The Zashiki Warashi of Intellectual Village:Volume8 Chapter 2
Chapter 2: Another Interrogation in the Cell by Uchimaku Hayabusa
After I climbed aboard the rental car I had reserved at the local airport and drove out below the leaden sky, it began to snow a little. The road wasn’t hidden in white yet and it was more like a clear sherbet, but I still began to worry whether I would find tire chains in one of those evenly-equipped rental cars that might as well have come prepackaged. I was glad it had started with studless winter tires, but I’d failed to check on the chains.
“Sigh… More importantly, the quick switch from cold to warm has left Santa Enbi-chan needing to use the restroom. Ahh, I’m fidgeting around here.”
“Why are you even here?”
“Why? Because a certain detective decided to pick up the middle school girl he found throwing kisses on the side of the road. Oh, how aggressive☆”
“Seeing you dressed like that in public is enough to take you into custody for your own safety!! Besides, it’s snowing outside, so why are you wearing a miniskirt bikini Santa outfit!? Are you trying to get yourself killed!? Are you one of those surfer Santas in the southern hemisphere!?”
“Oh, c’mon. When I make it that obvious, all of the guys who might try hitting on me decide it’s a trap and won’t get close. That screens out everyone dangerous, so only the good-hearted people like you would try to talk to me.”
The Mystery Freak had zero sense of danger despite wearing a hybrid Santa hat and reindeer scarf cap that looked like extra-long droopy ears hanging from her head.
If I hadn’t been driving along a dangerous snowy road at 40 kph, I would have covered my face with my hands. I was eternally grateful to the Life Safety Division that dealt with things like this year-round.
“Don’t give me that. I chose this Santa outfit for you, you know? I worked hard covering my body in an insulating gel, so how about rewarding me a little?”
“What? For me?”
“Well, when I saw the entry shining at the top of your home computer’s search history…”
“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!! Cough, cough! Ahem!!”
I impulsively slammed on the brakes and the back wheels nearly slid to the side. I used the steering wheel to regain control and glared over at the demon in the passenger seat.
“I-impossible… I had that set to safely and securely erase all of that extra data stored who-knows-where whenever I close the browser!”
“If you thought that would erase every last trace, you really are computer illiterate, detective. Don’t underestimate this age of immoral big data corporations.”
Not that it really mattered. I was an adult, so I could enjoy some adult entertainment no matter what anyone said! But if I had to say whether this made me want to die or not, I would say it did! A good bit actually!!
“Anyway, the real problem is you. Surely you aren’t relying on the superstition that rural areas are safer than the big cities.”
“Of course not. Whether impulsive or planned, crimes happen when people fail to let off some steam and something goes wrong in their heart. In that sense, a rural city with little entertainment and long distances between facilities is like a treasure trove of unexploded ordnance.”
“Then why were you standing on the side of the road half naked…no, three-quarters naked?”
“Because I knew you would protect me, of course.”
I couldn’t help but give a heavy sigh.
“You really need to be careful. Gangs of robbers that dig tunnels to bank vaults are pretty common recently. They’ve been attacking mostly these rural banks.”
“And a lot of travelers have gone missing in Bozen City where we’re headed?”
“It’s pretty amazing. When the Metropolitan Police Department’s case record storage was being moved, they found a whole bunch of completely untouched and forgotten-about cases. C’mon, this isn’t the same as a part-time delivery boy hiding all the New Year’s cards in a locker because he doesn’t want to deal with delivering them all.”
I was curious how she knew about that, but I couldn’t say anything since it was internal information.
Meanwhile, she continued the conversation on her own.
“No matter how efficient the system, it’s still being run by humans. Although I do find it interesting that they were all found now. It’s almost like some kind of dam burst, don’t you think?”
That was also why a Metropolitan Police Department detective, who was meant to protect Tokyo, was driving a rental car out in this rural area. My jurisdiction was the city of Tokyo, but I still had to head out to check on things if one of the city’s residents was involved in something outside the prefecture. I was wearing a cardigan instead of my usual suit because I didn’t want to waltz in there like I was lording it over them as a representative of the Metropolitan Police Department. It would be a problem if the tabloids got wind of the fact that we were re-investigating cases because of improperly handled paperwork.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay, detective?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“These new revelations show that more than thirty people have gone missing. And it was all over a decade ago. People are generally declared missing and presumed dead at seven years. That’s a pretty severe legal line, and we’re only talking about the people who went missing when visiting Bozen City from Tokyo. If you checked through all the case records of all the police stations in Japan, you might find way, waaaaay more missing people.”
She had finally moved enough away from the actual case that I could talk about it. It was possible she was keeping that distance on purpose, though.
“I would have no way of knowing about that. But whether it’s ten people or a hundred people, if there was a crime committed, we just have to arrest the criminal and ask them about it.”
“That’s true, but isn’t it too risky to go charging into some dark den before you know how big the enemy is?”
“I’m not doing this alone.”
“Oh? Are you finally accepting my help?”
“The local police will be doing the investigation and I will only be a pipeline back to the Metropolitan Police Department in Tokyo, Miss Protective Custody!!”
We continued arguing as the rental car crossed a metal bridge and entered Bozen City. I planned to stay at my family home in the neighboring Noukotsu Village, but my work came first. I would head to the local police department with my luggage still in the trunk. I would also leave that Mystery Moron with them while I was there.
Or that was the plan at least.
“Hey, detective, look at that mall.”
“What? You mentioned having to use the restroom before. Is that it?”
“Well, that is an issue, but look.” She pointed out the window. “Doesn’t the parking lot seem odd? There’s a burned-out car in it.”
I quickly looked over and did indeed see it. As a rural city, the parking lot was needlessly large and a station wagon sat in one corner, burned down to only the chassis and frame. It was scorched black, so I couldn’t tell what color it had originally been.
I made a rapid change of plans, turned into the parking lot, and parked a short distance from the car in question. I opened the door and stepped out to find the winter wind seeming to cut into my cheeks.
The Mystery Freak got out too and she groaned while turning her toes inward. The smartphone swayed from her waist in a present-style case.
“O-ohhhhh…. Th-the temperature difference… D-detective, can you handle this? I need to visit the little girls’ room.”
Santa Enbi left and I approached the burned vehicle.
There was no sign of the local police and it was not cordoned off with yellow tape. There wasn’t any sign of any kind of investigation. How long had it been like this? To borrow the Mystery Freak’s words, this wasn’t some part-time delivery boy who didn’t want to deal with delivering all the New Year’s cards.
I peered inside to the driver’s seat to make sure no one was inside and then I pulled out my cellphone.
“No signal?” I muttered while staring at the symbol on the edge of the small screen.
Even if we were in the mountains, this was a flat urban area. And I remembered my cellphone working just fine here when I visited for fun before moving to Tokyo. The effective area of the cellphone towers would expand, but I wouldn’t think it would shrink.
Regardless, I couldn’t make a call.
The mall would probably have some pay phones inside, so I decided to contact the local police that way.
I walked through the clear sherbet snow to cut across the parking lot.
That may have been why I initially mistook the source of the crunching sound below my feet.
Confused, I looked to my feet and saw sharp red and yellow plastic shards mixed in with the snow. And not just a few; there were tons. I looked further into the distance and noticed what looked like a side mirror lying on the ground. One of the parking lot’s streetlight poles was dented and a car’s paint was scraped across it. There were also a lot of tire tracks.
It almost looked like all the cars in the parking lot had started moving at once while running into each other. Either that or people had fought fiercely over all of the parked cars.
Miniskirt Bikini Santa Enbi waved at me from the mall entrance while rubbing her scarf cap for warmth.
I caught glimpses of the problem before reaching her.
The glass doors were all broken and the entire area had become a sea of glass shards. A sign made to look like the local Kasha-chan mascot lay on the ground in two pieces.
“What is all this?”
“I checked around on the way to the bathroom, but it’s pretty bad inside,” she said while pulling a magnifying glass from the bag at her waist.
I stepped inside and found no customers, workers, or anyone at all. The gentle lights and warm heater were still on, but the recorded female voice calmly repeating sales information sounded all the colder because of it.
“Shelves have been knocked over all through here.”
“There’s also dark red liquid splattered around. I haven’t done a detailed investigation, but unless someone used paint or chicken blood to fake it, I think we know what it is.”
Had there been a riot here?
But none of the equipment around the registers looked broken. Foodstuffs were strewn across the floor and some clearly had bites taken out of them, but it didn’t look like anyone had gone for the valuable items.
“This isn’t good. …I thought I would only be checking some documents, so I didn’t bring my handgun.”
I only had my police badge, cellphone, memo pad, and stainless steel ballpoint pen. That wasn’t going to be much help against a group of enraged rioters.
I then noticed an A4 piece of copy paper taped to a shelf in the fresh foods section.
It said the following:
“Dear, San-chan. This is your mother. I’m safe. I will stop by here again at the same time tomorrow. If you’re hiding somewhere, write where on here.”
“…What is this?”
“The ink is fresh and it smells like solvent. …But since it says she’ll be back tomorrow, she must assume this paper will still be here then.”
The Mystery Freak shook the reindeer horns on her head and sniffed at the paper.
However, I already knew that. And of course, a worker would normally remove something like this.
Had they decided there wouldn’t be any workers here to remove it?
And what was that about “I’m safe” and “hiding somewhere”? Were they in a situation where they had to hide or their safety wasn’t guaranteed?
“Anyway, we need a phone. If we can’t use our cellphones, we need to find a public one.”
I slowly walked around the large building.
There were notes left here and there, but the most distinctive were in the do-it-yourself section.
“Using gasoline as-is is dangerous. You can stabilize it by mixing it with a metal soap, a synthetic detergent, and sand. However, the gasoline itself is highly volatile. Make sure you don’t breathe any in during your work.”
“Choosing an axe or machete is fine, but a towel and whetstone is what really matters. Blood is one thing, but you’ll be in trouble if the fat gets stuck on the blade. You’ll definitely live longer if you learn how to maintain your blades.”
“Don’t worry. Humans won’t lose to the likes of them.”
The contents grew more and more ominous.
Not just the text, but the paper itself was often crumpled up or splattered with some kind of dark red stain.
I could tell that the people who visited this mall and either left or read the notes were very afraid of something.
But who was the real threat?
If I took these notes at face value, the “frightened people” were wandering around with Molotov cocktails, axes, and machetes. And the handwriting of the notes was all different, so it was obvious enough people to start a riot were going along with this.
In our search for a pay phone, the Mystery Freak and I climbed a gently curving staircase.
When I looked out the window and to the lead-colored city, I found the biggest shock of all.
“That doesn’t look like just a fire.”
Dark smoke was rising from the entire cityscape visible out that elevated window. We would have needed binoculars to find any details, but a lot of cars were crashed and abandoned on the roads. They didn’t seem to have just slid on the snow. Instead of a single stain at one point in the city, the entire city was covered in stains.
The strangest part of all was the lack of flashing red lights and loud sirens despite the great commotion.
There was no sign at all of any emergency vehicles such as ambulances, fire trucks, or police cars.
What had happened in Bozen City?
In fact, was it even functioning as a city anymore?
Something was wrong when old laws against rioting were coming to mind. It had to be a joke for that to be showing itself in the modern age of Intellectual Villages.
“Hey, Mystery Freak. Let’s head back to the car. Something’s wrong. I thought we could solve this with some support from the police station, but this may be beyond that. It would be better to call for help from beyond the framework of this city. …Dammit, what am I even thinking? Am I worried that the police station might not be safe anymore!?”
With that, I turned back her way, but then a heavy metallic blow struck the bridge of my nose.
Before I could think anything more, my mind was dragged into deep darkness.
I felt my body shaking.
I felt a pain in my back and only then did I realize I was coming to.
As soon as I did, my nose started aching.
“Did you wake up?”
The soft voice of a teenage girl spoke from quite nearby, but it was not the Mystery Freak. I twisted my body and found my thumbs were bound behind my back. It felt like a zip tie. The Mystery Freak was lying next to me in her insane outfit, but she seemed to still be unconscious.
I turned my head around from the floor and finally grasped the general situation.
We seemed to be on the back of a light truck.
I didn’t know who was driving and a girl of about high school age was sitting in one corner of the truck bed.
She had fluffy chestnut hair.
The oozing gleam in her eyes did not suit her pretty face in the slightest.
She wore a pink knit dress and a white cardigan with a hat held on by pins and a tail-like accessory attached to the back of her waist. It looked more like a costume than normal fashion.
The strangest part of all was the long bloody cattle cleaver she held in her arms like a small child holding a precious trumpet. The name on the base seemed to be Namagusa. My eyes had naturally tried to search out any way of identifying the murder weapon.
“Eh heh heh. Long time no see, Shinobu-chan’s uncle. First impressions are important, aren’t they?”
She readily greeted me and I might have smiled back at her had we been sitting at a café table. However, that only made her seem stranger here. This was Shinobu’s classmate, but was this situation a part of normal life for her now?
I recalled hearing some things about Nagisa-chan when I spoke to Shinobu on the phone.
Something about her having changed and being one of the world’s three greatest yandere.
I had moved to Tokyo before they had entered middle school and I had assumed he was exaggerating, but was it true?
“What did you do? No…what happened?”
“Good boy. You’re so clever. I assumed you would decide I caused all this and try to struggle. Maybe I didn’t even need to restrain you.”
She giggled while nestling up against the blade coated in dark red blood and hair.
“What we’ve done is…well, protect you. Yes, I’m glad you’re obedient. And of course, we’re not just volunteering. You’ll have to give something back. We don’t have time to fight amongst ourselves right now.”
“Protect us? From what?”
The notes in the mall and the signs of people stocking up on food and weapons had told me they were afraid of something. It hadn’t looked like they were gathering the weaponry they needed to attack a bank or jewelry store and steal the valuables.
Defense, not offense.
Protection, not invasion.
Retreat, not advance.
But what were the people of Bozen City so afraid of?
Nagisa-chan turned her dark eyes my way and the answer to my question slipped from the corner of her lips.
I may have been mistaken to think I was speaking with a human being who could speak human language.
I clearly wasn’t communicating properly with Nagisa-chan here.
What was she talking about? This was complete nonsense!
Part of me was relieved I hadn’t been carrying my handgun. Letting Nagisa-chan steal my gun here would have been a catastrophic failure.
“Well, that’s what we’re calling them anyway, but that might not actually be what they are. I doubt they have anything to do with the original Voodoo ones and they don’t seem to come from an infectious disease like the ones in movies and dramas. Shinobu-chan said they’re related to a Youkai called a Kasha, though.”
I still managed to pick up on at least one term I was familiar with.
It was like spotting a short readable string in an otherwise corrupted file.
“Is Shinobu with you!? Please tell me he’s okay…!!”
I trailed off due to a deafening metallic sound.
Nagisa-chan was banging the tip of her cattle cleaver against the bottom of the light truck’s bed.
She stared at me as she spoke.
“Could you not mention Shinobu-chan right now? I beg you.”
Nervous sweat poured from my body despite the cold winter air. My only weapon was a pen and my hands were bound, so angering Nagisa-chan and her large blade would be a poor decision. I wouldn’t stand a chance and the damage could easily spread to the Mystery Freak too.
The situation gradually dawned on me. We were in the back of a light truck, so she at least had a driver with her. That meant this madness wasn’t hers alone.
“Oh, right. I forgot.”
She clapped her hands together in front of her face and began casually rummaging through the bag next to her. She didn’t seem to care that my heart was being squeezed by fear and anxiety. She pulled out a can of deodorant spray that used something called silver ion and she held it out toward me in one hand.
My throat dried up and she sprayed it at me.
“Yes, don’t move. Good boy. The zombies search for their prey by smell like dogs and hyenas. …Well, just think of it as a placebo or a good luck charm.”
“Since they use smell, an airtight vehicle would be better than this truck bed, but we can’t have everything. And the risk of being attacked while driving around is pretty low. …If we stopped in the middle of the street, we would need to be prepared to die, though.”
I remained silent and she moved on to spraying the deodorant over the Mystery Freak who was had yet to move.
Once she was finally done with her task, she stared into the distance.
“The city is already filled with zombies. In fact, there’s no real reason for them to be restricted to the city. If you had continued wandering around like that, you would’ve been in trouble. A lot of trouble. If we hadn’t saved you, you probably would’ve been devoured.”
“It’s dangerous inside and outside the city? Then where are you taking us?”
“Good boy. You actually think things through. …We’re on the way to a safe hideout, of course.”
The city was a mess. Roadside trees were broken, more windows were shattered than not, and cars were on fire here and there. A torn Kasha-chan costume was scattered along the road and a banner for a winter festival was swaying weakly in the wind. But despite all that, the city was dead. There was no sign of anyone there. Lived-in homes had a different atmosphere than abandoned homes and a school had a different atmosphere during the day than at night. In the same way, the entire city felt like a hospital in the dead of night.
“Everyone’s hiding,” said Nagisa-chan. “Both the survivors and the zombies.”
Our light truck left the city and started up a mountain road. Leaving human civilization only made me more nervous. It drove home that we had been abducted. We passed through an arch of dry winter trees, left the road, and entered something like a hand-dug tunnel.
“This seems to be a portion of Mikuchi-sama.”
“Yes. There are caves all through the mountain like an ant colony. That’s where the zombies had to have come from originally. But now that the bridge has been destroyed, they make for a convenient side road.”
I had heard of this before.
Oh, right. I remember.
I had heard that name at a festival in Bozen City back when I was in school. The winter festival celebrated the Kasha while the summer festival celebrated Mikuchi-sama.
But wait. Weren’t the roots of that legend not exactly pleasant? The sinners were…um, what was it?
Unlike a maintained tunnel, there were no lights, so the truck rattled onward with only the headlights to combat the pitch black darkness. The steep slope made it clear we were ascending the mountain.
We finally left the cave and a small village buried in the trees came into view.
Each of the homes was quite large and there were also a bank, a real estate building, and other out-of-place facilities. It may have been the wealthy area. It was possible there had been a system where higher up the mountain indicated a higher social status. I had only used the city for shopping and festivals when I was in school, so I didn’t know too much about the local way of doing things.
The light truck drove to one building in particular.
“We considered the school or hospital, but there’s nothing we could do with all those windows.”
Nagisa-chan discussed her zombie delusion like it was a story of hardship.
“We jumped for joy when we checked the map and saw a geothermal power station far off the mountain road, but we got there to find it was far too small and the walls were far too thin. More importantly, it was directly connected to a Mikuchi-sama tunnel, so it was full of zombies. There was nothing we could do.”
“Yes. Good boy. You’ve caught on, haven’t you? The bank has the fewest entrances and is easily defended.”
This was the city next to my hometown, but I had never been to its bank.
However, it looked like there was a connection after all.
Near the entrance was a diamond shape with the bottom missing and doubled at the top.
That was the Hishigami crest.
It didn’t look like a megabank, so it may have been bought in order to support their funding.
However, it was not exactly unharmed. The metal shutter was bent up diagonally and a portion of the wall had crumbled. It looked like a building left after a bombing in a war film. The talk of zombies was preposterous, but how had humans pulled this off?
A microbus that could hold about twenty people was parked in the parking lot, but would it really run? All of the windows were broken and concerning stains were splattered here and there. From what I could see, most of the seats had their stuffing coming out and some of the tires may have blown because the entire bus was tilting diagonally.
The light truck stopped in the parking lot and Nagisa-chan slowly stood up with her knife in one hand. A great pressure weighed on my stomach, but she only gently shook the Mystery Freak’s shoulder. Miniskirt Bikini Santa Enbi groaned and slowly opened her eyes.
“Come with me. Yes. Good girl.”
We could not disobey her. With our hands bound behind our backs, we couldn’t fight back with a weapon or even run away. After all, humans used their arms to balance. Also, our opponents were Nagisa-chan with her sword-like cattle cleaver named Namagusa and the driver who had the truck. We would definitely be killed if we tried to run away on this empty mountain road.
Even if she was an extreme exception in many ways, the Mystery Freak was still a civilian.
I had to avoid any option that would bring her harm.
The two of us got down from the truck and someone stepped out from the truck’s driver and passenger seat.
The driver was a man with graying hair and the passenger was a young woman.
“Allow me to introduce you. Meeting everyone makes you nervous, doesn’t it? …This old man is Sada Shirabe-san. He’s a doctor if you can believe it. That’s really helped us out.”
The man gave a quiet snort and seemed to be a middle-aged man in his late forties…or maybe even approaching elderly. He wore a sweater, slacks, and a white coat, but he didn’t seem to be the type to worry about appearances. His hair was a mix of black and gray and his sweater’s collar was twisted. The bottom of his white coat and pants were splattered with mud and his glasses looked like he didn’t care about anything other than the prescription being right.
“And this is Amou Neko-san. She’s a firefighter. …Although she’s using those skills to make Molotov cocktails and to teach us how to kick down doors or escape out of high windows. Yes, good girl. Here’s a caramel for staying so still.”
The woman looked barely in her twenties. She was probably younger than me. Her fluffy hair was tied back with a hair tie and she had a healthy and well-proportioned body. But that wasn’t all. She definitely had supple muscles below that layer of feminine fat. She may have chosen her clothing with mobility in mind because she wore a bright yellow sports brand track suit, but unlike Doctor Sada, she did not appear sloppy or filthy. That may have been the difference between simply not caring and putting in the bare minimum effort to be fashionable. An oil lighter hung from a thin chain around her neck and she wore a lot of shoulder bags and waist pouches, but did that have anything to do with Nagisa-chan’s introduction of the woman?
Anyway, there were only three here. How many more were there inside the bank?
“(Hey, detective. I only just woke up, so what’s going on here?)”
“(I’ll explain later. Just keep in mind that resisting without preparing first won’t end well.)”
“H-hurry inside! I don’t want to stay out here longer than I have to.”
“Well, we don’t have to worry about the zombies once we get inside the barricade’s ‘puzzle ring’. It’s lucky they aren’t very smart.”
I couldn’t tell what cost they had paid to gain this sense of peace. It was like seeing a transaction in a foreign country’s currency.
We entered through the metal door in the back rather than through the front.
Immediately inside was a wall of trash crammed in between the benches and tables stacked up to the ceiling. There was a stairway to the second floor to the side, but Nagisa-chan and the others crouched down and crawled through a gap in the trash wall.
“The zombies aren’t smart enough for this.”
When I followed Nagisa-chan through, I could just about see the panties on the hips sticking out from her knit dress.
“Even if they see us or detect our scent, they always choose the easiest route and follow the wall. They view the barricade as a wall and make their way up the stairs to the second floor. Following the wall takes them down another staircase and then outside. They wander around and around and around without ever reaching our living space.”
“And since zombies follow the smell, we use the ducts to carry the scents of our living space to the second floor,” explained Sada. “It seems to have originally been a countermeasure against gas weapons, so the equipment is quite powerful. Balling up a curtain and sticking it inside changed the flow of air, so the air meant to go outside now goes to the second floor. Then when they’re drawn here by our smell, they end up walking around in a loop until they lose interest.”
“A-and if they do break into the first floor, we have a last resort,” added Amou. “We can blast through the wall for an emergency escape route straight to the truck.”
They sounded proud…but how much of that was serious?
That part about blasting through the wall wasn’t referencing explosives, was it?
It may have been a habit to help calm her, but I was really worried by the way Amou was clicking her oil lighter’s cover open and closed.
We entered a large floor and the fluorescent lights were on even during the day. Some of the windows and shutters were broken, but they were covered with walls of trash and large mirrors that may have been taken from the bathrooms were set up in front of them. I wasn’t quite sure what effect they would have when looking in from outside.
“About a third of the damage to the bank was done by us. …Then we piled up the rubble and set up the mirrors so it looks like you can see everything inside when you peek in through the gaps. But in reality, you can’t see into or get into any of our living space from outside.”
“It’s more like a box of mirrors than a magic trick,” added Sada as he poked at the temple of his glasses.
“Trying to hold back the zombies is no use. Preparing a large closed room only draws their interest. That was obvious when we saw the town hall and other areas that suffered a concentrated attack. In fact, when they bite people, it seems to be a way of investigating it more than eating it. It’s just like how a baby puts everything in its mouth, but they happen to have such ridiculous strength that it can kill you. It’s probably the same when they chase after and bite at fleeing people. The more you resist, the more you interest them. Keep that in mind. I’ll give you a caramel and call you a good boy or girl.”
“So it’s more effective to redirect them than to hold them back. You need to let them work off some of their curiosity. In that way, the bank’s limited windows and doors let us set up a route more easily. We can let them walk freely through while never actually running across our living space. It’s like creating a piece of trick art.”
Nagisa-chan stretched with knife in hand while she stood in the center of the large space.
A few things came to mind as I listened to her.
“(That sounds a lot like a fishing method that takes advantage of the fish behavior. You create spiraling wall of nets because the fish will naturally move along the wall and end up trapped in the center.)”
Apparently the zombies were just as unintelligent as fish.
It was exactly the kind of idea I would expect from an Intellectual Village resident. She may have had a habit of playing in the rivers like I had.
Then the doctor named Sada spoke up.
“Can I go now?”
“M-me too… My weapons are one-use, so I need to resupply.”
“Make those Molotov cocktails for us.”
Society was working under a bizarre set of values, the jobs were split up, and the people scattered. They opened nearby doors and entered their own spaces. The Mystery Freak and I glanced around, but Nagisa-chan tapped at the floor with her large cattle cleaver and spoke to us.
“You two are going in here. Go, go.”
“Where are you taking us? Are you going to keep our hands bound?”
“You’ll understand soon enough.”
She took us to a thick circular door behind the bank’s counter. It truly was about a meter thick and had more than twenty fixed bolts.
The Hishigami crest was carved into the center of the mass of metal.
“Wait. You don’t have to close us in there, do you? Didn’t you say you were protecting us!? But this is like a prison cell!”
“We have to. The truth is, we picked up some people around town before. We used that microbus out front.”
“What does that have to do with this!?”
“I won’t tell you if you don’t quiet down. I would be teaching you that works. …They would have been safe inside the bank. The zombies can’t get through the ‘puzzle ring’ that requires some intelligence, so they end up going to the second floor and leaving through the other entrance. But those people wouldn’t listen and were too slow, so the zombies attacked before we could take them to safety. The rest was awful. Those of us away from the bus had to escape into the bank, but those on the bus had nowhere to run and no way to fight.”
That was through the insane filter that Nagisa-chan used to view the world, so what had actually happened?
At the very least, it looked like the bus was broken and abandoned. But how many people had been aboard? Had anyone even been aboard?
“So we’ll protect any survivors and we’ll give them food. If necessary, we’ll give them weapons and fight the zombies with them. But they don’t get any freedom. You should thank us for giving you a safe place to sleep. Once you learn that this is the safest place for you, I’ll call you a good boy and good girl.”
She pushed on our shoulders to throw us into a stifling closed space.
The vault was surprisingly spacious. It was lit by orange lights like a tunnel and it was the size of two classrooms. Instead of a single space, it was divided into sections by metal bars. One contained cash piled up in a block, one contained gold bars similarly piled up, one contained safe deposit boxes that resembled coin lockers, and one probably contained bonds. While the entire area was spacious, each individual section was not. The smallest of them were smaller than a city hotel room.
Nagisa-chan smiled thinly.
“I’ll let you decide. Do you want to be together or separated?”
“Together,” immediately replied the Mystery Freak.
Nagisa-chan grabbed Enbi’s arm and threw her into a section with drawers along the wall. She then did the same with me. The following creaking sound seemed to pierce into my heart. I could hear the clicking of the door locking.
“Turn around and stick your hands out toward me. I’ll cut the zip ties on your thumbs.”
“Good boy. Good girl. Have a caramel.”
We could only do as we were told.
Our arms were freed, but we did not feel at all liberated.
We were literally behind bars. Nagisa-chan held the key and her footsteps moved away and toward the vault’s exit. I had trouble breathing, but without realizing that, she slowly looked back as she made her way to the free world outside.
“See you two later. I said it’s better to redirect the zombies, but that changes with walls this thick. You might be interested in what’s going on outside, but creating some new boundaries is best for us all. Hee hee.”
I heard a mechanical rumbling and the meter-thick circular door slowly and smoothly moved.
That seal bearing the Hishigami crest was closing.
The freedom I had taken for granted and the right to walk wherever I wanted to go were being taken from me. I knew that, but there was nothing I could do.
It took a full thirty seconds for the door to fully close.
The vault was shut.
If the Mystery Freak hadn’t been next to me, I’m pretty sure I would have screamed.
There wasn’t much we could do, but we couldn’t just sit around in silence either.
The Hishigami crest door had closed, but that also meant Nagisa-chan and the others weren’t monitoring us anymore. The Mystery Freak and I immediately exchanged a glance inside those metal bars. We pulled our cellphone and smartphone from our pockets. Neither one had a signal of course, but they had other uses.
“How much have you done!?”
“I’ve been secretly filming everything since I woke up, so I should have everything about the inside of the bank. But I obviously have nothing from when I was asleep. Detective, what’s going on?”
“I used my cellphone to record my conversation with Nagisa-chan on the light truck. You listen to that first. Let’s share our information.”
We had no idea how long we would be imprisoned. That was a frightening thought, but we had to plan for the worst and thus could not waste our phones’ batteries.
“How much battery do you have left?”
“It’s nearly full, but that won’t last too long since it’s a smartphone. I do have a giant rapid charger, so we shouldn’t have any trouble for the time being. What about you?”
“I have a charging cable, but there’s no outlet in here. There’s only so long it’ll last even if we’re economical. We should assume we won’t be able to use the phones for long and check through all the data while we can.”
“Can do, detective.”
The Mystery Freak focused on the recorded voices coming from my cellphone. She must have been cold because she wrapped her arms around her shoulders, rubbed her legs together, and pressed the drooping ears of her scarf cap against her cheeks.
I slowly exhaled, leaned back against the metal bars, and mussed up my bangs with one hand.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“For what? For not telling Enbi-chan how pretty she is in her Santa costume?”
“For putting you in danger. I had little choice given the situation and I don’t know how many people they have, but this is no place to bring a minor girl.”
“Are you saying you should have pleaded with the insane kidnappers to ‘take me, but save this girl’? Drawing attention to me would only put me in more danger. They might have started by holding me down and tearing my clothes off for some dark entertainment and harassment.”
“There was no way of taking zero damage here. It’s unfortunate, but that’s reality. In that case, you chose the best option available to you. At the very least, I’m safe now because you protected me while I was passed out and defenseless, right?”
“But I’m a police officer.”
“That means nothing. I’m mature enough to know the police are human too. You’re not some macho man in full-body tights, so don’t worry about it.”
Eventually, Enbi finished listening to my recorded conversation with Nagisa-chan.
She sighed and opened her mouth.
“She’s treating us like pets.”
“You thought so too?”
“It’s the method for dogs, cats, and a few other small animals. I have an e-book on it on my smartphone if you want to see.”
“No, thanks… She always praises us as a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’, she gives us a caramel as a special treat, and she bangs that cattle cleaver for an unpleasant noise. It’s the standard division of reward and punishment. That much I get.”
That was a problem in and of itself, but the root problem lay elsewhere.
“That aside, what’s this about a zombie panic?”
“I don’t know how things turned out like this.”
At the very least, we hadn’t seen any corpses getting up and we hadn’t been attacked by any groups of rotting flesh. It was definitely odd for the city to be so unnaturally quiet and for not a single firetruck to be in evidence with smoke rising everywhere, but that was a different issue.
“They may truly believe that there are zombies out there.”
“But we don’t know if those zombies are really there nor not?”
In fact, that was the only reasonable answer.
Before assuming some strange occult technique had placed evil spirits inside corpses or that a mysterious pathogen was causing the dead to rise, it was much more natural to assume this was a case of mass hysteria causing the people of Bozen City to believe there were zombies everywhere.
The city had been destroyed, but had a swarm of zombies really done that?
Wasn’t it easier to think that destruction was the result of crowds wielding handmade weapons against imaginary zombies?
They may not have accurate recollections of the incident they had caused.
“But have you noticed?” I asked. “Even if that’s true, this mass hysteria had to have spread in an extremely short period of time.”
“What makes you say that?”
“The fresh foods in the mall hadn’t rotted. And if an entire city was crippled by riots, the information would have gotten out. This happened too fast for that. We should probably assume only a few hours have passed.”
“What if some mysterious government agency is suppressing the information?”
“That’s a ridiculous conspiracy theory, but I guess I’ll give a serious rebuttal. If that were the case, how did we get inside Bozen City so easily? If they were hiding this, wouldn’t they cut off the flow of people?”
“True. That’s unlikely unless this was some kind of accident that surprised even the government enough that they were slow to seal everything off.”
There were no zombies.
If we could get them to realize that, they would free us from this prison. After all, they would lose their pretext for “protecting” us. But how far would that “minority view” get us in this city where common sense had crumbled away?
“There was a case like this at a so-called UFO Village in America. The villagers were terrified of an alien invasion, so when they took a liking to a traveler, they would shove them in a shelter in order to ‘protect’ them.”
“And what happened to a traveler that upset the villagers?”
“The villagers concluded the traveler was actually an alien wearing human skin. After that…well, it was case by case. Some were given public executions and others were dissected for future reference. In fact, anyone who broke the village’s rules or a leader who lost in a conflict between factions would end up considered an alien.”
It made my head hurt.
If someone feared the destruction of mankind, they also believed in that destruction. They hated to have that destruction denied. They wished to be freed from those bonds, but they also wanted to be bound by them more than anyone else. With Nagisa-chan and the others fighting the zombie threat, insisting there were no zombies could be dangerous. I certainly didn’t want them deciding we were zombies pretending to be human. I was also bothered by their little society they had set up. The rules of back alleys and prisons were symbols of fear, but they were rewarding when you were at the top. They may have been building up their own unique rules like that.
“I’ve shared my information, so let me see the footage on your smartphone now.”
We hadn’t just swapped our phones, but that was because of the batteries. Watching it together was more economical than both of us viewing it separately. I borrowed the smartphone inside a case modeled after a Santa-like present.
We pressed our chilly shoulders together to watch the small screen.
The footage shook a lot, but that wasn’t surprising since it was filmed while hanging from the waist of her swimsuit. I felt like I would get motion sickness if I stared at it for too long, but I couldn’t let that get to me.
It started with us getting out of the truck and approaching the somewhat snow-covered exterior of the bank. The shutters and wall had apparently been intentionally destroyed, but it would have required explosives or heavy machinery. There was one other thing to focus on.
“I’m interested in that destroyed microbus.”
“According to Nagisa-chan, they tried to carry survivors to the bank using it, but that ended in failure when it was attacked by zombies while trying to get the people inside the bank.”
“I wonder how many people are in their group. It didn’t look like there was anyone other than those three in the bank.”
“It’s hard to tell how much of what they say is true.”
The footage entered the thick metal door out back, passed below the trash wall, and entered the bank.
Nagisa-chan, Sada Shirabe the doctor, and Amou Neko the firefighter spoke inside the lobby.
“Can I go now?”
“M-me too… My weapons are one-use, so I need to resupply.”
The Mystery Freak reached in and stopped the video.
“Did you notice that, detective?”
“Sada and Amou both asked for Nagisa-chan’s permission before leaving. Age-wise, she should be at the bottom since she’s a minor. She can’t drive either. Normally, the hierarchy would be the exact opposite.”
“That’s noteworthy too, but I’m talking about this.”
While fidgeting from the cold, Enbi pointed at one corner of the screen.
“The video caught the door Sada left through. Amou left outside of the frame, but we might be able to see something through his. Pay careful attention. I’m going to play it frame by frame.”
In the slow and jerky movement of the video, Sada Shirabe walked toward the door in the back.
What would we see there?
I focused to gather as much information as possible as the door slowly opened to reveal what was inside.
It was probably a private room for discussions with customers about foreign exchange deals and the like.
Inside, I saw something that wasn’t a table but was still rectangular and supported by legs. What was it? An examination table or a stretcher?
Sada Shirabe had been introduced as a doctor, so it may have been an examining room for treating the injured.
But that kind thought was shattered by what I noticed next.
Some rusted metal drums sat a short distance from the examination table. We could see two in the video. Even if it was a makeshift examining room, they wouldn’t bring something that filthy inside.
In other words, that was not an examining room.
Then what was it? Why else would they have gathered medical equipment in that room?
The answer came from the metal drums. The top had been cut away like a can of food, making it much like the baths I had seen in old dramas.
First of all, the edge was stained a dark red.
And second, something like a broken branch was sticking out.
What is that?
Wait…no. It can’t be…
The Mystery Freak froze the video and zoomed in on that point. Without any image processing software, the pixels simply grew larger, so it was pixelated and blurry. Still, that was clearly not a mannequin or doll arm. It had a red and purple speckled color. It was filthy in a very organic way. It seemed to have grown discolored from within, which simply could not be reproduced with paint.
“Detective, I really hope this isn’t true. I really do. But…”
“Just tell me.”
“What if that doctor is the type who investigates his suspicions via autopsies? Like the crazy people from the UFO Village?”
There was nothing we could do.
This was not the same as kidnappers after ransom money. A colorful tightrope walk had begun.
The sound of the whistling wind simply would not go away. A dry wind was blowing everywhere. It seemed to enter my ears and arrive deep inside my head. It disturbingly seemed to find its way into the wrinkles of my brain. It seemed to be gradually drying out my brain and transforming me into a helpless doll.
“Detective? Detective!? What’s the matter? You’re shaking.”
“What…? Dammit, the wind? Mystery Freak, is there any wind getting in here?”
“We’re inside a perfectly sealed vault. There’s nowhere for it to get in through. Are you really okay? C’mon, take a deep breath. I know it’s tough, but try to remember where we are.”
I gradually realized what was going on.
First of all, after going over everything we needed to discuss and sharing all of our information, we had been forced to fall silent. I had then drifted off to sleep and started dreaming.
I was hallucinating in my sleep.
No, given my current environment…
“Am I starting to show symptoms of prison psychosis? That isn’t good.”
Prison psychosis was a unique psychological state caused by the mental changes that occurred when unable to move for long periods of time. That could mean being physically restrained by handcuffs or other restraints, closed in a small room, or in some special cases, being constantly monitored by a GPS tracking device.
There were a wide variety of symptoms: auditory and visual hallucinations, various types of delusions, limited thoughts, explosive emotions, etc.
I had a decent knowledge of it in reference to investigations and detention, but this wasn’t good.
The most effective treatment for prison psychosis was extremely simple: releasing the physical restraints. There were even cases where someone near a complete mental breakdown would recover in just a few hours after leaving the room. The creation of workout areas in prisons had been to prevent these sorts of symptoms.
But at the same time, the symptoms would only grow worse the longer you were imprisoned. Overcoming them while inside the room was incredibly hard to pull off. This was a completely different situation, but it felt something like a hopeless battle against motion sickness while still inside the moving vehicle.
“Mystery Freak, do you have anything to use as a restraint?”
“I have no idea how bad this is going to get! If I come down with delusions of persecution or I’m filled with explosive emotions, I might succumb to groundless suspicion and hurt you. So tie me up before that happens. It’s too late to tie me up once I’ve started struggling!!”
“Detective, even if you do have prison psychosis, tying you up will only exacerbate your symptoms. I can’t do that!”
“You might as well be in the same cage as a ferocious beast. Please just let me remain a police officer to the end!!”
She slowly shook her head.
I wasn’t going to get any help out of her, but I couldn’t let myself harm her either. I had to take precautions in case my symptoms worsened. My charging cable would be too weak, so I would have to use my cardigan and belt.
I slowly exhaled.
If I let my guard down, I started hearing that wind again.
A while later, I sat with my back to the metal bars and my arms around my knees.
I heard someone whispering behind me. Or I thought I did.
I knew in my head that the Mystery Freak and I were the only ones in the vault. I really did know that, but I still found myself looking back to check. I did it again and again. I was just like someone with OCD washing their hands again and again when feeling cornered.
I would tremble at how bizarre I had been acting five minutes before, but I would do the exact same thing five minutes later.
I really did feel like I was about to go crazy. Or had I already gone a little bit crazy? Just like Nagisa-chan and the others who believed in the zombies.
“Hey, Mystery Freak?”
I looked over and noticed something wasn’t right.
Enbi wasn’t reacting very much. She didn’t reply and she didn’t blink when I waved a hand in front of her eyes. I grabbed her cold shoulders and she finally slowly looked up.
When I looked into her unfocused eyes, I finally realized what this was.
Prison psychosis? She has it too!?
“Hey, pull yourself together. What are you looking at, Mystery Freak?”
“Eh? Oh… I’m fine, I’m fine. I won’t be a burden on you… I’ll handle it on my own…”
“Out with it! Keeping it inside won’t help. Delusions aren’t too much of a problem while they’re in short-term memory, but they can be really hard to shake once they get to your long-term memory!!”
“Heh..eh heh heh… I can hear a siren.”
“It’s coming from through the thick walls. Wee-ooh, wee-ooh… Yes! Yes, I know, I know!! No sound could get through those walls. But I’m suffocating in here. We’ll be okay, won’t we? Won’t we? The bank isn’t on fire and we weren’t left here in a giant oven, right!?”
Both of us were heading down the same path.
It was only a difference in degree. The pressure of being sealed behind that door marked with the Hishigami crest had to be something else entirely for her.
“Listen, Mystery Freak. Prison psychosis acts differently in different people, but what matters is how long you’re closed inside. How long has it been? At the very least, they haven’t brought us any food, so it can’t have been a full day.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know! There are no windows or doors, so we can’t see anything outside!! Who knows if it’s day or night right now!? What if he…what if those grinning people come to try to kill me again!?”
Those words were like a slap to the face and they shook my heart too.
I was dragged in like her panic was contagious.
The time. Yes, we needed to know the exact time.
I made a desperate attempt to keep our mental lifeboat from flipping over.
“Look, Mystery Freak.”
“It’s my phone! Look at the clock. It’s only been a few hours since then. It’s fine. Any prison psychosis symptoms won’t be all that severe yet! You’re only imagining it!!”
I had no idea how much this would help, but as she listened to me and looked at the screen, the movements of her eyes gradually grew smoother. I could tell she was beginning to look outside her world of sluggish delusion.
We may have looked quite silly.
This may have been a feeling that only appeared when forcibly imprisoned without knowing what would happen tomorrow…or even an hour from now.
But we were truly at our limit here. I could feel my heart – my soul – wearing away like a clump of salt as time passed.
This trick would not last forever.
The phone batteries were finite. Human beings grew accustomed to stimuli, so the calming effect of viewing that digital data would fade. Once we began wondering if the number was wrong, it was all over. More importantly, prison psychosis grew worse as time went on.
What would happen to us once we lost this lifeline?
What would become of us once that support vanished and our hearts were crushed?
We didn’t have a bed or even a blanket, but I found myself irregularly drifting to sleep and waking up.
I was horribly uneasy. My thoughts began to escape from reality.
“Detective, what are you thinking about?”
I was having trouble distinguishing miniskirt bikini Santa Enbi from a resident of my dreams.
“I was remembering the time we first met.”
“Ha ha. Stop that. It’s embarrassing.”
“Yes, but we were kind of imprisoned then too. At least we could walk freely through the mansion, though.”
The name “Glass House” came to mind.
A crazy family had lived deep in the mountains. In a direct interpretation of the family rules against hiding anything from one’s family, the mansion’s inner walls, floors, and ceilings had all been made of transparent reinforced glass to create an insane living space with zero privacy.
Lots of sinful people had gathered there like they had been pulled there by a magnet.
Then a murder had occurred.
After following an invisible line too solid to say it was “by chance”, the Mystery Freak and I had arrived there in different ways and witnessed the same incident.
“Come to think of it, you weren’t wearing a swimsuit back then.”
“Who do you think I’m showing my body off for? I’m ready for you to attack me, you know?”
When I had first met her, Hishigami Enbi had truly been a grim reaper.
She hadn’t had twintails then, nor had she worn a cute swimsuit. Her long hair had been swept back and she had worn a pitch black coat that covered her entire body all the way up to her mouth. Pants of the same color had decorative zippers here and there, but the thighs visible through them had seemed more dangerous than dazzling. Most of all, her eyes had given off the painful light of a rusted blade. Every word she spoke to someone had drawn out the information she needed as quickly as possible, and in exchange she had lost all trust. She had been that sort of grim reaper.
She had done whatever it took to solve the case.
For example, she would rewrite the dying message pointing to the murderer in order to see how all of the suspects reacted.
For example, she would preemptively but non-lethally attack the murderer’s second target to gather everyone’s attention and create an environment where the murderer could not easily act.
For example, she would direct suspicion onto the person the murderer cared for most in order to pressure the murderer into confessing.
She had not actually pulled out a handgun or bazooka, but she may have been a lot like Mai.
“That really was an awful location.”
“What are you talking about? I’m still mad at you for peeping at the maid’s changing like that.”
“That was the transparent Glass House, but depending on the angle, glass will reflect light back like a mirror. In other words, you could create a black box there under the right conditions. Once we realized that, the rest was simple.”
“Yeah. Most criminal tricks are like that.”
After hearing that, I spoke to the Mystery Freak next to me.
“That wasn’t the trick in that case.”
I felt faint.
With the unpleasant sensation of a flat spatula or wooden spoon scraping away at the bottom of my stomach, I finally managed to focus on reality again.
“What is it, Detective?”
The girl in front of me was not a convenient doll who would agree to anything I said.
She was a human being.
“It’s nothing. I got over it.”
I wiped cold sweat from my brow as I answered.
How long would this continue? Could we really laugh at Nagisa-chan and the others anymore?
The series of self-made nightmares came to an abrupt end.
With a heavy mechanical rumbling, the round vault door slowly opened. Just in case, we hid our phones in our pockets. It was Nagisa-chan who walked in.
We were still trapped behind bars, but the difference was incredible.
It felt like fresh air was flowing in through that round hole and our sticky delusions were being driven out along with the vault’s stagnant air.
Prison psychosis recovered as soon as one went outside.
This may have been a hint of that. The pressure of the Hishigami crest had been released.
“Heh heh. Here’s your food.”
Nagisa-chan held a few rolls, two bagged salads, and a plastic bottle of water. She shoved them between the bars.
“Did you steal these from the mall?”
“Good boy. You didn’t bite at my hand.”
“What would you have done if I had?”
“Hmm. It’s a little sad, but the best way to restrain a fierce male is castration.”
“Yes, yes. Stole them, you say? We did think about leaving money at the register at first, but pretending like that seemed so empty.”
No one was coming back.
No one would ever take the money even if they left it. No one would blame them for taking the products. The normal system of paying for products no longer existed here.
At the very least, that was what she and the other rioters believed.
While focusing on that line between reality and delusion, I looked to Nagisa-chan’s eyes. There was nothing I could do without some more information. I wanted as much to work with as possible if we were to eventually get out of here.
“Nagisa-chan, I notice you aren’t leaving the city.”
After some thought, I asked a question.
“That mall was right next to Bozen City’s border. With that truck, you should have been able to escape, so why are you staying in this mountain bank? Don’t you know that the situation is only going to worsen if you hole up here?”
“Yes. Good boy. You’ve been thinking about this.”
The high school girl readily agreed.
She also gave me a caramel.
“If we had known there were still no zombies the way you had come, we might have escaped then.”
“Who says the zombies are staying in the city? Even if it was fine before, the zombies might have taken over in the past few hours. And even if we escaped with a destination in mind, it’s all over if that destination is filled with zombies. …That’s why we need to think about going somewhere we know can protect us. Do you understand?”
“Somewhere you know can protect you?” asked the Mystery Freak in her Santa hat.
“The police and firefighters probably wouldn’t be any help anymore. …For now, we’re thinking about the closest JSDF or American base. The problem is how far away that is. We checked on a map and it’s more than a hundred kilometers. It wouldn’t even take an hour if we drove full speed there, but there’s no way it would be that easy with all of this going on. Going that far while slowed down by accidents is not going to be easy.”
I understood what she was trying to say.
They needed to stockpile water, food, fuel, and weapons. They needed a ridiculous amount and they couldn’t move until they had gathered it all.
Fearing nonexistent zombies, they would be eternally preparing for a journey to the ends of the earth.
“Shinobu-chan and the others were thinking of escaping outside the city with the paragliders at the mountain peak, but unlike an airplane, those don’t continue flying. We’d be in trouble if we landed somewhere full of zombies, so we decided against leaving it all up to luck like that.”
“Can you really do that?”
“You’re free to prepare like that if you want, but will it ever end? Simply living here takes food and fuel and the water and food will go bad on its own. It’s like a bucket with a hole at the bottom. You’re losing supplies even as you gather them.”
“…I don’t know.”
Surprisingly, she readily agreed.
“I’m simply choosing the most realistic path I can think of and I can’t know if it was the right choice without trying… A great deluge is coming, but I might not have time to build such a large ark. Still, doing nothing and drowning is out of the question. That’s how I’m looking at this.”
“Or maybe I just want an objective to think about. …After all, doing nothing feels like suffocating in this situation. If I’m not focused on something, it feels like I’m going crazy.”
The conversation ended there.
She hadn’t rejected us. She had simply ended it based on her own mood.
We were all breathing the same air, but we were on the inside and she was on the outside.
She held all the authority here.
As the high school girl began to leave, I shouted regretfully after her.
“Please wait! We’re trapped behind these bars either way, so you don’t need to close that door!”
“I do. Giving you what you want when you yell only teaches you to do it again.”
She wasn’t listening.
Next, the scantily clad Mystery Freak spoke up.
“B-but what do we do about a bath or toilet in here? There’s no intercom, so wouldn’t it be better to leave it so you can come here if we yell?”
Nagisa-chan only tilted her head a little.
“Come here? Why?”
“So you can let us out if we really need it…”
“Surely you aren’t saying you won’t let us out no matter what. Do you know what this place is!? It’s just a box! There’s no plumbing or anything!! You’re a girl too! Surely you understand!”
“I gave you water. You can figure out the rest on your own. If you do a good job, I’ll call you a good girl and give you a caramel.”
She was blunt.
The Mystery Freak was left flapping her mouth wordlessly and Nagisa-chan vanished through the round door.
With the heavy mechanical rumbling, we were once more closed in this double prison.
While overwhelmed by the hallucination of whistling wind, I realized the vault’s circular door was opening again. It was clearly too soon for the next meal. The Miniskirt Bikini Santa Mystery Freak was still so shocked by that last conversation that she had barely eaten anything.
Our visitor this time was the firefighter named…Amou Neko I think.
The young woman in a track suit approached the metal bars.
“We can finally speak.”
“I’m really not sure what to do with Nagisa-chan’s caramel rewards.”
“She does it to Sada-san and me too, so we understand. She says that ‘stay’, ‘sit’, and ‘come’ are the basics. It’s humiliating, but we can’t stand up to her.”
Her actions had bothered me a fair bit. Even now, she was toying with the oil lighter hanging in front of her ample chest. Had she come here without telling Nagisa-chan?
“Hey, you two came from outside, didn’t you? You weren’t hiding in Bozen City like the rest of us. You’re from outside.”
Hearing that word while inside the bars almost made me laugh despite the situation.
“…What about it?”
“Can you tell me what it’s like outside? It sounded like you didn’t know about the zombies. What’s it like out there? Does that mean the zombies haven’t spread all that far!?”
How was I supposed to answer this?
There was of course only one true answer, but if this was like that UFO Village, then this decision could determine our fates. If I said there were zombies everywhere outside the city, we would remain imprisoned here. If I said there were no zombies outside the city, she would get angry at me for lying. Was there any other better answer?
I felt the same unreasonable tension as someone being forced to sign a contract written in a strange foreign language. For one thing, how did those three share the same delusions?
After some thought, I answered.
“I came here from Tokyo.”
“I boarded my rental car at the local airport, picked her up on the road, and drove straight to Bozen City. I didn’t see any zombies, but I can’t tell you what things were like outside the car. I can’t deny the possibility that zombies were hiding in all of the houses and stores or that we would have been attacked had we been walking through the streets.”
“I knew it.”
Amou Neko rubbed her chin.
I had no idea what it was she had “known”, even though I knew not matching the conversation to her understanding would get us killed.
There may have been an “entrance” to sharing this delusion, but getting trapped too deeply would be a bad idea. I had to reject it in my heart and thoroughly analyze everything.
“If there might be zombies outside the city, we can’t be optimistic. We need to prepare… Yes, that’s right. Nagisa-chan’s cattle cleaver only goes so far. We need the firepower to take out a dense wall of zombies…”
I heard the clicking of the oil lighter lid opening and closing.
Something like joy filled her eyes as she muttered to herself.
Her eyes had started to glitter once she was told there were zombies out there. That may have seemed contradictory at first, but it wasn’t. Nagisa-chan had already told us they needed an objective or they would go crazy.
In Amou Neko’s case, that would be securing weapons such as Molotov cocktails and flamethrowers. She was trying to obtain peace of mind by holding the firepower needed to break through a great swarm of zombies. So even if she didn’t like the idea of zombies being there, she couldn’t reach that peace of mind without them being there.
What was the right answer and where were the landmines?
Even a slight misreading here could cost us our lives.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be just fine… Once I get all the firepower we need, we can reach that base a hundred kilometers away…”
She was staring into the distance instead of at us.
A certain theory occurred to me, but that wasn’t what I needed to address here and now.
“Are you all going to be okay?”
“Okay? What do you mean?”
The fingertips toying with the oil lighter came to a stop.
Was that a dangerous sign? I held my palms out toward the track suit firefighter.
“I may not be the expert, but aren’t Molotov cocktails delicate? Dropping one would be bad and any rough movement with them stuffed in your backpack could break a bottle and cover your back in gasoline. Plus, they’re heavy. And even if you have a lot of them, you can only throw one at a time. They aren’t a weapon you can use with one in each hand.”
“Preparing is fine, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to lecture everyone on how to use them? Otherwise, our carelessness could burn the bank down.”
“When the time comes to it, I’ll do so. You two will be fighting against the zombies too.”
She didn’t say anything about anyone else.
It was true we hadn’t seen anyone but those three while trapped in this vault, but did that mean what I thought it might?
“And we need firepower for more than fighting the zombies. We also need to gather samples.”
I felt a grinding pain in my heart.
Sada Shirabe was the doctor with that examining room. What were those rusted metal drums in that room and why was there a human arm sticking out of one? He seemed the closest to this group’s crimes.
“He’s all excited about figuring out how the zombies work, finding a weakness, and being able to fight them far more easily, but give me a break. People are getting back up after they die. Their eyes are muddy, their skin is discolored, and their hair is all dried out. That’s what this place is, so we’re going to have to escape outside and burn the place to the ground eventually. It’s a waste of time.”
Was this really Japan?
They were all insane. They had a variety of opinions, but I couldn’t keep up with any of them.
“I don’t know if it’s to make himself look important, but he always exaggerates everything he says. When treating a tiny scrape, he’ll go on about infectious diseases… He probably just wants us to think we need him. So we can’t rely on his reports. It makes me wonder what he’s even doing.”
After her unilateral complaints, Amou Neko left the vault after satisfying no one but herself. Just like with Nagisa-chan, I could clearly see the difference between those inside and outside the bars.
Once we were alone, the Mystery Freak spoke up in her Santa hat and reindeer scarf cap after not taking part in that previous conversation.
“Did you notice, detective?”
“Yes. We can only make our best guess since we aren’t experts,” I said with a gulp. “But I think they might be suffering from prison psychosis too.”
It was a ridiculous theory.
The two of us were imprisoned here, so it seemed wrong to also place our captors in the category of victim.
“They aren’t in this bank because they want to be here. They think this is their only option because of all the zombies everywhere. You could say they kind of are imprisoned in the bank.”
“Honestly, self-made delusions really aren’t funny when you take them this far.”
“Imprisonment situations are well-known for creating special mental states in both the victim and the perpetrator. Stockholm and Lima syndromes are the most well known. Nagisa-chan and the others may be coming apart little by little as much as we are.”
“But doesn’t prison psychosis recover pretty dramatically when you head outside?”
“It depends on their definition of ‘outside’. Even if they leave the bank, Bozen City is full of zombies. Outside the city is also full of zombies. Everywhere is full of zombies. If that’s how they see things, it’s like placing a can in a suitcase, placing the suitcase in a safe, and placing the safe in the basement. They’re still trapped in a larger cage, so they don’t feel freed.”
However, this shifted the risk up yet another gear.
They were already afraid of nonexistent zombies, so if they were also coming down with prison psychosis, we could less and less hope that they would make rational decisions.
The next one to arrive was Sada Shirabe, the elderly man claiming to be a doctor.
As soon as he stepped inside, the smell stabbed into me. More than mere blood, it was a phlegmy smell that made me think of a cream color with a muddy green added in. Perhaps because the vault’s air was so still, the slight oddity quickly ruled he entire area.
Whether for him or to discipline us, he held a few caramels in his hand, but he only looked saddened by them.
He stood in front of the bars and stared at us through his glasses.
“It would seem you have overcome the initial rite of passage. Your reactions are rational.”
“Rite of passage?”
“If the conditions had been right, you would have become a zombie by about now. Personally, I would have welcomed the opportunity to obtain more samples.”
I recalled the metal drums and what had looked like a human arm.
My tension grew, but if this was a group of rioters, this man was not the only twisted one.
“You can tell humans and zombies apart?”
“Mostly. There are few distinctive traits like the eyes, skin, and hair, but that is not necessarily everything. And I cannot deny the possibility of a variety that is visually indistinguishable from a human. I would prefer to have more samples in order to make a clearer definition.”
He slowly shook his head and sighed while rubbing the temples of his glasses.
“It isn’t easy for a variety of reasons. The zombies keep moving even if you crush their head or stab them through the heart. We have been decapitating them to make sure they cannot bite us, but it’s hard to call that a fundamental solution.”
What did the world look like in his eyes?
“But when they are burned such as with Amou’s Molotov cocktails, autopsying the samples provides very little data. I want them as fresh as possible, but she does not know how to hold back. That’s the dilemma here.”
“Does the fire kill the zombies?”
“Who can say? They stop moving because the heat destroys all of their muscles, but that doesn’t mean they cease to function. While I will examine a burned zombie’s skull, I’m not about to stick my finger into its mouth.”
Everything he said was insane, but I more or less understood what he was saying.
There was a crazy social structure here. Nagisa-chan was their leader. I had wondered why since she was the youngest, a minor, couldn’t drive, and had no special skills such as first-aid, but this seemed to be the answer.
Sada wanted fresh samples, so he preferred Nagisa-chan and her cattle cleaver to Amou and her Molotov cocktails. And based on what Amou had said, those three were the only ones in the bank. From there, it was a matter of majority rule. Sada did not want Nagisa-chan to throw away her blade, so he would support her no matter what. That brought Nagisa-chan to the top regardless of what Amou thought.
Of course, I didn’t want to imagine what these “samples” were in reality.
In that case, they may not have been as solid a group as I had thought. Sada seemed to be in his late forties, so it couldn’t be fun having to take caramels to make Nagisa-chan happy when she was closer to being his granddaughter’s age than his daughter’s age. And Amou’s frustration had to be building up when her opinion was always ignored.
It was possible something could tear them apart.
However, that would be meaningless if they destroyed each other while we were still trapped behind these bars. In that case, we would meet the same fate as a bug in a cage when a child forgets to look after it.
I had found the ignition switch, but we would be taken with them if I didn’t use it right.
“Nagisa-chan said you were going to a JSDF or American base for help. I think she said the closest one is one hundred kilometers away. What do you think about that? Is it realistic?”
“It depends on the spread of the zombies and their total numbers. But our chances could change dramatically if I found a weakness in the zombies. I would have no complaints whatsoever if we could take them all out with a chemical like a gas or an acid.”
He breathed a heavy sigh. There had been decent strength behind his words, but the basic premise seemed to have shifted when he continued.
“But I am against randomly leaving before we know more about them. Do you know what she’s doing in between gathering weapons and food?”
“Which one? Nagisa-chan or Amou?”
“The high school girl.”
That would be Nagisa-chan.
“She’s placing duct tape on the road to spell out giant letters and piling up paper boxes and toilet paper to make campfires. She seems to be trying to send a message toward the sky, hoping a helicopter or something will see it. What do you think?”
I decided it would be better not to honestly answer that it sounded like a strange ritual.
“She’s losing focus when there could be zombies hiding anywhere and lighting large fires will draw their attention. And even if a helicopter does see the message, she can’t stay there. That’s no different than good, old-fashioned ding-dong dash. It looks rational at first, but there is no logic to her actions. Enough so that it seems dangerous to let her lead us around forever.”
Nagisa-chan was rational.
I started feeling faint when I heard that comment. This went beyond a foreign country’s currency. I was pretty sure he was lowering the bar way too far there.
“But Amou is a problem too. What she’s doing is the same as burning everyone away because she doesn’t know what kind of pathogen she’s dealing with. It’s far too inefficient. And who knows if that will be enough to let her rest easy. Besides, do you know what she’s doing now? Brewing alcohol.”
Given my family, I frowned at that.
“Don’t tell me she’s getting drunk now of all times.”
“No, not even she is that careless. At the moment, she is acquiring gasoline around the city and weaponizing it, but she seems to understand that she will eventually reach a limit. So she is apparently trying to create fuel from potatoes and corn as an alternative.”
It seemed reasonable enough at first, but…
“How long will that take to complete?”
“Who can say? I don’t drink, so I don’t know. But is she planning to stay here for years on end with those barrels? While I agree that leaving at random is a bad idea, our situation will only grow worse if we do that.”
After saying what he had to say, Sada Shirabe touched the temples of his glasses and moved away from the bars.
I had grasped the nuance here by this point. He was about to leave the vault.
“Anyway, if you two aren’t turning into zombies, I will have to secure my samples elsewhere.”
“And having more people to talk to is nice. Especially another man. …To be honest, I was suffocating until now.”
That was all.
This time, Sada left the vault.
He was a dangerous person. He had already autopsied several corpses (whether the people had already been dead or killed just to be autopsied was still a mystery) and he intended to continue doing it, but there was nothing I could do.
It felt like the end of the world.
I felt like he was transforming into something inhuman.
Yes, like a senseless zombie that wandered around in search of fresh flesh.
Part 8 (3rd person)
When Hishigami Enbi, a girl wearing black clothes seemingly cobbled-together by decorative zippers, had first laid eyes on that detective, she had honestly wondered how he had survived this long.
There were apparently people who lived their entire lives without getting caught in the middle of a single criminal incident, but that detective was not one of them. He had chosen a profession that required walking through those bloody scenes, so he should have had a greater risk than normal of losing his life. And yet…
It happened inside the Glass House.
The giant mansion’s inner walls, floors, and ceilings were all made of transparent reinforced glass so the family could not keep secrets from each other. The luxurious residence looked like a glass case allowing a glimpse inside the structure of an ant colony, but a closed room murder had occurred on that stage with no blind spots.
To solve the mystery and escape that mansion in the mountains alive, Hishigami Enbi had laid every trap she could to rattle the murderer.
No, she had manipulated more than just the murderer. Sometimes with words, sometimes with information, sometimes with evidence, and sometimes with bluffs. She had thoroughly threatened, intimidated, tempted, negotiated with, cooperated with, appealed to the emotions of, lured with tears, and built up a sense of justice in everyone inside that mansion.
She would have revealed the murderer’s identity before long.
No matter how much danger the process put anyone in and even if they were completely unaware they were running right toward the cliff, that had still been the shortest and quickest path to a resolution.
But then that man had said something. That man who could have died at any time…no, that should have already died.
“Listen carefully, you little brat.”
As the very last move to corner the murderer, that detective had taken the one and only action that had left Hishigami Enbi’s predictions and control.
“We in the police don’t head to the crime scene because we want to have fun solving a puzzle. We have no choice but to hunt down the criminal because it’s necessary to save the person in front of our eyes. In that sense, your method earns zero points. Your answer won’t protect anyone.”
Under normal circumstances, she would likely have scoffed at the idea.
If it had been an adult who continued growing old without knowing just how cruel the world was, speaking down to her would never have reached her.
But that detective had been sitting on the floor with his back against a transparent wall.
An arrow was stabbed into his side and a dark red liquid was seeping into his suit through the shirt.
It had been a simple gamble.
She had set things up so that detective would run into the murderer. It would have ended without incident had the detective sold her out to escape harm. She had built up her plan from the very, very beginning under the assumption she would be betrayed, but that detective had broken free of her spell.
In the very, very end, he had chosen to trust the girl and had continued covering for her.
But not because he was stupid.
He had done it knowing he was being deceived.
“That was a meaningless action.”
At the time, those were the only words she had been able to force out.
She assumed she knew everything there was to know about him with that, but he had said more.
He gave a slight smile and sounded satisfied with the result.
“But that action managed to save at least one person here.”
He reached his limit then.
He had fallen to the side and collapsed on the transparent floor. He may have gone into shock due to blood loss because he had not opened his eyes afterwards. All of the Glass House’s exits had been sealed, so there was no way to get him out of there. Unless, that is, one acquired the key ring the murderer had used to seal those exits.
Hishigami Enbi had always faced even the most difficult case and coldly solved it, but on that day, her thoughts branched out to a completely different process for the first time in her life.
She would solve this case for someone other than herself.
She was intent on saving Detective Uchimaku Hayabusa who had continued believing her despite knowing it was a trap.
She would repay him for feeling that way.
With determination in her heart, that Hishigami Woman walked through the Glass House once more.
How much time had passed since we had been closed inside the bank vault?
It felt like just a few minutes, but it also seemed like we had been left all alone for several days.
I had lost all sense of time.
I felt like I had been diluted away like a single drop of ink in a giant lake.
It was a movement from the Mystery Freak that broke me free of that gentle decay.
At first, I thought she was cold.
I thought about giving her my cardigan, but something was wrong. Her trembling wasn’t stopping. In fact, it was growing at an accelerated rate. She had been holding her knees in her arms, but the next thing I knew, she had collapsed to the cold floor. She lay on her side and her entire back seemed to writhe about instead of just her arms and legs.
“Hey, Mystery Freak? What’s going on? Dammit!!”
Something like foam was coming from the corner of her mouth. The switchover between esophagus and trachea wasn’t working properly, so the saliva and stomach acids were mixing with the air.
I considered the possibility of the food from Nagisa-chan having been poisoned, but I quickly rejected it. She had barely eaten anything. There were some substances that could kill a human with just 1% of a gram and there were some slow-acting poisons, but there was no point in using a slow-acting poison when they had us imprisoned behind bars. They could easily have killed us with that cattle cleaver if they had wanted to.
“Has her prison psychosis gotten so bad it’s messing with her autonomic nerves!?”
Her hips hopped unnaturally from the floor, the scarf cap danced around, and even more foam came from her mouth.
Oh, no. She won’t be able to breathe!!
“Can you hear me? Hey, can you hear me!? Spit it out!! If you don’t clear your windpipe, you’ll die!!”
Her eerily wriggling throat stopped moving a little.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t hear me. What was this? Was she just hesitant to do something so shameful in front of a guy? This wasn’t the time for that!
I didn’t have time to get her consent. I leaned over her writhing body and forced my right hand’s index and middle finger between her tiny lips. I was trying to secure a path for her to breathe even if I had to force it open.
That was when a solid pain raced through my fingers.
I didn’t know if she was conscious or not and the pain didn’t matter. I continued moving my fingers while doing my very best to ignore the horrifying sensation that pierced the flesh and even reached the bone. I opened her mouth wide and scraped out what had built up inside.
“Ghahh!? Cough, cough!!”
After a sticky sound, she started coughing. I could hear her beginning to breathe again, even if it did whistle like a broken flute.
However, that did not eliminate the prison psychosis itself.
She gave me an oddly relaxed smile while I was practically leaning over her.
Was she really looking at me?
“Yes…that’s right, detective. I had justified my actions by assuming that anyone would do the same thing in such an extreme situation. That’s why I realized something when I saw you: people never have to lose sight of themselves if they work at it hard enough.”
What was she talking about?
No. “When” was this Enbi from?
“I rethought who I had been in the past. I changed my hairstyle, I chose cute clothes, and I thought about whether I really needed to keep an ulterior motive in everything I said. Yes, it’s thanks to you that I changed from being a mystery solving device to an actual girl.”
Her eyes seemed focused on some distant age.
She had left me behind in the present as she spoke.
“But it was no use…”
I knew she couldn’t really hear me, but I asked anyway.
Her ranting words apologized to someone other than me.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, detective. In the end, I couldn’t do anything as normal as solve problems for someone else. I was only pretending to and I was gradually moving further and further away from it. Maybe in the end, a Hishigami Woman is only a Hishigami Woman… We can only destroy things, not create them. We can only take people from this world, not protect them. I can see why the main branch hates us so much…”
I don’t care about that.
“But you treated me like a living creature.”
The Hishigami Women don’t matter.
“I’m the worst possible Thanatos and maybe I shouldn’t have been born, but that at least made me happy. It made me glad I was born. So I’m grateful, detective. I’m grateful, but I can’t become the kind of person you think I am…”
Your habit of inappropriately showing up at dangerous crime scenes isn’t an issue. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that you gather information from who-knows-where, hunt down murderers in absurd ways, and keep the smell of death as a constant companion.
You’ve seen it, haven’t you?
You’ve seen that final connection to the people who were caught in unreasonable crimes and dragged into the darkness. You’ve seen those desperate scratch marks. You’ve probably seen them even more than a police officer like me. There were countless cases we in the police would never have been able to solve without you!!
I was reminded of the rumored motto of the Hishigami family’s main branch: The Hishigami Woman bring calamity.
I started feeling dizzy.
As if the panic were contagious, the world around me went mad. The whistling of the cold wind grew louder.
I clenched my teeth, ignored it, and shouted at the top of my lungs.
“At the very least, you aren’t someone who should have been killed the instant you were born because you bring calamity by the very act of breathing!! And if anyone tries to treat you that way, I’ll do something about it. That’s a job for the police!! Don’t forget that!!”
Getting my emotions worked up may have only made it worse.
The whistling of the wind seemed to be filling my head. I felt even dizzier and I started to lose my balance. I couldn’t let myself crush the Mystery Freak below me, so I too collapsed onto my side.
Was this it?
Was this the end? There wasn’t any real threat outside and Nagisa-chan’s group didn’t intend to kill us, but were we going to roll on our backs and shrivel up like a bug in a cage when a child forgets to look after it?
The auditory hallucination grew unbelievably loud.
The sound seemed to take over all of my senses like I was being swarmed by invisible army ants.
But as I abandoned myself to the sound, I finally realized something.
I pressed my ear against the cold floor and actually tried to hear the sound for once.
“I can hear it.”
“What…is it, detective?”
“The wind!! I can hear it below the floor. But why!?”
I reached into my pocket, pulled out the stainless steel pen attached to the memo pad, held it in my fist, and stabbed it into the vault floor.
It may have looked like I had gone completely insane, but my actions bore fruit.
At first, I couldn’t believe it myself.
“The floor is crumbling!! It connects to somewhere!!”
My mind made an explosion of connections.
In the rental car on the way to Bozen City, I had been the one to mention the high crime rate in rural areas and the robbers who dug tunnels to bank vaults.
Was this a case of that?
The whistling wind hadn’t been a hallucination at all. What if it had been getting in from this hand dug tunnel that was only separated by a thin layer?
“Wake up, Mystery Freak.”
“There’s an exit! We can get out!! So look, Mystery Freak!!”
I had only opened a fist-sized hole, but I could feel the cold air flowing in. It was completely different from the vault’s stagnant air. It held the biting chill of the outside air.
Prison psychosis sometimes improved dramatically when freed from one’s bonds.
As the existence of this obvious exit gradually worked its way into the Miniskirt Bikini Santa Mystery Freak’s mind, her eyes seemed to begin focusing on reality once more.
I heard a heavy metallic rumbling.
The round vault door was slowly, slowly opening.
My throat dried up.
Why now!? That Hishigami crest would never open when we wanted it to!!
We couldn’t let Nagisa-chan, Amou, and Sada find this hole. They were trying to “protect” us, but they also feared the zombies. Who could say how angry they would be if they discovered a hole to the outside world not a part of their “pathway” to guide the zombies like fish.
But at the same time, we had a goal now. If we could get through this one conversation and they left the vault, we could dig our way out and escape right away.
We had thirty seconds until the door fully opened.
We didn’t have time, so I removed my cardigan, placed it over the fist-sized hole, and lay the weakened Mystery Freak on it.
Then the time came.
“We’ll be having you help with our field work starting tomorrow, so I wanted to have a meeting now. Getting lost on your first outing could cost you your life.”
“You really are lucky. And what is this? It kind of stinks in here…”
“It reminds me of stomach acid. Perhaps I should inspect them.”
To make matters worse, it was all three of them.
If any one of them had some doubts and decided to investigate inside the bars, they would easily find the hole. If that happened, it was even possible they would kill us on the spot.
So I would use everything at my disposal.
I had to remember everything. Their group was not as solid as it seemed. And the things each one had not said could be surmised from what the others said. Even while imprisoned in this vault, I could guess at the problems facing them.
There was a fatal crack from something that had happened here.
If I could expose that, they would have difficulty maintaining their temporary alliance.
I had to think back to that insane Glass House. The biggest key to magic tricks wasn’t some grand contraption. It was misdirection. To complete our magical escape act, I needed to gather the necessary cards.
With that in mind, I had to set up the rules.
What did I want to do most? Solve the mystery of what had happened here? Catch the criminal who had chopped up his so-called samples? Snap these three out of their zombie delusion?
It wasn’t any of those.
It was Hishigami Enbi. She was an exception among exceptions, but she was still a minor civilian and I had to get her out of here safely.
I had to abandon all else. Arresting the criminal could wait. Their delusions could be handled by a counselor. I didn’t need any weapons and I didn’t need to defeat anyone. I wasn’t a pacifist, but to ensure Enbi’s safety, starting a big fight was not the best idea. That was why I chose a route with no deaths.
Of course, I couldn’t just use a random bluff. If the misdirection for my magic trip failed, my card-handling skills and trick box would be useless. They would quickly reach the secret of the hole in the floor. They wouldn’t bite unless it was true.
However, I couldn’t just insist there were no zombies. They were basing everything on the assumption that there were zombies, so even if there were no zombies, I couldn’t draw their attention unless I was pretending there were.
This wasn’t about the existence of zombies or lack thereof.
I had to think about what had driven them to act in this world that they believed was full of zombies.
And with that, I had to solve this.
Nagisa-chan, Amou Neko, and Sada Shirabe’s relationship had fallen apart long ago, so I only had to draw their attention to that pain. That would probably work best.
I knew what I had to do.
I knew what I would gain if I succeeded and I knew what I would lose if I failed.
It was show time. This was a once-in-a-lifetime game with our lives on the line.
Nagisa-chan and I faced each other through the cold metal bars.
Amou Neko and Sada Shirabe stood on either side of her.
They clearly had the upper hand here. They did not need to open the bars and throwing a single Molotov cocktail inside would surround us in flames and smoke.
They held our lives in their hands, but I still opened my mouth.
“What is it…?”
“If there really are zombies out there, I agree that’s bad. It would be best if we all worked together to fight them. We need to be working too, not just sitting here being protected by you. But…”
“Can we really wait around like this? I don’t think our enemies are only on the outside.”
I could almost feel tension freezing the air.
The first one to bite was Amou Neko the firefighter.
“Are you saying we’ll turn against Nagisa-chan and betray her? Why would we!? There’s nothing in it for us. If anything, we need more people here.”
“I’m not talking about that,” I cut in. “Hey, Nagisa-chan. I bet you could chop off human limbs and heads using that large cattle cleaver you have there, but since you have to get close to the zombies to use it, it probably doesn’t help much when fighting a large group. Isn’t that right?”
“Good boy. Have a caramel. Yes, the zombies are as strong as bears… We can get by if we use weapons to escape that advantage of theirs, but there’s nothing we can do if a bunch of them grab at us and knock us down.”
“And to deal with groups like that, Amou Neko’s Molotov cocktails come in handy. But of course, that leaves the zombie’s corpse – remains? – completely burned.”
“What about it?”
Amou sounded suspicious as she held the oil lighter hanging in front of her track suit’s chest.
I slowly exhaled and continued.
“Then who are the samples being autopsied in the examining room?”
Sada Shirabe fell silent.
I could see some slight sweat on his noticeably wrinkled skin.
“Based on what you’ve been saying, you haven’t autopsied just one zombie. You seem to have safely acquired several zombies for that, but Nagisa-chan’s weapon isn’t suited for large groups and the Molotov cocktails would leave them too burned to use as a sample. Then how did you get them?”
I of course had an idea.
“That leads me to suspect it has to do with the reason we’re being imprisoned here. You said you tried rescuing some people isolated in the city, but giving them too much freedom allowed the zombies to attack and wipe them out while transferring them from the microbus to the bank. That’s why you aren’t giving us any freedom. In other words, you would have had a lot of zombies there. Or should I call them possible future zombies?”
I didn’t know how long they thought it took for a bitten person to become a zombie. I also didn’t know if only the dead became zombies or if even the living would if they were bitten.
However, this was a likely delusion and a simple image they could easily share.
Plus, Sada Shirabe had said we would have become zombies “by about now”.
“Defeating a completed zombie isn’t easy, but what if they’re in the process of ‘turning’? For Nagisa-chan…no, for Sada Shirabe, that accident was probably an amazing opportunity. He could easily acquire more samples then he could have hoped for otherwise.”
But what had happened in reality? Had the microbus been attacked in a conflict between human groups? Had that irrational group looked like zombies to Nagisa-chan’s group? Had they decided no human could do something like that?
“What about it?” calmly asked Nagisa-chan. “It’s true Sada-san acquired plenty of samples and chopped them up in that room, but so what? We aren’t worried about what happens to the zombies’ bodies. They aren’t alive and they aren’t human. I see no reason for you to accuse us of wrongdoing.”
“But Sada Shirabe still hasn’t found a weakness in the zombies.”
The elderly man’s shoulders shook.
“He’s so worried that he even came to the vault to see if we had become zombies. After all, if he doesn’t find anything, he loses his place here. He seems to have positioned himself below Nagisa-chan to hold Amou in check, but he doesn’t want to keep sucking up to her forever.”
“He needs as many samples as he can get. And if he can’t get any new ones, he doesn’t want to use up his current stock. Just like someone who can’t buy a new car will fix up their old one and use it.”
“Get to the point.”
Sada tried to shout in anger, but Nagisa-chan cut him off.
Her voice almost seemed to ooze out.
“The autopsied samples are taken outside and burned by Amou Neko. You don’t know if the zombies can keep reviving forever, but you don’t want one to get up from the examination table.”
“What…what about it?”
Amou toyed with her oil lighter and I slowly answered.
“Is that really happening?”
“As I said, Sada Shirabe can’t afford to lose his samples. If he can’t get new ones, he has to reuse old ones. In that case, does he really have as many samples as he’s told you? He can still use those old cars if he fixes them up, so is he really sending them out to be scrapped?”
“Lies!!” shouted Sada Shirabe. “If…if I were doing that, those zombies would be flooding our living space from within the bank! It would render our safe zone created by diverting their curiosity completely useless!!”
I held my hand out to the side.
I held the Mystery Freak’s smartphone and showed them the screen.
“But you were willing to take that risk in order to reverse this little society where you’re pushed around by these young girls, weren’t you?”
It showed the examining room just as Sada Shirabe opened the door.
What seemed to be a human arm was visible sticking out of a metal drum. At the very least, it did not seem to be burned black by a great heat. No matter how well-ventilated it was, doing that in the bank would fill the building with smoke, so they wouldn’t have done that in the first place.
“At the very least, there is an unburned arm in the examining room right now.” I said it like I was speaking to small children. “So shouldn’t you go check on that? If the owner of that arm isn’t being watched, who knows when it’ll start moving.”
The fear of zombies had to be the top priority for them.
It was a shared fear or a group delusion.
So they would act.
Even if it meant doubting one of their own and even if it was only a tiny doubt, they could not rest easy until they had completely erased that doubt.
I felt the flow of air changing.
Good. The setup for my magic trick was complete. If their focus was directed away from the vault for five or ten minutes, we could widen the hole in the floor, slip out, and escape outside. That way I could save Enbi without anyone having to die.
“Good boy. You really are Shinobu-chan’s uncle. And just to be sure…”
“Yes, just to be sure.”
Nagisa-chan turned toward the exit, Sada Shirabe grew nervous, and Amou Neko showed no sign of defending him as they all moved toward the exit.
But just before they left…
I heard a hoarse voice.
The Mystery Freak’s mouth was moving as she lay on the floor.
“Yes. Sada Shirabe wanted to obtain more samples…”
I didn’t know what she was trying to do. Why would she stop them from leaving?
“If he could find a weakness in the zombies before anyone else, his position would be secure. That meant he could not leave his supply of samples up to chance…”
“The zombies search for their targets by smell, so they couldn’t find a target inside a bus that had all its windows closed. …Unless, that is, someone pressed the AC switch to let out the bus’s air and thus its smells.”
There’s no logical reason to take this any further!!
“If Sada was driving the microbus like he was that light truck, then it wouldn’t have been hard to press the AC switch right next to him. If he left behind that hint for the zombies and left the bus in order to open the bank’s door, he could watch from safety as the survivors were attacked. That way he would have a safe and secure supply of future samples.”
Nagisa-chan turned her head to look at Sada Shirabe. The amount of sweat pouring from his face was impossible to ignore now. The Hishigami Woman’s box of death had been opened.
“I-it’s not true…”
“She’s making it up!! I…I didn’t do that! She’s just guessing! What proof does anyone have!?”
That didn’t matter.
This was a tiny society supported by delusion. They had to understand that after carrying deadly weapons in front of a police officer and shamelessly announcing that they had at least chopped up human corpses without permission. Normal investigation and questioning standards weren’t going to work here.
No one cared how anyone treated zombies under that insane world’s rules, but what about living humans? Nagisa-chan had “protected” the Mystery Freak and me, so wouldn’t that be a major taboo?
In that case, how would Sada Shirabe be treated under those rules upheld by just these three people?
Who would make the final judgment?
Nagisa-chan tossed a caramel between the bars.
“I think we might just have to exile you.”
She placed a hand on the elderly man’s shoulder. He tried shouting and brushing it off, but she held on with a vicelike grip. The long cattle cleaver named Namagusa glittered in her other hand. Next, Amou Neko held the oil lighter at her chest and used the other hand to grab Sada Shirabe’s arm. Held on both sides, he was practically dragged out of the vault.
Nagisa-chan looked back just once.
She gave us the smile one gave a kind neighbor who had pointed out a problem.
“Wait just a moment.”
I heard a scream, but even that was sealed away as the round door closed with a mechanical rumbling.
I blankly looked over at the Mystery Freak.
“Why did you go that far? We could have kept anyone from dying.”
“All we needed to do was escape from here!! There was no reason to push them that far!!”
When I yelled in her ear, Enbi sluggishly looked over at me.
Don’t tell me…
“Because…I’m a Hishigami Woman, so I’ll solve the mystery…no matter what it takes…”
Was she staring at some different time and place? Had she made her observation as a simple reaction because she didn’t have it in her to think about things like right and wrong?
I grabbed and shook the metal bars, but they wouldn’t budge. And even if I could break them, there was no way of getting through the meter thick Hishigami crest door.
We could not save Sada Shirabe.
And if they came back, it would all be for nothing.
What was my original goal? Could I really let her die here?
I moved on to my next task as if to shake something off of me.
I moved the Mystery Freak and my cardigan aside and began swinging my stainless steel pen down on the crumbling floor. I destroyed the outside of the hole to widen it enough for someone to pass through.
The hole was pitch black.
I used my cellphone’s backlight and found it wasn’t all that deep.
I climbed down first and supported the Mystery Freak from below as she slowly followed my instructions. Perhaps because she had been showing so much skin, she felt very cold.
The scent of dirt was oppressively strong and the wind carried a biting chill.
Still, we had gotten out. It was hard to say our performance warranted a perfect 100, but at the very least, we had achieved our goal of escaping imprisonment.
The simple act of breathing felt like it was washing away the dark stain that had soaked into the depths of my mind.
The prison psychosis was gradually going away.
“We are,” I told her while lending her my shoulder. “I see no reason to doubt it.”
She was dragging her unpleasantly cold body along, so she leaned against me to slowly share in my body heat. Then she gave a casual comment.
“What should we do when we get back?”
“I want to take a hot shower and sleep for three days straight.”
“You’re young, so how about something more exciting?”
“Give me an example.”
“Well, you do have your arm around a girl as cute as this. Why not think about a date at an amusement park? If that’s what’s waiting for me, I think I could escape Bozen City even if the entire world were destroyed.”
After some thought, I answered.
“If that’s all it takes to give you the hope to overcome this hell and to give you the resolve needed to face this hell without trying to escape in your mind, then I’ll gladly go on a date with you just once.”
“Y-you!! Y-y-y-y-you, I, but… I’m happy, but…I-I don’t think I’m ready in more ways than one…!!”
She started stammering for some reason and I couldn’t see her expression while lending her my shoulder.
“Just to be clear, I’m only talking about spending some wholesome time together on one of my days off.”
“I love you, detective!! Smooch!!!!”
“You idiot! That’s already leaving wholesome far behind! Don’t hug me with all your strength like that!!”
I tore the overly energetic Mystery Freak off of me.
At any rate, this was over.
We could finally say goodbye to that hellish box that Nagisa-chan and the others had created.
Something wasn’t right.
I realized that after walking for quite a while through the hand-dug tunnel.
For quite a while.
“Detective, where are we? I feel like we’ve been walking for half an hour now.”
“Don’t ask me…”
The tunnel was not flat. It moved up and down, but it seemed to be generally sloping downwards. We were continuing further and further toward the depths of the earth where no light could reach us. I started wondering if we had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but we couldn’t turn back now. It was possible we had missed a small side tunnel somewhere, but if Nagisa-chan’s group had pursued us, turning back would take us right to them.
Where were we?
Where had we wandered?
I gulped and a few pieces of information randomly connected together in my mind. Not even I knew why I had made these connections.
——We had originally come to Bozen City in pursuit of several missing person cases from over ten years ago.
——Nagisa-chan’s group had moved between the bank in the mountain and the city at the base using a portion of the tunnels known as Mikuchi-sama. Mikuchi-sama tunnels seemed to exist all throughout the mountain like an ant colony.
“Detective… Did the robbers who went after that bank really dig the entire tunnel on their own? What if…”
“What if they used the Mikuchi-sama tunnel as a starting point to make their job easier?”
——I had heard the name Mikuchi-sama at a festival back when I was in school. However, the roots of that name were not exactly pleasant.
I noticed a smell.
It was a unique smell one would never find in an untouched abandoned house. It was a human smell that reminded me of dried sweat built up over a long period of time. I could tell it was reaching us from beyond the still darkness that my cellphone’s backlight couldn’t reach.
It came back to me as I heard an odd noise.
They were snippets of what became of that festival's origin.
——Mikuchi-sama was a giant hole at the peak of the mountain that sinners were thrown into. But if the people’s hearts decayed, the calamity sealed in that hole would burst out.
——Where had those missing people gone?
——More importantly, what was that moving in the darkness now?
“There really were zombies?”
There was nothing we could do.
Countless muddy eyes reflected the cellphone backlight as they stared at us from the darkness.
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