No Secrets – Chapter One

“A secret between two people can be kept only if one of them is dead.”

Atami, Japan, 1992

Goddamned Japanese. Make the doors so short, you feel like you’re in Lilliput every time you walk through one. Bruises on bruises on a forehead that didn’t need them. Injury added to insult tonight.

Sore feet from walking all day, and then sent on this wild Shinto chase to the hot baths. And now to top it off, Drake had to go and slip on the tile floor and crown himself on the doorjamb. Not a good day. Not a good day at all.

Where the hell was Yamamoto? Brandon Drake frowned at his own dim reflection in the steamed mirrors which lined the entrance to the spa complex, located on the second floor of the resort where he was staying for the final night of nearly six weeks of work in Japan. Tomorrow was clean-up-and-go-home day. Tomorrow he would be flying home so that he could file his report, catch up on snail mail, touch base with some of his friends, and then head off to his cabin in the North Woods for some well deserved rest.

The grey eyes of the tall, fair-skinned, lanky information agent tried to perforate the steam nebula and wondered again where Yamamoto might be. Despite his having been to these club baths nearly every day of these past two weeks since he had been here in Atami, he’d rarely seen the complete layout of the baths complex at one time. The never-ending roil of steam and heat from the central pools conspired for perpetually poor visibility. However, the design of the spa seemed pretty straightforward and symmetrical. So it hadn’t taken Brandon long tonight to cautiously slip, slide, and grope his way across the wet tiles floors, through the clouds of steam, navigating by the banks of open bathing stations against the surrounding walls, all the way around the huge raised pool. All the way around. And there had been no sign of the diminutive translator. No sign of anyone, in fact. The hot spring baths seemed to be deserted.

Brandon considered that he’d much rather go straight up to bed in his comfy tatami-floored resort room a few floors up than to continue wandering around through the empty labyrinth of hot springs and spa tubs, naked, searching for a man he barely knew anyway.

The whole thing had been Yamamoto’s idea to begin with. Brandon had been prepared to receive the final installment of lab notes and summaries at the HGS laboratories tomorrow, on his way to the train to Tokyo, but the Japanese research assistant had talked him out of it. Had said the hot springs would do them both “much health”. Much health, indeed. Much fucking waste of time.

It didn’t help Brandon’s mood to know that his sweet, sweet Mikki was somewhere waiting for his call. He was feeling more annoyed with each wasted minute. He didn’t need this kind of grief in the wrap-up phase of an otherwise smooth and successful information-gathering project. Information was how Drake earned his living, and he was damned if he was going to have his uncork-the-champagne time foreshortened by this sort of nonsense.

There had been no one else in the resort hallways at this late hour. The health club was already officially closed for the night, even though the hot tubs proper were open twenty-four hours. The hallway outside the tubs complex had been empty. The dressing room had been empty. But, damn it, Yamamoto had said he would be here!

Okay. One more pass, and then Yamamoto would just have to wait until tomorrow after all. Another close search through the rack of dressing baskets revealed one basket other than Drake’s which had some contents: a set of street clothes and a hotel kimono. No ID or keys. No wallet. That made sense for someone who might have come into the spa from outside the hotel. Like Yamamoto. Yamamoto would have checked in and paid at the front desk and then he would have been issued a towel and kimono and been given directions to the baths. So it stood to reason that this basket was his. Which meant he was bound to be somewhere inside the baths. A man doesn’t have a soak and then wander naked from the baths out through public hallways. Especially not in Japan. So Yamamoto must still be here. But how had Brandon missed him?

With the fluffy white resort towel still clenched in his hand at his side, Drake once more stepped carefully through the automatic sliding doors of the entryway to the hot tubs. The clouds from the hot springs in the middle of the room were fuzzing everything up. After the glass entry door slid closed behind him, Drake had to wait a few moments for the steam to clear enough to make out the general contours of the nearby structures.

The cool air which had raced in with him through the door was assimilated and the clouds thinned slightly. Drake could make out about a half dozen of the forty or fifty low-mirrored bathing stalls distributed along the two longest walls. Each had its own shower attachment, a low stool in front of it, and a steamed mirror. But no Yamamoto. Nobody. Not a single person anywhere. What the hell?

“Yamamoto?” Drake shouted into the fog. “Yamamoto?”

Nothing. Silence.

Maybe he’s running water over his head and doesn’t hear me, Drake thought. It was impossible to tell if a shower were running because of the continuous burbling of the boiling springs and the constant splashing of the hot water over the edges of the huge pool, cascading to the tiled floors and flowing in shallow sheets and rivulets to the narrow, sculpted drain gutters which ringed the outer walls of the spa and separated it from the small stalls of the open micro-showers. It sounded the same in here when there were forty people bathing as when there were none.

These were no ordinary hot tubs. In fact, these baths had been one of the absolute high points of Drake’s stay in Japan. He decided that he wanted to come back someday when he could really relax and enjoy them a bit more. So far, this trip had been a write-off for relaxation. A complete write-off.

But right now, all Brandon wanted to do was to find a certain Nippon who owed him a few tidbits of information. Then he could stroll back to his room, go out to dinner and sip some sweet, sweet sake with his sweet, sweet friend and have some sweet, sweet dreams on his soft, soft futon.

Drake could feel it whenever his assignments were almost complete. He could feel it and he loved it. There was a sense of fulfillment, a sense of savvy, a sense of okayness. It was like college. One more little push and the assignment is handed in. No more classes, no more late nights, no more guilt about what hasn’t been done.

Until next semester.

Until the next job.

Slowly Drake began to tread the circle around the shallow hotpool, watching the nearby walls for signs of his man. He couldn’t have missed him, he wondered. Or could he?

Drake’s bare feet slapped across the warm and continually washed white tile floor. Still no signs of anyone.

Through the steam billows, Drake edged his way around the large room, alternately checking shower stalls and the nearby pool’s edge for the strange, hygienic Japanese translator. He moved along the fourth bank, back toward the entry door — which he couldn’t see yet but which, in spite of his embarrassingly dreadful sense of direction, he knew was there.

It was then that he noticed the rust-colored river in the midst of the continual tide of hot water tumbling from the perfectly leveled black marble border at the edge of the pool. When a gust of steam floated around his legs, the red stream turned to brown and then to dark grey, nearly black, and then suddenly back to red. The stream showed up especially well against the background of white tiles on the floor and around his pale, untanned (and now unmoving) feet.

Drake turned and stepped to the rim of the pool from which the river was emerging and saw something bobbing in the shallow hot water near the edge. Unmistakably human. Unmistakably face down. He watched the form for a very long moment in the dark, rippling, steamy water, but could detect no movement.

Drake reached in to haul up on an arm, to pull up the face just enough . . . and it looked a lot like Yamamoto.

An eight-inch handle of a knife stuck out of his chest, to the left of the breast bone. An unremarkable long-bladed kitchen utility knife. Unremarkable except for the fact that it had pierced the vital organs of the man in the baths. Probably cut through one of the major vessels of the heart. Still some residual oozing from the wound into the warm water.

Drake felt for a pulse, but could detect nothing. It was strange to feel the warmth from the hot water where there was no longer life. Drake still wasn’t certain that the body was actually Yamamoto’s, what with the ghastly expression on the face. And the skin was parboiled. And the truth of the matter was that Drake continued to have difficulty telling Japanese apart one from another. Most of them looked alike to him. A politically incorrect admission, so he usually only admitted it to himself. It was especially embarrassing considering that Drake, before his shift into high-tech information gathering, had made his living for many years as a garden variety private investigator. His was a profession whose successes are usually based on keen powers of observation, including instant recognition and recall of faces and names and facts. And though Drake could easily recall most faces he had seen, he had much difficulty discriminating amongst Japanese. Hoped they had the same problem with Western faces. Doubted they did.

Drake was also handicapped by a long-standing aversion to handling corpses, one of many, many reasons for which he had made his lateral arabesque from the P.I. business into high-tech information work. Quite different. No more lurking in bedrooms, no more turning up corpses. Right.

Drake had no need to pursue this matter of the hot tubs any further, he reasoned. He would likely find out soon enough anyway whether the body were Yamamoto’s. Considering the several very public meetings which had taken place during the previous two weeks between the tall Canadian visitor and the short (even by Japanese standards) assistant to Atami’s famous inventor-in-residence, undoubtedly the police would soon be rapping their white-gloved knuckles politely on the door of “Drake-san”, requesting information and telling him more than he would learn from any further time fishing around in the lobster pot waters of the hot tubs.

And if this were not Yamamoto, but just a truly bizarre confluence of random circumstances, Drake would prefer to avoid police contact altogether. He could read about it tomorrow in English in the Asahi News.

On his way back to his hotel room, Drake quickly rechecked the basket of clothes in the dressing room for an envelope or some papers, but found only clothes.

At the elevator, Drake considered the basic indecency of leaving a corpse unattended. The man deserved better, surely. An elevator arrived and, just before stepping in, Drake stepped across the hall and jerked the handle of the fire alarm for the spa floor. The jangling alarm faded as the elevator ascended to his own floor.

Walking quickly and numbly through the hallways, Drake considered how easily a hotel room — a rented space no larger than the kitchen of most houses — could become a home and haven abroad. He liked staying in the same hotel room for the entire job when he was somewhere on assignment. He usually even requested the same room when another assignment took him back to the same place (which didn’t happen too often). Creature of habit. Creature of security, more like it. A familiar hotel room could be an important safe spot in a disconcerting and not-so-safe world.

Drake pulled the long key bob from the deep sleeve of his heavy hotel kimono and opened the door. Ka-lick. The tiny wall mount nightlight within gave the whole room the look of an emergency exit. As Drake slid the key from the door and inserted it into the panel on the adjacent wall to activate the room’s power switch, the whole apartment suddenly came alive with light and color. He glanced through the carpeted entryway past the door of the miniature W.C. and into the tatami-floored living room.

Everything looked quiet and apparently unchanged during the last half hour. Good. Drake disliked suspense, generally. And even if he did like the odd rush of an adrenaline infusion, he had had quite enough for today, thank you. He moved forward to close and lock the door.

As he shifted his weight to step out of his hotel slippers he noticed the sound of running water. He paused for a few moments to ascertain whether the sound emanated from his own W.C. or from the bathroom next door. He strained to hear which sounds were being filtered through the paper thin walls, but he couldn’t tell.

He heard the Japanese Muzak piped in from the hallways. The hour-long, continuously looped, taped cycles had become torturous monotony before the end of his first evening in Atami. After more than a month he had gotten to the point where he was beginning to tell time by them. He had had a dream one night about being strapped to a bed in the middle of an empty auditorium with a tape recording of the same song played over and over again. Softly. But he couldn’t tell where the speakers were. The sound seemed to come from everywhere. And every time he started to doze off to sleep, someone would shake the bed or swing it around really fast until he woke up and had to listen to the music again. Maybe they had left the Muzak on all night that night. Maybe it was the sake he had drunk with dinner.

Straining now to make out more sounds in his apartment, he could hear the evening sea-breeze buffeting the balcony windows at the far end of the living room. There was the distant thumping of partying Japanese on the floors above him. And that damned water running, but he was no closer to knowing where. Only one way to find out. Drake stepped forward and reached for the handle of the W.C. door. He jerked it open and stared through the fluorescent miniaturization of a bathroom. Saw a single pair of eyes staring back at him.

His own. His own reflection in the vanity mirror. Nothing else. Empty room. No water running in either the sink or the tub. Just the sound. Damned walls.

He was spooked and he knew it. He cursed himself for letting his imagination get away from him. He was so near the end of this one. So near yet . . . It pissed him off to let a little irregularity like the death in the hotpools make him so uneasy. It seemed unprofessional. And probably the stabbing had nothing to do with him anyway. Angrily Drake kicked off his slippers, stepped up to the tatami mats, and padded his way across to the low table in the center of the room.

He crossed his legs and lowered himself to the cushion on the floor. Staring at a wall seemed the best pose for regaining composure and letting thoughts get organized.

His mind started running to trails. Trails.

Drake wondered if he was likely to be implicated in the death in the baths. He would never make a very effective detective, he thought. The best insurance against problems with the police was a solid alibi. He would need a good alibi for the evening. He had already blown it a bit by taking his key with him to the hot tubs. Somebody at the front desk might have noticed that he was gone from his room for that time. They had a light system that told them at the desk whether the key was in the power panel in each room. And they had a computer that might even record these things. Hell, the computers seemed to do everything in this hotel. Except to shut the Muzak off one night. Maybe.

So Drake had already blown the “airtight alibi”. He decided to continue with the plans that he had already made for the evening and hope for the best. It was not the most satisfactory of options, but anything too elaborate might be suspicious in itself. And Mikki could probably be helpful in shoring up the weaknesses in the story anyway.

The phone rang. “Moshi-moshi. Mr. Dlake? Terephone call from outside hotel. One moment, prease.”

“Hello? Hello? Drake? Hello?”

“Mikki! I was just thinking about you.”

“I’ll bet you were, Brandy,” said the voice. “Listen, I finished at work a little early, but I still haven’t had dinner yet. How about you?”

“Haven’t crossed chopsticks all day, m’lady. Sounds good,” Drake replied, trying to sound jocular, but deciding he only sounded like a goof. “Can you meet me here at the hotel? I’d like a pickup.”

“I’ll bet you would,” said Mikki. “But it might be faster if we met at the bottom of the Ginza. I want to go back to that Chinese place, again. The one where you can order by numbers. Okay?”

“Sounds good, but I still want a pickup.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll meet you in the front lobby in five minutes. Persistent man, aren’t you?”

“Only for you, m’lady. But, at the risk of seeming overly demanding, I want to meet you out back instead.” Still thinking about trails and alibis. “I’m afraid I’ll be besieged in the lobby by all my groupies.”

“Keep dreaming, Brandy,” sighed Mikki.

“No, really,” he persisted.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Only about meeting you out back,” said Drake.

“I’ll be there in five, then. Bye.”

The next morning, Brandon Drake propped himself up on one forearm and opened his eyes just enough to realize that he had forgotten to close the thick drapes across the balcony windows before he had finally dropped off to sleep. The bright light of the rising sun shone across the crystal waters of Izu Bay and was gleaming its most unwelcome morning rays into Drake’s eyes. He draped his other arm over the side of his face to shade it and squinted down at the soft futon and at Mikki, who lay sleeping peacefully beside him. Beautiful woman. And such a contented look on her face. She was quite obviously oblivious to both the sunlight and Drake’s restlessness.

As his head continued the clearing of its sleep haze he considered how surprising it was that the police had not yet contacted him. He and Mikki had spent about two hours out to dinner, but they had returned to the hotel before nine o’clock. The key return system would have ensured that the police could have known exactly when he had returned. The police would have had ample opportunity to investigate his room in his absence, if they had wished. But there were no signs of any searches. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. The main lobby had been quiet when he and Mikki had picked up the key, and the lack of excitement led him to wonder if perhaps the body had not been discovered yet. In spite of the fire alarm gambit.

A sharp knock at the door interrupted the morning puzzling and answered Drake’s unasked question.

“Mr. Drake. Mr. Drake. Are you awake?” asked a routine voice with the usual Japanese difficulties pronouncing the R-containing name. “This is the police, please.”

“Just a moment,” replied Drake, reaching for his robe on the mat near his pillow.

No sooner had he spoken the last syllable than the door exploded with a crash and two men armed with automatic weapons rushed through the entryway.

“No move, please! Do not move!” directed the no-longer-routine voice.

Drake’s mouth fell open and he released his handful of robe. It fell to form an abstract pile of fabric on the tatami mats.

Mikki, startled when the door was kicked open, was still struggling against her combination of hangover and post-orgasmic sleep trance. Only after looking from the armed duo to Drake and back again several times did she grasp enough of the situation to draw some bed-covers around her naked body. She was not usually a terribly modest woman, but she felt particularly vulnerable in the midst of so much tension, and staring at so much firepower. She tensed and cringed.

One of the intruders, a bulky man with thick eyebrows which seemed to be continuous across the bridge of his nose, smiled at her gesture. The other man remained grim-faced and emotionless.

When the smiling man spoke, Drake knew for certain that Smiley was the one in charge. And as Smiley drew closer, his sights still trained on Drake, Drake became increasingly convinced that neither of these men was a policeman.

© copyright 2001 by Lance M. Rucker. All rights reserved.

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