BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
Goro stuck one hand out from under his blanket and flailed around his nightstand, struggling to turn off his incessant alarm clock.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
He reached further, wondering how his clock could have been pushed so far away – probably that stupid cat, he thought with annoyance. Damn it, Mona! As he leaned over the side of his bed, he suddenly realized he was closer to the edge than he realized - and unable to correct himself in time, he fell onto the floor in a tangled heap of blankets and sheets. Thud.
“Goro! Is everything alright up there?” Came his mom’s voice from downstairs. Goro leaned against the bed, rubbing the back of his head and hissing in pain. What a way to start the day, he thought with a frown, but his expression softened as he smelled the breakfast his mom was cooking downstairs.
“Yeah, I’m fine!” He shouted, getting up in a clamor. “Be down in a sec!” He grabbed his Shujin Academy uniform from the hanger in his closet and headed towards the bathroom, his head still groggy with sleep. By the time he washed up, straightened his hair, and put on his uniform, Goro Akechi was the very image of an average Japanese high school student. Well, maybe slightly above average, so he thought. He was a little taller than most, a little smarter – alright, he was top of the class – and, as far as he was concerned, he had the best group of friends anyone could ask for. He grinned when he remembered what day it was and how his friends would likely greet him at school.
Moving swiftly, Goro grabbed his schoolbag from his desk and was about to go downstairs, when he realized it was much heavier than usual. Placing the bag back on his desk, he unzipped it to reveal the black and white face of his cat, Mona, staring back at him. “Not again!” he sighed, lifting the cat out of the bag and tossing him lightly on the bed. “I told you before, Mona, you can’t come to school with me, no matter how much you want to.” Mona looked at him with his usual expressionless face and let out a tiny “meow.” Goro smirked and patted his head. This cat was always causing problems for him, ever since he got it as a young child.When Mona wasn’t trying to hitch a ride to school, he was knocking things off tables, rummaging through the trash, scratching up furniture, and bringing dead birds to the doorstep. “I wish I could speak cat so you could understand me,” he said, scratching Mona’s ears as the cat purred softly. “Be a good boy while I’m at school, OK? And,” he leaned down, placing one finger threateningly in front of Mona’s face, “don’t go scratching up Dad’s recliner again. He doesn’t like cats as much as I do.” The cat continued to stare, and meowed once more. Goro laughed and petted him one last time before turning to leave.
A few moments later, Goro stepped lightly down the stairs to the kitchen, schoolbag in tow. “Morning, Mom,” he said with a smile, and gave his mom a kiss on the cheek which she returned. The sweet smell of his mom’s cooking filled the room as the morning light drifted through the window. “Wow,” he marveled, looking at the impressive breakfast spread ahead of him, “My favorite!” On the table was a large plate of fluffy golden pancakes, a bowl of homemade whipped cream, and fresh strawberries from his mother’s garden outside. His mom chuckled and placed her hand on her cheek, blushing with pride. “Well, it is your special day, isn’t it?”
On the opposite side of the table, his father was reading the newspaper, his face obscured by an article on the state of the Japanese economy. A mug of black coffee was on the table in front of him, half empty, as well as a small pancake with one or two bites taken out of it. His father never had much of an appetite this early in the day. “Happy Birthday, kiddo,” he said, his bald head peeking from around his newspaper. Then, catching a glimpse of the clock hanging over the kitchen stove, he added, “Oh, but you’d better get going soon, huh? Don’t want to be late for school.”
“Really?” Goro replied with a muffled voice, his mouth full of pancake. He glanced at the clock: 8:42 AM. “Oh, no! I’m going to be late!” He leapt upright from the table and made his way to the door, quickly slipping on his shoes. His surprise encounter with Mona must have preoccupied him longer than he thought. “I’m heading out now,” he called, opening the front door. His mother followed him and grabbed his shoulder before he could leave.
“Hold on mister, you barely ate one bite! I don’t want you going to school hungry.” She admonished sweetly, and unceremoniously shoved a dry doughy pancake into his mouth. Goro looked at her sheepishly, the flapjack hanging out of his mouth as she kissed his forehead and spun him back around. “Get along, now,” she said with a slight push, “We’ll open presents when you get home!”
Goro raced out of the house and jogged lightly towards the school, holding the pancake with his teeth. He glimpsed his watch – 8:50. Oh no! He thought, picking up the pace, a blush spreading across his cheeks, the pancake flopping in the wind. I’m going to be late to school!
Goro made it to homeroom with barely a moment to spare. Exhausted, he placed his head down and draped his arms over his desk. He was certain he could fit in a nap – the teachers hardly ever noticed when he needed to catch up on sleep since he was near the back, by the windows. He wasn’t there long, however, before his best friend came to give him a birthday greeting.
“There’s the birthday boy!” Ryuji said, lifting Goro’s head into a loose headlock and messing up his hair with fist. “Or should I say, old man?” Goro laughed and swatted Ryuji away.
“Happy birthday, Goro-kun!” Ann chimed, taking her seat at the desk in front of him. “Have a good weekend?”
“Yeah,” Goro beamed, as Ryuji leaned back against the desk to his right. “In fact, yesterday I was getting some last minute practice in at the track.”
“You mean for the sports festival?” Ryuji asked, his eyes wide. “Man, you really do go all out for this kind of stuff, don’t you?”
Goro grinned goodnaturedly. “It helps when I have a competitor motivating me.”
“Whatever,” Ryuji said with a mischievous air, “it doesn’t matter how much you practice, I’m still gonna beat you at the track. You can bet on it!”
“We’ll see about that,” Goro replied, and he kept his complacent expression.
Ann rolled her eyes. “Boys,” she mumbled. “Always gotta make everything a competition...” She let her voice trail off in thought, until she suddenly remembered something. “Ah! That’s right,” she leaned further over her chair, until her thick blond hair was grazing the top of Goro’s desk. “Guess what Futaba told me earlier?” She didn’t wait for the boys to reply. “She said she overheard we’re getting a new transfer student.”
“A new student?” repeated Goro in surprise.
“Is it a guy or a girl?” Ryuji asked. “Man, I hope it’s a cute girl...”
Ann glared. “Futaba said she heard it’s some guy from out near Nagoya. Apparently,” she added in a hushed tone, looking slyly into Goro’s auburn eyes, “he’s pretty cute.”
Goro felt himself blush and looked down at the scratched on his desk. Why did Ann add that detail just now? And why did she look at him that way when she said it? “Anyway,” he said a bit too quickly, “how does Futaba know what he looks like?”
“She said she saw him talking to Niijima-sensei earlier,” Ann answered, moving closer still. “She said he’s tall, with black hair and glasses. Sound like your type?” Her big blue eyes looked at Goro innocently, her voice sweet and coy.
“Shut up,” Goro said, and lightly flicked Ann’s forehead with his finger.
Just as she was about to protest, Niijima-sensei entered the room. Their homeroom teacher was an imposing figure, standing nearly six feet tall and dressed in a smartly fitted black pant suit. Her strictness matched her dark demeanor, and as soon as the door shut behind her, the classroom fell silent. Even Ryuji took his seat without delay.
“Good morning,” Niijima-sensei said plainly, and the class repeated in a chorus. Goro couldn’t help but to feel she looked somewhat out of place as a teacher, like she belonged more in a TV crime drama instead. “We have a new transfer student joining us today,” she stated in her cool voice. “He comes from a small town near Nagoya. He is transferring here due to his parents’ work. Please welcome him into our class.” She motioned toward the door, which Goro now noticed was slightly open, and the new student entered the room.
Futaba’s description of him had been correct. The new student was tall, slender, with a mop of messy black hair and thick black-rimmed glasses. He looked quite elegant in the Shujin Academy uniform, Goro observed, and he couldn’t help but stare as he bowed and introduced himself to the class. “My name is Akira Kurusu,” he said, he voice steady and pleasant to the ear. He turned to write the kanji on the chalkboard and then faced the front again. As much as Goro was staring at him, Kurusu seemed to be staring back at the class, analyzing everyone’s faces. It was a little disconcerting.
“Right,” Niijima-sensei said, an uncomfortable silence having descended on the room after Kurusu perfunctory greeting. “Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, Kurusu-kun?”
“Hm,” he said, as if he were surprised. Hasn’t this guy ever been to a school before? Goro wondered. Maybe he’s just awkward. “I’m from near Nagoya, like you said,” Kurusu repeated, more to Niijima-sensei than anyone else.
“Why don’t you tell them something you like to do?” Niijima-sensei pressed, crossing her arms and looking slightly annoyed.
“I guess you could say I’m really into mysteries,” he said cryptically. Niijima-sensei raised her eyebrows.
“What, like mystery novels?” she asked. “Or movies?”
“Something like that,” Kurusu replied.
Goro, Ann, and Ryuji all lit up when they heard the word mystery. Ann turned to the guys behind her with a big smile, and Ryuji whispered excitedly. “Think we might have a new member of the team here?” he said. Goro hushed him quickly, but he felt his heartbeat quicken at the idea, even though he didn’t know much of anything about this new boy yet, let alone whether he would be useful to the team.
In contrast, Niijima-sensei’s momentary interest in Kurusu was replaced by acute revulsion. “Whatever,” she muttered. “You can take a seat. Let’s see...” She surveyed the classroom a moment. “Why don’t you go sit behind Akechi-kun.” Kurusu began walking towards Goro, and indeed to his shock, he even made eye contact. Goro felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he looked at those grey eyes, cold and unwavering. “That’s the free desk in the back by the windows,” Niijima-sensei said, though it appeared Kurusu hardly needed the clarification.
“Hey,” Ryuji whispered to the new kid once Niijima-sensei was getting into the first lesson of the day. “I’m Ryuji Sakamoto, nice to meet ya.”
“Ann Takamaki,” added Ann, with a flirty wink.
Goro found himself uncharacteristically shy towards the new boy, and it was only with great difficulty that he turned and met his eyes again. “Goro Akechi,” he said. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Kurusu regarded them carefully and nodded. “Nice to meet you.” He articulated it with care, as if he had been practicing in front of a mirror. Goro thought he sounded a little fake, if that was even possible to deduce from so little speech.
“So,” Ryuji began, his face becoming animated, “you said something earlier about liking mysteries. Is that true?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah,” Kurusu had been staring at Goro, to the point where Goro had to look down at the floor again. What is up with this guy? He thought.
“Well, wait till you get a load of this guy,” Ryuji said, gesturing towards Goro, “and of us. If you want mysteries, this school’s got a ton of them.”
“Ryuji,” Ann said sternly, her face full of concern, “Are you sure you wanna start telling him this right away?”
“It’s not like it’s a secret or anything,” Ryuji responded, waving his hand like he was swatting away a fly. “We’re famous all throughout the school. And besides, I think it’s time we get another guy on the team. Me, Goro, and Yusuke are outnumbered by you ladies.”
“Weren’t you just saying you wanted the transfer student to be a cute girl…?” Ann said.
Ryuji rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m making lemons out of lemonade.”
“Don’t you mean -”
“Famous,” repeated Kurusu, his face now showing a glint of interest where he had formerly been shockingly blank. “What do you mean?”
“He means we solve mysteries,” Goro said, his unexpectedly excited voice beginning to rise out of a whisper. He looked up at this strange boy once more, his deep red eyes locking once more with Kurusu’s stormy grey. “We’re known as the Phantom Detectives.”
“The Phantom Detectives,” continued Ryuji, “who solve all the school’s wildest mysteries. And trust me, we get a ton. And this guy,” he gesticulated towards Goro once more, “he’s our leader.”
“Wow,” Kurusu said thoughtfully. He placed his hand on his chin. “Interesting.”
Goro couldn’t tell if he was being genuine or sarcastic, but Ryuji seemed to take him at face value. “Yep. So what do you say? Wanna join?”
“It’s kind of hard for him to join when there isn’t an active mystery right now, genius,” Ann said. “Why don’t we ask him the next time something comes up?”
“I’d love to join,” Kurusu said. “Let me know the next time you go solving one of your mysteries,” he directed to Goro.
All of a sudden, a speeding projectile came flying from the front of the room, landing squarely in the middle of Kurusu’s forehead. Goro felt his stomach drop until he realized it was just a piece of chalk. Niijima-sensei stood triumphant at the front of the room, while Kurusu had been knocked down to the floor by the force of impact. He sat with his back against the chair on the floor, his legs dangling in midair, momentarily knocked out from Niijima-sensei’s ninja-like chalk shuriken skills.
“No talking during class!” She barked, and the others turned their attention towards the chalkboard immediately, lest they should be the next target.
The rest of the period pass uneventfully, and even Kurusu managed to recover successfully after Niijima-sensei’s attack. Well, this is quite the exciting birthday, Goro thought to himself, secretly delighted at the idea of this mysterious new transfer student joining the Phantom Detectives. He couldn’t wait to talk to Makoto, Futaba, Yusuke, and Haru. He even thought about inviting the new kid to go get burgers with him and the rest of the Detectives after school, to celebrate his birthday. That wouldn’t be too much too soon, would it? He shook his head. I’ll invite him, he decided. After all, he’s a new friend.
Was he really new, though, he wondered? He thought it was odd how Kurusu seemed to know him by name before Niijima-sensei had ever said anything. And those eyes – they appeared older than his years, somehow, and in some manner pained. And he won’t stop staring at me, even now, he thought, aware that behind him Kurusu was no doubt focused entirely on him. Despite its strangeness, the idea made Goro feel exhilarated. He loved being the center of attention, even if it was from a weird transfer student.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, and the sunlight was beginning to wane by the time the final bell rang to go home. Ryuji and Ann went to get things from their lockers, and Goro told them they could all meet outside the school later before going to the burger joint. As people trickled out of the classroom, Goro slowly and carefully filed away his notes from the day in his color-coded folder system, until soon he was the last one left. The last one, except for Kurusu, of course.
To Goro’s surprise, the transfer student was also working on something at his desk while Goro was working, though he couldn’t tell what it was and he was too nervous – afraid? - to turn around to face him. Just as Goro was about to get up and leave, Kurusu appeared standing in front of him, and silently placed a white paper on the center of his desk.
“Huh?” Goro said, staring at the square before him. He looked up quickly to see what Kurusu meant by this – but as before, his expression was impossible to read. “What is this?” Goro asked quietly.
Kurusu stood, silent.
Goro picked up the square white paper. It was thicker than it looked at first, like some kind of cardstock. The side facing him was blank, but when he lifted it up he saw Kurusu had written something.
The new game has started.
I won’t lose again.
Are you ready for a rematch?
Goro read, re-read, and re-re-read the note, but he still didn’t know what it meant.
“Hey -” he said, tearing himself away from the card that trapped his attention like some kind of bewitching spell. Kurusu was gone, and Goro sat alone in the empty classroom. The sound of classmates talking outside drifted in through the open window along with the warm summer air.
“What does it mean?” he wondered aloud, reading the note again, trying to find what the transfer student meant by giving it to him. “A game?” he mumbled. “A rematch?”
After some time pondering the note, Goro stood, remembering his friends were waiting for him. “Ah, damn,” he said to himself, “I didn’t get to invite the new kid.” But maybe it’s for the best, he thought, feeling the rough cardstock in his hands. “Well, I guess I’ll just try to enjoy the rest of my birthday.”
As Goro left the school that day, he couldn’t shake the feeling that his ordinary, perfect life was about to change.