Not long now. Milena had written out the names, over and over again, more times than she could count, but she kept the original folded neatly in her pocket and close to her at all times. She needed it to function and the withdrawals were horrific. In the middle of the night she could wake up shaking as her body burned beneath a freezing cold sweat. The only thing that ever cured it completely was taking out the list and imagining the blood in every name, one by one – sometimes bursting out all at once and splattering everywhere from a single violent blow; sometimes bleeding out slowly, oozing down the page in prolonged pain.
Some people gagged themselves for life.
Turn the other cheek. Control negative emotions – there’s a trending app to help you do that now. Be the bigger person by letting it go. Never indulge the thirst – better just to close your eyes and sleep.
But she couldn’t just go to sleep. Not when no matter how hard she tried she could never scrub the smell of the girl who’d died in her arms out of the pores of her skin. Not the cold sweat, the vomit, nor the perfume that choked her juvenility – she couldn’t have been more than thirteen, if that. Probably more like twelve if truth be told. Kidnapped and trafficked to be sold as a sex slave, never to see natural light again, only the glaring neon of that auction room, in that mansion, in the fanciest, most exclusive part of Tokyo.
And Milena knew how those unnatural lights could burn, sear the eyes and make everything go dark. Blinding lights or darkness – which was worse? Had there ever been much difference? Milena thought back to the time when she’d been twelve herself, flat on her back in the dank basement room of a cheap brothel. No one had suffered any consequences then, so who had she been to think that she could make the best, most popular people in the world suffer at all for the same act now, fourteen years later?
She glanced at a tangled pile of discarded clothing on the floor of her bedroom – clean white collar sticking out from underneath a crumpled black suit jacket and skirt, ID badge strewn on the floor nearby: Agent Milena Mitsugi, Organised Crime Control Division, Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
Cold sweat poured down her feverish skin beneath the long t-shirt she’d thrown on in lieu of pyjamas. Her mildly trembling fingers clenched even tighter to the piece of paper she held in both hands: the hit list with every single name that had managed to weevil away from prosecution after the raid of their global trafficking ring almost a year ago. That girl, one of many children, drugged into premature senility, cold in Milena’s arms; emaciated but with a weight that sank deep into Milena’s lap, so heavy she struggled to stand back up even after the body had been lifted away by paramedics, already dead.
There was no excuse. Not for the perpetrators, and certainly not for Milena. If she couldn’t find a way within the law then she’d find another way, even if it meant selling her soul. It was all she had left to give, and she’d given it to the worst of the worst – Ren Takahara, the youngest yet most notorious gang leader and drug lord in the country.
She knew it now, though she hadn’t wanted to admit it at first – only the very worst could clean up the very best. She stared blankly at the paper, ink starting to blot at the edges from sweat seeping out of her unrelenting fingertips.
When a sliver of reddish light made its way in through a gap in the curtains, slicing across the carpet, she knew it was sunrise. Sitting on the edge of the mattress she observed silently with glazed over eyes as the red gradually spread further, swallowing up the room and burning away the remaining dregs of darkness. Her mind began to slip again, back into the quicksand of the same nightmare. She knew she should try to fight it, but she couldn’t gather the strength...
She collapsed down into a deep, desperate sleep.
It was the sound of her phone, ringing incessantly, that eventually woke her up again. Squinting against the sun now fully risen in the sky she flung out and arm and fumbled for it, falling just short of knocking it to the floor. She held it to her ear, still lying down, tangled in the bed sheets.
“Agent Mitsugi.” The voice of her commanding officer spilled into her ear from the other end of the line and she sprang up off the mattress, suddenly mortified by her messy bed hair and single long white t-shirt hanging limp over her undressed, unprepared body. “I’m sorry to call on your day off,” the voice continued as Milena hastily grabbed at pieces of her suit off the floor, trying to straighten out the creases, “but there’s been a shooting at an apartment complex in the Shinjuku ward. Looks like a possible yakuza rivalry or revenge killing.”
Milena made her way towards the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror above the sink, paying attention to her posture as she responded through the phone. “Understood. I can be there straight away, sir.” The call ended and Milena set the phone down on the side of the sink with a deliberate exhale. She looked into the mirror, her reflection mildly sick and strange. It had to be the ceiling light making her look that way. It was too harsh. Brown eyes marbled with steely grey swam in ambiguity, flickering back and forth; one moment they appeared washed out, the next piercing through the fluorescent haze.
Turning on the tap she brought one hand beneath the running water, raised it dripping wet to her forehead and ran it through the fringe of her brown hair. A messy bob came to her jawline, haphazardly framing the drops of water as they fell, tracing over her face. Then she dried herself off, put on a layer of make-up and a clean collared shirt followed by her form-fitting black suit, blindingly dark, and briskly made her way out the door.
The Shinjuku apartment complex, situated in the centre of metropolitan Tokyo, was sealed off with police tape when she arrived. She flashed her badge and bypassed straight through it. The mid-morning sun in the apartment containing the scene of the crime was warm and pleasant. It illuminated the peroxide blonde hair of the body; face forward on the floor in an ever-expanding pool of blood. A large tattoo of two intertwined cobras stretched from shoulder to shoulder was now marred by bits of torn flesh, guts and so, so much blood.
Milena had to bite back a curse, the feeling of dread she’d been trying to keep suppressed now oozing out like a toxin under her skin.
A girl in a white mini-dress knelt on the floor, soaked from knees to wrists in the blood. A large crimson smear of it covered one side of her face as violent sobs racked her thin shoulders. She couldn’t have been older than around eighteen, definitely below twenty. Poor thing. Milena made her way straight towards her. She tried kneeling, slowly and cautiously, at her side, but halfway down a blood-soaked hand grabbed hold of her shirt collar and dragged her the rest of the way.
“You bitch! I know your type – you couldn’t care less!”
Milena was taken aback by the girl’s shrill voice. On one hand it was strained and hollow, feeble on the verge of complete disintegration. But on the other it was like finely crushed glass, almost invisible to the naked, unsuspecting eye, but stingingly painful when accidentally trod upon with bare feet.
“You don’t know me. I’m here to help” was all Milena could bring herself to say as the girl twisted and turned in her grasp. She contorted her body one way then the other, desperately trying to prevent Milena from pulling her apart from the torn up carcass riddled with bullet holes at her side. Long matted hair clung to the girl’s face, caked in blood, so Milena extended a hand to peel some of it off.
And that was when she noticed.
One look into the girl’s eyes and Milena recoiled. It was like looking into a broken mirror, a mirror that existed only to haunt and terrify her. Hand still hovering gently at the girl’s face, each and every feature so like her own, she now wanted to close it into a fist and smash the glass, smash the image being reflected back at her. She didn’t care if she had to tread on a few annoying pieces on the way out.
The face was a grotesque picture of what Milena herself might have been, the latest form of something that always followed her no matter what she did – mocking her with reminders of where she should have ended up. Just like that... It didn’t matter what her badge read, how pristine and polished her uniform was, how prestigiously her resume read, the past would always be able sniff her out, grab hold of her with a bloody hand and pull her back down, back into place.
You’ll never be free, bitch.
Milena stood up silently and walked out of the apartment. Exiting the building, passing back through the police tape, she walked a few blocks before slipping behind a nondescript corner away from the main thoroughfare. Only then did she extract a phone from her bag, different from the one her commanding officer had called her on. Plain, disposable and dated, she flipped it open and dialled a number. “Ren, did you do it?” She spoke sternly through the sound of unevenly pitched laughter trickling into her ear from other end when he finally picked up. It fluctuated between childish and sinister. “This isn’t a joke” Milena persisted, “you have to tell me.”
“Ha-ha...I’m sorry.” Eventually Ren managed to spit out some words in between. “Things really got out of hand.”
Milena sighed as she waited for the last remaining giggles to subside. “Why does it always have to be this way with you?”
“Don’t worry,” he replied, “nothing will come out of it.” Milena wished she could punch him straight in the mouth. “Who are you to know that? Who are you to know anything? I’m only one person – I can’t stop the police from chasing you down for shooting a guy execution-style twelve times in his apartment and then leaving a witness. Why did you have to involve that girl?”
Ren paused. “I needed someone to open the door.”
“...And a blow-job I guess. Sheng-Li hasn’t been feeling up to it the past few days, and the situation was convenient – getting back at the bastard by trying it with a girl, his girl. Come to think of it, I haven’t done it like that since I was about fourteen. Told her I’d take her away from that shit place so she tried pretty hard. It wasn’t very good though.”
“Shut up.” Milena spoke through gritted teeth as she pressed the back of her hand against her forehead. She could feel each and every bead of cold sweat accumulated and when she brought her hand back down she noticed the greenish tinge of adrenaline-pumped veins. “The guy was trying to cut into my business.” Ren persisted. “I know for a fact he was in contact with my poppy farmers in Afghanistan trying to out-price me for exclusivity. What else did you expect me to do?”
“I can’t deal with this. This isn’t what I signed up for.” The words spilled from Milena’s mouth before she could control them. “Then what did you sign up for?” Ren chuckled with his trademark tone, playful and sinister. “Is this where you beg for mercy? Say it isn’t so.” Half-baked words of response formed in Milena’s throat only to catch halfway up and threaten to choke her. She could feel the dark shadows rising up from the pavement, clinging to her ankles, as if Ren were conjuring them from the other end of the phone line.
“Milena, as your friend – I do see you as a friend – I’m going to speak in your best interest. You know I can do almost anything for you. I can put right all the things you couldn’t on your own and that they wouldn’t. But I’m not a charity service. Don’t think you can mess around in our world when it’s convenient for you, then just walk away whenever you feel like it. It doesn’t work that way. You stay, sure they might catch you one day, but you leave and then you’re nothing but a cop who knows too much. Either way, you’re dead.”
With that the line fell silent and there was nothing left for Milena to do in that moment other snap the burner phone in half, dispose of it in a random convenience store garbage bin and return to the scene with a straight face.
Back up in the apartment she found the girl in the white dress again, still struggling and thrashing against multiple people now, who were trying to keep her aside. Without reservation Milena strode towards the commotion, cold eyes fixed and unwavering, and grabbed the girl’s arm. She wrenched it one movement and dragged her away, not caring about the shout of pain.
“He’s not coming back for me like he promised...is he?”
The girl spoke with a voice cracked from all the screaming and words slipped from Milena’s mouth before her brain registered them. “I don’t think so. Why would he?”
Driving down the highway, far away from Tokyo now and into the nondescript outskirts of nowhere, Ren hung up on his conversation with Milena. Without stopping he brought the window down and threw the phone out onto the road for it to be promptly run over by a truck passing in the opposite direction. With some way still left to go he thought back to the shooting – and the night before in that cheap suburban love hotel. If it hadn’t been for Milena bringing it up he would’ve probably already forgotten.
“I can get you out of this place. You won’t have to work the way he makes you. What kind of guy pimps out his girlfriend?”
He tried to remember the expression on the girl’s face when he’d made that remark, but his memory was already dubious about her face itself let alone an expression. The truth was he hadn’t paid that much attention. Still, her reaction mustn’t have been as enthusiastic as expected because he’d had to reassure her.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be quick and clean. Just make sure he’s in the apartment and open the door. We don’t need a struggle.”
That’s right – she’d smiled after that, just a bit. Then she got down off the bed next to him and knelt on the floor between his open legs. Ren recalled the sensation of her warm breath on his inner thighs as she drew her face in closer, but he didn’t look down. There was that ad playing on the TV – a man with a handsome face, piercing gaze and wearing a slim-cut suit. Piece by piece he shed the tie, jacket and then shirt to reveal a lean, muscular torso; one only a new state-of-the-art electronic muscle-toning device could achieve. Adhesive pads were attached to the man’s bare skin and then they pulsated, over and over again.
There wasn’t much else of note to recall in that room. Nothing else after he’d sighed, head rolling languidly onto one shoulder with his eyes still fixed to the TV screen. All that lingered was stale breath dissolving into the air, already thick and gritty with cigarette smoke, spilled booze and tepid sweat.
The next time he’d see the girl it would be in her boyfriend’s apartment, collapsed next to his body. He’d hear her scream and hyperventilate, but the sun had been bright and cheerful. She'd reach out with a tremmoring arm but meet with only thin air. Empty, alone...
“This is your chance to leave, to forget my face – and his.”
Ren didn’t know exactly what became of her after that.
He yawned as he kept driving, continuing on until finally his destination came into view. Pulling off the highway he entered a scrapyard, nothing else around except for a shabby-looking ramen shop and a few vending machines. As he got out of the car a middle-aged man approached; grimy work-wear and a haphazardly rolled cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. His face was weathered but with one or two futile scraps of handsomeness still clinging onto it.
“Gone without a trace?”
“You know it” Ren replied with a grin.
“The way you people go through cars...” The man muttered beneath his breath as he took the envelope from Ren’s outstretched hand. Rough, heavy fingers meticulously counted each of the banknotes while Ren tapped his foot impatiently in the dirt. “Drive it over then.” At last the man looked back up and gestured towards a giant iron compressor over the other side of the yard.