I was lurking at the back of the stage, observing guests entering the club. The number of newcomers increased as the hour got late, and the club was filling up. The same jazzy music played in the background while the stage stood empty. It felt almost like a deja vu, except this time I was much calmer.
Fujiwara was nowhere to be seen, nor were any of the men that had beaten me up, except James. He and Ela re-entered the club from the terrace and sat on the stools at the far end of the bar. They seemed to be engaged in a pleasant conversation, smiling at each other. I was witnessing a much kinder and more timid version of Ela from the one I had met in the dressing room. I wondered, briefly, if James knew about Ernest.
My eye wandered to the other end of the counter. A group of guests just left the bar with drinks in their hands and a woman took a seat. In her dark outfit and with the blue glow of her hair I recognized her at once. She leaned across the counter towards Kenichi the bartender and exchanged words with him.
After a quick check of her immediate surroundings, I headed straight to the bar and sat on the stool next to her just as she received a plate of sashimi from Kenichi.
Her stare lingered on the plate for a moment then she turned to me, passing her eyes over my battered face. “You should do something about that eye…and,” moving her head closer she sniffed at me; “change your clothes maybe?”
I adjusted the jacket to cover the yellow stain on my shirt. The terrible state of my appearance, of which I was well aware of, did not disrupt my confidence in anyway.
“Why did you prevent me from contacting Fujiwara last night?” I asked calmly, without moving my eyes from her.
She chuckled and riveted her attention back to the plate. “I must admit, I did not expect to see you again, gaijin.”
She took chopsticks from the counter, and before she could pick up a piece I snatched the plate from beneath her and slid it towards my side. I leaned my elbow on the counter to prevent her from taking the plate back.
She pouted her lips like a small child.
“I asked you a question.”
Her eyes countered my stare. “And last night I asked you to talk to me and you refused. You have no business here, gaijin. Go away.”
She was about to stand up from the stool, but I grab her by the arm and pushed her forcefully back into it. In the same instant, we received company. A slender guy dressed all in black, with a hood over his head and a black mask covering half of his face, sat next to the woman. His black, astute eyes, revealing of his Japanese background, narrowed on me over the woman’s shoulder. Somebody sat next to me as well - an Asian woman, whose face collapsed in a wide grin as I turned to her. With similar clothes and blue highlights in her hair she looked like a chubbier, shorter version of the green-eyed woman, save for the brown, smiling eyes and a straight fringe across her forehead.
“Hi!” she said, waving her hand at me. Dimples appeared on her cheeks as her smile widened.
I turned to the woman. “Your back-up for tonight?”
“Sunny…” the woman said, looking at the Asian behind me and nudged her head sideways, signalling her to leave. The guy behind her did not budge and for a moment I felt I was in a double stare down with the woman and him.
The woman uttered a word in Japanese without averting her stare. In response, the guy tapped her on the shoulder, giving her a quiet look as she turned to him. She repeated the word and his eyes slightly widened. He reluctantly stood up and joined the Asian woman. They both walked away, the Asian waving her hand goodbye and the guy with a prolonged warning look at me.
Once this awkward company was gone, I expected the woman to start talking, but instead she kept looking at the plate behind my arm. “Can I get my sashimi back, please?”
I pulled the plate and pushed it between me and her.
She immediately picked up a piece with the chopsticks and was about to eat it. A gleam of guilt shot through her eyes and after some hesitation, she offered it to me instead. The mere idea of putting a raw fish in my mouth increased my feeling of nausea. I decisively shook my head, at which she shrugged and swallowed the piece.
“You can start talking,” I said.
She emitted a long sigh. “What do you want to know?”
“What is your connection to Fujiwara and why did you prevent me from seeing him?”
She took another long breath and exhaled slowly as if this whole conversation was something that required a lot of effort from her.
“You can’t just walk up to an oyabun.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We have rules, about how things are done here. You don’t go around and do whatever you want. Our ways are the ones of respect, manners, and patience. Something that mindless foreigners like you don’t comprehend. You think you can just come here, and everything will be at your disposal, just because you want it. It’s a western, egocentric, selfish behaviour.”
“You don’t know…” I shook my head, my anger slowly rising. “You don’t know why I came here and what I want.”
She paused, holding her chopsticks in the air above the plate. “And I’m not interested.”
“Okay…” I said, nodding.
“Oh, did I hurt your feelings?” she asked mockingly.
I shook my head, scoffing. “I’m not leaving until I get to talk to Fujiwara.”
“It could end up very badly for you, if you persist.”
I scoffed again. “Yeah...’cause until now everything was peachy.”
She shrugged and resumed eating.
I gazed at the other end of the counter, towards Ela and James. I hit a dead end with the woman, perhaps a word with my attacker, a fellow fighter, nonetheless, would be more fruitful. Ela noticed my stare and pulled a face. Shifting on her stool she turned her back towards me, obstructing the clear sight I had of James.
“I think I know what you’re thinking. I would advise against it,” the woman remarked.
“You leave me no other choice.”
She leaned her chin on her hand and looked at me. Long and contemplative, like I was some puzzle she was trying to crack. “Hmm…” she murmured after a while. “I feel generous today. I‘ll give you a second chance. Everybody deserves a second chance, right?”
“S-sure,” I said, passing my hand over my jaw.
“But first you need to show me you’re worthy.”
I frowned. “How?”
Her lips curved into a smirk. “You came here to fight, right?”
“Fight James. Show me how good of a fighter you are.”
“You were about to go there a minute ago.”
“Yeah, to talk to him.”
James now peered from behind Ela’s shoulder and raised a glass toward us. The woman smiled and reciprocated him with a wave of her hand.
Judging his size, James was definitely a heavyweight category, which meant at least three weight categories above me. Normally, it wouldn’t have been an issue, I sparred with heavier guys before. The problem was my current physical state. I felt truly bad and I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform.
The woman was looking at me, waiting for my response.
“Okay, how do we do this?” I stood up from the stool. “Will you tell him? I would prefer to do it elsewhere. I don’t want to cause another drama in the club.”
She stared fixedly at me, her eyes unwavering. I felt a surge of adrenalin while waiting for her answer. Then her face softened, the corners of her mouth quivered and turned upwards, and just as I raised my eyebrows in question, she burst into a laugh.
“Sit, relax. Look at you, even Sunny could take you down in your state. I like how determined you are, but I was only joking,” she said, patting me on the shoulder.
I sat back on the stool, trying my best to look unruffled by the whole thing, although my patience was certainly being tested.
“You should see yourself,” she said, still giggling and looking extremely pleased by her little joke. “What do you say, we drink some sake?”
Without waiting for my answer, she immediately beckoned Kenichi and began ordering.
Sake, the Japanese rice wine. I had drunk it before at the Mansion and while there was a unique taste to it, I couldn’t say I was a fan. But if drinking was all I had to do to get to Fujiwara, it was a small price to pay. Besides, the Japanese took alcohol notoriously bad, and even though I wasn’t in my best drinking shape, I was confident she’d be drunk and talking much before the liquor claimed the clarity of my mind.
“Would you like it hot or cold?”
“Hot,” I answered, hoping somehow the warm liquid would go easier on my disturbed stomach.
Kenichi brought a ceramic flask with two matching cups. The woman took the flask and filled the cups, placing one in front of me.
“Well, cheers, kanpai!” she said, lifting her cup.
I answered with the same gesture and took two big gulps, almost emptying the content of the small cup.
“Oh, no, no! This is a waste of sake!” she cried out at my deed. “I ordered a superior bottle. Drinking it like this it’s outrageous. Look at me. First, hold the cup in front of your mouth and smell the sake, take in the aroma, like this…” She inhaled deeply from her cup, closed her eyes and she shook her head making an ‘mmm’ sound. “Then you make a small sip and leave it lingering in your mouth before you swallow. Try.”
I obeyed, although leaving the sake longer in my mouth did nothing but aggravate its bad taste and my feeling of nausea. Each small sip tasted worse than the previous one. I tried not to grimace too much and after a while I began taking bigger sips again just to be done with it faster. It didn’t help much because as soon as my cup was empty the woman diligently filled it up.
After a few cups, she turned on her seat to face me, placed her right hand on her chest, and bowed her head slightly. “I’m K. Hajime mashite! Nice to meet you!”