“Back in the land of the living?” I sat up. I was shivering. My back was stiff. And my head was killing me. I could see stars, real ones, in the sky. And a dim glow from distant street lights. Traffic far off, and bull frogs croaking nearby. I stank. I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. Something was seriously wrong, and it was my fault, but I couldn’t think what.
In front of me, a Santa Claus in rags sat on an overturned Kirin beer crate with a kitten on his knee. There were a dozen cats around him. And a samurai sword scabbard leaned against the beer crate.
“You’re the guy who directed traffic after the earthquake. In Kashiwa.”
“Here.” he held on to the kitten by the scruff of its neck in one hand and passed me a plastic mug with the other. Cold green tea. Bitter.
“You gave Grandpa O and Mishima-kun here a fright. With all that blood on you, I thought you were at death’s door. But Grandpa O’s cleaned you up, best he could with this lake water, and his children’s help.”
“Where am I?”
“Well, Mishima-kun here found you in his ditch. He guessed you must have fallen off the path and taken a tumble into the rice paddy by our blessed Teganuma.”
“You cleaned me up with the lake water?”
“It’s water from the lake all right. Don’t worry, it’s not the dirtiest in the country anymore! Grandpa O should know. Grandpa O’s been living out here since before you were born and he saw it with his own eyes. It was a night like this, cold and clear, 30 years ago. But that was before they built the bridge and the houses got closer to the lake. Only if you were a kid who wanted to fish before sun-up would you have seen them. A gang of thugs, backed three trucks to the lake’s edge and rolled the drums into the lake. Back then, in the ’60s, we used to dump any old thing in the lake. You did what you could to live and you didn’t ask questions. But those hundred drums were trouble. See, when they built those atomic energy plants, nobody knew what to do with the spent fuel rods. They still don’t, but they know you are not supposed to dump them in lakes. Anyway, this swamp of a lake is much cleaner since they pulled the rusted old drums by barge at night and sank them in the Pacific. Then they opened the flood gates and pumped all the waste out to sea down the Tonegawa. But I wouldn’t recommend eating the fish. That was all before your time. Don’t worry about the water being clean now.”
“No, I meant you cleaned me up.”
“No need to thank me. It was my pleasure.”
I patted myself down.
“Where’s my phone and my boots?”
“Didn’t expect you’d be needing your phone. It’s not like you’d be wanting to phone the police or anything. They were looking for you earlier tonight, by the way. But those city boys don’t know this swampland like Grandpa O. He was here back before you were born. That was when they used to warn kids not to come down here, when people used to lose their balance and drown out here looking for crayfish. Which reminds me. That’s what’s for supper. But, Grandpa O can’t cook them, they’ll know we’re here if we light a fire, so you’ll just have to have them live. I did have some cucumber and pickle, but you know Grandpa O and cucumbers.”
“No I don’t. I’m not hungry, I’m cold. Where are my boots?”
“You do ask a lot of questions. There’s a lot Grandpa O doesn’t know. But there’s lot he does. Grandpa O can help you, and he likes to play games. Let’s play one now. You can ask Grandpa O a question. Then he can ask you a question. Whoever can answer the best of three is the winner. If you win, you can go free. If Grandpa O wins, you must stay here with him tonight, and who knows? You may want to stay with him for much longer than that. Truly a win-win situation.”
He smiled, and grabbed a crayfish from a bucket. He ripped off its head with his teeth, spat the head to the ground and tossed the squirming remains to the cats. They darted off into the undergrowth, but came back to toy with it.
“Who’s to blame for Japan’s malaise?” he asked.
“You can’t answer a question with a question. Answer me: why has Japan fallen from being the second in the world to only the United States to being third in the world? Whose fault?”
“It wasn’t mine.”
“Well, it was your generation. It was the herbivores of your generation. The men aren’t eating enough meat. They’ve lost the appetite for battle, they want only to do their hair and play video games. They don’t want to work. They are scared of being sent abroad. They don’t know the meaning of sacrifice. That’s why. One-zero to Uncle O. Your turn.”
“Where’s my telephone?”
“It’s in my pocket. My turn. Who is Japan’s greatest enemy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Grandpa O does. Foreigners, that’s who. We were weak after the war. The Americans had their weapons of terror and the Russians and Chinese wanted our land. But that was then. We have sold our souls to Americans, allowed the Russians to occupy our northern islands and have worked ourselves to the bone to give our American brothers the cars they need to keep them driving to the shopping malls to buy more Chinese-made T-shirts to put on their fat kids between tours of duty raiding the Third World so they can keep their cheap oil that keeps their Japanese cars running so they can go to their shopping malls to buy more Chinese goods.”
“We have shopping malls too.”
“Shopping malls. Grandpa O was with the others as we begged for scraps from our Uncle Sam. He wasn’t the only one who shook his fists at the jets circling the lake. But he’s old enough to remember the Zeros that used to take off from just over the lake to defend Tokyo from the firebombing B-29s. Japan was going down to defeat, but not for the most-honoured pilots who laid down their lives to defend Tokyo. They flew from the airfields of Inzai. Now what’s there? Apartment cell blocks, a commuter station and shopping malls.”
“And Joyful Honda. I’ve got to go. Where are my boots?”
“Your made-in-China moulded plastic slave shoes you mean? Returned to nature, in the lake. That’s two-zero to Grandpa O. One more and you’ll be here all night. My turn. How can we turn Japan round, how can we become the nation our forefathers worked themselves to death for?”
“Ha! That’s what your generation deserves but not our parents’ generation. Anyway, you are answering with questions again. Let Grandpa O tell you, we need a new generation, brought up on the old Buddhist values of hard work, respect for elders, but with the guts necessary for the new problems that we face. Forget forgiveness and days of rest. What this country needs is a seven-day work week. Our ancestors understood this. Work is the goal, the reason for our existence. Work is not something to be avoided or done half-heartedly like the Christians who can’t wait for their Friday night escape.”
Escape. There was an idea. I could make out the highway bridge to my right.
“The next generation cannot be so soft and they don’t have to be so soft. Just as we Japanese have learned to be soft, we can learn to be strong again. With the proper amounts of protein. Don’t you see?”
The lake was in front of me.
“Yes, look around you,” he said, “this…this is the project that will raise Japan.”
I looked. I saw a tramp in a swamp and his cats.
“These are my children. They are pure bloods. They are the 19th generation that I have raised by my just hand. Now, you know what cats eat?”
I was on the Abiko side of the lake.
“Not these, no. Mishima-kun eats meat. In a matter of 19 generations I have taught my creations to eat raw meat. Do you know what this means?”
“It’s a cat?”
“Yes! A true cat! They are no longer omnivores, they are true carnivores! I have changed their destiny! If I can change their destiny, why not Japan? My children represent nothing less than the future of the nation.”
“But cats naturally eat meat.”
If I could get away from Grandpa O, with my phone, if I could make it to the bridge, then…
“But there is one meat they haven’t had till now.”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is the future of this nation and you will play your part.”
“I’m tired now, I need to go.”
“Well that could be difficult,” he said, “partly because you have failed to pose even one remotely difficult question to Grandpa O. And partly, well mostly, because you have been drinking some of Grandpa O’s potent muscle relaxant.
“Very soon you won’t be able to move at all and your meat will be palatable to my children.”
“Grandpa O’s going to feed you to his cats.”
“You’re mad. People will miss me and come looking for me. What are you thinking?”
“Well, now missy, you are right that people are looking for you. The police for one. They’ve already been through here once asking after a girl covered in blood. Seems a lady was killed a few hours ago in the museum. You know all about that, don’t you?
“But don’t worry, they will never find you. My children will see to that. There will be no trace left but your bones, and I’ll drop them off in the lake. To be honest, you should thank me, at least your pointless life will come to an end and you’ll be recycled for the benefit of your nation. If only we could all die so nobly. Come to think of it, I can’t believe our luck. A little murderous resolve will do wonders for my children’s future. Are you still listening?”
I would have got up and run away or screamed someone cares if I die! But I didn’t have the willpower. I could barely keep my eyes open. Maybe my time was up, if I didn’t focus. Focus. Emi. My job was to find Emi.
His kitten was nibbling at my hand.
I reached out, and the cat sniffed me while climbing gradually onto my palm.
“What are you doing?” Grandpa O said, though I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or the kitten.
The old man rose shakily to his feet and came within grabbing distance, but the kitty was in my palm and I closed my hand around it and brought it to my chest.
“One more step,” I said, “and Mishima-kun gets it.”
he old man froze.
“Not my Mishima-kun.”
“Your Mishima-kun is mine now, unless you do exactly as I say. If you want to mess with a murderer, I’ll give you a run for your money.” If I wasn’t so unsure of my legs.
“Put my phone on the crate and step back five paces. Do it!”
And he did. Now what? Papa had told me that you should always carry loose change with a few notes in an easily reachable pocket. That way if you are ever mugged in New York, you could throw the loose change on the floor and run in the opposite direction. Bad guys would rather go for the loose change than bother with you. That probably wasn’t such good advice for a girl in a swamp armed only with a kitten. But it was all I had.
“Goodbye kitty,” I said and tossed Mishima-kun as hard as I could to the left toward the lake and made a dash for the right toward the bridge.
That was the plan, but Mishima-kun only flew as far as the bucket of crayfish. I grabbed my phone, but couldn’t manage much more than a shuffle.
Grandpa O fished through the bucket. I made it through the clearing to a path. To my right was the water museum and the bridge beyond that. To my left, the swampland of Grandpa O and his children.
I veered right.
I couldn’t move much faster than walking speed and it wouldn’t be long before Grandpa O had rescued his cat. Then it would be him against me again. In my state I didn’t like the odds.
I cut straight over the path and stumbled though meter-high reeds into the lake. If I couldn’t beat him on land, maybe I could in water. A chorus of bull frogs masked my splashes. It was pitch black by the shoreline. If I could get to the other side of the lake, I had it made. But out in the middle of the lake I would be easy to pick out in the light of the moon. I didn’t trust my chances to swim to the other side. By the shoreline it was shallow, unlit, and covered by reeds.
The lake water sent a shock through my legs. My toes touched slime and sharp pebbles on the lake bottom. I slogged through the knee-deep muck, keeping the shoreline to my right, and my head beneath the tops of the reeds. I doubted Grandpa O could hear me over the frogs. But that meant I couldn’t hear him.
Then, 10 centimetres in front of me, a silver shaft of metal sliced through the reeds. The blade lowered then withdrew.
I froze, held my breath. Should I duck, sink into the mud, hold my ground, or scream out? My legs shook and sweat ran down my temples.
The blade was a good meter in front of me. I stayed where I was.
Now the blade was several paces in front of me. If it was lightning, then the thunder was getting further away. Just hang around here a little longer and the storm would pass.
“Hey, you there. What are you doing?”
Someone was standing on the path three meters from the water’s edge. “Thank God you are here officer,” Grandpa O said, “I’ve cornered the killer.”
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.