I climbed into the car, pushing wet bangs back from my forehead and then lighting a cigarette immediately. Evening ushered in the chill of an autumn night, turning the park lonely, and the sounds of the city, towering all around us, seemed distant, as if we’d reached a remote island amidst a sea of neon lights.
With a heavy sigh, my partner slid behind the wheel and stared out at the deep shadows, eyes looking golden in the burning light of the sunset. His business cut sagged, falling limply over his brow after a day of walking around in the rain, and his thick, soft lips pouted in a contemplative frown.
“It’s time to start looking for a body,” I reminded him. We’d discussed it earlier—the victim in our missing persons case had disappeared a little more than two days ago —and he’d reluctantly admitted that if we failed to come up with a lead today, we’d have no choice but to think more seriously about the possibility that Kishi was dead.
Slowly, Sugita drew his notepad and the victim’s photograph from his interior pocket, and squinted at each, in turn, through the dim light of the streetlamp overhead.
“I know you don’t want to hear that, but we’ve got nothing, and tromping around in the rain is getting us nowhere.”
Still, he studied the photograph. Kishi Tomiju was a beautiful girl, only a few years younger than the two of us. According to everyone, she was a diligent student, a hard-working part-timer, a loving girlfriend, and a dutiful daughter. I understood why Sugita was struggling to accepting that we were too late to save her.
I offered him my cigarette, and he took it, absently puffing once before handing it back.
“We know she walked into this park, but we haven’t found any evidence that she ever came out again. Chances are, she’s buried here somewhere.”
His thick eyebrows furrowed together. “We don’t have a suspect, Handa.”
Not even close. Everyone we’d talked with claimed she’d been well-liked; her boyfriend had been out of town that day; we’d not heard a single whisper of her making an enemy, getting in trouble, or having a stalker. We hadn’t found any security footage to help us understand what had happened to her in this park.
I sat back against the seat with my cigarette smoldering between my lips and rubbed my cold hands together as I scanned the landscape of withered grass. Crimson leaves blew across the hood of Sugita’s Toyota, and here and there, shadows quivered, but I didn’t see so much as a stray cat. In the distance, the wall of black skeleton trees jutted up to swallow anyone who happened too close.
Beyond them, brightly lit high rises reached for the sky. It was hard to believe a clean cut, young woman could walk out of the luminous, neon jungle, past the kouban, and go die in the park just a few blocks from her university, but after three years of walking a beat and three more of being a detective, I knew it was possible.
“I doubt anything bad has happened in this park since we were beat cops,” I said. “It’s a boring place to get killed.”
“Some people really do just get unlucky, you know.”
Finally, he took his eyes off the photo to level them on me. His high, smooth brow fretted, but his clean shaven face retained such a boyishness it almost made him look naive. In the sunlight, his chocolate hair took on a bronze gleam. He was a handsome guy. A strong guy. The unshakable confidence that carried him through life gave him the air that he thought he could beat down every obstacle he came to, overpower any evil, rescue any victim, and right any wrong. He wasn’t the kind of cop to shy away from danger or take the easy way out, but having such a soft heart meant he blamed himself for every single shortcoming and failure he experienced.
“You’re not going to find her in that picture,” I said, more quietly. I wasn’t so emotionally driven. I knew the rules, I knew the penalties for ignoring them, and I knew that, at the end of everything, you had to stack success against failure and just be glad that you ever won a single battle instead of getting swept up in the feeling that you simply could not win them all. Sometimes, good girls really did just get killed in the park.
“It’s not like you to be so pessimistic,” he said, in an almost accusatory tone.
For a long moment, I looked into his eyes, and he held my gaze steadily, silently demanding an explanation.
At least fifty times a day for the last three months, he’d been calling me out for uncharacteristic pessimism, like we weren’t cops, forced, constantly, to look at the terrible things that happened to other people. Like we didn’t have bad things happening to us on top of it all.
Of course, we were too late to save Kishi Tomiju. We barely managed to protect ourselves, and we’d failed to spare one another pain. And honestly, it was a lot for two young guys to deal with. For years, we’d aced everything, together. Our success rate had launched us onto a fast track to the top. We’d made detective at an early age, we caught major cases right and left, we’d even earned a promotion over the summer.
Neither of us had ever bothered to stop and ask how long we could keep up our neck breaking pace or what might happen to our partnership when one of us started to splinter and come apart. Sugita thought he could hold us together by telling me what to do and bluntly defining problems. Pessimism. Frustration. Depression. Will to live. Indifference. A consequence of being close with him was that he would try to take your problems on as his own and solve them through his sheer will to conquer anything that got in his way.
Meanwhile, I was exhausted at age twenty five because everything important had fallen apart, everything of value had slipped through my fingers, and everything I wanted had turned out to be unreachable. I’d known from the beginning we would solve a few cases and completely fuck up the rest—I’d just gotten lucky to have a partner who happened to be skilled enough to pull my weight—so it didn’t matter. I could trudge along for years and eventually settle into a comfy rank where not everyone had command over me, retire, and die. I could squeeze in as much partying and play as humanly possible until I was too old to piss straight. A lot of people would call that a good life.
It lacked meaning, though. I’d sacrifice all the shit I got to have for a single shot at having what I wanted.
Who I wanted.
“It’s not pessimism, man.” I waved him off and took a drag off my cigarette. “It’s reality. Kishi-san disappeared fifty-some hours ago. No one can give us any reason she’d run away or leave without saying anything. That only leaves one option.”
A long moment passed. The sun sank lower and sparse raindrops peppered the windshield. Quietly, Sugita said, “Maybe I just miss the days when you used to tell me everything will be okay.”
I missed them too. I missed having the strength to even utter such a lie.
Ever since that night on the Rainbow Bridge, my partner had been trying to be the person who lied about things turning out all right in the end, but he hadn’t been able to keep it up without me, and sometimes I wondered if that scared him. If he worried that when we both ran out of strength, I’d totally give up.
I didn’t want to think about that shit.
“Listen…” I began, taking a slow drag off my cigarette and watching the meager raindrops run down the curved glass. “Facts are facts, right? Kishi could be out there, wandering the streets, but we don’t have any leads to help us find out why. Without evidence that she’s alive, we have to assume she’s dead.”
I was surprised by the weight of the sigh he heaved. He leaned into his steering wheel, cupping his forehead. “I don’t know what to think…”
“You keep looking at her picture and reading your notes like you put something together a long time ago, and I don’t believe you’ve got nothing but hope that she’s seconds away from popping up unscathed. You are a pessimist.”
“No,” he agreed, sharply. “We could sit here all night. She’s never going to come out of those trees.” He jerked his chin at them. “She might be dead. I’ve thought that all day. But two years ago, you would have told me it’s too early to give up. I’m wondering what changed, exactly.”
Jesus, he wasn’t letting it go, and I didn’t care to get into what had changed or why. “We’ve been doing this too long, that’s all. To be honest, I’m wondering if we might be circling around a serial killer.”
Forgetting my pessimism, he jerked upright again. “A serial killer? Why?”
“Because Naito caught a case a few days ahead of us. The victim is a woman in her early twenties also, and she disappeared from this same area. You don’t buy into coincidence so much, right? It looks like there might be someone targeting girls in this neighborhood.”
Sugita frowned, ferociously, and then he suddenly started the car and threw it into gear, lurching out into the street without hardly looking for traffic.
I shoved my cigarette butt into the ashtray and buckled my seat belt. “You already knew all that, didn’t you? Naito’s your buddy.”
He shot me an unappreciative look. “Yeah. I knew that, Handa.”
“So, what’s going on? Are we ignoring it just because it is a coincidence?”
“I’m not ignoring it,” he said, grimly. And then, amazingly, his voice grew all the more serious. “Hideki.”
“Yeah?” I put a cigarette in my mouth.
“Honestly, I’m hungry.”
“I don’t mean like that.”
I suppressed a sigh and focused on lighting my cigarette. What was I supposed to say? The truth was just impossible, demoralizing, overwhelming. “Sure, I’m fine.”
“You don’t seem fine, lately.” He shot me another look, this one concerned. “I know you.”
He did. All my idiosyncrasies. All my tics and tells and habits. He knew me just as well as I knew him—he could tell a good day from a bad day by one slip of the tongue. As a detective, he’d trained himself to pick up on details, but this was more than observation, deductive reasoning, or even familiarity with a coworker. He’d put painstaking effort into understanding me. Sugita was my best friend.
Not anymore. He’s got a wife now.
I buried that jealousy and heartache immediately. There simply wasn’t room for that anymore. Not if I wanted to live.
“I’m fine, Ken.” I tried to sound more genuine. More convincing. “You worry too much.” I flashed him a smile I hoped looked even halfway real.
“I seriously hope that’s the truth,” he grunted. “You and I have some personal shit to figure out, but right now, I think there’s a bigger problem. I think…” He faltered and paused a long moment before shaking his head. “If there’s something like a serial killer in the vicinity, someone who is making women disappear without a trace, you and I really need to be on the same page.”
“Of course,” I said, casually. “What do you want to do?” I’d already noticed we seemed to be en route to the station, but we were closing in on the end of our shift anyway. “Overtime?”
“Maybe…” he said, very quietly. “I’m not sure.”
“It’s not like you to be indecisive,” I pointed out, just to dig at him a little over his comment about my pessimism.
His forehead creased. I really loved the little differences in his expressions. I loved being able to tell what was annoyance and what was worry.
I fucking hated how I couldn’t get over all the stupid, little things I loved.
“I need to talk to Naito-kun,” he muttered.
I did a double take of his face again. “Oh… You think that’s going to…? Naito is a summer out of high school, you know.”
“Relax. I just want to know more about what he’s working on.”
Fair. Totally fair. Not a problem. No big deal. Going to a pretentious brat like Naito Ryosuke shouldn’t mean anything. Just one detective conferring with another about work. Not the same at all as riding around in a car with him all day. Not the same as being close.
“All right.” I turned to look out the window, struggling to manage my jealousy, but the last thing I wanted to do was to go crawling to Naito.
Naito was that kid in high school who always sat alone at lunch, scribbling something no one else was allowed to read, silently looking down on people. I’d heard a lot about his academy days and how he’d excelled at everything. Instead of graduating into patrol the way everyone else had, Chief Kobayashi had specifically requested that he come to our squad. Since then, he’d been a permanent fixture of the room, coming in early, leaving last, like he really thought overworking himself could earn him quick promotions.
Maybe he was right. Despite being a rookie, rumor had it he’d solved every case that had ever crossed his desk. He got treated like some kind of specialist, and our lieutenant had even taken him under his wing as a protege.
But for all the success he supposedly enjoyed, I almost never heard what he was working on. I might even think he sat at his desk trying to look busy except that Sugita had worked with him a couple times and seemed impressed with what the rookie could do.
Actually, it sounded like they shared a lot of things in common and would work well together. Two such talented guys could excel together.
All it took was for Sugita to realize he wanted to do better and stop hauling someone else’s weight. I had to prepare for the possibility that one day he’d choose Naito over me.
Could be sooner rather than later, in face. With the way things had been going between us, Sugita must be getting sick of the drama and chaos, pining for more stability. Especially now that he’d gotten married and had a wife to support; his days of being a wild, young bachelor were over—not that he’d ever been that wild—he would lose all desire to go out playing with me. If he decided to go with a different partner too, I’d get completely phased out.
As we drove along, a steady rain began beating on the windshield, and the sky clouded over, darkening. Without a word, I watched the way it rolled in and rumbled, threatening to take over the night, and Sugita didn’t comment on my silence. He’d learned it was a waste of effort. I couldn’t bear to give him the truth.
Sugita was trying to make a life for himself, following a normal, traditional path, and I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do anything to get in his way.
Of course, I’d fucked that up right away, out of carelessness and selfishness. I couldn’t undo the mess I’d made, but I didn’t have to contribute to it.
It would probably be a good thing if he spent less time with me, focused on his wife, and got a partner who was going to be professional and beneficial to him.
I just couldn’t decide what I should do. Living alongside him this way, unable to have what I wanted, was agony; if I lost him altogether, I doubted I’d live long.