Yōkai (妖怪, ghost, phantom, strange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for "bewitching; attractive; calamity"; and "spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious". They can also be called ayakashi (あやかし), mononoke (物の怪), or mamono (魔物). Yōkai range diversely from the malevolent to the mischievous, or occasionally bring good fortune to those who encounter them.
I had just wrapped up my stay in Kitakyushu. It was a lovely time when all was said and done. This was the usual for this trip. More pleasure than business usually, however this trip had more importance than usual. More discussions. More political play. That combined with the general crush of the population and my contact Suda's desperate need to make sure I felt taken care of - shuttling me off to Mojiko for lunches or dinners and planning meetings that involved many documents being read through, flower tunnels, and manga museums was just exhausting.
"The curry?" Suda paused his somewhat frantic feasting to check in on me.
I wiped my mouth and smiled a wide smile. "Glorious, thank you. The fish is a lovely touch." I nodded my head. "I'll miss this food and my present company." I smiled again letting him know that I was pleased. Something I seemed to have to do hourly to avoid his nervous planning.
"Excellent. Excellent." He laughed and went back to his feasting. He held up a finger and dipped his head to someone behind me. A small, full figured woman appeared with her hair drawn back into an intricate braid. She avoided looking at me, keeping her head tilted towards Suda as he looked her up and down, then locked onto the small, domed platter she carried.
He whispered in Japanese, "This is the Yamazaki 18, correct? The 18?"
The woman bowed her head and smiled. "Yes, Mr. Suda. The 18, as requested. We brought it up for you. We have the gift box and bag along with your note. I'll bring it out to you when you are finished." She smiled a polite smile and took a step back from the table as she lifted the dome. She still didn't look towards me.
As the dome lifted, I could see the bottle of Yamazaki 18 whiskey. I wasn't sure just how much Suda had spent on it, but I knew it wasn't cheap. I also knew I'd never inquire. I'd just do an internet search for it later out of curiousity.
Suda smiled to the woman and watched as she bowed and walked away. "I love a healthy woman. I should have married." He waved his hand at invisible thoughts that seemed to float before his eyes for a moment. "This is for you, my friend. A fine whiskey, though I was pushing for something even more elaborate for you." He chuckled. "As a lover of whiskey, I'm sure this will please."
"This really wasn't necessary, but I appreciate the gift. It's very kind of you. Very." I smiled and thought how unfair it was that Suda's view of our friendship was far more warm than mine. But, how do you tell a person this? "Would you share a glass with me now? Can we?"
His face lit up - more of the thoughts of friendship, most likely. "I couldn't. No no..."
I waved him off with a laugh. "Don't be absurd. With everything you've done for us this trip, it must happen." I turned to look for the woman again, but she must have slipped into the kitchen. I turned back to Suda and he motioned again with his finger and again the woman appeared, but made no eye contact with me. She placed two glasses on the table and motioned to the bottle. Suda nodded and she opened the bottle with expert care - a small blade drawn over the wrapping to release the cork, then a perfect amount poured into each glass. At that, she disappeared again.
"Not sure she likes me," I muttered with a grin.
"Superstitions and wife tales. Think nothing of it." He frowned slightly. He raised his glass. "To friendships and good business," he said as he waited for me to join in.
"To friendships and good business. I'd say Kanpai, but I'd prefer to sip this rather than draining it." I grinned and sipped with Suda, still thinking about his 'superstitions' comment.
"I'm happy that you are taking time to visit Soyokaze before returning home, Mr. Kenton. As a man in our industry, you simply must visit the Soyokaze Harbor."
I gave a silent prayer that Suda wouldn't go over the wonders of Soyokaze yet again. I wasn't sure I could take a third round of audio touring of the area. I cut in before he could start. "Yes, thanks again for making the arrangements on such short notice."
"Think nothing of it." He took another sip, then looked serious for a moment. He glanced behind me, then narrowed his eyes. "Do be careful while you travel. Just...the usual precautions." He broke his frown and grinned. "Soyokaze and Shizuka are safe spots in general, but they have been facing some...political drama of late."
"Has this to do with your suspicion comment earlier?" I motioned behind me with my head.
Suda's laugh was nervous and forced. He sipped. "Silly. Silly. When we were here the other day, obaasan said that you had a darkness around you." He sat up with a worried expression when he saw me raise my eyebrow at the statement and blurted out, "Not that YOU are the darkness. No no...it's not a reflection of you personally. It's as if...you were being..." He shook his head and muttered, "How to describe?" in Japanese before saying, "A worry or omen around you? Not quite right." The frustration was visible on his face.''
"Well, I'll be careful." I tried to reassure him with me smile. I refilled our glasses. "Let's chase the gloom away, shall we?"
The train trip was uneventful and a visual feast. Cityscapes gave way to countryside as my train rocketed along. I was immediately glad that I waited the extra day to take in the view in the light of day. Kiwamura station was called out along with mentions of Shizuka and Soyokaze. I watched as we swept around Shizuka and thought that I had made the wrong choice for seating arrangements until I got a glimpse of Soyokaze Temple. I smiled as I heard Suda's detailed tour of the area playing in my head.
A woman's voice shocked me. "Lovely."
I turned my head away from the window and found myself looking directly into the face of a woman leaning over to get a view of the temple through my window. Her hair hung down around her head giving her head the appearance that is was disembodied for a moment.
She smiled at me, and stood up as the train entered a tunnel. The dim lights of the train cast a blueish glow over everything. The woman waved and walked off down the center of the car awkwardly. I glanced down at my bag in the seat next to me and saw that there were two small, character charms on the handle. A small sash of red leather was tied to one of the latches.
I bolted up and snatched the bag up trying to spot the woman that looked out of my window. She was heading into the next car with a bag that looked just like the one I held minus the trimmings.
My first impulse was to shout after her, but, believing that would be bad form, I made my way into the passage and followed her instead. I begged people's pardon as I pushed past to try and catch up with the woman. I was greeted with a mixture of sympathy from some and disgust from others as I slowly caught up with the woman.
The train came to a stop and people slowly started filing off. I lost sight of the woman immediately. Stepping off the train, and moved towards a small set of stairs to get a higher view.
"Sir! Sir!" My train woman was waving her arm and holding up my bag. I returned the wave and held her bag up before stepping off the stairs and walking toward her. "I'm so sorry! Please forgive me. You must think I'm an idiot." She bowed and presented me with my bag. "I was in a fog."
Her English excellent. I had heard that that may be a small stumbling block for the trip in this area. "Not a problem at all. You were swept up in the wonder of the temple." I smiled and handed her her bag. She was dressed like a business worker - a sharp, black suit and white blouse. She looked to be my age, but I was never good at judging a person's age.
"Please, let me make it up to you for the inconvenience. May I?" She grinned.
"Really, it's not a problem."
"You might be hungry after the trip, yes? Are you staying in Shizuka? I can have our bags sent on and take you to lunch?" Suda's warning of a darkness and caution drifted away into our toast of friendships as I looked into the dark pools of her eyes. "I am Ito Aoi." She bowed, but in a rather informal way that I appreciated.
"Richard Kenton." I bowed in the fashion Suda said was appropriate for these sorts of meetings.
"Kenton-sama - a pleasure." She held her briefcase before her. "Shall we get our bags?"
The next few minutes were a bit of a blur. I had not remembered actually agreeing to lunch, nor do I remember accepting her kind offer to have our bags shuttled to the hotels for us, yet there I giving her all of my hotel information and watching as she made the arrangements with the man at the desk at Kiwamura station. The man seemed a bit taken aback by her manor. I couldn't hear what she was saying to him, but there almost seemed to be a bit of cringing that was going on. I began to wonder if she was known here. Some sort of business giant, perhaps?
When she turned back to me leaving the man at the desk, he seemed to fly into action - waving over two porters. After he said something to them, they glanced over toward Ito Aoi and sprang into action, taking up the bags and moving them away quickly.
"I'm not sure what you said to them, but they seem to be moving rather quickly." I chuckled.
Aoi laughed a small laugh, covering her mouth her her hand.
Lunch was fantastic. After we left the station, we strolled across the parking area and got onto a small tram after Aoi asked if I'd mind going the long way around through Shizuka and back out to Soyokaze. I said that would be preferable so I could get the lay of the land. The tram ran through the very edge of Shizuka. Aoi pointed out my hotel as we passed it along with some other points of interest in the immediate area.
The tram wrapped around and circled back on itself, then let us out in the heart of Soyokaze. It was a fun little "old style" town filled with wooden buildings and street vendors.
"It's not busy today or tomorrow, but the day after will be a mess here. If you plan on coming back, I suggest you do it later today or tomorrow," she said matter-of-factly. She led me in a circle around the vendors pointing things out from time to time, then excused herself and made a call.
Moments later, a black sedan arrived and the driver hurried out of the car and opened the door for us. "Company driver." She smiled. "I won't be able to make it up and over the Temple hill in these heels. Do you mind?" She didn't wait for an answer and stepped into the back.
I smiled at the driver, but he just stared at me blankly as I slipped in behind her.
The veneer of politeness seemed to be fading as Aoi and I spoke. She wasn't rude or gruff with me, but she was very straight forward and began to drop some of the politenesses that she had shown at the train station.
"What is it that you do, may I ask? Do you work in the area or are you just visiting as well?" The car swung around a curve and the driver had to come to a quick stop for a truck that was turning around. Aoi blurted out angry words in Mandarin which through me for a loop. The driver muttered what seemed to be an apology back to her in Chinese as he bowed his head repeatedly.
"So sorry about that. The dangers of having lunch directly in the harbor. But the food here is as fresh as it could be. I believe it's worth the dangers of trucks...and my driver." She smirked and I mustered a smile, but the worried look in the drivers eyes in the rearview put me a bit on edge.
It wasn't until later that I realized that she never answered my question about her job. All through lunch, she skillfully avoided details about it as well. It was always a shallow description of a boring business relations position or a glorified assistant. But her vague nature made me even more curious over time.
Aoi checked her phone several times during lunch and took several photos of us eating after we got to know each other better. She showed me the last photo she took - a happy set of new friends chatting over lunch. The hand she held up with the V finger formation completed things nicely. Sadly, her hand blocked her face for the most part.
"I can send it to you - what is your email address?" She entered the address quickly as I gave it to her and hit send. My phone chimed and she continued to write things in the phone as I checked mine. I slipped it back into my pocket as she grinned at rather sinister grin.
"You can tell all of your friend's back home that you picked up some girl for the weekend off the train." She chuckled and I got a rather off-putting feel from her. A sharpness. "I'm sure that will go over well." She finished her beer and popped the last bit of salmon into her mouth. Her phone chimed and she checked it again. "Excuse me." She stood and stomped off a few feet.
I glanced around the small shack of an eatery and around at the busy harbor goings on around us. Trucks were loaded, areas were cleaned, and people rushed about with clock-like order. I craned my head around and ducked it down a bit to get a look at the train being loaded up on the hillside above the harbor. A fine operation.
When I looked around, Aoi was taking another photo of me with that same, slightly sinister smile. She typed something in as she returned to the table. "Give us some privacy," she said - her voice forceful and slightly gruff. The three restaurant workers rushed away closing the door behind them. I frowned and pushed my chair back a bit.
"Everything ok, Aoi-san?"
She waved a hand at me and refilled her glass as my phone rang. I went to answer it, but she shook her head at me. "Just leave that. He'll call back." She grinned and drank the beer down quickly. She tapped her phone against the side of her head and said, "So many moving parts in business, Richard. So many arrangements. Right?"
I nodded. "Um...," I laughed nervously. "What's going on here?" I stood.
"Down, boy." She pointed to my chair. "Sit."
I narrowed my eyes, smiled, and made my way to the door. I spun around when I heard her heels snapping against the hardwood floor rapidly behind me. She was a blur of motion and had me spun back towards the door with my left arm up behind my back and something sharp against my right side.
Her phone rang and she let my arm go, but kept the sharp object up against the small of my back. The pressure made it clear that she didn't want me to move. I heard the polite woman from the train answer the phone.
"Suda-sama! How nice of you to return my email so promptly!" Her voice was high and had a sing-song feel to it. She giggled, then dropped into the gruff register again switching back to English. "I was just keeping your associate company while you worked things out." She pressed the object into my back with a bit more force. "He's a fantastic conversationalist."
I heard the voice on the other end of her phone. It sounded manic. Frantic.
"I need you to let me - " She pressed the object further into my back and cut me off.
"Suda. You know what we're looking for, yes? An agreement would do wonders for your friend here. Text my friends the information now. You have 45 seconds." She hung up and slipped the phone up and in front of my face. Her texts were up and I recognized Suda's number. "If my friends do not get what they want from your friend Suda...." She pressed harder and a sharp pain went up my spine.
My face was pressed against the door. I didn't move. Every time I tried to breathe, pain rang through me. I stared into the phone and Aoi's breath warmed my ear.
"Tick....tock.....tick....." she whispered into my ear. "I hope Suda knows that I'm serious."
Her phone chimed. The message on the screen read RECEIVED. Nothing more. I felt the pressure in my back fade away.
"Well, it looks like things will be ok for you after all." Aoi giggled and backed away. When I turned to face her, she showed me the object that was in my back. It was a spoon - it's pointed handle side up.
I made a move towards her and her hand swung up into view. She spun her hand around several times and a knife flashed into view.
"No no...I don't want to get my butterfly dirty, Richard." She waved me aside with the knife and I moved away from the door. She moved forward and opened the door. The driver entered the room and Aoi moved back to the table and took a sip of her beer before speaking. "Take Richard back to his hotel."
"Yes." The driver looked at me, motioned with his head, then left the room.
"That's it?" I scowled at her.
"Afraid so. No sex for you." She laughed. "Come now. You're fine. Free to explore our glorious city. Run along."
Furious, I stormed out of the room and past the waiting car. I had had enough. The harbor was still in full swing and I had no concerns for my safety anymore. The only thing on my mind was getting to a police station. I pulled my phone out and called Suma immediately. It picked up after one ring.
"SUMA! What the FUCK was -"
"Mr. Kenton. You're going to want to let this all go."
"Who are you? Where is Suma?!"
"Just drop it. You're fine. Enjoy your trip. Let it go." The phone went dead.
Three hours later, I was still in the small police station I found and still trying to get someone to do something. However, after seeing the woman on my phone, the police said that they really had nothing to go on. I gave them her name, but nothing came up in the computer when they looked it up. When I asked them to send someone to the harbor, the agreed reluctantly and asked me to step into a small waiting room.
A man showed up shortly after and spoke to the police. As he spoke, several officers glanced in my direction. They seemed agitated and concerned and I was wondering what the stranger was saying to them to get that sort of reaction.
He made his way over to me entered the room closing the door behind him.
"Mr. Kenton. Stanley Roth." He held out his hand and I shook it without thinking. "So sorry that you were involved in all of this fiasco."
"Are you from the embassy?"
"The embassy? No. I'm from K.A.B. They sent me over right away when they heard. What happened from the officers here."
He was from my company? I was confused and it must have shown on my face.
"Perhaps we can continue this conversation...elsewhere?"
I nodded and grabbed my coat. He was silent until we go out of the building.
"We've checked on Suda. He's gone. Security was trying to run a trace on the company phone, but they found it in his home. We were looking at his involvement in several confusing financial dealings, but never thought that things would get to this point. We just thought it was a simple case of embezzlement. It turns out it goes a bit further than that. We're just glad you're safe."
He pointed to a small garage and motioned me inside. I followed him through the dim parking area and towards the elevator. Someone rushed up behind me and shoved me aside. Roth spun around, but the woman was on him savagely. His face was filled with shock and pain as she slipped the butterfly knife into his side. She hissed as she pulled it out and brought the the handle down hard on his cheek. He went down hard and she snaked her hand through his hair, lifted his head, and brought it down hard on the concrete flooring. He was out cold.
Aoi stood after wiping the blade off hastily. "Don't you ever learn, Kenton-sama?" She laughed and I started to run. She called after me. "Maybe you should ask for ID when someone says they are from your company - huh?!"
My hand gripped the door handle and I stopped.
Aoi spun her hand around in a circle again and the blade folded back into the handle of the knife. "You're like a little boy asked if he'd like to go see puppies. Blindly following all strangers." Her laugh was cruel.
"Who was he?" I opened the door, longing to be closer to freedom before she got closer.
She slipped her hands out of the rubber gloves she wore. "Not Stanley Roth. No friend of yours."
"And you are?"
"Part of the deal. The only collateral damage there was to be was your friend Suda. He was not a very good boy. Not like you." She grinned.
I exited the garage and stepped out onto the sidewalk. People rushed by as I made my way away from the door before turning around. I half expected her to stay inside. To disappear out some side door. But seconds later she appeared, closed her eyes, and smiled up at the sunshine before making her way towards me. She raised her hand and two officers pushed past me.
The shock of the day was making my legs weak. I put out a hand to steady myself and rested against a bike rack.
"You're with the police?"
At that, she laughed hard and pointed at me. "You are hilarious. You should go home and never leave there." She giggled. "The police." She checked her phone and sighed. "Well, Richard, I'm done with you it seems. All these little loose ends are done." Sirens filled the air as an ambulance rounded the corner and the officers that went inside pushed the door open and started waving people away.
Aoi turned and started to walk away. "No more running off to see puppies. Enjoy the rest of your trip."
I followed after her. "Wait. What the fuck was this all about?!" Several people scowled at me as they passed by.
"Money, Richard. Bad people and money."
Aoi ran across the street dodging vehicles as she did. I made to follow her, but wasn't going to try and make it across a busy street.
The woman across from me pushed her glasses up on her nose and checked the small recorder in front of her. She lifted the photo of Aoi up and studied it for a moment before dropping it back down onto the table.
"Well, you are a luck man, Mr. Kenton. Very lucky. This all seemed very well planned and well executed. Yamato Suda's body was found three blocks away from his home. He'd been tortured for several hours, evidently."
"And, with everything that you've told me since you've been back, it seems like the very same could have happened to you. This Ito woman seemed to be on the same side as Mr. Yamato's attackers.
"Poor Suda." I shook my head.
"Yes." She pushed another paper at me to sign. "Last one. I don't think I'll need anything else from you. I won't be calling you in again." She smiled. "We're confident that you won't let this story out, but..." she tapped the paper. "Better to have it in writing, right?"
I scanned the document. Classic NDA form with some specific additions about the company and the trip. I was tired and done with the whole of it, so I signed it without much thought.
"Thank you so much for your cooperation." She started slipping the papers and photos back into her bag.
"So it was all money then?"
She smiled. "Yes. Mostly. Money."
I made my way put of the room after saying my goodbyes to the Security woman, Tate, and made my way out of the K.A.B. building. The air downtown was chilly and damp. I turned and walked down a block to the coffee shop I frequented. As I ordered, my phone buzzed. I stepped over to wait for my coffee and took the phone from my pocket.
There was a message. The sender phone number was the same as mine.
HERE. THESE SHOULD KEEP YOU ENTERTAINED AND SAFE AT HOME, KENTON-SAMA. Affectionately, Yōkai (´・ω・`)
Attached were about six photos of puppies.
A smile crossed my face. What an smartass.