Kenji Ota didn’t fit the description of a bloodthirsty killer. Upon meeting him, it would be difficult to believe he’d gotten away with murdering at least twenty-five men. He was intelligent, intuitive and physically attractive. His black hair was kept short and neat, and from the professional manner in which he dressed and carried himself, he could have been mistaken for a television announcer or successful business executive. He socialized in mixed circles – with stockbrokers, politicians and street-smart hoodlums alike – and his charming, larger-than-life personality drew the attention of women everywhere. However, after meeting Mariko Abe, his taste in the fairer sex had been spoiled forever. No one in his mind would ever compare to Kyoto’s most beautiful geisha or be foolish enough to keep her away from him.
At 8:45 P.M., he stepped inside RAIN, one of the hottest nightclubs in Japan’s Roppongi district with his face hidden behind a katou anime mask. He knew only the “big” people in Tokyo could gain access to this place, and at the age of 29, he was already considered one of the largest. His loyalty to his yakuza family, the Zakura-kai, carried great weight and had earned him three rankings within the Japanese syndicate: Kaito Mitsui’s body guard, his personal advisor, and captain of his own crew of soldiers. Yet his hard-earned promotions were not the result of monies earned, smart business dealings or his ability to entice new, ambitious recruits. They came as the result of his eight-year incarceration on behalf of his boss for a botched extortion scam.
With renewed interest in the noisy scene before him, Kenji pulled off his mask and tucked it into his black studded belt. He ran his hand across the back of his sweaty neck – the irritating result of another muggy August night. Unlike the devoted men in his crew, he shied away from solid black suits by wearing tight jeans and a loose white shirt most days. And although the police had released him only four days earlier, across his back he carried a red wakazashi– a lethal 31” sword.
Associates who were below Kenji’s rank moved quickly aside and bowed in respect as he passed. On more than one occasion he’d proven himself a deadly adversary with his sweeping blade, the most memorable occurring ten years earlier. Boss Mitsui had called a meeting between Katsu Nagura and all the underbosses in the Zakura-kai to discuss territorial issues. Foolishly, Nagura had challenged their supreme leader, bringing him to his feet.
“You’re not even worth killing! You stupid ingrate!” Kaito Mitsui yelled at the top of his lungs.
Dedicated to his mission to protect his boss at any cost, Kenji appeared in front of Nagura in the blink of an eye. He whipped out his sword and slashed the yakuza boss’s face twice across both cheeks. Within seconds, four of his men jumped in and were dropped to their knees with gaping wounds and severed arteries. The ones that could stand scrambled to get out of there. The two that couldn’t were carried off and deposited in a common grave. Strangely, the whereabouts of these men were of no interest to local officials or members of Nagura’s group. Kenji was never confronted for his part in the bloody incident and was left to conduct business as usual in the Zakura-kai with the same unaffected attitude he exhibited tonight.
As he neared the DJ’s booth, the base-infused rock music grew louder. Hundreds of bodies were bouncing to the techno beat. Dresses were shimmering beneath flashing strobe lights and the surrounding bar was filled three deep with thirsty customers. By Kenji’s estimate, it was unusually busy for a Monday night, even with the discounted drinks and Rockabilia theme.
While he continued to eye the club’s glitzy interior, contemplating owning it one day, two girls crossed the dance floor and were heading straight for him. “Ken-chan, come dance with me,” the girl in the skimpy red dress called out. She was swaying her hips to the music provocatively and angling a come-hither look. Her friend in a micro blue skirt joined in, matching her move for move. In his book, with their thigh-high stockings and hemlines barely covering their assets, they looked like Sasebo bargirls. But another quick look around convinced him they weren’t alone in their meat market attire.
“You promised last time,” the girl in red persisted.
Right. Kenji feigned a smile. He knew these girls belonged to Tak – a “family” member who enjoyed cheap whores and spending his money in by-the-hour love hotels.
“He’s not interested in you,” the other girl said, tugging at his arm. “He promised to dance with me. Right, Kenji?”
He didn’t, of course. He had better things to do and would have remembered if he’d made a promise to anyone…especially these two. He pulled his arm free with little effort. “Sorry, Tak’s waiting. Maybe another time.” Kenji could hear their annoying little whines as he stepped away. Hustlers like these were more disappointed in the watered-down drinks you didn’t buy them than the time you weren’t willing to spare.
He edged his way around the crowd and spotted his friend at the back of the room. As usual, the acme-scarred rebel was holding court in one of the club’s high-back chairs with drinks on the table and two girls seated before him hanging on every word.
As he drew near, Tak’s eyes lifted. “Hey, man! Been waiting for you. What took you so long?” Unlike most of the people Kenji socialized with, Takashi Bekku lacked proper manners. He was slow at paying tabs unless there was someone at the table he needed to impress. Although he was street smart, his education ended at junior high. The knife scars on his arms and cheek came from his father and not from gang members as his girlfriends were lead to believe. But despite it all, Kenji Ota valued their friendship and was confident that if worse came to worst, Takashi would be there for him – watching his back all the way.
“Sorry I’m late,” Kenji said. “I had some business to take care of.” He pulled up an empty chair and two new girls came over to join them. They giggled, prattled away and padded his shoulder, but he paid them no mind.
By the look of excitement in Tak’s eyes, he knew exactly what Kenji was talking about. Earlier that night, Mitsui-san had ordered a hit on Nobu Kimura. He was a retired detective who had spent half his life trying to bring down the Zakura-kai. The man was clever, considering he was old, half blind, and favored a leg from a childhood injury. But he was also brazen and secretly corrupt. He had raided their clubs, planted wires and hassled their business associates. He even went so far as to interrupt the boss’s birthday party just when his cake arrived. All because Mitsui refused to drop a dime – hand him a boss on a silver platter to make him look good with his department heads.
Of course, it came as no surprise when Kenji got the order to get rid of him. Yet the recollection left him grimacing. He didn’t mind taking care of the competition or squirrely guys in the organization, but this was different. Kimura was an outsider, a well-known official people were likely to miss.
Tak was grinning over the top of his drink. “So how’d it go? As good as I’m guessing?”
Kenji glanced away, recalling the white bathroom’s blood-splattered walls. He grew anxious and started bouncing his heel under the table. Like chewing on fingernails, he found it hard to sit still and not move when surrounded by people.
“C’mon, gimme the gory details,” his friend insisted.
Kenji leaned in and lowered his voice. “I sliced his neck from ear to ear like I’m gonna do yours if you don’t shut up.”
Tak laughed and slapped his fist into his hand. “Aw, man! Nice. Quick death. Now if it was me, I would’ve delivered slow torture.”
“Yeah, that sounds like you. Anyway, you didn’t ask me to come here to discuss Kimura. There must be something else on your mind, right?”
The girl on his left handed him one of the beers from the table. He nodded his thanks and twisted off the cap. After a long pull, he sat back and waited for Tak’s answer. “I heard Satoru Yamada hooked up with an American treasure-hunting company and is flying in from Los Angeles tonight. The lead diver showed up three days ago and has been real tight with your sister Yuki ever since. They’ve been buying gear and going to libraries…checking out history and treasure-hunting shit. No one seems to know much, but I got a good feeling about this one.”
Kenji listened closely, thoughtfully nodding.
“Anyway, it turns out this guy has been trying to line up a dive boat. Since you got one stored in that marina you own, this could be your chance to pull in some real dough…maybe even throw a few crumbs my way.”
Kenji snorted a laugh. “Yeah, right. What else do you know?”
“They’re getting together for a meeting on Friday night and Yamada invited that geisha Mariko Abe to join him. He was checking out rings before leaving town. Before the night’s over, they might be celebrating more than a partnership.”
Shit. Kenji swallowed hard. He lowered his crossed arms but managed to keep his eyes level, knowing the slightest sign of weakness could undermine his position. “Is that it?” he asked.
“So far. I’m going to do a little more snooping around to see if there’s anything worthwhile to report. Just wanted to give you a head’s up.”
Ah…now it made sense. The real reason Tak had called and insisted he show up. It wasn’t about his sister forming an alliance with Yamada. They’d been friends for years and were always covering for each other. But when it came to his boss, if the American was here to recover something of value, stealing it and handing it over to Mitsui could result in gaining his favor. Maybe even expedite a promotion.
“So, where’s this meeting going to take place?” Kenji asked. “If it’s anywhere near the Tanahashi mansion, you won’t make it in there alive. There are hundreds of guards surrounding that place. You’ll be cut into tiny pieces if you take one step on their ground.”
Tak was quick with a comeback. “No way in hell. You think I’m stupid? My connection at the Garden restaurant said they’re due at 6:30.”
“Fancy. Yamada must’ve swindled some rich gaijins out of their money,” Kenji said. “So you got any idea what they’re after?”
Tak half shrugged. “Not a clue.”
“Well, if you hear anything, I’d be interested in knowing.”
“Sure, you got it. Anyway, I’m thinking of crashing their party.”
Kenji huffed a laugh. “Why would you do that?”
“First hand information, of course.”
“Well, good luck with that.” Kenji stood up and started to leave.
Tak reached out and grabbed his arm. “Wait a minute! I need your help.”
“No way. It doesn’t matter how much I hate Yamada, I’m not going anywhere near him. Not without the boss’ say-so.”
Tak’s eyes narrowed. “Whatever I find out could benefit the Zakura-kai,” he reminded him.
It was no secret Kenji would do anything for the family: infiltrate investment companies, circulate meth, demand protection money…even destroy their enemies should he be called upon to do so. And even though friendships were short-lived, they were equally important. He didn’t want to waste the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Too many years had been spent that way.
Kenji heaved a sigh. If he didn’t go along to keep Takashi Bekku out of trouble, the next execution order he received could have his name written all over it. “All right,” he finally said. “What do you want me to do?”
“You’ll love it. I picked up a wig and borrowed some women’s clothes. I heard they’re looking for wait staff, so I thought we’d sneak into the restaurant pretending to be servers.”
Kenji unleashed a cynical laugh. “You’re kidding, right? Women’s clothes? And who do you think is going to wear those?”
Tak’s brow furrowed. “You got a better idea?”
“As a matter of fact I do.” Kenji thought about Yamada and Mariko, and the promise he made to himself to never let anyone have her…especially that ridiculous self-serving monk. “I might have to clean out half my bank account before I’m through,” he said, “but in the end, it will all be worth it.”
* * *
The doorbell buzzed again. Kenji laughed and walked to the front door of his apartment with his towel draped over his shoulder and his white shirt unbuttoned. He was getting ready to tell Takashi he wasn’t interested in his stupid plan or in hearing more about the container he was in the process of loading. But by the time he’d pulled the knob and begun to swing the door open, he realized he really didn’t know who was on the other side and almost slammed the door in the face of a nerdy-looking guy.
“Kenji Ota? I’m here about a plumbing issue. Sorry, am I interrupting?”
What the hell. Kenji looked him up and down. “Yes to the first, no to the second,” he said sternly. The guy had brownish hair, which was scattered ambiguously about his head. His face was freckled and he appeared to be middle-aged with neither the build nor the dress of a yakuza gang member. All and in, he looked perfectly harmless. Still, Kenji reflected, so had the others.
“I’m in charge of maintenance,” the man explained. “My name is Daiichi Asano. As you may know, there have been some concerns about possible water leakage in the building. We’re having a terrible time trying to find the source, though, and we’re reduced to looking at any suspect blip in our readings, no matter how insignificant. Uh, have you noticed anything leaking in your apartment?”
“I was using the shower earlier,” Kenji said. “Would that do it?”
Daiichi sighed. “Ah, yes. I believe it would.” He fiddled with the seam in his pants, then seemed to notice himself and swiftly placed his hand in his back pocket.
“Did you want something else?” Kenji said.
“Well…I know this is a bit of a bother, but might I take a look around, just for appearance sake? If I can’t tell my boss I gave this an inspection, even a cursory one, he’ll have my head.”
Kenji hesitated, but decided that he might as well let the man take a look rather than arouse any kind of suspicion, however small. “Sure, help yourself,” he said.
Before Daiichi could respond, Kenji immediately walked into the kitchen. He took Kimura’s watch from the counter where he had left it and slipped it into his back pocket. When he looked up, Daiichi was peering around the corner, scrutinizing his movements.
“You keep this place pretty neat.”
“Well, you know…confirmed bachelor here,” he said with forced cheer.
The man nodded and flashed a wry smile, showing he didn’t have a clue. He followed Kenji through the kitchen and looked around. Surprisingly, his gaze passed over a steak marinating on the counter and the diamond-inlaid tanto knife Kimura had confiscated from a local hood – the same one Kenji had reclaimed on his sister’s behalf and intended to flaunt at their next meeting.
“Getting dinner ready?” Daiichi asked.
“Yeah. I hope you’re not planning on joining me.”
The man turned away with no comment. He stepped into the living room and didn’t seem to find anything of interest. Then he took a quick peek into the bedroom before withdrawing into the hallway.
“Well, I think we’re good here,” he said, smiling the wide smile of someone who didn’t really want to be there.
Kenji nodded and smiled back. He walked toward the entry and waited for Daiichi to follow. But as the inspector passed by the bathroom, he halted. “Oh, mustn’t forget!” he said.
Before Kenji could stop him, Daiichi ducked inside and took a look around. Kenji rushed after him, thinking up distractions. By the way the man was staring, it was obviously too late.
“What on earth is this?” he asked.
Wrong question, Kenji thought. The sudden urge to take this little man and put his head through the wall was threatening his self-control.
“I don’t believe it!” Daiichi said. “Have you been washing clothes in here?”
Kenji had the sense to look at the ground, feigning deference and biting the corner of his lip to hide the smile that was threatening to break out. “Yes, “he managed at last. “As a matter of fact, I have. Exactly. God, how embarrassing.”
“Mr. Ota, while I doubt that this habit of yours has anything to do with the water leaks, it sure isn’t helping to prevent them. We have industrial washing machines in the basement to take care of your laundry needs. Why don’t you use them instead of wasting water and doing this in your own home?”
While he was talking, Kenji had been staring at him, but now he glanced back at the pile of clothes in time to notice a tiny thread of blood weaving its way down the drain.
Daiichi’s eyes were stretched wide in horror.
Great. Kenji sensed that he was about to say something that would undoubtedly evoke a negative reaction. His faithful wakazashi was still hanging on the back of the bathroom door. It would only take two seconds to grab it. One quick swing and this annoying little creep would be silenced forever.
“Oh, that,” Kenji said, tracing his line of vision.
Daiichi tilted his chin. “Exactly. What’s been going on here?”
“Relax, Mr. Asano. I work part-time as a butcher. I ripped a carcass wide open earlier today and had to rush home to change for a date. Normally, I wear an apron when I work…especially when there’s a mess to clean up. But as you can tell, I left everything in the wash.”
Daiichi’s eyes dropped to Kenji’s ripped abs and the claw marks tattooed on his chest. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down with audible swallows. “Right…okay…great. I think we’re done here,” he said. “But if this happens again, I…well, never mind. Just finish what you need to get done.”
“Thank you,” Kenji said, smiling. “I always do.”
He shut the door behind the maintenance inspector and peered through the keyhole. As soon as Daiichi was out of sight, he leaned against the wall. This time it had been a little too close. His confidence was making him bold and careless. But at least now, he had a faithful ally – someone who would vouch for his innocence, if it ever came to that.
Kenji wiped his damp forehead with the towel from his neck. He went into the bedroom and mused over how easy it was to convince feeble-minded people of anything. Their blind faith wouldn’t allow them to see the worst in mankind. He knelt down in front of his clothes cupboard, opened it and reached deep inside, grabbing hold of a small box hidden behind his shoes and spare arsenal. It was heavy, and its contents clinked as he pulled it out. He removed its lid and dropped the watch on top of all the others. Then he stood back and looked into the sink mirror.
“Hmmm…how sad,” Kenji said aloud. “People just have too much faith these days.”