A Casual Exchange of Gunfire


After dark here it's every man for himself.

That doesn't mean that the thriving young metropolis shuts down for the night. The meek and the feeble barricade themselves behind high fences and razor wire. They sleep in shifts, if they're smart, with someone constantly peering through the thin vertical slits that constitute the new fashion in windows. Should home invaders get past vicious family dogs prowling property lines they are met with bludgeons or sawed-off shotguns, often wielded by nervous great grandmothers or six-year-old sharpshooters.

The alley stank and had no lights. Through the gloom I saw the lighted street on the other side. Sounds of a big city rose and fell around me: a casual exchange of gunfire, a bark of laughter, a siren, a lone expletive. I exited onto a block alive with nightlife and neon, especially neon, that's how our fair city got its nickname. I'd had enough back streets and alleys to suit me for a while. Up ahead I saw a dilapidated two-story building. Under a tattered awning a yellowed plastic sign with red Japanese characters glowed above a dented metal door.

There was no knob.

The Ginza district of the city is rife with Yakuza heavies, most of them James Dean or Scarface wannabes. Before tsunamis drowned the Hawaiian Islands and Japan, thousands of families immigrated to the broken landmass that used to be the continental U.S. With them came the Yakuza, whose zoot suits and Elvis pompadours are almost as comical as the affectations of the sword gangs. The Yakuza are as dangerous as the Organizatsiya, the Russian mafia. Those dudes will shoot you just to see if their gun's loaded. Thousands of them had also immigrated before the first black female President of the United States, weary of decades of Jihad, nuked the Middle East into radioactive glass, leaving half of the Eastern hemisphere uninhabitable.

The remnants of America seem extremely attractive to millions of hapless refugees the world over, even after Washington D.C. and New York City got blown off the map by Muslim extremists. President Oprah IV is fond of saying as the effects of nuclear winter continue to level off the world will enjoy twelve hours a day of sunshine again instead of the seven or eight we're accustomed to. Her detractors and nay-sayers are legion though (and not just in the media.)

Nightfall happens about four in the afternoon. I'd met with Big Mama at five PM and arrived on foot in the Ginza around six-thirty. That had been almost two hours ago.

I knocked on the door without a knob.

Stairs creaked behind the door. A line of light appeared when the door opened a few inches. An elderly Japanese with a white braided beard wearing a gold kimono with blue dragons eyed me warily through the crack. Three chains kept the door from opening any further, heavy chain that would resist any force less than a battering ram. A faint whiff of opium reached my nostrils.

He must have been a new doorman because I'd never seen him before. He didn't recognize me either and hissed a few syllables in his native tongue at me.

"Speak English," I demanded. He knew that I knew English is the universal language and that he had had to pass an English test for a resident's permit in Neon Town.

He tried to shut the door but I leaned against it with my full body weight. I knew from experience not to wedge the toe of my boot in the opening. "Club full. You go 'way!"

"Don't hand me that crap, papa-san!" I smiled when I said it.

"Is full, you beat feet!"

"Are you as parched as you look?" I removed the water from my pouch.

His tongue touched his dry lips, I saw wheels turning in his eyes.

I splashed the contents around in the bottle. "I believe the code word for this evening is Dasani."

His grasp of the language suddenly improved a hundredfold. "Indeed it is, distinguished sir. If I am not mistaken it seems as if one of our most honorable patrons has just vacated the premises."

"Which makes room for a poor gaijin like me." I added, "And his bottled water."

"Indubitably. Allow me to close the door please so I can undo the chains."

Thirty seconds later I was inside and tossed him the blue bottle. "A token of my esteem, papa-san."

He bowed. "Domo arigato."

"You're welcome," I said, bowing more than he.

He bowed even deeper and I bowed again. That little ritual went on for a moment or two before the Dasani refill disappeared into a kimono sleeve. I followed him up the stairs. The smell of opium became more pronounced. The landing at the top had a counter at which papa-san could sit, behind that stood a large gong. A triple sectioned paper Japanese screen concealed the true entrance.

"Welcome to the Lotus Blossom Bar," papa-san intoned. He gave my attire a pointed look. "Would you care to don a mask before you enter?"

In a roundabout way he was asking if I cared to disguise my obvious western features. Members of the Yakuza aren't always fond of Westerners but, for some oddball reason, masking one's face infers respect. Russian mafia bars are similar except the neo-Muscovites don't have a thing about masks over in Little Red Square.

Westerners are free to socialize anywhere they choose in Neon Town. If they dared.

"I have nothing to hide," I told him.

"And apparently nothing to fear as well," he said. "That certainly is a handsome blade you carry."

"The salesman at the chop shop told me it was forged over three hundred years ago," I lied.

A small grin wrinkled papa-san's face and he bowed again with respect. The old man knew damn well I was lying. A Westerner is unlikely to possess a Samurai sword like mine since they simply are not for sale. Since no warrior ever lets his weapon out of his sight, you can't steal one; you have to kill him for it.

Papa-san and I were done talking. He pushed the door open for me with a gnarled hand. For a Japanese bar the Lotus Blossom is surprisingly western. I heard the last chorus of Hey Jude fade as I stepped inside, then the cowbell intro to Honky Tonk Women began. Rap had died and gone to the same hell as disco many decades ago. No one has ever improved on twentieth century rock and roll. I mouthed the words "I met a gin soaked barroom queen in Memphis" when I walked in.

Two shirtless men passed an opium pipe between them at the bar. Except for their heads and their hands every visible inch of their bodies were tattooed. No doubt about it, the Lotus Blossom Bar was a Yakuza establishment, but I knew that beforehand. No friendly faces turned my way. A table full of wise guys in sharkskin suits glowered at me. Their long blue-black hair shined with goose grease. One of them wore a purple suit and a cowboy string tie.

Not everyone in the place was Japanese. I noticed several bar stools occupied by Westerners but they were underworld types, not tourists. Like me, they bore arms. A few of them wore masks. If I entertained any thoughts of acting like John Wayne against all the heat in here I'd soon be in a grave, an unmarked one. These guys are stone killers, not impetuous teenagers fired up on speed.

I scanned the room for Goro. He wasn't at the bar or at any of the tables. He favored the alcoves along the back wall, hidden behind beaded curtains. I sighed in disgust. Poking your nose into a booth uninvited is just asking for a bullet. I bided my time. Was I barking up the wrong tree? If Goro nabbed a weaned baby this afternoon I figured he'd be sitting in some opium den brokering a deal for the child. Or maybe he had a buyer before he even took the kid. Too bad I had no other leads except the dives he frequented. If he maintained a residence, I didn't know about it.

A creep like Goro would move often and leave no paper trail.

Slowly I circled the smoke-filled room. Nobody looked at me except Yakuza heavies wanting an excuse to start a fight. A Beach Boys song started blasting on the jukebox. I located a vacant seat at the bar and sat down to make myself less conspicuous. It took a while before the bartender condescended to notice me.

He swabbed the bar top in front of me with a dirty rag. "Before I can serve you I must know how you wish to pay?"

I produced the pack of Marlboros. "Do you like to smoke?"

My currency was good. "What'll it be, friend?"

"Budweiser longneck. And don't pop the top, I'll open it myself."

"Whatever floats your boat. You want a nice sticky ball of black tar heroin with that?"

"Never touch the stuff."

He shrugged, shuffled over to the cooler.

Before he got back with my beer I saw someone I knew: a little weasel named Hiroshi. He must have been in the benjo when I'd walked around the room. His eyes got opaque when he saw me. He ducked through a bead curtain into a booth. I pushed away from the bar, smiling. Hiroshi presented no real risk so I decided to take a chance. In the alcove he had just settled into a cross-legged position on a cushion when I parted the beaded curtain. Across a low enameled table from him knelt a Geisha girl whose acquaintance I'd made previously. She poured green tea delicately into a saucer.

"Forgive my interruption, Hiroshi-san," I said respectfully.

He appeared calm except for the mustache of sweat glistening on his upper lip. "Good to see you, old friend," he said with a slight inclination in my direction.

"Not as good as it is to see you."

"I'd ask you to join us but Trembling Flower and I are about to depart." The Geisha pretended I was invisible.

"Your offer is considerate, but I'm in a hurry myself. I seek our mutual friend, Goro-san, with a lucrative offer to make him about some, uh, business."

He shot a glance at the Geisha who froze with her teapot. "No, oh no, I've not seen honorable Goro-san in two three weeks."

"He's not entertaining a Geisha in another alcove, is he?"

He raised the palms of his hands and shook his head. "Sorry to say I do not know where he is."

"Aren't you one of his employees?"

Except for the sweat Hiroshi played it real cool. He even smiled when he said: "Like you I am a freelancer. How do you say? Living off the soft white underbelly of the city."

I recalled when I'd said that to him. Nonchalantly I asked, "It's important I get in touch with him. Where's he staying these days?"

"No clue. But you know how secretive a ninja is. I will certainly mention it next time I see him."

"Domo. What about Trembly Poo over there?" I'd spent a wild evening with her a couple alcoves down a couple months ago. "Howabout you, sugar, seen Goro lately?" I sat down on a nearby cushion and dragged her into my lap. She yipped about the teapot but didn't spill anything. Hiroshi disappeared out the beaded curtain without a sayonara. "The courteous Hiroshi-san must want us to speak in private," I said in her ear.

She hesitated, "I know nothing of Goro."

"You know him as well as Hiroshi and I know him. When's the last time you saw him in here?"

She dropped the Geisha act with Hiroshi out of the picture. "When's the last time YOU were in here, mister?"

"Sorry it's been so long and quit trying to change the subject."

"I'll tell you what I know, Aaron, if you hurry up and fuck me before he comes back. His cock makes my pinkie look big."

Trembly Poo got out of my lap, hiked up her robes and bent palms down on the low table, slippered feet wide apart on the floor. The crinkled nubbin of her asshole and the perfect vertical crease of her kootch danced before my eyes. What the hell, I thought, I had no other worthwhile leads at the moment to follow up. Knowing Trembly like I did made me think she'd be more apt to tell the truth with a dick in her than not. Why take the chance? I undid my fly and stepped accommodatingly behind her. When I embedded my tumescence where she wanted it all the air gushed out of her in a grateful exhalation. Fortunately Orsolya had wrung me dry over three hours ago and I was up for it, if you'll pardon the expression.

She got very excited very fast, ultra wet, breathing hard, moaning. "I need this please. I'm going to come all over that big American dick of yours."

I plunged stoutly into her for emphasis. "Tell me about Goro before you're not in any state to talk."

"I can't help it, I love American dicks."

Instead of suggesting she move out of the Ginza I reminded her of the topic. I'd better get some answers out of her soon or my mind would wander off the subject too, she employed her vaginal muscles almost like a hand. I thought about Big Mama's remark about cheeseballs and slowed my pace.

"Goro?" I repeated.

"He was in here three nights ago. Come on, baby, get with it! Harder."

"Did you speak to him?"

"Noooo," she gasped at my newfound enthusiasm.

"Did he converse with anybody?"

"Just some Yakuza people, no one out of the ordinary. Oh, that's good just like that, don't stop!"

So much for that lead, a Geisha girl doesn't butt in on a warrior's conversations. I concentrated on rewarding Trembly Poo for her information until my blood began to boil. Shoving deeper and faster into her trim bottom I had to grit my teeth to avoid groaning aloud. Trembly had a fist partially inside her mouth in case of audibility problems.

What had we been talking about?

Once my heart rate got back to normal and she had her robes readjusted she asked if I intended to stay. I told her I had work to do.

"Well, don't be a stranger, Aaron. Why don't you come around more often?"

Because I'm not fond of getting killed, I thought, but didn't tell her that. "I'll be around," I said and pushed through the beads, senses still tingling.

The Yakuza wise guy in the purple suit watched me every step of the way back to my bar stool. Hiroshi sat with him, his back to the booth I exited, head hunched between his shoulders. My Budweiser waited on a napkin, still capped. I opened the bottle with my teeth, spat the top on the floor. The bartender reappeared, smiling, saying nothing. I tossed him the cigarette pack.

"They're all yours."

He counted the cigarettes. "You are very generous, sir," he said. "For sixteen cigarettes I'll throw in a ball of black tar."

Down the line I could've traded the heroin to some lowlife for something I really needed. "Keep the ball for yourself," I told the barman. Perhaps you can do me a favor. I'm looking for a friend of mine, I wonder if he's in one of the alcoves. Goro-san?"

"Haven't seen the ninja tonight," he said earnestly.

"He's not hidden away in a booth in the back?"

The barman shook his head. He'd been compensated enough to tell the truth, even to a Westerner.

Over his shoulder I saw Hiroshi get up from the table of the Yakuza man in the purple sharkskin suit, studiously not looking my way. The Yakuza heavy said something to the man next to him. That man fished one of those cheap disposable phones out of his pocket and made a call. When he closed the phone he spoke briefly to his boss.

Seconds later the four men at the table stood up. Leading the way, the man in purple with the cowboy string tie came over to where I sat. The edges of tattoos showed at his collar and cuffs. His goons took up positions behind him like a football squad playing defense. He waited silently to take my measure, testing my mettle. Would I cower, or be bold?

I took the game to him. "I've already played this scene once tonight. No doubt some Ginza doctor is setting broken bones right about now."

The man bowed his head imperceptibly. "We are aware of your reputation, it proceeds you. You are a tough customer, Aaron, if I may call you that."

I lifted the beer to my lips. It wasn't really Budweiser, just some micro-brewery garbage. They rebottle it in longnecks because it's fun to pretend. The last place to get a Bud is in the Ginza. If I wanted the real thing I'd be paying a hundred credits per bottle uptown. Panama, the old Van Halen song, started playing. I set down my beer.

"So I guess you came over to ask me to dance?"

He smiled with great effort at my truculence. His bullies moved in closer but he held up a hand to stop them. "Allow me introduce myself, I am called Mr. Lavender."

"And here I thought you were Elton John."

"You have a keen sense of humor, Aaron."

"In survival camp I was Number 274. Before I took a name I was more known for my sharp knife than my sharp wit."

"I have no desire to shed blood. I have a request to make."

"Request away."

"I have a car downstairs, take a short ride with us."

"Oh yeah, where to?"

"To a ninja house."

"Is that right?"

"You sound interested. Are you in?"

"I'm in."

Downstairs Mr. Lavender and I piled into the backseat of a long black Cadillac. Cads and Lincolns are Yakuza favorites, the longer the better. His crew of three got in the front seat. Nobody said anything about the seating arrangement, it happened without any instructions from Mr. Lavender. Had it not happened that way I would have insisted upon it. The man with the phone drove. The car passed a few blocks of pachinko parlors, teahouses, Geisha bars and opium dens before entering a neighborhood.
"What if I had declined your offer to go for a ride?" I asked to break the silence.

He answered my question with a question. "You wanted to find Goro-san, did you not?"

Smiling, I contrived to give him a friendly pat on the shoulder, but missed on purpose, brushed something solid under his left arm. That verified he wore a shoulder holster beneath his coat. Guns are more rare than Samurai swords, unless you're a GGG cop.

The driver came to a stop in front of a house surrounded by a tall brick wall with jagged glass protruding from the top. He punched a number into his phone. After he got an answer he said, "We're parked out front."

Mr. Lavender slithered out of the backseat. He crossed the sidewalk to stand by a gate made of oak beams in the wall.

I went and stood beside him. "So this is the house of Goro?"

Mr. Lavender shrugged. "Let us just say this is where we are meeting him."

"Your boys going to wait in the car with the engine running?"

He brushed at some imaginary lint on his purple label. "Sure. I told you this was all friendly. You're not going to get scared this late in the game, are you, Aaron?"

Before I could answer a small panel at eye level slid to one side. A pair of eyes regarded us through the peephole. The panel clicked shut and the heavy gate opened silently.

"After you," I motioned to Mr. Lavender.

He smirked at my distrust but entered ahead of me.

After securing the gate a man of indeterminate age in a kimono, not Goro, conducted us through a garden to the house. At the door he removed his slippers and set them neatly next to several other pairs of shoes. Mr. Lavender leaned down to untie his two-tone Ferragamos. I hated leaving my boots with the knives in them outside on the porch but customs are customs; I still had a gun, a knife and a sword.

A vestibule opened onto a living room. A young couple sat on a couch, the woman cradled a baby in her arms. They glanced at us and turned their attention back to the infant. Our guide melted through a doorway.

Almost immediately Goro entered the room, a short squat man corded with muscle, jet-black hair slicked back on his skull. For trousers he wore only a traditional divided skirt that left a myriad of Yakuza tattoos on display. A Samurai sword depended from his belt.

He bowed to Mr. Lavender and me. "So good of you to pay me a visit, gentlemen. Have you met my daughter and son-in-law? Can you believe I'm a grandfather?"

Once he introduced everybody the couple bowed themselves out of the room.

Goro asked, "Would you care for tea? No. Suntory or sake?"

We declined and he inquired into the nature of our visit.

I bowed slightly and said, "Forgive the intrusion, Goro-san, but I've searched the Ginza for you to no avail. I have a matter most important to discuss. When Mr. Lavender learned of my dilemma he kindly escorted me here. I promise to be terse."

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