Sato sat at his desk, fanning himself with a thin white and red paper fan that looked like a heart on a small handle, and waited for the dull buzz in his head to die down. Ses Fujimori, Kazuo Takahashi, Mai Sakamoto, the superintendent general, Michiko Hayashi: voices roiling in his head, and all he saw was Kimi Yamada’s beaten face, and Miki’s weak smile beneath her oxygen mask. He stared at his desk, fanned himself, and kept thinking of everything, and nothing.
Then Abe’s phone rang.
“Damn,” he thought. “Will this never end?”
After a deep breath and long exhale, he walked to Abe’s desk, wondering what else could interfere with the investigation.
“This is Sato.”
Mrs. Abe seemed startled to hear a voice other than her son’s. But she recovered quickly, and her words fell like a waterfall. Before he was aware of it, Sato was settling in to listen to whatever Abe’s mother had to say, trying to ease into a state where he could endure the harmless diversion.
But he heard anxiety in the old woman’s voice as she hoarsely whispered that since she was talking to Inspector Sato himself, she had to share something she heard from one of the delivery boys. She explained how Taki made deliveries for old Kamiya’s brasserie, Mr. Edano’s sobu shop, Mrs. Fukuyama’s tempura shop, and of course, Abe’s ramen shop. The delivery “boys” were, as Sato well knew, old men. Taki, for example, was gray as a dirty raincloud, with yellowed teeth and milky eyes, and was stubborn beyond reason. But they delivered the food and collected the dishes, and the system worked. One of the side benefits of using the delivery boys was learning the latest gossip.
Sato sighed, not wanting to interrupt Mrs. Abe.
“And Taki is a one-man neighborhood watch. One place he doesn’t like is an ugly old place two streets over. It’s filled with the worst sort of people. Like today,” she said.
“Taki says a ‘young punk up to no good’ is there off and on, with one of those noisy motorbikes, you know the kind, and sometimes he’s there with women, and sometimes with girls not even high school age, and the most loathsome creatures stopping by day and night, not staying long. I wonder why Ken never told you about it. Well, sometimes this person orders food and sometimes beer or something even stronger, and sometimes there’s an odor. Taki thinks it smells like one of those opium dens. Not that I would know. But Taki says there has to be something illegal going on.”
“I see,” Sato said.
Mrs. Abe went on to report that the delinquent was back, because he saw his motorbike, but this time there were two motorbikes, and no food orders he knew of.
“Taki is convinced something bad is happening again. ‘Those kids are no good,’” he said. And Taki told me he saw the landlady, and he asked her about him and she said this time the kid showed up with another kid, drunk out of their minds, and fighting like I don’t know what. She said, ‘They drink, pass out, and then wake up again. Kids don’t have any direction, anything better to do.’ And the landlady left, like she didn’t care!”
Sato had barely been listening to Mrs. Abe when something in his mind caught “two motorbikes.”
“Mrs. Abe –”
“I tell you, Taki has it bad again, going on about that motorbike fella. Now he says there are two motorbikes. Not one motorbike, but two motorbikes, and he’s twice as wound up,” she chuckled, happy with her own wit.
“Two motorbikes…” Sato said, is if in a trance. His thoughts fell into a rhythm: two motorbikes, two motorbikes …
Surprised, Mrs. Abe said, “Yes. He says there’s usually one. Now there’s two.”
Sato did not think it was possible. “Has Taki picked up the dishes?”
“No, there’s nothing to pick up.”
“Is he there now? May I speak to him?”
“Why? What is it?”
“Probably nothing. But is he there?” he asked.
“No. Why would he be…?” She did not understand why something old Taki said suddenly had such serious overtones with the inspector. She had meant to ask him to have her son call her.
“Have Taki call, Mrs. Abe, have him call right away.”
Saying she would, she hung up and spent the next few minutes tracking down the old man, leaving her shop to her husband, who had not been paying attention to the conversation and did not care if his wife left or not, now that the lunch rush was over.
Mrs. Abe found Taki sipping beer at the yakitori stand two doors down, and after listening to her plea, said he did not want to talk to any policeman. But Mrs. Abe persuaded him, saying it was the police inspector her son was so proud to know. It would be a great thing for her son, and since Taki was fond of Ken Abe, he agreed.
The phone in the detective’s room didn’t get off a second ring. “Hello,” Sato said with a catch in his breath. It was Taki. Sato exhaled and said, “I was wondering if you could do something for me. Can you write down the license numbers of the motorbikes you told Mrs. Abe about?”
Sato listened to the man for a moment, then said, “Yes, it’s too bad. Kids these days will lead the nation down the path of ruin. I know what you mean. Now, listen, I need those numbers now. Get them and call me. It’s important. And don’t let anyone know what you’re doing. Don’t be seen. Don’t get caught. This is between you and me, OK?”
Taki told Sato the friend of Mrs. Abe’s son that he could rely on him, and hung up, chuckling to himself. For a moment, Sato wondered if he had launched another trip down a dead end, trusting the word of an old man. A part of him cringed.
Taki set about his mission with the zeal of a teenage sleuth. He mounted his ancient bicycle and quickly rode over to the disreputable place, recited the numbers off the motorbikes to himself carefully and slowly four times, and made it back to the ramen shop and dialed Sato before his memory betrayed him. Hearing numbers that could well be a motorcycle license numbers, Sato felt a pulse of anticipation, and in his gut, a flicker of hope began to burn bright for the first time since he left the alley behind the Down Low.
Thanking Taki and not waiting for a reply, Sato hung up, then dialed for a uniformed officer, who appeared within seconds. “I’m going to need to run the licenses on some motorcycles,” he casually told the officer, hoping to hide his excitement.
“Yes, Inspector,” the officer said, quickly leaving the room.
Sato leaned back in Abe’s chair, staring at his own desk, so tidy, almost Spartan. He saw himself sitting there as others might see him, like the captain of a ship, the crew waiting and wondering what course to take, what orders to carry out. Sato believed circumstances made a man what he was. He believed bad luck could make a man or destroy a man. And he believed that bad luck, like good luck, did not last forever. Sitting in Abe’s chair, staring at himself in his mind, he began to believe the case might finally be turning from bad luck to good. And as logical as Sato believed himself to be, he knew any case, no matter how small, could turn on the head of something as simple as a delivery boy seeing something different on a delivery route, something worth gossiping about.
“Here you are, Inspector,” the young officer said after scampering up the steps, carefully approaching Sato, and laying the paper on the desk so as not to disturb the man so obviously daydreaming.
Glancing at the paper, Sato jumped up out of his chair and pounded his fist on the table. Abe, who had been climbing the steps behind the young officer, rushed into the room, startled to see the frightened young officer and the animated Sato.
“What is it?” Abe cried, quite out of breath.
Sato beamed as he told the young officer, “Thank you, that will be all,” sending the confused young man away. He then told Abe about the phone call and old Taki. As Abe listened, his confusion transformed into a smirk of conspiratorial glee.
The hunt was on.
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