The Girl with No Name
The two thugs lounged near the north entrance of Hakata Station as if waiting for something, their hair fluffed and spiked like anime characters, wearing sunglasses at 11:20 p.m. on a Wednesday night, sleeves of their stylish leather jackets rolled up to the elbows. Their arrogance and disdain clung to them like a stench, and it turned Ana's stomach.
In her navy-blue high school uniform, Ana blended with the crowds rushing to or from the final trains. She would have to pass the thugs on her way out of the station, and if there was anything growing up in the Nakasu district had taught her, it was wariness of a certain kind of men.
The shops of the central hall were shutting down for the night, and the cardboard people were already colonizing the corners and closed storefronts. The cardboard people were thin and brown, practically of no substance at all, carried their cardboard futons and newspaper pillows with them, and barricaded themselves behind walls twenty centimeters high.
A cardboard man erupted from his refuge and reviled an ancient cardboard woman in a country dialect so thick Ana could barely make out the words. "Get out of here, you old hag!"
The old woman turned aside from the vitriol without flinching, like a fish unquestioningly changing course toward anonymous depths where its invisible life might disappear with no one to notice. Just one little useless sardine sent off to be eaten by the world. A spike of anger shot through Ana.
"Don't let me see you in here again, idiot!" he roared.
The ancient woman shuffled toward the station exit where the thugs loitered, her spine so far bent that she could not raise her head to look more than two meters ahead, face collapsing inward, an absence of teeth, pushing a pram filled with cardboard and a few meager possessions. Her hot-pink Hello Kitty zori made their distinctive shuffle-flap sound across the cold tiles. Would she have at least a blanket in there? Even inside the station, the December air was chilly.
The thug's sunglasses swiveled to follow the old woman.
Ana hefted her backpack and its weight of study guides from cram school, and continued toward the exit.
Darkness outside swallowed the old woman. She had not even looked back.
The thugs nonchalantly turned to follow her.
Something in Ana's heart twanged. Her mother's voice in sharp Tagalog jumped into her mind. Don't go looking for trouble!
Ana was exhausted from a full day at high school and a full evening at cram school, famished from having eaten nothing but a couple of boiled eggs from Lawson's since lunch. Still, sometimes all it took was a witness to give thugs like this a moment's pause.
The old woman aimed toward an unoccupied patch of bushes in the corner of the station plaza, invisible to taxi drivers queued at the edge of the plaza. The thugs followed her, picking up speed.
Ana could see it developing. The thugs would accost the old woman deep enough in the shadows, far enough from traffic and passersby, that whatever they intended would be over before anyone noticed, much less intervened. What could they possibly want from a woman with nothing?
Ana hurried to catch up.
The thugs caught the old woman by the arms. One of them spoke to her, but Ana couldn't hear. The old woman stiffened into instant panic.
Ana shouted, "Oi! Baboy!" Hey! Pig!" They probably didn't understand Tagalog, but a little confusion would work in her favor.
They turned on her.
Ana stopped ten paces away. "What are you doing with my grandmother?" she said in Japanese.
The one with the blood-red jacket snarled, "What are you talking about, gaijin slut? Get out of here!" He used such a chopped, guttural tone his words sounded like a caricature of every yakuza movie she had ever seen.
"You watch too many gangster movies. Now leave her alone," she said. Maybe it was the "gaijin," foreigner, that stoked her to anger. She was only half Japanese, but she had lived here her whole life. Maybe it was the glimpse of dangers other invisible people faced.
Her mixed heritage put her beneath the notice of a broader society that prided itself on homogeneity.
They released the old woman and squared on Ana.
Ana dropped her backpack.
The old woman fell into a trembling, whimpering pile.
"Then come and get her," Red Jacket said, grinning. His smile was missing two front teeth. A dragon tattoo writhed behind his jacket zipper.
Oh, great; he really was yakuza, a year or two older than her.
Ana's heart roared like a passing bullet train and her mouth went as dry as the sand of Momochi Beach. "Come on, Grandmother. Let's go home."
The old woman tried to get up, and Red Jacket kicked her back onto the ground.
Perhaps fifty meters behind Ana, people were coming out of the station. Would anyone else see this confrontation, yell for the police?
She clenched her fists, released them, clenched them, relaxed them, took a deep breath, and started forward.
The other thug, wearing a black Dolce & Gabbana bomber jacket, stepped forward. "You want to play, baby? Maybe we'll take you home with us and have a little party."
"Grandmother," Ana said, "Mother is expecting us at home."
Black jacket reached for Ana.
She let him take her wrist, then used his hand and forearm as a lever of control, struck him three times in the space of a single breath, solar plexus, throat, uppercut to the chin, then a painful, wrist-snapping joint lock that put him face down on the pavement a heartbeat later. She twisted until something popped and he cried out.
The distinctive clicketing of a butterfly knife, the glint of steel in mercury vapor lamplight, Red Jacket coming at her.
She caught his incoming knife wrist on her forearm; a deft twist and slap to the side of the blade sent the knife to the pavement. Another joint lock, a hard kick to the back of the knee, scooping up the knife as he went down, twisting his arm up behind his back, grinding his face into the stained concrete with her shin across the back of this neck, and his knife in her hand against his throat.
Black Jacket scrambled to his feet and pelted away, holding his arm, whimpering.
"Seems your buddy ran off." She pressed the knife's edge into the flesh of Red Jacket's throat. If he so much as twitched, he would slice his own artery wide open. "How's it feel to get your ass kicked by a girl, you slime?"
She rose up off him and assumed a defensive stance.
For a long moment he lay there gasping.
It was then she noticed the black sedan on the street nearby, about twenty paces away, engine running. In the dark interior, a short, squat man watched her from the driver's seat, just able to see over the steering wheel. In the glow of a stubby cigar, his eyes looked orange-yellow, reptilian. They fixed upon her, and her muscles froze. She tried to move and couldn't. Something about his skin was wrong, too coarse, too textured.
Red Jacket scrambled to his feet and flung himself toward the waiting car. Before he reached the door, however, thick hands grasped the steering wheel and the car squealed away.
Suddenly Ana was free.
The astonished betrayal on Red Jacket's face was almost comical. He fled after Black Jacket.
"Putang ina mo!" Your mom's a whore! she called after them.
Then she helped the old woman to her feet. "Are you hurt?"
Tears streamed down the old woman's face. "I'm all right."
Running footsteps approached, a police officer. "What's going on here?"
"Some punks," Ana said, keeping her face downcast, slipping the butterfly knife into her jacket. A chill of fear washed through her colder than the moments before the fight.
"She saved me, officer!" the old woman said. "She's an angel!"
The policeman, Officer Ogawa, asked them a few questions, descriptions of the perpetrators. When Ana described them, his face became a Noh mask. She gave him a false name and a false address. When he asked to see her student ID, she apologized for having forgot it at school. In the end, he was more intent upon radioing back to the koban than pressing her for information. Nevertheless, she felt like she had just dodged a bullet. If the police asked too many questions, they might discover her mother was an undocumented Filipina who had overstayed her visa by almost twenty years.
Ana said to the old woman, "Do you have somewhere to sleep tonight?"
The old woman glanced at her pram.
Before she could answer, Ana said, "It's a bit of a walk, to Nakasu, but we have a kotatsu." She had spent her last three hundred yen on boiled eggs for her meager supper, leaving no money for taxi or bus fare.
At the mention of the kotatsu, a heated table under which Japanese people spent their winter nights, the old woman's eyes glittered.
"Oh, Jizo preserve you, child, that's very kind but—"
"You can't say no. Please."
So Ana put her backpack in the pram, pushed it with one hand, and carried the old woman piggyback like a child. The cardboard woman smelled of trash and sweat and old urine, not unlike summers in the immigrant back alleys of Fukuoka City, where Ana had grown up, where the Filipino laborers, hostesses, and sex workers kept to themselves, where she had learned eskrima from Uncle Philip, as everyone called him.
She hadn't used eskrima in a real fight since Shuntaro had grabbed her crotch in middle school, and she had had a few more years of twice-weekly training since then. Taking down those two idiots had been surprisingly easy. She had often wondered how good Uncle Philip really was; now she knew.
The weight of the butterfly knife bobbed in her pocket.
Home was a kitchen, toilet, ofuro, and one tatami room apartment in Fukuoka's Nakasu district, a neighborhood of strip clubs, hostess bars, massage parlors, and semi-secret brothels. The apartment was not bad for a Filipina with no legal status. Her mother made enough money entertaining Japanese salarymen to make the rent more often than not, but she worked every night.
Ana arranged the kotatsu, quilt, and futons, setting her alarm to rise early for school and send the old woman on her way before Ana's mother returned. As Ana snuggled into the kotatsu's quilt, the breathing of the old woman already having descended into oblivion, she looked at the grainy photograph of her mother, young and smiling and beautiful, taken in a lovely park in Manila, and wondered what had been so terrible that Ana's mother had abandoned all family and friends for the life of an undocumented foreigner in Japan. Her mother steadfastly refused to discuss it. And what about Ana's father? A slimy deadbeat. You're better off without him, was all her mother would say.
When the alarm clock woke her at 6:30 to get ready for school, the old woman was already gone, but atop the kotatsu was something wrapped in worn newspaper.
She unwrapped it and found a comb, but not just any comb: a Japanese lady's comb. About the size of her hand with fine, black-lacquered teeth, one of which was missing, an arching spine engraved with a gilded crane in flight, encrusted with mother-of-pearl and minute squares of colored glass.
On the scrap of newspaper was written a note: "For you, my angel. My grandmother was a geisha. This comb was hers. If not for you, I would be dead today. I know who those men work for."
She caressed the comb's smooth lines. It wore its age with grace and beauty.
And then the door opened and her mother all but collapsed inside, her makeup worn, her coiffure frayed, kicking off her high heels in the genkan.
Ana crumpled up the newspaper and tucked the comb into her backpack.
The old woman's last few words in the note burrowed under Ana's skin. I would be dead… I know who those men work for. The next night on her way home from Hakata Station, she looked in vain for the old woman. That she didn't even know the old woman's name felt like a discourtesy. The old woman had had a life once.
She wore the comb in her hair that day, and for the first time, people noticed her. Even the haughty girls spoke to her, and the coolest boys' notice fell upon her. Is this what it felt like to be a person? Not just the quiet gaijin girl?
When she got home, she sewed a sheath for her forearm to conceal the butterfly knife.
I know who those men work for.
Yakuza gangs were a fact of life on the fringes of Fukuoka society, where the Port of Hakata had formed a nexus of commerce to and from the Asian mainland for over a thousand years. Who did those two thugs work for?
The next night, walking through Hakata, her brain buzzing with math and history, her vigilance slackened to the point that she almost walked straight into them. There they were at the station exit, eyes full of dark malice. They started toward her. She wouldn't surprise them with eskrima again.
She cast about for somewhere to run, a crowd to fade into, but there were none.
Then she heard yelling.
"You're not listening to me!" the voice said.
She ducked around a corner and nearly crashed into a cardboard man, the same who had chased the old woman from the station, entreating a policeman, Officer Ogawa, who stood with his arms crossed, face pinched.
"Where are my friends?" the man shrilled. "Five of my friends are gone! All in the last month! I already gave you their names!"
Ana apologized and peeked back around the corner. The thugs were coming. She lingered near the officer.
Officer Ogawa loomed over the man, his brow darkening, and said something she could not hear.
The man shrank like a deflated balloon, turned, shuffled away.
Just then the thugs burst around the corner, drawing up sharply at the sight of the policeman.
He glared at them. "What are you two idiots doing in here? You're supposed to stay outside!"
The thugs hmphed, turned shoulders, and walked away, flashing Ana expressions of dire intent.
Ogawa's eyes flickered over the crowd to see how many people were watching, then moved away as if on patrol, ignoring her.
While their backs were turned, she darted out one of the other exits.
The next day, Ana passed by the neighborhood koban, a diminutive police station about the size of her apartment, and happened to glance at the series of wanted posters on the bulletin. A face jumped out at her, gap-toothed mouth, anime hair—Red Jacket. Wanted on suspicion of grand larceny, petty theft, assault and battery, extortion. His name was Abe Keisuke, with five known aliases.
She paused. The officer behind the window was hunched over his work, oblivious to her presence. The very thought of entangling herself with the authorities sent a hot, dry lump into her throat.
"Excuse me, officer." The words stumbled over her teeth.
He did not look up immediately. "Yes?"
"I've seen one of these guys."
"Abe Keisuke. Last night at Hakata Station. And two nights ago, he and another guy tried to kidnap this old homeless lady."
"Why didn't you tell the police?"
"I did! His name was Ogawa. He was there after they ran off."
The officer's eyes narrowed slightly.
"And just yesterday, I heard this homeless guy telling Officer Ogawa five of his friends had disappeared."
"It's winter. They stay out of sight more, keeping themselves warm. Do you know her name, the old lady's?"
"The homeless man?"
"Do you have any concrete information?"
Her ears buzzed with anger. "I guess not."
He sighed. "All right. Thank you for the information. Name and address?"
She gave him the same puppet dance as she had given Ogawa.
"Which high school do you go to?" he said.
His gaze locked on her. "Really? My daughter goes there. Strange that you're not wearing a Seisho uniform."
The next day was Saturday, one of her training days at Uncle Philip's dojo, the back alley behind an apartment building. In spite of the makeshift surroundings, he took his role seriously as the sensei of a martial arts school, even though he rarely took money from his students. Whenever he held classes, he unfolded a few moldy rubber mats on the ground, erected a couple of striking dummies, and lit some incense below the Philippine flag and the black-and-white portrait of his teacher. As always after practice, sweat soaked her clothes and her torso even in the winter chill, arms and hands felt like massed bruises.
Uncle Philip was a short man, even for a Filipino, squat, but there was an astonishing quickness in him that humbled even the cockiest students. He rubbed his shaved pate and eased back onto a plastic crate. The garage doors hung open to the narrow street. The other students of the afternoon had already departed.
"You practiced hard today," he said in English. "Training for something? Another fight with gangsters maybe?"
"You heard about that?"
"I hear about everything."
"Something bad is happening."
"You looking for trouble?"
"I'm looking for answers. If they did something to that old woman—"
"You feel responsible for her now, yeah?"
He leaned forward, put his hands on his knees. "Look, Ana. You're a good girl, a smart girl. This is a big city. People can live in the cracks of big cities. Sometimes the cracks swallow people. Disappear. Poof!"
"It's not right."
"If it was right, everyone's life would count. Everyone would be missed. Everyone would have somebody to cry at their funeral. But the world, it don't work that way."
Something in his voice caught her ear. "You've heard something?"
He waved dismissively. "Just crazy stuff."
"What kind of crazy stuff?"
"Old Georgina Matapang says she saw an aswang in an alley down by the docks. But she's—poof!—crazy."
"An aswang!" Ana said. Her mother had told her stories of aswang since she was old enough to listen, stories of foul, humanlike night creatures feeding upon human victims, drinking blood or viscera or the fluids of pregnant women through its hollow, prehensile tongue.
A chill trickled up her spine.
"She said it was feeding on some homeless man. Bah!" he scoffed. "Aswang can stay in the Philippines."
The door cracked open after Ana's third knock; a single eye peered out. "Are you that Navarro girl, Maria's daughter?" came a querulous voice.
"Yes, Mrs. Matapang. How are you?" Ana brushed away a cobweb that had drifted across her face. The apartment building, a block of grayed concrete and rusted steel built during the post-World War II Occupation, was clearly home to the world's entire population of spiders.
"What do you want?"
"I heard you saw something strange."
The door slammed.
"Please, Mrs. Matapang. Can I talk to you?"
"Leave me alone!"
"I came because… I saw something, too."
The door cracked; the eye reappeared, wider now. "You saw it, too?"
Later, at the kitchen table over a cup of green tea, Mrs. Matapang said, "Too many people think I'm crazy. Screw them! I know what I saw."
"Two weeks ago. And I know an aswang when I see one. My grandmother saw one once in the Philippines. It killed her cousin." The woman shuddered visibly and tucked graying hair behind her ears.
"So what did you see?"
Mrs. Matapang sipped her tea. "Boss made us work longer, so I missed the last train and didn't have money for a taxi. I was walking along the Naka River, about two in the morning. The water was really low. I heard a sloshing noise, like something big slopping around in mud. Down there at the waterline I saw this dark shape. Oh, may the Blessed Virgin save me, I'll never forget as long as I live! It was bent over a body, and its tongue was… sticking into it… sucking." She put down her tea cup, trembling. "I ran until I fell over."
"What did it look like?"
"I saw the tongue and some glowing eyes. And that sound! Like tapioca going up a straw! I ran like hell. I went back in the morning, I had to be sure I wasn't imagining. The body was gone. But I know where it happened, across the canal from that pachinko parlor—what's it called, the one with the big purple teddy bear on the awning?—And I know what I saw. I haven't touched booze in six years, don't let anyone tell you different. I know what I saw."
On her way home, she circled past the pachinko parlor Mrs. Matapang had mentioned, Pachinko Power, with a jolly purple teddy bear dancing animatronically atop the neon-splashed awning. The cacophony of flashing lights and dinging bells echoed from the smoke-filled interior, where dull, bleary-eyed patrons chain-smoked and fed their steel balls into the hungry machines. The teddy bear tipped its top hat to her as she walked on, but her eyes kept scanning the shadows of the concrete canal that made up the Naka River's last few kilometers toward Hakata Bay. There was nothing down there except filthy water and garbage.
Two intersections beyond was the hostess bar where her mother worked, The Happy Cock, with its grinning cartoon rooster on the side of the building, which housed six other bars and a strip club.
The doorman blocked the door when she tried to come in. "No kids," he grunted. "Oh, it's you. What do you want?" She tried to slip past him, but he blocked her again. "You're not supposed to be here."
"That's too bad, Taka," she said, striking a coquettish pose and lifting her uniform skirt to show a little more thigh. "I thought you might like to buy me a drink." She pulled out the comb and let her hair tumble around her shoulders.
Taka stood ten centimeters taller than her and smelled of cigarettes and expensive cologne. His gaze flicked between her thigh and her chest. He would have been cute if he had any soul at all, but his eyes were as hollow as an empty bento box. Like her mother said, the bar was always looking for fresh meat. It specialized in Filipina hostesses for Japanese salarymen with particular tastes. Her mother was the oldest of the hostesses, but she was still beautiful enough and strong enough to hold her place in a world that discarded women like used condoms.
Taka let Ana step into the shadowy interior.
In an alcove, her mother leaned against the shoulder of one of the ugliest men Ana had ever seen. His face was broad and squat, like the rest of him. Even an expensive pinstripe suit could not conceal his unappealing shape. Even knowing it was her mother's job to make such men feel appealing, laugh at their jokes, tell them how handsome they were, did not make the sourness in Ana's belly easier to bear. Three other hostesses fawned over him, pouring him shochu from a large bottle and feeding him tidbits of dried fish and seaweed. His fedora shadowed his face and gave him a strange, retro style. He brought a cigar to his lips, and the flaring glow glistened in a strange eye that fastened briefly on her.
Ana stood there for a long moment, until Taka grabbed her arm and led her behind the bar, popped the cap on an Asahi Super Dry and handed it to her. "Wait here," he said.
She sipped the beer and waited among crates and casks of alcohol. Hostesses passed on their way to the dressing room, giving her fake smiles or glares of appraisal, as if she might be their forthcoming replacement. High school girls came high in demand.
Then her mother was there. "What are you doing here?" The scent of cigar smoke and something else clung to her, something like the smell of stagnant water, or perhaps like a reptile cage.
She wanted to say, Mom, I'm scared. But then she would have to explain why, and any lengthy explanation would just raise her mother's ire. Maybe all she wanted was refuge. "Would you prefer me to be off hanging out somewhere with boys?"
"Don't get smart with me, young lady. You know you're not supposed to be here."
"I think Taka likes me."
"That's not the kind of attention you want. Now, seriously, you need to go. Need some money?"
Ana held out her hand.
Her mother reached into her stylish jacket, rearranged a breast, and withdrew a roll of cash with a grin of excitement. "Made next month's rent already! That guy out there is a big spender and likes a lot of ladies."
Ana's eyes bulged at the sight of the roll of bills. "But he looks like a big jerk."
Her mother's face darkened. "I can't pick what the customers look like." She peeled off a 10,000-yen bill and pressed it into Ana's hand, then kissed her on the cheek. "Go have some fun. Be home by three. I'll see you in the morning." Then her mother looked at her for a long moment.
"What is it?" Ana said.
"Nothing. You've just… grown up. And you're so pretty." Her voice choked a little. "You need to get out of Nakasu." She turned away before Ana could answer.
Ana stuffed the money into her shirt, took another swig of beer, and left the bottle.
In the main room again, Ana's gaze turned again toward the man in the alcove. He produced a matchbox, struck a match, and in the flash, she spotted the purple teddy bear on the matchbox. The flame disappeared into the glowing tip of the fat cigar, and thick, scaly lips clamped around the other end. In the dim light, his cheeks took on a coarse, glistening cast, as if he were sweating profusely, and the bottom half of his face seemed to protrude almost like a snout. A fringe of dark, greasy hair hung below the band of his fedora. Round dark eyes snared her gaze, glistening, glittering, and strangely inviting, as if promising diversions she could scarcely fathom.
The near-collapse of her knees roused her from the strange fugue and she caught herself on a barstool. By the time she reached the street, her heart was a cold triphammer. She leaned against the canal railing to steady herself and catch her breath. The narrow street lay empty.
Rough hands grabbed both of her arms. Instincts and muscle memory surged into her limbs. A heartbeat later, one arm was free and Abe Keisuke lay on the pavement with his legs kicked out from under him.
She spun on Black Jacket, snapped her other arm free, and landed a punch at the bridge of his sunglasses, snapping them in two. He staggered back with a wail of pain, clutching his face.
Electricity snapped and crackled, a flash of arcing blue in Abe's hand. He hit her with the taser squarely in back. Her entire body spasmed, white splashes filled her vision. The filthy pavement swung up and slapped her face, coarse and gritty and stinking of garbage and urine.
She was on the ground.
"You're a hard-to-find little bitch," Abe said. "It's like you don't even exist."
Then he kicked her in the head, and all went black.
Consciousness returned with flickering fluorescent light in her eyes, cold concrete under her, and paralyzing pain in her skull. She lay there and cried until the pain subsided enough for her to open her eyes.
The walls were gray concrete and rusty shelving, the door, steel with a window of reinforced glass. The door was, of course, locked, but through the window was a room, a sub-basement with more naked concrete walls and cold gray light, a sewer grate in the floor, a table upon which rested liquor bottles and ashtrays.
Her heart throbbed in her ears, deafening. She paced the room, clutching her head, feeling a tender lump above her ear, yearning for the pain to pass, using moments between pulses of agony to assess her situation. The shelves were securely bolted to the walls, the window glass impenetrable to anything short of a sledgehammer, the door locked solid.
How long before anyone would look for her? Going to the police would reveal her mother to be an undocumented alien. The despair and pain coupled like tarry worms in Ana's belly and pressed her deep into a corner of the room for hours.
The sound of grating metal outside, the only sound since she awakened, brought her to the window. The sewer grate had been slid aside, and an arm emerged from the hole. But an arm unlike anything she had ever seen.
She watched the creature climb into view and clutched both hands over her mouth.
First, its head and gait were at once reptilian and simian. A ring of sodden black hair fringed an indentation atop its pate, where a cupful of water resided. Two thick scaly arms. A turtle-like shell on its back. It stood about a meter-and-a-half tall and walked two-legged toward the table, where it picked up a swimmer's cap, which it snapped over the indentation in its head. Its face was broad and protuberant, with a nose of only two slits in a reptilian face.
Long moments passed until the realization crept over her. Growing up in Japan, she could not help but recognize a real-life kappa. With thick, taloned fingers, it checked the seal on its swimming cap, then crossed the room to a cabinet. The cupboard proved to be a wardrobe of sorts, filled with shirts and suits of various colors. With an ungainliness that would have made her laugh were she not certain she was in mortal danger, the creature dressed itself in a starched white shirt, tie, and pin-striped suit.
Then in the mirror it used to tie its necktie, the kappa's reptilian eyes caught her presence and turned to regard her. Its gaze snared her, held her in place when every muscle in her yearned to dash away.
It slunk across the room, and with each step its appearance shifted by tiny variations. By the time it stood before the door, it resembled the man she had seen in the bar with her mother. Unusual in its appearance, but not inhuman. And not the same individual as the one in the bar.
Her blood turned to icy slurry.
Reptilian eyes peered in at her, burning with a strange desire, perhaps hunger, perhaps lust, perhaps some strange mix of both. Its eyes ogled her, devoured her. Its thick lips peeled back into a grin.
Its hand reached for the door latch.
Her scream froze a moment before its birth.
She could not move, transfixed by the creature's gaze.
But then two human men entered carrying a heavy, squirming burlap bag between them. The kappa turned away, releasing her to move so suddenly she tumbled into a pile. When she righted herself, Abe Keisuke and his cohort with the black jacket had untied the bag's coarse rope and dumped the contents ignominiously onto the floor.
Out fell Ana's mother, gagged with duct tape, hands and feet tied, eyes and hair wild with terror.
The men hoisted her upright and dragged her toward a side of the room Ana could not see.
"Who's this one?" the kappa said.
"That one's mother," Abe said.
The kappa rubbed its hands together in anticipation, looking back and forth between Ana and her mother.
Ana beat on the glass. "Mom! Mom, it's me!"
Her mother's gaze snapped up and after a split second of horrified recognition, her cheeks puffed out in a muffled scream.
They opened another door, tossed her mother inside, and locked it. Ana could no longer hear if her mother was screaming.
Part of her wanted to flee like a rabbit away from the window, but she had to see.
Those outside settled themselves around the table and started pouring liquor, putting their feet up on the table and chatting about the week's take from the pachinko parlor, about how much local stores paid for "protection," about close calls with police. The kappa settled a fedora on his head and took his place there as if he were just one of the boys, but he sat facing Ana's window, and his gaze kept darting to her with a hunger held staunchly at bay.
Two more men came in, and two more kappas. The last kappa she recognized from the bar. He peered into her mother's room with a look of apparent satisfaction.
"She give you any trouble?" the last kappa said.
Abe shook his head. "Not at all, Boss."
"What about the young one?"
"She's scrappy," Abe said. "Be careful."
The first kappa snorted with derision.
"I'm telling you," Abe said. "Don't cut her any slack just because she's a kid."
The first kappa grinned even wider.
The Boss blew cigar smoke out his nose. "No one touches the woman. She's mine."
In the flare of the cigar, Ana recognized the driver of the black car.
If she looked at the creatures long enough, snippets of their disguise seemed to disappear momentarily, like glimpses between the slats of a boarded fence. Reptilian eyes, slits for noses, needle-sharp fangs instead of teeth, shiny black talons instead of fingernails.
Another man came in carrying a shallow plastic tub. Their eyes brightened at the stacks of money filling the tub. She had never seen so much money in one place before. While the rest of them set about counting the stacks of cash, trading cocky jibes and lewd innuendo as if everyone in the room were human, the first kappa made a game torturing her with paralysis, releasing her, seizing her again, until tears streamed down her face.
The Boss counted off a stack of money and said, "This is for Ogawa. Make sure he gets it."
Abe took the extra stack and tucked it into his jacket pocket.
When the money had been distributed among them, the first kappa said, "So what are we going to do with these two, Boss?"
The leader exceeded the other two in size by half again. "Same as we always do."
"Yeah, but who gets 'em?" the first kappa said. "I haven't had one that young in over a hundred years. She looks juicy."
"What's it worth to you?" the Boss kappa said with a thick smirk.
The first kappa shoved its stack of cash into the center of the table.
Ana's heart pounded in her throat. Her mouth was so dry she could not swallow. Her hands trembled. She kept telling herself, It will come, and then I will take it down and get my mom and get out of here.
Her mind whirred. What did she know about kappas? Practically nothing, other than they were fairy tale monsters who most often showed up on advertising. They were cuddly, playful, child-like sometimes, with duck-like bills and smiling eyes and cute little turtle shells. They lived in rivers and ponds. But these things bore only a passing resemblance to the kappas in modern children's books.
The minutes of waiting ticked by, each one cranking her neck tighter and tighter.
If she and her mother died, a few neighbors would mourn them. A few friends at school might wonder vaguely what happened to her.
As she and her mother were not really people anyway, their absence would not make a single ripple in the everyday life of the country. They would be just lost in the cracks, hapless sardines.
From that moment of despair came anger. And from that anger came—
The door opened, and it stood there, grinning.
Its gaze dragged at hers.
The room behind it was empty, the stacks of cash dispersed and gone.
It stepped through the doorway.
She set her feet and faced it, lips pursed, focusing her gaze on the gold tiepin where the sternum of a human would be.
"You're not running. Most of them try to run away." Its strange voice sent ripples of disgust over her flesh. It stank of sewer and stagnant water.
"Why?" Her voice trembled.
"Food always tries to run."
"No, why all this?" Do not look at its eyes.
It edged closer, but blocked the door, its face unreadable. "Why do your people dam all the rivers and embed them in concrete? Where would you have us go? What would you have us eat? Shouldn't everyone have a place in the world?"
Then something shot out of its mouth faster than she could see, like a frog's tongue after a fly, after her. Had her nerves not been cranked so tight, it might have gotten her, but she spun and let it dart past.
Its human grin evaporated into a mouth full of needles, and the long tongue retreated and licked its lips. A bone-like spur emerged and retracted from the tip, dripping with yellowish venom.
"Oh, must you be so difficult?" it whined. "Please, would you be so kind as to let me eat you?"
An instant of recollection shot through her. Kappas were polite creatures.
"If we are going to fight, let's fight fairly," she said. She bowed, slipped her hand into her sleeve.
The kappa returned the gesture. "Oh, very we—"
She launched herself toward it. The butterfly knife from her forearm sheath, overlooked by the two thugs, went snicker-snack. The thing was monkey quick, but so were eskrima knife strikes. In two seconds, she had slashed it six times, blade biting deep into thick flesh of its armpit and neck, where human arteries were. The tongue lashed out again. The attack missed, but then the tongue wrapped around her knife wrist like a tentacle, yanking her arm toward those awful teeth. A quick twist of her body and she flung the creature over her hip. During the instant of the throw, she switched the knife to her left hand. The kappa landed on its back with a heavy thud, but instantly righted itself, faster than any human. Its fedora tumbled away, revealing the swimmer's cap on its pate.
She slashed the tongue with the knife. It felt like cutting rope. The tongue released her and the kappa fell back with a howl, rage boiling in its hiss.
It snatched for her. She batted its grab aside and attempted a wrist lock that would have instantly subdued a human opponent. But its wrist did not bend that way. Instead, she lost control of the taloned hand, which then raked upward across her belly and chest, shredding her jacket and shirt, splitting her bra, and dragging out a cry of pain.
They spun away from each other, and it grinned again. The slashes she had given it had closed like lipless mouths. Its tongue dangled out again, and the wound disappeared.
Blood soaked her shirt.
It wanted her.
Let it come.
Again she batted its claw aside and used its arm as a lever to control its motion, snatching off the swimmer's cap as it passed by.
It emitted a startled "eep!"
Then she jammed her foot into the back of its leg, and it fell backwards onto the floor, spilling the water from its indentation.
She followed it down with knee against the side of its head.
Instantly the strength went out of it.
It wailed with a sound like a human baby, heartbroken.
It was this sound that halted her knife slash the instant before it laid open the kappa's throat.
The gashes she had inflicted earlier gushed black ichor and clear liquid like water. More tarry blackness bubbled from its mouth as it gurgled and wailed.
"Please don't kill me!" it whimpered.
Its body seemed to deflate under her.
"We'll leave, I promise!" it gurgled, half-choked by her knee. "You've defeated me. If you make it out of here, the others will have no choice but to leave. There are only three of us left!"
A dozen heartbeats thundered through her, during which its body continued to diminish.
She stood and stepped back.
Still weeping and whimpering, it levered onto its hands and knees. It looked almost comical in clothes much too big, soaked with dark fluids.
It bowed to her again. "Thank you." Its voice was so pitiful, she felt as guilty as if she had just beaten a child. It trudged toward the sewer grate, peeling off its clothing, hissing with pain of its wounds, shrinking with each step, until, when it stood at the edge of the open sewer grate, it stood as tall as a five-year-old child. With a last plaintive look at her, it stepped into the hole and disappeared.
A heartbeat later, she was at the door of her mother's cell; she flung open the deadbolt and the door to another storage room like Ana's. Her mother lay bound on the floor, her eyes blazing with half-mad fear, face streaked with tears and mascara. Moments later, hands and ankles cut free, gag removed, her mother flung her arms around Ana and wept great explosions of sobs.
"We have to go!" Ana said.
"My feet are numb!"
"I'll carry you!"
Her mother's faced melted into a smile, then she leaned forward and pressed warm lips against Ana's forehead. "You carry me more often than you know."
The moment hung between them, but Ana tore her gaze away from her mother's face before she started sobbing, too. Dark stains spattered the floor. Piles of ratty old clothes were tossed haphazardly into the corner. Nearby lay two filthy Hello Kitty zori.
After winding through several sub-basements and service tunnels moist with the proximity of the sea, they emerged into the morning-filled alley behind Pachinko Power. By that time, her mother could walk again, and the light of day made the things Ana had seen feel distant, like a fading nightmare. Ana's torso ached from the gashes down her front, three parallel gashes from her belly button, up between her breasts, to her collarbone. For over two hours, her mother held her hand while a kindly old Filipina nurse from the neighborhood cleaned the wounds and stitched her up, clucking the entire time about how such a beautiful young girl could never wear a bathing suit again. But for Ana, the scars would be badges of honor, and she would wear them as proudly as she wore the comb.
After she told Uncle Philip her story, he led a gang of ten male students with vengeance in their hearts and fire-hardened ironwood yantok sticks in their hands, down into the depths below Nakasu. They found nothing. She never saw Abe Keisuke or his cohort again.
The cardboard people stopped disappearing.
As the tale spread through the immigrant community, Ana found she had made quite a name indeed.