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Travelling in company

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i.

Junpei waited until his hard-earned ball bearings started pouring out of the pachinko machine before looking up at Phi. He knew she'd been standing beside him with her arms crossed for the better part of ten minutes but he'd been on a winning streak and had been reluctant to break his concentration.

‘This is helping the investigation how?’ Phi leaned close so she was all but shouting at Junpei's ear. She'd said something similar when she'd found Junpei hunched in front of the machine earlier, but her voice had been drowned out by the pings and beeps ringing across the pachinko parlour and Junpei had chosen to ignore her.

Which made an appeal to her emotions less likely to succeed now, but unfortunately for her, she wasn't heading the investigation she was so worried about.

‘Why don't you yell a little louder?’ said Junpei, picking his trays of ball bearings up from the floor before leaving his seat. ‘Make sure anyone here who speaks English would hear, you know?’

’As if they'd hear me over this din,’ said Phi. ‘And everyone's too busy gambling to listen to some gaijin anyway.’

‘How rude.’ Junpei headed towards the booth at the back without bothering to check if Phi was following. ‘We all know gambling is illegal in Japan.’

To her credit, Phi chose not to say anything as the guy in charge of the parlour weighed Junpei's trays before giving him a corresponding number of plastic chips. Or rather, she waited until they were walking towards the exit and out of earshot before talking.

‘And where are you taking that?’ Phi jerked her chin at the chips in Junpei's hand.

‘To a completely different and unconnected establishment, where I can trade them off for money, of course.’ Junpei grinned. Phi was right, but legal loopholes and the love of pachinko aside, there was a lesson to be had about keeping up appearances and saving face in Japanese society. Not that Phi was insensitive to social cues; she spoke her mind but was seldom rude. Normally Junpei wouldn’t care and most of the locals made allowances for foreigners, but they were here on business that would most likely take them to the seedier parts of the city. In those places, an outsider keeping to the social niceties meant a higher chance of them getting out in one piece.

‘Wait here,’ said Junpei, once they were out in the narrow alley that connected the arcade to a rundown multi-purpose building. ‘I won't take long.’

‘We've already wasted so much time.’ Phi crossed her arms again.

‘You can practise your Japanese on those schoolgirls over there.’ There was a group of high schoolers standing close to where the street met the alley; most of them were busy fiddling with their sparkly smartphones, but a couple were eyeing passersby with bored expressions on their expertly made-up faces. ‘Although they might actually be looking for salarymen to pay for dates.’

‘I can't believe this,’ said Phi, although Junpei could see the ghost of a smile on her lips. ‘This place is Sigma central.’

Junpei laughed. ‘You think he'd pay to have them wear their school bathing suits for him?’

‘I've yet to see anyone take him up on his offer.’

‘What?’ said Junpei, raising his hands in exaggerated surprise. ‘The way he looks, you'd think someone would be game. At the very least, Diana might be up for it.’

The quiet sort tended to hide some hardcore kinks; Junpei reckoned all those repressed emotions had to have some outlet and the bedroom was a relatively safe place to explore them.

‘Oh?’ said Phi, really smiling this time. ‘It's not every day your boss speculates about your parents’ sex lives. Does that count as sexual harassment?’

Junpei choked on his own spit. ‘We've wasted enough time here,’ he said, after a bout of coughing. ‘I should get a move on.’

‘What would your fiancée say?’ Phi called out, as Junpei hurried towards the unmarked office tucked behind a shop that sold electronic parts. He thought he heard her laugh, but he was knocking on the door and had no time for further bantering.

A tall man Junpei didn't know opened the door and gestured him inside. He wore a simple suit and nondescript tie: the kind of outfit people wore so as not to stand out. Except Junpei was sure the guy stood more than six feet in height and his clothes did little to hide his muscular frame. While not unusual in America, Junpei didn't think this was a standard office worker look in Japan.

‘Tenchan!’ Mishima said, waving at Junpei from his desk. ‘It's been a while.’

‘Good afternoon,’ said Junpei, giving the tall man a nod before approaching Mishima's desk. ‘You hired a bodyguard.’

Mishima laughed. ‘What are you saying, Tenchan? I’ve always had a bodyguard.’

‘Not of this calibre.’

‘I believe he's checking you out, Satou-kun.’ Mishima waggled his eyebrows at Junpei. ‘Pretty boys like you are Satou-kun's type.’

Junpei was used to Mishima's teasing; the old man was charming and polite to female patrons but ran his filthy mouth off when alone with men. He was amusing and never said anything truly offensive, so Junpei didn't mind. Another lesson on keeping up appearances: the guy could have Junpei killed on a whim, but so long as Mishima didn't insult Junpei's mother he was all right in Junpei's book.

Satou bowed and gave Junpei a wink to go with his business card, which Junpei received in bemusement. He’d never seen any of Mishima's cohort bother with business cards before. He wondered if Satou Keiichi was the guy's real name.

‘If you're looking for a bodyguard,’ said Satou. It was hard to tell if he was serious or not, but Junpei was spared having to reply as he fished inside his jacket pocket for his card case. He never bothered carrying business cards in America, but that wouldn't work here in Japan. He silently thanked Akane for giving him an expensive silver case for his birthday; wouldn't do to appear unprepared in front of these people.

‘I could lend him to you,’ said Mishima. ‘Only for a night, mind you.’

‘Thanks,’ said Junpei, trying not to turn red. ‘I already have one.’

He had spent too much time in America. He should have told Mishima that he didn't want to impose on the man's kindness--even if the offer had been in jest. But there he was, bragging instead. Junpei wondered if the gaffe would hurt his standing with Mishima. He was an easy-going man, but Junpei had always been careful about keeping him that way.

‘That pretty girl waiting for you outside?’ said Satou.

‘Oh god,’ said Junpei, in English. ‘No, not her.’

Mishima laughed. ‘But she is looking out for you, no?’

‘We're looking into something,’ said Junpei. ‘It might be connected to the reason why you thought to hire Satou-san over there.’

Mishima drummed his fingertips against the top of his desk. Junpei said nothing as the old man considered his options. Junpei had worked with Mishima before, back when Junpei's former agency had been pursuing a foreign group that dealt with human trafficking. Mishima had been a valuable contact then, but this case was different and involved the locals. Junpei wasn't sure if Mishima would be willing to cooperate. Or at the very least provide him insider's information to start from.

Junpei could feel the weight on his feet when Mishima finally gestured at the far side of his office, where a coffee table stood in the middle of two leather sofas. ‘Have a seat. Satou-kun, some tea please.’

*

‘Those girls would have been my bosom friends by now,’ said Phi, ‘if I'd gone to talk to them.’

Junpei found her perched on top of the metal railing that separated the pavement from the street. She had her smartphone out and he guessed she'd been chatting with Akane while waiting. At the very least she wouldn't have been bored.

‘Instead you sext with my fiancée.’

Phi grinned as she slid down the railing to fall into step beside Junpei. ‘It keeps you on your toes.’

‘I expected you to be angrier,’ said Junpei. His meeting with Mishima had taken longer than he'd expected; had he known Phi was going to wait for half an hour he'd have asked her to go ahead and have lunch.

‘It depends on whether you received useful intel or not.’

Junpei shrugged. He didn't want to talk about it out in the streets. Cities saw a lot of foreign traffic and locals were more likely to speak some English in accommodation. ‘Wanna get lunch?’

‘Your treat.’

‘It's always my treat.’ He could (and usually did) charge meals to work expenses, but then Aoi would know Junpei had been to McDonald’s thrice in a row. An insult to the injury of leaving Aoi behind in the Crash Keys HQ while everyone went off to Japan. ‘McDonald's okay?’

‘Fine,’ said Phi, looking back at her phone. ‘There's one a couple blocks away.’

Junpei got two Ebifurai sets (double patty on his) and a dark choco pie for Phi--she was partial to them and was partly the reason why they'd been to McDonald's so many times. The place was almost deserted and it wasn't hard to find a corner table where they could speak in relative privacy.

‘It seems the Yamaguchi group had an unpleasant experience with the Mayubekidou[ 1 ],’ Junpei began. ‘One of their chinpira--’ he cut himself off at Phi's ‘A what?’ ‘A runner for the yakuza. Well, one of their chinpira had committed suicide along with the five people mentioned on the news.’

‘He was also a member?’ said Phi, tearing her pie in half.

‘No idea yet. My contact's not connected to them, but he says the other groups are unsettled. The Yamaguchi group is convinced their guy had no reason to kill himself.’

‘People tend to say that,’ said Phi. ‘How do they know he was connected to Mayubekidou?’

‘That’s the thing,’ said Junpei, speaking through a mouthful of burger. Phi raised her eyebrows but made no comment. ‘My contact implied the Yamaguchi group’s just using this as an excuse to go after them. Their territories in Kanazawa-cho overlap and the Yamaguchi group's unhappy with all the cultish activity happening in their backyard.’

‘So it's not even confirmed if his death is related to our case.’ Phi finished her choco pie off with a small satisfied smile. She basked in food happiness for a moment before going back to business. ‘We need to find another lead.’

Easier said than done, considering neither of them had legal authority to investigate, let alone speak to the bereaved. They could always dodge questions about their identities, but Junpei reckoned the less people knew about them and Crash Keys as a group the better.

‘We might need to talk to Seven,’ he said.

‘You sure have a lot of contacts.’ Phi picked her burger up and started unwrapping it. She was a quick eater and would no doubt catch up even if Junpei had already finished off two-thirds of his own burger.

‘The better part of investigation is who and what you know.’

‘And we haven't already talked to Seven because?’

Junpei frowned at his fries. ‘Because he's still pissed off about Dcom and I've been avoiding him.’

‘The better part of investigation is who and what you know.’

‘You're just as annoying as he is,’ said Junpei, in Japanese. His voice had risen and a group of students who were sitting two tables down from him and Phi turned to look at him with unmasked curiosity. ‘I'm gonna ask Akane to call him.’

‘You can't make your fiancée pick up after your mess all the time,’ said Phi, making a face.

‘I do the same for her.’ Junpei shrugged. ‘And she’s got some free time right now.’ Akane had been doing a lot of shopping and sightseeing since they’d arrived in Japan but not much else. She deserved a break, of course, but Junpei reckoned she wouldn't mind helping out with the investigation if he asked nicely.

‘She said she'd show me around Yokohama this weekend,’ said Phi.

‘How mean,’ said Junpei. ‘Haven't I been doing that the past couple days?’

‘You've shown me pachinko parlours and horse races.’ Phi pointed a fry at Junpei's face as if it were a knife. ‘I don't think that's all of Yokohama.’

Junpei sighed. ‘Believe it or not, I haven't even been to all the famous places in Tokyo.’ He'd been a university student with a part-time job at a bookstore: not only did he not have a lot of time for travelling, he also couldn't afford it no matter if he wanted to.

‘It's not too late,’ said Phi. ‘We have lots of time before dinner.’

Junpei pulled out his phone and googled ‘Yokohama sights’. He would add the whole excursion to work expenses as well. Aoi the Crash Keys CFO might complain, but Aoi the individual would find it less insulting than repeat trips to McDonald's. ‘We could go to the Cup Noodles Museum or the Ramen Museum, take your pick.’

‘I can see a pattern here.’

‘Take it up with Yokohama,’ said Junpei. Relenting, he added, ‘Akane would get angry if I took you to her favourite spots before she could.’

Phi nodded. ‘Don’t you ever get jealous?’ she said. She was something of a deadpan snarker but Junpei had spent enough time with her to differentiate between her sarcasm face and her serious one. She went from the latter to the former as she added, ‘You're sleeping with her brother, aren't you?’

‘Why do you think that?’ said Junpei, voice rising again. He was glad for the change in topic, but the topic itself left much to be desired.

‘Everyone thinks that,’ said Phi. ‘Your budget proposals always get approved.’

Junpei stuck his lower lip out. ‘I deliver. That's all that matters.’

‘I'm sure the Kurashikis enjoy the whole package.’ Phi laughed. Junpei appreciated people who laughed at their own jokes, but he wasn't feeling very appreciative of Phi right that moment.

‘Does your mum know you talk like that?’

‘You wouldn't dare.’ Phi threw her crumpled burger wrapper at Junpei. She had a good aim: it hit him on the forehead before bouncing off to the floor.

‘Stop littering. I'll be the shame of Japan.’ Junpei picked the wrapper up and put it on the tray with the rest of their rubbish. ‘Come on, we need to get to the Cup Noodles Museum before they close for the day.’

‘Aw, I wanted to go to the Ramen Museum.’

‘No you don't. There's space ramen in the Cup Noodles one.’

Phi stood up. ‘What are you waiting for? Chop chop.’

ii.

Junpei and Phi came back to their hotel rooms after exploring the wonders of Nissin's instant ramen technology, each carrying the cup noodles they'd made in the factory. Akane made a fuss about being left out of the fun and decided they were going to an odenya[ 2 ] so she could have a local flavour experience with Phi as well.

Their first few nights in Japan, dinner had been in fancy restaurants that required Junpei to wear a suit. Akane didn't usually bother with that kind of thing so he assumed her brother had chosen for them. That said, Junpei was getting tired of the rich people food and he’d be happy never to see a suit for the rest of the trip, so an odenya was a welcome change. It was perfect for the season as well, and Akane made sure the place they went to had heaters for their feet tucked in the area below the tables.

‘So how was your day?’ said Akane, after a quick explanation of the various ingredients for Phi.

Junpei glared at Phi before she could say anything about pachinko. ‘We might have to ask Seven for help.’

‘Hm,’ said Akane. ‘Is he still angry with you? Do you want me to contact him?’

‘I'll leave him to you and Phi,’ said Junpei, turning on the full wattage of his smile. He was sure Phi had been about to roll her eyes and make a comment about Akane spoiling him rotten, but he was nothing if not good at distractions.

‘You're not joining us tomorrow?’ said Akane, nibbling on her hanpen[ 3 ]. ‘What are you up to?’

‘I'm gonna have Skype sex with your brother,’ said Junpei. Seeing Phi choke on her fish cake was almost worth listening to Akane's oneesan laugh--a full-throated sound that started low in her chest before rising in pitch towards the end. She always laughed like that when teasing Junpei, usually in relation with her brother.

‘Jumpy!’ Akane let her hanpen plop back on her plate so she could cover her mouth with her hand. ‘What will Phi think of us?’

From under the table, her other hand squeezed his.

‘Phi already knows you're a kinky woman,’ said Junpei. He squeezed her hand back: I'll be fine. ‘Everyone thinks I'm sleeping with Aoi, apparently.’

Phi recovered from her chikuwa incident and finished off a glass of warm saké in one gulp. ‘You didn't hear it from me.’

‘Tell me all about it,’ said Akane. She hasn't let go of Junpei's hand and he knew she was still worried, but they could talk it out later. ‘You know what I want right now? Katsudon. I know this place that serves them just like oniichan’s.’

‘Wait,’ said Phi. ‘Isn't this dinner?’

‘No,’ said Junpei and Akane. Junpei's mum firmly believed proper meals needed to include rice and he'd grown up thinking the same.

‘We can burn all the calories off tomorrow,’ Akane added. ‘We have a lot of things to do.’

*

Junpei got out of the shower while Akane was in the middle of a video call with Aoi. She seldom talked about business on her daily calls with her brother, choosing instead to tell him how her day went and show off the things she'd bought. But now she sounded subdued as she said, ‘Hmm, he hasn’t said anything.’

She hadn't plugged in her earphones, but Junpei couldn't make out what Aoi was saying.

‘I'm not worried about that, but I'll keep it in mind.’

Junpei stood just outside the bathroom door and wondered if it would be fine if he just popped back into the bedroom. The Kurashikis considered him part of the family, so it wasn't so much about privacy as the fact that they were obviously talking about him.

‘I'll keep you updated. M-hm he said he'll have Skype sex with you,’ she laughed. ‘So I expect he'll be calling tomorrow.’

‘Kanny,’ said Junpei, pouting.

‘Oh did you want to start now?’ said Akane, eyeing the towel wrapped around Junpei’s waist with a smile.

Closer to Akane and her iPad, Junpei heard Aoi say, ‘Leave me out of this.’

Junpei plopped himself onto the bed, ignoring Akane's ‘Jumpy, you're dripping all over the duvet!’

‘I’ve got a wishlist for you, Santa.’ Junpei leaned over Akane's shoulder so he could peer into her iPad screen.

Aoi was checking his nails. ‘You know what gets me hot and bothered, babe.’

Junpei rolled his eyes. ‘And I keep telling you I don't have the degree for it.’ He had in fact been several months shy of getting his degree from the School of Commerce in W University when he got kidnapped by Zero. Akane kept apologising for that, but honestly he could have kissed her (and frequently did). He’d been a mediocre student and had no prospects aside from a boring desk job at a third-rate company.

‘No one cares about degrees when it's the end of the fiscal year,’ said Aoi. The guy had no degree either so Junpei knew he wasn't particularly fussed about it.

‘And you studied at W University,’ Akane added. Junpei was touched that she set so much store on his academic achievements when she had a PhD to her name, but Akane was nice like that.

‘Fine, I'll help with the financial reports.’ Junpei held out a hand. ‘But only if your staff is in a pinch and I'm not swamped with reports.’

‘And?’ said Aoi, raising an eyebrow.

‘I’ll watch Destruction Babies[ 4 ] with you.’ Junpei thought the movie was tediously violent, but for some reason Aoi loved putting it on when he wanted to unwind. Akane and Carlos liked Aoi too much to tell him it was shit and usually ended up wasting two odd hours of their lives watching the thing with him. Still, Junpei reckoned it was better than a week of staring at spreadsheets.

‘Tell me all about it tomorrow.’ Aoi had probably noticed Akane's hand going under Junpei's towel because he added, ‘I'm hanging up before anyone gets naked.’

‘I’m wearing the cute lingerie I bought our first night here,’ said Akane.

That certainly piqued Junpei's interest.

‘Too much information, Akane,’ said Aoi.

‘Good night, oniichan.’

Junpei took the iPad away from Akane and tossed it face down at the foot of the bed. ‘Wanna go burn some calories off now?’

*

Their hotel room had windows to the west, which was good because Junpei hated waking up with the sun on his face. It was bad because nine o'clock came and went before Junpei finally got out of bed, with no clue as to what time it was until he found his phone in his jacket pocket.

He'd opened his eyes briefly when Akane had headed out with Phi earlier, but he had no idea what time that was either. At any rate, his appointment wasn't until lunchtime so there was no need to rush. He ate the original cup noodles (curry, with cheese and shrimp toppings) he'd made last night at the museum and turned on the TV to watch a variety show. It was already ten o'clock when he picked his phone up again and video called Aoi via Line.

‘Morning, sunshine.’ It was four in the afternoon where Aoi was, but knowing the guy's weird sleeping habits Junpei wasn't surprised to see a rumpled Aoi sitting up in bed.

‘Does it have to be a fucking video call?’ said Aoi, rubbing his face.

‘I've seen worse things,’ said Junpei. ‘And I promised you Skype sex.’

‘Can it.’ Aoi sighed. ‘It's too early for flirting. What do you want?’

‘I need all the intel you could get about the Yamaguchi group from Kanazawa-cho. Have you worked with them before?’

‘Hang on.’ Aoi must have put his phone on the bed because Junpei got an eyeful of the pristine white ceiling of his room for several seconds before the camera panned back to Aoi's face. He had his laptop open and had begun typing. ‘Yeah, Akane's dealt with them before. That’s a few years back so our data's probably outdated.’

‘Better than nothing. Can you transfer me the files?’

Another flurry of typing and Aoi nodded. ‘Done.’

Junpei took a deep breath; now came the hard part. ‘I also need someone who can hack into a guy's smartphone.’

‘Whose smartphone?’ said Aoi, frowning.

‘The chinpira who committed suicide.’

‘And you have access to his phone?’ Aoi's voice dropped an octave, which was never a good sign. He was the sort who went quieter the more serious he got. ‘Didn't you decide to chase other leads yesterday?’

‘Akane and Phi are doing that.’ Junpei tried smiling. It never had the same effect with Aoi as with Akane, but it was worth a shot. ‘Look, we'd have a lot more freedom following this lead than if we shadow the police investigation--’

‘You'll have as much freedom as the yakuza allows you,’ said Aoi, through clenched teeth. ‘Are you meeting the Yamaguchi group today?’

Carlos always said Junpei didn’t know when to shut up, but Junpei knew enough to keep a strategic silence when he had to.

‘You told Akane your contact had no connection to them.’

‘Yeah,’ said Junpei, rubbing the back of his neck. ‘I lied.’

‘I don't keep secrets from my sister,’ said Aoi. ‘You're a piece of shit, you know that?’

‘I don't mind Akane knowing,’ said Junpei. He reckoned she already did, which was why she'd been so worried last night. ‘But Phi--’ He let his voice trail off.

Phi would never have let him go to Kanazawa-cho alone, but the yakuza were very particular about meeting with foreigners in that they usually didn't. And even if the investigation regarding the death of their runner was important enough for the Yamaguchi group to reconsider, Junpei wasn't sure Phi wouldn't accidentally do something to piss them off. Hell, he wasn't sure he wouldn’t do something to piss them off.

Aoi was silent for so long Junpei wondered if the internet was lagging--unusual in Japan, but one never knew. ‘Fine. I’ll hook you up with Lotus.’

That was to punish Junpei for lying and, judging from the smug look on Aoi's face, he was challenging Junpei to complain about it.

‘All right,’ he said instead.

‘Try not to get yourself killed. It's hard to find a guy who knows his way around both investigations and spreadsheets.’

‘That has got to be against the labour code.’

Aoi didn't even say ‘bye’ or ‘talk to you later’, just hung up like the skeevy businessman he was. Junpei sighed, but he didn't have time to ponder upon Aoi's lack of manners: he needed to get to Kanazawa-cho before noon.

*

‘You’re the Tenmyouji kid Mishima mentioned.’

That wasn't a question but Junpei bowed anyway. He hadn't expected to face Yamaguchi himself, thinking that he was going to meet with someone a bit lower in the ranks and not the actual kumicho[ 5 ]. It was, after all, only a chinpira who died.

‘Helped clean up some of Mishima's mess, did you?’ said Yamaguchi. ‘Sit down, man. We have a lot to talk about.’

Junpei bowed again before sitting down. Another coffee table and a plain sofa set. Someone had already prepared tea and, for some reason, a plate of dango.

‘Mishima has been kind enough to lend my former agency his strength,’ said Junpei, ignoring the food even though he hadn't eaten anything aside from cup noodles that morning. ‘I'm sorry for taking up your time.’

Yamaguchi nodded. ‘Hirata would have made it into our ranks soon enough. We'd be hard pressed to find a man like him.’

‘I'm sorry for your loss.’ Junpei didn't have the patience for this--Akane was usually the one who handled the politicking needed when working with groups. He wished she were there with him, but dealing with Seven and the red tape around him required her delicate touch.

Fortunately, it didn't seem like Yamaguchi was one for social niceties either. He gestured at one of his men, who placed a cloth-wrapped bundle in front of Junpei.

‘This was Hirata's,’ said the man. ‘He had no family to speak of, so we were the ones who made arrangements for his remains.’

‘So you really do look after your own.’ A bold conversational gambit, but one Junpei couldn’t take back.

Yamaguchi laughed. ‘We are family. We don't let family die like a dog[ 6 ].’

And wasn't that the truth. No matter what the Yamaguchi group personally felt about their members, it was a bad look to let this death go unexamined. Junpei had worked with enough unsavoury organisations to know they considered it a matter of honour to throw their weight around when it could be thrown.

‘We've looked into Mayubekidou, but have had no contact with them--’

‘Lucky,’ the guy standing behind Junpei cut in. Junpei tried to stifle a laugh.

‘Could you tell me more about them?’ he went on.

‘It's one of those dime a dozen cults, what else do you expect?’ Wakaishu #1[ 7 ] snorted. ‘Seems to target young professionals. Especially unmarried ones.’

‘The ones who feel no connection to society,’ said Wakaishu #2.

‘Was Hirata a member?’ said Junpei, preparing to run out of the building as fast as possible in case Yagamuchi took offence.

‘What for? He already had us.’

‘Having a family and feeling disconnected from society aren't mutually exclusive.’ Junpei shrugged. ‘But then you wouldn't have agreed to meet me unless you suspected Hirata was connected to them.’

Yamaguchi glared at him; Junpei could almost feel the tip of Wakaishu #2's knife running down the back of his neck before in going for the kill.

‘Hey,’ said Yamaguchi. ‘Get a load of this punk.’

Wakaishu #2 leaned down so he was resting his elbows on the back of Junpei's seat. Junpei tried not flinch. ‘You're sure of yourself, aren't you?’

Thinking back on Aoi's warning earlier, Junpei wondered if he should have gotten that desk job after all.

‘So this is the kind of guy Kurashiki likes.’ Yamaguchi laughed, slapping his thighs.

‘You mean Akane?’ Junpei noticed Wakaishu #1 had pulled an empty hand out of his own pocket and allowed himself to relax. Mentally, at least. He was still very much ready to leave that fucking place if need be.

Yamaguchi grunted. ‘Word travels fast. Kurashiki has made quite a name for herself in certain circles, you understand?’

Junpei had been engaged to Akane for the better part of three years and random aspects of her life still surprised him. Then again, he probably shouldn't be, considering what kind of organisation Crash Keys was. ‘She's quite a force to reckon with.’

‘We think Hirata had mixed himself up with the Mayubekidou, yes.’ Yamaguchi reached inside his jacket and pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. ‘You smoke? Good, don't start.’

Wakaishu #1 fetched a glass ashtray from Yamaguchi's desk and placed it on the coffee table.

‘I reckon it was a woman,’ said Wakaishu #2. ‘He was seeing someone before he died.’

‘A woman from Mayubekidou?’ It wasn't impossible: members from the cult went around the streets and even door to door just to hand people flyers. Hirata the chinpira could have made contact with a member unbeknownst to the Yamaguchi group.

‘That's for you to find out,’ said Yamaguchi. He was nice enough not to puff cigarette smoke at Junpei's face. ‘And for us to deal with.’

Junpei nodded, deciding he was better off not knowing the particulars of Yamaguchi's plans. Mishima had said the Yamaguchi group was looking for any reason to get back at Mayubekidou and Junpei didn't think he was wrong. ‘Thank you for your time.’

‘Keep us updated,’ said Wakaishu #1. He and Junpei had exchanged business cards earlier, although Yamaguchi had not bothered to do the same.

Junpei gave the coffee table one last look before leaving Yamaguchi's office. No one in the room had bothered to touch the tea, let alone the dango. What a waste. Then again, no one had actually offered him food or refreshments so they might not have been for him to begin with.

Shaking his head, he walked away to look for the nearest convenience store.

iii.

He left Lotus a message as he munched on a 7-Eleven onigiri. She called him a few seconds after he'd pressed send and he was sure she hadn't bothered to read his text past ‘Good afternoon, this is Junpei’. He'd taken ages crafting that message, which had all been written in polite form--not kenjougo[ 8 ], which would have just pissed her off--and she just ignored the whole thing. What a rude woman.

Pocketing his half-eaten onigiri, Junpei ran out of the convenience store to take Lotus's call.

‘You only ever call us when you need help, don't you?’ she said, without saying hello. It seemed to be Junpei's day for rude phone calls.

‘I did call after I got out of Dcom,’ said Junpei.

‘Seven. You called Seven,’ said Lotus. ‘Not me.’

Junpei didn't have her contact number, but it was easy enough to ask Seven or the Kurashikis. Even knowing Lotus wouldn't see him do so, Junpei bowed. ‘I'm very sorry.’

‘He called me earlier to say you were investigating some religious cult. I'm guessing that’s what you need help with?’

Junpei saw their shoes first and he slowly straightened up from his bow. ‘Hey Lotus, I might have to call you later.’

‘What n--oh,’ her voice got softer. ‘Please take care.’

Easy for her to say; she wasn't facing five grown men right now. Junpei pocketed his phone and hoped it would fare better than last time. This one was a new model and Aoi would never let him hear the end of it if he broke another phone in a fight.

‘What can I do for you?’ said Junpei.

‘This area's always had a problem with bouryokudan[ 9 ],’ the shortest of the lot said. He reminded Junpei of a yapping little dog, but dogs were still dangerous no matter how small. As if to prove this, the guy slammed the baseball bat he was holding against his palm. ‘We don't want the fine upstanding citizens of Kanazawa-cho to get in trouble, you know?’

‘Aw, did you come here to look after me?’ Junpei touched his face and pretended to blush. ‘You shouldn't have.’

‘Let's just beat him up,’ someone else said. ‘Before he runs away like a cowardly bitch.’

Now that was the kind of attitude Junpei could appreciate: no-nonsense and straightforward. He also preferred to get this over with; he didn't want to make Lotus wait for too long. ‘Accosting civilians out in the streets? And you guys are worried about bouryokudan?’

‘We only seek to protect the Way,’ Yapping Dog said. ‘If punks like you would mind your own business.’

Junpei eyed his assailants; two of the guys were taller than him but they were all as scrawny as Aoi and didn’t look much of a threat. Except Yapping Dog was carrying a bat and one of the other guys was holding what looked like a metal pipe.

Had Junpei been facing them one on one he wouldn't be worried, but this wasn't a shounen manga where enemies attacked with dignity.

Well, if he was going down he might as well get a few punches in before running away like a cowardly bitch.

‘Hey!’

Three steps and Junpei was an arm's length away from Yapping Dog. He slammed the side of his hand against Yapping Dog's windpipe, grabbing the guy's collar and smashing him against his nearest companion. Junpei had taken them unawares, but they recovered quickly and the guy with the pipe hit Junpei across the shoulders before he could dodge. He staggered, gritting his teeth against the pain, and desperately tried to find his footing; the game would be over if he fell and he didn't want to spend the rest of his stay in Japan bedridden.

Pipe-kun swung his weapon again, aiming for Junpei's head. Junpei crouched low and elbowed Pipe-kun right in the stomach. The guy dropped the pipe with a grunt and Junpei considered picking it up before deciding he didn't want to lean down in front of five men. He was about to kick the pipe away when someone got him in a headlock--one of the taller guys. Junpei didn't even have the time to struggle as Straightforward-kun stepped in to punch him in the face.

He could taste blood in his mouth and he could barely breathe with Headlock-kun's arm pressing against his windpipe--it might have been the lack of oxygen in his brains but Junpei thought the best course of action was to let Headlock-kun support his whole weight so he could kick Straightforward-kun in the solar plexus. Which he did, with pleasant results.

Headlock-kun staggered against Junpei's weight but held on for dear life. What a persistent fuck. Junpei reached back to grab Headlock-kun's balls and twisted with whatever strength was left in his body.

‘Shit!’

Junpei felt Headlock-kun's grip easing and he tried to scurry away, but Yapping Dog was back with the rest of his companions. Junpei needed to incapacitate these fuckers before they could come back for more, but that wasn't going to happen if they kept ganging up on him.

Yapping Dog jumped at Junpei, pushing him to the ground. Junpei tried to grab someone--he heard cloth tearing, but the adrenalin rush was wearing off and Junpei could feel every part of his body protesting as he fell onto the pavement.

‘Old Yamaguchi gave him something,’ said Yapping Dog, bringing down the head of his bat against Junpei's stomach for good measure.

‘Hey boys, no groping,’ said Junpei, with a weak laugh. He got a kick to the face for his trouble and he wondered if his nose had been broken. Would Akane still think he's cute even with a broken nose?

Someone was screaming--Junpei's head hurt enough that for a moment he thought he'd started screaming without being aware of it, but there wasn't time to think about anything because a motorbike had passed dangerously close to Junpei's legs and the person riding it had swung a helmet at Yapping Dog's head. Junpei totally heard something crack.

‘Sleeping in the middle of the day?’ said Phi. ‘You're really getting paid for this?’

She gave Junpei no time to reply, hauling him up and shoving the helmet she had smashed against Yapping Dog's skull at Junpei’s arms. ‘Let’s go before they start crying.’

‘I feel like crying,’ said Junpei, hopping onto the motorbike behind Phi. He felt like he was going to pass out and held onto her waist in a death grip.

‘Why did you think you could take five men on by yourself?’ said Phi. ‘You think you're Captain Garoa?’

‘That's an obscure reference[ 10 ] you've got there.’ Junpei grinned. ‘Not to mention an old one. Are you sure you're not actually Aoi?’

Phi revved up the motorbike instead of answering, turning it around so they passed the five men again. Yapping Dog was cradling his head and moaning loud enough to be heard above the noise from the motorbike engine.

‘Holy shit,’ said Junpei, as Phi clipped Straightforward-kun and nearly sent all of them toppling. ‘Holy shit, Phi, you ran over two men.’

‘Did I?’ yelled Phi. ‘The streets here are so confusing. A poor gaijin like me can't possibly remember what side of the road to drive in.’

There was a temple a few miles away from where Junpei had (apparently) tried to copy Captain Garoa and Phi stopped there, kicking the side stand of the motorbike down.

‘Go and stretch a bit, you'll be sore for a week.’

Junpei didn't want to stretch; he wanted to spit out the blood in his mouth but he didn't think that was something one did in temple grounds. He swallowed it all instead and did as he was told without protest. He might have ended up in a hospital if Phi hadn't arrived and he wasn’t going to aggravate someone who had just ran over two men. His muscles protested every movement, but the pain was more immediate and bearable than the dull constant soreness he'd have to endure later. The worst was his neck and Junpei wondered if he'd torn something when he’d kicked Straightforward-kun earlier.

‘Back where I’m from there's an old man,’ said Phi.

Junpei looked at her, wondering what brought this on. Unlike Sigma, who’d kept talking about being from the future like a gloomy Doraemon, Phi had been tight lipped about her past.

‘He did everything he could to protect his grandson,’ Phi went on. ‘In one history he sacrificed his own life to do that.’

Leave it to Phi to tell unhappy stories. She definitely took after her dad. ‘And?’

‘Stop being that old man.’

Junpei had never been on the receiving end of Phi's anger before; she often got annoyed with him but never angry. It was a level of emotion she reserved for people she actually cared about, like Sigma.

Junpei hung his head. ‘I'm sorry.’

Phi said nothing, focusing on her phone instead. Junpei reckoned she was sending Akane updates.

‘How's Akane?’

‘With Seven. He's not officially involved with the case, so they're trying to figure out how to get intel from the police files.’ Phi nodded even though Junpei hadn't asked the question. ‘She sent me to check in on you.’

‘How did you get back here so quickly?’ said Junpei. Seven was based in Chiyoda--which was apparently also where Lotus lived. Getting from there to Yokohama by train would take about forty-five minutes, not to mention the travel time from the station to Kanazawa-cho.

‘I didn't even get on the train,’ said Phi. ‘We got to the Shin-Yokohama station and Akane told me to go back.’

‘Where did you get the motorbike?’

‘Do you really want to know?’

Junpei sighed. ‘If it's illegal, forget I asked.’

Phi just laughed, which wasn't reassuring at all. Junpei reckoned it was time to talk about something else.

‘Wanna go meet Lotus?’ he said, reaching inside his jacket pocket for his own phone. His hand touched something squishy instead. ‘Oh no, my onigiri.’

*

Lotus had arranged to meet them at a two-star hotel near the Shin-Yokohama station. ‘Just get me some nice pastries,’ she'd said, when Junpei had offered to pay for her expenses. So Junpei and Phi dropped by a bakery to choose cute little slices of cake that came in a pretty box. The other customers eyed Junpei's scruffy appearance and gave them a wide berth, but Phi didn’t seem to notice; she was too focused on the cakes.

‘They never look like this at home,’ said Phi.

‘We consider visuals part of the eating experience,’ said Junpei, making a mental note to come back here later and buy some sweets for Akane. ‘So the food has to look and taste good.’

‘There's something almost uncanny,’ said Phi, ‘about how efficient things are over here.’

‘Un-Kanny? Kanny is very efficient, what’re you talking about.’

‘And you never get intimidated by that?’

Junpei rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Of course I do. It's part of the Akane experience.’

Akane talked about curses and unsolved mysteries over dinner, sent Junpei links to bizarre articles when he was out on missions, and even argued about scientific facts while in bed. She was like no one he’d ever known and sometimes that was scary, but he couldn't deny life was more interesting when she was around.

Phi snorted but said nothing more. Of course she knew what it was like. She wouldn’t be here otherwise.

‘So what's Lotus like?’ said Phi, once they'd left the bakery.

Junpei thought about it. ‘Like a cat, except more talkative.’

‘I bet she and Aoi get along.’

Junpei laughed, remembering the last time he'd been with Lotus and Aoi together. ‘You can say that.’

*

Lotus examined Hirata's iPhone with a raised eyebrow. The screen was cracked and it had no case. ‘This has seen better times.’

‘Yeah, well,’ said Junpei. He stroked his own phone lovingly; it had miraculously survived the altercation from earlier without even a scratch. ‘Fights do that.’

‘Here,’ said Lotus, handing Junpei a white plastic box. ‘I've picked up a lot about first aid since Seven started checking in.’

‘Oh?’ said Junpei, letting the one syllable drip with as much insinuation as possible. Lotus's first aid kit was indeed impressive: it looked like she was ready to treat bullet wounds in there.

‘Making sure I’m not up to illegal activities, he said.’ Lotus snorted. ‘If he wanted a nurse he should have just said so.’

‘How romantic.’ Junpei headed for the bathroom, where he took off his jacket and shirt so he could examine himself in the mirror. There were light bruises around his neck, which would probably get darker later. And his face was all puffy. He pressed a finger against the bridge of his nose; it hurt but he didn’t feel like passing out so it probably wasn’t broken. ‘I might have to get some ice for my face. And my neck. And the rest of my existence.’

‘I thought you always looked like that,’ said Phi, lounging against the bathroom door. ‘Your jacket is all scratched up. Guess it does have its uses.’

‘You think I was just trying to be Mr Cool Detective?’ said Junpei. ‘Lotus, can you have the staff send over some ice?’

Phi walked into the bathroom and started rummaging inside the first aid kit. ‘I’ll help.’

Junpei blinked at Phi. Was the rarified air of Japan doing a number on her icy heart? ‘Thanks.’

‘Can’t have Akane’s boytoy all banged up like this,’ she added. ‘Let Phi fix your boo-boo.’

‘Leave.’

Phi laughed. ‘You guys are so sensitive.’

‘They sure are,’ said Lotus, who had gone to check in on them. ‘I called the hotel staff. Someone will be here with the ice soon.’

*

With Junpei patched up and armed with a couple of ice packs (and a healthy dose of painkillers), it was time to get back to the business at hand.

‘And what's the story behind this?’ Lotus connected Hirata's phone to small black box that was also connected to her laptop. ‘Did he get killed by a religious cult?’

‘He killed himself.’

Lotus grunted. ‘So how do we know he's related to this Mayubekidou?’

‘That's what I said,’ Phi piped in.

‘We don't,’ said Junpei. ‘I know that, okay? But he was still someone who used to be alive and his brothers don't think he had any reason to kill himself. Would it hurt to look into it?’

Phi raised her eyebrows, but then nodded. ‘I’m sorry. You're right.’

Junpei sighed. Phi had saved his ass no more than an hour ago and had even helped treat his wounds; it was rich of him to repay her efforts by yelling at her. He bit at the inside of his cheek. He was still angry, but he shoved that to the side and tried to keep his voice as light as possible when he added, ‘At the very least, the Yamaguchi group will be grateful.’

Lotus reached out to give him good hearty thumps on the back. They were both sitting on the side of the bed and for a moment Junpei thought she was going to push him to the floor. She was stronger than the men who’d beaten him up earlier; Junpei felt dizzy.

‘Leave it to me,’ she said, looking very happy for some reason. ‘For now we have to crack Hirata's passcode. Do we have his data?’

‘Yeah, I asked Yamaguchi.’ Junpei handed Lotus the photocopied files Wakaishu #1 had given him earlier. ‘Do people really set their date of birth as passcodes?’

‘I wouldn't know,’ said Lotus, her voice more high-pitched than usual. ‘This is the first time I've cracked a phone.’

‘And Aoi doesn't get off on stock market reports,’ said Junpei. From Lotus's other side, he heard Phi snort. ‘He wouldn't have hooked us up if he didn't think you could do it.’

‘Flattery surely helps,’ said Lotus. ‘This baby here,’ she patted the black box in the same manner Junpei had stroked his phone earlier, ‘helps me crack smartphone passcodes and bypasses the protection that deletes all files if you input the wrong code more than ten times--but that's an opt in, so Hirata might not even have it on.’

‘But?’

‘But this is a homebrew and not quite as powerful as what the authorities would have.’

Junpei said nothing.

‘I wanted to know if I could build one myself,’ said Lotus.

‘So what do we need?’ said Phi.

‘An idea where to start,’ said Lotus. ‘With a dictionary attack, we can calculate possible number combinations--Hirata's passcode has six digits, which is the standard. Thank god he didn't set an alphanumeric code. But to start from scratch would still take hours.’

‘So we need to know what those numbers might be, and then your program will figure out all the combinations they could come in?’ Junpei cut in. ‘We can do all that manually.’

‘You can calculate faster than a machine?’ said Phi. ‘And there's a delay if you input the wrong passcode five times.’

Junpei pouted. ‘Point taken.’

A few seconds later, Lotus sighed. ‘It's not any permutation of his birth date or even his zip code, so you're right. If you were a chinpira, what would you set your passcode as?’

‘I hope it's not one of those puzzles where each number corresponds to some Japanese character,’ said Phi, peering closer at Lotus's screen.

‘Too complicated,’ said Junpei, going through the Yamaguchi group files Aoi had transferred to his phone. ‘What about old man Yamaguchi's birth date?’

‘Was he some lovestruck fool?’ Lotus tried it anyway, with similar results.

‘How about the date he joined the group?’ said Phi. ‘If he had no family like you said, that was probably an important moment for him.’

‘Too bad that's not in the files.’ Junpei slid off the bed. ‘I'm gonna call Wakaishu #1 and see if he knows.’

Wakaishu #1 had to check his records and told Junpei he'd call back. They spent the time eating Lotus's pastries, with Phi getting more impressed with Lotus the more she talked.

‘Akane's a jealous woman,’ Junpei whispered close to Phi's ear.

Phi punched him in the arm. ‘It's not like that.’

It took about twenty minutes for Wakaishu #1 to get back to Junpei on the date Hirata had started running errands for the Yamaguchi group. Junpei had to stop himself from asking the guy if he wanted to work for Crash Keys instead.

‘He became a chinpira two years ago,’ said Junpei. ‘The Mayubekidou has been around for longer than that.’

‘You think it was a pre-existing relationship?’ said Phi.

‘All right,’ said Lotus, holding the phone up to show it’s been unlocked. ‘That was it.’

‘You should have said “we’re in”,’ said Junpei.

‘You watch too many crime thrillers.’

‘He doesn’t,’ said Phi. ‘He keeps complaining about the incompetent detectives,’ Phi made air quotes with her fingers, ‘and spoils the ending for the rest of us.’

‘They’re always about old men with personal problems,’ Junpei muttered.

‘He’s not wrong.’ On her laptop, Lotus opened a folder containing all the image and video files in Hirata's phone. ‘There's not much here. The guy really loved parfaits, though.’

Junpei leaned closer. The large thumbnails in the folder showed a number of photos of cute parfaits in tall glasses. ‘He never ate alone.’

‘Hm?’ said Lotus.

‘There are always two spoons.’ Junpei tapped at Lotus's monitor. ‘His brothers thought he had a girlfriend.’

‘Or a boyfriend,’ said Phi. ‘Let's not jump to conclusions.’

‘How many guys like parfait?’

‘That actor Aoi likes does.’

Junpei frowned; she was right but that guy was hardly what he'd call a normal sample of men. ‘That actor is weird.’

‘Now there's no need to be jealous.’ Phi laughed.

‘Do we get back to work or do you want to gossip first?’ Lotus made to slam her laptop shut and Junpei reached out to stop her. ‘Honestly, I don't know how you two get things done.’

Junpei adjusted the ice pack he was holding against his nose, carefully avoiding Lotus’s glare. ‘Are there any pics of his companion?’ he said, in a small voice.

‘Just invoices and motorbikes.’ Lotus laughed softly. ‘There's enough here to tie him up with drug trafficking. I bet I can retrieve some incriminating files.’

‘That's not what we're here for,’ said Junpei, forgetting his small voice. ‘The guy's dead, Lotus.’

‘We could check his SNS,’ Phi suggested. ‘He might have posted photos on twitter.’

Junpei picked Hirata's phone up and started fiddling with the apps. He was surprised Hirata had the twitter app installed, but he supposed there was no reason to think the yakuza would be different from everyone else when it came to social media.

He could hear Phi and Lotus talking beside him: ‘Can you teach me more about dictionary attacks?’ and Lotus's increasingly technical replies, so he tuned them out and tried to focus on what Hirata had been like when he’d been alive.

He hadn't been very active on twitter; the bulk of his twitter timeline was about motorbikes and baseball. Hirata had also been fond of horse racing, which Junpei found rather endearing. He'd even bet on Kid Jupiter, who was one of Junpei's favourites. Clearly, Hirata had been a man of good taste--at least as far as horses went.

There were less than a thousand tweets in Hirata’s account and none of the parfait pics appeared in his media. It didn't look like he’d been the kind of person who tweeted about his thoughts and most of them were about where he'd been and what he'd done.

Junpei sighed and tried the Line app. It was password protected. ‘Hey Lotus, can you help me with this?’

Lotus smiled. ‘Why don’t you practise what you've just learned, Phi?’

*

> ichir0u: wait for me
> ichir0u: dont u dare go without me
> ichir0u: bitch
> say.aka: you don't have to do this ichirou-kun. you haven't sworn yourself to following the way and i can't ask this of you.
> ichir0u: i know ur scared
> ichir0u: remember when we were young and u couldnt even go to the toilet alone cuz the hallway was too dark
> ichir0u: i cant hold ur hand right now
> ichir0u: but im still coming with you

Sayaka hadn't replied via chat, but she had called Hirata. The timestamp was about an hour from the estimated time of death of the Mayubekidou suicides.

Azuma Sayaka was one of the confirmed members of Mayubekidou who had died five days ago.

To: honda.mit95@softbank.ne.jp
From: hirataichi_00@ezweb.ne.jp

> aniki
>
> u and ur brothers have been very kind to me and i have nothing but the utmost respect for yamaguchi-san
>
> im sorry i wont be able to become ur brother after all
>
> the yamaguchi group has been to me like the family ive never had
>
> no maybe thats not exactly true. if one person can be a whole family then i guess thats what sayaka is for me
>
> weve known each other since we were kids in the orphanage and i
>
>

The email was unfinished and unsent, trapped forever in Hirata's phone.

‘Fuck,’ said Junpei.

iv.

Akane was staying the night at a hotel in Shibuya, which meant she wasn’t around when the calls came. Not that she would have lent Junpei a supporting hand had she been in Yokohama with him. In fact, it was she who had set up a group video call with everyone. Junpei made sure his laptop camera would pick up the ice pack he was holding and did his best to strike a balance between looking fine but also pitiful enough that everyone would stop yelling at him.

‘You keep doing this, Jumpy--’

‘Of all the shitheaded ideas that’s ever entered your knob-brains--’

‘Do you need help?’ said Carlos. ‘Should I come over?’

‘No, no, no. Your sister needs you right now,’ said Junpei. Maria was doing better and had even started going out on short jogs with Carlos in the mornings, but Junpei didn't think Carlos ought to leave her on her own just because Junpei got a boo-boo in Japan. ‘I'm fine. Phi, help me out here.’

Phi, who was sitting next to Junpei on the sofa, just shrugged. ‘Must be hard, dating so many people at once,’ she said, in between slurping her instant ramen.

‘What a nice partner you are.’

‘Thanks.’

‘The fuckface isn't even listening,’ said Aoi. He had switched to Japanese but used English insults to maximise his thuggish growling. This would have been much scarier had he not been wearing one of his fancy skin care face masks and a Hello Kitty tracksuit top. ‘You need to train your puppy better, Akane.’

‘Kanny, Aoi is being mean again.’

‘Are they always like this?’ said Phi.

Carlos laughed. ‘They're usually cuter.’

‘Oniichan, Jumpy's hurt so no shouting.’ Akane's voice turned sharp, ‘But he's right, Jumpy. We were worried about you and all you do is wave it away like nothing happened. I wish you'd stop doing that.’

‘But the investigation has moved forward, hasn't it?’ said Junpei. ‘From Sayaka's one message, it sounds like her suicide had something to do with the Mayubekidou--’

‘Look here, sweetheart,’ said Aoi. ‘What Akane’s too nice to tell you is: we don't give a fuck. She didn't make you head of investigations so you'd get yourself beaten up by a bunch of fanatics.’

Junpei had a lot to say to that, but not in front of Akane and Carlos. He bit at his tongue and glared at Aoi instead.

‘It's not that we're not impressed,’ said Akane.

‘Speak for yourself,’ said Aoi.

‘But we don't want you to take unnecessary risks,’ Akane continued. ‘What if Phi hadn't come back?’

‘He’d be looking much worse,’ said Phi. Junpei turned his glare at her: she finally stopped stuffing her face and this was what she had to say? But it looked like Phi wasn't done, ‘But he would have survived. He was holding his own well enough.’

That was a lie, but Junpei would be the last person to call Phi out on it.

‘I'm going back to sleep,’ said Aoi. ‘Make sure you eat more than instant noodles. You're in Japan, for fuck's sake.’

Phi stuck out her tongue at him, but Aoi had already logged off.

‘Stretch your muscles so you won't get too sore,’ said Carlos. ‘And try not to overdo it next time.’

Carlos advised Junpei on daily stretching exercises before logging off. He could get like a fussy mum sometimes--at least, a fussy mum who knew a lot about how human bodies worked and also had solid tips about self-defence. Junpei appreciated the concern. And Carlos hadn't shouted at all. He deserved at least two boxes of Tokyo Banana[ 11 ] for when Junpei got back to America.

Now it was just the three of them, Akane filled in Junpei and Phi about her own investigation. She and Seven hadn't made a lot of progress but she'd learned a lot about the Mayubekidou.

‘I'll be joining Seven on his rounds tomorrow and we'll try to talk to some of the members,’ said Akane. ‘But I don't think this is the person we’re looking for.’

‘How do you figure?’ said Junpei. He trusted Akane's instincts, but he wanted to hear her logic; he also didn't think the Mayubekidou was what Delta had been talking about back in Nevada.

‘It's more of a gut feeling.’ Akane worried at her lower lip, something she usually did when deep in thought. ‘This feels almost personal--a lot more so than Free the Soul. The Mayubekidou have been trying to clean up after themselves and the police think they're scared.’

‘You think the group didn’t expect the suicides?’ said Phi.

‘Something like that. I think, if some people from the Mayubekidou truly believed they were following their way by killing themselves,’ Akane took a deep breath. ‘I think it's only a small minority within the group.’

Junpei leaned back on the sofa, covering his eyes against the light from the ceiling. ‘So all that effort was for nothing, huh.’

‘What are you saying, Jumpy? You found a meaning in Hirata-kun's death didn't you?’ said Akane. ‘Not that I'm discriminating against people who died without meaning--oh but I don't think any death is meaningless--’

Junpei laughed. ‘We get what you mean, Kanny.’

‘You two,’ said Phi. ‘You're very similar.’

‘Do you think so?’ said Akane, beaming. ‘You're a kind person, Phi.’

‘I'm not sure that was a compliment,’ said Junpei.

Akane pouted. ‘At any rate, we should all get some sleep. Tomorrow's going to be another busy day.’

‘Yeah, we're gonna meet with one of Yamaguchi’s men in the morning.’

‘We?’ said Phi.

‘Yeah, at a cafe.’ Junpei grinned. ‘He said he won't mind meeting you.’

‘How flattering.’

‘The yakuza don't take that well to foreigners. It's nothing personal,’ said Akane, as if she needed to apologise on the behalf of the yakuza.

‘Better get my beauty sleep then.’ Phi got up and headed for the door. ‘Can't appear uncivilised in front of them.’

*

Junpei saw Wakaishu #1--whose name was actually Honda Mitsuo--as soon as he and Phi entered the cafe. Unlike Satou the bodyguard, Honda wasn't the kind of person who’d stand out in a crowd, but unfortunately for him there were no other men in suits inside the cafe. The customers were mostly housewives having warm drinks before running their errands. Honda didn't seem to mind; he'd chosen a corner table and was nursing a cup of coffee while writing on a small notebook.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting,’ said Junpei, bowing. ‘This is Phi Klim. She's working with me on the case.’

Honda slipped the notebook in his pocket. ‘We saw you yesterday.’ He nodded at Phi. ‘You ran over two men with a motorbike.’

Phi shrugged. ‘I'm not used to driving on the other side of the road.’

‘Sit down.’ Honda smiled. ‘We didn't expect you to get back to us so soon.’

‘We got help,’ said Junpei, waiting until Phi was seated before sitting down.

‘And what did you find out?’

‘Hirata didn't die like a dog,’ said Junpei. ‘Although I'm not sure how Yamaguchi-san will react when he finds out.’ He gave Honda a quick rundown of what they'd found out yesterday, watching the man's face surreptitiously. The guy was good: Junpei couldn't get a good read of his emotions from his body language.

Honda simply nodded and bowed low enough his forehead almost brushed the table. ‘Thanks for your help. I can't speak for oyabun, but this puts my mind at ease.’

‘He was a good man,’ said Junpei. He placed Hirata's phone on the table and slid it towards Honda. ‘If you would like to retrieve his phone?’

Honda nodded, holding the phone to his face as if he was going to take a selfie before slipping it into his suit pocket. ‘About what happened yesterday.’

‘What about it?’ said Phi.

‘Members of the Mayubekidou attacked both of you,’ said Honda, this time his smile reminded Junpei the guy was indeed a yakuza. ‘Knowing that you were doing oyabun a favour.’

‘They did know Yamaguchi-san has given me Hirata's phone.’

‘We don't know what business you have with them, but oyabun doesn't like people interfering with his affairs.’ Honda raised his eyebrows. ‘We don't want you to get involved, of course.’

‘Of course,’ said Junpei. ‘We won't interfere. I trust Yamaguchi-san knows best.’

‘Glad we agree.’ Honda stood up and left some bills on the table. ‘Sorry I can't stay long, but let me pay for your coffee.’

Junpei and Phi stood up, and all three of them exchanged bows before Honda left.

‘So that's why you let them beat you up,’ said Phi, heading off to the counter. ‘I'll have some tea, what about you?’

‘Same for me. French toast?’ said Junpei. They waited for their food before going back to their table, Junpei balancing the tray in his hands although his arms felt like they were falling off from the slight weight.

‘What do you mean,’ said Junpei. ‘Letting them beat me up?’

‘I thought it was weird that you didn't just run away. They didn't look very fit; you could have outrun them.’ Phi was looking at the thick slice of toast on her plate with a bemused smile. ‘That was for insurance, then?’

‘I thought it was a good idea.’ Junpei grinned. ‘Yamaguchi can afford it.’

‘Hirata's death wasn't a good enough reason?’’

‘That was a personal matter. He chose Sayaka over the Yamaguchi group, remember?’ Junpei thought it was still a meaningless death, not when Hirata--and Sayaka--might still be alive if not for the twisted beliefs of Mayubekidou. But at least his death hadn’t been a lonely one. ‘But what happened yesterday, that was an attack against Yamaguchi. Well, they attacked me, but I was working with Yamaguchi at the time.’

Phi nodded. ‘And those members who have done nothing wrong?’

‘If you stay and support a group that killed people with their ideology, what sort of person does that make you?’

‘You're definitely very similar,’ said Phi.

‘Like you're any different.’

Phi shrugged. ‘I prefer not getting beaten up.’

‘Stop reminding me.’ Junpei tried to stretch his legs without being too obvious about it. It hurt whenever he moved, but it also hurt when he wasn't moving. He was glad his injuries wouldn't go unavenged, but Phi was probably right; he could have thought of a different way to get back at the Mayubekidou. ‘Maybe we could go to a hot spring when Akane comes back.’

‘Good idea.’ Phi grinned. ‘Now finish off your toast, we're going to the ramen museum today.’

‘I'm injured,’ said Junpei. He wasn't feeling up to walking around in the cold with his aching limbs. In fact, he wouldn't have gotten out of bed at all if not for his meeting with Honda.

‘Carlos said you should exercise.’

Junpei grumbled as he finished his toast. ‘Don't I deserve some rest after all that?’

‘You’re becoming more like an old man each day,’ said Phi. ‘I thought I warned you about that.’

*