The hotel Madoka and I were staying at was one block north of the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 34th Street.
In general, what we Japanese think of when someone mentions New York is the long, narrow island of Manhattan.
The rows and rows of theatres known as Broadway run vertically along the center of the island.
Near this area is Times Square. This is pretty much the exact center of the city.
If you go north from there, you come to the large area called Central Park. This place appears in movies quite a lot.
Further north is Harlem, said to be quite dangerous. But to people who like jazz, it's home. According to the guide book, the Apollo Theatre is home to many talented black artists even now.
If you walk east of Times Square, you come to the U.N. Building. South of Broadway is the Empire State Building, made famous when King Kong climbed it.
Washington Square is where New York University is located, and Greenwich Village is home to many artists and students. Soho is home to so many expensive boutiques and galleries. In this area, Little Italy brushes up against Chinatown.
South of this area is the World Trade Center, Wall Street, and Battery Park, where you can view the Statue of Liberty.
The hotel Madoka and I were staying in was roughly in the center of all of this. When we said the name of the hotel to the girl who told us about was happened to Shuri, she knew immediately where it was, and came to pick us up.
Without even taking a shower, Madoka and I went with this girl to the Lower East Side, where Shuri's apartment was.
"I'm sorry for worrying you," Shuri said when she saw us. Her voice seemed surprisingly bright, and she smiled.
But her smile made her look weary somehow. I was sure she had cried all night long, without sleeping. She was sitting in a rocking chair that looked like it might tip over at any moment, holding her legs against her body.
She said that she had been attacked suddenly by two men as they passed by in the street. One of them hit her repeatedly, as if trying to knock her out; but a car had passed by, and she had screamed out for help, managing to get away then.
"Are you okay? I'll bet you haven't eaten a thing. Shall I make something?"
"Thanks, Madoka-chan," Shuri said. "But the real reason I called you out here was to tell you two to be careful, and not concern yourselves with me."
"What?" Madoka said.
"What do you mean?" I added.
Madoka and I looked at each other in surprise.
"The men who attacked me didn't seem to be members of the street gang that hang out in this neighborhood."
Madoka: "What? Then you mean..."
"Well, it was dark, so I couldn't see their faces very clearly. But one of the men said something strange to me. He said, 'We'll get you, too.'"
"'You, too'? Hmmm." Madoka said.
I butt in. "Does that mean, 'the same as Hikaru-chan'?"
"I'm not sure. But I can't think of any other explanation, Madoka-chan. It must be like you said, something has happened to Hikaru. And now, to me."
As if the fear from last night's attack had suddenly returned, she began to shake, and a low sob came from inside her.
Madoka gripped the girl's hand.
"But what possible connection could Hikaru and Shuri have?" I started to say.
Madoka looked at me. "Kyosuke."
"The audition for the musical. That must be it. That's the only thing that Hikaru and Shuri had in common."
This had occurred to me as well.
Shuri, still crying, nodded several times.
"Have you gone to the police?" Madoka asked, and Shuri-san's friend answered for her:
"She reported the attack to the police last night."
"And there's been no word yet?" Madoka inquired.
"Madoka-chan, be careful. Don't get too involved with this." Shuri-san's voice was fading in and out. Compared with the girl who showed us Hikaru-chan's apartment the day before, she seemed to be a different person altogether.
But Madoka answered, with a firm voice, "If anything has happened to Hikaru, I'm already involved."
Several hours later, the following message appeared on Madoka's Mac:
"I am an employee of an airline company, and I have some information for you. On the 22nd, there was a passenger going to Mexico City named H. Hikaru."
As I spoke, the subway was sliding into the subway station.
"That's right. I had read in a magazine that there was one in San Francisco, but I didn't know there was a similar thing here in New York. Oh, Kyosuke, this is where we get off."
The door opened, and two young black men entered the train, just as we got off. A sign with "Washington Square" written on it was hung on the wall above us.
This was the beginning of Grenwich Village, home to many college students, and on the edge of the train platform were many street musicians, playing the saxophone and clarinet.
According to a book I read a while ago, among their ranks were musicians who play regularly at jazz clubs, and professional studio musicians as well. Unable to forget their beginnings as street musicians, they would gather again from time to time.
Well, they were just like Pak-san and the others who came to play at ABCB. People who play music love the feeling that it gives more than anything else.
The city of Manhattan was filled with this kind of atmosphere, and I found myself liking it.
"So Madoka, what is this 'Cafe Net' thing, anyway?"
Madoka didn't have time to be watching street musicians right now. She exited the turnstile and dashed up the dim staircase.
"It's basically a gathering place for computer _otaku_," she said.
"Computer _otaku_?" I asked.
"Yeah, you know. People who do nothing but exchange data and information all day through their computers (19). Cafe Net is a coffee shop where these people gather in large numbers."
"That sounds depressing!" I said.
She chuckled and gave me her hand. I took it, and we climbed the stairs together. The area of Grenwich Village was completely covered with white snow.
That someone named H. Hikaru went to Mexico was fact. We called a travel agent to verify this, and also found out that this person was female.
Madoka had immediately sent a thank-you email message to the person who had first provided this information.
When she did this, he (or maybe it was 'she') had sent a reply asking if we would meet in a cafe. Madoka and I made an appointment to meet the person, using the handle name "Chiru Chiru Michiru."
"Here it is," Madoka said. "'Cafe Spoofing.'"
Right past the Figaro Cafe, which is listed in all the guidebooks as the most famous coffee shop in the entire Village, was another small coffee shop. Madoka stopped without going in.
"I just thought of something. The name of the shop is odd, isn't it?"
"'Spoofing' is something that is currently popular among hackers. It means to create a completely different character on the Net, apart from yourself. For example, a person might clandestinely make his way onto an important government network and offering his opinion as if he were a professor at a college."
"Well, that would be dangerous, wouldn't it?" I said.
"Sure, sometimes. But it's an unwritten law among hackers to stop before they cause a big problem. Hackers in Japan have the image of not being so rude as to invade another person's computer. In America, people who hack into other computers and steal information are called 'crackers.'"
"The term 'hacker' refers to programmers or engineers who love working on computers or networks more than anything else. They supposedly take pride in being able to say, 'I am different from those crackers.'"
Now that she mentioned it, I had heard of a case involving a serious computer crime, in which a cracker had been caught.
I followed Madoka into the small shop.
Madoka had described the Cafe Spoofing as "a gathering place for computer otaku," so I had a negative image about the place before seeing it. But I was surprised to find a nice establishment with a friendly atmosphere to it.
Just inside the shop was a round table with five computers on it, and several people who looked to be students were drinking coffee and pecking away at the keyboards.
On the counter at the back of the room were several more computers. A smart-looking woman who styled her golden hair like Sharon Stone was typing on one of them.
"Kyosuke, it's pretty nice, isn't it?" Madoka said.
"Yes, this is a nice place," I said, laughing as Madoka guided me to a table in the corner.
"I heard there are about twenty Internet cafes in the village," Madoka said.
"Yes. Each cafe spreads local information to the other cafes in the area. So it's kind of..."
"A 'cafe network.' I see."
"Yes. Someone could theoretically use the Internet and spread their message all over the world."
"So what you're saying is, it's sort of like the 'message notebook' that used to be in ABCB a long time ago. Customers can write messages to each other freely and read what other people have written. I've heard you can find them in love hotels, recently, too (20)."
"What? In love hotels?"
I hadn't intended to be funny or anything, but now the sound of her laughter echoed through the cafe.
Embarrassed now, I ordered two espressos from the black girl at the counter.
When I did so, a man who had been sitting at a round table behind me suddenly stood up smoothly.
Smoothly, that's the way he stood up. He was a head taller than me, and was thin...but at the same time, he had a well-toned body.
Basically, he seemed like a man, but also unlike a man. He approached me, and with a shy girl-like smile, said in easy-to-understand English:
"Hi! You must be Teddy Bear. You said you'd be with another Japanese person, so I knew it was you right away. I'm Chiru Chiru Michiru. Nice to meet you."
It was obvious that this person was apparently one of "those" kinds of men. His hair was cut short, and raised up. Three earrings glistened in each of his ear lobes.
It was all very clear. He was a man, but seemed like a woman. That explained the name "chiru chiru" and "michiru (21)."
"Kyosuke, where are your manners?" Madoka said.
Hurriedly, I shook hands with the man. "Nice to meet you."
Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru winked at me slightly, and (it might have been my imagination, but) his palm was sweaty. His grip was firm.
Even though Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru had "those" kinds of interests, he was very helpful to us.
First of all, he listened quietly about Madoka's theory regarding Hikaru-chan's disappearance.
About Hikaru-chan having talked about going to Mexico to her friends.
About Hikaru-chan's friend bringing the airline ticket to her. And about Hikaru-chan's mysterious disappearance, without the tickets.
And also about her pet cat, JG, being left behind in her apartment, and being electrocuted.
Then Madoka told Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru about the Teddy Bear alarm clock which Madoka had given to Hikaru-chan, being left behind in the room.
"Okay, Teddy Bear...er, Madoka. I'll do anything I can for you." Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru took Madoka's hand and shook it. Madoka asked him to search every network he knew of for information about Hikaru-chan.
The computer made it possible to get information in real time. In other words, in the same way as a telephone worked, he would post a request for information about Hikaru-chan on a BBS and wait for someone to send it to him.
Many of the people were using the "cafe network," said to be totaling twenty Internet Cafes even just in the Village, which allowed for detailed electronic information to reach us.
A man studying at the same dancing college as Hikaru-chan: "This Hikaru girl might have been the Japanese girl studying at Actors' Studio..." An employee of a coffee shop Hikaru-chan had frequented: "I forgot when it was, but I saw a message from her on the Fame BBS that said 'Bye Bye, <STAR>.' I haven't seen her since then."
Also: "I'm the person who wrote STAR on the back of her leather jacket." It was a budding young designer at a used clothing store.
We even got a message from a police man: "If you think the Japanese girl has really disappeared, you should file a missing person's report with the police."
"A missing persons report, huh?" I had said.
To tell the truth, both Madoka and I were wondering if it weren't time to do just that.
Even Madoka, who was sure that something had happened to Hikaru-chan, was worried about the trouble that would be caused if everything turned out to be nothing.
But in the end, we took the police man's advice, and filed a descreet report through a friend of Madoka's father (Madoka's father is famous in America, so he knows a lot of people).
Meanwhile, we were preparing to go to Mexico.
If the H. Hikaru who went to Mexico on the 22nd was really Hikaru-chan, then we would have wasted a lot of time and effort. In that case, after verifying that Hikaru-chan was really okay, it wouldn't be a bad idea to do some sight-seeing.
We got two cheap tickets to Mexico at a small travel agency in the Village. Afterwards, we returned to Cafe Spoofing, where we had a surprise.
We had already become regular customers.
The moment Madoka and I entered the shop, Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru (he worked for an airline, but did his work on the computers here) and the girl behind the counter were engaged in a heated discussion.
"It's incredible," she was saying. "A filming crew from the TV news might even show up to film this."
"What's going on?"
I didn't understand the counter girl's fast English. But, I was chagrined to see, Madoka had no trouble picking it up (which is not something to be chagrined about).
Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru said, "Take a look at this, Madoka!" He sat us down in front of a computer. The BBS that I had come to know very well was showing on the monitor. The following email message was displayed (22).
I am a big fan of the up and coming musical star HIKARU (STAR) as well! If anything happened to her in NY, I would be really torn up! There's $1000 in it for anybody with information as to her whereabouts.
Anita Brussel (23)
"Anita Brussel?" I said too loudly, as Chiru Chiru Michiru and Madoka looked at each other.
Anita Brussel was a super-famous musical actress. Even I, who didn't know the names of movie stars that much, knew her name. There was even something about her being an honored citizen of New York in the guidebook.
Madoka was absolutely shocked, far more than me. She was looking at Chiru Chiru Michiru with a face that said, I can't believe it.
Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru's brow wrinkled. "I know a lot of people use the names of famous people for their handle names...but I think this is the real Anita Brussel.
His English pronunciation was slow and clear enough for me to catch most of what he said. I asked him, "Why?"
"To Americans, the sum of $1000 is a lot of money. Someone who can pay $1000 for useful information is not just an average person." A proud smile was on his face. "There are good people in America still, aren't there?"
If you think about it From the point of view of Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru, or from Anita Brussel, who don't know Hikaru-chan...
It was really nice of them to help us. Such a thing would never happen in Japan.
Americans are said to be "individualist," but I think Japanese would be less likely to help us.
Even though I could only understand about half of the English I was hearing, I felt I had really discovered something important about Americans: their kindness.
Just then, the door opened, and Shuri-san entered.
Her face was still slightly pale, but her eyes showed energy. We had told her about how we had started frequenting this cafe.
"So you got the tickets to Mexico?" She said.
"Ah, yes," I said. We had gotten the extremely cheap tickets through a friend of hers.
"I see. I'm going to go with you."
"Huh? But Shuri-san, are you sure you're all right to travel?" Madoka put in, referring to her color.
Shuri said, "Thank you for worrying about me, Madoka-chan. I'm fine. Did you find anything out about Hikaru-chan?"
Beside them, Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru, who had been listening intently to the Japanese conversation, caught the name and said, "If you're asking about Hikaru, we were just having a big discussion about her."
"What did you find out?" she asked.
With more than a little pride in his voice, Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru showed Shuri the email from Anita Brussel.
"Anita did that?"
Shuri seemed surprised. Her face color got a little worse.
"Shuri-san!" Madoka said, taking the girl's hand.
She tried hard to show us a smile, but her face wouldn't respond. She had finally been convinced that something had indeed happened to Hikaru-chan.
Afterwards, Madoka and I left to take Shuri back to her apartment. When we did so, Madoka said:
"If Shuri-san did come along, you wouldn't have any trouble with the language down there."
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"Kyosuke, I'm thinking of staying here a while longer."
Shuri looked at Madoka with surprise on her face. "Madoka-chan?"
Madoka smiled. I could tell she had made her mind up.
"I can't explain it but...I think Hikaru's somewhere nearby. So I'm going to stay here and search for information through the Cafe Net."
"Madoka?" I said.
"Go to Mexico with Shuri."
At that time, we didn't understand the true nature of the problem. The next day, when Shuri and I departed for Mexico, the following email message was posted on the Cafe Net:
_"Help! I'm STAR."_
Hikaru thought, it's all over.
Her body was wrapped in fear, and she was racked by small but painful convulsions. The smoke from the gun was still dancing past her nose; if she breathed it in deeply, she thought she would black out.
In front of her lay the remnants of a computer. The bullet hadn't left much of it. She was staring dazedly at it, waiting for the person who she thought had been aiming the gun at her, to speak.
"I told you to be patient, but you didn't listen to me."
The voice had was surprisingly warm and friendly. But that didn't mean that Hikaru's position was any better. No matter what you said about her, Monica was a member of a group of thieves. In the business she was in, there way no way she would become true friends with Hikaru.
"Hikaru, I had no idea you knew how to use UNIX."
Hikaru looked at Monica with a hateful expression.
I'm scared! she said. But I won't beg for my life. That's one thing I won't do.
How could I do that and look at my face in the mirror afterwards?
UNIX is a computer system along side IBM-PC and Mac (24), but one that was generally useless to the average computer user. It was a "work-oriented" system whose commands were difficult to learn.
The girl who appeared in the Spielberg movie _Jurassic Park_ said, "I can use UNIX," surprising all the adults around her. It was that difficult to use.
Hikaru had noticed it sitting in the corner of the warehouse she was in.
In the warehouse, there were many crates stuffed with clothing, and the UNIX computer had apparently been used for keeping track of the stock.
Monica had loosened Hikaru's ropes a little, but it still didn't allow her to walk freely around the interior of the warehouse. In addition to a rope that restricted her movements, there was another rope around her waist that was attached securely to a pipe.
Monica had loosened the ropes slightly to allow Hikaru to eat, and had also left the tray behind.
Hikaru had managed to notice that the pipe to which she was tied was rusted. She attempted, over the course of several hours, to rub through the rope and free her hands.
She was worried about Shuri Anzai more than anyone else. If her being kidnapped did have something to do with the upcoming musical audition, it was not impossible that Shuri was also in danger.
Hikaru was finally able to cut through the ropes, right before it was time for Monica to bring the next meal.
It was Hikaru's first time using UNIX.
But she had known someone who knew it. It was the man she had met shortly after coming to New York, Sugisawa.
He had been working part-time at a small travel agency in the Village. He could speak English fluently, and Hikaru, who had just started her life in America, sought advice from him.
Soon after, the two had become close, and had been first joined (25) on Halloween night. She was the first man for Hikaru.
But he had returned to Japan. Six months ago, when she had temporarily gone home, she had considered meeting him, but had been unable to in the end.
The computer he had always been using had been UNIX.
Monica looked surprised, now, brushing her hair back with one hand, staring hard at Hikaru.
Evewn though she was pointing a gun at Hikaru, she wasn't sure what to do.
She had brought Hikaru something to eat now, as always. She had knocked three times at the door. But then she had heard electronic noises, and the tap tap of keys. She had realized what Hikaru had been trying to do.
After undoing the multiple locks on the door, Monica had rushed into the room, gun in hand.
Hikaru froze in fear. Monica couldn't see her face clearly because she was not near the light. Monica hurried into the room, going immediately for the light of the UNIX monitor.
She shot through the monitor like a vicious hunter shooting an animal. As she did so, she thought to herself for some reason: it was good that Hikaru has chosen to try this while the others were away.
"Hikaru, what did you send?"
"I was just practicing..." Hikaru tried to say.
"Don't lie to me! Did you access Fame? What network did you use? You know I can check. Tell me!"
"Then check!" Hikaru said.
"If you can check for yourself, go ahead and do it. No matter what happens, Monica, you hold my life in your hands, one hundred percent. I cut the ropes...was finally able to contact the outside world... If you check with your own computer, you can easily find out who I contacted, so go ahead!"
"Hikaru..." Monica said, trying to calm the girl.
"Check for yourself! I won't tell you what I did! I won't! You can find out for yourself! Whether I live or die, it's all up to you!"
Hikaru spat this out, and the rest ceased to become words. She told herself Don't cry! Don't cry! but she couldn't stop the tears which had begun to overflow.
Monica had no words to throw back at Hikaru. She put the gun in the back pocket of her jeans and left the room.
She felt annoyed. As she turned the many keys to the door hurriedly, she finally realized why that was.
She herself had gone up against a stronger opponent in the same way once, saying the same words: "Whether I live or die, it's all up to you!"
That event had been the beginning for her, the birth of the Monica she had become today.
At the time, I had no idea this was happening to Hikaru-chan. Without even knowing that she had posted email on the cafe network, Shuri and I departed for Mexico City together.
With me, I carried several days' worth of clothes and a Mac notebook-type computer that Mr. Chiru Chiru Michiru had lent me.
These past few days at Cafe Spoofing, I had managed to get adept at using a computer. I thought I would need it to contact Madoka.
"Kyosuke-kun, I think that's the way we go," Shuri said.
In front of me, Shuri Anzai was showing her passport to the official.
"Look it's the information counter for the travel agency that Chiru Chiru Michiru-san works for."
"Ah, yes," I said.
The large older lady at the immigration counter was laughing warmly. She winked warmly at me, then gestured me over.
It was my turn. I walked up to her and said, "Hi, how are you?"
She smiled at me again, and said something at me in fast, heavily-accented English.
I couldn't catch a word. Shuri Anzai just laughed and said to the woman, "Thank you so much. I hope so, too."
"What did that lady say?" I asked Shuri when we left.
"When I asked her where the domestic counter was, I think she got the wrong idea."
"In what way?"
"Well...Mexico City is a place for newlyweds."
"Huh? Wait a minute!"
Shuri-san just laughed.
I hadn't seen her smile in a long time. It was nice of that woman to cheer her up like that.
Neither Madoka nor I had seen her really smile since the incident. On the plane, she had seemed kind of anxious, nervous.
I had joked with her several times, but she hadn't brightened like that before now.
Shuri-san went up to the travel counter, and asked in English about anyone named H. Hikaru.
It was mysterious, but I was managing to understand what she was saying in English. But when the person she was talking to responded in fast English, I had to throw up my hands in defeat.
The reason must have been that Shuri-san's English had a Japanese accent, and it was easy for me to understand it. The other person's mother language was not even English, and it was hard to understand it without getting used to it first.
Anyway, according to Shuri-san's explanation, a person named H. Hikaru entered Mexico on the twenty-second. We didn't know if she was with anyone at that time. But she asked for a ticket for a rental car that the airline company was providing at a special rate.
"Yes. It was a discounted fare through Budget Rentacar. Kyosuke-kun, let's check it out."
We walked to the Budget Rentacar counter. After asking about anyone named H. Hikaru, and asked to see a copy of her drivers' license.
It's customary for rental car agencies to photocopy your drivers' license when you rent a car.
But the "Mister Budget" who was so friendly with us smiled and said, "Sorry, privacy."
We couldn't give up that easily.
Shuri-san had an idea. "H. Hikaru is the daughter of a wealthy Japanese businessman, and is being targeted by the Yakuza. We're friends of hers. If we don't get word to her quickly something terrible might happen. If anything does happen to her, it will be known that the Budget Rentacar Agency, which is an international corporation, aided the Yakuza."
Perhaps moved by Shuri-san's acting, the employee of the rental car agency eventually showed us the copy of H. Hikaru's drivers license.
But the copy we were shown was totally black.
We could see the faint words H. Hikaru and the outline of a New York drivers' license (in America, the state issues drivers' licenses, not a national agency), but nothing else.
First of all, Japanese companies tend to take things like this overly seriously, so such a mistake would never happen in Japan, but here at the "gateway of South America" I guess the copy machines act up sometimes.
"This doesn't help us at all," I said.
Shuri-san and I looked at each other without thinking. But then, "Mister Budget," still not noticing that there was anything wrong with the copy he had shown us, gave us a bit of good information.
"I think the Japanese girl you're looking for said she was going to Taxco."
"Taxco?" Shuri-san asked, and the man told us that H. Hikaru had asked him where the town of Taxco was, and how to get there. She even took a pamphlet from a hotel in Taxco with her.
Taxco is a small sight-seeing town a few hours away from Mexico City, known for its hand-made silver goods. There were apparently many shops selling rings and necklaces made of silver.
"Silver goods, huh? It sounds like the kind of place that Hikaru-chan would like to see," I said, but Shuri-san's face had grown dark again.
When Shuri-san asked if H. Hikaru had been traveling alone, "Mister Budget" just shrugged.
"Anyway, we should go to Taxco, too, Kyosuke-kun."
Just then...Shuri-san's expression got very intense.
I was sure she was remember the words of the men who attacked her.
"'We'll get you, too.'"
Cafe Spoofing currently had twice as many customers as usual.
They were grouped around the twenty-odd computers, accessing various networks, trying to find some information that would put money in their hands.
"Take a look at this, Madoka. There's another message from Anita Brussel," the man with the handle name of Chiru Chiru Michiru said from the next computer over.
The email message from Anita was displayed on his computer monitor.
"I received some information concerning STAR from someone with the handle name of 'Lion King' which was useful. I'll raise the reward to $2000. From Anita."
Several customers said, "Wow!" when they saw the amount of money.
Ever since the "Help me! I'm Star" message had been posted on the Cafe Net BBS, information had been pouring in. A lot was obviously of no use, but a scientific breakdown of the area that Star had been accessing from was among the information sent in.
Also, because of the name-recognition of Anita Brussel, who offered to put up the reward money, even more messages were posted.
"Madoka, I heard that in Japanese society, a person doing something that made her stand out like Anita is doing, would be shunned by everyone else," Chiru Chiru Michiru said, feeling the excitement of the other customers. Madoka answered him with a small smile.
"That's true. But some people try to stand out on purpose, especially politicians."
Chiru Chiru Michiru laughed embarrassedly.
"Anita Brussel is more or less a politician. You could say that she's the face of New York."
"Because she's such an honored citizen?"
"Not really. The reason she is such a famous dancer now is that she was well-connected with various groups in the city before she started dancing."
Madoka made a puzzled face. "I'm not sure what you mean."
For some reason, there were many intelligent people in New York's gay community. Madoka had read about this once in a magazine. Chiru Chiru Michiru seemed more and more a member of that group.
With his wrinkled shirt and his solemn face, she could feel a boyish youth in him. He did, however, have a deep and interesting insight into American society.
"Anita Brussel's new musical didn't do so well," Chiru Chiru Michiru said. "It was canceled a little while ago."
"Really?" Madoka said. "I didn't know that."
"The title was _Alice on 5th Avenue_. It was an grown-up fairy tale, using 5th Avenue as a background, based on _Alice in Wonderland_."
"It sounds interesting."
"Yes. The scenario and music were interesting. But Anita, who played the lead, was really miscast. Anita is the type of singer who sings with a lot of energy. She's a person who, all by herself, can hold the attention of an entire sell-out audience in Carnagie Hall. This was when she was in her prime, of course."
As he said this, he winked at Madoka, who smiled.
"But this was a group musical. The more she is forced to act in conjunction with other performers, the more the others seemed better than her."
"Is it bad to have a musical cancelled?" Madoka asked.
"It happens all the time on Broadway. Even though she is an important citizen of the city, she's no exception. Even major productions get closed down. That's why sophisticated producers are always producing plays that can start right away, while checking to see which plays will be cancelled next week."
"Wow, survival of the fittest!" Madoka said, then was surprised by her own words.
Maybe Hikaru had become a victim of this world where only the strong survive!
"Wait, I forgot something," Chiru Chiru Michiru said cheerfully, seeing how quiet Madoka had become. "A famous Japanese trading company had put up all the money for the production of that play."
He had said this, intending to carry the positive meaning that Japan's companies were not only selling cars and electronics into America, but were also supporting American's culture.
But Madoka couldn't see it that way.
"Japanese companies shouldn't have anything to do with Americans outside of business."
Those had been the words of her father once, when he had been drinking too much. Madoka had learned then about her father's mistrust towards Japanese corporations, which place profits before anything else, and how he had fought a one-man war to attain the position he was in now, without any help from anyone.
On the computer monitor, a new email message had appeared. Madoka took a drink of coffee that had gone stone-cold and began to read the message.
The town of Taxco was located at the top of a gentle mountain, and the many buildings left over from when the country was a colony ruled by Spain gave the place an exotic air.
There were houses made of stones piled on top of each other, standing along the cobblestone street, and in the windows there were flowers of simple colors. Along the steep sloped road to the plaza in the center of the city were many shops selling silver goods.
In each store, one or two employees were helping sightseers, restoring silver or making original items for sale.
Shuri-san and I had left Mexico City in the rental car and came here.
On the way here, we saw an Indian riding a burrow, and landscape with cactus poking up here and there. Because of this, actually getting to this town itself made the town seem like an oasis to me.
Children helped their parents sell the silver goods to sightseers.
"It's terrible the way they don't give up, even though we're not here to buy trinkets," Shuri-san said, buying a small silver ring from some children who had been following us.
We had just gotten to the hotel and started to relax. I smiled to Shuri-san widely and said, "It'll be all right. It's not like we can do anything about it. Let's just soak up the tourist atmosphere while we're here."
We picked up the trail of the mysterious H. Hikaru rather easily.
In a small town like this, there weren't all that many hotels. We found the hotel in which she had checked into right away. But she had left her suitcase at the hotel and gone on a short one-night tour further to the south. We found out that she had been with several friends.
Getting adjacent rooms in the same hotel, we decided to wait for her to return.
"Kyosuke-kun, don't forget to buy something for Madoka-chan."
"Shall I choose something for you?"
"Ah, maybe that's a good idea. If I pick some jewelry or something for her, I'm sure I'll use all my money."
"What?" Shuri-san said.
"There are a lot of different designs. Happy ones...and strange, mysterious ones. I wouldn't know which one to buy."
Shuri-san just laughed.
After that we decided to separate, take showers in our rooms, and meet again in the second floor of a restaurant facing the plaza.
While we had been looking for the hotel, we had thought it would be a nice restaurant with a good atmosphere.
After my shower, I went out into the plaza and saw children, tired now of peddling silver trinkets to tourists, playing games on the cobblestones. The girl who was so persistent at selling Shuri-san a silver ring was also there. She looked like a normal child now, with a young child's smile.
I climbed up the stairs to the second floor of the restaurant, and heard Shuri-san's voice. She was at a table on the veranda overlooking the plaza, already looking at a menu.
Her hair was still half-wet from her shower, and she had it done up on top of her head like a turbin, wrapped up in a colorful piece of cloth. Matching the cloth in her hair was a flowing one-piece dress. The setting sun lit her upper bosom, making it shine with vermilion (26) brilliance.
I have to admit it, I saw Shuri-san as a woman for the first time just then. It just hit me.
Not that this meant anything, mind you.
Shuri-san looked really good with jeans and not too much make up, sort of a 'boyish' look...
But even if I saw Shuri-san as a woman now, I didn't really see her as a woman...
(Hey, what am I saying?)
Anyway, Shuri-san looked very relaxed, her face appearing somehow deep-set, almost enough to make one think she was half-European...all of this was very sexy, er, brilliant.
"What are you going to order?" she asked me, looking at the menu which was written in English.
"Mm? Um, I'll just leave it up to you. It's too much trouble to read the English on the menu."
"I wasn't talking about the food. What wine do you want?"
"Ah, yes. Um, I'll leave that up to you too."
She laughed. "Kyosuke-kun, are you always this way? Leaving things up to other people?"
"Um, well, ever since I was a child, I've been indecisive (27) like this...I've got these two really pushy twin sisters, you see, and...and, well, nevermind."
She laughed again. "Pushy sisters? Is that fair to say that about them?"
"Yes, it's no problem. Especially in the Kasuga household."
She laughed again, and put the menu down on the table. This was the signal that we were ready to order, I remember reading in a magazine once.
"Madoka-chan must be really happy."
"Huh? I wonder..."
"You're a nice guy."
"Me? No, that's not true."
"Yes, it is. But she must be worried, too."
"With that indecisiveness of yours...you might drift to another woman."
"Hey!" I said.
Shuri laughed, rocking her body back and forth.
Just then, a wind blew through the plaza. It blew through her one-piece dress, and carried the smell of her too my nose.
It was the smell of shampoo and cream rinse, mixed together.
Hurriedly, I said, "So what do _you_ want to drink?"
"You know, we are here in Mexico. We have to try you-know-what."
"Are you crazy?"
Tequila was the famous Mexican drink with a violently high alcohol content. When you said the word Mexico, you thought of tequila.
I'm Kyosuke Kasuga, age twenty-two. I've drunk all kinds of alcohol, but I can also say that I've done some stupid things as a result of drinking too much.
Six months ago, I drank too much with Hikaru-chan, who had returned to Japan, and as a result had spent a dangerous night with her (well, keep it a secret, but it wasn't twenty-two year old me, but nineteen year old me that did this).
"Okay, let's drink some tequila!"
In this way, I completely forgot about the stupid things I've done in the past as a result of drinking too much, and accepted Shuri-san's suggestion.
Perhaps because I was sure that we would find out whoever H. Hikaru really was tomorrow, or perhaps because we were in Mexico, which was very pleasant compared to New York. The tequila was quite warm in our mouths. Soon we were both quite tipsy.
The plaza below us had grown dark. This didn't stop the children from playing, however. Their parents were also gathered into groups, talking. I was sure that they passed the evening every day like this, letting the kids play while the adults talked, unlike people in Japan, who watch television.
I knew they all earned a lot less per year than the average Japanese, but it seemed that they also had a very rich and good life here.
In my tipsy state, I stared blankly at the people, and suddenly remembered Bosnia, which I had almost forgotten.
When will times like this, when you can pass the hours in a relaxed way, come to those people?
"Kyosuke-kun...?" Shuri-san said.
"What's wrong? Are you tired?"
"No, not really."
"Oh, I know. You were thinking about Madoka-chan."
I was lying. I did want to see Madoka badly. As if she had seen through my lie, Shuri-san brought her face close to mine and said:
"So, have you known Madoka-chan for a long time?"
"Pretty long, I guess. Since we were in the third year of junior high school (28)."
"Oh, you're a very dedicated man. And during that time, you didn't think about anyone else?"
"What do you mean?"
"Did you date anyone else?"
I couldn't tell her about Hikaru-chan.
"Wow, that's great."
"Great? No, it's really nothing."
"But you hear a lot that men just can't do that. Even though you have a wonderful girl like Madoka-chan, you're tempted to go out with other girls secretly, aren't you?"
I tried to change the direction of the conversion by asking Shuri-san a question. But by that time her eyes were sad. She seemed to have gotten drunk. Then she said.
"I never stay with anyone for very long."
"Ah...I see," I stammered.
"It's not that I change my mind easily, you know."
"It's just that, I suddenly realize that I love a particular person I'm with."
"But I don't stay with them. Why do you think that is?"
"Um, I really have no idea."
"Something inside me is...empty."
Shuri-san made an attempt at laughing, drunken eyes and all. She was so sexy. I had to turn my eyes away hurriedly.
"I'd be going with a different person...you know, a new person...and bam! I'd fall in love with him. You know, without thinking about what kind of person he was, or what situation he might be in himself."
"Just like that?" I asked.
"Yes. I think to myself, I want to be with this person, I want him to say certain things to me...but the person I fall in love with, he's human, too. It can't always work out the way I want it to."
"I see," I said.
"So my relationships just go cold. Usually I'm the one who starts the chill. That's why I don't stay with one person for very long. I can't continue with anyone for a long time."
The wind from the plaza below was causing the candle on the table to dance. Shuri-san looked embarrassed suddenly, as if she had said too much, and smiled.
"I guess I'm just selfish," she said, and was silent.
Just then, a group of men wearing sombreros and playing guitar came to our floor. It was a mariachi.
A mariachi is a group of musicians that gathers in restaurants or places where tourists are, and play guitar and sing with many voices for their listeners. According to the guide book, there were also mariachi groups that had many permanent fans.
"Kyosuke-kun, will you order me some coffee? I have to go back to the hotel and call New York," Shuri-san said, trying to re-open the conversation.
"Okay. Are you all right?"
"I'm all right, I'm all right. If you live in America, you just naturally learn to hold your liquor. You can't fall asleep on the train like you can in Japan, and if you drive, you have to be as alert as possible."
I smiled back at her.
Shuri-san got to her feet shakily. She made a gesture meaning _I'm okay_ with her hands and walked towards the stairs.
The mariachi, having found an audience to perform for, was playing the guitar and singing their wonderful baritone songs. One large-bellied singer in particularly seemed to have fallen in love with a kind-looking old woman, and was singing loudly for her group.
I ordered two coffees and decided to listen to the pleasant music for a time.
It was a good feeling.
When I get back to the hotel, I realized I'd better call Madoka...
But by the time I'd drank my coffee down, and Shuri-san's had grown cold, she still hadn't returned from the hotel.
The mariachi band that had been playing for the customers near the stairs were slowly making their way towards where our table was, out on the veranda.
"How about a song?" one of the men asked. I was thinking of how to respond, while I waited for Shuri-san to return and rescue me.
Just then, the girl from the front of our hotel ran up the stairs that Shuri-san had gone down, right towards me. She talked to me, out of breath and in heavily-accented English.
I wasn't sure of what she was saying to me. But I knew right away from her excited state that something had happened.
Shuri-san had collapsed.