ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
The weekend was a fun one, and not just because it included shaved ice with Michael and Kei.
First, we were invited to the Sunshine Dormitory for a victory party, thrown in honor of Yomogi’s championship by her dormmates. Everyone that was invited brought some delicious food, and I got to sample all sorts of wonderful delicacies. She even made her chocolate ravioli that had brought her victory, with various flavors in the filling—lemon, orange and even ginger.
The party was well attended by a bunch of Umami Gakuen students—myself and Kei included. Even Nadeshiko Enomoto showed up, to everyone’s surprise. “I only want to taste that chocolate ravioli! It’s not like I wanted to come…” I heard her say as a bunch of students asked her how she was faring after her narrow defeat.
At one point, everyone started clamoring for Yomogi to make a speech. She blushed as she stood in the center of the room, holding her glass of soda. “When I took the exam for Umami Gakuen, it was a total dream for me,” she said. “I had no idea if I was worthy enough to be accepted. I had a terrible elementary and junior high school life. I had so much trouble making friends because of my background, and I got backstabbed by people that were my closest friends…” She swallowed a bit, and her voice quavered. “But I found new friends here at Umami Gakuen, and they’re such wonderful people. I’m so happy I decided to take this chance!”
“A toast to Yomogi Kisaragi!” her roommate Aiko said, raising her class. “Kampai!”
“KAMPAI!” we all shouted, as we toasted Yomogi’s victory.
The next day was my return to work. My coworkers decided to throw me another party—this time, for consolation rather than victory, but it was a great party nonetheless. Everyone was happy for my recovery, and rooted for me to get back into the gourmet battle grind and try again next year.
When I got to school on Monday morning, I was well rested and felt excited—like the world seemed a lot brighter. Even my mood seemed to have improved in the past few days. The pain of losing Ebifry—and the reawakened pain of losing my father—had seemed to lessen to a dull ache over the past few days. Nothing I couldn’t handle, right?
I had no idea how wrong everything would become when I stepped through the gates and made my way towards homeroom.
As preparations for the school festival were in full swing, we were meeting in homeroom to go over progress. I had brought the book on tea leaf reading I had borrowed from Caroline to school with me, and passed it around among the students to let them know what I had in mind. A few people felt confident enough in their English to attempt to translate some of the descriptions, and we were about to start divvying up the work when one of my classmates pointed out the window and shouted, “There’s an ambulance at the entrance!”
Over the protests of our teacher, we swarmed to the windows to see an ambulance, with its lights flashing as a pair of paramedics were carefully easing a wheeled stretcher down the stairs.
“Is it anyone we know?”
“Do you see anyone on there?”
I pressed my face close to the window and looked closely, and as one of the paramedics shifted, I saw a familiar face—the face of Yomogi.
“Yomogi-chan!?” I shrieked in surprise.
“Kisaragi-san from class C? Are you sure?” one of my classmates asked.
“No way…What happened?” said another.
The rest of homeroom period was filled with murmurs between classmates as we tried to figure out what was happening. “Settle down, class,” the teacher said. “I know you’re worried, but we need to work on our festival booth! We can’t afford to fall behind at this point!”
Our work continued half-heartedly, but I felt sick to my stomach. Was that really Yomogi on that stretcher, and if so, what had happened…
Even though it was forbidden, I sneaked a look at the messages on my phone. Nothing. I rested my head on my arms, thinking to myself, Please be all right, Yomogi-chan…or whoever it is that’s out there…
As homeroom ended, the door of the classroom opened to reveal two students standing there. One I immediately recognized as Yomogi’s roommate Aiko, who was also a classmate of mine in the Yoshoku Division practical classes, and the other I vaguely recognized from the party at Sunshine Dormitory that past weekend. “Is Vanilla Sakamoto here?” Aiko asked the student sitting closest to the door.
“Yeah,” the student said, getting up and turning in my direction. “Sakamoto-san, someone wants to talk to you,” he said.
I got up from my seat and went up to the door. Aiko and the other student’s faces looked extremely worried. “What’s happening?” I asked.
Aiko didn’t say anything, but pointed to the empty room across the hallway. I nodded and pulled the door open, following the two of them in before I pulled the door shut.
“Did you see what happened this morning?” Aiko asked.
“Yeah. The ambulance?” I replied.
“They…they took Yomogi to the emergency room,” Aiko’s classmate said. Aiko looked down at the floor, her lips quivering like she was about to cry.
“Wait…what happened? Why?” I asked.
“She…she…” Aiko sniffed, and her hand clenched in a fist. Her classmate wrapped an arm around her and looked me in the eye.
“Kisaragi-san tried to kill herself,” she said.
The shock made me drop to my knees. “What…” I could barely get the words out. “Why?”
Aiko reached into the pocket of her jacket and handed me her phone. “When homeroom started…everyone’s phones started going off…and this was the message sent to everyone…”
I looked down to see a picture mail. It was a black and white picture of Yomogi, running with a group of other girls. Behind them I could see the figure of an old man slumped on the ground, with what appeared to be a head wound. There was a line of text along with the photo:
“THIS IS THE TRUE FACE OF YOUR CHAMPION”
“What’s the meaning of this?” I asked. Aiko took her phone back and put it back into her pocket.
“It…it must’ve got sent to her phone, too,” she said. “And when she saw it, she…she looked horrified. Like she was going to jump out of her skin…and when the teacher opened the door, she ran out…”
“Aiko-chan and I got up to try and follow her,” Aiko’s classmate said, “and we looked around the hall for her until we checked the girls’ bathroom…she was in there. Bleeding.”
I swallowed, suddenly feeling that sick feeling again. “Is…is she gonna be all right?” I asked.
There was no answer from either Aiko or her classmate as they looked at each other. The chime signaling the end of break rang. “You two better get back to class,” I said, somewhat shakily, as I opened the door behind me.
Aiko nodded. “I’ll…I’ll let you know if anything comes up…”
“Right,” I replied. “And I’ll keep this in confidence…but please find Kei Mitsurugi and tell her, too.”
“Yeah. We’re going to find her next break,” Aiko said, “because I know how close you three are.”
The two of them dashed off down the hall to their classroom, while I went back into my own. My literature teacher glared at me.
“Sakamoto-san, you do know the meaning of the word ‘punctual’, don’t you?” he said.
I did not want to argue with him, so I mentally projected the aura of a ten foot tall cobra, ready to spit venom, with eyes that glowed like a cat at night, as I took my seat and opened my book.
“V-very well,” he said, as he started writing the lesson on the chalkboard.
My mind was a million miles away.
At the beginning of the next class period before lunch, someone from the faculty office knocked on the door, and handed a sheet of paper to Masamune Shiotani. He read over it and proceeded with it to the podium in the front of the classroom. “This is an announcement from the Chairman,” he said, his voice quavering. “’During morning homeroom, Yomogi Kisaragi, first year class C, suffered a medical emergency and was taken to the hospital. Her condition is stable. I implore the student body to refrain from spreading unsavory rumors or speaking to the media about this incident, which is now under police investigation.’” He put the paper down and scanned the classroom. “That’s…what it says,” he said. “I don’t have any other information about anything.”
I wanted to ask about the picture message, but the teacher got up and took her place at the podium before I could speak. “Thank you, Shiotani-san. You may be seated,” she said, as she opened up the lesson book.
I could barely concentrate. All I could think of was where she could be. There were so many hospitals she could’ve ended up in around the city and it would take forever to call them all. And now the police were involved? Was there more to it?
I spent my class feeling terrible and watching the clock until the bell rang for our lunch period, when I rushed outside to meet with Kei in our usual lunch place. Her usually stoic face looked pale and frightened.
“Did you meet Aiko-san?” I asked her.
Kei nodded. “Yeah. What…what does all this mean?”
“I don’t know. But…I think we found out the reason why she was so frightened about her past,” I said.
We sat down, neither of us with much of an appetite. “I can’t believe that picture,” Kei said. “Did it seem real to you?”
“I only saw it for a few moments,” I said. “And I’m not a Photoshop expert or anything like that, but…”
“Kei-san! Vanilla-san!” yelled a voice from behind the two of us. We looked behind us to see the boy that was Yomogi’s first opponent, Masaya Yamadera, running out of the building towards us. “Did…Did you hear anything about Yomogi-san?” he asked.
Kei and I looked at each other, unsure if we should divulge any of the information we got from Aiko and her classmate on what happened. “I haven’t heard anything since our class rep made his announcement,” I said, which was technically true.
“It’s awful,” Masaya said, gasping. “There’s people calling the school demanding she be expelled. And the message board for the championships is flooded with comments calling her a criminal! I don’t understand what’s going on…”
“What?!” I shouted as I pulled out my phone. I went to the website for Ginga TV, and selected their message board. Every single topic and message was calling Yomogi a criminal, a cheater, and all sorts of unsavory names. “Was this why she…” I started to say before I cut myself off.
“It’s been happening all morning,” Masaya said.
I felt a tug on the sleeve of my school blouse, and looked up to see Kei nodding at me. “Masaya-kun, I need to talk to Kei-chan in private,” I said. “Can…can you let me know if you hear anything from Yomogi-chan?”
Masaya nodded. “Yeah. I’ll let you know. I’d better get back.”
He dashed off back towards the school building. Kei leaned close to me and showed me the screen of her cellphone.
“Look at the time of these posts on the message board,” she said. “They started right around the time we started homeroom,” she said.
“And that was when everyone in her class got the photo,” I said.
Kei nodded. “This is another coincidence I don’t like,” she said.
“And they would’ve had to know the numbers of everyone in Yomogi-chan’s class…This is freaky. It’s gotta be someone with inside information,” I said.
“Do you think it’s related to the lights dropping on Tsukiko-sempai?” Kei asked. “Did we find out if it was an accident or not?”
“No, but…” Suddenly, a thought struck me, and my eyes widened. “It had to have been someone who knew about Ebifry!” I said, alarmed. My head raced with thoughts of who I had told and who might’ve found out secondhand. I know I told Yomogi and Kei, but who else? Could someone have overheard or read over their shoulder? I couldn’t even remember. My mind was just a complete jumble of nerves right now.
The bell for the end of lunch rang. “I didn’t even eat,” I said.
“I don’t have any appetite, either,” Kei said. “And…I’m dreading what’s going to happen next.”
I felt my stomach twist into knots as she said that. “Yeah,” I replied, resignedly.
As my class sat through a lecture on the anatomy and butchering process of pigs, my phone buzzed. I decided to throw caution against the wind and sneak a look at it. I slowly and carefully slid it from my pocket and peeked at the screen to see:
From: Caroline To: Me
I need to talk to you
Can you call me when you’re done with school?
Why was she trying to get into contact with me? I remembered the situation at Ginga TV, and remembered Ryotaro’s role in all this. They’re probably swamped over there, I thought, imagining angry phone calls from people along with the message board bombardment. Maybe…he’d be someone I could talk to about all this.
When class ended, I dashed into a hallway and towards the bathrooms before I pulled out my phone and hit Caroline’s number. I waited as the phone rang. “Hello?” said a cheery voice with a perfect English accent.
“Caroline, it’s Vanilla,” I whispered. “What’s wrong?”
“Listen,” Caroline said. “I have a bad feeling about your friend.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“That boy named Valentine…your sempai, right? He’s the one you said lived in America?”
“Yeah…what about him?” I asked.
“The night you were competing, while they were cleaning up the stage, I had to go to the bathroom, and I saw him standing outside in the hall talking to someone on the phone about you. In English.”
“What?” I gasped. “What was he saying?”
“I’m not sure how best to translate it…I’m still not very good at Japanese, and I’d ask my father but he’d have so many questions, but he was reporting to someone,” Caroline said. “And they sounded official.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Try to explain it as best you can,” I said.
“He said that their last move was a success. That’s…that’s all I can really tell you.”
I wanted to throw up. What’s this about being a success? I thought. And that’s when I remembered he was one of the people I had told about Ebifry dying.
No way, I thought. This can’t be true.
“Caroline-chan, thank you,” I said. “Could you please give your regards to your father for me? And…tell him I want to talk to him.”
“I would, but he has to work late today,” Caroline said. “It…has to do with Kisaragi-san. Did you hear about what happened?”
“I…kind of did,” I said. I didn’t want to say anything else or make Caroline worry. “Thanks for telling me what you saw…I really appreciate it. I have to go now…”
We exchanged goodbyes and I hung up the phone. Tears spilled out from my eyes. I was angry and frustrated, and all I could think of was if Michael was friend or foe. I didn’t know much about him or his life—all I knew is that he was a fan of my father’s, and a worthy rival.
That’s when I realized, I needed to talk to him next. I pulled up the text program and selected his name.
From: Me To: Michael
Are you still at school?
I need to talk to you
I spent a minute or so looking at the screen waiting for a response, before I decided to give up and make my way back home.
A few hours later, while I was eating a bowl of hastily prepared instant ramen, my phone buzzed with the reply to the text I had sent Michael.
From: Michael To: Me
Sorry I didn’t see this until now
Do you want to call or talk in person?
With my fingers shaking, I composed a reply:
From: Me To: Michael
From Michael: To: Me
OK, meet you @ lunch tomorrow
From: Me To: Michael
Well, that was out of the way. Right now, though, the fact that I even suspected him of being behind all the shady stuff happening to the competition was tearing me apart. I wanted to believe that he was innocent, but…everything seemed to point in his direction.
That’s when I remembered: I was going to see about reaching out to one of my dad’s old friends. How was I going to word things, though? I sat up and reached for my laptop and started typing away while figuring out who I thought would be the best person to turn to.
Every gourmet battler has a unique user ID and password to log into the National Professional Gourmet Battle Association database. We’re allowed a blog and storage space for things like photographs or contact information, and can send messages to each other through a private email server. I have my own page too, but it’s not something that I update as often as I should—I mean, I’m still in school and everything, and who wants to read about all the mundane things I do in my life instead of exciting battles?
One thing I should mention: we still have the login information to my father’s page on the site. His blog and photo storage site are frozen on the day two years ago when he made his last post about the expedition. I thought that if I were to reach out to someone, using his login information would spur someone to action—an email from someone who was supposed to be dead was something you’d definitely click on, no matter what.
I opened my father’s page and read over the names of the people that followed him, seeing if I recognized anyone as being in authority. And that’s when I found it: he had been friends with someone who was currently NPGBA Director of Dispute Arbitration. Perfect. His name was Kentaro Matsudaira, and I vaguely recognized him—he probably showed up at the memorial service for my father. I opened up the messaging program and started pasting my message together from the bits and pieces that I had written down in my jumbled thoughts:
I apologize if this frightened you but I need your help. I’m Yoshiaki Sakamoto’s daughter Vanilla, and I don’t know who to turn to. My friends and I believe that someone or some people are interfering in Umami Gakuen’s tournament. I have a bad feeling it’s one of the other contestants, because I strongly believe they used personal information against me to make me drop out. There’s been people getting hurt, too. My sempai was badly injured by a piece of lighting falling on her when she was on stage. My friend has been targeted by online harassment after her win, and she’s in the hospital now. I’m really scared for both of them and I need someone I can rely on that’s in authority. Please reply to this at my contact address (sakamoto.v) and to prove you read this have the first line say “I’m listening to you.”
Hesitantly, I clicked on the “send” button and fell back onto my futon. I was mentally exhausted. Just then, I heard my phone buzz one more time. I picked it up and saw that it was a message from an unknown number. I opened it up and started to read:
From: Unknown To: Me
This is Yanagi, Yomogi’s sister.
I got your number from her.
She is OK. In Musashino General Hospital.
My hands were shaking again as I typed my reply:
From: Me To: Yanagi
Can she have visitors
From Yanagi: To: Me
From: Me To: Yanagi
Can I come tomorrow after school
From: Yanagi To: Me
I fell back onto my futon again, letting out a huge sigh of relief. Yomogi was all right, and I’d be able to see her. As I laid on my futon motionless in the evening summer heat, all I could feel was loneliness. I hoped that Matsudaira had read my message and that he’d be able to reassure me about everything going on.
Meanwhile, in the upstairs apartment
An alert pinged on Shinji Tenmyouji’s computer, with a special sound that he had set up just for that alert, and no other. That made him immediately drop what he was doing and glance at the monitor it appeared on.
Login to Yoshiaki Sakamoto’s National Professional Gourmet Battle Association account detected
IP Address: XX.XX.XX.XX
Shinji knew that address very well: it was the one connected to Vanilla Sakamoto’s laptop. He turned to his own laptop and activated his IP masking and VPN protocols to match Vanilla’s before he used Yoshiaki’s credentials to log into his account, “piggybacking” on Vanilla’s login.
He clicked on the message in the Sent folder and read it, his brow furrowed. She’s good, he thought. At least she doesn’t know about the other times we interfered in the random selection process.
He reached over to his cellphone and hit the direct dial for Taiga Shirogane. “Hello, Shinji-chan,” Taiga said, as he answered. “Something interesting happen?”
“Yes. That trap you thought would be a good idea? It worked. She is using her dad’s credentials to call for help,” Shinji said.
“Thought so. Who’d she try and enlist?”
“Oh, him. That guy’s so out of touch, he’d use correction tape on his computer screen…Piece of cake. What are the credentials?”
“I’ll secure message them to you if you promise me one thing,” Shinji said, his voice growing cold.
“What is it?”
“Don’t. Even. Think. About. Harming. Her.”
“You have my word that I will not harm her,” Taiga replied. You suck at being intimidating, he thought. “We’re just going to have a little talk. Besides, I’m sure I have the ammunition to make sure she clams up.”
“Right.” I don’t believe you in the slightest, Shinji thought. He patted a small black external disk drive next to him.
“I will talk to you later, Shinji-chan,” Taiga said. “Bye bye.”
Shinji touched the screen to hang up the phone, then connected a cable from it to the external drive. He opened the phone’s file system and moved the sound file of their last communication to the storage folder labeled “SHIROGANE_BLACKMAIL.”
Taiga was sitting at a table at an outdoor café, enjoying an iced coffee as he finished his conversation with Shinji. His phone buzzed as the indicator for a secure message popped up on his screen. He picked it up and opened the message, humming to himself as he memorized the credentials.
He opened the National Professional Gourmet Battle Association website and used them to log in. Upon finding they worked, he smiled, and clicked on the message from Vanilla that popped up. His smile grew wider as he read the message.
You don’t know the half of it, he thought.
He left the money for his bill on the table and got up, walking towards a convenience store nearby. The doors slid open with a chime as he stepped in, and he walked towards the snack aisle, in search of the salt and pepper potato chips that were his favorites.
“Fancy meeting you here, Shirogane,” said a familiar voice behind him.
Taiga turned to see the person who had spoken to him. It was hard to believe that only a few months ago, they were classmates, yet here was Hiro Tanaka—expelled from Umami Gakuen and now working full time as a convenience store clerk. His face was covered with stubble and his hair had grown out, making his frosted tips look as if he had halfheartedly dipped the ends of his hair in bleach.
“Good evening. I hope you’ve been well,” Taiga said, cordially nodding to his former classmate.
“Heh. Well as I can be, what with my education yanked out from under my feet,” Hiro said.
“Well, I apologize that my source of information threw you under the bus,” Taiga said. “But I’m going to make it up to you.”
Hiro didn’t reply, but Taiga stepped forward close enough to him to whisper into his ear.
“Help me get my revenge against Vanilla Sakamoto.”