The promised three days passed at last. Chief Engineer Aikawa looked forward to finding out which of the two detectives would bring him the good news first. He waited and waited, but by evening, the sun had set with no such notifications forthcoming.
After all those promises, the detectives turned up nothing. He shouldn’t be surprised. Resigned to write the whole thing off, he wrapped up business in his office and was getting ready to go home when the secretary appeared with a business card in hand. Kozo Tonomura had arrived and was requesting a meeting.
Aikawa rushed to the conference room. As soon as he walked in, Tonomura took in the expression on his face and said with no little pride, “As guaranteed, I have tracked down the hideout of these miscreants. I see that Kogoro Akechi declined to make an appearance. The victory is mine! Well, then, Aikawa-san, come along. We will stop at the police station to secure the assistance of the officer in charge, and then proceed to the hideout where the criminals have holed up.”
“Oh, you don’t say!” For the first time in a long time, Chief Engineer Aikawa flashed a broad smile. “Thank you very much! Nothing would make me happier than successfully retrieving the documents and rescuing the children. So where exactly is this hiding place located?”
“Not now. The walls have ears, you know. Loose lips and all that. In any case, I will accompany you there myself. You will see for yourself soon enough.”
Aikawa didn’t question Tonomura’s proposition any further. The company director was working late. After updating him about these developments, Aikawa requisitioned a company car. He and Tonomura raced to the police station.
Fortunately, Chief Inspector Nakamura of the Metropolitan Police Department was on the premises. After listening to Tonomura’s report, Inspector Nakamura agreed to confirm his findings with a raid on the hideout Tonomura had identified. He rounded up several patrol officers and they piled into a separate car.
Following Tonomura’s directions, the automobiles proceeded to a dreary residential area in the Roppongi district of Azabu and pulled up to the curb. They climbed out of the cars and followed Tonomura. After walking down the dark street for a quarter mile or so, they came to the front gate of an old western-style house surrounded by a red brick wall.
The Gentle Reader will certainly remember this place as the residence of the mysterious Doctor Hiruta.
Tonomura said in a hushed voice, “Everyone, this is the hideout. Make as little noise as possible. If they realize we’re here, we’ll lose the element of surprise. To prevent anyone from getting away, we should split up and cover all the exits.”
Inspector Nakamura issued orders to his men and posted lookouts at the front and back entrances.
“Well, then,” Tonomura continued. “The three of us will take a look around. Depending on how the situation develops, the officers may need to kick down the front door and charge in. But we’ll check things out as calmly as possible first.”
With that, Tonomura and the Inspector and Chief Engineer Aikawa softly stepped inside the gate.
When they reached the porch, curiously enough, the door into the foyer was wide open. But the lights were all turned off. The place had the feel of a vacant house.
Detective Tonomura bent his already rounded back and craned his head to the side. “Well, this is a strange and unexpected situation.”
“The criminals must have realized they were being targeted and fled,” Inspector Nakamura said.
“No. That isn’t possible. I’d never be so careless as to give them an opening. They didn’t know I was coming. In any case, we should take the opportunity to look around inside.”
With those words, Tonomura entered the western-style house as briskly as he could manage. After a bit of fumbling around, he found the wall switch. The hallway light blinked on.
“This way, gentlemen. We should find the study used by the conspirators at the end of the hall. Let us see what evidence it holds in store for us.”
Tonomura demonstrated a detailed understanding of the layout of the house. Guiding the other two, he set out first, continuing all the way to the end of the hallway. But the study was also unoccupied, with not another person in sight.
“Curiouser and curiouser. It does look like they are in the wind, after all. However, there are still places left to explore. I happen to know that this house has a basement.”
There was a big desk in the study. As he spoke, Tonomura struck a match and lit the candle in the candleholder on top of the desk. Holding it, he approached the bookshelf that took up the entire wall facing them. He pulled out two or three volumes from the middle shelf and reached into the gap. Quite miraculously, a whole section of the bookcase opened like a door, revealing a hidden secret room.
The Gentle Reader will be familiar with the mechanical workings of this bookcase. Aikawa and Inspector Nakamura were not, of course, and so were decidedly taken aback. Inspector Nakamura couldn’t help being impressed at the amount of information that Detective Tonomura had uncovered in his investigation.
“There are stairs at the back that lead down to the basement,” Tonomura explained with a triumphant air.
Holding the candlestick in front of him, he proceeded ahead. They crossed the secret room, that the Gentle Reader will recall as the wardrobe closet, and reached the top of the narrow staircase.
The sight of Tonomura descending the stairs, planting his twisted cane on each step with much evident effort, was a good fit for this gloomy gothic setting. Tonomura himself seemed a kind of demon, less a human being than an unwelcome visitor from another world.
Inspector Nakamura unholstered the pistol he’d brought along just in case. Covering Aikawa from the back, he kept his eyes peeled on their surroundings as they trailed behind Tonomura.
They came to the foot of the stairs. Tonomura opened an iron gate and stepped into the basement grotto. The same room where Taiji had been tormented by the old witch, and Toshio, Taro, and Yoichi were attacked by the snakes. Now, though, there wasn’t another living thing in sight. Only that dank smell unique to subterranean settings assaulted their noses.
Tonomura shifted the candle from side to side as he paced about, illuminating each corner of the basement. But nothing appeared that was the slightest bit suspicious or out of place, nothing that could conceal a person of any size, shape, or form.
“How strange! The place is completely empty!” Tonomura muttered, evidently no less puzzled himself.
Tonomura wasn’t the only one left scratching his head. The Gentle Reader is surely no less bewildered by this turn of events. Where did Taiji and the three boys disappear to? What happened to all those snakes? The barrel that housed the snakes was also nowhere to be seen.
The officers waiting outside were subsequently drafted into the effort. They searched the entire structure from top to bottom and room by room, down to every closet and cubbyhole. They uncovered no signs of any other human presence. The only thing they confirmed in the process was that the building was indeed vacant.
Finally calling off the fruitless search, Tonomura and Aikawa and Inspector Nakamura returned to the study. There they stood in front of the big desk in silence and exchanged meaningful looks.
The Chief Inspector gave the mysterious hunchback detective, whom Aikawa had introduced him to only earlier that evening, a scrutinizing look. He said in a reproving tone, “Tonomura-san, it looks like we came storming in here long after the criminals pulled up stakes.”
An obsessed look in his eyes, Tonomura restlessly scanned the room. “No, that is not the case. The criminals are definitely in this building. Not only the criminals, but the papers and the children should be here too.”
“But there isn’t anybody else around, is there? Perhaps your search methods need a little more work?”
“Hold on just a minute. There are deeper mysteries at work here. I have the feeling those four children will soon appear before our eyes, and in a most mysterious fashion.”
Tapping on the floor with his cane, Tonomura paced restlessly back and forth across the room.
His unsettlingly sharp eyes gleamed beneath bushy brows that perched on his forehead like a pair of caterpillars. Spittle bubbled between the teeth protruding from his lips as he muttered undecipherable words to himself. He appeared to be turning thoughts over in his mind, all focused on a single point.
Tonomura continued on this way for another minute or two before coming to an abrupt halt.
“That’s it!” he declared. “What a fool I have been! How did I not see the answer staring me in the face?”
Uttering this strange soliloquy, with a great show of determination, he strode over to one of the statues sitting in the four corners of the room. The Gentle Reader will recall the statue of the Greek playwright Sophocles. Tonomura raised the cane over his head and brought it down with all his might on the shoulder of the statue.
The plaster Sophocles rocked from side to side. The blow shattered the right shoulder. The arm broke free. A shower of plaster shards fell like snow on the detective’s arm and hunched back. Surely Detective Tonomura had lost command of his senses. Or else there were deeper reasons and motivations behind his erratic actions.