12:49

I could see Sgt. Watanabe reach for his gun as he stared at the passenger door, waiting for it to open. In a moment I’d be in handcuffs and looking at jail and the hangman’s noose.
I had done nothing with my life to be proud of.
Pride.
Pride was what makes a yakuza boss sit in the honoured rear seat by the curb-side door, which meant my door was on the roadside.
The seat shook beneath me as a bus horn blasted out—the Mercedes was blocking its way. Sgt. Watanabe looked away for a moment, shouted at the bus driver. He waved the bus to stop and we moved forward to make space for the bus.
This was the only break I was going to get.
I flung the door open and jumped into the path of the bus. The driver slammed on his brakes. I shut my eyes.
The bus stopped a hair’s breadth from my face. The heat from its grill filled my nostrils. I opened my eyes. My face stared back at me from a poster above the grill. Wanted: ¥10,000,000 reward.
And then I ran like hell.
I ran right down the middle of the road. My mind couldn’t focus. If it’s a reward, do policemen pay the yakuza? Or do the yakuza pay the police? This was total rubbish. Rubbish? Recycle rubbish. And there it was. The neighbourhood rubbish collection point on the other side of the road. In amongst the neatly stacked cardboard and newspapers was my way out. Nothing fancy, just a discarded shopping bicycle with a wire basket full of newspapers on front and a child’s seat on back.
I grabbed the bike and ran with it into the street.
A car swerved to avoid me. I was breaking at least a half dozen city ordinances. The police would have their work cut out. Police? I looked over my shoulder.
Sgt. Watanabe was far behind me. He had stopped by the bus, his feet steady and planted on the ground. He had drawn his pistol, which he pointed straight at me.
“Stop! Or I’ll shoot!”
Keep moving. It was all I could do. I ducked my head and pedalled with everything I had.
There was a side street to my left. I stood up on the pedals and put my weight into the handlebars, throwing the bike into a sharp turn between two square-cut hedges at the end of a single-lane side street. I shouted as I tore past a mother with a push-chair. But my shoulder smacked into her back and she lurched forward, knocking the push-chair free of her hands. It overturned and the woman screamed. I squeezed the brakes and shuddered to a halt. What had I done?
From inside the cart, a pink shaved poodle in a dress yelped.
I screamed, “Out of my WAY!”
I sailed over an intersection past another street. I didn’t even look but made it to the other side. But now I could hear a car coming up behind me. Getting closer. Engine gunning. Not slowing. Yakuza.
The street was empty except for me and the car. Like every side street in Abiko, the road was not wide enough for two cars to pass. There was no pavement, and every dozen meters or so there was a lamppost or electricity pole to knock the wind out of a late salariman or a girl too stupid, too stubborn, and too confused to admit she had lost.
But I couldn’t go any faster. The stack of old newspapers in the bicycle’s front basket slowed me down. Nothing left for me to do. The yakuza were going to knock me off my bike, and I had only seconds left. I reached for the papers and tossed them into the air, just to lighten the load.
The wind caught the papers and the pages fanned open. It was like a festival firework had exploded, raining down a confetti of news. Clusters of Yomiuri pages hit the Mercedes windscreen and spread out, blocking Ono’s view. Brakes squealed.
Then my left arm brushed an electricity pole, and my right hand scraped against the concrete breeze blocks of a garden street-front wall. But I passed through, just as Ono’s side-view mirrors clipped the pole and the boot of the car fish-tailed around and smacked into the concrete wall.
I looked back as I rode. Ono was slumped over the steering wheel. Steam rose from the crumpled bonnet. The smell of burnt rubber, oil, and smouldering paper made me want to be sick. The power of the press.
But I didn’t hang around. The side road was coming to a red light and an intersection with Route 356 and its flow of traffic. Cars ahead, going fast. I pulled up at the traffic light. It was red.
I couldn’t afford to stop now. But it was better than getting hit by an elderly driver, and in Abiko they are all elderly. I reached over and pressed the pedestrian crossing button. I glanced at the red man. It was one of those new signals that has lights counting down to the appearance of a green man. I felt like an F1 driver waiting for the start of a race.
Six lights.
I looked back at the Mercedes. The driver’s door was open. Ono was still slumped over the steering wheel, but moving his fat, bloodied head.
Five lights.
Shachou appeared unharmed and was standing on the other side of the car, staring at me. He didn’t look happy.
Four lights.
Shachou had his telephone out. He was watching me but nodding his head in short bursts. He was doing the talking.
Three lights.
I heard a bell frantically ringing. Sgt. Watanabe had got his police bike and was coming up the street behind the yakuza.
Two lights.
Sgt. Watanabe was past the yakuza and coming up the street to me. A hundred meters and closing.
One light.
Sgt. Watanabe was close enough to shout. “Stop right now. Surrender now, before someone gets hurt.” He got off his bike and kicked out the bike stand. He was reaching for his gun.
Green man.
I hesitated. “Stop shooting at me then, and nobody will get hurt,” I shouted.
“You are not in a position to give the orders. You are under arrest.”
He walked closer.
The green man was flashing.
“Step away from the bicycle.”
Red man.
“I didn’t kill anyone, I can prove it.”
Cars started in both directions. I took off, running with the handlebar in my hands. Squeezing between the traffic. A furious old woman blasted her car horn. It wasn’t enough to drown out Sgt. Watanabe swearing as he ran back to his bike.
I turned right and followed the main road on the pavement, but it was uphill. Cars were zipping by. They were all that were between me and Sgt. Watanabe. This was not going to end well, I could feel it. And we were going uphill now.
Then I discovered why this shopping bike was meant for recycling. It was stuck in third gear. And there were only three. No matter how hard I pedalled, the bike kept slowing. Sgt. Watanabe had no such problem. He was pedalling parallel to me on the other side of the road, waiting for a break in the traffic. I needed a hill that went down.
Would he shoot off my tires? Do policemen do such things?
I slipped my feet off the pedals and side-saddled back off the bike. And ran, pushing the bike.
Run up this hill. If I could just get to the crest of it and find the way down, then it wouldn’t matter that I was a girl, that he was a policeman, and that my bike was rubbish and his was new. We could be equal. Going down.
To my left was a Buddhist nursery school. I pulled off the road and headed for it, a sign that said “The right teacher chooses the student when the student is ready.”
I was ready.
Sgt. Watanabe was 10 meters behind on his bike. His face was red, but he wasn’t slowing. He would catch me, and then it would be over. I passed the school on my left and the road took a winding turn and got narrower. Then it went downhill.
Down I rode, through new building lots. There were workers in hard hats and toed boots, eating their lunches and staring as a policeman came down the hill shouting after a teenage girl.
A 70-ish man in white helmet and blue overalls was waving his light baton. “Road closed, you can’t go…” he said as I whipped past him. The road was getting steeper, to the point where you had to brake if you didn’t want to lose control. Or wanted to escape a policeman.
Then a road crew. Four men in white helmets laying asphalt in front of me. Steam rose from the street.
And I was going to hit one crewman in the back, unless…..
I slammed on the brakes. Squeals as the metal of the worn break pads scraped the metal of the bicycle wheel rim. But the bike didn’t slow. It belonged on the scrap heap.
“Watch it!” I screamed. One of the workers pushed the man I was going to hit to the side and I hurtled past. All I could hear behind me were shouts: “Danger!” “Stop.” And Sgt. Watanabe’s furious bell-ringing.
But I was out of control now. I had no way of stopping and the hill was steep and winding. The only thing slowing me was the hot asphalt underneath the tires. I heard a hiss of air. And then the back wheel started wobbling. Then more hissing and the front tire deflated.
I was running on rims but still picking up speed. I couldn’t hear anything but the rush of air in my ears. It was all I could do to keep from being thrown from the bike as it shuddered down the hill. At this speed, I was headed towards a sticky end.
An end which was fast approaching.
The road ended in a T junction, with a breeze-block wall straight in front and no way to stop. A grandma carrying a rubbish bag walked out of her front door on my left and straight into my path. I couldn’t steer, I couldn’t brake. I leaned my weight away from her. It was all I could do. The bike smacked her arm and I lost balance. I hit the rubbish bag then skidded onto the ground as the bike fell on its side and slid down the hill. I turned head over heels with that bag in my arms. I rolled down the hill, trying to tuck my head in. I heard the bike clatter into the wall and then I followed next to it until I smacked the wall with a thump.
Everything hurt.
I couldn’t move my legs. My arms were a bloody mess and my head was throbbing.

Ring.
Ring.
Ring.
Ring.
Ring.

It was a sound outside my head. Coming down the hill. I tried to get up. I couldn’t. But I could lift my eyelids. A pair of shoes, black leather scuffed from years of use but polished for the day. Attached to them were starched trouser legs.
“You are under arrest for the murder of Tomoko Blackmore,” Sgt. Watanabe said.
“I didn’t do it. I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t do it,” I said in a whisper.
“You are a dangerous young woman, and a determined one. But you are a mess. And you are not going anywhere this time.”
He looked down at me, and added “Except the hospital.”
He held my hands and I thought he really cared, but then I felt the bite of steel as handcuffs clasped my hands together.
There was wailing now from behind Sgt. Watanabe. It was the old woman holding her hand. He turned to her.
“Officer,” the old woman said, “I was taking my old clothes out to the recycle rubbish when she came out of the sun straight for me. If I hadn’t jumped away, something terrible might have happened. I can move my wrist but…”
I could feel gravel from the road pressing into my cheek.
My mind slipped a gear. I could hear my mother laughing and playing “Jerusalem” on the Casio keyboard I had as a kid. Now, I was a seven-year-old on my bicycle and being shepherded to the side of the road by a friendly policeman as parts of a massive pipe came by on a truck. Then I was 16, crying my eyes out in the toilets of my school. Papa was dead. And no one cared.
But I did. I cared. I still care, Emi.
Sgt. Watanabe was bent down on his haunches holding the old woman’s hand. She was babbling and shaking. If I could just get up and move he wouldn’t notice before I was halfway down the street. I wouldn’t be able to make it more than a few paces before I fell to the ground, or he ran me over on his bike.
His bike? I looked around.
I could just make out the tires and spokes to my right. Closer to me than Sgt. Watanabe. This was my opportunity. And Papa had told me those don’t come around too often. If you are lucky enough to see one, grab it with both hands. Not easy to do when you are handcuffed.
But I could see myself walking. Just like in my childhood I somehow translated the notes on the sheet in front of me into actions my fingers must make on the piano keyboard. Keep to a rhythm and it became music. I willed my feet to move and they did. I was standing facing the bike. Hands outstretched, holding the middle of the handlebars. Sgt. Watanabe was still with the old woman. He hadn’t turned around.
Now or never.
I threw my shoulders into a push and the bike eased off its back wheel stand with a crack. I pushed with only the weight of my body and fell onto the seat just as Sgt. Watanabe turned his head and dropped the old lady’s hand. She was as stunned as he was.
I pedalled for everything I was worth. I had a 20-meter start on him, which was crucial, because he had covered half of that while my body figured out where it was and that it had to pedal again.
The air stung my face and my legs didn’t want to do their bit, but there was no choice. I couldn’t sit on the saddle, it was too high up. So I stood on the pedals, holding the handlebars from underneath willing the bike to stay a few more meters ahead. It was downhill all the way.
All the way to lake Teganuma.
Sgt. Watanabe was following, but he couldn’t keep up. The further he fell behind, the more he shouted. But the hill was my friend. I made it along the side road. It ran parallel to a main road that ran around the lake. If I could cross somehow and pass that, there was the Teganuma bridge. Downhill all the way.
To the rendezvous with Uncle Kentaro on the other side of the lake. He said he had a surprise for me. I actually believed I was going to make it.
The road was twisting and when I looked back, I couldn’t see or hear Sgt. Watanabe. I passed the Ryokan Tomimasu inn on my left. If I could just find somewhere to sleep it off. I wouldn’t mind not moving, not being tired, not being pursued, and not pursuing anything. Not doing, just being. If I could just sleep for an hour or two, I’d be OK.
But I pressed on. On the left, high up on the slope of the hill, was a karate dojo. An old artist’s tea house was to the left of the dojo. A famous writer that no one read. On the right a supermarket and ¥100 shop. Which was my way? The back road ended at Route 8, a four-lane highway. And the bridge. Follow it and it would take me out of Abiko over the lake.
Over the lake again? I couldn’t face it. I had no strength to carry on. I slipped off the bike and it clattered to the ground.
The white locked box on the back pannier splintered open. This was where the police kept a pistol.
If I took it, I would be in so much more trouble. But if I didn’t, I might regret it.
I looked around. Nobody had seen me. I reached my hands in. I grasped something cold, smooth…and soft.
A banana.
I snapped it in half and stuffed it in my mouth, spitting out the peel as I hobbled to the pedestrian crossing before the bridge. A green man.
I limped over the black and white lines.
I was on the pavement on the bridge now. A couple of hundred meters and I’d be out of Abiko, over the other side into Kashiwa. I just had to get over the bridge. I stumbled on, up the incline of the bridge. I kept walking. I reached the middle of the bridge as I passed a grandpa striding toward me with his casual gear and baseball hat. His wife was three steps behind. He ignored me, but his wife’s eyes met mine. Then her hand went to cover her mouth.
Was I in that much of a state? Did I have a sliver of banana string hanging from my teeth? It might have been the handcuffs.
She was looking past me. I looked back.
Sgt. Watanabe was there. Not so much running, as seething his way up the bridge. Out of breath and out of a banana. With his pistol in his hands. Determined. Not to be fooled again.
I didn’t have the energy to go on. I faced Sgt. Watanabe and raised the only bits of my body that had any energy left—my hands.
There was a screeching of tires behind me, coming from Kashiwa. A black car, with blacked-out windows, a crumpled bonnet and wonky hub caps. Yakuza.
The back passenger door opened. Out jumped Shachou. He had a plaster on his forehead, but a smile on his face. And right behind him was Uncle Kentaro speaking into his telephone. Uncle Kentaro was in with the yakuza?
Stuck in the middle again.
Shachou was 10 paces away, as was Sgt. Watanabe. I backed myself into the railings. The lake was five meters below me. Shachou took a step forward. Sgt. Watanabe matched him.
This wasn’t how I wanted it to end. There had to be another option.
I leaned over the railings and looked down to the lake. This would have to be my stand, right here, right now. I clambered onto the railings and stood on the steel bar that ran waist-height over the bridge. Trouble was, the breeze was blowing straight in my face and it was a long way down. My legs shook. I couldn’t keep my balance with my hands in the cuffs.
“Don’t come any closer or I’ll jump.”
“Jump then. Better than falling, Hana,” said Shachou.
“You don’t issue the orders, Arai,” Sgt. Watanabe said.
“OK, you be mother.”
“Surrender to the law, do your duty. If there is any Japanese blood at all in you, you will come down and do your duty.”
“Blood,” I said, “why does it always come down to blood? The only difference between me and you,” I said, looking unsteadily at Sgt. Watanabe as I bent over to keep from falling, “is you have a gun and I don’t.”
“Hana,” Uncle Kentaro said, “if you are going to tell people the truth, make sure they laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Sgt. Watanabe shook his head. “You killed a woman, you can jump if you want, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll gladly fish your body out of Teganuma. But think of the victim here. She had a daughter. For her sake, you should face your destiny, not run away.”
“I am thinking of her,” I said.
I could see the swan boat below that Uncle Kentaro had said was our rendezvous point. Only I had planned to reach it from the shore, not five meters above it. Sometimes you have to make your own luck.
I jumped with my hands above my head. It was a long way down. I didn’t even have the energy or time to scream as my legs smacked into the roof of the fibreglass pedal swan. It crumpled beneath my legs and I smacked into one of the two seats.
“Nice of you to drop in, Hana.”
I groaned with pain.
It was someone I’d seen before. The prime minister’s PR guy. Koji Tachibana.
“You got my message. Can you pedal?” I said, and that was all I remembered.

***

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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