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’d 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!”