Scavengers

Along the road he found a blind girl. Four years old, maybe, smoke-blackened in a tattered and dirty blue dress, standing under a stunted oak.

He coaxed the little girl to come with him. She walked by his side, stumbling a little, clinging to the smoke-and-grease stained sleeve of his coat.

Sometimes over the next few days he carried her -- fording streams, for example, or hiking up steep stretches of the mountain roads. He put her on his shoulders, and she clung with both fists to his hair.

He didn't know what to call the blind girl as she didn't speak. Mute, too?

Finally, he gave her a name: Helen.

*


He'd come up from the wide river valley, walking the back roads past the weed-overgrown and empty farms. Most of the farmhouses were burnt out shells, and those that were not burnt out he skirted anyhow.

He was going high up into the mountains. Maybe as far as the high desert country. His idea was to find a cave to camp in and wait out the next few years, which would undoubtedly be chaotic.

He carried a rucksack with some small camping pots and pans and canned goods and other things in it and two canteens of drinking water and an old bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle slung over his right shoulder. His knife was in a sheath at the back of his belt. A small box clinking in the left hand side pocket of his leather coat held the cartridges for the rifle. It was hot and sweaty work to walk all that way carrying all he owned.

At the University he'd taught philosophy. But he hadn't brought along any books but for a thick pocket diary bound in leather with a pencil stuck in the loop. When the pencil ran out he'd have nothing to write with, so he filled the diary's thin pages each night by fire-light slowly and sparingly.

*

It was only a few days after he'd picked up the girl that he turned a bend and saw three people sitting in the dust by the roadside cooking something on a fire. Too late to turn back or go around. He walked forward, raising his right hand.

One of the three -- a teenaged girl, under the layers of dirt, he thought -- got up and dashed into the woods. The two others, both men with thick beards in tattered and stained clothing, stood up slowly, one holding a stick.

He saw what they were cooking over the fire -- it was a dog. Grease dripped and spat as the flames licked it. The smoke was pungent. He began to salivate despite himself, yet he was also nauseated. He wasn't going to eat dog.

Evening, he said. The men didn't reply. The one holding the stick grinned. The other came forward a few steps.

He could hear the girl moving in the brush, cracking twigs. It was near dark. Already, the owls were hooting.

She wasn't going off, as he'd first thought, but moving around to flank him.

And when she dashed into the woods, hadn't she been holding something?

His scalp went cold.

A bow, maybe.

And didn't she have something lashed to her back? Arrows?

He stopped in the road, and swung the blind girl down to stand beside him.

Let me see that rifle there, the man who'd come forward said. His voice sounded wheezy, like an unused instrument.

He replied: No.

His ears were prickling. The girl in the brush had stopped moving. Right now she would be fitting an arrow onto the bowstring. His stomach turned to ice. He forced a smile.

This is all I've got, he said. I can't hand it over to you.

The man said through his beard: Oh yes? We'll see about that.

He shrugged the rifle from his shoulder and walked toward the man holding it out as if to put it meekly into his hands, but in the last few steps he broke into a run and, bringing up the butt, smashed the man's chin. The bearded man grunted and fell in the dust.

He kept running and knocked away a blow from the other man's stick with the barrel and stepped around him and, grappling in panicked silence, managed to get the barrel under his chin and drew the writhing body against him tightly, the shoulderblades pressing to his chest and top of the man's head under his chin, and shouted: You, in the brush, come out or I'll kill him.

After a few seconds, the teenaged girl stepped out, wide-eyed and cruel-looking. She was holding the bow drawn back. The arrow wasn't pointed at him but at Helen, standing still in the road.

Let go, she said, or I'll shoot this one.

He called out: No. Shoot her with that arrow and I'll kill him then you too. Put it down.

She lowered the bow and dropped the arrow at her feet then dropped the bow next to it with a clatter.

The man he was holding to him had stopped grappling and was now just gurgling a little. He took away the rifle barrel and stepped back and the bearded man fell on his side, kicking and wheezing and trying to crawl.

He pointed the rifle sight at the teenaged girl and said: Back away.

She did.

He went forward and holding the rifle at ready one-handed bent and picked up the arrow.

Toss over the others, he said.

She took the other arrows -- she had four -- out of her homemade quiver and tossed them rattling onto the asphalt. He bent and picked those up, too. He stuck them into his belt.

Helen, he said. Come on, now. Helen stumbled forward and he took her hand and backed away. The teenaged girl was standing still, her arms hanging.

After he'd backed off ten paces or so he slung the rifle and swept up Helen and put her on his shoulders and walked off double-time. Up the road to the next bend and around it in the almost-dark, moonless tonight, starry and vast and ringing with those deep eerie owl-hoots.

Tokyo. Deep Night.



(Excerpt from Okamoto's crime noir novella THE BLUE-EYED DEATH IN TOKYO.)

Tokyo. Deep night.

Akiko lights a cigarette. Stares at her shadow on the wall.
A man. A woman. A beaming lamp.
It isn't raining now.

Jiro is asleep. Pulse beating in his throat, just under the brown skin.
He's tangled in the sheet. An arm hangs out, the fingers
almost touching her naked thigh.

She smokes. She's sweating a little. She can hear the wind.
What does an assassin think about?
It's as if she's the only woman on earth.
Listening to the moan of the wind,
the last pattering cold raindrops,
smoking as she looks at her shadow.
In the beaming light of the lamp,
she seems to remember everything,
all at once, then only in bits
that glitter like broken glass.

As Jiro slept,
she looked for a book to read
but all he had on his single shelf
were paperback thrillers.
She picked out one
titled The Dead Palazzo.
It was an erotic suspense novel
set in 19th century Venice
starring the Japanese assassin known
only as The Laughing Demon.

She tossed it away
after two short chapters
then lit the cigarette
shaking out the match
before dropping it in a brass ashtray
on the bedside table
beside a glass of water,
a tube of K-Y lubricant jelly
and a box of Geisha condoms.

Too infuriating to read --
these pulp novels of mayhem.

There is nothing exciting about killing people.

*


Alive. Suffering. Choked by splendor.
Most of the time, she keeps her mind vivid and empty.
You know that you're nobody,
and that life is dead in you
until the sun rises --
like a spurt of blood or semen.

I love you, Akiko. Did Jiro say that?
He did once. Just after taking her virginity,
when he saw the blood staining him.
Did he take it
or did she give it to him?

Either way, he was so moved his voice shook.

She's sought to expunge her dark karma
from all the Habu Kurage killings
with Zen.

She rebuilt a temple --
made the ruin stark and imposing again.
And she sat before the gold eyed Kannon,
in the orbit of that golden body,
and wept with shut eyes.
So that the tears stung her -- inside.
Far inside, in the darkness,
where a foghorn groans
deep in the San Francisco night.
Where a gull lets out a lonely scream
flying over Ocean Beach --

Akiko walks, her bare feet sinking
in the fine sand.

Jack Vance is dead.
He shot himself on the pier.
Ogata told her about that night --
the all engulfing fog.
The bleating foghorn.
The single shot. The splash.

His body dragged by the freezing rip currents
of the fogbound San Francisco Bay,
out to sea, beyond Marin.
To the gray cold places
where the whales sing.

Can a pulp novel
like this one
describe nothingness?
All that one can say
is that it's awe-inspiring --
even if we're doomed.
Even if nothing lasts,
or, in the end, matters.

Where is the end?
What is the beginning?
It all dissolves.

Shameful. Degrading. That's life. Everything hurts.
She's looked at it this way and in other ways too.

*


Jiro stirs. He wakes.
Looks at her.

Smiling.

Tears in his eyes,
yet he smiles.

Tears of laughter.
Loving tears,
empty tears.

Ah, Akiko --
life goes blind
when you're gone.

Gone. Dead. Disappeared.
That's what Jiro'd thought.
That Molly Vance, the samurai --
who'd cut off Old Man Kumida's head
almost casually, contemptuously,
with a single reverse slash of her katana --
was already dead and buried. Somewhere far off.

Maybe in a desert. Maybe in the mountains.
Or in the blinding dazzle
of the incomprehensible sea.

Clouds soar into the vastness.
A single peony in a glass vase.
Shouts from the busy street. Bangkok?
Laughter, sex-moans & urgent cries
coming through the thin walls --

I love you, Akiko.
You are my heart.
You are the only woman
in this wondrous world --

*

Akiko puts down her laquered chopsticks with the slightest click. Sits up straighter on the cushion.
Jiro looking at her. At the blue eyed beauty that is death.
Wild, unvarnished. She looks like she could chew up life and spit it out.
She's still the same crazy samurai.
She swallows saliva.

Jiro asks: The people who attacked you. Were they good?
She smiles, still chewing rice.
The smile shows in her blue eyes but mostly it's in the mouth.
Not so good. Except for the first two. They were ordinary killers. Ex military maybe.
So why do you think they're the Organization's?
I don't. I don't know.

You don't know much do you?
He's smiling.
She looks at him. Laughs.
I don't know anything. I was a killer. I'm nobody now.

Nobody. Is that true?

*

Night. A halo of beaming lamplight.
More shattering rain on the roof tiles.
More cold wind moaning in the eaves.
Molly, her bare hips wrapped
in the blood red silk sheet,
stroking Jiro's back and thighs
with just the knuckles of one cupped hand.
He groans. He's half asleep.
His body feels, to him,
like blazing molten gold.
As for Molly Vance, she's smiling --
her mouth is bruised
from getting kissed
and sucked so wildly.

Jiro's tattoos. She looks at them closely.
Traces the lines, the colors.
A tiger. A yamamba.
They're unusually detailed and beautiful
even for a yakuza.

*


She shows him Tommy Ko's katana.
Ah, says Jiro, pulling it out of the saya with a steel-hiss.
He holds it to the light.
Turns it.
Admiringly.

She takes the two machine guns out of the bag. Puts them down on the low table.
Clack. Clack.
Jiro, chewing his rice and vegetables, reaches over and picks one up.
He tests the weight. Sights on a window. Sets it down again.
They're Czech-made, Akiko tells him. Top of the line armament.
Didn't help those two stupid men.
She smiles, swiping the hair from her mouth with one hand.
No.

He picks up his cell phone. Dials with his thumb.
Akiko watching the dark face.
Ichi-san, Jiro says. We have a job to do.

*


Night again. Shinjuku.
Jiro, Ichi and Akiko emerge from a sleek car. They walk up to a doorway where a man in a suit stands holding his hands clasped in front of him.
Jiro says a few words to the man. He nods and steps aside. They enter.
They go up two flights of stairs. It's an ordinary office building. They stop outside a frosted glass door.
Omoto Consulting, it reads.
Jiro knocks. Ichi stands back, his arms hanging.
Akiko's behind both of them by a few steps, elegant looking, pale and beautiful in her fresh jeans and leather jacket and motorcycle boots.
The door opens. A man with a close cropped haircut, some white in it, squints at them. His face is even darker than Jiro's. He's in the same kind of loose dark suit, with a white shirt and a plain black tie. There's a pistol stuck in his belt. He bows slightly to Jiro and they speak in Japanese. Relaxed, all half smiles.
He steps aside and motions them in. There's seven other men in the room, all in dark suits. The underboss, in a gray suit with the same close shaven hair, gone almost completely white, and a jutting jaw, stands up, slouching a little, and gives Jiro a quick bow.
Jiro waves off the bow and and sits in an empty armchair. A young man brings a bottle of sake and places it on the table. He sets out glasses. Jiro motions for Akiko to sit near him. Ichi remains standing, his arms hanging loose and the hands at his sides.

Jiro speaks in rapid Japanese. The underboss answers, mock-deferentially.
Akiko is unfamiliar with yakuza body language and ways. Ogata didn't take her to meetings. She listens with half an ear. It's enough for her that Jiro is boss here.
It's a side family, a split off group.
Three dark suited men get up and leave the room with quick quarter bows to Jiro.

They smoke cigarettes and drink the sake. There's no music, just cigarette smoke drifting and Jiro speaking in low tones to the underboss.
Jiro pours Akiko's sake. He shows her deference. Akiko sees the other men note this. She doesn't act differently.

An hour later, the door opens. Jun stumbles into the room. His suit is dusted, his face bloody. His tie is askew. The three yakuza are holding him by the jacket and trousers. They sit him down in a chair. He's been beaten up a little. He nods to Jiro, who nods back. Jiro makes a sign and a glass of whisky is brought to Jun. He nods and drinks deeply. He's still wearing the expensive watch. He sits back, gasping a little. Jiro says a few words, a mild apology. The underboss just looks on, his eyes glittering. Akiko says nothing. Just sits there. She notes that Jun glances at her and his eyes show recognition.

Jiro introduces Akiko. Jun nods. He's sweating as well as bloody.
Ichi is standing directly behind Jun.
Jun speaks. He says, first, that he apologizes for any misunderstanding. He recognizes all the men in the room and he trusts that they are well. He himself had been asked to do a service by his Oyabun. That is, he was asked to speak to his girlfriend, Natsume, who works on the airlines and also sometimes as a prostitute, about Akiko.
And what about Akiko? asks Jun, moving his cigarette a half inch.
Oh.

Jun looks at Akiko. Akiko returns the look. Jun nods.
There are people wanting to get to her. I had no idea that she was under your protection.
He bows slightly to Jiro, who raises his cigarette a half inch, then draws and expells a long stream of smoke.
She wasn't, Jiro says. But now, she is.


So, Molly Vance says now, her perfect Japanese seeming to startle Jun a little, Natsume was the bait?
Jun smiles. Apologetically.
Yes.

Who asked this of you?
Jun nods.
I cannot say that.
You will say that, Akiko replies.

Silence.

Finally, Jun drinks the whisky in his glass, the cubes rattling, and sets the glass down on the low table.
He says:

It was my boss.
Your boss?
Oyabun.
What does he have to do with the so called Group of 22? Jiro asks.

Jun looks bewildered.
Nothing.

Take him away, Jiro says. Don't hurt him. Put him in a cab.
Ichi steps back, his face empty.
Three yakuza come forward and help Jun out of the room. Jun bows slightly as he goes. Nobody bows to him.


So, Jiro says into the cigarette smoke.

*



So.
Natsume was a trap.
She was supposed to distract Akiko from the Shimada Twins.
They wouldn't have killed her -- or that's what Jun said anyhow.

So.

How do we get to the Oyabun? Old Yoshimori?
They're driving. Night. Tokyo flashing past the rainy windows.
Ichi is the one actually driving the sleek black town car --
he drives smoothly, a real pro,
steering with the pads of his palms.
He used to be Old Man Nakamura's favorite chauffeur.
Jiro and Akiko sit together in back, sunk on the leather seats.
Jiro is smoking. Thoughtful and abstracted. Molly gazes out the side window at the deranged, hopeless glare of Tokyo.

*

Do you think it hurts
to have your head cut off?
Do your eyes still see,
do you still hear
& can you taste your own blood?

To love and hate is to suffer.
Isn't that what the Buddha said?

*

Jiro's house. Night. Molly Vance paces back and forth, biting her thumb.
Jiro sits in his black silk robe drinking whisky. The ice plinking each time he picks up his glass.
She sits down on the carpet, gazing at nothing. Wide eyed.
Do you have a plan? Jiro asks.

So, Molly thinks. The Yoshimori Clan is connected to the Organization. Somehow.
Why? Why and how? Maybe it's drugs.
They acted fast. Airport security cameras transmitted her image. Instant alarm bells. Tokyo assets mobilized and placed on alert.
One video feed must have recorded Akiko stopped in the crowded terminal, sensually riveted by Natsume and her friend blithely walking together to the exit, swinging their hips like raw schoolgirls.
Then Natsume was recognized as being linked to a member of the Yoshimori family. That took some lightning quick sophisticated database searching and cross referencing.
So a trap was set for her, "Akiko," using Natsume as bait.
When Molly took the cab to Ginza, she was followed. Jun and Natsume were sent to a nearby bar, and they were cued when she finally finished her sake and picked up her umbrella to go -- so that as she emerged onto the rainy street she'd glimpse them by the red-lit doorway. Laughing. Flagrant.

This means that Molly Vance's dossier contains the information that she is erotically vulnerable to beautiful girls.
Or maybe it's just a hunch somebody decided to pursue.
Or did it all register in the tense way Molly Vance studied the sluttish Natsume?
They probably ran the video feed a hundred times to study her body, her movements, her gaze.
She'd swept off her dark glasses. They saw the erotic longing in her gaze, the pain on her expressionless face.
That's it. It has to be.
But they also knew she'd be intrigued by that glimpse of the sensually alluring Natsume on a Tokyo street hanging on the arm of an obvious yakuza gangster. Why? How much can they know of her yakuza-connected past?
She shivers.
Do they know about Jiro? And Ichi?

Molly gets up. Holding her chin high. And her chest out. Resolutely. She knows she must find out how much information the Organization has on her. It's life and death now. It always was, but now even more so.

*


She remembers:
Natsume pressing her breasts to hers,
Akiko's, as if
to fuse their flesh
while they kissed
wildly, open-mouthed.
Sucking on Natsume's tongue --
it was flaming hot
and impossibly sweet --
then the blinding orgasm swept her up
and dropped her
like a shattered doll.
It was like diving
into the sea
under a big wave --
losing your mind
in the dazzling rush of surf.



*

She asks Jiro:
Can you get me more clips for these?
Pointing to the Czech made machine guns
on the low, glassed table.
Also, she says, a motorcycle?
He nods. He puts down his glass
after drinking another gulp of whisky.
It's just like old times.

*

She strides barefoot to her luggage bag.
Unzips it.
She takes out a black sweater,
black jeans, a black ninja-style hood.
As Jiro watches, she strips
in the beaming lamplight.
Pale. Flagrant.
The beautiful blue eyed death
all the way from Okinawa.
He shivers
as Molly garbs herself like night.

*

I'll go with you, he says.
No. This I do alone.
She is now tossing the machine guns into a smaller bag: Puma Sports.
He presses his lips together. But he doesn't utter a word of protest.
After a few moments, he rapid-dials his cell phone:
Ichi-san, he says. His lips barely moving.
He speaks in Japanese. Asks for the ammunition. A bike.
He sets down the phone beside his empty glass
so softly it doesn't make a sound.
Ichi-san is coming here, Jiro says. In twenty minutes.
Molly writhes into a sleek, thin, gleaming dark leather jacket.
Then she picks up Tommy Ko's sword
from the sword rack over the dark flat screened TV.
She ties it by the red silk sageo over her shoulders.
Arigato, she replies.

*


She tells Jiro that she will need a map to the Yoshimori villa.
She only knows it's north of Tokyo, where the Old Man lives.
He presses his lips tight. He's sweating as he draws the map,
with quick jabs of a ball point pen.
He gives it to her. She studies it. Folds it. Puts it into her breast pocket.
You'll take them by yourself? Jiro finally asks, his voice tight.
She looks at him. That dazzling blue eyed gaze.
It's what I do. He notes: she didn't say did. Or used to do.

*

The chuffing engine of Ichi's car. They go out into the mist.
It's cold and foggy. Drops of water clinging to the cedar needles.
The light is behind them. Jiro leads the way to the gate. He opens it.
Ichi is there in his dark sagging suit. His face is empty. He hands Akiko a grocery bag.
She opens it and glances inside. There's about twenty spare clips for the machine pistols.
Then Ichi pops the big trunk. Jiro helps him pull out the motorbike. Set it upright on the wet street.

Nobody says a thing.

Jiro and Ichi step back as Akiko straps on and tucks her hair under the black helmet, mounts the bike and kicks the engine to life.
She revs the bike, half-standing astride it with the katana over her shoulder and the Puma sports bag with the machine guns and spare clips lashed down behind the seat. Then:

She looks at them. Ferociously. And maybe with love.
Or at least compassion.
At Jiro especially.
Ichi and Jiro both bowing.

WHOOM. She speeds off, scattering gravel.

*

After the tail-light vanishes, Ichi asks:
So. We're going along? Just in case?
Hai, Jiro says.



Jiro throws off the black silk robe. Dresses quickly.
He throws open a closet, takes from it a shotgun, a box of shells.
Also a .45 handgun. He thrusts the gun in his belt, the shells in a pocket of his leather coat, and goes out in the darkness to Ichi, sitting in the car with the engine thrumming.

They drive fast, trees flashing by.


*

The man in the Homburg walks through the streets of Zurich, in and out of light and shadow.
Light and shadow, light and shadow.
His breath steams in the cold.
He could walk these quaint stone cobbled streets with his eyes shut.
And, for minutes at a time, he does. He shuts his eyes and walks by rote. Until he reaches the iron gate. Maybe it's something about the texture of the street, here, or the way the air smells, but when he opens his eyes he finds himself standing directly before the gate.
It's a slab of iron in a high fitted stone wall that hides the house from the view of tourists and passers by. He punches a combination of numbers into the electronic box beside the gate and it swings open with only the slightest creak of hinges. He steps through and walks up the path to the kitchen entrance of the great house.
The man in the Homburg's home is an 18th century chateau -- a drafty and imposing mansion. It was his grandfather's. He practically lived here, growing up, although his parents had a little place closer to the center of town.
He unlocks the door with an old fashioned key and enters. Then he punches more numbers, or perhaps the same numbers, into another box to de activate the alarm.
Then he removes his hat and hangs it on a hat-hook. Next, he shrugs out of the beautiful shimmering overcoat and opens a closet door. He carefully inserts a wooden hanger into the shoulders of the coat and hangs it in the shadows. He shuts the door on it. This closet is for that prized overcoat alone. It always gives him a feeling of satisfaction to hang up his own overcoat after stepping through the door. Unlike his grandfather, he's never indulged in the services of a manservant or other permanent hired help, although there is a Portuguese woman who cleans the house for him twice a week. He does his own cooking, takes pride in it. He's also his own gardener, wearing a pair of faded green coveralls and an old yellow cap when he works in the flowerbeds on Saturdays.
In the foyer now, he smells the lavender bath soap. And his keen ears pick up the sound of the taps thundering in the third floor bathroom. Chenelle must be enjoying one of her lingering, luxurious afternoon baths. Then he hears her bird like voice, echoing from the chilled stone walls. She's singing something. Opera.
He shivers. The thought of Chenelle's warm, bath-soap scented, rounded flesh sometimes still does that to him.
He married this sweet-smelling, wildly amorous Chenelle just twelve months ago, after discovering her in Capri. She seemed at first just another nubile, laughing, nut-brown girl in a thong bikini looking for fun or a rich husband. There was something special about her, however -- he noted it the first time he looked into her green eyes. What?
She was like him. Full of sweetness and joi de vivre, exuberantly sensual, she was yet entirely lacking in any kind of moral sense. She lived as she liked -- with no social or any other kind of conscience, no compunctions, no empathy, and never any regrets.

*

Night. Akiko switches off the engine and glides along the secluded country road between dark-crowned cedars.
There are stars. Amazing.
Nothing else but the chir chir of crickets.
And lights in distant windows, over and behind the trees.
She pulls up onto the gravel shoulder and stops the bike by putting down her motorcycle boots. She levers down the kickstand, and it leans on its side, smelling of fresh grease and gasoline and scorched tire rubber.
She removes the helmet. Shakes out her hair over the collar of her leather jacket.
Her lips are dry from the rushing and stinging wind. She licks them.
She takes the Puma bag from behind the seat and slings it across one shoulder.
She adjusts the red silk cord holding the katana across her back so it rests more easily.
Next, she crouches. Unlaces and pulls off the dusty boots one by one. Places them together by the rear wheel.
Barefoot, she walks on the asphalt until she clearly sees the high stone wall surrounding the Yoshimori Family villa.
Some of the big cedars overhang the wall. She climbs the biggest one, using the small steel implements famed from a thousand ninja movies.
She drops from a branch onto the wall and crouches there cat like studying the lighted windows and the porch.
It's a big traditional Japanese house. As she gazes without blinking she sees a shadow cross in front of the front windows.
A sentry. There are probably two or three outside, walking up and down, holding guns.
She sniffs. Her nostrils flare and contract. There seem to be no dogs.
The drop from the wall is about eight feet. She drops the Puma bag first, with a slight thump. Then she jumps from her crouch, hits the grassy earth bent-kneed, and rolls over the scabbarded katana.
She puts the Puma bag back over her shoulder and runs softly on the dew wet grass to a corner of the mansion. Glancing around the corner she sees one of the dark shapes approaching --
She crouches down at the foundation. As the man turns the corner, she flows to her feet and hits him in the solar plexus. He gasps and retches. She steps around the yakuza guard and puts a choke hold on him, her thumbs cutting off the flow of blood to his brain. His knees wobble, bend as he writhes and struggles, then he goes limp and sinks in Akiko's arms.
She lets him drop. He's not dead. He'll regain consciousness in the next few minutes. She gags him with a clump of grass. She takes a silk cord from a pocket of her leather jacket and winds it swiftly around his wrists, then she loops it around his ankles and tightens the knot, drawing his limp arms back.
The chir chir chir of crickets goes on. The sky is amazingly starry, vast and brilliant.
She picks up the small machine gun the man was holding before he dropped it, which he did as soon as she struck him, and puts it into the Puma bag. Then she moves slowly around the big, silent, lighted house until she finds the other sentry. There's only two. She gives him the same quick treatment.
Is it possible that Old Man Yoshimori is not expecting any trouble?
She's sweating a little bit now. She climbs smoothly up onto the roof and makes her way across the rounded clay tiles to the rear of the mansion. There's a raked white gravel courtyard surrounded on three sides. There are lights beaming out of the lavish house on this side also. A shishi odoshi thumps and tocks, breaking the silence ever twenty five seconds as it spills out mouthfuls of water.
Akiko drops from the eaves onto the smooth, glossy boards on the porch. Her bare feet hardly make a noise. She crouches, looks through the rain shutters. In a big tatami-matted room sits Old Man Yoshimori and five yakuza bosses. Only the Old Man is in a kimono. The others are wearing Western clothes.
It's an old school samurai-era style yakuza party. They're eating snacks and drinking beer and sake. The Old Man is smiling and laughing. His men show him the usual abject formal deference, bowing their heads slightly each time he glances up or speaks to any of them.
There are no women present. Maybe they've gone to sleep. Or maybe the men are talking shop.
Akiko sinks again to a crouch. It's at this instant that her spine tingles, the roots of her hair rise, and she realizes that she's entered a trap. Haragei. It was the same in the hotel room, just before the two men entered unannounced.
The pit of Akiko's stomach tells her that the Old Man's dull yakuza drinking party is being overseen, protected, and spied upon -- without the Old Man's knowing a thing about it, it seems -- by someone very clever, very silent, very skilled and very very dangerous.

And he's seen her, Akiko.

The most dangerous spot for her to be is in the darkness outside the house.
Although she can feel him, feel his cold gaze, she can't know exactly where he is.

So:
she unzips the Puma bag, takes two machine guns from it, throws open the sliding shuttered door and steps into the big room.
The Old Man wobbles, almost falls backward. He stares at her, his mouth open over the sake cup he was lifting to his mouth.
The men gape, wild eyed at the sudden entry of this young woman all in black, with a machine gun in each hand. Then they go for their weapons.
Some have to scramble for the jackets they've tossed aside.
Akiko fires both machine guns at once. Rapid, well-aimed, rattling bursts. The Yoshimori soldiers fall like tenpins.
Blood spatters the tatami mats and the wall. The bullets tear up the white paper in the screened door to the inside hall, shatter the wood.
She tosses the smoking machine guns aside empty. The Old Man has now in fact sprawled backward like a doll. He is holding his heart. Gasping. His mouth working.
Akiko goes to him quickly. Taking him by the collar, kicking through the shoji door, she drags him out of the lighted room into the dark hallway. There, she throws him to the floor and takes another machine gun from the Puma bag and crouches, peering through the drifting smoke out at the white-graveled courtyard. One of the yakuza who was only badly wounded lets out a groan and a shrill little cry.
Darkness. Stillness. Endless crickets.
She thinks she couldn't have been wrong. About the cold gaze she felt.
She shivers again.
He could have taken her with a shuriken -- a throwing dart, poisoned her not. Why didn't he?


In any case, the machine gun is going to be useless to her. She puts it down. She crouches over the Old Man. He's whimpering. By the fetid smell she knows he's soiled himself. She speaks to him, close to his ear, in Japanese:
I am Akiko. Assassin. Tell me who it is that sent you after me. You are not my target. If you tell me right now, I will not break any of your fingers questioning you and I will allow you to live.
The Old Man whimpers. He says:
Katsumoto.
Where will I find this Katsumoto?
The Old Man, his voice quavering, tells her.
She rolls him over and binds him in the dimness as she bound up his sentries. Then she stands up and, reaching over her right shoulder, unsheaths Tommy Ko's katana. The Old Man recognizes the hiss of Japanese steel and gives out a cry. Akiko steps over him and makes her way fast down the hallway, emerging into the kitchen. She keeps moving. It's a big old style mansion with dozens of rooms and passageways. The man who was watching her outside in the darkness could now be lurking in any one of these rooms. She holds the katana with its point lowered, gliding along a few inches from the floor.
The blade has a vague watery gleam in the dimness.


*
Breathing deeply,
still in a fine sweat,
Akiko opens the front door
& steps through it --
into dazzle.
Shocking. Violent.
The light jumps
and sputters.
Torches.
Akiko
drops to a crouch,
holding the katana
over her head,
bare toes gripping the threshold.
As her vision clears
in the shifting light
she sees:

A tall middle aged man
in a white woman's kimono
with a red obi --
his long hair worn
in the style of a Kabuki actor,
his face painted white,
his eyebrows smudges of black charcoal.
He's holding a naginata --
a long spear with a sparkling curved blade.
He draws himself up to full height,
over six feet four inches,
and steps out of
his red Chinese slippers.

Slowly,
in his split toed white tabi,
he strides toward Akiko,
through the aisle of torches --
eight blazing torches in all,
like those those in samurai battle encampments --
set up along the gravel pathway
to the barred front gate.

His movements are great,
majestic, and simple.
He stops ten feet away,
gazing steadily at her.
Akiko lets out a long breath,
shudders, and straightens up,
lowering the sword, point-downward.

What is it you want of me?
she asks in formal Japanese,
addressing the man as sama,
her superior.
He turns his head slightly
from side to side,
as if showing a mask.
Finally he says:
The glory of battle.
A duel.
Blood.
Your head.

Hai, Akiko says,
letting out a long hiss of breath
& shrugging the Puma bag
from her shoulder.

Clunk.

I am Molly Vance.
Former Medusa Assassin.
Code name,
Akiko.
Of the Habu Kurage School.
Please prepare yourself.

He nods,
and in a deep, mournful voice,
says: I am Master Go Kondo.
Actor.
Also Bugei Instructor
certified in the Chiba-Nagoyu school
of Ninjutsu.

A chill wind rises,
shaking the dark cedars.

Hssssshhhhh.
Hsssshhhhh.

Amazing. The starry sky.

The Man in the Homburg

The man sat on the same bench at the same hour every day, overlooking the gray river.
He wore a dark overcoat. Also a Homburg hat. The Homburg had belonged to his grandfather.
It was Zurich. The gray river was the Limmat.

He kept beside him a nearly flat leather case with silver clasps.
This, too, had belonged to the same grandfather.

His hair was silver at the sides. There was white speckled all the way through it. His face, gaunt.
He was well groomed, and his smallest gestures bespoke elegance.

This was a man who clearly had breathed the atmosphere of money all his life.
It was in his style of crossing his legs, in the way he removed his thin deerskin gloves, finger by finger, before crushing them into his overcoat pocket.

It was a vicuna overcoat he wore, well brushed and shining. Not a stray dog hair clung to it.
Not that he owned a dog. But perhaps he did. A small, elegant, well groomed dog. At home with the wife.

Every day at the same time, he came to this bench.
He sat on it and gazed at the gray river.
At the mist floating over it.
Sometimes there was ice in the river, bobbing along rapidly.
The river flows out of Lake Zurich.

He is the heir of a banking fortune.
In the billions, no doubt.
He is also one of the founding members of the Group.

Others call it other things.
The Organization.
The Cabal.
The Group of 22.
The Shadow Government.

He does not appear to be waiting.
Yet he is waiting -- without impatience. Elegantly.

Today, a man walks over to him and sits.
He's younger, maybe twenty years younger.
He's in a leather jacket and blue jeans.
He has some beard stubble. Also an ear-ring.
He's handsome. His hair is swept forward in a pompadour.

This younger man is holding a laptop computer.
He opens it and turns it on.
The man in the Homburg gazing placidly at him, sidelong.

The leather case is between these two men.

The younger man speaks. He says a name. It's indistinct. Mr. Something.
Mr. So and So.

His tone, deferential without being whiny.

The man in the Homburg nods. An elegant nod.

The younger man glances around.
There's nobody else within hearing range.
He asks if he might smoke.
The man in the Homburg nods.
He takes a packet of cigarettes from his jacket.
He lights one with a gold lighter. Snap.
He slips the lighter back into his pocket.
He draws on the cigarette. Breathes out smoke through his nostrils.

He appears to be worried. His face is drawn in a frown.

It's Akiko, he says. He glances at the Homburg man, whose face has not changed. Maybe the lips are a little paler, a little tighter. He's gazing placidly at the gray river.

Tokyo. They picked her up in Tokyo. Airport surveillance camera feed, matched up with the two existing photographs, set off alarm bells at Section.

He smokes. Breathes smoke into the vivid cold air.

The man in the Homburg doesn't speak. He waits. Elegantly, like a lizard.

We got her checking in at a big hotel. Again, video feed. We got the name on her passport. We contacted our man in Tokyo. Katsumoto. He scrambled his assets. Ex-military, some ex-police. He also got the Shimada Twins in from the coast. He put out calls to Hong Kong and Taiwan for more assets. A decision was made to send in the Shimada Twins with two back up teams. The Shimada Twins were highly rated, at least sixty confirmed kills, no amateur stuff. This Akiko snuffed them like they were beat cops or something. She got out of the hotel, took down three members of one team (the other's in the hospital, critical), and got away clean. Almost clean. She wiped out two members of the other team in the subway. But the third asset on this team, a schoolgirl cover, survived, and she got us a top quality image of Akiko using her cell phone camera.

With this, the younger man taps on the keyboard of his open laptop. He turns the laptop so the Homburg man can see the screen. The image of Akiko appears -- her hair wild, in a black rainslicker with a luggage bag on her shoulder, poised on a subway platform.

Staring into the lens.
Blue eyes like gun metal.

The Homburg man is now smiling. Bitterly.

Katsumoto, he says. Our man in Tokyo.

The younger man nods.
Should I -- ?
No. We'll keep him on for the nonce.

So -- says the younger man, tossing away his cigarette. It's a goat-fuck. Target slipped the net. We can assume she's gone to ground, no hotels or anything. We're monitoring airports and trains. We've got three more teams in place, better quality for sure. We've also got some interesting material from background research. Akiko's flight was from Okinawa. There was some mayhem in Okinawa City we trace to her.

Why was she there?

It seems to have been a grudge thing, related to her past before she started work for us. A woman and her daughter were raped and killed by a yakuza psycopath karate master guy named Tommy Ko. This seems to have been at the orders of Omitsu. Akiko showed up in Okinawa to kill him.

Did she?

The young man laughs.

She took his fucking head. In a box. Then she killed the two other guys who were in on it. Then she flew to Tokyo.

The Homburg man straightens his shoulders. Takes the gloves out of a side pocket of his vicuna overcoat. Slips them onto his fine, manicured hands one by one.

The younger man is staring at the river. Shaking his head.

Tokyo, he says. Fuck.

The Homburg man picks up his leather case. He stands. He touches the brim of his hat.

Do me one favor, he says.
What? Anything, replies the younger man.
Get Kondo on this.
Master Kondo?
This -- Akiko. She's beyond beyond. It's likely she killed Omitsu. In San Francisco. That's what your background research says, correct?
The younger man shrugs.
Yes. Sure.
For all we know, she has Omitsu's bank accounts. Her gold ingots. Right here in Zurich, maybe. And with yakuza connections, she has the capacity to wash the money and move it anywhere in the world. She has vast wealth now, we must assume, and that means she has formidable power. And she may know who the other Medusas are. If she wanted to go to war with us -- well.

The younger man coughs. He bends forward. He shakes his head a little more, as if to clear it.
I'm on the fucker, he says.

The Homburg man puts a gloved hand on his shoulder. Squeezes.
I know you are.
He walks away. The younger man sits back, his leather jacket creaking. Watches the slim dapper figure go. Into the drifting mist. Then he takes out his cigarette pack, taps one free, and puts it in his lips. But he doesn't light it. He stares at ice floes rushing along in the dark current of the river.

Excerpt from FEAST OF VAMPYRES

belief

Charles Park's e-mail to Father Benat Oxtoa, Society of the Blessed Hammer and Stake, nicknamed "the Defrocked Scourge of the Undead," Mexico City, Mexico

Dear Father Oxtoa:

I write in the strictest confidence and seriousness to appeal for your help. I have visited your Web site and read the history of your group. I believe you can help me as no one else can or, perhaps, would even wish to.

I am Korean-American, a devout Christian churchgoer and contributor to various Christian charities, and a wealthy man. My business is importing ginseng products into the United States. I have been happily married to Margo, a wonderful Irish-American woman (maiden name Calhoun), for twenty one years, since we met in college. We live in a beautiful house in San Francisco.

And I am pained to say that our 18 year old daughter, Naomi, has been seduced by a vampire.

She is in love with him. She often goes on the Web and posts stories about their erotic encounters under the user name "vampirelover69." These stories are deeply shameful and degrading. I am certain that her mind has been placed under some malefic "spell." She was never this type of girl!

I became suspicious when Naomi began behaving in a distracted and overly-emotional, even "manic" way last autumn, just like a typical "girl in love," yet she obstinately refused to talk about who might be was "seeing." As it turns out, she was (and is) seeing her professor.

His name is Damien Stark. He teaches at San Francisco University and is a writer whose first novel, Vampire Blood, is currently on the bestseller lists.

Even before she enrolled in Professor Stark's creative writing class (which he teaches only at night!), my Naomi was overflowing with enthusiasm for his novel, obstensibly a work of fiction describing the life of a dashing young Englishman named Henry Moore who gets turned into a vampire in 15th century Venice. I've been told it is extremely detailed and "realistic."

I do not normally invoke the supernatural, but I have come to regard vampiric activity to be the only possible explanation for what is happening to Naomi. And just to prove that I am not insane or pulling your leg, I take the liberty of attaching -- in the strictest confidentiality, *please* -- a report from the detective agency I retained to "tail" Damien Stark. As you'll see, it is a "real eye-opener."

At about 3:30 AM this morning, long after my wife had gone to sleep -- yet my daughter's lights, in the in-law apartment, were still blazing, and I was afflicted by terrible insomnia -- I turned on the TV and watched part of a movie about Mexican vampires titled From Dusk Till Dawn. Maybe you have seen it.

I was absolutely riveted, despite the silly special effects. And it seemed to me far more than a mere coincidence that *this* particular movie should have been playing (on HBO2) just at this painful hour of anguish and soul-upheaval due to the shattering of all my most cherished beliefs about reality.

At one point in the movie actor George Clooney says something to the effect of, "I don't believe in vampires, but I do believe in my own eyes. And what I saw were vampires."

I jumped to my feet and cried out "Yes," when I heard that. My blood was pounding and I was drenched in sweat. Those brave and simple words gave me the strength I needed to act.

So I turned off the TV and went online to search for vampire hunters. That's how I found you, Father Oxtoa. Please, in the blessed name of our gentle savior Jesus Christ, help me. I am begging you, on my knees.

Respectfully,

Charles Sung Park

BUY FEAST OF VAMPYRES ON AMAZON/KINDLE

Excerpt from AKIKO'S SWORDS


They drink.
They look at each other.
Akiko is smiling.
Suddenly she's in tears.
Jiro looks away.
Then he looks back.
He can't help it.
He puts down his drink
and goes to her
like an arrow --
shot from the void.
Holds Molly Vance.
Tight. Tight.
His lips are on her neck.
He kisses her.
She writhes. He kisses her cheeks.
Tastes the salt
of her tears.
It's raining harder.
The sound of the rain
engulfs them both.
Wild. Insane, almost.
Akiko writhes,
slipping her silk blouse open.
Jiro kissing her white breasts;
wildly.

(But he doesn't kiss
the ugly, purplish,
black thread sutured
sword wound --
he merely gapes at it,
for just an instant,
amazed
& pitying.)

They're hot,
Akiko's breasts --
blazing hot,
the nipples swollen.
When Jiro bites one,
she moans,
and begins,
helplessly, to orgasm.
He feels it.
He bites, hurting her,
as she turns & writhes,
and then she cries out.
Emptied,
her eyes open
& staring.
She shuts her eyes,
panting,
her mouth open.
As Jiro kisses down
her pale stomach --
he unsnaps her pants.
She writhes her hips
to help him get them free.
He yanks down
the trousers & panties.
He draws them over her feet,
tosses them away,
wrenches her legs wide,
and presses his dark head
between them.
She feels his tongue,
licking, stabbing --
she begins to orgasm again,
harder this time.
Her whole body shakes.
She screams.
Screams.
Gushes.
Kicks at him
with her bare heels
on his shoulders --
as if to spur a horse
she's galloping wildly.
To where?
To the sun.
Oh the sun. The sun.
To the blaze
of nothingness.
Jiro is sucking her
so hard
it almost hurts.
She keeps coming,
in crazy spasms
that draw out shouts --
curses,
maledictions,
entreaties.


I'm you,
Akiko.
That's what
his heart says,
in a deranged whisper.
But he doesn't
even hear himself --
he's dazzled.
He kisses her,
deeply,
on that jewel like
open mouth,
that sordid
unbearably sweet furnace,
under the wild crown
of black hair.

She's so hot --
and as she moans
she's drizzling dew.
He drinks it,
sucks it into his mouth,
rolling his tongue
for the taste.

A dream.
Is it that?
Is it another dream?

She moans, now,
above the hopeless
clattering wild rain
that she wants his cock.
She says the words --
your cock. Please.
She begs him for it.

Jiro throws off
the silk robe --
he's naked.
His cock stands out
rigid, trembling.
He hurls himself
on Akiko --
he thrusts into her body
in a single wild movement.
Sinks into her.
It's too much --
he comes, his legs shaking.
She shouts Ah!
kissing him,
smiling into his mouth --
as the semen bursts.

Jiro feels himself
empty into Akiko --
like a cloud
suddenly torn apart,
raining onto darkness.
Into the sea.
The wild, infinite sea.

She's biting him,
sucking at the bites,
kissing him -- wildly --
and speaking to him
in vivid bursts.
She calls him her child,
her lover.
She curses him,
calls him yakuza,
a thug, a freak.

Jiro begins
thrusting hard --
his pleasure rises
to a peak.
After about fifty thrusts,
he bursts inside Molly again,
twisting his hips
to try to get in deeper.
They slide from the sofa,
roll on the carpet
licking & biting.
Like animals.
Like dogs,
Jiro thinks.
She's got him clamped
between her legs,
hugging him,
kissing his chest.
Licking the sweat.
She sits up on his penis,
her vagina frothing,
and rides him so hard
he cries out at the pain.


She orgasms hard,
screaming above the rain
and falls on him, limp,
and he clasps her.
Like a miracle,
a jewel --
the sublime lover,
a woman mysteriously
back from the dead,
& the only one
he would ever dream of dying for.

Jiro gets up.
He goes to the bottle,
to his empty glass.
Gasping,
he pours more Suntory.
Drinks. Drinks more.
He pours another,
carries the glass, sloshing,
to Akiko.
She half-sits,
raising her head.
He puts the glass
to her lips.
She drinks.
Shakes her head
to free sweat stuck hair
from her neck.

They look at each other,
wonderingly, suddenly abashed
at the wild nakedness --
blazing in the lamplight,
engulfed by Tokyo rain.
A man. A woman.
Jiro kisses her.
She kisses him back,
slowly, a deep kiss --
her tongue-tip thrilling him
for its sheer wit,
for its joy of suffering aliveness.
She holds his penis
as it swells erect again.
Then she crawls over,
lowers her head,
the hair tickling his thighs --
and sucks hard on it.
He shifts his naked legs
as she bites a little.
Watches the sleek,
dark head,
the newly scissored hair,
bobbing
up and down
smoothly, like an otter's.

Feeling a wild emotion
like grief --
& the hot semen rushing
up into his penis --
he tries to wrench Akiko
away, but she sucks
& licks him faster.

He falls back
on the carpet,
his arms spread
like Christ's,
squeezing his eyes shut --
shouts, shouts again.

She swallows him,
moaning
like a woman in a dream.
Then she kisses it
with real reverence,
& embraces his hips.
Rests her head
on his stomach.

They fall asleep that way.

The Russian Book Club


The Russian book club's "dare" was this: Flip to a random page of a novel, point, then go out and do exactly what the character does. Predictably, perhaps, the book club had to recruit new members every few years. There were rumors, oh yes. Predictable ones -- yet, since nobody ever talked about the rules of the book club, it never came under legal scrutiny. Who knew for sure that we even existed, anyhow? Other than ourselves. Each member we lost was one less liability, if you want to look at it that way. And some of us did. But I personally grieved for our fallen heroes. The young man who put his finger on that unlucky passage close to the end of Anna Karenina! He didn't lament his fate, didn't protest, didn't try to evade the issue. He went out the next day, dressed in his finest, straight to the railroad station. We heard about the gory denoument that afternoon. It was a tumult in the press. Nobody could understand it. No note was found. The police were clueless. The Russian book club met the following Tuesday. We all wore black, or at least black armbands or ties, to show our regret, yet nobody spoke of him. We were already starting out on a new book: Crime and Punishment.

"I AM THE VOID"

We see Akiko. She's drinking the rain,
head upturned, the Tokyo rain
neon-streaked and shattering on her.

Then she walks down the alley
and out onto another street,
barefoot, staggering a little.

People stare at her
as she walks along the night street,
her hair plastered to her head,
or dangling in long strands.

She squints against the rain
dripping into her eyes.

She walks quickly,
with clear energy and purpose.
Haragei.
All her training in Zen
and in the karate dojo.

It's all evident
in her subtle, intense bearing
and the calm way she moves.
For those with eyes to see --
but are there any?

She sees the subway entrance
and darts down into it.
She buys a ticket
from a machine.
She walks through tiled,
brilliantly lit tunnels. Then
she stands on a platform
in the echoing station --

there is a rumbling,
growing to thunder
then the train screeches into veiw.

It brakes, and windows
stop flowing past.
Akiko goes in and takes a seat,
holding the luggage bag on her knees.
Shuts her eyes.

There are echoing announcements,
a clanging bell,
then the train shudders
and lurches to life.

When she opens her eyes,
a girl in a school uniform
is gazing at her.
Akiko smiles.
The girl drops her eyes
and begins thumb-tapping
a gaudy cell phone --

She shuts her eyes again,
feeling the train jolt
and stammer on the tracks
in the deep tunnel.

What's beyond all this?
What's behind your eyelids?
Is it great light, or great darkness?

Nobody knows anything,
Hemingway said.

All the Zen masters
of the old days are dead.

They can't wake you up
with a shout, with a stick,
with a shattering ko-an
or a piece of wall calligraphy.

It's up to you to make something of This.
But you don't know how,
or what to do with your infinite horror, undying grief.

*

She waits through three booming stations with her eyes shut, breathing so calmly there's no sensation of breathing at all, then at the fourth stop -- it's Asakusa -- she gets up without undue haste and makes her way down the slowing, shuddering train to the exit doors. The schoolgirl does not even raise her eyes under the fine dark brows. At the doors a young couple are clinging and kissing each other, feverishly yet oddly without passion. Akiko stops a few paces from them but they do not move even as the doors hiss apart. Then Akiko steps forward -- and the man and woman separate smoothly, the man stabbing at her with a combat knife and the woman pulling from her raincoat a black object that Akiko recognizes as a taser. She swings her bag at the woman, knocking her to her knees, the taser skidding away across the train's floor. She blocks the knife thrusts with quick movements of her forearms as the man jabs at her throat and chest twice, three times, the knife slitting the sleeves of her black rainslicker and of the leather jacket she's wearing beneath it, then she strikes him hard with an elbow to the temple and his head clunks against a pole. She knees him in the chest and he coughs blood. She brings a fist down hard on the back of his neck, feeling it crack. He falls. The woman, wide eyed and feral, is scrambling for the taser and she has it in her fist again as Akiko's knife-hand strike sends her to the floor, her body twitching and jolting, the dark blood already streaming from her nostrils. Akiko snatches away the taser and slips through the doors just before they hiss shut. As the train screeches away, her eyes meet the eyes of the schoolgirl, who, expressionless -- the true shiran kao, face of stone -- raises her gaudy pink glitter sprayed cell phone and snaps Akiko's picture standing alone on the platform, her hair wild. Akiko slips the taser into a side pocket of her raincoat as she dashes barefoot to the escalators. She runs to the top and emerges into the crazy rain soaked neon maze of Asakusa.

*


"I AM THE VOID"

Night. Asakusa
Akiko, running and walking barefoot in the neon crazed rain through streets and alleys around the Kannon shrine.
Glancing to the sides with tight, quick glances then ducking into a doorway to survey the street behind her.
Empty streets. Rain. Rain. Neon signs in all colors.
She keeps moving, the rain slicker keeping all of her dry but her head and soaked dripping hair and her chilled hands.
The machine guns and their extra clips clunk together in the luggage bag she wears slung across her shoulder. The strap bites into her chest, hurting the thread-sutured cut Tommy Ko gave her in Okinawa. All this movement has broken some of the sutures and it is bleeding; she can feel the blood caking in the weave of her sweater.
Ogata's kodachi is thrust into the waitband of her blue jeans with the sweater pulled out over it, the grip warmed by her belly. She touches it with her fingertips: it's as if Ogata is with her. Eiji Ogata, karate master and yakuza hit man -- he was the most quietly, nobly loving human being she has ever known.
On impulse, Akiko ducks into an all night pachinko parlor and sits at a machine, facing the door at an angle.
She plays some pachinko, inserting coins with her dripping fingers. The parlor is filled with buzzing, clanging, clattering, beeping noises and the brightness makes her eyes ache.
After about twenty minutes she gets up, leaves the pachinko parlor and crosses the street to a bar with a small illuminated sign and a metal door.
It's dim in the bar. She takes off her rain slicker, shakes it out, hangs it on a hook by the door. Then she sits in a small vinyl booth, ideal for two people or three at the most, and orders a bottle of sake.
There are a few intoxicated businessmen in the back and a single smiling hostess. No yakuza. Jazz is playing -- it's Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The music sounds chilly and drugged.
Akiko drinks two glasses of the sake. It seems to calm her twanging nerves. The Japanese name of this sake, she notes, translates into English as "Demon Slayer." This makes her laugh.
She asks the hostess to save the rest of the large bottle for her next visit and pays the check. It's exorbitant. She bows slightlyto the hostess who bows even lower, smiles and says Arigato, then puts on her still dripping rainslicker and walks out into the rain. She heads toward the great shrine.
After walking for another half hour around the dark, rain-dripping grounds of the Kannon shrine, she's sure no additional Organization-hired killers are tailing her. She walks slowly, like a bunraku puppet-doll in a dream, back to the subway station and down the concrete steps onto the bare platform strewn with paper candy wrappers. It seems to take a long time for a train to arrive. She sits, jolting, for fourteen stops and disembarks near Jiro's neighborhood.
She walks to Jiro's house. The one she remembers from her teenaged years. She went there sometimes with her adopted father, Ogata. It's not a yakuza type mansion, just a quiet and well built house surrounded by a high wall with a large wooden front gate. There is, she recalls, a formal garden behind the wall and the house is shaded by a big cedar.
She stands at the gate. Her hair is dripping rain. A slight mist and a scent of frost. She feels her heart lurching. She wipes her nostrils with the back of her hand. They're ice cold. She's shuddering a little. She shuts her eyes, lifts her killer's hand -- and knocks.
Bangs.

West

It was during that era, the era when the dead were returning, or so we thought, that I took a train to the edge of the Great Desert.

The train was crammed full of passengers returning from the Beyond. It was hot. Children were singing, clapping, and shouting.

I was carrying a thrush in a wicker cage. I pulled a velvet cover over the page so it would stop singing. I was very tired.

And hot.

I fell asleep over my book, The Book of Hellfire & Damnations. Mainly, it was a cruel and bloody collection of old "killing ballads" from the Old West.

"Everything changes, everything appears and disappears. When both existence and non-existence are transcended, Nirvana will be bliss."

Do you know what book that's from, originally? a woman asked, her eyes on the page I'd been reading.

It startled me, her slightly rough voice. I looked at her. She was wearing a sober, neat, chaste dark blue dress but had blazing blue eyes and black hair.

No, I said, putting my finger on the page to keep my place. Where?

She took an old leatherbound book out of her handbag and showed me the spine: The Book of Ghosts and Mysterious Apparitions.

I laughed.

Where are you going? I asked.

She looked at me. After a long long time, she said: West.
We see Akiko. She's drinking the rain,
head upturned, the Tokyo rain
neon-streaked and shattering on her.

Then she walks down the alley
and out onto another street,
barefoot, staggering a little.

People stare at her
as she walks along the night street,
her hair plastered to her head,
or dangling in long strands.

You can see the shape of her breasts
because her dark sweater is soaked.
She squints against the rain
dripping into her eyes.

She walks quickly,
with clear energy and purpose.
Haragei.
All her training in Zen
and in the karate dojo.

It's all evident
in her subtle, intense bearing
and the calm way she moves.
For those with eyes to see --
but are there any?

She sees the subway entrance
and darts down into it.
She buys a ticket
from a machine.
She walks through tiled,
brilliantly lit tunnels. Then
she stands on a platform
in the echoing station --

there is a rumbling,
growing to thunder
then the train screeches into veiw.

It brakes, and windows
stop flowing past.
Akiko goes in and takes a seat,
holding the luggage bag on her knees.
Shuts her eyes.

There are echoing announcements,
a clanging bell,
then the train shudders
and lurches to life.

When she opens her eyes,
a girl in a school uniform
is gazing at her.
Akiko smiles.
The girl drops her eyes
and begins thumb-tapping
a gaudy cell phone --

She shuts her eyes again,
feeling the train jolt
and stammer on the tracks
in the deep tunnel.

What's beyond all this?
What's behind your eyelids?
Is it great light, or great darkness?

Nobody knows anything,
Hemingway said.

All the Zen masters
of the old days are dead.

They can't wake you up
with a shout, with a stick,
with a shattering ko-an
or a piece of wall calligraphy.

It's up to you to make something of This.
But you don't know how,
or what to do with your infinite horror, undying grief.

*

She waits through three booming stations with her eyes shut, breathing so calmly there's no sensation of breathing at all, then at the fourth stop -- it's Asakusa -- she gets up without undue haste and makes her way down the slowing, shuddering train to the exit doors. The schoolgirl does not even raise her eyes under the fine dark brows. At the doors a young couple are clinging and kissing each other, feverishly yet oddly without passion. Akiko stops a few paces from them but they do not move even as the doors hiss apart. Then Akiko steps forward -- and the man and woman separate smoothly, the man stabbing at her with a combat knife and the woman pulling from her raincoat a black object that Akiko recognizes as a taser. She swings her bag at the woman, knocking her to her knees, the taser skidding away across the train's floor. She blocks the knife thrusts with quick movements of her forearms as the man jabs at her throat and chest twice, three times, the knife slitting the sleeves of her leather jacket, then she strikes him hard with an elbow to the temple and his head clunks against a pole. She knees him in the chest and he coughs blood. She brings a fist down hard on the back of his neck, feeling it crack. He falls. The woman, wide eyed and feral, is scrambling for the taser and she has it in her fist again as Akiko's knife-hand strike sends her to the floor, her body twitching and jolting, the dark blood already streaming from her nostrils. Akiko snatches away the taser and slips through the doors just before they hiss shut. As the train screeches away, her eyes meet the eyes of the schoolgirl, who, expressionless -- the true shiran kao, face of stone -- raises her gaudy pink glitter sprayed cell phone and snaps Akiko's picture standing alone on the platform, her hair wild. Akiko slips the taser into a side pocket of her raincoat as she dashes barefoot to the escalators. She runs to the top and emerges into the crazy rain soaked neon maze of Asakusa.

*


"I AM THE VOID"

Night. Asakusa
Akiko, running and walking barefoot in the neon crazed rain through streets and alleys around the Kannon shrine.
Glancing to the sides with tight, quick glances then ducking into a doorway to survey the street behind her.
Empty streets. Rain. Rain. Neon signs in all colors.
She keeps moving, the rain slicker keeping all of her dry but her head and soaked dripping hair and her chilled hands.
The machine guns and their extra clips clunk together in the luggage bag she wears slung across her shoulder. The strap bites into her chest, hurting the thread-sutured cut Tommy Ko gave her in Okinawa. All this movement has broken some of the sutures and it is bleeding; she can feel the blood caking in the weave of her sweater.
Ogata's kodachi is thrust into the waitband of her blue jeans with the sweater pulled out over it, the grip warmed by her belly. She touches it with her fingertips: it's as if Ogata is with her. Eiji Ogata, karate master and yakuza hit man -- he was the most quietly, nobly loving human being she has ever known.
On impulse, Akiko ducks into an all night pachinko parlor and sits at a machine, facing the door at an angle.
She plays some pachinko, inserting coins with her dripping fingers. The parlor is filled with buzzing, clanging, clattering, beeping noises and the brightness makes her eyes ache.
After about twenty minutes she gets up, leaves the pachinko parlor and crosses the street to a bar with a small illuminated sign and a metal door.
It's dim in the bar. She takes off her rain slicker, shakes it out, hangs it on a hook by the door. Then she sits in a small vinyl booth, ideal for two people or three at the most, and orders a bottle of sake.
There are a few intoxicated businessmen in the back and a single smiling hostess. No yakuza. Jazz is playing -- it's Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The music sounds chilly and drugged.
Akiko drinks two glasses of the sake. It seems to calm her twanging nerves. The Japanese name of this sake, she notes, translates into English as "Demon Slayer." This makes her laugh.
She asks the hostess to save the rest of the large bottle for her next visit and pays the check. It's exorbitant. She bows slightlyto the hostess who bows even lower, smiles and says Arigato, then puts on her still dripping rainslicker and walks out into the rain. She heads toward the great shrine.
After walking for another half hour around the dark, rain-dripping grounds of the Kannon shrine, she's sure no additional Organization-hired killers are tailing her. She walks slowly, like a bunraku puppet-doll in a dream, back to the subway station and down the concrete steps onto the bare platform strewn with paper candy wrappers. It seems to take a long time for a train to arrive. She sits, jolting, for fourteen stops and disembarks near Jiro's neighborhood.
She walks to Jiro's house. The one she remembers from her teenaged years. She went there sometimes with her adopted father, Ogata. It's not a yakuza type mansion, just a quiet and well built house surrounded by a high wall with a large wooden front gate. There is, she recalls, a formal garden behind the wall and the house is shaded by a big cedar.
She stands at the gate. Her hair is dripping rain. A slight mist and a scent of frost. She feels her heart lurching. She wipes her nostrils with the back of her hand. They're ice cold. She's shuddering a little. She shuts her eyes, lifts her killer's hand -- and knocks.
Bangs.

Exit Strategy


Akiko edges out in the hallway first, showing only a few inches of her body until she can verify that it is clear.

She's unzipped the bag on her shoulder. Her right hand is inside it, on the grip of the compact machine gun. Safety, off. Index finger inside the trigger guard.

She looks up and down the plush-carpeted hallway. Empty. Shoes lined up outside shut doors.

She exhales slowly. Lifting her left hand, the elbow jutting straight from her body, she waves Natsume out with her fingertips.

Silence. Explosive silence.

Natsume steps out, slumped in fear as if shrinking into herself. Akiko touches her thin shoulder, steering her toward the elevator bank.

They stop by a vase of fresh orchids placed on a table between two brass elevators and Akiko taps the Up button. An elevator begins to climb from L to the 10th floor, the numbers blinking on and off fast.

She and Natsume look at each other. Natsume is very pale and looks ill.

Akiko says: Go to the 14th Floor. Wait there until the fire alarm sounds. Then go down by the stairs and walk out calmly through the lobby. Do not look at anyone or anything. Just walk out as quickly as you can without running. Walk down the street to the corner, hail a taxi and go home.

Natsume seizes Akiko's elbow. Grips it hard, her dark red fingernails pinching.

Molly. Come with me. Please.

No.

Natsume lets go. She drops her gaze. Her wild black hair, come undone done, hangs over her eyes. Akiko smooths the strands back with her left hand and, darting forward, kisses Natsume's brow with dry lips.

The bell clangs. The elevator gapes open. Natsume steps into it.

She looks at Akiko. Bravely, yet she is already starting to cry again. They are looking at each with something like real affection as the doors slide shut.

Gone. Gone.

Akiko walks to the staircase exit. She opens the door with her left hand on the cold knob, searching the stairwell with her eyes and ears. She glances over the railing. It's just a brightly lit staircase. Vacant.

She relaxes her grip on the machine gun and jogs down the stairs.

9th floor. 8th. 7th.

At the 2nd floor she steps out next to the brass elevator bank with its vase of orchids on a marbled table. Glancing up, she sees the blinking numeral 14.

There's a fire alarm here, as on every floor. She pulls it.

As the alarm begins its raucous wild clanging, she steps back into the stairwell and jogs down to the Lobby.

Crossing the ornate, marbled lobby, she keeps her hand inside the bag, and walks quickly glancing from side to side, toward the revolving glass doors of the main street exit.

The two night desk clerks are on their phones and the other lines are beeping. A man in a silk suit -- the manager -- is shouting frantically at someone in the office behind him.

Akiko veers away from the street exit when she glimpses, through the doors, a short middle aged woman in a black raincoat who seems to be merely loitering there as if waiting for someone, and looks unconcerned by the clanging fire alarm.

She walks around a potted plant and makes her way toward the kitchen.

The kitchen is still and empty. Hanging pots gleam. The floor is scrubbed to a shine.

She walks through it quickly and smoothly, not breaking into a run, keeping her breaths deep and clear.

There. The rear exit. She lets out a short exhale and pushes it wide.

Crouching, she emerges into the alley.

She glances to her left first, then right.

No one. A few trash bins and some crates of empty bottles.

She walks fast, her heels clicking, into the neon lights of a Tokyo avenue. Turns left, away from the hotel, and picks up her pace to merge with the pedestrian traffic as fast as possible.

It's now that Akiko glimpses a man's stark face -- he's in the driver's seat of a parked black Audi sedan across the avenue -- and knows that the alley was "covered" after all.

A motorbike jumps to life behind Akiko. Glancing back, she sees the man astride it -- and although she cannot see his face under the dark visor of his helmet, she knows this man is part of the team sent to eliminate her.

As the Audi screeches from its parking spot, the motorbike rider sticks his right hand into his leather jacket.

Akiko kicks the high heeled shoes from her feet into the gutter, steps barefoot from the curb and dashes across the street diagonally, toward the empty parking space the Audi has just shot from, its tires smoking.

Omitsu had taught her this: When confronted by multiple opponents and a straight on attack is impossible, you can confuse your enemy by moving behind him.

The Audi brakes with a lurch and the driver throws it smoothly into reverse and, the tires smoking and screeching again, aims the rear fender at Akiko's running legs.

She throws herself onto the hood of a parked car and slides across it, rolling onto the wet sidewalk. A couple walking arm in arm under a plastic umbrella jump back out of her way.

The Audi brakes again, and a side rear door is flung open.

As Akiko rises from the sidewalk she glimpses a man in a dark sweater and blue jeans and a pink windbreaker emerging from the backseat -- in his hands is a machine gun just like the one she has in her hands.

She fires a short rattling burst that catches him in the upper body, and he slams back against the Audi and then pitches forward, his legs sliding underneath it.

The luggage bag bouncing on her ribs, Akiko now shoves aside the frozen couple and sprints all out toward the nearest side street.

The tires screech again, and there is a dull thump as the front wheels bounce over the legs of the fallen would be killer. Engine shrieking in reverse, the skilled driver closes all the distance she's gained in two and a half seconds.

As the sedan's front passenger side window comes level with the sprinting, now gasping Akiko, she half turns and fires a short burst one-handed, the bullets spanging and clanking on metal. The passenger window explodes and the Audi fishtails wildly.

Akiko has all but reached the corner when she changes direction again, darting out in front of the sedan as it spins backward.

The man on the motorbike, gunning his engine to 40 mph to reach the sidestreet and already beginning to veer around the spinning Audi in order to intercept Akiko at the corner, is shocked by her sudden appearance in the street just six feet in front of him, but before his body can react, Akiko hits him full in the center of his visor with the butt of her machine gun. His neck snaps, and he tumbles from the motorbike.

The motorbike falls on its side and slides, spinning and showering sparks, past the Audi as its fender smashes into a parked taxi, showering glass and metal.

Akiko leaps back onto the sidewalk and sprints in other other direction. Away from the carnage and the wail of oncoming sirens.

After running barefoot for two blocks, she turns down an alley at a jog. It's dark after the blinding neon. She's gasping, and her ribs hurt, and her arms are stinging from the shock of impact with the motorcycle helmet -- the left wrist feels as if it might have been wrenched -- and there are tears flowing out of her eyes. Akiko stops, leans against a wall, and shoves the machine gun with its spent clip back into her luggage bag and zips the bag shut.

Rain is falling on her lank dripping hair. Akiko tilts her head to it, mouth open gratefully -- she drinks the acrid Tokyo rain.

The Samurai Movie


We see Natsume in Akiko's arms. Akiko is kissing her on the open mouth as Natsume writhes her bare hips. Neon. Neon. Everything's gone. A beach at twilight. A girl is singing as she rolls a hoop down a dark street. Poppies, the dust of poppies. Suns and the dust of suns.Why shouldn't you be dazzled by all the suns. At once, all the galaxies whirling. Dust and fire, and train tracks in the bleakness. A road going west, a road going east. Once upon a time in grief.

*

Natsume bends at the waist to switch on the tv. She laughs. It's a samurai movie. A one-armed man missing one eye in a woman's white kimono is cutting down black clad ninjas with a sword. I remember this show, she says. She sits on the bed smoking her cigarette. Akiko watches her. Then she watches rain streaming on the glass. She shivers. Is it cold in the hotel room? No. Something is wrong. She tosses aside the sheet and dresses quickly, pulling the things out of her gaping luggage bag. Panties, jeans, a sweater. Natsume is laughing.

*

So, Akiko asks, her mouth in Natsume's black hair. Her eyes shut. Natsume's mouth and fingers on her skin, thrillingly. Does he pay you money? This Junichiro of yours? This yakuza? Natsume doesn't stop what she is doing, which is kissing Akiko's pale skin and stroking it with her fingertips. Licking the stiff nipples. Searching for the places that will make Akiko thrill and moan. Careful not to touch the black thread stitched sword cut that had widened her eyes when Akiko turned from stripping down and stood in the brilliant lamplight naked.

Ah. Ah.

Finally, she nods a little and says, Hai.

So that's it. Natsume is not only a flight attendent but also call girl.

Later, Natsume in a toneless shallow breathy voice describes how she met Jun in a milk bar when she was only fourteen years old and he took her to a love hotel in Shibuya and she let him do everything to her, everything he wanted, everything you could imagine, everything. She was in her schoolgirl uniform. He was brutal and passionate. He bit her a lot. It hurt but she liked it. They've been seeing each other since then, off and on. Sometimes he takes her away to other places. Once by train to Osaka. Once even to Hong Kong where he had some business for the Yoshimori clan. Ah, Akiko says, so you knew he was yakuza. Natsume giggles. Yes. He told me. That first night. I saw his tattooes. He's proud of it. He's full of himself, like men. You know?

Does Jun have other women? Akiko asks.

Natsume expells a long shuddering breath. Yes. I'm sure of it.

Akiko thinks, Jun. The Yoshimori clan. She remembers the hard, handsome face, the cut of his dark suit. She imprints it in her mind.

Tattooes of what? she asks. Natsume giggles. Demons. Dragons. Then Natsume parts Akiko's knees and crawls between them and Akiko gasps for breath, arching her back, and she feels herself begin to orgasm. It's a long, rippling, desperate one, with Natsume sucking and licking her hard. It ends in a kind of dark explosion behind her eyelids. Akiko grips Natsume's head with her fingers, twisting the dark hair, and lets out an urgent cry then a curse. Natsume takes her mouth away and bites Akiko's thigh, laughing. They twist together in the sheets. Hah, hah, hah, Akiko says, catching her breath.

(Oh Molly. Oh Molly. It's just a dream. It's a dream we're both having. We're sitting on the beach. We came down here by a train. We're looking at the light on the water. The sky is colorless and cold. It's autumn. Here at the beach nothing happens. People come here in the summers and it's loud and vibrant. But today it's just still, bleak, and cold. Even the gulls seem listless, saddened by the shortness of the days, the eternal cold evenings.)

It's raining in Tokyo. Neon lights up the streets brighter than day. You blink into the blinding rain.

*

You dream that you are on the ferry to Kamijima. A bright cold day in autumn. Gulls are screaming. The engine starts, chattering, with a stench of diesal fumes, and the ferry gives a lurch in the water. The water is boiling green white and the fumes stream over the deck and make people cough. The boy with bare dirty feet is untying the knots, tossing slack rope onto the deck, the coils thudding. You sit on a bench in a space that seems to have cleared for you magically, hugging yourself against the wind in that leather jacket. You're back. After the strange rainy night in Tokyo when you wandered the streets, rode the subways to escape from the killing team sent by the Organization. It's a dream, like any other dream.

*

Go into the bathroom, Akiko says suddenly. Natsume turns her head, still smoking, her mouth open. Quick. Do it now. Lie flat in the bathtub. Natsume looks at her for an instant longer then without a word gets up and runs into the bathroom, her pale behind wagging. Akiko tosses the bedclothes so that they fall in a formless heap and walks to the door and stands against the wall to the inside of the hinges, holding Ogata's kodachi in her left hand. She stares at the knob. She stares at it for a long time, without blinking. The tv is still on, hollowly. Tange Sazen, the one armed one-eyed samurai, is killing ninjas by the dozens. The reflected picture blinks on the windows against streaming rain. Akiko draws breath deeply into her Hara. She feels her skin and her fingertips thrill. Alive with pulse.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Is she crazy?

There it is. The knob turns a little. Was there a click? It turns more. Whoever it is, they have a key. Then the door eases open a half inch, an inch. Akiko makes her breath silent yet she does not stop breathing. She relaxes deeply. This is a secret of the warrior, the way of the bushi Omitsu taught her. You must not tense up before a fight or you will lose it. And now a black cylinder appears in the gap between the door and the frame. It's the long suppressor of a gun. As Akiko watches, it pokes delicately into the swimming light and shadows from the TV screen. The door opens a little wider and now whoever is holding the gun has most of the wide bed in his field of fire. A brief thudding rattle and the bedclothes jump. Akiko flattens herself against the wall, her cheek pressed into her black hair. Another two second burst muted by the suppressor, just a little smoke and no flashes. Silence. Down from a torn pillow is floating in the air. A samurai lets out a scream as Tange Sazen cuts him from shoulder to groin. The door opens, bouncing on Akiko's shoulder, and the gunman steps into the room holding his machine gun low, followed quickly by another man with the same model of weapon. They're both in black rainslickers and black plastic rain hats. They fire two more short bursts each at the bed, the mattress jumping as it takes the rounds. A stench of burnt cotton. As they move into the room the first man turns his body toward Akiko. She doesn't let him see her. She whips the blade from its scabbard, steps forward and slashes his throat. Before the other man can react in any way at all she has severed his head at the top of the spine. His twitching body pitches forward onto the carpet, while the head falls with a thud and rolls under the bed. The first man fires a burst as he goes down but the bullets explode on the wall. Akiko leaps backward to keep from being blinded by the bloodspray, slapping the door shut with her elbow. Silence. She crouches. Listens. Nothing, but the pumping then trickling of blood, and air escaping in a long hiss from the cut throat of the first man. The stench. That ugly stench. Akiko shuts her eyes. She clears her mind again by steadying it in the Hara. Everything is brilliant. Tange Sazen is running across rooftops. It's raining in Tokyo. She sheathes the kodachi and sticks it into the waistband of her blue jeans, pulling the sweater out over it. Can this be all of them? She locks the door, puts on the extra sliding bar lock on top. Then she bends and wrests the machine gun from the hands of the first man. She checks the clip. It's almost spent. She searches the pockets of the rainslicker and finds two spare clips. These she tosses into her luggage bag, followed by the gun. She gets the other gun and spare ammunition and tosses those into the bag also. She goes to the bathroom and knocks softly. Natsume? Yes. It's Akiko. Silence. Then: Wh-what happened? We've got to go. Come out. Get dressed. Okay? Silence. Okay. The lock turns. The door opens. Natsume appears, demure, wild-eyed, still naked. Follows Akiko into the room in the flickering blue tv light. Lets out a little cry. Akiko hears another brief spurting trickle -- in her terror, Natsume has urinated onto the carpet. Ssh, says Akiko. Your clothes are over there. Put them on now. Quickly. Quickly. Here's a towel. She tosses Natsume a towel. Natsume fumbles, drops it and has to crouch to pick it up. Wipes her thighs and between her legs. Drops it on the floor. She's crying in short gasps like a little girl. She dresses in jerky, inept movements. Akiko zips the calfskin bag shut. She's already been in and out of the bathroom for her toiletries, stepping around the rich blood soaking into the carpet. She tossed Natsume's lipstick tinged half smoked cigarette into the toilet and flushed it. Wiped down the sink faucets and the sides of the sink and tub with a wet towel to get rid of stray fingerprints. Snatched up the plastic bag from the trash can containing her cut hair, which she tied and put into her luggage bag. She now takes her dark, slim leather jacket from a wing chair and wrestles it on. She glances at the tv screen. Night. Deep shadows. A single stone lantern. Tange Sazen is lurking in a pine grove outside what looks like a temple. Watching and waiting, his face drawn in a smirk. Akiko remembers seeing this one with Ogata, when she was about ten years old. It's a fascinating realization. She's the same little girl. Just arrived from San Francisco, distraught and trusting and calm, knowing only a few words of Japanese. The same.

These two men she cut down, just now -- they were both Japanese. Yakuza? No. Probably not. She could search for tattooes but doesn't want to touch the corpses, nor take the time. A kill team. Right? The Organization, then.

Ginza, Rain




Akiko woke as the jet began dropping altitude. The porthole window was dotted with raindrops. The jet tilted and she saw the big wing streaming white vapor. Clouds rolled past, a livid streak of lightning. Tokyo appeared. She stared at it. At the blinking neon, the glass skyscrapers, vast canyons of shadow.

She had bought two seats in First Class so that she could sleep, and she’d slept dully under the thin blanket for about two hours. The blinking red Fasten Seatbelts light now came on and a pretty blue skirted “crew member” strolled up and down the aisle glancing bemusedly from side to side. Akiko sat up and fastened her seatbelt, folding the blanket beside her. She’d been dreaming about Ogata and was dizzy from it. Ogata, standing in the kitchen of the tiny apartment they’d shared, humming and cutting vegetables for udon, while she sat over her schoolbooks at the kitchen table. She shut her eyes hard to rid herself of the image.

Is everything a dream? Mere illusion?

Akiko glanced up and her blue eyed gaze met the gaze of the “crew member” who was coming slowly back down the aisle, touching the leather backs of the seats as she passed. Akiko knew that her dark blue eyes sometimes startled people, but the pretty young crew member was so startled she actually missed a step. She fell like a doll into Akiko’s arms. Akiko raised the young woman to her feet. They both laughed, and a blush suffused the young woman’s ears. She bowed quickly in apology and thanks. At that instant the jet gave a sideways lurch; the woman swayed and almost fell again. Still bowing rapidly she hurried to the front of the jet, where she sat behind a curtain and buckled herself in. They were only a minute or two from landing. Akiko turned her head to watch the wing cutting through thin layers of cloud and mist, and raindrops sliding across the plexiglass. She yawned and shivered a little. She’d be spending the night in Tokyo. That idea suddenly depressed her. She didn’t want to go out to a restaurant alone. Tokyo felt vast and dreary. She’d have to avoid all the places she used to go. Earlier, waiting to board this flight from Okinawa, she’d daydreamed a little about calling up Jiro. But now this daydream struck her as outlandish. She hadn’t seen Jiro in five years. Perhaps he was not even still alive. He was a yakuza and she’d left that world. It would be insane to try seeing him. What would they even talk about? The last time she saw Jiro, they’d made love. She’d been a virgin then, so far as men were concerned. He’d been astonished by the sight of her blood. She’d wept a little with her face against his chest. He must have felt the heat of the tears but he didn’t speak. She felt his heart beating. She kissed the spot and they both became aroused and it happened again. That was in the little apartment, the one she’d shared with Ogata, and his ashes were on the family altar in the living room the whole time. With Jiro and Ichi she’d cut through the Kumida Clan and she’d beheaded old man Kumida. Jiro and Ichi had brought the head to their Boss, Old Man Nakamura, wrapped in a blood soaked square of white silk. So long ago.

The jet’s wheels touched down, screeching, the metal and plastic body of the plane shuddered, the brakes came on and flaps on the rear of the steel wing flipped up. Akiko watched them vibrating. The jet slowed to crawl and turned in a wide circle toward the big concrete terminal. Akiko shut her eyes. Her heart was beating in strong urgent beats. When she opened her eyes she saw the young woman crew member rising from her seat. Pretty and nicely coiffed, with wide friendly eyes and an agile smiling mouth, her smooth pale face had that dusky type of rice-paper whiteness so prized by the Japanese. Akiko rubbed her arms a little for warmth. Sleeping had made her body feel cold. She watched as the young woman put away some things in a tray into a compartment that she couldn’t see, standing high on tiptoe. She had a tight, slim waist but her breasts were big, even “lush.” A slim black belt clinched that waist, erotically.

In the big booming terminal lit by flashing signs and crackling with loudspeaker announcements of delayed and boarding blights, Akiko walked slowly, looking straight ahead. She felt she was remembering her arrival in Tokyo as a nine year old girl but she wasn’t thinking of any particular details. It was just the ambience flooding all her senses. She bowed her head and felt tears behind her eyelids. No. She blinked them away and walked a little faster. After a moment she slipped on her dark glasses.

She’d checked her luggage bag because it had Ogata’s kodachi in it. She stood staring at the empty conveyor belt for a long time, it seemed, without a single thought in her head until tumbled luggage began to flow past. There was the bag, glossy black calfskin. She hefted it easily by the straps and walked away carrying it over one shoulder.

As she approached the car rental desk she saw the young crew member who’d stumbled and fallen into her lap stroll by, wheeling a small piece of luggage. She was wearing a tightly belted stylish blood-red raincoat and her face looked young and white, and the silky hair heaped on her head was deep black with red ears showing under it. She was laughing at something the other crew member walking beside her had said. The other woman, in a black rainslicker, swung her hips boldly as she walked. They looked like casual friends, nothing more, but seeing them together and so carefree gave Akiko a stab of loneliness and an actual feeling of horror at her life. The life of a killer. It was an unpleasant feeling. She bit her bottom lip, hard, and impulsively swept off her dark glasses to watch the pair of handsome young women go out through the automatically sliding plexiglass doors. They were evidently about to share a cab into Tokyo. She watched their heads duck a little at the rain. Then a cab slid up and they got into it and they were gone. Akiko went slowly to the car rental desk for her key. When she reached it, she told the clerk she’d changed her mind, and to cancel her reservation. She’d take a cab instead.

*

In her hotel room's bathroom, Akiko stood bare breasted before the big mirror. By moving her eyes she could see herself, from near to infinitely remote, dwindling away in the mirrors to either side of the ornate sink. She lifted the pair of scissors she held in her right hand and cut her hair at one side just below the ear. She let the clump of black hair fall from her fist onto the marble counter. Then she slowly cut the other side. She cut her hair all the way around and tossed the hair onto the growing pile of hair on the counter. Then she put down the scissors and stared at herself. At her face, the lips parted. The white bandage on her cheek. The cut above her breasts from Tommy Ko’s katana, a vivid purple color at the edges stitched up with black thread. At the smooth navel sloping down to the dark tuft of thicker hair. Blue eyes. Dark blue like a sea in the evening, Takagi had said. She bent and turned on the cold water and splashed her face with it then she splashed cold water into her short hair and rubbed the hanging hair wet between her hands. Shutting her eyes, she was aware of the roar of the faucet and the smell of hotel soap. Molly Vance, she thought. I’m not Akiko. I’m Molly Hello. Call me Molly. What’s your name? She saw herself holding out her hand to the pretty young woman in the tight blue skirted airline steward uniform. Then for some reason they were laughing together. Laughing until tears flowed into their eyes. That slender, plump waist cinched by a serpentine black belt. Akiko kissed the young woman’s breasts, which in this fleeting vision she had just bared in a majestic gesture, opening the white silk blouse wide with both hands, as if to show her body to a man for the first time. The breasts were splendid and round, pale, flushed with youth, beauty and awe. The nipples were purplish in the pink halos and stood out stiff as pencil erasers. Ah. Ah. Akiko bit them tenderly. The young woman trembled like a flower. Everything was cold and empty tonight in Tokyo but for this shuddering soft woman.

*

She left the hotel in the late evening and hailed a taxi on the street. Why not? She wanted to eat something and also to get a drink. Maybe she’d even get a little drunk. She was wearing her black rain slicker over a dark suit and carrying a clear plastic umbrella with a red handle. She’d put on lipstick so dark it looked black in the rear view mirror. The cab driver glanced at her several times but said nothing. He was chewing gum, which he snapped in a lewd way. Akiko felt his interest but there was nothing in her right now but a cool languor and the yearning to suffuse her body with alcohol. So she ignored him. Her hair was cut to just below the ears and hung loose. Everything you do is life and it’s staggering or dazzling. As the cab lurched through the hooting streets smeared with neon shimmers Molly watched the signs passing, kanji mingled with incomprehensible bursts of English and French.

Nobody knows her. She opens the window and feels the cold air on her neck. There is the stink of exhaust and the fresh smell of ozone. Life is going on everywhere. Senseless. Radiant. Orgasmic.

She gazed out the rain soaked window of the cab. The drops of rain shimmered with neon. Blindingly. She told the cab driver to let her out in the Ginza. She paid him the unfamiliar yen and walked click clacking in her high heels along the rain drenched street in the evening crowds. Raindrops showered from her clear plastic umbrella. When she looked up she saw soaring towers and office buildings and above it all the orange tinged night sky. And above that, what? Blackness. She went into a little bar and ordered sake. Some Japanese businessmen tried to catch her eye but she kept it on the screen of a television showing a samurai movie. She drank her cold sake in long gulps. She was aware of her hand picking up and setting down the sake glass. The bottles on shelves behind the bar were backlit by red and blue lights and glimmered coldly. She looked at her fingers. They were well manicured, smooth, and elegant -- yet this was a hand that had killed human beings, and would no doubt kill human beings again. How can we look at Akiko's hand using Akiko's mind? These are words on a page. I am writing. You are reading. Does it mean anything? She drank an entire small bottle of sake. It was cold and tasted of steel. There was nothing in her head. She realized that she wasn't thinking at all. It was strange to be in Tokyo again. She let the strangeness of it overwhelm all her sensations. Someone is sitting here drinking sake, that's all. Is it you, Akiko? You cannot tell anyone the story of your life. What does it mean to be alive? Obviously, to have impressions from the senses, to live in the midst of sensual information. Who? Who is it? I don't know.

*

She left the bar and walked quickly along the brilliantly lit street, her face spattered by windblown rain. As she raised her arm for a taxi, she saw the pretty young woman crew member from the Okinawa-Tokyo flight coming out of a red lit doorway. She stopped short, wiping wet hair from her face. Fascinated. The young woman was laughing hard, almost bent over from laughter. Maybe she was drunk. She was leaning on the arm of an fortyish man in a dark suit. He held up an umbrella over them. They walked quickly down the Ginza street in the shattering rain. Akiko opened her own clear plastic umbrella and followed, dodging bodies. She'd glimpsed the man's luxurious watch and band. But it was the self-composed look on the man's rather handsome face that said: yakuza. They went into a dance club. Akiko could hear the music throbbing inside. She paid for a ticket at the booth and followed them.

She went to the bar in the flashing lights. It was a crowded place, industrial sized. Naked women in pink and silver wigs were dancing on two small stages and a DJ with a wildly spiked haircut was nodding to his beats in a glass booth. Akiko sat on a stool toward the end of the bar and searched the place for the pair she'd followed in. She saw them -- sitting together. The young woman was leaning in to hear something the handsome man in the suit was shouting to her over the noise. Akiko ordered a beer. It felt shockingly cold to her hand when it came. The young bartender appraised as much as he could see of her and arched an eyebrow to express his ironic approval. Akiko drank. As always her hand was firm. It held everything with the same relaxed rock-like firmness, a sweating bottle or a knife or a gun. The beer was tasteless. The DJ's music pounded in her temples -- it seemed to bypass her eardrums completely, so amid the chaos there was an odd impression of silence. After swigging about half the beer she put down crumpled yen for it and stood up taking her umbrella and made her way toward the restrooms, or where she thought the restrooms might be. She passed close by the table. The couple were still learning together. They were both sweaty. Sweat glistened on the young woman's neck. She was even prettier here than at the airport. An erotic thrill ran coldly up Akiko's arms and made her hair tingle at the roots. The handsome man was stroking the young woman's bare arm as she writhed a little and laughed; soundlessly. As Akiko passed them the man glanced up at her. At her eyes. Akiko saw. Saw that he was yakuza. It was all in his gaze. He saw, too, that she was someone to be feared. This took him by surprise and he sat back to get a better look at Akiko even as she quickened her steps. She sensed the young woman looking directly at her now. At her shoulders. She made her shoulders relax. Then she was through the hanging red curtain and heading down a black painted hallway to the toilets. Clack clack clack clack. She went into the women's toilet and after glancing at herself in the grimy mirror went into a stall and shut and locked it, hanging her umbrella by its handle on the latch.. She stood there for a long moment with her head bowed and her eyes shut. Why a yakuza? What was this young woman doing with a Tokyo gangster? Why was he with her exactly in this place and without his yakuza friends? Yakuza usually came in groups. They didn't like being apart from other yakuza. Strange. She picked up her umbrella and unlocked the stall and went out and placing the umbrella on the marble counter bent over the sink and splashed cold water on her face. Then she dried her face with a paper towel. The door opened and two giggling girls came in. Akiko took her umbrella and left. She walked up the hallway to the red curtain. As she pushed through it she saw that the handsome man was gone. Maybe he'd gone to the men's room or to the bar or stepped outside to make a call. The young woman was sitting alone at the table, bent over her drink. Some type of martini in a broad blue-tinged glass. She was sipping it with her eyes shut, writhing her hips a little. Akiko went to the table and hung her umbrella over the back of the empty chair and sat in it. The young woman glanced up, startled. When she recognized Akiko her eyes and mouth both went wide. Akiko laughed. She stood up and the young woman stood up. Akiko motioned with her chin to the young woman's rainslicker. The young woman picked it up and walked swaying ahead of Akiko out of the club. Outside, they stood near the entranceway in the rain, Akiko holding the clear plastic umbrella over both their heads. How did you find me? the young woman asked in English. Akiko said, I saw you. In the rain. When I came out of a bar back there. Tell me, however, she said, switching to Japanese, Who is your friend? The young woman laughed and answered also in Japanese. A man I see sometimes. Where did he go? She shrugged one shoulder. Got a call, had to leave, that's all he said. Probably back in a half hour but if not, he'd see me another time. That man is a yakuza, Akiko said. The young woman opened her wide red lipsticked mouth wider and laughed hard, as if coughing or vomiting. No! Then, in English again: Are you kidding? No, Akiko said. Wow, said the young woman. Ha ha. That's really crazy. You're sure about this? Akiko bowed a little. Said: Would you like to join me for a drink? At my hotel? She named the hotel, a luxurious one. The young woman was clearly impressed. Okay, she said, with a girlish twist of her hips. Akiko took her lightly by the elbow and they walked, leaning together, to the curb, where Akiko waved for a passing taxi. The taxi slowed and stopped. They got in. Akiko gave the address. When she glanced to the side, she saw the young woman's face -- watching her, with alert eyes and slightly arched dark brows. She couldn't help the thrill she felt. Is it desire again? For this girl? She'd never made love to any woman except for Omitsu. And that had been part of her training. Omitsu had killed her then brought her back to life after an orgasm, an orgasm that had ended for Akiko in death. She didn't know she was dead, she had just disappeared. Everything was gone. Then Omitsu brought her back and she saw Omitsu's white face hovering and she licked her dry lips, her body still jumping from the pleasure, her sex still frothing. This was the so called Tantric kill and Omitsu had taught it to Akiko first by doing it to her and then by forcing Akiko to do it to Omitsu.