(tl note: this one’s a little short, but the next one’s so long, i didn’t want to put them together.)
“Oh hey, did you get Niimori home okay the other day?”
“Yes, and it was the most unpleasant experience.”
When I got back to work after my day off, I got stuck first thing going to investigate a building fire from a few days previous.
We headed to the scene along with some investigators specially trained in discovering the causes of a fire, and went around each room with camera in hand, trying to figure out why the fire had originally started.
“Unpleasant, huh. I don’t know what happened, but you two really don’t get along, do you.”
“Because he’s always trying to pick a fight with me.”
“Because you cause trouble, primarily for Niimori. Everyone’s heard stories of the stuff you’ve pulled.”
That was true, but it wasn’t always my fault. During hose practice one day, we were using the large diameter hose, and the support guy lost his footing. I couldn’t hold up the high pressure of a hose like that by myself all of a sudden, and the thing ended up aimed directly at Niimori, who was doing the same training right next to me. He’d gotten pretty well soaked, but that was no reason to blab to everybody about it.
“But he doesn’t tell people about the time he lost to me in climbing.”
“No, that one I haven’t heard,” Tsuno answered easily, as we looked into a room roasted black from heat that had radiated in every direction.
Putting out fires isn’t a fireman’s only job. Investigating the cause of the fire after we extinguish it is also one of our duties. All sorts of different things can cause a fire. Electrical faults, smoking in bed, children’s pranks. But if you don’t count the fires with unknown causes, the number one cause of residential fires is arson.
“These better not turn into ghost photos,” Tsuno muttered – this was a well-known haunted house.
Really, there was nothing here to see, but kids often visited the place to test their courage. Apparently the landowner wanted to tear it down, but they couldn’t locate the person who held the deed to the actual building, so it had been left neglected for a long time, and it had fallen into ruins.
“You see scarier things than this all the time.”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t assume others have your mental fortitude, Adachi.”
I shrugged at him, and grimaced at the burnt smell.
I saw where the window glass was broken like it had burst open, so there must have been a flashover.
The call had come in pretty late, so by the time the firefighters got there, the flames were past their peak, but since the building itself wasn’t actually that old, the fire hadn’t spread too far. After a massive hotel fire that took place before I was born, certain steps were taken in building design to prevent the spread of fire.
“This room has got the worst scorching, but it doesn’t look like any flames actually touched it.” Tsuno said, setting up the camera to take some photos that would be used as reference data for the written report.
“The chance of arson goes up when a building’s neglected, you know.”
“You don’t expect the land owner to be the criminal though,” Tsuno muttered, and pressed the shutter.
I didn’t get people who committed arson just to let off stress. But wanting to see beautiful flames erase something with their overwhelming power, even I could understand that.
“You absolutely do not say that in front of the instructor. He’ll chew us all out again.”
In the academy, we’d been instructed in the traits of different flames via live demonstration. Green, blue, red, orange. The flames that spread out instantly from the liquid fuel were sublime, really beautiful.
But when I’d given voice to my thoughts, Niimori – who was right next to me – had criticized me. Realizing it would be indiscreet at best for the ones who put out fires to be fascinated by flames, I did as he suggested for once, and held my tongue.
I’d wondered if my feelings would change once I actually got out on the line, if maybe I’d start to hate the flames, but in fact fire still seemed as beautiful as ever to my eyes, almost divine.
If there was a victim left behind, or when the fire started to spread, I did feel a sense of impending crisis, but not fear.
“Maybe you came here to start a fire rather than to put one out?”
How many times did Niimori turn to me at a scene and say that with his soot-stained face twisted into a sarcastic look.
“I’m not too fond of the way things look post-roast, so no.”
The petroleum-based wallpaper in this building had been blackened, but one section was glossy, like melted wax. I slid my fingers over it, and Tsuno came over next to me, finished with his pictures.
After we’d completed our investigation and left the building, I overheard the captain and some of the investigators who were milling around mention a “902.”
It was a firefighter’s report code. They’re different in different municipalities, but in our case, 902 stands for “suspected arson.”
I returned to the office with a bad feeling that they must have found plenty of other evidence, but just as I got in, there was a broadcast inside the building.
“Report of fire, Ura-ura, Block 1, general building fire.”
As soon as I heard it, I changed into my firefighting gear and headed for the pumper truck.
Orders to depart came in just after the four of us got on board.
“Report of fire, Ura-ura, Block 1, number 23, general building fire, first call.”
This wasn’t the regular synthesized voice of a preliminary order, the voice we heard inside our departing truck was Niimori’s.
It was completely different from the drawn out, drunken one I’d heard the other day.
I’d been keeping my foot on those memories, but listening to his smooth and easy-to-comprehend tones, they resurfaced.
— Don’t take that attitude with the guy who looked after you while you were drunk.
I was irritated, hearing his prim and proper voice, but this was no time to be wrestling with rage.
However, when the truck sped up to the scene, there was no sign of any fire.
The head car didn’t seem to be able to confirm it either.
That does happen occasionally, that we get marching orders, but there’d be nothing there, it was some prank call. Last year, it’d been only half a percent of all incoming calls, but it felt like the rate had gone up quite a bit since the new year.
“We can’t make visual confirmation. Was there only the one call in?”
The chief talked to the command center, while we headed outside to look around the neighborhood for ourselves.
We went over to ask the residents who’d gathered after hearing the sirens, but none of them had made the call, and no one had any eye-witness information on any fire.
We headed out to search the neighborhood, but after a while we returned to the pumper truck on the captain’s instructions.
It had only been the one call, he said, and we couldn’t make contact with the caller, so odds were it had been a prank.
“Man, there have been too many prank calls and arsons lately,” the captain complained, after we’d gotten back to the office and were taking off our gear.
“Not just in our jurisdiction, either.”
“The chief and the command center captain are going to have a meeting about it. I wouldn’t mind if this little lone wolf and the arson demon turned over some new leaves pretty quick.”
I nodded at the captain’s tone, which was a shard more tense than usual. I felt like the increase in prank calls and all the arsons since the new year must have something in common, but I couldn’t point to anything concrete.
I was still feeling down as I finished my dinner, so I stopped by the command center floor on my break, wondering if maybe the commonalities I couldn’t quite find had been made clear at the meeting.
I got there just as Niimori was coming out of the glass-walled command center. I guess it was his break, too.
We both made a face the instant our eyes met. “Was today’s prank call from a cell phone?” I asked.
“No, a public phone.”
The people in the command center had a direct line to the dispatchers. Naturally, they heard the caller’s voice directly, too.
“We’ve been getting a lot of prank calls lately, huh,” I said. “Have we pinned anything down yet, anything I should be paying attention to?”
“That’s what all these meetings are about,” Niimori answered easily. “We get plenty of prank callers, but there are two who call in incessantly. They’re using something to change their voices, but it’s them.”
“It’s easy to do with apps these days. But the voice patterns are limited, and the way they talk and their vocabulary is the same, so we know it’s the same people. Every call’s been recorded, so maybe if the police would analyze them, we could get something more specific, but the problem is they’re just prank calls, how are we supposed to even ask the cops for their help.”
“Where are they calling from?”
When a call comes into the command center, we can get a location whether it’s from a cell phone or a public phone. The instant a call comes in, a flag pops up on an on-screen map, letting the dispatcher know where the caller is.
“It’s different every time. Next prefecture over, then in town. This time, it was from a public phone in front of a convenience store, so if we can get the police to issue an order, we might be able to get our hands on the security camera footage. If we’re lucky, there’ll be fingerprints, too.”
All you have to do to make an emergency call from a public phone is press a red button. It’s rare that anyone actually uses the emergency line, so if a clear fingerprint had been left, it was likely to be the caller’s.
Prank callers can be punished with a fine for obstruction of duty. They don’t usually enforce it, as long as there wasn’t any malicious intent, but I’m of the opinion that people should be fined for every prank call, even on their first offense.
Except that firefighters don’t have the authority to arrest people, so we have to leave the investigating and arresting to the police.
“You’d know as soon as you hear the voice, why don’t you tell us on the scene.”
I stared at the command center on the other side of the glass. The day’s inter-jurisdictional schedule was posted on a bulletin board next to the monitor, along with the current temperature, wind speed, and a few other things. They also posted the number of times we’d been dispatched.
With all the prank calls and the arson, the number of runs this month was pretty high. If we didn’t settle the arson case soon, the number of runs this year would end up topping last year’s.
“There’s no proof. We get some actual reports from near the scene, too. And if there’s no fire, it never goes anywhere.”
“That’s all well and good, but you’re not the one actually going out there, so it doesn’t matter to you.”
Working in an air conditioned room and physically investigating the scene of a fire to see if there was some lone wolf on the prowl were two totally different things.
But when I saw Niimori’s eyes quickly narrow, I realized I’d made a gaffe.
“Indeed I do just relax in a chair all day in this cushy job of mine.”
I hadn’t meant to make fun of command center jobs. It was just that every time I talked to Niimori, I ended up saying something mean.
Well, I mean, that was a problem, too, but Niimori was the one constantly picking a fight – it was his fault, too.
“You could come up here yourself and be quite happy. I mean, this is an ugly time to be holding people back. Don’t you feel like you’re just a big weight around all your junior’s feet? And poor Tsuno’ll be in a tough spot with a senior who can’t even do his own job properly.”
“So you just up and forgot all the help I’ve been to you recently?” I shot back. I did feel bad about my gaffe, but Niimori provoked me.
I had come up here wanting to know about the meeting and the prank calls, but before I even knew it, we’d fallen into the same old pattern. It didn’t matter how many years had passed, I would never be able to enjoy a calm conversation with Niimori.
“You helped me? I think you’ve misunderstood something?”
His mocking tone of voice reminded me of the morning after I’d delivered Niimori to his apartment. He’d kicked me right off the bed. There was a rustling noise – a layer of magazines had fallen to the floor – and I was left trying to figure out where I was. When I looked up, Niimori was standing over me with a coffee cup in one hand.
It was apparently a work day for him, because his eyes fell to his wrist watch and he issued an ultimatum. “You have five minutes to leave.”
Thanks to my job, I’m pretty good about going to sleep and getting up. If he’d just called to me, I would have woken up. I told him there was no need to kick me, glaring at him and his perfectly ironed shirt, but he stayed calm the whole damn time.
In the end, he kicked me out of the apartment with my clothes still a mess. He never said a single word of thanks.
Remembering that selfish attitude put me in a bad mood.
“Was I mistaken about your gay lover barging in on you, too? If you don’t want everybody to know you’re gay, you might try something along the lines of ‘My apologies for causing you so much trouble, thank you for all your help.’ ”
I had said both in my time, but I couldn’t recall having received any gratitude or apologies from Niimori.
I’d paid his half of the bar tab, and the taxi fare, and then I’d taken him home. It would have been nice to have at least a word. Even if he had gotten smashed as a result of a drinking contest with me.
“Tell whoever you want. Harikawa already knows.”
Speaking of, Niimori usually refused invitations from junior and senior alike, but he’d gone drinking that day – with Harikawa. Niimori was a guy who fundamentally did not reveal his heart to other people, but he was strangely close to the captain.
If that was true, it had to be a love triangle – Harikawa was married.
And if you added in the pro-wrestler type, it was a love rectangle. The sides of my mouth twitched at the thought of such complicated romantic relationships.
“Are you kidding me. I call him Harikawa at work because he’s my superior, the guy’s my cousin.”
He denied it so readily, I was relieved.
I’d spent high school, university, and academy surrounded by nothing but guys, so I’d seen all kinds of things, but the scene of carnage between two men was messier and more complex than ever between a man and a woman.
“A guy I’d broken up with while I was freeloading at Harikawa’s house barged in, and Harikawa caught us. He saw the whole damn thing, right when the guy stabbed into me, too.”
“You like the awful ones?”
It wasn’t just the clingy guys then? What the hell kind of guys was he going out with, that it was like he was being stabbed?
Now that I thought about it, hadn’t that pro-wrestler type said something like that? I won’t do anything to hurt you.?
We frequently got sent out on domestic violence calls as first responders, and I remembered a woman who showed absolutely no indication of trying to leave her violent husband. The EMTs who went to their house at least once a month used to grumble and wince. “Nevermind her family, we’re asking them to get a divorce.”
I’d heard there was often a co-dependence between the victim and the assailant in a violent household. It was the first time I’d heard of Harikawa being Niimori’s cousin, but the emotionless, aloof Niimori missing the idea of being with someone, that I could understand, I could see it. Niimori as the domestically violent, co-dependent type didn’t sit quite right, though.
“If you want to put it that way, yeah, I guess every one of them has been pretty terrible.”
To see Niimori think about it for a minute and then admit the truth of it out loud left me dumbfounded.
“Well, your face is nice enough, pick somebody less terrible. Or you really will end up getting stabbed.”
My advice was strangely frank, and – maybe because it was so weird – Niimori’s lips twisted into a smile.
“I don’t believe I’m in need of sympathy from a virgin.”
How in the hell did he know that? Maybe he had overheard our conversation after all.
“How have you managed to hold on to your chastity at your age? Aren’t there other things you’re supposed to be protecting?”
“Sh-shut up. It has nothing to do with you!”
“You’re the one being loud. I’m going to go eat lunch. You can leave me alone.” Niimori laughed through his nose at me, and headed into the break room set aside for command center personnel, which was right next door. Of course I couldn’t follow him in there.
In the end, Niimori never said a word of gratitude or apology to me, and I hadn’t learned anything about the prank calls either.
I’d gained nothing except that now I was irritated I’d had my feelings hurt by that jerk. But just as I was heading off that useless floor, the giant control room monitor, visible through the glass, switched from six sections to three.
Usually it showed things like the weather report, and the feed from a live cam, but once a call came in, the screen showed a map of the appropriate area and any incoming intelligence.
Dozens of calls are answered by ambulances and fire trucks every day, but close to half of them are only barely emergencies.
There were people who called an ambulance for sprained ankles, kids who put in a fake call just to see if we’d really show up or not, even test calls from parents with no common sense themselves.
Those kind of runs always made you indignant and irritated at having to take the time for them, but even those were still better than arson.
As the preliminary calls echoed through the building, I hoped that this one at least would not be an arson.