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.