The text message woke me up. Uncle Kentaro? I was sweating. In 12 hours Emi was supposed to be on a plane out of here.
I looked up. A girl in high-school knee-high socks was lying on a heart-shaped double bed. A purple bed. She was looking at me, with my phone lying beside her. I stuck my tongue out. She stuck her tongue out. How many sheets could a sheet splitter split, if a sheet splitter should split sheets?
“How many shits could a shit sleep shitter if a she shu shi sho?”
She couldn’t say it either. Good. It was me.
Then it all came together. I was lying on a love hotel bed looking at the ceiling mirror. A love hotel by the lake. I’d waited perfectly still in the orchard for the policeman to go, then followed the shoreline to Hotel Billy, a boxy building that could be anything if it weren’t for a giant manga tattooed naked woman painted on it. Painted over four floors.
The receptionist never saw my face. I paid through a slot in the wall at the counter, no questions asked.
And then I’d slept.
I rolled off the bed and went to the toilet. It was green, one of those traditional types, with the water flowing from an open pipe into the back of the toilet. So you can wash your hands in the water that refills the cistern after you flush. Push the handle left for big jobs or right for little ones.
I threw up. Twice. I pulled myself up, yanking the toilet lever to the left.
I stared at my hair. I needed a shower, but I knew I couldn’t hang around. I had to keep moving.
I inspected my phone again. 98% battery. I felt like I was on 2%. 6:46 a.m. If I wanted to rendezvous at Narita Airport, I had to move, now. Would have been nice to have had a valid passport with me.
I watched the water flow on top of the toilet run over a miniature rock pool, before refilling the toilet tank. Very sweet. I dry-heaved a couple of times, then flushed the toilet again, enjoying the sound of the water. I rinsed my hands in the flow and watched the water trickle over the little rocks some more.
Rocks. More like pebbles. I picked a smooth pebble from the basin, and kept it in my hand.
I opened the door and looked down the hallway. All clear. The door locked shut behind me automatically. There was no way back in. But no key to return to front desk.
The hallway was dark, freezing cold, and in almost as bad shape as I was. I was wearing somebody else’s clothes. My life’s savings amounted to the pocket of change on me, and a wad of cash I had not seen but already owed to the yakuza. Plus 10 percent. I had lost Emi. And the police wanted me for murder.
On the plus side, I had a trip to the airport and a pebble.
Keep pebble in shoe. It will save your life. I put the pebble in my shoe and shifted it between my toes. I could walk if I put all the weight on my heel that was sticking over the edge of my shoes anyway. What did I have to lose?
I was on the fourth floor. I passed on the lift and hobbled down the concrete stairs, which came out onto the lobby underneath a plastic palm tree. In front of me were the main entrance double doors of brown glazed glass. To the right, the check-in desk.
I couldn’t tell if the clerk was there through the single letter box hole in the wall for passing money. Maybe that meant he couldn’t see me. Fine by me. I walked through the lobby, but felt a sudden bite of pain in my foot. Bloody pebble. I bent over to take it out. That’s when I heard talking in the office.
It was Japanese, in an Indian accent.
“No, no, I can’t tell you. Saito-san said I can’t tell anything about the guests. Even to officials of the city. I don’t even know what it is that you do, but I can’t say, even to a police officer. I said the same thing to the city president.”
“Exactly. Who was he? I don’t know. I told him like I tell you, you want to know about any girl staying here, you better speak to Saito-san. I know who he is, he is my boss, and I need this job, I have two children to feed and a wife and a mother-in-law…”
“Don’t worry. Listen, Singh-san, I’m not interested in getting you into trouble. I don’t know anyone at immigration. I don’t think I need to talk to Saito-san. But this is police business. I need to know if anyone stayed here last night. Just between you and me.
“Well, if you must know, only two people came in last night. Only they didn’t stay in the same room.”
“In a love hotel, that’s unusual.”
“One was about 50—you can be telling a lot about a person’s age from their hands and their voice—and another a girl.
“I see. Would you mind telling me their names?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind telling you if I knew their names. But even if I had asked they would have said Watanabe-san or Ito-san.”
“It’s like my Japanese textbook all over again. ‘Why did Watanabe-san go to Osaka? Was it business or pleasure? He is a very diligent man, Watanabe-san, always punctual and efficiently working.’ Watanabe-san is just a textbook name. A made-up name.”
“My name’s Watanabe.”
“Better than Ito.”
“Tell me about the girl.”
“Well, you could tell she was in a bad way. Her hands, you see. Scrubbed clean, but you could see under the nails was still dirt. Lots of dirt, but she sounded sweet. Doesn’t belong here.”
“Doesn’t belong here? You mean she is still here?”
I’d heard enough, but the pebble was making a run for the door impossible.
I couldn’t think of anything, so I just shuffled under the money deposit hole in the wall and crouched around the corner—in full view of the entrance doors, but out of sight of the stairs. If I went for the front door, they’d know I was there. If anyone came in the front door I was caught.
I tucked my head under my folded arms and closed my eyes. I could hear a door sliding open. Wood on wood, not steel on steel. They had stopped talking. Then two sets of feet running into the lobby, then to the stairs.
Their footsteps went up the stairs.
It was time to move. I unrolled myself and ran at the front door. It slid open automatically, ringing a bell in the office. I was outside, but nowhere near a train or bus. But there was a bicycle in front of me.
A police bicycle.
I knew better than to steal a police bicycle. But letting the air out of the tires maybe wasn’t so bad. I unscrewed the black plastic caps and rammed my pebble into each until the hiss of air from each tire stopped.
And then I ran.
The hotel overlooked Teganuma. There was a single road that ran the length of the lake down the hill, past an old folks’ home, and to the bridge back to Abiko. I didn’t want to go back, but Abiko station was the best way to get to the airport. And what could be more natural than a high school student dashing to catch the train to meet friends from her posh Tokyo high school? On Sunday? In uniform?
I kept the pebble but didn’t put it back in my shoe. The gods would have to be upset with me, I didn’t want to lose a toe. I glanced at my phone. It was 7:01, but already the bridge was clogged with stop-and-go traffic queuing for the petrol station. There was a bus 200 meters away, stuck in the jam.
I made a dash for it, but there was no bus stop on the bridge. I managed to pass the bus as it crossed the bridge before the traffic picked up, and it passed me again at speed. I looked behind me, I could make out the hotel in the distance now. Was I also seeing two figures running out the doors?
The bus turned left onto the main road that led to Abiko station. I would be a good couple of hundred meters behind as I turned the corner. But a dozen passengers were standing at the bus stop. I hobbled to the end of the queue and gave a silent prayer to the god of salarimenwho makes them turn up for days missed due to an earthquake. I hobbled aboard.
Standing room only. Old folks. High school boys and girls. None with my uniform. Good. I didn’t feel like making small talk. In 10 minutes I’d be at the station, hidden in a crowd of day-trippers to Tokyo. An old man with no hair was staring at mine. I held on to a handle with one hand, with the other I smoothed my skirt. Men were pressing up against me. I couldn’t move away, couldn’t breathe. I could only turn outwards and face the window. The bus moved, we all moved. I looked up. A girl stared down at me from an advert above the bus handles.
Wanted. Dangerous fugitive. A foreign killer.
I bent down and put the pebble back in my shoe. A policeman was running with a bicycle at his side behind the bus.
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.