(A sneak peek at The Thief’s Mistake, a Shig Sato Mystery)
Motionless, unsure of anything, remembering nothing, no matter how hard he focused, Nara slowly felt his hands and face for blood, but the damp, slightly stinging sensation must had come from lying down in the alley’s gritty pavement. He felt pebbles in his ribs and breathed dirt and dust into his nose as he regained a sense of time and place. Then came a vague awareness of the darkness, stillness, and the ambient light, then blinked.
He lifted his head once his eyes adjusted to the dark, and breathed deeply, exhaled, calmed himself, and read the darkness for the cover he needed for his return home. The few minutes he had spent on the ground seemed like hours. He looked up into the sky. Ambient light, strange shadows. He was sure it was still the middle of the night.
He breathed a little easier.
But his mind raced beyond itself. After prison, after the promise from Oshiro, after taking so much care – he had nothing.
He would not allow himself to think about that now.
“I have to get back to the flat,” he told himself. “Unseen. Undetected.”
He had to escape,
He had to think.
Nara breathed deeply and exhaled again, wrestled the rage inside him, cursed himself for being so weak, for giving into rage, and suppressed the rage renewing inside him, the fury that made him kill a man.
He had had to get back to the flat.
He had to think.
Nara knew he had been a fool to believe anything like a plan so simple as open a door, open a drawer. Greed, desperation, everything he hated in weak, selfish people – now he was as bad as the vermin he despised.
“Easy job. Easy money,” he whispered as he raised himself, and clung to the dirty wall beside him.
Nara had been raised knowing that only after hard work came the reward. He had worked all his life, on the farms in the unforgiving Hokkaido countryside. He grew his own food. Hunted his own game. And he took the bounty for hunting deer that grazed through sugar beets, wheat, rice, potatoes, destroying valuable crops. He loved stalking them. Killing them. Dressing them. Consuming them.
It was what he knew.
“At least you’re good at something,” his uncle said when Nara was the only member of the hunting party to have something to show for the day’s work.
But at another time his uncle said, “You’re not good for much.” It was the night he packed Nara off to Tokyo, away from the drunken brawl that left a man dead and Nara holding the knife. The uncle knew Nara had a temper, possessed some demon deep inside him that sprang from nowhere, frightening and unexpected. Nara knew his uncle was right. He had to flee Hokkaido. He left his woman, he left his daughter, for the city. And a for a different set of problems altogether – unemployment, interspersed with periods of backbreaking labor; poverty, since he sent every spare yen to his woman and child in Hokkaido. Desperation drove him to thievery. Desperation got him a cell in Fuchu Prison.
And it was that deep, antagonizing desperation he now fought in that alley, his sense of rage and fear and dread coming alive. “Don’t give in. Don’t give up,” he whispered, as if to make the mantra seem as real as possible.
He knew he had to find his way back to his flat. He knew his peace of mind would come back to him if he could only get there.
Nara was sure he must have made some kind of racket running out of the copier repair shop. He had no recollection of bolting out the back door, running down the alley in the darkness. So he waited, tense and taught, and listened – for the shouting, the police, anticipating the violence he would inflict on anyone trying to interfere with his escape.
But there was no shouting, no police.
There was nothing but silence. So he thought through every skill of evasion he knew, and slithered out of that alley without being detected.
The still, sticky evening air suffocated him, and he boiled in the black he wore to protect him from the night.
But he controlled his breathing, his rage subsided, his vision returned, and Nara slowly crawled along the alley and peeked past the chalky building’s edge onto the street that offered his escape.
He saw no danger.
His small, cheap room was five blocks away, eight if he took the side streets with dim lights. He chose the darkness. He had to gain control of himself. He had to think. He had to make it to the flat and get out of the miserable clothes and wash his face and think.
Nara decided there would be time enough to think about that rat once he made it back safely, to his flat, to his futon to rest his head, to the ice in his cooler, ice to bathe his face, ice to cool his rage.
It was a small room with only the simplest of amenities. But it was better than prison, and Nara finally breathed easy when he unlocked his door, slipped inside, shed his far-too-warm clothes, ran cold water on a cloth, and wiped away his sweat and grim. His rage was simmering, but at a low temperature. He subdued it to focus on getting home undetected
He was tempted to unleash it, now that he was safely home, but he knew that was the way of the amateur. Finally cool and clean and resting on the floor, now was the time to think.
“Oshiro,” he told himself. “Oshiro. Liar. He lied about the package. He probably lied about the money, too.
Nara pulled the tab off a can of cold beer, savored the brew’s liquid rush over his tongue, down his throat, and slurped it in one long swallow.
Then Nara’s mind shifted.
“Was it to get rid of the stupid guy in the office?” he wondered as he grabbed another beer. “Make me the fall guy for something?”
Nara’s mind vainly raced to possible conclusions. He sat, he drank, he thought, he searched his mind for possibilities.
“I have to play it smart. He thinks he can fool me. I’ll show him. Cheat me out of my money.”
In his mind, fighting to keep his rage in check, Nara calmly replayed everything he knew about Oshiro, from the time he first heard about him in Fuchu prison, to the time he met him, walked with him to the taxi, sat next to the man, and stared at the van Oshiro pointed at.
The van, with the teddy bear in a diaper.
And the taxi. Green like the pines of Hokkaido.
That’s when he knew.
He’d find the van. He’d find the taxis.
Then he’d find Oshiro.
And then he wouldn’t have to wait so long for his money.
Nara drank two more beers and finally gave into sleep he needed, sleep that led him to dream of Hokkaido, and escaping Tokyo. It was sleep resembling fitful unconsciousness. But the few hours helped him rest some, and he dreamt about his mission: find Oshiro.
He awoke with purpose. Splashing water on his face and dressing in his mechanic’s overalls, ball cap and tattered sneakers, he strolled into the midmorning August heat with a plan: go to Gotanda station, where he met Oshiro, and walk around the station, keeping an eye open for a light blue van or a deep green taxi. Walk, observe, walk, observe. Find the van, find the taxi, pick up the trail.
Nara was not a thinker, but he was a hunter. He knew how to track. He knew how to follow game. He knew how to read his prey. He wasn’t sure what he would do once he spotted either vehicle, but it didn’t matter. He trusted himself to know what to do when the time came.
With practiced nonchalance, Nara strolled out into the morning, pulled the bill of his cap low to his eyes as they adjusted to the morning light, and looked for a vending machine for something cool to drink. He chose not to be in a hurry. He would walk, think, keep an eye out for the van, then decide what to do. Tall buildings, narrow streets that led to a wide main thoroughfare – nothing about Gotanda was familiar, but for Nara, that could be said about any part of the city. He hated the city, and coped by thinking of it as a forest. He walked the walk of a hunter.
He found a vending machine dispensing soft drinks. Parting with one of his precious 100 yen coins, he slurped the orangey liquid with far more greed than he imagined. The explosion of liquid in his belly only made him hungry. Several yards away was a shop selling fragrant rice balls. He had enough change for one triangular onigiri.
More money spent. Nara chose not to dwell on it. He moved on.
A newspaper caught his attention. “Murder in the night” and the story of a man killed while sleeping in the back room of a business. He saw the story in one newspaper. Then another. Then another, all lined up, to be snatched by the curious.
“That’s me,” Nara silently whispered. But he did not stop. He had to focus on the van. And Oshiro.
He was on the trail of his prey.
Goro Oshiro had no trouble putting the caper out of his mind once he gave Nara his instructions. He was sure Nara was the type of man who would do as he was told for a chance to earn two million yen and disappear. It was the perfect plan, and it would work. Oshiro had no trouble falling asleep night of the robbery.
He was deep in slumber when his wife shook him.
“Goro, someone’s at the front door!”
He dreamt that he heard her.
Then she pinched his arm.
He was up, on his feet, and sleepily answering the door.
A fresh-faced police officer asked if he was Goro Oshiro.
“Yes,” he said, instantly thinking one of the taxis was in a collision.
Then the officer asked if he owned a copier repair shop. The older, weary police officer standing behind the younger one fixed a gaze on Oshiro.
Oshiro was no longer sleepy.
An apprehensive “Yes” led to a request for a visit to Osaki Police Station. Something had happened.
Oshiro excused himself to dress.
Shushing his wife, telling her it was nothing, just a problem with a taxi that he had to look into personally, promising to be home by breakfast, Oshiro dressed quietly and quickly, in a simple gray suit, loafers buffed to high gloss, his crimson and gray tie perfectly knotted, a cool stiff mesh fedora rested lightly on his head.
He was out the door and walking with the police officers to their patrol car, and making every attempt to remain calm and think clearly as he rode in the predawn darkness to the station. He corralled his thoughts while blinking at the black moonless vision outside the car window.
“Nara was supposed to take the package,” he thought. “The job should have been as simple as one, two, three.” If there was a problem at the copier repair shop, then maybe Nara had done something foolish and got caught. If that was true, then the scheme was ruined before it ever started. It did Oshiro no good to have the package in police custody as evidence. He needed the package.
He had to find out what happened, but not seem too eager. He could not tip his hand that he knew anything about a robbery. Everything depended on staying calm, listening to what the police had to say, pretend to be shocked, or thoughtful, or whatever was appropriate, then decide what to do.
He had to.
It was the only way.
“Damn Nara,” he whispered
Within fifteen minutes Oshiro was at Osaki Police Station. Summoning all of his resolve, he began his performance as the innocent business owner. He would know nothing, say nothing, do nothing, until he knew what the police knew.
The officer with a boyish face who called himself Shimizu delivered him to a detective named Watanabe. He told Oshiro he was the lead detective on the case. Oshiro saw a lean, grizzled man with an unruly thatch of salt-and-pepper hair and a permanent scowl. Watanabe was given to bouts of stomach ailments, thanks to an ulcer and a teenage daughter, and was often an ashen color. From what Oshiro could see, this Watanabe person was a sick man. But it was Oshiro who sat, perspiring, his nerves and the still room air getting the better of him. He was not a good actor. In a voice bordering on boredom, Watanabe asked, “You the owner of a copier repair shop east of the train station just off Sakura-dori?”
“You know a man there, Akihara?”
Oshiro gave a cautious, “Yes.”
“He’s the manager,” Oshiro said, desperate to know what the idiot did to cause such trouble. “I own it, he operates it.”
“Can you describe him?”
Oshiro saw the detective did not bother with notes. He said, “Average height, average size, a little bald. Why? What’s he done?”
The color drained from Oshiro’s face. He clasped his hands to hide the shaking, but Watanabe saw the surprise in Oshiro’s eyes. He watched Oshiro sweat. He knew it was more than the heat.
“Dead. Throat slit.”
Oshiro crumbled into his chair. “How –”
“You know any reason why he’d get his throat slit?”
“No, I have no idea –”
“Any reason why he would be there in the middle of the night?”
Watanabe heard Oshiro stammer, “I-I-I-I don’t know … I have no idea …” and decided the man seemed convincing. Watanabe said, “He was there in his office. Looked like he lived there.”
“What? He’s married! Has a daughter!”
Watanabe pressed his hand to his stomach, grimaced, but he kept his attention on Oshiro. “This Akihara person was there, in some room, and was killed.”
“That’s terrible … .” Oshiro had mechanically mouthed the words, but his true, unspoken thoughts were “What the hell what Akihara thinking? Where is Nara? What is happening? Where is the package?”
Watanabe stood and paced back and forth hoping it would quell his stomach.
“Did you go there tonight?”
Watanabe heard the word come out too quickly.
“Have any plans to go there?”
Watanabe heard a different tone in the man’s voice.
“Know anyone who was supposed to go over there?”
Watanabe stopped pacing and faced Oshiro. “Do you keep anything valuable at the shop?”
“Oh, no,” Oshiro said automatically, sweating, reaching for his pocket handkerchief, dabbing his forehead. “That would be foolish. No security. What a thought…”
And with those words, Oshiro realized his chance to ask about filing a report about the package slipped through his fingers, and without realizing that it could be possible, he sunk into a deeper misery.
It had been so simple.
Oshiro swallowed the panic swelling deep inside him, and tucking the handkerchief back into its pocket, he asked, “Is it all right if I go over there? Take a look around? Is that too much trouble?”
“Sure,” Watanabe said, somewhat satisfied that the man seemed surprised and wanted to see for himself what was going on. “It’s a crime scene, but since you’re the owner, you can go.”
The fresh-faced officer drove Watanabe and Oshiro to the copier shop. Watanabe pretended to be fascinated by something outside the car window, then jerked his head and stared at Oshiro. “We have two men in custody.”
“Two?” Oshiro said, quickly adding, “No, I didn’t know that,” in a tone he hoped covered his surprise.
“Two young guys. Not very bright.”
Watanabe said nothing more. When Shimizu pulled up to the front of the shop, officers saw Watanabe and made way for the detective and the man in the suit. Shimizu followed.
The front entrance to the shop was hardly big enough for two men to walk through, but at the end of a short hallway, a door led to the actual repair room. Oshiro spied the top of the wooden cabinet by the back door, but Watanabe led him to Akihara’s office, raising a hand in a “please let us by” gesture the crime scene team was obliged to honor. “Shop owner,” Watanabe said to the crime scene leader, who nodded, then returned his attention elsewhere.
One look and Oshiro blanched. “There’s so much blood …”
“It doesn’t look good,” Watanabe said.
Oshiro stepped back, then tried not to seem too obvious about wanting to inspect the filing cabinet, drawing attention to himself. He asked, “Mind if I take a look around?”
“It would be a help,” Watanabe said.
Oshiro slowly worked his way around the room. He had been in it just twice before – once, several years before, to place an antique urn on a shelf for safekeeping far from the shop’s myriad copier machine parts scattered on most of the shelves, and then, two Sundays before, to place the wooden box in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. Oshiro knew nothing of the equipment and parts he pretended to expertly look over, but slowly make his way around the room to the cabinet.
As he turned the corner, stepping away from the metal shelving and into the aisle to the back door and the cabinet, Oshiro saw the bottom drawer was open and empty. His knees buckled. Bracing himself with one hand against the wall, he forced his heart down out of his throat as he dabbed his face with his handkerchief once more.
Watanabe did not see Oshiro’s reaction at seeing the file cabinet. He was clutching his stomach and grimacing. But Shimizu saw Oshiro’s face go pale, and remembered the two young guys that were arrested had said something about a package in that drawer, how there was supposed to be something in it, but when they got there, it was gone.
When Oshiro regained a sense of himself he finally said, “Is there anything more you need from me here?”
Watanabe shook his head, and asked, “You ready to go?” He heard Oshiro’s faint “in a moment.”
Shimizu thought the business owner seemed almost to be in some sort of shock as he drove him from his home near Koyamadai to the police station, and then from the station to the scene of the crime. He watched the man dab his face with his handkerchief and heard him swallow noisily. As Oshiro climbed out of the patrol car at the crime scene, Shimizu believed he caught the man murmuring something, his lips moving, the word ‘package’ so faint, so imperceptible beneath the noise of the car, the streets, the city, Shimizu was not sure he heard anything.
What he did not ignore was the look on Oshiro’s face when he saw the bloody manager’s office, and then walked around the shop, then saw the filing cabinet.
It seemed to the young officer that Oshiro was behaving like a man sleepwalking, or walking through a dream. Each step seemed tentative, each gesture disconnected. Shock? Dismay? Dread? Shimizu could not decide.
Oshiro gathered what little fortitude was left inside him, purposefully walked to the workers, acknowledged their bows, and in his calmest, most paternal voice, expressed his regret at the situation the workers found themselves in, his unhappiness at Akihara’s terrible turn of fortune, his shock at such a heinous crime, and his faith the staff’s resolve to carry on, once the police completed their thankless tasks. The staff solemnly nodded as they stared at the ground. Some glanced at Akihara’s office in silent remembrance. Some anxiously watched the police. The senior copier repairman stepped out of the crowed, bowed, thanked Oshiro for everything he had said, and promised that he and the staff would renew their resolve, to do their work as best they could, to honor Akihara’s memory.
The staff watched Oshiro nod, then quickly rejoin the police. They took his abrupt departure as a sign of respect to Akihara, that he was going to carry on, and were satisfied that they were witnessing their employer’s stoic resolve.
Shimizu watched Oshiro ask Watanabe to wait, then walk to some men standing off to the side. It seemed to Shimizu that the men were surprised, but they took off their hats and bowed respectfully. Shimizu watched Oshiro nod to one man, who seemed to be the foreman. He could not hear what was said.
Shimizu watched the performance and decided that Oshiro did not feel comfortable in the copier repair shop, had no real rapport with the staff, and wanted to make his exit as fast as possible. So why did he react so strangely when he saw the filing cabinet?
“Will there be anything else?” Oshiro asked.
“I think we have what we need for now,” Watanabe said. “Shimizu can drive you home.”
“If it’s all right, I’ll have one of my taxis pick me up,” Oshiro said. It was well past dawn. Oshiro did not want his neighbors to see him in a police car. He produced a business card for Watanabe, eager to make his exit. Watanabe took the card and nodded. He already knew he would be speaking to the man at least once more. Oshiro’s hasty goodbye did not surprise him. He believed something was not quite right about the man. It was nothing he could name, but experience told him his misgiving might become a bothersome itch that would eventually need to be scratched.
Oshiro saw Watanabe glance at the card, then heard him say, “I will need to talk to you again later in the day, I’m sure. Is this where I can reach you?”
“Oh, yes, anytime,” Oshiro said, almost absentmindedly.
Shimizu thought about what he had just seen – a man surprised by something, and nervous about something, but what? Clearly, the man tried to seem cool and competent, but he was upset about something, and not just that an employee was murdered. Shimizu was willing to bet it had nothing to do with the man who was killed there. There was something else.
But he kept his opinion to himself.
Oshiro, his chubby cheeks sagging, his massive forehead a sea of sweat, cursed himself the entire ride home. “‘Do you keep any valuables here?’ he asked. And I botched it. I should have said yes, there’s a package missing. Yes, it contains valuables. Yes, I know it seems odd to keep it here, but it seemed safe. No one breaks into copier shops. Or so I thought! I should have said something! Oh, why didn’t I say something?”
But the murder, the blood, the strange man asking questions – Oshiro seethed, hating himself for losing his head. He was always bad with police. It took every bit of willpower not to lose his temper, pound his fists on the back of the car seat in front of him, kick and scream and curse for missing his chance to carry out the most important part of the plan. He was supposed to report the package missing. He needed to have the police report. The police report and the fraudulent insurance papers meant a payday of more than almost a million dollars.
The plan had been so simple, and now he had a murder on his hands.
Oh, it was murder. And he knew who did it.
That worried him the most. Akihara. Oshiro tried to feel sorry for the man. But being where he wasn’t supposed to caused such problems: no way to ask him where the hell the gems were, if he did know, the idiot. And now that widow of his – Oshiro would have to do the decent thing and look after her in some way: wake, funeral, cash, expenses of all sorts.
No way to file a police report.
Oshiro swallowed the vomit rising inside him as the warm August sun bathed Gotanda in summer morning light. Oshiro swallowed hard as he watched the passing scenery from the back of one of his taxis, changing from clusters of businesses and apartments to simple homes to more fashionable neighborhoods, then he recognized the smartly trimmed shrubbery of his private enclave.
He prayed for some brilliant idea to come to his worried mind, something he could seize onto, something that would avert any more disasters.
“Should I meet Nara as planned?” he wondered. “I have to give up a lot of money to hush him up. That’ makes me an accessory. What if he goes after me? Or my family?
“Nara probably killed Akihara for some reason.”
Oshiro noticed his taxi was drawing nearer to the right turn that became the narrow lane to his home. Without realizing it, his body shifted from shock to something like anxiety: what to tell his wife – what would he do with himself all day? How would he carry on? And the police were bound to start asking real questions. He had a chance to come up with an airtight plan to keep Nara, the plan, everything away from him and his family.
But the package – Oshiro cursed losing his senses when he heard about Akihara. He could have easily said something was stolen right then, and he would have been believed.
Oshiro wiped his brow. He lowered his window to its very bottom, gasping for air, furtively glancing about, hoping no one was noticing.
The shop. The package. Nara.
“And what if that little maniac turns on me?” his mind suddenly screamed. The threat to himself, to his family – it made him nauseous.
He was dealing with a man crazy enough to slit an innocent man’s throat.
Oshiro knew he had to keep Nara away from him, his businesses, his family.
For that he would need help.