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Passport to Crime

by Geneviève Blouin

Translated from the French by Margaret Sankey

Stepping out of her car, Miuri feels a wave of despondency wash over her. The sky above is gloomy, the building in front of her is gray, and the case she’s going to be handed when she enters it will be just as dull. She sacrificed three years of her life to become a detective sergeant here in Quebec, where her father is from. Thirty-six months of useless schoolwork, repetitive professional development courses, and boring patrols, all supposedly to teach her the job that she already did for five years in Tokyo. One thousand and eighty-five days of bureaucratic rigmarole, after which she is still treated as a novice, a misfit, a foreigner. They only ever give her the crappiest investigations.

At the entrance, Miuri stabs at the doorbell furiously. When she tries to look inside, all she can see is her own reflection in the glass door. The cuteness of her doll-like face demoralizes her even further. That doesn’t help her credibility in the slightest! She tousles her short, bleached hair defiantly, in case it doesn’t already look rebellious enough. When she arrived in Montreal, she began carefully cultivating her punk Buddha look each time she set foot outside the police station. These days, as a detective, being able to dress and do her hair the way she wants has turned out to be the only thing that brings her any pleasure.

A young police officer finally opens the door and eyes Miuri suspiciously. She wonders whether it’s the unkempt hair, the army boots, or the studded jacket.

“Detective Sergeant Mishima-Sauvé,” she states, showing him her badge. “They called me in.” The man regains his composure, and Miuri wonders if he’ll fall for the little trap she set for him. “Sergeant Mishima! Good, they’re expecting you. It’s the apartment up above.”

As she climbs the stairs unhurriedly, Miuri allows herself a sad smile. It never fails. In Montreal, anyone who hears her hyphenated name opts to call her Mishima. In Tokyo, her colleagues would force their mouths into impossible contortions to pronounce Sauvé.

At the top of the staircase, Miuri hesitates, disconcerted by the gaggle of people clustered around the open door of the apartment. She counts five of them: two crime-scene technicians, the partner of the officer who opened the front door, the station’s forensic-medicine specialist, and, unfortunately, the buffoon she has been assigned as partner. Far too many for the standard break-and-enter she usually deals with. She feels a brief surge of hope, which she quickly represses. Even if she’s finally being put in charge of a homicide investigation, she can’t look too happy. Her colleagues will think she doesn’t feel anything for the victim.

Upon her arrival, her partner Robert Saint-Onge stops what he’s doing, which seems to consist of standing motionless in the middle of the apartment, and moves toward her. “Mishima! Finally!”

The last time she joined him at a crime scene, he asked her to go and get him a coffee. He must be impatiently waiting for his caffeine hit.

“Harvey!” he calls out over his shoulder. “She’s here! Don’t forget to tell her how to close the case properly.”

And with that, Detective Sergeant Saint-Onge heads toward the staircase, almost knocking over his partner on his way. Startled, Miuri turns to Claude Harvey, the forensic-medicine specialist standing at the threshold of the apartment.

“What’s gotten into him?” she asks.

She asked the question without expecting any answer other than a shrug or some kind of fatalistic truism, but Harvey grimaces. “He thinks it’s open and shut, but I insisted that you come and take a look.”

Miuri raises an eyebrow, incredulous. Until now, she had no idea that Harvey even knew she existed. And yet he pressed for her to come and take part in a case?

“Come and see, Mishima-san. You’ll understand.”

His use of the formal Japanese suffix offers a clue. Is it because of her origin? Following Harvey’s invitation, she enters the apartment. The entrance is long and narrow, squeezed between the bathroom and the kitchen, and it’s especially tight given the four large men in the way. But once she’s past the bottleneck, the loft opens up all the way to the huge bay windows at the back offering a view of the St. Lawrence River.

Like a jewel set in the center of this vast, uncluttered space, there is a death scene resembling a contemporary work of art, painted in broad strokes. Its violence is equaled only by its aesthetics: the immaculate white sheet on the floor, the lovely young woman with ebony hair wearing a white silk kimono, the blade with its lacquered black handle, the scarlet arcs inscribed by the blood. It is beautifully rendered. Despite her slit throat and the red puddle around her, the dead woman looks painfully serene.

“You see why I had them call you.”

Miuri considers this to be a statement rather than a question and doesn’t bother to answer. She can’t turn her eyes away from the body. It’s strangely compelling.

“The technicians photographed the scene from every angle, but nobody has touched anything.”

She nods. The man’s nervousness is causing him to state the obvious. Since the blood spurted all over the sheet covering the floor, no one could have approached the body without disrupting its fine arabesque pattern.

“Have you seen this before, Sergeant Mishima?”

She hesitates before answering, searching through her memories.

Behind them, one of the crime-scene technicians interjects, “Her legs are bound. I think it’s a homicide.”

Miuri casts a reproving glance at the technician and turns to Harvey. “It’s a seppuku jigai. And no, even in Tokyo, I never saw anything like it.”

“I’ve been told that . . .” he began.

“Classic seppuku, yes. I used to see two or three a year. But it was always the male-warrior version, by disemboweling. In this case, we have a staging of the ritual suicide that was reserved for samurai women in pre-modern Japan.”


“By definition, any seppuku is theatrical. It’s not meant to be discreet. It functions as a message. A denunciation.”

“And what is this one denouncing?”

Miuri puts on some disposable shoe covers while mulling over her reply. “For the moment, it confirms that our deceased knew Japanese culture as well as I do.”

Harvey nods, as Miuri moves toward the sheet. “That’s no surprise,” he says, consulting his notebook. “She was an expert in it. She recently finished a doctorate in Japanese comparative literature under the supervision of . . .”

Harvey hesitates, and Miuri falters. Obviously. That’s why she couldn’t tear her eyes off the body. Some part of her must have recalled meeting her while she was alive. “Professor Sauvé, I suppose? A joint project between Montreal and Tokyo.”

He murmurs confirmation. “Did you know her?” he asks, concerned.

“I must have seen her at some point. She was just a student of my father’s. Tell me more.”

“According to her ID, her name was Clara Sejor. Saint-Onge questioned the tenant who lives below, who knew her well. She’s a student as well, and they used to work together sometimes. She said that Clara had just published her doctoral thesis on funeral texts and been dumped by her boyfriend. Today was her thirty-fifth birthday.”

“Life’s a bitch,” sighs Miuri. She has to get closer to the body, but she pauses before taking a step onto the sheet. She feels the urge to kneel and touch the floor with her forehead, to acknowledge the woman’s suicide with humility. But the technicians are watching her and won’t understand the gesture. So instead, with a slight bow of the head, she walks forward. Despite her precautions, she can’t help but step on a few of the scarlet drops. The sheet hasn’t completely absorbed everything, and the droplets are still fresh enough to smear easily. Each of her footsteps is imprinted on the canvas of death as she approaches the body.

The dead woman is lying on her side, eyes half closed. Miuri notes that her kimono is a low-quality Chinese knockoff, but that it is fastened with a red sash tied and knotted in accordance with the customs. Another sash, this one white, is fastened around her thighs. Miuri points to it.

“This binding is what’s bothering you?” she asks Harvey.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s for modesty.”

Miuri closes her eyes to visualize the events as she imagines them. First, Clara spread out the sheet on the floor, to delimit the space dedicated to her death. Then she knelt in the middle of the clean fabric, without sitting on her heels. She wrapped the white sash around her thighs and tightened it firmly. That way, even the involuntary spasms of her final agony wouldn’t cause her to assume any inappropriate position, with her legs open or nakedness revealed. She must have carefully arranged the folds of her kimono. Then, and only then, did she sit on her heels. She was ready to die. Maybe she paused for a few moments to gather her thoughts. Maybe she even hesitated. The knife must have been laid out in front of her. Miuri is impressed by the courage it must have taken for Clara to pick up the knife, place its point against the left side of her throat, and then, in one quick motion to the right, cleanly section her own skin, veins, and trachea. The young woman’s motion was forceful enough that her momentum carried her sideways, which is why she is now lying on her right side, like a sacrificed dove.

“Sergeant Mishima?”

Harvey’s tone is intrigued, almost worried. Miuri mustn’t have heard his previous question.

“Modesty, you were saying?”

“Yes. Samurai women tied their legs together before committing suicide to make sure they wouldn’t be found looking like a whore expecting a client.”

As they usually do when she expresses herself crudely, the men lower their eyes, ill at ease. If she weren’t two feet away from a dead body, she would laugh at their prudishness.

“So,” continues Harvey after an embarrassed cough, “everything about the position of the body, those res-traints, and the weapon is normal?”

“There’s nothing normal about a seppuku,” Miuri contradicts him, moving away from the corpse. “But if your question is ‘Is it a suicide?’ then, yes, it is. Unless the autopsy uncovers something really surprising.”

“I don’t see how someone could have slit her throat and then walked away without leaving marks everywhere,” ventures one of the technicians.

“Excellent observation,” replies Miuri, even though that fact is unmistakable.

As she steps off the sheet, a frame on the wall draws her attention. It is displaying some elegant Japanese calligraphy, the sinuous black characters clearly defined against the rice-paper background. The intensity of the ink indicates that the work is recent, and yet that type of brushstroke is archaic. Frowning, Miuri looks more closely.

“You haven’t asked me how we were notified about the body,” Harvey comments.

“Was it an e-mail or a letter?” she asks, trying to decipher the first lines of the text on the wall.

Harvey makes a surprised gurgle. “An e-mail,” he ends up saying. “Based on the coagulation, it was sent just before the death.”

“That’s consistent with seppuku. She wanted to be found promptly. But she avoided using the phone, to make sure she had enough time to perform the ritual.”

Miuri tries to keep her tone neutral and even, but her neurons are in overdrive. There’s something off about this suicide. The scene seems straightforward if one considers only the elements that they have observed, but she has a feeling that they’ve missed a detail of some sort. The idea came to her in trying to read the framed text. The thirty-one incomprehensible symbols lined up in their five columns seem to be mocking her.

Thirty-one characters means thirty-one syllables. Miuri curses herself as a moron when she remembers that that number corresponds to a tanka, the traditional form used for the poems that samurais wrote before ending their lives. The calligraphy is undoubtedly a reproduction of the last written words of a well-known historical figure. If she were truly Japanese, she castigates herself briefly, she would have recognized it.

“So why do you think she wanted us to get here quickly, but not fast enough to stop her?” inquires Harvey.

Miuri makes an effort to hide the triumph she’s feeling. Even though she never fits in, she is the one who has understood something that escaped the rest of them.

“I told you. In Japanese culture, a ritual suicide like this is a denunciation. It’s meant to be public. She had to be found as soon as possible in order for her message to be delivered. Probably she would even have slit her throat in front of witnesses, if she could have been certain that no one would stop her.”

Harvey scowls at that thought, while the technicians, still gathered around the entrance, murmur amongst themselves. “In Tokyo, could it have been done that way?”

Miuri shrugs. “Probably.” She continues, cutting short any potential argument. “There’s no reason to waste time talking about ideology. What matters is that Clara was following the ancient samurai philosophy.” Miuri pauses to consider the best way to present her discovery.

“But what point was she trying to make by butchering herself like that?” exclaims the young officer, who has remained silent until this outburst. Judging by his pallor, Miuri guesses that this is one of the first corpses he’s ever seen and that he just wants to go back downstairs to join his partner on the ground floor. In the West, police cadets aren’t expected to assist ambulance attendants in looking after car-accident victims and subway jumpers.

But in any case, the softhearted officer’s question has given her an opening to drop her bombshell. “I don’t know,” she says in a low voice. “But we’ll find out when we see her poem.”

Miuri sees a spark of comprehension in Harvey’s eyes, and realizes that he didn’t call her san for nothing: He has some understanding of Japanese culture. She is pleased, because although she’s delighted with the intelligence of her deductions, she wouldn’t want to make the forensic-medicine specialist lose face. After all, he’s the reason she has finally been given some kind of role in a real investigation.

“The samurais wrote poems before killing themselves,” breathes Harvey. Miuri gives a nod of acknowledgement. Encouraged, he pursues his line of thought. “Our seppuku was a scholar of funeral writings, so it seems unlikely that she would do all this without leaving us a final message to go with it. Is that what you mean, Mishima?”

Miuri blesses him with a radiant smile. “Yes, exactly.”

“And if the poem is missing . . . could that suggest she didn’t kill herself?”

Miuri senses the tension mount in the room. For those involved in an investigation, there’s a world of difference between a suicide and a murder. A world that’s alluring, but also stressful.

“No, no,” Miuri reassures them. “I’m sure it’s a suicide. But until we find that poem, we won’t know why she did it.”

The apartment is silent for a moment. In the sky above, a cloud must have drifted away, as a pallid ray of light suddenly intrudes through the large windows, making the fresh blood and silk kimono gleam in the setting sun. They all turn their gazes briefly to take in the tableau. In the sober tranquility, Miuri quietly savors her feeling of pride. She has just solved the mystery of her first real investigation in her new country.

“Okay, but we don’t need to worry about this poem thing, do we?” the pale young police officer finally asks. “For a suicide, we just shelve the case until the coroner lets us know that we can close it.”


Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

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