I was reading a book that night. As the clock ticked past twelve, I heard a siren. I recognized it as a firetruck siren, but was shocked, as it sounded like it was getting closer and closer. I had been lying down on the bed, so I lifted up my body and approached the window to clearly see a reddish, shimmering light. There was a fire nearby, but not so close as to concern me. At present, the siren that had gotten close was moving away.
Absentmindedly, I gazed at the flames. It was dark so I couldn’t get a grasp of the exact distance, but it looked like it was at the riverbed. There was a good running route on top of the embankments, and some unsavory folk would sometimes hang out under the railway bridge.
Was there anything that could burn there? Or did I misjudge the distance?
The siren went quiet, so I yawned, put the book down and drifted off to sleep.
I thought we’d just welcomed the new year, but before I knew it, it was already February, much to my surprise. It was a Saturday morning, and I was out taking a walk. There is nothing quite as wonderful as a morning walk to a petit bourgeois.
It was still too soon to see any hints of spring, but the light from the sun seemed warm, so I went out without my muffler. However, a few steps outside was enough to make me regret that decision, for the air was filled with an incisiveness one would expect of February. When I went to Panorama with Nakamaru-san some time ago, we’d bought matching, long mufflers, and yet I’d chosen to make myself suffer through the cold.
Then again, it wasn’t so hard to endure that I would take off my shoes and head back to my room. Furthermore, my destination wasn’t even that far. Burying my neck in my coat, I continued on.
In the first place, I didn’t know the direction last night’s siren came from, let alone the location. However, I could clearly see the flames. I’d come out first thing in the morning after filling my belly with some toast, just to be an onlooker.
In my pockets were my mobile phone, as well as a few hundred yen in small change. Earlier, when I was moving about with a particular deceitful girl, my savings had been cut due to tea, coffee and all kinds of cakes. Now that I was going out with Nakamaru-san, it felt like the clothing expense had drastically increased instead. Perhaps it would be wise to consider taking up a part-time job in spring.
On the way, I bought a canned coffee from a vending machine. Instead of opening it immediately, I held it under my arm in place of a disposable body warmer, stuck my hands in my pockets and trudged along. I reached the embankment in ten minutes of walking in this manner, but it was also really cold there. Not counting tributaries, there are roughly two rivers flowing through Kira City, and both of them are quite wide, a few dozen meters in width. In other words, the embankment is a wide and open area where the north winter wind freely blows through. Even the canned coffee became lukewarm in an instant.
For such a harsh environment, there was quite a crowd of people there. Some of them were just onlookers wearing some form of cold protection in their own way, but a good number of people were in uniforms. They were either police officers or firefighters, but I couldn’t tell just by looking, since I wasn’t well acquainted with uniforms. Those uniformed personnel seemed to be investigating last night’s fire.
My sense of direction was evidently not that worthless, since I was able to reach the location after just one guess. The cold would get to me if I walked too slowly, so I quickly moved towards the crowd.
“Stand back. Please stand back.”
A young officer repeatedly shouted. The onlookers looked to be making a wide enough berth to me, but… well, perhaps they didn’t like the existence of the onlookers. Anyway, I joined their ranks and looked at the center of the ring of people that had suddenly formed.
Next to me, two ageing men who seemed like they had too much free time during their day off, spoke.
“What a waste. It won’t run any more like this, huh?”
“It was abandoned anyway, wasn’t it? If only I took it for myself.”
As I thought, there was something that had been set on fire. The thing that had been burned black was a vehicle, or to be precise, a light van. Not every inch of it was charred, so I could tell that it used to be cream-colored. Its number plate also remained. A window was broken, apparently because some kindling material had been thrown in. The movies I watched would often have vehicles explode after being set on fire, but… perhaps this one had too much moisture for that to happen.
I went, “Hmm,” then moved a small distance away from the crowd. Of course, being with other people would be better at protecting me from the wind, but I had to make a phone call. I took my mobile phone out from my pocket, planning to make a call from my call history.
However, it didn’t go as planned. No matter how far I scrolled, only “Nakamaru-san Mobile” appeared on the call history. The name I wanted couldn’t be found. Come to think of it, I hardly spoke with that person on the phone. Having no other choice, I brought up the address book and made a search for “Kengo Mobile”.
It was quite early in the morning on a rest day, yet Kengo picked up within one ring.
Another curt response, as usual…
Kengo was an old acquaintance of mine. We were in the same elementary school, and during that time Kengo seemed to have formed a decisively erroneous impression of me. We went to different middle schools, but were reunited in high school. Nowadays he frequently said brazenly pushy things like, “Where did that old Kobato Jogorou go?”, even though that Kobato, this Kobato and the current me were all merely little citizens. Thanks to that conflict, I could not have the same friendship with him as I did in the past. Then again, I honestly have no memory of ever building up a friendship with Kengo in elementary school.
That said, I hadn’t completely cut all ties with him. We still sometimes talked, and went to eat tanmen occasionally. When I happened to ask a favor of Kengo, he pedaled on his bicycle at full speed, but I probably wouldn’t have to worry about that today.
“Hey, Kengo. Sorry for calling you so early in the morning.”
“It’s not that early. What is it?”
An early riser, as expected.
I could have cut to the chase, but we would be speaking later anyway, so I decided to start with a different matter.
“Sorry for the sudden call. I was just wondering what happened after the discussion the other time.”
I could feel his confusion from the other side of the call.
“Discussion? What are you talking about?”
Come to think of it, it wasn’t exactly a discussion. It was more like a word of warning or advice, I believe. In any case, I had to dredge up Kengo’s memories.
“You know, that stuff about the Newspaper Club being interfered with. You were talking about how you were called out after school and being reminded about something you didn’t even understand.”
It seemed like he’d finally remembered.
“You’re talking about Osanai, right?”
“Yep, that’s right.”
It was the end of November last year, or perhaps it was the beginning of December, when I received a rare phone call from Kengo. But I didn’t know how significant it was, since Kengo himself didn’t seem to understand what had happened either.
Osanai-san, or Osanai Yuki, had called Kengo, and said this:
“Doujima-kun, don’t write about the incident that happened during the summer holidays. I think it would be wonderful if you write about anything other than that.”
Kengo called me after that, and he seemed completely dissatisfied. Both of us clearly knew what “the incident that happened during the summer holidays” was referring to. Last year in summer, Osanai-san was embroiled in some trouble. She was pinched, had her hair pulled, and even abducted. That was what happened.
Kengo had played a part in that incident, too. Or rather, I’d dragged him in. It was understandable for Osanai-san to tell the Newspaper Club President to not write about it.
What Kengo was confused about was the situation surrounding that incident. He’d put it like this:
“There’s a guy in the club who wants to write about things happening outside our school. Of all things, he was trying to write about what happened during the summer holidays, though I stopped him by giving all sorts of reasons. And then Osanai comes along and says something like that. I never know what you’re thinking, Jougorou. But this Osanai is an even bigger mystery to me. Tell me, do you know anything? If the Newspaper Club is being played for a fool, I’ll have to think of something.”
I didn’t know a thing. Osanai-san and I had already started walking different paths, after all.
That was what I thought, anyway.
Kengo spoke on the phone.
“It’s gone in a weird direction. I told you about the guy who wanted to write about something outside our school, right? Right after I talked with you, that topic came up during the editorial meeting, and this time, I had no choice but to let it pass.”
That’s a surprise, I thought. Kengo was usually overly conscientious and inflexible. Would he really let a topic that he’d once rejected pass?
“Were there any circumstances behind that?”
“It was some other guy who brought up that topic. He gave a perfectly valid reason, and he suggested opening up a space for off-campus happenings. Alright, this is getting troublesome, so I’ll use their names. At first, it was a first-year student called Urino, but the one who brought up the idea during the December meeting was another first-year student called Itsukaichi.”
Basically, Itsukaichi-kun took Urino-kun’s idea that had been rejected after the summer vacation, raised it again in December, and it passed. Then what Osanai-san said was meant to help Itsukaichi-kun’s suggestion…
“Is there a relation between Itsukaichi-kun and Osanai-san, I wonder?”
But Kengo replied grouchily.
“But if I had to say, I think it’s more likely that it’s Urino-kun she has a connection to.”
“I said I don’t know. Aren’t you more informed than I am?”
I’m not so sure about that.
“Which of the two wrote the column in this month’s Funado Monthly? I feel like their name was there, but I can’t remember.”
At that moment, the Newspaper Club President Doujima Kengo’s voice unexpectedly broke.
“What, you actually read it?”
“Is it wrong for me to read it…”
I heard a noise that sounded like he was clearing his throat.
“No, it’s just the first time someone’s told me they’ve read it.”
What a pitiful club president. Indeed, the trashcan was often filled with copies of the school newspaper.
“Anyway, if you’re asking about this month’s column, it was Urino. He wrote about the series of arson attacks and made a prediction of the next one… No one may have been injured, but this isn’t something you write about for fun. First and foremost, it’s imprudent. I tried to stop him in the first place because I was afraid he would go off the rails like this.”
“Right, it was that kind of article. Where did he say the next attack would happen again?”
“He wrote that it would be Ritsuno or Kobiki. He didn’t seem to have any evidence for that at all, though.”
For an instance, I was at a loss. I was thinking if I should tell Kengo this: “By the way, I’m at the crime scene of an arson attack. There’s a burnt-out vehicle in front of me, and I’m pretty sure this area is called Ritsuno.”
Well, there was no need to tell him right now. There were two reasons for that. Firstly, I wanted to maintain my dignity. Secondly, my cellphone bill would become expensive if we talked for too long. I’d gathered all that I needed from the call already.
“By the way, Kengo, I actually called to request something of you.”
He was clearly on high alert, causing me to let out a wry smile. That wasn’t exactly uncalled for, since the last time I asked a favor from him, he desperately cycled to meet me, and eventually received some cuts from a knife as his reward.
“Don’t worry, it’s a really peaceful request this time. I just need you to send over one photo.”
“A photo, huh.”
After one beat, he continued.
“It’s a troubling request, as I thought. I’ll say this beforehand, but I hardly take photos.”
“How unreliable for someone supposed to be the Newspaper Club President. I know that the photos you take are clear, so please help me out. Then again, it’s about something that happened quite a while back, so I’m worried that you might have deleted that photo already.”
“Fine. Spit it out, then.”
Thus I explained what I wanted from him.
With a doubtful tone, he replied, “It might already be gone,” but I could tell that he immediately went to search for it.
I waited for a few minutes.
While I was having that phone call, I was also being bombarded by the wind flowing across the embankment. My body was now so cold that I almost couldn’t take it. That few minutes’ wait was hellish.
After pulling the tab of the canned coffee, which I couldn’t even complacently call a substitute for a body warmer, I drank the sweet beverage in one gulp. It had cooled quite significantly, so it didn’t warm up my body as much as I’d liked it to. Just as I willed myself to finish my business before heading straight home, the awaited email finally arrived.
While Kengo might seem to have a rough personality, he properly saved important things. What he sent over was unmistakably the photo I wanted.
It was a photograph of a vehicle. More specifically, a cream-colored light van. Its number plate was also clearly depicted, with its number readable, so I memorized that.
I then stuffed my phone back into its pocket, then slipped into the crowd while putting on a nonchalant face and humming a tune. I was now looking at the scene of the arson.
Stretching my neck and straining my eyes, I looked at the number of the burnt vehicle.
I unexpectedly let out a sound.
It was exactly the same as the number I’d just committed to memory.
The photo that Kengo sent was one that he’d taken last year, during the summer holidays, at the South Municipal Gymnasium. It was the vehicle that had been used in the abduction of Osanai-san, and Kengo had taken a photograph of it as evidence for posterity.
The juvenile trial had already ended, and the girls involved in the abduction had been taken into custody. That case should have already ended.
But now right in front of me was the vehicle that had been used in that case, except that it was now blackened…
Once again, I made a sound as I was deep in thought.
But hemming and hawing here wouldn’t do me any good, and on top of that, it was still frightfully frigid, so I turned back, lest I catch a cold.
Ah, what a wonderful morning walk this has been! As a little citizen who puts health as his number one priority, perhaps I should make a habit of doing this every week. I’ll think about it when the weather gets warmer.
Editors (Tier 2) : Joshua Fisher
Assistants (Tier 1) : Definitelynotme, Rolando Sanchez
Thank you very much for all your support!