Authors: Keigo Higashino
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OSAMU NONOGUCHI'S ACCOUNT
The incident took place on April 16, 1996, a Tuesday.
I left my house at three thirty in the afternoon to go to Kunihiko Hidaka's place, which was only one station away by train. From the train station, you then had to take a bus, but even after adding in walking time, I could make the trip in twenty minutes.
I would often drop in on my friend for no particular reason; however, today was different. This time I had a purpose in mind. If I didn't go today, I might not have the chance to see him again for quite some time.
His house was in a residential development and was one of the many upscale houses on his street. Some of the others would even qualify as mansions. The area had been forest once, and many of the owners had kept some of the original trees as part of their landscaping. The beech trees and oaks were tall enough to cast shade on the road.
Though roads in this part of town weren't particularly narrow, they were all one-way. I guess that this was simply another indication of the residents' status.
I wasn't particularly surprised when, a few years ago, Hidaka bought a house in this neighborhood. Anyone in the area with any ambition at all dreamed of living here someday.
Hidaka's house wasn't one of the mansions, but it was definitely large for a couple with no children. Though the peaked gables on the roof gave it a Japanese look, it had bay windows, an arch over the front door, and flower boxes hanging from the second-story windows that were clearly Western in design. The house was the result of the application of ideas from both husband and wife, I reckoned, although, considering the low brick wall around the house, the balance seemed skewed in the wife's favor. She once admitted to me that she always wanted to live in an old, European-style castle. His wife was odd like that.
Correction. His late wife.
I walked along the wall, which was laid so only the long sides of the bricks faced the street, and pressed the intercom button by the gate.
There was no answer. Then I noticed the Saab was missing from the driveway.
Guess he's stepped out,
I was wondering how to pass the time while waiting for him to return when I remembered the cherry tree in Hidaka's garden. The buds had been about 30 percent open the last time I was there, which was ten days ago. I wondered how the buds were coming along.
I let myself in through the gate, figuring it wasn't too much of a transgression. The path to the front door split into two along the way, with the offshoot leading toward the south side of the house. I followed that one to the garden.
A number of the cherry blossoms had already fallen, but enough were left on the tree to make it worthwhile viewing. That is, it would have been, if it hadn't been for the woman, a woman I didn't know, standing in the garden, looking down at the ground. She was dressed casually, in jeans and a sweater, and had something white and crumpled in her hand.
“Hello?” I called out.
She seemed startled and looked up at me quickly. “Oh, I'm sorry.” She showed me what was in her hand: a white hat. “The wind caught it and carried it into the garden. I didn't see anyone homeâI'm sorry.”
She looked to be in her late thirties. Eyes, nose, and mouth small and unremarkable. A plain-faced woman with an unhealthy cast to her skin. For a moment, I wondered about her story, if the wind had really been blowing hard enough to carry a hat.
“Is there something interesting on the ground there?” I asked.
She smiled. “The grass was growing in so nicely, I wondered how they were taking care of it.”
“I wish I could tell you.” I shrugged. “This is my friend's house.”
She nodded. It seemed to me that she'd already realized I didn't live here. “Sorry for the intrusion,” she said quickly, then walked past me to the front gate.
About five minutes later I heard a car pulling into the driveway. It was Hidaka. I walked around to the front door to see his navy-blue Saab backing into the garage. Hidaka noticed me standing there and nodded. In the passenger seat, his new wife, Rie, smiled and bowed her head.
“Sorry,” he said, getting out of the car. “I just stepped out to do some last-minute shopping, and the traffic was terrible. Have you been waiting long?”
“I was enjoying your cherry blossoms.”
“What's left of them.”
“It's a beautiful tree.”
He grinned. “Yeah, it's great when it's in bloom, but after that? It's a real pain in the ass. That tree's right next to my office window and you should see the caterpillars.”
“Then it's lucky you won't be working here for a while.”
“Anything to escape caterpillar hell. Come on inside. We still haven't packed all the cups so I can at least offer you some coffee.”
We went in through the arched entryway.
Practically everything in the house was already boxed up. Even the paintings had disappeared from the walls.
“You almost done packing?” I asked.
“All but the office,” Hidaka said. “Not that we did much of it ourselves. We had the moving company come in a few times.”
“Where're you going to sleep tonight?”
“I made a reservation at a hotel. The Crown. Except, I might end up sleeping here anyway.”
We went into his office. It was decent size and looked oddly vacant with just a computer, a desk, and a small bookshelf remaining.
“I take it you've got a deadline tomorrow?”
Hidaka frowned and nodded. “Yeah, it's the last in a series. I have to send it to my publisher by fax tonight, if you can believe that. That's why I haven't turned off the phones yet.”
“How many pages do you have left to write?”
“Thirty or so. I'll make it.”
We sat in a couple of chairs facing each other by the corner of the desk. Rie came in, bringing the coffee.
“I wonder how the weather is in Vancouver. It's got to be colder than here,” I said to both of them.
“It's a completely different latitude, so it's definitely colder.”
“But it's nice that it'll be cool in the summer,” Rie added. “I never liked having to run the air-conditioning all the time.”
“I'd like to think that a cool breeze through the office will help me get more work done, but we both know that's not going to happen,” Hidaka said with a grin.
“You should definitely come visit us, Osamu. We'll take you on a tour,” Rie offered.
“Thanks. I'll take you up on that.”
“Please do.” Rie bowed slightly. “I'll leave you two to it, then.” She headed back downstairs.
Hidaka stood, coffee cup in hand, and went over to the window. “I'm glad I got to see the cherry tree in full bloom at least.”
“Hey, if it blooms nice next year, I'll take a picture and send it to you in Canada. Do they have cherry trees over there?”
“No idea. I know there's none near the place I'll be living, at least.” He took a sip of his coffee.
“That reminds me. There was a woman in your garden a little while ago, before you got here.” At first, I'd been hesitant to tell him.
“Oh, yeah?” Hidaka frowned.
I told him about the woman, and his suspicious frown turned into a wry smile. “Did her face look like one of those round-headed, wooden
“Yeah, now that you mention it, it did.” I laughed.
“Yeah, her last name's Niimi. Lives down the street. She might look young, but she's definitely over forty. Rie thinks she's married, but that her husband works in another city and they have one of those distance-marriage arrangements.”
“You seem to know her. Are you friends?”
“Hardly.” He opened the window and closed the screen. A warm breeze blew in, carrying with it the smell of leaves. “Quite the opposite, actually. I believe she has a grudge against me.”
“A grudge? What for?”
“A cat. Her cat died the other day. Apparently she found it lying by the road. When she took it to a veterinarian, he told her he thought it had been poisoned.”
“What does that have to do with you?”
“She thinks I'm responsible. That I put out a poisoned meatball and her cat ate it.”
“Seriously? Why would she think that?”
“Oh, that's the best part.” Hidaka pulled a magazine off the bookshelf and opened it. “Take a look.”
It was an essay, entitled “The Limits of Patience,” and Hidaka's photo was next to the title. The essay was about a cat that had a habit of wandering onto the author's property and bothering him. Every morning, he found cat poop in the garden, pawprints on the hood of his car, and his potted plants shredded. He'd seen a white-and-brown-speckled cat around, knew it was the culprit, but could do nothing about it. He'd tried everything he could think of but nothing worked. An old wives' tale says that cats are afraid of their reflections, so, in desperation, he lined up plastic bottles filled with water in the hope that the cat would see itself in these makeshift mirrors and be scared away. But that didn't work at all. The gist of this short essay was that the limits of his patience were tested daily.
“And the deceased was a white-and-brown-speckled cat?” I asked.
“Something like that, yeah.”
“I see. No wonder she thinks you're the culprit.”
“Last week, she comes over with this dark look on her face. She didn't accuse me of poisoning her cat outright, but she implied it strongly. Rie told her she was crazy and sent her packing. I thought that was end of itÂ â¦ but if she's been snooping around in the garden, I must still be her prime suspect. She's probably looking for poisoned meatballs.”
“Persistent, isn't she?”
“Oh, women like that always are.”
“Doesn't she know you're moving to Canada?”
“Rie explained that we were moving to Vancouver in a week, so why would we worry about a cat we only had to deal with a little while longer? She may not look it, but when it comes to a fight, Rie can really dig in.” Hidaka laughed deeply.
“Well, she has a point. I can't see any reason why you guys would bother to kill that cat.”
For some reason, Hidaka didn't respond right away. He just grinned, looking out the window. He finished his coffee before saying, “I did do it, you know.”
“Huh?” I said, unable to grasp his meaning immediately. “Did what?”
“I killed the cat. I killed it with poisoned meatballs that I put out in our garden. I didn't really think it would work, at least not as well as it did.”
I thought he was pulling my leg until I saw his face. He was smiling, but it wasn't the kind of smile that went with a joke.