Sauvrème’s main railway terminal, named Charles de Gilet Station after a king of Sauvure who had reigned during the time of its construction in the late 19th century, was a huge, magnificent structure, built to demonstrate the small kingdom’s might. The ceiling of the atrium was made entirely from glass, which filtered the intense sunlight of early summer as it gently settled upon the dozens of platforms that lined the floor far below. Grand pillars of black brick and a large round clock towered over the iron walkways between the platforms.
People scurried endlessly across the floor like tiny specks of dust. Whenever a new train pulled into the station with a deafening roar, arriving passengers piled out onto the platform en masse. Red uniformed porters whisked away their luggage. Feathered bonnets swayed atop the heads of the lady passengers. Aristocratic gentlemen strolled past, rapping finely crafted animal-head canes against the floor. Children toddled by, holding onto their mothers’ hands.
A huge building of thick, sturdy glass and black iron—it was luxurious, yet functional, an architectural style that had become increasingly common in the modern age. Perhaps it symbolized the present day in Sauvrème, a riverside city that was not only home to an old and illustrious royal family, but had in recent years rapidly developed into an important financial center of Europe, and into an industrial city that smelled of iron and coal.
Kazuya jumped, his ears ringing from the inspector’s sudden shout. He turned, and saw the inspector calling out to a young woman who had walked past him on the platform. She was dressed elegantly, but in a sedate color more often worn by older married ladies. Her straight brown hair, worn in a simple up-do, had lost some of its sheen.
The woman turned around, but when she saw the inspector’s hairstyle, she backed away from him in surprise. He took a look at her face, then said in disappointment, “Pardon me, I thought you were someone else.”
The woman smiled in understanding, and walked away.
“Who is Jacqueline?” asked Kazuya.
The inspector pretended not to hear him, and quickened his pace over the iron walkway toward the large ticket gate. Kazuya walked in the same direction, wondering what he had just witnessed.
Somehow the inspector seemed deflated. Even his pointed drill drooped a little bit.
As they exited Charles de Gilet Station, dazzling sunlight flooded their faces, momentarily blinding them to the streets of Sauvrème. When at last their eyes adjusted, they took in the sight of a vast intersection in front of the station, alive with horse-drawn omnibuses flying around corners without slowing down, and automobiles polished to a shine. Eye-catching storefront windows lined the spacious sidewalks. A steady flow of gentlemen carrying canes and splendid ladies holding parasols came in and out of the shops. Roads, shops, and tall buildings jockeyed for position in front of the station.
Kazuya’s eyes lingered on one particular store window. Among all of the gaudy storefronts, there was one whose sign was tasteful and unobtrusive—a pipe shop. The window was filled with pipes of various sizes and materials, including ceramic and metal, along with pipe holders. As decoration, there was a single small ladies’ shoe shaped like a shimmering glass slipper. He realized that it was in fact a pipe holder, sculpted out of jade into the shape of a shoe. And then before he knew it, he was opening the door and asking the shopkeeper how much it cost. For Kazuya, who normally avoided unnecessary purchases and saved his spending money, the price was right, and so he bought it without hesitation.
“Could you tie it up with a ribbon? It’s for a girl. Oh, yes, that red ribbon will do.”
The shopkeeper’s eyes dropped down to the pipe holder. “For a girl?” he asked, bemused.
Kazuya walked out of the shop in high spirits. At exactly the same moment, the door to the adjacent shop also opened, and Inspector de Blois came out. He had apparently done some shopping of his own, and sauntered outside with a spring in his step. But when the two of them saw each other, their smiles instantly turned to scowls.
The inspector stared long and hard at the bundle Kazuya held carefully in his arms, and snorted contemptuously.
Kazuya also looked down at the inspector’s hands. He was lovingly clutching a pricey antique porcelain doll with curly blond hair, large eyes, and a dress trimmed generously with lace.
Kazuya grimaced. He remembered once paying a visit to the police station and seeing the inspector’s office filled with such dolls. And he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the inspector himself blissfully resting one of them on his knee.
“It truly suits you.”
“Got any more worthless things to say with that good-for-nothing face of yours?” the inspector snapped. Then he pointed at a large brick building looming across the street. Several uniformed policemen stood guard in front of the entrance. “I’m off to present my brilliant brain to the police headquarters. So long, Kujou.” He started to swiftly walk away, but then something seemed to occur to him, and he turned back toward Kazuya. “Be careful, Kujou.”
“Huh? Of what?”
“Hmph. As you can see, Sauvrème has modernized these past few years—the transportation system is developing, tall buildings are rapidly proliferating…. The city is as lively as can be, a draw for tourists far and wide. But all of this also means that crime is on the rise.”
Kazuya couldn’t help shooting a quick look at his surroundings. Inspector de Blois knitted his brow. “My boy, the city is a terrifying place. It fascinates you with its glamour, but every now and then, it opens its gaping maw and gobbles up newcomers whole. And then it closes its mouth as if nothing had happened, and the ones devoured are never seen again.”
“…What are you talking about?”
“I’m saying it’s gotten dangerous. Have you heard the rumors about ‘the ones who vanished into the darkness’?”
“In the past few years, Sauvrème has had several cases of sudden disappearances. Mostly young women and children. They go shopping in the department stores, then vanish without a trace, or they try to escort whom they think is a lost child to the police station, but disappear on the way. The cases follow various patterns. Apparently, headquarters has been receiving a lot of complaints from family members of young women who have disappeared in these ways. Well, that probably includes quite a few runaways, too… Nevertheless, an unusually high number of people have vanished into the darkness of the city. So you too must be careful.”
“Y-yes, sir…” Kazuya suddenly remembered Avril’s book.
“There was this noblewoman who went inside a department store dressing room. But when the attendant opened the door, there was nothing but a bloody severed head inside….
“This little girl in a pretty dress was crying, and anyone who talked to her, thinking she was an orphan, would disappear. They turned a corner and vanished, leaving only their clothes behind….
“There’s this bloodthirsty murderer who dresses like a vagabond. She hangs the corpses of countless children beneath layers of old clothes….
The ghost stories in that book must have been based on the disappearance cases occurring in Sauvrème.
Inspector de Blois pulled a watch out of his breast pocket and checked the time. Then he distractedly said goodbye to Kazuya, and walked away toward the tall building—the headquarters of the Sauvure national police. Clearly at ease in the city, he nimbly crossed the street, dodging oncoming carriages, and vanished into the building.
Kazuya watched him go, then set off down the road by himself.
The streets of Sauvrème were packed with buildings, carriages, automobiles, and of course, people. The congestion was fierce. Everyone was on the move. The people hurrying to their destinations, perhaps as part of the morning commute, were mostly wearing simple and utilitarian attire. Kazuya guessed that they worked in the businesses nearby. Once in a while, nobles in elegant dresses or three-piece suits would alight from carriages and disappear into high-class tailoring shops or galleries. People of various complexions, presumably tourists, were also milling to and fro, walking with a map in one hand and pointing at a landmark with the other.
At the other end of the spectrum were the homeless: dressed in rags, huddled on every street corner, holding out soiled tin cans to passersby, clamoring for spare change. Some of them were elderly, and some were women. Several times, Kazuya even saw children who were younger than himself. All sorts of people crowded Sauvrème, a city of both ancient traditions and rapid development, as if various speeds of life shared a disjointed coexistence in the same big city.
“…Huh?” Kazuya left the area in front of the station and walked over to Sauvure palace. For this modern city, the domed palace alone preserved the last vestiges of its medieval beauty. In the square in front of the palace, the Sauvurean flag was flying. Red and gold uniformed palace guardsmen marched in precise formation like toy soldiers. This was the home of the royal family, a quintessential piece of Sauvrème that was a must-see for any tourist.
“I thought it should be around here, but…” Kazuya swiveled his head around, searching for Jeantan. The high-end department store should have been one of the tall buildings on the other side of the palace square.
When he opened his bag to take out his map, he accidentally dropped his wallet. He managed to catch it before it fell, but all of his loose change jangled to the ground.
“…Nine fifty-seven,” he heard a small voice say.
Kazuya quickly picked up his money, and looked in the direction of the voice. The passersby went on striding briskly past him, not bothering to pay attention to a stranger dropping his change. As he peered around, wondering who had just spoken … across the crowd of people, a pair of sharp eyes glittered out from the dark shadows beneath the ornamented façade of a building.
“Is that who…?” Kazuya retrieved his change and stood up. A tiny figure with dark, unnerving eyes slowly emerged from the darkness.
It was a child of no more than ten years old. He wore grimy, ragged clothing, and his big toe stuck out of his torn canvas shoes. His eyes were blue, and he appeared to be European, but he was so filthy that it was hard to tell what color his hair and skin were.
“You dropped them. I was watching,” he said in a low voice.
He doesn’t seem like an ordinary kid…. Kazuya frowned. “If you were watching, why didn’t you help me?”
“If I had helped you out of the kindness of my heart, then you would’ve hit me and claimed I was trying to rob you and turned me over to the police. I’ve decided not to be kind to people.” The boy gave Kazuya’s hands a hard stare with his dark eyes. He was staring inordinately hard even though Kazuya wasn’t holding anything. Then he looked up. “Where are you going? You don’t know the way, do you?”
“…To Jeantan. I think it’s around here.”
“It’s nowhere near here, you hick. You’ve still got a long walk. And it’s hard to explain the way. I can take you instead.”
“Gimme some paper.”
The boy stamped the ground in frustration, then pointed at Kazuya’s wallet. “The paper you have in there. Give me one of those and I’ll be your guide.”
“Oh…” Kazuya was definitely lost, but he figured that if he had a long way to go, then accepting the offer would still be cheaper than taking a carriage. He handed the boy a single bill.
The boy snatched it away from him with startling alacrity; it disappeared inside his ragged clothing like a magic trick. And then he stepped a few paces back, shielding his head with both hands as if afraid he would be struck, and pointed at a building across the street. “It’s right there.”
“That’s Jeantan. See ya later, stupid Chinaman!”
“Ack! You tricked me! Hey, stop!” Kazuya waved his arms about and tried to chase him, but the boy quickly slunk away, vanishing into the shadows of the building. Kazuya peered down, and saw a small hole that seemed to lead into an underground drain pipe, about big enough for one child to quickly hide inside.
“Who’re you calling a Chinaman?!” Kazuya shouted angrily, but he composed himself and started walking again. He hadn’t noticed it before, but there was an enormous eight-sided brick building across the street, constructed in an old-fashioned style; clearly it had seen a lot of history. Around it hung a number of purple banners in the same octagonal shape as the building, with the word “Jeantan” printed on them. A steady stream of shoppers carrying glossy purple shopping bags emerged from inside.
Kazuya started to cross the street. Suddenly, he felt something grab his ankle. A large, dry, cold hand, like it belonged to a corpse, wrapped around his ankle and refused to let go. Startled, he looked down at his feet.
It was an old woman wrapped in layers of tattered clothing. Her hair stood on end as if the wind had blown it in every direction, and her skin was dry and sooty. Her legs were bare, and her hair and eyes were black. As the old woman held onto Kazuya’s ankle, she shrilly cried out in accented French, “My daughter was eaten!”
Kazuya stared at her in shock. She glared back at him with a piercing gleam in her eyes. The old woman looked swollen in her ragged clothing, as if she had stuffed three lumps of balled up cloth underneath, which lurched wildly as she moved. The fitful sway of her clothing seemed somehow sinister. Kazuya suddenly recalled one of the ghost stories that Avril had told him.
”Then there’s this bloodthirsty murderer who dresses like a vagabond….
Beneath layers of old clothes…
She hangs the corpses of countless children!”
Can’t be… Still, she sure looks like that ghost story come to life, thought Kazuya.
Suddenly, the old woman blurted out, “It ate my daughter!” Her shaking, blackened finger pointed directly at the Jeantan building.
The eight-sided building gleamed under the summer sun.
Kazuya stared back at her in astonishment.
The old woman opened her mouth, but just when she was about to say something more…
A young doorman ran toward them from the entrance of Jeantan. Spitting curses at the old woman, he gave her a hard kick. She let out a shrill, sad cry, and fled down the cobblestone street on all fours like an animal.
As Kazuya stood there, stunned, the doorman addressed him politely. “I do apologize, sir. That woman has been a nuisance to our guests entering the building.”
“Is she always doing that?” asked Kazuya, still shaken by what he had seen.
“Every day. Whenever we see her, we make sure to drive her away.”
This meant that story really was based on something that happened in Sauvrème, thought Kazuya. This woman must have been the model.
“Please forgive the inconvenience. Allow me, sir.” The young doorman led Kazuya to the octagonal brick building, and opened the glass double doors. “Welcome to Jeantan,” he announced respectfully. “There’s nothing you can’t find here. Please come in!”