Today's Reading

Although Yutaro was aware that Saori enjoyed singing, the idea of her becoming a professional singer had never occurred to him. The offer came as something of a bolt from the blue. He was rather flummoxed and Machiko, his wife, seemed to feel the same way.

After he left, the two of them discussed Niikura's proposal. They both wanted Saori to have a "normal" life, but they agreed that they should ask Saori her opinion.

As soon as Saori heard Niikura's proposal, she announced that she would love to take a stab at becoming a pro. She had kept her ambitions to herself because she thought her parents would be opposed to the idea.

If it was what she wanted, then that was the end of the matter. As far as Yutaro was concerned, they should encourage her to follow her dream, and they agreed to let Niikura manage her. If it didn't work out, then it didn't work out. They could regroup when the time came. Even if Saori failed to break through, the experience would stand her in good stead for whatever she decided to do next.

Natsumi, their younger daughter, was thrilled. Just the thought of Saori performing in front of a big audience was enough to get her excited.

Saori started taking lessons from Niikura while continuing to attend high school. Luckily for the family, her tuition was completely free of charge.

"Oh, don't worry about paying me for the lessons. After we've launched Saori's career and she's become a big star, I'll just charge her a hefty management fee," was what Naoki Niikura said whenever the subject of money came up. A fan of John Lennon, Naoki cultivated the same trademark look: long, lank hair and little pebble glasses. He was a warm, good-natured soul and not in the least snobbish about his privileged background.

He was, however, a stern taskmaster. "I do my best in the lessons, but Mr. Niikura never says anything nice about me," Saori often grumbled. Niikura wasn't shy about setting strict rules for his protégée, either. "You don't need that smartphone of yours. It will just get in the way of your singing career," was a warning he never tired of giving her. Hearing that convinced Yutaro that he had made the right decision in putting his daughter into Niikura's hands. Niikura was telling her the same home truths he believed himself.

Saori eventually graduated from high school.

"I think now's the right time to get Saori to sing for this producer guy I know," Niikura announced cheerfully, when he turned up at the restaurant just after the turn of the year. Saori was nineteen years old at the time.

It was just two weeks later that it happened. Saori went out in the early evening and didn't come home even as it got later and later. Becoming increasingly anxious, her parents made repeated calls to her cell phone. No one picked up.

The Namikis contacted everyone they could think of, starting with the Niikuras, but no one had any idea where their daughter was. By the time it was after midnight, they could no longer bear the anxiety and contacted the police.

The police moved into action the next morning. They initiated a neighborhood-wide search and reviewed the footage from all the local security cameras.

CCTV footage from a camera outside the local convenience store showed Saori walking along the street. She was alone and holding her phone up to her ear, suggesting that she was talking to somebody. The police got her call history from the cell phone company.

At the time of the footage, no outgoing call was being made from Saori's phone. In other words, Saori had received a call from someone else. Unfortunately, her cell phone company didn't charge for incoming calls and didn't keep a record of them.

Worried that Saori might have been the victim of foul play, the police did everything they could; they even dragged all the local rivers.

They didn't find Saori. It was as if she had vanished in a puff of smoke.

Yutaro, Machiko, and Natsumi put up missing person flyers around the neighborhood. Other local shopkeepers and the regular patrons of Namiki-ya also pitched in. But all their efforts came to nothing.

The stress was too much for Machiko. She had a breakdown and took to her bed. Natsumi's eyes were swollen from crying day in, day out, and she began skipping school. Knowing what was happening, none of their regular patrons grumbled about the increasing frequency with which the restaurant was closed.

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