11:55

I checked my phone. Five minutes before my noon meeting with the yakuza. I’d picked the most public place I could think of: Route 6, the busiest road, with buses to Tokyo if I needed to get away, and trains to Ueno. There were too many people around for the gangsters to do me in. Although, thinking about it, that hadn’t saved Emi’s Mama.
Best not to think about it.
The car park was full of family vans and mini cars, the kind that Emi’s Mama had driven.
And one big, black Mercedes with blacked-out windows.
The restaurant was in front of me. Bikkuri Donkey—Surprise Donkey. People line up to eat here because there are expired U.S. license plates nailed to the walls. And the menus of hamburg set meals are displayed in little wooden frames.
There was no line today.
“Smoking or non?”
“Get me the president!”
“Who?”
“Sorry, I just always wanted to say that. Shachou. Arai-san? He’s expecting me.”
The waitress raised an eyebrow. “He’s the man with a cigarette in the non-smoking section.”
He was sitting with his back to the wall in a four-seat alcove. His shoulders filled enough space for two people on his side of the table. Opposite him was Ono. He had on oversize shades and a suit which barely fitted his fat body.
He saw me and sneered: “Well, if it isn’t the half-caste. Shitpants, glad you could find us.”
“Hi, glad to see you are better dressed than the last time you took me for a spin.”
Ono sneered some more. Shachou pointed with his unlit cigarette for me to sit next to Ono.
“No, I’ll stand,” I said.
“If the president wants you to sit, it means you sit.”
Shachou flicked his left hand at Ono, smacking him on the side of the head.
“Tea,” he barked, “and take your time.”
Ono scurried off to the serve-yourself drink bar.
“Don’t be silly, sit girl.”
I didn’t move.
“Please,” he whispered.
I sat down slowly, opposite him.
I smelled the nicotine on his fingers before I heard his hoarse whisper. I dared not meet his gaze, so I looked down at his hands. Old. Tough. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt over a white skin-tight wet-suit top that covered his arms completely. His baseball cap had USS Invincible on it.
He was whispering at me again.
He didn’t smile.
“You look like a smart chick. Let me give you the talk. We’re everywhere. We’re not just here for the fun things in life, like a little, er, night fling, a flutter on the sumo. Business bad? Out of a job? Who’s gonna lend you the cash to keep the kids in cram school and wife in new shoes? Not the fat cats at the big city bank. They don’t need you, they only deal with the blue bloods at the top of the pile. You need a place to live…?”
“No, I’m staying with my uncle.”
“Don’t interrupt… I know where you live. Want to know what your boyfriend does? We’re your cop. Or vice versa, don’t want him to find out what you do? We’re your teacher. Got trouble with some thieving Koreans? We’ll sort the bastards out. Now us, we know where you live, we’re your neighbour. Sure, you don’t like us to bathe in the public baths with you, but when trouble comes knocking, we’re right where you are. Where there’s life, there’s yakuza.”
I flinched.
“You heard me. Take you for example. You’re hafu. Like the girl we’re looking for. It takes a hafu to find a hafu, that’s what I think. But you’re what? Nineteen? Twenty?”
“Nineteen.”
“Don’t interrupt. So young. Mind you, I was married by then and had a kid on the way. So maybe you know enough about life. You can sniff the air, as they say.”
Then he didn’t say anything else. He just stared at my face, drumming his cigarette on the table.
It set my mind wondering. You used to be able to smoke on airplanes. Papa said the Russians were the worst. On Aeroflot they used to split the plane down the middle, with non-smokers on the left, smokers on the right. In downtown Tokyo you can’t smoke on the street during rush-hour, but pop into any Doutor coffee shop for a thimbleful of coffee and you had to squint your eyes while ordering to keep the nicotine from burning your eyes out.
But you are not allowed to smoke in non-smoking sections in a Bikkuri Donkey.
The waitress came striding towards us. As she did, he noticed her. “It’s getting hot, huh?”
He stuck his cigarette in his mouth and rolled his left sleeve up. His arm had a tattoo of a dragon’s tail wrapped all the way down to his wrist.
The waitress stopped in her path, and turned back to the cash till.
“You sure can’t get the job done if you can’t roll your sleeves up, know what I mean? But a smart girl like you. You can speak English, right? Bet you could go to college, right? You should. And you know, you still could. Just don’t do anything stupid. Hana-chan, this is the big one. Don’t blow it. Don’t let your past eat your future, I tell all my friends.”
“That’s what Aunt Tanaka said. I don’t want anything to do with you, we’re not friends.”
“We got off on the wrong foot. It was regrettable,” he said. Then he cocked his head to one side.
“Hey, waitress, get me a plate of, what do you call it, Italian soba?”
The waitress smiled. “You mean spaghetti, honoured customer?”
“Whatever. You ever eaten this stuff, Hana-chan?”
“Spaghetti? Once or twice.”
“Make it two then,” he said to the waitress.
“Anything else?”
“Yeah. Get me a child’s hamburg set meal for the boy, wherever the hell he got to.”
The waitress backed away.
“You sent him to make tea,” I said.
“Yeah. Ono can’t make tea worth a damn, but it’s not right I should pour my own drinks.”
“Why not? You’re too important?”
“No, not so much that. It offends Ono. He wants to be in awe of his boss. If I didn’t behave like the boss, he wouldn’t like it.”
“Have you asked him what he likes?”
“Why would I do a dumb-ass thing like that? For a smart chick, you’re pretty stupid. If I acted like I valued his opinion, I couldn’t be the kind of boss he expects.”
“I don’t get it.”
“If he thought he wasn’t working for the meanest, baddest gangster in the whole of Abiko, do you think he would be happy?”
“But you are the meanest, baddest gangster in town, aren’t you?
“Sure.”
“So, why do you have to hide?”
He was going to answer, but Ono came back with two teas.
Shachou pointed the cigarette at me: “Maybe your mother never listened to anyone either, was pig-headed and did it her own way. But you know what? I bet she cared.”
“I care.”
“No, you don’t. If you cared about yourself, you wouldn’t be in the state you’re in. If you cared about your future you wouldn’t have crossed us. Unless you have some master plan…”
We both spoke at once: “Why did you kill Emi’s mother?”
We stared at each other. Was he playing games with me? Did he not know? A cold sweat filled my head. Why would he kill a woman with no money and nothing to do with the yakuza? Then came an even more uncomfortable feeling. Why would he sit opposite me chatting to me if he thought I was the killer? Where was Mr. Blackmore?
The waitress shuffled over, with a manager cowering behind her even though he was taller.
“I’m sorry honoured customers, we cannot serve you. I’m afraid there are rules…” she said.
“I haven’t lit up,” said Shachou.
“It isn’t that. I’m afraid we can’t serve any members of, er, an anti-social group. It’s against Abiko municipal ordinances.”
Ono was on his feet, in the face of the assistant manager: “Do you know who you are talking to asshole…?”
“It’s not worth it,” Shachou mumbled, rising to his feet, his paper napkin floating to the ground like a dead maple leaf in December.
I stared at him. He shrugged.
“We all have to choose our battles. Let’s go. There’s a 7-Eleven across the road. We’ll get some rice balls.”
Ono pushed his way past the assistant manager. The man stared at me. Then lowered his head as if he was ashamed. Like he couldn’t help but stare. Like he’d seen me before. I ducked my head and hurried out the door.
It was dark in the car park beneath the 7-Eleven sign. This was setsuden energy saving. There weren’t any lights on inside the konbini store, and the automatic doors were frozen in the open position. We stood outside as Ono went in. Shachou lit his cigarette. I turned to him to speak.
“What do I owe you, to clear my debts with you?”
“Start by bringing me the girl, Emi.”
“I’m not sure I can do that.”
“I’m sure you can, if you put your mind to it. Let me give you some free advice. You don’t have to hate everyone or mistrust everyone. You are like your father. Neither of you could let go of something that really bothered you. I respect that. But it’s a childish luxury. You can’t expect everything to fit neatly together. The strain of making things fit will kill you. Like it did your father.”
“What do you mean? What do you know about him?”
“Your father was going to blow the whistle on a standing arrangement we had with some very important people. People in the public eye. We tried to warn him off, but he wouldn’t listen. Tragic what happened to him.”
My stomach seized up.
“What are you saying? Papa didn’t kill himself? He was killed because he betrayed the yakuza?”
“Betrayed? To betray, you must first belong.”
Ono returned: “Rice ball, Hana?”
“I’ve lost my appetite.”
“In,” Shachou said, beckoning us both to follow him to the Mercedes.
Now would be a good time to run.

***

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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