Investigating the apparent murder of a potter in Kyoto, Saitou comes across the most aggravating — and perhaps the most intriguing — witness of his career.
At first it had seemed like an interesting case: a rich old potter killed in a deadly struggle, his house picked clean of valuable works of art, and not a single lead to be found by any of the ordinary police. But a day and no further information into it, Saitou’s opinion on the matter had changed drastically. As if it wasn’t enough that every single person he’d visited so far had been belligerent, self-promoting, and determined to cast suspicion on anyone who didn’t play in with their own little agenda, the next name on the questioning list had to live half a day outside of town.
He would have just avoided this one entirely for the moment and concentrated on the more reasonably-placed, but too many signs pointed in this direction, so the trek had to be made. The one consolation was that it was a beautiful day and a pleasant walk… but if the suspect turned out to be anything like Sabei Rakutou and Koniku Moshimu, the men he’d just spent three hours dredging up out of Kyoto’s artisans’ district and trying to get a non-biased answer out of, Saitou was afraid that the weather and the landscape would be wasted on him on the return trip.
Ancient, worn, colorless shack, kiln that looked like it received a good deal more care and upkeep than the man’s actual home… everything appeared much the same here as it had in the last two places he’d investigated, except that, not being in the city, it all felt twice as rustic and removed from reality. Saitou restrained a sigh as he realized that the man who lived in such a setting was likely to be similarly twice as eccentric and difficult to deal with as the previous two.
Beyond that, as he stood still and took in all the details, he felt something unexpected. Away from the confusion of the city populace, certain of his senses of discernment were sharpened, and there was definitely someone nearby who was… stronger… than anything he’d expected to find up here. That would explain why the others had assured him so unanimously that this suspect was easily capable of the crime.
The door of the shack opened and a man appeared. “What do you want?”
Outwardly Saitou’s gaze was as composed and disinterested as ever, but inside he was shaken. This couldn’t possibly be the person he was looking for. Granted, Sabei and Koniku had both referred to the suspect as a young man (well, the words had actually been ‘upstart’ and ‘kid’), but Saitou had assumed they meant he was only in his mid-seventies rather than the late hundreds they seemed to be tottering through. This man couldn’t be much older than Saitou was, and wore it better at that. Moreover, if he was a potter, he hid it well: unless his work weighed as much as a carriage or small building, there was really no reason for an artist to have that kind of muscular definition; and although he had no visible weapon, his was the bearing of a warrior and a ki to match. Suspicious indeed. Beyond that, something in the back of Saitou’s head had awakened suddenly and was telling him that he might have heard something at some point about… swordsman… potter… mountain… what was it?
“I’m looking for Niitsu Kakunoshin,” he said.
“You found him. Who are you?”
“Lt. Investigator Fujita Gorou, Kyoto police.”
“And what do you want?”
Well, the difficult-to-deal-with part was proving true already. People lived on a mountain and automatically thought the altitude put them above the law. “I need to ask you a few questions.”
Niitsu’s expression did not promise much compliance. “I have done nothing and seen nothing that the police would be interested in, but if you must ask, go ahead.” He spoke in a tone that suggested he expected disbelief, but only because people were fools.
Saitou empathized, but his sympathy would have been greater if he hadn’t been the one who was by implication a fool. “I didn’t say I thought I’d find you remotely interesting,” he replied coolly.
Any satisfying return would have to be an outright insult, and speaking thus to an investigating officer was a bad idea. Niitsu obviously knew this; his narrowed eyes suggested he had such a reply in mind, but all he said was, “Well?” in an impatient voice.
“Ishikaru Atare,” Saitou said.
“That’s not a question,” Niitsu pointed out.
“He was murdered last week,” Saitou continued.
“So by ‘question,’ you meant ‘rhetorical statement.'”
“It’s easier for me to gage your reaction that way.”
Niitsu’s impatience seemed to lessen just slightly at this. “Oh?”
“Why didn’t you like him?”
“Because he was obnoxious.” This time the man’s irritation sounded vague and apostrophic.
“That does seem to be the common opinion among your fellows,” Saitou nodded, then added pointedly, “in general because he exceeded everyone in artistic ability.”
“He did exceed them,” Niitsu replied, not taking the bait, “but that wouldn’t lead any of them to kill him.”
“And what might?”
Niitsu shrugged his broad shoulders. “They’re a vindictive, petty lot, but I wouldn’t have thought them murderers. Still, even the most gentle of men can kill if they believe they must.”
The very knowing tone of this statement was enough to raise the level of Saitou’s curiosity from ‘professional’ to ‘almost painful.’ “And might any of them have believed there was a pressing need for Ishikaru to die?”
“You’re asking the wrong potter, officer-san. I associate as little with my” — Niitsu cleared his throat briefly — “artistic colleagues as with anyone else.”
“As a swordsman, then,” Saitou persisted bluntly, taking a slight risk since with the way Niitsu was built he could easily be a proficient of any weapon, not just a sword; “If any of them are at all homicidal, even a slight acquaintance would be enough for you to know it.”
Niitsu made a mildly disdainful noise, whether directed at the somewhat ambiguous ‘them’ they were discussing or at Saitou the latter could not discern. “If any of them had any fighting ki worth mentioning, you surely would have detected it yourself.”
“True enough.” Perceptive, then, and not merely on a superficial level; Saitou stored away that fact along with the rest. “But as you mentioned, a situation can turn an innocent into a killer. However little time you’ve spent with them is more than I have.”
“I would not consider any of them more likely, especially, to give in to homicidal urges than anyone else I’ve known.”
There was something of ambiguity in this, a feeling that Niitsu had specific circumstances in mind that amended his meaning but of which Saitou was not aware. And Saitou did not appreciate being toyed with.
He considered his options. This conversation hadn’t exactly been direct so far, and Saitou feared that rendering it so would simply make it ridiculous. But neither was Niitsu likely to be intimidated into answering, and was obviously not inclined to be helpful on his own. And Saitou, knowing so little about him and able to divine less than he might from a regular detainee, was at a disadvantage in that he could not guess what might prompt Niitsu to be a little more forthcoming.
The potter was the most likely suspect so far — but with the amount of evidence Saitou had at this point, ‘suspect’ was too strong a term for anyone. The one consolation was that if he turned and left right now and Niitsu was the one, the artist might try to flee the area, which would be quicker and more definite evidence than any he’d yet obtained and would spare him a lot of tedious work. Saitou even thought tracking this one down might be somewhat entertaining.
Finally, with a monosyllabic indication of understanding, he nodded. “That will be all for now.”
“Oh, will it?” Niitsu snorted. But it was the quiet sarcasm of a man who has better things to do than waste his breath on defiance.
Saitou decided it would be a similar waste of breath to give him the stay-accessible-for-questioning speech, even though he was taking more questions than answers from this encounter. Without any further goodbye — rudeness the other man imitated — he turned to leave. He did not feel eyes on him as he walked away; Niitsu was obviously not the nervous type, and, if the interview had worried him in any way, wasn’t going to let Saitou see it.
At this point no hypothesis concerning Niitsu’s involvement in this matter could be made that wasn’t based on instinct… the latter felt he was important, that it would be wise to question him further whether or not he was guilty of this particular crime… but as to that specific guilt ventured no opinion just yet.
Saitou was pleased to find that, despite how unproductive the mountain visit had been, the beauty of the scenery was far from lost on him on the way home.
Chou was testing which of his hands was a mightier swordsman (the weapons being the two best pens on Saitou’s desk), contemplating going home because his boss was really late and he could just as well report tomorrow on the whole lot of jack-shit he’d discovered today. But as neither of his appendages had yet found victory, he waited a while longer. Just as he was starting to get restless, and his right thumb sore from repeated beating, Saitou finally appeared.
Chou didn’t bother getting up, even though he knew Saitou hated it when he sat at his desk, but he did put the pens away. “Hey, boss!” he greeted him. “Been here forever waitin’!”
Saitou glanced at the family of paper frogs Chou had been making before his hands had started insulting each other and begun to require a manly test of strength to settle the matter, and replied, “So I see.” Which was less lethal than what Chou had been expecting. “And what’s your report?”
“Nothin’,” Chou grumped. “Didn’t even find nobody who thought they could identify any of his shit even if I do find it. Some of them tried to be helpful, I guess, by tryin’ to describe what the pottery he made usually looks like, in case someone ’round here’s tryin’ to sell it, but that talk didn’t make too much sense from the off, and then they had to get all into ‘style’ and ‘technique’ and lost me real quick.” Chou shrugged apologetically. “These fuckin’ artsy people are in this little world of their own and it’s a million fuckin’ miles from here; I don’t think they really know anythin’ that’s goin’ on in Kyoto or anywhere close.”
He’d thought originally that it would be prudent thus to disguise as a report his complaint about dealing with artists, living or dead; but by the time he finished, it was clear by his boss’s demeanor and reactions to his words that Saitou was not only equally irritated by the events of the day and the foibles of the artistic but also fairly preoccupied with something and unlikely to give Chou a hard time for bitching.
“Anyway, maybe whoever offed him’s lyin’ low with his shit, or went somewhere else with it, or maybe don’t even wanna sell it at all… hell, maybe just hated the old guy and trashed it all. Assumin’, like you said,” he added wearily, “that it’s the same person robbed him as killed him. Fuck, if he was anythin’ like the other ancient jerk-offs I been talkin’ to all day, I’d have done both… So, did you have any luck?”
Saitou was frowning, as previously mentioned, preoccupied. “A lead, maybe. And be glad you don’t have to talk to this one.”
“Shit, another artist guy?”
“The worst one yet, and possibly the person we’re looking for: a man by the name of Niitsu Kakunoshin.”
“Oh, yeah,” Chou nodded; “heard that name a couple of times today.”
Saitou also nodded. “I want you to forget about finding the stolen goods and concentrate on researching him.”
The sword-collector gave a sigh of relief. “That sounds a helluva lot more interestin’ than talkin’ to all those other dumb fucks,” he grinned.
The dark, half-inattentive expression on Saitou’s face had not changed. “Don’t bother approaching him yourself,” he instructed, “but find out everything you can about him.”
“Right. I’ll start that tomorrow.”
“No, I want you on it right now.”
“There’s more to this Niitsu than he wants people to see, and I want to know what it is as soon as possible. We don’t need to be following pointless leads if this is the guy we want.”
“Shit, you gotta be kiddin’ me,” Chou growled. “I was only waitin’ around for you so I could report and go the hell home, and five more minutes you’d have missed me!”
“More fool you, then,” Saitou replied impassively. “Get going.”
“All right, fine,” the broomhead grated out, swept his frogs off the desk into his sleeve, and stood haughtily. He was slightly mollified when Saitou took his place in the chair — at least the boss didn’t plan on going home to his own damn bed while Chou worked his ass off — but he still wasn’t happy with the order. Nevertheless, what could he say? He left the office in a mild huff to the sound of Saitou withdrawing a large volume of files from a desk drawer and beginning to rifle through them.
As Hiten Mitsurugiryuu was based largely on observation of others, naturally anyone its master had met before would be easily recognized again; that went double for warriors and the like. But for some reason, Hiko noted the approach of that Fujita man even sooner than usual. Possibly because the officer was irksome and likely to ask him another list of stupid questions if he found him. When he found him, that is; Hiko had sensed too clearly the other’s similar if necessarily not entirely comparable talents to doubt that he would.
In light of that very consideration, Hiko didn’t bother putting his sword away or otherwise breaking the pattern of his smooth, forceful practice routine until it was absolutely necessary. It was a little refreshing, actually, to have eyes on him that seemed to follow and understand what he was doing rather than merely widening in uncomprehending (if appropriate) awe. Not that he had any particular, driving need to be understood as a swordsman, and not that even the most penetrating of spectators could do more than partially comprehend — but it was a pleasant sensation to be a little more properly observed than he was accustomed to.
And a sensation that was doomed to dissipate the moment the encroacher opened his mouth. Though he hadn’t done so yet, there really was no use delaying the inevitable, so, “And what do you want today, officer-san?” Hiko asked.
Fujita made no attempt at pleasantries — or apologies either. “What was Ishikaru like?”
Hiko sighed, lowering his weapon and turning to face the man, and answered dutifully. “He was a twitchy, paranoid little man. He never allowed anyone into his home, evidently out of fear that his techniques would be stolen.”
“Artists are in the habit of stealing from each other, then?” Fujita’s tone was at the same moment cryptic and expressive: while it was impossible to guess what he was thinking — whether he felt he was following a lead with this question or what kind of answer he expected — there was a very evident disinterest in relation to the topic. That would have been fine, except that it was such a brazen, arrogant, challenging disinterest, bordering even on disdain — it admitted complacent ignorance as if to say, There’s no way this could ever possibly be interesting enough for me to waste energy on.
Hiko frowned. “Of course artists steal from each other. As many generations as men have been creating art, do you think there’s anything left to do but steal?”
“Why bother with art, then?” Now it was almost, I dare you to try to make this interesting.
“To do it better than anyone else has ever done it before.”
“An obvious solution, but not necessarily an easy one.”
“Not for some, perhaps.”
“But for you it is?”
“Of course.” Oh, that was interesting… Hiko had nearly made some comment to supplement his remark, just now, about his rank of which the officer was ignorant. Odd that he should nearly be so careless, that the temptation should arise at all… odd, and a little irritating…
“That can’t possibly make you very popular,” Fujita said.
“Popularity is hardly my purpose in life.”
“Oh? And what is?”
Hiko thought that Fujita must be attempting with this to divine his general motivations in order more reasonably to determine whether he was likely to have killed Ishikaru. It was interesting that the officer had never actually asked whether he’d killed him — not that question, nor even where Hiko had been on such-and-such a night — and Hiko had to wonder to exactly what degree Fujita really suspected him. But, he supposed, the fact that he was here again — conversational tangents notwithstanding — was answer enough.
“Already accomplished,” he answered with no hesitation.
“Why are you still alive, then?” It was a somewhat facetious question.
“A man’s purpose in life and the total good he may be capable of doing for the world are not necessarily the same.”
“But they can be. A man whose purpose in life is ‘The total good I’m capable of doing for the world’ may be overreaching insanely, but there are some men who are that insane.”
“Well, I’m not.” It reminded him of Kenshin. He wouldn’t be surprised to hear his idiot student claim such a purpose. At least this Fujita had the sense to recognize the madness of that sort of attitude.
“Obviously. But–” Fujita threw a disdainful glance at their surroundings — “some might question your sanity, seeing the way you live.”
“You work in Kyoto, officer, but you talk as if you’ve never dealt with the people there.” Hiko’s narrowed eyes rolled slightly.
“I said ‘some.’ That includes Sabei and Koniku.”
And they were back, rather neatly at that, to the murder. It actually took some of the tension from the conversation to have it recentered around business. It was entirely possible, if a little strange, that Hiko might like the tension better. The murder certainly wasn’t interesting, and at least the other discussion had been food for thought.
“Sabei is a hopeless opium addict and Koniku lusts after his own daughter,” Hiko said calmly. “I’m sure what they have to say about me is no better, and I’m sure someone like you can tell the difference between truth and muckraking.”
“There is something like that in my job description, I believe.”
“Then I suggest you get to it.”
“When I need your suggestions,” was Fujita’s cool response, “I’ll ask for them.”
“I believe you did ask.”
“Then you’ve misunderstood this entire conversation. Shall I start it over?”
“Good god, no.”
Although they were both frustrated, Hiko thought the slightly amused smile that he seemed to feel on his face all of a sudden must look very much like the one on Fujita’s. “I didn’t kill Ishikaru,” he said after a moment.
Fujita just nodded. It almost seemed a nod of agreement, though he didn’t say anything to that purpose.
As the silence began to drag, “Will that be all for now?” wondered Hiko.
Though seeming slightly annoyed at this deliberate use of his own words from their previous interview, the officer paused only briefly before nodding again and turning away.
Before returning somewhat discontented to his routine, Hiko watched the other man walk off and disappear into the trees down the hill, his practiced eyes marking the unyielding gait and bearing of one whose mood can turn deadly if exacerbated. Who was that man? It had only been a few days… he’d talked to him twice… why did it already seem that this Fujita was going to become quite a fixed thorn in his side from this point on?
This was originally the first chapter of a longer story I never had much interest in continuing. I think it’s worth having around because it has some very clever moments.