The institute's firing range was in the annex basement. Its interior, designed purely for functionality, was the colour of lead from wall to wall, and the lighting was dim. It was the type of place where spending a few hours might turn you dark and moody - but perhaps that made it easier to focus on hitting the target without distraction.
At the end of the day's practical training, it was announced that Sakura's score was at the top of her class. She still held onto the consecutive number one position she'd held ever since her training had begun. Her firearms instructor looked at Sakura with admiration.
"If you performed like this, I think you could even clinch the top spot in a competition, if you were to enter one. Want to give it a go?"
"Um... I really don't have that kind of time right now, so I'm not sure..."
"I see. Yes, you're right. Well, have a think about it."
The instructor gave a short nod and left briskly. He must have assumed that it was only natural for a trainee not to have enough free time to consider taking on anything extra. It certainly hadn't been a lie, but Sakura had no interest in competitions. She was learning how to shoot a gun so she could be of use in the future during investigations, not to compete with others, and she didn't particularly like shooting anyway.
Perhaps Sakura had always had an aptitude, since she was able to hit the centre of the target without putting in any particular effort. Since she wasn't putting in the work, it didn't feel like hitting her shots was such a big deal.
She made her way up to the first floor lounge, and was taking a break with her fellow teammates and a weak coffee purchased from a vending machine when suddenly a campus-wide announcement played. It singled out Sakura Natsume, telling her to come straight to the registrar's office.
"Uh-oh, not the dreaded registrar's office summons. What've you been up to, Natsume? Did they find out that you're secretly working behind the scenes as a part-time hitman or something?" Mocking voices filled the room.
"Sounds like decent part-time work. I'll consider it," Sakura dodged casually, tossing her half empty paper cup into the dustbin and making her way briskly down the hallway.
The registrar's office was right inside the front reception of the main building's first floor, connected via a passageway. The interior was visible through a wall whose upper half was made of glass. Inside, she could see her principal instructor standing opposite another man, with whom he was conversing passionately. His companion had his back turned to Sakura, making it impossible for her to tell what sort of person he was. The instructor noticed Sakura quickly, gesturing for her to come inside.
"Sorry I'm late. I'm Sakura Natsume," Sakura said, giving a brisk introduction as she walked through the door.
The man turned around. His double-breasted suit, giving off a high-quality lustre under the white, fluorescent light, was the first thing that caught her eye. It was clear at a glance that the suit was an expensive one. The collar of his shirt shone pearl white, without a single crease. His tie, a chic hue with even its folds balanced, seemed to have been tied with plenty of care. She looked down at his feet, and saw black leather shoes polished to such a shine that she might even be able to see her own face in them. He stuck out horribly in the registrar's office, with its steel desk and disordered clutter.
"So you're Sakura Natsume. You're Daigo Natsume's little girl, currently in training to become a special agent, is that right?" the man asked Sakura, his voice gentle.
"Yes," Sakura replied concisely.
"Were you in the middle of your firearms lesson? I can smell gunpowder smoke on you."
"No, my practical training just ended now."
"The smell of gunpowder smoke is just like cigarette smoke. It ingrains itself into your hair and clothes, even the fingertips that touched the gun. You should be careful. Even if it is part and parcel of the job, women who give off that sort of stench aren't particularly desirable," he said, plucking a piece of lint off the sleeve of his suit with precise movements and dropping it into the bin.
Sakura began to grow irritated. Had she been summoned just to stand around chit-chatting?
"Natsume, this is Special Agent Nakategawa from the HCU. He says there's something he needs to discuss with you." As always, the instructor's words were short and to the point.
The three relocated to the reception office on the opposite side of the hall. With a pretentious gesture of the hand, Nakategawa prompted Sakura to take a seat first. She gave a slight bow of gratitude in response, settling on the edge of the sofa in front of her. Nakategawa sat down on the opposite side, a table sandwiched between them, and the instructor left the room. Somewhat tense, Sakura waited for Nakategawa to begin.
"Let's cut right to the chase, shall we? In the early hours of this morning, the body of a young woman was discovered. We managed to identify the body quickly by her possessions. It was Kana Makino, a model. She was a friend of yours, wasn't she?"
Sakura froze on the spot. She opened her mouth in an attempt to speak, but couldn't find the words and shut it again. The air in the room suddenly felt very thin.
"Are you alright?" came Nakategawa's voice. Sakura nodded reflexively. "What a tragic incident. I won't let the perpetrator of these crimes get away with it. We will catch this guy and make him pay - for the sake of your friend, too. I promise," he said, his voice forceful.
Sakura's face shot up. "'These crimes'? You mean you think this was the work of that serial killer? The one who only goes after 22-year-old women?"
Nakategawa paused briefly as if in thought, before finally nodding. "I guess it can't hurt to tell you that much. Yes, due to the circumstances, we are currently viewing this crime as being the work of the same killer."
"...What kind of state was Kana in when she was found?"
Nakategawa took out a notebook, shaking his head. It wasn't his police ID, but rather an organiser bound with caramel-coloured leather.
"I think it would be better if I didn't answer that. I came here to ask the questions, not to be questioned myself. We actually looked into the call records on the mobile phone that was in Kana's bag, from which we learned that she had made a call to you approximately three hours prior to her estimated time of death. Specifically, that was at, uhh... 9:20 PM. That was the last call she made using that phone. The details of it were incredibly interesting, which is why I came here to discuss it with you."
Incredibly interesting...? Exactly what had she said on the answerphone message? For a moment, in her confusion, she was unable to recall, but soon remembered.
"You were very insistent in the message that she keep an eye out, weren't you? Did Kana feel like she was being stalked often?"
"...Last night, there was a message from Kana on my answering machine. She said she felt like someone was following her. I thought it would be too late if she waited until something happened, so I called her back immediately. I couldn't get through, so I thought I'd leave her a message for the time being."
"I see. So you didn't speak with Kana directly yesterday?"
"No." Sakura's voice was slightly shrill as she replied. If only she'd come home an hour earlier, she would've been able to take the call herself. She would've been able to give her more useful advice, too. Maybe Kana really did have proof somewhere that she was being stalked and simply hadn't mentioned it at the time. If she knew what it was, there would've been something she could have done - before it had been too late.
"Is the message from Kana still on your home answering machine?"
"Would you be willing to turn it in as evidence for the sake of the investigation?"
"I'll send someone to pick it up later. When was the last time you saw Kana?"
"Two days ago. We had dinner together."
Nakategawa continued, asking many more questions - about Kana's friendships, behaviours, recent circumstances and more. Sakura told him everything she could remember, but couldn't imagine that anything within served as a clue as to the killer's identity. Finally, Nakategawa closed his notebook quietly.
"That will be all. Thanks for your cooperation."
Had Nakategawa picked up on something from Sakura's answers? She couldn't read anything in his expression. She saw him off at the front door, wanting to somehow drag even a little more information out of him.
"Why was Kana targeted? Do you think there's some sort of significance in the fact that all of the victims, Kana included, were 22-year-old women?" Sakura asked as they walked down the hall.
"Who knows? The victims have all been 22-year-old women so far. That is a fact. Nobody can say any more than that," Nakategawa replied bluntly. They soon reached the front entrance, giving her no further time to dig. "You should hurry back to your lecture. Trying to get info from me is a waste of time. Just so you know, if I were you I'd make sure not to go getting emotional and running around doing my own thing. I understand how frustrating this must be for you, but to be blunt, it'll just get in the way of the investigation. As long as you're a trainee, you should be dedicating yourself to your studies instead of dwelling on things that don't concern you. I'm sure your father would have wanted the same."
Leaving her with this, his face composed, Nakategawa clicked his way out of the door in his beautifully-polished shoes. He got into a car that had been waiting out front and drove away. As soon as he was out of sight, Sakura kicked the pot of the decorative plant next to her with the sole of her shoe. The pot, a large ceramic one containing a sturdy rubber tree, didn't budge an inch. That got on her nerves, and she was about to kick it again when she realised how stupid it would be for her to sprain her ankle in such a way and changed her mind.
She was utterly furious at everything else, too: herself, for helplessly letting Kana get killed, and the snobby investigator who treated her like a little girl. Still standing in the same spot, Sakura closed her eyes, breathing slowly in and out. She repeated this over and over, beginning to feel herself gradually calm down.
She opened her eyes, stretched her back, and glared out of the glass door at the now-empty spot. Intense determination burned within her eyes. Finally, Sakura began walking energetically down the hallway in the direction of the training room.
For lunch, Sakura decided to go out to eat. The institute was itself equipped with a cafeteria which served passable food for its staff and students. There were a number of eateries nearby, but most of the students, squeezed for time, would dine on the premises.
Even if only for a little while, Sakura wanted some time alone. She wanted to go back over the details of her conversation with Kana, try to figure out whether any clues lay within. She exited the building and began to walk briskly. Her plan was to buy a sandwich or something like that and take it to the park. There was a sizeable park adjacent to the grounds of the institute.
As she was about to cross the street and head to the convenience store on the other side, someone suddenly grabbed Sakura by the shoulder. Her body moved with conditioned reflexes, elbow ramming back and feeling sure resistance. A moment later, an unfamiliar man was writhing on the pavement, clutching his solar plexus.
"...That's just cruel... You can't just go doing that out of the blue..." the man said, sounding pained.
Sakura remained on alert. Still standing at the ready, she put some distance between them and looked down at the man.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"...Is that all you've got to say to the guy you just violently assaulted out of nowhere? This country really has gone to the dogs."
The man finally got to his feet, although his brow was still furrowed in pain. Was he so pale thanks to the elbow Sakura had rammed into his solar plexus? His short hair had been casually combed down. He was forcing a smile, but it didn't reach his eyes. Perhaps it was only natural for a man she'd just flattened to be shooting her dirty looks, though.
"Well, I guess I should've said hi or something first. I just wanted to get ahold of you before you crossed the road and, ya know. I forgot I wasn't just dealing with some little girl."
"You haven't answered my question. Who are you? Let's clear that up first."
The man smiled wryly, holding out a business card. "And all I wanted was to have a nice, friendly chat. Oh, whatever. I'm Tokio Morishima, a reporter with ** News Agency."
Now it was Sakura's turn to frown. "A journalist? And just what are you prowling around here for, exactly? This is a training institute for cadets. We don't have any juicy stories for the likes of you."
"Hey, don't get so pissy with me. Just give me a second to explain. I think you'll find it quite interesting, too, Ms. Sakura Natsume."
Hearing her name come up out of nowhere, Sakura was bewildered.
"How do you know my name?"
Morishima grinned. "I have an intelligence network. You're a friend of Kana Makino, the one who was killed, right?"
Sakura glared daggers at Morishima.
"...Where did you hear that?"
"I know that Sakura Natsume was the last person Kana Makino called, too. Don't glare at me like that. The info was gonna get out eventually anyway. So I wanted to have a little chat with you. I'm convinced that this is the work of that 'Jack the Ripper' guy. The police seem to be on the same page. Right now, I'm looking into that murderer."
"'Jack the Ripper', huh? The case is causing quite a stir amongst the public. I'm sure something like that would carry a pretty hefty price tag," Sakura replied coldly.
"Well yeah, I guess, but I'm not in this for the money. Not that there isn't any on the table, mind you, but there's another reason. I believe that these serial murders are closely tied to another case I'm looking into. That's why I want information. Will you lend me a hand?"
"There's nothing in it for me, and none of this has anything to do with me. Is there some reason why I have to help you?"
"Don't you want to know all the facts of this case, too? Even if you say you're just a trainee, don't you want to solve this case as someone who has intentions of becoming an investigator?"
"Investigating is a job for the police, not a journalist," Sakura asserted curtly. Morishima sighed.
"You're one stubborn lady."
"I'll take that as a compliment. Let me tell you one thing. Kana, the dead girl, was stubborn enough to give me a run for my money. Everyone was fooled by her outward appearance, thinking she was a fragile woman. But she wasn't like that at all. She was strong, smart, pretty, and ambitious. ...There's no way she should've been killed so easily..."
Without realising it, Sakura had begun to cry. She swiped at the falling tears with her fingertips, but they continued to spill one after another, and she was powerless to hold them back.
"H-hey, uh, don't go crying here. I'd rather have you beat the crap outta me again than cry," Morishima said, mild dismay audible in his voice.
"...It's not like I'm crying... because I want to, either...!" Sakura choked out in reply.
"Ah, goddammit... Guess it's time to pack it in for the day. I know a few little tidbits that the police still haven't made public. I know you probably want to know all of the details about the case, and I just thought we could work more efficiently if we exchanged information. Well, your friend was killed. I'm sure you're not in any frame of mind to be thinking about this right now," Morishima muttered, scratching his head.
"Wait," Sakura called as he went to leave. "...Fine. Let's exchange information. Under one condition, though."
"You buy me a sandwich and coffee from that convenience store over there."
In the end, Sakura settled down in the park's picnic area, Morishima in tow.
"First of all, the murder weapon in each case was an exceptionally sharp blade. Like a surgeon's scalpel, or something in that vein. That's what it seems to have been. So far, we have three cases thought to have been the work of one perp. There are questions about whether there might be more we don't know about, as in more bodies that haven't yet been discovered, but that's just speculation."
Morishima paused for a moment, taking a pack of cigarettes out of the chest pocket of his worn leather jacket.
"You mind if I smoke?"
"Go ahead. You're more polite than appearances let on."
"Could've done without that last part."
He plucked a cigarette from the pack and held it between his lips, lighting it with an old Zippo. He exhaled a cloud of smoke, not seeming to especially enjoy the taste, and went on.
"All of the victims are 22-year-old women. Some might suggest that it's a mere coincidence, but now that a third victim has turned up, people seem pretty convinced that this guy's intentionally going after 22-year-old women. Anyone who checks the news could've figured this much out. You knew all of this already, too, right?"
Sakura nodded, bringing her styrofoam cup of coffee to her lips. Warmth spread through the cup into her fingers. Steam drifted faint and white through the slightly chilly air.
"Alright, here comes some info that hasn't been made public. Right now the police are moving in secret, trying to keep this from getting out. Not that I have any idea why."
"Sometimes they'll keep important evidence a secret, so they can use it to figure out what is and isn't true when they arrest a suspect. Plus, in a situation when it's decided that releasing the information in a particularly macabre case will have a serious negative effect on the general population, that information is restricted."
"Aha, I see. You sure do know your stuff, trainee. So they're not just being stingy, then. It's only a matter of time before this is all exposed, though."
"I suppose so. The media aren't exactly known for doing as the police tell them."
"You don't survive in this line of work by being well-behaved. Here goes, disobedient media info numero uno: the condition of the body. Each one of the bodies was spotless."
"Spotless? Then why is the information restricted?"
"Just listen. They're too clean. Aside from the fatal neck wounds, there's barely a scratch on them. Their throats are cut cleanly in a straight line from ear to ear, with the trachea and both the left and right carotid arteries sliced through simultaneously. After he kills them with a single slash, the perp tidies up the body. He lays them down straight, fixes their clothes and puts their hands together on top of their chests, then leaves them there - just like a body lying in rest at a funeral home. And one other thing: each of the bodies have cross marks carved into their foreheads, like some sort of engraving. We're still not sure what that means."
Morishima took a break, sipping his coffee.
"I think I've got a handle on the general outline of the case. What state was Kana found in, then? When and where? If you know the specifics, tell me," Sakura enquired of Morishima. Morishima glanced at her, as if trying to assess the situation. "If it's me you're worried about, don't be. I won't cry or make a scene again."
"You do seem a lot calmer now. Kana Makino's body was discovered this morning, at around 4 AM. The body was behind a bakery a block away from the apartment building where she lived in the southeast part of Area B. There's a space out back where they store wheat flour and stuff like that, like a little vacant lot. You can't see it from the front. As usual, her body was found there, lying like a corpse in a morgue. Judging by the amount of blood left at the scene, she appears to have been killed there. The first person to find the body was, of course, an employee at the bakery - more specifically, a baker. Their main selling point is their freshly-baked bread, and it's open from 7 AM until 6 PM. Obviously, the place is empty at night. There were no witnesses. They apparently start preparing at around 4 AM. Their diligent work ethic backfired, and ended up with them stumbling upon something terrible."
"Come on, now, don't go crying on me."
"I'm not going to cry. Lay off."
"I hope not. So anyway, it looks like Kana was kidnapped from the underground car park of her apartment building, then taken to the scene of the murder. The Boston bag she used a lot was apparently found lying on the floor of the car park. Earlier that day she'd finished up a glamour shoot, leaving the studio after 9 PM. After that, she seems to have driven her own car straight home. Somewhere along the way, she probably called you. Then she left the car, planning to head for her apartment, when..."
"Got it. That's enough."
For a few moments, Sakura closed her eyes, trying to set things straight inside her head with as much composure as she could muster. She looked up, suddenly feeling eyes on her, and saw that Morishima was watching her with a nervous gaze.
"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm not gonna cry!"
"Please don't. Okay, this time I have a question I want you to answer. What did Kana Makino say in her final phone call to you?"
Sakura recounted the same thing she had told the HCU investigator that morning to Morishima.
"Alright. Kana sensed that she was being stalked by someone. But she was killed before you could extend a helping hand."
Sakura bit her lip and nodded.
"The commonalities of the marks carved into their foreheads, and the fact that the victims are all 22 years old. You could say that these are the key. The investigation squad are desperately searching for anything besides this that the victims had in common, but nothing has turned up so far. In terms of occupation and residence, they're all scattered to the wind."
"...The cross marks. What are those? Christian crucifixes? Or the kanji for the number ten?"
"If we're just throwing out possibilities, it might also be a plus sign."
"What could the perp possibily mean by it? Some sort of message?"
"If it is a message, then surely he'd leave the bodies in more conspicuous places? In each case, they were found in locations that wouldn't attract much attention."
"So the other clue is that they're 22 years old?"
"Now that you mention it, how old are you?"
Sakura scowled with displeasure, looking at Morishima.
"I turned 22 on my birthday this year."
"Quite the coincidence, huh?"
"But you'd already looked into that, hadn't you? That felt like it was on purpose."
Morishima grinned. "Yeah, maybe. So is there anything you, as a 22-year-old yourself, can think of? Something only someone of your age would know? Something that happened in the same time, or your upbringing, whatever - maybe there's something hidden within that."
Sakura silently shook her head. She had tried thinking about it before, too, when she had learned more about all of the victims being 22 years old, but hadn't been able to come up with anything.
"I see..."Morishima picked up his sandwich as he pondered, tearing off the vinyl wrapper and beginning to chew. Sakura too, lured in, took a bite of her own sandwich. The convenience store sandwich was the same as always. The bread was squishy, the ham wispy thin, and it hardly tasted of anything. She brought it mechanically to her mouth, washing it down with coffee.
Surrounding the picnic area was a plaza, where straggling conifers such as fir, pine and cedar trees had been planted. As it was lunch break, people could be seen here and there sitting at the benches and eating lunch. Children who appeared to be about pre-school age trailed after a young woman wearing a nursery teacher's pink apron. The children ran and played beneath the conspicuously tall, thick-trunked fir. The fir tree's branches spread out majestically, thick with leaves, seeming like it would make a fine Christmas tree come December.
Sakura watched the children absentmindedly. The sky was a dismal shade of grey. The children's shrill squeals echoed throughout the lead-coloured sky. The tall trees seemed to pierce the cloudy, overcast heavens. I've scene this view before, she thought.
A dark sky, trees like Christmas trees, children's voices... There was a buzzing in her ears.
a crowd of children doing something in a dark place
For a moment, Sakura hallucinated that she was inside her dream. It was the same nightmare she always had. It made her feel like her heart would be crushed under the anxiety.
Somebody, please, hurry and wake me up. That place is scary...
"...A dark place, buildings like Christmas trees..."
"Huh? Hey, what did you just say!?"
She looked up, jolted by Morishima's voice. He was staring straight at Sakura, his face serious. The half-eaten sandwich he had held in his right hand now lay on the ground.
"U-um, it's nothing."
"Nothing? Listen, just repeat that thing you said one more time."
"A dark place, buildings like Christmas trees. I remembered a bad dream I have all the time. There's no deep meaning behind it."
Morishima was apparently no longer paying attention to what was coming out of Sakura's mouth. "22 years old, a dark place, buildings like Christmas trees... No way. The shelter kids!? Then that means the perp must be Kamui...!?"
"Hey, what're you talking about? That Kamui Fujiwara guy? He's currently being detained under heavy surveillance at a mental hospital. It's impossible for him to have done it."
"Don't worry about it, I'm just talking to myself. Forget what I just said." Morishima got to his feet swiftly. "There's somewhere I need to go. Sorry to leave you like this. Contact me if you remember anything."
"Wait a sec!"
Paying no attention to Sakura's words, Morishima quickly vanished into the distance.