A yakuza story. First prize in two contests. A gambler encounters his addiction's end.
I was picking the horses for the next race when a heavy tap on my shoulder disturbed my concentration. I turned around expecting a friendly face, instead I saw my own, reflected and contorted in mirrored Ray Bans. They zoomed in. A swarthy face on a huge crew-cut head, tilted, grinned like a shark, and gave one of those offers you can’t refuse: pay off my debt, show up for the game, or feed the fish in Tokyo Bay. Since I was still in the process of getting the money, my choice was the one the barrel-chested goon in the Armani suit anticipated; show me to the game.
The boss of the local yakuza, Okubo, really loved games, all kinds, and his favorite was the one he called The Wink. His reputation was ruthless, yet it was said he had a soft spot for people who played games well. Those who owed him loans had a chance to have their debts forgiven. All they had to do was survive The Wink.
Okubo’s man escorted me to a sedan and opened the back door. I got in. He followed and blindfolded me as the driver pulled out into traffic. I stifled a groan as the speakers spit out the first words of an enka song. Hating enka, I attempted to block out the lovelorn lyrics with fantasies of escape. At last we reached our destination. The door opened and the blindfold was taken off. We were in a tiny parking lot on the ground floor of a narrow building. It could have been anywhere in Tokyo, but the logical place was Kabukicho, Shinjuku.
My escort and I entered an elevator and rose to the top floor, the seventh. The elevator opened on a room with bright florescent lights embedded into the ceiling. A bar was against the opposite wall. A large table was arranged in the center. Four men were sitting there. A man in a charcoal gray suit over a pale pink silk shirt, open to expose a chest of gold chains, sat in the single red leather armchair near the left wall. Aviator shades partially hid the dark pockmarked face, a face seared into my mind, Okubo’s. One of his men approached. He softly and courteously told me to sit at the table. Seeing my name on a tag in front of an empty chair, I pulled out the chair and sat down.
Okubo smiled. “Welcome, my guests. As you know, all of you will be playing a game. If you win, your debt will be forgiven. If you lose, you will die.”
He paused with a sip of tea to let the gravity of our situation sink in, leaned back into his red chair, and pointed a fat finger. “There can be from one to four losers, at least one of you will win. Before I explain the rules, briefly tell us how you got into your predicament, proceeding in the order you arrived.”
A balding man in an old worn-out brown suit stood. He bowed in apology. “The name’s Honda. I used to own a small company that my father started. It goes without saying, I’m bankrupt. Also, my family has abandoned me. If I don’t get killed, I’ll...” His plans unsaid, he sat down.
A teenager with orange hair and a blue aloha shirt spoke slumped in his seat. “Lousy day, ain’t it? I’m Sasaki. I’m a sucker like the rest of you. Thought I had a sure-fire plan to get rich. If I make it through, I’ll find a girl to celebrate with.”
A thin old man in plain gray clothes was next. He sat straight up in his seat while looking down at his folded hands. “My name’s Tanaka. I’m ashamed to say I borrowed money to help my worthless son. I haven’t seen him since I gave him the money. I blame myself for raising such a dishonest man. If I come out of here alive, I won’t cause anyone trouble anymore.”
The frame of a chair creaked and the legs scraped the hard wooden floor as a middle-aged man with wire-frame glasses on a bloated face got up with a grunt. “I’m Wada. I guess my reason for being here is the most unusual. Six months ago my doctor told me I had only a year to live. After I got over the shock I decided to live it up. Thinking it wouldn’t matter to me, I borrowed a lot of money. Imagine the conflicting emotions I had when my doctor told me it had all been a mistake. If I survive, I’m going to sue him and the hospital for everything they’ve got.”
I rose. “Kondo. I’m unemployed, living with friends, here and there. Gambling is my bane. If I get out of here alive, I’ll consider myself reborn, swallow my pride, beg my father for a loan, and get a job.”
Okubo wiped his hands with a small moist towel. “All of you owe me money. But, it’s not about money; it’s about trust. I gave you enough time to pay me back. Anyone else would have killed you. Through the goodness of my heart I’m giving all of you a chance to start over.”
He took out a cigarette, and before it touched his lips, one of his men had a flame coming out of a gold Cartier lighter. Without a pause, Okubo lit his cigarette and took a deep drag. I watched the blue smoke spewing out of his mouth as he commanded, “Put on your name tags.” He waited until everyone had followed his order. “Before the game, each of you will get a poker card. You will look at it and give it to one of my men. You must not indicate to anyone what your card was. One of you will have received a joker, that person will be the winker. Once the game starts, he has four minutes to wink. If he doesn’t, I kill him.”
Inside myself, I moaned. Four minutes. Soon, one of us would be dead. Four meant death.
His eyes squinted as he took another drag. “Notice the cards in front of you. The names of your fellow players are on them. At the end of each round, all of you, including the winker, will put one of them face down on the table. That card is the name of the man you think is the winker. You will not know who the other players think the winker is. If all of you, except the winker, of course, make the correct guess, he dies and the game ends. If not, the player who got the lowest value card will die, regardless if he guessed right. Then, the next round begins. The last round is when three players are left. That will be the last chance to find the winker.”
Okubo smashed his cigarette in a crystal ashtray, took off his shades, folded them, and slipped them into his shirt pocket. “You must be absolutely silent and not indicate in any way your guess. This is a warning; I hate cheaters. Oh, Mr. Wada, take off your glasses. We don’t want them clouding up.” His cold dark eyes froze Wada’s protest.
Taking five poker cards out of his pocket, he nodded to one of his men. The man took the cards, shuffled them, and distributed one to each of us. My card was a ten. A bead of sweat ran down the back of my neck; I could have the lowest number.
Okubo rose, sauntered to the table, and joined us. Placing a digital timer in the center, he waited until all of us were looking at him, then the bastard smiled, winked, and started the timer.
The hollow sound of a drop of water hitting metal vibrated from the timer through the wood of the table and into my sweaty palms: ping, ping, ping. There was fear in every player’s face as their eyes moved left and right, right and left.
Sweat dripped down Wada’s greasy face. Did he get a low number, or was he just extra nervous from being half blind?
The young punk, Sasaki, looked impossibly cool. Did he get a high card, or was he high on something else?
Tanaka’s wrinkled old hands were trembling. Was he going to have a heart attack? I mentally slapped myself. Concentrate on their eyes!
Honda’s were as big as they could get. He had his neck held back rigid as he swiveled his eyes back and forth like wipers in a storm. Was he looking for the right moment to wink?
Ping, ping, pong! Shocked, my body jerked up. The four minutes were up and I hadn’t seen anyone wink. Damn!
Nodding with an appreciative smile, Okubo grabbed the timer in his meaty hand. “Choose a name and put the card face down on the table.”
Wada, Sasaki, Tanaka, Honda, which one was it? Did Okubo inadvertently give us a clue when he told Wada to take off his glasses? I put his card face down on the table, then I remembered it happened before the poker cards were handed out. I reached out to retrieve it when I heard Okubo’s voice, “Take your hands away from the card, Mr. Kondo.” Damn!
Honda’s blank face revealed nothing, just like the card he placed in the center of the table. The kid was smirking as he laid his card down, all the while keeping his eyes on Honda. The old guy, Tanaka, was fingering the top edge of each card as he shifted his eyes at each of us in turn, then he pulled a card out and put it softly on the table. Wada was chewing his lower lip. Finally, he shuffled the cards, slid one out from the middle, and, as if the card were burning his fingers, dropped it on top of the others.
Thoughts flashed through my mind. Why was Honda so unemotional? Was the kid telling us he’d seen Honda wink, or was he just deflecting suspicion away from himself? Were Tanaka and Wada truly clueless? Yet, one of the four was acting. Which one?
The soft spoken courteous goon collected the cards, whispered into his ear, and handed them to Okubo. Enjoying the extension of suspense, he slowly spread them out. Then, maintaining a poker face, he closed them, put them on the table, and smoothly took a 38 out of his shoulder holster. The air conditioner rattled as he pointed death at each of us in turn. I took one last deep breath and closed my eyes.
Every muscle jumped and my eyes slammed open as the roar from the gun was quickly followed by the crash of chair and body falling onto the floor. Tanaka’s frail thin body was flat on its back staring at the ceiling. The old guy had a neat hole in the center of his forehead.
There was a soft hollow hum as Okubo blew the smoke out of the barrel of his revolver. He cheerfully added, “The old man was right; he won’t cause anyone trouble anymore.”
My hands clenched in frustration, anger, and guilt; had I been the only one wrong, thus causing Tanaka’s death? Then, reality flamed and crash landed my foolish guilt. Wake up! Find the winker or you’ll be next.
They mopped up the blood, took Tanaka away, and had us stand up. Then, they returned our cards and rearranged the chairs around the table. Holstering his pistol, Okubo spoke in a clear voice, “Tear Mr. Tanaka’s card and put the pieces in the center of the table.” Tatters of black strokes on white paper fluttered down onto the table. Okubo swept them up, and, as if they were treasure, stuffed them into his pockets.
Okubo reset the timer and the second round commenced. I nearly groaned, till I remembered his warning to be silent. Ping, ping, ping. The sound was maddening! Wada was squinting as hard as he could as sweat streaked his face, or was it tears? Sasaki had a sneer on his youthful face. I wanted to slap it off. How could he be so calm? Honda was even more rigid than before. I couldn’t blame him, he’d just seen someone killed and he could be next.
Back and forth, back and forth, and then, I saw it, the wink. Honda was the one! I immediately glanced at the other two. My elation was snuffed out, it didn’t seem they had seen it. I turned to Okubo and met his hard eyes warning me.
Ping, ping, pong. Time was up.
I tossed my card spinning like a frisbee. It landed in the center. Sasaki grinned and flicked his card. It landed on top of mine. Bravo, he knew! I turned to Wada and despaired; his lips were quivering and his hands shaking as he picked a card and laid it down.
There was one chance in three he picked the right card. Not good odds when your life is on the line. Then, I realized as long as Wada was in the game my life depended on his choice. I prayed he had the lowest number; the first time I fervently wished for anyone’s death.
Okubo looked at the cards, smirked, and laid them down. He took out his revolver. This time, without pause, he pointed the gun and fired. Sasaki’s body slammed into the back of the chair, his head snapping his neck, then his face, eyes wide in shock, turned to me as he flopped forward onto the table. Okubo waved a hand away and ordered, “Put him beside the old man.”
Then, he turned to us and said, "The punk was wrong. He won't be seeing any more women."
They took the kid away, wiped the table, and rearranged the chairs. We sat down. Okubo collected the fragments of cards with pieces of Sasaki written on, set the timer, and the last round started ticking. I couldn’t stop myself from calculating the odds that I would soon be dead, fifty fifty. I knew Honda was the winker, yet I couldn’t tell Wada. And without his glasses, he couldn’t pick up a clue. I thought I had nothing left to do, then I remembered what the kid had done, and came up with a plan. I would freeze and stare at Honda and hope Wada figured out I knew Honda was the winker.
I froze in more ways than one for Honda was as still as a mannequin with glass eyes. I dared a quick glance at Wada. Hands on his forehead, fingers deep in his thick black hair, mouth agape, he looked totally hopeless. I thought; neither of them were any longer in the game. Wada had given up, and Honda was going to stop taking part in murder even at the price of his own life.
Ping, ping, pong!
I twisted toward Okubo. There was a frown on his pockmarked face, but what drew my attention was the arm, straight out, holding the gun pointed at Honda. Every muscle in me coiled as his finger slowly squeezed the trigger. Thunder sent lightning streaking through me, and Honda met his end.
With a far away look in his eyes, Okubo blew over the top of the barrel. This time there was no hollow hum, just a broken sob from Wada.
Okubo holstered his pistol under his jacket and stood up. With half his face smiling, he bowed and said, “The game is over. You don’t owe me anything anymore. Tell my men where you want to go.”
I often look back on that game and wonder why Honda just kept staring at the elevator door until his time was up. I like to think Honda gave himself away in the second round. The wink he gave was too easy. Maybe, he thought we had more to live for, or maybe, he had had enough of guilt. I’ll never know.
And, Okubo, I wish I could forget him. Sometimes, in the silence of night, I wonder. Had he controlled the game all along? Was that frown on Okubo's face because Honda had foiled his plans to murder Wada and myself?
I don’t know what happened to Wada. I hope he made a fortune suing that doc. As for me, I talked to my dad and got a job. And I don’t gamble no more.