The Frog’s Errand

— Ryan Gattis

Once upon a recent time in Japan, in the suburbs outside Kyoto, sat a house on a hill in a nighttime puddle of silence. It wasn’t an actual puddle, but it was full of the deep and costly quiet only available in upper class subdivisions with Western-style houses, where neighborhood associations mandate acceptable paint hues and landscaping. In this tidy cluster of homes where every neighbor kept a porch light on but nobody knew anybody and didn’t want to, one particular suburban bunker—its street number, as the newspapers reported two days later, was 38—did as all the others did, trying its best to fit in by welcoming jealous gazes but discouraging visitors. Still, there was no main gate on this hill to keep the world out, for that would have been rude.

It was just as well. Gates never kept out those who wanted in badly enough. If someone wanted to kick down #38’s front door—well, a gate would never stop such a person. But if that someone were smart, or experienced, the front door would be ignored. Battering it wouldn’t be worth the noise or effort. The best plan involved creeping around back, hopping a slatted fence, and entering deftly through the half-ajar kitchen window by cutting back the screen with a knife.

This was exactly how Kenji Asada entered #38, slipping under the cut screen before maneuvering himself onto the sink. While seated there, Kenji took care not to knock over the hand soap and dishwashing liquid in designer glass bottles as he removed his muddy shoes and put them in a bag he slung on his back. After that, he placed hospital booties over his socks, lowered himself onto the floor, and checked the house for occupants.

He knew the place had no dog, only a cat, and as if on-cue, the fuzzy ragdoll met him at the entrance to a well-appointed sitting room and twice whisked against the ankles of his head-to-toe painter’s suit in greeting. When Kenji passed by the shut doors of the traditional shrine room without a second glance and went upstairs to check the bedrooms, he dissolved into the abundant silence with every step, making himself one with it.

Kenji pushed open the master bedroom door as if a perfectly natural breeze had done it, but he found nothing and nobody, only clean, unslept-in sheets and a silk shirt lying on the floor. That same breeze tried the den and the guest room too and when it again found nothing, Kenji returned downstairs to the sitting room to think. It was a bad habit of his because he wasn’t very good at it, and no one ever paid him to do it, but he did it all the same.

As Kenji crouched on the carpet, he thought about how much he hated Kyoto. Every time Oni sent him here, he couldn’t resist telling the old folktale about a frog from Osaka and a frog from Kyoto leaving their homes and meeting on a hill in the middle where they decided to look ahead and see if the rest of the journey was worth taking. The kicker was this: when the frogs pointed their noses toward where they were going, they couldn’t see in front of themselves because their eyes were on the sides of their heads, so they stupidly thought they were looking forward when they were actually looking back. As a result, each frog thought where he was going looked exactly like where he was from, and both immediately gave up and went home.

This story always irritated Kenji Asada—or by his street name, Kaeru, which meant Frog. He’d earned the moniker simply by being born, for his round face and widely spaced, bulbous eyes looked uncommonly like a frog’s, and as it happened, there weren’t many jobs for men who looked like him. His past was predictable. He came up bad, the way anybody ever comes up bad, by being abused by those stronger and meaner before falling into one ill bit of work after another, until someone finally came along and put him to ill use. In this case, it was a man named Oni, his current boss. This man had recognized a special capacity in Kenji: the willingness to do whatever he was told.

It was Oni who told Kenji to visit #38 two days ago. Kenji’s reason for not doing so was simple: he had been drunk, which was neither original nor new, but it was true, and now here he was, a villain, sweaty from sneaking all over this house, hungry, impatient, and still a little drunk too. Kenji contemplated sand-colored canvases in the dim sitting room, wondering if he’d have to sit all night and wait, when he ran his eyes over the curtained bay window across from him to the nook it shared with the wooden wall of the shrine room and saw, through the rice paper of its screen door, the whispering gleam of a candle flame.

Kenji leapt to his feet. He kicked the screen as hard as he could when he got there, thinking it would come off its track and fall backward into the room.

It didn’t.

Instead, he put his foot clean through the paper and had to fight it out, breaking numerous decorative wooden spines in the process and startling the two inhabitants who had been snugly bundled in a comforter only moments before. There might have been screams if he hadn’t put his finger to his lips and pulled the gun out, the one with a silencer that looked almost gold in the candlelight.

Next to nobody had a gun in Japan. They were illegal all over.

This was exactly why Kenji lived to flash it at people. He loved the looks on their faces: the way eyes widened and mouths gaped. The power to make anyone reconsider their lives was one of his favorite things. For him, there was nothing better, nothing more right, than being feared.

But his main target didn’t look at him the way he wanted. She was unimpressed.

Kenji didn’t like that.

“So the frog finally made it to Kyoto,” the woman said, her tone somewhere between sarcastic and unsurprised. “How amazing.”

It was better for Kenji’s working life if targets didn’t have names. It made everything easier, cleaner. So in his mind he kept it: The Actress and The Girl.

The Actress was in her early forties, but still told people she was 31. She was tall, as tall as him, and actually was an actress, but not the great kind, or even the pretty kind. The steady kind, that was what she was, the kind that did soap operas disguised as period dramas, the kind that did detergent commercials and mobile phone ads. A person like that could be easily replaced, and blackmailing someone replaceable was a low-down gritty play and Oni had played it.

Kenji didn’t have to like it. He just had to collect ¥5,000,000.

It so happened, though, that he did like it. It agreed with him, this type of work. Except on a night like this. Except when someone like The Girl was involved.

Young—14, maybe—and naked, skinny as a cinnamon stick, scared and shivering under the brocaded comforter, The Girl pressed herself to The Actress. There was no sugarcoating it. They were lovers. Kenji knew this sort of stuff went on in this house, but he’d never been confronted with it before, and the sight dried his throat out.

“You never hear much about female predators,” Kenji croaked, “but they exist.”

“Remind me to take lessons on morality from a criminal,” The Actress shot back.

He laughed. She didn’t.

“This is very simple,” he said. “Hand over the payment and Oni will return the photos to you by courier”—Kenji pushed up the black, crepe canvas sleeve of his head-to-toe painter’s suit to check that the time was past midnight and it was—“no later than ten this morning.”

“I already paid him,” she said.

Kenji considered this as The Girl’s shivering continued. He had been slow to this job. The amount could have been paid in the interim two days. This was possible. He thought about it for a minute but didn’t end up further along than where he’d started.

“I would appreciate it,” Kenji finally said, “if you could be honest with me. It has been a long drive and my patience is thin. I need a yes or no. Do you have the money?”

For a moment, the puddle of silence rippled between them.

The Actress punctured it by speaking very slowly and very clearly. “I already have my pictures back, you idiot.”

Kenji smiled. For most people, the problem with pulling a gun was that eventually they’d have to use it. This was never Kenji’s problem. To him, pulling the trigger was like breathing: he had to do it to live. In his mind, it was either the other person or himself, and he always chose himself. It was simple.

So when he got wrong answers, Kenji made choices.

He shot The Girl in the head, right between the eyes. She died before hitting the pillow. Her entry wound shed a quick red line like a teardrop when the weight of her skull settled there.

The Actress took in a mighty breath then—but before she could scream, she got one in the throat. As the bullet passed through, she lost all her pent-up breath in a rush, geysering a bloody mist across the comforter’s brocade, across tatami matting, over Kenji’s hospital booties, and up the pulled-back screen door with the hole in it shaped like his foot.

She wasn’t even looking at him when he put two more in her heart. She just flopped back with an awkward elbow in the air and got real still.

When it was done, Kenji pulled out his prepaid phone and dialed the number of the other prepaid phone he was supposed to call. Very quickly and very honestly he explained the situation. He did not spare himself.

“Oh,” Oni said after a long pause, “well, every story can be reworked.”

The boss then calmly and rationally explained to Kenji that blackmail was good business and they should do more of it. It was quick and clean when it paid, but now that it had gotten messy, it would pay even better. No one knew The Actress had actually paid, so he would plant rumors in the right circles that she hadn’t, that she got what was coming. Now people everywhere would know how serious they were. It was a perfect play. Now they had the money and even more power. He wasn’t mad at Kenji. He was glad. It couldn’t have worked out better. Truly.

After that, he told Kenji what to do with the pictures.

“Come back to Osaka, Frog,” he said before laughing. “It really is the same as Kyoto, you know.”

When Kenji hung up, he felt better. He closed the screen door and went upstairs to the master closet and took down one of The Actress’s jogging suits in his same size before entering the master bathroom and lifting the lid off the toilet tank. There, hanging by clear plastic hooks, was a waterproof bag. Kenji took it out and opened it. Inside were seventy pictures or so, all photos that had been bought back from Oni, plus a few more. Among these were twelve different girls, many of them younger than fourteen. They appeared to have been drugged because their glazed-eyed heads lolled in photographs staged to look as if they were from the turn of the 19th century. Kenji took the bag downstairs and emptied it over the bodies, scattering photos like dead leaves. He left the gun atop one of these, only sparing The Girl a glance as he set it down.

Kenji was sorry to have shot her, but Oni did not allow witnesses. Besides, he thought, he hadn’t drugged her or touched her. He’d only put her out of her misery. It was mercy. This, he took little time convincing himself, was the truth.

Kenji placed his prepaid phone in the bag he had slung down from his back before walking to the front entryway and stepping down onto the tile there. Surrounded by shelves of high heels in all shapes and colors, he stripped down. He removed the painter’s suit first, pulling its hood back to reveal a skin-tight diver’s cap that he covered with a wig of long, black hair. Discarded items went in the bag. He put The Actress’s jogging suit on next.

In the foyer’s copper-ringed mirror, he looked enough like The Actress that nosy neighbors wouldn’t think twice when he walked out the front door. He took off the blood-stippled booties and his leather gloves. Beneath these gloves, he had on black surgical gloves, so as not to take chances with his DNA. He put on new shoes next—shoes he’d never worn before—and slung the full bag of everything to be burned over his shoulder. Before leaving, he scooped up the cat. Cats were always the best presents for Oni. Kenji’s boss couldn’t bear to leave them alone after their owners had been tended to.

The feline went limp in the crook of Kenji’s arm as he stepped out into the night, practically a different frog. He made it to the car without being bothered and without bothering a single thing, certainly not the puddle of silence. All in all, it couldn’t have gone better. In fact, the cat even allowed itself to be coaxed into the carrier Kenji had brought with him in the backseat just in case.

It was later, when he was headed back toward the expressway, that Kenji thought over the folktale and convinced himself that it had everything wrong. Oni was right, he thought, all cities are exactly the same these days.

At their most base level, Osaka and Kyoto were two peas in a pod. Bad business didn’t discriminate geographically, and no matter where they were, fancy houses on hills would never change that. The problem was already inside the carefully constructed walls: humans. Bad people lived everywhere and did bad things everywhere. To ignore this was to ignore a fundamental fact of life.

As Kenji eased his car back onto the Meishin Expressway and pointed its nose toward Osaka, he decided the trip to Kyoto had not been worth such a long journey. He didn’t have to get in a car and take a trip to know that people were scum everywhere. After all, every inhabitable place on earth had rocks, and if anybody wanted to find out what awful things lived underneath, all they had to do was kick them over.

 

 

Ryan Gattis (@Ryan_Gattis) is the author of novels Roo Kickkick & the Big Bad Blimp and Kung Fu High School, as well as a 1-2 punch of noir novellas, The Big Drop: Homecoming and The Big Drop: Impermanence, both of which feature Kenji the Frog and Oni.