YOUNG COUPLE DEAD OF UNNATURAL CAUSES IN RENTAL CAR
At 6:15 a.m. on the 7th, a young man and woman were found dead in the front seats of a car on a vacant lot in Ashina, Yokosuka, along a prefec-tural road. The bodies were discovered by a truck driver who happened to pass by and who then reported the case to the Yokosuka police precinct.
From the car registration they were identified as a preparatory school student from Shibuya, Tokyo (age 19), and a private girls' high school student from Isogo, Yokohama (age 17). The car had been rented from an agency in Shibuya two evenings previously by the preparatory school student.
At the time of discovery, the car was locked with the key in the ignition. The estimated time of death was sometime between late night on the 5th and the predawn hours of the 6th. Since the windows were rolled up, it is thought that the couple fell asleep and asphyxiated, but the possibility that they had taken an overdose of drugs in order to commit a love suicide has not been ruled out. The exact cause of death has not been determined. As of yet there is no suspicion of homicide.
This was all there was to the article, but Asakawa felt like he had a bite. First of all, the girl who died was seventeen and attended a private girls' school in Yokohama, just like his niece Tomoko. The guy who rented the car was nineteen and a prep school student, just like the kid who died in front of Shinagawa Station. The estimated time of death was virtually identical. Cause of death unknown, too.
There had to be some connection among these four deaths. It couldn't take too long to establish definitive commonalities. After all, Asakawa was on the inside of a major news-gathering organization-he wasn't lacking for sources of information. He made a copy of the article and headed back to the editorial office. He felt like he'd just struck gold, and his pace quickened of its own accord. He could barely wait for the elevator.
The Yokosuka City Hall press club. Yoshino was sitting at his desk, his pen scurrying across a sheet of manuscript paper. As long as the expressway wasn't crowded, you could make it here from the main office in Tokyo in an hour. Asakawa came up behind Yoshino and called his name.
He hadn't seen Yoshino in a year and a half.
"Huh? Hey, Asakawa. What brings you down to Yokosuka? Here, have a seat."
Yoshino pulled up a chair toward the desk and urged Asakawa to sit. Yoshino hadn't shaved, and it gave him a seedy look, but he could be surprisingly considerate toward others.
"You keeping busy?"
"You could say that."
Yoshino and Asakawa had known each other when Asakawa was still in the local-news department, which Yoshino had entered three years ahead of him. Yoshino was thirty-five now.
"I called the Yokosuka office. That's how I learned you were here."
"Why? You need me for something?"
Asakawa handed him the copy he'd made of the article. Yoshino stared at it for an extraordinarily long time. Since he'd written the article himself, he should have been able to remember what it said just by looking at it. As it was, he sat there concentrating all his nerves on it, hand frozen halfway through the motion of putting a peanut in his mouth. It was as if he were chewing it: recalling what he'd written and digesting it.
"What about it?" Yoshino had assumed a serious expression.
"Nothing special. I just wanted to find out more details."
Yoshino stood up. "All right. Let's go next door and talk over a cup of tea or something."
"Do you have time for this right now? Are you sure I'm not interrupting?"
"Not a problem. This is more interesting than what I was doing."
There was a little cafe right next to City Hall where you could get coffee for two hundred yen a cup. Yoshino sat down and immediately turned to the counter and called out, "Two coffees." Then, turning back to Asakawa, he hunched over, leaning close. "Okay, look, I've been on the local beat for 12 years now. I've seen a lot of things. But. Never have I come across anything as downright odd as this."
Yoshino paused for a sip of water, then continued. "Now, Asakawa. This has got to be a fair trade of information. Why is someone from the main office looking into this?"
Asakawa wasn't ready to tip his hand. He wanted to keep the scoop for himself. If an expert like Yoshino caught wind of it, in a heartbeat he'd chase and nab the prize for himself. Asakawa promptly came up with a lie.
"No" special reason. My niece was a friend of the dead girl, and she keeps badgering me for information-you know, about the incident. So as long as I was down here…"
It was a poor lie. He thought he saw Yoshino's eyes flash with suspicion, and he shrank back, unnerved.
"Yeah, well, she's a high school student, fight? It's bad enough that her friend's dead, but then there are the circumstances. She just keeps bugging me about it. I'm begging you. Give me details."
"So, what do you want to know?"
"Did they ever decide on the cause of death?"
Yoshino shook his head. "Basically, they're saying their hearts just stopped all of a sudden. They have no idea why."
"How about the murder angle? Strangulation, for example."
"Impossible. No bruise marks on the neck."
"No traces in the autopsy."
"In other words, the case hasn't been solved."
"Shit, no. No solving to be done. It isn't a murder-it's not even an incident, really. They died of some illness, or from some kind of accident, and that's all there is to it. Period. There's not even an investigation."
It was a blunt way of putting it. Yoshino leaned back in his chair.
"So why haven't they released the names of the deceased?"
'They're minors. Plus, there's the suspicion that it was a love suicide."
At this point Yoshino suddenly smiled, as if he'd just remembered something, and he leaned forward again.
"You know, the guy? He had his jeans and his briefs down around his knees. The girl, too-her panties were pulled down to her knees."
"So, you mean it was coitus interruptusl"
"I didn't say they were doing it. They were just getting ready to do it. They were just getting ready to have a little fun and, bam! That's when it happened," Yoshino clapped his hands together for effect.
"When what happened?"
Yoshino was telling his story for maximum effect.
"Okay, Asakawa, level with me. You've got something. I mean, something that connects with this case. Right?"
Asakawa didn't reply.
"I can keep a secret. I won't steal your scoop, either. It's just that I'm interested in this."
Asakawa still remained silent.
"Are you gonna keep me hanging here in suspense?"
Should I tell … ? But I can't. I mustn 't say anything yet. But lies aren 't working…
"Sorry, Yoshino. Could you wait just a little longer? I can't tell you quite yet. But I will in two or three days. I promise."
Disappointment clouded Yoshino's face. "If you say so, pal…"
Asakawa gave him a pleading look, urging him to continue his story.
"Well, we've got to assume that something happened. A guy and a gal suffocate just when they're getting ready to do it? That's not even funny. I guess it's possible that they'd taken poison earlier and it had only taken effect just then, but there were no traces. Sure, there are poisons that leave no trace, but you can't figure on a couple of students getting their hands on something like that."
Yoshino thought of the place where the car had been found. He'd actually gone there himself and still had a clear impression. The car was parked on an overgrown piece of vacant land in a little ravine just off the unpaved prefectural road that led from Ashina to Mt Okusu. Cars coming up the road could just catch the reflection of its taillights as they passed. It wasn't hard to imagine why the prep school kid, who'd been driving, had chosen this place to park in. After nightfall hardly any cars used this road, and with the thick growth of trees providing cover, it made for a perfect hideaway for a penniless young couple.
"Then, you've got the guy with his head jammed up against the steering wheel and the side window. Meanwhile, the girl's got her head buried between the passenger seat and the door. That's how they died. I saw them being taken out of the car, with my own eyes. Each body came tumbling out the moment the doors were opened. It's like at the moment of death some sort of force had been pushing them from the inside, didn't stop when they died but kept pushing for thirty hours or so until the investigators opened the doors, and then burst out. Now, are you with me here? This car was a two-door, one of those where you can't lock the doors with the key still inside. And the key was in the ignition, but the doors… well, you catch my drift. The car was completely sealed. It's hard to imagine that any force from the outside could have affected them. And what kind of expression do you suppose they had on their dead faces? They were both scared shitless. Faces contorted with terror."
Yoshino paused to catch his breath. There was a loud gulping sound. It wasn't clear which of them had swallowed his saliva.
"Think about it. Suppose, just for the hell of it, that some fearsome beast had come out of the woods. They'd have been scared, and they would have huddled close to each other. Even if he hadn't, the girl would absolutely have clung to him. After all, they were lovers. But instead, their backs were pressed up against the doors, as if they were trying to get as far away from each other as they could."
Yoshino threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Beats the hell out of me."
If it hadn't been for the shipwreck in the waters off Yokosuka, the article might have been given more space. And if it had, there would have been a lot of readers who would have enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle, playing detective. But. •… But. A consensus had spread, an atmosphere, among the investigators and everybody else who had been at the scene. They all thought more or less the same thing, and all of them were on the verge of blurting it out, but nobody actually did. That kind of consensus. Even though it was completely impossible for two young people to die of heart attacks at exactly the same moment, even though none of them really believed it, everybody told themselves the medical lie that it had happened just like that. It wasn't that people refrained from saying anything out of fear of being laughed at for being unscientific. It was that they felt they'd be drawing unto themselves some unimaginable horror by admitting it. It was more convenient to indulge in the scientific explanation, no matter how unconvincing it was.
A chill ran up Asakawa's spine and Yoshino's simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, they were both thinking the same thing. The silence only confirmed the premonition which was welling up in each man's breast. It's not over-it's only just started. No matter how much scientific knowledge they fill themselves with, on a very basic level, people believe in the existence of something that the laws of science can't explain.
"When they were discovered… where were their hands?" Asakawa suddenly asked.
"On their heads. Or, well, it was more like they were covering their faces with their hands."
"Were they by any chance pulling at their hair, like this?" Asakawa tugged at his own hair to demonstrate.
"In other words, were they tearing at their heads, or pulling out their hair, or anything like that?"
"No. I don't think so."
"I see. Could I get their names and addresses, Yoshino?"
"Sure. But don't forget your promise."
Asakawa smiled and nodded, and Yoshino got up. As he stood the table swayed and their coffee spilled into their saucers. Yoshino hadn't even touched his.
Asakawa kept investigating the four victims' backgrounds whenever he had a free minute, but had so much work to do that he wasn't getting as far as he'd hoped. Before he knew it a week had passed, it was a new month, and both August's rain-soaked humidity and September's summery heat became distant memories pushed aside by the signs of deepening autumn. Nothing happened for a while. He'd been making a point of reading every inch of the local-news pages, but without coming across anything remotely similar. Or was it just that something horrible was advancing, slowly but surely, where Asakawa couldn't see? But the more time elapsed, the more inclined he was to think that the four deaths were just coincidences, unconnected in any way. He hadn't seen Yoshino since then, either. He had probably forgotten the whole thing, too. If he hadn't, he would have contacted Asakawa by now.
Whenever his passion for the case showed signs of waning, Asakawa would take four cards out from his pocket and be reminded once again that it couldn't have been a coincidence. On the cards he'd written the deceased's names, addresses, and other pertinent information, and on the remaining space he planned to record their activities during the months of August and September, their upbringing, and anything else his research turned up.
Date of birth: 10/21/72
Keisei School for Girls, senior, age 17
Address: 1-7 Motomachi, Honmoku, Naka Ward,
Yokohama Approx. 11 pm, Sept. 5: dies in kitchen on first floor of home, parents away. Cause of death sudden heart failure
Date of birth: 5/26/71
Eishin Preparatory Academy, first year, age 19
Address: 1-5-23 Nishi Nakanobu, Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo
10:54 pm, Sept. 5: falls over and dies at intersection in front of Shinagawa Sta. Cause of death cardiac infarction.
Date of birth: 1/12/73
Keisei School for Girls, senior, age 17
Address: 5-19 Mori, Isogo Ward, Yokohama
Late night, Sept. 5 (or early next morning): dies in car off pref. road at foot of Mt Okusu. Cause of death sudden heart failure.
Date of birth: 12/4/70
Eishin Preparatory Academy, second year, age 19
Address: 1-10-4 Uehara, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo
Late night, Sept. 5 (or early next morning): dies w/Haruko Tsuji in car at foot of Mt Okusu. Cause of death sudden heart failure.
Tomoko Oishi and Haruko Tsuji went to the same high school and were friends; Shuichi Iwata and Takehiko Nomi studied at the same prep school and were friends: this much had been clear prior to legwork, which indeed confirmed it. And from the simple fact that Tsuji and Nomi had gone for a drive together on Mt Okusu in Yokosuka on the night of September 5th, it was obvious that they were, if not quite lovers, at least fooling around. When he'd asked her friends, he'd heard the rumor that Tsuji had been dating a prep school guy from Tokyo. However, Asakawa still didn't know when or how they'd met. Naturally, he suspected that Oishi and Iwata were going out, too, but he couldn't find anything to back this up. It was equally possible that Oishi and Iwata had never even seen each other. In which case, what was there to link these four? They seemed far too closely related for this unknown being to have picked them totally at random. Maybe there was some secret that only the four of them knew, and they'd been killed for it… Asakawa tried out a more scientific explanation with himself: perhaps the four of them had been in the same place at the same time, and all four had been infected with a virus that attacks the heart.
Hey, now. Asakawa shook his head as he walked. A virus that causes sudden heart failure? Come on.
He climbed the stairs, muttering to himself, a virus, a virus. Indeed, he should start out with attempts at scientific explanation. Well, suppose there was a virus that caused heart attacks. At least it was a little more realistic than imagining that something supernatural was behind it all; it seemed less likely to get him laughed at. Even if such a virus hadn't yet been discovered on earth, maybe it had just recently fallen to earth inside a meteor. Or maybe it had been developed as a biological weapon and had somehow escaped. You couldn't rule out the possibility. Sure. He'd try thinking of it as a kind of virus for a while. Not that this would satisfy all his doubts. Why had they all died with looks of astonishment on their faces? Why had Tsuji and Nomi died on opposite sides of that small car, as if they were trying to get away from each other? Why hadn't the autopsies revealed anything? The possibility of an escaped germ weapon could at least answer the third question. There would have been a gag order.
If he were to pursue this hypothesis further, he could deduce that the fact that there hadn't been any other victims yet meant that the virus was not airborne. It was either blood-borne, like AIDS, or was fairly noncontagious. But more importantly, where had these four picked it up? He'd have to go back and sift through their activities in August and September again and look for places and times they had in common. Since the participants' mouths had been shut permanently, it wouldn't be easy. If their meeting had been a secret among the four of them, something neither parents nor friends knew about, then how was he to ferret it out? But he was sure that these four kids had some time, some place, some thing in common.
Sitting down at his word processor Asakawa chased the unknown virus from his thoughts. He needed to get out the notes he'd just taken, to sum up the contents of the cassette he'd made. He had to get this article finished today. Tomorrow, Sunday, he and his wife Shizu were going to visit her sister, Yoshimi Oishi. He wanted to see with his own eyes the spot where Tomoko had died, to feel on his own flesh whatever air still lingered. His wife had agreed to go to Honmoku to console her bereaved older sister; she had no inkling of her husband's true motives.
Asakawa started pounding the keys of the word processor before he'd come up with a decent outline.
Shizu was seeing her parents for the first time in a month. Ever since their granddaughter Tomoko had died, they came to Tokyo from their home in Ashikaga whenever they could, not only to console their daughter but to be consoled in turn. Shizu only understood this today. Her heart ached when she saw her aged parents' thin, grief-stricken faces. They had once had three grandchildren: their oldest daughter Yoshimi's daughter Tomoko, their second daughter Kazuko's son Kenichi, and Shizu's daughter Yoko. One grandchild from each of their three daughters-not all that common. Tomoko had been their first grandchild, and their faces had crinkled up every time they had seen her; they had enjoyed spoiling her. Now they were so depressed that it was impossible to say whose grief was deeper, the parents' or the grandparents'.
I guess grandchildren really mean a lot.
Shizu had just turned thirty this year. It was all she could do to imagine what her sister must be feeling, putting herself in her sister's place, contemplating how she'd feel if she lost her own child. But really, there was no comparison to be made between her daughter Yoko, only a year and a half old, and Tomoko, who had died at seventeen. She couldn't fathom how every passing year would deepen her love for her child.
Sometime after three in the afternoon, her parents began to get ready to go home to Ashikaga.
Shizu could hardly contain her surprise. Why had her husband, who always protested that he was too busy, suggested this visit to her sister's house? This was the same husband who'd skipped the poor girl's funeral, pleading that he had a deadline to meet. And now here it was almost dinnertime, and he wasn't showing the slightest inclination of leaving. He'd only met Tomoko a few times, and had probably never talked with her for very long. Surely he wasn't feeling detained by memories of the deceased.
Shizu tapped Asakawa lightly on the knee and whispered in his ear, "Dear, it's probably about time…"
"Look at Yoko. She's sleepy. Maybe we ought to see if we could let her take a nap here."
They had brought their daughter. Normally, this was nap time. Sure enough, Yoko had started blinking like she did when she was sleepy. But if they let her sleep here, they'd have to stay in this house for at least two more hours. What would they find to talk about with her grieving sister and her husband for two more hours?
"She can sleep on the train, don't you think?" said Shizu, dropping her voice.
"Last time we tried that she got fussy, and it was awful all the way home. No, thanks."
Whenever Yoko got sleepy in a crowd, she got unbelievably fidgety. She'd flail her little arms and legs, wail at the top of her lungs, and just generally make life difficult for her parents. Scolding her only made it worse-there was no way to calm her down except to try to get her to sleep. At times like that Asakawa became intensely conscious of the looks of people around him, and he'd start sulking himself, as though he were the prime victim of his daughter's shrieking. The accusing stares of the other passengers always made him feel like he was choking.
Shizu preferred not to see her husband in that state, with his cheeks twitching nervously and all. "All right, then, if you say so."
"Great. Let's see if she'll take a nap upstairs."
Yoko lay in her mother's lap, eyes half closed.
"I'll go put her down," he said, caressing his daughter's cheek with the back of his hand. The words sounded strange coming from Asakawa, who hardly ever helped with the baby. Maybe he'd had a change of heart, now that he'd witnessed the sorrow of parents who'd lost a child.
"What's come over you today? It's spooky."
"Don't worry. She looks like she'll go right down. Leave it to me."
Shizu handed the child over. "Thanks. I just wish you were like this all the time."
As she was transferred from her mother's bosom to her father's, Yoko began to scrunch up her face, but before she had time to follow through she had fallen asleep. Asakawa climbed the stairs, cradling his daughter. The second floor consisted of two Japanese-style rooms and the Western-style room which had been Tomoko's. He laid Yoko on the futon in the Japanese-style room that faced south. He didn't even need to stay with her as she fell asleep. She was already out, her breathing regular.
Asakawa slipped out of the room and listened to see what was going on downstairs, and then entered Tomoko's bedroom. He felt a little guilty about invading a dead girl's privacy. Wasn't this the kind of thing he abhorred? But it was for a good cause-defeating evil. There was nothing but to do it. Even as he thought this, he hated the way he was always willing to seize on any reason, no matter how specious, in order to rationalize his actions. But, he protested, it wasn't like he was writing an article about it: he was just trying to figure out when and where the four had been together. Sorry.
He opened her desk drawers. Just the normal assortment of stationery supplies, like any high school girl would have, rather neatly arranged. Three snapshots, a junk box, letters, a notepad, a sewing kit. Had her parents gone through here after she died? It didn't look like it. Probably she was just naturally neat. He was hoping to find a diary-it would save him a lot of time. Today I got together with Haruko Tsuji, Takehiko Nomi, and Shuichi Iwata, and we … If he could just find an entry like that. He took a notebook from her bookshelf and flipped through it. He actually came across a very girlish diary in the back of a drawer, but there were only a few desultory entries on the first few pages, all of them dated long ago.
On the shelf beside the desk there were no books, only a red flowered makeup stand. He opened the drawer. A bunch of cheap accessories. A lot of mismatched earrings-it seemed she had a habit of losing one of every pair she owned. A pocket comb with several slender black strands of hair still wrapped around it.
Opening the built-in wardrobe, his nose was assailed by the scent of high school girls. It was packed tight with colourful dresses and skirts on hangers. His sister-in-law and her husband had obviously not figured out what to do with these clothes, which still carried their daughter's fragrance. Asakawa pricked up his ears at what was going on downstairs. He wasn't sure what they'd think if they caught him in here. There was no sound. His wife and her sister must still be talking about something. Asakawa searched the pockets of the clothes in the wardrobe one by one. Handkerchiefs, movie ticket stubs, gum wrappers, napkins, commuter pass case. He examined it: a pass for the stretch between Yamate and Tsurumi, a student ID card, and a membership card. There was a name written on the membership card: Something-or-other Nono-yama. He wasn't sure how to pronounce the characters for the first name-Yuki, maybe? From the characters alone he couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. Why did she have someone else's card in her pass case? He heard footsteps coming up the stairs. He slipped the card into his pocket, put the case back where he'd found it, and shut the wardrobe. He stepped into the hall just as his sister-in-law reached the top of the stairs.
"Sorry, is there a bathroom up here?" He made a show of acting antsy.
"It's there at the end of the hall." She didn't seem to suspect anything. "Is Yoko sleeping like a good girl?"
"Yes, thanks. Sorry to put you to such trouble."
"Oh no, not at all." The sister-in-law bowed slightly, then stepped into the Japanese-style room, hand on her kimono sash.
In the bathroom, Asakawa took out the card. "Pacific Resorts Club Member's Card" it read. Underneath this was Nonoyama's name and membership number and the expiration date. He flipped it over. Five membership conditions, in fine print, plus the name of the company and its address. Pacific Resorts Club, Inc., 3-5 Kojimachi, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. Phone no. (03) 261-4922. If it wasn't something she'd found or swiped, Tomoko must have borrowed this card from this Nonoyama person. Why? To use Pacific Resorts facilities, of course. Which one, and when?
He couldn't call from the house. Saying he was going to go buy cigarettes, he ran to a pay phone. He dialled the number.
"Hello, Pacific Resorts, may I help you?" A young woman's voice.
"I'd like to know what facilities I can use with a membership card."
The voice didn't respond right away. Maybe they had so many facilities available that she couldn't just list them all.
"That is… I mean… for example, like on an overnight trip from Tokyo," he added. It would have stood out if the four of them had gone away for two or three nights together. The fact that he hadn't turned anything up so far meant that they had probably gone for no longer than a single night. She could easily get away for a single night by lying to her parents that she was staying at a friend's house.
"We have a full range of facilities at our Pacific Land in South Hakone," she said, in her businesslike manner.
"Specifically, what sorts of leisure activities do you have there?"
"Certainly, sir. We have provisions for golf, tennis, and field sports, as well as a swimming pool."
"And you have lodging there?"
"Yes, sir. In addition to a hotel, Pacific Land features the Villa Log Cabin community of rental cottages. Shall I send you our brochure?"
"Yes. Please." He pretended to be a prospective customer, hoping it would make it easier to extract information from her. "The hotel and the cabins, are they open to the general public?"
"Certainly, at non-member rates."
"I see. Can you give me the phone number? Maybe I'll go have a look."
"I can take care of reservations right now, if you wish…"
"No, I, ah, may be going for a drive down there sometime and just decide to have a look… So could I just have the phone number?"
"One moment, please."
As he waited, Asakawa took out a memo pad and pen.
"Are you ready?" The woman returned and dictated two eleven digit phone numbers. The area codes were long-they were way out in the sticks. Asakawa scribbled them down.
"Just for future reference, where are your other facilities located?"
"We have the same sort of full-service resorts at Lake Hamana and at Hamajima in Mie Prefecture."
Much too far! Students wouldn't have that kind of war chest.
"I see. Sounds like they're all on the Pacific, just like the name says."
Then the woman began to detail all the fabulous advantages of becoming a Pacific Resorts Club member; Asakawa listened politely for a while before cutting her off. "Great. The rest I'm sure I can find out from the pamphlet. I'll give you my address so you can send it." He told her his address and hung up. Listening to her sales pitch, he'd begun to think it actually wouldn't be a bad idea to join, if he could afford it.
It had been over an hour since Yoko had gone to sleep, and Shizu's parents had already returned to Ashikaga. Shizu herself was in the kitchen doing the dishes for her sister, who was still prone to break down at the slightest provocation. Asakawa briskly helped carry dishes in from the living room.
"What's got into you today? You're acting weird," said Shizu, without interrupting her dishwashing. "You put Yoko down, you're helping in the kitchen. Are you turning over a new leaf? If so, I hope it sticks."
Asakawa was lost in thought, and didn't want to be bothered. He wished his wife would act like her name, which meant "quiet". The best way to seal a woman's mouth was not to reply.
"Oh, by the way, did you put a disposable on her before putting her to bed? We wouldn't want her to leak at someone else's house."
Asakawa showed no interest, but just looked around at the kitchen walls. Tomoko had died here. There had been shards of glass and a pool of coke next to her when she was found. She must have been attacked by the virus right when she was going to have a drink of coke from the fridge. Asakawa opened the refrigerator, mimicking Tomoko's movements. He imagined holding a glass, and pretended to drink.
"What in the world are you doing?" Shizu was staring at him, mouth wide open. Asakawa kept going: still pretending to drink, he looked behind him. When he turned around, there was a glass door right in front of him, separating the living room from the kitchen. It reflected the fluorescent light above the sink. Maybe because it was still bright outside and the living room was filled with light, it only reflected the fluorescent light, and not the expressions of the people on this side. If the other side of the glass was dark, and this side light, like it would have been that night when Tomoko was standing here… That glass door would have been a mirror reflecting the scene in the kitchen. It would have reflected Tomoko's face, contorted with terror. Asakawa could almost start to think of the pane of glass as a witness to everything that had happened. Glass could be transparent or reflective, depending on the interplay of light and darkness. Asakawa was bringing his face nearer the glass, as if drawn there, when his wife tapped him on the back. Just at that moment, they heard Yoko crying upstairs. She was awake.
"Yoko's up." Shizu wiped her wet hands on a towel. Their daughter usually didn't cry so hard upon waking up. Shizu rushed up to the second floor.
As she was going out, Yoshimi came in. Asakawa handed her the card he'd found. "This had fallen under the piano." He spoke casually and waited for a reaction.
Yoshimi took the card and turned it over. "This is strange. What was this doing there?" She cocked her head, puzzled.
"Could Tomoko have borrowed it from a friend, do you suppose?"
"But I've never heard of this person. I don't think she had a friend by that name." Yoshimi looked at Asakawa with exaggerated worry. "Darn it. This looks important. I swear, that girl…" Her voice choked up. Even the slightest thing would set the wheels of grief in motion for her. Asakawa hesitated to ask, but did.
"Did, ah… did Tomoko and her friends by any chance go to this resort during summer vacation?"
Yoshimi shook her head. She trusted her daughter. Tomoko hadn't been the kind of child to lie about staying over at her friends'. Plus, she had been studying for exams. Asakawa could understand how Yoshimi felt. He decided not to ask about Tomoko any further. No high school student with exams looming in front of her was going to tell her parents that she was renting a cottage with her boyfriend. She would have lied and said she was studying at a friend's house. Her parents would never know.
"I'll find the owner and return it."
Yoshimi bowed her head in silence, and then her husband called from the living room and she hurried out of the kitchen. The bereaved father was seated in front of a newly-installed Buddhist altar, speaking to his daughter's photograph. His voice was shockingly cheerful, and Asakawa became depressed. He was obviously living in denial. Asakawa could only pray that he'd be able to get through.
Asakawa had found out one thing. If this Nonoyama had in fact lent Tomoko the membership card, he or she would have contacted Tomoko's parents to ask for the card back upon learning of her death. But Tomoko's mother knew nothing about the card. Nonoyama couldn't have forgotten about the card. Even if it were part of a family membership deal, dues were expensive enough that Nonoyama wouldn't just allow the card to stay lost. So what did this mean? This was how Asakawa figured it: Nonoyama had lent the card to one of the other three, either Iwata, Tsuji, or Nomi. Somehow it passed into Tomoko's possession, and that's how things had ended. Nonoyama would have contacted the parents of the person he or she had lent it to. The parents would have searched their child's belongings. They wouldn't have found the card. The card was here. If Asakawa contacted the families of the other three victims, he might be able to unearth Nonoyama's address. He should call right away, tonight. If he couldn't dig up a clue this way, then it would be unlikely that the card would provide a means for finding when and where the four had been together. At any rate, he wanted to meet Nonoyama and hear what he or she had to say. If he had to, he could always find some way to track down Nonoyama's address based on the membership number. Asking Pacific Resorts directly probably wouldn't get him anywhere, but he was sure that his newspaper connections could come up with something.
Someone was calling him. A distant voice. "Dear… dear…" His wife's flustered voice mingled with the baby's crying.
"Dear, could you come here for a minute?"
Asakawa came to himself again. Suddenly he wasn't even sure what he'd been thinking about all this time. There was something strange about the way his daughter was crying. That feeling became stronger as he mounted the stairs.
"What's wrong?" he asked his wife, accusingly.
"Something's not right with Yoko. I think something's happened to her. The way she's crying-it's different from how it usually sounds. Do you think she's sick?"
Asakawa placed his hand on Yoko's forehead. She didn't have a fever. But her little hands were trembling. The trembling spread to her whole body, and sometimes her back shook. Her face was beet red, her eyes clenched shut.
"How long has she been like this?"
"It's because she woke up and there was no one here with her."
The baby often cried if her mother wasn't there when she woke up. But she always calmed down when her mother ran to her and held her. When a baby cried it was trying to ask for something, but what…? The baby was trying to tell them something. She wasn't just being bratty. Her two tiny hands were clasped tightly over her face… cowering. That was it. The child was wailing out of fear. Yoko turned her face away, and then opened her fists slightly: she seemed to be trying to point forward. Asakawa looked in that direction. There was a pillar. He raised his eyes. Hanging about thirty centimeters from the ceiling was a fist-sized mask, of a hannya-a female demon. Was the child afraid of the mask?
"Hey, look," said Asakawa, pointing with his chin. They looked at the mask simultaneously, then slowly turned their gazes to each other.
"No way… she's frightened of a demon?"
Asakawa got to his feet. He took down the demon mask from where it hung on the beam and laid it face down on top of the dresser. Yoko couldn't see it there. She abruptly stopped crying.
"What's the matter, Yoko? Did that nasty demon scare you?" Shizu seemed relieved now that she understood, and she happily rubbed her cheek against the child's. Asakawa wasn't so easily satisfied; for some reason, he didn't want to be in this room any longer.
"Hey. Let's go home," he urged his wife.
That evening, as soon as he got home from the Oishis', he called the Tsujis, the Nomis, and the Iwatas, in that order. He asked each family whether they hadn't been contacted by one of their child's acquaintances regarding a membership card for a resort club. The last person he spoke to, Iwata's mother, gave him a long, rambling answer: "There was a call, from someone who said he'd gone to the same high school as my son, an older boy, saying he'd lent my son his resort membership card, and could he get it back… But I searched every corner of my son's room and never could find it. I've been worried about it ever since." He quickly asked for Nonoyama's phone number, and immediately called it.
Nonoyama had run into Iwata in Shibuya on the last Sunday in August, and lent him his card, just as Asakawa had suspected. Iwata had told him he was going away with this high school girl he'd been hitting on. Summer vacation's almost over, y 'know. I want to really live it up once before it's over, or else I won't be able to buckle down and study for the exams.
Nonoyama had laughed when he heard this. You idiot, prep school students aren 't supposed to have summer vacations.
The last Sunday in August had been the 26th: if they'd gone anywhere for the night, it would have to have been the 27th, 28th, 29th, or 30th. Asakawa didn't know about the college prep school, but for the high school girls at least, fall semester began on the first of September.
Maybe it was because she was tired from being so long in unfamiliar surroundings: Yoko soon fell asleep right next to her mother. When he put his ear to the bedroom door, he could hear both of them breathing regularly, fast asleep. Nine in the evening… this was Asakawa's time to relax. Until his wife and child were asleep, there was no room in this tiny condo for him to settle down to work.
Asakawa got a beer from the fridge and poured it into a glass. It tasted special tonight. He'd made definite progress, finding that membership card. There was a good chance that sometime between the 27th and the 30th of August, Shuichi Iwata and the other three had stayed at facilities belonging to Pacific Resorts. The most likely place was Villa Log Cabin at Pacific Land in South Hakone. South Hakone was the only Pacific Resorts property close enough to be a viable candidate, and he couldn't imagine a group of poor students going all out and staying at a hotel. They would probably have used the membership to rent one of the cottages on the cheap. They were only five thousand yen a night for members, which came to a little over a thousand apiece.
He had the phone number for Villa Log Cabin at hand. He put his notes on the table. The quickest thing would be to simply call the front desk and ask if a party of four had stayed there under the name Nonoyama. But they'd never tell him over the phone. Naturally, anybody who had risen within the firm to the position of rental cottage manager would have been well trained to consider it his duty to protect guests' privacy. Even if he revealed his position as a reporter for a major newspaper and clearly stated his reasons for inquiring, the manager would never tell him over the phone. Asakawa considered contacting the local bureau and getting them to use a lawyer with whom they had connections to ask for a look at the guest register. The only people a manager was legally bound to show the register to were the police and attorneys. Asakawa could try to pose as one or the other, but he'd probably be spotted immediately, and that would mean trouble for the newspaper. It was safer and more effective to go through channels.
But that would take at least three or four days, and he hated to wait that long. He wanted to know now. His passion for the case was such that he couldn't bear to wait three days. What in the world was going to come of this? If indeed the four of them had stayed the night at Villa Log Cabin at Pacific Land in South Hakone at the end of August, and if indeed that clue allowed him to unravel the riddle of their deaths-well, what could it have been anyway? Virus, virus. He was all too aware that the only reason he was calling it a virus was to keep himself from being overawed by the thought of some mysterious thing being behind it all. It made sense-to a degree-to marshal the power of science in facing down supernatural power. He wasn't going to get anywhere fighting a thing he didn't understand with words he didn't understand. He had to translate the thing he didn't understand into words he did.
Asakawa recalled Yoko's cries. Why was she so frightened when she saw the demon mask this afternoon? On the way home on the train, he'd asked his wife, "Hey, have you been teaching Yoko about demons?"
"You know, with picture books or something like that. Have you been teaching her to be afraid of demons?"
"No way. Why would I?"
The conversation had ended there. Shizu was unconcerned, but Asakawa worried. That kind of fear only existed on a deep, spiritual level. It was different from fearing something because you had been taught to fear it. Ever since he'd come down out of the trees, man had lived in fear of something or other. Thunder, typhoons, wild beasts, volcanic eruptions, the dark… The first time a child experiences thunder and lightning, he or she feels an instinctive fear-that was understandable. To begin with, thunder was real. It really existed. But what about demons? The dictionary would tell you that demons were imaginary monsters, or the spirits of dead people. If Yoko was going to be afraid of the demon because it looked scary, then she should also have been afraid of models of Godzilla-after all, they were made to look fearsome, too. She'd seen one, once, in a department store show window: a cunningly-made Godzilla replica. Far from being frightened, she had stared at it intently, eyes glowing with curiosity. How did you explain that? The only thing he knew for sure was that Godzilla, no matter how you looked at it, was an imaginary monster. So what about demons…? And are demons unique to Japan? No, other cultures have the same type of thing. Devils.. . The second beer wasn't tasting as good as the first one. Is there anything else Yoko's afraid of? That's right, there is. Darkness. She's terribly afraid of the dark. She absolutely never goes into an unlit room alone. "Yo-ko," sun-child. But darkness, too, really existed, as light's opposite pole. Even now, Yoko was asleep in her mother's embrace, in a dark room.
PART TWO - HIGHLANDS
The rain was coming down harder now, and Asakawa turned his wipers on high. The weather at Hakone was liable to change at any moment. The skies had been clear down in Odawara, but the higher he climbed, the moister the air, and as he neared the pass he'd encountered several pockets of wind and rain. If it had been daytime, he would have been able to guess at the weather on the mountains from the appearance of the clouds over Mt Hakone. But it was night, and his attention was fixed on whatever came into the beams of his headlights. It wasn't until he had stopped the car and looked up at the sky that he'd realized the stars had disappeared. When he'd got on the Kodama bullet train at Tokyo Station, the city had still been wrapped in twilight. When he'd rented the car at Atami Station, the moon was still intermittently peeking out from gaps in the clouds. But now the fine water droplets drifting across his headlight beams were growing into a full-fledged downpour, pounding on his windshield.
The digital clock over the speedometer said 7:32. Asakawa quickly calculated how long it had taken him to come this far. He'd taken the 5:16 down from Tokyo, arriving in Atami at 6:07. By the time he'd left the gates and finished the paperwork at the rent-a-car place it had been 6:30. He'd stopped at a market and bought two packs of cup o' noodles and a small bottle of whiskey; it had been seven by the time he'd found his way through the maze of one-way streets and out of town.
A tunnel loomed in front of him, its entrance outlined in brilliant orange light. On the other side, just after he entered the Atami-Kannami Highway, he should start to see signs for South Hakone Pacific Land. The long tunnel would take him through the Tanna Ridge. As he entered it the sound of the wind changed. At the same time, his flesh, the passenger seat, and everything else in the car was bathed in orange light. He could feel his calm slipping away, he could feel his hackles rise. There were no cars coming from the opposite direction. The wipers squeaked as they rubbed against the now-dry windshield. He turned them off. He should reach his destination by eight. He didn't feel quite like flooring it, although the road was empty. Subconsciously, Asakawa was dreading the place he was heading to.
At 4:20 this afternoon, Asakawa had watched as a fax had crawled out of the machine at the office. It was a reply from the Atami bureau, and he had expected it to contain a copy of the Villa Log Cabin's guest register for August 27th through the 30th. When he saw it he did a little dance. His hunch was right. There were four names he recognized: Nonoyama, Tomoko Oishi, Haruko Tsuji, and Takehiko Nomi. The four of them had spent the night of the 29th in cabin B-4. Obviously, Shuichi Iwata had used Nonoyama's name. With this he knew when and where the four had been together: on Wednesday, August 29th, at South Hakone Pacific Land, Villa Log Cabin, No. B-4. It was exactly a week prior to their mysterious deaths.
There and then he'd picked up the receiver and dialled the number for Villa Log Cabin to make a reservation for tonight for cabin B-4. All he had tomorrow was a staff meeting at eleven. He could spend the night down in Hakone and easily be back in time.
… Well that's it. I'm going. The actual place.
He was eager. Never in his wildest dreams could he imagine what awaited him there.
There was a tollbooth just as he came out of the tunnel, and as he handed over three hundred-yen coins he asked the attendant, "Is South Hakone Pacific Land up ahead?"
He knew full well it was. He'd checked his map any number of times. He just felt like it had been a long time since he'd seen another human being, and something within him wanted to talk. "There's a sign just up ahead. Make a left there." He took his receipt. With so little traffic, it hardly seemed worth having someone stationed here. How long was this guy planning to stand there in his booth? Asakawa made no move to drive off, and the man began to give him a suspicious look. Asakawa forced a smile and pulled away slowly.
The joy he'd felt a few hours ago at establishing a common time and place for the four victims had withered and died. Their faces flickered behind his eyelids. They'd died exactly one week after staying in Villa Log Cabin. Now's the time to turn back, they seemed to be telling him, leering. But he couldn't turn back now. First of all, his instincts as a reporter had kicked into gear. On the other hand, there was no denying that he was scared to be going alone. If he'd called Yoshino, chances were he would have come running, but he didn't think having a colleague along was such a good idea. Asakawa had already written up his progress so far and saved it on a floppy disk. What he wanted was someone who wouldn't run around getting in his way, but simply help him pursue this… It wasn't like he didn't have someone in mind. He did know one man who would tag along out of pure curiosity. He was a part-time lecturer at a university, so he had plenty of free time. He was just the guy. But he was… idiosyncratic. Asakawa wasn't sure how long he could take his personality.
There, on the mountainside, was the sign for South Hakone Pacific Land. There was no neon, just a white panel with black lettering. If he'd happened to be looking away when his headlights hit it, he would have missed it completely. Asakawa turned off the highway and began climbing a mountain road between terraced fields. The road seemed awfully narrow for the entrance to a resort, and he had lonely visions of it dead-ending in the middle of nowhere. He had to shift down to negotiate the road's steep, dark curves. He hoped he didn't encounter anybody coming from the opposite direction: there was no room for two cars to pass.
The rain had let up at some point, although Asakawa had just noticed it. The weather patterns seemed different east and west of the Tanna Ridge.
At any rate, the road didn't dead-end, but kept climbing higher and higher. After a while he started to see summer homes scattered here and there on the sides of the road. And the road suddenly widened to two lanes, the surface improved drastically, and elegant streetlights graced the shoulders. Asakawa was amazed at the change. The minute he entered the grounds of Pacific Land he was confronted with lavish accoutrements. So what was with the garden path that led here? The corn and weeds hanging over the road had narrowed it even further, heightening his nervousness over what lay around the next hairpin curve.
The three-story building on the other side of the spacious parking lot doubled as an information centre and a restaurant. Without thinking twice, Asakawa parked in front of the lobby and walked toward the hall. He looked at his watch: eight on the nose. Right on schedule. From somewhere he heard the sound of balls bouncing. There were four tennis courts below the centre, with several couples giving it their all under the yellowish lights. Surprisingly, all four courts were occupied. Asakawa couldn't fathom what made people come all the way up here at eight on a Thursday night in the middle of October, just to play tennis. Far below the tennis courts he could see the distant lights of the cities of Mishima and Numazu, glittering in the darkness. The emptiness beyond, black as tar, was Tago Bay.
As he entered the information centre, the restaurant was directly in front of him. Its outer wall was glass, so he could see inside. Here Asakawa got another surprise. The restaurant closed at eight, but it was still half full of families and young women in groups. What was going on here? He cocked his head in puzzlement. Where had everybody come from? He couldn't believe all these people came here on the same road that had brought him here. Maybe what he had used was the back entrance. There must be a brighter, wider road somewhere else. But that was how the girl he'd spoken to on the phone had told him to get here.
Go about halfway down the Atami-Kannami road and turn left. Drive up the mountain from there. Asakawa had done just that. It was inconceivable that there was another way out of here.
Nodding as he was told that it was past time for last orders, he went into the restaurant. Below its wide windows, a carefully groomed lawn sloped gently through the night toward the cities. The inside lights were kept intentionally low, probably to better allow customers to enjoy the view of the distant lights. Asakawa stopped a passing waiter and asked where he could find Villa Log Cabin. The waiter pointed back toward the entry hall Asakawa had just come through.
"Follow that road to the right about two hundred meters. You'll see the office."
"Is there a parking lot?"
"You can park in front of the office."
That was all there was to it. If he had just kept going instead of stopping in here, he would have found it on his own. Asakawa could more or less analyze why he'd been drawn to this modern building, to the point of barging into the restaurant. He found it somehow comforting. All the way here he had been imagining dark, utterly primitive log cabins-the perfect backdrop for a Friday the 13th scenario-and there was nothing of that in this building. Faced with this proof that the power of modern science functioned here, too, he felt somewhat reassured, strengthened. The only things that bothered him were the bad road that led here from the world below, and the fact that in spite of it there were so many people playing tennis and enjoying their dinner here in the world above. He wasn't sure exactly why this bothered him. It was just that, somehow, nobody here seemed quite… lifelike.
Since the tennis courts and restaurant were crowded, he should have been able to hear the cheerful voices of people from the log cabins. That's what he expected. But standing at the edge of the parking lot, looking down over the valley, he could discern only about six of the ten cabins built among the trees scattered over the gentle slope. Everything below was immersed in the darkness of the forest, beyond the pale of the street lamps, unrelieved by any light coming from inside the cabins. B-4, where Asakawa would be spending the night, seemed to stand on the border between the darkness and the lighted area-all he could see was the top of the door.
Asakawa walked up to the office, opened the door, and stepped inside. He could hear a television, but there was no sign of anyone. The manager was in a Japanese-style room in the back, off to the left, and hadn't noticed Asakawa. Asakawa's view was blocked by the counter and he couldn't see into the room. The manager seemed to be watching an American movie on video, not a TV program. He could hear English dialogue as he watched the flickering light from the screen reflected in the glass of a cabinet out front. The built-in cabinet was full of videotapes, neatly lined up in their cases. Asakawa placed his hands on the counter and spoke up. Immediately, a small man in his sixties stuck his head out and bowed, saying, "Oh, welcome." He must be the same man who had so cheerfully showed the guest register to the guy from the Atami bureau and the lawyer, thought Asakawa, smiling back at him pleasantly.
"I have a reservation, name of Asakawa."
The man opened his notebook and confirmed the reservation. "You're in B-4. Can I get you to write your name and address here?"
Asakawa wrote his real name. He'd just sent Nonoyama's membership card back to him, so he couldn't use it.
"Just you, then?" The manager looked up at Asakawa, suspiciously. He'd never had anybody stay here alone. At nonmember rates, it was more economical for one person to stay at the hotel. The manager handed over a set of sheets and turned to the cabinet.
"If you'd like you're free to borrow one. We have most of the popular titles."
"Oh, you rent videos?" Asakawa ran his gaze casually over the titles of the videos covering the wall. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Friday the 13th. All popular American films, mostly science fiction. A lot of new releases, too. Probably the cabins were mostly used by groups of young people. There was nothing that grabbed him. Besides, Asakawa had ostensibly come here to work.
"I'm afraid I've brought work with me." Asakawa picked up his portable word processor from where he'd placed it on the floor and showed the manager. Seeing it, the manager seemed to understand why he was staying here alone.
"So, there are dishes and everything?" Asakawa said, just to make sure.
"Yes. Use anything you like."
The only thing Asakawa needed to use, though, was a kettle to boil water for his cup o' noodles. He took the sheets and his room key from the manager, who told him how to find B-4 and then said, with odd formality, "Please, make yourself at home."
Before touching the knob Asakawa put on his rubber gloves. He'd brought them to give him peace of mind, as a charm to ward off the unknown virus.
He opened the door and flipped on the light switch in the entry hall. A hundred-watt bulb lit a spacious living room. Papered walls, carpet, four person sofa, television, dinette set: everything was new, everything was functionally arranged. Asakawa took off his shoes and went in. There was a balcony on one edge of the living room and small Japanese-style rooms on the ground and first floors. It was a little luxurious for a single guest, after all. He drew the lace curtains and opened the sliding glass door to allow the night air in. The room was perfectly clean, as if to betray his expectations. It suddenly occurred to him that he might go home clueless.
He went into the Japanese-style room off the living room and checked the closet. Nothing. He took off his shirt and slacks and changed into a sweatshirt and sweatpants, hanging his street clothes in the closet. Next he went upstairs and turned on the light in the Japanese-style room. I'm acting like a child, he thought wryly. Before he'd realized it he'd turned on every single light in the place.
With everything sufficiently illuminated, he now opened the bathroom door, gently. He checked inside first, and left the door slightly ajar while he was inside. It reminded him of his fear rituals as a child, when he was too scared to go to the bathroom alone on summer nights. He used to leave the door open a crack and have his dad stand watch outside. A neat shower room stood behind a pane of frosted glass. There wasn't even a hint of steam, and the area outside the tub and the tub itself were both dry as a bone. It must have been some time since anybody had stayed here. He went to take off his rubber gloves; they stuck to his sweaty hands. The cool highlands breeze blew into the room, disturbing the curtains.
Asakawa filled a glass with ice from the freezer and poured it half full of the whiskey he had bought. He was about to top it off with tap water, but then hesitated. Turning off the tap he persuaded himself that he'd really rather have it straight, on the rocks. He didn't have the courage to put anything from this room into his mouth. He'd been careless enough to use ice cubes from the freezer, but he was under the impression that micro-organisms didn't like extreme heat or cold.
He sank back deep into the sofa and turned on the TV. Singing filled the room: some new pop idol. A Tokyo station was showing the same program right about now. He changed channels. He didn't really intend to watch anything, though, so he adjusted the volume to a suitable level and then opened his bag. He took out a video camera and placed it on the table. If anything strange happened, he wanted to catch it all on tape. He sipped a mouthful of whiskey. It was only a little, but it strengthened up his courage. Asakawa went over in his head again everything he knew. If he couldn't find a clue here tonight then the article he was trying to write would be dead in the water. But on the other hand, maybe it was better that way. If not finding a clue meant not picking up the virus, well… after all, he had a wife and child to think about. He didn't want to die, not in some weird way. He propped his feet up on the table.
So, what are you waiting for? he asked himself. Aren't you afraid? Hey-shouldn't you be afraid? The angel of death might be coming to get you.
His gaze darted around the room nervously. Asakawa couldn't fix his eyes on any one point on the wall. He had the feeling that if he did so, his fears would begin to take physical form while he watched.
A chill wind blew in from outside, stronger than before. He closed the window and as he went to draw the curtains he happened to glance at the darkness outside. The roof of B-5 was directly in front of him, and in its shadow the darkness was even deeper. There had been lots of people on the tennis courts and in the restaurant. But here Asakawa was alone. He shut the curtains and looked at his watch. 8:56. He hadn't even been in this room for thirty minutes. It easily could have been an hour or more, he felt. But just being here wasn't dangerous in and of itself. He tried to believe that, to calm himself down. After all, how many people must have stayed in B-4 in the six months since these cabins were built? It wasn't like all of them had died under mysterious circumstances. Only those four, according to his research. Maybe if he dug deeper he'd find more, but at the moment that appeared to be all. Thus, simply being here wasn't the problem. The problem was what they'd done here.
So, what did they do here?
Asakawa then subtly rephrased the question. What could they have done here?
He'd found nothing resembling a clue-not in the bathroom, not in the bath, not in the closet, not in the fridge. Even assuming there had been something, the manager would have disposed of it when he cleaned the place. Which meant that, instead of sitting here drinking whiskey, he should be talking to the manager. That would be quicker.