detective

Like Knives Behind My Eyes

Suicide – or murder? Will scandal taint the Bank of Japan? Here’s Chapter one of Tokyo Summer – A Shig Sato Novella.

 

Chapter 1

 

“It feels like knives behind my eyes.”ssnovella1

Setsuko Usami said it so often her husband seemed deaf to it. She knew that their years together taught her that Taro would not understand it, not even try. Taro Usami’s indifference had become almost as painful as the migraines themselves.

At one time early in their marriage she was surprised and glad Taro asked about her headaches, if anything was wrong, but that stopped. Her migraines always returned and he was tired of feeling useless, and would say, “What could he do?”

He never had headaches. He didn’t know what to do.

Eventually Setsuko gave up. What could he do? He was a rising star at the Bank of Japan and they had a tiny four-room flat in Chuo and she was the mother of two teenagers. His life was outside the home. Her life had not changed since her 20s. She cooked and cleaned and shopped and succumbed to the incessant, unbearable beat of the never-ending demands of life in Tokyo.

Setsuko remembered when Taro would ask about her day, act like he cared. That was when they were young and the world held so much promise for smart young couples staking their claim to making a good life for themselves in the city. She sometimes thought that being young was the cause of that. Now they were in their 40s and she was weary and laid in bed for hours every day even when she didn’t have her migraines.

She held onto hopes, though. Like it being the year 1988, and thinking that perhaps this would be the year her luck would change. She had heard 88 was a lucky number.

But it was the end of May and she laid on her futon and suffered through her migraines and wondered if her luck would ever change, or if this really was her life. She wondered if she would ever get fed up and actually say something like “that’s the last straw.” She wondered what would it be, that straw that finally broke the camel’s back.

She wondered about it, idly at times, then forgot about it as a new day presented new problems. But the thought always returned. What would happen? What would it take?

 

The last straw came at the end of June. Plans for the children’s summer holiday had to be decided. Taro’s indifference infuriated her. He said he was busy at work. He said a promotion was in the works. He said he couldn’t get away because the timing was all wrong.

She kept asking. A trip with her sister and their children just didn’t happen on a whim. She needed to know. She needed to plan. Her daughter’s sullen peevishness was driving her mad – getting the girl to agree to anything was a battle in itself, now that she was 15 and in full rebellion mode. Her son was pulling away from her, as boys do when they become teenagers. He was 13 and had sprouted up and seemingly overnight his voice had dropped an octave. His charming little boy self was disappearing. Getting them both to agree to go with her sister and their children to Okinawa had been like moving heaven and earth. And in another year she knew it would be impossible to get anyone to agree on anything.

Setsuko Usami clung to the hope her plans had not gone to pieces. Then one evening Taro came home late and she was ready to have it out once and for all. But before she could get started he said, “I have to go to Singapore for the Pacific Rim finance ministers meeting.” He said it as if he was taking the car to a mechanic.

“What! When?” She prayed it wouldn’t interfere with their holiday. “When do you have to go?”

“You know when,” he said as he removed his clothes and left them where they lay and reached for the pajama bottoms she had laid out for him. He escaped to the bathroom.

“Taro! My plans! Why can’t–”

“It can’t be helped!”

Setsuko stared at the bathroom door until he stepped out. She collapsed onto her futon and watched Taro lay down with his back to her. A thunderbolt of nausea erupted from deep inside her gut and she ran to the bathroom.

Taro called out, “What is it now?”

“You know what it is!”

Taro turned off the light. A pink half-darkness beyond their window spilled into the room where they slept, the dim split in two by a rare moonbeam. Sleep came easily.

 

+

 

Aroused from his slumber, Taro Usami realized he sensed Setsuko’s absence. He sat up and saw her unmussed futon. He listened for any household sounds. He heard nothing. Then he realized a need to relieve himself.

Stepping to the bathroom, half asleep, he wondered why the door wouldn’t open fully.

And why the light was on.

Once he managed to get his head in for a peek, he saw why. Setsuko lay on the floor, her body twisted, eyes open, mouth sagging, tongue limp, strands of hair matted on her forehead and cheek. An empty prescription medicine vial lay inches from her fingertips.

Later, his children would say he shouted “Setsuko” over and over.

Taro Usami would say he didn’t remember.

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Time to Return – an excerpt from The Thief’s Mistake

JBBookCoverRShig Sato was lost, and nearly ready to admit it. He had followed Ken Abe’s directions to his new office – three blocks south from the Akasaka-mitsuke subway station, right, and walk another block, where he would approach an intersection with a coffee shop at the bottom of a white office building five stories high. At another corner, a bank; another, an electronics equipment sales outlet with garish signs shouting bargains too good to be believed, and at the fourth, a real estate agent’s office with dozens of photos of properties of every type, size and price. He was in the right place. But what now?

The crossing light music brought Sato into the present. He became part of the hustling mob crossing the street, and before he knew it, he was standing in front of the coffee shop.

“Inspector?”

Sato turned toward the voice, feminine but low and tinged – too many cigarettes, too much sake. It was a middle-aged bar hostess’ voice, but the person attached to that rumble was plump, fair, pretty, and dressed in a subdued plum business jacket and skirt and matching pumps.

“I saw you from the coffee shop,” Mariko Suzuki said as she studied Sato with a look of apprehensive curiosity, then mild amusement, not trusting the beard or such casual clothing on so handsome a man. She saw the faded yellow sport shirt, rumpled khaki pants, and a round blue canvas hat – so unlike what she had remembered, a tall man with a commanding presence. Now what she noticed was a man with the saddest eyes.

“Good thing I was here this morning,” she chirped. “I seldom stop in. But I saw Abe just now and he’s in his office. I think you’ll like it.”

Sato could only nod.

“ He’s been there every day that I know of since starting the business, but you know he insisted your name should be on the door. I haven’t gotten a proper sign for outside yet but –”

Sato’s disadvantage produced a weak “Do I …?”

Then she realized Sato did not remember her. “I’m Mariko Suzuki. Abe’s friend.”

“Ah, Mrs. Suzuki,” and Sato then recalled meeting her several years before, the first time at a coffee shop in the Ginza. He was there with his wife, Miki, stealing precious moments all to themselves before a police function he had no way of avoiding. Back then, he was an Inspector in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, and was summoned to the event by the department’s superintendent general. Saying “No, thank you,” was not an option.

But Ken Abe – at that time, he was a mere detective, and his lowly status enabled him to skip such boring soirees. When Abe spotted Sato that evening, he introduced Suzuki, and reminded him he had tickets to a prizefight, knowing it would make Sato envious.

Standing on that street corner in the nascent morning heat, Sato gave Suzuki a faint smile and said, “I remember the first time we met.”

“Oh, that awful boxing contest Abe wanted to go to,” Suzuki blurted out. “I don’t know about Abe sometimes. But I’m glad I saw you. I’m so sorry about your wife.”

Sato managed a nod while Suzuki forged ahead: “I bet you were looking for your office. Abe told me about the detective agency. I think it’s wonderful. You can count on me to send business your way. Well, you need to go to that door over there,” and Sato watched as she pointed to a glass door just behind him to his right. “Just inside is a small lobby. It has two other offices, and a stairwell. You’re one floor up. I’m sorry I don’t have a sign on the outside of the building yet.”

Just as Sato’s hearing caught up to the woman’s verbal torrent, the intersection’s crossing light music caught her attention. “I have to go but please make yourself at home and good luck! Abe’s already up there.”

Sato watched Suzuki dash across the street as the last strains of the music blared from speakers above the intersection.

For much longer than he was aware, Sato stared at the door Suzuki had pointed at, as if memorizing its appearance. But he knew he was allowing his memory to capture the moment when one life ended, and another began.

All he felt was dread.

“What a reluctant P.I. I am,” he muttered as he opened the heavy glass door. The white tile floor was buffed to a dull matte finish, and he noticed grime along the baseboard in the corners. But the stairwell seemed clean, and Sato caught himself inspecting the tile for cracks as he slowly walked up the stairs, step by step. He opened the stairwell door and off to his right, across the hall, he saw a door, its top half in-set with opaque glass, with words declaring “Sato Private Investigation Service.”

Sato sighed. What had started as a somewhat truthful answer to a seemingly benign question asked by the TMPD superintendent general was now a fact – he was Shig Sato, private investigator.

Sato shook his head.

“Reluctant indeed.”

~

Ken Abe had not been so sure his friend would show up that morning. The day before, he skipped his search for an air-conditioned drinking establishment once he finished for the day. Instead, he took his ten-year-old Toyota Carina out of the towering parking garage near his home in Mita and drove the forty minutes it took to get to Shig Sato’s family home in Takatsu to bring his best friend and business partner back to Tokyo.

Abe was not fond of driving, and did not know what he was going to say to Sato. He was not sure if he would want anyone bothering him if his wife had died so recently. But Abe had a problem: after Miki Sato’s funeral, Shig left for his family home in Takatsu, leaving Abe to established the agency and put in the hours needed to get it off the ground. Not that he minded. He was glad to leave the department after Sato’s retirement. They had been partners off and on for nearly 20 years. Abe did not relish the idea of having another partner, and was eager to face the challenge of a new venture.

He knew Sato was going to the Takatsu house to mourn, and believed that was only right. He knew Miki Sato had been like a sister to him, and could not imagine what Shig had gone through, watching Miki slowly waste away for two years.

But no tender feelings for Miki’s memory, and no long-established friendship with Shig, changed the fact Abe’s advertisement for Sato’s fledgling detective agency was bringing in more business than he could handle. With a month gone since Miki’s passing, Abe knew it was time for Shig to get busy with this crazy P.I. business he started.

~

As dusk began its short life in earnest, Sato, tanned and dirty and unshaven and wearing dingy shorts, wooden sandals and a frayed cotton shirt, was drinking his sake cold while sitting on the back steps of his family’s small house. What remained of his rice and edamame dinner sat next to him. He squinted at the sun dipping towards the mountains and breathed in the scent of jasmine and pine. Footsteps along the side of the house and the clink of bottles invaded his silent meditation. When he heard the deep rumble of a fake cough, he knew his visitor was Ken Abe. When the shuffling and clinking stopped, he glanced down and saw the familiar scuffed brown loafers.

He did not turn around.

He heard Abe’s unmistakable sniff, once and then once again, and Sato thought about his friends’ unusual sense of smell. A childhood injury left him with the olfactory senses of a bloodhound. He had stopped being amazed at this peculiar prowess long ago. He knew Abe was instantly taking inventory of whatever odor he could detect: the sweat on his back, the Tama River dirt on his sandals. The stale rice in the pot, the soybeans wilting.

“I guess you’re going to tell me do something about the rice, eventually,” Sato said.

“No.”

“You brought your own refreshments. Thoughtful.”

Abe was watching the late evening sun’s progress from a sliver to nearly nothing. “I wanted to make sure I could pour you into the Toyota if I had to.”

“Am I going somewhere?”

“Yes,” Abe said, flat and low.

“Where?”

“Work.”

“Why?”
“Because it was your idea to start this business. And I’m stupid to let you do whatever you’re doing here while I do all the dirty work.”

“What dirty work?”

“Taking calls from angry wives, suspicious husbands, marriage-minded grandmothers. It’s time for you to get going.”

“You’re kidding. You came out here because of that?”

“Would I be here if I was kidding?”

Sato glanced up at Abe, the beer, and he recognized a package. He knew it was pickled eel. There were never any gifts between him and Abe, never any small tokens of appreciation, kindnesses given and received. He knew Abe could have shown up empty-handed. But the eel was what he brought with him whenever he came by to visit him and Miki at their home in Tokyo, all those hundreds of times over the years.

“Want to come on in?” Sato asked, eyes still on the eel.

“Sure.” And without missing a beat: “I hate the beard.”

“I know.”

Sato rose and walked into the house. Dusk and an ancient electric fan, its burring distinct among the sounds of the summer evening, helped cool the room somewhat. Abe took his spot next to the table as Sato tasted the eel. It was pleasant on his tongue. He found beans and peas and the two friends sipped beer, munched food, and said all they needed in saying nothing.

But Abe knew his friend. Sato was mourning. And he may deep into his sorrowful contemplation, and may even be fishing every morning to sooth his sleepless nights, but he also knew Sato could count. Abe was not the least bit religious, but knew Sato was. And seven days after Miki’s death, after the Buddhist priest’s chants ended the shonanoka prayers, Sato slipped out of Tokyo, to Takatsu, to escape and to mourn the only way he knew how. Abe did not have to be present at the fourteenth day remembrance or any other occasion to offer prayers to the spirit of Miki Sato. But he knew the 49th day was approaching, the day a Buddhist believed the spirit of the deceased passed from its state of chuin to wherever it was going to go, and Abe knew his friend, who loved his wife more than he loved himself, would be thinking of nothing but that.

Abe did not envy his friend.

Having finished his eel and his beer, Abe had enough of Sato’s contemplative loitering. He freed a Mild Seven cigarette from its pack, raised it to his lips, found his lighter, lit his cigarette, inhaled, and exhaled.

“Ready to go?”

Sato stabbed at some beans, and looked at his glass of beer still half-full. “Now?”

Abe lifted his cigarette. “When I finish this.”

Sato nodded. He quietly rose and began wandering around the house, and Abe heard the random sounds of shutters sliding into place and boxes shuffled about. Sato reappeared and wordlessly gathered the dishes and placed them in the sink. Abe turned his attention to his cigarette, and after a few puffs, snuffed it out and got to his feet.

By this time Sato had disappeared again, but a minute later reappeared, wearing clean, comfortable, presentable clothes for his return to the city. “Let’s go.”

Abe pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “Here are the directions to the office, in case you plan on coming in the morning.”

Sato ignored the sarcasm. “I’ll be there,” he said, pocketing the instructions.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“You riding with me?” Abe thought Sato looked tired beyond measure.

“No, I’m driving in. I don’t want to leave the Pajero here.” Abe watched his friend close the back of the house, disappear, reappear with two bundles wrapped in a furoshiki cloth. Abe saw his friend seemed up to making the drive back to the city. “Follow me?”

Sato looked up at Abe. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You have the directions to the office?”

“In my pocket.”

“Don’t get lost.”

As Abe started his Toyota, he glanced into his mirrors and in the dark of the August evening. He saw Sato sitting behind the wheel, the look of concentration Abe knew well. He watched Sato start the engine, check the gauges, adjust the mirrors, buckle himself to his seat, turn on the low beams. Then he saw Sato nod his goodbye and pull away toward the road, to his future.

~

Sato stood at the door to his office long enough for him to realize he had no idea how long he had been standing there. Then he heard “It’s open.”

He did so, and Sato took a sight he had seen a thousand times – Ken Abe smoking a cigarette and reading the morning’s sports pages, all tussled hair, rumpled jacket and scuffed loafers in pose of careless nonchalance.

“Perhaps things aren’t as new as I think they are,” he muttered, immensely please, and he walked to the center of the office and saw an empty chair behind a small gray desk. It held a telephone, calendar, pen, and notebook. On a side table along one wall he saw a bucket of ice, highball glasses, and a pitcher of iced coffee.

Abe peered above the top of the newspaper. “You’re here, I see.”

“Yes, I’m here.”

What Abe saw was Sato in a yellow sport shirt, worn khakis, and green socks above scuffed white sneakers, but it was the round blue cotton twill hat with the canvas rim, soft and faded by years in the sun, that made him stare. He recovered quickly enough to notice Sato fixing a look at everything in the office, one item at a time. He watched Sato wander around the small office, peer into corners where there was nothing to see, and open the blinds of the three large windows. The bottom pane opened outward from the bottom. The one by Abe’s desk offered an escape for Abe’s cigarette smoke. It also allowed the cacophony known as a busy Tokyo intersection to fill the room.

Abe lit another cigarette to keep his iced coffee company and kept his eyes on his friend. As Sato settled into his chair, Abe asked, “Have you seen the papers? Watched the news?”

“No, I wasn’t really paying attention to anything when I walked to the station,” he said, settling his body into the chair, testing it for strength and comfort. “I was people watching, quite frankly. Wondering if I would see anyone I knew. I didn’t.”

“You took the train?”

Sato tested his chair, turning right, then left. “Yes. Why?”

“No reason.”

Abe knew Sato’s power of concentration could block out the world around him. Ignoring the morning news was not surprising. But the thought of Shig Sato a morning commuter seemed amusing. He watched Sato for another moment before casually saying, “Well, I got a call this morning.”

“Oh?”

“Osaki Police Station. From Saburo Matsuda himself.”

“Matsuda? What does the station chief at Osaki Police Station want?”

“He wants you.”

This got Sato’s attention.

“At Osaki? Why –”

“Matsuda wanted to know if you were in town. I was happy to tell him that yes, you were.”

“Thanks a lot.”

Abe put down his paper and snuffed out his cigarette. “Remember how we picked up the Kobayashi twins at the end of the Down Low case?”

Sato nodded. It was only two months before, and it was his last case with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. He was at Azabu Police Station for his last month on the force. He had looked forward to returning to regular investigative work. He had spent two years working security details for the Imperial Household Agency and for English-speaking foreign diplomats who visited the city, since he was fluent in that language.

At the time, all Sato wanted was to get a good case to work on for his last month with the department. But what he got was the Down Low murder – girl dead, GI boyfriend nowhere to be found, but for Sato, worst of all, was the fact Jun Fujimori had become a prime suspect in the case. Sato had to solve the murder without exposing his ties to Jun’s father, Ses Fujimori, leader of one of Tokyo’s powerful crime syndicates. Ses Fujimori was Sato’s childhood friend, and their two families were linked in ways that would have been hard to explain to a police commission.

Abe saw a faint look of dread cross Sato’s face. He said, “Those two were arrested early this morning in Gotanda, trying to steal something that wasn’t there, so they say. What was there was a man with his throat slit. The Kobayashis were picked up for murder. And the people at Osaki don’t believe the twins’ story. But what’s really strange, those two idiots demanded to talk to you.”

Sato let slip a shocked “Why?”

“I don’t know. But Matsuda said something about anti-organized crime deciding ‘OK, call Sato.’”

“That’s absurd!”

“Well, forensics don’t have anything yet, obviously. Way too soon. But a dead man rankles a lot of people. Matsuda said he can’t help it if the press get their hands on the story, but they want to shut the case before it’s open.”

“The twins go to do a job and a guy winds up dead? And then they want to talk to me?”

Abe shrugged. “That’s what they say.”

“The only throats the twins ever cut are their own while shaving,” Sato said. “Whose bright idea was it to charge those two?”

“I don’t know. But Matsuda said the anti-organized crime supervisor wants you to come in.”

“Who is that?”

“Kamioka.”

Sato sighed. Koichi Kamioka was young, ambitious, not particularly bright, and part of a gang of yakuza cops loyal to Tatsuo Tanaka, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s top anti-organized crime supervisor. Tanaka was handsome, vain, and hated Sato. They were partners once on a counterfeiting case. When Sato found out it was all Fat Katsuhara’s idea, he busted the fat man – with Ses Fujimori’s permission. This put Sato into Fujimori’s debt, a secret he kept his entire career. The case made Sato’s reputation, but Tanaka had always been suspicious, and Tanaka never forgave, or forgot.

Tanaka.

His eyes close, Sato said, “The reason they want to talk to me is because of Fujimori,” and he shook his head, believing and disbelieving it all.

Abe lit a cigarette, and tried to think of what it would be like to have a childhood friend like Ses Fujimori, one of the most powerful crime bosses in Tokyo. The Fujimori clan – ruthless, efficient, powerful, and at least for Key and Ses, impossible to arrest. Abe was certain this new mess with the anti-organized crime boys and the Fujimoris was probably starting up again, all because the Kobayashi twins got caught burglarizing a copier repair shop.

“I can see Kamioka thinking the twins are part of some gang,” Sato said. “But Matsuda. He has more sense than that. He should be able to see that no one would take the twins seriously.”

“I don’t know,” Abe said. “It’s not like he’s never dealt with a case like this.”

“You really think they want to talk to me because the twins asked for me by name, and they know about me and Ses?”

“Well, a lot of people are going to think that,” Abe said.

“I know. But it’s just idiotic that those guys take one look at the twins and make them for killers.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Abe said. “The twins show up and say there’s nothing to be stolen. So why is there a dead guy? And where is the loot?”

Sato leaned back in his chair, his arms folded across his chest, and tapped his chin with his finger. “Was there another guy there for the loot and did he get surprised? Did he kill the guy on purpose? I can think of a lot of questions Matsuda might have. But it makes no sense.”

Abe stretched. “So what are you going to do? We’ve got a lot of things to decide.”

“Like what?”

“We’ve been getting calls from the ad I put out.”

“What ad?” Sato asked, as if the idea had been invented just then.

“The one advertising our business, Shig.” Abe walked to the side table and poured more iced coffee. “You think we can just sit here and wait for business to come to us? We need to make money. Pay rent.”

“Oh …”

“And we’re getting inquiries.”

“Like what?”

“Marriage proposal investigations, suspicious wives wanting dirt on wayward husbands, things like that. There’s a shop owner wanting to investigate a vendor because he thinks he’s being cheated. And I have to say ‘I’ll call you as soon as my partner returns from a big case.’ That seems to placate them, but that won’t last forever.”

Sato grunted. Lying. Cheating. Suspicions. It filled him with dread.

Abe knew Sato’s dejected look. “This was your idea.”

“I know. It’s just that –”

“This is it, Shig.”

“I know. I just need to let my mind catch up with all this.”

“It will. So what are you going to do about the Kobayashis?”

“Go over,” Sato sighed. “See what’s going on.”

Abe was not surprised – he knew his friend could not say no to a fellow police officer. But he could not help saying, “Shig, you’re not a cop any more. You don’t have to jump every time a station chief tells you.”

“I’ll head over. But how did they know to call here?”

“I saw Hiro the other day,” Abe said. “You remember him? The sergeant at Azabu? He was transferred to Osaki. When your name came up, he knew where to find you.”

“I see. What you are doing today?”

“Gotta go to Ikebukuro to see this woman. Wants to investigate her husband. It’s probably nothing. After that, a woman with a daughter who has a prospective groom. The mother wants the boy checked out.”

“Okay,” Sato said.

“I’ll probably be back here in the afternoon,” Abe said as he pocketed his cigarettes and lighter and checked his jacket pocket for his car keys. “Don’t forget, your pager is in your top desk drawer. So are the business cards.”

“Okay.”

Sato watched Abe depart. Returning to his desk, he spread his fingers out like a fan and lightly glided his hands across the top of his desk. He opened the lap drawer and pocketed the pager and the cards. He shut the windows and then turned off the lights, and when he reached the door, he cast a rueful glance back at the darkened office and shut the door behind him.

The Reluctant P.I.

(Another chapter from The Thief’s Mistake, Book 2 in the the Shig Sato Mystery series, available in ebook soon.)

clip6265Shig Sato was lost, and nearly ready to admit it. He had followed Ken Abe’s directions to his new office – three blocks south from the Akasaka-mitsuke subway station, right, and walk another block, where he would approach an intersection with a coffee shop at the bottom of a white office building five stories high. At another corner, a bank; another, an electronics equipment sales outlet with garish signs shouting bargains too good to be believed, and finally a real estate agent’s office with dozens of photos of properties of every type, size and price. It was quite a quartet that formed that intersection in Akasaka. Yes, he was in the right place. But what now?

The crossing light music brought Sato into the present. He became part of the hustling mob crossing the street, and before he knew it, he was standing in front of the coffee shop.

“Inspector?”

Sato turned toward the voice, feminine but low and tinged with too many cigarettes and too much sake. It was a middle-aged bar hostess’ voice, but the person attached to that rumble was plump, fair, pretty, and dressed in a subdued plum purple.

“I saw you from the coffee shop,” the woman said as she studied Sato with a look of apprehensive curiosity, then mild amusement, not trusting the beard or such casual clothing on so handsome a man – faded yellow sport shirt, rumpled khaki pants, and a round blue canvas hat. Mariko Suzuki had remembered Sato as a tall, commanding presence. Now, what she noticed was that he had the saddest eyes.

But she plowed ahead. “Good thing I was here this morning. I seldom stop in. But I saw Abe just now and he’s in his office. I think you’ll like it. He’s been there every day that I know of since starting the business, but you know he insisted your name should be on the door. I haven’t gotten a proper sign for outside yet but–”

Sato’s disadvantage produced a weak “Hello …?”

Then the woman realized Sato may not remember her. “I’m Mariko Suzuki. Abe’s friend.”

“Ah, Mrs. Suzuki,” and Sato then recalled meeting her five years before, at a coffee shop in the Ginza. He was there with his wife, Miki, stealing precious moments all to themselves before a social function he had no way of avoiding. Back then he was an Inspector in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, and was summoned to the event by the department’s superintendent general. Saying “No, thank you,” was not an option.

But Ken Abe – at that time, he was a detective, and that lowly status enabled him to skip such boring soirees. When Abe spotted Sato from across the crowded dining room that evening, he approached Sato’s table to introduce Suzuki and remind Sato that he had tickets to a prize fight, knowing it would make Sato envious.

Standing on that street corner on that warm August morning, Sato gave Suzuki a small smile and said, “I remember the last time we met.”

“Oh, that awful boxing contest Abe wanted to go to,” Suzuki blurted out. “I don’t know about Abe sometimes. But I’m glad I saw you. I’m so sorry about your dear wife.”

Sato managed a nod while Suzuki forged ahead: “I bet you were looking for your office. Abe told me about the detective agency. I think it’s wonderful. You can count on me to send business your way. Well, you need to go to that door over there,” and Sato saw her point to a glass door just behind him to his right. “Just inside is a small lobby. It has two other offices, and a stairwell. You’re one floor up. I’m sorry I don’t have a sign on the outside of the building yet.”

Just as Sato’s hearing caught up to the woman’s verbal torrent, the intersection’s crossing light music caught her attention. “I have to go but please make yourself at home and good luck! Abe’s already up there.”

Sato watched Suzuki dash across the street as the last strains of the music blared from speakers above the intersection.

For much longer than he was aware, Sato stared at the door Suzuki had pointed at, as if memorizing its appearance. But he knew he was allowing his memory to capture the moment when one life ended, and another began.

It was a moment of dread.

“What a reluctant P.I. I am,” he muttered as he opened the heavy glass door. The white tile floor was buffed to a dull mat finish and he noticed grim along the baseboard in the corners, but the stairwell seemed clean, and Sato caught himself inspecting the tile for cracks as he slowly walked up the stairs, step by step. Sato opened the stairwell door that opened onto the second floor, and off to his right, five feet away, he saw a door, its top half inset with opaque glass and words declaring “Sato Private Investigation Service.”

So, what had started as a somewhat truthful answer to a seemingly benign question asked by the TMPD superintendent general was now a fact – Shig Sato was now a private investigator.

Sato sighed. “Reluctant, indeed.”

~

Ken Abe had not been so sure that his friend would show up that morning.

The day before, he skipped his search for an air-conditioned drinking establishment once he finished for the day, and instead took his ten-year-old Toyota Carina out of the towering parking garage near his home in Mita and drove the forty minutes it took to get to Shig Sato’s family home in Takatsu, Kawasaki, to bring his best friend and business partner back to Tokyo. Abe was not fond of driving, and did not know what he was going to say to Sato. He was not sure if he would want anyone bothering him if his wife had died so recently. But Abe had a problem: after Miki Sato’s funeral, his friend Shig left for Takatsu, leaving Abe to established the agency and put in the hours needed to get it off the ground. Not that he minded. He was glad to leave the department after Sato’s retirement. They had been partners off and on for nearly 18 years, and Abe did not relish the idea of having another partner, and was eager to face the challenge of a new venture.

He knew Sato was going to the Takatsu house to mourn, and believed that was only right. Miki Sato had been like a sister to him, and could not imagine what Shig went through, watching Miki slowly waste away.

But no tender feelings for Miki’s memory, and no long-established friendship with Shig changed the fact that Abe’s advertisement for Sato’s fledgling detective agency was bringing in more business than he could handle, and with 30 days passed, it was time for Shig to get busy with this crazy P.I. business he started.

~

As dusk began its short life in earnest, Sato, tanned and dirty and unshaven and wearing dingy shorts, wooden sandals and a frayed cotton shirt, was drinking his sake cold while sitting on the back steps of his family’s small house, with what remained of his dinner of rice and edamame next to him. He squinted at the sun dipping towards the mountains and breathed in the scent of jasmine and pine. Footsteps along the side of the house and the clink of bottles invaded his silent meditation. When he heard the deep rumble of a fake cough, he knew his visitor was Ken Abe. When the shuffling and clinking stopped, he glanced down and saw the familiar scuffed brown loafers.

He did not turn around.

He heard Abe’s unmistakable sniff, once and then once again, and Sato thought about his friends’ unusual sense of smell. A childhood injury left him with the olfactory senses of a bloodhound. He had stopped being amazed at this peculiar prowess long ago, but knew Abe’s mind was instantly taking inventory of whatever odor he could detect: the sweat on his back, the Tama River dirt on his sandals, the stale rice in the pot, and the soy beans wilting.

“I guess you’re going to tell me do something about the rice, eventually,” Sato said.

“No.”

“You brought your own refreshments. Thoughtful.”

Abe had yet to glance down at his friend, but instead, was watching the late evening sun’s progress from a sliver to nearly nothing. “I wanted to make sure I could pour you into the Toyota if I had to.”

“Am I going somewhere?”

“Yes,” Abe said, flat and low.

“Where?”

“Work.”

“Why?”

“Because it was your idea to start this business. And I’m stupid to let you do whatever you’re doing here while I do all the dirty work.”

“What dirty work?”

“Taking calls from angry wives, suspicious husbands, marriage-minded grandmothers. It’s time for you to get going.”

“You’re kidding. You came out here because of that?”

“Would I be here if I was kidding?”

Sato glanced up at Abe, then at the beer and then he recognized a package. He knew it was pickled eel.

Sato knew there were never gifts between him and Abe, never any small tokens of appreciation, kindnesses given and received. He knew Abe could have shown up empty-handed. But the eel was what he brought with him whenever he came by to visit him and Miki at their home in Tokyo, all those hundreds of times over the years.

“Want to come on in?” Sato asked, eyes still on the eel.

“Sure.” And without missing a beat: “I hate the beard.”

“I know,” Sato sighed as he rose and walked into the house, somewhat cooled by an ancient electric fan, burring along with the sounds of the summer evening. He tasted the eel, pleasant on his tongue. Sato found beans and peas and they sipped the beer, munched their food, and said all they needed in saying nothing.

But Abe knew his friend, and knew Sato’s mind. Sato may be mourning, may be deep into his sorrowful contemplation, and may even be fishing every morning to sooth his sleepless nights, but he also knew Sato could count. Abe was not the least bit religious, but knew Sato was, and seven days after Miki’s death, after the Buddhist priest’s chants ended, Sato slipped out of Tokyo, to Takatsu, to escape and to mourn the only way he knew how. Abe did not have to be present at the fourteenth day remembrance or any other occasion to offer prayers to the spirit of Miki Sato. But he knew the 49th day was approaching, the day a Buddhist believed the spirit of the deceased crossed over to the other side, and Abe knew that his friend, who loved his wife more than he lived himself, would be thinking of nothing but that.

Abe did not like to contemplate the consequences.

Having finished his eel and his beer, Abe lifted a knee, placed his foot flat on the floor, and eased his bulk onto his left flank until he was flat on the floor, and with several small sure gestures, he freed a cigarette from its pack, raised it to his lips, found his lighter, lit his cigarette, inhaled, exhaled, then said, “Ready to go?”

Sato stabbed at some beans, and looked at his glass of beer still half full. “Now?”

“When I finish this,” Abe said, holding up the cigarette.

Sato studied Abe’s deceitful lethargy. He only nodded and said, “Okay.”

Abe expected more of a fight, but Sato quietly rose and then wandered around the house, and he heard the random sounds of shutters sliding into place and boxes being shuffled about, then Sato reappeared and wordlessly gathered the dishes and placed them in the sink.

Abe turned his attention to his Mild Seven cigarette and after a few puffs, snuffed it out and got to his feet. By this time Sato had disappeared, but a minute later reappeared, wearing clean, comfortable, presentable clothes for the drive back to the city, and seeing Abe erect and ready to move on, said, “Let’s go.”

Abe pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and gave it to Sato. “Here are the directions to the office, in case you plan on coming in the morning.”

Sato noticed the sarcasm, and a surge of mild belligerence rose inside. “I’ll be there,” he said, pocketing the instructions.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Pleased to see some sign of the old Sato, he asked “You riding with me?” thinking that his friend looked tired beyond measure.

“No, I’m driving in. I don’t want to leave the Pajero here,” Sato said. Gathering what he wanted from the house, Sato placed the bundles in the Pajero. Abe saw that his friend seemed up to making the drive back to the city. “Follow me?”

Sato looked up at Abe. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You have the directions to the office?”

“In my pocket.”

“Don’t get lost,” Abe said. And as he started his Toyota, he glanced into his mirrors and in the dark of the August evening, he saw the shadow of Shig Sato sitting behind the wheel, the look of concentration Abe knew well, and watched as Sato started the engine, checked the gauges, adjusted the mirrors, buckled himself to his seat, turn on the low beams, then finally glance up. He noticed Abe, and nodded. Then Abe watched his friend pull away, and drive toward the road that led to his future.

~

Sato stood at the door to his office long enough for him to realize he had no idea how long he had been standing there. Then he heard “It’s open.”

And as he opened the unlocked door, Sato took a sight he had seen a thousand times, Ken Abe smoking a cigarette and reading the morning’s sports pages, all tussled hair, rumpled jacket and scuffed loafers in pose of careless nonchalance. The image pleased Sato immensely. “Perhaps things aren’t as new as I think they are,” he muttered as he walked to the center of the office, eying an empty chair behind a small lonely gray desk with a telephone, calendar, pen and notebook atop it. On a side table along one wall he saw a bucket of ice, highball glasses, and a pitcher of iced coffee.

Abe peered above the top of the newspaper. “You’re here, I see.”

“Yes, I’m here.”

Abe had heard the tentative steps to the door, the pause – Abe could have counted to five and knew that as soon as he said “six,” the doorknob would turn, and there he would stand, Shig Sato, ready to start his new day. Abe watched his friend wander around the small office, peer into corners where there was nothing to see and open the blinds of the three large windows, whose bottom pane opened outward, offering an escape for Abe’s cigarette smoke while offering up all the cacophony known as a busy Tokyo intersection, this one mere yards from their window.

Abe lit another cigarette to keep his iced coffee company, but kept his eyes on his friend as he walked around the office. His silence was born of shock. Sato was wearing a yellow sport shirt, worn khakis, and green socks above scuffed white sneakers, but it was the round blue cotton twill hat with the canvas rim, soft and faded by years in the sun, that made him stare. He recovered quickly enough to noticing Sato fix a look at everything in the office, one item at a time. He had seen this performance before: whenever Shig Sato entered a room for the first time, he inspected it much like a dog sniffing at every corner. He never pointed this out to his friend. Anyway, Sato would have denied any behavior resembling a canine. Abe was content to sit, and watch. He knew what he had to tell him would not be welcome.

As Sato settled into his chair, Abe asked, “Have you seen the papers? Watched the news?”

“No, I wasn’t really paying attention to anything when I walked to the station,” he said, settling his body into the chair, testing it for strength and comfort. “I was people watching, quite frankly. Wondering if I would see anyone I knew. I didn’t.”

“You took the train?”

Sato turned in the chair to the right, then to the left. “Yes. Why?”

“No reason.”

Abe knew Sato’s power of concentration could block out the world around him. Ignoring the morning news was not surprising. But the thought of Shig Sato a morning commuter seemed amusing. He watched Sato for another moment before casually saying, “Well, I got a call this morning.”

“Oh?”

“Osaki Police Station. From Saburo Matsuda himself.”

Sato looked up. “Matsuda? What does the station chief at Osaki Police Station want?”

“He wants you.”

This got Sato’s attention.

“At Osaki? Why –”

“Matsuda wanted to know if you were in town. I was happy to tell him that yes, you were.”

“Thanks a lot.”

Abe put down his paper and snuffed out his cigarette. “Remember how we picked up the Kobayashi twins at the end of the Down Low case?”

Sato nodded. It was only two months before, and it was his last case with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. He was at Azabu Police Station for his last month on the force. He had looked forward to returning to regular investigative work. He had spent two years working security details for the Imperial Household Agency and for English-speaking foreign diplomats who visited the city, since he was fluent in that language.

At the time, all Sato wanted was to get a good case to work on. But what he got was the Down Low murder – girl dead, GI boyfriend nowhere to be found, but for Sato, worst of all, was the fact Jun Fujimori had become a prime suspect in the case. Sato had to solve the murder without exposing his ties to Jun’s father, Ses Fujimori, leader of one of Tokyo’s powerful crime syndicates. Ses Fujimori was Sato’s childhood friend, and their two families were linked in ways that would have been hard to explain to a police commission.

Abe saw a faint look of dread cross Sato’s face. He said, “Those two were arrested early this morning in Gotanda, trying to steal something that wasn’t there, so they say. What was there was a man with his throat slit. The Kobayashis were picked up for murder. And the people at Osaki don’t believe the twins’ story. But what’s really strange, those two idiots demanded to talk to you, if you can believe that.”

Sato let slip a shocked “Why?”

“I don’t know. But Matsuda said something about anti-organized crime deciding ‘OK, call Sato.’”

“That’s absurd!”

“Well, forensics don’t have anything yet, obviously. Way too soon. But a dead man rankles a lot of people, especially in Gotanda. Matsuda said he can’t help it if the press got their hands on the story, but they want to shut the case before it’s open.”

“The twins go to do a job and a guy winds up with his throat slit? And then they want to talk to me?”

“That’s what they say.”

“The only throats the twins ever cut are their own while shaving,” Sato said. “Whose bright idea was it to arrest those two?”

“I don’t know. But Matsuda said the anti-organized crime supervisor wants you to come in.”

“Who is that?”

“Kamioka.”

Sato sighed. Koichi Kamioka: young, ambitious, not particularly bright, and part of a gang of yakuza cops loyal to Tatsuo Tanaka, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s top anti-organized crime supervisor, and a man who hated Shig Sato. Tanaka and Sato were partners once. Sato solved a case that made his reputation as a true investigator, and to some, made Tanaka look bad. Tanaka never forgave, or forgot.

“The reason they want to talk to me is because of Fujimori,” Sato said.

Abe lit a cigarette, and tried to think of what it would be like to have a childhood friend like Ses Fujimori, one of the most powerful crime bosses in Tokyo. Between Ses and his father, Key, the Fujimori clan was ruthless, efficient, powerful, and at least for Key and Ses, impossible to arrest. Abe was certain this new mess with the anti-organized crime boys and Fujimori was probably starting up again, all because the Kobayashi twins got caught burglarizing a copier repair shop.

“I can see Kamioka thinking the twins are part of some gang,” Sato said. “But Matsuda. He has more sense than that. He should be able to see that no one would take the twins seriously.”

“I don’t know,” Abe said. “It’s not like he’s never dealt with a case like this.”

“You really think they want to talk to me because the twins asked for me by name, and they know about me and Ses?”

“Well, a lot of people are going to think that,” Abe said.

“I know that. But it’s just idiotic to me that those guys take one look at the twins and make them for killers.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Abe said. “The twins show up and there’s nothing to be stolen. So why is there a dead guy? And where is the loot? Did they stumble onto a murder?”

Sato had leaned back in his chair, his arms folded across his chest. Abe knew he was listening.

“Was there another guy there for the loot and did he get surprised? Did he kill the guy on purpose?” Abe asked. “I can think of a lot of things those guys might be thinking, Shig. None of it makes sense.”

He watched Sato ease into a thoughtful pose, his fingers laced together behind his head, and stare at nothing.

Abe stretched, then stood up. “So what are you going to do? We got a lot of things to do.

“Like what?”

“We’ve been getting calls from the ad I put out,” he said, lighting another cigarette.

“What ad?” Sato asked, as if the idea had been invented just then.

“The one advertising our business, Shig. You think we can just sit here and wait for business to come to us? We need to make money. Pay rent.”

“Oh …”

“And we’re getting inquiries.”

“Like what?”

“Marriage proposal investigations, suspicious wives wanting dirt on wayward husbands. Things like that. There’s a shop owner wanting to investigate a vendor because he thinks he’s being cheated. And I have to say ‘I’ll call you as soon as my partner returns from a big case.’ That seems to placate them, but that won’t last forever.”

“Huh,” Sato grunted. Lying, cheating, suspicions.

It filled him with dread.

Abe knew Sato’s dejected look. “This was your idea,” he said.

“I know. It’s just that – ”

“This is it, Shig. This is what it is.”

“I know. I just need to let my mind catch up with all this.”

“It will,” Abe said, and he returned to his chair, to sip the last of the coffee from the shop downstairs.

“So what are you going to do about the Kobayashis?”

“Go over,” Sato sighed. “See what happened.”

Abe’s “Really?”surprised Sato.

“Why?” Sato asked.

“Shig, you’re not a cop any more. You don’t have to jump every time a station chief tells you.”

“I’ll head over. But how did they know to call here?”

“I saw Hiro the other day,” Abe said. “You remember him? The sergeant at Azabu? He was transferred to Osaki. When your name came up, he knew where to find you.”

“I see.”

Abe saw Sato stand up like a man with somewhere to go. He knew what was next.

“You’re going to do it, aren’t you.”

“Yes. I suppose I have to. What you are doing today?”

“Going to Ikebukuro to see this woman who wants to investigate her husband. It’s probably nothing. After that it’s a woman with a daughter who has a prospective groom. The mother wants the boy checked out.”

“Okay,” Sato said.

“I’ll probably be back here in the afternoon,” Abe said as pocketed his cigarettes and lighter and checked his jacket pocket for his car keys. “Don’t forget, your pager is in your top desk drawer. So are the extra business cards.”

“Okay.”

Sato opened the drawer, found the pager and the cards, placed them in his pocket, but his mind was on the twins, Matsuda, Kamioka and Osaki Police Station. As he shut the open windows and then turned off the office lights, a dark premonition overcame him. He cast a rueful glance back at the darkened office as he shut the door behind him.

Tell your own story

So today I’m perusing what’s in my Twitter feeds,  cruising along, looking at some of my favorite sites from Japan, like The Tokyo Reporter and The Japan Times (fond memories of working there. Great people) when I see a book review for Barry Lancet’s new novel, “Tokyo Kill.” Lancet wrote “Japantown” and earned much praise and an award or two, and has the type of mojo going any author would kill for.
Lancet writes about a reluctant private investigator and Japan and mines his extensive knowledge of Japanese art and martial arts to add depth and flavor to his enviable writing ability. A long-time editor and Tokyo resident, Lancet has everything going for him.
And I wanted to kill him.

Jealous much?

But then I started remembering what every writing coach, friend, counselor and guru has said countless times:

“Write the story you want to read.”

My reluctant P.I. stories, the Shig Sato Mysteries, began life as a spinoff from my American in Tokyo ex-pat novel. I lived in Japan off and on for five years (GI and civilian), met my ex-wife there, married there, my son was born there, and I worked there as a journalist and book editor. My small observations, coupled with my fascination for Japanese art and literature, which my no means made me an expert, propelled me into taking more than a casual interest in the arts and events and culture, modern and ancient.
The one thing I noticed living in that culture so unlike my own was the similarities – how people laughed at jokes, how grandparents doted on grandchildren, how teenagers clustered and giggled and strived to be different by being the same. Harajuku_girlsTired salarymen, weary housewives, industrious students striving to gain entry into elite universities — this could be anywhere.
My fear of writing about Japan and the Japanese fell by the wayside because I saw the similarities, not the differences, between my culture and theirs.
Sure, there are many people with more intimate knowledge of that language, life and culture. God bless them. I wish them all the success in the world. Me? I’m happy that a few people like my stories, and if I work hard and remain true to my vision and my story, maybe a small band of dedicated readers will like what I write and want more.
It’s all a writer can ask for, isn’t it?

 

You’re invited to visit my web site, my Kindle page or my Nook page.

Stumbling onto the Perfect Plan


Shig Sato Mystery “The Thief’s Mistake”roppongi3

 

Chaper 1

 

The plan was too good to pass up, and Nara knew it.

It pleased him that the job was set for the morning after next. Nara hated waiting. Four years at Fuchu Prison frazzled what little patience he possessed. And he knew when he got out he would not be able to wait for fortune or luck to bring work to him. He needed something.

And he got something.

Nara first heard about the plan while in Fuchu. He had confided in a cellmate he respected, saying he needed money to return to Hokkaido, his home prefecture, and never set foot in Tokyo again. He needed a lot of money fast, so he needed an easy job that paid well, a job that would not land him back in prison.

The cellmate said nothing as he listened to Nara’s worries all those months. Then one day the cellmate said, “I know a man. Oshiro is his name. He always has little jobs that pay well. If you’re interested, I’ll see what’s out there.”

Nara said, “Good.”

The cellmate asked what Nara did on the outside. Nara said he was a mechanic. Which was true -‑ he even had mechanic’s overalls among his few possessions.

The cellmate said nothing more. But four days before Nara’s release, the cellmate said he had heard from Oshiro. There was a job. Did he want it?

Nara said “Yes.”

 

Nara’s first telephone call on his first day of freedom was to Oshiro.

The cellmate had told Nara: Identify yourself as “the mechanic,” and say “the car is ready to be picked up.” The cellmate had said Oshiro would give a time and location for a meeting.

When Nara phoned Oshiro and repeated what he was told, Oshiro said, “Yamanote line. Gotanda station. Main entrance. Noon tomorrow.” Nara was about to ask how would he recognize him, but decided this Oshiro fellow would find him. Nara decided not to worry.

At noon the next day, standing on the bus island across from the East Gate of Gotanda station, wearing his overalls, dirty sneakers and an old Yomiuri Giants ball cap, Nara watched the ebb and flow of people around him, and at exactly noon a man dressed in a fine suit, shined shoes and sporting a pencil-thin mustache approached Nara and asked, “Is the car ready?”

Nara said “Yes.”

“Follow me.”

Nara followed the man through the pedestrian walkway under the station, turned right, and saw a green taxi with red lettering. The door was open.

Oshiro said, “Get in.”

Nara did what he was told.

Then Nara saw there was no driver.

“What’s going on?” Nara asked unpleasantly.

“Don’t worry,” Oshiro said. “I own this taxi. The driver is having his lunch. I own a dozen taxis. See that van over there? The blue van? I own three of them.”

Nara nodded. He saw the van, saw the cartoon of a teddy bear in a diaper on the side.

“Okay.” But Nara was still wary.

“I need a man who can follow instructions exactly,” Oshiro said, not smiling, not frowning, not giving Nara any indication that he was happy, anxious, or miserable. The man seemed business-like. Nara relaxed a little.

“Go on,” he said.

And Oshiro said, in terms simple enough for a child to understand, exactly what needed to be done. Nara was shocked at its simplicity.

When Oshiro finished, he said, “You understand, when this is all finished and you get your money, you disappear. You don’t know me. I don’t ever see you again. That’s what the money is for. You disappear.”

“How much money?”

“Two million yen.”

Nara didn’t blink. “You won’t see me ever again when this is finished.”

“Good.”

~

Nara returned to his rented room, and for the first time in four years, was able to relax. He felt his mind relax, his muscles relax, his tendons, his neck, his shoulders, his arms, his fingers, his legs, his toes. He sat in his bed, drank from his small bottle of whiskey, and thought about the plan.

It was the perfect plan.

(more…)

Sato and Abe are called to a murder scene

(An excerpt from The Gangster’s Son, a Shig Sato Mystery)clip6275

The police inspector knelt over the dead woman. He gently tilted her young, battered face. Her hair, dusty with debris, fell at odd angles. Sticky crimson blood oozed out her nose, ears, and mouth. One eye stared into the night, and what remained of the other was a swollen bloody mass. He pressed his finger against a plum-colored cheek split open. Some bone was still intact.

As he got up, he noted how her legs were oddly twisted beneath her. The sleeveless silk blouse and short black skirt she wore did not look disturbed. Nothing lay beside her. In the harsh crime scene lights, he thought the girl looked like a broken mannequin, carelessly discarded and alone.

It was a still, humid Tokyo evening, past midnight. Detective Ken Abe watched Inspector Shig Sato. Five minutes had passed since Sato said he wanted to take another look at the body. Abe wondered if his friend had lost his ability to concentrate, with his wife so ill, and this being his first night back in Criminal Investigations after two years of diplomatic security duty.

“Inspector?” Abe believed he hid the concern in his voice.

Sato raised his hand to shade his eyes from the blinding lights.

“Yes?”

Abe pulled a cigarette from his lips.

“So?”

Sato took another long look at the young woman, walked over to Abe, and said, “She was probably surprised, then beaten and left for dead. Probably dropped to the ground where she stood.”

Abe was relieved to see Sato focusing on the crime, putting what he saw into some sense of order.

“You said she’s a waitress at the jazz club?” Sato asked.

“Yep. Right in there,” Abe said, pointing at a neglected brown door. “A jazz club. Called the Down Low.”

There were many scattered anonymous doors along the alley. Some led to long, narrow, dim bars selling grilled chicken and beef on sticks to whet the appetite of the tired businessmen drinking beer after lonely beer. The meat’s lingering aroma, the grease, the alcohol, the sweat of the cooks, all clung to the thick night air. Behind other doors, sushi denizens had watched countermen slice their tuna and eel and octopus, caress their roe and rice, priests preparing their offerings. In tiny cabarets with low and plaintive jukeboxes, hostesses rested their aching feet while night managers quickly counted the evening take after rousting patrons from their drunken stupors.

The inspector saw these doors, once open in the vain hope of catching a midnight breeze, now closed tight against the bad luck that came with a dead body.

“It is too quiet here,” Sato said to himself. He did not like the quiet, not in that part of Tokyo, on the fringe of nightclubs and cabarets and bars and restaurants, that place where two alleys met, where a girl lay dead.

Sato took another look at the dead girl, then turn toward the medical examiner.

“It looks like somebody struck her across the face so hard it snapped her head back against that concrete wall,” the doctor said. A slight, bald, fidgety man, the doctor was truly at ease only when performing an autopsy. He hated making definite statements at crime scenes, but knew Sato needed to hear something. “Blunt force. Caused some type of bleeding in the skull, I’d say. And then maybe something snapped. She slumped to the ground, and that was it.”

Sato looked back at the body, then at the doctor, and paused before asking, “No one moved her, touched her in any way?”

“No!” If it had been anyone other than Sato, the doctor would have been insulted.

“Any signs of resisting? Bruising? Rape?”

“I don’t know.” The doctor hesitated, scratching his ear. “Her underclothes don’t look like they’ve been disturbed, and there’s nothing strange about her thighs or buttocks. I mean, there’s no strange marks or bruises. Like I said, it looks like she just dropped. Some kind of smack in the face, her head hits the wall. Probably burst something in her brain. Anyway, it probably shut down her central nervous system. That’s probably what killed her. We’ll know more later.”

Abe watched as Sato talked to the medical examiner. He watched Sato’s face harden as the doctor gave his assessment.

“She was pretty,” Abe said.

Sato turned to look at the girl once more.

“What was she doing in a dark alley so late at night?” he asked. “What could have happened that would lead to this?”

“This is Roppongi,” Abe said. “She probably liked the excitement. Nightclubs. Music. Lots of strange new people.”

“People.” Sato grunted.

“This club has a lot of foreigners come listen to jazz.”

Sato frowned. “Foreigners.”

“Young girl looking to meet foreigners, maybe have an adventure.”

“Adventure.” Sato shook his head.

“Hey, Tokyo’s booming,” Abe said. “It’s 1991. Things are good. Lots of people come here from all over the world, looking to make money, have a good time.”

“Maybe she had a boyfriend,” Sato said. “Maybe a jealous boyfriend.”

“Maybe a secret admirer,” Abe said.

“Yes, maybe.”

(Read more here.)

Japan and Me

CherryblossomsThere was this time, I was in the Navy, and they sent me to Japan. Knew nothing about the place. But after three years there, I came to appreciate the people and the culture. I left Japan and mustered out of the Navy, finished college, and a few years after that, returned to Japan, partly as an adventure, because I knew such an opportunity would never occur again. I lived  as an expat, met and married, became a husband and a father, and moved on to Canada before returning to the U.S.

My life in Japan was not so very different from the usual foreigner’s experience of teaching conversational English, editing such textbooks, working at an English-language newspaper, making ends meet. I have no gift for learning a foreign language, so I coped with poor Japanese language skills, but a keen ear and willingness to learn goes a long way.

One of the clearest, lasting memories I have is sitting in a park and watching a grandfather mind his granddaughter, who could not have been more than two years of age. As I looked around at the people in the park,  I realized that people are the same the world over: grandparents love their grandchildren; parents scold their children, then hug the life out of the little dears. Teenagers seek out their own kind, finding independence in groups. Housewives gossip, commuters trudge along, students dream of school’s end.

A story of my days in Japan has survived many reincarnations, and one character is now the protagonist of a mystery series set in Tokyo. Police inspector Shig Sato is  facing a retirement he does not want. Thanks to his loyal friends, he survives his last month on the job before he must confront life in retirement as a private investigator.

The first book in the Shig Sato series will appear as an ebook this month. You’re invited to check it out.

Have you ever lived overseas? What lasting impressions do you have?