An extract from Denise Kuehl’s debut novel, Duality – A Dead Russian in Osaka.
Saturday early evening
A warehouse in the Osaka Bay area had been granted a second lease on life. From the outside, not much had changed. The external façade did not stand out among its gray surroundings, but an enormous neon sign announced in icy blue letters the name of the club it had been converted to. Most patrons who came this far at night already knew where they were going – to the Winter Palace. A discreet but massive young bouncer did occasionally turn some lost tourists in sandals back to the amusement park district a few blocks over that they had accidentally stepped out of. This side of the park was not the best area to build a nightclub in, but with the help of his title at Kuzmich Holding K.K. Yuri had gotten the warehouse dirt cheap.
His business partner had promised a concept that would fill the place and keep the crowd entertained long after the last train of the night departed back to the city. Perhaps even until the first train left again in the morning.
Bringing the homeland to Japan. Experience the winter wonderland of Russia in the heart of the Kansai region – the idea had struck a chord with Yuri and he adopted the club as his pet project – outside the official Kuzmich Holdings portfolio. Misha, seeing his brother’s enthusiasm, had supported him and his project – a good way to improve his business skills.
Yuri’s timing was great. The Japanese infatuation with all things French and all American products had been waning. Russia, the giant neighbor was the new, exciting unknown. A hint of danger and thus fascinating to the counterculture movement. With this perception, he made a decent amount of money, so Yuri did not mind catering to the stereotype. It also helped to have a place with good music to hang out with the band.
In broad daylight, the atmosphere of the Winter Palace lost much of its nighttime magic. Yuri moved across the second floor of the club. His steps resounded in the big open space, usually filled with loud music. He was nervous, but he was not willing to admit as much, even to himself. The mismatch of chairs lined up in front of the stage below looked like a collection from a furniture resale shop. The too-heavy curtain that served as the backdrop of the little stage and usually was a dark royal blue now looked garish and pompous as the house lights were set to their brightest levels. There was a glass containing a clear liquid on top of the rented podium on the stage where he would address the assembled press in a few moments. Yuri hoped it wasn’t just water. Much too soon, the time had come. Yuri closed his eyes for a moment, exhaled, and walked down the stairs that led to the first floor and onto the small stage.
The two dozen or so reporters welcomed him with a firework of photography, the shutter noise rising into quite the cacophony. He came to a halt behind the small podium and blinked against the flashes. As the colors stopped dancing in front of his eyes, he looked at the small crowd in front of him, pausing for effect until the last shutter sounds quietened down. It was strange standing in front of an assembly of people he would usually avoid, but severe situations required challenging solutions.
At least for the foreseeable future, the media would no longer have to resort to using that horrible picture of him taken years ago by a paparazzo as he exited the town hall in Hakodate. It had been a dreadful, windy day and his hair had been all over his face. That picture had led to two changes: one, he had changed his appearance from the unruly lion’s mane to a carefully coiffured mix of long braids and cornrows. And two, he had added his lawyer’s number on speed dial. With the press of a button, he could now suppress any new unflattering photos whenever they turned up. Father had always said, back in Russia, there would be other means to have images, or those taking them, disappear, but in Japan, the entertainment industry had taught him that all he needed was a lawyer and a certain amount of cash. Yuri could appreciate these sophisticated ways of doing business.
He gave a purposeful glance at the picture set up next to the podium. A dark-haired man in his 30s looked out with his pronounced occidental features – his older brother, Misha. Yuri had grown up in Misha’s shadow. The older brother had been raised with the expectation to lead, and Yuri had been raised with the blessing to make his own happiness. This had not changed when their father fell sick and returned to Moscow, leaving Misha in charge of the Japan-side of the business. And Yuri had followed the path in life that made him happy. Until Misha had gone missing almost a week ago.
“Thank you for coming at this short notice,” Yuri addressed the expectant press in fluent Japanese. He was glad they had decided against the spotlight on him. Even with just the houselights, his beloved coat made him feel warm and slightly uncomfortable. But there were certain images to be upheld and nothing said money as loudly as this white coat made of stoat furs. It was custom-tailored, hung wider around the knees, and open in the front. The black slacks and dress shirt he wore under the coat made for a stark contrast to the spotless white.
“As you are all aware, my brother, Misha Kuzmich, has been missing for seven days now. And the Osaka Prefectural Police show a distressing lack of progress.”
Yuri paused for effect, and the slight murmur of voices told him he had received the reaction he had expected. Despite his rather Asian features, looking at him, people saw only the foreigner with blond and extravagant hair. Nobody would mistake him for a Japanese man, and locals would be surprised to find he could not only talk circles, but even hexagons around them in their native language. The moment they did recognize his language skills though, they also expected him to act like a Japanese person. Publicly stating a controversial opinion and challenging a government institution, like the police, caught even journalists looking for the next big scoop off guard.
“I’m certain someone out there has some information. Today I would like to appeal directly to those people. If you know where my brother is, if you have any information with regards to his disappearance, I ask you to step forward.” The words flowed easily and with the conviction he had practiced all morning as he had memorized them.
“I offer ten million yen to anyone with information that can reunite me with my brother. If you have any lead pertaining to this case, please contact Detective Asami and her team with the Osaka Prefectural Police Department. You will find her contact details on the handout my colleagues will pass around now.”
The OPPD would be thrilled, Yuri knew, but he could not care less. If they were incapable of doing their job by themselves, he was going to help them. He had considered warning them of his little press stunt beforehand but had decided against it. Sometimes it was wiser to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. A reward big enough to buy a small home would bring a deluge of information that someone would have to sieve through, separating helpful clues from money-hungry opportunists’ imaginations.
“I ask for your support in this very important matter so that I can be reunited with my brother.” Yuri closed his speech.
“Kuzumichi-san,” a reporter called out, slaughtering his family name in the process. “Is it true that you are involved with the Russian mafia?”
“Your brother was last seen in the Tobita Shinchi district. Was he meeting with an escort? Did he have a gambling problem?
“Could he have returned to Russia?”
“What clues have the police and which leads are they following?”
Yuri stepped back, forcefully pacing his steps to seem calm and in control, when all he wanted was to flee the stage. He did not want to hear these accusations from strangers. It was bad enough that he had been wondering himself. But he had bottled up those feelings, corked them, and double-sealed the top. There was time for emotions and there was time for calm, calculated actions. His father had made sure to teach his sons the difference. On the stage, the nightclub’s PR manager explained to the disappointed press that he would not answer questions. Yuri reckoned he had given enough information to make the seven pm news and print media for the next morning.
He walked back up the staircase leading to the second floor, where he had been waiting before the start of the press conference. The lights in this section had been turned off, but he knew the club well enough to navigate without them. A small lounge area with bright-red plastic-covered sofas sat back against the wall. All but one sofa were empty. From below, Yuri could hear his team ushering the journalists out.
“How dare you slander the Osaka Prefectural Police Department like this, Kuzmich?”
Detective Asami stood as he approached. She wore her slightly large suit jacket and had her hands balled into fists at her side. Her voice was a hiss but controlled in volume so the exiting journalists would not overhear them. Yuri smiled to himself, having raised the professionally collected Asami to such a level of emotion – served her right. If Asami had been doing her job, there would have been no need for Yuri to step up.
“If I were you, I’d be running to explain to my bosses why they will need to hire a few extra hands on the telephone hotlines, Detective.”
“You had no right to do this Kuzmich. You must talk to us before you–”
“No, I mustn’t. I think that was rather clear. You have a responsibility to society. If people go missing, it is your job to find them. You have made but a token effort to locate my brother. You have accused him and defamed us. I will not stand for it.”
“We have thoroughly investigated every lead we–”
“Don’t finish that sentence when you know it’s a lie. I will find my brother. If you’re not with me, well, as you have seen, I have other means of getting this done.”
“You should have talked to us before going to the media,” Asami implored.
“Be glad I gave you a heads-up at all before this press conference.”
The detective ground her jaw. With her hair tied back, Yuri could almost see the muscles bulge on the side of her face. Then he watched, not without amusement, as she swallowed what she would have liked to say and instead took a deep breath.
“In our experience, offering a reward will lead to a lot of unreliable information and hamper the true investigation.”
“You better get going then. Your phone will start ringing soon.” Yuri handed Asami a copy of the information that had been shared with the press moments before. In a neat one-pager, it summarized Yuri’s statement, highlighted quotable parts, and, of course, the reward. On the bottom of the page, in a little box, it had Asami’s contact details at the OPPD and her direct number.
Yuri turned around, ready to leave, when Asami cursed in a language that even the Russian would have found offensive, if he had cared to listen.