Bullet - a short story
After I wrote the dramatic short story ''Visitors'' about a Japanese Yakuza in Taiwan a few months ago, I decided to write yet another gangster story set in the same country. ''Bullet'' only takes place in one location and only involves two characters, so I wanted to make sure that the location has a particular atmosphere and that the characters have depth and development. This short story is a little bit shorter than the ones I wrote before because I really wanted to get to the point and avoid unnecessary lengths. Some information is given between the lines but I'm sure you will figure that out. Enjoy!
The heavy iron door closed with a definite thump behind Eizo. The calm man who had celebrated his fiftieth anniversary last week was dressed in black shoes, black trousers, black blazer, white shirt with long sleeves and blood-red tie. Eizo didn't look back and tried to figure out what was in front of him. He screwed up his eyes to see something in the pitch black basement but that was an impossible task. He could barely see the grey cement stairs leading down below him. His instinct however told him that he wasn't alone in this isolated bunker under an abandoned factory just outside of Taipei.
As he walked down the stairs loudlessly like a black jaguar, Eizo thought about how he got in this situation. After the tragic death of his parents in a car crash, he had grown up with his criminal uncle who had worked for a Yakuza clan in the northern suburbs of Fukuoka. His uncle had quickly introduced him into the clan and he had started to work as a debt collector when he had only been sixteen years old. Thanks to his mathematical skills, he had started to work as an accountant when he had been nineteen years old. The clan had then financed his bachelor and master degrees in accountancy at a renowned private university and he had become the main counselor of the Yakuza boss when he had been twenty-four years old. Five years later, the leader's personal bodyguard had conspired against the clan with the help of another clan in the process of a turf war. His boss had been decapitated and his uncle had been shot in the head which had caused him to be in a brainless coma for the next eighteen months before Eizo had decided to shut off the machines that had kept him alive. Eizo had been out of town during the massacre and had then organized a vendetta in the underground over the next three years. With a group of survivors, mercenaries and friends, he had killed a group of seventeen people responsible for the downfall of his former clan. Eizo and two mercenaries had been captured while all other associates had been slaughtered. The two mercenaries had committed suicide in a prison cell but Eizo had managed to kidnap a guard and flee the country on a stolen yacht. He had arrived in Taipei eighteen years ago and had started to work for his former leader's cousin who had guaranteed his protection in exchange for his services as assistant to the security chef.
Eizo had been very active in the first few years in and around Taipeh. His services had been requested less and less over the past twelve months. Eizo had married a Taiwanese waitress a few months upon his initial arrival. The childless couple had been living in a comfortable loft by the sea for fifteen years before she had left him for an unknown younger man only six months ago. Eizo had been living in a spartanic three-room apartment in an industrial suburb of Taipei for the past four weeks. Eizo had received the call to come to the abandoned factory early in the morning. Nobody had escorted him to this place but he had known right away that he didn't have any choice but to follow those orders.
As Eizo reached the bottom of the stairs, he already knew what was coming next. He had escorted numerous people to this place over the past eighteen years. Some had come out of this basement alive while others had died in this sinister location. Today, Eizo's loyalty was going to be put to the test in a duel.
Eizo could hear the heavy breath of his nervous enemy on the other side of the room as he moved forward smoothly towards the heavy iron table screwed into the solid ground with the two iron chairs which were equally immovable.
As the assistant to the security chef reached the table with his thin fingers and touched the chair with his right leg, he tried to figure out what his opponent might look like. The heavy breathing could indicate that his opponent hadn't experienced such a duel before. The fact that Eizo had reached the table first even though his opponent must have arrived in the basement before him further underlined his potential lack of experience. Eizo expected a nervous youngster who might be half his age.
However, Eizo realized that his opponent couldn't be an ordinary young man. If his clan had chosen him as experienced veteran with a high rank, the other clan couldn't possibly have selected an expendable newcomer. Despite his possible young age, he must have an important role in the other clan. Maybe he was the son of a security chef. Perhaps he was the younger brother of the chief accountant. He could possibly be an adoptive son of the boss.
No matter who he was, Eizo decided to focus on what was coming next as he sat still on his chair. He knew that infrared cameras could see every move he made. Eizo decided to get prepared mentally for the deadly duel.
He could hear short and nervous footsteps coming closer until his opponent suddenly collided with the table and groaned in shocked surprise. Eizo heard how his opponent's hands slowly slid along the table until his body collided with the heavy chair. His invisible opponent sighed and slowly sat on the immovable chair. He moved on it awkwardly and coughed nervously.
Cold light suddenly blinded the two men. Eizo had already closed his eyes as soon as his opponent had reached the table but the other man stopped his breath in fearful surprise and put his hands in front of his eyes in an amateurish attempt at useless self-defence. The lights were quickly dimmed and Eizo was getting used to his darkening environment.
Eizo quickly looked around. As expected, there were three weapons on the table with numerous bullets in front of each of them. Eizo recognized the Smith & Wesson Model 686 .38 Special the members of his clan used on the left. The assistant to the security chef recognized the gun on the right side that the other gang used as brand new Colt King Cobra .357 Magnum with a three inch barrel. The neutral revolver in the middle was a Ruger LCR with .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire.
The veteran looked at the electric digital wall clock. The time had started to run as soon as the bright lights had been activated. Right now, it indicated 29:30 minutes. Eizo knew that one of the two duelists needed to get the job done before time could run out. If that weren't to happen, both of them would get executed by their respective clan members who were impatiently waiting upstairs.
Eizo looked at the nervous youngster again and almost had a jolt when he realized how young his opponent was. As he had expected, he was probably half his age. He was lean and almost skinny. His eyes were nervous but alert. His half-long hair was sweaty. His curvy nose resembled an eagle. His thin lips were opened while he was breathing heavily.
The veteran immediately thought that the nervous youngster wasn't made for being involved in criminal activities. He wondered how his opponent had ended up here.
Eizo smiled quietly as he perceived his opponent's twitching body language to his advantage. Then again, a game of Russian Roulette always remained a game of chance.
The veteran didn't move and observed the youngster to continue to figure him out. His opponent had naturally reached for the Colt King Cobra .357 Magnum as expected. He hold it in his hands as if to weigh it, closed his eyes and breathed heavily.
"The Colt King Cobra might be the newest model but the Smith & Wesson is certainly the most reliable one."
"I disagree. The Colt King Cobra is the most polyvalent one. It is equally appreciated by civilian firearms enthusiasts and law enforcement agencies."
Eizo was surprised by his opponent's firm voice. Even though the sinister situation visibly stressed his opponent, his voice sounded calm and composed and his vocabulary was accurate and sharp. Eizo smiled just a little bit. His opponent reminded him of his own time as a promising rookie when he had climbed the ranks in his clan.
''Since you're the youngster, I propose you choose the weapon. However, this also means that you will take the first spin.''
His opponent looked up and even though he was sweating profusely, his eyes were alert, clear and determined. He slowly shook his head and carefully put the gun back on the table as if not to break it.
''No, since you're the elder, I will trust your judgement and let you choose the weapon. I'm also willing to take the first spin.''
Eizo was surprised by this proposal. Most youngsters neither wanted their opponents to choose the weapon nor proposed to take the first spin. The veteran wondered whether his opponent's proposal was a genuine sign of respect or just a way to show off to impress him. Eizo looked very closely in his opponent's eyes and didn't move a muscle. The youngster looked at him in an anticipating way but didn't twitch at all.
The veteran sighed and took the neutral weapon.
''All right, then. Let's take the Ruger. Neither you nor I are used to shoot this weapon. It will be fair and square.''
His opponent nodded and the veteran slowly stretched out his hand to give him the weapon. The youngster took it with his sweaty hands, breathed heavily and grabbed one bullet from the center of the table. He examined it for a while as if to make sure that it was an actual bullet and not a blank. Eizo knew that it was almost impossible to distinguish the two types nowadays. Then, the youngster shakingly opened the revolving cylinder and inserted the bullet hectically. He looked at his opponent, nodded grimly and span the cylinder with his left hand.
The sudden noise of the revolving cylinder broke the uneasy silence but the sound quickly faded as the cylinder slowly stopped moving. Ezio looked in his opponent's eyes once again and recognized the familiar mixture of determination and fear. The youngster took the Ruger, slowly put it against the right side of his head, breathed in very deeply and pulled the trigger in a sudden nervous movement.
The youngster sighed with relief and put the gun back on the table. He then wiped the sweat from his brows and leaned back on his uncomfortable chair. Eizo couldn't help but smile just a little bit. He started to like the vibrant youngster. His opponent misinterpreted the gesture.
''Are you a sadist?''
Eizo shook his head very patiently, picked up the Ruger and examined it very carefully. It was obviously a brand new weapon and had only rarely been used before their duel. At least, their clans had chosen an expensive new weapon for this humiliating confrontation. Despite this mark of respect, Eizo kept asking himself why a faithful veteran like himself had been chosen to test his loyalty.
''I'm no sadist.''
Eizo spoke very slowly and put the barrel of the gun against the left side of his head. He didn't even mind spinning the cylinder. The veteran tried to be as cold as ice. He could see the disbelief and fear in his opponent's eyes. Eizo pulled the trigger.
The veteran didn't like to think too much or waste any time during such a deadly duel. It would only increase fear and make him lose control. He wanted this confrontation to be over as soon as possible. He put the Ruger back on the table and carefully pushed it towards his opponent.
''You simply remind me a lot of myself when I was your age.''
Eizo looked at the digital wall clock. The indicated time was 26:05 minutes. In about six minutes, they would have to insert a second bullet into the cylinder.
''Fair enough. What's your background?''
The youngster seemed to be grateful to be given the opportunity to have some small talk to distract himself from the sinister situation. Eizo was a quiet and formal man but he sympathized with the energetic and quick-witted youngster. He accepted to speak to him.
''I'm from Fukuoka. I avenged my boss and needed to flee. That was eighteen years ago.''
His opponent nodded attentively and picked up the Ruger. He span the cylinder, put the barrel of the gun to his right temple, swallowed his phlegm, closed his eyes and shakily pulled the trigger.
The youngster almost threw the gun back on the table. The sudden noise gave Eizo a jolt. He realized that his opponent was losing his temper.
''Be careful, young man.''
''My name is Hitoshi.''
''If you throw the weapon on the table like that, a shot may accidentally fire and kill one of us.''
''Well, isn't a sudden and unsuspecting accident better than a slow and planned suicide?''
Eizo hesitated for a moment. He tried to give the philosophical question some thought. He slowly shook his head.
''Procedures and traditions need to be respected. We live in a world of turmoil. If I have to die in a slow and planned way, I can get used to it. It helps me find my inner peace of mind. It's like saying farewell to the world.''
Hitoshi moved his head to the side as if he were thinking really hard about what he had just heard. He shrugged and wiped the sweat from his mouth. His eyes were meandering from the weapon on the table to his opponent's face.
''I have to disagree. Saying my inner farewell wouldn't be enough. I mean, my father stole money from my boss and escaped to Hong Kong which basically ruined my career in my organization. However, I have gotten a girlfriend a few months ago. She is my lover but also like the mother I have never had. My father abandoned my mother when I was a toddler and took me to Taiwan where he lived with a local prostitute. Most of my colleagues don't understand me. They think I'm weird to have a girlfriend who is almost twenty years older than I am.''
Eizo picked up the Ruger and didn't bother spinning the cylinder once more. He looked his opponent in the eyes. Hitoshi seemed to be innocent and naive. But this youthful attitude and perspective made him quite sympathetic. Those were qualities Eizo had already lost many decades ago. The thought felt like a stab in the heart. Eizo had never realized that he had missed that age of carelessness. He had never been a nostalgic person. And yet, he suddenly felt tears rising in his eyes and decided to suppress his unexpected emotional weakness. He pulled the trigger hastily.
Eizo put the gun back on the table. On one side, he was sad that the humiliating duel wasn't over yet. On the other side, he felt happy to be alive. As a matter of fact, Eizo hadn't felt so alive in many years. He figured that he must have learned about the preciousness of life in the face of death.
''I understand exactly how you feel. A mother is more important than a girlfriend. People have their entrances and exits into your life. But your family members will always remain. I have lost my family a long time ago and I have felt hollow ever since. It's funny but I have never admitted that to anyone before today. I guess it's because of my hollowness that why my girlfriend left me six months ago.''
Hitoshi's face was pale. He nodded a little bit too quickly and turned his attention to the weapon on the table. Eizo looked at the digital wall clock instead. The indicated time was now 20:50 minutes.
''You should take your next spin quickly. We need to add an extra bullet every ten minutes.''
Hitoshi nodded, picked up the gun and stared at the digital wall clock as if he were trying to slow it down or stop it altogether with sheer willpower. Eizo had to chuckle once again. His opponent was still looking for a way out even though there wasn't any.
The youngster cleared his throat awkwardly and put the gun against his head. He breathed in heavily three times as if to time an inner countdown. Then, he pulled the trigger in one exaggerated and explosive moment.
Hitoshi slowly put the gun back on the table. He seemed to be relieved to get a short break now. Eizo had to insert a second bullet and take the next spin. That would give the youngster a few minutes to relax. Hitoshi decided to keep their conversation going to make himself feel even more at ease.
Eizo almost started to think of his opponent as an ally at this point. They had to bring this duel to its deadly conclusion for sure. But it was nothing personal. In another life, they could have been partners in the same organization. Or if there were no organizations, they could have been best friends. Considering their age, they could have even been father and son. Eizo realized that they had both been forced into situations that had made them take wrong decisions that had led to this sinister outcome. The veteran suddenly wished he had the chance to start all over again. He had never ever thought about that before. Eizo had never regretted his choices, looked back on past decisions or asked himself emotionally charged philosophical questions. He had always lived in the here and now. But here he was in a humid basement, in front of an unknown youngster and with a gun in his hand. Now, he was suddenly changing his ways and discovering a new side inside of him he never knew he had in the first place. Ezio tried to get rid of that thought. He opened the cylinder of the gun and inserted the second bullet. Their chance of survival was now measured one to three.
''Don't you miss your homeland sometimes?''
Eizo was surprised by this question. He hadn't even thought about his country for many years. When he had first come to Taiwan, he had still hoped to be given the opportunity to return to Fukuoka one day even though he had already known deep inside of him that such a scenario wasn't probable at all. At a certain point, he had stopped caring or so he thought. Ezio had started working for a Taiwanese boss, had married a Taiwanese woman and had moved into a modern Taiwanese loft. He had actively learned about the local culture and language. And yet, Eizo had never felt like a Taiwanese. No matter how much he had tried, he was still a Japanese and couldn't do anything about it.
Eizo span the cylinder, put the gun against his head, widened his eyes and pulled the trigger violently.
The veteran felt that he was somewhat losing his cold composure. He didn't want to die. There were still so many things he wanted to do. And he didn't want his opponent to die either. He was way too young, innocent and bright. He still had his whole life ahead of him. He had respectable dreams and noble ambitions.
''I miss my homeland, too. It's funny though. I have only lived in Japan for a few months as a toddler. I don't remember anything about it. I don't even know whether my mother is still alive. I'm not sure if I have any brothers or sisters. I can't even tell if I have any family members left at all. And yet, I long to discover the place where I come from.''
Eizo's head was rattling at this point. They had three guns at their disposal. They could shoot their way out of this bunker. They would have the element of surprise on their side. Eizo knew every corner of this building. He knew how to escape. He knew where to hide. He knew where to run. They could take a car and leave this place. The busy highway was only ten minutes away. Even their organizations wouldn't dare chasing and killing them in broad daylight in the middle of the street.
''If you survive this day, you should try to make your dreams come true.''
Eizo spoke cleraly, confidently and wisely but his soul was wrecked. his mind was confused and his heart was torn. He realized that his ambitious plans weren't realistic at all. Their organizations would kill both of them. There were about a dozen heavily armed members of his gang waiting on the south side of the building. There were probably just as many members of the other organization waiting on the north side of the building. Even if they managed to kill all of them and escape, they wouldn't have any place to go to. Members of their organizations were working at all important airports and ports. They wouldn't be able to leave the country. They would never see Japan again.
''You're right. I need to change my ways. I have to stop blaming my father, my boss or my associates. I need to become my own master.''
Hitoshi seemed a lot calmer now. He was sweating a lot less. His face had changed to a natural rose colour. His breathing had become smoother even though his heart was still pumping way too quickly. The youngster picked up the gun, span the cylinder, put it against his head with an almost optimistic smile and firmly pulled the trigger.
Eizo looked at the digital wall clock again. The indicated time was now 16:12 minutes. His thoughts were becoming more and more irrational. He could barely focus on his more and more absurd ideas. He was entirely absent-minded when he picked up the gun. He held it as if he were carrying a simple chocolate bar. Even Hitoshi rose his eyebrows and started to realize that something was amiss about his soulmate.
Eizo was trying to find a way out of this situation as time was hastily running out. Hitoshi and he could escape to the mountains. Eizo had been hiking in the Dongyanshan National Forest Recreation Area with his wife during one of their rare holiday trips about fifteen years ago. He remembered that they had spent a night in a remote shack. Hitoshi and he could stay there for a while and figure out a plan to leave the country. Eizo knew a banker he had once worked with during a mission about twelve years ago. The banker lived in Hong Kong now and still owed Eizo a favour. The banker could organize a hiding place for Eizo and Hitoshi. Eizo also knew that some remote family members supposedly lived somewhere in Yunnan. His maternal granduncle had stayed in China after the Second World War and had married a farmer's daughter. Eizo's head was spinning like a wheel.
He tried to calm down, looked at the gun and attempted to empty his head. He closed his eyes and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He looked at his new friend who had a worried expression on his face. Eizo realized that the members of Hitoshi's and his own organization could hear and see everything that happened on a screen upstairs in the factory. The veteran reminded himself that he needed to act naturally. He didn't want anyone to become suspicious and read his thoughts. He had to continue to play this deadly game - at least for a while.
Eizo hastily put the gun against his temple and pulled the trigger with bleak determination.
He quickly handed the gun over to Hitoshi. They needed to take another spin before they had to insert a third bullet into the cylinder. Their chances of survival would then be measure one to two. Fifty percent were a dangerous probability. Eizo knew that Hitoshi and he needed to act before the clock on the wall went below the ten-minute mark. Eizo needed to communicate with his soulmate but he had to make sure that their organizations wouldn't understand his intentions and messages. After all, they could send a hitman downstairs and eliminate both duelists for not following the instructions.
''Are you alright?''
Hitoshi's voice was filled with genuine concern. He hold the gun in his hand but was rather focused on his soulmate. The veteran that had looked so calm and composed a few minutes ago looked confused and stressed out now.
''I'm alright... Just... We must continue... You must take one final spin... And I will have to take one as well... Don't worry... We will find a way out of this bloody mess...''
Hitoshi hesitated and slowly shook his head with a dry laughter.
''No, we won't find a way out. One of us must die. Don't you remember?''
Eizo looked at Hitoshi with a terrified expression of sudden realization on his face. His heart beat so loudly that he was scared the members of his organization could here him. Eizo was suddenly sweating profusely in this damp bunker. He raised his arms nervously. His hands were shaking unstoppably. His fingers were twitching uncontrollably.
''Well... We have to remain positive... The rules could still be changed... We have done everything they asked us for... We are both loyal, so they could let us survive... Who knows?''
Hitoshi looked at the veteran for a while. His worries now turned into confusion. He shook his head, put the gun against his temple and pulled the trigger in one fluid movement that only took a few seconds. His eyes were open and didn't blink as he stared at his scared soulmate who was looking to the side and couldn't bear the pressure and tension anymore.
Hitoshi calmly handed the gun over to Eizo. The experienced man had an expression of anguish on his face. The veteran looked around nervously and bent forward to whisper something in his soulmate's ear.
''This will be my last spin... We can't risk inserting a third bullet... We will simply stop this madness... We have followed all the instructions... So far... It's our fate to live... They must accept it... If they refuse... We will fight our way through.''
Eizo took the gun with his sweaty hands and leaned back on his chair with a heavy sigh. Hitoshi's facial expression changed from confusion to sadness. He observed passively how Eizo put his gun against his temple.
''That's it! This is my last spin! I shall live!''
Eizo yelled these words as if he tried to convince himself they were true. Saliva flew from his quivering lips. His eyes were wide open. Hitoshi could see the rising madness in them. The youngster shivered as his unstable soulmate finally pulled the trigger with bared teeth. He looked closer to an animal than a human being now.
Eizo almost collapsed in his chair as he threw the Ruger on the table. His heart was beating so fast that he was afraid it could explode. He tried to force himself to calm down but his body was in ecstasy. Eizo looked at the clock on the wall. The time indicated 10:15 minutes. He had made it. He had taken his last spin. He was safe.
Eizo chuckled with relief. He had to suppress the laughter so hard that his whole body was shaking. He was unable to control himself as he started to laugh hysterically.
Hitoshi started to feel more and more uneasy. It wasn't the duel that scared him anymore. He had gotten used to that. It was his opponent who scared him now. Hitoshi wasn't sure whether his enemy's laughter was genuine or just a trick. The youngster started to think that the bullets might be blanks and that the veteran was actually a member of his organization who was testing his willpower.
Hitoshi nodded firmly. He took the gun from the table, opened the cylinder and inserted a third pullet. He was going to show that nobody and nothing could intimidate him.
When he closed the cylinder, Eizo suddenly stopped laughing. He looked at Hitoshi in surprise. He bent forward but Hitoshi raised his hand to stop him.
''Have... Did you...?''
Eizo was unable to finish his question but Hitoshi knew precisely what he wanted to ask. He looked at his enemy seriously and nodded with grim determination.
''Yes, I have inserted a third bullet.''
Eizo shook his head in despair and tried to grab the gun but Hitoshi leaned backwards and avoided his enemy's hand. He stood up as to defend himself and observe his enemy a little bit closer.
''We have to continue. These are the rules. You won't stop my determination.''
Hitoshi spoke slowly and surely. Eizo's body seemed to be frozen in disbelief. Hitoshi put the gun against his temple without even looking at it. He didn't flinch as he kept looking at his enemy. Hitoshi didn't want him to intervene. He wanted to prove his loyalty. Hitoshi wanted to climb the ranks in his organization. He knew that he could make his wildest dreams come true once he was at the top of his organization. Hitoshi wanted to show determination, leadership and resilience. He was a man on a mission.
''No, Hitoshi, this is crazy... You can't do that... Stop!''
Eizo looked at the clock that inidcated that there were 8:48 minutes left. He needed to intervene now and he only had one chance. The veteran jumped from the ground onto the table and reached his hands out towards the youngster.
A thunderous sound broke the uneasy silence in the damp bunker.
Hitoshi's face exploded and blood and pieces of his brain splattered Eizo's incredulous face. The veteran fell from the table onto the ground and landed right next to the youngster whose life had been blown out of his body before it could hit the ground.
The cold white lights of the basement intensified. Eizo was laying on the ground, crying like a child, twitching like a sick man and holding the dead body of the youngster like an insane fool. He didn't even hear the slow but determined footsteps that were coming closer. At that point, Eizo didn't even care anymore.
He didn't care until he heard the clicking of a trigger. Eizo opened his eyes in disbelief. His worst nightmares had become reality.
His boss was standing right beside him, a Smith & Wesson in his hands and Ezio could read deception and pity in his eyes.
''You have betrayed our organization. Now you have to pay the price.''
Eizo didn't even feel the need to discuss. His tears had dried and there were none left. He had lost everything that was dear to him. He spread his arms as if to welcome his final punishment. Eizo was ready.
A thunderous sound roared through the decrepit bunker. Bright fireworks exploded before Eizo's blinded eyes. A burning pain pierced through his brain, his head and his body. His whole existence became suffering. Then everything turned to black.
Deliverance had come in form of a bullet.