It was just after ten o’clock in the morning, mid August. The sweet smell of battered octopus wafted through the office window, riding a trail of smoke, industrial perfume, and humidity. Nobody said Osaka summers were easy, but after six years I’d begun to find comfort in the oppressive, inescapable moisture that clung to you no matter where you hid. Even a wall of air conditioners twenty feet high couldn’t offer protection. You just had to sweat and bear it.
I scanned my office, hoping it had changed since my last perusal, but all I found was the same cramped, cluttered purgatory I’d fallen asleep in the night before. I wouldn’t use the word “nondescript” to describe it, but that’s only because I’d never use the word “nondescript.” There’s no place for that sort of verbiage in my business. We’re clean, efficient, men of measure. Ninjas, really, but not the dressed-in-black comic book variety. Just fellas who make a living by blending in, taking notes, and staying a hair’s breadth beyond the reach of the law.
So, like the man says, it’s not much, but it’s home. Two desks, two windows, two chairs -- two of everything, except a single wastebasket by the front door, a paper-thin barricade decorated with a translucent glass window, “Okihiro and Carter” painted across it in cut-rate Japanese calligraphy. I never imagined my name on a door, but, like sweat and a sake hangover, it was just one more thing that confirmed my existence.
I came to Japan right before it re-sealed its borders, just another gaijin -- “White devil,” my associate Okihiro called us -- looking for work. Despite dire predictions, the far eastern island had insulated itself well from the effects of America’s complete economic collapse. Soy, tuna, rice, hydrogen reactors -- Japan had it all, so I did everything I could to stick around. No longer much call for English teachers, I had to improvise. After a few stints driving refrigerated trucks of fish from docks to restaurants, I learned enough Japanese and made enough connections to become what I had always wanted to be. Little did I know, it’s when you get what you’ve always wanted that your life really starts spinning out of control.
“Carter-san -- you have a woman waiting for you. Should I send her in?” Even when announcing visitors in her high-pitched, singsongy Japanese, Megumi’s voice dripped with seduction. That’s why I hired her. We’d met underground, the two of us waiting for the Midosuji subway late one evening. She had short hair, which clung tight to her head like a black, gutted pumpkin, and an even shorter skirt. Having just lost both my secretary and my mistress -- who were, of course, one and the same -- I sensed an opportunity. After a quick tumble at a love motel near the decaying Osaka zoo, I offered her the job. I never told Okihiro about our sordid meet-cute, but he could do the math.
“One moment, doll. Let me tidy up in here.” I stubbed out a cigarette I had been working on for what seemed like hours, straightened a few papers on my desk, then stood up, buttoning my jacket. The fine wool suit was overkill, especially in this weather, but it drew attention from my crooked nose, thin lips, and other unfortunate physical traits. “Alright,” I said. “Send her in.”
The dame was tall, thin, the sort of woman who could stop a subway train without having to jump in front of it. She seemed to exist independent of time and space, the subject of an unknown Kuroda Seiki painting. I took off my hat and bowed. “Good morning, miss. I’m Zoran Carter. It’s a family name. What can I do for you?” She didn’t giggle or blush or perform any of that schoolgirl nonsense I’d come to expect. She didn’t do much of anything, really. Just stood there, reflecting sunlight, like a marble trophy or something, which was both enchanting and disappointing.
Finally she spoke. “It’s my husband.” It always was. Used to be affairs went unnoticed in Japan, much as they did in France, or any other civilized nation. But after the world fell apart, and Japan locked its borders again, fidelity became a more cherished virtue. I didn’t complain, though. It kept the beautiful dame faucet flowing.
I stayed quiet, waiting for her talk again. In the rock-paper-scissors game of life, silence beat everything. “I think he’s in trouble.” We’re all in trouble, I thought. Every single one of us. Your husband isn’t special. “He’s been keeping odd hours, and has lost weight. I’ve asked him what’s wrong, but he tells me nothing. He showed up with a…” She stopped, fighting tears or some trenchant memory, took a deep breath, then pulled it together. “A bruise on his face.”
I crossed the room and offered her a cigarette. She declined. I admired her will power. I could count on my hands the number of Japanese I’d met who didn’t smoke. “He works at the Nakayama plant. He’s a shift supervisor. Nothing special, normal sort of job.” Nakayama, I thought. Robots. Specifically, humanoid robots, designed to perform uncomfortable tasks, such as crime scene investigations and psychotherapy. Sure, his job title was commonplace, but he was no dummy. Nakayama only hired the best and the brightest. If this guy was in trouble, so, too, was I.
Before the dame could continue, Okihiro stumbled in, startling the lady. Tall, goateed, and strong as an ox, Okihiro would scare his own mother if he showed up unannounced. He was still drunk from the night before, red-faced and reeking of fried pork and Chu-Hi, an abominable shochu-based mixed drink sold in vending machines throughout the country. I never touched the stuff. He’d probably missed last train and spent the night singing J-pop anthems with ex-pats in a rank, private karaoke room, but who was I to judge another man’s choices?
“Who’s the hot tamale?” my partner asked in English, a language we reserved for public sidebars.
“Chotto,” I said, a magical, untranslatable Japanese word used to avoid answering uncomfortable questions and politely decline unwanted offers. His words were a little of both. He nodded, understanding, and sat on the edge of his desk, playing with the corners of his mustache. Though his entrance had mucked up my process, I forgave Okihiro. After all, if it weren’t for him, I’d still be driving mercury-laden tuna from one end of Kobe to the other, and nobody deserves that sort of punishment.
I turned to the dame. “Don’t mind Okihiro. He has problems at home, too, but he’s very bright. He solved the Yamashita inheritance case. Singlehandedly, I might add.”
Okihiro waved his hand in front of his face. “No, no. It was all Carter-san. I merely made a few phone calls.” He didn’t really mean it, but it was custom to denigrate oneself in the face of praise. They really got off on modesty, the Japanese.
After a taut few seconds, the dame relaxed, as much as someone like her could, and resumed her story. “His odd behavior began soon after a major promotion. He seemed happy at first, but now he’s a completely different person.” Ah, the dark sway of wealth. Not my problem, though. At 20,000 yen a day plus expenses, the only way I’d earn a proper burial was if I donated my body to science.
“Your husband, is he… An active man?” Though I disagreed with his brash tactics, Okihiro’s name came first on the door and the letterhead, so I had to defer to him.
“Active? What do you mean?”
“Does he, you know, enjoy the company of young women?”
Her eyes narrowed. “He is not having an affair.”
“Oh yeah? How do you know that?”
“A woman can tell.”
Okihiro stood up and tilted his head, considering her from a number of angles. Despite being a lousy drunk, he could read people as though they were children’s books. He saw something in the dame that I had missed, and now he was administering a pressure test, bending her until she broke. “No woman can just ‘tell’ that an affair is not happening. Sure, instinct unveils the most poorly concealed affairs, but the stealth ones -- those take… Investigation.”
“Why would I hire a private investigator if I were already investigating my husband?”
“Confirmation, of course. Anyone worth a damn knows that nothing is what it seems, and the only way to know what’s what is to get a second, even third opinion. That’s the way the world works whether we like it or not.” He’d slipped into some gumshoe double-talk, but his methods worked. The dame was rattled, on the verge of giving something important away. At least, that’s how it looked from my end.
“It’s not like that,” she said.
“Of course not. That’s just what someone in your position would say.” He licked his lips, spelling thoughts with the tip of his tongue. I wouldn’t trust the guy to babysit a goldfish, but as a hunter, a man who could scrape the meat off living bones without conscience, he was second only to a select few yakuza. “No, ma’am, there’s some uncertainty behind your eyes. You’re a skilled actor, but not skilled enough. You’re worried. Worried about the other woman who slides in and out of the sheets, cavorting with your husband while you’re away at the izakaya with your girlfriends, sharing spicy buttered corn and kimchi fried rice. You’re worried that she’s better than you, in every way, and it’s only a matter of time before you have to choose -- either let her win, leaving you with nothing, or…” He paused, walked to the window, and lit a cigarette. He drew in a breath of smoke, held it a moment, then released it with two taut words. “Kill him.”
I glanced back and forth between the two, waiting for confirmation on her end, but none came. Her discomfort had faded, and her cold stoicism resumed.
“You’re wrong, Okihiro-san,” she said.
“I’m never wrong.”
“I know you’re wrong, and I can tell you why.”
“Please. Go ahead.” He bowed, a mocking gesture, and returned to his desktop perch.
“My husband and I met at Kansai University. He was studying electrical engineering, I, drama. The odds of our finding each other at a school that size were infinitesimally low. Mere days before we graduated, I was performing in Shakespeare’s King Lear.”
“An excellent play,” Okihiro said, still prodding away.
“Nothing could drag Moriya to a theatrical production. Yet, he was in the audience that night. Front row, actually. And for the duration of the play, he couldn’t take his eyes off me.”
“After the show, I left the auditorium, and who should be waiting there for me, in the rain, without an umbrella, teeth chattering?”
“You’re quick, Okihiro-san. Yes, Moriya. And he told me everything I told you -- his aversion to theater, his trance-like state during the play, and how he came to be there that night.”
“But you didn’t tell us that part.”
“As the rain fell, dousing him, he explained to me that he had had a dream the night before. In that dream he met an actress, but they could not speak to each other, so they communicated by means of a notebook, which they passed back and forth. With each exchange, they fell more and more in love with each other. Once the notebook was full, however, they had no other way to share their thoughts and feelings.”
“And then what happened?” I asked.
“He woke up.”
“So what?” Okihiro said. “He had a dream. We all have dreams. Last night I dreamt I was trapped in a vending machine. That doesn’t mean anything.”
“The next morning he woke up, and beside his bed was a scarlet notebook, one he had never seen before. He opened it, and the first two pages were filled with his writing.”
“Sleep writing. It’s like sleep walking. It’s indicative of nothing, except maybe that he has apnea. Is he heavy?”
She ignored my partner’s question. “The writing was a note. And the note began ‘my dearest Keiko.’”
“And I take it you’re Keiko.”
“Sharp as a tack, Okihiro-san.”
“So what? What does this have to do with where he’s burying his trouser snake?”
“He didn’t know any actresses, let alone one named Keiko, so he scoured the school records and discovered my show. And that’s how he came to be standing in the rain that night.”
Okihiro took a final drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out on a clay dish I’d bought for him in Kyoto the previous summer. It hadn’t been intended as an ashtray, but we can’t always be what’s intended of us. That goes as much for clay dishes as it does people. “I’ve been married three times,” he said, “each beginning with a fairy tale as fantastic as yours. And in each of my marriages, the fairy tale has faded away, and the cold grip of reality has dragged us down the path of deception, apathy, and, of course, cheating. In this world, there is no alternative.”
“So cynical, Okihiro-san. And yet…” She reached into her coat and pulled out a notebook. A scarlet notebook. “He still writes me. Every day.”
My partner reached for the notebook, and she pulled it back, beyond his grasp, teasing him as though he were a caged animal. She fanned the pages for us to prove that there was, indeed, writing inside. It may have been a calculated gesture meant to whet our appetites and buy an ounce of trust, but whatever its intent, we were hooked.
“Looks just about full,” Okihiro said.
“Very near,” Keiko replied.
“Aren’t you worried about what will happen when--”
“But Moriya’s dream.”
“Sometimes dreams are just dreams, Okihiro-san.” She took two steps toward the door, then stopped, turning just her head, the way the most sinister dames do. “But you believe me now, don’t you?”
Okihiro raised his eyebrows. “Perhaps.”
“So do you want the job or not?”
My partner looked over at me. I gave a subtle nod. “Sure, Keiko-san. We’ll take the job.”
“Good. Do you need any--”
“Moriya at Nakayama. Wife named Keiko. That’ll do.”
“Very well. Good day, gentlemen.” She nearly smiled, then turned around and walked out.
Once she was beyond earshot, Okihiro laughed. “Unbelievable, the women of this world. There’s something about that one, though. Something different.”
“Huh,” I said. “Yeah. She was a bit odd. Almost too calm for someone in her position. Perhaps she was medicated.”
“No, no. Too sharp. That wasn’t medication.” He chewed on his lip a second then looked at me, a smile creeping across his face. “Carter-san. Do you think she could tell?”
“Unlikely. It took me six years to figure it out, and that was only because I accidentally shot you.”
“Accidentally,” he said with a laugh. “No. There was just something… No matter. Let’s get some ramen. I’m starved.”
“You know, for a machine, you sure eat a lot.”
“It takes 5000 calories a day to keep my circuits running. They can’t all come from alcohol.”
“After you,” I said, pointing ahead.
“No, no. I insist.” He opened the door and ushered me out. “Accidentally, indeed.”