“What’s this Iga fish plate doing on the shelf here? The black Bizen ware is supposed to be displayed over here. You got it wrong again. Why do I have to tell you the same thing over and over again? I’m at my wit’s end.”
Suzue grumbled to herself as she rearranged the plates displayed on the store shelves. Naoya just raised his newspaper a little higher in front of his face and pretended not to hear. Having to absorb an earful of complaints after coming home from the office every day was not his idea of fun.
It was the ideal time of day for customers to wander in off the street, but none of the people walking by outside showed any sign of stopping. On a day this hot, popping into a nice, air-conditioned store for a bit of browsing was a natural impulse. Unfortunately, their shop was wide open, with only an old electric fan whirring away to cool the air. “Getting air-conditioning is the least we can do—if we want any customers at all, that is,” Maki had commented the other day. She and Naoya had married last fall, so this was her first summer at the family shop-cum-residence.
“What’s the point? With an open-fronted shop like ours, air-conditioning won’t make a bit of difference,” was Suzue’s response. She was looking at Naoya as she spoke. Even when they were talking to each other, the two women barely looked at one another.
“Then we should close up the front of the store. If we got glass doors, people would be able to look in from outside, and the cold air would stay in,” said Maki, looking at Naoya.
When Naoya made the mistake of emitting even a noncommittal grunt, Suzue felt that she had to argue the point.
“Closing up the front, even with sliding glass doors, will still make it that much harder for customers to come in. Anyway, what about the things we have on display out on the street? What are we supposed do with them? Bring them all back inside and slam the doors shut behind them? Everyone will think that Yanagisawa’s gone out of business.”
“It’s like a sauna in here right now. Even the few people who’ve happily come in can’t beat a retreat fast enough. No one spends any time browsing.”
“That’s just not true. Not everyone’s in love with air conditioning, you know. Some of the customers comment on our wind chime and how it makes them feel cooler.”
“Only old-timers would say something like that.”
“Those ‘old-timers’ are important customers for us.”
The two of them went at it hammer and tongs. Naoya was stuck in the middle, unable to take sides. All he could do was waggle his head ambiguously and groan inside. But the womenfolk wouldn’t let him off so lightly; in the end, both pressured him to express an opinion on the matter.
“Oh, golly,” mumbled Naoya, scratching his head and smiling goofily at them both. “How about you let me think about it a while? Maybe we should have dinner now?”
The two women fell silent.
Dinner was eaten in an atmosphere of subdued tension. That’s the way things were in the Yanagisawa household. Naoya wanted to improve things, but he was at a loss for ideas. He tried discussing the problem with an older colleague at work, but his colleague quickly diagnosed the situation as hopeless.
“When a wife and a mother-in-law are at loggerheads, the husband can’t expect to sort things out. That’s just naive. Here’s what you should do: Hear both women out separately; shut up, listen, and never ever contradict them—that’s just pouring oil on the flames. After you’ve heard what they each have to say, look like you agree, comment on how reasonable their point of view is, and promise to convey their opinion to the other party when the time is right. Then—this is the crucial part—never say a word about it to the other woman.
Of course, they’ll hound you, ask you how it went—but you’ll just have to grin and bear it. Divert their anger toward yourself, that’s the only viable solution.”
“Doesn’t sound like much fun,” mumbled Naoya.
“Buck up,” said his colleague, smacking him on the back.
“You’ve got yourself a lovely young wife. I’m sure she’s worth the hassle.”
People tended to be more jealous of him for his young wife than sympathetic about the friction between her and his mother.
Naoya had met Maki at a sleazy hostess club. She’d been working there, and he’d come in with a friend.
That night she’d been wearing a pale blue dress that showed off her tanned skin to perfection. She wasn’t classically good-looking, but she had unforgettably lovely eyes. A skilled conversationalist, she listened wide-eyed and with rapt attention to whatever Naoya had to say (which, frankly, wasn’t all that interesting).
She was cheerful, her features expressive, and her laugh sounded like cascading marbles. When it came time to leave, Naoya was already head over heels in love with her. He went back to the club by himself the next day, and the day after.
His salary was by no means lavish, but since he lived in the old family home, he had no living expenses and a good amount saved for a man of his age. He believed that Maki was someone well worth squandering money on.
When the friend with whom he had first gone to the club tried to warn him off, Naoya wasn’t interested.
“You need to pull yourself together. What’s a poor salaryman like you doing falling for a professional hostess? She’s out of your league, man. You’ve got to put an end to this.”
Guessing that everyone else would probably say the same thing, he decided to keep his mouth shut and keep going to see Maki discreetly. Rather unexpectedly, the next warning had come from Maki herself.
“You’ll run through all your savings if you keep coming here like this, Mr. Yanagisawa. You’re coming alone, so I know you can’t be charging it to your firm.”
“Don’t worry about it. I may not look like it, but I’ve got a pretty big nest egg.”
“That may be, but keep this up and you’ll be broke in no time.”
“Coming here’s the only way I get to see you, Maki-chan.”
By Naoya’s modest standards this was a bold declaration. And it worked like a charm.
“Why don’t we go on a date one weekend?” Maki said.
At first, Naoya was sure she was pulling his leg, but then she emailed, asking him to pick a day.
On their first date they went to Tokyo Disneyland. In daylight, Maki looked healthier and less childlike than in the dark of the nightclub. She confessed that at the club she pretended to be three years younger than her real age. She was actually twenty-four.
To Naoya, the difference seemed hardly worth lying about, but Maki insisted that, by pretending to be younger, she got better treatment from both the customers and the club’s management.
Naoya couldn’t have cared less one way or the other. He was in heaven just being able to date her. As their dates became more frequent, Naoya didn’t just want her to be his girlfriend, he wanted her to leave her job at the club.
“I wish you’d just quit,” he came out and said once.
Maki looked uncomfortable.
“The thing is, I can’t do any other kind of work. It’s too late for me to get an office job, and even if I did, I’d definitely earn a whole lot less. I’d never be able to make my rent.”
Naoya had been to her apartment a few times, and she was right—the average office worker would never be able to afford it.
“In that case . . .” He paused, then launched into a speech he hadn’t planned on delivering. “Why don’t we get married and you can come and live with me?”
A look of surprise came over Maki’s face; then she gave a shy smile, before bursting into tears and draping her arms around his neck.
Naoya introduced Maki to his mother, Suzue, a few days later.
Things went okay. Suzue displayed a certain distaste when she heard about Maki’s nightclub job, but not enough to veto the marriage. As for Maki, she didn’t seem to dislike the idea of living with his mother and helping out at the family china shop. Naoya felt sure that everything was going to be fine. At first, everything went swimmingly, and Maki enjoyed helping out at the shop. Things, however, took a serious turn for the worse for a most unexpected reason. A cleaning rag was the cause of it all. At the end of last year, Naoya got home from work one day to find Suzue sulking in the shop. “Where’s Maki?” he asked.
“No idea,” came the curt reply.
Sensing that something had happened, Naoya went upstairs to their bedroom. There he found Maki in a flood of tears, a cloth clutched in her hands. “What’s wrong?” asked Naoya.
She spread the cloth in front of him. “Look.”One glance was all Naoya needed to realize what had happened and to grasp the gravity of the situation.
One glance was all Naoya needed to realize what had happened and to grasp the gravity of the situation. The rag was made from several pieces of toweling chopped up and sewn together. Naoya immediately recognized the original white towel with the Hello Kitty pattern. Maki was a Hello Kitty fan and an avid collector of the branded merchandise. The towel had been part of her collection. She’d never have turned it into a cleaning rag; Suzue had to be the guilty party.
Naoya went back down to his mother and held the rag in front of her. “Why did you do this?” he demanded angrily.
“Why not? We’ll be needing lots of rags for the big end-of-year cleanup.”
“That’s not what I mean. I’m asking you why you had to use this particular towel. It’s not like we’re short of towels here.”
“Not just any old towel will do. Old, well-used towels make the best cloths. They’re the ones I need.”
“But, Mother, this was Maki’s favorite towel. You know you shouldn’t have used it.”
“We just got some new towels as presents. A new one will be much better for her.”
“That’s not the point. Maki loved this Hello Kitty towel. It meant a lot to her.”
“Oh, will you shut up! What is Hello Kitty anyway? Just some idiotic cartoon cat. What’s an adult woman doing kicking up a fuss about something so infantile?”
Suzue didn’t feel guilty and wasn’t inclined to apologize. Had Maki decided to let bygones be bygones, things might have calmed down. But Maki had no intention of backing down. She told her husband that she wouldn’t address another word to his mother until she apologized. When Naoya relayed this to Suzue, she stayed firm. “She’s free to do whatever she likes,” she declared. Naoya’s married life, which had been sailing along so smoothly, was suddenly buffeted by storm winds.
Maki returned to the china shop with a bag from the supermarket. She was dressed in a T-shirt and ripped jeans. Although the rips were part of the design, Suzue had trouble grasping the concept of deliberately distressed clothing. A couple of weeks ago, the two women quarreled when Suzue criticized the jeans for being shabby.
“It’s boiling outside.” Maki was fanning her face with her hand as she came in. “I started sweating the minute I left the supermarket.”
“You poor thing.”
Naoya aimed the electric fan directly at her.
“There’s not a breath of wind,” Maki said, turning her back to the fan and enjoying the play of air on her sweat-beaded neck. “Must be why the famous Yanagisawa wind-chime’s so quiet today. Eh?”
“Oh . . . uh . . . yeah.”
Did you really need to say that? Naoya thought. Maki’s remark was aimed squarely at Suzue.
“I think I’ll go sort out the payment slips,” Suzue announced.
“Having to rearrange everything on the shelves was a chore, especially when there’s a meeting of the local shop owners’ association tonight. Some people seem to enjoy making work for other people. I just don’t know.”
Maki scowled. Without so much as a glance in her direction, Suzue slipped off her sandals and vanished into the room behind the shop.
“What was that about redoing the shelves?” asked Maki.
“Mother was making a fuss about the sweet fish plates. Something about the white Iga ware being mixed in with the black Bizen ware.”
Maki screwed up her face as if she had bitten into a lemon. “Who cares if they’re white or black? I went to a lot of trouble to make an attractive display.”
“There’s no accounting for tastes.”
“Except that you said I could redo the display in line with my taste.”
“I know, but just for today, why don’t we be nice and let Mom have her way.” Naoya placed his hands together in a beseeching gesture.
Maki pouted back at him.
“That reminds me, what about the air-conditioning? We should get a unit installed before summer arrives in earnest.”
Naoya flinched. Not that again! “I’m thinking about it.”
“What do you need to think about in this heat? Or have you sided with your mother?”
Unable to come up with a better riposte, Naoya was mentally squirming when a man called out, “Hello there.”
A customer! Naoya thanked his lucky stars.
The man wore a pale blue shirt over a black T-shirt.
He looked to be in his early thirties. “You must be Mr. and Mrs. Yanagisawa?” the man said, looking first at Naoya, then at Maki.
“That’s right,” Naoya replied. “How can we help you?”
“Mrs. Maki Yanagisawa?”
The man smiled and pulled out a business card. “This is me. I’d like you to help us.” Maki’s eyes widened as she read the card. “You’re from the police?”
“What!” exclaimed Naoya.
Maki handed him the card. Their visitor was a detective from Nihonbashi Precinct by the name of Kyoichiro Kaga. “Do you know a woman named Mineko Mitsui?” Kaga inquired.
“Mitsui? No, never heard of her,” answered Naoya, glancing over at Maki.
After thinking for a moment, Maki asked hesitantly: “Does she live in Kodenmacho by any chance?”
“She does, she does.” Kaga nodded his head several times. “So, you do know her?”
“She shops here from time to time. Has something happened?”
Kaga’s face stiffened slightly. He looked at each of them in turn.
“I’m sorry to say she’s dead. It happened two days ago.”
Maki gave a shocked gasp. “How, why?” she murmured.
“She was strangled. We’re treating it as murder.”
“Murder!” Naoya exclaimed, then looked back at his wife. Her jaw had dropped and she gaped back at him.
“You said she came here ‘from time to time.’ Can you give me a clearer idea of what you mean? About once a week?” Maki shook her head.
“More like once a month.”
“When was the last time she was here?”“Does her visiting our store have any connection to her murder?”
“Let me think.” Maki consulted the desktop calendar beside the cash register. “Probably about a week ago.”
“Do you remember how she looked?”
“I do. Completely normal.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“I did. Only a little, though.”
“What about? If you don’t mind.”
“What did we talk about?” Maki paused. “She’d come to buy some chopsticks. A present, she said. We didn’t have the set she wanted in stock, so she left empty-handed.”
“Do you know who she planned to give the chopsticks to?”
“It wasn’t really my place to ask.”
“The chopsticks she wanted—are you still out of stock?”
“I ordered them right away, but they haven’t come in yet. I can show you the catalog page.”
Kaga’s eyes gleamed. “Could you?”
“Let’s see now,” said Maki. She pulled out a catalog that was squeezed up against the cash register, opened it, and showed the detective. “It’s this set here.”
Naoya peered over his wife’s shoulder. It was a his-and-hers set for married couples. The chopsticks for the man were in black lacquer, and those of the woman, vermilion. Both were decorated with a cherry blossom motif in real mother-of- pearl.
“Very nice,” said Kaga. “It’s one of our most popular items. It sells especially well in the marriage season.”
Noticing how authoritative Maki sounded, Naoya reflected that she’d taken to the business like a duck to water. Suzue would have probably made some snarky comment if she’d been there. “Hah! She hasn’t even worked here a year and already she’s a know-it-all.”
“Thank you,” said Kaga, as he handed the catalog back to Maki.
“Detective, could I ask you something?” Naoya interjected. “Does her visiting our store have any connection to her murder?”
“Oh, no, no, no.” Kaga smiled and waved his hand dismissively.
“I’m going around to all the stores where Ms. Mitsui was a regular customer. Is there anything else you think I should know, Mrs. Yanagisawa?”
Maki cocked her head thoughtfully, then shook her head. Naoya wondered why the detective was being so persistent.
“Okay. Look, if you do remember anything, call me. My cell phone number’s on the back of my card. No detail’s too small,” Kaga said, his eyes boring into Maki’s face.
“We’ll do that.”
“Thank you very much. Sorry to trouble you.” Kaga shot each of them a look and left the shop.
Naoya immediately went out to fetch a newspaper and read up on the murder. Because Naoya only worked in the store on Saturdays, he’d never met Mineko Mitsui.
“She was a good-looking woman. The paper says she was forty-five, but she certainly didn’t look it. I always thought she was in her thirties. To think that she was murdered, it’s just too awful,” said Maki gravely, as they were having dinner. “She was a nice person. She even brought me an ice cream once.”
With Suzue out at the meeting of the local shop owners’ association that night, it was just the two of them for dinner. Naoya was enjoying the uncharacteristically peaceful atmosphere, and his beer tasted better than it had in months.
“I don’t really get why the detective came to our store.”
Naoya looked puzzled.
“He told us why. He’s visiting all the stores that Ms. Mitsui went to regularly.”“She was a good-looking woman. The paper says she was forty-five, but she certainly didn’t look it. I always thought she was in her thirties. To think that she was murdered, it’s just too awful.”
“I know. The point is, how did he know that she shopped here? Perhaps she mentioned to someone that she was here last week, although the article said that she lived alone.”
“Maybe the police found a receipt from here.”
“From when? You said she didn’t actually buy anything last week.”
Maki frowned, then shrugged her shoulders as if sloughing off the whole business.
“Then I don’t know the answer. Anyway, what does it matter? It’s nothing to do with us.”
“I know, but still . . .” Naoya was chasing down a piece of pickled daikon radish with a slug of beer when a thought suddenly came to him. “That detective—he knew your name.”
“He asked for Maki Yanagisawa. I’m sure he did.”
“Yes, he did. Don’t you think that’s a bit odd? I mean, if he’s just traipsing around a load of different stores, he’d have no reason to know your first name. It’s definitely odd.”
“Did he really say my name . . . ?” Maki began clearing the empty dishes off the table.
“I wonder how he knew? Do you think there was something with your name on it in the murdered woman’s apartment?”
“You can ask keep asking till the cows come home. I’ve no idea.”
Naoya had just crossed his arms over his chest, when a voice sang out, “It’s me. I’m home.” Suzue was back. Discussing the murder was now off the menu. Maki vanished into the kitchen where she started busily washing the dishes.
“The meeting was a nightmare! The old boys were jabbering on, and I just couldn’t get away.” Suzue was massaging her shoulders as she came into the room. “They were talking about something called ‘home pages.’ Haven’t the foggiest what that means! To be honest, I don’t think the old boys had much of an idea themselves.”
“You must be tired. Want some dinner?”
“I had something there,” she said, sitting down at the table.
“But maybe I’ll have a little ochazuke rice.” She glared disapprovingly at the pickled daikon radish. “What’s this?”
“Maki made it. It’s pretty good.”
“Oh, please. She should know that I have problems with my teeth. The woman seems to go out of her way to make things like this, when she knows perfectly well that I can’t cope with anything hard.”
Naoya glowered at Suzue, who was nonchalantly brewing some green tea.
Maki emerged from the kitchen and silently removed the dish of pickled radish. She put it in the refrigerator and left the room, still without saying a word. Hearing her charge noisily up the stairs, Naoya heaved a weary sigh. Suzue picked up the newspaper from the table.
“What’s this thing doing here? Honestly, that girl seems to think she’s above doing any proper tidying up.”
“You’re talking nonsense, Mother. I went out and got the paper for a reason. There was something I wanted to find out about. Have you heard anything about what happened over in Kodenmacho?”
Suzue listened intently as Naoya gave her an account of the detective’s visit. He was careful not to mention the fact that the detective knew Maki’s name; that would only be asking for trouble.
“Now that you mention it, the proprietor of Kisamiya said that a detective had come around his place, too.” Kisamiya was a cutlery shop with a history stretching back to the Edo period. It sold such things as knives and shears, all handmade by in-house craftsmen. It also offered a knife-sharpening service.“The woman went to Kisamiya not long before her murder. What was it he said she’d bought? Oh yes, kitchen scissors.”
“The woman went to Kisamiya not long before her murder. What was it he said she’d bought? Oh yes, kitchen scissors.”
“Kitchen scissors, eh? Is that important?”
‘Well, the proprietor said the detective wouldn’t stop asking him questions. Was the woman a regular customer? Did she say why she needed the scissors? Stuff like that.”
“Oh yeah? And what did he say?”
“That he couldn’t remember having seen her before. As to why she bought the scissors, that’s not something he would ever ask a customer.”
“It’s certainly an odd question.”
“But the detective has a point. You can pick up a pair of cheap kitchen scissors anywhere. Normally the people who buy the handmade ones at Kisamiya have a very specific purpose in mind. According to the owner, she didn’t seem to fit the mold.”
“Interesting. . . .”
What was the significance of Mineko Mitsui buying a pair of kitchen scissors? Naoya couldn’t see any link to the murder, but the police must have a reason for investigating the matter.
“You said the murdered woman was forty-five?” said Suzue, sipping her tea. “Poor thing. Still so young. Anything can happen at any time. You’ve just got to enjoy life while you can.”
“You seem to be doing a good job in that department, Mother,” Naoya said. “You’re leaving next week on that trip with your pals from the ballad-singing group, right? You’re going to Ise?”
“Yes, we’re going to the Ise Grand Shrine and to Shima peninsula. It’s the Shima peninsula part I’m looking forward to most. It’s famous for its abalone.”
Suzue seemed to be far more eager to discuss her upcoming trip than the murder case. After she finished her tea, Naoya left the table. If he spent too much time with his mother, Maki would only give him a hard time when he got upstairs.
From NEWCOMER. Used with the permission of the publisher, MINOTAUR BOOKS. Copyright by Keigo Higashino, translation copyright © 2018 by Giles Murray.