The coachman spared one more glance at Kazuya, who was standing frozen in shock. Then he shrugged, cracked his whip at his horse, and rode away.
Kazuya stood stupefied in the street, watching the carriage as it left.
Then he felt a hand clap his shoulder. He turned his head, and saw the inspector giving him a weary look.
“But it’s true, inspector. I really did–”
“I’m going back to the station now, Kujou.”
“Will you give it a rest already?” The inspector hailed another carriage. Then his expression turned stern. “Not only do we have no evidence for your claims, we have testimony that conflicts with them in every way. And you’re up against Garnier, a heavyweight in the business world. He may not be a nobleman, but he’s still one of the most powerful men in Sauvrème as it transitions into a financial center. He’s not someone you can disrespect based on a mere hunch.”
“Besides…” The inspector bit down hard on his lip. “I have to one-up the superintendent … Mr. Signore, by any means necessary. I don’t have the luxury to get involved with things like this. I want to earn a name for myself in Sauvrème, Kujou. Now, please don’t waste any more of my precious time.”
Kazuya stubbornly held his ground. “But I’m absolutely sure that I saw a real girl who needed our help!”
“…Kujou, you were daydreaming. You know I’m right, don’t you?”
“But…” Kazuya groaned. He had no idea what was going on, and wanted nothing more than to write everything off as a bad dream and forget about it.
But the terror in that strange girl’s jewel-like violet eyes, as she grasped his hand and cried “Devils!” over and over again, refused to leave his mind.
Kazuya had never seen the look on her face on anyone else before. That was genuine fear. If that girl existed in the real world rather than as a specter in a daydream, then something truly terrible could be happening to her. Should he really just forget about it?
His conscientious nature reared its head and refused to let him forget things as they were. But he didn’t know what to do. There was not a single person who would validate his memories, and both the room with the glass cases and the girl in the box were nothing like how he remembered them.
“Just carry on with your shopping,” said the inspector with a cynical smile. He left in the carriage with the policemen.
Horse-drawn carriages filled the street with the pounding of hooves on the worn cobblestones. The glass windows lining the street cast shimmers of light on the cobblestones, reflections of the intense noontime sun. Just standing outdoors was enough to make Kazuya sweat. Under the early summer sunlight, the vividness of the nightmarish events that he had experienced felt further from reality than ever.
Kazuya watched one vehicle after another head down the street. Trotting horses, the clamoring voices of the people of Sauvrème, and the bugles of the soldiers stationed in the palace square enveloped him in sound.
“It ate my daughter! It ate her!”
Someone roughly yanked on the hem of his trousers, startling Kazuya out of his reverie, and he turned around.
An old woman dressed in rags was looking up at him. The hand that gripped his clothing was trembling visibly. “The darkness ate her!” she cried out.
As Kazuya hesitated, a small grubby hand reached out from behind and yanked him back with startling force, pulling him away from the wailing old woman and into a shadowy section of drain pipe.
He heard a low voice in his ear. “Gimme paper.”
In the dim light, two small dark eyes gleamed like blue will-o’-the-wisps amidst a face blackened with soot and grime, surrounded by disheveled hair whose original color was obscured by filth. It was the beggar boy whom Kazuya had met earlier.
“I rescued you from the old lady. So gimme some paper.”
“No, I won’t. And while we’re at it, give me back the paper from before,” snapped Kazuya.
The boy snorted, and gave him a sidelong look. “You Chinamen sure are tightwads.”
“It might be hard to tell the difference, but I’m not a Chinaman.”
“Huh, really,” the boy said without much interest. He screwed up his face and gazed out into the street for a few moments. “So you’re not giving me any paper.”
“Tch … Forget it. There’s something else I wanna ask you. What were you doing going to Jeantan over and over?”
At first, Kazuya didn’t think he had heard correctly. Then he gasped, and looked at the boy’s face. He wasn’t expecting the boy’s reaction, which was to tense his body and shield his small messy-haired head with his thin arms.
“Did you just say I went to Jeantan over and over?”
The boy cautiously peeked between his raised arms at Kazuya’s serious expression, and frowned warily. “What are you talking about? Don’t you know that already?”
“That’s not what I mean. I do know that.”
“Because I saw you…” The boy pointed at the clock tower in the square. Then his eyes fell half-closed and his mouth opened widely. Intoning his words strangely as if he were being manipulated by some unseen force, he began to speak in a startlingly rapid-fire cadence.
“You entered Jeantan at 11:22! You ran out at 11:46, and jumped into a carriage! You returned at 12:09! You went inside with a nobleman with a weird thing on his head and two policemen! And you left at exactly 12:30!”
“That’s a fine memory you have,” Kazuya muttered, not bothering to disguise his skepticism.
The boy exhaled heavily and turned away.
“But you’re right. I did come to Jeantan. No doubt about it. But for some reason, everyone there said that they’d never seen me before. Even the coachman said he never gave me a ride….”
The boy’s cheeks contorted—apparently, this was his version of a smile. “You really are dumb. They’ll lie as much as they want if there’s money in it for them. If someone from Jeantan gave me some paper, then even I’d say that I never saw you. That coachman must’ve gotten a lot of money from them.”
Kazuya fell silent for a moment. “But … the room I saw when I went the first time looked completely different. The walls, the chandelier, the floor… That’s why they told me that I must have been daydreaming.”
“…Gimme some paper.”
Kazuya was ready to argue, but instead reluctantly took out his wallet and handed him a single bill.
The boy’s lips twitched, and he swiftly hid the bill somewhere on his person. His eyes went half-lidded again and he fell deep into thought. Then he spoke again, resuming his strange cadence. “11:50! Several men went in through the back door, carrying loads of stuff!”
“Paint cans and brushes … and a big bundle of gold-colored paper! And a rolled-up carpet! They wore overalls covered in splotches of paint!”
“Must be painters.”
“They came out at 12:04! No longer carrying the golden paper or the carpet! They got away in a carriage!”
“Golden paper … I guess that’s wallpaper. If they weren’t carrying it when they came out, then they must have used it up in Jeantan. I suppose in that room where the wallpaper changed from brown to gold.”
The boy opened his eyes and yawned. “At 12:04, that leaves only five minutes before you came back.”
“Yeah. I’m sure they papered the walls and installed the carpet in a hurry after I left. They could’ve used any one of the chandeliers they had for sale. But still…” Kazuya shrugged. “That’s only if what you say is true. After all, how could you possibly remember all that in such exact detail?” Kazuya stared at him, unable to decide whether he believed him or not.
The boy opened his small eyes and glared at Kazuya. His cheeks quivered in injured pride. “I’m not lying. I was watching everything from the street the whole time. I’ve seen all sorts of things before. But no one believes someone like me. I guess you don’t believe me, either.”
“It’s not that, but just…”
“I was here the whole time, noticing all sorts of things. I even remember all the customers who go into Jeantan. See that lady?” He pointed at a woman who was coming out of Jeantan with a heavy load of purple shopping bags. “She went in two hours ago, and just got out now. She bought lots of stuff. She’s got five bags with her. And that old man who just came out…” He pointed at an old man who was striding out of the store. “He was only inside for three minutes. I know what he bought, too. A walking stick. It’s not in a bag, but he didn’t have it with him when he went in. He must have had them take the price tag off and skip the bag so he could use it right away. See, I’m here every day, watching who goes in and out of Jeantan.”
“I understand that, but all I’m trying to say is—”
“Every month, there’s two or three people who don’t come back out.”
“It’s just that there’s no way anyone could—huh? What do you mean they don’t come back out?”
The boy grimaced, and shivered fearfully. “They go in, and they don’t come back out, not from the front door or the back. Days go by, and they still don’t come out. Some people disappear inside Jeantan. Always young women.”
“If that’s true, then shouldn’t you tell this to the police?”
The boy bared his yellow teeth. “I told them,” he angrily spat out. “That a woman disappeared. And they just hit me. They thought I was some lying kid. They hit me over and over, and chased me away. The policemen said the same thing as you. That there’s no way I could remember it so exactly. That I’m a liar. …So now I don’t say anything. I just watch. Just stand here and watch.”
Kazuya gazed carefully at the boy. He couldn’t even remember precisely when he himself had entered or exited Jeantan. Being able to remember everyone who went in and out of Jeantan shouldn’t be possible….
But he realized that the boy’s words also had a strange ring of truth to them. Earlier, there had been an old woman who pointed at Jeantan and said that it “ate her daughter.” What if that meant that her daughter was one of those who had entered the store and never come out again?
And that girl Kazuya had found bizarrely stuffed into a box, screaming…
Oh! Now he remembered something.
When Kazuya had met the boy for the first time, he had heard him mutter “nine fifty-seven.” At the time, he hadn’t understood what that meant. But now as he thought back to it, the boy had said that at the same time that the contents of his wallet fell to the ground.
It seems impossible, but what if…
Kazuya quietly pulled out his wallet and began to count the change inside. After that incident, he had given some money to the boy and to the coachman, but only in paper bills. As for coins, the amount added up to…
Exactly nine-hundred and fifty-seven.
Incredible! Kazuya looked at the boy with new eyes. But this fearsomely intelligent little beggar was holding both arms over his head to protect from blows, and the muscles in his grimy face were tense.
“Hey,” began Kazuya, pushing aside his confusion. A moment later…
“Give me back my daughter!”
Out of nowhere the old woman reappeared, and again grabbed onto Kazuya, while glaring at him with black eyes glittering like an animal’s in her filthy, blackened face. She grabbed the lapel of his coat with tremendous force and shouted in a foreign accent, “Find my daughter!”
“Excuse me, uh … Let go of me, please!” Kazuya yelled, and the woman quickly retreated.
Then she looked up at him fearfully, tears gathering in her eyes. “Help me find my daughter…” Her voice grew faint, and her head drooped. Like the wind clearing away fog to make way for the sun, the madness left her eyes, and composure and rationality returned. “She vanished here four years ago. We were tourists. We visited that department store. But, but … she never came out again!”
“She never came out…?”
“She wanted to buy a dress, so I told her I would buy one for her. She took it and went inside the dressing room by herself. I waited and waited, but she didn’t come back out, and when I opened the door, she wasn’t there … no one was there, no one.” The old woman began to sob.
Kazuya immediately recalled the ghost stories that his classmate Avril had told him. Among them was a tale that bore a striking resemblance to this case—the story of a lady who had vanished from a department store dressing room. The old woman’s story was very similar to the one in that book, which seemed to have been compiled based on rumors circulating in Sauvrème.
And the case that Inspector de Blois mentioned of “the ones who vanished in the darkness”…
What if, every now and then, visitors really were going missing in Jeantan, but this fact had not yet come to light, and only circulated as a dubious rumor among the townspeople…?
Tears ran down the old woman’s wrinkled face, weaving hideous patterns in the caked grime. Her eyelids, lined with creases, drooped over her eyes. Something large swelled under her ragged clothes.
Kazuya thought of another story that Avril had told him. A murderer dressed as a vagrant had strung the bodies of dead children under her clothes…
The old woman cried out to Kazuya, interrupting his musings. “All of the employees acted strangely! They said they had never seen my daughter before. Even the attendant who had shown my daughter the dress said that I had come into the store alone. The doorman said the same. All of them said they had never seen my daughter. Even though I remember them showing my daughter the dress, saying how it suited her, and leading her into the dressing room! No one listened to me. She disappeared … just like that…. It’s already been four years. She must be dead by now!”
Kazuya thought back to the second time he had gone to Jeantan. Everyone insisted that they had never seen him before, and the room that he had been inside looked completely different. And then he had seen that girl come out of the box to beg for his help. He was sure of what he had witnessed.
Kazuya agonized over his thoughts for a long while, then opened his eyes.
He felt himself tightly gripping something in his hand. He looked down, and saw a box wrapped with a red ribbon. The box contained a pipe-stand, exquisitely shaped into a slipper, which he had bought as soon as he arrived in Sauvrème—his present for Victorique.
His thoughts turned to her. I’m positive that I wasn’t daydreaming. If Victorique were here, she would solve the mystery in an instant, then yawn and complain that she was bored again. I know she would. Victorique, if only you were here…
Her husky voice played back in his head. It all stems from desire, you see!
The barest glimmer of hope returned to Kazuya’s eyes.
A scene floated up in his mind: his friend, in the silent conservatory at the very top of the library, expounding on the boom in ghost stories—the sight of her face, so small and strange, and yet so brilliant above all; and the sound of the words she spoke in that husky voice of an old woman…
That most basic human desire—to be one with the unseeable and unknowable. Some seek it in religion. Because no one has ever seen God. Some seek it in romance. Because love is also intangible. And now others have begun to seek it in ghost stories….
She had scoffed at him when he claimed that he would never believe in the supernatural. Whenever something happens that can’t be explained, people like you are always the first ones to cave in.
Kazuya nodded in determination. A relieved smile rose unbidden to his lips. Oh, Victorique … cruel, fickle, arrogant Victorique, who infuriates me so. I know you would believe me, and listen to what I have to say. Of course, you’d also get grumpy and mock me and hurl all sorts of insults, but you would still find out the truth for me. There’s no way everything that’s happened can be just a daydream. These are all fragments. It might be a headache of a mystery for me, but for Victorique, they’re all fragments of chaos. She would reconstruct them on the spot, a mere trifle for a captive princess to pass the time away when she’s dying of boredom! Besides, Victorique was throwing such a tantrum at me yesterday…
In the conservatory at the top of the library, Victorique was flailing around her little hands and feet like a petulant child, and said this:
I give you until tomorrow to get mixed up into some strange case, even if you have to die in the process.
There is nothing to fear. If I’m in the mood, then I’ll solve it for you quickly enough.
…If she was in the mood. That line made Kazuya slightly worried—no, make that very worried, but it was the only option that came to mind. And so he decided to head toward a café across the street from Jeantan.
The strange beggar boy scurried after him.
The informal sidewalk café was bustling with lunchtime customers. Kazuya asked a waiter if he could use the telephone, and was cheerfully handed the phone at the front of the store.
Kazuya took the receiver, and asked the operator to connect him to St. Marguerite’s School.
Next he heard Cécile’s carefree voice over the line. “Kujou, did you find the Blue Rose?”
Kazuya replied distractedly, “Not right now, Miss Cécile. Let me speak to Victorique, please!”
“Did you get a hankering to hear her voice?”
“…That sounds very creepy, and I would prefer you not say such things. No, this is an emergency—”
“Suuure, an emergency. I’ll just tell Miss Victorique that you were hankering to hear her voice, so you made up an emergency just so you’d have an excuse to call her all the way from Sauvrème….”
“Absolutely not! Wait, Miss Cécile? You better not say that!”
But Cécile only giggled, ignoring Kazuya’s cries, and set the phone down. Kazuya buried his head in his hands, fretting over the possibility that perhaps she wasn’t kidding, and she really was going to tell Victorique that.
Because he had no doubt that Victorique herself would never feel lonely or want to hear his voice no matter how far away he was. Far from it; she probably wouldn’t even notice that he was gone. Even if he stayed away from school for a week, or a month, she would just bury herself in a hill of books in the conservatory, smoking her pipe, never sparing him a moment’s thought until the day he came back, and then all she would say to him would be, Oh, you again, unable to motivate herself to give him more than a single bored glance.
Tch! These thoughts were making Kazuya feel lonely. And oddly infuriated. An endless litany of Victorique’s faults ran through his mind. Pigheaded, arrogant Victorique! Scrawny, crybaby, captive Victorique…
Somehow, it only made him feel worse.
Victorique still hadn’t come to the phone.
The early summer’s dazzling sunlight shone in through the front of the café, reflected by the white cobblestones on the street…