Naoto Shirogane prides herself on always staying levelheaded. She had kept her calm in more than enough dangerous situation to prove it. There were only two people who had ever managed to make her completely lose her cool. The first one, herself. Or at least, her shadow self, which she had come to terms with long ago. The second one was more complicated, and had just entered her office.
“Rise?” Naoto heard her own voice change pitch before she could stop it. Seeing Rise in her office was more than a little surprising, given how disastrous their last interaction had been.
“Hey, Naoto-kun, do you have a moment?” The tone of Rise’s voice was nervous but kind, so was her small smile.
“Of course, Ms. Kujikawa, take a seat.” Naoto pointed to the empty chair in front of her desk. She hoped the formality would hurt, just a little. Judging by the subtle twitch of Rise’s lips, pulling them down for a fraction of a second, it had. Nevertheless, she sat down in the chair while Naoto moved some folders out of the way. Already feeling a pang of guilt, she sat on the edge of the desk next to the girl, instead of the chair at the other side.
“Is everything alright, Rise?”
Rise started suddenly. “I’m sorry, Naoto, I know I should have called first. Or that maybe I shouldn’t have come at all. I know that it’s unfair. That I shouldn’t ask you for anything but I just… didn’t know where else to go.”
Naoto tried to keep up with Rise’s rambling, and tried to sort through her own feelings born from suddenly seeing her again. You were mad, yes, she told herself, but you are still her friend.
“Rise-san, it’s okay. What happened was… it’s years ago. I didn’t meant for us to never talk again. What can I help you with?” She fought the urge to put a comforting hand on Rise’s shoulders. How could old impulses return so quickly?
“I… I have a case for you. If you’d want it.” Rise had finally slowed down. Naoto nodded for her to continue.
“I assume you’ve heard about what happened to Seki Haruka?”
“The actress? I’ve heard she committed suicide,” Naoto recalled seeing several headlines about it, “I’m sorry, was she a friend of yours?”
Rise only nodded, tears already glossing over her eyes. Of course, Naoto now pieced together, Rise and Seki had worked together on that series of movies she had refused to see. After working with someone for four years, a bond would be inevitable. She put her hand on Rise’s shoulder, who turned her head towards the touch, but didn’t lean into it like she used to.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Rise. I heard she had health trouble?” The tabloids had loudly proclaimed that Ms. Seki suffered from leukemia. That she had chosen to end her life before she could see herself losing her beauty. That she had been fearing the sickness so much that she’d rather throw herself off of the balcony of her penthouse.
“That’s the official story, but… I don’t think it’s the truth.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just… I don’t know. This feeling I have. It doesn’t make sense. Don’t laugh, okay?”
“I’m not laughing. Go on.”
“I don’t think she was sick. We were close, you know. I saw her almost every day, and when I didn’t see her, she was always texting me. Sending me videos or pictures of what she was doing, what she was eating, cute guys at the gym… I can’t remember her having any doctor’s appointment these last months. If she was as sick as they say she was, she should have, right? She should have been at the hospital all the time, but she never told me. And the whole… vanity thing. That she’d kill herself to stay beautiful in everyone’s mind? It just doesn’t add up. She was high on her own looks, sure, but she also used to joke about… about how life would be when we were old and wrinkly and she wouldn’t have to care about any of it anymore.”
Naoto took it all in and nodded pensively. She had no reason not to believe Rise’s account, but it was hardly enough to base a case on. If Seki Haruka had been as sick as the media claimed, she would have been in a hospital a lot of the time. Naoto could look into the attendance records there, but…
“Maybe the illness is just the spin the tabloids gave to it. There could be other factors causing Ms. Seki to… .” Naoto thought better than to end that sentence with the technical term she had been planning on saying.
“There was a note, in her apartment, where she claimed it was because of the leukemia. The media never saw it but her manager showed it to me. It was definitely written in her handwriting but it seemed off. Like she was… out of it while she wrote it, or something. She used all these big words that I don’t think she even understands and the whole thing just doesn’t sound like her.”
“Do you still have this note?”
“No.” Rise softly shook her head.
“Maybe she…,” this next part could only be said in a rude way, “maybe she had taken some form of narcotics.” She had been an assistant detective on many strange suicide cases where people had downed a bunch of psychedelics and composed pages of absurd poetry before shooting themselves.
“She wouldn’t. Besides, they would have found traces of that, right? In the autopsy?” If there had been drugs in her system, there would be a record of it. Rise had a point. Naoto found herself with more and more leads. Maybe she could rule out foul play and set Rise’s mind at ease. It wouldn’t take her too long, and it still pained her to see the girl this upset.
“Rise,” she started, moving her hand away from the girl’s shoulder to pick up a notepad and a pen, “I’ll look into it. See if she was sick, or under the influence of anything. I’ll see if I can track that note down again, too. If you think of anything else, you can text or… call… me.” She handed Rise a note with her cellphone number on it.
“Thanks, Naoto.” Rise took this as her cue to leave and stood up.
“Just,” Naoto stopped Rise in her tracks as she chose her words carefully, “Cases like these. They usually end up… don’t get your hopes up, I’m sorry.”
Rise went over to the door, holding its handle she stared at the floor for just a few moments.
“Bye, Rise.” Naoto said after her, but the door had already closed.
Naoto was staring at a casefile, rereading the same five sentences every few minutes without any of them registering. She was preoccupied with thoughts of the girl that had just left her office. Her mind once again racing through everything that had happened to have them end up here.
The first year after solving the Investigation Team’s big mystery had been good. It had been weird with the senpai gone, but she found herself being closer than ever with Rise and Kanji. Of course, Rise was still together with Souji back then. Furthermore, Naoto still hadn’t admitted her attraction to Rise to herself. Social interactions had been harrowing enough, she had had close to zero experience feeling love-struck. Besides, the idol and the detective had plenty to keep themselves occupied with. Rise had started her training, and even gave a few small performances in the neighboring towns. Naoto had taken on a few cases, some taking her further away from Inaba. The butterflies in her stomach would still be there when she returned to a smiling Rise. The year had gone by too fast, Naoto now thought. It had been simpler, then. She could still see that smile without going mad looking for the meaning behind it. Everything changed after graduation, though. Rise had invited Kanji and Naoto over to the shop to celebrate with drinks that were stronger than necessary. Teddie had tagged along, of course, and it hadn’t taken him long to say something so inadvertently rude to Kanji that it had sent the duo on a violent chase down the shopping district. Rise had watched them until they made a turn for the flood plain before turning back to Naoto. Naoto remembered how casually Rise had sat just that little bit too close next to her on the ground. How she had taken Naoto’s drink out of her hand to force her to make eye contact. How that had sent her heart racing in an unfamiliar way.
“I’m kind of glad they’re gone,” she said, breaking the eye contact to nestle her head on Naoto’s shoulder, “It’s like we never get to hang out just the two of us anymore.”
Naoto had swallowed hard when she found herself distracted by Rise’s scent. “I’m sure we could schedule more frequent activities together, if you’d like that.” I used to sound like such an idiot, Naoto scolded herself, rereading the same five sentences once again.
“Hmm, I’d like that,” Rise had softly hummed into her shoulder as she turned to play with Naoto’s tie before continuing, “But it’s not going to get any easier, right? I’ll be off with the company, and who even knows where you will be? Star detective, solving cases all over the country. This could be the last time we ever see each other.”
“It won’t be. I promise. Just call me whenever you have some free time, and I’ll make the arrangements to come meet with you if the situation allows it.” The hands had stopped playing with her tie, holding it, resting against Naoto’s chest.
“You promise?” Rise had sounded so honestly fragile in that moment that Naoto sat up to look in her eyes again.
“I promise.” Then the smile on Rise’s face had made Naoto lean down impulsively, their lips only a few inches apart, before she caught herself. Don’t kiss Souji’s girlfriend, don’t kiss Souji’s girlfriend, she was repeating it as a mantra in her head before Rise made the decision for her. She had crossed over the last few spaces to lock the detective in a soft kiss that only lasted a few moments. Rise had been the first to pull back, looking at Naoto questioningly.
“I… I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have… .” Naoto had stammered before Rise suddenly pulled her into a second, more confident kiss that had them both on the ground. With Naoto on top of her, Rise had shown no intention of stopping. Her hands, locked around Naoto’s neck for a while, went to loosen the yellow tie. When her hands came to unbuttoning the second button of Naoto’s shirt, Naoto grabbed Rise’s wrists and sat up, pulling away from the other’s lips.
“We shouldn’t. Souji.” Naoto had only been able to talk in fragments.
“Souji and I broke up yesterday.” Rise said softly as Naoto let go of her wrists to sit up more fully.
“You broke up?” She turned away from Rise, trying to sort through her thoughts. Rise sat up next to her.
“It hadn’t been working between us for a while. There was too much distance and… .” They sat there quietly for a while. Naoto can’t help but smile now as she remembers how sweetly Rise had slid her arm under hers to hold her hand.
“And I’ve sort of fallen for someone else.”
Still sitting at her desk, Naoto groaned as she put away the case files in front of her. All this daydreaming was accomplishing nothing. She might as well start researching Ms. Seki’s death. If she could definitively tell Rise the cause of death, they could both go on with their lives. And she wouldn’t have to sit here going over everything that had happened the last seven years.
None of this made sense. In less than one hour of research Naoto had uncovered information someone must have moved heaven and earth for to keep secret. Seki Haruka had not been terminally ill. If the records of her last checkup at her doctor were to be believed, she was healthy to an absurd degree. However, the suicide note Naoto had gotten from Seki’s manager, Toda Noboru – an hour after she’d left, Rise had texted her his contact info –, contradicted this find. In it, the actress dramatically described herself as “fading away. Looking for one last to chance to immortalize my beauty. To become more than just famous. To become a legend. A goddess.” The manager had been surprised when Naoto said she was looking into the suicide, but helpful nonetheless. The doctor who had performed Seki’s autopsy had been less cooperative. Naoto didn’t enjoy doing it, but it hadn’t been hard to find proof that the doctor was an adulterer, and the credit card statements she showed him made him honest fast. He had looked more than a little guilty when he handed over a report that was never made official. Traces of an unknown drug had been found in the actresses’ blood. A high dose of the drug at that. The doctor didn’t recognize it, assumed it was some sort of narcotics cocktail. They’d found traces of flunitrazepam – rohypnol – and heroine. Not a lethal amount, but more than enough to explain the nature of the note.
Naoto had taken the report back to Toda, asking if he or his company had paid the doctor off to keep this a secret. His shock at hearing about the folder’s content seemed real enough to her. He couldn’t tell for certain if someone else in the company would cover it up; but that they probably would have told him about it since he had been Seki’s handler. Toda had never known Seki to experiment with drugs, but admitted it wasn’t exactly rare in her line of work. This hadn’t been the open-and-shut case Naoto had expected it to be. The most logical theory she could come up with for it all was also the harshest: Seki Haruka, a fairly well known actress, had ingested either a new unknown drug, or had made a mix of narcotics herself. In her altered state, she had decided to end her life after coming up with an extravagant story. She certainly wouldn’t be the first person trying to immortalize their fame by ending their life at such a young age.
Naoto was staring at a text she had composed to share this theory with Rise. A finger hovering above the send button, she already knew that she wouldn’t press it. This wasn’t just a random client she’d only met once. Rise used to mean everything to her. She deserved a more delicate approach. Naoto deleted the text’s contents. Replacing it with a simple:
‘If you’re free tonight, would it be okay to discuss your case over drinks?’
As she pressed send she immediately stretched one arm out involuntarily, trying to intercept the message before it reached Rise. Why had she suggested getting drinks? She should have just asked her to come to the office. Nevertheless, less than a minute later she already got a response.
‘Yes, I’m free. Where?’
Naoto let her mind wander back to the messages she used to get from Rise, when they were still teens. All filled with nonsensical capitalizations and emoticons. She wasn’t sure if the sober text she was looking at now was a result of their fall out, or if Rise had just grown out of it.
‘Lucy’s, around 19:30?’
Dressing to meet with Rise had long been something Naoto wrestled with. She didn’t necessarily think of herself as a bad dresser, but Rise was a professional. Naoto didn’t exactly keep up with the trends. Moreover, when she and Rise had first met, finding the right thing to wear had been at the center of most of her anxieties. She had still been performing as male then, and Rise had complimented him on his looks on more than one occasion. After the Laboratory, though, Naoto had worried that the Investigation Team expected her to alter her looks. Rise hadn’t made any new remarks on her outfits those first few months. The comments she had made about Naoto’s body, however, had left her more than a little uncomfortable. When they finally started dating, after graduation, Naoto had finally mustered up enough courage to ask a question she now knew had been foolish.
“Do you want me to dress more like a girl?” Rise had been lying in Naoto’s lap, hair undone, on a bench in Okina. She had opened her eyes and arched a questioning eyebrow at Naoto.
“I mean…,” Naoto continues, “Seeing as you and I are both in the public eye, and people might start seeing the two of us together. Would you rather I looked like a girl or… .”
“What do you mean? What do you want to look like?” Rise had stretched out one arm behind her before gently placing one hand on Naoto’s side. Naoto liked her like this, content and natural. Not performing for anyone. She wished she’d felt just as at ease as she noticed a group of teenagers looking at them both. She shrugged.
“I like the way you look, Naoto-kun, but if you no longer do, you can always change that. But don’t change it just because someone you don’t even know might find it weird.” Her hand slid underneath Naoto’s shirt for just a moment, running a thumb across her bare stomach.
“You know that blue shirt you always wear, and the yellow tie?” Rise moved her hand back to the outside of Naoto’s button-up.
“Yeah?” The only reason she wasn’t wearing it that day was because she now wore a more formal white shirt for work.
“I always thought you looked so stunning in that. Not because of the clothes, though. But because I could always tell you felt so comfortable in it; like it… I don’t know… it just fit with you.” The words had stirred something inside of Naoto. A skipped heartbeat. She had had plenty of admirers but there was something about hearing it from Rise that made it true.
“Ssssssstunning.” Rise teased with a smile after a few moments of silence. Naoto scoffed.
“Gorgeousssssss.” She continued, making a gesture like she was framing Naoto’s face.
“Dazzzzzzzli-“ Naoto silenced her with a kiss.
You look the best when you look comfortable. Even after their breakup, Naoto had held onto that idea. Right now she was looking at herself in the mirror, wearing the outfit she felt the most like herself in. Now she was worrying that it might look too much like an updated version of her high school outfit. Would Rise think so too? She had long since traded in the bright blue for a softer, paler blue button-up. Dark, tight slacks with a matching jacket. Boots with a decent amount of heel to them. She had grown since high school, but not as much as she had wanted. She hesitated before adding the finishing touch, a thin black tie. She’d solved all of her biggest cases in this outfit. Would give television interviews in this outfit. Had gone on dates in this outfit. It would have to suffice for drinks with Rise.
Naoto arrived at the bar fifteen minutes early, surprised to see Rise waiting for her at the door. Rise was never on time, let alone early.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” Naoto said, even though they both knew they had been too early. Rise turned to go in but Naoto already got to the door, holding it open for her.
“Thanks” Rise said so softly that Naoto almost thought she imagined it. Entering the bar, Rise stood still, looking around awkwardly.
“Let’s grab a booth.” Naoto said, fighting the urge to put a hand on the small of Rise’s back to guide her. They went over to the less crowded part of the already quiet bar in silence. Their server came over to them almost instantly. They didn’t speak for a while after they ordered.
“So, did you… find out anything?” Rise was the first to break the silence. Naoto softly thanked her for not putting her through small talk first.
“I did.” The waiter returned with their drinks before Naoto told Rise first about everything she had found out, and then about her theory. Rise was quiet for a long time after that, staring into her glass. She had still to take her first sip, but then again, so did Naoto. Rise looked sad. Naoto tried to remember when she’d seen her this sad before, the only moment she could recall was that night four years ago… .
“So you believe it was suicide.” Rise said, still looking at her drink.
“I can’t say for certain. It would be the most logical conclusion though.”
“What if you’re wrong?” The look on Rise’s face was changing.
“If I’m… ? I’m sorry, Rise. But there is nothing here that really indicates a different version of events.”
“Drugs, though? Haruka would never… Sorry. I guess it’s just hard for me to wrap my head around. Her having this whole secret life. Thanks for doing all that work, though.” Rise still hadn’t looked Naoto in the eyes. Naoto was trying to come up with a fix, to make all of this less awful for the girl.
“Suicide or not,” she started so confidently it surprised both Rise and herself, “there’s still someone that payed that doctor off to keep all of this quiet. I know it won’t bring her back, but maybe that trace leads to whoever gave her the drugs. It’s still a criminal offence.” Rise finally looked up, her face softening.
“You’re right. So you’ll give this information to the police?”
“I’ll share it with them, yes. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to look into this further myself as well.”
“Thank you, Naoto-kun.” Rise moved her hand on top of Naoto’s. It felt right for a moment, before Naoto remembered the night Rise had touched her last. How angry she had been, how alone she had felt. How Rise’s tears had done nothing but fuel harsh uttered sentence after sentence she can barely remember now. How hard it had been not just to open the door, but to tear that hand loose from her arm before closing the door behind her. How she had had to stop on her way to the hotel in a dark alley to cry so hard her lungs hurt for days. Four years had only numbed that pain, hadn’t erased it.
“You look good, Naoto. How… How’ve you been?”
“I have to go.” It hadn’t felt right to leave Rise behind like that. As soon as Naoto got home, she started working on the case again.
Naoto didn’t work as much with the police department in the city as she had in Inaba, but she still had a few decent contacts. Detective Matsuura had helped her on her cases almost as much as she had helped his department close theirs. She respected him greatly. At 35, only a decade older than she was, he was already in charge of the city’s Criminal Investigation Department. He didn’t look the part, though. When she had first heard of him, she had expected to see someone like Dojima Ryotaro. A strict face and slumped shoulders from having to see the world’s worst side every day. Matsuura looked quite the opposite. His eyes were always smiling, he led his department with a compassionate touch Naoto hadn’t seen in many other officers. He did not even question her motifs when she presented Rise’s case to him.
“The Seki case? That was ruled as a suicide, no?” They were standing in the police department’s breakroom, waiting for the coffee machine to finish. Even Matsuura had to uphold some of the clichés.
“Yes. And I doubt there is much more to it. However, Seki’s autopsy showed a high dosage of an unknown drug in her system.” Naoto said as she pointed out the fact in her notes.
“Drugs? I can’t remember seeing that in the report.”
“Because it wasn’t in the official report. Someone paid doctor Osawa to keep quiet.”
“Really?” Matsuura was rubbing his chin in thought as he looked over the summary of the drug’s known contents. “I assume her management didn’t want this to get out?”
“Yes. I thought the same thing. Her manager, Toda Noboru, seemed sincere enough when he claimed his innocence.”
“Big agency, though. I’ll have someone ask around some more.”
“Thank you.” Naoto said, both for the assistance and the cup of coffee she now received.
“Never seen anything like this drug before, though,” He continued, sipping from his own cup, “I should probably get some people on that. Looks like dangerous stuff.”
“Hmm,” Naoto nodded in affirmation, “I was planning on looking into it further myself as well.”
“Oh right, haha, you have that contact. What was his name again? Millipede?” The smile in Matsuura’s eyes had spread to his whole face.
“He wants to be called Spider.” Naoto said, managing not to join in Matsuura’s giggling even though she agreed the nickname was ridiculous.
“Right, right, Spider.” Matsuura put his cup down to add his second packet of sugar. They were both distracted by a sudden commotion in the offices right outside the breakroom.
“Looks like a call came in.” Naoto observed.
“Looks that way. Well, anyway, if your friend tells you anything we might find interesting you come and tell me, okay? I’ll do the same.”
“Thank you,” Naoto nodded before a younger police officer disturbed them.
“Sir, we’re gonna need you for this.” The rookie officer looked at Naoto worriedly then, he hadn’t been there long enough to know he could trust her.
“It’s fine, Soga, what is it?” Matsuura assured him.
“High profile case. Some actress slashed her wrists.”
“A suicide? We don’t get called in for those.”
“Yeah, it’s… there’s more to it…” The officer still eyed Naoto suspiciously. She couldn’t blame him, she still looked rather young, and lacked a uniform to lend her authority.
“For crying out loud Soga, out with it.” Matsuura chastised him.
“Right. So, apparently, she had invited a bunch of people over to her home. All of ‘em paparazzi. When the first ones arrived they… uh… they found her underneath a self-portrait she’d painted on the wall in her own blood… apparently.”
“Paparazzi? Shit.” Matsuura poured out his cup in the sink and went to follow the rookie cop out of the breakroom.
“What’s her name?” Naoto interrupted them.
“Pardon?” The cop asked.
“What was the actresses name?” Naoto repeated.
“Oh… Uhm…,” he stalled as he was searching his brain, “Matsuko Ide.”
“Ide? Hey, Naoto, wasn’t she in that film series Seki was in?” Matsuura asked, but Naoto had already passed them both, cellphone to her ear.
“Rise, pick up. Pick up.” Naoto was muttering to herself as she made her way to her car. When they were still teens it had seemed like Rise lived with her cellphone permanently glued to her hand. Naoto had seen that change, though. As Rise got more work, it would take her longer and longer to answer her texts. The fact that she was not answering her phone now had Naoto going to pieces. One dead actress was no cause for alarm. Two actresses from the same franchise dying under mysterious circumstance in less than one week was a different story. Maybe one suicide had inspired the other, Naoto tried to rationalize. Maybe someone was killing actresses and trying to make it look that way, a louder part of her was shouting. Pulling out of the police department’s driveway, she searched her files for Rise’s new address.
Rise still hadn’t answered her phone when Naoto arrived at the building. Ringing the doorbell didn’t have any effect either and Naoto found herself knocking on Rise’s door. Still nothing. She tried to call one last time without results.
Naoto threw her lithe frame against the door four times before it finally gave way. A brief search revealed that the apartment was empty. Then, her cellphone rang.
“Naoto? You called me, like, five times. Is everything alright?”
“Rise-san, where are you right now?”
“I just got home, I was at a shoot all day,” the voice on the other side of the line said, “what is…?” Rise’s voice suddenly sounded from the doorway. She was still holding the cellphone to her ear as she saw Naoto standing just beyond her broken door.
“Did… did someone break into my apartment?” Rise was looking around confused at her otherwise pristine apartment.
“Uhm… No… Sorry. I did that.” Naoto said, cheeks already turning red as she went to fix the door.
“Okay,” Rise went to put down her bag before she added, “Why?”
“Right… Uhm.” Naoto was struggling over her words as she put a thankfully light door back in its hinges. Suddenly Rise was right behind her, a hand on her shoulder.
“Naoto, what’s going on?” She turned to see Rise’s face marked with worry.
“I… I’m sorry, Rise. There’s been another… Ide Matsuko was just found… .” The hand left her shoulder, now covering Rise’s mouth in shock.
“Matsuko was killed?” She asked.
“It… It would appear to be another suicide.” Now it was Naoto who put a hand on Rise’s shoulder.
Rise leaned into the hand this time. Grabbing Naoto’s forearm.
“But… you’re here.”
“I didn’t want to take any chances. There is a pattern here that you would fit into.” Naoto admitted. Rise nodded thoughtfully before grabbing Naoto’s hand and leading her to her couch.
“You think someone tried to make it look like suicide?”
“I… I don’t have a theory yet.”
“But you thought I was in danger?” Rise’s eyes drifted back to her door.
“There was a chance that you might be, yes. I’ll look into arranging police protection for you during the investigation.” Naoto had already pulled out her phone, Matsuuro’s number ready to be dialed.
“Wow, Naoto. I’m… I’m kind of surprised you’d come. Let alone break down my door.” Rise suddenly said. Naoto turned to her, eyes wide.
“What do you mean by that?” She asked.
“Just… After you left that night it… it sorta seemed like you’d never want to…,” she threw a quick glance at Naoto, “I just thought I’d be the last person you ever wanted to see again.
“Rise-san.” Naoto started, unsure of what to say. She opened her mouth a few times to start a sentence that never came.
“Thank you. For caring enough.” Rise finally said for her.
“Of course.” Naoto added lamely. They sat next to each other quietly for a few moments before Naoto got up, squeezing Rise’s hand for just a moment. Finally pressing the dial button, Matsuura picked up right after.
“Hi, Matsuura. Could I come investigate the scene?” There was a lot of commotion on the other end of the line.
“I…,” Matsuura let out a long sigh, “You could but I’ll be honest. This place is a mess. The vultures messed around with every piece of evidence long before I got here.”
“Look, I doubt you’d find anything we’ve missed here but I’ll,” he stopped to shout something profane at someone for a moment before returning to the call, “I’ll send you the pictures and evidence we’ve got.”
“Thank you, Matsuura.” She said before he interrupted her.
“You’re with the other girl now, I assume? What was her name again?”
“Kujikawa.” She saw Rise straightening up in the corner of her eye.
“Right. Everything seem okay over there?” Naoto was glad to hear him share the same concern over the actresses’ safety.
“It would seem that way, yes. I was going to ask you if it was possible to-“
“Get her under police protection? Yes, a squad car should already be on its way. We’ve arranged for her to stay at a hotel. She’ll be safe, Shirogane.”
“Thank you, Matsuura.” She ended the call and repeated his last sentence in her mind.
She’ll be safe.
After ensuring that Rise was safe in the custody of the police, Naoto was driving back home to her own apartment. “I just thought I’d be the last person you ever wanted to see again,” Rise’s words were being broadcasted through Naoto’s tired mind on repeat. Was Rise right? Had she been so upset at the idol back then? She remembered their breakup clearer than ever, as well as everything leading up to it. She had been right to leave then, hadn’t she? Yet seeing the surprise on Rise’s face when she discovered Naoto still cared had hurt her. Of course she still cared, how could the girl believe she’d hate her enough she wouldn’t care if she lived or died?
Did the years before the breakup no longer matter? Because it had been so good for so long. They’d been together for three years , and she still remembered those first two as the happiest she’d ever been. They’d been fine just dating for a year. Their new, adult lives were still taking shape. Rise was finally becoming a bigger name in the idol world again. Meanwhile, Naoto was making plans to permanently move to the city. Now that she had graduated, she had been considering staying in Inaba to be with her aging grandfather, but he had been the one to push her to make the move. Detectives need to be where their cases are, after all.
They managed to make it work for a while, but the distance was starting to do to them what it had done to Rise and Souji before. Daily phone calls turned into weekly calls. “I’m sorry, I should get back to work” had become their permanent way of saying goodbye. Naoto won’t lie how grateful she was when, after that first year of dating, Rise had surprised her with the most romantic evening she’d ever lived through.
She’d come home to find her apartment littered with candles and flowers. Her girlfriend hadn’t been there to great her. Instead, she found a note on her table. Rise had permanently quit the idol company. Instead, she wanted to pursue a career as an actress. A career, the note reminded Naoto, that meant she would be able to live in the same city as her. Maybe even the same home, if Naoto was okay with that. Rise had been waiting for her in the bedroom.
Less than a year later, the same issues resurfaced. The first few months they had made it an unspoken rule that they would go to sleep next to each other as often as possible. Naoto got busier than ever, but tried her best, even if she wasn’t there when Rise fell asleep, to be there to greet her in the morning. For a long time Rise did the same, then she got signed to star in Furies Full Speed, the series where she met Seki Haruka. Suddenly, Rise was busier than she had ever been as an idol. The movies director, Shoda ‘Hide’ Hidemechi, was heralded as a genius. The best young and upcoming director in the country. All eyes were on him and, subsequently, on the people he had chosen as his new stars: Seki Haruka, Ide Matsuko, Oba Kenji, and Kujikawa Rise.
Rise had to appear on television for interviews almost every night. The nights when she wasn’t working, she was expected to be at glamourous parties. She rarely offered Naoto to join her to these events, and the detective was becoming less and less certain that it was because she knew Naoto would hate it there, and that it might be because it was better for her career to appear single. The few nights that Rise was home, they’d fought about it. The next few events, Rise would ask if Naoto wanted to join her. Naoto took her up on the offer sometimes, if only to stop the feeling that Rise was slipping away somehow. That feeling never went away again, though.
When production for the first film in the series started, disaster struck. Naoto’s grandfather passed away. She’d never needed Rise as much as she did in that moment, but had been stubborn enough not to say so. Rise was away on location and said it would be pretty impossible for her to fly all the way back to Inaba for the funeral. Naoto had wanted to ask her to do the impossible, just this once, but had foolishly made herself believe she would be able to do this without Rise. She had been wrong.
Every member of the Investigation Team had been at the funeral. They had offered Naoto a hug. Had realized just how badly she was hurting when she accepted each display of physical affection. Had fell into a shocked silence as she sobbed into Kanji’s chest. Had all shared a look with each other asking: “Why the hell isn’t Rise here?”
Kanji had taken her back to her apartment in the city. He sat next to her while she talked about her favorite memories of her grandfather, threw a strong and comforting arm around her when she wasn’t talking, only thinking. She knew very well that he had been in love with her once. That maybe those feelings were still there, even though he now was in a committed relationship. How could he make the effort to be here for her now, while her own girlfriend was halfway around the world pretending to be in a high-speed car chase ?
Three days later Rise finally came home. Nothing felt right anymore. Rise asking Kanji if she could have a moment alone with Naoto, after he had been the one there for her, had been enough to set off Naoto’s yelling.
Naoto’s mind was still reeling when she finally pulled up to her apartment building. Her phone rang, Matsuura had put a rush order on Ide’s bloodwork. The results weren’t definitive yet, but the drug found in her system definitely matched the one Seki had taken.
Naoto arrived outside of Ide Matsuko’s home early the next morning. The media circus was still going strong as a police officer escorted her inside. Her eyes were drawn to the three posters in the entranceway. One for each movie in the series Ide, Seki and Rise had all starred in. Naoto slowed her pace to look at them more closely. She had tried to avoid learning too much about the films but they had been very successful. 'Furies, Full Speed', the first in the series and the first poster she passed, showed Ide lying on the hood of a sports car in a skimpy outfit. Rise was standing next to the driver side door, as if she had just gotten up from behind the wheel. Seki was standing on the other side, holding two guns. Both were dressed in similarly meager attire. The movie had clearly been made with a teenage boy demographic in mind. The poster for 'Furies Fight Back', had Ide standing in the foreground again, flanked on either side by the other two actresses. They were clad in skintight black jumpsuits, each holding a different type of weapon. Rise was holding a katana. Naoto wondered if it was a tribute to Souji. Behind them, a man was leaning against the same sports car. Oba Kenji, Naoto remembered hearing his name, who had been given a larger part in the second film after he had proven to draw quite a lot of ladies to the movie theatre. The third poster was for 'Furies: Apocalypse' and showed the three actresses with their back turned towards the camera. Looking at an explosion that - Naoto briefly observed in her professional capacity - they were standing way too close to.
“The crime scene is through there.” The officer pointed at the door at the end of the hallway before she turned to say something over her radio.
“Thank you.” Naoto braced herself before she opened the door. The body had been taken away the night before but there was still plenty of evidence here Naoto had wanted to look at herself. Two forensic specialists were busy taking photographs of the scene, briefly pausing to politely greet Naoto. She had been too distracted to go through all the pleasantries, however. On the wall at the far end of the room was the self-portrait she’d heard about. It was far larger than she had assumed it to be. It stretched out over the entire wall, swirling crimson lines showing a smiling face. Thinking back to the posters in the hallway, the painting held an incredible resemblance to its subject. It seemed almost absurd that someone would be able to paint such a thing while they were bleeding to death. She voiced this concern to one of the specialists.
“Yes. We thought so, too. Haven’t really found any evidence suggesting someone other than her made it. Her fingerprints are the only ones here. And there are lots of them. See these?” He came to stand next to Naoto and pointed at the side of the portrait. Here, there were lighter smudges of blood. Clearer handprints. As if that had been where “she was holding herself up while painting it.” Naoto said.
“That’s what it seems like. Must have been one hell of a drug.” The man said before he turned back to his work.
“Must have been.” Naoto muttered to herself before studying the rest of the evidence.
“Anything else in the house?” She asked an hour later. The police officer that had led her in nodded.
“There’s some more upstairs.” She said.
“Some more what?”
Upstairs, above the bed, was a message written in small characters. Ide must have written it first, not yet fatally wounded, before going downstairs where her body had been found.
‘Transformed. I have become. A Goddess. Kagutsuchi.’
Naoto hurried back over to her car, pulling up the initial report that police had written on Seki Haruka’s suicide. Hadn’t there been mention of a goddess in her suicide note as well? She found the picture she was looking for, it showed how the note had been found. It was waiting in a plain envelope, leaning against the screen of a laptop. On that screen, the results of Seki’s last internet search: Fujin.
Naoto was no expert on deities, but had recognized both names. Fujin and Kagutsuchi. Another strange coincidence that both women would describe their suicides as a ‘transformation’ into these kami. And why had they used these particular names? Naoto took out her phone. Her last girlfriend, Sasaki Are, was a history professor at the university. They had met when Naoto asked her for help with another case, she would be able to help out again. She thought better than to make the call, however. After Rise and her had broken up, Naoto had set up more walls around herself than ever. It had baffled Are when they casually started dating and it had taken Naoto months before she managed to explain her wariness. They had moved past it, but Are was always quick to blame Rise for any conflict between them. It wouldn’t be fair on Naoto’s part to now ask her for help in a case so closely related to Rise. She’d do the research herself.
Back in her office, Naoto was looking at the new clues to the puzzle. Kagutsuchi, the god whose blood had created eight other deities, written in blood on the wall of a young starlet. Fujin, the god of wind, the last thing Seki had read about before jumping to her death. Naoto was busy wondering if they had chosen those names after deciding their methods, or if the names had decided the methods for them. If someone had orchestrated it this way. Had forced them.
Her cellphone rang, its screen showing Rise’s full name.
“Rise, is everything alright?” There was a short pause on the other end of the line. The sound of a glass being played with. Was Rise drinking?
“Everything’s fine, Naoto. I was… I was wondering if you found out anything today.”
“Yes.” She didn’t want to give away too much of the gruesome details and was praying Rise wouldn’t ask for them.
“Did you, uhm, did you see her? Matsuka-san?” Naoto could hear Rise get up and pace around her hotel room.
“No,” Naoto hated doing this over the phone, “Rise, would it be alright if I came over?” The silence after her question seemed to stretch forever.
Naoto stood in front of Rise’s hotel room door for over a minute, hand outstretched, ready to knock. Even though she’d already seen the other girl three times this week, the thought of having to talk to her again had Naoto on edge. Finally, the suspicious look the officer standing guard was giving her won over from her nerves.
Rise opened the door almost immediately after the first knock.
“Naoto, hi.” She seemed out of sorts. Sitting inside all day had clearly made her as anxious as Naoto now felt.
“Good evening, Rise-san. Can I come in.”
“Yes. Yes. Of course.” Rise held open the door. Naoto gave one last nod to the police officer before going in.
“How are you feeling? I hope staying inside here isn’t too hard on you.”
“It’s fine. It’s… safe, I guess.” Rise had made her way over to a small couch. Naoto went to follow her. Briefly considering her options, she went to move the chair that had been standing at the vanity across from the couch.
“They won’t tell me what happened to Matsuko. And they won’t let me check the news.” It was a wise choice to not show her the bloody images all over the media right now, but Naoto understood how rotten it felt to be so clueless. She picked her words carefully.
“It would appear that Ms. Ide invited the media to her house to find her after she’d… .” How could she put this.
“After she killed herself,” Rise finished the sentence. Naoto nodded and Rise’s expression turned even more worrying. She drew her legs up, wrapping her arms around her knees. “How did she… how did it happen?”
“Please, I want to know.”
“She cut her wrists.”
Naoto hesitated for a moment to tell her the rest of it.
“She was found underneath a portrait she seemed to have painted of herself with the… blood.” Rise’s eyes went wide, she didn’t respond. Naoto wasn’t sure how to continue. “We didn’t find any evidence suggesting there was someone else there at the time. Do you know if she would be able to… draw something like that?”
“I guess. She told me she used to take lessons as a child but had to quit when she started acting. I’ve never seen any drawings she made, though,” Rise had turned her face away from Naoto, but she could still see how the loss of her friend had hit her, “Sorry. I should have offered you a drink. I have a mini-bar.” Voice already cracking, Rise got up from her seat so she could hide her tears from Naoto more fully. She didn’t see that Naoto also stood up
“There’s not a lot in it though. Mostly hard spirits. I’m not sure if you want to-“ Rise stopped midsentence as Naoto pulled her into a tight hug. Soon, her hands clutched the front of Naoto’s jacket and her sobs grew muffled as she pressed her face into her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Rise.” Naoto said when the sobbing had calmed down.
“I’ve missed you.” Rise whispered. Naoto didn’t let go for another while.
Naoto had been the one to get Rise a drink after that. She had sat next to her ex-girlfriend on the couch and she told her everything she had found out about the case.
“So you don’t believe it was suicide anymore, right?”
“I couldn’t say for certain.”
“You don’t have to be certain, Naoto. I just… I want to know what you’re thinking.”
Naoto had never been good at telling Rise what she was thinking. Two months after graduation, Rise had first made the remark. They were leaving the cinema after seeing a romantic movie that had left Naoto quieter than usual. “I want to know what you’re thinking.” She’d said it with a smile suggesting she was just goofing around, but it had awakened a new area of anxiety for Naoto. To tell Rise what she was thinking. Her first answer had been short. “Nothing.” And the other girl hadn’t pressed any further, she simply grabbed Naoto’s hand as they went back to the train station. She hadn’t pressed any further while they were sitting on the train, instead only talked about how ominous the clouds over Inaba were starting to look. “If it starts raining, I’m laying claim to your hat.” She’d lifted the hat off of Naoto’s head, putting it on her own backwards. She hadn’t pressed any further when they finally arrived at the tofu shop. “Goodnight Naoto”, “Goodnight, Rise-san.”
On her way back to her families’ estate, Naoto had started preparing the speech. When she got home she spent an hour trying to write it out in a letter. Then she spent another hour staring at herself in the mirror as she tried to memorize the complicated sentences she had composed. Outside, the first rain started. Another fifteen minutes later, the rain had turned into a storm and Naoto had made peace with the fact that she would probably mess up some parts of the speech. Rise would just have to accept that. Going over the first sentences again, Naoto forgot to put on her coat.
By the time Naoto had arrived back in the shopping district she was drenched. She would have laughed at the cliché of it all if she hadn’t been wracked with nerves. She rang the doorbell.
“Naoto-kun? Oh my god, you’re soaked. Quick, come inside.” Rise grabbed hold of Naoto’s arm, trying to pull her into the house before Naoto loudly interrupted her.
“Rise Kujikawa, for the last two weeks… No, that’s not right. For the last two months, I…” Naoto couldn’t remember a single word she had prepared. “For the last two months, we… .”
“What are you doing, Naoto? Just come inside.” Rise had started pulling on her arm harder.
“Rise, please. I’m trying to do a thing here.”
“What thing?” She let go of Naoto’s arm.
“I’m trying to tell you what I was thinking, before, but I… I’m not as good at this as you are, okay?” She was yelling, frustrated at herself.
“Did you run all this way?” Rise interrupted her stuttering again.
“Yes. Because I wanted to tell you that I…,” this was nothing like the speech she had prepared, and she was still talking way louder than necessary, “I wanted to tell you that I was thinking that I loved you. So. There.” She finished, half expecting Rise to start laughing at it all. Rise hadn’t been laughing, though. She’d taken a step forward, joining Naoto in the rain, and had kissed her deeply.
“I love you too, Naoto-kun. Now will you just come inside?”
I want to know what you’re thinking.
The longer Naoto and Rise had been together, the better the detective was becoming at voicing her thoughts. Sitting next to the actress in her hotel room, however, had her worrying over phrases all over again. She made it a point to never share vague theories before she had evidence.
“I… don’t think these were simply suicides, no.”
“Do you think someone forced them to do it?”
“That would be a possibility.”
Rise groaned. “Is it a possibility you believe in?”
“Couldn’t say for certain.” Rise took a small sip from her glass.
“Would you know of anyone who might do something like that?” Naoto asked, hating how much she sounded like a detective when she should be sounding like a friend.
“I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it all day. Like, who they had in common and stuff. I don’t think they have any enemies or anything. I mean, how could I even tell, right,” she returned, handing Naoto a glass, “I couldn’t tell with Adachi… .”
“None of us could.” Naoto added, feeling a sharp twinge of sadness when she thought about everything Rise had had to endure. The TV world, her shadow self, the arena, the midnight stage. And now she had had two friends dying in an unexplained way.
“Thanks. For coming to talk to me.” Rise said suddenly, looking at Naoto.
“Of course.” Their eyes met.
“It wasn’t all bad, right? With us?” It was the first time Rise had mentioned the relationship.
“No, almost none of it was bad.” Naoto hoped the words were enough to convey the truths behind them. Rise nodded.
“Good.” She finished her drink, Naoto understood the unspoken suggestion.
“Goodnight, Rise-san. I’ll call you when I know more.” She stood up to leave. A subtle sadness returned to Rise’s face. She didn’t want to be left alone, Naoto knew.
“You should… try to get some rest.” She knew the suggestion would offer little comfort.
“I will. Thanks, Naoto.”
Naoto knocked twice before hearing a familiar grunt. It was how Sasaki Are had always greeted guests if they interrupted her while reading. It wasn’t that she was irked by the intrusion, she was usually just so absorbed by a text she briefly forgot how to speak. Naoto let herself into Are’s office. The office was as messy as ever, Naoto noted. The desk in the middle of the space was littered with stacks of papers, books and other documents. Are herself was sitting on a table to the left side of the room that held her printer and a water kettle. Naoto walked over to her and set one of two cups of coffee she had bought at the nearby coffee shop next to the professor. Are’s focused look quickly turned into a smile when she finally looked up from the journal she had been reading.
“Hey Naoto.” She greeted cheerfully, picking up a pen to make a quick note at the bottom of the article.
“Well well, isn’t this a déjà-vu.” Are teased as she noticed the coffee Naoto had brought her. Are was even more of a workaholic than Naoto. When they were still dating the detective had made a habit of it to come by often to ensure that Are was eating and drinking enough. She’d briefly worried the gesture would seem rude now.
“Thanks a lot, Naoto. What’s up? You were being very cryptic on the phone.” The professor took a sip from the cup as Naoto came over to lean against the table.
“I was wondering if you could take a look at a case I’m working on.”
“Sure thing. Let’s see it.” Are answered, already taking the casefile out of Naoto’s hands. She briefly looked at each page before turning back to Naoto.
“This is about those actresses, right? From the 'Fury' films?”
“So, are you… doing this for… her?”
“Yes,” Naoto answered, “Is that a problem?”
“No. No, of course not. I’m just surprised. So you saw her then? You guys spoke?”
“Yes, we did.”
“How was it?”
“Easier than I’d expected.”
“That’s good then.” Are said, taking another sip of her coffee. Naoto wasn’t sure how to interpret Are’s tone. She’d never quit been able to. The professor had started looking over the report again, stopping at the two pictures clipped to the first page: the name on the laptop, and the name written in blood.
“Do you think there’s some link between these names? Or a meaning I’m not seeing?” Naoto asked after Are had been staring at the names quietly.
“Well, sure. But… I’d think the most logical link is to the movies.” Are put the folder down again.
“The movies?” Naoto pressed her to continue. Are let out a laugh.
“Yeah, the 'Fury'-films? Seriously, detective, two actresses from the same franchise end up dead and you don’t even start your investigation by watching them?”
“I guess I’ve been avoiding it,” Naoto said feeling a blush of embarrassment coming on, “So you saw them?”
“Yeah, I was kinda forced to. They’re Kikyo’s favorites,” Kikyo was Are’s new girlfriend, she taught physics at the university, “Anyway, there’s a bunch of links to mythology in them. Like how the Furies were chosen by the gods to defeat these mob bosses because they were acting like they were the gods now?”
Naoto’s look of utter confusion caused Are to continue with her summary of the series.
“Okay, so, none of the characters really know each other at the start. Then all three of ‘em get into some sort of accident or tragedy that kills them, and they each meet with a kami, and then they are reborn with that kami’s ‘gift’.”
“And that would be these kami?” Naoto pointed at the pictures.
“Well, yes. I feel like someone would have already told you all this?”
“Guess they all assumed I’d already know.”
“So, Seki was linked to the God of wind. And Ide was linked to the God of blood.” Naoto tried to piece together the films’ plot.
“Well, sorta. Ide played the main character so her powers were a bit more epic than the others’. So, you remember the story of Ide’s kami, Kagutsuchi, right?” Naoto’s face told Are that she didn’t. She sighed. “When Kagu-tsuchi was born, he burned his mother – this is the really short version of the story – and his father was so enraged that he cut Kagu into eight pieces. Those pieces then became eight new kami. It’s a pretty interesting story, but the movie sort of boiled it down to ‘she has eight lives now’.”
“What was Rise’s power?” Naoto was curious.
“Ah. Rise got the power from Omoikane.”
“The God of wisdom?”
“Because having a woman be good at hacking computers without divine intervention would have been unbelievable, right?” Are laughed at her own joke, “But yeah, ‘wisdom of a 1000 minds.’”
“They all had a tagline like that. It would show up over a freeze-frame of their first close-ups in each film. Like in those 70’s action movies. Let’s see. Seki’s was ‘speed of a 1000 winds’. Ide’s was ‘risen from a 1000 deaths’. And Oba’s was ‘force of a 1000 waves’.”
“Oba Kenji is a fury, too?”
“Yeah, in the first movie he was a henchman for the bad guys. But then, when he turns to the furies’ side after falling for Seki’s character he gets killed and then reborn as a fury in the second film.” Naoto had to admit, the plot sounded slightly more clever than she had thought.
“I’m not sure if that helps you at all,” Are added after her tangent, “You came here for info on kami and I just ended up diving into pop-culture.”
“No, it was a great help. Thank you, Are.” Naoto had a lot to think about. As she left, she saw the professor pick up the journal once more.
Back at her office, Naoto was laying out all pieces of evidence in front of her. Her conversation with Are had left her with a nagging thought. Seki had been playing a character closely linked to Fujin for four years. She must have known plenty about the god by now. So why did she do an internet search for him? It seemed now that the name had been left there on the screen for someone else to find it. To see the link between her death and her supposed ‘transformation’. Ide’s bloody message had been composed with a strikingly similar message as Seki’s suicide note, only much shorter. It seemed like a summary of the former. Presumably because she was writing in a more precious type of ink. But Ide’s message had had the name of her god, Kagutsuchi, written at the end of it. Why hadn’t Seki’s longer message contained a mention of Fujin as well?
Naoto knew what the most logical explanation was: Seki had never entered the name on her laptop. Someone else had left it there in a way that would leave no fingerprints or in handwriting that didn’t match Seki’s. If that was the case, then Naoto’s own theory would gain more plausibility. Someone had forced them to write a suicide note and possibly even forced them to kill themselves. Or they had staged their deaths to look that way. The theory had gotten even more credence when, on her way back from Are’s office, she had stopped by the forensic department. A specialist there confirmed her suspicion. It was very likely that the name ‘Kagutsuchi’ had been written by someone else trying to fake Ide’s handwriting. Naoto had asked them to check that word on the wall for new fingerprints.
Matsuura, apparently having heard of her earlier visit to the station, entered her office.
“Shirogane, I see you’re keeping yourself well occupied.” He said as he saw the detective sitting cross-legged between the mess of papers on the floor. She jumped up to greet him with a handshake before she went over her new details with him.
“Foul play then, my guys are starting to come to the same conclusion. Let’s go over our main suspects, shall we?” Naoto nodded. She’d just finished a list of suspects herself.
“Okay, so it’s either someone they know, or one of the hundreds of fans. We have people going over the weirdest letters both victims received but… .”
“It would be unlikely that a random fan could get access to both homes.”
“So we should focus our investigation to people who were closest to them.” Naoto summarized what she had already decided for herself.
“Yes, may I?” Matsuura had walked over to the small whiteboard in the corner of her office. She nodded and he said each name out loud slowly as he wrote his list of suspects down. It was the same as hers.
“So first, there’s Toda Noboru, the manager. He had plenty of access to Seki. Wouldn’t have taken him much effort to get access to Ide as well. Plus, we know that he has had plenty of interactions with both of them.” Toda was pretty high on Naoto’s own list, but not as high as the next two names Matsuura wrote down.
“Second, there’s Hide, the director,” he wrote out his full name, Shoda Hidemechi, “He’s definitely close to both actresses. Would have plenty of access to either.”
“And he already has a criminal history.” Naoto was quick to remind him. It had been nationwide news only a year earlier. He had taken advantage of a young intern working on the set of Furies, Apocalypse. The girl, only nineteen at the time, had come forward with her accusation in the hope that more women would join the claim. None of them ever did. Hide maintained that everything had been consensual, that she was just doing it for the attention. The courts had agreed. It had infuriated Naoto at the time. She had been close to starting her own investigation into the claim. An overload of work had stopped her, along with his connection to Rise.
“I know he’s a bit of a creep. But we pretty much ruled him out,” Matsuura said, “he has an airtight alibi. He was abroad at the time of Seki’s death.”
“Maybe he had an accomplice. Someone to commit the first murder, leaving him clear to continue.”
“It’s…,” Matsuura scratched his chin in thought. Eyes lighting up happily as someone offered him a perspective none of his own detectives had. “It’s a possibility for sure, but I wouldn’t bet my money on it.” Naoto could only agree with him. ‘If you hear hoof steps, think horse, not zebra’ her own grandfather used to say when she leapt to the most exciting theories during an investigation.
“So, Toda or Oba Kenji, then.” Naoto continued for him. He wrote Kenji’s name down.
“Oba’s a definite possibility. He knows the victims well enough, though I heard he and Ide had it out for each other. Well-recorded screaming matches and such. Still, if anything, that might give him motive.”
“And he has plenty of connections to the drug world, he would have had no trouble getting ahold of those narcotics.”
“He did?” This was new information to Matsuura. “How do you know that?”
“My informer told me.”
“Ah, yes, of course. So you spoke to dung beetle?” Matsuura started to laugh quietly.
“It’s Spider.” Naoto corrected. Matsuura laughed louder at her response. After quieting down he finally continued.
“So. Toda or Oba as our main leads for now, then.”
“It would appear that way, yes.”
“I’ll have my men look into both. We’ll bring them in for questioning tomorrow.” Naoto nodded as she started gathering up her papers. The fact that the police shared her current theories was comforting. She might as well take the night off from the case and wait for the results of the interrogation.
“You know, Shirogane…,” Naoto turned, surprised to see Matsuura still staring at the whiteboard in thought, “There’s still a name missing on here.”
“Pardon?” She asked, though she already suspected which name he was going to add. He didn’t say it out loud this time, but added the name in the same block letters as the others: Kujikawa Rise.
“I know you believe she’s innocent,” Naoto did, “I doubt she would be behind this as well but it’s… It’s a possibility.. And it’s a possibility you shouldn’t let yourself be blind to.”
Naoto felt just a hint of anger at his words. Of course, she reminded herself, he didn’t know just how much Rise had fought in the past to prevent situations like these. To solve similar crimes. As soon as Matsuura left her office, she erased Rise’s name from the list.
Sitting in her car, Naoto held her cellphone in front of her face in thought. She’d been staring at Rise’s name for what seemed like half an hour. Should she tell the actress about her theory now, or after the interrogations? Now.
It took quite a while before Rise answered. Naoto could hear music in the background, and talking, and laughing.
“Naoto-kun?” Rise asked, she sounded as if she had just been giggling.
“Rise, is everything alright?”
“Yes. Don’t be mad, okay?” The background noises became softer. Naoto could hear a door close.
“Is there something I should be mad about?”
“I, uh, I snuck out.” Rise admitted. Naoto jolted upright in her seat.
“You WHAT?” She shouted.
“Sorry. I was going stir-crazy in there. And this friend of mine was giving a really big party tonight that I promised I’d be at. And the guy outside my door, officer, uhm, Soga. Anyway, he said it was okay as long as he could come with me. He’s a huge Risette-fan apparently, so I’m sure he’ll keep me safe. Don’t worry, okay?”
“Rise. Where are you?”
“I don’t know, in a laundry room or something.”
“No, Rise, I meant… Whose house are you at right now?”
“Oh! Haha. I’m at Kenji’s. Really though, don’t be mad okay?” Naoto hung up before Rise had finished her last sentence, car already speeding towards Oba Kenji’s house.
The party appeared to still be in full swing when Naoto drove up to Oba’s home fifteen minutes later. She checked her gun and hid it in the holster underneath her jacket. She knew she should have called this in. Matsuura wouldn’t approve of her plan. First, get Rise out. Then, talk to Oba. Rise was far too close to one of the main suspects right now for Naoto’s liking. She walked up to the house with a determination she had perfected over the years. The bouncer at the door didn’t even stop her to ask for her name. Inside, Naoto quickly took in her surroundings. It seemed like a pretty standard party for people in the movie business. Attractive people dancing and drinking. People she recognized from magazine covers sniffing cocaine. Everyone stopping every once in a while to stop and pose for a photo. For a moment, Naoto was glad she was not a cop. She had no obligation to arrest every single partygoer, just reporting it later would suffice. Instead, she moved through the crowd looking for a familiar face. Not inside. Upstairs? Maybe. Check outside first. She was urging herself to be methodical and fast. As long as she didn’t see Rise, or Oba, any number of the horrifying scenarios in her head might be true.
She didn’t have to worry long, fortunately. She found Rise in the garden, next to the pool. She was sitting on a beach chair along with a few other actresses and models. They were all circled around a heavily blushing officer Naoto recognized from the police station.
“Doesn’t he just look the cutest in his little uniform.” Rise was giggling as the other girls agreed loudly.
“His cap really brings out his eyes.” One said.
“Officer Blue, can you be my bodyguard next?” Another cooed as she settled herself against him, offering him a sip from her drink.
“Please, ma’am, I’m still on duty.” Officer Soga was stammering. Poor guy, Naoto was laughing to herself. She had forgotten how much fun it used to be to see Rise at parties like these. Unless the teasing was suddenly directed towards Naoto herself, of course.
“Naoto?” Rise suddenly yelled. She jumped up and went over to the detective looking like a deer caught in headlights.
“So you are mad.” She said looking at the ground.
“No, Rise. Of course not. But we’ve just found out that Oba might be… ,” Naoto paused, looking around the garden, “do you know where he is?”
“Kenji? No, I haven’t seen him in a while. I think he might be upstairs with his girlfriend. Why? What’s going on?”
“We have reason to believe Oba may have been involved in Ms. Seki’s and Ide’s deaths.”
“Kenji? I doubt that,” Rise said, but her face had turned worried, “I know he looks like a pitbul, but he’s a puppy. Just like Kanji-kun.”
Naoto put a hand on Rise’s arm, the gesture forcing her to finally look up into the detective’s eyes.
“I know it might look that way. But people aren’t always what they seem, Rise, you know th-“ Naoto was interrupted by a loud commotion inside of the house. She instinctively gripped Rise’s hand, pulling her behind herself so she could protect her. The screams from inside grew louder. Rise grabbed hold of the back of Naoto’s jacket, leaning to look out from behind her back. Naoto felt Rise’s whispered words in her ear more than she heard them.
“Oh my god.”
Kenji Oba’s burning form was walking down the stairs towards the living room slowly. The crowd around him yelling loudly, pushing each other out of the way to escape. Oba kept walking, seemingly unaware of the flames that had charred his skin. For just a second, his eyes met Rise’s. Naoto could feel her tense behind her. Then, Oba started to scream
To Naoto, the next ten minutes felt like they had happened on autopilot. She’d started barking out orders with an authority that even the most inebriated guests had been afraid to ignore.
“Soga, put him out!” She yelled at the rookie officer as she threw a wet beach towel in his direction. The command finally shook him out of his shocked state as he ran over to Oba’s still burning but now still body.
“Everyone get outside now. Nobody leaves the area before I say so.” The partygoers all stumbled outside, some lingering to look at the figure on the ground.
Naoto had grabbed Rise by the hand, taken her around the house instead of through it. Had pushed her car keys into Rise’s hand.
“Get in. Wait for me.” She said before rushing back inside. She briefly saw that Soga had gotten control over the flames. He was now administering CPR, though she knew it was far too late for that. The damage of the fire to Soba’s lungs was already fatal before he had even reached the bottom of the stairs. Naoto ran up those stairs. Bathroom? Empty. First bedroom? Empty. Finally, the master bedroom? Not empty.
Soba Kenji’s girlfriend was lying on the bed. Her hands and feet were tied to the bedpost with rope, a scarf around her mouth muffling her yelling. As Naoto came over to the bed, the yelling grew louder, the woman started struggling against her restraints more violently. Brief eye contact as Naoto leaned over her to untie the scarf revealed that her pupils were extremely dilated. Was it the same drug? Removing the scarf, the woman started repeating the same words that Naoto saw written on the wall behind the bed in black ink.
“I am altered. Everlasting.” The woman and the text repeated the short message over and over again.
“Soga, get up here!” The officer arrived not one minute later. “Stay with her until the ambulance arrives.” Soga nodded and Naoto went through each room upstairs again. The bathroom was still open, looking out she could see grass. It wouldn’t have been too high of a jump for her suspect to escape this way. Whoever they were, they were long gone now. She searched the rest of the house. First the upstairs, then downstairs. She didn’t find any other evidence, or any mention of Oba’s kami, Suijin.
While she was waiting for the police and ambulances to arrive, Naoto briefly tried to sort her thoughts. Seki’s and Ide’s deaths had been both directly related to their kami. God of wind: you fall to death. God of blood: you bleed to death. This last one didn’t add up. God of water: you burn. Was it meant to be ironic? Had the perpetrator hoped Oba would have jumped into his swimming pool once he was on fire? And why was there no mention of his kami anywhere? She doubted it was because they had lacked time. A close siren pulled Naoto out of her thoughts. She’d have to focus on her investigation later.
Matsuura ran over to her and she informed him of what had happened inside.
“You’ve checked the perimeter?” He asked her when she finished relaying the facts.
“Yes, the suspect, if there is one, probably escaped through an upstairs window.”
“Okay. I’ll have some people scan the neighborhood. The rest can interview the other guests.”
Naoto nodded, distracted by the sight of an upset officer Soga leaning against a police car. Rough first month on the job, Naoto thought to herself.
“Is she still here?” Matsuura asked and it took Naoto a while to figure out who he meant. She nodded towards her car, a figure visible in the passenger seat.
“She saw it happen?”
“Yes, we both did.”
Matsuura nodded slowly, his face surprisingly serious. Looks like he might have some Dojima in him after all, when the situation called for it. Naoto briefly feared he’d bring Rise up as a suspect again.
“It was a good thing you were here, Shirogane. Why don’t you take Ms. Kujikawa back to the hotel. I’ll see if I can send someone else to guard her tonight.”
“Your people will be busy. I can do it, if you’d like.” Naoto offered even though she already felt her exhaustion pricking at her eyes. Matsuura considered her proposition for a moment.
“I’d rather have a badge there, if only to keep the paper-pushers of my back. But if it’s okay with you, maybe you could stay with her for the next half hour or so? I’ll wrap things up here and meet you at the hotel, see if we can make sense of all this. Should be able to spare another officer in an hour or two.”
Matsuura turned to look over his team. It looked as if the paramedics were about ready to take the body to the hospital. Best for Rise not to see this, Naoto thought. She rushed over to her car.
During the drive back to the hotel Rise had been uncharacteristically quiet and visibly rattled. Naoto was feeling quite shaken up by what they had just witnessed herself, and hoped for Rise’s sake that she was doing a good enough job hiding it.
When they finally pulled up to the hotel, Naoto saw that Rise had begun to shiver slightly. She put her jacket over Rise’s shoulders and they made their way to the room in silence.
As Rise entered the hotel room, Naoto stood hesitating in the doorway.
“Can I get you anything, Rise-san?” The actress shook her head as she made her way to the bedroom. Naoto followed her for three steps until she stopped again. Rise got under the covers, Naoto’s jacket still wrapped around her, she buried her head deep into the blankets.
“I- I’ll be right outside if you need me, okay?” Naoto said. She took the three steps back to the hallway.
“Naoto?” She heard Rise ask softly.
“Yes?” It was quiet for a long while.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
Naoto closed the door behind her.
There was a time when it had felt effortless to her, knowing what she needed to do to comfort Rise. The girl she had just seen crawl into bed seemed so different from the one she used to share her own bed with. She sat down in the chair next to the door of Rise’s room, her mind already reminding her of the scent of freshly made coffee. She’d just turned twenty, Rise’s birthday was still a little over a month away. It had been one of the rare days when neither had to be anywhere at all for over 24 hours. Rise had insisted they’d celebrate by staying in bed until well past noon. She’d giggled as Naoto had tried to persuade her to get up anyway and go for a walk together. Rise had known a few tricks to keep Naoto in bed though. Rise’s hands holding her down at the waist had helped, the kissing had helped even more, and then of course there’d been… Still sitting in the hallway, Naoto propped the collar of her blue shirt up to hide her blush. They’d stayed in bed well past noon that day. Rise had made coffee, it had taken Naoto a few months to teach her. Naoto had sat with her back up against the wall reading to Rise from one of her favorite detective novels, The Gilded Feathers. The other girl was leaning against her shoulder, reading along. She’d laugh at the clichés: the hardened detective, the grieving but sexy widow, the even sexier and mysterious nightclub singer, the suspicious looking journalist. Here and there, Naoto’d pause to explain the detective’s backstory. The book had been part of a long series.
“He’s afraid to fail, you see. Because once, he’d been the chief of police, but a bad decision caused the deaths of many, as well as his resignation. So now, every case is important, failure is not an option.” She’d half expected Rise to scoff at the explanation, but the girl was suddenly quiet. Naoto turned to look at her. Rise’s smile was gone, she was staring at the page with a blank expression.
“What if I fail?”
“How do you mean?”
“You know, what if I don’t make it? As an actress. I’ve already had my comeback, isn’t it insane to start all over again?”
“You won’t fail.”
“You don’t know that.” Rise was right. Naoto thought for a moment.
“I don’t think you’ll fail. Like you said, you’ve made a comeback before. Your fans will always be waiting for you, they’ll follow you again. And you’ll get even more fans once everyone realizes you’re even better at acting than performing.” Naoto hoped the words had comforted Rise. She threw her arm around the girl, pulled her just a little closer.
“Hm. Maybe.” Rise said.
“But what if it turns out I’m actually really bad at acting? And I keep forgetting all my lines, or can’t stop laughing during a serious scene or… ?” A vague smile had already returned to Rise’s face. Naoto pretended like she was giving the question a lot of thought.
“Ah. Hmm. Well… I guess, then, you’d just have to go and work in a tofu shop for the rest of your life.” Rise scoffed at Naoto’s answer.
“Hey, don’t knock grandma’s shop, okay? It was actually kinda nice to work there.”
“I know. That’s my point. Even if you don’t become the most famous actress in the country, which I doubt, there are always going to be plenty of wonderful things in your life.”
“You’re right. And hey, when I’m back at the tofu shop, you’ll come by to talk to me, right? Like when we first met? You’ll come make sure I’m safe?”
“Every day.” Naoto pressed a kiss to Rise’s forehead then. The girl let out a soft sigh.
“What happens next?” Rise asked, tapping the cover of the detective novel. Naoto had almost forgotten she was still holding it.
“Oh. Well. He solves the case. Turns out the dentist did it.” Rise had rolled her eyes at Naoto then.
“No, I meant, what happens between him and the nightclub singer?” Naoto let out a soft laugh, of course Rise had been more interested in the romance than the investigation.
“He gets the girl, of course.”
“Good.” Rise said as she pulled the book out of Naoto’s hands.
Would it still work now, Naoto thought as she sat in the hotel hallway. Would it still be enough to just be there with her to calm her. She wondered if Rise was thinking the same thing, on the other side of the door. That maybe, if Naoto was lying next to her now, holding her, that everything might be just a little less awful.
“Shirogane,” Matsuura’s sudden greeting got Naoto to sit up quickly, “I wasn’t sure if you’d still want coffee at this hour, so I got you coffee or tea.” He was holding a cardboard tray with two containers. Naoto accepted the green tea with a grateful smile.
“Just what I needed, thanks. How were things at Oba’s estate?”
“As bad as you’d expect. Media arrived pretty soon after you left, so it’s a good thing you got Kujikawa out of there. Interrogations didn’t really give us anything new. Apparently Oba had been upstairs with his girlfriend for well over an hour before the event occured. Nobody could say if they saw anyone else go up there. Plenty of witnesses but no one’s really seen anything. I guess we couldn’t expect more, right?” His eyes were smiling again as he sat down on the chair opposite of Naoto.
“Right.” Her tired mind didn’t have room to think both about the case and the actress in the room behind her. Right now, her worry over the girl’s well-being had the upper hand, but she forced herself to focus for Matsuura’s sake.
“You searched the house, right? Find anything else I should know about?” He asked her.
“I doubt I found anything you haven’t. Did you manage to speak to the girlfriend yet?”
“No, still high as a kite, I’m afraid. They took her to the hospital to flush her system.”
“She didn’t drug herself though, right?”
“It’s very unlikely.”
“So then either Oba did or-“
“I think neither of us believe Oba did this to himself.”
“No,” Naoto appreciated Matsuura’s candor, “Do we know where Toda is?”
“We checked his house, he’s not there. Apparently he hasn’t been in a while according to his neighbors.”
“Very.” They sat drinking silently for a while.
“She okay?” Matsuura finally broke the silence, nodding at the door.
“She’s still in shock, I believe. I haven’t really talked to her yet. I think she’s sleeping.” Matsuura nodded.
“Are you okay?” He asked, the question caught Naoto by surprise. When was the last time anyone in her field of work had asked her that?
“I-“ Her answer was caught short when they both heard a loud crash at the other side of the door. The crash was followed by a scream from Rise and both detectives were up with their guns drawn. Matsuura went through the door first, weapon ready to fire. Someone else shot first. Matsuura yelped as he fell down, Naoto leaped over him to see a masked figure holding Rise by the arm. She was struggling to get away from him. Throwing anything within reach at his head. It had moderate success, a well-timed wineglass caused their second gunshot, aimed at Naoto, to miss by a few inches. Naoto waited with her own first shot, afraid to hit Rise who was moving erratically to get away from the assailant. The person fired a third shot, Naoto felt a sudden sharp pain in her side. Throwing a quick glance, she was reassured that the bullet had only grazed her. She sprinted towards the two, jumped over the coffee table. Her new position left her with a clear target, she took the shot, hitting the invader in the chest. They let out a grunt as they fell to their knees, finally letting go of Rise who crossed to the other side of the room.
“Rise! Run!” Naoto yelled, but the girl had decided to use her newfound freedom to find more stuff to throw at the downed assailant. Naoto trained her gun on the figure once more, why weren’t they going down? Then she saw the Kevlar vest underneath their hoodie. She pulled the trigger a second time, hitting them in the arm. Instead of a grunt, they now let out a scream before suddenly jumping up again. They rushed forward, arms up to try to block Rise’s projectiles, and ran straight into Naoto. The force of the impact sent her flying against the wall. She hit the back of her head hard against the surface, vision blurry for a few seconds before she could get back on her feet. Then, she was out in the hallway, running after the figure. Rise was yelling something behind her, she couldn’t make it out over the ringing in her ears. The figure had made their way to the staircase, Naoto broke through the doors only a few seconds later. They had already made a decent head start though, Naoto figured they must have jumped down the first four sets of stairs. Her knees felt wobbly as she set to follow the m. When she finally exited the staircase, into the hotel’s lobby, the figure was nowhere to be seen.
“The masked man, which way did they go?” She yelled at the clerk just exiting the office behind the desk.
“I… I didn’t see anyone, I was in the backr- are you okay?” The woman’s eyes went wide as she saw both the gun, and Naoto’s bloody side.
“Call an ambulance.” Was the only thing Naoto said before she turned to go back upstairs.
She found Rise bending over Matsuura’s body. She was speaking to him softly, a bath towel pressed to his abdomen to quench the bleeding.
“Naoto?! Oh thank god.” She said in relief when she saw the detective approach.
“How is he?”
“Did you call an ambulance?”
“Yes, they’re on their way.”
“Then he’ll be fine.” Rise said. Matsuura, eyes still closed and breathing heavily, put out one arm towards Naoto, giving her a thumbs up.
The ambulance and police had arrived quickly. They too had reassured Naoto that Matsuura would be fine, she finally let go of the hitched breath she had been holding. She’d joined one of the officers as they went to look at the hotel room. In their rush to leave, the intruder had left behind a bloody glove. It felt like a hard-won victory, but if they could match that blood to one of the suspects, the case would be as good as closed. The officer left with the glove, promising to put a rush on the tests. Naoto turned to search for more clues when she suddenly felt a hand on the back of her neck. Naoto turned to see Rise looking at her with an expression she couldn’t quite place.
“Naoto, you’re hurt,” She said softly, “You should let her take a look at it.” Rise had apparently led one of the paramedics to her.
“I’m fine.” Naoto said, kneeling down to look at a footprint that turned out to be her own.
“Detective, you’re bleeding rather heavily,” The paramedic said in an equally soft tone that was starting to annoy Naoto, she wasn’t made of glass, “We need to stitch that.”
“It’s fine. I don’t need to go to the hospital.” Naoto answered.
“Told you.” Rise said to the paramedic, deserving more of Naoto’s attention.
“You don’t have to go to the hospital. I can do it here.” The woman smiled encouragingly. Naoto turned her attention to Rise, who still had that strange expression. She’d seen plenty that night, maybe seeing Naoto taken care of would offer her some relief. Naoto nodded at the paramedic.
“Okay, why don’t you come down to the truck,” Naoto realized the woman was checking her pupils and she briefly wondered if she might have a concussion. The ringing in her ears was finally starting to quiet down. It didn’t feel like she was concussed. “You can come, too.” The paramedic said to Rise. Naoto turned to follow the woman downstairs and after walking a few steps Rise caught up to her, sliding her arm underneath hers, folding their hands together. Another few steps later, Naoto squeezed a little harder.
“We could arrange for you to move to a new location.” Naoto was telling Rise after the paramedic had finished her examination. She didn’t have a concussion, fortunately, but the wound in her side would take some time to heal. Rise was sitting next to her in the back of the ambulance.
“Yeah, okay.” Rise answered.
“You could stay with me if you want.” Naoto offered hoping she would agree. After today she was reluctant to let the actress out of her sight.
Rise was standing in Naoto’s living room, seeming a bit lost.
“It looks different than your old place.”
“Yeah well, I uh, have a bit more money to spend now.” Their old apartment had been small and filled with mismatched furniture. Naoto’s new place was bigger. Filled with furniture chosen because she liked the way it looked, not because it was cheap.
“It suits you.”
Naoto didn’t know how to answer. She went to her kitchen, returning with two glasses of water. She was utterly exhausted by now, and the thudding in her head was still going strong, yet having Rise stand in her home was making her feel alert. On edge. She’d felt Rise’s words coming before she’d even opened her mouth.
“I guess you were way better off without me, huh?” She’d said it with a sad smile. The words hurt more than anything else had that day.
“I really wasn’t.” Naoto answered, taking a few steps toward Rise but feeling further away than ever.
“Doesn’t really seem that way, though.” Rise said, looking in the direction of a few framed pictures. Grandfather, mom and dad, Kanji.
“I guess I’m good at pretending.”
“Then why don’t I believe you?” Naoto let out a sigh at that.
“We don’t have to talk about this now, Rise. I’m sure you’re tired.”
“Can we… Can we talk in the morning?”
Rise crossed the few steps in between them then. Grabbing Naoto’s shirt at her stomach, still looking at the ground. Her knuckles pressed against the skin behind the fabric. For a moment she leaned forward, as if she wanted to rest her head on Naoto’s shoulders but thought better of it.
“Okay. Tomorrow, then.” She slowly released the material and turned towards the bed, eyes still trained on the ground. Naoto knew it was because there’d be a question in Rise’s gaze she wasn’t brave enough to ask out loud. Naoto answered it for her anyway, following her into the bedroom. Lying down next to her. Pulling Rise’s back closer to her as she wrapped an arm around her waist. She thought she heard Rise whisper something then, before she put her own arm over Naoto’s.
Naoto must have been even more worn-out than she had thought. She woke up the next day to see it was well past 10 a.m. The space next to her in bed was empty. She got up too quickly, winced at the pain in her side. She looked down to see blood already starting to seep through the bandages. She should change those first. Naoto made her way over to the small bathroom that was attached to her bedroom. She took a new pack of bandaging out of her first aid kit, as well as a painkiller to cull the headache that had started behind her temples.
Finally opening the door to her living room, Naoto was greeted by the smell of coffee she had been reminiscing about only a few hours before. Rise was sitting at the dining room table, reading something on her phone. Naoto hoped it wasn’t about Ide or Oba, but she knew it probably was. Rise looked up when she heard Naoto.
“Hey. How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine. How are you?” Naoto answered. Rise looked at her suspiciously for a moment, as if she already knew that Naoto’s side still hurt.
“Okay, I guess. I can’t really believe all of this is happening.”
“Yeah.” Naoto didn’t know what else to say.
“I, uh, I made some coffee. Let me get you a cup,” Rise got up from her seat and disappeared into the kitchen for a few seconds, “I was going to make eggs or something but then I realized that I didn’t really know how long you’d be sleeping.” She sounded nervous as she handed Naoto her cup. She didn’t sit back down, leaving both of them standing in the middle of the living room.
“Thanks. I don’t have any eggs anyway.” She offered Rise a smile she hoped was reassuring.
“Good. Because I don’t really know how to make eggs.”
“Still?” Naoto couldn’t help but laugh.
“Yeah, still.” Rise joined her for a few moments. After that, they both quietly drank their coffee.
“Sorry, I was harsh on you last night.” Rise finally broke the silence.
“It’s alright.” Naoto offered.
“I think… I don’t know. I think I wanted to try and get you angry or something, so you’d tell me what you were feeling. It was a dumb idea. Especially after everything that happened.”
“It’s alright.” Naoto repeated. Rise let out a sad laugh at the short response. Same old Naoto, she could almost hear her think.
“I wasn’t lying though, yesterday,” Naoto chose her words slowly as she went to put her mug down, “When I said I wasn’t better off without you.”
“It’s okay, Naoto. You don’t have t-“
“I’ve missed you. A lot,” Naoto continued, “And then I tried to make myself miss you less. And I made myself believe it. But I think… I think the reason why I haven’t come to see you before is because I knew it would prove… everything.”
“Naoto, I… .” Rise had set her cup back down on the table, her hand grabbing Naoto’s.
“I’m done pretending, Rise. I miss you.” Naoto took a step closer to her.
“I’m still the girl who wasn’t there when you needed me. When your grandfa-“
“You’re also the girl who was always there before. When we were inside the TV, when I was still learning how to be in love, when we came to this city. All of that matters just as much.” They locked eyes and Naoto saw the hint of tears growing in Rise’s.
“You mean it?” Rise asked as she looked away to the floor. Naoto’s hand was on the side of her face then, fingers in her hair, forcing her to look into blue eyes again. Naoto didn’t have to say she meant it. Instead, she pressed her lips against Rise’s.
Rise melted into the kiss deeper. She placed a hand over Naoto’s briefly, before lowering both of her arms to the other girl’s waist. She pulled her body closer to the other’s as Naoto’s hands tangled further into her hair.
It was familiar, Naoto thought, but at the same time it was different than it had been years before. Rise’s touch felt less confident, less demanding. Having finally admitted her feelings, though, Naoto wasn’t afraid to take what she wanted this time. She moved Rise three steps backward, until her back was against the wall. Naoto finally moved her hands away from her hair, placing them at the small of Rise’s back, pulling their hips together. She lifted Rise’s shirt enough to run her thumb over the bare skin of her back. Rise let out a small sigh, briefly biting Naoto’s bottom lip before breaking off the kiss. She stood there, staring into Naoto’s eyes for a while, Naoto looking back, before she took the detective by the hand to lead her back into the bedroom.
When Naoto woke up for the second time that day, the space next to her was still occupied. She reached out a hand to quickly stop her cellphone’s ringing, answering it in hushed tones. She could see that Rise was already starting to wake up as well. Naoto got up anyway, walking to her bathroom on bare feet. She closed the door behind her before she spoke in her usual volume.
“Sorry. You were saying?”
“It’s Ikehara. Hatsua Ikehara. We’ve met once before, I’m not sure if y-“
“I remember.” Naoto confirmed. She’d met the woman at the police station a few months earlier.
“Right. I’m taking over for Matsuura for a while, until he gets back on his feet. He told me you’ve been assisting him on the Fury case.”
“That is correct.”
“He also told me Ms. Kujikawa was staying at your apartment for now,” Naoto made a short noise of confirmation, “Okay. Well, I have information that might interest you both.”
“Is it about the blood on the glove?”
“It’s a match to Toda’s. We also found a few of his hairs in the closet. He must have been hiding in there.” Naoto had been so tired she hadn’t even wondered how the suspect had gotten into Rise’s room unnoticed.
“It’s more than enough to go on. So I got a warrant out for his arrest.”
“Did you find him?”
The other end of the line was silent for a moment.
“No. Sorry. I have most of my people out looking for him right now. We’ll find him.” The mask Toda had worn when he’d attacked Rise was suddenly clearly visible in Naoto’s mind. An uneasy feeling made its way down her spine.
“Good. Will you call me if you find him?”
“Of course. You’ll tell Ms. Kujikawa about this?”
Naoto ended the conversation before throwing some cold water in her face. There was conclusive evidence that Toda had attacked them last night. Considering his link to the other victims, it seemed more than logical to assume he was behind everything. And he was still free. She hoped that the police would find him quickly, to set Rise’s mind at ease at least.
Naoto opened the door to her bedroom to see Rise quickly bound away. The actress sat down on the side of the bed staring at her fingernails as if she hadn’t just been listening at the door. Naoto took the few steps between them and sat down next to her.
“Sorta. Was it…?”
“Evidence points to Toda, yes.”
“Did they find him?”
“No. Not yet.” Naoto saw how worry instantly flooded over every inch of Rise’s face. She grabbed Rise’s hand then, locking their fingers together, and the worry lessened.
Even though her guest had kept her plenty distracted, Naoto didn’t feel comfortable just sitting around waiting for Toda to be caught. She set her mind to help the police gather evidence to link each crime to Toda, in hopes that the legal procedure would be quick. The faster Toda was convicted, the less time the media would have to dig around and share details about the lives and deaths of Rise’s friends that would make it even harder for her to get some sense of closure.
Naoto had brought her casefiles home from the office. Rise was still expected to be under police protection and this way Naoto could keep her company. So she doesn’t go stir-crazy again, Naoto told herself. Though if she was being honest, she’d admit it was because now that she was finally kissing Rise again, it seemed like it would be impossible to stop.
She’d tried to keep Rise away from the files at first, but the former idol was always peeking over her shoulder. Naoto’d seen that coming, so she had left all the photographic evidence at the office. Even if Rise insisted on helping out, she didn’t have to see that.
“Your humble sidekick brings you an offering of tea.” Rise surprised Naoto the next morning. The detective had woken up early and assumed Rise would still be asleep for quite some time. She’d settled at her desk, reviewing the same reports for the tenth time that week. She was trying to create a timeline, when each murder had been planned and executed, before the voice startled her. She turned around to see Rise carrying two mugs. Rise had found Naoto’s old blue cap the day before. Now she was wearing it on top of her still messy hair, and she was not wearing much else. Naoto managed to keep from blushing at the sight of Rise’s underwear, but she could already feel her ears turning bright red.
“Maybe my humble sidekick should put on some pants before she starts with her duties.”
“I can perform my duties just fine, thank you very much,” She placed Naoto’s cup down in front of her and then placed a kiss on her lips, “Anything new yet?”
Naoto had been left flustered enough that it took her a full ten seconds before she realized Rise was asking about the investigation.
“Actually, yes. Ikehara sent me an email. They’ve finally been able to speak with Oba’s girlfriend.”
“Tomoko? Is she okay?”
“Yes. She’s home from the hospital already. Do you know her well?”
“No, not really. But she seems really nice.”
“I was thinking I would go speak to her today. See if she remembers anything about that night. Maybe she can identify Toda; she could be a really useful witness.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“I don’t think the officers outside my front door will let you.”
Rise made a grumpy noise. She lowered the cap down over her eyes like Naoto used to. She tried to mimic how Naoto had sounded when they first met.
“Surely, there must be some task that might require my vast talents.”
“There is.” Naoto said before lifting the cap off of Rise’s head and placing it on her own.
“You,” Naoto gestured at her telephone, “get to call Kanji.”
Rise’s eyes went wide.
“To tell him about the case?”
“Well, yes. And to tell him about us.”
“So, there’s… an ‘us’ again?” Naoto nodded and before she knew what was happening Rise had grabbed her by the shirt, pulling her in for a long kiss. The motion had sent her cap falling to the ground.
“I should probably go soon.” She said before continuing with the kiss. It was Rise who finally pulled back, hands still holding Naoto’s collar.
“Do I get to call the others too?”
“Call whoever you want. But really, call Kanji first. If he finds out he wasn’t the first to know I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Naoto got ready to leave. Just as she was walking out the door, she could see Rise studying the timeline.
It was already getting dark when Naoto was driving back home that night. She had stayed out way longer than she’d expected. Oba’s girlfriend, Ichikawa Tomoko, had presented her with an intriguing new piece to her puzzle. The girl had been suspicious of her at first, but had let her into her apartment after only a brief introduction.
“You’re still looking into Kenji’s death?” She was sitting on her couch, Naoto seated in a chair across from her. Naoto made a mental note of the surroundings, the curtains were closed, all the light in the space came from a single desk lamp.
“I’m trying to figure out what happened exactly, yes. I was hoping you might remember something from that night. Any details would be a great help.”
“I don’t really… remember anything. They say I was drugged but I don’t know when or how.”
“That’s alright. What do you remember from before that?”
“I uh… I don’t know. Me and Kenji were at the party and I was drinking and sort of lost track of him for a bit. I remember talking to this other guy, but I… I can’t remember who. I think I sorta knew him. I must have, right. I think I knew everyone there except for the cop that Rise brought. Anyway, after that, it gets a bit blurry. I don’t know, maybe I was already drugged by then? Or maybe I was just drunk? I vaguely recall walking up the stairs-“
“Was Kenji with you then?”
“I don’t think so. I think he came up later or he was already there.”
“That’s… that’s it. After that I woke up in the hospital and they told me Kenji’s dead.”
“Thank you, Ms. Ichikawa, I’m sure there’s something here we can u-“
“He’s not dead, detective.” The girl interrupted Naoto.
“I don’t think Kenji’s dead.” She said it with a certainty that made Naoto feel uneasy, she’d seen the burning body with her own eyes after all.
“Why do you think that?”
“He… ,” the girl seemed to hesitate for a moment, “Look, I know I should have told the police about this when it happened. But I’d only just gotten back home and I was still trying to wrap my head around everything.” She spoke as she reached out to the laptop sitting on the table between them.
“That’s alright. Do you want to tell me now?”
“When I got home this morning I uh… ,” she opened the laptop’s disc drive and took out a disc, “I found this in the mail. It’s from Kenji.”
“Can I see it?”
“Yeah. I guess you should.” She slid the laptop towards Naoto. Naoto paused.
“I don’t have to watch it here, I could take it back to the station.”
“Could you… I dunno, could you watch it here and then, like, you can tell the police about it. I… He meant it for me, I don’t want everyone to see.”
“Of course.” She put the disc back into the drive, a video started playing almost instantly. It showed Kenji, behind the wheel of a moving car, he must have filmed it with his cellphone stuck in a holder against the windshield.
“Tomoko, honey, I’m so sorry,” he sounded distressed, scared and on the verge of crying, “I had to do it, babe. He would have… he would have come for me next. I had to run. Izanagi, he’s… I don’t know. He’s stronger than any of us, I didn’t see it before. He’d planned it like this, Tomo. It was all planned like this and I just went along with it. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m safe. Don’t look for me.” After that the image went to black.
After convincing Ichikawa that the video might be important to the investigation, Naoto took it to the lab. There, they told her that this particular disc was in fact created after Oba’s death, but that that didn’t necessarily mean that the video on the disc was just as recent. There was really no way of telling when it had been recorded.
Naoto brought her new evidence to Ikehara. The temporary chief of police didn’t seem too perturbed by the news, but promised to look into it. Naoto still felt compelled to follow through, though, and called the coroner. Dr. Ozawa had been fired after police found out he had been bought off on Seki’s autopsy. The new coroner, Dr. Kawata, spoke with a calm and astute tone that Naoto immediately appreciated.
“I was wondering if I could ask you some questions on your examination of Oba Kenji.”
“Hm. Well, you can ask me. I can’t give you many answers yet though, I’m afraid.”
“Can you tell me what you do know for certain, then?”
“The cause of death. But I assume you would have already come to that conclusion on your own.”
“Yes, I’m not really asking about that.”
“Mind steering me in the right direction then?
“I was wondering if… if you had a clear identification on the body yet.” There was a silence on Dr. Kawata’s end of the line for a moment.
“Short answer, no.”
“Do you have a longer answer?”
“Yes, I was actually planning on bringing this up with Ikehara later. I suppose there’s no harm in telling you. Basically, the body is impossible to identify with any level of certainty we would find acceptable. Identifying bodies with this degree of burn damage is already challenging. This case, however… We couldn’t find any dental records of Mr. Oba to compare to the body’s. They didn’t match any others we have on file either, but it’s a sloppy system that looks for those matches at best. And other than the teeth, there’s nothing really left. I can say for certain that the body’s dimensions match those that we have on file for Oba. Roughly the same height. The weight, adjusted for the damages of course, seems to match up decently as well. Then, given the manner in which the body was discovered… I’d say it’s probably Oba, but I will not be putting it in the report as a 100% match.”
The conversation had not given Naoto the closure she had hoped for, but there was not much she could do with the information. She considered digging deeper. If Oba was indeed still alive, it would complicate the case quite a bit. But the time she would need to spend on finding him would take her away from gathering evidence against Toda. Toda was the most logical suspect here. And as much as she wanted to follow through on a more complex path, everyone else around her pressed on with the belief that Oba was dead. Think horse, not zebra, Naoto reminded herself one more time as she pulled into her parking space.
Still, her mind kept thinking about the zebra the rest of the night. Rise had noticed the detective was going through her trademark thought process during dinner. She’d offered to watch a movie in the bedroom so Naoto could work, but the detective insisted they’d watch one together. Naoto didn’t register much of it, however, as infinite different possibilities flashed through her mind. Oba faked his own death, but then who was burned alive? Did Toda force him to make that tape, to get people of his trail? Why did Oba mention Izanagi?
“Rise-san?” The actress tore her gaze away from the screen.
“In the Fury movies, is there a character linked to Izanagi?” Rise poked Naoto in the ribs softly.
“Where you thinking about Souji?” Naoto caught her fingers.
“No. I was just wondering about the case.”
“Right. Uhm, well… ,” Rise thought for a moment, “There wasn’t really anyone linked to any other kami except for the four furies. Izanagi does appear though. The first two movies just mention him briefly as the Great God. But then in Apocalypse he shows up at the end, when Ide’s character died her eight dead, and he takes her with him to rule beside him.”
“Who was the actor that played him?”
“No one. That was all done by CGI. We had to talk to a tennis ball on a stick.” Rise said as her gaze was pulled back to the television screen, the main character just got shot. Naoto waited for the clamor to calm down a bit before asking her final question that night.
“Did Kenji have a stunt double?”
“Yeah, of course. We all did.”
Police arrested Toda two days later. Naoto got the call early in the morning, but she and Rise were already up.
“Where did you find him?”
“Patrol found him by the side of the Hokusei expressway,” Ikehara answered, “He was completely out of it. He’d taken a descent doze of his own drug. We haven’t really been able to get any coherent word out of him yet.”
“So he hasn’t said anything?”
“Just some more confusing drivel on repeat.”
“Do you know what he said exactly?”
“Uhm, yeah, the arresting officer made a note of it, hang on,” Naoto could hear the rustling of papers through the line, “Ah, here it is. He was saying: ‘Izanagi. We are not complete. Unfinished. Forever.’ Mean anything to you?”
“I’m not sure,” Naoto started, “If he mentioned Izanagi there’s definitely a connection to that video from Oba.”
“Yeah. I figured as much. Probably, Toda saw himself as a god, I’m guessing.”
“And he thought he was turning the others into lesser gods, it would make sense.” Naoto finished the officer’s theory. She turned to see if Rise was still occupied making breakfast. She’d rather give her an abridged version of this conversation later.
“In which case, he probably thinks his work is unfinished since we caught him before… .” Ikehara furthered the theory.
“If Toda was the one behind the murders, that seems to be a fair assumption, yes.”
“You don’t think we have the right guy?” Was Naoto imagining things, or did Ikehara sound genuinely upset at the notion?
“The evidence is overwhelming.” She couldn’t offer anything more to the police officer. She always had the habit of mulling over a case just a bit longer than most law enforcement.
“Yeah. Anyway, he should be sobered up by tomorrow. We’ll get a confession out of him then. For now, I’m gonna go ahead and lift Ms. Kujikawa’s protection detail. Will you give her the news?”
“I will. Thank you, Ikehara.”
The officer hung up and Naoto hurried into the kitchen. She was greeted by the sight of a flustered Rise, who was struggling to flip a pancake. A plate on the counter displayed a startling number of previous failed attempts. It was probably partly because of that, that Rise loudly announced they would go out for breakfast to celebrate.
Over the past few days, Naoto had almost forgotten how famous Rise actually was now. When it was just the two of them, Rise was simply Rise. Out in public, however, Rise was still the former idol and action movie star. No doubt the recent harrowing events around her also contributed to the large amount of attention the duo gathered on their way to Naoto’s favourite breakfast place. She hoped the owners, an adorable older couple, wouldn’t be too put out by the hassle outside of the café’s large window. Fortunately, no one came inside to bother them. At most, they took a quick picture of the actress from outside the window, gawking for just a moment longer before they went on their way.
It hadn’t always been like this. Naoto remembered very well how often a loud fan had interrupted an intimate moment between her and her girlfriend. It seemed that Risette fans had quite a knack for vulgar behaviour. They’d come right up to ask for a picture or an autograph and one more than one occasion, they’d offer to replace Naoto as Rise’s date. It hadn’t bothered Naoto too much. In fact she found herself almost looking forward to hearing what new way Rise could come up with to get the most forward fans to back of.
“What are you thinking about?” Rise’s voice snapped Naoto out of her daydreaming. They’d been sitting in silence for a while. Naoto was drinking tea, Rise sipped from some kind of pink fruit juice.
“Ah, I was thinking about when we used to go out like this.” She answered with a soft smile.
“Well, yes. Just in general. Going out.” Rise was looking at her with her head tilted to the side.
“Like when we went out to dinner for my twentieth birthday?” Rise followed the question up with a small chuckle. They had been accosted by a man who had made an almost unfathomably lewd string of comments and suggestions at Rise.
“And you pretended you were someone else. What language was it again you tried to fake? Russian?”
“Icelandic. I didn’t have time to come up with a better idea. You looked like you were ready to shoot the guy where he stood.”
“I wouldn’t have.”
“Only because you didn’t have your gun on you. Besides, my way got rid of him pretty quickly.”
“It did. And after that I made sure he stayed away.” Rise’s eyes widened at the implication in Naoto’s voice.
“You didn’t… .”
“I did… I told Dojima to look into him. Turns out you weren’t the first idol he’d harassed.”
Rise pulled her face into mock irritation.
“Well. At least you didn’t shoot him.”
“Not that one, no.” Naoto said and Rise chuckled. Their breakfast arrived.
“It was nice, though, having all of you looking out for me like that.”
All of you, of course. Naoto had only been one of many that had witnessed how scary it could be to be so famous. She remembers how each member of the investigation team had always insisted on looking out for the others. It had been something truly unique. For a moment, a wave of guilt washed over Naoto. Should she have called them earlier? To tell them about the case? She’s sure that when they find out, at least a few of them would call her to reprimand her for just that. When she and Rise first got together, she almost forgot about just how much her other friends cared.
Even when Souji had softly taken her aside to remind her, four years earlier.
Three months after graduation, the investigation team had had one of their reunions in Inaba. Chie had suggested they’d celebrate the occasion - all of them being in the same place at the same time for once - at Aiya. It had been the perfect occasion to finally tell everyone about their relationship. Rise had insisted on making a big deal of it. She had stood up from her seat in a grand, dramatic manner to loudly proclaim that “I am pleased to announce that I have finally succeeded in wooing one Naoto Shirogane. She is mine now. And I, faithfully, hers.” She had ended the statement with a swooping bow, one arm pointed at Naoto who was trying to disappear into her seat.
“I knew it!” Chie had been the first to respond far too loudly for Naoto’s comfort. She’d accentuated the words by slamming a fist loudly onto the table, rogue pieces of steak flying out of her bowl.
“How cuuuuuute.” Teddy had started singing. The rest ignored him as they continued.
“Wow,” Yosuke started, “I have to admit I’m surprised. I always thought that if any of us got together, it would be Chie and Yukiko.”
“Wh- What’s that supposed to mean?” Chie turned to Yosuke, and now it was Yukiko’s turn to try to disappear, cheeks bright red.
“How did it even happen, anyway?” Kanji had asked with a strange look on his face. Rise started telling the story in far more detail than necessary. That’s when Souji had leaned in closer to Naoto, a gentle smile on his face.
“I’m glad to hear it. Take good care of each other, yeah? And remember, we’ll all still be here when you need us.” He sat up straight once more, briefly squeezing Naoto’s shoulder. The gesture had managed to lessen her embarrassment and she even managed to join in the laughter at Rise’s elaborate tale.
Would it have made a difference now, though, if Souji and the others had been here? Would they have been able to help her see through the mess sooner? Would they have known not to trust Toda, unlike her when she first met him? And there it was again, that gut feeling. As she watched Rise eat breakfast, she started talking before she even fully realised it.
“You know, I thought Toda was innocent for a while.” Rise looked up.
“Yeah? I guess he doesn’t exactly come across as a crazed killer.” The actress held her fork in front of her, apparently forgotten what she was about to do with it. Naoto mentally slapped herself in the face. She didn’t have to bring this up during breakfast, not while Rise was in a good mood. Rise put her fork back down, quiet for a moment.
“Who did you think it was, then?”
“Matsuura and I had a list of suspects that-“
“I mean, like, with your gut instinct. Who did you think it was?”
“Hide?” Rise sounded surprised. She picked her fork up only to set it back down immediately. “Did you… Did you find anything on him or something?”
“Hm. It didn’t seem like a good use of our time to look into him. He had an alibi.”
“He could have faked an alibi, or he could have had help, or… “ Rise trailed of again.
“I thought about that for a while. Then evidence started pouring in pointing to Oba and Toda. Sorry, I don’t know why I brought it up.”
“I though it might have been Hide for a while too.” Rise had said it so softly that Naoto thought she might have imagined it.
“You did?” Naoto put a hand over Rise’s.
“Yeah, there was just something that always seemed off about him. He was weird to work with, like he was always distracted, or something. Everyone else said it’s just because he’s this genius but he always kinda gave me the creeps. But hey, maybe they were right. If he has an alibi, and police have arrested Toda… .” Naoto squeezed her hand, unsure of how to cheer her up. More talk about a case that was as good as closed wouldn’t help. She said the first thing that came to her mind. “Remember when you told everyone about us at Aiya’s?”
“Matsuura,” Naoto greeted as she entered the policeman’s hospital room. He’d been reading a book and as Naoto came over to sit in the chair next to him, she was amused to see it was a detective manga. “How are you feeling?”
“Are they letting you out soon?”
“Well, they were going to, but my doctor’s afraid I would ignore his order to take off from work for a few weeks.”
“Because you would.” Naoto knew Matsuura well enough.
“Oh yeah, I absolutely would. Anyway, I assume you’re here to celebrate?”
“I came to see how you were doing.” Naoto assured, because she had not come here with the intention of celebrating. Rather, she wanted to see if Matsuura shared her doubts about the case.
“So, Ms. Kujikawa’s back home, then?” Matsuura said with a twinkle in his eyes that made Naoto’s face heat up. She nodded. She’d only just dropped Rise back off at her own home before she came to the hospital.
“That’s good. This one was particularly messy. I’m sad we couldn’t help the other three.”
“Yeah.” Naoto agreed. She wasn’t sure how to bring up the subject so she stared at the monitor next to Matsuura’s bed for a moment.
“Come on then, out with it. Why are you really here?” Matsuura seemed to see right through her.
“I really did come to see how you were doing, but I was wondering if, maybe, you’d want to discuss the case some more?”
“Ah. Any details officer Ikehara didn’t tell you?”
“No, it’s more this… nagging feeling. Like something doesn’t quite add up.” Naoto knew she was sounding vague.
“Hmm. Gut instinct, is it?”
“I’ve seen you have those before. You’re not wrong often,” Matsuura ran a hand through his hair, “You don’t need to stop just because we’ve arrested someone. Why don’t you go over all the evidence once more? Put your mind at ease.” He said with a friendly smile.
“I doubt your department would be okay with me investigating their case any further.”
“On the contrary, Shirogane. Investigate away. Ikehara is actually quite the fan of yours.”
“She seemed genuinely disappointed when they closed the case, actually. Until I told her she would get to call you about it. It’s weird but adorable.”
“I- I’m sure she’s not-“
“I’ve even noticed she tries to dress like you sometimes. Not kidding,” He laughed at Naoto’s blush, “I’ll call her. Tell her you’re going to keep looking into things. Set you up with a temporary badge.”
“Thank you,” Naoto was glad he’d given up the subject, “Get well soon, okay?” She stood up and shook his hand.
“Count on it.”
Naoto was pleased to see Matsuura had kept his word about calling Ikehara. When she arrived at the police station the next day, she didn’t have to explain why she was there. The officer at the reception desk handed her a badge with her name already on it and led her to one of the interrogation rooms.
“Someone will bring Toda in soon. If it’s okay with you, we’d like to have another officer present during your interrogation. Would you like anything to drink?”
“Yes. Water. Thank you.”
The officer returned with a paper cup soon. Then someone led in Toda, cuffed at the hands and at his feet. His face looked absolutely down struck, as if he had only just now realised the gravity of the situation. When he looked up to see Naoto, he nodded to her in recognition. The officer guided him to the chair on the other side of a metal table. He tied the restraints around Toda’s wrists to the table.
“Mr. Toda, I have a few questions I’d like to ask you. You have the right to an attorney, however, if you do not wish to speak to me alone.”
Toda looked up at her once more. Eyes tired. The drug must have worn off long before.
“That’s okay,” He said, “I remember you. You… you don’t think I did it, right?” He looked at her pleadingly.
“Mr. Toda, there was quite a lot of evidence linking you to these crimes. We can link you to each crime. We have evidence that you assaulted Ms. Kujikawa-”
“I did not attack her,” His voice was suddenly louder. The officer standing next to him was watching each movement cautiously. “I was still a captive then. I know for certain because when he came back he told me.”
“Izanagi,” There was that name again. Was Toda trying to get her of his track by inventing a new suspect? “He came in the night and he took me. When I woke up he was standing next to my bed. It took me so long to realize that that was not his real face. He was wearing a mask, and he was using something to change his voice. He told me that he was Izanagi, he was holding a gun. He forced me into a van. I’m not sure where he took me.” Toda paused for a few moments.
“Go on.” Naoto encouraged. The fact that she had not yet interrupted him had apparently been enough for Toda to continue making his case.
“I woke up in one of the studios. I couldn’t see which one it was. They all look so similar. He had tied me to a chair and he told me to listen to this tape. This tape. It was those sentences the police are saying I said. It was those sentences over and over again for days. And then, I passed out. Or he drugged me, or something. They’re saying I was drugged, when they found me. I can’t remember feeling drugged but... When he finally untied me, I was so happy. He hugged me and for some reason I thought he was my friend. He told me I’d be safe, I just needed to go home. So he drove me for a while, and then asked me to get out. It was on the… uh-“
“On the freeway?” Naoto finished his sentence for him. Toda nodded.
He wouldn’t be the first criminal to come up with a wild story to try to hang on to their innocence. However, she had witnessed firsthand how the drug could change people. The woman tied to Oba’s bed, Oba walking calmly while he was on fire. If Toda was telling the truth, or at least some version of the truth, it would mean that the real suspect was still out there. She finally asked the question she had come here to ask.
“Noboru, could I see your arm for a moment?” His eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“My- my arm?” He asked.
“Yes. The left one. Officer, if you’d please.” She motioned to the police officer who briefly undid the restraints on his hands. Toda took of his jacket, and lifted the short sleeve of his t-shirt up to his shoulder. Nothing. There was no mark where Naoto knew her bullet had hit. If this was not the man she had shot in that hotel room, it meant the man who’d attacked Rise was still out there.
Before Toda had even managed to put his jacket back on, Ikehara burst into the interrogation room.
“Oba Kenji’s real body was just found in the river.”
Naoto had to get all the facts in order fast.
“Oba’s real body? So the burn victim was someone else?” She was talking to Ikehara just outside the interrogation room.
“It would appear so, yes.”
“Any specifics on Oba’s death yet?”
“It looks like a suicide, but then they all did, right? He drove his car into the Oanray, at the South banks. The name ‘Sujin' was written on each window. You just spoke to Toda, do you think he would have been able to pull this off before we caught him?” Naoto’s head was still catching up to the new information.
“Toda is not the murderer.” She stated simply before telling Ikehara about the bullet wound.
“Maybe you missed the shot?” The officer tried to rationalise.
“Or… .” Naoto urged her to reach the same conclusion she already had.
“Or our perp is still at large.” Ikehara’s eyes went large at the realisation.
“Send a patrol to Kujikawa’s house, now.” Naoto ordered, even though she had no authority over the officer. Ikeahara didn’t argue the issue.
Though the patrol promised they’d be there in five minutes, the worry in Naoto’s eyes did not subside. When it finally spread to Ikehara’s, she offered to drive Naoto and herself to the house as fast as she could.
They pulled out of the parking space and had barely left the parking lot when a voice on Ikeahara’s radio sounded, static crackling so they could only make out every other word.
“… hostage situation… explosives… gun… immediate backup… .” The message ended with them repeating the same address twice: Rise’s apartment.
Their police car finally pulled up to the building. Naoto got out before Ikehara had even fully stopped the vehicle. Gun out, she ran to the front door. She could already hear more sirens approaching.
“Shirogane, wait.” Ikehara called out, but Naoto had already stopped when she saw the tripwire in front of the door.
“He’s got the whole place set up like that.” Another officer called out to her.
“We don’t know what he wants yet, he hasn’t made any more contact.” Another added.
“What did he say before?” Naoto asked them.
“Not to come in. That he’ll kill Ms. Kujikawa if we tried to disarm the explosives before he was done.”
“Before he was done with what?”
“He didn’t specify.”
“Could you see who it was?”
“No. He was wearing a mask. He said his name was Izanagi.”
Naoto was panicking now. They seemed to be stuck in a stalemate. If they could even manage to get inside the building, the man claiming to be Izanagi would kill Rise before they could stop him. If they didn’t do anything at all, the result would still be the same. Omoikane, God of wisdom. Naoto had no desire to find out what method of suicide the man would link to Rise’s kami. She had to get inside the apartment fast, but how? A distraction? She looked around. More officers had arrived but they could do little else than stand around in formation, weapons trained on the house without a target. A bomb squad was standing by, dogs softly whining.
Naoto had started executing her plan before she was even fully aware that she had one. She’d run over to Ikehara’s car again, taken out the megaphone that was there.
“Izanagi.” She yelled at the house. No answer. She repeated the name again with the same results. This wouldn’t work. How could she get his attention? Ikehara had made her way over to the window on the side of the house, with one of the members of the bomb squad standing next to her. They were ready, they were waiting for her to succeed.
“Hide.” She called out the director’s name, Ikehara now mouthing ‘what?’ at her in surprise. But the naming had worked. In the window next to the front door, a curtain was pulled to the side. A man wearing the familiar kabuki mask was staring back at Naoto.
“Hide,” She repeated his name again, “Your plan has failed. Kenji Oba is still alive.” The figure watched her motionlessly for a few moments. Naoto forced herself not to throw a quick glance to see if Ikehara had made any progress disarming the tripwire.
“One of your Furies is still left unaltered.” She said, unsure if this was having any effect on the man. She was starting to believe that the angry expression on the mask would match the one below.
“Lies,” his voice sounded loudly, he had somehow managed to hook himself up to the building’s intercom. “Kenji has died. Suijin has been born.” He sounded calm.
“He survived, he got out of the car in time.” Naoto said.
“Lies,” the voice repeated. “Oba is dead, I have seen the proof. You cannot trick me, Detective Prince Shirogane,” His use of her name sent a shiver down her spine. “Distract me no longer, all you are doing is prolonging the end.”
The curtains closed again.
“Hide. Hide.” Naoto tried a few more times. It wouldn’t be necessary to distract him any longer, though, Ikehara signalled her.
As she went over to the side windows, they spoke in hushed tones.
“Do we send in the strike team?” Ikehara asked.
“No, they can’t get through the window fast enough. Beside, I’m sure he’ll shoot her as soon as he sees the guns. I… ,” Naoto hesitated to suggest this part of her plan, “I think if I go in unarmed that he’ll… He’ll talk to me. I think he was waiting for an audience and that he’d want me to be it.” She had no evidence to prove it, other than the road the investigation had led her on so far. She was surprised when Ikehara nodded.
“Okay. You can go in. I’ll have a strike team ready to go in on the other side. Keep him distracted while they look for an opening.”
“Be careful, Naoto.”
Naoto nodded as she placed her gun in Ikehara’s hands.
The window wasn’t locked. Naoto doubted it was out of oversight. Maybe her theory that Hide craved an audience was right. She slipped inside easily, feet first. Rise’s kitchen. There was no one here. He’d talked to her from the living room window. She tried to open the door as quietly as she could. A soft bell rung clear through the air. Of course, Naoto sighed, he’d hung bells at each door to warn him of unwanted arrivals.
She could see Hide quickly swinging in her direction, gun already aiming at her heart. She put her hands up.
“Are you insane?” His voice sounded muffled through the mask. “Did I not explain what I’d do to her?” He motioned to the side. Rise. Naoto’s heart skipped several beats as she fully took in the scene before her. Rise was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, tape on her mouth, her hands bound around the chair’s back. The chair was standing on a large sheet of plastic covering the floor. In front of the chair stood a large television.To the left side a camera was set up, pointing at Rise. The light of a lamp next to it reflecting harshly against the plastic. On the right side was a table displaying a cordless power drill. Naoto quickly filled in the horrifying blanks. Wisdom of a 1000 minds: Drill a hole into your own brain.
Hide didn’t give her time to come up with a plan, he was wildly swinging his gun from Rise’s direction to hers and back. Was he unsure of who to shoot first? Naoto tried to speak in an unthreatening, calm way but she felt the pitch of her voice cracking in all the wrong ways.
“Look, Hide, the place is surrounded. You won’t be able to walk away after this. Don’t you want to tell at least one person why you did all of this?” She hoped the question would stall him long enough. Hide decided to focus his aim on Naoto alone. She saw fresh tears falling down Rise’s cheeks. The silence went on for too long. Naoto could see Hide’s finger squeezing closer around the trigger. If she rushed him now, would she still be able to get him on the ground after he shot her? Would that give the strike team enough space to move in? The muscles in her legs were already tightening, readying themselves for a sprint, when Hide finally spoke again.
“I’ll show you,” He took of his mask in a quick motion. His expression did not match the mask’s. Instead he had an enthusiastic grin, his eyes quickly jumping between Naoto, Rise, the objects in the room. “Keep your hands up, detective.” He came over to her, dropping his mask on the table on the way. He pressed the end of the gun against her cheek as he padded her down, checking her pockets, and her sides. He seemed pleased that she didn’t bring a weapon, he let out a short hum. He moved the gun from her face, motioning toward the left corner of the room.
“Over there. No sudden movements.”
Naoto obeyed the command, as she went over to the corner, her eyes met Rise’s. She wished there was something she could do or say to her to let her know the strike team was on its way. Hide began to speak again.
“I’ll admit. I’m sorta glad you showed up.” Naoto would have to go along with him for now. At least his gun was not pointing at Rise. At least the drill was still lying on the table unused.
“So tell me, Hide. How does it work?” She knew it had been the right thing to ask when she saw the director’s smile widen.
“It is glorious, detective. The ultimate film. My masterpiece.”
Naoto caught up quick. The camera; Hide had filmed each death. He walked over to the television, eyes and gun still trained on Naoto. He turned the image towards her and pressed play. On the screen was a close-up of Seki Haruki’s face. Her pupils were extremely dilated and dark smears of mascara and eyeliner told Naoto that she’d been crying. Now Seki’s expression was neutral, though, serene. The image zoomed out then, showing the actress fully. She was standing in the open windowsill, back towards the street. Naoto knew how this one would end. She wanted to look away but she could feel Hide’s eyes on her. He wanted a witness. She watched Seki fall.
“Do you understand?” Hide paused the image on the exact moment the impact was shown.
“I-“ Fortunately he didn’t wait for her response.
“The fourth and final part. I call it Furies Forever. No more CGI and producers interfering. Only pure, raw exaltation and divinity,” He paused looking proudly at the screen for a moment, before turning back to Naoto, “You’re wondering how I did it, right, detective?”
All Naoto could do was nod. He scoffed.
“You shouldn’t allow yourself to be distracted from the eternal by such dull technicalities. I suppose I could enlighten you, if it would help you better understand the necessity. Let’s see. Fujin, yes, the first one. I will admit it, Fujin was messier than I would have liked,” Hide kept moving around while he talked. Naoto strained against her instinct to lunge at him whenever he passed too closely to Rise. “I knew that the most effective alibi would be for the night of the first transformation, after that I would be in the clear. Considering you never came for me, detective, I’m assuming my reasoning was correct?” The smug tone in his voice made the hairs on Naoto’s neck stick up.
“It was easy enough to convince Kenji to help me. That boy was… not very bright at all, was he? Which did make for a rather clumsy shot. Couldn’t follow clear instructions. I wish I could have been there in person, directing over the phone takes away the authenticity of it all. The second one, though, I’m sure you’ve appreciated the attention to detail there.” He pressed a button on the television again. Ide painting on a white wall, quickly growing paler.
“Kagutsuchi, one of the best scenes I have ever created. ‘From death reborn, eightfold.’ Fitting, no?” The question was once again a rhetorical one. He skipped forward to an image of Oba Kenji in a car. He didn’t have the same serene look on his face as the other two, eyes wide as he wrote his message on the windows before moving his hands to the steering wheel. “He thought he had been so clever, hahaha. That he could convince me that he beat me to it. I wouldn’t have believed it even if I hadn’t seen it. You saw it too right, you were there at the party?” Naoto nodded. “What a coward. Drugging his own girlfriend and that boy. What was his name again…,” He paused now, looking up as if he was searching his own brain for the answer. He sighed as he walked backwards toward Rise. Naoto’s muscles were screaming now. Hide pulled the tape off Rise’s mouth.
“This is gonna bother me al day. What was that stuntman’s name again?”
“Yoshi. Itoh.” Rise barely got the words out, her eyes tearing into Naoto’s.
“Right, right, poor Yoshi,” He came back closer to Naoto, “Poor Yoshi had to burn for nothing. Oba didn’t fool you, right. He didn’t fool me, at least. But he did offer me the opportunity to plant Toda’s DNA all over Rise’s room. Hell, I should thank him. You lot might have never let her out of that ugly hotel room if you didn’t all believe it was the manager all along. And then I wouldn’t have had my leading lady back here,” He twirled around making a grand gesture at the room, “In the perfect setting for my final scene.” Naoto tried to look past him for signs of the strike team. Were they close? Were they waiting for her? She wouldn’t be able to stall him for much longer.
“We should get started soon.” Hide had made his way over to the camera. He pressed a few buttons, briefly looking away from Naoto before brusquely looking her in the eyes.
“There’s a part in here for you too, Shirogane. If you’d want it,” His voice was lower now, “See, I’ve been watching the two of you. There’s a chemistry there that the camera would love. That no one can fake. Taking turns protecting one another, that is what the great movie romances were made off, right?” His tone suggested he was toying with her.
“What’s the part, Hide?” She tried to sound as confident as possible though it was clear to everyone in the room that he had the upper hand.
“Ah, straight to the point. Always quite the pragmatic detective. The diligent detective prince.”
“Hide, what’s the part?” His monologuing had started to get to Naoto. She had to resolve the situation soon, it felt like everything could spin out of her control in less than a second.
“That’s not what you ask, though,” Hide points the camera at her. “That’s not what the script says. You ask ‘What do I need to do to save her’,” He pauses, waiting for Naoto to say the line. After a few seconds of her silence he continues anyway. “And then Izanagi says: ‘Silly detective, you can’t save her. All you can do is make it easier.’” His gun stays on Naoto as he looks at Rise, his head tilted to the side. He walks towards the table, picks up the drill with his free hand and presses the handle a few times in demonstration.
“Just tell me what I need to do.” Naoto was staring intently at Hide. She saw Rise move from the corner of her eye.
“Naoto, don’t,” Rise’s voice begged for her attention but Naoto was too scared to look away from the director, “Don’t do this. You don’t need to do this. It’ll be fine. You saw the others. If he drugs me first I won’t be in pain.” Naoto’s heart broke at the implication. Hide didn’t acknowledge that Rise’d just spoken. He merely put the drill back down.
“You pay me tribute. In blood.” He walked back over to the camera, picking up a blade that had been standing against the tripod. The katana Rise had used in the films. Hide unsheathed the metal with his left hand, and pointed the tip of the blade at Naoto.
“And what would she get in return?” Naoto could feel a hard knot forming in her stomach.
“A bullet instead of a drill.” Hide demonstrated by pointing the gun at Rise for a moment, firing a mock shot as he faked the sound.
Naoto’s mind raced through all possible outcomes at record speed. Saying yes would keep Hide’s attention on her for just a little longer. It would keep his back turned towards the side entrance, maybe giving Ikehara and the others the opening they needed. Even if they didn’t make it on time, Naoto thought, already having decided: a bullet instead of a drill.
Under Rise’s loud protest, Naoto nodded. Hide smiled triumphantly.
“A fitting addition to my finale,” He sheathed the blade and handed it to Naoto, “Don’t do something stupid, detective.” He pointed at his gun before he went to unhook the camera from its tripod. Rise had stopped yelling. Naoto forced herself not to look, she knew Rise would be angry for this. Hide stood next to Naoto now. Still too far away, Naoto thought.
“No magic juice for you, I’m afraid. The detective needs to stay sober, stuck in their unsatisfying reality. Now then, at the neck please, Shirogane.” He dragged his finger across her skin, the sensation felt as if she had already been cut.
“Fine. Make sure you get this.” Her anger had somehow overpowered her nerves. She unsheathed the sword with steady hands. Hide started to say something then, but Naoto was already pressing the blade against her neck, hard enough to draw blood. She heard him mutter “Excellent” under his breath. Her final plan worked, he came in for a closer shot. She prayed the strike team was in position, she closed her eyes and clenched her fist tighter around the blade. Let’s see him dodge this one, she thought.
A loud yell quickly got Naoto to open her eyes. Hide dropped the camera, his hand hovering above a bloody wound in his leg. Rise was standing behind him, the drill still whirring. She was looking at him with a rage in her eyes Naoto had never seen before. Then, the strike team arrived. Hide turned towards the loud noise of their entrance. Naoto took the opportunity to kick him in the back of his knees and wrestle the gun out of his hand. She aimed for him, though he’d seemingly already given up the will to fight. He put his head in his hands and fell to his knees. The strike team was on him then, two men pushing him flat down on the ground, a third putting him in handcuffs. Naoto put his gun in her own holster before quickly running over to Rise. She stopped just a few feet from her, though. Rise’s look had not changed, still clutching the drill as she stared at Hide. As gently as she could, Naoto closed her hand over Rise’s and she loosened her hold of the drill’s grip. With her other arm, Naoto pulled Rise close to her. The drill fell to the ground. Rise slumped against Naoto, almost threatening to topple them both. Naoto had to take one step backwards to support them as Rise started sobbing into her shoulder.
“It’s over.” Naoto tried to comfort her. The sobbing continued, quieter now. Finally Rise pulled back, placing one hand on Naoto’s cheek.
“Don’t ever do something like that again.” Naoto could see that Rise’s wrists and hands were bleeding from where the rope had strained against them. She’d managed to wriggle herself loose while Hide was distracted. The detective inside Naoto insisted she’d have the paramedics look at the injuries immediately. Still, she didn’t move for another long while.
Naoto woke up the next day with Rise’s arm wrapped around her chest. The actress had been reluctant to let go of her, even after Hide had been taken into custody. She’d briefly let go of Naoto to get her hands looked at. She’d put a hand on Naoto’s knee when they stitched the wound in her neck. She’d entwined their fingers, intermittently caressing the back of Naoto’s hand with her thumb, as Naoto told Ikehara what happened. In the back of Ikehara’s car, she rested her head on Naoto’s shoulder. Naoto felt her nod off a few times and wondered if she could ask Ikehara to just drive around a little longer while she slept.
Back at Naoto’s apartment, Rise pulled her towards the couch by her arm. Naoto wrapped it around her shoulders when Rise cried again. She kept it there when the crying stopped and Rise simply thought for a while.
“Hm,” Naoto pressed a kiss to her forehead and Rise sank into the touch. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”