February 24, 2024

Big Gold Bullion (excerpt)

Chapter 1

A Night of Terror

Sixth grader Fujio Miyase was home alone.

The house sat on a lonely hill in Ogikubo, to the northwest of Tokyo proper. Fujio’s uncle designed and built the house. But he died with no wife or children so Fujio’s father inherited the place. The Miyase family moved in the year before and had lived there ever since.

Fujio’s uncle was an eccentric man, to say the least. A confirmed bachelor, he had no social life to speak of. When not antique hunting, he holed up in the big house, a house constructed in an odd and outmoded style that mirrored the mind of the architect himself.

Altogether, it was a twelve room, two-story, western-style structure with concrete as the primary building material. The shape of the red tile roof only added to the already curious appearance of the place, lending it the aura of a castle. Unusual in that day and age, the rectangular chimneys of the coal-burning fireplaces poked haphazardly here and there through the roof, giving it an even more peculiar look.

The floorplan of the house was equally unconventional. The hallways twisted and turned much like a maze. The rooms themselves were furnished with fine pieces of furniture and objets d’art that reflected the tastes of Fujio’s antiques-loving uncle.

Of all the rooms, the spacious downstairs parlor, filled floor to ceiling with valuable works of art, bore more than a passing resemblance to an exhibition hall in a museum. Masterpieces by European artists lined the walls. Among the furnishings were handmade tables and chairs by noted craftsmen that had been custom ordered from abroad, along with ornamental cabinets and Persian rugs. Every last one of these items was an incomparable luxury of the most exacting quality.

Fujio had just turned in for the night.

With his father away on business, he was the only member of the family at home, and thus had the house-sitting chores to himself. To be sure, the maids and the houseboy occupied rooms in one of the far-flung wings. But as the hired help, their presence hardly provided the same sense of security as when Fujio’s father was on the premises.

Fujio’s kind and gentle mother had died four years before. The Miyase family currently consisted of Fujio’s father and himself.

The hour that evening in spring grew late, past ten according to the table clock next to Fujio’s pillow. On any other day, he would have dozed off already. But he was having difficulty falling asleep that night. Even though it wasn’t cold outside, a shiver ran down his spine. He couldn’t help feeling a bit forlorn and even a little afraid of the dark.

Such feelings should be quite beyond the pale for a boy of his age. He was in the sixth grade, after all. But no matter how brave a front he put on, as he timidly trained his ears on the sounds outside the window, his spirits inevitably failed him.

He shouldn’t have read that book before getting into bed, a western novel featuring a formidable and frightening thief. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t put the illustrations of that unearthly brigand out of his mind. Merely imagining that such a dreadful outlaw might come sneaking in through the window at any moment was enough to make his blood run cold.

The window overlooked a large yard and a dense grove of trees. The thick curtains made it impossible for Fujio to see outside the window. Perhaps even now, a suspicious shadow was lurking beneath those trees and creeping closer to the house. With such scary thoughts haunting his mind, Fujio curled up beneath the blankets.

The big house felt like an abandoned building, the silence interrupted only by the ticking of the second hand of the clock on the nightstand next to the bed. The clock took on an eerie presence. With all his senses concentrated on that rhythmic melody, Fujio began to feel like it was talking to him.

Fujio did his best to fall asleep. No matter how many times and how tightly he closed his eyes, his mind remained awake and alert and filled with all manner of thoughts.

“Ah, I remember now. That part in the book where the terrifying letter from the thief appears out of nowhere in the middle of a locked room. The girl in the story was asleep in bed like me. And then, out of the blue, a fluttering sheet of paper landed on the blanket next to her pillow.”

Fujio couldn’t help wondering if the same thing was going to happen to him too. The thought made him shiver. Was it just his imagination or did he sense a subtle shift in the air, as if something was dancing down from the ceiling?

“Don’t be silly,” he scolded himself. “As if something like that could happen here!” Hoping all the more to mock his own fears, Fujio abruptly opened his eyes. “Oh, look!” he laughed, doing his best to convince himself. “There’s nothing falling on me at all!”

No sooner had he focused his attention on the ceiling than an alarming sight had him smothering a startled shout.

The scene from that book was playing out before his very eyes! As Fujio lay there on the bed, a white sheet of paper drifted in lazy circles from the ceiling. He wondered at first if he was dreaming. Here was the exact same thing he was thinking about. Could events so strange and unsettling really be taking place?

What was happening at that moment wasn’t a dream or an illusion. A faint draft caught the sheet of paper and sent it swooping over his face before dropping softly onto the blankets.

Fujio reflexively recoiled and froze for a long moment. He stared at the piece of paper. But confronted by such an eerie series of events, he could not relax until he’d confirmed for himself the exact nature of what was going on.

“It certainly can’t be an extortion letter like in the story.”

Simply voicing the thought aloud scared him so much he broke out in a cold sweat. Except the more he avoided such thoughts, the worse his fears became. Gritting his teeth in resolve, he reached out from beneath the blanket and grabbed hold of the paper. Bringing it beneath the glow of the nightstand lamp, he realized it bore a message written with a pencil or some other similar writing instrument.

Fujio didn’t want to read it, too scared to find out what it had to say. But as if possessing a will of their own, his eyes traversed the columns of characters. Before he knew it, he had digested the sentences and comprehended the letter’s contents. And having done so, his face grew a shade paler.

An altogether reasonable reaction, considering the threatening message it contained.

Dear Fujio,

No matter what happens next, do not leave your bed until morning. Do not raise your voice. Close your eyes and go back to sleep. Raise a fuss and there is no telling what punishments might await you. If you find these instructions frightening, practice a little patience and you will remain safe and sound. Again, to be perfectly clear, if you value your life, stay right where you are.

Reading those words so startled Fujio that his mind went blank for a moment. When his nerves finally calmed down, more unsettling questions popped into his head about the creepy contents of the message.

“What does this even mean? Why is it so important for me to stay put right here? If I don’t, then something bad is going to happen. What are these awful consequences I am being threatened with? All that aside, where did this letter come from anyway? There aren’t any gaps or holes in the ceiling. I wonder if the window is shut and secured.”

Turning these thoughts over in his mind, he suddenly became aware of a cold draft blowing through the room.

“Oh. The window must be open.”

He turned his attention toward the window. As soon as Fujio glanced at the thick curtains, his big brown eyes opened so wide they practically popped out of his head. His features contorted almost on the verge of tears.

Wasn’t that the muzzle of a pistol jutting from between the curtains and aimed straight at him? And weren’t those the tips of a pair of big shoes peeking out from beneath the hem of the long curtains?

The bad guy. The bad guy snuck in through the window, hid behind the curtains, and now threatened Fujio to stop him from raising any alarm bells. That same bad guy must have tossed the letter at him.

The bad guy muffled his breath, kept his mouth shut, and didn’t budge an inch. Fujio couldn’t make out his face or frame either. Only the pistol, the slight swell in the curtains left by his body, and the tips of his shoes.

Not being able to make out his features made his presence all the more intimidating. Fujio would have preferred having a concrete idea of who this man was. Without the slightest inkling about his true form, Fujio was left to imagine a monster too frightening for words, sporting a visage that would surely chill him to the core.

In the story he’d been reading, the young woman threatened by the villain was so scared, her teeth chattered with fear. When Fujio read that, he had to wonder if anything similar ever happened in real life. But now he totally understood the feeling. He was shaking so much that his teeth really did rattle. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t clamp his mouth shut.

Fujio regretfully could do nothing but retreat beneath the blankets and not budge an inch. He did not consider disobeying the villain’s orders and crying for help or bolting from the room. Doing so would bring his life to an end with a flash of fire from the muzzle of the gun.

He shared the bedroom with his father. He could see his father’s empty bed on the other side of the room. There was a button next to the bed that would ring a bell to summon the houseboy or a maid. He only had to dash two or three yards and press it to call for help.

And yet Fujio couldn’t get close enough to that button to ring the bell. To do so, he’d first have to get off the bed and cross the floor. As soon as he took the first step, the villain was sure to open fire.

Eyes shut, heart in his mouth, and trembling all over, Fujio soon heard strange noises from somewhere in the house—the kind of rumbling sounds made by dragging a table or chair across the floor, the sound of something hitting the walls, the sense of people walking about.

“Oh, those are coming from the parlor, aren’t they? The thief must have snuck into the parlor and is stealing all the paintings and furniture.”

The bedroom shared a wall with the resplendent parlor. As described above, the room contained a rich miscellany of beautiful artwork and furniture and other ornate objects. Any thief who targeted the house would certainly do so with an eye on those luxurious paintings and fine home furnishings.

The ruckus on the other side of the wall grew louder, as if the invaders were undertaking a major cleaning or moving operation. The rooms for the houseboy and maid were at the far end of the house, and Fujio had a gun trained on him, so they must not be too concerned about being noticed. They stomped around like they were ransacking an abandoned building.

The volume of noise they were raising suggested two or three men at the minimum, and they weren’t going to stop with the paintings and other masterpieces. They intended to cart off anything of any value, down to and including the tables and the chairs and the rugs they were walking on. The thieves must have a big truck waiting right outside the gate.

Given all that was going on, Fujio couldn’t help feeling sorry for his father. But however anxious and worried he was, there was nothing he could do. The menacing gunman glaring at him in uncanny silence made sure he couldn’t leave the room, not with that pistol trained on him from behind the curtains.

Chapter 2

Strange and Bizarre

Ah, what a long night it was. Fujio felt like an entire month had passed. The cumulative effect of everything that happened pushed his emotions beyond ordinary dread and apprehension. His mind and body grew so numb that he feared he might collapse into a state of stupefaction.

Throughout the night, the mysterious man brandishing the pistol did not move from behind the curtains. With all of his attention focused on the weapon, the unfortunate Fujio could not get a wink of sleep.

The new day finally dawned. A faint white glow filled the room. The sound of the milkman driving his delivery truck down the road out front reached Fujio’s ears, along with the hails of the natto seller, carrying tubs of fermented soybeans on a bamboo pole hoisted over his shoulders.

“What a relief! Morning at last! The thieves must have carted off every last thing in the parlor. If only I wasn’t such a little kid! I couldn’t do a single thing to stop them!”

Such regrets were indeed regrettable but Fujio couldn’t help feeling relieved. Until he turned his attention to the window. Ah, with a persistence that could only be described as perverse in the extreme, that brazen and vindictive villain had not budged. Pistol leveled, shoes poking out from beneath the curtains, he stood there in silence.

Fujio froze, then once again scrunched down beneath the covers.

What was this intruder attempting to accomplish? The accomplices that raised such a commotion in the adjoining parlor had long since fled the premises. Why had he alone remained behind?

The world outside grew brighter. A faint band of white shone into the room through the gap between the top of the curtains and the ceiling. Due to the thick fabric of the curtains and the shade from the trees outside, the translucent silhouette of the villain remained indistinct, the bulk of his presence making itself known by the swell in the pleats of the curtain.

The clock on the nightstand read ten minutes before six o’clock. It was about time for Kitamura to arrive to wake up Fujio. Kitamura was a college student who worked on the Miyase estate as the houseboy.

The brisk pace of footsteps from the hallway told him they must belong to Kitamura. Except more than a sense of relief, Fujio felt a sudden surge of anxiety.

If Kitamura burst into the room, the shadow behind the curtain would hardly keep standing there like a statue. Fujio had to hope the man would make a run for it but couldn’t rule out the possibility he’d aim the gun at Kitamura and pull the trigger. An infinitely worse outcome.

These thoughts had him on pins and needles.

Knowing none of this, the houseboy arrived at the door to Fujio’s room, knocked, and bustled inside without waiting for a reply.

“Kitamura, stop!” Fujio cried out. In hopes of staving off a tragic turn of events, he completely forgot about his own predicament. “You can’t come in here!”

“Eh? What’s wrong?” said the startled Kitamura. Standing in the doorway, his sharp eyes at once spotted the figure behind the curtains. “Hoh. Who’s that over there?”

Far from fleeing the scene, Kitamura bolted toward the villain. Fujio had good reason to fear for Kitamura’s safety. Kitamura thought nothing of putting himself in the line of fire, focusing only on the threat to Fujio’s welfare.

“Kitamura, watch out!”

Fujio jumped out of bed and grabbed Kitamura’s hand from behind and tried to pull him to a halt. Paying the menacing barrel of the gun no mind, the determined Kitamura charged forward. This brave young man held a first dan black belt in judo. He was not without skills when it came to hand-to-hand fighting.

“Hey, you got nothing to say for yourself?” roared the enraged Kitamura. “Do you think you can just waltz in here and rob the place? Think I’m gonna let you make a clean getaway, huh?”

Showing the same spirit as those famous guard dogs of Tosa Prefecture, Kitamura reached out and grabbed hold of the curtains.

“Careful! That man has a gun!”

Fujio held his breath, sure a gunshot would be the next sound he heard, followed by Kitamura falling to the ground, his body gushing blood, his final breaths silently escaping from his lungs.

But instead of the report from a gun, what followed was a sharp crunching sound as Kitamura barreled through the curtains and collided with the window and tumbled to the floor.

For a moment, having no idea what had just happened, Kitamura and Fujio looked around the room with wide eyes. Gathering their wits about them at last, they took in the torn edges of the curtains, ripped apart in all the confusion. And then the gun dangling back and forth at the end of a length of twine. And lastly, the large pair of shoes lying askew beneath the bottom hem of the curtains.

Taking in the scene, Fujio’s face flushed red with indignation. He’d been paralyzed with fear the whole night long by a gun hanging from a piece of rope and an empty pair of shoes. The simple facts of the matter were unbearably embarrassing.

Kitamura said, “What’s going on? Just a pair of shoes? I would have sworn a guy was standing there. Sure had me fooled! Fujio-chan, are you playing a prank on me?”

Kitamura scowled at Fujio. He’d nicked himself during his headlong plunge into the curtains and stuck his finger in his mouth.

“I wasn’t playing a trick on anybody! There really was a thief here!”

His face flushed, a wretched look in his eyes, Fujio recounted the events of the previous night.

“Really? You’re saying they were even moving the furniture around in the parlor?”

“They were! They raised a big racket in the process! They must have hauled every last item out of there!”

“Well, then. We’ll see for ourselves. C’mon, Fujio-chan, let’s go.”

With Kitamura dressed in his workaday university garb and Fujio still in his pajamas, they dashed down the dimly lit hallway to the parlor.

The big engraved parlor doors opened to the right and left. The doors were closed at the moment. Quailing at the thought of opening those doors, the boys exchanged a long look. Finally, Kitamura made up his mind. He quietly cracked open the doors and peeked into the room. After a couple of quick glances, he turned to Fujio with a startled look on his face.

“Hey, Fujio-chan. Are you sure you weren’t just having a bad dream last night?”

“What are you talking about? I heard them as clear as day! Why the funny expression?”

“Hmm, stranger still. Well, take a look for yourself. Shouldn’t you check to see if anything is missing from the parlor?”

“Oh, you’re right.”

The two of them rushed into the parlor, drew back the curtains, and examined the room.

The only strange thing about the room was how normal it looked. The oil paintings hanging on the wall, the vases on the display shelf over the fireplace, the silver table clock, the tables and chairs—everything was lined up and as neatly arranged as always. The carpets showed no wear and tear nor was there any evidence of the windows being forcibly opened.

Fujio was completely taken aback. All that hubbub suggested everything inside the room getting boxed up and shipped away. That nothing in the room appeared to have been moved at all made Fujio feel like he’d been fooled by a fox.

Perhaps the thieves hadn’t targeted the parlor at all but had focused their efforts on another room. The two of them inspected the house room by room and found nothing out of order. They returned to the parlor and slumped into a pair of armchairs. Now even more perplexed than before, all they could do was sit there and exchange baffled expressions.

“There’s no way this was just a dream,” Fujio said. “Look at the note that ended up on my bed. I didn’t imagine it. Here is solid evidence that a bunch of bad guys snuck into the house last night.”

Realizing that it might become useful evidence of the crime at a later date, Fujio had placed the threatening letter in the pocket of his pajamas. Now he took it out and showed it to Kitamura.

“You’re right. That’s why I can’t help thinking how strange this is. Something out of the ordinary happened last night, the kind of inexplicable event you read about in detective novels. A most mysterious case at that.”

Fujio folded his arms and muttered to himself, “You know, I’ve been mulling this idea over for a while. Speaking of cases, it’s exactly the kind of crime that only a great detective like Kogoro Akechi could hope to solve.”

Fujio was familiar with the name of the famed detective and had some personal knowledge of him as well.

Well, then, Gentle Reader. What might be the meaning of these inexplicable events, that more resemble a ghost story than a crime? There can be no doubt that a large number of thieves broke into the house. And yet not a single item went missing. It strains belief that a band of criminals would go to so much effort for no reward. Perhaps something precious was indeed carried off and Fujio and Kitamura had simply overlooked it. If so, it must be an irreplaceable painting or sculpture with an importance and value that neither one of them could begin to imagine.

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