Kamisama no Memochou:Volume 8 Chapter 4
Angel Flowers' Workshop was the peculiar name of that flower shop.
The roof of a greenhouse could be seen on the wide garden of a single house located near a high-rent district's main street.
Greenhouse, I thought. It shouldn't be strange for a gardening enthusiast to have a greenhouse in their house, but even so, I gazed at the glass-sided triangular roof basking in the winter sun with a complicated feeling.
The gatepost had a copper plate with a sculpted relief of an angel; a lovely angel spreading his wings and blowing a trumpet.
It didn't seem like a coincidence anymore.
I remembered the design of the wings carved on the red pills. Aren't they really similar to the wings on this doorplate? Did Hakamizaka Shirou decide to give the drug the name of an angel upon seeing this? I don't know. I might be jumping into conclusions.
I looked behind the fence. In the spacious front garden, I saw a tiered stand full of poinsettias. There were several female customers in the verandah that served as the open shop. Friendly chatting with the customers in the middle, a woman who specially stood out was facing this way. She had neatly arranged short hair, big earrings, and exotic features that somehow gave the impression that she was Greek or Turkish. Without even needing to compare her to the data, I knew who she was at first glance: Iharagi Junko.
I remembered Alice's words from the NEET Detective Squad meeting we had had the former day.
“Using the information Yondaime got from Ayaka might be complicated for you” Alice quickly glanced at me. “But it's a potential clue, so we must use it.”
After that, Alice's fingers ran over the keyboard. The profile of a woman was displayed on the monitors surrounding the bed.
Iharagi Junko. 38 years old. Mother of one child, divorced from her husband. As a gardening researcher, she has appeared on TV a number of times, she also wrote numerous books. She manages a shop named Angel Flowers' Workshop, ten minutes away from M High.
Back when the Gardening Club existed, Ayaka relied on that shop to cultivate those unique poppy flowers.
“Is it a shop Ayaka knew from before? Or did Hakamizaka Shirou tell her about it?”
I asked, caught between the feeling of not wanting to touch the subject and wanting to dig up the truth.
“It seems like she doesn't remember. Almost all the memories related to Fix have vanished inside her.”
Hakamizaka Shirou.... And Toshi-san. Ayaka's memories about being entrusted with the sin of growing those blue poppy flowers.
But they might return, I thought. It's obvious. She's been living just like before, taking care of the plants in the greenhouse, so there's a connection with the past somewhere.
“However, there's a high possibility that Hakamizaka introduced the shop to her. Ayaka apparently purchased quite a few unusual and expensive gardening medicines from that shop. It was unlikely that the school's Gardening Club had that many medicines. They barely use them now, actually.”
It would be better to confirm more with Ayaka--No one said that. We had chosen that winding road on our detective work to avoid that, after all.
“So this woman is Hakamizaka's acquaintance? If so, the police might have tracked her last year.”
Tetsu-senpai folded his arms.
“See if you can find out anything, Tetsu. We also need to meet Iharagi Junko in person, we have no time to waste.”
“If she's a widow, then it's my turn. Since she's so beautiful, I'm itching to put my skills to use.”
Smiling brightly, Hiro-san raised his thumb and pointed at himself.
“No, I'll go.” I interjected, and Hiro-san widened his eyes exaggeratedly and looked at me.
“Why? I mean, I know your gigolo skills have far surpassed mine, Narumi-kun, but you're not even 18 yet, are you?”
I had so many things to retort that I gave up and began explaining instead.
“I'm an M High student and I was in the gardening club, so I can easily make up an excuse to enter that shop. If you approach her as an outsider, even if you get close to her it will take time.”
Well, that's true... Hiro-san muttered.
“So, will I be informed when you enter the widow's bedroom at least, Narumi-kun?”
“Hiro, that's enough!” “I'm being serious now!”
Hiro-san pursed his lips and shrugged. Hasn't he learned a lesson after all the times Min-san hit him?
“Okay then, I'll ask the ladies I know if they know something about Iharagi Junko and all that.”
“Alright, let's go.”
Tetsu-senpai and Hiro-san turned to the entrance.
“By the way, where's Major?” I asked.
“I talked to him on the phone just now. He's installing bugs and cameras in Iharagi Junko's house.” Alice nonchalantly answered.
“That's, uhm... Well, it's too late to say this, but.... Isn't what Major's doing a crime?”
“Indeed, it's too late to say that, Narumi-kun.” “Hiro's existence is a crime in itself.” “Tetsu, aren't you a genuine criminal? You even have a criminal record.” “It's not a criminal record, it's just a correctional guidance history.”
They both exited the Agency while arguing. I watched them leave, still sitting on the bed.
Yes, it's too late to think about it now, but we are doing illegal acts. The reason I was worrying this time was because we weren't certain that this woman, Iharagi Junko, was our enemy. Since our partners are always yakuza/mafia hoodlums, the reluctance to brush with the law is numbed.
“Hmph. How foolish. A crime is a crime, no matter who your partner is. It's seriously too late to think about it.”
Seeing through my thoughts, Alice looked at me with scornful eyes.
“No, I know, but...”
I still didn't feel convinced. Iharagi Junko seemed like an ordinary person.
“Iharagi Junko had a reason to accept money from the Fix manufacturing group, at least.”
Alice said, staring at the monitor.
“If those poppies are being cultivated again now, then she might be like Ayaka was before, thinking the fertilizers are something necessary.”
“So...” I gulped, looking at the neat smile on the photograph. “Could that woman be Shushuri?”
“There's a possibility that it is indeed that person's nickname.”
I folded my arms, breathed through my nose, and then exhaled.
“If that's the case, then it would explain why the drug was scattered on these streets, right...?”
Because Shushuri is in this city. Hakamizaka and the others got together near Shushuri's flower shop, they created the narcotic factory, then they noticed the greenhouse in the school that was really near, so they got closer to Ayaka's brother, Toshi-san.
“Let's not jump into conclusions so hastily.”
Alice glanced at me from the side, taking a sip of Dr Pepper.
“There are still lots of questions. If we don't disentangle them one by one, we're going to misread the truth.”
But we were indeed pressed for time. Yondaime's intense gaze and Ayaka's uneasy eyes flickered somewhere in my head. I licked my lips and asked:
“What are those other questions?”
“First of all, why now after a whole year.”
“Aah...” I also wondered the same before. Why did people with saved up fix suddenly started to move at the same time? And they all seemed to need to get money urgently. Now, after the four seasons passed, something set in motion that incident, which should be immersed in the darkness already, for a second time. But what?
“And there's something else...”
Alice's voice became deeper and more majestic.
“I'm curious about why Hakamizaka Shirou needed Ayaka's greenhouse.”
I took a good look at the detective's face.
“What do you mean? Isn't that because he needed to cultivate the flowers that served as the raw materials?”
“There were lots of Angel Fix supplies before Ayaka and Toshi took part on the manufacturing. Hakamizaka had other large-scale cultivation places. The police made that public on their investigation. M High's greenhouse wasn't such an important area. Why did he use it?”
“Weren't the raw materials insufficient? Maybe he wanted to increase the production a bit more...”
“That reason was satisfying for me last year, but the circumstances are different now. There's the fact that Ayaka frequented Angel Flowers' Workshop, and more importantly, Toshi's testimony.”
“He said he periodically went to the greenhouse and took a report written by Ayaka along with the flowers that had turned blue.”
“Yes, but, wasn't that also because of the raw materials? I can't think of anything else.”
Alice shut her mouth mid-sentence, and her face clouded.
“Let's drop this subject. Now is not the time to turn it into words.”
The detective forsook my doubts with cool-headed words.
“Anyway, Iharagi Junko. We should look for her connection with Hakamizaka.”
I stood up from the bed and hung my head in shame, placing my hands on the wall.
“What's the matter?”
“...Aah, well... I said all those courageous words to Hiro-san, but I have no idea how should I get information out of her.”
Alice sighed unnaturally.
“You can just ask. For example, ′were you an acquaintance of the main criminal responsible of the narcotic manufacturing, Hakamizaka Shirou?′, and the like.”
“Eeeeeh?!” I unintentionally let out a hysterical voice, turning my head back at Alice. The detective shrugged.
“It's not a situation where you have to do cunning questioning. Trick her into telling the truth with whatever method you please. Isn't lying through your teeth your signature move? If she contacts anyone or disposes of anything, it will be caught in Major's antennas. Right now, that's what should get us the best results.
That's right. So that's why the bugs were prepared so quickly? Sounds somewhat tiring. In the end, my only duty is making up an excuse to shake up Iharagi Junko, huh? And even Alice has clearly told me that lying through my teeth is my signature move.
But it can't be helped. Because it's indeed the only thing I can do.
Standing in front of Angel Flowers' Workshop, after I finished remembering every word Alice said, I looked at the garden behind the gate once again. The leisured ladies were holding potted plants in their hands, asking things to Iharagi Junko. To make matters worse, there were also two young girls inside, wearing light blue aprons with a picture of an angel printed on them. They were probably from the staff of the shop.
What should I do? There's no atmosphere to ask her if she's acquainted with the main criminal responsible of the narcotic manufacturing, and it doesn't seem like the ladies are going to leave soon.
Aah—No, I don't have to worry so much, I realized. I should attack as it is. I only have to shake her up.
Even though I was reassuring myself in my head, it took me a while to finally take action. I took four deep breaths, removed the gloves from my sweaty palms, opened my duffle coat feeling the cold wind on my chest, and upon calming down, I walked through the gate.
The two young employees saw me first. Iharagi Junko turned her gaze at me next, and all the ladies looked our way. Their facial expressions fell a little. It wasn't a place that many high school boys in uniforms visited.
“Go ahead, feel free to look around as you please.”
Iharagi Junko's gentle smile returned as she said that. I looked at the other women and took a step closer to Iharagi, beginning to talk:
“Uhm, I'm from M High's Gardening Club. Do you remember a girl who bought lots of things and asked advice from you last year, Shinozaki Ayaka?”
Her face wasn't clouded, just genuinely pensive.
“...Aah! Shinozaki-san. I remember her, yes. However, I haven't seen her lately, could it be that she stopped working with flowers?”
I felt a little disappointed. So she admits knowing Ayaka so easily?
“How can I help you today?”
When I was asked that, my suspicions started to grow thin. Isn't this person just an horticulturist? Isn't she just a good citizen unrelated to Hakamizaka who knew Ayaka beforehand? Aren't our deductions wrong? But there's no time. In this very moment, those poppy flowers are being cultivated, their juices are being extracted, purified and made into pills, and Hirasaka-gumi is sniffing around for that place.
With those thoughts racing, I squeezed out my words.
“...Do you know a man called Hakamizaka Shirou?”
Iharagi Junko's smile cracked. I was even more surprised.
“Y-you... Hakamizaka-san... Are you.... Hakamizaka-san's....”
The words in her question vanished into nothing.
“Sensei, what's the matter?” “Is something wrong?”
The customers spoke with suspicious faces. Iharagi Junko bowed at them, then she turned around to look at the employees on the sides of the verandah.
“Please, look after the customers for a minute. I need to help this person.”
She turned around at me again and took a step closer, pointing at the front door of the house.
“...Please, let's talk about this inside.”
I entered the bright living room. The walls were covered with hung baskets with dry flowers. It was an elegant but unsettling room. A strong herbal fragrance was also hanging in the air.
“Please have a seat.”
Iharagi Junko placed a cup of black tea on the table. I sat in front of her, and the silence mixed and danced mid-air along with the steam of the black tea.
“...Sorry for suddenly barging in and saying weird things.”
I suddenly flat-out apologized.
“No, it's nothing...”
Iharagi Junko casted her eyes down. I just couldn't see her as someone related to narcotics manufacturing at all. Our deductions must be wrong indeed...
“So... Were you an acquaintance of Hakamizaka Shirou?”
I couldn't hold it anymore, so I inquired directly. Her shoulders twitched when she heard the name Hakamizaka. With a hesitation that didn't match her 38 years of age, she raised her gaze again.
“Before that, uhm, are you really from M High....?”
“Ah, I-I'm sorry. My name is Fujishima Narumi.” I bowed my head. “I'm Shinozaki-san's classmate, and I used to be in the Gardening Club with her.”
“I see, but, how do you know about Hakamizaka-san?”
“I'm an assistant detective.”
Iharagi Junko tilted her head. She probably wasn't used to hearing the term 'assistant detective.' I continued talking:
“There was a disturbance related to narcotics a year ago... I'm investigating that.”
“Wh....Why? Aren't you a high school student? And the police has dealt with that incident a long time ago...”
“Many companions of mine had died because of that drug. Even a person that was related to the group of criminals is dying and still suffering now.”
A part of that wasn't a lie. She lowered her gaze at the serious subject.
“...I see.... Hakamizaka-san also died because of that...”
She won't even feign ignorance about that, I thought.
“How did you get to know Hakamizaka?”
I patiently repeated my question. Iharagi Junko finally raised her head.
“He was a regular customer. He started using them by the time he went to Iran, but since he was a graduate from a Japanese university, there were many fertilizers he couldn't buy, he used my shop.”
“Is... that all?”
Iharagi Junko tilted her head with a doubtful expression.
“I told all that to the police. They also inspected my shop and my greenhouse. Why are you investigating now...? It's been a year, hasn't it?”
So the police also found out about this woman? I was a little surprised, but I concealed that feeling. It was obvious if you thought about it. If the fertilizers used were so unusual they would obviously leave clues, and the police definitely wouldn't overlook them.
If despite that the crime wasn't solved, then this person really isn't Shushuri?
No, I reconsidered. There's still one source of the raw material that the police didn't find out. Ayaka.
“Do you know what kind of relationship did Hakamizaka and Shinozaki-san have?”
When I asked that, Iharagi Junko's facial expression didn't change much.
“Hakamizaka-san introduced this shop to Shinozaki-san... And they bought almost the same fertilizers.”
Iharagi Junko stopped mid-sentence and gasped.
“...It couldn't be... Shinozaki-san was involved in that incident? Aah, but, right, was she growing the same flowers? I can't believe it....”
I was almost equally surprised. Is she only realizing now that Ayaka was growing those flowers that served as the narcotics raw materials? Does she really not know anything, or is she acting? Should I insist on talking about Ayaka? No, I shouldn't expose myself so fecklessly.
“So, Ayaka hasn't come here at all, right? Until when did Hakamizaka come? Hasn't any of Hakamizaka's acquaintances come here lately?”
I half rose from my seat, interrogating her. Iharagi Junko cast her eyes down, shaking her head many times.
“No one came. I already told everything to the police a year ago.”
When I was about to question further, I heard tapping footsteps behind me, and the sound of a door being vigorously opened.
“Mama! A friend of Shirou-san came again?”
Iharagi Junko widened her eyes and stood up. I gasped and drew my chair back, turning around. A little boy carrying a backpack on his back and wearing a jumper came rushing into the living room. When his eyes met mine, he stood still and bowed his head with a “Good afternoon”. After that, he shifted his focus to Iharagi Junko.
“Are you Shirou-san's friend?”
“Wh—What is this boy saying-?”
Iharagi Junko went around the table and rushed to the little boy, catching him by the shoulders and pushing him to the door.
“Go wash your hands and go to your room, okay?”
“He's Shirou-san's friend, right? The ladies outside were saying he said something about Hakamizaka Shirou.”
“Tomoki!” Iharagi Junko shrieked. “W-what are you saying!? Anyway, just go!”
I approached that boy named Tomoki, but Iharagi Junko stood in the middle.
“P-please leave! I have nothing else to tell you!”
Tomoki-kun looked like he had something to say behind her mother.
“Tomoki, do as I say!”
With her mother's scolding voice, the back carrying a satchel disappeared through the door again.
When I stepped out of Angel Flowers' Workshop, I stopped the IC recorder in my breast pocket. My suspicions had now turned into pitch black clouds, covering my thoughts.
That boy—Iharagi Junko's son—said ′A friend of Shirou-san came again?′ In other words, someone came before.
So, is this woman indeed Shushuri? The angel who haunted these streets, scattering words of temptation and death through those red pills?
I didn't know how to corner a person that not even the police investigation could catch, but I had the Detective Squad who didn't mind doing illegal activities. It wasn't like their purpose was being dragged to the court, but they had to do something by any means.
When I went back to the crossroad corner where my bicycle, I saw a silhouette approaching a few meters ahead. I practically collapsed over the bike, and I put my arms on the hedge to support my body.
It was Yondaime.
His hair that was usually standing on end was down, and he was wearing a tidy gray jacket, but his sharp gaze wasn't concealed at all. Why is Yondaime here—Ahh, no, Yondaime does know about Iharagi Junko. He must have came to observe the shop and get information. When Yondaime walked closer, my eyes fell to the asphalt under my feet as I picked up the bicycle.
I didn't raise my head. I could only count his footsteps. After all, I had gotten separated from him like that, so I didn't know what face I should make. I didn't have the energy to walk away, either.
When Yondaime passed by my side, my whole body stiffened and I held my breath. When the footsteps disappeared behind me, I finally stomped on the asphalt as if trying to kick it away, and stepped on the pedals. The cold wind cut my ears and pierced the gap between my scarf and my head.
We didn't say anything to each other and our eyes didn't meet. That was a given because I said he had turned into my enemy, but my heart still ached as if it was about to get twisted off.
Needless to say, the one who had broken things to that extent had been me.
“The identities of the three mahjong bears has been found out. Tetsu and the others went to confirm that just now.”
When I showed up at the Detective Agency, Alice said that. I was surprised and climbed up the bed with my coat and my scarf still on. Three monitors displayed a photograph and a profile each. They were indeed the three young men I had suspected and kept an eye on.
“So you found them.”
Didn't Alice instruct the NEET Detective Squad to focus on the paid dating incident and give up on chasing after the mahjong bears? How did she find them?
“I'm afraid I wasn't the one who found them.” Alice shrugged. “Yondaime sent me an email.”
I was dumbfounded.
Weren't we enemies now?
“Even if Hinamura Souichirou is your enemy, if we progressed with our investigation based on this information, Hirasaka-gumi could approach Shushuri once again.”
I looked up at the roof and sighed.
“You must be thinking ′So am I the only one opening wounds everywhere because of my insignificant stubbornness?′, right?”
“...Don't go assuming what other people are thinking on your own....” You're basically right, though.
Alice pursed her lips and continued:
“But, you're not the only stubborn one. I am your employer, and an enemy of yours is an enemy of mine. Of course, I can no longer obtain all of Yondaime's information, and I can't ask him to fix my stuffed toys anymore, either.”
I swallowed my words. I felt a creaky pain on my throat. This was the consequence of our decision. Alice left the decision to me, and I chose to oppose Yondaime. I severed the mutual trust and affection between Yondaime and Alice with my own hands.
Stop, don't think about that, I told myself. I was aware of the magnitude of the wounds, but I had the feeling that the blood flowing from them was increasing. I bit my lips and swallowed my iron-flavored saliva, then I slowly opened my mouth and began my report as an assistant detective:
“I met with Iharagi Junko. She's quite suspicious.”
Alice nodded, hiding her loneliness behind her long eyelashes.
“Well done. Speak.”
I described in detail what happened at Angel Flowers' Workshop. About how Iharagi Junko said she knew Hakamizaka Shirou and Ayaka and didn't deny it, and how she said she had told everything to the police and even let them inspect her shop and her greenhouse. And then her son had revealed that an acquaintance of Hakamizaka Shirou had come before.
“I see... Then we can focus on various questions, if she's Shushuri.”
Alice stared at the empty Dr Pepper can in her hand.
“But there's still not enough information. If Iharagi Junko orders her gardening fertilizers online, we could find out her background right away, but it would be good to know what kind of fertilizers Hakamizaka used...”
She hesitated, and I also lowered my gaze to the sheets. Ayaka would know about that. More precisely, Ayaka before leaping from the rooftop would know. As of yet, that information was buried somewhere among Ayaka's memories, and maybe they could be dug up. But we fought with Yondaime to not let him do that.
The phone rang. Alice bent her body and pushed the talk button, switching to hands-free.
′The three mahjong bears are missing.′
Tetsu-senpai's voice resounded inside the bedroom.
“Missing? Since when?” Alice inquired in a tense voice.
′Dunno. Hiro is now looking for the last people who saw them. The three live alone, so no one noticed they were missing for a while.′
As soon as she finished talking with Tetsu-senpai, Alice called Major.
“Did any of the mahjong bears visit Flower Angels' Workshop?”
′Not presently. However, the surveillance started yesterday, so we can't know if they went there before.′
“Hmm. How many people are rotating? I want to calculate the labor costs.”
Since we couldn't ask Hirasaka-gumi now, Major's survival game partners had been asked to rotate in order to keep watch 24 hours a day. Of course, that should be quite expensive.
′Eight people. Is Tetsu-san's money enough?′
“That's my own problem. All of you continue keeping watch.”
Alice took a deep breath and started her next can of Dr Pepper.
First the survivor of the Fix's manufacturing group, Chigasawa Teruhiko, and now the three people who used Fix to earn money on the mahjong parlors, had disappeared. Where did they all vanish to? And where is all the money they gathered?
“Do we know how those three are connected to Hakamizaka?”
Alice shook her head.
“Not yet. We don't know the link between Oshima and Hakamizaka either. Had they contacted each other online to get the drugs I could investigate everything, but since the people who took Angel Fix had that surreal network...”
I had come in contact with that surrealism once for just a moment, so I understood the meaning of Alice's words. Those red angels' pills enhanced your senses and let you experience great happiness, giving you a dreadful mental sharpness. In the middle of this city's torrent of lights and noises, one could discern Bob Dylan's song coming from a portable music player, finding the dealers. There was no need to use the internet or cellphones.
Maybe Hakamizaka Shirou told those people something when they met, a way to meet Shushuri? And then after a year they had to visit her, gather money and set off on a trip?
“Why now? What made them do it?”
Alice muttered. I looked into her eyes, then I picked up the empty cans and got up. As I had been her assistant for some time now, I knew that once she sinks in the swamp of her thoughts, she won't come to the surface for a while.
When I was throwing the empty cans into the dumpster in front of the kitchen's door I heard a voice saying “Fujishima-kun!” When I raised my head, Ayaka approached the back alley with long steps. She had just arrived, judging by the coat she was wearing over her uniform.
“I went to Yondaime's place!” Ayaka said, raising her eyebrows, and I was taken aback.
“Because you won't tell me anything, Fujishima-kun.”
Ayaka pushed both her gloved hands against my chest.
“Yondaime wasn't there, but the men from the gang told me lots of things!”
My head started to hurt. Why did she do that? I took back the sake ritual just so Ayaka wouldn't be involved with Hirasaka-gumi or the investigation...
“I couldn't understand most of what they said, but I understood when they said Fujishima-kun severed his bonds with Yondaime. Hey, is that true?”
Ayaka looked like she was about to cry. I gave up on trying to think, so I forced a smile.
“No, you see, that's... That brotherhood sake ritual was just a game of make-believe. Kinda like turf wars between delinquents and all that. You shouldn't worry about that, Ayaka.”
“I am worried! I can easily tell you're lying, Fujishima-kun. He was an important older brother to you, wasn't he? I can't just ignore that gloomy face of yours. Hey, is it my fault? B-because I told you that Yondaime had interrogated me...?”
“It's not that!”
I suddenly pushed back Ayaka's shoulders. The empty cans at my feet rolled, making a metallic sound.
“It's not your fault, Ayaka. It's something I decided on my own. It has nothing to do with you.”
Being unable to explain anything felt irritating. Because my wish was that she didn't know anything, and she didn't remember anything.
The only thing I could do was running away. I hopped on my bicycle and left the back alley.
Ayaka's serious voice mangled my back, and my feet pedaled faster.
What am I doing? Seriously, what am I doing? Just a stubborn bluff after another. Would it have been better if I didn't do anything from the start? I don't know.
My head was a complete mess.
I skipped school the next day. I did it because I didn't want to meet Ayaka, but I lied to myself with the excuse of having to focus on my assistant detective work. I slept until the afternoon. I'm the lowest.
′You're already becoming a NEET at full speed. How about you proudly drop out of school already? It would be a magnificent celebration.′
Those were the cold words Alice told me when I called her.
“I don't want to become a laughingstock, so please stop... More importantly, did you find the place?”
′Yes. It's surprisingly near. I'll send you the address by email.′
The place Alice had asked me to investigate was the elementary school that Iharagi Junko's son attended. I was indeed surprised when I read the mail. It was really near the Detective Agency.
I left home and rode my bicycle. The sun was already setting, making me feel apologetic towards society. The sky was clear, but the wind was colder than the former day.
When I parked my bicycle next to a park, I was surprised by the crowd gathered there. That place that had been the stage where we spent most of our December didn't seem like a homeless park anymore. No, there are no homeless people anymore. I didn't see any construction vehicles either, and the guard fences had been removed. Now there were only young couples and parents with their kids in sight. Cheerful laughter came from the grass slopes, while sounds of skateboards sliding on the concrete and a soccer team playing were also heard.
I see, today's the inauguration, I realized.
This public park was now called Hercules Sports Park, and it was an admission-payed athletic institution. Neither the smell of blood nor the darkness of the groves that kept people away were there anymore. It didn't seem like a weekday with all the congestion.
Everything changes, I thought, flooded with a meaningless sentimentalism. There's nothing that stays still forever. Nothing ever vanishes. Things simply get washed away, moving from place to place.
Even a few broadcasting vehicles from TV stations stopped, so it didn't seem like there was a place to park on the street. I turned my back to the park, crossed the road, and I parked my bicycle under the shade of a small building.
The elementary school was just ahead. The school building could be seen beyond a tall fence, a grove of trees, and the courtyard. It was really big and near the station, so it was probably a private institution.
I arrived in time for the end of the class of course, but I stood there looking at the children on the school gates. About half of them weren't carrying backpacks but bags such as the ones that middle school students use. A sign of the times, it seems.... No, this is not the time to be admiring that, what should I do now? How will I find Tomoki-kun, and what should I say? This is an elementary school, so if I'm to careless, I could end up being labeled as a suspicious person. My usual ineptitude made me feel down. A bus approached the school gates and I also saw some people that looked like part of the school staff, so I ran away along the fence.
But before I reached the corner of the school, I stopped on my tracks, dumbfounded.
Beyond the fence, there were many flowerbeds with thickly grown, tall sunflower-like plants. On that corner, there was a small silhouette squatting with a shovel in his hands. When I got closer to see him better, the fence creaked, so the silhouette raised his head and turned around.
The boy opened his eyes and mouth in perfect circles—he was without a doubt Tomoki-kun.
“...You're the person from yesterday!” Tomoki-kun said, pointing at me.
I quickly put my finger to my lips, going “shhh”, but he left the shovel, the watering can and the toolbox behind and rushed up.
“Are you Shirou-san's friend?” Tomoki-kun asked, clinging to the wire mesh. I was about to say “no”, but then I realized it would be a good excuse to talk to him, so I nodded.
“So, are you an angel florist?”
I didn't really understand, but I nodded again.
“Then I'll let you in!”
Tomoki-kun quickly opened a small back gate on the left. I wanted to say “No, wait a second”. I was thankful for the welcoming mood, but no excuse would suffice if I was caught inside the school territory.
However, before I realized, I was entering anyway. This isn't the time to be whining, I won't have many opportunities as this one. I have to take the risk. As soon as I hear what I need, I'll run away.
“Yes?” The boy's sweetness was just like his mother's, and it made my heart hurt a little.
“If a teacher or someone like that sees us, uhm, could you tell them that your mom asked me to deliver something and help you out a little?”
“You're going to help out!?” Tomoki-kun's eyes sparkled. Hey, don't stray off from the subject. Well, it can't be helped, he's just a seven-year-old boy.
I helped out with weeding, watering and pruning. I had a little knowledge about it, after all. I had no other choice either, since I had to get along with him to get the information. Of course, my attention was mainly focused on checking the surroundings in case someone was watching us, and because of that I dropped the shovel onto my tiptoes several times. Even so, Tomoki-kun complimented me with a “you're so skillful!” I didn't understand what I was doing anymore.
“Tomoki-kun, you're really skillful too, and your tools are really good.”
The way he cut the tip of the nutrient ampoule reminded me of Ayaka's technique.
“Tomo wants to become an angel florist like mama and Shirou-san.” Tomoki-kun smiled, holding the shovel full of soil in his hand.
“Hey, uhm, what's an angel florist?”
“Someone like mama and Shirou-san.”
I put a hand on my chest and took a deep breath. It can't be helped, he's just a seven-year-old boy.
“That's why mama is teaching me. The teacher praised me a lot for how I took care of the flowers!”
I see. I took an extensive view of the garden again. There were several warm-retaining sheets on the soil, and tall planters were put together. There was also a big metal latticed drainage. The plants were really well looked after. Even though he was only a second year, he was the son of an horticulturist, after all. Thanks to that, I had an excuse to talk to him.
“Shirou-san said he had flowerbeds way way bigger than the ones at home and at school. He promised he'd show me, but he hasn't come here at all lately.”
“Uhm, did he use to come often?”
“From time to time, when Tomo was in first grade.”
In other words, when he was still alive.
I gulped, and discreetly tried to get to the core of the subject.
“...And what about Shirou-san's friends? Have they been coming lately?”
“Yup.” Tomoki-kun nodded, gently filling up the roots of the flowers with mulch. “Various people came to play here. Teruhiko-san and the others played a lot with Tomo.”
Teruhiko. Chigasawa Teruhiko?
This—There's no doubt about it anymore, isn't it?
Fragments of uneasiness started growing inside me like small fireworks. What is this? I had the feeling that everything is going a little too smoothly. Am I thinking too much?
“Do you know why those people came?”
Tomoki-kun spun the shovel in his hand, staring into thin air while pondering.
“...Will you keep it a secret from mama?”
“Mama scolded me a lot after that.”
Ah, yesterday? When I went to ask if she knew Hakamizaka, Tomoki-kun talked too much to me, and Iharagi Junko turned pale and made him shut up.
“It's okay. I definitely won't tell your mom.”
I felt gloomy when I promised him that. It made me feel guilty having all the confidence of this elementary schooler who still didn't know distrust. Also, if his mother turned out to be a criminal, there was a possibility that this boy was in danger.
However, I crushed those feelings, waiting for Tomoki-kun's next words. Before long, he raised his gaze and opened his mouth:
“They all brought a lot of money. You see, the flowers need a medicine. It's very expensive. Mama told me not to say anything no matter what--”
I stood up. Tomoki-kun stopped talking and raised his head blankly. There's no doubt anymore. Iharagi Junko must be Shushuri. But the uneasy feeling lingered on my tongue. Is everything really that obvious? Is there a trap somewhere?
At that moment, I saw two or three silhouettes beyond the campus, pointing this way. Uh-oh, they must be teachers or people from the school. And they're approaching really quickly.
“Thank you, Tomoki-kun, bye.” I said, turning on my heels to the back gate.
“You're leaving already-?” Tomoki-kun grabbed the hem of my duffle coat. “But everyone stayed longer...”
“I have an urgent task, see you later.”
I gently stroked Tomoki-kun's head and rushed out the back door.
I bumped into Tetsu-senpai running down the emergency stairs in front of the ramen shop's kitchen door. He looked like he was in a real hurry, and we almost collided.
“Oshima has disappeared.”
I widened my eyes. That Oshima? The head of the paid dating group?
“Disappeared? Didn't Yondaime have him captive?”
“No, he was transferred to the general hospital.” True, they did said that before. “He regained consciousness and fled from the ward. I'm going to look for him with Hiro. Without Hirasaka-gumi I don't even know where should we start looking for him though... Ask Alice for the details.”
Tetsu-senpai talked fast and ran away. I rushed up the emergency stairs and entered the Agency. Alice was talking on the phone.
“...Yes, does everyone have Oshima's pictures?”
′If we set up two people 24 hours a day the labor costs will increase, is that okay?′
Major's answering voice was heard. I silently listened to their conversation in front of the bed. They were probably talking about emphasizing the surveillance system around Angel Flowers' Workshop in case they saw the missing Oshima around.
“I don't mind, he should appear today or tomorrow.”
′What about Oshima's house?′
“Hirasaka-gumi is there. We don't have spare power to go there. You just fully concentrate on the Iharagi residence, Hirasaka-gumi will stake out there soon, so if Oshima appears, we absolutely need to be the ones who make the first move.”
′Roger that. By the way, Iharagi Junko did some slightly suspicious actions.′
I held my breath, taken aback, and knelt on the bed, leaning forward, closer to the speaker.
′Since yesterday, she let her employees handle everything and didn't show up at the shop. Sounds of a cabinet being opened and closed and some luggage being raised and lowered were heard for some reason.′
“Hm.” Alice held her chin with her hand.
Iharagi Junko has been moving since yesterday—After I interrogated her and Tomoki-kun revealed that they knew Hakamizaka. Was she destroying some evidence?
“Understood. Anyway, if something happens contact me again.”
Alice hung up. As soon as she turned around, I opened my mouth impatiently:
“I talked with Iharagi Junko's son.”
When I reported everything I heard from Tomoki-kun, deep wrinkles appeared between Alice's brows, and she stared at the pit of my stomach. It was an unusual expression for her.
“There's just something that doesn't fit... You are thinking the same, aren't you?”
“...Eh? Ah, y-yeah.”
“I am a detective who uses words as a blade so I don't want to say this, but something's vague.”
So Alice is also feeling this uneasiness? That made me feel a little relieved.
“However, now's the time to find the missing pieces. People are disappearing in succession too quickly. Human beings don't simply vanish into thin air that easily. Where could they be?”
“Tetsu-senpai and Hiro-san said they were going to look for them, but where are they going to search? If also help out--”
Alice shook her head.
“There is no need for you to go. Iharagi Junko has an office in Aoyama and a villa in Tochigi, so Tetsu and Hiro are going there. If Iharagi Junko is Shushuri, and her followers are gathering under her wings, there must be a place to shelter them. Of course, it's possible that said place isn't one of her properties, but since we don't have other places to look for them, we have no choice but to run around randomly.”
“nnh.... I see.”
At these times we would normally rely on Yondaime's infiltration tactics to push through, since his influence for this kind of practical things is huge.
“And that sheltering place might not be necessary in the first place.”
Alice muttered with her face bathed in the dim light of the monitor.
“There is also a big possibility that there is a place to hide corpses.”
I heavily gulped down, remembering the conclusion of the incident a year ago. All members of Angel Fix's manufacturing/selling group overdosed on the drug, and five out of the seven people died. The sixth person went missing this winter, and the seventh person was still dyed in despair, secluded in his room. Everyone was charmed by the hands of the angels, unable to think about anything but running away from this world.
For that reason, perhaps the missing people we're looking for are long dead already. That possibility has to be taken into consideration.
But they shouldn't just be dead. Oshima said he needed money to Shushuri. If he just wanted to die, he could just wait in his bed. Did they all disappear because they went to see Shushuri? Did they go to spend their last moments under Shushuri's wings? What was Iharagi Junko doing on the second floor, without showing up at the shop? Was she disposing of the corpses?
“Narumi. This is your duty.”
“Eh-? Ah-” Alice suddenly spoke to me, so I raised my head.
“You'll have to face those fools.”
With a shocked face, Alice pointed at one of the monitors of the security cameras; two huge silhouettes could be seen entering Hanamaru. I only saw their backs for a second, but I instantly knew who they were. Pole and Rocky. I ran to the door of the Agency in confusion.
When I went down the emergency stairs and entered the shop, Pole and Rocky were sitting in front of the counter, while Ayaka was holding a first-aid kit, disinfecting the wounds on their faces. They both looked weird, with their eyes and cheeks red and swollen.
“You're scaring everyone walking on the streets looking like this!” Ayaka was sticking adhesive plasters on their faces while scolding them.
“So sorry, Ayaka-neesan.” “So sorry.”
I stood stock still under the awning, looking at the mayhem. What on earth happened to those two? And since when do they refer to Ayaka as nee-san? By the way, it will be awkward if Ayaka sees me here even though I skipped school... All those thoughts kept swirling in my mind, making dizzy, and I felt like I was going to collapse.
Ayaka looked at me for a second, but then she put a sullen face and continued healing those two.
“What are you doing, Narumi?” Min-san said behind the counter, stirring the contents of a stock pot. “Don't just stand on the entrance, the shop is going to open soon and you're in the way. If you're that free, then take those two idiots somewhere else. Those unsightly potato-looking faces will make the customers run away.”
I looked at Pole and Rocky in turn and finally managed to squeeze my voice out.
“Wh-what's with those injuries?”
“Yes sir! Sou-san beat us up!” “We asked him to make up with Aniki and he rashed!”
“Raged.” Ayaka retorted before I could and then turned her face to look at me. “Fujishima-kun, sit down too, come on.”
I was taken aback and became flustered.
“Because I need to scold you a lot, Fujishima-kun! First of all, you skipped school today!”
Ayaka's angry look made me straighten my posture on the stool.
“Don't you want to graduate together with me? Do you want to become a NEET that badly?”
“No, it's not that, but....”
“Explaining so many things to me would have been bothersome so you took the day off, right?”
Exactly. Pole and Rocky weren't being scolded, but they fixed their postures just like me and hung their heads. The only one who could save me now was Min-san. She should say something like 'Stop making a fuss inside the shop and leave!'
“Oi, Ayaka, I'll give you five more minutes to finish.”
“Okay, thank you, Min-san.”
Why are you so half-assedly sweet to Ayaka!?
Ayaka suddenly lowered her voice.
“It's my fault that you quarreled with Yondaime, isn't it? Even if you tell me it isn't I know you're lying, because,you know, you had the same face when you told me you were going to box with Tetsu-senpai, Fujishima-kun.”
I finally understood. Even if I'm good at deceiving people, I'm really bad at lying. In other words, I can distort the truth with fabrications and make people believe that, but I just can't put a simple mask on the reality. For that reason, I don't believe in lying just to cover the truth.
I myself, believe, and hope, that the future is connected to the here and now. That's probably what Alice calls the story. If there's no story, it's just a lie, and is thus completely seen through.
“...Would you tell me the reason?”
I could only shake my head at Ayaka's words. I can't explain it. We're running around so that the case will end without having to explain it to you.
“...It's about the narcotics, isn't it? Supplies are circulating again, right?”
My whole body felt like it was going to melt as I looked downwards. Narcotics. I didn't want to hear that word from Ayaka's mouth. Why does she know? Did she remember just because she glanced at Hakamizaka and Chigasawa's photos that time? Or did Yondaime tell her that far? Or perhaps she got the information from the idiots from Hirasaka-gumi? Of course, no matter how much I beat people up or get beaten up myself, I can't change the fact that Ayaka does know something. I can only lock her up in a bird cage.
“Hey, Fujishima-kun. I'll be fine if I remember, you know? It's more painful for me to see you fighting with Yondaime.”
I felt like crying out. Why are you saying that? Just seeing Angel Fix's name causes you to panic and hyperventilate, don't you remember that? What point there is to my decision if Ayaka says that to me? Why did I break everything?
“Ayaka, time's up. You're wasting your breath.”
Min-san spoke with her usual cruel, cold kindness.
“It's just a quarrel between two stubborn brothers. Whatever you say won't change a thing.”
“We'll kneel down on the ground!”
“Aniki, please, go talk with Sou-san once more!”
“Oi, you huge idiots. Don't you understand anything? That's not the problem here. Can't you even tell that?”
I couldn't take it anymore, so I stepped down from the stool and left the shop. Ayaka's voice didn't chase after me either this time.
Alice called me the next day during lunch break, telling me that Toshi-san had disappeared. Avoiding Ayaka's gaze in the corridor, I pressed the cellphone close to my ear.
′Toshi's father called Tetsu to ask him if he knew where Toshi was. It seems like he hasn't returned home since yesterday at noon. Do you have any idea? You talked to him a few times.′
My legs felt a little weak. Toshi-san too? Didn't he say he hadn't been called by Shushuri and didn't know where she was? Why did he disappear now?
“...What about Iharagi's house?”
′No movements worth mentioning.′
Noise filled the back of my skull. What is this? Where did they all go? Iharagi Junko is Shushuri, that woman is the angel that guided Hakamizaka and the others—Or isn't she? Is there something we're still overlooking?
“Anyway, I'm going there.”
I rushed down the stairs at the end of the corridor while putting my cellphone in my pocket.
I was too careless. I completely forgot about Toshi-san. Why did I ignore him when he was sunk to the neck in the quagmire?
I jumped onto my bike and kicked up the stand.
No, what could I have done? He wouldn't listen to a word of what I said. His body was an empty shell barely stained with the lingering scent of life, unable to think about anything else except the angel that abandoned him.
I arrived just at lunch time, so Hanamaru was packed. There were even tables outside the shop, with young salarymen all curled up in their coats slurping miso ramen. At that time, Min-san came outside and stared at me, so I turned my face away and took my bicycle to the back alley, going up the emergency stairs.
Alice looked at my face and asked, surprised:
“What about school? Are you going to be absent from the afternoon classes again?”
“W-well, that doesn't matter, right? More importantly, Toshi-san--”
Cold eyes looked at me from the bed.
“You're still a high school student, yet you have the biggest NEET soul out of everyone I know. It is strange. It's your double-edged weapon.”
“What are you saying at this time--”
“If you have a clear goal, your means to reach it become breathtakingly sharp, but you constantly lose sight of that goal.”
“I... Don't understand what you're saying.”
I actually did understand a little, because Alice's eyes also looked sad.
“I am the same, but...”
Her voice sounded frail, not much different than a sigh.
“With yesterday's daily allowance, the money I accepted from Tetsu was exhausted. I would end the request under normal circumstances, but my fingers are still trying to catch the darkness. It's like a bug wriggling inside my head. Just like you, I lost sight of my goal... And I continue looking for the way.”
In the form of the request, Alice wasn't moving for anyone's sake. The money from the client had been already spent, so there shouldn't be a reason to investigate anymore.
But Alice quietly shook her head.
“Let's push this NEET pride tall story aside and go back to talking about business. Tetsu went to the office in Aoyama, and Major is still staking out the Iharagi residence. Hiro found out that one of his acquaintances is a customer at Angel Flowers' Workshop so he's going to meet her. We can no longer select the methods, because Toshi left home yesterday at noon. His father saw him, so that much is certain. He's been missing for twenty-four hours.”
Surrounded by the unnatural light of the monitors, Alice's face looked even more pale. Toshi-san might have gone to be taken by the angel again. Twenty-four hours. He might be dead already.
“But, why now? Remember your conversation with Toshi. Didn't he say he didn't know Shushuri's whereabouts?”
“How was he called then? Same with the others. Were they called? Did Iharagi Junko send some kind of sign?”
Alice kept returning to that question, but I had a hunch that that wasn't the main issue. As long as we didn't find that key, we'd still be misreading something—I had that feeling.
“I'll go to Toshi-san's house, if I check his room I might understand something.”
“For what reason?” She muttered, with her eyes still sunken in the swamp of her thoughts.
“For what reason? Well...”
“No, I'm sorry. I was only asking myself. I don't understand. For whose sake are we investigating now? We even turned your brother into our enemy. For Tetsu, who didn't even have the money? For Yondaime, who canceled his request? Or perhaps for Toshi, who never asked for help?”
Please, stop, I thought. Why hurt yourself again with your own words and actions? You'd be at ease if you just thought more simply. But I couldn't turn those thoughts into words, because I was also trapped in that foolish spiral, more or less. The thought of stopping was even more painful.
All the solutions were reduced into one. If she threw the Agency's signboard into the trash bin outside, she would stop being a detective and would become just a hikkikomori.
Hey, Alice, isn't that much more comfortable? The though just crossed my mind, but if the despondency is eating away her skin, I'll comply just like that. Maybe we should stop running around and sniffing around. There's no need to keep doing things no one wished to be done until we're detested. We could just let the truth rot under the mold of some grave.
But, at that time—
The door opened. The air-conditioned atmosphere surged. The world where Alice and I were helplessly imprisoned cracked. We raised our gazes at almost the same time, looking at the Agency's door. A small silhouette passed by the side of the refrigerator and stepped into the dim light of the bedroom. Short chestnut hair held in place with a small hair clip swayed in the wind of the conditioned air.
She probably came directly from school, since she was still wearing a coat over her school clothes.
I was frozen and unable to say anything. She gazed at me, then her eyes turned to Alice. She pulled something from her pocket and threw it on Alice's lap.
“...What is this?”
“My salary from this month. I asked Min-san for an advanced payment.”
Still frozen, I stared at Ayaka's fingertips. Salary? Why—Why is Ayaka bringing money?
Alice spoke in a trembling voice.
“I will hear your request.”
“You know it already! It's the same as Tetsu-senpai, but since senpai didn't have enough money, I'll pay the rest for him.”
“Ayaka, why are you--”
My voice finally came out, but Ayaka interrupted:
“Don't ask me why, Fujishima-kun, don't you understand? This is my case, isn't it?”
Ayaka's words were like a serious hit somewhere inside me.
“This is not only senpai, Yondaime, or Fujishima-kun's case! Hey... I don't know how many secrets you've been keeping from me, but I know that much.”
It's true. This is Ayaka's case. A case that got Ayaka hurt, and it kept harming her inevitably.
That's why I hid it from you. Why can't you understand that?
Ayaka's gaze felt like a bullet of melting ice, shooting through my eyes.
“I—I took everything upon myself and jumped without saying anything to Fujishima-kun, right?”
Ayaka's voice made my ears buzz. I felt like I was being pulled back to that freezing winter morning, remembering the blood spreading over the flowerbeds' soil.
But Ayaka's words continued, tying my consciousness to the reality.
“I won't do that again, because I already know. I know Fujishima-kun is here. Alice is here too, everyone's here, and little by little we can share it all together.”
I dug my fingernails on the sheets, enduring the heat flowing from the wounds of Ayaka's words.
“No matter how painful the things I remember might be, I'll be okay. But I definitely don't want to see Fujishima-kun being separated from anyone.”
I felt this was Ayaka's pain. At that moment, we were certainly sharing her pain. For that reason, I remembered the words she said to me way back then: Cry normally when you're sad, shout normally when you're angry, laugh normally when you're happy, speak your mind normally when you want something. If we're unable to do that, then there's absolutely no point to your wounds.
I tried to climb down the bed, but my knees were only shaking. I felt like all the bones in my body were in the wrong place, unable to put themselves in place. I couldn't move one finger.
At that moment, I heard noisy footsteps of several people outside. Alice let out a little gasp, and her black hair swayed. The door was then pushed open with worrying strength, and the footsteps rushed over.
“Sorry for intruding!” “Ane-san, sorry for intruding!”
The group of muscular men who were crowded together like a mountain of trash bags about to collapse were Hirasaka-gumi's members. I gripped the sheets with my hands behind my back, trying with all my might not to faint, but my voice wouldn't come out either. Why are you guys here, and in such a great number? Aren't you all the members of the gang? You won't be able to get into the bedroom—Hey, stop, you're going to break the door frame.
“What are you all doing!? A wild gorilla has better manners than you!”
Led by Pole and Rocky, the men in black shirts knelt on the ground in a row. The men behind were forced out to the corridor and the stairs. Ayaka was so frightened that she climbed up the bed.
“Why are you all here? You are my enemies.”
“There's no way we're ane-san's enemies!” “Hey, shut up!” “Don't cry!”
Making the guys behind him quiet down, Rocky came a few centimeters closer.
“We're here under Sou-san's orders.”
“Yondaime's?” My voice suddenly came out in the form of that question.
“Yes sir, we heard Toshi was missing! But since he won't ask Ane-san for information, he told us to rush out and ask around!”
“He told us to split up in any ways or beat up whoever was necessary to get the information!”
With a shocked face, Alice looked up at the ceiling. I felt something hot overflowing, even in the middle of the cold. By my side, Ayaka fixed her gaze on my face.
I heard the voice of the detective behind my back.
“I do not wish to command these regressed troglodytes. You're not going to say that you don't know what you have to do if your employer doesn't tell you at this point, are you?”
I wasn't sure if I should nod or not. Should I stand up, with my hands and feet only, with this drooped body and the few strength it has left only?
But then, I noticed Ayaka's hand on the back of mine.
It's okay if it's not only my own strength.
I placed my hand on Ayaka's shoulder and slowly raised my body, climbing down from the bed and standing on the chilly floor. I counted the black shirts and opened my mouth:
“....Please split into three groups. Five of you will contact Major for the surveillance rotation.”
“Yes sir!” “We shall now hone our manly aura!”
“Six of you will be on standby at the gang's office.”
“Yes sir!” “We will wait for orders with all of our fighting spirit!”
“And four of you will drive near Toshi-san's house and investigate the places where he could have spent his money, like convenience stores and all that. I'm going too, and--”
I immediately look at the chestnut-colored hair.
“--Ayaka is coming along too.”
“Yes sir!” “Yes sir.” “We shall now hone our manly aura!”
With the throaty voices of the giants intermingling, I pressed my small fists on my legs until the 'yes sirs' became faintly audible.
I looked at Ayaka standing behind me. Her father was frozen with his jaw agape.
I bowed my head and took off my shoes, walking into the apartment. When I looked behind me, the atmosphere between father and child was as stiff as an rolled up aluminum foil being extended. Ayaka bowed her head with upturned eyes, and his father averted his gaze and pointed at the corridor with his chin. The distant formalities were almost repulsive, matching the circumstances.
It took around 20 minutes by car to reach the apartment in Sedagaya from the Detective Agency. Ayaka didn't have enough time to prepare herself psychologically.
Ayaka actually didn't remember her father. Was it because he was a memory linked to Toshi-san? Or perhaps her father was someone she didn't want to remember? I don't know if something happened between this father and his children, nor the reason behind their parents' divorce, nor what this father does during the day, but now is not the time to worry about that.
“Ayaka, come on.” I urged, opening the door at the end of the narrow corridor.
I became petrified when I looked inside the room. The curtains were closed, so it was pitch dark even in the middle of the day. The TV was still on, faintly illuminating the clothes and convenience store bags on the floor. Also, some black figures were covering the desk, the wooden floor and the white wallpapers. When I leaned over to look more closely, I noticed they were wings. Each one of they were drawn with oil-based markers. I pushed Ayaka back to the corridor and closed the door.
“...What's wrong?” Ayaka muttered.
I bit my lip and shook my head. Ayaka forgor about all this because it's an extremely deep wound. The fact that she unconsciously grew the raw materials for the narcotics. The fact that Hakamizaka forced her to take the drug. And the most important thing--the hallucinations caused by the Angel Fix, and the feeling of emptiness that followed.
If she sees this room full of insane drawings of angel wings, she might remember everything.
We decided to share it. If I keep this door shut, why did I bring her along? I opened the door and Ayaka in. As soon as she entered, she was also unable to move.
“...Do you recognize... those marks?” I inquired behind her back. Ayaka moved her head slightly. I wasn't too sure is she was shaking her head or nodding.
“...I might have seen them, but....”
“It's okay if you just don't remember. Let's search inside.”
I pushed Ayaka into the room and entered.
“I wonder if he left a note or something...”
Ayaka squatted down and started looking inside the trash bin. I opened the notebook computer. As it was apparently on stand-by mode, the web browser was displayed on the screen immediately. I checked the history. I barely saw anything but anonymous boards and news blogs. Did he see something on the internet that made him run away? Did Toshi-san find Shushuri's guidance somewhere in the wide sea of the web? First of all, I'll send an email to Alice with the history. It will be faster to separate all this information with her computers, as it's not something you can just find manually.
The TV. Not all the floor was covered with the drawings of the wings, there was a circular space in front of the TV without them. All the marks spread radially around that space. In other words, he started drawing them while sitting in front of the TV.
The TV was still on in the NHK News channel. I checked the hard disk of the DVD recorder. Below a big late night anime lineup, there was a recording of the NHK news. When I played it, the news ′...crowded with parents taking their children...′ started abruptly. Did he record something as soon as he saw it? If so, why this news?
′Climbing walls and skateboarding floors has been installed in this park, which is now admission-payed—′
These were news I was quite familiar with. A report on the inauguration of Hercules Sports Park. Why did Toshi-san record this? Soon after that, the image on the upper left of the announcer was enlarged, showing lots of parents and children in the park. There were also interviews to the people there, and since it was NHK's territory, there was even footage filmed from above with a helicopter. When they returned to the studio, the announcer was moving to the next news, I heard Ayaka's voice close to my ears.
“Fujishima-kun! Rewind that!”
Ayaka brought her face closer to the LCD screen as she said that. Bewildered, I operated the remote control to do as she said.
′...crowded with parents taking their children...′
The news started over again. Just when the camera changed to the footage filmed from above, Ayaka hit the pause button from the remote control in my hand.
“Wh....What's the matter?” I timidly asked, looking from the side at Ayaka's face still closely fixed on the TV.
“I know those.”
“I know those. I've seen them before. No, not only that.”
Ayaka muttered, pointing at the lower right of the screen. At that moment, everything pieced together inside my head. The TV. The guiding voice of the angel came from the TV. That's why we couldn't follow those traces. That's why it was happening after a year. That homeless park--Since November of last year the reparation works started, the people opposing them, and a murder case were all repeatedly discussed topics that appeared several times on the news. That's the reason Shushuri's followers opened their eyes this winter. Chigasawa Teruhiko, the guys who invaded the mahjong parlors, Oshima and Toshi-san... They all saw these news and heard Shushuri's voice, telling them—
I am here.
I stood up and grabbed Ayaka's arm.
“Let's hurry. I know Toshi-san's whereabouts.”
I rushed out the entrance and called Alice.
“Iharagi Junko might be in a hurry, tell Hiro-san to go there immediately please! I'll also go back there right now!”
′Did you find anything out?′
“I understood everything.”
Maybe it's already too late, I thought as I gulped down. I jumped into Hirasaka-gumi's van that was waiting in front of the apartment and closed the door.
“—Shushuri isn't Iharagi Junko.”
Just when Rocky stopped the vehicle on the road along the fence of the elementary school, the bell rang.
“I'll go alone first.”
Saying that, I halted the black shirted men and got off from the passenger's seat, but Ayaka came along too. Well, it can't be helped. I walked closer to the back door, and beyond the fence, I saw a small silhouette on his back, surrounded by flowerbeds. A great number of flowerpots still not budding were alligned on the soil under the sunlight.
I called him with my hands on the fence. Ayaka also clung to the fence, staring at the planters inside the flowerbeds.
Tomoki-kun turned around in a flash and stood up with a broad smile, rushing over my way. Something inside me dried and cracked, about to break.
Is this the conclusion? Is this the end of the nightmare?
“You came!” Tomoki-kun said as if he was trying to cling to me through the fence.
My words were stabbed by that innocent smile.
“You were Shushuri, right?”
Tomoki-kun made a puzzled face and tilted his head slightly.
“...Shirou-san also said that. Shushuri.”
My breath felt like it was mixed with thousands of invisible nails. I gulped over and over again, trying to wash away the feeling of discomfort, but I wasn't successful.
“....I know these, Fujishima-kun.”
Ayaka muttered as in a trance, clinging to the fence.
“I know these. I was taught that they're planted concentrically, and they're surrounded with tall creeper plants.”
I didn't ask who taught her that. I couldn't ask. Even if Ayaka is remembering. Even if she's overcoming it by my side.
I stared at those flowerbeds with extending greenery that had called the junkies together. Whenever the news filmed the homeless park with aerial cameras, this school would appear on the background, and the angel's voice would spread through the public radio waves, calling them.
The unique narcotic plant was concealed by other plants surrounding it, but if they saw it from above, they would recognize it, even if the flowers weren't blooming this winter.
“Oneesan, do you grow poppy flowers too? Are you Shirou-san's friend?”
Ayaka leaned over in front of Tomoki-kun's eyes. Both were in front of each other with their hands on the fence.
“Yes, I grew them. I grew them just like those.”
“Really!? Hey, did yours bloom?”
Ayaka shook her head with empty eyes.
“Tomo's flowers only bloomed once, but since I wanted to show them to Shirou-san again, I studied a lot, a lot, a lot!”
Tomoki-kun's voice was lively, cruelly transparent.
“But since then, Tomo's flowers haven't bloomed at all. Because of that, when Teruhiko-san told me about those fertilizers and medicines, everyone brought a lot of money, so they'll bloom really soon.”
How ironic, I thought as I stared at the two. Ayaka and the angel were just separated by a thin web of synthetic fiber.
I balled my hands into fists and rubbed them against my thighs, brushing off my feelings.
“Tomoki-kun, did Shirou-san's friends come yesterday too?”
“Where are they?”
“They're down there, waiting together, because the flowers will bloom soon.”
He pointed at the big metallic latticed drainage. Aah, I see, I thought with a lingering feeling of emptiness. Underground, huh. Well, it's winter. If it was summer, they would have been discovered really quickly by the smell. When I turned my head to Hirasaka-gumi's van and gave instructions with my hand, the men in black shirts started getting out. They rudely opened the back gate at the side and broke into the garden.
“Ayaka, we might have to call the police, so go back to Hanamaru.”
I also entered the campus as I said that. Ayaka shook her head and followed me. She wanted to see with her own eyes... Isn't that stupid? Haven't you forgotten about Toshi-san? That's what I thought, but I didn't have the energy to tell her.
Rocky tore off the metallic drainage from the ground. There wasn't a shallow U-shaped gutter there, but a thick drainage channel where a person could walk around while standing.
One of the gang members illuminated the inside with a flashlight. Further inside there was a spacious basement basement-like room surrounded by concrete. It was probably the place were all the storm sewers came together. I snatched the flashlight out of the gang member's hand, and I pushed Rocky's big body aside and bent my body to see without obstruction.
The light of the flashlight illuminated some kind of figure on the basement's wall. People. They were all collapsed, leaning close to the wall with their legs sprawled. A chill and a feeling of repugnance crept up my skin. At that time, I cursed my own eyesight. Red grains were spread on the concrete floor at their feet.
Even so, my legs kept moving unsteadily, drawn in by the darkness and the smell of death. At that time, someone forcefully caught hold oh my shoulders.
“Sou-san!?” “S-sou-san, why?”
When I turned around, the gaze of a wolf pierced my cheeks. Yondaime. My throat cramped because of the shock. Why is Yondaime here? None of the information should have leaked to him.
“This ain't a place you should freely step into. Back off.”
“Wh-... Why... are you here?”
“Iharagi Junko turned the gas taps in her house. Had I arrived an hour later, she'd be dead. You're always so easygoing. Out of my way.”
Yondaime's fist thrust into my stomach, and the burning pain made me tumble on my back on the wet concrete.
“Aniki!” Rocky descended to the drainage. Unable to breath, I rubbed my back in agony against the concrete, and Yondaime poured his cold words on me.
“You severed your connections with me, so I'll say it frankly: Stay away from the corpses.”
Yondaime instructed Rocky to drag me out, and soon I was back under the sun. I tumbled on the ground, feeling exhausted and sick on my stomach, and only saw how Yondaime and the black shirts dragged Toshi-san out of the drainage.
“And the others?” “They're all dead.” “Bring a water hose and let him vomit everything, oi, Toshi, don't sleep!”
I absent-mindedly heard his voice far away. Then I heard the sirens, and the footsteps rushing over. My eyes met with Toshi-san's, who had the hose up his throat, his hair and clothes drenched in water, and was covered in vomit.
His cracked lips moved just a little, but I still understood what he was saying: ′Why did you save me?′
I didn't save you was my voiceless answer. After that, I sidled up on my knees.
“Aniki, the cops are coming so please run away! Ayaka-neesan, you too!”
I interrupted Rocky's words with my hand and edged my face closer to Toshi-san's. Toshi-san spat out the hose and said something while spilling drool. ′God dammit, don't fuck with me, why, why′—Probably that kind of ill words. His voice wouldn't come out, but he scratched my skin, and his frail fist hit my chest, one, twice, and once again.
I didn't come to save you, I repeated voicelessly. I only came to retrieve something I had forgotten. Since I hit you that time, I only came so you could hit me. I couldn't quite tell apart the tears from the vomit on his face.
The strength of the hits on my chest weakened. His elbows trembled. Does it hurt? When you hit someone, you feel pain too—That's what it means to be alive.
But those fists lost their strength and fell onto Toshi-san's own chest. He averted his face and started sobbing this time.
I didn't know since when, but Ayaka was leaning over by my side.
“...I'm glad.”, she muttered.
There was no other words after that. We just stood there, silently close to each other, staring at what we had forgotten during that winter.
We slowly caught on to the noisy sounds of the sirens.
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