shook the bag fully off and ran.

On the other side of the latticed door was, as she had suspected, an emergency staircase. The narrow, iron spiral stairs were surrounded by a fence, stretching far down below at the height of all 15 storeys. With zero hesitation, Sakura grabbed onto the door and vaulted over it, making her training at the institute feel actually useful.

Sakura ran down the steps with extreme speed. After making it down several flights she checked behind her, but there was no sign that she had been followed. That just terrified Sakura even more. He had the key. If he used the elevator and lay in wait at the bottom, Sakura would be left with nowhere to run. The same could be said of her returning to the roof, however. She would have no choice but to rush past him. Making her mind up in an instant, Sakura continued to run. She made sure to check each door along the way, but, of course, they were all locked.

How far had she descended? Lost in hurrying down the seemingly endless stairs, Sakura had lost her sense of position. She was out of breath, her knees wobbly, and nearly fell on her face several times along the way. Each time she did so she grabbed onto the railing beside her, using it to support her body. She noticed that her palms were cut, leaving bloodstains on the railings where she had gripped them. And still Sakura ran. There was no other way she could survive.

And then it happened, born from a single moment of carelessness. A white plastic carrier bag from a convenience store that had been blown in from somewhere was lying on one of the iron steps. By the time she realised, she had already stepped on it. Her shoe slipped, sending her crashing down about ten steps of the wide staircase. She finally came to a stop on the landing of the floor below, her hips and back slamming against it extremely hard.

The pain running throughout her whole body made it hard to breathe, and Sakura couldn’t get up right away. She felt her consciousness drifting. This is bad, she thought hazily. She stretched out her numb fingers forcibly, grabbing onto the railing beside her. She felt a sharp pain in her cut palms as they made contact with it, dragging her finally back to consciousness.

Sakura tried to stand, but seemed to have surpassed her limit long ago, and her legs wouldn’t do what she told them to. But still she clung to the railings by her fingers, somehow dragging herself to feet. She had to get out of here. Then, Sakura heard the thing she had feared most of all: someone was coming up the stairs. He approached at a steady pace, one step at a time, not seeming in any particular hurry. Immediately, her hands flew to the emergency door set into the side of the landing. Of course, it was locked.

Perhaps having noticed Sakura moving around, the footsteps grew faster. Sakura desperately dragged along her uncooperative legs, almost crawling up the stairs, trying to get back to where she had come from. Before she could climb more than a few steps, she began to see a figure coming up the spiral stairs from below. She glimpsed the head of a lanky frame, then his shoulders, followed by his torso. As he drew steadily closer, she saw his whole body.

Finally, he came to a stop before Sakura. Having used up all of her strength, still panting, she slumped to the ground midway up the stairs. Sakura looked up at him, glaring with all her might. Minato looked back at her in confusion.

“Why are you running?”

“What do you want me to do?”

“You’re Ayame, aren’t you? Then I want you to do what you’re supposed to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ayame was raised to oppose Kamui. You can destroy the Kamui inside me, can’t you? Do it and save me. Before I break completely…”

“I… I can’t do that. I can’t do anything about the fact that “Kamui” was planted inside you. You need to have a specialist deal with that. Your mental balance is off, that’s all. A specialist doctor can help you get it back to normal, I know it. Let’s do that, okay?”

“Specialists? Doctors? They can’t do anything. All they do is give a little helping hand to things that will mend themselves anyway. People who get better would get better even if you left them alone. That’s why there’s no hope for me. I’m gonna break soon. If you leave me alone, I’ll just keep breaking. You’re the only one who can save me. If you say you don’t wanna save me, then I’ll…”

He slipped out the small blade.

“Get ahold of yourself! You’re not Kamui! You’re Minato Sawaguchi, aren’t you!? You work really hard at the hospital. You love sweet things, and you listen eagerly to people’s stories. You’re Minato, not Kamui!” Sakura appealed in a raised voice.

Minato stood there, frozen to the spot, still gripping the scalpel in his right hand. It was dark, and she couldn’t see his face properly.

“You know all about the Shelter Kids Project, don’t you?” Minato said abruptly, his voice despondent.

“…Yes.”

Had his senses come back to him? Although dubious, Sakura forced herself to answer calmly.

“Do the other participants know? Do they know what was planted inside them?”

“I don’t think most of them do, no.”

“Why do you know?”

“My dad was investigating it. I found the documents.”

“…Oh, right. You mentioned your father being a police officer.”

“How did you learn about it?”

“My professor at university participated in the project. I found out about it from the university database. It was a coincidence. I was looking up materials for my thesis, and there it was. It was locked, but I broke in, because I was curious. Whatever I look like, I was a great student in whatever I did.

“It was simple curiosity. Of course, by then I had already figured out for myself that I had a dissociative identity. Maybe that’s why I ended up in medicine. I planned to go into psychiatry at first. I wanted to learn more about myself. I wanted to do something about it by myself. But when I saw those documents, when I learned what the Primary Shelter Kids Project I participated in had been carrying out, I knew it was all pointless. I mean, of course it was, right? How would I fix a pattern planted in me so strongly by myself?

“After that, my symptoms slowly got worse. I would be talking to someone in a strange place, or wake up and find my legs covered in mud. I was the one who killed those women. I think so. All of them, including your friend. I don’t know why I killed them. Honestly, I feel like it was all a dream. It doesn’t feel real. How much of it is me, and how much of it isn’t? What have I done with my own two hands? It’s all fuzzy. This is my limit. …I’m gonna break soon.”

Sakura got up slowly. Her legs finally seemed to be starting to listen to her again.

“That’s not true. I went through the same project you did, and I haven’t broken yet. I’m anxious, but I know what it is now. I can stand up to it. It was you who told me that. It’s okay. Don’t give up yet. You can still get treatment. Let’s go to the police. We can start over from the beginning.”

“I can’t. I’m… broken…”

Minato’s voice changed as he spoke, becoming strangely high-pitched and shrill.

“I wanna be saved… But I can’t be… Everybody runs away from me. They’re scared of me. And now you’re gonna abandon me, too. Even though you’re not like the others, you’re Ayame. Why won’t you help me?”

Minato slashed his right hand sideways in irritation. Sakura barely managed to evade it, but the point of the sharp scalpel grazed the tip of her nose. Minato quickly grabbed her left shoulder, pressing her against the stairs. She felt him push the cold blade against her throat once more. There was nowhere left to run.

Then, suddenly, a dazzling light shone all around.

“Hold it right there. Drop the weapon,” a man’s voice yelled.

Sakura looked in its direction, and saw someone slowly climbing the stairs, shining a light on them. The backlighting made it impossible to see who the one holding the light was. She heard the sound of an emergency door opening somewhere above, followed by dozens of footsteps. They were coming towards her. Minato watched, stunned, as the blinding light climbed.

“…Stay back!”

Minato pressed the scalpel tightly to Sakura’s neck. She felt pain, and a warm liquid dripping from the base of her throat towards her collarbone. The gradually approaching light stilled.

“Settle down. There’s nowhere to run. Settle down and let the woman go. Don’t add any more crimes to the list. Drop the weapon and surrender.”

The man holding the light spoke desperately, as if trying to distract him. Minato turned his head, looking down expressionlessly at Sakura. Although he was lit up brightly by the light, Sakura didn’t know who Minato was right then. Finally, a tear rolled down Minato’s cheek as he stared at her. The scalpel moved away from Sakura’s neck.

“Minato…? That’s right, let’s stop this. Throw that away. We have to get out of here. Let’s go someplace brighter, together.”

Minato shook his head slowly, then placed the sharply-glinting point of the scalpel to his own throat.

“Don’t!”

The silver blade sank silently into the skin beneath his left ear. Minato slashed his arm across to the right. Fresh blood showered Sakura from above with a gurgling sound. Minato collapsed onto the iron landing, face up. It had all happened right before Sakura’s eyes in the space of a second.

“Noooooo!” Sakura shrieked.

As if the scream had been some sort of signal, uniformed police officers flooded towards her from above and below.

“Are you hurt?”

A plain clothes officer stooped down in front of Sakura, peering into her face. Still stunned, she looked up mechanically. It was Special Agent Nakategawa. Not a hair was out of place, as always, from his hairstyle to his outfit and the toes of his shoes.

“I’m fine. This isn’t my blood,” Sakura answered in a murmur.

She felt something drip through her hair, onto her forehead and down her cheek. She reflexively wiped her face with the back of her hand, smelling iron and feeling the sticky tepidness of blood.

“Actually, your neck is cut.”

Nakategawa produced a crisply pressed handkerchief and attempted to press it to Sakura’s neck. She shook her head and ducked out of the way.

“It’ll get all bloody. The smell of blood will never come out.”

Nakategawa looked petulant.

“You must be fine if you’re capable of sarcasm. Can you stand by yourself?”

Sakura nodded, grabbing onto the railing and slowly getting to her feet. Her fingertips were slick and wet with bright red blood, and she almost lost her balance. She didn’t even see the hand outstretched by Nakategawa in support.

Minato’s brown loafers lay mere inches away from Sakura’s feet. Now they were stained with red liquid, creating a speckled pattern. Sakura took a step towards him as he lay there, surrounded by policemen. A red thread of blood still trickled little by little from the wound in his throat, but he had already gone completely still. His eyelids, beginning to turn pale, were quietly closed. Despite the dark red stains covering it, his face seemed peaceful.

“Let’s go. We can get your wound treated over there. We’ll get you a change of clothes, too,” Nakategawa urged Sakura as she stood frozen.

Sakura’s head and upper body were stained all over with Minato’s blood.

“Oh, and this. It’s yours, isn’t it? It was lying on the roof.”

The bag he held out was Sakura’s, which she had shaken off during the rooftop struggle with Minato. One of the straps was broken. She nodded silently. Nakategawa shouldered the single-strapped bag on his own shoulder.

“Let’s just get out of here. Come on.”

Sakura did as she was told, climbing the stairs accompanied by Nakategawa. Agents were busily coming and going through the emergency door that still stood flung open.

“Did you look inside the bag?” Sakura asked Nakategawa, suddenly thinking of it.

“No. I would never go looking through a lady’s things without good reason,” Nakategawa replied, as if such a thing were unthinkable. “Is there something important inside?”

“…No. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

Nakagawa listened to Sakura’s response with a look of suspicion, but pushed the subject no further.

Despite insisting that she was unharmed, Sakura was crammed forcibly into an ambulance that waited at the foot of the building and ferried to the police hospital. After washing off the blood that covered her all over in the staff shower, she changed into some borrowed pyjamas. Her underwear had been bought from a store within the hospital and brought to her by a nurse. Her sneakers were flecked with bloodstains, too, but they were bearable. Her white socks were loose and drenched with sweat, so instead she went barefoot under her sneakers rather than have to put them on.

After a cursory examination, Sakura found that she was covered in more wounds than she had thought. Not only were her hips and back hurt, but her elbows and knees were battered; her palms were scraped; and there were shallow knife wounds to her cheek and neck. Her forehead was also red and swollen, with a bruise emerging and beginning to turn purple. She must have got it during one of her many near tumbles as she was racing down the steps. Gauze had been exaggeratedly applied to her neck and cheek, and alongside the contusion on her forehead, Sakura thought she looked so pitiful that even she couldn’t help but laugh.

Arms wrapped around a vinyl bag contained her blood-soaked clothes, Sakura left the exam room. Still with her bag hanging from his shoulder, Nakategawa sat in the waiting room.

“Let’s leave the questioning for another day, shall we? The man responsible is dead, after all. One day can’t hurt. Go home for today and get plenty of rest. The doctor said the same.”

Nakategawa took the large vinyl bag of clothes, wet and heavy, from Sakura. As she stood there wearing nothing but a pair of light hospital pyjamas, he gently wrapped his own coat around her shoulders. It was a raincoat with the logo of a top brand household name sewn casually into the lining. Sakura looked up at Nakategawa, her face vacant.

“…It’ll reek of disinfectant.”

“Then please have it dry cleaned before you return it.”

Sakura returned home in a police car. Nakategawa had gone back to the crime scene, but had sent a uniformed officer to escort her in his stead. The officer who saw Sakura home stayed with her until she had gone inside her own apartment, turned on the lights and looked around inside.

Once he had left, Sakura locked the now double lock. Now alone, all of the strength suddenly left her body. She dropped the coat on the floor, collapsing into her bed. The sedative she had been given at the hospital appeared to be working, as she was out like a light. She practically fell into sleep, deep and dreamless.

The next day, Sakura headed for Precinct 24 in accordance with her summons for questioning. Nakategawa personally asked her about her relationship with Minato, the circumstances of the day prior, and so on. One of the things she heard during the questioning was that yesterday, around the time Sakura was about to leave with Minato, he had already been wanted by the police. While they had been combing painstakingly through the four previous victims’ acquaintances, there had apparently been one name that kept popping up: Minato Sawaguchi.

A policeman out on patrol had spotted Minato’s car parked outside of the building, realised that it was a car on the police’s wanted list, and radioed it in to HQ. Since the building belonged to Minato’s family, they had guessed that he was hiding out there and begun to search it. A policeman standing guard outside had heard Sakura’s footsteps and caught sight of her running down the external stairs, and began to climb up from below. There, they had come upon Sakura and Minato.

Sakura answered everything she was asked honestly. She talked about coincidentally meeting Minato at the university hospital; that they had later been reunited at the diner, and promised to see each other again; about leaving together in his car the day before. Sakura did not, however, mention that she had cancelled the date and instead been making for Precinct 24.

“Was that as far as your relationship with him went?”

“Yes.”

“You mean you weren’t an item?”

“No. We’d only seen each other three times. On the third of those times, he tried to kill me.”

Sakura spoke as if it were something that had happened to someone else. She no longer had the determination to publicly expose the details of the Shelter Kids programme.

A few hours later, she was released and left the station. She had never met with Kusabi. Another case had come in, and he was out. What would things be like now if Sakura had met with Kusabi the day earlier and told him everything? If she went public with the details of the project, those around her would probably make a huge stir, but maybe Minato could’ve been taken in alive.

It was pointless thinking about it now. Sakura had burned all of the print-outs of the data to ashes in her kitchen before heading to be questioned. The disk alone remained, still hidden where it had been all along inside the cover of the photo album. She planned to fix the cover and seal it exactly as it had been before. She couldn’t make herself destroy something her father had gone to such pains to find out and leave behind so easily.

The day after her questioning, Sakura began attending the institute again. As soon as the coat she had borrowed came back from the dry cleaner she had sent it back to him, addressed to Precinct 24.

Sakura’s daily life went back to normal. Her days were busy, just as they had been. The curriculum grew tougher and tougher at the institute as graduation loomed.

After her neighbour, Chinami, learned of Sakura’s misfortune, she had begun making frequent trips to Sakura’s apartment, bringing large amounts of food with her. Since hearing that Minato Sawaguchi had been “Jack the Ripper” on the news, Chinami had been horribly depressed. She seemed to believe that it was her fault that Sakura had been attacked, since she had urged her to go on a date with Minato, feeling guilty and constantly apologising to Sakura for it.

“I’m sorry, Sakura. I really am. I was irresponsible telling you go to out with a man like that, and you…”

“Cut that out,” Sakura responded to Chinami with a smile as she apologised, her face earnest. “I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m perfectly capable of choosing who to go out on dates with for myself. And it’s not like I agreed to a date with him because you encouraged me to, either.”

“Well, I suppose. But look, you’re covered in bruises. A young, unmarried girl like you… It’s so painful to look at…”

Chinami teared up, looking at Sakura’s face, where the bruises had grown darker as she had recovered.

“Hey, don’t talk like such an old lady. Come on, Chinami. Your mascara will run if you cry.”

“Oh, darn it. My tears’ll turn black.”

Watching Chinami hurry to the bathroom to check herself in the mirror, Sakura smiled. Bit by bit, the wounds in her heart felt like they were healing alongside the ones on her body.

I’m okay. I can manage. I won’t break.

Epilogue – A Faint Hope

Sakura sat in the visiting room at the detention centre. On the other side of the glass partition was Sumio Kodai. This was their third meeting, but the appearance of the room and Kodai’s attitude were almost identical to the first time she had come here.

“I think this will be my final visit. I came to report that the advice you gave me was extremely helpful.”

“You’re faithful. I wouldn’t think you’d get visitation permission based on a reason like that, though.”

“You’re right. I had to come up with a pack of lies to tell my instructor to get permission.”

“You found your darkness?”

“Yes.”

“I heard you were attacked by Jack the Ripper.”

“I was. …How much do you know, Mr. Kodai?”

“About what?”

“About my darkness, and the truth of Jack the Ripper.”

“Hmm. I knew a woman named Ayame Shimohira. I know a few things about a man named Kamui Fujiwara, too. The rest is speculation on my part. Was I right, then?”

“I don’t know exactly what it was that you speculated, but I do think you were mostly on the mark.”

“Really. I’m honoured to have been of service,” Kodai replied curtly.

“There’s one more thing I’d like to ask you.”

“Go ahead.”

“Do you know what happens at the very end of the story of Pandora’s box?”

Kodai was silent. Sakura continued.

“Afterwards, I looked through books. I only knew the general outline of the story, and had never properly read the myth. When Pandora opened the box, the world was filled with all of the evils within. But at the end, there was one thing left in the box. The last thing to come out of the box was a small, faintly-glowing spirit of hope. Did you know that?”

“I did,” Kodai replied indifferently. “I purposely neglected to mention it.”

“So you were making fun of me again.”

“I knew you’d eventually find out the true ending to the story on your own, even without me telling you. It’s no different.”

“…Perhaps you’re right.”

“Have you stopped having the nightmare?”

“No, I still have it sometimes. Sometimes I wake up feeling even worse than before. I’m still anxious. But if you know the cause of the anxiety, it’s already as good as half solved. You can face up to it. I know the cause now, so it’s not as bad as it used to be.”

“Those are very forward-facing words.”

“Yes. Somebody told them to me once.”

Suddenly, Minato’s somehow timid smile flashed through Sakura’s mind. What was the salvation he had sought? Whatever it had been, she hadn’t been able to give it to him.

“…But the person who told me those words was the person who tried to kill me.”

“Ah. But you still believe in those words, don’t you?”

“Yes. Am I wrong to?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

Kodai quietly stared back at Sakura. She sensed no stirring of emotions in his face.

“I’ll be going, then.”

“Farewell. I don’t expect we’ll ever see each other again.”

Sakura left the visiting room.

December.

Sakura’s assignment to the Heinous Crimes Unit had been decided. Now she walked down the halls she had walked as the witness in a crime, her face pitiful and covered with contusions, as a legitimate special agent. Alongside a rookie who was to be a colleague of hers, she knocked on the door to the Heinous Crimes Unit.

“I’ve been assigned here starting today. My name is Sakura Natsume.”

FIN

Afterword

Scars engraved upon the soul, and salvation from them. Those were the things I was thinking about when I wrote this story. It’s a mystery as to how that ended up turning into a bloody tale of a serial murderer, though.

A little while ago, my impression of the phrase “salvation of the heart” was a bit more like something otherworldly. I mean, for example, like an angel’s feather falling from the sky, or botamochi falling from a shelf (well, maybe not quite like that). Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if maybe it’s not much like that at all.

For some examples, again, take those faded, worn-out jeans that have lost their shape and become uncool, but are familiar and comfortable and easy to wear. Or a worn-out blanket you can wrap yourself in when it gets cold. Maybe it’s those sorts of things you can find just about anywhere, as long as you feel it.

In any case, if you think about it in too exaggerated of a manner you could potentially end up getting into something weird, which is dangerous. If an angel’s feather suddenly fell from the sky and obscured your vision it could cause an accident, and that botamochi someone put away on the shelf ages ago will definitely be all mouldy by now.

Now then, let’s talk about the story.

This is basically a novelisation of a PS game called The Silver Case. However, the case featured in this novel is an original one. In terms of the in-game timeline, it takes place right before the final chapter, Case #5.

While it does use things from the game, such as details about the past, I wrote it (or at least tried to write it) so that you could understand what is going on well enough from the book alone, so if you haven’t played the game yet, or haven’t bought it, please do read the book. I especially recommend it to people who like lots of blood, knives, and suspense.

Of course, buying the game and this book and enjoying both is the most beautiful thing, and will make you all happy – in all sorts of ways. I hope you enjoy leaving behind reality even if for a little while and experiencing the thrills and tension of an extraordinary world.

And finally, some words of gratitude to everyone at Grasshopper Manufacture and ASCII who helped me, as well as my editor. Thank you all very much.

Written at the start of October, as things begin to grow very autumnal,
Naoko Korekata