Sgt. Watanabe was a couple of streets behind when the bus pulled in to Abiko Station. I pushed my way through the old folks to the front of the bus and ran up the station steps to the ticket machines under the “Let’s Shopping” poster.
Abiko Station has two lines—the Joban, an always-busy commuter line to Ueno in central Tokyo. And there was the line I would take, the always-empty Narita local service, a single track line to the airport nobody used since the fast trains from Tokyo started up.
So I knew something was wrong when I got to the escalator going down to Platform 2 for Narita and the platform was overflowing. I waded in to the mass of people all squeezed together, trying to force my way through. I couldn’t. But no one hunting me could pick me out. I limped forward with the press of the crowd. A thousand heels click-clacked on the metal steps of the escalator, locked in position to save energy. We all stopped as one.
Something was… wrong.
We shook. The ground swayed. Back and forth. People’s mobile phones were bleeping. An earthquake warning. Others were looking about for confirmation.
“It’s not just me, right?”
“That really was an aftershock?”
“I’d say it was a Shindo 4.”
“Magnitude 5.4, epicentre Ibaraki.”
I looked at the walls, asking my own questions. “Will the roof hold? Where is safe? Is this where I want to die? Where is Emi?”
And it passed. We all resumed moving, and shared smiles. So sorry we panicked there, we didn’t really think we were going to die, honest.
All escalators were off, as were the lights, and only a dim overcast sun penetrated the gloom. Were we at war? Who was the enemy? And what was I doing with this bloody pebble in my shoe?
The train was already full when it pulled in to the station. In my carriage there was a woman shouting Cantonese into her cell phone, a tall white man eating a sandwich, and a mother fussing at her daughter in French. All foreigners. Strange.
I took my place squeezed in with people by the doors, but manoeuvred myself to face the lucky ones sitting on the bench with their backs against the walls. I didn’t know who was pressing into my back, but I could look ahead. And I could breathe.
The Cantonese woman stopped shouting then glanced at my face and hair. What was different, what was the same? I could see her making the calculations. I chose to stare blankly beyond the sitting heads, to the world out of the window. Concrete buildings and the shuttered Mama and Papa iron-mongers and fruit stalls. Blue tarps on broken roofs. But no high watermarks. No dead fish. No real suffering here.
In 40 minutes the train took us further away from Tokyo towards Narita. The airport control tower looked out over fields.
My ears popped as the train entered a tunnel and squealed to a stop at a platform somewhere under Narita Terminal 1.
I went with the flow of the crowd, since there wasn’t any other choice. We slogged up the still escalators away from the harsh world of loudspeakers and concrete into the closeted terminal world of carpeted walls.
The crowd slowed to a standstill as male and female guards in white gloves rifled through bags. I broke into a cold sweat. I was on the run for murder, only here there was nowhere to run.
“ID please,” said a woman in a navy blue fake-police uniform.
“I’m just here to meet someone, not to fly.”
“Of course. But no one comes in without a picture ID.”
“I don’t have a passport.”
“I don’t need your passport, just a picture ID.”
“Of course.” I reached for the student ID of Mayumi Okami, but held my thumb over the picture. In bad light, I might have passed for her, but not here under the eyes of a security guard. I held my breath.
“Let me see that…” she said.
But there was another aftershock. A few of the foreigners in the crowd screamed, and people jostled forward. A woman lost her balance and hit the floor. The guard glanced at the name on my ID and handed it me back to pick the woman up off the floor. I threw my phone and wallet into the tray for the x-ray machine and strolled through the metal detector gate.
And breathed again.
In the departure hall it was chaos. The boards said all flights were delayed. British Airways had emergency flights to Hong Kong. There were people of every nationality in the concourse trying to buy tickets out of the country, or trying to find out information about flights somewhere. Anywhere but here.
But if this wasn’t your home why would you stay? If it was, why would you stay? Why was I here? Where would I go, if not here?
I slumped down on a bench closest to the exit doors. I could see everyone coming in and could get to the street faster from here. But I didn’t have a passport or any money. Or a home to go to. There was nowhere for me to flee. I fumbled for my phone and looked down. No signal in the building. Time – 8:22 a.m.
A voice over my left shoulder said “You’re late. But I’ll give you a break this time.”
“Uncle Kentaro. Where’s Emi? Why did you bring me here? And what was the deal with the pebble?”
“All in good time. First, follow me.”
I followed him. He followed a yellow tape pasted onto the floor. It led to a bank of seats bolted together in two rows of ten. So many different people, but all had the same expressions, like family around a deathbed.
We sat side by side, in chairs bolted together.
“Well?” I said.
He sucked his teeth.
“Well… let me tell you a story. If I tell you the emperor died after the empress, you’ll get the order of who died first confused. But if I tell you the emperor died of a broken heart, you’ll remember. Did he really die of a broken heart? What does it matter? You’ve remembered the true order.”
“Is the emperor dead?”
“No, no. Put it another way, we need stories to teach us what’s important. Are they true? It doesn’t matter. Their truth is the information they impart. But I can’t tell you everything, because you never listen to what you are told. Just look at the mess you made in the water museum.”
“That wasn’t my fault.”
“Think about what happened and why.”
“I don’t know why. Why are we here?”
“You want to know why I brought you here, sometimes the best way is to show not tell. Takes a lot longer and maybe wastes time, but it works out better in the long run. Trust me, let me show you. Look around.”
“What do you see?”
A woman in her 30s but wearing a short Burberry yellow plaid skirt, a green beret with a pink T-shirt. She was waving her arms around when she spoke.
“People trying to fit in, but who don’t belong.”
English in front, Cantonese behind.
“Do you think they are different from us?”
A Filipino woman using her reflection in her iPhone to check her makeup.
“I’m not them. They see me and they see Japanese. I see them, and I see foreigners.”
A Korean girl wearing a red baseball cap, orange hair waving behind.
“Are you Japanese?”
A teenage boy wearing an embroidered silk green baseball jacket with Japan written on it.
“It’s what my passport said when I was born.”
Possibly an American wearing a Cambridge University T-shirt.
“Which passport? Don’t you have two? A British one too?”
“I have to choose which. I chose Japanese, because I live here.”
“But if you lived in Britain, you would choose your British passport. Do you think people would see you as Japanese?”
Some western faces but 90 percent were other.
“Maybe. But I am who I am.”
They looked Japanese but the styles were a couple of seasons old.
“So, you are the same person, no matter where you are, whatever your papers say?”
Uncle Kentaro held my hand in both of his.
“So, these people, who choose to be in Japan, are different from you? Is it possible we’re all foreigners, wherever we live? That where you are born is incidental?”
“I didn’t choose my parent’s nationality.”
“Agreed. But then why let it define you? Let me show you something.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small green booklet.
I opened it, I couldn’t read it. I flipped to the picture ID page. It was Uncle Kentaro 10 years younger. And there was text written in English—Republic of Korea.
“You’re Korean?” I said.
“I didn’t choose my nationality. I was born to Korean parents. But after the war, we couldn’t return to Pyongyang. It was in the Communist North. Besides, Japan was our home. I was born in Japan. My parents spoke only Japanese to me. They wanted me to fit in. And I did, only now I cannot fit in to Korea. It’s no more my home than the USA, China or Britain. Japan is my home, but the papers I have tell me home is a foreign land. To hell with the paperwork.”
“You had to drag me to the airport, a place full of policeman and security guards, to show me that?”
“Showing is stronger than telling.”
“Well, tell me this: what’s the deal with the pebble?”
“Oh nothing, I read that in a thriller someplace. Apparently, the hardest thing to disguise is your height and your gait. Did the pebble work? Did it mess up your profile? I hope so! You didn’t leave it in your shoe the whole time did you?”
I bit my lip. He wiped the smirk off his face.
“It also works to beat a lie detector machine. Whenever you tell the truth, press on the pebble. When you lie, take your toe off the pebble. Your increased heart rate when lying won’t be picked up.”
“Where did you learn that? Is that true?”
“I’m well read. Truth is the best disguise.”
“No, Frisch. Max Frisch. Which brings me to an uncomfortable truth: We are in way over our heads. The fact is there are only two courses of action open to us: Go to the yakuza or go to the police. In the end, we will have to make our peace with both.”
“I don’t like either. There’s got to be another way.”
Kentaro sucked air through his teeth.
“Unless you’ve got friends in high places… What about that press secretary to the prime minister? He took a shine to you. The only other way is to beat everyone at their own game. You have to find Emi, hand her to her Papa, catch the killer, clear your name with the police and make peace with the yakuza.”
“Doesn’t sound like I have much chance.”
“I can improve the odds.”
He leaned close and whispered: “Emi’s with Aunt Tanaka. Neither can understand a word the other is saying, so they get on like a house on fire.”
“Of course. Fact is stranger than fiction, fiction has to make sense.”
“No, Mark Twain. But whatever the facts, we’ve got to figure out a plan.”
“Well, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
“No, my Mama.”
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.