March 29, 2023

The Phantom Doctor (excerpt)

Chapter 1

A Strange Old Man

White clouds covered the low-hanging sky on that hot and humid Sunday evening in spring. Whistling to himself, an elementary school student of twelve or thirteen walked alone through a secluded neighborhood near Roppongi in Azabu.

The boy’s name was Taiji Aikawa. He was in the sixth grade. He had visited a friend’s house in nearby Kogai earlier that day and was on his way home. Large estates hidden behind tall walls lined both sides of the street, interrupted by the occasional Shinto shrine in a secluded grove of trees. The area never saw much pedestrian traffic, though today it seemed even more deserted than usual.

The white-striped strip of asphalt continued on to the far end of town. There wasn’t another soul in sight.

The overcast sky and falling dusk aroused in Taiji a strange pang of solitude and he kept whistling to keep those feelings at bay. He quickened his pace and turned the corner.

He stopped in his tracks with a start, the tune dying on his lips.

Two dozen yards ahead of him, a strange old man sat in the middle of the road engaged in an equally strange activity.

The old man resembled the tramp made famous in Hollywood movies. His tangled white hair suggested he hadn’t been to a barber in some time. White whiskers and a scruffy beard covered his cheeks and chin. He was wearing a tattered western-style suit that looked like it’d been retrieved from a trash bin and well-worn shoes without any socks.

The tramp sat in the middle of the road drawing on the asphalt with a piece of chalk.

How odd, Taiji thought to himself. He retreated behind the corner and peeked out. The tramp finished scrawling on the ground and stood up. He cast a wary look over his shoulder before ambling off.

Taiji waited for him to disappear out of sight before running over to see for himself. Not words or characters but a circle three inches or so in diameter. Inside the circle was a cross or plus sign. One of the lines of the plus sign was pointed like an arrow.

What was the batty old coot doing drawing such funny squiggles on the ground? Taiji carefully stepped around the scribblings and caught up to the tramp again, wondering what he was up to. The man came to another intersection. As he had before, he crouched down and wrote on the ground.

Taiji waited until he left and rushed over to see what he’d written. It was another circle with a cross and an arrow like a compass point.

“Strange,” Taiji spoke aloud this time. “That old man is up to no good. He must be walking around writing these symbols on the ground as a signal to his accomplices.” His suspicions fully aroused, Taiji said to himself, “I’m going to follow him and figure out what’s going on.”

Taking pains not to be seen, Taiji again picked up the trail.

The Gentle Reader might wonder at this point what an elementary school student was doing carrying on like a private detective. However, his actions were not without their reasons.

As those of you who have read The Fiend with Twenty Faces or The Boy Detectives Club already know, Yoshio Kobayashi, the able assistant of renown detective Kogoro Akechi, was the leader of the Boy Detectives Club. The club consisted of around a dozen members, one of whom was Taiji Aikawa.

Thus, when encountering a person who might be engaged in activities on the shady side of the law, it was not at all unreasonable for Taiji Aikawa to want to suss out his secrets.

Taiji kept a low profile and stuck to the shadows as he followed the tramp, who trudged along showing no awareness that he was being tailed. He soon arrived at an even more deserted neighborhood. At each intersection, he crouched down and drew a circle with a cross and an arrow.

“Yeah, he’s up to something,” Taiji said under his breath. “He’s drawing one of those symbols in the middle of every intersection he comes to. He’s got to be giving directions to the bad guys about what route to take.”

With increased resolve, Taiji continued to tail the old man.

They passed through five more intersections. Five more circles and crosses and arrows. Then came the sixth. The sixth symbol was not drawn at an intersection but in front of the gate to a western-style house.

Taiji had never been to this part of town and had never seen this house before. But its old and familiar atmosphere made it feel part and parcel of the old Tokyo from the previous century. A red brick fence ringed the property, interrupted by the moss-covered stones of the gate posts. The wrought iron gate, decorated with arabesque designs, was shut.

Inside the fence, a gable roof topped the two-story building, faced with the same red brick as the fence. Two old-fashioned square chimneys rose from the roof. The windows were few and small, suggesting a dark and gloomy interior, enhancing the already ominous aura emanating from the architecture.

Taiji hid around the corner of the red brick fence and closely observed the scene. The old man crouched down in front of the stone gate and drew the same symbols as before. Except this time when he got to his feet, after examining his surroundings with wary eyes, he cracked open the intricate wrought iron gate and slipped inside like a thief, out of Taiji’s line of sight.

“Stranger and stranger still. I can’t imagine that unkempt tramp living in a mansion like this. I wonder if he snuck in to steal something. Or maybe he’s got even more outrageous schemes tucked up his sleeve.”

Unable to stand the suspense, Taiji scampered over to the gate and peered through the decorative railings.

As expected, the old man was behaving very much like a ne’er-do-well. He crept over to the side of the house and clambered into a window, likely to prevent anyone inside the house from detecting his entry.

“This is not good!” Taiji exclaimed. “What should I do?”

The interloper had already vanished through the window. Trying to imagine what he might be doing inside, Taiji could hardly contain himself. Contacting the police was his best course of action. But by the time he could run to the nearest police box, the old man would have done his evil deeds and escaped.

“I know!” Taiji thought aloud. “I’ll ring the doorbell. That will alert the people inside.”

He quietly opened the gate. Muffling his footsteps, he stepped onto the front porch. He searched for the button and finally found it on one of the columns adjacent the doorway. He reached up and pushed it several times. But after repeated efforts, he heard no one coming to the door. Thinking that maybe the button didn’t work, he tried the door. Pushing and pulling revealed the door was locked. It didn’t budge.

The occupants of the house must not be home.

He glanced at the gate, hoping someone passing by could help. The street was empty. Taiji now found himself at a loss as to what to do next. He simply couldn’t ignore a burglary going on right under his nose. Doing so would disgrace the name of the Boy Detectives Club.

With no other options at hand, that foreboding atmosphere still very much on his mind, Taiji circled around the house to the window the old man climbed through earlier. He’d be in a world of trouble if the man’s accomplices spotted him. Exercising all due caution, he hunched over and inched up to the window sill.

But he needed to summon a bit more courage to peek inside. If the man was standing there and saw Taiji, he’d run over and grab him. No, grabbing him might be the best possible outcome. Such a criminal would hardly be above carrying a gun or a knife and using it, which could lead to a much worse outcome.

Taiji could be taking his life in his hands just by looking through the window.

His heart pounding in his chest, moving as slowly as a slug, Taiji inched closer to the window. After what seemed like hours, exercising every precaution, he raised his head and stole a glance into the room.

No sooner had he done so but the color rushed from his face. His eyes opened so wide, they nearly popped out of his head. He must have seen something truly dreadful.

What in the world was going on inside that room? Just as Taiji feared, was the strange old man waiting for him there with an intimidating expression on his face that all but said, “Ah! I’ve been waiting for you!”

Chapter 2

A Beautiful Girl

The room resembled a kind of parlor. Oddly-shaped chairs were arranged around the table in the center of the room. Like the house, the dimly-lit room had a melancholy air about it, though not so dark that it filled every corner with shadows.

Taiji scanned the interior. Contrary to his fears and expectations, the old man from before was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he saw something far more surprising beside the legs of the table.

The splash of color interrupted the gloom of the room like the pop of a flashbulb illuminating a garland of blooming roses. A young woman of sixteen or seventeen lay there, eyes open. She was wearing a florid western-style dress and was pretty as a painting.

Except the girl’s comeliness wasn’t what so startled Taiji. It was her cruel repose that took him aback. Thick rope wound around her dress, circling her wrists and ankles. A white handkerchief gagged her mouth.

“Only that evil old man could have manhandled her in such a beastly manner,” Taiji murmured to himself. He couldn’t stand how pitiful she appeared. Even if it meant crossing swords with that dotard, he wasn’t about to leave without rescuing her. A rush of righteous indignation welled up in his chest.

The door to the parlor was open, giving Taiji a view of the long hallway beyond. He didn’t see the old man. The young woman must have been alone in the house when he tied her up, after which he continued deeper into the house searching for something to steal.

“All right. I should have enough time to rescue her. If she has the keys, we can lock the old man inside the house while we fetch the police.”

Resolving himself to this course of action, Taiji grasped the window sill with both hands. Making the most of the skills he’d honed in gym class on the vaulting horse, he leapt off the ground and jumped through the window into the room. He ran over to the young woman, pulled a jack knife from his pocket, and cut the ropes.

“Hold on. I’m here to help,” he assured her in a fierce whisper as he untied her hands and feet.

But the strange thing was, even after removing the cords, she lay there like a stone. Thinking she might have lost consciousness, he nudged her shoulder.

“Are you okay? Hang in there.”

The young woman didn’t move. Her stillness aside, something about her didn’t feel right. Her shoulder wasn’t soft to the touch. It was unnaturally cold and hard. As these unexpected sensations registered in Taiji’s mind, a shiver ran down his spine. Maybe the girl was dead. Maybe she was in the state of rigor mortis that he’d read about in a book.

Taiji didn’t know what to do next. But having removed the ropes, he should probably undo the gag as well. Raising his hands, he went to remove the white handkerchief. Seeing her face up close, Taiji got hit with another shock. This girl that made his heart race, that he’d gone to such lengths to save, was not even human! A stunningly real waxwork doll had been tied and gagged and left on the floor.

Who would do such a bizarre thing and why? The strange old man from before couldn’t have done it. The doll must have been tied up before he ever snuck into the house.

The waxwork doll stared up at him with those entrancing glass eyes. The beautiful face truly did appear to be alive. Taiji felt himself enveloped by a spooky sense of dread, as if he’d been cursed with a magical spell or was living through a waking nightmare.

Where was the interloper hiding? A good ten minutes had passed but he showed no signs of returning. An uneasy and desolate mood filled the gloomy old house, as if it had long been deserted with not a soul left behind.

For a long moment, Taiji’s mental faculties deserted him as well. He stood there staring off into space. Suddenly he came to his senses and noticed that the room had grown much darker.

“Whoa!” he said to himself and spun around.

The one window in the room had been wide open only a few minutes before. Now it was sealed with slatted steel shutters. The shutters blocked the outside light, casting the room into darkness. Taiji jumped in surprise and ran to the window. Using both hands, he tried with all his might to raise the shutters. They didn’t move an inch in any direction.

Ah, what a curious abode this was. From the outside, Taiji had been struck by the foreboding air that surrounded the place. A beautiful doll lay tied and bound inside the room, so lifelike as to appear almost real. The building was empty and yet the steel shutters over the window secured themselves seemingly of their own accord.

This was a thoroughly haunted house.

Taiji had ended up imprisoned in the pitch-dark room. He searched for another exit. The only way out was through the door and down the hallway. That strange old man was undoubtedly lying in wait for him there, a mocking grin on his face.

Taiji was at a loss at what to do next. All he knew was he couldn’t stay in the room with the doll forever. To start with, keeping her company was utterly unnerving. The doll girl was so realistic, he couldn’t stop imagining her springing to her feet in the darkness. That thought alone scared him silly. He had to get out of there, no matter what.

Having resolved to go head-to-head with the old man, he bolted from the room and took off down the hallway. His heart in his throat, he cast his eyes about the hall but didn’t spot the man lurking in any corners. The interior of the house was dead quiet. It felt like an empty building.

The hall turned at right angles. Doors were set into the walls here and there. Every door was locked from the inside and didn’t open when Taiji turned the knob. Fortunately, perhaps, as every room radiated the aura of forbidden territory. By this point, Taiji realized he was on the verge of tears. He managed to keep his emotions under control and came to the last room at the end of the corridor.

The door to this room alone was cracked open. “There must be somebody inside,” Taiji said to himself, a thought he found strangely disconcerting. Had the door been shut like the others, it would have been no more worrisome than the rest. Being open in such a manner brought all his fears to the surface.

But now was no time to hesitate. Taiji clenched his fists and mustered his courage. Leaning forward, he stole a glance through the open door.

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