Chapter 6:

Chapter 006

Ergon V

The night was upon the city of Tokyo, the clear sky gaining a cobalt tint over the Franciscan Chapel Center in the Roppongi district. A limousine stopped in front of the three-floored building, obstructing the passage of the small street that stretched before it. And while there was no parking space available, that didn’t stop its only passenger from coming out of it through the back door. Walking with confidence and purpose, he headed straight for the glittering light emanating from the chapel’s entrance.

In one of the pavilions across the ground floor, a meeting between veterans took place. Several tables were nestled over the light wood floor full of snacks and disposable plastic cups alongside coffee pots. The men—although there were also a few women—gathered in small groups, chatting about their ordinary lives after their service. They also shared a few good anecdotes of the brief peaceful moments they enjoyed along with the successful operations they carried out, those which left no deep scars on them.

In charge of the entire affair was Tetsuya Hashimoto. He ran his hand through his slicked-back onyx hair as he talked with a small pack of veterans, a few rebellious grey strands falling on his forehead and reminding him he was well into his forties. Tetsuya hid his emotions well behind his gray eyes, framed by a firm patrician face and a square jaw, although his grimace left room for some relaxation at such events. He had attended similar meetings during his stay in the United States, full of ex-combatants from Afghanistan and Iraq in dire need of overcoming their traumatic experiences. Many soldiers, he reflected, found catharsis in the Catholic process of confession and repentance, the more complex Buddhist purification ritual holding little to no appeal nowadays. Yet their experiences had either challenged or altered their former beliefs, leading them to feel isolated from the communities they once belonged. Or at least that was how Tetsuya saw it.

“How’s your day job going, ‘Big Boss’?” a deep yet friendly voice came from behind and surprised him.

Tetsuya turned around, running into a man who seemed to have nothing to do with what was happening there. His black high-quality tailored suit stacked up against the mild clothes of the others present, who wore comfortable t-shirts, sweatshirts, or polo shirts. His gaze was fiery though relaxed, exuding a certain air of confidence instead of the half-smiles often displayed by veterans. And still, he himself had been in other battles; he was a soldier to the core. But while Tetsuya knew several people in that room, his relationship with Kentaro Tsujimoto was something else. He was, after all, his oldest and most dear friend.

“You know I hate that codename,” replied Tetsuya, “not to mention this is merely community service. The other one is my day job.” The Sentinel colonel apologized to the small group of soldiers he was with and picked up a coffee pot from the makeshift buffet. He poured caffeine into it and turned to handle it to his friend.

Kentaro took a long swallow, then exhaled with some delight. “Wish mine wasn’t so stressful,” he said sardonically. “It was a real mess yesterday, and you know bureaucratic bullshit is not my thing.”

Tetsuya chuckled. “Which is why you’re the CEO of a major worldwide energy conglomerate, right?”

“Well, not everyone gets to work on what they want the most, something you and I understand to perfection.”

“True. By the way, how’s your wife doing? I heard she went into surgery.”

Almost immediately, Tetsuya realized he shouldn’t have asked that question. Indeed, for a man who showed little emotion, it was clear the subject affected him since a shadow of grief had fallen upon his face. “Not so well,” he replied after a while. “The tumor has spread widely, so she may have bought only a few more months of life.”

“I’m sorry. Brain cancer must be a terrible thing to deal with.”

Kentaro nodded in response, his brow furrowing at some sad memory that caused him both rejection and frustration. “Yeah. She even keeps asking me about the boys. I'll never forget her face when they told us they were enlisting.” He shook his head. “Sometimes, I wish I’d never been to Iraq. They’ve always tried to follow in my footsteps, you know?”

On this occasion, empathy came from Tetsuya. “If it’s any consolation, think we would have never got to know each other if you hadn’t been there, let alone end up involved in all this.”

“And to think it all started with a humanitarian trip turning out to be a facade for American covert ops,” Kentaro added. Indeed, both men had been part of the JSDF delegation deployed in Iraq thirty years before at the express request of the United States. They were there to help the locals reorganize the country, so most of their comrades never fired a single bullet during the tour. Tetsuya and Kentaro, however, had been recruited by Special Forces teams to conduct operations that fell outside the margins of the law. That experience had marked them for life, setting them on a path that would lead them to where they were now. Perhaps he could find some comfort in that fact.

Kentaro sighed as if he’d had enough of that topic. “Anyway, we’re not here to share old griefs. I have what you asked me.” His friend then pulled out a flash drive from one of his suit’s pockets, gesturing for them to withdraw from the room.

Both men walked side by side in silence to the back entrance of the chapel. Once they had stepped outside, a light breeze greeted them as Kentaro handed him the stick while taking out a pack of cigarettes. Tetsuya grabbed it as he drew a folding tablet from his jacket and plugged the drive into it. He held it in front of him as he tabbed through the virtual pages, stopping at a video file that displayed grainy footage from a CCTV camera outside the storage unit facility.

Kentaro spoke as he looked at it, “My police contacts informed me the unit was rented under Yoshinaga Hidenobu, a fake ID. The one-handed terrorist was spotted among many other visitors during the past few days, but the security cameras inside were malfunctioning and the place was emptied and cleaned with bleach. The thing is, the storage company was facing several negligence lawsuits and ended up employing a major law firm connected to corporate moguls and suspected of ties with Amaterasu.”

“I see,” nodded Tetsuya as he took on the information, then glanced away from the pad, deep in thought. “We didn’t get much from the damaged drive except for a few logs indicating yesterday’s attack was originally a front to cover up the engineer’s murder, Kaio Watanabe. They would make it look like a random victim caught up during a suicide bombing. Our surveillance at the scene suggests an argument broke up and things got out of hand from there on.”

“Right,” commented Kentaro, not particularly impressed, then took a drag at his cigarette. Tetsuya expressed his disapproval with a frown, yet he went on. “But our forensic results from his computer lead us to believe he made a second copy. He used a spiderlike program to scrape data, targeting specific files while removing any suspicious activity from the logs. More importantly, he sent a mail with highly encrypted files to his team partner, Hashimoto Kotori, who’s been in contact with our dear legal firm.”

Tetsuya’s eyes widened at this. He glanced down at his digital pad again, flicking his fingers over its surface until he ran into a dossier of the person in question. For a few moments, he studied the woman’s profile picture, bumping into a young girl with long dark hair and a gentle gaze hidden behind glasses. He scanned the other pages in her file, his eyes dithering over details of her studies and work history as Kentaro gave him a quick resume. “She lost a brother in Turkey, got involved with activist groups at college. Sounds like potential Amaterasu material. But she’s gone missing since yesterday. We contacted her family and friends, and no one knows her whereabouts.”

“Do you know who the lawyer she’s in contact with is?” Tetsuya inquired. “She may get in touch with him so that he can—”

“—mediate with Amaterasu in her favor, giving you a shot at locating her by planting a bug on him,” his friend finished his train of thought, much to his delight. “Way ahead of you.”

Tetsuya grinned as he scrolled down the files of the tablet, seeing many panels of notes that led him to a bunch of photographic archives. He tabbed on the first one, a pop-up window showing him a photo taken from the distance where he saw two men in suits having a conversation. One of them was the lawyer they had discussed.

The other one was Takeshi Uchida.

Tetsuya’s jaw tightened. He’d had his suspicions, of course, like many men in the intelligence department. But he had never given them a voice up to that point, let alone to his friend. After all, Takeshi had always been a man he could never quite figure out. He’d joined the renewed Japanese Ground Defense Forces when he came of age and spent a good couple of months in Fort Bragg to learn all there was to learn about the U.S. military. He then took part in a group that ran covert operations in Greece and Russia, an experience that did little to ease an already troubled childhood filled with abuse and violence. Takeshi later resumed his studies in communication and marketing, which led him to the position he held shortly before his death. He was always on the move, an innate leader with a talent for improvising in adverse situations who could prove manipulative if the situation warranted it. Tetsuya never came to understand what his drive was, and that made him mistrust him.

He tossed an inquisitive look at Kentaro, trying to read his expression. The man remained immutable, although he conceded him a few words. “Before the plane attack, we were monitoring him since he was one of the employees who worked with the firm. But we found nothing concrete against him.”

Tetsuya’s next question came unbidden. “Look, we both know the Greco-Turkish conflict left more in him than just a scar on his face. You noticed anything strange about him back then?”

“He might have been a bit too much absorbed in his work and barely spoke with his younger brother, but we’re talking about helping terrorists here.”

“Maybe, but Amaterasu isn’t short on staff or resources. One of yesterday’s thugs was a derailed college student, the other two Korean veterans...” Tetsuya glanced back at the chapel’s door for a moment. Faced with the potential betrayal of Uchida, he pondered the reasons why the rest of the people in that pavilion were there. It wasn’t a matter of PTSD symptoms or some kind of damage to their conception of morality. Many of those veterans displayed powerful feelings of anger and regret; they questioned their purpose and that behind their actions. “These boys walk along a very thin line, you know?” he commented. “There are fewer of them coming every day. I fear they might end up doing something stupid.” It was then that he recalled the one-handed terrorist’s last words. “‘There is no death nor life.’ That’s their motto, right?”

Kentaro considered his words for a few moments. “A perceived reality with no material ties, like Buddhism? How romantic... and dangerous,” he concluded, then chuckled at the concept. “Such detachment from our world can easily mislead damaged minds. People stick to their beliefs no matter how illogical they are. It’s an emotional thing. But what about those for whom words aren’t enough?”

“Fighting violence with violence is no way to make a difference. Providing equitable solutions to people is.”

Kentaro’s mouth hardened. “We’ve only stolen fire from the gods to burn ourselves with it. I see no other outcome for this other than a new world war. It’s like we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes endlessly.” His following words came with a sense of bitterness as he took one last drag from his cigarette, then flicked the butt onto the floor to stomp it out with a twist of one of his black loafers. “What we do isn’t something we get to enjoy, Tetsuya, but all we can do.”

The moon shone bright and clear as Kazuto reached the Azabu Court residential hotel, ready to leave behind the errand his brother had assigned him as quickly as possible. He pedaled uphill on a narrow street plunged into darkness, a couple of lampposts providing some clarity along with the lights coming from inside the rooms of the whitewashed five-story building where the road led.

The air was chilly and still once Kazuto got off his ride, which he had parked next to a motorcycle in the driveway. He checked the number on his cellphone one last time, not that there was any doubt about it being the correct one, but that he was still unsure about the whole deal. He decided to give himself no chance to back down and hastened for the sliding doors, which parted at his passing. Kazuto headed straight for a box to his right to announce himself, where they told him to wait in the lobby while they located Kotori-san. The place was cozy, if not cramped, and there was a simple pair of wooden chairs on either side of a table before a small elevator. Then, at the bottom, there was an open courtyard surrounded by the structure itself. What caught his eye, however, was a colorful spiral staircase beside it, the treads and risers painted in blue while the outer part of the curved plaster wall was white and orange.

Indeed, he was staring at it as he failed to realize a person wearing a leather jacket had rounded a corner to his left, slamming straight into him. The stranger nearly tripped at the collision but regained his balance in no time. Kazuto offered his help nevertheless. “Sorry about that. Are you okay?”

The person in question also wore dark sunglasses, and as he gazed at the long black hair hidden under a sweatshirt below the jacket, he realized it was, in fact, a woman. “Y-Yes, it was nothing,” she replied to him, her nervous eyes checking her surroundings. “I just didn’t notice where I was going.”

Kazuto eyed her closely, finding some familiar features behind what looked like someone trying too hard to hide her face. Then, something clicked inside his head. “Kotori-san?” he exclaimed, half-surprised and half-confused.

The women swallowed hard, fearful. It took her a while to react to his words. “Sugiyama-kun! L-Long time no see,” she said with some suspicion. “I thought I was going to meet your older brother instead. Is he okay?”

Feeling awkward, Kazuto scratched the back of his head. “Sort of. He’s in a hospital, though it’s not serious. You see, joining the police only got him closer to trouble,” he said, then laughed nervously.

A wave of sudden guilt felt upon Kotori’s eyes, which now darted from side to side as if she were processing what he just had told her. “By chance, did he happen to be involved in yesterday’s mess?”

With a crooked smile on his face, Kazuto nodded his head in response. Kotori stared at him for a while, her eyebrows arching in empathy—then gained a more sober look like she had recalled something important. “Are you still attending Shibuya High?”

Kazuto didn’t expect that. “Y-Yes. Why did you—?”

Out of the blue, Kotori produced an orange thumb drive from her jacket, which she placed in Kazuto’s hands. In an instinctive reflex, he tried to reject it, but she somehow kept it there by wrapping her hands around his. Kazuto looked up at her, overcome by sudden anxiety, even if something awoke inside him as he stared straight into her pleading eyes and felt the warmth of her skin. “Please, I need you to keep it,” she begged him. “They can’t find me having this with me.”

Shock at his situation gave way to incomprehension as Kazuto looked at Kotori, wondering what she had meant by that. At any rate, he was too numbed by the circumstances that had befallen him to object, so he allowed himself to be dragged along as the woman grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward the elevator. Yet he couldn’t avoid a bad feeling from washing over him. It was clear he had gotten himself into something far graver than he would have hoped.

Back in Shibuya High, Saori had already changed back into her school uniform inside the equipment room. She picked up her archery clothes from the coat rack and packed them up neatly, ready to leave. But before doing so, she checked the longbows storage rack one more time, which stood next to a couple of shelves filled with hay cylinders and rings for target practice. There, she approached the bow with her name written on it, caressing her fingers over the bamboo wood. She could recognize it by touch, the pores and fibers of its woody-grass surface mapped in her mind to perfection. She even allowed herself to smile for a few moments. Somehow, the object fascinated her, perhaps due to its firmness and delicate balance, capable of resisting humidity and mold.

Or maybe because it hadn’t betrayed her yet.

Anxiety washed over her as a light flashed on her watch, and she soon found herself examining her surroundings. The rest of the students had left earlier, so it was only her and Hayato. She gazed outside at the range field and ran into her brother, still wearing his club uniform as he wielded his bamboo bow like a staff. He spun it around his body with skill and excellent technique. From time to time, however, he winced in pain and had to interrupt the flow of his movements, pressing an arm against his abdomen there where he had been hit the night before. He had always been a showoff, Saori reflected. She kept hoping to see some maturity in his way of acting, but it seemed to be a futile yearning.

Her focus back on her watch, she twisted its bezel counterclockwise, and the display showing the time of day gave way to a 10-digit touch keypad. She entered a code, and from among the new array of options she unlocked, she went for the messages folder. A translucent holographic window popped up from its surface, floating in front of her as she read the text she had just received: “Big Boss to White Leopard & Blue Jaguar: target located. Lawyer ordered an extraction package. Head towards Hiroo Park ASAP and wait for instructions.”

Doubts seized Saori’s mind, the feeling all too familiar to her by now. Was she ready for this? She dreaded the possibility of making another mistake, yet she had no other choice at the moment. She stirred as she took her earrings off, giving in to the urgency of her assignment, and then glanced at Hayato. He was no longer fooling around. Instead, his eyes rested on his own watch, checking the message he had also received. He removed his glasses, making eye contact with her. Saori nodded back to the man she was henceforth to regard as Blue Jaguar, both about to prepare for their next mission.

For their masks were off, and the game was on.