Zaregoto - Volume 2 Chapter 7

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ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 0 1


“Akiharu-kun was just murdered.”


“Ah, that’s, wow . . .” he said curiously as if impressed.


“That’s the third person, huh? Pretty hot stuff, whoever this


is. When’d it happen?”


“I don’t know when he was killed, but they just found the


body now. So the murder must have been between Wednesday


afternoon and this morning."


“Hmm. That’s quite the masterpiece. Three strangulations


in just ten days. That’s crazy. Ah, but I guess I can’t say stuff


like that. So what about the killer? Whodunnit?”


Zerozaki asked as if it was the most trivial matter in the


world.


I sputtered angrily. The killer? You mean the one who


killed Emoto Tomoe who killed Aoii Mikoko, who attacked


me in Kamogawa Park, and now has killed Usami Akiharu?”


“Who else would I mean?”


“It should be obvious.” I declared the name with such rigidity


that even I was taken aback. “Obviously it was Atemiya


Muimi.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 0 3


You actually know, don’t you?


It’s not often that I get complimented on my personality even


now, but back in the days when those around me still referred


to me as a young boy, I suppose I had an abnormally unpleasant


personality. To be sure, there was a time when I thought


myself highly intelligent and gifted, when I was in love with


myself and naturally looked down on those around me. I


believed I knew things nobody else knew, I had noticed things


nobody else had noticed, and as the years rolled by, I grew


arrogant.


That probably explains it.


If I was posed with a puzzling question and couldn’t soon


find the answer, I would get antsy. That was how capable I


thought I was, and it was also true that after managing to wipe


all my doubts away simply by thinking about them, I always


felt like I had accomplished something remarkable. Like I had


become somebody.


However, as I was discovering the answers to a series of


difficult questions that emerged—no, after I finished answering


all of them—I found that I was left with a void.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 0 4


Everybody else was just going on enjoying their lives


without having to do such things. They were living happily


without ever having to come up with these answers, or even


questions, for that matter.


They laughed, they cried, at times they got angry.


I thought this was because they were ignorant.


I thought they were all just naively frolicking about in a


minefield. I thought that one day they would come to curse


their own foolishness.


When they stepped on a mine and everything was over,


then they’d regret it.


But I was wrong.


I was just some lonely kid living in a world I had made for


myself, inventing questions and answering them just to make


myself feel better. I seriously thought I could just use theories


to compensate for real-life experiences, and I thought that if I


wanted, even I could be happy.


I was being a boy incorrectly.


Nevertheless, the world didn’t come to an end.


The game went on.


Even thought I was already so behind that there wasn’t


even a smidgen of a chance of victory, my life went on. There


was a period where I considered ending it myself, and in fact I


did try to do so, but I even failed at that.


In reality, maybe I wasn’t even an onlooker: I was a loser.


I was just a sad, pathetic loser.


And so at some point, I stopped being able to actively


pursue answers to my questions. It wasn’t that I became passive,


it was that I became apathetic toward the questions.


Answers have no real point.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 0 5


They’re vague and ambiguous and unsound, and things are


fine that way. In fact, they’re better.


Causing real change is a role that should be left up to the


true “chosen ones,” outstanding individuals like that scarlet


Mankind’s Greatest, and the Blue Savant, and it was never my


responsibility.


It was no job for a common loser. For the comic sidekick.


Being oblivious to the mines, even if you stepped on


one—now that was the way to live.


Even if you knew about the mines but pretended you


didn’t, sooner or later you would really forget about them.


That’s what I believe, even if people say you’re incurable at


that point, that it’s just some proposal for compromise, that


you’re only pretending to be a human being.


That’s what I thought, as I looked into the mirror at the


me who hadn’t lost.


Wasn’t it simple?


If I hadn’t been a loser, I would’ve just been a failure.


If being a homicidal monster was the alternative, being a


loser was fine.


I’m sure he felt the same way.


If being a loser was the alternative, being a homicidal


monster was fine.


Both statements were nonsense.


They were nonsense, and they were masterpieces.


And that was fine. That was enough.


Everything was fine the way it was.


The girl who asked me if I ever felt like damaged goods.


The girl who said she liked me. The boy who prophesied that


he would be the next to die. And you, who called me clueless.


Okay.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 0 6


It may not be my role to change things, but ending the


nonsense I’m responsible for starting is up to me indeed.


Let’s stick to tradition and put a clean end to this.


Muimi-chan.


I jammed the stiletto knife Zerozaki had loaned me into the


keyhole and jiggled it around. In about a minute, I heard the


sound of the bolt unlatching. I gripped the knob and gave it a


pull. The chain was up, so the door only moved a few centimeters.


I hesitated for but a moment. I swung the knife in the gap


and broke the chain off. The links were more brittle than I


expected, and they scattered everywhere, one even hitting me


in the face. I didn’t care. The door released from its bondage, I


pulled it open and entered the room.


The spectacle inside was enough to leave me speechless.


The wallpaper was torn up, with shards of shattered dishes


strewn about on the floor. I thought it might be dangerous to


remove my shoes, and although I knew it was rude, I entered


the room with them still on. Proceeding deeper into the room,


the decor only got worse. It was pure destruction. There probably


wasn’t a single item in the whole room that remained in


its original condition, no matter how small or large. Literally


everything had been demolished. Clothes torn to confetti and


tossed around the room. Broken furniture. Ripped-up books.


A shattered television screen. A smashed computer. The


filthy, stained carpet. A mirror cracked from the center in an


outward wave. An overturned wastebasket. Shards of lightbulbs


scattered across the floor. A hamster torn limb from


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 0 7


limb. A pillow with the insides on the outside. Vegetables


torn to ruin, to the point that they lost all meaning. An overturned


refrigerator. The air conditioner with a giant dent in


the middle. A tea table scrawled with disturbing graffiti. A


cracked fish tank and nearby dead tropical fish. Writing


utensils split in two without a single usable one remaining. A


clock that no longer worked. A shredded-up calendar. A


strangled teddy bear.


And.


“What are you doing?”


Her, crouched by the window, staring this way with


cursing eyes.


Without a doubt, the most broken thing in this room was


none other than her.


“Muimi-chan.”


No reply.


Only that dreadful gaze, piercing through me like a dagger.


Her hair, that long, brown sauvage, had been diced up into


something hideous.


Looking a little closer I saw that remnants of that hair were


strewn around the room. I never believed that hair was a girl’s


life, as they say, but there was something terrifying about this


all the same.


This was completely her domain. A barrier barely maintaining


balance, threatening to break down any minute.


There were curses in the air, and all of them were directed


towards me. Muimi-chan’s death glare wasn’t the only thing


piercing through me. Everything in this thoroughly destroyed


room was sending ill will, enmity, hostility, and malice directly


at me.


It felt like the world itself had become my enemy.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 0 8


“You know, I’d appreciate if you didn’t glare at me like


that.”


“Shut up,” she said in a deep voice. “Why did you come


here? How dare you?”


“Relax. I’m not here to save you or anything. I’m not that


good a guy, and I’m no protagonist.”


I used my right foot to clear a path in the debris on the


floor and sat down across from Muimi-chan. I noticed her destroyed


cell phone on the floor next to me.


“Aha. I see. So that’s why Sasaki-san couldn’t get a hold of


you. She might come here directly at some point. I guess you


can’t just sit around here.”


“Why did you come here?”


“Basically I’ve already figured it out,” I said with deliberate


plainness. Of course there was the fact that it wouldn’t have


been very wise to upset her emotions at a time like this, but


this was also just about the only voice I could muster in my


current state. “I guess you could say my imagination did most


of the work. But there are some things I still can’t figure out


no matter how I think about them. I wonder if you’d be


willing to tell me.”


“. . .”


“I’ll take your silence as a yes.” I paused for a moment.


“I’ve got things figured out as far as the part where you attacked


me. But why did you kill Akiharu-kun? That’s what I


don’t understand. There was no reason for you to kill him.”


“Ha. Hahahahahahaha,” she suddenly started cackling


maniacally. It was the most expressionless laughter I’d ever


heard. Heartless. It was nothing more than a conveyance of


her insanity. She shot me another glare. “Look at those


wounds.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 0 9


“You must be stupid setting foot in here with wounds like


those. Nobody’s gonna come to your rescue here. Or is your


knight in shining armor waiting outside the room?”


“No, nothing like that. That guy’s showing up the other


night was just a coincidence to begin with. Don’t worry about


him,” I said, recalling the precious night’s events. I touched


my thumb and the gauze on my face. Of course my shoulders


and jaw were still far from fully recovered. I was in no state to


be meeting someone face-to-face.


“At first I wasn’t sure enough to come to a conclusion on


the subject. That person in black was wearing a knit ski mask,


so they couldn’t have had long hair. So I thought it must not


be you, but now that I see you’ve cut your hair, I’m convinced.


I don’t suppose that was why you cut it, was it?”


“Don’t flatter yourself.”


Figures. I shrugged.


“You’re just a more cautious guy than I expected. You


cover your tracks. And I couldn’t attack you in your apartment


because it’s such a run-down dump with paper-thin


walls.”


“Ahh. The perfect environment, huh?”


I tried my best to imitate Aikawa-san’s cynical tone, but I


couldn’t really pull it off.


“But using Mikoko-chan’s name to lure me out was a big


no-no. Not a very clean method.”


“Don’t you ever say that name.” She shot me the devil’s


glare. “You have no right.”


“Hey, thanks.”


“I don’t want to talk to you, but I’ll ask you one thing.


Why’d you reject Mikoko?”


“I wasn’t really rejecting her . . .”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 0


“Why!?” She slammed her arm into the wall as hard as she


could. The entire room shook under the impact of that


merciless fist. I sensed no concern on her behalf regarding the


well-being of my body. It wasn’t like she had hit me, but it


sent a shiver up my back.


Even the homicidal monster was more pleasant company


than this destructor.


“Why? Why couldn’t you reciprocate her emotions? It’s


not like it was a lot to ask. Why couldn’t you do something


that simple? Why was that the only thing you couldn’t do?”


“I asked my question fist. I’d like an answer. I’ll ask again,


as many times as it takes. Why’d you kill Akiharu-kun? There


was no reason for that. Everything else is clear, but that one


thing is still completely hazy. I said this before, but I know


why you attacked me. You had your reasons. I can understand


that. But why did you go kill Akiharu-kun from there?”


“If I answer, you’ll answer my question?”


“I promise.”


Even then, she continued glaring at me for a while.


Several minutes later . . .


“It’s simple,” she said. “It felt like the natural thing to do.”


“Natural, huh?” I said as I tried to read her expression. “But


Akiharu-kun was your friend, wasn’t he?”


“Yeah, he was a friend. I liked him. Just not to the point


that I would never strangle him to death.”


There wasn’t a single hint of a lie in her words or in her


gestures.


“Being friends is no reason not to kill someone. It’s just a


simple matter of order of priorities.” She spoke honestly, from


the heart.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 1


I narrowed my eyes at her, but gave a slow nod. Priorities.


Friends. Order. Friends. I chewed on each of her words for a


while in my head. I searched for the right words with which


to respond.


“Or do you mean to tell me you would absolutely never


kill a friend? No matter what the reason, you would never do


it?”


“Anybody I might kill, I don’t consider a friend.”


“Well, that’s just fucking splendid,” she scoffed. “What a


hypocrite. Why couldn’t you have shared a little bit of that


phony virtue with Mikoko? It’s your turn to answer.”


I repeated what I wanted to say three times in my head


before putting it to my lips.


“Probably because I didn’t like her.”


I thought she was sure to lunge at me and start pummeling


me, but she didn’t even move. She just sat and glared at me.


“Oh,” she said softly. “I guess you’re not just some clueless


jerk. You’re downright cruel.”


“And if I am?”


“I told you before, didn’t I? I’m certain I told you. If you


hurt Mikoko-chan, I’ll never forgive you.”


I narrowed my eyes at her as she seemed ready to explode


any minute. I gave another shrug. “So what about you, then? I


can’t comprehend it. I understand the philosophy behind your


actions, but I don’t know if you can say it was really for


Mikoko-chan’s sake.”


“I told you not to say that name. Don’t talk about Mikoko


like you know her! You don’t know shit!” Muimi-chan said.


“I know her. I know everything about her. We’ve been together


since elementary school. I know her better than I know


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 2


myself. If there’s one thing I don’t know, it’s how she fell for a


cruel bastard like you.”


“That’s simple,” I responded without hesitation. Having


already figured it out, it seemed all too obvious to me. “It was


a misconception. An illusion. A deception. A simple error. A


miscalculation. An assumption. Just some darling young girl in


love with being in love. She probably just wasn’t a very good


judge of character.”


“Are you done?”


Her rage was already beyond disguising. She was ready to


detonate any time now. This was probably about as far as


we’d get with just words.


“Actually no, there’s one more thing. It’s a promise I made


to Mikoko-chan, so I’d better uphold to it, Muimi-chan.”


My final question.


Can you forgive you own—


“Can you forgive your own existence as a murderer?”


“What’s to forgive?!” She had cracked at last. “I haven’t


done anything wrong! Nothing! There’s nothing wrong with


what I did for Mikokodel! I’m the one who cares about her


the most! I’m not looking for criticism from someone like you!


It was all for Mikokodel! I’ll do anything for her! I would kill


or die without a second thought!”


For justice. For faith. For truth.


To save another. For the sake of a friend.


She killed.


“I cared about Mikoko-chan, unlike you! You don’t care


about anyone, you don’t consider anyone else, you just go on


living without a care in the world, don’t you?! You can’t do a


single thing for anyone! You’re just damaged goods! You don’t


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 3


have a single human emotion inside of you! So you shut your


goddamn mouth!”


Because it was for somebody else’s sake.


Without hesitation, without deliberation.


Without a hint of uncertainty.


Without even regretting it.


Without ever feeling shame or reflecting on her actions.


She killed.


“If only you hadn’t showed up! Then Tomoe and Mikoko


and Akiharu and I would still all be living happily! If it weren’t


for you! We all got along so well! Since elementary school and


high school, and even in college! As soon as you appeared we


all went to shit!”


Because they were an annoyance.


Because they got in the way. Because they were a hassle.


Because they were bothersome.


Because they irritate. Because they’re unstable. Because


they’re revolting.


She killed.


“It was all for Mikoko! She’s mine, and I’m hers! We’re


best friends! I would kill my own parents for her, and she


would kill even you for me!”


Because it was for someone important.


She would kill anyone.


She would kill any number of people.


Dozens. Hundreds.


Herself or anyone else.


Even a best friend.


“I’m not wrong! I’m right! That’s why I’ll do it again and


again! Even if I could go back in time, I would do the same


things over again! Mikoko forgives me!”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 4


With no excessive force.


Without going further than intended.


As simply as taking a breath.


Like a prowler and like a monster.


Like damaged goods and like a human failure.


She killed.


“I . . . I forgive myself!” She screamed as she stomped a


foot down on the debris-ridden floor.


“Huh.”


As I watched her, my eyes were no doubt extremely calm.


“Are you done?”


She shot me a glare. I didn’t care.


“That’s enough, then. Please, shut up. Your voice is offensive


to the ears and your presence offensive to the eyes. So


you do whatever you want to do and say whatever you want


to say. Great. Does that satisfy you? You’re completely broken.


Ruined.”


“Ruined? Me?”


“Exactly what have you done for Mikoko-chan’s sake?


You’re just putting the blame on her, aren’t you?”


“Like you know a damned thing.”


I could see that she was struggling to stop herself from


lunging forward. If I hadn’t brought up Mikoko’s name, surely


she would have.


Right now, Aoii Mikoko was the only thing keeping


Muimi-chan together.


“Well . . .” she said in a low voice like a growl from the


depths of Hell. “What about you?! You don’t feel the least bit


responsible for her death?! Answer me!”


“No, I don’t. Not at all. Those who die just die.”


“. . . .”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 5


I could see her turning pale. Her mind was already past the


point of enraged. Nevertheless, I made no attempt to cut my


speech short. I just continued on, spouting words like a


machine.


“I’m not so arrogant that I’d attempt to interfere with


people’s lives. People should take responsibility for their own


actions. You’re no exception.”


“What’s your problem? How can you think like that? How


can you have such a disgusting outlook? You’re nuts. You’re


not human.”


“I just don’t approve of people clinging to others to the


point that they swallow them up. I’m annoyed by people who


live life saying ‘Oh, I did it for this person, I did it for this


person, like that’s supposed to grant them full pardon for


whatever they do.”


It was like I was looking at myself. “I once said you and


Tomoe were similar, but allow me to correct myself,” Muimichan


said as if cursing the devil himself. “Tomoe was the


embodiment of an inferiority complex, keeping herself distant


from everyone, but you . . . you’re just plain hostile.”


“Hahh . . .” I let out a deliberate sigh. I couldn’t argue with


her, nor did I feel like doing so. What I wanted to do was say,


“You just realized that?” Things that are similar but not the


same are, in the end, different. It was as simple as that.


“Well, whatever. Do what you want. We’re just two people


with nothing to do with each other. I don’t have any interest


in getting your way, but . . . killing Akiharu-kun was a


bad move, Muimi-chan. They’ll be coming to arrest you soon


enough. I doubt that’s what Mikoko-chan wanted.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 6


“I couldn’t care less about the law. So I’ll be arrested. I bet


I will. But there’s still some time before that. Plenty of time to


make you suffer. To kill you.”


Muimi-chan got onto one knee, putting herself at eye level


with me. A knife she had apparently been pointing at me for


some time now reflected a ray of light and caught my eye. It


was the very knife the attacker in black had used that night.


The one that had grazed past my carotid artery.


“Nothing’s gonna get in the way this time.”


“What’s going to happen when you kill me?”


“Like I care. Talk all you want, but the time has come to


take responsibility for hurting Mikoko.”


“. . . . .”


Oh. I get it.


So even you’ve missed the point here. You’ve been going


on and on about how you did it all for Mikoko-chan, it was all


for Mikoko-chan, it was all for Mikoko-chan, but that’s just an


excuse. A plea. An attempt to defend yourself.


Your actions are spurred by simple jealousy toward me,


ordinary remorse for what happened to Mikoko-chan, and


your own boring sense of guilt. That’s all.


“Your nonsense is good, Muimi-chan,” I said without even


giving heed to the knife in her hand. “So are we going to pick


up where we left off last time? You’re going to beat me and


beat me and hurt me and hurt me and make me experience


pain and suffering, and then kill me off?”


“That’s right.”


“You don’t say.”


I clutched my right index finger in my left hand.


“So, for example, you might break my fingers, like this?” I


forced the finger backward, snapping the bone.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 7


There was a sound like a tree branch snapping off.


Muimi-chan’s face froze in shock.


An overwhelming, maddening pain ran through my hand,


but I didn’t even flinch as I flashed my broken finger in


Muimi-chan’s face.


“Satisified?”


I had nothing to say that.


“You’re not, are you? Why would you be satisfied with


that? That’s not nearly enough to cheer you up. You’ve hated


me and hated me and hated me, so there’s no way you’re


satisfied yet. Because if it’s for Mikoko-chan, morals, laws, and


common sense don’t mean a thing.”


“Rrr. Rrrr.”


She trembled.


It was the first time I had ever seen her shaking from


emotion.


I didn’t care about this either.


“I guess the middle finger is next?” I said, clutching my


middle finger.


It was as if I were a doll.


That’s why I had no nerves.


That’s why I had no heart.


That’s why I could just snap my own bones.


Crack.


“Ring finger next?”


I bent my ring finger the wrong way.


Pop.


“And finally, the pinky?”


I twisted my pinky around in an impossible direction.


Crack.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 8


“Well, my right hand’s completely destroyed. I won’t be


able to defend myself very well now either.”


“Ah . . . ah . . . ah.” The blood was rushing to her face. This


wasn’t just fear, but panic. The fundamental sense of horrified


anxiety one feels toward something beyond his or her own


comprehension. This was a fatal wound of an emotion, far


more gripping than anger.


“Shall we continue to the left hand?”


I pointed the four fingers on my left hand toward the floor.


From there, I threw all of my body’s weight onto my left arm.


Crack crack crack crack.


It was a satisfying quartet of sounds.


“Why don’t we twist ’em around a bit more?”


Crunch. Crunch crunch crunch.


“Now let’s see if I can still applaud things—“


“Wh . . . what the hell are you doing?!” she screamed.


Tossing the knife aside, she grabbed my wrist. “You . . . you’re


crazy! What is this?! What are you doing?!”


“I was just saving you the trouble of doing what you were


going to do anyway. It’s no different than if you have done it


yourself. Or, by your logic, if Mikoko-chan had done it herself.


Right?”


I held my hideously gnarled fingers up before Muimichan’s


eyes. She reflexively looked away, suggesting that even


in her current mental state, she couldn’t bear to look at


something so disturbing.


“D . . . doesn’t that hurt?!”


“Meh,” I said casually. “No big deal. Not to me, anyway.


No matter how much I get tortured or beaten, I don’t feel a


thing. You could even kill me if you wanted. Do whatever.


But to me, death would be nothing more than a release.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 1 9


“What are you—”


“I’m so damn sick of everything. Of living, of the people


around me, the people not around me, all of the various


intentions that make up this world and all the ones that don’t,


of you, of Mikoko-chan, and of course of myself. It’s all just a


damned headache. I’m the one who’s disgusted here. Living


only brings pain. I see no value in this place. Frankly, I don’t


give a rat’s ass if the world gets wiped out tomorrow or if I’m


wiped out today. In fact, I’d be glad. So killing me would be


pointless. I wouldn’t have minded of you killed me the other


night, either.”


. . . . !


“Still, I’m sure killing me will put your mind at ease. But it


won’t amount to revenge or justice or loyalty to a friend. It’s


just self-relief. Nothing more than a distraction from the


truth. You’ll cheer up, but that’s all. Causing me pain will


clear away your jealousy, making me suffer will help you forget


your remorse, and killing me will wipe away your guilt,


but that’s all you’ll be doing.”


“You’re wrong!” She clutched her head and shook it back


and forth like a madwoman. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong!


You’re wrong! Don’t turn this around! You’re so full of shit! I


did everything for her, and y—”


“Well then, go ahead and kill me. Kill me with your own


hands. The world will just go on.”


Just for yourself.


Without saying it’s for anyone else.


No excuses, no pleas, no defenses.


Just kill me by your own will.


Commit your profitless crime.


“Rrrrrrrrr . . . aaaaaaahaahhhhh!”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 0


She picked up the knife. With a spiteful, demonic glare,


she chewed down on her lip as if choking back a curse, and


grabbed me by the neck, With her other hand, she dug the


edge of the blade one layer of skin deep into my neck, right


along that carotid artery.


And she hesitated and waited and deliberated and contemplated.


“Rrrrrrrrrrrrr!”


And she stayed that way.


. . . . .


I closed my eyes and left it up to time.


But I soon got tired of this as well.


“I wonder what went wrong,” I said, casually brushing her


hand aside and distancing myself from the knife. I stood up


and watched Muimi-chan huddled on the floor groaning for


awhile, then gave my back a good stretch.


“When did people stop being able to do things just for


themselves, Muimi-chan?”


It was always out of some sense of duty or sense of justice.


Out of some feeling of fellowship or friendship.


“Don’t you think it’s all just nonsense?”


Muimi-chan gave no reply. I wasn’t sure if I should have


been asking the question in the first place. I hadn’t done anything


for anyone else, much less for myself. I had never done


anything for anyone.


“So what?” Muimi-chan said, as if looking for some savior.


“What could I possibly do for Mikoko? What should I have


done for her? What should I do?”


Don’t ask me that.


That just leads to a dead end.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 1


Thinking you can do something for others is nothing more


than a happy delusion. But once you realize it’s only a delusion,


as you have now, there’s no place left to go. Just like


Tomo-chan and I, you’ve got no place left to go. What’s ahead


of you now isn’t even despair, but a pitch-black void.


It’s a dead end.


But I had no intention of telling her things we both already


knew. Even if she didn’t know, I wasn’t about to go out of my


way to tell her.


“To be honest,” I said, turning my back to her, “I came here


hoping you’d kill me. I could have you do that. You wanted to


kill me and I wanted to be killed. Seemed like a match made


in Heaven. So I thought I’d come get it over with already. But


I’ve changed my mind. I won’t be killed by someone like you.”


“Then . . .” she said, staring at the floor. I turned toward


the entrance of the room in order to avoid eye contact.


Like a stressed-out strand of yarn torn to shreds, she


choked out a sentence muddled together with tears and


weeping.


“Then kill me now.”


“Not my business. Die yourself,” I replied, and didn’t look


back. I had no desire to.


“Yo. Is it over?”


As I exited Muimi-chan’s apartment, Zerozaki, leaning


against a telephone pole, waved a hand and called out to me. I


kept walking oast him without stopping.


“Yeah, it’s over,” I said.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 2


“I’ll be damned,” he said, catching up to me and matching


his pace to mine. “Whoa! What the hell happened to your


hands?! Am I crazy, or did the number of broken bones multiply


by nine?”


“Yup, it did.”


“She broke them? Holy cow, man, Atemiya’s like that


Nenbutsu no Tetsu guy! That’s some risky business.”


“Nah, I broke them myself. All of them.”


“Are you crazy? Come to think of it, you did say you were


the one who broke your thumb, too, huh? Are you a


masochist? Are you a freaking masochist? Doesn’t that hurt?


Do you not feel pain? Have you had a lobotomy?”


“It hurts like shit. It hurts so much I can’t even faint. I


might cry. I’m actually headed for the hospital right now.


We’re near Nishijin Hospital, right? . . . I’m not really a


masochist, no. The situation just called for a little shock


treatment, that’s all.”


“You know, broken bones don’t always go back to normal.


You may never play baseball again.”


“No worries. If it comes to that, I’ll just play soccer.”


“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said in awe. “So how’d it


go?”


“Well, now it’s just a matter of sweeping up the mess.


That’s Sasaki-san and Kazuhito-san’s field. I’m sure they’ll be


thorough about it. Muimi-chan will be arrested, all the facts


come to light, and that’ll be that.”


That is, if Muimi-chan maintained her sanity for that long.


That is, if she was even still alive.


Zerozaki folded his hands behinds his head with a disappointed


expression. “Aw, man. That’s not dramatic at all.


Couldn’t it at least have been a little romantic?” he said.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 3


“What can you do? This is reality.”


“Mmm. I guess. Say, man. Do you have parents and stuff?”


Zerozaki had suddenly posed a completely unrelated


question, but I had a feeling he would ask something like that,


so I wasn’t surprised.


“Yeah, I do. In Kobe. I think they’re still alive and kicking.”


“Huh. So are you grateful to them and stuff?”


“Huh?”


“I mean, how do you feel toward them?”


“About what?”


“About bringing you into this world, dammit.”


“What about you, Zerozaki? I guess I probably don’t even


have to ask, do I?”


“Answer should be obvious.”


“Yeah, it is.”


For an instant, we shared a glance.


“I’m sorry . . .”


“For being born.”


“Huh. I guess it was not Akutagawa after all,” Zerozaki


laughed.


“I like Mushanokôji best.” I didn’t laugh.


“How do you feel about Kikuchi Kan? I’m kind of a big


fan.”


“I don’t read him. In fact, I don’t really like reading.”


“Oh yeah, you said that, didn’t you? . . . Huh.” For some


reason, he gave a convinced nod. “By the way, how’s about


giving me my knife back? I don’t have a whole lot of that


type.”


“Oh, this thing? Listen, Zerozaki. I don’t suppose you’d be


willing to give this to me, huh? It’s really handy. You can just


unlock doors without using anything high-tech.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 4


“Those things are expensive, jerk. Can you pay me one


million five hundred thousand yen right now?”


“Geez, why’s a little steak knife like this so expensive?”


“Cram it. So what’s it gonna be?”


“How about I pay you one hundred and fifty in annual


installments?”


“You know, we probably won’t actually meet again.”


“Ah, right.”


With no other alternative, I reluctantly gave him back the


knife. He took it by the handle, spun it around, and closed it


back inside his vest. Evidently he had knives placed all over his


body. I wonder what would happen if he ever fell.


“Well, maybe it doesn’t matter, but there’s still some


things that bother me. How’s about answering a few questions?”


Zerozaki said.


“Sure. What?”


“It seems to me that when Emoto and that Aoii chick were


killed, Atemiya had a solid alibi both times. She was at


karaoke the first time and with her the sister the second time.


Isn’t that right? I don’t know about Usami and you, but how


could she have killed those two girls? And it seems like you


realized Atemiya was the killer as soon as that detective called


about Usami being killed. And you already seemed to know


she was the one who attacked you in Kamogawa Park, too.


How the hell did you know it was her? When did you realize


that?”


“Hmm. It’s kind of hard to explain.”


Zerozaki scratched his head at me. “What do you mean?


Like it was just intuition or something? Oh, or was it because


all the other people involved were dead, so it had to be


Atemiya by default? Who are you, Kindaichi?”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 5


“No. But do I have to explain? I might get argumentative.”


“Hey. I don’t mind. Come on, you made me tell you all


about my prowling exploits. Whatever happened to give and


take? Come on, leave me with a good memory.”


“What are you, dying?”


“I might. Some red creature’s been chasing after me.”


Indeed, it was entirely plausible. It was even possible that


Aikawa-san would appear before us right this instant. Considering


the facts, Zerozaki’s life was like a candlelight flickering


in the wind right about now.


“Yeah, I guess you’re right. . . . Okay, so how far back


should I go?” I said.


“From the beginning, of course. How’d you know Atemiya


was the one who killed Emoto, Aoii, and Usami, and attacked


you?”


“See, there’s your first mistake,” I said. “Muimi-chan didn’t


kill Tomo-chan or Mikoko-chan. She had alibis, so that should


be obvious.”


“Wha?” he said, his jaw dropping.


“She killed Akiharu-kun. And she assaulted me. That’s all


she did. Oh yeah, and I don’t suppose she’ll be getting her


apartment deposit back, but that’s it.”


“Hold on,” he said, spinning around in front of me and


grabbing me by the shoulders. He was grinning, but not


smiling. “Just a few hours ago, you were going on and on with


all that confidence and that matter-of-fact tone about how


‘she killed Emoto Tomoe,’ and ‘she killed Aoii Mikoko,’ and


‘she attacked me in Kamogawa park,’ and ‘she killed Usami


Akiharu,’ and ‘it was obviously Atemiya Muimi,’ were you


not?!”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 6


“Indeed,” I answered plainly. “But you see, the thing about


that is I was just telling a confident, matter-of-fact lie. Time


was of the essence, so I just kind of glossed over the facts. It’s


actually a little more complicated than that.”


“Hang on. So what the hell have I been doing for the past


few hours, wondering, ‘How in the world did Atemiya manage


to kill those two? What a puzzling brain-teaser!’?”


“I told you. I’m a liar.”


“I’m going to kill you,” he muttered sinisterly, and returned


to my side. I took a step away from him. “Err, all right. Let me


rephrase the question, then. So who did kill Emoto? If it


wasn’t Atemiya, who was it?”


“Aoii Mikoko.” I answered with her name alone. Zerozaki


wasn’t surprised to the point of vocalizing it. Perhaps he’d half


been expecting it. But he furrowed his brow at me, crinkling


his facial tattoo.


“So then who killed Aoii Mikoko? Don’t tell me you’re the


punch line. . . .”


“Nope. That was just a suicide.”


“Suicide?” This time he was clearly surprised. “Aoii killed


herself?”


“Yup. That explains why nobody showed up on the surveillance


cameras, right? Of course it does; there was no


‘killer.’ Anyway, so Mikoko-chan committed suicide, which


made Muimi-chan go bananas and kill Akiharu-kun and try to


kill me. But I didn’t want to be killed, so I broke my hand


instead. There you have it. QED.”


“You’re using that phrase wrong,” he retorted, then


clutched his head in thought. “Hang on, hang on. Explain this


to me step-by-step. You can’t just give me a big, crazy


summary like that up front.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 7


“Fine, I’ll explain it right. Errr, okay, so you understand


that Mikoko-chan killed Tomo-chan, right? Okay so far?”


“Yeah. No, wait, not okay. Aren’t you the one who


vouched for Aoii’s alibi? Or your neighbor, rather? Don’t tell


me you and Aoii were in cahoots.”


“No. Why are you so suspicious of me? What happened


was I was thoroughly tricked that night, and only that night.


Miiko-san too. Well, she wasn’t tricked, exactly, she just


didn’t notice.”


“What are you talking about?”


“Try thinking about it yourself. Tomo-chan was killed by


Mikoko-chan. If you know that, there are only so many


possibilities.”


“Ahh,” he said ponderously. “So you left Emoto’s apartment


together, right? Then you got a call from Emoto when


you were around Nishiôji Nakadachiuri. You walked back to


your apartment together, and then you left her with your


neighbor, Asano-san. Then the next morning Aoii woke up


early, went to your room, then went to Emoto’s place. . . .


Oh, is that it? When she was supposedly ‘discovering’ Emoto’s


body, she was actually killing her?”


“Not likely. That conflicts with the established time of


death. So it must have been at night.”


“So she snuck out of Asano-san’s apartment?”


“Couldn’t be. Miiko-san is highly sensitive to noise. She


would’ve been caught. And Miiko-san had no reason to cover


for Mikoko-chan.”


“Then what was it, some kind of remote-control trick?


Then again, this was a strangling, not some sealed-room


mystery.”


“So there’s only one possible answer left,” I said.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 8


“What? Does it have something to do with that ‘x over y’


thing?”


“Nope. You don’t need to worry about that. It’s like a side


order of fries. Just set it aside.”


“Come one, just tell me already. You sure know how to


beat around the bush.”


“It’s simple. There was no point at which Mikoko-chan


could have interacted with Tomo-chan once we left her apartment.


Which means she must have killed her before we left.”


“Huh? What does that mean?” Zerozaki said. “If that’s the


case then all pretenses all crumble. Emoto was killed between


the time she called you and three a.m., right?”


“Suppose,” I said, “that that call hadn’t occurred. Then


couldn’t Mikoko-chan have killed her?”


“No, it’s still impossible. You left the apartment together.”


“Aha. We left together, but not at the exact same time.


There was a slight lag. I mean incredibly slight. But I left the


room before Mikoko-chan did. As I was leaving, I had to put


on my shoes, right? At that time, naturally I wasn’t facing the


inside of the room. In other words, I wasn’t facing Mikokochan


and Tomo-chan’s direction. I was looking at my


shoelaces.” I raised a foot to show him. “What’s more, there


was a door between the hallway and main room. I couldn’t see


what they were doing in there.”


“Wait a minute. There must have been a scream or some


kind of noise. Even if it was happening behind you, there’s no


way you wouldn’t have noticed someone being killed.”


“If it was a stabbing or a beating, maybe. But a person can’t


scream when they’re being strangled. There were noises, but I


never would’ve guessed it was the sound of someone being


killed. I thought Mikoko-chan had tripped or something.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 2 9


“Ahh.” Zerozaki began rubbing his temples. If you tried


hard enough, you could see a slight resemblance to Nose


Keiko. But you had to really try.


“Wait. It doesn’t take you ten to twenty minutes just to tie


your shoes, does it? Supposing what you’re saying is true, even


if Aoii did strangle Emoto, she wouldn’t have died that fast.


People can live for up to ten minutes without breathing.”


“Zerozaki, could it be that you’re just misunderstanding


the situation because you’re a knife expert? Strangle victims


don’t all necessarily die from suffocation. They can also die


from lack of blood flow to the brain. You just have to pull


upward, like this. If you manage to cut off the carotid artery,


it takes less than a minute. If you’re good, it only takes a


couple dozen seconds.”


“Really?”


“Really. So after that, Mikoko-chan opened the door,


looking completely innocent, and came out into the entrance.


At that time, she was blocking my view inside, so I couldn’t


see anything. Then we left Tomo-chan’s room together and


exited the building.”


“Yeah, that all adds up . . .” he said, still seeming dissatisfied.


“But that’s all assuming you hadn’t gotten that phone


call, right? But in reality, Emoto did call you. That means she


was still alive after you left the building. Don’t tell me she


came back to life for an instant.”


“You keep making nonsensical predictions. Of course that’s


not it. Tomo-chan died instantly. It’s simpler than that. Really


simple. If you just think about it, you’ll figure it out. The call


was for me, but it wasn’t on my phone, right?”


“Right . . . it was Aoii’s, wasn’t it? But wasn’t that because


she didn’t know your number?”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 0


“Well, let’s go back to the basics for a second here. What is


the advantage of a cell phone to begin with? It’s that it lets


you make a call from anywhere, is it not? That call didn’t


necessarily come from Tomo-chan’s apartment. And on top of


that, phones don’t let you see the caller’s face, right?”


“So you’re saying Aoii had an accomplice? And the accomplice


used Emoto’s phone to pose as her?”


“No, there wasn’t an accomplice. I’m pretty sure this was a


spontaneous crime to begin with. The murder weapon seems


to indicate that as well.”


“You mean the thin cloth?”


“Yeah. Most likely, it was the ribbon from the present


Akiharu-kun gave to Tomo-chan. A ribbon would be fairly


well cut out for strangling someone. It’s flexible and fits to


your skin. It works even better than rope. But anyway, considering


the murder weapon was just something that happened


to be there, not something that had be prepared, it’s


hard to think this was a premeditated crime.”


“Then who made that phone call?”


“Mikoko-chan didn’t need an accomplice. She placed the


call herself,” I said. “She just had to have Tomo-chan’s phone


in her pocket, and then call her own phone on speed dial. Of


course there was nobody talking on the other end, but she just


pretended it was a call from Tomo-chan. And then she passed


the phone to me.”


“But when you were on the phone, didn’t you speak with


somebody? Wasn’t she trying to tell you something she had


forgotten?”


“Yeah, but that was Mikoko-chan. At that time, I was


walking a step ahead of her. It was the same thing that happened


at the apartment. I didn’t realize that Mikoko-chan was


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 1


right behind me whispering into Tomo-chan’s phone. By the


time I turned back around, she had already slipped it back into


her pocket.”


The method of murder and the method of creating an alibi.


Both had been extremely risky, without question. If I had just


turned my head around on a whim, the whole jig would’ve


been up. But if you thought about it, the chances of that


happening were fairly low. The risk was big, but the chance of


success was extremely high. If you weighed things in terms of


value, it was certainly a risk worth taking.


“Anyway, so that gave her an alibi. Then the next day, she


went to Tomo-chan’s place, returned the phone, and called


the police. Usually they say you shouldn’t trust the one who


discovers the body first, but she already had an alibi, and she


had probably hidden the murder weapon in her own apartment


or something before going back to Tomo-chan’s.”


Of course, Mikoko-chan was the only one who knew all of


the minute details, so you’d have to pay her a visit to get the


full story. And that sure wasn’t happening. But that was the


basic gist of it. I might not have had every single fact right, but


it all sounded more or less reasonable.


Mikoko-chan had probably written that “x over y” formula


down at the time she “discovered” the body. The previous


night, she had neither the time nor the notion to do such a


thing.


“Well, that definitely makes Aoii sound like the killer. But


it’s still just a possibility, right? I mean, you don’t have any


proof, do you?”


“Well, no. That’s true. Strictly speaking, there’s no proof.


To be sure, it could’ve just been some burglar.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 2


“There must be something. Some sort of peculiarity or


something.”


“At any rate, that explains the Tomo-chan incident. Got


any other questions?”


“Yeah,” Zerozaki said with a frustrated expression. He


looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the


right words. “Nah, forget it,” he said. “Okay, then on to the


Aoii incident. Why was it a suicide? Even the police said they


thought it was a homicide, right?”


“Well, that gets to be kind of a long story, but her motive


for suicide should be obvious, right? After she killed Tomochan,


her conscience got the best of her.”


“Murderers have a conscience?”


“Not everyone’s like you, you know,” I said jokingly.


“That’s what was written in her suicide note, anyway.”


“Ah. I guess if it was in her suicide note, that pretty much


settles it. It at least proves that Aoii chose death on her own. I


sure don’t understand it though. Suicide, that is. I guess there


are all sorts of killers in this world. But if she was going to do


that, she should’ve just not killed Emoto in the first place. . . .


Hey wait, hold on a sec”


“Huh? What?”


“What do you mean, ‘suicide note’?”


“In other words, an essay of sorts that one writes before


committing suicide in order to leave something behind in this


world. Not to be confused with the will and testament.”


“Thank you, Detective Columbo,” he said, simultaneously


kicking me in the hand. Naturally, this was excruciatingly


painful since all of my fingers were broken.


“What’re you doing? What if my bones don’t set properly


now?”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 3


“Play soccer. So what\'s up with this suicide note? This is


the first I’ve heard of it.”


“Yeah. You see, before that. . . well, think about it. Didn’t


it seem strange in the first place?”


“Didn’t what seem strange?”


“What do you think?”


It was the very thing Sasaki-san had pointed out.


“Look at me.”


Me, a loser of a human being who had broken long ago.


Who didn’t have a single nerve remaining intact. Who desired


death more than anything else.


“Do you really think I would get so sick just from seeing


the strangled corpse of somebody I knew?”


“Ah. So you mean, you felt so sick because it wasn’t a


murder, but a suicide?”


“No. A corpse is a corpse, whether it was a suicide or


homicide.”


He said nothing.


“When I arrived at Mikoko-chan’s place, I pushed the


button on the intercom. There was no reply. Realizing, based


on various experiences, that this was probably a bad sign, I


hurried into her room. And what did I see? The dead body of


Mikoko-chan, who had strangled herself, lying on the bed.”


Strangled to death.


This was why Tomo-chan had been strangled from behind


and Mikoko-chan from the front.


“She strangled herself? Is that even possible?”


“It’s actually a fairly common suicide method. Of course,


in Mikoko-chan’s case, it wasn’t her arteries that were cut off,


it was her windpipe. It\'s an extremely agonizing way to go.


Your face gets all bloated with blood. It ain’t pretty.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 4


You had to be pretty damned determined to choose a


death like that.


As for Aoii Mikoko\'s determination . . .


“So by the bed there was a suicide note. Addressed to me.


It had a lot to say. It talked about how she had killed Tomochan,


and what she wanted me to do from there.”


“What she wanted you to do?”


“She didn’t want people to think it was a suicide. She


didn’t mind dying, but she didn’t want people to think she


was the horrible person who had killed Tomo-chan.”


“I’m not following you here. Say it straight, man.”


“What I mean is, she asked me to get rid of all the evidence.


The neckstrap she had stolen from the scene of the


murder, and then of course the suicide note itself as well as


the ribbon, which would have given itself away as the weapon


with which she had killed both Tomo-chan and herself. And


there were some other things as well.”


“Ahh, I get it.” Zerozaki slowly nodded and looked up at


the sky. “Yeah, it’s starting to click. So you did what she


asked. Come to think of it, something did seem strange. I


noticed it myself. Something about the time was off. You left


your place at eleven o’clock, arrived at Aoii’s place within ten


minutes, the cops arrived within another ten minutes, and you


arrived at the police station within yet another ten minutes, at


which point it was exactly twelve o’clock. That leaves thirty


minutes unaccounted for. Were you doing something during


those thirty minutes?”


“Yeah. But obviously I didn’t leave Mikoko-chan’s room, or


the surveillance camera would\'ve caught me, and obviously I


had to have reported it to the police. So what do you think I


was doing?”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 5


“And you said you were frisked as you were leaving the


apartment, right? Hmm . . . then, could it be . . . oh, man . . .


did you eat everything?”


Yup, I nodded.


Anyone could’ve guessed by this point.


And this was Zerozaki Hitoshiki, no less.


“You ate it all?”


“Yup. It was delicious,” I answered casually. “People who


do that are traditionally known as ‘stuffers.’ But that’s not


important. At any rate, I can’t eat what I can’t digest, so I had


to suppress the urge to vomit as I called the police. I was planning


to hold it in until I got home, but I couldn’t make it, and


I ended up hurling in the police station.”


“You ate the goddamn evidence . . .” Zerozaki said in awe.


“The ribbon, too? Do you realize you ate something that killed


two people? That’s insanity, man.”


“Yeah, no doubt. I never said I was sane.”


“But why did you go along with Aoii’s request? You


could’ve just ignored it, and you wouldn’t have had to cross


such a rickety-ass bridge, metaphorically speaking.”


“Yeah, well, I guess I was brooding over some things myself.


You could call it a form of redemption,” I said, breaking


eye contact with Zerozaki. “Anyway, that sums up the death


of Aoii Mikoko. She killed herself. In reality, the story should


have ended here, but . . .”


“But the incidents kept occurring, contrary to expectations,


huh?”


“Yup,” I sighed. “That . . . that really was a surprise.”


“So what about Atemiya, then? Why\'d she kill Usami?”


“Well, that has to be left up to speculation. I wasn’t involved


in that incident at all. But I’ve got a theory that seems


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 6


to hold water. It’s just your regular, everyday murder case,” I


said. “Muimi-chan probably thought something was fishy


about Mikoko-chan’s death in the first place. In fact, let’s assume


that Mikoko-chan talked to her herself about killing


Tomo-chan, and that Muimi-chan subsequently realized that


Mikoko-chan’s death was a suicide.”


“Okay.”


“So what did she do?”


For the sake of someone else.


Not for herself.


“What could she do for Mikoko-chan? Zerozaki, what


would you have done?”


“Nothing. Aoii was already dead.”


Indeed.


Even for someone who was still alive, Zerozaki wouldn’t


have done a thing. Nor would I. It was that simple.


“But Muimi-chan tried to do two things. The first one was


revenge. The second was to protect Mikoko-chan.”


“By revenge, you mean killing you? Well, I guess you kind


of rejected Aoii, after all. Makes sense. Isn’t that exactly what


I said? That Aoii had the hots for you?”


“Don’t act like a bigshot about it. Even I realized that.”


“You mean you knew and you were just ignoring it? Man,


then you have no right to complain about almost being killed.


But what do you mean she was trying to ‘protect’ her? How


did killing Usami add up to protecting Aoii?”


“It’s just like what I did. Muimi-chan was trying to guard


Mikoko-chan’s honor. If a third murder occurred, nobody


would suspect that the second victim—Mikoko-chan—was


actually the one who had killed Tomo-chan, that she had


killed a close friend.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 7


“Okay, fair enough. But why Usami? She could’ve just


killed anybody. She didn’t have to kill her own friend.”


“No. She killed him because he was a friend. If the third


victim had been someone completely unrelated to Tomoechan


and Mikoko-chan, the police might not even consider it a


‘third incident,’ so to speak. So the most likely candidate for


the next victim was either Usami Akiharu or myself. And I


know what you’re thinking, Zerozaki. Why didn’t she just kill


me, then? Indeed. But I mean it when I say my apartment is


ancient. There’s no harder place to kill a person.”


With walls that thin, even the sound of walking down the


hall could be heard from the rooms. Sneaking in, having a


scuffle, and killing a person in my apartment were all impossibilities.


“So Usami was the next best thing? But even if Aoii was


Atemiya’s close friend, Usami was a friend too, right? How


could she do that?”


“I had the same doubts myself. Not to mention that Tomochan


was Muimi-chan’s friend as well. I couldn’t figure out


why Muimi-chan would forgive the person who had killed


her. So I asked her. And this was what she said: It was a


matter of \'order of priorities.’ Basically what that means is that


to Muimi-chan, the already deceased Mikoko-chan was worth


even more than Akiharu-kun, who was still alive, or Tomochan,


who had been Mikoko-chan’s victim.”


“That\'s terrible. Usami got screwed more than anyone.”


“Maybe so.”


Akiharu-kun had prophesied that he would be next, and


claimed he could die happily. Just how much of the truth had


he figured out? This was a mystery to me. Was it too romantic


to suppose Akiharu-kun had discovered the truth in its


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 8


entirety and still let Muimi-chan kill him? If that truly was the


case, then Usami Akiharu was the only respectable one in this


whole series of events.


Namely, because he had fully accepted his friends for who


they were.


“Say . . .” Zerozaki stood there in deep thought like a Rodin


sculpture for a while, then uncrossed his arms and looked up


at me. “I understand the logic and all, but I’ve got the same


doubts I had with Aoii. This is all based on the pretense that


Atemiya really did kill him, right?


“Aoii left a suicide note behind, so that’s one thing. But in


Atemiya\'s case, you’ve just got to be some master speculator


like Kindaichi or something. You figured it all out just from


that one phone call, without even seeing any evidence. Either


you just figured Atemiya and you were the only ones left so it


had to be her, or I don’t know what the hell you did.”


“Do you have some problem with Yokomizo?”


I couldn’t help but sense some hostility in Zerozaki’s numerous


references to Kindaichi. Nevertheless, he simply shook


his head.


“Nah, not really,” he answered. “But the book jackets are


always too scary so I only watch the TV dramas. I don’t really


like him or hate him, to be honest.”


“Ah.”


“So is that all it is?”


“No. Think back. Remember what I asked Sasaki-san?”


“Ah, right. Whether that \'x over y\' mark was there, right?


And? I thought you said that wasn’t important.”


“The meaning of the mark is irrelevant. It was nothing


more than random symbols at that point. It only meant something


in the case of Tomo-chan’s death. But the fact that the


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 3 9


same mark was found at the site of Akiharu-kun’s death


suggests something very odd.”


“What?”


“That ‘x over y\' mark found at each crime scene was a secret.


It was known only to the police. Sasaki-san didn’t even


mention it at first. The only other people who could’ve known


about it were you and me, since we broke into the crime


scene, and anyone I happened to ask, \'What do you suppose


x over y means?’.”


Namely Aikawa-san, Mikoko-chan, and Muimi-chan.


“There must have been other people who knew about it.


People working on the case and such.”


“Indeed. There were plenty of people who knew. But


Muimi-chan was the only one who thought it was a ‘dying


message.’ ”


“Ahh, because the police thought it was the killer’s doing.


And?”


“In Akiharu-kun’s case, Sasaki-san reported that evidence


suggested the victim had written the message himself. Why


only this time? Most likely because the killer coerced her


victim into writing it before killing him, in an effort to emphasize


that this was the ‘third incident.’ ”


“And she wouldn’t have had that idea in the first place if


she hadn’t thought the mark was a dying message, huh? So


Atemiya didn’t know what \'x over y’ meant?”


“Probably not.”


If she had known the mark\'s meaning, she probably


wouldn’t have used it that way.


“And that was enough for you to figure out that Atemiya


was the killer?”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 0


“Well, of course it was partially speculation. I kind of


figured she seemed the most likely to do such a thing. Even I


was impressed by her loyalty to Mikoko-chan.”


“No you weren’t,” he laughed. “Man, I’m not trusting a


thing you say anymore. You’re not just a passive observer;


you’re a freaking liar.”


“I believe I told you that.”


“Don’t flaunt your faults.”


“Yeah, I know I shouldn’t,” I said casually. “Anyway, it


looks like you don’t have any other questions. Can we close


the books on this case?”


“Not a very grand finale, but . . . hahhh, how do you say it?


Hearing the whole story laid out like that makes it seem like


such . . .”


“A masterpiece?”


“No, nonsense,” he said, as if he had just heard the most


disappointing joke of all time.


I felt pretty much like that myself.


It was something terribly grotesque, terribly warped, terribly


vile. It was like a joke, a comical anecdote, an unsightly,


unbearable figure.


In the end, there was no way to stop thinking, no matter


how much you willed yourself not to. Your brain would keep


thinking automatically.


Who and what were in the wrong? That was probably simple


enough in and of itself. It was an issue anyone could comprehend,


upon which everyone could reach a unanimous


agreement, for which everyone would feel sympathy. Something


close to us all.


That was what made it so unpleasant.


I don’t know.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 1


If only I could have abandoned everything. How nice that


would’ve been.


“Well, without prying too deep,” Zerozaki said, looking off


the other way with utter disinterest. “I don’t figure you\'ll give


me a straight answer anyway. But . . . eh, forget it.”


“What? You’re awfully quick to give up.”


“Well, I’ve got a few ideas up my sleeve, but will you tell


me one thing, oh babbler of nonsense?”


“What is it, my dear homicidal monster?”


“What are your thoughts?”


“Hmm? What do you mean?”


“I mean, how do you feel about the fact that three people


have just died around you?” he said, suddenly growing much


more interested. He was like a little boy, happily looking at his


own reflection in a mirror. “You had people killing friends,


killing themselves, killing for their friends, being killed for


friends, and as a bonus, you were almost killed. So how do


you feel about all that?”


. . . . .


It was a straight question that I doubt I could have delivered


myself.


I tried to fold my arms and make like I was thinking in


order to buy some time, but my broken fingers wouldn’t even


allow that.


“Zerozaki, here\'s how I feel about this string of incidents.”


“Okay, let’s have it.”


“I talked a little too much this time. My throat hurts


almost as much as my fingers.”


. . . . .


Zerozaki froze. His face twitched for an instant before he


exploded into laughter.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 2


“Gahahahahaha! I’ll bet it does,” he said. “In other words,


you don’t even care if your friends die, right?”


“No, even a guy like me undergoes some shock at the death


of a friend. It’s just that these people hadn’t become friends


yet.”


Of the lot of them, I was closest with Emoto Tomoe, and


surely that closeness was to blame for why she was the most


distant.


I couldn’t respond to Aoii Mikoko’s affection with affection,


and Atemiya Muimi’s aggressive displays of emotion


were totally foreign to me.


Likewise, Usami Akiharu’s graciousness was something I


lacked.


“You live a crippled life,” Zerozaki said.


“Not really.”


“Yes you do. You restrict yourself.”


“Better than having others restrict me. What exactly do


you think it means to be free, Zerozaki? Does freedom to you


mean killing people?”


“Ahh, my idea of freedom, eh?” he said with a strange


snicker. “Well, to be honest, I hate that damn word. I despise


it. It gives me goose bumps.”


“Yeah, I don’t like it either.”


“It’s a cheap word in Japan, huh? People just throw it


around in any context. They use it like an excuse. You know,


like ‘Don’t I at least have the freedom to dye my own hair?’


What a load of crap. But I pretty much just do what I want,


whether you call it freedom or not. To hell with being restricted,


whether it’s by yourself or others.”


“Fair enough.” I sighed and nodded. “Then I guess if I


hadn’t restrained myself, I would’ve been like you.”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 3


“Does that mean if I had restrained myself, I would’ve been


like you?”


How wholly unappealing.


“I think I’ll pass on that.”


“Yeah, that’s a big no thank you.”


Zerozaki laughed, and I didn’t laugh.


As our pointless chatter went on, at some point the hospital


appeared before us. Apparently we had been conversing


at a standstill for some time now. I hadn’t noticed at all. At


this point, I really had been talking too much.


From there, we continued talking about things that had


nothing to do with the murders. Things that had nothing to do


with anything besides us. For probably two whole hours.


Ridiculous things that would serve no purpose in life. Things


that would bring neither help nor harm to the world.


Some topics he would bring up.


Some topics I would bring up.


If you had three wishes, what would you wish for? If you


found a hundred million yen, how would you spend it? Which


is more beautiful, an isosceles triangle or an equilateral?


Which is bigger, a kilometer or a kilogram? Would you rather


belong to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the


Rosicrucian Order? Is it possible to have a 115-by-l 15 block


magic square? What the hell is Eighty-eight Othello, anyhow?


We conversed like two good friends.


But Zerozaki was no friend of mine, and I was no friend of


his. We may as well have been talking to ourselves. It was all


meaningless, worthless small talk. I thought it neither


enjoyable nor unenjoyable. It was an act of reflection on how


I’d lived these past nineteen years. A reflection of light.


Zerozaki Hitoshiki.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 4


It was a wholly inconceivable chunk of time, but sure


enough, the hands of that magical clock slowly made their


way to zero.


“Well, that puts my doubts to rest,” he then said. “I guess


this is farewell.”


“Yeah.” I agreed with no resistance.


“Nice killing time with ya,” Zerozaki said, lifting his rear


end off the banister he had been sitting on. “Say,” he said, giving


me a sideways glance. “You planning on staying in Kyoto


permanently?”


“Hard to say. I’m kind of a wanderer, really. I reckon I’ll be


here as long as I’m in college, but you never know when I


might drop out.”


“Gotcha. Well, then what\'s a place you don’t think you’ll


ever go in your whole life?”


“Hmm . . . I doubt I\'ll ever go to the North or South Pole,


among others,” I said, giving a stock answer after a moment’s


thought. “The one place I definitely don’t want to go to is


Texas in America. Especially Houston. I’d rather break every


damn bone in my body than go back there.”


“Huh.” He nodded. “I guess I’ll go there, then.”


“Can you speak English?”


“I went to junior high school. Besides, a knife gets through


where words don’t. Of course,” he said caustically, “your knife


probably wouldn’t.”


I shrugged at his biting comment. “Well, I guess we won’t


meet again.”


“Fine by me. I don’t really like seeing you anyway.”


“Yeah, true enough.”


It was probably true. I wouldn’t have any desire to see him,


nor him to see me. It was nothing more than an impossible


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 5


chance meeting to begin with, so such was the logical


conclusion.


In the end, I posed one final question. I pulled out the


deepest, darkest fragment of my being and took a good look at


it head-on.


“Tell me, Zerozaki.”


“What?”


“Is there someone you love?”


“Hell no, man. Does it look like there is? Incidentally, I


hate myself the most. Or maybe you. Why do you ask?”


“I’ve got someone.”


He looked just a bit surprised, but then gave a gloating


sneer. “I asked you before and you said, ‘Ehh, I don’t really


know,’ you jerkoff.”


“Yeah, I was lying.”


“Oh,” he said. “Well, I guess that’s the difference between


you and me.”


“Yeah, guess so.”


“I guess you’d better keep on living, then. Don’t become


like me.”


“Same to you.”


He turned his back on me and began walking toward


Imadegawa Street. I turned my back on him and began walking


toward the hospital reception.


Neither of us said a word, but I’m sure we were thinking


the same thing.


“Now then . . .”


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 6


To me, this marked the end of the story. But even if a


world or two had crumbled down on the other side of the


mirror, I could think of at least two people who had no intention


of letting things end this way, and there was something


depressing about that.


Maybe this too was a form of divine retribution.


“That’s all this damn life is, eh, Human Failure?”


So muttered the “Damaged Goods.”


I was speaking to myself.


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 8


With all of my fingers besides the left thumb placed in braces,


the doctor told me they would take about two weeks to heal


to a point of not interfering with my daily life, as long as I


went easy on them. The following day, I headed for


Kunagisa’s condominium in Shirosaki, the highest-class residential


area of Kyoto. I thought it would be nice to show up


looking cool on the Vespa I had inherited from Mikoko-chan,


but the finger braces wouldn’t allow it, so I gave up. It seemed


I would have to wait a bit longer before I could enjoy that


sweet feeling of going for a spin.


The braces proved to be more of an inconvenience than I


had initially expected. At first, I figured, “Oh, so my fingers


won’t be able to bend as much for a while, big deal,” but


within the first night alone, I realized that this was going to


place a considerable strain on my daily life. Even getting


dressed had become a big chore. I realized that this was going


to cause me to become even more of a burden to Miiko-san


next door, and this launched the beginning of a very pessimistic


phase.


And so it was that my mode of transportation this day was


my own two feet. Three hours was a bit intense for someone


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 4 9


suffering from injuries, and I could’ve just as easily taken a bus


or taxi, but considering the high cost of the medical bills for


my finger treatment, I had decided to save my money instead.


“But she is going to be there, right?”


Muttering such things to myself all the while. I eventually


arrived in front of Kunagisa’s condo. It was a posh, brick


building that looked more like a fortress than a condo. The


thirty-first and thirty-second floors both belonged to Kunagisa.


I passed through the gazes of a number of rocklike security


guards sitting firm as rocks in the entrance (they knew my face


by now) and headed for the elevator lobby. The elevator was


already on the first floor before I even pushed the call button.


I went ahead and pushed it, opening the doors, and went


inside. I used a key to open the button case, exposing the buttons


for floors thirty-one and thirty-two, and pressed the one


for thirty-two.


The sensation of gravity gone awry continued for a whole


minute.


I exited the elevator once it stopped and approached the


steel door straight ahead of me. As vastly superior as this place


was to my own, it still lacked an intercom. Kunagisa almost


never received any visitors, so there was no need.


I opened the lock with a key and fingerprint scan, and entered


the room.


“Tomooo, it’s meee. I’m in your plaaace,” I called out as I


walked down the hallway (although I didn’t feel right calling it


just a “hallway.” The staircase alone was bigger than my entire


place). On the thirty-first floor below, most of the walls had


been knocked down to make space for a ridiculously enormous


computer, whereas the thirty-second floor was more like


ZAREGOTO: THE KUBISHIME ROMANTICIST ■■■ 3 5 0


a maze, making it easy for me with my poor memory to get


mixed up. Now where was that girl?


I realized I should have called her ahead of time, but my


fingers were in no condition to be operating a telephone. My


left thumb was still functioning normally, of course, so I could


have done it with enough effort, but I was in no mood to


exert that effort.


“Tomo, where are you?” I continued walking down the hall


as I called out again. I began to see bizarre cords and cables of


various unknown varieties tangled along the floor. Of course I


had set foot in this place any number of times by now, but for


a guy like me who didn’t know the first thing about mechanical


or electronic engineering, this place was still like a magical


kingdom. If I wasn’t careful, I could easily trip on something


and fall, so I made sure to take caution as I proceeded.


“Tomo, it’s me. You’re somewhere on here, right?”


“Yo, I’m over here, thisaway, thisaway.”


The responding voice didn’t belong to Kunagisa.


As expected, it was a red voice.


Not that voices have colors.


“Actually I thought you might not be here . . .”


Is life ever that easy?


I continued walking in the direction of the voice until at


last arriving in an empty room about ten mats wide. In this


disgustingly big mansion of a condo, there were rooms even


Kunagisa Tomo couldn’t find a use for. Of course I supposed


it was also just a matter of time.


Then again, I guess you need rooms like that if you’re


going to have guests over.


“Yo. Long time no see.”


Inside the room, Aikawa-san and . . .


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