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Authors: Sujata Massey

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BOOK: Girl in a Box
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“But not the same prostitute more than once,” Michael said, holding up a cautionary finger. “The rules are archaic, but they're really there to protect officers from intimacy that could jeopardize them and their colleagues. I'm sorry, Rei.”

“Forget it. It's not your fault,” I said grumpily.

“Let's not talk about faults anymore.” He ran a hand across his brow, and for a split second, with his mostly silver hair, he looked ten years older than his actual age, thirty-eight. “Take care of yourself. And be careful.”

I didn't go out for a drink after all. Drinking alone in bars wasn't the kind of thing I was ready to do in the United States. In Japan, maybe—after I'd put an ocean between myself and the unknown person who'd invaded my office to find out what Michael and I were doing; the person, maybe, who had masterminded Tyler Farraday's killing.

There were other alternatives, of course. As I puttered around my apartment, I thought of OCI's überbosses; the “Masters of Langley,” as Michael privately referred to them. The invasion of our office might have been part of an internal investigation, but why? Michael was the straightest arrow I knew—I had never seen him carry as much as a government-issued pen out of the office; he always, in fact, used his own Waterman. The exercise break we each took fell within forty-five minutes. Eating was done on the clock, while we were working.

No, I thought. The only one under observation could be me, because I was new and maybe also because of what I'd said about the Treasury Department, Supermart, and Warren Kravitz. I was far too vocal—and obviously skeptical—to be a decent spy; that was the problem. Michael had talked about my doing other work for OCI after this job was done, but I now thought this first assignment might be my only one. I'd do my best, but it would be a single engagement.

I thought about the situation long into the night. In the wee hours I gave up on getting any rest, turned on my bedside light, and began to rough out the final draft of the answers that I had been carefully constructing for the Japanese employment application.

The best thing about the application was that it was a standard national form available at any Japanese convenience store; an agent in Tokyo had picked one up and mailed it to Michael. After I'd filled it out and glued my photo to the correct spot, Michael would mail it back to the agent, who in turn would mail it to Mitsutan's personnel department. There would be a Japanese stamp and postmark on the envelope, and a phone number with the most common Tokyo cell phone area code, 090, as its prefix. The number matched my new Au brand cell phone, sent over courtesy of the same agent; it was a phone I hadn't used yet and wasn't looking forward to using, given that all the commands in the menu were in Japanese.

I still wasn't comfortable with kanji, I thought as I painstakingly fumbled my way across my scratch pad, searching for the right words to state my intent regarding employment.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience as the founder and sole proprietor of a personal shopping business devoted to high-end antique textiles and furniture. After that business became too large for me to serve private customers individually, I grew my business into a wholesale operation to overseas retail clients in California and Washington, D.C.

I stopped myself. There was no verb in Japanese that would correspond to “grew” in business English. I had the sense that using the verb this way might be incorrect in ordinary English too. I scratched out “grew” and substituted “expanded.” Then I chewed on my pencil and worried about whether I should describe myself as the proprietor of a business. Yes, I was a one-woman operation, but would that sound pathetic to a Japanese department store? Would they think I worked alone because nobody would hire me, which was absolutely true?

I had to stress who my clients were and raise my own prestige by association. The restaurant I'd decorated in D.C. had been short-lived, but the chef who worked there was famous in Japan, so I would drop his name. Also, they probably had heard of Gump's, an elegant, California-based department store and mail-order business, which had sold vintage textiles that I'd supplied to them. I would leave out mentioning all the various museum consulting jobs that I'd done; they were irrelevant.

I worked on the employment intention statement, and another statement about why I wanted to work at Mitsutan in particular. Before long, it was eight o'clock in the morning, yet I was still in my pajamas. I was going to be late for work, the first time ever.

I dressed quickly, not even bothering to shower, and raced the eight blocks to the office. There I showed my identification card to a new, surly-looking man who sat outside our office, and slipped inside with the key Michael had left him, in a sealed envelope.

Michael was obviously at his appointment in Langley, so I'd have to do the office security check myself. Fortunately, we'd practiced it a few times.

After I'd opened the door and deactivated the alarm, I ran my eyes around the room, looking for any signs of a new invasion. There was something different about Michael's desk: a rearrangement. I studied it for a minute and realized that a silver-framed photograph had joined the few neat supplies on the shelf over the computer terminal.

The color photo showed a close-up of a couple on a sailboat—a laughing couple, a young man hugging a beautiful girl wearing a slightly outdated neoprene bikini. The man was Michael, looking a little bit younger, his hair as close-cropped as ever, but dark brown, without any silver. The woman was a blond—a stunning, long-haired model type in her late twenties, with high cheekbones and emerald-green eyes. She wasn't posing for the camera, but had tilted her face up to Michael and was showing him an expression of outright adoration.

The picture made sense, I thought grimly as I turned away. He was so worried about my invitation the night before that he'd brought in a photograph of a sexy girlfriend as ammunition.

“What kind of picture is that?” Mrs. Taki clucked disapprovingly when she arrived a few hours later, bearing a cardboard box with Styrofoam cups of green tea from a restaurant around the corner.

“Oh, thank you, but you shouldn't have. I could have brewed green tea here for you, Taki-san!” The truth was that I had the real, leaf form of green tea, and it was better.

“Never mind. Where is Michael? What does he say about this picture?” Taki-san drew closer, her eyes opening in wonder.

“He's at the Pentagon this morning.” The lie came easily to me; it wasn't as if Michael had said I couldn't tell Mrs. Taki that he was going out to CIA headquarters, but I'd decided not to let her know, to further the idea that absolutely nothing was wrong at the office. “I haven't had a chance to ask him about the picture, but I'm sure it's a girlfriend. I'm surprised you didn't know—you've worked together for years, right?”

“He never mentioned any girl at any time,” Mrs. Taki said, turning on me now, with a frown. “That woman's bikini is out of fashion. Rei-san, where's your makeup?”

I clapped my hands to my cheeks. “I didn't think of putting it on. Actually, it doesn't match my government ID photo, so I thought it would be better to avoid using it, just so the guard downstairs doesn't become wary.”

“You should practice. You'll be going there any day now, so that face must become second nature. I know. I was undercover myself many times.”

“Really? Who as?”

“A Chinese.” Mrs. Taki cleared her throat. “And as you mentioned, there is a new guard outside the office door who asked me for identification—me, when I've worked in this office for so many years! What is going on?”

“Apparently it's a new security directive from our masters,” I said.

“Homeland security.” Mrs. Taki shook her head. “It almost makes me want to return to my homeland.”

“I've wondered about that,” I said. “It must have been pretty brave and unconventional for you, to leave Japan as a young girl for this kind of life.”

“Oh, well, I did it for love.”

I was surprised—I'd thought Mrs. Taki would have said that she did it for adventure, or because she was sick of a sexist society and wanted to have a meaningful job.

“How's your application?” Mrs. Taki changed the subject, as if sensing that I'd been surprised.

“Actually, I've been working pretty hard on it. Will you look at what I've drafted so far?”

Mrs. Taki settled down at the conference table. At the end of her reading, she looked up at me gravely. Her verdict was: not modest enough. The job was for a salesgirl, not a CEO. I had not presented myself as the kind of person whose goal in life was to offer customer service at the greatest department store in Japan.

“Okay,” I said, writing down the line that Mrs. Taki suggested I use for my statement of personality. “My family and friends call me reliable. I value punctuality and kindness to others, and I delight in helping people of all ages.”

We went through the whole application like that. By three o'clock, we had all the words in place in Japanese. I began to painstakingly write the answers in Japanese on a photocopy of the master form, but Mrs. Taki stopped me. “I'm sorry, Rei-san, but your handwriting, it still is a little like a schoolchild's.”

“I don't know what I can do about it at this late date,” I said as I heard the slight click of the front door opening. Michael had arrived. “I mean, I would have loved to stay longer at Monterey to work on writing, but I had to leave.”

“How about if I write out the application? What do you think, Michael-san?” Mrs. Taki asked as he entered the room.

Michael came over to where we were working, looked at the application for a minute, and frowned. “What if she has to write something down while she's at the store? I worry about a discrepancy in the handwriting and somebody accusing her of forging her application.”

“The application will be filed away at personnel. She'll be on the sales floor. She won't write anything at all—she'll just be punching codes into a computer,” Mrs. Taki said.

I turned to my boss. “Perhaps it is better if Taki-san does the actual writing. The Japanese consider handwriting a mirror of the soul.”

“That's what we'll do, then,” Michael said. “And Taki-san, if you don't mind, I'll let you take the work home. May I drop by at five to pick it up?”

“Five o'clock? It'll be ready in less than an hour. I'll do it here.”

So Taki-san worked while Michael punched furiously at his computer and shot me glances from time to time. He clearly had something important to say, in private.

Taki-san finally left, satisfied with the look of the paperwork. When the elevator doors had closed behind her, and both of us had double-checked that the office door was locked, Michael got down to business. He unpacked a good-smelling shopping bag that held two super-long rectangular boxes. I opened mine and found the largest, thinnest golden-brown crepe I'd ever seen.

“Wow. What is it?”

from Woodlands. It's a really great Indian restaurant out in the suburbs, and I was coming through, on my way back.”

“It's great,” I said, between bites. There was potato and green pea curry inside, a true vegetarian delight.

“Would have been even better right off the griddle,” Michael said. “Well, anyway, the pause while Mrs. Taki remained here gave me time to think.”

“About what happened at Langley?” I was hoping against hope that I was still in.

“You want to know what they said?” Michael paused. “Well, to sum things up, they're more annoyed with me than you, which is the way it should be.”

“But what did you do wrong—other than stay too long in the powder room reading the
New York Times
?” I couldn't resist getting in a dig.

“When a ship runs aground, it's always the captain's fault.” Michael's voice was somber. “A principle to live by that my father hammered into me since I was old enough to handle an oar.”

“Does that mean they're going to fire you?” I asked.

“No, although you can imagine I'm going to be under a microscope for the rest of my career. But we deleted the bugs before anything dangerous was leaked; there's no known loss of information. And I'm happy to say that you're still going to Japan.”

“Great.” I hadn't realized I'd been holding my breath; now I let it out in relief.

“The break-in's goosed them enough to want you out there faster than before. It's a good time for hiring in Japan, too, as you know.”

I nodded. Because of the January sales, there had been a slight increase in department stores' want ads in
magazine. I doubted that the demand would hold through February, though.

“They want you out there before the end of the month, which means I'm going to send this paperwork as soon as you and Mrs. Taki say it's good to go.”

“Well, my application will be ready to go today—but it's up to Mitsutan whether I even get an interview. And the way the application looks now, it's rather underwhelming.” I showed him a copy of the final draft, translated by me back to English.

“It looks okay,” Michael said after he'd read it. “But it seems like something's missing. Why didn't you include your work with Gump's?”

“Well, Taki-san pointed out that department stores are so competitive. Someone might resent Gump's, and feel I wasn't a good candidate because of that.”

“But what you did there was so Japanese. You wholesaled kimono and obis.”

“Used clothes,” I said, repeating the words Taki-san had used. “She said if they thought I trafficked in dirty used clothes it would ruin my image before I had a chance to impress them with my clean good looks.” I said the last sarcastically.

“You'll impress them,” Michael said. “The application's good. You come off like a well-educated but not particularly ambitious woman. Someone who would be easy to train and would follow the hierarchical rules without question.”

“Oh, Michael, I don't know!” All the stress came rushing back. “I've screwed up so many times here in the last day alone—how could I even handle an interview there? I won't have Taki-san whispering into a hidden microphone in my ear.”

“Yeah, it's not like the last presidential debate.”

“Michael!” I mock-reprimanded my boss, who had always been exquisitely nonpartisan.

BOOK: Girl in a Box
10.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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