The next day, Karaoke Pasela, inside a private room
"Ooh, so you're Yahiro-kun!"
"Heh, you're cute."
It was the first day of Golden Week in Ikebukuro.
Yahiro, who was told by Kuon over the phone to come to this room, entered to find a man and a woman, neither of whom he knew.
The man, who looked like he could be of mixed heritage, had slanted eyes. The woman had black hair, and was dressed in black.
They both looked like they were in their early 20s.
They were sitting opposite Kuon when Yahiro entered the room, and struck up a friendly conversation with Yahiro when they saw him.
"Nice to meet ya, I'm Yumasaki Walker."
"And I'm Karisawa Erika. Nice to meet you."
"Ah, hello...my name's Mizuchi Yahiro."
Yahiro lowered his head in a bow. Sitting down next to Kuon, he asked:
"Er, are these...people you know, Kuon-kun?"
"Not really, they're more like people Aoba-sempai knows...I've only talked to them a couple of times in the city."
"How's Aobacchi doing?"
"Oh, he's the same as ever."
"I see, I see. He's much tamer now that Dotachin is keeping an eye on him."
As Karisawa cackled, Yahiro tilted his head in confusion.
"Oh, that's between us. So, what's your relationship with Kuocchi...I mean, Kuon-kun?"
"Oh, we're friends."
Yahiro replied without hesitation. Karisawa pressed on:
"I don't know. He's the first friend I've ever had in my life, so I'm not really sure."
Yahiro replied unhesitatingly and without any signs of embarassment. Kuon, looking shocked, smiled wryly and averted his eyes.
"Wooh. Wooohhh. Woahhhhh."
The woman who introduced herself as Karisawa looked intently back and forth between the two, taking in their respective reactions.
"The first friend you've ever had in your life, is he? That's nice. I like that kind of premise a lot. It's cute that you're so embarassed, Kuocchi."
As Yahiro racked his brains trying to see what Karisawa meant, Yumasaki broke into a cold sweat and said:
"Er, in general, you don't have to take what she says seriously."
"Oh, sorry about that, in my head I was already treating you two as 2D characters."
"You don't have to take that seriously, really..."
After this kind of conversation had gone on for a while, the man who introduced himself as Yumasaki cut to the chase.
“See, to be honest, it was a shock, Kuon-kun. We had no idea you were in ’Snake Hands’ when we accessed the site and contacted them online.”
“Actually, I was quite shocked to see your names on the mail form, too.”
Yahiro considered the possibility that Kuon was feigning the surprise, but chose to believe him after he saw that the expression on Kuon’s face had none of his signature fakeness.
“So, on to Yumasaki-san and Karisawa-san’s request…my connections have been able to take care of all their previous requests somehow, but this one is kind of complicated. I’m going to need some manpower.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to ask Aoba-sempai and his friends? You hang out with them all the time, too.”
“No, not just any manpower. I need special manpower.”
After letting the suspense build up for a moment, Kuon looked into Yahiro’s eyes and said it straight out:
“…For example, someone who’s a strong fighter.”
A brief silence fell.
“Karisawa-san, stay with me. Stay.”
Before Karisawa could say anything about the duo now facing each other, Yumasaki covered her mouth with his hand.
The room fell quiet.
After looking at Kuon for some moments with an expressionless face, Yahiro sighed and replied:
“I’m sorry, Kuon-kun. I’m a little uncomfortable taking that kind of job…”
Yahiro didn’t look displeased or irritated; he was simply apologetic.
As he bowed his head in apology, Kuon hastily waved his hands.
“Wait, wait a second! That was not what I meant! I wasn’t saying that you’d have to kill people or beat them up!”
Yahiro tilted his head in confusion. Yumasaki nodded:
“Exactly. Do we look like the sort of degenerates who’d hire a high school student for that kind of job?”
Yumasaki showed his palms. Seeing this, Yahiro bowed his head toward Kuon.
“I see. Sorry, Kuon-kun, I misunderstood.”
“…Don't start apologizing so straightforwardly like that. Now you're just making it harder for me to tell you this.”
“It’s true that you won’t have to actively beat up anyone for this job…depending on how things turn out, however, you might get beaten up by other people.”
After Kuon’s ambiguous statement, Karisawa stepped in to lay things out on the table.
“The attacker on passers-by.”
“We’re looking for that rumored attacker on passers-by. As much as we’d like to find him before the police does, we’re a little short on manpower. So we saw this ad on this uh, Ikebukuro information site? called ‘IkeNEW!’ and somehow managed to get to the contact information page.”
“We had no idea that it was someone we knew, though.”
At Yumasaki’s words, Karisawa nodded emphatically and looked at Yahiro.
“Even though Kuocchi recommended you, we still didn’t want to risk putting a kid in danger since we’re dealing with that attacker on passers-by. But Kuocchi said to us, ‘It’s okay if it’s Yahiro!’ He sounded so sure about it.
“And then, Yahiro-kun, Kuocchi told us that you were that kid in the video that everyone has been talking about. You know, the one with this one kid fighting Shizu-Shizu?”
“So we came to think that you might actually be a better choice than just some random adult. But still, we are against involving kids in this sort of thing, plus Dotachin would probably get mad at us for doing it…that was when Kuocchi played his trump card.”
Yumasaki smiled and nodded at Yahiro’s question.
“I was sold when he told us that Celty-san is also a friend of yours.”
Surprised, Yahiro turned to Kuon.
Kuon gave him a wry smile that said “Well, you heard him.” before averting his gaze as if to dodge the question.
“Um…do you guys also know Celty-san?”
“We sometimes go hang out at Celcchi’s.”
“Hang out…so you’re like, best friends?”
“Aren’t your bars for ‘best friends’ a little low?”
Though shocked, Karisawa still smiled cryptically as if to say, “not that it’s a bad thing.”
Sighing as he looked at her, Yumasaki continued:
"Well, technically, we could just have asked Celty-san herself to do it, but the job is just too dangerous."
"Yeah, it's not something you can just casually ask people to do, like, say, taking a video. Plus, Celcchi would probably insist on doing it at no charge if we were to ask her...and we can't possibly let her do that. We thought that if we could make a formal work request, we'd much rather do that."
"Exactly. We're not asking you guys to defeat the attacker on passers-by or anything. We want you to help us gather rumors in the city, so that Celty-san can get closer to the attacker on passers-by. We'd do it ourselves, but there's no way we can even get close to the networks of current high school students."
Yahiro nodded, satisfied with the explanation. Kuon seized the chance to continue on:
"See? It's basically stuff you already did the other day in the kidnappings. Your strong fighting ability is just extra security in case the guy targets you and tries to attack you."
"My fighting ability isn't that strong, really..."
"Quit being so modest! You might not think so yourself, but from the moment you fought Shizuo-san, you've been nothing but an extraordinary fighter in everyone else's opinion. Just stop trying to argue with it already. Plus, you don't want the attacker on passers-by walking the streets free without ever being arrested, do you? Who knows, I could be his next victim! Or Himeka-chan!"
"You have a point."
Yahiro nodded so readily that it made Kuon uncomfortable instead.
"Er, I know I was just trying to get you on board, so it's weird for me to ask...but did you really understand?"
"Yes. I have decided from the previous incident. I think in the end, violence is the only gift I have. Therefore, I want to use it as correctly as possible."
Yahiro declared unembarrassedly, with an earnest look in his eyes.
"There is only one 'correct thing to do' that I am sure of right now, and that is to protect friends like Himeka-chan and you, Kuon-kun. Therefore, I am convinced that I should help to bring the attacker on passers-by under arrest."
"Hey, it could also backfire on us, you know. If the guy comes after Himeka-chan or me because you screwed up, that's just putting the cart before the horse."
Kuon said these words to embarrass Yahiro about his recklessness.
However, a brutal comeback flew in his triumphant face.
"Even if I said I wanted nothing to do with it and left, you'd involve me behind my back anyway, wouldn't you, Kuon-kun?"
"If I'm to face the attacker on passers-by as an enemy either way, it'd be better to take him on face-to-face than having him ambush me without warning...I'd be less afraid."
Having expressed himself with this curious choice of words, Yahiro ignored Kuon, who fell silent, and turned to face Yumasaki and Karisawa.
"If you deem me worthy, it would be my honor to help you."
As Yahiro bowed in a matter-of-fact way, Karisawa smiled and said:
"There's no need to act deferential around us. After all, we will be paying you, and this is an equal business relationship. Well, you can ask Kuon-kun about the details. Just remember that at the end of the day, we're only paying you to collect information, so if it looks even remotely like you could be in danger, pull yourself out immediately, okay? I know you're an exceptional fighter, but still, you need to leave the dangerous stuff to adults. Don't be headstrong about it, okay?"
Bowing again, Yahiro spurted out the question that crossed his mind:
"But Karisawa-san, if you're not police, why are you going after the attacker on passers-by in the first place?"
Maybe she has relatives or friends among the victims?
That was what Yahiro had assumed, and he had asked the question to confirm, but –
Instead of replying, Yumasaki pulled a bunch of books out of his bag, and started to lay them out on the table.
They looked like volumes of manga.
Yahiro had seen the title before.
It was Owl of the Peeping Dead, a series more famous for its anime and movie than for the manga version.
"The main thing is the anime, but it's a bit too much to be lending you the full DVD set at once...so I figured I'd start you off with the lower-threshold manga version."
Yumasaki grinned and handed the books to Yahiro and Kuon.
"To really talk about this incident, you see, you need to have read this first!"
Even though he had not heard the details yet, Kuon cocked his head sideways.
"I see, it's true that they said the perp was cosplaying as a character in this series..."
"It's not 'cosplaying' when the guy's commiting a crime! It's an insult to the original series!"
Yumasaki's tone suddenly took a turn for the severe. Grabbing the microphone on the table, he switched it on, and the following words rang resoundingly throughout the room:
"OPD is not to blame! It's really not!"
Ten minutes later
"However, a shocking revelation came midway through the series...a zombie appeared that has recovered its consciousness from a state of mindlessness. The Owl, the protagonist, was shocked by this. He had killed all those zombies thinking that there was no way they could ever recover, but now it turned out that there could be a way to save them? Zombie conservation groups have been saying that the zombies were simply diseased humans, and that they should be treated, but who'd have thought that they were right..."
"Er, I'm sorry, Yumasaki-san. We will read this, we will definitely read this manga, so please..."
"Arrrgh! Look at what I've done! Spurting out spoilers in front of kids who are just about to read it...! I've failed as an otaku! This shame will stay with me for life!"
As Yumasaki start to look genuinely depressed after Kuon's words, Yahiro followed up with:
"It's alright, I know how that part of the story goes."
"Eh? Yahiro-kun, are you into anime and manga too?"
"No, I've only seen the movie."
"Oh, the movie! That was a good adaptation, wasn't it? To think that the project went from a fake 'zombie information site' to simultaneous serializations as anime and manga, and finally arrived at a movie! Although it is rumored that they were planning a movie even before the anime series, so it could have been that a movie was on the table all along."
At this point, Karisawa's eyes began to sparkle, and she joined the conversation.
"Exactly! I was worried about how the movie would turn out, but artistically, it was such a treat!"
"Yeah, it was low-budget with not many CGs, but it only made you appreciate more just how vivid Zakuroya Tenjin-san's zombie makeups looked, didn't it?"
"Wow, you even know Zakuroya-san's name? You're quite the buff yourself, Yahiro-kun!"
As excitement finally began to build up, as was only fitting for a karaoke box – Kuon, who was the one person left out, asked Yahiro in round-eyed wonder:
"H-Hey, are you familiar with this Owl-of-the-Something?"
"Not with the manga or anime...but I bought the DVD of the movie and watched it at home."
"You watch movies?"
Yahiro said, surprised. He then began to reminisce about his past:
"I didn't have any friends back then, so the only hobby I had was watching movies at home."
"Hey, stop that. Now you're making me depressed, too."
"If a drama queen/king were to complain to me, 'see? Don't you pity me?" to get my sympathy, I'd just respond like, 'ah, okay, I see' and ignore them. But you weren't like that, you said it so plainly, and I had no idea how to react! What was I to say, 'I pity you'? It would have felt so awkward!"
Yahiro stared in wonder in response to Kuon's tirade.
"Did I sound pitiful to you?"
As Yahiro looked around uneasily, Karisawa leaned forward to stroke his head.
"It's okay, it's okay. You're pitiful, but you're cute."
At the sudden touch on his head, Yahiro shivered like a cat with its tail caught.
In this strange atmosphere, Yumasaki continued his enthusiastic speech.
"So what I was really trying to get at was this! This! That I'm never going to forgive the perp! One of the members of 'WWW' used to be in the same doujin circle as me, and he's been really worried about these recent incidents!"
If his friend has been involved, then this Yumasaki guy's anger is justified.
Although he was now satisfied with their motives, Yahiro still asked the question that he had on his mind:
"But...what are you going to do about the perp after Celty-san catches him?"
It was, after all, the natural question to ask. Yumasaki and Karisawa, after looking at each other, replied with beaming faces:
"We just want to have a little talk with him."
"Yeah, like gentleman to gentleman."
"We just want to hear why he wanted to make anime and anime fans look bad in the public eye...that's all, really, that's all we want."
"Exactly, we just want to ask him questions. We'll take our time. With his body."
Yahiro, whose cowardly instincts were feeling the tremendous pressure coming from behind the duo's smiling faces, decided to probe no further.
An hour later, in the corridor of the karaoke box
After the conversation was finished, Karisawa and Yumasaki started an anime song singing contest saying it was a “song mixer”. Although Yahiro didn’t know any of the songs they sang, he was happy when the movie songs he picked elicited some reaction from the duo. All in all, he ended up enjoying his first karaoke experience.
As Yahiro’s heart was still beating fast from singing his favorite songs in front of other people for the first time –
he ran into Kuon, who was talking on the phone in the corridor, on his way to the bathroom.
“…Yeah, I’ll call you again later, Sis.”
Kuon hang up the phone and shrugged to Yahiro.
Then, with a devil-may-care smile, he said provokingly to Yahiro:
“Are you mad?”
“What do you mean, ‘at what’…at me, of course.”
Yahiro tilted his head in genuine confusion.
Did Kuon do something to make me mad?
Maybe there are things in Tokyo that I would get mad at. If so, I must try not to repeat the same mistake as before. Yahiro began to rack his brain.
Kuon, seeing Yahiro like this, reprimanded him in irritation:
“For crying out loud, what didn’t I do to make you mad? How can you not see it?”
“…You realize that I’m trying to use you, right?”
Kuon spoke point-blank. Clicking his tongue at himself, he began to complain to Yahiro:
“Not only did I spill to those two that you were the one who fought Heiwajima Shizuo, I’ve dragged you into this dangerous job because you are good at fighting, basically using you as a bait for my business! Did you really understand that? To begin with, didn’t my sister already tell you? That I only got close to you in the first place so that I could use you?”
“What do you even mean by ‘yeah’, you…”
“But, is it really something to get so mad over?”
Kuon was unable to form any sort of immediate reply; the only sounds that could still be heard in the corridor were faint singing voices from behind the sound-proof walls of the rooms.
Then, frowning, Kuon spoke slowly:
“…When are you mad?”
As if Yahiro’s previous response was too much for him, Kuon was not even looking irritated any more; he asked the question with a dumbfounded face.
Yahiro thought about this for a moment before he answered, his expression darkening somewhat:
“Yeah…I did get mad, for example, when the guy who tried and failed to run me over with a dump truck then tried to set fire to my house…and when, instead of coming straight at me, they attacked my father and my mother…things like that.”
“…Okay, like I was saying before, I really don’t know how to respond when you start talking about heavy stuff like that, so spare me.”
Sighing heavily, Kuon said to Yahiro:
“For heaven’s sake…don’t you think that I’m capable of the same kind of things that they did? Have you never imagined that I might use not only you, but also your family, or even Himeka, to involve you in something dangerous?”
“That would give me a hard time.”
“It would, wouldn’t it? That’s why you should get mad at me before something like that happens! You can tell good from evil, can’t you? Then it should be plain as day to you whether I’m a bad guy or not, shouldn’t it?”
Kuon sounded almost like he was trying to make the case that he was a bad guy. Yahiro responded in a definitive tone:
“Kuon-kun, here is what I think: I think there is no clear distinction that can be made between what people call good guys and bad guys. None that I understand, anyway.”
“Indiscriminate serial killers, or that attacker on passers-by – I know that those are without doubt evil. But if it’s not a no-brainer like those, but, say, you or Himeka-chan, then I’m not confident that I can tell if you’re good or evil. I know one thing, though – that I have done many things that ‘one should never do’, just like that attacker on passers-by has. So I don’t think I’m equipped to decide so readily whether people are good or evil, nor am I in a position to.”
After saying these words in a somewhat saddened tone, he clenched his fists and said to his friend:
“Therefore, if you ever feel like you’re a bad guy, and want me to stop you, even if it means I have to hit you…”
He stopped there for a moment.
He searched himself and made sure that fact hadn’t changed before he proceeded to say:
“I don’t think I’ll be able to notice, so I’d appreciate it if you can just tell me. I can’t decide myself if you’re good or evil; what I can do is to be ready to hit you any time you need me to.”
Honest to a fault, Yahiro was telling nothing but the truth.
“Man, you’re putting me on the spot.”
“Why do you just trust people like that? And after such thorough thinking on your part, too?”
Grinding his teeth with force, Kuon spoke again in an irritated voice:
“That’s what I hate about you.”
“Sorry, I will try to change that.”
“Don’t just apologize like that. Who even knows if you are the one who needs changing?”
Clicking his tongue, Kuon began to walk away, as if ready for this conversation to end.
As they passed each other, Yahiro smiled faintly at Kuon and said:
“You’re right…thank you for worrying about me.”
Kuon turned around with a pained expression, but Yahiro had already walked away. He could only see Yahiro’s back as the latter made a turn for the bathroom.
Putting his hand to the wall, Kuon clicked his tongue loudly before muttering to himself:
“Dammit, he just keeps throwing me off, that Yahiro…”
Then, to his annoyance, he recalled the face of the man he was supposedly aiming to become. With some regret in his expression, he spurted out the remainder of his words:
“Had he been a scoundrel like Orihara Izaya, I wouldn't even have hesitated to exploit him to my heart’s content…”
Night, somewhere in Ikebukuro
"Bye, Horada-san. That was a hard day's work!"
A man said goodbye to his kouhais and started walking home alone.
His name was Horada.
Once a high-ranking member of Blue Squares, he was called the Crown Prince of the Color Gang world after hijacking Yellow Scarves – or so he said himself.
Although the truth was that back then he was no more than a thug riding on the waves of other people’s making, it seemed that his story had nonetheless become a little saga in its own right, making him a reasonably recognizable figure in the Color Gang world.
Now, though, the very existence of Color Gangs in Tokyo was becoming a thing of the past.
Part of them went back to the older bousouzoku form. The rest assumed the new form of gurentais (gangs of hoodlums) and slipped into the city’s dark corners.
Having served his sentence in prison, Horada found himself left behind by the times. He was now plotting to somehow turn the tide of time in his favor again.
He had kouhais who looked up to him, as well as old enemies who hated his guts.
In order to rise to the top in Ikebukuro unflinchingly in this kind of position, he needed absolute power.
As he contemplated this, Horada was reminded of one of those “powers” he thought he could use.
Dammit, I haven’t been able to find a good time to talk to that Mizuchi Yahiro since that thing happened.
If I don’t tell him that I was the one who found the kidnappers’ headquarters so he owes me one, and tell him soon…
Although it was almost purely accidental, Horada had been the one to locate the headquarters of Tatsugami Himeka’s kidnappers the other day in the fake kidnappings.
He had told his kouhais in Blue Squares about it, who then apparently somehow relayed the information to Mizuchi Yahiro himself, and the incident was resolved without complications.
He had without doubt made sure that Yahiro owed him one; but if he was not careful and asked too much of Yahiro in return, he would probably get what he wanted for now, but lose the opportunity to recruit Yahiro in the long term.
Rather than asking him for impossible things in return, it’s more important to tactfully imprint upon him the idea that I did him a huge favor…
But I wouldn’t want words to get out about it, no…I’m not sure why, but people from Awakusu-kai and Dragon Zombie seem to gather around him as well. If those guys are to notice what I’m trying to do…
After his whole body shivered at the thought, he cast his eyes on the vending machine ahead of him in the alleyway.
I’m getting thirsty here.
Better drink some coffee.
Horada stood in front of the vending machine and bought a sugar-free coffee with added milk.
Clank. The can of coffee fell into the dispending slot.
The vending machine was working as always.
Horada, as always, reached for the dispensing slot with his hand –
and noticed that something was off.
Feeling like he just saw a shadow move from the corner of his eye, he turned his face to the left.
Someone was standing there in a black costume pajama.
“Wha – ?”
He raised his voice involuntarily at the sight of the unfamiliar figure standing in the vending machine’s shadow. As he realized that it was merely a costume, he clicked his tongue and glared at the figure.
“What’s this? What the heck do you think you’re wearing? I’ll fuck you up!”
As Horada issued such cheap threats and tried to grab the figure by the collar – he stopped as it raised something in its hand.
It was a slender object wrapped in white cloth.
But he immediately realized what the object was.
The shape made it obvious that it was a hammer wrapped in bandages.
No sooner had Horada came to this realization than the bandaged hammer was swung down at him with force.
Rolling aside wailing, Horada managed to dodge the hit just in the neck of time.
“What the…you, you fucker! Do you even know who I am? Which gang do you work for!? Huh!?”
Horada wasn’t interested at all in TV news reports, nor did he read any newspapers. The thought that it was the attacker on passers-by simply didn’t occur to him.
“The fuck are you wearing…”
Even he, though, could tell that he had a definite enemy standing before him.
He promptly got to his feet, but the person in the black costume pajama had begun to swing the hammer at him despite his threats.
“Don’t think you can fucking mess with me!”
Horada took the can of coffee he had just bought and threw it at his opponent as hard as he could.
The figure fended off the coffee can with its hands as it flew toward its abdomen.
That split second pause, though, was enough for Horada to run up to it in one breath.
Before the figure could raise its hammer again, he swung his fist as hard as he could at its hooded face.
The freak in the costume fell forcefully to the ground, rolling around in front of the vending machine.
“Idiot…did you really think a loser like you had a chance against the great Horada-sama?”
Bellowing in anger, Horada walked up to the figure to finish it off once and for all. Just as he was about to deliver as hard a kick to its face as he could –
“Wha – !?”
The upper half of his vision darkened from the impact.
As he turned around, his head dizzy, he saw another figure standing there, wearing the same kind of costume pajama –
“Two on one……you……coward……fuckers……”
His speech slurred, Horada saw one thing before his consciousness left him –
A bandaged hammer being swung down at him without mercy.
The whiteness of the cloth was tainted with red, the color of his own blood.
The next morning
[Next up, we have a new victim in the serial attacks on passers-by.
[The victim is Horada, 22, who lives in Tokyo and is unemployed – ]
END OF CHAPTER 1