In the back of the classroom near the charcoal colored steam-heater, Kat-chan cried incessantly. The large-framed Mochizuki stood as if trying to hide him. "Hey Fatso Katsuya!! You're to blame for Minoru's suicide. You'll have to do the 'Centipede' as penance if he's really dead." 'Centipede' was a kind of punishment where you had to crawl all over the dirty floor like a centipede. It was one of Mochizuki's favorite methods of bullying. "It's not my fault," Katchan protected his face with both hands while Mochizuki slapped his cheeks. "You were the most annoying. You kept telling him to throw out his erasers!" Kat-chan's brown baseball jacket was hiked up to his chest because he'd raised his arms so high. Mochizuki slapped Kachan's stomach. "What's with this gut. How can you wear such a belt? Mr. Katsuya Kisaki. Your pants are so tight. Hey, look here!" Mochizuki put his hand beneath Kat-chan's belt and rattled him there. Mochizuki's bullying was different from that of other kids who bullied--he was very direct and violent. "Ah..." Kat-chan let out a nasal whine which sounded as if he was either putting up a fight or scared. None of the boys, including Makoto, could put up a fight. Mino-chan resisted throwing away his collection of "Prisman Erasers" to the last moment, but he gave in finally to the pleading of his classmates and took the erasers to the trash burner at the back of the gym. He wasn't at school today. "They say this is the year of kids' suicide. So it's not so strange that he would kill himself. If he committed suicide, you should go to prison!" Mochizuki was all worked up. This was his chance to take revenge on the others for excluding him from their rumor network circle. "Well...but," said Akira, who was standing by the classroom door, in an almost tearful voice. "But what!" Mochizuki pushed Makoto away from behind, strode toward Akira, and looked into his face--intentionally slowly. "Is that an oracle of Satoru?" Akira made something like a hiccoughing sound. Mochizuki attacked him again. "Did Satoru say something? He said, 'They'll all bully Minoru'?" A teardrop fell to the floor. Makoto could not turn to look at him. Satoru did not say anything. Nobody ordered Mino-chan to burn his Prisman Erasers. Prisman was a ghost, and all the kids who owned anything related to Prisman would be cursed. So Mino-chan had to do it for himself. Makoto still couldn't turn to look. He felt as if his heart was being pulled somewhere from inside. "Are there any ghosts on TV shows? Do they read the scripts every week? Why are you guys so scared of some simple erasers? You're acting like girls!" Mochizuki held Akira's chin in his big hand. Akira stood still, his eyes cast downward. "Show your face!" ".....No" "What?!" "No!" "Hey. Show your face!" Mochizuki forced Akira to lift his face. Tears flowed from his firmly closed eyes along his cheeks and down toward his neck. "....No!" Makoto could not stand to hear Akira's weak voice. "Shit! Kisaki, Ohsawa and Morishima are a trio of cry-babies," said Mochizuki, as he left the room. The class was as quiet as a graveyard except for the sobbing of the three boys until the class bell rang. Kat-chan and Akira were at Cafe Shamburi after school. Probably Kohta and Egg should also have been invited, but Makoto didn't invite them. If he invited all the kids at the back of the gymnasium, then this would become a secret meeting of criminals. "Should I make a call?" "I'm totally sure nothing has happened." The same conversation had been repeated, followed by the same silence. The three Guatemalan coffees they ordered were already cold. Akira could not stand the atmosphere. He changed the subject. "Nothing at your juku, Makoto?" "Nothing?" "After that..." "That means when the ghost appeared in 'Hit 21'?" "Yeah." "Nothing." "I see...." Makoto regretted that he didn't say more in the silence that followed. "It's quiet on my side, too." Kat-chan helped him, scraping his shoe heel on the leg of the chair. "Same at my juku, too." Akira added, as if whispering. Then silence again. Makoto thought he should have invited them all. But, even if he had done so, the situation would have been the same. "The same at my juku." ...The more who came, the more silent it would be. "What time is it?" Katchan asked. "Ten minutes to four." Akira answered. " I'll go to juku," said Makoto. "I'll be late if I don't leave now." "I'm already late," said Akira to himself, glancing at the wall clock in the cafe. "Me, too," said Makoto, sitting incredibly still at the edge of the chair. "Ahhh...." Kat-chan let out a long sigh. The warm breath rising from his lungs was soon inhaled by the three other boys and stuck in their throats. The sound of the shopowner washing cups echoed in the room. "Ahhh..." Kat-chan sighed again. They could not sit like that forever. Makoto stood up decisively and the other two followed him. They walked to a public phone booth outside instead of using the phone in the cafe. They tried to do everything slowly, while not hesitating at any time. Makoto was to dial the phone. Akira put three 10 yen coins in. Kat-chan closed the door with his hands behind his back, and stood guard there. 6......28.... All their movements followed a certain rhythm, as if pre-planned. The phone started to ring. Once Twice Like knife stabs into the heart. Three Four Five The interval between rings began to sound sad. Six Seven The boys couldn't face talking to anyone if someone answered the phone, but they couldn't hang up without talking with anybody, either. Eight Nine Finally, someone picked up the phone. Makoto's heart jumped up like a puppet on a string. "Hello. This is the Kimura Liquor Shop," Mino-chan's mother answered in a heavy voice. "Un...This is Ohsawa. Un...un..." Akira touched Makoto's arm and said in a loud voice, "Mino-chan, Mino-chan...Minoru Kimura." Mino-chan's mother responded to Akira's loud voice, "Well... Minoru is..." All three boys stood like stone statues--stone statues on the telephone. Time seemed to stop before the next word came. "He's here now. Minoru...Minoru...." "Alive!!!" The three cry-baby boys hugged each other and jumped up and down for joy in the telephone booth. Kat-chan made a strange face in the mirror of the booth, Makoto could not say anything, even when Minoru picked up the phone on the other end. "HAHAHAHA" Akira was laughing too hard to complain of the pain. With a frown of his thick eyebrows, he panted "Can't breathe, can't breathe." "What are you laughing at?" said Mino-chan on the other end. "Sorry. Sorry," answered Makoto. Akira mimicked a hippopotamus, making the boys laugh like hell. Makoto, hearing Mino-chan's voice which was on the edge of tears, pushed the phone to his ear and listened to Mino-chan explain about his absence. He did not go to school because his grandfather, who was living with them, was very sick. "This is the third time since last year his condition became critical. Again! But he became better in the afternoon, saying he'd had a dream about an 'expedition against fiends.'" Giggling, Makoto repeated Mino-chan's explanation to the other boys. They laughed, too. "We call him "Bungling Survivor in our family." "Bungling Survivor?" "Because he can't even die without bungling somehow!" "HAHAHAHA!" Mino-chan wanted to know why they were laughing so hard. None of them told him. "Anyway, I'll call you again tonight." "Wait!" ...The boys charged out of the telephone booth, ignoring Mino-chan's unsteady voice. "Surprised?" "That's too bad." "Stupid Mochizuki!" The three boys ran, tumbling toward the station like three swallows in a light rain. Pentagon did not scold Makoto, who arrived late at the Asunaro Juku with a wide smile on his face. He just cooly told Makoto that they had already finished the third lesson and added that they would have to stay a little late after Juku for a magazine interview. Even while seated, Makoto could not calm down. He had missed the conversation with Yohta, but there was nothing he could do about it now. "What interview?" Makoto asked, but Harada did not answer him. He made sure his pencil-pen was sharpened for the fourth lesson. Harada hated being unprepared for lessons. Makoto did not mind being ignored by Harada because he was so happy about Minoru. He asked Kawakita sitting opposite him the same question. Kawakita's mature face was like that of a city-hall bureaucrat as he pushed his metal framed eye-glasses on the edge of his nose with the back of his hand and said, "Probably some weekly magazine. You know....a feature article on juku." "Oh...yeah?" Makoto nodded exaggeratedly. "Don't be surprised. There was even a photographer here." "We've really made it, haven't we?" "You're stupid. Go ahead and be in the photo shoot. No way do I want my photo taken at Asunaro Juku." "Yeah, you're right. You'll be able to see our faces." "And probably our names, too, if worse comes to worse." Makoto didn't like it either. He wanted it to be a secret that he was attending Asunaro Juku. It was the unwritten rule of the class not to let anyone except close friends know which juku you were attending. Not because they were so competitive, but because they felt somewhat guilty about it. They didn't want their classmates to know they went to such institutions that made you "clap hands while wearing success-in-examination hats" or made you play "unique educational games" where you had to strip off one garment each time you got a wrong answer. Their parents felt the same way. It was embarrassing to see their kids winning at the expense of their friends. "So what will you do?" "We're not gonna look at the camera. Let's all look down. And let's take off this sweatband," said Kawakita, touching the thick white sweatband around his head. Just above his eyeglasses was the logo of an asunaro tree with a pencil. It was the, "Special training of Asunaro Juku" which was held one day a week. Taking a sweatband out of the bag, Makoto began to feel silly. No sense in explaining it now. Oh no! Yohta had to wear the sweatband, too, Makoto thought and shut his eyes. He tried to shake the image of Yohta out of his head. As soon as Pentagon told the class that the lessons of the day were all over, the classroom doors opened and in came two men. Makoto took the sweatband off and looked down. "I'm Mizuta of Grand Eye," the first man bowed to Pentagon. "A...Ah..." Pentagon mumbled in a low voice, taken by surprise. "I am Nobuhiko Mizuta from a company called Grand Eye," he continued. "A...Ah...I am Hi...Hiura." Giggling errupted all around the classroom. Pentagon's voice was unbelievably weak compared to his usual classroom scream. Makoto looked up and saw Mizuta. He was a little over thirty, and wore a long light-brown coat made of soft fabric. His thick black framed eyeglasses matched his sturdy but unshaven face. Moving slightly, Makoto could see Mizuta's shoes...heavy mountainclimbing boots, their red laces looking down on Pentagon's health sandals. Behind Mizuta, a young man set up the camera equipment. He dragged the heavy-looking equipment on the floor; peeling off the tape he had temporarily stuck on his jeans, he taped up the light shades. "Cool." Harada said in his usual nasal voice. Harada liked machines, so he was really into the photographer's efficient movements. A little jealous of the photographer, Mizuta straightened his back and tried to get the kid's attention. "Good evening, members of Asunaro Juku. My name is Mizuta," he said in a low but clear voice. Pentagon stiffened a little at the sound of Mizuta's voice, which made the kids laugh. "Wow! You guys are in good spirits." Mizuta laughed too, running his fingers through his shiny wavy hair. He looked like a cool detective on TV, Makoto thought. Seeing the children relax, Mizuta started talking about himself. He said he was not a weekly magazine reporter but a "trend-seeker" who analyzed the world and forecasted what would become trendy. "I go after interesting incidents at the request of 'advertising agencies'; in short, I am an 'information detective'," he said. "Cool! Isn't he?" Kawakita jotted down in his notebook 'information detective,' as he pushed up his glasses. Next, Mizuta explained how he would conduct the interview. It would take approximately thirty minutes. He said the children should just answer his questions, and that the photographer would take photos after the interview. He added that the photos were just for their records and that they would not use them in the magazine. "Well, then." Mizuta sat on a desk. Pentagon pretended he was looking out the window. Seeing Pentagon's adam's apple twitching, Harada whispered. "He's saying that the enemy is all over the country, isn't he?" "He'll be nervous if he doesn't keep saying so, I think," answered Makoto. The kids around Makoto chuckled. "What's so funny, Mr. Silver Frame?" Kawakita was at a loss for an answer to Mizuta's sudden question. "Ah....ah....ah" He suddenly sounded like the wimpy Pentagon and the whole class burst into laughter. Mizuta waited patiently until the long stream of laughter died down. The kids were exhausted after laughing so much. Their small faces were flushed and free of tension. "Could you please begin? I have my own schedule to follow." Pentagon finally said to Mizuta with all his resolve. Then Mizuta began asking questions. "How many minutes do you watch TV every day?" "How many hours do you spend preparing and reviewing lessons?" "What is your father's highest academic degree?" "What do you like about attending this juku?" The kids, chosen at random, answered the questions without hesitation, though they would never be happy if they talked that way at school. Seeing the change in their attitudes, Mizuta gradually changed the direction of his questions. "How many hours do you play computer games?" "Which computer game software do you like?" "Which part of it do you like the best?" The children answered the questions about computer games more eagerly than those about juku or school. But as soon as the question "Have you heard any rumors about some strange software?" was asked, their faces turned pale. They slipped back into the caution they'd left behind. "Hi! Hashimoto. Did you hear something?" Mizuta sped up his questions. "Tsutomu? Didn't you hear any strange rumors about software errors?" Tsutomu stammered, "I heard Castron has had errors in the data from the beginning." "How about you, next to him?" "I don't know." "Nomoto?" "Some guy in my neighborhood said Cryer has a meta-map." Mizuta had a calm smile on his face, but his fingers, rapidly turning the pages of his small memo pad, belied his tension. "How should I say this?...What about the content. Haven't you guys heard anything about the software itself?" All the kids looked down. Mizuta's eyes peered through his bangs sharply, as of they had some unknown magic powers. "Well...I see." Nodding, Mizuta reached into the pockets of his leather jacket under his long coat, and took out another small notebook. The dark green notebook, bound by a rubber band, held a lot of newspaper clippings. He deftly took the band off the notebook and turned pages. He straightened his back, so he couldn't drop the clippings. "Ok...well....Ohsawa?" Makoto seemed as if pierced by an arrow. "You're attending Kuromiyama Elementary School, aren't you?" Makoto could barely nod to the question. "I feel sorry for the principal." The kids all looked away from Makoto. The first act of the No LIfe King drama had been at Makoto's elementary school. The curse was close to Makoto. "Didn't you hear anything?" "Well..." Pretending to be recalling something, Makoto felt his body stiffen in a strange posture. The numb feeling reminded him of the curse of No Life King, which he had almost put out of his mind. Suddenly, then, an image of Yohta appeared in Makoto's head. HELP... And the words "WILL DO BEST" came back to his fingertips. Makoto gathered his utmost courage and answered, ".....I know nothing." Makoto's voice was full of such force that he shocked even himself. Calling Kat-chan that night, Makoto told him about Mizuta. He made a point of mentioning that the Information Detective left theJuku , saying that he would see him again. "I definitely am his target," Makoto shivered in the heated room, even though he was wearing a sweatshirt. Kat-chan said, "Never talk to him again. He stinks." Makoto made an oath that he would fight against Mizuta. Then about what happened in front of the station, Katchan started telling Makoto a scary secret. "You know the tennis court at the back of the housing complex in front of the station? You can see it from the train. There...at night..." Makoto could feel Kat-chan shivering through the telephone.
Copyright (C) SEIKO ITO , EMPIRE SNAKE BLD,INC. All rights reserved.