Movement in the atmosphere: a breeze. The night’s jet-blackness dissipated as cold moonlight spilled through the parting clouds, casting the outline of the forest bluish-white. Mineo Komaku sat crouched in the shadows of a dried-out sluice, exhaling into his cotton gloves to warm his fingers while in the same motion easing back the bolt of his Murata Type 20 rifle to check for a live round in the chamber before relocking it: a combination of actions he’d already repeated several times in a matter of minutes.
Settle down, old boy!
Komaku took a deep breath and forcefully exhaled in an attempt to calm his nerves, now grasping the rifle’s stock in both hands as he quickly surveyed his surroundings. The white trunks of rows of apple trees bent and swayed around him in the wind, casting shadows that looked like skeletons in the moonlight. They wriggled and loomed, at times making Komaku feel as thought they might pounce upon him at any moment.
Get it together!
He felt a slight brush against his skin and bolted upright, nervously scanning the shadows for a lurking presence, but there were only the whisper of the windblown treetops, the sound of flowing water, and the rustle of an army of field mice foraging food for winter in the tall, dead grass. All was as peaceful as it should be, but something was coming.
A sudden parting in a stand of apple trees caught his eye, blotting out the moonlight. Lifting his gaze, Komaku noticed a gaping void of darkness straight ahead, sure that if there was something out there, then it would come from that spot—years in the field and plain old hunter’s intuition made him sure of it. He took another deep breath and forcefully exhaled as he slowly raised the rifle with dead-aim on the darkness ahead of him. He wondered what it could be. A spirit? Ridiculous. A monkey, perhaps? Or a deer? No, it couldn’t be either. A black bear. Yes, that’s what it was. It had to be a black bear, what else? Komaku was a veteran hunter, but he was terribly nervous. Hunting after dark was strictly prohibited, and this would be the first time that he’d hunted either alone or late at night. But he was here, nonetheless, and he knew that his single-shot Murata gave him only one chance to put the bear down: if he missed, then he’d be done for.
He waited for what must have been hours. The effects of the alcohol from the few drinks he’d had earlier in the evening had begun to wear off, and he was getting cold. He blew again into his gloves to try and warm his hands but his fingers were already numb beyond repair. With a glance at his watch he saw that it was after 2:00 a.m.
Humph! I guess it isn’t coming, after all!
His target had been in his sights only a moment ago, but now it was gone. He needed a cigarette and a drink, and he longed for his wife’s supple warmth. Maybe this was no night for hunting, he thought. Maybe he should pack up and head home. Then it happened—a sudden shift in the wind that sent the field mice scurrying. Something was approaching—he could feel it. It had to be the beast. Komaku got onto his knees and pressed the rifle stock to his shoulder, steadying his aim as he pointed the muzzle into the night.
Sounds in the darkness: treetops rustling; branches snapping; footsteps; and heavy, labored breathing. It was close now, just ahead of him. He released the safety and waited, slowing his breathing so as not to reveal his position. A moment later a dark, ominous shadow emerged from a parting in the thicket of kumazasa stalks just in front of him. He prepared to lure in his prey and put it down with a perfectly placed slug, setting his sights on the beast and calmly tracking it as it moved towards him unaware of his presence, looming into view as a silhouette against the full moon so that Komaku saw its entire form for the first time.
His heart leapt as he realized that this was no black bear, after all. It looked human, but…what was it? He prepared to fire but hesitated, and in that moment the beast grabbed the rifle by the barrel and snatched it from his hands.
“Wait! I’m—!” Komaku started, straining to speak as the beast slung the rifle sidelong and struck him a blow square in the side, breaking most of his ribs before plucking him from the sluice and throwing him across the orchard. He landed with a thud, rolling and spewing blood from his mouth as the beast tossed the rifle aside and calmly approached. Now pulling himself to his feet, Komaku ran as quickly as his wobbly legs would carry him.
“Help…! Me…!” he screamed as a beastly howl ripped through the night. There was no escape, but he kept running, stumbling through the orchard towards home as his legs stubbornly lagged behind. He was dazed and confused. Was this a nightmare? Some twisted reality? He couldn’t tell. He pissed himself, scrambling to get away as the beast howled again behind him, even louder than before. Suddenly, his back gave out and he collapsed to his knees.
The beast snatches him from the ground by the left arm, whirling him about so that shoulders and elbows twist and contort into the most impossible positions, releasing him now to send him flying spear-like through the air and crashing again to earth, the impact crushing his spine. As Komaku comes to rest, he’s struck by a peculiar absence of pain.
He’s losing air, his breath seeping through punctured lungs until respiration ceases. Though no longer breathing, he keeps moving, scratching and clawing his way across the ground like an injured insect, gasping,
His house is only a short distance ahead, but to Komaku it’s light years beyond reach. The hunter has become the hunted. He lies paralyzed as the beast bears down upon him, its mouth watering at the sight of its prey caught in the death throes.
This is it.
Komaku surrenders to his fate, sure of the slaughter to come. He hears heavy breathing behind him—now on his back…now in his ears. The beast grabs him only steps from his house, this time slinging him across the orchard by his right arm, the whip-like force snapping his neck.
“No—! St—o—p!” Komaku lies in a bloody heap, paralyzed but fully conscious. He can’t breathe. He tries in vain to fill his lungs with air, but blood rushes into them and dribbles from his mouth, the taste of flesh flooding his senses. Flat on his back now, he looks the beast in the face as it crouches over him, a shadow of gargantuan proportions, its eyes aglow with the light of the moon and smoldering with primordial madness. He shuts his eyes as a massive hand covers his face and blocks his view. Enormous fingers begin to squeeze his skull with incredible strength.
“St—St—Sto—p! You’—re hur—t—ing me—!”
Oh, Death! Please, come quickly!, he prays, his only wish being that he should soon black out. The agony would soon pass and Komaku’s soul would be released. His last memory would be the sound of his cracking skull.
It was winter in the forty-ninth year of the Showa Era, and deep in a frozen village of Gunma Prefecture a horrendous murder had just occurred.
Chapter 1: The Reunion, Part 1
A long, slow procession of twenty-six years. Much had changed in that time. People passed away or moved on, leaving the land to undergo its requisite metamorphosis, in which it shed nearly all traces of its history. But a few things did remain unchanged, like the town of Bakuro on the outskirts of Numata City, which to this day is still battered by gale force winds sweeping over Tanigawa Gorge.
Keiichi Michihira, journalist for the Central News Agency, exited a taxi in front of an old-growth zelkova guarding the grounds of Suga Shrine. He righted himself and shut the door, pausing meditatively beneath the tree and gazing into its lush foliage, taking a deep breath and forcefully exhaling before setting out along the night-darkened road.
Having started out in the wrong direction and lost his way, Michihira backtracked and turned into a familiar alley where waves of memory rushed upon him and brought him back to his bearings. Laughter spilled from a nearby pub, the aromas of liquor and grilled meat filled the air, and the narrow passageway glowed with the light of neon signage and dimly lit red paper lanterns hung at the entrances of bars and brothels crammed into every available space. He was overcome by a sense of warmth and comfort—the nostalgic feeling of having stumbled across a long-forgotten childhood toy stashed inside a dresser drawer.
Tucked among a row of storefronts was the Haguruma—a restaurant serving modest, home-style fare. Michihira found it with little trouble, and as he approached the entrance he noticed that the cracked-and-chipped glass door had been replaced by a sliding one constructed of unfinished, latticed wood. A white acrylic sign had taken the place of the torn paper lantern, but with a peek inside he was relieved to find that the interior still had its old charm.
He was early. Dusting snow off his hat and coat, he ducked the storefront curtain and slipped through the entrance to find the layout just as he’d remembered it. On his right stood a bar with room for six or seven guests and a small kitchen and preparation area inside; to the left was a raised matted room with a row of three tables seating four diners each; and a private dining room lay straight ahead, partitioned by a sliding paper-and-latticework wooden door. Everything was in order, right down to the place settings.
The restaurant was nearly empty, the only customers being a pair of businessmen sharing after-work drinks at a table in the far corner of the matted room. Ohnuki had yet to arrive, so Michihira peeled off his tattered Burberry overcoat and planted himself on a stool at the far end of the bar.
“Welcome! What’ll it be?” A dainty young lady in a kimono emerged from the kitchen and greeted him.
“Make it a beer,” Michihira replied. She looked to be well into her thirties, he thought, absorbed as he watched her retrieve a beer from the cooler, pop the cap, and pour it into a mug, all the while taking care not to bump the rack of skewered meats on the counter beside her. Something was familiar about her—something that rattled a long-lost memory. Did he know her? With a glimpse of the creamy skin peeking from beneath her kimono sleeves, the hems of which she secured as she poured the beer, he felt sure that he did. Such a striking resemblance did she bear to Haguruma’s former owner, Kumiko, that Michihira thought she might easily pass as her twin. From her plump lips and big black eyes to the nape of her neck stretching gracefully through the collar of her kimono, her every aspect was reminiscent of that woman of his secret, youthful desire, their age, perhaps, being the only discernible difference between them (Kumiko was already over forty then).
“Excuse me, but by any chance is your name Chizuru?” Michihira asked. She paused mid-pour and gave him a perplexed look, her smile now gone.
“As a matter of fact, it is,” she said, “but…why do you ask? Have you been here before?”
“Ah, yes. Long ago. I guess it’s been what, twenty-five? no, twenty-six years since I was last here,” Michihira recalled. “How’s your mother? Is she well?” he asked.
“Mother? Well, better off now, I suppose. She died four years ago. Drank herself into an early grave.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. And forgive me for startling you. It’s just that you look so much like her that I was taken aback for a moment.” The woman now fixed Michihira with a curious stare, silently intent on unraveling her own tangled web of memory, a moment later giving a faint smile as though struck upon something.
“Wait, you’re not that journalist, are you? The one who gave me that changeable doll when I was little girl?” she asked, giving Michihira little time to answer as she exclaimed, “It’s you, isn’t it?! I can’t believe it!”
Time had separated them, but now it was as though a heavy fog had been lifted and the gulf between them closed. Michihira remembered the doll, gradually piecing together memories of when he bought it—a brisk, late-autumn evening when fallen leaves rustled on the wind. He’d been out wandering the backstreets of Numata when he suddenly found himself staring into the dusty show window of a small toy store where a certain sun-bleached doll on display caught his attention, and before he knew it he was inside the store making the purchase. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t the slightest clue to what possessed him to buy that doll. Maybe he saw something in it that reminded him of himself, or it could be that he simply wanted those dimming blue eyes to see a wider world than the sliver they saw through that show window. Whatever the reason, he soon found himself, box in hand, stepping out of the store and once again strolling the city streets, entranced as he followed the rhythm of his steps, meandering from one block to the next until finally bumping into Ohnuki underneath the old zelkova tree on the grounds of Suga Shrine.
Embarrassed at being seen with the doll, Michihira lowered his gaze as their paths crossed, but no sooner had the two men come shoulder-to-shoulder than Ohnuki turned and shouted an invitation to join him for a drink. Michihira accepted, and they ended up at Haguruma.
“A doll? Yes, I vaguely remember it. You’d have been about seven or eight then.”
“Yes, that’s sounds about right. But I feel so ashamed! I must’ve been a terrible show-off back then. You see, Sir, I wasn’t used to having handsome young men visit us, so…”
“Please, don’t call me ‘Sir’. The name’s Michihira.”
“Yes! You’re Mr. Michihira! I remember how I stared at the floor, speechless, when you gave me the doll. I was so accustomed to not having a man in the house that it took me some time to get used to you,” she said. Kumiko was a widow then, and most of her customers were either policemen or otherwise affiliated with law enforcement. Little was publicly known of her husband, who was rumored to have been a detective with Numata Police Department. He’d left behind his daughter Chizuru when he died, and she and her mother Kumiko lived together in an apartment above the restaurant. An imaginative child, Chizuru whiled away afternoons in the rear room playing games and make-believe in anticipation of her mother’s return home.
Michihira slipped a Marlboro from a pack and lit it, at just that moment sensing a tiny presence behind him—a tot’s inquisitive eyes on his back. As the latticed door to the private dining room slid open he spun around to find a miniature version of Chizuru standing before him, her face pushed into the gap. She was the spitting image of her mother, twenty-six years younger.
“That’s…my daughter,” Chizuru said.
“Oh? What’s her name?”
“I call her Hiroko. As in ‘girl with an open heart.’ You see, I’ve spent my whole life in this little town and I want her to experience the world in ways I haven’t. I want her to have more chances than I’ve had in life,” Chizuru said. Michihira couldn’t help but notice her reference to the little girl as ‘my daughter’ instead of ‘our daughter’, and now that he thought of it he realized that he saw no traces of a father in the face that now regarded him with the same curious smile her mother had given him all those years before. But there was no questioning who her mother was; she was Chizuru’s child, through and through. He decided not to press her on the matter. Besides, everyone has the right to a private past. That’s just the way of life.
“Say, do police officers still stop in like they used to?” Michihira asked, abruptly changing the subject.
“No, not at all like before. I guess Mr. Ohnuki is the only one who still comes in these days,” Chizuru said, stacking several hot-off-the-grill skewers of meat onto a plate. She spoke of Shunichi Ohnuki—forensics specialist with Numata Police Department, commonly known by colleagues and a close circle of journalists as ‘Mujina’, or ‘The Badger’. He was in his mid-thirties at the time of the incident, of moderate height but stoutly built, with broad shoulders and a thick, muscular back. When Michihira was just breaking into investigative journalism, Ohnuki had shown him the ropes of the profession and taught him the pleasures of drinking fine liquor, to boot. He’d telephoned Michihira out-of-the-blue a week earlier—the first time they’d spoken to each other in twenty-six years. It was a short conversation. Calmly but firmly, Ohnuki told Michihira that he needed to see him about an urgent matter, and then hung up the phone with instructions on when and where they were to meet.
“Is Mujina still on the force?” Michihira asked.
“He’s still working, but I hear he’s up for retirement at the end of the year…” Chizuru said, trailing off and nervously glancing away mid-speech in an attempt to avoid Michihira’s gaze. He finished his beer and ordered a bottle of heated sake, glancing at his watch to see that it was a little past their meeting time of seven o’clock. He fidgeted with another cigarette and lit up, smoking about a third of it before pressing it out in the ashtray in front of him. Just then, the front door slid open, letting in a cold gust of wind. Anticipating Ohnuki’s arrival, Michihira spun around to find a frail, middle-aged man standing in the doorway. It was no one he recognized. He started to look away but was frozen by the man’s greeting—a nod as their eyes met.
“A sight for sore eyes!” the man exclaimed as he entered the restaurant, noticing Michihira’s bewilderment. “What? Don’t you even recognize me?” He’d lost so much weight that he hardly resembled the old friend Michihira knew, and while his usually tidy crew-cut had thinned and grayed, his eyes still had their youthful, devious sparkle.
“Mujina?” Michihira ventured.
“The one and only! So, you finally recognize me!” Ohnuki replied, settling onto a stool next to Michihira as Chizuru presented them with a bottle of Kitsuchomu label sake.
“Mr. Michihira, were you holding out on me? You should’ve told me that it was Mr. Ohnuki you were meeting!” Chizuru said, playfully scolding him as she prepared a couple of light drinks of shochu and water for her guests.
“I see you two have already met,” Ohnuki chimed in. “And I was looking forward to surprising you! So, how old are you now?” he continued, turning to Michihira.
“I’ll be fifty this year,” he answered.
“You don’t say? Fifty?! I guess we’re both getting on years, aren’t we? Have you married?”
“No. Not yet.”
“No, I don’t suppose you would’ve, right?” Ohnuki replied, sneaking a pour of shochu when Chizuru wasn’t looking and tossing back nearly half of it in a single gulp. The trio sat awhile and kicked around talk of the old days until the topic of discussion eventually turned to Chizuru’s doll, of which Ohnuki had absolutely no memory. When her efforts to help him recall it failed, Chizuru bounded upstairs and soon returned with the worn-out doll dangling in one hand. It was stained and dingy with an arm missing, its big blue eyes still gazing dreamily into a world unknown.
They spoke of the late Kumiko, and then of developments in Ohnuki’s family. His eldest daughter had recently married, and he was already a grandfather twice over. She and Michihira had been on familiar terms, having met on the one or two occasions he’d slept over at their home.
Around nine o’clock, the two businessmen settled their bill and left the restaurant, leaving Michihira and Ohnuki as the only customers. Chizuru fastened the curtain and locked the door behind them before heading upstairs to tuck Hiroko into bed.
“So, what’s the urgent matter you needed to discuss?” Michihira asked, “Your call came so suddenly that it caught me off-guard. Surely you didn’t drag me all the way out here to reminisce over old times!”
“Of course not, but you probably know what this is about,” Ohnuki said. “It’s only the most notorious case in Numata history. I’d been mulling it over with the intention of calling you, but I kept putting it off and, before I knew it, here I was an old man, and I realized that time was running short.”
“Do you mean the Shikamata Village Incident?”
“That’s the one. Have you been back?”
“Yeah. I stopped there on my way to meet you today.”
Shikamata was an unforgettable, quaint little village nestled in the foothills of Mt. Kasho, in Numata. It consisted of seven ramshackle houses that lined a ravine surrounded by dense mountains and forest.
“Oh, yeah? How was it?”
“Nothing special, really,” Michihira said. “Do you realize that of all those houses only a couple abandoned ones remain? Not a trace was left of the others. Otherwise, all that’s left are the overgrown apple orchard and that lonely old camphor tree. And to think that that tree made it through the fire!”
Desolate Shikamata had several trees of such enormity as to blot out the sky. The camphor was one of them. When Michihira mentioned it he pictured the sky aglow with red-orange flames the night they torched the village.
“You know, that place has been deserted for more than twenty years now, but we’ve still got a little time,” Ohnuki said. “I manage to visit every summer, and each year I notice how the forest has gained a little more on the village. Give it, say, five or so years, and you won’t even know that anyone ever lived there,” he added, finishing his drink and dropping a few cubes of ice into his glass before pouring into it a generous amount of shochu and a splash of water.
“Come to think of it, though, I did see something strange while I was there. Maybe you noticed it, too.”
“What?” Mujina asked.
“Ruts in the ground, right at the junction of the service road and the main road to the village. Remember Saeko Kinetsuka? They were at the edge of her property. Looked as though the land had just been tilled.”
“You know? I noticed that, too! Must’ve been a couple of summers ago, when I was out there wandering around one day and ended up near her house. I remember there being fresh sprouts in the garden! Who could it be?”
“I don’t know. A survivor, maybe?” Ohnuki guessed, gulping down about half of his drink. Michihira couldn’t help but notice his peculiar way of drinking. Something was out of place with Ohnuki. He hardly touched his food; seemed to have forgotten all about it. Without taking so much as a sip of his drink, he’d sit and talk awhile before lifting the glass as if having suddenly remembered it was there, staring contemplatively at its contents before tossing back at least half of it at a go, grimacing like a condemned man drinking his fated poison. He was clearly in despair, having abandoned himself to the bottle like a man who’d given up on life.
“Tell me, Michihira, what made you return to the village?”
“I don’t know. It was the first time I’d been to Numata in twenty-six years, so I thought I’d stop and take a look while I was here.”
“Are you sure that’s all there was to it? Be frank. I’ll bet you’re haunted by the whole thing, just like I am.”
“Psht! Not so!”
“Either that, or it’s something to do with Saeko. Right? Try as you may, you can’t forget her. Is that it?”
Saeko. The mention of her name still filled Michihira with a heavy feeling, like that of having a ball of lead lodged in the gut. He wondered about her. Was she alive somewhere? She might be long dead, but who knew? He tried to ignore the suggestion that the village frightened him, refilling his glass with shochu and lifting it to drink as Ohnuki went on, “Well, to tell the truth, I can’t get it out of my mind. I feel like time has stood still since all that happened.”
“Is this what you wanted to discuss with me?” Michihira pressed. Ohnuki braced himself, sitting rock-still and staring at the liquid inside his glass with his hand resting on the rim. He finally spoke,“I want to reopen the case. To settle it once and for all,” he said.
“What? You can’t be serious!”
“You better believe I am! You know how many people died there, and the killer hasn’t even been caught! Mind you, I’m not the only person who feels this way. Others want to get to the bottom of this thing, too, and I’ve got the support not only of the local police but also of a few survivors.”
“But how do you plan on pulling it off? More than a quarter century has passed, we’ve got no witnesses, and not a speck of evidence remains. I just don’t think its possible.”
“Well, now, that’s where you’re wrong! Evidence? Not to worry, I’ve got it. Plus, there’s technology today that we didn’t have back then. The kind of stuff that’ll break this case wide open. All we need is the key, which I assume you still have?” ‘The key’ was a lock of the culprit’s body hair—the case’s only surviving physical evidence. Michihira found it lodged underneath a fingernail, but its origin remains unclear.
“That case will have been closed and archived by now. Besides, the police never even found any suspects.”
“That may be so, but the police won’t have anything to do with the investigation this time. I’m doing all the legwork myself, and my first order of business is to have that hair sample analyzed for DNA. Just imagine the possibilities! This is groundbreaking technology that we didn’t have in those days! I won’t rest peacefully until I find out what on earth that thing was. This is where you come in, since you have the only evidence that’ll make this possible. Everything the police had was either lost or so terribly damaged that it’s useless now. The rest went up in flames with Saeko’s house. So, if you’ve got that lock of hair, then I was wondering if you’d let me borrow it for a short while.”
“Look, I’ll do it only under the condition that you leave me out of this! I want nothing to do with it, understand?! I just want to forget the whole thing ever happened!”
Chizuru returned from her apartment and retreated to the kitchen to do the dishes so as not to disturb them. Michihira looked on with concern as Ohnuki mixed another stout drink and tossed it back before confiding in his friend.
“Michihira. You’re a good sport, feigning ignorance when you must have figured it out by now. You see that I’m not well, but you’re nice enough not to say anything about it. As a matter of fact, you and Chizuru are the only people who let me drink in peace,” he said as Michihira silently lit another cigarette.
“I’ve got cancer,” Ohnuki said, “and I don’t have much time left—six months at most. You’ll understand my urgency in this. I just don’t want to leave anything of this magnitude undone,” he said, softly rattling the ice inside his empty glass.