The Phantom Doctor

Chapter 5

The Mysterious Thief

Taiji returned home around seven o’clock just like it was another ordinary day.

“Tai-chan, why are you so late?” his mother asked.

“I was studying at a friend’s house,” he said, making no mention of the events that had taken place only a short time before.

“Tai-chan, your dinner is ready and the table is set. Please hurry up and eat.”

Acting like he couldn’t bear to look at the faces of his mother and the maids, Taiji silently headed to his father’s study, where he conducted himself as quietly as a little bird before heading to his room.

Around eight o’clock on a typical evening, Taiji had a custom of running into his mother’s room and begging for some confections or candy. But that night he didn’t come out of his room.

Beside herself with worry, Taiji’s mother prepared a tray with tea and cake and went to his room to check on him. Except once there, she found that that though Taiji usually stayed up until around ten, he had already laid out his futon and appeared to be sound asleep.

“Oh, my. He’s already gone to bed? This is most unusual.” She called from the doorway, “Are you feeling all right?”

Taiji said nothing and offered nothing in the way of a reply. And yet he was very much not asleep. Face pale, eyes wide open, he stared into the darkness, his mind hard at work.

“Why won’t you respond? You have something on your mind, don’t you? What is bothering you? Are you feeling unwell?”

His mother repeatedly asked these questions but Taiji didn’t respond. He stared at the ceiling, eyes filling with tears that glimmered in the dim light.

She knelt next to his pillow and gently jostled his shoulders and asked again, in more earnest tones, “Tai-chan, what’s wrong? Your mother is concerned about you. Say something, please.”

Unable to hold back his emotions any longer, Taiji turned his brimming eyes toward his mother and finally spoke. “Mom, it really hurts.”

“What? What hurts? Where? Where does it hurt?” She tipped her gentle face slightly to the side and gazed down at Taiji.

“No, I’m not in pain. I’m just so anxious and apprehensive I can hardly stand it.”

“What could possibly have distressed you so?”

“It’s hard for me to even put my thoughts into words. I don’t understand what’s going on, only the feeling of being driven to do dreadful things and not being able to help myself. It’s like there’s another person inside me giving me scary commands that I am powerless to stop.”

Listening to Taiji, his mother blanched. Not comprehending what he was telling her, she was understandably alarmed he might have suffered an injury to his head.

“Mom. I have a favor to ask you.” His eyes shone as with the delirium of a burning fever. He spoke as if having to force the words from his mouth.

“What sort of favor might you need? Don’t hold back. I will listen to whatever you have to say.”

“It’s a strange request. Mom, don’t be surprised. I—I—want you to tie me down so I can’t move.”

“My, my,” was her only response.

Struck dumb by surprise, she looked at Taiji, a plaintive expression on her face. A child who asked his own mother to bind him with rope must not be in his right mind. What other conclusion could she come to but that her son had lost his wits?

“Please, Mom.”

“What are you going on about, Tai-chan? You’re joshing me, right? You’re only saying these things to get a rise out of me. Afterwards, we’ll have a good laugh.”

“No. I’m not joking. I am completely serious. I won’t be able to relax as long as I can still move about.”

“Are you really not pulling my leg? Then please explain the reasons. How can you expect your own mother to do such a thing?”

“I don’t understand the reasons myself. All I know for certain is that I’ll have no peace of mind unless you do. Please, Mom. Tie me up. I’m afraid I’ll go crazy otherwise.”

Taiji’s pale and tortured countenance made evident the pain and anguish in his heart. She did not believe he was lying about losing hold of his senses but was at a loss as to what to do. Unfortunately, Taiji’s father was on a business trip to Osaka and this wasn’t the sort of subject to discuss with the help.

“Mom, hurry up. If you don’t do it right away, I’m afraid I’m going to die.”

Taiji writhed in agony. Tears spilled down his cheeks. Seeing him in such a state, his mother couldn’t help but share in his suffering. She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with the hem of her under-kimono.

“All right. All right. Your mother will truss you up. Don’t struggle so. Please, wait here quietly.”

In order to calm Taiji down, his mother concluded she had to at least make a show of securing him. From a storage closet, she retrieved a length of cord from around a wicker suitcase and returned to Taiji’s side. But regardless of the earnestness of the request, any reasonable parent would shrink from tying up her own child, even if she was simply going through the motions.

She hesitated, vexed as to how to proceed, while Taiji insisted he didn’t mind and urged her to get the job done as quickly as possible.

His mother had no other choice. If Taiji became any more frantic, he might become truly mad. He was that serious. Regretfully, and with unpracticed hands, she wound the rope around his wrists and ankles, though with results that looked more like a decoration than a restraint.

“Pull the ropes tighter. Fasten the knots so hard I can’t undo them myself, no matter what. Use all your strength!”

“I know, I know. I’m tying them as tightly as I can. Is that enough? Now you can calm down, all right? Rest your mind without worrying so much about everything.”

She tucked the futon around Taiji’s shoulders and gave him a gentle pat like pacifying a swaddled child. Entwined with the cords to his apparent satisfaction and thus finally achieving some peace of mind, he at last produced the even breathing of sleep as he fell into a sound slumber.

His mother placed the back of her hand against his forehead but felt no fever. Reaching beneath the futon and taking hold of his bound wrists, she ascertained as well that his pulse was perfectly normal.

“I shouldn’t have to summon a doctor,” she murmured. “Let’s leave things be until tomorrow morning. I’ll check on him then.” With that, she returned to her room.

However, late that night, around one o’clock in the morning, she was awakened by a strange noise, what sounded like footsteps coming down the hallway.

While her husband was away, important documents concerning his company were kept under lock and key in the study. A thief sneaking into the house now could cause real trouble. She quelled her fears, dressed in her nightgown, and tiptoed into the hallway.

Most of the lights in the house were turned off, casting the end of the hallway into darkness. She couldn’t make out anything with any kind of detail, except for the shadows shifting about. Then a silhouette moved just enough at an angle that allowed her to grasp its human outlines.

She almost cried out in surprise, except that would only alert the intruder, who would surely come after her. She managed to clamp her mouth shut and instead peered through the gloom to get a better look at the shadow.

As her eyes grew accustomed to the dark, little by little, the silhouette solidified into a familiar-looking form. Its size and contours grew distinct.

“Oh! Isn’t that Tai-chan?”

The suspicious intruder was the height of a twelve or thirteen-year-old boy. Even seen from the back, he could be nobody else.

His mother had bound Taiji with rope only a short time before, though she was mostly going through the motions when she twined the cord around him. Once he resolved to free himself, he could have done so easily.

Except now that his mother realized the stranger in the hallway was Taiji, she felt a greater surge of foreboding than if an ordinary thief had been lurking there. Recalling what he’d said before forced her to consider the possibility that he’d lost control of his senses and had fallen into the grip of more malevolent impulses.

Muffling her steps, she approached the shadowy figure. “Tai-chan, Tai-chan,” she said in a small voice.

Drawing closer, it became clear that this mysterious stranger was indeed none other than Taiji. She called out to him several times but he acted as if he didn’t hear a word she said, didn’t even turn at the sound of her voice.

They proceeded steadily down the hallway. When Taiji arrived at his father’s western-style study, he stopped, opened the door, and entered the room.

As if smothered by the ominous atmosphere, his mother didn’t have the courage to call out to him. Her heart in her mouth, she stood at the doorway and observed her child with a careful eye.

After entering the study, Taiji reached for the wall switch and turned on the lights. His gaze diverting neither to the right or left, he lurched across the room.

At that point, it occurred to his mother that Taiji might be suffering from a form of somnambulism. That meant someone getting up from bed while still asleep and walking around without any awareness of what he was doing. The way Taiji’s eyes stared off into space surely resembled someone in the grip of a sleepwalking malady.

Taiji drew close to his father’s big desk. He slid open a hidden compartment carved into one of the legs and took out a ring of keys. The keys dangling from his right hand, he sleepwalked to the big steel document box sitting in the corner opposite. He squatted down, inserted a key into the lock, and without any further difficulty lifted the lid.

Looking on, his mother could not contain her anxiety. The box Taiji opened contained top secret corporate documents. Not only important to the company, these papers falling into the hands of a foreign spy could cause great difficulties for the country as well.

Taiji’s father worked for Toyo Manufacturing. He was the chief engineer at its large production facility. The papers included blueprints for machine parts made at the factory, along with detailed cost estimates, order volumes, and shipping dates and deadlines. For now, the papers in this vault-like document box had been entrusted to his safekeeping.

They were important enough that before Taiji’s father departed for Osaka, he cautioned them repeatedly that the papers contained not only privileged company information but state secrets as well.

If a common thief did sneak into the house, he was so unlikely to find the key to the vault hidden in the desk leg that Taiji’s mother hadn’t been as on guard as she otherwise might have been.

Except this thief didn’t break into the house from the outside. The thief was already inside the house. Moreover, the thief in this case was the beloved child of his father and mother, and he already knew about the hidden compartment in the leg of the desk. Unlocking the steel box posed no serious challenge to him.

Even so, Taiji surely must not be thinking straight. Arising quietly in the middle of the night, sneaking into the study, and opening his father’s vital documents vault—in other words, behaving exactly like a thief—certainly qualified as unthinkable behavior on his part. There had to be deeper causes at work here, like a demon casting a curse on him from the shadows.

It did not take Taiji long to retrieve the secret documents from a drawer in the steel box. He closed and locked the lid, leaving it exactly the way he found it, and returned the keys to the hidden compartment. He switched off the light and left the study, again with that same sleepwalking gait, as if nothing at all had happened.

His mother could no longer stand by and do nothing. Resolving to retrieve the documents, by force if necessary, she stepped in front of Taiji and blocked the way forward.

“Tai-chan, what are you doing?” she scolded in a severe tone of voice.

previous Copyright by Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved. next