Sneak Peek – Look Inside Nightshade
Friday, April 5
The girl walked toward him across the moon-silvered parking lot, the long ribbons on her tiny black top hat fluttering behind. As she passed through the shadow of the looming Komagome Shrine, all he could see was the glow of white lace on the stiff petticoat peeking out from under her flouncy black frock.
She just wanted someone to hold her hand, so she didn’t have to be alone anymore.
He smiled. Holding girls’ hands for the very last time was his specialty.
Saturday, April 6
“Yumi, it’s time to get up! You’ll be late!”
Pulling her pillow over her head, Yumi groaned. She was never going to drink again. Never. At least not at the Mad Hatter with Rika’s Goth-Lolita friends. The ones she’d been with last night looked like little girls in their Bo-Peep frocks, but they could put away cocktails like sumo wrestlers. Yumi wasn’t a Lolita herself, but her best friend had been dragging her along for so many years she’d become an honorary member of their Circle. If Rika hadn’t left so early for her mysterious date last night, they’d have gone home together as usual at a reasonable hour and Yumi wouldn’t have this pounding—
“Yumi, please,” her mother persisted, now standing over the bed. “You know that Ito-san is coming in early just for you. Don’t be late.”
Crap. Now she remembered. Her haircutter was booked solid, but he’d offered to come in at the ungodly hour of 9:00 a.m. as a favor. Tonight she had Date Number Five with Ichiro Mitsuyama. Actually, Date Number Four if she didn’t count their o-miai, the formal matchmaking introduction lunch with both sets of parents making stiff conversation at the other end of the table. After tonight it would no longer be too soon for Ichiro to raise the subject of marriage. She burrowed deeper.
“In twenty minutes you need to be on the train to Harajuku,” her mother insisted mercilessly.
Wincing, Yumi threw off the covers and struggled to her feet, making her way to what used to be the room’s bedding cupboard. Hugging herself against the cold, she pushed aside hangers until she found her green pants. A light touch was required; the clothes bar had been improvised when they’d retrofitted the eight-mat parlor as Yumi’s bedroom, and sometimes the entire thing collapsed. The Hata family had moved in with big plans, but over time, as the money needed to modernize failed to materialize, temporary fixes had settled into permanence.
As she picked out a sweater, her mother couldn’t resist adding, “If you hadn’t stayed out so late with Rika and her Freeter friends . . .”
Yumi grabbed some underwear and quickly shuffled to the bathroom to avoid the familiar lecture. It wasn’t unusual for grown children to live at home until they married, but after being pushed and prodded through school, a growing number of Japanese graduates just stepped off the treadmill. If they didn’t land a job in their chosen fields, they refused to get married or launch any kind of career. Freeters lived at home, worked part-time day jobs, and cruised the clubs at night.
At least I’ve got a real job, thought Yumi, shutting the bathroom door. Sort of. Interpreting lectures on penile dysfunction for convention-going urologists, and professorial ramblings on “The Splendor of Longing in The Tale of Genji,” wasn’t exactly something to brag about to her former English Lit professors at Boston College, but at least she wasn’t working at a tea ceremony sweetshop like her friend Coco. She sighed, regretting for the thousandth time that she hadn’t been able to land a job in America with a permanent resident visa attached.
Glancing in the mirror, she hoped her haircutter had made a big donation at his local shrine this year. Today it would take some divine intervention to transform her into anything remotely resembling a potential Mrs. Mitsuyama.
Pulling her shoulder-length hair into a spiky ponytail, she splashed water on her face. Better. Did the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled made up for her sickly pallor? Better not answer that before chugging a bottle of Ukon no Chikara hangover cure on the way to the subway station. Nose nearly touching the glass, she inspected the dark circles under her eyes and prodded the slightly painful spot next to her nose, hoping it wouldn’t turn into something red and hideous by tonight. Fortunately, Ito-san—makeup wizard as well as haircutter—used industrial-strength foundation that had proven effective before at fixing the ravages of the Mad Hatter.
In the kitchen she found her mother settling a pickled plum into the middle of a bowl of breakfast rice. She handed it to Yumi and poured her a cup of green tea. Yumi noticed a large empty sake bottle sitting by the back door next to the nonburnable trash. Uh-oh, it hadn’t been there yesterday when she’d come home from her interpreting job.
“Did Dad come home early yesterday?” she asked, picking the plum off her rice and squinching up her face at its salty sourness.
“Yes,” her mother sighed. “Remember that professorship that’s going to be vacant next year? His interview was yesterday at three.”
“How did it go?” Yumi asked, dreading the answer.
“He says it went well.” The worry line between her mother’s brows deepened. “But he’s already predicting they’ll give it to the retiring professor’s protégé.”
“The skinny guy with the terrible teeth?” Yumi frowned. “Isn’t he a lot younger than Dad?”
“Yes, but apparently he won a prize recently. And his area of specialization is popular right now. He’s already written three books.”
They contemplated that fact in silence. After twelve years, Yumi’s father’s magnum opus still wasn’t quite done. His angry outbursts on the “publish or perish” dictum he blamed for his series of temporary professorships were never mentioned within the family. Every time he’d been passed over for a permanent position during their years in America, he’d spend the first week nursing his disappointment with liberal doses of sake, then he’d dig in for several weeks of feverish writing and research on After the Black Ships: Japanese-American Trade as an Instrument of Change. Eventually he would run out of energy and put the project aside until inspiration returned—usually when another coveted chair was awarded to a rival.
Then his mother died, leaving them this house in Tokyo. Yumi was transplanted from the third grade class at Boston Elementary to Komagome Shōgakko, and Dr. Hata took a lecturing position in the history department at Toda University. They’d all hoped that moving back to Japan would bring a change in his fortunes, that perhaps at Toda he’d be judged by the quality of his scholarship, not by his failure to publish. But as the years slipped by and he continued to be passed over for promotion, the plans for renovating the drafty old house grew outdated and Yumi learned to make herself scarce when she saw her mother’s lips set in a thin line and empty sake bottles by the back door.
Yumi rinsed out her bowl, detoured to her room to toss her phone into her purse, then scuffed on some shoes by the front door, calling a hasty “Itte kimasu” as she escaped the dim, cramped house.
A handful of cherry blossom petals fluttered by in the fresh spring wind, and Yumi began to feel better. At the Family Mart on the way to the station, she ducked in to buy a can of hangover elixir and downed it right outside the store, tossing the empty can into the recycle bin.
Crossing the bridge near the subway station, she discovered that a few of the trees lining the tracks had turned into princesses overnight. It still thrilled her each spring when, among the regiments of bare, brown trees, a few suddenly revealed themselves as blossom-crowned royalty. Even the hoary old cherry tree at the Komagome Shrine was beginning to flower, changing from a crusty old man to a dowager queen. A gust of wind swayed the heavy, rice-straw rope on the torii gate as she crossed the intersection to the subway station.
Waving her train pass over the turnstile sensor, she didn’t even slow as it beeped her through. A train was still paused at the platform, but the doors closed with a sigh just as she came within range. The train pulled away.
Four minutes until the next one would arrive. Time to call Rika. Pulling out her mobile, Yumi flipped it open and was surprised by a picture of the scary, rooster-haired band Moi dix Mois on the display.
She groaned. This wasn’t her phone.
She and Rika had gone to the Docomo store together to buy new phones a few weeks ago. As usual, they’d decided on the same model, and, after a brief argument, the same color. There’d never been any danger of a mix-up before, because Rika always transferred her collection of phone ornaments. The thick tassel of little figures on their strings was a living record of Rika’s enthusiasms and travels since first grade, but she hadn’t switched her collection to this phone yet. Rika must have scooped up the wrong one when she left the Mad Hatter.
Yumi would have to remember not to answer any calls today, unless the display showed they came from her own number.
Scrolling through Rika’s address book, she found her own name and hit Send. The call went immediately to voicemail. She asked herself to leave a message. That was strange—Rika always picked up, even when she was sound asleep. Was she . . . with someone?
Rika had been awfully closemouthed about where she was going last night and whom she was meeting. The only thing she’d admitted was that she’d seen a new editor that afternoon, some guy interested in a freelance piece she was pitching.
That was why she’d been dressed so strangely. Well, strangely for Rika, anyway. Ever since middle school, Yumi had rarely seen her in anything but thigh-high, lace-edged stockings, frilly pink dresses, and eccentric little French-maid mobcaps. Rika was the queen of the Sweet Lolitas, girls who demonstrated their commitment to each other by dressing in variations on Little Bo Peep. Outsiders often made the mistake of thinking the Lolitas were trying to appeal to men with weird fetishes, but that was before they saw the scorn Rika and her friends heaped on salarymen who looked at them the wrong way. All the Lolitas—Sweet, Goth, Elegant, Punk—put on confidence and style when they tied the ribbons of their frothy hats beneath their chins, no matter how shy or awkward they’d been before. One end of the spectrum was defined by petticoats, Mary Janes, and bonnets, the other by artfully tattered dresses, black-buckled boots, and top hats.
That’s why all Rika’s parasol-toting friends at the Mad Hatter had turned to stare when she’d appeared last night in a navy blue suit and high heels. Clearly the new editor she’d been meeting didn’t work atGothXLoli magazine, where Rika was a staff writer. And whoever she’d had a date with last night hadn’t been a member of her Circle, either.
Yumi heard the train approaching as the phone’s low-battery icon glowed red. She texted, dying to hear about last night CALL ME, and pushed Send.
Saturday, April 6
Tokyo Metropolitan Police Detective Kenji Nakamura leaned his tall frame against the side of the squad car and watched as Assistant Detective Suzuki arranged roadblocks across the entrance to the Komagome Shrine’s parking lot. A slight breeze lifted the wings of his thick, nearly-black hair, reminding him he ought to get it cut on the way to judo practice tomorrow. Once a would-be girlfriend had embarrassed him by saying it drew attention to his dreamy eyes, but Kenji found it annoying to have his hair in his face all the time.
He squinted as the sun began to break through the trees. It was a good thing Shinto priests started work early—one of them had noticed the lone Lexus shortly after 7:30 a.m. and had called the police as soon as he saw what was inside.
Kenji had been a detective for nearly a year, but these were the first suspicious deaths he’d been called to investigate. Crime in Tokyo tended toward burglary and assault; murder was rare, usually the work of drunken family members who dutifully turned themselves in afterward and confessed.
Not that these deaths would require much investigation—it looked like a garden-variety suicide pact, the kind that had become all too common. Now that the Internet made it so convenient, the despairing could plan their final deadly get-togethers as easily as cherry blossom viewing picnics. A flurry of spent petals whirled past him like a small blizzard, the classic Japanese reminder that life is fleeting.
Kenji sighed and pulled on his police-issue white cotton gloves.
He bent to peer through the window at the three bodies inside. A middle-aged man and woman in front, a young woman in back.
The twenty-something girl was obviously a Goth-Lolita, one of the doll-like eccentrics who dressed exclusively in black and white, right down to the Buddhist rosary she’d chosen to clasp while saying her final prayers. She wore thigh-high, black stockings and platform Mary Janes under lace-edged, white petticoats and a short, ruffled, black dress. A tiny top hat, jauntily canted over one ear, tied under her chin with ribbons that trailed to her waist. In her fingerless, black velvet gloves and studded-leather choker with dangling crucifixes, she must have made an arresting mixture of innocence and decay. Her heavy makeup gave her an artificial appearance, yet there was something familiar about her.
Kenji frowned. What was a twenty-something Goth-Lolita doing in a car with a couple old enough to be her parents?
He opened the front door on the passenger side and unlatched the glove box. Inside, registration papers listed the owner’s name: Mr. Tatsuo Hamada, with a Shirogane address.
“Excuse me, sir?”
Suzuki stood at attention on the other side of the car, having secured the shrine entrance with multiple barriers against incursion by worshippers, tourists, and passing imperial armies. Kenji wasn’t quite used to having a kōhai to mentor yet. Being called “sir”—as allkōhais properly called their sempais—still made him look around to see whom Suzuki was addressing.
His new assistant’s attention to the finer points of the regulations was impeccable, if a little hard to take first thing in the morning. Suzuki had graduated from university two years behind Kenji and was on the same National Public Servant Career Group fast track, but he was so new to the Komagome detective detail that his suit hadn’t even been to the cleaners yet. And his haircut would have to grow out for months to even slightly threaten the dress code.
“What shall I tell the priests, sir? There’s apparently a wedding scheduled later and they’re becoming anxious.”
Kenji glanced at the knot of men muttering to each other under the cherry trees. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples divided the business of life and death neatly down the middle: Everything to do with life and the living fell to the Shinto priests, while the Buddhists took care of death and the afterlife. It was such bad luck to have a death at a Shinto shrine that the priests would have to do some serious parking-lot purifying before the wedding party arrived.
“I’ll talk to them in a minute. I doubt this is anything but suicide, but we should cover ourselves. Could you give the crime tech unit a call? And arrange transport for the bodies?”
“Which hospital, sir?”
Kenji thought for a moment. Komagome Hospital was closest, but if it turned out there was anything suspicious about the deaths, the bodies would be transferred to the Tokyo University School of Legal Medicine.
“Let’s decide after the tech team finishes. Call them first.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
Suzuki walked away, pulling out his phone. Kenji called after him, “Suzuki-san? Could you fetch some tea? If the priests don’t have any, try the Family Mart across the street.” Being a sempai did have its advantages.
He returned his attention to the bodies.
The man in the driver’s seat had died holding hands with the woman next to him. Two unlabeled prescription bottles sat near the gearshift, and a half-empty bottle of good sake lay on its side by the driver’s foot. Matching cups sat on the dashboard, the one on the passenger side stained with pale pink lipstick.
They were conservatively—but expensively—dressed. The woman’s hair was glossy black, but would have been peppered with gray if she hadn’t colored it. Lines on her face were beginning to show through her careful makeup. She was close enough to the man in age that Kenji suspected she was his wife, not his mistress.
A thick, business-size envelope sat propped behind the steering wheel. Given the empty pill bottles and the old-fashioned charcoal burner he’d spied squatting on the floor in the back seat, Kenji bet he’d find a suicide note inside. He’d read it after photos were taken.
He pulled open the back door. The girl still puzzled him. How did she fit in? The small handbag on her lap most likely contained her ID, but he didn’t want to disturb anything until the tech team was finished examining the scene.
Unfolding himself from the Lexus, Kenji turned in a circle, surveying the surroundings.
What a beautiful place to die. Kenji had grown up in the neighborhood, but had seldom stopped to appreciate the serenity of the shrine while cutting through it on his way home from school. Thesugi trees lining the parking lot cast long shadows over the asphalt. Their subtle cedar fragrance perfumed the breeze, a scent evoking the very soul of Japan. A red lacquer torii gate stood solemnly over the entrance to the shrine path, which passed beneath it into a frothy pink tunnel of blooming cherry trees. Beyond, the shrine stretched its red and gold wings above the awakening gardens. It would have been a fine day for a wedding.
“The crime technicians are here, sir,” said Suzuki, appearing at his elbow with a steaming cup of hot green tea. He leaned in to whisper, “Just to warn you, we got the foreigner.”
Kenji accepted the tea and information with thanks and watched as his assistant jogged over to move the roadblock. He’d never met Crime Technician Tommy Loud, but that name had frequently been the subject of Australian stereotype jokes in both English and Japanese, as had his employment in the notoriously clubby National Police Administration. According to the gossip, Loud’s appointment had nothing to do with his degree in Legal Sciences from Jikei University. Everybody knew he’d been hired because of his wife.
The daughter of the Superintendent General of the Metropolitan Police had inexplicably and defiantly eloped with this gangly red-haired foreigner who shared her passion for the novels of Yasunari Kawabata. Only the news of an imminent grandchild and a job offer in Sydney had finally convinced the Superintendent General to abandon his hopes for a speedy divorce and pull strings instead.
A van rolled to a stop just inside the entrance and the Australian jumped out, toting a digital camera. He jogged toward them, stopping a few feet away to bow at the proper angle for greeting a Detective-grade officer. “Good morning, I’m Tommy Loud, from the crime lab. Sorry it took me so long to get here,” he said in impeccable Japanese.
Kenji’s mouth dropped open. It was like hearing a dog speak. He stammered his own name in reply.
“Ah, Nakamura-san, a pleasure to meet you. Nice day for some suspicious deaths, ne?”
“Not so suspicious, Rowdy-san,” Kenji replied, recovering from his shock but mispronouncing Loud’s name in the typical Japanese fashion. “Group suicide. Looks pretty open and shut.”
Suicide wasn’t a crime, but they had to go through the motions, just in case. Unless compelling evidence emerged to the contrary, the file would be inscribed “jisatsu,” the case closed, and the bodies released for cremation within a day or two.
Loud nodded, already fiddling with his camera. “Shall we start with the car?”
Kenji nodded. “I’ll be over there, talking to the priests if you need me. If we need a wider perimeter, I’ll let you know.”
Loud directed his three blue-jumpsuited assistants to fetch evidence bags and begin searching a grid around the Lexus while he photographed the victims.
Grabbing his cooling tea and still marveling at hearing fluent Japanese from such an unlikely source, Kenji approached the priests. Bowing respectfully, he said, “Good morning, kannushi-san. I’m Detective Kenji Nakamura. Who discovered the bodies?”
A thin, nervous man in white robes and the traditional, black, oven-mitt-like headdress stepped forward. “I was the one who called 110. When I came out shortly after sunrise to make sure there was nothing inappropriate in the parking lot before the wedding today, I found . . . this.” His eyes flicked unwillingly to the silver car, then back to Kenji.
“What do you mean by ‘inappropriate,’ kannushi-san?”
The priest exchanged glances with an elderly priest, robed in green, with a long, thin beard.
“The parking lot is surrounded by trees,” he explained. “It’s one of the few places in Tokyo that can’t be seen from neighboring buildings. Sometimes young people come here for . . . privacy.”
“Ah. Couples that can’t afford a love hotel?”
“Sometimes. And sometimes it’s kids, raiding the Suntory vending machine behind the pachinko parlor and bringing their cans of chū-hai here to get drunk.”
“Foreign kids,” interrupted the older priest.
“Well, not always,” said the young one. “But when I saw the mess by the path, I was pretty sure it was just young people sleeping it off in their parents’ car before driving home. I was hoping they spoke some Japanese because my English isn’t so good. I went over to roust them, but when I looked in the window . . .” He shuddered.
“Where is this ‘mess by the path’ you mentioned?”
The priest stood aside and pointed to a splat of vomit in the bushes next to a sign pointing the way to the shrine. Kenji stepped over to look, then bent down to peer into the thicket of azaleas surrounding the cherry trees.
“When can we start cleaning up?” asked the old priest. “I don’t know if your colleague mentioned it, but . . .”
“Yes, I know, the wedding.” Kenji looked back at the car. Loud was bent awkwardly into the back seat, his camera flash bouncing around inside like caged lightning. “Let me get our crime scene specialists over here to collect any evidence that might relate to our investigation, then we’ll let you do whatever you need to do.”
Kenji began to walk back toward the Lexus, then turned and asked, “What will you tell the wedding party?”
“Nothing they’ll be happy to hear.” The young priest sighed.
Kenji returned to the car as Loud was putting away his camera. “Okay if I look in her purse now?” he asked.
“Go ahead,” said the tech. “But put everything back when you’re done. Let me know when you’re finished so I can bag it up properly.”
“While you’re waiting, there’s a white mobile phone in the bushes over by the path to the shrine. Collect that and anything else that looks like it was dropped since the last rain, including a sample of the vomit by the phone.”
“Will do.” Loud grabbed two of his assistants and steered them toward the torii gate.
Kenji leaned into the car and gently pulled the handbag from the girl’s hands. He unsnapped it and peered inside. Cheap gel pen, a piece of paper smeared with something that was the same color as the vomit by the path, and a thin, spiral-bound notebook. No phone, no ID. A ¥5,000 note was tucked into a side pocket. As he replaced the bag on the girl’s lap, he noticed the corner of a rumpled, white envelope poking from her skirt pocket. Kenji teased it out and read the front. Clearly it wasn’t intended for the “Mother and Father” in the front seat, who wouldn’t be around to read it. Maybe there was a name on the note inside. Careful not to tear the envelope, Kenji lifted the flap and drew out a sheet of folded stationery.
It was blank.