Passport to Crime
The Card on the Ceiling
by Awasaka Tsumao
Translated from the Japanese by Steve Steinbock
Bright sunlight flooded through the windows of his classroom as Hokkai Masahiko looked out at the tree-lined college landscape. The cherry blossoms hadn’t opened yet, the buds still hardened by winter. But Hokkai smiled. It felt like spring.
He liked the spring. Here in Japan, the school year began in April. That made sense since spring embodies beginnings. This year he’d been assigned to a new room in a newly built lecture hall. The windows were sparkling clear and the walls still smelled of fresh paint. Everything was fresh and new. It was wonderful.
The students were at their desks, focusing on the answer sheets in front of them. This early in the academic year, their faces reflected an eagerness to learn.
Hokkai sighed, taking a last look at the landscape, and returned to his desk at the front of the room. The sun made him feel almost drunk with laziness. He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, stretched back and filled his lungs.
When he opened his eyes, his gaze stopped suddenly at a spot on the ceiling. It took him a second to register what he was looking at. It was glaringly conspicuous, how had he missed it before?
Against a field of freshly painted white plaster, a single playing card was pasted on the ceiling. It was the Eight of Clubs.
He saw it, but it made no sense. What was a card doing up there? More importantly, how on earth did it get there?
Hokkai was short, so there was no way he could reach it. But even the tallest of his students standing on a desk wouldn’t be able to reach that. Hokkai tried to calculate how many desks it would take, stacked one upon another in a teetering balance, to put something like a playing card on the ceiling.
Maybe someone used a special tool to put it there.
Looking up at the ceiling reminded him of the shrine tags called senjafuda that he’d seen littering the beams of shrines and temples. For a donation, visitors could purchase slips of paper printed with their names and paste them onto beams, posts, and ceilings of a shrine. He remembered seeing something about a device, a thing like a bamboo fishing rod, a telescoping pole with a brush and spring-clamp at the end used to glue the tags to high places.
Humans had an instinctive drive to paste things up. When Hokkai’s sons were younger, the walls in their rooms were plastered with stickers. Kids are always decorating their rooms with posters, calendars, and flags. Hokkai himself found it unsettling to have a completely bare wall in his house.
The custom of senjafuda is said to have religious origins, but Hokkai suspected that it had nothing to do with faith. There was no religious basis for it. In fact, some temples and shrines had banned the practice. Hokkai’s theory was that people used religion as a pretext to satisfy their innate impulse to paste things up.
Why else would a person plaster anything to such a high place?
And why would anyone put an Eight of Clubs on the ceiling of a college classroom?
To take his mind off cards, Hokkai randomly flipped open the reference book on his desk. He began reading a paragraph and realized that it was the same passage he’d read the day before. He checked the page number. Eighty-nine. That was odd. He was certain that yesterday when he’d randomly flipped open the book, it had fallen open at this same page. He looked up at the card on the ceiling and down again at the book. Someone or something was playing games with him.
He checked the binding of the book. Sometimes a minor crack or wear in the spine could cause a book to naturally open at a certain point, but this book didn’t seem to have any wear and tear. He turned it on its side and examined the pages in profile. There was a small indentation as though one page had been cut slightly shorter than the rest. He checked the page, and sure enough, it was page eighty-seven. Flipping the book open randomly, it was natural that his thumb would catch the break at eighty-seven and stop on the next page, eighty-nine.
That was one mystery explained. It would be nice to have a logical explanation for the card on the ceiling.
The bell sounded and the classroom began to buzz with activity as students gathered their things and brought their papers to Hokkai.
“Everyone,” he said. “Hang on a minute, please. Who put that card up there?”
The students looked up to where Hokkai was pointing, and it was obvious that some of them were seeing it for the first time. Others stifled chuckles, suggesting that they’d seen the card and wanted to be part of the joke. But none of them admitted to doing it.
“Nobody is in trouble,” Hokkai said. “I’m just curious how it was done.”
The students looked around at each other, but no one answered.
“Okay,” he said. “You’re all free to go. But if anyone knows anything or finds out where it came from . . .” He left the question hanging.
He set out from the classroom carrying the student papers in his hands. But that Eight of Clubs kept nagging at him.
As he was coming down the stairs, he almost walked into a stepladder in the middle of the landing. Atop the stepladder was a custodian working at something on the ceiling. Hokkai spotted a playing card in the man’s hand.
Hokkai’s voice came out harsher than he intended, and the custodian looked down at him, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Why on earth are you pasting that card on the ceiling?”
“I’m not the one pasting it up, Professor,” said the custodian with a surly expression. “I’m trying to take it down, is what I’m doing. This morning one of the other professors told me there was a card here on the landing. He said it was ‘unsightly’ and told me to clean it up right away.”
Hokkai noticed a stain from some kind of adhesive that remained stuck to the plaster. The custodian did his best to scrub it away and then came down from the stepladder.
“Sorry,” said Hokkai. “Do you mind if I have a look at that card?”
“Sure. But careful, it’s kind of messy.”
It was the Four of Hearts. Hokkai carefully touched the back. There was residue of something sticky at its center.
“Just like the others,” said the custodian. “It was stuck up there with gum.”
“The others? You mean there’s more?”
“Yup. I’ve cleaned up ten of ’em in the last three days.”
“I hate to tell you, but there’s another in room four-oh-eight.”
“Figures. I tell you, the weird stuff young people come up with. Fads are like a bad rash; once they start you can’t get rid of ’em. And if you scratch ’em they only get worse.”
“How are they putting them up there?”
The custodian laughed. “If I knew the answer to that, I’d be putting them up myself. Then I’d find the punk who’s doing this and make him clean it up.”
Later, in the faculty lounge, Hokkai talked about the cards with one of his colleagues. He learned that they’d begun appearing on ceilings around campus a couple days ago. No one knew how it started or how they ended up there.
Hokkai went about the rest of his day, mostly forgetting about the card on the ceiling. But on the train ride home, across from where he was sitting, he saw a card glued to the ceiling of the train car. Damn, he thought. It’s already become epidemic.
The sociology of fads fascinated Hokkai. One person comes up with an idea, often something completely random. People begin imitating it. The number increases. It spreads in precisely the same manner as a virus.
Come to think of it, the Japanese word for “fad”—ryūkō—was the same word to describe the spread of not-so-innocuous viral epidemics. It was written with two Chinese characters, the first meaning flow or current. That made sense, since a fad is very much like a river.
Advertising and propaganda play into the same psychological impulse. People may say that they buy a certain energy drink or vote for a specific candidate because they like the taste or approve of the platform. But in truth, so many of our actions and choices are based on imitating what we see our friends doing or what we see on TV.
The most curious factor was how they get started. Where did fads come from before they became fads? When most people look at a river, their focus is drawn to the downward flow of water. But Hokkai liked to trace the river backwards to find where it began. Every river has a quiet source, a hidden underground spring or a trickle of melting snow. A fad is like a river in that respect. Exploring the origins of fads, he thought, would be an interesting research project.
After switching to a local commuter train, he checked the ceilings of the compartments. He didn’t see a single card.
It was dark by the time he got home. That morning there had been signs of spring, but here in the suburbs, after dark, it still felt like winter.
When he opened the front door, he was met with a shock. In the pristine entrance of his brand-new house, a card was pasted to the ceiling.
It was the Six of Diamonds.
* * *
“Who the hell put this card on the ceiling?” he yelled.
His wife rushed over from the living room and looked up to where Hokkai was pointing. “I have no idea how it got there. It certainly wasn’t me.”
“I’m not suggesting it was you. Where’s Hiroshi? I want to talk to him.”
His wife opened their son’s door and was met by the blast of loud music.
Hokkai looked at his son as he emerged from the bedroom. Hiroshi still had the face of a child but was already several inches taller than Hokkai. But he still wasn’t tall enough to reach the entryway ceiling.
“Hiroshi, did you put that Six of Diamonds on the ceiling?”
The boy grinned.
“Hiroshi! What did you do, use a springboard?”
“I’d tell you, Dad,” chuckled the boy. “But it’s a secret.”
His son’s cheeky answer irritated Hokkai. But getting angry wasn’t going to help him solve the mystery.
“It’s the method, Hiroshi,” he said. “I’m not upset about it. I’m just curious about how you did it. It looks impossible.”
“I can’t really explain it, Dad. You want me to show you?”
Hokkai looked to his wife, and then back at the boy. “I don’t particularly want more cards on our ceiling. But for demonstration’s purposes, go ahead.”
Hiroshi gave his parents a conspiratorial smile and dashed back to his room. A moment later he came back with a deck of cards. In his mouth, he was loudly chomping on a piece of chewing gum. He slipped a single card out of the deck and set it facedown on top of the box, then took two rubber bands from his pocket. He looped each rubber band over opposite corners of the pack, the single card still outside the box but held in place. Next, he took the gum out of his mouth and pressed it onto the back of the loose card.
“Hiroshi!” groaned Hokkai.
“Dad, you said you wanted to see how it’s done.”
Holding the deck in the upturned palm of his hand with the gum facing upward, Hiroshi used his arm to catapult the deck straight up to the ceiling. Hokkai heard a ping from the rubber bands as the case bounced against the ceiling and fell back into Hiroshi’s hand.
The card with the gum on its back was now stuck on the ceiling.
“Yes!” yelled Hiroshi with a victory fist pump. “What do you think of that?”
“So that’s how it’s done.” Hokkai looked at the box of cards with the two rubber bands still wrapped around them and added, “I am impressed.”
“You wanna try? Even a short guy like you can do it.”
It wasn’t so much that Hokkai was sensitive about his height. But he didn’t like having his son rub it in. He was about to tell his son to show more respect but stopped himself.
Even language, he thought, follows popular trends. Instead of using the Japanese word for a short-statured person, his son used the English word short, which he pronounced shotto. This, too, was apparently a cultural trend.
“That was an interesting demonstration. But after dinner I want you to take them both down. I want all the gum washed off as well. I’ll get you a stepladder.”
“No problem, Dad.”
“Where in the world did you learn how to do that?”
“Hideki showed me. Last Sunday when we were over at their house.”
Hideki was Hiroshi’s cousin, the son of Hokkai’s younger brother who lived in the Tokyo suburb of Tanashi. The fad had apparently migrated from the west.
“This trick, is it popular at his school?”
“Yeah,” said Hiroshi. “Hideki says they put up so many cards that you can’t see the ceiling anymore. And you know what, Dad? If the card sticks on your first shot, it means you’re gonna ace your next test. That’s what Hideki says, anyway. I guess that means I’m gonna do well this semester.”
“Hiroshi, you’re not doing this at your school, I hope.”
“No. Of course not!” Hiroshi’s answer came a little too fast.
* * *
On campus the next morning Hokkai ran into his colleague from the previous day.
“Hokkai-sensei, the card-on-the ceiling trick that we talked about yesterday, I found out how it’s done!”
“Two rubber bands and a piece of gum, right?”
“Huh? How did you know?”
“My son showed me. Apparently, over at Tanashi High School you can’t even see the ceiling through all the cards.”
“Really? I just learned about it this morning. I ran into an old student of mine who saw a man doing the trick at a bar in Koiwa.”
“Koiwa? That’s south of here, isn’t it?”
“Right. Directly south. So?”
“So it seems to be happening all over and spreading. I’d really like to know how it started.”
The colleague snickered. “It sounds like you’re really hooked. Anyhow, my former student said he was sitting in a bar in Koiwa. The bar is called The Crypt. And this guy was in there throwing cards up to the ceiling.”
“Did your old student tell you anything about the guy doing the trick?”
“Yeah, he gave me a pretty good description of the guy.”
Hokkai leaned forward. “Well?”
“Okay, the guy who did it is around forty. He has a round face and short hair, thinning on top. He had thick, arched eyebrows, but the thing that really stood out is his beak. The kid said that the guy’s nose was huge and pointy and seemed too big for his head.”
“Anything else about this guy? His name or what he does?”
“No. He didn’t say. But my old student said that the guy was talking to the owner like they knew each other. Gave the impression he was a regular.”
A regular, Hokkai thought. He might be a regular at the bar, but nothing else about him sounded regular. A man in his forties. Normal middle-aged men don’t typically follow youth fads. But there was a remote chance that this middle-aged regular may have started the craze. Just maybe he was the river’s source.
“You want to take a trip to The Crypt?” asked Hokkai.
“Uh . . . I have papers to grade.”
Hokkai grinned. His colleague liked to talk, but when it came to action, he had weak knees.
When Hokkai’s classes were finished for the day, instead of heading home, he took the train to his brother’s home in Tanashi City. He called ahead to make sure his nephew would be home.
Hideki was a nice kid and a good student. He was shorter than Hokkai’s own son, but in many ways seemed more mature. He was polite to adults and seemed to have a lot of friends.
“Uncle Masahiko, what’s up? You wanted to talk with me?”
“Right. Yesterday Hiroshi explained to me about the card on the ceiling. It got me interested and I want to learn more.”
“Hah, you mean CC-Pong.”
“CC-Pong. That’s what we call it. That’s short for ‘Ceiling Card Pong.’ That’s because it makes a ‘pong’ noise when it bounces off the ceiling. CC-Pong.”
“But we’re done with that now. It’s finished.”
“Finished? What, did the school ban it or something?”
“Yeah. The other day they made the entire student body stay after for a major group cleanup. We didn’t get out of there until after five o’clock. Now, anyone caught doing CC-Pong gets automatic detention.”
“How did it get started in the first place? I’m curious whose idea it was and where it came from.”
His nephew smirked and said, “Sorry, Uncle. My lips are sealed.”
“Hideki, if you know, you need to tell me.”
“Sorry, Uncle. A magician never reveals his secrets.”
“Now you’re just showing off. I’d really like to know. I’m doing research on the spread of fads. If you tell me, I promise anonymity. I won’t breathe a word to anyone at your school.”
Hokkai waited a moment, then decided to try a different tack.
“Hideki, I understand you want to get a driver’s license. Is that right?”
“Your dad isn’t so keen on the idea, is he?” Hokkai said the words slowly and paused for effect. “Well, he is my little brother. And maybe . . .”
“Uncle Masahiko,” the boy laughed, “I’m never playing poker with you. Okay, but you have to swear to complete silence.”
Hokkai held up his hand. “I swear.”
“Okay. This kid named Kuroda transferred to our school. He’s just been here for about a week. He said that everyone at his old school was doing it, and that it’s a good-luck charm. If you do it right, you get good grades in tests.”
“Do you know where he transferred from?”
“He was at Daikon High School over in Nerima.”
“Nerima?” Hokkai had a friend who worked with the Nerima Police Department. “You said this boy is named Kuroda? Do you think he knows who started this CC-Pong thing at his old school?”
“Would you mind asking him?”
It didn’t take much coaxing. Hideki made a call from the kitchen and was back a few minutes later with a note in his hand.
“Kuroda didn’t know who started it. But he called another kid who would know for sure and then called me back. Kuroda said it was a kid named Takenashi.”
“Takenashi. Any idea how this boy Takenashi learned it?”
“Yeah. Kuroda’s friend said Takenashi learned it from his dad.”
“His dad . . .”
This got Hokkai curious. There was a remote chance . . .
“Hideki, I hate to ask, but would you mind calling your friend again? I’m curious about Takenashi’s father. What does he do for a living, and maybe what he looks like? And see if you can get Takenashi’s phone number.”
Hideki ran back into the kitchen. He was back in less than a minute.
“Okay, Takenashi’s dad is kinda funny-looking. He has a round face and is going bald. And he has a massive pointy nose.”
Hokkai gave a satisfied grunt. “Great. Do you know what he does?”
“Yeah. Kuroda says that Takenashi’s dad works for the Tokyo Police. He’s a detective.”
* * *
“Professor Hokkai, I never imagined that the Card on the Ceiling would take off as a fad like it has.”
Hokkai was sitting in the living room of Inspector Takenashi of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. As soon as he had finished talking with his nephew, he had made a call to his friend with the Nerima police, who had smoothed the way for today’s meeting.
“The official name of the trick is ‘Card on the Ceiling’?”
“Right. And it’s considered one of the classics of card magic. Except the correct way to get it to stick to the ceiling is with a thumbtack. Some use a soft wax. But never chewing gum.” The detective gave a grimace that emphasized his nose.
“Is magic a hobby of yours?”
“No, not really. The few things I know were taught to me by an actual magician. Have you ever heard of Kajo Soga?”
“Kajo Soga? No, I don’t think so.”
“Until recently, neither had I. She’s not well known because she was only active on stage for a short time. But among magicians, she’s something of a legend. And once you’ve met her, she’s hard to forget.”
Hokkai smiled. “Detective, from the look on your face when you’re describing her, I’d guess she’s good looking.”
“Well,” Takenashi smiled back, “that too. But I mean that she has a style and technical skills that make her absolutely unique. When I started asking around, every magician I turned to said that Kajo-san is the best person when it comes to knowing anything about the art and science of magic. Honestly, when I first heard about her, I figured she was just a ‘girl magician.’ You know what I mean, a pretty girl in a skimpy costume with a lot of fancy stage props. But after meeting her . . .”
The inspector gave his head a shake.
“And you should see her house.”
“Yeah, you could say that. She lives in a big mansion, practically a palace. Her property is the size of a small park. In fact, she’s planning to build a separate building, a magic museum, to display her personal collection of magician’s props, tools, and literature. She has the blueprints drawn up for it already.”
“She can afford this on a magician’s salary?”
“That’s an interesting story. Here’s the short version: About two years into her career as a stage magician, she caught the eye of a wealthy young industrialist. He married her and gave her the resources to retire from the stage.”
“Well . . . that’s a different story. Anyhow, she’d always been drawn more to the science of magic: its history, psychology, illusion design, etc. Now she had the resources to do that. Today she’s one of the world’s foremost experts on the history and lore of magic.”
“And it was Kajo-san who taught you the Card on the Ceiling trick.”
“That’s right. But once she started talking, all I could do was listen. She’s fascinating. According to Kajo-san, the Card on the Ceiling is an old trick, and is probably based on an even older ‘Coin on the Ceiling’ trick.”
“You said ‘coin’?”
“Right. It was done using the type of coin that has a hole in the center. These days only five-yen and fifty-yen coins have holes. The method is almost the same as the Card on the Ceiling. You need one fifty-yen coin and a thumbtack as well as five or six other regular coins, like a one-hundred-yen coin. First, you stack up the one-hundred-yen coins and place the thumbtack on top of the stack with the needle pointing upward. Then you put the fifty-yen coin on top of that so that the needle of the tack goes through the hole and sticks out of the top. Once everything is lined up, you wrap the coins and the thumbtack in a sheet of soft paper. You put it on the palm of your hand with the thumbtack needle pointing upwards and toss the whole packet up to the ceiling. It’s that simple. When it hits the ceiling, the thumbtack holds the fifty-yen coin to the ceiling, and the other coins along with the paper drop back down under their own weight.”
“And you end up with a coin tacked to the ceiling?”
“Right. Once you know how it’s done, it sounds pretty simple. But to an onlooker, it seems almost impossible.”
“Getting back to the Card on the Ceiling . . . Inspector, do you mind if I ask, what got you so interested?”
“Right. It had to do with something I was involved in at work.”
“You mean police work?”
“Yes.” Takenashi paused to clear his throat and one side of his oversized nose gave a twitch. “It’s actually tied to a murder case.”
That was not a word that Hokkai expected to hear in the context of a card trick. He wanted to unravel the mystery of a fad’s origin. He traced a river to its source, but now he’d turned a corner and found himself looking at a bizarre landscape.
“Seriously? A murder?” he asked. “Was it recent?”
“Two weeks ago. It occurred at a bar on Rashomon-zaka in Koiwa.”
“I don’t remember hearing about it.”
“It didn’t get a lot of coverage. That was the week the big corruption case broke, and that dominated most of the news.”
“Were you able to solve it?”
“Not yet. We have identified a few suspects, but there’s no solid evidence linking any of them to the murder.”
“And the Card on the Ceiling was involved . . . how?”
“The card is our key piece of evidence, but we’re still trying to figure out what it means.”
The inspector sighed and sat back in his chair.
“Like I said, the incident took place two weeks ago in Rashomon-zaka. There’s a little bar there called The Crypt. The bar owner is a thirty-one-year-old woman named Sumiyoshi Tomoko. When she came to open the place up at two o’clock in the afternoon, she found a body behind the counter.”
“Who was the victim?”
“It was her bartender, a twenty-six-year-old Osaka man named Tani Rikio. According to Tomoko the bar owner, the guy’s personal life was a train wreck, but he was a hard, dependable worker. He sustained a half-dozen stab wounds to the chest and abdomen as well as several nonlethal lacerations. Cause of death was exsanguination.”
“He bled to death.”
“Right. The autopsy results narrowed down the time of death to sometime between two and five a.m. When we interviewed people in the neighborhood, several people reported hearing a loud crash and screaming at around four a.m.”
“No one thought to call the police at the time?”
“Rashomon-zaka gets pretty rowdy at night. With a lot of loud-drunk people in the vicinity, no one at the time was concerned with the noise. We believe that the crash people heard was the back door of The Crypt being battered open.”
“The killer broke down the door to get away?”
“No. Just the opposite. That’s how he entered the property. There was also blood spatter found in the alley behind the bar. The way we’ve reconstructed the crime scene, Tani was initially attacked in the alley. The blood patterns suggest that his assailant used a knife or other sharp object. The injuries were deep enough to draw blood, but not severe enough to prevent Tani from trying to get away. He fled into the building through The Crypt’s back door and tried to lock his assailant out. But the door was made of cheap, thin wood, and the killer was able to break through the door and enter the bar, where he delivered the fatal stab wounds.”
“Was it a robbery?”
“More or less. Nothing was missing from the bar, but the killer took all of Tani’s cash. That fact made it easier for us to round up suspects.”
Copyright © 2022 The Card on the Ceiling by Awasaka Tsumao