The Ogre and The Fox Hunter

— Ryan Gattis

The day the women came for his help, Oni knew something had to be done about the killings. One unauthorized homicide in his district would not do, but the newspaper—which now sat folded beside his afternoon oolong—said two had occurred. Identical twin girls murdered, that was the headline’s sensational hook. Both sixteen. The front-page story held few details beyond these. Names had not been released. Osaka was a city of 2.5 million packed into 223 square kilometers, but Oni recognized the apartment building in the photo. He knew the shabby doorway, its broken lamp shaped like a firefly’s abdomen. The property was six blocks from his office. These dead girls grew up in Shinsekai, and since they had, they were family.

Oni took up a pen and wrote: This is something the broader world does not understand about yakuza: a yakuza is not first a criminal. First, he is a family man. He is loyal to his brothers and to his community. Without either, he would not exist. This is why he must protect both.

The new generation understood nothing. It fell to Oni to educate his young charges, and occasions like these gave him ideas worth teaching. He finished his notes as his assistant buzzed to announce the local Women’s Association. They filed into his office two by two until there was no room left to stand.

Raindrops pinged the loose drainpipe outside his window as the women avoided sitting on the black leather couch arranged especially in front of his desk to seat visitors below him. They refused his assistant’s polite offers of bottled water or hot tea. None met his gaze. Most stared out the window at the Tsutenkaku Tower wreathed with gray clouds. The bold ones elected the mother of the dead twins with their eyes, silently pushing her forward to the edge of Oni’s desk.

“We respectfully request…”

She couldn’t say the rest. She didn’t have to.

Oni jotted this down: Common people never ask a yakuza for anything lightly. Our milieu is their last resort. In such cases, implication is better than asking, which is why one must always be perceptive when weighing a request.

This much went unspoken: if the police were a viable option, the women would have gone to them instead. Perhaps they already had.

Oni told his secretary to send for Kaeru—The Frog. This frog had a name, Kenji Asada, but few called him that, and when he arrived the women realized why. He had wide-set eyes and a round face, almost more amphibian than human, and every last woman in the room found him repulsive. It was of no consequence to Oni how they felt. Kenji was a man who got difficult things done.

“Perhaps,” a sunken-cheeked, bitter melon of a woman spoke up, “this reminds you of what happened to the blowfish girl?”

She was an old woman full of perhapses. The worst kind. She never said anything straight out. But in this case, she didn’t need to. Oni remembered the girl.

Twelve years ago she had been thirteen and pale from too much studying when someone dumped her body, cut from scalp to pubis, in front of the blowfish restaurant her parents owned. The restaurant closed and the family moved to Takatsuki even before the case went cold. It had been a time of many distractions.

Rather than solve the case, the police wasted resources on the Yama-Ichi War, a battle between rival yakuza factions. Some 200 shootouts kept them busy and the newspapers cared about little else. The Asahi and the Nichi-nichi even printed scorecards detailing how many had died from both the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Ichiwa-kai. Even as an interested third party in that particular turf war, Oni had found it vulgar. Death was not sport, he felt. It was the closing of a chapter, the end of a story.

“The papers would not say,” the dead twins’ mother said, “but my—”

“The girls were halved,” Bitter Melon cut in, “chopped up in their beds. Their feet and hands were bound while they were sleeping. He needed many strokes to accomplish it, so perhaps he is not strong.”

The twins’ mother looked too exhausted to cry at this information. Instead, she bowed her head. Her unwashed hair looked like wrung rags beside her face. As it was with most residents of Shinsekai, she worked elsewhere. Oni knew this. In her case it was nights at the port, tabulating squid catches and preparing them for the early morning market, off in time to cook breakfast for her daughters before they went to school.

Oni took his time inserting a mother-of-pearl cufflink into its hole before standing and buttoning his suit. His secretary stepped forward with a lint roller but he waved the man away. Deftly, Oni removed a sword from its hanging place on the wall, packed it in a leather carrying case built specifically for the purpose, and snapped the clasps closed.

“Bring my car around,” Oni said as he moved to the door with case in-hand, “and we will see what we can see.”

On the drive to the mother’s house, only the hum of the air-conditioning and the occasional splish of tires through puddles could be heard inside the car. The rain had let up, but the streets were still wet as the black Mercedes zipped past congealing piles of litter collecting in the drains: food bags, plastic sandwich wrappers, cups with straws…

Shinsekai—Oni’s teachers had told him in school—was where the rubbish landed.

So was it any wonder why Oni left his formal education and went to work for the boss at fifteen? He’d always considered himself lucky. The boss had taught him early that books were the best teachers of all. Oni patted his pocket for a pen, but he didn’t have one. He frowned at this, and then he closed his eyes.

Those nobody cares about, the yakuza does. He tried to stamp the mental note on his brain. To yakuza, big cities are small towns. The reason is simple: on the bottom, everyone knows everyone. They know each other’s business and they all talk, either through greed, jealousy, pettiness, or fear.

When the car slowed and stopped, Oni opened his eyes. They were parked in front of the building in the newspaper photo. At its entrance, the broken firefly lamp was lit, casting transparent shadows of cut glass onto the wall.

The apartment had one room for sleeping. At night, the girls slept there, during the day, their mother had. Alone. The father had run out long ago. No one except Oni knew where. He had buried the man in the foundation of the Kansai airport in 1994. This was why he felt it necessary to handle this particular case himself, with his own hands, rather than someone else’s. He owed her, this woman, though she would never know.

A black bedroll sat in the kitchen, scrunched between the oven and a small square table. It was obvious to Oni that the mother would never again sleep in the same room her children had died in.

In the sleeping room, he said, “Has anything been taken?”

The mother nodded. Mobile phones and book bags, but that was by the police. The walls had been hastily painted beige and the twins’ futons had been removed, leaving two rectangles of negative space in a ragged, ovular bloodstain on the bamboo matting that had yet to be replaced.

“Has anything been left?” he asked.

When the blowfish girl had been killed, Oni was not Boss. It was not his responsibility. Yet, the neighborhood talked for weeks about the pages of a children’s book that had been torn out and wadded in an alley not far from the body. The story, complete with pictures, was called, “A Fox’s Gratitude.” This was unusual, so Oni had committed it to memory. No one destroyed books in Shinsekai. It was offensive. Money was hard to come by and education, though occasionally derided by the jealous and the ignorant, was held in the highest regard.

Oni pursed his lips. “Did all these books belong to your daughters?”

Oni, Kenji, and the twin’s mother moved to a small bookcase. Most were textbooks, which was understandable given the twins’ year in school. Algebra. Poetry. History. Though not in any particular order, the clusters of subjects were obvious. However, in this relatively well-organized bookcase, six books were placed haphazardly, spine-in, only showing the whites of their pages. Oni removed these personally. As a group they had nothing in common. Unless of course they had been arranged that way to obscure the importance of one. Which one that might be was obvious: a book of folktales stood out by virtue of being the only library book. What was more, it was from the local library, not from the twins’ school.

Oni said, “Did your daughters read many folktales?”

“No, not since they were little,” their mother said as her bottom lip quivered, “and only I read them aloud back then.”

Oni had to be sure. “Is this book theirs?”

The twins’ mother narrowed her eyes at the worn cover. After a long pause she said, “I would never have thought so.”

Oni flipped its pages. All were intact except for three. The table of contents made it clear the torn-out story concerned kitsune—foxes, ancient shapeshifters, tricksters all. “How Tokutaro Was Deluded By Foxes,” the tale was called. Oni knew this one. After making a bet with his friends that foxes couldn’t trick him, Tokutaro waited outside a bamboo grove until he saw a fox go in. He chased it, and on the other side it became a beautiful girl, so he followed her home to convince her parents that his daughter was actually a fox. Despite the protests of both mother and father, Tokutaro tortured the girl in every conceivable way, and then, when she would not confess to being a fox in disguise, he burned her to death—but the body did not change back to a fox in the flames. It stayed human. Only then did Tokutaro realize his mistake.

It was a brutal tale, but then, many of the old ones were. The twist of it was: the girl was a fox, and so were her parents, and even the priest was too, the one who came along to judge Tokutaro for his misdeeds. Convinced he had to become a monk and atone for what he did, Tokutaro submitted to having his head shaved, and it was then that everything around him disappeared: the house, the burnt body of the girl, the priest. All he was left with was his hair in his hands and the foxes’ laughter ringing in his ears.

The mother’s eyes had never left the book. She piped in again, “But maybe they had a school project?”

Oni turned the book on its spine and thumbed the library barcode.

“Only one way to find out,” he said.

The white-faced clock loomed like a full moon behind the librarian’s desk, and it made the reedy woman beneath it look brown in comparison. Oni knew her. Her husband liked to gamble. This fact had much to do with why she chose to help.

“It was reported stolen,” the librarian said after she’d scanned the book. She leaned toward her computer screen and squinted. Her eyes looked like barnacles beneath the thickness of her glasses. “Three months ago.”

The twins’ mother twitched at the news. Oni had hoped to leave her at the apartment, but not even a look from Kenji could dissuade her.

“Who checked it out last?” Oni wanted to know.

Computer keys clacked and the librarian ran down a list of names. Oni knew the first two. They were older people in the community, belonging to a bygone era—hardly suspects. It was important to know the old stories. Few folks did these days.

“Hold on,” the librarian said. “The same person checked it out four times…”

She gave him the name as if it surprised her: Riki. He was the library janitor, she said. People at work sometimes called him Riki-baka—Riki the Fool.

Oni remembered the name, and he knew when next he had a pen he must stress the importance of memory for all his young yakuza: a yakuza must know his streets as if they were his bones. He must never forget faces or names. He must pay diligent attention, always ready to recall details at a moment’s notice.

“You know, mentally he is a little,” the librarian lowered her voice, “off.”

Oni thanked her and asked if there was a picture of Riki in the employee files.

After being shown the photo of Riki, a homeless man who looked like a gray-bearded crab pointed out Riki’s building. The old man had a Kyushu accent and had been trying to fight the lock off a recycling bin when the Mercedes interrupted him. His was a familiar story of want in Oni’s neighborhood: the elders who left the shame of poverty and bankruptcy in their small towns for a life of facelessness in Shinsekai.

Above all, one must remember, Oni thought, that the street has eyes and ears. Often what others think is rubbish is not; everything has a use.

“Old man,” Oni said, “have you seen any dead cats lately?”

Oni had been keeping this information to himself: a number of dead cats had been seen in the neighborhood before and after the blowfish girl, all cut in a similar fashion. If only he had been boss then, Oni thought, it would have ended there.

“Last week,” the old man replied.

“What did it look like?”

The man didn’t answer with words. Instead, he pointed his fingers inward and sliced upward from his waist to his eyes.

Oni snorted with disgust. He handed the old man enough yen for six sticks of fried fish and then some. Shinsekai was famous for such delicacies.

“Buy some kushi-katsu,” Oni said to the old man, and rolled up the window.

Riki’s family name was on the building directory. That saved time.

The twins’ mother begged to go upstairs with them, but when she saw Oni remove the case from the trunk, she returned to the backseat and didn’t make a sound. Kenji brought the waterproof bag. They took the elevator to the fifth floor.

The deadbolt wasn’t locked and Kenji had never been the type to knock. He put his shoulder into it. The door swung open on an apartment packed to the ceiling with mismatched bookcases where every shelf sat stuffed with books stored with pages facing outward. Kenji grunted. Various combinations of white, beige, and yellow pages sat in the rectangular rows like discolored dentures, and in the middle of the room stood a balding male in his mid-forties. It was wrong to call him a man.

He wore a vacant smile, the look of the perpetually simple-minded. To Oni, he was a boy. A misbehaving boy. That was all. And this boy stood in his underwear, fanning himself with his hand as Kenji closed the blinds tight. The room wasn’t warm, but it seemed the boy was hot. Red-cheeked and sweating, he looked as if he’d been doing push-ups, though no such work showed on his frame.

“Do you know who I am?” Oni asked as he closed the door and locked it.

The boy’s response came out manic. He couldn’t keep himself from giggling as he talked. “You are the ogre, the demon-ogre. With red skin. With big teeth.”

He was a strange boy, not entirely in this world. Anyone who looked at him could see that. Hearing him talk simply confirmed it. But he knew Oni, he knew the name meant ogre, and he knew it carried weight. In Shinsekai, everyone did.

“And do you know what must happen now?” Oni asked.

Riki’s voice was high and excited. “What?”

Oni angled a look at Kenji and the frog unzipped the bag and spread it flat on the floor. Fully spread, it was two meters wide. In the middle, he placed the boy’s pillow.

“Sit there,” Oni said with a kindness at odds with his eyes, “please.”

The boy sat. He shook like a volcano about to erupt and when he did, he spoke of foxes still being alive, foxes that looked like humans, foxes that tormented him at night, whisking their nine tails against his walls, making a sound like his name: Ri-ki, Ri-ki, Ri-ki. People in this modern world didn’t believe in foxes anymore but they were wrong. Truly, he had no choice but to become a foxhunter to save himself, since he could see shape-shifting foxes for what they were and catch them and kill them if necessary and this went on and on with a mad, passionate energy until Riki mentioned a pair of twin foxes and fell quiet.

“The foxes tricked you, Riki, and what you have been doing to expose their true forms is very bad. I cannot allow it in Shinsekai.” Oni turned on the overhead light at the wall. It hung from a loose ceiling fan and as the blades spun, the naked bulb glowed yellow as it swung over the room. “Do you understand that I cannot allow it? Why, what would the other ogres think of me if they knew?”

Riki nodded with deep solemnity, as if it was the most important topic on earth, and then he studied his feet.

“This is true,” Riki said. “Honor among ogres is very important. It is like food. Maybe it is even more than food. It is everything. Air and food and water combined.”

“Well said!” Oni grinned wide. He was beginning to like this boy. “So you see my predicament?”

“I do. I really do,” Riki said before frowning at his big toes. “If you say I have been bad, I must deserve it.”

Oni opened his case. “May I tell you a story, Riki?”

The sword emerged so easily from foam. It shed its scabbard so quietly.

“Oh, yes, please!” Riki wasn’t frowning anymore, and he wasn’t looking at his feet. He was looking at the ceiling. “I love stories.”

“I know you do,” Oni said as he circled behind Riki, careful not to disturb the bag Kenji had laid out flat. “I do too.”

When Kenji looked at his watch, Oni shook his head. Not everyone could appreciate the power of a good story. Not everyone knew they could transform.

“Once upon a time in the city of Osaka, an ogre came out of his cave to visit a foxhunter,” Oni began. “This foxhunter was very dedicated and very clever and it took the ogre some time to find him.”

At this, Riki giggled. He was staring at the ceiling planks now. He was watching the fan go around, and around, and following it with his whole body, as if in a trance.

“But when he found him,” Oni continued as simply as he could, “he told the foxhunter to stop hunting foxes. The foxes were tricking him and in order to defeat them, he needed to stop.”

Shaking ceiling light glinted off the polished blade, sending sharp reflections over the bookshelves as Oni took his place behind the boy and raised it high, but not too high, not so it would scrape the ceiling. It was then that he paused while the rumble-and-rattle of a garbage truck navigated the small alley behind the building.

But Riki couldn’t wait. He leapt to his feet and shouted, “But how does it end?”

When the blade came down, it entered Riki’s left trapezius, forcing him back to the pillow on the floor with a hollow grunt as Oni adjusted his weight and forced the blade sidewise into the neck and then downward: all the way to the collarbone where it stuck. Riki screamed, but it wasn’t so much a scream as a one-note siren—that is, until he started choking on his own blood. After that, he drowned in gurgles.

Kenji was quickest. He grabbed Oni’s hands and kicked Riki square between the shoulder blades. The sword came free as the boy fell forward, his neck chopped nearly in half, but not quite, and when he smacked the floor, Kenji pounced, folding the bag on its nearest corner, turning it from a square to a triangle in a moment, pulling the zippers on both sides with either hand and meeting in the middle before pressing his full weight downward. Kenji anchored himself by bunching the bag in his left hand like a cowboy riding a rodeo bull. It was impressive how the frog kept his balance, splaying his legs out this way and that, delivering the odd punch to the back of the head, short and sharp, always staying on top of the problem. This was the only way to withstand the spasms beneath him as Riki wailed and shook and bled out.

Oni surveyed the apartment. He noted some red stains had made it as far as the ceiling fan, the bookcases too—with splotches quickly absorbed by the pages—but these were nothing fire couldn’t cure. It was a good thing the bag’s seams were taped and heat-sealed. Otherwise, it might have been messier than it needed to be. This brought to mind another lesson.

As a yakuza, one must exemplify organization and cleanliness. When there is a problem in one’s community, one must be the cloth. With scrubbing, soot disappears. Cleaning is hard work, but it must be done. Sometimes there are messes that only a yakuza can clean. Often, one must do the wrong things for the right reasons.

As Riki thrashed and kicked his last, it pained Oni not to make a note of this wisdom. He closed his eyes and did his best to remember the shape of the sentences before they fell away from him.

If only I had a pen, Oni thought as Kenji he turned off the light

 


 

Ryan Gattis (@Ryan_Gattis) is the author of All Involved, a novel of the 1992 L.A. riots, and a 1-2 punch of noir novellas from Black Hill Press, The Big Drop: Homecoming and The Big Drop: Impermanence, both of which feature appearances by Oni and Kenji the Frog. He lives in Los Angeles.