Late Thursday night
Cherry stumbled out of the elevator into the pulsing neon beat of Club Nova. Safe.
The host club was still crowded, even though it was past midnight. Overhead, thousands of tiny lights twinkled, imitating the night sky. Mirrored walls overlaid with ornate gold script reflected the dark leather banquettes and multiplied the “stars.” Light pooled on the alabaster tables, illuminating the sparkle of bubbles rising in champagne flutes, while leaving the hosts and their adoring customers in shadowy privacy. Pop music throbbed, masking intimate conversations.
“Cherry-san? Are you all right?” the host on doorman duty asked, steadying her and peering at the smudged mascara under eyes still puffy from crying.
Stepping back, she hastily covered the bruises on her arms with her wrap. “Thanks, Shinya, I will be, after I freshen up. Is Hoshi…?”
“I’ll tell him you’re here.”
When she emerged from the ladies’ room five minutes later, broken nail filed, makeup repaired, still limping a little, Shinya was waiting patiently with a hot towel for her hands. Hoshi must still be busy. She swallowed her disappointment, knowing he’d come as soon as he was free. Meanwhile, she didn’t mind having a drink with Shinya, who was almost as attractive as her favorite. He smiled and escorted her into the club, where every table was occupied by women spending lavishly on dandies so handsome and charming they could make as much in a month as a salaryman earned in a year.
“Hoshi will be here soon,” he apologized, ushering her to a table and seating himself at her side. “In the meantime…?” He cocked an eyebrow at her, asking what she’d like to drink.
Cherry watched him mix her shō-chū and water, his elegant gestures making an art of the preparation. Offering it with a bow, Shinya made one for himself, then pulled out his silver lighter when he saw her digging for her Lucia Menthols. Flicking it to life near his chest, he extended it with practiced grace. Flame licked the end of her cigarette.
After her first calming puff, she began to relax. Only women were welcome at host clubs; if her pursuer had managed to follow her, he wouldn’t make it past Taiyo, who’d taken Shinya’s place at the door. And soon Hoshi would be sitting next to her, chasing away the nightmare of the past two hours.
He was the only man she’d ever met who didn’t take and take and take. Hoshi was never too preoccupied to notice she’d picked out her dress especially for him, never too tired to listen to how much it hurt when Manager-san criticized her in front of her co-workers. He’d ignore her bruises unless she mentioned them, but if she did, Hoshi would never say, “People who play with fire should expect to get burned.” He never made her lie to him, never asked questions she didn’t want to answer. From the moment Hoshi sat down with her, she’d be the center of his universe.
Cherry closed her eyes and leaned back against the banquette. Safe. At Club Nova she could shut out all her troubles, at least for a little while.
Friday, November 8
Tokyo Metropolitan Police Detective Kenji Nakamura looked away, embarrassed. The victim’s panties were showing, an unnecessary humiliation on top of the indignity of death. Resisting the urge to twitch her dress down over her underwear, he hoped the crime techs would arrive soon. They’d prop up screens to shield her from view before taking photos and examining her.
The sun hadn’t yet climbed over the rooftops of the hodgepodge of buildings lining this narrow backstreet. Most were faced with grimy tile or graying stucco, built right after the war when cheap Western-style construction meant modern and forward-thinking. A groggy husband with pajamas poking out the bottoms of his trousers trudged by in the dim gray dawn, pulled along by a tiny terrier. It made a beeline for the body at the bottom of the stairs, but the man pulled it back without looking up as he shuffled zombie-like toward the vending machine at the end of the block, drawn by the siren call of hot canned caffeine.
Lights glowed behind only a handful of windows; it was too early for most residents to be up. Kenji had been awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the duty officer’s call, slumped over his Police Inspector Exam Study Guide at the kitchen table. His body still ached from sleeping in such an uncomfortable position, and even the satisfaction of wearing his new spring suit, tailored to fit his tall frame, didn’t make up for the fact that he’d yet to have his own cup of tea. The lazy dark eyes that made women look twice when he walked into a room just felt tired and itchy this morning. He rubbed them and stifled a yawn.
A doghouse-sized Shinto shrine sat on a granite plinth next to the victim’s apartment building, guarded by inari foxes so ancient their crafty stone features were worn smooth. The sasaki branches in its vases were fresh, though, and several mismatched glasses of saké had been left as offerings. Residents of this quiet neighborhood still clung to the old ways; rents were equally old-fashioned. But that alone didn’t explain why a girl who looked like she worked in the red light district of Kabuki-chō had died several stops down the Yamanote Line in Komagome.
Kneeling briefly before the body, Kenji folded his hands in a moment of respectful silence, then stood and straightened his jacket. Pushing back the wings of his thick black hair, he rescued the officer who’d been first on the scene from the talkative apartment manager who’d discovered the body.
Bowing, he showed his police ID. “I’m Detective Kenji Nakamura, from Komagome Station.” Turning to the to the beat officer, he asked, “Are you the one who called in the incident?”
“Hai.” The young man returned Kenji’s bow and stood at attention. He couldn’t be more than 19 or 20, still living at home, his uniform shirt laundered and ironed by his mother. The way he avoided looking at the girl at the bottom of the stairs told Kenji this might be the first dead body he’d ever seen.
The apartment manager was a different story. The corpse on her doorstep was clearly the most exciting thing that had happened to her since the war. Her unnaturally black hair was granny-permed, brushed back from her forehead over a lined face that had shrunk to a surprisingly accurate twin of the speak-no-evil monkey carving at the Komagome shrine.
“What time did you discover the victim?” Kenji asked.
“5:07 a.m.,” the old woman answered, stealing a glance at the girl. “She was lying just like that when I came out to sweep the steps. I try to tidy things up and freshen the offerings at the shrine before the neighborhood starts stirring, but these days…well, some of my tenants work very strange hours.” She leaned toward Kenji and whispered. “Every once in a while they come home just as I’m getting up, and not always sober. Even the girls.”
She straightened and continued, “I watch all the detective dramas on TV, so I knew not to touch the body, even though her unmentionables were showing. I expect you’ll need me to come down to the station this morning to give you my fingerprints, and as for my alibi…”
Kenji held up a hand and said, “Thank you, Manager-san, but I think that can wait. I do need to ask you a few questions, though, if you don’t mind.” He took out his notebook. “Do you know the victim?”
“Sakura Endo, apartment 201. First door at the top of the stairs. Seemed like a nice girl, always paid her rent on time, but…” She pursed her lips. “Goes out dressed like that. Not surprising she got into trouble, is it?”
“What do you mean ‘trouble’?”
“If murder isn’t trouble, I don’t know what is!”
Kenji turned to look at the girl crumpled at the foot of the concrete steps. This didn’t look like a homicide; it looked like an accident. Her bleached, elaborately curled hair and short dress identified her as a kyabajō, one of the glamorous young women who spun youth into gold at a hostess bar. But despite her employment in the mizu shōbai entertainment world, he’d be very surprised if someone had killed her. Murder was rare in Japan, and usually the work of a drunken family member who sobered up the next day, was smitten with remorse, and confessed.
Dark stairs plus spike heels plus the cocktails she drank while entertaining customers most likely added up to an unfortunate tumble. Her white chiffon dress had snagged on a step and hiked up on one side. She’d lost one dangling cherry earring and a pointy-toed gold shoe. Blood matted the girl’s hair and trickled down the steps, pooling in a teardrop-shaped pockmark in the pavement. Her skillful make-up gave the impression of beauty, but she’d covered up a small mole on her chin, her eyes were a little too close together, and she’d probably been in the habit of flirtatiously holding her hand up to cover her mouth when she laughed, concealing the crooked front teeth that now showed between her parted lips.
What a shame. She looked barely old enough to drink, let alone die. He turned back to the building manager. “Did you hear her fall?”
“No. My apartment is down there, on the other side of the building.” She pointed to the far corner.
Further questions were postponed by the arrival of a white van. It rolled to a stop and a lanky foreigner jumped from the passenger side, cradling a digital camera. “Nakamura-san, o-hisashiburi desu,” he greeted Kenji in perfect Japanese. Long time no see.
The old woman’s jaw dropped. Even Kenji was still startled when he heard the red-haired Australian crime tech speak Japanese like a native. The first time he’d met Tommy Loud, all he’d known about him was that the Superintendent General had foisted him on the northwest Tokyo crime lab because the SG’s daughter had defiantly run off and married this foreigner whose very name reinforced the Aussie stereotype. Once they’d worked together, though, Kenji discovered that Loud was not only technically meticulous, he was talented at getting around regulations when “the way things are done” got in the way of getting things done.
“Rowdy-san,” he said, mispronouncing Loud’s name in typical Japanese fashion. “Good to see you. It’s been a while.”
“What have we got this time?” the crime tech asked.
“Looks like an accident to me, but why don’t you take a look.”
Loud nodded, switched on his camera, and began photographing the body as his two blue-uniformed assistants erected the screens that would protect the victim’s privacy once the street began to wake up.
Kenji badly needed that cup of tea. Where was Assistant Detective Suzuki? He’d called him nearly half an hour ago. Suzuki had transferred with Kenji to the Komagome station last November, having graduated from university two years behind him on the same fast track to a high-ranking career in police administration. As his sempai mentor, Kenji’s job was to train the assistant detective and look out for his interests as they climbed the ladder together; in return, his kohai junior was expected to give him unquestioning loyalty and support.
“Good morning, Nakamura-san. Sorry it took me so long, sir.”
Finally. Despite the early hour, Suzuki arrived in an immaculately pressed suit, not one hair out of place because his monk-like haircut was so much shorter than the dress code demanded. He bowed deferentially, but stopped short of saluting. Suzuki had learned that observing the finer points of police regulations tended to piss off his superior early in the morning. He’d also learned what his sempai’s first request of the day would be. He dug into a plastic Family Mart bag.
“Dōzo,” he said, handing Kenji a bottle of hot green tea.
Kenji accepted it with thanks. Encouraged by his sempai’s civilized response, Suzuki ventured, “Looks like we finally have a real case to investigate, sir!”
“Looks like an accident,” Kenji corrected him, cracking open the seal on the tea bottle and downing a big slug.
Suzuki’s cheerfulness evaporated. It had been a slow month for crime and everyone on the squad was being given tedious busywork or loaned out to other divisions. Suzuki had been absent more than most, assigned to some project in Traffic Section, not exactly an elite career detective’s dream job.
Noting his kohai’s glum face, Kenji said, “Even accidents need to be investigated. Do you think Traffic Section can get along without you today?”
“Just today? You don’t think…?”
“Let’s see what Rowdy-san says after he examines the body.”
Kenji introduced Suzuki to the apartment manager, directing him to get contact information for the victim’s next of kin, then take the young officer who’d reported the body to canvass the other buildings on the block, to find out if anybody had witnessed Sakura Endo’s fall. Suzuki followed the manager toward her apartment, nodding politely as the old woman advised him how to run the investigation.
“Nakamura-san?” Tommy Loud appeared at his side.
Kenji capped his tea and followed the crime tech behind the screens, looking over Loud’s shoulder as he crouched next to the victim. He was relieved to see that the girl’s panties were no longer on view.
“She hasn’t been dead more than a few hours. Last night it got down to 58º, so I’d say she died sometime between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m.” He pointed to the faint dark splotches ringing her upper arm. “Judging by the development of these bruises, I’d guess she got them not too long before she died.” He gently brushed the milk-tea-colored ringlets away from her right cheek so Kenji could see the faint discoloration where he’d swabbed away her makeup. “This too. Looks to me like somebody slapped her around last night.”
The crime tech stood and folded his arms, considering the body. Then he looked up toward the second floor and squeezed past the sprawled figure. Slowly making his way up the stairs, he peered at each of the concrete steps.
“There’s blood here.” He pointed to a dark blotch on the scarred metal edge. “And here,” indicating another smear further up, leaving numbered tags to mark them for his assistants. He paused to look at the railing near the top, left another tag, then climbed the last few steps. The stairs ended at an outdoor hallway with three faded turquoise doors spaced along its length. Outside each apartment hung plastic frames fitted with miniature clothespins, the far one still festooned with an assortment of socks, t-shirts, and uniform pants, forgotten overnight and now damp with dew.
Loud stopped to examine something near the first apartment door. His camera flashed twice. He said something that was drowned out by the passing of a Yamanote Line train.
“Say again?” Kenji requested, when it was quiet.
“Fresh scuffs on the carpet up here,” Loud called down over the flaking metal railing. The camera flashed once more.
Kenji climbed the stairs and squatted down to look at the scrapes outside the door to apartment 201. A fight? He rang the bell at 202. No answer. He rang again. Nothing.
He moved on to 203. He was about to push the bell a second time when a bleary-eyed man with an unshaven face cracked open the door. Kenji identified himself and asked if he’d heard any noise last night, but wasn’t surprised when the man removed his earplugs and said no, he hadn’t heard a thing.
Kenji was making his way back to the stairs when a shriek from below pulled him to the railing. A schoolgirl had pushed past the police screens and stood, swaying, over the victim.
“No!” she wailed. Suzuki arrived one step behind and gently backed her away. She stood, weeping in earnest now, mascara-stained tears streaming down her plump cheeks. Kenji trotted down the stairs, carefully skirting the crime tech’s tags.
“Sorry, sir,” said Suzuki, letting go of her and stepping back. “I didn’t expect her to bolt like that. This is the victim’s roommate, Kiku Kimura.”
The hostess lived with a high school student? Then Kenji saw that although Kiku’s white sailor blouse resembled the uniforms worn by private school coeds, it was cropped short to expose a strip of smooth belly above a plaid, pleated skirt far too skimpy to pass any headmaster’s beady eye. Once-curled pigtails drooped alongside her round cheeks, tied with ribbons that matched her skirt. She was slightly pigeon-toed, a look accentuated by white knee socks that did nothing to slim her sturdy ankles. She must be in her late 20s, and there was only one reason she’d be dressed like that at her age. Fūzoku-jō. Sex worker.
“I’m sorry, Miss Kimura. This must be a shock for you,” Kenji said, steering her away from the body toward the crime scene van.
She climbed in and slumped in the passenger seat, hugging herself in the chilly morning air. Her weeping had subsided to sniffs and she wiped her face, leaving faint dark smears across her cheeks.
“Have you and Miss Endo known each other long?” Kenji asked.
The girl nodded, taking a shaky breath. “Since middle school. We grew up together in Chiba.”
“How long have you lived in Tokyo?”
“She came right after high school. Nine years ago. She wanted to sing in a band, but after a few months she got a job at Club Heaven to pay the rent. Pretty soon she was sending me pictures of the beautiful dresses she wore every night, telling me about the rich men who bought her drinks. I came a year later.”
“If she worked in Kabuki-chō, how did she end up living in Komagome?”
“It’s only an 20-minute train ride. A lot of hostesses live around here, because it’s cheaper and safer than the neighborhoods closer to work.”
“Do you work at Club Heaven too?”
“No.” She hung her head. “Love Train.”
Ah. Several rungs down from the hostess clubs, it was the most famous of the “train groping” bars. He’d never been to one, but he knew this particular niche of the sex trade catered to men who fantasized about molesting fellow commuters. For a price, customers could enter a room outfitted like a subway car – right down to the recorded station announcements and realistically vibrating floor – and fondle the women “passengers” to their hearts’ content. Schoolgirls were a popular fantasy.
“When was the last time you saw your roommate?”
“Last night before we both left for work. Around 6:00.”
“And you haven’t been home since?”
“No. My shift ended at 2:00 but I went out for a drink with someone afterwards.” She glanced at Kenji nervously. He wasn’t in the Public Morals section, so he ignored the fact that “drink” probably meant something kinkier and less legal.
“Your roommate, did she ever bring dates home after work? Any chance she wasn’t alone last night when she fell?”
“No. We never brought anyone from work to our apartment.” Fresh tears spilled down Kiku’s cheeks. “How can she be dead? Last night she said she might have some good news to tell me this weekend. She was wearing her lucky earrings!”
“Lucky earrings?” Kenji pictured the victim, a bunch of red fruit tangled in her hair.
“She bought them the day she got her job at Club Heaven. Her real name was Sakura,” Kiku explained, “but everyone called her Cherry.”
Afternoon sun streamed through the window above Section Chief Tanaka’s desk as Kenji tossed Cherry Endo’s administrative autopsy report into his in-box. He shrugged off his jacket, then reconsidered and put it back on. The “eco-policy” temperature setting didn’t cool the building nearly enough in summer or heat it quite enough in winter. Autumn had arrived with a vengeance in the Komagone Police Station squad room, and even criminals were avoiding being questioned in the too-chilly atmosphere; all three interview rooms on the squad room periphery were dark, the doors standing open.
Kenji was now into his third year as an elite career officer. Sent to Komagome Station last November after being promoted to detective, he’d been assigned a desk halfway between the elevators and Section Chief Tanaka’s, which overlooked the room from beneath the only window. The golf trophy Tanaka had won last spring as one of the Superintendent General’s foursome gleamed in the late-afternoon sun, its dust-free condition attesting to his success at climbing the ladder, both on and off duty. Next to Kenji, Detective Oki’s desk was cluttered with photos of his family and his judo students, including one of his teenage son bowing as he received his first-degree black belt.
Kenji’s desk was almost bare. The only personal item joining his standard-issue phone, computer and in-box was a worn Daruma saint that the girl he’d had a crush on since third grade had pressed into his hand last spring, at the conclusion of the case that brought them together again. It stared at him from the far edge of his desk with one black eye, the other still white because his wish hadn’t been granted yet. In March, Yumi was planning to tie the knot with the son of one of the richest and oldest families in Japan. Kenji sighed, wondering what she was doing right now.
Detective Oki took his seat, finishing up a phone call. “Thanks, Rowdy-san, he just walked in. I’ll have him call you.”
Oki ended the call, set his phone on his desk, and cracked his neck left and right, looking every inch the fifth degree judo black belt he was. Even taller than Kenji and twice as broad, Oki’s good-natured face often tricked suspects into making admissions they later regretted, never guessing that the big detective had been one year away from a degree in psychology before transferring to the police academy.
“Heard you caught an early one today,” he said. “Suspicious death?”
“Yeah. But the examining doctor at the morgue said it looked like an accident.”
“Rowdy-san doesn’t agree. That was him on the phone just now. He asked me to have you call when you got in.”
“Will do. Thanks, Oki-san.”
The doctor on morgue rotation at Komagome Hospital had performed a perfunctory administrative autopsy on Cherry Endo’s body. Because facilities and trained forensic specialists were scarce, fewer than ten percent of the 150,000 annual unexplained deaths in Japan received even that much attention. Suspicion of a crime was required to obtain a full judicial autopsy, and the examining doctor told Kenji he saw no reason to recommend one.
“Rowdy-san? It’s Nakamura.”
“That was fast. What did the doc say?”
“You don’t agree. Why?”
Kenji heard the rapid patter of computer keys. “I’m emailing you some photos,” said the tech.
Kenji woke up the laptop sitting on his desk. The first shot was a close-up of the victim’s right hand. Rows of white rhinestones winked atop long nails lacquered a glossy pink, but her index and middle fingers looked oddly maimed, the nails broken off short.
“See those two fingernail breaks?” Loud said. “The one on her index finger is ragged, looks freshly torn. She got that during her fall. But look at her middle finger. The nail is broken, but it’s been filed. That girl took a lot of care with her clothes and make-up; her manicure alone probably cost her ¥10,000. Ask her roommate, but she didn’t look like the type to go to work with a broken nail. She’d have put a temporary fake on the middle finger if she broke it before she went to the club last night.”
“How do you know so much about manicures?”
“Wife. I’m unfortunately also an expert on Louis Vuitton handbags.”
“So you think she broke that nail at work?”
“Or after work. Do you know if she came straight home?”
“No. I’ll have to get the section chief’s permission if we’re going to investigate further. And you can imagine how pleased Tanaka-san will be if this doesn’t turn out to be an accident.”
Loud laughed sympathetically. They both knew that if a death was ruled a homicide, the elite murder squad from the downtown Chiyoda Ward office would descend on the Komagome police station, taking over the facilities and using the local detectives as gofers and guide dogs. If the killer were caught, the elite squad would take the credit; if not, the local station’s initial investigation would be blamed. Section Chief Tanaka hated both scenarios, so convincing him to authorize an investigation into a death that even the morgue doctor thought was an accident would be a tough sell.
“Yeah. Her shoes were a mess. Both were scuffed and one heel was worn down to the nail. It looks to me like she did more than serve drinks in those Jimmy Choos last night. She put some miles on them.”
“Huh. Maybe that explains why the doc found fresh blisters on both feet.”
“One more thing. After you left with the body, we examined the blood on the stairs and calculated her trajectory. She must have fallen backward with some force and hit her head on the railing, then tumbled down, cracking her head once more before she came to rest at the bottom. The important thing is, she didn’t trip on her way up. She had to have fallen from the top in order to hit the railing the way she did.”
Kenji closed his eyes and pictured the scene. He remembered Loud’s camera flashing twice outside apartment 201. Fresh scuffs on the carpet. A fight?
“You think someone was waiting for her and pushed her.”
“You tell me.”
Kenji sighed. “I’ll talk to Tanaka.”
“It is deeply regrettable that the train will be delayed for a few more minutes….”
Yumi Hata checked her phone and groaned. They’d been sitting at the platform one stop from her destination for over five minutes now. There went the time she’d planned to use to change out of her brown and orange International Interpreting Company suit in the Ningyōchō station bathroom before meeting Ichiro and his friends for dinner. Tonight was the fifth – or was it the sixth? – in the whirlwind of invitations that suddenly materialized when a prominent family’s eldest son got engaged.
Yumi squinted into her purse mirror and used the delay to top up her mascara without fearing a bump in the tracks would turn her into a cyclops. She tried on a smile, hoping that Ichiro’s friends would think that the girl whose mouth turned up at the corners and whose eyes crinkled when she laughed looked like a suitable match for the heir to Japan’s biggest department store conglomerate. She wasn’t a classic Japanese beauty, but Ichiro Mitsuyama had chosen her over the 53 other eligible women his parents had approved as potential matches.
The train pulled away from the platform. Finally! She wouldn’t have time to change her clothes, but at least she could change her shoes. Rummaging in the shopping bag that held the dress she’d intended to wear, she pulled out her new flats and eased her feet into them, wincing. They were cute, but she’d had to buy a 24.5 – the largest size most stores carried – and they were a half-centimeter too short. Finding shoes that fit and pants that were long enough was a perpetual challenge in Japan. Her 5’7” height hadn’t been anything remarkable in America, but here she was not only a giant among women, she’d also tower over her fiancé if she wore even the lowest heels.
The train slowed to a stop at Ningyōchō and she leapt from the car, pulling out her phone. 6:56. Oh no, she was already late. In America she’d have been on time, but in Japan when an event was scheduled for 7:00, that really meant five minutes before.
She beeped her pass through the turnstyle and dashed up the steps, taking the next two blocks at a run. Rounding the corner, she spotted her fiancé waiting for her outside the restaurant, checking his messages.
“Sorry I’m late,” she gasped. “There was a delay on the Hibiya Line and…” He was staring at her suit, clearly wondering why she’d chosen something so hideous. “…I didn’t have time to change out of my work uniform.” She held up the shopping bag apologetically.
Ichiro let go of his irritation and replaced it with a smile. “It doesn’t matter. There won’t be anybody here tonight you don’t know.”
Relief. She hadn’t realized how much she’d been dreading trying to guess whether the person sitting next to her looked familiar because she’d met him before and forgotten his name, or because she’d seen him on TV last week.
Outlook improved, she followed Ichiro across the courtyard garden toward a glowing entry that promised traditional-style opulence inside. Her fiancé looked good tonight. He’d recently gotten new glasses and although his hair was conservatively black, he’d let her cajole him into a slightly edgier cut. Not that it mattered if he was fashionable or not – he was so confident of his place in the world, nobody ever noticed that he wasn’t tall or especially good-looking.
It still didn’t seem quite real that in a few short months she’d be putting on the three-layered kimono that had been worn by six generations of Mitsuyama brides. Her future husband was a perfect example of modern-day samurai manhood: Ichiro decided what he wanted and charged straight for it, including the business of finding a wife. She barely remembered meeting him when they were both studying overseas, but apparently he remembered her when he hit 30 and his parents began pressuring him to marry. He’d put her on the list of potential matches, and since she’d just broken up for the fourth time with her on-again-off-again foreign boyfriend, she’d allowed her mother to answer the preliminary questionnaire when it arrived. She never dreamed the Mitsuyamas would actually call. Her family was respectable enough, but Ichiro’s family had been wealthy and powerful since his ancestors opened their first store in the 1750s. He’d taken her out on four intense dates after their official o-miai introduction, then surprised her by proposing on the fifth. She’d surprised herself by accepting.
“Irasshaimase,” murmured the kimono-clad greeter at the door, bowing low as they exchanged their shoes for slippers. Her bush clover-patterned kimono swayed over the tatami mats as she led them through a series of hallways to a sliding door. Kneeling gracefully, she reached up to slide the panel aside.
“A private room?” Yumi raised her eyebrows. Ichiro held back, inviting her to enter first.
Yumi glimpsed a room peopled with smiling faces, before being blinded by the flashes from several cameras.
“Hap-py basu-day to you….”
Yumi looked behind her. Whose birthday was it? Ichiro was joining in the singing, grinning. Everyone was looking at her.
“Hap-py basu-day deah Yu-mi….”
What was going on? It wasn’t her birthday; her birthday was in February. Why were her parents and Ichiro’s family throwing her a surprise party in November?
Everyone burst into applause.
Mrs. Mitsuyama stepped forward and smiled at her future daughter-in-law. “Happy birthday, Yumi. Were you surprised? You didn’t suspect?”
“No, not at all,” she stammered truthfully, looking at her own family in bewilderment. Her father was grinning, but her mother dropped her gaze nervously.
“It was Ichiro’s idea,” Mrs. Mitsuyama beamed. “He told us that in America, it’s customary to celebrate birthdays with surprise parties.”
The serving woman returned with a bottle of champagne and poured.
Yumi smiled modestly as everyone drank to her health. Her mother was still avoiding her gaze. Why hadn’t she set Ichiro and his family straight when they proposed this party? Time to get an explanation before this got any worse.
Yumi set down her glass. “Excuse me,” she said, “Do you mind if I change into something a little more festive?” She picked up the shopping bag she’d brought. “Mother, do you think you could help me …?” Mrs. Hata had no choice but to follow her to the ladies’ room.
As the door thunked shut behind them, Yumi whirled around. “Okay, what’s going on?”
Her mother stepped up to the mirror and nervously adjusted a hairpin. “I’m sorry I didn’t explain before. There…never seemed to be a good time.”
“A good time for what?”
“Well…remember the o-miai questionnaire? Before I filled it out for you, I took it to Madame Lily.”
Yumi’s mother raised her chin defiantly and met her eyes in the mirror. “Madame Lily. You know, the astrologer near the train station. She’s quite gifted. People from all over Tokyo consult her. I knew that before Ichiro’s mother put you on the o-miai list, she’d check to see if your birthdays were compatible.”
“Oh no, let me guess….”
“Yours wasn’t. Not as good as someone looking for a wife for her eldest son would want.” Her mother looked away. “So I changed your birthday.”
Yumi opened her mouth but nothing came out. Her mother had lied about her birthday to Ichiro’s family! And now that they’d gone so far as to commemorate it with a surprise party, it would be impossible to set things straight. She’d have to live with this lie the rest of her married life.
Although Yumi and her friends thought it was nonsense, enough people believed in astrology to make it a still-powerful current in Japanese society. Even the distributors at the sprawling Tsukiji Fish Market knew that if an auspicious day fell on a Saturday in the springtime, they should triple their orders. Weddings, merger announcements, and store openings all crowded onto those days and the demand for certain kinds of good-luck seafood shot way up.
Yumi sputtered, “How could you?”
Mrs. Hata raised her chin defiantly. “How could I not? I was only thinking of you!”
Yumi glared at her, speechless. Her mother had spent the better part of her life worrying about the stalled career of her professor husband and the fact that their years in America had predisposed her daughter to choose unsuitable foreign boyfriends. From the moment the o-miai questionnaire arrived in the mail, her mother had been all too aware that a match with Ichiro Mitsuyama would solve all her problems.
And it looked like she’d been right. Yumi was convinced that her father’s recent elevation to a full professorship at Toba University had been the result of subtle pressures applied by Ichiro’s influential father. And soon, eccentric daughter Yumi would be kneeling in a venerable Shinto shrine, wearing a traditional white bridal hood and exchanging ritual cups of saké with a very conventional Japanese man from a very good family.
Mrs. Hata was unrepentant. “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. What does it matter, which day you celebrate your birthday? When I was a child, everyone turned a year older on January first and none of us thought it was a big deal.” She drew herself up. “And besides, if you’re going to have a good marriage, you’re going to have to learn to keep a few secrets.”
That was another thing they’d never agree on. Yumi shook her head and slammed into a stall to change.
When she emerged, much to her relief, her mother had disappeared. She felt slightly less off balance now that she’d switched her interpreting uniform for a cocktail dress and had a few minutes to decide that that now was not the time to deal with her mother’s duplicity.
As she rejoined the party, the first course was served. Hamada-ya was a ryōtei, a terribly exclusive restaurant specializing in kaiseki cuisine – nine exquisite small courses, each prepared in a different way with rare, seasonal ingredients, served on dishes that would be at home in a museum. Dinner started at ¥25,000 per person, and Yumi understood why, as the first bite of Hokkaido crab melted on her tongue.
Saké replaced the champagne, and Yumi allowed her cup to be filled twice by Ichiro, holding it up for him to pour, then doing the same in return. The daimyō on the ink scroll regarded them indulgently from his tokonoma alcove as they made their way through the exotic tidbits. As Yumi relaxed and began to enjoy the party despite her irritation with her mother, she was struck by how much more distinguished her father looked since he became a full professor. He had no idea his promotion had been engineered by Ichiro’s father. Believing that his painstaking scholarship had finally been rewarded, Dr. Hata now spoke with an authoritative note in his voice, walked like a man of substance and even wore his clothes with more confidence.
Her phone vibrated. She dug it from her purse and glanced at the screen under the table. It was her friend Coco. Yumi dropped her mobile back into her bag, intending to call back later, then heard the vibrate pattern that signaled a text message. Coco again. ‘Need help. Please call!!!’
Yumi excused herself and looked for a quiet corner to return the call without offending anyone. She pushed open the door to the bathroom.
Coco picked up on the first ring. “Thanks for calling back so fast. You’re the best! Just a minute while I…” Yumi heard pop music playing and conversation, then the sound of a closing door and silence. “Okay, I’m in the ladies’ room.” Coco hesitated. “Look, I’m in a bit of a pinch and I need a loan tonight. Can you spare ¥50,000 until I get paid next Friday?”
“Sure, but…for what?” Yumi could easily stop at her bank’s ATM and get it; it wasn’t a huge amount, but it wasn’t peanuts either. And why did Coco need it tonight?
“I’ll explain when you get here.”
Her friend hesitated. “Club Nova.”
Club Nova? It sounded like a hostess club. Yumi’s worries about her friend kicked up a notch. Was her friend moonlighting? What would drive her to get involved in the shady mizu shōbai entertainment business when she had a perfectly respectable job at a tea ceremony sweets shop?
“I’m at a dinner with Ichiro’s family right now, but it should be winding down by 10:00 or so,” Yumi said. “Where shall we meet?”
“Call me when you’re outside the east exit at Shinjuku Station. Someone will come get you.”
The east exit of Shinjuku station. Kabuki-chō. A part of town girls from good families weren’t supposed to be prowling at night.
“What do you mean, ‘someone’?”
“I’ll explain when I see you.”
Now Yumi was really worried.