We pulled up outside the ramen bar we’d been pointed to. Daisuke was driving, Taiyo sat in the passenger seat staring out the window with his headphones in and I sat in the back, trying not to sweat too much. Daisuke tapped Taiyo’s shoulder and nodded toward the restaurant. Taiyo pulled out his headphones, stuffed them in his pocket, and reached for the door handle. His eyes were as lethargic and bored as ever. That’s what scared me so much about him, everything was routine. No matter what the job was, he always looked like he was standing in line at the supermarket. I took another look at the photo we’d been given. It was of an old man, somewhere in his late fifties with a thinning hairline. Not a big guy and there were three of us, this would be easy. I had no idea what he’d done to get us called in on him, we never got told that kind of stuff and I knew better than to ask questions.
We stepped out of the car and shut the doors in unison, leaving the car parked on the side of the road. This wasn’t the kind of job you needed a getaway driver for. Daisuke went through the door first, always eager to be the leader, Taiyo was close behind him and I reluctantly followed. Daisuke seemed to be in his element and Taiyo was his usual apathetic self, but my throat was dry and my heart was pounding. I didn’t want to be here. I had only wanted this life when I still knew nothing about it, back when I was a scrawny no-name kid. I had dreamed about being a big strong Gangster, someone who people feared and respected, someone who pulled up in a black Mercedes and sat in the VIP section of the club. I thought I’d develop the stomach for it at some point, but I never did. I still had my heart in my throat and the almost overpowering urge to pee, every time I had to do a job.
It was already dark out and there were only a few patrons inside, working men getting a cheap but hearty dinner at the end of their shifts. The old man from the picture sat in one of the booths on his own, hunched over a bowl of boiled rice and eggs. The diners stopped eating and chatting as the three of us came through the door. I could tell they knew who we were. They got up, leaving their meals unfinished. They’d been around long enough to know when trouble was in the air, they didn’t need to be asked to make themselves scarce. We let them squeeze past us until only the old man and the hostess remained. He was still eating, unfazed by the commotion. Daisuke locked the door and turned the sign hanging on it to the ‘closed’ side. “You smoke?” he asked the hostess, a round-faced woman in her mid-thirties. She was pale as ash, but she nodded. “How about you do that right now?”, said Daisuke “take a walk while you’re at it, you deserve a break.” She nodded, grateful to be allowed to go, and hurried off through the kitchen door, leaving the old man alone in the dining room with us.
We walked over to the booth, closing him in so that he couldn’t even stand up without bumping into us. “Meal’s over,” said Daisuke, “we’re going for a ride.” The old man took another bite with his chopsticks as if we were just a couple of delivery boys you could keep waiting. He had a great poker face. Only someone very stupid or very inexperienced wouldn’t be scared of us, but he seemed perfectly calm. “I’ll come peacefully,” he said, “but I’d like to finish my meal if you don’t mind.” I could almost physically feel Daisuke’s rage building up, he didn’t like when people weren’t acting scared. He swiped his arm across the table, dumping the bowl of rice and everything else into the man's lap. “Let’s go,” said Daisuke “last chance to leave with a little dignity.” I’d always had a distaste for Daisuke’s methods because of moments like these. There was just nothing professional about him, he was a bully and he didn’t care about the respect or trust of people, he only wanted to be feared. I hoped to god that the old man would follow along and not try and be a tough guy, it was hard to keep Daisuke under control, once he got going. The old man wiped his mouth, paying no mind to the mess on his trousers. “Alright, alright,” he said, his voice still calm and peaceful, which would only piss off Daisuke even more, “I guess we’re leaving.” We let him get up out of the booth and escorted him to our car, Daisuke walking in front, me and Taiyo at the back, and the old man between us. Taiyo still had that bored apathy plastered across his face as he trudged along, but his hands were never far away from the weapons concealed below his jacket. We put our escort in the back seat, with Tayo and me squeezing in, to the left and right of him, giving him as little room as possible to move. Sitting like that was more about psychology than actually watching him. Desperate people did desperate things if you gave them any room for it, so we kept them on a short leash, and made sure they knew we were on top of them at all times.
- “Will you tell me where we are driving?” asked the old man.
- “To meet someone.” answered Daisuke.
- “Meet who?”
- “You’ll see.”
I could tell the old man knew damn well what this was, Daisuke didn’t make the effort to come up with a convincing lie. We weren’t going to meet anyone, this wasn’t that kind of ride.
- “Do you even know my name?” the old man asked.
None of us answered, we didn’t.
- “I assume you have ink?” the old man tried a different topic.
- “We do, but you’re not going to small talk your way out of this.” Daisuke said from the front. The bastard was enjoying this, I could tell from the glee in his voice. He was in control and the old man was beginning to crack. I silently rolled back my sleeve showing the tattoo on my forearm, intricate floral patterns interwoven with a dragon's tail, snaking further up towards my shoulder and chest.
- “Nice..” said the old man, “good craftsmanship. But then again everything is these days. Full-body?” he asked.
- “So you’re not completely new to his. I suppose that’s bad news for me.” he chuckled. “These days, Irezumi does not mean much anymore, anyone can get it. Even some non-Yakuza have it now. Less than a hundred years ago, it was still forbidden by law, to give or have these tattoos. You had to be someone in the underworld, to even find someone who could tattoo you. Good craftsmanship was hard to come by back then.”
The old man paused for a second, none of us answered or commented. It was fine if he talked and didn’t do anything else. If talking about tattoos kept him docile, so be it.
- “Do you know, why they were outlawed in the first place?”
I shook my head at first but then I decided to oblige. Maybe the old man didn’t have a lot of people to talk to. I couldn’t see any harm in making his last few moments a little less unpleasant.
- “Because the Yakuza was an alternate power structure, which was intolerable to the shogunate and the government after that. So they created any excuse they could to attack us.” I answered with a hoarse voice. It wasn’t as easy for me as it was for the old man, to participate in a conversation under these circumstances.
- “He talks!”, the old man exclaimed. “Yes, a very learned answer, one the history books will firmly support. But it is not the truth, at least not the whole truth.”
- “So what is?”
- “To answer that, you have to go further back, to a time before the history books, to the true origin of the Irezumi, when demons still roamed free in Japan. There were a multitude of them back then, nine-tailed foxes, flying snakes, koi with skin as hard as stone, and many more. Even the lesser ones among them could be as large as a house. They plagued the populace, ravaging crops and livestock, stealing children in the night, and devouring entire schools of fish in an instant. In short, as we humans multiplied and thrived, this island was no longer big enough for monsters and men to share. So we hunted them. Even though we weren’t as quick, as strong, or as resilient as them, they were no match for our ingenuity. In the beginning, they easily fell into our traps and our weapons. But they wouldn’t stay dead. At first, we thought they had multiplied, that we were fighting their offspring, but they had memories of the traps they had died in. With every death, they became smarter and harder to kill and they always came back, no matter how we disposed of them. We tried grounding their bodies up, burning them until nothing but ash was left, chopping them to pieces, and distributing them across the land. It was all to no avail and we were beginning to run out of innovations, of new ways to kill them. They began picking us off one by one and every time they returned there were fewer of us left but they were still the same. So in a last desperate effort, we did not return their corpses to the sea or the land but chose to imprison them in our bodies. We ground them up, mixed them with oils, and put them under our skins. It was painful, more painful than anything you can imagine, but we all volunteered. It was either that or continue a war that we were losing.”
- “Seems a little far-fetched. Wouldn’t have been the first thing I tried.” mumbled Taiyo.
- “It wasn’t, but it was the first thing that worked. Not only did the demons stop coming back, but the ones we put into our bodies also made us stronger, faster, and more resilient and gave us longer lives, all at the price of never-ending pain. Imagine having something under your skin that is constantly trying to break out. One by one, the monsters became a thing of the past, then a thing only known from stories, and finally just myths from a long-gone era. The hunters were still around, but without any monsters to hunt, we turned our efforts to other ventures. The Irezumi, once the scars of our greatest sacrifice, became a rite of initiation for our newest members. We were strong and we were thriving. People came to us with their problems and trusted us to bring order. The governing forces did not like that, did not like that people turned to us instead of them, so their gratitude slowly turned into resentment. We were shunned, declared criminals and soon enough, that is exactly what we became. We slowly fell apart. I…”
- “Story-time is over.” interrupted Daisuke. “We’re here.” We had stopped in front of a small warehouse in the harbor district. A couple of plastic sheets, lead weights, and a hacksaw were already waiting for us inside. There was not a soul in sight and there wouldn’t be until morning.
- “This doesn’t look like the kind of place where you ‘meet someone’.” said the old man with a thin smile.
Neither one of us did answer, we just opened the doors and got out. My head was turning in circles around the old man’s story. It was made up, obviously, but it got me wondering what I had gotten myself into, and what kind of organization I was a part of. I had never really thought about its history or its culture, it had just been a way out of my old life and into some real cash. It was one of these things you got into when you were too young to know any better and by the time you considered getting back out you were already in way too deep.
The old man solemnly got out of the car, resolved to his fate and we escorted him into the warehouse. To his credit, he didn’t flinch when he saw the sheets and the saw. Most people freaked out, begged, or tried to run when things got real, but he kept his composure.
- “On the sheets”, said Daisuke. A gun had found its way into Taiyo’s hand, I hadn’t even noticed him draw it. The old man just looked back at Daisuke.
- “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. He looked old, tired, like he was done with this world.
- “Get on the fucking sheet.” answered Daisuke, shoving him hard.
Or at least he tried. One second he was pushing, in another, the old man had shifted. I heard a sickening crunch and Daisuke’s arm came back broken in more than one place. Daisuke stared at his mangled limb in shock. Taiyo’s gun came up lightning fast, he got three shots into the old man’s chest before the old man was on him, bent his firing arm faster than anyone could react, and fired the fourth shot into Taiyo’s skull. Daisuke was fishing for his gun with his remaining good arm, not used to using his left. The old man jabbed him in the throat with the edge of his hand before Daisuke could release the safety. The gun clattered to the floor and Daisuke went to his knees, choking. It looked like the skin underneath the man's shirt was boiling, where Taiyo had shot him, but there was no blood. He slowly walked behind Daisuke, back to his old man slouch, wrapped his sinewy arms around Daisuke’s neck, and twisted it with a hard jerk. It had all happened so fast, I was still frozen in place, incapable of doing anything. Daisuke and Taiyo lay dead at my feet and I hadn’t even tried to reach for my pistol.
- “Holy fuck.” I croaked.
- “You can help me with the bodies. I’d rather have your help than take care of three bodies on my own.” he said. That same eerie calm I had mistaken for a good poker face was still in his voice.
- “Holy fuck.” I said again. “I think I just pissed myself.”
- “You did.” the old man answered, looking down at my trousers. “Now, please help me with your friends. You can change your pants when we’re done and you’re back home.”
It was around six in the morning when we were done with the grisly work of chopping up my friends, wrapping them in plastic with a couple of weights, and dumping them by the pier. I had worked through it in a blind stupor, shoving my feelings down as far as I could. I had known I couldn’t afford to slip up or I would join them. I’d had to focus on my survival. The old man and I stood at the edge of the water, close to where we had dumped them, looking at the sunrise. My clothes were stained red, I still hadn’t had the chance to change my pants. I was exhausted and still on high alert at the same time.
- “You know why I am done with the Yakuza?” the old man asked. I didn’t reply, I had a feeling he’d answer that question regardless of what I would say. “Because it’s just not what it used to be anymore. The Irezumi used to be a symbol of our strength, now it is just ink underneath your skin. It’s plastic surgery. Just like silicone tits don’t improve breastfeeding and muscle implants don’t make you stronger, your tattoos are just imitations. You wouldn’t want to be a part of the Yakuza for the same reason you wouldn’t want to be a part of a group of Synthol bodybuilders: They are weak and superficial, just like you. The second your own life was in danger, you didn’t hesitate to abandon your brothers and even help me chop them up.”
- “So what now?” I asked, glossing over his monologue. I was too tired to engage in it or figure out how he wanted me to react to it.
- “Now nothing. I died tonight. It is about time I relocate before people start wondering why I don’t age as they do. You go back to your life, take credit for taking me down.”
- “Anything else I should tell people?”
- “I’ll find you if you do tell them anything else.”
- “So we’re done?”
The old man didn’t answer. He took off his shirt, tied it to his waist, and walked into the water. For the first time, I could see his Irezumi in the light of the rising sun. It was a work of art, less colorful than the modern ones but full of intricate details and subtle nuances, winding into each other. He walked until the water reached up to his hip, then dropped forward and swam. It looked like he was headed for South Korea and I guess he wouldn’t need a boat. I was finally alone. My hands began shaking. It was time to get home before anyone saw me.