Sakura had spent roughly the past 15 minutes staring at the screen of the PC in the reference room. The data on criminals for the database, the deadline for which was tomorrow, had been perfectly compiled. She had been pushing herself to the limit for days to get it done. Later, she would submit it to the instructor and have him check it. Then it would be all over with... but.
"Nothing else for it."
Sakura had made up her mind. Tapping at the keys, she deleted several items, shut down the system and stood up from her seat. She ran a few already-input pages of data through the shredder in the room's corner, cutting it up into tiny, unreadable little pieces, and left the reference room with the remaining data in her arms.
As she declared that the data from her meeting with Sumio Kodai was inadequate, Sakura's instructor frowned.
"How had you not noticed this before now? Didn't you check it?"
"Yes, I thought I had, but... This is entirely an oversight on my part."
Sakura bowed her head deeply. She had already destroyed the evidence for when she was told to hand over at least what she had managed to finish. As she was neither a relative of Sumio Kodai nor his lawyer, this was the only way she had of securing visitation with him. He was the only one whose opinion Sakura could ask regarding the darkness within the criminal's mind.
A fully-fledged investigator would probably be able to meet with him as many times as was necessary, but that sort of privilege was not available to the likes of a trainee. And even if it were, Sakura would have been warned off it by that pompous special agent. She wanted to avoid standing out.
Even while muttering complaints, the instructor had gone about securing her visitation. A few days later, Sakura returned to the detention centre for the first time in a while. The visiting room looked exactly the same has it had the last time. She could observe no changes in the appearance of Sumio Kodai as he was led in by a guard, either. It's like time has come to a complete standstill here, Sakura thought. She had heard that the greatest punishment to a prisoner was boredom. The monotony of living every day under the complete control of someone else was apparently the most painful thing of all.
Just like on her first visit, he was completely expressionless as he entered the room. When he saw Sakura's face through the glass, however, his face flickered slightly.
"It's been a while, hasn't it?" Sakura said in greeting to Kodai, who sat opposite her, separated by the glass.
"Haven't you finished your work already?" he replied in an even voice.
"I have finished writing up the data. I came here today on a different matter. There's something I just have to ask you."
"Hmm. And what might that be? I'd rather not answer any personal questions."
"It's not that. Have you heard about the serial killings that have been taking place recently?"
"Is this about Jack the Ripper?"
"That's right. It seems as though some third-rate journalists find it amusing to call him that. The last time I met with you, you told me that I had to connect with the darkness inside my own mind in order to understand criminals. Is the same true of the killer in this case, too? I'd like to hear your thoughts on what form the darkness inside his mind takes."
Kodai set his perfectly laced fingers upon the counter, watching Sakura intently.
"I have a question of my own."
"Is the dark area around your eyes a case of failed make-up, or are those dark circles from fatigue? If it's your make-up, you'd better stop doing it like that. It doesn't suit you."
Sakura took a deep breath, leaned forwards and brought her face closer to the glass partition. It was red with rage.
"I see you're still good at making fun of others. But I don't have time to be playing your silly games anymore. My friend was murdered. My very best friend. Even if I wanted to help out with the investigation, that gross, up-his-own-ass old cop would just tell me not to stick my nose in like I'm just a little girl, and that shabby reporter just squeezes the information out of me without returning the favour, and I'm so exhausted that every night when I go to sleep I'm tormented by bad dreams, and there are always cockroaches in the reference room, and my martial arts training gives me bruises, and every single day it's just more of this bullshit! Even just to get this meeting with you, I had to destroy the data I'd worked so hard to collect. I can't live a life of luxury right now. Even if it gives me dark circles, even if it gives me pimples, I don't have time to be fussing over my skin!!"
Sakura had intended to hold back quite a lot, bearing the guard in the corner of the room in mind, but couldn't help her voice becoming rough near the end. The guard glanced over, but quickly returned his attention to the log in his hand upon confirming that Kodai appeared calm.
Once she was done speaking, Sakura sat back in her chair. She closed her eyes, trying to calm herself down somehow. Before, she would have already thrown in the towel and gone home. Today's Sakura, however, planned on persevering for as long as it took.
Suddenly, she heard a small laugh. Looking up in shock, Sakura saw that Sumio Kodai was watching her with a smile upon his handsome face.
"You're right. Life is mostly bullshit, but even if you shout and curse, you have no choice but to keep going. That's what you believe, isn't it? Just like I used to."
A twinkle of enjoyment shone within his formerly clear, emotion-devoid eyes. For the blink of an eye, Sakura felt like she glimpsed the look he had worn when he had worked as an excellent detective with a bright future.
"Everyone has darkness within their minds. The form that darkness takes differs from person to person," he began, maintaining his calm tone. "My own darkness was within Mikumo forest. My light, too, existed there at the same time. You've already looked into all of my records, haven't you?"
Sakura nodded. Sumio Kodai was from Mikumo. He had been caught up in the conflict that had occurred there 20 years earlier as a result of an issue involving pollution and lost his hearing. Two other boys, childhood friends of his, had also lost their sight and vocal organs respectively at the same time. Another child, a girl they were friends with, had been murdered.
Later, he became the ringleader of a criminal group which was responsible for a string of events - including the kidnapping of President Yukimura and the bombing of the company's headquarters - which were assumed to have been carried out in order to exact revenge upon the Yukimura Group, the owner of the factory that was the cause of Mikumo's pollution.
The reason this remained mere speculation was because the investigation headquarters sealed the file without ever releasing the information pertaining to it. The entire media wrote scandalous articles about the case, the criminal having actually been one of the investigators himself, but hardly any dug deep enough to connect these incidents to the one that took place in Mikumo 20 years earlier. Some said that political power had been in play, but the actual truth of the matter remained a mystery.
"20 years ago, when I was six years old, we were captured by a mob of people who had been driven mad by waste liquid discharged by the factory. I lost sound, and my two friends each lost their sight and words. At the same time, the life of the girl who had shone like a beacon of hope was defiled in the worst possible way, and stolen from her. The light left, and a deep darkness took root within me. The days between then and deciding to go through with the incident were a fight to seize that darkness haunting me from within and wrangle it into submission."
"...Did the friends you met after leaving Mikumo not support you? Mr. Kusabi, for example?"
"Once it's been broken, something can't go back to the way it was ever again. However well you mend it, you can't say it's identical to what it used to be. People are the same way. Even once a wound has healed, its memory lingers. You can't go back to that unsullied state. Just like the way someone who has been killed is never coming back. You should understand that better than anyone."
Sakura was unable to reply. Kodai continued.
"At the end of a fight, you are left with two choices. Do you carry the darkness within yourself, living on while you wait patiently for the day when it eventually rots and corrupts you? Or do you annihilate everything, the darkness along with it, before the rot progresses? I chose the latter. My friends supported me in my decision. They were being consumed by the darkness, too. To put an end to it all, we blew up the entirety of the village of Mikumo, the entirety of that darkness, without leaving a trace. The darkness vanished, and now nothing is left of me but a dried-out husk. ...I still dream, though. I think it's strange. Everything returned to nothing, and there should be nothing left inside me now, but I still have them."
"What do you dream about?"
"Mikumo forest. The place where it all began, and where it all ended. Our hallowed ground, enclosed by thick greenery. For a while, our hope definitely existed there. My beautiful recollections and sinister memories intermingle in the scenery of that forest. My darkness still exists there, and it always will."
Kodai suddenly trailed off. He was facing Sakura, but he had a faraway look in his eyes. He must be seeing Mikumo forest, Sakura thought.
"You said earlier that you have bad dreams, too. I'd like to hear about these nightmares," Kodai said, his expression suddenly reverting back to what it had been before.
"...It's a dream about a dark place. It's gloomy, wide open, with a high ceiling. It's like a sort of huge shelter. There are tall buildings like Christmas trees inside it."
"Yes. The buildings are conical, and there are several dim lamps in red and yellow on their external walls. There are lots of small children at this place, but they all have vacant eyes and are eerily quiet. And I always hear a mechanical vibration, like the buzzing of a bee. That's what the dream is like."
"That doesn't sound like a bad enough dream to be keeping you up at night."
"I don't understand it, either, but that place scares me. It makes me so anxious. It's always been like this. My dreams of that place have always been pretty much the same, but yesterday's was a bit different. That man was there."
"Jack the Ripper appeared in your dream?"
Sakura nodded. "Mr. Kodai. You told me to focus on the darkness within myself. You said that if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to understand the state of mind of a criminal. I think that my own darkness is inside that nightmare. I just don't know exactly what it is yet. That darkness is somehow tied to Jack the Ripper. What I think is that if I can grasp the darkness inside me, I will be able to see something about the killer I've been blind to up until now. I wanted you to help me do that, which is why I came here."
For a little while, Kodai remained silent, staring Sakura straight in the eyes. His gaze was direct and transparent, like he could see straight through her.
"You're 22 years old, aren't you?"
"? Yes, that's right, but..."
"Have you ever heard the phrase 'shelter kids'?"
Sakura leaned forwards. "You've heard it, Mr. Kodai!? Please tell me. What is it?"
"Trace back the roots of your own past. Your father must have known everything. Look for any records he left behind; somebody who remembers something from a time when you were too young to. That's where you'll find all of the answers you seek."
Sakura got to her feet enthusiastically.
"Wait. Sometimes there are things you're better off not trying to recklessly expose. Do you know the Greek myth about Pandora's box?"
"When she opened the lid, all of the calamities were loosed upon the earth. In the blink of an eye they ate away at all things, filling the once pure lands with cries of suffering."
He suddenly trailed off. Sakura waited for him to continue, but Kodai didn't seem to have anything more to say on the matter. Sakura searched his face for any sign of his intentions, but Kodai simply stared straight back at her with the same blank eyes she had seen when they had first met. Finally, he opened his mouth as if suddenly recalling something.
"One more thing. There's something I want to ask you out of sheer curiosity."
"Jack the Ripper is a case that should obviously be handled by the Heinous Crimes Unit. That 'up-his-own-ass old cop' you mentioned earlier must be an investigator there. Who did you mean by that?"
"Special Agent Nakategawa."
"Hmph. I knew it." He nodded, as if in understanding.
"...Thank you for all of the advice."
Sakura bowed her head and left the visiting room.
As soon as she had finished reporting back at the institute, Sakura made her way home. When she had moved here, she had put all of her father's records and such into several cardboard boxes and stuffed them into a closet, where they had resided ever since. She had stowed them away mechanically, without properly checking their content, and as such didn't even know what they were about.
Back then, she hadn't been able to handle going through each of the records her father had left behind. Sakura wanted to quickly forget that pain and get back on her feet. This had been the only thing on her mind at the time, and there was no way she would have been capable of going back over the past.
The closet in her bedroom was normally used in place of a storage room. From deep amidst the out-of-season garments and junk that had been tossed in at random, Sakura dug out the boxes she was looking for. Fragments of her father's left behind past had been packed into two large cardboard boxes. She peeled off the tape sealing them shut one at a time.
As anticipated, inside were items such as photo albums and data regarding the cases her father worked on. Amongst the albums, she found one showing her father from the time when he had been assigned to Precinct 24 as an officer, as well as photographs of her mother in her youth. The rest were all albums filled with photographs documenting Sakura's growth in order from her birth onwards.
As she flipped through the pages of the albums, Sakura noticed something: there were no records of her between the ages of two and four. Each of the albums had consecutive numbers written on their covers in her father's orderly hand. Each individual photo had its own caption, too, sorted by year. But after the album titled Sakura's second birthday, all of the remaining pages had been left blank. Checking through the next numbered album, she found that it abruptly began with a photo titled Sakura, four years old.
Since she had never taken a good look at her own childhood photos before, Sakura had never noticed. She had looked through the albums several times in the past in search of photographs of her mother, who had died mere months after Sakura was born, in her younger days, but had never been interested in photos of her own young self. She looked around, wondering if perhaps they had simply fallen out and got mixed up inside another album, but found nothing. The records for those two years were completely blank. But why?
Sakura decided to check the other records, but found nothing of note. Most of the other items were records of old cases her father had worked on, or correspondence about old report cards of Sakura's.
"I understand the case records, but why would he keep something like this stashed away for safekeeping in his study? That would just be confusing," Sakura murmured in shock, staring at the correspondence notebook from her kindergarten days.
"Last night, Sakura fell over in the bathroom and gave herself a lump. The doctor said it was nothing to worry about, but if anything seems unusual about her, please contact me immediately. - Daigo Natsume"
Sakura read it aloud, giggling. It was a note to her preschool teacher, written neatly in her father's square handwriting. Tears suddenly threatened to spill out as she laughed, and Sakura hurriedly closed the book.
"I'm not going to cry anymore. I don't have time for that," she said to herself, opening the next box.
This time, the box was filled with items that had belonged to her father and been returned to her by the police, such as his uniform, change of clothes and notebooks. Consciously shutting off her emotions, Sakura examined each article, but made no new discoveries.
Sakura let out a sigh. What if her father had hidden something amongst the many books that had been kept in his study? If he had, this was going to be a real headache. When she had moved, Sakura had given all of his books to a second hand bookshop. She had let them go for dirt cheap, but was glad not to have to go to all of that trouble herself. The trader and Sakura had briefly checked through the books together at the time, but hadn't looked too closely. If, for example, something had been slipped between the pages of one of the books, she might have overlooked it. Should she contact the trader and ask?
"Is this my punishment for getting rid of your treasured books? I mean, it's not like I had a choice!" Sakura grumbled to her unseen father, checking the interrupted album once more.
The album was an awfully elegant one, apparently received as a birthday present from somebody to Sakura, the sort you wouldn't see often these days. The cover, bound with faded pale pink silk satin, had flowers and angels embroidered upon it in gold and silver thread, with Sakura's Growth stitched in fancy gold lettering.
Sakura stared closely at the bulky cover. She had seen an album like this somewhere else before. It was when she had gone to celebrate the birth of a child to a friend who had got married right out of high school. The album she saw then looked like this one, its cover heavy and bearing pictures and letters, and a small key on the inside which would play a lullaby when wound. A music box was contained within the bulk of the cover.
Sakura opened the album she held in her hand again. Taking a closer look, she saw a tiny indentation in one area. She pushed it with her finger, and discovered that there was a hole roughly two centimetres in diameter beneath a covering of cloth. Someone had replaced the cover's lining from above. The hole was exactly the right size to fit a music box winding key.
"Somebody tore off the lining and took out the music box mechanism. What for, then? Taking out the mechanism would create a gap, and you could put something else inside in its place. Of course."
Without a moment's hesitation, Sakura gripped the cover's lining, tearing at the edges of the cloth with her nails, and the rest easily followed in one go, revealing thick cardboard with a hole in it. Peering inside, Sakura found that something was indeed in there. The card was tough, and wouldn't come off. Finally, she managed to force it open using a pair of scissors.
"I'll fix it right up later," she said in excuse to no one in particular, and looked inside.
What she found within was a single disk. It seemed to be a fairly old make, but was probably usable. The one Sakura used now was a new version of one from the same maker that her father had also used long ago. If luck was on her side, it might just work.
Sakura headed to the living room, disk in hand. She tossed it into the disk drive of the PC that sat on the desk in the corner of the room and booted up the system. Sakura acknowledged that she was being overly rough in her handling of the disk, but lacked the time to check it out in detail. If it crashed, she'd deal with that when it came to it. She could come up with something later.
Sakura moved the mouse, directing the PC to open the contents of the disk. A list of files began to appear on the screen.
"Score!" Sakura blurted jubilantly, her gaze fixed upon the screen.
According to the titles, the files seemed to contain things such as her father's notes dated 20 years ago, several pieces of image data, and an investigation report about a kidnapping case 20 years ago. Looking further down the list, Sakura spotted one entitled Outline of Primary Shelter Kids Policy. In the row immediately beneath this, she saw the title Secondary Shelter Kids Scheme.
"There it is. This is it...!"
Sakura first opened the file reading Primary. Somebody - most likely her father - had gathered a variety of data and summarised it therein. According to that data, the Primary Shelter Kids Policy had been enacted 24 years prior. It had been planned as a programme "to raise creative and productive children for the future", its aim being to revitalise the entire nation, and had been carried out on a large scale basis as the "Primary Shelter Kids Scheme". This test involved a broad appeal seeking male children aged two nationwide, with the 1440 children who passed the examination being assembled at an educational institution equipped with cutting edge facilities, spending two years there undergoing special education that extended to every part of their daily activities. The children who participated in the project continued to receive benefits even after its conclusion, with their tuition paid as a bonus through middle and high school.
Accompanying the project file were newspaper articles, official government bulletins and more from the time it had been announced. Each of the articles dealt heavily with the effectiveness of the project, as well as several of the children who had been assembled from all over the country to undergo the examination and their families.
But there was more inside the file. This data was noted to have been acquired via the group of educators that was actually involved with the project, but there was no mention of the specific route by which it was obtained. The means, therefore, seemed certain to have been unlawful. Its content was shocking.
What they had actually been trying to achieve through the Shelter Kids Project was a special kind of psychological manipulation. The children were housed inside the educational facilities created for this purpose, undergoing a variety of experimental schooling. The purpose behind all of this was to implant loyalty to the TRO/CCO alliance, an influential group within the government who were the project's sponsors, via psychological manipulation. Their ultimate goal was to create people who would even carry out crimes under government orders, should it prove necessary. It was for this reason that they had gathered children possessing superior attributes from all over the country, hand-picking the best of the bunch and "educating" them. The children had the necessary intelligence, force of will and athletic abilities instilled into them on a subconscious level in order to accomplish this.
The base for this pattern had been a person named Kamui Uehara. He was the perpetrator of a series of assassinations of high-ranking government officials that had occurred approximately a year prior to the SCP being announced, after which he had been shot dead by Tetsugoro Kusabi, an investigator who had been on the case. There had been a shooting at the TV tower, where the headquarters of the at-the-time influential political force of the TRO/CCO alliance (tech faction/civic faction alliance) were housed, in which a dozen of the top brass had been murdered. This later came to be known internally as "the silver case" to the police.
That killer had been Kamui Uehara. He was assumed to be a contracted killer acting alone, but the client was ostensibly unknown. However, many assumed that he had been hired by the FSO (frontier faction), which possessed influence rivalling that of the alliance at the time. As a result of this incident, the FSO lost the public's support, and its influence waned overnight.
The Shelter Kids Policy project team had their eyes on Kamui Uehara's superior criminal abilities, and examined the patterns of his behaviour, daily life and thoughts for analysis. These attributes were incorporated into the programme given to the children. In other words, the children had been artificially implanted in a thorough manner with the habits of a criminal.
Having read this far, Sakura was left dumbfounded. How had such a thing been allowed? The government had selected and segregated children with promising futures, planting the sprouts of a criminal within them...? It was horrific. She could think of no other word to describe it. Was this what that reporter, Morishima, had been talking about? In terms of age, the male children who had participated in the primary phase of the policy would now, 24 years later, be 26 years old. It would make sense if the killer had been a participant in the project, too. His efficient MO was viewed by many as the work of a professional whose job involved the handling of blades. Sakura sighed, running her hands roughly through her short hair in irritation.
"...I still don't get what any of this has to do with me. Or why my father was secretly investigating the Shelter Kids and hiding all of these documents..."
Muttering to herself, Sakura looked at the list of remaining files. She opened the file titled Secondary Shelter Kids Policy. Its contents were even more abhorrent than that of the Primary Project.
For this project, there didn't seem to be any publicly released data. All of it had been plotted and executed behind closed doors. Her father must have obtained these documents through the same route as those for Project One.
Project Two had been proposed by the influence who were opposed to the powers-that-be within the government who had set up Project One, in order to oppose it. Project One had been intended to continue into the future with the same staff as Project Two and Project Three and onwards. Once the two-year project had concluded, however, the situation changed, and the project was put on ice. Apparently, it had no longer been possible to secure the budget for its continuation. The facilities were shut down and left unused, handed off to another jurisdiction. It was planned to eventually be sold off and privatised, in an attempt to supplement the national budget in any way possible.
The opposing influence to the central government took note of this, using several shell corporations as intermediaries and gaining control of the facilities. They continued to gather staff through methods such as buy-outs, creating the Secondary Shelter Kids Project for them. That had been 20 years ago. The second wave of staff gathered only baby girls aged two using unlawful methods, carrying out their education as planned.
Unlawful methods? What does that mean?
Sakura figured that out very quickly as she read on. Using the network of educational organisations nationwide, they had selected promising-looking children who met the criteria and kidnapped them. 1000 children had been made to participate in Project Two. That meant that there had been an incident in which 1000 two-year-old children had been serially kidnapped nationwide.
As for the children's education and psychological manipulation, they were programmed to follow the same conditions as in Project One, with the only difference being the subject to whom they swore fealty. In Project Two, these female children were educated to stand in opposition against the copies of Kamui Uehara that were created by Project One. Emulating the way in which the boys of Project One had been known as Kamui copies, the girls of Project Two were called Ayame copies. It was unsure where the name Ayame had come from, exactly, but it was conjectured to be in reference to the word ayameru, meaning "to kill a person".
For two years, the children were confined there, after which they were returned to their parents. The children who had been kidnapped and vanished had miraculously been found safely two years on, they said. Sakura gave it a cursory run-through and closed the file.
Sakura had already realised a certain fact: 20 years ago, for two years. It perfectly matched with the missing records from Sakura's album.
She opened a file entitled Serial Kidnappings Case. It consisted of thoroughly put-together newspaper articles from the time and police investigation records. Roughly midway down the alphabetically-sorted list of names, she found "Sakura Natsume".
Then... That means that I was one of the children who were kidnapped, too...? Her ears began to ring.
a dark place. where did Dad go...?
With such calm that it baffled Sakura herself, she accepted this as reality.
"I have to make sure," she said to herself, opening the remaining file.
It was a note that her father had written. According to it, he had volunteered himself to join in with the investigation, but had been taken off the case due to the consideration of his private affairs. It was a case in which his own daughter had been a victim. Apparently, it had been decided that there was a risk of his personal emotions disrupting the investigation.
But even later on, in the intervals between future cases her father worked on, he had taken several leaves of absence and continued the investigation privately. He seemed to have been of the mind that it was down to cleverly orchestrated sabotage that the investigation had stalled. If such a large-scale kidnapping were to occur all over the country, there would be public outcry. No matter how much pressure the government applied from the very top, there was simply no way they could abort the investigation.
And so, while making it look to all appearances as if a frantic investigation was ongoing, terrible turmoil continued to erupt internally. In the end, by the time the children were released from the project two years later, the investigation had hardly progressed at all. Sakura felt as though she could sense her father's regrets and gruelling efforts in between the lines of the note.
Finally, via a certain route, her father had finally sniffed out the existence of Project Two. At the same time, he had learned of the terrible intentions hidden away within Project One, too. But it wasn't until after the children had been released that he determined the location of the facility where the project had been undertaken. Although Sakura had been returned to him safe and sound, once he had learned of the inhumane nature of the project, his pride as a police officer made her father feel compelled to lay it bare in its entirety.
In the end, however, the notes that her father had written faithfully for the two years and some months following Sakura's kidnapping ended abruptly. Afterwards, he had stowed the data on a disk, sealing it inside the cover of Sakura's photo album. What had led to him doing such a thing, and what internal conflict had he struggled with? She had no way of knowing for certain, but Sakura could take a good guess.
The people he was dealing with were an organisation that could casually pull off even kidnappings in order to accomplish their goals. They wouldn't so much as hesitate to use the life of his daughter as a bargaining chip in order to threaten him.
Finally, Sakura opened the attached video data. Displayed upon the screen was a crowd of Christmas tree-like buildings standing in a place resembling a dimly-lit dome. She didn't need to check to know that this was all footage of the facilities that had been used in the project. The ringing in her ears that had been continuing for some time grew louder.
Waah, waah, waaaaaah...
It went on, sounding almost like children crying. Was it the children in that place who were crying?
No. Sakura's childhood memories, which had up until that point been hazy, suddenly came flooding vividly back. Amongst them, she recognised the scenery from her dreams. The children there didn't cry. They couldn't cry. They always appeared both sleeping and awake, all the time in that gloomy space. How long after leaving that place had Sakura regained her tears? It must have taken incredible effort on the part of those around her, her father especially.
With a start, Sakura came back down to earth, realising that she was crouching curled up tightly in front of the desk - just like a frightened child. She covered her face with her hands. Her fingertips were as cold as ice.
"...It's okay, it's okay. It's not scary like it used to be. After all, if you can figure out the cause, the anxiety is as good as halfway solved. If you can figure out the cause, you can face up to it..." she recited to herself in a mutter.
Who said that to me again...? Oh, right, that sweet-toothed doctor.
The sight from the diner surfaced in her mind. The bright restaurant; Chinami taking her order in a lively voice. The aroma of coffee. Minato sitting there, a golden pumpkin pie before him, listening to Sakura speak with a grave look on his face.
The warmth gradually began creeping back into her fingertips. Sakura stood up, stretching and taking a deep breath. All of a sudden her shoulders, back and muscles were stiff as a board. Come to think of it, she had begun looking around for the documents as soon as she had got home, and hadn't even changed yet. She had just barely had time to take off her navy blue jacket, but her cotton jumper and grey woollen trousers were caked in dust.
Sakura padded slowly towards the bedroom. A few minutes later, having changed out of her clothes, she sat on the living room sofa with a warm cup in one hand. She finally felt as though she understood the meaning behind the words that reporter, Morishima, had said before. She didn't know how Morishima had got his hands on the info, but he knew all about the Shelter Kids Project.
Had he guessed that the victims had been participants in Project Two using their all being 22 years of age and the description of Sakura's dream as hints? The participants of Project Two would turn 22 that year. Was it a Kamui copy who was killing the women? Or could several Kamui copies be killing off the Ayame copies in succession? But if so, what significance did the ritualistic manner in which the bodies were left bear? The corpses had been left as if in rest, crosses carved into their foreheads. There must be some deeper meaning behind this than simple extermination.
"Kamui... Could it be Kamui?" she tried murmuring aloud.
Sakura thought back to the incident that had occurred that January. Sakura had still been at university then, not long before her graduation in March. Kamui Fujiwara, a serial killer being held at a mental hospital, had escaped and killed five people before being abruptly arrested. Two years earlier, Kamui Fujiwara had been the source of many incidents within Ward 24, committing murder after murder. After many people fell victim to him, he had been apprehended by the Heinous Crimes Unit, but had been diagnosed as having diminished capacity and therefore legally unaccountable during the ensuing psychiatric examination, leaving him detained at the hospital under heavy police supervision.
Then, that January, he had killed a member of hospital personnel and broken out, after which he set about one by one murdering the women he had engaged in prior relationships with. The following investigation, however, determined that it had been a former girlfriend of his named Ayame Shimohira, 21 years old at the time, who had guided him in his flight from the hospital and murdered the victims.
As she underwent questioning, Ayame Shimohira had attacked a police investigator and made her getaway. Three members of the Secret Security Division's Special Forces Unit, including Sakura's father, were mobilised in her arrest, and all of them had been killed by Ayame. Afterwards, following Ayame's trail, it had been Sumio Kodai who had cornered and apprehended her.
When Sakura had heard the news of his death, she had thought that there was no way he could possibly have been killed by a lone young woman of her own age. It had been impossible for her to accept. But what if Ayame Shimohira had been an "Ayame copy" created by Project Two? What if she had had latent criminal abilities planted within her?
Society ran rampant with a variety of speculation, nobody knowing the exact motive behind the two killers' crimes. What would happen if one thought of all of the facts together?
The children who had been made to participate in the first and second Shelter Kids projects had the pattern of Kamui Uehara, the culprit in the "Silver Case", sown within them 20 years earlier. For Project One, boys were brought together and referred to for the sake of convenience as "Kamui copies". They would be 26 years old by now. For Project Two, on the other hand, girls had been assembled, and were known as "Ayame copies". They would currently be 22 years old.
Amongst the children who were Kamui copies, was it possible that there had been Kamui Fujiwara, who would later go on to become a serial killer? The Kamui copies had had the behaviour of a criminal thoroughly embedded into them by the project, after all.
Kamui Fujiwara, too, had been a name he had gone by in the days before he committed crimes, and his actual identity remained unclear. Databanks of municipalities all across the country had been scoured, but his family register supposedly did not exist. Kamui Uehara, who committed a crime approximately 20 years earlier and was shot dead, and Kamui Fujiwara, who had committed murders two years ago and was guessed to be roughly 26 years of age - what did the similarity of their names mean?
Ayame, on the other hand, had her own family register, and although both of her parents had already died of illnesses, records of them as a family did exist. Was her name being Ayame and the naming of "Ayame copies" a coincidence? She was currently 22 years old, too. Her age matched perfectly. It would make sense for Kamui Fujiwara and Ayame Shimohira to have been participants in Project One and Project Two, respectively.
If there were a contradiction, it was that Kamui Fujiwara and Ayame Shimohara were lovers. The Ayame copies had been created in opposition to the Kamui copies. If the psychological manipulation that was part of the project worked properly, they must surely be antagonistic with each other. Since there are still so many unknowns regarding human psychiatry, could some sort of error have occurred? When you are conscious of a person, inducing some sort of emotional swings blurs the line between love and hate. Maybe it wouldn't be so unexpected that a tiny error in a programme designed to make them hate one another could actually end up creating the exact opposite type of relationship.
Somewhere during the process of investigating Ayame Shimohira's past, had Sumio Kodai, the cop lauded for having been the one to apprehend her, learned about the Shelter Kids Project?
Kamui was now, as before, being held at a mental hospital. There had been no word of him attempting to escape. His personality had completely disintegrated, and he was unable to speak anything intelligible. Aside from that, she knew nothing of his current status. Ayame Shimohira, on the other hand, remained in police custody, and her trial was underway.
Did that mean that there truly were other Kamui copies, then? And were they still hunting down the young female Ayame copies? Yes, they probably were. Countless people would continue to be killed, now and in the future, until the person responsible was caught.
I need to report these deductions to someone in order to stop that from happening, Sakura thought, but couldn't bring herself to make any phone calls right away. If she contacted the Heinous Crimes Unit, someone would come immediately to take away the disk as evidence, and Sakura would be forced back onto the sidelines as usual. No - if they suspected that Sakura herself was an Ayame copy, they would have her tailed by a police escort, leaving her even more helpless. In the worst case scenario, it was even possible that they might have her put in isolation somewhere else under the pretence of protection. Actually, she could think of even worse things than that, too.
Why had her father sealed away those documents? With that question in mind, she couldn't go carelessly revealing their existence. From her father's notes, she inferred that there were others within the police, too, who were under the thumb of the political powers who had been the string-pullers behind the first and second Shelter Kids projects. Openly letting the police know of the existence of those documents would be tantamount to loudly announcing her location to the poachers who might be lurking anywhere. It was also a certainty that some sort of pressure would be applied to Sakura herself, and if she didn't go along with it she would be expelled from the Institute for the Training of Special Agents.
"I definitely wouldn't have the time to sit back and think about something at my own leisure like that," Sakura muttered dryly.
Yes - it would turn into a huge issue that would make all of those people who had been involved with the projects withdraw from society if it went public. They would resort to threats, abductions, confinement, murder - anything to avoid that. That was why her father had backed down - most likely in order to protect Sakura's life.
What do I do? What should I do?
Sakura held her head in her hands and let out a deep sigh that made her felt as though she would sink into the depths of the earth.
When dawn came, she had still hardly slept. Sakura dressed herself, leaving home a fair bit earlier than usual. She stopped by the row of mailboxes standing in the first floor foyer, peering inside the one marked with her apartment's number. She had remembered that she had forgotten to check upon arriving home the previous evening.
Mixed in with a bundle of junk mail was a single fairly large envelope made of high-quality white paper, which caught Sakura's eye. The name seemed to have been typed out using a PC or word processor. It read SAKURA NATSUME in black print, but there was no written address, and of course neither a stamp nor a postmark. That meant that someone had personally come to deliver it and put it inside her mailbox. She checked the back, but found no sender's name. A chill ran down Sakura's spine. She had a bad feeling about this.
She tried holding it up to the light to see through it, but the paper was thick and no light would pass through. She shook it next to her ear and it rustled, like something light was inside. Still standing in the tiled, penetratingly cold entrance foyer, Sakura boldly opened the envelope with slightly trembling fingers.
There seemed to be a folded slip of paper inside. She inserted her fingers and fished it out, and as she did so, something smoothly slipped out of the envelope along with it. The thing, like thin, black thread several centimetres in length, fell to the tiled ground, fanning out lightly where it lay.
Sakura fought to remain calm as she observed one of the strands that had become wrapped around the slip of paper. It was a tuft of cut-off hair. From it, she could smell a faint floral scent. It was a woman's hair.
All at once, Sakura felt like throwing up. She pressed a hand to her mouth, fighting it back, holding herself there and opening the folded paper. Typed in the same black letters as the recipient's name was a single brief row of letters.
Is the messiah coming?
She had no idea what that was supposed to mean. There was one thing she knew for certain, though.
"...It's my turn next."
She couldn't drag anyone else into this. She didn't even know who she could trust. Even the urge to throw up had vanished. Sakura stood frozen to the spot.