“Ouch- Hiroto-dono is unexpectedly strong. That hurt,” the kitsune spoke in surprise while rubbing its head. Sousuke gently stopped the car at the side of the road.
“The most recent one was around here.”
Sousuke and his companions were walking in the direction of a private house from the mountainside. It seemed like in this place, the boundary between the scattered houses and the mountain was clearly shown by a flowing stream.
“If we walk straight ahead from here, and then walk down the road that turns left, we’ll reach a private house with a cow shed and things like that. From there, various houses can be seen scattered around the paddy field.”
Hiroto drew on the map as he listened to the kitsune. He clearly marked the place that had become the scene of the crime and the road they had taken to reach it.
“This place is called Tagumi.”
“Yes. The paddy fields, livestock, barns and fields. They used the “Ta” from the pronunciation of the “rice”-character, so that’s how it came to be.”
“Sousuke accepted the map and permanent marker from Hiroto and started drawing the route they would take from now on.”
“The road branches out here. Furthermore, Yamagumi is split into two.”
“Yamagumi (Mountain group), Tagumi (Rice field group)…”
Sousuke was in the driver’s seat peeking at the hand-drawn map.
Even so, he still murmured to himself.
“There doesn’t seem to be any shops here. I wonder how the locals shop.”
“Well, they have an agricultural cooperative. They’ve got their own gas station and post office, and are visited by a doctor from the town once a week,” the kitsune explained.
They parked the car in a parking lot across from the cooperative and decided to walk around.
They took looked around in the cooperative store but could barely find any commodities, the racks around them stood empty.
“Most people own a car so a lot of them drive over to the supermarket. There used to be a bus going there too, so we also went once in a while.”
It was said that the buses had stopped their service in the area due to the drastic decline of commuters.
The local kindergarten and elementary school were adjacent to each other, but they had less than a hundred students combined. Students had to commute to town starting from junior high school. It was a considerably inconvenient way of living. However, the people living here had never been the type who would move to the city out of convenience. There was apparently even a number of people who had returned to settle down after going to high school and university in the city.
“I think we’ve seen almost exactly half of Tagumi right now. If we follow this road until we reach that mountain, the place name Tagumi will appear again in some settlements scattered about.”
Sousuke suddenly grabbed the arm of the kitsune who was walking in front of them.
“Your tail is showing.”
“Oh, it must be because I haven’t done it in a while. … What about now? Don’t I look human however hard one looks?”
The kitsune seemed to be in high spirits as it turned around to show its appearance to Sousuke and Hiroto. The latter two awkwardly chuckled.
“Look, this is the kindergarten, and the elementary school is just behind it. Do you see large playground equipment over there? It’s behind that. A child disappeared from the area that’s in the shadow of the mountains when going home from school.”
Hiroto drew the elementary school and mountain on the map. He marked the place with an x. Furthermore, the kitsune said that two people had also disappeared behind the playground.
“So it’s three only from the elementary school?”
“Yes. The school is surrounded by mountains and if you climb the playground equipment, you could easily be able to enter a mountain. That’s why they thought that the children had gotten lost in the mountains at first.”
“Then, as the number of missing people grew, people started to wonder if these children’s disappearances also were related to the rest… Am I right?”
“Yes. And if I think about it, the children disappeared after livestock had started going missing. Thet even had a mountain hunt, but I heard they didn’t find anything.”
“We also secretly searched for them at night,” the kitsune added in a desolate voice.