“I murder for a living,” he said, “but my true passions are travel and alcohol.” He reached for the saucer of sake, but I grabbed it first.
“Let’s follow the local Kochi drinking ceremony,” I said. “It’s called henpai. Raise your cup, and I’ll pour the sake, and then lift it slightly when you want me to stop.” He followed my directions, large hands gracefully motioning for me to end the flow of hot wine. He drank it with both hands and sighed.
“Now wipe the rim of the cup and hand it to me,” I explained.
“And we repeat this until one of us is too sloshed to continue? This is a tradition I can get behind.” He poured for me, and I explained some of the subtleties of henpai, how it also served as a way to get people up and trading seats during drinking nights in Japan. Tonight the tradition gave me a moment to breathe, to look at his face and determine whether he was serious.
Edmond Sallow was a middle-aged man with thinning hair. It was blonde-red, blending in with his skin, only becoming substantial enough to notice as it grew behind his ears into a ponytail. He had sparse facial hair, again hard to distinguish from his skin in the dim light of the bar. Some excess weight was visible in his face, and his teeth were crooked. In short, he was not an attractive man, but as he talked to me he smiled so freely and gestured so oddly that an energy within him slowly overtook any inhibition I had. He drank the sake with relish, his eyes alight with the intellectual curiosity of a connoisseur.
“I meant it as a joke when I told you I was the most interesting man in Kochi province,” I said, gesturing that I had had enough booze for now with a shaking hand.
He smiled and nodded, and sat back in his chair as the alcohol brought red to his face and glazed his eyes. “Did you say most interesting?” he asked. “I thought you said loneliest.” He reached out and touched the tips of my fingers.
“I certainly stand out,” I continued. “A tall, gay mystery writer with flawless Japanese. But if you truly are a murder, I’m afraid I have lost my title.”
He shook his head with a frown. “Your title is safe. I’ll be on my way to Ehime in a few months, and then Okinawa will end my tour of Japan.” The two men drinking at the booth beside us turned at the mention of the neighboring prefecture, perhaps the only word they could catch in our rapid English. “The truth is, despite my bravado, I’m a bit of an introvert. After tonight’s drunken festivities, I’ll have to hole up alone for a few days, snacking and reading. Maybe I’ll read one of your books! Tell me, how did a tall, gay, and award-winning mystery author come to reside in this rural province of Japan?”
“I passed by here when I did the henro seven years ago, and for some reason when I returned home I couldn’t write anymore,” I said. “So I flew back to Kochi. I try to say yes to everything that intrigues me. Life takes strange turns if you do.”
I had met Edmond by the ocean in Tosa City. He did not look like a pilgrim on the henro. The henro is a walking tour of shrines on Shikoku island: 1,200 kilometers, eighty-eight shrines, an average of sixty days to complete it. The pilgrims hail from everywhere. Most are Japanese, but others come internationally. This month I met a withered woman with crows-feet by her eyes, a young man of Mexican descent, two white women who seemed fresh out of college, and Edmond. The others were travel worn, wearing straw hats and wielding walking sticks. By contrast, Edmond had no protection against the sun, wore dress shoes, and didn’t look like he could climb the steps to the temples, let alone circumnavigate an island. He piqued my interest, and I offered to buy him a drink in town, as I sometimes do after chatting up pilgrims. It’s nice to be with other people who stand out, to spend time with other pieces of driftwood lost at sea.
“Tell me about being a murderer,” I said. “At length.”
He had told me how some Italian families made their own limoncello, about the taste of haggis in Scotland, and the enormous bins of chapati flour in pantries in New Delhi.
“I don’t murder people,” he said. “Or at least, not homo sapiens, I suppose.”
The elderly bar owner told us it was last call for drinks. I thanked her and Edmond continued. “The creatures I kill—what would you call them? Baku, I think is the word in Japanese. There’s a different word in every language. Very similar to vampires, really. I call them Night Hags.”
The bottles lined against the wall glinted in the amber light of the room. I could see the reflection of us in the glass wall of our booth, the bartender, and the few remaining customers. At the mention of “vampire,” I recalled myself as a young child, watching the mirrors in our home in case a visitor didn’t cast a reflection, checking under my bed before I fell asleep.
“They are hardly ghouls, though,” he said. “When they are well fed, they look remarkably similar to humans. The best way I’ve found to understand them is to think of them as human, but with two primary differences. The first is that they know instantly and magnetically where an unlocked door is. The second is that, when they wish to be alone, humans are repelled by them, instinctively hiding in meek silence from the sight of the Night Hag. Their victims are not repelled enough to flee; something keeps them trapped in their own house. These two differences lead to a variety of differences between the two species, most important of which is that they rarely nurture their young for as long as humans.”
“And why do you kill these creatures?” I was slightly dizzy from the drink, and the narrow, poorly lit bar made me put aside my disbelief.
He drained the last of the sake. After examining me, he asked, “You, who says yes to everything—would you like to see me do it? Learn a little about sorry creatures that don’t fit in their world?”
Without my noticing, the music in the bar had stopped, and the other customers had left. I could hear the rain outside on the quiet streets, and see the bartender patiently watch us with her arms behind her back. “I’ll go,” I told Edmond. I paid for our drinks and food, and we left into the dark of Kochi’s streets. I looked at my watch as the hour hand ticked to one.
Kochi was menacing at these early hours. Unlike Tokyo or Toronto, the rural town was a corpse at night.
“You have to understand how much those two differences between Night Hags and humans affect their behavior. Imagine finding yourself, a young boy alone in the world, abandoned at an early age to fend for yourself, but with so many dwellings open to your pillaging.
“Night Hags learn to hate humans. They see more differences between the two species than perhaps there are. But a human has a home, and a misguided sense of safety and rootedness, while a Night Hag never knows whose house they will be living in tomorrow. Every day for a Night Hag is about surviving. A human builds a life to protect themselves from the harsh elements outside, whereas a Night Hag has to flee from the rain and snow into another’s house.
“And food—a Night Hag is obsessed with sustenance. They are amazed at how few calories humans need. They are under the illusion that their metabolisms are different from humans, in constant need of nutrients and energy. My theory, though, is that our metabolisms are the same, but when a human engages with food, it is done in a steady stream. Humans earn a salary, spend some of it at the grocery store every week, and budget three meals a day. The Night Hag, who has stolen everything since they were a child, never knows where or what their next meal will be, and their body reacts by feasting when there is food available. Modern humans never feel true hunger, and it gives them the margin for empathy.”
Across a muddy field a figure was illuminated by a streetlight. Streetlights dim and sparse in Kochi unlike more metropolitan cities. It was a man, the hollows of his eyes dark, perhaps too drunk to walk, staring unabashedly.
“Night Hags also believe that they reproduce at a slower rate than humans, and find it disgusting the way humans and their houses and roads have multiplied and filled the planet. I believe that Night Hags could reproduce at the same rate only if they were as promiscuous as humans, and developed the maturity to take care of their young. But a life in the shadows has made all but the rarest Night Hag emotionally stunted.”
“And you kill these things for money?”
There was a flash of anger in his blue eyes, and he walked ahead of me. But it didn’t feel like he was running from me; it felt like for a brief moment he was keeping himself from hitting me.
“Have I offended you?” I asked. “I’m terribly sorry.”
He stopped, closed his eyes, and collected himself. “You have been in this country for longer than I. You’ve seen exhausted businessmen sleeping in their starched white shirts on trains. You’ve seen clerks with eyes dead from boredom standing behind the registers of convenience stores. You’ve seen young girls dressed up as french maids to be objectified by drunk men in seedy bars. There is no job that isn’t contemptible, because work and money are just abstractions of that desperate instinct from deep within our lizard brains to survive! Survive! Always survive! I find it pathetic. I’d rather you see me naked and passing a stool than think of me as someone who abandons the finer things in life to work for money. But yes, I confiscate a bit of what the Night Hags have stolen from their victims. My targets never have friends or family to complain when they—and their cash—disappear.”
“Someone I knew once said that all work was inherently dignified,” I whispered, but like so many of my thoughts, it was lost to the quiet traffic of the Kochi night.
With an air of authority, he stepped into the vestibule of an apartment. Illuminated by light bulbs, it was like a different world from the drizzly, dark scene outside. Kochi city was flat, surrounded by dark mountains shooting straight up, trapping the citizens. We climbed four flights, and passed identical green doors before Edmond tried one. It gave, and he walked into a stranger’s apartment.
The foyer was black, and enclosed from the living room by a Japanese screen. I could hear the muffled sounds of someone rattling pots in the kitchen. Something fell to the floor, and there was momentary silence. My breathing seemed loud. It felt wrong to walk into someone’s house without an invitation, and with my shoes on at that. I knelt down next to a collection of women’s shoes and boots in the mudway, but I could not move beyond that.
“Take your shoes off,” Edmond quietly commanded. “You’re feeling the effect of the Night Hag. It’s in there, eating, and wants to be alone, so you instinctively desire to hide from it. Don’t let it trick you.”
I swallowed and took my shoes off, placing my damp socks on a stranger’s hardwood floor. Edmond slid the screen open and revealed the interior room.
I had never seen someone’s apartment so unguarded. There was a pile on the floor composed of a small towel, a phone, and an empty water bottle. Two slippers lay apart from each other, and sitting pillows were haphazardly thrown about the room. If the owner had known guests were coming, they might have organized the mess in less than a minute, but here it was, a mild embarrassment that I was peeping in on.
The floorboards under me creaked, and the sounds from the other room paused again. Had it heard us?
“Behind you,” said Edmond quietly.
He pointed to a large, dark-red wardrobe. Its bottom drawer was open, spilling socks and underwear on the floor. I could hear breathing coming from inside the wardrobe, though it was faint.
“Look inside,” Edmond encouraged. “Go on.”
Mastering my shaking hands, I gripped the door and with a creak it opened. Inside was a woman, maybe fifty years old. She was dressed in a nightgown, curled with her knees poking into her chest so she would fit in the wardrobe. Her head was turned away from us, neck straining as she looked into the wooden walls. She quivered and spasmed under our gaze. Her finger tapped against the back of the wardrobe as she desperately tried to distract herself. She was ghastly pale, with cracked, chalky lips. How long had she been in there dying of thirst?
I carefully touched her arm, and she wriggled in protest before giving up and panting like a wounded animal. I tried to speak to her in Japanese, but she only muttered in reply. Eventually I caught a whispered, “Close the door, please.” I did. I stood, listening to her quiet, anguished breaths.
I thought, for a brief insane instant, how much I would like to join her in there.
“Will she be okay after you kill that thing?” I asked.
“Okay, okay,” Edmond seemed to agree. His eager hands were on the door to the kitchen, and he pulled it open.
The room was lit with fluorescent lights. Every cabinet and drawer was open. The creature was cross-legged on the floor, eating from a bag of cereal with its hands. The small flakes were falling onto the floor of the kitchen, which was filthy with crumbs. There were apple cores, peels of oranges, rice kernels that had been cooked but had dried again, and stains from sauces and condiments. It had visible ribs, and long, matted-brown hair. Its complexion was grayish-brown, like the sun had burnt and scarred it. Whereas its victim had been cowering and shocked at our presence, the Night Hag furrowed its brow in instant rage. It lept at Edmond, who despite his age and weight, deftly drew a kitchen knife from his bag and sprang forward. I closed my eyes too late to miss the blow, and opened them only after the creature had stopped sputtering for air.
It had bled out onto the floor, a rich red river mixing with refuse from its dirty feasts.
I heaved, as if someone had hit me in the stomach. The smell of rotting garbage in the room made me gag again, and this time I vomited, with the acid and alcohol rushing through my nose. In its dying breaths the Night Hag had desperately wanted to be alone, and being in the same room with it still tightened my throat and rattled my head.
I had felt something when the knife entered its chest. I had an acute unrest, a longing to run, and yet, oddest thing, I hadn’t wanted to run outside, into the large world and the unknown night. I desired to pull into myself, to find some small dark place I could disappear into, where the dread the creature caused might still be endless, but less intense. When I lived in Canada, some mornings had been so cold that I couldn’t bring myself to leave my bed to turn up the heat or find another blanket. That was the kind of terror the Night Hag produced: never so urgent to make you leave.
Edmond was rifling through its pockets. “Nothing,” he said. He looked, disapproving at the corpse below him. “They are a little like humans in that each has their own personality. This one was young, desperate, and particularly unused to civilization. Look at the trash on the floor!” I gazed dutifully—it was a relief to focus on something else, anything else. There were sticky egg shells, raw meat by the fridge, and orange peels curling up brown and wrinkly. The room had the recognizable smell that spoiled food always converges to.
I forced myself to look at Edmond. His lip was upturned as he watched the corpse, still leaking crimson pools of blood. No longer animated by an animal-like ferocity, the Night Hag seemed to be a small, sick boy, no older than seventeen. There was a cold contempt in Edmond’s eye, and when I recalled how dismissive he was about the woman in the wardrobe, I wondered which was the real Edmond: was it the warm man who had shared a drink with me, who had squeezed my shoulder when I said I felt so out of place in Japan, but so desperate not to leave? Or was it this unmerciful butcher?
“Will she be all right?” I asked, looking out of the bright kitchen into the dim living room, where the woman was still trapping herself in the wardrobe.
“I imagine she’ll have quite the weekend cleaning,” Edmond said. “But she’ll live. Thanks to us.”
Unlike the creature, we turned out the lights in the kitchen and closed all the drawers before leaving the house. I must have been shaking tremendously, because Edmond would occasionally reach his arm around me, wrapping me into him like he was a large coat.
“Are you prepared to do another one? I suspect there are one or two more Night Hags in this city, and I need a better return if I’m to continue my travels in Japan.”
I couldn’t respond. My thoughts felt like they were slowed down, as if I were walking through a windy tunnel and couldn’t see ahead of me.
“Don’t look at me like that!” he said. “I told you in confidence that I was embarrassed by the pecuniary nature of my venture!”
I wanted to tell him that all work was dignified, but the words caught in my mouth, and his boisterous laughter cut me off. “I know that you’re rattled, but will you come or not?” he said.
Our crosswalk turned red. If I were to go home now, I could try to forget about the whole evening, return to my small tatami room with its yawning space heater and stained ceiling—to my quiet life of aloneness. At the thought of the word “alone,” the image of the quivering woman in the wardrobe flashed in my mind.
“Yes,” I said finally. “We must rescue the others.” Edmond smiled, lips closed, and after a few steps he began humming.
“She forgot to lock her door?” I said after several blocks. “And that thing somehow knew and found her?”
“You want to know what the experience is for the victim?” asked Edmond. “How morbid! It goes something like this: you wake up in the middle of the night, and you are gripped with fear. ‘Did I lock my door? Could I have left the bathwater running?’ It’s a silly, irrational thought. You try to turn over in bed, but you cannot sleep, even though your eyes ache with exhaustion. So you get up. You turn on the light in your bathroom, and the water is not dripping. You turn off the light, and suddenly the world is darker than before; your eyes need to readjust. When they do somewhat, you stumble to your front door, tripping on shoes in the hall, and check the lock. It was open. How long had it been unlocked? You bolt it, you chide yourself, you feel ashamed that you could have been so forgetful, but now you can sleep. You turn around and there is a dark figure watching you. You back away into the corner, behind your coat rack, and the figure moves into the kitchen. You stay there for a few days. Your legs scream with pain from squatting, your own waste pools beneath you, your mind goes delirious, you know nothing but thirst, yet you are too petrified to move.
"Or maybe you are coming home from the train, walking through the lonely night. You put your key into the lock, but when you turn it left nothing happens. You turn it right, and the door locks, as it should have done when you left the house that afternoon. You open the door. Briefly you fear that the flat will be ransacked, that an enterprising thief will have taken everything of value. Inside nothing is changed, but your fear does not abate. You run to your bedroom, hide under the bed, and stay there, listening to someone rout in your kitchen for a day, a weekend, or longer.”
A feral cat with large, yellow eyes watched us with suspicion as we climbed the steps to another apartment complex. From the fourth floor, the city below was lifeless save for the sound of a nearby river stream. The door of a corner apartment opened without resistance. The bathroom lay directly ahead of the entryway, light on, a red room with toilet and tub. I realized I had to pee, and walked right in, as if it had been expecting me. When I finished, I felt a churning in my stomach, and a light-headedness. I crept into the bath and drew the shower curtain, feeling the cool porcelain on my shoulder as I curled into a ball.
I was having trouble catching my breath, and I lay there, just trying to breathe for several minutes until I heard someone enter and pull back the curtain. My heart might have exploded from fear then.
“Dammit, man, you’ve let the Night Hag affect you! Pull yourself together. If I hadn’t been here, who knows how long you would have stayed, licking drops of water from the drain to stay alive.” He pulled me to my feet. Shame mixed with my fear, though my breath was returning to me.
We entered a living room, neater than the last one. There was the sound of clinking utensils and frying in the other room, as well as a drone that sounded like—could it be?—humming. An unrecognizable song on a pentatonic musical scale.
Edmond opened the door to a pitch black bedroom. There was a ghastly smell—something pungent, too musky, with a hint of nauseating sweetness. I had never smelled it before, but a deep instinct within me recognized it. Edmond walked in, closed the door, and came back out seconds later.
“Best not look in there,” he whispered with a cough. “The family is rotting under their bed.” He reached into his bag and brought out a pistol, black and heavy, an object that screamed death.
“Devilishly hard to find one of these in Japan,” he said in a low voice. “But quite necessary. This Night Hag is rather more intelligent than the last. More human. That makes him dangerous. The ones who develop a kind of charisma—they can manipulate humans. They live longer, they become ever more sophisticated about how they steal, and they are not squeamish about killing. ”
He slowly opened the door to the kitchen and the smell of frying garlic, onions, and fresh tomatoes wafted out with the sound of sizzling. Inside was a young man, handsome and clean-shaven, though his clothes were second-hand and didn’t fit him well.
“Leave me alone, I’m cooking,” the man commanded in a thick Kochi dialect, and my legs spasmed with the urge to flee, to hide under the bed, even with its rot. But Edmond slammed the door behind me and raised the pistol.
The man looked up, confused. He had short, curly hair and eyes so black his pupils were indistinguishable from his irises.
“I said,” the creature repeated slowly, head tilted, as if fascinated, “leave me alone.” I fumbled with the door behind me, legs about to collapse.
I had to crawl out of there. I needed to squirm into that bedroom and stay with the corpses until I could breathe again. But Edmond grabbed me by my collar and I couldn’t.
“What’s it saying?” he asked.
“GO!” The creature bellowed, perhaps the only word he knew in English. I felt warmth in my pants, and my legs scurried under me like a broken marionette, but Edmond had a locked fist by my shirt, and I couldn’t escape. I tried to beg him to release me, but only guttural, animal cries came out of my mouth.
The creature grabbed the kitchen knife from the cutting board, still dripping with tomato juices. His pitch-black eyes darted over Edmond.
“Who are you?” the monster asked, taking a step forward. His slow approach was the caution of a predator.
“Stay back,” said Edmond, no emotion in the warning. “Tell him that I don’t want to fight. I’ll just take his money and go. A simple mugging.”
I didn’t realize that Edmond was talking to me until he kicked me in the shins. I tried to relay the message, my Japanese broken and mispronounced in terror.
“Come, eat breakfast with me,” said the Night Hag, just the slightest quaver in his voice. “Tell me how you two foreigners ended up in Kochi.”
“Breakfast,” I gasped, tears leaking from my face. “He wants to have breakfast with us.”
I felt the smallest spasm of relief, as if the urge to flee was a hook in my heart, and the Night Hag had let his fishing line go slack. But Edmond’s face darkened at the mention of breakfast.
“It’s lying. I don’t like that. Tell it no tricks!” Edmond said. I just looked up at him in confusion, his pistol still pointed unflinchingly at the Night Hag. “He wants to be alone when he binges as much as his victims want to flee from him. He’s never eaten in front of other people in his life before! He doesn’t know how to!”
The creature looked at me, eyes wide, when I couldn’t explain what Edmond had said.
He murmured in Japanese, “You thieving bastard.” And then he lunged at us. There were two explosions, so loud the world became stone silent, until a painful ringing began, and the Night Hag fell with holes in his head and chest.
Edmond bent down and patted the front pockets of the corpse’s jeans. There he found a wallet with hundreds of thousands of yen folded inside.
“Would you like some?” he asked.
I hiccuped with fear and managed to shake my head. He pocketed the money.
“We should leave,” he said. “Immediately.”
I can't tell you how we got out of the apartment complex, but I found myself running with Edmond through Kochi city. It was daybreak, and the rain had stopped, but dark clouds and the mountains still hid the first light of dawn. Each siren I heard felt like it was coming for us, and the Doppler drop as the vehicle sped by was a relief.
We passed apartment buildings and homes and first-floor shops. I wondered whether all these doors were locked. Surely in the city people lock their doors. But what about the suburbs and the countryside? What would it feel like to know which doors you can enter, which residences you might pillage at your leisure, as their owners slowly die of fright?
I realized that I was taking familiar paths, cutting through parks and darting through alleys, on my way home, home.
“Everything will be fine,” Edmond assured me. “I’ve done this hundreds of times. Calm down. We’ll go to your place, eat a good breakfast, take a nap, and see how we feel from there.”
I nodded. Everything would be fine. He had done this hundreds of times. It was a good thing that those two creatures were dead.
“How did you know where to find them?” I wheezed. “How did you know which houses they had invaded?”
And then I was turning the key to my lock, nearly falling into my apartment. I found myself stumbling over my words: “I’m sorry the place is a mess. I didn’t have time to do the dishes…”
“It’s fine,” he said. “But I’m famished. Do you mind if I make myself an omelet? Look through your fridge a bit?”
“Of course,” I said, “of course.”
“And if you don’t mind, it’s been a tiring night and I would like to eat in some privacy. Why don’t you go busy yourself in that broom closet while I make my breakfast?”
Relief washed over me. The closet looked so inviting, dark and small, a perfect place where I wouldn’t have to think. I could just climb in there and wait...just wait...
“There’s a good boy,” he said as I closed the door behind me and turned my face to the wall.
Boggy is currently teaching in a small village in Japan, where they also write, draw, and dance whenever they can. Twitter @boggycomics
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