(Another chapter from The Thief’s Mistake, Book 2 in the the Shig Sato Mystery series, available in ebook soon.)
Shig 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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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?”
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.”
“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.’”
“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?”
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.
“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.”
“And we’re getting inquiries.”
“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.”
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.”
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.