Eden’s End: The Empty Cell
by J. H. Zech
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The teleconnector rang, its chime reverberating through the wood of the desk, rousing Shanatto. She jerked upright, and her long black hair flopped over her narrow, pale face. “I wasn’t sleeping!”
Silence. That was right. The Chief was out of the office. No one had caught her. Shanatto put on her frameless glasses and hit the green icon on the screen of the teleconnector’s tablet. “Hello. Touchu Metropolitan Police Chief’s Office. This is Shanatto Kawakami speaking.”
The screen of the conference device was black save for the phone icon. No video? That was unusual.
“Is Iwashita there?” a man’s voice asked.
“No, the Chief is currently out of the office. Can I take a message for you?”
“I can’t talk about it unless it’s with him directly. Please tell him that Soichiro Watanabe called.” The man hung up.
Shanatto couldn’t make heads or tails of the call. It seemed the Chief would recognize this man’s name and be inclined to call back simply at its mention. If the two were that close, though, surely Mr. Watanabe would have the Chief’s neurochip number. Why had he not called the Chief directly?
She would have to inform the Chief of Mr. Watanabe’s call when he returned. Shanatto straightened out her suit’s skirt and leaned back in her chair. She was wide awake now, and the Chief could return at any moment. Falling asleep again wasn’t an option.
Shanatto focused her mind, and the neurochip implant brought up her personal display. She had to double-check the documents on the hate crime murder case due next week.
An immigrant woman had been bludgeoned to death. The third hate crime in the city this year, and 2081 wasn’t even half over. Solradia’s deal with the World Federation to accept more immigrants hadn’t gone over well with its citizens. As expected, the evidence logs lacked detail and thoroughness of investigation. No one in the department wanted to make more work for themselves over immigrants.
She closed the files. If the police didn’t do their jobs, there was nothing she could do, either, at least as Shannato. She focused her gaze on the wall’s TV display. It registered her intent and turned on. The news channel appeared on the screen.
The Chief’s TV was always on this channel. He really liked the news or at least had nothing better to watch. She wondered if he was a masochist, as no one else who worked in the police department could stand watching the news after experiencing the news on the clock.
A middle-aged man in a slick grey suit said, “The previous mayor of Touchu committed suicide last night. He left behind a detailed suicide note confessing his corruption and named others involved. This is the fourth suicide with a confession in the past three months.”
Good riddance. Shanatto changed the channel to a celebrity game show and tuned out her brain. She had joined the police department in the expectation of exciting passion in the pursuit of justice. Instead, she would spend her days hoping for a break from the dullness of police politics.
A few hours later, the Chief barged into the office like a storm. He was broad-shouldered and much more energetic than a man in his forties ought to be. He hung his trench coat and hat on the rack, and his bushy hair with streaks of grey flopped out. “I’m back. Did anything happen while I was gone?”
“You’re late. Someone named Soichiro Watanabe called asking to talk to you directly,” Shanatto answered.
“Watanabe? I haven’t seen him since college. What did he want?”
“I’m not sure. He wouldn’t tell me any details.”
The Chief furrowed his brow and deepened his wrinkles. “I hope he hasn’t gotten himself into trouble.” He tapped on the display and brought up the call log. The teleconnector rang Mr. Watanabe, the chime playing as it showed a blue phone icon.
After the tone played out for about half a minute, the display read in a robotic voice, “The number you are trying to reach is not available or is no longer in service.” The Chief scratched his head. “I thought perhaps it was urgent, but he’s not picking up.”
Someone knocked on the door.
“Come in,” the Chief said.
An officer in blue uniform stepped in. “Sir, a suicide has just been reported.”
“Let’s go,” the Chief said. “There’s no time to waste.”
“Eh? What about the report for the convenience store robbery today?” Shanatto asked. “I’ve been waiting for you to return so I could make it.”
“Hop in the car. I’ll tell you the details along the way. We don’t have time,” the Chief said.
Shanatto suppressed a smile. Maybe it was just nerves from the strange call earlier today, but she had a bad feeling about this murder, not that she had a good feeling about any murder. That bad feeling made finding the truth herself all the more exciting.
The officers in the police station moved out, and Shanatto and the Chief hopped into one of the cars. Shanatto brought up her neurochip’s digital overlay and typed up the report as the Chief described today’s robbery. It was easy work summarizing the key points and evidence. Easy enough for an AI to do but, of course, the government wouldn’t allow something so sensitive to be done by an AI. Shanatto had a job with a pension as a result, and she was grateful for that.
They arrived at the apartment complex where the suicide had been reported. It was a typical two-story block with a balcony on the upper floor with all the doors to each apartment lined up. Two officers followed by the forensics team in white uniform made their way into the apartment on the second floor. The Chief stepped out of the car. Solradia was a peaceful enough nation that many officers would investigate a single homicide, but it was unusual for the Chief to involve himself unless someone important had died.
“What should I do?” Shanatto asked, poking her head out of the back seat.
“Document the investigation and start filling out the chain of custody evidence forms,” the Chief said.
“Yes, sir.” Shanatto hopped out and jogged up the stairs. The Chief was too careless about these things. Her presence at the scene technically didn’t violate protocol since she was a member of the police force, too, but it sure did violate the spirit of the protocols. Not that it mattered for his job security. He was just a yes-man appointed by the mayor, so he would stick around regardless of minor transgressions — provided there were no major scandals.
When she entered the apartment, a flash of light burst. The photographer was snapping pictures of the undisturbed body as it hung by a rope from the ceiling. One of the officers on the scene shared an ID file. An image popped up in front of Shanatto.
“We checked who this apartment room was registered under and matched it with his ID,” the officer in charge said. “The victim is Soichiro Watanabe, age forty-two. Believed to be single.” It was Detective Hozuki. He had a handsome sharp face and a smooth pale complexion. The young rookie detective was exactly Shanatto’s type, but she wouldn’t say it out loud lest it make him uncomfortable.
But was the victim the man who had called earlier? Someone who had been urgently trying to reach the chief of police committed suicide hours later? A likely coincidence.
Soichiro Watanabe was a scrawny man, his cheekbones and collarbones protruded. Dark circles around his eyes made them seem hollow. At least it seemed he had passed away peacefully. His pale hands were open as if he had let go of his burdens and, while red marks surrounded his neck, there were no scratches; he hadn’t clawed at his neck in agony in his last moments. The police could never bring back the victims. Ultimately, all humans could do for justice was punish perpetrators.
The Chief entered the room with his usual storm-like presence but simmered down to a whimper after seeing the body. “Soichiro... I didn’t want to see you like this.”
The officers untied the rope and lowered the body onto a stretcher. After the forensics team did a basic examination, the medical team carried him out to the van.
Shanatto went over the details with the Chief. “No signs of forced entry. No signs of a struggle. They said the tentative cause of death was asphyxiation from the rope. He was heavily in debt to the local yakuza. Interestingly, the victim didn’t leave a suicide note.”
“A clear-cut suicide,” the Chief sighed. “I’ll get justice for him by catching the perpetrator! That’s what I’d like to say, but I can’t even do that in this case.”
If she had a yen for every time the Chief mentioned justice while hiding something, she’d already have retired. “We’re only human, Chief. Sometimes we just can’t do anything.” Shanatto drew him closer and whispered, “But there is something bothering me. He died a bit too peacefully.”
“What, you wanted him to die while suffering?”
“No, but his hands were open, and he didn’t claw at his neck. Normally, even someone committing suicide tries to survive. Their instincts kick in, and they’ll try to tear away the rope, and they often die with their hands clenched. I’ve never heard of a hanging look so tranquil.”
“Are you suggesting it was murder?”
Shanatto shook her head. “I don’t think there’s enough evidence to say, but regardless, we can’t simply write this off as a suicide yet.”
The Chief scratched his head. “You have a point... But who would want to go to all this trouble of killing him? Soichiro was a very timid man. He wouldn’t be the type to make enemies. And the yakuza wouldn’t kill him. They wanted him to pay his debts.” He glanced up. “Hold on. I’m getting a call.” The Chief stood silent, his gaze distant.
Maybe she was getting old, but she could never get used to the sight of someone on a call through a neurochip. The way they spaced out without saying a word all the while having a conversation inside their head reminded her of junkies in the slums.
After his call ended, the Chief said, “Where was I?”
“You were saying we don’t have any leads about motive. But who was that on the call just now?”
“Mr. Mishima was calling about something unrelated.”
“Mishima?” Shanatto brought up her display and scrolled through the case notes she had made so far. “Do you mean Kenji Mishima?”
“Why, yes.” The Chief sounded surprised that she knew.
“He’s the president of Mishima Consulting, where Mr. Watanabe worked. Was that call really a coincidence?”
The Chief blinked. He must have realized that mentioning Mishima at all was a mistake on his part. “Yes, I know it’s strange, but the call just now really was unrelated.”
Shanatto had no choice but to accept his explanation for now; she had no authority to pressure her boss any further. She redirected, “What about the person who called this in? Aside from the initial call, it doesn’t seem we interviewed them.”
“About that. We have no idea who it was.”
“Surely we have their neurochip number in the call record.”
“It was from one of the old pay phones,” the Chief said.
Shanatto sighed. “Unbelievable. This caller reeks of suspicion. They might even be involved in this incident.”
“I’m having someone try to track him down. It won’t be easy though. The caller didn’t give any hints as to his identity.”
“Their voice was recorded in the call, so at least there must be something to start with.”
“It was an AI-generated voice, unfortunately.”
The Chief was hiding something, but he was right that the police wouldn’t have the information necessary to find the caller. Shanatto decided to leave the uncertain matters for later and focused on documenting the on-site investigation.
* * *
When she arrived at her apartment, the warm lights automatically lit up, and she drew the curtains closed. On the couch, she reviewed the evidence.
According to the testimonies gathered by Hozuki, the last one to see Soichiro Watanabe alive was the accountant, his coworker at Mishima Consulting, Akechi Sekimaro. He had seen Watanabe leave the company office the previous day and hadn’t noticed anything wrong. Nobody saw or heard from him after that. Watanabe got along with his co-workers but didn’t have any friends or a significant other. His relatives lived far away, and he hadn’t been in touch. He was last seen on Friday, so no one found it strange not to see him on Saturday.
The neighbors didn’t know much about Watanabe. He had mostly kept to himself, and his bookshelf was filled with books that had the worn signs of use.
Eleven-twenty in the morning on Saturday. She had received a call from Watanabe, and he sounded urgent. He wanted to talk to the Chief.
Four in the afternoon. The Chief returned, and Watanabe’s suicide was reported. The time of death was estimated by the coroner as being between one and three in the afternoon.
His next-door neighbor reported hearing a knock around the time of death but nothing after that. There were no signs of struggle in the apartment, so if he had been murdered, someone he knew would have done it. Watanabe had voluntarily let someone in, and then that someone killed him while he had his guard down.
Then there was Kenji Mishima. The Chief had claimed he had nothing to do with this case, but the Chief was a political appointee. His job was to generate politically acceptable outcomes, not pursue justice. She had to take her boss’s word with a grain of salt. Rumors floating on the net about Mishima Consulting involved bribery, blackmail, and offshore tax havens. Of course, these anonymous forum dwellers didn’t provide any concrete evidence.
Still, something about the case was rotten. A murder dressed up as a suicide for a man with no known enemies was serious business. Shanatto had found all she could. Now, it was time for someone else to take over.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Zech