He wasn’t quite sure when it had started to go sour with Asuka. It was his fault. He was sure it was his fault, though she’d mournfully, tearfully claimed an equal portion of responsibility, which made him feel all the more culpable over the whole affair.
Affair. As if it were some fling that had ended badly instead of a marriage and a life gone down the tubes. They’d almost had a child for gods sake. She’d been pregnant and maybe that loss was his fault too. Maybe the stress he had put on her, his disillusionment, his inability to cope with the overwhelming void of his past, had caused her to miscarry. God knew she’d hardly been able to look at him for weeks after. Hardly said a word to him that wasn’t edged with the hint of tears behind it. He understood that. He accepted that for her, the loss was more tragic that he could ever comprehend. He hadn’t carried the burgeoning life inside him for twelve weeks only to have it ripped away in a hail of blood and tears and loss. He hadn’t even been there. Maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe he should have been more attentive, like he was when they’d first began to see each other, back when she was the lifeline to his very sanity and the rest of his world had been sheathed in dark.
It was his fault. He was the one who had started going out after work, at first maybe to relieve some of the grinding boredom of a 9 to 5, white collar job that in and of itself had eaten at his sanity. But a few drinks at a bar, exchanging friendly chatter with the other desperate souls that weren’t at home with their families hadn’t solved the boredom or the stress of not knowing at heart, who he was.
He knew his name. That had come to him maybe a few weeks after the accident. He didn’t know much more. There were no records of his existence and they’d tried to find out. Damned hard, if for no other reason than possible insurance to take care of the huge hospital bills he’d racked up.
Asuka had struck some chord in him. Maybe it was her gentle smile, or her warm personality, or simply that she had been there for him during the worst of it, taking care for his every need and he’d latched on to her like a drowning man to a rope – – regardless, they’d began something that she was happy to continue once he was well enough to be tossed back out into a strange world. Four months and they were married. Her father got him work at his company in the city. They rented an apartment in a building filled with other small families. They were in love and for a while it didn’t seem to matter that only one of them was a complete person, that only one of them knew where she came from and why she had turned out the way she had. She didn’t mind that he muttered another woman’s name in his sleep. He had no memory of it or the woman in question. Asuka worried that he might have been married before the accident. He shrugged it off, saying that there’d been no ring on his finger and no pale strip of flesh either, to suggest there’d ever been one. But still, he wondered who she was, the woman he called out for – – and wondered where he’d known her and when and if she were out there somewhere mourning him. A part of him liked to think so.
They been married almost a year when Asuka lost the child. After that Yoji found himself staying out later and later to avoid the pain of her presence. How selfish was that? Tremendously and he knew it and hated himself for it, but he thought she was just as happy he wasn’t pestering her with his questions and his guilt. She seemed happiest when she was leaving for work and putting distance between them.
It was maybe four months later that he got the feeling she was getting comfort from someone other than him and confirmation of that when he made an impromptu stop by the hospital. It was a doctor and perhaps it had started as simple consolation and had turned into more. Strangely enough, Yoji couldn’t find it in himself to be angry – – hell, even jealously seemed a far away concept. She admitted her folly in a welter of tears and misery when confronted, expecting rage from him and recriminations and instead he’d simply stood there and listened to the reasons and the justifications and accepted them for what they were. A severing of ties. An end to the office job and the suits and the ties and the apartment crammed into the midst of a hundred other apartments in a building crammed into the midst of a thousand other buildings just like it.
So that was Yoji’s marriage. A year and three months and he walked away from it with nothing but a duffel bag of clothes, a few bills in his wallet and a hollowness in his heart that had been growing there for weeks and weeks. It had very little to do with Asuka and everything to do with him and he needed something other than the cardboard life he’d been living to fill it.
He drifted South, away from the bustle of Tokyo, moving through smaller towns, doing the odd job here and there, absorbing the country – – searching idly for something that would ignite a spark of recognition. There were things he knew about himself – – discovered since the accident that had robbed him of memory. He’d been a smoker. He could tell by the itching craving that seeped over him when he sat in a room full of smokers, breathing in their exhalations. He hadn’t smoked while he was with Asuka, she didn’t approve. He bought a pack on the road and hooked himself in short order. He was nimble fingered. He could turn a deck of cards like a pro and flip a coin across his knuckles with a dexterity that surprised him. He knew the basics of playing guitar and could instinctually thrum out old blues tunes that he couldn’t ever remember actually hearing. He could take care of himself. Very well. He found that out in a little town west of Nogoya when a few of the local bully boys thought to have a little fun with what they assumed a defenseless drifter. Yoji would have assumed as much himself, if reflexes hadn’t taken over after the infliction of pain, and left him standing wondering what the hell he’d just done, while his erstwhile attackers were sprawled in the alley amidst the trash. He wasn’t even certain if they were all alive, one of them lying there with his head twisted oddly, not moving, and that spooked Yoji more than he was willing to speculate on at the moment, and spurred him into flight out of town and back to the anonymity of the road.
If he’d killed a man, they’d be after him. If he’d killed a man . . . . God, how had he killed a man? It had been so quick. His arm around a thick neck, his palm against a head and – – – snap – – the sickening sound of cracking bone before the body went limp. All in a heart beat. All without thought connecting to action. They would have killed him, he knew that. He still felt the sting of the gash on his arm where one of them had swung at him with a switch blade. Even if they hadn’t killed him, they’d have beat him to a pulp and taken everything he owned and left him there to suffer in the alley. Like the trash they’d called him. Oh, god, he’d killed a man.
He was sick. Off the side of the highway he vomited up what food was on his stomach and sat afterwards shaking, until he got his nerves back under control, then pushed himself up and started walking again, almost afraid to hitch for a ride in case the law was out trolling the roads for him. It wasn’t the law that picked him up, but an elderly couple headed south towards Kyoto. He slept the whole way, but it was a miserable, uneasy sleep and he woke on the outskirts of the city in a sweat, his arm throbbing and hot.
Great. Just what he needed. Infection from the evidence of his crimes. He bought lunch with what small amount of cash he had left and could barely stand to keep the simple noodles and broth down. He had enough sense to find a free clinic and get the arm looked at before the infection overwhelmed him. Maybe he’d picked that bit of medical awareness up from Asuka, maybe it came from the same gray area of knowledge that he’d drawn from when he’d wrapped it with strips torn from one of his extra T-shirts.
Regardless, finding Sister Hisa’s free clinic and shelter was the best thing that had happened to him in weeks. It was one of those pivotal points that changed the course of a man’s life.
Sister Hisa wasn’t really a nun. Not anymore. She’d been a nurse in the peace corps during her younger years, and found her God in Africa helping the less fortunate. She’d spent several years cloistered away afterwards, hashing out that relationship with the aide of other women who flocked to the same calling and come to the conclusion that she could do more good in the world if she was out in it, down and dirty amidst the masses than behind the walls of God’s house. Her views on how to go about that and the view of the church were not exactly eye to eye, so Sister Hisa set out on her own, establishing a shelter and a clinic for those not fortunate enough to afford the city hospitals. Or those too frightened for one reason or another, to go. She’d been in Kyoto for sixteen years and on the meaner streets her name and the shelter she provided were spoken with a certain sort of reverence.
The clinic was located on the first floor of an old three story building sitting amongst a row of other such buildings in a low rent section of town. It had probably been a shop of some sorts before she’d rented it. There was metal grating over the windows and a hand painted sign claiming ‘free clinic open to all in need’ above the window and door.
Yoji opened the door, jostling a small bell and stepped into a time worn, carefully kept sitting room, partitioned off from the back by an impromptu cork board wall, littered with signs, posters and ads. Most of them depicted pictures of children and young adults. Missing posters. There were some lost dog flyers, a few jobs wanted, child care available, items for sale. But mostly it was missing posters. He stood staring at the wall, at all the faces – – school pictures, family photographs – – desperately patched into fliers asking for information on the whereabouts of a missing loved one.
There must have been a hundred. He was shocked that there could be so many vanished, posted in this small, out of the way place alone. But then, a good portion of those childish faces might have been runaways looking for something better than what had been offered them at home. He wondered if his face was plastered on a similar poster somewhere. Missing. Presumed dead after all this time. Was there a gravemarker with his name on it somewhere?
Sister Hisa came out from the back, fifty-ish and lean, with a face time had not been particularly kind to, but there was compassion there. She saw Yoji and must have realized what he was from that first meeting of eyes. Lost. For she smiled and beckoned him to the counter and asked what his need was with the tone of someone who had every intention of granting it, if it was within her meager power. It took him off his guard, that utter open generosity. He couldn’t ever recall seeing the like, not with Asuka, not with any of his false friends in the city, not – – ever.
He folded back the sleeve of his shirt and showed her the gash and she clucked over it and took him into the room behind the counter and the cork board display and had him sit in a school boy’s desk chair with his arm on the attached desktop while she cleaned the wound. It needed stitches. He shut his eyes and thought about other things while she did it. Anything, the creaking hum of the old rotating fan that cooled the air in the room, the sound of traffic in the street, the faint, raucous argument of two women outside on the sidewalk. It stung, the needle carefully piercing his flesh, thread following in its wake, but it was tolerable and he didn’t flinch, which she praised him for, chatting amicably the whole while, perhaps to take his mind off what she was about. She didn’t ask how he’d gotten it. He supposed so many of her patients came to her with dubious wounds, that she’d learned not to pry – – or they’d stop coming.
“Are you new in Kyoto?” she asked and he had to think about that. He couldn’t recall being here, but the streets were not unfamiliar. He’d found his way here, after being told of the clinic, without hesitation.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Just got into town at any rate.” He answered truthfully and Sister Hisa paused in her sewing to look up at him, hearing the honest pain in that answer. She didn’t ask more, which made him want to spew out more of the truth.
“I had an accident – – a year or more ago. When I woke up . . . nothing. Well, mostly nothing. I couldn’t remember anything. They said it might come back . . . it hasn’t. Well, mostly it hasn’t. I know my name. I know who won the last few world series. I know I love American food, but all the important stuff is just gone.”
“So, what is your name?” She asked and the way she said it, it was accepting and it took him at face value, even though he’d just admitted not knowing himself what that value was. So he grinned, suddenly at ease despite the fact that she was sewing his flesh together and told her.
For some reason, she made a connection with him. She put him at ease with her easy manner and her kindness. She made her life in the worst part of town, yet it was a choice she could have rescinded. She did it because there was a need and there were few people fulfilling that void in the lives of those less fortunate. He sat and drank tea with her and listened to stories that had taken place before he’d likely been born. He didn’t have any of his own to tell, save the tragedy that had been his marriage with Asuka and that was too painful to go in to with detail.
“Do you have a place to stay?” she asked and he shrugged, not having thought about that necessity yet.
“There’s a room up on the third floor. There’s a cot. The roof leaks a little in a hard rain – – but if you need it for a few days, you can stay there.”
“You don’t know me.” He blinked at her. He’d just killed a man and yet here he was being offered shelter in what amounted to this woman’s home after she’d known him for hardly more than a few hours.
“You have – – expressive eyes.” She said carefully. “I see honesty within them, and guilt and sadness that a bad man wouldn’t wear so openly. You can stay upstairs until you get on your feet here.”
“You see all that.” He asked wryly and she just smiled. “I can’t pay you.”
“You’ll find a job. You can help me with a few things around the clinic that need a man’s touch until.”
So he had a place to crash. He used the shower on the second floor and cleaned up, changed clothes and asked where the nearest laundry was. Sister Hisa had an old machine in the basement. He came back up from starting the light load of his present wardrobe a little dizzy from the fever he’d been sporting since the gash had started to go bad. He was told to go upstairs and nap it off. He didn’t argue. He was asleep almost before he’d found a comfortable position on the narrow, hard cot.
Vivid, realistic fever dreams assaulted him. Not necessarily new dreams, just more intense. He wouldn’t remember them when he woke. He never did. Though sometimes he woke hoarse from screaming, or wet faced from tears he couldn’t recall shedding, or very, very hard from the imagining of something that went beyond simple morning wood. Asuka had said, on more than one occasion, that he was dreaming of a woman and that he mumbled the same name over and over in his sleep, sometimes in anger, more often with passion. He’d felt guilty as hell over that, lying with his wife and dreaming of someone else. She’d said it didn’t matter to her. She’d said she’d understood and sympathized, but how could she really, when it wasn’t her name she heard in the night?
Yoji came awake with a start, face wet, breath harsh in his chest. Sister Hisa stood over him, a worried look on her lined face, a glass of water and a bottle of Tylenol in hand.
“What?” He was disoriented. He couldn’t think. He remembered angry eyes and accusations. It had been one of those dreams. Not the sort laced with pleasant content, but one of the ones that left him drained and thin when he woke.
“You were yelling. You said the name. Repeatedly.”
“Oh. A nightmare, I guess. That for me?” He pushed himself, up wincing at the stab of pain in his arm.
She nodded. He had just swallowed the pills down when there was a crash from below. A faint cry followed and Sister Hisa’s eyes widened and she uttered something un-nun-like, before turning to rush downstairs. Yoji scrambled out of bed to follow.
“What the hell – -?”
“I keep a small supply of medicinal drugs in the clinic.” The sister said, out of breath from the decent. “Sometimes they break in looking for them.”
Oh, wonderful. They were both running downstairs unarmed to confront possible deranged crack-heads. Brilliant.
But it wasn’t strung out delinquents looking for drugs, It wasn’t a break in at all, but the frantic rattling of the locked front door and a sleight body banging against it in mindless desperation. The crash had been the shattering of glass when the woman had put a hand through the front door.
“Ema?” Sister Hisa asked warily, cutting on the light of the front room and hurrying to the door to unlock it. Yoji almost caught hold of her, to stop her before she did, the urge to check for more people lurking in the darkness of the street so strong it made him clench his teeth. In this neighborhood, with the Sister’s admitted drugs on hand, opening the doors and letting in crazed women in the middle of the night seemed risky. But the sister seemed to know this woman, and ushered her in with an arm to her thin shoulders.
“What’s wrong, Ema? Did he beat you again?”
It was obvious from the looks of her, that someone had beaten her. She couldn’t have been much older than him, but she was so drawn and haggard that she seemed closer to Hisa’s age. Her face was a collection of bruises and seeping blood. She held one arm at an odd angle, as if the shoulder were out of joint.
“I told him – – like you said, Sister – – I told him we were leaving. That he didn’t have no right to hit me and he went crazy. He kept hitting me, but then – – then he took Baiko and he said he was taking him away and that I’d never see him again. Sister, what do I do? He took my baby and he left. I looked all over – – but I can’t – – I can’t find him.”
That was said in between a great deal of sobbing, and stuttering and gentle encouragement from sister Hisa. Hisa was trying to check the woman’s injuries as she talked. Yoji stood against the wall, clenching his jaw, wishing bad, bad things upon the man who would reduce a woman to this.
“Doesn’t he hang out at that seedy little bar a few blocks over? Doesn’t he have friends there who might know where he took Baiko? Where he might be?” Hisa asked.
The woman, Ema, sobbed, but nodded shakily. “I went there. I tried to find out, but they laughed at me – -they said – – they said I could go out back with them and maybe they’d tell me if I – -you know – – and when I said no, they just laughed and went back to their drinking, the bastards. Help me, sister. Please help me.”
“I will.” Hisa said with determination. “I’ll go down there and talk to these men myself.” She marched to a coatrack and took a jacket down from a peg. Yoji blinked at her in amazement.
“Wait a minute – – wait – -” he put a hand on her wrist as she was donning the jacket. “You’re just gonna waltz into some bar and confront a group of local bully boys? Are you out of your mind?”
“I am and I’m not. Someone has to stand up for this woman. Someone has to get her child back.”
Yoji almost laughed at the degree of determination in sister Hisa’s eyes. It was amazing and commendable and it would get her hurt.
“What are you gonna do, intimidate them into telling you? You’re gonna get the same offer she did, but maybe they won’t be so nice about it. Don’t be stupid, old woman.”
Sister Hisa’s eyes narrowed indignantly. She wrenched her thin wrist out of his grip. “I didn’t ask you. Get out of my way.”
“I’ll do it. I’ll go and find out where this bastard is. You tell me his name and where this bar is and I’ll take care of it.”
She blinked at him, taken off her guard by the offer. Hell, he was taken off his own by it. But, though she might be determined and too damned generous for her own good, she wasn’t stupid. She knew common sense when she saw it and she took a breath and nodded.
“His name is Hoshino. Eddie Hoshino.”
So Yoji was the one who ended up getting his jacket and heading out into the middle of the night to confront a group of drunken bastards in a bar in the worst part of town. Sister Hisa offered to come with him, but he told her no in no uncertain terms. He didn’t need the distraction. He was distracted enough as it was, with the churning unease in his gut.
Idiot. Idiot. Idiot. This was a phenomenally stupid thing to do. He didn’t know these people. Patching up his arm and providing him with an uncomfortable cot to sleep on for a night or two was not a fair exchange for risking his life. It was not the sort of thing that a man who’d been working in a cubicle in front of a computer up until about three weeks ago ought to be contemplating. He wanted a smoke. Badly.
Three blocks away was a long walk for a man having serious doubts about his course of action. He stood across the street from the bar and thought about passing on by. Just keep walking and find another place to sleep tonight where the price wasn’t so high. Let the woman go the police and report the beating and the missing child. But deep in his gut he knew that would be pointless. He knew the police would do absolutely nothing for a battered wife from the wrong side of town. What could they do, but go and arrest the man if they could find him. If they were so inclined to make the effort. And only end up pissing him off enough so that when he was inevitably released he would go back home and take it out of the woman again.
So why was he so sure about the hopelessness of the situation? That it needed somebody’s help that did give a damn? And why the hell did he think he was remotely qualified to give it? Why did it stick in his craw like a bone? Whatever experiences he had to go on were buried so deep that they only came out in nightmares.
Fuck. He was going to regret this.
Yoji drew breath and blew it out. It was getting just cold enough in the dead of night for the faint traces of fog to curl before his face from warm breath. Cold for a half dressed woman beat to shit to have been wondering the streets looking for a stolen child. He started walking towards the flickering neon sign of the bar. It was well past midnight and only a few die hards remained, keeping the grimy barkeep company. Unpleasant looking men, to say the least. Dangerous looking men.
One of them had the bulge of a gun in his belt, under the bulk of his jacket. It took Yoji a moment to register how easily he’d detected that hardly visible giveaway and connected it with a weapon. He’d known without thinking what to look for, the tell tale signs. It gave him a moment’s pause, worrying over how the hell a man came by that sort of recognition. Heads turned his way, narrow eyes full of wariness for a stranger in what was obviously local owned territory. He moved into the shadows of the interior, walking up behind the men at the bar, standing closest to the one with the gun as he leaned against the bar with a faint, humorless smile on his lips.
“I’m looking for Eddie Hoshino. Anyone seen him around tonight?”
He could have been speaking Martian from the looks he got. His smile widened a little. Less humor, more teeth. He leaned in towards the one with the gun. “You know Hoshino? Beats his wife? Took off with the her kid?”
“That bitch send you here looking for him?” The one at his back growled, standing up from his bar stool to hover at Yoji’s back. “We already told her what’s what. You ain’t got what it takes for payment, boy.”
Yoji didn’t turn to look at him. Don’t take your attention from the man with the gun, seemed to be the wise move.
“He took off with her little boy and she wants him back. That’s a reasonable thing to want, isn’t it? Getting a kid back from a bastard that can’t hold his temper enough not to beat a 90 pound woman.”
“Fuck you. We ain’t tellin’ you nothing. Get the hell out of here, before you get your ass beat.”
“My ass beat? I thought I didn’t have what it took to pay for information?”
“Shut up!” The one with the gun rose, pissed off. Movement from behind, looming in and Yoji reacted slamming a heel backwards into a vulnerable instep even as he shoved the rising man towards the edge of bar, reaching for the hidden gun under the jacket without really thinking about the act. It was just in his hand and pressed against the cheek of the man who’d had it before the others could act.
“Don’t.” Yoji suggested calmly – – god, where the hell was the calmness coming from? “Not unless you want to see your buddy’s brains spattered across the bar.”
They didn’t. They weren’t career thugs, merely part time bullies. A 38 to the face did wonders for bringing on an attack of cooperation. Hoshino had a girlfriend. Yoji got an address.
He kept the gun, shoving it in his jacket pocket when he got outside with a hand that had suddenly started shaking. He’d just out-badded three bad asses and he’d done it without really thinking about it. For a moment there, when the threat had started to seem real, survival instinct had taken over and he’d gone into auto-pilot. And it had worked. He had the dismal feeling that he could have pulled the trigger of the gun if he’d been pressed. It was a sickening revelation. It almost made him toss the gun, the notion that he could actually use it, but common sense made him keep it. He might need it to persuade Hoshino to give up the kid.
He found the apartment and banged on the door. Apparently the occupants were asleep, for it took a while before he heard the sound of heavy steps pounding across the floor. The door was yanked open with a heavy set, pissed off looking man on the other side.
“What the fuck do you want?” Was the immediate greeting. Yoji’s eyes flickered over the man. The bristle of unshaven jaw, the stench of old alcohol and cigarettes mixed with a body gone too long between showers. Dingy T-shirt over an upper body that might once have been hard with muscle, but now was starting to flab over with late middle age. Mean eyes. Cold and small and brutal. Yoji smiled and asked.
The man blinked at him stupidly. “What’s it to you, punk.”
“Your wife sent me. You have something of hers . . .”
It was simple. Granted there was a lot of screaming involved, but mostly that was obscenities from Hoshino’s crack-head girlfriend, who backed off from her initial attack on Yoji once she saw the gun and stood on the sidelines thereafter blathering incoherently. Funny thing was, Hoshino probably beat her too, from the bruises on her face. The kid, a silent, battered little thing that couldn’t have been more than two or three, had the marks of rough treatment. That was what pushed Yoji over the edge and made him use the gun. Not the deadly end, he wasn’t that far gone – – but the hard butt of the 38 saved him bloodied knuckles and made more of an impact. Yoji left Hoshino with more than a few bruises of his own, before he took the shell shocked little boy out of that place and into a much more welcoming night.
He didn’t need to be in on the reunion of battered mother and son. He got the kid into the clinic and got himself out of the way of the woman who rushed in to hug the child close, tearful and incoherent and utterly, utterly grateful. He wasn’t up for the emotion at the moment and sidled away and towards the stairs. Got all the way up two flights before the shaking set in and slid down the wall outside the door to the room he’d been given and sat there, forehead pressed to clenched fists, waiting for it to go away.
He’d gotten away with tonight’s madness by the grace of some benevolent spirit. There had to be something watching over him, because the odds had damn sure against been against him. Funny thing was, despite the chances taken and the blind plunge into disaster, despite how badly his hands were shaking now in the aftermath, it felt good. Something inside him that had been cold for a long time, was warmed by the simple act of righting one small wrong in a sea of greater ones. There was one face that wouldn’t grace a missing poster on Sister Hisa’s wall. A drop in the bucket, but still, a drop was better than nothing.
There was a creak of floorboards and he turned his head to watch Sister Hisa’s ascent up the stairs and down the dark hall. She seemed somewhat surprised to find him sitting in the corridor.
He shrugged at the quizzical look, not ready to explain watery knees.
“Are you okay? You’re not hurt?” she asked warily.
“No. Just seemed like a nice place to stop, is all.”
“It was a good thing, you did tonight.” She said.
“Yeah. Feels that way.”
“I’m going to buy them a train ticket out of town. She has a sister in Tokyo. Hopefully he won’t chase her there.”
“He won’t chase her at all.” Yoji assured her and her thin mouth curved down in a frown. He could read the worry in her eyes, the fear that he’d done more than retrieved the child. The fear that through him, she might have blood on her hands.
“He’s not dead.” He promised her softly. “I just convinced him he would be better off not looking for them.”
“You convinced him of that, did you? Ema’s been trying to get that across for years now.”
“Guess I’ve got talent.” He looked up at her wryly, then dug in his pocket for the gun and held it out to her. She hesitated taking it, but after a moment, reached out.
“Will you get rid of this for me?” He didn’t want it. He didn’t like the implications of having it, or of what he could do with it.
“Is it yours?” she asked.
“No. Got it off one of the guys at the bar.”
“You didn’t – – use it?” she held it gingerly, flat on her palm, refusing to wrap her fingers around the grip.
“Not the business end.” He admitted. “I’d rather not have it.”
“I’ll dispose of it.” She nodded, accepting his words at face value. God, she was a trusting soul. It was a wonder she’d survived as long as she had.
“Come down tomorrow and get breakfast. I make it early, before I open the clinic.”
“Room and food.” He smiled wanly, rubbing at his temple. His head was starting to pound again. Or maybe, it had never quite stopped and he’d been too distracted to notice it.
“I suppose you earned it tonight. We’ll see what else we can find for you to do tomorrow.”
And that was how Yoji got his room in Kyoto. A chance encounter which led to a lucky break, which led to friendships formed and a life put back on track from where it had disastrously derailed. The details of his past were still shrouded in the mists of ignorance, but something inside him began to feel whole again. Healthy, in a way that even Asuka hadn’t made him feel when they were at their best together. He found he had a talent for ferreting out information. A gut instinct for distinguishing lies from truth.
Sister Hisa sent another woman his way, who’d lost a teenaged daughter to the street and the drugs it offered. It took three days to track her down. When he did, it had taken the three of them, Sister Hisa, the mother and himself, to wrestle the girl to a clinic where the addiction might be forcibly shaken. It had not been pretty, or pleasant, but the crack house he’d pulled her out of had held worse cases that would probably never come back from the depths they’d plunged into. Trying to save one girl, who did have a mother who cared enough to make an effort seemed worthwhile.
The woman even paid him. Not a lot, granted, but enough to get a decent mattress and box springs to replace the army cot he’d been sleeping on.
Someone else came his way, asking for help and he figured sister Hisa had put out the word, but that was okay, it gave him a purpose that didn’t involve a computer or a cubicle or answering to supervisor that thought a door on his office made him god.
He patched the leak on the roof and helped the sister put a new coat of paint on the walls inside of clinic. There were gutters that needed replacing and plumbing that the sister had never gotten around to fixing herself. She went in half for the parts to repair the bath on the third floor and he acquired a shower of his own in the process.
He took up smoking again, drawn to it by the boredom of late nights out in the city, hunting down leads on the missing. Sister Hisa detested the habit, and frowned upon him smoking in the building. She kept quoting horror stories about beds catching fire from dropped smokes and buildings going up in flames. He compromised, sitting outside and using the rusty fire escape to feed the habit.
“Any word on Jenny Itoh, yet?” Sister Hisa asked, one morning over the simple breakfast that they’d begun a habit of sharing. It was bran based cereal this morning, and coffee.
Yoji shook his head, mouth full of a spoonful of crunchy cereal. He thought this particular girl might very well be a lost cause. Every lead he’d followed had turned up a dead end. It was like she had disappeared off the face of the earth.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I haven’t given up yet.” He said, reaching for the sugar to sweeten his coffee.
“Humm. You need a hair cut, Yoji.”
“Thanks, mom, but no thanks.” He ran a hand through his hair, tucking wavy strands behind an ear. It had grown down to his collar and then some since he’d left Tokyo. It felt good around his face and across the back of his neck and helped keep a body a little warmer during increasingly cold nights.
“Hummph. Shave at least. You look like a ruffian.”
“A ruffian? Humm, I was thinking more along the lines of rogue or rapscallion. Ruffian, huh?”
She waved a hand at him. “Don’t you have something to do. Why are you sitting here distracting me from my work?”
He grinned and got up, thinking about going back upstairs and taking the suggested shave before getting on with the day. He’d had a restless night and slept late because of it. Sometimes he dreamed about violence and horror and shame – – and sometimes about passion and heat and desire – – and one set of eyes, over and over and over. But for the most part his memory didn’t extend to waking hours. It scared him sometimes, wondering what he had been to evict such nightmares. It made him all the more determined to do some good now, while he had the chance.
This morning however the dreams had ended pleasantly, if the intensity of his morning erection was any indication. He’d woke with the lingering memory of his hands in soft hair and welcome lips wrapped around his cock. A nice dream to lay there in sluggish wakefulness and dwell upon while he lent a hand to the need between his legs.
The eyes had been purple. Odd that he recalled that, when he hardly ever recalled the fine points. Purple like the smear of sunset on a cloudy evening, black edged and sharp, looking up at him from behind a fringe of thick lashes. Beautiful eyes to go with the beautiful feeling of the dream blowjob. He’d barely had the chance to finish wacking off properly before the smell of strong coffee drifting two floors up got him out of bed.
“I know you’re already working on looking for Jenny Itoh, but there’s a couple I thought you might talk to if you don’t mind. Good people.”
Yoji shrugged. “Fine. I hate to say it, but I’m going nowhere fast with Jenny. Even the kids she ran with on the street don’t have a clue where she is. Last anyone knows, she was trying to get into some downtown club – – but they don’t think she got past the front door. I’m gonna try to get in and talk with the staff. Show her picture around, put on the charm, you know, but I’m doubting anything will come of it.”
“Can I tell them to come by this afternoon?”
“Sure, Club won’t open till after dark. I wanted to do a little painting upstairs this morning.”
The couple was middle aged. Middle income bracket. Mild, innocuous seeming folk who had been to the police and gotten no help and so had sought advice of a different sort. They’d met Sister Hisa at a community meeting and told her their story and she’d recommended bringing it to her tenet.
Yoji sat across from them in the little kitchen behind the clinic proper and listened to them talk. They wouldn’t quite meet his eyes, but it wasn’t from any guiltiness on their part. They were simply nervous and scared, and had been turned away one too many times in their quest to find their son. Jason Mikino. 16 years old, but the boy had started running with the wrong crowd a few years back. Petty drugs, petty crimes. Nothing serious. Nothing to make them seriously fear for his life, until he’d started hanging out with a new girlfriend who was older than him and into darker things. They’d tried to stop that affair, but he’d long since escaped any parental control they were willing to assert. They loved him too much to punish him in a way that made an impression and so they ultimately lost him in the end.
He’d been gone for a week now. No word. None of his things gone. No anything. He wasn’t with the new girl. They’d found her and she’d denied knowing where their son was. They had a picture that they tentatively pushed across the table top towards Yoji.
He straightened it in front of him, looking down at the frowning countenance of a Goth-kid. Eye liner, black clothes, multiple piercings visible. The kid looked pissed in the photo, but then that could have been a front to keep up the image. Good looking boy, despite that. He stuck the photo in his jacket pocket, next to the one of Jenny Itoh and told them his terms. They practically groveled in their relief. It was embarrassing when he hadn’t done anything other than to tell him his fee.
After they left and he sat for a while, finishing the dregs of tea sister Hisa had brewed for them, listening to the sounds of her beyond the thin wall between kitchen and clinic, talking to someone who had come in off the street with some ailment or another in need of mending. She wouldn’t ask details of him, unless he offered. She brought him a fair number of the cases he pursued, and she thanked her god if he were successful, but she never asked him how he went about it, as if she feared she really rather wouldn’t want to know. As if she saw something in his eyes, other than the honesty she’d first accused him of, that suggested he might be open to means that went against her religious credo. Not that she’d dispute them, if they justified the ends.
Or maybe he was just imagining things, projecting his own uncertainties upon sister Hisa when there was no cause for it.
As luck would have it, with dusk came rain. Cold, miserable rain that slicked the streets and made the air clammy and thick. He’d hoped to make a better impression at the door of Zero G, but he supposed that one drowned rat looked much like the next after standing a few moments in the downpour. Maybe it was a slow night, if there was such a thing for one of the city’s hottest new clubs, or maybe he just looked better than he thought dripping wet, but he got waved through past the ever present bouncers in their tight black T’s and black Chino’s and into the steamy guts of the nightclub. If he’d been epileptic, he’d have gone into fits on the spot. The first thing that hit a body upon entering was the flashing of neon lights to the fast tempo beat of music. Blue to red to green, the strobe lights ran the gambit of the spectrum, interspersed with moments of darkness that made movement seem jerky and slow motion. It took him a second to adjust to the sensation, the deafening loudness of the music, the press of tight, young bodies. The place was packed with the young and the beautiful. The patrons ran from modern chic yuppie, to high dollar sleaze to pale faced, black garbed Goths. It smelled of cigarette smoke and reefer, of expensive perfumes and incense and underneath it all the stench of human sweat that no amount of money or effort could erase with this many people, exerting this much effort in this small a space. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was intoxicating almost. The lights, the music, the faces that looked so much better in under the strobe lights than they probably did in the harsh reality of day.
A hand reached under the lapel of his coat, sliding around to squeeze his ass. He tore his eyes off the undulating dance floor and looked down into the languid gaze of a girl that couldn’t have been more than sixteen.
“Wanna dance?” She mouthed the words and staggered a little against him, drunk or high enough not to have proper control of her balance. Yoji caught her roaming hand, extracting it from his coat.
“Not tonight, sweetheart.” He yelled back at her, but the words were swallowed by the music and she only looked at him blankly, so he shook his head and set her away from him, sliding through the crowd away from her. The center of the club was a huge dancefloor, with platforms suspended from the ceiling on which young women and men gyrated around glowing neon poles. There was a second story balcony which circled the dance floor sporting what looked to be tables and booths where couples or groups might go to drink or partake of drugs or sex.
He made his way along the wall towards the bar, which was marginally less crammed with bodies than the area surrounding the dance floor. The one song ended and there was a minuscule pause in reality as bodies faltered, rhythm lost, foundations of the dance shaken, until the bass of a new song began reverberating through the club. It held the harsh, hard-edged rhythm of a remixed American tune. He found he knew the words. He thought they’d butchered it in the remix, but didn’t they always. Closer to God, indeed. In this place, Satan was a more likely mix-master.
There were several bar tenders on duty behind the long, neon rimmed bar. He chose the end with the female one, brushing damp hair back from his face and smiling charmingly at her when she approached.
“Listen, I’m looking for a girl,”
“Beer?” she looked at him quizzically, not hearing a word he said. He pulled the picture out of his pocket and leaned in over the bar top, holding it up for her perusal. He tapped a finger at Ginny Itoh’s face and yelled close to the barkeep’s ear. “Seen her in here this last week?”
The bar tender cocked her head, looking down at the photograph. She shook her head finally. “No. But a lot of girls come through here. But – – him, I’ve seen.”
Yoji frowned and looked down at the photograph of the Goth boy that he’d inadvertently pulled out with the girl’s picture.
“Yeah, a few nights this last week. Made a stink when I wouldn’t serve him without ID.”
Yoji grinned at her. “The last bartender in the city with morals.”
She smiled back, warming to him.
“So, when’s the last time you saw him?”
“Few nights ago. He went upstairs with some people to party in private.” She jerked her chin towards the encircling balcony.
“In private? As in private rooms?”
“Yeah. He must have made some friends, cause you can’t get in up there without a VIP pass and those are hard to come by, if you know what I mean.”
He didn’t quite, but he wanted to find out.
“What goes on in the private rooms?”
She gave him a dubious look, the warmth beginning to ice over. “Are you a cop or something?”
“Me? Not even close. Just looking for a couple of missing kids, is all.”
“Yeah, well, I saw him. That’s all I know. Did you want a drink?”
He didn’t so she moved down the bar towards someone that did. Yoji stuffed the photos back into his pocket and stared up at the balcony. There were too many people lining the rails to see where the entrance to these private rooms were.
The lights blacked out for a heartbeat, with the ending of the song, which didn’t seem to phase the crowd at all, and came back on with a vengeance with the next tune, flashing with enough neon purple incandescence to light up an army of black velvet paintings. It made the white leather jacket of the man that had appeared out of the crowd a few yards away, fluoresce eerily. God knew what color his hair was in this lighting, but his skin was only a shade or two darker than the jacket. He had a profile that made the eye hesitate. Sharp and clean and arresting and that was only half a face. It was a little disappointing when he didn’t turn and give Yoji a full view. Yoji wasn’t the only one interested, for as soon as the guy turned his back, edging along the bar on the outskirts of the crowd, several of the girls and a few of the guys followed him with their eyes like disappointed predators watching prey that was just a little out of their league disappear out of their reach.
Yoji supposed he ought to be lumped into that category, his objective being momentarily overwhelmed by interest in a pretty face. Hell, not even a pretty female face, he reminded himself wryly, but it had still caught his attention like a magnet. Okay, shelve the disturbing interest in a member of the same sex for the moment and get back to the problem at hand, which was how to get upstairs and find out what went on in those private rooms or at the very least if there was an upstairs staff that might know a little bit more about Jason Mikino.
Navigating the stairs was a challenge. People lingered on the steps, drinking, smoking, making out and were not inclined to move to allow easy access up or down. He circled the balcony, passing darkened alcoves were bodies clumped together, writhing, moaning – – sprawling languidly in the grips of whatever the drug of the night was. The entrance to the private rooms would have been hard to spot, if it weren’t for the hulking bouncer standing guard at the doorway. A set of black velvet curtains hid the door from easy view. The bouncer’s shoulders were at least as wide as that door. His face impassive and unreasonable. There would be no talking his way past this guy without the before mentioned VIP pass. Yoji stood within the confines of the crowd at the balcony rail, chewing the inside of his cheek in contemplation. Someone jostled him, drunk and obnoxious, spilling a little liquor on his jacket sleeve.
“Watchit, asshole.” The man slurred, glaring as if Yoji had staggered into him.
Yoji glanced at him, at the narrow, piggish eyes, the hundred dollar hair cut and the expensive clothes and smiled. He caught the back of the man’s neck and slammed his head down, forcing a meeting of face to railing. The man let out a strangled cry, crumpling, clutching at his bleeding face. Yoji melted away from him even as the people closest began to gather round in morbid curiosity.
Yoji approached the bouncer, putting on a panicked expression.
“Dude, there’s a guy ODing over there.” Yoji clutched at the thick arm of the bouncer and the man started, narrowing his small eyes and glaring at him.
Yoji stabbed a finger to the left desperately and the man grunted, taking a few steps that way, trying to peer through the bodies to see. Yoji slipped past the shielding curtains the moment his back was turned. The door wasn’t locked. Just a turn of the brass knob and he was inside.
The first thing he saw upon entering was a mammoth wall aquarium, swarming with schools of fluorescent blue damsel fish. The hallway ran parallel with the balcony on the other side of the door. Doors were spaced out along the one side. The music from the club still permeated the air, but it was muffled by the layer of wall. Yoji went left down the carpeted hall, stopping at the first door and trying the handle. It turned under his hand and he cautiously cracked the door open. The sweet smell of opium drifted out of the darkness. He opened the door a little wider and peeked inside, figuring that if the occupants were doing that particular drug, they wouldn’t care if he came in with bells on. There were three or four partially dressed figures, draped across each other on a black leather couch. None of them were kids.
Yoji shut the door and went to the next door to see if it held more of the same. Was all these private rooms offered sex and drugs? Or was there more? Sex and drugs didn’t make kids disappear.
The occupants were more lively behind the second door. At least four naked women were servicing a thick bodied, hirsute man. The man glared with proprietary belligerence at Yoji and Yoji quickly backed out, muttering ‘sorry, wrong room’. He didn’t feel the need to check all the rooms. It was sex and drugs, which explained why the bar tender had worried that he was a cop. What Zero G offered in its upper level was clearly illegal. How a middle classed sixteen year old kid had gotten an invite up here was questionable, unless somebody had planned on him being part of the entertainment. A possibility, Yoji thought grimly. The kid was a looker. So was Jenny Itoh, come to think of it.
There was a door at the end of the hall that was marked private. The call of that drew Yoji down the hall towards it. This door was locked, which made it all the more appealing. It wasn’t that sturdy a door, and the frame was original to the building, which meant it might give under a bit of pressure. He tapped lightly on the door just to make sure there was no one inside, then slammed his shoulder into it, quick and hard. The wood around the lock splintered and gave way with no more than a groan of protest. Yoji stumbled into the dark room, obviously an office, from the desk with the computer and the file cabinets along the wall. He turned to shut the door and find a light switch – – and froze, eye drawn to the blinking red light on a small box by the inside of the door. Security system. And he’d tripped it, no question. Fuck.
There was a window behind the desk, with a fire escape platform. He scrambled for it, clambering outside and down the rickety ladder into a trash strewn alley below. He darted for the shadows of the far side, and the shelter offered by a dumpster. After a second, when no one came to the window and looked out, he breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe he hadn’t tripped any alarms.
A shot rang out, then another, dull and muffled by the walls of the building. Yoji started, staring upwards, looking for the shooter and found himself witness to something else entirely as glass showered out from a window a good distance down from the one he’d exited from. Not just glass, but a body hurtling out of a second story window in a glittering storm of windowpane shards. The body hit the soggy alleyway and rolled, coming to a crouch with one hand on the ground, the other clutching a gun. He rose and staggered a step to the side, free hand going out instinctively for balance. There were bits of trash and debris clinging to the leather of his white jacket and the darker stains of blood staining the collar. The side of his face was streaked with trails of red. Yoji recognized him as the guy that had caught his attention at the bar. He could see all of his face now, even though it was obscured by shadow and blood and for one brief moment, thought that the whole was every bit as good as the half had been despite all that, before movement at the window the young man had plunged out of caught his attention. A man in the jagged hole of the window. A man with a gun in his hand, aiming down into the alley.
Fuck. Fuck. He didn’t particularly want to draw attention to himself, but he couldn’t very well stand there and watch this guy get gunned down from behind. He took a breath and stepped out to the corner of the dumpster, still within the cover of the bin, but visible to the man in the alley.
“Gun. Behind you!” Yoji cried, expecting the man to take the hint and dive for cover. But long, almond eyes darted to him, the gun coming up reflexively, then hesitating, eyes widening in shock, face going slack in a moment of surprise that lasted too long. The sound of the shot echoed in the alley and the man in front of Yoji staggered, surprise turning into distant pain and he plummeted forward. Instinct made Yoji dart forward and catch him before he hit the ground, instinct made him reach for the gun before loosening fingers could relinquish it. He scrambled backwards with his burden as fast as he could out of the line of fire.
The man was heavy against him, head resting limply on his shoulder, blood staining the already wet shoulder of Yoji’s coat. Leave him here and run, because they’d be down here soon enough and the security here was obviously damned serious about their jobs. But leaving him here was as good as signing his death warrant, and Yoji didn’t think he could live with that on his conscience, so he stuffed the gun in his pocket and dragged an arm across his shoulder, halfway hauling the guy off his feet and staggered down the alley against the wall, turning into the first small passage he came to and struggling through the trash to the side street beyond. The club was popular enough that the cabbies made it a regular hangout, waiting for fares to come out. Most of them reeled out drunk or high, not bleeding their lives out. Yoji hailed a cab from the curb and struggled to get his newfound companion into the back seat.
He snapped off the address of the clinic without thinking.
“Hot date tonight, huh?” The cabby leered at him, eyes dark, pupiless pits in the rearview.
“Fuck off.” Yoji muttered, feeling the warm wetness of blood on his hand where he had it behind the stranger’s back. It would be all over the back seat. The cabby would discover it and there would be a trail to the clinic. He didn’t know who those guys shooting at this guy were, overzealous security or something else entirely, but he didn’t want them tracing their almost victim back to Sister Hisa’s.
“Bar fight.” He said, grasping for the first excuse that came to mind that might explain away the blood. “There’s blood on your seat, man. Sorry.”
“What?” the cabby groused and Yoji stopped it with the promise of a big tip for the trouble.
It was too dark to access injury, but he knew the guy was still breathing. Shallow, gasping breaths, and the occasional tremor that passed though his body and into Yoji’s. He felt the empty bulge of a shoulder holster under the jacket and briefly wondered if this was a cop, sniffing around the activities of the Zero G upstairs, but no, a cop would have had backup. A cop wouldn’t have burst through a second story window on the run. Had his tripping of the alarm set this situation into motion? Very likely. The timing was too coincidental for it not to have.
The cab pulled up before the clinic and Yoji struggled getting the guy out of the backseat. He pounded on the door to alert sister Hisa something was up, then managed to get his key in the door and his burden halfway through it before she came downstairs, rousted out of whatever book she’d likely been reading.
“What happened – – is any of that yours?” She got a shoulder under the guys other arm, staring in alarm at all the blood.
“No.” They got him to the back and onto the clinic table, sister Hisa pulling back the white leather jacket to find the wound and hesitating a heartbeat at the sight of the empty shoulder holster. She looked up at Yoji, worry etched on her brow.
“Gun shot to the back. Shoulder maybe. He’s not coughing up blood, so it probably missed a lung. Head wound. Don’t know what or where.”
“Help me get this jacket off him. You should have taken him to the Emergency room.”
“I wasn’t thinking. How badly did I fuck up? Can you deal with this?”
They got the jacket off and the ruined mess of a black silk shirt. The bullet had entered his shoulder. It hadn’t come out the other side.
“If its lodged in the bone – – no.” She said sharply. “Here, hold this over the wound for a moment, while I check his head.”
He pressed the wad of gauze over the hole in a bloodstained shoulder, his own hands covered in red, his clothes ruined with it. Sister Hisa parted the damp hair to find the source of the blood seeping from his scalp. Stray drying stands of it glinted auburn in the harsh light of the overhead flourescents. When it dried completely, it might be a shade lighter than that, verging on red. There were other faint scars on his lean upper torso. Old scars and new, most faded white against his pale skin, one pink one about four inches from his navel that looked like it might have been made by a slim bladed knife.
“Grazed by a bullet maybe. I don’t think it chipped his skull, but head wounds are tricky.” Hisa said absently, finding the gouge and going for a new roll of gauze to wrap it with. “I’ll stitch it after we deal with the bullet.”
She was damned competent. Her hands were steady as stone and her focus unwavering. All those years in the Peace Corps where her skills as an RN had taken the place of doctors who were few and far between. Surprisingly enough, Yoji’s hands were steady too, despite the blood, despite her digging around inside a hole in a man’s body with a pair of forceps.
She retrieved the bullet, along with a fresh gush of blood which Yoji tried to stem with a wad of fresh gauze while she got her needle and thread ready to close up the wound.
“Do I want to know what happened tonight?” she asked, when she’d finished and stood leaning on the edge of the table taking a breather before tackling the head wound.
Yoji looked up from her from across the table, wanting to scratch his nose badly, but helpless to do so with blood coated hands. “I’m not sure I know what happened.” He admitted wearily. “But I think the boy of that couple I talked to today had been at the club and that club is more than it appears.”
“None of this is your doing?”
Well, unless you counted him tripping the alarm . . . “Not per say.’
She accepted that. She washed her bloody hands and came back to unwind the gauze around their patients head so she could clean and sew up the gash in his skull.
“It was just as well he was out for all of this,” she said as she was finishing up, “but, the longer he stays out, the more worried I’ll be over the seriousness of the concussion.”
Yoji scrubbed the blood off his arms up to the elbow, shedding his stained shirt and standing there shivering a little afterward in a threadbare undershirt. He was starting to worry again, about that cabby keeping his mouth shut if the powers that be at the club started asking around after the person that had tripped their system. He didn’t think he’d been seen and even if he had, he’d just been a faceless shadow. They might have gotten a better look at this guy, he had a face that stuck in the mind. Just damned pretty, Yoji thought, staring down at the man on the table while Sister Hisa went about cleaning and putting up her supplies and equipment. No, pretty wasn’t really the proper word for him, and neither was handsome. One denoted girlishness the other strict masculine ideal and this guy fell somewhere in-between, with bone structure most people would have to pay a fortune to get chiseled out of their skull, and skin that was flawless and smooth. Without thinking, Yoji brushed overlong bangs away, uncovering thin, elegantly arched brows. The lashes were thick smudges of black soot against pale cheeks. Yoji tilted his head, fingertip hesitating over the thin, veined shield of a closed eyelid, mesmerized by the structure of this uncommon face.
“He’s very attractive.” Sister Hisa jarred him back to reality and he snatched his hand back almost guiltily, as she broke a small capsule of smelling salt under the patient’s nose. Yoji blinked at her, wondering if she’d noted his interest or if she was merely stating the obvious.
With the release of the smelling salt, there was an instant recoil, a shudder of distaste, from the man on the table. Black lashes fluttered and parted, revealing dark, confused eyes. No, not that dark, the pupils were a little dilated making them seem that way, and the rim around the iris was thick and black, but the strip in-between was a deep, true violet, like the smear of sunset on a cloudy evening . . . . Damn.
Yoji had to take a step back, shocked to the core of his being by the sheer feeling of de’ja vu that washed over him. Of the absolute familiarity of those eyes, as if he’d seen them every day for all of his life. Or at the very least, every night in his dreams.
“Fuck.” He said softly, not able to tear his eyes away. Sister Hisa wasn’t paying him any heed at all, more interested in shining her pen light into her patient’s eyes and watching the slow, reflexive shrinking of the pupil.
“Welcome back.” She said in her nurse’s voice. “Do you know your name?”
But the man on the table wasn’t looking at her, he was staring at Yoji as if Yoji had sprouted horns and scales. There were the faintest traces of what might have been pain tears at the corners of his eyes.
“Yoji . . . ? Yoji . . .” he whispered hoarsely, before the lashes trembled shut and he passed back into unconsciousness.