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The Gate of Sorrows, Page 2

Miyuki Miyabe

  “I’m no wiz. I know as much as most people.”

  “But you’ve got a part-time job at a computer company. Mama said so.”

  “Mama” was Kotaro’s mother, Asako. Kotaro’s father, Takayuki, was of course “Papa” to Aunt Hanako. Yet she addressed her own daughter, Mika’s mother, as Takako-san. She “san”-ed her own daughter. It was bizarre.

  “It’s not a computer company. It’s not like I’m coding and stuff like that.”

  “But ‘computer’ means ‘program,’ doesn’t it?”

  “PCs won’t run without a program, but they’re not the same thing. What I’m trying to say is, I’m not working at the kind of company you think I am. So what’s going on with Mika anyway?” Kotaro knew that without regular prompting, Aunt Hanako was liable to forget what she set out to say in the first place.

  Hanako’s eyes narrowed, as though what she was about to say next were dangerous information. “Someone’s been writing things about Mika in the dark.”

  If Kotaro’s parents had been listening in, they probably would’ve thought Hanako was talking about graffiti someone was leaving at night.

  But Kotaro was a 21st-century boy. The Internet had been part of his life since he could remember. He knew instantly what Aunt Hanako was trying to say.

  “On a dark website?”

  Her eyes opened wide with excitement. “Yes, that’s right. What you said.”

  “Was it something mean? Aunty, did you hear this from Mika?”

  “Oh no, she hasn’t said a thing to me. But the school called Takako-san yesterday afternoon. She gave me the short version after she got back. I’m not sure I understood it.”

  So it had something to do with computers, and that’s why she came to me.

  Kotaro stood for a moment, thinking. He’d definitely be late if he hung around much longer.

  “Listen Auntie, I have to get going, but here’s some advice. I don’t think Mika will say anything to you about this, so it would be better if you play dumb.”

  “But the school called Takako-san in for a conference. It sounds very serious to me.”

  “Schools are scared to handle stuff by themselves these days. They call parents about every little thing, just to cover their rears. Did Mika go to school today?”

  “Yes, she did.”

  “Then you don’t have to worry. Maybe Kazumi knows what’s going on. I’ll ask her when I get home. Confidentially, of course.”

  “Oh? But … I don’t know …”

  Hanako hated loose ends. She didn’t seem keen on this course of action. Kotaro gave her his biggest smile.

  “She’ll be fine, I’m telling you. Mika’s training hard. Kazumi told me she might even play in the regionals. Not many first-year players are that good.”

  “Yes, she’s just like Takeshi. Sports were always his strong point.”

  Takeshi was Mika’s father. He and Takako had divorced soon after Mika was born. Hanako, however, had been very partial to him and never missed a chance to bring him up.

  “Well, I better get going.”

  “Take care. Study hard.”

  Kotaro mounted his bike and took off. Just before he reached the corner he turned to see Hanako going into the house. He wondered why she insisted on wearing heavy clogs when all she could talk about was how bad her knees were. What if she fell down, broke a bone, and ended up bedridden?

  It was the 15th of December. The year was practically gone. The wind cut like a knife out of a clear blue sky. Winter was Kotaro’s favorite season. It was perfect for a bike sprint, much better than spring or autumn.

  But the morning’s mood had turned a little heavy. Aunt Hanako had been wrong in thinking Kotaro worked at a computer company. But if someone was spreading rumors about Mika online, Hanako was right to bring the problem to him.

  Was someone bullying Mika on a dark site?

  He had to find out. Seigo would know what to do.

  Kotaro was nineteen years and three months old. He was a freshman education major at a so-so university in central Tokyo.

  Neither the university nor the major had been Kotaro’s choice. His school was the only one that had accepted him; he’d failed his other entrance exams. The heavy hand of fate had gone ahead and decided things for him.

  He had no plans to become a teacher. Tokyo was awash with would-be teachers anyway. There were no jobs—none at all.

  “Ko-chan, what are you going to do? You don’t have a chance,” Kazumi would say.

  “I’ll make it somehow.”

  He had more than two years before he had to start thinking seriously about where he might find a job. Now was the time for him to congratulate himself on at least getting in somewhere. Now was the time to enjoy his student life.

  That’s what he’d thought, at first.

  Much to his surprise, student life wasn’t much fun after all. This rude awakening took place soon after the term started. Why was everything so boring? He had to admit, he’d never thought things would be this bad. Why was school so lame?

  He was surrounded by students who’d drifted into university with no goal, no purpose. People just like him. They were all having a great time. They were enjoying this one best time of their lives to the max, and they acted like their goal was to enjoy it even more, if that were possible.

  Somehow Kotaro couldn’t go along. He didn’t even know what it was he was supposed to be enjoying. He’d joined a few of the clubs, but aside from their activities and names, they were mainly about parties and drinking. The “serious” clubs were so serious that Kotaro was put off. Why did everyone tell him university clubs would be fun?

  Then again, who was “everyone,” exactly? Who had told him that being a college student was a nonstop party? Who had told him the clubs were totally cool?

  For Kotaro, it was the lectures—the one thing in school that bored the kids around him to tears—that somehow seemed interesting. His general education courses were mostly tedious, but every now and then he’d stumble across something new in one of his classes, something fascinating. The clubs, with their nonstop partying and drinking, offered nothing new. The basic difference between high school and this university that fate had chosen for him was that now he could openly do things that before he’d had to do in secret.

  Maybe I chose the wrong path, he told himself. Maybe I should’ve thought about college more carefully. Maybe I should’ve chosen my major more carefully, even if it meant taking a year or two off.

  Was he having some kind of psychological letdown? No, letdowns were for people who were serious about school. He hadn’t burned with motivation while he’d been studying for exams. Making it into this school didn’t feel like an accomplishment. He was just glad he'd got in somewhere.

  Kotaro’s father was a salaryman who worked in a credit union. His mother Asako was a homemaker, but she’d always had some kind of job since she married. For the last two years or so she’d been working the register at a big retailer not far from their house.

  Both of his parents were model citizens. They had worked diligently to raise Kotaro and Kazumi, setting aside their own enjoyment to pay for their children’s education, which wasn’t coming cheap. Pretty much everyone would probably say that was what parents were supposed to do. But Kotaro wasn’t remotely sure he could sacrifice as much and as patiently as his parents had, were he called on to do the same. They had him beat on that one, as someone his age might say.

  It would be awful enough to confess to his father and mother that it looked like he’d screwed up his choice of school and major because he hadn’t taken the whole thing very seriously, that he found nothing rewarding about student life. Maybe they’d worry about his mental stability. He knew he wasn’t going crazy, though he couldn’t put his finger on what he felt.

  In fact, that was the problem. He didn’t know what he was
feeling. He hadn’t felt motivated studying for his exams. He wasn’t feeling a letdown after getting admitted. It wasn’t because he was disappointed that so far he hadn’t met any guys he could really talk to, or girls who were his type. He knew something was missing in his life. He just didn’t know what.

  That was then. But in the middle of summer break—his first, unbearably long college break—something happened.

  He parked his bicycle at the station and sprinted up to the platform. The express had come and gone. Better send a message to Kaname. She’d have to wait ten minutes longer than usual for their handoff.

  Kotaro mulled Aunt Hanako’s request while he waited for the next express. She had asked the right person to help her based on a misunderstanding. Explaining that would be practically impossible. The Internet jargon would sail clear through her nets.

  Listen, Aunty. I’m not working for a computer company. But it has something to do with computers.

  Yes. It had a lot to do with them.

  See, what I’m doing is called cyber patrolling.

  He had found the missing piece.


  Kumar Corporation was in a compact office building not far from Ochanomizu Station. The staff lounge offered a nice view of the dome of the Holy Resurrection Cathedral.

  Kotaro had first stepped through these doors in early July. The rainy season had just ended, and the sprawling used book district at Jinbocho, not far from the station, was sweltering in the muggy heat. Kotaro was hitting the bookstores when he ran straight into Seigo Maki.

  Seigo was an alum of Kotaro’s high school. Like Kotaro, he’d been on the futsal club. Kotaro left the club to study for exams when he became a senior, but until then he’d seen Seigo almost every week.

  Seigo was mad about futsal. Ostensibly he was donating time to coach the team, but his main motivation was the chance to play. At the time he’d been thirty. He didn’t look like much of an athlete. He was five-foot-four and pudgy, but a tenacious player and an outstanding coach.

  Since they’d met in front of Sanseido Books, they decided to head upstairs to the coffee shop for a chat. As he was bringing Seigo up to speed on what he’d been doing, Kotaro made the mistake of mentioning how uninspiring school was.

  Seigo wasn’t at all surprised. “I could see you were bored from a long way off. Why don’t you start a futsal club?”

  “They’ve got one. Thing is, they hardly ever play. All they do is party.”

  “So that happy, free, stimulating campus life doesn’t suit you, Ko-Prime?”

  Back in the day, there’d been another club member named Kotaro Inoue. Seigo was the first to start calling Inoue “Ko.” Since “I” came before “M,” that made Kotaro “Ko-Prime.” Using Kotaro’s name would’ve been simpler, but for some reason the nickname stuck. It was a sign of how much the team trusted Seigo.

  Kotaro hadn’t heard this nickname in a while. High school was pretty cool after all, he thought wistfully.

  “In fact, I’m thinking about making a switch,” he told Seigo.

  “You mean changing schools? Don’t do that. If you’re not going for senior civil servant or law school, you’ll face the same problem wherever you go. If you can’t stand your school, try the police academy. Or join the Self-Defense Forces.”

  Kotaro’s iced coffee almost shot out his nose. “Me? A cop? Or a soldier?”

  “What’s wrong with that?”

  “No way. My father’s just a salaryman.”

  “What does that have to do with it? Sure you’re not interested?”

  Going into law enforcement or the military had never even remotely occurred to Kotaro. “I mean, both of those jobs are pretty tough, right? Taking orders from superiors and stuff like that?”

  Seigo put a hand on his head and rubbed his summer haircut, which was cropped almost to the skin.

  “Hmm. Okay, so you don’t like ranks and orders and so on.”

  “Hey, I didn’t say I couldn’t handle it.”

  “Seriously, I think you’d make a good cop, Ko-Prime. Haven’t you noticed? I always thought you were looking for a way to help people. Help the world, you know? At least a little.”

  Kotaro had to laugh at that. “You gotta be joking.”

  “Really? You were always up for the chores no one else wanted to handle. Cleaning the court, stowing the gear. You know? That time you negotiated with those jerks on the soccer team to get us some field time. You were good at mediating when people disagreed.”

  “If those are qualifications, I’d feel sorry for the cops who had to work with me.”

  “You think so? I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.”

  Kotaro watched with amusement as Seigo sucked the last of his iced coffee noisily up the straw. He just didn’t get it.

  If Kotaro had indeed been so conscientious in high school, it was mostly thanks to the man sitting across from him. Seigo led by example. Whether current members or alumni, Kotaro’s seniors in the futsal club had always loved to throw their weight around for no reason at all. Things had been even worse on Kotaro’s middle school basketball team. At least that was what he thought, until Seigo showed him things could be different.

  People just can’t see themselves the way they are.

  “Listen, Ko-Prime …” Seigo set his glass of melting ice on the table sharply. “If you’re that bored, why not get a job?”

  “Doing what?”

  “Feel like some part-time work?”

  Now that was more like it. Kotaro already had several hooks in the water. “I was thinking about applying to a convenience store. The pay on the late shift is sweet.”

  “So you can work nights?”

  “Sure, I can juggle my schedule.”

  “Are you sure you could do that and not neglect your studies? Your parents would worry. You’re still a minor.” Seigo was pretty levelheaded when it came to this sort of thing.

  “Don’t worry. The homework will get done.”

  “Then let’s go. It’s right around the corner.” Seigo picked the check off the table and smiled. He took Kotaro to Kumar Corporation, not far from the Holy Resurrection Cathedral.

  “This is where I work,” he said as they stood in the lobby. “Our headquarters is down in Nagoya. This is the Tokyo office. We’ve got the third and fourth floors.”

  The lobby was nice enough. The building looked brand new. Reception was on the third floor, but it was unmanned—just a counter and a phone. There was a glass disk on the wall behind the counter with the company name and logo etched into it with a kind of 3-D effect.

  “Kumar is a funny name for a company.”

  “Yamashina has had this book since childhood, about a monster named Kumar.”


  “The founder. We went to college together. I’m an executive director. I also basically run the Tokyo office.”

  Kotaro goggled at him in surprise. Seigo had attended all their after-school practices on weekdays and worked with them on Saturdays and during summer breaks. Kotaro remembered asking him about it.

  Are you taking time off from work?

  We’ve got flextime.

  You’re not busy on weekends?

  No family, no girlfriend, no problem.

  That was it, though; he’d never asked Seigo for more details about his private and professional lives. Somehow it had never seemed necessary.

  Seigo and the founder were classmates? Executive director? Maybe this Yamashina, president or CEO or whatever, founded the company as a student? It was more than possible, considering how old Seigo was.

  The door to the offices had an electronic lock. There was a small panel next to the door. Seigo dug around in his chinos and pulled out a key card on a strap. He put the card against the panel. There was a low tone as the door unlocked.

  “Here we are
. After you.”

  Kotaro bowed reflexively and went inside. A short corridor led off to the left and right with a door at each end. The wall in front of him was glass from about waist height. The floor beyond was spread out before him.

  “Wow …” Kotaro couldn’t hide his surprise.

  The office was packed with rows of tables and swivel chairs. Most were occupied. The people were dressed as casually as Seigo—T-shirts, polo shirts, jeans, chinos. There was a loud aloha shirt. Everyone had cards dangling from their necks like the one Seigo had used to open the door. Most looked younger than Seigo, maybe a bit older than Kotaro.

  The periphery of the room was dotted with file cabinets and big whiteboards on casters. The boards were crammed with writing that was too small to read from the corridor. There were also smaller blackboards at the end of the rows of desks, the kind that bars and restaurants used to announce the day’s specials, with writing in white and pink chalk.

  None of this was out of the ordinary for an office. But two things were unusual. For one, the blinds were tightly closed in the middle of the day. There were also two flat-screen monitors on every desk. Everyone in the office—mostly men, but there were a few women too—was looking back and forth between their two monitors. They had multiple windows open on each one, with information scrolling upward. Once in a while a user would touch his mouse or keyboard, but not often. No one was punching a calculator. There were no papers on the desks. No one was in a meeting.

  It was quiet. There were no ringing phones.

  “What are they all doing?”

  Seigo looked at Kotaro intently.

  “Kumar is a security firm. We keep cyber society safe.”

  As Kotaro had told Aunt Hanako, he wasn’t a PC expert. The net-surfing bug had never bitten him. He’d never started a blog and didn’t read them. For everyday things—looking for a shop, checking a map—he usually used his phone, but he couldn’t even use half the apps it came loaded with. He’d never tried to hide his lack of interest in the net. Kazumi probably knew a lot more than he did. She was always chasing down gossip about her favorite celebrities.