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I really can't emphasize how much I was looking forward to not owing Joe—and by extension the Yakuza—money anymore. There are a lot of people more dangerous than him, like Zaroff, but these other people have a kind of code they follow very strictly. As long as I followed their rules I would be safe; something that had never been the case with Joe. He's the kind of guy who sends a group of guys to kick you around for no reason. Saying I was nervous about tonight's encounter would be an understatement.

I did a quick check of my weapon, safety off. I took Shinji's card out of my wallet and called him.

"Shinji Yamamoto speaking."

"Hey Shinji, mind giving me a ride to Tacoma?" "No problem boss, where are you at." I gave

him my address, and in about ten minutes he was there. I got in the cab.

Shinji smiled. "I remember you, took you to the airport the other day. You don't look so good."

"Good memory, and I don't feel so good either. Name's Dirk"

"Ok. So where in Tacoma?" I told him the address.

"That's a bad place boss, you sure you don't want to go somewhere else?"

"I'd like to be doing just about anything but this, Shinji."

Shinji shrugged and got to driving. It was late, and neither one of us felt like talking. In what felt like very little time, we arrived at Yakuza Joe's hideout.

It was a large traditional-styled Japanese inn, brightly lit and incredibly noisy. Everything around it was dead, like the building was a parasite sucking the life from the surrounding area. I got out of the Taxi and paid Shinji, who looked concerned.

"You want me to come in with you boss?" "I don't think you want to do that."

Shinji looked scared, but had a determined look on his face. "Don't want to. Though, I don't want you to walk in there alone either. Not sure if you'll come out. "

"I'm assuming your Japanese is better than your English?"

"Hopefully."

"I'm not going to try and stop you, but don't come in with me. Please."

We got out of the taxi and approached the front doors, which were guarded by two large, angry looking Japanese thugs. When they saw me they tensed up. They relaxed when they recognized my face. I stopped in front of them, knowing they wouldn't let me pass.

"Cooper. What do you want?" Their English was passable, if harshly pronounced.

"I'm here to square my debt with Joe."

They looked at each other, before the one on the right went inside, presumably to tell Joe I was here. Lefty scowled at me until Righty got back and nodded his head towards the door. They didn't pat me down.

"Who's this?" Righty asked.

I looked at Shinji and then back at Righty. "My translator."

Righty laughed and shoved Shinji, said something rude-sounding in Japanese, and pointed back at the Taxi. Shinji looked apologetically at me. I shrugged and tried to convey it was all right. Truth be told, I was glad they turned him away. This place wasn't safe.

I entered; Lefty followed me as an escort. The inside of the inn was always louder than expected, which I suppose was a side effect of the thin walls used in the construction of this place. Through the yelling and the screaming and the sounds of a party that never seemed to end, I heard something else, something rumbling and angry. A patch of what looked like tar on the ceiling above me watched me with a single, bloodshot eye.

I tried to keep my eyes straight ahead. We passed open doors to rooms where desperate people were playing the odds at rigged games with the last of their money, where the prostitutes were at work, or where groups of people were lying on the floor with syringes in their arms. There was other stuff too, people who I assumed had pissed off Joe. Like I said, I tried not to look.

The spiritual stench of impotent rage filled the place. A mindless group of spirits who lacked the power to avenge themselves seethed and roiled like a storm, primal and dangerous. More and more patches of dull, black tar with bloodshot, runny eyes clung to the walls and ceiling the deeper I got. Every nasty thing that ever happened here accumulated over time, layer after layer of resentment and despair piling up until it started to form a will of its own. It'd been growing alarmingly fast here over the past year, I wasn't sure why.

It scared me almost as much as Joe did, how close they were to reaching the critical mass they would need to start acting on their own. Weeks, if not less. I hated that the thought crossed my mind, but they were an asset I could use, a bullet I could fire.

My presence empowered them, gave them eyes and ears again. Tar bubbled and dissolved as I passed it, forming a thin, black cloud. They started to gather around me like a swarm of wasps, buzzing and angry. To anyone else the signs would be subtle, my hair moving as though in a slight breeze, the faint sound of scratching on the walls and soft whispers of doom. I took deep breaths, my mind hardening against the flood of emotion, my body resisting their attempts to seize control.

I reluctantly pushed the spirits away. The temptation and promise of the power they could bring were like sweet, sweet poison, it never ends well. Lefty saw my discomfort and laughed, giving me a shove to keep walking forward.

We arrived in the main area, which was filled with laughing drunks in light-blue bath robes. From what I understand, they're what you wear when you're staying in a Japanese inn. Spaced every couple of feet along the walls were dark suited men standing stoically, ready to respond lethally to either the first signs of trouble, or Joe's displeasure.

Joe sat in the middle of everything, atop a slightly raised wooden platform, shirtless and surrounded by half-clothed women. He was large and muscled like a gorilla, his skin tight and covered in colorful tattoos. His head was completely bald and continued the tattoo pattern covering his body. His face was red from drink and had a large smile on it, though it conveyed a sense of cruelty rather than joy. Lefty deposited me in front of Joe, who eyed me as though I was a strange, ugly creature. I now had the attention of Joe's enforcers.

The spirits of the dead followed me and massed in the room, I felt them writhe and twist around people in the crowd from the corner of my eye, proclaiming their guilt and demanding justice. There was a bad vibe running through the room and I would be stupid to assume I was the only one who could feel it.

"Jun says you are here to pay me the rest of my money."

I nodded, being careful not to make eye- contact. When I was younger I might have cut a more defiant stance, but that was before I'd learned what eight people's fists and feet felt like. "I am."

He looked at me and raised his eyebrows in what looked like the beginnings of anger. "Well? I see no money."

I produced the cashier's check, held it out with both hands, palms up, and bowed my head. Lefty took it and handed to Joe. Joe looked at it for a long moment before saying something in Japanese and handing it to a thin, fearful looking man. He examined at it, both sides, before pocketing it and saying something in Japanese to Joe.

Joe stared. "Well, Dirk Cooper, it seems you are finally paying me the respect I deserve. Our business is done; you owe me nothing more."

I nodded my head respectfully, keeping the surge of pure glee rushing through me under iron control. "Thank you" I kept my head bowed until Lefty grabbed me by the shoulder and turned me around, leading me out of the room. We weren't headed outside.

The jolt of panic that shot through me was all the opening the spirits needed to get a foot in the door of my mind; my psychic senses sharpened, like everything simultaneously becoming blurry and ultra defined.

I could see them now, like clouds of black burned up paper full of tiny eyes and hands reaching out at me, their screams of anger louder than ever. Some of them were already fusing together, giving me the shape of what they could become, something covered in eyes and mouths full of sharp teeth.

Then I heard something that really scared me: deep grunting and wet splashes. They threw me into a dark room that smelled like shit and rotten meat, the sounds were loudest here. I coughed and got up, then I heard the squealing. "Fucking pigs."

Dim lights came on to reveal a scene out of a nightmare. The door I'd been pushed through led to a raised concrete platform overlooking a large room filled with black mud, inside the mud were things better left unsaid. Joe walked into the room, flanked by Lefty and Righty, who were holding a man with a gag in his mouth.

"Like my pigs, Dirk?" Joe said. His English, which was rough and poorly spoken before, was now perfect.

I looked into the darkness, and at least a dozen pairs of hateful eyes stared back at me.

"They hate the light. Hurts their eyes. Poor piggies." Joe made a small motion toward the pit, and without hesitation, Lefty and Righty threw the man into it. The pigs didn't hesitate either. Massive filthy bodies moved in like a spider striking its prey and began to tear the man to shreds before my eyes.

"They love to eat though," Joe said, smiling conspiratorially.

I looked away and felt my growing anger resonate with the spirits surrounding me.

"This is all they eat, they have a very strict diet," he said.

My vision grew black around the edges, everything was stained red. More of the spirits had fused together, they were reaching out to me.

Joe pointed at the pigs. "He didn't pay what he owed. You paid, so I'll tell you a secret. There's a door on the wall past the pigs that leads to safety."

Before I could process what he'd said, Joe pushed me in. The landing winded me and covered me in filth, sending a fresh wave of pain through my chest. I barely noticed.

"If you make it. . . you are free." Joe started laughing.

I knew what the dead wanted, but they didn't know how to do it or even that they could do it, and I couldn't let them take me. I cautiously got up and began edging my way around the herd of swine, praying they were all busy eating.

Something slammed into me from behind, a fat brown sow with red eyes was on top of me, snapping. It was so heavy, I was barely able to hold it back with my hands. Joe's laughter intensified and my arms started to give out.

In the end, it was their cries of grief, their sobbing sadness when they saw me about to die, that pushed me to do what I did. "Go into the pigs!"

It was like an electrical shock went through the room. Everything seemed to go quiet, the pig still on top of me snapping.

Then, as though my words had revealed the obvious solution, the spirits descended into the pit below, surrounding the pigs like flies and forcing their way into their eyes and mouths.

The pigs screamed and writhed. I heard someone curse in Japanese above us. Then, one by one, they stopped screaming and turned to look directly at Yakuza Joe, eyes shining black.

"Die Screaming." The words came from my mouth, but they were not my own. I walked past the pigs, I knew I was safe from them now. There really was a door on the other side, Joe hadn't been lying.

I left it open, and the pigs followed me.

--

I snuck out of the building, and made my way to the parking lot. It was easy when the guards had much bigger things to worry about than me. I heard gunshots and people yelling inside. Good luck killing them, assholes.

I got into the taxi where a relieved looking Shinji started driving immediately.

"Don't you want to know where to take me next?"

Shinji responded quickly, "I'm guessing you would be good with anywhere but here. You reek."

"Sorry about the seats, again. If that's the worst thing to follow me out of there, I'm a lucky man," I said, just before looking out the back window to see an ominous black car following us. "Shit."

--

I told Shinji to drop me off at Pike Place Market, far enough from my home to keep it safe, but close enough to walk to if I made it out of this alive. I walked down the street and into the alleyway featuring the second most unsanitary tourist attraction in the world: the Gum Wall. It's been a couple of months since they've scraped the gum off, so it was caked on a good half foot thick. Gross, but cool in its own way.

I waited, too exhausted to continue moving. Anticipation made my heart pound, which only served as a painful reminder I was in no condition for a fight. I heard them before I saw them, loud and rowdy, the way people get when they're excited. I had my hand around my still-hidden gun, taking deep breaths in an attempt to remain calm. To a certain degree, it was working.

Then they spotted me. No amount of controlled breathing was going to keep the adrenaline out of my body now. My heart pumped blood at a furious pace, I almost didn't feel the pain. And what little pain I did feel seemed trivial compared to my survival.

There were eight of them, Joe's enforcers, Righty was with them. I don't know how much they knew, odds were good they were the just-in-case men waiting outside the building for me. Best case scenario, I shoot and kill five. Running wasn't an option, not in my condition. Talking them down was the only safe solution. "Evening."

They stopped joking around, moving to attack. I put up as much of a fight as I could, I really did. There's only so much I could do though. They took my gun and there weren't any spirits around here that could help me.

They had their fun first, kicking and punching me for a while. I could barely see anymore, the alleyway was too dark to make out anything but the silver gleam of a knife. I shut my eyes. I didn't even feel it stab me. The only sensation I could register was an overwhelming cold. I started to shiver uncontrollably. I guess Hell is frozen this time of year.

"Get up, Dirk!"

I opened my eyes to a winter wonderland. Well, more like a winter nightmare. The alleyway was lit by the unnatural glow of Frosty, everything was frozen, covered by a dusting of snow. More importantly, however, were the eight Yakuza members who were frozen solid in various positions of attack; one of them had been trying to get a smoke lit. I looked at Frosty, who was wide eyed and breathing hard.

"Huh. You can still feel adrenaline when you're dead," I said, then spat the blood out of my mouth.

Frosty looked at the frozen corpses of the Yakuza members, as did I. It was gross and petty, but I searched them and found a large wad of cash inside Righty's jacket. Feeling entitled to it, I grabbed it and did a very quick count.

"Son of a bitch. I didn't think I was worth this much. I'm almost flattered." Well, they didn't need it anymore and I needed to get to the hospital if my broken ribs were any indication.

"Hey! Stop dicking around and get out of here! I'll lead the way," Frosty said.

I had the feeling he was more stressed about the situation than I was.

I looked around and grabbed my gun from the ground where one of the thugs had thrown it. "Don't need to tell me twice Frosty."

I pointed to all the blood on the ground, most of it mine. "Freeze and thaw that a couple of times for me and I'll call it even for you trying to kill me."

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About the author

saltywaters

Bio: I'm a man with a full-time job, a wife, a baby boy, and another on the way.

I get up at 3:30 am every day so that I can write, and I love it.

Thank you for taking the time to get to know me a little better, and I hope you enjoy my stories.

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