How the hell had I managed to get myself into this one?
“Face the wall!”
A face is your expression... A wall is just a wall... Wait, what did “the” mean again? These guys didn’t seem to care that I was some kid who couldn’t speak English. They yelled something (a warning, I think?), but my head was shoved against the wall before I could respond.
It all began with a lotto drawing in my old local shopping district back in Japan.
“Congratulations! You’ve won the grand prize, a five-day, three-night trip to New York Ci--!”
The deafening gong-gong of the bell cut the shopkeeper short just as he was finishing up.
Gong, gong, gong, gong, gong...
My ears were still ringing with the sound when I arrived in America. To be honest, second prize would have been just fine.
I made my way towards Manhattan Bridge amidst a forest of skyscrapers. I’d decided to eat in Chinatown; it was common sense to eat ramen when you couldn’t find anything else. They’d called it a grand prize, but they hadn’t given me much money for expenses, so I was finding my trip to be far from a luxurious vacation. They had given me two tickets, though, so I sold the spare at some second-hand passport shop for a little pocket money.
I was pleased to find New York home to a popular Japanese chain of gyuudon restaurants, especially because their food was so cheap, but seeing their signs written out in the alphabet made it weird. I’d only spent a day here, but already I found myself longing to see kanji again.
I thought about these things as I walked, when suddenly I heard a scuffle. Five or six boys were making a fuss in the mouth of an alley. They were standing around something looking excited, and I edged closer to see what it was. Just then the youngest-looking one grabbed my arm with a grin. “Look, look!”
What was it? My curiosity piqued, I peered into the center of the group.
...There wasn’t anything there.
Just before I could say so, I was startled by a shout, and suddenly the entire group was leaping toward me.
Which is where my story began.
I thought I’d be able to handle myself if I ever got into trouble like this, but in reality, I didn’t even have time to react. I have no idea what happened to me after that. The sun was hot on the asphalt when I came to, and the boys had disappeared around a bend in the alley.
Well, at least they didn’t kill me. That happy thought was quickly whisked away, though, when I noticed that all my luggage was missing. That wasn’t good. I should probably have been thankful that I still had my life, but it’s human nature to forget about the knife as soon as it leaves your throat. Now that I think about it, there were probably plenty of opportunities to retaliate. Even though they were all in hindsight, I still have a hard time letting the thought go. I was trying to break into the animal photography business, so I’d brought a bunch of expensive cameras and equipment along. It was all stolen.
Damn it, how many hundred thousand yen had that camera cost? Just thinking about it still pisses me off.
I struggled to hold my anger in check as I contacted the police through my hotel. It looked like I was being forced to assume the role of the typical foreigner fallen victim to city crime, which was almost as annoying as the mugging itself. The police’s reaction was just as disappointing; all they did was hand me the minimal documents required to apply for insurance. Apparently they didn’t bother with cases like this unless you were injured or held at gunpoint.
I’d saved up a ton of money to buy that camera, though, and I wasn’t going to forget about it so easily. It had cost so much that I hadn’t been able to afford any insurance afterwards. Besides, I didn’t want to return to Japan while I was still angry enough to punch that damn shopkeeper in the face.
I fantasized using a good sumo move or two on those thieves even as I begged the police for more help. They were sympathetic, but a stolen camera just wasn’t on par with homicide, so they couldn’t do anything else about it. An elderly policeman took a second look at my report, though, taking special note of where the mugging had occurred. The translator told me what he was muttering.
“Maybe there is a way for you to get your camera back...though really don’t recommend it.”
“My, my... You’ve met with quite the calamity, haven’t you?”
The man who showed up at our designated meeting place had very gentle features, chestnut hair, and round glasses. He looked like your stereotypical banker. His Japanese was fluent enough that at first I thought he was a native, but on closer inspection realized that he didn’t look Japanese at all. The old policeman had simply called someone and then told me to come here and ask the man who met me for help, and that I wouldn’t need a translator. He’d had an unreadable expression on his face that I couldn‘t shake from my mind.
“You got lucky, you know. The policeman who called me, Paul Noah, is an acquaintance of mine. You’d be crying yourself to sleep if he hadn’t decided to help.”
That was a Japanese phrase for being forced to accept an unfavorable situation; he must have had an exceptional grasp of the language to know colloquial things like that. His pronunciation was perfect too--well, almost; it sounded a little older than modern Japanese.
“I heard about your problem. Bobby might have stolen your luggage, but I can’t be sure; all kinds of pranks have been common in this neighborhood recently.”
...He thought of this kind of thing as a prank? That made me suspicious. He was probably a detective or something, but something about him seemed off. Regardless, I’d finally found someone I could talk to in Japanese, and that made me feel better.
For the moment, anyway.
“How about this? You give me 10% of what your stolen luggage is worth, and I’ll negotiate with them in order to get it back for you.”
...So this guy was the leader of that pack of thieves. Not only could he make a tenth of what my stuff was worth, but he could eliminate the risk and hassle of trading in the stolen goods for cash.
On the other hand, losing a tenth of it was better than losing it all. I tried not to let my guard down around the man as I considered my options.
“...Okay. It’s a deal.”
The man turned without another word, gesturing for me to follow.
I hoped he wasn’t planning to cut me open and sell my organs on the black market. The thought made me nervous, and I decided to run screaming if he took me someplace dodgy. If they killed me to harvest my organs, was I actually selling them my body?
The man led me to a bar on the corner of the main street while I was thinking to myself. The sign was a picture of a beehive with English letters in it; since I couldn’t read them, I just called it the Honeycomb. We were met by the sweet smell of honey as we stepped inside. It was a lot bigger than it looked, a high-class restaurant instead of the tiny bar it looked like from the outside. It didn’t look like the kind of place to scam someone in. While a few men looked as suspicious as the one who’d brought me inside, there were also some elderly people and young children, even couples. Seeing them put me at ease.
The man walked towards the bar and spoke to another man, who nodded and disappeared into the back without a word. I remembered I hadn’t paid him yet.
“All right, I told him about your situation. He’ll go and recover your possessions now, he’s familiar with a lot of the youngsters living around here. I think he’ll be able to find them rather quickly.” He was obviously in league with the thieves, but he somehow managed to maintain an air of innocence, and I found it hard to call him on it.
“Say, why don’t we talk about something while we wait?”
I had no idea what to talk about with him, so I decided to ask why his Japanese was so good.
“Ah, that’s because there’s a Japanese man in the organization’s upper ranks. His name is Yaguruma-san; he’s taught me a variety of different things, though I learned modern Japanese from movies and manga.”
Organization? Was he talking about the Mafia? I didn’t really care if he was, I just wanted him to be frank, and I told him so.
“Oh, no, we’re not a part of the Mafia, though a lot of people think we are. We’re actually Camorra, have you heard of us?”
I told him I hadn’t.
“The Mafia are from Sicily; they used to act as an armed defense for the rural farms and villages there, sort of like how the modern police force works here. Camorra are from Naples. They say we originated from the prisons there, but I’m not very clear on the details.”
They’d originated in prison? When he put it that way, it sounded like the Mafia were the good guys and the Camorra couldn’t be trusted. I decided not to say that bit aloud.
“I’m the booker in our organization,” he continued, “I manage the funds. In the Mafia they’d call me an accountant.”
I told him they sounded the same to me. He chuckled.
“Nowadays everyone calls us Mafia. They think we’re all drug dealers, smugglers, Russian mobsters, part of the Chinese triads... But the Camorra are only powerful in Naples. We grew up here in America; we don’t have any real connection to them anymore.”
He was giving me a lot of information, but I didn’t really understand. I’d never even run into any organized crime syndicates in Japan. Camorra, Mafia...whichever, they were all the same to me. Those groups who thrived in the shadows of society didn’t seem real to an average citizen like me.
“That’s normal. Only about 1% of New York’s population interacts with the Mafia, and the amount of people they’ve endangered is even less. I’m a pretty nosy person, so a lot of people in a position like yours want to see me. The number of people who actually do make up an even smaller fraction of that 1%.”
...I wanted to cry at my lousy luck. By that time, though, I had already fallen victim to the man’s extraordinary conversation skills. He made me feel like I was chatting with an old friend, when in reality we didn’t even know each other’s names.
“Actually, there are probably a lot more people who interact regularly with the Mafia,” he continued, “since they don’t exactly announce themselves, you know?”
I knew that from the movies. It was called Omertà, if I remembered correctly; a code of silence that members of organized crime adhered to. They wouldn’t expose themselves for fear of what their enemies would do.
But if that was true, then why were you telling me all these things at our first meeting?
“Haha! Well I don’t know about the other organizations out there, but we’re not nearly that strict. We don’t commit monstrous acts of revenge, anyway. In the Sicilian Mafia, members aren’t allowed to talk about their own organization at all, but we Camorra...well, back when we were a branch of the American Mafia we used to have rules like that, but nowadays anyone’s allowed to say whatever they want--even the boss will agree to media interviews.”
So they were a bunch of show-offs. The man fell silent as I said this, then burst out laughing, meeting my eyes with a curious look as it slowly died down again.
“To actually say that in front of a member of the Camorra... Aren’t you scared?”
“Do you think I‘m not really a member?”
Nope. I don’t see the point of lying about the being in the Camorra, even temporarily.
“...You’re a very strange man. When that Paul guy mentioned you, I thought you were nothing but a sitting duck.”
Like that was any of your business! Besides, if you were so fluent in Japanese you should know to attach -san to the names of your elders. To Paul-san‘s name. Even if the elderly aren‘t revered in America, you should at least pay him a little respect.
...I think. My knowledge of American customs came from my travel guide.
It was in that moment, that casually uttered statement, that my entire life was thrown so far out of balance that I couldn’t possibly have imagined its impact. The silence this time dragged on longer than the last, but the man finally broke it with a smile, muttering, “What a coincidence... Hmm... How amusing...”
What the hell was he talking about? The man laughed at my confusion, his face lighting up as if he was a child who had discovered a new toy...or one who’d come up with a plan for mischief. When I made a gesture betraying my utter bewilderment he leaned in and whispered, “Paul is my junior.”
...Huh? What did he just say? No matter how you looked at him, it was evident that old policeman was past his prime... Maybe it was just his face?
“That’s all right, let’s go back to what we were talking about before. I’ve met around a hundred people over the last sixty years I’ve spent as Camorra, excluding the police and friends who already knew me. But without coincidental meetings like this, I wouldn’t be able to meet tourists like you, haha!”
For a moment I thought I’d heard wrong. Sixty years? He looked so young... I knew it was difficult for me to tell a Caucasian man’s age from his appearance alone, but I didn’t think he looked even half of sixty.
The man noticed me staring and adjusted his glasses, embarrassed. “Well, I’m an Immortal, you see. I can’t die.”
Oh, okay, this guy was just making some American joke.
“I see you don’t believe me. Well, it’s true. I can be cut or burned, it doesn’t matter; I still won’t die.”
It looked like these American jokes were the long kind. I answered him politely, and he smiled.
Then he removed a knife from his breast pocket and plunged it calmly into his hand.
For a moment I wasn’t sure what had just happened. Bright red blood was starting to drip from the where the knife stuck out of his hand. I stared, dumbstruck, as the man began to laugh.
“It’s all right... Watch.”
He pulled the knife out slowly. I thought a river of blood would follow, but it had stopped completely. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing--and then it got even stranger.
The blood that had spilled onto the table began to wriggle like it was alive, then rose as it was sucked back up into its host. Once all of it had returned, the wound closed up entirely. There wasn’t so much as a bloodstain left on the table.
If I’d been watching this on a movie screen, I probably would have laughed, but unfortunately, I’d seen it with my own eyes. The way the blood defied gravity, the way the wound healed itself in an instant--it was like they were nothing but pretty, cheesy CG effects. It was surreal.
Surely I wasn’t the only one in the restaurant--the world, even--to have witnessed such a supernatural event. Here, now, inside this antique wine-bar, a man had just defied the laws of physics, and yet no one--not a customer, not a clerk--had even glanced his way.
My thoughts scattered, I opened my mouth to ask this...person-thing standing before me:
Are you going to kill me?
The man stared at me for a moment, then smiled softly.
“Well, this is the first time I’ve gotten this kind of reaction. Usually I get crosses or guns aimed at me, though the people responsible for latter are, of course, taken into police, poor souls... Hell, even just the sight of the knife has sent a few people running.”
“...Why would I kill you?”
Because you’re a monster, I answered honestly. Immediately afterwards I wanted to apologize, but he couldn’t play jokes like this on people just to surprise them.
“...You’re quite the strange one. This is the first time I’ve seen anyone react so calmly.”
People called me insensitive, not calm. Shock and fear have always gone right over my head, ever since I was nearly eaten by a bear in Hokkaido. I’ve been told to become a wartime photographer, but I stick with ordinary animals because I don’t want to die.
As I spoke the man held my gaze and listened, amused. “You really are an interesting person. Say, since this is such an unusual occasion, would you like to hear a tale about my past? I can tell you how I gained the power of immortality... I think it’d be a good way to kill time, if nothing else.”
It sounded like it would be an interesting story, but...was it really okay to share it with me on our first meeting?
“I don’t mind. Besides, it’s not like anyone else would believe you.”
I asked again if this was all related to religion somehow, just to be sure. How lucky was I to be in the presence of a real live Immortal? Thinking back on it now, I think I was just incredibly stupid.
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s not related to anything like that, I really do just want to kill time... Though there is a demon involved.”
The man, a self-proclaimed booker for the Camorra and an Immortal to boot, placed an order with the waitress. When he spoke, he spoke slowly.
“Well then, shall we begin? There once was a man who drink the demon’s liquor, which granted him immortality. The poor man traced a long, lonely path through the ages. This story is set in New York during the Prohibition-era. It’s about the sudden appearance of the Liquor of Life, and the spiral of events played out by everyone who was sucked into the same, unfortunate fate.”