Mr. Ioka was already at the ticket gate at JR Ichigaya Station. He was ten years older than me, but his appearance was youthful, his hair dyed brown. I greeted him hurriedly, and then at his prompt walked wordlessly through the throng of people. Since he was the one who had given me work I'd been waiting so long for, I thought I should probably say something clever. But since by nature I'm not a good talker, I could think of nothing.
As always, irritation at myself welled up within me. It was a quality I was familiar with. And quite a severe one...
Conscious of it, I'd got a part time job in hospitality when I was a student. I wasn't very good at interacting with people, and it was so bad that I'd been fired after three days.
"It's a horror," Mr. Ioka said as we walked.
"Huh?" I said, not understanding what he meant.
"The game they're thinking of asking you to novelise. Apparently its title is "Zero", and it seems quite scary," he replied.
"Have you played it yet?"
"No, not yet. But they should be lending me the beta version today."
"That's what things are called in the stage before release. Do you have a PS2?"
"Yeah, my little sister has."
"Oh, you have a little sister?"
"Didn't I tell you that I live with her before?"
"Hmm, did you really? I thought you said you lived alone when I asked you before."
I smiled a faint, vague smile. I'd spoken about living with my sister to Mr. Ioka before. I clearly remember him jokingly saying, "Wow, that's nice. You have to introduce me to her!"
It reminded me of an incident that occurred when I was working with him.
I lent Mr. Ioka a tape containing a recording of a certain TV programme I was using as reference material for the theme of an article. I waited and waited, but he never returned it. Feeling as though it was putting a strain on our relationship, I gently reminded him.
When I did so Mr. Ioka, not even slightly timid, smiled and said, "Ahhh, sorry. I had no tapes to record my daughter's anime show with, so I used it."
Maybe he was a more irresponsible person than I'd thought.
Anyway, the show was rebroadcast later and I rerecorded it. Maybe he just forgot whether or not other people had sisters...
The game creators we were looking for were at a place about a five minute walk from the station. I'd imagined a place like a room of a large apartment, but it was an imposing building with about ten storeys.
We went into the foyer and stopped at the receptionist. While Mr. Ioka was speaking to her, I stood there idly. Suddenly, nervousness ran through me. I wasn't good at meeting new people. But more than that, I was incredibly nervous about whether I'd really be allowed to do the novelisation.
For reports and documents, I'd brought along copies of articles I'd published to show them; as far as novels went, however, I had nothing at all.
I'd considered bringing doujinshi from my student days, but when I read back through them they just looked inexperienced and amateurish. I simply couldn't show them to anyone else, and put them away as my self-loathing increased.
After a few minutes, someone appeared in the lobby - a young woman called Tsukihara. She seemed to already be acquainted with Mr. Ioka. We cheerfully exchanged pleasantries.
She wore a navy two-piece suit, and just from first glance she seemed like a talented woman, yet she wore a gentle smile. Right away, Mr. Ioka introduced us. Having been watching their exchange absentmindedly, I took a business card from my jacket pocket.
As we exchanged cards she faced me, but as she looked at the card I gave her she seemed surprised, then studied my face carefully.
"What's wrong? Ah, is he your type?" Mr. Ioka said to Tsukihara jokingly, as he watched.
"Sorry. But..." said Tsukihara, startled, trailing off as she turned. Her smile quickly reappeared. "Well, then, please come with me," she said, leading us to the lift. Even inside the lift, Tsukihara still seemed to act somewhat awkwardly. Had I unconsciously messed things up? My nervousness added to my bewilderment.
The meeting room we arrived at was empty, and in the centre of it sat a large four-sided desk. I sat side by side with Mr. Ioka. Shortly afterwards, two men arrived. It looked like this was the first time he had met them as well. We stood, exchanging business cards as we did. The men were Mr. Kitaike, the game's producer, and Mr. Shibaguchi, in charge of the game's scenario.
Both looked to be in their mid thirties. Kitaike was thin, and appeared to be a cool, calm kind of person. The smile upon his lips was composed, his narrow, almond-shaped eyes cool enough to make me shiver. Perhaps because he wore a well-tailored suit, he looked like the calm kind of guy you would imagine a young producer to be. Mr. Shibaguchi, on the other hand, was slightly plump. Maybe he didn't pay much attention to his appearance, as longish hair brushed his shoulders, and he wore a rough, shabby jacket. The eyes behind his silver-rimmed glasses were upturned, making him seem a little nervous.
The pair may have been of contrasting appearance, but the second they looked at my business card their expressions changed. Mr. Shibaguchi turned to me with a look like he had seen something unbelievable and shocking. Mr. Kitake, however, reacted quite differently. Glancing at the surprised Shibaguchi, a twisted smile seemed to appear on his face.
"Shocking, right?" said Tsukihara.
"I'm, uh, sorry, but is this your real name? A pen name, perhaps?" scenario writer Shibaguchi asked me.
"It's my real name..."
"How is it read, exactly?"
It wasn't a very common name surname, and my name itself was a little strange, so I was used to being asked how to read it.
"What's going on?" Shibaguchi asked Kitaike.
"These things happen, I suppose," he replied calmly.
"What are you talking ab..." Shibaguchi fell silent, looking down at my card.
"What's the matter? Is there something on Hinasaki's face?" Ioka asked, seemingly having noticed that something was wrong.
"My apologies. I just... Could it really be a coincidence?" said Shibaguchi, a perplexed expression on his face.
"You haven't been given any documents about the game, yet, have you?" Tsukihara asked Mr. Ioka.
"No. All I know is that it's a Japanese-style horror game, and the title is 'Zero'."
"Then please take a look at this. I think you'll understand why we're all so suprised once you see it."
Tsukihara produced a large envelope. I sat down with Ioka, looking through the documents inside it. It was data relating to the game 'Zero ~zero~'. First of all I looked at the description of the character on the first page, and my eyes went wide. The main character was a 17-year-old girl - her name was Miku Hinasaki, the exact same name as my sister.
That wasn't the only surprise. She had a brother, whose name was none other than Mafuyu Hinasaki - the exact same name as me.
"Is this for real?" Mr. Ioka asked.
"Take a look at the photos on the next page," Tsukihara said, and I did so.
"They're made of polygons, right...? Uh... What, seriously? The girl's brother Mafuyu looks just like Hinasaki!"
Ioka looked between the document and my face, comparing them. We were identical. There were some slight differences, due to the polygons, but we were similar enough that it looked like he had been modelled on me. What was even more shocking was Miku Hinasaki, the main character. Her photo looked like a real one of my sister.
"Now you understand why we're shocked, right?" said Tsukihara.
"Stop kidding around. You've been in on this from the start, haven't you?" Ioka grinned, looking from the three staff members back to me.
"Of course not. Think about it. You were the one who asked Mr. Hinasaki to do this novelisation, weren't you, Mr. Ioka?" said Tsukihara.
"Ah, I guess so... Then perhaps you saw Hinasaki's name, or a photo of him, somewhere and used that."
"We did no such thing. If we had, we would certainly have asked permission. Right, Kitaike?" said Shibaguchi. Kitaike said 'Of course' and nodded his head.
"But then... Uhh, what's going on?" Mr. Ioka folded his arms, looking baffled.
I looked down at the notes about the characters.Miku Hinasaki (雛咲 深紅)
17 years old. Since she has inherited the blood of the Hinasaki family, a line said to have a strong sixth sense, she can see things that others can't.
Though she's usually in the company of friends, the depths of her heart are impenetrable. The only one she will truly open her heart to is her older brother, Mafuyu, who understands her power.
Mafuyu Hinasaki (雛咲 真冬)
21 years old. A journalist.
As Miku's brother, he is the only person who understands her and knows of her ability. To Miku, who has lost both her parents, he is her only family.
As I read, shivers ran through my body. This was how my sister and I were. But could something like this really happen?
We'd not said a word to anyone about our sixth senses. Of course, the Hinasakis shut away the fact that they have a sixth sense in their blood so that absolutely nobody knows.
"Is it really a coincidence?" asked Mr. Ioka. Mr. Shibaguchi suddenly nodded his head deeply.
"Of course. I was the one who created all of that data, and all of it, including their names and personalities, is a work of fiction. I met Mr. Hinasaki for the first time today, and pardon me, but I hadn't heard his name even once before then," he said, his words so strong that I could only believe that what he was saying was the truth.
If he wanted to feign innocence and pretend Mr. Takamine wasn't the one who set me up to do this novelisation, I could understand that. But trying to deny Mr. Takamine's very existence?
I was completely dumbfounded. Mr. Ioka and the others seemed to sense my displeasure.
"This novelist, Takamine. Is he an actual person?" said Mr. Ioka, looking at the faces of Tsukihara, Mr. Kitaike and Mr. Shibaguchi one by one. The three of them remained silent.
"That is completely impossible. Like I said before, I made up everything about the characters."
"But there's no way you couldn't know about Mr. Takamine. He's Junsei Takamine, a best-selling author. And to use all this information about me in a game..."
"I'm surprised, myself. Had I known of you, I would certainly have changed your name and appearance. I wouldn't want to cause you such trouble," Mr. Shibaguchi said.
Taking over, Mr. Kitaike said, "It's the truth. We knew absolutely nothing about you. Junsei Takamine isn't based on a real person." For some reason, as he spoke, Mr. Kitaike seemed to sense that I needed my space.
I wondered if all game producers had this kind of attitude. He also seemed to have a different outlook from Mr. Shibaguchi, who made his shock clear as he looked at me - like he had prepared himself in advance.
"So, even at this stage of the game, you insist that everything in the game is fictitious?" I realised that my voice was trembling with anger. I rarely got angry, but I couldn't hold it in any longer.
"Please calm down, Mr. Hinasaki. It must be a coincidence. There's no other explanation for it. If we had known that someone just like you appeared in the game, we would've asked for confirmation about that before we asked you do to the novelisation."
"Then, what about Mr. Takamine?"
"I don't know of any novelists called Takamine, either. Honestly. Please believe me," Mr. Ioka said with a serious face.
Why are they still pretending they know nothing?
My anger had not yet subsided, but was spurred even further by paranoia. I had no idea why they would all be working together to fool me.
"Excuse me, but do you have an internet-capable PC?" I said.
"What do you want one for?" Mr. Ioka asked worriedly.
"I want to search for Mr. Takamine's name on the internet. I think then the answer will become clear."
"But even if you do that..."
"I see no problem with it," said Mr. Kitaike, full of confidence, stopping Mr. Ioka. "Go ahead and do it."
Tsukihara immediately brought me a mobile PC. Once it was connected to the net, I opened the search page. I entered "Junsei Takamine" and pressed search.
The name of someone as famous as Mr. Takamine should have displayed a long line of related websites right away.
But the search didn't return a single result. The only thing displayed was "Your search for 'Junsei Takamine' returned no hits." Just to make sure, I even tried "Tomoe Hirasaka". Since the characters used in her name are more common than those in Takamine's, quite a few sites popped up, but when I checked them I found that they were all about completely different people.
To confirm that I hadn't made a mistake with the kanji, I started over. There were still no hits. I opened a different search page and repeated the same actions, but the result was the same.
I went to a variety of search pages and tested them out. I didn't find any related websites. I changed tactics and went to a website that showed book sales. In the "author" field I typed in "Junsei Takamine", thinking it would display his works, but not even a single book showed up.
"This is ridiculous..."
I tried everything I would think of to find Mr. Takamine's name. I opened the list of past bestsellers at bookshops. I opened a page that displayed book sales from the time when his books had been in the top ten.
There was a number of new books I remembered, but Mr. Takamine's works alone had vanished. It was like someone had intentionally erased them.
No - there was no way that not only had the words "Junsei Takamine" been erased from the expansive world of the internet, but his very existence had been erased; there was no way. But what if the novelist Junsei Takamine had ceased to exist in this world?
"Mr. Takamine should be there. You know, the best-selling author who introduced me to you?" I said to Mr. Ioka, as though begging. But Mr. Ioka simply looked down with a pained expression on his face. My vision began to darken.
"I met him on the train on the way here earlier. He was with Hirasaka. Honestly."
Honestly, believe me... I thought, as though praying, as I looked at the creators.
"Mr. Hinasaki, um, do you know his address or phone number, anything like that?" Mr. Kitaike said in a calm voice.
Right, that's one way to solve this.
I took my mobile phone out of my bag, and checked the address book. I had the numbers for Mr. Takamine's home and work, and Hirasaka's home phone number recorded in it. But they were nowhere to be found. I knew without a dout that I had recorded them, but they were both gone.
I hurriedly took my portable phone book out of my bag and flipped through the pages. The result was the same.
I had written in the address book with a pencil so that I could change it if needed, but nothing was written there about Mr. Takamine or Hirasaka. Not only that, but in the places their information should have been written down, I could see no remnants of anything having been erased or altered in any way, and only their names had vanished.
It was as if nothing had been there from the start.
"Mr. Hinasaki. How about calling your sister and asking her?" said Mr. Kitaike.
I quickly looked for Miku's mobile number. But where her number should have been, there was nothing. Perhaps I had mistakenly deleted it? I pushed myself to remember her number. However many times I called it, though, I only heard a tape playing, saying, "This number is not currently in use."
"Has even Miku vanished?" The shock was huge.
I lay my head weakly on the desk. I had no idea what was going on. The circumstances made it seem like I was the one who was mistaken.
"Is the story of 'Zero' really all fictional?" Mr. Ioka asked no one in particular. There was no answer, just an oppressive silence.
Then, finally, "Actually..." said the scenario manager, Mr. Shibaguchi. I lifted my head and watched him intently.
"No, it's just like I've said many times before: the characters are all fictional."
"But I really..." Mr. Shibaguchi raised his hands to stop my mouth running away with its protests.
"W-wait, please. Maybe, with you right in front of us, it's hard to believe that a character exactly the same as you appears in the game. But the mansion that 'Zero' is set in was based on a real one. Please take a look at page three of the data."
I hurriedly turned flipped through the data. There, I found described the plot summary of 'Zero ~zero~'.
Surrounding this mansion are memories of an abhorrent past, and sinister rumours about it circle amongst residents of the nearby area.
The incident in which the head of the Himuro family went insane and sliced the entire family to death.
The incident in which a family who moved there later were spirited away.
And the incident of the strange deaths in recent years, where people have their limbs torn off.
Each of these incidents seems to be connected to this mansion.
The popular writer Junsei Takamine chooses as the subject of his next work the mysteries of Himuro Mansion.
Takamine, his assistant Tomoe Hirasaka and head editor Koji Ogata go together to the mansion to conduct research.
However, the trail ends there.
"Does this Himuro Mansion actually exist?" I asked Mr. Shibaguchi.
"There's a mansion much like it near where I'm from. It was rumoured to be a haunted house when I was a child. It popped into my head when we were planning this game, but I thought it would have been demolished by now. I called my mother back home, and she said it was still standing, so we went there for research. First time in about twenty years."
"It really was an amazing place. I'm proud to call it my masterpiece," Mr. Kitaike said as he looked at me, his lips curled in a grin.
Masterpiece? I thought it was strange, but thinking I had just misheard I sat silently without questioning him. Mr. Shibaguchi continued speaking.
"When I was a child, there was an old lady taking care of the place all by herself, but she seems to have died about ten years ago, and now it's abandoned. We found the realtor that was looking after it, and went there for research."
"Did something happen?" Mr. Ioka leant forwards.
"No. Nothing happened at all," Mr. Shibaguchi said, then shut his mouth like he was reluctant to mention something. Tsukihara spoke to improve the suddenly sunken atmosphere.
"It was when you were conducting your research at the mansion that you came up with these characters, wasn't it, Mr. Shibaguchi?"
"So you're saying that you thought of the protagonist, Miku, her older brother who is exactly like Mr. Hinasaki, and a novelist called Takamine while you were there?"
Mr. Shibaguchi nodded at Mr. Ioka.
"It may sound strange, but as we were walking around inside the mansion, I somehow suddenly thought of their names. Then I noted them down in a memo. Right, Kitaike?"
"It's true. Only three of us - Shibaguchi, a single illustrator and I - went there. While we were walking around the mansion, illuminated only by our torches, dark even though it was afternoon, Shibaguchi suddenly crouched down and made a note of something in his notebook.
"Wondering what it was, I took a peek, and saw that he'd written down a few names... He meant to use them for the game. They were all strange names, so that there are actually people with them..."
"Anything else?" Mr. Ioka said to Mr. Shibaguchi, urging him on.
"That's how I thought of the names, but that's not all. When the illustrator saw the names I'd written down in the memo, an image suddenly popped into their head and they started sketching. Well, back then it was just a rough drawing, but it served as the basis for these polygonal characters."
"In other words, that's right when you created Mafuyu Hinasaki, a character identical to the real Mr. Hinasaki - is that what you're saying?"
To Mr. Ioka's question, Mr. Kitaike and Mr. Shibaguchi nodded their heads.
"Weeeell then, guess we've got to go." Mr. Ioka's voice had risen an octave.
"'Go'?" asked Tsukihara.
"To that mansion, of course. But it's weird, isn't it? That by going there, not only did you get Mr. Hinasaki's name, but his appearance, too. And a novelist that he's actually met... it sounds too good to be true."
"No, we aren't trying to liven up the story - it's the truth," said Mr. Kitaike.
"No, pardon me. I didn't mean it like that, but since we met nothing but inexplicable things have been happening. It's not normal. If the key to solving this mystery is at that mansion, we have to go. Right, Mr. Hinasaki?" Mr. Ioka looked at me excitedly. I couldn't think how to answer, and nodded vaguely.
The mansion certainly did bother me. But that wasn't what was on my mind.
Not only Takamine and Hirasaka, but my sister Miku had vanished, like they were an illusion. It was like they had all left only me behind and gone into the world of 'Zero ~zero~'.
I wanted to go home and see Miku's face without wasting a moment. I wanted to be sure about Mr. Takamine and Hirasaka. I had to do this first, or everything else would be lost in a jumble of confusion inside my head.
"Sorry, but I don't feel so good. May I be excused first?" I said to Mr. Ioka in a small voice. Mr. Ioka, who had witnessed my state earlier, looked at me worriedly.
"Right. I understand. I'll leave the documents with you for today, so you can look through them yourself at home."
"Take the game's beta version too, if you don't mind. It's pretty much the same as a finished version." Tsukihara handed me a disc.
Accepting the documents and the disc, I left the creators behind as though escaping. Arriving at Ichigaya station, I descended the stairs like I was running from Mr. Ioka, who had left the office with me.
"I'll call you tomorrow. Have a think about going to investigate that building we talked about earlier, hm?" I heard Mr. Ioka say from behind me.