THE CONSULTANT: a thriller novel

The harrowing tale of an ordinary American trapped in North Korea!

View it on Amazon, or read the sample chapters below!

 

A business trip to Osaka, Japan goes horribly wrong for marketing consultant Barry Lawson, when he is kidnapped and taken to North Korea.

Once in Pyongyang, Barry Lawson discovers that the regime has a mission for him…which only he can carry out.

But Barry has only one objective: escape!

Chapter 1

If only he had been able to resist the temptation of the woman, Barry would think later.

If only he had just walked away when he had the chance.

If only he had stayed at his table.

If only he had been more prudent…he would have spent a final night in the Ichiryu Hotel, and returned to Chicago the very next morning—his trip to Osaka, Japan a total, resounding success.

But the North Koreans had done their homework. They knew Barry’s weaknesses in advance, and they fully exploited them.

Barry Lawson raised his beer glass in the direction of the two men on the opposite side of the dinner table. The dinner was over now; but what was a business dinner without a few closing drinks?

Particularly a dinner of celebration—which this one definitely was.

The atmosphere in the dining room of the Ichiryu Hotel Restaurant was meticulously constructed. The overhead lights were soft and appropriately dimmed. Classical music was playing at a low volume, piped in from state-of-the-art, overhead speakers.

But Barry was in a festive mood, and he couldn’t quite contain himself, despite the almost soporific setting.

“Kampai!” he said heartily. This was a Japanese word that meant “bottoms up!” or “cheers!”. It was one of the few Japanese words that Barry Lawson knew.

His two dinner companions, Akihiko Sato and Nobuhiru Nagase, raised their glasses also, with complimentary exclamations of “Kampai!”

The glasses clinked together, and all three men drank. Only minutes ago, their waitress had cleared away the dregs of their meal—expensive Japanese beefsteak, sashimi, and fried tempura.

“Congratulations, Barry-san!” Nagase said. He set his glass down on the white linen tablecloth. Nagase was tall for a Japanese, and thin. His black hair was going to salt-and-pepper.

Hai!” Sato chimed in. Sato was the physical opposite of Nagase, short and bald, a little on the roly-poly side. Sato loosened his tie, and unbuttoned the top button of his dress shirt. “Good job, Barry-san!”

Today had been the most lucrative day yet in Barry Lawson’s twenty-year business career. This afternoon, Barry Lawson Marketing Services, Inc. had inked a two-year, high six-figure contract with Yukimura Electronics, one of the largest manufacturers of automotive electronics components in Japan.

North Korea, the Stalinist “hermit kingdom”, was the last thing on Barry Lawson’s mind tonight—let alone the possibility that he might end up there in a matter of hours.

“None of this would have been possible without you two,” Barry said. “Really, guys. I mean it.”

Sato and Nagase were Barry’s contacts in the marketing department of Yukimura Electronics. Over the past six months, while Barry had been negotiating and finalizing the contract, Sato and Nagase had counseled him, gone to bat for him, and served as his translators and interpreters. Few members of the Yukimura board spoke fluent English, and Barry’s Japanese was fragmentary at best.

Sato and Nagase were both around Barry’s age—somewhere in that territory of the late forties. But whereas Barry had opted for a life of entrepreneurship, Sato and Nagase were stalwart company men, and they had the age lines to prove it.

In Japan, being a company man meant spending twelve to fourteen hours per day cooped up in a stuffy high-rise office building. It meant processing endless reports, obediently shouting “Hai!” to tyrannical bosses, and nodding like a bobblehead through interminable, boring meetings.

Barry much preferred being a one-man shop, the master of his own destiny.

He knew that Yukimura had taken something of a chance, trusting their new U.S. marketing campaign to a lone operator. But Barry had designed winning marketing campaigns for multiple American components manufacturers who sold to Detroit’s Big Three.

Yukimura already had plenty of business with Japan’s Big Three—Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. What they wanted was business with Detroit: Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

Barry’s track record—and the quality of his proposals—had convinced Yukimura that he could help them break in. But the deal would never have come to fruition without Sato and Nagase. Barry was therefore unconcerned that the bill for tonight’s dinner—all on his dime—would run into the hundreds of dollars. Sato and Nagase had more than earned it.

And besides, the dinner was a business expense—it was tax deductible.

The Ichiryu Hotel Restaurant was located on the tenth floor of the hotel that bore the same name. One wall of the dining room was a vast window facing west, toward Osaka Bay.

Barry had reserved a table by the window. From where he sat, he had a breathtaking view of the bay, less than a mile distant. The bay was bustling with activity even now, long after dark. A little ways out, a yacht was cutting a path through the black, choppy waters. Nighttime cruises on Osaka Bay were quite popular, especially during the warm summertime months.

Closer to shore, a large gantry crane was loading containers onto a Maersk cargo vessel beneath bright halogen lights. Another few billion yen added to the bottom line of Japan, Inc., Barry thought.

Barry turned away from the window, back toward his dinner guests.

That was when he saw her—seated at the bar in the center of the dining room.

Chapter 2

She was wearing a black, sleeveless evening dress that showed a generous amount of smooth, olive skin. One of the first things Barry noticed about her was her high degree of physical fitness. When she crossed her legs on her barstool and lifted her cocktail glass, her muscles moved with a tautness that only comes from hours spent in the gym, or some other kind of physical training.

Sato noticed the woman, too. Of course Sato noticed. Over the previous half year of making his case with Yukimura, Barry had made no fewer than a half-dozen visits to Japan. He had gone barhopping with Nagase and Sato almost every evening. Sato had never failed to notice an attractive barmaid or female bar patron.

“Bijin desu yo,” Sato said, winking at Barry. Bijin was one of those unique and wonderful Japanese words that carried greater meaning than its syllables would suggest, thanks to the Japanese language’s reliance on kanji ideographs. Bijin meant “beautiful woman”. Barry knew the word, because Sato had taught it to him during a prior trip.

“Yes,” Barry said, “she certainly is.”

And she was, indeed. In addition to her toned and shapely body, the woman at the bar was blessed with high cheekbones and captivating, almond-shaped eyes. Her long black hair, worn straight down her back, was shiny and luxuriant.

Barry wondered how old she was. Probably in her early thirties. That made her significantly older than Tessa, his twenty-two year-old daughter. But still much younger than Barry’s forty-seven.

Nagase threw an obligatory glance at the woman, though he didn’t seem nearly as delighted as Sato was.

But Sato, once he got going, just wouldn’t stop.

“Barry-san wa hana no shita ga nagai desu ne!” Sato said.

That was another interesting bit of Japanese. Literally, the phrase meant, “the underside of one’s nose is long”. Figuratively, the phrase described a man who was a womanizer.

“Womanizer” was certainly a term that had always described Barry Lawson—to his pleasure in his younger days, but mostly to his ruination in his adult life.

Barry liked women a lot. And many of them liked him back. Barry was tall, blond, and regarded as good-looking. (In his younger days, he had occasionally been compared to the youthful Robert Redford—a comparison which made even Barry blush.)

And Barry, moreover, could rarely say no to a feminine invitation. It was because of this weakness, he knew well, that he had lost Joyce, his first wife. It was because of this weakness that his children had been raised mostly by another man.

His son, Ryan, was fourteen, and Barry barely knew him. Ryan seemed much closer to Mike Royer, Joyce’s second husband.

You would think you would have learned your lesson, Barry chided himself. You would think you would have learned your lesson years ago.

But of course, Barry would think later, he hadn’t learned…

Barry had half-decided to forget about the woman at the bar. He reminded himself that he was at a business dinner, a celebration to thank Nagase and Sato for their tireless help in the fruition of the Yukimura contract.

And besides—what was going to happen, anyway? The woman was a complete stranger; and he was in a foreign city. Barry was in Japan on business; and he had to leave on a homebound flight tomorrow morning.

Then the woman at the bar did something that fundamentally altered Barry’s calculus of the situation. She turned around on her barstool, met his eyes, and smiled at him.

The woman didn’t smile at Barry for long. Almost as soon as the gesture was made, she turned back around.

Sato was delighted at Barry’s luck, though. “Ah, Barry-san,” he said. “You lucky!” Like many Japanese, Sato had difficulty with the English “l” sound. Lucky came out ‘rucky’.

Once again, Nagase’s reaction was muted. He merely nodded, and he didn’t smile.

This was uncharacteristic of Nagase. Although Nagase was not quite as jolly as Sato (few Japanese were as jolly as Sato), he had always been festive enough during their outings. Nor had he distinguished himself as a prude.

It was almost as if Nagase was holding something back—like he wanted to say something about the woman, but didn’t know how to broach the topic.

So Barry decided to broach it for him.

“Nagase-san,” Barry began. “I get the distinct impression that you don’t much care for that woman at the bar. Do you know something I don’t?”

“Maybe, Barry-san,” Nagase said. “And maybe not. But you should be careful. That woman might or might not be what she seems.”

“You mean like a…professional?”

Nagase responded to that suggestion with a tight smile. “Perhaps. But that would be the least dangerous possibility.”

Chapter 3

The suggestion that the woman might be dangerous totally floored Barry. He was open to the argument that the woman was out of his league, or best left alone because the situation was likely to require more effort than it was worth. (And yes, he was also open to the possibility that she was a pro; Barry had already begun to consider that possibility himself.)

But dangerous? No, he couldn’t quite fathom that.

“I don’t understand, Nagase-san.”

Sato was looking at Nagase with a puzzled expression, too. What had been a convivial celebratory meal only a few minutes ago was now something more serious. 

“As you know, Barry-san, Japan has a reputation for being a very safe country. And for the most part, this is true. But this doesn’t mean that there are no dangerous people in Japan.”

“There are dangerous people everywhere,” Barry said.

Hai. But in Japan they are not always easy to recognize. Have you ever heard of the yakuza—the Japanese word for the…?” Nagase paused while he thought of the proper words. “Mafia. Organized crime.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of the yakuza. But surely you don’t mean—that woman at the bar? She’s just a pretty woman in an evening dress.”

“Maybe. And maybe not. By herself, she looks harmless enough. And she smiled at you. She noticed you. But maybe she isn’t alone here tonight, neh?’

“Now you’ve really got me confused, Nagase-san.”

Tilting his head, Nagase subtly gestured to the area of the dining room beyond the bar.

“Consider those two men on the other side of the room. The two men dining alone.”

Barry looked in the direction that Nagase had indicated. He saw two Asian men. They were both well-dressed. They were sitting at a small table.

“They’ve been watching our table throughout the evening,” Nagase said. “At first I didn’t think anything of it. But now that woman at the bar has been watching us, too.”

“Hey,” Barry said, attempting to make light. “She was looking at me.”

“Looking at you then. But so were those two men, perhaps.”

Barry studied the men at the little table more closely. Although they were dressed in business attire, the suits and ties somehow seemed out-of-place on them. They were burly, stocky men. But more than that, there was a hardness to their expressions that one rarely saw in the world of offices and boardrooms.

Barry couldn’t explain why the two rough-looking Asian men might have been watching them (or him). But that didn’t mean they were yakuza.

“Nagase-san. I don’t know what to—”

Barry saw one of the men throw an unmistakable stare in their direction. (Nagase was right about that much.) But he didn’t look away when Barry met his eyes.

The man rose from his seat, and pushed his chair back.

Without taking his eyes off Barry.

The man was carrying something long and cylindrical in his hand, Barry saw.

The stranger started walking toward the table that Barry shared with his two Japanese guests. The stranger was making a beeline, in fact.

Who in the world was this fellow—and what did he want?

Barry had the feeling that he was going to find out very shortly.

The man approached, and Barry tensed up.

He wasn’t sure if he should stand, or remain seated.

He decided to remain seated for now.

The stranger was almost at their table. At this point, Barry got a better look at the cylindrical object he was carrying. It was a rolled-up magazine.

Maybe he’s got a gun in there, Barry thought. Maybe this is a mob hit about to happen.

Barry chided himself. It was ridiculous to think of his life in terms of a scene from The Godfather or The Sopranos. The man wasn’t coming over here to shoot him.

That was crazy.

I’m a marketing consultant, Barry thought. Nothing exciting ever happens to marketing consultants.

The unknown man stopped right before their table, just behind Nagase and Sato. There was no denying his destination now.

But what did he want?

“Hello?” Barry said.

“Excuse me. Are you Barry Lawson?”

“Yes. Yes I am. But how did you—”

The stranger smiled, and unfurled the magazine he was carrying. He held it up so that Barry could see it.

Advertising World Weekly. Of course.

Barry immediately recognized his own face on the front cover of the magazine. Advertising World Weekly had interviewed him back in February, for the issue that came out in the first week of April. The magazine carried a full write-up of him, with special attention to the work that he had done in the automotive sector. The editors had also decided to put Barry’s photo on the cover of that issue. So…Barry Lawson could honestly say that his full-color image had graced the cover of a magazine.

But Advertising World Weekly was a humble trade magazine. Virtually no one outside of the advertising, sales, and marketing sectors even knew of the magazine’s existence. The write-up in Advertising World Weekly had been useful for self-marketing purposes. According to Nagase and Sato, the Yukimura board had read a Japanese translation of Barry’s interview.

But it hardly constituted fame.

Nevertheless, this man—whoever he was—had read the article about Barry, too.

Barry stood up and said, “Yes. That’s my ugly mug on the cover.”

Barry’s self-deprecating humor apparently exceeded the stranger’s language skills. He didn’t acknowledge the joke, but he did introduce himself.

“My name is Mr. Kim. I am from Korea.”

“I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Kim.” Barry knew that Koreans, like Japanese, customarily bowed when meeting someone new. Barry gave Mr. Kim a brief bow, and Mr. Kim reciprocated.

“Your work is much admired in Korea,” he said.

“That’s good to hear. I never would have thought that.”

“It’s true,” Mr. Kim assured him.

Barry suddenly realized that he had left Sato and Nagase completely out of the conversation.

“Mr. Kim, these are my dinner companions and business associates: Sato-san and Nagase-san. They both work in the marketing department of Yukimura Electronics.”

In Japan, one’s place of employment was a fundamental aspect of identity. It was therefore normal to introduce Sato and Nagase as men of Yukimura Electronics, even though this Mr. Kim was a complete stranger, whom they would likely never meet again.

Nagase and Sato stood and bowed. Mr. Kim made a curt bow in their direction. Then he immediately looked back to Barry.

“Anyway. I have disturbed your dinner. I just wanted to see if it was really you. I will go back to my table now.”

“Thank you for saying hello,” Barry said. “Yes, it’s really me.”

As he watched Mr. Kim walk back to his table and join his companion, Barry reflected that yes, this had been an unusual coincidence.

But today was one of those days: the signing of the big contract, an attractive woman noticing him at the bar.

Some days were just luckier than others, he told himself.

After he’d sat back down with Nagase and Sato, Barry was determined to put an end to Nagase’s flights of anxiety.

“Well, there we go,” Barry said. “The mysterious Mr. Kim is Korean, not Japanese. So he couldn’t be part of the Japanese mafia.”

Barry expected that the matter would be put to rest with that. It wasn’t.

“So perhaps Mr. Kim is something even more dangerous.”

“Nagase-san. What is it with you tonight, buddy? You seem to see the dark side of everything.”

Nagase wasn’t dissuaded, however.

“Did you notice that  Mr. Kim didn’t tell us his place of employment?”

“Well,” Barry said. “He’s Korean, not Japanese.”

“Korean just like Japanese in that way,” Nagase insisted. “For a Korean man, at least, his company is very important. In Korea, a Hyundai man is a Hyundai man, just like a Mitsubishi man is a Mitsubishi man in Japan.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying,” Nagase said, “that Mr. Kim was hiding something. I can’t tell you what he was hiding. But he was hiding something.”

“Maybe you’re right, Nagase-san,” Barry said. “But that doesn’t mean that he’s dangerous.”

Chapter 4

They were interrupted by a new presence at their table: Mayumi, their waitress.

Mayumi was about the same age as Barry’s daughter. Her English was impeccable.

“Hello, Barry-san!” she said, as she began clearing away their dishes. Mayumi was wearing the uniform of the Ichiryu wait staff:  black trousers and jacket, with a white shirt, and a little red bow tie.

“Hello, Mayumi-san!” Barry said.

Barry was already friends with Mayumi. Early in their dinner, she had mentioned that she was a student of English literature at a local college in Osaka.

Barry had then told Mayumi that Tessa, his daughter, had just graduated from Northwestern University with her undergraduate degree in the same field. This had sent Mayumi into a rhapsody about her favorite American authors—William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Barry had had to stop her there: He remembered only a few of those names. Hadn’t Hemingway written The Great Gatsby?…

This had brought gentle laughter from Mayumi. Barry had reminded her that it was his daughter, not him, who knew about literature.

“Would you like anything else?” Mayumi asked now.

Barry looked to Sato and Nagase. They had already eaten their fill and drunk their fill. It would be time to call it a night soon.

“Thank you, Mayumi san. Just the check, please.”

“Hai, hai!” she said, beaming.

Barry glanced across the room, and saw that Mr. Kim and his dinner companion were now gone.

Well, so much for Nagase’s worries, Barry thought. He didn’t even stick around. He really did just happen to recognize me from the cover of Advertising World Weekly

Barry looked next toward the bar, to see if the woman in the black evening dress was still there.

She was still there. Now she was facing away from them, sipping from her cocktail glass.

***

Before Nagase and Sato departed, there were a few more items of business to discuss—just some details about the launch of the Yukimura ad campaign.

“I’ll be flying home tomorrow morning,” Barry said in conclusion. “But as soon as I get back to my home office, I’ll send you both a detailed summary of all our next steps.”

“Very good, Barry-san!” Sato said.

Nagase smiled and nodded. He seemed to have forgotten about the woman at the bar, about the Korean stranger who might or might not be hiding ill intentions.

Barry noticed that Mayumi had not yet brought the check. He was looking around for her, when she walked up with a glass of champagne on a silver tray.

“For you, Barry-san,” she said. There was the slightest hint of discomfort in her voice.

“But—we didn’t order any champagne,” Barry looked at Nagase and Sato. “Did you order any champagne?”

Nagase and Sato, equally puzzled, shook their heads.

“The champagne is a…gift.”

“‘Gift’?”

“From the woman sitting at the bar,” Mayumi said.

As if on cue, the woman at the bar turned around and smiled at Barry. He felt a liquid, animal warmth flow through him. She nodded, in silent confirmation of the champagne.

Sato smiled slyly. “Ah, Barry-san,” he said.

Nagase, predictably, frowned.

Barry felt suddenly awkward. He was sitting there with a glass of champagne, and Nagase and Sato had none.

Best to get it over with, he thought.

Barry stood and acknowledged the woman at the bar with a bow. Then he took a big drink from the champagne glass.

The woman at the bar nodded again, and turned back around.

Barry sat down. “Thank you, Mayumi-san. I’ll take the check, whenever you have it ready.”

Barry sensed that he was blushing now.

“Of course, Barry-san.” Mayumi’s former good mood was gone. She turned and walked away, as if she had just taken part in something improper.

As Barry drank the last of his champagne, Nagase said, “Be careful, Barry-san. If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.”

***

Nagase and Sato announced that they had to depart. Both men had to report bright and early to the Yukimura headquarters tomorrow morning; and they wanted to catch the next available train to the outlying suburbs of Osaka.

All three men stood from the table, and Barry exchanged bows with his Japanese companions.

“Thank you again, Barry-san,” Sato said.

“No, Sato-san, Nagase-san: Thank you. Thank both of you. Like I said, I wouldn’t have been able to get the contract without your help.”

Nagase said nothing more about the woman at the bar, or the (in Nagase’s view) suspicious Mr. Kim, but Barry guessed that they still weighed heavily on Nagase’s mind.

“Don’t worry about me, Nagase-san,” Barry said. “In less than half an hour, I’ll be back in my hotel room—alone—and falling asleep. I have to fly home tomorrow morning, don’t forget.”

Barry had the feeling that Nagase didn’t believe him. But of course, he also knew that Nagase would never openly question his honesty.

There were a few more words of farewell. Then Nagase and Sato turned to leave. Barry watched them go. Then he sat back down.

Mayumi finally brought the check.

“Thank you, Mayumi-san.”

Barry removed his credit card from his wallet and handed it to Mayumi. She returned promptly with the statement for him to sign. He left her a generous tip. She smiled and bowed, and wished him a pleasant journey. She seemed to have forgotten about her awkward errand involving the glass of champagne. (She had taken away the empty glass when she brought the check.)

“I hope Tessa enjoys graduate school!” Mayumi said. She bowed and left.

Barry’s cell phone chimed in his pants pocket. He took out the phone and—speaking of his daughter—he saw a message from Tessa. It would be late morning in Chicago now:

“Hey, Dad. How is Japan going?”

“Great!” Barry typed back. “I got the big contract. The one I told you about.”

Almost immediately Tessa replied: “Congratulations!”

“Thanks, Tess!”

She sent back a smiley-face emoji, her usual manner of concluding a conversation.

He sent a smiley-face emoji in return.

Barry put his phone away. He now wondered what he was going to do—or not—about the woman at the bar.

The smile might have been nothing more than her reflexive, impersonal way of greeting a stranger. But she had also sent him the glass of champagne. There was nothing reflexive or impersonal about that. That had been a clear signal.

Barry didn’t think that the woman was associated with the Japanese yakuza. Nevertheless, there was something to what Nagase had said: about all of this being too good to be true. Barry had had women flirt with him in bars over the years; but none had ever sent him a drink. Possibly the woman was a professional. In that case, she would have regarded the drink as a business expense.

What if she was a pro? Was he willing to go that route? He had never gone down that road before. Unlike some men, Barry Lawson had never had the need, had always had plenty of other options.

He realized that he was getting a little ahead of himself.

He also saw the irony in the juxtaposition of the text from his daughter, and his plans to seduce a strange woman in a bar—to take her back to his room tonight, if at all possible.

But what could he do with his guilt, except wallow in it? Barry loved his daughter—and his son, Ryan. He also regretted the way things had gone with Joyce, all those years ago.

Mostly because of the things that he had done. The mistakes he had made.

But the past was the past, and the here and now were the here and now. Although he could see a certain logic behind the concept of sexual penance, the fact was that all the self-denial in the world couldn’t undo the mistakes he had already made.

And what about Nagase’s misgivings? Barry respected his Japanese colleague, and felt indebted to him. Nagase, along with Sato, had indeed made the biggest deal of his career possible.

But Nagase was no expert on the Japanese mafia. No more than he was an expert on American organized crime. And tonight, at least, Nagase had shown himself to be something of a worrywart.

Maybe Nagase had even had ulterior motives. Not all Japanese men were comfortable with gaijin—foreigners—who came to Japan with designs on their women. There was a long history of such interactions, with plenty of resentment and cultural baggage attached. In the days immediately following World War II,  an American GI could buy the favors of a Japanese pan-pan girl for the price of a pack of Lucky Strikes. One of Barry’s uncles, long since deceased, had been a soldier in the postwar Occupation, and Barry still remembered his stories.

So who knew what Nagase had really been thinking?

Moreover: How many more years did he have of flirting with women in bars, with any reasonable chance of success? How long before he became one of those desperate, pathetic older men who don’t realize that young women can see them as nothing but father and grandfather figures? How many serendipitous moments like this were left to him?

He was forty-seven years old, after all. Barry’s father had been an old man at fifty—and dead by fifty-five of a heart attack. Barry still remembered his father’s funeral, during his freshman year of college.

The woman at the bar wouldn’t sit there forever, and he had already kept her waiting long enough.

It was time to make a move, Barry decided. It was now…or it was never.

Chapter 5

Barry stood from the table where he, Sato, and Nagase had had their celebratory dinner. There was every reason to believe that the woman at the bar would be open to his advances.

But a few pertinent questions remained.

Did the woman at the bar speak English? Barry had no idea. The Japanese could fool you that way. On one hand, there were Japanese wait staff like Mayumi, who could hold forth on Faulkner and Hemingway. On the other hand, the vice president of Yukimura, a major Japanese corporation, could barely bungle out a basic greeting in English. 

Barry quickly closed the distance between his table and the bar. He approached the woman from the side, so as not to startle her.

When he leaned into her field of vision, she looked up at him, and smiled again.

She was even prettier up close.

“Hajimemashite. Watashi no namae wa Barry Lawson desu.”

This was a very basic Japanese greeting. A pleasure to make your acquaintance. My name is Barry Lawson.

She clapped her hands twice, delighted with his Japanese. But Barry was relieved to learn that he wasn’t going to have to continue with his limited skills in that language.

“My name is Keiko. Keiko Yamada,” she said. Her English was accented, but she was clearly comfortable with it.

“My name is Barry. Barry Lawson.”

“So you said. Why don’t you have a seat, Mr. Barry Lawson?”

Barry sat on the barstool beside her.

“Thank you for the champagne,” he said.

“Japan is a friendly country,” she said. “We can’t let any foreigners go thirsty, can we?”

Barry considered the double entendre that she might—or might not—have intended.

“I suppose not. Anyway. Let me return the favor. Your glass is just about empty.”

Barry motioned at the bartender—a young Japanese man wearing black trousers, a starched white shirt, and bowtie.

“One more for the lady,” Barry said. “And I’ll have one of whatever she’s having myself.”

 

***

They went through the normal rituals of two strangers meeting at a bar. Barry told her that he was a marketing consultant. (He resisted the urge to say international marketing consultant. That would have sounded bombastic. And it was obvious, anyway, given that he was here in Japan, and he had just signed a contract with a major Japanese company.)

“Sounds impressive,” Keiko said.

“And what about you?”

“I’m a freelance translator and interpreter.”

The conversation went back and forth like that for a while. Polite and not too intimate. Barry kept a discreet eye on the clock above the bar. 

He was approaching another decision point, he knew.

As was she.

***

Barry glanced at his watch. It was now ten o’clock.

There were no more introductory pleasantries to be exchanged. They knew as much about each other as was reasonable for a first conversation at a bar.

Now they had to do something. In most cases, this would mean exchanging phone numbers, with promises for a follow-up date—a real date.

But Barry knew how things worked. He would never see Keiko again. Now that the contract with Yukimura was signed, he would return to Japan in perhaps three or four months. Maybe once again three or four months after that. The bulk of his work for the Japanese company had to be done stateside, where its American target customers were.

There was no way he could hope to begin a relationship with Keiko—no matter how appealing that prospect might seem.

The question then, was: Would he spend the night with her—or would she leave him soon, with nothing more between them but a half-hour’s worth of pleasant conversation?

Ask her now, he thought. What was the worst thing that could happen?

On one hand, she could make a show of being offended. She might possibly even do something dramatic, like throw her drink in his face.

But probably not. The worst likely outcome here was that she would simply say no.

Then Barry’s evening would end as planned—with him sleeping alone in his hotel room.

All right, then. Out with it.

“Keiko, I don’t know exactly how to say this, but I’m going to try. I’ve really enjoyed my time with you tonight. But I’m leaving for Chicago tomorrow morning. And so all we have is tonight…What I’m wondering is, would you do me the pleasure of accompanying me back to my hotel room?”

She smiled and placed her hand over her mouth.

“Why—Mister Barry. I believe you do know how to say that.”

“I know it’s sudden,” he said. “But I really like you. And—if I may say so, you seem to like me as well.”

Otherwise, you wouldn’t have sent me a glass of champagne, he thought, but did not say.

“Go on, Mister Barry.”

“I have a room two floors down, on the eighth floor of this hotel. Go there with me. Please.”

She did not respond, but looked down at the bar.

“I’ve offended you,” he said.

“No—not that.”

“I’ve moved too fast, then.”

“No—not that, either.”

“What, then?”

“It—it is not possible,” she said. “I cannot go with you to your hotel room. I cannot.”

He wondered if Keiko was simply playing hard to get—if maybe she wanted to be convinced.

But then she said: “I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about.”

“I simply can’t do it.”

Barry nodded. He was not above propositioning a woman. But he was also a good sport when some of them inevitably said no.

“I understand, Keiko.” He shrugged. “No harm in asking, right? But anyway. It is getting late, and I have that flight to catch in the morning. I want to thank you again for the glass of champagne. That was a lovely gesture.”

He started to slide off his barstool. He could not avoid a quick look at her exposed olive skin, her high cheekbones, her taut cleavage. Everything that he would be missing out on tonight.

But she said no—so drop it.

“Wait a minute,” she said, before he’d slipped completely off the stool. She laid her bare hand on his.

Her skin was soft, and warm to the touch. Barry felt a little flood of heat go through him.

“Have you changed your mind, then?”

“I said that I couldn’t go with you to your room, Mister Barry. But there is a very specific reason for that. My brother, you see, he works at this hotel as a porter—a bellhop.”

“I see,” Barry said.

“If he were to see me enter the hotel room of a strange man—a foreign man who is not my husband…”

“Of course.”

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be together tonight, though.”

“Okay,” Barry said. Time for Plan B, he thought.

In Japan, he knew, there were hotels that marketed themselves specifically for romantic trysts. (This was another little tidbit of Japanese culture that Nagase and Sato had shared.) The Japanese called them rabu-hoteru or “love hotels”. Although they were obviously used for extramarital flings and hook-ups with prostitutes, not all the sex that went on at these places was illicit. According to Sato, married Japanese couples living in cramped, multigenerational homes sometimes resorted to the rabu-hoteru when they wanted some privacy.

But where would one find such a place? And how long would that take?

“We could go to another hotel,” Barry suggested tentatively.

Keiko frowned a little at that suggestion. What’s wrong? Barry thought. Have I finally offended her?

“I don’t want to go to a place like that,” she said.

“All right. That’s okay. Then….”

“Actually,” she brightened, “I have a flat—an apartment—not far from here. We could go there.”

***

Barry now had yet another decision to make.

He had to awaken early tomorrow morning in order to catch his flight. Taking Keiko back to his room was one thing. A boondoggle outside the hotel was another.

If he spent the night at her place, he would need to catch a taxi back to the Ichiryu Hotel first thing in the morning.

Then he would need to pack, check out, and catch another taxi to the Osaka International Airport.

But then again: What was the worst thing that could happen? He would miss his flight, and catch another one out later in the afternoon. Not ideal—but not the end of the world, either.

Barry strongly suspected that Keiko’s story of a brother who worked in the hotel was a fabrication. If she was ever-conscious of her brother’s all-seeing eyes, then what was she doing here, at the bar of that very same hotel?

He could have challenged her over this contradiction. He decided not to. Women often had their own indecipherable, idiosyncratic reasons for doing things—just like men did.

Maybe the idea of a tryst in a hotel room simply struck her as cheap, sleazy.

“You want us to go to your apartment, then?”

She smiled and nodded. “It is not far from here.”

“Sure, Keiko,” Barry said. “Let’s go to your apartment.”

Chapter 6

But, of course, even that wouldn’t be so simple.

When he agreed to accompany Keiko to her apartment, Barry had assumed that they would go down to the lobby together and hail a taxi.

Keiko, however, stipulated that they meet outside the hotel. (Once again, she cited concerns about her brother who worked as the bellhop.)

“Wait for me on the west side of the hotel,” Keiko told him. “The back side, facing the wharf district. I’ll be there shortly.”

***

And so now, fifteen minutes later, Barry was waiting on a sidewalk on the dark, west side of the hotel.

It was lonely back here. There wasn’t much in the way of either vehicle or pedestrian traffic. When he looked down the street toward the east, he could see the glow of a main thoroughfare. But there wasn’t much going on back here, on the west side. 

His cell phone chimed again. Tessa.

“Still awake, Dad?”

Barry looked toward the hotel. No sign of Keiko yet.

“Yep,” he texted back to his daughter. “Going to bed soon, though.”

“Be careful over there.”

“Don’t worry, Tess. Japan is a safe country. I’ll be fine.”

“Famous last words.” This was accompanied with an emoji of a smiling face.

“Hey, we’re still on for lunch this Saturday, right?” Barry texted. He had a standing Saturday lunch date with his two children. Tessa showed up religiously. Ryan, not so much. Ryan never outright refused—but he always seemed to have some convenient excuse.

“Absolutely!” Tessa fired back.

Barry thought for a moment, then added. “Why don’t you encourage your brother to come this week? If you can, that is.”

Barry felt a little guilty, putting Tessa on the spot like that. But he also knew that in practical terms, she had more leverage over Ryan than he did.

Barry and Ryan weren’t exactly estranged. Both went through the pro forma motions of being father and son (albeit father and son within the context of a divorce). Ryan was exceptionally well behaved for a fourteen year-old. There was no teenage rebellion, no sullenness or angry recriminations.

Nevertheless, Barry had the consistent sense that his son was avoiding him.

Ryan seemed to prefer the company of Mike Royer, Joyce’s second husband. Though only a freshman in high school, had already expressed a desire to become a history teacher.

Just like Mike.

“I’ll definitely put a bug in his ear!’ she texted back.

Okay. I’ll see you Saturday, then. Over and out!”

“Good night, Dad!”

Barry felt a little stab of guilt as he pocketed his phone. If Tessa knew what kind of a good night he was planning, what would his daughter think?

***

Fifteen minutes, later, Keiko still hadn’t shown up.

Barry now realized what Keiko had done: She had led him on a wild goose chase, in retaliation for his presumptuousness and his lechery.

She had resented the fact that he, a brash American foreigner, had assumed that he could simply pick up a woman at a hotel bar and spend the night with her.

Who did he think he was?

Of course, Barry realized that plenty of men did that—or they wanted to, at least. Nevertheless, there would be plenty of women who would find such behavior objectionable, even offensive.

Several of Barry’s friends had reported women giving them fake phone numbers at bars. It was a way of quickly getting rid of a man who was pushy, or obnoxious, or who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

It was also a way of getting the last laugh. One of Barry’s friends had admitted that when he called the number a woman had given him in a bar, it connected to the division of the Chicago Police Department that specialized in sex crimes.

Why, then, had Keiko sent the glass of champagne? Who knew? Maybe she had planned all this from the beginning. Perhaps another American man had broken her heart, and Barry had seemed a convenient proxy for revenge.

Who knew, indeed?

Barry looked at his watch: It was late. But there was still time for him to return to his hotel room, and get most of a full night’s sleep.

He was just starting back to the hotel, when he heard a female voice call out:

“Mister Barry!”

It was Keiko. She was still wearing her evening dress, but she had changed her shoes. Gone were the high heels she had been wearing at the restaurant. Now she was wearing low-soled black shoes that were a cross between sneakers and slippers.

“Sorry I’m late!” she said, rushing up to him.

“I was about to give up on you,” Barry admitted.

“I was always planning to be here,” she insisted.

“And now you’re here,” Barry said. He looked around the darkened street. He didn’t see any sign of a taxi. “I’m afraid we’ll have to go to the front of the hotel, or at least closer in that direction, in order to catch a taxi.”

She looked at him as if he had just made an unspeakably absurd suggestion.

“No, no, Mister Barry. We don’t need to do that.”

“But—didn’t you want to take a taxi?”

“We don’t need a taxi,” she said. “My apartment isn’t very far. Come on! Follow me!”

“Wait—”

Keiko started across the dark, empty street before Barry could ask further questions or make any protest.

When she was halfway across, she turned around to find him still standing on the sidewalk.

“Come on, Mister Barry!” she called out. “Don’t you want to make love to me?”

 

Chapter 7

But her apartment wasn’t close. He followed her across the street, and down a side street immediately on the other side.

Then he followed her down another side street.

On both sides of him were the sorts of businesses that shut down during the nighttime hours. Warehouses and industrial repair shops. A few small factories.

All of the windows were dark.

Barry was neither Japanese nor a native of Osaka. But he knew a residential area when he saw one.

This was no residential area.

There was no way, he realized, that a young woman like Keiko would have an apartment in this section of town.

They had been walking for the better part of ten minutes when Barry finally protested.

“Stop,” he said.

Responding to his command, she stopped.

“What is it, Mister Barry?”

“What’s going on here, Keiko? You tell me that your apartment is practically across the street, yet we’ve been walking for ten minutes. And this neighborhood—I don’t think a single woman would want to live in a place like this. Even in a safe country like Japan.”

“My apartment isn’t very far from here, Mr. Barry.”

“No, Keiko. I’ve gone far enough. I don’t know what is going on here, exactly, but something isn’t right.”

I should have listened to Nagase, he thought.

“Not much farther Mister—”

“No, Keiko. I’m sorry. I’m going back. Enough is enough.”

Then she leaned into him. He could feel her body through her black evening dress. She was just the right combination of softness and firmness.

She kissed his neck. When he tried to bring his mouth to hers, she gently pushed him away.

“Not in the middle of the street, Mister Barry!”

If I were a wiser man, Barry thought, I would simply go back. I know that something is not right about this.

But Barry Lawson knew that he was often not a wiser man. Hadn’t his past mistakes proven as much?

“All right, Keiko. Not much farther, you say?”

“Not much farther, Mister Barry.”

***

Five minutes later, Keiko said, “Okay, Mister Barry. We’re here!”

Barry looked around. He couldn’t see any building that vaguely resembled a residential apartment building.

“Where?” he asked.

Now Keiko started running.

Barry suddenly remembered her changing into those black slippers of hers.

There was an alley just up ahead, immediately to their right.

Keiko rounded the corner.

And she was suddenly out of sight.

“I’ll be damned,” Barry said. He walked up to the edge of the dark alley. He looked around the corner.

The alley was dark. The street apparently made numerous twists and turns, so that he could only see a short distance ahead. There the alley branched into two separate alleys.

Keiko might have gone down either one of them.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Barry said aloud—to himself, not to Keiko.

But then he called out to Keiko as well. He had no idea where she was, or if his words would carry to her. But he felt compelled to make the effort.

“All right, Keiko! You got me! You wanted to pull a prank on a silly American? Well, you did it! Congratulations! Mission accomplished!”

There was no response. Had he really expected one?

What now? Barry thought.

There was really nothing to do but go back the way he had come—the way that Keiko had led him.

Barry Lawson had grown up in Chicago. He wasn’t intimidated by cities. Nevertheless, finding his way back to the Ichiryu Hotel might be a bit of a challenge. If he was lucky, he would happen upon a taxi, though he hadn’t noticed any journeying into this district.

“Fuck you, Keiko,” Barry said under his breath. “You scheming, crazy bitch.”

Then he laughed at himself. This had been a wild goose chase, indeed. And it would make a good story, too—once he was back in the United States.

He had lost time, but no substantial harm had been done to him. Keiko had cost him an hour or so of sleep. Nothing more.

It also occurred to him that he owed Nagase an apology. Nagase hadn’t called this situation exactly right. Keiko wasn’t affiliated with the yakuza. But Nagase had been right about one thing: The gorgeous woman at the bar hadn’t been what she seemed.

“An elaborate prank,” he said, as he turned around. “A very elaborate prank.” Then he thought: It will be a long time before I proposition another strange woman in a bar.

And the next time a strange woman sends me a drink in a bar, I’ll be skeptical. Another thing Nagase was right about: If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

Barry turned around and began his walk back.

If I’m careful, I can be back in less than thirty minutes, he thought.

A second later, Barry knew that something was very, very wrong.

He heard the footsteps immediately behind him. They were heavy and advancing on him quickly.

These weren’t Keiko’s footsteps, either.

Barry started to whirl around. But someone grabbed both of his arms from behind. A steel vise-grip yanked his shoulders backward.

“Ow! What?” he struggled.

At the same time, a black hood descended over his eyes, and then his entire head.

Everything went completely dark. But still he struggled.

There was a chemical smell inside the hood.

Chloroform, perhaps?

Barry suddenly felt very light-headed. The chemical was overcoming his adrenalin.

He now realized that Nagase was more right than he could have imagined. Keiko was not only something other than what she pretended to be—she was part of something very dangerous.

I should have listened to you, Nagase-san.

This was Barry’s last coherent thought before darkness overtook him.

End of preview chapters…

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