“Let’s take the bullet train, we’ll be in Sendai in three hours. We can get to Ishinomaki before the city hall shuts,” I said. “We can find your daughter before night. But we have to keep moving.”
“Fine by me, let’s get this done,” Mr. Blackmore said.
“And you do have the money? Umm, my uncle wanted to know.”
“Uncle? You mean your boss?”
“It’s a family business.”
He patted his jeans pocket, and pulled out a wad of paper: “American Express Travellers’ Checks. We can go to the bank right now, I can cash these, or I can sign them and hand them over to you.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do with all those zeroes. No time, we’ve got a train to catch. Got to keep moving.”
“I understand,” he said.
We were pushed along with the crowds under a covered shopping arcade. On either side were bargain clothes stores, sunaku bars, yakitori chicken-on-a-stick stands. Housewives, pensioners and teenagers bunking off school all around us. We went with the flow of people heading toward the escalators to the entrance to Kashiwa Station, when I spotted him three heads in front of us. The folds of his neck sent shivers down mine.
“What?” Mr. Blackmore said.
The stink of Ono’s sweat was in my nostrils. All he had to do was turn around at the sound of two foreigners talking and it was all over.
I grabbed Mr. Blackmore’s arm and whipped around in the opposite direction. The noodle shop was just around the corner.
“Let me show you where my aunt works.”
“I thought we had to catch a train?”
“We do but we should see Aunt Tanaka right now.”
“Yes, kind of.”
“I thought we were in a hurry…”
We turned the corner to the shop and the ticket machine beside the front door.
“…but we have to eat too. Please. It’s only ¥500. And quick.”
Mr. Blackmore made a grumpy face, but handed me a ¥1,000 note. “Here, get me some too.”
I fed the note into the machine and it spat out two tickets. I couldn’t see Ono. That meant he couldn’t see us.
We ducked into the shop through the noren curtain. “Welcome, honoured customers” Aunt Tanaka shouted, she didn’t turn to see us.
Aunt Tanaka’s was no bigger than Mr. Blackmore’s six-mat room, and just as dark. Only a little light from outside could cut through the steamed-up front window. A grey steel counter divided the room in two. On one side were five stools, all empty. On the other, Aunt Tanaka stood with her back to us, facing three huge stainless-steel vats billowing steam. If it wasn’t for the smell of garlic, red chilli and soy sauce, this could have been a sauna.
“Please,” Aunt Tanaka said, holding her left hand out. I handed the tickets over. Two shoyu ramen with pork, the house special, the cheapest on the menu. Then she looked up from the soup vat she was stirring.
Aunt Tanaka’s ladle fell into the soup.
“Hi, Aunt Tanaka, this is Mr. Blackmore…”
Her mouth was smiling but her eyes were as wide as boiled eggs.
“Itsnicetomeetyou,” she said, and held her hand out.
Mr. Blackmore shook it.
She flipped back into Japanese.
“Hana-chan, let’s have a little word together, shall we?” she whispered.
I wrapped the flowing sleeves of my robe tight around my arms and slipped round the counter. We huddled the other side of the vat.
“What are you doing Hana-chan? What are you dressed like that for? You haven’t called the Japanese man about the American man, have you? That Ono was looking for you and the American. He was in here two minutes ago. He was not happy. His boss was not happy. I’m not happy…”
“I’m not either, Aunt Tanaka, but I’m just thinking how to do the right thing.”
“The right thing? This is not the time for thinking. You have to do this right, I told you not to mess this up. Do you realise what trouble we’ll be in with these guys. Why can’t you stick to the plan?”
“I have a plan. But it’s to help the American, Uncle Kentaro is doing the thinking.”
“Is he? I need to call him right now.”
“OK, but can we have some ramen? We’ve got a train to catch.”
“Everything OK, Hana?” Mr. Blackmore called out.
“Just sorting out lunch.”
“Great. I could eat a horse, or I guess I should say a whale, this being Japan.”
“What’s he saying, Hana?”
“He said he could eat a whale.”
“A whale? This is a ramen shop. Look, serve him the ramen, I’m going to make some phone calls, maybe we can fix this mess before we get into real trouble.”
“But I made a promise…”
“So did I,” she said and disappeared out the door with her mobile.
I fished the ladle out of the vat and prepared two bowls of noodles, sweet corn, a square sheet of seaweed, half a hard-boiled egg, and a slice of pork floating in the centre. I topped it off with a slice of pink and white fish sausage, cut like a flower.
“Here you are, cowboy,” I said.
Mr. Blackmore laughed. “Just because I wear this hat, doesn’t mean…”
The counter rattled. The ceiling light swayed. I knew what this meant.
“Earthquake,” I said.
Mr. Blackmore’s eyes were darting around the room. Maybe this was his first earthquake. There’s always that moment when the shakes stop getting stronger, then you just carry on with what you were doing.
Only this one didn’t stop getting stronger. Chips of plaster fell from the ceiling. The soup slopped out of the ramen bowls all over the counter. I got up off the stool, but I couldn’t stand without holding on to the counter.
“Let’s get out of here,” Mr. Blackmore said.
From the door of the shop, the shaking was just as bad outside in the shopping precinct. Some people were looking up at the roof over the street, others were running for the main street. I heard some screams, but mostly silence.
I didn’t know what to think or what to do.
“Come on,” Mr. Blackmore said. We were out on the street. But it felt wrong: it was swaying.
And it was getting worse.
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.