Yamahito brought the car to an abrupt halt, lighting up as he fumbled with the ancient city map. Smoke filled the interior, going everywhere but out. Kaori sat rigid in that sudden rush of nausea that cigarettes brought, rolling down window and running through calming thoughts. At least he is married––at least he doesn’t flirt with women half his age. That was all she could find. She fought off the urge to check their location on device as Yamahito laboriously traced fingers, joined at the knuckle by cigarette, along a spiderweb of streets. Running hand through hair, she took in a street cluttered with clothes boutiques, ramen and yakitori joints. Only sparsely populated this time of day by mothers pushing strollers and the elderly––couples shuffling hand in hand, the occasional stooped-back oba-chan.
“We need to go back two streets and take a right,” Yamahito finally said. Stubbing cigarette in ashtray and folding well-creased map, he popped the compact police car into gear for a U-turn.
Kaori considered the matter at hand. It was nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Foreigners went missing every day, for a variety of reasons. Usually they went home, leaving the English schools they had worked at in the lurch. She and Yamahito would inspect the apartment, catalogue everything and fill out all the required forms, only to be contacted by a family member in a couple days, “Our son was unable to deal with the culture shock, is licking his wounds on a tropical beach.” Steve Loewe, just another foreign teacher, aimless college grad––never held down a real job. The school would be left scrambling to find another foreign suit for the position––she corrected herself, would already have found another suit, the second day he was gone. The larger schools like GEON had a roving team of substitutes on hand, prepped for such exigencies––as a harried manager had explained the last go around, there were a couple dozen teachers coming and going in any given month. She shrugged––six months into her job as a detective on the Chiba police force, there had not been much out of the ordinary. Still, it beat giving out parking tickets.
Yamahito turned abruptly into a tangle of alleyways that, miles from the Tokyo Bay, still kept to the contours of pre-war fishing village. Then onto a wider street, two-story apartments scattered among old houses with walled gardens. Cheap, prefab suburbs infiltrating what was left of the countryside. They cruised slowly, scanning addresses. It took some effort to find Loewe’s apartment––house numbers here were ordered by date of construction, not physical location. Finally Kaori spotted it. A small two-story mansion––not quite an apartment––tucked up a dirt driveway behind two old houses, half hidden by the arthritic branches of a gingko tree etching its way along sharp concrete walls.
No one had been around for a few days. That was apparent enough from the electricity notices and pizza advertisements stuck halfway out the mail slot. Still Kaori rang the doorbell and waited––it didn’t feel right just barging in. Yamahito fingered the keys in a habitual gesture of impatience. Finally he leaned forward with a grunt and edged her aside, unlocking the door.
The first thing that hit her was the smell––something rotting. Kaori caught sight of the offending items on a low table in the corner. Dark-skinned bananas split down the middle, depositing their sticky loads on shriveled oranges. A partially opened Ziploc with thin-sliced salami, sweating and covered in spots of white mold. An enormous cockroach froze as she approached, flattening into some impossibly small crease in the wall. Gasping, Kaori opened the sliding glass door onto a balcony crowded with a washing machine and laundry lines. Turning back, she found Yamahito shoveling the offending food into a plastic bag.
“Thanks,” Kaori managed, breathing again. Yamahito did have some sense after all. As if in response, he lit up another cigarette. She coughed through the haze, her eyes sweeping the apartment with an unexpected surge of anger. Control, she thought––nothing must ever seep out, no sign––observe.
Clothes were piled none-too-neatly in a corner; toiletries in a shoe box: razors, after-shave, condoms––nothing to indicate that Steve Loewe had lived, or planned to live, there long. Nothing related to human interaction beyond the general business of eating and sleeping.
Yamahito began shoveling kitchen items into one of the boxes.
“Sumimasen,” Kaori said. Yamahito glanced up and returned to what he was doing. She bit her tongue and refrained from saying more.
He finally shrugged. “Waste of time, isn’t it. The teacher ran off, emailed his family saying he would be traveling around South Asia for the next two months. Now we sit back and wait for his mom to contact us, tell us she got a call from Kathmandu. Dear son is sucking down pipes of opium with the villagers and desperate for cash.” He dropped a bunch of utensils into the box with a clatter.
Kaori caught herself. Yamahito was baiting her, waiting for her to explode… if he could not demote her, he could try and push her to the point of no return. She wondered when he would spring the real trap, the moment of such ludicrous intent that she would blow up in a public space, with eyewitnesses.
Kaori squeezed past Yamahito and took photos of the kitchen before he disturbed things further. It didn’t matter that they were just running through the motions, clearing things out so that GEON could cycle a new teacher into the apartment. It didn’t matter that this was part of training, a mandatory ride-along that neither she nor Yamahito wanted any part of. If Steve Loewe didn’t show up in a couple weeks, they would have a case. She made her way carefully through the rest of the apartment, taking pictures.
Finally putting the camera away, Kaori started in on gathering strewn clothes and stuffing them into bags. She took the covers off the futon, noticing a faint reddish stain on one sheet as she folded it. The only reading materials in the apartment were under the futon––English editions of the New Yorker and Esquire, with an old California address on them. Yamahito finished packing the contents of the kitchen cupboard and refrigerator in the box. She took a glance––if anything, less revealing. Packets of ramen, silverware, sesame oil––one aberration, a business card with a faded circle of soy sauce on it. Yamahito opened the door and propped it with his box as Kaori hoisted the other bags and boxes down the stairs to the car.
As she was about to get into the car, Kaori asked Yamahito for the key to the apartment. “I need to use the toilet.” Back in the apartment, she headed for the bathroom, sliding her fingers across the bottom of the wastebasket. Sure enough, there were a few strands of hair. She took out a bag from her jacket pocket and sealed the hair sample. It was a long shot, but she might need a DNA match at some point and GEON would have a crew in within the day to clean the apartment out, ready it for the next teacher.
As they drove off, a visceral memory of the initial stench from Loewe’s apartment hit her and Kaori gagged slightly. Yamahito noticed her discomfort, his hand inching toward a pack of cigarettes. Rolling down the window preemptively, she gulped fresh air. Click of the lighter, slow burn. Maybe it was her Japanese sensibility, but... assuming Loewe was relaxing on a beach, assuming he was the careless sort he appeared to be from his belongings––even assuming he was your average short-term eikaiwa teacher, in it for the kicks––why leave food out on the table to rot? As the car interior filled with smoke, she took a close look at the business card Yamahito had found in the kitchen––Kennichi Mizota, Triangle Biotechnology, Tokyo.
SEO Alert - Damon Shulenberger aka Damon D. Dawson of Bandito College. EnduranceWriter and ex-English teacher.