“Lost baggage? …What? You mean, um, wait. So it was lost!? But that ‘item’ was top secret!!”
“It’s already gone, so there’s no use complaining about it. Or do you think that’s going to magically make it appear?”
“If it was that important, why didn’t you keep it with your carry-on baggage? I’m going to officially report this!!”
“I didn’t want something that dangerous on me! I know plenty of people who assumed a domestic flight was safe and came to regret it!!”
“Okay, understood. Everyone, we need to calm down. The carrier decided to transport the ‘item’ by hiding it in a civilian travel bag, but that travel bag has gone missing as lost baggage. Is that clear?”
“Can’t we track the bag?”
“If we’d attached a transmitter, the signal would have been intercepted. It would be like telling the entire world to come take it from us.”
“No one knows what airport it ended up at.”
“The airline isn’t stupid. They’ll find it before long and contact the civilian student. There’s nothing we can do until that student picks up his travel bag.”
“Could someone fake their identity so we can collect the bag ourselves?”
“Do you want to stand out? That would increase the risk of revealing the ‘item’s’ existence, you know?”
“Now you’re catching on. Unfortunately, all we can do now is pray.”
I awoke to the sensation of something dripping from my mouth.
After a slight delay, I noticed the noisy hustle and bustle of movement from all directions, so I tried to remember where I was.
Before I could determine the situation, I heard the familiar voice of a glamorous Zashiki Warashi.
“You can use me as a body pillow if you want, but try not to get drool on my yukata. Or do you want me to hit you?”
I frantically jumped up from the bench and my right calf cramped unnaturally. I ended up rolling around on the hard floor and performed an equivalent of first aid by extending my knee, grabbing my toes in both hands, and pulling them forward.
Only then did I remember where I was.
Oh, that’s right.
This was the lobby of a floating domestic airport connected to an Intellectual Village named Goldmine Island. I was waiting for an employee to contact me about the whereabouts of my lost travel bag and my parents had already gone on to the inn. …Of course, I didn’t really think I was going to get my bag that day since no one could say which airport it had been sent to.
Trouble on the first day of a trip? What did I do to deserve this?
It was a weekday, but being the son of an Intellectual Village artisan gave me the excuse I needed to officially take some time off of school. It was thought that studying my father’s work would be more useful than rote learning using textbooks and a blackboard.
For that reason, this trip felt a lot like part of my dad’s work.
Of course, being with my parents restricted what I could do, but being able to skip school while everyone else was stuck there studying still felt liberating.
“I don’t think it’s coming today. At this rate, you’ll be waiting until dawn with the people spending the night in the airport to save some money.”
“I guess I’ll go tell them my cell number, then.”
“It’s not like you have anything in your bag you don’t want them to see, right?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I had my nice underwear in there.”
I exchanged my contact information with the airport worker who took the extremely American stance of keeping his back oddly straight and refusing to apologize despite admitting their error. After that, I left the floating airport with the Zashiki Warashi.
An overwhelming deluge of light seemed to sweep away the darkness of night as it filled my vision.
Everywhere I looked, I saw neon, neon, and more neon. The ideas of energy conservation and global warming were thrown out the window and everything glowed like a house that took its Christmas decorations too far. I saw playing cards, roulettes, bunny girls, rolls of cash, and bags of coins. Even without checking each of the symbols creating an overall electronic sign motif, anyone could tell what this place was.
“Welcome to Japan’s Vegas! This is the special casino district of Goldmine Island!!”
Someone called out to me after I took just three steps off the airport’s grounds.
A middle-aged driver was leaning against the side of a white limousine that was stretched out like a dachshund.
“Where do you need to go? You look like a kid, but if you’ve got a Zashiki Warashi with you, you must be pretty rich. If you’re not sure where to have some fun, how about I show you around? There’s no age limit with the publicly managed gambling of a special casino district, you know? How about a toast to the loopholes of an experimental system!?”
“Oh… I just want to get to the inn. But if I’m going to take a long vehicle, a bus is enough.”
“Do you really think you’re going to find something that cheap-looking around here? This is Japan’s Vegas. Having me carry your ass around is the cheapest option. Even helicopters and cruisers are pretty common here. And if it’s just carrying you somewhere, a limo’s not that different from a normal taxi. The first ride’s eight hundred yen and every three hundred meters adds another hundred and twenty yen. That’s a pretty fair system, don’t you think?”
“Just to be sure, you are actually licensed to do this, aren’t you?”
“You want to go check the plate on the back? It’s green and everything. And don’t worry. I’m not some crooked businessman who drives you around and around the island and demands you pay me tens of thousands. What, is this your first time with this kind of thing? You’re all nervous.”
The island itself was small, so the price wouldn’t be too high if I didn’t take a bunch of detours. I had him show me a map and getting to the inn would only cost me two thousand yen.
“Fine. You win. But I only have two thousand yen in my wallet, so get me to the inn before the meter goes above that.”
“Ha ha ha. Is that your allowance or something!?”
“I can’t deny that I’m here on a trip with my parents, but this has more to do with my lost baggage. Most of my stuff was sent off to some other airport.”
The Zashiki Warashi and I climbed into the back seat of the white limousine. We found the kind of fantastical space I’d seen in movies, but I didn’t dare touch the mini-fridge. Who could say how much I would be charged just to open the door.
The middle-aged man’s voice reached us from the distant driver’s seat.
“So where to?”
“Um… An inn called the Gold Crane.”
“If you want to make out or something, I can close the smoked glass divider for some privacy.”
“You can leave it open and mind your own business.”
The pure white limousine took off surprisingly roughly and slipped into the nighttime casino city. I looked out the window and the explosively bright neon was enough to see some palm trees here and there.
“Even Kyushu is far enough south to count as tropical, isn’t it?”
“The muddy goldmine mountain has changed a lot too. Nowadays, things are weighted more towards the tourists. Even the abandoned buildings from when this place was called Heavy Cruiser Island are a popular sightseeing spot.”
“Wasn’t that used as the setting for a video game?”
“A zombie one. Why are those things so popular overseas, anyway?”
Perhaps because it was a casino city, people were walking around in clothes you would never see in a normal city. There were bunny girls trying to attract customers and even derivatives that had… Were those cat ears? There were also gentlemen and ladies in suits and dresses and…
“Wh-what are those? There are a bunch of female police officers in really gaudy miniskirts. They look like something from an American pinup magazine.”
“Those aren’t police officers; they’re armed guards. This is still an Intellectual Village and no one wants to give the police any more authority. But as a business, they need to give their customers what they want. …Simply put, there are a surprising number of people who want to be stepped on with black leather boots.”
The Indoor Youkai had been awfully quiet for a while. I assumed her special shyness skill had activated, but that apparently wasn’t it.
“Ahh… I don’t like how bright this place is. It’s making my head hurt.”
“But this is technically classified as an Intellectual Village.”
“The mountain on the back side of the island has apparently been a goldmine for ages, so maybe you’ll feel better once we get there.”
Youkai naturally hated cities, but as a human, I wasn’t sure how to imagine it. It just didn’t seem real. I always pictured it as something like feeling carsick or the people who couldn’t stand the low frequency waves from wind turbines.
“Oh, right, right,” said the driver without turning around. “You should be careful.”
“You can bring your pretty Zashiki Warashi around with you if you want, but Youkai are forbidden in the casinos. Sneaking one in is enough for people to suspect you of cheating. After all, you could cheat all you wanted with their mysterious powers. Look.”
He pointed his thumb out the window.
I followed it and saw a security guard in a dark suit chucking what looked like stuffed animals out a casino exit and onto the sidewalk.
“What are those? A tanuki, a fox, and…”
“That last one’s probably a badger. Getting thrown out like that is what happens if you’re lucky. Sometimes they’re dealt with in ways I’d rather not mention.”
“Wasn’t this special casino district made to test a system that wouldn’t allow large criminal organizations a way in?”
“And? The stereotypical bad guys aren’t the only ones you have to watch out for. Not to mention that Japan’s Vegas is an experimental system, so it’s hardly perfect.”
The Zashiki Warashi groaned next to me and it seemed to be a warning that we needed to shut up because we were giving her a headache.
As we continued down a road wide enough for a mid-sized charter plane to land on, the white limousine left the casino city and began to circle around to the other side of the island.
The light quickly vanished.
We were now in a black world that looked like someone had rubbed ink over everything. I was sure there was a nice starry sky and firefly lights to see, but my eyes had adjusted to the previous dazzling light and had difficulty picking up that subtler artwork of light. There were tropical trees everywhere that generally seemed to be pineapple-like trees or looked like you could make a leaf swimsuit from them, but there were some maple and gingko trees mixed in. However, even those felt like a part of a giant mountain of black shadows.
Meanwhile, the Zashiki Warashi had stopped groaning like someone with a hangover and looked a lot more alert.
“I feel a lot better now.”
“Oh, is that so? I’m amazed the overall atmosphere can change so much on the same island. There isn’t a single streetlight around here. And what are those lined up over there? Abandoned buildings?”
“They’re probably the housing complexes and theatres from when this place was called Heavy Cruiser Island. If the driver is to be believed, they’re a valuable sightseeing resource that brings in people from all over Japan who are obsessed with old buildings.”
It may have been a part of his job because the middle-aged man answered any of our questions.
The buildings looked on the verge of collapse, but he said they were thoroughly reinforced with some kind of plastic so people could safely view them. At the same time, quite a few sensors and personnel had been installed or hired to make sure drunks didn’t try to spray paint graffiti on them.
“I don’t see how those could be on the same level as the casinos.”
“Obsessed people are guaranteed repeat customers and they’ll pay any amount for what they love, so don’t take it lightly.”
“I just can’t imagine it. And I know there’s a rule banning hotels in the casino district and putting them all on the other side of the island, but was that meant to make everything less concentrated on the casino side?”
Not counting the floating airport or harbor block, Goldmine Island only had a perimeter of five kilometers. The mountain was in the center and the coastal area was generally divided between the casino city and the mining city where the residents lived. The airport was on the casino side and the harbor was on the mining side. The abandoned buildings we mentioned before surrounded the mountain near its base.
“Here we are, sir. The Gold Crane, right?”
“Wow. This place is huge. Was it really handmade by craftsmen?”
“If the effort that went into this surprises you, you should learn more about the castles around Japan. On Goldmine Island, inns are the first-class place to stay, moored luxury cruise liners are second-class, and rented cruisers are third-class. You should thank your parents. This is gonna be a once-in-a-lifetime memory.”
I entered the inn, but there were no retro arcade games or ping pong tables.
I heard light footsteps rushing about and faint children’s laughter, but it wasn’t clear where any of it was coming from.
I was pretty certain the sounds did not come from anything human.
The hostess who greeted us looked a little surprised when she saw the Indoor Youkai.
“These are all Zashiki Warashi, aren’t they? They’re doing well for themselves. …It sounds like they might even have dozens of them living here.”
“These are Usuhiki Warashi, Kura Bokko, or Notabariko. They’re all subspecies of the Zashiki Warashi, but they aren’t on the same level as a legit Zashiki Warashi like me.”
“The Zashiki Warashi is a well-known Youkai, so a lot of similar Youkai are lumped together in the same category. There may have only been one original version, but now they can be anything from a collection of babies killed during a famine to transformed Kappa or badgers who started living in the house.”
“I can’t help but see you as the odd or irregular version.”
The hostess led us down a long wood-floored hallway and to our room. Out of some strange sense of etiquette, the hostess mechanically reached for the sliding door, but I stopped her with a hand and threw the door open myself.
A hellish scene appeared before my eyes.
“Ah hyah hyah hyah hyah hyah hyah hyah hyah!! The worrrrrld is spiiiiiinning…”
My usual silent dad remained silent as my drunk mom spun him around and around and around. Nuts and dried squid were scattered on the table, the tatami mats, and everywhere else. Completely empty sake bottles had been left all over the place. I noticed the names Red Yukata and Black-Haired Beauty on the labels, so it seemed they were going through the junmai daiginjo they had brought themselves.
My mom kept her arms wrapped around my dad’s neck and her flushed face swayed back and forth.
“Nn… Oh, Shinobu? They already took dinner away, so you’ll have to go without.”
“Unlike a hotel, they bring you the food at a set time in Japanese inns. If you aren’t there, you miss out. Huh? Where are you going?”
“I can’t fill my stomach with the nuts and dried squid on the floor, so I have to go find something else to eat. …They’ll at least have a convenience store around here, right?”
“Don’t ask meee. I do think they had a shop near the entrance, though. A single rice ball was 2500 yen. And that’s a plain one. If you want a dried plum inside, the price more than doubles. That’s a tourist area for you.”
“Are you sure Intellectual Villages haven’t just suffered severe inflation?”
With that said, I left the room again. I thought I noticed my silent father give me a look begging me to save him, but I had enough filial piety to not get in their way.
“Why are you still with me, Good-for-Nothing Youkai?”
“You’re going to the casinos, aren’t you?”
I gave a large start.
“M-Miss Zashiki Warashi? How did you ever reach that conclusion?”
“You don’t seem too upset about missing dinner, so you must have something else in mind. You’re excited that you have an excuse to head out at night without rousing their suspicion. And what kind of entertainment do they have out here that you wouldn’t want your parents to know about?”
“Fine, fine. I won’t complain as long as you keep your mouth shut. But paranormal Youkai aren’t allowed in the casinos and they’ll definitely be on the lookout for a fortune-bringing Zashiki Warashi. What’s so fun about waiting outside the building?”
“What are you talking about? Seeing your bewildered expression when you lose every last yen is all the entertainment I need.”
“Just to be sure, you are a Zashiki Warashi, right?”
“Zashiki Warashi aren’t as harmless as children’s books make us out to be.” The Indoor Youkai shrugged. “But how much do you have in your wallet? And your card’s credit limit isn’t very high. I’m not sure you have enough for even one pull at the slots.”
“I’ve already looked into it. They have a beginner’s luck system that gives first-time guests thirty thousand yen in chips for free. The only condition is that you have to use all of the chips before leaving the casino. If you lose, you break even. If you win, the winnings go right into your wallet.”
“So they give you a taste of gambling so you’ll get addicted to it later?”
“Either way, we’ll be leaving this island in two or three days. You can’t just do this anywhere like with pachinko or horseracing, so I couldn’t become an addict if I tried.”
I took a peek in the inn’s shop just to check, but I immediately grimaced and left. The canned drinks found in vending machines everywhere cost more than a thousand yen each, so this wasn’t just the modern rural system where the luxurious ingredients drove up the price. The product was in no way worth what they were charging.
“What are we going to do about dinner?”
“If I win, we can have a luxurious meal with a bunny girl on the side. If I lose, we’ll have to drink my tears. Do you feel like rooting for me now?”
A wooden sign set up near the inn’s main entrance said, “Partnered with VR Casino City – Heavy Cruiser Island. Feel free to join us by PC, cellphone, or smartphone. –Goldmine Island Casino Promotion Committee”
“Didn’t that taxi driver mention Heavy Cruiser Island?”
“Just like with Edo and Yamataikoku, it’s a symbol of the ‘good old days’ people long for.”
“But a virtual casino? What’s so fun about playing what’s really just a video game after coming all the way to a real casino island?”
“It seems you can buy points that can be used on the island. The units are Gears. They work with a monstrous point card system that over forty million people use and are accepted at major drugstores, video rental stores, and online stores, so you could easily call it a virtual currency.”
“Wait a second, you good-for-nothing.”
“But the app apparently gives out your location and it won’t let you play if you aren’t inside the island’s special casino district, so it’s still pretty frustrating.”
“Why do you know so much about this? Don’t tell me you’ve been gambling with my smartphone!”
No matter how much I questioned her, she only casually averted her gaze.
Dammit, I have to eventually get back that phone nestled between those giant breasts!
At any rate, we left the inn.
The sticky ink-like darkness of the rural night covered everything and I sighed as I looked around.
“Now for the first problem.”
“It looks like our only option is to walk to the casino district on the other side of the island. You can’t hire a taxi with that beginner’s luck system of yours, can you?”
Worried, I looked down at my cellphone.
When I saw the “28°” reading, I felt an unpleasant sweat pouring down my body.
It took wayyyy to long.
I had noticed it was surprisingly cool when I arrived on the island, but that had apparently been due to the breeze on that low-humidity night. As soon as I saw the digital temperature reading, I felt like the normal heat of the night suddenly returned.
And then I had to take a hellish marathon through that heat.
I was soaked with sweat and all the heat built up inside me almost made me want to die right then and there.
There was no way this could lead to my vision of dancing in gold coins as the king of the casino with a cocktail glass in one hand.
“This might be your punishment for trying to show off.”
“P-pant pant!! I-I didn’t do anything wrong!!”
It felt like midnight was fast approaching, but things were actually only just beginning in the casino city. The rush of fancy cars and women in gorgeous dresses showed no sign of stopping. I saw fireworks here and there, but it was apparently still too early for that to qualify as a late-night nuisance.
I frantically caught my breath and heard some suppressed giggling. I turned around to look and saw a small girl of about twelve or thirteen peering at me from between two buildings.
“What is that?”
“A Youkai, I think. Probably an Usuhiki Warashi, a version of a Zashiki Warashi like me.”
The girl had long hair and not only did she wear a short mini-yukata, but she let it slip far from her shoulders like a courtesan. It looked something like a tube-top style dress.
“Isn’t it sad, glamorous Indoor Youkai? She looks a lot more like an actual Zashiki Warashi than you.”
“Like I said, she’s only an Usuhiki Warashi. Don’t underestimate the real deal.”
When our eyes met, the Usuhiki Warashi let out a quick shriek and ran back into the alley. It looked less like she was afraid of the delinquent boy looking at her and more like she was teasing me.
Either way, it was no concern of mine.
“Shinobu, which casino are you going to use?”
“Any one that has a sign out front welcoming beginner’s luck people. I think that covers about half of them, though.”
As we spoke, a nearby casino door opened and a man dressed like a bartender seemed to chuck a few stuffed animals out onto the road. The softly bouncing creatures seemed to be a tanuki, a fox, and a badger. And they were not stuffed; they were real animals.
Isn’t this the group we saw out the taxi window earlier?
“You dumbasses!! How many times do we have to tell you!? No Youkai allowed! Go eat some soba and get to sleep, you morons!!”
“Shut up! We already told you we wouldn’t use our paranormal powers. We were playing cards fair and square. You’re just using this as an excuse because you started to lose!!”
The fox swung his hands (or front paws?) around as he protested, but the bartender man spat on the ground and returned to the casino.
The tanuki groaned while lying face up.
“Uuh… Th-this really is too much to ask for a wet nurse like me. How are we supposed to win back the money that corrupt con artist stole?”
The badger got up so fast it looked like steam was going to come from his head. Oh, and while people often think badgers are the same as tanuki, they’re actually completely different animals.
“What!? Tanuki! Are you thinking of backing out after we finally managed to track down Kodama Ryou!? Then what will happen to the old lady and her granddaughter? Those two are in the hospital and need money for treatment. We have to get that lost money back!!”
I instinctually averted my gaze.
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi. I really don’t want to get involved in this.”
“But all three of them are looking this way. Being naturally loved by Youkai isn’t always fun, you know?”
We received a simple explanation on the street.
The three of them were apparently Youkai from Shikoku.
The fox was a gardener, the tanuki was a wet nurse, and the badger was a bodyguard and they had served a human family for generation after generation.
Youkai like this had a huge difference between the good and bad versions. There were gruesome stories about the bad ones killing an old lady who lived alone, taking over her life, and eating the rest of the villagers one by one.
City scholars claimed these stories had their roots in fears of “outsiders from the mountains”. Unlike in modern times, there had been no way to check fingerprints or DNA in the past. And with lax management of the family register, it had not been all that difficult to take the place of an elderly person who lived some distance from a village.
But how would that theory explain the animals walking on two legs in front of me?
“Our master belongs to a family with a long history, but they didn’t want to join the Intellectual Village system and ended up taken in by the advance of rural cities instead.”
“Oh, I think I see where this is going.”
“As you seem to have guessed, they failed to keep up with the changing times. Some might even say the family fell into ruin. They still live in the countryside, but their life is not that much different from a normal office worker.”
“But our loyalty hasn’t changed! You can’t judge someone’s worth based on the size of their savings!”
You really shouldn’t be saying that in a casino city.
They clearly had money troubles.
“So what’s this about a corrupt con artist?” asked the Zashiki Warashi with a shrug. “Not that I’ve ever heard of an honest con artist.”
“Kodama Ryou. He’s the old lady’s hated enemy! He used all sorts of underhanded methods and lies to make us think we could get the money we needed!!”
“What exactly was it?”
“A 100% guaranteed investment opportunity.”
I felt faint for a moment.
Are you seriously telling me it was the kind of scam people make over the phone?
“Laugh if you want,” muttered the wet nurse tanuki while puffing out her cheeks and stomach. “But the granddaughter had suddenly come down with a disease. And it’s a dangerous one that can’t be treated in Japan. The old lady’s pension wasn’t enough to pay for the travel and the surgery and then that man showed up with a smile on his face. What’s wrong with taking a chance when you’re desperate?”
I couldn’t help but give a heavy sigh.
The glamorous Zashiki Warashi crossed her arms in a way that pushed up her breasts and glanced over at me.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“How should I know? I’m only in high school and I’m not an expert when it comes to money.”
It was true I was human. The only others here were a fox, tanuki, badger, and Zashiki Warashi. As Youkai, none of them could enter the casino. I might have been able to confront this con artist named Kodama Ryou. But then what? What was an amateur student supposed to do against a professional trickster?
There was nothing I could do on my own.
Letting my emotions get the better of me would only end with me being taken for everything I was worth.
I cut in there.
As the stuffed animal-like Youkai focused on me, I pulled out my cellphone.
“I have a classmate who’s ridiculously good with money. I’ll get some advice from her first.”
“I see what’s going on here, Shinobu-kun. If you see nothing wrong with calling me at this hour, I think you should go get yourself officially diagnosed with a Madoka-chan addiction.”
“You don’t sound like I woke you up, so I’m glad to see we’re both living equally unhealthy lifestyles.”
“Hm? I hear a lot of music in the background. Where are you right now?”
Eccentric beauty Kotemitsu Madoka’s question led me to glance at my surroundings.
Unlike the ridiculous deluge of light outside, the casino itself was moderately filled with soft lighting and music. The volume was a little high, but that may have been to hide the sounds of the roulettes and slot machines. With the red carpet, chic wooden pillars, and decorative green mats on the tables, it was a colorful place.
Despite being a tourist area, the men and women in suits and dresses were not crammed inside like the beach during summer. Leisurely comfort seemed to be the standard here.
I looked down from the second floor to view the poker tables on the first floor.
It covered his expensive suit, belt, and shoes, so it seemed this con artist really liked snakeskin. I just hoped his cocktail glass wasn’t filled with pit viper sake.
“You care a lot about money, Madoka-chan, so have you heard of a Kodama Ryou?”
“Sounds like you have.”
“He’s a pretty big annoyance in the world of investment. For him, the stock market is a form of gambling, not a business. He buys or sells them with sums measured in the hundreds of millions just to enjoy the thrill. You can’t predict what he’s going to do, so a lot of people have had their stock certificates suddenly turned to scrap paper thanks to him.”
“What is he trying to do?”
“Weren’t you listening? He enjoys the thrill. Do you know his hobby? Art auctions. But after pouring ridiculous amounts of money into a painting or sculpture, he almost immediately donates it to a random museum. The act of acquiring it is what he enjoys. Nothing could be more troublesome.”
“So where does he get his money? If he’s doing that kind of thing all the time, even your average rich kid would run out pretty quickly.”
“Since you bothered to contact me, I assume you already know. He tricks people for fun and then uses the money he gets to enjoy that thrill he loves. And once his wallet is empty again, he starts looking for a new mark. …I said he donates the paintings and sculptures he gets to museums, remember? Thanks to that, every government feels like they owe him. The carefree government officials think of him as a necessary evil, so you can’t expect a proper investigation when he’s involved.”
“What’s this thrill nonsense? He’s made sure he’ll be safe no matter what.”
“But his techniques are stupidly simple. I doubt it, but your family didn’t fall for that, did they?”
“No, just some acquaintances. An old woman in Shikoku fell for it when she was trying to find the money to save her sick granddaughter. Do you think that story’s true?”
“There’s too little information, so I can’t say. But Kodama Ryou has scammed about two thousand people around the country and that’s only the ones I can confirm. Whether that particular story is true or not, he’s probably done something similar. That sick granddaughter sounds like exactly the kind of thing he would use.”
“Why do you think everyone falls for it when his speaking skills are no better than an ape’s? I don’t know how, but he always shows up right when a family member has been in a traffic accident or had their house burn down. He targets people when they aren’t thinking straight. My guess is whatever put them in that state was his doing, too. …Could this granddaughter’s disease be reproduced by ingesting some kind of harmful substance?”
I looked back down over the railing and at the first floor poker table.
The lady killer decked out in snakeskin was getting drunk on expensive drink while toying with the cards he was dealt.
As he smiled in the light, I could not see a single stain on him. There was not even a drop of the blood he sucked from his victims.
“Um, Shinobu-kun. If you really do need money, I can help you out. I can get about two billion moving with a single phone call to my accountant.”
“How much of a debt do you want a classmate to owe you? Now you’re just scaring me. And that would be too boring. It wouldn’t feel like actually winning.”
Yes. For example, winning a ton of money against a computer program in the Heavy Cruiser Island VR casino city using a cellphone or smartphone wouldn’t help cheer me up.
“It has to be from that bastard.”
I extended the thumb and forefinger of my empty hand to make a handgun gesture.
And I thrust it directly toward the face of that snake man who was enjoying his time surrounded by beautiful women.
“I won’t be satisfied unless I take back everything he’s taken and add some interest on top for good measure.”
I got my chip worth thirty thousand yen with the beginner’s luck system and sat at a poker table. It seemed the tables were divided into a few different categories based on how much you could bet at once and I was only allowed at the cheapest table on the far edge of the room.
But even there, I lost almost everything.
The female dealer gave me a sympathetic look as I left the table and then exited the casino.
“Rejoice, my thirty thousand yen chip transformed into one thousand five hundred yen. That’s thanks to getting two of a kind twice. Now I should be able to buy some dinner once I find a normal convenience store somewhere around here.”
“Shinobu, I think the dealer intentionally gave you those hands to draw you in.”
“I also figured out why the VR casino’s virtual currency is called Gears. The chip designs have a gear motif and it seems you can exchange chips between physical and virtual.”
Annoyance filled my tone as I started recalling my observations of the enemy.
“That place is pretty amazing. I’m guessing it’s to keep people from cheating by marking the cards, but they throw them all out after every hand and open the seal on a brand new deck.”
Just like normal animals, the fox, tanuki, and badger were rummaging through a trash can behind the casino.
“Look, they threw out this meat on the bone almost untouched! I can’t imagine why anyone would do this!!”
“They probably confused throwing out perfectly edible food with luxury.”
“Damn them. This is the kind of person that took the old lady’s precious pension money!?”
As they argued back and forth, they began chowing down like they were at a house party. I was just glad they looked so happy.
She must have decided they weren’t going to be any use because the Indoor Zashiki Warashi didn’t even look their way as she spoke to me.
“So what are you going to do? You have to challenge this Kodama Ryou guy to a game of poker to get back the money he stole, right? But I think you need some funds of your own to do that.”
“Yeah, it was no use. With a thirty thousand yen chip, I couldn’t even sit at the same table as him. The minimum was three million. I could blow three million on a single hand. And that could easily double or quadruple if someone raises the bet. There’s no way I can find that kind of money.”
The Zashiki Warashi glanced over at the road and the hands of the men and women slowly stepping out of black limousines.
“It doesn’t look to be like the casino guests are carrying around duralumin cases or anything.”
“I’m not going to steal it, you idiot. And they probably think carry cash is for poor people. They all pay with cards. You’ve heard of a black card, haven’t you? Those have no credit limit. The casinos all have giant servers in the back, so the VIPs always have access to the card companies. To them, it’s really only data moving back and forth.”
“And your card is?”
“You already know that. It’s just meant to make online shopping easier. Paying for my cellphone, cable TV, smartphone, computer, and online gaming is enough to almost hit the limit. I don’t have any leeway there.”
The fox walked out from behind the casino holding a bunch of French fries and began shouting as if he could not overlook what I had said.
“What!? Then what are we going to do? We’ve already hit a dead end before the game has even begun!!”
“That’s right. But anyone in an Intellectual Village casino is going to have odd tastes, so there will be plenty of people who know what things are worth. …I don’t need actual money. I just need something they’ll be even more eager to get their hands on.”
“Shinobu, you don’t mean…”
“Red Yukata and Black-Haired Beauty.”
The three animals only tilted their heads at those brand names, so I explained.
“That junmai daiginjo is worth fifty thousand yen a cup, so what if I knew where bottles of it were just lying around?”
Simply travelling between the casino and inn was exhausting.
The Zashiki Warashi and I gathered the empty bottles lying around our room in the inn and filled them with tap water. My parents were completely drunk, so it wasn’t difficult.
“W-will that really fool them?”
The wet nurse tanuki was clearly nervous when we got back, but there was really no need to worry about it.
“The bottles and labels are definitely from the Jinnai Brewery and they’ll know I really am the son of the family if they check my identity.”
“But that’s only water in there, right?”
“No one can open the bottles. The scarcity is everything with brand-name sake. You’ve essentially ruined it as soon as you open it, so they can’t carelessly appraise it or anything. No one would be delighted to eat the leftovers of someone’s fancy dinner, right? Well, this is the same. …As long as I don’t lose, no one’s going to check on the contents. And this many bottles should count for about seven million yen.”
“B-but what if they do a careful examination of the cork.”
“Don’t worry. One unique trait of the Jinnai Brewery is the lack of a decorative label over the cork. The idea is that avoids dirtying the mouth of the bottle with adhesive. The clasp over the cork is used to tell if it’s been opened or not, but you can bend that with a coin. They won’t be able to tell as long as they don’t check with a jeweler’s magnifying glass.”
The fox and badger were discussing our strategy a short distance away.
“What are we going to do?”
“Kodama Ryou is a con artist, so there’s no need for us to play fair either.”
The Zashiki Warashi tapped her shoulder with a huge sake bottle.
“But pulling this off only gets you at the same table as him. He’s managed to stay at that high-stakes table for who knows how long, so he has to be cheating somehow.”
“W-we’ve heard something about that.” The tanuki raised one paw while standing on her hind legs. “We heard it from a gentleman who lost everything to him. He claimed Kodama Ryou uses an Usuhiki Warashi and that he wouldn’t have lost if he could have found some proof. The man was pretty drunk, though.”
“An Usuhiki Warashi, you say?”
A troubled look filled my face.
Hadn’t I heard giggling from between two buildings and seen a Youkai that looked like a small girl?
An Usuhiki Warashi was a subspecies of Zashiki Warashi that would appear near the stone mill in old houses. Other than that trait, they were almost identical to a Zashiki Warashi. They brought wealth and fortune to the family of the house they lived in, but that house would fall into decline as soon as they left. According to the records, they would predict fires or lead to an entire clan being wiped out in a single night.
The only other major trait was the frequent non-malicious pranks. In those cases, it apparently wasn’t unusual for them to leave the home or stone mill they saw as their territory. For example, when children were playing in the house’s yard or in the schoolyard, an extra child would mysteriously appear among them. It was obvious an Usuhiki Warashi had joined in because the adults would find the number of children had increased when they counted them, but they could never figure out which one was the Usuhiki Warashi. They would also sneak into the family’s futon as they slept, flip over their pillows, pull away the blanket, or play other pranks around the bed.
The legit Good-for-Nothing Zashiki Warashi tilted her head.
“But I thought Youkai weren’t allowed in the casinos. If this Kodama con artist is using one of my subspecies, wouldn’t he be caught almost immediately?”
“Yes, but there were some suspicious-looking people among the casino security guards.”
Intellectual Villages didn’t trust the police much, so armed guards weren’t an uncommon sight. They were armed with weapons that didn’t run afoul of the Swords and Firearms Control Law. For example, a small crossbow or a blackjack made by stuffing small metal balls into a leather bag. They would use those weapons to beat up dangerous animals, crop thieves, or industrial spies.
But this was a casino city.
The guards here seemed even more heavily armed than the normal guards who surrounded eccentric beauty Madoka-chan. Some were even equipped with the kind of mechanical arm used for medical or engineering purposes that increased a human’s strength five or ten times over.
I definitely didn’t want to make an enemy of them, but some stood out even more than the others.
“They had pentagram-like marks on the backs of their gloves and they felt like a mix of a charismatic spiritual leader and a hitman.”
“Mh? That sounds like an Onmyouji to me! I know all about them. If they’re using a pentagram, they must follow the Abe style!! Maybe they’re sarcastic intellectuals who curry the favor of the Imperial Court and the nobles to live the good life!!”
The badger flailed his short arms and legs around while shouting, but…
“Hey, what do you think?” I asked the Zashiki Warashi. “Is it really likely that they have an anti-Youkai unit that specializes in the paranormal?”
“Who can say? They’re probably about the same as a girl with an affinity for the spiritual. They can probably sense that something’s wrong, but I doubt they have the power needed to directly kill a Youkai. If people like that were so easy to get your hands on, the country would have made up for the gaps in its laws by now. Not to mention that those kinds of people belong to organizations that don’t like to make public appearances.”
She was referring to the world centered on Hyakki Yakou.
Seeing people like Hishigami Mai or the Illness Magic User made it easy to forget how hard it was to kill a Youkai, but people like that were few and far between. You couldn’t just hand them some cash and have them guard your casino like a part-timer.
“But this is probably enough to catch anyone cheating. It’s always the humans who use Packages, so they can use their numbers and physical strength to put a stop to it when they sense that something’s wrong.”
“B-but Kodama Ryou is using an Usuhiki Warashi to cheat right now,” pointed out the wet nurse tanuki.
“It’s simple,” I answered with a shrug. “He’s probably bribed them.”
The three animals groaned.
“That would explain why they found us so easily when we snuck in. He must have ordered them to focus on searching for anyone who might harm him.”
I have no idea what method you used, but something tells me that was your own fault.
“Anyway, we’ll have to reveal his Usuhiki Warashi trick on our own. We can’t expect the casino to do anything about it.”
“D-do you have a plan? I really don’t think you can win by leaving it up to luck.”
“I wouldn’t even try if that’s what I was doing.” I gathered up the sake battles filled with tap water. “Zashiki Warashi, give those three the smartphone you borrowed from me. It’s necessary.”
“Also, you three won’t be going with us. There’s a lot I want you to do instead.”
I rattled off my instructions.
After telling the Zashiki Warashi what she had to do, I turned toward the fox, tanuki, and badger who had started swiping their front paws across the screen to see how it worked.
“And I will of course need your help for this.”
“We will do anything to help the old lady, but we can’t even get inside the casino.”
The badger tilted his head as he spoke, so I replied.
“Not all help has to come from inside the casino.”
If the joker is included in the deck, one of the players must announce it. The announcer’s winnings for that hand will only be 0.8 times normal (with the exception of five of a kind that can only be made with a joker).
If the winner forms their hand after discarding the joker, their winnings will be twice normal.
If a player is caught cheating, they will be penalized twice their bet amount. However, a simple bluff does not qualify as cheating.
Cheating is eliminated by the thorough management of the dealer, but it can also be directly pointed out by an opponent.
But if the loser accuses the winner of cheating and no cheating can be proven, the loser will be penalized one hundred times their bet amount for ruining the game and damaging the winner’s reputation.
If a player does not swap out a single card, their winnings will be 1.5 times normal.
I went over the local rules in my head as I once more threw open the door to the casino that took away almost all of the thirty thousand yen chip I got from the beginner’s luck system. A few people looked down on me as the guest who did not belong yet returned anyway, but I that didn’t matter.
I had only one target: the top-rate poker table that Kodama Ryou still sat at.
Just as the dealer was about to deal the cards to the con artist and four other ladies and gentlemen, I called out to them.
I also shoved aside the middle-aged man sitting next to Kodama Ryou, knocking over the cards and chips in the process.
“You… Ha ha. Yeah, you! …You’re Kodama-san, aren’t you? Kodama Ryou! They had a championship to determine the best player in Japan’s four greatest casinos, but why didn’t you join in? That was just child’s play, so if you’d shown up, you could’ve changed history.”
“Hey!” shouted the angry middle-aged man.
Some men in black were positioned by the walls and columns so they could keep a view of the entire floor yet not interrupt the flow of guests. They all began rushing toward me, but not because they thought I was a threat. They probably thought I was here to complain about my previous loss.
They grabbed the back of my neck and my arms, but I still laughed.
“You’re like my hero, so I want to steal your unbeatable secrets with my eyes! I’m not asking to be your apprentice or anything like that, so will you play against me just once. I brought the money I need to bet on it, so can’t you just play one game!?”
The snakeskin con artist slowly closed his eyes.
Eventually, he opened them ever so slightly.
What was he thinking? What was he weighing on the scales?
He made extra sure his voice lacked any kind of displeased distortion like a skipping record.
That was all it took for the men in black’s grip to weaken on my arms.
“Before we talk, could I treat everyone at the table to a drink? I have to do at least that much if we’re robbing them of a game.”
“Oh, yeah. Um, sorry!”
“What do you say, everyone? Will you leave this to me and take a drink to this young man’s future?”
They accepted the con artist’s request with bitter sneers more than with displeasure.
Yes, that’s right.
This is perfect.
I had destroyed a game where money changed hands by the millions and Kodama Ryou was the undefeated player at the table. The gallery had to be hoping he would drown this impolite brat in a hell of debt. Pushed on by that, Kodama Ryou had to be thinking he would “kindly” give me what I wanted and take everything I had to make up for the game I had robbed him.
If he wasn’t willing to ruin a stupid kid’s life for money, he wouldn’t work as a con artist.
But had he realized that the stage was set? There were no brakes on this roller coaster. Once the drop began, he couldn’t back out no matter how ridiculous it got.
If a casino’s top player backed out of a game suggested by a stupid-looking high school boy, he’d be seen as the biggest chicken of them all.
There had to be a type of reputation and trust he wanted to earn even if it meant deceiving everyone.
He needed it to keep the money flowing in from his victims.
“So what do you mean when you say you brought the money you need to bet on the game? I doubt a kid your age has what it takes to sit at this table.”
“Heh. Heh heh. I’m not really sure if I can use it or not.”
With a stiff smile, I clunked my “funds” up onto the table.
“But I’ve got Red Yukata, Black-Haired Beauty, Lovely Nape, and Gorgeous White Hand. I don’t really get it myself, but these are my grampa’s treasure. Is this enough for a game?”
“Oh? The Jinnai Brewery?”
The snakeskin man actually sounded a little surprised at this.
The name was pretty well known, so a stir ran through the ladies and gentlemen in the gallery as well.
“Well, well. You don’t see this every day, but it’s still not quite enough.”
I know this is easily enough for two or three games (if they weren’t filled with tap water, of course). You just want to rip off a kid who doesn’t know what it’s worth, don’t you?
“So how about this? Why not play a special game just between the two of us? Let’s keep the dealer and the casino out of this. You want to steal my techniques, so including the other players would only get in the way, wouldn’t it?”
“Y-you’ll do that much for me!?”
That means you don’t have to worry about the other players or the dealer stealing your winnings, doesn’t it?
“Yes, yes. How much do you know about poker?”
“Th-the basics. I’ve played it with some friends in my class. Y’know, you shuffle the cards, deal out five each, and then exchange however many you want.”
“Ha ha. Then I guess you wouldn’t know what Texas Hold ‘em is. Well, we can play the Japanese card game style with five cards each. We’ll exchange cards…”
He snapped his fingers, someone tossed a die over from another table, and he rolled it.
“Okay, we’ll exchange them twice. Is that fine?”
“But then it won’t feel like a real casino game after I came all the way to Goldmine Island. …Oh, I know. Can we use the casino’s rate and local rules?”
“Fine. What should we do about a five of a kind using a joker?”
“Doesn’t matter to me.”
“Then let’s allow it. That makes 53 cards including the joker. Today’s lucky sort is…”
He swung his hand and the dealer spread the cards out on the table face-down before pulling one out.
“Okay, the seven of spades. In this game, a royal flush of spades will be a special hand and the only one that can defeat a five of a kind.”
“Also, I want to see how you use the cards, so can we do away with the raising and calling? Let’s risk it all from the beginning. I won’t get anything by seeing how you fold.”
“Fine. I’ll give you what you want here since it should be an important lesson for you.”
He must have wanted to show how generous he was or to draw in the gallery because he accepted my suggestions surprisingly readily.
“I’m actually pretty happy about this,” he said. “A lot happened on my way to where I am and I even had someone I viewed as a teacher. Seeing you here kind of makes me think I’ve finally arrived where he was. So…”
He smiled thinly and snapped his fingers.
Immediately, the front double-doors opened and several men in black stomped inside.
They were holding something from either side.
“That Zashiki Warashi is your Youkai, isn’t it?”
I could feel unpleasant sweat seeping out on the back of my neck.
The Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata was bound by what looked like white plastic rope. And not just her arms and legs either. It was wrapped around her torso, her neck, and all of her body like some kind of sick form of torture.
Still smiling, the con artist spoke.
“You see, the casino knows how to take care of Youkai related to fortunes and money.”
He spoke quickly.
The Youkai that should have been invulnerable to blades or bullets was giving me a pleading look.
“They say Zashiki Warashi come from the threshold, below the floor, or below the stone mill. Those seem to have been common places to bury murdered babies. Using that legend, they crush an old stone mill into powder, place it in a furnace, and create glass fiber rope out of it. Not even the Youkai’s great strength can break it.”
“This! This is how it has to be, boy!”
Kodama Ryou’s raised voice seemed to swallow me up.
It seemed to create a current that swept me away without letting me make any kind of protest.
“If you want to feel the true thrill of a gamble, you must follow a few simple rules of etiquette. First, do not keep any assets in reserve. And second, do not keep any tricks up your sleeve. …How about you bet that Youkai as well? If you don’t, you won’t get any closer to the true essence of gambling.”
“Now, let’s do as you said and risk it all from the beginning. No raising, no calling, and no wisely folding. Surely you don’t mind. You were the one asking for just that.”
For a moment, truly just a moment, the inside of my forehead felt oddly cold and I felt like I was going to forget everything. I had known this was coming, but my vision still nearly filled with white light.
Yes, I had known this was coming.
In other words…
Yes, yes! I was waiting for this!!
When speaking with Madoka over the phone, she had pointed out the initial problem I would face.
“Shinobu-kun, do you really think an expert cheater will really agree to such an odd game? Con artists tend to be bold but cowardly. They’ll get caught otherwise. And a professional is definitely going to be better at trickery than a high school boy. If you smile with school play level acting skills, he’s going to immediately suspect something is up.”
“Then we can let him figure it out. I just have to set it up so things can continue even if he does.”
I thought back to that strategy meeting and I had to work hard not to let it show on my face.
Kodama Ryou knew how to capture and control a Zashiki Warashi. Even if he had seen through my bluff with the sake bottles, he still wanted to continue the game to get his hands on the Youkai. That was why he had paid less attention to the change from the casino’s usual Texas Hold ‘em rules and the number of card exchanges.
For him, anything was fine as long as he didn’t win so much it was obvious he was cheating. Normal poker only exchanged cards just once, but if he kept getting royal flushes and five of a kinds, people would think he was a little too “lucky”. So as long as it was higher than one, the number could have been three or six for all he cared. That was all he was focusing on.
And that settled it for me.
He really was reliant on the Zashiki Warashi subspecies known as an Usuhiki Warashi. It wasn’t that he had mastered his sleight of hand to godlike levels and then taken one step further to get the help of an Usuhiki Warashi. If you took the Youkai from him, he had nothing left.
The men in black were threatening us with the glass fiber rope made from a stone mill, but that was likely all they had. They weren’t monsters like Hyakki Yakou that could slaughter any Youkai that opposed them. They had built up their foundation around the Usuhiki Warashi and could only deal with that one type of paranormal.
That meant I didn’t need to worry about any other method.
If I could break through the Usuhiki Warashi system, they would fall into the abyss!
“I! Didn’t! Hear! Anything! About! This!”
I noticed the Zashiki Warashi was mouthing protests with even her breasts and crotch tightly and seductively bound.
Well, that’s because I didn’t tell you.
“I! Just! Have! To! Win!”
“Only! Losers! Think! That! Way!”
Heh heh. Truth was, that lazy and glamorous Youkai had given me plenty of reason to resent her. Earlier she had used my smartphone to download the avatar management app used to enter the VR Casino City named Heavy Cruiser Island, so she could have easily bankrupted me. It only seemed right to add on the local rules and keep at it until she was in a sexy predicament. This was a game of chicken!
“Are you done talking it out?” asked Kodama Ryou with some low laughter.
He of course seemed to have some kind of network set up around the casino, but he had let his guard down and assumed the Zashiki Warashi was all I had. When faced with a chance to get a Zashiki Warashi which he could use to cheat and which was more powerful than his Usuhiki Warashi, he had overlooked the other three.
That’s right. The fox, tanuki, and badger.
“Fine! Fine!! …I’m still gonna make a name for myself. I swear… I swear to you I’ll steal your techniques!!”
“You! Had! Better! Remember! This!”
It was a one-on-one game, but we still used a fresh pack of the casino’s cards and the dealer still dealt them to us. Kodama Ryou had suggested it as a way to make things more exciting, but it likely had more to do with his confidence in his means of cheating with an Usuhiki Warashi and the fact that he didn’t want to touch the deck himself and allow people to claim he was cheating that way.
Five cards had already been dealt to me and the dealer slid just as many to Kodama Ryou.
This was my second time in the casino.
The first time I had watched from the second floor as he won multiple games in a row.
“Wow, he’s really winning. But the dealer is handling all the cards and it doesn’t look like he’s doing something as cheap as swapping out cards with identical ones up his sleeve. I don’t see any chance for him to be doing any kind of sleight of hand.”
“Then has he bribed the dealer?” Madoka had asked.
“I doubt it.”
“You can’t see the dealer’s face over the phone, but it’s pale as can be. He looks about to cry. The more Kodama Ryou wins, the more people will suspect the dealer, so I can’t blame him.”
“Then what is it?”
“If he’s using a Youkai’s occult power, it isn’t as simple as seeing his opponent’s cards. He isn’t the type to win by folding at the optimal time. He enjoys building up a powerful hand.”
“Then can he create the cards he needs like a fox or tanuki turning leaves into coins?”
“Or he can freely swap out all of the cards.”
Later, the fox, tanuki, and badger had told me Kodama Ryou was cheating using an Usuhiki Warashi which was a symbol of fortune.
There were no legends about the Usuhiki Warashi “counterfeiting” coins out of leaves.
That Youkai more generally brought fortune and prosperity to the house it lived in, but that was too vague.
That could not have been what he was using.
However, there were stories about the pranks pulled by the Usuhiki Warashi and the Zashiki Warashi. For example, when the children were playing in the yard, an extra one would appear it at some point. The adults could tell there was an extra child by counting them, but they could not tell which one was actually a Youkai.
Is this a Package that mixes in new cards without anyone noticing?
I briefly entertained that idea but then rejected it.
That was only a momentary misunderstanding. Even if a Zashiki Warashi could slip in amongst the children playing in the schoolyard during recess, it could not fully blend in as a classmate. It would eventually be found out and eventually vanish. In a casino where cheating meant instant death, I doubted he would use that trait “as is”.
It isn’t that powerful. It’s a method of mixing in the cards without changing the number.
Their other pranks were sneaking into the futon that someone was sleeping in, flipping over the pillow, and pulling on the blanket, so they all had to do with the bed.
While they could move the pillow or blanket, they could not hide them anywhere. Nor did the sleeper go missing or lose their life.
The Zashiki Warashi was a Youkai that could move a pillow or blanket without changing the “number” and not even their owner could do anything to stop it.
In other words…
He isn’t actually increasing or decreasing the number of cards. He ignores the laws of physics to pull out whatever cards he needs to win and slips them into his own hand. This Package lets him freely swap out the cards.
In that case, he would have complete control over all fifty-three cards, but he wouldn’t be able to directly influence the cards that either I or the impartial dealer could see. If the card changed while we were looking, it would cause a panic.
He himself could only see the five cards in his own hand, so that was risky. He wouldn’t know where the cards he wanted were, so there was a danger of swapping out his opponent’s card while they were looking.
He had to have a safety.
He didn’t know where the cards were, but if it was being observed by someone, the card wouldn’t come to him even if he wanted it.
But other than that, he could get his hands on any of the cards.
He could build his hand from the five he was dealt and any of the cards in the face-down deck the dealer held. He could create as many royal flushes and five of a kinds as he wanted. There was no way to get a fair game out of this.
“Three of diamonds, nine of hearts, three of clubs, jack of hearts, and queen of hearts.”
The atmosphere immediately froze over.
All I had done was give a casual comment with my cards fanned out, but it silenced even the gallery who were ready to taste the sweet nectar of schadenfreude.
“What?” asked Kodama Ryou while blinking in confusion.
“It’s a jinx for good luck. …You said this needs to be a real battle, right? Well, I want to really corner myself here. I want to see what I find if I keep going, so I set myself up. Have I approached your realm now?”
“Well, um, that’s not really what-… Listen. When I rolled the die earlier, we decided to allow two card exchanges, remember? And yet you…”
“Ha ha! That would be too boring!!”
I was clearly bad at this, but anyone could tell I was looking down on him.
“Okay, I revealed everything, so what are your cards?”
“Do you really think I need to tell you? I am going to play normally and-…”
“Oh, so you’re backing down?”
I cut him off.
If I’d used this tone of voice with an upperclassman at school, I could hardly have complained if they punched me.
“No, no. Don’t worry about it. It makes sense. I was the one that chose to reveal my cards, so you do your best with your method. That’s what I want to learn from, after all. You hunch forward, carefully hide your cards from view, and win that way.”
“I’m saying not to worry about it. You know this is a serious match too, right? So who knows who’ll win. It’s entirely possible you’ll lose everything to the amateur kid and break down crying. If you’d rather hunch over like that to avoid the possibility of having an embarrassing cellphone photo spread around the world, then that’s just how you want to live your life. You can do this at your own pace, teacher.”
I heard a quiet wave of laughter and remembered what Madoka had said.
“Con artists will do whatever they can to nonchalantly escape any disadvantageous situation, but it might be surprisingly easy to get him caught with no way to escape.”
“Eh? Why? What do you mean?”
“Think about it. Even if he’s surrounded by his supporters, how many do you think are actually rooting for him from the bottom of their hearts? The place has to be filled with people whose smiles hide a desire to see him pathetically crawling on the ground. A champion who always wins is boring. Anyone hanging around a casino to see others ascend to heaven or be cast into hell will want to see a hard-fought battle, not a stable victory.”
I could not help but remember that comment.
I was in enough of a trance to ignore the game before my eyes and lose myself in the past.
Kodama’s eyes rolled around to secretly view the passionate and sneering gallery.
“When did you get them on your side?” he asked.
“What are you talking about? I’m only looking at you right now.”
For some reason, my direct response received a mouthed protest from the turtle shell bondage Indoor Youkai instead of from the con artist.
Ahh, a wonderful view no matter where I look. I’m in such a good mood!!
This game had begun as a chance for the top player to crush a conceited brat and the gallery had wanted to see me suffer.
However, people’s hearts changed easily.
They would soon realize whose defeat would be more exciting and enjoyable.
Kodama Ryou clenched his teeth and threw his cards face-up on the poker table.
“Queen of diamonds, king of diamonds, king of clubs, six of spades, and king of hearts!”
“Oh? You were dealt a three of a kind? Swap out one and you could get four of a kind or a full house. Swap out two and you could even get five of a kind. I would expect no less of you, Kodama-san. You didn’t need to hide that at all.”
But this would prevent him from swapping out the five cards in his hand.
The only cards he could use his Usuhiki Warashi Package on were the ones in the dealer’s deck.
And his biggest chance was coming.
“Then let’s get on to the first exchange.”
He made that overly dramatic statement as if challenging me or trying to overturn the atmosphere that was threatening to envelop him.
His voice dropped almost to a whisper.
“If I win here, I will take everything from you: your money and that Youkai. …Don’t forget that. I’ll give you a nice lesson, but this is still a legit game played in a casino.”
Don’t let him draw you in. Don’t let him.
Don’t look down at the bottom of the cliff. Remembering the risk is meaningless.
Shrug and laugh it off! Laugh and keep moving!!
“Ha…ha ha. Don’t try anything too blatant like exchanging all five cards and just so happening to get a royal flush. I think the dealer might stab you if you did.”
I gave one last warning.
He remained smiling, but now exchanging all five cards would be suicide. He would almost certainly be accused of cheating.
If he has any sense, he’ll remove the queen of diamonds and six of spades and give himself a king of spades and a joker for a five of a kind with the four kings and a joker. The only way I can hope to match that is with a royal flush of spades, but that will be impossible if he has the king of spades. And unlike with other hands, he doesn’t have to worry about me getting a five of a kind with a higher number. After all, you need a joker for five of a kind and there’s only one of those in the deck.
When planning with Madoka, we had obviously not been able to predict what cards we would get, so I had to make up the rest on the fly.
The protection of money goddess Kotemitsu Madoka-chan had just about run out.
Figuring out the rules behind Kodama Ryou’s cheating was fine, but that alone wasn’t enough. No matter how much we planned and prepared, I still ultimately had to defeat him on my own.
Kotemitsu Madoka’s plan and the help of the Zashiki Warashi and the fox, tanuki, and badger waiting outside would be of no help unless I overcame this.
If I lost, I would sink and all would be lost.
Slowly, I took a deep breath and spoke.
“Then two. The three of diamonds and three of clubs.”
The snakeskin guy laughed loudly and even clapped his hands.
“C’mon, now. I already have three kings, so why are you getting rid of your two of a kind? That’s just going to leave you with nothing. Or do you think you’re giving yourself a handicap? Or maybe you’re trying to provoke me?”
“This is fine. Two threes would be too boring.”
“That leaves you with…oh. The nine of hearts, jack of hearts, and queen of hearts. Which means… Ha ha! Don’t tell me you’re trying to get the ten and king of hearts for a royal flush or maybe the eight and ten for a straight flush! That’s getting a little too greedy!!”
I didn’t really think I could get that.
After all, he could freely control the remaining cards in the deck.
And sure enough, the two cards I was dealt were…
“What, you’re not going to go out of the way to announce these ones? Ha ha. Of course not!! You threw away your two of a kind and got nothing in return. Besides, that hand is only so valuable because it’s so hard to get.”
“Enough nastiness. Just keep playing.”
“Fine then. I’ll take two as well and get rid of the queen of diamonds and six of spades. Yes, that’s the standard course of action.”
That meant he really was after a five of a kind using the four kings and the joker. Not even a royal flush of hearts could beat that.
I could feel my heart racing even faster.
Was this really the way to go?
Had there been something else I could have done?
Doubts bubbled up inside my head, but the mine cart had already started rolling down the hill. There was no taking back the life placed inside it. I could only bet on this. I could only keep charging forward!
But there was a fork in the mine cart’s track.
If he completed his five of a kind during this first card exchange, I was done for.
But if he gathered one card at a time to complete it on the second exchange, I still had a way out, even if just barely.
Which would it be?
Which way would it roll?
I heard laughter.
The ominous sound of teeth scraping together hurt my ears.
“Kee hee hee. Hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee.”
With his head lowered, the snakeskin guy laughed.
He laughed and laughed and laughed.
“This was a fun little game.”
No announcement could have been worse.
I felt like a cold hand was squeezing each and every organ in my body, one at a time.
The whispering of the gallery grew distant.
The man’s grinning face looked like it was made of melted wax and I immediately realized something.
The fox, tanuki, and badger must have seen this exact same expression when the patron they cared about more than anyone had been cast into the depths of the abyss.
“Perhaps I should call this riichi. I now have the king of spades in my hand. As long as I get the joker, I’ll have a five of a kind. Even if you do get a royal flush of hearts, you can’t win. And even if you forcibly try for the hand with spades instead, I already have the king of spades, so you can’t complete the one hand that can beat a five of a kind!!”
He’d done it.
He’d actually done it.
Instead of ending this on the first card exchange, that idiot was waiting until the second. He had likely thought getting his hand on that first exchange would still seem enough like cheating that he needed to get one of his two cards at a time. And that unnecessary concern had given me the chance I needed to turn this around!
“Heh heh. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!”
“…? What? What is so-…”
“What’s so funny? Your little announcement just now.”
I could drop the act now.
I didn’t need to keep grinning like an idiot and speaking more politely than I was used to.
I completely changed my tone of voice.
Had he been confronted with so many unusual things that he had wanted a little bit of stability?
Or had his ability to control the cards I was dealt caused him to let his guard down? Deciding the number of card exchanges with a roll of a die had likely been “insurance” against doubts if he won too brilliantly after only the one exchange.
Either way, it was now my turn to go on the offensive!
“After all, I have the king of spades. I exchanged my cards first, so it makes no sense for you to have the king of spades in your hand.”
“Oh, c’mon. Why do you look so surprised? With a look like that, you would almost think you had known from the beginning what cards we would be getting.”
Kodama Ryou seemed to focus more on what I said than on my tone of voice or my attitude.
He seemed to be saying he had seen through my farce and that no one cared about that.
“Don’t make baseless accusations!! There’s only one king of spades and it’s in my hand, so you couldn’t possibly have it. Anyone could tell you that!”
“Fine then. How about we both show our hands at the same time?”
I waved my fanned-out cards toward him while making my suggestion and looking down on him.
“But what will happen then?”
“What do you mean?”
“What will happen to the game if the king of spades shows up in both of our hands? By the way, do you remember my hand? I’m going for a royal flush or straight flush of hearts, so the king of spades wouldn’t help me in the slightest. I have no reason to cheat and slip one into my hand.”
“But what about you? Oh, well I guess that goes without saying. You’re after a five of a kind using the four kings and the joker. You’re obviously the one who benefits from having the king of spades in his hand.”
I slammed one hand down on the poker table as I threatened him.
Yes, and I slammed my five cards down as I did so.
“So what will you do? Are you going to call this game off to see if one of us has been cheating?”
Most likely, quite a few things were spinning through Kodama Ryou’s head.
Had something gone wrong with his Usuhiki Warashi card-swapping Package?
Had an amateur high school boy slipped in a card he was hiding up his sleeve?
Was there only the one king of spades and I was only bluffing?
But he had a way of secretly checking on the truth.
I had slammed my cards face-down on the table, so no one could see them.
That meant he could swap them out with his Usuhiki Warashi Package. By swapping out my cards and his cards, he could quickly determine whether I was bluffing or not.
But would he really take the bait?
He was sure to remember which two cards were the ones I had been dealt. By swapping them with two in his hand, he could determine whether I had a king of spades or not.
But that would mean getting rid of his nearly-completed five of a kind. He could swap out cards but not increase or decrease their number, so he had to break up his hand to use that paranormal power.
He had one unneeded card still, but to be absolutely sure, he would have to swap out two. Either way, he would lose one of the cards he needed.
What would he do?
What would happen?
What would the snakeskin con artist choose?
“You got me.”
Kodama Ryou casually shrugged.
“I give up. I lied to shake you up a bit, but I never thought you had the actual card.”
It can’t be!!
I quickly checked the cards I had placed face-down on the table.
He had made the switch.
One of the five had transformed into an unfamiliar king of spades!
“Now that we’ve established you have the king of spades, can we get on with the game?”
He threw away his five of a kind?
Is he going for four of a kind with the joker now!?
And as I had explained myself, the king of spades was only a hindrance for me since I was going for one or the other of the highest two straight flushes of hearts.
He had worked through my accusation and stayed on the path to a powerful hand while also crushing my own possibilities.
And since I had said myself that I had the king of spades, I had no choice but to accept this unwanted gift.
“Now that we’re back on track, it’s time for the second card exchange.”
Kodama Ryou grinned like he was already imagining himself playing his four of a kind against my worthless hand.
This would end with the next exchange.
I could not fold here, so it would all be over soon.
“As before, you can go first.”
The Usuhiki Warashi Package allowed one to freely swap out any of the fifty-three cards on the table.
However, they would notice something was wrong if they tried to swap out a card being viewed by their opponent or a third party. That meant they could only use any face-down cards or the five in their own hand.
They did not know where any card was on the table until they used the Package.
Just by thinking about the card they wanted, the card would be automatically brought to the user’s hand. They could also force an unwanted card onto their opponent.
If the card happened to be viewed by their opponent or a third party, a safety would activate and stop the swap.
Based on my observations, those seemed to be the details of the Package that Kodama Ryou was using. Some of that might not have been exactly right, but it had to be on the right track.
“Heh heh heh!!”
As soon as I made my announcement, the snakeskin guy burst out laughing.
“Oh, oh? Oh, oh, oh, oh!? I can’t be sure, but what is this? I thought you were going for a royal flush or straight flush of hearts? You had three of the needed cards, so what’s going on? Are you throwing away the two cards you got in the first exchange and getting two new ones? So you gained nothing at all and have no real chance of winning? What could possibly be going on here!?”
I did not need to answer.
I simply tossed the two face-down cards toward the dealer.
Kodama Ryou showed no interest in the cards I was dealt in return.
“Then I’ll take one. Just one. I actually have two I don’t need, but there’s no point in exchanging the other one,” said the laughing con artist. “Oh, and you can’t change anything with baseless accusations after the fact. Just to be clear, I will get the joker and complete my four of a kind. That will end this. No matter what anyone says, the result can’t be changed after the second exchange is complete. It saddens me to think you can’t use those provocations of yours anymore. Here, one card. I’ll use this joker to kill you.”
He slid a random card toward the dealer and another was slid back toward him.
If that was the joker, he would have an irregular four of a kind made up of three kings and the wild card.
He was exactly right.
The old lady whose pension was stolen, the granddaughter suffering from a created illness, and most importantly my own life would all be over.
I heard a voice.
The con artist’s suit and shoes were covered in snakeskin and he always had a thin smile on his face, but a close look showed his fingertips were trembling. That tremor travelled up his arms and infected his entire body. Finally, his chair began to rattle below him.
“Did you see something strange?”
“Why!? How could I possibly have not gotten the joker!!!???”
Only after shouting did he realize what he had said. He cautiously looked to the gallery, but that no longer mattered.
The game was set from the moment he finished his second exchange.
“It’s not surprising you didn’t get the joker.”
I spoke casually because his life wasn’t worth anything with more weight to it.
“After all, it’s right here in my hand. And the system was made so it wouldn’t swap out a card your opponent or a third party was looking at, right?”
“And without the joker, all you have is three kings.”
As I spoke, I threw my fanned-out cards face-up on the table.
“I have the ace of diamonds, the joker, the ace of hearts, the king of spades, and the eight of spades. With the joker, that’s three aces.”
It looked like the con artist wasn’t the only one surprised.
A stir ran through the gallery as well.
“In poker, the cards get stronger from two to king, but the ace beats the king, right? That makes my three of a kind better than yours. The game is over, little boy.”
“No… Not that!! What kind of hand is that!?”
“C’mon. I had the joker from the very beginning and it isn’t that rare to end up with two aces. I don’t see anything wrong with this.”
“B-but…you…but! You were going for a royal flush or straight flush of hearts. You couldn’t get a hand like this after the two card exchanges!”
“Yes, how could this have happened?”
There was no real reason to answer.
I only had to point out the result.
“This is over, so pull out your black card. Pull out that magic limitless card. You need to pay me my winnings. I bet a Zashiki Warashi on top of this junmai daiginjo from Noukotsu Village’s Jinnai Brewery, so I’ll be taking quite a lot.”
As the snakeskin guy blankly listened to me, he finally shouted a few words as if life had returned to him.
“That makes no sense.”
“It’s nothing compared to how much you’ve been winning around here.”
“But…this is…but!! Everyone here saw it, right? At the very beginning, you revealed your hand!! What more proof do you need? You clearly cheated somehow!! There’s no other way you could have ended up with that!”
“…Now you’ve said it.”
This was probably the first time I’d smiled in front of him.
Those were exactly the words I had wanted to hear.
I snapped my fingers and made a show of checking with the gallery and dealer.
“You there, you heard what he said, didn’t you?”
“Dealer!! He said it. Check the rules. This fits the conditions perfectly!!”
Hearing that, Kodama Ryou began to tremble even more.
And he looked more surprised about the shaking than anyone.
“Wh-wha-what!? What have you done!?”
“You stepped on a landmine. Check for yourself!!”
This casino had its own local rules:
If the joker is included in the deck, one of the players must announce it. The announcer’s winnings for that hand will only be 0.8 times normal (with the exception of five of a kind that can only be made with a joker).
If the winner forms their hand after discarding the joker, their winnings will be twice normal.
If a player is caught cheating, they will be penalized twice their bet amount. However, a simple bluff does not qualify as cheating.
Cheating is eliminated by the thorough management of the dealer, but it can also be directly pointed out by an opponent.
But if the loser accuses the winner of cheating and no cheating can be proven, the loser will be penalized one hundred times their bet amount for ruining the game and damaging the winner’s reputation.
If a player does not swap out a single card, their winnings will be 1.5 times normal.
“You owe me one hundred times as much now. Everyone here can clearly tell I won and you lost. And now you’re accusing me of cheating to try to overturn that. This is just hard to watch, you fraud. You took a step too far because you were still looking down on me even after losing.”
“No, but, no!! I proved your hand made no sense! The loser can’t be penalized for revealing how the winner was cheating. …Guards!! Search him!! Hurry!!”
Kodama Ryou was as out of control as a toy chimpanzee with cymbals, but I simply raised my hands.
That seemed to clue the chimpanzee in that something was wrong.
As a guard began to check me, Kodama Ryou questioned me.
“H-how? How can you stay so calm?”
“Isn’t that obvious? Because unlike you, I wasn’t cheating.”
“Think back. Or have you altered your own memories? When the cards were first dealt, I did indeed reveal my hand, but all I did was tell you. You had to take my word for it. I didn’t actually show you my cards.”
“You actually showed your cards, but that was probably to steal back people’s focus by doing something with an even greater impact. That makes it simple, doesn’t it? I didn’t actually have the cards I claimed I did.”
My real hand had been two threes, an ace, a joker, and some other useless card. That was actually a three of a kind with a chance for a full house, but it left me with no chance of defeating the snakeskin man and his ability to manipulate all of the hidden cards. Throwing away my two threes then had taken a lot of courage.
The real danger had been when he had sent me the king of spades. The Usuhiki Warashi Package could swap out cards and it still scares me to think what would have happened if he had swapped out the joker or an ace in place of the useless king.
He had to have gotten a card that was clearly not one of those I had announced. If he hadn’t thought it was one of the cards I got during the first exchange, he might have seen through my trick.
I had barely slipped through, but I had done it and won.
Finally, the man wearing gloves with a pentagram on them shook his head.
“You bastard! Check more carefully!! There has to…has to be something!!”
“There isn’t. And a simple bluff doesn’t count as cheating. The local rules say so.”
I made that clear just to be sure. The guard had to be allowing the Usuhiki Warashi. Had the con artist made sure the man wouldn’t say anything unnecessary?
I clapped my hands twice and announced Kodama Ryou’s execution.
“Now, then. It’s time you paid up my normal winnings times one hundred. Pull out your black card so I can take everything you’ve got.”
Cheers exploded from the gallery like after the winning point of a soccer match.
This was the moment where one side laughed and the other crumbled.
Meanwhile, the fox, tanuki, and badger were waiting behind the casino.
After the Zashiki Warashi had been used as a decoy (without being told), Kodama Ryou and the guards had assumed nothing more was hiding out there.
The three of them were looking at the smartphone they had borrowed from the Zashiki Warashi.
“It says to go through with it.”
“W-will this really work?” worriedly asked the wet nurse tanuki.
“Hmm.” The fox tilted his head. “He explained this ahead of time, but I have trouble with those Western terms. Let’s see, it was Fleming’s…”
“Right hand. The left hand is used for the theory behind railguns.”
The fox grabbed at the badger for that bit of know-it-all-ism, but the tanuki stopped them before an actual fistfight broke out.
“Whatever the theory behind it, you know what to do, right? That’s all that matters.”
“Yes, that makes sense. But…”
“What else is there?”
“Can we really get back at loathsome Kodama Ryou with this children’s toy?”
At that point, they heard a girl giggling quietly.
“Who goes there!?”
The fox quickly turned around and saw someone running away.
It was a girl of twelve or thirteen. She wore a short mini-yukata with the shoulders slipped down like a courtesan, so her strange Japanese outfit looked something like a tube top dress with a tight skirt.
“Was that the Usuhiki Warashi? This isn’t good. Is that subspecies going to report on our actions!?”
“N-no,” said the badger to allay the wet nurse tanuki’s fears. “I think this is the opposite. That Usuhiki Warashi… That Zashiki Warashi subspecies is a Youkai of prosperity and she’s leaving the casino and thus her owner. That means only one thing for Kodama Ryou’s future.”
“What are you waiting for? The guest gave you his card, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but I’m trying to make the pre-transaction confirmation.”
Kodama Ryou stood in a soundless world.
No, there was actually applause and a deluge of other sounds enveloping him, but it all seemed to so distant to him. His mind was in no state to comprehend the voices as voices, so it washed over him as mere noise.
It came out to several hundred million.
He was going to lose a full tenth of his total assets.
That was painful enough, but losing to an amateur high school boy was even worse.
“Heh heh… Heh heh heh heh heh heh…”
“N-no, wait, Miss Zashiki Warashi. We can talk this out! If humans and Youkai actually try to talk, they can get along! This was a necessary part of defeating that damn con artist, so- bgchah!?”
“Hey, Shinobu. Do you know what a Cobra Twist is? How about a Frankensteiner?”
“No, wait! You shouldn’t do a move like that in a yuka- gyaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!???”
As soon as she was released from the rope, the Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata began performing harsh pro wrestling moves and the high school boy could do nothing to escape them. Yes, he was only a kid. Normally, he would never have been able to deceive a professional (con artist) like Kodama Ryou.
His actions and words had been as exaggerated as a theatrical performance.
Kodama Ryou should have looked at it all more rationally. The boy had made a larger lie to hide a smaller lie. It was the same as scattering spices along a path to trick the police dog’s sense of smell.
It had been crudely done, but Kodama Ryou had taken it too lightly.
He had not followed through far enough to realize the boy had put together a plan where part of it was meant to be discovered.
And as a result…
Once his thoughts reached that point, his Noh mask expression twisted.
(Something doesn’t fit. He blatantly said he was going to ruin me. Was that extreme statement really only a bluff meant to throw me off his scent? What if it meant something else…?)
Kodama Ryou lived for thrills.
When he had money, he had lots of it. When he had none, he had none at all. His scams, gambles, and art auctions were always an all-or-nothing affair and this was clearly during one of his “all” phases.
Even if that one hundred times penalty was added on, it would not take everything from him.
It would only rob him of a tenth of his money.
(There’s something more.)
Sweat dripped down his face.
(He isn’t done yet!! There has to be something more!!)
Suddenly, he heard a human voice.
“It doesn’t seem to be the computer. There’s been some strange noise on the line for a while now.”
“If the payment is slowed, we’ll lose the guests’ trust. Hurry up and figure out what’s causing it and take care of it.”
The black card.
That special credit card had no credit limit.
They were having trouble during the confirmation phase.
There was some unknown noise on the line.
Kodama Ryou figured it out.
It all fit together.
There was a single way of robbing him of all his money regardless of how the game turned out.
He screamed at the top of his lungs and everyone’s focus turned toward him. But that was the least of his worries. He ran over to the foolish casino worker, punched him in the face, and grabbed back his black card. He took it back.
After hearing the commotion, the guards in black ran over.
Kodama Ryou pointed at the blond high school boy being beaten up by the Zashiki Warashi who had been released from her glass fiber bonds.
“Skimming!! He… He was waiting for the moment when money was transferred using my unlimited black card. He was trying to steal my card number and PIN!!”
“That way he could take all of my money regardless of how the game ended!! The strange noise during the confirmation is the proof! C-c’mon, hurry. Arrest him!! Protect my money from-…!!!!”
After shouting and shouting, he suddenly trailed off.
No one – not the gallery, not the dealer, and not the guards – was listening to him. His words were reaching them, but they were not paying any attention to them. Some shrugged and some sighed.
And then the blond high school boy formed a gun with one hand while having his teary-eyed head pushed into one of the glamorous Zashiki Warashi’s breasts by a headlock.
With a beautiful woman in one arm, he aimed the triumphant gesture at Kodama Ryou.
And he fired some powerful words.
“…Now you’ve said it.”
“After everything is over, the loser has accused the winner of cheating. …Really? If you can’t produce any proof, you’ll get another one hundred times penalty. And two of those penalties on top of each other isn’t two hundred times. One hundred times one hundred is ten thousand. You understand the situation, don’t you?”
He was already losing a tenth of his total assets.
So if that was multiplied by one hundred…
Kodama Ryou had determined that the boy had used a large lie to hide a smaller lie.
That had not been entirely wrong.
However, he had underestimated the scale of what the blond high school boy was trying to take from him.
Incidentally, the Youkai hiding behind the casino had done something quite simple.
Jinnai Shinobu had given them the following advice ahead of time:
“Look, it’s right here. This is the wiring panel. It looks like they’re using metal wires instead of fiber optic, which is lucky. This comes from money-obsessed Madoka, so it’s gotta be right.”
“Understood. If we tear these to shreds, it’ll be a huge problem for the casino, right!? Then leave this to me and my wonderful claws!!”
“You foolish fox. The point is to interfere without damaging it.”
He had then pulled out a children’s toy.
“Have you heard of Fleming and his right and left hand rules?”
“Is he some important Westerner? Never heard of him!!”
“Don’t look so proud of that. His right hand rule goes like this. Say a wire is passing through a spring. Well, when power passes through the wire, it creates a magnetic field around the wire. And it’s based on this line.”
“The flow of electricity and the surrounding magnetic field are connected. Sending electricity through creates a magnetic field and creating a magnetic field around the wire creates an electric current.”
“What does that mean?”
“If you rub a powerful magnet up against it, you can disturb the signal running through the wire without cutting it. I’ll secretly send you an email to tell you when to start. After the game is over, we’ll give that con artist a lovely surprise.”
“Let’s do this!!”
“R-right! Leave it to a wet nurse tanuki like me!!”
“Hey, fox, are you sure this will work!?”
And thus the fox, tanuki, and badger interfered with the high-speed communications without leaving a mark on the cable and made Kodama Ryou suspect someone was skimming his black card’s number and PIN.
But as stated, the nondestructive magnetic method had not left any obvious marks. And of course, the Youkai had left by the time the guards in black had come to investigate.
And when they found no evidence, who would their suspicions turn to?
The frightening ten thousand times penalty said it all.
It was time for a party!
I remembered I had yet to eat any dinner and it was somehow four in the morning already, so a party was the only answer.
Time! To! Eat!!
Afterwards, we all (although I was the only non-Youkai of the bunch) rented out the second story of a club until morning and clinked together small bottles of cider. The glass table was covered in fried chicken, French fries, pepperoncino, and other greasy foods you would never think to eat at four in the morning.
I was aware this seemed ridiculously out of place, but shockingly, this was the cheapest plan available on Goldmine Island. A tiny-little restaurant could actually be more expensive, so you could see how screwed-up the casino island’s sense of money was. They didn’t have any normal family restaurants or karaoke boxes.
“U-um,” nervously began the wet nurse tanuki. “Should we really be doing this? The money we took from Kodama Ryou belonged to people he tricked across the country.”
“Oh, it’s fine, it’s fine. We took as much as we could from his black card. We were at a table with a rate as high as four to five million, the Zashiki Warashi was added on top of that, and then came the fearsome ten thousand times penalty. That had to be far more than he’d ever stolen. The con artist is going to be in a hell of debt now. We can still pay everyone back after taking a bit off the top to pay for our trouble.”
“Oh? If we have extra, shouldn’t you give the victims back even more? For example, you could give them enough to pay for their sick granddaughter’s surgery in another country.”
The fox, tanuki, and badger fell silent for a while. They thought about what that meant and then silently lowered their heads.
“Stop that. We would have messed up somewhere without the information on the Usuhiki Warashi. And you were the ones that set up the final trick with the magnet, so we’re even here! The Zashiki Warashi and I just need this dinner…or is it a midnight snack? Or breakfast? Anyway, we’ll just eat as much as we want and then you all can return the stolen money to its rightful owners. So let’s get eating and drinking!!”
That must have cleared away their worries because the celebration really started afterwards. Foxfire flew around, the tanuki got on the table and beat her stomach like a drum, and the badger was entirely focused on mixing a ton of toppings in a bowl to create a badger udon. We were all doing different things.
“You are a crazy young man. You might be better at deceiving people than us.”
“Eh heh heh. It all began when I climbed the maple tree behind the house and transformed into the moon because the wife of the house was sad that it was raining on the fifteenth night.”
“There’s a historical play based off of us three, you know? But the director was clueless and changed the badger to a dog because he thought a badger was too confusing.”
After at most five minutes, we would find ourselves unable to settle down and would raise our bottles of cider again.
“Well, I don’t really get any of this, but cheers!!”
We repeated the process twenty or thirty times.
There were no problems.
We had taken all the money from Kodama Ryou, the old woman who had collapsed from worry and the sick granddaughter would have what they needed to recover, and all of the victims around the country were guaranteed all of their money back. That money had been left with an accountant Madoka knew. I didn’t know the details of gift taxes and whatever else, so I could only leave that up to a specialist. And I could trust someone a friend introduced more than I could someone completely unknown.
So if there was nothing else, this would all end with the happiest ending possible.
If there was nothing else.
Only once the glamorous Zashiki Warashi called out to me did I realize I was resting on the glass table.
It seemed I had fallen asleep for a bit.
We had had a hell of a party, but I hadn’t had any alcohol. When I thought about it, I realized I hadn’t slept since the airplane ride the day before. I had forgotten thanks to the extreme tension of the poker match against Kodama Ryou, but the weariness may have rushed back as soon as that tension vanished.
The three animal Youkai were asleep on the sofa or the floor and the Zashiki Warashi pulled the smartphone from her cleavage and checked he time.
“If we don’t get back to the inn soon, we might miss breakfast.”
“My dad would probably get mad if I missed two meals in a row. But, ugh. Will I even have room for breakfast if we head back now?”
Sleeping a bit may have actually made things worse because I felt an oozing sense of tingling acid rising from my stomach. This was the problem with eating so much greasy food.
I slowly got up and called out to the other Youkai.
“Hey, fox, tanuki, badger. It’s time to wake up. We rented the place until morning, so if we stay any longer, they’ll charge us extra.”
“Mh? Did I fall asleep?”
The three of them got up while rubbing their eyes and then left the club’s VIP room with the Zashiki Warashi and me. There were still quite a few people on the normal dance floor. They didn’t look like the type to play video games, but they seemed pretty interested in cellphone avatars. They were all discussing the VR Casino City’s friend registration, costume trading, or virtual land sales.
Palm trees grew alongside the wide roads on this island, but the air was nice and chilly this early in the morning.
With the intense morning sunlight replacing the decorative casino lights, a sleepy atmosphere finally began to set in. Shiny, polished luxury sports cars drove by every now and then, but the drivers’ clothing didn’t match the cars. They were probably from a valet service and the actual owner was taking a limousine back to their inn with a young, drunk woman.
“I was expecting nothing but Italian and German cars on a casino island, but there’s a surprising number of Japanese ones.”
“That’s because Japan has some of the top brands for hybrids and electric cars. Teihin’s complete carbon frame car had a rush of preorders despite costing two or three hundred million yen.”
“Why do you know so much about this? You downloaded a stupidly expensive racing game app in my name or something, didn’t you?”
The three animal Youkai intended to leave Goldmine Island and return to Shikoku. They hadn’t come as tourists, so now that Kodama Ryou had been dealt with, they wanted to get back to their owner as soon as possible.
The three of them waved their short arms (or front legs?) as they left and the Zashiki Warashi and I started for the inn on the opposite side of Goldmine Island’s mountain.
“Shinobu, I’m not sure we’ll make it back in time for breakfast if we walk.”
“I got enough from those three to take a taxi, so we can hail a limousine if we see one.”
I had thought we would find one if we waited by the major road, but all of the limousines already had customers. It seemed we had hit the rush taking people back to the inns.
The Indoor Youkai gave a disappointed sigh as the limousines drove back and forth and my cellphone suddenly began to ring from my pocket.
I pulled it out and checked the screen, but I didn’t recognize the number.
“I apologize for calling so early in the morning. This is Okazaki from National Flight Airline’s Lost Baggage Management Center. Is this Mr. Jinnai Shinobu?”
“Oh, yes, it is.”
“I have a report concerning the baggage you lost while taking Flight 5511 yesterday. I am terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but your travel bag has been safely located and we would appreciate it if you could pick it up at our airport counter at your soonest convenience.”
“Eh? Oh, my bag? You found it!?”
“It has already been transported to the airport, so you can pick it up immediately if you wish. Just to be certain, we will need to confirm your identity at the counter, so please bring some form of ID with you.”
Some form of ID?
What would work? I don’t have a motorcycle license and I didn’t bring my passport since we weren’t leaving the country.
“Um, would my student ID work?”
“Ah ha ha. I would need to be a little more official than that. For example, a driver’s license or insurance card.”
An insurance card, huh?
Does my mom have mine?
As I wondered that, I saw an electrical car moving slowly along the road.
I casually glanced over at the slow black Japanese sports car from the sidewalk.
But then my eyebrows rose.
There was no one in the driver’s seat.
And before I could wonder why, the sports car seemed to swell out from within as it exploded from quite nearby.
My consciousness briefly but undeniably blanked out.
By the time I realized I had spent those few seconds in the air, I had flown two or three meters and landed on the sidewalk.
After a short delay, I heard the high-pitched sound of windows shattering on the stores lining the street.
I tried to check on the situation, but my vision kept shaking and wouldn’t settle down. My arms and legs were trembling, so I couldn’t get up either.
What the hell is going on!?
My mind was unsteady and my senses were ruled by the strange stench of the rising smoke. It was different from gasoline. I also sensed distant screams and something like camera flashes.
And despite it all, the Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata was standing there no different from normal.
“I can’t say I’m surprised that you instinctually tried to use me as a shield, Shinobu.”
“Well, you’re standing there triumphantly after a close-range explosion, so I’d say I made the right decision.”
Even after more than ten seconds had passed, I still couldn’t stand up.
I somehow managed to shake my head and got my eyes to focus.
I could tell someone was approaching us from beyond the black smoke.
That’s what I assumed since the men wore shiny silver fire-resistant suits, but a powerful tug soon reached my arm.
“Wh-what are you doing, Zashiki Warashi?”
“How long has it been since the explosion?” she asked casually. “It can’t have been more than a minute. Even for a small island, this was too fast. But this gives them the perfect opportunity to hide their identities while taking away the victim.”
“Wait a second. You mean…?”
“There’s no time for questions.”
Looking truly annoyed, the Zashiki Warashi grabbed me under each arm and started dragging me away. The supposed firefighters’ shoulders twitched and they began racing toward us more quickly.
The Zashiki Warashi finally placed me over her shoulder like a sack of rice and ran into an alley-like gap between two buildings.
After turning a few corners, she crouched down behind a large metal dumpster.
Footsteps rushed away in the wrong direction.
I still couldn’t move very well, but I just barely managed to move my mouth.
“Wh-what is going on?”
“I don’t know. Any idea who might want to attack you?”
“Kodama Ryou? Although I’m pretty sure I could take care of him myself.”
“I doubt that fallen warrior has any forces leftover.”
“What about the casino? He had bribed a few of the guards in black, right? Y’know, the ones with enough of a spiritual sense to detect occult cheating.”
“Oh, the perverts who put that turtle shell bondage on me. I remember that verrrrry well.”
“But the special casino district keeps out large criminal organizations, remember?”
“Dangerous people don’t have to come from outside. The casinos have a ton of money and they’ll gather military might to protect it. And as their influence grows, they’ll end up no different from some kind of mafia.”
“Even if the casinos can be dangerous, they didn’t lose anything this time. You played directly against Kodama Ryou, so they have no reason to get back that money.”
“Perhaps not.” I slowly sighed. “Then let’s think about this differently. We won a direct game against Kodama Ryou and took well over ten billion yen from him. What if someone who saw that decided they could swipe that money from the amateur who took it?”
For one thing, it was a miracle I was still alive after a car bomb went off so close by. What if that hadn’t been meant to kill me? What if they were actually trying to abduct me to get my bank account number? Explaining it with malice seemed to make more sense than by calling it a coincidence or a miracle.
“That increases the number of suspects quite a bit. The staff and gallery who were in the casino itself are of course suspect, but who knows how far the rumor has spread in the hours since.”
“In the worst case, we might need to suspect every single person on Goldmine Island.”
I really didn’t want to think about the possibility, but the fox, tanuki, and badger weren’t completely above suspicion. Any one of them could have betrayed us and we had no way of proving that the entire story about the old master and sick granddaughter was true.
Fortunately, the money itself had been left with an accountant Madoka knew, so no one could steal the money even if these mystery attackers tried to get it out of me.
However, that did not guarantee I would survive.
I was completely helpless here.
“Shinobu, what are you going to do now?”
“Is it safe to use my cellphone? At any rate, I need to call my parents and meet up with them. This could cause them trouble, too.”
“We can’t trust the casinos on the front side of the island or the goldmine city on the back side. If you take a limousine taxi, it could easily take you somewhere up in the mountain and walking will take you through a lot of isolated places. It’s going to be dangerous no matter what you do.”
“There’s one way.”
When would strength return to my body?
I tried my best to move my limbs, but they would only tremble a bit.
“Goldmine Island is divided between the central mountain and the coastal areas and the coast is divided between the casino city and the goldmine city that contains the inns. There are only so many routes going around the mountain and it would be easy to lie in wait there. Whether by car or on foot, we’d probably be attacked.”
“We just have to make our way through the center. That huge mountain contains a goldmine, so there has to be a labyrinth of passageways through it. If we take a shortcut through those tunnels, we might be able to slip past their ambush and reach the inn.”
Mysterious footsteps moved by surprisingly nearby.
It was frightening, but staying in one place would only get us caught eventually. They had to know our general location.
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi. Do you think you can carry me through the mountain?”
“I’m really thinking about leaving you here and escaping on my own.”
“I really will come back to haunt you, dammit.”
As the footsteps grew more distant, the Zashiki Warashi started to move out from behind the dumpster with me over her shoulder again, but we immediately gave up.
“It’s no use. They’ll definitely find us.
“We need to figure something out. This spot won’t be safe forever.”
“Wait a second.”
For some reason, she reached for the lid of the metal dumpster we were hiding behind.
Did she just grab something?
All of a sudden, the Glamorous Youkai loosened her obi and began removing her yukata.
“Wait! What are- gweh!?”
Her bright white skin stabbed into my eyes and I almost cried out, but that damn Zashiki Warashi stepped on my face to cover my mouth!
“In a casino city, a red yukata and a school uniform stand out, but these fake firefighters will be looking for that stronger impression. If we alter our hairstyles and change clothes, we can leave without even trying to hide. If they see us head-on, we’ll still be in trouble, but they won’t know it’s us from behind.”
“Mghmgh…cough! Wh-what do you mean change clothes?”
The nude Zashiki Warashi swung a few small scraps of cloth around.
“A couple must have slipped back here for some sex last night because there was an abandoned bikini here.”
“Wow! Why would you want to pick up something like- bgh!?”
She must have had no choice given the situation because she put on the skimpy bikini despite normally only ever wearing the kimono.
She tied bows in the side strings and I somehow managed to speak again.
“Hey, that solves it for you, but what am I supposed to do?”
“Oh? Nothing to worry about.”
For some reason, a bewitching smile appeared on her face.
“I said a couple had used this spot for sex, remember? There’s a men’s swimsuit here too.”
“Sorry, but I don’t think the situation leaves you with much choice.”
“Wait! Wait just a- mgh!? Don’t step on my face, you idiot! That discarded swimsuit scares me! It’s unsanitary!! And stop that! Quit pulling off my clothes!!”
“C’mon, Shinobu. Your big sis will help you get changed, okay?”
After a humiliating five minutes, we were ready for battle.
Instead of carrying me over her shoulder, the Zashiki Warashi supported me with that shoulder like I was simply drunk.
As soon as we slowly stood up from behind the metal dumpster, I felt several gazes stabbing into my back.
“Honey, I think you drank too much.”
“I want to forget everything. Where’s the booze!?”
“Shout like that and it’ll all come back up. C’mon, let’s get back to the inn.”
Even so, we couldn’t stay still and we couldn’t run away either. We had to slowly make our way unsteadily forward.
Fortunately, no one demanded we stop.
The Zashiki Warashi headed behind the casinos and into the mountain forest.
While the city was filled with bright lights, it had been quickly constructed for the special casino district project and the city wasn’t all that wide. If one left the main road that passed through the center, it wasn’t far to reach a dense forest. The forest was mostly made up of pineapple-like tropical trees that one could use to make a leaf swimsuit, but there were a few maple and gingko trees here and there. I couldn’t help but notice the spots of red or yellow amid the green.
I was still supported by the Zashiki Warashi’s shoulder, but I could move my fingers enough to operate my cellphone.
“It’s no use. Neither of my parents is answering.”
I was concerned, but worrying about it wouldn’t help.
I refocused my mind and contacted someone else.
“You need help again?”
Morning or night, this eccentric beauty was always tons of help.
Or so I thought.
“Shinobu-kun, let me ask you one thing first: what have you gotten yourself into now?”
“Eh? What? Well, as I said before, I took on the con artist named Kodama Ryou and…”
“Not that.” She cut me off with an awfully, awfully cold voice. “I’m sorry, Shinobu-kun, but you need to back out of this. What you’ve gotten yourself involved in will heavily influence my territory. This will actually affect me, so if you insist on doing anything more…”
Was this really Madoka I was speaking with?
Was it possible someone had transformed into her like that one time?
I couldn’t help but suspect that given her tone of voice.
“Then I will use my money and soldiers to crush you.”
She hung up.
I knew this was hardly the time, but I simply stared blankly at the phone for a while. What was going on? How had Madoka ended up as my enemy?
“R-right. I can’t hope for any advice from Madoka, so we’ll have to get through this on our own.”
“Sigh. Was there enough money involved to turn her against you?”
“Honestly, I don’t even know what kind of world she lives in.”
My nervous homeroom teacher had asked me to look after her, but if someone had asked me if I had made my way deep into her mind over the past few months, I would have had to answer “no”. She was someone whose thought patterns I simply couldn’t read. I may have done something to anger her, but there was no point in figuring out what it was now.
“What are we going to do?”
“Head for the inn using the tunnels through the mountain. Then we can meet up with my parents.”
“And after that?”
The second question silenced me as I leaned on her shoulder, but I finally answered honestly.
“Do you really think I have any idea?”
By the time we set foot in the goldmine’s tunnel, feeling had returned to my arms and legs. I of course decided to remove the mystery swimsuit and put back on my school uniform, but…
“Look the other way, Zashiki Warashi!”
“I have no interest in your body, so what does it matter?”
“And stop stripping right in front of me! You’re not a much-older sister that only sees me as a kid!”
“I pretty much am. How many times do you think we’ve bathed together?”
“…I still think you should at least hide behind the rocks over there!!”
After changing, we threw away the swimsuits and finally moved deeper into the tunnel. I just hoped it would take us all the way to the opposite side of the mountain.
We continued walking through the manmade cave that was smelled strongly of dirt.
My cellphone’s backlight was our only source of light. There was a row of covered lightbulbs near the tunnel ceiling, but we couldn’t find a switch and we were afraid using the electricity would reveal our location.
“This isn’t good. The battery’s only going to last for about an hour. After that, we’ll be stuck in the dark.”
“Yeah, and the smartphone is nearly dead.”
“If only we could find a flashlight or materials for a torch somewhere.”
It was hard to believe I had been playing poker in a dazzling casino not long before.
The miners must have set up a communications antenna because my phone just barely still had a connection, so if I had wanted to, I could have played the slots in the VR Casino City or sold my avatar’s old clothes in my own virtual shop.
The manmade tunnel was fairly narrow and I could touch both walls if I stretched my arms out to either side. I was also nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. There were two small rails running along the ground which I assumed were for a mine cart. The sides of the narrow hole were only reinforced by some carelessly placed logs, so I would never have wanted to go in there normally.
“It branches off all over the place.”
“They probably just dug wherever they wanted without much planning. Anyway, let’s follow the track on through. That should at least avoid wandering around in circles.”
An Intellectual Village was a system that achieved massive profits by turning the rural into a brand name.
The value of pure gold was determined internationally, so I didn’t see much point in making a brand name out of its source. Still, there were exceptions even there.
In addition to weight and percentage, it seemed some extra value could be added to a ring based on where the gold had come from. As could be seen in legends from around the world, it wasn’t unusual to find the idea of “special gold” (although it tended to take the form of harmful cursed gold), so this was less about creating a new way of thinking and more about recalling an older way of thinking. If it caught on, it could easily spread around the world in no time.
Even so-called “pure” gold was technically only 99.99…9% pure and 100% pure gold didn’t exist, so it seemed research was being done to determine the source of the gold based on a detailed examination of the remaining components.
I remembered Madoka actually sounding pretty shaken because creating different grades of gold would throw the financial markets into chaos.
“What is it, Shinobu?”
“Nothing. Let’s just get out of here and meet up with my parents at the inn. I’m sure they have some work to do here, but safeguarding our lives comes first. If we can’t trust anyone on the island, it would be best to escape outside the island.”
As I spoke, we walked deeper and deeper down the tunnel.
The cellphone’s backlight only dimly illuminated the area around my hand, so I couldn’t even see the ground clearly. I naturally ended up keeping a hand on the wall as I walked, but the damp stone and dirt was not a pleasant sensation. My fingers sometimes felt something similar to rubber or plastic, so I looked over and saw thick cables running along the rugged stone.
I thought nothing of it at first, but then I looked back.
“What is this? Why’s there a cable here?”
As I had said, the cellphone was the only source of light. The cable didn’t seem connected to the tunnel’s lightbulbs or fluorescent lights and I hadn’t seen a fan blowing fresh air into the stale tunnel.
In that case, what was the cable powering?
Unpleasant questions floated up in the back of my mind like bubbles in a rotten swamp. The sticky bubbles slowly grew, stuck together, and filled my entire head.
I felt like this was something I could not afford to overlook.
It seemed to lead to some fatal conclusion.
How were we attacked after our victory in the casino? An unmanned car packed with explosives. …But who could easily bring something so dangerous into the casino city?
“This is bad, Zashiki Warashi.”
“Really bad!! The bomb came from this mine!! That means we didn’t escape here of our own free will. We were attacked by a blatant car bomb and then the firefighters approached so slowly. They intentionally guided us to the goldmine where there are no witnesses so they could finish us off on their own turf. In that case, this cable must be-…!!”
I never finished my explanation.
Before I could, a deafening explosion filled my vision with dirt and dust.
I opened my eyes to find nothing but darkness.
I couldn’t tell whether I had simply had my eyes closed or if I had been knocked unconscious for a long period of time.
This wasn’t like the earlier car bomb. A strange sense of pressure assaulted me from every direction.
I patted across my upper body with both hands. I could move my limbs and I could breathe. As I gradually gathered information, I could feel the uneasy pressure gradually soften. At the very least, I didn’t seem to have been buried alive. However, the scent of dirt was even stronger than before and it felt a little difficult to breathe, although I couldn’t tell whether that was an issue of oxygen levels or my own mental state.
Where’s the light? Where’s my cellphone???
I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, so I felt up ahead while crawling. I quickly ran into the wall and the limited space just about made me cry. My heart was about to break, so I scolded myself and continued working. Finally, I felt some plastic.
“There it is.”
My trembling fingers felt across the slight bumps to operate the buttons.
The faint backlight seemed quite bright now.
“This is awful,” I muttered without thinking.
Just a few meters ahead, the tunnel had collapsed. A wall of stone and dirt completely filled the tunnel and there was obviously no chance of digging through by hand.
Then again, when I looked the other way, I only found more dirt. The overwhelming amounts got my legs trembling. There was less than ten meters of free space left. I could not continue on or turn back and I doubted there were any ways out along the walls.
The dirt hadn’t come down on my head, but this was no different from being closed in a large coffin.
I didn’t know how long the air would last.
What was I supposed to do?
I was at a loss, so I meaninglessly pointed the backlight here and there. But in all three hundred and sixty degrees, I found nothing but wet dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, and a figure in a yukata.
As soon as she entered my field of vision, I thought my mind was going to explode.
She was crouched down with her back to the wall and her long hair hid her face.
For an instant, I thought she was a cursed doll, but it was actually the glamorous Zashiki Warashi.
I could only hear one person breathing inside this small, sealed space. Her hair, clothing, and fingertips were stained with unpleasant dirt, but she did not so much as twitch.
She didn’t look like a living being.
She seemed as unreal as an eerie shadow caught in the corner of a photograph.
It was as if…
I sank down to the ground and opened my mouth without thinking.
“Please stop that. …Please just stop it.”
Mine was the only voice. There was no response.
It truly felt like I was the only one there. Was that figure really composed of matter? Her presence was so faint, I doubted even that.
Finally, her white fingertip moved ever so slightly as she sat with her back to the wall.
She wrote something in the dirt: try not to waste the air.
Oh, so that’s why.
She technically didn’t need water or food and this explained why she seemed so inanimate.
I scratched at my head, realized my hand was covered in dirt, and clicked my tongue.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s hopeless either way. Whether we die here or someone shows up to rescue us, we still lost. For one thing, I think this situation is exactly what they had planned.”
I heard the woman in a yukata move her head a little.
She had likely tilted it to indicate confusion.
“If someone does come to save us, who do you think will show up first? Firefighters or a rescue team, right? And that’s how they were dressed. After burying us alive, they’ll be the ones to dig us up. They set it all up themselves, but it gives them the perfect opportunity to abduct someone while the public watches on. So we’re beat. Even if we know it’s coming, we can’t escape it.”
The mine was likely rigged with explosives at set intervals. No matter what path we had taken, they would have detonated the tunnel ahead of and behind us to trap us in a cage of dirt.
“We’ve lost, but at least that means they’ll dig us out. So don’t worry about the air, Zashiki Warashi. Discussing what’s to come is more important.”
At that point, a clear change entered the darkness: I heard someone exhale.
It looked like a switch had been thrown as the creepy woman returned to being a good-for-nothing indoor Youkai. Saying her heart resumed beating or breath returned to her lungs seemed to fit perfectly. And now that she was “back”, the cold dirt cell gained the life and familiarity of a school classroom.
“Honestly, why do I have to get caught up in this nonsense?”
“Don’t ask me.”
“Just to be sure, Shinobu, they’ll let me go if I hand you over, right?”
“This really might be the last time we see each other, so how about we have a nice intimate goodbye?”
But realistically, was there anything we could do?
The car bomb and the explosives set up inside the tunnel had probably come from this goldmine, so the miners were the most likely suspects.
But that was all we knew.
What would they do after digging us out? It seemed likely they wanted the billions of yen we’d taken from Kodama Ryou, but that had been left with Madoka’s accountant and we couldn’t withdraw a single yen of it ourselves. But would they accept that? And if not, what would they do with us?
If they took us somewhere, we would probably be bound, so was there any chance of turning this around, any way to escape, or any way to contact the authorities?
As I explained my thinking, the Zashiki Warashi cut in.
“Doesn’t that seem odd, though?”
“What? How exactly is it odd?”
“Your premise is that someone heard about your win in the casino and attacked to take that money.”
What was she talking about?
What other possible reason could someone have to attack?
“That may be a perfectly good reason to attack, but doesn’t this seem too elaborate? Unlike blades or blunt weapons, it takes a lot of effort to handle explosives safely. Where did they get the car? What about the firefighters’ special fire-resistant suits? How many hours must it have taken to place explosives at set intervals through the mine?”
“And it’s only been a few hours since you won in the casino. You would have a hard time simply finding tightlipped accomplices in that time, so they couldn’t have put together an actual plan yet.”
Could you look at it that way?
It was true that it seemed rather intricate for a sudden and impulsive attack. After all, they couldn’t have known exactly where we would run. They would have needed to seal off our other options to ensure checkmate even if we hadn’t escaped into the mine.
How much preparation, manpower, and time would it have taken to accomplish all of that?
If they had just decided to attack as soon as they caught scent of the money, they would only have had to put on a mask and attack with a metal pipe in one hand.
“Wait a minute. Then who attacked us?”
“Do you really think I know that?”
“They at least went to the effort of burying us alive to get us to do something, but I can’t think of anything else worth all that other than the casino money!”
“We probably can’t even come up with a countermeasure unless we figure out what they’re after. Holding a shield up in the wrong direction will just get you stabbed in the side.”
I heard a dull thud and instinctually looked over. I could tell the thick wall of dirt was crumbling a little. I heard something like giant gears turning and it gradually grew louder.
I instinctually looked to the Zashiki Warashi.
What if? What if they truly weren’t attacking because of the casino incident? What if my very first assumption had been wrong?
Then it was possible I wasn’t their target at all.
There was someone else here.
It was entirely possible they had been after the Zashiki Warashi all along!
With a dull sound, something like a metal stake covered in lots of spikes broke through.
The dirt wall was being removed, but I didn’t feel the slightest happiness at being rescued and allowed out.
Hands reached in. All I saw were hands, hands, hands.
I’m sure I shouted something then, but the men in shiny fire-resistant suits didn’t react in the slightest. The shields protecting their faces hid their expressions from view and they threatened me by pushing forward a rotating blade that measured over a meter long.
And the hands were reaching for someone else.
I saw the Zashiki Warashi grabbed by the many hands and forced to her feet. Youkai were much stronger than humans. While she looked slender, she could probably literally kick them around despite how outnumbered she was.
But it was obvious why she obeyed them: the blade drill pushed up against my chest!
She glanced over at me just once, but she said nothing, faced forward again, and was tugged out through the hole.
She was taken away.
She disappeared from view.
As the Zashiki Warashi was dragged on ahead, the men dressed as firefighters left the tunnel, one by one. Once only the one pressing the weapon to my chest remained, he tossed a small memo my way.
It contained eleven numbers.
It was a cellphone number.
After I was finally left alone and still covered in dirt, I made my way back the way I had come. I didn’t run across anyone all the way to the bright entrance. They may have already taken the Zashiki Warashi out or they may have taken a different path through the spider web of tunnels to head to the other side of the island.
I was out of hints.
I had no idea whatsoever where the Zashiki Warashi was.
It was a sunny day and I shouted into the clear blue sky at the top of my lungs.
There was of course no answer.
I had always thought that Youkai did nothing of value.
I had always thought she shirked her duties as a Zashiki Warashi.
But she would never have been captured if she had not tried to save my life. She should have been able to escape on her own, but she had obeyed them to let me get away.
I slapped my cheeks and focused myself.
Moping around wasn’t going to help. I was the only one that knew what had happened and I was the only one who could do anything, so if I did nothing, no one could save that Zashiki Warashi.
They had given me a phone number before leaving.
They wouldn’t have done that for no reason, so I dialed my cellphone with my muddy fingers.
“That was surprisingly quick.”
It was a male voice…I thought.
It had clearly been mechanically altered, so I couldn’t rely on how it sounded.
“I thought your panic would last a little longer or you would go crying to your parents or the police.”
A strange scraping noise accompanied the voice.
Was it fingernails?
It wasn’t quite the sound of biting them, so the person may have had a habit of scratching the plastic body of the phone.
“Youkai have no rights,” I explained. “They can’t be accused of a crime even if they kill someone, but that also means they don’t benefit from any other social services. Even if they’re abducted in broad daylight, the police can’t do anything about it. After all, they aren’t human.”
And if the police couldn’t do anything, talking to my parents wouldn’t help either.
One’s parents were reliable, but they weren’t all powerful. Everyone knew that by the time they entered middle school.
“How wise of you. But it may be one of your strong points that you don’t make that sound coldhearted.”
“I know you didn’t just want to chat. What do you want me to do?”
“I’m glad you understand. That way I won’t have to explain or demonstrate that we have a method of killing Youkai.”
A squeezing ache filled my chest.
If he had been standing in front of me when he said that, I might have torn out his windpipe with my teeth.
Kodama Ryou and the casino had used a special rope to bind the Zashiki Warashi. They had crushed a stone mill to powder, placed it in a furnace, and created a special glass fiber rope. It had likely been made for the Usuhiki Warashi, a subspecies, but if they used it on her…
If they created a blade or bullet out of the stone mill glass fiber…
“Our instructions are simple. Obey them and we will release the Zashiki Warashi. And simple as they are, this is something only you can do. Can we count on you?”
If this is their true objective, does that mean they aren’t even after the Zashiki Warashi?
No, I need to assume something else might be underway at the same time.
“What do you want?”
“Your travel bag that ended up as lost baggage. Pick it up at the airport counter and bring it to us.”
At first, I didn’t understand.
They didn’t want the money I’d won at the casino or the Zashiki Warashi that had supported our Intellectual Village house for so long. Why were they so fixated on a student’s luggage? They had even used explosives and firefighter suits, which weren’t easy to get your hands on.
“I won’t ask you again.”
“Wait, wait! What do you want with that suitcase? There’s nothing much in there. In fact, I think the suitcase itself might be the most valuable part. So…!!”
“We are not here to answer questions. Pick up your bag and call us again once you leave the airport.”
“But I’m covered in mud!! If I head to the reception counter like this, they’ll definitely be suspicious. If you want me to do this for you, then compromise at least a little!!”
“Then stop by your inn for a change of clothes.”
“So you’re fine with my parents stopping me after they see me like this? And how am I supposed to explain the Zashiki Warashi’s absence?”
“You can buy new clothes.”
“They don’t sell clothes in a casino city. Or do you think they wouldn’t suspect a thing if I showed up at the airport dressed as a bunny girl?”
I heard him click his tongue and the scratching on the cellphone’s body continued.
After some time to think, he replied.
“There are some coin lockers in Building A at the airport. Open #0934 and take what is inside.”
“A coin locker? So where do I get the key?”
“#0934 won’t be locked. It will contain the key to another locker. Use that to open the other locker, which will hold a change of clothes.”
“Now, listen. We won’t give you anything more than that. If you don’t pick up your bag, you will never see your Zashiki Warashi again.”
“I get it!!”
I hung up and had some things to do.
The first of course was picking up my suitcase. They obviously wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble to steal some kid’s clothes and handheld game system, so there had to be some kind of secret. Without knowing what they were after, I couldn’t figure out what their Achilles’ heel was. I needed to find it, use it as a shield, and take back the Zashiki Warashi.
Secondly, someone would be putting some clothes in the airport coin locker soon. If I could capture them and get some information from them that they didn’t want me to know, then I could throw a wrench in their plans.
I was prepared to use any means necessary.
I was covered in dirt and only had a bit of change.
I couldn’t use a taxi like that and I didn’t care what people thought about me at this point, so I ran full speed toward the floating airport connected to the island. Fortunately, Goldmine Island was small. All of the facilities were packed in enough that you could get anywhere on foot so long you didn’t wear yourself out.
Or so it should have been.
My legs wobbled and tripped.
I couldn’t even run properly.
I had barely had any sleep since the previous day, I had consumed tons of food and drink with no thought about the consequences, my head had been shaken by an explosive blast (even if they had been holding back), I had been buried alive, and I had undergone the mental shock of having the Zashiki Warashi taken from me before my eyes.
It had all come together at once.
But that was no excuse. The situation was already underway. If I didn’t catch them putting the items in the lockers, I couldn’t get a step ahead of them. If I just did what they said and followed the rails they had laid out for me, I might not get the Zashiki Warashi back.
My vision blurred.
I felt dizzy, so I leaned up against a nearby streetlight and tried to catch my breath. The sweat on my brow felt oddly cold.
I was starting to feel anemic and my weakness started snowballing out of control.
Even if I did reach the airport, what could I even do? I was only a high school boy and I was alone. Could I really spot the suspicious person in a large cloud? How many people used the coin lockers? It was possible there would be more than one enemy there and they could have been monitoring my every move. What could I do? Was there anything I could do besides obeying them?
That wasn’t being logical. I was simply giving up.
I shook my head and gathered my strength to start moving again.
And as I almost collapsed forward, something soft supported my head.
It was a young woman’s breasts.
“U-um, what are you doing? You look awfully pale.”
I moved away so quickly I almost fell backwards, but the woman only looked confused.
A closer look showed she wore a maid uniform with a miniskirt and her short hair was dyed in a mesh of black and brown. The breasts I had buried my face in were quite large. I naturally didn’t know anyone on Goldmine Island, so I could only imagine she was some kind person who had called out to me because I didn’t look well. Her outfit was strange, but in a city where bunny girls roamed the streets, that didn’t seem to matter.
However, the woman gave me a troubled look.
“Oh, dear. It’s me.”
“I am the wet nurse tanuki.”
Based on what the tanuki told me, it seemed the fox, tanuki, and badger had snuck into Goldmine Island by stowing away aboard a luxury cruise ship. They had intended to leave the same way, but none of the ships left until past noon and they had nothing else to do until then.
“The best method is to sneak into the cargo hold in our small animal forms and then transform into humans. They check on the cargo hold from time to time, but after checking people’s tickets when they board, they don’t suspect anyone onboard. They assume there is no way to slip past the gate.”
There seemed to be different conditions for each one, but these three filled in the details of their transformations by walking through human civilization and blending in. They were apparently in the middle of doing that now.
“At any rate, this is great. I think luck has seriously turned my way.”
“Oh, um, what?”
“Can you contact the fox and badger? I could use some help right now, so could you do something for me?”
The other two arrived before long.
The fox looked like the kind of athletic young man who would be chosen as a world cup representative and the badger looked like a cool, perfectly-proportioned prince with silky blond hair and a dark suit.
I-I know it isn’t surprising Youkai all end up so attractive since they can freely take on any design they imagine, but could you please stop making visuals where I blend into the background! It’s depressing!!
After I explained the details, the soccer player, the maid, and the prince began ruining their attractive aura by speaking with their usual voices.
“H-how dastardly!! If they are going to kidnap that poor Zashiki Warashi for a mere travel bag, I must punish them!!”
“Leave it to wet nurse like me. We owe you for saving our family, so I am more than willing to help.”
“Fear not, boy. We were already feeling bad about leaving the island without doing anything to repay you.”
Oh, c’mon!! Everything they say sounds like it’s straight out of a puppet show, but I’m being overwhelmed by their sparkling good looks! I want to punch them so bad since I’d settled for the comedian route where I win girls over with my conversational skills instead of my looks!!
“So what are we supposed to do? I’m ready to tear apart those ruffians with my splendid claws!”
“No, no. The proper way to handle ruffians has always been to stuff them in a pot for dinner. Leave it all to a wet nurse like me.”
“Heh heh heh. I’m starting to remember the flavor of blood that the old lady banned.”
“Wait, wait, you idiots. Yeah, all three of you!! If you talk about stuffing people in a pot for dinner when you look like that, you sound like legit criminals! That’s not what I was asking. Can we start by thinking of a way to rescue the Zashiki Warashi?”
The perfectly-proportioned idiots gave me looks that asked what we were supposed to do, so I suggested an impromptu plan.
“For example, what about this?”
I was no longer alone. With four people, my options were bound to grow.
Several men and women were hidden within the crowd of people inside Goldmine Island’s floating airport.
They had wireless microphones on their sleeves and stun guns, knives, and handguns hidden in their pockets.
“Target confirmed. Just as mentioned in the ‘discussion’ that dirt stands out a little too much.”
After seeing a blond boy in dirty clothes enter the airport’s front entrance, a man spoke as he leaned against a pillar.
“There’s no sign of anyone else, so he appears to be alone as planned.”
After confirming that the boy disappeared into the corridor leading to Building A, the man stepped away from the pillar and slowly followed the boy while pulling a rolling suitcase behind him.
The outer wall was made of glass to allow the morning sun in, but an oddly dangerous atmosphere filled the building.
“He isn’t taking any detours on the way and he doesn’t seem to be contacting anyone by phone.”
The blond boy was on his way to the coin lockers in Building A.
After picking up some new clothes there, he was supposed to stop by the lost baggage management counter.
Since he showed no sign of trying anything, it seemed he was too exhausted and nervous to put together a plan. The man felt this was a good sign.
“The target has arrived at Building A’s coin lockers. He has picked up the clothes. He will probably stop by somewhere to change, presumably the restroom. I can only watch the exit from the outside for that.”
As he spoke under his breath, the man began pursuing the blond boy again.
He suddenly heard a voice from behind.
It was the voice of the blond boy he was supposed to be monitoring.
He frantically turned around, but a hand grabbed his collar before he could do anything. The other hand reached toward his belt and he felt something being pulled out. His back was then slammed into the row of lockers with tremendous force.
As he gasped for breath, the man saw the familiar blond boy in front of him.
After fierce laughter, the boy spoke.
The boy held a knife and the man recognized it as the one he had carried.
The tip of the blade gently stroked the man’s stomach.
Cornered, the man looked back and forth between the boy right in front of him and the identical boy walking cluelessly away with his change of clothes.
Then the one holding his collar spoke.
“That’s the wet nurse tanuki.”
Jinnai Shinobu walked down the airport corridor with his arm still around the shoulders of a man in a cheap suit. After a while, they reached a metal door. It was a janitor’s supply closet and it opened from the inside after Jinnai Shinobu knocked lightly. However, it was not a person who poked their head out; it was a fox walking on its hind legs.
“Get in,” said Shinobu.
He shoved on the man’s back, causing him to fall on the floor and knock over a pile of boxes filled with cleaning supplies, but the man was focused on the knife in the boy’s hand.
“I won’t talk.”
Jinnai Shinobu and the fox ignored him, searched through his suit and checked each pocket.
They spoke to each other while ignoring their hostage.
“Here’s his ID. His name is Emura Ryouichi. Looks like he’s a local.”
“He doesn’t have much in his wallet. Should we check the suitcase, too?”
Having one’s name found out created a certain type of fear.
That meant the danger could extend beyond this single incident. It opened up the possibility of revenge a year or even a decade later.
“I won’t talk!! Have you forgotten that we have a hostage!?”
The two continued ignoring him.
“I recorded his voice, so check over it. You can get by as long as you memorize his speech mannerisms, right?”
“A video would have been best. Well, if I check over his build, I can guess pretty well how he carries himself when he walks.”
To Emura Ryouichi, something seemed off about this conversation.
He had not been brought out of the public eye so they could take cruel revenge or to get him to tell them everything he knew.
They had other plans.
“In that case, fox, transform into him right away.”
“So I transform into the enemy and pretend to have captured you to infiltrate them further? Of course, it won’t be me that the organization ends up hunting down as a traitor.”
Unsurprisingly, the other members noticed what had happened.
For one thing, they had been keeping close contact with Emura Ryouichi by radio, so all of the other members heard the entire conversation.
“Satou, Suzuki! They’re in Building A’s equipment storage room. Take care of this before airport security catches on!!”
They were panicked, but not because they cared about Emura.
If Jinnai Shinobu shut himself up in there, they would have no way to access the lost suitcase. And if he was taken into protective custody, his luggage would be recovered by the police. Either way, the “item” hidden in the suitcase would escape their grasp again.
“What do we do about the one who took the clothes? The one they called a wet nurse tanuki.”
“Leave her. I’m sure they’ll ask some questions to ensure his identity in addition to checking his ID. The questions will be random, so a tanuki pretending to be him won’t be able to answer them.”
They would settle this before anyone noticed, so three men and women arrived in front of the metal door to check.
“Threaten him with your guns and knives. While he’s focused on those, I’ll zap him with my stun gun. Listen. Don’t spill any blood. That could prevent him from picking up the bag.”
They did not think this would be a difficult fight.
Their only worry was going too far and killing their opponent.
The three of them prepared their weapons and then kicked down the metal door.
And when they looked inside, they could not believe their eyes.
They saw two blond boys.
They could not immediately tell which was the real one, so they made a quick decision.
“Get both of them!!”
With that shout, a woman charged toward the Jinnai Shinobu on the right. She pressed her stun gun against his thigh and hit the switch with her thumb.
She heard a loud zap, but she did not feel the attack land.
White smoke spread out and the boy transformed into a fox with a comical sound effect. To escape the stun gun’s electrodes, the Youkai fled toward the open exit while occasionally tripping.
“Don’t worry about him!!” shouted the woman. “Capture the true-…!!”
She trailed off because she saw a round tanuki slipping between the arms of the men grabbing at the Jinnai Shinobu on the left.
Both of them had been wrong.
In which case, where was the real Jinnai Shinobu?
“Dammit!! Was the first one who took the clothes the real one!?”
“Now, just to be sure, can you tell me your blood type?”
After going through the necessary steps, I was at long last reunited with my suitcase. It was plastered with stickers of countless sizes, so there was no mistaking it.
I had been worried about my ID, but opening my cell and showing them the page displaying the monthly details was enough. They wouldn’t have accepted that normally, but they were probably more flexible with lost baggage since it was their mistake.
At the very least, I had avoided a scenario where I was killed as soon as I took the suitcase.
I had made it to the next phase and I still had a chance to save the Zashiki Warashi, but this didn’t exactly guarantee my safety.
I had tried to throw them off my trail to a certain extent, but I didn’t know how many more were inside the airport. For the time begin, I dragged the suitcase out of the airport building.
Once I entered the roundabout, I saw a familiar face.
It was the middle-aged driver of that white limousine taxi.
“Oh, what’s this? You look a lot more confident than yesterday. Did you win some at the casinos? Then how about driving on out to a beach filled with girls?”
“This isn’t Hawaii and I’m not about to go swimming in the ocean during October.”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s due to rising sea levels or what, but I hear the beaches have been getting smaller recently. Still, the casino city has a fully-indoor artificial beach. It runs year round like a ski slope in a desert.”
“Oh, yeah. Someone had left some swimsuits lying around.”
As I spoke, I climbed into the crazy-luxurious vehicle.
“Wait just a sec,” said the driver while messing with his cellphone. “I’ve gotta log out.”
“Oh, are you on the VR casino? Do you play the slots when you’re bored?”
“Of course not. I’d be broke in no time if I did that. The VR Casino City lets you make an avatar and buy a house or a shop. Just by putting your avatar’s old clothing up for sale, you’ll automatically get some virtual money.”
He finally stuck the phone in his pocket and smiled as he answered.
The limousine worked for me since it gave me the space to open the suitcase and it prevented anyone from grabbing it.
“Where to today?
“Just drive me around.”
“Wow, you’ve gotta be rich to say that. Did you really hit it big?”
While wildly setting off in the limousine taxi, the driver spoke casually to me.
“But be careful. Winning too much in a casino city isn’t always a fun thing. It can also earn you a lot of resentment.”’
“You mean a loser will stab me in the back?”
I kept the conversation going while pulling a small key from my wallet. It was for the suitcase.
The driver occasionally glanced back at me through the rearview mirror.
“It’s not just that. The locals won’t like you either.”
“Wait, really? You hadn’t noticed? Just to be clear, I’m not a local. I came here looking for work.”
He gave a deep laugh.
“In a casino city, all the brightly-lit buildings are built by outside corporations. I hear the truly local people really lose out in the deal.”
“But the inns and mine on the other side of the island make a lot of money, right? And aren’t the tours of the ruins popular?”
“Are you serious? While the locals do own the mine, outsiders from big companies ended up taking the mining rights by offering to lend them younger workers to keep the burden off the older locals. They tried to turn a remote island into an Intellectual Village, but they failed to keep control from the very beginning. All of the people born and raised on Goldmine Island only get a tiny fraction of the profit.”
“For a while now, the locals have been saying they suddenly couldn’t mine any gold anymore. I’m not sure how much truth there is to that, though.”
“It seems work ships have been stopping in the harbor quite a bit and that they’re always loaded with a bunch of dirt that must have come from somewhere. The island’s miners claim it’s illegal mining and they suspect the casinos are digging up the island without giving even the bare minimum of notification.”
“But they aren’t actually running across new tunnels while working, right? Even if the casinos are digging somewhere, I don’t think it would change what the locals find in their usual mining spots.”
“Yeah, but when you hate someone, you hate everything about them. I mentioned the beaches shrinking due to rising sea levels, remember?”
“What about it?”
“The locals are blaming the casinos for that too. They claim all the electricity the casinos use is creating a bunch of carbon dioxide and advancing global warming.”
“That isn’t exactly wrong…”
“Gather enough dust and you’ll have a mountain, it’s true. But this little island alone isn’t going to affect the beaches. Unfortunately, the locals don’t really care about that kind of consistency. They refuse to forgive the people running the casinos or the guests who win a ton of money there. If you don’t want to get caught up in some kind of trouble, you shouldn’t show off even if you do win.”
So there was friction between the outside companies and the locals.
It wasn’t necessarily directly related to the problem I was facing, but it couldn’t hurt to know about the local power games.
And as I thought about that, I inserted the small key in the suitcase’s keyhole and unlocked it.
I found my vacation funds in an envelope, a few days’ worth of clothes, a handheld game system, a few games, an electric razor, my cellphone’s charger, and my nice underwear. I checked through it all, but I didn’t see anything someone would want badly enough to break the law. In fact, there was nothing in there I didn’t recognize.
I packed it all up again.
Even if they were planning to slip something suspicious into someone’s suitcase, would they really unlock it and throw whatever it was inside? That seemed like too much effort for getting it in and back out again.
But my suitcase didn’t have any external pockets.
I locked it again and felt across its outside surface.
I checked more carefully. Specifically, I began peeling off the countless stickers plastered all over it.
They all ripped as I pulled them off, except for one that came off as smoothly as a brand new sticker from its backing.
And something was hidden on the underside.
To prevent it from being crushed, they had carved a perfectly-sized groove in the side of the suitcase and a device about the size of a cheap lighter had been hidden inside the groove.
It was a USB memory stick with a red, translucent body.
“Is this it?”
Instead of a label, it had a small scrap of Japanese paper attached and serpentine writing seemed to slither along the surface. The writing was so sloppy that I couldn’t tell what it said, but I knew someone wanted it so badly that they were willing to use explosives and threats.
It would clearly act as a trump card.
I held up the USB memory stick and glared at it for a while, but I couldn’t see what was on it with a simple cellphone. I ended up sticking it in my pocket.
That was when my cellphone rang.
I answered the call from an unfamiliar number and was immediately greeted with the following words:
“Have you forgotten we have a hostage?”
“Not at all, and that’s why I felt the need for a plan. But thanks to that, I now hold what you want.”
“Then I wonder what we should do. Perhaps we should sever one of the hostage’s arms to prove we really can kill a Youkai.”
“I think burning an electronic device would be much easier,” I said in an intentionally low voice. “I don’t know what this is, but it’s obviously important to you. If I melt it down, you can’t fix it just by cooling it in the fridge. If you don’t want it to go to waste, then I’d stop looking down on me like that.”
The man on the phone fell silent for a while.
The sound of a scratching fingernail continued the entire time.
It lasted a few seconds or maybe around a dozen.
Finally, he responded.
“Do as you wish.”
That was all. He even hung up.
As I stared at the cell phone screen, the driver’s voice reached me.
“Hey, we just entered the casino city, so where do you want to go now? Should I just take you around to the other side of the island?”
“No, let me off here,” I said. “I’ll pay you some extra, so take my suitcase to the Gold Crane.”
I added an extra banknote as I paid and left the limousine taxi. I was in the same spot as the earlier car bombing. It was definitely dangerous, but anywhere would be dangerous on such a small island.
My mind focused on the crinkling of the old Japanese paper in my pocket.
That USB memory stick was my only lifeline.
Depending on how I used it, all of my efforts would pay off or be for nothing. It was the deciding factor.
For a change of pace, I walked back behind a certain casino. The fox, tanuki, badger, and I had previously arranged to meet up here afterwards. It was the alley behind the casino where I had defeated Kodama Ryou.
By the time I got there, the fox and tanuki were already waiting.
“Where’s the badger?”
“I doubt he was captured. No human can outrace us once we reach the mountains.”
The normally-hesitant tanuki looked completely nonchalant as she said that, so it didn’t seem to be a bluff. I couldn’t sit still here and it looked like continuing on was my only option.
“What are we going to do now?” asked the fox.
“I found this.”
I pulled out the contents of my pocket. The object was a little larger than a cheap lighter and looked like a USB memory stick with a red translucent body, but the label was made of Japanese paper and covered with serpentine writing.
“This is what they hid in my suitcase to carry in safely. It’s also why they were attacking me and why they took the Zashiki Warashi hostage. It must be really important to them.”
“That says Usuhiki Warashi.”
I frowned at what the tanuki said.
After all this, we were back to the Usuhiki Warashi? Wasn’t that just what Kodama Ryou had used to swap out the cards?
The fox wagged his tail back and forth.
“What is this?”
“How should I know? All I know is that some people are willing to kill humans and Youkai to get their hands on it. That means I can definitely use it in an exchange for the Zashiki Warashi. But that will definitely fail if I let them continue to control what happens.”
For one thing, I only had the one small USB memory stick. If I was told to pack it in a plastic bag and wash it down the river or to place it in an envelope and mail it, I’d be out of luck. If I refused, they’d kill the Zashiki Warashi, but obeying wouldn’t bring her back.
I needed for the “exchange ceremony” to occur at the same time, in the same place, and in person.
“Just to be sure,” I said slowly. “You all can transform into people but not objects, right?”
“Yes. We can’t turn leaves into coins, so we can’t turn that Yu-Ess-Bee thing into something else or create a thousand fakes.”
If they could do that, they would have been able to handle things better during the poker game. Transforming into people was certainly enough, but it wasn’t all powerful.
“Th-then what do we do?”
“Fox, tanuki, two Youkai who can transform into someone else is enough.”
“Are you going to duplicate yourself to confuse them?”
“That’s an option,” I agreed. “But you can also transform into the Zashiki Warashi. If they’re monitoring us, they might begin to question whether their hostage is real or-…”
I trailed off because my cellphone rang.
The fox and tanuki fell silent too, so I answered the call and heard a voice that had become familiar by this point.
“Have you managed to cool your head?”
“I want to hear about the trade. How exactly are we going to do it?”
“I doubt you would agree to attach it to a balloon and release it into the sky.”
“If you insisted on that, I’d use a fake. You can buy cheap USB memory sticks at any convenience store, so I’d just transfer the label over and send that one.”
“Come to the ruins of the old mining days at the center of the island. We will not specify a time. We will know if you show up.”
“No forgetting anything. If I don’t see the Zashiki Warashi there, I’ll snap this thing in two.”
“Do as you wish. But be prepared for what that will mean.”
Just like in the limousine taxi, something didn’t seem quite right.
Even when I threatened to damage the USB memory stick, they didn’t threaten me in the slightest. Did they have a way of restoring functionality even if I destroyed it?