The day I got called by the receptionist at work – we called him the OB – was one week after that failure of a date, and about two weeks before I was going to start prepping for the Rescue Squad training.
Standing in the lobby was a woman in her late teens or early twenties. When I asked at the desk why I’d been called – the OB was an older man who’d gone to the same school as me long before I got there – he said something to the girl, who quickly bowed her head at me.
“I wanted to thank you properly for what you did that day.”
I didn’t recognize her face, so I didn’t immediately know who she was. I wondered if she might have the wrong person, but when I tilted my head in confusion, the guy at reception threw me a line. “From the bar fire last year,” he whispered.
“Oh. Oh! The girl from before?”
I’d been so wrapped up in more recent fires that I’d totally forgotten, but I had extricated a girl from the blaze at that bar that had occurred the year before. Given that she’d come all the way out here to thank me, she must have been that girl from that day.
She’d had her head down the whole time and had been coughing so violently, I’d never gotten a good look at her through all that smoke. I was only thinking about carrying her to safety anyway, I wasn’t looking at her face particularly.
“Yes. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to thank you properly. This really isn’t much, but…” She offered me a paper gift bag.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the OB answered in my place. “We’re not allowed to accept gifts like that, it’s against regulations. We can only accept your feelings. But thank you for coming all the way out here though.”
The girl looked disappointed. “In that case, you’re welcome at the shop any time. We really appreciate what you did for us,” she said. “And, um, I’d be glad if you’d tell me your name please?”
Her upturned eyes were filled with a certain heat. “Uh, of course,” I said. She’d probably taken one look at Niimori and fallen for him, and come out to thank him. To be honest, it wouldn’t have been the first time something like that had happened.
“I’m Adachi Kousuke. And the one with me on the rescue was Niimori Mihaya. Should I call him?”
The girl shook her head impatiently. “Adachi Kousuke,” she muttered quietly. “My name is Ishiwatari.”
“Ishiwatari? You seem to be doing well, I’m really glad.”
Her gratitude did make me happy, but the conversation didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I glanced down at my watch like we were done.
“Oh, I’m sorry to be bothering you at work,” the girl said quickly. “I must be in the way.”
She went home with a look like she regretted something, and the OB muttered, “It’s definitely springtime, huh. That girl was making eyes at you, you know,” he said. “You ought to go to her shop.”
“It was Niimori and I that rescued her. She was probably looking for him.”
Niimori had always attracted ladies, like a magnet on a pile of iron filings. Whenever we were together, women naturally started talking to him. This girl had been talking to me for the moment, but that was just a holdover until she went to Niimori.
“No, I think she was looking for you, Adachi.”
“I’ve got someone I like anyway,” I said, negating the whole thing without actually spilling any of my real feelings. “Well, it’s one-sided, but still.”
“Oh?” the OB said. “You should confess, man!”
“I did, but I haven’t gotten an answer yet. Not that I think it’s going to be a good answer, but still.”
Nevermind getting an answer, I hadn’t even seen his face much lately.
To begin with, command center folks worked on a whole different floor, and we didn’t normally interact with them except to get orders over the radio. We did pass by each other on the way to and from work sometimes, and I’d tried to talk to him, but he’d ignored me.
I’d thought about going to his house to press the issue, but it didn’t seem like it would do me any good to drag his mood down further.
He was the type to stay mad for a long time. I knew I should give it some distance before I tried to apologize again or ask for a reply, or even get close to him, but I’d still been staring at my phone like a moody teenager.
“That’s nice though. A new love, being young.”
I looked around the dead lobby. Spring was usually busy with kids on field trips, but the place was deserted now. And people always liked sticking their noses into other people’s love affairs.
“You don’t seem busy,” I said.
“I’m free. So if you want to consult me about anything, ask away. I haven’t seen you like this in a long time.”
The way he was grinning gave me a bad feeling, but I didn’t pay it much attention. So when the other guys invited me out for drinks the following week, I didn’t even imagine there might be any ulterior motive behind it.
I hadn’t had any plans for that night after my shift was over. When I had nothing to do, my thoughts always turned sour, and sometimes I even ended up going by Niimori’s house like some kind of stalker, so when they asked, I replied with an immediate yes.
I didn’t even realize we were headed for that particular bar.
“You did come, I’m so glad.”
I was confused by Ishiwatari’s broad smile, when I spotted the other guys trying to suppress giggles.
After she guided us to an interior table and took our orders, she and the apron she was wearing disappeared.
“She’s cute, huh,” one of the guys said. “Nice going, Adachi. And it was all thanks to us you’re even here.”
“What are you talking about, you sound like some idiot house husband. Anyway, the ladies always go for Niimori.”
“Nah, listen Adachi,” he said. “Settling down is nice. Warm. Eating your wife’s home cooking, and she tells you to have a good day at work, you can’t help but feel good.”
The OB had apparently spilled the entire thing. I sighed and ignored the idiot. Tsuno glanced at Ishiwatari. “She definitely does like you, Adachi,” he said, pointlessly.
“Oo does she? Why?”
Harikawa, sitting next to me, addressed his first question to Tsuno, and his second to me.
She certainly was cute, and maybe before everything had happened with Niimori I’d have made a move.
But now, all I could think of was my colleague and natural-born enemy, and looking around at what else was available only depressed me. “I’m going to be full up with the rescue squad anyway,” I muttered, trying to look as tough as I could.
“That exam’s only a month of training, and if you pass the paper and the practical, you’re done, right?” one of the other guys said.
I had to admit the truth. “There’s someone else I like,” I said bitterly.
For an instant, Tsuno’s eyes flickered. The other guys hit me with a barrage of questions and advice – “But you’re not dating, right?” “You’re way more shy than you look, you need an assertive girl.” – and I just wanted to leave.
As I sat silently drinking my beer, I heard a voice. “Sorry for the wait.”
I looked up to find the bar’s owner grinning at the huge plate in her hands.
“We wanted to give you an extra helping, on the house. It’s thanks to you guys we were able to reopen with our whole family together. Please, eat as much as you’d like today.” Plates started arriving at our table one after the other.
I thanked her, and caught myself looking around the interior. The place had been completely rebuilt, even the floor plan was new.
Fires are so tragic. All the things that hold your memories, all your expensive goods, everything gets incinerated, and all that’s left is pitch black chunks of charcoal.
But the worst part is if you end up losing a loved one. Even had that fire been set by accident, Niimori would still have been heartbroken to lose a parent, I thought, regretting again, and too late, that I’d insisted on that date as a bargaining chip, and that I’d attacked him in the bathroom. I was definitely going to be rejected.
I was hanging my head over my beer, when someone called to me – “Excuse me” – and when I lifted my head, Ishiwatari was standing there with a plate full of fried foods in her hand.
“This is from me. For you,” she said. I stretched out my hands to accept the plate, and the bar owner grinned, standing beside her daughter.
“This kid’s been doing her best imitation of a princess, I give up. When she saw you come in earlier–”
Ishiwatari’s face turned bright red, and the other guys got even more excited.
“I wouldn’t mind if you two did end up getting along, I mean if you wouldn’t mind.”
The owner headed back to the kitchens, smiling, and Ishiwatari chased after her, complaining – “Why would you say something like that, mom!” Watching the exchange with a big grin on his face, one of the guys nodded. “It is springtime.”
“It’s summer,” I corrected him on instinct, remembering how the receptionist had said the same thing.
The teasing from the other guys had gotten me depressed, but the food certainly was delicious, and the conversation flowed well, so we ended up staying until the shop closed. Towards the end, we got onto the rescue squad, since some of the other guys had already met the requirements for it. I just kept at my work of making earnest and interested noises.
The fact that the alcohol was strong had its pros and cons.
I was beat coming and going with this lot, no matter how much I drank, and I hadn’t had enough to change my personality anyway, so in the end, I was left to help everyone home, as usual. I paid the bill, stuffed the drunkards into taxis, checked the chairs and tables for anything that might have been left behind, and finally headed outside.
“If I don’t get home quick, my wife’s gonna be pissed.”
“See you next time.”
I was carrying a guy five years my senior under my arms. I’d have preferred to leave him to Shironeko or Migikawa, but they were well past their expiration dates themselves, so I ended up stuck with the job.
The sole blessing was that it was only like a ten minute walk from here to his house.
I resented Tsuno – a perfectly nice guy who’d gone home early. One of the other guys was standing in front of the shop yelling about how he was the king of the world, so I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. “Go home, your highness.”
Just then, I heard someone and turned around, and there stood Ishiwatari, her face bright red.
“I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me your cell phone number?”
No one had ever asked me anything like that, so I was a little confused.
“Adachi, jeez, give it to her, quick,” urged the guy who was now clinging to a nearby telephone pole. I was searching around for a reason to politely refuse, when he reached into my pocket, took my phone, and gave it to Ishiwatari. “Yes,” he said.
I swallowed a sigh at his drunken meddling, and exchanged numbers and email addresses with Ishiwatari.
“Would it be alright if I texted you later?”
“Please do!” he answered for me. “This guy hasn’t got a girl, you know.”
I regretted not shoving him rudely into a taxi. A trash can would also have been acceptable.
“I mean, I get pretty busy with work, I don’t know if I’ll be able to respond too much.”
“Oh, well, I don’t mind if you just respond when you have a moment. Thanks very much.”
Ishiwatari bowed her head, her face still red, and I watched her retreat into the bar.
She certainly was cute, and she had a pleasant air to her. Maybe I could start a happy family if I married her, I thought – my seniors had been a bad influence on me.
The one I wanted to touch, the face I wanted to see, even if the expression was an unkind one, was that of my ill-humored, violent co-worker. As I stood there, awash in such endless, suffocating thoughts, the particular senior next to me tilted his head to one side. “Adachi, did you talk to her like she was one of us guys?”
The heavy rescue squad training took place at the academy, and was hellish, scorching, demonic, and a lot of other such adjectives.
Newborn firefighters ran around the grounds of my alma mater, lugging their hoses and looking exhausted.
“No rest! Keep going! Thirty-two times! If you can’t even handle that much, quit!”
We could hear the shouting, but we didn’t have time to wax poetic over the trainees’ breathless scurrying.
“You there! Pick your feet up! Don’t look so pathetic in front of the trainees!”
We had more knowledge and experience than the trainees, of course, but they had youth on their side. Us university graduates especially had more years on us than the guys who’d come straight out of high school. That four year age gap was heavier than the numbers might indicate.
I remembered the menu of endless practice and strength training from my trainee days, the focusing on class work, the sleeping like the dead every single night. The fact that I enjoyed the weekends so much hadn’t changed either.
But one such pleasant Saturday, when I was lazily snoozing at home for the first time in a good while, my cell phone went off.
It was my daily text from Ishiwatari. They were always about trivial things. Questions about work, or my colleagues, or an invitation to meet again somewhere. She never sent so many of them that it got annoying, and answering them after dinner had become part of my daily routine. We usually exchanged two or three short messages a day.
I’d thought it would get obnoxious when we exchanged numbers, but the concerned messages and reports on the daily life of a female university student were kind of fun, actually, and she didn’t complain even when my reply was late, so it was kind of relaxing.
— After all, I’m not getting any replies from Niimori, am I.
I’d asked Tsuno indirectly – “Heard anything about him?” – but Tsuno had answered with deliberate shortness – “I don’t know anything about the command center.” If Tsuno wasn’t going to cooperate, I didn’t have anywhere else to get information.
I probably could have asked Harikawa, but that seemed to be kicking the hornet’s nest. If Harikawa found out what had happened between Niimori and I, I couldn’t even imagine the kind of looks I’d get.
“What the, it’s a call?”
My phone kept ringing, so I reluctantly heaved myself up and picked up the phone without bothering to unplug it.
The only person who ever called me was Ishiwatari, to tell me she wanted to see me, so I figured it must be her, and I put the phone to my ear without bothering to look at the screen, still standing right on top of my futon.
I was used to getting urgent calls, so my voice was clear, even though I’d just gotten up. I was pretty proud of myself, I didn’t think anybody would be able to tell I’d been sleeping so late into the day, but the voice on the phone asked me, “Were you sleeping?” I was surprised at the voice’s low pitch.
It was Niimori. I headed into the kitchen, shaken and wondering if I wasn’t still half asleep. The plug – still connected to my phone – ripped out with a terrible noise, but at that moment, I did not care.
“You free today?” he asked.
“Can I come over?”
“You? Come to my house?”
I glanced around the room in a panic. There wasn’t anything I didn’t want anybody to see, but what with training, I hadn’t exactly been attentive to my housework.
“Sure, I guess,” I said.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” Niimori said, and ended the call without another word.
I rushed around, removing scattered clothes and magazines from the living room into the bedroom, and changed my clothes.
As I tossed the dirty clothes into the washing machine with some detergent, my head was a mess – what the hell did he want coming here? Did he want to talk to me? But wasn’t I the one who wanted to talk to him?
Did he want to complain to me? That was possible, but Niimori probably would have called me out somewhere for that, rather than coming to my house.
So… For an instant, I imagined the lowest possibility. I remembered that expression on his face when he’d looked over his shoulder, his cheeks red, but even as my imagination swelled, I muttered, “No way.” It was at that moment that the doorbell rang.
That was a short ten minutes. When I opened the door – with neither my heart nor my apartment prepared – Niimori stood there in casual clothes. It had only been a few weeks since I’d seen him, but I had missed him terribly.
Niimori took one look at me and grinned. “Training seems to be appropriately intense.”
I was well aware of how tired I looked, but I replied, “Not really.”
Training was hell, without a doubt, but I resisted complaining to Niimori. Always had.
When I drew myself up and let him inside, I vaguely felt his shoulder through his clothing as he passed by me, and that was all it took to make me shiver. I didn’t understand why he’d dropped by, but the fact that he was in my apartment was enough to prevent me from being able to calm down. I was just thinking about those two moles still under that shirt, when Niimori abruptly spoke.
“I saw the lady next door a minute ago, she’s beautiful.”
“What? No, well, I mean I guess so, but.”
The sudden change of subject had rattled me, but Niimori continued. “Well, adultery is a pretty high hurdle for a virgin.” He laughed, mocking me. Somehow it felt like I was being accused of cheating.
“I’m not a virgin. And anyway adultery is wrong for anyone. And anyway I’m not thinking about her anymore. I told you you’re the one I like, didn’t I.”
So the reason he’d come was just to confirm for himself that I wasn’t doing anything that would make him jealous? Just to hear me deny it? But he spread a map out on my living room table with an air of trying to correct the misdirection.
“Attacking the person you like in the toilets is your style then? Listen, nevermind that, we had two arsons, and two prank calls last week.”
I was disappointed to learn the real reason for his visit, but I could understand what he was getting at.
It wasn’t something we could talk about outside. On the other hand, he was probably loath to call me out to his place and be reminded of what had happened that first time. Not to mention that there probably wasn’t enough room in there to have a proper conversation.
“Don’t say it like that. I’ve been thinking, the toilets were definitely a mistake.”
“How’s that then? Nevermind, sit down over there and look at this. The places we got prank calls about are the blue dots. The arsons are these red dots.”
He ignored my objections and went on with his story. The conversation was going around in circles, so I gave up and peered at the map.
There were even blue dots and red dots stuck in districts outside our jurisdiction.
“Are you still investigating? I told you that’s the police’s job. Anyway, what made you think to put the prank calls and the arsonist on the same map?”
“The police are busy with robberies and murders. Even when I ask them what the investigation status is, they just answer ‘ongoing.’ But this guy is the type who sets bigger and bigger fires.”
“That’s exactly why it’s not your job. You looking to become an investigator?”
Probably still going to fire scenes and taking pictures too, by himself, I thought, and my head started to hurt.
“I always wondered if the arsons and the prank calls weren’t the same person. The person who called in the prank call from the convenience store was a middle school boy. The security camera wasn’t good enough image quality, so the cops couldn’t make out which middle school, but still.”
“You think a middle schooler set fire to a love hotel? And why would a guy who commits arson be satisfied with making prank calls in the first place?”
Maybe he was trying to toy with the firefighters, but that was a lot of risk to be taking.
When someone calls in, they give away their location and their real voice. And there’s always a possibility they’ll be caught on camera, like the security camera at the convenience store. Maybe they enjoyed the thrill, but it’s only a matter of time before they get arrested, like that. The arsonist had used simple equipment with a time delay ignition, the investigators had told us that much. And there were no eyewitnesses – the guy was deeply cautious.
I didn’t think someone that crafty would expose themselves to that much risk on some low-satisfaction prank call.
“I said I wondered, past tense. That’s not what I think now. The one making the calls isn’t the arsonist, it’s someone who knows them. The prank calls aren’t pranks. Probably they know what kind of places the arsonist likes to set fire to. Except they can’t accurately tell when and where he’ll strike, so they call in best they can. Even if there isn’t an actual fire, once they call in, the neighborhood’s going to be extra vigilant for a while.”
Niimori took out a list. The dates and times of the prank calls were lined up with the dates and times of the arsons in a big chart. It started with “Call – Dec 20,” “Suspicious Fire – Dec 22,” and continued down to “Call – Aug 13,” “Suspicious Fire – Aug 26.” The calls and the suspicious fires were occurring pretty close to each other.
Designating a fire “suspicious” meant that we didn’t know if the fire’s origin was intentional or accidental.
“But, we’ve gotten prank calls before, right?”
There was one period when prank calls spread like a meme through the local middle schools.
I’d heard there were a whole bunch of prank calls a day back then, but it eventually dropped off and returned to normal.
“The ones on this list are the ones made by the two who call in a lot. I excluded any others. Course, I didn’t hear the voices on the calls that came in to other jurisdictions, so the only ones I could put on this list were the ones that were in our jurisdiction and that came in while I was on duty, but still.”
“But, I mean even assuming temporarily that what you’re saying is true, that the arsonist knows the prank caller, and that the caller’s goal is to keep the arsonist in check, there are a few inconsistencies.” Comparing the list and the map, I pointed to a cluster of red and blue dots.
It was a pachinko parlor parking lot. Mar 15 was written under Call, but Jan 2 under Suspicious Fire.
“There’s no point in calling in about some place he’s already set fire to, is there?”
“There were no marching orders issued for that incident,” Niimori said. “I went and asked around the neighborhood, that’s how I learned it was a suspicious fire. By the time the neighbors noticed it, there was smoke, but the fire’d already gone out, and the only thing that burned was a car seat. Since there were no marching orders, I think the prank callers didn’t even realize there’d already been an arson.”
“What the hell’ve you been doing on your days off.”
It seemed he wasn’t satisfied with merely snapping photos of gawkers’ faces at fire scenes.
“Incidentally,” he said, ignoring me, “there’s one other spot where the prank call and the arson are front to back like that, but those are the only two.”
He pointed to the map. I followed his finger to another cluster of blue and red dots.
That was the park where Niimori and I had talked a few weeks prior. Looking at that long finger, I thought to myself, There’s no way he’s been around to every single place where there’s been an arson and every single place there’s been a prank call, right? My headache suddenly got worse, and I had the worst feeling. If somebody else got wind of this, they’d start thinking Niimori himself was the firebug.
“These dots are scattered pretty far and wide though.”
“The location doesn’t seem to mean anything. I can’t help but think he’s just choosing places that are easy to set alight.”
“I just got up and I’m starving, so my head’s not working. Tell me plainly. What is it you want from me?”
He wasn’t someone who thought it admirable to announce his reasoning and ask for judgement on whether it was right or not. If he’d specifically made up that list, and that map, and explained everything to me, it was because he wanted something.
“Cutting to the chase would really help me out,” I said.
Niimori took out some photographs. They were the ones he’d taken at the love hotel.
“I knew it was middle school student, so I focused on taking shots of kids.”
The portraits were grainy, probably because they’d been enlarged. At the center of the image was a young child. If she was in middle school, she must have just gotten there. Everyone else was staring at the fire with expressions of surprise and curiosity, but this kid was looking in another direction. She seemed to be watching the people who’d come to gawk instead, like Niimori. Or she was searching for something.
“It’s a girl.”
“Yeah. She came to stare at the love hotel fire, and the one at that dilapidated house. One time I talked to her, heard her voice – it’s the same voice as the prank caller.”
“Weren’t the callers disguising their voices?”
“Lately, yeah. But the early calls were made using what are probably their real voices.”
As I sat there wondering how I was supposed to convince a guy who so casually came into contact with a person who was possibly an arsonist, or might know one, Niimori continued his story.
“There are two callers, the girl and a boy, both in middle school. They know where the arsonist is going to hit, and they go around to places they think they’d like to stop him, and they make calls.”
“If they know the locations and they want to stop him, shouldn’t they just list ’em up and go to the police, or the fire department? That way, we not only stop the fires, we arrest the criminal, too,” I said, thinking that even middle schoolers could reason that far.
Niimori asked me a question back. “So why haven’t they?”
I started to reply that this was what I wanted to know, when I realized that Niimori was waiting for an answer, and expecting the right one. My stomach was empty, my head was not turning over. I hadn’t had anything caffeinated to drink, but I managed to find an answer without too much trouble.
“It’s a family member?”
The callers were trying to prevent the fires, but they weren’t exactly cooperating with the fire department. But if the arsonist was a relative, I could see why they might behave that way.
“Probably. But, they don’t know his whereabouts.”
“What makes you think that?”
“She’s out there looking for him at the scene of the fire because she doesn’t know where he is, right?”
I nodded my understanding, prompting him to get to the real issue. He uttered something quite shocking with a deadly serious face.
“I went looking for the girl.”
“I’m going to go meet her right now, come with me.”
“What the hell is that supposed to accomplish? Hand it over to the cops!”
He’d finally told me what he was really doing here, but it hadn’t been what I’d expected. Without thinking, I yelled at him.
“The evidence that the prank calls and the arsons are related is weak at best. Even our own investigators turned their noses up at me. Besides, if we arrest them now, their only crime is making prank calls. The places they call about seem to correspond to the places that are set on fire, but if she says it’s just a coincidence, that’s the end of it. And the arsons won’t even stop.”
I paused. “Why are you meeting with her then?”
“I’m going to persuade her to come to the police with me. She can tell someone there what she knows about the arsonist. If she can get them to recognize her connection to him, and tell them where he plans to strike before it happens, even the police’ll have to make a move.”
“Are you kidding me?” I muttered.
Niimori leveled a gaze a hundred times colder than the worst academy instructor at me. “I am deadly serious. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come to the lair of some beast with no self control, such as yourself.”
He was still angry after all.
“You don’t even want to consult with our higher-ups?”
“And tell them what? I’d like to talk with a middle schooler that I suspect is a relative of an arsonist because they made some prank calls? Who’s gonna approve that? Besides, once they learn I’ve been doing whatever I wanted, I’ll never be free to move again, even with clear, definitive proof. One of the investigators knows, but nobody higher than him does yet.”
“I understand how you feel, but is it even possible to convince them, if we do go?”
“The scale of the problem is getting bigger. The first one was a suspicious bonfire, next was an abandoned car seat. A trash dump, a ruined building, a barn, and then that hotel. And it’ll be fall soon. Things burn pretty easily in the dry season.”
I understood what he was saying. Even so, I waffled.
“If you’re not on board, I’ll go by myself,” he said.
“Alright, I get it. I should probably go anyway, I’m the one who told you not to make any moves by yourself, after all.”
I knew it was the wrong choice, but I couldn’t let Niimori go alone.
I would at least be calmer if he was in front of me where I could see him, rather than letting him run off and do strange things by himself.
Niimori’s lips curled into a satisfied smile.
That face was so cute, I remembered again that it was just the two of us in the apartment. I started feeling weird, so I stood up and put my clothes in order, telling myself not to do anything to ruin Niimori’s mood again.
“Do you always stick so close to your word, when you say let’s do it once?” I asked as we were leaving the house.
“Well with you,” Niimori said, tapping his toes into his sneakers and putting his hands on his hips, “no matter how many times I end it, it never actually stops.”
His hands were right above those moles, but I had such little experience that I couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not. Either way, it was all it took to bring back memories of that day. I could feel the heat start to gather in my hips.
Surely the people who ate the first sea urchin didn’t expect to find such rich and succulent flesh inside a creature that looked like a spiny black devil. It had to have been because they were starving and had nothing else to eat. But one taste, and suddenly this creature that had seemed like a demon started to look like top quality food. Even if they never ate it again, they couldn’t look at it the same way as before.
If he knew I was comparing him to a sea urchin, he would flip his lid, I thought, quietly averting my eyes from the fingertips that had so fleetingly embedded themselves in my arm that day.