2:52

I slipped my phone into my pocket. I couldn’t get the stink of Ishinomaki off my hands or my boots, or maybe it was just in my mind. I had a bad feeling about meeting at the water museum, but I told myself it was a chance to find Emi and end this. I wish I hadn’t been so convincing.
From the observation deck on the fifth floor of the water museum you could see all around Abiko, the rice paddies, the lake and the fibreglass swan pedal boats under the highway bridge. But I didn’t feel like looking at water, I’d seen enough of what it could do for a lifetime. There was one other place I could get into unnoticed, where no one else ever went.
The Abiko Municipal Museum of Birds, right across the road from the water museum.
The whole third floor is full of dead birds. They dangle from the ceiling or are in glass coffins like they were about to take off or swoop down on a mouse, not like they’d had their insides sucked out and been glued in position forever. Harmony between birds and humans, it says so in the museum entrance.
I used to go to the bird museum as a primary school kid and spend hours pressing the buttons on the displays. The buttons made little robot bird-leg displays light up on the wall and move. We can make a flashing light show, we can stuff the birds, we can put them in glass boxes, but we can’t be them. We don’t really know anything about them.
Or life. Or water. Not anymore.
When I got to the bird museum, dozens of old folks were milling around in the lobby. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was good because I didn’t have any money for the ticket to get in. I skipped through the crowds and dashed for the stairs toilets. I hoped the clerk behind the window on the ground floor hadn’t seen me. The old folks didn’t seem to care I was dressed like a priest’s assistant, wearing boots, covered in mud. They didn’t look so normal. They were all wearing yellow duck-shaped cardboard hats with ‘Japan National Bird Festival’ printed on the sides.
I cleaned up the best I could in the toilets and went up the stairs. Through the third-floor windows I could see everything at the water museum across the road. Scores of people were wandering between the museums, like the earthquake hadn’t changed a thing. But it was a festival without any fun, unless you counted the paper-scissors-rock competition between five grey-haired women. A line of jet-black-haired old men on the lakeside had telephoto lenses propped on poles. An old guy in a parking attendant uniform was shouting “All right, all right, all right” into his megaphone, directing a bus load of duck-heads. The driver was backing up too fast for the old man to keep up.
Whatever happened next, I had done what I’d promised to do, brought together father and daughter. And mother and yakuza. Now I was just watching. Anything that happened was not going to be my fault. So why did I feel shaky? Very shaky.
I felt in my robe pocket. It was my phone vibrating.
“Hello?”
“Answer the phone, would you? Trouble.” It was Uncle Kentaro.
I looked out of the window. The only person without a duck hat was a woman going to the water museum main entrance. She was wearing a winter duffel coat that made me sweat just looking at it. Her head flitted around the crowd, a nervous coot in a flock of ducks.
“I can see Emi’s mother. She’s going in. No sign of Emi, though.”
“Forget her, we’ve got two policemen by the entrance. That’s not ideal since we’re meeting yakuza. A fat one, waiting for the elevator in the water museum. He’s going up to the observation deck. Take the stairs and meet me in the lobby.”
A bell rang and I turned. The lift button behind me was flashing. Arrival imminent.
“I’ll be there in a minute, Uncle Kentaro.”
I dashed for the stairs. Heard the strain of the lift doors opening behind me. I ran, taking the steps four at a time, not looking behind, not looking ahead.
Were those footsteps behind me? It was hard to tell. Piped lift music played in the stairwell. But who used stairs these days? Yakuza? I heard footsteps and gruff talk in front of me.
“…getting there…”
I jumped round the corner, falling down the last flight. Round the corner I flew—
Into the arms of a startled grandpa.
His duck hat went flying. “Sorry!” I shouted behind me as I yanked open the glass doors to dash across the street, squeezing past a black Lexus as it made a right turn into the stalled traffic. I skidded into the lobby of the water museum. Uncle Kentaro, with a duck hat, tried but failed to close his mouth.
“Hi, Uncle Kentaro,” I said, catching my breath as the glass sliding doors entrance shut behind me.
I skipped between two policemen standing to attention at the door.
“I thought you were watching from the observation deck?”
“I was. But from across the road, in the bird museum.”
“Don’t you ever do as you’re told?”
“I try to. But I’m not good at following orders.”
“Does doing your own thing entitle you to look a mess? We don’t want to make a scene.”
“Is that why you’re wearing that duck hat?”
“There’s no shame in appearing to fit in, even if you don’t. Anyway, I see the police are waiting for someone. Maybe they got wind of something. Not hard considering how much you stink. It’s good to see you, but you should change.”
“No time. You told me to contact everyone, so I did. I sent a message to Ono. And called Mr. Blackmore and Emi’s Mama. She’s over there.”
She was standing in a group of duck-heads beside a two-meter high steel ball sculpture of a raindrop in the centre of the lobby. She hadn’t seen me.
“I told her Emi was alive, would be here. She is, right? And how did you get to Ishinomaki? Tell me the truth, Uncle.”
He sucked his teeth, and ran a hand through his hair. Then he sucked his teeth some more and looked at his watch.
“OK, I’ll tell you, but first, where’s Blackmore? He’s late.”
I looked at my phone. “It’s 2:58. He’s not late.”
“Two minutes early is late for something of importance. What is wrong with you people?”
“You people?”
“You people who can’t keep time, can’t do what you’re told.”
“It’s no big deal, we’ll improvise. Let’s round up everyone, bring them to the family restaurant down the road, have a hamburg set. You can have a bowl of soba noodles and we’ll give Mr. Blackmore a mixed pizza. I think he’d like that.”
Uncle Kentaro spat out the words: “No big deal? Improvise? Mixed pizza? That’s your solution is it? That’s your code, your way of life? Dishonouring others?”
“It’s just a plan. We can change the plan. It’s nothing to do with dishonour. Mr. Blackmore’s exhausted. He’s lost his daughter and found her again, and lost her again and, I don’t know, I can’t keep up. He’ll be here in a bit. It’s just a few minutes, he doesn’t know the town. He doesn’t mean it as an insult.”
“Listen, princess, it’s all about dishonour. Nobody forced him to come here. By not being here he insults everyone who arrived on time.”
“Everyone who arrived here two minutes early?”
“If he doesn’t know the town, then he should allow longer to get here. If he can’t keep his word on something that is ‘no big deal’ how can we trust his word on anything that is a big deal? It’s an insult. Besides,” Uncle Kentaro nodded toward the lift doors as Ono stepped out, “you can bet the yakuza know the meaning of punctuality.”
Then Mr. Blackmore dashed into the lobby. He was panting. He saw me and smiled. The colour drained from Emi’s Mama’s face. Ono grinned at me from the lift.
“The gang’s all here,” Uncle Kentaro said.
Emi’s Mama was still standing in the display area beside the shiny metal ball. The four of us: Ono, Mr. Blackmore, Uncle Kentaro and I threaded our way from different corners of the room through the duck-head old folks standing around to Emi’s Mama.
We all came to a stop beside the metal ball. Ono smoothed his shirt. Mr. Blackmore stared at Emi’s Mama. Uncle Kentaro looked at me. I cleared my throat to begin.
But I never managed to say anything.
A loudspeaker blasted out “Welcome the Patron of the Japan National Bird Festival, president of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, His Royal Highness Prince Akishino.”
The Beatles’ “Help!” echoed around the room.
The duck-heads milling around, pushed past us, flocking for the entrance.
A short middle-aged man, with grey wavy hair parted in the centre and a big fat black moustache, waved mechanically in the entrance. So this was what a real live prince looked like? Applause. Clapping to the beat of the song.
Everyone was watching him.
“Konna namaiki na busu shinjae!”
Somebody pushed something cold into my hands. I turned to Emi’s Mama.
“Help me,” she whispered but slumped forward, into my arms, knocking me backwards to the ground.
My head hit the concrete floor.
There was no sound from her, no sound from anywhere.
“Uncle Kentaro, help! Uncle Kentaro?” I scuttled backwards free of Emi’s Mama.
“Mr. Blackmore? Emi? Uncle Kentaro!”
I heard shrieks now.
The shrieking wasn’t coming from near me. It echoed all around. The old women in duck hats were staring, pointing and backing away from me. On the floor in front of me was a mess of bloody meat. Staring back at me, reflected in the orb was a teenage girl covered in mud and blood. She was breathing like an animal. She had a steel hammer in her hand. It was covered in skin, blood and hair. She looked familiar, but…
It was me.
There was no music now. All around me people stared. From the other side of the room came two sets of footsteps hard on the concrete floor. Then they stopped. Unsure what to do next? I could make out the green light of the fire escape exit. Escape.
I ran.
The only sounds I remember were the hammer clattering to the floor, and the alarm as I pushed my way out into the open. With the words Konna namaiki na busu shinjae running through my head: Die you insolent bitch.

***

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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