"What do you think, guys?" Jun turned towards the others after closing the door. "Is this really something we can handle ourselves?"
Amane folded her arms as she leaned back against the wall, deep in thought.
Simply hiding Akari wasn't going to be enough, but they couldn't risk calling the police or hospital now, not when Ishikawa had yet to notice them.
There was also the issue with the unknown sender on Somnus. How did they get Akari's info in the first place? Were they stalking the girl? Did they hack into her phone's GPS? Why would they even need to do such things?
Nagisa slowly raised her hand. "Uhm, shouldn't we call Yoko or Chihaya first? They've been dealing with a lot of cases like this lately, haven't they?"
Chihaya and Yoko were two other friends, living in Sasazuka and Kichijoji respectively. Ever since they managed to identify Noboru Hazuki's murderer last winter, both the police and residents around their districts had been sending in requests for help at least twice a week. Although Yoko complained they disrupted her work, Chihaya liked accepting cases even without her approval, so their reputation as problem-solvers was growing.
Amane shook her head, however. "No, let's leave them out of this."
"Those two are...half-dead right now. Probably."
She knew Yoko had a grand total of six deadlines looming ahead, and Chihaya was scheduled for twenty more dance sessions this month. No doubt, neither of them were in any better condition than Akari by now.
"One insomniac's bad enough. We don't need three," she declared solemnly.
"By the way, Amane," Izumi glanced over at her, "why'd you ask Ms. Kurosaki if she lost her phone earlier?"
He'd been confused when she asked Akari that strange question back in Sunshine City. Shou and Ruri, who hadn't heard about the smartphone or yesterday's events either, were also puzzled at the time.
"Yeah, why did you ask her that?"
"I wanna know too."
"...It's a long story. Let's talk in the living room." Amane gestured towards the end of the hall.
Twelve minutes later, after listening to his friends' explanations and studying the phone himself-
"We should go to the police."
"I said, we should go to the police," said Izumi, re-reading the message as the kids peered at it from both sides. "This is bad news."
"You think so...?"
"Look, Mamoru," his voice turned deadpan, "some cat on the road drops a phone at your feet. Then a weird app downloads itself onto the device. Then you get an anonymous message detailing the name and location of a young girl, who's running away from her evil boss and suffering from extreme insomnia. And you don't find any of this shady?"
"Of course it's shady! But you know we can't file a report without clear proof she's being chased, don't you?"
Everyone believed Akari's story, but just the fact she saw one of Ishikawa's subordinates nearby wouldn't be enough to convince the authorities to act. As Yoko's police friend had put it, "We can't stop crimes until they happen or there's enough evidence to prove they'll occur." That was how many stalking and harassment cases got swept under the rug, at any rate.
Jun was sitting on a stool next to Mamoru. "Nagisa and I don't have class tomorrow, so we can look after Ms. Kurosaki for a few more days."
School was cancelled due to ongoing power outage issues, which was why they'd invited the others over this morning.
"Yep. If anyone tries to break in, we'll take care of them," said Nagisa, calmly flexing her fingers.
She and Jun hadn't earned their red belts in Judo for nothing, after all. As long as guns weren't involved, they could handle most opponents on their own, but if worse came to worst, the kids were also decent fighters themselves. Ruri, in particular, took her aikido lessons quite seriously, while Shou could deal a swift punch if he had to.
"'If anyone tries to break in, we'll take care of them'? That's very reassuring, Nagisa…" Izumi sighed as he handed the phone back to Amane.
"The point is," Mamoru stood up, "we can't do anything that might draw attention for now. Let's focus on helping Ms. Kurosaki rest, and if things get really serious, we'll call the police then. What do you think, Amane?"
"...You gotta be kidding me…"
"Huh? What's wrong?"
"Look at this..." Amane held up the phone screen for everyone to see.
A new text-box had suddenly appeared below the first message:
BIC CAMERA / IKB Main Store, 5th floor
"...Eh!?" Mamoru did a double take.
Izumi's eyes went wide. It definitely hadn't been there while he was scrolling through the chatroom. "When the heck did-?"
"Just now, seconds ago."
"'Why is Ishikawa's name on there?" Jun stared at the text in shock, as Ruri was trying to get a closer look on tiptoe.
"Ah, sorry..." Amane held the phone lower, her mind spinning with questions.
First Akari, and now him? Who on earth was sending these messages? It couldn't be Ishikawa himself, could it? But none of them had known about Ishikawa or Akari until today, and this phone wasn't even theirs to begin with, so these texts were probably meant for someone else. Why would anyone send this kind of information, though?
Shou was looking over Ruri's shoulder, quietly reading the message.
"BIC CAMERA's that huge electronics store, right? Are we gonna find this Ishikawa person lying on the floor too?" he asked, not even a hint of surprise crossing his features. The nine-year-old's poker face was really something else.
"I'm not sure, honestly…"
Amane still had no idea what "yellow alert" was supposed to mean, and "green alert" certainly wasn't ringing any bells either. It was likely, however, that Kentaro Ishikawa was indeed at Bic Camera, though no one could imagine how his current physical condition was.
Izumi, who dealt with sudden events well, was the first to make a suggestion.
"Guys, I know this is all super confusing. But if Ishikawa really is at Bic Camera now, I think we should go check it out before he leaves."
Ruri stared at him incredulously. "We can't do that! What if he notices us?"
"Isn't it better to keep an eye on him, though? Even if he notices us, I doubt he'll realize we're hiding Ms. Kurosaki right away. We might even be able to catch him doing something illegal and report him then."
"Still, it's possible he did see us and just hasn't found our location yet," Mamoru pointed out.
"Well, then," Nagisa also stood up, "Jun and I will go to Bic Camera on our own. The rest of you can stay here with Ms. Kurosaki."
"You and Jun? Why-"
"We came home separately from the rest of you, remember?"
Izumi's car wasn't big enough to hold eight people, so Nagisa and Jun had taken the train back to their apartment with the kids.
"I'm pretty sure he didn't see us on our way back. It'll be safer if we go," she insisted.
The others looked at her and Jun silently for a while.
They certainly weren't comfortable with the idea of letting their younger friends trail Ishikawa by themselves, but at the moment, it wasn't as though they had any other options.
"Are you sure about this...?"
"It'll be fine, Amane. We just have to follow him around, right? We won't do anything else."
Jun grabbed his jacket from the sofa. "Anyway, if we're gonna go, we need to go now. He might leave at any minute."
"...Alright," Amane relented. "But please be careful, you two."
"Make sure to call us immediately if something happens," Mamoru said firmly, his expression still uneasy.
"Got it. We're off, then!"
Despite its name, only the basement floor of BIC CAMERA sold cameras.
Floor 5 was where the store sold music software, games, and children's toys, while the other floors sold products including bicycles, TV sets, cellphones, washing machines, liquor, etc.
"Is this place really an electronics store?" Jun murmured as they passed 4F's cosmetics section.
"Mostly, anyway…" Nagisa was already looking around for Ishikawa before they reached 5F, but he didn't seem to be anywhere nearby even as they got off the escalator.
They'd seen Ishikawa's profile photo on TSG's website earlier. Now all they needed to do was find a lean, middle-aged man with brown hair, square glasses, and a mole near his right eye.
After half an hour of walking around the aisles, however, the two still couldn't find anyone matching that description.
"I don't see him here," Nagisa whispered to Jun as they finished circling the Blu-ray section. "It still says '5th floor,' right?"
Jun pulled up the chatroom for what seemed like the thirteenth time.
"Yep, nothing's changed. Sheesh-" he sighed. "Just where the heck is that guy?"
"Maybe he's in the restroom? Or the Nintendo section, perhaps? We haven't checked there yet."
"Why would a grown man be at the Nintendo section?"
"He could have kids, who knows?"
"Well, if he has kids, that makes him an even bigger scumbag…"
Soliciting minors despite having kids of his own. Did such appalling fathers have to exist? Jun felt sick just thinking about it.
"Anyhow, let's check the Nintendo area first. If he's not there, we'll check the surrounding aisles."
The Nintendo aisles were located across the PS4 area, next to the children's toys section. Nagisa briefly considered stopping by to get a present for Ruri and Shou before remembering there was no time.
"What are we gonna do once we find him? We can't stick a GPS tracker on his clothes like in movies or anime, can we?" Jun remarked half-jokingly, causing Nagisa to laugh.
"I wish. All we can do now is trail him and maybe take a few photos. If we actually manage to find him, that is..."
"Kinda feels like we're stalking him, doesn't it?"
"Hey, we haven't even seen him yet, so I don't think 'stalking's the right-"
"Excuse me! The two of you over there, can I have a word?" a voice suddenly called out from behind them, startling them both.
They turned around to see a tall, bespectacled man in a gray suit hurrying their way, holding what seemed like a small piece of paper in his hand. Somehow, he looked rather familiar.
Jun felt a wave of panic rising up. "Wait, isn't that…?"
"I-It is!" Nagisa looked alarmed. "But, why-?"
Before they could understand what was happening, however, Kentaro Ishikawa had already come up to them, slightly out of breath.
"Whew! Thank goodness, I finally caught your attention," he smiled, not noticing how frantic the two teenagers were feeling at the moment.
Did he realize they were following him? Should they start running away now? What was he planning to do?
"...Excuse me," Nagisa managed to regain her composure first, "who might you be, sir...?"
For now, feigning ignorance was probably the best choice.
Ishikawa held out the paper, a business card, Nagisa realized, and spoke warmly again. "Kentaro Ishikawa, from TSG Entertainment. If you don't mind, young miss, may I also know your name? And your friend's?"
"My name? Oh...My name's...Shoko. Shoko Kinoshita, and this is Shun." She pointed at Jun, who looked baffled for a moment, before getting what she was trying to do.
"Ah, yes…I'm Shun Minami," he lied, hiding his anxiety with a polite smile.
Never give enemies your real name, that's what their oldest friend Tsubaki told them once. But lying entirely might also raise suspicion, so they'd still given Ishikawa their surnames, both of which were pretty common anyhow.
Nagisa slowly took the card from him. "Uhm, Mr. Ishikawa, correct? May we help you with something?"
"You and Shun, are either of you in the modeling or entertainment industry?"
"Eh?” Jun stared at him.
Nagisa was also surprised. “N-No, not at all. Why do you ask?"
"I see, I see, " Ishikawa nodded. "Let me cut to the chase then. How would you two like to be scouted by my agency?"
"I said, how would you like to be scouted by my agency?" he repeated, as if he'd said nothing strange at all.
Now the both of them were completely taken aback. He was trying to scout them for TSG? What in the world was going on?
Ishikawa continued, “Both of you have nice faces, and the way you walk is quite poised for your age. I could notice it from aisles away."
“I-Is that so...?”
Nagisa and Jun glanced at each other, feeling more confused than ever.
It was true, for appearance and health reasons, they tried to pay attention to their postures, but that didn't seem to be enough reason why the man would want to scout them. Perhaps he had something unsavory in mind, like what he'd done with young Akari and Mayumi.
This is bad, Jun thought, stepping in front of Nagisa on instinct. He definitely wasn't going to risk letting Ishikawa solicit his friend. “Thanks for the offer, mister. But me and Na- I mean, Shoko aren’t allowed to work. Our school bans part-time jobs.”
“Yes, that’s true…”
Actually, their school wasn't strict in enforcing this rule, but they needed a good excuse to decline.
The director seemed unfazed, however. “Oh? Is simply modeling for a few magazine pages considered a violation too, then?"
"Our agency runs a teen fashion magazine, but three of our models caught the flu this week, so we're looking for stand-ins before our next release," he explained, pulling out another business card and holding it out to Jun, who ended up taking it after a moment's hesitation.
Whether Ishikawa was lying or not, he and Nagisa still couldn't tell.
He decided to question the man further. "...If you don't mind me asking, isn't TSG a talent agency for idols? I didn't know you hire models as well."
"So you have heard of us! You're right. We mostly manage female idol groups, but we also have a number of actors, models, and dancers under our label. Our new magazine that I've just mentioned, Chrome, is targeted specifically towards kids your age."
"Oh, I've seen copies of Chrome at the bookstore before," Nagisa remembered.
So it's a real magazine, then. Jun started going over their current options in his mind.
Assuming Ishikawa was telling the truth, if they accepted this offer, it'd be easier to keep an eye on him for a while longer. On the other hand, if he really was scheming something, Nagisa would most likely become his next target. There was also a chance he might find out they were hiding Akari from him.
What should we do?
"You'll only have to wear five or six outfits, all of them casual style. And if you're still worried about school rules, we could pay you in some way other than money, how about that?"
"Alright. We'll consider it," Nagisa interrupted, much to Jun's surprise.
"Wait, what are you-?"
"If we get permission from our families, we'll call you right away. It's this number, correct?" She pointed at the back of the card.
"Yep. I'm glad to hear you're interested." Ishikawa sounded pleased. "Try to contact me as soon as possible, though. Our next release is in two weeks."
After five more minutes of talking, the two of them parted ways with Ishikawa, agreeing to call him by tomorrow afternoon.
As they began heading back out of the store, Jun couldn't help but shoot the older girl an exasperated look. "Nagisa...Please don't make decisions like that without warning me beforehand…"
"Sorry, Jun. But I honestly think accepting his offer's our best bet here. No matter the case, it's better to keep enemies close by, right?"
"Yeah, but what if he realizes where Ms. Kurosaki is? He's probably eyeing you too, you know."
"Chrome's not a sketchy magazine, so I think it'll be fine. And he won't find out about Ms. Kurosaki as long as we're careful."
It wasn't as if they had any previous connection with her, after all.
"Still," Nagisa sighed, "I guess we can't really do anything without telling Mamoru and the others first."
"They're not going to like this plan, are they?"
She knew Mamoru, in particular, hated it whenever his younger friends put themselves at risk. Convincing him and the others was definitely going to take a while.
"By the way, why would you even pick 'Shoko' as a fake name? I mean, I get why I'm 'Shun', but 'Shoko'? Where did that come from?"
"Hm? Because, 渚 (nagisa)'s also read as 渚 (sho), remember? Like how your name can be read as 隼 (jun) or 隼 (shun). I just chose something that sounds similar."
"I see..." Jun couldn't imagine how all that had gone through Nagisa's mind in such a short time. "What are you gonna tell Ishikawa if he asks for your ID?"
"I'll say Shoko's a nickname. Don't forget you're supposed to be 'Shun' and not Jun when we see him again, got it?"
"Roger that," he nodded.
The sky was starting to turn cloudy now, and a few drops of water were striking the pavement. Apparently, the rainstorm from last evening had yet to dry out.
"Uh-oh," Nagisa felt a cold droplet splash her cheek, "looks like it's raining again..."
"Seriously? Didn't the forecast say 'only 15% chance of'- Ah, whatever! Let's go, Nagisa!"
They took off running down the street just as thunder began to rumble loudly in the distance.