Authors: Clem Chambers
NO EXIT PRESS
Barney and Oscar
By the same author
The Armageddon Trade
The Twain Maxim
London, March 2013
The sun had only just risen over the rooftops and had not penetrated the low, sullen cloud that threatened to drizzle on him. The tide was coming up quickly with a sound of trickling ripples, the rising water driving him further up the Thames foreshore and away from the low tidal points that invariably held the most interesting flotsam. He had found a rather nice George IV farthing to add to his collection. The little orange-red copper disc had lain below the cold grey water of the river Thames for two hundred years. Each find was a little redemption, an inanimate resurrection.
Jim climbed in carefully through the lounge window of his home. It was a large part of an old converted warehouse, now transformed into a riverside townhouse that retained an eighteenth-century feel and a faintly nautical character. He loved his personal ladder onto the tidal Thames; it was a portal to another world. As he clambered in, he tried not to catch his muddy boots on anything along the route from the rungs to the thick bristle mat on the lounge floor. He never seemed to manage re-entry without leaving some slightly smelly dob behind. Getting up to his home from the Wapping foreshore without leaving a trace was a challenge he always set himself.
His lead foot set safely on the mat, he leant forwards and turned nimbly in a pirouette to bring the other through the window. He didn't clip his foot on the frame, so he might have pulled off a flawless entry. He looked back. There wasn't a mark. He scanned for signs of mud that might have flicked off his boots and splashed out on random trajectories. He couldn't see any evidence of it. He smiled with satisfaction. At last he had managed it.
Stafford, his butler, entered with a tray of breakfast. There was a newspaper on the side. âApparently you are the most eligible bachelor in Britain.' Stafford put the tray on the coffee-table by the sofa. âAccording to the headlines, “Hot Billionaire Gives”.' He opened the tabloid at the centre spread and laid it, too, on the coffee-table with a snap.
âWhat?' Jim stepped forwards to grab the paper. He stopped mid-stride, his muddy boot on the carpet. He stepped back hastily onto the mat.
âNo good deed goes unpunished,' remarked Stafford, glancing quickly at the muddy bootprint. He looked quite amused as he turned and left the room.
Jim slipped his boots off and went to his breakfast tray. He grabbed the paper. Someone had blown the whistle about him and his money. If he hadn't started giving it away, no one would have known he had so much, except the taxman. Now it looked like the press were going to make a big thing of it. He felt a little flattered, but the article had a nasty edge: it seemed to suggest there was something mysterious about him, something sinister about âthe richest man under thirty in Britain'. He snorted. âNo one seems to know where his Â£2 billion fortune comes from.' He wondered what they would write if they knew it was actually Â£10 billion.
Tokyo, March 1970
Akira Nakabashi was looking up at the cherry tree, trying to stare at the blossoms with the same blank concentration as his father. The pink flowers were pretty but uninteresting. To the six-year-old, any more than a few seconds was long enough for him to get bored with the tree.
The white pink petals peeled off the twigs in clouds as the wind gusted down the hill. His father stood perfectly still, gazing up at the blooms. They seemed, to the child's eye, like bunches of torn paper stuck at the ends of knobbly brown sticks. âFather, what do you see that is so interesting?' he asked.
âThe cherry blossom is an ideal beauty,' said his father, still staring up at the tree. âThe flowers show us perfection. Their life is such a beautiful joyous moment.'
âBut they fall so quickly.'
âIs that not also beautiful?'
Akira looked down at the petals on the pavement. The crushed flowers seemed to be melting into the black surface. He waved his right hand inside the sleeve of his coat, flapping the empty cloth tube from side to side. âI'm glad I'm not a cherry blossom.'
His father closed his eyes and sighed.
A passer-by noticed his empty sleeve and Akira caught his gaze. He held out his hand from his armpit and let the sleeve hang down at a seemingly impossibly angle. The man's mouth fell open and he looked away, shocked and embarrassed.
His father glanced down at him, right eyebrow raised.
Akira dropped his hand back into his armpit and the sleeve hung limp. He had embarrassed his father as well as the passerby. He felt shame. He knew his father was angry.
Now the cold spring wind blew straight into his father's face. His brown hat lifted from his slick black hair and took off behind him. He twisted around to catch it, took two steps and grabbed it. Another gust sent a dense cloud of blossom tumbling about Akira. He swiped at them with his left arm, as if they were a swarm of bees. He was laughing as they fluttered around, beating against his face.
His father was crouching, his hand pinning his hat to the ground. He was watching Akira thrash at the petals in the same way that he had gazed at the blossom on the tree. The petals fell to the ground, eddied and rolled. His father got up. He walked over to Akira and picked him up. âSo, young samurai,' he said, pulling at the empty sleeve, âshall we cut these off all your clothes, so your little arm can be free?'
âYes,' said Akira, happy in his father's embrace.
âFate has a purpose,' his father said, and Akira nodded, not understanding what he meant. Then his demeanour changed. âLet's go for some
âOh, yes please, Father!' Akira loved octopus balls.
The walk was long, but Akira didn't mind. To be with his father and walk to the palace with him was a great event. His father was a member of the royal bodyguard, as Akira's grandfather and great-grandfather had been. He imagined himself marching like a soldier alongside his father, two steps for every one of his. âJust around this corner,' came the answer to his query as to how far they had still to go.
The palace was set in grounds surrounded by a giant moat with castle-like ramparts. The walls were made of giant flat-sided grey-green boulders set together like a huge vertical jigsaw, above which Akira could see the trees of a mysterious garden, the delights of which were shielded from view. His father stopped and lifted him onto a crude fence made of what appeared to be scaffolding posts so that he could see better. Akira looked down the sloping face of the wall into the dark waters below, then across to the walls that sloped up to the palace gardens. It was an impregnable structure that would hold back an army.
âLet me tell you about your great-grandfather.' Akira leant forward in his father's grasp, craning his neck. He felt as if he was hovering over the water.
âIt is 1900â¦'
James Dean Yamamoto was driving as fast as his Harley Davidson would go. He was heading for the race meeting point. His bike was far too slow to win, but winning wasn't the purpose of the Saturday night event or, for that matter, any other that he took part in around Tokyo. The purpose was ritual and spectacle.
Outlaws had their place in society, the same as politicians and businessmen, and the racing was part of it. The competitors made as much noise as they could, as they tore along the intercity freeways and roads of Tokyo. Rebellion and crime served social functions, like sewers and rubbish tips, and Saturday was the night the garbage drove through the city and reminded the sleeping citizens that it was there and, in a strange way, kind of friendly. The bikers, the junkies, the crazy rebels, the mobsters, all were represented on their bikes, whether on home-grown tricked-out racers or fat unreliable Harley hogs from America.
James Dean Yamamoto's Harley couldn't have been fatter or louder, its black paint spotless, its chrome shining even in the late-night sodium-yellow city lights. The local-made bikes, the Hondas, Kawasakis, Yamahas and Suzukis, had seats, but his machine had a saddle. His black leathers and peaked cap were a tribute to his other hero, Marlon Brando in
The Wild One
, but when he took his cap off he would comb his greaser quiff back, like James Dean or yet another of his American heroes, Elvis.
To a Western eye he was a crazy, ironic figure, a small Japanese guy who pranced and aped an American pose that, even ten years before, had seemed dated. Yet to the citizens of Tokyo, he looked dangerous â and, as a member of the Yakuza, however peripheral, he actually was.
The engine of the hog suddenly misfired in a series of bangs and clunks. He tried to nurse it with the throttle but it rattled and clattered out of life. He cruised into the kerb on a hill to the side of the Imperial Palace. He grimaced, resigned to resuscitating his machine and missing the race. He tried turning the engine over with a series of kick starts, but the hog wasn't having it. The Harley was dead.
He climbed off and took out a soft pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes from his jacket pocket. The Harley would probably start up again if he tightened the plugs. He would wait for the engine to cool. He lit up with his Zippo, staring at the inert bike in what a spectator, if there had been one, would have taken for a pose. Something caught his eye by the fence separating the pavement from the palace moat: a pile of clothes, neatly folded.
He took the cigarette from his mouth and walked over to it. Had someone jumped into the moat? He looked over the rusty barrier down the sloping side of the wall. A few feet below, a child was clinging to the side. James Dean looked away and took a drag of his cigarette, then looked back. The child, eleven or twelve, was peering up at him.
âWhat are you doing there?' James Dean asked.
The boy said nothing.
There was something funny about him. âDo you need help?'
âI don't know,' said the boy.
James Dean noticed the child's right shoulder. His hand seemed to be coming straight out of his armpit as if he had no arm. His wrist looked like it was plugged straight into his torso. âWhat are you doing there?' he asked again.
âI was planning to swim the moat, but I'm stuck.'
James Dean Yamamoto gave a short laugh. âThat's brave,' he took a puff of the cigarette, âbut pretty stupid.' The boy's arm really did come out of his shoulder. He must be one of those drug-crippled kids. âIf you fall you'll die.'
âYes,' said the boy.
âDo you want that?'
âIt might be best.'
âLet me pull you up,' said James Dean. âYou can always throw yourself in the moat another time. It's an option that will always be available to you.' He flicked his cigarette over the boy's head and into the moat below. He lay on the pavement, wriggled on his elbows under the barrier and leant forward. His prized twelve-inch flick-knife slipped out of his top pocket and fell towards the boy, who caught it in his flipper-like right hand. He stared at the illicit weapon.
âCan I have that back?' asked James Dean, reaching down for it.
The boy lifted it the couple of inches he could and James Dean grasped it. He stuffed it into his back pocket. Then he gripped the kid's flipper hand. âLet go of the wall and take my arm.'
He did so.
âNow I'm going to pull you up and you have to do the best you can not to fall. Ready?'
âIchi, ni, san.'
The boy's feet scrabbled and slipped on the wall as James Dean pulled. It was an awkward lift, lying under the barrier, heaving the kid upwards without being able to move back freely. James Dean's back hit the barrier, which hurt. The kid was above the lip of the wall and, with a lunge, he rolled forwards and caught the pole of the barrier with his good hand.
The kid's face was right by his and James Dean looked into his eyes. âHave you got a good grip on the fence?' he asked.
âI'm going to let you go, OK?'
He let go and the kid grabbed the barrier with his other hand.
James Dean crawled out from under the fence and stood up. He brushed himself down and glanced at the kid, naked but for his underpants. âYou OK?' he asked.
âYes.' The boy walked to his clothes, picked up his shorts and put them on.
With a clink of his Zippo, James Dean lit another Lucky Strike.
The boy picked up his vest.
âA vest!' exclaimed James Dean. âWhat do you need that for? Men who scale the walls of the Emperor's Palace don't wear vests.'
The boy looked at him in silence. He dropped the vest, picked up his socks and sat down to put them on. âThey do wear shirts and jumpers, though, don't they?' he asked.
âSure,' said James Dean. He walked to his bike and began to examine the engine. He took a tool-kit from a saddle bag and tightened the plugs. He looked up and saw the child staring at him.
âI owe you my life,' he said. âMy name is Akira.'
âJames Dean.' He offered his hand.
Akira shook it. âHow can I repay you?'
âThat's a good question,' said James Dean. He didn't want to embarrass the kid by laughing at the idea. âI'll tell you what. I'll run you home. When I need you, I can come by and call in my marker.'
Akira made a little bow of agreement.
James Dean combed his quiff carefully, put on his cap and mounted the Harley. He wrestled the bike upright and kicked it into life. âJump on, kid.'
Akira thought he must be asleep: racing through the lit streets of Tokyo on the back of a black noisy beast seemed too dreamlike for him to be awake. James Dean didn't seem to obey the lights at junctions or the speed limits. He simply flew along, with heroic skill and determination. They wove in and out of the late-night drivers and past police booths as if they weren't there. The minutes seemed like a lifetime to Akira, a lifetime that encompassed the fragile seconds it took a butterfly to climb from its chrysalis or a fish to be bitten in half by another.
James Dean stopped at the end of Akira's street and the boy got off. âThank you,' he said.
James Dean pushed his cap back and, with a grumble of rolling consonants, said, âRemember, kid, don't be a little prick.'