ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls
For the rest of the morning, I was just a bundle of nerves. Forget note taking; with my hands shaking so much, it was hard to even hold a pencil, let alone write. During my second class, I asked my teacher if I could be excused to go to the nurse’s office to rest, which was granted.
Dr. Mizuno let me lay down and told me that all the teachers in the school had been briefed by police about what happened to me the other night, and were ready to accommodate any medical related requests that I had. It made me feel a little better…just a little.
“Let me know if you need anything,” she said as she pulled the curtain around the bed.
“Um…yes,” I said. “If anyone comes here looking for me…” I tried to think of the best way to phrase my request, but then realized the best thing to do would be to just disappear. “Tell them I went home.”
“All right,” she said, as she returned to her work.
I stared up at the ceiling, which was tiled with ceiling tiles that had orderly rows of dots. I tried counting them and started to feel my eyelids get heavy…
I was standing on a deserted TV soundstage. It looked as if cooking battles had just taken place; the cleaning crew hadn’t descended to clear everything off yet. It was completely empty and silent.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” I called, looking around.
I heard a loud crack above me and jumped away just in time to see a row of studio lights careen to the floor in front of me. I approached them and saw the battered body of Tsukiko underneath.
There was laughter from above, and I saw Taiga Shirogane standing up on the rafters, holding the end of a plug and swinging it around playfully.
“Thought I had you there,” he said.
Then he was behind me, hugging me tightly to him. His voice whispered into my ear. “I’ve already won, Vanilla-chan,” he said.
He vanished, and I looked again to see Yomogi slumped against a bathroom wall, her skin pale and a long, ugly looking slash up one of her arms that was bleeding profusely. Taiga was standing up beside her, holding a bloody kitchen knife.
“Give someone enough rope…” he said, mockingly.
“NO!” I shouted, running towards her, but found myself falling like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Taiga’s voice mocked me from all directions, in words both sour and sweet.
“I liked the taste of fear on your lips…"
“You truly are a great chef. Just like your father.”
“Too bad I didn’t get to play with you like the way they wanted to…”
“Seeing you in battle is like a breath of fresh air…”
Suddenly, my eyes snapped open as I felt someone touching my shoulder. I shrieked and shrank back, but relaxed as I realized it was Dr. Mizuno.
“You were crying out in your sleep…Are you all right?” she asked.
I sat up, my heart pounding. “What…What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s just after noon,” Dr. Mizuno said. “Don’t worry. No one has come in asking for you or anything.”
I still had the rest of the day to go through, and at this rate, I was going to wear myself down completely before I could meet with Michael. I swung over to the side of the bed and got up.
“I’m going to take a walk and get something to eat,” I said. “I may come back…”
Dr. Mizuno nodded. “All right. Take care, now.”
I peeked into the courtyard to see it completely deserted. Lunch had ended, so the cafeteria was probably closed up and going through the cleaning process. I did have some change on me, so a visit to the vending machines for some cheap bread was in order.
I reached into my pocket and checked my phone to see if anyone had sent me any messages, and noticed I had just one: it was from Caroline. I took out my phone to read it:
From: Caroline To: Me
I don’t know what’s happening, my dad was talking about me not going to school, and now he’s gotten me bodyguards???
I’m scared :(
Do you know what’s going on?
I wish I could tell you the reason, I thought, sighing, but at least I knew that Ryotaro was keeping his promise. I went up to a vending machine and started perusing the selection, then made my purchase and leaned up against a shady tree to eat it. It tasted awful—or it could’ve just been my nervousness, I had no idea.
I decided to return to class for the afternoon sessions in the relative security of the culinary arts building. Some of my classmates asked me if I was feeling all right after taking an extended break. I brushed off their concerns and buried myself in reviewing the notes for the lectures I had missed while I was recovering, while I nervously fidgeted and waited for the fateful hour.
Meanwhile, in the Saibara Building
“Just a second!” Mako scooped up Kurozato and held her in her hands as she went over to the door to her apartment. Someone was knocking furiously. She grabbed the doorknob and swung the door open.
“Good morning, Saibara-san,” said Shinji Tenmyouji. He looked tired, and was holding a large envelope that looked at least an inch thick.
“Good morning. You feeling all right?” Mako asked as she stepped back to let Tenmyouji in.
“I’ve…had a difficult morning,” Tenmyouji said. “By the way…Here.” He handed the envelope to Mako. “In here is my final rent payment and the fee for breaking the lease.”
“Wait, what…” Mako accepted the envelope. “You’re moving?”
“I’ve accepted a posting abroad. I need to leave as soon as possible.”
“Oh…that’s…sudden,” Mako said. She felt something hard in the envelope that didn’t feel like money. “What’s this…”
“There’s a favor I need for you to do,” Tenmyouji said. “But don’t do it until after I leave. All right?”
“Yeah, I…guess,” Mako said, and out of the corner of her eye she could see a taxicab.
“It’s been nice knowing you,” Tenmyouji said. He shifted the weight of a huge backpack on his shoulders, and waved as he exited the building. He got into the back seat of the taxicab and Mako watched as it drove away.
Kurozato was sniffing the envelope, and Mako went back into the living room to open it up. It tore open at the top to reveal a bunch of ¥10,000 bills—much much more than the remaining rent and the lease breaking fee—and a black object with what appeared to be a USB port on one side. There was a small envelope taped to it, reading her name.
Mako freed the envelope from the black device and opened it up to read:
If you wish that the ones responsible for attacking Sakamoto be brought to justice, bring this to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police headquarters as soon as possible. The rest of the money is your reward.
“What…” Mako looked at the device, and realized that it was some sort of external disk drive. She looked down at Kurozato, who had snuggled up beside her.
“I’m going out. Mind the house,” she said.
She inspected the black device, wondering if maybe she should try and hide it. Finally, she decided to tuck it into a security pouch that she wore when traveling that would be concealed by clothing. Perfect.
And now to figure out how to get there, Mako said, as she pulled up her phone and plotted the most direct route.
Finally, the bell rang. I stood up, my hands shaking as I picked up my bag. The chairman’s office was across campus. I swallowed my fear as I exited the culinary arts building and made the long walk. I mentally projected an aura of an army protecting their general as they marched through a forest of thorns. Deep in my heart, I had one thought driving me: I hope Shirogane doesn’t see me coming here.
The Umami Gakuen academic administrative building was one of the tallest buildings on campus. These were the main offices for all business related to the school—everything from finances to agriculture to technology. I gripped the heavy brass door handle and pulled the huge glass door open, stepping into an interior with mahogany wood paneling and a marble tile floor.
I approached the directory mounted to the wall between the elevators, punching the up button. As I waited for the doors to open, my phone vibrated. I looked inside my pocket to see a message from Michael:
From: Michael To: Me
8th floor board room.
See you there.
I boarded the elevator and punched the button for the 8th floor with shaking hands. Quietly, it glided upwards, and I swore I could hear my heart beating. It stopped outside the door to the board room. I stepped off and nervously knocked on the door. “Hello?” I said, listening for movement or a voice inside.
“That must be her,” said an unfamiliar voice.
“I will open the door,” said the familiar voice of Chairman Mimori. He opened the door to the boardroom, and I saw an unfamiliar man and woman standing in the room. They were both wearing dark gray suits, and both of them were wearing badges identifying them as investigators from the National Police Agency.
“You must be Vanilla Sakamoto,” said the man. “Welcome. We have a lot to discuss.”
“And I have a lot to discuss with you,” I said, as I let the door close behind me. “I’m…assuming this is all going to be kept confidential, correct?”
“It will,” said the woman. “Don’t worry. We know what you’ve been through the past few days. By the way, I’m Chihiro Nishikawa, and this is Kohei Imagawa. We’re from the NPA.”
I sat down on one of the chairs that ringed the boardroom table. They were all wooden with velvet cushions, and each of them was carved with the cornucopia crest of Umami Gakuen. My hands were still trembling.
“Where’s Valentine-san?” Imagawa asked Chairman Mimori, who chuckled.
“That young man’s probably wrapping up his studies. He’s certainly going the distance. There’s not many people who get a second chance to relive their high school years.”
Wait…what? I thought, but then the doors opened again. Michael rushed into the room, looking somewhat out of breath.
“Sorry I’m late, but you know Toyota-sensei and all,” he said. He noticed me sitting at the table and nodded cordially. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions, Vanilla-kun.”
I nodded. “Well…who are, you, first of all,” I said.
Michael approached the table, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a black leather wallet and opened it up to reveal a shiny badge and on the other side a photo identification card. The writing on it was all in English, but three letters stood out above all others: FBI. My eyes widened as I looked up at him.
“Vanilla-kun,” he said, softly, “this is what I meant when I told you to trust me.”
Inspector Nishikawa took the seat next to me, facing me. “What have you surmised from what’s been happening to the Summer Invitational these past few weeks?” she asked.
“I strongly believe someone’s influencing the contest,” I said. “And it’s a type of group that can not only sabotage equipment at a TV studio undetected, they also can get a lot of dirt on people. And…they’re someone very close to me and my friends.” I looked over at Michael. “I’m sorry I yelled at you that day…I really thought you were involved with the bad guys.”
“It’s all right,” Michael said.
“You’re correct in assuming that someone wants to game the Summer Invitational,” Nishikawa said, “but when we started looking into what was going on, we found a connection with something we’ve been following for the past couple of years. Imagawa-san?”
“Right,” said the man named Imagawa. He sat down across from me, his hands folded. “Over the past few years, there has been a group known as Return to Glory that has been operating in various locations across the globe. A couple years ago, the Japanese branch of Return to Glory experienced a surge in activity. It appeared they received a large infusion of cash that we were able to track as coming from a bank that is owned by the Shirogane zaibatsu.”
“Shirogane…” I gasped. “Hold on. Is this the same Shirogane family that Taiga Shirogane belongs to?” I asked.
“It is,” Imagawa said.
For the first time in a few days, surrounded by people I could trust, I felt a wave of relief. “He’s the one who coordinated the attack on me,” I said. “Him and another student that used to attend here, Hiro Tanaka. The other two, I didn’t know. They kept their faces covered.”
“Tanaka…” Chairman Mimori sighed, looking down at the table. “I should have known. Please, allow me to extend my sincerest apologies for not taking his initial behavior seriously.”
I didn’t say anything—even if he hadn’t been punished when the pictures of him drinking were posted across campus, I got the feeling that he would’ve still sought out revenge against me.
“Shirogane wanted revenge too,” I said. “He told me that his mother was on the same plane my father was on when it went down, and that everyone’s attention was directed at me and my family instead of them…”
The inspectors nodded to each other, as if I was confirming their hypothesis. Imagawa continued. “Return to Glory’s activity includes information harvesting. Many of the members of their group are accomplished computer hackers, but there are others that still get their information the old fashioned way—paying bribes, spying, hidden cameras and the like. And that infusion of cash helped them redouble their efforts. The information they gather is used to recruit new members through coercion and blackmail. ‘We know all the dark secrets about your company, so join our cause if you don’t want it spread.’”
Things were beginning to make sense. “Someone must’ve gotten that information on Yomogi-chan and me that way,” I said.
“After we detected the uptick in Return to Glory activity here, we called in a favor to the FBI, who had been investigating Return to Glory in America. And they sent one of their undercover agents,” Imagawa said, nodding to Michael.
Michael looked crestfallen as I looked over to him. “Yeah. I’m actually in my mid-20s, but I take after my mom, which is why I look so young. I’m really a gourmet battler, I really did grow up admiring your father, and my family really does have a restaurant in Philadelphia. They had me enroll here to stake out Taiga Shirogane and investigate him and his family. I became good friends with him, even…” His voice trailed off, and there was an awkward silence in the room until Nishikawa spoke up.
“This past April, there was another huge cash infusion to Return to Glory, but this one was different. It was a smaller amount than what was reported in the past, and it was made to one particular member of the organization in particular. We looked into that member and found that they were a genius level computer hacker that was a half-sibling to the main Shirogane family, and that the information being sought was related to infiltrating the NPGBA servers. Specifically, the programs used for analyzing work places and selecting subjects.”
I gasped. “Selecting subjects? No way…Were they trying to influence matches?”
“Yes,” Michael said. “Including the one you were in with Masuda-san. There were more, too. Lots of matches in and around the school got manipulated.”
“Not only that, they were also attempting to collect information on incoming students—specifically, your class,” Imagawa said.
“Then that’s how they knew about Ebifry…” I murmured. I tried to think back to who had known about Ebifry, and who might’ve weaponized that knowledge. Suddenly, I realized who it may have been. The computer equipment, his mannerisms, the strange lecture. “The hacker…are they named Tenmyouji, by any chance?” I asked.
“You’ve heard of him?” Nishikawa asked.
“He lives in my building,” I said. I felt sick. Had he been spying on me? Had he installed hidden cameras in my room? Was he watching me change like a sick creep? I decided to concentrate on the facts, and held my hand up. I folded a finger down for each fact I could recite.
“Return to Glory engages in information harvesting. They were hired by the Shirogane family. Taiga Shirogane is a member of that family. Return to Glory fixed some of the matches…” The pieces began to fall into place. “Shirogane used Return to Glory to get revenge on me and win the Summer Invitational!” I said. “They can’t let him win.”
“We’re not letting him,” Nishikawa said. “We’re working on a way that—” Suddenly, she was cut off by a buzz on her cell phone. “Hold on. Nishikawa here…” Her eyes widened. “What? How did…”
“What’s going on?” I asked, but Michael and Imagawa were leaning towards Nishikawa, listening in on the conversation. They all looked surprised.
A few minutes later, after they all exchanged some terse words, Nishikawa hung up and put her phone down. “It appears that we have been given the evidence we need to make an arrest,” she said. “Not only for what happened to you…but what happened to Asahina-san and Kisaragi-san.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Someone delivered a USB hard drive chock full of compromising information on Taiga Shirogane to the police department,” Nishikawa said. “They’re poring over it as we speak.”
Everyone’s eyes widened. “Who could have been responsible for this?” Michael said.
“The drive was delivered by a woman in her mid 20s who had no idea what was inside,” Nishikawa said. “When they asked her who it came from, she said that a former tenant of hers had told her to deliver it.”
“Wait…former tenant?” I said.
“He apparently moved out today,” Nishikawa said. “Mentioned he was going overseas.”
This was getting curiouser and curiouser. The way everything was connected was bizarre, but the pieces were finally beginning to fall into place. All that mattered now was stopping Shirogane before he could take the stage and win the finals of the Summer Invitational.
There was another buzz on someone’s cell phone—but this time, it was Michael’s. He pulled it out of his pocket. “I just got an email from IT forensics,” he said. “And…it’s something directed at you, Vanilla-kun.”
“Me…?” I said.
“A text file hidden in one of the folders…they sent it to me. Here. Read it,” Michael said as he tapped the screen of his phone and handed it to me.
To Vanilla Sakamoto
I doubt you remember this, but we first met when I was in second grade and you helped me when I got lost. Since then, I have never forgotten your kindness.
If you’re reading this note it means that the authorities have all the information they need to arrest Taiga Shirogane. When we made the deal to work together, my boss and I made him promise me he wouldn’t do anything that would injure or harm you. Obviously, he broke that promise, which made us extremely angry.
Also, by the time you’re reading this I’ll be gone from the Saibara building. I never did say this but thank you for the cold noodles you made me that one time.
May the world return to its true glory.
I was puzzled as I read the first few sentences. Second grade? Helping someone when they got lost? I couldn’t even remember doing something like that. But the next paragraph puzzled me even further. Who was this boss that Tenmyouji was talking about? I handed the phone back to Michael, who read the note himself.
“Has there been an APB put out on this Shinji Tenmyouji?” he asked. “When was this delivered, anyway?”
“They said it was earlier this morning,” Nishikawa said.
“Damn…we’ve got to contact the airports,” Imagawa said. “He might’ve escaped the country by now. Do that for me please, Nishikawa?”
Nishikawa stepped into a corner of the room to make her reports as Chairman Mimori, Michael and Imagawa looked over at me. “Was there anything else you wanted to know about this?” Imagawa asked.
“What about the staff at Ginga TV? Do they know about what’s going on?”
“They do. We’ve been working with them since almost the beginning,” Imagawa said. “They called us in after the lighting fixture incident.”
Ryotaro probably knows everything, I thought, feeling a little more relieved. “Do they know who or what caused it to fall?” I asked.
“Traces of C4 were found on the chains,” Imagawa said. “Unfortunately the detonation affected any DNA evidence that may have been left behind, so we’re having trouble testing it.”
“Whoa…curiouser and curiouser,” I murmured.
Michael looked down at me, his expression filled with worry. “Vanilla-kun, could you…could we talk in private for a few minutes?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah. Come on.”
I got up from the table and followed Michael over into a corner. His expression was one I’d never seen before. Usually, he was happy and jovial, with serious moments reserved for the heat of competition, but now, he looked sad.
“Vanilla-kun…I’m sorry for lying to you all this time,” he said. “I had a duty to uphold, and it meant getting close enough to Shirogane that he’d confide everything in me. I knew how much he wanted to see you crushed and defeated…and the worst part was that I could do nothing to stop it. That’s why I needed to get close to you…” Michael started crying. “Vanilla-kun, you have every reason in the world to hate me, and I will accept that.”
“Michael-kun, stop!” I said. “I…I don’t hate you. I understand. I don’t feel like you lied to me or anything like that! You’re…You’re much more than my sempai or a rival. You’re…” Tears sprang to my eyes, but this time, they were tears of happiness. “You’re one of my best friends.”
Michael smiled through his tears. “Vanilla-kun…that means so much to me. Thank you.” He swallowed, sniffing back tears. “I’m going to be going back to America soon. It’s too risky for me to stay here any longer, but I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that you and your friends have all the protection they need.”
“When will you be leaving?”
“As soon as possible. Maybe even tonight.”
I sighed. “We never did have that rematch, did we?”
Michael smiled through his tears again. “Yeah. I was looking forward to it, too.”
“Then…” I reached into my pocket and brought out my cellphone, with its dangling charms and straps. I pulled at the loop that attached my Banana Cat charm to my phone and loosened it from the rod it was attached to. “Keep this,” I said, handing it to Michael. “Something to remind you that we’re going to have that rematch one day.”
“Well…” Michael shrugged, but then loosened his red seniors’ uniform tie. “It’s not the button on my uniform that’s closest to my heart, but…” He pulled it off from his neck and placed it in my hand. “Someday, we’ll have that rematch. Five years, 10 years from now…hopefully sooner rather than later.”
I smiled, wiping tears from my face with my hand. “Can I write to you?”
“Yeah…but don’t expect answers right away. Expect a lot of ‘that’s classified information’ though.”
“Michael-kun! Are you done? I need your help,” shouted Nishikawa from the other side of the room.
“Coming!” I followed Michael back to where Nishikawa was standing. She looked pleased.
“We’re getting all the surveillance footage pulled from today from all the international airports,” she said. “Wherever he’s run to, we’ll find him.”
“Good,” I said, nodding. “That only leaves the one responsible for hurting Tsukiko-sempai…”
Meanwhile, at Ginga TV
The only thing remaining on Ryotaro Koizumi’s office desk was a thin layer of dust. He had his resignation letter in the front pocket of his jacket, and all of his desk equipment was in a plastic storage bin. It pained him to leave the place that welcomed him back to Japan with open arms, but things had gone too far.
Almost as soon as he had left the conference room, Michael Furukawa Valentine had sent him the name and number of a trusted bodyguard agency, one that was highly recommended by a woman who was the president of a toy and electronics company with a daughter a little younger than Caroline. He had arranged for Caroline to receive their protection for a week, which could be extended by request, and paid for it on his own dime.
Ryotaro hefted the crate up in his arms and took one look back at the shared office, sighing. At least once the dust settled, he could go back to his true passion.
“Koizumi-san, what is going on?” said a voice at the door.
“Oh, St. Germaine-san,” Ryotaro said, turning towards Ludovic St. Germaine, who had entered the office and was looking at the box Ryotaro was carrying.
“I heard a rumor that you were leaving us? Is that true?”
“Sadly, it is. But I’ve accepted a wonderful position teaching drama at the arts college in Musashino,” Ryotaro lied.
“That is a shame. I greatly enjoyed working with you,” St. Germaine said.
He stepped back and Ryotaro went to exit the room, but hesitated and looked back for a moment…
“Put down the box and keep your hands where I can see them, Koizumi-san.”
Ryotaro felt something hard and cylindrical pressed against the back of his head. Better me than Caroline, he thought as he placed the box on the desk and raised his hands above his head.
“I need you to do me a little favor. You’re going to walk back to the President’s office, apologize to him, and tell him that you’ve reconsidered your decision to resign. And then you’re going to do everything in your power to make that Taiga Shirogane is named the grand champion.”
Ryotaro said nothing. He felt the barrel of the gun dig deeper into the back of his head. “Cat got your tongue?” St. Germaine taunted.
“You’re the one that dropped the lights,” Ryotaro said. “Aren’t you.”
“And you’re the one who’ll be identifying your daughter’s body at the morgue when we’re done with her,” St. Germaine whispered. “So get moving.”
Through gritted teeth, Ryotaro sucked in a breath. “All right.”
“The show must go on, after all,” St. Germaine said. “We’ve invested so much into it, and now we’re finally—”
Suddenly, St. Germaine’s cell phone rang—it was an obnoxiously loud French pop song. “Damn it,” he said, “why now of all times?” His grip on the gun loosened, and as Ryotaro felt it withdraw from the back of his head, he grabbed the box he had been carrying and whirled around, hitting St. Germaine full force in the chest and stomach with it.
“BASTARD!” he yelled.
“GWAAHHH!” St. Germaine yelled, fumbling with both his phone and the gun, which both clattered to the floor. As he reached for his gun, Ryotaro kicked it as far away as possible. St. Germaine grabbed the chair nearest to him and threw it in Ryotaro’s direction. He put his arms up to deflect it, and winced in pain as the armrest struck his forearms before the chair landed on the ground, wheels spinning. St. Germaine scrambled to get his gun, trying to knock down Ryotaro in the process, who responded by grabbing something out of the box and smashing it onto St. Germaine’s head.
It was a snow globe music box that was a present from his late wife. Water and glitter, mixed with blood, cascaded down St. Germaine’s head onto the floor as he slumped down, dazed and unconscious. I’m sorry, Sophie, Ryotaro thought.
He grabbed the receiver of the nearest office phone and pushed the emergency button. “I need the police and a medic, now,” he gasped, as he slumped down beside a desk, the adrenaline rush wearing off.