Chapter 2 – Vampires Love Online Shopping
In a complete reversal from the cold and dark weather outside, Toraki was engulfed in warmth, light, and the smell of oden as soon as he walked through the automatic doors and entered the store.
It was 9 o’clock in the evening. Toraki reported for work as per his usual schedule. The fact that he was able to resurrect on the same day after turning into ash and return to his everyday routine without missing a beat was simply a miracle. Even in all his long years living as a vampire, it had happened only a handful of times.
“Hello, Tora-chan. Thanks for keeping me company yesterday.”
In fact, he had not been entirely convinced that it was real until he was able to have his usual and entirely ordinary conversation with Muraoka. Feeling relieved, he changed into his uniform and saw Muraoka beckoning him.
“I know you only just got here, but there’s some work-related news. The supervisor stopped by earlier today on police business.”
The incident from that morning ran through his head after hearing the word “police”, causing him to gulp.
“It wasn’t related to any specific incident or anything. Just the usual drill about watching out for scammers.”
“O-Oh, so that’s what it was.”
“There is an increase in scams using prepaid POSA cards, so if a customer tries to make a high-value purchase, you should be careful.”
Muraoka pointed to a new public awareness poster that hadn’t been there before. It had been posted in a way that would make it easily visible to customers who lined up to make a purchase at the register.
“Isn’t this the same scam that was fairly widespread a little while ago? The one where the scammer hacks into social media accounts to impersonate people’s friends and get them to disclose their card numbers.”
“Oh, so you already know about it. I didn’t really get it even after hearing the explanation, but I guess it’s different for the younger generation.”
In recent years, a type of prepaid card called POSA cards had begun sale in convenience stores. These cards could be used to purchase a wide variety of goods and services online. There had been a widespread scam a couple of years ago wherein an attacker would hack into social media accounts to impersonate someone and get their contacts to purchase these POSA cards, ask them to send a picture of the card number, and thereby steal the information necessary to use the card online.
“If someone asks you to send a prepaid card number, it could be a scam! Are you sure it’s really your friend using that account? Beware of hackers! Keep your accounts secure.”
The public awareness posters with the above information were distributed to all places of business by the prefectural police. Each area had a supervisor who was responsible for distributing the posters, and from what Toraki could see, the new scam that the police were warning people about seemed to be similar to the one that had been popular before.
That said, the only thing that a convenience store could do to prevent such scams from occurring was to display posters like these near the cash register. That had not changed since the last time this particular scam had been prevalent.
“So, what are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing. I’ll just leave this poster here where everyone can see it. I only mentioned it to you because you’re taking the next shift.”
Just like how banks would often run campaigns on scam prevention, convenience store employees had already received orders from higher management that if a customer were to try to purchase several cards at once that amounted to a large sum of money, they had to make sure to ask the customer what they were going to use those cards for.
However, Toraki had not come across a single case that necessitated police intervention. Social media companies had strengthened their security systems and also carried out frequent awareness campaigns, and so he’d heard that the number of people who were affected by such scams was on the decrease.
“But… Since we received this poster, does that mean it is on the rise again?”
After thinking about it, Toraki realized that since the police had sent such posters to all places of business, there must be some new issue that was making the rounds.
“No matter how many years pass, people just keep repeating the same idiocy over and over.”
“Ah, it’s nothing.”
“I see. Anyway, I have a lot of stuff to do in the back, so call me if it gets busy out here, okay?”
No sooner had Muraoka disappeared into the staff room…
“……For 5000 Yen, please.”
A young lady came up to the register, holding one of the aforementioned POSA cards.
“Certainly. Please touch the acknowledgment button on the screen.”
In Toraki’s experience, the two most commonly used denominations for POSA cards were 1500 Yen and 5000 Yen. The 1500 Yen cards were used by children and young people for online game subscriptions or music purchases, while the 5000 Yen cards were mostly purchased as gift cards to give to someone else.
Apart from the card, the young lady had also brought a stack of envelopes, a ball-point pen, and a bottle of mineral water to the register.
“Would it be okay to place all the items in a single bag?”
“Ah, please put the card in a separate bag.”
Since the POSA cards were primarily made from paper, it was standard practice to ask the customer if they were okay with placing the card in the same bag as something that could gather moisture due to condensation.
Just one hour into his shift, Toraki had five customers purchase POSA cards of various denominations. All of the customers were young people, but there were no individual purchases that went over the 10,000 Yen mark that was deemed a high-value transaction.
Muraoka appeared to have recovered his poise, both mentally and on the surface. The store was also just the same as ever, except for the addition of a single new poster.
It was just another ordinary day at work for Toraki… Until that moment.
The automatic doors opened and a sound rang out to indicate that someone had entered the store.
Toraki looked towards the door to greet the customer, who walked directly up to the counter.
“Two Casper Milds.”
The customer who requested the cigarette brand was an old man with white hair and deep wrinkles. The eyes behind the round spectacles were hard as flint and kept a close watch on Toraki’s movements. Toraki felt that stare boring into his back as he picked up the ordered cigarettes and turned back towards the register.
“About the call yesterday, I went to take a look, but there was nothing there.”
However, the old man did not pick up the cigarettes and instead started talking to Toraki.
“I confirmed that the police received the report. However, there was nothing at the indicated location. Here, 1000 Yen.”
“Eh? A-Ah, yes…”
Toraki was momentarily taken aback by the cash that was shoved at him all of a sudden, and he hurried to complete the transaction on the register.
“Are you sure about it?”
The old man asked Toraki that question while they waited for the register to dispense the change and Toraki nodded.
“I saw his eyes and his fangs, and he even used a technique that only vampires can use. Well, considering the time when it happened… I did not confirm that he disintegrated.”
“Well, I suppose that’s true. Where’s my change?”
The old man held out a wrinkled hand, and Toraki deposited a number of coins into it.
“Oh, that’s right. His name was Okonogi Kajirou.”
“Oh? Knowing his name is a good start. How did you find out?”
“Ah… It was nothing, just a coincidence…”
“…By the way, I said earlier that there was nothing there, right? More accurately, I should say that there wasn’t anything left behind.”
“There were traces that a disintegration occurred and someone took the leftover ashes away.”
“On the other hand, there was one more disintegration which was left untouched… You turned to ash, didn’t you?”
The old man placed a small object on the counter next to the cigarettes. It was made from a dark red crystal and shaped like a twisted cross.
“You only turned to ash this morning and yet here you are already back at work. What happened?”
“……Umm, I’m still at work here…”
Hearing Toraki say that, the old man turned around. There were a number of people waiting in line behind him, and Muraoka had returned at some point to open up another register and was deftly handling the customers.
“I will go to your house sometime soon. We will continue this conversation there.”
The old man picked up the cigarettes, turned around, and left the store without saying anything else. Another customer immediately took his place, and so Toraki did not have the time to see him off.
Toraki glanced at the twisted black cross that the old man had left behind and strongly thought to himself that he had to get Iris to leave his house first thing in the morning.
“Tora-chan! Hey, Tora-chan!”
The time was 2:00 AM, late into the night. A flustered Muraoka came up to Toraki who was getting ready to restock the storage room behind the drinks refrigerator and called out to him.
“C-Can you come to the register for a bit? Or rather, Tora-chan, can you speak English?”
“English? I’m not really confident about it.”
“There’s a foreigner in the store, she’s just standing in front of the register without saying a word. No matter what I say to her, she doesn’t react at all… Tora-chan? Are you okay? I’ve never seen you make an expression like that before.”
“It’s nothing, I was just seriously thinking that it’s a pain in the ass.”
Toraki continued to restock the drinks properly, despite frowning with all his might.
“I hardly ever see you show such obvious dislike for something, Tora-chan. Come on, please! She’s just a young girl, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.”
She had not come to the store until well past midnight, so Toraki had let his guard down. He stretched his back that had gone stiff from bending over for a long time and returned to the front of the store, and as expected, he found a familiar girl standing bolt upright in front of the register.
“…Excuse me Miss, is there a problem?”
She spun around the instant she heard his voice. As soon as she saw him, her expression changed to one of such utter relief that he was worried for a moment that she would start crying.
Toraki went to stand behind the register, and Iris glared at him with eyes that showed traces of fatigue.
“I couldn’t find you anywhere in the shop, so I thought you tricked me.”
“Sorry, I was busy with restocking the storage room in the back. Why are you here so late?”
Muraoka, who had been anxiously watching over the scene from some distance away, felt surprised after hearing her speak.
“……I wanted some black tea.”
“After everything that happened, I wasn’t able to sleep very well. I woke up and felt like drinking tea.”
“Didn’t you check the fridge? There’s a plastic bottle with tea in there.”
“That sweet stuff can’t be called black tea. I’m not a fan of sweet tea.”
“Oh, really? I actually like it quite a lot.”
“At least keep some tomato juice at home. Are you not that sort of creature?”
Apparently, she at least had the presence of mind to not use the word ‘vampire’ in a public place.
“I don’t like tomato juice. More to the point, I’m not really a fan of tomatoes in general. I don’t drink just anything because it’s red, you know?”
“You just decided that on your own, right? You shouldn’t speak based on your personal misunderstandings. Especially considering what your job is.”
There was no way to tell how it started, but there was a rumor that vampires would drink tomato juice as a substitute for blood. That was the same as giving barley tea to someone who wanted beer and expecting them to be satisfied. And besides…
“Just so you know, I ordered tonkotsu ramen and cola when I went to eat at a late-night ramen restaurant during my break. Eating regular food is more than enough to just keep living.”
“Even so, that doesn’t sound very healthy.”
Iris spoke while furrowing her eyebrows, but worrying about a vampire’s health was fairly strange in itself.
“We don’t have any high-class black tea in the store either, you know.”
“You have tea bags at least, don’t you? Even cheap tea can be delicious if it’s brewed right.”
“Yeah, yeah. That shelf over there. I think we have around three kinds, so pick whatever you like.”
Iris nodded and went over to rummage through the shelf that Toraki indicated. Muraoka took advantage of that to sidle up to Toraki.
“Tora-chan, do you know her?”
“Y-Yeah, I guess. I suppose you could say that we are acquainted. She’s pretty shy and also came to Japan only recently, so she still hasn’t adjusted to this place yet.”
That was completely true, but for some reason, Toraki felt dissatisfied at having to make excuses for her.
At that point, Iris quickly returned. The corners of her mouth were lifted slightly, and she looked a little happy.
“This store actually has Earl Grey! Japanese convenience stores are amazing… Ah!”
Iris came back to the register while speaking happily, but she noticed Muraoka standing there and her face turned ashen.
“Ah… Ah… I mean…”
“Anyways, Tora-chan, I’ll leave the rest to you. I’m going to take a short nap, wake me up if anything happens.”
Even though he was bewildered at first, Muraoka had a lot of experience in working with customers. He quickly disappeared into the staff room as if he was trying to remove himself from Iris’s sight as quickly as possible.
After Muraoka was no longer visible, Iris released the pent-up breath that she had been holding.
“You really can’t handle men, huh?”
“…I’m sorry. I hope he didn’t feel offended.”
“It’s fine, Muraoka-san is pretty understanding. That’ll be 557 Yen. You know how to use the stove, right?”
“Yes. Mind if I use your kettle?”
“Feel free. I’ll be done with my shift soon. Take care on your way back home.”
“Sure, sorry for causing trouble for you at work.”
Iris left the store while carrying a plastic bag that held the teabags. Toraki worried for a second if she would be able to get back on her own, but since she had made it to the shop, it stood to reason that she could go back by herself too.
He heard the dry and high-pitched voice of his employer coming from behind him.
“Tell me the details.”
“Come on, just tell me.”
“She’s your girlfriend, right?”
“But she’s going back to your home?”
“You must have misheard.”
“You said you didn’t have a girlfriend.”
“I don’t have one.”
“Going out with a golden-haired beauty like that, I hope you explode.”
“I’ll sue you for sexual harassment.”
“She’s your girlfriend, right?”
“I’ll sue you for power harassment.”
“You have the wrong idea, so please just go take your nap already.”
“How about if I say pretty please?”
“Come on, I’m begging you.”
“I’m not going to start feeling jealous of someone else’s happiness at my age.”
“Didn’t you just say something about hoping that I would explode?”
“If anything, the more pain that I personally go through, the more I feel like it is important to pray for the happiness of other people. The love experienced by young people is so dazzling. It’s priceless. It’s so warm and gentle! When I think about how my wife and I also had a time like that, I start to think about how not all love in this world is equal, and about how even my daughter might have such feelings someday. About how, as a parent, I hope that the one my daughter falls for is a fine and upstanding person. That’s why, Tora-chan.”
“No way in hell. Go to sleep already, for fuck’s sake.”
“How dare you use such language with me, your boss!”
“Keep it up and I’ll make it so you never wake up again.”
“Ahh, I wish I could just sleep forever without thinking about tomorrow… dammit. Good night.”
“Good night. I’ll wake you up before I leave.”
“I hope you don’t think that I’m done with my interrogation just yet…”
Muraoka left a parting threat while looking at the clock and reluctantly disappeared into the staff room. He would normally take a break around this time, and he would generally use that break to take a nap.
The Front Mart store located at Ikebukuro East, Fifth District was much like other convenience stores all around the world in that each shift was carried out with as few people as possible. It was to the point where Muraoka—the owner and manager of the store—had to be present himself to cover shifts that didn’t have enough people available. This meant that he had to grab some sleep whenever he could get it, or he would end up ruining his health.
“Even with that, he’s getting on in years, so I feel like he’ll really ruin his health at this rate…”
While Toraki was musing to himself, the sound of the door alerted him that a customer was entering the store.
Looking towards the door, he saw an entirely unexpected person, someone who wasn’t supposed to be here at this late hour.
“Akari-chan? What’s wrong, why are you here so late?”
Muraoka Akari, shop manager Muraoka’s sixteen-year old daughter, came up to the counter with a sour look on her face.
“……Is my dad here?”
She was wearing a well-used tracksuit that looked like it was from her school and a casual coat on top of it.
“He just went to take a nap earlier, but I’ll go wake him up.”
Her voice was fairly low, either because she was in a bad mood or she was simply sleepy due to the hour being so late. Whatever the case may be, a girl in her first year of high school had come to the convenience store in the middle of the night, so Toraki, as an employee of the store, had to respond appropriately.
That was all the more true since the girl in question was the shop owner’s daughter, and Toraki had already received an earful about the owner’s delicate family situation just the previous day. Toraki turned towards the staff room in a slightly hurried manner, but…
“It’s fine, Toraki-san. He’s already asleep, right? I just came by to buy something, I’m going straight back home after this.”
Muraoka’s house was only a five minute walk away from the store, even closer than Toraki’s apartment.
All the employees of the store had met the members of Muraoka’s family on multiple occasions, but Akari looked to be in a much darker mood than the last time he had seen her. Was that simply because he knew about her family situation?
Akari wandered around the store for a while just like any other customer, and brought a few items to the register just like any other customer.
“…Alright, please press the acknowledgement button on the screen.”
The items she bought were sweets, a drink, brown envelopes—he had no idea what she wanted those for—and a 1500 yen POSA card.
“……Don’t tell my dad, okay? He’s been really annoying lately. It’s like he has a serious grudge against online payments.”
Toraki thought that a 1500 Yen card was not a significant enough sum to raise any eyebrows when used by a highschooler, but then he remembered how Muraoka had been grumbling earlier about not understanding how POSA cards worked. Maybe he was actually quite strict about his daughter’s spending.
“Well, paying for online games seems to be fairly ordinary these days.”
There was no point in him lecturing her at this point, so he decided to just play along. However, Akari shot him a puzzled look after hearing what he said.
“I don’t play games. I need it for music downloads and watching streams.”
“Toraki-san, have you heard of a band called ‘Kaei Jiten’?”
“Sorry, I don’t really listen to music…”
“They’re a new band from NewTube. I really like them. You can download their songs from their streaming site for around 300 Yen each.”
“Oh? The songs are sold separately?”
“It’s a much more efficient way of spending my allowance than blowing who knows how many thousands of yen on a single CD like they used to do in my dad’s generation, but for some reason he just doesn’t get that.”
“……I guess that’s just how it goes.”
Perhaps parents in general were conditioned to feel uneasy about anything that young people enjoy, no matter what it was. Toraki had seen similar scenes play out so many times, to the point where he just found it boring.
Akari also seemed to realize that she had been talking for too long. She glanced at the staff room as if worried that her father might come out, and spoke in a low voice.
“You don’t have to tell him that I dropped by either…… Although I expect you’re going to tell him anyways.”
“No, I won’t say anything as long as you go straight back home. If you don’t, though, I might have to. Considering the time and all.”
“……That’s none of your business.”
Teenagers in general don’t appreciate being lectured, but saying what needed to be said regardless was an adult’s responsibility. That was especially true for the ones around Akari’s age. Even if they understood something logically, they often couldn’t accept it emotionally.
“Sorry. I’m still one of your father’s employees, after all, and one of my acquaintances came close to being assaulted by drunks in this area recently. So I’m a little worried.”
He had known Iris for less than a day, and the incident had been a fight between a Church Knight and a vampire. Still, Iris was undoubtedly an acquaintance, and she had certainly come close to being assaulted.
Toraki’s words had been heartfelt, but Akari continued to look at him suspiciously.
“Anyways, I’m going now. Really though, you don’t need to tell him, okay?”
Akari said that while avoiding Toraki’s gaze, picked up the shopping bag, and left the store. After confirming that she had left, Toraki walked into the staff room where Muraoka was sleeping on the floor inside a well-used sleeping bag and violently shook him awake.
“Muraoka-san, I’m sorry! A customer forgot something in the store, so I’m going to run after them! Please watch the register!”
Toraki dashed out of the store without waiting to hear Muraoka’s response and saw Akari walking slowly a short distance away, illuminated by the light from a street lamp.
Akari looked around with a surprised expression and waited for Toraki to catch up to her.
“I can’t help being worried after all, so I’ll walk you home.”
“Eh? But what about the store?”
“I woke your father up and told him that I was going to return something that a customer forgot in the store. I’ll run back after seeing you home. Come on, let’s go. I didn’t bring a coat or anything so I’m freezing!”
Toraki pointed to his clerk uniform and urged her to start walking. He expected her to be against the idea, but…
Akari nodded obediently and started waking beside Toraki.
“Did you hear something, by any chance?”
“About my family.”
Akari didn’t specifically mention what she was talking about, but her meaning was obvious. As for Toraki, he saw no point in lying when Akari herself had brought up the topic on purpose.
“I heard about it from your father, just a little.”
“I know my parents have their own troubles and that they are both at the end of their rope, but I still wonder what the heck is going on. I know my mom has had it with my dad’s workaholic lifestyle, and I understand that. But you know, if she’s going to use my piano recital as an excuse to leave, shouldn’t she have at least taken me with her? At the very least, she should have told me where she was going, right? Just going and disappearing on her own is a bit… you know.”
Their destination was only a five minute walk away.
In the span of their short conversation, the building in which Muraoka’s apartment was located came into sight. Toraki vaguely remembered Muraoka mentioning at some point that he lived in a corner apartment on the third floor, however the windows of said apartment were completely dark. Was that because of the late hour, or simply because nobody was home?
“Thanks. I’ll be fine now. Bye-bye.”
Akari had probably not been looking for any advice from Toraki. She just wanted to release some of her pent-up feelings. She ran off towards the lobby of the building without waiting for his reply, with her shopping bag swinging and making a rattling sound.
“It must be hard, not being able to confide in anyone.”
She had been able to voice her complaints—no matter how little—to Toraki only because he was already aware of her situation. Putting it another way, she had probably not spoken about it with anybody who didn’t know, like her friends at school.
“Who ever heard of a vampire listening to the troubles of a high school girl? The world must really be coming to an end.”
Toraki ran back to the store, partly to fight off the unbearable chill that was tormenting his body. When he entered the store, he saw Muraoka standing dazedly at the register, either lost in thought or simply drowsy.
“Muraoka-san, I’m back. Sorry for the trouble.”
“Ah, okay. I think I’ll sleep for a little bit longer.”
“Understood, sorry to disturb you.”
“How do I put this, sorry to make you go to the trouble.”
By the time Toraki looked around, Muraoka had already disappeared into the staff room. Maybe he had noticed that Akari had visited the store.
“Oh well, this is not something that outsiders can do something about. Besides…”
Toraki stared intently at his own hand.
“What can I do for someone else, when I haven’t even solved my own problems by myself?”
Nothing noteworthy happened after that for the rest of his shift. The only thing he had to do after his shift ended was to inform the early-morning staff who would be taking over about the cautionary poster, and once that was done he left the store after telling them to let Muraoka sleep for as long as possible.
“I’ve got a ton of problems of my own that I need to resolve, after all.”
Toraki struggled to operate the touch screen of his Slimphone that had become hard to read because of the cracks running through it and searched the map for any realtors who were open at late hours. The search came back with several large real-estate companies that matched his criteria, and the large number of choices left Toraki feeling relieved.
Toraki felt that he had to help Iris at least until she found a house to rent and completed the formalities, or she might run into some trouble and come running back straight to him. While that alone would not be too much of a problem, he wanted to avoid coming in contact with the troublesome organization that she belonged to as much as possible.
Toraki reached his apartment while thinking about that, and unlike Muraoka’s apartment, the lights in his house were switched on. Most likely, Iris had wasted no time in preparing the tea that she had purchased, but if she was awake at this time and drinking tea, that implied that she did not intend to go to sleep.
Toraki entered the lobby of the apartment while thinking about such things while his mind was dull from working, reached the corridor where his apartment was located, and attempted to open the door with his key, but…
“Hey, come on, that’s so careless.”
He could tell from the sensation at his fingertips that the door was not locked.
“I’m back. Hey Iris, why didn’t you lock the door after you came back? That’s really careless—”
“Oh, you’re back.”
An old man’s voice replied to Toraki’s grumbling.
The dining table was illuminated by an old fluorescent lamp. The old man who had purchased cigarettes at the store the previous night was sitting at the table and staring at Toraki with a face devoid of any expression. A steaming cup of black tea sat on the table in front of him, while Iris sat opposite to him at the other side of the table.
“Yu-Yu-Yu-Yura… We-We-Welcome ba-ba-back……!”
She looked so tense that it felt like a single poke would cause her to shatter into pieces. She was drenched in a cold sweat, and looked entreatingly towards Toraki as if begging him to come to her aid.
“Oh, I should apologize. I wanted to get that earlier matter out of the way, so I decided to drop by without asking. Still, this is partially your fault. You should have told me that you had a house guest.”
“……I mean, I didn’t expect you to come by so soon, that’s all.”
The old man spoke brazenly without a hint of shame, and Toraki mumbled his answer in a low voice.
“I must say, I was surprised. I didn’t expect you to actually bring a young foreign girl into your house. Or maybe she’s actually Japanese?”
“Speaking different languages is such a perishable skill. I tried talking to her in English based on what I learned back in the day, but it looks like the young lady didn’t understand a word I said.”
There was a completely different reason why his words did not get through to her despite speaking in English, but explaining that would be completely pointless.
“Anyway, introduce me to your lovely little friend.”
“Stop acting so shamelessly after barging into someone’s house so early in the morning. Go home and sleep.”
Toraki glared at the old man with a frown on his face.
“That might apply to strangers, but we’re family.”
“Even if we’re family, consider the time. Just because you’re old and wake up early, that doesn’t excuse your behavior. I was planning on going to sleep.”
“……Uhh…… Eh…… F-Family?”
Iris’s nervousness seemed to abate slightly after hearing the word ‘family’ from both the old man and Toraki.
“Yeah. This old man is a member of my family. So… I know it’s probably hard, but try to calm down a little.”
Toraki took off his coat and tossed it away while introducing the old man to Iris.
“P-Please excuse my r-rudeness……”
“This is Iris. I’m just letting her stay here temporarily because of some stuff that happened. Also, she understands Japanese but she’s really bad with strangers, so keep that in mind.”
“Oh, I see. That makes sense. Of course she would be frightened if some unknown old-timer opens the front door all of a sudden and walks in without permission. My apologies.”
Iris’s shoulders trembled from surprise every time the old man spoke to her in a loud voice.
“He just talks loudly because his hearing has gotten bad with age. Don’t be so scared.”
“I am called Waraku. Toraki Waraku. Just as you can see, I am an old man. Thank you for looking out for Yura!”
“N-Not at all……”
“I get worried about him, living by himself all this time. I come by every once in a while to check up on him, but like he said, I don’t sleep much at my age. And you know how he lives, sleeping during the day and working at night, so I hardly ever get the chance to meet him. So that’s why I decided to drop by even though it’s so early in the morning.”
“I didn’t think he would actually bring a girl home. You must have been very startled. I am very sorry.”
“N-Not at all……”
“He should have just let me know when I stopped by the store.”
“You’d just jump to some strange conclusions if I did. I have enough trouble as it is.”
“You got teased that much at work by your boss, after all.”
“If you already know about that then let it go, already.”
“Hmm. I see. Still, I must say…”
The man who introduced himself as Waraku glanced at Iris from behind his spectacles. Iris hurriedly looked downwards to escape his gaze.
“She’s able to stay in this house even though she’s scared of men to such an extent. Does that mean she sensed something in you that is different from other people?”
“Ah, never mind. I got to meet you in person, so I think I’ll take my leave now. Thank you for working so hard to brew the tea for me, young lady.”
“Huh!? You’re leaving already? Why the hell did you even come here!?”
“I have something to discuss, but it’s not urgent. Also, I don’t want to tire the young lady out any further. We can talk after things settle down a little.”
Waraku gulped down the tea and nodded slightly in appreciation before standing up to leave. Looking closely, Toraki saw that he had not taken off his coat or muffler.
“Well then, I will take my leave.”
Waraku picked up a felt hat from one corner of the table. Most likely, that had been the only article of clothing he had taken off after entering. He held the hat up to his chest and bowed to Iris before leaving the house.
Hearing the front door close, all the tension seemed to drain out of Iris.
“…I-I’m so sorry, Yura. I… Even though that elderly gentleman was kind enough to come visit…”
“No, that’s fine…”
“I understood that he was someone close to you but… I mean… Yura.”
“That gentleman, he’s human, right?”
“Does he know that you’re a vampire?”
“Yes. The new toothbrush and futon were originally meant for him.”
“Yura, so that means you’re not a pureblooded vampire……”
Of course she would come to that conclusion after hearing that Waraku was a human while Toraki was a vampire.
Toraki had not told Iris about his history when they had talked the previous night. It wasn’t something that he necessarily needed to hide, but that didn’t mean he was comfortable talking about it, and so he had not brought it up.
“I’ll go see him off. There’s still thirty minutes until sunrise.”
“……Of course, my apologies. Umm, please give him my regards……”
Toraki slapped Iris on the back to cheer her up, put on the coat that he had tossed aside, and ran out of the house in pursuit of Waraku.
Waraku was smoking a cigarette while waiting on a small side road a short distance away from the apartment, as if he had expected Toraki to run out of the house after him.
“Come on, you know smoking on the street is illegal in Toshima City.”
“I needed a smoke, and can you blame me? It was quite the shock.”
“My bad. I had planned on kicking her out by today.”
“Are you sure? She understands your circumstances, right?”
As expected, it looked like Waraku had realized that Iris knew about Toraki’s true identity. Toraki shook his head slightly in response.
“There are a lot of people who know that I am a vampire. That doesn’t mean that they understand my circumstances.”
“It’s been what, ten years since you went against my wishes and decided to live alone? I have no intention of finding fault with you after all this time, but it’s not a bad thing to have a human nearby who understands your circumstances and still wants to stay involved. Why not give her a chance?”
The old man sucked in a lungful of cigarette smoke and took out a portable ashtray from his pocket to dispose of the cigarette butt.
“I already told you why I want to live alone, and you agreed with my reasons. But that’s unrelated to my current situation.”
“I’m just worried, that’s all. People say that you grow more philosophical and less attached to the world as you grow older, but that’s a lie. The older you get, the more things you have to worry about and the number of things you regret also increases.”
The old man’s glasses shined with a lonely light as they reflected the clouds in the sky that had started to whiten. Toraki looked at his face and spoke in a pitying voice.
“You’ve done your best, Waraku.”
“If your efforts do not bring about any results then it’s no different from failure, Aniki.”
Waraku, who looked to be in his late seventies, called Toraki, who appeared to be no older than twenty, “big brother”.
Each breath that he expelled from his mouth was less white than the last, but he did not realize this.
He had run through the snow until his knees threatened to give out. His vision was blurry from sweat and tears. He had swung the kitchen knife in his hand too many times to count, and yet…
He pressed his bloodstained left hand against the back of his neck, and little by little, he felt himself change.
It was a snowy night, and neither the moon nor the stars were visible. His teeth were chattering from fear. In spite of that, he was gradually able to see “that thing” approaching him from the front.
It was not simply a case of his eyes getting used to the darkness. Despite the snow and the dark, he could see clearly like it was broad daylight.
Amidst the piercingly cold snow, a pair of red eyes that—just like his own—could see clearly through the dark and snowy night appeared without a sound.
“Stay away… Stay awaaaay!!”
The tip and blade of the kitchen knife had chipped so badly that it was now nothing more than a flat piece of metal. Even so, he yelled and swung the knife frantically. Strangely enough, the sound of his voice traveled well despite the blizzard.
“Oh my, are you okay? Did you fall and bump yourself? Did you hurt your knee?”
The thing that possessed red eyes the color of blood spoke to him in a sweet voice, as if it was talking to a small child that sat upon its knee in front of a warm and cozy fireplace.
“That’s what happens when you stay up late and play instead of going to sleep. Be a good boy and come here. It’s time to go beddy-bye.”
“Stay away! Stay away, stay awaaaaay!!”
The breath that passed through his quivering blue lips no longer had the slightest trace of white. He swung the chipped knife in his right hand, while desperately using his left hand to protect what was behind him.
Behind him was a figure even smaller than he was, trembling violently from head to toe and expelling white air from its mouth that looked like a condensed form of fear itself.
“Come now, you should set a better example for your little brother. Let’s go home and sleep, okay?”
That thing came to a stop a couple of steps away and looked down at them as if it was toying with them.
Two red stars shone in the dark, snowy sky.
He felt it in his bones. He and his little brother were about to die.
His eyes—now able to see clearly despite the darkness—saw a creature of terrifying beauty, its noble features contrasting sharply with the dark red stains of blood that covered its clothes.
The smell in his nostrils was the scent of blood—his own father’s.
“Stay away… Stay away from my little brother!!”
In order to reject that scent, he swung the chipped knife in his hand with all his strength. However, that thing merely caught the knife with a soft and graceful hand without sustaining the slightest wound.
A pair of red eyes flashed in the darkness, but which one of them did they belong to?
The next instant, he vanished into the darkness and reappeared next to that thing, coming close enough that it could feel his cold breath as he attempted to sink his fangs into its neck.
The creature’s eyes showed surprise for the first time, even though they had remained as cold and collected as the ice spectre from the folk tales until that moment. Barely managing to stop his attack in time, it stared at the “fangs” that grew inside his mouth.
That thing grabbed a hold of him with a terrifyingly strong grip and slammed him down into the snow at its feet. The impact caused the powdery snow on the ground to rise up in a little puff. It stared down at the boy at its feet, its breathing slightly rough.
The younger brother moved with jerky movements to cling to his older brother who had lost consciousness after being slammed into the snow.
That thing gazed upon the two of them for a short while without any expression. Eventually, it smiled in a way different from its earlier smile of composure and opened its mouth to speak.
It spoke each word clearly, as if casting a curse. In a way that even the children, shaken as they were, could understand.
“……Make sure you chase after me.”
“Nii-chan!! Nii-chaaan!! No! Please!”
The words certainly reached the ears of the sobbing younger brother. Perhaps they reached the older brother as well, even though he was unconscious.
A short while—only a few minutes—passed, and he awoke once more.
That thing had disappeared into thin air. There weren’t even any traces of it having stood upon the snow.
From that day forth, he was never again able to face the light of day.
Tokyo’s winter was different from that of Tohoku, where the siblings were born. Despite that, the biting cold wind in the middle of winter never failed to remind them of the spine chilling fear they had experienced that day.
“Recently, when I go to bed at night, I’ve started to think that if I had also turned into a vampire back then, I wouldn’t have to go through this sort of worry.”
“Don’t be stupid. If that had happened, both of us would have died a pitiful death ages ago.”
“Ah, that’s true. After all these years, I guess I’ve gained too much experience to think that we’d have been better off that way.”
“You got that right. Kimie-san helped me out a lot as well, and besides, hasn’t Yoshiaki-kun grown up into a fine young man? Wasn’t Etsuko-chan’s oldest son happily talking about how he became a pitcher in the Little League? If you had turned into a vampire along with me back then, you wouldn’t have been able to experience this happiness. Or rather, if you didn’t become happy then there would have been no point in me putting my life on the line.”
“All the more reason why I think about how you could have had the same sort of happiness as well, Aniki. The happier I become, the more it weighs on me.”
Toraki Yura’s younger brother, Toraki Waraku, let out a sigh that was denser, whiter, and more light than cigarette smoke, which soon disappeared into the early morning air.
The coldness of winter reminded him of that day.
The child-like appearance of the siblings who had their futures toyed around with by a creature not of this world.
“Okonogi Kajirou, was it?”
Waraku lit up a new cigarette and changed the topic.
“Yoshiaki investigated him right away. He’s a swindler, apparently. Section 2 has been after him for a long time.”
“But he also said that something seemed off. Public Safety and the Security Bureau were also on the lookout for someone with the same name. There’s no way to tell if it’s the same person, but it is a fairly unusual name, after all.”
Waraku pulled a notepad out of the inner pocket of his coat and showed Toraki a page with “Okonogi Kajirou” spelled out in Kanji characters.
“That’s a pretty old-fashioned combination of Kanji.”
“After going back through the records, we found a Japanese person with the same name who went missing in Eastern Europe several decades ago. Aniki, how old did he look to you when you saw him earlier today?”
“He looked about thirty, I’d say.”
“Okonogi Kajirou went missing in Eastern Europe just before the Berlin Wall fell. He was thirty years old at the time. He then got on the wanted list in Hong Kong in 1996, a year before the Handover.”
“So he was thirty years old in 1989, which was when he went missing. If he’s the same Okonogi that I saw, it’s been over thirty years since he turned into a vampire. He didn’t seem all that powerful to me, though…”
“We’re still looking into whether he had a sponsor, or if he just felt like returning home after all these years. It’s no simple matter for a vampire to cross the ocean, after all. You got his name from that girl back at your house, I assume? Who is she?”
“She introduced herself as a member of The Order of the Dark Cross. Apparently, it’s one of the factions within the Holy Cross Church. I did find it ironic that they put the word ‘dark’ in their name.”
“There are other knightly orders with names like the Order of the Radiant Sepulchre or the Order of the Silverwing Eagle when translated to Japanese. I’ve not heard of the one you mentioned either, but I’ll look into it. Actually…”
“I might not even need to look into it. The information might come searching for you instead. Not only did you carelessly turn to ash, you even forgot about the ‘Blood Seal’, Aniki.”
Toraki frowned after realizing what Waraku was trying to say.
“Did they say something?”
“I didn’t hear anything yet, but think about the reason why I was the one to return that repulsive necklace to you. No doubt we’ll hear something before long.”
Saying that, Waraku looked at the window of Toraki’s house.
“If you don’t want to deal with any unnecessary trouble, break up with her as soon as possible.”
“That’s the plan… And don’t put it that way, that makes it sound like I have a special relationship with her or something.”
“She’s able to speak with you without any problems, isn’t she? There must be a reason for that.”
“Apparently, it’s because I’m a vampire and she can just kill me if something happens.”
“Honestly, I feel a little worried about her. Her job is to ‘kill vampires,’ right? Can she really do it in that state?”
Apparently, Waraku had the same impression about Iris as Toraki did, even though he had only spent a short time in her company.
“If that’s just an act, it’s quite impressive. Was she the one who gathered up your ashes, Aniki?”
“She said that she’s used to it.”
“Sounds like she could be your better half.”
“Lay off. Since when did you become an old woman that loves to set up marriage meetings?”
“I’ve gotten old, after all. I can’t help interfering with young people’s futures.”
Waraku placed his second, half-smoked cigarette into the portable ashtray as well.
“That’s something only chain smokers do. Don’t you think it’s about time you quit smoking?”
“At my age, it won’t make much difference even if I stop now.”
Waraku said that with a laugh.
“We’ve spent too much time talking. It’s almost dawn. Let’s talk more leisurely next time.”
“Yeah. Say hi to Yoshiaki-kun for me.”
Waraku turned around and waved his hand casually before walking around the street corner that was only a few minutes away from being bathed in the light of the morning sun. As for Toraki, he ran back to his apartment as if the rising sun was hot on his heels and found Iris waiting for him inside, standing in the same spot where he had left her.
“He wasn’t angry with me, was he?”
“Nah. It’s fine. He said that he’d come by again sometime.”
“I-I see… I will try my best to not be rude the next time he visits.”
“You plan on still being here until the next time?”
He considered letting her comment pass, but in the end he decided to retort anyway.
“Anyway, I’m going to sleep. The sun will rise in another ten minutes.”
“Yes, I understand. By the way Yura, there’s something that’s been bothering me—”
“Iris, did you already take a bath?”
“Why is there no coffin in this room… Eh? A bath? I took a shower last night, and as you asked, I made sure to clean up afterwards. Why?”
“Because I’m going to sleep in the bathroom. You won’t be able to use the bath until tonight, so I just thought I’d check with you first.”
Iris stared at him, her eyes opened wide in surprise.
“Ah, as you no doubt know already, the bath and toilet are in separate rooms in this house so you don’t have to worry about that.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. Why are you sleeping in the bathroom?”
“The note in my wallet also said to leave my ashes in the bathroom, right?”
“Wasn’t that because you didn’t want to get your room or coffin all dirty with ashes?”
“I mean, vampires sleep in coffins, right?”
After hearing Iris’s question, Toraki shot her a disparaging look and shrugged his shoulders exaggeratedly.
“Aah, I see. Iris, you’ve never tried sleeping in a coffin, have you?”
“I doubt many living people have.”
“Do you really think anyone would want to sleep in something that uncomfortable? They’re built to hold dead bodies that don’t move, so obviously coffins wouldn’t have room for you to roll over in your sleep, right? Besides, the lid would open if you so much as moved your arm by accident.”
A vampire was talking about the deceased as if he wasn’t an undead creature himself.
“Don’t coffins come with lids that can be sealed?”
“Sure, if there’s someone who can close it up from the outside.”
“The western-style coffins are even worse. If you ask me, I think that the western-style coffins that you can buy in Japan are more for decorative purposes. Burial is quite rare in Japan, after all. Most of the coffins have large gaps around the hinges.”
No matter whether it was a Buddhist ritual or a western one, the fact that Toraki sounded like he had experience sleeping in a coffin was quite strange on its own. However, the part that caught Iris’s attention was—
“Is it really so easy to buy a coffin?”
“You can even buy them online these days. They are available in a wide range of prices, too.”
It turned out that coffins were actually fairly easy to buy.
“Anyway, this is the solution that I came up with. The bathroom has no windows and the door is completely opaque. All that’s left is to plug up the cracks around the door with cloth, and as a finishing touch, drape a blackout curtain over it. Also, just so you know, the washing area is more relaxing to sleep in than the bathtub. To vampires, a slight chill is just right, after all.”
“Just thinking about sleeping like that makes every joint in my body ache.”
That was Iris’s completely honest opinion.
“I’ve gotten used to it, and the bath in my house is fairly big for this type of apartment. In fact, I decided on this apartment specifically because of the bathroom, even though it’s inconvenient to not have a washbasin. I’m just a guy who lives alone, after all.”
Toraki purposely emphasised the “living alone” part to imply that Iris should leave, but she didn’t notice that at all, probably because she was still trying to process the idea of a vampire who slept in the bathroom of his apartment.
“Anyway, I’m going to sleep. I’m seriously worn out after everything that happened today.”
After saying that, Toraki went into the room next to the one that Iris was staying in and brought out a soft-looking cylindrical plastic bag that was held closed by a string.
“What’s that, a pillow?”
“An air mattress. The sort that are used for camping. Even I can’t possibly sleep in comfort directly on the floor of the bathroom. This thing is pretty amazing, you know? You can pump air into it by hand, it’s completely washable, and best of all, it’s cheap. I used to use a sleeping bag or drag a futon into the bathroom in the past, but everything considered, this is the most comfortable.”
Of course, Iris couldn’t think of anything else to say after hearing about a vampire’s life hacks.
“Anyway, see you later. Oh, that’s right… feel free to use whatever you need to cook for yourself.”
Truthfully speaking, Toraki wanted to tell her to pack up and leave his house by the end of the day. However, Iris, who had ended up freezing at the register because she couldn’t talk to Muraoka, had fought desperately against her fears to brew tea for Waraku, a member of Toraki’s family. Taking that into account, Toraki thought it might be okay to look after her for another day or two, out of the kindness of his vampiric heart.
“Thank you. Sleep well.”
“Yeah… See you later.”
Toraki walked into the bathroom and closed the door firmly. Iris heard the sound of him locking the door as well. It probably wasn’t because he didn’t trust Iris, but to prevent her from opening the door by accident.
Iris thought that he would go to sleep right away, but then she heard the sound of the air mattress being slowly inflated by hand. She had no idea how big it would be once it was fully unfolded, but inflating a mattress by hand that was large enough for an adult male to sleep comfortably on was probably not an easy task.
In the end, a whole thirty minutes passed before the sounds of the mattress being inflated stopped coming out of the bathroom, and Iris inferred that he had finally gone to sleep.
“It’s almost like that Buddhist self-mummification ritual.”
Self-mummification, the process by which monks turned themselves into mummies, was a fairly horrific ritual. A living monk would shut himself inside a hole in the ground that was dug for that purpose and meditate while ringing a bell. When the bell stopped ringing, that signified that the monk had successfully attained Nirvana.
Even Iris had not expected to be reminded of this tidbit of religious information while listening to a vampire inflating his air mattress.
She was aware that she was causing trouble for him. Even just earlier, she detected the hesitation in Toraki’s voice when he had wanted to say something else to her, but held himself back. She needed to get her affairs in order as quickly as possible so that she could live independently.
Just as Iris was mentally cheering herself on…
She heard the sound of a mobile phone vibrating, coming from somewhere in the apartment. She hurriedly searched for the source of the sound to prevent it from interfering with Toraki’s sleep, and realized that it was coming from the habit that she had hung up inside the room that she was using.
The sound was coming from the slimphone that had been issued to her by the Order for work-related purposes. She quickly retrieved the phone and saw that she had received a message on a special app used by the Order.
The message was titled, “Regarding the formalities to complete your assignment to the Japan Branch”. Most likely, they had fixed the date on which she was supposed to report to the Japan Branch of the Order of the Dark Cross and finalize her assignment to the “Tokyo Garrison”.
After reading the message, Iris saw that a map with directions to the Japan Branch had been attached and sighed in relief. Of course, she had been told the location in advance, but Iris had already seen the building in which the branch was located with her own eyes.
It was a place that she was familiar with, and moreover, it was only a short distance away from Toraki’s house. There was no danger of her ending up in Utsunomiya once again.
“Sunshine 60. There’s no way I can get lost when it’s this close by… right?”
Iris spoke softly, her voice revealing just how little faith she had in herself.
The “Fukutoshin” area is made up of the Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya wards, out of which Ikebukuro is geographically the most diverse.
The other two, Shinjuku and Shibuya, have their respective stations in the center with the populated areas expanding radially outwards. The commercial spheres in these wards often overlap with other commercial spheres that are adjacent to them.
However, Ikebukuro is clearly delineated into east and west by the railroad tracks and the train station, with each half having its own distinct character and ambience.
While the exact impression differs from person to person, the east and south of Ikebukuro are more family-friendly with wide open spaces, while the west and north—for better or worse—have developed into areas that are oriented towards adults.
As a result, the east and south have businesses that mostly close in the evening, while the west and north have businesses that are mostly active at night and close around noon.
In any case, Ikebukuro was known to have some of the largest shopping centers in the Tokyo area, and Iris searched for a route on her slimphone app that would let her avoid said shopping centers.
“I probably won’t end up going to Utsunomiya again, but getting on a train route for the first time is still nerve wracking.”
Iris boarded a tram at the Toden-Zoshigaya Station on the Toden Arakawa Line and disembarked at the East Ikebukuro Fourth District Station. Since the Arakawa Line was a tram line, the station was located in a fairly open area, allowing Iris to look up at the Sunshine 60 skyscraper—her destination—as soon as she disembarked. After navigating a complex maze of side streets that lay behind the main street, Iris finally reached the base of the Sunshine 60 building.
After entering the building, Iris found herself in a veritable sea of people. She somehow managed to work her way through the crowds while keeping her eyes down.
“It’s fine… It’s still the middle of the day… Everything’s fine…”
Iris herself was aware of the fact that she was mostly okay during the day.
For example, when she had gone to Utsunomiya, there had been a lot of men on the train along with her. At every station, when people would get on or off, there were times when men would stand or sit beside her.
She knew that her black habit was quite eye-catching in Japan, but even so, most of the people on the street were focused on their own tasks. For that reason, nobody paid attention to Iris or tried to talk to her even when they noticed her.
“Excuse me! Trolley coming through!”
That’s why Iris was able to barely suppress her panic after hearing a voice calling out to her all of a sudden, and she was even able to make way for a staff member from one of the shops to pass by without missing a beat.
However, the problem was during the night.
No matter how brightly-lit the streets were, Iris would be petrified of any man she came across when it was dark out.
“…I hope I’m going the right way.”
Iris followed the directions that she had been given and eventually ended up on an office floor that ordinary shoppers would not enter. There was a sudden decrease in the amount of sunlight coming in from the outside, the hustle and bustle of the crowds faded into the distance, and all the signboards in her vicinity were entirely in Japanese, causing Iris to feel her anxiety increase slightly.
“Ah! I-I’m so sorry…”
Since Iris wasn’t paying full attention to where she was going, she ended up walking into someone who came around a corner all of a sudden.
“Are you okay!?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I was in a bit of a hurry, so—Oh?”
The person whom Iris had inadvertently tackled was a black-haired woman in a kimono who was slightly shorter than her. She appeared to be the same age as Iris, which was why she was able to stay calm and apologize properly.
“Is something the matter?”
“It’s nothing, you’re just younger than I initially thought, so I was a little surprised.”
Iris was internally confused. She had heard that Japanese people often looked younger than their actual age, but no matter how generously she estimated, the woman in front of her didn’t look like she was that much older than Iris. At the very least, she didn’t look old enough to call Iris ‘young’.
“In any case, I’m glad neither of us was hurt. The Dark Cross Knights’ office is just around that corner.”
After saying that, the young lady nodded slightly to Iris and made to walk past her.
“Ah, t-thank you.”
Just as Iris gave a polite bow and attempted to walk past the young woman—
“Were the gyoza in Utsunomiya to your liking?”
A slightly contemptuous whisper reached her ears, causing her to spin around suddenly.
However, not only was the kimono-wearing woman nowhere to be found, the area was completely devoid of people. Iris gulped unconsciously.
Dark Cross Knights. The Order of the Dark Cross.
Since she had been talking to Toraki in Japanese all this time, she did not immediately realize that the woman had used the English name for the organization.
Iris felt a repulsive presence lingering in the office floor corridor that was utterly devoid of places to hide, and she felt her left hand reaching unconsciously for the hammer at her waist. However…
“First things first, I need to take care of work.”
Iris pulled herself together and confirmed that the destination on the map that was displayed on her slimphone matched the location that the woman had indicated.
After walking about twenty meters…
“…Is this really the place?”
While the Order of the Dark Cross was affiliated with the Holy Cross Church, they were geared more towards practical work and so Iris wasn’t expecting to find something like a church with a sublime atmosphere waiting for her.
However, what she saw on the other side of a transparent partition were three desks that were equipped with computers. Two of those seats were unoccupied, and the door she saw at the far end of the room did not give the impression that there was any sort of large space on the other side.
The sole occupied desk had an elderly nun sitting in the chair and staring at the screen of her computer, and that nun stood up after noticing Iris and came over to meet her.
“Welcome, Sister Yeray. I’m Nakaura Setsuko, Knight-Captain of the Tokyo Garrison of the Order of the Dark Cross Japan Branch.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Sister Nakaura. I’m sorry for the delay in coming to greet you after taking up my new post in Japan.”
Iris pinched the fabric of her skirt and curtseyed to Nakaura, who responded by bowing from the waist with her hand over her heart. Nakaura’s round glasses suited her soft features perfectly and she would have looked like a completely ordinary woman if she wasn’t wearing a habit.
“Your Japanese is lovely. Please, come in. You were surprised by how small the office is, weren’t you?”
“Not at all, I believe it is important for the Order to be agile at all times. It’s just that I expected the office to be located somewhere more… secluded.”
“This office used to belong to a small-time travel agent, and we rented it with all the old furniture intact. We don’t have much of a budget, you see. Please take a seat. We’re just a small garrison here, so no need to stand on formality.”
Iris sat down in the chair that had been indicated, and Nakaura took a seat opposite to her on the other side of a narrow counter. The seating arrangement emphasised the fact that this office had indeed once belonged to a travel agent.
“Here you go.”
Iris took a sip of fragrant Japanese tea from the elegant teacup that had been placed in front of her and she felt herself relaxing.
“I see you have eliminated a vampire right after taking up your new post. A job well done.”
Iris barely managed to keep herself from spitting out the tea.
“We were able to retrieve the ashes of the vampire, Okonogi Kajirou, before the police arrived at the scene. The ashes have been consecrated and he has been restrained. He was by no means a strong vampire, but that made him all the more cunning. He always managed to escape somehow no matter how many times we tried to defeat him, it was a real headache. And yet you managed to eliminate him without any eye-witnesses. I must say, you are everything that I expected of a Church Knight from headquarters.”
Nakaura critiqued Iris’s handling of the previous day’s incident while looking through some documentation that had been prepared in advance.
“N-Not at all, I… umm…”
As for Iris, she felt herself break into a cold sweat.
“Okonogi was even suspected of having connections with a mafia group from continental Asia. Thanks to your efforts so soon after transferring here, Japan and the world have taken a significant step towards peace. As the Knight-Captain, I praise you for a job well done.”
“…I am grateful for your praise…”
No matter what, she could not bring herself to say that she had been saved by a stranger—a vampire, no less—after being frightened by her target’s male followers.
“I’m sure you’ve already heard about this back at headquarters, but in recent years, there has been increasing Phantom activity in Japan, not limited to only vampires. It is still at a minor level when compared to the homeland or other critical areas around the world, but Japan is one of the most prominent and peaceful developed countries. If the Phantoms manage to destabilize this area, it will undoubtedly have a major effect on all other countries around the world.”
“Yes, I am aware of that.”
“Sister Yeray, as you can see, the Japan Branch is by no means a large organization. Due to the nature of our organization, it is inevitable that the garrisons are understaffed. Even so, despite the large population of the country, the Order of the Dark Cross only has garrisons in Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. Just those five cities.”
That was certainly true.
Iris had only found out after her transfer to Japan had been confirmed, but the placement of the Order’s garrisons in Japan was extremely lopsided. The only garrison in Western Japan was in Fukuoka, and all the other garrisons were located either in the Tokai region or further to the east.
Osaka, Japan’s second-largest commercial hub. Kyoto, the ancient capital that was deeply intertwined with the history of the country and which attracted droves of tourists from all over the world. No matter how you looked at it, it was strange for these cities to not have their own garrisons.
“We, the Knights of the Japan Branch, have a duty to dampen the efforts of those who are trying to drive a wedge into the peace of the world. Please stay true to the path of a Church Knight and strive to illuminate the world against the darkness of the Phantoms.”
Iris nodded meekly in acceptance, but after her work here was done, she would return to the apartment where a Phantom was sleeping in the bathroom.
As Iris had mentioned to Toraki, there were many Knights in the modern era who cooperated with Phantoms. However, she was probably the first Church Knight in history to move into a Phantom’s house on her very first day at a new assignment.
“Is something the matter, Sister Yeray?”
“Ah, no, it’s nothing. I swear in God’s name that I will diligently carry out my duties as a Church Knight.”
“Very well. Now allow me to present you with some official Knight’s equipment in celebration of your new assignment.”
After saying that solemnly, Nakaura reached under the counter and pulled out a small box that was decorated with a delicate engraving.
“This is your ‘Holy Gun’.”
Iris accepted the box with a hint of nervousness and opened the lid with both hands. The interior of the box was padded with blood-red silk, and a silver-colored gun lay nestled in the folds of the fabric.
It looked almost as if the gun was submerged in a pool of blood, and Iris went slightly pale at the thought. However, it was also proof that she had been recognized—at least on paper—as a fully mature Knight in this Far East country. Now was the time to endure in silence.
After picking up the small and elegant gun that had the same engraving as her hammer, Iris closed the lid of the box in a slightly flustered manner. The gun was small enough to fit perfectly even in Iris’s dainty hands.
The gun could only hold two bullets. However, those bullets were made from pure silver and were capable of destroying Phantoms of any type or form. Much like the Holy Hammer Liberation, the Holy Gun Deuscris was a sacred weapon that was indispensable when it came to fighting against Phantoms.
However, the sanctity of the weapon notwithstanding, it was unlikely that the officials at Heathrow, Narita, or Haneda airports would allow her to carry a gun through immigration. Hence, it was the custom to receive a gun at the new place of appointment after being transferred.
“Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome. By the way, today is your third day in Japan, isn’t it? Were you staying undercover somewhere until last night?”
“Ah, it’s nothing… I-I made arrangements at a boarding house…”
Iris was about to say that she had spent the time outdoors, but she remembered in the nick of time that she looked far too presentable for that answer to pass scrutiny—she had taken a shower at Toraki’s house the previous night, after all. Instead, she picked a slightly more believable lie on the spur of the moment.
Nakaura was probably aware that this was Iris’s first time visiting Japan, but she couldn’t possibly come out and tell her about staying in Toraki’s house. Nakaura spoke without changing her expression at all, and so Iris couldn’t tell if her momentary hesitation had been detected by her or not.
“I see. Don’t forget to ask for a receipt when you check out. The accounting department will get angry if you book an expensive hotel so don’t use those, okay?”
If the truth came to light, Iris would probably pay more dearly than if she had actually stayed at a high-class hotel.
“You can meet the other Knights in the Japan branch in due time. Our holy missions do not allow for frivolousness, but that doesn’t mean we need to constantly stay on our toes without taking the time to rest. We will arrange a welcome party for you.”
“Thank you very much. I look forward to it. Ah, that reminds me…”
Iris suddenly remembered something and turned around to look at the entrance.
“I think I already met one of the senior members from the Japan branch earlier.”
“It’s not like Knights have to wear clerical clothing all the time, right? They stand out a lot in Japan, after all… A little while ago, I met a young lady who was wearing a kimono in the corridor outside and she gave me directions to this office. Could that person have been—”
“Iris-san! Did that woman do anything to you!?”
“Eh? What do you mean?”
Nakaura had called her ‘Sister Yeray’ in a fairly businesslike tone until that moment, but she suddenly stood up and leaned over the counter towards Iris as if she had forgotten herself.
“What do you mean? We just bumped into each other at the corner and apologized, that’s all…”
Iris was confused, but she gave a simple explanation of what had happened.
Nakaura looked relieved and sat down heavily in her chair.
“I will talk to you about that woman in due time. Your next holy mission has already been decided, but you don’t need to worry about her until that is complete.”
That only served to make Iris even more curious, but since her immediate supervisor decided that, there was nothing she could do about it. At that point, two seemingly unrelated memories clicked together inside Iris’s mind.
“Huh? Wait, don’t tell me… The one who made me get on the train to Utsunomiya was…”
“Ah, it’s nothing.”
The person she had asked for directions at Ueno Station had also been a young lady dressed in a kimono, and the lady she had met earlier had whispered something about Utsunomiya in her ear before vanishing.
Still, Iris couldn’t help but feel that she had never before seen the lady she had met today. Moreover, she couldn’t bring herself to reveal that not only had she had mistakenly boarded the wrong train and ended up in Utsunomiya, she even had a gyoza party there before embarking on her holy mission.
Nakaura also appeared to have recovered from whatever shock she had felt and placed a number of documents in front of Iris.
“Here are the details of your next holy mission. This mission was originally assigned to someone else, but the Knight in question was detected by the target during reconnaissance and was gravely injured.”
Iris banished all thoughts of gyoza from her mind and straightened her back with a serious expression.
“It was possible that the case could be left up to the police, so I assigned a junior Knight to carry out the reconnaissance. However she was discovered by the ‘tom while going undercover and came under attack, receiving serious injuries that prevented her from continuing the mission.”
The ‘tom that she mentioned was short for the target Phantom.
“Even though she was a junior Knight, she was highly skilled at combat. There’s no way she would lose to a run of the mill vampire. The ‘tom for this case is so vigilant that it wouldn’t be strange to assign it to a senior Knight from headquarters. Please get started on this holy mission right away and capture the ‘tom if possible.”
“Understood, Sister Nakaura. I will do my best.”
“This is the data that we have confirmed so far. Please memorize it.”
Iris stared at the document that Nakaura held out to her and committed the contents to her memory. In order to prevent data from leaking into the outside world, all Knights were trained to beat the information related to their targets into their skulls.
However, Iris’s face stiffened after reading the information about the target’s primary hideout.
Iris broke into a cold sweat and was disturbed to the point where she didn’t even hear Nakaura’s voice.
“Umm, Sister Nakaura. Is this accurate?”
“Yes. I understand that it is basically right under the nose of this garrison, which makes it all the more shameful. However, please understand that the situation has escalated so rapidly that we have little choice…”
Still, why did the main site of the investigation that was assigned to her have to be this sort of place? Considering her nature, her affinity with the location in question was bad enough to raise eyebrows. Even putting that aside for the moment, the amount of data that was available was far too less.
“Umm, it looks like documents only have the ‘tom’s name and hideout, can I get some additional backup to gather the remaining information?”
Why did Nakaura go ‘Eh’? Was she not clear enough?
“Like I said, there’s barely anything written here apart from the hideout’s location. For example, a list of the ‘tom’s collaborators, or a rough layout of the building where he is hiding… If we don’t have that information yet, can I get some support from a junior Knight to collect it…?”
“No, ‘umm’ doesn’t help me at all.”
Iris couldn’t be blamed for saying that out loud this time.
“…It should be fine. You’re a skilled knight from headquarters, after all, so I’m sure you’ll be okay. May the Lord watch over you. Oh, and try to keep expenses to a minimum, okay? The budget is stretched thin as it is.”
This time, it was Iris’s turn to be lost for words.
After leaving Sunshine 60 and stepping outside, Iris considered her future plans with a dazed look on her face.
She had heard that the work environment in Japan had a tendency to rely heavily on the performance of the individual and reject revolutionary changes and reforms, but was Nakaura’s attitude a result of her being Japanese? Or was it due to the circumstances of the Japan branch as a whole?
At any rate, there was no way that Iris could complete the new holy mission on her own.
During the short ride from East Ikebukuro Fourth District Station to the Toden-Zoshigaya Station on the Arakawa Line, Iris vacantly considered her inevitable future and came to a certain conclusion.
Toraki woke up with a yawn in the dark confines of the bathroom.
He could hear the sounds of someone moving around the house even through the walls of the bathroom, which meant Iris was probably still in the house. However, that was something he had already taken into account, so he stood up and opened the bathroom door while stretching his stiff muscles, only to find—
“Yura! I need your help!”
—Iris prostrating herself at his feet, so only the back of her head and her beautiful blonde hair were visible.
“…Just so you know, the dogeza pose doesn’t demonstrate sincerity. If anything, it’s a little too overbearing and makes you seem less sincere instead—”
“You’re the only one I can rely on!”
Iris cut Toraki off in the middle of his sentence and spoke in a voice that was close to a scream.
“I guess that’s not an exaggeration in your case. What’s up?”
“I’ve got new orders! I’ve been given a high-priority case related to a Phantom—a vampire!”
“Oh? So what’s the problem? I mean, I guess it’s a problem for public safety since it is a high priority case, but doesn’t that mean your boss has faith in your abilities?”
“T-That’s… The target’s primary hideout is in the shopping district near the Ikebukuro Station west exit.”
“The shopping district near the west exit. I see.”
“So… I need to go scout the hideout, which happens to be a basement live house.”
“A basement live house. I see.”
“The target Phantom only appears there after seven o’clock in the evening.”
“Seven o’clock in the evening. I see.”
“…I don’t think I can make it there by myself….”
“Why not just quit your job?”
“Please, Yura! You don’t have to take part in any combat! Just help me out with the preliminary investigation, that’s all! Please! I’ll treat you to a meal! If there’s an entrance fee, I’ll pay your share, so please go with me!”
Toraki refused as a matter of principle, but he knew that Iris wouldn’t give up so easily. He tried to imagine what would happen.
In recent years, the shopping district near the west exit of Ikebukuro Station had become a lot safer than people generally imagined. As long as you didn’t purposely go looking for trouble, the chances of encountering a dangerous situation were quite low.
However, Iris was undeniably a beauty, and saying that she had a crippling fear of men would not be an exaggeration. Leaving aside vampires for the moment, she couldn’t even fight back against regular people who were being manipulated by vampires, and so there was a good chance that she could end up in some shady establishment because she was unable to resist the advances of men trying to pick up girls.
Not only would it weigh on his conscience if such a thing actually came to pass, there was also a risk that Iris might instead go on a rampage with all of the strength that befitted a Church Knight of the Order of the Dark Cross, thereby getting herself marked by the police…
“In the worst case, the police might even come after me… Haah…”
As he looked at Iris bowing her head admirably in front of him, Toraki belatedly realized that a certain “Instructions for when I turn into ash / lost persons” note had not found its way back into his wallet or his belongings. He didn’t know if Iris had simply forgotten to return it or if she was holding on to it with some intention in mind, but if something went wrong and she got herself captured by someone, the people who captured her would undoubtedly come after him next.
“Fine, fine, I get it. I’ll tag along, but only for the investigation.”
“In exchange, give me back my lost persons’ note. Just so you know, I’m not going to help you out with your actual work at all, got it?”
“Thank you! Thank you, Yura! I’ll definitely return the note as soon as the investigation is over! ”
As expected, she had been holding on to the note on purpose. Also, Toraki’s keen vampiric hearing did not miss a certain subtle nuance in Iris’s fluent Japanese.
“As soon as the investigation is over, my foot! Don’t try to broaden the scope on your own! I’m only going to accompany you once! For a single day!”
“Oh, come on! It won’t kill you to help me out a little!”
“I don’t want to hear that from an adherent of the Holy Church! Besides, I’ve got my own job to do!”
After that, the pointless argument continued until it was time for Toraki to go to work. Iris even followed him all the way to the convenience store and stubbornly remained in the eat-in section, giving Muraoka even more ammunition for his pestering questions. In the end, Toraki had no option but to accede to her demands.
It was a little late for doubts, but Toraki started to seriously suspect that Iris had lied to him about being a Church Knight.
On the Tokyo Metro Line, Ikebukuro Station was only one stop away from Zoshigaya Station. After passing through the ticket gate at their destination and ascending the stairs on the Tobu Department Store side, they arrived at a section of Ikebukuro that gave off a more adult-oriented theme rather than a place that was meant for young people or families.
It was nine o’clock at night. Toraki and Iris were walking on the streets on the western entrance side of Ikebukuro Station. Iris had her arms wrapped around Toraki’s left arm and was sticking close to him while walking.
Appearance-wise, they looked like a couple who were getting carried away due to the ambience of the place, but in reality, Toraki was supporting Iris who was scared stiff of the people in their surroundings and was not able to walk properly on her own.
Occasionally, Iris would pull strongly on Toraki’s arm when she accidentally made eye contact with shop touts or the young men employed by host clubs.
Iris was obviously scared. However, accidentally catching someone’s eye while walking on the street was fairly common, and there were shops outside the shopping district that had touts as well.
“Seriously, how are you getting through your daily life like this?”
Since they were here to carry out a secret investigation of the Phantom’s hideout, Iris was dressed casually in a white blouse and black pinafore dress, with a tartan coat to complete the ensemble.
Tartan was supposedly native to Scotland, and in Toraki’s eyes, the clothes that she wore beneath the coat didn’t look all that different from her usual religious outfit. However, the biggest problem was that Iris’s features were attracting far more attention than Toraki had anticipated. In addition to the risk of attracting undue attention at their destination that they were supposed to be investigating in secret, she was constantly hounded by the shop touts on the streets.
Every time someone called out to her, Iris would give a little start and pull even closer to Toraki. The sensation of her trembling slightly was transmitted through his arm.
“…Are you okay? Do you want to quit for today?”
Judging by Iris’s reaction, her androphobia came from a much more serious and deep-seated reason than a simple dislike of men. Toraki was finally able to understand how she was incapacitated by the thugs who were being controlled by the vampire Okonogi. However, the bigger question was how she had managed to travel from England to Japan and get through immigration on her own.
Iris had declared that she would be fine against vampires and other Phantoms, and in reality, she was perfectly being around Toraki. However, she had been reduced to a near senseless state even when she met Waraku, who was a member of Toraki’s family and not in the least bit intimidating.
The basement club that was the hideout of Iris’s current target was only a short distance away, but judging by how she was clinging to Toraki even before reaching their destination, would she really be able to carry out any sort of investigation once they were inside?
“Hey, are you okay? We’re almost there.”
Iris nodded and raised her face as if she had made up her mind to risk her life.
『Stage Bar-Crimson Moon』
There was a neon sign with those words displayed on it over the entrance to the stairs that lead down into the basement. The stairway was so narrow that Toraki and Iris could not climb down side by side.
Judging by the scale of the building, it didn’t seem like the basement would be as cramped as the staircase. However, since the sign had the word “Stage” in it, there probably wasn’t enough floor space for the patrons to move around freely.
There was a notice board near the entrance that displayed what looked like a list of bands that were scheduled to perform that night. The walls of the stairway were plastered over with numerous posters of music bands, the genres ranging from the typical sort of music that teenagers would like to bands that had a more metal appearance. A glance at the posters gave a fair indication of what sort of musicians were invited to perform here.
Even standing at the top of the stairs, they could hear a heavy bass sound rising up from the basement below them. If the club was filled to capacity with devoted fans, would Iris even be able to enter?
“It doesn’t sound as hardcore as heavy metal, but it’s not as refined as classical music either. We confirmed the location of the shop, so what do you say we call it quits for today and go back home?”
“Y-Yes, I think that’s a good idea.”
Toraki hadn’t expected her to agree, so he turned around to ask if she was being serious, when all of a sudden—
—He received a shock upon seeing the face of someone he knew, and the other person was equally shocked.
Muraoka Akari was standing there awkwardly in a flashy outfit, the complete opposite of what she had been wearing the other day.
On the stage, a band that Toraki had never seen or heard of was putting on a wild performance, and the smell of the smoke used for stage effects combined with the scent of humans: sweat, traces of alcohol, and tobacco assaulted their noses.
“Geez, I didn’t expect to run into someone who knows my dad all the way out here… Ugh… ”
They were standing at the bar counter. Akari was holding a glass of cola that came with a straw and had a sullen expression on her face.
“Well, I didn’t expect to run into you in a place like this either, Akari-chan…”
Of course, Toraki had not imagined that he would run into Muraoka’s daughter at the place where he had come to help Iris with her investigation of a vampire.
“Hey, how about we both just pretend like we never saw each other? You’re in the middle of a date, right, Toraki-san?”
Akari spoke in an annoyed tone and glanced at Iris who was standing behind Toraki.
“I-It’s not a date! It’s for work!”
“Don’t mind her. It’s a date.”
Toraki sighed at Iris’s expected reaction and affirmed Akari’s statement.
“I don’t want to get in your way, so how about we just pretend that we don’t know each other for now?”
“About that… Can we have a quick word?”
“What is it? A lecture? Or are you going to call my dad?”
Akari directed a hostile glare at Toraki as he tried to keep her from leaving.
“No, no. I won’t do anything like that.”
Toraki didn’t want Akari to leave, for multiple reasons.
The first reason was that he simply did not want to let Akari, who was still in her first year of high school, roam around a place like this on her own. On the other hand, Iris seemed to have similar thoughts—probably because of her spirit as a Church Knight—and that served to calm her nerves.
Getting a handle on Akari’s present condition would have a direct influence on the mental stability of his employer, and Iris’s ability to stay in this place without losing control would have a direct influence on his life from here on out.
“I’d like to hear more about this place. We’re both new here.”
“…Yura, what are you doing?”
“…Just shut up and pay attention.”
After pacifying Iris, who was understandably surprised, Toraki deliberately put on a cheerful expression and started questioning Akari.
“Akari-chan, are you a regular here?”
“…Why are you asking me that? Are you going to tattle on me to my dad?”
Apparently she didn’t trust him at all. However, Toraki received help from an entirely unexpected direction.
“This is her third time here, if I’m not mistaken.”
The young man who was tending the bar replied to Toraki’s question from the other side of the counter.
The bartender, who had been called ‘Sagara’ by Akari, was wearing a T-shirt and his bare arms were covered in sleeve tattoos, something that was quite rare for Japanese people. He also had his hair in dreadlocks, and the overall image suited him.
“Akari-chan, it won’t do you any good to be stubborn in situations like these. It’s better to just speak honestly. That holds true for the management here as well, we have no choice but to answer if we are asked for details about minors who visit the club.”
“The two of them don’t look like family members or teachers from school… Are they a married couple from among your relatives or something?”
Iris, who already had trouble talking to men, heard the word ‘married’ and went so red in the face that it looked like she was choking.
“I am one of Akari-chan’s father’s employees. I’m just accompanying this woman here for today, running into Akari-chan here was a complete coincidence.”
“Ah, so that’s how it is. I guess I can see how that would be awkward for both of you.”
Sagara, the bartender, smiled wryly with an amiable expression.
“But if that’s the case, you need to compromise a little, don’t you think? You can’t expect a kid to trust you when you just one-sidedly ask them questions without even taking the time to order a drink.”
That certainly seemed like a reasonable suggestion.
“In that case, two gin and tonics… Hmm?”
Iris tugged on Toraki’s sleeve as if she had an issue with Toraki’s order for drinks.
“What’s wrong? You don’t want to drink alcohol?”
“…I’m not old enough to drink in Japan.”
“Ah… Then make that a gin and tonic and a cola, please.”
“Yessir. What gin would you like?”
Toraki looked up with a surprised expression, and Sagara pointed to a row of bottles that were lined up at the counter.
“From here to here, these are all gin.”
“I see. I don’t know much about the different types of gin… Hmm?”
Iris tugged on his sleeve once more.
“…The blue one.”
“The blue one?”
“Ah, the Pompeii Sapphire? Coming right up.”
After hearing the color from Iris, Sagara picked up a blue, flat-sided bottle. With practiced movements, he poured the gin and tonic water into a glass, gave it a quick mix, and added a wedge of lime and mint leaves as a garnish before setting it on the counter. He then used the same drink machine that had dispensed the tonic water to fill another glass with cola for Iris, added a slice of lemon, and placed it on the counter next to the gin tonic.
“Right then, now that you all have your drinks, what do you say you make up and forget about the outside world for a little while?”
Although it looked like everyone involved had mixed feelings about it, they weren’t able to go against Sagara’s smile. Akari and Toraki clinked their glasses together, and Iris, who was a step behind, didn’t make it in time.
Toraki took a sip of his drink and found that it had a deeper and more pleasant taste than what he was used to.
“That’s pretty good.”
“You can thank your lady friend for that. Pompeii Sapphire is a good gin.”
“I had no idea the taste would change so much. I’ve never tried to choose my gin before.”
Before Iris lost her cool and let something slip, Toraki interjected and expressed his opinion on his drink.
“…I didn’t know you were a drinker, Toraki-san.”
“I hardly ever drink at home. It’s only at times like these.”
“I expected that you would also be the kind of person that drinks low-malt beer or shochu at home.”
“…Well, it’s not like I’ve never tried drinking those.”
Toraki replied in a non-committal tone to Akari, who seemed to have some specific category of alcohol in mind.
“Sagara-san. What’s that Pompeii thing you were talking about?”
“Pompeii Sapphire. Gin is just a type of alcohol. People who are fussy about their drinks have a tendency to make it one of their regulars.”
Sagara replied to Akari’s question while showing her the bottle that he had picked up from the shelf.
“England is the best place for gin… Miss, are you from England, by any chance?”
“She still can’t speak Japanese very well. But yeah, she’s from around there.”
Although Akari’s appearance had thrown them off track for a bit, their original intention in coming here today was to secretly gather intelligence, after all. It wouldn’t be smart to answer every question honestly.
“Anyway, getting back to the topic. Akari-chan, do you come here often?”
“…Just for the events. Because Kaei Jiten performs here.”
“Ah, that music band that you like. So they play in places like this. Wait, does this mean we need to pay for a ticket?”
“Ah, that’s fine. Our events are free of charge to attend. Since you paid for your drinks, you’re good.”
Sagara was the one to respond to Toraki’s question in Akari’s stead.
“Oh? That’s pretty generous.”
For events that were held at live houses, the ticket cost was almost always bundled together with the price of a drink, and the ticket stub or a token issued by the live house could be exchanged at the bar for the drink.
“This event is being managed by Amimura-san of Roomwell, and the point is to give back to the fans using the proceeds from NewTube. So we can just relax and enjoy the show without worrying about stuff like tickets.”
“…Oh? Is Roomwell the name of a band?”
Amimura from Roomwell. Iris’s expression turned grim after hearing that, and even Toraki wasn’t able to keep a slight amount of nervousness from creeping into his voice.
“Well, it used to be. But now he’s handling this event, so I guess it’s more like the name of an event planner company? To tell you the truth, I don’t work for this live house, I’m actually also an employee of Roomwell. If you’d like, take a look at this. It’s a code for a video that shows one of the events that we managed.”
Sagara held out a card that was imprinted with a specialized code that could be read using the camera of a Slimphone. As Toraki accepted the card with a vague reply, the area near the stage became noisy all of a sudden.
“It’s starting! I need to hurry! Bye, Toraki-san!”
Leaving behind her drink that was still more than half-full, Akari dashed away from the counter and ran towards the stage that was overflowing with enthusiasm.
“The band that’s playing now is Kaei Jiten, the one that Akari-chan is a fan of.”
Toraki didn’t know much about music, but he felt that Kaei Jiten’s performance was eye-catching without being over the top. Their music had a quality that made it appeal to everyone.
There were a little over a hundred fans getting into the groove and going wild near the stage, and Toraki managed to spot Akari among them. He could see that she was truly enjoying the performance from the bottom of her heart, and there was no trace of the loneliness that had been hanging around her the other day.
After looking up Kaei Jiten on his Slimphone, Toraki found an article on a small music-related website. Apparently, Kaei Jiten was an amateur band that had started up two years ago and was steadily increasing its fanbase by uploading videos to video sharing sites.
“And yet, there is no entry fee?”
All the more reason why he felt that something was off.
Putting aside the matter of whether a high school girl like Akari should be coming to a live house in this shopping district, there were no indications of anything illegal going on with the event itself, based on his interaction with Sagara and from the ambience of the live house.
The combination of teenagers and adult-oriented shopping districts was often directly correlated with a decrease in morals, but the time was still reasonably early and there were strict warnings against serving alcohol to minors. Also, judging by how more than ninety percent of the customers were female, the chances of forming illicit relationships appeared to be pretty low.
“…Hey, is this really the place?”
“…It should be.”
Was the manager of this event really a vampire who was dangerous enough to be designated as a high-urgency target by the Order of the Dark Cross?
Kaei Jiten’s performance ended after three songs, but even after that, a number of bands appeared on stage to put on a performance. In the end, Toraki and Iris spent a whole two hours seated at the counter while getting an earful of songs that they had never heard before.
After all the performances ended and the vocalist of the last band to perform bowed on stage to the applauding audience, a man dressed in a suit walked onto the stage and began to speak.
“I’d like to thank all the people here for coming to tonight’s event! Everyone! Did you have a good time!?”
The audience once again erupted into cheering after hearing the man speak.
“That’s Amimura, the company rep.”
Toraki replied vaguely to Sagara, but his eyes were closely watching the man in the suit. His clothing and hair color were vibrant enough to make him look like an event planner but just shy of looking gaudy. Also, he was wearing glasses.
Handsome, and yet retaining a youthful charm while not restraining his expressions. He was the sort of man who knew exactly what his audience wanted.
He was the man who had been designated as Iris’s target by the Order of the Dark Cross Tokyo Garrison. Supposedly, he was a vampire.
“It’s finally time for what everyone’s been waiting for! Get ready for the poll!”
After Amimura made that statement, all the people in the audience crowded around the stage and started handing him something. Even Toraki, who was the same gender, thought that Amimura was quite good looking, and so he felt as if all the people who were crowding around the stage were fans of Amimura instead of the bands.
“What are those, fan letters?”
Almost all of the people crowding around the stage had envelopes in hand. Iris’s guess would normally be correct, but Toraki felt that something was off.
Akari was among the people who were crowding around Amimura, and she was holding out an envelope towards him.
Toraki tensed for just a second after seeing that, but Amimura just smiled and accepted the envelope from her just like he did with all the other members of the audience.
The number of envelopes in Amimura’s hand kept on increasing, and when it reached the point where he could not hold all of them in one hand, a different staff member appeared with a tray to hold the envelopes for him.
“Hang on… That’s probably…”
“…No, it’s nothing.”
Toraki looked taken aback for a second, but Sagara was at the counter right next to him. He also had no idea how many more employees of Roomwell or whatever it was called were present in his surroundings, so he could not afford to make any careless remarks.
However, Toraki felt a small flare of anger deep within him when he saw the flush on Akari’s face after she handed in her ‘vote’.
After some time passed, the staff member who had taken away the envelopes on a tray returned to the stage and handed a piece of paper to Amimura.
“Alright, the results are in! Man, they’re just too good! Once again, Kaei Jiten gets a score of over fifty thousand points! As usual, I will be contacting the voter with the highest number of votes on their registered email address! Everyone, thanks for making this event a success!”
The audience erupted into cheers and applause as Kaei Jiten took the stage once more and bowed to the audience several times to express their thanks for the ‘votes’.
“As usual, a recording of today’s event will be available exclusively for members so that you can enjoy it once again! There will be another video out soon to announce the details of the next event, so don’t forget to like and share it!”
“…Let’s go home.”
“The event itself is over for today, isn’t that right?”
Toraki posed that question to Sagara, who fiddled with his dreadlocks while considering his answer.
“Hmm… Well, the music performance part is over. After this, the performers will come out onto the floor and interact with the fans, so I guess you could say that it’s not completely over yet.”
“I see. But it’s already past ten o’clock.”
“You were right when you called it an ‘awkward’ situation earlier, Sagara-san. This might sound insensitive, but I’d rather not get fired just because all of this came to light at some point down the line.”
“Well, I guess you’ve got your reasons. At least get her to leave without causing too much of a fuss. That would be insensitive.”
“Thanks. Let’s go.”
“Y-Yes… H-Hey, where are you going?”
Iris left the counter along with Toraki as if she was being dragged away by him. Instead of heading for the exit, Toraki made a beeline for the stage where the still-excited fans were gathered.
Although most of the fans were female, there were still a few men interspersed here and there in the crowd, which caused Iris to feel apprehensive. However, she understood what was going on after seeing Toraki heading straight for where Akari was standing and followed him.
“Akari-chan, it’s time to go home.”
“Huh? What are you saying? The best part starts now!”
“The law says that you’re only allowed to stay until eleven o’clock in a place like this. I’m not your father, so I can’t give you permission to stay. I’d feel sorry for Muraoka-san If I left you here until the last minute and you got into trouble with the police.”
“My dad’s got nothing to do with this!!”
The people in Akari’s vicinity noticed her anger and started muttering among themselves.
“Saying that your father has nothing to do with this makes you no different from your mother who ran off and left you behind.”
Just as Akari was about to raise her hand against Toraki in rage, Iris stepped forward and managed to hold her back.
“Sagara-san also agreed that it was time for you to leave. Causing a scene here would be a bad idea for you as well, don’t you agree?”
Akari glanced towards the bar counter with a shocked expression, but unfortunately Sagara wasn’t there at the moment.
“…I have no intention of tattling to your father. However, that only applies as long as you are willing to toe the line that society has established, Akari-chan. Staying here any longer would cross the limits of acceptable behavior.”
“…I don’t give a damn about society! Or about the limits set by adults!”
Akari spoke while struggling to suppress her anger, shook off Iris’s restraining hand, and stormed off towards the exit. Iris followed after her, and Toraki shot one last glance back at the stage. A few of the band members happened to make their appearance at the same time, causing the audience to get excited once more.
Unlike during the ‘poll’, the envelopes that the fans held out to the band members as they crowded around them were brightly colored and covered with gorgeous designs.
After Toraki left the club, he found Iris standing outside with a troubled expression as she looked to him for help. Looking closer, he saw that Akari was crouched down near the exit with a sulky expression.
“I’m not going back.”
“I’m not going home. I don’t care what you say!”
“…But, I mean…”
“Nothing will change even if I go home! Dad’s obviously going to be at work, and Mom isn’t coming back! If being by myself is dangerous, then it makes no difference whether I’m here or at home!”
“Yura… Do you know what’s going on?”
“I said earlier that she’s the convenience store owner’s daughter, right? It seems like her mother recently just up and left without even saying goodbye…”
“…Oh, I see.”
Iris nodded with an understanding expression.
“Do you mind leaving this to me?”
“Despite everything, I’m still a nun. Back in my country, we were often responsible for lending an ear to children who had issues at home. It won’t solve her problems right away, but I might be able to get her to calm down, at least.”
“…Understood, I’ll leave it to you. Thanks.”
No matter what Toraki tried to say, Akari would probably think that he was on her father’s side. On the other hand, Iris was someone of the same gender and a foreigner to boot. Her words might be easier for Akari to understand.
“Hello. You’re Akari-chan, right?”
“I’m sorry we got in the way while you were having fun. Anybody would want to let their hair down once in a while, right? I understand how you feel. I felt the same way today, after all.”
Iris took something that looked like a card out of her pocket and held it out to Akari.
“Eh? Are you actually a nun? Well, I did think that you were dressed like one, but still…”
Did she have an ID card or something that identified her as a nun? Toraki suppressed a momentary flash of curiosity and elected to silently watch over the situation.
“Yes. Even nuns sometimes go to watch live shows.”
Toraki had no idea what Iris had shown to Akari to make her believe that she was a nun, but he was not able to equate Iris’s current appearance—bending over Akari and talking to her in a kind voice—with the girl who had struck a pose in his house with curry stains around her mouth.
“However, both Yura and I detected some dark feelings swirling within you. In a place like this, there are many black shadows just waiting to take advantage of those feelings. If you were truly enjoying the live performance from the bottom of your heart, then that would be fine. However, I am sure that your feelings are chipping away at your ability to genuinely have fun. Yura and I are here to listen to your feelings and share your burden.”
Share her burdens. Those words would have never left Toraki’s mouth in his lifetime. Most likely, he would have ended up giving Akari a perfunctory lecture typical of adults which would have only served to make her even more stubborn.
This was probably the first time Toraki felt that Iris was suited to her profession and felt a sense of respect for her calling.
“I would normally invite children to spend the night at the church or monastery when they don’t want to go home, but I only came to Japan recently so that’s not possible. So how about this? Would you like to spend the night at my house instead?”
“…At your house, Onee-san?”
“It’s a small house and I don’t have much, but I can at least offer you some hot tea.”
“Hmm? Hmm!? That’s strange… Hey Iris, hang on second—”
“Today’s performance was very interesting. Would you be willing to tell me more about it? Oh, and there’s also a video recording that’s going to be made available, right? Want to watch it together?”
Toraki wasn’t able to get a word in before the two girls finalized their plans. He could only watch dazedly as Iris flagged down a cab and got into it along with Akari.
“Oh? Onee-san, you live pretty close to my place.”
“Oh, really? So you leave nearby?”
“Yeah. I live in Zoshigaya too. Toraki-san, you live in Zoshigaya too, right?”
“Ah… Well, yes…”
“Hmm? Hang on. Both of you live in Zoshigaya, and you came to see the show together… Am I like, totally the third wheel here!?”
Akari’s reaction was only natural. Since they all came back to apartment 104 of Blue Rose Chateau Zoshigaya together.
“Fufu. Too bad, Yura and I are not in that sort of a relationship. This is also the first time the two of us went to see a live show together, because he said that he wanted to come along.”
“Eh? Toraki-san!? Really!?”
“…What is it?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I just thought that you had a cute side to you after all.”
“…Thanks, I guess.”
Toraki would have liked nothing better than to put Iris in a sleeper hold that very instant, but he couldn’t do anything careless while she was skillfully guiding Akari’s mental state. In the end, he was left with no option but to play along. Still, how could Iris be so calm now even though she had panicked so much about Sagara calling her Toraki’s girlfriend earlier?
“No but seriously, I think I misjudged you, Toraki-san. You always gave off this impression of being plain and uninteresting, after all. You didn’t look like the kind of person who would go to a live show with a beautiful girl like her.”
Akari’s observation was entirely accurate. If Toraki hadn’t met Iris, he would have probably gone his entire life without so much as setting foot inside a live house.
“Just like how there are sides to children that adults don’t know about, adults also have various sides to their personality that they don’t show to children. Anyway, that’s enough talk about Yura. Is the recording of the live show available to watch yet?”
“It should be up by now… Hey, does this apartment have Wi-Fi? Also, this one seriously bare room. There’s hardly anything in here.”
“Umm.. I only moved in recently so…”
Out of the corner of her eye, Iris saw Toraki shake his head.
“…Let’s just watch it on my phone, shall we?”
After hesitating for just a moment, Iris pulled out her own Slimphone.
After that, the two of them started watching a stream of the earlier live performance together. Sitting side by side with their shoulders pressed against each other, they looked like they were having a lot of fun as they chatted and laughed.
Toraki shrugged and retired to his room quietly so as to not disturb them.
Toraki was able to hear them talking for a few hours after that, and eventually, their voices moved into the room that Iris was using. A short while later, after the voices abruptly ceased…
“Sorry to keep you waiting.”
Iris peeked into his room and beckoned for him to come out. After following behind her, he saw Akari in the room next to his own, sleeping peacefully in the futon.
“Thanks. You were a big help.”
“Oh? I thought you would be a lot angrier.”
“We managed to get Akari-chan out of that place, after all. If it was just me, there’s no way things would have gone so smoothly.”
After closing the sliding door of the bedroom, Toraki went back to the dining room and sat down in a chair with a heavy sigh.
“So you really were a nun after all. That was some impressive work.”
“Of course I am. What did you think I was?”
Despite her tone, Iris’s smile showed that she was not really dissatisfied with his remark. She started brewing some tea for the two of them using the earl grey tea bags that she had purchased the other day.
“…Her mother leaving seems to have had a considerable effect on her.”
“It seems like Akari-chan’s parents started fighting more frequently from around the time when she started middle school. That was also around the time when her father started to really focus on his job as the manager of a convenience store.”
“That’s around the same time when I met Muraoka-san.”
Even though Muraoka often behaved shamefully around Toraki, his skill as a manager was top-notch. Apart from the store in the fifth district of Ikebukuro East, Muraoka also managed two other convenience stores of the franchise. He spent more time at the fifth district store because that was the most successful of the three, but he also frequently visited the other two stores as well. Even Toraki, an outsider, could tell that he hardly ever spent any time at home.
“The thing with Akari-chan’s piano recital was just the final straw. It seems Akari-chan’s mother was very dissatisfied with how her husband thought so little of their family.”
“Did Akari-chan say that herself?”
He had thought that they were simply making small talk, but apparently Iris’s ability as a nun was not to be underestimated.
“Yes. She also told me that she sided with her father during that last fight. That’s what finally drove her mother to leave. Despite that, her father still put his work first and hardly ever spoke to Akari-chan at home, making her regret taking his side.”
There was no way to tell what Muraoka’s family had been like before that incident. However, from Akari’s perspective, she could not rid herself of the feeling that she had been the one to deliver the final blow to her parents’ marriage. That feeling must have taken the form of increased rebellious behavior towards adults in general.
“It also looks like she’s been visiting live houses every once in a while for quite some time now, but when her father finally found out about it, they got into a fight about that as well.”
Akari’s mother had left after losing patience with her workaholic husband. And even though Akari took her father’s side, he didn’t understand her at all, even going so far as to complain about her hobbies despite the fact that he was hardly ever at home.
It was a situation that was probably rampant around the world to the point of being considered mundane, but for the people involved, it was probably the most difficult and painful experience of their lives.
“If only she had taken her mother’s side during that fight… She was crying when she said that to me.”
Looking at Muraoka’s family from the outside, it could be argued that none of them had done anything obviously wrong. However, they each had different ideas about what was right, causing their family to stop functioning as one. Akari, who was left without anyone to confide in, had turned to other ways to vent her emotions.
Visiting that live house and attending the events was Akari’s solace, and her way of protecting herself. It was nothing more than that.
“That event is dangerous.”
“What do you mean?”
“It doesn’t matter whether Amimura is a vampire or not. Akari-chan should not be frequenting that place. If things continue as they are, Akari-chan will eventually end up getting into trouble with the law, and Muraoka-san’s family might be broken beyond repair… What do you think we should do?”
“…I’m telling you that I’ll help you catch that vampire. What should we do next?”
“Eh? Yura!? W-Why, all of a sudden!?”
“I’m a selfish person, you see. I only take action based on my own feelings, not for someone else or for the sake of the world. And my feelings are telling me not to sit by quietly while an acquaintance is in trouble. Since you told Akari-chan that this is your house, you can stay here until this matter is resolved.”
“…Yura, thank you so much!”
“However, I want you out of here as soon as this job is done.”
Toraki felt a twinge of unease after hearing Iris’s energetic response, but he could not ignore the dark presence that was creeping up on Muraoka and Akari. He directed a wry smile at Iris who looked like she was on cloud nine and spoke to her once again.
“Just to confirm, does the Order of the Dark cross only serve to mediate in the cases that are assigned to Church Knights? Or do they do any information analysis and just leave the actual fighting to the Knights?”
“They do the absolute minimum level of investigation. However, since the Church Knights are the ones who actually fight against the Phantoms, the two of us will have to take care of the final investigation by ourselves as well.”
Iris was already saying ‘the two of us’ as if the formation of their team was a foregone conclusion, but he decided to let it go for now.
“In that case, there is something I want you to look into, with regards to that ‘Roomwell’ company that is managing the event. This is about those envelopes that Amimura collected towards the end of the event.”
“Envelopes? You mean the fan letters?”
“If my guess is correct, those are not fan letters.”
Toraki looked towards the room where Akari was sleeping, and his expression changed to one of disgust.
“What is it? What exactly are you trying to find?”
Coming from a member of a team that was supposed to be taking on a vampire, Toraki’s answer to Iris’s question was fairly strange.
“I need you to look into the Roomwell Company’s registration information, and if possible, their revenue for the previous year. Also… find out if the company is being investigated by any of the official agencies, whether it’s the police or anyone else.”
※ One of the divisions of Japan’s Criminal Affairs Bureau. Deals with crimes such as fraud, counterfeiting, tax evasion, etc.🠕