By Mike Guest
This is an edited excerpt from Mike’s self-published novel ‘The Little Suicides’ (available at amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle form)
(After communication with his childhood friend, Mark Reddox, suddenly ceases, Mitch Nevin decides to leave the comfort of his Canadian home to trace his friend’s last known movements. This includes a visit to Mark’s home in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, where Mark’s wife is equally baffled by his disappearance, and his workplace, where he has to negotiate with both Japanese bureaucracy and a discontented expat English teacher.)
“So, where is Mr. Reddox?”
I was taken aback by this opening gambit. The speaker was a Mr. Toshiyuki Yabe, a tall, reedy, figure whose constantly bobbing head made him appear particularly avuncular. He was clothed in a light corduroy jacket, presumably to ward off the fierce air conditioning but surely also to announce that he was an academic, not a bureaucrat. I had initially assumed that he was Mark’s superior at the Board of Education, but soon found out he was in fact a colleague.
“Actually, I came here to ask you the same thing.”
Yabe seemed equally surprised by my response, altering his posture to lean forward inquisitively. His opening question had thrown me for a loop because although it was I who was making the extended effort to find answers, having journeyed all the way from a Toronto suburb to Kofu, it always seemed that I was expected to be the one providing information. Why would I come all the way to Japan just to tell Mark’s work colleagues what little I knew? Kiyomi had set up this meeting, looking completely authoritative as she had outlined the situation to the department secretary, but how could she have misconstrued, or even mistranslated, the fact that it was I who was here to ask questions, and if possible, check Mark’s now-abandoned office and computer?
I had woken early that morning and had tried again to find any telltale markings on Mark’s home laptop– with no success. Refreshed after the previous evening’s bout of jet lag, I had even tried to take a morning walk as sunlight broke through surprisingly early– Japan apparently not utilizing daylight savings time– but was stymied by Kiyomi’s labyrinthine internal locking system, which seemed comically superfluous given the tranquil and benign aura of the neighbourhood.
After ascertaining from a soon-awakened Kiyomi that Mark had traveled lightly, with just one set of formal clothes and only two changes of casual wear, and that no, they had not experienced any major fight or household trauma for a long while, Kiyomi had driven me to the Board of Education office, a typically muted, functionally squat office building that resembled a word processor on steroids just a little too closely. It was designed not to cause worry or offense to the taxpayer, an edifice whose implicit motto might be, “I’m just getting some work done.” The day was still not yet as oppressively humid as I suspected it would be.
As soon as the English-speaking Yabe arrived, Kiyomi departed for her job at the nearby hospital research lab, leaving Yabe and I to wait for Hugh Pascal, a fellow Canadian and Mark’s longtime co-worker, to appear. Ms. Hidaka, the secretary, served us cold barley tea while Yabe and I exchanged innocuous comments about my first impressions of Japan and the humidity of Japan’s summer weather. While managing the small talk, I started making mental calculations—that Mark must have intended to return soon judging by his paucity of baggage. Also he must have expected to enjoy a little R&R in the Philippines as well the formal meeting, as he had taken shorts, t-shirts, and a pair of flip-flops.
The window opposite my assigned seat faced the mountains. Yabe told me that Mt. Fuji was located in the same direction but that Kofu was on the ‘wrong side’ for a classic view. As I peered out, I noticed a stain of crisscrossing electricity wires that looked like a road-map of cuneiform markings etched into the skyline—a photographer’s nightmare.
Hugh Pascal arrived a few minutes later with a bit of a garrulous flourish, likely because he had been informed that a fellow Canuck was waiting for him. I was somehow comforted to see that he too was sweaty and disheveled, that I was not the only one whose physical appearance resembled a melting ice cream cone. Red-faced, with a pronounced paunch and a receding hairline, Pascal had a rather intense countenance, his eyes locking onto those of his interlocutor as if conversation were either a personal challenge or an interrogation. He greeted me warmly, with a firmly collegial handshake, and directed me to a sofa that was so low that my knees actually interfered with my line of vision.
With Pascal present, I felt that I had earned the cultural nod to launch directly into the proceedings. After going over what I knew of Mark’s disappearance thus far– even informing them of the final, cryptic email from the Philippines and the connection to the postcard from two decades back. Then, I ventured into unknown territory.
“I’ve wondered why, since Mark was on a business trip to Manila, that the Board of Education hasn’t launched any official inquiry into his disappearance.”
Pascal unlocked his eyes from mine, crossed his legs rather defiantly, and, betraying a slight smirk, gestured for Yabe to respond.
“Mr. Reddox is not a Japanese citizen so the Ministry has no power to investigate,” Yabe began.
I interrupted. “So if a foreign tourist goes missing somewhere on, say, Mt. Fuji, no one here will search for him because he’s not Japanese?”
Pascal cocked his head back and smiled smugly at Yabe. It was an ‘I told you so’ expression, and it was a supportive one.
Yabe continued. “Of course we would. Because in that case the tourist would be inside Japan but Mr. Reddox, umm Mark, is not in Japan in this case.”
“But if another employee here, a Japanese, went missing abroad, the Board of Education would take some action, right? For example, Mr. Yabe, if you had run into some trouble on a business trip abroad, surely you would hope and expect your company to help out.”
Pascal did not avert his accusing gaze from Yabe.
I went on. “Or imagine a Japanese citizen, employed by a Canadian institution, who suddenly goes missing while on a business trip to Mexico. Wouldn’t you feel that the Canadian company that employs this Japanese person bears some responsibility?”
Yabe nodded his assent and called for Ms. Hidaka who brought another tray of cold tea, this time green. She was militantly efficient, maintaining a constant state of high tension, her breathless responses barked out like those of an obedient sorority underling, often to the extent that it made me feel like my presence was a major imposition.
A round of Japanese banter followed, one item of which caused Pascal to lose his smirk and adopt a mask of startled confusion instead. After a beleaguered exchange of double-checks and confirmations, Pascal took the lead.
“Apparently, and I didn’t know this until now, it wasn’t an official business trip. According to the secretary.”
“Mark asked for nenkyuu, personal leave, not shuchou, which is a business trip.”
Yabe nodded in agreement. This certainly took the wind out of my rhetorical sails and somehow made the ceiling seem lower, the walls of the room closer, more constricting.
“Did the Board of Education fund the trip?”
“No. He used his own money.”
“Did he leave an itinerary, some travel plan?”
Again, no. Apparently this was also why no work-related insurance scheme had kicked in. Why hadn’t Kiyomi discovered this fundamental piece of information by herself? And if she had, why hadn’t she told me? Then again, I cautioned myself, I had been withholding details from her too.
“How many days’ personal leave did Mark request?”
The secretary had the documents at hand.
“Three work days. Five days total including the weekend”.
“That sounds more like a business trip than a beach vacation,” I added. “But OK, who were Mark’s contacts in Manila, whether he went there on official business or not? He’d been there before, right?”
Again, it took Hidaka only a few moments to retrieve these documents, which she duly passed on to Yabe.
“Mr. Reddox went to the Philippines twice before on official business. Once was to an English teaching conference in Manila…”
“I was on that trip with him,” cut in Pascal. “We both did presentations there.”
Yabe continued without acknowledging him. “The other was to St. Paul’s University in Manila. Something about the possibility of setting up an exchange program.”
“When did these take place?”
“The conference was, what, two and a half maybe three years ago,” said Pascal.
“The business trip to St. Paul’s was just over one year ago,” Yabe added.
“Do you know his contacts at St. Paul’s?”
“We always require documentation for business trips.” This was followed by an extended freeze-frame of inaction and silence.
“So…” Did I have to spell out that I wanted to see them? However, having heard that directness wasn’t an admired quality in this country, I checked my impatience– I wasn’t on my own cultural turf here.
Once again, a short discussion in Japanese ensued followed by Ms. Hidaka retrieving yet another set of documents. Yabe broke the ensuing huddle.
“The invitation was signed by a Dr. Margaret Guttierez from the Faculty of Education at St. Paul’s. That’s the only name we have.”
I leaned over to see the documents for myself but Yabe yanked them away from view. The combination of the low sofa and the constant leaning to get a glimpse of the papers was causing my arm to stiffen up. I then stood up, knowing that the simple force of my height might carry some authority, as well as allowing myself an escape from the stifling sofa posture.
“If possible, I’d like to check Mark’s office, and in particular his computer. I’m confident that I can find some hints there.”
Silence again. Pascal started rocking his head back and forth, emitting a knowing chuckle.
“Have you left it as it was, or removed the computer, or…?”
Yet again, a mini-conference in Japanese between Pascal, Yabe, and Hidaka ensued. Pascal was now rolling his eyes. Yabe noted this and began painstakingly, pleadingly, explaining something in elaborate detail. It was Pascal who brought me back into the circle.
“They say that since the computer is government property, non-employees can’t touch it due to security matters. Apparently, security trumps missing people.”
This was followed by another awkward silence in which Pascal’s eyes pierced accusingly into Yabe’s. Yabe conspicuously avoided the high beams.
“Mr. Nevin, come with me. I think we can work something out.” Yabe led me down a corridor and, when out of hearing distance, let his shoulders drop and allowed a smile to crease his lips.
“I understand you’ve come all the way from Canada to help your friend. I think the system here can be… what’s the word… limiting. So I want to help, but, if I allow you to access the computer I will have violated a rule.”
I could see Pascal’s head now peering inquisitively down the hall.
“So I will access Mark’s computer instead of you. But after I turn it on you can, umm, help me with it. Do you understand?”
I thought I did.
“Just a moment, I’ll get the key to Mark’s room.” As Yabe returned towards the reception area, Pascal replaced him at my side.
“Don’t mind them,” he implored, “they’re worried about the dirty foreigner tainting their pristine system.”
I gave him a quizzical look.
“It’s typical Japanese behavior,” he went on. “Even though you’ve come all the way from Canada to help Mark, all they can see is the possible infiltration of their system by the outsider. The problem here is, is that compassion’s not a strong suit.”
“Mr. Yabe says he’ll let me in and help him check Mark’s computer.”
I made the quotation mark gesture when I said ‘help him’. This seemed to catch Pascal off guard. Should I have said it?
“They’ll let you see what they want you to see,” came Pascal’s rejoinder. His eyes bore in at mine defiantly, daring me to contradict or doubt him.
“They?” I added.
“What’s that thing on the wall?” I said to change the topic, referring to an electronic board mounted behind him, a science-museum-like diorama displaying colour-coded pulses. The explanation was in Japanese.
“That shows how much electricity each section in the building is using,” Pascal explained. “Since 3/11 they’ve been trying to cut down on energy consumption, so they keep up these reminders, turning it into some kind of competition. Saving Japan,” he added sarcastically.
“So I wonder how much energy it takes to power this display!”
“Touche.” He liked that.
When Yabe returned, Hidaka was beside him, brandishing the room key like a holy relic. It became morgue-silent as Hidaka inserted the key into the lock with Yabe, and Pascal lurking expectantly, as if they were about to trespass into a yellow-taped crime scene and come across a decaying corpse.
Mark’s room appeared not to have been touched in the preceding four months, and the immediate activation of the air-conditioning was a welcome relief from the oppressive humidity that had obviously built up inside. The room was neither clinically ordered nor scatter-trashed. It looked like it had been worked in until the last moment. My eyes were immediately drawn to desktop photos of Kiyomi and Maki, and separately, Riku.
“That’s his family,” I said, perhaps redundantly, but also hoping to remind everyone what my mission here was.
A few desktop papers in English were obviously work-related. I wanted to scour them immediately but instead tried to affect an air of patience and circumspection. I was not going to start digging until I had some privacy, some freedom of movement. Yabe seemed to sense this.
“Mr. Nevin, please don’t open any of the Japanese files on Mark’s computer,” he said.
Pascal shot me a knowing look.
“Trust me, I have no intention of doing that,” I responded.
“Yeah, a veritable treasure trove of NSA-level classified documents those department meeting progress reports.” Pascal chuckled a little too forcibly, obviously hoping for me to chime in on the joke. I smiled to placate him. With this, Yabe poked the computer’s power button and immediately left the room, much to Pascal’s surprise.
Since Ms. Hidaka was still lingering, I asked Pascal to translate a few questions to her. First, did Mark leave any important work unfinished? Pascal had some trouble phrasing this and apologized for his ‘mediocre Japanese,’ which sounded fluent enough to me.
“The problem is, is that my Japanese has atrophied,” he said by way of explanation.
Ms. Hidaka answered that Mark had finished up everything he was supposed to do, that he had been tidy in completing his work. Apparently, the end of March, just after Mark disappeared, is the end of the fiscal and academic year in Japan and therefore it is standard behaviour to have all your t’s, i’s and dollar signs duly crossed by March 31st. Knowing that Mark had not left work hanging confirmed for me a salient aspect of his personality and it was, I thought, revealing that he had gone AWOL at a rather opportune time. However, I did not share this insight with Hidaka and Pascal.
“And has she taken any garbage out since then?”
Unfortunately she had– the day after Mark had left for the Philippines– fully expecting his return.
Apparently satisfied with my ‘professionalism’, Hidaka left, but Pascal grabbed an empty seat, trying to worm his way into prime viewing position as I dickered with Mark’s desktop keyboard. Did I have to spell out the privacy issue involved? When I glanced at him, his eyes locked onto mine again like it was feasting time and he was a starving lion. It was unnerving, a look that you might expect from religious doctrinaires. I decided to block his view by engaging him.
“So, what exactly did, OK does, Mark, Mark and you, do here anyway?” I asked.
“Well, the thing is, is,” he seemed very attached to those redundant copulas, “that they deliberately keep our jobs undefined here”.
I guessed, correctly, that ‘they’ equaled ‘the Japanese’ again.
“Mark helped local high schools and colleges, universities too, with setting English teaching policies. Doing teacher training. Making recommendations for curriculum and admissions. He taught some English classes at Nashidai, umm, Yamanashi University, too”.
“So, why did he travel on business internationally so often?”
I had a pretty good idea of the answer to these questions, having heard them from Mark himself previously, but was wondering if Pascal might offer up a new angle.
“Mark liked it. He’d get grants, write papers and articles, go to conferences, give presentations, make international connections for exchange programs, research programs, that kind of thing.”
“Similar I suppose, but Mark was more into it than me.”
“Into the traveling? Or the work?”
“Both. I think a lot of what we’re doing here is artificial. The thing is, is,” there he went again, “that they like us to run on the treadmill here and I’m not really into playing their game.”
“So, what’s your game?”
“I’m a man of literature. The poetry of Seamus Heaney. The novels of Cormac McCarthy. The gritty stuff. But here in Kofu there aren’t too many chances for meta-discourse on that topic.”
After more of Pascal’s wagering about his peripheral role in the BOE, along with the implicit challenges as to whether or not I could see and raise his ‘meta-discourse’ on literature (as a photographer, I considered invoking the names of Mapplethorpe and Man Ray but thought the better of it), I turned once again to the desktop and he finally got the message. Before he left the room though, he intoned just a bit too ominously, “There’s some other stuff I should tell you. But not here. Do you want to grab a beer tonight? There’s a half-decent drinking joint called The Vault, near Starbucks. They have Guinness. It’s on me.”
A few beers in this heat and humidity with the possibility of some insider ear candy was hard to pass up. And despite his apparent beef with his host country and his fondness for the ‘be’ verb, Hugh Pascal didn’t seem too bad a sort. I agreed.
Kiyomi appeared in her bright blue bug-like Nissan about a half hour later and I stepped out from the low-slung ceilings of the Board of Education offices into the weighted humidity of the Yamanashi afternoon and its whitewashing glare of a sun. The bowl of low mountains surrounding the city had a trapping effect on the heat, making it reflect back upon itself and magnify. I knew it wasn’t exactly scientific, but the ubiquitous electricity poles and wires somehow amplified this sense of confinement.
Kiyomi’s compact further exacerbated this imposing narrowness, inducing a hint of claustrophobia in me, particularly as my knees were unable to fully extend where they met the dashboard. The roads themselves also seemed hemmed in, such that any momentary lapse of concentration would send the car careening into a row of vending machines. And although I knew that Japan was not built for people like myself who were six-foot-four, I also couldn’t help but wonder if Mark had, at some level, felt a similar sense of entrapment.
I had entertained visions of a crumbling wooden sake joint fronted by a noren curtain and a red lantern, with imbibers sitting cross-legged on tatami while a waiter clad in happi coat and hachimaki brought us yakitori with our mugs of Asahi. But The Vault was your generic expat bar, with a pool table, a dartboard, some pseudo-Ameribrit pub bric-a-brac, a flatscreen showing NBA highlights, and even a bartender who was as white as the bleaching Yamanashi afternoon glare. A few foreign punters were already ensconced at the counter when Hugh Pascal and I trundled in. They exchanged greetings and a bit of banter with Pascal but said nothing to me. Pascal summoned me over to a distant corner. “Guinness,” he announced with an unusual degree of affirmation to the bartender. I ordered an Asahi, despite Pascal’s immediate reminder that ‘they serve Guinness here’.
“I suppose I was the last one to see Mark,” Pascal intoned. “I gave him a ride to the train station—to catch the train to Narita.”
“Did he seem normal?”
“Why didn’t Kiyomi, his wife, take him?”
“It was a workday. And I’d done it before when he had some travel plans. Mark would come to work for a bit and then I’d give him a ride to the station.”
“He packed light?”
“Yeah. He even said, ‘See you in a bit.’ He told me that he was going to meet some people in Manila about the exchange program and maybe take a few days for relaxing after that.”
“Any more details?”
“That’s about it.” Silence. He downed his Guinness quickly, ordered another, then went on, angling himself more directly in line with my face as he spoke. “But I’ve been there—The Philippines—with him. Thailand too.”
These had been the business trips taken two or three years back. I asked Pascal if Mark had done anything unusual or suspicious there.
“Well, at the time I didn’t think much of it, but when we were in Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, Mark said that this was the kind of place he could imagine disappearing in.”
His eyes held mine for a few seconds longer for impact. But it was soon apparent that Pascal had nothing more to add to this anecdote. I asked, “Did Mark mess with girls, booze, drugs, any of that kind of thing when he was there?”
Pascal gave a conspicuous look around the room—the kind that would attract attention precisely because the speaker was masking his attempt at secrecy so ostentatiously.
“Of course we had a few beers in the evenings. Mark less than me. He’s not that big a drinker.” Pascal looked away for a moment. “I guess you know that. Anyway, the bars there—sure, they all have bar girls, leggy waitresses who bat their eyelashes, you know what I mean. Sure, Mark eyeballed them, enjoyed chatting with them, but I never saw him leave with anyone, or pay up her tab. As far as I know, he always went back to the hotel at a reasonable hour. Unlike me, heh heh! As for drugs—nah. You don’t even think about messing with drugs in most of Asia.”
None of this was really news to me.
“So, what’s Mark’s status at work now? Is he still officially an employee or what?”
Pascal gave a wry smile. “He’s in employee limbo. The Japanese, they don’t know how to deal with that. I think he got his April salary paid, even though he was missing then, but they’ve suspended everything since.”
“So, I guess Mark’s absence has increased your workload then.”
Pascal shuffled his torso and stopped drinking for a moment longer than usual.
“Well, to be perfectly honest,” his eyes were in lock-and-engage mode again, “that’s kind of worked out well for me.” Apparently, Pascal’s contract had been due to expire at the end of March and he was told that he would be retained only in some reduced capacity. But when Mark failed to report for duty Pascal was drafted in for full-time work again. “I have to pay my ex child support,” he explained. “That’s why I say that it’s worked out kind of well for me.”
“Mark had a kid from his ex too. Same deal,” I said, mindful of my planned visit to Riku and Mayu, set for tomorrow morning.
“Oh yeah. We talked about that a lot. Sometimes exactly from where you are sitting right now.”
He held his gaze while taking a prolonged swig from the Guinness, trying hard to make this pronouncement seem profound then moved quickly on to his third (or was it his fourth?) beer.
Two Japanese office women entered. The two other expat drinkers and Pascal all turned around to give them the once over. The women retreated to a far corner. The combination of the beer, or perhaps the appearance of the Japanese women, sent Pascal off on a sputtering, aimless spiral.
The Board of Education, he claimed, didn’t really want to find Mark or to help him return to Japan, but that they knew more than they were letting on. When I objected that Mark seemed to enjoy his job and had good working relations– he was trusted with a number of responsibilities and was fluent in Japanese language and nuances of the culture– Pascal rearranged himself on his stool impatiently, letting me know that I had wandered into a rhetorical ambush. “The problem is, is that the closer you get to being an insider in Japan, the more they’ll reject you.”
So, Mark got too close to soul of Japan? After they gave him some ‘insider’ responsibility, they– and just who were ‘they’ anyway, his superiors? the whole damned Japanese nation?– had arranged for him to ‘disappear’ in the Philippines? I didn’t buy this. Mark was hardly a Julian Assange-esque muckraker. It was overkill to view his disappearance as a piece of political comeuppance for fitting in to Japan too well.
“But Mark had planned to stay here at least until retirement.”
“Yeah. He had PR.”
Pascal noticed the lines on my forehead crease inquisitively. “Permanent residency. But just look at the whole Fukushima fiasco,” he implored. “Secrecy, a cloak of silence, a lack of verifiable information, insiders not welcome. There’s a pattern here, Mitch. The foreigner who gets too close is a threat to the Japanese.” He knocked his fist on the table for emphasis.
I avoided the temptation to ask if his ex was included in this equation, not to mention how the alleged lack of providing radioactivity data to the Japanese populace and foreigners not getting close to Japan were connected.
“So then, what did they do to him? Did Mark know something so big, so incriminating, that they had to arrange his disappearance? If so, what was it?”
Pascal’s fanciful notion– that the Yamanashi Board of Education felt that a foreign employee who trained teachers and arranged exchange programs, one who spoke the language too well and was too comfortable in the culture, would, along with the prefectural government, be complicit in a kidnapping or murder, on a foreign trip that Mark himself had apparently chosen– was so preposterous that my mind drifted instead towards what would be on offer for dinner at Kiyomi’s. Were Pascal’s twisted rationalizations the product of the claustrophobia I had started to feel here? Of course Pascal didn’t have an answer to any of this. Just more circumstantial ‘evidence’.
“Did you see the way they tried to fob you off at the BOE this morning? The bureaucracy designed to keep snoopy foreigners like us at bay!” He slammed his palm down onto the table harder this time as if revealing a winning poker hand.
I decided to employ my naivete gambit. “I guess the Japs want to keep us at arm’s length, huh?”
For a moment, I wondered to myself why I was always concerned with conversation strategies and gambits. Was human interaction a contest in which I had to outwit my opponent? Perhaps.
“You shouldn’t say ‘Japs’,” Pascal intoned. “That’s kinda racist. But… yeah, something like that.”
He called for another Guinness.