Chapter 48

Gimme a break,” Hoshino repeated.

Nothing’s about to break here, Mr. Hoshino,” the black cat said wearily. The cat had a large face and looked old. “I figured you were bored all by yourself. Talking to a stone all day.”

“But how can you speak human language?”

“I can’t.”

“I don’t get it. How are we able to carry on a conversation like this? A human and a cat?”

“We’re on the border of this world, speaking a common language. That’s all.”

Hoshino gave this some thought. “The border of the world? A common language?”

“It’s all right if you don’t understand. I could explain, but it’s a long story,” the cat said, giving a couple of short, dismissive flips of its tail.

“Wait a sec!” Hoshino said. “You’re Colonel Sanders, aren’t you?”

“Colonel who?” the cat said sullenly. “I don’t know who you’re talking about. I’m me, and nobody else. Just your friendly neighborhood cat.”

“Do you have a name?”

“Sure I do.”

“What is it?”

“Toro,” the cat replied hesitantly.

“Toro?” Hoshino repeated. “Like the real expensive part of tuna, you mean?”

“Correct,” the cat replied. “The local sushi chef owns me. They have a dog, too. They call him Tekka. Tuna Roll.”

“Do you know my name, then?”

“You’re pretty famous, Mr. Hoshino,” Toro replied, and smiled.

Hoshino had never seen a cat smile before. The smile quickly faded, though, and the cat went back to its usual docile expression.

“Cats know everything,” Toro said. “I know that Mr. Nakata died yesterday, and that there’s a valuable stone over there. I’ve lived a long life and know everything that’s happened around here.”

“Hmm,” Hoshino murmured, impressed. “Hey, instead of us just shooting the breeze out here, why don’t you come inside, Toro?”

Lying on the railing, the cat shook its head. “No, I’m fine here. I wouldn’t be able to relax inside. Besides, it’s a nice day out, so why don’t we just talk here?”

“Fine by me,” Hoshino said. “Say, are you hungry? I’m sure we have something to eat.”

Again the cat shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m all set for food. In fact, keeping my weight down’s more of a problem. If your owner runs a sushi shop, you tend to have a bit of a cholesterol problem. Jumping up and down’s not easy when you’re carrying some excess pounds.”

“Well, tell me then, Toro, is there some reason you’re here?”

“There is,” the black cat said. “I thought you might be having a hard time dealing with that stone all alone.”

“You got that right. Definitely. I’m in kind of a bind here.”

“I thought I’d lend you a hand.”

“That would be great,” Hoshino said. “Take a paws in your schedule, huh?”

“The stone’s the problem,” Toro said, shaking his head to get rid of a buzzing fly. “Once you get the stone back the way it belongs, your job’s over. You can go wherever you want after that. Do I have that right?”

“Yup, you got it. Once I get the stone closed that’s all she wrote. Like Mr. Nakata said, once you open something up you got to close it. That’s the rule.”

“That’s why I thought I’d show you what to do.”

“You know what I should do?” Hoshino asked, excited.

“Of course,” the cat said. “What’d I tell you? Cats know everything. Not like dogs.”

“So what should I do?”

“You have to kill it,” the cat said soberly.

“Kill it?” Hoshino said.

“That’s right. You’ve got to kill it.”

“Who is this it you’re talking about?”

“You’ll know it when you see it,” the black cat explained. “Until you actually see it, though, you won’t understand what I mean. It doesn’t have any real form to begin with. It changes shape, depending on the situation.”

“Is this a person we’re talking about?”

“No, it’s no person. That’s for certain.”

“So what does it look like?”

“You got me,” Toro said. “Didn’t I just explain? That you’ll know it when you see it, and if you don’t you won’t? What about that don’t you understand?”

Hoshino sighed. “So what is this thing’s real identity?”

“You don’t need to know that,” the cat said. “It’s hard to explain. Or maybe I should say you’re better off not knowing. Anyhow, right now it’s biding its time. Lying in some dark place, breathing quietly, watching and waiting. But it’s not going to wait forever. Sooner or later it’ll make its move. I’m figuring today is the day. And it will most definitely pass in front of you. It’s an opportune moment.”

“Opportune?”

“A one-in-a-million chance,” the black cat said. “All you have to do is wait and kill it. That will put an end to it. Then you’re free to go wherever you like.”

“Isn’t that against the law?”

“I wouldn’t know about the law,” Toro said, “being a cat and all. Since it’s not a person, though, I doubt the law has anything to do with it. Anyhow, it’s got to be killed. Even your typical cat next door like me can see that.”

“Okay, say I want to kill it-how am I supposed to do it? I don’t have any idea how big it is or what it looks like. Hard to plan a murder when you don’t know the basic facts about the victim.”

“It’s up to you. Smash it with a hammer if you like. Stab it with a carving knife. Strangle it. Burn it. Bite it to death. Whatever works for you-but the main thing is you’ve got to kill it. Liquidate it with extreme prejudice. You were in the Self-Defense Force, am I right? Used taxpayers’ money to learn how to shoot a rifle? How to sharpen a bayonet? You’re a soldier, so use your head and figure out the best way to kill it.”

“What I learned in the SDF was what to do in a war,” Hoshino protested weakly. “They never trained me to ambush and kill something whose size and shape I don’t even know-with a hammer, no less.”

“It’ll be trying to get in through the entrance,” Toro went on, ignoring Hoshino’s protests. “But you can’t let it-no matter what. You’ve got to make sure you kill it before it gets inside the entrance. Got it? Let it slip by you, and that’s the end.”

“A one-in-a-million chance.”

“Exactly,” Toro said. “Though that’s just a figure of speech.”

“But isn’t this thing pretty dangerous?” Hoshino asked fearfully. “It might turn the tables on me.”

“It’s probably not all that dangerous when it’s on the move,” the cat said. “Once it stops moving, though, watch out. That’s when it’s dangerous. So when it’s on the move, don’t let it get away. That’s when you’ve got to finish it off.”

“Probably?” Hoshino said.

The black cat didn’t reply to that. He narrowed his eyes, stretched on the guardrail, and slowly got to his feet. “I’ll be seeing you, Mr. Hoshino. Remember to kill it. If you don’t do that, Mr. Nakata will never rest in peace. You liked the old man, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. He was a good man.”

“So you’ve got to kill it. Liquidate it with extreme prejudice, as I said. Mr. Nakata would’ve wanted you to. So do it for him. You’ve taken on his role now. You’ve always been a happy-go-lucky type, never taking responsibility for anything, right? Now’s the chance to make up for that. Don’t blow it, okay? I’ll be rooting for you.”

“That’s encouraging,” Hoshino said. “Oh, hey-I just thought of something.”

“What?”

“Maybe the entrance stone is still open to lure it in?”

“Could be,” Toro said diffidently. “One more thing. It only makes a move very late at night. So you should sleep during the day to make sure you don’t fall asleep late and let it get away. That would be a catastrophe.”

The black cat leaped nimbly onto the roof next door, straightened his tail, and walked away. For such a huge cat he was light on his feet. Hoshino watched from the veranda as the cat disappeared. Toro didn’t look back even once.

“Man alive,” Hoshino said, then went back into the kitchen to scout around for potential weapons. He found an extremely sharp kitchen knife, plus another heavy knife shaped like a hatchet. The kitchen had only a rudimentary assortment of pots and pans, but quite a collection of knives. In addition he selected a large, hefty hammer and some nylon rope. An ice pick rounded out his arsenal.

Here’s where a nice automatic rifle would come in handy, he thought as he rummaged around the kitchen. He had been trained to shoot automatic rifles in the SDF, and was a decent marksman. Not that he expected to find a rifle in a cupboard somewhere. If anybody ever shot off an automatic rifle in a quiet neighborhood like this, there’d be hell to pay.

He laid all his weapons down on the living-room table-the two knives, ice pick, hammer, and rope. He put a flashlight beside them, then sat down next to the stone and began rubbing it.

“Jeez,” Hoshino said to the stone. “A hammer and knives to fight something, and I don’t even know what it is? With a black cat from the neighborhood calling the shots? What the hell kind of deal is this?”

The stone, of course, withheld comment.

“Toro said it probably wasn’t dangerous. Probably? But what if something out of Jurassic Park springs up? What the hell am I supposed to do then, huh? I’d be a goner.”

No response.

Hoshino grabbed the hammer and swung it around a few times.

“If you think about it, it’s all fate. From the time I picked up Mr. Nakata at the rest area till now, it’s like fate decided everything. The only one who hasn’t had a clue has been me. Fate is one strange thing, man,” Hoshino said. “Right? What’s your take on it?”

The stone maintained its stony silence.

“Well, what can you do, right? I’m the one who chose this path, and I’ve got to see it through to the end. Kind of hard to imagine what repulsive thing’s gonna pop out-but I’m okay with that. Got to give it my best shot. Life’s short, and I’ve had some good times. Toro said this is a one-in-a-million chance. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to go out in a blaze of glory. At least try to win one for the old guy. For Mr. Nakata.”

The stone’s silent vigil continued.

Hoshino did as the cat had told him and took a nap on the sofa in preparation for the night. It felt strange to follow a cat’s instructions, but once he did lie down he was able to sleep soundly for an hour. In the evening he went into the kitchen, defrosted some shrimp curry, and had it over rice. As it started to get dark, he sat down next to the stone, knives and hammer in easy reach.

He turned off all the lights except for a small table lamp. That’s best, he figured. It only makes a move at night, he thought, so I might as well make it as dark as possible. I want to wind this up soon, too-so if you’re out there, show your face! Let’s get it over with, okay? Once we’re finished here I’m going back to Nagoya, to my apartment, and call up some girl and get it on.

He no longer talked to the stone. He just waited there silently, glancing every so often at the clock. When he got bored he’d swing the knife and hammer around. If anything happens, he thought, it’s got to be the middle of the night. Though of course it might take place before that, and he wanted to make sure he didn’t miss his chance-his one-in-a-million chance. Now wasn’t the time to slack off. Every once in a while he took a bite of cracker and a sip of mineral water.

“Hey, stone,” Hoshino whispered. “It’s past midnight now-the time the demons come out. The moment of truth. Let’s you and me find out what’s gonna happen, what d’ya say?” He reached out to touch the stone. Maybe it was just his imagination, but the surface seemed slightly warmer than usual. He rubbed it over and over, to buck up his courage. “I want you to root for me too, okay?” he said to the stone. “I could do with a little emotional support here.”

It was a little after three a. m. when a faint rustling noise started to come from the room where Nakata’s body lay. A sound like something crawling along tatami. But there weren’t any tatami, because that room was carpeted.

Hoshino looked up and listened closely. No mistake about it, he thought, I don’t know what it is, but something’s happening in there. His heart started to pound. He stuck the hammer in his belt, grabbed the sharpest knife in his right hand, the flashlight in his left, and stood up.

“Here we go…,” he said to no one in particular.

He crept silently to the door to Nakata’s room and opened it. He switched on the flashlight and played it quickly around the body. That’s definitely where the rustling had come from. The beam illuminated a long, pale, thin object that was squirming out of Nakata’s mouth. The object reminded Hoshino of a gourd. It was as thick as a man’s arm, and though he couldn’t tell how long it was, Hoshino guessed that about half of it was out. Its wet body glistened like mucus. Nakata’s mouth was stretched wide open like a snake’s, to let the thing out. His jaw must have been unhinged, it was so wide open.

Hoshino gulped loudly. His hand holding the flashlight was trembling a little, the light wavering. Jeez, now how am I supposed to kill this thing? he wondered. It didn’t seem to have any arms or legs, eyes or nose. So slimy you can’t even get a good grip. So how am I supposed to liquidate it? And what the hell kind of creature is it, anyway?

Was it a kind of parasite that had been hiding inside Nakata all this time? Or was it the old man’s soul? No, that can’t be it. His intuition told him that kind of creepy thing couldn’t have been inside Nakata. Even I know that much. It had to come from somewhere else, and it’s going through Mr. Nakata just to get inside the entrance. It showed up when it wanted to, using Mr. Nakata as a kind of passageway for its own purposes. And I can’t let that happen. That’s why I’ve got to kill it. Like the cat said, liquidate it with extreme prejudice.

Hoshino went over to Nakata and quickly stabbed his knife into what seemed to be the head of the thing. He pulled out the knife and stabbed again, over and over. But there was little resistance to the knife, just the crisp feel you get when you plunge a knife into a soft vegetable. Below the slimy exterior there was no flesh, no bones. No organs, no brain. Once he pulled the blade out, the mucus covered up the wound right away. No blood or liquid oozed out. It doesn’t feel a thing, Hoshino thought. No matter how fiercely he attacked it, the thing kept on creeping out of Nakata’s mouth, nonplussed.

Hoshino tossed the knife to the floor and went back to the living room and picked up the heavy hatchet-shaped knife. He swung it down on the white thing over and over, splitting the head open, but just as he thought, there was nothing inside-just the same mushy white as the outer skin. He slashed at it a few times, finally severing part of the head, which squirmed like a slug on the floor for a moment, then stopped moving like it was dead. This had no effect on the rest of the body, which continued to ooze forward. Mucus soon covered up the wound, swelling up so the thing looked the same as before. None of this slowed it down as it wiggled on out of the old man’s mouth.

Finally, the whole object was out, revealing its entire form. The creature was about a yard long, with a tail, which finally allowed Hoshino to figure out for sure which end was which. The tail was like a salamander’s, short and thick, the tip abruptly tapering down to a thin point. It had no legs, no eyes, no mouth or nose. But it most definitely had a will of its own. No, Hoshino thought, it’s more like a will is all it has. He didn’t need to figure that out logically, he just knew it. When it’s on the move, he thought, it just happens to take on this shape. A chill ran up his spine. Anyway, he concluded, I’ve got to kill it.

He tried the hammer next, but it didn’t do any good. He’d pound one part of the creature only to see the surrounding flesh and mucus fill in the depression he’d made. He carried over a small table and started bashing the thing with one of the legs, but nothing slowed down its inexorable advance. Like some clumsy snake it slowly, steadily crawled toward the next room and the entrance stone.

This isn’t like any other living creature I’ve ever seen, Hoshino thought. No weapon has any effect on it. There’s no heart you can stab, no throat you can throttle. So what the hell can I do? This thing is evil, and no matter what I’ve got to keep it from getting into the entrance. Toro said I’d know it when I saw it, and damn if he isn’t right. I can’t let this thing live.

Hoshino went back to the kitchen to look for something else to use as a weapon, but couldn’t find anything. Suddenly he looked down at the stone at his feet. The entrance stone. That’s it! I can use the stone to smash the thing. In the dim light the stone had a more reddish cast to it than usual. He bent down and tried to lift it. It was terribly heavy, and he couldn’t budge it an inch. “I see-you’re back to being the entrance stone,” he said. “So if I close you up before that thing gets here, it won’t be able to go inside.”

Hoshino struggled with all his might to lift the stone, but couldn’t.

“You’re not moving,” he said to the stone, gulping down big breaths. “I think you’re even heavier than before. You’re a real ballbuster, you know that?”

Behind him the rustling sound continued. The white thing was steadily getting closer and closer. He didn’t have much time.

“One more try,” Hoshino said. He rested his hands on the stone, took a huge breath, filling his lungs, and held the air in. He focused all his energy on one spot and put both hands on one side of the stone. If he couldn’t lift it this time, he wouldn’t have a second chance. This is it, Hoshino! Now or never. I’m gonna do this if it kills me! With all the strength he could muster he gave a groan and lifted. The stone raised up slightly. He put his last ounce of energy into it and managed-like he was stripping the stone off the floor-to lift it up.

His head felt faint and the muscles in his arms were screaming with pain. His balls felt like they’d long since been busted. Still, he couldn’t raise it any higher. Hoshino thought of Nakata, how the old man had given his life to open and close the stone. Somehow, some way, he had to see it through to the bitter end. Toro told him he had to take over from the old man. His muscles were aching for fresh blood, his lungs dying for air to make that blood, but he couldn’t breathe. He knew he was about as close to death as you can get, the abyss of nothingness gaping open right before his eyes. But he ignored this, focused all his strength one last time, and pulled the stone toward him. It lifted up and, with a massive thud, flipped over and fell to the floor. The floor shook with the shock, the glass door rattling. The stone was tremendously, profoundly heavy.

Hoshino sat there gasping for air. “You did good,” he told himself a few moments later, once he finally caught his breath.

Once he’d closed the entrance, taking care of the white object was surprisingly simple. It was shut out of where it was headed, and it knew it. It stopped its forward advance and started crawling around the room looking for a place to hide, perhaps hoping to crawl back inside Nakata’s mouth. But it didn’t have the strength to escape. Hoshino went right after it, chopping it to pieces with his cleaver. Those pieces he chopped into even tinier ones. These little bits writhed for a while on the floor, but soon lost strength and stopped moving. They curled up into tight little balls and died, the carpet glistening with their slime. Hoshino gathered all the pieces with a dustpan, dumped them in a garbage bag that he tied closed with string, then put this bag inside another that he also tied up tight. This he put inside a thick cloth bag he found in the closet.

Completely drained, he squatted on the floor, his shoulders heaving as he took deep breaths. His hands were shaking. He wanted to say something, but couldn’t form the words. “You did a good job, Hoshino,” he managed to say a few moments later.

With all the noise he’d made attacking that white creature and flipping the stone over, he was worried that people in the apartment building had woken up and were even now dialing 911. Fortunately, nothing happened. No police sirens, no one pounding on the door. The last thing he needed was for the police to come barging in.

Hoshino knew the bits and pieces of the white thing stuffed tightly in the bags weren’t about to come back to life. There’s no place left for them to go, he thought. But it was a good idea just to make sure, so he decided that as soon as it was light he’d go to the beach and burn them all up. Turn them into ash.

And once that was over he’d head back to Nagoya. Back home.

It was nearly four by this time, and getting light out. Time to get going. Hoshino stuffed his clothes into his bag, including-just to be on the safe side-his sunglasses and Chunichi Dragons ball cap. Getting snagged by the police before he could finish would mess up the whole thing. He took along a bottle of cooking oil to use to light the fire. He remembered his CD of the Archduke Trio and tossed it in his bag as well.

Finally, he went into the room where Nakata lay in bed. The AC was still on full blast, and the room was freezing. “Hey there, Mr. Nakata,” he said, “I’m about ready to take off. Sorry, but I can’t stay here forever. I’ll call the cops from the station so they can come take care of your body. We’ll just have to leave the rest up to some kind patrolmen, okay? We’ll never see each other again, but I’ll never forget you. Even if I tried to, I don’t think I could.”

With a loud rattle the air conditioner shut off.

“You know what, Gramps?” he went on. “I think that whenever something happens in the future I’ll always wonder-What would Mr. Nakata say about this? What would Mr. Nakata do? I’ll always have someone I can turn to. And that’s kind of a big deal, if you think about it. It’s like part of you will always live inside me. Not that I’m the best container you could find, but better than nothing, huh?”

But the person he was addressing was nothing more than a shell of Mr. Nakata. The most important part of him had long since left for another place. And Hoshino understood this.

“Hey there,” he said to the stone, and reached out to touch its surface. It was back to being just an ordinary stone, cool and rough to the touch. “I’m heading out. Going back home to Nagoya. I’ll have to let the cops take care of you too. I know I should take you back to the shrine where you came from, but my memory isn’t so good and I don’t have any idea which shrine it is. You’ll have to forgive me. Don’t put a curse on me or anything, okay? I only did what Colonel Sanders told me to. So if you’re gonna put a curse on anybody, he’s your guy. Anyhow, I’m happy I could meet you. I’ll never forget you, either.”

Hoshino put on his thick-soled Nike sneakers and walked out of the apartment, leaving the door unlocked. In one hand he held his bag with all his things, in the other the bag with that white thing’s corpse.

“Gentlemen,” he said, gazing up at the dawn rising in the east, “it’s time to light my fire!”

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