Chapter 3 | Contents | Chapter 5
Table of Contents
|(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.
I’d decided on the contents of the conversation, but the problem was where to have it. Having it in school would be the most convenient, but both of us would definitely become reticent if I chose a bad location. On the other hand, having the conversation in a café with delicious coffee might make me seem too pretentious and rub them the wrong way.
At the end of my contemplation, I decided to borrow Kengo’s classroom, Class 3E, after school. As usual, I had a deep feeling of discomfort being in a classroom I didn’t belong to. While sitting in Kengo’s seat, I fidgeted restlessly, unable to keep calm.
Fortunately, I did not have to wait for long. As expected, the conscientious Kengo brought along the requested person right on the dot.
That was a key person in this case, a second-year student in the Newspaper Club, Itsukaichi-kun.
The striking thing about Itsukaichi-kun’s appearance was his deep-set eyes. He was not that short in stature, but with his hunched back, he looked seedy when standing next to Kengo. Then again, people whose physique could be compared to Kengo’s were few and far between, even in the athletic crowd.
“I’ve brought him.”
Kengo announced in his usual rough voice, while I put on a smile that was more gentle than normal. Itsukaichi-kun clearly displayed his unease, asking a question that he had probably asked a few times before coming here.
“Erm, President, I mean senpai, may I ask what you need me for?”
Kengo gave a short answer, seemingly mildly annoyed.
“I don’t know either… but this guy has something to discuss with you.”
That was troubling. I needed Kengo to become my ally and support my words. In fact, it was inaccurate for him to say that he didn’t know, since I had properly explained it to him already, though perhaps I hadn’t told him enough.
Well, there was no point lamenting his boorishness at this point. With a smile, I motioned Itsukaichi-kun to sit down.
“Just take a seat for now. Sorry for calling you after school.”
“I’m Kobato. I’ll just need to ask you a few questions as part of Kengo’s request. What a horrible guy, huh? Acting like he isn’t involved in this.”
I shrugged and noticed that Ituskaichi-kun’s expression had become a little more relaxed. That was good.
“Come, sit down.”
I motioned once again, and he finally sat down. Itsukaichi-kun and I were now face to face. Probably because he hadn’t gotten permission to sit down, Kengo was standing upright next to us.
I calmly broke the ice.
“You’re a second-year student, right?”
“And you’re Itsukaichi-kun.”
“And a member of the Newspaper Club.”
With a string of questions that he could only affirm, Itsukaichi-kun’s mouth would start to loosen. It was a basic conversation technique. Now I would joke around to lighten the mood.
“It’s tough with Kengo being your club president, right? He’s completely inflexible, inconsiderate, and he can’t take a joke.”
Offended, Kengo cut in.
“Did you call Itsukaichi-kun all the way here just to say that?”
“There you go, he can’t take a joke at all. Anyway, this is just a preamble.”
“That’s unnecessary. Just move on to the main topic.”
“And as I’ve always said, that’s not an effective method. You must have had a hard time with this, right?”
I flashed a grin, and I noticed that Itsukaichi-kun was forcing himself to hold back his laughter. That was good. Could Kengo have possibly known all this time and deliberately took on the role of the funny man? No, that can’t be it.
But Kengo was right. I should indeed get to the main topic soon.
“Actually, Itsukaichi-kun, the thing that Kengo requested is regarding the arson case, the one that the Newspaper Club has been pursuing for a while.”
I could sense him tense up as I mentioned the phrase “arson case”. It was probably a topic that he didn’t want to touch on.
“But perhaps it’s inaccurate to say that it’s the Newspaper Club that has been pursuing the case. According to Kengo, the one obsessed about it was apparently the new club president. His name is, uhh…”
“Yes, Urino. I think it was two days ago when a new arson attack occurred, under the elevated railway at Ueno Town, 1st District. It turned out to be quite a huge fire again, right? I heard that a good number of bicycles was set on fire, but thankfully no one got injured. Urino-kun must have been proud that his prediction was on the mark again.”
But Itsukaichi-kun gave an unexpectedly strong reply.
“He was frustrated. He thought that we would have definitely been able to catch them.”
“Catch? You mean the culprit? That would certainly be tough. Don’t tell me you all did a stakeout…”
“Yes, that was what we did, with almost all the club members…”
That was information that I didn’t have. I glanced at Kengo, who shook his head.
I knew that Urino-kun held a great deal of interest in the arson case, and that he was a proactive person. That meant that instead of simply predicting the location of the next attack, he would eventually try to directly approach the culprit. Funado Monthly had hinted towards that. I wasn’t actually shocked, but simply pretended to be so.
“You went that far! That must have been really rough.”
“But you didn’t manage to catch the culprit.”
Itsukaichi-kun nodded, then peeked at my face with upturned eyes. He was probably trying to figure out my intentions.
I spoke frankly.
“Actually, we’re also thinking of catching the culprit.”
Rendered speechless, Itsukaichi-kun turned to look at Kengo, as if on reflex. While standing with his arms folded, Kengo received Itsukaichi-kun’s gaze and gravely nodded.
That could turn into a misunderstanding if left unchecked.
“I’ll say this just in case, but Kengo and I aren’t doing this to go against the Newspaper Club. I have no relation to Urino-kun or his club. It’s just that Kengo wants to stop the criminal. Fire is dangerous. Up till now, it’s been only small fires that you can get playing house, but it should be stopped before it escalates any further. I think so too. What about you?”
With the question thrust upon him, an awkward expression crept up onto Itsukaichi-kun’s face. I could tell that he was looking left, right, and all around.
“This is a third-year classroom.”
With that line, I indirectly appealed to him that whatever he said would not be repeated to the new club president, Urino-kun. Understanding that, Itsukaichi-kun finally spoke.
“…I think it’s a job for the police.”
“I’ve always thought that if Urino knows something that the police does not, he should report it to them. Even if the police has already figured it out, he should still do it just to be sure. But he keeps going on it being a scoop, and only thinks about becoming famous through that… He’s taking it too easy. And we’ve all been caught up in it, so who knows what will happen if we get called up by the police…”
He was gradually getting more agitated.
“In the first place, it was dangerous to do those patrols. There was one first-year student who got caught by the police while he was patrolling on his bicycle. Fortunately he managed to get out of it because his house was nearby, but he ended up being so shaken by the incident, yet Urino does not follow up on these things. It’s such a detriment for entrance examinations to get an official reprimand, but he does not consider that at all. If he wants to do it, he should do it on his own!”
“And yet you still went with the patrols.”
I’d intended to praise the underclassman for his courage in supporting his club president, but Itsukaichi-kun interpreted it differently.
“Yes… it was difficult to refuse with that atmosphere…”
I’d just discovered a mentor in life.
He did not want to be involved in anything dangerous. Even if he did get involved, he could tell the police and leave it to them. Of course, he would feel resentment if he knew something and did something outrageous like keep quiet about it. And yet with all those thoughts and a frown on his face, he did not report it to the police himself.
I could feel my cheeks loosen. Was that not the position of a petit bourgeois? I was also apologetic for my last line. He simply could not refuse because of the atmosphere. What perfection! Should I not treat Itsukaichi-kun as the ideal version of myself?
I was about to instinctively ask him to be my mentor, but now was not the time. We still had not completely ruled out the possibility that Osanai-san had been going around and starting all those fires. In that unlikely case, we would have to hand her over to the authorities… and that would open up a long, drawn-out war.
But how could I persuade this little citizen, Itsukaichi-kun? His cooperation was necessary.
In the midst of my quandary, a gruff voice cut in from the side. It was Kengo.
“What you’re saying is understandable. That was what the Student Counseling Department was worried of.”
“Right? I can’t follow Urino-kun anymore.”
“However, I have a favor to ask of you.”
This was probably the first time Kengo said those words to him. Itsukaichi-kun was stunned for a moment, unable to speak.
“I can’t say anything definite since there’s no conclusive evidence, but I’ll tell you this. I and Kobato here suspect that an acquaintance of ours is the arsonist.”
A startled expression clearly ran across Itsukaichi-kun’s face.
“It’s just a possibility. That is why we’re looking for the criminal separately from the Newspaper Club. We want to stop them, and at least get them to turn themselves in. For that, we would like you to help us. You also want this case to stop, right?”
That was an argument very much like Kengo to make.
If Itsukaichi-kun were a little wiser, he would have realized that this contradicted Kengo’s earlier statement that he didn’t know what I’d called him for.
“You’ve always done well. I always thought that you should have become the club president, to put the brakes on Urino.”
Since it was Kengo, that was not a lie, and not just words of flattery. Itsukaichi-kun’s countenance was starting to slowly change.
“What Urino is doing is dangerous, but isn’t fundamentally wrong. But if this case continues the way it is, what will happen to him? What will happen to the Newspaper Club? If you lend us your strength, we can stop this.”
Just as I trusted Kengo, it seemed that Itsukaichi-kun also trusted him. All his uncertainty had not disappeared, but he still replied.
“I understand. I’ll help if I have the ability to.”
Kengo did not give any grandiose words of gratitude. All he said was “Sorry.”
And thus, the previous Newspaper Club president and the current Newspaper Club member swore to fight together. While I was observing this scene from the side and thinking that it was quite the moving development, the two of them turned to look at me.
“Umm, so what do I do?”
Be that as it may, the minimum requirements for the solution had been met. There was a variety of things I wanted Itsukaichi-kun to do, but I first had to ask him a question.
“For now, there’s something I need you to tell me.”
I cleared my throat and put on a smile.
“Has Urino-kun been properly doing his job?”
After sending Itsukaichi-kun away, Kengo took up the space in front of me, with an expression on his face that could be said to be grim. He seemed to want to say something, so I took the initiative.
“That was impressive. You managed to persuade him so well. That’s something I can’t do.”
Even though I’d praised him, Kengo didn’t seem to care for it at all, and still wore his scary face.
“That’s Itsukaichi. What do you think?”
“What I think?”
I thought for a while. Honesty is a virtue, but everything depends on how you look at it. It would be best to sugarcoat my impression of him.
“He’s an obedient underclassman.”
Staring at me, Kengo nodded.
“Exactly. He’s timid, but obedient. His personality never allows him to refuse any favors you ask of him, to the point that you could feel sorry for him. That’s why, Jougorou…”
“…What is it?”
“Don’t take advantage of him.”
Ah, so he was worried about that.
I dramatically shrugged and put on a grin.
“I won’t do something like that.”
For some reason, Kengo’s gaze turned cold. He probably didn’t trust my words. Now that was certainly unexpected. Feeling a little annoyed, I replied.
“I think you might be misunderstanding something, but I’m not exactly competent at this in the first place. My powers of persuasion weren’t even that good, right?As I said, I won’t take advantage of him.”
He couldn’t have been pressured by that, but Kengo got a little flustered.
“That’s, well, I suppose. I thought you would have used a more obscure style of speech.”
“I don’t know what you think, but cajoling and appeasement are not my areas of expertise. They’re…”
I started, but hesitated at the end. No matter how you looked at it, what I was about to say would be considered as backbiting.
“What’s the matter?”
“No, it’s nothing.”
…They’re Osanai-san’s areas of expertise.
Comforting people and gaining their trust, using others while pretending to be used.
I recalled the case of the spring-exclusive strawberry tart from when we were first-year students, which made me feel a little nostalgic. During that case, Osanai-san received some decisive information from Kengo’s elder sister, whom she met only once. And just last year, the people who had a hand in her plans didn’t even realize it, unfortunately for them.
It was a quality of Osanai-san that I didn’t get to clearly observe in middle school, but had gradually become apparent since we entered high school. Osanai-san had the ability to manipulate information.
It was unclear what role she was taking in this recent string of arson attacks. The only thing clear was that the Newspaper Club member Urino Takahiko was related to Osanai-san.
I could have gotten Kengo to call Urino-kun. If he himself was willing to cooperate, we would instantly have the solution in our hands.
Yet I called Itsukaichi-kun instead, and that was for no reason other than me not liking the idea of Urino-kun transmitting information to Osanai-san… I would be at a disadvantage in a war of information, after all.
With those thoughts, I smiled wryly.
We’d just separated last summer, but it seemed like I was about to face her again. Then again, the thing between us now was a serial arson case rather than an extremely sweet dessert on a plate.
Just when I took a deep breath, my mobile phone in my pocket vibrated.
“…What’s the matter?”
I’d sent out emails to only two people. Since Kengo was right in front of me now, I could tell whose email it was without looking at it.
I pulled myself together.
“Well, anyway, let’s put the plan into action. The cooperation of a current Newspaper Club member is essential, after all.”
I’d blatantly changed the subject, but Kengo did not persist in the matter. In fact, he asked a question, as if he had been waiting for that.
“About that, all I’ve heard from you is that we need Itsukaichi to smoke out the arsonist. But that’s what I feel uneasy about. What are you going to make him do? And what did you mean when you asked if Urino was properly doing his job?”
His tone was severe. As expected, he was worried about his junior getting caught up in the situation. What a good senpai. Perhaps I should have joined a club as well.
“It’s exactly as it sounds. Whether Urino is working hard in his job with Funado Monthly is an extremely important factor.”
I retrieved a clear file from my bag.
“In the previous discussion, Urino-kun mentioned that the Kira City Disaster Prevention Plan was the key to this case, and the precincts’ areas of jurisdiction that you showed me the other time formed the culprit’s direction, right?”
“…Yeah, that’s right.”
“Kengo, cajoling and appeasement are not my fields of expertise. By the way, I would say that I’m not good with steadily investigating the material as well. That’s why I’d have wanted you to do it, if that were possible.”
I used a roundabout manner of speech this time.
As expected, Kengo frowned.
“What, you’re saying that I didn’t do something I should have?”
“Exactly. You didn’t do it, but it’s not just you.”
I placed the clear file on the table. After taking a glance at it, Kengo was visibly shaken.
“The Newspaper Club should have investigated it. You have to properly verify the given information.”
In the file was a copy of the Disaster Prevention Plan.
“First, I went to the City Hall. I couldn’t find a corresponding department or something like that, and perhaps because I’m a mere high school student, I didn’t get anywhere with that. So I gave up, went to the library and easily found this… The case continued from last year, so the first thing I copied was last year’s Disaster Prevention Plan. Take a look.”
Kengo seemed relatively grumpy, probably because I’d just pointed out his negligence. Even so, he extended an a hand to pull it near him, and his expression immediately changed again.
“Oi, Jougorou, this is…!”
It is important to doubt the evidence. This was written in last year’s Disaster Prevention Plan.
|(Kira City Disaster Prevention Plan, Page 11)|
Overview of Kira City Fire Department Headquarters
Kira Fire Department HQ
Kira South Fire Department HQ
Kira West Fire Department HQ
Overview of Kira City Fire Department Precincts
Hinoki Town Precinct
Ueno Town Precinct
Mount Kazan Precinct
“Exactly. The new Disaster Prevention Plan does not mention the precincts’ areas of jurisdiction at all.”
Kengo frantically scoured the copy, as if doing that would cause the lists of areas of jurisdiction to appear. Unfortunately for him, I had no recollection of applying any invisible ink.
“That’s a copy of last year’s Disaster Prevention Plan. The areas of jurisdiction were not written in the plan from two years ago, and even three years ago. At some year, they stopped writing it in, though I don’t know why. Perhaps there was some objection that the areas of jurisdiction should not be decided in advance to allow for more flexible firefighting operations. In any case, this is real.”
I took another copy out from the clear file. It was almost the same as the previous one. Even the page number was the same, just that the areas of jurisdiction were listed.
“You can’t find the areas of jurisdiction unless you go back six years. And the Koyubi Precinct didn’t even exist seven years ago.”
With the two sheets of paper in front of him, Kengo vacantly muttered.
“Six years ago…”
I felt bad for interrupting his train of thought, but there was still more information.
“It seems to be the truth that each fire department precinct has an approximate area of jurisdiction. That is probably recorded in some documents other than the Disaster Prevention Plan, but none in the order of Kanou Precinct, Hinoki Town Precinct, Harimi Precinct. According to the information I found, they are all quite jumbled up. In other words, you can only see this order in the Disaster Prevention Plan.”
He groaned, a grave look on his face.
Since he was grimacing, I was worried that Kengo had not understood. There were things I didn’t need to say, but I summarized my earlier statements, just in case.
“Basically, only someone who has seen the Disaster Prevention Plan from six years ago could have linked the order of precincts to their areas of jurisdiction.”
“I know. I know, but…”
Irritation was mixed in Kengo’s voice.
“What does that mean?”
The question came to me clearly. Urino-kun had apparently obtained a copy of the Disaster Prevention Plan from his house, since his older brother was a firefighter. That must mean the Disaster Prevention Plan on a shelf in the Urino household was the one from six years ago. That was all.
But this also hinted at another interesting fact.
However, I did not feel like immediately revealing this fact. It was quite fun to watch Kengo’s confusion, after all.
Instead, I said this:
“Well, it’ll take a long time to talk about the plan. For now, we have one month before the results start to show. After that, it would be ideal if I could borrow Yoshiguchi-san’s strength one more time.”
Though the information fee would become expensive if I relied on her too much.
“In the meantime, shall we take it easy and study for entrance examinations?”
My score for modern Japanese had increased, but now my English was unstable. I never thought that I would be confused by relative pronouns at this point.
I wonder why.
There are four or five weekends in a month. And in three or four of those weekends, I would meet with Nakamaru-san on a Saturday or Sunday. Since we suddenly started going out in September, that pace had almost never been broken, though it was a different story for the winter break and spring break.
It was the last week of May. As per the usual pattern, we were to meet outside the station at one o’clock. With it almost being spring, the weather had become warmer. Thinking that it would be unattractive to be drenched in sweat, I decided to go out in a short-sleeved T-shirt.
That turned out to be the correct decision. The weather forecast had not mentioned anything about it, but the sunlight was especially intense. After noon, the temperature steadily rose, with not a single cloud in the sky and almost no gusts of wind at all. Since the area in front of the station was made of concrete, heat could not escape, so I went closer to the fountain in pursuit of some cool air. It was already past the meeting time, but I had already taken into account that Nakamaru-san would be late by 5 to 30 minutes.
Today, she was late by 20 minutes, an average amount of time. As she lightly waved her hand in front of her chest, we had our usual exchange.
“Sorry, did I make you wait long?”
“No, I just arrived.”
Nakamaru-san looked at me and laughed.
“It seems cool over there, how nice.”
She was still using spring fashion. The pastel yellow cardigan she was wearing was the one she had bought during one of our previous dates. It had a good color combination, but with today being so warm, it probably wasn’t the most fitting.
“It’s fine in the afternoon, but it’ll still be cold at night.”
After my comment, Nakamaru-san’s face clouded over.
“Ah, you know, about that…”
“Hm? The cold?”
“No, about the night. Sorry!”
She put her hands together.
“I have to get home early today. I’m really sorry for ruining our special time together.”
Oh, was that it?
“It’s fine. That’s your curfew, right?”
I replied with a smile, then added another line.
“…Still, it’s quite a shame.”
At first, neither of us would say, “Let’s go home,” no matter how late it got. If we met on a Sunday, there would be school on the next day, so we would cut off our date responsibly, as a matter of course, but we would never worry about that on Saturdays.
However, at some point in time, probably right before or after spring break, Nakamaru-san mentioned that she had a curfew. Apparently, she was being taken to task for her late night jaunts. I thought that it was a little late since we’d gone out so much already, but I had no intention of saying something unreasonable like that out loud. That was why I did not expect her to not have a curfew today.
But a more complicated expression showed on Nakamaru-san’s face.
“The thing is, it’s a little different today. I can only stay till evening.”
It was almost half past one. I couldn’t say what time evening would be, but we didn’t have much time left. Under normal circumstances, we would start by going around some clothes stores and general shops.
“I see. Shall we go, then?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I have to go early today?”
Ah, yes, of course.
“I thought you had an errand to run.”
Nakamaru-san’s eyes swam around to such a degree that made me question if she was doing it intentionally, and she replied.
“We’re almost at the real entrance examinations. Even I’m feeling the heat because I’m not smart.”
I had no idea what her grades were actually like, but I could get behind the reason that the real entrance examinations were just around the corner. I didn’t have a problem with what she could realistically achieve by cutting short a Saturday date by a few hours, but if she was going to tell such a blatant lie, what was the point in making me ask that question?
Well, perhaps that’s what you call the product of a delicate maiden’s mind.
Nakamaru-san looked up at me for a moment, trying to peek into my inner recesses. Seeing that I wasn’t going to ask any more questions, she placed both hands on her stomach in a playful manner.
“So, one more thing, but I haven’t had lunch yet. Shall we go in somewhere?”
Of course. I laughed and nodded.
Had I known that it would turn out like this, I would not have eaten a ginger fried pork lunch set.
The arcade in front of the station was big but deserted, and there were many stores with their shutters down. That said, it was not so desolate that you wouldn’t be able to find lunch on a Saturday afternoon.
For example, right in front of us was a hamburger shop. You could get a good view of the bus terminal from the counter seats there, an ideal spot to monitor someone, whatever the reason.
“How about over there?”
I suggested, but Nakamaru-san went, “Hmmm” and didn’t nod. While she wasn’t particular about food, it was understandable to feel that it would be sad to simply get a burger for a meal during a special date.
Thus, the two of us started walking on the street.
I had other ideas besides the hamburger store, but I didn’t dare to bring them up. Indeed, it was on this very street, Sanya-dori, where I was berated for “having flickers of my previous girlfriend” when I suggested a shop with sweet, delicious coffee. Thinking about that made me wonder if the consolidation of our plans was progressing at all. To put it in broad terms, there were only two types, the “walking along Sanya-dori outside the station plan” as well as the “going to a cinema complex plan”. Visiting Panorama Island that time was fun, but neither of us had brought up going there again. I would never suggest going to the driving school out of town or the gymnasium that was soon to be demolished, but I could probably put in more effort in thinking up places to go.
I’d gone down this road many times before, but this was the first time I noticed a Chinese restaurant. With its narrow and inconspicuous entrance, as well as the fact that I had never walked down Sanya-dori to search for Chinese food, it must have not registered in my consciousness. I gave her a look to ask suggest going in, but an exasperated expression appeared on her face.
“Nah, no way.”
From the dirty glass door it was possible to see that some middle-aged men were sitting in a line, hunched in their seats amid the dense cigarette smoke. It might be possible for Doujima Kengo to go into such a shop, but definitely impossible for Nakamaru-san.
However, we couldn’t take it too easy.
“The stores are probably going to close at around two, though.”
“That’s what I just thought, too. Hmm, isn’t there anywhere we can go?”
I brought out my phone to check the time. It was almost 1:40. Well, if there was no other choice, she could just buy something from a convenience store… but eating a hamburger was certainly better than that. I looked all around, searching for any suitable store.
A few shops here and there that looked to be izakayas1 caught my eye. But we couldn’t enter one, and they were not open in the afternoon anyway. Ouan would have been great if not for that unnecessary restraint, I thought. The hot sandwiches there looked delicious.
Nakamaru-san pointed at the opposite side of the street.
“Ah, isn’t that place over there good?”
I looked over to see a banner. It was a family restaurant. I knew that there were a few along the bypass, but I never knew that there was one in a place like this. Or perhaps it recently opened?
“Look, it says there’s a fair. It’s hot, so some cold pasta would be perfect.”
With no wind, the banner did not flutter at all. It had “Cold Pasta Fair” written on it and said that “White Mushroom Pasta” was going at 800 yen. I see.
“Kobato-chan, is that fine?”
“Yeah, why not? Seems like it has a self-service drink area.”
Nakamaru-san questioned me with an astounded tone.
“You’re not eating?”
“Yup, I’ve eaten already. But it wasn’t much, so I was thinking that I could get something light. A family restaurant is just right.”
“I see… sorry about that.”
She had an unusually apologetic look on her face for some reason. Up until now, we would take lunch beforehand if we were meeting at one, but… why was she feeling blue about something so small today? That made me feel a little uneasy. If she was troubled about something, I could probably give her some advice.
For now, we should enter the shop, and I could start asking if there was something on her mind.
“Shall we go, then?”
I started moving off, and Nakamaru-san silently followed.
I thought that it was quite late for lunch, but there was still a good number of customers in the restaurant. While I had been expecting air-conditioning, it did not seem to be turned on, so the restaurant interior was not particularly cool. Well, although it was unusually hot today, we were still in May, so there was no helping it.
A group of four women were laughing loudly together at the table nearest to the entrance. Perhaps due to the noise, it took some time for a waiter to notice us. A woman wearing a white apron approached us with quick steps. On her apron was a name tag, and on the name tag was a badge that openly said “In Training”.
“Welcome. Table for two?”
“Would you like to sit at the smoking section or the non-smoking section?”
There was really no point asking that question, since we were visibly underage. Well, not that I didn’t know any people of the same age who had a taste for cigarettes, but alcohol and smoking were strictly prohibited until the age of twenty for the common petit bourgeois.
“This way, please.”
The seats we were led to were deep inside the shop, where the laughter of the four-women group could hardly reach us. With a smile, the waitress-in-training said, “Please press this button when you have decided your order,” and retreated. If she put it that way, it should be possible to decide what we want to order, but no matter how I searched the table surface, there was no menu. Thinking that it could be under the table, I peeked underneath, but all I saw were Nakamaru-san’s feet. What should we do now? I racked my brains, when Nakamaru-san asked me a question.
“Hey, so… Kobato-chan, you’re not hungry, right?”
She was looking down. Did she care about it that much?
“Yup. It’s fine, though.”
“And I was late as well today. Didn’t you wait for me, Kobato-chan?”
“Not for much… I don’t really care about it, anyway.”
I was a little surprised that she was considering tardiness to be a sin. She hadn’t said anything when we first met, so I always thought that she had no qualms about it.
I looked at Nakamaru-san again.
I somehow hadn’t noticed it earlier, but she had an obviously gloomy expression on her face. Or rather, she seemed to be hesitantly waiting for my response. Why? Wondering if she’d spilled some grilled ginger sauce on her face, I unconsciously scratched my face.
“The same goes for me. Anyway, did something happen?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
I didn’t know, and it probably wasn’t something I wanted to think about.
Nakamaru-san placed her elbows on the table, looking uncomfortable to no small extent.
“I’ve thought this for a while, but…”
“Kobato-chan, you’re quite a kind person, aren’t you? You’re a lot kinder than a normal person.”
My heart was not prepared for the sudden praise. And what was a normal level of kindness, anyway?
“Is that so?”
“Yes, you are!”
She asserted. That’s fine, then. She spoke up again, as if she had just thought of something.
“Hypothetically speaking, and this is all hypothetical, but will you forgive me no matter what I do, Kobato-chan?”
“…That’s a weird question to ask.”
“As I said, it’s just hypothetical.”
Could this be another instance of her delicate maiden mind?
I usually refrained from self-evaluation, so I had no intention of voicing an objection when Nakamaru-san called me kind. I did think, “What are you talking about, Miss hare?”2 but I wouldn’t say it out loud.
Anyway, that was quite a difficult question.
What was the correct answer to this question? What could I say that would fit her image of me?
“If you did something totally illogical, I wouldn’t forgive you for that. For example, if you suddenly poured water on me.”
“No, not something like that.”
I understand. Come to think of it, we had not been served water yet. It seemed that the waitress’ in-training badge was not just for show.
“If not something like that… I think I would forgive you in the end no matter what you do. But that’s normal, right? People who can’t forgive are few and far between.”
That said, there is probably a difference between those who forgive immediately after an apology, those who forgive after some time, as well as those who only forgive after seeking gratification in revenge.
But Nakamaru-san had not listened to the second half of my utterance.
“So you will forgive me, because you’re kind.”
Why today of all days… She certainly never said something like this last week and before. In any case, I was feeling a little uneasy, and since her words were incoherent and incomprehensible, I tried evading the question.
“But I can’t forgive not having a menu. I’ll call the waitress.”
After pressing the button we were supposed to press after deciding what to order, a chime sounded, louder than I’d expected. Nakamaru-san was about to say something, but due to the chime’s intensity, missed the timing to do so.
The waitress-in-training had nerves of steel. Even after I said, “There’s no menu. Also, could you serve us water?” she did not display the slightest hint of panic. Instead, she calmly replied, “My apologies. Please wait.” and retreated.
The menu was made up of three pieces of thick paper and was too much for one hand to hold. While placing the menus on the table, the waitress added a line.
“We are sold out of the cold white mushroom pasta.”
I definitely did not expect the main attraction shown on the banner outside to be sold out.
“Please press this button when you have decided your order.”
As the waitress spoke, I realized that I was feeling a little peckish. Looking at the menu, I saw that there was an “avacado creamy sandwich”. To be honest, I could feel my appetite slipping just by reading the phrase “creamy sandwich”, but they did also have a coffee set, and on top of that, it was cheap.
“I’ve decided what to get.”
It took quite a while for Nakamaru-san to decide.
“Hmm… They’re out of the white mushroom, right?”
She mused as she looked at the menu that said “The Height of Summer Cold Pasta Fair!” It was difficult to read the upside-down letters from my end, but I could make out a couple of phrases, “Cold white mushroom pasta” and “Flavorful, ripe tomato salad pasta”. In fact, there was nothing else on that menu. What was the meaning of having a fair with only two choices, and with one being sold out? In the first place, why use “The Height of Summer” in the middle of May? What excuse could they give if this menu continued all the way till July in its wretched state? Call the manager, I’ll give them a stern talking to!
As I reveled in the delusions of a petit bourgeois, Nakamaru-san spoke.
“Can you show me that menu?”
Upon passing it to her, she glanced at it for a moment before immediately muttering, “I’ve decided.”
“You’ve also decided, right, Kobato-chan? Shall I call her?”
I nodded. Nakamaru-san pushed the button, and another loud chime reverberated around the shop. Even though I knew it was coming, I was still surprised. Could it be that the volume was intentionally set high so that the part-timer in training could hear it more easily?
The waitress in question appeared again, clumsily pressing the buttons on a machine that looked like a calculator. Only her voice was bright when she spoke.
“Yes, may I take your order?”
“I’ll have an avocado sandwich coffee set.”
“Alright… please wait for a moment… Umm… yes, that’s fine.”
Was it really? Looking at Nakamaru-san, I noticed that she had an anxious expression on her face.
“I’ll have the salmon hot cream pasta.”
“Yes, salmon… pasta… alright. I’ll repeat your order. One avagado sandwich coffee set and one salmon cream pasta.”
It’s avacado, not “avagado”.
But I did not say that aloud.
“That’s correct, thank you.”
“Please wait for a short while.”
As the waitress retreated to the kitchen, Nakamaru-san and I exchanged looks and chuckled. In the first place, the floor should not be staffed by only one person, so why did that same waitress keep appearing?
…Putting that aside, that was a weird conversation we just had. A touch of chaos had slipped into our orderly world.
With her cup in hand, Nakamaru-san took a sip of water, then spoke, still smiling.
“By the way…”
“We’ve been together for quite long already.”
That was true. That after-school scene still in my memory actually occurred way back in September last year. I tried counting the months on my fingers.
“9 months, huh. Indeed, that’s quite long.”
“It feels a little late to say this, but we’re quite a good fit for each other, right?”
With a calm countenance, I nodded.
Nakamaru-san looked away for a while, then continued with a faux nonchalance.
“But there are quite a lot of people who don’t know we’re going out, right?”
“I know those who know, though.”
And you don’t know those who don’t know? Not knowing what she was getting at, all I could do was provide vague, short responses. Her face still maintained its smile, but it was lacking in spirit and seemed strained.
“There are also those who are extremely informed about it, right? Those types of people that make you wonder how they find out about such things.”
“What do you mean, ‘it’?”
“Were you listening? I was talking about this.”
She was referring to the fact that the two of us were going out, huh. All of a sudden, Nakamaru-san met my eyes.
“Kobato-chan, don’t you know people like that?”
She was trying to probe me for something. Since I could tell that I was being probed, it meant that Nakamaru-san’s technique was not up to scratch.
I tilted my head in bewilderment.
“Can’t say I do. I’m acquainted with the former club president of the Newspaper Club, but he’s an unrefined guy, so I doubt he would be informed about it. Are you looking for that kind of person?”
“That’s not it…”
She replied ambiguously, then lapsed into silence.
The one who broke the silence was a waitress. It was still the waitress-in-training from earlier.
“Thank you for waiting. May I know who ordered the salmon cream pasta?”
“And here is the salad from the set.”
She placed a small plate of salad on the table. It had shredded lettuce, julienned cabbage and tomatoes cut into eighths. The white-colored dressing was probably Caesar salad dressing.
“It comes with a salad?”
“Yes, it is part of the lunch set.”
The waitress had not brought any cutlery. I thought it was another mistake, but before I opened my mouth to protest, I noticed that the box at the side of the table held more than just knives.
I handed Nakamaru-san a spoon and fork, while I took one fork for myself. Ignoring her words of thanks, I extended the hand holding the fork.
“I’ll grab a tomato.”
I aimed for a tomato segment in Nakamaru-san’s salad and speared it. With lightning-quick fork handling, I put the tomato in my mouth as she responded.
Interestingly enough, she looked stupefied.
“Eh? That’s fine, but did you want to eat a tomato, Kobato-chan?”
After gulping it down, I responded.
“Not exactly, but it’s because you don’t like tomatoes.”
With a face that looked like she had just been thrown a profound question, Nakamaru-san stared fixedly at the salad.
She asked a question while wearing an expression that showed her incomprehension.
“What made you think that I hate tomatoes?”
It was a really simple reason, one that I hardly needed to think about. It was something that did not need to be said, but since I was asked, I decided to reveal it anyway.
“When choosing the restaurant, you said that ‘cold pasta would be perfect’, right?”
Nakamaru-san meekly nodded.
“But you actually ordered hot pasta.”
That was the very definition of abnormality. She went into the store to get cold pasta, yet she ordered hot pasta. She went from a cold temperature to a hot one. It was like the irreversible growth of entropy.
I had no choice but to resist it.
“I wondered why that would be the case. Sure, the cold white mushroom pasta shown on the banner was sold out, but there is still another cold pasta. It is a tomato pasta, but you didn’t order that. You went into this restaurant to eat cold pasta but ended up ordering a hot pasta, so I thought there had to be a reason for that.”
I calmly pointed at the ceiling.
“It wouldn’t be strange to lose your appetite for cold food if the air conditioning in this restaurant was operating, but it isn’t, and I would have to say that it’s rather hot here.”
Nakamaru-san quietly replied.
“Oh, is that why?”
“Yup. The reason you decided to give up on cold pastas despite the heat had to be the remaining option, that you hate tomato pastas. That’s why I thought to help you eat the tomatoes.”
Once again, I smiled.
Because Nakamaru-san seemed to be brooding about something, I’d assumed that some sort of problem had cropped up. However, that did not seem to be the case, and it turned out to be just a roundabout show of restraint. My first thought was that it was quite a boring thing to do, but then again, I was showing consideration to my lover because I could handle tomatoes.
Nakamaru-san looked at me with a considerably exasperated face.
“Kobato-chan, you do say the weirdest things and the weirdest places sometimes. And you seem to be enjoying yourself, too.”
“That’s better than saying it with a bored look, don’t you think?”
“But the thing is…”
Nakamaru-san looked at the salad that had been picked clean of tomatoes and spoke.
“I don’t really hate tomatoes.”
I couldn’t believe it. My detailed deduction borne from my desire for the restoration of order had just been rejected.
Stricken with the sense of defeat, I asked.
Now, let’s listen to the frightening truth of why Nakamaru-san gave up on her initial target of cold pasta!
She gave her explanation.
“The cream pastas looked more delicious than the tomato pastas from the photos in the menu.”
“Also, they were 100 yen cheaper.”
Well, I suppose that’s reasonable enough.
Nakamaru-san did not say anything after that. It was as if her willingness to speak was extinguished after suffering a disappointment while being in an excited state of mind. I enjoyed my avocado sandwich, while Nakamaru-san partook of her cream pasta.
Of course, I knew what she wanted to know.
She wanted to know if I was acquainted with anyone who had detailed information regarding the relationship status of the boys and girls in Funado High School. Naturally, that was referring to Yoshiguchi-san, whom Kengo had introduced to me before. Nakamaru-san was trying to check if I knew Yoshiguchi-san.
I would have answered, “I know her,” if she had asked me directly, but for some reason she was beating around the bush and was obviously hiding something form the way she spoke. Feeling bad for her clumsiness, I tried to change the subject. I suppose it went well to a certain extent.
After eating, Nakamaru-san ordered coffee. The waitress-in-training assured us that she would treat it as the drink from the lunch set, but based on her unsteady handling of the device, I couldn’t be sure if that was done properly.
With the coffee in front of her, Nakamaru-san murmured.
Her voice was bright, but she was looking down.
“Hey, Kobato-chan… what do you like about me that you would go out with me?”
There were many different answers to that question.
But just as how I would reply with, “No, I just arrived.” if my girlfriend was late to a date and asked, “Sorry, did I make you wait?”, I had already prepared a response to this question. Wiping off some avocado paste stuck to my thumb with a paper towel, I replied.
“Trying to verbalize the reason for being with someone seems somewhat wrong, in my opinion. You understand that, don’t you?”
Nakamaru-san silently took a mouthful of hot coffee, then looked up and laughed.
“Not at all.”
|Arson Attack at Ueno Town, Kira City – Suspected Case of Serial Arson|
At approximately midnight on 10 May, some abandoned bicycles caught on fire under the elevated railway in Ueno Town, 1st District, Kira City. The fire was spotted by a nearby resident, who promptly dialed 119. Firefighters managed to extinguish the fire, but it consumed roughly 10 square meters of land, along with a dozen or so abandoned bicycles. No casualties were reported. The Kira Police Department is investigating it as a case of suspected arson.
Since the start of this year, fires suspected to be caused by arson have been occurring successively in Kira City. This fire occurred just as the Ueno Town Neighborhood Association revealed plans to conduct fire prevention patrols.
|Only You Can Prevent Fires! Fire Prevention Training in Kira City|
On 17 May, fire prevention training was conducted for residents in Sanguuji Town, Kira City. Instructed by firefighters from the Kira City Fire Department, they learnt methods of dealing with incipient fires, among other things.
Since last year, a series of suspicious fires thought to be caused be arson attacks have broken out throughout Kira City. Many voiced concerns about Sanguuji Town due to the number of historical buildings there. Firefighter Tanaka Haruomi (51) of the Kira Fire Department said that “it is important to use the power of community to prevent large fires from breaking out”.
|(2 June – Funado Monthly, Page 8 Column)|
This is a follow-up report on the case of serial arson attacks in the city, which the Newspaper Club has put in concerted efforts to investigate. Unfortunately, the dastardly culprit has struck again in the month of May. The incident occurred on Saturday, 10 May. A dozen or so abandoned bicycles were set on fire under the elevated railway in Ueno Town, 1st District.
As the writer of this humble column, I coincidentally caught sight of the fire. Seeing it up close was absolutely frightening! Watching the fire intensify limitlessly drove into us the realization of how much we would have to sacrifice to escape from such a fire alive. (Thankfully, this fire was not strong enough to burn down the elevated railway.) The traces left behind at the scene told us that this fire was once again the handiwork of that arsonist, or Fireman as we call him. With that fire behind us, we at the Newspaper Club have renewed our determination to not let the culprit go scot-free.
We believe that this month’s target will be Kitaura Town, which contains many important facilities such as the General Sports Complex, Kitaura Bridge and Kira Castle Ruin Park. We ardently hope that this Fireman gets taken into custody this month.
There was apparently no dry rainy season this year. Going to school on consecutive rainy days was really getting me down. However, the rain barely let up on Saturday, the day on which I had plans. According to the weather forecast, there would be a twenty percent chance of precipitation in the afternoon. I was a little uneasy about that, but I still hopped on my bicycle and headed for Kitaura Town, which occupied the north area of Kira City.
My purpose for heading to Kitaura Town was, of course, to reconnoiter the place. Our patrols in Ueno Town last month lacked planning. While it was supposed to be a stakeout by the entire Newspaper Club, all we had were six members anyway. Also, one of them was still giving the excuse that his family was very strict so he could not be counted in our total strength. Another member was called out by the police in the previous month’s patrol, and was having cold feet about this one. If we didn’t take the risk, we would fail to catch the arsonist again. Going by the patrol situation in Ueno Town, there was a high chance that the police were buckling down on this case. If so, the chance of the culprit getting caught by our hand would become quite small.
I could have gotten someone from the Newspaper Club to accompany me for this bit of reconnaissance, but I called Hiya Yuuto, because he was more reliable than any other Newspaper Club member. As the club president, this was disappointing, but it was just a fact I had to accept, and there was nothing I could do to change it.
I’d arranged to meet with Hiya outside the train station. Although Hiya looked cool and comfortable in his striped polo shirt, the first thing he said when we met was:
“Hey. Steaming, isn’t it?”
He was right. In fact, it wouldn’t be at a comfortable temperature in the slightest no matter how much it rained. The weather being this bad in June made me worried about how blisteringly hot it would be in the height of summer.
As usual, we traveled side by side on our bicycles, taking the municipal roads and heading straight for Kitaura. With many possible targets, I was unsure of where to begin, but Hiya said, “Let’s check out the Castle Ruin Park for now,” and I agreed with his suggestion.
For its austere name, Castle Ruin Park did not contain a single replica of a castle, and was actually a very peaceful park. After stopping my bicycle at the parking area, I made a remark while turning the key to the padlock.
“Don’t tell me they’re going for the bicycles here again…”
“What a dangerous thing you’re thinking of right off the bat. Then again, I suppose it’s only natural since we’re here for reconnaissance. But I don’t think they’ll go for bicycles again.”
An abandoned bicycle was set on fire in January, and a dozen or so bicycles were set on fire right in front of me last month. But I didn’t think that the culprit was fixated on bicycles. They probably wouldn’t target the same object multiple times.
The path to the park was dry. However, the grass seemed to contain some moisture, and we were surrounded by the damp smell of grass.
“It seems like the rainy season here.”
Hiya joyfully said as he pointed at some blooming plants. They looked endearing with their light pink flowers shaped like bells. Seeing as I wasn’t going to reply, Hiya laughed.
“You can’t expect me to know the names of flowers.”
“I’m not that familiar with them either, but you should at least know bellflowers. It’s common knowledge, isn’t it?”
He was saying in a roundabout way that I didn’t have common sense. I set off in a huff, leaving Hiya behind.
While it was not raining, there was a thin layer of clouds in the white sky, from which the sun dimly peeked out. The humidity and heat were uncomfortable, but having no direct sunlight was pleasant enough. Furthermore, it was way better than being trapped by the rain, at the very least. Many people must have had this line of thought, for the park was quite a lot more crowded than usual. Since it was a Saturday afternoon, I also spotted some families.
In their midst, I was trying to find objects that could be targeted by the arsonist.
Running behind me, Hiya piped up.
“By the way, I read this month’s Funado Monthly. As usual, it was eloquent, but the writing style was a little different.”
Without turning back, I replied.
“I applied a secondary and tertiary measure.”
Interest in the article had not yet waned. The number of students visiting the Printing Preparation Room had not decreased at all; in fact, it had increased.
However, it didn’t seem like there was a drastic decrease in copies of Funado Monthly discarded in the trash. It was still a topic that attracted interest, but the case of serial arson was no longer flashy. It no longer had billowing black smoke or crimson flames, and thus lacked the power to captivate the hearts of Funa High’s students in one go. To make people think, “I can’t wait for next month’s Funado Monthly, so let’s keep this month’s issue,” we would have to jazz it up more.
I’d planned to make it more exciting with the big event of the culprit’s arrest, but until that actually happened, a secondary measure was necessary. The one I thought of was some eye-catching naming.
“Perhaps ‘Fireman’ was too cheap.”
I mused, causing stifled laughter to erupt from behind me.
“You’re pretty sure of yourself for that bit of self-deprecation.”
“It was a hint, right?”
I’d told Hiya almost everything, including the fact that the arsonist was following the Disaster Prevention Plan. Hiya had obviously noticed that the name “Fireman” was not just to evoke the image of “fire”, but also had the double meaning of “firefighter”.
“If only our club members managed to notice this.”
I’d been quite confident in this naming, though I did feel some qualms about putting a double meaning on a simple name. However, I’d received some backlash over it at the Newspaper Club. The first-year Honda had said something like, “That’s uncool.” During the stakeout in May, he was the closest to the culprit, yet was nowhere to be seen. He could have been a little gentler with his words.
“It is quite uncool, though. I would have liked it to be more refined.”
…Was it that bad?
“Anyway, I wasn’t talking about the naming. I was talking about the style and manner of writing in the article… but it’s fine, I suppose.”
That was the fifth article in the series. Perhaps I’d unconsciously altered my style of writing over the past few months.
The bellflowers were probably not growing there naturally, but were planted artificially. As more patches of bellflowers growing here and there came into view, it hit me that the flower beds could be set on fire. Burning up flowers wouldn’t result in a lot of damage, but it seemed to me like an unforgivable, heinous act. That wouldn’t be ideal for Fireman’s self-promotion, would it? Though that was just some baseless conjecture on my part.
“By the way…”
Hiya, who had been behind me earlier, had sidled up to me without me noticing. He had a carefree look on his face, and I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not.
“What is it?”
“If you want to attract the readers’ attention, you must have some sort of especially significant information, right? How long are you going to keep it up your sleeve?”
I clearly understood what Hiya was talking about. It was the sign left behind at the crime scenes, a characteristic that he’d noticed after visiting them with me.
That sign was the common point left behind by Fireman in each arson location. In each crime scene, there would always be a broken object lying around, though the term “broken” was a little misleading. To be precise, the object would have a mark that made it look like it had been struck by a hammer.
According to a Gardening Club member, during the first incident, not only was the pile of grass clippings set on fire, but a hammer was also stolen. I didn’t know if Fireman was still using the Gardening Club’s hammer, but they always committed arson on the second Friday of each month, and always struck something with a hammer at the crime scene.
All the information I’d gathered was distributed to all Newspaper Club members. That included the Gardening Club member’s testimony about the stolen hammer.
There was also the dented road sign on the road in Hamae.
The tree branch in the Nishimori Children’s Park that was beaten out of shape.
The impressions on a concrete wall at the Koyubi storage area.
At Kawanebe, another roadside tree was targeted. Its bark was stripped off, revealing the pitiful wood underneath.
The abandoned bicycle at Ritsuno had a smashed side mirror.
In Hinode Town, there was a hole in one of the plastic benches at the bus stop.
At the Mount Kazan parking area, there was a motorbike parked next to the scooter that was set on fire. The seat was torn apart, causing its owner to be mad with rage.
Finally, in Ueno Town, there was a scratch on a signboard, as well as some small dents here and there.
…But it didn’t seem like anyone else had noticed it yet.
“At first, I thought that since it’s a trump card, you would surely save it for later. For instance, you could write an article like ‘Traces of the Loathsome Criminal Left Behind at the Crime Scene!’ and show those pictures at a critical moment like this. But that’s not what you did.”
Hiya looked dissatisfied.
That was only natural, for it was he who had noticed those traces, not I. When we first went out for news gathering, I’d taken a photograph of the road sign in Hamae, but afterwards, the one who told me about the traces in Nishimori and Koyubi was Hiya.
However, I never wrote about it in my articles.
I felt regretful as we walked in the hot, humid park. Since I’d relied on him so much more than anyone else, I had to give him a proper explanation.
Well, it’s never too late.
“I probably can’t write about it until the criminal gets caught.”
“…Is it because you won’t write what you didn’t discover on your own?”
“No, that’s not it.”
Hiya was apparently more concerned about it than I thought. I raised my voice.
“It’s not as insignificant as a matter of pride. There’s a more important reason for that. Sure, I wrote the first couple of articles with the intention of saving this trump card, but now it’s different. There’s a reason for that.”
“A reason, huh.”
Hiya prompted me to continue with his eyes.
“I told you about it, right? When Doujima-senpai retired from the club, he was most worried about copycat criminals. If Fireman’s methods were to be written to great detail in Funado Monthly, someone who read the article could imitate the crime, and we would have no way of telling them apart.”
“Yeah, you told me. The previous club president retired because he was ashamed of his lack of foresight in failing to recognize that, right?”
“At that time, he told me to hide the rule behind the series of arson attacks, so that we would be able to differentiate between Fireman and any copycat criminals. By specifying that we know how to tell them apart, the Newspaper Club can continue predicting the next location, while claiming that we are preventing the appearance of copycat criminals. Everyone in the club knows about the rule in the Disaster Prevention Plan, while the set of hammer marks is the trump card I have.”
After a brief moment of silence, Hiya muttered.
“So that’s what those lines in the article were for. You prepared a truth that only the real criminal knows. That’s quite an ingenious way of handling the situation.”
He was quick on the uptake, as expected. Seriously, how dependable he would be if he were a member of the Newspaper Club! I nodded.
“Exactly. That’s why I can’t put your discoveries in an article, but I’m not ignoring them either. I hope you understand.”
Hiya placed a hand on my shoulder. When he spoke, his words were more composed than I’d expected.
“You’ve also changed a little, Urino. Perhaps it’s as they say, position makes the man. You were quite persuasive back there… Also, I’m not taking offense from this. It’s fine if there’s a reason for it.”
After saying that, he let go and pointed at a corner of the park.
“Hey, look there!”
Hiya was referring to a building constructed on top of a small hill that looked like an arbor3. It was surrounded by grass on all four sides, and had a narrow path leading up to it. The building made for a nice resting spot, so I could see multiple silhouettes there.
I carefully studied the structure. There were currently some people resting there, but it would probably be empty late at night. One could approach it without drawing attention to themselves, and it was made of wood.
“You’re right. It can burn easily, so it could be a target.”
I had a good feeling that it would be Fireman’s target for the month of June. But Hiya put on a wry smile.
“It sure is dangerous. But more importantly, it’s hot and I want to rest up there, or at least that’s what I want to say.”
Indeed, we were exposed to the humid weather.
“Just say so, then.”
I muttered, trying to hide my embarrassment. Hiya responded with a soundless laugh.
We walked up a slope of bare earth. When we first entered the park, it was still muddy all around, but after walking and talking for just a bit, it somehow looked a lot dryer than before. That was probably because the temperature had risen, even though the sky was still cloudy.
A couple who looked to be a husband and wife in the prime of their lives was sitting in the arbor. There was a lot of space to go around, so Hiya and I sat down away from the couple. The square arbor had a high ceiling and no walls, resulting in good ventilation. Contrary to my expectations, it was pleasantly cool. Though the two of us were sitting together, I didn’t want to waste the cool air, so I put some distance between myself and Hiya.
“It’s quite a rare arrangement, isn’t it?”
Hiya said. Indeed, it might be a little strange for two high school boys to hang out together at an arbor in a park. Then again, it was so hot that embarrassment didn’t even cross my mind. Staring up at the ceiling, he continued.
“Nevertheless, there’s something I need to apologize to you about.”
Being suddenly spoken to like that, I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Apologize? What for?”
“I’m not sure if you remember, but…”
Hiya’s gaze shifted down.
“I think it was right after summer vacation last year, but you wanted to write about some kind of incident, right?”
I nodded. I’d wanted to write about a kidnapping incident that had occurred. Thinking back, that was the start of it all.
“I wondered why you wanted to do that, and you said that you wanted to do something that would make you go, ‘This is it!’ You didn’t want to graduate without having achieved anything, which was what happened in your three years of middle school. At that time, I was surprised. ‘What childish nonsense is this guy spouting?’, I thought.”
With a thin smile on his face, he continued.
“We don’t exactly have a lot of time on our hands. Just by following our educational schedule, time passes by in a flash. And even if you’re seeking fame, it would be isolated to Funado High. I thought it was foolish to seek such insignificant fame.
“But since then, you’ve done a brilliant job making a name for yourself. You’ve become a club president, and while it may be temporary, you’ve shaped the conversations in school. That incident has also become huge, with many towns moving to start their independent patrols and conducting firefighting practice. It was in the newspapers, too.”
“Yeah, I read about that.”
“Yet you weren’t satisfied with that, and let off a secondary measure. If that turns out to be successful, I wouldn’t be surprised if the police send you a certificate of appreciation.
“On the other hand, I’ve got my hands full with cram school six days a week. As expected, that causes time to pass by in a flash.”
I noticed that Hiya’s fists were clenched tightly.
“In fact, I feel great when I read your articles every month. It’s delightful. Not because of the article itself, but because I get to think, ‘This guy sure is working hard,’ which makes me feel much better… So I have to apologize for laughing at you in my heart that day.”
After saying all that, he fell silent for a while, then let out a self-mocking laugh.
“That was a weird topic I brought up.”
“No… You’ve helped me so much as well.”
“I didn’t do much. All I did was lark about in the shadows. By the way…”
As if detesting any silence, he continued.
“You plan to, how do I put it, catch Fireman this month, right?”
It didn’t even need to be said. I nodded.
But Hiya’s countenance clouded over.
“I didn’t plan to rain on your parade, but it might be difficult this month.
This month’s target, Kitaura Town, was a developing area. This Castle Ruin Park was not that old, and the General Sports Complex was only completed two years ago. However, it was not so busy for how new it was, so I’d thought that the conditions were actually good for a stakeout.
“I don’t think it’d be simple, but I certainly wish we had more club members.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I seem to get misunderstood a lot, huh.”
With a bitter laugh, Hiya pointed. In the arbor with no walls on all four sides, he pointed up at the sky.
“According to the weekly weather forecast, next week’s weather will be quite bad. I kind of doubt that Fireman will follow his rule in the rain.”
The sky, which had been only lightly cloudy earlier, had turned dark. It was only now that I realized the number of people in the park had decreased as well. The couple that was supposed to be in the arbor had disappeared. By all accounts, it looked like it was about to rain.
He had a point. I’d assumed that the culprit was getting around by car, so he would carry out his crime even if it was raining. However, I certainly had to consider the possibility of the arsonist canceling his plans due to rain.
On top of that, with such low morale among the Newspaper Club members, they probably wouldn’t go for a stakeout in the rain even if I told them to. If only the weather would be clear…
Seeing me instantly sink into thought, Hiya spoke in an apologetic tone.
“I didn’t mean to, but it seems that I really rained on your parade.”
The second Friday, the 13th of June arrived.
There was no disturbance caused by the rain. Although it was still early for the typhoon season, a strong one approached Japan, and while it didn’t get on land, it almost completely evenloped Kira City in a high wind zone. It was fine in the morning, but it started raining heavily in the afternoon, even causing flood alerts to be issued.
I didn’t think that setting off a series of fires made up the actions of a rational person, but no arsonist would dutifully start a fire on a day like this. It even looked like we would be entering a storm area later at night. Whenever there is a typhoon, there would be some people who die after going out to take a look at the river state. It would be too amusing if someone died to the typhoon while trying to carry out an arson attack.
I’d told the Newspaper Club members to do patrols if the weather was good, like if it was cloudy or if there was only a slight drizzle. But of course, torrential rain was out of the question. Just to be sure, I headed for the Printing Preparation Room after school.
The door was not locked, so someone was inside. Perhaps it was Ichihata, who was a little more motivated than the rest. Or perhaps it was Itsukaichi, who felt some responsibility as a senior. With that thought, I said, “Hey” in a low voice as I opened the door.
But the person in the room was neither Ichihata nor Itsukaichi. There were only boys in the Newspaper Club, but that person wasn’t even male. She was sitting with her back to a glass window which was being pounded by the rain, a light smile on her face.
“As I thought, you came.”
“I knew you’d come.”
She was now wearing her white summer uniform, and was dexterously holding open a paperback with just her left hand. Placing that book on a table, she tilted her head to the side, taking delight in reading my expression.
“How did you get here?”
I blurted out those words without thinking, causing Osanai to giggle.
“How? Through the door, of course.”
“What about the key?”
“They lent it to me when I said I was in the Newspaper Club. Right, I was asked to pass a message. ‘There’s a typhoon, so finish up and go home quickly.’”
Osanai was not part of the Newspaper Club, but she had no qualms about lying like that. Then again, it was not such a bad thing to do, and it would be indecent to make a fuss about it here. I placed my school bag on a table.
“They’re right, we won’t be able to get home if we don’t hurry. It’s really pouring out there.”
“It’s a rain-laden typhoon, right? The wind isn’t that strong yet.”
Even so, the rain was buffeting the windows intermittently, powered by the wind. The fact that Osanai was the only one in the room meant that the other members must have gone home already.
“But I’m worried since it’s Friday the 13th. We should get home as early as we can.”
“You believe in that?”
“About Friday the 13th being unlucky.”
Based on her girlish tastes, like how she loved to eat cakes, it wouldn’t be strange if she was the type to believe in divination, jinxes and the like. However, I was just a little surprised because she had not been worried about such things before. With a grin, she replied.
“Yup, I feel like something bad’s going to happen.”
She then continued, apparently having just remembered something.
“Ah, talking about Friday reminded me. I read the recent issue of Funado Monthly. You sure worked hard. As for the Fireman name, you were the one who came up with that, right?”
That was true, but I felt a little uncomfortable because Hiya had given it a low rating. Did Osanai read my state of mind?
“I thought it was good.”
She said, but it seemed more like words of encouragement, making me think that she felt the name was a terrible choice. Fireman should be really fitting in terms of its meaning, but… in any case…
“Thanks for reading.”
Then again, Osanai had sent an email on the day Funado Monthly was distributed, saying “I read it. You sure worked hard.” If she was repeating that, it probably meant that she had more to say. “So, what did it remind you of?”I prompted her, and a slightly anxious look appeared on her face.
“It’s just a small matter, just some details.”
“…The article’s a little wrong.”
She said it such an incredibly apologetic tone, so I received no impact from her statement, which was unexpected. It was a long article, so there could be some minor mistakes here and there. I asked her a question with a carefree attitude.
“Where is it wrong?”
“You wrote that the arsonist set fire to the bicycles under the elevated railway on Saturday, the 10th… but it was actually Friday.”
Did I write something like that? It was indeed a minute detail, so I couldn’t immediately recall. It did seem like something that would be in the article, though. I scratched my head and gave a reply.
“By the way, why were you waiting at a place like this today? Were you trying to tell me that?”
“No, it’s just something that I remembered. You know…”
Osanai stuck out her tongue.
“I wanted to talk to you, but my phone’s dead. The batteries don’t last very long nowadays. That’s why I couldn’t contact you.”
“You could have sent an email after…”
“Sure I could, but I prefer talking in person to talking on the phone or via email. You’re happier this way, aren’t you?”
There was no way I wouldn’t be happy with that.
“I get it, but it’s dangerous, so let’s go home.”
She said, but held up only two fingers. Did she notice her own mistake?
“…But we can forget about the first one. It was just something I wanted to ask if you were planning to do a stakeout tonight.”
“That’s impossible no matter how you look at it.”
She sighed in such a rueful manner that I decided to ask her about it anyway.
“What would you have asked if I were going?”
“Ah, it’s nothing much, but…”
Osanai peeked at me, fidgeting. Eventually, she spoke in a small voice.
“I wanted to ask about how many people you would bring along and where you would station them.”
After some reflection on the events of last month, this month’s personnel distribution was pretty much set in stone. I’d also told the first-year club members to ask their friends for help since we lacked the manpower, but even with all that preparation, we couldn’t have known that a natural disaster would occur. Nevertheless…
“Why would you want to ask about something like that?”
Osanai looked bewildered.
“Eh? I mean, I’m interested.”
I didn’t know what exactly she was interested in, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to continue grilling her.
Ever since that day after school when I grabbed Osanai by the shoulders, I had not taken such a firm stance with her. It was fun going out with her, so I wouldn’t dare force her to do anything. She never demanded anything of me, so it wasn’t like I was completely under her thumb, either.
“Well, perhaps next time when the weather’s clear… so, what’s the second thing?”
The sparkle in her eye changed. It had been close to a year since we started going out, so I could easily tell. This was the version of Osanai that would appear when she was talking about cakes.
“You know, there was a shop called Tinker Linker that sold delicious pies. It closed down last year so I thought that was it… but a new shop just opened next to the station. It’s called Tinker Tailor, and it even sells peach pies!”
It was exactly as I expected. I smiled wryly.
“Yep, it is! I think it’ll be sunny tomorrow after the typhoon passes. Urino-kun, do you have plans on the weekend?”
I didn’t. Even if I did, an invitation from Osanai would take priority over anything else.
“No, but I’m not sure if it’ll be sunny. If it is, let’s go.”
Osanai nodded twice energetically.
A particularly strong gust of wind collided with the windows, causing them to shake violently, and the two of us to reflexively look at them. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but the rain seemed to be a little stronger now.
When the windows finally stopped shaking, Osanai spoke.
“Looks like we really should go home soon.”
“Yeah, but what about the third topic?”
“The third topic?”
She repeated perplexedly.
“No… there were only two things I wanted to talk about. But I suppose there’s one more thing.”
She took a key out of her skirt pocket.
“Here. Sorry, but return this to the staff room for me. I’m not good at dealing with the teacher on duty today.”
That would be no trouble at all. After passing me the key, Osanai checked the time on her mobile phone, then stood up.
“See you tomorrow then, if it’s sunny!”
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she dashed out of the Printing Preparation Room. I could understand her hurry. The wind and rain were only getting stronger. I didn’t know where Osanai’s house was, but since she commuted to school by bicycle, it probably wasn’t close.
I should get home too. With that thought, I casually looked outside the window, when I noticed something.
There was a book on the table. It was the one that Osanai had been reading earlier… She must have forgotten about it in her hurry to get home.
That was rare. I never thought of Osanai as a responsible person, but forgetting things and being late did not fit my image of her. I suppose I could bring it back and return it to her the next day if it was sunny. Then again, there could be heavy rain on the way back, and the book could get soaked. It would be better to leave it here and return it to her on Monday.
The book was placed with its back facing up. I nonchalantly turned the book up, but I was confused by the title. I couldn’t tell what kind of novel it was. A white piece of paper, probably a receipt, was peeking out of a page. She was also using a receipt in place of a bookmark the other day, and she always seemed to do that. Perhaps it was a habit of hers?
I’d thrown away the receipt that she’d said would make a good memory, because I would get embarrassed every time I looked at it. I was reminded of that event just by looking at the receipt lodged in Osanai’s book.
I picked up the paperback.
I had no intention of reading its contents. Sticking my fingers between the pages that held the receipt, I pulled it out. As for why I was taking the trouble to look at the receipt even though the embarrassment was causing me to shudder, I had no idea myself. According to the receipt, the book was bought on its own, and cost 609 yen, including tax. Osanai had paid with the exact amount, so she’d received no change.
It was as if I was taking a peek at Osanai’s life. Hit by the realization that it was quite the vulgar thing to do, I decided to return it to its original position. At that moment, I noticed it.
I even let out a sound.
The store and time at which the book had been bought was printed without omission. I instinctively clasped the small receipt with both hands.
Once again, the windows were barraged by a combination of rain and wind.
Until Kengo’s email arrived, I hadn’t noticed that today was the day.
As if pre-empting the height of summer, the day was extremely hot, with not a single cloud in the sky since morning. The sweltering heat reminded me of something. There was a cake shop called “Jeff Beck” on this street. It was a small shop and the clerk didn’t seem very friendly, but it sold its specially-made Charlottes in summer. Charlotte is the name of a type of cake, and it apparently originated from a hat4.
Last year, on a dreadfully scorching day like this one, I ate some of that Charlotte, and it was excellent. I never had a particular liking for sweet things, but that was something I would like to eat again. Perhaps I should buy some on my way back. Just as I was looking forward to that while preparing to go home after school, my mobile phone vibrated. It was an email from Kengo.
It read, “The preparations are set. Do come over to receive a report.”
For a moment, I had no idea what he was going on about. I pulled up the calendar on my phone, and it was only then that I realized it was already the second Friday of July. The day for the serial arson case. If the articles in Funado Monthly were accurate, this was the day on which the 9th crime would occur.
This was an important day to smolder out the arsonist who had just been subjected to some terrible naming sense. I’d been the one to come up with the plan, so I could not refuse if asked to meet. Thus I set off for Kengo’s classroom, and it couldn’t be helped that I became a little grouchy in the process.
There were many students remaining in Kengo’s classroom, although there had only been the three of us when we were meeting with Itsukaichi-kun in May. The students staying behind had notebooks, reference books or problem sets open in front of them, and were all hard at work. I was finally made to realize that the carnage of university admission examinations was fast approaching, as we were in the summer of our third year in high school.
Kengo was not at his own seat, but had taken hold of a corner of the classroom away from the other students, his mobile phone on the table in front of him.
“The Newspaper Club’s in the middle of a strategy meeting. Itsukaichi will contact us when it’s over. I told him that sending an email was fine, but he said that he would come over if he can.”
Kengo said that with a solemn countenance. He had a sheet of paper on his table. It was a copy of the original manuscript for the eighth page of Funado Monthly’s July issue.
Taking a glance at it, I muttered.
“That’s long. The column’s gradually gotten longer, hasn’t it?”
Kengo nodded bitterly.
“It certainly has. The column was originally using the space left over after editing, but now they’ve shaved off some articles to let it expand.”
“That happens quite often, right?”
“As a matter of principle, no. The layout of the newspaper could collapse as a result.”
Even though I knew him to be the former president of the Newspaper Club, it still felt weird to hear him use a term like “layout”5.
“If they’re going against the principle, can’t you could remonstrate them about it as the ex-president?”
I cracked a joke, but a disgruntled look appeared on Kengo’s face.
“I’m just an ex-president. No way I can interfere with anything the current members have decided.”
He was a praiseworthy senior, but the column’s expansion was probably not “something decided by the current members”. In all likelihood, it was caused by Urino-kun’s tyranny. Then again, that wasn’t something I should be concerned about. I lowered my eyes to read the article.
|(1 July – Funado Monthly, Page 8 Column)|
Did you students notice? An anomaly just manifested in the case of serial arson, which we at the Newspaper Club have been tirelessly covering since October last year.
The culprit, who we call Fireman, did not set any fires last month.
Of course, if you look at Kira City as a whole, multiple fires have occurred here. There was even a suspicious fire (Referring the one that occurred on 19 June at Akanebe, 1st District). However, according to the Newspaper Club’s examination of the crime scene, it was clearly not the Fireman’s handiwork. The series of arson attacks was interrupted.
Did Fireman stop for good?
No. Here we shall make it public. Fireman always lights a fire from the late night of the second Friday to Saturday morning. But on that day last month, or the period between June 13 and 14, there was a typhoon. Since the rain was too heavy, he gave up on his crime.
With this month’s intermission, could he have been guided towards penitence? That is our hope, but we at this humble column believe that to be a shaky conclusion. He will probably do it again this month, as long as it doesn’t rain heavily again on the second Friday of this month.
We predict that Fireman will still target Kitaura Town this month, as he is likely still bound to his rule.
“His rule, huh?”
I muttered after letting out a sigh.
“What, you’re saying that it could be her rule?”
Kengo must have been bored waiting to hear from Itsukaichi to say something as trivial as that. Well, Urino-kun probably did think that the culprit was male.
But more importantly…
“I don’t understand his reason for thinking that they’ll continue targeting Kitaura.”
Kengo’s eyes moved to the article as well.
“If the precincts to be targeted for each month have been decided, we should prioritize them. What’s after Kitaura Precinct?”
“Harimi Precinct. You’ve also thought quite a bit about this, huh.”
Kengo put on a pointedly disgruntled expression.
“You don’t even need to think about something like that.”
He was saying that he wasn’t thinking of anything particularly significant, though that didn’t need to be said, in my opinion.
“I’m not laughing. But you’re right. The theory that their schedule was decided beforehand is certainly possible. That’s what I’d argue, and there is a reason for it.”
But confusion seeped into Kengo’s face.
I sank further into my chair.
“The first arson case happened in October at Hamae. After that, they’ve continued setting fires at the rate of one location per month, at the areas of jurisdiction of Kira City’s Fire Department precincts.”
Kengo’s face and attitude said, “What are you going on about now?” more eloquently than words could ever convey. That sure was an intense look. Perhaps school student seniors do have a different bearing compared to freshmen. Paying him no heed, I continued.
“By the way, Kengo, have you counted the number of Fire Department precincts in Kira City?”
Once again, his answer could be understood from his face and attitude. He hadn’t counted. What an easy person to read. Even if he strayed off the path in the future, he could never become a con artist.
“There are twelve precincts.”
“Twelve? That means…”
With a grin, I nodded.
In precisely one year, they can set fire to the jurisdictions of each precinct. It wouldn’t be strange to think that the culprit would prioritize this over the rule and order of the dates.”
Kengo leaned towards me a little.
“So you think he’s really going for Harimi?”
“No, not really. The arson target is still Kitaura. Don’t worry, I’m certain about that.”
I glanced at the clock on top of the blackboard. As might be expected of the season with the longest days, it was still too early to say that it was evening. The athletics clubs were bathed in ultraviolet rays on the sports grounds. How long would the Newspaper Club’s strategy meeting go on for? Thinking about it, they wouldn’t be talking about a confirmed fact, so I hoped they would finish up with it already. I didn’t know about Jeff Beck’s operating hours, but those Charlottes would be sold out if I didn’t get there quickly.
This time, Kengo saw through me as I had those things on my mind.
“You seem to be in a bad mood.”
Was it that the observational powers of a former Newspaper Club president were not to be underestimated, or was I just the type to easily show my feelings? That can’t be it.
“When a topic like this is involved, it’s rare to somehow end up in high spirits. Did something make you unhappy?”
Even as he said that, Kengo was grimacing as if he were surrounded by unpleasant things. To be honest, I was in a bad mood because it was hot and I wanted to go home, but that would make me seem uncool, so I tried coming up with other reasons.
“Yeah, I’m unhappy. There are three things I’m unhappy with.”
Could I even think of three?
“Firstly, this could be settled by email, so why do we have to wait in school?”
“Well, that’s because you hardly keep in touch! And if you’re asking to do this by email, I’ve already said as much to Itsukaichi.”
Well, it was certainly my bad on that point.
“Now for the second point. I’m annoyed that it was raining in June.”
We’d formulated a plan with Itsukaichi-kun’s assistance.
If the culprit had committed arson in June, their profile would automatically rise to the surface, at least to a certain extent. Based on that information, we would be able to narrow down their target in July, and catch them in the act. After that, I would do my best to overcome the formal English required for entrance examinations in August. That was the plan.
But it just had to rain.
“I think today’s plan will work out well, but having to wait for a month takes time, and that’s a hassle.”
Kengo had apparently put a considerable amount of thought into this already. With a light groan, he spoke in slurred words.
“It’s a natural disaster. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
And that was all he said. Well, my English scores had stabilized recently, so while it was a hassle, there was no need for me to fret.
By raising those two points, most of my resentment had been released. However, I’d regretfully mentioned there were three things I was unhappy about. I only said that because having three reasons seemed more convincing than two, but what should I do now?
“So, what’s the third?”
Urged on, I thought for a while. Something about this case I was unhappy about…
“I don’t like how we’re just waiting for something to happen.”
Unexpectedly, Kengo put on a serious face.
“Exactly. I’m trying to put an end to this case. We still don’t know how or whether Osanai-san is involved, but I want this to end. Yet we’re going to overlook the damage once. That’s a bad plan, and it makes us no different from the Newspaper Club which doesn’t do anything to stop the arson attacks for the sake of their articles. Was it really impossible to come up with a method to end this case without waiting for a fire to happen?”
“That’s what I’m not happy about.”
I thought Kengo would say something in response, but he kept silent. Since I had nothing more to say, and more significantly because of my bad mood, I maintained the silence as well. The original manuscript on the desk was an eyesore.
If we weren’t conversing, there was something I could do. Retrieving some flashcards from my pocket, I started memorizing and testing myself on English idioms. On the other hand, Kengo had his arms folded, and his eyes shut.
“Does he not find it hot?”, I thought.
We stayed like this for a few minutes, until Kengo spoke in a leisurely manner without stirring.
“On second thoughts, perhaps I should tell this to you, and only you.”
I hadn’t expected Kengo to make a confession at this point in time. I kept my flashcards.
“What is it?”
Was it perhaps some top secret information from the inner circle of the Newspaper Club? I thought it would be something like that, so I did not expect the words that followed.
“I was questioned by the police about this situation.”
“I became acquainted with a detective after that case with Isawa last year. He gave me a phone call and asked to meet. He then asked if it was true that predictions of the arson locations were going around Funa High.”
By “that case with Isawa”, he meant the Case of the Summer-Exclusive Tropical Parfait. I never became acquainted with any policemen after that, so I had no idea it was the opposite for Kengo.
Then again, while Kengo was only lightly wounded in that case, he was still a victim of assault, so perhaps it wasn’t that strange for him to be more connected to the police than me.
“So, how did you answer?”
Was that the first time I was surprised by Kengo? At the very least, it must have been quite a long time since the last instance of that. As a result, my voice was shamefully shrill.
Kengo seemed to be in a bad mood as well. After glancing at the other people who had remained in the classroom and confirming that none of them were paying us any attention, he replied in a subdued voice.
“How could I hide it? Of course, I told him everything. I even told him about the order of precincts.”
Not everything had been proven to be true yet, though.
“How much did you say? Did you tell him about this plan?”
“No, I didn’t say that much. There’s still a lot we don’t know, anyway.”
That made me feel a little relieved.
“And that’s why Urino’s name was not mentioned.”
“You kept it under wraps, huh.”
“I wasn’t asked about him, so I ended it off by saying, ‘That’s the rumor that’s spreading.’”
Basically, he also kept silent about the fact that the rumor came from the Newspaper Club, and that was in a face-to-face interview with a police officer.
As expected, Kengo’s fortitude was quite a lot higher compared to the average person. I would have probably told them all about it if I were in his position.
“Was the policeman satisfied with that? And more importantly, I wonder if they noticed the reverse order of the Disaster Prevention Plan…”
He muttered, shaking his head.
“Well, I don’t think he was surprised by it. Also, if he isn’t satisfied with what I told him, he could just ask someone else. Though he did say that the police refrain from questioning active high school students, because rumors about the student could easily start when they are seen with the police.”
That was a little strange. The police should have some divisions that deal solely with active high school students. But perhaps those divisions were not in charge of investigating the arson attacks.
“Anyway, with this serial arson case going on for so long, the police must have lost quite a lot of face, right?”
“The officer complained to me about it. Since the culprit can just set the fire and let it do the work while he escapes, it’s difficult to investigate. For cases like this where the fires are small, there usually isn’t much evidence remaining at the crime scene, so there’s no choice but to catch the culprit in the act. On top of that, each fire only caused minimal damage, so not a lot of manpower was allocated towards solving this case.
“I had no idea, but there was another case of serial arson in this city ten years ago. Do you know about it?”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t familiar with the history of crimes in Kira City. Hang on, did the police officer reveal his gripes to Kengo? That’s Kengo for you… I wanted to say, but perhaps he actually used a technique where he displayed some vulnerability to draw that information out of the officer. It would have been interesting to witness that conversation.
“At that time, the damage was concentrated around the culprit’s home, but it took almost two years to arrest him. Also, they didn’t catch him due to any investigation, just that they happened to see him while on patrol.”
“Wow, that’s lucky. Or perhaps they’re unlucky since they didn’t manage to catch the culprit for two years.”
“And this time, the scope of this case is the entire city. Well, the officer did say that it has a saving grace, which is the characteristic of the crime dates.”
Then again, while the attacks always happened late at night on Fridays, they couldn’t possibly leave everything unguarded for the other days.
Kengo fell silent for a while after saying all that. Seeing the brooding look on his face, I assumed that he was for some reason feeling embarrassed after making contact with the police… No, that wasn’t it. Since he’d steeled his resolve and initiated the topic himself, his feelings of embarrassment were probably directed at the Newspaper Club.
Finally, he asked a question with a somber tone.
“So, Jougorou, do you think the police will concentrate all their forces in Kitaura Town after hearing the Funa High rumor that I told them?”
“No way they would do that.”
“You think so too, huh?”
Kira City contained other historical buildings and densely populated areas. No matter how much credibility the police placed on this “Funa High rumor”, the day that they send all their forces to Kitaura would be the day their reputation becomes completely unsalvageable.
Now I understood why Kengo was in a bad mood.
“Either way, it’ll go on like this. The police have no choice but to step up their patrols on late Friday nights.”
“Whether or not you spoke to the police officer.”
“That’s why even if some Newspaper Club members get officially reprimanded tonight, you didn’t sell your juniors out.”
Kengo’s face contorted for a moment. I thought he was about to say something, but in the end all he said was, “Yeah.” It must be tough being a good senpai.
Seeing that face caused me to hesitate a little.
…Actually, there was one more thing that Kengo should have said. Based on his testimony, the police had a suspect in mind.
Back then, the teacher who used to be in the Student Counseling Department suspected the Newspaper Club of being the arsonists since they’d managed to predict the next crime locations. To be precise, they suspected Urino-kun, the one who had written the articles.
The exchange they had was apparently rather hysterical, but suspecting Urino-kun was certainly understandable. When viewing the facts of the case along with the articles in Funado Monthly, anyone unfamiliar with the details would naturally assume that it was a put-up job by whoever wrote the articles. By getting a grasp on the Funa High rumor, the police probably wanted to get a grasp on Funado Monthly as well. With that, there would be no reason not to suspect Urino-kun. The column did properly spell out the name of its author, after all.
At this point, Itsukaichi-kun had not given us any information that Urino-kun had been questioned by the police. I wasn’t directly acquainted with him, but based on what was said about him, he would probably jump for joy and tell everyone if he were to be taken in for questioning. But if that wasn’t that case, it meant that while the police had contacted Kengo, they had not contacted Urino-kun. What was the reason for not directly getting to the source of the rumor?
Perhaps they were looking down on it as just a rumor from a high school, so they didn’t want to deal with it? That could certainly be the case.
But if not… they could be leaving their suspect at large.
The fires were small, hardly left any evidence, and it would be difficult to arrest the culprit without catching them in the act. If that was what the police thought about it, they would want to keep an eye on their leading suspect, Urino-kun. In their mind, if they came into contact with him awkwardly, it could cause him to control himself, which would put an end to the crimes, but wouldn’t allow them to catch the culprit.
Thus, they would intricately mark possible locations on Friday nights and try to catch the criminal red-handed, right?
That was what I thought, but I did not communicate that to Kengo.
After all, what use was there in telling him about it? They were nothing but deductions, and even if they turned out to be correct, nothing more could be done.
I flipped through the flashcards again. Kengo had closed his eyes and stopped moving.
A few minutes passed before the phone on Kengo’s table vibrated. Ponderously extending an arm, Kengo opened up the phone and put it to his ear.
It wasn’t an email, but a call. The other party was seemingly doing all the talking, for Kengo said nothing for a while.
Finally, he replied, “I see. Be careful.”
With just that, he ended the call.
I didn’t even need to ask about who it was from. It was obviously Itsukaichi-kun, reporting that the strategy meeting had ended. Before I could say anything, Kengo spoke up.
“He says there are no problems.”
That was good to hear. We’d stayed so long after school just to hear that line.
“Do you think they’ll fall for the trap? If they notice…”
“Then we’ll just have to devise another plan. I have three others in mind.”
I grabbed my bag and stood up.
“I’ll be heading home now. There’s nothing more we can do. Hopefully the Newspaper Club is blessed with divine providence and catch the culprit red-handed.”
If that were to happen, the case would be complete, and wouldn’t drag on to August. Now it was time to buy the Charlotte. Just when I turned my back on Kengo, my mobile phone vibrated.
“No, just an email. Who could it be…”
I checked the sender. It was “Nakamaru-san Mobile”. The message was short.
“If you’re in school, come to the classroom.”
For an email sent by Nakamaru-san, it had a unique quality.
There were no emojis in the message.
Quite a few people were diligently studying in Kengo’s classroom, so I assumed that there would be some in my classroom as well.
I slid open the door.
Nakamaru-san, whose wavy hair drooped down to her shoulders, was standing with her back to a window. Since the window was slightly open, it let in some gusts of wind which caused the scarf in her summer attire to sway. Her forced smile felt a little stiff. Also, there was no one else in the room.
I had seen something like this before. Somewhere, some time ago.
…Ah, I see. It wasn’t such a long time ago, which was why I could easily recall it.
It was after school on a hot day in September last year. I was in a similar situation, having been summoned to the same empty classroom by a piece of paper found in my desk. The summer uniform and windy condition were exactly the same as well. However, if my memory was correct, the sky was a different color back then. Was the sunset not a discomforting shade of red on that day? On the other hand, it was perfectly clear today. Not a single cloud was seen since morning, and the sky was still in a brilliant cerulean.
“So you came.”
Nakamaru-san said, then closed the window. I also shut the door behind me as I entered the classroom.
“No one’s here, huh. There were a lot of people staying back in class E.”
“There were some people here.”
She then continued in an indifferent tone.
“I asked them to leave.”
I was quite delighted to be able to recreate that scene from the past. Since Nakamaru-san was unreserved in her social interactions, I could imagine her saying, “Come on, get out, get out. I’ll be using this room.” She had no such right to monopolize the entire room, but the people who had stayed back must have obediently left with bitter smiles. Well, she had a lovable personality. Such a thing was out of the question for me.
“Sorry for calling you here so suddenly.”
Her voice seemed to be lacking in energy.
“It’s fine. If you call me, I can find you at the drop of a hat.”
I cracked a smile, but Nakamaru-san cast her eyes downwards.
“You never change, Kobato-chan.”
What was she saying all of a sudden… well, it was true that I was taking care not to show my displeasure, having been seen through by Kengo earlier.
She must have had some purpose in calling me over, but Nakamaru-san fell silent after saying that line. It would be the weekend starting from tomorrow, so perhaps it was a talk about going somewhere. Or perhaps she wanted to discuss what to do during the summer holidays? But would the talkative Nakamaru-san hesitate in broaching this topic? If not this, what other topics would she want to talk about?
With those thoughts, I looked at Nakamaru-san, who was still saying nothing. Eventually, she asked a question without meeting my eyes.
“…Kobato-chan, do you have anything to ask or say to me?”
“Nothing in particular.”
I instantly answered. Nakamaru-san sharply exhaled, as if having made up her mind.
“You really haven’t changed. It’s almost been a year, but you haven’t changed at all. You don’t show your excitement and nervousness, nor do you show boredom. You’re just always smiling like this.”
I couldn’t tell if I was smiling or not, but I must have been if she put it like that.
Nakamaru-san quietly raised the subject.
“I heard from Yoshiguchi. You know all about me, don’t you?”
Who was Yoshiguchi again? That was probably one of Nakamaru-san’s friends…
I thought back to our conversations to find a mention of her name. The one always doing stupid things was Miura, the “crazy smart” one aiming to become a doctor would be Taki. Besides them… I couldn’t quite recall. The name of Yoshiguchi didn’t ring any bells. I decided to ask her honestly, without putting on a front.
“Who’s Yoshiguchi again?”
Nakamaru-san glared at me sternly, as if thinking that I was trying to play innocent.
“I’ve asked you about her before, remember? She’s from class 3E.”
That didn’t help at all! Still, nothing came to mind. I would have understood if that name came out from Kengo’s mouth, but I couldn’t smoothly connect Nakamaru-san with the information broker whose bag had been stolen before.
“I suppose there was something like that. There were some compelling reasons for it.”
But Nakamaru-san probably wouldn’t listen to those reasons. What a hassle this has become.
That was what I thought, but what she took issue with was something else entirely.
“It’s fine, you don’t need to give excuses. I’m talking about the fact that you know all about me.”
The information I’d gained at that time was the existence of a connection between Osanai-san and Urino-kun. I’d had a faint inkling of that being the case, but once it was confirmed, setting a direction for our plan became quite a lot easier. Besides that…
Right, I did hear about Nakamaru-san as well.
She was apparently two-timing me, and had a main boyfriend.
“I was told that you know about it, so I was always concerned about it. What would Kobato-chan do? But you never showed any reaction.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, it is. Do you remember what happened the last time? I was really frightened, but all you were interested in were the tomatoes, right?”
Since Nakamaru-san mentioned tomatoes, she was probably referring to the day when I used watertight logic to deduce that she hated tomatoes. However, much to my chagrin and mental anguish, my deduction failed to hit the mark. But after that, I had no recollection of her being frightened or nervous. Was that how she was feeling?
Nakamaru-san’s voice, which was usually springy, was low today. But she didn’t sound mechanical. Instead, she sounded like she was suppressing her intense emotions.
“At first, I wondered if you believed in me and ignored Yoshiguchi’s rumor. That’s why it was so painful. If you truly believed in me, I would be despicable.”
That would mean Yoshiguchi-san’s information was correct. As expected of someone Kengo gave his stamp of approval to.
“But that wasn’t it.”
Well, I suppose it wasn’t.
“You didn’t care at all, did you, Kobato-chan? Even if I was two-timing you, even if I had a main boyfriend. You were fine with it either way, so you always looked calm.”
It was hot in the room. Why did Nakamaru-san close the window?
I was thinking of opening the window myself, but Nakamaru-san was staring at me directly without averting her gaze. This was the most difficult situation to make a move in.
“…Before this, even before this, I’ve gone out with boys like you. Boys who act indifferent and pompous. I liked those types of boys.”
Nakamaru-san raised the corners of the lips slightly.
“Even those boys would be shaken after hearing rumors about me. They would get angry, become more considerate of me, cry. They didn’t last long, about half a year each.”
Did she enjoy seeing them like this? By force of habit, I had such a thought.
“But you didn’t change, Kobato-chan. Not at all… so I almost misunderstood you to be an extremely kind and tolerant person.”
“Calling that a misunderstanding is cruel.”
But my words didn’t reach her. She was talking by herself.
“It’s wrong, right?”
“Yes, it is. You didn’t change, but not because you believed in me and not because you’re really tolerant or kind. I’ve noticed.
“You haven’t changed at all from the very beginning, from that day last year when I said, ‘Let’s go out.’ Even when we’ve gone on so many dates and been to so many places. From that first day, that smiling face hasn’t changed! Look, even now!”
She pointed straight at me.
…Nakamaru-san, it’s not good to thoughtlessly point your finger at others. Some people might not be able to forgive you for that.
I would, though.
For some reason, Nakamaru-san started to smile.
“Y’know, Kobato-chan, even if it only started as a joke or penalty game, even if it exists in shape only, love is still love. It warms you up, doesn’t it? I like that. But you’re different, Kobato-chan.”
It wasn’t her usual light smile.
“What are you? Seriously, how do your expressions not change after a year? I don’t understand you at all, Kobato-chan. A cold person? Or do you fundamentally make light of people in general?
“I don’t think you’ll be able to understand me. Whenever I break up with a guy I was going out with, I’ll always feel a little vexed, because I imagine that he’ll make a different face when he goes out with someone else. But I don’t think that way now, since you definitely won’t change no matter who you’re dating. I’m sure it was the same feeling with your previous girlfriend, right?”
That was both irrelevant and wrong.
But Nakamaru-san would probably never be able to understand that in her entire life.
I could hear shouts from outside the window as the athletic clubs did their running exercises. It was soon to be the cooling down time for clubs.
“Kobato-chan, I think you should know this by now, but it’s over for us.”
“Yeah, even I can tell.”
“So there’s one last thing I want to try.”
Nakamaru-san’s eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Can I call you Joe? That sounds cool, doesn’t it?”
I grinned and immediately made a declaration.
“Bye bye, Kobato-chan. I may be despicable, but so are you.”
She might be right about that.
An email came in at night, a short while after the date changed. It was from Kengo.
“The plan was a success. The Newspaper Club failed. A gatepost of an abandoned house was targeted, and the fire was immediately extinguished.”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I slipped into my bed, took a long, deep breath and drifted off to dreamland.
It was a dream in which I was stacking piles of stones on the banks of the Sanzu River6.
I would stack the stones, and topple them over myself. Stack the stones again, and topple them over again. It was doubtful if I truly wanted to stack the stones up.
Was it just a dream, or something that I hazily imagined while half-asleep at dawn?
Either way, the first thing I did when I woke up the next morning was to clear my memory… of “Nakamaru-san Mobile”.
Chapter 3 | Contents | Chapter 5
Editors (Tier 2) : Joshua Fisher
Assistants (Tier 1) : Rolando Sanchez
Thank you very much for all your support!
- Casual drinking establishments that serve alcoholic drinks and snacks, similar to a bar.
- From a children’s song, The Tortoise and the Hare, in which the hare calls the tortoise to laugh and him being slow, to which the tortoise replies, “What are you talking about, rabbit?” and proposes a race with the rabbit, leading up to the events of Aesop’s fable of the same name.
- A shady garden alcove with the sides and roof formed by trees or climbing plants trained over a framework.
- A lot of sites say that the name came from Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, and the Wikipedia article doesn’t mention anything about a hat, so I’m not sure about this one.
- This is a borrowed word, so it’s exactly how it sounds in English.
- A futile task, because the piles of stones are repeatedly toppled. This is a limbo or hell for children in Japanese Buddhism.