Infinity After a While

a novel by Deek Brodie

It is raining. Takahashi walks through the neon and the darkness into a sushi restaurant and sits at the bar. The place is busy, but its mirrors, lacquer and shoji screens give it an air of both spaciousness and intimacy. Takahashi gets a glass of water and orders salmon sashimi, unagi and soba noodles. As he eats, he catches sight of himself in one of the mirrors, and sees what he knows everyone else must see when they look at him: long dark raincoat, shaved head, glasses.

And then, for the first time that he remembers, he wonders why he is wearing the glasses. He does not need them to see. He takes them off, looks around, and he sees as well without them as with them. He checks, and they are not fakes—the lenses are prescription, but when he puts them back on his vision has not changed. He realises he cannot remember ever not having worn that pair of glasses.

He cannot understand this, and it troubles him, but he lets the trouble pass and returns to the present moment. Such confusions come to him from time to time, but, like everything else, they are illusions.

He finishes eating, pays the bill, and leaves. He walks in the rain, knowing he has work to do. He gets on a subway train that takes him to the part of the city where he has to work tonight. Back at street level, he finds it is still raining. He walks two blocks until he sees the bar where he is to meet Kitakata. He hopes the rain will stop by the time he and Kitakata leave the bar. He likes busy streets.

The bar is large, but seems small because it is crowded. Takahashi has no trouble recognising Kitakata, even though he has only seen a picture of him. Kitakata is sitting at a table, talking with two other men. Takahashi does not approach them. He stands at the bar and waits to be served. It takes a while, but he gets a beer. He does not look for somewhere to sit, but goes and stands near the door. He sips the beer and waits.

When Kitakata and his friends ask the server for their bill, Takahashi finishes his beer and goes outside.

Kitakata and the other men are glad it is no longer raining. They say their goodbyes and go their separate ways.

Kitakata is small and rotund, and he walks slowly. Takahashi falls into step behind him, walking briskly, hands in the pockets of his coat. For a few seconds, he walks abreast of Kitakata, and then overtakes him. When he is six feet in front of Kitakata, he turns 180 degrees without breaking stride. Stepping backwards as Kitakata comes forwards, he takes his hands from his pockets. The hands are covered by latex gloves, and one of the hands holds a knife. Kitakata has no time to consider what is happening, to start to feel afraid, before Takahashi has stepped forward to meet him, driving the knife hard into the centre of Kitakata's throat.

When he feels the knife has gone in as far as it can go, Takahashi lets go of the hilt, and, as Kitakata falls, he walks away. He does not run. Other people on the street scream or shout. Some look at Kitakata as he lies on the wet pavement, trying to make noises his throat will not allow. Some look at Takahashi as he walks away from his work. He pulls off one of the gloves while looking at a man who is staring at him. He pulls off the other glove while looking at a man who is trying not to stare, who is cowering away. He puts the gloves in the pocket of his coat and keeps walking. There is no blood on him; he simply delivered the knife and moved on before the blood could reach him. He does not care about the witnesses; he likes to do his work in the midst of crowds. It is easier to escape, and the witnesses' accounts of what happened and what the killer looked like will always differ, so the more people the cops and media talk to, the less clear they will be about the details.

It begins to rain again. Takahashi goes back to the subway station and takes a train to the part of town where he lives.

His studio flat has a futon, a chair, a table with a vase of flowers, a laptop computer, a zafu and zabuton, some weapons and some clothes. Takahashi takes off his coat and shoes, then sits at the table, turns on the computer, logs onto the Internet and sends an email to his employer announcing that Kitakata-san has, unfortunately, passed away.

He sits on his zafu in full lotus position. He does not move for a half-hour, after which he stands up, stretches, and goes to bed.

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Graham knows how to leave no trace. After he gets the lock to open, he enters the flat and closes the door behind him, and it is as though the lock has never been tampered with.

He looks around the living room. The furniture is the same as it was when he lived there, but it looks newer and brighter now. He moves down the hallway, enters the bathroom. It is as it used to be, except his toothbrush, lotion and deodorant are no longer there, and there is one new feature: Next to the washbasin is a tiny bowl, with two fish swimming in it. The fish look real, and for a moment Graham thinks they are real. He looks closer and sees they are fake, and their swimming is an optical illusion. Typical of her, he thinks.

He steps into the bathtub, which faces the washbasin. As he stands in the tub, he sees himself in the mirror above the washbasin. Jeans, hoodie, shaved head, glasses. He pulls the shower curtain around the bath.

He stands there for a long time. He expects his back to hurt, but it does not. The sun sets and the room becomes dark. He hears the front door unlock and open, footsteps, the door closing again. He reaches for the knife in his back pocket, opens it, checks the blade has locked. He listens to Anni walking around in the living room. He hears no other sound, so he knows she is alone.

She comes into the bathroom, turns on the light. She sits on the toilet, pisses, wipes, flushes, stands up, pulls up her pants, walks towards the door.

“You ought to wash your hands,” Graham says.

She almost jumps off her feet, looks around, realises, starts to scream, but Graham has come from behind the shower curtain and the serrated blade is pressed to her throat and his hand has her hair and the scream shrinks to a whimper.

“Go ahead—scream,” he says. “Let’s see how loud you can get it before I cut your head off. Want to try? Want to find out?”

The sound she makes is almost too quiet for him to hear.

“What?” he says.

“No,” she mouths.

“Pity. That would be fun.” He laughs. “But we’ll have fun anyway. You see, you thought you were lying, but you were actually telling the truth. You thought you were crying wolf, but I really am a wolf. And guess what? I’m not as bad as you told people I was—I’m worse. I’d never hit a woman—I’m more into wet work.”

He says no more, but begins cutting. When she tries to scream, she can only gurgle, and she keeps expecting to die, but she does not, not for a long time, and the pain does not keep her from wondering how she can possibly still be alive, until at last there is nothing left to wonder.

Graham leaves the mess and goes home. He walks in heavy rain and enjoys how it cleans him. In his flat, he rolls out his futon and lies down, and sleeps deeply for ten hours. When he wakes, his back is stiff and sore, and he winces as he walks slowly to the bathroom, but he feels good.

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Vonn wakes next to Lindsay, his girlfriend of almost a year. Her face is near his on the pillow, and her eyes are closed. He kisses her cheek and reaches to put an arm around her, but instead of the warmth of her skin he feels a wet mess. He gropes to find the source of it, and his arm sinks into it. He looks and sees the mess is not on her—it is her. The only part of her that has not been mutilated is her head.

He scrambles out of bed, trips, falls, sits on the floor and takes shrieking breaths as he looks at what was Lindsay. He tries to stand up, cannot, crawls toward her, slithers around, crawls away from her, into the bathroom, kicks the door shut. He lies on his back, closes his eyes. He remembers a nightmare he had when he was a child, how he realised he was dreaming and how he tried to wake himself up by deliberately sitting down in the dream. It worked—he jerked awake. He tries something similar now, making himself stand up on his shaking legs, but nothing changes. He looks around the bathroom, at the morning light coming through the window in the shower, at the grimy tiled floor, at the mirror above the washbasin. He looks in the mirror, sees his eyes are bulging and his face is without colour.

He sits on the toilet, closes his eyes again. Pisses, shits, wipes, flushes. Stands at the washbasin and rinses his hands, watching some of what he touched in the bed trickle off his skin and into the drain. He dries his hands with a towel, then opens the door and goes back to the bedroom.

He can smell as well as see the mess now. Not only has she been cut open, but everything that was inside her has been cut open too, everything spilled. He knows the smell should make him vomit, but it does not. He is aware of the smell, but has no reaction to it. He does not know why he could not smell it before.

He does not know what happened, and he does not know what to do.

He knows they watched a film, then went to bed. He knows he came in her mouth, and she swallowed. He knows they lay on their sides, spooning, for a while, and he thinks he remembers her moving away slightly and turning on her back before falling asleep. But he does not know what happened after that. He does not know how it could have happened to her without waking him. He does not know who could have done it, or why. He does not know how he could have done it, or if he did not do it.

He does not know.

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Graham limps along the street. The pain in his back brings tears to his eyes. He has been prone to sciatica for about ten years, and he knows the trick is to find the medium between rest and light exercise. Too much of one or the other might leave him bedridden for weeks, which he cannot afford. The rain has reduced to a cold drizzle. Graham has only walked two blocks from his flat, but he has mostly taken baby steps, so he has been walking for twenty minutes. He decides that is enough, and turns and heads back.

His neighbourhood is made up of old residential buildings and disused industrial spaces awaiting gentrification. He sees three street yetis, teens or early twenties, two boys and a girl, come out of a building that has broken windows and a graffiti-covered door. They wave at him, walking towards him, and he smells them before they are within hearing distance. He starts to reach for his wallet, assuming they are begging.

“Hey, man,” one of the boys says. “Do you know anyplace we can check email?”

“The library’s about a mile that way,” Graham says, pointing. “You can get online there.”

“Do you have to be a member?”

“I’m not sure,” Graham says.

“I bet you do,” the girl says. “Some libraries let you have a guest pass, but most don’t.”

The boy says, “We can’t join the library ’cause we don’t have an address. We’ve been riding the rails. We just got here yesterday. We want to let our families know we’re okay.”

“My place is near here,” Graham says. “You can use my computer if you want to.”

“Awesome,” says the other boy.

The building has four levels. Graham’s flat is on the top floor. There is a lift, but it is not working, so they take the stairs, the kids being patient as Graham climbs slowly, holding onto the banister. When they reach his door, Graham unlocks three deadbolts—the one that was in place when he moved in, and the two he added soon after.

“Wow, you like computers,” one of the boys says when they enter the flat. The only furniture in the living room is three desks, with a computer on each one, a single office chair, a recliner, some cushions on the floor.

Graham rolls the chair to one of the desks and boots up the computer. “Okay, you can use this one,” he says. “I’m going to make some tea. You want some?” They do. Graham goes to the tiny kitchen and makes tea while they take turns logging into their email. When they are done, Graham sits on the chair and they sit on the cushions and they drink tea and they tell him about riding trains, the different cities they have been through, their hassles with cops, the good and bad places. Graham asks them if they think this city is a good or bad place, but they do not yet know.

They leave, and Graham wishes them well and locks the deadbolts behind them. He opens a window to let their smell out.

He goes into the bedroom, where the only furniture is the futon. He rolls it out, lies down, stretches his back. He reads a book on his e-reader, and is becoming sleepy when his phone rings. He looks at it, not planning to answer it, then sees who is calling and knows he has to.

“Moshi-moshi, Graham-san,” says Harada. Graham wonders, not for the first time, whether Harada really talks like that, or just enjoys playing to Westerners’ stereotype of the Japanese businessman.

“Mr. Harada. How are you?” Graham says.

“I need to see you.”

“Okay. When?”

“Now. Tonight.”

“Why?”

“There’s a problem with Vonn.”

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Vonn has sat for hours, trying to decide what he should do. Nothing ingenious comes. Nothing comes at all. He can think of nothing to do but leave, but he can think of nowhere to go.

He packs a bag. Jeans, socks, T-shirt, sweater, hat, toiletries. He puts on shoes and a jacket, and then, not looking at the bed, he leaves.

Two different families are outside, in different parts of the complex, screaming insults among themselves. A boy, perhaps three years old, is playing at the top of the stairs. He waves at Vonn as he passes him. “Hi!” he says.

“Hi,” Vonn says.

He keeps waving. “Bye!”

“Bye,” Vonn says.

“Bye!”

“Bye.”

“Bye!”

“Bye. See you later.”

The goodness of him. He seems oblivious to the cruelty raging nearby. Vonn walks away, feeling tears in his eyes, wishing he could take the child with him, to someplace where he will not see adults hate one another, but he does not know where that is.

He walks. He thinks about using his cell phone to call the police, but knows what will happen to him if he does. He wants to use the phone to call someone, he does not know who, or why. He thinks he should turn off the phone, and then he does. He remembers reading an article that said you can be tracked even if your phone is off, if it has a battery. He takes out his phone and tries to open it to remove the battery, but he cannot figure out how to do it. He walks into an alleyway, stands behind a dumpster so he is out of sight of people passing in the street, drops the phone on the ground and stomps on it until it comes apart. He looks at the pieces, pieces of a broken phone. He stomps them again, and then again, and now they are no longer recognisable as the parts of a phone. He wonders what they are now, and he cries, almost wondering what he is now.

When his crying stops, he walks back to the street. He realises that instead of breaking the phone, he should have turned it on and tossed it in the dumpster, because it would have served as a decoy for a while when the police began to hunt him. He does not know why he destroyed it, what purpose he thought he had.

He does not know.

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It takes Graham almost an hour to walk to the all-night cafe. He walks so slowly, the rats in the streets are not startled by his presence but ignore him and go on with their scavenging as he passes them. When he sees the light of the cafe, his back pain is so severe he is sweating and trembling. He does not want to give Harada the advantage of seeing him in such a state, so he takes cover in a tenement doorway, sits on the step and takes off his glasses and wipes his face with a handkerchief, waits until his pores have closed and his trembling has stopped.

Harada is sitting in a booth. He looks mildly disgusted when Graham limps inot the cafe, but his expression becomes impassive when they make eye contact. As Graham nears him, he stands up, gives a curt bow, sits back down. Graham holds out his hand for Harada to shake, which he does without standing up again.

Graham sits.

“You look tired, Graham-san. We’ll get you some coffee.”

“Tea, thank you.”

The server comes to them, bringing Harada more coffee, looking at them curiously, two men of the same age, Harada in a suit, Graham in a hoodie. Harada orders a pot of tea for Graham, and the two sit in silence until the server brings it.

“So,” Harada says. “Vonn.”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Your feelings aren’t relevant, Graham-san. What are you going to do?”

Graham does not answer.

“That’s what I thought. So, Takahashi must do what needs to be done.”

“No.”

“I wasn’t asking you, I was telling you.”

“We both know what Takahashi will do to Vonn. And it’s my fault, not Vonn’s.”

“Do you know how to find Vonn without Takahashi?”

“Not right now, but I’ll figure something out.”

“There isn’t time. I believe I may be starting to understand the problem your previous employer had with you.”

“That was nothing like this. I know I’ve made a terrible mistake, but—”

“Do you want to end our arrangement? If so, Takahashi remains with us.”

“No. That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Then send Takahashi, or leave him with us, and I’ll send him.”

Graham is tempted to retort that Harada would not know how to go about sending Vonn, but he decides against it. “I’ll send him. It’s my responsibility.”

“And he’ll do what you tell him, yes?”

Graham nods.

When they leave the cafe, Harada offers to drive Graham home. Graham does not want to accept, but the thought of walking makes him feel like weeping, so he thanks Harada.

The headlights are reflected in the eyes of rats before the creatures dodge the wheels of the the car. Graham thinks about his last meeting with his previous employer.

He had moved to this city when the company Dempsey ran offered him the job. They paid his moving expenses, and told him they wanted his unique skills, and he would be free to do the work he wanted to do. “We’ll be hands-off,” Dempsey promised.

The reality was the opposite. In the last staff meeting Graham attended, Dempsey told him, “You’re dangerous. You need to learn the culture here.”

Graham said, “Tim, you’re a drunk and a fool, and everybody knows you only have your job because you’re friends with the owner and he feels sorry for you. So don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t be doing.”

Dempsey stared at Graham, who stared back. None of the others in the room looked at them. Dempsey got up and walked out.

“Looks like the meeting’s over,” Graham said. A couple of his colleagues laughed awkwardly, but no one spoke.

When Graham got back to his office, there was a security guard waiting for him, and he realised the staff meeting was not the only thing that was over.

He could not afford to lose the job. Between his back pain and his wife’s mental illness, he needed the health insurance. He looked for other jobs in his field in that city and found none. He was uncertain whether to move to another city, or stay put and apply for jobs to companies that would pay to relocate him. He decided on the latter, and got nothing. He left his wife and moved to a flat in the part of town known as Rat Alley. The job he had lost had paid well enough that he had savings, but they were almost gone when Harada approached him on behalf of a local company he had never heard of.

As Harada drives, Graham considers his options, and decides he had none. When he gets home, he sits at a computer and contacts Takahashi.

#fiction #crimefiction #murder #dystopia #noir

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