Chapter 3

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Chapter 3 – Azhizuka Fujio. UTOPIA: The Final World War. Tsuru Printing

Part 1

Come to think of it, I was pretty bad with origami as a child. The paper would get crushed whenever I tried to fold it and the other kids in the neighborhood would laugh at me. Perhaps it was because my hands and fingers were bigger than the average person’s. Either way, there’s no denying the fact that I wasn’t any good—

—I was remembering things like that as I wrapped books in wax paper behind the counter. The wax paper was used to protect the books from getting damaged by the sun. All of the old books at Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia were covered with wax paper like that. The one I was currently struggling with was Ikenami Shoutarou’s Sakuran. It was one of the books we bought from the Kousaka estate in Onarimachi the other day.

The cover was torn and yellowed and its overall condition was pretty bad. Books tended to become warped over long periods of time, so covering them with thin wax paper was by no means easy. I thought I had managed it this time, but the paper ended up being too small. After redoing it yet again, I somehow managed to get it right and placed the book on the pile of books going out to the store.

“Daisuke, did you put prices on them?”

I heard Shioriko’s voice from behind me.

“Ah, sorry.”

I had forgotten to do that. I lightly smeared some adhesive on the reverse side of the pre-prepared price label. The labels had to be attached with adhesive for books that did not have a slipcase. This was also something that was hard to fix if it wasn’t done right the first time. Peeling the label off unskillfully would leave behind residue.

I still felt a gaze at my back and turned around. Shioriko appeared from behind some books.

“What can I help with?”

“If you have a moment, there’s something it’d like you to look at.”

I went towards the books like she asked me to. The other side of the store counter was screened off by stacks of books piled up like bricks. This wall of books was built soon after the owner returned to the shop. She usually hid herself away behind it to manage mail orders and the like.

The computer placed at the corner of the L shaped desk was also hidden behind the wall of books.

“I was checking my mail just now and…”

She pointed to her monitor where there was an image displayed as part of an email. A couple was standing together with a blue sea visible in the background. A middle aged lady with a round face was flashing a peace sign next to an older man in dark sunglasses standing stiffly beside her.

These were acquaintances who had once come to sell a book to us: the Sakaguchi couple.

“Where are they now?”

“Ishigaki Island, they said.”

They got back from an extended overseas trip last month and it looked like they wanted to try Okinawa this time. They were leisurely wandering around the islands and sent us emails like this whenever they went somewhere new.

“Southern islands…sure sound nice.”

She had a raptured, faraway look in her eyes. Quite the unexpected reaction.

“Are you also want to travel to places like that?”

“Yes…I wonder what kind of antiquarian bookshops they have over there. I imagine their selection would quite be different from ours.”

Not an uncharacteristic response. She was definitely a hardcore bookworm.

“You wouldn’t go swimming or anything?”

“Eh, why would I?”

She seemed to have realized it after she spoke.

“That would be strange, I suppose. Going on vacation to look for books.”

“Not at all, sounds like it would be fun.”

“Is that what you really think?”

“Yeah.”

I was actually serious, by the way. Going somewhere with Shioriko and hearing her talk endlessly about books didn’t sound so bad. I’d enjoy it even if we didn’t go to any southern islands.

“Is that so…” Shioriko smiled happily.

It felt like she had become more open with me ever since the event with Akiho. She didn’t look away or mumble when she talked to me now. For her, it was a remarkable change.

Although I was happy about that, there was one thing I was curious about. That painting that I had found on the second floor of the main house—the one with the person completely identical to Shinokawa Shioriko. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

******

I was so shocked that day that I didn’t even notice the sliding door opening while I had the painting in my hands.

“That person is…”

A voice came out of nowhere and almost made me jump. I turned around to see Shinokawa Ayaka standing behind me. She was holding the clothes she had taken off her older sister in front of her.

“Shinokawa Chieko….that’s our mother.”

“Mother….?”

I looked at the painting again. With her hair and clothes, she resembled the current Shioriko way too much. They even looked to be about the same age….no, she might have been a little younger.

“This was before she and my father got married, around the time she started working here. I heard that my mother was the one who asked someone to make the painting. I don’t know who that was though.”

Ayaka continued the story without any particular emotion.

“So your mother was an employee here?”

“Right.” She nodded.

“She was originally one of our regular customers. It was only after she started working here that it developed into a relationship.”

And then they got married and had two daughters—I was interested in what happened after that. I clearly remembered how Shioriko froze up when I asked about her mother before.

I understood that something hard to talk about must have happened, but it would be a waste not to ask after all this.

“What happened to your mother?”

“About that…she left us. It was ten years ago…I do think she’s still alive though.”

I got a straightforward reply. In other words, she disappeared.

“She left…do you know the reason why?”

“I don’t really know. I was pretty young and dad and Shioriko didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe they didn’t know why either, I can’t say…but…”

Her tone suddenly became forceful.

“Goura, don’t ever bring up the topic of our mother if you want to get along with my sister. Just don’t.”

She took the painting out of my hands as she said that and put it back behind the pile of books. The white bird from before was the only part that was visible…just like it was when I first saw it.

“Shioriko’s face looks so sad whenever someone talks about our mother…”

******

I was inserting the waxpaper covered books into the bookshelves. Not a single customer had come in all morning despite it being a holiday today. With the autumn colors approaching their peak at the nearby Engaku and Meigetsuin temples, Kita-Kamakura was overflowing with crowds – but so far they had failed to reach the store.

I could hear the faint sound of typing from behind the counter. Shioriko was probably entering data on the books that were sold through mail order.

In the end, I learned barely anything about her mother. Of course, I wasn’t planning on forcing her to tell me, but the memory of dating Akiho without knowing anything about her had become a bitter one for me. I suppose I was attracted to this girl after all.

That was also the reason for my indecision. I wanted to know what she was hiding in her heart, but taking her feelings into account, it wasn’t something I could just ask her to tell me—

—There was the sound of a car engine outside.

I looked up and saw a minivan coming to a stop at the other side of the glass door. A man wearing glasses came out of the driver’s seat and started to approach the entrance carrying a cardboard orange box.

I quickly went over to open the door for him.

“Are you here to sell these books?”

The man looked up at me. His hair was thinning slightly and was speckled with white. His facial features made it difficult to guess his age, but he looked to be in his late 30s to early 40s. He gave off the impression of being an earnest white-collar accountant. He was wearing a plain colored sweater with jeans and didn’t have any particularly defining characteristics. It felt like I would quickly end up forgetting about him if we ever crossed paths.

“Yes…please.”

His voice echoed throughout the store with surprising strength. I took the box from him and carried it behind the counter.

“Please fill this out”

I handed a ballpoint pen and the purchase form to the man who was nervously looking around the shop. Opening the cardboard box, I noticed the faint smell of cooking oil wafting up for some reason. It looked like it was filled with used books and old paperbacks, but the spines were blackened to the point where I couldn’t read the titles. The tops of the books were completely covered in dust. I doubted they would sell for much.

“Is the owner of the shop available today? She has long hair and wears glasses.”

The man spoke as he was filling out his address. Nishitomi, Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture. It was about 20 minutes away from here in Kita-Kamakura. Perhaps he knew Shioriko from one of his previous visits to the store.

“If you’re looking for Shinokawa…”

Just as I turned to look behind me, Shioriko appeared from behind the counter leaning on her cane.

“I am the shop owner, Shinokawa. Welcome.”

The man stopped writing and looked her up and down. He stared at her intensely, looking to see if there was any mistake.

“Umm…is there something…?”

Shioriko asked uneasily and the man, as if coming to his senses, looked away.

“No, it was nothing. Excuse me.”

He looked embarrassed despite his age. Asking if Shioriko was around first thing was pretty suspicious behavior. I started to become a little skeptical of this man and his intentions. I wouldn’t want a repeat of the Toshio Tanaka incident.

“There is one thing I’d like to ask,” the man said.

“Y-yes…what is it?”

“Have you ever heard of Ashizuka Fujio’s UTOPIA – The Final World War?

The color of Shioriko’s face changed. It was a title that I had never heard of…but the author’s name felt vaguely familiar.

“…the Tsuru Printing version?”

The tension could be heard in her voice.

“Yes…it’s a first edition, still in good condition.”

The shop owner paused briefly before continuing. I could clearly tell she was carefully choosing her words.

“I would need to take a look at it person but…does it still have a dust jacket?”

“No…I don’t think it has one.”

“…Our shop does not deal much with manga, so we can’t purchase it like a specialty shop would. However, it would likely be worth somewhere around one million yen.”

“Eh?”

I was the only one who exclaimed.

If the purchase price was one million yen, just how much would this book sell for? This might even be more valuable than the copy of Daizai’s The Late Years that Shioriko owned. It may have been an old book, but I could have never imagined there was manga worth that much.

“Is that so…sorry for asking such a strange question.”

The man lowered his head. Somehow, it felt like he had a pleased expression on his face.

“Do you have a copy of The Final World War?” Shioriko asked.

He only would have asked those questions if he already owned the book or intended to acquire a copy. We were waiting for the answer with bated breath when the man turned towards the glass door looking like he had forgotten something.

“My car…I probably shouldn’t have left it in front of the store like that. Where are the parking spots?”

That question was aimed at me. The road in front of the store was pretty narrow, it certainly would become a hindrance if he left his car there for too long.

“Ah, right. It’s on the other side of the building. Turn right on the road next to here and continue for a little bit. You’ll then see a sign for the parking lot. You should be able to find a free parking spot there.”

“I see. I’ll go park the car for now, in the meantime, could you begin appraising these books? I’ll be right back.”

He turned around and left the shop in a hurry. Appearances aside, he had a really strange personality. What was all that about The Final World War anyway?

“…anyway, why don’t we start going through these?”

Shioriko looked into the cardboard box. Ah well, we could always continue the talk when he got back. It looked like she thought the same.

However, no matter how long we waited, he never showed up. Just to be sure, I went to look at the parking spot in front of the main house. The minivan was nowhere to be found. The only thing in the parking lot was the shop van.

The strange man who asked us to appraise his books had suddenly disappeared.

Part 2

We left the store in the van later that afternoon and asked Shioriko’s sister to watch the shop while we were away.

The cardboard box filled with books was in the back seat. At the Shioriko’s—store owner’s insistence that we couldn’t leave these books alone, we were headed off to meet their owner. Since the appraisal was already complete, the plan was to buy the books if their owner wanted us to. If not, then we would just return the books to him.

The purchase form that the man had left behind had the address only halfway filled out—Nishitomi in Fujisawa city. The partial address was the only thing written on the form; the name and phone number fields were left completely blank.

“Couldn’t we have kept it at the store for a little longer?”

I asked with my hands still on the wheel.

“The guy just left it with us on his own, even if we don’t go out of our way to deliver it…”

We didn’t know anything except his partial address. Even if we went there, I didn’t think we could find the exact house. That was, if he wrote down his real address in the first place.

“That is true, but there might be a chance that he really does own a copy of The Final World War. He apparently seemed to know that the first edition didn’t have a cover. In that case, there is value in delivering these books to him.”

For her to jump at this opportunity just from the man’s vague statements…it looked like this was an exceedingly rare book.

The Final World War, was it? Is it really that rare?”

“Yes. The official title is UTOPIA, ‘The Final World War’ was something that the publishers decided to add on their own……this was the authors’ first individually published book, and they say that no more than ten copies still exist. It was considered to be an illusionary book amongst book enthusiasts until it appeared in used bookshops for the first time in 1980.”

“Ah, so it’s because it was famous. So who was this author, really?”

If I remembered correctly, the author was “Ashizuka Fujio”. The name was strange in that it looked like the names of several famous manga authors all cobbled together.

“Ashizuka Fujio was the pen name that Fujiko Fujio debuted with.”

“Ah…”

I was shocked speechless. This was the real deal, not just some cobbled together name.

Of course, even I knew who Fujiko Fujio was. Rather, there were probably few people in Japan who didn’t know. It was the name of Japan’s most famous manga artist, no, artist pair. However, they had broken up a long time ago and one of them had even passed away.

I used to buy their manga with my pocket money when I was a child. The font size was different which meant that I could read for long periods of time. The one I liked was Kiteretsu Encyclopedia. I think that’s because the anime was airing right as I was becoming aware of my surroundings.

“When was it published?”

“In 1953…almost 60 years ago.”

“Oh…so it was that old…”

It was written in my grandfather’s generation. I knew they were active a long time ago, but I didn’t know it was that long ago.

“That’s right. Both of the authors were still teenagers when this was first published. It was normal for young people to debut in their teens during the new age of manga….the average age for creators was pretty low. Even Tezuka Osamu who was considered a veteran hadn’t reached his 30s yet.”

“Tezuka from the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize?”

“The very same. Their pen name was chosen as a homage to Tezuka Osamu. It meant that the character for “foot” in Ashizuka was lower than the ‘hand’ in Tezuka. The reason Tsuru Publishing asked them to write a volume was due to Tezuka Osamu’s referral in the first place. It ended up being a huge boon for the manga artists who had only just debuted.”

I got on the highway entrance ramp while she was talking. Traffic was particularly terrible due to the holiday. It wasn’t much further to our destination, but we couldn’t easily continue on. I saw people from a boxing gym training alongside the road.

“Shioriko, looks like you also know a lot about old manga.”

Biblia hardly ever dealt with old manga, so I was under the impression that her specialty was in written text.

“I don’t really know all that much…”

There was a hint of bitterness in her voice. I felt that knowing this much meant that she was already plenty knowledgeable. I got off of the highway, drove past some large temple gates and eventually came to a stop at a residential area. I checked the map and confirmed that we were in the right general area.

“Quite a few houses here.”

I looked around the area. There were dozens of homes that fit the criteria we were looking for. Not only were there single family houses, there were also plenty of apartments.

“Looks like we’ll have to go around and check the houses one by one…”

If we found the guy, it would mean we were correct. Of course, Shioriko, who had a bad leg, wouldn’t be the one who had to walk around. That job would be left to me.  Thinking about how long that would take was a little depressing.

“Please wait…rather than that, look for homes with rooms that meet the criteria I’m going to tell you. I think it’ll be faster that way,” Shioriko said.

“…It should have a room with a large, westward facing window with only a thin curtain hanging from it. In addition, that room should be near the kitchen area. I believe his book shelf is located in an area where the sun shines through the window. The man from earlier should be in a house like that.”

“How did you figure that out?”

“The books inside the box all had faded spines and were covered in dust. This was probably because they spent a long time in a bookshelf that was bathed in sunlight. In addition to that, there was the smell of cooking oil on the books. That was what made me think that these books were stored somewhere near the kitchen. Considering that the smell of oil wasn’t ventilated out, there’s a high chance that we’re looking for an older building.”

“…makes sense.”

I nodded. Looking at it now, it certainly seemed logical.

“You put a lot of thought into this, didn’t you?”

“It’s because I’ve been to a house like the one I just described to buy books before. The condition of the books back then was similar to these.”

So it was insight that came from experience. I opened the van door and stepped outside. It felt like the number of possible choices had been narrowed down.

We spent a while walking around. Due to so many of the residences being so crowded together, I was unexpectedly unable to find one that let enough sunlight in from a westward facing window. With the exception of newly built homes, there weren’t many options left.

Mm…?

I turned on to a rather quiet road and stopped in front of an old two storied apartment building. The apartment at the corner of the first floor had a large west facing window and I could see a bookshelf through the rough lace curtain. The exhaust vent installed near the window likely meant that this room was adjacent to the kitchen.

Even the outside of the exhaust vent was blackened because of the grime originating from the oil. It didn’t look like it was cleaned often either. It perfectly matched Shioriko’s criteria.

“So it’s here…” I murmured to myself.

***

I matched Shioriko’s walking speed, and we headed over to the apartment building. We entered the premises through a rusty gate and stood in front of the door at the farthest corner of the building.

Just how old was this building? The bathroom window lattice had a wooden milk box attached to it. An old nameplate with “Suzaki” written on it hung from it.

“He’s in here, right?” I whispered to Shioriko.

“He’s probably waiting for us to arrive.”

“Eh?”

“There has to be some meaning to him leaving these books with us and bringing up The Final World War.”

“Meaning? What reason could he have had?”

“I’m not quite sure yet…”

I was starting to feel uneasy. If the man inside was planning something, then I would need to protect Shioriko.

She rang the doorbell. We heard the sound of someone approaching, and the door slowly opened. I put myself on guard in order to react quickly if something happened.

Standing in front of us was the bespectacled middle aged man from before.

“Mr. Suzaki, correct? We’re here about the books you left in our care earlier…”

A joyful expression suddenly appeared on the man’s face. He then reached out and clasped Shioriko’s hands, covering hers with his own.

“I knew it…I should have expected it….you actually found your way here…”

“Eh? Um…”

He abruptly let go of her hand and beckoned us inside.

“Please, come in…there’s something that I absolutely want to talk about with you.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

I cut him off.

He had somehow known that we would come here to deliver his books—or rather, he originally left the books at the store in order to get us to go to him. I couldn’t bring myself to causally enter his home without knowing what his intentions were.

“It is of course, about Ashizuka Fujio’s The Final World War…but not only that…

Suzaki looked straight at Shioriko.

“I want to talk to you about your mother.”

Part 3

At Suzaki’s invitation, we were led into the western facing Japanese style room that I had seen from outside. A wall lined with large doored cabinets came into view followed by a partition leading into the kitchen. Next to the partition was a thin, bare bookshelf. Suzaki had likely pulled the books he brought to Biblia from there.

Not only was there a window to the west, there was also a glass sliding door on the south side of the room overlooking a yard filled with overgrown weeds. The scenery, which probably hadn’t changed in years, gave off a strange atmosphere—as if time had stopped entirely.

We sat down one at a time, Shioriko with her legs at her side, her bad leg stretched out on the yellowed tatami mats. The entire room was so immaculately clean that it didn’t even feel like anyone lived there. It had the sort of dispassionate feel of a room right before someone moved in.

“This is my parents’ house…I used to live here with my father a long time ago.”

Suzaki cordially explained as he returned from the kitchen and placed three teacups on the tray in front of us. Steam wafted up from the plain green tea.

“My father lived here alone ever since I graduated high school and became independent…he had a stroke and passed away last September.”

“My condolences.”

Shioriko lowered her head, and I did the same. I still didn’t get where he was going with this story. What on earth did this have to do with The Final World War and Shioriko’s mother?

“As I was clearing out the apartment and sorting through my father’s old things, I recalled something that had bothered me ever since I was child. It was something I had always wondered, and so, in order to find out the truth, I decided to play a bit of a trick on you.”

Suzaki suddenly sat up straight. With his posture rigid, he turned his knees to face Shioriko.

“How did you find this apartment without knowing the entire address? Surely you didn’t go around checking every single house in the area.”

“Oh…? Well…”

“Please tell me this first…I’m begging you!”

At his insistent pleas, Shioriko once again explained the reasoning that had led us to this house. Suzaki’s eyes shinned as he nodded along with every point she made. Once she had finished, he turned towards the now empty bookshelf.

“I see…”

He nodded deeply.

“So it definitely wasn’t just luck that time. It’s like something right out of a story.”

“What do you mean by ‘that time’?” Shioriko asked.

“It’s been 30 years now, but my father once went to the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia to sell some books. He left his books at the store and went back home halfway through writing his address, just like I did. Despite that, your mother found this apartment and kindly returned the books to us. How was she able to do something like that? I was never able to figure it out, no matter how much I thought about it.”

Shioriko stiffened the moment Suzaki said the word “mother,” but he didn’t appear to have noticed.

“I visited the store some years ago and found your father managing the shop alone……did your parents separate?”

“…yes.”

She answered with a parched voice. The story I heard was that her mother had disappeared, but Shioriko’s parents might have still gone through divorce procedures.

“Where is she now?”

“I don’t know…”

“Is that so…”

Suzaki sighed.

“Your father didn’t know how she had found this apartment either. I had given up on ever finding out the truth, but about ten days ago, as I was riding on the Yokosuka line, I happened to see your store from Kita Kamakura station. There I saw a woman with a striking resemblance to the one I had met thirty years ago happily pacing around the store’s sign.”

Shioriko blushed.

That was probably the day we went out to buy books from Akiho’s estate. She had had to wait in front of the store while I brought the car around from the back. So that’s what she had been doing while waiting.

“I could tell at a glance that that woman was her daughter. I thought that perhaps, if she really was her mother’s daughter, she would be able to do the same thing her mother had done. I would like to apologize for this.”

Suzaki lowered his head to us as he said that. In short, it was a test to see if the same thing would occur if he recreated the circumstances of that day to the best of his ability. There was one thing I understood—Shioriko’s mother had the same incredible book-related insight that her daughter did. Or rather, Shioriko had likely inherited those skills from her mother.

Shioriko did not show much of a reaction to Suzaki’s apology; she looked preoccupied with something else.

“…My mother didn’t just come to deliver the books thirty years ago, did she?”

Shioriko asked in a level tone. It sounded more like a confirmation than a question.

“Moreover, your father suddenly rushed out of the store hallway even though he had come to the shop to sell his books…does this not mean that there were extenuating circumstances? …perhaps something related to The Final World War?”

Come to think of it, that question still remained.

Suzaki, his eyes wide in amazement, broke out into a smile.

“You really do resemble your mother…that’s right. What I really wanted to talk about was The Final World War.

Suzaki stood up and flung open the doors to the cabinets lined up against the wall one at a time.

“Woah…”

I unconsciously let out a voice of admiration.

There were an unbelievable number of books by Fujiko Fujio crammed into the cabinets. Obake no Q-tarou, Doraemon, Kaibutsu-kun, Perman, and so on. There were even multiple editions of the same work, each and every one of them stored in vinyl book covers for safekeeping. The Kiteretsu Encyclopedia I had loved as a child was present as well.

Had I been an elementary schooler, I would have been overjoyed. This would be heaven for any Fujiko fan.

“My father and I collected Fujiko Fujio manga….what you see here is his collection.”

Shioriko and I looked over the shelf from end to end. Most of it was composed of manga volumes wrapped in vinyl book covers, but there were also monthly issues of CoroCoro magazine sticking out from the bottommost shelf.

“He even has CoroCoro…?”

I whispered the question to Shioriko; it didn’t look like he had any other magazines.

“Monthly CoroCoro Comics was originally centered around Fujiko Fujio’s manga. It had the publishing rights to all of the authors’ work, meaning that masterpieces like Doraemon could be read in a single magazine. The early issues of CoroCoro here would be worth a lot in antiquarian bookshops.”

She smoothly replied with a lively explanation.

“The first issues of CoroCoro came out when I was a child. I was still in elementary school during the Doraemon boom, but my father had been a Fujiko Fujio fan since their debut.”

Perhaps pleased with her answer, Suzaku cheerily spoke up. Clearly his father had a love for the manga artists spanning decades. It was no surprise that his son had inherited that obsession.

“…and this is the book that my father valued as much his own life.”

He pulled an old looking book from out of the cabinet.

It looked like it was wrapped in multiple layers of vinyl.

“Ah”

Shioriko straightened her back and quickly moved closer. It was my first time seeing her ever move so quickly.

On the red cover was a green robot standing next to a boy holding a gun. The title, UTOPIA: The Final World War, was printed above them. I leaned forward without thinking. This was an illusionary book that barely had any existing copies. I probably wouldn’t get another chance to see this in my life.

“…would it be alright if I took a look inside?”

Shioriko said a little nervously.

“Of course. I wanted Biblia books to look at it”

Suzaki carefully took the book out of its vinyl bag, and handed it over to Shioriko. The edges of the pages were a little yellowed, but the cover had almost no visible damage. Even an amateur like me could tell it was in good condition.

The price was printed conspicuously on the spine, 130 yen. There was no doubt that no one of that time would have ever imagined that it would be worth some hundreds of thousands of yen sixty years later.

In order to confirm, Shioriko started carefully turning through the pages. The vivid two-color pages were attention grabbing. Passing over the publication info, her hand stopped at the two page spread on the back cover.

“This is…”

There was a label from Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia attached. Under the title, The Final World War, was the price, 2000 yen.

“T-this was sold at our shop?”

But it was only 2000 yen.

Shioriko took the label and brought it closer to her eyes in order to confirm.

“This is my mother’s handwriting,” she bitterly muttered at length.

“My father purchased this book from Biblia thirty years ago…”

Suzaki began to speak, with faraway eyes as if he was searching for a memory.

“The reason he ran out of the shop in the middle of the evaluation…was because of this.”

Part 4

“Manga collections aren’t all that rare nowadays, but during my father’s time, there weren’t many people who meticulously preserved their manga. It was, after all, something made for children to enjoy. The sort of thing you read until it’s worn out and then throw away.

“I think my father collected manga because he wanted to become a professional manga artist. During his middle and high school days, he even enthusiastically sent submissions to magazines. He had to give up on that dream in the end, but never stopped collecting manga.

“He used to have a considerable number of secondhand manga from Tezuka Osamu and the like in his youth, but since those were becoming harder to collect due to their rising cost, he began collecting only the works of his favorite manga artists, Fujiko Fujio.

“My father was a serious man of few words who didn’t have any particular hobbies apart from collecting old manga. After his wife…my mother, passed away when I was six, he associated with people less and less and only occasionally got in touch with his fellow manga enthusiasts.

“If we had any common interests, it would have been Fujiko manga. He wasn’t like other parents who would take away manga from their kids. In fact, he was more than happy to give me recommendations on what to read. Even so, he was someone who took very good care of his collection. Due to that, it didn’t take long for me to learn how to properly handle old books.

“The one book my father wanted to get his hands on at any cost was UTOPIA: The Final World War. He apparently purchased a copy when he was in elementary school, right after it was released. My father loved the book, but one day his parents found it and ended up throwing it out. He tried buying another copy, but wasn’t able to find one anywhere.

“When I was in elementary school…it was summer in 1980, this book first appeared in the secondhand book market. It was on display at a Tokyo specialty comic shop storefront. It was even featured in the newspaper, and had become a hot topic among enthusiasts. For people without much money like us, it was at a price we couldn’t afford.

“Despite this, my father still left to see it as soon as he could. Perhaps he wanted to confirm its existence with his own eyes. Despite his efforts, he made it to the shop only to find that someone had already stolen the book.

“To once again be unable to see the book that he loved so much, it must have been a huge shock. My father was depressed for quite a while afterwards. He started drinking what felt like every night. All because of how much he loved that book.

“Two weeks passed, and one day, he suddenly said, ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ and went out. I thought for sure that his mood had improved. The plan was to go to the Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura first, and then go a little further to have dinner in Yokohama.

“It was during this excursion that we stopped by Biblia Books. We didn’t have much money, so he probably wanted to sell some of the books he didn’t need to make sure we had enough for dinner that evening. I glimpsed into the box as I was helping him pack the books and there wasn’t anything particularly valuable.

“He stopped the car in front of the shop and the lady behind the counter raised her head. With long black hair and pale skin…it’s embarrassing to say this to you as her daughter, but she was a shocking beauty even in my childlike mind. She smiled at us and ran over to ask if we were there to sell a book.

“My father answered yes, and she directed him to park the car on the other side of the building…I couldn’t take my eyes off of her as they talked.

“After moving the car over to the parking spaces as instructed, my father went out to the store alone carrying the cardboard box full of books. I was told to wait in the car, but was still curious about the lady from earlier. Just as I decided to open the door and go into the shop anyway, my father, blue in the face, suddenly returned and jumped into the drivers’ seat.

“When I saw The Final World War just sitting there in the seat side pocket, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew this was the manga that he had always been looking for. I asked him why he had it, but my agitated father hardly said a thing.

“Perhaps he noticed this book on the shelf as he was asking your mother to appraise the books he brought in. When he saw that it was being sold for only 2000 yen, he completely forgot about his own books and bought UTOPIA before running out of the store….that’s what I think happened.

“Well, looking at it now, it’s an unbelievable story, though I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Old manga was only starting to rise in value and the really high priced ones tended to be Tezuka Osamu’s early works. It seemed there were very few shops that paid attention to Fujiko Fujio. Not to mention that The Final World War was written under a different pen name. The reason it was an illusionary book was because there weren’t many people who understood its worth.

“Our drive ended up being canceled that day. My father wasn’t in any condition to drive, and more importantly, I didn’t think he had enough money left after paying for the book. He tried to pacify me saying he’d take me somewhere the next week, but I was still bitterly disappointed and didn’t stop complaining.

“I think my father still felt bad for me all the same. After we got back to our apartment, he handed The Final World War to me. It was like he was saying that I should read it first. Even so, he soon went out, leaving me behind to wallow in my disappointment. He had borrowed the car from some close relatives and needed to return it.

“Since I was all alone and had no one to complain to, I started reading The Final World War. I was also a big Fujiko Fujio fan, you see. I was curious about what kind of story it was.

Do you know what this manga is about?”

He suddenly asked us a question.

“…I don’t.”

Shioriko nodded next to me as I answered. It seemed she knew what it was about. Suzaki hesitated for a moment and then turned to me to begin his explanation.

“At the beginning of the story, a political prisoner and his son are being held in an underground shelter and used as experimental test subjects. An enemy nation drops their new weapon…an ice bomb to freeze over the entire city. When the bomb falls, the boy is thrown into a state of suspended animation.

“A hundred years pass and the boy awakens after being rescued. With his memories of his father now missing, he’s taken to an enormous utopian city without any idea of what’s going on. He then gets embroiled in the conflict between the government, which is using robots to control the people, and the united human resistance.

“I thought the art was old fashioned at first, but was drawn into the story as I kept reading. Perhaps I felt a special connection to the story because my father still hadn’t returned after such a long while.  It made me uneasy thinking about what would happen if I got separated from my father, just like the protagonist in the manga was. I later learned that he was taking so long because he got caught up gossiping with our relatives…but it was sensitive time for me, you know.

“I was hesitating over whether I should continue reading The Final World War or got out to meet my father when the doorbell suddenly rang.

“I opened the door and was astonished. The person standing in front of me was the lady from Biblia books…that is, your mother. She presented a paper with only one part of our address written on it and asked me, ‘Did your father write this?’

“When I silently nodded, she pointed at the large cardboard box at her feet. It seemed she had come to deliver the books that my father had left at her shop.

“Since we couldn’t decide what to do with the books without asking my father, I asked her to wait for him in this room. Your mother sat exactly where you’re sitting right now and curiously looked around the room. We had these cabinets even back then, and she seemed to want to know what was in them. She asked me to open the cabinet, so I agreed to show her just a little. I wasn’t really supposed to show it to other people, but at the same time I wanted to show off my father’s amazing collection.

“Just as I had hoped, she was completely shocked when she saw it for the first time. However, not only was she a real Fujiko Fujio fan, she started talking knowledgeably about all of the books there. She didn’t just talk about the famous kids’ oriented manga, she knew even more than I did about the adult manga like The Illustrated Biography of Mao Zedong and Minotaurus’s Plate.

“It actually made me, who thought he knew everything about Fujiko Fujio, pretty upset. It was dumb of me, thinking about it now, but I still tried to make up for my wounded pride. I took The Final World War that I had been reading and stuck out my chest.

“‘Did you know that Ashizuka Fujio was actually Fujiko Fujio’s pen name? I bet you didn’t know that. It’s a super rare manga that my dad was always looking for.’

“I didn’t even consider the fact that my father had just bought UTOPIA from Biblia for cheap. I just wanted to surprise the person in front of me…to make the point that I really knew what I was talking about. She certainly seemed surprised.

‘Is that so…I had no idea…’

“She then suddenly moved forward to lean over me. I ended up being too shocked to move since there was now so little distance between us.

‘You taught me a lot. Thank you.’

“She said what I wanted to hear, what I wished she would say. I can only imagine that my face was bright red as I sat on the floor that day.

It’s embarrassing to say this now, but for me, your mother was my first love…”

Part 5

Suzaki stopped talking to catch his breath. Shioriko was sitting straight up and listened to him without moving. The Final World War lay on her lap, free of its vinyl protective covering.

“… I agree with what you said earlier, that your mother must have had some other reason to deliver the books that day. I think she realized that there was something strange going on from the way my father ran out of the store so suddenly. She must have come to our house to confirm her suspicions. She had a passion for her work and a sharp intuition…just like the two of you right now.”

Shioriko’s shoulder twitched in reaction. She slowly looked at Suzaki as if she was waking up from a dream. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking now.

“… Did my mother read this manga?”

“Yes…I let her read it since she said she wanted to use it for future reference. She read it like she was trying to burn it into her eyes, you know. She was so engrossed in it that she started happily whistling. It was a little rough and she wasn’t very good at it, but I thought it was still charming.”

I held back a laugh. Looks like that strange whistling habit was something Shioriko had inherited from her mother. Since Shioriko didn’t realize that she also had the same habit, she didn’t show any interest.

The more I heard, the more it felt like Shioriko’s mother resembled Shioriko. She wasn’t as introverted, but like her daughter, she was a bookworm who was passionate about her work and possessed an incredible amount of book related knowledge. Their relationship must have certainly been good —maybe the reason Shioriko avoided the topic of her mother was because she went through a lot when she disappeared.

“That’s when my father came back home. He was pretty shocked to see someone from Biblia Books at our house. Your mother explained how she had arrived to return his books and how, since she didn’t know much about The Final World War, she wanted him to teach her more about it. She put her hands on the ground and lowered her head as she made that request.

“Since this was in a time before the internet, the only way to obtain information on old books was to either go around antiquarian bookshops buying books or to ask someone knowledgeable. My father was one of the few experts on the old works of Fujiko Fujio so he was a good person to ask.

“They spent quite a lot of time talking about various things in this room after that. I was asked to leave since it was a conversation for adults, however…”

Suzaki sounded truly disappointed as he said that.

“Perhaps my father was moved by her enthusiasm…no, he may have also felt bad for having bought UTOPIA for cheap, but he eventually sold a large part of his collection of early works to Biblia. It was rare for him to let go of any of his books.”

“Could you please tell me which books he sold?”

“I can’t remember clearly, but there should have been a lot of books that would be worth a small fortune today. When I checked later, some of the magazine supplemental materials like “The 3 Brothers and the Human Cannon” and “The Terrifying Uran Island” had disappeared from this bookshelf.”

“Did your father own a lot of magazines and supplemental materials?”

“Yes…at that point my father’s collection was mostly made up of magazines. The focus switched to collected volumes after that.”

Suzaki stood up and pulled a nearby volume from out of the cabinet; it was a manga titled Senbee.

“The manga here overlaps greatly with my own collection. I’m not going to let go of The Final World War since it’s a memento of my father, but I was thinking of selling everything besides what’s on this bookshelf to Biblia Books. You can name the price.”

“Oh.”

At last, Shioriko’s expression changed. Suzaki had an embarrassed grin on his face.

“It’s an apology for having you come out here to return the books and thanks for selling us The Final World War 30 years ago. There are some items that have lowered in value since the Fujiko F Fujio complete works anthology was published, but I also have first editions of every volume of Fujiko Fujio Land and even a few issues of Mushi Comics. How does that sound?”

I didn’t know how much the manga Suzaki mentioned were worth, but he was making it sound like a considerably good deal for the shop. Perhaps the person he really wanted to sell the collection to was his first love, Shioriko’s mother. Since he couldn’t do that, he was trying to sell it to the daughter who had inherited her qualities.

However, it was up to Shioriko to make the final decision. She had an expression as if she was thinking hard about something and her fist was pressed to her upper lip.

“… Shioriko.”

She came back to her senses when I called her name.

“Y-yes…thank you very much. We’d certainly be interested in purchasing them. We’ll need to take the books back with us first, and will get in touch with you afterwards for the valuation. Does that work?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. Actually…could you also take the books you brought back and assess those as well?”

“Of course.”

Of course, I would be the one carrying them all to the van. If I remembered correctly, there should have been some vinyl cord and a utility knife in the dashboard. Just when I stood up to start taking the books out,

“Thank you for showing me this today…I learned a lot.”

Shioriko handed The Final World War back to Suzaki.

“Was the book in this condition when it was originally purchased?”

“I believe so. My father just put it in a vinyl wrapper. Compared to how it was thirty years ago, it’s barely changed at all.”

“I see…and, um…when the books were first brought into the shop 30 years ago…where did you get the cardboard box they were carried in?’

“Huh?”

Suzaki made a perplexed face at the unexpected question. I was silently watching Shioriko’s profile. Her face, which had no traces of makeup, was even paler than usual.

“What was it now…I don’t really remem…wait, it was from the closet. There were several boxes that had books nobody really cared about, so I just took one and added the books from the shelf into it…is something wrong?

“Ah…no, nothing in particular. I was just curious is all …”

Shioriko answered in a faltering, ambiguous tone. It seemed she had no intention of providing any further explanation.

“Did your father, say, mention anything about my mother?”

Suzaki looked upwards, searching through his memory. The light from the western window dimmed as the sun continued to set. We would need to start turning on the lights before long.

“Nothing in particular…like I said earlier, he was a man of few words. Ah, there was one thing though. He said something odd while he was drinking some time afterwards. If I remember correctly, it was something about Biblia Books being a third party.”

Shioriko’s hand gripping her cane froze for a moment.

“Was it, by any chance…a ‘bona-fide third party’?”

“Ah, yes, I think that’s what it was. What does it mean?”

She only smiled weakly in reply.

It was almost dusk by the time we finished packing the large number of books into the van and left Suzaki’s apartment. The other cars coming and going already had their headlights turned on.

We had originally gone to deliver, but it ended up taking longer than expected.

“Are you going to appraise them after we get back to the shop?”

“Yes…I was thinking we should get this done by today.”

Although Suzaki said that getting the appraisal price tomorrow wouldn’t be a problem, it seemed Shioriko had no intention of putting it off until later.

Perhaps she inherited that work ethic from her parents. I thought about her mother while driving. Going by what we heard in Suzaki’s story, she was by no means an ordinary person. Rather, she was just like Shioriko. Being called ‘bonafide’ didn’t sound like a bad thing, so I didn’t think her mother was acting out of ill will towards others. I stopped in front of a red light and glanced at the passenger seat. Shioriko was fiddling with a small paper on her knee. There wasn’t much light in the car, but I was able to make out the “2000 yen” written on it.

That was the label for The Final World War.

“Why do you have that?”

“I asked Suzaki for permission.”

She had on a fierce look that hadn’t been there until now as she fixed her eyes on the paper in her hands. It didn’t take long to realize she was angry.

“I couldn’t leave this behind…I just cannot believe that a label like this would be attached to that book.”

The ends of her words slightly shook. She was probably talking about how The Final World War was priced at 2000 yen.

“But that’s all in the past, right? It was just a mistake …”

“I’m not talking about the price. This has nothing to do with that.”

“… What is it about then?”

“Don’t make me talk about my mother!”

Her shout resounded throughout the car. She seemed even more startled by her voice than I was. She limply settled down into her seat as if she had used up all her strength.

“I’m sorry…but I only thought it would become an unpleasant memory for you too even if I told you. I don’t like remembering my mother.”

The light turned green and I pressed down on the accelerator. We were passing a botanical garden in Ofuna. A broadcast could be faintly heard from inside the garden announcing the end of business hours.

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

I spoke.

“But saying that you don’t want to remember means that it’s something you can’t forget, right?… If you ever do want to talk about it, I’ll always be here to listen.”

“Why?”

She turned to look at me. Being asked so straightforwardly was troubling.

“How do I say this…it’s because, I want to know you better.”

I said something that wouldn’t even be said in a confession, but even so, it wasn’t embarrassing. I continued driving without looking at her face and heard a low whisper reach my ears.

“Please go somewhere without many people.”

“Eh?”

“I want the two of us to talk someplace quiet.”

If it were someone else who said that, it might have carried some other meaning. But for Shioriko, it meant exactly what she said.

“Would the sea be fine?”

“Yes.”

I turned onto an intersection on the overpass and headed southwest on a road alongside the Kashio River. If we continued like this, we’d exit onto a highway along the coast. It would probably be abandoned at this time during this season.

“By the way, there was something I was curious about.”

It would be uncomfortable for the silence to continue, so I opened my mouth.

“How did the story in The Final World War continue? I only heard until the part where the protagonist lost his memories and somehow got embroiled in a conflict.”

“… the government was using the power of robots to oppress the people and the human alliance was rebelling against them. Then the robots gained sentience and began fighting against humanity itself.”

She began telling the story in a slower, more contemplative tone than usual.

“Humanity united against them, but were no match for the robots’ overwhelming technological might and was eventually pushed to the brink of total destruction. The protagonist regained his memories just before he was about to die and ran to the shelter in order to meet his sleeping father in his final moments.

“The main theme in this story is humanity’s struggle against the robots…but for me, I think it’s also a story about a child trying to live without his parents.”

I remembered Suzaki. For him, who really did lose his father, The Final World War held deep meaning, now more than ever. He surely remembered his father every time he read it.

“To have something like parents you would want to see once again…is enviable.”

After a long silence, she muttered this to herself as she looked out the window.

Part 6

We passed by the Enoden Kamakura Koukoumae station and I parked the car in a spot near the railroad tracks.

We crossed the street without talking and descended down to Shichirigahama Beach from the breakwater stairs. Now that we were closer to the waves, the pitch black sea suddenly felt a whole lot bigger. I could see the lights of Enoshima shining towards Koyurugi Cape. There was no sign of any ships off the coast, the calm night sea stretched on unbroken.

Shioriko stopped walking right before we reached the water’s edge. Since there weren’t any people nearby, we didn’t have to worry about anyone overhearing anything we said.

“…Daisuke.”

Her long black hair swayed in the cold sea breeze. It was only when she brushed at it with her free left hand that I noticed she was still holding the label from before.

“Do you really believe that my mother knew nothing about The Final World War?

“Eh…?”

I didn’t really understand the meaning behind the question.

“I learned everything I know about old books…including old manga, from my mother. She told me that she was fairly knowledgeable about old books even before she started working at the shop. The fact that we have a few shelves of old manga in the store is because she was the one who began buying them. That she would sell it for 2000 yen is simply unthinkable.”

“But isn’t that what was written on the label?”

“Don’t you think the label itself is unnatural? The book didn’t have a slipcover, yet the label wasn’t pasted on.”

“Ah…”

Come to think of it, the policy at Biblia was to paste the labels on all books that didn’t have slipcovers.

“Maybe he peeled it off after buying the book.”

“Peeling it off without leaving any residue on neither the book nor the label would be difficult at best. Moreover, that book was not wrapped in wax paper when it was purchased…we do that for all old books at our shop, right?

I nodded. It was what I had been doing all morning.

“Suzaki said that the book was still in the same condition it was in thirty years ago. Even when his father ran out of the shop, the book was uncovered…..I don’t believe there’s any way this book could have come off our shelves.”

“Then where on earth did it come from?”

I couldn’t understand the reasoning. If the book was never on our shelves, then how did Suzaki’s father buy it?

“If this book could not have been sold at our shop, there’s only one possible place it could have come from.

The Final World War was mixed into the books that Suzaki’s father brought into the shop that day.”

“What?”

My eyes went wide. This story was starting to make less and less sense.

“So you’re saying he never bought it from our shop to begin with.”

“That’s what I’d like to believe. It must have carelessly gotten mixed up in the box of unneeded books that he brought into the shop. Try to remember what Suzaki said. He never actually saw his father buy The Final World War…he only saw him return to the car with the book in his arms.”

“But wasn’t this the book his father was always searching for? Was that also a lie?”

“That part was actually true…he most likely got his hands on it a few weeks before coming to the shop, but circumstances necessitated that he keep it hidden.”

Shioriko gazed out at the sea.

Suzaki’s story suddenly came back to me. A few weeks before…come to think of it, he did say that his father went out to Tokyo after The Final World War was discovered for sale at a specialty comic shop there. Maybe he bought it then. No, the story continued from there…

He made it to the shop only to find that someone had already stolen the book.

A chill ran up my spine.

“Don’t tell me…”

This explanation wasn’t necessarily the actual truth. It was merely Shioriko’s conjecture that Suzaki’s father was the person who stole The Final World War.

“I don’t have any proof right now…so everything I say after this is my own speculation.”

She began with that preface and continued the story in a subdued voice.

“Suzaki’s father went all the way to Tokyo to see The Final World War. I can understand why he would snatch it after seeing the illusionary book he had loved ever since he was a child right in front of him on display in the shop window.

“Of course, he was tormented by the knowledge of his huge crime. He returned home with a sullen face, and then spent the next few weeks depressed. His mood didn’t clear up even when he drank.

“Anyway, he had a change of heart and made plans to go out for a drive with his son. He figured he could sell some of the books he didn’t need any more in order to add to his meal funds a little…that’s when things began to go wrong.

“The stolen book must have been stowed away at the bottom of the cardboard box in the closet; he couldn’t keep it with the rest of his collection, you see. His son, who was helping him arrange the books, put everything they were planning to sell into that cardboard box. Suzaki’s father brought the box over to Biblia none the wiser and requested that my mother assess the books.

“When he saw my mother pull The Final World War out of the box, he must have had a heart stopping moment. There was no doubt that my mother was aware of the manga’s value; perhaps she even recognized it as the book from the recent robbery.

“He then lost his composure and hightailed out of the shop, leaving the rest of his books behind as he fled back home. Since the only thing he wrote on the purchase form was his partial address, my mother never got his name or phone number. Even the car he was using that day didn’t belong to him…he must have felt some relief knowing that unless something unexpected happened, there was no fear of anyone being able to identify him.”

What he didn’t count on was the women at Biblia’s uncommon level of perspicacity. Sure enough, “something unexpected” did end up happening.

“With the clues he left behind, my mother had no problem finding out where he lived. She might have even guessed at things like his occupation, hobbies, education, and even family composition.”

“How would she understand something like that?”

“My mother always used to say that you could get a general understanding of a person’s nature by looking at the books they owned. It was similar to profiling…something that she had an unbelievable amount of success with. I don’t think there’s anyone else that could do it that well.”

“So you can’t do it either?”

“Of course, not even me.”

Her immediate response surprised me.

I couldn’t imagine anyone being more knowledgeable about books than she was—it was even a little unsettling.

“I don’t believe that my mother was completely certain that The Final World War was a stolen book when she arrived at their house, of course. It was probably Suzaki’s story that confirmed it for her.

“He had misunderstood where the book came from, but what he told her contained some important information. His father, the Fujiko Fujio maniac who had been searching for this book for so many years, was keeping where he obtained it a secret even from his son. When she said that he taught her a lot, I think she was referring to that.”

It felt like the story we heard earlier today had a completely different subtext. If I took Shioriko’s reasoning to be completely correct, Suzaki’s heart had been stolen by the thanks that Shioriko’s mother said ironically. It was an extremely heart wrenching story.

“Then what about when she lowered her head to Suzaki’s father?”

“When she said that she didn’t know anything about the book and asked Suzaki’s father to teach her, it was simply an implied threat asking him to confess everything. The reason Suzaki was sent out of the room after that was because the ensuing conversation was not meant for children to hear.

“Reporting the crime to the police, recommending that he give up peacefully, and returning the book would have been the normal way to resolve this incident. However, my mother was not that type of person.”

“What kind of person was she?”

I unintentionally blurted out a question. Shioriko tightly chewed her pale lips.

“I’d rather not have to talk about that, but…”

She shook her head and added

“No, it’s fine…my mother was incredibly intelligent…but even then she didn’t realize the things she did were sometimes cruel. She could coolly make underhanded business transactions almost as if it were a game. I think she laid down some harsh demands that time as well.”

“Like asking him to hand over The Final World War?”

“She probably considered it. But if she did that, it would be hard for her to sell the book after she got her hands on it. She could be accused of a crime if she knowingly bought and sold stolen books…so in exchange for keeping silent about this incident, she demanded the rest of the valuable books from his collection.”

“Eh?”

“Most of the books we got today weren’t very old, and the same is true of the books he had in his room. None of them had been published yet in 1980 and there were barely any books that would be worth a lot. It seemed Suzaki’s father owned quite a few early publications that would gather some attention even at the time…special magazines, supplemental materials, and the like. Until 1960, it was common for monthly manga magazines to have extra supplemental materials. It would be natural for someone who had been their fan since their debut to have them…my mother most likely took all of that away from him.

“Did she pay him for the books?”

“That I don’t know. Regardless, Suzaki’s father should have put up some resistance. Weren’t we told that he rarely let go of anything in his collection? I think my mother decided to write this as a trump card in order to persuade him.”

She held out the label with “2000 yen” written on it. The slip of paper fluttered in the growing wind. I thought for a moment.

“Decided to write it….meaning that this was written afterwards?”

“Yes, Suzaki misunderstood and was under the impression that his father had purchased the book from Biblia. My mother took this misunderstanding and expanded it into a lie. She proposed it as a way to deal with the off chance that it came to light that he had the stolen book. This label was a prop for that sake.”

“A prop…how would you do something like that?”

“Daisuke, are you familiar with the term ’bona fide third party?’”

“…no.”

The word somehow carried the image of a virtuous person judging by how it sounded.

“It’s a legal term.”

“Legal term?”

“Yes. For example, let’s say a book store like ours came into a stolen item. We bought it without knowing it was stolen and even if we ended up selling it to another customer, we essentially could not be accused of committing a crime. A third party who acts as an unknowing intermediary in a transaction…that is what’s called a ’bona fide third party’ in civil law. This paper was circumstantial evidence to prove that my mother and Suzaki’s father were acting as ’bona fide third parties.’”

I tilted my head to the side. I was trying to organize this in my head, but it wasn’t going well.

“I’m sorry, could you make it a little easier to understand…”

“Let’s say that this label was in fact the real thing, it would mean that someone else sold The Final World War to our shop. At the same time, it would mean that my mother sold it for only 2000 yen because she was ignorant of its true value. In other words, it makes it apparent that the book was bought and sold without knowing that it was a high-value stolen item.

“In essence, my mother invented a fictitious criminal that was completely unrelated to them. If they made up a story that the book was unknowingly purchased from this ’criminal’ and then sold, then no one could be accused of a crime.”

It all felt so convoluted. I could more or less understand what had happened now. It was basically that the victim would only be able to seek recourse from the criminal themselves.

“Would that really work so easily?”

“It didn’t necessarily need to, you see. Even if they were now bona fide third parties, there was still the possibility that they would be obligated to return the book…but I don’t think my mother explained those points one by one. The point was that she was able to persuade Suzaki’s father…not that it matters anymore since it’s hit the statute of limitations by now.”

She used her left hand and her tooth to tear the label apart. After that she let it fly off into the night sea. The paper was easily swallowed by the white waves and disappeared in the blink of an eye.

“Now do you understand what kind of person my mother was? She was someone who was knowledgeable about books, and had a sharp mind as well as an incomprehensible character…she disappeared ten years ago and hasn’t been in contact since.”

The conversation suddenly touched upon the crux of the issue. I took a deep breath in order to alleviate some of the tension.

“Did she leave behind a message?”

“I don’t believe so…she did leave me one book, however.”

“A book?”

“Daisuke, I think you’ve already heard of it…Sakaguchi Michiyo’s Cra Cra Diary.”

I did see those in her room before. If I remembered correctly, that was the essay collection by Sakaguchi Ango’s widow, I think. I remembered taking them out to the discount cart afterwards.

“You mean the ones that were put up for sale in the discount cart?”

“No, those weren’t the ones that my mother left behind…she would often gift me books. It was because she liked to express her feelings with books. When I saw the copy of Cra Cra Diary that she left behind for me, I quickly understood what she had done.”

“…What did she do?”

It felt like she wanted me to ask that question.

“I think she found another lover. In Cra Cra Diary, the author recounts how she left her very young child behind and ran off to be with Ango .”

An oppressive silence hung over the seashore. It felt like I finally understood the reason why she said she couldn’t bring herself to like the Cra Cra Diary.

“Why do you think I didn’t reveal the truth to Suzaki earlier?”

Shioriko was still staring out into the dark sea. It was a starless, cloudy night.

“Wasn’t it because there isn’t any proof anymore….and more importantly, you didn’t want to trample over his important memories?”

I answered her after thinking for a short while. That his father was a criminal who stole his precious book, and that his first love took advantage of that to extort his father out of the rest of his collection…you probably wouldn’t find someone who’d want to know a “truth” like that anywhere.

“There’s that but, there’s also a bigger reason…”

She fell silent for a moment. I could see that she was strongly clenching her teeth. She looked as if she might burst into tears.

“I thought he would not want to sell his manga to us if I revealed everything to him…in the end, what I did isn’t much different from what my mother did thirty years ago. I visited the apartment lured by The Final World War, and left with the rest of his books for cheap. I really have no right whatsoever to condemn what my mother did. My mother and I really resemble each other, just like Suzaki said….”

An especially cold wind blew towards the sea. Shinokawa pulled her body in, bracing herself against the cold. Almost unconsciously, I moved to wrap my arms around her slightly trembling shoulders.

“I’m never planning on getting married ever in my life.”

I stopped moving at the sudden, unexpected announcement. What on earth was she saying?

“No matter who I marry, no matter what kind of happy family I make, someday, just like my mother, I’ll probably end up leaving them behind. I don’t have the confidence to say that I won’t.”

She probably didn’t see me as someone of the opposite sex, but why did it feel like a roundabout rejection? I couldn’t imagine this eccentric, yet serious person going out with anyone without having marriage as a condition.

“Let’s get going, Daisuke.”

Her voice was already back to how it usually was. She used her cane to change her direction little by little and started walking towards the stairs.

“Thank you for listening to what I had to say…it was a little refreshing.”

I, on the other hand, far from feeling refreshed, felt gloomy. Regardless, I continued after her.

“So about the The Final World War…how did it end?”

I directed the question at the head of long black hair in front of me. I couldn’t think of anything to say in this situation besides that.

“…the protagonist managed to reach the shelter after a struggle. He embraced his unmoving father swearing that they would never be separated again…however, one of the robots managed invade the shelter and moved to kill the protagonist.”

Looking down at her feet, as if to match her step, she slowly explained.

“Thereupon his father woke up and shot the robot down. On the other side, the robots on the surface, who were on the cusp of gaining total control, had their electronic brains addled by the radioactivity and began annihilating one another. The story ends with the boy and his father, once again united, look upon the earth’s surface after the wars’ end.”

“…it’s a nice ending.”

I told her my honest impressions.

“Yes, I suppose it is…”

At length, she muttered with a sigh.

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