Dark eyes blink awake in the harsh brightness. An old woman’s muffled, “Yuki?” has such a tender tone. My heart stops. The heated table and blankets fly across the room as I scramble away.
Waking up next to a strange woman and someone yelling at me means awful things—death, arrest, or cutting off the knuckle of a finger. Where’s the fox?
“Who’s Yuki?” Satou demands.
Nakamura’s face falls. “Not him. It’s only the yakuza.” When she tries to sit up, her unearthly howl carries echoes of the previous evening.
Frozen against the wall, I gulp in air while checking to see if my heart started beating again.
Satou tries to aid his aunt. But she protests in a wail, “Careful, Kazuo!”
His eye twitches, and the words turn hard. “Why didn’t either of you call for medical help? Now the only place that is open is in Shimosaki.”
Grimacing, she pants. “I insisted on waiting for you to take me to the hospital.”
Concern replaces the fury on his face. “What happened? How long have you been here?”
Not taking my eyes off her as I try to piece this puzzle together, I set the worse-for-wear kotatsu upright again. So Nakamura, the old biddy that has nothing but nasty words for me and runs over my toes with a cart, is a shape-shifting kitsune?
She perseveres with only an occasional wince. “I was cleaning the shrine, as I always do when that storm popped out of nowhere. It wasn’t in the forecast. He rescued me from under a fallen tree and carried me through the snow. I still don’t approve of you bringing in a yakuza. So, it pains me to admit he was a gentleman. We were both soaked-to-the-bone freezing. Lying here kept us warm and saved my life, nephew! We owe that young man.”
Nothing about being a fox. The tingle at the base of my neck says I’ve just got to know. “So, it was you who always took my offerings?”
“Darn right. Can’t you do better than that?”
Wiping my hand over my face, I try a double entendre. “Nakamura-san, you’re something else.” It earns me a thump on the head.
“I’ll wallop you again if you don’t watch it!”
“Understood, Ma’am.” So, Satou doesn’t know. And Nakamura could ruin me. No good deed goes unpunished.
Despite his aunt’s protests, my boss insists on calling an ambulance. Her lips purse as she watches Satou dial. Then, squeezing my wrist with a strength an old woman shouldn’t possess, she commands in the barest whisper, “Not a peep from you, boy.”
I can’t even jerk away, and my teeth grind in our tug of war until I comply. Then a minute flash of light and a prick of static electricity strike where she releases me from her death grip. My stomach tightens. In the legends, kitsune fled after being discovered. Is that why she forced me into a promise? So she doesn’t have to leave Nonogawa?
The ambulance whisks Nakamura to the closest hospital, twenty minutes away on a winding road to Shimosaki, just south of Nonogawa. As we follow in my boss’s car, we drive out of the freshly fallen snow. Silhouetted trees loom over us on each side of the highway. Still not slowing, my heart pounds roughly in my chest.
“Thanks for helping Aunt Hisako. She can be difficult,” Satou says.
“Sure.” The chill of the leather seat goes straight through my pants, winding up my muscles and nerves further.
“Why was she lying beside you?” Satou’s flat, controlled tone sends prickles through me.
“When the tree crashed, I heard the scream, then ran back and helped her crawl out. Neither of us had cell phones, and I couldn’t leave her alone. So, I carried her. We fell asleep in the warmth as we waited. Just as she said.”
“She gripped your arm when I called the paramedics. You didn’t mention that.” When he pulls over, his penetrating stare pins me in place. He hisses, “Listen Umeji, I was the top club host in Osaka before I moved here to remake my reputation. Spent years telling people what they wanted to hear. I know damned well when someone isn’t speaking the whole truth. You knew she was there. Why’d you abandon her in the storm?”
That’s why he speaks a little differently, he’s not from here either. Though his accent is closer than my Tokyo one. My hands fly up in defense. “I didn’t know she was there until I saw her. I swear!”
The garlic on his breath overwhelms me as he leans in. “And she trusts a convict that she doesn’t like one iota to sleep beside him in his arms? You didn’t threaten or dig up information on her, did you?”
To appear more at ease, I lean back. “No, Sir. Sure, she’s had it out for me. This evening, she insulted me as I helped, and asked why it had to be me. I don’t understand it! We had to thaw out or risk hypothermia. We were so cold. Even giving her my coat on the way home didn’t help much. I would’ve dumped her, clothes and all, into the bath. But in her condition, we couldn’t do that. So the kotatsu was the next best option.”
With narrowed eyes, he states in a voice sharper than a knife’s edge, “I thought we were alike, in wanting to change and leave our past behind. If I find just one tiny white lie, Umeji, I’ll drop-kick your ass directly into jail. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Sir!” That host shit is messed up. If he was so keen on bringing you halfway across Japan, was it from the goodness of his heart? Don’t bet on it. Everyone has something to hide around here.
His nod is curt as he pulls onto the road. I force my breathing to slow and peel my fingers from the door handle, but a shiver runs down my spine. It’s not from the low temperature.
Satou fiddles on his phone as we sit in the empty, vanilla-bland, dim waiting room with its vinyl chairs. Whatever the industrial cleaner is in the emergency room stings my nose as it wafts from the check-in and exam rooms. The incessant typing of the receptionist nurse grates on my nerves. My fingers tap hard on the arm of the chair.
Might as well ask. “Sir, it had to be hard to leave. Quite a few of the clubs are yakuza-owned, and they’re possessive of their best. How’d you leave?”
In a thicker than usual accent, his words spit out and his look hardens. “Umeji, if you want to know that, be completely honest. Secrets are how you repay me? Get to the bottom of it, or we’re done.”
My throat tightens and the old uncomfortable coldness settles back in my chest, returning like a clingy ex-girlfriend. “Sir, I can’t tell you. I promised. I’ll share anything that involves only me.”
“You know the outcome. I’ll contact the police in the morning with my report.” Tilting his face and hissing a breath between his teeth, he delivers the crowning blow. “Is whoever it is worth it?”
My eyes sting as I clench my fists. “I believe so,” Doesn’t make it easy. If only I could tell him, but I promised one of the mythical creatures I idolized as a kid. I know better than to piss off a yokai, a supernatural being. In the myths, that always goes bad—much worse than jail.
He doesn’t let up. “Is it someone from your past?”
“No, Sir.” The pregnant pause hurts. As I dare to glance up, his expression says another question is imminent. The roughness in my words comes from trying to quell the roar inside. “Satou-san, I have the utmost gratitude toward you. Please, no more questions about anyone else.”
To see him lean back resigned is a stab in the chest, the final nail in my coffin. Will the old bat understand or care about what I’ve sacrificed? With dragging steps, I grab a tea from the vending machine around the corner. One of my last acts as a free man. While my head rests on the wall, the unopened warm bottle dangles in my grip. Idiot. I should have known better than to hope.