Chapter 6 - Land of Criminals
~He Had Done It~
It was a time just between autumn and winter.
The forest covering the flat lands had been stripped bare by the upcoming season. Only their greying branches stretched into the sky, making it look as though they were bones set into a decorative sculpture.
The ground was completely covered in a layer of rotting leaves. Though they were at one point a carpet of bright colours and shades, they had grown faded over time.
The sky was dark and covered in a layer of clouds, dark grey streaks within reams of lighter grey. The morning sun was still hanging low on the eastern sky, but it was constantly hidden by the clouds.
And in that cold forest stood a single motorrad.
It was held upright by its centre stand. A pair of black containers hung on either side of its back tire, and a bag was tied above the wheel. Atop the bag was a rolled-up sleeping bag and a neatly folded tent.
On a tree a little distance from the motorrad hung a metal plate that resembled a cutting board. However, it was dark and uneven, as though it had been battered over and over again.
The sound of gunfire rang out through the forest, which had been bathed in silence unbroken even by the wind.
A moment later, another.
And yet another. Three shots in a row.
Each time, in beat with the three shots, a loud metallic clang rang out from the metal plate.
After the final ring had faded with a heavy resonance--
"All right, you got them all." The motorrad said, without so much as a hint of enthusiasm.
Soon, there was the sound of feet walking over wet leaves. The sound grew louder as a person emerged from behind the trees.
It was a human her mid teens. She wore a black jacket and a long brown coat over it. She had short black hair, which was mostly covered by a hat with a small bill and earflaps. Over her hat was a pair of goggles.
In her right hand was a large-caliber revolver-type hand persuader. She walked towards the motorrad, quickly switching out magazines shaped like lotus roots.
"You're great as ever, hitting all three times from so far. Can we go now, Kino?" the motorrad asked.
The human called Kino sheathed the revolver into the holster over her right thigh.
"I'm going to practice a little longer, Hermes."
"You practiced so much yesterday, though. You left the tree a complete mess."
"Yesterday was knife practice. Today I'm using persuaders."
Kino took the metal plate she had been using as a target off the tree and hung it from a single branch.
She took off her coat, rolled it up, and put it on the seat of the motorrad called Hermes.
Kino was wearing a thick belt over her waist, from which hung several green pouches. Behind her in another holster hung an automatic hand persuader.
"You're hopeless. Okay, I'll give you the signal." Hermes said, defeated.
The metal plate hung at about chest-level. Facing it down from only three metres away was Kino, who held her hand over her right thigh, right beside the revolver called [Cannon].
There was a moment of silence.
"Now!" Hermes said without warning.
Kino wasted no time. Before Hermes could finish, she drew [Cannon] from its holster, at the same time raising the hammer with her thumb and pulling the trigger from waist-level.
The sound of gunfire and metal hitting metal rang out almost simultaneously.
"Still sharp." Hermes commented. Kino holstered [Cannon] again.
And yet again, there was another series of near-simultaneous signals, gunshots, and impacts.
Kino repeatedly practiced quickly shooting down a potential enemy in her path.
For her final shots, she raised the hammer in succession with her left hand for two consecutive shots. The two rounds hit almost exactly the same point on the target.
The sounds of gunfire practically blended into one another, making it sound as though she had only fired once.
Practice was over.
"I'm almost done. Give me a minute."
Kino took out her earplugs and began to load [Cannon].
She filled the magazine with sticky green liquid gunpowder and .44 caliber rounds. On the opposite side she inserted the cartridge primer.
Kino expertly and cautiously loaded eighteen rounds--three magazines' worth of ammunition--and inserted one of the cylinders into [Cannon]. She pocketed her backup cylinder.
"We're almost at the next country. Did you really have to practice with live rounds today?" Hermes complained.
"That's exactly why I was practicing today. Master always told me that you were more likely to be attacked inside a country than outside one."
"Huh. But isn't that just because there's more people inside of a country? And because your Master's who she is?" Hermes asked.
"Well… Maybe you're right." Kino did not even try to defend her Master.
Once she had finished loading her weapons, she took the metal plate back. She also collected the rounds that had fallen onto the leaves or gotten stuck onto the plate so that she could melt them down and use them again.
Kino put the metal plate and her tools into a black box. She then carefully made sure that she had not left anything behind.
She scanned her belongings and felt at them with her hands to make sure that her all-important gear and possessions were in place. Checking her luggage carefully was a necessity, seeing as there was no guarantee that she would ever return to that same location again.
She pulled out yet another persuader, this time from the holster at the back of her waist, called [Woodsman]. She checked that it was loaded, put the safety on, and holstered it again.
Finally, Kino put on her coat and buttoned it up. The long edges of the coat she secured by rolling them around her thighs.
She climbed onto Hermes and started the engine. The sound loudly roared through the chilly forest.
After spending some time warming up the engine, Kino began to ride through the forest on Hermes. After some time driving on soft dirt, they came to a large road.
It was a dirt road that stretched on in a straight line. The earth was firm, likely because it was used very often by a large number of people.
Kino put on her goggles and sped up. She rode through the grey forest, towards the western horizon.
Speeding up, she drove on relaxedly.
"Master really taught you well, Kino, but that only applies to your fighting skills." Hermes commented.
"You're right. Fighting in a group with allies is completely different from fighting on your own." Kino answered matter-of-factly. Hermes asked why that was the case.
"You see, when I'm fighting alone, there's something I don't need to concern myself with, whether I'm fighting one person or a group of people."
"Really? What's that?"
"Where I aim my persuader. When I'm fighting with people on my side, I always face the risk of accidentally shooting down one of my allies."
"I get it."
"That's why militaries spend a lot of time training their soldiers to keep their persuaders pointed away from their allies, even while they're moving. Anyone who can't do that is kicked out, because no one's willing to fight alongside them."
"I guess in that sense, fighting alone is easier."
"Yeah. It means you can fire at will even in the middle of a pitched battle. You have to be careful that your bullets don't get deflected against anything, but even then, it depends on the type of rounds you use. I don't use penetrating rounds, so I don't have to worry about it."
"You only use soft lead rounds, huh."
"I think that's also why Master kept using her old revolver, even though it lost her some of the edge in battle. Although it's also true that [Cannon] can take all kinds of rounds and that it's easy to find ammunition and gunpowder for it. It takes nonlethal rubber rounds, or even slugs for shooting down birds. And if I have nothing else, I can even fire small nails out of it. Though I wouldn't do that unless I was willing to risk getting the rifling damaged in the process."
"Oh, I get it."
"Master always took on dangerous missions with a smile-I think she did, anyway. Anyway, she took on a lot of dangerous missions. That's why she used all kinds of different persuaders, depending on the situation. Have I ever told you about the time she and her Apprentice took down a bear in a forest in the middle of winter?"
"Not yet. Tell me!"
"Okay. So I guess I'll start with how she got her hands on a truck…"
Kino and Hermes continued on their way, laughing over terrifying tales of the past.
It was just past afternoon that Kino and Hermes arrived at the gates.
A great wall stretched on to their left and right like a concrete dam. It was a very large country surrounded by powerful fortifications.
Kino registered for a three-day stay with the gatekeeper. She and Hermes were led to an outpost by the gates, where a police officer who also served as an immigrations officer asked her all kinds of questions.
"I will grant you entry to our country. However, there are certain laws you must keep in mind, for the sake of public safety. Could you give us some of your time?" The officer asked. And so Kino was forced to listen to a long explanation about this country's criminal laws.
One of the laws was that 'A civilian may possess a persuader for the purposes of sport and/or self-defence. However, should he or she ever have a need to have a persuader in his or her possession in public, the persuader must remain out of sight'.
"You don't have any pockets for your persuaders, huh, Kino? This might get pretty hard for you. Is this a safe country?"
The man explaining the laws to them, who was a thin man about forty years of age, pushed up his glasses and answered Hermes' question.
"I'll be frank with you. The crime rates here are nothing to be proud of."
"Downtown is especially terrible when it comes to safety. That's where all of our economic functions are located, you see. And we get all sorts of violence happening down there. Drugs, prostitution, murders, et cetera. The police and the government's doing their best, but this country's just too big and crowded. Don't expect the cops to always be around to save you." He said, an ironic statement for a police officer.
"I understand. This wouldn't be the first time I've entered such a country." Kino answered.
"Should anything happen to you, prepare to fight for your life."
This time, the answer came from Hermes.
"You might want to tell that to whoever tries to attack Kino."
"That felt like forever."
The afternoon was already halfway over by the time Kino and Hermes managed to enter through the gates, after the long-winded lecture on the country's laws.
Kino undid the holsters under her coat, persuaders and all, and put them in her bag.
Kino and Hermes sped across fields that had recently come under the harvest sickle. Their destination: The city centre, where they could find a hotel.
Riding along the hard dirt paths, Kino and Hermes took in the sights of the country, trying to learn more about it.
There were power lines and electric lamps, which meant that this country had electricity. Seeing as there were antennae sticking out of residential buildings, this country might even have television broadcasts.
There were tractors and cars, but they were rather out of date compared to many other countries they had visited. But Kino would probably have no trouble acquiring fuel.
The outskirts of this round country were mostly used for agricultural purposes. The closer they got to the city centre, the more buildings they came across. As they slowly approached the central district, they could see buildings ten to twenty storeys high clustered together.
Passersby glanced at Kino and Hermes curiously, but no one followed after them excitedly, likely meaning that travelers and merchants were not unusual in this country.
Kino and Hermes finally entered the bustling city centre.
Stone buildings lined the streets. The narrow road was made of concrete and stone in equal proportions. The tall buildings looming overhead made everything feel cramped and unwelcoming.
It was only after a rather long drive that Kino and Hermes arrived at the hotel to which they had been introduced. It was a building in the middle of the downtown area, overflowing with guests.
Because the next day was supposed to be a holiday here, dozens of drunken men were making a commotion in the lobby, despite the evening having only just begun.
Kino was led to the smallest room offered by the hotel. However, the fact that it was on the first floor by the exit, and the fact that Hermes could enter as well, meant that Kino was only grateful for her accommodations.
Kino propped up Hermes by his centre stand beside the bed and unpacked her belongings. She quickly washed her underwear in the bathtub, strung up a laundry line, and hung her clothes to dry.
By the time she had finished, the sky outside had gone dark. The clouds were an even darker grey.
"All right. Dinner, then bed."
Kino usually slept at sunset when she was sleeping outdoors.
"You'll get fat if you sleep right after you eat." Hermes said jokingly.
"Wanna see if that's actually true? I wouldn't mind putting on some weight every now and then."
"If a fat person heard you say that, they'd get real angry at you, Kino."
"Then I'll gain weight in secret or something. I'll be back soon, so just sit tight."
"All right. I'll take a shower or something while you're gone."
"Why don't you take one for me, too?"
With that, Kino left Hermes in her room and headed for the hotel restaurant.
She returned in a matter of seconds.
"That was way too fast, Kino. Did you remember to chew properly? Did you finish swallowing?"
"No, Hermes. I ran into a bellboy as soon as I stepped out."
"Oh? What did he say?"
"That I can't eat at the hotel restaurant."
"One of those drunk customers back there called up a bunch of his friends and started a party. The kitchen's running out of ingredients."
"In other words, this is a message from the heavens telling you to lose weight. Good night, Kino."
"I think the message is actually telling me to gorge myself. As an apology, they told me about a restaurant in the area that the hotel owner also manages. They already contacted them in advance, so I can eat whatever I like, as much as I like."
"So it looks like I'll be going out for dinner. What about you, Hermes?"
"Can you walk it?"
"I could, but it's a bit far."
"All right. It's dangerous alone at night, so I'll go with you."
"I can always count on you, Hermes."
Kino put on her black jacket and her coat, and left the room with Hermes.
She wrapped [Cannon] and [Woodsman] in towels, along with the holsters, and put them in the box on the left side of Hermes's rear tire.
After sunset, the streets were clearly divided into the bustling and the silent.
There were not many large roads or developed districts, but the street lamps were keeping the city lit, and there were many people passing by on foot or by car.
However, the back alleys were mostly pitch black. Upon closer inspection, people who looked to be prostitutes or drug dealers were hanging in the shadows.
Kino stuck to the larger streets as much as possible to get to the restaurant. And thanks to the manager, even Hermes was allowed to come all the way to Kino's table.
"If you leave him outside, he'll be easy prey for vandals or thieves looking to steal motorrad parts. I'm afraid this area's a sorry sight when it comes to crime rates." The manager sighed, disapproving of the dangers in the night.
Kino ordered a salad of boiled vegetables, a fried chicken dish, and a bowl of warm noodles.
The fried chicken soon arrived at her table.
"Karaage, huh? It looks delicious." Kino commented. The manager looked confused.
"What might this 'Karaage' be?"
"It's a food made by adding spices to chicken and deep-frying it."
"Why, that's the first I've heard! So you mean to tell me this food exists elsewhere as well? All I know is that the manager before me created and popularized this dish. I'd always thought it was unique to our country. What a pity!" the manager said in a surprisingly jovial tone.
Kino did not leave a single crumb for her meal, relishing it with joy.
She ordered some fruit for dessert, had a cup of tea to end off her relaxing dinner, and left the restaurant.
It had not been dark for very long, but drunken men were already causing a scene in the streets. They ran into the roads, and drivers angrily sounded horns at them. Tensions were running high.
"I wish they'd all just go off to a land of drunk people." Hermes complained, stuck in unmoving traffic.
"There isn't much we can do. We'll have to take another route. Do you know how to get back to the hotel?" Kino asked.
"Of course," Hermes said. "Turn left at that corner."
"Which one? There's an awful lot of alleyways around here."
"The one with all the drunk people lying around. See that bald man over there?"
"Oh. I see him."
Kino drove as Hermes instructed.
As soon as they passed by the cars and entered the alley, they saw a middle-aged man with a shining bald head passed out on the stone sidewalk, drunk out of his wits. Kino cautiously passed by him, careful not to hit him.
As soon as they turned into the alleyway, they were blanketed in darkness.
With nothing but a headlight to illuminate their path, Kino and Hermes rode through the narrow alley, which was just big enough to fit a single car.
They went on for a short while.
"Next turn. We go right at the corner with the garbage cans. See the white cat going through the trash?"
Kino and Hermes turned into another corner, scaring the cat on the way.
"You should memorize this path for the next time you go, Kino. 'Turn left at the drunk bald man', and 'right at the white cat looking through the garbage'." Hermes said without a hint of sarcasm.
"I will." Kino replied in turn.
"Last one. Turn left here, past that narrow alleyway, and we'll make it onto the big street the hotel's on."
"Yeah. You're amazing, Hermes."
Kino turned into the alleyway, as Hermes instructed.
It was immediately afterwards that Hermes' headlight fell upon the form of a human lying in their path.
Kino hit the brakes and stopped so she wouldn't end up running over their obstacle.
The moment she stopped Hermes, Kino realized that the person in front of her, illuminated by the headlight, was covered in red.
The person was probably a young woman. She was lying across the alley as if she was a barricade.
Her revealing attired exposed her arms and legs completely. But all of her, from her clothing, her limbs, to her face looking into the sky, was drenched in blood.
And in each of her eyes was embedded a small knife that had been driven in all the way to their handles. The body wasn't so much as twitching.
"Raise my front wheel, quick!" Hermes yelled. Kino did as she was told. Keeping both her feet on the ground, she pulled the gas lever as hard as she could and let go of the clutch. She used the rear wheel to raise Hermes' front wheel into the air.
Hermes' headlight, raised high up for an instant, illuminated a corner of the alleyway.
Standing there in the distance was a man.
He was dressed in black and looking in Kino's direction.
The man was probably in his late twenties or early thirties. He had short brown hair and handsome features. He was also quite tall and attractive.
He was also smiling.
His pearly white teeth gleamed as he grinned in their direction. A streak of red was on his face, obviously not from him.
Hermes fell back to the ground, and the light moved back down to the corpse.
Kino kicked off the ground and repeated her actions again, but it was too late.
"He got away, Kino."
The man was nowhere to be seen.
"'Turn left at the alleyway with the gruesome corpse and the smiling criminal'. You got that, Kino?"
"Normally I'd be asleep by now." Kino complained.
"It's not like you could have just gone to bed. We're the ones who found the scene, and we saw the culprit, too." Hermes said something sensible for once.
Blindingly bright flashlights lit up the once dark alley. The uniformed men who had come running at Kino's report had closed off the area, preventing onlookers from approaching. Kino was the only civilian on the scene.
There were flashes of light as officers photographed the corpse. The body was in a horrific state.
She was covered with multiple stab wounds and cuts. It was impossible to tell which attack had killed her.
Her belly had been cut open, most of her innards hanging out. Her face was covered in injuries, skin peeling off in layers and making it difficult to see what she actually looked like.
The victim's coat was neatly folded beside her.
And though Kino and Hermes had not seen this earlier, something was written on the wall by the victim's head, likely with her innards.
[Cheers to our useless police officers! Looks like you've got another victim on your hands! Hahaha!]
It was written in blood.
"So you're the traveler and motorrad who reported this to us, are you?" Someone approached Kino and Hermes from behind them.
Kino turned around. There were two men standing there.
One was a tall, lean man about fifty years of age, wearing a brown suit. The other was a stocky man in his late twenties, wearing a black suit.
Both men took out shiny police badges from their jackets to show Kino, and introduced themselves as the detectives in charge of this case.
"I'm glad to see that you aren't hurt." The tall middle-aged man said first. "I've been told that you saw the man who most likely did this. Although we are fully aware that you are not a resident of this country and that you have no obligation to do so, we would like to ask for your cooperation."
"If it's in my power to help you." Kino nodded.
"How many victims has it been now?" Hermes asked without a moment's hesitation. The detectives looked at one another.
"Well, I suppose one look at that wall will explain everything." The detective looked quite bitter. "This woman here is the twenty-fourth victim."
"That's a lot!"
"Yes. You're right." The detective nodded.
Kino recounted everything she remembered about the suspect. However, as she had only seen him in the light for a moment, there was not much she could tell the officers.
"I'm not sure."
"Light grey." Hermes answered.
He went on to describe to the detectives the man's height, his approximate weight judging from his build, the shape of his eyes, the width of his shoulders, and the size of his head, among other things, as though he had gone and measured the culprit personally.
The younger detective, who had been frantically taking down notes, found himself asking, "How do you know all this?"
"It's because I'm a motorrad." Hermes replied.
The younger man left to deliver Hermes' information to the others. The police would use this information to start a nationwide search and check the statuses of ex-convicts.
"Thank you for this valuable information. You have our gratitude."
As thanks for this game-changing information, the detective told Kino and Hermes the story of this vicious serial killer.
As far as they could tell, the first incident occurred three years ago. However, there may have been some unsolved cases from even earlier that had been committed by the same perpetrator.
One night three years ago, a prostitute standing in the alleyway had been brutally stabbed to death.
Because she had not been stabbed many times, it was not deemed a premeditated murder. The police assumed that the woman had been killed by another prostitute in an argument over territory.
However, similar incidents continued to occur in the following half year. By the time they discovered the fourth victim, the police determined that they had a serial killer running loose in the city.
Since then, people like prostitutes, their bodyguards, drug dealers, restaurant employees, and drunk men stumbling in the streets were murdered one by one, for no reason other than the fact that they were in the alleys. Most of the corpses were discovered viciously mutilated.
Some of the victims were strong, healthy men armed with weapons, but the culprit had struck without warning, not even giving them time to fight back.
The police desperately searched for the criminal. Many names were placed, then removed from, the list of suspects. The culprit remained at large to this day.
Although they had arrested a potential suspect before, the serial killings began anew almost as soon as word of the arrest made it on the news--almost as though in order to prove the suspect innocent.
Another man who had been arrested for a separate crime had confessed to being the murder, but further questioning revealed that he was not the culprit.
And now, the serial killer had earned the nickname "The Nocturnal Killer", a hot topic of discussion for the people of the country.
Emerging in recent days were hardcore fans of the killer, mostly young people, and people who wandered the alleyways at night in the hopes of being murdered. The police were being driven to insanity.
Perhaps the only debatably good thing to come out of these incidents was that people had begun to understand that it was dangerous at night, and began to carry around concealed weapons. However, there was no end to the crowds going in and out of the country's only red light district. The number of victims continued to grow.
"This is some extremely valuable information. thanks to you, we might be able to arrest this criminal as early as tomorrow." The detective said.
"I hope you will."
"Collect your pay, Kino!"
"Of course, we will compensate you for everything. We may even call you to the station if we need your cooperation. Which hotel are you staying at?"
Although the hotel was only a short distance away, Kino and Hermes were escorted there by a police officer.
By the time Kino went to bed, the night had grown deep.
"I'm so sleepy."
"Good night, Kino. But what it the criminal comes in and tries to silence you?"
Kino reached down and made sure that [Cannon] was still hidden under her pillow.
"I'll be counting on your left hook, Hermes. Good night."
The next morning, Kino woke up with the sunrise.
"I'm so sleepy."
Even still, she began practice as usual.
"Ever the diligent one, huh?" Hermes said suddenly.
"Oh!" Kino was surprised.
"What's wrong, Kino?" Hermes asked.
"Why are you awake so early, Hermes?"
"All the better to prepare for that left hook, Kino." He declared.
After practice, Kino took down the clothes she had hung to dry, took her time in the bath, and filled her stomach with a hearty breakfast.
It was a clear day.
As Kino and Hermes discussed where they would go today, someone suddenly knocked on the door.
"Excuse me, Miss Kino. There's an officer here to speak to you."
"Looks like we'll be heading to the police station." Kino said.
The two detectives from the night before were waiting for Kino and Hermes at the front desk.
"I didn't hear anything about you guys arresting the criminal yet." Hermes joked.
"Could you come with us for a while? We've located a man who is a perfect match with your accounts from last night. We'd… like you to identify him." The tall detective said hesitantly.
Kino agreed easily.
"Where are we going? The police station?" Hermes asked.
"No, we're going to his residence." The detective replied sullenly.
"And on such a beautiful day, too. You know, every motorrad just wants to run on his own two wheels." Hermes complained from the back of the truck.
Hermes was currently tightly secured to the back of a pickup truck. There was a canvas spread over him so that he could see almost nothing around him.
Kino, wearing her jacket, was sitting in one of the seats that lined either side of the bed of the truck. Across from her sat the detectives and two uniformed officers.
In all appearances, this was a perfectly normal pickup truck. Nothing identified it as a police vehicle.
Sitting in the front were two men dressed in common work clothes. However, they were concealing small .38 caliber five-round revolvers in their clothing. They were also police officers.
"Let's go over this again." The detective said to Kino and Hermes.
"We are now going to visit the suspect's residence. The suspect is male, twenty-eight years old, and single. He was originally from a farming family in the countryside, but he hit it big in business in the city. Now he's practically rolling in cash, and has been living in a luxury mansion in the suburbs for the past ten years. We have no idea who his father is, and his mother passed away four years ago. He's been living alone ever since." He continued, "We're going to pretend to deliver a package to him, and lure him to the front door. We'll open the canvas very slightly, and that's when the two of you will make sure that this is the same man you witnessed yesterday."
Kino and Hermes answered.
"And if this guy's the same one we saw yesterday, what are you going to do?" Hermes asked the officer, "Are you going to arrest him on the spot and beat him until you get a confession out of him?"
"Of course not. We'll have to go to court to get a warrant issued and return for him then." The detective answered.
"What a hassle. In one of the countries we visited, a tiny bit of paperwork was all they had to do. Can't you make up a charge and arrest him now?"
The detective responded to Hermes' question as though scolding a child.
"In our country, anyone who is arrested without a valid warrant and is not given an official trial cannot be legally considered a criminal."
"So we have an anarchist versus a bunch of law-abiders, huh. You guys must have it rough." Hermes said. The officers and the detective laughed bitterly.
"Thanks for your concern."
The truck came to a stop at the front doors of a detached house.
The luxury mansion, situated in the suburbs a good distance from the city, was surrounded by a beautifully groomed forest.
Around this property were similar manors, alerting Kino that they were currently in a high-class neighbourhood. The officers had explained earlier that this was where the rich lived, driving to and from the city in their expensive automobiles.
The white mansion was a simple, one-storey building. Beside the main building was a large garage that could probably fit about five cars, although the doors were currently shut.
On the flower bed were autumn flowers in full bloom, a beautiful match for the blue sky.
The truck stopped at the intersection in front of the house. One of the officers stepped out. He reached into the back of the truck and took out a wooden box.
Inside was a canned pasta sauce gift set.
The plan was to call the package a free gift for VIP regulars at the downtown department store. They had already delivered the same package to several other houses in the neighbourhood in order to avoid rousing any unnecessary suspicion.
The officer approached the front door. The detective and the officers opened the canvas a sliver and swallowed dry gulps. The officer outside rang the fancy doorbell.
Several very long seconds passed. The officer pressed the doorbell again.
"Yes, who is it?"
It wasn't the door, but the window to its left, that opened. Kino could hear a gentle male voice from the vicinity of the window.
The man leaned his upper body out the window.
The detective opened the canvas slightly to give Hermes a view of the man. At the same time, Kino did the same for herself.
And so, Kino and Hermes saw him.
"Oh, thank you."
"We'll need you to sign for it."
"Thank you. Have a wonderful day."
After a short conversation, the officer handed the package to the man through the window and returned to the truck.
The truck drove off.
"So?" The detective asked.
"It's him!" Hermes answered triumphantly.
"I didn't get a very good look at him last night, but he looks very much like the culprit. Almost identical." Kino agreed calmly.
Surprisingly enough, the detective responded with a tinge of disappointment in his tone.
"What's wrong?" Hermes asked.
"That man cannot be arrested for yesterday's crime." The detective answered.
"Why not? Oh, I get it. He must be the son of some powerful politician, right?"
The detective shook his head.
"If only that were the case. I would have had him thrown in prison even if it meant losing my job."
"Then why not?"
"You see, that man has a perfect alibi. Last night he was attending a party hosted by a local politician."
The truck made its way back to the police station with all the gravity of a hearse on a funeral day. The detectives clutched their heads in frustration as the officers sat there, lost for words of encouragement.
"So you were hoping we'd say that he wasn't the one?" Hermes asked rather insensitively.
The officer silently acknowledged the fact.
"What do you mean, Hermes?" Kino asked.
"I bet that man was a suspect a few times over now. But the police never managed to arrest him because he had a perfect alibi every time."
"That's why everyone was thinking, 'Please don't let it be him!'. They had the chance to take this man off the list of suspects once and for all." Hermes explained.
The back of the truck was once again enveloped in misery. The sound of the truck shaking down the road felt louder than usual.
The detective finally spoke.
"You're absolutely right. That man was one of our most likely suspects, but for each case we found that he had a perfectly airtight alibi. Having dinner at a restaurant in his neighbourhood, or attending a party, he was always visible to a large number of people at the time of the murders."
With the rhythmic rattling of the truck and the dull sound of the engine as a backdrop, the detective continued.
"There was just no way for him to have come all the way downtown and committed those crimes. We thought it was strange that he had such perfect alibis for each case, and considered that he had planted witnesses who could claim to have sees him elsewhere. But there were too many people who had seen him elsewhere during the crime, including some of our own officers."
"I see." Kino mumbled quietly.
"Did you put him under surveillance?" Hermes asked.
"Naturally. We had officers watching him from morning to night. On weekdays he drives downtown early in the morning and works at his office until late at night, when he drives back home. We kept this up for days. But the murders didn't stop. In the end all we ended up doing was prove his alibi to be solid."
"By then we had no choice but to take him off our list of suspects, but hearing your accounts last night reminded me of him again. So let me ask you one more time. Is that man really the one you saw at the scene of the crime last night?"
"There's no mistaking it." Hermes answered immediately.
"No…" The detective sighed, shaking his head.
Freed from their duty of cooperation, Kino and Hermes returned to the hotel past noon.
"What now, Kino?"
"I'm not sure. I think I'll get something to eat and go shopping for supplies. We'll leave early tomorrow morning. I don't think we'll be able to provide any more help."
"Yeah. Even though I'm sure that man was the one."
"I think so too."
Kino had dinner at the hotel restaurant and headed for the downtown area on Hermes.
It was surprisingly quiet during the day, a stark contrast to the city's nightlife. Most stores were closed for the holiday, leaving the streets largely empty of cars and pedestrians.
Kino managed to find an open shop near the edge of the city. As usual, she sold what she could sell and bought what she had to buy. She also bought fuel for Hermes.
It began to get warmer outside. Kino took off her coat, put it on the luggage seat, and fastened it with cords.
She was not wearing the holsters she usually wore at her right thigh and her back.
"My body feels so light it's almost awkward." Kino commented.
"Then how about putting on some more weight?"
"No, that's not what I'm talking about."
Kino and Hermes slowly rode along the deserted roads. They were moving slowly, so Kino had taken off her goggles and put them over her hat.
A car came up from behind and overtook them.
"Should I have dinner at the hotel, or the restaurant from yesterday?"
"I bet you'll run into another corpse if we go all the way to the restaurant."
"Then the hotel it is." Kino replied.
At that very moment, a car popped out from an alleyway on their left at full force, blocking Kino's way. It was the very same car that had overtaken them a little earlier.
Kino leaned left and hit the brakes, stopping Hermes' wheels from spinning. Hermes glided sideways, forcibly being driven into an alleyway.
They narrowly managed to avoid the car.
When they drove into the alleyway, the box on the right side of Hermes' back wheel hit a metal trash can. The box bounced upwards, and the latch opened. The box rolled to the ground and towards the alleyway entrance.
After skidding against the trash can, Hermes began to slowly tilt to the left.
Deciding that it would do her little good to continue holding on, Kino took her hands off the handle and jumped, trying to avoid being crushed.
The heavy metallic thunk of Hermes falling on his side and the light clanging on trash cans being displaced sounded out simultaneously.
"That was terrible!" Hermes complained, before the trash can had even been silenced. The car door immediately opened, and a man leapt out.
The man ran towards Kino, whose back was turned against him. He drew out a large meat cleaver from his back coat.
"You've got a guest, Kino. Your left."
Guided by Hermes, Kino looked to her left.
The man who was charging towards her, cleaver in hand, was the very same man she had seen the night before. The man they had seen this morning.
This handsome features were set in an overjoyed grin as he rushed in Kino's direction, knife pointed at her.
Kino first reached for her right thigh.
She stopped midway. She then quickly put her hand into her left sleeve.
"Hello there! You're gonna have to die for me!"
The man smiled without a care as he closed in on Kino.
Kino looked back at him in silence.
Kino crouched to her right and avoided the man's attack, simultaneously swinging her right arm in a wide arc.
The man who had run towards her leapt over Hermes, took several steps into the alley, and stopped. He then turned around.
Kino also turned around, her eyes fixed on the man standing behind Hermes. She then glanced at the thin black knife she held in her right hand.
There was a dab of sticky red fluid clinging to its tip.
"Hey now, that hurt." The man said, rubbing his left thigh. The black pant leg was slit ever so slightly, exposing skin underneath along with a thin cut. The blood from the wound oozed onto the man's pant leg.
"What are you doing? Don't you know it hurts when you cut someone?" The man asked with a smile, swinging around his cleaver.
"That's what he says, Kino." Hermes said, "Now ignore him and get me back up." He requested.
Kino quietly glared at the man, knife steady in her right hand.
"Oh? Are you planning to fight me?"
"I'm strong, you know?"
"Are you listening to me?"
Kino did not respond; she merely looked into the man's eyes in utter silence.
About ten seconds passed.
"Tch! You're a total bore! And looks like you're not planning to die quietly, either! How insolent!" The man spat suddenly.
He then glanced at the box that lay near his feet. It was the black box that had fallen from Hermes.
The man crouched down and reached into the box, quickly drawing out [Woodsman], wrapped in cloth.
"Oh? What's this? Whatever it is, it's mine now. Bye."
The man turned and fled, running through the alleyway at full speed, holding his cleaver in his right hand and [Woodsman] in his left.
Kino soon tossed the knife in her hand towards the man.
The knife spun along the way, narrowly missing its target.
It grazed the man's left ear, slicing his earlobe vertically.
"You're a really terrible person, you know that? Are you trying to kill me?" The man asked, looking back mid-sprint with a look of ferocity.
That was when he spotted Kino taking out [Cannon] from the box on the left side of Hermes' rear tire.
Still crouching, Kino cast aside the cloth covering, drew [Cannon] from its holster, quickly raised the hammer, and aimed at the man.
"Murderer!" The man yelled, twisting to the side.
Kino did not pull the trigger. The moment she took aim, the man had leapt into a narrow alleyway and disappeared.
As the sound of the man's footsteps grew distant, Kino got to her feet with [Cannon] in hand.
"Looks like you've been robbed, Kino. What do we do? Go after him?" Hermes asked.
"No, I shouldn't." Kino replied cooly. "He probably knows the area better than we do. I'd rather not get in too deep in the alleys and get stabbed in the side. What I should actually be doing is-"
"Yes? You know what it is, right?" Hermes asked expectantly.
"I should be calling the police." Kino replied.
"Set me upright first!"
"Strange. It doesn't make sense, no matter how much I think it over." Hermes said back in the hotel room.
There was a dent on the tip of the left side of Hermes' handlebar and the step. The box that had fallen was now back in its rightful place on the right side of his back wheel.
The sun had already set, and outside it was pitch black. Kino was lying on her bed in the dim room, wearing her button-up shirt.
Her blanket only covered her feet.
Her eyes were open.
Daytime. The immediate aftermath of the murderer's attack.
With the help of local residents, Kino contacted the police immediately. The tall detective and his young partner hurried to the scene.
Kino and Hermes explained the situation in full detail. They submitted the car blocking the alley and Kino's slightly bloodied knife as evidence.
The car turned out to have been stolen. The culprit had left behind nothing--not even fingerprints.
"Don't worry! I'm sure a DNA test can make everything clear once and for all!" Hermes said.
"A 'dee-and-eh' test? What might that be?" The detective asked, confused.
"Uh… Maybe you'll come up with something like that in the future." Hermes mumbled.
Kino explained that her hand persuader had been stolen, and warned the police that the culprit might make use of it in his crimes.
The detectives immediately ordered for officers to track down the man and search him in the city, and sent men to investigate his home.
The injuries to his leg and ear would be irrefutable proof of his guilt. If the man was home, the police would arrest him on charges of attempting to murder a traveler, and they would take custody of [Woodsman] as evidence.
Kino followed the detectives to the police station and waited for news.
The sun had begun to set when the men sent to the suspect's house contacted them via wireless.
The man was home.
The man was not in the least bit injured. They had looked carefully, but they did not find any wound on his leg or a cut on his ear.
They also reported that there had been a party taking place since midday at the man's house, and that many of his friends and neighbours had been present.
As the party guests attacked the officers with questions, the men reluctantly revealed that they had been sent there for an investigation into the attempted murder of a traveler that took place downtown that day.
"Are you cops stupid or something? How could someone who's been here all day have been downtown trying to kill a traveler?!"
The party guests berated them harshly.
As the officers asked for further instructions, the detective told them to wait a moment and confirmed the story with Kino and Hermes once more.
"I'm absolutely sure that I injured the man."
"I know I saw what I saw. There's the blood on the knife, too. Not even Kino goes around at random with a bloodied knife, you know."
The detective had no choice but to call back the officers.
It grew dark, but the man was nowhere to be found downtown. Kino and Hermes were escorted back to the hotel by an officer.
"Aren't you guys going to protect us at the station?" Hermes asked the officer on their way back.
"I don't think the perp's gonna be too keen on attacking you anytime soon, seeing as he got a taste of his own medicine today." The officer replied.
"You sure? Then what if he really does attack Kino?" Hermes asked, amused.
"If that happens, you'd better show him hell for us." The officer said, not even bothering to hide his contempt.
Hermes spoke up as Kino lay in bed.
"I don't really care who that culprit is or if you kill him or not, but what're you going to do about [Woodsman]?" He asked, his tone no different than usual despite the rather unsavoury topic of conversation.
"I wonder…" Kino mused, looking up at the ceiling. "I do have a few ideas."
"First option: Since I don't have anything to gain from getting involved any further with this crazy killer, I could give up on getting [Woodsman] back and leave the country tomorrow on schedule."
"Huh. So you'd buy a new persuader here before we leave?"
"I don't know. I guess that's another thing to consider. Maybe if I spot a good .22 caliber automatic."
"What about your second option?"
"I could ignore the culprit and try to look for [Woodsman], and stay in this country as long as it takes me to find it. If he threw it away or sold it, then we leave as soon as I get it back."
"That doesn't sound too likely, though. What's choice #3?" Hermes asked, as though he already knew the answer.
Kino pressed a switch next to her bed.
With a simple click, the dim light disappeared, engulfing the room in total darkness.
"I get [Woodsman] back even if it means beating the culprit half to death."
"I don't really know if it's worth half-killing someone for a single persuader, but…"
"I have a lot of memories with [Woodsman]. I'd like to hold on to it until the end."
"I knew it."
"I'll decide tomorrow."
"Good night, Kino."
"Good night, Hermes."
There was a rustle of bedsheets in the darkness. It then stopped as suddenly as it started.
The next day.
It was the morning of the third day since Kino had entered the country.
"So he didn't try to attack us last night after all. And I was so ready to give him a nice beating if he arrived, too." Hermes said as soon as Kino woke up, in sync with the rising sun.
"Good morning, Hermes."
"Good morning, Kino."
"My life would be so much easier if every morning could be like this."
"Life isn't supposed to be that easy, Kino."
Kino opened the curtains slightly. It was snowing outside.
"Huh? Isn't it a bit early for snow? Though, I guess it could turn to rain soon." Hermes guessed.
"We'd better set off before the snow starts piling up…" Kino said.
Though [Woodsman] was absent, Kino resumed her morning practice. Afterwards, she took a shower, ate breakfast, and prepared to depart.
"Any time now." Kino said.
"What do you mean?" Hermes asked.
At that very moment, someone knocked on their door.
"Miss Kino, the police are calling for you." The bellboy said.
Kino and Hermes checked out of the hotel and headed for the police station again, where they were shown a large number of photographs.
The black-and-white pictures spread across the table showed the body of a man who had been torn to shreds, his organs jutting out of his torso. On his face were three neatly arranged holes in a triangle formation. The holes had likely been made by bullets.
Kino was shown three shell casings that were found on the scene.
"They're definitely from my persuader." Kino nodded.
"He struck again last night. This is the twenty-fifth victim. And most likely it's a message directed towards you." The tall detective said, showing Kino one last picture of a wall at the scene of the crime.
Written on the wall, not with paint, but with the victim's innards acting as a pen, were the words: [Thank you very much for the weapon. You've no idea how much easier things will be for me from this point on. I will use it well. It's rather unfortunate that our paths will not cross again, but please don't forget about me on your travels.]
Kino sat down and showed all the photographs to Hermes, one at a time.
"Don't let him provoke you. He probably only shot the man after he killed him with the knife. You can tell from the way he was bleeding. Looks like our culprit's not much of a firearms person." Hermes said immediately.
"Our investigators reached the same conclusion. The culprit is enjoying himself by murdering his victims with a knife. He's never used a persuader, and the suspect doesn't have a license to own one." The detective said, but Kino did not look any more relieved.
"But I'm afraid I still don't feel very good about this. My persuader was originally used for assassinations, and I have killed people with it in the past. But that does not mean I can leave it behind in your country."
"Oh, you're going to stay here longer, Kino?"
"Well, nothing ventured, nothing maimed, right?"
The detective continued calmly. "If you will cooperate with us because you feel responsible or you want to retrieve your persuader, I would be grateful for your support. But don't think it will be so easy to arrest the suspect."
"He's not a suspect, he's the culprit. We saw him in broad daylight."
"But we must remember that he was standing at a distance. That is an undeniable fact."
"Yeah, but-" Hermes stopped himself, then spoke up again. "Detective, this is such an obvious possibility that I didn't bother asking you from the beginning, but…"
"Does that man, by any chance, have a twin brother? Maybe one of them, or maybe even both of them are taking turns committing crimes. Maybe he's always got an alibi because the other twin's always covering for him."
Kino was the first to respond.
"I thought about that, too, Hermes. But I'm sure the police have already considered it. Just a quick background check would be enough."
Hermes and Kino went silent.
"Kino, Hermes…" The detective said, completely lost, "what is this 'twin' you speak of? Some sort of… person who is capable of magic?"
"Pardon?" "Huh?" Kino and Hermes asked in unison.
Hermes gave the detective and the officers a kind and detailed explanation about the concept of twins.
"Th, that's outrageous! How could two people with the same face be born at once?!"
The detective stood from his chair, his face almost comically pale. The same went for the large, young detective at his side, and the many officers standing around them.
"So they really had no idea…" Kino breathed.
"Some bloodlines are more predisposed to multiple births, so it's no surprise the opposite exists, too. I guess there was no recorded instance of them in this country." Hermes whispered."
"I have no idea if I should be happy or ashamed that we've never had twin travelers or merchants visiting our country. I'm sure we would have hurt them with terrible insults had they visited us. I will apologize on everyone's behalf. Hm. To all you twins out there, we are truly sorry. Our nation must be an anomaly."
The detective, shaking his head in disbelief, plunked down onto his chair.
"But, but… that explains everything. So all along, it was him! I mean, them!"
"The simplest tricks are usually the most effective." Hermes said. "What're you going to do? Can you get an arrest warrant immediately?"
The officer fell into thought for a moment.
He shook his head.
"Not surprising." Hermes said somewhat jokingly, ignoring the officers' despair.
"First, you'd have to prove that they're twins, and get arrest warrants for them both." Hermes said. "But his parents--"
"Probably didn't register them both." Kino finished the sentence. "They must have given birth to them in secret and hidden them away because they were scared the kids would be treated like exotic animals. They probably had them take turns going outside, protecting them."
"That must have been a lot of work. Mothers are amazing."
"But once they'd matured, they must have realized that they could use this to their advantage to create alibis for themselves. They could become criminals who would never be caught. This is just a guess, but they must have been at this for--"
The large detective gasped, coming to a realization.
"Then the other crimes, as well?"
"Probably. I'm willing to bet that a good number of unsolved cases you might have might have been committed by them."
"Of course! That's how he became so rich overnight and succeeded in his business, and he's now living in the lap of luxury… Damn those bastards!" The young detective slammed his fist into the palm of his hand.
"What are you going to do? Are you going to catch them in when they're in the same spot, register them both as citizens, and then get warrants for them both? That's going to take forever." Hermes said.
"We can't wait that long." Kino added, looking rather upset.
"Should we just leave the rest to the police and go? We could give up on [Woodsman]."
As Hermes and Kino continued discussing the matter, the tall detective suddenly spoke up with startling resolution.
"Kino, Hermes. You remember the lecture you received on our laws when you entered our country, correct? There is actually a very good reason we gave you the lesson."
"Wait! Sir!" The younger detective and the other officers paled.
"All of you, be quiet! Let me explain." The tall detective stopped his subordinates.
"What is it, what is it?"
"Why was the lecture necessary?"
Hermes didn't seem the least bit serious, but Kino sounded determined. The detective finally answered them.
"It's because our laws don't apply to you."
It was halfway through the afternoon.
The snow from the morning had turned to rain.
Small, cold drops of water quietly fell down upon the beautiful white manor in the forest.
"We're here." Hermes said, loudly coming to a stop in front of the mansion.
On the luggage seat over his back wheel was not a bag, but a wooden box.
Of course, Kino was sitting in the rider's seat. Her hat and coat were soaked by the rain.
Kino shut off the engine and propped Hermes up on his centre stand. She took off her goggles and her coat, rolling it up and putting it on the ground.
Kino, wearing her black jacket, was wearing a holster on her right thigh--and clearly visible in the holster was [Cannon].
"I'll be back, Hermes."
"Se you soon."
Kino headed for the front door in the rain. The sounds of her footsteps on the gravel joined the pattering of the rain.
Kino stood before the front door and reached for the doorbell. She pressed down on the button.
Dozens of seconds passed.
"Yes, who is it?"
Like before, it was the window to the left of the door that opened. The occupant of the house stuck his head out the window.
He looked identical to the culprit they had encountered downtown the previous day, but there was no injury on his left ear.
Kino said nothing, drawing [Cannon] and taking aim at the man. She pulled the trigger.
"It's because our laws don't apply to you."
"What do you mean?" Hermes asked.
The young detective and the other officers looked as though they might burst into tears at any moment.
"Our laws don't apply to outlanders like you. That's because of the clause 'These laws shall only apply to citizens of our country', which had been decided when our laws were first established in the distant past. Almost no one remembers this clause anymore, other than those who are particularly well-read on legal matters." The tall detective said, as though recounting a painful memory. "With all the travelers and merchants coming in and out of our country, we should be doing something about this clause, but the changes were never made. That is why the police pressure any visiting outlanders by giving them this lecture and warning them of our strict sentences. Thanks to this, we have never had a foreigner commit a crime in our borders in our entire history."
"So, to be honest… Even if a traveler kills someone, I have no legal right to arrest them. At best we could manage to exile the traveler."
"You know, you're free to just say Kino should-"
"That is all I will say. If anyone asks, just mention my name. I will take responsibility." The detective said gravely.
"I understand." Kino said, finally breaking her silence. "You're saying that I have the ability to do something that you're not capable of."
"That is correct."
"Then let me be honest with you."
"I have no intention of killing them."
Shot in the head, the man fell limply and slid out the window. His body fell towards a flower bed.
As the man fell, Kino fired four more shots at him. The bullets made their mark, one at each of the man's elbows and knees.
The sound of gunfire dissipated into the rain, along with the white smoke rising from [Cannon].
The man lay on the damp soil outside the window.
"Urgh! Ahh! Guh! Argh!"
Every time a gunshot rang out, he screamed as though he was matching pace.
The bullets had bounced off the man, falling to the ground. They were made of hard rubber.
Having been shot at point-blank range, the man was immobile, his limbs unwilling to budge. Kino grabbed him by the ankles.
With a short cry, she pulled him along.
She dragged the man over the gravel path as though she were transporting a piece of luggage.
Kino stopped right beside Hermes, setting the man down and changing [Cannon]'s cylinder. Loaded in the new one were also non-lethal rubber bullets.
"Urgh… what the hell are you doing…? What'd I do to deserve this?"
The man struggled on the ground, his luxurious shirt and pants covered in mud, his handsome face streaked with tears.
Kino ignored him and quickly tied his ankles together with rope.
And then she spoke.
"I've been told that you drove all the way downtown and back this morning."
The man, the pain in his arms and legs finally dissipating, glared at Kino.
"What of it?! What gives you the right to do this to me, you bastard? Damn it, that hurts!"
"I'm sure it would be nothing difficult to hide someone in the trunk of a car. Isn't that the trick you used to travel between the downtown area and the suburbs?"
"What are you talking about? I never drove anyone around!"
"Then there's nobody in your house right now?" Hermes asked the man lying before him.
"That's good to hear."
As Hermes talked with the man, Kino opened the box on the luggage seat and took out the gas mask resting inside.
The gas mask covered her entire face. Two panes of glass were over the eyes, and a cylinder that purified the air was set over the mouth. This was actually police gear, but the mark identifying it as such had been erased.
Kino took off her hat and put on the gas mask.
"So in the end, I'm using one of Master's plans. Thank you for all your work, Master." She thanked someone who was not beside her.
Slightly pulling the gas mask from her face, Kino unsealed the cylinder, and breathed through it several times.
"Wh-what are you doing?" The man spat.
"Kino, that traveler, is going to burn down your house." Hermes answered.
Having finished putting on the mask, Kino took out a cloth bag from the wooden box and slung it diagonally over her right shoulder. The objects inside the bag clattered.
"Can you guess what's inside?" Hermes asked the rain-soaked man.
"How the hell am I supposed to know?!"
Kino, wearing the gas mask, made her way towards the house step by step. The objects in her bag clattered each time her foot hit the ground.
"Molotov Cocktails. Every last one of them. Attention, please. We will now be proceeding with the torching of this manor."
"Shit! Stop! That's my house, you bastard! My home!"
Kino stopped before the window through which the man had been extracted and took a peek inside. She could see an elegantly furnished parlour.
Kino took out one bottle from her bag. It was painted an opaque black, but a short piece of string sticking out of the mouth was clearly visible.
With the fingers of the right hand in which she grasped [Cannon], Kino tugged on the string and tossed it into the house.
Clang. Something shattered and smoke came pouring out. Soon, the entire room was filled with white smoke that also spilled out the window.
"I guess that one didn't catch fire so well. Keep at it, Kino!" Hermes said, enjoying the situation.
"STOP THIS, YOU LUNATIC!" The man cried.
Kino silently climbed in through the open window and entered the house.
"This is the blueprint of his mansion. I obtained it from the engineering office that constructed his house ten years ago." The detective said.
"Legally?" Hermes asked jokingly.
"That doesn't matter. Thank you, detective.This will be extremely helpful."
Kino carefully studied the floor plans.
Kino steadily walked across the parlour filled with white smoke. She drew another bottle from her bag and pulled the string.
The bottle, however, was not a Molotov Cocktail. It was a smoke bomb that spewed out even more white smoke from its mouth.
Kino groped in the smoke for the door that led into the hallway. She gently opened it, at the same time charging into the hall.
The white smoke began to obscure the long hallway.
Keeping [Cannon] trained on the other end of the hall, Kino waited until visibility was completely zero before making her way through.
As Kino studied the floor plan, the detective spoke to Hermes.
"Does Kino mean to memorize all this and fight in zero-visibility conditions?"
"I agree that smoking out the culprit will no doubt be an effective plan. But what about the possibility that your opponent endures it and counterattacks?"
"That's what Kino's expecting. After all, that smoke's not poisonous or anything."
"Isn't it dangerous to fight in such conditions? After all, the culprit must have a firm grasp of the layout of his own home."
"Zero visibility's no problem for Kino."
"Why is that?"
"Once the smoke covers everything, Kino's just going to shut her eyes."
"You don't mean-"
"Master trained her well. Kino can fight in dark rooms or pitch-black caves. All she has to do is stop trying to see things she can't see and close her eyes."
"But how…? What sense does she rely upon to fight?"
"Sound, first of all. And something that a motorrad like me doesn't have."
"What might that be?" The detective asked.
"Intuition." Hermes answered simply.
Slowly creeping down the pure white hallway, Kino kept her left hand on the wall along the way.
Soon, she touched the doorknob on the door leading to the master bedroom, as the floor plans had indicated.
Kino took out another smoke bomb and pulled the string. She quietly turned the doorknob and rolled the bottle through the opening.
She waited for several seconds, and confirmed that she could hear nothing from within.
Kino continued on her way, following the floor plan she memorized.
From the outside, no flames were visible. However, white smoke was pouring out from between the windows and doors.
"Oh no! That house is on fire!" A middle-aged man passing on a bike screamed, seeing the smoke.
And as if he didn't notice Hermes and the bound man who was struggling on the ground, the middle-aged man rode his bike through the rain, and raced over to the smaller house next door, beyond the trees.
"Fire! The house next door's on fire! Call the cops and the fire department!" The man yelled at the house. He then sped off on his bike to inform the other neighbours. It was all going according to Kino's plan.
Hearing the commotion and seeing the smoke, the neighbours rushed over to the man's house.
About twenty or so residents gathered around.
"How did this happen?"
They were shocked by the smoke-filled house.
"Hey! Are you all right? Who did this to you?"
They were shocked by the man, squirming like a caterpillar on the ground in front of the house.
Hermes said nothing. The neighbours untied the man's ankles and wrists.
"I'm glad you're all right!"
The kind but ignorant neighbours were truly relieved to see that one of their members was safe.
That was when ten police vehicles of various sizes, two fire trucks, and an ambulance arrived with sirens blaring.
The neighbours were so relieved that they did not even pause to wonder how the police and the fire department could have responded so quickly.
"Thank goodness! Now we can put out the fire!"
"It's a good thing you weren't caught up in there!"
"That's right! You can always rebuild a house, after all! You're welcome to stay at my place until then!"
Everyone had nothing but kind words for the man.
The man said nothing. He merely sat before Hermes, face pale and his unbound arms and legs limp.
"There, there… You must have been terrified. don't worry. You're safe now."
A young singe woman who lived nearby took the opportunity to gently embrace the man from behind.
"Strange…" Kino mumbled, having tossed about a dozen smoke bombs into the rooms.
She was out of smoke bombs. Kino had already tossed at least one into each room in the manor, and they still continued to spew out smoke.
There was no place in the manor that the smoke did not reach. Her surroundings were white, as though she were standing in mist.
Kino could not sense any human presence in the room, not even a cough.
Meanwhile, in front of the house--
"Why aren't you going inside?" The local residents asked the firemen.
"That's because we cannot see any flames from here. We suspect that this might not be an ordinary fire, but may involve some dangerous chemicals. We're waiting for another team to arrive with oxygen tanks for us." The firemen said, bringing up a story they had fabricated ahead of time.
The man sat quietly, receiving treatment for his injuries.
"She's taking a while. Is she really all right?"
"I don't even hear any gunfire."
"I guess she hasn't found him yet."
Hermes and the detective were engaged in tense conversation.
"Hey, was that blueprint you got for us really accurate?" Hermes asked.
"Of course. After all, we got out hands on it when we had him under surveillance. In our country, you need to get a permit for all large-scale renovations."
"Then I'll ask you one more thing. Was there another house on that plot of land before this one?"
"I'm not sure. Why do you ask?"
"If there was another house there before, and they tore it down to build another one on top of it-"
Hermes didn't even get a chance to finish.
"Of course! A basement!"
"I guess there must be a basement here after all." Kino mumbled, still wandering the smoke-filled hallways.
She quickened her pace, the heavy heels of her boots stamping on the floor.
"That's right. If he's still in there, the basement's his only hiding place. And if it's ventilated, then he'll be able to wait out the smoke. And it must have worked wonders for him trying to hide every day, too."
"Damn it! Should we cll Kino back, do you think?"
"It's too late now. You guys have to try and arrest Kino as soon as she steps out from that mess, right?"
"Then Kino has no other choice. She has to come out with the man. This is our first and only chance."
"But wouldn't it make things even more difficult for her to pursue him into the basement?"
"Kino probably already knows that."
"Should we send in some men to back her up?" The detective asked. Officers in gas masks were standing by inside the police truck.
"You'd better not. They'll just get in Kino's way."
"Then what do you think Kino will do? Will she fall back because of the disadvantage?"
"No. She knows all of that, but I bet she'll just charge in anyway because she doesn't have any other choice."
"That's all she can do."
"I don't believe she's doing this for the sake of our country. So is that persuader of her really that important to her…?"
Kino had been stomping around the house with her boots, when she came to a place with flooring that sounded clearly different.
According to the floor plan, it was a room used as a storage space. It was also the only room in the house that was not used on an everyday basis.
Crouching down, Kino put her eye to the floor so that she could see despite the thick smoke. She noticed a small gap in the floorboards.
Jamming her fingers into the gap, Kino leaned over so that she could aim [Cannon] while preparing to evade any sudden shots or attacks.
She wrenched the floor open. Before her was a trapdoor, just large enough for a person to pass through. A breeze was blowing from the space underneath, clearing away a bit of the smoke around Kino.
Underneath was a wooden staircase leading down into darkness.
Kino aimed at the general vicinity of the darkness and pulled the trigger.
A faint echo of the gunshot reached the ears of the locals gathered outside the house, surprising everyone.
"S-something may have exploded inside! Please, everyone! Stand back!" An officer ordered, his own surprise half genuine.
"Did she get him?" The detective asked Hermes.
"I don't know. Maybe she just found the basement door? She might have just opened fire into the entryway."
"For what? Is it a warning shot, do you think?"
"No. She's going to estimate the size of the basement by the resonance of the gunshot."
Kino removed her gas mask, and unflinchingly stepped into the darkened stairway.
She entered the dank space and closed the hatch above her with her own two hands. In the blackness, she stepped down onto a brick floor.
She could hear absolutely nothing.
Kino started to take out a miniature flashlight from her pocket.
She stopped. Instead, she crouched on the ground and began groping along the wall with her left hand.
Extending her right leg, she felt another wall to her right. She could tell that this basement passage was long and narrow. With the grip of [Cannon], which she held in her right hand, she struck the floor.
A crisp impact rang out through the passage. The sound bounced off the walls and made its way to Kino's ears.
Kino silently took three steps forward and struck the ground once again.
She repeated her actions yet another time.
And immediately after her third repetition--
Kino kicked the wall on her left.
Several things made noise at once in the darkness.
The sound of the flimsy wooden door squeaking under the pressure of Kino's kick.
The sound of [Woodsman] being fired multiple times from behind the door.
The sound of the bullets piercing through the door.
And the sound of those bullets passing over Kino's head and smashing the bricks on the other side of the passage.
Kino, bent down as low as humanly possible, was counting.
"… Five. Six. Seven."
She had been numbering the gunshots. The moment they stopped, she put all her weight into her left leg and kicked the door with all her strength.
Again and again she kicked it, without a hint of hesitation. Her efforts were rewarded approximately five kicks later, when the door broke off its hinges and fell backwards.
Kino fired a single shot from [Cannon] into the darkness.
The gunshot roared into the cramped space.
As did a distinct, masculine scream.
There was a sound like someone was running. Kino did not make an effort to chase the escaper, and waited for his footsteps to stop.
The sound stopped. It was at that very moment a somewhat excited male voice began to speak from somewhere in the darkness.
"Hah! Real reckless of you, huh? You're not a cop, you're that traveler! Never expected you'd storm in all this way! But you know, I never sent you an invitation!"
The man's voice was coming from somewhere close by. But there was a slight echo to it, as though he was hiding behind a corner. Kino did not open fire, instead crouching down beside the fallen door.
She then replied to the darkness.
"That's right. Hello there. I'm afraid I had to exert a bit of force with the man upstairs to come all this way."
"Don't play dumb. You must've threatened him, right? You're a terrible human being!"
"I have to say, your older brother looks just like you. Or is he the younger one?"
"Haha! I'd have expected no less from a traveler! You're nothing like those idiots in this country!"
"I knew it. Would you return my persuader to me?"
"No. I'm gonna use it to kill more people."
"You don't have any more ammunition left."
"…How did you know?!"
"Because it's mine."
There was a metallic sound as something slid across the brick-laid floor. The sound passed by Kino, hit one of the passage walls, and stopped.
"There! You can take it back!"
"Thank you. But perhaps you could have treated it more gently."
"Shut up! It's just a weapon, anyway. Who cares, you murderer?"
"Should I be laughing right now? Or getting angry?"
"Whatever you want. 'Cause you're going to die soon anyway!"
Click. The man, having ended the conversation, must have pressed a switch somewhere.
Very small lights came on.
Miniature lightbulbs hanging at regular intervals along the passage came to life, glowing a faint orange. They were just strong enough that Kino could vaguely make out the patterns of the bricks on the ceiling.
Kino slowly looked around herself. Although her eyes were now used to the darkness, she could see nothing beyond the areas illuminated by the lights, not even her own hands.
She could hear the man's voice speaking to her.
"Ahahaha! Surprised? This much is enough for me to see everything. I can see well in the dark, just like a cat. Nighttime exists for me! That's how I could kill all those people downtown. After all, I can see them, but they can't see me!"
The confident voice began to move.
To Kino, it sounded either like the voice was growing more distant or it was coming closer, harshly reverberating against the walls.
"I'm special. I'm better than you and I'm above everyone else. I'm different from idiots like you people."
"You better be thankful that you get to be killed by the greatest man in the world. Why don't you scream, 'Thank you' when I kill you?"
The voice continued moving.
Kino, however, did not take a single step. She closed her eyes.
"Oh, so there you are, traveler. I'll be right over to kill you."
"Give up? You haven't budged an inch."
"Let me hear you scream. Show me your fear. I'll cut you up and stuff your guts into your mouth."
"I'll pluck your nails off one by one before I kill you and drive them into your eyes."
"I'll let you experience the joy of being killed by the greatest man in the world until you die."
"You have to tell me how it feels."
"Looks like you're travelling, but that's all over now!"
"This is the last chapter of your journey."
"Tell me. How does it feel to face death at the hands of the greatest man in the world?"
"To become part of the happiness of someone much better than yourself."
"Is it scary? Or exciting?"
"Hahaha! So now I'll kill you."
"Someone like me just has to shine even brighter!"
"And to do that, I need to break even more people."
"I'm better than you. I'm invincible. I'm absolute!"
The the man's trembling voice stopped.
Kino pulled the trigger.
She shot into the darkness with little effort, her eyes still shut.
The sound of the gunshot filled the basement, and only faded away after a very long series of echoes.
She could hear something like the sound of a bird being strangled.
Kino took out her flashlight with her left hand and pointed it at the area ahead of her.
On the brick floor of the basement, about three metres in front of her, lay a man. He was entirely naked and barefoot, likely to prevent himself from making unnecessary noise. Clutched in either hand was a large knife.
And inside his mouth was the rubber bullet Kino had fired.
Saliva dripping form his mouth, the man twitched and groaned.
Kino took several steps towards the naked man and stood at his feet. The man glared at Kino, eyes glinting, and silently tightened his grip on his knives.
"'Invincible'? 'Superior'? 'Absolute'?" Kino repeated his claims, "so what?"
And as the man began to sit up, she pulled the trigger, aim fixed on his crotch.
The rain had stopped.
About thirty people were gathered outside the manor, standing under the cloudy skies. And as Hermes watched, the manor doors opened.
Kino emerged from the door in a cloud of white smoke, wearing her gas mask.
"Who is that?"
"He must be behind all this!"
"Hey, police! Catch him before he gets away!"
The residents cried out in outrage.
"Suspect sighted! Arrest him!"
"Don't let him get away!"
The police said, running towards Kino.
"Did she get him?" The detective asked.
"I don't know. Take care of the rest, okay?" Hermes replied.
The detective ran over to Kino, whose arms were held behind her back by the officers. He then had her loaded onto a police cruiser.
Seconds later, the detective got off the car and ordered the firemen to enter the manor.
The firemen, carrying on their backs oxygen tanks they had brought from the very beginning, entered the manor. They opened all the windows from the inside, expelling the white smoke from the interior.
An amusingly large amount of smoke escaped through the wide-open windows. The local residents watched in joy.
"What a relief! They even caught the bastard responsible!"
"And your house is going to be just fine!"
They gave their congratulations to the owner of the house, who still remained seated on the ground.
He said absolutely nothing, face still pale as death.
Once the smoke had been entirely cleared out, the detective spoke to the owner of the house.
"We will be entering your house in order to investigate the scene of the crime for evidence."
With a legitimate excuse, the detective and several officers entered the manor.
Soon, they came outside with an unconscious man on a stretcher.
"We found this man inside."
They placed the stretcher on the ground before the man and his neighbours.
The man on the stretcher, who was wrapped in a blanket, looked identical to the man sitting on the ground.
Several locals looked at both men at the same time and fainted on the spot.
The young woman who had been consoling the man fled with a shriek.
Hermes looked at the man on the stretcher, who had a scar on his ear, and the man silently sitting on the ground with his head bowed, said to himself,
"So is this going to solve everything? Or not?"
But no one had heard him speak.
The beautiful evening sun began to emerge from behind the scattering clouds. Kino and Hermes stood at the western gate of the country, illuminated by its light.
Hermes was fully loaded with Kino's belongings. Holstered on Kino's waist was [Woodsman].
"Why not rest a while? You should stay another night." The tall detective offered.
"My work here is done." Kino declined politely.
"Anyway, Kino's guilty of trespassing and assault here now. We have to make our getaway." Hermes said cheerily.
"I suppose you're right. Both of you are truly amazing. Thank you so much for coming to our country." The detective said, and offered Kino a handshake. Kino took it.
Kino rode Hermes out of the country.
The detective quietly watched them leave, until they disappeared beyond the closing gates.
"We better hurry and find a place to camp for the night." Kino said to Hermes, riding under the setting sun.
"Why didn't you stay another night? You could have spent a cushy night at the hotel. They might have treated you to lots of great food." Hermes said. Mud splashed up from the wet road and hit his chassis.
"I just wanted to get [Woodsman] back. They already gave me my compensation, too. And to be honest, I don't feel like getting any more involved with those crazy brothers." Kino spat, annoyed.
"Oh! So looks like we were on the same page after all, Kino!" Hermes cried in triumph.
"Hermes… you mean, you too?"
"That's what anyone would normally think. It's easier that way, after all!"
"I don't have any proof, though. It's just a matter of probability." Kino said, speeding up.
On the night the traveler left the country, the corpse of a murder victim was discovered in an alleyway.
Written in blood beside the corpse were the words:
"That's for my brothers, you bastards"