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Vol. 3, No. 4

Hiropon My Heroine
by Roland Kelts

~

At the hotel in Osaka, moonlight filters through a floor-to-ceiling window. Eve and I stand before it, naked, her back against my chest, my hands on her small warm stomach. We look down to the Japanese garden below--the elegant landscaping of white stones, tidy islands of sculpted trees illuminated by a string of rice lanterns. In the middle is an oblong pool, pitch black but for the candy-colored carp flickering in their schools.
    "Does Hiro know I'm with you?" I ask.
    She is silent for a moment. "Yes. Of course, he does."
    Lovemaking with Eve happens in movements, slow and deliberate at first, like we're searching each other's bodies for signs of who we were, who we've become. We are reclaiming each other physically, and I find myself shaking a little as I touch her, nervous, ecstatic. On the smooth sheets I press my nose to her stomach, my tongue to the soft indentations around the ridges of her ribs. Her breasts look translucent in the glow from the window. Their warmth against my cheeks makes me want to confess a lifetime of delirious sins and failings, a sadness welling from somewhere within. I kiss her moist brow and then the little bump high on her nose. She runs her hand through my hair.
    "You know, I knew there was some reason," she says, scanning my face as I hover above.
    "For what?"
    She touches the arc of her nose. "He suggested I lose this, straighten it out. He offered money for the surgery."
    The flash of horror on my face makes her laugh deep in her chest, a rounded, well-fed sound. Her shiny nipples quiver in the light, still wet from where I've licked them.
    "Now," she says, reaching down, grabbing me firmly. "Now I know."

 

~

I meet Hiro in a club in downtown Osaka, well after midnight. Takashimaya or something is his last name. Takarazuka. Toyota.
    In the cab Eve apologizes. "He assured me I was free tonight," she says. "He knew it was important to me. Said he had his own people to see anyway."
    We'd been in bed, asleep and entwined, when her pocket phone rang. I wanted to smash the thing with a ball-peen hammer.
    We are meeting in a place called the Grand Café, a quasi-posh underground bar open all night, art deco, with black-and-white fashion-model pix on every wall. The place is thick with Euro wanna-bes in Italian suits, mod fashions--well-dressed, haughty young Japanese whose faces say they could give a shit for anything past their fine-tuned noses.
    Hiro himself, his hair gray and clipped, wears Armani.
    He materializes beside us at the entrance, before we've even had a chance to engage the maître d', and lays his arm around Eve's shoulder with a practiced, regal calm. She squeezes my hand before letting go.
    "Rudy desu," she says to him, extending her hand toward me and bowing her head slightly. "And Rudy," she says to me, overbright, cheery and forceful: "This is Hiro. Takeshi-san."
    The barest incline of Hiro's head shows that he sees me. His face is sun washed and shiny, his smile tight.
    "How do you do," I say, and his smile widens a fraction.
    We walk to a conspicuously empty leather banquette against the far wall. This is a movie, I think to myself. Hiro affects the gentle sway of an epic godfather, but he is too short to pull it off, and instead might be said to waddle slightly. Not until we reach the booth do I realize that an entire crew of men accompanies us, all of them directly behind me, single file, soundless. They fill in the spaces around Hiro and Eve with deft speed.
    I am left to locate a stool on my own, which I do with the help of a waitress in a fishnet blouse and stiletto heels. The stool sets me three inches lower than the rest of them. I feel like a serf facing trial.
    "They like your hair," Eve says from across the table. "They say it's kawaii--cute, pretty."
    I reach up to touch it, an off-brown mop I've never known how to comb.
    Hiro and the two guys nearest him laugh, then the other guys, and finally I do, though I don't feel like it. One of the guys giggling loudest looks like the one who peered around the door frame the other night, but I'm not sure. That was Tokyo.
    I cast a glance at Eve and her smile looks pained to me, stiff and worried.
    The same waitress returns, bearing a computerized keypad in one hand. Eve orders with what sounds like accentless fluency, and in a second the waitress is back again with our drinks. Everyone gets a Chivas Regal except Eve, who has a Cosmopolitan.
    While Eve and Hiro converse in low-toned Japanese and the henchmen stare into space, I sip the whiskey and scan the crowd. There are, in fact, a lot of older men in here with younger women. I turn back to our banquette. Eve's eyes are wide and Hiro is making a point, stabbing his index finger into the surface of the table.
    "Hey," I say, and everyone looks at me. Hiro's face creases with shock and annoyance.
    Eve says, "Sumimasen," in a quavery, high-pitched voice. "Excuse us, everyone."
    The two of them rise and step around the table, the hired hands standing immediately to let them by. I try to follow but I can't get out of my crouch. A guy I hadn't noticed before has his hand clamped to my shoulder. His fingers feel welded there. He is standing behind me, so I look back and up at him. I recognize his face, the sliver I saw at the door that night, the sliver that disappeared fast.
    "Okay?" he says dully.
    I give him a universal thumbs-up.
    Hiro and Eve are over by the toilets. Eve is gesticulating dramatically. She keeps brushing her hair back over her shoulder and it keeps falling forward, as if it were rigged to do so. Then they round another corner where I can't see them.
    I sip my drink. I wait. The sinuous music keeps bubbling on. The big boys stare.
    When she returns her eyes dance frantically. She pushes past the men before they have a chance to stand, stumbling over their legs. She grabs her purse and her thigh-length leather coat and says, "We're leaving, Rudy. Ima."
    I stand, half expecting another metallic grip to sit me down again. "Are you all right?"
    From across the room I see Hiro. He is glaring at me now, stroking his chin with one hand. I look back at him, nod, wave. He just glares.
    "Rudy," Eve says. "Listen to me. We've gotta get out of here. We've gotta do it now, quickly and without a scene."
    "Whoa, whoa," I say, palms open as I follow her. "Eve?"
    We weave around the tables and push past the lines at the door. Eve hands crumpled yen bills to a driver who beelines it to Osaka station, chuckling as he ignores a series of red lights.
    We make the first express run to Tokyo, 5:34 a.m., Japan time.
    "You know," she says, chest heaving as she grips the armrests, "you don't call the police on men like him if you're people like us." She shakes her head.
    "What are you telling me?"
    "They're closing in. On Kazu."
    "Closing in?"
    "Maybe Veronica, too. We gotta tell them both. Your stuff still there? We have to get it and get to the airport."
    She grabs my face, kisses me hard.

 

~

When we arrive in Tokyo, Eve bounds off the train, down the escalators and massive concrete stairs. She hails a cab at the curb. "Come on," she yells back.
    We wind down the twisting canals of Shibuya saying nothing. I grip her hand in my sleepless daze, my fingers stroking her knuckles the way she did mine just days ago.
    As the cab idles in traffic Eve outlines the basic scheme: classic blackmail. Kazu accessing poorly secured databases from a tatami room stuffed with consoles and fax machines and televisions in Shinegawa, a ward near the bay. Passing on the info to Hiro and Co., who threaten revelation, persecution, open shaming--a breach of the critical split between private and public spheres in Japan, a breach worthy of suicide. The corrupt CEO or errant merchant or lowly salaryman pays his dues, up to millions of yen, to keep the truth disguised. At Veronica's building the cab's auto-doors stick. Eve kicks hers open.
    "Go," she says. "I'll wait here in the car."
    "Why?"
    "I want to watch the doors while you're up there. Just hurry. Get your stuff." She grabs my hand. "Trust me, okay?"
    In the elevator I remember the night with Veronica, the way she brought us together, her quick and easy flirtations. Suddenly she seems like an emissary from another world. I picture her packing her knapsack and making for the door, telling me to call Max. My right hand trembles. I shove it into my pocket.
    I hear the thumps about three doors down from Veronica's. In the sunlit air of the terrace walkway I freeze, grabbing a stucco wall beside me. It sounds like furniture being moved around, someone redecorating or hanging plants, albeit a little roughly. I crouch down against the wall. I think momentarily of the elevator, of getting back to it, but I resist the urge. There are curt utterances of Japanese coming from Veronica's door. Hard consonants, short vowels. Spat from the front of the mouth.
    The thumping continues. I can't stand it and want to hear it at the same time. Then the noise goes dead. Silence. I move forward a step, think better of it, stay.
    The door opens fast. Two men in jumpsuits step out, a company insignia emblazoned across their backs. SKY TV. One of the men is the fat guy who interrupted my dance with Eve at the first party. The moment I recognize him is the moment he sees me. His brows arch slightly.
    He takes fast, short strides toward me and I stand. We look at each other. The other guy behind him shouts: "Dam-eh!"
    No? Stop? I brace myself for a fist or a handgun, some kind of vicious assault, but the fat guy just stares at me, then spits at my feet.
    "Fohck you," he says. And I nod approvingly.
    They both walk past me to the elevator, making a show of their calm strut.
    A note with my name on it is taped to Veronica's door. I tuck it into my pocket, fit the key Veronica gave me, but the door is unlocked.
    Kazu's body inside the apartment is remarkable for its cleanliness. He is bruised a little, but no blood. He lies supine on Veronica's futon, stretched flat, one hand curled around a mug of tea. Hiropon and her milk-tied breasts are on the floor mats, not far from Kazu's splayed fingers.
    You'd have to look closely, as I do, deep into the swirls of green leaves suspended in the cooling mug, to see the something impure in it: the something white and powdery, something that doesn't belong where it is. The commotion was the act of restraining him. They had to hold Kazu down to kill him. Keep him from rising.
    "Oh, God," Eve says behind me. "Jesus Christ, Rudy."
    I look back at her as she leans into me, perspiring, breathing in deep gulps of air. "Kazu," she says, gripping my arm with the strength of anger and sorrow--and fear.

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