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My eyelids felt like sandpaper and my mouth tasted of vomit and regret. In front of me sat The Dragon, smoke coming out of his nose and a smile on his face that made my skin crawl. I did what I could to return the gesture. I guess round 2 had begun.
“Good morning Mr. Jones, it’s nice to see you awake.”
Behind The Dragon stood a four-fingered piano player and midnight blue dress who looked like she didn’t want to be there even more than I did. I blinked a couple times and wiggled my jaw, then jiggled the handcuffs that attached me to the chair.
“Thanks for not hitting me in the face.”
The Dragon’s smile spread to his eyes.
“Never let it be said that I don’t appreciate beauty. Now, I have a few questions for you.’ He pulled out a cigarette, lit it and put it in my mouth. ‘What brought you to my office at the Tulip Mr Jones? How did you even know that I’d be there?”
I took a long inhale then spat the cigarette at Vincent.
“I put a bug on that guy a few days ago, dumbass likes to get drunk and talk about his accomplishments. Told me everything I needed to know about back street supply chains, and the double racket he was running stealing from both sides to sell back to both sides. He’s also the dude who burnt down your house by the way. That’s how he lost his finger.”
The Dragon turned a slow look towards Vincent who tried and failed to look calm.
“That’s bullshit boss, he’s just talking shit to try and save his life.”
“Tapes in my car, you can go give it a listen if you like.’ I put on my best impersonation of the pianist. ‘Dumb motherfucker doesn’t even know I’m the one who killed his misses back in the day. Think’s he runs this city, let me tell you, The Dragon don’t run…”
But I got cut off. I didn’t see him move. One moment The Dragon was standing in front of me the next he was standing in front of me, and there was a wet meaty thump on the wall behind me as Vincent hit it and broke. The girl screamed and dropped to the floor, the stress and terror had clearly gotten the better of her. Which made sense, it was starting to get the better of me too.
“So you planned this Mr Jones? Use me to clear up a case for you?”
I smiled as best I could, but the tension in the room was thick and heavy.
“Yes, but not this one. I had been following meat sack back there trying to get a lead on missing person I’ve been hired to find, a little kind name Jackson who went for a walk and never came back. I thought Vincent might have killed him for walking down the wrong dark alley. But what I found instead was the black-market booze middleman. Then you sent me this girl, I figured that you’d found out I was sniffing around and wanted to know what I knew, but didn’t want to be so direct as to just ask. Fine, you like play things a certain way, I get that. So, I showed up hoping I could find a new thread on Jackson. Then you told me that little story about your wife, and I realised that you didn’t know about Vincent. So, I thought I’d bate myself in and see what happened. Now we’re here.”
“And you’re banking on me letting you live because you brought me, Vincent?”
I swallowed, tiring to look as calm as possible, and said.
The man stood so still that if it wasn’t for the smoke coming from his nose, I would have thought he was a statue. Hell, he still could have been, it was Japan, I’ve seen statues do weirder shit than smoke. As moments turned into a minute and as the tension peek the woman screamed and ran from the room, leaving me basically alone, handcuffed to a chair with one of the most dangerous men I knew. And it was weird, because I knew that handcuffed or not I didn’t really stand a chance, in fact, I could have him dead to rights with a gun at his head, and I still figure the odds wouldn’t be in my favour. The thought brought on a calm and made me feel at ease. If I couldn’t do anything anyway, why worry about it? I watched him notice my shoulders relax and then The Dragon smiled, accepting his victory with humility and grace. He gave me another lit cigarette and uncuffed me saying,
“So, what happened to young Jackson? He doesn’t sound very Japanese, how hard could he be to find?”
I rubbed my wrists and breathed in the smoke.
“Half, apparently. But I’ve been thinking that maybe he doesn’t want to be found. Either that or he’s dead but I haven’t found evidence of that either. So, I guess I keep looking.”
The room went quiet again and I saw The Dragon’s eyebrows knit together as he thought something over. I wondered if he was weighing up my life, or if he knew something about Jackson and was thinking about sharing it.
“I guess you do.”
He spoke evenly, and nodding stepped back and sighed, his face returning to the one I had found when I first walked into his office at The Tulip.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me Mr Jones I am a busy man and as enjoyable as this has been, I have work to do.”
I stood slowly, and though about bowing, then though about being warned about my cultural insensitivities and how it might look coming from a man like me, so instead I offered him my hand, which after a second he took.
“Pleasure doing business with you Mr Saito.”
“And you Mr Jones, if you’re in the neighbourhood next week Thursday around 8 pm, swing by The Tulip, I think I’d like to buy you a drink.”
I took a mental note of that and decided I should make an actual note of it too. just in case. Then left through the only door and found myself in Rosie’s basement. The sun was high in the sky when I walked out the front door and by the graces of my good fortune, my car was parked exactly where I’d left it. The drive home was long, and after a quick shower, I fell into bed for what felt like a week.
It took a few days before I returned to my office, I spent the time going over what information I had about Jackson and trying to find a new thread to pull on, but kept coming up short. In my office, I found a broken lock and a file sitting on my desk marked ‘Jackson’. Inside was a picture of the kid on his 14th birthday, a number of police reports about his disappearance and a dropped charge against him for fighting, all of which I had seen before. What I hadn’t seen was the police report and newspaper clippings about his father going to jail, allegedly, for breaking into a jewellery store, the affidavit that said he’d changed his name in prison and the release noticed marked for around 2 days before Jackson went missing. On the back of the files was the stamp of The Dragon, and the words. Thursday, 8 pm, The Tulip. A cold feeling ran down my spine and I wondered if I’d just been paid back, or bought. Only one way to find out, but first I had a kid to find. The release notice listed an address where Jackson’s old man was supposed to be staying, it was a bit obvious but when you’ve got nothing else to work with, start with the obvious.
It had been a weird few days, so it was strangely comforting to find exactly what I expected when I got to the address. Nothing. The place had been packed up and moved out of in a hurry. But I did notice a shirt left on the back of a door that matched the one Jackson was reported to have been wearing on the day of his disappearance. I got the impression that maybe the kid hadn’t so much runoff, as switched parents. But I had been hired to do a job and a job was what I was going to do. I put in some calls and found a look-alike for Jackson’s dad in Osaka, so I jumped on the fast train and a few hours later I came face to face with a missing person smiling like he was a kid at Christmas. Until he realised who I was and what I was probably doing there.
His face aged suddenly and he looked a lot more like the kid in the picture.
“Don’t… don’t take me back there ok? Please.”
Behind him, I saw his father step into view.
“Hey, you leave him alone!”
The man coming at me looked like he’d been in a few scraps but after the life, I’d had he didn’t really look someone who’d bother me, but that’s not what I was there for. I raised my hands and tried to sound as calming as possible.
“Wow, easy there, I’m just here on a job looking for someone.”
Jackson’s dad stepped between us but stopped there, so I held up the picture the kid’s mom had given me.
“Have you seen this boy?”
They looked at each other a little confused for a moment and Jackson looked like he was about to say something when the light dawned on both of them.
“No,” said his father, “Never seen him before in my life. You a cop?”
“I am not, I’m private, and rumour has it the kids been seen around here. So, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?”
Again, they looked at each other but said nothing.
“Now, this kids mom hired me to try find him and I just want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can. When kids go missing you don’t often come back with good news and I just want to make sure this kid gets home safe. You know what I mean?”
The dad nodded and I smiled.
“Good,’ I said, ‘so what is it that you do for a living?”
The dad cleared his throat and I could see a bit of resilient pride come into his face.
“Well, we just moved here but I have family in the area and a cousin is helping me by hiring me to work in his factory, junior floor manager. I have,’ he stopped for a moment, thinking, then smiled, ‘experience working in factories organising complicated people.”
“Sounds like a good job.”
“We will see but it is good enough for now.”
“This your son?”
And gestured at the boy and tried not to look like I was getting ready to dodge a punch.
I raised my voice just enough that it was clear I was talking passed the man in front of me.
“You happy to be here kid?”
I didn’t really care what the kid was going to say, I wanted to see how he said it, and after a moments pause, the slight lift in his eyes told me everything I needed to know. He wasn’t a happy rebel looking forward to joining the family business. He wasn’t someone pushed beyond his years. He smiled like a child, innocent but happy. I thanked the man, got on the next train home to tell the mom that I hadn’t turned up anything. Then I might try figure out why the kid had been so happy to leave her. But before that, I needed to make sure my suit was ready for Thursday 8 pm The Tulip.