It was evening, right around the time the shop was about to close for the day, and things had quieted down. I looked up at the clock as I moved coins from the register to the coin counter.
Shioriko wasn’t with me right now. She was out talking to an architect about the repairs taking place in the main house. She might have also been trying avoid seeing me face to face. It had been three days since my confession, and I had yet to get a reply.
Shinokawa Ayaka was still at her club practice, so she wasn’t here either, so I was the only one in the building. I heard the grating sound of a braking bicycle outside just as I was thinking it was almost time.
Shida, wearing the same vest and long sleeve t-shirt as before, walked through the door a moment later.
“Look like cherry blossoms season at Enkakuji is almost over. Yo…looking grumpy as always, aren’tcha.” Shida said cheerfully as he approached the counter.
He didn’t have anything with him today, which was no surprise seeing as he came her today to meet with me.
“Surprised the crap outta me this morning, when I got to my camp and saw your letter.”
“Sorry about that. Thanks for coming all the way out here.” I apologized.
I visited Kuronuma Bridge where Shida lived last night, but he wasn’t there, so I just left him a note.
“So what was that about wanting to talk to me alone. You lookin’ for advice on something?”
“Not advice, exactly…but there’s something here I’d like you to look at.”
I pulled our a small folded card from the drawer. This was something I had borrowed from Hitori Bookstore’s Inoue yesterday.
“What’s this, a Christmas card?”
“…Last Christmas, Shinokawa Chieko sent this to Inoue from Hitori Bookstore.”
I opened up the card and showed it to Shida.
To Inoue Taichirou,
It must be cold over there.
Please stop scaring my daughter every time you see her.
Same goes for Goura Daisuke who’s working there now.
He seems like a good kid, so try to get along with him.
I heard he couldn’t read books though.
“…Why do you want to show me this?”
“Aya sent emails to her mother almost all of last year. Day after day, she wrote about the things that happened around her, almost like a diary. I thought that’s how Chieko was getting information on us, as I looked at it again, there was something off about this card.
“Do you remember, when you, I, and Ayaka had that conversation in the kitchen? Ayaka had no idea that Hitori Bookstore even existed. There was no way she could have known of Shioriko’s antagonistic relationship with Inoue, meaning that Shinokawa Chieko must have learned about it from someone else.”
Shida was absentmindedly listening to what I was saying, but in that moment, he grimaced with a troubled expression.
“I don’t really get it…does this have anything to do with me?”
“It does.” I nodded and continued. “Chieko must have been in contact with someone even recently. We did take a request from a client living in Yukinoshita, but…”
“Oh she did mention something about that, the young lady here did.”
“That’s because she was also here then…but at that time there were hardly any people who knew that a request had come in. There was the client who made the request of course, but most everyone related to the case wanted to keep information about it under wraps. I’ve always wondered about how Chieko found out, but…”
“Who was it then? I’m not good with these drawn out stories.”
I said his name.
“You were Shinokawa’s true informant, weren’t you? Seeing as you frequent Hitori Bookstore, you also knew about the relationship between Shioriko and Inoue. You’ve always kept in contact with her, haven’t you? …Probably from before I even started working here.”
“Hey, hey.” Shida’s already wide eyes went even wider. “You know where I live, right? Under a bridge. I don’t even have a cellphone. How the heck do you think I would go about contacting someone who wasn’t even in Japan?”
“You could by sending an email or instant message from an internet café. You were the one who told us that you shower at net cafes instead of going to public baths, remember? And when you said you need to hurry to the café last time, it was to contact her, wasn’t it?”
We both fell silent. I mentally prepared myself for Shida’s reply.
He stared at the counter for a while, but finally looked up with an awkward expression rubbing his bald head. Even though I was the one leveling the accusations, I half didn’t believe what I said myself. Could there really have been a secret connection in the shadows between Shida and Shinokawa Chieko?
“…I used to be a frequent customer of this shop a long time ago. Only in the mail order catalog though.”
“Seriously!?” I raised my voice.
He was knowledgeable enough to make a living as a book hunter so it wasn’t all that surprising that he frequented bookstores at one point. I just didn’t think it was this shop. Shinokawa Chieko was the one who managed the mail catalog.
“And that’s how you got to know her…wait, there was no customer named Shida in the registry…”
“I wouldn’t look too much into that. There were some things that went down and things might get complicated for this shop.” Shida flashed a meaningful smile.
That made sense. There was nothing to say that Shida was his real name.
“But why would you listen to someone like that?”
Shida lifted his eyebrows up in surprise.
“I understand how you feel, but she isn’t “someone like that” to me…she’s my benefactor.”
“After Chieko disappeared, I stopped buying books from this shop…it wasn’t until three years ago that I met her again. I might have mentioned this before, but I ran into some problems with my job and my family…you might consider me to be “that kind of person” as well if you knew the details about what happened. Anyway, things got real bad, so I left it all behind and moved to Taiwan.”
“I had an old contact that lived there. I’ll spare ya the details, but because of him, I ended getting wrapped up in some trouble. I needed some money, but just didn’t have any at the time. And when things were looking hopeless, I suddenly ran into her. She spent a while listening to my story, and after that, without saying anything else, gave me the money I needed, along with a plane ticket back. She also gave me a book that I’ve treasured for a long time.”
“I’m sure you know it. It’s Gleaning + Saint Andersen. By Koyama Kiyoshi.”
I was flabbergasted. Shida treasured that book. To think that it was originally Shinokawa Chieko’s—that we spent time looking around for it having no idea it was originally hers.
“So when that book was stolen, and you came to talk to us about it, was that so we could find it? Was that also planned?”
“No way. That was just a coincidence.” Shida waved his hand in front of his face with big gestures.
“I didn’t know the details of what Chieko was doing at this shop in the first place …and I of course didn’t know that her daughter had the genius to solve problems like mine. It’s just that she recommended I go to this shop if I needed help finding a book.
“And while I was grateful the young lady here was able to find the book, it also kind of left a bad aftertaste. That’s why I gave you that advice. She was just too talented at this things, and that made me wonder if she would suddenly leave her home just like Chieko did.”
In other words, he was thinking of Shinokawa Chieko when he gave me that advice. There was no way I could have known that at the time though.
“She’s you know, I can’t say she’s a good person, but I don’t think she’s evil either. I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but she didn’t ask me to do anything big. She just wanted to know how you all were doing and asked me to check on how things were going and let her know whenever I had time.
“She even talked to her husband from time to time, but he hid the fact that he was sick from her. She was also worried about some other families, and wanted some information on them too. If that’s all she what she wanted, then I was happy to cooperate.”
It felt like a side of Shinokawa Chieko that we had never seen before was coming to light. So she kept in contact with her husband. It was no wonder she didn’t divorce him and kept her married name Shinokawa.
“But Aya kept sending her emails, didn’t she? If she was really worried, couldn’t she have at least repl…”
“Use your head a little, man.” Shida was looking at me incredulously.
“She left her home over ten years ago. The young lady started emailing her about one year ago. She would have forgotten to check for mail at an address that had been unused for so long, right?”
Now that he mentioned it, that seemed to be the case.
“So you’re saying she didn’t read them at all?”
“Apparently she originally made that address to keep in touch with her daughter, and since she didn’t use it for work, she must not have realized that mail was getting sent to it. She probably frantically read everything that had accumulated in the inbox the day before she came to this house.
I read them all…there were some circumstances that prevented me from replying though.
That was how Shinokawa Chieko replied when she was asked if she read the emails. The circumstances she mentioned were simply that she didn’t know they existed.
“Why didn’t she just explain it like that then?”
“She probably thought it wouldn’t work as an excuse. She understood how heavy her absence of ten years was. She was thinking of her family in her own way.
The image of Shinokawa Chieko inviting Shioriko to go on a journey with her surface in my mind, along with her sharp, chilly eyes. Maybe she was thinking her family, but it was of a far different nature from ordinary people—it felt stronger, and fiercely passionate.
“Do you know why she left in the first place? If she was thinking of her family, that is.”
When I asked, Shida looked away as if he didn’t want to answer. .
“Do you know?”
“I don’t know everything…but don’t tell anyone. At least keep it to yourself for now.”
I silently nodded.
“It was for book.”
“A book?” I unintentionally repeated.
“Yeah, Shida replied.
“There’s talk that she left to go after a book. An absurd book that someone in their right mind would never be able to obtain…and she’s apparently still searching for it.”
The railway crossing alarm echoed in the air. The two of us said nothing.