The Doctor responded at first with an amused chuckle. “Oh, you have nothing to worry about. I’m not going to eat you or anything. Simply that there is something interesting I would like you to see.”
He stared intently at Taiji’s flushed face from behind his big wire rim glasses.
“Yes. Just as I said.”
“I’m not interested in your show and tell. I’m going home.”
“Well, that would be up to me. And I say no.”
“I’m leaving anyway,” Taiji said with determined resolve.
“Hah. Be my guest. Leave if you can. But I don’t think you’ll be going anywhere after what comes next.”
The Doctor pressed a button beneath the table. An instant later, the floor beneath Taiji’s feet dropped open with a bang. In the blink of an eye, Taiji disappeared inside the square black hole as if he’d been suddenly sucked out of sight.
The Doctor had simply been biding his time, waiting for Taiji to step onto the trap door.
Taiji’s startled shout vanished along with him into the ground. With the creak of hinges, the floorboards sprang back into their original position. Silence flowed back into the room like nothing had happened there at all.
“That takes care of that,” the Doctor said with a self-satisfied air.
He rose from the chair and turned to the tall bookcase behind him. After removing two large volumes, he reached into the gap and twisted a knob or pulled on a lever at the back. Whatever he did, gears ground together and one section of the bookcase swung inward like a door, revealing a secret room hidden behind the bookcase. Yet another of the Doctor’s mechanical mysteries at work.
The Doctor walked into the small, pitch-black room. The bookcase door closed behind him. An electric light switched on. This was no ordinary room. In one corner sat a low cabinet that sported thirty or forty drawers. An elegant mirror, resembling the kind found in barber shops, perched atop the cabinet.
Dozens of Asian and European outfits, overcoats and hats, hung from hooks on all four walls, such that the room resembled a used clothing shop. On the floor beneath the outfits, a wide variety of shoes, sandals, geta, and umbrellas were arranged in tidy rows.
Inside the room, the Doctor discarded his black officer’s cloak. Donning a single shirt, he sat down in front of the mirror. A truly mysterious transformation began.
He first removed his glasses and placed them on the cabinet. He took hold of his head of hair with both hands and, like doffing a hat, removed it in one fell swoop. He next peeled off his moustache and triangular goatee.
Ah, the Doctor had disguised himself twice over. First as a disheveled tramp. Beneath that attire, he still had on the wig and false moustache. Discarding these outer layers, the real Doctor Hiruta at last revealed himself. With his jet-black hair and glowing features, far from an elderly individual, here was a man in his thirties.
The Doctor opened and closed the drawers in the cabinet under the mirror, clearly searching for something. He finally pulled out a crumpled and tangled wig made for an old woman and put it on. He next opened a drawer filled with jars of face paint. He took out a brush and stared into the mirror while applying the makeup.
In a flash, the distressingly wrinkled features of an old grandmother appeared in the mirror. His eyebrows turned white. Gaps opened up in his mouth thanks to black metal caps placed over his teeth.
Once he was done creating the face, the Doctor got up from the chair. From among the costumes hanging on the walls, he chose a white jacket and pleated skirt of the sort an old woman might wear in western countries. Having dressed himself in a practiced and efficient manner, he draped a brown shawl around his shoulders. He didn’t pull on socks or shoes but slipped into a pair of ordinary wooden clogs.
The disguise now complete, he took on the appearance of the wicked witch in a European fairy tale.
The grandma stooped forward, her body bent almost in two. Both arms tucked around her back, she shuffled forward with a tottering gait.
A side door was set into the wall opposite the bookshelves in the small room. The grandma unlocked the door with a key. The door opened onto a passageway that appeared at first to be a dark hallway but turned into a staircase that disappeared underground. Accompanied by the rhythmic knocking of the wooden clogs against the steps, the grandma descended the stairs one at a time.
Let us now return to Taiji’s side of the story.
In the blink of an eye, the floorboards beneath his feet dropped away, suspending him momentarily in mid-air. A second later, he struck a hard and slippery surface, like the slide in a playground. He slid down and around at an accelerating rate of speed.
He at last struck hard ground and came to a halt with a thud. The slide deposited him on the floor of a subterranean room. He felt a brief pain in his backside but quickly determined there was nothing else wrong with his body. He clambered to his feet and looked around.
The trap door had already closed, leaving the room as dark as night. The only light came from a stone hearth in the center of the cellar. Inside the hearth, feeble flames flickered up from a few sticks of kindling.
As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, the nature of the cellar grew clearer. The floor area was approximately a dozen by a dozen feet in size. Large boulders heaped atop each other formed the four surrounding walls. As a result, the cellar looked less like the basement of a modern house than it did a grotto from the time of the cavemen.
A tripod perched over the fire smoldering in the hearth, the legs formed from three tree limbs twined together at the top. A curious looking kettle dangled from the head of the tripod. The kettle was filled with some sort of liquid, from which puffs of steam rose as it bubbled and boiled over the fire.
Next to the hearth sat a big wooden chair. This oddly shaped piece of furniture also looked like a prop taken straight out of a fairy tale. Both armrests were carved into the shape of serpents. Observing the chair straight on, the two snakes appeared to lunge at him, fangs bared. The shimmering light from the glowing red embers of the fire made them look all the more alive.
If he hadn’t seen it for himself, Taiji wouldn’t have believed that such a grim and gloomy cellar could be found in the middle of Tokyo. It belonged more to those rumored stories about grotesque and evil events that began with some poor soul tumbling down into a twilight Hades. The setting was so improbable he couldn’t help wondering if he had fallen into a bad dream.
However, as he looked around the cellar, an even more terrifying sight sent a cold shiver down his spine and made his whole frame tremble.
Off in the darkness, the details obscured by the surrounding gloom, a faint white object came into view. Taiji didn’t believe in ghosts, but in a place like this spooky cellar, anything that might have otherworldly origins was enough to freeze him with fright.
The apparition inched toward him, becoming more distinct with each step. Whatever it was, it moved on two feet, so it wasn’t an actual ghost. Except this creature sported an appearance more eerie and alarming than any ordinary ghost.
A disheveled head of silverly white hair dangled onto her shoulders. Beneath the stringy mat of hair, the wrinkled face of an old lady opened her mouth and flashed Taiji a toothless smile.
Her upper body was draped with an old brown shawl. A pleated skirt hung from around her waist. She wore sharp-tipped clogs on her feet. She was the splitting image of a wicked witch from European folklore. Catching full sight of her, Taiji let out a yelp and retreated to the furthest corner of the room.
“Hoh hoh! So happy to see you too! Now be a good boy and don’t run away. Grandma has an interesting tale to tell. Come here, come here.”
The old witch reached out a hand from beneath the shawl. Beckoning to him, she slowly closed the distance between them. When Taiji dodged to the left, so did she. When he shifted to the right, so did she. As if an invisible cord tied the two of them together, the old woman followed every attempt to evade her as closely as his own shadow.
There was no escape route inside the cellar. No matter how far he ran, he would eventually end up in her grasp. Taiji finally accepted the desperate straits he found himself in and stopped in his tracks. His face pale, he fixed his gaze on her and waited for the old woman to catch up with him.
“Oh, there’s a good boy. Good boy. You’re quite the fine young man, aren’t you? Courage to spare. Well, then, shall we hold a staring contest? The first one to laugh loses. What do you say?”
Taiji couldn’t tell if she was being serious or pulling his leg. Having thrown down that strange challenge, she stood in front of Taiji. Beneath her white eyebrows, her eyes glittered in a menacing manner. She gazed at his face without blinking.
For a long minute, the bizarre scene went on as the two glared at each other. Taiji felt like he was going to keel over but managed to hang on. He gritted his teeth and glowered at her with every ounce of discipline he could muster. But the grandma’s eyes only grew bigger and bigger until they seemed to cast off a blue glow like a predatory animal, as if an invisible electrical current leapt through the air between them.
At last, her uniquely piercing eyes still wide open, a creepy smile crossed the wrinkled face of the old woman. She raised both hands in front of Taiji’s face and began waving her arms back and forth like the conductor of an orchestra.
These movements must have possessed a mesmerizing power, for the world before Taiji’s eyes went white. The old grandma’s face vanished from his sight. And not only her face. As if wrapped in a thick haze, the cellar and everything in it faded into a hazy fog while his brain fell into a stupor.
Ah, this is no good! Taiji thought. That old witch is casting a spell on me! I’ve got to stay on top of this!
He did his best to keep his wits about him, but the waves projecting from her eyes overwhelmed him and reduced his wits to a dreamy state of mind.
“I’ve—I’ve—got to go home—Mom, a little help here, please—”
Mouthing meaningless gibberish, as if talking in his sleep, Taiji felt his willpower evaporate. He lapsed into semi-consciousness and collapsed like a spineless blob. Lying on the ground in a daze, he struggled to get his feet under him. But his energy ebbed away until he fell into a dead stupor, hardly any more alive than a corpse.
“Hoh, hoh! So you’ve finally decided to take a nap. Behold the power of the hypnotic arts. An obedient boy like you will do everything I say. While you are sleeping, you will remember everything I tell you. Do you understand?”
The grandma leaned over Taiji’s prone body. She again raised her hands in the air, swaying back and forth as she chanted an incantation. Taiji had been bespelled by the old witch. Except in this day and age, surely no such thing as witchcraft existed. Rather, the words recited by the grandma were designed to induce in him a hypnotic trance.
The hypnotist possessed the daunting power to make a person sleep at will. The hypnotist issued commands while he slept, and had him carry out those orders when he awoke.