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CHAPTER 1: HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT

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Mid-November

Kneeling to stock the low shelves at TaniMart makes my knees ache. Though I’m not gonna risk complaining. I’m lucky to have this job, even if it’s mind-numbing. Someday, I’ll have my own business. Right now? I have to save up since the feds took every yen of my savings when they threw me in the slammer.

Pain shoots through my forearm as something bounces off. Crash! Years of ready-to-fight reflex have me jumping to a defensive stance. What the…

Shattered glass and pickled plums litter the polished floor. Reflections of the overhead lights glare at me in the puddles of brine. Then the green, spicy scent of shiso hits my nose. Breathe, Umeji. It wasn’t an attack.

“Sorry, Mister!” A boy and his mom stare wide-eyed at my hands after giving a bow.

“Please, finish your shopping. I’ll take care of this.” When I reach to pick up the glass pieces, my heart sinks as the distinctive blue-black wave and red maple leaf designs of my irezumi tattoo sleeve show through the transparent wet fabric of my shirt. Despite the deafening silence, the hint of the ink that marks my past wails like a siren, warning all in my vicinity. Why the hell does our uniform have to include a white shirt?

The woman hunches, tensed as if ready to run. Backing away, she wrenches her son along in a white-knuckled grip.

My hand crushes the shards in my palm as my head hangs.

When I report the injury to Satou, my volunteer parole officer and boss, he shakes his head and grabs his jacket. “Let’s get you to the doctor. Tell me what happened on the way.”

I stare out the window. The buildings blur by as the scene replays in my head.

“Out with it,” Satou’s low voice prods. He made me promise not to lie to him when he took me on as a parolee.

So I regurgitate the wretched event. “I knew my past wouldn’t stay buried forever. But I didn’t expect it to be revealed this soon, so I squeezed the glass in my palm. It was that or punch somethin’.”

His hands tighten on the steering wheel as we pull up to the clinic. “Why didn’t you wear something with long sleeves under the uniform?”

The price for my mistake? Five stitches in my palm.

It was bad enough I didn’t quite have the cash needed to buy the black long-sleeve shirt he told me to pick up, and he had to help me buy it. Satou shouldn’t have to waste any more time or money on me. So I opt for the hour walk home to the room I’m renting from him. He said I could stay until one opens up in town.

So much for blending in. My attempts to ditch the Tokyo accent are probably worthless now. Satou said there are fewer than 1,300 people in Nonogawa, so everyone in town will know by tomorrow. Letting the old swagger back into my step lacks the feeling of control it used to give as I walk past neighborhoods of traditional and modern housing.

My insides continue to twist as I wait for my boss to return home. Tomorrow’s gonna suck. Might as well get in a good soak to relax, instead of pacing. So, I start the fire to heat the water for the bath. I’d place good money down that Satou picked this old house based on the big wooden tub. When I can afford my own place, a good bath will be a priority for me, too.

It’s been years since I had daily access to the most relaxing activity of everyday life. First, because of my jail sentence. Second, most public bathhouses ban gangsters. They say our ink threatens. The previous generations won’t forget the yakuza heydays, when only mobsters sported ink.

Naked and settling onto the low wooden stool beside the tub, I scrub and fill the bucket at my feet to rinse off. I could use a shave. Should I ditch the mustache to fit in better? It covers the knife fight scar. So either way, I don’t fit the norm. Shit.

With a slam, I flip the small hanging mirror over. Don’t want to see the reflection that stared back. Before everyone knew I had been a mobster, could they tell I was just trying not to stick out?

Splashing water on my face rinses away the questions. Despite the chill of the tile floor on my feet, I revel in not having to hurry as I scrub and rinse. Damn, it’s good to not have the prison guards timing me anymore. My chin-length hair needs some attention, but I don’t have the cash for a trim and don’t want to bother Satou any more than I already have. I was lucky the prison didn’t make me get a buzz cut. Most do.

Finally, I slide into the tub. A hiss escapes my mouth as the fire-heated water contacts my chilled skin. The tattooed kitsune in their traditional designs on my shoulders seem to enjoy the warmth, too. Soon the heat seeps into stiff muscles, and I lean on the edge, soaking it in.

Satou said the community is hard to break into. So, I’ve got to avoid sticking out any more than I already do. In a small town, once you’re known for something, it’s never forgotten. With a determination to focus on one day at a time, I sink deeper into the water.

 

***
 

On my next shift, whispers and side glances greet me. The yakuza taint broadcasts its presence stronger than the stench of diarrhea. Everyone gives me a wide berth. Not even a week in town and I’m an outcast again. The only way out is hard work and humility. I will endure.

The mom returns just before my shift ends. She avoids the aisle I’m stocking, but her little boy points, announcing, “Mama! There’s the guy with the tattoos!”

Her shushing causes him to insist all the louder. Focus on the task at hand, Umeji. I force myself to look away as she lugs him out of the building.

That’s the moment Satou’s elderly aunt gives me the stink eye. Shuffling up, she waggles a crooked, accusing finger right in front of my nose, causing me to back into the shelves and knock several plastic tubes of mayo on the floor.

“Get your head out of the sand, boy. You saw that mother’s reaction. I advised my nephew not to take in a stray like you. To make things worse, yesterday I heard you’re covered in irezumi tattoos. Nonogawa may be in the sticks, but we all know what that means here.”

I blink. Why are little old ladies so rude?

“Well? Are you?” she presses.

While I deserve the disdain, I don’t want my boss to take heat for me. “Ma’am, the community respects Satou-san. I’ll do my best for his sake.”

She draws out the syllables. “You dodged.” As she crosses her arms, her sharp eyes shift to a predatory glint. “If you won’t answer, roll up your sleeve. I know yakuza ink when I see it.”

My head swivels. Satou, where are you? Make your vicious aunt heel. She’s really causing my hackles to raise, but I don’t want to do anything stupid. “Ma’am?”

In the Hiragi clan, I was good at remembering names, because the alternative could be costly. What did Satou say her name was? Oh yeah—Nakamura Hisako, the town’s beloved matriarch. When I was yakuza, I would have never let a little old lady corner me. But I’m caught flat-footed because I can’t use any of the in-your-face phrases that bubble up to get her to lay off. I haven’t done a damned thing to her. What gives?

So, I take a deep breath. No attitude. “Nakamura-sama, it’s becoming more common in the cities. People keep ‘em out of sight to avoid the stigma.”

As if I’ll tell this biddy the full truth. Later, I can scream rebellion in gokudou drawl all I want. But her outburst is the proverbial piano hanging overhead, threatening to crash down on the little hope I have in this town.

At twenty-four, I should have a high school diploma and a college degree or employment experience. This is my only chance. Suck it up, Umeji. So, I bow deep. “I apologize that my tattoos offend. If I could turn back time, I’d not have done it. How may I help you?”

Harrumphing, she turns on her heel with the grace of a ballerina, leaving me with some serious heartburn. Hiro, my big brother in the Hiragi clan, had taught me to ferret out everything that seemed out of place. How does an old lady move that fast?

When I finish stocking, I grab my baseball-style jacket with its embroidered fox on black and gold silk and beeline it to Satou. Just my luck, his aunt beats me there.

I wait behind her and examine my shoes. Faint reflections of fluorescent lights show on the tile floor.

“That tattooed punk is bad for business.” She points, doubtless aware of how rude she’s being. “He dares to flaunt his past wearing that rebel jacket, instead of considering this store’s reputation. I’ve heard all manner of rumors. Mark my words, Kazuo, people will stop shopping here.” Full-to-the-brim grocery bags strain her arthritic knuckles.

While Nakamura’s concern is understandable, does she care that this ‘rebel jacket’ is the only one I own? I was fortunate someone dropped it by the penitentiary after emptying my apartment. My fists clench, pulling on the stitches from yesterday’s wound. Why does this town love her, anyway?

Satou clears his throat and tilts his nose toward me. “Aunt, tattoos or not, he’s being much more polite than you. I’ve never seen you in such a state.”

Give it your all. My voice almost cuts out as I ask, “Nakamura-sama, may I carry your groceries?”

She grumbles, lumbering off. My cheeks burn, but Hiro’s hard-learned lessons on observation kick in. Where’s the grace she had?

“Aunt Hisako is opinionated and protective of our community. But she’s almost always reasonable. Wish I knew what got her undies in a bundle.” With a raised eyebrow, Satou says, “You rendered her speechless. That’s quite the feat.”

Shoving my arms into the sleeves ruthlessly, I shrug on my coat.

“It’ll be ok, Umeji-san. FYI, I need to stay late, but you can wait in the break room.”

Most days I remain beyond my assigned hours to assist with the day’s tasks. Every dutiful employee does. But I mumble, “I’ll walk.”

“Suit yourself.”

In the parking lot, a shitzu puppy breaks loose from its owner’s grasp. The mutt charges for Nakamura as it barks its head off. Nakamura, calm as a windless day, lifts her index finger toward the potential attacker, halting it in its tracks.

The owner scoops up the stiff, silent pet and bobs. “I’m so sorry, Nakamura-san! I can’t imagine what little Taro-chan was thinking.”

“Thank you for catching him. I think he intended to bite my leg off. Didn’t you, pup?” Satou’s aunt flashes a wry smile that must have created most of the lines in her wrinkled face. The other woman’s eyes widen in horror. She bows again, scurrying off.

Unperturbed, Nakamura sets her groceries in her red Nissan sedan. But a can drops and rolls, causing her to mutter under her breath.

Here we go again! Scooping it up before it’s flattened under a moving van and jogging over, I hold it out in my hands—a peace offering. Her lips purse and she snatches the item as if my touch might poison the food inside.

Fine. If this is a war of attrition, I’ll fight it to show regret for what I’ve done.

Mid-afternoon, I’m almost to the house. Strolling through the forested farmland, sunshine and the warm, late fall day breathes life into me again. The dense, fiery landscape of reds, oranges, and yellows set off by the evergreens of bamboo, cedar and cypress has me grabbing for my cellphone. I’d seen parks like this, but not horizon to horizon beauty. Then my shoulders sag. The damn feds took my cell, too.

Compared to the compacted cityscape I’d grown up with, the open farmland leaves me exposed. Tall buildings always surrounded and protected me before I came here. A weight fills my chest. Despite being in the middle of nowhere for a week, I keep half expecting to see some tall structure around the next bend. Out of habit, I shove my hands in my jacket pockets to fiddle with the dog-eared collection of Japanese myths. My breathing slows upon contact with the book from my father. The one connection I have left with him.

A glint of vermilion in the trees stands out even in the bright foliage beyond the rice field, so I squint against the sun to get a better look. Beckoning me, a path leads through the paddies and over the river to a torii gate.

Sori Okunugi, the Hiragi clan leader, insisted every member pray at public shrines, though I only ran through the motions to appease him. My clan brothers didn’t give it a second thought. But I always felt unworthy when we’d go. My parents used to tend a shrine across the street from our apartment. They would comment as they watched out the window, waiting for the couple of yakuza, who often visited, to leave. Those words haunted me every time I visited. So I shoved the feelings into a mental shoebox, one that got pretty damned full.

My stride turns to a jog as I’m greeted by the fox statues with red bibs at the top of the stairs. Pausing for a brief bow at the gate, I bound up, skipping every other step. I shouldn’t run because I’m entering a sacred area. But a tug on my heart invites me to peek at what I’ve avoided so long.

Memories flood in as I climb. When I was a child, my dad would read to me. My favorite stories were of the kitsune. Whether they were the messengers of Inari or the shape-shifting trickster spirits, they fascinated me. Mom also fed my obsession with the mythical animals by buying me a fox mask and taking me to the Ouji Inari shrine to be in the Kitsune Parade when I was ten. After that, I drew foxes on everything and devoured every myth I could find.

When my clan brothers went to get inked, dragging me along, I hoped the artist would agree to my plan. Traditional tattoo artists are picky and may refuse an idea. On top of that, they charge a fortune.

I’d printed a picture of a Meiji era photograph with a man showing off his tats—a nine-tailed fox on each shoulder with them chasing each other, one red with a flame above it and the other white with a scroll in its mouth.

My brethren teased me because kitsune aren’t the typical symbols gangsters pick. They quit when the tattooer was so intrigued he did the initial outlines of the ancient design for free.

At the summit, I follow the dirt path through the foliage to find a squat shrine building that probably never had a lick of paint. Moss covers sections of the tiled roof and footings. Yet, the steps and floor are spotless. A bell and a few crisp white paper ornaments, hanging from the rope that demarcates the spiritual space, decorate the simple place of worship.

That jam-packed shoebox of shame threatens to burst open. My fingers shake. The things I’ve done. The offering coffer makes me look away. I won’t get paid for a while. Nothing to offer. I’ve got to be the only one in the entire country that doesn’t even have a one-yen coin to throw. Pathetic. Coming here was a mistake.

As my fists slide into my coat pockets, there’s a crinkle—the salmon riceball that was supposed to be my lunch. My stomach growls. I’ve gone without meals before. This time it’s my choice.

With reverence, I place it beside the other offerings. Then, after a deep bow, two claps, and ringing the bell, I pray. My throat constricts as I dare to voice my request to the kami. “Help me stay on this new path and assist others as Satou-san has me.”

Heading back down the trail, my tally of all the things that could go wrong tomorrow is interrupted by prickles forming on the back of my neck. Then a rustle comes from behind. I whip around. A quick scan of the area doesn’t reveal anyone, but years of keyed-up-instinct say someone was there.

After passing under the torii, a rustle makes me check my surroundings again. The tail of a gray fox disappears into the dense foliage. I’d not seen a wild one before. That was so cool! Did it enjoy my meal? My love for the creatures drives me to follow it, but I stop after my first step past the gate. Idiot. The animal is long gone and knows this area. Maybe I’ll see it again.

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