Sneak peek – Look Inside Painted Doll

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THURSDAY, DECEMBER 4

A pillow of white capped her gravestone, the first snow of winter.

He frowned at the dead flowers. Brown heads forever bowed, the dried chrysanthemum stalks shivered in the wind. Didn’t her family care enough to keep them fresh? He lifted the withered stems from their stone vases and set them aside, then drew a stick of incense from his pocket. His hands were cold. It took him two tries with the lighter before a thread of smoke curled toward the leaden sky. He poked it through the icy crust on the altar.

Uncapping the bottle of water he’d bought at the vending machine down the street, he emptied it over her gravestone.  The snow dissolved, leaving the pale granite beneath bare and gleaming. Setting the empty bottle carefully on the ground, he drew a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and stripped off the wrapper. Placing one between his lips, he held the flame to the tip, closed his eyes, and tasted the harsh tobacco that reminded him of that day. Taking it from his mouth, he laid it next to the smoldering incense, watching as the twin streams of smoke mingled and twisted toward heaven.

Sinking to his knees, he folded his hands, wincing at the twinge that was new since the last time he’d knelt on this patch of cold ground.

Nine years, he thought. Nine death anniversaries. Tomorrow would be the tenth. He always came early, so he wouldn’t cross paths with the remnants of her family. He always came on the day he’d actually killed her.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1

Kenji Nakamura stepped off the train onto the Tabata Station platform and felt an icy finger of winter slip through a gap in his hastily wound muffler. The platform at this stop was deserted, even though it was New Year’s Eve. Actually, he corrected himself, New Year’s Day. Midnight was long gone.

Beyond the sheltering roof, snow now plummeted down in earnest. He stopped to unwind the old gray scarf that had been his mother’s last gift before she died. Gritting his teeth against the chill, he shook it out and put it on more carefully, stuffing the ends inside his coat and buttoning it up a notch. The button came off in his hand. He frowned, dropping it into his pocket. He needed a new winter coat, but shopping was such a chore—the largest size of the Japanese brands was too short for him, the foreign styles cut too wide.

The platform’s warning bell rang and the train pulled away, riffling Kenji’s hair and leaving a maelstrom of snowflakes spinning crazily in its wake. He shoved his hands into his pockets and began trudging toward the exit at the end of the long platform. How could it turn so cold, so fast? Six hours ago, he and Yumi had shared an umbrella, not letting a little rain dampen their giddiness that she was free at last. Her engagement to the man she’d met through an arranged marriage o-miai had officially ended yesterday.

Now they could be together, the way he’d dreamed of since the day his third grade teacher stood her up in front of the class and introduced the new girl from America. He should be with her right now. He should never have returned that missed call.

Just his luck, this was the one time a year that trains ran all night. If there had been no easy way to get to his father before morning, he would still be snug in his warm futon, with Yumi by his side, maybe even finishing what they’d . . . . Well, after last night, he was sure there would be other nights. They didn’t have to rush things. He smiled, remembering how she had tucked herself in even closer to him after she fell asleep.

Stepping onto the escalator, he let it bear him up toward the south exit, then beeped his way through the turnstile without slowing. Feathery patches of snow began to spot his coat as soon as he left the protection of the overhang. Angling himself against the wind, he set out for the police box manned by his father on this loneliest of nights.

Even the most far-flung families reunited for the holidays, but ever since Kenji’s mother had died ten years ago, his father had volunteered for duty every New Year’s Eve, on the one night a year that nobody wanted to be at work.

It wasn’t an accident.

That’s what his father had said on the phone tonight. How could he suddenly know—after all these years, in the middle of the night—that Kenji’s mother’s death hadn’t been an accident?

If it wasn’t an accident, what was it? It hadn’t been suicide. The investigation had ruled that out. And it couldn’t have been a crime. Kenji knew about crime. As a police detective, crime was his business. But crimes were something that happened to other people, people who put themselves in harm’s way, people who invited bad luck upon themselves. Crimes didn’t happen to policemen’s wives. Crimes didn’t happen to policemen’s mothers.

Crossing the street by the pachinko parlor, head down, clumps of falling snow pelted his face and melted as soon as they hit. An icy trickle ran through his hair and down his neck. He should have grabbed his dad’s old felt hat before he left. He trudged up the hill, squinting into the wind. Two more blocks.

Why had his dad dropped this on him now? His mother had died ten years ago. In a train accident. A not-accident.

Sergeant Nakamura had been working the graveyard shift that night, too. He’d come home the next morning to find his wife’s slippers lined up neatly at the edge of the tatami and an empty space in the shoe cupboard where her winter boots usually sat. There was no note, so he hadn’t worried. No note meant she’d be back soon, that she’d gone out to do something that wasn’t worth an explanation. That she’d be back before the family woke up and realized she was gone.

Kenji’s father had gone to bed thinking nothing was amiss, but when he awoke in the early afternoon, he’d found both sons sitting in the kitchen, strangely silent and more than a little hungry. Two half-finished bowls of rice sat on the table, every grain still rock-hard in the center. Even though Kenji and his older brother were in high school, they still hadn’t known how much water to put in the rice cooker. The refrigerator was filled to bursting, but they hadn’t dared touch the plastic-wrapped trays that their mother had made for her upcoming high school reunion, the ones papered in sticky notes scribbled with “DO NOT EAT!”

Sergeant Nakamura had phoned his sister first. His wife had gone out early, he said, but wasn’t back yet. Had Sachiko stopped by to see Ayako and her family, by any chance? No, sorry, they hadn’t seen her, but tell her thanks for recommending the new acupuncturist. Uncle’s headaches were much better.

Next, his dad began calling the rest of the relatives, then friends, then everyone he could think of. By the time he slowly hung up the phone for the last time, worry had replaced the irritation that she hadn’t returned in time to make breakfast for the boys.

Then Kenji remembered the note that had been stuck to the dinner plate his mother had left on the table for him last night. He dug through the trash to retrieve it. Sorry, had to run out for a bit and take something to one of my high school friends. They all looked at each other. Who were her friends? None of them had ever stopped to wonder how Sachiko Nakamura occupied herself, in between the cooking and cleaning and washing that kept their lives running smoothly.

Her friends’ numbers would be on her phone, wouldn’t they? Kenji asked. They searched for it, but it was gone, along with her purse.

They didn’t know what to do next. None of them could remember her saying anything about helping a neighbor or getting in line early for a sale. Of course, that didn’t really mean anything—every day she told them plenty of things that went in one ear and out the other.

I’m running out to the store to buy some fish for dinner.

I think I’ll get you some new socks on the shopping street. They’re having a sale.

I’ll be a little late, because I’m picking up Mrs. Kimura’s prescription for her.

And then the phone rang. A female accident victim had been found near the tracks of the Toyoko Line. Kenji’s father went to the hospital alone, to identify the body that had been spotted by a hungover high school student on his way to weekend basketball practice. The local police were conducting an investigation. Two days later, they’d pronounced it an accident.

It wasn’t an accident.

Kenji turned the corner at the top of the hill and saw the police box ahead, its wide front window glowing like a beacon for lost children and victims of minor crimes. Every neighborhood had a koban like this, manned by officers who knew everyone on their patch by name, thanks to the visits they made twice a year to update the particulars of each household. The police box officers were as much a part of everyday life as the mailman, consulted not only if you wanted to report a crime, but also if you needed directions to the new café, had lost your cat, or found a dropped glove on the street.

As a boy, Kenji had always stopped to look at the wanted posters on the bulletin board outside, wondering what bungles had caused a fugitive to be missing joints on both pinky fingers, or why a suspected murderer had only three remaining teeth. But tonight he didn’t even glance at the sketches as he strode past, slowing only as he approached the door of the narrow stucco-clad building with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s bronze star over the door. Through the window, he could see his father seated behind a wide metal desk, official notices tacked to the wall beside him. A well-thumbed book of local maps sat neatly squared on the corner of the desk. The gold buttons on his uniform gleamed, and his hat was firmly settled on his graying brush-cut hair.

But tonight Sergeant Nakamura wasn’t sitting ramrod straight, he was hunched over a red clay teacup, staring into its depths. It was one of the pair he and his wife had bought on their honeymoon.

He looked up as Kenji pushed through the door. He wasn’t alone.

“Happy New Year, Ken-kun.” A man with sad eyes bowed from the doorway to the back room.

Kenji returned the bow, recognizing his father’s longtime poker crony, who had just retired in November.

“Happy New Year to you, too, Officer Toyama.”

It was the first time Kenji had seen the ex-policeman out of uniform. In his plaid flannel shirt and fleece sweatpants, he looked . . . smaller. Had Toyama-san shrunk? Kenji remembered him from boyhood, an imposing figure who always had a riddle for the boss’s son and would fish a piece of candy from his pocket if Kenji guessed right.

“What are you doing here in the middle of the night, Toyama-san?” Kenji asked, pulling the door shut behind him.

“He came with me,” said a voice Kenji hadn’t heard since high school. A younger version of Officer Toyama appeared behind his father.

“Sho-sempai! Happy New Year.”

Mr. Toyama’s son returned the greeting with the same lopsided grin he’d worn when their high school baseball team won the division championship. Sho had been Kenji’s mentor, his sempai—a senior pitcher when Kenji was a first-year rookie. Sho was shorter, but made up for it by being built like a brick wall. As expected, Toyama Junior had followed in his father’s footsteps and gone straight to the police academy after graduation.

“You still working out of Saitama Station?” Kenji asked.

“No, they transferred me to Shinjuku two months ago.” He grimaced. “Just in time for the quake.”

Ten days ago, a 7.9 temblor had given Tokyo a severe shaking. Every division was still working around the clock to deal with the criminals who had been caught with their pants down in the chaos that followed.

“And actually, that’s why I’m here,” Sho explained. “I was one of the locals assigned to help bag and tag a scene for the First Investigative Division after a warehouse in East Shinjuku collapsed.”

“Why were the big boys involved in an earthquake accident?” Kenji asked. The First Investigative Division was only called in to take over when an incident turned into a major crime: extortion, robbery, rape, murder.

Sho snorted. “It turned out that the janitorial service headquartered in the building was storing more than mops and wax there. A bunch of illegal Chinese girls were locked in a back room, and one was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a stack of crates fell. The scumbags moved her body outside, trying to make it look like an accident, and a patrol officer caught them dumping her purse and passport into a storm drain. When we searched what was left of the building, we discovered the traffickers had stripped the girls of everything they owned, and locked their stuff in a storeroom marked ‘Toxic, Keep Out,’ along with a couple of crates of Chinese handguns. At the very back, we found . . . that.”

He nodded toward a small suitcase sitting beside the front door. Cobwebby and coated with dust, it had once been dark blue. “Inspector Mori got pretty excited when he opened it up. He made me take it to the crime lab right away. Said it was tied to a case he’d worked on ten years ago.”

Ten years ago.

“What kind of case?” Kenji asked, suddenly uneasy.

“Don’t know, except that it’s an unsolved.”

So it couldn’t be his mother’s death. That had been ruled an accident. It wasn’t an accident.

Kenji turned to his dad. “But what does this suitcase have to do with Mom?”

His father’s frown grew deeper.

Sho answered for him. “Inspector Mori wasn’t actually interested in the bag—it was the passport and stuff packed inside he wanted. But they found a receipt for three bus tour tickets in one of the side pockets, along with a luggage tag that had your mom’s name on it. He figured the bag belonged to her, asked me to return it when the lab boys were done with it.”

Kenji raised an eyebrow at his father.

“It’s hers,” Sergeant Nakamura admitted. “She bought it right before she went on that damn trip to the Ise Shrine with her old high school friends.”

“And . . . ?”

His dad scowled. “Mori wants me to come in, ask me a bunch of questions that I won’t know the answers to. He’s going to try to make this into something it’s not.”

“Hey, now,” Mr. Toyama chided. “Just because Mori-san wants you to come in and talk to him about that suitcase doesn’t mean Sachiko’s death was anything but an accident. Sho said it was only the stuff inside he was interested in. Who knows how some illegal Chinese girl ended up with that bag? Maybe your sister gave it away after the funeral, and didn’t realize there was anything still in it that belonged to your wife.”

Sergeant Nakamura shook his head, unconvinced.

Kenji crossed the small room to stand before his dad’s desk. “There’s only one way to find out,” he said. “When you go see Inspector Mori, I’m going with you.”

Kenji’s father shot to his feet, scooping up his empty cup, said something about getting more tea. But when he got to the back room, he dropped his cup on the counter by the hot water pot and detoured to the toilet instead, pulling the door shut with a bang. Flipping the lock, he spun around and braced himself on the sink, hung his head, breathing hard.

Get a grip, Nakamura. Breathe. Breathe. In, two, three, four, hold it, two, three, four, out, two, three, four. Again. Again. Slower. Again. He straightened and raised his chin, draining the tears back inside. Manly sniff. Clear. Swallow. Good. He frowned into the mirror, grateful to the sensei who had taught him how to control his weaknesses. He’d hated the old bastard for how he’d done it, but he’d never have become the man he was without that unforgiving taskmaster. Certainly never would have made it through the police academy. And if he’d never made it through the Academy, he never would have married Sachiko.

That first day at the koban—filling out her missing bicycle report as slowly as possible, giving himself time to think of a way to see her again—she’d told him her father had been a sergeant at the police box on the other side of the train station. That her uncle was a beat cop in Chiba.

For a long time, he’d figured that was why a tall, sparkly girl like Sachiko had chosen a quiet, solid guy like him—she came from a family of cops. It wasn’t until they were arguing over how to handle the bullying that Kenji’s brother Takeo started getting in first grade, that he realized how determined Sachi was to raise a family that was nothing like the one she grew up in. She’d agreed to let him find Takeo a judo teacher, and he’d agreed to let her have a quiet word with the bullies’ moms and find someone to help Takeo with his stutter. Something had worked, because both the bullying and the stuttering had stopped, and they still got New Years postcards from the bullies’ families.

Twisting the cold water faucet, he splashed water on his face, rubbing it dry with the towel he’d brought from home, freshly laundered for the new year. Sachi had always insisted they start the year right: house clean, debts paid, apologies made. She’d always tried to do the right thing. And so had he. Until the day she died, he’d tried his damndest to be everything she wanted him to be.

Fear clamped his chest again. Sho told him that Mori had found clothes, makeup and a metallic blue Nikon CoolPix camera inside that suitcase. They didn’t know that was the same kind of camera Sachi had owned, the one that had never reappeared after her death.

Breathe, dammit, breathe. He slumped over the sink. Fucking Mori. He had to stop Kenji from coming to that meeting. Couldn’t let his son hear the questions the Inspector would ask, the same questions he’d been asked ten years ago. The questions he’d pretended he didn’t know the answers to.

If you’d like to continue reading Painted Doll…

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