Kamisama no Memochou:Volume 8 Chapter 1

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It's said that they aren't clinging onto the bamboo poles, but gliding along them. In any case, living on and doing something wouldn't be as bad as how it was at that moment.

Dragonflies are dragonflies. Every year, they merely glide from the North end of the Street to the South, down the lined bamboo poles

'The Blooming Flowers in the Underpass' Irokawa Butai

Chapter 1[edit]

I have a blood-related older sister, and an older brother not related by blood. If I told them that, most people would then conclude something like "I see, so your sister is married", but my sister is actually unmarried. In fact, my sister and my brother are not related whatsoever. That man and I ended up becoming sworn brothers through a ritual based on yakuza movies.

It's been a little more than a year since that autumn when I moved to this city. Back then I was just an inconsiderate brat, but I learned many things during all this time. For example, that there are bonds much more stronger than bonds merely formed by blood, but that doesn't mean blood ties are weak, either.

My mother died a long time ago and my father almost never comes home, so I don't quite understand what it means to have a family. When I asked Alice about it, she replied with her usual calm tone:

"Family is the smallest, most unconditional reciprocal union in which everything can be forgiven. For this reason, things like hiding a criminal or destroying the evidence of their crime stops being a sin in their eyes. Something similar to an unscrupulous debt in an unwritten contract, don't you think so?"

What a nonsensical answer, really. On second thought, she had left her family behind and ran away from home, so a sarcastic reply on her part was to be expected. However, she then laughed softly and added, with distant eyes:

"It's this world's most beautiful illusion."


*


In an old building five stories tall next to an alley, pretty far away from the station, there's a ramen shop signaled with a red sign. That place, Ramen Hanamaru, is where we always hang out. The owner is Min-san, a young woman with a 'nice big sister' spirit. I got to know that place because of a classmate named Ayaka, who works there part-time. The only 'good citizens' of the gang are those two, while the rest are NEETs who don't work or study.

"I failed at the Arima Kinen and the Tokyo Daishouten... I lost around 100.000..." Squatting on the concrete floor in front of the backdoor with a resigned epression was Tetsu-senpai, the ex-boxer who had became a good-for-nothing gambling addict and had ended the year by wasting a huge amount of money.

"Narumi, you got a lot of New Year money, right?", Tetsu-senpai spoke to me. "Lend me some."

"I don't want to. And I didn't receive New Year money from anyone in the first place.", I replied while eating my late lunch. Senpai looked surprised, so I went on: "If I had parents or relatives to be with I wouldn't be here the second day of the year."

"Well, I'm so sorry that you have to be in this place, huh. You don't have to come if you don't want to."

Upon hearing that voice coming from the kitchen, I got startled without letting go of the bowl. The woman with a ponytail opened the back door.

"Ahh, no, uhm, I didn't mean that--"

"Here, Tetsu, your ramen's ready." Min-san quickly turned her gaze away from Tetsu-senpai to glare at me while giving him a ramen bowl with just soup and noodles, a menu so poor that one could almost cry.

"I can't really say much, but, you guys really don't have parents or relatives to spend time with? Would they go to your funeral if you died? Tetsu, if you're not careful enough you could end up without anyone to tend your grave.", Min-san said, folding her arms and leaning against the door. Tetsu-senpai slurped some soup and shrugged.

"It's not like I care about what happens to me after I die. More important than that, the New Year money--"

"Talk when you can pay your tab, you good-for-nothing!", Min-san pulled Tetsu-senpai's ear.

"Ow ow ow ow ow ow!"

She was wearing a tank top and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt without a sense of the season. I tilted my head and looked up at the winter sky, cloudless regardless of the cold weather. It didn't feel like New Year at all.

"Happy New Year!"

A refreshing voice was heard and a tall figure approached from the alley. That young man dressed with a cashmere coat and a long beige scarf so refinedly combined that it made him look like a model got closer to the back door. Hiro-san is one of the NEETs that always hang out on that alley. With his handsome appearance and rhetorical abilities, he lives as a gigolo who tricks and leeches off women.

"Oh? Narumi-kun's here too. Don't you spend time with your family to receive New Year money and all that?"

You too? I gave him the same explanation I had given to Tetsu-senpai.

"Aah, I see.", he made an apologetic face for an instant, but his smile quickly returned. "Then, this is from me." To my surprise, he handed me a 10.000 yen bill.

"Hiro, me too! I want money too!"

"Tetsu, you're the same age as me, aren't you?"

"No, my birthday's three months later, so I'm younger! Give me money!"

Min-san smacked Tetsu-senpai and turned to see Hiro-san.

"Hiro, being a NEET gigolo, are you in position to give money to others?"

"Well, yes. I received quite a lot of money from the ladies. For example, there was this time when we went on a holiday overseas without her husband knowing or--" Hiro-san was also smacked by Min-san. With a bump on their heads each, they kept eating their first ramen of the year.

"We do the same every year..."

"It's fine that way, isn't it? We have nowhere else to go. When you try to be a good son, your parents are already gone."

"Do you want to be a good son, Hiro?"

"No, not at all."

Both Tetsu-senpai and Hiro-san laughed. I never asked much about their family situations, but apparently Hiro-san didn't grow up on easy circumstances. In the end, we looked like a parentless bunch. Now that I remembered, Min-san doesn't have a mother either, and Ayaka's parents are divorced.

"What's with you, Narumi? What a gloomy face. If you're not gonna eat that I will.", Tetsu-senpai pointed at the bowl on my knees. I had left my chopsticks still, with the noodles extended.

"N-no, I'm still eating."

"Coming here on the second day of the year, it seems like he's going to completely become one of us. How terrible, Narumi-kun." Hiro-san's teasing words were quite cruel. Tetsu-senpai knitted his brows.

"He's not going to be one of us. It's too late for him already."

"Well, that's true."

I choked with the soup in my throat.

"I-it's not that!", after wiping my chin and mouth with a napkin, I kept talking. "I was just thinking that none of us has parents... Quite the coincidence, isn't it?"

Hiro-san and Tetsu-senpai stopped eating and looked at each other. The first one to open his moth was senpai.

"...Not a coincidence, probably."

"Eh? Ehm...?"

What does that mean? Something like "Birds of a feather flock together?" NEETs end up together? Please, no. I'm still a high school student. My grades are pretty bad, but I still go to class.

"It's not a coincidence.", Hiro nodded. "If you don't have a family, you have free time, don't you? And if you have free time, you end up hanging out here 24/7."

True. The main reason why I was in this place in the middle of the New Year celebrations was because I have a lot of time to kill.

Tetsu-senpai suddenly spoke:

"Yondaime does have his parents, doesn't he?"

"Ahh, yes, I think so.", Hiro-san replied.

Yondaime is that person who ended up doing the sake ceremony with me by a twist of fate, becoming my sworn brother. His weird nickname was given to him because he's the son of a family who manages a stall-keepers business in Kansai.

"His parents are in Kansai, so he doesn't see them much, does he?"

"Is he in touch with them?"

I couldn't imagine Yondaime being in contact with his family, since I remember hearing that he had ran away to Tokyo because he didn't want to inherit his family's business.

"I wonder how Yondaime's old man looks like."

"I picture him looking like Aikawa Show."

"Ahh, you think so, Hiro? I imagine him with a more stern look, like Takakura Ken or something like that."

Both of them then started to picture him like different actors, manga characters, Dragon Quest Monsters (Why?), etc. I would get to meet that person later on, and he would be completely different to any of their comparisons.

After finishing my ramen and enduring Tetsu-senpai being annoying with his "Give me cash!" again, I quickly went up the emergency stairs. In the third floor of the same building of the ramen shop there was a room with a sign that read "NEET Detective Office", my employer's shelter.

"Happy New Year..."

I opened the door and greeted in a small voice as I entered. It was colder inside the room than outside.

"What is there to be happy about? Here and there, the new year just brings inconveniences."

I heard the sulky voice of the little girl. Across the kitchenette and the narrow corridor a room with three sides of the wall covered with monitors, computers and cables could be seen; such a cybernetic room. Sitting on a bed in the middle was the girl with long and splendid black honey-colored hair that flowed like a river. She was wearing light-blue pajamas with teddy bear patterns, her stocking-covered legs were worryingly thin and her skin was really pale. No matter how you looked at her, her appearance was worrisome. Shionji Yuuko--AKA Alice. The detective who employes me.

"Observe, Moggadeet's ear has come unstitched."

With teary eyes, Alice thrust her big teddy bear against me. Some thread was hanging from its little ear.

"This happened because I hug him too tightly every day even when I'm sleeping! I wanted to ask Yondaime to repair it but he's busy with the new year and he doesn't answer the phone. Even though he usually answers quickly..."

I was about to tell her that she could just leave the teddy bear alone for one or two days, but I decided not to say anything. That teddy bear with a strange name was her favorite, and apparently she couldn't sleep if she wasn't hugging it.

"Uhmm... Then, how about I take his place?"

When I said that, Alice blushed so hard that she looked like a habanero pepper.

"W-w-what are you saying-? Why would I hug you to sleep!? I could never do such a shameless thing--"

"That's not what I meant. I meant to say if you would like me to fix it."

Alice's face was practically emitting steam.

"...You should have said that from the start!"

"You're the one who misunderstood!"

Alice puffed her reddened cheeks and turned to the monitor.

"Can you even sew? You look so clumsy that it wouldn't surprise me if you weren't even capable of tying your own shoelaces. More importantly, there's no more Dr Pepper left."

On the floor at her feet there was a pyramid of purplish-red 350 ml. cans. She doesn't eat properly, and the base of her eccentric diet is actually this carbonated drink. Sadly, my main task as a detective's assistant is taking care of her daily dose of Dokupe.

"Go buy two packs at the convenience store later, since the liquor store is closed and it's not delivering either. I don't see what's so special about the New Year. Isn't just the year changing?"

"Don't you do anything typical of the New Year?", I asked. "Like, visiting the shrine, or eating typical foods, or going back to your parents' house... Ahh, no, I'm sorry. That was a stupid question."

Alice glared at me and let out a childish "hmph", then she turned back to the keyboard once again.

"The first two would imply that I return to the Shionji house anyway and that's not likely, even if the house is reduced to ashes and their affiliated business all fall into bankruptcy."

I tilted my head at her tone of voice, as sharp and cold as an icicle.

For some reason, around five years ago, Alice ran away from home. I don't know her exact age, but she looks really young now; five years ago her age probably had a single digit. That's not normal. Because of that, she spends her days shut away in her room, with countless security cameras installed in the whole building out of fear of someone coming to get her. What could have possibly happen in her parents' house? What kind of person are her parents? Are they alive and in good health? I'd like to ask her all these questions, but it's better if I don't. It must be a delicate situation.


My cellphone's ringtone broke the silence. Upon looking at the screen, I noticed it was a call from Yondaime.

"Happy New Ye--"

'Don't bother with the greeting.', Yondaime sharply said on the other side of the line. 'I have a job for you. It's urgent, so come right away. Do you know where the mahjong parlor Tenhou Club is?'

"Uh-, ah, yes."

'It's about what I told you about at the end of the year.'


*


Mahjong parlors are highly active during the last days of the year and the New Year. It's because of the same reason we hang out at Hanamaru: People with free time. Since there are lots of people who like gambling and don't give a damn about spending New Year with their families, mahjong and pachinko parlors become packed with people.

That mahjong parlor called Tenhou Club is at Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho and it's one of the most popular and successful parlors of the neighborhood. On the second day of the year, Kabuki-cho's streets were full of noisy barkers promoting bars and host clubs seemingly having a shouting contest. After bumping into lots of passers-by because I was carrying a huge cardboard box, I finally reached the building. I raised my gaze to the parlor's banner and took a breath.

When the elevator's door opened after reaching the fifth floor, the sounds of tiles clacking against each other could be heard, and a strong tobacco smell was filling the air. The place was quite big, a little bigger than two classrooms, and there were around 10 mahjong tables, all full.

"Welcome!" An employee with an apron turned around cheerfully but his expression became confused when he looked at me, alternating stares between my face and the cardboard box.

"U-uhm... I'm not a client, is Yondaime--Uh, Souichirou-san here?"

The employee widened his eyes, surprised, and worried about the clients' gazes, he quickly guided me to the backroom.

Inside the small office there was two men. One of them was sitting on a pipe chair, had a hoodlum-like appearance and his hair was punch-permed. He was probably part of the staff of the parlor. The other young man was sitting on the desk, his hair was bleached completely white and a he had a sharp wolf-like gaze--Yondaime. He was wearing a red jacket with an embroidery of a chinese dragon that made him look even more menacing. His real name is Hinamura Souichirou, and he controls quite a lot of the juvenile delinquents of the Yamanote zone. None of the street gangs ignores the existence of the gang he leads, Hirasaka-gumi, and even some legit yakuza organizations acknowledge Hirasaka-gumi's power. Lately, they have been gaining influence in Kabuki-cho little by little, so these kind of mahjong parlors relied on them in case of trouble.

"What's with that box?" Yondaime glared at the cardboard box in my arms.

"Ah, this... A teddy bear. Its ear--"

Yondaime stepped up, shocked, and pulled my collar, grabbing the box that was about to fall from my hands with his own free hand. He whispered onto my ear with a cold, piercing voice:

"Don't talk about that out loud, what if the manager hears?" He pointed at the guy with the punch-perm with just his gaze and I tilted my head to the side to see him, putting the box down. The manager was looking at us with a confused expression. Even though he's so aggressive, sewing is Yondaime's hobby, and his skills are top-notch. He has taken care of Alice's stuffed animals many times, but of course, having such a cute hobby doesn't really fit his image, so he would obviously get angry if this was mentioned in front of other people.

"I called you because of work, why did you bring that thing here?", Yondaime said, glaring at the box with the teddy bear. The manager nervously looked at us from behind the desk, without understanding the situation.

"Alice told me to bring it to you immediately... I'm sorry."

"That brat..."

With a defeated expression, Yondaime ruffled his own hair and sat on the desk again.

"Whatever. Let's talk about work."

"Sou-san, err... Who is he...?", the manager behind Yondaime asked. He had been looking at me for a while now, probably because he didn't imagine a brat would be coming.

"He's Fujishima Narumi. You probably heard his name before."

"A-ah, uh... From the detective's office..."

My name being known in this dishonest world made me worry about my future, but I can't refuse when Yondaime asks me a favor.

"Are there bears or something like that?"

Mahjong bear is a term originated in a novel written by Asada Tetsuya, and it refers to the people who earn money tricking inexperienced players at mahjong parlors. At the end of the ear, Shinjuku seemed to be full of people wanting to make easy money.

"There's some suspicious guys, but it's not really clear so I called you. Play on the same tables as them and observe their actions."

I placed my palm on my forehead and sighed. So it was about that.

"Sou-san, excuse me, but, why...? I mean, he's a high school kid, isn't he?" I made a faint affirmative sound in reply to the manager's anxious voice. It made sense that the mahjong parlor with the highest rates had a reputation to uphold.

Why did he call me? Surely there was something more competent, wasn't it?

Yondaime glared at the manager and me so sternly that it fell like he was hammering a nail with just his gaze, then he grabbed my wrist and pulled me to a shelf nearby. He took just the suited tiles from the piled up mahjong sets, putting them face down and mixing them on the desk, then he picked thirteen of the tiles without turning them over. He lined them up in a straight line and grabbed them with both hands, picking them up and showing them to me just for a short instant, then putting them back as they were before.

"Did you see them?"

"Eh? Ah, yeah, more or less..."

"Was it tenpai?"

"It was isshanten, wasn't it?"

"Which tiles should you draw and which ones should you discard to get the highest tenpai?"

"If I take the 5 and I discard the 9 I'd get 147 and 25 points, I think."

Yondaime showed the thirteen tiles to the manager. The manager then aligned them in numerical order, and upon replacing and ordering them, an expression that said 'I can't believe it' appeared in his face.

"It's correct... H-he just saw them for a short while, didn't he?" The manager sounded nervous. Taken aback, I hurriedly replied:

"E-eh, well, anyone can do this, really..."

Yondaime lightly punched my back.

"Let me tell you something, since it seems you haven't realized it yet.", he said, pushing my body to the back room’s exit. "From all the people I know, you're the best mahjong player. That's why I called you. Whatever, just go. I'll take care of the betting and the losses money."


*


And just like that, the second half of my winter break succumbed to the sound of the tiles mixing in the automatic mahjong table. Even if I loudly yelled that I was merely a 17-year-old high school student, no one would hear me. In that world, only words such as ron, pon, and reach are listened to.

After spending the whole night and going back home with my whole body smelling like tobacco, I lied down on my bed with the question what am I doing? invading my mind.

What am I doing... Playing mahjong, of course, but I also had to see if some suspicious people were actually cheating or not. Not only I had to do this at Tenhou Club, I was also taken to several other Kabuki-cho's mahjong parlors, joining the tables in which someone was winning big.


"How does it feel to work at a mahjong parlor?", Alice said sarcastically when I showed up at the detective office after being absent for three days.

"Do I look like a regular player that much with this suit and gray hair?"

If they found out I was a high school student they would probably close the place down, so I had made an improvised camouflage.

"Is this how you use the salary I pay you?"

"The money I bet is not even from my own wallet in the first place..."

Yondaime covered 100% of the costs. It didn't matter whether I won or lost, the important thing was observing the suspicious clients playing in the same table as them.

"Even if that's the case, you have won in all the parlors, haven't you? And Yondaime didn't tell you to return the money he gave you if you multiplied it."

"Ahh, yeah... Unexpectedly, in those clubs with high rates the players are pretty bad. A-aah, no, I'm telling you that I'm not playing mahjong to make money."

"Then for what reason did Yondaime include mahjong tiles in Moggadite's box?"

That was the first time I had heard about that, so I was surprised. Alice then took out a black case from below the neatly placed teddy bear. Inside the case there was a set of mahjong tiles. So now I have to see tiles in the office too? I don't even like mahjong that much.

"It's because I owe Yondaime.", Alice sulkily hugged her giant teddy bear. "If he asked me to give these to you I couldn't say no, but you never showed up since the beginning of the year..."

"I'm sorry I didn't come to keep you company, really."

"W-what are you saying-?"

Alice slapped the case with the palm of her hand, and the tiles inside it fell down, scattering on the blankets.

"Stop saying that like I was feeling lonely-! If you don't show up who will bring my Dr Pepper? Who will clean the office and do the laundry? That's what I meant!"

"Oh, well excuse me..." I picked up the scattered tiles.

"You kept winning on the spur of the moment, but you're still a beginner. You lost ryankan chances every time, and you couldn't see the indications of chitoitsu tenpai at all."

I was bewildered, and the tiles slipped out of my hands.

"...E-eh? Alice, you know how to play mahjong? And you saw me playing? Why?"

"I watched the security cameras' tapes."

I stood there open-mouthed. Yondaime had secretly installed those cameras to observe the suspicious clients' behavior while we played, but there was no reason to show those to Alice. She had probably cracked the cameras.

"E-eh, uhm... W-why? Why have you been watching the matches I was playing in?"

"Mh, hmph... To check on my assistant's work, obviously."

Really? Did she even see the way I played? That's a little embarrassing.

"You're a really bad player and if you lose you'll cause Yondaime trouble, so, from now on I'll be your coach!"

Saying all that, Alice started lining up the tiles on the side table. What's with all this enthusiasm...

Around thirty minutes later the intercom rang and a short-haired girl entered, exclaiming "Happy New Year!" My classmate, and Hanamaru's employee, Ayaka.

"E-eh?"

Ayaka looked at us, speechless. In that moment, Alice took around 10000 points from me, completely destroying my self-confidence, and I just let my head fall on the mattress.

"T-that's no good, Fujishima-kun-!" Ayaka rushed up and pulled me up. "Don't make Alice play mahjong! Alice is still a little girl so it's a no-no!"

"W-what's the matter?" Alice blinked as Ayaka was taking the tiles away from her. "Mahjong doesn't have anything to do with age, it's just a game."

"But, don't you have to take off your clothes if you lose?"

"Wha-Where did you get that twisted information from-!?"

"In the first place, taking your clothes off is my job! Come on, let's take the first bath of the year!"

"Let me go-"

Ayaka pulled Alice, who hated bathing, to the bathroom. That detective incapable of taking care of herself can't bathe alone.

I sighed, looking at the tiles that had fallen to the floor, and exited the office. The evening sun looked like thousands of crystals inlaid on the winter sky.

Yondaime couldn't have possibly known. From all our acquaintances, the best mahjong player is definitely Alice.


*


But it wasn't like I was going to the mahjong parlor everyday to win. I was just doing my job.

Since I went everyday, I could find out some things about the suspicious clients. In the morning, I confirmed it with the security camera's footage at Hirasaka-gumi's office. I cropped and enlarged the pictures of the clients so I could ask the manager his opinion later.

"These three..." At the office, I showed the pictures to Yondaime and started explaining to him. The people on the pictures were all young men.

"Around the end of the year, the three of them have been winning big at different mahjong parlors."

"Together?"

"No. They were never seen entering the same place together."

"Any other reason to be wary of them?" Yondaime asked, fixing his gaze on me.

"There's a weird common trait with the way they all win..."

"Common trait?"

"Frankly, the three of them are unskillful players."

I played on the same tables, but I also observed them from behind. Their abilities were student-level, but they kept playing for a long time without losing. Just when one would think they wouldn't stop playing, they suddenly did, even having the right tiles, and then they left the table.

"Isn't that to pass to their partners?"

Passing is a general term which means secretly exchanging information between swindlers.

"It's possible. The three of them usually sit to play close to the toilet. Whenever they finish playing, they enter the toilet. Maybe they contact their partners via cellphone once they're there... But I don't know from where could they see the tiles. They get winning sprees even when they're on different tables, too."

"In any case, you must keep observing.", Yondaime said. "I'll find out where do those guys come from. If we don't have proof that they're cheating I can't move."

That's true, they could just be some clients with insanely good luck. If they were'nt guilty and Yondaime accused them, it would damage the parlor's reputation.

"What does your intuition say? Are they just some lucky fellows, or are they really bears?"

"...Do you trust my intuition?"

"Intuition is important in mahjong after all, isn't it?"

I lowered my gaze to the floor. After some time, I replied:

"My intuition... is dark. There's just something unnatural about the way they play."


*


I met that man for the first time on the last day of my winter break. He showed up when I was playing at Kabuki-Cho's Tenhou Club in broad daylight. I heard the sound of the doorbell, and then a carefree voice.

"Shall I enter now?"

It was a middle-aged man wearing a white down jacket, he had a slight stoop and long limbs, and his droopy eyelids gave off a charm similar to that of comedians such as Akashiya Sanma or Tokoro George.

"Welcome!" The manager's brother rushed up to the man and handed him a wet towel.

There were only two active tables in that moment and I had just finished a round, so the man was guided to the seat on my right.

After around twelve rounds, I drew the Green Dragon tile. The man on my right then spoke:

"'Scuse me, I'm still gettin' used to Kantou's rules, so..."

"Uh?"

"Can you do double and triple Yakuman here?"

"E-err... There are yakuman duplications in this place, yes."

"I see. So both tsuiso and su anko count, huh. Ron."

The man revealed his hand. North, South, East and West wind tiles were neatly aligned, three of each kind.

"96,000 points."

That was the first time in my life I saw a daisushi. They said it's a hand you only see once in a lifetime, after all.


After two hours, the place fell completely silent and that big winner left, so I immediately got up and brought my palms together as a sign of apology to the manager.

"S-sorry, I'm a little uneasy about him so I'm going to watch him, I'm leaving for today..."

"A-aahh, okay, see you."


The elevator was already going down, so I rushed to the stairs. I ran among Kabuki-Cho's nighttime current of noise and neon lights, looking for that white down jacket among the crowd. He was on a pedestrian crossing at Yasukuni Dori, walking in the direction of Yamada Denki's huge building. So I wouldn't lose sight of him and he wouldn't notice me either, I followed him while keeping a certain distance. Blending into Shinjuku's West Gate's congestion sounded like a good idea. I didn't know if that man was related to the bears or not. In fact, with such a fancy way of winning it was safe to assume he was unrelated to them, but--I just felt uneasy. I suddenly lost sight of him near a boutique. I difficultly pushed through the crowd, looking for the down jacket. He was really tall, so I couldn't have lost him just like that....

"What's this? Am I that suspicious?"

I heard a voice behind me and I literally jumped. When I turned around, I saw that man with both hands inside his pockets, grinning from ear to ear.

"E-eh, ah, n-no, I'm just..."

So he had noticed me when I was following him. I felt like sweat was dripping even from inside my ears, but the man just slapped my shoulders in a friendly manner.

"Ya make me feel a bit uneasy too, boy. Why is a high schooler doin' this kind of thing?"

I wiped the sweat out of my face.

"Eh, h-high schooler? U-uhm, what are you talking about?"

Even I noticed how bad and desperate my lie was.

"No need to play the fool there. I'm just an expert with the tiles. I also have a young kid... Well, soon you'll understand."

I was already quite worried, but the man's next words made my blood freeze.

"I didn't left evidence of my cheatin'. I noticed the cameras."

"Eh...?"

"Ya wanted to see if I had talent or not, didn't ya? Even letting me see yer hand... Thanks for that. That camera inside the flower vase was pretty well hidden."

My face was probably incredibly pale by then, judging by the looks the passerbies were giving me.

He found out about my observer role and he even noticed the cameras.... Just who is this man?

"Hey, no need to be so tense.", he said, lightly slapping my cheek with the back of his hand. "I arrived to Tokyo just today. This man you were frantically chasin' is a good fellow. I just like mahjong. I've been playin' here and there but the most interestin' opponent was you, boy."

"Uhh..."

"This year I came to Tokyo to make a decision that's been quite buggin' me. When these things happen, I use mahjong to read my luck. So, if I got a daisushi, everythin' would work out fine. Well, in the end I got a triple Yakuman. Seems like this year will be packed with good stuff." The man laughed, and I didn't even know what to reply or what face I should make anymore.

At that moment, I heard the sounds of footsteps approaching us among the crowd.

"Gen-chaaaan!"

I turned around upon hearing the female voice and I saw someone running from the Alta Studio, pushing her way through without caring about the perplexed looks of the passerbies. She had wavy hair that was slightly bleached and was wearing a mink jacket and a miniskirt regardless of the winter cold. Because of her thick fake eyelashes and lip gloss, she gave off a hostess-like aura, and she looked like she was on her twenties. For some reason, I felt I had seen her face before.

"Wow... Yer late! They came to flirt with me four times while I was waiting for ya, Tokyo's so hectic it's hard to stand. Aren't we goin' to see Tamori even though we're at the Alta?"

The woman hugged the white down jacket-clad man's arm, and then she noticed me.

"Eh- W-what's this? Gen-chan, ya went flirting while I was waitin' for ya? And with a man? Yer a homo? I can't believe it, let's get separated!"

The woman shut up when the men flicked her forehead.

"Ouch! Be more gentle!"

Ah, no, she didn't shut up.

"I'll be gentle tonight at the hotel. This boy's just a friend I made at a mahjong parlor."

"Ohh... Thanks for takin' care of Gen-chan." The woman suddenly bowed, and then she furtively stepped closer to me. "Now that I look at 'im closely, he's quite a cute boy! Gen-chan, this is bad, I'm seriously thinkin' yer a homo."

"Idiot. Yer the only one I like, Rikako. Whatever, let's go. Did ya find out about the place?"

"Can't do, Tokyo's subway's like spaghetti. If we get on the wrong train we could end up at Aomori or Los Angeles."

It was hard for me to keep up with that situation and I could only stand there.

That woman must be her lover or something like that, right? Well, he is good-looking, and as I could see at the mahjong club, his purse is also quite full.

"Ah, boy." The man suddenly talked to me again.

"Y-yes?"

"We wanna make the first visit to the shrine, do ya know where Suitengu shrine is? We're not really familiar with Tokyo..."

"Ah, y-yes."

I took out my cellphone and checked the route from Shinjuku's station to Suitengu-mae station.

"Do you know Soubu line's platform? Entering JR's ticket office from the East gate, uhm... If I remember correctly, the first entrance. Then you switch trains at Kinshi-cho..."

Even me, who had been living in Tokyo for and year and a half still got a little lost at Shinjuku Station, so I explained really carefully.

"Thanks a lot, boy!"

"Really, thanks!"

The weird couple waved goodbye and they walked the pedestrian crossing in front of the Alta, disappearing from my sight among the crowd as they reached the East gate.

With my hands on a railing, I took a deep breath. It felt like suddenly all the pores in my body were emitting tiredness. Who was that man? His mahjong abilities were from another dimension, but that wasn't the only thing that made me feel uneasy. The same happened with the woman; even if I had seen her for only five minutes, I felt a weird sensation in my chest. She reminded me of someone, but, who?


When I returned to Tenhou Club, the manager approached me with a gloomy expression and told me in a low voice:

"Uhm... Fujishima-san."

Don't call me 'san', I'm just a high school student...

"That man from before, he has been winning big at several parlors since this morning..."

Yondaime had formed a formidable web of contact between all the parlors he had been taking care of, so the information had spread in a short time. The manager lowered his voice again:

"But he's a new face, from Kansai. Just who was that man?"

"Mnn, I don't know. I'll report to Yondaime, for now."

It was then when I realized what the reason of my uneasiness was. Yondaime. When I saw their faces, for some reason I was reminded of Yondaime.


*


The next day, I went directly to Hirasaka-gumi's office to tell Yondaime about what had happened. The office of the strongest gang of the zone is on the opposite side of the NEET Detective Agency and the station, across the commercial district. It's a small building; in the fist floor there's a fancy store where they sell various imported goods, and the group's office is on the third floor.

"Aniki, thanks for your hard work!"

"Thanks for your hard work!"

When I entered the office I was greeted with throaty voices from left to right, and the delinquents in black shirts with an emblem on the chest were aligned, bowing. Yondaime was sitting behind the desk across the glass coffee table.

Even after becoming their boss' sworn brother, the members of the group kept calling me Aniki. I'll never get used to that way of greeting, so I wish they'd stop doing it.

"We have to greet Alice-neesan for the New Year, what should we give her as a present?"

"If it's for Ane-san, a plushie would be perfect!"

They also refer to Alice as 'ane-san', a high hierarchy title towards yakuza women surpassed only by 'oyabun'. As for why do they respect the tiny detective so much, I really don't know.

"Let's give her a plushie of this year's animal from the chinese calendar!" "That's perfect!"

"Which animal is it this year?"

Yondaime slapped the desk just once making his followers shut up immediately, and spoke to me as he signaled me to get closer with his hand:

"I just spoke a little with Tenhou Club's manager. I guess I'll see the security camera's pictures soon but, what did that guy look like?"

When I physically described that 'Gen-chan' and told him about his behavior, Yondaime's expression darkened, and when I told him a young woman that looked like his lover or something like that was waiting for him and they called each other 'Gen-chan' and 'Rikako' respectively, Yondaime suddenly grabbed my collar.

"You sure? Did they really called each other that?"

"Eh, a-ah, y-yes..." That hurts... Why is he doing this all of a sudden? Does he know them?

At that moment the steel door cracked open, and one of the lackeys poked his head in.

"Sou-san, some weird guy came here saying that he has business with you--Ah, oi, you bastard!"

Apparently there was someone else behind the steel door, as the lackey looked behind him and then was pushed inside the office. A man in a white down jacket forced his way in.

"What the hell are you doing, you bastard?!"

"Do you even know where you are?!"

The lackeys inside the office suddenly got up upon seeing the intruder. I nearly cried out: It was the man from the day before. He looked around the interior of the office with his sleepy expression caused by his droopy eyes.

"I ain't interested in small fry, I wanna see Souichirou."

Ignoring the man's words, the black shirts went against him at the same time. What happened after that is difficult to explain. One by one, some lackeys were thrown against the wall, while others flew spectacularly, falling face first onto the sofas. I could barely see the man's movements. When I took a deep breath, feeling quite tense, none of the black shirts were left standing.


"...You bastard"

"Son of a..."

They were getting up to attack once again, but Yondaime's sharp voice resounded inside the office:

"Stop. Stay away from him."

The man snorted, stepping over the collapsed group members, and sat down on one of the sofas with his legs together.

"Yer men are rude and the office is dirty... I'm disappointed."

"Why are you here?", Yondaime asked, glaring at him, to which the man responded by pushing his lower lip out in a mocking way.

"Well, I came to see ya, Souichirou."

"Get lost."

"Hey, yer father is--"

"Just go."

With my jaw open, I could just look at Yondaime and the other man again and again, comparing their faces. When he noticed, Yondaime clicked his tongue and asked:

"This was the guy at the mahjong parlor?"

Words wouldn't come out of my mouth, so I just nodded. With a disdainful voice, Yondaime said:

"He's the third generation of the Hinamura family, Genichirou."


All the lackeys were ordered to exit the office, and only I was left in the middle of that strange father-son reunion. I sat next to Yondaime on the sofa and observed Hinamura Genichirou's face once again. He didn't look like a business person at all, he really looked more like a comedian. But his abilities a while ago had been definitely the real thing, and his enthusiasm for mahjong was also legit as far as I had seen.

"Fujishima Narumi, aren't ya? Souichirou's sworn brother." Genichirou-san suddenly brought up the subject, making me shiver.

"Eh, ah..."

"You know about that?" Yondaime asked, sulking.

"I found out lotsa things about my cute only son. Did ya drink sake with him? Ya said ya hated that all that stuff but ya seem to be caught up on 'em, aren't ya?"

"Shut up. Where's mother? I heard you brought her along."

"Ahh, Rikako's at the hotel's spa. We walked a lot yesterday so she's tired."

...Wait a second. Wait a second! I can't ignore that!

"Yondaime.... T-that woman is.... y-your mom?"

"Ain't she a beauty? Souichirou looks a lot like his mother."

"H-how old is she?"

"Forty-three.", Yondaime answered.

"Eeeeeeeeeeh!?"

That's impossible. It can't be!

"Every night in bed I tell 'er how cute she is, that's why she keeps lookin' young."

"Please don't flaunt your sexual harassment in front of your own son."

"But if it wasn't for my sexual harassment Souichirou wouldn't have been born."

"The 'harassment' part wasn't needed!"

"Souichirou, this lil' brother of yours is a good tsukkomi. I should take him back home with ya so ya both can become a manzai duo and make yer debut at Yoshimoto."

"We're not a manzai duo! ...I-I mean, e-eeh?"

Take him back home? I looked at Genichirou-san's face and averted my eyes from Yondaime's gloomy expression.

"Yer gonna have to start studying to inherit the business. Go back to Osaka."

"As if, you idiot."

"Yer room looks the same as ever. Every night, Rikako smells your sheets and cries."

"I don't wanna know about that!" Yondaime lost his composure and replied violently, putting a regretful expression immediately afterwards.

"I was lyin' though."

"Shut up! Then don't say it!"

"But I was serious about ya returnin' home. Ya've played in Tokyo enough."

"I'm not playing."

"Oh~?"

A smile appeared on Genichirou-san's face, and I shuddered. He had the same look on his face he had that time at the mahjong parlor, when he showed his hand.

"How much was yer taxable income this last year?"

"Just the personal income?"

"Yeah."

"108,000,000."

I gasped without letting Yondaime and Genichirou-san hear me; I knew he earned quite a lot but that amount was beyond my imagination.

"See? Yer just playin'."

"So what? You can't take me by force. There's no way I'd lose against a shitty old man like you."

"I'm an adult. I can't just go punchin' and dodgin' and throwin' people to the floor."

"You did all that just now."


"His tsukkomi timings are perfect! Yer little brother's really somethin'." I covered my face with one of my hands. I subconsciously rebuked him... Are all people from Osaka really boke?

"Buy ya know..." Genichirou-san resumed his talk. "Yer within the reach of my hands now, too, since yer not just playin' yakuza like a brat like ya've been doin' 'til now."

"What do you mean?"

"Ya have a company. Now yer also a part of the financial world."

I could almost hear the sound of my own back freezing. The malicious gaze that appeared on Genichirou-san's face was definitely a wolf gaze. Like father, like son.

"Money is everythin' in this world. I can easily break into yer territory. Ya know what that means?"


*


At that time I didn't quite understand what he meant, and it wasn't until the next day that everything finally dawned on me. Because of the third term's opening ceremony we only had classes in the morning, so after school I went to the bank, holding a heavy suitcase. By the end of the year several bills to pay had accumulated in Hirasaka-Gumi's account, so Yondaime asked me to take care of them as usual.

When I was waiting by the bank's box office, a door at my right opened and my breathing stopped for a second when I saw the person that came out. Genichirou-san. Behind him there was a suit-clad middle-aged man (most likely the manager), and upon seeing them, the employees of the bank bowed several times.

Genichirou-san noticed I was there, too. With a mysterious smile, he turned to the manager.

"Well, I leave it in yer hands."

"Understood, sir."

A bad feeling rushed up my throat. I stared at Genichirou-san as he crossed the automatic door, leaving. Why was he here? Was it because of something related to Yondaime? This was the main bank Yondaime used to manage his incomes after all. An uneasiness feeling took over my body, and the words Genichirou-san had said the day before resurfaced in my mind. Money's everything in this world. Being at the reach of his hands.

I hurried back to Hirasaka-Gumi's office and noticed Yondaime was talking on the phone.

"...But-! If you don't let me talk about it soon it'll become a problem, no, but... Yes, okay... No, in any case, please let me just ask one thing--...What are you talking about? That's not it!"

Apparently the person on the other side of the line hung up, so Yondaime angrily threw the receiver back into the base. The lackeys inside the building passed their worried looks to me.

"...U-uhm, I went to the bank."

"Ah, sorry for the trouble." Saying that even when he was visibly angry, Yondaime rested his whole back on the back of the chair.

"I saw Genichirou-san at the bank. He looked like he was asking something to the manager."

When I said that, Yondaime suddenly stood up, but he sat down again and sighed.

"...I see. So it was indeed that damn bastard's doing."

"Did something happen?"

"They stopped financing me."

I gulped and sat on the back of a sofa. Yondaime's event coordination company had started just last year and it had already successfully promoted various concerts, but it was still a growing business, so if they stopped financing it, it would go bankrupt.

"...Genichirou-san stopped it? Can he really do that?"

"Hinamura can do that, yes. He's the president of the chamber of commerce and industry, and he also has several branches in Tokyo."

I had completely underestimated the Hinamura family. I has just heard that they had a family stall-keeper business, so I had arbitrarily imagined a chain of small, old stores that had been barely subsisting for a while. But they were actually really far from that, they had a large-scale business company.

Yondaime had already set foot in the financial world when he started his own business, and that was the reason the bank had been providing him funding. And that money with overwhelming liquidity and an anonymous nature was actually connected with a blood relationship. According to Pascal's theory, wherever a pressure is applied, it will be exerted evenly in all directions. And that had been proven by a phone call just now.

"This is my problem, so it has nothing to do with you. That man is a good-for-nothing so stay away from him. He's not related to the mahjong group either. You just focus on that."

After he said that, Yondaime kicked me out of the office. With my chest still filled with feelings of confusion, I walked to the exit of the building, when I heard the footsteps of a number of people walking down the stairs.

"Aniki! Please wait, Aniki!" The giants in black T-shirts appeared one by one by the stairs. Between them there were two men even bigger than the rest, the longest standing members of the group, Rocky and Pole.

"Uhm, we don't know what just happened and we can't really ask Sou-san about it, could you please tell us?"

We were obstructing the way and we couldn't talk like that, so I guided them back upstairs.

"The man from yesterday is Yondaime's dad... Did you hear about that?"

"Yes!"

"Sou-san's father could kill us instantly!"

"He was really strong!" "He hit me too!"

"It looks like his dad wants to take him back to Osaka."

"Really!?" "We will expand to Osaka!" "Soon we will conquer the whole country!"

"No, it's not that... The company that Yondaime founded could collapse, do you understand? And if his other source of income disappears, Hirasaka-Gumi will have to be dissolved, too."

"That's impossible!" "We left our lives in Sou-san's hands when we drank sake with him, so nothing can get us apart!" "We have decided to follow him for the rest of our lives!"

The dumb Hirasaka-Gumi's lackeys were really optimistic this time, but reality was crueler than that.

"If the company bankrupts the income will become negative, generating debts. That man has the power to stop his financiation, so if Yondaime goes bankrupt, he'll disband the group so he won't cause trouble to all of you."

"S-sou-san..."

"For our sake, uuuh....."

"He disbanded the gang for our sake..."

Hey, he hasn't done it yet.

"Then--Then, Aniki!" Pole grabbed both of my arms. "What shall we do!? We're stupid and don't understand, should we hit his father? We don't have a victory spirit, but we're willing to die."

The other lackeys got closer to me with serious looks on their faces. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed and I gently brushed Denchu's arms off my shoulders.

"I... don't know what to do either."


January's days are short, so when I reached Hanamaru it was already getting dark. The three guys from the NEET Detective Squad were together in the alley in front of the kitchen door.

"Vice-Admiral Fujishima, it's been a while! How about we visit Yasukuni Shrine for the New Year?"

Major was the first one who got up when he saw me, dressed in a military jacket with a camouflage pattern. Because of his short height and child-like face anyone would think he's an elementary schooler, but he's actually a university student who has already repeated a year. Because of his notorious military-mania, he calls me Vice-Admiral for some reason.

"If we're going to go to a military-related shrine, why don't we go to Tougo instead?" Tetsu-senpai interjected. "The gods of gambling are there, if I remember correctly."

"Believing that His Excellence Tougou was merely lucky is plain wrong! His Excellence was a unique strategist who was able to miraculously obtain victory and returned alive, an ordinary lucky person would have died a hundred times in the sea--"

"I've had enough with visiting shrines..." Hiro-san interrupted Major's passionate speech. "I even went to the shrine at Narita mountain. Each girl picked a different shrine..."

"You could just gather everyone at the same place. Koufuku-ji would be a good pick because of the Ashura statue. It would be a complete bloodbath."

"If I do something so dangerous, they could stab me to death."

The NEETs laugh irresponsibly. Exhausted, I sat on the beer crate we used as a seat, unable to keep up with their sense of humor. Hiro-san glanced at me.

"What's wrong?"

I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, thinking. Should I talk about that with them? And how much should I talk? It was a private matter so I couldn't talk about it easily, but I didn't want to carry all the burden alone either. I chose my words carefully and started talking. I told them I had met Yondaime's parents. I didn't tell them about the relationship between him and his dad, I just mentioned that Genichirou-san wanted to take Yondaime back by force, and about Hirasaka-gumi's difficult situation.

When I finished speaking, after a moment of silence, the first one who opened his mouth was Tetsu-senpai.

"...So, Yondaime's mother looks young and pretty, doesn't she?" I raised my gaze and nodded faintly.

"So if Hiro seduces her..."

"No, even for me, seducing a friend's mother is a bit..."

"If he were to be successful, Hiro-san would become Yondaime's father. That would be incredible." Major added.

"If Yondaime would call me 'dad', I could just die from laughter."

I hid my face on my knees. I was an idiot for trying to consult with them. It was none of my business in the first place, Yondaime had said that himself, this was Hinamura family's problem.

I felt a hand on my back. When I raised my head, I saw Hiro-san smile, then Tetsu-senpai grinning with folded arms, and Major's ironic expression as he pushed his goggles up his forehead.

"...Come on, Narumi-kun, don't let something like this get you down." Hiro-san said.

"Eh...?"

"You don't intend to ignore Yondaime's family situation anyway, do you?"

I gulped, reflecting on Hiro-san's words. Of course, he was right. I didn't want to ignore his situation.

"If you need an excuse, I can give you one." Tetsu-senpai said. "You're Yondaime's sworn brother. So, his family problems are your problems too."

I felt those words directly on my chest. I nodded and got up, brushing the dirt off my trousers.

"I'm going to see Alice."


"I'll find his whereabouts immediately." Alice said while incessantly typing on the keyboard. "But, what are you going to do when you meet the Hinamuras?"

"I haven't decided yet." I frankly answered. "I don't understand Genichirou-san's intentions yet."

"Hmm" Alice turned around. "You mean that you don't quite believe Hinamura Genichirou's words about coming to Tokyo to take his son back."

I nodded.

"It's just that, pressuring Hirasaka-gumi and the company to go bankrupt won't make Yondaime want to inherit the family business. Even if he ends up covered in debts, he definitely won't cast his pride aside."

"I agree."

"I don't understand why Genichirou-san came here in the first place. He wanted Yondaime to go back to Osaka from the start, why did he come to Tokyo just now? I think he's hiding something. Maybe he came here to negotiate something in person."

If that was the case, he would want to be in a favorable position beforehand. Alice shook her shoulders, chuckling.

"The true reason they came to Tokyo just know... I already know that reason, more or less."

"E-eh?"

"He told you about that himself. He came to visit the shrine."

I blinked a few times. Visiting the shrine? He had told me about that, yes, but, what did she mean by saying that was his true reason?

"Forget about that for now. I don't have enough proof so I can't give you that information. About the hotel where they're staying..."

Alice's hands slid over the keyboard, and the monitors around the bed on the upper right side blinked. Data from guests staying at Tokyo's hotels were obtained by cracking. Alice mentioned a hotel in Akasaka.

"Room number 3301. Do you want me to find out his cellphone number too?"

"Ah, no, it's okay. I'll go there directly without saying anything."

"Hmm. Because the price would be higher if I found out a cellphone number. Wise decision."

Even if it was a favor to her assistant, she mercilessly charged for her investigation.

"My detective work ends here. Do you best for your sworn brother's sake. Yondaime is my favorite client, so if he goes bankrupt it will be a problem."

I opened my mouth, without knowing if I should say it or not.

"No--Alice, I think you can cooperate a bit more." A hint of perplexity appeared on her big, round eyes.

"Why? I don't have a right to get involved beyond this."

To tell the truth, a plan consisting in suggesting a deal to Genichirou-san was slowly appearing in my mind. It was an undeniably stupid plan, but I had the feeling that something like a miracle could happen. And Alice was needed for that. For that reason, I proceeded to convince her using a fake argument.

"Because, you see, Alice, you're Hirasaka-gumi's anego, aren't you?"

Her bewildered face at that moment was such a rare sight that I even thought about taking a picture.

"So this is your problem too, Alice."


Contrasting its luxurious exterior, the first-class hotel was a place where it was almost insultingly easy to sneak into. When it got dark, the lobby got packed with foreigners carrying suitcases with airport tags, so I entered without being even barely noticed. The receptionist was really polite and greeted even a brat like me with a smile.

"I'd like to announce myself to Hinamura-san who is staying at room 3301. Uuhm, I'm Fujishima and I came in behalf of Souichirou..."

The young receptionist picked up the phone and I skimmed through pamphlet from the hotel that was lying around, and I learned that room 3301 was a suite that took up the whole floor. Well, I had imagined something like that to be honest.

Okay, what should I say? I need to concentrate....

"Hinamura-sama will be here soon." the receptionist said. "Please wait over there for a while."

Ah, so he's coming here? Well, obviously he wouldn't let someone he only saw two times into his suite. I sat down on a sofa in the lobby and waited.

After two minutes--

"Naru-chan!"

A female voice broke the calm atmosphere of the lobby. Employees and guests were equally startled and turned to look at the elevator. I also quickly got up.

"I'm so glad ya came, Gen-chan's not here so I was gettin' bored." Rikako-san rushed up to me. She was wearing a light purple dress and a long translucent stole. I took a step backwards; I didn't foresee Rikako-san being the one who would come.

"...A-ah, sorry for showing up so suddenly." I sat down once again. So Genichirou-san is not here... I'll have to come here again some other time, then. Meanwhile I had no other option than to talk to Rikako-san, even though she made me kind of nervous (and she's Yondaime's mother!) However, before I could say anything, Rikako-san grabbed my arm, saying "let's have some tea, c'mon" as she pulled me to the cafeteria at the right of the lobby.

Sitting in front of Rikako-san, I looked at the menu with its prices such as 1400 yens for a cup of coffee. What am I doing? I scolded myself. When I raised my gaze. I saw Rikako-san dialing a number on her cellphone.

"Ah, Gen-chan? It's me. Ya know? Naru-chan just came here. Yeah. We're at the lounge in the first floor. Yeah, come back soon, okay? Fine. Love ya. See ya later!" After she snapped her cellphone shut, Rikako-san ordered two pieces of cake and two cups of coffee and she leaned her body forward with sparkling eyes.

"I'll hear eeeeverything ya have to say, Naru-chan. Gen-chan wants to bully Sou-chan so he's been investigating lotsa stuff about Hirasaka-gumi. But it was such a coincidence to meet ya as soon as we arrived to Tokyo! Thanks again for helpin' us with Suitengu, Naru-chan."

"Eh...."

I wish she would stop calling me Naru-chan. Many people has called me many different names, but this nickname is particularly embarrassing.

"Uhm, you both came here because Yondaime--I mean, Souichirou-san..."

"Yondaime sounds cute.", Rikako-san said. "I like that nickname. I wonder if I should start callin' 'em Sandaime and Yondaime too..."

Aren't they your own husband and son?

"Ya guys drank sake together, didn'tcha? That's so cute... Since he was little, Sou-chan has always been so stubborn and cute..."

And with that, she spent 45 whole minutes telling me lovely stories about Yondaime's childhood. He would slaughter me if I dared to mention one of these stories concretely, so I won't write them here.

"Is Sou-chan doin' fine here? Is he takin' good care of himself? Is he eatin' right? He's quite skillful, does he cook his own meals?"

"Eh, ah, well... I don't know that much about his personal life..."

She really is his mother, I thought as I looked at her closely. Her makeup was applied with utmost care and her skin was really smooth, that's why she looked like she was still on her twenties.

She then looked at me. Oops, that was close.

"Ya know, I ain't a good cook. Even if we go back together to Osaka, I don't think he misses mom's cookin' or anythin' like that."

"Aah, uhm..." Finally there was an excuse to start talking about that matter, so I held onto that. "Did you really come here to take him away?"

"I have that intention, yeah", Rikako-san said as she poked her own cheek with her index and ring fingers in an adorable gesture. "But I don't know about Gen-chan."

"You don't know?"

"To Gen-chan, he's not his kid but Hinamura family's successor. He'd need his consent to take 'im back, wouldn't he? If so, why is he picking a fight investigatin' and all that?"

Not his son, but his successor... I scratched my head. Investigating? Is that something that can be easily done? Isn't Yondaime's company so new that it's practically growing by word of mouth and trustworthy people only, and if its financing were to be taken away it would just disappear?

"If Sou-chan goes back, will ya feel lonely, Naru-chan?"

"Lonely? Well, yes, I would, but what I'm trying to say is--"

"Why don't ya come with him?"

"Eh?"

"Ya two are sworn brothers. Doesn't that make ya my son too? Doncha wanna live with us? Ya will be welcome in this family!"

"Nonono"

"Havin' a family of 4 is a dream of mine. We could all play family mahjong!"

With my mouth half open, I stared at Rikako-san as she was daydreaming. I had initially thought my plan was absurd, but an opportunity was unexpectedly presented. Maybe I could carry on.

"U-uhm, so..."

Rikako-san suddenly stood up and waved her hand, facing the cafeteria's door.

"Gen-chan! Over here!"

I sighed and turned around, seeing a surprising scene. On the opposite side of the spacious lobby, outside the hotel, men in suits that made no effort at all in concealing their identities as Yakuza got off from a row of parked imported cars and bowed at the same time. From the side door of one of those cars, a man in a white down jacket got off too--Genichirou-san. There were lots of people registering at that time, so the lobby broke into murmurs. It looked just like a scene from Minbo no Onna. The old hotelier's face paled. But the only one who entered the lobby was Genichirou-san, and the rest of the men dressed in black returned to their cars. Apparently they were just there to escort him.

"Boy, I heard ya came here at midnight to steal my wife so I had to come runnin'. I even thought about sendin' one or two of my men to greet ya."

After saying those scary words, Genichirou-san sat by my side for some reason. So he won't let me run away... Just as I thought, this man is half yakuza.

"Yer sayin' that as if I wasn't faithful. Gen-chan's the only one I blindly love."

"So ya unblindly love other men?"

"Wouldn't that be ya?"

"Even at the top of Tsuutenkaku tower, I wouldn't see anyone except for ya."

If he had to listen to this kind of stuff everyday, I understand why Yondaime ran away from home. They went on for a while, and my head was starting to hurt already.

"I don't understand what you're saying anymore!"

"Oh, the boy started with his specialty again."

"I didn't come here to do manzai! I--" I became exasperated and got up from my seat just when the waiter came to take Genichirou-san's order, so I sat down again. Some of the clients had noticed and they were looking in our direction. I'm sorry. Once I cooled down, I carefully chose my words, took a deep breath and let my voice come out:

"It's about Yondaime. I'll get straight to the point: Leave the company linked with Hirasaka-gumi alone, please."

Genichirou-san squinted by my side.

"Boy, ya don't have a reason to meddle, do ya?"

"I'm his sworn brother."

"Oh? If ya say so." Genichirou-san raised his eyebrows showing an amused expression. "But that sounds like yer just openin' yet mouth to spout a frivolous excuse. I wanna hear a concrete reason."

"Even if you make his company go bankrupt and cover him with debts, he's not the kind of person who will obediently return to his parents. No matter how you look at it, what you're doing is meaningless. Please, stop."

"Did I say I wanted to make the company go bankrupt so Souichirou would return home?"

"...Eh?"

Genichirou-san's mocking gaze felt burning like cold fire.

"B-but, you made the bank stop financing him..."

"Listen, I can crush anyone when I get mad, even my own son, and demonstrating that is not somethin' meaningless in this world. Brats shouldn't be talkin' as if they knew everythin'."

I shivered. Maybe my senses were already numb. Maybe I was already used to step on territories I shouldn't be familiar with. But that man wasn't 'half' yakuza, he was a complete, legit yakuza. Not because he was part of a group of gangsters or anything like that, but because in his soul's stairway, he was someone who could ignore the other party's pain when he used his own fists to hit them--Hinamura Genichirou was a genuine yakuza.

My hands were trembling over my knees. What else should I say?

"That's not all, though. There someone else who could become Hinamura family's heir.", Genichirou-san suddenly spoke. "I couldn't decide if I should pick Souichirou or this other person. That's why I came to Tokyo, to see how far Souichirou's talent goes. So it's kinda the opposite of what ya were thinkin', boy. I ain't interested in entrustin' the family to someone who would go bankrupt just because of this."

I was in mute amazement. Wasn't that much worse? If Yondaime could manage to keep the company they would make him go back, and if he went bankrupt they would just abandon him like trash.

"In that case, all the more reason--"

"All the more reason what? I have to see if he can go on with the company or not. Do ya have a better idea to make him demonstrate he can keep the business goin' in the real world?"

I couldn't say anything, so I lowered my gaze.

"Gen-chan, yer bullyin' my Naru-chan. I forgive ya if yer a homo, but if yer a sadist then I want the divorce."

"So if I'm just gay it's okay?"

"So ya were gay!? Let's get separated!"

I was feeling utterly depressed and I didn't have energy to open my mouth, so the person who interrupted their manzai routine this time was the waiter bringing the coffee. Genichirou-san flicked his wife's forehead to make her shut up and drank a sip of coffee, talking to me once again.

"Ya ain't no idiot, boy. What are ya plannin' to do? C'mon, tell me."

"N-no, nothing..."

"Ya can say it."

I balled into fists my sweaty hands over my knees. I can't take this anymore.

At that moment, Rikako-san spoke:

"How 'bout we play mahjong?"

My shoulders shook because of my surprise. Genichirou-san brought the cup to his lips, frowning.

"Mahjong?"

"Yeah. Just a moment ago I was sayin' it would be nice to play family mahjong and Naru-chan's eyes were sparklin'"

Ugh. Did I really make such an easily read expression? Genichirou-san let out a guffaw and settled himself comfortably in his chair beside me.

"Then, uh, even if Yondaime's company goes bankrupt there's nothing you gain with that, right? So, how about we have a match and make a bet? Uhmm--" For example, if I lost I would pay him whatever amount he wanted, and if I won he would have to leave Yondaime alone. I was intending to reach a simple conclusion. However, Genichirou-san wouldn't stop laughing, but unexpectedly Rikako-san interrupted.

"What? I don't see what's so funny. Dontcha use mahjong to make yer decisions, Gen-chan? Sayin' stuff like 'if I make a daisangen I'll expand to Italy' and all that. It's also the first time we have four players... And, wouldn't it be good if we set a really high rate so we can take all of Sou-chan's money? Way better than coercin' the bank."

"Well yeah, that's right."

Hey, wait a second. Was that last thing something a mother should say? Don't turn the conversation that way please, I would be willing to bet all that money if it was just me, but I can't afford to risk making Yondaime go bankrupt.

"How's that idea sound to ya, Souichirou?" Genichirou-san said out of the blue. I was startled and followed Genichirou-san's gaze--There was no one there. But when Rikako-san got up with her eyes sparkling exclaiming "Sou-chan!", I realized. Nervously turning my head around, I saw the sleeves of a crimson jacket.

"What the hell are you doing? I thought I told you not to get involved."

Yondaime's voice was sharp as a knife. Since when is he there? And does Genichirou-san have eyes on his back or something? He could also easily see the cameras that time when we played mahjong.

"What 'bout ya, why are ya here?" Genichirou-san said in a calm manner as he raised the cup to his lips, without turning around. "It's past midnight. Brats should be sleepin' at home."

"I came to put an end to this." Yondaime just stood there behind Genichirou-san and me with his hands inside his pockets. The waiter glanced in our direction from time to time with a worried expression. "I might not be able to avoid your dirty hands now, but I know quite a lot about the Hinamura's shady stuff. I can make us even."

"Shady or not, it doesn't matter. That's how money's used. I told ya already, it's the most effective thing to crush others."

"Like I care. I'll go to Osaka's public prosecutor's office and I'll tell them to call the bank."

"C'mon, both of ya..." Rikako-san said. Genichirou-san finally supported his elbow on the back of the chair and turned around. Both wolf gazes clashed with each other.

"Do as Rikako said. Siddown."

"I didn't come here to have tea. Unlike that kid, I don't feel like babbling nonsense with an annoying fellow."

"Oh, it's nothin' like that.", Genichirou-san saido. "We were talkin' about settling this with a mahjong board. This boy came all the way here to talk about that. Quite the cute lil' brother, ain't he?"

I sighed and looked at the three. Rikako-san was exchanging glances between his husband and his son with the serious expression of a middle school girl who just hid a love letter in a shoe locker. Genichirou-san had turned his gaze to the cup of coffee on the table again. Yondaime had fallen silent with his gaze fixed between my shoulder and Genichirou-san's.

"...Did he really suggest a mahjong match?" he finally sat down, poking my head. Rikako-san nodded, and I didn't say anything since it wouldn't make a difference anyway. For an instant only, Yondaime looked at me. Just by looking at his eyes I understood what he was trying to ask me: Do we have a chance of winning? I nodded just with my gaze, without letting Genichirou-san notice. Yondaime then looked at Genichirou-san.

"...What will be the rate?"

A slight smile appeared on Genichirou-san's lips.

"5 points would be nice."

"Cash payment?"

"Of course. As I already said, ya and I ain't father and son anymore. deferred payment is okay too, since I'm gonna crush ya."

I felt relaxed upon hearing that. After that, they kept talking about terms and conditions of the match that I couldn't understand at all, but there was no place for me to mention the victory condition I had thought about anymore.

"I never thought of you as a father in the first place, you bastard. I cut off my ties with you long ago.", Yondaime said, taking a deep breath. "Let me decide the minor rules."

"Fine. In exchange, I will decide the place. I'll also buy brand new tables. Tokyo is yer territory, so I won't let ya cheat."


Yondaime and I left the hotel together. The lights of the luxurious Akasaka buildings spread on the night sky and the wind was blowing, mixing with the smell of the exhaust pipes as we were going down the slope of the vehicle entrance, cooling down my face that was burning because of my nervousness and excitement. I had been worried about how things would turn out, but Rikako-san had saved me.

"Why did you look so relieved?" Yondaime muttered under his jacket's collar.

"Eh? ...Ah, well, I didn't quite understand what I heard about the terms of the match, but I didn't think the rate was that high. It's just 5 points, isn't it?"

In mahjong, 5 points normally means that 1000 points=50 yens. In a 30 minute lapse, even without playing very well we would only lose around 3000 yens, not really an amount to worry about. It really wasn't an amount that would make someone say 'I'll crush you' with a scary face. However, Yondaime heaved a long sigh and started walking faster.

"Are you an idiot? Do you think that damn yakuza would play with those student mahjong rates?"

"...E-eh?"

"5 points to the Hinamura family means 5000 yens for each point."

I froze in the middle of the slope that led to the main street. A broken calculator was giving off sparks inside my head. My calculations had been completely wrong--In the most literal sense.

One point=5000 yens?

I saw Yondaime's back as he was walking away. Right. Didn't Rikako-san say so herself? That thing about taking all his money. 5000 yens for each point. If we lost all of our points, the payment would exceed 100.000.000.


*


"...So, I'm your trump card? Way to count your chickens before they hatch!" Alice's voice was colder than the conditioned air inside the room.

"Y-yeah... I also thought it was wrong to make this plan without saying anything to you, but I wasn't sure I could manage to arrange a mahjong match."

"You just didn't want to deal with me telling you that your idea was naive, am I mistaken?"

She was right. From the other side of the bed, I hung my head, defeated. The day after talking with Genichirou-san, I showed up at the NEET Detective Agency immediately after school, just to be scolded by Alice. Not that I didn't deserve it, I had gotten her involved in my irrational mahjong plan. Genichirou-san's abilities were way far from average, so most likely he thought his victory was assured. But he didn't know about Alice's existence, so that gave us the possibility of having an advantage.

"In short, you're saying I should play mahjong with the three members of the Hinamura family?"

"...Well, yes, basically. Yondaime absolutely has to play."

Alice sighed. "It's true that I'm unbeatable and currently undefeated at online mahjong, but that doesn't mean anything in front of someone who is able to cheat."

"But you're much better than me, aren't you? Even if I worked hard and we managed to find a way to play without letting him cheat, I still wouldn't stand a chance against Genichirou-san at normal mahjong. But if you're the one who plays..."

"You're worse than a chimpanzee. At least a monkey has the brains to run away when he's in front of an opponent he can't win against!" The detective was as harsh with me as usual. "Not to mention, what's with that ridiculous rate? Have you lost all sense of money because you've been playing with someone else’s money for too long?"

"I know, but..."

Before parting ways with Yondaime the night before, I had asked him about that strange rate with numbers that could easily send one to bankrupt. In the first place, we didn't want money, we needed Genichirou-san to stop pressuring the bank, so the betting rates shouldn't have mattered that much. If our side won Genichirou-san wouldn't interfere with Yondaime anymore, and if we lost we would have to pay--That was the original agreement. But Yondaime answered this:

"Do you think that bastard will just obediently leave me alone if he loses the match? He'll keep bothering for as long as he can. So, there's no other option than to solve this with money. The best way to do that would be taking away enough money from him to make him unable to stay in Tokyo. He might be rolling in cash back at Osaka, but I don't think he has more than 100.000.000 in cash over here, so he will have to leave."

Alice stared at the roof like she was praying. "I understand the reasoning, but it's not normal for a father and a son to want to cannibalize each other like that."

"Yeah, it seems like those two don't think of each other as a father and a son respectively. They said they had cut their ties." Now that I thought about it, not even once I had heard Yondaime refer to Genichirou-san as his father.

"And, will Yondaime really let us take part of this outrageous bet?"

"Yes. If I tell him you're better than me, I'm sure he will make a formal request."

"Good grief. I was under the impression that he was a shrewder man than that, but it looks like his stupid sworn brother has weakened his rationality."


Yondaime came as soon as it got dark, and once again I realized my own stupidity.

"Genichirou sent the place he chose."

I took the fax paper Yondaime held out to me and noticed there was a map printed on it below the designed date and all that. There was a placed in the middle marked with an X.

"This is... Near the Arakawa river, isn't it? What place is it exactly?"

"It's not near. The place is Arakawa's riverbed."

My jaw dropped and I was unable to move. Alice snatched the paper away from my hands. The river bed? Outdoors?

"Were you really thinking about asking Alice to be your replacement?" Yondaime asked with an astonished expression. I nodded, still bewildered.

"Hmph. Genichirou said we would do it outdoors so we wouldn't cheat, but his true intention was to leave Alice out of the game."

"E-eh-?" I stared at Yondaime with my eyes wide open. "He said he had investigated lots of things, but he had no way to know Alice was good at mahjong, had he?"

"He probably knows that we know a highly intelligent agoraphobic shut-in, there's also the fact that she's considered Hirasaka-gumi's anego, and your unusual confidence. Genichirou's way of doing business basically consists in crushing his opponent, with utmost efficiency."

I looked up at the roof and sighed. I had been too naive.

"Why do you both think I've been only listening quietly?" Alice said, looking displeased, hugging a teddy bear against her chest."I've been able to go out a bit lately. And playing mahjong is not a tough exercise."

Even though she had just told me that my plan of her taking my place was ridiculous, what had really bothered was the fact that I had left her out. She wanted to be involved in this as much as me. The problem was that her way of expressing it wasn't honest at all.

"It says we'll be starting tomorrow at 13:00. If it was nighttime it would be a different thing, but sunlight's really bad for you."

"U-uuuh! If the sky is as clouded as the day the dinosaurs became extinct I might be able to make it."

Yondaime flicked Alice's forehead. "Stop that, you idiot. Have you already forgotten about the time we played baseball? Weren't you ill for three whole days just for going to bat once?"

"I'm still in better shape than my assistant who is inferior to a monkey and can't even grab a tile without having his breath weakening because of his nervousness even while sitting down." No, I'm pretty sure I'm in better shape than you. "Listen, Yondaime. I think I've already told you this a while ago, but your sworn brother is so hopelessly optimistic that it's like tomatoes and cucumbers were growing inside his skull."

"I'm also pretty sure I told you this before, but your assistant has less sense of crisis than someone who climbs the Himalaya wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and pants."

Why are they both competing to see which one of them makes more fun of me?

"Anyway, since Alice can't go out and we can't cheat... I need to find a way to annihilate him so he'll lose his cash-"

"By the way," Alice interrupted. "Your father is here because he wants to make sure you're worthy of becoming Hinamura family's successor. If you win against him in a spectacular way, won't you intensify his tenacity?"

Yondaime made an expression that looked as if he had drank the coffee before the powder had entirely dissolved. "I don't give a damn. That's his own problem, I don't intend to inherit the business so it has nothing to do with me."

That made me remember something.

"Genichirou-san said there's another candidate for becoming the heir, and he couldn't decide if he should choose you or that person."

"...Another candidate?" Yondaime cocked his head. "I don't have any other close relatives, is it someone from the company? That anachronistic bastard is gonna let someone that's not from the family run the business? Hmm."

After muttering a 'Well, whatever. It has nothing to do with me', Yondaime looked at Alice and then at me once again.

"This is a formal request from me. Use whatever method you want. Think of a way to drive that stingy bastard to the wall."


We started by carefully watching the video Yondaime had brought, the footage from the security cameras from the day Genichirou-san beat me at the mahjong parlor.

"At the moment he cheats, his fingers are never caught on camera. That's important.", Alice pointed out.

"He steals tiles from the wall, no doubt about that, but he does it so spontaneously that I can't know exactly when he does it.", I said, remembering my dreadful experience. Genichirou-san's trick was stealing tiles from the pond--In short, it's a technique in which you pretend to take one of the piled up tiles that are facing downwards, but you actually steal one of the visible tiles discarded by the other players. There's no way a beginner can win against that.

Mahjong is a strange game. There are historical reasons, and also the influence of countless fiction works based on Asada Tetsuya's novel, but cheating actually tends to be tolerated. Well, it's more like cheating can be complimented despite being called a dirty tactic. Even if there's circumstantial evidence that tiles have been replaced, unless you get caught red-handed, the fraud won't be condemned, and they can even comment on how good your cheating was; it's that kind of environment.

"Does he use any other skills?", Alice asked Yondaime.

"Just stealing tiles, as far as I know."

"Well, that trick is effective with automatic tables. If he's able to successfully carry on that trick, there's no need to use riskier ones. Okay, what can be done? Since it's going to be held outside, we can't prepare a gadget to see the opponents' hand beforehand..."

Yes, if we were on a closed space, Major who is an expert in spying devices could place mini-cameras so we could see Genichirou-san's hand without him noticing, but since the match was arranged to be outside that was impossible to do. Hiding cameras on the riverbank, or installing super telephoto lens in the surrounding buildings would also be useless because we couldn't know where the tables would be nor where everyone would sit down until the day of the match. Genichirou-san would buy a brand new table and wouldn't open it until that day, so we couldn't alter the table either. And even if we could completely see his hand, in the first place mahjong is a game when one needs to have the right tiles to accumulate points, and Genichirou-san's skills were faster in that aspect too. How could we win? A plan not only to defend ourselves, but to win and take his cash--

".....Hm?"

I suddenly realized something and covered my mouth with one of my hands. Genichirou-san's quicker hand. Outdoor mahjong.

"What's the matter?" Yondaime slightly tilted his head. I raised my hand to stop him from talking and thought. Is it possible? Theoretically, it was. There were so many necessary things that it made me feel dizzy. Preliminary work, tactics to withstand until they fell into the trap, tactics to make sure they could effectively fall into the trap, and more than anything, coordination.

I finally came to, and I organized my thoughts. There were too many missing pieces, but I wasn't alone. Alice and Yondaime were here. So I made up my mind, gulped, and spoke:

"....Our side gets to decide the minor rules, right? In that case, there's some rules I'd like to add."

"What? Obviously Genichirou won't accept any rule that will only benefit us."

"No, there are special but impartial rules, because they're only related to the point exchange. Two rules."

"Speak."

"The first one is, we won't use chips, whoever wants to raise the bet will do it with cash."

Yondaime arched one of his eyebrows. "That's a disadvantage to me. Do you understand? Measuring out points with chips we can pay later so we can continue even if we exceed our cash halfway, but if we have an exact amount it will be all over once we spend it all."

"I understand, but it's necessary. Besides, if it doesn't sound advantageous to us it's more likely that Genichirou-san allows it."

Yondaime snorted and folded his arms. "And what's the other rule?"

"There won't be a 'father'. Everyone will earn dealer points."

"What the hell?" Yondaime ruffled his silver hair with his hand.

In mahjong, one of the players is the dealer or father, and that position rotates in each round. The dealer gets more payment if he wins and has to pay more if he loses; it's a high risk-high return position. But with my plan, everyone would be 'fathers'. Everyone would earn 1,5 more if they won and would have to pay double if they lost.

"Isn't that a disadvantage for us too?" Yondaime complained. "Well, whatever. I'll tell him. Now, explain that strategy of yours already. Why do we need those rules?"

I gulped and started talking, sitting at the edge of the bed. Alice's big eyes were getting more and more round and Yondaime was frowning more and more. When I finished explaining everything, Alice sighed and told Yondaime:

"I take back what I said a moment ago. Your sworn brother is nothing but a hopeless dreamer."

"You're right, that's a good way to describe your assistant." "You don't need to keep competing! We better hurry with our preparations!"

Yondaime sighed and removed his back from the wall. "True. It will be a disaster if we lose, so let's do this thoroughly. I'll talk to Major. So, Alice--" As he was walking to the door of the office, he pointed at the detective on the bed. "Think of a way to make him fall into the trap."

After the door closed, Alice glared at me from the corner of her eye, hugging his teddy bear to her chest and pressing her jaw into it.

"Is it impossible?", I asked, feeling anxious.

"It's not impossible. I have thought of a strategy, more or less... But it's a lost cause. You see?"

And with that, Alice started talking. Her strategy was as ridiculous as mine.


*


In the clear winter sky, many kites of different colors could be seen, and the cheerful voices of the children could be heard on the riverbank.

"So nice, the kids are havin' fun...", Genichirou-san said with his eyes half-closed and his down jacket blowing in the wind.

"When Sou-chan was that age he ran outside everyday..." Rikako-san muttered by his side. As expected because of the cold, she was wearing a simple but thick coat, and her hair was tied in a bun.

"Stop blabbering. Start the preparations already.", Yondaime said, ill-humored.


Various men that one could realize with just a glance that they were yakuza took a huge box and some suitcases from inside a truck. Carefully unpacking, they arranged a simple automatic table, a small dynamo, four stools and two small desks on the surface covered with pebble and surrounded by overgrown grass. Our luggage was a bag that Pole was in charge to bring. A mountain of rolled bank notes were placed on the two desks. I had already seen 200.000.000 yens in cash with my own eyes some time ago, but it was still quite a sight. Pole's hands were shaking a little. Our cash was 160.000.000 yens. Almost all the cash Yondaime had on him had been already invested in business, so the bank notes in front of us had been loaned. Genichirou-san's side had more or less the same amount.

"Let's reconfirm the rules.", Genichirou-san said as he was setting up the mahjong table. "No chips, was it?"

The four sides of mahjong tables have slots than automatically open and close. That's where chips are normally put, but they were going to be empty that day because we were going to use the money on that desk in front of us directly.

"So are ya really gonna be payin' in cash? Ya run out of money and yer done for."

"Shut the hell up. Worry about your own wallet." Yondaime cussed and Genichirou-san snorted. The money on their side wasn't necessarily all they had, but as for us, those rolled bank notes were our life line. We were really on the edge of the cliff.

"Next one, no father?" Genichirou-san took the yellow plate with the East wind sign and threw it to the cardboard box that served as a garbage bin. That plate is normally used to signal the dealer, but we wouldn't have to use it this day either.

"Such a weird rule. Does it mean that there ain't no parents and children relationships here anymore?" Genichirou-san laughed. That wasn't the reason I had made that rule, but maybe it was inevitable for him to interpret it like that. Yondaime just gave him a disdainful gesture. Well, in a way I was glad they had misunderstood, although Rikako-san's sad eyes made me a bit uneasy.

"Aight, ya guys get back to the car.", Genichirou-san turned to the men who had brought all the stuff. "And keep an eye on Souichirou's car, if someone comes, let me know."

Yondaime also talked to Pole: "You go back to the car too. Don't leave until the game is over."

"Understood!"

Only the four of us were left around the mahjong table. The voices of the children were now distant, and the sound that prevailed was the wind blowing against the grass.

What a strange situation, I found myself thinking, because if it was a bet involving money, I would generally be just an observer.

"Family mahjong!", Rikako-san said with a cheerful voice that sounded a little forced.

"Shall we begin?" Genichirou-san pressed the button on the table.

When you play mahjong in pairs, you have to sit in front of the person you're teaming up with, so I had Genichirou-san at my left and Rikako-san at my right.

As soon as we started, Genichirou-san noticed our strange way of playing.

"I was wonderin' what yer plan could be, but what's with this? Just child's play.", he said, laughing... And in the blink of an eye he earned 18000 points. With a sulky face, Yondaime transferred part of his money to the other desk.

Our plan didn't change by the next round. This time, Rikako-san won with the maximum amount of points.

"Just as the Thirteen Orphans are called matchless, what ya guys are doing should be called useless..." Rikako-san smiled. "But, ya two really get along, that's nice!"

Genichirou-san himself was an opponent to worry about, but Rikako-san was also quite dangerous. In just two rounds, they had practically seen through our objective.

However, that was part of the strategy that Alice had taught us.



"Aiming to Thirteen Orphans in all rounds..."

Two nights before, Alice had explained.

"It might seem ridiculous, but it's a strategy that has worked in several tournaments."


Thirteen Orphans is a winning hand in which you need a tile of each one of the dragons and the winds, the tiles 1 and 9 of each suit, and an extra tile of any other terminal or honor tile. Non-dealers would win 32.000 points with this hand, but since with our rules everyone had 'father' points, everyone would win 48.000. That means that if you had this tiles, you would obtain the maximum amount of points.

"This tactic has three advantages. First, of course, is the high amount of points. The second one is that in case you can't seem to obtain a favorable hand, it's easier to get an unusual evasive hand."

In any case, many tiles would be discarded during the second half of the first round, reducing the danger of making the opponent win. In theory, it's a perfect defensive-offensive tactic. In practice, that hand is hard to come by, so even if you aim to get it in all the rounds, the opportunity might just come once. Even so, we chose that strategy.

"The third advantage is-" Alice smiled at me. "It's the tactic that fits the best with the plan you thought of, of course."

For that reason, Yondaime and I focused on the disposable tiles, and Mr. and Mrs. Hinamura kept winning. The bank notes on Yondaime's desk were quickly decreasing. The idea of paying directly in cash that I had suggested myself was difficult to stand mentally. Each one of Genichirou-san's winning hands was worth around the same amount a normal person earns in a whole year.

Where on earth is the 'family mahjong'?, I thought to myself. My fingertips had numbed. The usually talkative Genichirou-san had fallen completely silent when Yondaime's money was reduced to half. Rikako-san's usual happy expression had turned gloomy.

Why is this happening even though they're linked by blood? Even knowing they would destroy their ties and each other, they calmly kept doing it.

An hour later, our funds were already at their limit. The money on Yondaime's desk could be counted with just a glance, while the money on Genichirou-san's side was a high mountain that looked like it was about to collapse.

"Oh well. Everythin' will be over next round...", Genichirou-san said, looking at Yondaime from the corner of his eye.

"It's cold, so I can't wait to go back and take a bath..."

"Quit blabbering. I still have 200,000,000 stored.", Yondaime answered in an unfriendly way. He was actually just bluffing, but the look on Genichirou-san's face changed. As soon as the next round began, I understood that he had accepted Yondaime's taunt.

The discarded tiles that were lined up on the table were disappearing one by one without us noticing. He had started doing his special cheating skill, stealing from the pond. Rikako-san apparently noticed to and immediately started aligning tiles so they were easier to steal. Genichirou-san was aiming to do Thirteen Orphans. He started preparing his double yakuman. If he showed us his Thirteen Orphans he would take all of my points or Yondaime's with one of the tiles that we had discarded. If by some twist he'd won with a tile taken by himself it would also be the end. Only a couple of millions were left on Yondaime's desk anyway.

Even in the cold wind of January, my fingertips holding the tiles were sweaty. If I lost that opportunity I would simply die. Only the tiles would tell. I desperately checked which tiles had disappeared.


Three tiles until Genichirou-san's hand is complete.


Now's the time.


I took off my jacket and put it behind the stool. That was the signal. Nothing changed around the table. There was just the sound of the wind and the tiles clacking. The person who had to interpret my signal from above had to notice my deep red T-shirt.


Genichirou-san stole another tile.


Only two more left.



One more left.



Hearing the wind in my ears, I slowly adjusted the coordination of my next move.

Genichirou-san announced tenpai. Without a doubt, it was going to be the Thirteen Orphans.


Yondaime discarded his last tile without giving it a second thought. End of the turn.


At that moment-

An intermittent sound made itself audible from far away among the sound the wind. Genichirou-san stopped his extended arm for an instant and frowned. But he didn't know that sound was the rotor of a helicopter, and he didn't know the fate that sound would carry either. Genichirou-san's stopped hand got close to the mountain of tiles again, and the sound of the rotor and its blades cutting through the air was now just above our heads. Rikako-san raised her head with a darkened expression. Just when Genichirou-san was about to exchange his Green Dragon tile with one of the discarded ones, a huge shadow surrounded the mahjong table and the four of us. The surrounding grass shook violently and a whirl of wind was formed. The helicopter was flying so low that it looked like it was going to crush us. Then the hatch opened, and a backlit short human silhouette stuck out his upper body. Said silhouette was holding a long, rod-shaped object--The barrel of an M14 assault rifle. Another sound soon followed, even louder than rotor. It was, without a doubt, a gunshot. At the same time, Genichirou-san sprang up from his chair, but his next action was something that I couldn't have predicted. He grabbed Yondaime, who was sitting at his right, by the shoulders, and pushed him to the ground. I heard the sound of sand scattering at one side of the table. The noise of the rotor grew gradually distant and the shadow over us became smaller and smaller until it disappeared, but my heart was still pounding heavily inside my chest, and I felt the dry, cold wind brushing my ears once again.

"...What on earth was that?" Rikako-san wondered out loud, unburying her head from under her arms and standing up from her chair to look up at the sky.

"A hitman from somewhere...? But he went away without doin' anythin'..."

Yondaime stood up and patted the dust from his sleeves, speaking in a very clear voice:

"It was a bad prank from a friend... Just discard that tile you were about to discard."

Still holding the Green Dragon in his hand, Genichirou-san stared at the table's surface. It was then when he finally understood anything. And he started laughing, his shoulders shaking.

"I see. It was for this. It was all for this. Not usin' chips, and not havin' a dealer... It was all for this reason."

I firmly swallowed and lowered my gaze to my tiles. Yes, everything had been prepared for this very moment.

Still standing up, Genichirou-san placed the Green Dragon tile on the table. I felt my body drenched in sweat and my eardrums pounding.

"Ron."

Trying to control the shaking in my hands, I turned my tiles, showing them.


"...Thirteen Orphans--Double Yakuman."


Rikako-san blinked, showing a surprised expression. "...W-what's this, what's goin' on? Gen-chan?"

"Ya'll understand by just lookin'." With a transparent smile, Genichirou-san looked at the table. "When I panicked and stood up, the boy turned the table itself around."

I wiped the sweat off my hands on my jeans. It was just like Genichirou-san had said. When they both got distracted by the helicopter, I turned the table 90 degrees counter-clockwise. Genichirou-san now had Yondaime's hand, full of useless tiles, and the hand with the Thirteen Orphans that had been obtained through his cheating tactics was now mine. The dangerous rule of paying the bets with cash, and the no-dealer rule, I made them both for the sake of this plan. Since no one would have individual chips, nothing would be signaling the points of each player, so they wouldn't be direct evidence that the table had been turned around. Just looking at the dramatic change in the tiles, the circumstantial evidence was incredible, but there was no concrete proof to blame me of cheating. That was this strange game's unspoken rule.

The greatest contributor to this incredible trap weren't me or Alice, but the one who had to see my signal, Major, who was able to perfectly coordinate the moment when he had to fly above us with the helicopter.


Yondaime let out a sigh.

"It's over..." His voice somewhat sounded like that of a tired lost child who was on the verge of tears.

"Let me ask ya one more thing." Sprawling in the chair and stretching both of his legs, Genichirou-san spoke in a calm tone.

"What?"

"I bought this table brand new. Since it's round and monopod, it's light and easy to turn around, but what if it had been a table difficult to move?"

Yondaime glanced at me for a moment and then lowered his gaze.

"Tokyo is my familiar territory. You said so yourself, didn't you?"

Genichirou-san slightly tilted his head, and Yondaime continued talking without raising his gaze.

"Very few storekeepers can deliver a mahjong table in just two days. I contacted all of them and bought all the tables from them, except the ones of this type."

That's how money is used. You were the one who taught me that, you idiot.--When Yondaime muttered this, the velvet surface where the mahjong tiles and Genichirou-san's legs were resting shook a little. I will never forget the smile that appeared on Genichirou-san's face at that moment.

"Between the charter of the helicopter and buyin' all those tables, didncha exceed the budget quite a bit?"

"Shut the hell up. None of your business. Worry about your own deficit. If you don't have the cash, then write an IOU right here and now. Put the annual interest rate on the bankruptcy of the third generation of the Hinamura family."

"Ah yeah, that..." Genichirou-san turned his gaze to my double yakuman. "A dealer double yakuman is worth 96.000 points, so it's 480.000.000 yens, huh? 160.000.000 ain't enough."

I didn't know if I should speak or not, but in the end the words came off from my throat to my lips.

"Ehmm. Non-dealer is fine."

Yondaime and Genichirou-san looked at me at the same time. For a second, their faces looked exactly the same.

"It doesn't have to be a dealer score. Non-dealer score is 64.000 points."

"Why?"

"Just before, when the guy in the helicopter pointed his rifle, you covered Yondaime..."

Yondaime showed his teeth.

"I'm sorry. That guy is actually one of our companions, Major. And of course, that rifle was just a model gun to distract you. But, you protected Yondaime."

"Dunno, I don't remember doin' that." "What's with that selective memory!"

But I had understood already. Regardless of all the hateful things they had said to each other--

"Genichirou-san, you truly think of Yondaime as your son. I'm Yondaime's sworn brother, that means that in a way I'm also your son. So, it's 64.000 points. The money on that desk is enough."


Alice had also told me. The family is the smallest social union in which everything can be forgiven. I have nothing more than a broken family, so from the bottom of my heart, I thought: I don't want to see them covering each other in debts like that. This battlefield in which we had fought for millions of yens hadn't been exactly the cleanest fight, but still...


Genichirou-san didn't even try to conceal his laughter. Yondaime made a sulky face and looked away. Rikako-san grabbed my arm and Yondaime's with both of her hands, pulling us closer.

"Yer both my kids! I love ya!"

"Shut up!" Yondaime brushed his mother's hand off.

"Souichirou, ya okay with that stupid thing he just said?" Genichirou-san chuckled as he pointed at me. Yondaime turned his back to us.

"He was the one who raised the bet.", he started walking, making his way through the overgrown grass. "Do as you please."


*


Genichirou-san called me two days after the mahjong match, just when Yondaime had came to the Detective Agency to discuss how to manage the troublesome accounting process. How could he launder 160.000.000 yens obtained through a gambling bet? In the middle of the conversation, my cellphone rang. The screen displayed an unknown number.

"...Hello?"

"Boy? We're goin' back to Osaka. Thought I'd say goodbye."

I could only hear his voice, but his smile surfaced immediately in my mind. Genichirou-san. I nervously looked at Yondaime for a second and went to the kitchen so he that he wouldn't hear our conversation.

"Eeh, uhm, uhhh.... Thank you for your hard work." I didn't know what else to say. "How do you know my number-?"

"Did some research. I know Souichirou's number too, but he'd get all grumpy if I called him."

Probably, buy why would he call me? What did he want to talk about? A noise was heard on the other side of the line, followed by a cheerful female voice.

"Naru-chan? It's me, it's mom! It's a bit sad but we're goin' back to Osaka like good losers. Take good care of Sou-chan! By the way, he's there with ya ain't he? Sou-chaaaaaan ya hear me!? Mom loves ya a ton!!"

I distanced my phone around 40 centimeters away from my ear. Wow, he's really going to hear at this rate.

"Stop makin' a fuss, ya idiot. Give it back."

When I heard Genichirou-san's voice, I brought the phone to my ear again.

"Well, it's been fun. 'Til now, nothing interesting had happened whenever I came to Tokyo, but it was nice meetin' ya, boy. Let's play mahjong together again some other time."

"No no no. I've had enough with mahjong. Please give me a break."

"Hey, have ya forgotten already?" Genichirou-san's voice turned cold, just like it was when he was sitting at my right at the riverbed. "The one who stole my Thirteen Orphans wasn't Souichirou but ya, boy. Ya'll have to let me take revenge on ya. Give me a call whenever ya visit Osaka."

I think I've decided to never go to Osaka in my life.

"Ahh yeah, by the way" Genichirou-san's normal tone of voice returned. "Tell Souichirou that there's no way I'm gonna let someone who hangs out with such a naive, simpleton sworn little brother become the Hinamura family's successor. He can keep bein' a NEET in Tokyo 'till he drops dead if he wants to. I decided to pick the other candidate."

"Huh..."

I raised my head to look up at the dark roof. Everything turned out okay in the end... So it seems. That comment he made was insensitive, though.

Genichirou-san hung up after a 'see ya', and I timidly walked back to the room. Yondaime glared at me, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"What did that damn yakuza want?"

Well, it was obvious he was going to notice.

"Aah... Ehm, well...."

When I told him that Genichirou-san had decided to choose the other successor, a complicated expression appeared on his face, as if the saliva inside his mouth had turned sour.

"What the heck. The other successor? He should have chosen that one from the start instead of making all this big fuss. What did that idiot couple come from, really?"

At that moment, Alice who was in her bed chuckled, her shoulders shaking.

"As I said, Mr. and Mrs. Hinamura came here to visit the shrine. Everything else was secondary."

Yondaime knitted his brows and cocked his head, looking at Alice. "To visit the shrine?"

"That's right. Narumi, do you remember what shrine did they want to go?"

The sudden turn of the conversation confused me.

"Ahh... Uh, If I remember correctly, Suitengu?"

Alice nodded.

"Yes. Suitengu shrine at Nihonbasho is famous in Japan as a place to pray for a childbirth without any complications."

Yondaime and I probably looked at Alice with the same surprised face.

"...C-childbirth?"

"Hinamura Rikako is probably pregnant. The other candidate to become the heir would be the child inside her womb."

Yondaime stood up with a completely astonished look on his face, snatching my phone away from me and redialing from the call history.

"It's me. ...You bastard, why didn't you say anything!? About mother, is she really going to have another brat? Aah? You're out of your mind, idiot! ....The charms of a pregnant woman? No, why the hell would I know about that? That's disgusting, so shut up! Hey, bastard, where are you now? I hear some kind of announcement on the background. Haneda? You imbecile, what are you thinking? She's not even in the stable period of her pregnancy yet, why are you going by plane? Take the bullet train! She's forty-three years old, she might look young but she's still an old bat, it's surprising that she's pregnant in the first place! ...No, I'm not complimenting you because of that, stupid! ...Aah? What are you talking about? ...Soujirou? Soujirou? You idiot, what if it's a girl? A name is for life so think about it more seriously! Ah, and don't do anything stupid with inheriting the business and all that. Learn a bit of what happened with me!"

His way of talking was so scary that I was getting worried that he would break my phone. I was still bewildered and could only exchange absent looks between Alice's long hair and Yondaime being a victim of teasing on the phone.

I see, they came to Tokyo to visit the shrine. Alice casually mentioned it some time ago.

"If I had explained it from the beginning, you see, since Hinamura Souichirou is actually such a kind man..." Alice chuckled. "I think he wouldn't have fought as seriously as he did."

The detective's maliciousness dilemma, I suppose.

During fifteen more minutes, Alice and I continued listening while sitting on the bed to the manzai routine between father and son. We could only hear the tsukkomi, but it was incredibly easy to imagine what the boke lines were. Probably because of Yondaime's Osakan blood.


*


Three days later after school, I was called by Yondaime to show up at Hirasaka-gumi's office.

"Send this to Rikako on your name.", Yondaime said, putting a small cardboard box in front of me.

"...Why don't you send it yourself?" I knew it was because he was too shy to do it, but I still wanted to hear his reply. Maybe I am as malicious as Alice.

"Shut up. Just send it. And don't look inside the package."

If you tell me that, I can't help but open the box as soon as I get home. I have something called curiosity. Also, I have to write what the product is in the voucher of the express home delivery company.

Inside the box, there was a sash made of silk with a splendid design of a wolf embroidered with festive-colored threads. It was a bellyband. With just looking at it, one could tell it was handmade. So far, I haven't seen anyone else capable of making such a perfect embroidery in such a short time. Since female dogs give birth without complications, they're used as a symbol to pray for a safe childbirth. Suitengu at the center of Japan has a Day of the Dog, honoring pregnant women, that has extended all over the country. I apologized around ten times to Yondaime in my heart and put the sash back in its package. When I was writing 'To Hinamura Rikako-sama' and the address, I started thinking about Hinamura Souichirou's soon-to-be-born little brother who would be 21 years younger than him. I wonder if he would be consider my sworn brother too. She might be a sister.

Someday, when that child grows up, it would be nice if the four blood-related members of the Hinamura family would sit together around the kotatsu with a mahjong board. They wouldn't play for money, but for something trivial like who would get to use the remote control. That's what family mahjong really is.


*


On the weekend, I finally showed up at the mahjong parlor Tenhou Club again. I had been prioritizing my schoolwork so once the winter break had ended I hadn't been concerned with all the mahjong bears matter, but after the problem with Genichirou-san came to an end I thought I couldn't let that other matter unsolved forever, so I went to see how things were going.

"Ah-, Fujishima-san, thank you for your work." The punch-permed delinquent manager greeted me. I wish he wasn't so formal, because a young employee that didn't know I was a regular customer kept giving me suspicious looks, but he let me enter the office and even served me tea.

"The guys from Hirasaka-Gumi told me about what happened with Sou-san's father and all that. Must have been though."

"Ah, haha, haa, yeah well..." I'm sure those idiots in back T-shirts said something exaggerated.

"But you're really something, Fujishima-san, undergoing a 60-40 sake ritual with a yakuza boss from Kansai..."

"That's a lie!" I knew they would say something like that!

"But yeah, since it was Sou-san's father, he was clearly unrelated to the mahjong bears..."

I nodded. "If he hadn't been unrelated, it would have been unmanageable for Yondaime and I."

The manager also smiled bitterly.

"Certainly, that person's so strong that he's like a monster. Compared to him, these other guys are just kids. They're just strong enough to make easy money."

"Ahh, have those guys came recently?" I asked. The manager scratched his chin.

"Yesterday, that guy who wears glasses and is as skinny as a burdock came. But he just played for a round. He hadn't been showing up at all at the other parlors lately. I was thinking it would be nice if they just disappeared altogether, but..."

"He won big and went home yesterday too?"

"Midway through, he started winning by continuously making tsumo, but he suddenly looked ill, like he was about to puke, and went home."

He showed me the footage from the security camera. Since it was a hidden camera, the image wasn't too clear, but I could still see one of the three suspicious customers. His figure was weird because despite the heat inside the parlor, he was still wearing a jumper. The way he moved was somewhat scary.

"Fujishima-san, are those guys really a group? Not even once have they entered the parlor together..."

"Probably... Because they do the same strange things when they play. For example, here", and I pointed at the footage. "On his turn, he has a pair of number 1 circle suit tiles and a pair of West winds, Dama-Ten on his eight turn. You can see he has four number 2 circle suit tiles. There's no way he would keep his number 1 tiles."

"Certainly."

The conversation with the manager was quick. "Something tells you to keep the right tiles" sounds like something out of a mahjong manga, and the actual situation was more like "when you're playing, you have to get rid of the tiles that won't help you win first." When you play Shogi, once you're checkmated there's nothing you can do to avoid it, no matter how good you are. But a skilled player won't let the circumstances lead him to get checkmated, and will probably lead his opponent to checkmate. Mahjong's the same. Yet, if someone could avoid being checkmated, that would be--

"I wonder what kind of trick is he using.", the manager murmured. "I also looked carefully if there was someone spying from a window or something, but..."

"He probably looks at the tiles' flaws."

My words made the manager knit his brows.

"No way. We don't use those kind of cheap tiles here."

That trick consists on telling the tiles apart because of their small cracks and so. There's also people who do their own marks to the tiles. Of course, even knowing how to tell just some of the tiles apart is still overwhelmingly advantageous.

"But I can't think of anything else. Keeps losing but starts winning halfway through, constantly making tsumo, seeing through the probabilities with the double pairs, and all that..."

When I exited the parlor together with the manager, I checked all the tiles that had been used by the skinny glasses guy from yesterday.

"They're as good as new, you see? I even buy new tiles to replace the old ones quite often.", the manager said as he stroked one of the brand new tiles in his hand with a finger.

The feeling that something just wasn't right was curdling in my stomach. I took the number 1 suit tile, thoroughly scanning it. I felt like I had already experienced this same feeling that something wasn't right before. But, it's impossible--

I stood up, still holding that tile, and walked to the counter. I borrowed a water-based sign pen from the employee and scribbled over the back of the tile.

"....Ah....."

A dry groan escaped from my throat.

A transparent part that couldn't be scribbled over with the ink surfaced on the tile.

I ran back to the board to check the other three number 1 suit tiles. They all had the same sign.

"....Fujishima-san? That's...."

I interrupted the manager's words by standing up once again. The toilet. The other strange thing about those guys was how they often went to the toilet. I rushed to the toilet and crawled on the tiled floor and looked under the washbasin and the urinals.

And then I found it. Under the water closet, there was a red fine powder.

I couldn't breath for a moment. Unable to get up yet for some reason, I held onto the wall of the private room. Finally, I supported myself with the urinal and got up.

I took out my cellphone. My hands were shaking so bad that I almost dropped it.

What the hell is this? It can't be.

Why are you here? Why are you still here!? Weren't you supposed to have been reduced to ashes, withered, vanished without a trace already?

My throat was trembling. The bitter taste, the taste of blood and the electrifying pleasure came back to my mind. Even though it should have all remained deeply sunken. Now, the memories of the pain, the fever, the singing voice were all gushing out, overflowing like wounds throughout my body. Yet, my thoughts were eerily calm. The first person I called wasn't Yondaime or Alice, it was Major.

"...Ah, it's me. Please come to Tenhou Club. Oh, and, you have tools to pick up a spilled drug from the floor, don't you? ...Yeah. ....Uhm, err, it's a powder. It's an extremely small quantity. ...Yes, yes.... Please, I want you to examine it as soon as you can."

My request of having him examine it immediately was probably involuntary. I wanted my conjecture to be proven wrong. That's why I thought about Mayor first. After hanging up, I took a deep breath, and this time I called Yondaime.

"I'm at Tenhou Club. ...Yeah, it's about the mahjong case. ...I think I might have understood those guys' modus operandi. Using the toilet... Yes. ...No, it's still just a theory, but it's probably--"

I bit my lip, feeling unable to breath, resting my back on the wall, and I glanced down, looking at the filthy, dim red under the urinal. It's not a conjecture. I know it even know. My body remembers it more than anything.

"--Angel Fix."


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