I left Mr. Blackmore in the ryokan and walked away from the lake, uphill through the early-morning half light. The air was chilly but kept me awake. I took my shoes off and cut through the back streets to Shibasakidai and the shrine in my bare feet. The cold of the concrete was less painful than the heels.
I passed through a tunnel cut under the train tracks that ran through the heart of Abiko—a business hotel, a couple of multi-story manshons and hairdressing salons—and ambled for 40 minutes past the boarded up hardware store and the liquor store to the only place open at this time, a convenience store.
I put my shoes back on and bought breakfast. I pulled the plastic covering from the seaweed and tucked into the natto rice ball right outside the store. Aunt Tanaka said you are not supposed to eat standing up outside, but I didn’t think anyone would notice so early.
I was standing by a signboard, a blue “P” pointing to a gravel patch with a Japan Tobacco vending machine and parking for 20 cars, though only two were there, a rusty green Mini Cooper and a shiny white Toyota.
A man in his 50s wearing a yukata robe and black funnel hat walked around the new car. Then he took out a stick with white feathers, and shook it above the bonnet, the driver’s side, the boot, and the passenger door. He chanted and rustled the feathers. A cockerel crowed in the distance.
The man looked over in my direction and winked.
“Hi, Uncle Kentaro.”
He waved back, but continued his chants. I followed the road past a rotting wooden shack and climbed the stone steps that were cut into a thicket of pine and bamboo. By the time I was at the top of the hill I was panting, my breath disappearing into the mists behind me.
Ahead on either side of the path were two giant grey fox statues. One had a key in its mouth, and the other had a fox cub in its paw. Above them were two red wooden beams of the torii gate spanning the path. To the left of them was a wooden water trough. It might have been like this for ever and ever. Or maybe just a couple of years.
The water was ice-cold on my hands, but the grease-stained towel hanging from a wire coat hanger overhead looked dirtier than the ground. I bit my lip and shook my hands around, and ran them across my hot pants and regretted it as the water dripped down the Lycra onto my bare legs. I skipped beneath the gate along a stepping stone path lined with head-high stone lanterns at every step.
I fished out all the change from my hip bag and threw it all between the wooden bars of the donation trough. The coins clattered to the base of the box. I clapped my hands twice. Then I bowed my head and whispered a prayer: “Help me find this guy’s daughter. Please keep his daughter safe. Please? I could do with a lucky break. Could I get something else to wear too?”
“Don’t push your luck.”
I spun round. Uncle Kentaro had his feather stick in one hand, and half-smoked cigarette in the other.
“The inari don’t mind doing little favours,” he said, nodding to the fox statues, “but it looks like you are in big trouble now.”
“How do you know?”
“You didn’t come home last night, you make a generous donation, and those clothes. Those hot pants are bad news.”
“But Aunt Tanaka said it is good for business.”
“Aunt Tanaka should mind her own business sometimes, Hana-chan.”
He stepped forward and ruffled my hair. “I was worried about you. You’d better tell me what trouble you are in before your aunt does.”
The three lines under each eye turned into a dozen as he smiled. The way he stayed bent slightly toward me, with his head cocked, made him look like a waiter ready to take down my order.
“Oh, I brought you a gift from the konbini, Uncle Kentaro.”
I handed him a package. He smiled.
“Two cans of Premium Malts? Well, at least your taste in beer is better than your taste in clothes. Hurry, let’s get in out of the cold. We can watch the figure skating.”
We walked into the rotting wooden house. The corrugated-iron roof was orange-red from rust. It was as cold inside as it was out. He took his wooden sandals off, placing them neatly together facing the door. I kicked my high heels off.
Uncle Kentaro’s place stank of cigarettes. The tatami mats reeked of it, and the walls and paper screens that blocked out light from all the windows were covered in brown scum. The only furniture was a stand for the plasma TV, and a Volkswagen hubcap in the centre of the room overflowing with white cigarette butts.
“You are in for a treat,” he said. He dropped cross-legged onto the floor and looked at the TV. “Who’s your girl? Kim or Mao?”
“I don’t watch much TV,” I said.
“Oh, forgot you’re the online generation. Sheesh, unplug your smartphone and you could learn a thing or two from the old TV, you know. First off is Kim Yu Na. She’s 19, same as you. But she’s Korean and she’s the hot favourite for gold. Now stop making me talk and just watch.”
Kim was beautiful. She slid into starting position and waited. Some classical music blared out and she was off. The commentator listed her moves. Double axle toe jump. Triple axle? No problem. Skate round the rink with one leg held above her head? Easy. Sexy and cool.
“Now here’s Mao Asada. Same age, but she’s Japanese.”
Mao was a girl, not a woman. She skated onto the screen. She breathed deeply and raised her arms to begin, hands wavering, eyes blinking quickly. The commentators were jumpy. She went through the same moves. At every jump the commentators held their breath, expecting her to fall, but she made it in one piece, smiling and moving to the end of her routine.
“What did you think? Who do you want to win? Be honest,” he said.
“Well, Mao didn’t fall over. But she skated like it was a school exam. But Kim, she was a natural. She made everything look easy. You want me to say I wanted Mao to win because she’s Japanese, but I liked Kim. She was better.”
Uncle Kentaro took out a cigarette, tapped it twice on the calluses of his hands. He lit it and inhaled.
“Good analysis, but you need to be looking past nationality, young lady.”
“Sharing a nationality is nothing to be proud of. Any fool can be born Korean, or Japanese. Why should I care whether some waif on TV has the same passport as me? Kim’s a natural-born skater, sure. Mao isn’t. She’s had to work at it, and she’d be better at pouring tea for the boss. But devoting yourself to a calling that you don’t feel in your bones, that takes something special.
“Any natural can be a success, but to successfully defeat nature, that is divine. Besides, I’m old enough to be any of you girls’ father and that Kim makes me wish I was 30 years younger. That’s nothing but trouble.
“Speaking of which, you might want to get something else to wear yourself.”
He stood up awkwardly, opened the sliding doors to the futon closet, and pulled out a square package wrapped in string and brown grease-proof paper. He handed it to me. I took it in both hands. But it was so heavy, I dropped it onto the tatami.
“That is on the house,” he said, gulping down his beer.
I pulled at the string. Inside was a white haori kimono jacket, red hakama trousers and red hair ribbons. It was the uniform of the miko—the priest’s girl assistant.
“Shinto Girl Scouts, Hana.”
“I think I’m a bit old for that, Uncle Kentaro.”
“You think again, young lady. You come home so late it’s early, you are dressed like a Roppongi whore and you only brought two cans? As long as you are living in my house, you have to follow my rules. Aunt Tanaka means well, but she can’t think beyond her own nose. She isn’t your real aunt, after all.”
“You aren’t my real uncle.”
“That’s not the point. My business is blessing cars, selling charms at New Year and blessing children, not partying with them. Show the priest some respect, would you?”
“Sorry, I thought shinto was just about men in frocks waving sticks around.”
“Ha! Don’t be so cheeky. All religions are about men in frocks waving sticks around. Now get changed out of your play clothes, I’ll be back in a minute, and then you can tell me what’s really bothering you.”
He went to the kitchen and opened the fridge.
I stared down at the bundle of clothes. I slipped out of the hot pants and T-shirt. My new clothes were musty and oversized, but warm. I tied my belt while the TV played the Korean national anthem and Kim took her gold medal.
“So what’s the news?”
Where to start?
“I was supposed to tell a Japanese man on the phone about an American man, Aunt Tanaka told me to, but I don’t think I should. He wants to spend $100,000 to bring his daughter back home. But I think I could help him find her and then he could keep his money and his daughter could keep her Papa. It’s fate, or luck or something.”
“So, you just lucked into this job?”
“Yes, well, Aunt Tanaka…”
“Aunt Tanaka arranged this all?”
“But you want to help this American on your own?”
He sucked air between clenched teeth. “That’s not a good idea in Japan.”
“Are you going to tell me about hammers and nails?”
“I was going to tell you about saving for a pension. You don’t want to end up like me, do you?”
“But, it’s not so difficult, I’ll just try to find this girl. She’s like me. She’s on Twitter. All I have to do is get some telephone numbers, pass them on to the American, and then he can find his daughter. It will be easy.”
Uncle Kentaro would have won gold if sucking air through teeth was an Olympic sport.
“Anyone else know about this?”
“No. But, there was a nasty boy.”
“His name’s Ono. He was a customer at Aunt Tanaka’s. He went to Abiko Junior High School. He wanted to hurt me. He knew about the phone call even though I didn’t tell him anything about it. He said he works for Shachou, it’s a family business, I think they sell Mercedes cars. But he was also working for Tachibana-san, another customer. Tachibana-san works for the prime minister, and he wants me to work for the prime minister too.”
“That can’t be right. I think you are confused, Hana.”
“But not about this, Uncle.”
I gave him Tachibana-san’s business card and he went silent for a long time and made wrinkles in his forehead.
He gulped his beer down, got up and disappeared into the kitchen. Water ran, the microwave dinged and metal clattered in the sink. He came back with a mug of black coffee in his hand.
“You must find the girl. You made a promise. It doesn’t matter who you made a promise to. Nobody made you take the offer. You promised to find her, not to do your best, not to do half the job and wash your hands of it. You should find her, you felt that in your bones. But now, you must find her because her life is in danger—and you put it in danger. You have handed her to the yakuza.”
He cuffed the side of my head.
“Are you deaf as well as stupid? You lucked into this job? Like a lucky win, a lucky hand? You just happened to land a job from an American who has silly money? Where there’s luck and money, there’s yakuza. You stole that job from the gangsters, or they wanted you to steal it. Either way, for you, the result is identical.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“OK, you don’t understand, Hana-chan. Understand that you chose this fate by your actions, not anyone else’s. And there are consequences.”
He sat silently for a moment, then said: “Who have you told about this?”
“I’ll be careful, I’ll be fine. I can look after myself.”
“No you can’t. Do you know what you are dealing with here? We’re talking 80,000 gangsters. We’re talking connections to the prime minister. We’re talking an underworld that is on top.”
“I don’t care about yakuza, I don’t care about things I don’t have anything to do with. Why should I?”
Uncle Kentaro frisked himself, found his packet and shook a cigarette loose.
“Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time there was a sweet Korean-Japanese kid living up in Korea Town, Shin-Okubo in Tokyo. His Papa was a fishmonger. Only his Papa liked drinking shochu and wasn’t too smart with money. Got into debt playing pachinko. So he had to borrow some from the street lender just to feed his wife and kid.
“Of course, the yakuza had their claws into him by then, at the rate of 10 percent interest every 10 days. He had no way to pay them back, no way to feed his family, nowhere to run to. The distance between a friendly loan and threatening to kill your youngest child isn’t very far.”
He lit up the cigarette.
“OK. What happened then?”
“Papa’s body was found in Tsukiji fish-market when his co-workers came to work on Friday. They found him in a stall with his hands severed. He was dead, but his debts were still live. His wife and kid had to disappear.”
“And what? What you need to know is this: The yakuza don’t care that you are innocent. They have no honour. That chopping off fingers business and loyalty to the boss doesn’t cut it anymore. They won’t have mercy on you because you are a girl. They won’t give you a break because your Papa is dead. They will come after you and they will take what they want from you. Do I have to spell out what they are prepared to do to you, or what they might have planned for this Emi girl?”
“Maybe not,” I said.
“Maybe not. Luck will only carry you so far, princess. Since they don’t care, you have to.”
I looked down at my feet.
“OK, so what should I do?”
Start the novel from Chapter 1 here or use the next/previous arrow keys to flip through the book.
That was a chapter of Half Life: A Hana Walker Mystery. I’m publishing a chapter a day in sequence on this blog to promote the book. You can buy HALF LIFE as a paperback from Create Space here or as a Kindle download from any Amazon site including links to the book here at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.jp.
The sequel, Prime Life, is coming out in the New Year.