Eden’s End: The Empty Cell
by J. H. Zech
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
“Where are we going?” Shanatto asked as the car rolled out of the parking garage.
“You said the Chief wanted the loose ends tied up and the case wrapped up,” Detective Hozuki said. “We’re going to interview two people to do tie up loose ends.”
She liked the way he thought. The Chief’s emphasis had clearly been on the “wrap up” portion, but Hozuki’s interpretation was technically plausible. “Who are we interviewing?”
“Akechi Sekimaro and Ryuji Tanemachi.”
“I know Sekimaro is Watanabe’s co-worker, but who’s Tanemachi? He wasn’t in the case files.”
“Just a little side investigation I’ve been following up on. Watanabe owed money to the yakuza, and Tanemachi’s his loan shark. He regularly shows up at the apartment, so it’s possible he saw something.”
“And why Sekimaro? I thought we already took his statement.”
“Everyone was already on the suicide angle, and someone else took his statement but wasn’t thorough. Sekimaro was the last to see him alive. I’ll bet he knows something, even if it’s not something he thought was important.”
Shanatto smiled. What a diligent boy. He would make things go much easier than with other detectives. Hozuki would ask all the right questions; she wouldn’t have to distract him and go ask the questions on her own.
They arrived at Sekimaro’s house, which blended into the grey sky with its beige walls. There were no lawn ornaments, and the nameplate on the outer wall connected to the small gate read “Sekimaro” in traditional characters. As ordinary as possible, nothing sticking out at all.
Hozuki rang the doorbell, and a man’s voice came through on the intercom. “Who is it?”
“Touchu Metropolitan Police.” Hozuki flashed his badge in front of the camera.
The gate unlocked. They made their way to the door, and a thin young man with round glasses in a casual indoor jersey greeted them.
“How can I help you? I did already answer questions for the police though,” he said while looking down. Despite his glasses and his long brown bangs obscuring his face, the facial recognition display popped up and matched it to Akechi Sekimaro.
“We have some follow up questions regarding the death of Soichiro Watanabe,” Hozuki said.
“Of course. Please, come in.” Sekimaro motioned them into the house.
They came into an average-sized living room, enough for a couch, a table, and a TV stand.
“Please, sit down. Would you like some tea?”
“No, thank you,” Hozuki said.
“Water is fine, thank you,” Shanatto said.
Sekimaro came back with a glass of water and set it on the table. He sat on the sofa perpendicular to the table and the couch. “So, what is it?”
“I understand that you last saw Watanabe at work the night before his death?” Hozuki asked.
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Did you talk to him at all about anything?”
“I only said goodbye to him.”
“I’ve gathered testimony from some co-workers who say you seemed close with him. You two were spotted talking in the same car in the parking garage at lunch three days ago. What did you talk about?”
“I didn’t want to bring this up since it’s speaking ill of the dead, but if you ask me so directly, I have no choice. He was badgering me for money. Yes, we were close. Close enough to know that he had debts to the yakuza. I told him I could lend him a little bit, but he needed much more.”
Sekimaro was hiding something. His statement was probably not entirely untrue, yet for someone who had lost a close friend, this overwhelming sense of normalcy was unusual. Something wasn’t right. What that was, Shanatto couldn’t yet tell. Hozuki’s poker face gave away nothing about what he thought either.
“Did you end up giving him the money?” Hozuki asked.
“We never came to an agreement on that before he passed away.”
“Regarding your alibi at the time of his death, you said you were at an Internet café?”
“Yes, I bet the security cameras on the street would show when I entered and left, too.”
“I will check up on that. Which café were you at?”
“The Looking Glass café.”
“That’s it for now,” said Hozuki. “Don’t leave town until the investigation is over.”
They stood up and Sekimaro walked them to the front gate.
“Have a good afternoon, officers,” he said.
They climbed into the police car and set the coordinates for the local yakuza office. The car drove off into the residential street.
“What are you thinking?” Shanatto asked.
“I’d like to ask you the same thing,” Hozuki said without looking at her.
“Based on the rushed worked on the investigation, I can tell the Chief wants this case closed. And you did technically tell me to wrap this up. He sent you to tell me that and file the report. Yet you haven’t pushed me at all, and you’re following me around taking notes. You’d only do that if you wanted this case properly solved, and you’re doing some thinking on your own. So, I’ll ask again. What are you thinking?”
That was the downside with these types. Sometimes they were too smart for their own good. Shanatto said, “While I am the Chief’s secretary, I am also a member of the police. I want to support an officer who’s fighting for justice rather than impede him unless the Chief really hounds me about it. So, don’t go telling the Chief you’re being diligent. That’ll make both our lives easier.”
Hozuki locked eyes with her for a moment as if trying to read her expression. “Hmph. Whatever, I’ll let it go for now. I’d rather you follow me than interfere.”
Shanatto didn’t say anything for the rest of the drive, though she did sneak glances occasionally. Occasionally. Hozuki didn’t ask anything more either. Whatever each other’s motives were, the current arrangement was mutually beneficial.
The scenery outside the window shifted from the quiet cookie-cutter suburbs to that of a bustling street with skyscrapers and glitzy neon signs jutting out all over them like barnacles on a beach rock. Bright shops with luxury bags interwoven with dark alleys. This was downtown, truly the heart of Touchu.
They arrived at a rundown tall building. The first floor had a fried chicken joint with a delicious smell wafting from it, and the second floor displayed a banner for a bookstore with a big R-18 circle in the corner. Only the third floor had no sign. They climbed out of the car and entered the stairwell facing the street, heading towards the yakuza office.
Once at the third floor, Hozuki knocked on a blank grey door.
A dark-skinned man with short blonde hair and an irritated look on his face opened the door. He wore a white suit but had a crooked tie. Was he an immigrant? “Who’re you?”
Hozuki flashed his badge. “Touchu Metropolitan Police.”
“You got a search warrant?” the yakuza man said, turning his nose up.
“We’re not here for a search. We want to talk to Ryuji Tanemachi.”
The man clicked his tongue.
“Ryuji, what’s going on?” a man said from inside the room.
“Nothing, boss. There’s someone I need to talk to. Personal business.”
Tanemachi stepped outside and closed the door behind him. He crossed his arms. “What business do you have with me? If it’s about my visa, I have it properly sponsored. You can check it if you’d like and save your breath telling me to get out of the country.”
“That’s a job for the Foreign Affairs ministry. I’m here to ask you about Soichirio Watanabe,” said Hozuki.
“That guy signed a loan agreement with us fair and square. I haven’t done anything illegal.”
“Murder is illegal,” Hozuki said bitingly.
“Murder? What are you talking about?” Tanemachi cried.
“Soichiro Watanabe was found dead. I hear he hasn’t paid your group back yet. Maybe there was a disagreement?”
“That asshole’s dead? I didn’t know that. And even if there was a disagreement, why would I kill him? He can’t pay up if he’s dead.”
Tanemachi didn’t seem particularly upset that Watanabe was dead, though.
“Oh? Why did you think he was an asshole? Normally those who owe money to the yakuza think you’re the assholes not the other way around,” Hozuki pressed.
Tanemachi clammed up with the classic expression of a criminal who had slipped up.
He didn’t respond.
Shanatto figured this was going nowhere, so she had to intervene. She browsed through Watanabe and Tanemachi’s records. “Here’s an interesting fact. Did you know Watanabe was a member of Bokoku?”
“I don’t know anything about that party.”
“I didn’t say it was a party,” Shanatto added with glee.
Hozuki nodded to Shanatto’s glance at him to take over. “Here’s a thought. Watanabe’s a member of a party that wants to deport immigrants. He figures if he doesn’t pay you, the yakuza will cut off your visa, kick you out, and send a native Solradian to collect. You get fed up and kill him.”
“That’s ridiculous. My boss would never cut me off,” Tanemachi dismissed.
“What you think is irrelevant. What matters is what Watanabe thought. In other words, it means you have a motive.”
“Don’t give me that!” Tanemachi swung his arm out in frustration. “Yeah, I didn’t like Watanabe. But I wouldn’t kill him. At least not until he paid up. If I kill him without getting his money, then I’m the one who’s in trouble.”
“Then I’m sure you wouldn’t mind telling me where you were on Saturday between eleven and three.”
“I was in the office until one. My boss can back me up on that. After that, I went to other clients to collect their payments until four, and then I came back to the office. You can ask the clients.” Tanemachi sent a popup message with names and addresses.
“We will follow up on those,” Hozuki said. “But other than the specific moments you met the clients, no one can corroborate your alibi.”
Tanemachi grit his teeth. “I didn’t do it.”
“We’ll see if that’s true. Don’t leave town,” said Hozuki.
Shanatto and Hozuki left a seething Tanemachi behind to follow up on his and Sekimaro’s alibis.
When Shanatto climbed into the car, Hozuki said, “Wait here for a second.”
He came back with a fried chicken skewer and held it out to her.
“For me? Thank you.” Shanatto took it and bit into it. The crunchiness and glazed flavor on the soft chicken meat was every bit as scrumptious as the smell had suggested. She wiped the crumbs off her mouth and asked, “But why?”
“You helped out with that research you did into Watanabe’s background and Bokoku. I wasn’t sure what you were up to since the Chief sent you, but I don’t think you would’ve helped me like that if you weren’t interested in seeing this case through.” He looked away and scratched his head. “What I’m trying to say is, I think you’re actually a proper member of the police, too.”
“Thank you, really.” Shanatto smiled. Hozuki had a bit of sweetness in him despite being so serious all the time.
“Oh, and you were drooling while staring at the fried chicken place when we arrived.”
Embarrassed, Shanatto instinctively wiped her mouth. “I was?”
“Don’t worry. I’m the only one who saw. Let’s get going,” Hozuki said.
A few visits around town revealed that Tanemachi had told the truth, though that still left plenty of time for him to go and murder Watanabe. Sekimaro was indeed spotted on the street CCTVs entering the Looking Glass café at twelve and leaving at five.
“What are you going to do now?” Shanatto asked Hozuki in the car.
He ripped open a chocolatey “nutrition” bar and bit a chunk off. “Something about Sekimaro rubs me the wrong way. I’ll go check out the café.”
“I may as well tag along,” Shanatto added before Hozuki could say otherwise. “There’s nothing fun about waiting in a car.”
They exited the car and shut the doors. The Looking Glass café was very ordinary from the outside, if a little rundown. Opaque windows, a door, and a basic sign above it.
Inside, it was an Internet café with isolated booths for patrons to use their own computer terminal. The designated smoking section was at the back of the hall of booths, but the burning smell permeated throughout.
The clerk at the front looked up and said, “Welcome,” with zero enthusiasm. He pointed to a poster on the wall with the hourly prices for a booth and a menu.
The café was selling cup noodles, taiyaki, curry sandwiches, soda, coffee, and water. Surprisingly well stocked for an Internet café. Shanatto had heard of people using these cafés as a hotel and, given the smell of week-old noodles mixed in with the tobacco, she was inclined to believe it.
Hozuki flashed his badge. “I’d like to see the visitor logs from Saturday.”
“We’ll cooperate.” The clerk sent over a file.
Shanatto searched the file for Akechi Sekimaro and found a check in and check out on Saturday. Check in at noon and check out at five, exactly as he had said. He had been in booth ten, at the end of the non-smoking section. She walked over to booth ten and looked around. Past the booth were a few smoking booths and the bathrooms.
Inside the men’s bathroom, nothing was amiss. The window opened for ventilation made her curious, and she peered outside. It led to the back of the building, a deserted alley. There weren’t any security cameras in this area. She leaned out further over the window but lost her grip on the sill.
Shanatto screamed and closed her eyes.
When she opened them, she was hanging from the bathroom window. The asphalt almost touched her nose. Well, she was on the first floor.
“Get it together!” It was Hozuki, grabbing her by the legs.
Shanatto braced herself against the ground with her hands, and Hozuki pulled her back in.
“What are you doing?”
“I was checking if there were any security cameras out back.” Shanatto remembered she was wearing a skirt. “Did you see my underwear?”
“Is that really what you’re going to ask someone who saved you from falling out the window?”
“I kid.” Shanatto stuck out her tongue. “It doesn’t really matter if someone like you saw something.” She couldn’t help poking someone so serious.
“Someone like me? I get the sense you’re insulting me.”
“Anyway, did you find anything?”
“I asked for any transaction records,” Hozuki said. “He ordered taiyaki and coffee when he got here, and there’s no transactions between one and three, and then he ordered another coffee. That could be a coincidence, but it feels suspicious.”
“This is getting rather complicated.”
He looked up and spaced out. “I see.”
“What is it?” Shanatto asked.
“I just got a call from the bank. Kenji Mishima withdrew a large sum of money from the company account two days before the murder. And not just that. There have been several suspicious withdrawals spanning the last two years. If I cross-reference the dates with Mishima Consulting’s projects, the withdrawals except the last one are all close to when the company got a contract to assist in redevelopment projects in the immigrant district.”
“Bribery and gentrification in the immigrant neighborhoods,” Shanatto said. “Tanemachi seems even more suspicious now.”
“I’ll look into him more closely. Sekimaro won’t get away scot-free either. As the accountant, he must’ve known about these bribes. At the very least, he’ll lose his license,” Hozuki said.
“Your enthusiasm is admirable, but can you drop me off at the office first? It’s almost time for me to clock out.”
Hozuki gave her a disappointed look.
“I do think it’s admirable that you go above and beyond, but I have a life outside of work too.” Shanatto had to shake him off. She did have a plan for tonight, after all.
They left the Looking Glass café. The late afternoon sun had set the sky ablaze, and a charred darkness remained at the edges. They got in the police car and drove off back to police headquarters, heading straight to the dark end of the world.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Zech