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From the Mixed-up Files of Aiba Masaki, (Amateur) Detective

Chapter Text

“A…nemesis?” I repeated warily. “Aiba…you told me that you had never investigated a major case thus far in your amateur career. Yet you have already…achieved…an arch nemesis?”

The detective nodded solemnly, “Yes, doctor. Such is the evil of men that one can barely begin upon a new venture before one is plagued by the demons of the past.”

I frowned at the letter in my hands, “Will you meet this man?”

The detective’s fury seemed to abate as he assumed an expression of uncertainty, “I…am not confidant how best to proceed. I noted his name on the list given to me by Riisa, of course, but I had no real grounds for my suspicions until this…communication arrived. Perhaps he was involved in the terrible events of that night, and perhaps it is also a despicable trap!” he flushed, his anger overcoming him once more.

I was torn as to how to reply to the detective; while this Professor Sakurai might possess valuable testimony, I felt a strong, unreasoning queasiness at the thought of a private interview between the two men. “I would be happy to accompany you,” I offered after some deliberation, internally resolved not to let the detective out of my sight in case he should stumble into a dangerous encounter, “And if we arrive armed with Lord Kazunari’s account of that night, we may be able to better distinguish whether Professor’s Sakurai’s information is true or false.”

Aiba crossed the room to clap a hand on my shoulder and shake my hand heartily, “Of course, my dear fellow! Unless he is aware of Lord Kazunari’s residence here, we may indeed have the trump card in our hand—I knew I could depend upon you to resolve the difficulty,” he beamed, all trace of his former anger gone. But I noted a strange sadness still present, a regret in his eyes that I had never witnessed there before.

I turned away from the detective, “Then let us see what our Lord has to say for himself.”

 

*

 

Ohno had, of course, vanished from the room as silently as he had entered it to deliver the letter, and I was unsurprised to discover the valet in the midst of a close, nearly inaudible conversation with Lord Kazunari. I heard only a low-spoken “But when?” and “I cannot” before I rapped loudly upon the door, anxious to announce our presence before entering.

“How does the patient?” I began as we stepped inside, but any attempt on the Lord’s part to respond was prevented by the detective racing past me to crush him in a fond embrace, wiping tears (and, I fear, some mucus) upon the Lord’s shoulder as he offered him his well-wishes and sincere entreaties that he would make a rapid recovery.

“Please Aiba,” the Lord gasped, “I cannot recover if you will insist on squeezing the life from me.”

The detective released him with evident reluctance, and for the first time in our (admittedly short) acquaintance, I noticed a genuine smile upon the face of the mysterious valet—the man looked positively boyish as he watched Lord Kazunari blushing under Aiba’s concerned scrutiny.

“Yes, yes,” I murmured, finally intervening to pull the detective from the Lord, “You are delighted to see him. But allow me to examine him first.”

The Lord was tired and pale but self-possessed, the glimmer of mischief I noted the evening he stole my hat having returned to his dark eyes. The fevered, broken man of the previous night—the man who had wept as he begged for the presence of his lover—seemed a mere dream as I examined his Lordship in the sober light of day. But his gaze still followed every movement of the valet’s. Their hands were intertwined tightly; Ohno ran his thumb across the white-knuckles of Lord Kazunari—he must have been holding onto the valet with all the force he possessed. Each seemed to require the contact as other men require breathing.

“Now that you are on the mend,” I continued after examining his stitches, “you can offer us an account of the events that led to your injury.”

The Lord glared up at me suspiciously, “I’m afraid I’ve not had the pleasure…” I caught a glimpse of Lady Riisa in his disdainfully raised brow.

Aiba swept me aside to seat himself on the bedclothes beside Lord Kazunari, seizing his shoulders and giving him a firm shake, “How can you, Nino? I am ashamed of you. You address the world-renowned Dr. Matsumoto Jun, the very man who saved your life last night! And we have been hired by your dear sister—she’s worried sick, man!—to investigate your disappearance. You are interviewed by Detective Aiba Masaki and Doctor Matsumoto Jun—a newly-formed, yes, but still irresistible partnership—yet you refuse to give way? I never thought you hard of heart, Nino,” Aiba concluded, his demeanor remarkably similar to that of a kicked puppy’s.

“Doctor,” Lord Kazunari implored as Aiba continued to shake him, “please, restrain this maniac!”

I reached out a hand to arrest Aiba’s overzealous attempts at persuasion, “I’m afraid there’s more of that in store for you, your Lordship, if you do not confess to your misadventures.”

“I beg of you Nino,” Aiba spoke more gently, “my only wish is to protect you and your family.”

The Lord’s gaze flickered between us, lingering with particular anxiety on Ohno’s impassive countenance. With an annoyed “humph,” he shook himself free of Aiba’s grasp, speaking with an uncharacteristically serious expression, “If I hesitate to narrate my history, it is only because I do not wish to involve you in a dangerous enterprise.”

“You involved us the moment you arrived at Aiba’s doorstep last night, bleeding through your shirt,” I noted bluntly.

The Lord’s face assumed a cross expression, “I believe I merely requested an interview with Ohno,” he muttered sulkily.

“Whose availability for interviews is by no means certain,” I offered on a sudden inspiration.

Aiba stared at me, wide-eyed, before seeming to catch the drift of my scheme. “That’s right, doctor,” he pronounced slowly, looking directly into the Lord’s eyes as he continued, “Ohno, if I asked you to go down to the country to retrieve my old cricket bat, how soon could you depart?”

Ohno replied without hesitation, “I believe there is a twelve-thirty train that I should just be able to catch.”

The valet made a movement as if to rise, only to be promptly pulled down by Lord Kazunari, whose next words resembled a kind of growl, “I see that I am outmaneuvered.” He released Ohno’s collar and turned towards Aiba with a sigh, “Then I shall inform you of the strange but not entirely unexpected circumstances that led to my turning up like a bad penny, to be blackmailed by my closest friend and his fancy medical companion.”

Aiba and I exchanged a glance of triumph; Lord Kazunari groaned. Ohno picked his nose.

 

*

 

“After attending a rather tasteless performance of The Queen of Spades—and in a top hat much inferior to yours, doctor—” (Aiba placed a restraining hand upon my knee), “I decided to return home. Several nights spent sleeping out of doors had tired me, and I hoped for a warm bath. I was alarmed to discover Riisa in the middle of one of her blasted dinner parties—she never used to host such bores…”

“Your colleagues,” I interjected.

“…at the house before she became engaged to that slimy Akanishi.”

“Lord Akanishi Jin?” Aiba confirmed.

“Yes,” Nino replied grimly, “And I have yet to give my consent, by the way. However, if I mention my refusal to Riisa, she starts rattling off some nonsense about the New Woman. In any case, I was not overly troubled, for I simply took the back staircase to the upper story and avoided the mob.”

“Did anyone see you making your way to your room?” Aiba had the cloth notebook out of his pocket again.

Lord Kazunari shook his head, “Not that I am aware of. I believe the servants were just sitting down to their own supper. Oh, the butler who answered the door saw me—perhaps he informed the others servants as well as Riisa.” Aiba scrawled a note in his untidy schoolboy hand. “I drew my own bath and afterwards dressed in my lounging suit and returned to my room. As usual, the door locked behind me.”

Now we were reaching the heart of the matter. Ohno astonished me by being the first to raise the question. “Why are you so careful to lock yourself in? Why do you keep a safe?” he inquired softly, as if he and Lord Kazunari were the only two present.

Lord Kazunari’s eyes were conflicted, but Ohno’s intent gaze soon drew him in. He licked his lips nervously, suddenly small and fragile-looking as he responded, “Because I have had secrets to keep for some time now, and I am beginning to fear that my life is endangered by them.” He closed his eyes before continuing, “For three years, I have been engaged in a project of collecting narratives and data from some of the city’s poorest residents.” He opened his eyes, “I have been compiling a manuscript detailing my adventures and observations, as well as crafting a new piece of legislation that I plan to introduce into parliament—a women and children’s welfare act that would place a heavier burden of taxation on the city’s wealthy to fund an entirely new, far more extensive program of food and housing.”

I was at a loss. Could this man and the hat thief be one and the same? Aiba appeared equally astonished. Ohno was smiling tearfully.

“But…why would such a piece of legislation place your life in danger?” I wondered.

Lord Kazunari assumed a cynical smirk, an expression so at odds with his innocent openness of just a moment before that I despaired of ever understanding the changeable gentleman, “Doctor, can you imagine anything more likely to incense the most wealthy—a set that includes, of course, our politicians—than a proposal to use their money for the benefit of the poorest?”

“Then they may vote it down. It will never pass.”

Lord Kazunari rubbed a palm across his brow before continuing, “Here is where it gets a bit dangerous.”

“Nino…” Aiba began in a warning tone, making me curious as to how often in the past the detective had scolded his friend.

“I knew it would never pass, doctor. In my father’s terms of service, and in my own, I have witnessed piece after piece of needed reform destroyed or dismantled, rampant corruption and favoritism, policies advanced only to benefit the wealthiest. So I chose to start combating these men on their own terms.”

“You are corrupt,” I pronounced, appalled.

Lord Kazunari’s eyes flashed, “Yes, and only because of that do I now have a chance of succeeding. The leaders of the opposition party either owe me money or possess a secret they do not wish to have revealed—one learns more on the streets than how the poor live. The strings of fate connecting the highest and the lowest would surprise you. I have made powerful men desperate, and now they are acting as desperate men must.” Lord Kazunari fixed his gaze on Ohno’s hand where it met his own before resuming, “I was too proud, Aiba. I started to believe those men were my dogs, forgetting that dogs will bite the man who is not their true master.” Lord Kazunari raised his gaze; I was taken aback by the tears veiling his eyes, “Are you satisfied with these revelations, detective? Have you uncovered the truth of your friend? Should I leave your presence instantly?”

Aiba was so still that I feared he might began sobbing as he had last night. I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I think, Nino,” the detective finally pronounced, “that you should continue recounting the events of last night. We have still not reached the point that most interests us.”

His Lordship looked uncertain whether to be relieved or frightened by Aiba’s mild response. He cleared his throat before continuing, “The party was still in progress when I entered my room—I could hear the strains of a waltz. I opened my safe and removed the manuscript, reviewing some pages and adding notes. I hoped publication would increase popular support for the bill—the story would be all the more sensational and likely to be noticed because the “slumming” was undertaken by a Lord.” I nodded, recalling the success of earlier popular "slum narratives" in combating the menace of child prostitution. “Around midnight, there were two sharp raps upon the door. I was careless,” the Lord grimaced, “I could still here the sounds of the party below, but I assumed it was Riisa—it was her distinctive knock, and she would often slip away to visit me when bored. I unlocked and opened the door…”

“Was your safe still open?” Aiba interrupted.

Lord Kazunari nodded, “I was about to place my manuscript inside, but left it open on the chance that Riisa might like to wear a necklace she kept there—I knew she would be announcing her engagement at another party the next day. It was stupid of me. No sooner had I cracked the door then I was attacked by a tall, foul-looking man with a ginger beard.”

“You did not recognize him?” Aiba questioned eagerly, still scrawling in his notebook.

“No, and there was no danger of it—he was no MP. He did not even bother to disguise his face. He carried a length of rope with him that he kept trying to tie about my neck—I suspect he intended to disguise my death as self-injury.”

I noted that Ohno had turned pale, his eyes frighteningly black. Lord Kazunari failed to notice his lover’s reaction as he continued, “I appear slight, but I am quick, and I have learned to fight on the streets. The struggle was desperate—my bedchamber was torn to pieces—I shouted but I believe the orchestra swallowed the noise. I abandoned any idea of escape through the door. Fumbling through the pockets of my smoking jacket as the brute choked me, I managed to hold a lit match to his eye. He released me, and I seized the manuscript from my desk, opened the window, and slid down the drainpipe—I have often left the house by way of that pipe. I do not know whether I was followed—I simply ran until the city swallowed me.” Lord Kazunari recounted his visit to Madame Becky, where, we learned, he had deposited the manuscript before attempting to lose himself in the rookeries of St. Giles. It was there that he had encountered the man with the ginger-beard for the second time that night.

“What? Again?” I exclaimed, beginning to doubt the veracity of his narrative.

“If I was indeed in my right mind, then it was the same man—the skin on the bridge of his nose and his eyelid were mottled and burned. This time, he had a knife, but I escaped through the aid of the good men and women of St. Giles. The last I saw of the assassin, he was buried in a shallow grave near the pauper’s cemetery.”

Aiba appeared physically ill at the revelation; Ohno smiled. From my seated position, I placed my head between my knees as a medical precaution against faintness. How could a stolen hat, a charming smile from a handsome idiot, and the fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle result in my embroilment in an affair of parliamentary intrigue and murder?

 

*

 

The silence (to say the least) lingered. Then I heard a clinking of glasses. I raised my head; Ohno held a large bottle of whiskey in one hand and four small glasses in the other. Had he hidden them beneath the bed, or in his jacket?

“I propose,” he offered quietly, his tone not ungentle, “that each of us take a strong drink.”

I looked helplessly towards the detective, who nodded, swallowing before congratulating his valet roughly, “An excellent suggestion, Ohno.”

“Doctor?” Lord Kazunari raised a brow.

“Alcohol’s an antiseptic, isn’t it?” I answered lightly, accepting a glass from Ohno, “please feel free, your Lordship.”

At Aiba’s prompting, the four of us toasted—Ohno muttered something resembling, “Let’s work well together”—before downing the contents; Ohno collected and began refilling the glasses before the burn had disappeared from my throat.

“I think what we might do,” the valet continued as he poured in his quiet, efficient way, “is resolve upon what would be the most desirable outcome of this affair—what it is that we want. Aiba, would you pass me your book?” We were all in awe of the valet’s decisive manner, I believe—we watched with rapt attention as Aiba obediently passed Ohno the casebook, and the valet proceeded to neatly tear four scraps of paper from it. “Let us all write what we desire—what we hope for most of all—and then see whether those aims may be compatible, or if we must separate to achieve them,” he continued authoritatively.

His Lordship examined the valet suspiciously while Aiba appeared impressed. “What I want?” his Lordship repeated indignantly.

“Only one,” the valet replied mildly, his eyes meeting Lord Kazunari’s. “There is only space for one.”

“A good solution,” Aiba offered brightly, knocking back his second glass and sputtering as he began distributing the papers, “To think that Holmes merely had his Watson—I’ve a masterful valet behind me as well!”

I accepted my scrap defeatedly, privately convinced that the exercise was a foolish one but unable to refuse Aiba (or, to write the truth, Ohno, who’d suddenly assumed a hypnotic authority over our small circle).

After we’d written our messages (Ohno’s, Aiba’s, and my own were completed quickly; Lord Kazunari completed his only after much hesitation), the valet crumpled and mixed them in his hands (of course, it would be easily apparent who had written what, but Ohno seemed determined on the farce) before passing the handful to Aiba. “Please open them, detective,” he demanded softly, the first instance I could recall of the valet addressing his employer as “detective.” Aiba carefully unfurled and spread the messages upon the bedclothes. We craned our necks to examine them closely.

For Aiba to be safe.

For his Lordship to be safe.

For the bill to stand a chance of passing in the House.

For dear Jun, Ohno, and Nino to be safe from harm.

“That’s clearly more than one desire!” Lord Kazunari cried, glaring in Aiba’s direction as he thrust a finger at the offending scrap. His face was painfully flushed, and he was determinedly avoiding the gaze of his lover.

Ignoring Lord Kazunari’s outburst, Ohno began arranging the papers upon the bed, carefully separating those that contained the word “safe” from the other. “Here lies the difficulty,” he murmured, indicating the gap between the papers with an elegant finger, “Detective, how do you propose we reconcile these competing aims?”

I felt rather slighted at being so soundly ignored by the valet, but the glow of delight in Aiba’s eyes at being so addressed mollified me (somewhat): “I would insist,” Aiba began slowly, picking up steam as he continued, “That we offer Nino a safe haven and our protection on condition that he cancels his loans and his schemes of blackmail. We will publish the book, and we will do everything in our power to bring the bill to the House, but only on terms befitting a gentleman.” (Nino snorted in response). “In the meantime, I will investigate—along with my capable assistant—” the detective turned to me with pleading eyes—will any reader blame me for nodding in reply? “the identity of the engineer of these assassination attempts. We know it to be a man at the party who hired this assassin—either he or the assassin must have tidied Nino’s room that night, staging the scene to make it appear as if Nino had stolen his sister’s diamond.” (“Pardon? I am accused of theft? Blast that Riisa!” Nino cried.) “And we know he has some knowledge of Nino—some means of tracing his movements. He even knew of your arrival at the house. You may even have been followed here, of course.”

“If he was, I will protect him,” Ohno spoke firmly. The statement was patently absurd—how could a valet protect a man marked for death? Yet, in that moment (perhaps it was the influence of the whiskey), I believed him. I was beginning to suspect that the soft-spoken valet had formerly been employed as a bodyguard to the King of Bohemia.

Aiba nodded, “Then we will safeguard you, Nino, until you propose the bill. But only on the conditions I enumerated.”

“But to accept those conditions,” Nino responded hotly, “is to guarantee its failure!”

“To continue such corruption is to ensure your death. What is your opinion of his Lordship’s actions?” I inquired, turning to Ohno, certain his opinion would carry the most weight with his Lordship.

Lord Kazunari was clasping one of the valet’s hands tightly in both his own. “I cannot advise you, Kazunari,” Ohno addressed him directly, making me feel as though I were witnessing something unbearably intimate. The way they looked upon each other—the valet impassive but tense with concentration, Lord Kazunari with something like a desperate fury in his eyes—made me long to flee the bedchamber before I snapped and strangled one or both of them. “I can only tell you what I want,” Ohno continued, his hand gesturing toward the crumpled slip, “I have already shown you the deepest desire of my heart. I will do nothing other than attempt to fulfill that desire.”

I chanced a glance at his Lordship; he was trembling. “Unjust,” he whispered fiercely in reply, “you are always unjust to me, Satoshi. You refuse to recognize conflicting demands—you will never admit to circumstances beyond one’s control.”

Ohno’s lips quirked, “Believe me, your Lordship, I am well aware of the pain of conflicting demands. And of the power of circumstances beyond one’s control to limit one’s choices.”

Lord Kazunari appeared ready to hit Ohno; I raised my arm as if to prevent it, and I noted Aiba moving forward as if to sooth him, but Nino raised a hand to calm him. “Do not fear, Aiba,” he gritted out between his teeth, “your valet is safe from harm. I agree to your conditions. I will call off my schemes, and henceforth conduct myself only on the straight and narrow path. And if you and your doctor do not absent yourselves immediately, I will not be responsible for my actions.”

I managed an anxious glace back at Ohno as Aiba hastily seized my hand to pull me from the room; the valet caught my eyes and nodded (I imagine) reassuringly—there was the slightest twitching of his eyebrow in his otherwise inexpressive face, but I believe he intended to convey that he was quite comfortable in the presence of his Lordship’s wrath.

The detective and I turned to each other breathlessly outside the door. “Detective,” I panted, “are you not concerned that, in inadvertently bringing these two particular individuals together, you have not…”

“...become the author of the greatest love story of our time?”

“I was going to say, threatened the continued existence of the British Empire.”

Aiba burst out laughing; I relaxed instantly at the familiar, breathy chuckles, “I suppose the two are…”

“…like acid and metal?”

“I was going to say, oil and water, but I prefer your metaphor, doctor. Nino has more bite.”

“And Ohno is more solid.”

It was then that we heard something I must describe—forgive me, dear reader!—as an ecstatic cry emanating from the opposite side of the door. Eschewing all potential medical responsibility for my patient’s condition, I followed Aiba’s example in taking off like a shot—we were both bright red as we stood panting on the doorstep, fully driven out of our place of residence by the two insufferable lovers. “Detective,” I extended my hand, “shall we swear—on our honor as gentlemen—never to refer to what we have seen and heard this hour again?”

“On my honor,” Aiba declared, seizing my hand. “Come, doctor, there is a one o’clock train for Oxford.”

“Oxford?”

“The deceptively-idyllic lair of none other than the dastardly Professor Sho,” my companion grimaced.

“Take my arm, detective," luckily, in his distraction, I believe the detective failed to noticed how my voice trembled, "And we may just catch it.”