Tako to ama, Japanese woodcutIt was the third dead woman in as many months. The Japanese villagers were beginning to lose trust in the gaijin scientists. Not that they had ever really trusted them to begin with.
The tiny old lady with the dark wrinkled face waited patiently while Kay fumbled with the foreign money. The numbers confused her. Everything appeared to be so expensive – four hundred Yen for a tiny bag of apples. Then again, her colleague had reminded her, that was only as much as five bucks. Still... five bucks for a bunch of apples?
“Akkorokamui”, the old woman said, out of the blue.
“Excuse me, I don’t speak Japanese.” Kay felt helpless. She should have taken the interpreter with her, but she had felt the strong need to get away from everything for a few hours. So she had strolled the streets, gaze fixed on the pavement, wandering without aim for hours, until her stomach reminded her that it was way past dinner time, and so she had entered the next store she found in search of something fresh.
The shopkeeper flailed her arms as if she was a living windmill. “Akkorokamui. Onna-no shi.”
Kay shrugged, puzzled, stuttered, “Sayounara”, and left the store. She imagined to have seen contempt in the shopkeeper’s eyes. Maybe she was mistaken – all Japanese looked kind of the same to her, no matter what their mood – but she felt they had pretty much used up all the good will.
Part of her dark mood was caused by the deaths themselves. Dead people were not uncommon in her line of work – she researched diseases for a living, and loved it with an almost perverted passion – but these were just... wrong. The worst dead she had ever seen. They had not received much international attention, or even local attention, come to think of it.
“Government does not care for us”, the official interpreter had explained in his carefully rounded English, which sounded like a mixture of “The Simpsons” and Queen Elizabeth. “Hokkaido is far away from Tokyo.”
He was right with this, as Kay had soon found out. As soon as they had left the bright lights and busy streets of Sapporo, the houses became tiny and crooked, with a strange mix of traditional and Western architecture. The people she met had flat, impenetrable faces, and even after more than a month she was unable to truly read their expressions.
They had been called after the second woman was found near the beach. She had only been disappeared for a few days, and yet when her body was washed up on the shore it looked shrunk and shriveled, as if someone had magically removed all her internal organs.
Which, as they found out during the autopsy, was exactly what had happened. Her organs had been ripped from her body – how exactly, they could not tell, since many creatures of the sea had taken a bite or two from her dead flesh. They had gotten to the tender parts first – eyes, lips, genitals. Most wounds were post mortem. For some, the exact timing was not sure – they might have bled, or not. The medical examiner alerted by the police had suspected some sort of poison, and had sent for Kay’s team and an marine biologist immediately. They had found nothing in the woman that had not been detected before, and then the third body had been discovered. Now they were at their wits’ ends. Every test they could think of had been performed, every swab imaginable taken and tested. They found the usual suspects – polluted salt water will do all kinds of damages to the human body – but nothing that could explain her injuries, or her strangely peaceful expression. Once again Kay wondered whether she would ever be able to read Japanese faces.
Her hotel room was dark, tiny and furnished only with a minimum of objects. It provided a Western style bed, for which she was thankful. They had spent some time on the road, and sleeping on a futon was not exactly Kay’s idea of a restful night. She dropped her bright orange windbreaker on the floor, put her apples and the jug of milk in a corner and went into the bathroom. The light flicked on automatically.
Her face looked pale, and strange. The Hokkaido winds had tangled her long brown hair, but neglected to bring healthy color to her cheeks. She slipped out of her baggy brown corduroy pants and the black T-shirt, pausing a moment to observe the changes time had left on her body. Her stomach was not as flat anymore, and her breasts slightly saggy. The pregnancy had left its mark on her body, and although she had worked hard, it was clearly visible that she was not twenty anymore. Or thirty, for that matter. Her daughter, seven years by now, had stayed behind with her father this time, for good grades were more important than travelling the world.
The shower brought warmth back to Kay’s body and made her sleepy. She knew the others would be waiting at the hotel bar, but tonight she could not be bothered. There would be many more nights for them to drink and be moody, if they did not find out what caused these deaths soon. She grabbed an apple and the jug of milk, crawled between the clean-smelling sheets and opened her book, drinking straight from the jug. That was her idea of dinner.
Tonight she found it difficult to concentrate on the development of algae in the Mediterranean. Her eyes kept wandering to the image on the wall next to the bathroom door. It was a colorful print of a famous Japanese woodcut, “The dream of the fisherman’s wife”. Every hotel room had its own print of the image, and the obsession of the Japanese with tentacles and naked women had been the cause of many jokes among her male colleagues. Every time, Kay had felt herself blushing like a virgin. She normally avoided looking at the scene. The woman on her back, enjoying the touch of the giant octopus, made her uncomfortable. Tonight, her gaze crept back to the image over and over again, and finally she put her book down and waited for her mind to settle.
It is nothing, she told herself, just a picture of a woman with pubic hair who is enjoying herself.
Still she felt uneasy, so she got up and put a damp towel over the print. Then she crawled back into bed, and fell asleep with a half-eaten apple on the nightstand right next to her head.
Maybe it was the scent of the fruit, or the sea breeze coming through the open window, but that night Kay dreamed of tentacles, and of passion, and of nights spent naked at the shore. The waves caressed her feet, wet sand got into her hair, and someone was with her, next to her, driving her mad... his hands felt strange, and he did not talk, and everything he did smelled of seaweed and cheap sushi. In her dream, Kay tried to reach out to her lover, but he evaded her touch, and when he bent over her lower body and kissed her, she was catapulted into the skies.
She woke sweating, feeling as if she had betrayed her husband. What a silly idea, it was only a dream, after all! Deep inside Kay knew she felt guilty because in her dream she had felt pleasure Carl had never been able to provide. A relationship was built on more than on flesh, but sometimes during her thirteen years together she had found herself craving another touch...
With a vigorous shake of her head, Kay dismissed the guilty thoughts and went to retrieve her clothes from the bathroom. She smiled as she sat down on the toilet and the “self-consciousness defense mechanism”, as her colleagues had named it, was activated. The sound of mechanical streams and birds filled the tiny room, masking the sound of her peeing for what felt like hours. Then, after she had dressed in the same shapeless clothes as yesterday, she went downstairs, where she met her colleagues for breakfast.
“Hey Kay, listen up!” Dexter waved for her to come to their table. His voice was loud and deep and resonated through the room, and he did not care about the stares he received. At almost seven feet stares were something you had to get used to. Some days, Dexter even seemed to enjoy the attention he received wherever he went. No one would have thought that loud, misbehaved guy was one of the world’s leading microbiologists. “Come over here! I told you, they are all perverted!”
“Pass me the coffee, please”, replied Kay as she sat down. She poured herself some coffee and added two teaspoons of sugar to her mug. “What caused this realization so early in the morning?”
Dexter smiled. “The hotel owner insisted on talking to me last night, after a few rounds of this piss he calls sake.”
“He told me this cock-and-bull story about women who would swim off with that sea monster of theirs, Akkomuk – Okkamaku – whatever.”
“Akkorokamui?” Kay felt a jolt of energy down to her toes.
“Yeah, that one. He claimed it was a giant squid or something, falling in love with the beautiful women from this village and taking them to his underwater palace. I asked him what a squid would do with a girl, and he just stared at me as if he was trying to karate-chop me to death with his eyes.”
Kay concentrated on her mug. The steam curling up to her face smelled bitter, and refreshing. An image flashed through her mind, of night skies and the sound of waves, and expert touch on her body – stop, she ordered her mind. The first hints of heat crept up her cheeks.
“Let’s get going”, she said, “or else we’ll still be here come Christmas.” She stood up and emptied her mug. “We’ve got to find out what is happening to these women.”
Dexter crammed half a croissant into his mouth, and strawberry preserve got caught in his grayish-red beard. “We should ask the hotel owner to help us”, he grinned. “Who knows, maybe that squid is eating these women out?”
Yeah, Kay thought, maybe.