11:51

I skipped over the muddy trail I’d left coming in and brushed through the noren curtain marking the exit to the main lobby. The woman who had been for a smoke was behind the counter. She squinted her eyes and was about to speak, I had to make this work. I cut her off.
“Excuse me, I don’t wish to bother you, but there is a strange girl in the baths. An impostor. I think she didn’t pay. She has awfully smelly clothes. I think she might be one of those Chinese gangsters, you know?”
She didn’t know, but she looked up startled and picked up the phone. I was pretty sure she was less scared of Chinese gangsters than a Keisei High School senior’s complaint to Papa.
I didn’t hang around to find out. I wanted to get out of there. And I was starving.
I grabbed the only pair of shoes that looked like high schooler’s leather shoes. I ran into the empty car park and slipped the shoes on. They pinched my toes, but they would have to do. I jogged to the main road and turned right down the hill to a Lawson convenience store.
The doors to the convenience store slid open automatically.
“Welcome honoured customer!” an old lady sang out.
I ran my fingers over the soft lamb leather of Mayumi’s wallet. Three crisp ¥10,000 notes. She could have bought a hotel room at The Akasaka Prince Hotel with half the money. But in Abiko, it meant all the rice balls and instant ramen a girl could desire.
I bought three natto rice balls and a cup noodle. I peeled back the lid of my polystyrene cup and pressed the hot water button on the kettle beside the counter. I sat down on a stool between an ATM and a photocopier at a chipboard counter that ran along the wall-length store window overlooking the parking lot. A home-made advertisement on the notice board for the ABC Happy English School.
“You learn, we’re happy! Let’s Beautiful English!”
I unplugged the photocopier, plugged in my phone to charge it.
My back was to the entrance when he came in.
Boots crunched on the concrete of the floor as the door slid open.
“Welcome honoured customer!” the clerk sang out again.
“Where’s your notice board?” I recognised the confident voice. Sgt. Watanabe from the lake.
“Next to where the honoured customer is sitting.”
He walked up behind me. I could smell the cold of the lake, and tobacco from his uniform.
He hit some buttons on the photocopier and swore to himself.
“Excuse me, Miss.”
I ducked my head down and stuck my nose into my cup noodle, shuffling my stool further under the counter, ramming my knees against the window. I didn’t dare turn to face him.
He breezed past and staple-gunned a poster to the notice board. Even with the faintest dart of my eyes I could make out the black letters: “Wanted.” There was a blurry picture of an elementary school student with jet-black hair. The student looked like…

Hana Walker
on Suspicion of Murder
¥10,000,000 reward
I gagged. I couldn’t breathe. I could feel the policeman staring at me. If he started to talk to me, what would I do? I was trapped. Trapped, trapped, trapped.
“Late night studying?” he said to me.
I nodded, but didn’t look his way.
“Exams can be hell. But you should get yourself home. It’s not safe to be out this late.”
I nodded.
He strode to the door. It swished open. For a moment he paused.
“You, lady. You need to get your photocopier fixed.”
And then he was gone.
I sat. I breathed. When I moved again my cup noodle had gone stone cold in my hands.
I needed to sleep. I needed to eat. I needed help. But most of all, I needed to plug the photocopier back in.
I looked around. The clerk was stacking shelves. No one else there. I unplugged my phone charger and plugged the photocopier back in.
I studied the wanted poster.
The picture was me all right. Just the wrong person, wrong place, wrong time. It was back when I’d dyed my hair black. Mama and Papa were alive. It was a blow-up from an elementary graduation trip group shot. We’d gone to Nikko. To climb the steps up to Tokugawa’s tomb. Mama had just stopped smoking. She’d had a scare. I’d messed up my exams and couldn’t get in to the cheap public junior highs. All that was left were the expensive private schools. For the kids with Papas who could afford entrance fees for their children and chemotherapy for their wives.
But I didn’t understand the poster. Put some adjectives on me and I disappeared. I was a “dangerous” fugitive. A “foreign” killer. How did they get my name so quickly? And a picture?
Then I saw two red lights flashing. Coming along the road from the baths. A cold sweat ran down my scalp to the back of my neck.
I ran through the konbini store car park. I could take my chances in the open on the main road or go back the way I’d come to the lake. Not much of a choice. OK, back then, back down the gravel path down the hill to the lake. On my right was an apple orchard. I darted between a row. I could hear my Papa’s voice now: “Apples in Japan are three times bigger than in England. You can’t compare apples with apples…”
Someone was coming down the path from the Lawson’s in a hurry. A cop with a flashlight.
The trees were too narrow to hide behind. But were easy to climb.
I shimmied up a tree, two in from the path edge. I got as high up as I could and stayed as still as I could. It wasn’t the best place to hide. I was only two meters off the ground, but it was all there was.
The man walked the length of the orchard, shining his light across the rows of tree trunks. He came to my tree. The light shone down the empty row.

***

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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