I felt a slight shaking and awoke. Only once I awoke did I realize I had been asleep. I was on a tour bus and most of those on board were my classmates and my homeroom teacher. The only exceptions were the bus guide and the driver.
The tour bus was driving along an elevated highway, but the outside scenery was almost entirely cut off by the tall soundproof panels covering the sides of the road. The bus was driving so smoothly I would never have guessed it was keeping steady at 80 kph.
Oh, that’s right.
We had a school trip at the start of September…
“Hey, hey, Shinobu-kun.”
The eccentric beauty Madoka-chan was saying something from her seat next to me.
This was not a case of a lovey-dovey space developing. As usual, she did not fit in with the rest of the class, so she had been forced to sit next to me, the class president.
“Shinobu-kun, why do you cling to the girl next to you while you nap?”
I frantically moved away from Madoka.
I-I have my reasons, Madoka-san! In fact, I think most personal mannerisms are deeply related to one’s household environment.
However, Madoka did not seem to mind.
“What a pain. They call this a trip, but we’re only headed to an Intellectual Village. Is this a way of exchanging technology?”
“Well, it’s a school event, so all of the events were decided on by some stuffy teacher. I do agree we need to make sure a school trip doesn’t involve a trip to a love hotel, though.”
Also, three days and two nights was much too short. I had the feeling we would spend more time travelling between locations than staying put anywhere.
The head of a classmate (a guy) stuck up from the seat in front of me. It was as if he was peering over a fence. He was the guy known in our class as the Love King.
“Jinnai, we’re almost to a zone simply filled with noteworthy things.”
“What? We’re on the highway. Are you the hopeless kind of student that buys a pile of souvenirs at the service area?”
“We’re almost at Four Mountains. The scenery will change once we leave the tunnel,” said the Love King while lightly waving around an expensive-looking mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. “I hear there’s a huge junction there and it’s popular with people who like buildings and factories.”
“…That’s targeted toward an incredibly niche audience.”
“No, don’t make fun of it. Even sports stars have this hobby. It’s widely recognized.”
I wanted to argue that it didn’t matter if famous people did it too, but I decided against it since that would just lead to a long, drawn-out debate.
“It’s actually really large-scale and quite rare. As the name suggests, the junction is surrounded by mountains and tunnels on all four sides and it leads the cars into the tunnels. Well, it also seems the base of the junction is a highway exit and rumor has it the junction was created for the sake of a gigantic semiconductor factory. Is that really true, though?”
As the Love King continued speaking, Madoka looked out the window disinterestedly next to me. This was unsurprising since the Love King had been speaking only to me.
The atmosphere was a bit strained.
However, Madoka must have been used to this because she showed no sign of being hurt. Even now, she was using her cell phone to photograph a piece of chocolate shaped like an animal. It seemed she was trying to collect all of them, but…
What animals does she still need? I know the bottle cap doll’s beckoning cat series had a total of 20 different kinds.
I could only come up with that completely unrelated data.
And as I thought, the tour bus entered the tunnel.
Was this tunnel through Suzaku Mountain?
For a highway tunnel, it was quite small. It did not even have the standard orange lights. As soon as the bus entered the tunnel, it was pitch black. The noise of the engine must have been echoing against the wall because we were wrapped in an odd distorted noise.
It was not a very long tunnel.
After only a few minutes, the white light of the exit came into view.
“It doesn’t really matter, but will you even be able to photograph the scenery with the soundproof panels along the road?”
I received no response.
It was possible there was simply too much noise for him to hear.
It did not bother me much, so I gave a small yawn as the tour bus left the tunnel.
For an instant, the bright light of the sun blinded me.
But I would quickly adapt to it.
While I felt the thick moisture of fog on my cheek as I stood there, I raised a hand over my face to protect my eyes from the bright light.
And then I realized something odd.
Why was I “standing”. Just a moment before, I had been sitting in a seat on a tour bus that was full to capacity.
Where am I?
Why am I standing in the middle of a dense and dark forest?
I felt a pressure coming from all sides. It was as if invisible walls were pressing in against me.
The area spreading out around me was not a carefully maintained Intellectual Village plantation. Nor was it a walking path surrounded by negative ion oxygen. It was the type of place you felt like you would run into a group burying a corpse if you arrived at night with a flashlight in hand. Branches and leaves covered the sky. The sunlight was cut off, so the trees had to compete for the nutrients of the soil. Trees would kill off other trees and nature would rot nature. It was a truly “untouched” place. Thanks to the undergrowth that reached over a meter high and the great amount of ivy growing from branch to branch, many areas had almost developed into green walls.
I heard a solid clunking sound.
While still confused, I turned in the direction of the sound. I found a giant concrete pillar that seemed to stab through the green as it rose up.
“That’s part of the elevated highway… Then this must be…”
The surface of the concrete had the words Four Mountains printed on it. I realized I must have been in the area that stretched out below the highway. This was the basin surrounded by the mountains. According to the Love King, each of the four mountains had a tunnel and the Four Mountains Junction connected those tunnels in a cross shape. That meant this area was only a highway trip away from many different areas.
Is there any kind of village in this basin?
“I don’t see any houses…”
Then again, if I made my way through this deep forest and sought help at a home, I would probably be mistaken for a Yamanba.
In every direction I only found forest, forest, and more forest.
To put it bluntly, the conditions on the surface of Four Mountains was just about as bad as it could get.
You could be as ecological as you want, but too much nature was harmful.
But where did Madoka, the Love King, and my other classmates go?
Had they been “thrown from” the bus just like I had?
Or had I been the only one to disappear and the bus had continued along the highway without any trouble?
In other words…
“You have got to be kidding me… Don’t tell me I’ve been left behind.”
People seem to do it a lot, so I hope you are not confusing the National Police Agency with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. The latter is the organization that upholds the public order of Tokyo. And so its Investigation Department 1 normally only handled incidents that occurred within the jurisdiction of Tokyo.
However, there were exceptions.
“Uchimaku, head out to Kinki right away.”
The department chief had a grim look when he arrived and that was the very first thing out of his mouth. I could not help but open my eyes wide.
He continued nevertheless.
“I assume you have heard Hasebe Michio is being transported.”
“Yes. Isn’t that unkillable death row inmate being transferred here from his previous regional location?”
I called him unkillable, but not because he was some ridiculous monster.
He had been sentenced to death in a murder case over twenty years prior, but the odds of it being a false accusation had been quite high from the beginning. After much heated debate, this prisoner’s execution had been pushed further and further back. That was why he was called “unkillable”. We were on the verge of finding out if a request for a retrial would be accepted or not, so the higher ups of the National Police Agency had called him in to Tokyo for a more detailed investigation.
The department chief continued speaking in a disinterested voice.
“His prison vehicle disappeared from Four Mountains Junction. It disappeared while on the highway. Both the policeman and the prisoner aboard may or may not still be alive. The prison vehicle has not even been found yet. Even its GPS signal vanished. To put it bluntly, we have no idea what to do.”
“Normally, the search would be left to the local police, but this is no ordinary prisoner. I cannot deny the possibility of individuals or factions within the prosecutors and police who would find it troublesome for Hasebe to have a retrial. The organization’s reputation is on the line once again.”
Hasebe Michio had been in the process of being transferred from the regional police to the Tokyo police, so we did have an official reason for the two police departments to cooperate in this search.
“Are you saying it’s possible someone might try to protect the police’s reputation by making it look like Hasebe killed himself? That way the suspect dies before the retrial can take place.”
“I do not know if anything that blatant will happen, but if the physical evidence is hidden, this could easily be treated as if Hasebe escaped of his own free will. Someone could be trying to crush any chance of a retrial by framing an innocent man of an arbitrary crime.”
“At any rate, even if this is a joint operation, the local police will still do most of the work. We can only send someone to keep an eye on things. Uchimaku, I am sending you. Someone with no inconvenient titles will have the easiest time moving around. Carry out the role of a small fry like the small fry you are.”
I did not like the reason I had been chosen, but I could not ignore an official order.
This is the painful part of being a police sergeant!
As the department chief handed me a ticket for a cheap seat on a domestic flight, I asked him something that had suddenly caught my attention.
“By the way, do you really think Hasebe was wrongfully accused?”
“I have no idea. I was not in charge of that case.”
I stood still for so long I lost track of time.
I had been inside that tour bus, but had suddenly found myself standing in this forest upon exiting the tunnel.
It seemed I was in the untouched nature spreading out directly below the junction.
It was unclear what had happened to Madoka, the Love King, Nagisa, or my other classmates.
Incidentally, I had no food or water, so I really did not want to walk endlessly through the forest.
I had pulled out the cell phone in my pocket, but had groaned at the “no signal” indicator.
What hurt the most was how little about the situation I knew. If my other classmates were lost in this barricade-like forest as well, it might have been best to search through it as much as I could on my own. But it was possible I alone had been trapped in this strange situation. If that was the case, searching would be completely wasted effort. Walking through a deep forest while possibly stranded would only increase the risk of death. Doing that for an illusion that might not even be there was no laughing matter. …It may sound as if I am exaggerating, but being so lost you lose all sense of direction is no joke.
If I was to call for rescue or contact my classmates to see if they were okay, I needed my cell phone.
Not being able to use it was a serious issue when it came to deciding what to do next.
I looked over at the giant pillar towering up in front of me. It seemed to stab through that eerie nature that looked like new trees had grown on top of old rotting ones.
The rectangular pillar had a long narrow metal staircase leading up it while reversing back and forth countless times.
What is that staircase for?
Whatever the answer to that question, I would likely be able to make my way up onto the elevated highway using it.
If I walked along the shoulder of the highway, I could avoid being stranded in the forest. Emergency landline phones were set at fixed intervals in case of an accident, so I would be able to call for help as well.
However, there was one problem.
The fog was so thick I was not sure I could see even a few meters ahead. With that fog enveloping everything, I was worried about my safety while walking along the highway, even if I was on the shoulder. The drivers might cautiously slow down a bit, but they would not be thinking about the possibility of pedestrians. If a car hit me, I would be sent straight to heaven.
Should I continue through the forest with the very real possibility of becoming stranded?
Or should I climb up onto the highway with masses of steel shooting by at high speed?
“What am I supposed to do…?”
I had made my way to Kansai Ocean Airport.
Unfortunately, it seemed less lively than Tokyo’s Bay Coast International Airport. For one thing, it was not used much by sightseers or business travelers. Instead, it mainly shipped products of the western Intellectual Villages to various places.
Regional airports had their own difficulties.
And the focus on shipping allowed them to cut back on the service industry personnel costs for hotels or duty free shops.
“Wait a second, Enbi. What are you doing here on a weekday at the beginning of September? What happened to your required education?”
“Oh, detective. Just so you know, this really is a complete coincidence this time. …Of course, since we’re here for the same reason, it’s only natural we would eventually end up in the same place.”
“You’re the type of mystery freak that truly runs across incidents by coincidence, so running into you here is a very bad sign.”
This removed any worries of wearing out a taxi driver from having him drive me around too much.
Instead, I could have my beloved detective drive me around in a rental car.
“Let me be very clear, mystery freak. I am here for work. I am being paid with the people’s tax money, so I don’t have time to deal with you.”
“C’mon, c’mon. Let’s go search for Hasebe Michio who disappeared from the highway at Four Mountains Junction!”
“You already know all that!? Where did you get that information from!?”
“What good would it do you to know that? What matters is that you will go through all the proper procedures to request cooperation from the regional police, but they will refuse to speak with you or even share any information with you. This will leave you with no choice but to come crying to Enbi-chan, the master of love and justice.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Reality is not some travel mystery solved by a popular newspaper reporter and idiot policeman!!”
Fine, fine. Then just go ahead and try.
To make a long story short, the detective tried to call someone with his cell phone, searched the airport to see if anyone was waiting for him, and tried some other things.
It was the same as the opening scene of a 2-hour mystery with a black silhouette muttering to itself. Describing it all in detail would be a waste of time.
“D-did I do something horrible in a past life…?”
“The problem is that Hasebe is a troublesome prisoner due to the possibility of a false accusation. The old members of the regional police, the prosecutors, the judge, and everyone else with influence are extremely worried about this. Even the inside of their station is in complete disarray, so they don’t have time to handle someone sent in from Tokyo. Now just go get us a rental car.”
“Wait a second. I am a police officer of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. My jurisdiction does not leave the Tokyo metropolitan area. If the regional police refuse to cooperate, I have no authority here. I will be treated just like a normal person.”
“Do you think your boss in Department 1 will accept that excuse?”
To make a long story short, we made it to stage 2.
Hmm, not bad. He has the cell phone’s volume turned down yet I can still hear the yelling. …They don’t really serve katsudon when questioning you in Department 1, do they?
As expected, the detective was in tears.
“How does that damn chief think I can handle this with nothing but the standard right to apprehend someone caught in the act of a crime!? And he told me not to come back until I had some results, but the lodging fees are going to come out of my pay, aren’t they!?”
“C’mon, let’s go. There are tons of people who would find it troublesome if Hasebe was found innocent and now he suddenly disappeared when he might finally get a retrial. We have no time to waste.”
While half in desperation, the detective borrowed a rental car. I sat down in the passenger seat and fastened the seatbelt.
“Riding in a car alone with you is quite stimulating.”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Does it remind you of the Shokei Island Serial Murders Case?”
“Don’t bring up anything that ominous!!”
To be honest, I had not yet decided what to do at that time. After all, both options were too dangerous. On one hand, I had a deep forest I could easily end up stranded in if I casually decided to take a stroll through it. On the other hand, I had a foggy highway on which cars could come flying toward me at high speed at any moment. Both options put my life at risk.
But the situation refused to wait for me.
It began with a noise.
It was an awfully metallic noise coming from directly above me. I looked up and realized it was the sound of someone walking on the narrow staircase installed along the pillar of the elevated highway.
For an instant, truly just an instant, I rejoiced.
To be honest, I had been horribly nervous up until this moment. I was surrounded by a rotting forest in every direction. If I had taken a photo, every single person I showed it to would probably have given it the title “stranded”. When I sensed another person’s presence a warm feeling filled my chest. It was as if I had been wandering through a blizzard on a snowy mountain and had spotted a cabin.
Once I thought about it carefully, I realized this person was walking down into the thick forest from the elevated highway. The action itself was simple enough, but I could think of no reason for anyone to do that. After all, this was a thick forest. Unlike an Intellectual Village farm where a bunch of grapes was worth 30 thousand yen, there was no obvious reason to come here.
I had been suddenly sent into this forest from a tour bus driving down that highway above. When something unexplainable happened, it was normal to first suspect a Youkai. However, there was one question I could not find an answer to.
What type of Youkai put into what kind of system could do this?
I had too few hints.
It was possible that metallic footstep was another hint. And of course, that hint would come with plenty of danger.
The footsteps continued.
What if someone had intentionally built a Youkai’s power into their system to use it as a criminal Package and I alone had been taken from that tour bus?
Why then would this person be walking down the stairs toward the forest?
What if someone had created a situation with zero witnesses and was now descending the stairs to meet me?
I began digging through my pants pocket without even realizing it.
I knew there was nothing inside but my cell phone, but I still searched through it again and again.
I was surrounded by the thick forest. I frantically grabbed a thick branch that had broken off a tree and begun to fuse with the greenery. I thought this would put me at ease, but the branch must have rotted all the way through because the middle crumbled as I picked it up.
Meanwhile, the footsteps showed no sign of stopping.
The noise grew louder.
The person was approaching the ground.
If this was truly the criminal (?), then they were using some Youkai’s power. Wielding a tree branch might not be much help, but facing them unarmed would be too reckless.
But despite thinking that, I was unable to do anything.
If I had instead run off into the forest, the result might have changed.
The footsteps stopped.
The person had arrived at the final step.
They would now step onto the ground.
And this person was…
I borrowed the cheapest, smallest, and least powerful rental car at the shop and headed out onto the highway. I was on my way to Four Mountains Junction where Hasebe Michio had disappeared while being transported. From my direction, I would travel through the Byakko Mountain tunnel. The western mountain was named Byakko and the southern one Suzaku, so it was an incredibly simple naming scheme.
The mystery freak was sitting in the passenger seat. (If I had not let her, I would be given the stigma of being a police officer who left a minor in a distant city.)
“Now then, detective. How much do you know about Hasebe?”
“You’re the amateur and I’m the professional, so shouldn’t I be asking you that?”
“Don’t call yourself a professional. You have no authority here.”
“Do you want me to open the door and shove you out?”
To relieve my annoyance, I chewed some xylitol gum.
The highway was not a lot of fun. The structures at set intervals with reflective panels, an emergency phone, and a small door must have been high-speed bus stops. It was tedious and I felt like I was going to fall asleep at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile, Enbi seemed completely carefree in the passenger seat.
Despite most of the information being confidential, the mystery freak quickly began speaking on about it.
“It was 25 years ago on November 9. Someone broke into the house of the president of Kuroyama Electronics Group, a large Osaka precision equipment maker. They support the high-tech infrastructure of Intellectual Villages, so at the time, there was a lot of talk of it being related to a large criminal organization, political terrorism from those opposed to Intellectual Villages, or a foreign spy trying to steal their tech. But a major development came to light in January of the following year.”
As she spoke, the mystery freak used her index finger to operate her usual smartphone with the leather memo pad cover.
“The local police used footprints left at the crime scene to determine the maker and sales situation of the shoes. They used that to identify Hasebe Michio. In addition, the security camera from a store near the president’s house showed a figure that very closely resembled him. The police boldly arrested Hasebe Michio at the end of January.”
Afterwards, Hasebe had remained firmly silent in the interrogation room.
Hasebe had worked at a small factory in Osaka that had a contract with the Kuroyama Electronics Group. He had been highly skilled but had barely scraped by financially. At the time, the police had seen a motive there…but Hasebe had not actually done any better after the incident.
Due to my job, I could not speak easily about any of this, so Enbi continued speaking as if giving a one-man performance.
“At the trial, Hasebe finally began speaking and insisted he was innocent. He testified that he had been treated violently in the interrogation room. None of that was recognized, though. The local police had built up a large amount of small evidence and the media thoroughly manipulated the image of him they represented to turn him into a complete villain.”
Incidentally, that “large amount of small evidence” was all vague witness testimony that amounted to nothing more than circumstantial evidence and rumors.
Even their most conclusive evidence, the footprints, was not a proper form of biometrics like a fingerprint. Anyone could have made a copy of Hasebe’s shoe by buying the same size of shoe from the same maker, taking dirt from the small factory he worked at and around his home, and pressing it against the bottom of the shoe.
Even the figure that “closely resembled” him on the nearby security camera was from the grainy resolution of that time. Its credibility was only about 50/50. If someone who knew Hasebe Michio had chosen the exact same clothes he wore and worn them in the exact same way, they could likely have produced a figure that “closely resembled” him.
“The real problem are those that were involved in the investigation of Hasebe Michio back then,” I finally said in order to turn the conversation away from the case itself. Then again, this topic might actually be even more dangerous. “The department chief who gave the okay to arrest Hasebe received an irregular promotion to the Ministry of Justice, the judge from his trial is going through a national review to see if he will remain on the Supreme Court, and I heard one of the prosecutors is even sharpening his claws as the top aide to a member of the Lower House. In other words, all of them have a reason to not want Hasebe to get a retrial and be found innocent. It would affect their brand image.”
“So they want to ensure Hasebe is guilty no matter what. And if they can’t do that…?”
“Don’t just say things like that without any evidence.”
However, it seemed Hasebe had almost certainly been wrongfully accused. And it was true that I could not think of anyone else who might be glad to see him disappear from the highway while being transported.
When the odds were good he would be found not guilty, Hasebe himself had no reason to make himself vanish.
“Now then, detective. Once we leave the Byakko Mountain tunnel, we will be at the Four Mountains Junction. I happen to have heard some interesting rumors about that place.”
“You could say it is like holy ground to someone with my interests,” said the mystery freak while looking like she was about to start drooling.
Given what interested her and pulled at her heartstrings, this was obviously not going to be something I wanted to hear.
“So, detective, have you ever heard of Zenmetsu Village?”
My grinding nerves were released.
The person who had unnaturally walked down the stairs form the elevated highway was…
“Yes, it’s your good friend the beautiful and celebrated Madoka-chan. Anyway, Shinobu-kun, where are we?”
As Madoka looked around, I noticed blades of grass and seeds were stuck to her sailor uniform in places. It did not look as if she was bruised or bleeding.
That much was fine. However…
“Where have you been up until now? You haven’t seen any of the others, have you?”
“I don’t know. Once we left the tunnel, I was suddenly thrown out into the fog. It was terrible. I was on the highway. There are better ways I could have been thrown out, you know? I noticed what had happened and quickly ran over to the shoulder, but if I had been a little slower, who knows what could have happened.”
She had ended up in the middle of the highway.
My situation had been pretty bad, but Madoka’s hadn’t exactly been great either.
When I thought about it, the situation was almost unthinkable. People had disappeared from a tour bus driving along the highway.
How fast was that bus going anyway?
“So did the same thing happen to our other classmates?”
“I don’t know. But I have not heard any brakes screeching, cars crashing, or ambulance sirens, so I may have been the only one tossed right into the middle of the road,” said Madoka emptily as if it did not matter in the slightest to her.
It may have been too much to ask her to care about the others when she was so isolated from them.
“Oh, right. Madoka, can you use your cell phone?”
“No. Nothing works. I also tried using the emergency phone up on the highway, but I couldn’t reach anyone. I don’t know what happened, but the cord may have been cut since it did not even seem to be ringing on the other end.”
“The emergency phone…was broken?”
Those were supposed to be constantly maintained for emergencies like this. I occasionally heard on the news that overpasses, sewers, and other infrastructure was wearing down with age. This may have been the same.
I did not know what had happened to the tour bus, but it seemed most of Madoka’s luggage had left in the bus as well. All she had in hand was the animal-shaped chocolate she had been eating on the bus.
Oh, the animal chocolates Madoka still needs are the panda and the penguin.
I could only remember that useless piece of information.
“At any rate, heading up is unlikely to help much. I had a few cars fly by me through the fog, so you can be sure of that.”
“You’re kidding… So we have to make our way through this thick forest?” I muttered blankly.
But then a sudden idea came to me.
Is Madoka telling the truth? Or rather, is this Madoka who so conveniently appeared here really just a Kitsune or Tanuki? Or is this the real Kotemitsu Madoka?
If she was actually a transformation of whoever had sent me into this forest, she might be lying to keep me from heading up to the highway and using an emergency phone.
“Not being able to use the phone really hurts our situation. Same with the GPS.”
“I know what you mean. I haven’t been able to check the stock prices for 15 minutes now. Not being able to do what you always do is so irritating.”
“You could at least change that to checking a fortune-telling site or something cute like that, Madoka-san.”
“This makes me want to start with the meaningless conspiracy theories. Having every option to use a phone taken from us makes me think there is some reason behind it.”
“…Come to think of it, are you really okay with your money? Timing is everything in day trading, right?”
“Well, yes. In a world where every ten thousandth of a second counts, this is not okay at all. But I left it all in the hands of a Tokyo market advisor while I am on this trip. If he makes more than the target amount, he gets to keep it all as a bonus, but if he makes less, he has to pay it all back. That’s the contract we made. Nothing that happens will hurt me any.”
I had tried to ask her a leading question, but the answer I got was so complicated I had no idea if it was accurate or not.
Then again, someone who could supernaturally transform into her could likely act perfectly like her as well.
Madoka(?) cast an annoyed glance across the Japanese jungle filled with underbrush.
“What should we do now? And remember, heading back to the highway is out of the question.”
The way she continued to stress that point bothered me a bit, but it was not too unnatural since she had seen firsthand how dangerous it was.
“But walking randomly through the forest is dangerous, too. We don’t know the land and it might be filled with pit vipers and hornets.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“According to the Love King, Four Mountains Junction has an exit. It was rumored to have been built for a large semiconductor factory. In that case, we should be safe if we can reach either the tollgate or the factory. They should have a phone we can use there.”
I was worried about our other classmates as well, but we had no map, we did not know which direction was which, and we did not know what kind of creatures lurked in this forest. With unknown after unknown, it was too dangerous to randomly search the forest. It would be best to inform someone what had happened so professionals could search for them as quickly as possible.
A white fog prevented us from seeing even a few meters ahead and the curtain of tall underbrush as well as the rotting trees blocked our path. It was about the worst possible path to take, but the highway fortunately ran above our heads. If we followed its shadow, we could keep on track to the tollgate.
Or so we thought.
It turned out we were too naïve.
When we actually began walking, we learned just how naïve we were after only five minutes.
“Dammit! I could have sworn we were walking straight. Where did the highway go!?”
“…At the very least, it is no longer overhead,” said Madoka as she looked up into the sky.
The sky we could see through the gaps in the trees was white rather than blue. It was completely covered in thick fog. We had suddenly realized the shadow of the highway had disappeared from the ground. The highway had of course not moved. We had obviously strayed from the proper route.
“Shinobu-kun. I think our direction strayed bit by bit as we took the easiest path while avoiding these thick trees.”
“…Should we head back?”
Fortunately, the tall underbrush we had parted to move forward had left an obvious trail to follow back.
Or so we thought.
“Wait, wait, wait. Where are we? We keep walking, but the highway’s pillar is nowhere to be seen.”
“We’re completely lost.”
We had only followed an obvious landmark and then followed our path back.
That was all we had done, yet where we actually stood and where we had been headed was continually off by a bit.
This was chaotic nature.
It was the polar opposite of a carefully maintained Intellectual Village.
I had thought I was well acquainted with “nature”, but the threat before my eyes here taught me that the village I lived in was like a food sample made of wax.
I had often heard that staying still was better than moving around randomly when lost in the woods or a mountain. I was now certain that was correct.
But that was when you had properly informed people that you were going to climb that mountain. It only applied when someone would automatically come looking for you if a certain amount of time had passed.
We had no way of knowing when this ridiculous fog would clear up.
It was possible it was not just temporary weather. If it had to do with the terrain, it might remain for an entire season or even year round. And if the fog was related to a Youkai…
For one thing, how were you supposed to report that someone had suddenly disappeared from the highway? Who would believe that?
If only Madoka and I had disappeared and the tour bus had continued on perfectly fine, it would be up to our classmates and homeroom teacher to report it. However, they knew where we had disappeared from but not where we had disappeared to. The police and fire fighters might not believe that, and even if they did, they might not immediately guess correctly that we were in the forest of Four Mountains. In our situation, we could die of thirst after waiting just two or three days, so we could not rely on carefree optimism.
And if everyone on the bus was wandering around somewhere like us…
At any rate, we had no way of knowing if help was coming.
The situation might not improve if we carelessly lay around. It was possible we would simply dry up and die.
“Four Mountains Junction is in an area surrounded by four mountains, right? It isn’t that large an area.”
“I would say it is only a few kilometers across from one end to the other. …Don’t tell me you’re planning to move from one end to the other.”
“If we’re lucky, we’ll run across the highway or one of the pillars supporting it. In the worst case, we’ll run into the mountain which we know has a tunnel through it. It’s a bit dangerous, but heading to the tollgate over the highway might be best.”
Given the land, that plan did not sound too difficult.
After all, the highway at Four Mountains Junction was built in a cross shape, leading to four tunnels through four mountains. If we cut randomly across the basin between the mountains, the odds were good we would run cross the highway at some point.
Madoka elegantly wiped sweat from her face with a small folded up handkerchief.
“I suppose that is our only option. A money-loving girl like me does not like forcing our way through every option until something works like this.”
“We need to find the highway before we seriously need to worry about food and water.”
“We will be trying to walk straight, but we won’t end up walking around and around in circles, will we?”
“Just because you can’t read the atmosphere is no reason to bring up that forest legend at a time like this!!”
And so we began moving.
The rotting trees covered the sky above our heads and even the shortest undergrowth was about a meter tall. Luckily, the leaves were not hard like bamboo grass, so we did not scrape ourselves as we walked through it.
“I’m soaking wet,” said Madoka.
“So am I… But with this much liquid, we shouldn’t have to worry about water. Food will still be a problem, though.”
“Have you forgotten how near the highway we are? With all the exhaust mixed in, who knows what color this water would make a litmus test turn.”
“Stop exaggerating. And you can’t exactly complain if it’s that or die of thir-…”
I trailed off at that point.
What had Madoka-san said?
She was wearing her usual summer sailor uniform that girls had enough trouble with bra straps showing through under normal conditions. And she was soaking wet now?
I needed to calmly check on this from my current position. In this thick, rotting forest, even the shortest undergrowth was about a meter tall. Madoka was wearing a skirt, so making her pass through that undergrowth first would have been unfair. I, Jinnai Shinobu-kun, had taken the extremely gentlemanly role of walking ahead and parting the undergrowth to create a simple path for her.
And that left an important question in my mind…
What color is Madoka-chan’s bra!?
The answer to that very simple question was right behind me. If I only turned around, I would find “Kotemitsu Madoka Presents: The Pink Paradise” before my eyes. The problem was that I needed a reason to turn around!
From her tone of voice, Madoka probably hasn’t noticed her unguarded state yet. This is my chance! My only chance!! I need to use my 105 IQ intellect to its fullest to think up an excuse!! If I don’t, I know I’ll regret it for the rest of my life and be plagued by nightmares every-
“Shinobu-kun? Why are you being so quiet?”
“Kyaah kyaah!! Don’t come peeking over all of a sudden, little kitten!!”
I did not even need to turn around. Madoka had circled around in front of me. I was not yet mentally prepared and my timing was thrown off. However, shutting my eyes now was what a coward pretending to be a pure boy would do. Even as my heart felt as if it would leap out of my throat, I chose the exemplary answer of opening my eyes wide with anticipation!
And Kotemitsu Madoka’s flower garden was finally revealed to me.
Her thin sailor uniform had been easily penetrated by the moisture. What this revealed was…
A plain gray sports bra.
“Wait, Shinobu-kun. Wait a second. Could you stop looking so disappointed and tell me what happened?”
“This is wrong. A sports bra is just wrong on you! You’re not a sports girl!! You have no reason to end up there!!”
“Eh? Oh, this? It’s just more comfortable this way. I don’t like how bra straps and wires scrape and rub.”
“That reason is terrible too!! Nothing about this is sexy!! That’s the reasoning of a middle-aged woman! If you said that was the uniform of a girls’ boxing club, you could walk right by a police box in your underwear and no one would stop you!!”
“Underwear is underwear; it’s not a swimsuit. I would be too embarrassed to do that.”
“…Then why aren’t you trying to hide your chest?”
“Oh, well, it is a sports bra, after all.”
“So you admit it! You admit a sports bra isn’t even remotely sexy!!”
There were several types of “indifferent girls”: the kiddy type, the pure white bra and panties type, the “doesn’t care at all so she actually goes for really showy sexy lingerie” type, etc. Each of them was filled with its own type of dreams.
But a sports bra that could pass for a summer shirt despite being underwear?
And because she didn’t like straps?
“No, no!! Redo! I want a redo! I imagined a bourgeois like you would definitely wear silk underwear with tons of ribbons and frills!!”
“Okay, okay. I get it, Shinobu-kun. Next time, I will wear striped panties that tie together with strings on either side. That should be filled with plenty of dreams, so calm down.”
That makes it sound like I can’t hope for anything from her panties either, but is that true?
After being consoled by Madoka who was only interested in money and organic vegetables, I managed to recover from a mental state one step away from breaking down into tears.
Madoka then casually changed the subject.
Her tone was no different from a classmate asking if we should stop by somewhere afterschool.
“By the way, Shinobu-kun. I apologize for bringing up this kind of thing again, but I know of an incident about this area that is about as pleasant as your average forest legend.”
“…Do you have to bring it up now?”
“It’s called Zenmetsu Village. I only heard about it from Enbi, so I don’t actually know if that is the official name or not. Over 30 years ago, it seems an crazy mass murderer in the village slaughtered everyone who lived there!! Supposedly, the murderer used pitchforks, hoes, axes, and all sorts of other farm tools.”
“Asking you indirectly to stop wasn’t enough! A crazy mass murderer!? I don’t want to hear anything worrying right now! Please understand that!!”
I rubbed at my wet hair with one hand, but Madoka was not listening.
“Well, it’s just your stereotypical legend about an eccentric village. There are legends almost anywhere in Japan or even the world about people getting lost in the mountains or forest and running across a house or village with some strange custom.”
“Are you saying it’s so common it actually has no credibility? Are you saying we should just laugh it off as nonsense?”
“The story has plenty of embellishments. Some say the murderer is still alive, some say his descendants are wandering around here, and others say a murder group decided this was holy ground to them and so they live in a psychedelic commune here. I hear there are even rumors that the entire village wanders around Four Mountains. Supposedly, the victims desperately tried to flee the village, but the deserted houses circled around to cut off their escape.”
After hearing that much, even I was not all that worried.
The overall impression was too scattered and mismatched.
It was unclear whether it was supposed to be a Youkai using its monstrous power to cause some supernatural phenomenon or if it was a human murderer going on a rampage with the tools around him.
There were of course incidents in which humans used Youkai powers, but those Youkai Packages had to be broadly and finely prepared with a group of dozens if not hundreds of people. They were used for bank robberies, scams involving large sums of money, and insurance fraud murders. In those cases, everyone involved had an obvious common desire. The story of Zenmetsu Village did not seem the same.
“It sounds like a story people in the city made up despite not knowing how Youkai and Packages work.”
“Yes. But they are not trying to insult rural areas. The cities have plenty of their own rumors about eccentric groups, be they underground organization or online communities. No matter where you go in Japan, everyone loves hearing stories about eccentric people.”
…Madoka, I don’t think you’re in any position to call other people eccentric.
This may have been an excellent example of why it was commonly said to look at others for an example of what to do and what not to do.
“But on the other hand…” began Madoka.
She trailed off when the area before us suddenly opened up.
The quality of the soil must have changed because the tall undergrowth that had blocked our way before had dried up and died off. The damp trees were still there, but the disappearance of the obstructing underbrush changed what we could see by quite a bit.
And something was visible up ahead.
They were rocks the size of rectangular 18-liter cans…or should I call them stones? They were more black than gray and standing up on end. Unlike bricks, the surface was rough. They were likely made by hand.
At first glance, they were reminiscent of gravestones. Or perhaps handmade trophies.
A quick estimate told me there were over 50 of them. They were lined up so neatly it made me think someone obsessive had arranged them.
I could feel my throat drying up despite the fog that seemed to moisten my body just by standing in it.
Rumor had it a crazy mass murderer in the village had slaughtered all the other villagers. This plot of awkward gravestones gave concrete color to that otherwise blank information.
Madoka’s mouth flapped open and closed a number of times after she had trailed off earlier, but she finally continued while sounding apologetic.
“…Since Enbi always shows up at the scenes of strange murders and she was talking so excitedly about this, perhaps we should assume it has a bit more credibility than some nonsense story.”
Once we left the tunnel, we were surrounded by a ridiculous amount of fog.
I instinctually let off the gas a bit. After I checked the dropping value on the speedometer, I refocused my eyes on the distance.
For some reason, Enbi was rejoicing in the passenger seat.
She looked like a kid when school was cancelled due to a typhoon.
“Hyah! You can’t see more than a few meters ahead.”
“Yes, that’s right. Dammit. If it’s this bad, I wouldn’t be surprised if they blocked off the road until it clears.”
I started to reach for the switch to the fog lamps, but they were not made to see through fog during the day. They were meant to inform oncoming traffic of your presence. I doubted they would be of much help on a highway with both directions completely cut off from each other.
The mystery freak went out of her way to point toward the shoulder of the road.
“A few police cars are stopped there.”
“I can tell that from their lights.”
“And a prisoner transport vehicle.”
I instinctually turned my head to check behind me, but quickly remembered that could get me killed on the highway. I checked the rearview mirror, but it had all disappeared into the fog.
Instead of slamming on the breaks, I gradually decelerated and pulled over onto the shoulder.
I parked the rental car there.
“Should you really stop here?”
“I’ll turn on the hazard lights and set up the reflector.”
“You have the same authority as a normal person right now. Won’t you get in trouble for parking alongside the highway for no good reason?”
“If you can tell when you aren’t supposed to do something, why don’t you think about your own actions more often?”
I opened the door and stepped out onto the asphalt. I removed a triangular reflector from the trunk and set it up on the road. The mystery freak and I then walked back the way we had come.
“…This is a surprisingly long distance.”
“It was several dozen seconds along the highway.”
It was probably 300 to 500 meters. Due to the thick fog, there was nothing to judge the distance by. I lost track of how far I had walked, but that was my guess as to the distance. After walking for a while, a large and dense shadow appeared on the shoulder of the road. It was a police car.
“Now, detective, show me a realism-focused drama depicting the complexity of the police organization.”
“Thanks for that not even remotely funny lead-in.”
“Oh, if you want to start shooting up the place like a Showa era police drama, just tell me. I’ll provide backup.”
“By any chance are you looking forward to seeing a struggle between two adults in suits?”
Then again, I doubt we’ll be able to peacefully talk like we’re tourists.
This troublesome issue was deeply related to the higher ups and old members of the regional police and they had completely ignored the normal procedures when reinforcements had arrived from Tokyo. They had even denied me the bare minimum of sharing investigation data.
A police detective with no authority would be just as annoying as a mosquito flying around one’s ear.
As long as they kept things on a level that would not leave any official records behind, they might try to rough me up a bit.
But that made the mystery freak’s presence an issue.
If they tried to rough me up, we could likely settle it like adults, but… Well, I simply had to hope they would be above grabbing at the collar of an amateur middle school girl.
If they did do that, the situation would have passed the level where it could be “settled like adults”.
Ugh, please don’t let this turn into a serious fistfight. I’m only in a dead end job with little hope of promotion.
At any rate, I maintained a bit of a defensive stance as I approached.
“…Wait a second. There’s no one inside the police car.”
“Maybe they went over to the prisoner transport vehicle.”
“Without locking the doors and with the engine running?”
“I see your point.”
Police cars were common in dramas, but those usually had drama original paint jobs. Each police station had its different designs and actual police officers would not agree to have pictures or videos of their cars taken. If perfect copies were made, they could be used for abductions and attacks on armored cars transporting money.
It was unlikely a police officer would leave one just sitting out like this.
As we continued along the shoulder of the highway, we found several more empty police cars dotting the shoulder. Beyond them was the prisoner transport vehicle.
It was a dark blue.
A small bus had been completely covered in armor plates and the windows had been sealed with thick metal bars. That should be enough to imagine it.
“Why is it on its side?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“I would also love to know why the door is open.”
“If you could know the answer before doing the detective work, we would all have it a lot easier.”
The prisoner transport vehicle had fallen onto its side such that it was completely contained within the shoulder of the highway.
It did not seem to have crashed full speed into the central divider or the accident prevention wall. It was not damaged enough for that. There were no other damaged vehicles to be seen. Glass shards and light covers were strewn across the road, but it did not seem any other vehicle had been involved.
“It looks like the driver attempted a car stunt and failed.”
“Why would they do that?”
I called out randomly but received no response. I circled out to the front and tried to peer in through the windshield, but it was filled with small cracks, making the entire thing white. I could not see inside through it.
That left only one way to find out what the situation was inside: use the door pointed up due to the vehicle falling on its side.
Fortunately, the prisoner transport vehicle had police lights on the top and they were quite large and blocky. I was able to use them as footing to forcibly climb up.
The right-hand side was pointing straight up, so the window was at my feet. It was a prisoner transport vehicle, so the cracks running through the glass were oddly similar to the windshield. The cracks had spread across the entire window, but it had not shattered apart like a normal window would have.
Does it have a special film placed across it?
“Detective, anyone in there?”
“I’m about to check.”
I moved my gaze from the window and moved toward the open door. The vehicle was essentially the same as a bus, so a tall, narrow automatic door that opened with compressed air was located near the driver’s seat.
I lay down on the side pointed up and stuck my upper body down through the door.
What I saw in my upside down vision was…
I heard the mystery freak calling for me, but I could not reply.
There was nothing.
No one was inside.
There must have been a driver, one or more police officers, and a prisoner, but not a single person remained. Helped by being flipped on its side, the completely deserted vehicle looked like a bizarre abstract painting with a theme of space or weightlessness.
I pulled my upper body out through the door.
I thought for a bit.
Was this a complete accident or did someone plan this? Did the police evacuate the prisoner from the vehicle or did the prisoner take the police with him as hostages?
Either way, I knew that Hasebe Michio really had disappeared.
I had the information I needed to report, so I pulled out my cell phone while still standing on top of the toppled prisoner transport vehicle.
“…Why can’t I get through? I thought all trains and highways these days had a perfect net environment.”
“If you’re pulling out your phone, does that mean you saw something dangerous?”
Seeing those sparkling eyes turned toward me made me not want to explain it to her.
The eerie sight of so many obviously handmade gravestones caused me to stand still in shock. Madoka then spoke up from beside me.
“Shinobu-kun, is that a snake?”
That light sense of unknown disgust was overwritten by a possible direct threat. Living in a rural area had not turned me into an expert on snakes, but I did know it was best to not be bit by a strange snake. And that was especially true when an ambulance could not be called.
And so I turned cautiously in the direction Madoka was pointing.
My statement became a question.
It was true that something long and narrow was stretched along the dried grass, but a close inspection showed it was not moving.
However, it did not seem to be a shed skin or a dead snake.
“Isn’t it just a rope?”
Madoka and I approached to check.
It may have grown wet in the thick fog because it was oddly dark, but it was indeed a rotted rope. It seemed to have been left here for a long time because it had thick green moss on its surface and had almost fused with the ground.
I did not want to touch it because it was dirty, but it looked rotten enough that it would tear apart if I tugged on it.
“Hey, Shinobu-kun. Is this one of those things you see at Shinto shrines?”
“What do you call those? …I can’t remember the name.”
Those things with white paper folded in zigzags. .They’re attached to the ends of the staffs that priests wave around and decorate the shimenawa. …Um, what do we call those things?
After thinking that far, my cheek twitched.
“With these gravestone-like things and this strange rope… It feels like there are too many weird decorations here.”
“Do we really have to continue on through here?”
“Would you rather turn back?”
“That’s even worse.”
No matter what we said, we had to continue on. If we turned back or tried to circle around the place, we would be putting ourselves at greater risk of walking in circles.
Madoka and I continued forward while weaving between the gravestones.
It was not long before another odd object showed itself through the fog.
“…What is that?”
A sort of barricade cut across the path.
The front had a row of logs carved down like pencils and crossing each other. A horizontal log placed across them was tied in place with a rope. A line of those was placed to block our path. They appeared to be as old as the shimenawa we had seen before. The cuts on the logs had turned black and the initially sharp tips had rotted away. They also had moss and mushrooms growing on them.
Seeing them brought a few different thoughts to mind.
Madoka made a blunt comment from next to me.
“They must not have had a very high IQ.”
“I thought you would say that.”
“And these gaps are wide enough that they must have been keeping cars out instead of animals. They are violently displaying that their #1 rule is not welcoming outsiders. …Hmm, this is looking more and more like one of those eccentric village legends Enbi likes.”
“So is this Zenmetsu Village? If that rumor was true, the villagers have all been gone for over 30 years.”
“Horror stories are often decorated with the idea of the dead villagers’ ghosts or the mass murderer’s descendants to scare off any groups that might try to stop by for a test of courage.”
“Why would the victims turn into crazy killers? The only one at fault was the crazy killer who ran around with farm tools in hand.”
The X portion of the log barricades had a fair-sized gap below them. The same was true for the log passing horizontally. As Madoka had said, it seemed to be meant for vehicles. If I crouched down, I could easily pass under it.
Madoka jokingly said, “Welcome to Zenmetsu Village.”
“This village disappeared 30 years ago, right? So why can’t I see any roads or telephone poles?”
“Wouldn’t the roads have been buried below the trees and underbrush?”
“Asphalt wouldn’t turn to dirt no matter how long you waited. And what about the telephone poles?”
“They might be buried underground.”
“Even though this wasn’t a carefully maintained Intellectual Village?”
We walked across the dead grass. A rotting clearing was visible where the trees had at one point been knocked over and pulled out by someone.
Even my leather shoes were beginning to grow damp at this point. My socks felt disgusting. The school uniform was an inconvenient outfit no matter what you were trying to do. It was not suited for any kind of physical activity and it was not all that comfortable. I didn’t particularly care for the design either. On top of all that, it was expensive. That was only because everyone was required to buy it. If a normal store tried to sell them, they would stop stocking them almost immediately.
After five or ten minutes, the scenery began to change.
It happened just as I was beginning to doubt whether we had actually been travelling as straight as I thought we had.
“…That’s a building, right?”
“It looks like nothing more than a shack. In fact, it’s really just a storage shed.”
There was something there.
It was about five meters square and only maybe two meters tall. It had been made of thin plywood and strengthened with corrugated galvanized iron or something. The thin metal roof was forcibly held down with heavy stones. Simply put, the overall quality was on a level that even the pig from the Three Little Pigs that built the house of straw would laugh at.
The metal surface had rusted brown and it looked like it would break apart if we so much as touched it. It had a small window the size of the side of a goldfish tank, but I could not tell if the glass was frosted or if it was simply so dirty it had lost all transparency.
I could not see inside, but it was so dirty I would have preferred to stay out in the rain than take cover inside.
In fact, a closer inspection showed it was slightly tilted diagonally like a parallelogram. The instant I peeked inside, I could end up buried alive.
“It doesn’t look like anyone is living inside.”
“There’s something over here.”
We circled around behind the dilapidated cabin and found two objects that had turned brown from rust.
One was a metal drum.
The upper lid had been fully opened like a can of food and something like gravel had been spread across inside. However, some strange weeds were growing all across its surface.
“That metal drum has a faucet at the bottom. What is it?”
“Is it a water filter?”
If they had one of those, they must not have had running water.
And the other rusted object was a diesel generator of the type seen at the stands for temple festival fairs. However, I could see a small pipe that had completely crumbled, so I did not even need to imagine what sort of disaster would occur if someone actually poured fuel into it.
“Both the electricity and water were produced at home. What era were they living in?”
“It is looking unlikely we will find a working phone line here.”
“I’m not even sure we’ll find a red mailbox.”
We had no reason to search inside the crumbling cabin. We simply needed to cut across the basin surrounded by the four mountains and make our way to the elevated highway. The water filter must have excited Madoka’s health fanatic blood because she was showing a lot of interest in it, but I called toward her and suggested leaving the cabin.
As we continued through the thick fog, we found four of five similar buildings that also looked more like old storage sheds than houses. Each of them had the remains of a generator and metal drum as if that was a decided practice.
“If water filters were so common, did they not even have a well? They would have to go gather water in their daily cycle this way.”
“I don’t see any compressed gas cylinders. It doesn’t look like they have pipes running underground for town gas.”
They must have lived by drinking river water and cooking over a fire.
Even if the village had been abandoned for 30 years, this was clearly strange. The level of their lifestyle seemed too isolated.
Some of the shed-like cabins had their window broken, some had their pillars broken, and one’s roof had even crumbled down.
As I casually glanced over at the crushed cabin, I saw something unpleasant.
It was green moss covering the floor.
However, there was an odd pattern to how it had spread. As if it had grown only in the remains of an old puddle, the green color dyed only a limited area.
This reminded me of something.
It of course reminded me of the stories about Zenmetsu Village.
“By any chance…did that grow from dried blood and the moisture of this thick fog?”
“Shinobu-kun, it’s over here too.”
Madoka pointed toward a cabin with a broken window.
A glance inside that window showed green moss growing on the walls, ceiling, and floor as if it had splattered everywhere. But the moss had not made its way into that building quite as much, so stains colored an odd dark brown could be seen in places.
It was at least old enough that there was no raw smell of iron.
But the visual was enough.
“Wait, wait, wait. How did the blood get all the way up on the ceiling?”
“Zenmetsu Village really was the golden age of crazy killer legends.”
“I prefer to think someone who heard the rumors spread chicken blood around as a prank.”
Feeling fed up with it, I began to turn away from the window, but then I looked back.
“What is it, Shinobu-kun.”
I circled around to the front of the cabin. The door was made to slide to the side, but the wooden rails had rotted away. I removed the door that was simply standing in place and leaned it against the wall. I then peered inside.
I saw dust, moisture, mildew, moss, and bloodstains.
Someone had apparently lived here, but I was not about to remove my shoes before going inside.
“I thought you weren’t going to check inside?”
“I wasn’t…but look.”
I pointed inside the small cabin and stepped inside to pick something up.
My right foot broke through the holey wooden panels and my leg sank down up to the calf.
“Shinobu-kun, be careful when you pull your leg out. If the edges dig into your skin, it will probably hurt a lot.”
I would have been careful whether she had warned me or not.
I slowly removed my leg. It seemed I had not really broken through the floor. It was the cover to a storage space under the kitchen that had broken. Naturally, no food was kept inside. Dirt had been swept inside the rectangular space which contained…the scattered remains of an old broken jar.
I initially thought I might have been the one to break it, but it seemed I was not. The edges of the pottery pieces had darkened after being left there for a long time.
“What are those?”
“It looks like a bunch of gold rings. Were they being stored in the jar?”
“They do not look like pure gold, though. They look quite cheap.”
“Of course they are. Someone who had a secret stash of pure gold wouldn’t be living in such a run-down shack.”
There was also some Japanese paper that was falling apart from the moisture. Ink had been used to write something in kanji on them, but…
“It’s written so quickly, I can’t read it.”
I pulled out my phone and took a photo.
The Zashiki Warashi might be able to decode that old writing. Nothing could be done at the moment though because my phone had no signal.
“Looking at this is not going to help us. Shinobu-kun, what were you pointing at before?”
“Oh, right. That over there.”
Madoka seemed to notice what was placed just outside the green moss zone.
“Oh? They have a gas range. The kind used for pots.”
“It doesn’t look all that rusted, does it?”
Is it simply for cooking or does it have some other purpose?
I thought about turning the knob to see if it produced a flame, but decided against it. If something was wrong with the compressed gas cylinder, it could explode.
Instead, I took off the protective cover and removed the gas cylinder.
The bottom of the cylinder had the manufacture date written on it.
“Shinobu-kun, what does this look like it says to you?”
“It looks like February of this year to me.”
“Same here. …But why would this be here in Zenmetsu Village which was supposedly abandoned 30 years ago?”
Madoka and I exchanged a glance.
An unpleasant noise came from outside the cabin as if something had banged against the wall.
I lived in an Intellectual Village, but for the apartments I saw on TV, this may not have been that odd a noise. However, this was an abandoned village. This was Zenmetsu Village where the villagers had been slaughtered over 30 years ago. We should not have heard something hitting the wall. There should not have been anyone here but us.
“Maybe someone came here as a test of courage?”
“In the middle of the day?”
“Maybe one of our classmates is here?”
“Why would they not say anything?”
“Maybe it’s a bear or Youkai?”
“I do not see how that is any less dangerous.”
Both Madoka and I knew the answer, but neither of us wanted to say it.
This was Zenmetsu Village.
The villagers had all been slaughtered using farm tools like hoes and pitchforks.
A crazy mass murderer lived here.
And in that case…
The worst possible answer was…
A scraping sound began to travel along the wall. This was not the sound of someone leaving the cabin. It sounded like they were following the wall around.
Around to where?
The answer was simple. All too simple.
This cabin was a shabby building that was really nothing but a storage shed. Its design was very simple. It had only one door and the window was too small to enter or exit through.
Whoever was outside was circling around to the single entrance
Madoka’s face had grown pale.
I looked around, but it was hopeless to look for a tool to cover the door now. For one thing, the rails were broken and the door had only been standing in place.
What did we need?
What could function as a weapon? The wood materials, the sliding screen, and everything else had absorbed so much moisture they were practically falling apart. If I hit something with them, I had a feeling the wood would fall apart like wet paper.
And as I thought, I could hear it.
The sound continued. I heard scraping, scraping, scraping, scraping, scraping.
I could hear an object being dragged along the wall and I could hear the footsteps of someone circling around to the sole entrance and exit.
We had no time.
The eerie legend of Zenmetsu Village was beginning to swallow us alive.
The mystery freak and I made our way back to the rental car parked on the shoulder of the highway.
“Are we headed for Zenmetsu Village down below?”
“Of course not,” I spat out as I brought the car up to speed. “We know Hasebe Michio really did disappear from the prisoner transport vehicle. Who knows if it was him or the police that did it, but whoever did it will want to ensure he remains ‘vanished’. They won’t be hiding near the vehicle.”
“I thought those who do not want Hasebe to be found not guilty just had to ensure he died before the retrial?”
“Yes, but it makes no sense to have him vanish like this if that’s the case. Mystery freak, what do you think the quickest way to kill Hasebe in that situation would have been?”
“To throw him out onto the highway. After all, this fog is too thick to see even a few meters ahead of you.”
“They could also sprain his ankle to make sure he can’t move. As long as they keep it at a level that looks natural,” I agreed. “But they didn’t do that. They went out of their way to have Hasebe ‘vanish’. In that case, they may want to do something that takes some time. I can’t say what they are after, but the odds are good Hasebe is still alive at this point.”
“They might shoot him and disguise it as him trying to escape and giving them trouble while they try to arrest him again.”
“If so, this is our last chance. We need to use our time effectively.”
We were on our way to the tollgate connected to the junction.
From what I had heard, it had been created as an exit for a semiconductor factory.
“If Hasebe himself ran off, he’ll need some means of transportation. I doubt he would try to escape on foot in these mountains. That means he would head where cars are parked. My guesses are the workers at the tollgate or the parking lot for the semiconductor factory.”
“If the police are involved, they might have had someone come by on the highway and stuffed Hasebe in their trunk.”
“But they need to camouflage it as if Hasebe escaped. Either way, a nearby car will have to be stolen. If we know the model and number of the car used for camouflage, it can help us pursue them.”
“I hope they thought it through that far.”
“You have a point. True idiots are the hardest to read.”
I drove down the junction that circled around like a spring or naruto. Eventually, the rental car made it to the surface. The tollgate had become mostly unmanned with electronic toll collection, but I chose the less efficient manned gate.
“Detective, I hope the tollgate worker hasn’t disappeared.”
“I don’t think I could stand it if everyone had disappeared.”
An extremely bored looking man in his forties tossed aside a sports newspaper and fed the ticket I handed him into a machine.
“I’m not the best driver, so is this fog going to last? I’ve been so nervous that my grip on the steering wheel has been terribly stiff.”
“Have there been any accidents? I’m just so nervous.”
“…Answer my questions, goddammit.”
With a sigh, I showed him my police badge and tossed it toward the passenger seat. After all, a close look would have shown I was from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. With all the realistic police dramas in recent years, a lot of people were oddly familiar with the organization and structure of the police.
The middle-aged man turned a doubtful look toward the mystery freak in the passenger seat.
“Are you really a cop? Who’s that girl?”
“Oh, oh, oh!! My position is that of an observer and a future wife, so-…!!”
“She’s a runaway girl I picked up in the area. That’s why I’m asking about the situation. You check on the people going on and off the highway, right?”
I-I technically didn’t lie.
I was just using a realllllly broad definition of “in the area”. The entire Kinki region was “in the area”. I never said a word about finding her walking along this highway.
I had only shown him my badge because I felt like it.
If the man decided to talk to me because he mistook me for a member of the regional police, that was not my problem.
That was the excuse I had to make, or I would be in a lot of trouble! This is what it’s like to be a poor public servant!!
“Hmm. Well, I haven’t heard about any accidents. I haven’t been told to block off the highway, either. Are you sure that girl didn’t walk off from a service station on the other side of one of the mountains? She might have wandered off along the shoulder of the road while her parents were shopping.”
Oh, c’mon. Please do your job.
At the very least, a prisoner transport vehicle and some police cars had been abandoned on the highway leading toward Byakko Mountain.
“Any other questions? You didn’t just find a girl walking along the shoulder of the road while on a patrol. I’ve never heard of a traffic cop using a rental car while watching for speeding drivers.”
“Oh, right. Do you have a phone here?”
“No, I don’t. A long time ago, some idiot used an automated internet bank service while on the clock. It seems he ended up accidentally leaving the phone off the hook for several weeks. The higher ups got pissed at the huge bill and confiscated all the phones. They said to use our cell phones if we needed anything.”
“Eh? But our cell phones…”
“Yeah, the signal doesn’t reach out here at all. It’s terrible.”
That means you can’t call for help if a robber attacks. Do you not understand how dangerous it is being in such a remote location?
Well, if he can do this for so long, it just goes to show how peaceful this country is.
“Do you have something urgent to call someone about? What is it?”
“I have information a group of car thieves has moved into the area. Have you seen anyone suspicious recently?”
“Nope,” replied the middle-aged man right away. “In fact, isn’t this about the worst place for them? There’s nothing to steal here.”
“If you say so.”
“After all, there aren’t even any villages here. There are no cars to target.”
Enbi leaned over the driver’s seat much farther than was necessary.
She said, “Hey, hey, mister. I thought there was a huge semiconductor factory here.”
“Shut up, you damn brat. Get off of me. Ahem, what about that large factory and the cars of the workers?”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that.” The middle-aged man must have entered gossiping mode because he stuck his elbow up on the money counter as he replied. “It’s true almost all the people who get off at the exit are related to the factory in some way. After all, over 8000 people work at it. It’s almost a small town in and of itself. All our income down here comes from that one factory. With the employees and shipments of materials and products coming in, we get a few thousand people coming in and out each day. It makes us plenty happy.”
“Then aren’t there a lot of cars?”
“There are, but they’re all in the factory parking lot. The people running the factory understand that the workers would be in trouble if they lost their car in this area that’s practically an isolated island. The entire parking lot is kept in the factory grounds and is surrounded by a thick wall. There are also tons of cameras and sensors, and they even hire guards just for the parking lot. I don’t see how anyone could steal a car from there.”
We had to determine if a car had been stolen, so that information was worth keeping in mind.
“But do the workers live nearby? Their cars might be targeted at home.”
“No, no. That would never happen,” flatly denied the man. He laughed and continued, “Four Mountains…Oh, that’s the name of the basin between the mountains, by the way. Anyway, Four Mountains has no civilization aside from the factory.”
“I hear there was a small village a few decades back, but it’s been abandoned. In fact, the factory would be in trouble otherwise.”
“What do you mean?” I asked while frantically trying to maintain the expression of a police officer while pushing back the mystery freak who was excitedly trying to raise her hand.
The man replied, “I don’t know the details myself, but it seems you need clean water and air to create the precision circuits that are thinner than a hair. The water is especially important. Apparently, it’s more profitable to give the most delicious water to machines rather than people. Any chaotic development would dirty the water.”
“The Four Mountains area has been almost entirely bought up by a single corporation. It’s just a giant area of nothing though, so some kids come in as a test of courage sometimes. …Even this elevated highway was built by ‘borrowing’ the corporation’s land. On paper, it’s a private road.”
“Eh? But it’s a highway. Is that even possible?”
“Highways don’t belong to the country. Even we’re becoming privatized, so we’re a normal corporation just like with trains. That means we can make business deals with other corporations. It might have just barely been allowed, but there was no other place to bring the tunnels through.”
In other words…
Whether they would ever do so or not, they had the option of cutting off one of the highways that acted as Japan’s arteries. All the factory had to do was make an announcement saying the road was closed for the next three days or something like that. And this was a junction that stretched in four different directions, leading to different areas across the country. That alone showed how much influence a corporation could have over the country.
“Mister, does that mean everyone who works in the factory drives over the mountains to get to work?”
The middle-aged man fell silent for a moment.
I thought he might have been confused by the supposed runaway girl asking him a question, but it seemed that was not the case.
He lowered his voice before speaking.
“No, it seems about half of the workers live in the dorms on the factory grounds.”
“Half? Didn’t you say there are more than 8000 in all?”
“It isn’t that surprising. Remember the government’s new…what was it? The business-oriented low income assistance and favorable treatment system? I think it had to do with providing support related to corporate taxes. Anyway, as I said, the Four Mountains area was bought up for the water and air. The dorms are probably kept as spotlessly clean as the factory. At any rate, there’s no chance of a car being stolen from there.”
Once the man finished, I politely thanked him and finally brought the rental car toward the exit.
Surprisingly, the sign had only one arrow and it pointed toward the semiconductor factory. Not only was there no other landmark, but it seemed there weren’t even any other roads.
I stopped the car in the space at the exit prepared for large trucks to check on their tire chains or freight. It was time we discussed what to do next.
The mystery freak had a curious look on her face.
“I’ve heard of bayside industrial complexes having the final train stop head to their factory. Only those with employee IDs can get through the ticket gate.”
“Yes, but did you see the name of the factory?”
“Kuroyama Electronics Group – Four Mountains Precision Semiconductor Factory.”
We exchanged a glance
The mystery freak did not look all that surprised, so she had probably known from the beginning. She had likely discovered it while investigating the legend of Zenmetsu Village. I did not know if the legend surrounding that abandoned village was true, but just because I was a police officer did not mean I would search through the database for information on cases unrelated to the ones I was working on.
“The incident Hasebe Michio was suspected in was at the home of Kuroyama Electronics Group’s president, right?”
“Now then, now then. Is this a coincidence or is there a reason behind it?”
I decided to drive over toward the factory in question. The horrible fog was bad enough and then nothing besides the asphalt road was maintained. The entire area was covered by a thick forest. This was nothing simple like a hedge. It was a complete wall of greenery. It was so thick I felt forcing my way through it would leave my entire body scraped up. This sight told me just how much human interference there was in what we commonly thought of as “nature”.
You often heard the phrase “humans are a part of earth’s nature”, but that did not mean humans were kind to the earth and it did not mean nature would unconditionally accept us. To a naked human with no fangs or fur, untouched nature was actually a difficult environment to live in.
“Is this the factory?”
“It’s just a wall, so it’s hard to say.”
Due to the fog, no structure was visible without approaching quite close. A giant wall over five meters tall suddenly appeared alongside the road as we drove along. It was primarily made of thick concrete and the very top had barbed wire installed. Needless to say, it had cameras and sensors as well.
The wall seemed to continue forever.
In all seriousness, we continued for over a kilometer and saw no sign of a gate.
“Is this a military facility or something…?”
“It looks like a prison,” I said in annoyance
This semiconductor factory supported the technology of Intellectual Villages and received support of its own from the government.
I can understand being more sensitive than average about having your tech leak out, but is it really necessary to take it this far?
As we continued on even longer, we finally came across what looked like a gate. The road in front of it spread out like a bus roundabout, so it was likely the materials shipment entrance rather than the front entrance.
This entrance was not a gate with a bar that lowered across it like at a coin-operated parking lot.
It had a giant double-door gate with metal bars and a row of electrically-operated spikes was located on the ground. Even if a giant truck crashed into it at full speed, I doubted it would break.
A man in workwear sat in the reception box that was as small as a storage shed. He was watching us expressionlessly.
I continued on at low speed and passed by the gate.
“…There really is nothing. Attacking a police box and stealing a police car would be easier than stealing a car from here.”
“But what does that mean?” The mystery freak tilted her head in the passenger seat. “The prisoner transport vehicle was toppled over on the highway and Hasebe Michio had disappeared. But this is no place to steal a car.”
“Whoever caused him to disappear might have had another scenario in mind.”
“Possibly, but isn’t the entire premise a bit odd?” The mystery freak raised her index finger. “Let’s say someone wants Hasebe Michio gone and they have been carefully putting together a plan for this day. If they had thought this through so carefully, would they really attack here? If they attacked somewhere other than Four Mountains Junction – a normal road off the highway perhaps – they would have had more options.”
It was not logical.
That meant it was not the work of a professional.
But what did that mean?
The most likely unprofessional possibility was…
“Are you saying the police did not intend to attack here if they intended to attack at all? So was it Hasebe Michio who initiated the escape?”
“Hasebe might have intentionally stopped the prisoner transport vehicle or it might have started with a true accident, but the possibility is there.”
“But why? If he did nothing, the odds were really good his request for a retrial would have gone through and he would have been found not guilty. Escaping here will send him back to prison where the death penalty awaits.”
“I don’t know.” The mystery freak sighed. “What if the police really did intend to eliminate him and he realized it? If he thought he was going to be killed if he did nothing, he might try to escape from the police.”
There were ways of getting down from the highway without passing through the tollgate.
Some of the pillars supporting the highway had staircases installed. They were used for high-speed bus rest stops and emergency evacuation. If he climbed down one of them, he could hide on the surface without anyone realizing it.
Even if Hasebe had escaped the prisoner transport vehicle and made his way to the ground, what would he do then? He would have given the police the justification to shoot him as an escaped death-row inmate and then hidden himself in a thick forest with no witnesses.
Wouldn’t he want to quickly obtain a means of transportation and escape far away no matter how risky that might be?
“But,” began the mystery freak.
She was changing the subject.
She was switching over.
“All of our speculation is based on the assumption that Hasebe Michio is completely innocent and the police are desperate to eliminate him.”
“Wait. You can’t mean…”
“So.” She grinned. The mystery freak spoke with the grin of a demon that toyed with people’s lives. “Let’s talk about a simple possibility. What if there is some reason why a retrial would be a problem for Hasebe Michio? If he knew he could not win the retrial, isn’t it entirely possible he would have desperately used this chance to escape while being transported?”
The scraping continued.
That noise from the outside wall of the run-down shack approached the single exit.
In that instant, Madoka and I did not head for the door. We instead moved toward the opposite wall.
That wall had never been anything more than thin plywood with galvanized sheet iron for sturdiness and waterproofing. After decades of absorbing moisture, the wood had deteriorated and the iron was so rusted its original color had disappeared. The wall looked like it would break if we so much as touched it.
You could no longer even call it a wall.
“Ora!!” I shouted as I kicked the wall while putting my weight into the blow.
It felt more like kicking wet cardboard than wood. It more tore than broke and a large hole opened in the wall. I first let Madoka pass through before escaping the shack after her.
The previously calm scraping noise suddenly changed.
I still held the gas cylinder the size of a 500 milliliter drink bottle that I had removed from the portable stove, so I threw it back through the hole I had created.
“I hope you’re blown to smithereens!!” I shouted.
I heard a sound like grass being trod on from the other side of the small building. The attacker may have frantically jumped out of the way or gotten down on the ground.
Either way, the idiot had judged wrong.
I had thrown that cylinder in, but I had no idea how to ignite it.
It had been a bluff.
“Please spare me any more trouble that can’t be resolved with money!!” shouted Madoka as I grabbed her arm and began to run.
We did not know who this enemy was, what they were armed with, or how many of them there were in all. The legend said the murders were primarily carried out with farm tools such as pitchforks and hoes, but nothing said this attacker had to remain faithful to that. It was possible they even had a hunting shotgun to use when no one was watching.
The one piece of luck was the thick fog surrounding us.
That obstacle prevented anyone from seeing more than a few meters ahead, so projectile accuracy would drop dramatically. Or so I assumed. At any rate, we needed to run as far away as we could so this enemy could not reach within “a few meters” of us. That would be better than sneaking around in search of some kind of shield.
The fog made it difficult to tell where we were or how far we had gone, but I felt as if my hearing had grown sharper in exchange for the poor visibility.
Madoka tried to look back, but I tugged on her arm to stop her.
“Hey, Shinobu-kun. I hear footsteps following us!”
“So? That’s no reason for us to stop!!”
We passed by a few of those storage shed-like cabins and made our way outside the village. The sound of footsteps through the grass continued approaching behind us.
I was afraid the tall underbrush and rotting trees would block our path once we left the village, but fortunately only the remnants of the dead and rotten grass remained. There was nothing in our way.
Of course, that also meant there was nothing to protect us from any projectiles.
The importance of the fog only continued to grow.
If this person was armed with a shotgun or crossbow, we could be killed in one shot once the person made it close enough to see us.
“I…I can’t. I’m wearing leather shoes. I can’t run anymore.”
“I’m wearing leather shoes, too!!”
You’re a health fanatic who even pays attention to what water you drink, so why is your physical ability lower than average? Can you even call that being a health fanatic?
I pulled on Madoka’s arm as her feet threatened to get tangled up beneath her and half-forcibly made her continue running. Either that proved effective or our pursuer’s sense of direction was thrown off by the thick fog because the sound of footsteps behind us gradually seemed to grow quieter.
We were gaining distance.
We might be able to escape.
And with that thought in mind, something suddenly appeared before my eyes.
It seemed to split through the white fog.
“…Eh?” said Madoka in confusion.
I also came to a stop despite the situation.
What we saw was something that should not have been there.
It was a run-down shack that looked more like a storage shed than a house.
This was the abandoned village we had supposedly just left.
It was impossible.
This should not have happened.
Madoka and I had run straight forward without worrying about the consequences. Our route might have curved slightly, but there was absolutely no way we could have made a full U-turn back to our original location.
That village was indeed blocking our path ahead.
Thirty years ago, a single serial killer had taken the lives of every single villager.
“What happened?” I said out loud. “We ran straight away from there! Why is the village right here in front of us!?”
The footsteps of our pursuer once more began growing louder through the fog behind us.
But I ignored that direct threat as the legend Madoka had mentioned replayed in the back of my mind.
Supposedly, groups using Zenmetsu Village for a test of courage would end up dragged into the incident. When they frantically fled the village, it would pursue them by circling around ahead of them and swallow them up.