Every now and then a train crossed the railway bridge. Each time that happened, the white railing I was sitting on started vibrating and an ear-shattering noise filled the tunnel.
I was under a railway overpa.s.s at the edge of a residential area close to my school, which I had chosen because there would be no pa.s.sers-by even during the day, and was waiting for the time.
I didn't want to be interrupted by anyone.
Under the railway, where no sun reached, even the concrete's gray looked darker and more inorganic than usual. I shuddered even though it was still afternoon.
Probably due to the sound insulation of the concrete, the sounds of the vicinity seemed extremely far. When I silently held my breath, I was under the impression that I was in an isolated inst.i.tution far away in no-man's-land.
That might be the reason why I didn't notice him until he was nearby.
On the boundary separating light and darkness, a tall man with the appearance of a gigolo grinned daringly, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"Ya! Quite unexpected to have you call me out. What happened?"
His voice resounded from the concrete all around us.
"Oh, have you by any chance recalled some good piece of information concerning Youko-chan?"
He flicked the cigarette away, which then traversed a parabola before hitting the asphalt.
"But whew," he began while cracking his neck, "you sure have chosen quite a desolate place. Are you out for a duel with me today or what?" He crushed the cigarette with his caramel-brown shoes.
"Weak as I am, I would never feel inclined to a duel," I shook my head, "But I do want to settle things with you."
I restfully stood up and fixedly stared at the man a few meters from me.
"Let's put an end to it," I smiled.
"That's my line!" He closed one eye and grinned broadly, "Since you are the host, I'll let you have your say first."
Konan leaned on the wall and crossed his arms.
"I would like to start not with a statement but with a question."
"Oh, sure, sure. As many as you want, no need to be shy with me," he nodded easygoingly.
"Why did you become a detective?"
The next moment, he narrowed his eyes full of interest while stroking his chin.
"I don't want to be rude, but you aren't the type that acts out of a sense of justice."
"That sure is rude, whoa. Actually, I've taken to answering such questions with 'It's to save the day!' while flashing a cool smile."
Upon seeing my dumbfounded face, he laughed dryly.
"Being a detective is what I live for!" he suddenly made a serious face, "I chose a job where it's work and work throughout the year, all day long, and where I may lose my life due to a slight mistake. Because I'm still a civil servant, people insult me, calling me a tax parasite despite my poor salary. So why did I sign up for such a thankless job? You know, it's to see all kinds of people and their relationships in all kinds of situations, whether they're joyous or grieving!"
Konan stared into the air with an odd light in his eyes, originating from ecstasy.
"It's such a tremulous excitement when their masks crumble! It feels as if I were able to sneak a peek at the true nature of us humans. Bare emotions tell the truth much more eloquently than any justification."
When he finished, I couldn't suppress a sneer anymore.
"Oh that's cruel, Nonomiya-kun. Now that I've answered seriously for once because you looked so stern! I bet you're thinking of me as some psycho now, aren't you?"
I immediately answered his scowl by shaking my head.
"By no means. Rather I was relieved to hear so much nonsense. It suits you, you know?"
"Oho, now that's an unconventional evaluation."
"I guess. After all, I am, too, a good-for-nothing like you."
"I know," this time he sneered, "Since the moment I've first seen you."
The second I saw his grin, I was convinced: as Tsukimori had a.s.sessed, we really were similar.
"So, anything else you want to tell me?" he crossed his arms.
"There's nothing I would need to tell you!"
"Oh? You acknowledge it just like that? What I've said until now about Youko-chan, I mean?"
Konan doubtfully raised an eyebrow.
"You're getting me wrong. I'm saying that my opinion hasn't changed in the first place."
"Despite all I told you?"
"Yes, despite all that."
"Oh you're a trip! You're joking, right? Didn't you agree quite a lot to my doubts?"
"Indeed, I did agree. Insofar that the case could also be viewed in such an interesting light. Thanks to you I could catch a glimpse of how professional detectives deduce things by drawing one logical conclusion upon another. But that's all. My confidence in Tsukimori won't be swayed just by your a.s.sumptions."
When I smiled, he glared at me for just a split-second.
"Those are all just your a.s.sumptions. Frankly speaking, they're just baseless products of your over-creative fantasy."
Konan stared at me expressionlessly.
"Didn't you say yourself that the rest of the police are treating this case as an accident? In other words, you are suspecting her on a personal basis, right? I don't know how excellent a detective you are or how high-ranked you are within the police, but that's what we call a 'grandstand play', you know?"
Since he did not react, I proceeded even further.
"As you have told me earlier, too, even in a small town like ours there are incidents every day, so is it not rather suboptimal for an 'official' to bother with Tsukimori and me? If you still insist on a.s.sociating with us, you'll deserve the labeling as a tax parasite."
Of course I had a reason for getting that offensive.
"It's not in the interest of either of us to waste any more time on this. If you recalled what your original job is, I could carefreely return to my peaceful student life as well."
I was confident that he had no irrefutable proof. In other words, he had still not arrived at the "murder recipe". And without it, it was not possible to reasonably entertain suspicions concerning Tsukimori.
"You've done your best. But there are other things you ought to do. So, let's put an end to this already."
There was one more thing that backed me up.
No one would blame him for backing out of this case. The police were considering it an accident; nothing hindered Konan from letting go. Konan had been free to proceed or withdraw from the very beginning. That's what I figured out.
"...you've got me there. You're completely right. Can't counter that," he pulled a new cigarette from the pocket of his jacket while smiling lopsidedly and put it into his mouth, "To tell the truth, the department chief and the station chief, well, let's just say the bigwigs, are bugging me all the time because they want me to do my work properly. My colleagues have already given up though, since it's nothing new for them, heh!"
A small light flared up in the darkness. Konan had lit the cigarette with a lighter advertising some sleazy product.
"...Can you figure out why they still let me grandstand?"
He blew out a puff of smoke.
"It's because I'm capable!" he claimed confidently, "And do you know what makes me capable?"
He tapped on his forehead.
"My sharp intuition."
The next moment, his loud voice resounded through the entire tunnel.
"To get to the point! This excellent and sharp master detective Konan says this is fishy! You have to realize that a high school brat like you has no say in that whatsoever!"
His voice was reflected by the walls, by the ceiling, and rained down heavily on me. I felt as if I had been thrown into a bustling crowd.
"The point is! No matter what everyone else says, no matter if she herself denies it, I say she committed murder! So, Youko Tsukimori has killed her mother!" he finished, sucked in some smoke and blew it out contentedly.
"That's so unreasonable..." I managed to say, overwhelmed by his att.i.tude.
"Unreasonable, indeed. But tell me, does the world work a different way? It doesn't matter what's right and what's not; the stronger one gets his way, right?" A puff of smoke was blown out of his bent mouth. "Because I believed in myself and my intuition, and because I stayed true to myself, I was able to get remarkable results, you know. And because of those results, n.o.body can object to what I'm doing."
He showed a "grin".
"So, I'm sorry Nonomiya-kun, but I'm gonna do it the way I want—"
But it was his peculiar kind of grin that looked dead serious.
"—Because that's how I've chosen to live my life."
When I took another glance at his "grin", I came to think that that way of smiling must be the embodiment of his nature.
Put crudely, Konan was a lunatic in a clown's disguise.
It's not easy to get by with an uncommon sense put to show. Therefore, he probably adapted to our society by acting frivolous most of the time.
That "grin" must have been a remnant of that madness which he could not conceal.
"Okay, it's my turn now," Konan crushed his cigarette with his heel.
He thrust his hands into the pockets of his tight slacks.
"Why are you so eager to defend Youko-chan?"
With a slow and firm pace, he drew closer on his long legs. Step by step, his leather shoes produced a reverberating creak that filled the pa.s.sage.
"Don't you agree that it must be quite hard to believe so firmly in her without a lot of personal sympathy?"
I felt my stomach knot tighter and tighter at the sound of his steadily approaching footsteps.
"I'm not deliberately defending her, really! But it's simply absurd to expect me to believe that a cla.s.smate of mine is a killer. Isn't it normal that I can't, and don't want to, believe your doubts?"
"Yeah, completely normal," he admitted casually. That was, however, only a preface to what was to come. "But come on, in spite of everything I'm still a detective, if I may say so myself. It's not absurd in any way if you were a little more doubtful of her, right? I mean, hey, the police are suspecting her, so there might be something to it! I think it wouldn't do you any harm if you agreed a little more with me, you know, admitting that I have some points that make her suspicious. There's no need be so dismissive about it, is there? Well, that's the opinion of an experienced detective who has witnessed all kinds of incidents, anyway. Now, what do you say?" said the experienced speaker Konan in a torrent of words with a peculiar intonation, giving the atmosphere around us his own touch.
"...I'm a cross-grained person, you know. I'm also a little contrary on top of that. Therefore, I don't want to simply nod to something that doesn't make perfect sense to me!"
As a natural consequence, my hands became sweaty and my voice became tense.
"I guess so. It's already an established fact within me that you're that type of person."
I registered that his smile seemed very content.
"But while you sure are a cross-grained lad, Nonomiya-kun, you are not an idiot, and you don't lack common sense either. So I can't understand why you are so understanding to her. With that personality of yours, shouldn't you rather search for Youko-chan's flaws the more perfect she is? At least the Nonomiya I know is someone who doesn't believe anything he hasn't seen with his own eyes."
It's agreeable if you are understood because the other party shows interest in yourself by doing so. If it's interest from a capable person like Konan on top of that, it can't be a bad feeling.
However, I couldn't help feeling uncomfortable, for his a.s.sessment was just too spot-on. That nasty feeling of having my whole body closely scrutinized, from tip to toe, gave me a chill.
Before I knew it, Konan was standing right before me.
"In short, you know, I've already concluded that your unconditional support of Youko-chan is due to special feelings towards her. And well, because you love her so much that whether she's guilty or not, you just don't care. You're like, 'I shall believe in her even when the rest of the world turns against us!', you see. Oh how great is the power of love. Whoa there, don't look at me like that! I'm not messing with you here. Actually, I quite like that way of thinking. No, make that 'I love it'!"
What a talkative man. It's not like I was dumbfounded; I was taking my hat off to him. I wondered if there was even a single person who didn't talk after being targeted by Konan.
"You are gifted with a superb imagination indeed."
"Well, it's a job that requires a good imagination."
A smile was on his mouth, a truly amused one.
"But there's one more. One more possibility why you could be protecting Youko-chan," his smile disappeared. "Namely, if you have certain proof that Youko Tsukimori has not killed anyone."
My consciousness was immediately drawn to the murder recipe.
"So... do you?"
"By no means."
"Too bad," he replied not regretfully in the least.
While my whole body was becoming stiff, he continued. In a most casual tone.
"By the way, I've been wondering—what's in that left breast pocket?"
My right hand reflexively grabbed at my left breast pocket.
Konan reacted on the spot.
He quickly pulled his hands out of his pockets as if drawing a sword and grabbed my chest the very next moment. After he had taken a large step towards me, my field of vision made a sudden turn.
I felt a blow on my back the next instant which then turned into pain that flashed through my entire body. The fierce pain caused me to heave one deep groan. My head started spinning and I became unable to move. However, despite the dull pain, I could hardly breath and couldn't even groan anymore.
It all happened so fast I had no clue what had just occurred to me.
By now I a.s.sume that he had thrown me down on the hard asphalt by using some technique similar to Haraigoshi, as it's called in Judo.
"I'm quite the feminist, you know, I don't want to be rough to the ladies. But on the other hand, I'm pretty much merciless towards guys!" he said casually as he sat astride me.
"...Ugh...you will get into trouble for this," I managed to squeeze out and scowled at Konan.
"No worries, no worries! As long as no one gets wind of it I'm safe!"
He didn't care in the least.
"Well, shall we take a look at what you're hiding there in that inside pocket?"
I firmly grabbed my jacket with both my hands.
"Oh? From your stubborn resistance I gather that there's really something in there that is related to Youko-chan?"
I shouldn't have averted my eyes when he came peeking deep into them.
"Ha! Bull's eye? My intuition sure is something! It's getting fun!" he laughed with an odd light in his eyes.
Konan tried to break my grip, which I, still stuck below him, frantically warded off with all my might.
"Whoa, whoa. You don't know when to give up!"
Konan scratched his head in a baffled way.
"Hah, there's no way around this," he then muttered. "Believe it or not, but I was in high school once, too. Back then I was actually quite the naughty boy, you know?"
He suddenly started talking of his past for some reason.
"And well, the place naughty boys like us used to select for deepening our friendship with our fists was, oh surprise, desolate pa.s.sages below railways like this one! Maybe you get now why I asked you right in the beginning if you wanted to have a duel with me."
I failed to see what he was getting at, which was exactly what unsettled me.
"Can you guess why we usually selected somewhere under a railway?"
That moment, the ground started shaking slightly. I felt with my back that apparently a train was coming our way.
"The reason is—screams get drowned out in the noise of pa.s.sing trains."
As he revealed that fact, a thunderous sound burst through the air, killing all other sounds.
"...you're joking... right?"
My words of shock were naturally drowned out as well.
The rattling of the train pa.s.sing by above us shook my body. No, perhaps I was just trembling myself.
I felt the cold sensation of metal on my forehead.
Still utterly confused, I looked at what was in front of my eyes with a fixed gaze.
In his stretched out arm Konan was holding a black object. The cylindrical tip of that hard, black object was put on my forehead.
As soon as the thundering noise receded, giving way to the normal sounds, the man expressionlessly said, "If timed properly, that noise can even drown out a gunshot."
I gulped down without knowing.
...no way. He may have a tendency to lunacy, but he wouldn't possibly pull that trigger. This is bound to be a foolish performance to threaten me.
That's what my mind told me anyway.
My hair, however, stuck to my forehead. My heart was pounding and my breath was running wild. In contrast to my logical thinking, my body was so tense that I couldn't even blink.
"Now let go."
I put all the power I still had into my fingers.
"That's the spirit. Good boy."
My arms, however, were shaken off easily. Unfortunately, there had not been enough power left in me to resist him.
Konan skillfully undid the first two b.u.t.tons with one hand and slid that hand into my inside pocket.
When he pulled it out again, he was holding a small folded sc.r.a.p of paper between his fingers.
"...a sc.r.a.p of paper, huh. What will I find on here, I wonder?"
He concluded that I had entirely lost the will to resist and removed the handgun from my forehead, and unfolded the sheet with both his hands.
Konan skimmed through it with a serious mien.
As he was still sitting on me, I couldn't move while he was reading the letter, thus I was forced to keep on looking at the concrete ceiling, which was not exactly interesting.
"Oh time! Go by!" I wished silently.
"Let me confirm one thing... who has written this 'recipe'?"
He thrust out the sheet before my eyes.
"I don't know," I hissed and looked away.
"...So my hunch didn't fail me," he said with a convinced tone. "Judging by your reaction, you have written this, huh."
I kept silent.
"At the very first glance I thought that the letters looked very, you know, 'boyish', so I did consider the possibility! But I mean, what's written there just doesn't match the image I have of you, you know? You and this, huh... What did your face look like when you wrote it? Oh, please don't tell me you wrote it with that poker face of yours!"
It was probably the poker face I had maintained that caused him to suddenly embrace his stomach and start trembling with tears in his eyes. He chuckled as the intensity of his tremble increased like the speed of plane that was rolling on a runway. And then,
He burst into a grand laughter. The plane had just soared into the sky.
His guffawing resounded through the tunnel. Laughter rained down on me from all sides with no mercy. I experienced the humiliation of being made a fool by a great ma.s.s.
"...aah, stop it, aah, I'm dying! I'm dying laughing! Aah, I haven't laughed like this in ages... I think for a while I'm gonna break out into a laughter just by recalling this," he said while still laughing with groans mixed in. "Aaa... I have to admit that that contrast got even me by surprise. Now that was something new. Never thought that you, our grouchy Nonomiya-kun, would write such an oh-so-sweet letter that would startle even the purest girl in love..."
Again, he was unable to suppress it and laughed out loud.
The t.i.tle on the sheet he had thrust in front of me was—
The "Love Recipe" contained all kinds of flirt phrases and methods to win over a girl's heart. Words so sickeningly sweet that they didn't even lose to the taste of pancakes accidentally covered with a bottle of maple syrup, filled the whole page without leaving any gaps.
It was a sinister item indeed, of which a single bite would certainly cause nausea to any man like me without physical defense against sweet words.
If you write such a dangerous thing with your very own hands, with all your wit can offer, during an entire long night, then your life cannot be a.s.sured anymore. Even if you survived it, you would be scarred for life with a horrendous trauma.
An actual survivor states that living became hard just a few minutes after starting to write.
At last, satisfied with laughing, Konan asked me with a meek expression, "So? Do you want me to retire from the case now because of this?"
"It would be very much appreciated."
He grabbed my head with his hands and leaned over me. My dark field of vision became even darker.
"There's no way I could retire at such a half-baked state!" he declared from straight above with forceful eyes.
"But that's," I began and put on a confident smile. "That's only your view as a detective, right?"
"...What do you mean?"
A question mark appeared above him. Therefore, I grinned while answering his question.
"Right now you look extremely fulfilled!"
He could say what he wanted, but his eyes were sparkling like the eyes of a kid that had just arrived at an amus.e.m.e.nt park. To me Konan looked as though he was bursting with amus.e.m.e.nt.
"Haven't you had enough fun by now?"
Konan pondered over my words while stroking his chin.
He hadn't denied it when I said that it was not a sense of justice that made him choose the job as a detective.
What he had a.s.serted, however, was that he wanted to enjoy humans and their relationships.
In short, Konan himself didn't care much if Tsukimori had killed her mother or not. Though finding out the truth was surely part of that hobby of his, it was by no means his personal goal.
So I thought about what his goal really was. The conclusion I came to was this:
From the moment I had realized that we resembled each other, I had felt that such an end was inevitable.
"...oh well, you got me!"
Konan spun his gun around his finger and stowed it away in the holster that was hidden under his jacket.
"My loss was decided the instant I laughed. After laughing badly like that I can't claim that I wasn't amused anymore."
When he stood up, he reached out his hand to me. I took it.
"Okay! I'll drop the case."
He then pulled me up onto my feet.
Words of appreciation automatically slipped out of my mouth. Apparently, I happened to be relieved.
Considering that we were similar, it wasn't hard to comprehend the principle of his actions, but I had no prospects of victory in terms of persuading him, an experienced speaker, into dropping the case. As a matter of fact, my first attempt had been beaten down by his overwhelming pressure.
Since the odds had been against me, I had prepared the "Love Recipe" as a trump card.
The main reason I had written it was to create unforeseeability. To surprise Konan with something that he would definitely not expect me to ever write. And finally, to take the wind out of his sails with that unforeseeability.
My vigorous resistance had not been played at all; I had wanted to keep my trump card for last, yes, I had even wanted to take it to the grave.
What I can say now is that I probably would have failed if I hadn't taken the bullet.
"Oh well, it was about time anyway, " Konan said while wiping off the dust on his suit with one hand. "Keep in mind that to the bigwigs this case is only a trifling incident that wouldn't even get into the news. Organizations, not only the police, have a tendency to avoid using time, money and workforce for trivial things, you know. After all, they wouldn't gain much for solving an incident no one cares about."
"Quite business-like, isn't it?" I followed his example and dusted off my uniform with both my hands.
"Indeed. If you think of it like that, maybe I'm actually something like an office worker," he nodded full of agreement. "Well, the point is that even I can't always keep running after every small incident, no matter how much everyone accepts it implicitly! I mean, come on, I'm capable, right? They want me on the big cases!"
He then folded the recipe and unaffectedly put it into the pocket of his suit.
"Hey, don't just stow that away in your pocket!" I hurriedly stopped him.
"Mh? What do you mean? That's mine, isn't it?"
"No, it's mine. Please return it to me."
"But there's no point if you have it, is there?"
"It's the treasure I dug up this time. It's an irreplaceable memento of you. I'm going to reread this recipe from time to time and remember you and the happy days we spent together."
"That's a lie. You're definitely going to make a fool of me!"
"Oh? I'm busted."
I could not help sighing, seeing he was as undaunted as always.
"Come on, isn't that quite a good deal? For just a mere sc.r.a.p of paper I'll withdraw from this case! Now if that's not some outstanding treatment!"
"It's not a physical problem, but a very psychological one."
"Well, you should be able to take some scars as a boy."
Konan put on a wry smile as he lit on a cigarette.
"...even I think once in a while, you know, that I've got a bothersome personality. But we can't just change our hobbies or our values, right?"
I found myself agreeing with the musing Konan before me.
"They say it's possible to select one's way of life, but I think that's just a flowery lie. At least I could not choose another one. Choosing another way of life means throwing away all you've done so far and becoming a new self, don't you agree? I like myself the way I am now. So I have no choice but to stick to my current principles!"
Then he showed the grin that truly suited him.
"An acquaintance of mine said something similar. Something along the lines of the world's very setup being 's.h.i.t', so one should live by one's own rules."
"Oho. We would surely get on well."
"Yes, indeed. I don't know about her, but you would surely like her."
"So it's a woman?"
"Woho, definitely introduce me to her one of these days."
"If I find some time."
"By the way..."
"—What was it really? What have you been hiding?"
I was unable to answer him right away.
Konan had a.s.sured me he'd drop this case. And he was surely not someone who broke promises.
But still I just couldn't bring myself to let anyone else know about the murder recipe.
However, Konan suddenly tousled my hair with his sinewy hand.
"Sorry. Forget that. That question was 'thoughtless' as you would call it, right?"
He blew some smoke toward the asphalt.
The railway started to creak, causing the entire tunnel to vibrate, and erased all other sounds around us.
During the time that allowed no other sounds, Konan made himself at home and enjoyed his cigarette, whereas I had my gaze fixed on the far away blue sky as if enjoying a nightly read.
At last, the train pa.s.sed by and took its thunderous sound with it.
"Good luck, Nonomiya-kun. It was a short time with you, but I really enjoyed it!"
That was the first thing I heard again.
"I too... relatively enjoyed those days."
"Relatively?! Oh boy...," he said and leisurely walked towards the exit, his shoes squeaking. I silently gazed at his back as he waved his hand extravagantly.
"...Ah, let me correct one thing at the end." The footsteps stopped near the entrance of the pa.s.sage. "Satisfied, my a.s.s! Just so you know! I am not at all satisfied! I wanted to play much more with you and Youko-chan!"
He resembled a brat that didn't want his summer holidays to end so much that I had to laugh, "Oh boy...!"
It was not farewell forever, but we weren't going to see each other for quite a while. We may live in the same town, but there wouldn't be many occasions to meet each other. Our separate ways had merely happened to cross by chance this time. That was the relationship between us, between Konan and me, two persons of different ages and positions.
"Right! I almost forgot—"
He quickly turned around and skillfully squinted one eye.
"Actually, I fancy women and men all the same!"
He gave me a wave with his flat hand, "Byeee!" and disappeared into the light, leaving me behind dumbfounded.
"...'Bi'? Don't mess with me!"
I was sure it had to be another special bad joke of his and that he was having his fun with me.
"How stupid," I shook my head.
I frantically tried to make myself believe that it was a joke, but I just couldn't do anything about the gooseb.u.mps I had gotten all over.
Geez, Konan remained a good-for-nothing to the bitter end. I had never met such a good-for-nothing in my entire life. There can't be many absurd people like him in the world. I figured that I may not meet someone like him again.
Therefore, it was a relatively regrettable farewell for me.
After raising my hand once, I turned around and walked towards the exit on the opposite side.
By the time I left the tunnel, my mind was occupied with only her and no one else.