He opens the tray table and sets his water bottle down, then opens a packet of chocolates and pops one in his mouth. The train leaves Ueno and returns to the world above. A few clouds float in the sky, but mostly it’s just clear blue. The sky’s as sunny as I am, he thinks. He sees a driving range, with its backstop like a giant green mosquito net. It f lows off to the left and a school slides into view, a string of concrete rectangles, uniformed students hanging around the windows. He can’t tell if they’re his age or a little older, and Satoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji spends a moment trying to figure it out, but almost immediately decides that it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same.
Whether it’s schoolkids like him or adults, everyone’s all the same. All so predictable. He turns to Kimura sitting next to him. This man is a prime example of how disappointingly boring humans are.
At first he was thrashing around, even though he was all taped up and couldn’t go anywhere. The Prince pulled the gun he had taken from him, holding it close between them so no one else could see. ‘Calm down, this’ll only be for a little while. I’m telling you, if you don’t listen to the story until the end, Mr Kimura, you’ll wish you had.’ That had settled him down.
Now the Prince asks, ‘I’ve been wondering, didn’t you at any point think that something felt strange? Me riding the Shinkansen all by myself, and you being able to find out where I was sitting so easily? It never occurred to you that it was a trap?’
‘You put that intel out there?’
‘Well, I knew you were looking for me.’
‘I was looking for you because you disappeared. Lying low, not showing up at your school.’
‘I’m not hiding. I couldn’t go to school, my whole year is on sick leave.’ It’s true. Even though there was still a while till winter, flu had broken out in his class and they were told to all stay home for a week. The epidemic showed no signs of slowing down in the following week, and they were told to stay home again. The teachers didn’t stop to consider how the f lu spreads or its gestation period, or what percentage of cases become severe, no, they just had an automatic system where if a certain number of kids are off sick then the whole class has to stay home. The Prince thought it was ridiculous. Just blindly following a set of rules to avoid assuming any responsibility, avoid taking any risks. Enacting sick leave without a moment’s hesitation, the teachers all seemed like fools to him, fools who had shut off their brains. Zero consideration, zero analysis, zero initiative.
‘Do you know what I’ve been doing while school’s been out?’ ‘Don’t care.’
‘I was finding out about you, Mr Kimura. I figured you must be pretty mad at me.’
‘I’m not mad.’
‘I’m a whole lot fucking worse than mad.’ Kimura spits the words like spitting out blood, causing a smile to crease the Prince’s cheeks. People who can’t control their emotions are the easiest to handle.
‘Well, anyway, I knew you wanted to get me. I figured you’d look for me and come at me when you found me. So I knew it would be dangerous for me to stay at home, and since you were coming for me, I figured I’d find out everything I could about you. You know, when you want to go after someone, or bring someone down, or use someone, the very first thing you have to do is gather information on them. Start with their family, their job, their habits, their hobbies, that’ll tell you what you need to know. Same way the tax bureau does it.’
‘What kind of schoolkid looks up to the tax bureau? You’re the fucking worst.’ Kimura sneers. ‘What can a kid find out, anyway?’
The Prince furrows his brow in disappointment. This man isn’t taking him seriously. He’s being fooled by age and appearance, underestimating his enemy. ‘If you pay, you can get information.’
‘What, did you break open your piggy bank?’
The Prince is utterly disenchanted. ‘Or it might not be money. Maybe there’s a man who likes schoolgirls. Says he’s willing to play private eye if he gets to feel up a naked teenager. He might find out that your wife left you, that you got divorced and live alone with your cute little kid, that you’re alcohol-dependent, that kind of thing. And maybe I have some friends, girls, who wouldn’t mind taking their clothes off if I asked them to.’
‘You’d make a schoolgirl get with an adult? Force some insecure girl into doing it?’
‘I’m just saying for example. Don’t get so excited. I’m just saying money isn’t everything, people have all kinds of desires and do things for all kinds of reasons. It’s just about leverage. Push the right button in the right way and even a schoolkid can make anyone do anything. And you know, sexual desire is the easiest button to push.’ The Prince makes sure to sound mocking. The more emotional someone gets, the easier they are to control. ‘But I was impressed when I heard about the dangerous stuff you used to be involved in. Tell me, Mr Kimura, have you ever killed anyone?’ The Prince drops his eyes to the gun in his hand, still pointed at Kimura. ‘I mean, you had this. Really cool. This thing you had on the end is so the gun doesn’t make any noise, right? Really professional.’ He holds up the silencer, now removed. ‘I was so scared I almost cried,’ he says in a dramatic sing-song, but of course it isn’t true. If he’s about to cry it’s from the effort of holding in his laughter.
‘So you were just waiting for me here?’
‘I heard you were looking for me so I spread around that I’d be on this Shinkansen. You hired someone to find out where I was, right?’
‘An old acquaintance.’
‘From when you were still in the business. And he didn’t think it was weird that you were looking for a teenage boy?’
‘At first he did. He said, I didn’t know you were into that. But when I told him my story he got heated, wanted me to find you. Nobody’s gonna do that to your boy and get away with it, he said.’
‘But in the end he betrayed you. I found out he was asking around about me so I made him a counter-offer so he’d tell you the information I wanted you to have.’
‘Once he found out he could do whatever he wanted to a teenage girl he started breathing all heavy. I thought to myself, are all adults this way?’ The Prince loves this, scratching the membrane of people’s feelings, his words like claws. It’s easy to build up your body, but developing emotional resistance is tough. Even when you think you’re calm, it’s almost impossible not to react to the pinprick of malevolence.
‘I didn’t know he was into that.’
‘You shouldn’t trust old acquaintances, Mr Kimura. Doesn’t matter what you think they owe you, they’ll eventually forget about it. Our trust-based society is long gone, if it ever even existed in the first place. But still, you actually showed up. I couldn’t believe it. You’re just such a trusting fellow. Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask, how’s your son doing?’ He devours another chocolate.
‘How the fuck do you think?’
‘Keep it down, Mr Kimura. If someone comes over here you’ll be in trouble. You’ve got a gun and everything.’ The Prince whispers theatrically, ‘Stay cool.’
‘You’re the one holding the gun.’
The Prince is continually disappointed with how Kimura never once sets foot outside of the bounds of predictability. ‘I’ll just say I managed to wrestle the gun away from you.’
‘And what about tying me up?’
‘That doesn’t matter. You’re an ethanol addict, a former security guard, currently unemployed, and I’m a typical school student. Whose side do you think they’ll take?’
‘The hell is ethanol? I’m addicted to alcohol.’
‘Ethanol is alcohol, it’s what makes drinks alcoholic. You know, I have to say I’m impressed that you managed to quit drinking. I’m serious, that’s hard. Did something happen that helped you quit? Like your kid almost dying?’
Kimura glares with fanatic malice.
‘Anyway, I’ll ask again, how’s your cute little kid doing? What’s his name? Can’t remember his name but I know he likes rooftops. But he should be careful. When little kids go to high places by themselves they sometimes fall. The railings on the roofs of department stores aren’t always solid, and kids always find the dangerous spots.’
Kimura looks like he’s about to start shouting.
‘Quiet, Mr Kimura, or you’ll be sorry.’ The Prince turns to look out the window, just as a Tokyo-bound Shinkansen hurtles past in the opposite direction, so fast it’s nothing but a blur. The whole train trembles. He feels a quiet thrill at the overwhelming speed and force. Against a giant metal object travelling at more than two hundred kilometres an hour, a human being would be powerless. Imagine putting someone down in front of an oncoming Shinkansen, they’d be splattered to bits. The overwhelming power differential fascinates him. And I’m just as dangerous. I may not be able to move at two hundred kilometres an hour, but I can destroy people just the same. A smile appears, unbidden.
The Prince’s friends had helped him take Kimura’s son out on the department store roof. Strictly speaking, they were the Prince’s classmates who followed his orders. The six-year-old boy was frightened, frightened because he had never encountered cruelty before.
Hey look, over there by the railing, look down from there. You don’t have to be scared, it’s safe.
He had said it with a warm smile, so the little boy believed him. It’s okay? I won’t fall?
He pushed him, and it felt intensely good.
Kimura scowls. ‘Weren’t you worried, sitting here, that I might get the drop on you?’
‘You know what kind of work I used to do. You had to figure I’d have a gun. If the timing worked out differently I might have killed you.’
‘I wonder.’ The Prince is actually wondering. He hadn’t felt the least bit of fear. He was more keyed up with anticipation, waiting to see if things would play out as he was betting. ‘I didn’t think you’d shoot me or stab me right away.’
‘With the way you must feel about me, getting it over with so quickly wouldn’t be enough.’ He shrugs. ‘I didn’t think you’d be satisfied if you just snuck up on me and killed me. You’d want to scare me, threaten me, make me cry, hear me apologise, right?’
Kimura neither affirms nor denies. Adults always keep their mouths shut, thinks the Prince, when I’m right.
‘Anyway, I was guessing I could get you first,’ and he pulls the home-made taser from his backpack.
‘A regular fucking electrician.’
The Prince savours the last reverberation from the passing Shinkansen, then turns back to face Kimura. ‘Mr Kimura, when you were still in the business, how many people did you kill?’
Kimura’s bloodshot eyes narrow to pinpoints. Ah, he may be tied up but he’s about ready to come at me anyway.
‘I’ve killed people,’ the Prince tells him. ‘The first time was when I was ten. Just one person. In the three years since then, nine more. Ten total. Is your number higher than that? Or lower?’
Kimura looks taken aback. The Prince is once again let down by his reaction. It takes so little to throw this guy off.
‘But I should clarify, I only killed one person myself.’
‘The hell does that mean?’
‘It’s stupid to put yourself at risk. Right? I want to make sure you don’t mistake me for someone dumb enough to do that.’
Kimura twists up his face. ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.’
‘Well, the first one,’ begins the Prince.
Back when he was in school, after coming home from class he went out again, rode his bike to the big bookstore to buy a book he wanted. On the way home he came to a main road and stopped his bike at the crossing, waiting for the signal to change. Next to him was a man in a sweater wearing headphones and staring at his phone, but no one else was around. There was barely any traffic, either–the road was so quiet that it was easy to hear the music seeping out of the man’s headphones.
There wasn’t any deep reason why he started pedalling out when the light was still red. He just thought that it was taking a long time to turn green and there didn’t seem to be any cars so there was no point in dutifully waiting for the light to change. He nudged his bike out into the road and started across. A moment later there was a cacophony behind him–screeching brakes, and the sound of impact, although actually the thud of the collision came first and the grating squeal of the brakes afterwards. He turned to look and saw a black minivan stopped in the middle of the road, a bearded man clambering out of the driver’s seat. The man in the sweater was on the ground, his phone smashed to bits.
The Prince wondered for just a moment why the man would have crossed when a car was coming, but he immediately pieced together a likely scenario: he himself had biked across, and the man just assumed that the light had turned green. Headphones in, eyes glued to his phone, he must have sensed the Prince’s bicycle move out into the road and just followed along reflexively. And then he got mowed down by a minivan. The sudden appearance of the van was more surprising to him than the man’s death, given how deserted the road had seemed, but in any case the man was dead. Even from across the street, the Prince could see that he wasn’t breathing. The cord from the headphones trailed out like a line of blood.
‘I learned two things from that.’
‘What?’ Kimura growls. ‘That you should always obey traffic signals?’
‘The first was that if you’re careful how you do it, you can get away with killing someone. The whole episode was handled like a typical traffic accident. No one even paid any attention to me.’
‘The second thing was that even though it was my fault that someone died, I didn’t feel bad at all.’
‘That’s when it started. When I got interested in killing. What it’s like to kill someone, how someone reacts when you’re killing them, that kind of thing.’
‘You wanted to try out the ultimate sin, was that it? Did you think you were special because you could imagine yourself doing something so awful that the thought never enters into normal people’s minds? Listen, everyone has those thoughts, even if they don’t do anything about it. Why is it wrong to kill people, or how can everyone be so calm when every living thing is going to die, oh, life is so empty! Everyone thinks this stuff. It’s like standard teenage angst.’
‘Why is it wrong to kill people?’ The Prince tries asking. He isn’t being cynical or making a joke, he actually wants to know the answer. He wants to meet an adult who can give him a satisfying answer. He knows that Kimura won’t be the one. He can imagine Kimura’s unconsidered position: killing someone is no problem, long as it isn’t me or my family, otherwise, who cares.
Then Kimura gives a stubbly grin. ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with killing. I mean, as long as we’re not talking about killing me or my family. But otherwise, sure, have a blast, kill and be killed.’
The Prince sighs heavily.
‘No, just disappointed at such a predictable answer. Anyway, as I was saying, after that episode I made up my mind to experiment. First I wanted to kill someone a little more directly.’
‘And that was the person you did yourself.’ ‘Exactly.’
‘So when you pushed Wataru off the roof, was that an experiment too?’ Kimura’s voice is quiet but tight, dripping venom.
‘No, no. Your kid must have wanted to play with us or something. We told him to leave us alone but he wouldn’t. We were exchanging trading cards in the car park on the department store roof. It’s dangerous up here, we said, don’t run around, but he toddled off towards the stairwell. Before we knew what was happening he fell.’
‘You and your friends pushed him!’
‘A six-year-old? From the roof?’ The Prince brings his fingertips to his open mouth in a cheesy gesture of fake shock. ‘We could never do something so horrible! The thought would never even cross my mind. Adults think the scariest things.’
‘I’ll fucking kill you.’ Kimura’s hands and feet are bound but that doesn’t stop him from lurching towards the Prince, snapping his jaws.
‘Mr Kimura, stop.’ The Prince holds his hands out in front of him. ‘What I’m about to say is important, so listen carefully. It could mean your son’s life. Just settle down for a minute.’ He sounds completely calm.
Kimura is all worked up, nostrils flaring with rage, but the mention of his son’s life stops him, and he falls back into the seat.
Then the carriage door opens behind them. It must be the snack trolley, because they hear someone say excuse me, followed by the sounds of a transaction. Kimura twists round to look.
‘Don’t try anything funny with the carriage attendant, mister.’ ‘Anything funny. You mean like ask her on a date?’
‘I mean like asking her for help.’
‘Just try and stop me.’
‘That would defeat the whole point.’
‘Defeat what point? What fucking point?’
‘That it would be so easy to open your mouth and ask for help, but you can’t. I want you to feel that powerlessness. If I physically forced you to keep your mouth shut, it would defeat the purpose. I want you to feel what it’s like not to do anything even when you could. I want to see you squirm.’
Kimura’s eyes take on a different cast, shift from anger to a mix of disgust and fear, as if he had just discovered some new horrible insect. He forces a laugh to cover his discomfiture. ‘Sorry, but the more you tell me I can’t, the more likely I am to try. That’s just the way I am. Always have been. So when the girl comes by with the cart I’m gonna throw myself at her, I’ll scream and shout, do something about this schoolkid. If you’re saying you don’t want me to, then I definitely will.’
How is this middle-aged man so stubborn? Even with arms and legs bound, even with his weapon taken from him, even with the power dynamic between us made crystal clear, how is it he can still talk down to me? The only possible explanation is that it’s because he’s older than I am. He’s lived longer than me, that’s all. The Prince can’t help but feel sorry for Kimura. And where have his thousands of wasted days got him?
‘I’ll put this as plainly as I can, Mr Kimura, so that you can understand. If you don’t follow my instructions, or if something happens to me, your little son in the hospital will be in trouble.’
Kimura is silent.
The Prince feels a mix of satisfaction and dejection. He tries to focus on the pleasure of watching someone at a complete loss. ‘I have someone standing by near the hospital in Tokyo. The hospital where your son is, understand?’
‘Near means where?’
‘Maybe it means inside the hospital. All that matters is that he’s close enough to do the job as soon as he needs to.’
‘If he can’t get in touch with me, he’ll do it.’
Kimura’s anguish shows plain on his face. ‘What do you mean, if he can’t get in touch?’
‘He’s going to call at the time we’re supposed to be pulling into each station – Omiya, Sendai, then Morioka. To see if I’m okay. If I don’t answer, if he figures that something’s wrong . . .’
‘Who is it–one of your friends?’
‘No, no. Like I said before, people do things for all different reasons. Some like girls, some want money. Believe it or not, there are grown-ups whose sense of right and wrong is totally skewed, and they’ll do pretty much anything.’
‘So what’s your guy gonna do?’
‘He apparently used to work for a medical equipment company. It wouldn’t be hard for him to do something to mess up the machine your son is hooked up to.’
‘Wouldn’t be hard, my ass. He wouldn’t be able to do anything.’
‘Well, we won’t know until he tries. Like I said, he’s waiting somewhere very close to the hospital. Waiting for the signal. All I have to do is call him and give him the green light, and he’ll do it. And if he calls me, even if it’s not one of the scheduled calls at each station, and it rings more than ten times without me answering, that’s a green light too. If that happens, my guy will go to the hospital and start messing with your son’s respirator.’
‘Some set of rules. Basically all green lights. What if we’re somewhere your phone gets no service?’
‘They’ve been installing antennas in train tunnels so I don’t think it will affect my service. But you’re probably better off praying that it doesn’t, just in case. Anyway, if you try anything funny, I just won’t pick up when my guy calls. Maybe I’ll get off at Omiya, go to the movies, turn my phone off for a couple of hours. By the time I get out of the cinema something terrible will have happened to your son’s life-support machine.’
‘You’re full of shit.’ Kimura stares daggers.
‘I am not full of shit. I’m always deadly serious. I think maybe you’re the one who’s full of shit.’
Kimura’s flaring nostrils show that he’s on the brink of an explosion, but it finally seems to dawn on him that there’s nothing he can do. His rigid body goes slack, he slumps back in the seat. The attendant is pushing the snack trolley by and the Prince makes a point to stop her and buy more chocolates. Somehow she doesn’t notice that Kimura’s hands and feet are bound. Watching Kimura sitting next to him with mouth clamped shut and face red with rage feels exquisite.
‘You should be paying attention to my phone, Mr Kimura. If I get a call and it rings ten times, you won’t be happy about what happens.’
From Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka. Used with the permission of the publisher, Abrams. Copyright © 2020 by Kotaro Isaka.