Chapter 09 – Two Minutes’ Debt

Words: 5,487
Recommended Listening: Tangled Thoughts of Leaving – “Downbeat”
Shelter: Sugimoto Residence, Inu Residence

A groan came from downstairs.  Everyone turned and looked at one another, except Hitomi, whose eyes remained, however unfocused, on the woman in the cage.

“Is that the owner of this house?” Akane asked.

“Or is it…?” Daisuke said.

Seiji had been holding the handgun idly in one hand.  He renewed his grip on it, steadying it now with both hands and keeping it pointed near the floor.  “Who wants to come with me?”

“We should all go,” Junpei said.  “Whatever he has to say, we should all hear it.”

“What about her?” Daisuke asked, nodding towards the woman.  “She looks frightened.”

“Hey,” Seiji said loudly.  “Can you speak?  What’s your name?  I’m Kamiya.”  He pointed at his chest when he told her his name.  “Ka-mi-ya.”

She pointed at her own chest.  “Ka…Ka-mi…ya.”

Seiji cursed.  “Is she…sane?  If she’s like him…”

Akane chided him.  “She’s clearly his prisoner.  Look at her.”

“But…”

Emiko, at the front of the group, nonchalantly turned around and whispered quietly to them.  “She deserves her freedom.  She’s traumatized.  We should get our answers downstairs then bring her food, water and clothing, then let her out.  She will see that we mean no harm.”

For lack of a better suggestion, they all agreed.

“Should someone stay with her?” Emiko asked.

“I will,” Hitomi said absently.

Junpei regarded her.  “Don’t you want to…?”

Hitomi said nothing.  She had nothing to say to the man who killed her brother.

Hitomi-chan is going into shock, Akane thought.  She gently tugged her husband’s shirt sleeve.

Emiko approached the cage and knelt down, ensuring she had the woman’s attention.

“Please wait a little while longer,” she said.  “We will come back and help you.  Do you understand?”  The woman said nothing but her facial expression calmed a bit.  Agreement, Emiko thought.  Or resignation?

They trickled out of the room with Seiji in the lead and walked downstairs to see whether the man had woken up or if Ryu had come back.  Dread haunted their steps.  Hitomi heard it with every footfall.  They walked heavily – not with carelessness but for having to face another miserable experience.

They are being forced to either euthanize one of their new friends or get inside the mind of a greedy, self-centered coward – and child killer – who enslaved a woman and made her his dog, she thought.  I should have gone with them so I could feel that despair.

“I suppose it can’t be helped,” she said out loud, alarming the woman in the cage.  “Oh well.  There are other ways to feel.”  She pulled an inch-long paper envelope and a cigarette lighter from the breast pocket of her blouse.  The envelope was well worn.  She opened it and removed the straight razor from it.  She squatted where she stood and flicked the wheel on the lighter, then heated the razor’s edge.  She thought of her brother’s lifeless body downstairs.  No gunshot had sounded, but voices floated up to her.  She knew what it meant.  Hitomi hiked up her skirt and started in on her thigh.  The heat of the metal burned, then its edge stung.  It was the only thing she felt.  It was the only thing she could feel.

She sucked in air through her teeth and lifted her head up, her gaze landing by chance on the tubes with the small, black creatures in them.  “A centipede bit me,” Ryu had said.  Hitomi put the razor on the steel countertop and walked on her knees to the tubes.

“What are you?” she asked aloud, eyeing them.  They writhed slowly, twisting and turning like seahorses.  She poked the tube filled with water and the little creature responded with what appeared to be glee.  She thought of a kitten playing with its owner’s hand.  It also reminded her of a black pipe cleaner, the kind they used to bend and shape in youchien to make crafts.  The little creature, she decided, was cute in its own way.

“Do you like me?” she asked.

Next to the tubes, the surgical instruments still sat on the small washcloth.

“Let’s get a better look at you,” she said.  The gash on her thigh throbbed.  She unscrewed the lid of the tube and reached for the thing inside with a pair of tweezers.  Now its movements were slow, gentle, even coy as it wrapped itself around both tongs of the tweezers.  “You aren’t going to hurt me, are you?” Hitomi asked.  She held it closer to her face.

A small pfft sound came from the creature.  Hitomi saw that the air around it bent and swayed like heat waves rising off a campfire or grill.  Before she could process it, a scent reached her nose and she breathed it in reflexively.  It was the most wonderful smell she could ever imagine.  She couldn’t decide if it were sweet or savory, clean and fresh or earthen and musky.  Her lungs felt full of fresh air.  Her heart raced with excitement.  She felt a tingling throughout her body.

Then her head cleared.  She gently grabbed the little worm between her thumb and index finger and slowly loosened her grip on the tweezers so as not to stretch the creature uncomfortably.  It uncoiled from the tweezers, which she set aside, and hugged her index finger. 

“You’re not alone anymore,” she said to it.  “And neither am I.  You have Hitomi.  And Hitomi has you.  It’s okay now.”  Slowly, she lowered it to her lap while she brought her skirt up again.  She set the thing down on her thigh, a half-inch away from her new cut, and squeezed the wound to encourage another drop of blood to surface.

The thing looked at her – or seemed to look at her – and she smiled.  “Go on,” she said.  “It’s okay.”  It pointed its front end back at the wound and it slipped inside, disappearing into her leg.  From then on, her body would be its home.

“Good boy,” she said.  It had all been the most natural thing in the world.

“What’s your name?” Seiji asked.  His tone was curt and demanding.

The man said nothing.  Seiji sighed and pointed the gun at the man.

“What’s your name?”

The man laughed.

“Who is the woman in the cage?” Emiko asked.

The man’s face straightened.  He looked as though he was going to show genuine concern for her.  He slowly leaned his face forward and drew in a breath to speak.  Then he barked like a dog and panted like one.  Emiko looked away.

“Why would you do this to us?” Akane asked.  “I told you we’re passing through to the train station.  You could have joined us.”

“Did you ever think I was protecting my dog?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, but it’s clear that you shot Ryu and Akane out of fear,” Daisuke said.  “Ryu is dead.  He was our friend.  If you didn’t intend to kill him, you should tell us.”

“Why does that matter?” the man asked.

“Because we haven’t decided what to do with you yet,” Junpei said.  “You shot my wife; I’ll never forgive you for that.  You killed a kid.  He shot you in the stomach before you killed him.  None of us are surgeons.  It’s clear that you will never leave this house alive.”

The man scoffed.  “The police could be here any time.”

Junpei ignored him.  “However, we have painkillers and food.  You can spend your final days in comfort, fed and sheltered, or you can die in agony, hungry.  It makes no difference to me, but if you expect sympathy, speak.”

“Junpei…” Akane said.

“Alright,” the man said.  He cleared his throat.  “I’m sorry.”

“You are?” Seiji asked.

The man looked at Junpei.  “I should have killed your wife, too, along with that brat.  They both deserved it.”  The man laughed a cackling, wheezing laugh, then surrendered to a fit of coughing.  Junpei started towards the man but Seiji held him back.  When he had cooled, Seiji let him go. 

Junpei knelt down in front of the man.  “My wife told me you wanted our food.  You knew we could starve and you didn’t care.  You’re that kind of person.  You have no compassion for others.”

“The police will come for us,” the man said.

“If they don’t?”

The man looked away from Junpei.  Junpei grabbed his face and forced him to meet Junpei’s eyes.  “No one is coming to rescue us.  Do you understand?  No one.”

The man could tell that Junpei meant what he said and that he knew something the man didn’t.  The authority of these men and women in his home began to grow in his mind.  Since he said he wished he had killed Akane, the others had been staring at him in disgust and derision.  He was at their mercy.

“The boy you killed has a twin sister,” Daisuke said.  “She’s upstairs right now.  She deserves justice for his murder.”

“Hitomi-chan should have a say in how we treat this man,” Emiko said.

They murmured their agreement.  It occurred to the man for the first time that nobody would rescue him and that his fate lay in the hands of a teenager whose brother he had just killed.  He really was going to die in his house.  He lowered his head and said nothing further.

Ryu remained dead, but just to be safe, Junpei and Seiji took his body and put it upstairs in the second bedroom.  They placed him on the bed and put a sheet over his body, including his face.  They opened a window so the smell of decay could, at least partially, escape the house.  They closed the door on their way out.  None of the zonbi had tried the door handle at the Sugimoto house, but Junpei wedged a chair from the house’s dining room table underneath the doorknob.  This way, Ryu couldn’t get out but Hitomi could get in if she wished to pay her respects.

After checking on Hitomi, Emiko and Akane searched the rest of the house for tools and wood while Daisuke returned to the first house for the same – and clothes for the woman in the cage.  When he returned, Hitomi came down and all six of them boarded up the windows without incident.  The stranger objected, especially when they removed a couple of the bathroom doors to bar the windows, but they ignored him.  They worked and moved as one, relishing on being able to focus on the simple, familiar task.

They returned upstairs and unlatched the door of the cage.  They gave the woman one of Emiko’s signature omelette rice dishes with a pair of chopsticks and a bottle of water.  She held the chopsticks as though they were foreign objects, looking over them the way an archaeologist would an ancient artifact.  Then she set them down and ate with her fingers.  When Emiko saw this, she opened the bottle of water for her and set it down by the cage door.

When she finished eating and drinking, Emiko offered her hand to the woman to come out of the cage.  She held the woman’s clothes in her lap and put a kind, gentle expression on her face.  The woman stared at her hand for a moment, then looked around to the others.  She was reluctant to come out.

“Don’t be afraid,” Emiko said.  “You can come out now.  It’s alright.  Come.”

She crawled out of the cage but remained on all fours.  Emiko held up the blouse that Daisuke had brought and pressed it against her own torso, then held it back out to the woman.  It occurred to Daisuke all of a sudden that he had never seen a naked woman in person before.  Then he realized how improper it was for him to be seeing her naked now.  He blushed and turned away, swatting Seiji and Junpei with his hands so they would do the same.  Between Ryu’s death and this imprisoned woman, their sense of social norms had left them entirely until that moment.  All three men turned their backs to her.  The women helped her get dressed.  They spoke to her as though she were a toddler.  The gravity of the situation weighed on them.

“Let’s go downstairs,” Seiji said.

Hitomi joined them.  They found little of interest besides a connected garage near the kitchen.  There they found one full-sized tire and a can of gasoline, but no car.

“Did the man say anything about my brother?” Hitomi asked.

Junpei, Seiji and Daisuke looked at one another carefully.

“No,” Daisuke said.  “He had no remorse.”

“What did you decide to do with him?”

“Actually,” Junpei said, “Since Ryu was your brother, Emiko suggested that you help us decide.”

“Where is my brother?  I didn’t see him where he…”

Seiji cleared his throat.  “Junpei and I moved him.  We took great care.  He’s in the second bedroom upstairs, lying on the bed.  We covered him with a sheet.”

“A death shroud,” she said.

“Well…”

“It’s alright.  I understand.”

“Hitomi-chan…If Ryu resurrects…”

She shook her head dismissively.  “Enough.”

“Don’t worry,” Seiji said.  “It’s just that we braced the door with a chair – just in case.  He can rest peacefully now, and you can go and pay your respects, but he’s also safely shut inside.  Nobody needs to do anything else right now.”  Junpei and Daisuke nodded.

Hitomi met his eyes.  Their actions balanced kindness and practicality, care and safety, compassion and defense.  She couldn’t believe they had considered her and Ryu so delicately after his death.

“Thank you.”  She bowed deeply.

“Takai, do you want to go watch the news?” Daisuke asked.  “You and Akane did a great job staying informed at Sugimoto-kun’s house.  We can all watch together.”

“Okay,” she said.  Daisuke and Junpei headed the procession back to the living room.  Hitomi grabbed Seiji’s wrist and held him back.

“Eh?”

All the cold malevolence had returned to her face.  Seiji’s heart sank.

“Whatever I propose we do with that man, you have to make it happen.”

“I can’t make five other people do what I want.”

“For your sake, yakuza, I hope you can.”

They returned to the living room at the same time Akane and Emiko led the woman downstairs, fully dressed.  Then the man saw the woman.

“Inu!  Save your master!”

She lowered her head and obediently crossed to his chair and began to untie him.  Before she could, Akane gently inserted herself between the two of him.

“He does not own you,” Akane said.  “You are free.  Do you understand?”

“Shut up!” the man said.  “She’s mine!  You can’t have her!”

The woman looked confused.  Akane took her hands.

“Does this man force you into the cage?”

The woman nodded.

“Does he hurt you?”

Tears flooded the woman’s eyes, but she nodded.

“Do you like it?”

The woman’s lip quivered and she shook her head no.

“Do you want us to stop him?”

She nodded.  Akane smiled gently.

“He can never do that again.  I will not let him hurt you.  We will not let him hurt you.  Also, we will not hurt you.”

“She’s lying!” the man said.  “Inu, save your master!”

The woman hesitated.  In a show of force, Akane slapped the man’s face and ordered him to be quiet.  The woman’s eyes widened when she saw the man fall dumbstruck.

“You see?  He is not your master.  And he never will be again.”

The woman nodded.  Suddenly a laugh of great relief escaped her.  Tears fell from the woman’s eyes.  Akane released her hands so the woman could wipe them away.

“We’re going to watch the news now.  Would you like to sit with us?”

Excitement spread over the woman’s face and she followed Akane into the kitchen where the others waited.

Seiji sat in a recliner, setting the man’s gun on the armrest, and the others squeezed in on a loveseat and a couch.  Junpei operated the remote and searched for NHK.  When Akane and the woman came in, the woman looked at Seiji and hesitated.  Akane sat next to Junpei.  The woman knelt in front of the recliner then curled up in a ball on the floor at Seiji’s feet.

“Um…” Seiji said.  He shifted uncomfortably.

“Be patient, Kamiya-san,” Emiko said.  “This is what she knows.  We will figure out one thing at a time.”

He did his best to settle back into the chair.  Yoshi Ogasawara’s familiar voice and face came into view.

“– Francis Pearson, the Director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, is still missing.  Meanwhile, in Nagoya, additional eyewitness reports in the last 48 hours have confirmed that members of the Kodo-kai branch of yakuza have securely overtaken a strip mall and are sharing its resources amongst itself.  One eyewitness said he was turned away from a pharmacy at gunpoint by a seemingly low-level Kodo-kai who –”

“Bastards,” Junpei said.  “Withholding food and medicine from people who need it?”

“Maybe he was afraid the man was going to turn into a zonbi?”

“The Kodo-kai are just as bad as the zonbi.  They hunt dumbly for any scrap of food or survival they can find like wild dogs.  Wild dogs should be put down.”

“I’m sorry, Kamiya-san, but we all need to work together,” Daisuke said.  “The Kodo-kai are turning away survivors.  That’s almost like killing them.  I don’t think the Kodo-kai are wild dogs who should be put down, but there should be consequences.”

Seiji said nothing further, though he eyed them nervously.  Everyone else’s attention turned back to NHK.

“In other news, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare issued a statement on a person of interest involved in the disease outbreak.”  A picture of a stoic-looking middle-aged man appeared in the corner of the screen.  “Dr. Akira Watanabe, 47, failed to report in to work at the Ministry of Health offices in Tokyo shortly before the epidemic began and has been missing since.  Dr. Watanabe, who holds dual doctoral degrees in molecular cell biology and pathology from Tokyo University, is considered to be extremely dangerous.  Prime Minister Shinozaki has urged any persons who know of his whereabouts to contact the Ministry of Health directly, as local law enforcement across the country is working at full capacity to contain the disease.”

“No way,” Daisuke said.

“I knew there was something wrong with him,” Seiji said.  “Didn’t I tell you?  The government probably developed some disease in a lab and this guy knocked over a test tube or stole it from them.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Junpei said.  “We don’t even know if it’s the same person.  Also, didn’t you hear Ogasawara say we’re supposed to call the Ministry of Health?  He said police are ‘working to contain the disease.’  Have you seen or heard any sign of the police?”

“Well…”

“I don’t know where the zonbi came from, or even if a disease is to blame, but it’s obvious they’re lying to us.  I don’t even believe the Prime Minister gave the order to call the Ministry of Health.  When I hear it from his lips, I’ll believe it.”

“In fact, has anyone heard a live statement from Prime Minister Shinozaki lately?” Daisuke asked.

The room fell silent.

“Also, Akira-sensei has been very secretive about what he’s doing with the zonbi in his house.”

“Would we understand what he’s doing even if he told us?” Emiko asked.  “Even if we did, it sounds…unpleasant.  Who would want to know?”

Daisuke raised his right hand, with its missing index finger.  “I would,” he said flatly.  Emiko looked down to the floor.

“Hey kid,” the stranger said.  “What happened to your hand?”

“Oh yeah,” Junpei said.  “We need to decide what to do with that guy.”

“He had a chance to explain himself,” Seiji said.  “I don’t want to hear his voice anymore.”

Everyone agreed.  Seiji rose and went to the garage.  Moments later, he returned with a roll of duct tape.  He tore a strip of it from the roll and placed it over the man’s mouth.

“So, what do we do with him?” Junpei asked.

“Have any of you ever been to South Africa?” Hitomi asked.

Everyone in the room, including the stranger, looked at her, but her eyes were fixed on the man in the chair.

“After World War II, the government enacted apartheid and segregated the whole country.  The black community suffered horribly.  The government shot and killed a male student.”  When Hitomi said this, several people looked at the man in the chair.  “In the 1980s, they had a new idea about how to protest.  They discovered the identities of police informants who worked with the apartheid government and kidnapped them.  In public demonstrations they filled car tires with gasoline and forced them around the informant’s chest and arms.  Then they lit the tire on fire.  They called it ‘necklacing.’”

“That’s terrible,” Akane said.  “We can’t do that to this man.”

“Why not?” Hitomi said.

Beneath the tape, the man murmured an objection.

“It’s the worst form of protest,” Daisuke said.  “It would make us barbarians.”

“It’s inhumane,” Akane said.

Hitomi looked to Seiji expectantly.  He cleared his throat and, reluctantly, came to her defense.

“It was inhumane of him to treat this woman like a dog,” Seiji said.  At the sound of the word “dog,” she picked her head up and looked at him.  He, in turn, looked to the others.

“W-Why not just let him die?” Daisuke asked.  “Wouldn’t that be worse, Hitomi?  We could just leave him.”

“You’re making excuses, Kinoshita,” Hitomi said.  “I know you’re against it.  You’re a good person.  Think about this instead.  In South Africa, it sent a message.  The news found out and covered the executions and the world realized how desperate apartheid made the sufferers.”

“Who would learn from this?” Junpei asked.

Hitomi looked at him coldly.  “Another person in another nearby house who would want to shoot your wife, Fukuhara-san.”

Nobody spoke.

“We don’t know who is in the next house, or the house after that,” Seiji said.  “It could be nobody.  It could be someone who would take one of us hostage or kill us.”

Stunned by their interest in the idea, Daisuke said the first thing that came to his mind.

“We couldn’t do this.  N-Nobody has those things.”

“There’s a car tire and a can of gasoline in the garage,” Hitomi said.  “There’s a cigarette lighter in my dead brother’s pocket.”

Daisuke regretted speaking up.  He could see that the mention of Ryu had earned Hitomi sympathy from at least Junpei.  However, he couldn’t stop himself from trying again.

“We’d burn the house down.”

“I’m sorry, Daisuke-chan, but the roof is flat and the tiles look like stone,” Seiji said.  “We could bring buckets of water up there and…”

“I don’t believe it,” Daisuke said.  “We can’t do this.”

“Why not?” Hitomi asked.

“Because…we can’t!  Right, Junpei?”

Junpei looked at Daisuke, but didn’t speak.  The expression on his face spoke volumes.  Something had changed in him since arriving in this house.  Akane nudged him hard, urging him to support Daisuke.

“I don’t want him to suffer that much,” Junpei finally said.  “But he won’t be the only person willing to kill us for food or medicine.  If another person between here and the train has the same idea and one of us gets killed again, I couldn’t forgive myself.  I don’t know what to do.  Should we vote?”

“If he had killed Akane instead of Ryu, would you want to vote?” Hitomi asked.

Junpei said nothing.  He looked resigned.

“This isn’t right,” Daisuke said.  “Maybe I can’t stop you, but I won’t have any part of it.”

“I won’t either,” Emiko said.  It was the first time she’d spoken on the subject.

“You don’t have to,” Hitomi said.

“That’s a good point,” Seiji said.  “Only one or two of us need to be involved.  His blood will be on our hands.  Everyone else can stay here with this woman.”

“W-What if he jumps?” Daisuke asked.  Everyone could hear the desperation in his voice.

“If he jumps, he’ll break one of his legs,” Junpei said.  He spoke thoughtfully and without joy.  “The zonbi will…”

“Kamiya-san,” Daisuke said.  “Are you really going to do this?”

Seiji picked the gun up from where he’d placed it, on the recliner’s armrest, and checked it.  “If it goes on too long, we put him out of his misery.”

“How long is that?”

“10 minutes,” Hitomi said.

The room erupted in disapproval.

“30 seconds,” Junpei said.  Hitomi scoffed at him.

“Two minutes,” Seiji said.  “I read that prisoners in the electric chair died as soon as two minutes.  Also, I think Hitomi-chan had about two minutes to say goodbye to her brother.  This man fired two bullets.  He shot two people.  He pays two minutes’ debt.”

Nobody could argue anymore.  Exhaustion, hopelessness, guilt and fear prevailed.  Ryu’s death had affected them.  Daisuke found himself unable to reconcile this course of events with those previous.  Something, at some point, had gone wrong.

Hitomi filled the tire in the garage and retrieved the lighter from her brother’s lifeless body.  Junpei carried the heavy tire from the garage while Seiji led the man at gunpoint up the stairs to the second floor, then to the attic.  A small, narrow staircase provided them with access to the roof.

Daisuke felt as though he had failed them all.  He couldn’t prevent Ryu’s death, nor could he prevent his friends from necklacing the stranger.  For this, he felt deeply, profoundly, that it was his responsibility to bear witness to what they did.  It was his punishment for failing to stop this horror.  He found a bucket and a pitcher in the kitchen cupboard.  He filled both with water from the kitchen sink and silently followed the morbid procession to the rooftop.

“You don’t have to do this,” Seiji said quietly to Hitomi.  “You can change your mind.  Even if you asked me to shoot him, to kill him quickly, it would be seen as mercy.”

Hitomi looked at the man who killed her twin brother.  He was damp with sweat, snot dripping from his nose, the tire restricting his arm movements almost comically.  He mumbled objections through the duct tape still fastened to his mouth.  She approached him in two steps and ripped the duct tape from his mouth, slapping it angrily onto his forehead.

“Light the tire.”

From the living room, Akane and Emiko heard wild screams the likes of which they never imagined.  Akane clapped her hands over Emiko’s ears reflexively.  The woman from the cage looked up in alarm and Akane tried to tell her not to worry.  Her voice sounded unconvincing to all three of them.  The screams were unbearable.  Akane hated her husband for succumbing to vengeance and hatred like this.  Why didn’t I stop him? she thought.  Did part of me…want this too?

Daisuke and Junpei covered their noses.  The smell was horrendous.  Gasoline, rubber and human flesh became a thick, heady smoke that neither of them would forget as long as they lived.  In his head, Junpei rationalized the execution.  Tears stained Daisuke’s face.  He atoned.

Seiji and Hitomi were upwind of the smell.  As Seiji watched the writhing figure howling in agony, he wondered what the others would do to him if they knew he was yakuza.  Would they feed him to the zonbi?  Would they necklace him?  He began to wonder if there were a way to travel south, alone, and meet up with the Kodo-kai in Nagoya rather than stay on with this group.  Surely they’d find him out sooner or later.

The flames flickered in Hitomi’s eyes.  The moment the fire went up, she felt a surge of excitement rush through her like an adrenaline rush.  Since that moment, she had experienced an intense pleasure throughout her entire body.  The year before, she had broken her leg in a gymnastics accident and the doctor had prescribed her oxycodone for the pain.  She quickly learned how it felt to double up on her dosage.  Now, watching her brother’s murderer burn alive, the feeling coursing through her body exceeded even that of the opioids.  Her eyes glazed watching the ballet of the flame.  She never wanted it to end and she didn’t care why she didn’t want it to end.

The screams from the roof lasted for an eternity.  Akane daren’t cover her own ears for fear that the sound would sear into Emiko’s memory.  She wished for the sound’s cessation a thousand times.  Finally came the gunshot, alarming and merciful, and with it, the certainty in all of their minds that they would never be the same.

*   *   *

One by one, they took the tunnel back to the Sugimoto residence and spread out from one another as far as they could.  They brought the woman with them; Akane and Emiko needed to coax her a bit but eventually she came along. 

Daisuke sat on Asahi-kun’s bed and stared out the window.  The phone rang.

“What have you done, Daisuke-chan?  Have you all –“

Daisuke hung up.  He had no inclination to be scolded.  He continued to stare out the window and ponder the day’s events.

Several minutes later, the phone rang again.

“Daisuke.  Please don’t hang up.”

“What do you want, Watanabe-sensei?”

“…”

“Ryu is dead.  The man who owns the house next door killed him and shot Akane when Ryu tried to take his gun.”

“That idiot,” Akira said.

Daisuke ignored him.  “Ryu shot the man in the stomach during the struggle.  He was going to die anyway, so we…”

“He had a woman locked in a cage.  We set her free.  I don’t think she can talk, but she seems to understand us when we speak.”

“I’m sorry about your friend.”

Daisuke covered his eyes with his palm.  “The government is looking for you.  Prime Minister Shinozaki issued a statement asking all Japanese to contact the Ministry of Health if we know where you are.  NHK said you’re dangerous.  They also said you’re involved in the outbreak.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“Stop it, Watanabe-sensei.  I know you’re keeping secrets from us.  Tell me the truth.  Did you cause the outbreak?”

“It’s…not that simple.”

There was a long pause.  Akira began to wonder if the boy had hung up on him again.

“What does that mean?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I have time.”

Akira sighed.  “I work for a division of the Ministry of Health that specializes in pathology.  We genetically engineer diseases or new strains of existing ones in controlled environments.  We also synthesize treatments for those illnesses – cures, inoculations, everything.  We test every scenario we can imagine.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Biological warfare has existed in one form or another in Japan since the 1930s when Surgeon General Shirō Ishii returned from a two-year tour of the West and told the government that Westerners were developing their own biological warfare programs.  He received support from Chikahiko Koizumi, who was later promoted to Minister of Health.  In 1936, Emperor Hirohito authorized the creation of Unit 731 to develop germ warfare for the nation.  Are you familiar with the idea of a nuclear deterrent?”

“Mm.”

“Many officials feared Japan being left behind in the germ warfare race, so they gave Ishii control of Unit 731, which spearheaded Japan’s efforts.  It was…bad.  There were vivisections of prisoners, plague fleas that killed 400,000 Chinese –“

“That’s enough,” Daisuke said.

“After Japan surrendered the war, Ishii and Koizumi were to be tried as war criminals by the Americans and the Soviets.  However, Koizumi committed seppuku in 1945.  Ishii turned over all of Unit 731’s findings and was granted immunity.  He disappeared in 1947 and…Well, that’s enough for now.  I’ll tell you more another time.”

“What?  I want to hear more.  If Ishii was in the Army and the Health Minister committed seppuku, how is the Ministry of Health involved today?”

“No.  I need to continue my work.  Actually, I need information from you.”

“When you engineer these germs and their cures, is it preventative – for the public – or to continue germ warfare?  Does the Ministry of Health want you back to silence you for what you know?  Or do they want you to keep working with them?”

“Kinoshita!”

Daisuke stopped talking.

“Listen to me.  This is important.  Have you your friends seen anything out of the ordinary since this started?  Abnormal kidney stones, hardened calcium-like deposits under your skin, parasites, strange insects –“

“Eh?”  Daisuke thought of the room where they found the woman.  He thought of the little jars with the black, hair-like creatures.

“If anyone in your group has seen any of those, I need to know.  I can fly my drone to pick them up from you.  Have you?  Can you ask your friends if they’ve seen them?”

Voting Time!!! Akira’s motives with the thin, black, wormlike creatures could be innocent or malicious. Should Daisuke tell him about (and give him) the one they have in a jar or should he feign ignorance? The fate of the mysterious bug will affect Akira’s ability to pursue whatever goals he has with them.

Polls have now ended.

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