I'm finally back after (an almost) two-year break! During that time, I have spent time to rewrite the plan I have for this story. Hopefully, this time I will be able to fully execute it!
Also, I can only upload once a month for now. Please forgive me for being such a slow writer! ^_^;
The screeches of chairs and the ruffles of papers wakened Akemi from her slumber. With half-opened eyes, she realised once again, she had reached the end of class without much notice. In her notebook, she had barely scribbled half-a page, most of which were taken earlier during her morning lecture.
The afternoon light flitted through the casement window behind the lectern, reflecting off her professor's glasses as he pushed the frame above the bridge of his nose, the edge of his glasses merging with his knitted brows as his gaze burned her.
"Have you enjoyed your little nap, Miss Miyano?" He tilted his chin upwards, far higher than necessary inside their ground-level classroom with even floor tiles. "This won't be a regular occurrence, I presume."
Akemi's cheeks burned red under the scrutiny of his narrowing eyes, and soon his face contorted into a grimace with a downward tug of his lips.
"No – I'm sorry. It won't happen again," her fingers wrestled with the zip of her bag after she had shoved her notebook inside. Akemi cleared her throat and brushed her fingers against her mouth, searching for any marks of drool when his incessant stare did not relent. But thankfully, her bad habit decided not to make an appearance today. Akemi did not think she could face the professor ever again had she drooled—
"I expect as much," he stated. His gait surprisingly erect as he strutted towards the door with a hard grip on his cane. His trusted lever arch file tucked beneath his arm. "As for homework, it will be an individual project. Research a company of your choosing. Outline their strategies and evaluate their allocation of resources as well as everything else discussed in class. If you require any further help, be sure to ask your classmates – those, who have paid attention in class, of course."
Akemi eyed the piece of wood warily as he trudges out of the room, the heavy set of doors clunking shut behind him. She dropped back into her seat, suddenly more drained than before, and secretly she was glad that her classmates had scurried out the door the moment the clock had struck twelve.
Akemi leaned back on the table, braced her arms as pillows as she closed her eyes to catch some more fitful minutes of sleep. She had spent the night awake, filling the word count of her assignment with blockquotes of secondary literature and analysis whenever her attention wasn't taken by the till for the odd number of customers popping by the store in the early morning hours.
A groan escaped her lips when the doors clucked open. She lifted her head, just enough to see Kazuko bounce inside, her bag swinging as it hung in the crook of her arm as she entered the room.
"You can't believe who called me yesterday! I was so shocked. I don't know how he got my number, but he said, he wanted to meet you!"
"No, thank you," Akemi groaned, burying her head into her arms to drone out the nonsense, but Kazuko easily pulled one of her arms away from her head. Akemi had long noticed that as a practitioner of Judo, Kazuko was imbued with strength but not so much perceptiveness for having continuously mistaken Akemi's reluctance to meet her growing contact list for shyness rather than disinterest. "Listen, I'm exhausted. I don't have time—"
"I know," Kazuko said, shoving the screen of her phone toward Akemi's face, who frowned at the person in question, idly leaning against a car with sunglasses pushed high on the bridge of his nose. "Look at him first before you judge; he's an aspiring Lawyer and a friend of my fiancé. He's nothing like that sleazy of a catfish you met last time. I promise."
"Even if he isn't, I don't have time. I have another job today—"
"I know that. That's why I told him to meet you in twenty, isn't that great?"
"I knew you wouldn't go otherwise. Especially since what happened last time. But I'm telling you this will be different! I even ran a background check this time–"
The headache pounding at the back of Akemi's head steadily increased. "Hang on – you said I will meet him in twenty? Why would you say that?"
"Because I know you!" Kazuko said as she plopped into the seat next to her. "You're so busy working that you have barely time to meet anyone."
"So, you figured to arrange this without asking me?" Akemi found her voice rising in octaves despite straining to keep her voice even. She felt the sweat pooling form her fingers simply by the prospect of having to meet a stranger for the second time in a month, and now her friend decided to spring on her that she had arranged a meeting in less than twenty minutes?
"It's crazy, I know. I didn't expect that call either. But I knew you have a long break today, so I thought why not?"
"I can't believe you," Akemi said as she looked at the clock. There was barely ten minutes left. "And you said, I'll meet him where?"
"At the canal side."
No way. That's where she parked her car. Now it was impossible to escape without his notice.
Akemi wrung her lips and pulled her sleeve over her wrist. The bruise had faded yet the tight grip remained fresh in her memory. To think she would have another encounter with a stranger, who might get too familiar to soon, lurched her last meal from her stomach into the back of throat.
"Don't worry," Kazuko said, rubbing Akemi's shoulder, the colour of her face shades lighter than the yellow wall papers on the classroom. "I'm sure he won't – but if he tries anything – I'll break his arms. I'll keep an eye on things nearby after I introduce you so—"
"No, no, no – it's okay. I'll meet him myself," Akemi heard herself say, and Kazuko's brows shot up, visibly puzzled and Akemi didn't blame her. She could barely believe this nonsense coming out from her own mouth, but pretending had always come easy for her. However, this time, Akemi felt her knees cave under her weight when she tried to stand so instead, she pretended to duck and grabbed her back off the floor. Luckily, Kazuko was too busy pressing the buttons on her phone to notice.
"I sent you his number. Call him if you cannot recognise him. And call me if anything happens. I'll be nearby."
"Not necessary. I'll handle it myself," Akemi said, slinging her bag over her shoulder. Her dreams of rest already forgotten when she trudged towards the double door. "Go have fun with your Mr. Estate Agent. I'm sure it will be more fun than keeping tabs on me."
"I'd stop worrying about you if you'd go get yourself a boyfriend!" Kazuko teased, her fingers playing with the rock on her ring out of habit when she fell in step with Akemi, her bag swinging with each step as she hummed under her breath, seemingly too satisfied at having arranged Akemi another date so soon.
"Let me know how it went!" Kazuko called after her, her hands cupped around her mouth as she stood at the Library Square. Akemi returned her energetic wave with a simple smile of her own, watching her friend disappear among the crowd and taking her smile along with her before she turned on her heels and braced for the day.
It was past two o'clock when Akemi finally arrived at the designation spot. The route to the site wasn't particularly far, at least in theory. Akemi had studied the route to the office during her evening seminar in her usual seat at the back in the Blue lecture hall.
With her car, Akemi could have arrived in half an hour with minutes to spare. However, with her car temporary out of commission, Akemi had laid her faith in the public transport system. Although her breath got knocked out from her the moment her gaze fastened on the overpriced day-ticket. For a single ticket it was strangely the worth of three meal deal packages she could purchase at her part-time job.
Akemi could already foresee the losses on her monthly bank statement when she grabbed the printed ticket and boarded the railway. This is tiny miscalculation had messed up her budget. Had Akemi known Kazuko would arrange a meeting with her acquaintance at the canal side, she would have parked her car at the opposite side of campus and drove to the office instead. . .
The train's constant chugging lulled her too sleep. Akemi hadn't noticed how fatigued she had been until the doors closed on the carriage and her eyes fell shut. The screeches of the train wheels droning on faintly as she rested her head on the glass plane next to her, dreaming to be curled up in her bed with her favourite mug of hot chocolate steaming on her nightstand, draped under the covers and sleeping the days away until someone would reach out and wake her a decade later when the madness of her daily life had finally ended. But when the train slowed down and intercom messenger announced her stop, Akemi knew her dreams had to wait.
From her bag, she removed a set of leather gloves, putting on as she entered the public toilet situated from a nearby park. Outside was only an elderly couple taking a walk up the grassy hill and a younger boy kicking a ball against the dingy grey walls of the small building; both too occupied to notice that she had slipped outside the public toilet with her hair pinned up under a cap with a large loosely sweater hugging her frame instead of her usual cardigan that she had both hidden inside her bag.
Just as expected, no personnel stood guard in front of the building. The receptionist glanced up from her computer screen and flashed her a smile but otherwise paid her no heed when she returned to her tasked at hand and speed typed on the keyboard. Akemi climbed up the stairs towards the second floor, and kept track of the surveillance cameras when she inserted the key into the locker and packed the file into her bag. She was glad the place Pisco picked out provided office spaces for freelance workers as well as lockers for their use. She hardly seemed like a thief stealing a copy of financial statements from a reputed company owner. The perfect bundle of black mail material she was handing over to that geezer. He'd better keep his promise this time. She had sacrificed tomorrow's lunch for this stack of data he wanted. No way would she let him talk himself out of their deal.
Akemi pressed his number on speed-dial and left a voicemail when she entered the railway station, and she brushed the loose strands of hair that fanned her face as the train drove by the platform. She had removed the pins along with her cap and sweater into her bag, her cardigan only a thin sheath against the cold. Akemi shivered and remembered it was the coming of autumn when she saw the dried leaves on the tracks.
"And you have retrieved the documents without a hitch?"
Her guardian hummed over the line, most likely brushing his fingers over his greying moustache. As always sceptical regarding her achievements, and this time Akemi couldn't rationalise how expected her to fail at such an easy task. It required neither finesse nor brute strength. It was a case of entering a building and simply grabbing a file.
She turned the faucet off and wrapped a towel over her hair, waterdrops tickling down the length of her hair and Akemi noticed that still had foam clinging onto her skin.
"Your face wasn't caught on camera?"
"No," she said, turning faucet back on, flushing the foam from her skin by pooling water in her hand. Behind her, the shower stall was left open, its glass pane damp from her earlier shower. Akemi glanced at the handprint on the pane where she smacked her hand when she slipped on the floor tiles, having rushed to grab her ringing phone from her pile of clothes, knowing how upset the geezer would be being on the receiving end of missed calls.
"No fingerprints left behind?"
"No," Akemi replied, slipping into her onesie, despite its plushiness and retention of warmth, Akemi still shivered when she stepped into the heart of her studio apartment. Her heater stopped working a week ago and the craftsman still hasn't shown up to fix it despite the frequent calls she made to the agency. She would have lodged a complaint to her landlady, but the middle-aged woman had packed her suitcase six month ago to see the Himalayan mountains. She had left her daughter in charge, but Akemi didn't want to trouble her since she might be delivering her baby any time soon.
"And you didn't call someone to help you?"
"Who on earth should I have called?" Akemi said, wondering whether he had even listened to her voicemail or simply questioned her to verify the integrity of her words. "Stop asking me weird questions and keep your promise."
"Only after I have received the documents—"
"As long as you pick up your post tomorrow morning, you'll have it." Akemi hit the button for speaker and threw her phone on her bed before she grabbed her laptop to work on her individual project.
"Of course, I still need to verify her schedule with Gin."
"You said you would let me meet her if I ran all your errands."
"I know what I said, child. But not everything runs well in theory."
Backtracking geezer. "At the very least pass me her phone number then."
"You know I can't do that," Pisco said above the sound of crinkling paper being flipped. Most likely still cooped up in his office, hunched behind the edge of his mahogany desk and signing bundles of papers outlining the updated insurance policy of his company.
"Still covering up your latest scandal?" Akemi asked, staring at the news on her homepage before she opened his company's website on a new tab to research the strategies and policies of his business.
"Hush, child. That's no concern of yours. Rather I have another assignment for you."
"No, thank you," Akemi said, copying and pasting the data onto a separate document sheet before she grabbed her flash drive from her nightstand and retrieved a secret copy of his files, sorting through the data she could use for her assignment. "I have a pile of work to get through before next week. But I might rework my schedule if you let meet my sister tomorrow."
"Then I guess I can't help you," she muttered, squinting at the numbers as she typed away on her keyboard, and she realised it was already past midnight. "Don't you have to go to sleep?"
He snorted, rummaging through his drawers before he grabbed an object that might have been a stamp. It thudded shortly, and Akemi recognised the pens cluttering on the floor in his office. "Don't you have a class early morning?"
"You know I won't have any classes if my GPA drops."
"I could always pay for your tuition fees—"
"So, you have another reason to work me down to my bones?" Akemi's eyes narrowed. No way would she give him a reason to keep using her. She threw a glare toward her phone, whilst he could not see her, the irritation was evident in her tone. "No, thank you. I'm doing just fine on my scholarship."
"Go ahead. Spread yourself thin," he said, but Akemi heard the chuckles underneath his tone. "At the end I'll be the one getting a kick out of it when you're come begging me for help."
"Keep on dreaming, you senile old man," Akemi muttered and ended the call.
She focused on her assignment and typing into the night until her eyelids grew weary and she fell asleep, sitting on her bed with her laptop on her lap until the thin sheet of dawn rose and the morning rays flitted through her window. On her side, a phone brightened up without her notice, the melody of her ringtone flitting through one ear and out the other, it was only when her head was weary on her neck that it fell back and hit the headboard of her bed that she sprung awake.
Her phone read seven thirty, and Akemi knew she was off to a late start. She struggled out of her onesie and grabbed a pair of trousers and shirt, hopping with one leg into the bathroom as she struggled to slip her leg inside. With a start she realised that it was too loose on her waist, and Akemi stuffed her shirt inside to make up for the difference in size, not wanting to go on a hunt for a belt that she placed who-knows-where in her closet, and instead used the time to stuff her books and laptop in her bag (after throwing out her cap and sweater) and dashed out of her apartment.
At the sight of her beloved car, Akemi was glad she returned to campus to retrieve her car the day before. Whilst the price of fuel was far cry from cheap, it was cheaper than taking the train on peak-hours on a monthly basis.
The cars speeding on the highway were surprisingly spare for a weekday, and she switched the radio on for any news but other than the usual talk of politics and the incoming complaints regarding the rise of taxes nothing substantial was being said. Perhaps, it was still too early for any substantial news.
She drove on, lost on her thoughts once she realised that she might make her lecture on time. Her assignment was half-done, and the other only needed a proofread. Hopefully, a high mark in each of them would aid her in securing the scholarship for next year—
A few yards ahead, a man crossed the road without a glance back, and for a moment Akemi was startled how comfortable he was to show such an act of carelessness.
The car lurched forward even as she struck the brake with her heel. She heard cracking of his bone a moment later. From behind the windshield, she watched his hit the nose of her car, rolling over and falling on the ground with a gruelling thud.
After moments of contemplation and reaffirmations that No, this was not imagined, and Yes, it had happened, Akemi clambered out of her car, her legs ready to give out beneath her when she saw the swelling and sinking of his chest.
She keyed the number of the emergency service as she approached the man on the ground, relieved to notice the lack of blood as she kneeled next to him, his eyes were half-lidden, and she asked him whether he was alright as she waited for the operators to pick up the emergency line, spending the time apologising to him profusely from the depth of her soul. His gaze slipped shut, and she would have been alerted had she not been eyeing the steadily rise of his chest.
"Hang on for a bit. The ambulance should be arriving any time now," she told him after she hung up the phone. She wasn't entirely sure whether he would hear her, but she found it strangely comforting talking to him. It was almost as though each word she shared between them was slowly pulling him away from the grasp of death.
(Although she still hoped that a couple of healable broken bones was all he got.)
Having kept her hands clean for twenty-one years the thought of having her hands suddenly dyed in blood wasn't particularly pleasing. In fact, it was hardly a thought she wanted to entertain at all, even if it had been accidental. The only difference that stood between the syndicate and herself was her unwillingness to stain her hands in cold blood after all.
Akemi placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, looking out for a white vehicle with red stripes when a single plea crossed her mind.
Please don't die.