Nagaoka: "There are still a couple of minutes before the end of the period, I hope you won't say you absolutely can't wait until then."
Erika: "A few minutes are fine."
Satsukawa: "You both should just relax. There's so much tension in the air between the two of you, that I could cut it with a knife."
Erika: "Why? I'm absolutely calm."
Nagaoka: "I'll never relax around this self-styled detective. I won't hinder her, as long as she doesn't cross the line, but I'll keep my eyes wide open."
Erika: "You sound as if you have a personal problem with me."
Nagaoka: "Actually, I do. As a teacher with many years of experience, I've learned how to spot the troublesome individuals and discern them from the others. And you, girl, you are trouble. Even without knowing who you are, I'd still know that I'd do better to keep my eyes on you all the time."
Erika: "Interesting. What do you know, or rather, what do you believe to know about me?"
Satsukawa: "Sigh... like I said..."
Nagaoka: "I know that you come from a wealthy background, and that you completely lack any understanding of what does it mean to gain your bread every day through your honest work. People like you, who don't understand the real value of money and its intended purpose, are what is slowly killing this society. If you were my student, I'd straighten you up properly before you left this institution."
Erika: "Yes, Nagaoka-san, I've had the chance to notice the wonderful job you've done at keeping the students of this school under your complete control and supervision."
Nagaoka: "Spare me your sarcasm. This problem will be dealt with, you can rest assured."
Erika: "I wouldn't bet my money on it, and this comes from one who, as you say, doesn't know the value of money at all."
Nagaoka: "You think this is funny? Do you even understand what kind of place is this? This might be still Tokyo, but at the same time it isn't. We're on the fringe of the fringe of the metropolis, this is prevalently an industrial area and the people of this community are for the most part blue collars. That of course means that the families of the students of this school never knew what being rich means and most likely never will. This institute was created for the purpose of giving these young people a chance, a chance to receive higher education so to get more specialized jobs."
Erika: "Thank you for the lesson on the local folklore, that was very informative. Except it was absolutely pointless, since I've already made enough researches on the subject by myself. And that means I know that this school isn't exactly the best choice for the young people living here."
Nagaoka: "Better schools? Yes they exist, but they're far and you obviously didn't consider the fact that even transport costs might weight considerably on the budget of the families of this neighborhood. This school is the most affordable."
Erika: "Affordable! Yes, you can see it clearly, provided you overlook the principal's office."
This pleasant conversation could go on forever, but the bell signaling the end of classes abruptly interrupts it.
Nagaoka takes another few moments to pierce me with his stare without saying a word. This must be really a habit of his. He then moves behind the desk and pushes a red button which activates a microphone. His voice resonates through the whole school as he announces that Meito Oda's presence is required in the meeting room on the second floor.
The cacophony generated by hundreds of students walking and talking as they leave the classrooms can now be heard distinctly. It's a sound that brings back distant memories. Not so distant, actually, but to the mind it's as if centuries have passed since then.
Dlanor is sitting on one of the sofas, she is staring blankly in front of herself. I wonder what's going on on her mind, we haven't really talked much since the start of this adventure. Between the two of us, she has the most unbiased perspective. She sees reality for what it is better than anyone else, her insight is, therefore, absolutely invaluable to me. Indeed, she is a great connoisseur of the truth, the same truth that I know so well. That means she is free from the lies and hypocrisy of the world and she can see and accept the ugly face of reality without pointless embellishments. However, unlike me, she isn't happy about it, she can't appreciate the great gift she has been given. She simply accepts it with emotionless detachment.
But what really makes her different from me is that she lacks in ingenuity, creativity and lateral thinking. She just can't think out of the box, and that is a limit she will never be able to cross. As things are, she makes a perfect Watson, but the true detective is, without a doubt, me.
Someone is knocking on the door, it must be Meito Oda. I am kind of curious to see this boy with my own eyes at this point. Nagaoka invites him to enter with his usual stern voice, and a few seconds later there he is. He is quite tall, 1.85 meters at least, probably more, that's impressive. On top of that he is pretty muscular. I can't help but thinking that someone like him wouldn't have had any problems overpowering Gotsuji and dragging her inside that shed.
He is now looking at me and Satsukawa with a confused expression, he is probably trying to figure out who we are and why he has been called here. He can probably guess, but my presence is putting him off.
Nagaoka: "Oda, you probably remember who this man is. He is Keiji Satsukawa, he was with the inspectors that questioned you about the tragic event of four days ago."
The boy bows slightly without saying a word. It seems that the death of his friend still affects him deeply.
Nagaoka: "This young woman is Erika Furudo, she's helping the police with their investigations and she wishes to speak with you regarding what you've seen on that day."
Erika: "Pleased to meet you, Oda. It's just a matter of few questions, I won't take too much of your time."
Meito: "Pleased to meet you..."
Nagaoka: "Oda, if you don't feel like talking about this subject again, nobody forces you. You can go home, if so you wish."
Meito: "No... I'll do it."
Erika: "Good. Please, take a seat. This is an informal meeting, we're just going to chat for a while."
I point to one of the sofas and he sits down on it without asking any question. He is a good boy.
I sit right in front of him, next to Dlanor. Satsukawa takes the place on my right, I'm in the center.
As for the disgruntled teacher, he must have finally decided he is tired of standing and chooses one of the armchairs.
It looks like Oda is a bit nervous.
Erika: "Relax, I'm not going to eat you."
He blushes and then I notice that his attention has been caught by Dlanor who is sitting on my left.
Erika: "Don't mind her, she's with me. Pretend she doesn't exist."
He is a bit confused, but he does as I suggested and he focuses on me again.
Erika: "Meito Oda... since how long have you been friend with Gotsuji?"
he answers after a small pause.
Meito: "Since I can remember... we've always been together..."
Erika: "Would you say that you knew her well?"
Meito: "Kind of... I mean... I can state with confidence that I knew what kind of person she was. I could tell what was going on on her mind easily... and I know many facts about her, her habits and such... But she didn't really talk much to me about her private life. I don't know much about her friends or the boys she used to hang out with... If that's what you're interested in, I can't help you."
I suppose the investigators that questioned him before were particularly interested on that subject and he is assuming I am the same.
Erika: "So... what kind of person she was?"
Erika: "You said you knew her well. Describe her. Let me know what kind of person the victim was. I'm interested in your opinion."
It seems my question is confusing him greatly, he certainly didn't expect that.
Meito: "I don't think that's something I can explain easily..."
Erika: "It's quite all right. I'm not expecting a detailed psychological profile. Just say it with your own words, whatever it's on your mind. You don't need to weight your words or be sensitive because she's not longer here. I don't need an eulogy. Your perspective will help me in figuring out who murdered her. So tell me your honest feelings and don't worry about anything else."
He is still having problems adapting to this unexpected situation. He probably doesn't even understand who I am and what my role is. His mind must be quite confused, but it is a good thing. The less he knows the better it is for me.
As a side note, this is the first time Satsukawa is witnessing my unconventional inquiring methods, he seems to be enthralled.
Meito: "Hitomi was... an amazing person. I'm not saying this out of respect or anything. She was amazing in many ways... even in ways that I didn't really like. I couldn't keep up with her no matter how hard I tried, she was always a step ahead of me. She always had that overconfident attitude... she kept telling me I was too grumpy and gloomy... Hitomi was the kind of person that would always get what she wanted in a way or another... She had a knack for breaking through people's defenses. At times... she could be pretty childish... and annoying... so damn annoying! ... But she could be pretty serious when the situation required it... and..."
He realizes his eyes are getting wet and he stops. That's quite interesting, in spite of his tough boy look he must be a pretty emotional person.
Erika: "Thank you, Oda. That was very helpful. I believe she was a very important person to you, I'm sorry for your loss."
Meito: "Yes! She really was... very important to me... even though we always fought about every small thing. I just... I just can't believe she died... how could this happen... It doesn't seem real..."
Erika: "Forgive my rude question but... did you ever get the feeling, at any given time, that you were more than just friends?"
He raises his eyebrows.
Meito: "No, I don't think so... Not from my side, at least. I've never seen her as anything more than a friend..."
Erika: "Just now you said that you don't know much about her friends. Is that true even for what concerns her best friend? I'm talking about Sumomo Takamiya. I believe she's your classmate, right?"
He blushes again. Interesting. This guy is quite funny, does he even realize how many obvious signals of his secret thoughts he is giving away? You don't need a great detective like me to see that.
Meito: "No, she's a separate case... she's my friend too."
Erika: "Do you know her well?"
He blushes even more intensely. Oh, my! I must must fight the urge of laughing.
Meito: "Yes... kind of..."
Kind of... Liar!
Meito: "The three of us were often together at school... I met Sumomo through Hitomi. That was back when we just entered this school, two years ago. Somehow they became friends, and later I joined them."
Strike! If this was an anime, I would see steam coming out of his ears now. What a simpleton, he never showed any restraints from calling Gotsuji by her first name, why does he show such an embarrassed face now?
Meito: "We are close friends... No! I mean... it's just the way it was with Hitomi... She wouldn't allow me being too formal anyway... she disliked that."
Erika: "Did the three of you hang out often together?"
Meito: "Only at school, during breaks. On the day of the crime, we had lunch together..."
Erika: "Have Takamiya and Gotsuji ever been in a serious argument? Have you ever seen them quarreling?"
Meito: "Takamiya is not the kind of person that would get in a fight. Hitomi could get very obnoxious sometimes, but Takamiya wouldn't get angry no matter what. I guess that's why Hitomi preferred to be in her company over anyone else..."
She's 'Takamiya' now.
Erika: "Nagaoka-san, is there anything you would add about what Oda said regarding Gotsuji, Takamiya and their relationship?"
Nagaoka: "Takamiya is one of my best students, she's a very diligent person unlike Oda. I'm not really comfortable with the fact they're friends."
These two get along pretty well!
Nagaoka: "Gotsuji was an average student, I agree with Oda when he says she was childish, but she never got in any trouble. She knew her place and she never crossed the line in front of the teachers. As for her relationship with Takamiya, there isn't much I can say. They were friends, that much is known to me, but no more than that."
Erika: "Oda, let's go back to four days ago. I've been told that you were under punishment. Can you tell me what happened?"
Nagaoka snorts and shows a displeased face. I guess he is involved somehow. This is unfortunate, I doubt Oda will easily tell me the whole story now. In fact, he looks troubled. He is trying to figure out how to explain the situation using the right words.
Meito: "I've got in trouble while... playing... with Baba..."
Nagaoka: "Oda and Baba are notoriously enemies. They're both troublemakers of the worst kind. I've had many occasions to deal with them and to straighten them up. But it seems that people like them can never fully learn a lesson. I'm pretty sure that they got in yet another scuffle that day, but they managed to get away with it with little consequences... somehow..."
Erika: "Is that true, Oda? Is this Baba an enemy of yours?"
Meito: "I won't deny that. He's scum, everyone knows that. And I'm the only person in this school who has the strength and the courage to stand against him and his bullying. The teachers never move a finger unless something happens, and if no one stands in his way, Baba can do whatever he wants. But I can't let him, so I make things happen and then teachers find out. The price of that is that I get punished with him."
I raise my hand to stop Nagaoka from saying more. He's clearly angered, but Satsukawa sends him a clear message with his glare, reinforcing my implicit order. He sure doesn't like it, but our inflexible teacher can't disobey an order from the authorities, can't he? Anyway... this is... extremely... amusing.
Erika: "You don't mind getting in trouble?"
Meito: "Of course I do! But what other option do I have?"
Erika: "Is this Baba bullying you directly?"
Meito: "No way! Cowards like him always pick on the weak."
Erika: "Then you can just look the other way like everyone else does."
Meito: "Are you... seriously implying that that would be the right thing to do?"
I see Nagaoka moving on his seat, he wants to say something again, and again I stop him. Isn't that quite the frustrated face!
Erika: "I'm not judging, I just want to understand your perspective."
Meito: "I can't do that! I can't just pretend nothing happens!"
Erika: "But then you get blamed as much as he does. Doesn't that make you angry?"
Meito: "Yeah, it does!"
Nagaoka: "Furudo-san! What exactly are you..."
Erika: "Do not interrupt, Nagaoka-san. I believe that Oda's insight on this matter is of extreme importance for a full understanding of the social dynamics of this school. It is pointless for you to interrupt us, I can continue this conversation whenever and wherever I want. But I think it would greatly benefit you to keep silent and listen to what your student has to say, for a change. Maybe you can learn something from this whole exchange. The choice is yours. You can comply and keep quiet, or we can go elsewhere where you can't interrupt us. School time is over and you don't have the authority nor the right to keep Oda here."
Right now I believe I have just become a hero in front of Oda's eyes. Nagaoka is livid, but he knows that I am right. He cannot stop me. I don't think he is used to humiliations, and it is even more aggravating the fact that this is happening in front of a student he is used to chastise. Isn't vengeance the sweetest thing?
Nagaoka slowly retreats to the back of his armchair, a sign of unconditional surrender. But if he could kill with his eyes, I'd be a lump of incinerated meat now.
Erika: "Please, continue... Oda. Tell me, what did Baba do to enrage you that much on that day?"
Meito: "Baba was taking pictures with his digital camera without permission... A girl, a first year student, noticed that and asked him to delete the picture he had just taken."
Erika: "Why did that bother her that much?"
Oda is biding his time, he is pondering whether it is the case to speak or not. I must get rid of these annoying barriers that are preventing him from telling me the truth. The truth that I so much crave for.
Erika: "It's time to talk, Oda. A crime was committed, a person died. Everything could be important. I need to know."
There's no way he can keep silent now.
Meito: "Panty shots..."
Nagaoka's jaw just dropped. Even Satsukawa is showing a weird expression. I find this extremely hilarious.
Meito: "That's the kind of stuff Baba collects..."
Erika: "I can quite understand that girl's feelings. So, what happened then? Did you promptly rush to help the damsel in distress?"
Meito: "No... I'm ashamed to say this, but I knew I could get in serious trouble if I fought Baba again. A lot of students gathered, I couldn't hope to get away with it. And yet I was about to go... but Hitomi stopped me."
Erika: "See? This whole incident happened on the very day of the crime and now we learn that the victim was there and witnessed it! Satsukawa-san, how could you miss this important fact?"
Satsukawa: "I'm... honestly, I'm quite baffled..."
Meito: "It was lunch break, practically the whole school was there watching."
Erika: "So you were with Gotsuji and Takamiya?"
Meito: "Yes, Takamiya also advised me to avoid getting involved."
Erika: "But in the end you went anyway."
Meito: "Someone beat me to it."
Erika: "Interesting. I could swear you just said you are the only one that would stand against Baba."
Meito: "You're right... there's someone else, but that was a first. Even then, she showed she had the courage, but I doubt she has the strength."
Erika: "A girl! And who could that be?"
He looks at Nagaoka worriedly.
Meito: "She didn't do anything wrong..."
Erika: "Of course! Nobody is accusing her."
Meito: "It was... Yuu Azuma."
At this point Nagaoka's anger has completely vanished. He is now completely shocked by these unthinkable revelations.
Erika: "Yuu Azuma! Haven't I heard this name before?! What do you say, Dlanor?"
Dlanor: "Yuu Azuma is a member of the female basket club. She was therefore one of the victim's acquaintances."
Erika: "Oh, don't mind me, Oda, please tell me more. What happened after that?"
Meito: "Baba attacked her. But she managed to avoid his first punch."
Nagaoka: "Oda! Did all of this really happen?! Are you sure you aren't making this up?!"
Meito: "I'm not making up anything! This really happened! You heard it yourself when the whole school went wild! I know you did! That was when they saw Azuma dodging Baba's attack! And then you must remember what you saw when you arrived!"
Erika: "Oh, is that so? Nagaoka-san, does your first hand experience match with what Oda is saying? Did that many students gather? Did you hear their voices? Did you see Azuma there? And was there another girl, a first year student, with them?"
Nagaoka starts sweating and pushes the palm of his right hand against his front.
Nagaoka: "It... it matches! Everything matches!"
Erika: "Good! So all of this happened, and you didn't understand a single thing!"
Nagaoka: "Why didn't you tell me, Oda!"
Meito: "As if you would have listened!"
Nagaoka: "It... it still doesn't mean that this is the truth! There might be another explanation!"
Nagaoka: "You can't just blindly believe what he says! He's a troublemaker, you can't trust him!"
Erika: "Nagaoka-san, there's only one thing that I trust in this world: my logic. If my logic told me that Oda-san was lying, if my logic told me that something in his story is amiss, I wouldn't believe him. But let me check something. What did you see exactly when you arrived to the scene?"
Nagaoka: "Ah, good question! I clearly saw Oda holding Baba in a lock, he was grabbing him from behind and the latter was clearly trying to free himself."
Erika: "I see. And how likely it is that this situation would have happened, if Baba wasn't taken by surprise? As in the case where he was facing someone else, when Oda finally decided to stop him?"
Nagaoka: "You... you still can't exclude either possibility..."
Erika: "Then why Azuma and that other girl were near them?"
Erika: "You didn't bother to check."
Nagaoka: "It's... it's Kubota! He told me a completely different story!"
Erika: "Now that's interesting. Who is Kubota?"
Satsukawa: "Ah... he's referring to Kuon Kubota, that's the president of the student council I mentioned earlier."
Erika: "The plot thickens, and I think the pieces of the puzzle are slowly moving each to their right places. If I'm not mistaken this whole predicament is what brought Oda to the student council room."
Nagaoka: "That's correct. Kubota managed to confuse the situation to the point I decided to let him deal with it, but only because he promised to properly punish those two."
Erika: "And his 'punishment' conveniently happened to be work he had to for the student council. Am I right?"
Meito: "Damn right!"
Erika: "I wonder... did he do that to save two troublemakers from a dire fate, to be granted the services of free slave labor, or both?"
Meito: "Who knows... that guy's a weirdo."
Nagaoka: "I'd rather... not try to understand how his mind works..."
Erika: "Oda, do you think he would expose himself to help you?"
Meito: "I doubt, we used to be friends in middle school, but that's the past."
Erika: "Then, would he do that for Baba?"
Meito: "Not a chance! Baba doesn't have any friends, and nobody would be so stupid to befriend him, not even Kubota."
Something is amiss.
Erika: "At one point you, Baba and Kubota were all in the student council room, right?"
Meito: "Yes. Kubota made us work on a hundreds of documents that needed to be copied and sorted. He was supposed to help too, but he practically didn't do a thing."
Erika: "You were alone there, no one else."
Meito: "Yes. All the student council members were missing."
Erika: "And then Baba and Kubota left you alone, and from that point you had to do all the work by yourself."
Erika: "Would you mind explaining what was their excuse?"
Meito: "Kubota said he had some urgent business to attend to. He said he needed help for that, so he took Baba along."
Erika: "When did that happen?"
Meito: "I'm not sure... between 4:00 and 5:00... I'm sorry, I don't really remember with precision."
Erika: "Could this urgent business be related to the old P.E. shed?"
Erika: "I'm just examining every possibility. Do you think it might be possible? Did you hear something that could suggest that?"
Meito: "I haven't the slightest clue. Why would they be related to that?"
Erika: "It appears that the administration of that shed was under the discretion of the student council. For some reason Kubota always refused to reassign the structure to other uses. That was quite convenient to whoever had been unofficially using it until now, don't you think?"
Meito: "I had no idea..."
Erika: "Who would you rather say that is more likely to be involved with what was found there?"
Meito: "Maaya Teramoto."
Straight to the point! Not even a hint of doubt.
Erika: "Was Gotsuji involved in any way with her, to your knowledge?"
Meito: "I can't really say that... I mean... there's hardly anyone that doesn't know Teramoto in this school, and she's always on the look for new people to convert to her supernatural beliefs, especially girls. What I'm getting at is that it's unlikely that Hitomi never talked to her, even I did, and quite often too... But I don't think Hitomi was interested in that stuff, and I don't think she and Teramoto were close."
Erika: "What about Takamiya?"
Meito: "Pretty much the same."
Erika: "What about the members of the basket club? Is there anyone there that is connected to Teramoto?"
Erika: "It seems that you both know something that I don't. Would you mind explaining?"
Nagaoka: "Kagami Hibari is one of Teramoto's closest friends."
Meito: "That's an understatement. She's Teramoto's sidekick number one."
Erika: "The very captain of the basket team."