|(1 May – Funado Monthly, Page 8 Column)|
This small column has been continuously following the series of arson attacks that has rocked the city, but the devil’s hand has not yet stopped. On 12 April, a fire was spotted at a corner of Hanayama Shopping Street. The object set on fire was a scooter placed in the parking area of an apartment building. Since it is a densely populated area, this attack can be said to be more heinous than any of the others. With the fire department immediately rushing to the scene, it fortunately did not escalate any further. We, the Newspaper Club, have ascertained this fire to be linked to the aforementioned series of arson attacks. The despicable culprits behind this cannot hide their scent. We have the ability to instantly tell apart arson attacks, accidental fires, and even the handiwork of fools blindly imitating the original arsonist. But how can we stop these attacks? The next target will likely be Ueno Town, 1st or 2nd District, but is there anything we can do besides sitting around idly and accepting the situation as it is?
The article caused quite a stir. Our readership had undoubtedly shot up.
Up till now, the classroom trashcans would be filled to the brim with copies of Funado Monthly on distribution days. This month, there were still some copies that had been tossed aside, but I could at least see some people reading it here and there.
The number of visitors to the Printing Preparation Room had also increased, mainly students who had accidentally thrown away their copy of Funado Monthly and wanted another. There was also a first-year student who wanted back issues of the newspaper from before his enrolment. But what surprised me was a group of two female students.
“How do you know where the next location will be? That’s suspicious!”
Like so, they said things similar to what the Student Counseling Department’s Nitta, who was no longer around, had said all those months ago. Of course, with the excuse that it was a secret relevant to the production of the article, we respectfully had them go away.
The logic behind the serial arson attacks was confidential, and the club members understood this thoroughly.
The official reason was that it was to prevent copycat criminals. As Doujima-senpai had said, it would be a problem if Funado Monthly caused the appearance of copycat criminals. But that was not the real reason.
That, in fact, was probably known to everyone.
It’s better to have a long expiration date.
May arrived, and a new structure was put in place.
The provocation of the previous article must have been effective, since we managed to secure new club members. Five new students had joined the club.
However, with regards to my expectations, I would have preferred double that number of new members. It was also quite a shame that they were all boys. I imagined that the club would have a wider outlook if some girls joined, but there was nothing we could do about that.
There was one girl who seemed like she would register if we strongly persuaded her to, but we did not do that. It would be troubling if the Newspaper Club did not become a crack force. We definitely didn’t need to force people who didn’t have much motivation to join the club. After Doujima-senpai retired, Monchi followed suit soon after. That was probably the best for both of us.
It was now my first editorial meeting as the club president, and it was my responsibility to set the policy direction. Looking at Itsukaichi and the five first-year students with a contemptuous eye, I slowly started my speech.
“Before we start the editorial meeting, I would like to say a few words… The Newspaper Club stands at an important crossroads right now. Two years ago, Funado Monthly was simply waste paper that was placed on each student’s table every month.”
I spoke solemnly, then changed to a stronger tone.
“But last year, that shifted slightly. Whether we can really establish that shift, whether we can get students of Funa High to enjoy reading Funado Monthly, is dependent on the actions of all you new members. For the time being, you shall learn how to do basic work. Once that is done, we will, by our collective effort, put a decisive end to the centerpiece article that has been running since last year.”
The new members were listening with meek looks on their faces. I still couldn’t tell if they would be useful, but it was a good thing that they knew how to listen quietly.
“You know that Funado Monthly is currently trying to pin down the culprit behind the serial arson attacks, right?”
Each person gave a small nod.
After a short pause, I announced the club’s goal for the school year.
“As the Newspaper Club, we will stop the crime… and if possible, capture the culprit.”
The room was set abuzz. It seemed that no one had thought that we would go so far. A first-year student asked a question timidly.
“Is that even possible?”
“Of course it is.”
From my bag, I retrieved six files. They were cheap files that cost a hundred yen each. Perhaps it would have been better to get more durable ones since I would be spending the club allowance anyway, but I figured that the printing fees would be expensive so I skimped on those files.
I handed one out to each person.
“These contain most of the data that I’ve gathered. They’re black and white copies, so the photographs might be a little hard to see, but with this data and all of your help, we’ll definitely be able to pin down the culprit.”
While flipping through the file, Itsukaichi spoke in an amazed voice.
“You printed all this on your own? You sure are dedicated…”
Indeed, it was quite some heavy work with so many sheets of paper. Actually, I had Hiya help me out, but I decided to put up a good front and say nothing about that.
The file contained the back issues of Funado Monthly, photos of the crime scenes and my miscellaneous thoughts on them. There was also some testimony, but Satomura from the Gardening Club was currently our only witness. Additionally, the articles of the arson attacks that were published in the local or social sections in the newspaper were also filed. And of course, I’d also made copies of the relevant parts of the Disaster Prevention Plan, which seemed to be the culprit’s action agenda.
“This is all I have on hand.”
The first-year students probably didn’t understand the meaning behind those words. When the seniors were around, I had not revealed all my information. That was because I didn’t like the thought of Monchi and Doujima-senpai leaving the club with my ideas.
But the situation had changed. All these new club members would become like my arms and legs, so I wouldn’t hide any information. However, the hidden link was not written in the files. That was for the freshmen to figure out on their own.
…If they were unable to notice if even after I showed it to them, then it was just too bad for them. It would mean that they were useless.
“This month’s issue stated that Ueno Town would be targeted, right?”
A bespectacled first-year student spoke up. It was good that he’d checked the latest issue as a new member, but his statement lacked precision, so I corrected it.
“Ueno Town, 1st or 2nd District. The 3rd District will be fine.”
“You’re… Ichihata, right? You’ll understand if you read the file.”
I looked at all the members again. A few of them had started reading the file. I placed my fists together on the table.
“I’ll let you check the reason on your own later, but there is no doubt that the next arson attack location will be at Ueno Town, 1st or 2nd District. I’ve also narrowed down the date and time of the crime.”
The first-year students’ attention turned to me again.
“The crime will be committed late at night on Friday, the 9th of May. Since it will probably be past midnight, it might be more accurate to say that it will be on the 10th, which is a Saturday. That is when the arsonist will appear. There are seven of us. We can definitely do it.”
As expected, Itsukaichi was more experienced than the freshmen. While eyeing the Kira City map he’d pulled out of the file, he muttered.
“When you say 1st and 2nd District, it seems like quite a small area, but… it’s actually quite big.”
Another first-year student spoke up.
“The roads do seem to stretch forever when you’re in Ueno Town. I’m not sure how far we can go with only seven people.”
I was a little ticked off by the lightness of his voice, but I had to admit that his words were true. Ueno Town certainly had a huge territory. That was why the Ueno Town precinct of the Kira City Fire Department did not cover the 3rd District of Ueno Town, as stated in the Disaster Prevention Plan.
“You’re right. That’s why we have to find objects that the arsonist would target, then focus our attention on those objects.”
“You already know the time and location, and you can even tell what they’ll target?”
The bespectacled freshman exclaimed excitedly, to which I nodded with satisfaction.
“Pretty much, with data collection and analysis… but it’s not that precise.”
I could not afford to show any hint of my memory being hazy in the first editorial meeting. I wet my lips, then spoke solemnly.
“It first started with a pile of grass, then moved on to a trashcan in a park, a column of waste material, an abandoned bicycle, an abandoned vehicle, a bench at a bus-stop, a scooter at an apartment, in that order… You can say that the objects being set on fire are gradually getting closer to living space in general. Or to put it another way, the crimes are slowly becoming more heinous.”
Slight agitation ran through the new club members, but I pressed on.
“Basically, there is a high chance that there could be a bigger fire than the one with the scooter at the apartment building’s parking area.”
“What could it be, for example…?”
“Not sure. We can’t really narrow down the target object from here, but it’s better than having no direction at all.”
I smiled, which helped relax the tense atmosphere in the room. Come to think of it, when Doujima was the club president, he never took the initiative to soften the atmosphere.
Right, we can do this. I lightly clapped my hands.
“We’ll establish an everlasting achievement for Funado High School’s Newspaper Club, and we’ll do it by our own hands. For now, let us all exchange contact information.”
It was late at night on Friday, the 9th of May, in Ueno Town, Kira City.
As I hid in the darkness of a street corner, my mobile phone lit up with consecutive messages.
“I’m near the three-way intersection in the 2nd District.” from Ichihata.
“I’ve reached my position.” from a first-year student, Honda.
“I’m OK.” from another first-year student, Haraguchi.
“I’m near the third intersection in Ueno Town 1st District.” from Itsukaichi.
I’d asked them to tell me their standby location, but only Ichihata and Itsukaichi followed that instruction. So the rest heard it but didn’t understand, huh… well, whatever. In any case, the important thing tonight would be eyesight, not intelligence.
There were supposed to be seven of us doing the stakeout, but only four emails had arrived. Right after the editorial meeting, a first-year whose name I hadn’t learnt yet nonchalantly said this:
“I never thought that this would be a club with such serious activities. I quit.”
I did not hold him back.
There was another new club member who did not quit, but could not come to the stakeout because his family was apparently very strict. Ueno Town did have an amusement district. I couldn’t say that there would be no danger of getting an official reprimand for loitering around there late at night. Since he didn’t want to take that risk, I did not force him to come along.
We were patrolling the streets on our bicycles. If we were on foot, we wouldn’t be able to rush over if something were to happen.
It would certainly be suspicious if I stayed in one area for a long time, so I created a patrol path for myself. I went through the alleys of the residential street, then crossed one bypass. The center of the large crossroads was designed like a park, with a clock fixed high up, on top of a tall white pole. The clock’s hands showed that it was eleven forty-seven, almost midnight. I looked below the girders of the elevated railway. Actually, I wanted to keep a constant lookout at that area under the girders over the full length of the elevated railway, but the streetlights were too dim, and there were no shops nearby either. It was a fenced-off strip of land that gave off a disquieting atmosphere and was filled with nothing but parking lots. I’d come here to catch the arsonist, but it wouldn’t be funny if I got caught by some ill-natured people hanging out in the dead of night. Thus I decided to simply observe that area from a safe distance.
Taking a turn, I ran along the bypass and returned to the residential area again. That patrol route took about ten minutes to traverse. Some trucks and vans would occasionally pass under the bypass, but the residential area was in a state of sleep.
On my first round, I checked if there was anything the arsonist could set on fire. It was probably garbage collection day tomorrow, for I could see a bunch of polyester bags at the garbage disposal area. There was also an apartment unit with old newspapers and cardboard boxes littered outside the entrance, its owner either ignorant of the serial arson attacks, or not believing that they would be targeted. If that were to be set on fire, the entire apartment block could be set ablaze in the worst case scenario. At the small intersection there was a sign saying “Traffic Accident – Call for Witnesses”. I touched it to find that it was made of plastic. It would burn if set on fire.
As I continued with my observation, an unpleasant sound escaped from my throat.
A red light reflected off a curved mirror, brightening the night.
It was not a fire, but a revolving light. A patrol car with a revolving light on top was slowly moving down the narrow street.
I felt surprised, then annoyed. The police were patrolling the area. It could be part of their routine, but more likely than not, it was due to the series of arson attacks.
In any case, with such a noticeable light being shone on them, the culprit could shrink back. Needless to say, there would be nothing to photograph, no one to catch if the arsonist did not take any action.
“…Just hurry up and leave already!”
I cursed under my breath.
In the meantime, I prayed that they would not come my way. No matter how righteous my motives, I was still loitering around late at night as a high school student. I would not be able to hold my head up if I were to be seen by the police.
The patrol car took a turn midway, thankfully not coming close to me. They most likely had not been able to see me. I was saved by the curved mirror.
I resumed my patrol while thinking that the night might end up as fruitless effort if there were more patrol cars crawling around.
Though it was already the first trimester of May, it was still cold at night. In fact, tonight’s weather was particularly chilly, perhaps due to a returning cold spell. Since I was going against the wind on my bicycle, it was tough to bear with only one thin windbreaker. On the way, I was entranced by the light of a vending machine, but all the drinks it had were cold. Come to think of it, there was a convenience store along the bypass. I could buy something warm on the second round. With that thought, I returned to the starting point.
Letting out a light sigh, I started on the second round.
If I went too fast, I might miss something. While slowly pedaling, I wondered about the other guys. I’d told them to send an email if they spotted anything out of the ordinary, and give me a phone call in the case of an emergency, but my mobile phone was silent. It wasn’t like I was bored, but I felt that it was meaningless to solely cycle on, so I took out my phone and sent an email.
“I’m currently patrolling at Ueno Town, 1st District. Any good comments for when I catch the culprit?”
That email was addressed to Hiya Yuuto. I actually wanted him to join our stakeout, but he’d declined, saying, “If I catch the culprit, the credit will go to me alone. Everyone will ignore the steady work that the Newspaper Club, or rather, you have put in, and we can’t have that.” He was absolutely right, and I was grateful for his consideration.
The time was displayed with the email I sent, and that was how I knew that the date had changed from Friday, the 9th to Saturday, the 10th.
A few minutes passed, but no reply came. I hardly sent emails to Hiya, but he didn’t give off the image of someone who was slow to respond. Well, it would soon be 1 in the morning, so he could have fallen asleep. As I was thinking of that possibility, the reply came.
“Don’t count your thickens. Anyway, it’s a nice night.”
Guessing that he might have made a mistake, I immediately replied.
“It’s a tense night for me. Thickens?”
After sending that message, I got onto my bicycle again and just started pedaling when it hit me. He must have meant, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Well, I couldn’t deny that he was right. I considered sending him another email saying, “I can’t do a patrol on such a cold night without some positive thinking.” However, I decided that I could do it after getting his reply, so I moved off.
I approached the pedestrian crossing straddling the bypass and looked up at the clock on the white pole at the intersection. It was 11:47, almost midnight… No, that wasn’t right. I was just thinking of that. I couldn’t imagine that the time on my mobile phone was wrong, so this clock must be broken. They’d gone out of their way to make it look as impressive as a park, yet they were so slipshod with maintenance.
Should I cross to check the area below the girders, or should I go along the bypass to reach the convenience store? As I stared at the red signal, considering the two options, my mobile phone vibrated. I thought it was Hiya’s message, but it wouldn’t stop vibrating. Realizing that it was a phone call, I hurriedly dismounted and took out my phone, only to see an unexpected name in the caller field: “Osanai Yuki”.
Osanai, giving me a phone call at this time?
Of course, I would always be happy to receive a call from the girl I was going out with. Even now, I couldn’t help but break out in a loose, indulgent smile. But I immediately had second thoughts. Osanai had never contacted me late at night. I had no recollection of her giving me a phone call or even sending an email at this time.
Did something happen?
My hands were numb in the unexpected cold. Perhaps also partly caused by my panic, I was unable to press the button to answer the call. Fortunately, the phone’s vibrations did not stop, and I eventually managed to receive the call, although I couldn’t tell how many ringback tones it took. With a deep breath, I spoke.
“Ah, Urino-kun, you finally answered.”
An unexpectedly bright voice reached my ears. It seemed like it wouldn’t be bad news.
“What’s up with the late call?”
“I thought you’d be awake.”
Actually, I would normally try to sleep relatively early, but it was natural that Osanai-san didn’t know.
“Well, I’m awake. So what’s up?”
“I was reading a book… Urino-kun, you’re not just awake, aren’t you? Shall I guess what you’re doing right now?”
She spoke in a mischievous voice. I slowly walked along the bypass while pushing my bicycle.
“Go ahead, but you won’t get it right.”
“You sure about that?”
A large truck raced past. The sounds from the tires and engine probably made it to the other side of the phone call, for I could hear some giggling.
“I think I’ll get it right.”
After a tantalizing pause, she continued.
“You’re patrolling at Ueno Town, aren’t you?”
I stopped in my tracks.
Another sports car hurtled through the bypass. The piercing sound engine noise probably made it through the phone call, too.
“Could you tell from the sounds?”
“No, I just thought you’d be doing this tonight.”
Intending to surprise her with my achievements later, I hadn’t told Osanai about the stakeout… though I did tell her that the Newspaper Club was planning to catch the arsonist.
The fact that the arsonist always acted late at night on the second Friday of the month was not written in Funado Monthly, but Osanai had somehow reached that conclusion on her own. It was certainly possible to get a grasp of the pattern by properly reading the articles, I suppose.
I was initially a little surprised that she’d read my movements, but it was understandable. Nothing strange about it at all.
“Well, you’re right. It’s quite cold here.”
“Yup, it’s cold tonight. Do you have a jacket?”
I moved the phone to my other hand.
“Did you call to stop me?”
“A while ago, when I announced that I would be chasing the arsonist, you were quite against the idea. Didn’t you call with the intention of stopping me?”
But I was met with an unexpectedly ill-tempered reply.
“Not at all. Sure, I did tell you to stop back then, but I didn’t think of doing that today.”
“I was going to tell you to be careful not to catch a cold since it’s cold tonight. Is my concern a nuisance to you?”
I’d never experienced Osanai being grouchy before, and wondered what kind of face she was making as she said that. What a shame that this was just a phone call. While stifling my laughter, I replied.
“Of course not. Thanks for your concern.”
“Yup. Anyway, be careful and do your best. I will, too.”
At that moment, some background noise entered my ears, causing Osanai’s voice to become inaudible.
For an instance, I assumed that another heavy vehicle had taken the bypass, resulting in tire and engine noises that blotted out everything else. But I was wrong. It was actually a loud sound from her end, and I could tell what it was from. It was heavy and rhythmical, the sound of a train moving on a set of tracks. That sound was drowning out Osanai’s voice.
Perhaps realizing that she couldn’t be heard any more, Osanai stopped talking. I stayed silent and kept holding the mobile phone to my ear for a few dozen seconds until the noise stopped. Osanai was probably doing the same.
She might have gotten distracted by the noise, for she spoke only one line after the train sounds dissipated.
“My battery’s out.”
With that, she abruptly ended the call.
I was glad that Osanai was concerned about me. If anyone were to be observing me at this moment, they would probably think that I looked creepy with that wide grin on my face. I had to remind myself not to look so vulgar.
Thankfully, that grin did not last long. A few minutes after Osanai’s phone call, I was on the way to the convenience store in search of something warm to drink when my mobile phone rang yet again.
I wondered if it was Osanai calling me again because she forgot to say something earlier.
But I was wrong.
The name on the display read “Honda”. It was an incoming call from a freshman.
I still had not much of an image of him, except that he gave off the impression that he wouldn’t be very useful. However, it was still a phone call from a patrolling Newspaper Club member. The hand holding my mobile phone tensed up.
A flurry of words came in as soon as the call connected.
“Senpai, senpai! They got us! An arson attack! Shit, it’s a big fire! I can’t handle it on my own!”
It took one precious minute to get the panicking Honda to tell me the location of the fire.
The arson target this time turned out to be an abandoned bicycle, same as in January, but this did not break the rule of the crime’s gradual escalation. In the empty area under the elevated railway, a dozen or so bicycles were piled up in a blazing inferno.
Catching sight of me, Honda spoke loudly, looking like he was about to burst into tears.
“Senpai, it was already like this when I arrived…”
Ignoring his miserable voice, I stared at the fire.
It was intense. I never knew bicycles could burn like this. But I immediately realized that it wasn’t right. Bicycles are made of metals, so they should not burn so vigorously. For example, a scooter was set on fire last month, but only the easily flammable seat was burnt up.
That would mean the thing burning here was oil. The arsonist must have piled up the bicycles and poured oil on them!
“S-Should I call the rest?”
It seemed that Honda had contacted me first, and hadn’t told the other club members yet. Following the reporting order was commendable, but…
“Decide something like that for yourself.”
Crestfallen, he started o his mobile phone.
I gave a start. Tonight’s patrol was not for the sake of discovering the crime scene. I snapped at Honda, who was slowly typing out an email.
“You can do that later! What about the culprit? Did you see them?”
Honda stiffened in surprise and looked down. He then mumbled something that I couldn’t hear.
“I didn’t seem them! It was already burning like this when I got here!”
I clicked my tongue. Even with the five of us spreading the net, we were unable to catch them in the act. Or perhaps it wasn’t too late yet?
Call them over, and we’ll search the surrounding area. That was what I was about to say, when the sound of a siren reached my ears. Which was it, a firetruck or a patrol car?
“Ah, they’re here.”
Honda smiled relaxedly, as if he’d found a god of salvation. I chided him.
“You shouldn’t be happy with that! Damn, they’re too early.”
“We’ll have to get out of here. Even when we’re the first ones to get here and haven’t had the chance to investigate anything yet!”
Stepping back, Honda pleaded.
“But we didn’t start the fire.”
“How are you going to explain it, then? What if that’s the cops? They’ll catch us for loitering around at night!”
I fell into deep thought and desperately considered our options. Now that it had come to this, all we could do was run away. I had a feeling that the approaching vehicle was the patrol car from earlier.
But if we escaped here, we would have no results from today’s stakeout. Suppressing my rage at the useless underclassman, I barked an order.
“Contact the rest. Not by email, but call them. Tell them to go home since the firefighters have arrived. Also tell them to be careful of the police.”
I roared, then turned towards the crime scene again.
The area under the elevated railway was surrounded with wire netting, but it wasn’t complete, and there were gaps in the netting. The culprit must have brought in bicycles through those gaps from parking areas or dumping grounds. There was some undergrowth, so it would probably burn as well. Instead of setting fire to all the bicycles in this area, the culprit had gathered the bicycles in a manageable distance, then set fire to the pile. Some of them had simply been kicked down, and hadn’t caught on fire.
I glanced around sharply.
Honda didn’t know this.
Nobody else knew this.
I’d handed them the information, so if they’d read it carefully, they should have been able to notice it, but no one had been able to. That was a problem with their lack of ability, so there was no helping it. But I knew.
The arsonist would always leave a sign in the crime scene.
It wasn’t a big sign at all, but a small one that could easily be missed. But I did notice it. There should be one here as well.
Taking into account Honda’s voice as he rattled off my instructions, as well as the approaching siren, I quickly observed the crime scene. I frantically avoided looking at the bright fire as it continually attracted my gaze. I had to look at it from a wider perspective. Wider…
And then I found it. A metallic signboard with the words “No Entry”, attached to the wire netting.
There were a few small dents on the signboard, traces of it being hit repeatedly by a small, hard object, and I knew what that object was. But the signboard didn’t just contain dents. It also had a fresh-looking scratch from the top right corner to the bottom left corner. Only in that section some paint was peeled off, revealing the metallic surface underneath.
That was the sign. This was undoubtedly the arsonist’s handiwork. And the Funado High School Newspaper Club had let them escape.
It was frustrating, but there was no time left.
“Hey, we’re getting out of here.”
Honda opened his mouth to say something, but faltered even at this point. Not paying him any heed, I hopped onto my bicycle.
Editors (Tier 2) : Joshua Fisher
Assistants (Tier 1) : Rolando Sanchez
Thank you very much for all your support!