Kamisama no Memochou:Volume 5 Chapter 4

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The Twenty One Balls on that Summer[edit]

At the end of summer, the white ball seemingly absorbed by the blue sky of the field captured my heart.

My summer vacation was wrecked by work. It was not about wasting my life fooling around with the NEETs or helping Alice move the Dr. Peppers around. It was actually about coordinating an event. Including the prior kidnapping incident,my summer vacation slipped away while I was running around.

I couldn't say that such a summer vacation was not fulfilling, but as a 16-year-old high school boy, I do want to lose myself in some things a typical high school student would do.

Entering November, this youthful passion continued to erupt and expand, seeking a place to vent, and then it exploded.

...At the game center.

   

As my dad was often deployed everywhere for work, I never made many friends from elementary school to middle school--if I did write such things, Alice would probably have chided me "Think about how emotionally retarded you are instead of blaming your dad's redeployment!" But in any case, I did have a period when I spent my time after school alone, at the game center

Such an illness (I don't think it's wrong to call it an illness) eased up a lot later on, one because the fighting games fad cooled off, and two was because my older sister started managing my finances, and I had no money to spend.

In other words, the passionate flames in my heart were never vanquished. With a battlefield and fuel, surely it will be blazing again.

"You'll be addicted anyway! Starting now, Vice-Admiral Fujishima?"

Soon after the second semester started, Major invited me to play an online baseball game called 'Power Playball'. Like an arcade game that can be connected to others, this game required lots of money. Thanks to the salary Yondaime gave me, my wallet became a lot fatter.

'PWLB' (This shorthand's weird, but it's a given terminology) requires many players to register their teams with their identification cards, and battle online in the entire country. The best concept of this game is the massive player database. Unlike ordinary baseball games where only a few actual baseball players are available for choice, one an automatically generate a player with unique values and fitting name just by entering a person's name. It appears to be composed based on the massive amount of online data.

For example, by entering the name of a famous racer like Senna, Prost or Schumacher, a character with high speed will be generated, while a characters named based on a professional golfer will have higher contact and arm accuracy stats, while a pro wrestler will be a power hitter. If the name entered was that of a politician or artiste, the player character generated would have unique values that 'might seem fitting'. Thus, it was a major topic on the internet, and attracted the attentions of players who weren't that familiar with baseball. Even if the name entered was an anime or manga character, the unique values generated can be rather believable; it's really amazing. If the name entered is a baseball player's, the character will naturally have the corresponding values. Even the little details like Kuwata Masumi muttering to the ball before pitching, or Kiyohara Kazuhiro dealing with dead balls will be reflected on the characters, so there had been decent revivews on it. However, the higher the values of the players in game, the higher the cost needed, so it's unlikely to put all stars like Suzuki Ichiro, Ochiai Hiromitsu, Oh Sadaharu and Nagashima Shigeo into the batting lineup. Besides, entering names of ordinary people will create characters that are somewhat decent, so quite a few people named the characters based on their own names.

The appearance templates of the players in the game are all fixed, but the uniforms can be customized with different patterns, and I too got a unique place in the game through the internet; it's not an overstatement to say that my team's famous. I had all the heroines from the Dragon Quest I to IX as my starting players, and had the image of my customized characters plastered on the uniforms, resulting in it being a subject of report by a few blogs and news stations (just to note, the team's very weak).

"As to be expected of you, Vice-Admiral Fujishima. Our 'Drive a Phoenix' team uniform shall be in your care."

"Please deal with that questionable team name first. I don't want a picture I draw be famous for that kind of team..."

"What's wrong with this name? It means 'Driving a Phoenix! Of course the Phoenix here refers to the F-14 Tomcat fighter jets missiles, nothing to do with a team that couldn't be created after losing to Rakuten in a trial..."

"Who are you trying to bluff here!? Isn't your ace pitcher called 'Horie'?"

"His strongest weapon is a forkball that falls like the stockmarket!" Hey! watch your words! "Anyway, a Phoenix has a fiery, ferocious feeling, so a dazzling golden glowing bird piccture!"

So I had an Oyakodon picture pasted on the uniform, but Major was infuriated. Didn't you want a fiery, dazzling bird!?

*

“You have been lax recently. What do you think the job of a detective assistant is?”

On a certain Friday in mid-September, I was nagged at by Alice. I was always loitering at the game center, and it had been a while since I showed up at the agency.

“Yes, Fujishima-kun! It’s the assistant’s job to take care of Alice’s hair! Do remember how to take care of it…ehh, seriously! Didn’t I tell you to comb it gently? Like this…”

Even Ayaka was fuming. The three of us were on the bed on the Detective Agency, and Ayaka handed half of Alice’s long hair to me, teaching me how to take care of the hair. Ayaka was giving all kinds of criticism at my combing and conditioning techniques.

“But I never asked you two to take care of my hair!” Alice hated the idea of people toying with her hair, and was unhappy about this.

“I rather have Ayaka or Hiro handle this, if it’s up to me.”

Ayaka’s my classmate, working part-time at ‘Ramen Hanamaru’ in this building. She’s a lot more capable than me when it comes to handling with Alice’s needs.

However, she does act airheaded at times, saying some troublesome things like this,

“But won’t both of you be moving to a larger office and living together, Fujishima-kun and Alice? That will be more troublesome now.”

“Wh-why do I have to live together with Narumi?”

Alice tried to turn her head around, but scowled as her hair was stuck in the comb. Her ears were blushing. Did it hurt that much? Ah, no…so I turned to Ayaka too. What do you mean, living together?

“Holmes and Watson have always been together! Poirot and Captain Hastings! Don’t a detective and assistant have to live together?”

“Who taught Ayaka such nonsensical knowledge? You don’t read any detective novels, don’t you?”

“…Not on me!?” I had no knowledge on foreign mysteries at all.”

“Hiro told me.”

“Ayaka, think about it. Don’t get too close to that gigolo! He’s the guy who’ll try to woo any nurse the moment he’s born! Always with the useless words!”

Alice was so furious that she was patting her thighs. I too was taken aback. Living together with Alice? This isn’t good, is it? Bad in all kinds of ways, so please don’t joke about this. However, Ayaka did once tell off Alice for being careless about the relationship between male and female. Why mention that out of a sudden.

“Hiro and I have discussed over it, and we decided it’s time to change Alice’s education. Since both of you are going to live together, might as well go with the flow…” Who’s going to live with her? What kind of education is this?

“Enough! Narumi! You don’t have to learn how to take care of the chair!”

I was tapped on the shoulder, so I handed the comb to Ayaka, and had her do the rest. I should have done so right from the beginning.

“Listen up, Narumi! I can live by myself even without an assistant like you! Your current job involves only the ironing of clothes. Remember this!”

“Yes yes yes…I get you.”

Alice had been a little more self-aware, realizing that it’s embarrassing for others to strip her. However, I was still the one in charge of ironing her pajamas, for it seemed she was scared of touching it.

“Why is Alice so scared of the iron?” Ayaka continued to comb. It seemed Alice had a phobia as she had once touched it after I had used it.

“Correcting the shape by applying heat. This short-term manner of thinking is truly the terrifying bit. It is barely acceptable if used only on clothes, but imagine…there may be fools who will think of ironing the winkles of a human.”

“Oh yes, Alice. Do you know about a hair iron? It’s used to iron the hair.”

Once Ayaka whispered this explanation to Alice, the latter’s black hair jolted like electricity. Alice reached her right hand out towards the keyboard by her side, and the search result appeared on a screen.

“…Wh-wh-what is this device?”

After reading the description of the hair iron, Alice shrieked. So she didn’t know about such a thing before? She got a whole bunch of weird knowledge in her head, and no common sense at all.

“Heats up the hair? That looks like a torture tool used to interrogate criminals! An Iron Maiden is a massage chair compared to this!”

Apologies to all hair iron manufacturers, I guess our detective here has no malicious intent. Alice wiped off Ayaka’s hand, and snuggled into the pile of dolls. Her buttocks were still shaking. Is it that scary?

“Narumi! Never ever use the iron to flatten the creases on my pajamas! Such terrifying devices should be exterminated.”

“How am I supposed to flatten your pajamas…without an iron?”

“Use your hands to flatten my pajamas one by one! Consider yourself lucky to spend an uninteresting life on this!”

“You got to be kidding! I have my own things to do!”

“Oh? What is it? Say it.”

And with her actually mentioning this, I was a little disturbed.”

“You’re not trying to say that you’re revising or reading ahead? Don’t make me laugh. You’re definitely repeating the year.”

“Ugh…I!” I retorted, “I do some sports after school.”

“So, ‘Power PlayBall’?”

“You know about that?”

“The NEET detective knows all incompetence. Furthermore, you are a highly popular creator on the internet. How can I not know? I do know you have been designing crude uniforms that show lots of skin, and got a bunch of high salary players, but you never won at all because of your utter lack of team balance.”

“How is that crude? Many people requested me for such things! What can I do?”

See, even Ayaka, who doesn’t know anything, is giving me a weird look here!

“E-erm? What is it? Fujishima-kun? You’re unable to graduate because you lack credits, and now you’re drawing eros to earn a living because you don’t want to work?”

“I have no idea where to begin retorting, so I’ll stay silent.”

“But you aren’t. You said something.”

“Ahh yeah.”

“…Actually, Fujishima-kun, you’ll say everything and anything to yourself, and that’s why we’re having this conversation. You haven’t realized?”

“…Ayaka, you can’t mention that to him directly! Look at his devastated look. It’s like a worm on the asphalt exposed to the sunlight the entire morning, no?”

“I-it’s okay, I’m not that devastated…” I weakly refuted. “It’s not the first time Ayaka said this about me…”

Ayaka had first said this about me before the Angel Fix incident. In other words, I was told off by two different people, and this was a lot worse than before. She couldn’t remember, and yet that’s what she said of me…whatever, in the future, I’ll just work in a job that doesn’t require me to talk to others. Maybe I should just live as an illustrator…

“Eh…but…since you are earning, that means your illustrations are amazing, aren’t they, Fujishima-kun?”

Ayaka tried to speak up for me, but she ended up wrecking me instead.

“it’s not real money, just in-game currency.”

Alice coldly noted as she tapped at the keyboard, showing the ‘PWLB’ forums. Shown on it were the illustrations I put up for auction. Most were already sold out.

“Did you draw these, Fujishima-kun? Eh? Looks like some anime illustration I saw before.”

Ayaka looked back and forth between me and the monitor.

“The one at the tope right was used in a movie poster, isn’t it? I can see it that everywhere on the internet.”

“it’s not that simple. Actually, this game doesn’t have a function to upload pictures, and he had to used the tool provided by the maker to do all these.”

Alice began to explain gleefully.

“If current available pictures can be uploaded, there’ll be a controversy over copyrights. That’s why the game maker provided this outdated drawing tool. So outdated, ovals can only be drawn.”

“Eh? Ehhh?”

Ayaka pointed at the monitor, looking flabbergasted. Shown on the monitor was a swimmer girl with glittering skin.

“In other words, the bored people in this country really have too much unnecessary stubbornness and skills that surpassed the make’s expectations. By changing the diameters of the ovals, any straight lines and curves can be made. The drawing process can be replayed. You can see by looking.”

Alice pressed a key, and the image on the monitor was refreshed immediately. Ovals of various colors and sizes gathered, gradually forming that swimsuit girl.

“It’s a fast forward. Probably takes about three to four hours to complete.”

No, I spent about 8 hours actually.

“Amazing…so there are really such bored people on this world!”

“That assistant of mine sprawled on the floor happened to be one of them.”

“You two nag too much!” I hammered at the corner of the bed, trying to refute. Alice gave me a cold look, and even Ayaka looked at me with pity.

“Eh, well…it’s fine, Fujishima-kun!” Ayaka stammered, “Drawing a swimmer girl with ovals is pretty impressive too!” That’s not a job! Stop trying to console me in such a strange manner.

At this moment, the bell to the office rang. My savior appeared. It’s Major.

“Vice-Amiral Fujishima, you’re here? We’re deploying to ‘Game Nishimura’ today.”

I hurried out, and nearly crashed into the computer rack. Game Nishimura was the playground we deemed as our battlefield. Don’t say that we’re being deployed. This isn’t work.”

“Stop creating a fuss when you enter.” Alice glared at Major, “Narumi’s doing work as a detective assistant. Go look for someone else.”

“What work? It’s Ayaka’s job to take care of your hair, Alice.”

“He’s in charge of being bullied by me.”

“Major, let’s go.”

I sighed, and hurried out of the office.

   

It was evening, and the setting sun was finally behind the building, the heat seeping from the asphalt mixed with some coolness. There were a few trendy shops on the road, and as usual, few passers-by as we went our way from the office to the station. There were a few stalls selling ice cream and crepes that livened the mood. The low-rise buildings and the stout culture hall could be seen, and the passers-by started to increase in numbers. ‘Game Nishimura’ was opposite the culture hall, next to the batting practice centre. The slender and long apartments seemed to be flattened by these two buildings, and the windows from the first to the third storey were covered with glamorous gaming posters. Like usual, there were a few customers moving in between the crane games at the entrance.

“Major! There’s quite a few retro games on the second floor after renovation. Mind checking it out for us?”

Once we entered the shop, a nervous looking bespectacled man walked out. This Nishimura-san is the shop owner. His dad is the boss, but as the latter has been hospitalized for long, he ended up running this business at a young age.

“Oh? I’ll have a look.”

Nishimura-san had been asking Major, a fellow gamer, for suggestions. Major gleefully looked into a corner deep inside the second storey, acting like a consultant, only to be arranged.

“This much, and you say that you gathered all the retro games? What do you want me to say?”

“Is-is that so?”

“Don’t import any classic shooting games. They don’t attract young people, are too common for retro games, and nobody’s interested in them. At least bring in Bomber Jack or Libble Rabble.”

“Uu, yes, I understand.” Hey! You’re really going to do what he says?

Speaking of which, Nishimura-san seemed to have aged quite a bit since summer break. The large gaming consoles on the first floor are one thing, but there’s hardly any customers on the second and third floor. Probably having difficulty doing business.

“Didn’t you import six ‘PWLB’ during summer break? Hasn’t that improved things?” Major asked, and Nishimura-san’s shoulders dropped.

‘The only ones popular are large online games. Everything else, best not to talk about them.”

Nishimura-san looked around at the retro games, and sighed reluctantly.

“The manufacturer has been going about promoting new gaming consoles, and we had to do discounts like the others…the highly anticipated games were soon pushed for home port…I heard that ‘PWLB’ will be moved to home port soon. The future sure is bleak…”

I guess so. You can say that the glory days of game centers is starting to end with the advent of family gaming ports and internet.”

“Wait a sec, Major.” You shouldn’t be saying that here. Nishimura-san started to cry as he wiped at the screen of the console.

“Even the part-timers quit very soon. The batting centre next door’s closed down.”

I was about to mention that it was quiet next door. So they had closed down?

“I don’t know if our shop can last through the winter,,,”

“I-it’s that bad?”

Whenever I came by to play ‘PWLB’, I had to queue, so I never had to worry about that. Thinking about it, given the space, there isn’t much earnings.

“Owner, mind if this thirty year veteran at the game center say something here?” Aren’t you just twenty a few days back? Major leaned on the chair, a leg resting on another as he looked proud. Nishimura-san kneeled on the floor, and clamly said, “Please do!”

“The most important part of managing a game center, is to not bother with what the gaming maniacs say.”

“You don’t have the right to say that, you gaming maniac!”

“You see, Vice Admiral Fujishima…” Major pointed at the empty second floor, “Gaming maniacs are maniacs, and no matter how we complain, we can’t leave our games. Normal folks have many ways to enjoy life however. When they feel that game centers are boring, they’ll walk away silently. If we’re going to change this shop by our wishes, we’ll have the crane and gacha games disappear, and install various retro fighting games. This will result in worse performances.”

“Now that you say so, that is correct…”

“Now what am I supposed to do…?” Nishimura-san asked as he sat down next to Major.

“Anyway, why do you want to continue this decadent business?”

Major never minced his words the entire time. Seriously, if this shop closes down, won’t you and I have issues with that?

“It’s my dad’s shop. I like games too, so naturally.”

“This isn’t a trade that can be done naturally. Do you know that every year, the current gaming industry will continue to evolve the business models, and yet the large games that use hundred yen coins like before…”

Major continued his spiel of words, and I had to hurry down the stairs. There were people gathering around the large pachinko-like ‘PWLB’ machines.

“Narumi! Didn’t Major just drop by too? What are we waiting for? Registration for the Tokyo Open Preliminaries is open.” The college students gaming with us kept waving to us.

“Are you done with the full Morning Musume team?” So asked one of those in high school…probably a senior. We met in the gaming club, and to be honest, I really did not know his name.

“But…that team is really weak, you know? I did make the illustrations…”

“It’s fine, show it now. Nobody’s looking forward to seeing how strong your team is.”

Amidst the laughter, I was shoved to the side. We inserted our identification cards, and the teams were decided. The 360 degrees monitor showed the dazzling green of the Tokyo Dome, “Hey! The opponent are all from Johnny’s!” “This Morning Musume group can match up against them, I guess.” “Wait, Nakai’s a baseball nerd. He’s strong!” “Hey! Isn’t that Mori there? Now he’s treated as a racer! Super fast now!” “That Kimura’s basically a baseball player!” and the spectators roared. I was choosing the starters using the touch panels, feeling the passion oozing from the bottom of my heart. Game centers certainly were becoming a thing of the past, but I kept visiting to experience this passion.

   

For the following few hours, we kept inserting coins into the ‘PWLB’ console. Midway through, Major joined the battle, and after four months into the pennant race, the firefly lights told us it was time to close shop.

“I’ll tell the shopkeeper to keep it open the entire night!”

Major never won a single game the entire night, and tumbled out as he tried to look for the shop owner. I hurriedly stop him.

“Don’t forget what you just said before!”

“It’s just an ordinary situation, nothing like the current situation. A customer has to be loyal to his own desires, and give stubborn requests to the shop owner!”

You know you’re stubborn, so keep it in check! Besides, running a shop till late at night can mean getting their license revoked! Major ignored me, stormed past the empty shop as everyone else had went home, and head off to the back room.

“No! Nishimura-san’s busy too--”

The door to the back room was slightly opened, and there was a commotion heard at this moment.

“…You should be thinking about your own future now, right? This shop has no future. You know how the previous manufacturers bully the shops when they don’t get payment, right?”

“Don’t think we’ll keep giving you such good conditions here.”

Major and I stopped immediately, and we exchanged looks. There were two fierce sounding men, along with the timid voice of Nishimura-san.

“But…I can’t decide on this alone…”

“In that case, how about we pay a visit to the hospital?”

“N-no, please don’t. My dad’s really not in a good condition. He can’t take any more shock.”

“So can’t you decide on this now?”

I tried to lean by the door, but my leg latched onto the chair accidentally. The chair I kicked over collided into a game console, causing an unexpectedly loud noise. Major, who was next to me, widened his eyes at me.

The door to the back room opened, and a tall young man dressed in a black suit and light brown sunglasses appeared, the red shirt under his collar clearly showing a pattern.

“What are you eavesdropping about, you brat?”

Major and I stumbled back.

Behind the red shirt guy was a middle-aged man dressed in a white suit. There was a footprint by the edge of the desk, his hand on Nishimura-san’s shoulder, the latter all curled up.

“Ah, so-sorry, but…”

I had a look at those two, and looked over at Nishimura-san.

“It’s fine. We’re just talking business here. Okay, hurry home now.”

Nishimura-san barely forced a smile. “Tch.” The red-shirt man clicked his tongue, glared at us, and shoved the door aside.

The white lights of the fireflies continued to flicker incessantly above our heads.

*

The following day, after school, I came to ‘Ramen Hanamaru’, spotted Tetsu-senpai slurping the Chinese cold noodles at the back door, and immediately mentioned this to him.

“Those guys are yakuza, surely?” senpai immediately responded.

“…I guess so! So…”

I put my bag down, and sat on the tire opposite him. The heat of late-summer never faded, and the sweaty short-sleeved shirt was sticking onto my head, just like the duo yesterday I could not forget.

Next to that area was one of the bustling streets in Tokyo, and I could see such vicious looking people practically every day. However, I knew very well they were really members of the yakuza. I really didn’t want to have this instinct of identifying yakuza, but I did have a few close encounters with the violence gangs, so I figured it out immediately.

“Now the question is, why did Nishimura-san get involved with the yakuza? Did he owe some money to some bad company?”

“Maybe that is the case…”

Nishimura-san did say business was tough. Based on what we eavesdropped upon, it appeared things were a little more complicated. Since the yakuza had proposed some good conditions, I’m guessing Nishimura-san promised them something.

Anyway, Major and I escaped with our tails behind our back. Nobody asked us to stay behind and be a busybody, but it didn’t seem good to leave others behind and run away.

“So? Where did Major go?”

“He said he’s still worried. Once ‘Game Nishimura’ opens up, he’ll drop by to look.

“It’s about 4pm. Since he’s going to ask about what’s going on, I guess it’s about time he would show up now?”

“What about Nishimura?”

Min-san, who was preparing to open shop, suddenly pushed the back door aside and poked her head out. It’s hot, and there’s no customer, but just wrapping a sarashi around your chest without wearing a vest is too stimulating now, isn’t it? So I thought.

“So that guy’s shop is going to close down? Haven’t seen him drop by for a few drinks recently…looks like he went about borrowing money everywhere.”

“So it’s that bad that you heard of it, Min-san?”

Nishimura-san’s Min-san’s classmate in high school. He lived near Tomozou-san from Okabayashi Sundries, and they inherited their fathers’ shops after they graduated from high school. It seemed even in recent times, they gathered together to drink.

“I heard him mention about managing the game center in high school…” Min-san muttered.

“Eh, that much money is needed to run a game center? And he had to borrow?”

Tetsu-senpai put down the empty bowl on the table, looking up at Min-san.

“Of course he needs to. You NEETs won’t be able to understand though.”

Min-san sounded really frustrated as she answered,

“A new game platform needs millions of yen. There’s also the logistics and the utilities bills. The hundred yen coins I get from the loafing brats.”

“The game centers have been closing down one after another when I was still in school, I think! Might as well pack it up.”

“If he ended up having to borrow money from the yakuza, he might as well close shop…”

While Min-san was muttering to herself,

“No…erm…I didn’t borrow from them.”

Suddenly, there was a voice from the alley. We turned around in unison, and spotted a tall lanky figure standing between the buildings,

“Nishimura!” Min-san widened her eyes, “Don’t you have to take care of the shop?”

“Ah…well, Major said he can take over for the time being…”

We entered the ramen shop that had yet to open, and took up half of the 5 seats at the counter, facing Min-san in the kitchen

“It seemed they wanted to move their office to the fourth floor of our building.”

“You were threatened by them?” Min-san was chopping the onions, only lifting her head slightly to glance at Nishimura-san.

“Yes. It seems they want to modify the place into a pachinko parlor, and want to chase us away. Well, it’s more like if we don’t move, we’ll have to pay for protection fees.”

“That’s being involved with civilians.” Min-san impatient swept the chopped spring onions into the Tupperware, “Since it happened, couldn’t you have reported it to the police and have them deal with it?”

“But…it’s not that simple…”

With a bitter grimace, Nishimura-san ruffled his soft, natural perm hair.

“My dad’s on somewhat good terms with the landlord, so back then, the landlord charged us little for rent, and that’s why we managed to keep running until now. It seems the landlord owed the yakuza lots of money, and demanded money from us. In name, he said he wanted to increase the rent.”

“And then he’ll pay the excesses to the yakuza directly?” Tetsu-senpai asked.

“Hm, I guess…”

As long as the landlord wouldn’t say anything, this roundabout way of earning money would make it hard to disprove that the yakuza did anything violent against the civilians. Recently, the yakuza has been becoming smarter.

“What do we do now?”

“I don’t know what to do. That’s why Major called me to come here to discuss it with you guys…”

So was that the ‘good conditions’ mentioned?

“Eh? Th-then ‘Game Nishimura’ will have to close down.”

I grabbed Nishimura-san by the shoulders, and shook them hard. That’s our precious court!

“So I don’t what to do either…”

“You’re really indecisive!”

Min-san slapped the chopping board, and Nishimura-san jolted back in shock, all shrivelled up.

“Narumi, bring him over to Alice to talk. Also, check on the landlord and the yakuza. Not much loss if we check them out beforehand. I always hated this guy’s lack of decisiveness. Really, he annoys me so me, I want to beat him up.”

“No, wait, master.” Tetsu-senpai interrupted, “How are you going to ask Alice to handle this? Nishimura-san hasn’t decided on what he wants to do. Also, Alice isn’t someone to act on sympathy or justice.”

“Hm…well…you’re right…”

Min-san folded her arms. The bespectacled shopkeeper looked crestfallen as he sat on the middle chair. Naturally, all three of us looked at him, and saw him lower his head, muttering,

“Erm…actually…I wanted to discuss this with you…I haven’t exactly figured out how to deal with this…”

Min-san’s eyebrows rose, and so did her hand.

“No, Min-san! You still have a chopper!”

I hurriedly stood up to stop her.

   

It was after Nishimura-san scampered out of the shop that Tetsu-senpai noticed her.

“What are you doing there?” he said as he looked towards the corner of the kitchen in the back, the door at the back. Min-san and I too noticed that there was an opening at the back door, a petite silhouette. Min-san darted over and pushed the door aside. “Woah!” Alice, dressed in pajamas, flailed her arms.

“It’s damn hot out there. What brings you here?”

Min-san grabbed Alice by the shoulder, to prevent the latter from falling over.

“Narumi just wouldn’t bring the client upstairs.” Alice puffed her cheeks as she said so.

“Eh? Why?”

I poked my head out from the counter, and stared at Alice, who was outside the door.

“Didn’t the owner of ‘Game Nishimura’ show up looking glum? I saw that on the surveillance camera. NarumI! Why didn’t you bring him up--”

Alice entered the kitchen, and looked around, only to remain silent. That’s a rare reaction from her. Her skeptical look remained as she stared back and forth between Tetsu-senpai and me.

I had a bad feeling, but I cautiously told her,

“If you’re looking for Nishimura-san…he went back, you know.”

“What!?” Alice’s face was immediately flushed. “Th-then hurry back to the office!”

“Bring her upstairs, Narumi.” Min-san said with a sigh, “Since she’s scared of being lonely like an ordinary person, why does she choose to be a NEET instead of going out?”

“Who said I’m lonely!”

“Alright alright, let’s go! You’re not looking so good!” if you have agrophobia, don’t force yourself here! I went to the back door, grabbing the furious detective by the shoulders, and nudged her up the stairs.

*

The following day was a Saturday, and I did not have to attend school, so Major and I went to ‘Nishimura Game’ that morning, and we even asked Tetsu-senpai along. Tetsu-senpai was worried something bad might happen, and he also did say “I haven’t showed up there in a while. Let’s go set a new record at the punching machine. But I think I did set the last record, right?” I really didn’t dare to tell him that the punching machine was removed as it was not doing well.

It was a holiday, and there was quite a crowd next to the “PWLB’ soon after the shop was opened.

“What. It’s doing well.”

Tetsu-senpai stood at the entrance, looking around at the human wall that had gathered, noting leisurely.

“The customers are only visiting the ones with large online gameplay.”

“Goodness, gaming noobs sure are troublesome.” Major frowned, giving such a look.

“There are no customers on the second and third floor.”

“In that case, how about you put such baseball games on the third floor?”

“It’s a classic case of rookie game center managers failing. It’s not nice to hear this, but baseball games are just a fad. The game elements ‘PWLB’ has lack originality, and this fad will die down once the online discussion cools off.”

I was really annoyed to hear these words. Words aside, the tone alone was infuriating.

“When ‘PWLB” was introduced, it was a no-name game, and the common criticism is that baseball games are no longer trendy. The shop owner liked it a lot, and bought in four sets, but it’s because of them that this pitiful game center had a stable crowd. This was the only place to play ‘PWLB’ back then, so everyone gathered here. Now it’s just barely hanging on because it’s the earliest to start the trend.”

I see. I didn’t know that.

“Once the trend fades, if the third level is all ‘PWLB’, the customers will be gone. Without customers coming in, the game center can’t do anything to get them back, unless there’s a brand new, popular game introduced…the shop might close down by then though.”

“What do you mean? It’s useless to work hard? So why were you gleefully talking about game center management?”

“What I mean is that we can only work hard to prevent a loss of customers.”

I nodded away without thinking. I see. It hurts, but it’s really convincing.

“So why do you two come to this shop every day? There are many places with these game platforms though. There are a lot of places with such games, you know? Your school has a few game centers nearby, Narui.”

“Hm?” I folded my arms without thinking. Yeah, why? I never thought about gaming at another shop.

“You too, Major. You badmouthed about Nishimura-san the entire time, so you could have gone to other shops too.”

“That’s not really the case, Tetsu-san…”

Major gave a gentle look, one that was unlike the usual him.

“You know who badmouths the Hanshin Tigers the most? Obviously it’s the fans. You always grumble about how the ramen of ‘Hanamaru’ tastes bad, but how many years have you been there, Tetsu-san?”

“Oh…yeah…”


“And that’s how it is.”

Major raised a finger as he said that. At that moment, there were a few gamers queuing and watching, waving towards us once they noticed us.

“Major, there’s an opening in the mini link Central League. Did you form a team filled with 9 batting pitchers? Come join in already!”

“You came by too, Narumi? I bought the RPG character and design book. Please draw them on the uniform.”

I waved back at them with a smile, and followed Major as I broke away from the crowd, into the area with the large silver balls machine. So that’s how it is; because we feel at ease here. There’s us, everyone, and the field, but that’s all.

Rain or shine, even if we do complain from time to time, we will return here. This is what we call ‘home field’.

“Just one game.” Major was yapping away, queuing up at the game, but I dragged him off to the back room. I was about to knock on the door, and there was a loud shout behind the door, as loud as the background music in the shop.

“Don’t think we’re going to keep a low profile like this.”

“Seriously, Nishimura-san, it’s useless to not mention it to anyone else, you know? Your rental agreement will run out next year, and you will be chased out by then. We are being kind in our proposal here.”

Major and I were shocked, and we exchanged looks. It’s those two yakuza members. They showed up in broad daylight? We never expected to meet them directly.

“…Is it them?” Tetsu-senpai leaned over from behind. I nodded, and he reached for the door. I couldn’t stop him from pushing the door in.

The air inside the cramped back room seemed alit. Nishimura-san, crouched before the desk, turned towards Tetsu-senpai, and so did the two yakuza members flanking him from front and back.

“What do you want?”

The young red-shirt man tried roared, trying to scare.

“I’m Nishimura-san’s lawyer.” Tetsu-senpai gave a bare-faced lie, and took a few more steps into the room.

“Wa-wait a sec, Tetsu, don’t do thsis.” Nishimura-san panicked, “We’re busy…”

“And that’s why I showed up. You can’t do anything alone, Nishimura-sa--”

Midway through, Tetsu-senpai stopped. His eyes were not looking at the two yakuza guys, and not at Nishimura-san, but to the left of the door. What? My vision was blocked by senpai’s burly, and I could only lean my upper body out to see what was going on.

There were lots of chassis, blanks and cleaning too, and amongst the items, there was someone leaning on a folded chair. Once his eyes met mine, I nearly exclaimed,

“Oh? Isn’t this Tetsu? Oh? And Narumi?”

The massive body nearly bursting the floral shirt, his brows and hair shaved off, giving a weird look, and the eagle eyes deep in his sockets were sizing us up.

“Nemo-san…” Tetsu-senpai uttered.

I remembered him. I couldn’t forget that Octy’s face. He was one of the yakuza, and one of Tetsu-senpai’s mahjong pals. It’s my third time meeting him, and I really wanted to get rid of this relationship.

So Octy smirked, baring his uneven teeth.

“Looks like things got complicated here, huh? Hey boss, this place is too small. Not a good place to discuss something important.”

“Eh? Ah, ye-yes, after the shop closes then.”

“You idiot. You think I got the time? Close shop now, ya.”

“Eh? Eh?”

Nishimura-san widened his eyes. Octy stood before him, reached his hand out for the wall opposite the desk, where the power switch was at.

“Wa-wait a moment! What are you--”

“Tak.” The sound of the switch pulled down echoed, and I cringed, closing my eyes. I had the feeling of a torn Achilles.

“Oi!” “What is this!?” “A power outage!?” “You’re kidding! We’re having a match now!”

There were growls coming from the other side of the door, and thus, I opened my eyes. There were the sounds of footsteps of chairs being toppled over in the darkness. For a moment, cold sweat trickled down my skin, either because the air conditioning was switched off, or my heart was racing.

“…Ne-Nemoto-san, what did you do?”

Nirshimura-san feebly protested, but Octy shoved him aside, went by Tetsu-senpai and me, and walked out of the rest room.

“A power outage. We’re closed for the day!”

The loud roar caused the rowdy shop to quiet down.

“You hear me? Scram. We’re closing.”

Octy declared with a hiss. The few people playing ‘PWLB’ just a moment back saw this unfriendly bald head, and backed away with pale faces, while the customers standing further away probably couldn’t see Octy, even protesting.

“What is this?” “Hey! We’re playing!” “Refunds!”

“Nemoto-san, please, don’t trouble the customers…”

Nishimura-san was begging, basically in tears, but Octy raised his trunk-like arm, and grazed it past Nishimura-san’s nose.

A loud thud echoed through the shop, shutting the growls of the customer. I couldn’t gasp. Octy’s fist sank deep into the silver machine of ‘PWLB’, the tiny cracks appearing in a radial manner, as though an asteroid had appeared on the cover.

Nobody said anything, and there were gulps of fear.

“Need me to repeat myself, you shitty brats?”

Octy’s voice was like icy cement burying the floor of the game center.

“Didn’t you hear me tell you to scram?”

I stood behind Octy, and saw the customers disperse, suddenly reminded of what Tetsu-senpai once said.

There is no good yakuza on this world.

A blunt sound came from behind, and I turned around to look. A completely dumbfounded Nishimura-san had collapsed on the ‘PWLB’ console, nearly falling onto the floor, while Octy grabbed him by the collar. Nishimura-san had passed out.

“This is unsightly. Hey, get him in a lie down.”

Octy tossed Nishimura-san to his underling, the young man in the red shirt. I hurriedly returned to the back room, only to be grabbed by Octy.

“You got some things to say to us too, right? Whatever, let’s go.”

   

There was no other customer in this dark room, and Octy had his white suit underling stand behind him, while he sat on the game console, facing us.

“Seriously, what’s your deal with the owner, Tetsu, Narumi? Why stand up for him, ya?”

Tetsu-senpai folded his arms, wondering how to answer, and I couldn’t help but remain worried about Nishimura-san in the back room.

“That brat with the visor has been poking around for no good reason again. Better go back to elementary school now, brat.”

Octy tapped Major on the helmet. It seemed those words caused Major to flip out.

“I’m a college student! Didn’t I mention it the last time!?”

Major was seething as he shoved his student card to Octy, who was about four heads taller than him. I looked on, feeling terrified.

“Oh? Really? Wow, nice college you’re at. Stop following around at this scrap of a game center. Study well and get a good job. It’s pointless to be unemployed like these bums here.”

Wait. Don’t look at me right after you look at Tetsu-senpai. I’m still a high school student.

“Unfortunately, I have no wishes to be employed.”

Major gleefully replied. Octy laughed it off, and the white suit man behind him looked incredulous.

“Of course, being in college means I have to laze around for eight years, and put my student card to good use. But, to make it seem like I graduated top of the class, I have to take leave starting in February, in my fourth year. During my school days, I’ll start to write programs, earn money to set up a game company, and by commanding my underlings, I can climb up the industry, and be recognized by Forbes and the president as ‘the Japanese Bill Gates who doesn’t work at all’, always thinking about how to play!”

“Nobody asked you for such dream-like life plan.” I slapped Major on the back without thinking.

“So basically, I’m not exactly fooling around at game centers for no reason.”

Major continued to refute. Octy, whose stance had been ambiguous the entire time, suddenly showed a friendly side, so I let Major continue to express himself.

“I’m here not just to play, but also to observe the industry as a maker.”

“What nonsense is that!?” When did you become a maker? But Major ignored me.

“I don’t know what the owner thinks, but this shop is a stepping stone to our future. One day, I will build a headquarters seventy levels tall, and if the legendary game center this superstar CEO Major Histoshi Mukai visited is no longer around, it’ll be pretty troublesome.”

“The one troubled should be Nishimura-san!”

“…And then?”

Octy narrowed his eyes into a slit.

“I know this shop from the inside out, so I came by to negotiate with the temporary owner. Tetsu-san’s just my bodyguard, and Vice-Admiral Fujishima is my bag carrier. Now then.”

Major pulled a chair over, and sat before Octy.

“It’s preposterous to raise rental by 250%, and they can’t continue to run this shop like this. We got no other choice, so, I got no choice but to ask you to lower the price.”

“Wait, Major…Nishimura-san’s lying on the bed. Deciding this on your own is…”

“What do you mean, decide on your own? Whose shop do you think this is?”

“Of course it’s Nishimura-san’s!”

Octy burst out laughing as he lifted his head, and his underling behind him looked concerned.

“…Ojiki, who are these brats? They seem familiar with you…”

The white suit guy whispered at Octy’s ears, and Octy took turns to look at us, before turning around to ask.

“You heard of the Tabara-gumi incident? They did it.”

The white suit guy paled.”

“Also, the second-hand clothes shop ‘Alan Garba’? This brat got involved the last time, so remember him well. His actions are more unpredictable than the other two. Even I owed him a favor.”

I felt goosebumps. It’s hard to explain the specifics, but I was dealing with that Octy in the quarrel over ‘Alan Garba’. I managed to scare him after lots of nonsense. Eh, so the ‘favor’ he talks of is basically about that?

“That second-hand shop is doing really well now. Your bluff actually came through Narumi. Got to thank you for that.”

“Eh, yes.”

I lowered my head. Better to not owe a favor to the yakuza, and never to have the yakuza owe me a favour. That was a lesson I had learned many times, but never applied.

“Since you have asked, I can’t say that I won’t consider it at all, ya. Tell me, how much until it’s affordable?”

“How can we show our cards here? Of course, our request is the same rental.”

“Ohhh, nice going there, Major.”

Tetsu-senpai seemed to be annoyed by this, and he ended up leaning on the game, cheering.

“You brats sure are cocky there. What kind of negotiation is that? That’s a no go.”

The smile vanished from Octy’s face. It seemed I was the only one able to stop them. So I thought as I tried to get up, but Octy leaned his torse forward.

“So, how about a wager?”

“…Eh?”

Without thinking, I stared right at Octy’s bald head.

“Wager? You guys like to gamble, right?”

“We love it.” “What are we betting on now?” Major and Tetsu-senpai’s eyes were glittering. Don’t you guys realize you’re dealing with the yakuza here!?

“If you win, I won’t raise the rental, and I’ll continue to lease out to you guys. If I win, you guys have to move away, unconditionally. Whatcha think?”

“Sounds good. What are we betting on?”

“Of course it’s mah-jong.”

“Alright, I’m in!” Tetsu-senpai grinned as he rolled up his sleeves.

“Wait wait wait senpai! You’re bad at mah-jong. Let’s get someone else to play, okay?”

“Then you and Major…”

“I don’t wanna! I don’t want to be grouped with people talking about some dragon pulse or some Koumei’s stratagem! There’s no chance of winning here! Our opponents are mah-jong experts who play with tens of thousands of yen here.”

“Well, only the owner will have issues if we lose, so no biggies?”

“What no biggie!”

“How about we bet on something else? With horoscope?”

“How are we going to bet on horoscope?”

“Of course, the one with the better horoscope wins!”

“I’m Virgo, and my Masami Kuramada is the strongest.”

“Oh, I’m Sagittarius!”

“I’m yakuza.”

“Enough with this pun already, and aren’t all of you yakuza? Think about it properly!”

“Then, how about rock-paper-scissors?”

“You’re intending to get someone without a pinky or an index finger, so that we can’t decide if he’s throwing scissors or paper here, right?”


“Vice-Admiral Fujishima’s, you tongue’s on real fire today.” “You’re pretty scary, Narumi.” “How are you seriously so amazing in these unnecessary areas? Goodness.” Why are you three so impressed by me!?

The guy in white suit shrugged, and tried to step forward and intimidate us, only for Octy to raise a hand to stop him.

“In that case, let’s do something you’re good at.”

“…Good at? You mean.” Major tilted his head.

Octy pointed at the large ball-shaped machine of ‘PWLB’.

“How about baseball?”

“Is that alright? You know the rules?” Major looked excited.

“Of course. Don’t underestimate the yakuza.”

“It was pretty unexpected. This hardboiled Octy plays this online game too?”

“Alright. The game’s decided.”

Major nodded firmly, and I had no disagreements. I think we have a bigger chance of winning here, right? To be honest, I didn’t know why he would be so kind to give us a free service…

“So we’ll decide this on one game?”

“No problems.”

“So let’s settle the conditions. If you guys win, the rental contract and fees remain. If we win, you guys will shut up and immediately; ah, I don’t think it’s possible to do so immediately, right? Alright, close shop and move out in a month then.”

“Understood.”

At this moment, I should have thought a little deeper into this. Major and Octy quickly agreed however, and I went along with their decision, and thus I did not realize something.

That we were had.

“So it’s decided. Right, we’re leaving ya.” Octy said to the white suit. He then hollered to the back room “We’re going back!” the red suit then showed up.

“…Ojiki, i-is this really alright? Aren’t you giving them too much leeway?” the white suit guy remained concerned.

“It’s fine.”

“So we’re just going back? We don’t mind settling this here. It’s a little sad that we don’t have spectators, but we can have a real go here.”

With a confident smile, Major frisked out his IC card, pointing his chin at the silver ball machine.

But Octy then gave a mysterious smile.

“We can’t compete now though? Got to book the grounds. The riverside grounds seem good, ya?”

“…Grounds?”

Major looked stunned.

I supposed the expression I showed back then was the same.

“Yeah, and there’s four of you now. You need nine for a baseball match.”

*

The following day was a Sunday, another rest day.

“I heard that everyone’s going to play baseball against the yakuza?”

Hiro hurried into the office, looking either bemused or shocked. I was kneeling before the bed, while Alice continued to berate me.

“Not only did you not bring a potential customer up, you made the situation worse! And you made your own negotiations while the customer is unconscious? It is so foolish that I do not know what I should say to nitpick your stupidity. A monkey typing on a keyboard for thirty minutes might write a smarter AI than you!”

“I’m reflecting on my actions.”

“Huh? Seems serious here.”

Hiro passed me by, and sat down next to Alice.

“Here! This is some of Min-san’s purple sorbet. Have some and calm down.”

“This isn’t a question of whether I’m angry or not! Don’t think you can coax me with some sorbet!”

Though she said so, Alice snatched the cup and spoon from Hiro’s hands. In an instant, the rustling sound of ice delivered into the mouth echoed in the cold air.

“Erm, so, Narumi-kun, you and Major and Tetsu all got fooled?”

“Yeah, well…you can say that.”

Of course, after that, all over us protested, saying “We said it’s a baseball game, not a real baseball game.” However, once the yakuza catches you with something, it’ll be really scary. The joking atmosphere from just a moment ago vanished without a trace, and Octy’s eyes became as heavy as a lead ball.”

“Didn’t you agree to this yourselves? Now you want to renegade on your words, brats?”

After hearing that, Nishimura-san, who had just recovered, passed out again.

Because of this, Major probably went down to ‘Game Nishimura’ to check out what’s going on. Should I go down too to apologize with him?

“What can be accomplished with your apology to owner Nishimura? How about you tackle the realistic issue instead?”

Alice coldly noted.

“Boss Nishimura will contact the yakuza himself, saying the promise has nothing to do with the shop, so it probably won’t happen anyway.”

“Hmm…but…”

We’ll be right back at where we started. It’s only a matter of time until the shop closes.

“Did you think that since the conditions are fair, that if you participate in the match as told and win, it’ll all work out?”

“I did think of that, maybe…”

“As an assistant to this NEET detective, speaker of the dead, have you not any self-awareness?”

The empty sorbet cup was thrown at me.

“Try thinking of how to solve this issue with intellect and words instead. Settling this with some baseball match…”

“Don’t underestimate baseball! A baseball match requires thinking and talking too.

“You’re just playing it for fun. On what basis are you acting like professionals?”

“Narumi-kun, if we’re settling this through baseball, Alice can’t help. She’s angry because she’s lonely.”

“Why talk about loneliness?”

“Because, this has nothing to do with you when nobody made a request, Alice. And you interrupted.”

“Uuu, that’s because…hey, where are you going, Narumi? I’m not done talking!”

I decided to leave Alice to Hiro, and escaped the office. In any case, I should look for Nishimura-san and discuss things with him. We’re the ones who agreed to play baseball, but as Alice had said, Nishimura-san should be the one asking Octy to cancel the bet. He won’t accept those conditions anyway.

   

But once I reached ‘Game Nishimura’, I found that the shutters were down. I took out the phone to check the time, and found that it was 11am, Sunday. The shop should be open at this time, and a few usual customers were wandering before the shop.

“Ah, Narumi.”

“Is it closed for the day again?”

“Those guys yesterday were yakuza, right? Did the owner rile them?”

“It’s scary, but I’m worried about him, so I came by today. Why is it still closed?”

“Did the owner get beaten up and sent to hospital?”

The usual customers asked me various things.

“W-well, he’s not hurt, actually…I don’t know why it’s still closed though.”

Was he still unconscious after passing out the second time yesterday? Probably not.

“Anyway, Major isn’t here?” I asked, and everyone shook their heads.

Guess I got no other choice. I got to the back of the building. There was a door leading to the back room, and it wasn’t locked.

“…Excuse me…Nishimura-san, are you in?”

The lights in the rest room were lit, and the computer at the desk was on. In other words, Nishimura-san was already in the shop. I entered cautiously, and heard a voice from the second floor.

“Oh? It’s you, Narumi? Sorry for yesterday. I passed out.”

Nishimura-san was holding a pail and cloth,, preparing to tear down the posters off the second floor window.

“No no no, we should be the ones apologizing.”

I immediately waved my hands profusely.

“Since you’re always with Tetsu and the others, you might be sued to this, Narumi-kun. However, it’s better not to get involved with the yakuza, if possible.” Saying that, Nishimura-san smiled weakly. “It’ll be bad if bigshots like that one came by, causing trouble for the customers, so I decided to close shop for the time being, until it all settles down.”

Hearing these words left me really pained. This man’s always worried about others. Maybe it’s for this reason that this shop gives such a homely feeling? And we,

“I’m really sorry for us making that weird decision. Major and I mistook it for a video game, and we let our guard down. Erm, sorry, I guess. It was impulsive of us.”

“Ahahaha. That bald yakuza can’t possibly be playing ‘PWLB’. For some reason, he really hates that game.

“…Eh? Nemo-san?”

He didn’t seem to have any interest in games, yet he hates ‘PWLB’?

“The first time Octy came by, his initial condition was that the game center can continue to run. But his condition is to remove ‘PWLB’…”

“But…why?”

“Aren’t they going to renovate the fourth floor into an office? He said that every time, he’ll hate brats in the shop downstairs talking about baseball when they don’t know anything about it, that it angers him.

“So he hates baseball? No, he’s angry because he likes it?”

“But if we move ‘PWLB’ away, there’s no point in continuing the game center. That’s why I considered accepting the prior proposal.”

“To turn the place into a pachinko parlor?”

“Yeah, my dad will probably agree to it. There are a few game centers nearby, and unlike before our place isn’t the only one where ‘PWLB’ can be played at.”

Nishimura-san opened the window, and pulled down the poster facing out, only to suddenly stop and not say anything, widening his eyes as he looked downstairs.

I too approached the window.

“…Why…those guys.”

Nishimura-san muttered. The usual customers wandering at the shop entrance never left, and instead, multiplied.

“Hey, heard this shop isn’t doing well.” “Is it closing?” “Should have come often.”

“Well, how about we hold an event?” “How about a ‘PWLB’ tourney?”

“Sounds good.” “We’ll promote this on the internet.” “Get Narumi to provide illustrations.”

Such a conversation happened downstairs. Nishimura-san leaned by the window, not moving at all.

Suddenly, an intriguing silhouette appeared in my line of sight. I could tell from the camouflage helmet that it was Major. He was carrying a backpack as big as he was, with a few baseball bats in the pockets.

“You guys! We’re starting trials for the team!”

Major yelled, and put down the items at the entrance of the now-defunct batting center.

“What trials?” “Why bring bats over?”

“We’ll be having a baseball match that determines the survival of ‘Game Nishimura’, so now we’re going to start choose players!”

Major continued to explain, and the lazing customers were increasingly excited, a crowd moving into the batting center that was forced open. Major, you haven’t learned your lesson?

“I’ll go stop them.”

I hurried down the stairs, and darted out through the back door.

“Listen up, the key to us amateurs winning is defense! Right now, we’re going to test catching. I don’t have enough mitts, so we’re share! I’m starting the machine!”

Major started the pitching machine, swinging the bat as he commanded everyone. These guys are all amateurs though, and the direct pitches all ended up on the floor.

“Those without mitts are to try batting! We’ll start with 100kmh pitches!”

“Major, what are you doing?”

I darted past the group excited to compete, and finally found Major, who was behind the net.

“We need to gain some forces capable of fighting, or we can’t achieve victory in this battle for ‘Game Nishimura’.”

“No, anyway, Nishimura-san hasn’t given the okay.”

“Doesn’t matter now, does it? If we lose, the owner can just go ‘I don’t know about this, so it’s invalid’. It’s a zero risk high reward bet, so why not?”

“I see.” So I had such a thought in my mind. That was embarrassing.

“How’s such a twisted fallacy able to work the yakuza?”

“It’s fine, join in too, Vice Admiral Fujishima. Your mobility and vision should be good. Looking forward to your performance.”

“Hey Major, help us set up the machine here!” “”Set it to 120kmh already.”

The contestents swung the bats, and Major immediately got the machine up and right.”

“Too fast!” “But we could hit them in game!” “Couldn’t hit them at all!”

“You guys are too useless!” Major tapped the bat in his hand on the ground. “With such lax defense, a bunt can become a homerun!”

“Bring it!!” “Louder!” “Come on! Louder!”

“Enough, everyone.”

I was abou to say so, only for the batting center to quiet down.

I turned around, and saw the metal doors of the entrance opened. A bespectacled frail body with natural perm entered. It’s Nishimura-san.

“Nishimura-san, say something. It’s a batting center that’s closing down, so using this place is.”

But Nishimura-san raised his hand, stopping us, and even said,

“Lend me a bat. I’m taking part too.”

I was gobsmacked. The customers, covered in dirt, were also dumbfounded.

Nishimura-san received the bat from Major’s hands, and raised it over the batter box.

“Set it to 140kmh. 10 shots, continuous.”

Nishimura-san raised the bat, and stood his ground like a large wooden block. There was a tense atmosphere filling the place immediately.

And over the next fifty seconds, our eyes remained fixed on Nishimura-san’s swinging. The white balls that were knocked aside let out a crisp sound, perfect arches and high into the net.

I thought Nishimura-san was a weak, bespectacled nerd, and even I was so taken aback. I glanced aside at Major, who too shook his head, giving a “I didn’t know he’s that strong.” Look.

After batting away ten balls, Nishimura-san sheepishly put the bat by his leg. For a moment, nobody in the arena could say anything.

“…Everyone, thank you.”

Nishimura-san lowered his head, muttering. And then, he looked around at the dozens of people in the batting center.

“But, we’re dealing with the yakuza, real yakuza. I don’t want you guys to get involved to me. All of you are my customers…Sorry, I’ll open the shop now. You can play as you want. I’ll be happy with this.”

So a flock left the batting center, while Nishimura-san hurried to the back of the building, into the back room.

The metal shutters opened slowly, and the noise of the game consoles welcomed us.

Major and I stood at the entrance, watching everyone enter the lights and sounds of the shop, and then Nishimura-san, now changed into his uniform, walked out from the crowd.

“Major, there is something I want to ask of you.”

Nishimura-san lifted his head, showing an expression as clear as the pebbles at the bottom of a riverbank, and Major nodded, his lips still pursed.

“Please find enough team members to face off against the yakuza.”

“Your request is understood.”

“I’ll to ask Hanada and Tomozou.”

Nishimura-san turned around, returned to the shop, and muttered,

“We just need to win.”

*

It was at ‘Hanamaru’ that night when I learned Nishimura-san was a member of the baseball club.

“Our school’s club wasn’t really strong, but that guy was the ace pitcher who led them into the semifinals of the city tournament. There was quite a commotion too.”

Tomozou-san of the wine shop had not dropped by at in a while, eating and drinking shouchuu as he mentioned the past.

“He really loved baseball back then…”

I kept refilling for Tomozou-san as I nodded away understandingly. It’s because of this reason that he brought ‘PWLB’ into the shop soon after they were sold, and never thought if they would become a fad.

“Semifinals, so they made it to the first two rounds of the Koshien? I really don’t know if that’s amazing or not.”

Min-san, frying pork liver and leek behind the counter, asking,

“The other members weren’t practicing though? So it’s all because of Nishimura that they won all those matches. That’s pretty impressive.”

We say so, but it’s not that easy. It’s been a while since Nishimura last play, and the opponent probably won’t be looking for weak opponents…even if Tetsu and I are to be second base and shortstop…”

“You’re pretty pumped up for this, Hanada.” Tomozou-san laughed. “Tetsu can’t be the catcher?”

As for the Tetsu-senpai they were talking of, he was seated on the beer crate outside the shop, going through a personal rundown on the baseball rules with Hiro.

“Hey, what’s the infield fly rule about? Why is this rule made?”

“So that there won’t be a deliberate double play.”

“So what do you do?”

“Well, you know anything about fielding out?”

“No I don’t.”

It appeared Hiro was having trouble on his side. I didn’t know about Hiro’s athleticism, but since he’s in good shape, he should be more useful than me, I guess.

“Which position will you play, Fujishima-kun?”

Ayaka, who was washing the dishes, asked me excitedly.

“The scorer, of course.” Min-san coldly retorted.

“Which base does the scorer defend?” “The scorer’s the one recording on the bench…”

Faced with Ayaka’s cruel ignorance, I had to answer politely.

And when ‘Hanamaru’ was about to close, the main star finally appeared, as Major brought an amazing special guest.

“Found a perfect shortstop here!”

Major entered the shop with a grin, and once I saw the person lift the noren behind him, the ramen in my mouth nearly sputtered out.

“Heard some idiots got involved in some dumb stuff?”

“Yondaime!? Y-you’re discharged!?”

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I screamed, only to be glared at by the wolf eyes beneath the grey hair. He was dressed in a black vest, his arms and shoulders wrapped in an astonishing amount of bandages, but he seemed to be in good spirits, and the killing intent he had was back. He sat on the chair next to me, and ordered a bowl of char siu ramen from Min-san.

“Eh, well, you’re joining the team too, Yondaime?”

“Major said he’ll pay. I rested for far too long, so this is good activity for rehab.”

Is it really already to do that after being discharged? So I wanted to ask, but Tetsu-senpai’s voice came from outside the door.

“What? You guys are joining too? Rockys’s suitable to be the catcher.”

“No Tetsu! Catcher’s the most difficult position! The catcher’s the commander of the team, someone who has to be familiar with the rules.”

Taken aback, I lifted the noren, On the dark streets, there were two slowly moving silhouettes behinds Tetsu-senpai and Hiro, and they’re Pole and Rocky. They too were called in?

“Ojiki, ah, aniki too. Please take care of us!” “We’ll beat them in one hit!”

The two guys in black shirts bowed deeply, and I was strangely uneasy about this.

“Erm…you guys don’t know…the baseball rules, right?”

“Yes, not at all!”

“We don’t know how many points we get for beating the pitcher!” Points, my head.

“You idiot, the only sport you can earn points from knocking down someone else is hockey!” “It’s not hockey!”

“Stop fooling around here! These guys are dumb as bricks, but even idiots know that they have to run after batting, right? Don’t talk too deeply about baserunning.” Yondaime said, “And more importantly.”

I was dragged by the collar along with the chair, and stopped before Yondaime.”

“You guys found good umpires? Need four of them.”

“Umpires? Erm? Yeah, so what about them?”

Octy was to book the baseball field, and I naively thought I could leave everything to him. Hearing my honest remarks, Yondaime sighed hard.

“Seriously, you’re dealing with the yakuza here. The yakuza will use any underhanded means necessary. Which idiot who have the opponent control the umpire? Get an impartial third party. Of course, someone who isn’t scared of the yakuza will do.”

“No, who am I supposed to look for?”

“Enough already, give that Kusakabe Masaya a call.”

“Eh, ehhh!?” Why mention his name now?

But Yondaime’s right. That guy knows Octy, and is calm in nature. Also, he owes Yondaime and me a favour, so he shouldn’t be too biased to Octy.

Yondaime prompted me to call, and I had to take out my phone.

Of course, once Kusakabe Masaya heard about this, he was flabbergasted, and clicked his tongue about twenty times or so.

“Can’t you deal with this in a smarter manner? You thought you have a chance of winning?”

“We heard the owner of that game center did pretty well in the city tournament, and the others are pretty athletic, so we should barely…” “Are you guys idiots? Nemoto was a pitcher who won a few times at the Koshien.”

“Ehhhhhhh!?”

You bastard, stop screaming at my ear. I got scolded. It was really hard to imagine so however. That Octy used to be a baseball player?

Ah, that’s why he hated ‘PWLB’? No, that alone shouldn’t be enough reason. Nishimura-san really loves ‘PWLB’ for similar reasons.

“I knew Nemoto when I was still in school, and was often dragged along to watch the Hashin Tigers. He’s a hopeless baseball manic, and really wanted to make it to the pros. To be honest, there were scouts who eyed him…”

I switched the phone to my left hand, and rubbed my sweaty right palm on my thigh. Since he really loved baseball, why did he end up with the yakuza?

“How would I know? It’s been thirty years ago! Anyway, his fastball’s ridiculously fast, though he often lost control…there were few who could hit his pitches even when he was in high school, let along you guys.”

“But he hasn’t actually pitched for a long time, right? So we should be able to…”

I said so, but my heart was sinking. Nishimura-san too hadn’t pitched in a while.

“Eh, well…we need umpires who won’t be intimidated by the yakuza, and we really couldn’t think of anyone other than you, Kusakabe-san.”

“Got it. This is the last time I’m helping you brats out. I’ll find four guys who knows baseball from a few different gangs. That works?”

“Sorry to trouble you. Oh yeah, erm…we’ll pay the full amount.”

“Of course.”

The phone was hung up on it, and once I mentioned “Octy was a winning pitcher in the Koshien”, there was quite a large commotion. Major, get some muscle training regiment here! Understood, I’ll get them here. Let’s practice throwing at an octopus head. Tetsu, can’t you be the pitcher? I’ll throw the bat…

Dumbfounded, I listened to their conversations, and suddenly had a thought.

It certainly feels like an all-star game in February.

    So, we had the following starting lineup.

1. Min-san (Second Base) 2. Yondaime (Shortstop) 3. Nishimura-san (Pitcher) 4. Tetsu-senpai (Third Base) 5. Rocky (Right Field) 6. Hiro (Center Field) 7. Major (Left Field) 8. Tomozou-san (Catcher) 9. Pole (First Base)

This starting lineup certainly seems strong, especially from the first to the fourth batter. The eighth and ninth batter can also work as cleanup spots. This lineup doesn’t seem like it’ll have any weaknesses!

Me? I’m a bench player.

“Fujishim-san, shall we make preserved lemons?” Ayaka asked me for some reason.

*

The batting center next to the game center ended up as our practice ground. I arrived there after school, and found Major, Tetsu-senpai and Hiro there, being coached by Nishimura-san.

“Use more of your flank, and not swing your wrists. Turn your waist around, and use all the strength in your body, like you’re squeezing cloth. Yes, now swing the bat forward like that--”

Nishimura-san, who’s being our batting coach for some reason, was enjoying himself, and I (as a bench player), joined after changing into my school gym uniform. I started swinging as a pinch hitter would work as a trump card. On the first day, I got blisters on my hands.

It was the second day after our team was formed when Octy dropped by.

“Oh? You guys aren’t backing out? Struggling like amateurs.”

He was looking beyond the net, into the batting center, right at me in the eyes as I made a large swing, chuckling. The young man who accompanied him that day came along, and since it didn’t look like he’ll wear anything other than suits, he was not on the baseball team. The man wearing sunglasses and an aloha shirt was someone I had never seen before.

“Sorry to invite you over here.”

Nishimura-san lowered his head nervously as he went outside. Tetsu-senpai and Hiro paid no mind to them as they kept stretching.

For a moment, I didn’t know what was going on, so with bat with hand, I went out of the door, and kept watch behind Nishimura-san. The yakuza will use any underhanded means necessary, Yondaime’s words kept lingering in my ears.

“We got the date and location.” Octy said. One week later, at the baseball field by the riverbank.

“Sorry to trouble you for this.” Nishimura-san kept his head lowered.

It was strange to see such an honest response, but Nishimura-san earnestly thanked him.

“To be honest, I thought you would pretend not to know as the owner.”

Octy’s ferocious glare looked back and forth between Nishimura-san and me.

“Why decide on the match?”

Nishimura-san gave an apprehensive smile.

“…If this can be settle by baseball, I think it‘s good. The shop that was about to close is barely hanging on because of a baseball game, and we’re settling its fate with a baseball game…doesn’t seem bad.”

Octy coldly snorted, and spat on the ground. I stumbled in shock. His eyes were giving a lead-colored glint.

“Absolutely disgusting.”

The usual customers frequenting the game center might have heard this howl, and they all looked over in shock.

“What do you mean, baseball is fun? What baseball game? Always with the naïve attitude…I really want to crush this shop.”

Nishimura-san’s sidelong face looked really tense. Again, I cautiously looked towards Octy. Why did he hate baseball games, or despise it, even?

“…Nemo-san, you did win a few times in the Koshien, right?” I said. Octy immediately widened his eyes.

“So what?”

“No, nothing.” My voice was stuck in my throat. “I just heard that a few profession teams scouted you. So why do you look like you hate it. And if you really do, why settle this with baseball?”

Before I knew it, the browless, vicious face was before me. I couldn’t breathe, for he had already lifted me by the collar.

“Enough with the know-it-all words, you amateur.”

“Nemo-san.” Nishimura-san said with a pale face, but was hushed by a glare. Octy’s eyes looked back at me as he gripped at my collar harder.

“So what if I made it to the Koshien? Look, how many winning pitchers in the high school tournaments can you remember? One’s good enough, because everyone forgets what happens after that summer. Do you know how many people make it to the Koshien? Anyone who hasn’t made it as a pro will be forgotten as trash once a summer’s over. Listen up, any form of baseball that doesn’t earn money is trash. I’m willing to play this game of baseball because there’s money involved. That’s it.”

Octy tossed me aside on the asphalt. All I could feel was the air squeezed out of my body, and for a moment, I could only remain collapsed on the floor, unable to move. Nishimura-san, and even the two yakuza lackeys behind Octy were utterly terrified.

Octy bent down, picked up a body that rolled out from the opened doors of the batting center.

And he swung his right arm.

Something let out a boom, and a few customers in the game center exclaimed in shock.

“What was that?” “Hey! Look at this!” “A ball?” “It’s sunk in!”

I personally witnessed that amazing pitch. The bullet-like fastball struck the ‘PWLB’ unit furthest inside the shop, and there was another dent on it, as deep as the dent Octy caused that day.

Octy turned away, leaving behind the chattering customers and the dumbfounded us.

But his words kept lingering in my ears.

Everyone forgets what happens after that summer--

*

“--But even so, we can’t leave it as it is.”

Tetsu-senpai said during the meeting at ‘Hanamaru’ that night.

“If things get out of hand, drag them out to fight and beat them up.”

“We’re dealing with nine yakuza members here. Ah, no, including the bench, that’s twenty of them. You can’t beat them all no matter how strong you are, Tetsu.” Hiro corrected as he sat by the side.

“It’s not like one pitch or two will settle this.” Yondaime drank his Japanese wine as he said this, “Age will affect physicality. We get a chance to counter in the later half.”

Those words were probably meant for Nishimura-san, who was seated in the middle. Our ace player blinked with some surprise, and then nodded, not looking very confident.

Behind us, there was the voice of Major cheering on Pole and Rocky. They couldn’t remember the baseball rules, so he could only use a portable baseball game to get them to remember.

“This beer is on the house!” Tomozou-san dragged the beer crates out from the back door of the kitchen. “Win and you can pour it all over yourself!”

“Isn’t it too early to be happy?” Min-san, who was stir-frying, looked on wryly.

“Ah, right, we got that thing hidden there too.”

“L-let go of me, I’m not a cat!”

Dragged in by Tomozou-san on the collar was Alice in blue pajamas. She was holding a large bear doll, and a baseball cap on her head for some reason.

Everyone present gathered their eyes upon the black hair of Alice, who was outside, and for a moment, silence lingered amongst the steaming scent of chicken bone stock.

“What? If you got anything to say, say it!”

Alice finally turned her head around, blushing as she said this. Why glare at me?

“If you feel lonely for being excluded from your friends, just say so. Ayaka’s making sweetened lemons for everyone.”

Min-san said, and Alice immediately grabbed the baseball cap, looking really agitated.

“Who’s feeling lonely here!? Listen up. Narumi’s my assistant. Don’t dispatch him whenever you want!”

“Well…”

There were looks from everyone going “Say something, you.” And I could only speak up.

“Alice, are you unable to say that you want to join the team?”

“Of course I’m joining.”

Enough with the jokes I can’t laugh at! This isn’t some hyperbole, it’s a fact, you never lifted anything heavier than chopsticks in your life, have you?”

“I asked her.” Ayaka poked her head out from the corridor, “Alice has been looking lonely, and with another girl present, everyone should be motivated, right? No need to worry about the expenses. I agreed with her that when showering, she’ll wear a shower cap. Payment is waived off.”

What’s with the unnecessary actions? I turned back to the detective, who was dressed in pajamas, puffing her chest proudly,

“Eh, erm. You don’t have to force yourself there. Also, a position that suits you is,”

“Isn’t there a position for me?”

Alice pointed a finger right between my eyebrows.

“I’m the manager, of course.”

The silence was as awkward as the stench of an old apple that had turned bad.

…Manager. Alice, manager?

“You serious, nee-san?” From my right was Pole’s voice, “Manager?” and there was Rocky from the left.

“No way you can be a baseball manager, Aice?” Tetsu-senpai sounded really incredulous. However, Alice pointed hard back at him.

“You’re the third batter. Tomozou will be fourth. Boss Nishimura will be fifth. Rocky and Pole will be sixth and seventh.”

“Why? It might sound like boasting, but I should be the one most suited for cleanup right, if we’re considering explosiveness and hitting rate? Nishimura-san’s the best hitter, so he has to be third, and we still need some impact from the bottom of the order.”

“Don’t talk based on your feeling here. Does the explosiveness of a boxer guarantee that the ball will fly further? Of us here, only Boss Nishimura has the skill to hit homerun. Your assumed power hitters, Tetsu, Yondaime, Mastter, and Tomozou all simply have a higher chance of getting on base, and that’s why we set them all before the homerun batter. It’s a passive batting order.”

“How do you know of everyone’s on base percentages?” I had to ask Alice.

“Of course, it’s because I had a look at the footage Major recorded during practice.”

I glanced to the back, and found Major giving a stunned look. It appeared Alice had hacked into his computer and obtained the footage. Why go this far?

“Also, your tactics are mind-bogglingly terrible. Improving the batting strength after the sixth batter is something pro teams will do, if they have sufficient players, that is. They can ignore the defensive liabilities there, and put the power batters on seventh and eighth instead of the usual defensive players. But a team formed of a ragtag bunch doing this? This is ridiculous. Isn’t it more appropriate to have the stronger batters get on first?

Alice rattled away, and Nishimura-san, the only one with baseball experience, scratched his head saying, “Well, she’s right.” The others too could only lower her head.

But even so, I never epected Alice to be so serious about the match.

“Please, nee-san! No, manager!” “Please!”

Though I was taken aback by Pole and Rocky, I hesitantly looked over to Tetsu-senpai and Yondaime. Everyone present were giving wry looks, shrugging, and Nishimura-san, our team leader, asked Alice,

“…Can you give instructions during the match?”

A few intrigued looks swung between Alice and Nishimura-san.

“Of course. Hiro, remember to drive that day. I’m going to give commands from the car.”

Hiro didn’t answer, instead raising the cup filled with Japanese wine.

“Then I shall leave this to you. This shall be a request from me.”

Nishimura-san’s words dictated everything. The detective firmly nodded.

“I will be the brains of the team, since all of you have air for brains. Katsuya Nomura did say that baseball is a sport that relies on brain. First, I’ll show you the signs for baserunning.”

“Righto!” “Sharpen our manliness!” “Shut up and get out!” “Master, you’re a player too, right? Everyone, remember this.”

Alice climbed onto the kitchen table.

“Listen up. You can’t remember anything too difficult now, right? If you see me slap my cap on my chest twice, it means everyone is to ‘advance base’, one time ‘don’t move’, or ‘run back’.”

“Ane-san, you don’t have any chest there.” “they’ll sink in if you keep hitting them.”

“Shut up!” Alice’s ears were flushed as she hopped off the desk, “If you have time to worry about my chest, worry about your brains! Next, the batting signs--”

And as expected, after hollering and pointing in the steaming kitchen, Alice, who hated the heat, soon fainted. I could only carry the limp, flushed detective back into her office.

“Uu…this is embarrassing. I cannot give actual commands during the actual match.

Alice crawled onto the bed in the bedroom with strong air conditioning, muttering,

“You don’t have to force yourself there. It’s not like we have to have a manager during the match…”

“Nemoto Kiichi was a baseball player from a famous school in Kyoto, and in his second year, he became their ace pitcher.”

Alice buried her face in the pile of dolls, and after a while, I turned back, and saw her eyes. Nemoto Kiichi. Nemo-san, so she’s referring to that Octy?”

“His team was defeated in the quarterfinals of the summer Koshien. Soon after, there were news of him being involved in baseball gambling and match fixing with a gang, and soon after, he dropped out of school.”

“Match fixing…in high school baseball?”

“There were still records in the magazines and news. It was said that a relative of Nemoto Kiichi owed the gang lots of money, and he had to obey. The details of how the match fixing happened came out too.”

Alice showed the results of her investigations on the screen. I had a look, and gasped.

“…Is this…form of match fixing even possible?”

“He did it. Nemoto Kiichi was a pitcher with such an ability, but he had to do so to earn money.”

Startled, I recalled what Octy had said.

“Any form of baseball that doesn’t earn money is trash.”

So that’s what he meant? He might have gone overboard with it, but it’s true. His dreams of becoming a pro player were crushed, and he gave up and joined the yakuza.

“That’s all I managed to find out.”

Alice’s voice was filtered through the dolls.

“It was thirty years ago, and there was no scorebook. There is nothing to indicate Nemoto Kiichi’s pitching profile. What pitches does he have? How much he sweated, what he said; everyone had long forgotten about him.”

It’s true that there were a thousand baseball players gathered upon that passion-ladened Mecca every spring and summer, and other than the winners, everyone left behind will be defeated, crying, and going their separate ways, forgotten.

Most failures will not exist in anyone’s memories.

Ironically, the reason why Octy was remembered was because of his sin of defying the spirit of the game. Because he played for money.

Everyone had forgotten about the rest.

“But even so, we know one thing.” Alice muttered coldly, “He’s not an easy opponent. You guys need my brain.”

I nodded.

To be honest, I wasn’t feeling comfortable after Octy lifted me by the neck, so I was actually happy when Alice volunteered to help, and that I actually felt that the players on the field aren’t alone.

What about you, Octy? You aren’t fighting by yourself, right? Your battery behind the facemask, the seven teammates standing behind you, and the guys on the bench were looking at you, right? Is it true that nobody actually remembers you?

At that moment, I thought of a possibility.

I stood up, practically without thinking, and I was the one startled when gave a startled cry.

“Where are you going?”

“Eh? Ah, yeah, right.”

I couldn’t help but look down at my limbs, and my toes were already turned towards the door. There was some anger in my fingertips, blowing aside the cold air of the air-conditioner.

I couldn’t remain anymore.

“I want to check on sometime.”

Since I’m a bench player, I had to make the trip.

I left the office, looked down the corner of the emergency staircase, and found my teammates drinking and chatting away around a faint circle of light.

*

Looking up at the clear skies and the sun shining upon the ground, I finally got the feeling that summer was coming to an end. The sun dangling in the middle of the sky, but it didn’t feel hot; sometimes, there was the gentle breeze grazing my cheeks.

It was a certain Sunday, at 11am in late September.

I pedalled my bicycle to the ballpark by the riverbank, and found that there were a few cars parked there. The net was so broken, and the dirty bench was covered in dust. The bases were buried in the ground, and there were weeds in the outside. All I could see was the white ball flying between the men spread all over the grounds.

Looking afar, I could see at that ones present were yakuza with either punch perm haircuts or bald guys with tattoos on their heads. They had no uniforms, and were dressed in aloha shirts or vests, but the team colors gave an intimidating vibe.

Octy was standing on home plate, holding the bat and hitting pitches away for his teammates to practice. Everyone seemed crisp in their movements, and I was increasingly uneasy.

“Narumi-kun!” waving his hand from a familiar looking blue foreign car was Hiro, waving at me. It drove down the slope covered with shrubs. The back seat behind him was stuffed with dolls, and I barely managed to see the head of black hair there.

“Alice, are you seriously giving commands from the car?”

I asked as I looked through the car window, and Alice, who was seated in a seiza, lifted her head, and picked up the baseball cap.

“Of course.” She stared at me with a pale face, “The opponent’s not the team; the sun, atmosphere and earth are all my enemy. But I won’t run away.”

No, you can run away now. If you’re suffering that much, just go back to the office.

Following them was Yondaime, driving by them in his Coupe. He was dressed in a baseball cap, and for some reason, he looked as amusing as Alice and Hiro.

“Major isn’t here? Isn’t he in charge of bringing the equipment here?”

“He was playing ‘PWLB’ till late at night. Probably overslept.”

“That idiot! Why game the day before the match!?”

While we’re talking, a few members on the yakuza team were approaching Yondaime from behind.

“Oh, you’re Narumi?” Eh, me?

“Heard you’ve been giving lots of suggestions there, ya?” “Didn’t you crush the Tabara-gumi?”

I was surrounded by a bunch of hunky yakuza members, and wilted away like a dried flower. How much have rumors of me spread in this world? I heard that the Tabara-gumi wasn’t doing so good after that, but please don’t blame me for that.

“Hinamuraaa, heard you haven’t been doing well recently.”

They looked towards Yondaime, and mocked him.

“Don’t think we’ll play around if you guys like today.” “Thank Nemo-san for his kindness.” “Sounds like he hasn’t decided to end the match here and then by a few points. But you probably don’t want to be beaten by twenty or so, right? If you want to give up, you can lower your head anytime you want.”

“Stop touching me as if you know me.” Yondaime retorted without backing down, “You should worry about heatstroke or a lack of breath in the second half.”

“Huh. Your tongue is as sharp as ever.”

I watched them bicker worriedly, and at this moment, another car appeared by the riverbank. It’s a white wagon, and when the door opened, there were four middle aged men dressed in floral shirts. From what I could tell, they too was yakuza. A man wearing a cream-colored summer suit and sunglasses stood out; it was Kusakabe Masaya . So, these guys are the umpires? It might sound recreational, but this certainly seemed formal. They even had their umpire gear and facemasks prepared.

But once I saw the last person hop out of the wagon, I was dumbfounded.

“Mr Assistant!”

Flailing her arms and twin braids, and running down the slope was a girl with coffee-brown skin. Why is Meo here?”

“I heard from dad, so I came to cheer you on! It’s my first time seeing a baseball match!”

She grabbed my arms as she said so, while Kusakabe Masaya eyed us unhappily.

“Assistant-san, which position are you playing?”

The bench there, but I couldn’t bring myself to say so. While I was wondering how to explain, a bicycle rushed down the cycling road, and glided down.

“Fujishima-kun, I brought drinks and preserved lemons!”

Hopping off the bicycle with the ice bucket on her back was Ayaka, who met Meo. “Eh?” “Eh?” both of them gave each other confused looks. Oh yeah, it’s the first time both of them met. It’s too troublesome to explain matters, so I hastily broke free from Meo’s hands. Major just so happened to carrying a large pile of stuff in his bag, down the stone steps, so I hurried over towards him.

Kami05 329.jpg

Behind me, I could hear the car door opened, followed by Meo shouting, “Woah! Miss Detective! It’s been a while!”

“Woah, why out of a sudden!? Let go of me, Meo! S-stop, ahh!” Alice made a strange sound.

“Alice’s weak point is the neck. You can’t touch her like this!” Ayaka chided. We’re deciding the fate of a shop here, but these girls don’t have any sense of urgency here.

   

After 11am, Nishimura-san was the only one not present. We were feeling uneasy as we began to practice. Yondaime in in charge of pitching. His batting control was pretty good. Octy looked towards us, and showed a smirk. Feeling uneasy, I returned to the bench, and was about to give a call to Nishimura-san, only for the phone in my hand to vibrate.

“Sorry, I have to make a trip to the hospital.”

Nishimura-san seemed like he’s panting. Hospital? Is his dad critically ill?

“My dad just called, saying that the yakuza has visited him at the hospital, and is forcing him to stamp the contract.”

“Eh? What? Contract?”

“They want him to sign the contract, accept the money, and hand over the shop. I wasn’t willing, so they went to convince my dad. I told him not to talk to them until I reach there, and I’m going to stop him. I’ll hurry over before the match starts!”

The call hung up. Giving a look of disbelief, I looked over at Octy, who was on the first base bench.

Why? What’s going on? Didn’t we say they didn’t have to move if they win? Our eyes met for a moment, and after seeing the smile on his face, I felt a shiver.

We’re dealing with the yakuza, they’ll do anything dirty if necessary.

They forced our hand, just in case they lost the match.

I hustled over to the batting batter, and explained matters to Yondaime. Tetsu-senpai and Min-san too came to home plate to understand the situation.

“So Nishimura’s heading over now? How long to the hospital? 30 minutes to and back? Or more?”

“Might not be able to make it back by 12. Are we going to change the batting order?”

Rocky, standing near first base, seemed to have understood what was going on, as he pointed his finger under the glove at Octy, who was on first base. “What did you do?”

“What? Who would I know?”

Octy spat on the ground. But he certainly knew. He stood up, walked towards the umpries who were behind the net, and said this,

“We got nine on both teams now! It’ll be a waste of energy to keep practicing, so let’s begin now, shall we?”

“W-wait a moment!?”

I got around the back net, and stood between Octy and Kusakabe Masaya .

“Nishimura-san isn’t here yet, and we agreed that the match will start at 12!”

“Huh? Kusakabe, did I mention this to you?”

Kusakabe Masaya too narrowed his eyes behind the sunglasses, and shrugged.

“Never heard of it. All I know was that you called us to be here at 11.”

“This…but!”

“And also.” Octy continued with an indisputable fact, “I booked this place till 1pm. We can’t finish if we don’t hurry now.”

“Wha—”

I was speechless. Yondaime, who hurried, too remained rooted to the ground ‘we’ve been had’.

We left the important booking of the field to the enemy, and that was the grave mistake we made. It was all Octy’s plan. Kusakabe Masaya gave a look at the four umpires, who from afar had such a conversation, “Guess we have to start now.”

Thus, even if they lost, they wouldn’t be gravely affected, and they could eliminate our best player, Nishimura-san. This was a double play on Octy’s part.

“Hey brats, hand over the batting order!” The home plate umpire shouted. Yondaime dragged me by the collar, and pulled me to the cars parked behind our third base bench.

“Nishimura isn’t picking up the phone.” Tomozou-san’s face paled as he said. Yeah, he’s in the hospital, and has to switch off his phone. This sly ploy had my legs wobbling.

“What do we do now?’

“No choice but for Yondaime to be the pitcher, Tomozou-san be the shortstop, Rocky as third baseman.”

“What about the batting order? Nishimura-san’s fifth.” “Major is ninth. Everyone to advance.”

“—Narumi!”

A girl’s voice came, and all the members huddled together looked over to the car.

The window was opened, and Alice revealed her face. Her dazzling black hair flowing down from the baseball cap.

“Go to the hospital and get the owner back!”

I stared at Alice wordlessly.

“What are you spacing out for? Go! If we can’t call him, we just have to go down. He’s going to the hospital with the yakuza having laid the trap for him, and there’s no way they will let him back. They’ll surely try to buy time! You’re the most useless fry on the team, so hurry off.”

“Eh, no-no, don’t we need nine players to play?”

“Ayaka!”

Alice suddenly shouted, and she, seated next to Meo on the back, jolted in shock.

“You’re the ninth batter, the right fielder.”

“Eee? M-me?”

“Until the owner comes back. Hurry, Narumi! We can’t waste a single second!”

I, unable to react for a long time, remained rooted to the ground, and only after Yondaime smacked me in the back of my head did I hastily run for my bicycle. I kicked the stand, grabbed the handlebars, and pushed the bicycle up the grassy slope, running down the cycling track. Only as I ran against the oncoming wind did I slowly understand what Alice intended. This was really the only thing we could do. We couldn’t send Ayaka to the hospital when she doesn’t know anything, so I had to go.

And behind me, I could hear the loud voice of the umpire.

“Play!”     With my back covered in sweat, I huffed and puffed through the hospital, the voices of the nurses trying to stop me left behind as I stormed into the ward room, and at this moment, the few men gathered around the middle bed to the right turned around.

It’s so damn hot out there, and these guys are all dressed in suits, revealing floral shirts and gold chains, and faint-colored sunglasses. Nishimura-san was seated on the other side of the bed, and once he spotted me, he too stood up in surprise. The frail, bearded bed got up to look at me.

“…Narumi-kun…why?”

Nishimura-san groaned. There were four of the yakuza, and unfortunately, it seemed these guys knew me, for they exchanged words. “Hey! This guy’s…” “Hinamura’s…” “The guy Nemoto-san spoke of?”

I went through the ward room filled with disinfectant scent, and hurried towards Nishimura-san. There were five other beds in the room, but the patients either had their curtains pulled up, or pretending not to notice. It’s no wonder, since we got four yakuza guys storming in for a visit.

“The match has started!”

Just saying these words left my parched throat stinging. Nishimura-san widened his eyes, and turned to the four yakuza guys.

“…Are you seriously deciding this with baseball?”

The old man on the bed groaned. He should be Nishimura-san’s dad, I guess? Looking at him, I guess he’s not really old, but just feeble due to his long term illnesses.”

“How stupid are you? That shop’s just a bother! Didn’t I tell you to let go of it already!?”

“Nishimura-san, look, even you dad says so.”

“Yeah. You’re just the owner. You dad’s the boss, right? Why talk further?”

“Hey brat, what are you doing here? Can’t you see we’re busy?”

One of the yakuza guys approached me. It’s a hospital, and they probably won’t beat me up or something, so I convinced myself as I darted by the yakuza, to the other side of the bed. There was a piece of paper on the table, and that’s probably the contract. Even the stamp’s ready.

“The match’s started. You have to go, Nishimura-san…”

“Hey, you.”

One guy grabbed my shoulder, his fingers sinking deep into my felsh, but that’s all. Nishimura-san looked over at me, and towards his dad on the bed.

“Dad, please! Just let me try. I want to continue running the sjop!”

“So what happens if you lose? You’ll get chased out without earning anything. That’ll make it all for nothing, right?”

“Your dad’s right! Don’t do anything silly!”

“Dad!”

Nishimura-san placed his hands on the bed, shouting,

“Please, I don’t want to lose without competing, and that’s why I decided to settle this with baseball. I’m not good at anything other than baseball, and you know that, dad. If you see a nice pitch to bat at, aren’t you going to swing at it?”

“hey, this is the hospital! That’ll trouble everyone else.”

“Your dad will be disturbed by this too, right? Go back already.”

“It’s long decided. You’re not a kid now. Face reality--”

The yakuza gang members swarmed together on Nishimura-san, but I did see what happened behind their arms.

The bearded, wrinkled face was suddenly full of life, his eyes widened. The frail, scaly arm reach reached for the side table.

“--Dad!”

Nishimura-san groaned loudly, and right when his father ripped apart the contract. The yakuza members gathered their eyes upon the white piece of paper that was ripped apart, and the arms grabbing Nishimura-san and me lost strength.

I immediately grabbed Nishimura-san by the arm, barged into the yakuza standing next to me.

“--Oof.” “you!”

We darted past the beds, and went for the door.

“If you lose, I’ll beat you up, you hear?”

We heard Nishimura-san’s dad behind us as he shoved us onto the corridor. Four sets of footsteps immediately hurried off after us, and I kicked the door close, running off.

We went by the hospital, with the nurses and doctors shouting at us, and all I could feel was sweat oozing.

“This is bad. They’re catching on to us.” Nishimura-san grabbed me by the shoulder as he stopped. There weren’t many cars parked at the large carpark, so I could see a red car near the entrance, and a few people smoking on the hood and the trunk. The yakuza was already there, and surely it was a big trap laid by Octy. My brains, nearly fried by the heat, started to thinking. If we’re to wait for a taxi, we’ll be discovered by the four running out of the ward room. In that case--

“I cycled here.”

Nishimura-san nodded, and immediately got over to the other side. The bicycle waiting for us at the park was scorched by the sun, the handlebars and seat nearly sticking onto my skin

“I’ll ride, you sit at the back.”

Before sitting on the back, I glanced at the time on the phone. It’s almost noon, can we make it? how many innings? However, I didn’t have the time to contact the rest. With my arms wrapped around Nishimura-san’s waist, the accelerating breeze blew at my sticky, sweat skin.

   

The headwind came down the cycling track by the riverside, and finally brought us cheers and the sound of the bats. I could only sense Nishimura-san’s body heating up. The bicycle ferrying both of us went down the green, grassy slope, and we both hopped off, falling over. The brown skinned girl seated at the bench was the first to notice us, “Mr Assistant!” and she stood up, waving at us. However, I looked past Meo’s shoulders, towards Kusakabe Masaya , and was gasping for breath.

“…One run difference…?”

Nishimura-san muttered. Latter half of the eighth inning, our team on offense. It seemed to be a pitcher’s deadlock. There were zeroes everywhere.

2-3. We’re losing.

I looked around the field. Major was standing on first base, and Ayaka was holding the bat, shrivelled on deck. Before her was Hiro, who swung at a foul tip, and catching this ball with amazing reflexes was Octy, wearing his mask.

“Batter out!”

The umpire shouted.

“Umpire, we’re changing players. Nishimura will take over from Shinozaki.”

Alice shouted from the car window. We just arrived, and she noticed us?

“Nishimura, is it okay for you to pinch hit?” Min-san immediately went over to hand her cap to Nishimura-san, who caught his breath and nodded.

“…That guy has been the catcher the entire time?”

Nishimura-san bit his lips as he looked towards Octy.

“Since the first inning.” Min-san answered.

“Then…he’s holding back his arm. This one run…is a huge difference.”

I felt ringing at my ears. Nishimura-san’s voice wore off.

“So-sorry, I’ve been committing errors…”

Seeing Ayaka on the verge of tears, Nishimura-san patted her on the head, and took the bat. I checked the batting order against. Nishimura-san was moved aside because of their ploy, and we had to change the batting order

1. Min-san (Second Base) 2. Tomozou-san (Catcher) 3. Tetsu-senpai (Shortstop) 4. Rocky (Third Base) 5. Yondaime (Pitcher) 6. Pole (First Base) 7. Major (Left Field) 8. Hiro (Center Field) 9. Ayaka (Right Field)

The situation’s one man out, and a man on first base. Once Ayaka’s subbed out, we just need to get Major to advance, so that Min-san will start again. A sacrifice bunt might work too. That’s why Nishimura-san decided without hesitation to pitch hit.

“Huh, you made it?”

Octy removed his mask, grinning at us.

“Hey, we’re switching positions too. Don’t you dare think of stepping onto second base now.”

Saying that, Octy tossed the catcher mask to the man who had been pitching the entire time.

Looking at his practice pitches, we realized that Octy’s fastballs were terrifyingly sharp. Furthermore, they were often out of control, and the catcher dropped a few pitches despite there not having any batter in the box.

“That doesn’t look like a pitch from a forty year old…” Tetsu-senpai muttered.

Just keep your eyes peeled and hit, Min-san said as she ushered Nishimura-san into the batter box. That wasn’t the problem though. The terrifying fastballs left Nishimura-san and Min-san striking out.

“Is he looking down on us here?”

Yondaime sat next to me, grimacing,

“Those guys swung quickly when I pitched, and that’s why they only got 3. They probably wanted to make this game quick.”

I nodded. If Nishimura-san had wasted more time at the hospital, it would be over, and we wouldn’t catch up to this one run led. If he really did, Octy, who had been holding back, just had to fend him off. A one run lead was sufficient for them.

Octy was about to get off the mound, and my stare just happened to meet his. The sweaty face was neither sneering nor glaring away, just looking lethargic.

So I stepped into the fair zone, and called out to him.

“…Why?”

Octy stopped in his tracks, and turned towards me.

“Why? You could make such amazing pitches. You’re probably a lot better in the past.”

“What are you saying?”

“Alice investigated your past. About the baseball gambling.”

Octy showed a frown between his brows.

“You were fixing games that year, right? Not to lose on purpose, but to win deliberately by one. Betters can include such details, so you did the same move over several matches, since the payout’s much higher. Most importantly, this wouldn’t leave any proof.”

“You brats are really annoying. You investigated such useless details? So what if you did?”

Octy spat on the pitcher mound, and turned back to frown at me. However, I continued to talk.

“That should be a lot harder than deliberately losing, yet you could manage this as a pitcher. Nemo-san, since you had the ability, why did you get involved with the yakuza? There should be a more proper way of earning money, right? Also, there’s definitely no way to find proof of you fixing matches. If you hadn’t dropped out, pretended not to know anything about this, and continued to play baseball.”

“Shut up, you damn brat.” Octy’s words cut me off like an axe, “Ability? What nonsense! There are monsters like me all over the Koshien! Those guys will get messed up by the real monsters in the pro league! Look at the salary of the top-tier players, and you can see it’s a world filled with lots of monsters there, right?”

I gulped the sandy spit. Overwhelmed by Octy’s vigor, I had to force myself not to step past the foul line.

“With that level of skill, someone of my level can only earn money by doing that, so I did. Nobody remembers the pitches I made, and everyone remembers me for being involved in some large gambling ring, because money’s the most important! That’s why I feel sick when I see you guys fooling around on the field. Any amateur who can’t earn money can just enjoy themselves watching baseball at night!”

Octy turned around and returned to the first base bench. I, and even Nishimura-san standing next to me watched his back silently. I couldn’t refute. What words could I say that could reach him? I’m just a detective’s assistant, unable to do anything other than digging up and burying the words of the Dead. That man’s pitches are still alive, preserved in that summer thirty years ago.

Nishimura-san might have something to say to Octy, since they both stood on the pitchers’ mound before.

Top half of the ninth inning, and Nishimura-san easily got three outs with his terrifying pitching. His pitches were different from Octy’s, not particularly fast, and not really breaking. However, he kept pitching at the inside corners with a bamboozle of breaking pitches, not giving the opponent any time to rest, and completely sealed off the opponent’s offense.

However, I, seated on the bench, sensed that uneasiness.

It wasn’t because of Nishimura-san, but from Yondaime, the shortstop. He wasn’t moving really well, or to be honest, his catching seemed weird, maybe because he was deliberately protecting his right arm and leg, and when throwing to first base, he was grimacing. Min-san too noticed what was going on. The pinch runner for the third batter tried to knock into Yondaime up front, and the ball popped out from his glove. Luckily, Min-san reacted fast enough to save the ball from rolling to the scenter, and threw towards first. After a terse moment, the umpire deemed the batter out, and the yakuza on the first base bench got up to lash out at the home plate umpire, who ignored this completely as he announced a change over.

Octy, kneeling on one knee in the deck, looked over at Nishimura-san for a moment, I didn’t know what expressions they showed when they passed by each other, and I had no time to bother about this, for Yondaime knelt down at second base.

“You alright?”

I hurried over, put his arm over my shoulder, and stood up. “Sou-san!” Clumsy footsteps followed as they gathered to my sides. Pole and Rocky.

“I’m fine. Just some heatstroke.”

Yondaime was clearly lying, and I carried him over to the third base bench. The door of the blue foreign car opened up, and Alice, in pajamas, rushed over, shouting,

“Get that stubborn guy into the car! Ayaka, come here. Get him some ice packs.”

“Shut up. I’ll be alright.”

“Your talent at being stubborn is really vexing. And you dare continue to pitch while saying you’re alright.”

We brought Yondaime onto the car, and found the wounds on his arms and legs bleeding. Even Ayaka, who was about to bandage him, was shocked as she covered her mouth with both hands. I shivered. Yeah…this guy was beaten up badly and concussed when he went to the hospital. He just got discharged recently. I forgot.

“Oi Gardening Kid, watch the match and forget about me. There’s another three batters until my turn.”

“You still have the time to care about the match!? How can you possibly bat when your body’s like this--”

“Shut up. Anyway, watch that bald’s pitches, and don’t lose sight of them.”

“Narumi, Yondaime’s right.”

I was kicked out of the car. Though angry, I stood up. Watch Octy’s pitches? So what if I go back to look? The second half of the ninth inning is our last chance to attack, and furthermore, there’s no point for me going--

Suddenly, I thought of something, and checked the batting order again.

First up, the second batter Tomozou-san, who blocked the fastball coming right at his chest with the base of the bat, causing it to roll out, be picked up by the pitcher, and thrown out at first base. Following that, the batters were Tetsu-senpai at 3, and Rocky at 4.

Someone had to be on base so that the match wouldn’t end. With that, the fifth batter Yondaime could step up. The problem’s that Yondaime’s injured, and couldn’t stand in the batter box. In that case.

Tetsu-senpai used his good eye reaction as a boxer to seize the moment to hit, and managed to remain alive as he barely managed to hit a few foul balls. On the ninth pitch, the full powered fastball broke Tetsu-senpai’s bat. Once that critical sound was heard, I raised my hands, and cupped my head. The ball flew back, into the catcher’s glove. Octy, standing on the mound, removed his glove to wipe off the sweat on his forehead, and I, who didn’t get to exercise, was already soaked in sweat. Two men out. We’re cornered. One more out, and we lose. Our home field would be wrecked.

Rocky, standing in the batter box, turned around, and said to me,

“I’ll make sure to get the bat to you, aniki.”

I lowered my eyes. If Rocky really got on base, the next up would be the one replacing Yondaime, me. I didn’t have the mettle to prepare myself for this, shoved onto the battlefield, and had to stand before that Octy. At that moment, I started praying, even though it’s useless.

Time passed by just like that, and when I lifted my head, it was over.

So I missed that moment.

All I heard was a blunt sound of thick flesh being struck, “Dead ball!” And the umpire shouting.

I lifted my head, and found Rocky stumbling towards first base. Octy, standing on the pitcher’s mound, looked impatient, and tossed the rosin bag about like a bean bag.

Rocky got on base. This fact overwhelmed my consciousness.

He really took the brunt of the pitch with his entire body. Meo hopped about happily on the bench, Major and Hiro nodded away in unison, while Pole yelled. Looking back at me first was Min-san, followed by Tomozou-san; everyone’s eyes were gathered upon me.

No, wait. Am I really next? I don’t have athleticism, or explosiveness. I’m just a bench player, only able to watch. I never thought I would be in the batter box! My legs are still weak and unable to stand.

Behind me, the car door could be heard opening.

“Umpire, batter change!”

Our little manager called out from behind me.

I stood up, and turned around.

Maybe I was showing a hapless look, on the verge of tears. When my eyes met Alice’s, her face showed some despair, pity, and anger.

And at the next moment, I heard her say something unbelievable.

“I’ll bat.”

The long hair grazed by me. The petite figure in pajamas, knee socks, and a baseball cap stepped onto the scorching field with trembling footsteps, grabbed the bat, and went further away.

“—Alice!”

I recovered, and hurried over. The black hair fluttered as she turned around with a pale look, pointing the bat at me

“What? Are you planning to stand in the batter box now? Given how fragile you are now, you’ll most likely end up with three strikes. Back down.”

“No, but, even you can’t do anything.”

“Nee-san!” “Alice, you’re not looking too good. Don’t force yourself.” “Get back in the car now.”

The little detective supported herself off the bat, and shouted at my teammates who went over to stop her,

“Don’t defy the manager’s orders!”

Amidst the flying dirt, Alice turned her back on us, and stumbled into the batter box. Even the home plate umpire and catcher were looking at us, “Is this really okay?” so they seemed to imply.

“What kind of a joke is this!?” Octy, standing on the pitcher’s mound, spoke up, his face devoid of a smile.

“This isn’t a joke. I’m a player-manager. Nemoto Kiichi. You’re a baseball player from Kansai, you should be very familiar with the first Mister Tigers, Fujio Fujimura. Now experience the terror of the words ‘I’ll pinch hit’.”

“Respects, nee-san!” Rocky shouted from first base.

“How bold you are. Let’s see if you can talk after a high inside pitch—”

“Ump! Start play again!”

The home plate umpire put on his mask unhappily, pointed at Octy, and said,

Kami05 349.jpg

“Play!”

Octy narrowed his eyes, and a bullet fastball went right above home plate, landing a crisp sound in the catcher’s mitt. Alice’s black hair fluttered with the wind. I thought she would have passed out there and then.

But after hearing the decision by the home plate umpire, I understood her intentions.

“Ball!”

“What!?” “Didn’t it go in!?” “Where are you looking at, umpire?”

A few yakuza members, including the catcher, stood up furiously, but the home plate umpire remained unmoved.

“…That was right down the middle, right?” Tetsu-senpai muttered next to me. It’s true that if it was any other batter in the box, that would have been a strike.

Standard baseball rules 2, clause 73.

A strike zone refers to the area above the home plate, the top of the shoulder, the middle of the uniform waist, and above the knees.

In other words, the strike zone for Alice, who’s less than 130cm in height, the strike zone’s very low and narrow.

“Is she aiming for ball four? That’s testing her luck too much.” Nishimura-san blurted in disbelief, “But what happens after that? If we really amange to get onto first and second, we can’t turn this around.”

A blunt sound caused the dirt to fly and completely cover Alice, and she kept coughing. I forgot the match was still going on, and nearly rushed over to Alice, only to be pulled back by Tetsu-senpai. “Ball!” The umpire called again, but as the pitch was flying low, it bounced off the ground. The dust settled, and there was a dent on the dirt before home plate, terrifying me.

Alice, please, stand a little further away from home plate. Don’t swing! That pitch isn’t just going to break your bones.

But my prayers were practically crushed as Octy threw the third pitch, right at Alice’s flank, or so it seemed. All I felt was my organs being torn upon. Alice fell on her backside.

“Strike!”

Once the home plate umpire yelled his decision, I called for time, ran into the batter box, and lifted Alice. The shivering white fingers were grabbing onto my arm.

“…You’re just a batter yourself. Why call for time?”

“Enough already. You’re already feeling unwell outside, and the weather’s so hot.”

“Let go of me! This is a battlefield!”

An unbelievable strength shoved me out of the field. The home plate umpire indicated for the match to continue.

Shockingly, when Octy made the fourth pitch, Alice actually swung. The bat weakly whiffed at the air two balls above the pitch.

“Strike two!”

Alice’s body spun away as the umpire made the call, and she collapsed onto the ground again. She couldn’t control the force of the bat swinging forward. I already knew about it, but I was speechless at seeing how feeble she was. Why swing? So what if she swung? And then, I was terrified by what I thought. So what if she swung? She came to pinch hit in the latter half of the ninth inning, with two men out. If she couldn’t do anything, it’s all over.

The fifth pitch again formed a huge arc on the ground, bouncing in the catcher’s glove. This time, Alice hastily checked her swing.

Time seemed to have stopped at this moment. The slight breeze lifted some dirt, as Alice and the catcher looked towards the home plate umpire in unison. Our eyes too were probably gathered there. What’s the decision? Strike three? Does it end there?

The home plate umpire didn’t say anything, instead pointing at the first base umpire. A checked swing. It was impossible for the home plate umpire to see if the batter did swing, so it was for the base umpire to decide.

“Swing!”

The base umpire stretched his fist out, saying this. My eyes suddenly went dark.

“Strike three!”

The home plate umpire responded with the same action, and I nearly collapsed to the ground.

It’s over, the game’s over. The sweat’s falling like a frozen waterfall, and from a corner of my eye, I saw Alice throw the bat onto the ground, remove the helmet, pat it on her chest twice, and pulled aside the long hair covering her face, “Where are you looking!?” She exclaimed as she walked towards first base.

“I didn’t swing! Take back what you said!”

The yakuza members were laughing away. The outfielders were preparing to return to the first base bench, and the catcher threw the ball aside, removing his mask, grinning as he wiped his sweat.

“Well, that was tiring.” “Good exercise there.” “Let’s go back and have some drinks.”

“You got to be joking!”

Alice stepped onto first base, and saw him shrugged. She was so livid, she threw her helmet onto the ground, and started point at the second base umpire, walking over.

“You’re standing right behind the pitcher. You can see, right? I didn’t swing at all—”

At that moment,

Octy, who was about to leave the mound, seemed to have noticed something. He turned towards second base, and then scanned the entire field. At that moment, I too noticed, and Nishimura-san next to me probably did so to.

Octy was probably looking for Rocky, who should be on first base.

Rocky was about to step onto third base, probably intending to return to our bench at third base, or not. From a corner of my eyes, I did see Rocky step on second base once. Octy’s forehead was popping veins as he hollered,

“Get the ball to me! You idiots, we’re still in place, don’t leave your positions! Third—no, second. Get the ball to second!”

Alice’s paled as she ran. Given her leg strength, there was a devastating amount of distance between her and second base. Octy too kicked off the pitcher’s mound as he hurried towards second base, and the catcher fumbled around, picked the ball up, and tossed it towards him

Octy’s massive body, the white ball, and Alice’s little blue body joined together on second base.

The dust scattered. The long black hair resembled seaweed dried on the shore pathetically, scattered all over the field. Octy, twisting his ankle towards second base, reached his glove out to tap at Alice’s head, and her slender hand was already grabbing onto a corner of the base.

“…Safe.” The base umpire declared, and a deafening silence echoed through the field. Octy was holding the ball, stumbling to his feet as he returned to the mound. How many present actually knew what happened?

“…Isn’t it a strikeout? Isn’t the match over?”

Min-san stood behind me, asking. Nishimura-san shook his head, his eyes clearly effervescent with excitement.

“An uncaught third strike.” I too couldn’t contain my excitement as I exclaimed.

“Uncaught third strike…doesn’t that mean the catcher didn’t manage to catch the ball?”

“That’s not it. That goes even when the ball bounces once off the ground. As long as the catcher doesn’t catch the third strike, it’s the same as the batter hitting the ball out, and becoming a baserunner.”

But who would have thunk it? Two men out, an uncaught third strike, the baserunner walking up to first base by pretending to look for the first base umpire. Alice too had the time to pat the helmet on her chest, showing the sign that it’s time to run. If it wasn’t for Rocky being the one on first base, nobody would have noticed that was a sign. That idiot spent an entire week remembering these two actions, so while he wasn’t sure what was going on, his body naturally responded to Alice’s intentions.

Octy, returning to the pitcher’s mound, clearly looked regretful as he kept stomping on the mound. The heartless breeze got stronger, and my pulse got faster.

It was likely Alice had been aiming for this right from the start, and not a ball four walk.

If it’s a ball four walk, the runners could only move to first and second. This was the only way to send both within scoring position.

Alice slowly climbed towards second base, and finally stood up, her face covered with dirt. When did this NEET detective ever dirtied herself like this in her life?

“Eh?”

Meo looked shocked and excited as she hopped out from the spectators stand, and ran onto second band. I glanced aside at Kusakabe Masaya who was behind the net, his sunglasses unable to disguise his heinous look. The home plate umpire too looked back at him, but he did not indicate anything; perhaps he agreed to let her participate.

A gaudy looking Alice returned to the bench, with everyone rushing forth to welcome her.

“As to be expected of you, nee-san!” Pole rushed over, nearly quashing Alice.

“Such a daring move…” Major too was dumbfounded. Min-san grabbed Alice, and shook her body.

However, Alice lifted her head, and turned back to look at the batter box.

“…It’s not, not over yet.”

“Alright, get on the car first. Your face is as pale as a candle.”

Min-san said worriedly, but Alice pushed her aside on the chest, and stood up on her feeble legs.

Her eyes were staring right at me.

“…You understand now, right?”

I nodded towards her.

Two men out, men on second and third. Looking at the batting order, the sixth batter Pole will be next, and the opponent might send him on base to have Major batting with the bases loaded. This is why I have to appear now, during this perfect chance when we won’t be . If Octy’s willing to settle this with us seriously, the opponent has to be me, the weakest.

So I took the bat from Pole, had Tetsu-senpai put the helmet on me, and walked to the batter box. Alice informed of a change in batter, and pushed me in the back.

“You’ve given us the turnaround here. Don’t you dare think that can work a second time.”

Octy, on the pitcher’s mound, frowned and glared at me.

“This will end in three swings.”

Great, so I thought as I gripped the bat. If he’s willing to settle this with me, I got something to give right back to him, though I didn’t know if that would work.

Until I swung at the incoming white ball head on, I wouldn’t be able to convey my words towards him. This was the one thing I was certain of.

So I swung on the first pitch. The impact was so strong, the base of the bat could have exploded, and it reached through my arms, shoulders, and teeth. The ball I hat grazed my fact, hitting the net, and giving off a sound.

Octy frowned. It appeared he wasn’t too happy about that fastball, but never expected me to seize the timing and swing the bat.

“Ain’t your specialty about talking and scaring people?”

“…Yeah. Getting up to work my body isn’t that anyway.”

I answered as I stared at Octy. Suddenly, I recalled the words Alice often said about me, “The only thing good about you is your eyesight.” How long can I hang on? No, I have to. The second pitch was a fastball to the inner corner. I instinctively lowered my shoulder, and the pitch was half a ball away from the zone. The third pitch swung in from the outside corner, and I swung. A simple fastball, and my bat whiffed the air 5cm before the ball.

I called for time, wiped at the sweat that was trickling down the helmet. The ringing in my ears got worse, and I couldn’t hear anything. Looking far behind Octy, Meo’s brown silhouette seemed blurry. To the extreme left of my eyes was Rocky’s massive body, and he was far from third base, preparing to run forward.

I couldn’t let it end here.

“Just give up and admit defeat already. You’re seriously scrappy.”

Octy said as he flattened the mound with his feet.

“What’s with that look? Still think you can change anything? What’s with the ridiculous confidence of yours when you’re all talk? Are you telling me it’s all from that stupid baseball game?”

“Yeah. It might be some stupid baseball game to you, Nemo-san.”

The fourth pitch, a low fastball, interrupted me. The bat grazed the white ball. Once I saw the catcher’s glove reach for the deflected ball, my heart froze. However, the ball popped out from the catcher’s glove, and rolled out of the net. My eyes slowly got used to the fastball, and I could see it. Octy’s starting to get in his groove too, his control and precision improving. Following that were two pitches just out of the zone that were aimed to get the batter to swing, but I managed to hang on with foul balls. My finger were numb, and I practically lost all feeling. I could see the ball, but I could do nothing about the fastballs that kept coming at the same high school. Octy began to pitch in the eighth inning, and still had some gas in the tank.

Thus, I tried to set a trap. Before he pitched to try and get me to reach, I would feint a bunt before pulling it back at the last moment. Two balls. Octy frowned, and he glanced aside at Rocky on third base. Right, please focus your attention on the runners. Two men out, but I could try to bunt or get them to steal home.

The eighth pitch was a fastball high and in, and yet I barely managed to hit it. The bat was knocked aside, and I fell back, but I stared at the ball rolling into foul territory, and stopped myself from falling over. I still had strength to hang on. Octy’s pitching style had changed. Before he pitched, he would check his grip in his glove.

The next pitch was a fastball way inside, but I swung. I couldn’t let it become a full count, lest Octy would simply send me on base. I had to keep taunting him, and stoke the flames of passion that remained hidden over the last thirty years.

And so, the sign came. While Octy got ready to pitch, he did something for the first time in the entire match. He glanced at Meo, who was on second base.

That was the only change however. Octy raised the ball above his head, and swung his arm down in the same motion, and that caused my confidence to be rattled. Any form of baseball that doesn’t earn money is trash; the words Octy once said echoed in my mind. However, we were just so mesmerized by this trash, and kept investing our time and money into it. It’s just a virtual reality baseball field created through a computer program, yet we were really having a showdown over this. That place belongs to us, and many who are like us, who are willing to embrace the passion of us trash. Were you not the same back then? Right? I firmly believe that the ball you pitched was once in the worthless garbage, that the wonderful part that can’t be turned into money once reached a certain person, and remains till now.

With a calm feeling, I quietly waited for that ball to appear.

I remembered seeing this line in a certain book, that a straight ball is a type of breaking ball.

The pitch will sink due to gravity, which naturally would happen. A straight fastball that uses a lot of backspin to remain straight is not a natural pitch. A forkball was a natural pitch, for it kills off all spin and drops straight down. That was what was written in the book.

Thus, all I had to do was to wait, watch where the ball was going, and swing.

A numbing sweetness reached my hands, and it was a long, long while until I heard a sound. Following that was a feeling of my bones shaking. A tremendous cheer struck the back of my neck. I saw a coffee-colored silhouette pass by, and to my distant left, there was a massive black silhouette there. I followed through, tossed my bat aside, and ran, feeling as though I was stepping upon the clouds.

I did not notice where the ball flew. By the time I realized it, the first base in the dirt flew by my feet. My tense emotions finally snapped, and my legs wobbled as I nearly fell face first into the dirt. I barely supported myself off the ground with both hands, and turned around to grab first base. My brain was aching due to oxygen deprivation, and I finally had a chance to look up at the place I was at just seconds ago.

Meo’s petite body dashed past home plate, and into the clutches of Rocky who was waiting there. The ball thrown back in from the outfield rolled to the pitcher’s mound.

Goodbye, game. We won. Sweat sputtered from the pores all over my body, even through my ears and eyes. I guess it’s my tears and snot following out. I leapt to the ground, grabbed first base, and from afar, watched my teammates at home plate. The scoring runner Meo was petted and ruffled by everyone else welcoming her home.

Erm…was I forgotten? Did everyone ignore me because they’re too excited? Winning felt so surreal to me, and even after the umpire had determined the ball game over, and the plate umpires returned behind the net, nobody noticed me. How cruel. I was the batter who did that clutch hit.

So, the first to pull me up, or rather, grab me by the collar and dragged me up, was Octy.

I did not dare to look at him, and I could not run away. “Ah, er, erm.” After stammering for a long while, I could only lower my head. I had no guts to determine the look Octy was giving me.


“Mr Assistant!” “Fujishima-kun!”

Meo and Ayaka seemed to have remembered me, and were shouting with excitement, about to run towards me. Pole and Rocky were about to follow suit, but saw Octy standing next to me. Was he giving such a scary look? I probably would never lift my head again.

But this time, I did crush his confidence.

Thus, I could only accept this outcome. I could not keep my head low and not look at him the entire time.

I lifted my head, and spotted a sweaty, reddened octopus face, his eyes glittering with remorse.

Octy glared at me, as though wanting to crush me into paste with his glare.

“You were waiting for the forkball the entire time? How did you know? Even the moment I would throw it too?”


“…Yes. I knew.”

I answered, and my throat was in great path. It felt as though hot sand was poured into my throat.


“But I had no actual proof. All I knew is that you would settle for the forkball, and know that you have a habit of glancing towards second base if there’s a runner behind you, to prevent the ball path from being read.”

Octy’s eyes were wide, his fingers sinking deeper into my shoulders.

“Impossible. It’s been thirty years since I participated in an official match, and there was no game log. It knows my pitching habits too? How’s that possible!? How do you know?


“Of course there was a game log.”

I shook of Octy’s hand, and stared at him right in the eyes.

“The record is in the baseball game you hated.”

Octy’s half-opened mouth was shaking. Perhaps he really didn’t want to believe this. But I did find the record in the game. Entering the name Nemoto Kiichi in ‘PWLB’ would result in a player profile, and that was our intel.

“Don’t be silly.” Octy spat hoarsely. “How can the game…possibly have data on me? I just pitched a few times in the koshien…”

“That game has a public database. Do you know that everyone can add new data into the database? In other words, someone added a ‘pitcher Nemoto Kiichi’ into the database.”

I shut up, and watched Octy’s face clear like the dispersing clouds.

“That’s probably someone who remembers you, Nemo-san, and probably saw you pitch before. You say that nobody remembers, that everyone will be forgotten, but it’s all a lie, right? There’s no way such an amazing blazing fastball. You haven’t forgotten about baseball yourself, have you? Even now, you still have such skill. So…”

--As long as you don’t forget, the god of baseball will never forget the summer you pitched.

My final words landed upon the sweat-filled dirt, vanishing.

Octy and Nishimura-san brushed by each other at the mound. The winning and losing pitchers interacted in a manner much simpler than a self-conceited detective assistant, yet more convincing.

Nishimura-san merely picked up his cap, and bowed deeply towards Octy.

And Octy picked up the winning ball that just so happened to be at his feet, and tossed it back.

Nothing else. Not a single word.

After the battle, I guess this isn’t a bad way to end this. Right, it’s like how the online play of ‘PWLB’ ends. Both sides will only go ‘Nice Game’, or sometimes exchange uniform pictures. That’s all. As for what’s different between the virtual baseball written in a program and the real baseball field we stood, maybe it’s just the blazing heat of battle and the cooling breeze, I guess? Basking in the comforting breeze is the privilege only a sportsman can have.

Thus, I wanted to continue enjoying this for a moment.

*

A week later, the office was moved into the fourth floor of ‘Game Nishimura’.

After school, I went to the shop alone. The noisy game sounds was mixed with the sound of drills and hammers. Construction work somewhere?

“Those guys paid to have stairs at the back.”

I entered the back room, and Nishimura-san informed me of this.

“Nemoto-san said, I won’t want to see a bunch of brats whenever I enter and leave the office.”

But, I stood at the entrance of the back room, observing the shop on the first floor, and thought of something. Was Octy trying not to scare the brats who dropped by to play ‘PWLB’. If the yakuza caused a decline in customers, and caused ‘Game Nishimura’ to close down, that will violate the agreement ‘for the shop to continue running’.

I tried to ask Nishimura-san, “Maybe.” So he answered.

“But really…thank you. Thanks to everyone.”

“Ah, it’s nothing. Please don’t thank us.”

I hurriedly got up from my chair.

“We just did what we wanted, and Major was the one who stoked the flames…”

“It’s fine! I did make the request. I’ll definitely pay.”

“Major paid Yondaime, Min-san and Tomozou-san. He was the one who called them.”

“He paid for me first? I’m sorry….I have to pay for the chassis this week, so I’m a little tight on cash this week. But please tell Major to bill me…”

“We discussed this, and we hope that you won’t accept anything in cash…”

“…Do I have to pay in goods? What? In that case, game medals?”

“Erm, actually, we hope for you to be our baseball coach.”

Nishimura-san widened his eyes.

“I think us NEETs with nothing to do got addicted to baseball…other than Rocky and Pole, everyone in the Hirasaka-gumi wanted to play…”

But it’ll cool off soon, I guess. Nishimura-san showed various expressions on his face. I guess he’s happy, or at least, I could tell. His hand on his thigh was holding a non-existing baseball, affirming its presence.

“You can’t possibly find a team to play against now, right? There’s 18 if we count the Hirasaka-gumi guys, but only a few can be pitchers and catchers…”

“Don’t they have a lot of equipment at the batting center next door?”

Once Nishimura-san mentioned this, I tilted my head in confusion.

“Now that you mention it, they’re finally moving?”

“No, seems like they’re doing refurbishing. A real estate company involved with the yakuza bought it.”

“HuH?”

“There has been some weird rumors recently. A guy looking like an octopus has been batting there alone in the middle of the night. It’s just a weird rumor though.”

After thinking for a moment, I finally understood what Nishimura-san meant, and I looked up at the ceiling, shaking my head and hands.

“No no no no no, spare me already! I want to play against normal people.”

Nishimura-san laughed.

“But Narumi-kun, your team isn’t normal either. That’s hypocritical.”

It’s true, I guess…Min-san and Tomozou-san are proper, working adults, and since they always have to work, they can’t play baseball from time to time. So this team has to be formed with NEETs.

“But, I understand. I’m willing to be coach. Ah, yes. While real-life baseball is fun, do come to our shop to play ‘PWLB’, okay? I hear there’s a new edition coming out next year.

I nodded, shook hands with Nishimura-san, and left ‘Game Nishimura’.

   

“…Because of this, we don’t have any earnings, and there’s no payment to you, Alice.”

I showed up at the office, and cautiously informed Alice of this. Naturally, the detective’s rage was not abated in the slightest.

“How naïve. This is absolutely unforgivable! I did this much, and I don’t have a reward?”

The ice bag on Alice’s forehead slipped off. She had been lying on the bed ever since the match effort. It seemed her efforts on the field had overburdened her body, whether it was standing in the batter box, or sliding head first into base.

“I acted as manager, deputed as a hitter, saved a shop, and I got no reward! Ants and cockroaches have more economical sense than you people.”

“Well, you really enjoyed yourself, so what’s the problem…also Major paid off those not in the agency. You can deduct my pay for your reward, Alice.”

I always wanted to say this, but this fellow here’s unexpectedly petty about finances.

“The problem isn’t about deducting from your pay! In a capitalist society, the weightage between pros and cons is very important”

“So I said that Nishimura-san is willing to be our coach. Don’t you like to play baseball too? I won’t ask you to go out there and pinch hit again…but you can be coach too.”

“I am not going to involve myself with such a barbaric sport. I made an exception to help because you accepted this job! Don’t think too much into this.”

Alice turned her head aside, and looked towards the screen by the bed.

“Anyway, the reward is still most important. Since you say you want me to deduct yourself salary, don’t regret this. Katsuya Nomura’s annual salary as player-manager was 5 hundred million yen, and my contributions are the same as his, so if I count my actual labor time of one and a half hours…”

Thus, Alice started deducting my salary in a ridiculously terrifying manner I did not know of. Nothing good would come of this if I stayed around, so I hurriedly gathered all the empty Dr. Pepper cans, and slipped out of the office.

However, Alice did personally stand on the field, basked in the breeze, and engraved her blood and sweat on the white ball. She definitely would not forget.

The proof of it was a baseball cap on one of the teddy bears.

*

After a while, there was a rumor regarding ‘PWLB’ on the internet. There was an amazing team that kept winning on the internet, and even scaled the national rankings. However, the player names were all ordinary. Strangely, this strong player’s identity remained unknown, and nobody could figure out which game center he was at. The common consensus was that he was a rich guy with a large console in his house, or that he hacked directly into the main console at the game company.

The name of this team was ‘Hanamaru NEETTeens’.

And the uniform logo was a cute teddy bear.


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