Hayao sat back in the darkened room, cup of lukewarm coffee in hand. Cables and electrical cords snarled together, converging upon a center podium where Jiro had been struggling with the projector for the past 20 minutes. It was to be expected, really… they had purposely chosen a neglected corner of headquarters that was open to police with no local credentials.
If a cop in Saitama witnessed a branch heist involving a Tokyo bank and the getaway ended in Ibaraki, this was where the officers could converge and hash things out. Neglect had set in because these types of meetings were increasingly rare––with bideo con in place, the hour-plus train ride from various corners of Kanto was unnecessary. This particular room had morphed into a quasi-clubhouse, reserved for twice-weekly card games and the odd showing of Beat Takeshi movies––––interdepartmental hookups were not unknown, a futon stuffed in the storeroom for such exigencies––and projector readiness was the collateral.
A de facto clubhouse suited Hayao in more ways than one––not only did it have a comfortably lived in atmosphere, it was the one place they could discreetly meet and review digital files that would lock and encrypt––possibly explode––if uploaded or taken 20 feet from the building. Moreover, use of the room, which flask-laden retired detectives were known to habituate, would not draw attention to the fact that Hayao was assisting in an investigation well outside his jurisdiction.
“I think I’ve got it,” Jiro said with a look of accomplishment. Hayao gave him a patient smile, indicating he had nothing but time. Strictly it was true. He had been pulled here at his former protégé’s request to view video of the love hotel murder. Outwardly emotionless, he found it difficult to contain the sort of nervous energy he had experienced as a child, wading through interminable previews for the start of some highly anticipated movie––Mothra vs. Godzilla, or the like.
The film began with a static view of the hotel lobby, the time 1:57 am––Hayao almost recognized it as a blip on his radar from a few remodels back, when it had been a bondage-themed sashimi restaurant, Black Strap, that had generated three emergency room visits in two days and closed a week later.
Two figures came into the lobby on unsteady legs, faces indistinct. The woman sat on one of the chairs along the wall, crossing and uncrossing legs, while the man spoke to a person at the counter, setting down some bills and receiving a key. He walked to the woman and, with a slight hesitation, took her hand. They made their way across the room and out of sight.
A lengthy still of the couple just before they passed out of range, blown up about 30 percent and cropped. The woman had long blonde, pixelated hair. The man wore an equally pixelated suit, presumably the one found crumpled beside his body. Hayao could not make out anything else. The photo was replaced by a series of blown-up stills, receding from the camera and growing noticeably more indistinct, until the two figures were nothing more than gelatinous blobs. The film cut to a shot of the same lobby, the time now 10:17 am. The woman, alone, hurried across the far wall toward a side exit. Opening the door, sunlight seemed to swallow her.
Cut to a street view from a camera operated by the metropolitan police, one of hundreds installed throughout Tokyo several years ago to counteract a rising tide of crime––or as Hayao saw it, an increasing number of elderly people susceptible to crime. With terrorism a resurgent bogeyman––new-style ISIS threats joining the tinfoil Red Star brigade––the cameras had multiplied, retrofitted with the latest Echu D technologies.
Taken not a minute after she left the hotel lobby, the camera caught the woman walking quickly, eyes and head averted toward the ground. Hayao was about to give up on getting a clear look at her face when she flashed an upward glance at something out of the camera’s range. A split second, but it was enough––Jiro paused the screen and reversed the action, frame by frame. Finding the exact moment when her eyes met the camera, he enlarged it until it took up the entire screen.
“Framewise, two minute intervals,” Hayao said, not taking his eyes off her face. There was something Grace Kelly in the distance of her gaze––frozen on the screen for a full two minutes before it dissolved into the next frame. Stuck on classic blonde actresses for comparison, Hayao found something of late era, lost-in-the-wilderness Marilyn Monroe at the next angle. Then he was lost in the uniqueness of her face, as each frame yielded a slightly different, slightly blurrier revelation. He studied her intently, taking in the eyes, the hair, the mouth, the slight differences between the pictures. After the last frame he closed his eyes and played back her movements in his head. Then he had Jiro play-reverse-play the five second clip at full speed dozens of times.
“That’s all we have,” Jiro said finally. “After that she must have taken off down a side street––there are a couple subway stations she never reached. Kind of makes sense, if her intention was to disappear.”
Hayao nodded and asked Jiro to start the tape again, frame by frame. A half hour later, he cracked his knuckles and dropped his paper cup next to an identical one at his feet. He purposely did not look down or register that he had littered––his role had switched from aging pencil-pusher to crack investigator and the faint smile on his lips reflected this.
Hayao sensed Jiro losing focus, the question itching to be expressed: why, old man, why? But it was left unstated as Hayao lost contact with the outside world, drawn into a space where everything receded but her frequency. It was a little like noh, the traditional Japanese drama for which he had acquired a taste. The lack of movements by the actors, masks covering all expression. The sameness of the unaccompanied voices of the choir and opaque words they sang, meaning unintelligible. The minutes ticking by so slowly that unless you turned your mind completely off, you would think that time was not passing at all. To the young and uninitiated it was all endless boredom. To Hayao it had acquired the burnish of wisdom, the subtle gradations of a slow-changing sunset.
Watching the video over and over, he felt as if he had been there, seen with his own eyes what had happened. The couple stumbling into the love hotel. An almost gentlemanly hesitation on the man’s part. The woman crossing and uncrossing her legs––the fatal eight hour gap. Hayao tried to imagine what had happened on the plush love hotel. Something rough, unexpected. The knife taken from bag in defense. The aftermath, the cold realization of murder….
No––Hayao could not make himself believe it. He watched the brief clip where the woman’s eyes met the camera again and again. A complex expression played out on her face of loss, panic, and bewilderment. What he did not see was the eyes of a killer.
“It’s a wrap, then,” Jiro said as the last still faded and Hayao did not speak. “A WRAP.”
Hayao blinked awake, hoping Jiro had not noticed his lapse. “Yes.” Despite his old man embarrassment, Hayao was at least sure of one thing––he would recognize this woman if he ever passed her on the street. As they left the room, instinct told him that if he did not keep the ball rolling Jiro would head on out. “Want to get a bite to eat before the evening crowds?” A momentary flicker of anguish played on Jiro’s face, as if he had been asked to undergo some excruciating dental procedure. “Don’t worry, it’s on me. I want to ask about the Giants’ chances of winning the pennant this season.”