Oh, and you think the title is complicated in English? Check it out in Japanese - 有栖川宮記念公園.
Kaori gave the unadorned menu a quick glance before settling on hoi koro––stir fried cabbage and pork. She had found that this not strictly authentic wok-fired hybrid of garlic, ginger, and sweet miso sauce worked well as a baseline. From the smells that wafted from the kitchen, she felt certain it would be well worth her 800 yen.
Kaori waited for Yuki to speak. And waited. This was Japan, after all, where everything happened in its prescribed time and place. A faint sound of bells jarred, front door opening. Irrashaimasen. Yuki shifted in her seat, finally taking a sip of tea. “It is probably nothing,” she said, eyes darting. From her expression it definitely was something. “Everyone at GEON is convinced that Steve... that he just suddenly decided to leave Japan.”
Kaori nodded. “That’s what my colleagues think as well. He contacted his parents by email shortly before his disappearance, informing them that life in Japan wasn’t what he had expected. That he wanted to travel a bit before heading back to America. Now he is gone and it is only a matter of time before he surfaces, alive and well, gorged on tropical sunsets.” She thought back to the brief conversation with Steve’s mom––it had been a surprise, really, the equanimity with which the older woman had taken the news of her son’s disappearance over the phone. Far from conveying a sense of unease, there had been a twinge of excitement in her voice. Presumably her son would be home earlier than expected. The expected demand for immediate police action was entirely lacking.
When Kaori inquired whether her son had contacted her by phone or Skype, his mother admitted that he hadn’t––there had been a good deal of friction at home about him breaking off graduate studies to teach in Japan. His father, in particular, had been strongly opposed to what he saw as a cop-out from life responsibilities and they had had a falling out. As a result, there had been no telephone contact since Steve’s flight over to Tokyo. A few perfunctory emails to let them know he had arrived safely and was settling in, that was all. He hadn’t even given them a phone number at which to reach him. A vague email, stating plans to quit his job and travel around Asia fit right in with his parent’s expectations at this point.
Kaori leaned back, trying to read Yuki. There was a hesitancy to her demeanor, a sense of holding back.“Can you tell me a little more about what Mr. Loewe was like––his appearance, his habits, anything at all you remember?”
Yuki’s ignored the dish, fish with black bean sauce over rice, set before her as she continued to grip teacup, eyes focused squarely on the table. “It was difficult for Steve at first. He wasn’t like the rest of us. He is a gaikokujin.”
Kaori nodded, trying to understand Yuki’s intention in stating the obvious. Unlike gaijin, gaikokujin “outside country person,” connoted respect for the foreigner––yet Yuki had not meant it in a positive way. In an unfamiliar place, she supposed, respect could be just as isolating as enmity.
Yuki looked past Kaori, her gaze trailing out the front door window. “Bringing a new teacher from a foreign country is always a risk and our younger students are a bellwether of whether the teacher will cut it in the classroom. Steve did not get off to a great start, he was nervous, clumsy. A couple of children ran out of GEON screaming the first day of class and some of the high school students gave him a nickname, the Beast. It’s a funny though, within a week he was everyone’s favorite teacher. He was caring and he had a lot of patience. Once they got used to him the kids couldn’t get enough…. using books like Where’s Waldo he made learning phonics and reading fun. Parents commented that they had never seen their children pick up English so fast.”
“Can you tell me a little more about your personal interactions with Steve––you said you helped him in his daily life….”
Yuki straightened, turning from the window. Her eyes searched Kaori’s briefly and then lowered. “It was November when Steve came to Inagekaigan. I had been working here for a little more than two months. I suppose I am a typical manager––that is to say, managers at the smaller branches are just out of college. We receive very little money and have high sales goals set for us each month. If those goals are met we get a bonus. If not––well, let’s just say that most of us still live with our parents. Nothing in the job is guaranteed. I don’t want to sound soft––I know you are a police officer and have your own responsibilities––but it is tough dealing with the calls from head office each night. They speak to us sharply if we fall even a little short of goals––calling it motivational encouragement.”
“They would call it something like that,” Kaori flashed her a look of empathy. Yuki was a salesperson essentially, not a manager in the traditional sense. In a society burdened by an aging population and prolonged recession, sales targets still aimed for heady bubble-era numbers. If they failed to meet these goals, managers like Yuki were the first to go––and good luck finding another job in the current climate. Something seemed to shift in Yuki’s eyes, an opening. Kaori decided to press. “It seems odd that Mr. Loewe––Steve––would have have quit if he was, as you said, actively engaged with his students….”
Yuki edged forward, finally taking a bite of her food. “Shortly after Steve’s arrival we had a welcome party for him at a local izakaya, something we always do with new teachers. We drank and I opened up to him, more than is usual… I confess, there was a spark between us––at least on my part. The next few weeks I helped Steve in his daily life––a lot of it had to do with wanting him to become a successful teacher, so the school could meet sales goals. Having a teacher who is comfortable in his life in Japan is critical to that. More than that, I helped him because, well... you should have seen the way he walked around at first, like a lost puppy. Or rather like a big lost, shaggy dog. I think it is very hard for foreign teachers who come here without Japanese skills… I had to show him where to buy lunch, how to catch a train, how to find shaving cream at the department store. I know I have poor English, but somehow we were able to communicate and we became friends. I don’t care what everyone believes, I don’t see him dropping off the face of the earth like that, not without––”
Kaori shifted in her seat, slightly impatient. That was it? A hunch, an intuition… how well could Yuki have known her foreign colleague after only four months?
Kaori was rooted, unable to move. It made sense, thinking back on Yuki’s behavior. She just hadn’t imagined––
Yuki’s words picked up pace. “I know teachers leave, I know they do. I know that GEON believes Steve just walked out on his job. It is very convenient for them to believe that. But I know he would never do that, not to me.” Her voice softened again. “I was with him Friday night. We spent the night together. He had something to do in Tokyo that weekend, he said. A freelance job, something involving editing…. And on Monday.... he never showed up for work.” Yuki wiped her cheek with the back of her hand, breath uneven. “I’m sorry. You must think I sound like––” she tried to smile, “like a frantic ex-girlfriend or something.”
Kaori was silent for a moment “Have you been to Steve’s apartment?” she asked finally.
“Could you describe it as you remember it, please?”
“It was very small. Steve did not have much. But he did have a lot of books and papers. He had been a student recently. He had a friend who lent him a lot of books about Japan. Jonathan, I think?”
Kaori’s mind flashed back to the business card she had retrieved earlier. Jonathan Wales, Edu-Act Publishing. “Did he have a computer?”
“Yes, he had a laptop. We would watch movies on it sometimes. Why?”
“Just curious.” Kaori felt more strongly than ever that the only reason those two magazines had been left in Steve’s room was that they were hidden under the futon. He would have taken his computer with him on his travels, but all of his books and papers––? She caught herself. Yuki was looking at her with rapt attention, searching for some kind of reaction. “Actually, what you’ve told me reinforces a feeling I’ve had since this morning, that something wasn’t quite right about Steve’s disappearance.”
“Can you tell me anything you know… about Steve, about his whereabouts….” Yuki broke off mid sentence, seeming to realize that Kaori wouldn’t be talking to her if she knew.
Kaori took Yuki’s hand impulsively, feeling a jolt of energy run through her. “I’m not even supposed to be investigating this case… it is just routine, at this point. But I promise I will do whatever I can to find Steve.” She took the papers Yuki had given her from the seat beside her and set them on the table. “Let’s start with these….”