There was a Knock
(After Hoshi Shin'ichi)
There was a knock.
The middle-aged man in the western-style business hotel room glanced at the clock, checked that the curtains were fully covering the window, then unlocked and opened the door. A younger man stood in the corridor. The two men inspected each other carefully before the younger man spoke.
“Hyuga Akira, at your service, sir,” he said, bowing deeply.
“You are on time. Please come inside,” replied the older man. “I am Hoshi Masato. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“You understand, in my line of work it is best not to exchange business cards,” explained Hyuga.
Hoshi closed the door behind Hyuga, turned the key, and tugged the handle to check that the door was secure.
“I understand, Hyuga-san. Please take a seat.”
The two men sat down on opposite sides of the coffee table.
“I am not quite accustomed to this kind of discussion,” said Hoshi with a nervous laugh.
“That is quite usual. Let me break the ice for us. I understand our business relates to a certain Tomioka Jousai. Tell me, is it he or somebody else who has earned my special assistance?”
“There are actually two people in need of your assistance. Tomioka Jousai is not one of them.”
“Yes. One directly, the other indirectly. I trust this will be within your capacity?”
“I believe it will be. Please go on.”
“Because both must be… must be…”
“‘Subdued’ is, I think, the term we generally use for the service you are seeking,” said Hyuga.
“Quite. Both must be… subdued, or there is no point in taking any action at all.”
“I see. May I ask the nature of the problem?”
Hoshi stood up and began to pace distractedly around the room. “This really is immensely difficult for me. You, of course, are at home in this business, but to me it is all very unsettling.”
“But you have nonetheless decided to take positive action. That is greatly to be admired. The more I know, the better I can help you.”
Hoshi quickly poured himself a glass of whisky. “It concerns a large estate,” he began.
“It often does. May I…?”
“Oh, yes, please forgive me.” Hoshi poured a second glass, passed it to Hyuga, and began to pace again. “Tell me how much you know of Tomioka Jousai.”
“I am afraid I know only the name.”
“He is one of the wealthiest men in Japan. How he made his money I prefer not to discuss, but it is his beyond any legal quibble. He is now eighty years old and in a deep coma. He will probably pass away in the next two weeks. Having no siblings, no wife, no issue, and no one he particularly cares about – that seems usual with his line of business – he has written no will. His entire estate will therefore be inherited by his next of kin.”
“And that, I take it, is someone other than your good self?”
“Precisely. I am not even the next but one of kin. Tomioka Jousai, you see, had two aunts, the sisters of his mother. Each aunt has one grandson – Tomioka’s half-cousins. All intervening relatives being now deceased, his two half cousins are his next of kin, and under common law will share his fortune equally.”
“And these are the two men we wish to subdue?”
“Their names and ages?”
“Aizaki Nobuyuki, like me, around sixty. And Nakajima Wataru, around thirty-five.”
“Do they have any offspring?”
“Very good. So please explain how by subduing Aizaki-san and Nakajima-san you will divert Tomioka-san’s fortune to you. That is, I assume, your aim?”
“It is indeed my aim.” Hoshi refilled his glass and offered to top up Hyuga’s. Hyuga declined. “I have not provided well for my old age,” continued Hoshi. “The only alternative I can see is to… what was your word? To ‘subdue’ myself.”
“Which would be sheer cowardice, if an alternative exists.”
“That is my thinking too.”
“So, to return to my question, how will subduing the two half-cousins of Tomioka Jousai relieve your financial embarrassment?”
“Hyuga-san, please know that mine is a deeply fragmented family. Although we all live in this prefecture, I would wager that even Aizaki and Nakajima have never met each other. I am perfectly sure that neither of them knows of my existence. Tomioka’s grandfather, you see, had a half-brother –and the illegitimate child of his great-grandfather. That half-brother is my grandfather.”
Hyuga paused for a moment to graph the family tree in his mind. “I see!” he said at length. “And are you certain there are no surviving relatives between you and the two half cousins?”
“And you can substantiate your relationship to Tomioka Jousai?”
“Yes. I have done the research. All the family records are in perfect order.”
“In that case, we can soon drink to our improved fortunes,” said Hyuga, holding out his glass, which Hoshi refilled along with his own. “But first,” continued Hyuga, setting down his glass, “there are a few details to be discussed. You say that both operations must be completed in the next two weeks?”
“At the outside.”
“Then I can take on only one of them. Two subduings in so short a space of time pose what we call a discretion problem. One of the operations you must undertake yourself.”
“That is what I had in mind.”
“Good. If I am arrested for murder, suspicion will inevitably alight on you, too, and that is not desired.”
“But I am depending utterly upon you for a procedure I can rely upon.”
“Follow my directions carefully and we can both look forward to lives of wealth, freedom, and leisure.”
“So be it, then,” said Hoshi. Turning back to the table, he screwed the cap firmly on to the bottle. “What must I do?”
Hyuga took a small packet from his pocket and passed it to Hoshi. “Take this. You said Aizaki-san is about sixty?”
“Certainly no less.”
“Then he should be the one for you to subdue. I will tell you how presently. Nakajima-san will be my business. He will disappear quietly. I will pin the disappearance on a former colleague, now an adversary of mine, thereby killing two birds with a single stone. Let us meet again in exactly one week’s time, when both subduals are completed. Please find a more secluded place. We cannot afford to be seen meeting a second time. Each of us must bring something from our victim to satisfy the other that we have fulfilled our part of the contract.”
Hoshi held up the packet that Hyuga had given him. “So what am I to do with this?”
“Find an excuse to visit Aizaki.”
“What kind of excuse do you suggest?”
Hyuga thought for a moment. “You could tell him that you have found an old family photograph album. It doesn’t matter. Just pique his interest, and stay long enough for him to offer you tea or coffee. Inside that packet you will find a phial containing a clear, tasteless liquid. Discreetly decant the liquid into whatever he is drinking. Within ten minutes, his blood pressure will begin to rise. When you see the veins bulge out of his head, he is as good as subdued. Apply little extra stress; you could gently imply that his legitimacy is compromised by the contents of the album; that will finish him off quickly and silently. Call for an ambulance, but it will be too late.”
“Will the medics not suspect foul play?”
“No. The symptoms will be identical to those of a stroke, a perfectly common cause of sudden death in men of his age.”
“Very well, then. I will do as you suggest. In any case, I feel I have passed the point of no return.”
“Indeed you have. Now it is time to act. If Aizaki lives, you see, he will inherit the entire estate, and you will be unable to reward my honest labors. I shall, in that case, have no alternative but to expose you as the instigator of Nakajima’s subdual. I hope you understand the delicacy of my position.”
“I understand it well, though I had no idea that in employing a professional…”
“Yes, in employing a professional subduer, I would impose on myself such an obligation to deliver. But I see the force of your arguments. I confess, I am myself on deeply unfamiliar terrain, but I am impressed with your professionalism. I am glad you are here to guide me. Shall we raise a last toast to our success before we part?”
Hoshi uncapped the bottle and refilled the two glasses.
The two men raised their glasses toward each other. “To the honest week’s work ahead of us,” proposed Hyuga.
“Yes. Indeed. To an honest week’s work,” echoed Hoshi, more softly.
There was a knock.
The middle-aged man inside the old Japanese-style house glanced at his watch, then slid open the door. A younger man stood on the terrace. The two men inspected each other carefully before the younger man spoke.
“It is done,” said Hyuga, bowing deeply.
“You are on time. Please step inside,” replied Hoshi.
Hoshi slid the door closed behind Hyuga.
“Are we secure from onlookers here?” asked Hyuga.
“Yes. The hedges have covered the windows on all sides but the front. And there,” Hoshi gestured through the glass sliding door he had just closed, “where the garden ends, the woodland slopes gently down to the river. No one passes this way.”
“You have done well to find such a place.”
“Thank you. Please take a seat.”
The two men sat down on the only two chairs, on opposite sides of a dusty coffee table.
“You, too, have performed well,” said Hoshi. “I saw in yesterday’s evening paper that Nakajima had disappeared, and that a certain Fukunaga was being detained on suspicion of murder.”
“Just so. My former associate was easy to frame. He may well serve life for this.” Hyuga chuckled and, taking a small silver casket from his pocket, passed it with a flourish to Hoshi. “I trust that this will confirm that Nakajima’s disappearance is final.”
Hoshi took an ivory hanko from the casket and examined it. “The Hanko of my great-grandfather! I had heard that it had been misappropriated by the Nakajima branch. This is incredibly valuable. That acquisitive wretch Nakajima Wataru would have guarded this with his life. You have lived nobly up to my expectations, Hyuga-san.”
“It is nothing, Hoshi-san. Merely what I am paid to do. And, speaking of payment, what success have you to report from your side of the operation?”
“Thanks to you, Aizaki Nobuyuki has been – how to say it nicely? – freed from all earthly cares.” Hoshi laughed.
Hyuga, however, remained serious. “Look me in the eye, Hoshi-san. Are you quite sure that Aizaki-san is subdued? If you have failed…”
“Relax, Hyuga-san. Here is a ring I managed to take from his finger before the ambulance men arrived. You see – engraved on the inside surface is the Tomioka crest.”
“Let me see that!” Hyuga seized the ring, examined it under the reading lamp, then returned it to Hoshi. “It is as you say - Not just the Tomioka crest, but the Aizaki crest, more recently added. You have well earned my services and will soon be able to reward me for them.”
The two men settled back into their seats and smiled contentedly.
“We did well, did we not?” chuckled Hoshi.
“Indeed. Shall we drink to that?”
“We certainly shall!”
Hoshi uncapped a bottle of whisky and filled two glasses.
“To our honest week’s work!” they said together, rising, clinking glasses, and laughing.
“Just one question, Hyuga,” said Hoshi, who had suddenly ceased to laugh. “Where did you acquire such knowledge of Tomioka and Aizaki heraldry?”
Hyuga laughed with renewed abandon as Hoshi awaited an answer.
At last, Hyuga, setting down his empty glass, replied. “Hoshi. Your question shows me that you are confused. Deeply confused.” He laughed again. “In fact, there is not a single aspect of this affair that you have apprehended correctly.”
Hoshi stiffened. “What do you mean, Hyuga?”
“That you are a fool, Hoshi.”
“You have been deceiving me?”
“From the beginning! You made it absurdly easy for me, Hoshi. I knew you would be impressed with the precious hanko that belonged to Nakajima Wataru.” He restored the hanko to its casket and slipped it back into his pocket. “It was no trouble for me to obtain it, though, because it was here in my pocket all the time.” He patted his pocket and laughed again. “Allow me to introduce myself.” He stood up, and bowed deeply. “Nakajima Wataru, at your service.”
Hoshi sat open-mouthed for several seconds, before saying, in disbelief, “You tricked me…”
“Oh, but it was so absurdly easy to make myself disappear, while my good friend Fukunaga-san kindly volunteered to spend a few nights in a police cell, for the sake of verisimilitude. Let me see now. The division of the fortune was to be ninety percent to you and ten percent to me, I believe? Of course, you now know that my mere identity entitled me to fifty percent. But, as you so rightly observed, I am an acquisitive wretch. Revised position, with Aizaki subdued: one percent to Fukunaga-san, who will be released from police custody just as soon as I am found alive and well. And ninety-nine percent to me. For you, on the other hand, I am expecting a life sentence for poisoning my dear, dear second cousin. Now, Hoshi, please refill this glass. It is empty.”
Hoshi poured Nakajima another whisky. “Will you at least spare me the prison sentence?”
“After you have murdered my dear cousin?”
“But you never even met him.”
“What sort of a family do you think this is? Come, come now, Hoshi-san. A postmortem is the very least I can do to honor his memory.”
“Then it looks as if I am finished. What a fool I must seem to you, now.”
“You most certainly do.”
“It appears you out-maneuvered me.”
“I certainly did!” said Nakajima, replacing his empty glass loudly on to the table. “Another one!”
“No, Nakajima,” said Hoshi, rising slightly. “You are already mishearing me. I said ‘it appears you outmaneuvered me.’”
Nakajima gazed uncomprehendingly at Hoshi.
Hoshi relaxed in his seat. “You see, Nakajima, I am not the fool you took me for. I knew you from the start. Family registers, addresses. It was, as you would put it, absurdly easy. I knew I could count on the Nakajima acquisitiveness to draw you into my scheme. Now that you have so expertly faked your own murder, and framed your friend Fukunaga, no one remains between me and the entire Tomioka fortune.”
“You are a fool, Hoshi,” hissed Nakajima. “You forget that I still stand between you and the fortune, and that you are guilty of murder.”
“Wrong, Nakajima. Wrong on both counts. You should pay more attention. I said I had released Aizaki from all earthly cares, not that I had murdered him. Aizaki Nobuyuki is alive and well. Please, allow me to introduce myself.” He stood up and bowed deeply. “Oh! You didn’t guess? No, I thought not. And did you guess that, a few days from now, the decomposing body of Nakajima Wataru will be discovered over there, in the woods leading to the river? No? Shall we drink to it? You see, Nakajima, my glass is still full, but you have already emptied yours, twice.”
Nakajima, red in the face with rage, rose unsteadily to his feet. “You…you…!” he screamed.
Aizaki watched, calmly, as Nakajima, falling suddenly silent, dropped heavily across the table.
Saving his glass from spilling, Aizaki raised it over Nakajima’s limp body. “Kanpai!” he whispered.
About the Author
Peter Marsh lives in Yokohama, Japan. He was born in the UK and has also lived in Tanzania, Germany and Grenada. For a living he teaches Physics, and for a life he writes short stories and occasional satirical verse. He is a long-serving member of the Tokyo Writers' Workshop, and has delivered sessions (on humour and dialogue) at the annual Japan Writers' Conference. His stories have been published in The Caribbean Writer, The Tokyo Advocate and Minus Tides. When not teaching or writing, Peter can be found pounding the hiking trails around Greater Tokyo, figuring out his next plot.