4:15

The footsteps moved on. The room stopped shaking. Then another aftershock. The ninth? Tenth? But each was almost as strong as the earthquake. Were aftershocks like having a baby? If they get closer together did that mean an earthquake was due? The ground floor of a concrete building was not the best place to be. But where was? Wherever that was, Ono would be.
I had nothing to use to escape, just my phone, the hakama robes I was wearing, my wooden sandals and whatever I could pick up. Foam ceiling tiles or toilet paper. I tried to focus. Maybe Uncle Kentaro could help? Then another aftershock, stronger than before.
The stall door swung open and banged shut. More plaster, another chance three floors of concrete would fall on my head.
But I was not ready to die. Not here.
I stood straight up on the toilet seat and grabbed hold of the porcelain lid on the back of the toilet and lifted it free. With both hands I flung it high at the window. The glass shattered and the lid flew through and smashed onto the concrete outside.
I stood still on the toilet seat, listening.
I thought I wouldn’t get into too much trouble for this, the earthquake would get the blame, and really I wouldn’t be in this fix if it wasn’t for the earthquake, so that was fair enough. Kind of. Anyway, if anybody else was in the building they would think it was the earthquake, not a girl hiding in the toilets. I hoped.
I wrapped my obi cloth belt around my hands and punched out the last of the glass around the window frame. I hopped down and picked up a ceiling tile to sweep the shards of glass from the window frame onto the floor. Then I tied one end of the belt around the toilet stall door frame and held on to it with one hand as I squeezed myself through the half-meter width of the window. Then I eased myself down the outside of the wall, still holding on to the belt.
Halfway down the wall, I slipped my hand free of the belt and jumped free of the wall.
I landed on my feet and stumbled past the broken glass and porcelain. I hadn’t thought how to get the belt back. It hung from the window like the closed sign at Aunt Tanaka’s restaurant. Could the belt be traced back to me? Maybe. But it made no difference to Emi, so I stopped worrying about it.
I picked the bits of glass out of my palms and tried to think. I’d lost Ono. But I’d also lost Mr. Blackmore. I could go looking for him, but so could Ono. I still had an address, Emi’s old home in Abiko.
What I could do there, I had no idea, but that’s all I had.
Abiko.
It was only five minutes by train. Even from here you could hear the loudspeakers blaring from Kashiwa station. A jumble of automatic recordings and new announcements. Lots of talk, but no trains. I let the words flow over me and picked out what mattered. No trains. No replacement buses. No taxis. I was on my own. On my own. That gave me an idea for how to get back without being spotted.
I clattered along a street jammed with cars until I came to a level crossing. Then I pulled my robes up and stepped onto the train tracks and stumbled from one sleeper to the next, each step jarring my knees as the wood of my geta struck the wood of the sleepers. It was slow, painful but direct, nothing was in my way. Unless the trains started again.
Sweat ran down my face. The salt of it stung my eyes. But I kept my head down and set my stride to land on every other sleeper.
In half an hour I was at the empty Abiko station.
I scrambled up the waist-high platform and caught my breath. And I saw my reflection in the glass door of the empty waiting room on the platform. Sweat still streamed down my face. My clothes were ragged. My feet were killing me. I looked like the tramp I’d seen directing traffic.
And I was on Platform 5, where Papa died.
I needed to throw up.
I collapsed on the platform floor and lay on my back. The iron waves of the platform roof rattled and swayed. Since there was no wind, it must be an aftershock. Or maybe it was me. The lamps hanging over the platform were swaying. It wasn’t me then. Probably. I closed my eyes and gave it another minute until I didn’t think anything was swaying anymore.
I stood up and climbed the dead escalator to the walkway and out over the tracks to the ticket gates. I had no ticket and no money, so I hopped over the open gate. I hadn’t taken a train, so I didn’t feel bad about not paying.
I ran down the south exit stairs.
A Japan Rail guard came out of an unmarked door and looked up at me, brow creased.
“A rapid from Kashiwa,” I said, pointing over my shoulder, and hurried into the street before he could question me.
Outside the station, people were milling around, trying to figure out a way to get home. A queue of people snaked around from the taxi stands, but there were no taxis. I typed the address into my phone. Kounoyama was half an hour away on foot. Perhaps less if I took my sandals off.
So I did.
The asphalt felt soothing to stand on. I passed the Abiko shrine, turned left before the hill that led back to the library, the lake and Mr. Blackmore’s hotel. If I followed Route 356 it would take me to the hills of Kounoyama and Emi’s old place. There was no traffic, and nobody walking around, but even so, I followed the main road along side-streets two blocks parallel to it. I really didn’t want to bump into Ono. The roads here were narrow, the hills steep. The concrete manshon apartment blocks gave way to wooden famari haitsu apartment buildings, then shacks of rusted iron and scorched wood with gas canisters chained under the front porch.
No one was around, including Ono.
I came to four wooden huts standing on an overgrown lot of gravel and weeds. A sign in English with peeling, faded paint hung from a rusty chicken-wire fence: “Chateau Atami”. The first of the huts, according to the faded red postal box, was 4-205 Kounoyama. I stepped past an upturned concrete breeze block that had a rusting umbrella stuffed in one end.
There was a spy-hole in the door, but no doorbell. So I knocked.
No answer.
I knocked again.
A shadow crossed the spy-hole on the other side of the door.
“Emi?” I said. “Is that you?”
No sound.
“Emi, I’m here to help. I thought you were in Ishinomaki!”
I looked straight ahead at the spy-hole and waited. The light from it went dark again. There was somebody there.
The door opened a crack, all that the chain on the other side would allow.
“Emi?”

***

Start the novel from Chapter 1 here or use the next/previous arrow keys to flip through the book.

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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.

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