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Authors: Sujata Massey

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BOOK: Girl in a Box
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“I'm going to explain as we pack, because you've got to be out of here, on my flight, tomorrow at ODT.”

“What does
that
mean?” I'd noticed that Michael's years in the Navy and then the federal government had resulted in his speaking a language of abbreviations that was as complex as Japanese.

“Oh-dark-thirty. It means very early, before daylight.” He paused. “Our flight to Langley leaves at six-thirty. You've got to be packed tonight, and we'll leave everything here for one of our people to move out tomorrow. Your personal shipment will be airmailed space-A after we go.”

Another one of his abbreviations, which I'd learned meant “Space available,” probably later than sooner. I glanced around my untidy apartment. “How can I possibly…”

“I'll help you.” Michael was starting to fold and assemble the first box. “I've done this kind of pack-out many times, and yours should be a snap. All you've got are clothes and books, correct?”

“And music. And cooking stuff, and…”

“No problem,” Michael said, pulling a thick roll of tape from his jacket. “As we pack, I'll tell you everything.”

It was all about a store—a Japanese department store, Mitsutan. This was the place where I'd shopped with my Japanese relatives for as long as I could remember, mostly at its Yokohama branch, but for special occasions, at its huge flagship location on Ginza-dori, Tokyo's historically high-class shopping district. At the Ginza store, my Japanese grandmother had bought me an expensive kimono to celebrate my turning three and seven years old, landmarks in a girl's life. Eighteen years later, when I'd returned to Japan to teach, I was stunned to discover that the clothes at Mitsutan—and nearly every other department store and boutique in Japan—fit me as if they'd been custom-made.

At first I'd gone a little crazy buying Agnes B skirts and Lucky jeans. Within weeks, though, I figured out that an English teacher's salary couldn't stretch to cover the cost of these wonderful clothes. I gave up shopping for clothes at Mitsutan and firmly adjusted myself to wearing the designer hand-me-downs that my mother mailed in lavender-scented boxes from San Francisco.

“The Treasury Department has received some complaints,” Michael said, jolting me from fashion nostalgia. “Treasury thinks—given the current state of Japanese retail sales—that Mitsutan's profits, especially those from the Ginza store, fly in the face of all logic.”

I put down the stack of towels I'd been about to dump into a box. “Come on, doesn't our government understand that most Japanese companies fudge their profit statements? There's an art to writing those financial reports to please the stockholders and save face with their competitors. Of course they're going to look like they're doing better than the reality.”

“There's a great difference between juggling numbers on paper to protect an image and actually profiting because of illegal activity.” As Michael spoke, his long fingers stretched packing tape across the top of the fourth box of my possessions.

“So what has Mitsutan done that's illegal?” I nestled towels around my trusty Panasonic boom box, another relic of my youth. “Sell Anna Sui at too steep a discount?”

“I don't know what Anaswee means,” Michael said, “but to answer the former question, our bosses have a special interest in the store.”

“Do you mean there's some perceived threat?”

“Let's hope it's actually nothing,” Michael said. “It'll be easier all around, if it's nothing. But there's been this—concern—raised, and I actually think it's a compliment to our little agency that we're given the chance to handle it.”

“But I'm not knowledgeable about modern retail. Antiques are my thing.” The previous job Michael had assigned me had tied into American military efforts to recover an antiquity stolen from a museum in Iraq. It had been a difficult job that called not only on my training in art history but on skills I had never realized I had. The job had been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, though it had also caused me heartbreak.

Michael sat back on his heels and looked at me. “I know that you have both the guts and talent to handle this thing. Not just anybody can do the job; the last person who attempted it was killed.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“It was a Caucasian male agent who went over, undercover.”

“How was he killed?”

“The official story was drowning. The reality was that he was beaten to death, and his body was found floating in the Sumida River.”

A chill ran through me. “Do you mean Tyler Farraday? I read a story about an American male model working in Tokyo who supposedly did too much cocaine one night and tumbled in the river.”

“Tyler Farraday—not his real name—was our boy.” Michael's expression was sober. “Actually, he was technically another spy agency's boy, but I was forced to use him in the new spirit of joint agency cooperation. I was hesitant about him from the start, Rei. I had a feeling he wasn't strong enough.”

And you think I am?
I thought to myself gloomily. Aloud, I said, “Well, knowing what you know, why don't you just press charges against the store owners?”

“The Japanese police have to do that, and remember—we can't do anything. Our organization doesn't even exist, as you know.”

“Oh, right,” I said.

“Anyway, there's no evidence linking anyone at Mitsutan with his death, and it may actually turn out to be a straightforward
yakuza
murder, as it appeared to us, based on the autopsy. But don't worry about trying to figure out what happened to him. All I want you to do is get a picture of what's going on within the store culture. Just come up with some evidence of irregularities, and I can take it from there.”

I looked at Michael's closed expression, suspecting there was something more, but knowing that I wasn't going to get a bit of what it was—at least, not yet.

“How can I figure out the store culture, though?” I asked, absent-mindedly folding a DLI T-shirt into thirds, the way Hugh did it—and then quickly undoing the folds. This was my own T-shirt; I should fold it differently, perhaps Japanese-style. “Do you want me to make a series of shopping trips at all its branches, or something like that?”

“It's a bit more sophisticated than that.” Michael went on to explain that I'd be based at the main store, where I'd collect information from written records, computers, and employee conversations. Most of this was work that I hadn't been trained for, but would be first thing on my arrival in Washington.

“People take years to learn those espionage methods,” I protested. “I should have at least a year or two to prepare.”

“CIA case officers do, yes. But you're not a case officer; you're an informant. And OCI is a small, street-smart agency; we aren't budgeted for prolonged training.” Michael hauled a taped-up box to the apartment's entryway, then returned. “Don't worry another moment, Rei. I'll personally oversee your training in D.C. You'll learn the most important tools of the trade, which I'm sure you'll have no problem with, given your demonstrated skill with a putty knife. At the same time, you'll start the application process for your job at the store.”

“Wait a minute! I'm going to work for Mitsutan? Isn't that a conflict of interest?”

“It's the perfect setup. You will be on the scene in uniform, with an ID card granting you access to many areas of the store.”

“Michael, there's another problem. You may not understand how hard it is for a foreigner to get hired by a Japanese company, but I do. I've tried.”

“You're not a foreigner this time around.” Michael's eyes swept over me, disheveled in my running gear. “Nor are you half Japanese. You're a foreign-returned Japanese—a young woman who graduated from Waseda University and who's worked in San Francisco and Tokyo, doing things like wholesaling Japanese textiles to American department stores, buying Japanese antiques for private clients, and styling a Japanese restaurant.”

“Hmmm,” I said, thinking. It was a pretty realistic cover. “I've done everything you mentioned except for graduating from Waseda. I was there my junior year, though.”

“I know. We'll put together a transcript showing that you were there four years,” Michael said. “And you'll be operating under your own name. That way, if you run into acquaintances shopping in the store, there'll be no chance of blowing your cover.”

“Don't you think I'm slightly notorious?” I handed Michael a new box to put together. He was much faster at it than I could ever be.

“Well, you've got a common enough Japanese name—I don't think it's going to raise any red flags.”

“But I've had my photo in the papers.”

“Yes, but who cares?” Michael ripped off a length of tape and pressed it along the box's edge. “I think it's great that you have a backstory in Japan. The problem with Tyler Farraday was that he veered too dramatically from his natural identity, and he knew shit about Japan. Anyone who stumbles across evidence of your life before will fixate on a few paparazzi shots of a young woman out on the town with her various well-connected boyfriends. At a glamorous store like Mitsutan, those kinds of connections are going to be considered more of a help than a hindrance.”

“The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.” I repeated a cliché about Japan, because I wasn't above using clichés when I wanted to make a point.

“Nobody could hammer you down,” Michael said. “Ever. This is the reason why, out of the half-dozen or so special informants who were considered for this job, you are the chosen one.”

I thought about Michael's words in the long hours after midnight, when the boxes had been packed and my boss had driven back to the postgraduate school for a night in the bachelor officers' quarters. A trained professional had tried to do the job; he'd been recognized and murdered. And now it was the rookie's turn, the rookie who was supposed to be able to succeed just because she could pass for Japanese and she was, as Michael had said,
connected
.

I twisted between the uncomfortable poly-cotton-blend sheets that came with the apartment—the sheets that I wouldn't even have to launder the next morning, because OCI would pay for the cost of cleaning the vacated apartment. I'd never show up in class again; my classmates would assume I had given up.

Michael clearly hadn't trusted me to awaken in time, because he was at my door at ten minutes to five. I wasn't completely ready, of course; I scampered about for twenty minutes collecting things, while he repeatedly checked his watch. For him, it was easy; a good three hours later in the morning, EST. Michael looked as though he'd had plenty of time to shower, shave, and dress. He was crisp in a dark blue business suit, a white shirt, and tie with a tiny pattern that hurt my eyes when I looked at it.

“So, does everyone dress up for the plane?” I asked, feeling uneasy. I had gone for cozy: a beloved pair of faded, patched Levis and a ribbed thermal undershirt. Over it all was a vintage Persian lamb jacket, in anticipation of the cold when we landed.

“Not exactly. You'll see lots of uniforms, because mostly military people fly on these planes.” He looked me over with a sober expression. “You do look casual for a DOD employee traveling on business. If anyone pushes you for more information about who you are, just pull out your ID card. Officially, you're a linguist on orders to transfer to D.C.”—he pulled a folded paper out of a briefcase he was carrying—“that's all they need to know.”

“A linguist,” I said as we rode along the coastline, watching the sky slowly lighten over the water. “If you only knew how badly I did in linguistics at Waseda.”

“You're not much of a joker,” Michael said. “That's about the only verbal impairment I've noticed.”

“That's not true!” I loved comedy in all its forms—movies, fiction, live theater.

“How many spies does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“I mean really funny stuff, okay, not lightbulb jokes.”

“Come on, Rei, how many spies does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“Do tell,” I said sourly.

“Damn, do you mean that lightbulb was one of
ours
?”

I couldn't help snickering, but I didn't want to dismiss the serious subject at hand: languages. “I suppose you must have a decent grounding in Japanese to be chief of the OCI Japan desk.
Nihongo ga joozu desho
.” I'd sarcastically used
You must be skilled at Japanese
, the stock phrase Japanese offered to foreigners, whether the foreigners knew two words or two thousand.

“I'm not
joozu
at all. I went to DLI ten years ago, but that was to learn how to speak and write Hangul, because my old beats were North and South Korea. If you have any concerns with Japanese, you'll get help from Mrs. Ikuko Taki. She's the Japanese translator who's going to fabricate your Waseda transcript. Later on, she'll translate the recordings you send back.”

“Great. I can't wait to meet her.”

“I hope you like the bureau. It's a pretty small office, because I'm the only person there, day in and out, but there is some extra space for Mrs. Taki, and a few others like you who work with us on a temporary basis.”

I felt a tinge of nausea at having an office in Washington, the city of my failed romance. It was one of the reasons I'd so readily agreed to go to Monterey. “Where is the bureau exactly—did you tell me Foggy Bottom?”

“That's the seat of the State Department, OCI's cover address,” Michael said. “We really work in Pentagon City. You'll be staying at one of the furnished condo units we have in a building a few blocks away. I figured if you were close by, I could work you harder. You know, late nights, weekends…”

“Ha,” I said as we parked the car at the rental drop-off. Then, after a quick trip through security, it was a walk out on the tarmac to an alarmingly small dark gray plane decorated with a number, but no name. Everyone on the plane except Michael and myself was in uniform.

“Where did those guys in camouflage come from? I've never seen them at DLI,” I muttered as Michael steered me toward the remaining vacant seats near the tail end of the military jet.

“They're marines based at Camp Pendleton, and I imagine that their facial expressions have something to do with the fact they were detoured here just to pick the two of us up.” He held out a Dunkin' Donuts bag to me and said in a louder voice, “Have one!”

I took a plain sugar doughnut—reluctantly, because the last thing I'd eaten was cookies the night before. I don't care for empty calories, especially in the morning. I whispered back in his ear, “I can't believe you dressed up for this.”

Michael finished chewing his own selected doughnut—raspberry jelly—before answering. “Rumor had it that the secretary of the navy, who's in the Bay Area, might have been flying back east today. If that had been the case, the hop could have been on that Learjet I came out on yesterday. This C-140 is a very safe plane, but the seating's not the greatest.”

Yes, it was a shame about the seating, and also about the toilet smell, which gradually began to seep out after about thirty minutes' flying time. But most of all, I was slaughtered by the noise—a roaring sound of engines barreling straight out of Hades. Even my iPod playing Death Cab for Cutie couldn't completely drown out the racket the plane was making.

“You know,” I said loudly into Michael's ear, “we could talk about our business and nobody would hear anything.”

“Including me,” he shouted back, hitting my ear with a light shower of sugar. “But I'm glad you're in the mood to work. I brought some reading for you. Maybe it'll take your mind off the discomfort.”

Michael reached into his briefcase and drew out a thick folder, which I took reluctantly. So much for the John le Carré novel I'd hoped to spend my time reading.

The first page said “secret,” and I felt a slight thrill to realize that I was authorized to turn the page. “Secret” didn't carry as much weight as “top secret,” but still, for somebody as new to spying as I was, this binder had a lot of spiritual, as well as physical, significance. My government trusted me with this material. And I knew that once I turned the page, I would be venturing into a world as foreign as Japan had been for me, so many years ago.

Michael's face disappeared behind a copy of
Foreign Affairs,
which was shielding something completely different that he was reading, so I started in on the binder. Section one was a description of a complaint that Treasury had received from one Warren Kravitz, a senior partner at the Asian headquarters of Winston Brothers, an American investment banking firm. A copy of a letter from Warren Kravitz outlined his theory that there was no reason for Mitsutan to be worth more than its competitors, based on a numbing array of facts and figures, most of which were buried in fine print in fifty pages of attached material.

“What is Warren Kravitz's problem? Does he want to be a PI or something?” I asked Michael.

“There's no problem. He just made a complaint. It's every citizen's right to do that.” Michael said right into my ear, “From this point on, no real names spoken in public, please.”

“The last time I complained to Treasury about anything, I was nine years old. They didn't make my dad raise my allowance.”

Michael cracked a small smile, but put his finger to his lips. Apparently, as loud as the background noise was on the plane, the topic was still too classified for discussion. I turned with more interest to a second set of documents: a history of retailing in Japan. I learned that although Mitsutan had formally opened for business as a department store in 1911, it actually had a much longer history. Its founders had opened a kimono shop in Tokyo in the late 1700s, during the prosperous Edo period. Mitsutan's elegant silk robes for men, women, and children had been popular enough to bring the shop owners considerable fame and the capital needed, in the early twentieth century, for the expansion into the store that I knew. Mitsutan was not the first
depaato
on the Ginza; it was built on the heels of Mitsukoshi, Matsuya, Isetan, and Matsuzakaya, all famous kimono makers who were blazing new trails. Japanese women were starting to wear
yofuku
—Western dress—and retailers were developing ambitions eight stories high.

Business dropped off during the war. Mitsutan and its neighbors went into sleep mode and then emerged in the postwar reconstruction, selling the luxuries for which people longed after having spent years in near-starvation. But the original department stores faced competition from a new group: upstart department stores started by companies that owned railway lines. These transportation conglomerates were tight with the new Japanese government and managed to get the zoning to build massive stores next to busy train stations throughout Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and other major cities. The new stores—which included Parco, Tokyu, and Seiyu—were full of luxury goods, sometimes at cheaper prices. In my family's opinion they lacked the centuries-old knowledge of customer sales and ritual.

Both types of store—kimono-descended and railway-descended—flourished as Japan rebuilt itself, especially during the prosperous 1980s. But in the 1990s, the ever-stretching bubble burst. The economy tanked and Japanese consumers stopped shopping. Instead, they funneled most of their yen into savings accounts at the Japanese post office.

There followed several pages of graphs illustrating profit-and-loss statements for Japan's twelve major department store chains. Mitsutan followed the same highs and lows as everyone else—until 2003. Then, its numbers started tracking upward. The store's reported inventory holdings, cash reserves in its private bank, and reported profits were huge. And unlike many other department stores, Mitsutan paid out generously to its stockholders. It seemed like a glorious situation for all.

I closed the folder. Still, I was wondering why a complaint from an American banker had received such serious attention from the U.S. government in the first place. Michael had said it was because of suspected malfeasance on the part of the store, but I just didn't buy that a successful exception to a retail trend mattered.

Would Michael keep a secret from me? I glanced at him. He was bent over his own folder, which was marked “top secret.”

Of course he knew things he wouldn't tell me. But I hoped to God he wasn't withholding something of vital importance, something that might lead to my making a monumental mistake that would send me to the same place Tyler Farraday had gone.

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