The Running Dead
by Shimada Sōji
Translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong and John Pugmire
It happened on a stormy night in the early summer of 1980.
Every other Saturday Genji Itoi, the owner of the jazz bar Zig-Zag, had jazz players and aficionados over to his apartment. This was the first time Puff and I, drummer and saxophonist respectively of the band The Seven Rings, had been invited. The other members hadn’t been able to make it. In addition to the usual musicians and fans, there was a salesman and also a mysterious astrologist. People were chatting in the living room and out on the balcony.
As I drifted from the balcony to the living room I noticed salesman Namura trying to get the attention of Asami, a young woman who worked at Zig-Zag. He was trying a novel approach.
“I’m going to show you a very special feat of magic,” he said.
“Really?” replied Asami.
“Of course!” she said. Girls are like that.
“Mrs. Itoi, do you happen to have a large sheet of white paper for me? Wrapping paper will do.”
Shizuko Itoi nodded and disappeared, while the other guests gathered excitedly around the living-room table.
The host’s wife returned with wrapping paper from a department store, which the salesman spread across the table, straightening out the folds with the palm of his hand.
“And now I’d like to borrow a ringlike object from each of you, something you carry on your person. The more valuable, the better. Spiritual energy finds its host most easily in valuable objects,” the salesman explained with a smile, playing the role of magician perfectly.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to make them vanish. I’ll just place them here and return them to you right away. A necklace, a ring, or a gentleman’s watch. Asami, can you put something in as well, like that ring you’re wearing?”
“This? But it isn’t worth much!”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Everyone started to remove their watches and rings. I thought about it, but decided against it: I was wearing a Disney watch I’d bought for four thousand yen at a pawnshop.
The objects were placed on top of the paper one after another. Most of them were watches. The critic Onuki’s watch was a Cartier.
“Oh, you all have such wonderful stuff. How splendid! And here’s a pearl necklace. Is it yours, Mrs. Itoi? Perfect. Now my magic will become even more spectacular, I’m sure of it. Let me guess: It was given to you by your husband for your wedding anniversary? Just like Glenn Miller. Am I right?”
“Yes,” answered Genji Itoi right away.
“Just as I suspected. You have a very thoughtful husband,” said Namura, whose manner changed when he noticed something: “Our astrologist has not been kind enough to lend me his watch.”
The salesman apparently did not think much of the astrologist, Mitarai, and you could sense the animosity in his cold words.
“So you noticed?” replied the astrologist mockingly.
“You don’t appear to have a watch on you,” continued the salesman with a sly grin on his face.
“That’s correct. I don’t wear one,” declared the astrologist.
“Left it at the pawnshop?” enquired Namura with a sneer.
“I make it a habit not to wear a watch. There’s nothing sillier than allowing a machine that only tells the time to take over one’s left wrist in this day and age.” Mitarai paced about while he was talking, as if he were giving a lecture.
“Bah, let’s just ignore the poor fellow,” Namura whispered to Asami. He placed all the objects he had gathered on the sheet of paper. There were seven of them. Most were wrist watches, but Asami’s ring and Mrs. Itoi’s pearl necklace were also included.
The salesman laid them out in a circle, took a Montblanc fountain pen out of his suit pocket, and drew lines from the center of the circle to each object. “Now, let’s assign numbers to them.” He wrote a number, from one to seven, next to each object. Number 1 was the critic’s watch and number 7 was the pearl necklace.
“So that’s that,” said Namura, taking a notebook out of his pocket. He opened it at random and tore out a page.
He wasn’t satisfied, however. The page wasn’t a perfect rectangle because the lower left corner hadn’t been torn cleanly. Namura carefully made the page into a ball and threw it away. He tore another page out, this time more carefully, and handed it to Asami.
“And now, Asami, please take this fountain pen and write down the number of one of these seven items, whichever you like best, on this piece of paper. Then write down why you like it. And also write down your biggest worry, and I’ll solve it for you.”
“Of course. Write it down and you’ll see what I can do for you. I won’t let you down. Trust me.”
The man was certainly a smooth talker, probably because of his work.
“Do I have to use this fountain pen?”
“No, it really doesn’t matter. Go over there to write. I’ll be looking the other way.”
Asami turned her back to us and started writing. Finally, she announced: “I’m done!”
“Now fold the paper in two carefully,” said Namura. Her back was still turned towards him. “Done? Fold it again, just to be sure. And once more. And to finish it off, one final time. . . .”
“Okay, bring it over here,” said the salesman. “And stand with your chin right above the central point where the seven lines meet.”
“Yes. Now concentrate with everything you have, and drop the piece of paper right in the center.”
“Just drop it?”
“Yes. Keep looking at the circle from above, and drop the piece of paper. Again and again. And I guarantee you, it will roll over in one particular direction more often than the others. It will roll most often in the direction of the number you wrote down on the paper.”
“Try it out and see for yourself.”
Asami leant over the large sheet of paper, concentrated hard, and dropped the folded paper ball. She watched it roll out of the circle, picked it up, and dropped it again. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on her as she repeated the operation several times more. Only Mitarai was standing in the corner, yawning.
The ball of paper rolled out of the circle once again and fell on the floor. Namura quickly picked it up and returned it to Asami. “You’ll roll it onto the floor again if you don’t concentrate completely,” he said.
It was at that moment that Kubo, one of the jazz fans, said: “Uurgh, I think I drank too much. I’m feeling sick.” He stood up and went to the toilet.
“I think we’ve done it enough,” said Namura. “You’ve all noticed which direction it rolled in most often, right?”
“Wait, I didn’t notice anything!” said Asami.
“Seven. Number seven.”
“Really?” She suddenly looked very serious.
“Yes, now let me guess. You wrote down number seven. You don’t really like pearls, but you think a necklace would look nice on you.”
Asami froze to the spot.
“How did you . . . ?”
“So my guess is right?’’
“And now let me guess what your worry is. Hmm, wait a second . . .”
The salesman closed his eyes and put his index finger between his eyebrows.
“I have it. You’re in love with someone!”
Asami was absolutely flabberghasted by his guess.
“And his name is . . .”
“No, don’t tell them!” She turned as red as a beetroot and tried to cover the salesman’s mouth.
“Did you write his name on the paper?”
“Then I can’t know it. My mental eye only allows me to read what you wrote on that paper. I can’t read your mind.”
“Really? That’s a relief!”
Kubo came back into the room. Namura looked surprised to see him.
“What’s wrong? Feeling better now?”
“Yeah,” Kubo answered, with a strange look on his pale face.
“You were amazing!” said Asami to Namura. I too was impressed.
* * *
Puff and I were standing on the south side of the balcony watching a raging storm.
“How old are you?” said a voice from behind me. I turned around to see Kubo standing there, wearing a brown woollen hat, framed by the light from the living room behind him.
“I’m thirty-one,” I answered. Kubo pointed his chin at Puff. “And you?”
Puff didn’t answer. I’m sure he’s twenty-five and will turn twenty-six later this year.
“How old are you?” Kubo asked once again.
“Why should I tell you?” Puff said. He often got into fights.
Kubo smiled unpleasantly.
“I was just wondering whether you’re having an easy life. Can you really make a living out of making a lot of noise with instruments?”
“None of your business,” said Puff.
Kubo looked sideways at him, still smiling. “It must be easy, living off your parents, eh?”
Kubo came closer and I could smell alcohol.
“I thought you were a fan of jazz? Do you actually listen? Or do you just like criticizing it?” asked Puff. He shouldn’t have said that.
“Hey, I can’t let that slide!” said a voice from inside the darkness. It was the critic Onuki.
“Easy, easy,” said Aka, a trumpet player.
Puff was on his own now. “Bah, I’ve had enough,” he groused.
I understood how he felt.
The double glass doors between the balcony and the living room were wide open. The wind was blowing from the east, so the rain didn’t fall inside the apartment.
Puff went back into the living room and sat down behind his drum set. The word TOILET had been written on the bass drum. He took up the drum sticks and started to play a soft rhythm.
Itoi went over to him and said: “It’s okay, you can play whatever you want.”
“At this hour?” asked Puff in surprise.
“It’s okay. There’s a big storm going on anyway.”
I could see a broad smile on Puff’s face.
“Well then, I’d love to play facing the river, so I can see the storm.”
“Great idea.” Itoi nodded.
“Let’s do it,” said Puff, turning the base the drum set was standing on to face south. He started with a spectacular roll and played a beat on the bass drum. Then he played an incredibly fast eight beat. He always did that when he was angry. He’s by far the most talented member of The Seven Rings band.
“Wow,” said Aka, shouting to be heard above the storm. “He’s amazing!”
Suddenly Mitarai appeared from the back of the room. He walked over to Puff and said something. He picked up a Les Paul guitar and together they started to play Chick Corea’s “Beyond the Seventh Galaxy.” Puff was good, but Mitarai was truly amazing.
By the time the song was over I’d been completely overwhelmed by their playing. I wasn’t the only one. Ishioka, a writer and Mitarai’s friend, walked over to him and wanted to shake hands. Everyone had gathered on the south side of the balcony. Nobody had gone out to the east side because of the rain.
“Let’s get back in. It’s starting to get late.”
It was Namura who spoke. We all stepped back inside. The guitar and drums were turned back to face into the room and the two glass balcony doors were closed. Itoi and Aka joined the other two to begin another session. I joined them on the alto sax.
But this time the performance was not so good, and by the end only Ishioka, Mrs. Itoi, and the critic Onuki remained, Namura and Kubo having stepped out onto the balcony again, carefully closing the doors behind them.
While I was playing, my eye fell on the table. I saw that all seven ringlike objects were still lying there, on top of the sheet of white paper. Life’s strange, I thought.
* * *
What happened next was a total surprise. The lights suddenly went out. A power failure?
“Blackout!” somebody cried out, but we kept on playing. I assumed that Mrs. Itoi would bring out candles or something.
I could barely make out the noise of the wall clock striking. At that very moment, I heard Namura shout: “Hey, Mr. Kubo!” It came from behind us. I could hear the glass doors of the balcony open, and somebody suddenly jumped inside the room. Our eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness yet and we couldn’t quite make out who it was.
Somebody, probably Mrs. Itoi, then turned on a flashlight. The light moved around following the figure of a man running away.
The man rushed across the room and opened the apartment door. In the dim light I could see the man’s back and a woollen hat. It was Kubo. The door shut behind him.
What had happened? While everyone was trying to work it out we resumed playing.
Mrs. Itoi let out a scream which we could just about hear and we stopped playing. The flashlight was illuminating the table. It was indeed Mrs. Itoi who was holding it.
Six ringlike objects were caught in the beam of light: five wrist watches and one ring. The pearl necklace had disappeared. Kubo must have taken it with him.
“What happened?” asked Namura as he came into the room from the balcony. It was dark, but I recognized his voice.
“My necklace has been stolen,” said Mrs. Itoi.
“That’s horrible,” said the salesman. “Let’s chase after him!” He rushed to the door of the apartment. Aka and Puff started to follow him.
“You’d better pick up your watches first!” cried Namura as he went out of the room on his own.
Aka and Puff hesitated for a moment. Someone went past them and ran out of the door. I put my sax down and followed the figure.
In the faint light I could see it was Mitarai and he was running down the corridor, which was wet from the rain. The building had open-air corridors. I looked beyond him and could see Namura running as well, in the corridor that went to the right. Mitarai, who was following Namura, turned right too. I finally reached them at the end of that same corridor. The corridors of the building were shaped like the letter T, and we were all now at the end of the long vertical bar of the T, facing north. Aka and Puff caught up with us.
“What’s the matter?” Mitarai asked Namura, as Itoi and Asami also joined us.
“But . . .” The salesman was breathing heavily as he leant over the railing at the end of the corridor and looked down at the street below. His back was completely wet because of the rain. “There are no emergency stairs here . . .” he exclaimed in surprise. Mitarai and I looked down, following his gaze.
Because of the power failure everything was in darkness, making the street below almost impossible to see. I could just vaguely make out the roof of a white car parked down there.
“But I’m sure I saw Mr. Kubo run down here and climb over this railing . . .” said the salesman. “I think I saw him jump over, so I assumed there must be emergency stairs here. But there aren’t, so where did he go?” His face was pale.
Despite the power failure in the building, the far-off mercury-vapor streetlights were still on, and I could just make out the expression on Namura’s face.
“There aren’t any emergency stairs in this corridor,” said Itoi. The storm made it hard to understand what he was saying. “There aren’t any in front of my apartment either. There’s only one emergency stairwell, and it’s in the west corridor. You have to go back along this corridor and turn right. Maybe Mr. Kubo thought there was one here too when he jumped. . . .”
“Which would suggest . . . ?” prompted Mitarai.
“That he might’ve jumped to his death!”
We ran quickly back to the elevator at the intersection of the three corridors. I pushed the button to call the elevator, but it wouldn’t come up. Then we remembered there had been a power failure, so we ran down the stairs adjacent to the elevator.
It was a long way from the eleventh floor down to the first floor. When we finally got to the bottom, we ran out into the rain, not caring about getting soaked. We headed for the area we had looked down on from the eleventh floor several minutes earlier.
We turned the corner and looked anxiously about. Nothing except a white car.
Somewhere in the distance the streets lights were on, so we weren’t in complete darkness. There definitely wasn’t a body there or any sign of blood.
“This is weird . . .” Namura, shouting because of the storm, was white as a sheet. “What’s going on here!?” He wasn’t putting on a performance. He really was in a panic.
Mitarai was standing in the rain, looking up at the railing on the eleventh floor. I followed his example, but I couldn’t see any dead bodies hanging from anywhere. The rain was coming down furiously.
“Let’s get back to dry shelter.”
All of us except Namura followed Mitarai back to the side of the building, where we could shelter under the corridor above. But the salesman had stopped worrying about getting wet, and was crawling around on the asphalt, despite being lashed by the rain.
It was a mystifying sight. He peered under the white sedan that was parked there, then stood up to peer inside at the driver’s seat through the window.
“Is that your car?” yelled Mitarai.
“Yes!” shouted Namura.
Just at that moment we heard the sound of a train slamming on its brakes. It was on the elevated railway across the road. Namura got to his feet and looked up towards the noise.
Mitarai went out into the rain again and I did the same. The railway was very high above street level, so we could only see its roof. For some reason, the train had stopped away from the station with its lights on. A motionless target for the rain.
Mitarai went back to dry shelter and I followed. Namura, who had apparently also given up, joined us.
“Well anyway, it appears there are no dead bodies lying around here,” observed Mitarai.
“You’re right about that,” replied Namura.
“Let’s go back upstairs.”
“Yes. We’ll all catch cold like this!” cried Asami.
“There’s one thing I want to clear up first,” said Mitarai. Turning to Namura, he asked: “When we were up in the apartment, you shouted Mr. Kubo’s name from the balcony and he then ran into the room. What happened between the two of you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Why should I talk to you? You’re not the police,” replied the salesman coldly.
“Suit yourself. Let’s go back in then, before we catch cold.”
We ran back to the stairwell and slowly climbed the stairs back up to the eleventh floor. Initially, Namura wasn’t able to let things go and stayed out in the rain for a while. But he soon came running after us.
We went back into the living room, which was now full of candles, and dried ourselves in front of the heater.
“So . . . ?” asked Mitarai’s friend Ishioka. Mitarai explained what had happened.
“Anyway, we need to call the police first,” Mr. Itoi interrupted, and his wife nodded. “Because, whatever else happened, Kubo did steal the pearl necklace.”
He picked up the receiver and called the police. I picked up the sheet of paper which had been used for the magic trick.
The watches and the ring had all been returned to their rightful owners. I put the flame of the candle close to the sheet of paper and saw that the surface was wet.
“That’s really strange,” said Ishioka after Mitarai had finished his story.
I put the paper back on the table and looked at my watch. It was twenty past ten.
Suddenly, the phone rang. I was still a bit dazed and was surprised that the telephone was working during the power failure. Mrs. Itoi quickly hurried to answer it.
“Hello. Itoi speaking.”
I saw, despite the dim light of the candles, that everyone was listening intently to Mrs. Itoi.
“Yes . . . yes . . . That’s right. He was here until a few minutes ago. What? Whaaat!? Yes . . . yes. . . .”
The tone of Mrs. Itoi’s voice had changed completely. There was obviously something very wrong. Everyone grew tense and leant forward to hear better.
“Yes, I understand. We’ll do that. Yes. Until then.”
Itoi couldn’t wait for his wife to put down the receiver before he asked loudly: “What’s the matter?”
His wife put the receiver down slowly before answering: “Mr. Kubo . . . has committed suicide.”
“What!?” everyone cried out. “Where!?”
“On the railway. He jumped in front of a train.”
The only railway in the neighborhood was the elevated railway, so jumping in front of a train was not as easy as it sounded.
“Was it from Asakusabashi Station? From the platform?” asked her husband.
“No, they said it was on the rails closer to us here. Very close. Right across from us, in fact.”
“Was Kubo walking along the tracks?” asked Itoi, cocking his head.
“How did they know to call here?” asked Namura.
“He had a note in his pocket with our telephone number on it.”
Everyone seemed satisfied by that explanation.
“They want someone to identify the body. They say that anyone who can should come to Asakusabashi Station immediately,” said Mrs. Itoi. She turned pale at the thought of having to identify a body that had been run over by a train.
At that moment, the memory of a train slamming on the brakes in the rain came back to me. A train had stopped in the rain, all the way up above us on an elevated railway. Could it possibly have been . . . ?!
Copyright © 2017. The Running Dead by Shimada Sōji