YAKUZA

Chapter II

 The altercation came after the end of his first week in his new job as bartender at Zippy's.  That he had lasted the week without complaint had earned him dinner every night, before his shift began.  Ochuru called him in and gave him the reward, in tones and expression that made the dinners seem more like floggings than free meals.  He sat at a table right on the edge of the lagoon eating a Teri-plate, loaded with the seasoned beef, white rice and macaroni salad generic to only the Hawaiian islands.  It was delicious.

Lauren surveyed the beautiful waters of the bay, noting with envy the wonderfully built small homes located out on the artificial island at its center.  The leeward side of the Koolau Mountains swept up behind countless homes erected on the far shore, the sight almost too beautiful to fully take in. His gaze fell down to the small docks that extended out from a nearby marina.

Three of his Japanese clientele unlocked one of the protective gates leading from the floating repository of small expensive boats. The boats were unusual in only one regard.  They were all outboard powered, but the number and size of their motors were magnified beyond anything Lauren had ever seen before.  Mercury outboards were the norm, with a very few other models thrown in. Many had three or four motors attached to them.  One sleek long ‘Fountain’ model had six of the ‘300’ motors connected to its stern. The boat sat in the water with its bow about six feet in the air.

One Japanese man took the table next to Lauren’s. The other two went to the open window to order.  Lauren checked the man out.  He had the normal inscrutable oriental look.  His age was hard to guess, but Lauren imagined it at about forty-five.  It was the first time he’d seen any of the Japanese customers not wearing a suit.  The man had a “T” shirt on that was printed with “Tea Time at the Moana” across its front in red.  The man’s rope cord tough looking forearm was circled with three black rings just below the elbow.  The rings were tattooed to the man’s arm, Lauren realized.  His gaze paused too long. The man took note.

“Are you looking at me for some reason?” the man inquired, his tone without menace, but the words themselves a classically American high threat phrase.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. Your tattoos are interesting,” Lauren replied meekly, slightly embarrassed to have been caught examining the man.

“Why don’t you look at the boats?” the man said, pointing down the marina. “That’s mine, the one all the motors.  Nothing can touch the power of those outboards. Mercury makes the most powerful outboards on market, no matter what anybody says.”  The man’s eyes ran back and forth across the length of his strangely beautiful fishing boat.

“Actually, ‘7 Marine’ builds the most powerful outboards on the market. The Mercury 300 makes about three hundred and fifty, while the seven puts out five hundred and fifty-seven, or so I’ve heard.”  Lauren spoke the words from recall, as the men he’d fished out of Honolulu Harbor with had been aficionados of high tech.

The two men who’d accompanied the sitting man reappeared, carrying bowls of Saimin and cups of coffee.  The three spoke for a few moments in Japanese.  Lauren finished his coffee and prepared to leave. The two Japanese men rose with him.

“You disagree Hiyashi-san?” one of them said. The man with the tattoos consumed his Saimin slowly, without looking up.

“Not exactly,” Lauren replied.  “I was merely informing Mr. Hiyashi-san that Mercury Marine no longer makes the most powerful outboard in the world.”

“Ah yes, disagree with Hiyashi-san.  You make him most unhappy.  We ask for redress.”

Lauren pushed his tray aside.  The meaning of the men was clear.  Physical confrontation did not appear to be something he could avoid. Whatever slight he’d made appeared irreparable, without bloodshed of some sort.  The men standing a few feet from him gave no whiff of either fear or trepidation, which meant they were well trained and experienced in such things.

“I’m merely the bartender here.  If I’ve offended, then I apologize.  If that cannot be accepted then that’s fine too.”

Lauren moved backward two steps and turned to present his left side to the men, spreading his feet slightly for better balance and a better foundation from which to move.  He kept his hands flat at his sides.  He intended to give no warning.  If he could take out the windpipe of one of the men with his first strike then he’d only have the others to deal with, unless ‘three rings’ got into the fray. He stared at an imaginary point between the two men, but his attention was totally taken with a small spot just to the side of the left-most man’s trachea.

“Bartender where?” the man behind his minions asked, his voice so quiet it was almost a whisper.

“Bartender here,” Lauren responded.  “I’ve been serving you for almost a week.  You’re the guy who sings “D’Yer Mak’er” every night, although I’m not surprised you don’t know me.  You guys drink that iichiko like water.

‘Three rings’ craned around to stare at him. “Is how really pronounce in English? 'Jamaica', like Caribbean place?”

“Yeah, doesn’t seem sensible, but there it is. Brits on drugs. What can I say?”

Lauren replied, beginning to believe that violence might not take place after all, but feeling no relief.  He’d been so ready.  It’d been so long.  It would feel so good, no matter what the outcome, if he could just engage again.

‘Three rings’ stared at him intently and then whispered to his men.  Instantly they turned and took the bench seat across from him and began consuming their Saimin with single-minded intensity.  They reminded Lauren of robots or androids.  He re-evaluated their capability and concluded they were much more dangerous than he’d originally thought them to be.  Slowly he relaxed his body and began to breathe normally.

“What you before became a bartender?” the man asked.

“Nothing. I’ve been nothing since the war.  I was military.  Marine Corps.  First Lieutenant.  Iraq. Afghanistan.  Numerous hospitals.  Now I’m a bartender, nothing more.”

“Rudy Hiyashi.  It is good to meet you.  You may sit at my table.”  The two men with Hiyashi brought their heads up as one, each wearing the first expression Lauren had seen on their faces.  The expression was shocked surprise.

“Thank you. But I must report to work or there will be no Karaoke tonight.”

Lauren picked up the remains of his meal and departed. He didn’t look back, as he cleared the tray and headed over to open the bar, although he distinctly felt he’d somehow dodged a big, fast and deadly bullet.

Lauren had never been arrested before. He’d gotten traffic tickets here and there but nothing serious. One reckless driving for doing a hundred across the deadly boring highways of Idaho, but that was it.  The family car was only driven on weekends because of work schedules and available time.  His arrest occurred only three blocks from home.  He was alone in his car and headed for Barnes and Noble at the Kahala shopping complex when four cars pulled him over.

The cars that pulled him over were unmarked and the officers, showing plenty of identification, were not in uniform. Lauren could only begin to think about the implications of that when he had enough time.  Handcuffed to a chair in some strange business office he waited for anyone to come in to tell him what was going on.

Laruen looked at his watch. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. The bar was open on Sundays but he didn’t have to be there until around four.  If he were kept in custody beyond that time his job would be toast, like what had happened to his predecessor.

A suited man walked through the office door, closing it silently behind him. Nobody, other than lawyers and politicians wore suits in Hawaii.  Lauren knew that, and his level of stress went up a notch.  The man removed his coat and placed it carefully over the chair back before sitting down.

“Lauren Prentice, or “Prince,” as people sometimes call you.  Is that right?” the man inquired.

The man crossed his legs, his expensive trousers draping and sliding rather than flopping across his calves.

Lauren noted the expensive Allen Edmond shoes.  Not your average every day undercover cop, he thought to himself, which was not good news.

“Yeah,” Lauren responded. “Who are you and what do you want. This is not about some traffic violation. You aren’t Honolulu cops or any kind of police at all.”

“Do you mind if I take those cuffs off?  The guys are a little bit over the edge when it comes to dealing with people like you, or whom they consider to be like you.”

Lauren said nothing.  It was a stupid question.  Who would not want the cuffs removed? Lauren was being encouraged to say ‘yes’ at every opportunity.  He knew the game, and he wasn’t playing.

“I’m captain Jim Neuzel, Drug Enforcement Agency,” the man said when Lauren didn’t respond.  “I’m Chief of Station for the Hawaiian Islands.”  He moved forward and used his special key to release Lauren’s handcuffs.

“What do you want?” Lauren asked, flexing his hands, although the cuffs had not been fastened tight enough to bite into his skin or restrict circulation.

“There’s no violation.  We wanted to talk to you.  We also wanted to make sure that nobody suspected we are having such a chat.”

“Who’s ‘we? I only notice you doing any talking.”

“Combined strike force of FBI and DEA.  You’ve stuck yourself right in the middle of a drug operation that’s been going on for years. The local police are involved so we’ve been unable to move. We can’t legally use our boats, helicopters or other equipment without court approval and we can’t get court approval until we provide them with some substantive and tangible corroborating evidence.  Which is where you come in.”  Neuzel smiled, a strange encouraging smile, as if he was offering a child some wonderful new toy on Christmas morning.

“The cops in the bar?” Lauren replied, pausing to look over at the two-way glass mirror set into one concrete block wall.  He spoke to the wall.  “The Japanese businessmen?  The boats with all the motors; and the bar itself; all part of some vast heroin empire or crack cocaine network?  Why am I not believing this, and why should I give a damn? They’re my customers and this bartender job is the first decent job I’ve had since hitting the islands.  It’s none of my business.”

He turned his head back to stare straight into Neuzel’s frowning face.

“We’ve done some homework on you.  We thought you might give this kind of anti-social uncooperative response.  Maybe you ought to take a look at these before you make your final decision.” Neuzel snapped his fingers.

Another military looking man instantly opened the door, walked the few steps to the table, and then dropped a cream-colored file onto his tab.  His actions were so precise and smooth Lauren wondered if he’d rehearsed his walk-on roll many times before they’d arrived.  He stared down at the file, knowing whatever was in it was bad news. His tour in the Middle East had been a hard tour.  He’d done things.  Surveillance was everywhere.  He made no move to flip the file open.  The men behind the stage play he was forced to be an actor in were professionals. They knew their rolls, played them well, and had obviously done so many times before. He noted that although Neuzel wore a shoulder holster it was empty.  In case whatever was in the file drove Lauren over the edge, there would be no weapon for Lauren to use to cause real harm to Neuzel, or himself, before he could be subdued. They were ready for a severely distorted emotional response.  He would not give it to them, although he knew whatever was in the file was bad news indeed.

“No, I won’t do whatever it is you want. I don’t care what you’ve got on me. Prosecute. Send me to court or even on to prison. Screw it. I won’t play.”

Lauren folded his arms over his chest, knowing they were far from done with him but preparing himself to take whatever hit they going to attempt to level him with.

“Nothing like that,” Neuzel said in a light tone, his strange smile reappearing.

“We’re all patriots.  We appreciate and honor your service not to mention your advanced degree.  No, this is about your wife.”

Lauren stopped breathing and he would not blink. The blow had come out of a totally unexpected quarter.  After a full minute he exhaled slowly, relaxing his arms to his sides.  He breathed in and out deeply several times.

Neuzel backed up a few inches, letting Lauren know that he was indeed a pro.  He picked up on Lauren’s very subtle shift from shock and resistance to acceptance and preparation for violence.

Neither of them spoke for minutes.  Lauren would not be the first to speak or react.  That was the way of weakness.  He had fallen in with predators and predators worked to select and weaken their prey.  Lauren could portray himself to be a ‘broken winged swan,’ but he didn’t feel the time was right.

Neuzel flipped open the file with his right index finger.  “Your wife, on camera, removing some of the cash from her cash register at work. There are more.  A video.  Not the first time.  She’s looking at five to ten in Halawa unless we step in and make it all okay.  Which we are willing to do if you cooperate.”

Lauren didn’t look at the photos.  He loved his wife.  His wife loved him. She’d been trying to lighten his load.  They had kids and they weren’t making it.  The move to Hawaii had been a disaster from beginning to end and the proof of that was sitting right in front of him.

“Patriots,” Lauren whispered.  “Going after women and children.  You know what you really are, you and the cowardly scum collected behind that mirror.  You probably got picked for this because you don’t have a family.”

“They do, the scum over there, and they don’t want their own wives and kids tracked. You don’t know the half of what I did overseas.”

“But we do,” Neuzel replied, seemingly unaffected by Lauren’s comment or veiled threat.  “It’s why we need you.  This is a very dangerous situation.  You are a very dangerous man.  I apologize for having to use this stuff.  It makes none of us happy or proud.  But these people have been hauling in tons of Pakalolo for years and we’ve got to stop them.”

“Pakalolo.  Marijuana?” This is all over some weed he thought. He shook his head wearily, as if in resignation.  “How long do I have?” Lauren asked.

“What do you mean?” Neuzel asked in return, surprise showing on his facial features.

“To decide.  I want to take a look at the situation with new eyes.  I need a few days to consider this.  My wife is no good to the kids in prison but I am no good to them dead, either.  I want a few days.  I presume my wife will be home when I get there, having been terminated from her job?”

Neuzel nodded once, closing the file and pulling it up under one arm.  “We’ll drop you off at your car.”

“Big of you,” Lauren answered, getting up slowly from his chair and wondering what kind of emotional mess his wife was going to be in when he got home.

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