By the time Sakura made it back to the apartment she inhabited alone, it was already close to midnight. She entered the dark room and turned on the lights, taking a sip from the bottle of mineral water she'd left out that morning in her hurry before putting it away inside the fridge. After a quick shower and face wash, she changed into pyjamas and began preparations for the following day, pretending not to see the pile of laundry or the dust that had began to become noticeable upon the wooden flooring. Surely the tableware that had been soaking in the kitchen sink for two days now, too, could wait until tomorrow.
Sakura flopped into bed. It was the first time in ages she'd gone to a fancy restaurant or chatted about meaningless nothings with a female friend. Remembering her carefree student days eased the stress she'd constantly been under as of late. Even the weight of the particulars of her meeting with Kodai, which had left a lingering discomfort in her chest, had been lessened thanks to Kana's teasing. Before the feelings of warmth could vanish, Sakura sank into sleep.
A frail grey light shone down from somewhere high above. It was gloomy. Before her stood rows of buildings like towers, which were covered with a dome-like roof. The area was huge. Several faint lights shone from the tower-like buildings in yellow, red and green. They looked almost like giant Christmas trees. A low sound, like the buzzing of a bee, could be heard. The space was open, yet closed.
Many small things moved about within the gloom. They were children. The children, with their vacant stares, were performing some sort of task with sluggish movements.
What are you all doing? Where are your parents...?
Sakura awoke in a cold sweat. For a moment, she wasn't sure where she was. Still lying down and moving only her eyes she surveyed her surroundings, seeing a cloudy grey sky through the gap in the closed curtains.
...Right. This is my room in Ward 24. Where did that dream come from? And after I got to see Kana for the first time in ages and had so much fun, too.
Her heart was still pounding. What a horrible dream. It was a familiar nightmare, one she'd had on occasion since childhood. It wasn't like there were any scary monsters, and she wasn't being chased by anybody, but whenever she dreamt of that dark place, it was always a bad one. Once, she had suddenly begun to cry and yell in the middle of the night, and had to be woken up by her father. But her father was dead, and her mother had died long ago, before Sakura could even remember. No matter how unsettling the dream, there was no one around to wake her up anymore.
"Gotta get ahold of myself," Sakura said aloud, gathering her strength and sitting up. Checking the clock on the bedside table, she saw that for some reason it read 3AM. She reached out reflexively and grabbed it with both hands, pressing it to her ear. It had stopped.
Sakura ran to the living room in a panic and turned on the TV. "7:15" showed in the upper left corner of the news programme on screen. Her lectures for the day began at 8AM.
"No goddamn way...!?"
Perhaps thanks to her daily discipline, Sakura somehow managed to get herself together in 15 minutes. In exchange, her room looked like a burglar had been rifling through it, but it wasn't like there was anyone around to complain. She locked the door and ran down the hallway, hurrying down the stairs. Sakura's apartment was on the fifth floor, but she had absolute confidence that taking the stairs would be faster than waiting for the elevator.
As she made it to the entrance hall, she saw her neighbour, Chinami Ohtomo, coming in through the front door. Chinami was the proprietor of a late-night diner on the outskirts of Area C. It was a cosy restaurant, primarily serving sandwiches, burgers and homemade pies, and despite being open into the night never stocked so much as a drop of alcohol. Even still, the diner had seemingly become popular with those who worked the graveyard shift. The party people who stayed out all night seemed to have good things to say about it, too, and business was said to be booming.
"Good morning. Are you going somewhere?" Chinami asked.
Her face seemed tired, probably since she was just getting home from work, but her make-up was still flawless. It had just gone six months since she had moved to these apartments and made Chinami's acquaintance, but Sakura had still never seen her without it.
At first, she had always thought of her as a mysterious woman who always stayed out all night and returned first thing in the morning, but upon striking up a conversation had found her to be a charming and friendly woman, and they got along well. Sakura, who rarely got out of the institute at a time when going shopping was possible, also found herself stopping by the diner often. Sakura guessed that she was roughly in her mid thirties, but still wasn't sure whether or not she was correct.
"Good morning. Yeah, I'm just barely going to make it on time."
"Your face is so pale. Are you eating properly?" Chinami asked disapprovingly, looking closely at Sakura's face.
"I'm fine. I just haven't eaten today because I overslept. Alright, well, I'd better get a move on," she answered hurriedly and walked out of the door.
"Come by my place one of these days. I'll fix you up a proper meal."
Tossing a wave back in the direction of Chinami's voice, Sakura began sprinting towards the station.
Her schedule for the afternoon was hastily decided to be field training in the form of observing an autopsy. When a body requiring an autopsy turned up, the institute would be contacted and the students would attend one small group at a time when it was carried out at the medical university hospital. That afternoon, it was Sakura's group's turn.
The white-tiled autopsy room was filled with the smell of blood and chemicals. The surgeon sliced efficiently through the cadaver's skin with a frighteningly sharp scalpel, scooped out the internal organs, and examined the location of the fatal wound. The body was that of a young man who had been shot to death using an illegally-owned handgun.
"Here, this is the gunshot wound. You can see burns from the gunpowder here on the skin. The bullet entered here, passed through the lung like so, and came to a stop after shattering the vertebral column. He probably died instantly," the doctor explained to the students as if it were a chat, pointing at locations on the body. Some of the trainees averted their gaze, but Sakura kept her eyes open and stared fixedly at the bloody corpse.
People die so easily. No matter how much time you spend building up your station, it takes only a second to die. Could those who steal away others' lives with their own hands not feel the weight of all of that accumulated time? Did they not hesitate when cutting off the flow of one's life in the blink of an eye?
Sakura hadn't even been able to say her final goodbyes to her father's body. The top brass from Public Safety had decided that the state of his body was unfit for viewing by the family, and so the lid on his splendid casket had been nailed shut, sent straight into the crematorium's incinerator after a lavish service.
What state had her father been in when he died? For a moment, she saw the body lying on the autopsy table as that of her father. Her vision flashed white. Somebody screamed, and she heard the loud sound of something collapsing, but to Sakura it all seemed like something taking place in a far-away world.
When she opened her eyes, Sakura found herself lying on a stiff sofa in an unfamiliar, stark room. She quickly remembered collapsing during the autopsy, and thought in an easygoing manner how glad she was that she'd worn a trouser suit that day. As she sat her body up, the area around her right elbow throbbed with pain. She must have banged it when she collapsed.
"Oh, you're awake."
A desk stood on the opposite side of the room, from which the doctor who had earlier performed the autopsy looked over at Sakura. She appeared to be in the doctors' lounge.
"You fainted. The others left already. What a cold bunch."
"Oh, no, I would've done the same. Thank you for taking care of me. I'm so embarrassed," Sakura said, getting to her feet and bowing her head.
"It happens all the time, don't worry about it. Whether you like it or not, after a few years as a full-fledged investigator you won't so much as flinch at the sight of a body. You still look pale. Should we run a blood test? I've got students loitering around who want practise drawing blood samples. If you let them do it, you can have it for free. You'll end up with a bunch of failed needle-marks on your arms that'll bruise you up nice and good like a junkie, though."
"I think I'll pass, thank you." Sakura smiled, and bowed her head once more. "Excuse me, then."
Retracing the route she had taken to get there, Sakura walked down the hall and got into the elevator. Disembarking on the first floor, she entered a reception area packed with general outpatients. As she headed for the front entrance, she was struck by mild dizziness. To tell the truth, she hadn't had a proper meal all day. She had been summoned immediately after her morning lecture had ended, and come here. She hadn't even had time to grab lunch. All she'd had were boiled mint sweets she'd got from another member of her group on the way there. Even without the autopsy observation, she probably would've at least been anaemic.
With a quiet sigh, Sakura bought a carton of milk from one of the vending machines in a corner of the room. She wanted to hurry back to the institute, but if she were to collapse again here she would look pathetic. Fainting just observing an autopsy was mortifying. Annoyed at her own weakness, Sakura let out another deep sigh.
As she walked across the floor, looking around for an empty bench, Sakura bumped into someone who had been walking towards her. The momentum caused the folder she had been holding in her left hand to fall to the ground, scattering textbooks and notes all over the place.
"Ahh, I'm sorry!" the person said, immediately getting to their knees and beginning to gather up the fallen papers.
"No, it was my fault," Sakura responded, scooping up several handouts that had landed by her feet.
"Beginner's Guide to Forensic Pathology...? Are you studying medicine?" the person asked in surprise, looking at the cover of a retrieved textbook.
"I'm not. Thank you," Sakura replied shortly, holding out her hand. For a moment, the other person stared blankly at Sakura.
"Huh? O-oh. Right." Face reddening, they quickly handed over the gathered textbooks and folder to Sakura.
He was a tall young man. Even calling him young, he still seemed probably a few years Sakura's senior. He wore a white shirt under a white coat, and had a blue tie fastened around his neck.
"Um, well, are you a doctor who just started here?"
"No," Sakura replied, expressionless.
"You came for an examination, then? Or someone from a pharmaceutical company? Or someone who does clerical work?"
"No. I'm sorry for bumping into you. Goodbye," Sakura said with a smile, spinning around and turning her back to the man, resuming her search for an empty bench.
"...Uh, that one over there's free." He walked around in front of Sakura and pointed at a bench.
Sakura considered ignoring him, but everywhere else was taken. She sat down on the bench, and the man sat next to her as if it were only natural. She scowled a little, and he smiled back.
"It's good to take in calcium when you're annoyed. You should drink that," he said, pointing to the milk carton Sakura still held in one hand.
That's none of your business, she almost said, but managed to choke the words back down.
"If you're not any of the things I mentioned earlier, then how about... counsellor, engineer, inpatient's attendant, just a visitor, store employee, professor's secretary, or hospital administration accountant? Or maybe, hmm..."
He went on, his tone serious. He was stubborn, now, and seemed absolutely determined to figure out just who Sakura really was. Sakura let out her dozenth sigh of the day. She had to tell him. Otherwise, she was going to be stuck there until he managed to guess it by himself.
"I'm with the police."
"Wow. So you're here on some sort of investigation?"
"I'm still a trainee. I was observing an autopsy here as part of my training."
"Observing an autopsy! How horribly unfortunate." The man grimaced, making no attempt to hide his displeasure.
"Horribly unfortunate? But you're a doctor, aren't you?"
"Yes, sort of."
"Then you must be used to the sight of things like blood and dead bodies, surely?"
"I am, yes, but that doesn't mean I like it. Besides, I'm a physician. I don't have to see blood very often. Were you alright seeing something like that?"
"Well, yeah..." Sakura said vaguely. Her pride wouldn't allow her to admit to a complete stranger that she had fainted.
"That's amazing. I passed out stone cold the first time I had to attend an autopsy when I was a student. You should drink that before it gets warm," the man said, once more looking over at the carton in Sakura's hand.
She did as she was told, inserting the straw and beginning to drink the milk. He was right; it was a little tepid already. Her companion took a red package of chocolate from out of his white coat. Sakura had eaten it before, but packed with nougat and peanuts, it was sweet enough to make her head hurt.
Noticing Sakura's gaze, the man smiled bashfully. "I have a real sweet tooth. Sometimes I can feel my brain crying out loudly for sugar."
"Do you always walk around with that in your pocket?"
"Not always, but a lot, I guess. It's convenient to have one of these on hand when I don't have any time to eat. I can have this instead of a meal, right?"
"And this is today's lunch?"
"Ahh, now that you mention it, I suppose it might be. It's already 3 PM, though. We had an emergency come in during lunch."
"You sound rushed off your feet."
"No more than usual," he replied casually, stuffing his cheeks with chocolate. Sakura remembered anew that she wasn't the only one who didn't have time for lunch. "If only I had the time, I'd rather go for a delicious pie, but I have to get by with this."
"Pie? You like it?"
"I like most sweet things, but American-style pies are the greatest. It's a real bummer that there aren't any good places around here. Apple pie with ice cream, or cherry pie... Pecan nuts have such a rich flavour. Banana and chocolate are tasty as well, though."
He looked so excited talking about his favourite foods that Sakura couldn't help but break out in a smile. Noticing this, the man smiled wryly.
"...Ahh, I'm being laughed at again. People often tell me that a man of my age shouldn't talk so passionately about pie."
"Sorry. Why shouldn't you, though, if you like it that much? Okay, to apologise I'll tell you about a place that'll knock your socks off." Sakura tore a page out of her notebook and drew a simple map of the place where Chinami's diner was located. "They don't have many varieties, but they have a different homemade pie every day. Their specially-made club sandwiches are really tasty, too."
"Huh, in Area C? I had no idea. I'll have to check it out soon."
He carefully folded up the map, tucking it away inside the chest pocket of his coat. Suddenly, a shrill, electronic sound rang out. With conditioned reflexes, the man pulled a pager out of his pocket. After glancing at its LCD screen, he switched off the beeping.
"They're calling me. I've gotta go. I'm Minato Sawaguchi, from the number one department of internal medicine here. Please come and have me examine you the next time you catch a cold. We can go and grab some pie together."
Sakura simply smiled, not responding. The man waved lightly, then began walking quickly towards the elevator landing. Picking up her textbook in one hand and now-empty carton in the other, Sakura stood from the bench. She had dawdled for much too long. She'd better get back to the institute, and fast.
In the end, Sakura was extremely late for her next lecture.
"It seems like one of you decided to take the very scenic route," the lecturer said sarcastically, but she had come expecting this, and didn't let it bother her.
Even after her classes for the day were over, Sakura stayed behind in the reference room using borrowed notes and the materials there to refresh herself on what she had missed of the lecture.
As usual, it was quite late into the night when Sakura finally returned home. She unlocked the door and went inside, noticing that the green light indicating a message on her answerphone was blinking. Turning on the lights, she played back the message as she changed.
This is Kana. Are you out again? You really should go home early sometimes. There's something I wanna talk to you about... Maybe I'm just being overly self-conscious, I dunno, but... Sometimes, I feel like somebody's following me. There are other things that're kind of bugging me, too. Call my mobile when you get back. I'll try again soon, too. Laters.
Sakura's hands stilled as she went to put her suit back into the closet, and she replayed the message one more time.
"...I dunno, but... Sometimes, I feel like somebody's following me..."
Kana was a model, and she'd recently started appearing on TV, too. Maybe occasionally a fan would spot her out and about in town, take things too far and follow her around. If that was all, then it wasn't really all that worrying yet. But if somebody took it to the extreme...
Sakura picked up the cordless phone and dialled Kana's mobile number. After ringing a few times, she was connected to the answering machine. Apparently, either her phone was switched off, or she was in a place where she was unable to receive calls.
"It's Sakura. I got your message about feeling like you're being followed. Whether you're imagining things or not, try to avoid going out by yourself right now, especially at night. You must have your manager, someone from your agency or someone like that, right? Even that supposed boyfriend of yours. Have one of them escort you home, and don't let them out of your sight until you reach your apartment. Don't let them out of your sight until you've unlocked the door and looked around inside. It might be a good idea to put in a call to your local police station, too. It might be making a big deal out of nothing, but do it anyway. Don't leave it until something's happened and it's too late. You said yourself that you're a 22-year-old woman of unparalleled beauty, Kana. You can never be too careful. I'll check back later. Be sure to take care, won't you?"
Sakura spoke without pause, wondering if she had forgotten to mention anything. That should do for now. Time to wait to hear the full story from Kana directly, and then discuss it together.
Even after she had hung up the phone, Sakura was unable to swallow her unease. Rationally speaking, she knew that she was probably just overthinking things. There was still no proof that someone was out to get Kana, either. But even still, she felt an odd sense of foreboding. Searching for its source, Sakura flashed back to the words she had uttered moments earlier: a 22-year-old woman of unparalleled beauty. Those were the words Kana had used before when they had been talking about the serial killer, "Jack the Ripper".
...No way. It's not possible. I need to stop letting my thoughts get so negative like this. Kana has always liked lighting up the room, and she said that she hasn't been going out much by herself since she started accruing a bit of name recognition. ...It's okay. I've just been reading too many criminology texts, and it's making me jump to conclusions associating everything with heinous crimes. Such a bad habit. Kana would be pissed at me if I told her. Actually, no, I'm pretty sure she'd laugh it off.
Sakura tried to reassure herself, but struggled to quell the anxiety once it had reared its head.
"...Oh, right, I'd better do the laundry. I don't have any blouses to wear tomorrow. I should do the dishes and tidy up, too. Much more productive than sitting around overthinking things," Sakura said to herself, forcing her thoughts to turn towards housework.
The woman pulled into the underground car park beneath her apartment building, parking in her own space. She got out of the car and locked it, shouldering a well-used Boston bag and walking towards the nearby elevator hall. The bag was crammed with items such as make-up tools for work, and was quite heavy as a result, but she was used to it.
The woman's movements were graceful, the heels of her flats clicking as she went. Her well-proportioned body and long legs were clad in a rough jumper of grey cotton and black trousers. Her well-groomed light brown hair was swept back simply with a clip.
It wasn't far now until she made it to the brightly-lit elevator hall. That was when, all of a sudden, the man appeared from the shadows of the pillar right in front of her.
"What are you doing here?" She looked up at the man's face with an expression of puzzlement. He was tall.
"I suddenly had to see you." He smiled.
The woman hesitated, but reluctantly reciprocated the smile. "I wish you'd called first."
"I wanted to surprise you. I remembered the place from when I saw you off before, so I thought I'd come directly."
Sensing something odd in his tone, she frowned. "Well, you've surprised me plenty, so run along home. And don't go doing something like this again, okay? That would be a real shock."
The woman approached the elevator hall, irritated. He'd seemed so lovely when they'd first met, but right now he was really starting to creep her out.
"...Don't make that face at me," the man said in a sad-sounding voice. "There's something I want to ask you. It's very important. Come a little closer, okay...?"
She tried to turn and flee, but the next second she felt herself being grabbed tightly by the arm. The bag on her right arm fell to the ground with a heavy thud. Just before she could scream, something cold was pressed flush against her throat, and her voice caught with fear.
"Don't make a scene. ...Come on, what are you so afraid of...?" he whispered next to her ear.
The woman prayed frantically for one of the other residents to come out, but nobody appeared in the deserted car park.