The Mantis

Kotaro Isaka, tr. by Sam Malissa

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Mantis, by Kotaro Isaka, translated by Sam Malissa. In the following passage, an underworld figure in disguise has a jarring encounter with a woman who is not who she seems, all while trying to keep the truth of his employment secret from his wife. Isaka is the author of Bullet Train as well as several other thrillers.

He glances at his watch, then takes off the janitor uniform and changes into a suit. Gets in the taxi, drives back to the airport. He’ll ride the train from there. Should be quicker.

By the time he arrives at the front gate of the school, his watch shows ten minutes past two. Made it, he thinks, although he knows that from his wife’s perspective he most certainly has not made it. He enters the school grounds, wondering whether it would look weird for him to sprint to the classroom. Then he realizes that he has no idea which class number Katsumi is in, and his spine turns to ice from one thought: She’s going to yell at me!

He pulls his shoes off in the school building entrance and looks around for guest slippers but doesn’t see any, until he spots a nearly-fallen-apart pair by the far end of the shoebox. He shoves his feet into them and takes the stairs two at a time. He guesses based on nothing that the higher class years are on the higher floors, so third-year students should be on floor three. When he emerges into the third-floor hall he looks up and down its length but there’s no sign of anyone around. No adults, no students. He checks his watch again. The hush feels like school is closed. The kids must get sent home during parent-teacher conferences.

I could still make it. He pictures his wife’s rage gauge, edging into red.

Walking down the hall, he spots a room with a placard that reads Audiovisual Room. The door is ajar. This must be where that good-looking substitute teacher has her trysts, he thinks, recalling what he heard from Katsumi. He peeks inside and has a little shock: there she is. The good-looking substitute.

‘Can I help you?’ She steps closer to the door.

‘Oh, uh, I’m Katsumi’s dad.’ His answer is awkward, almost guilty, even though he knows he’s done nothing wrong. She doesn’t appear to recognize his son’s first name, so he gives his full name. ‘I’m here for the parent-teacher conference.’

‘Aha, well, you’re in the wrong place.’ She points down the hallway and directs him to turn right at the end. ‘It’s in the next building.’

Kabuto watches her pale, delicate finger as it passes in front of him. It moves like the head of a white snake, elegant and hypnotic.

Then two things happen at once.

His phone rings. He pulls it out of his pocket and sees that it’s his wife calling, so he answers and presses it up to his ear.

As he takes his phone out of his pocket, another phone comes out with it and clatters to the floor. It takes him a moment to process that it’s the phone he took off the man he dispatched near the airport. The dynamite charm swings about as the phone spins on the ground. The good-looking teacher gently picks it up and holds it out toward Kabuto. ‘This phone—’

He waves at her to wait a moment as his wife’s voice sounds in his ear.

‘Where are you? I guess you’re not going to make it after all.’

‘No, no, I’m here.’

‘This phone,’ the teacher tries again. ‘Where did you get this?’

‘Hang on a second, I don’t have—’ But before he can finish speaking his wife cuts him off.

‘You don’t have what?’ Her voice is tight.

‘No, I didn’t mean that—’

‘Where did you get this phone?’ The substitute flips it open as if it’s hers and taps a few buttons. Kabuto wants to scold her for messing with someone else’s phone, although it’s not like it belongs to him either. ‘Wait, this is . . .’

He looks up at her. Her eyes are hard and the smile she was wearing is gone.

‘Is that a woman’s voice?’ his wife asks. ‘Who are you with?’

‘No, it’s nothing like that.’ Kabuto’s head feels hot. Fires are breaking out all around him and he doesn’t know which way to go first. If he doesn’t put them out then they’ll spread. Calm down. Think. One thing at a time. But his wife’s accusing tone and his vague guilt about being near this beautiful teacher are shaking his equilibrium. Before he knows what he’s doing, his hand shoots out and clamps over the teacher’s mouth.

‘Can you please keep quiet for a moment?’

‘What do you mean, keep quiet?’ his wife shrieks through the phone.

‘Nothing!’ he says, looking at the woman in front of him. She’s glaring down at the hand held over her mouth. There’s dried blood on his knuckles and wrist that must have come from the bomb craftsman’s nose and mouth.

Wait—The moment he thinks it he drops the phone, because the good-looking teacher has punched him in the face. What—He sees the phone fall. Hey— He almost shouts out loud, but then his arm is twisted behind his back.

Kabuto has no time to process what’s going on. He jerks his body around and wrenches his arm free. The good-looking teacher isn’t pretending to be a teacher anymore. Her foot arcs through the air toward him. He dodges, then ducks into the AV room. It wouldn’t be good if someone spotted them in the hallway.

She lunges after him. He tries to make a move like he normally would but he’s forgotten that he’s wearing junky old guest slippers and he slips and falls over backwards. She pounces on top of him. ‘Where did you get that phone?’

‘I—’ But before he answers he realizes that his phone is on the ground nearby. If the call is still going on then his wife will hear. He’s on his back with the woman straddling him. He tries to shake her off but she seems to know the right technique to pin him down because he can barely move. It finally dawns on Kabuto that this is no ordinary woman.

He struggles back and forth, working his shoulders. She must think he’s trying to attack her and she pins him even more firmly. He’s breathing hard.

The situation is so ridiculous he almost clicks his tongue. Here he is, alone with another woman, both of them panting and grunting, and his wife could be hearing everything. No doubt she would assume that he was in flagrante delicto. Explaining to her that he was only fighting with the woman would do little to help the situation.

The woman is about to say something so he strains with all his might and twists free. Now that he knows she’s not some teacher but a trained opponent, there’s no need to hold back. When Kabuto is really fighting there are not many who can keep up, not even among his fellow professionals.

He gets behind her and wraps his arm around her neck, aiming to crush her windpipe in the crook of his elbow. He squeezes. She stops moving.

He carries her to the back of the AV room and lays her down among the various equipment. From the looks of it, hardly anyone ever comes back here. Then he collects his phone and sees with a rush of relief that the call with his wife had ended. He steadies his breathing, then calls the number he has memorized. A female voice answers and announces the name of the practice. ‘I’ve had a sudden flare-up, I need to talk to the doctor.’

Kabuto exhales long and low. A sudden flare-up is code for needing the doctor’s advice about a job.

When he finally arrives at Katsumi’s classroom, his wife and son are stepping out and the next student and their parents are entering.

‘Oh hey, Dad,’ Katsumi looks up and says. He seems happy to see him, and also a shade embarrassed about it.

What’s he so happy about, Kabuto wonders. He dips his head. ‘Sorry I didn’t make it in time.’

‘All good. You had work, right?’ Katsumi sounds quite mature, his voice both casual and warm.

‘Yeah, yes. Yes I did. I had work.’

‘You shouldn’t push yourself so hard, Dad.’ Katsumi points at his father. ‘Your suit is a mess.’

Kabuto looks down at himself with a start. His tie is twisted, his collar is askew, there’s dust all over his jacket. He hastily straightens himself out.


From THE MANTIS. Used with the permission of the publisher, Overlook Press. Copyright © 2023 by Kotaro Isaka, translation copyright ©2023 by Sam Malissa.

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