Sakura stood before the large, full-length mirror in the entrance hall of the training institute, staring intently at her reflection. She wore a white blouse under a navy, three-button suit and knee-length skirt. Not a hair in her short, ear-length cut was out of place.
It's okay. Nothing seems off, and I look intellectually solid. Appraisal passed, she finally managed to relax a little. Resettling the bag on her right shoulder and holding tightly onto a plastic folder with her left hand, Sakura turned towards the front door and began to walk. Taking a step outside, beneath a cloudy sky, her skin was prickled by the chill of the October air.
Six months had already passed since Sakura had been admitted to the Institute for the Training of Special Agents. Since they were going to be drumming all of the know-how required to become an investigator into her in just half a year, she had anticipated that the curriculum would be a tough one. As such, the promise of a career in the big time awaited all who managed to graduate from the place.
Even then, actually experiencing it first-hand had been fairly intense, with densely-crammed lectures, practical drills, and a veritable mountain of report-writing assignments in between. And not only that but, fortunately or unfortunately, those the instructors saw promise in were even often assigned various odd jobs to accrue practical experience. As these were of course non-compulsory, the students were free to refuse. Taking their future careers into consideration, though, while some would take the initiative and put their names forward, none would ever turn the opportunity down.
All of the trainees had volunteered themselves, overcoming the many obstacles in their paths to enrol at the institute. They were a world apart from the thick-headed university students who spent all their time wondering how best to slack off. If you lost your nerve or took your foot off the gas, you would instantly be left in the dust by the competition. As soon she had entered the institute, Sakura had realised that that was what it meant to be a career agent.
Sakura took the subway from the station a short walk away. Her destination was the Ward 24 Eradication Target Holding Facility #1 in the northern section of Area A. She had spent a few days there in between lectures as requested by her instructor, interviewing several criminals currently being detained there and recording their responses to several items on a questionnaire. Their goal was to gather more detailed data in order to revise and reinforce the databank on criminals created by the police department.
Several days had passed since beginning her work, and her whole body no longer stiffened with nerves at the mere prospect of making her way towards the detention centre. She still grew tense each time she conducted an interview, but that seemed to have begun to ease up a little, too. Even still, now that it was time to meet with the final person on her assignment list, Sakura found herself growing incredibly nervous. Staring out of the dark train window, she thought back on the data concerning the criminal she was about to meet.
Sumio Kodai, age 26. Born in Mikumo Village in the mountains of northern Kanto. After graduating from his hometown high school, he enrolled in the Central Police Academy within Ward 24, from which he graduated with excellent grades. Later assigned to the Heinous Crimes Unit after being hand-picked by Chief Kotobuki, where he served for five years. Displayed remarkable work during several big cases such as the Ayame Shimohira case. With a background like this, he would appear to be an exemplary, above average police officer. However...
July '99. Yukimura Mansion is blown up, and a series of incidents follow: the Yukimura conglomerate's president is kidnapped; Snow Tower, headquarters of the Yukimura Group, is bombed; and the entire Mikumo region, now abandoned, is bombed and burned to the ground. He is then arrested as the ringleader of the criminal group behind these incidents by Tetsugoro Kusabi, a detective in the Heinous Crimes Unit who had up until then served as his partner. Even as he was being taken away, he is said to have remained calm and unflustered from start to finish.
How? Sakura wondered. How could someone so dedicated to maintaining order so coolly tear it down like that? She couldn't understand. It just confused her. Not only that, but Kusabi, Kodai's former partner, was an old friend of Sakura's father, who had himself been a police officer. Sakura remembered something her father had once told her.
"I ran into Mr. Kusabi today. It sounds like he's found himself a good new junior. He tells me he's got a young kid over there who shows promise," he said, his tone wistful.
That "promising young kid" had been Sumio Kodai. He was too close to home for Sakura to regard him as just another criminal.
That spring, Sakura's father had been killed in the line of duty while hunting down a fugitive. He had been murdered by a heinous criminal. To Sakura, Kodai's actions seemed to be fundamentally against the way of life of her father and his friend Kusabi.
That was the word that had immediately entered Sakura's mind when she had spotted the name Sumio Kodai on the list. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that she had taken the job in order to ask him directly.
Surfacing from the underground station, Sakura saw the large, grey detention centre building looming ahead in an inconvenient spot a good 20-minute walk away. As long as she wasn't especially squeezed for time, she would walk rather than take a taxi.
Her instructor had contacted reception, and her interview had been booked in. Since she passed through there almost every day, the guard, by now acquainted with Sakura, merely glanced at the ID papers she held out, letting her through without issue.
She had also by now memorised the process for getting into the visitation room at the end of the hallway. The long, narrow room was divided in two vertically by a counter, the upper half fronted by reinforced glass. On the other side of it was a plain folding chair and a small desk for the supervising guard to sit at. Under the white fluorescent light, Sakura waited for him to emerge from the steel door ahead.
A few moments later, urged along by a uniformed guard, a man clad in work clothes entered the room. He was somewhat thinner than he had appeared in the photograph, and his hair was longer, too. His uneven fringe fell over his forehead, casting a shadow that made it difficult to tell from her position what the expression in his eyes was. His features were handsome. He was clean shaven, but that only made the contours of his cheeks, angular is if planed down, all the more pronounced. In the file photo, his hair had been carefully combed back, and he wore a close-fitting suit. He's like a totally different person, Sakura murmured internally.
The man sat down on the folding chair that had been set opposite Sakura on the other side of the glass. He laced his fingers, resting his arms upon the counter. He looked up and stared at her. His calm expression unshifting, he looked straight into Sakura's eyes, his gaze intense. Almost overawed momentarily, Sakura cursed herself.
"My name is Sakura Natsume. I'm a trainee at the Institute for the Training of Special Agents."
As stated in the manual, Sakura removed her student ID from the card holder that contained it, holding it up at eye level so it could be easily seen from beyond the glass. The man displayed no reaction.
"Sumio Kodai, isn't it? I would like to ask for your cooperation in creating a database regarding crimes by answering my questionnaire. Most of the questions are simple psychology tests and cases about individual crimes."
As always, she spoke briskly. She had never been expecting proper interaction. Sakura was used to rebellious behaviour, too. She planned to sit there and wait until the man decided he felt like answering her questions.
"It's pointless, isn't it? A database about past crimes," Sumio Kodai said, his expression unchanging. His voice was bass-baritone, his pronunciation clear, hiding any fluctuations in emotion. The immediate, distinct answer caught Sakura off guard.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Exactly what I said. Analysing the past has next to no merit in the practical investigation of diversifying heinous crimes. If you're angling to become a commentator on a talk show or write a thesis about it for your criminology class, then it will come in very handy. It's also perfect for instilling the endurance needed to continue a possibly futile investigation into trainees such as yourself. A lot of the elite types who come from the training course are big fans of assignments that do neither harm nor good, but do take a lot of time and work. I wonder why that is? Maybe they had too much endurance drummed into them during their own time at the institute."
He spoke in the same fixed, calm tone, his face still. Sakura took his words as contempt towards herself.
"So you can decide, as a rule, that it's all meaningless? Don't you think that grasping a thread of truth from amidst a pile of seemingly meaningless things is the basics of investigating? I thought that was something you'd already know, being a former investigator for the HCU and all."
Sakura feigned composure, but her tone was somewhat cutting.
"You're a strong-willed one. Prideful, too. Lacking in cunning thanks to your youth, though. That'll get you knocked down a peg or two one of these days. However angry you get, that day will eventually come. It's one of life's inevitabilities."
His composed assertion and emotion-masked tone made Sakura unable to argue any further.
"...So, would you lend me your assistance?"
"I will, gladly. Looking for meaning in all actions is itself wrong. Hit me with your questions," Kodai said, his face unchanging.
For a moment, Sakura was dumbfounded. He was deviant. She couldn't get a read on him. Couldn't fathom him. She just didn't understand him at all. Or is he simply messing with me as a way to kill time? That must be it. He's been making fun of me from the start. Even if he claims that he'll cooperate, he has absolutely no intention of taking this seriously. Of course he doesn't.
She didn't even feel like being angry anymore. Sakura let out a small sigh, suddenly feeling as weary as she had been enthusiastic.
"What made me expect so much of this guy?"
So dejected was she that the words, intended to be an internal mutter, accidentally slipped out of her mouth. Kodai's expression shifted slightly in response. Sakura's mouth flew shut in shock, but it was too late.
"What do you mean? Who are you?"
Sakura steeled herself. "Like I said earlier, my name is Sakura Natsume. My father is Daigo Natsume. He was commander of the Secret Security Division's Special Forces Unit."
"Natsume from the Secret Security Division? Ah, the one who was killed in the line of duty while apprehending Ayame Shimohira."
"Yes, my father passed away. He was an old friend of Tetsugoro Kusabi from the HCU. I met him a long time ago when I was a child, too."
"Tetsu? Huh. And that's why you expected something from me?"
The robotic aura that had surrounded Kodai was swept away in an instant. His cheek muscles relaxed a little, revealing a flash of white teeth. That alone caused a surprising transformation in her impression of him.
"That can't be the only thing you came here to tell me. The questionnaire is just an excuse. Am I wrong?" His tone remained calm. To Sakura, though, there seemed to be some sort of emotion contained somewhere within.
"Something I want to tell you? Perhaps. I just don't understand. Why would you, someone who has taken part in and solved so many cases in the name of maintaining order, do something like this? I wanted to ask you myself."
"Does it hold some sort of meaning for you?"
"It's pointless looking for meaning in actions. You said so yourself."
"I see," Kodai responded with indifference. "You're pretty smart. You win this round."
"Is this some sort of word game?" Sakura asked, irritated.
"Is it? Games are a good way of keeping the boredom at bay. They may seem meaningless, too, but they're not."
"You're just avoiding the question."
Kodai fell silent for a while, not taking his gaze off of Sakura.
"What do you think of the thing we call 'crime'?"
"I think it's something that should be eradicated," Sakura answered without hesitation.
"If that's your answer, then anything I say will be a waste of breath. 'Why?' is a question you should be asking yourself first. As long as you are unable to connect with the darkness within yourself you will never be able to understand what goes through the mind when a crime is committed, and you won't be able to grasp the behavioural patterns of the criminals who commit them. You can't make it as an investigator like that."
"...The darkness within myself..."
Kodai's words spread through Sakura's mind, tracing ripples as they went, like the water's surface after tossing in a pebble.
"Anyway, you came here under the pretence of conducting that questionnaire of yours. Perhaps we'd better get that out of the way. Visiting hours don't last forever, after all."
At Kodai's mention, Sakura remembered her task. "...O-oh, right. First of all, then, the psychology test."
Flustered, Sakura took a stack of papers out of her folder.
When Sakura exited the detention centre, the autumn sun was already setting. By the time she had returned to the institute, reported to her instructor and made it back to the entrance hall, the area was shrouded in twilight. Even still, she was quite a lot earlier than usual. On more than one occasion, she had lost track of time while in the reference room and had to make a dash for the station not knowing whether she'd actually make it onto the last train.
Taking a connecting train on the subway, she travelled in the opposite direction from her house. When Sakura arrived, it was in Area C, the commercial sector and most bustling place in Ward 24. Kana Makino, a friend of hers since high school, awaited within an Italian restaurant inside a high-rise building.
The restaurant interior was chic, illuminated by indirect lighting, with olive green cloths laid out on top of each table. Kana sat at a window seat, resting her chin in her hands and admiring the nighttime scenery of Area C. Although she wasn't wearing anything particularly showy, she drew attention like there was a spotlight shining upon her and her alone. She wore a tight-fitting, knitted jumper of wine red silk that drew attention to her shapely figure. Her light brown hair was well-groomed, and looked glossy in the light of the candle upon the table.
Sakura reflexively drew her fingers through the short hair she hadn't combed since before leaving for her interview at the detention centre. She wanted to do something about her face, sweaty from the jog over there, but it was too late for that now.
"Sorry I'm late."
Watching the out-of-breath Sakura sit down in the seat opposite, Kana puffed out her cheeks. "You're super late. The only ones who would keep Kannie waiting a whole 30 minutes are commercial sponsors and Sakura Natsume. Unbelievable!"
Kana had been gracing the pages of fashion magazines as a model since her university days. As of late, she'd also been appearing on TV in commercials and minor roles in TV dramas. Sakura, who was overly-serious, and Kana, who was flashy and loved being the centre of attention, seemed at first glance like they would have nothing in common. But Kana was much smarter than she let on to those around her, and was a solid, hard-working woman. The pair were very similar in their resoluteness and strength of will, and in the way they were stubborn and refused to take no for an answer.
"I said I'm sorry. I'll treat you to dessert tonight."
"No thanks. What would people say if they knew I had a pauper paying for my meals?" Kana said insultingly, opening the menu.
The pair placed their orders, and aperitif champagne cocktail in front of her, she finally settled down. Kana watched Sakura closely, her eyebrows knitted.
"What's with the outfit? You look like you've been to a job interview."
"I didn't have time to go home and change."
"Do you always go to the institute dressed like that?"
"Not always. What's wrong with it? It makes me look intelligent, and it's practical, too."
"What a waste. Being a trainee doesn't mean you have to throw away your femininity. You have such a great canvas to work with, too."
"I'm not throwing anything away. Don't go doing it for me. You can just leave me alone. Anyway, what was the 'important thing' you mentioned on the phone that you wanted to talk about?" Sakura asked, changing the subject.
Their food was brought over. Picking up her fork, Kana began to speak enthusiastically. "Oh, yeah! The most important part. Actually, a little while ago I had to go to this birthday party of someone in the industry I know. They had a whole restaurant on the waterfront reserved. It was this stupidly flashy affair, but such a drag. I could hardly even force a smile, so I just tucked myself away in a corner so as not to be seen, which is totally out of character for me.
"There was someone else next to me who was fed up, too. Looked like he'd been dragged along against his will, just like me. He'd been up all night, and was wearing this worn-out jacket, so he stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all of that flamboyance, but he seemed like the most normal out of all of them. I tried talking to him, and it turned out that I'd been pretty on the mark. Turns out that he's actually a pretty big deal, but not that he beats his chest about it or anything..."
Kana told her story passionately, embellished with gesticulations. Picking at her antipasto, Sakura made interjections when appropriate, but hardly took in anything that was actually being said. Inside her head, she was going over and over her meeting from that afternoon. Sumio Kodai. What was he trying to tell me? Our conversation can't have just been a word game to kill some time. Does he mean that the key to solving the mysteries of his actions is hidden within the darkness of my mind?
What, specifically, was he referring to? And how, for example, would it manifest in an individual's behaviour?
"Hey, are you paying attention?" she heard Kana's voice say.
Sakura looked up with a start, and saw that Kana was peering straight at her face. "...Oh, sorry. I was listening, though. About this bigwig boyfriend of yours, right? Tell me more. What's he like? What does he do for work?"
Kana smiled wryly. "I just told you."
"...Sorry. One more time?"
"It doesn't matter. We're not even properly dating yet. I'll be sure to come bragging all about it to you again if anything comes of it. Anyway, are you really that busy? You're too spaced out to listen, and you look kind of pale, too," Kana said, now sounding concerned. She was well aware that Sakura had lost her father that spring, and just how rigorous the training required to become a special agent was.
"It's not that. Well, I am busy, but I can cope. I'm used to it. There's just sort of... something on my mind..."
Sakura faltered, and Kana leaned forwards, her eyes shining with excitement. "What what what? Is this about love? Did you find yourself a nice guy in your class at the institute!?"
"No! Everyone else in my class is just a competitor, anyway. It's not like that. ...It's about someone I met for the first time today. It was only for a little while, but due to my curriculum I got the chance for the two of us to talk."
"Somebody involved with the police?"
"You could say that," Sakura said vaguely, dodging the question. She wasn't lying, and she couldn't simply go about announcing that the person to whom she referred was a prisoner.
"...Yeah. I just can't get what he said off my mind. I can still hear it in my head."
"What did he say?"
"He told me to connect with the darkness inside myself."
Kana made no attempt to hide her disappointment, her shoulders slumping. "What's that supposed to mean? It makes no sense at all. I was hoping he'd said something more romantic than that. ...Come to think of it, since you can't stop thinking about what he said or get it out of your head, maybe it's love after all."
This time, it was Sakura's turn to be disappointed. "Oh, come on. Why do you always have to drag things back to that?"
"I'm not dragging anything. Oh, wow, something smells yummy. Let's eat!" Kana took up her fork, looking excitedly at the pasta that was set before her.
Looking sullen, Sakura took a sip of wine from her glass. ...Love? Between a trainee special agent and a former detective who committed a crime? This isn't a book or a movie. So stupid.
"Now that I think of it, there've been lots of disturbing incidents happening lately, huh," Kana said, as if suddenly recalling something.
"You mean the serial murders?" Sakura responded without hesitation. Kana nodded.
"Yeah. 'Jack the Ripper'."
Sakura scowled at Kana's words. "Cut that out. That's just what the third-rate journalists are calling him."
"It doesn't matter what he's called. Is it true that both cases were the work of the same person?"
"A second victim turned up at the start of the week, and as of right now it seems like they've concluded that the killer is the same as in the last case, yes. Both victims were young women, both 22 years old."
"22. Scary, huh? We're both 22-year-old women. And I'm a 22-year-old woman of unparalleled beauty."
"As usual, I find myself wondering where that confidence of yours comes from."
"It's only the truth."
"Whatever. We still don't know whether the victims' ages matching is a coincidence or not, though. In both cases the crimes occurred within Ward 24, are estimated to have been carried out late at night, and the murder weapon was a sharp blade. It seems pretty safe to assume that these are serial murders committed by the same criminal."
"You sure are clued in. Insider info?" Kana asked, seeming impressed.
"Don't be silly. Check the news faithfully and it won't take you long to pick up this much information. Those thick-headed instructors aren't going to be leaking any details to trainees," Sakura grumbled, pouting.
"But once your training's over and you formally become a special agent, won't you be working on heinous crimes like these?"
"Probably. It looks like the HCU is mobilising on this case, too."
"Then how about a toast to our future famed investigator?" Kana joshed, lifting her glass. Sakura laughed, raising her own.