This is the sixth part of a serialized giant monster story published in weekly installments on this site.
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6. The Morning News
~ July 1966 – Sunrise ~
The red light inside the Kobe Tribune’s photo lab reminded Akiko of the color she’d seen in the glowing monster … or meteor … or whatever it was.
She removed the last of the prints from the rinse, squeegeed it off, and hung it up to dry alongside the rest.
Professor Benten, who had been with her inside the darkroom during the entire process, peered over her shoulder at the prints.
“I can’t really see anything in this light,” he said impatiently.
“I can turn on the regular lights now,” she replied. “We’re done printing—at least the test sheets.” She walked to the darkroom’s safety switch and flipped on the overhead lights.
“May I touch them?” Benten asked, indicating the drying sheets of photo paper.
“Yes,” she replied. “They’re not final prints anyway, and as long as the negatives are safe, I can always make more.”
“And are the negatives safe?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t have turned on the lights if they weren’t.” They’d actually been light safe since developing, but no need to bother the astronomer with unnecessary details.
“Mm,” Benten said, pulling one of the prints from a clip on the drying line. He scrutinized it carefully. “There’s something in that crater, all right, and it does look molten.”
“You see. I told you. I’m not just some crazy, hysterical girl.”
“I never thought you were. Now, what about that tentacle you thought you saw?”
Akiko looked, but no trace of the tendril appeared on any of the prints. She’d been afraid of that when she saw the negatives. Still, there was no way to be certain without the enlargements.
“I must have missed it somehow.” She sighed. “I guess I stopped taking pictures before it happened. Or maybe my imagination did run away with me a bit.” It had been a very difficult day, after all, and now, to top it off, she’d gotten very little rest after driving back to Kobe overnight with Professor Benten.
Of course he’d insisted they process the film right away. She hadn’t had time to go home or change, and had only caught a few hours napping on the couch in the newspaper’s lounge while waiting to use the darkroom. There had been a lot of meteor-related stories coming in, it seemed, and the line of photographers waiting to use the equipment had backed up. The usual darkroom operators had all gone home after the late shift. They, at least, would get to return to work after a good night’s sleep—unlike her and Benten.
Akiko wasn’t sure that the professor had managed to get any sleep at all.
Plus, he’d made her hurry into the darkroom so quickly, she’d even forgotten to “lose” the rolls containing the pictures of that fiancé-stealing tramp, Rika.
Once Editor Aroka had arrived, he’d demanded those shots immediately—though he’d allowed Akiko to print her roll of meteor crater film first. Oh, well!
“At least these will push that hussy off the front page,” she muttered to herself.
“What’s that?” Benten asked.
“I said I need to take these preliminaries to my editor, so he can pick out something for the front page.”
“Great,” Benten said. “I’ll go with you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his pipe, but a glance from Akiko kept him from lighting it. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I work with photography equipment, too—we’ve got a fine lab up at the observatory—I know there’s no smoking in the darkroom.”
She pulled down the rest of the prints and headed toward the series of light-proof curtains leading to the exit. Benten followed.
The lights of the newsroom seemed almost blinding after working in semi-darkness for so long. And as soon as her eyes readjusted, the first thing Akiko saw was the smiling face of her newly minted ex, Shinobu “Shin” Shindo.
He was leaning up against one of the newsroom’s big support pillars, looking suave and handsome, as usual. It almost seemed as though he had been waiting for her to exit the darkroom.
“Hi, Aki,” he said, speaking in a casual tone, as if she hadn’t caught him cheating with that starlet last night.
“Mr. Shindo,” she said, turning from him and heading for Editor Arota’s office. Benten fell into step behind her.
“I heard you put in a pretty late night last night,” Shin said, following. “Got some good pictures of that meteor strike.”
“I imagine that you were up pretty late as well,” she replied frostily.
“Not too late,” he said. “Care to show me those shots?”
She spun on him, unable to suppress the anger flaring in her eyes. “I think I’ve shown you all I care to show in this lifetime, Mr. Shindo. Now if you’ll excuse me, Mr. Arota is waiting.”
Shin stepped back, startled, but quickly resumed his smooth smile. “No problem,” he said. “I’m going that way myself.”
Akiko turned and resumed her relentless stride toward Arota’s office. Benten, looking puzzled by this exchange, kept up with her. Annoyingly, Shin trailed along behind.
Someone else was in Arota’s office when she got there, but Aki barged in anyway; she didn’t want to spend time waiting outside under Shin’s scrutiny.
Editor Arota, a squat fireplug of a man, looked angry when the door opened, but a little more sympathetic when he saw who it was. “Ah … Aki,” he said. “I believe you know Mr. Burr, from our sister paper in America.”
Aki nodded at the tall, beefy gentleman standing nearby. She’d met him a few weeks back, when Burr became an American correspondent attached to their office. Burr was handsome in a rough-hewn kind of way, but she felt slightly nervous around him—as if he were always scrutinizing her, or perhaps undressing her with his eyes.
“Miss Natsuke,” he said with a polite nod. “Good to see you again. We’re all pretty excited about these pictures you claim to have taken.”
“I don’t claim anything, Mr. Burr,” she said curtly. “They’re right here, for anyone to see, and Professor Benten agrees with my conclusions.” She fanned the photos out on Arota’s desk, so that the editors—and the rest—could see them. Then she looked hopefully at Benten.
“It certainly does look like a molten meteorite in that crater,” Benten affirmed.
Aki grinned, and so did Goro Arota.
“Spectacular, Aki,” he said. “You’ve really outdone yourself. I’m almost glad you left your other … assignment early.” Did he know—or at least suspect—what had really transpired at that party? Had Shin told him?
“No one else will have a picture like this,” she said, trying to cover her embarrassment.
“Good job, Aki-chan,” Shin added, being annoyingly familiar for someone who’d cheated on her last night. Was he trying to get back in her good graces?
She ignored him. “Front page worthy, wouldn’t you say, Arota-san?”
“Mm,” Arota replied, stroking his broad, stubbly chin.
“But if that’s the meteor,” Burr said, “where did it go between when you took these two pictures? Now there’s nothing there but a crater.”
“That’s not the only strange thing about that meteor,” Professor Benten said, tapping his pipe thoughtfully in his hand. “A meteorite large enough to create a crater that size should have caused substantial damage to the surrounding countryside. More trees should have been knocked down. Tons of earth and debris should have been thrown up into the atmosphere. Everything nearby should have been set ablaze by the explosion. Somehow, none of that happened. Yet, we have a crater big enough to hold Hiroshima Municipal Stadium. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“I heard on the shortwave that investigators from X-Base have been sent to look into it,” Shin added. “Perhaps it has something to do with their experimental reactor.”
“Perhaps Shin and I should go out the base and talk to them about it,” Burr suggested.
“Hey!” Aki interjected. “This is my story!”
“You’re just a photographer, Aki-chan,” Shin reminded her.
“A photographer that’s given you an exclusive front-page photo,” Benten added.
“At least let me go with them, Arota-san,” Aki said.
The editor looked at her. He was savvy enough to sense the new dynamic between her and Shin—even if her former fiancé had kept his mouth shut—and now the wily newspaper boss was trying to figure out exactly what it was. “What about the pictures you took of Rika? Those still need developing.”
“I … Perhaps Shindo would like to develop them. He seemed quite interested in Miss Tadaka’s development last night.” Despite the sharpness of her retort, she couldn’t keep her lower lip from trembling.
Shin laughed. “I’m sure our usual darkroom monkeys can handle those shots, if Aki really wants to come along.”
“Mm,” Arota repeated, looking between her and Shin. If he hadn’t guessed the source of the friction between the reporter and photographer before, he was too smart to miss the implication now. “All right,” he said. “All three of you can go. But behave yourselves, and make sure you bring back stories and pictures that are truly newsworthy. With a fishing fleet mysteriously sinking in the Sea of Japan and meteors falling all over Southeast Asia, we’ve got a lot to cover. Get back as soon as you can.”
Shin and Aki bowed. “Hai, Arota-san,” they said in unison. “Yes, Boss,” Burr echoed.
“What about you, Professor?” Aki asked. “Will you come with us?”
“I have to get back to my observatory,” Benten said. “I was on a camping holiday in those hills when the meteorite hit, but I’m afraid I’ll have to reschedule the rest of my vacation. This meteor shower leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and it’s my job to figure them out.”
“I hope, before you go, you’ll answer a few questions for Mr. Shindo,” Arota said. “Our readers would like to hear your opinions about what happened last night.”
“I’ll be happy to,” Benten replied. “And maybe you can supply me with prints of those meteor shots that Miss Natsuke took.”
“I’ll see to it myself before we leave,” Aki said. “We could give you a lift home, if you want, professor,” she added. Taking the handsome scientist along would blunt the annoyance of having to ride with Shin. And besides, she’d brought Benten to Kobe in the first place; at the least, she owed him a ride home. “Okayama’s on the way to X-Base.”
“Mm,” Benten said, sucking on his pipe. “Thank you. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Shin put in, looking curiously from Benten to Aki.
A sly grin tugged at the corners of Aki’s mouth. Let her ex wonder about how well she and the professor knew each other.
“Very good,” Arota agreed. “And Akiko, before you go, make sure those photos you took of Rika get to our developing room staff … safe and sound.”
Aki sighed silently. “Yes, boss.”
Thanks to Edward, Christine, Vicki, David, and Kiff for beta-reading.
All contents, copyright 2013 Stephen D. Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.