The Opium Addict. Love, murder, and subterfuge in Meiji era Yokohama. In 1873 Nelson Van Dorn, a former New York City police detective, sails for Yokohama, Japan, expecting to go into the silk exporting business with his younger brother, whom he plans to meet there. What Nelson learns upon his arrival, however, is that his brother is dead, that he was an opium addict, and that he has left Nelson in debt. In order to pay off this debt, Nelson reluctantly takes on an investigation to find the nephew of Ari Markel, an elderly Jewish man, but is threatened during the investigation by the American consulate general, who is hiding something, and the siren calls of his beautiful, Eastern European wife, in the tradition of classical noir. As Nelson follows leads to track down Mr. Markel's nephew, with the help of his Chinese lover and his polio-stricken housekeeper, he learns the secrets of other expatriates, Mr. Markel's motives in hiring him, the reasons why the consulate general wanted him to end the investigation, and the truth about his brother's death.
The Opium Addict
The anchor set, and the Shenandoah swung around in the stiff April wind, her starboard side facing Yokohama. Nelson Van Dorn, standing on deck, grasped the gunnel, bracing himself against the heaving of the ship, as white caps bucked up against the bow. His beaver hat was a warm comfort. From his deerskin duster flowed rivulets of water, and in his thick brown beard the water lay like a dew.
"You ought to go below," the captain said, "until the seas settle down." The captain, standing beside Nelson, was also looking across the white-capped bay at Yokohama. He was Scottish, nearing sixty, walked with a limp, and had a white beard. His face was pale, save for crowns of red on his cheekbones. He had spent most of his life at sea, and his pink, wind-burned face showed it. Tucked into a corner of his mouth was a meerschaum pipe.
"I'll stay," Nelson said.
"Not such an unusual blow for this time of year," the captain said. "It will be unfortunate if a wind like this comes up during hanami."
Nelson turned, expecting the captain to provide an explanation.
"Cherry blossom viewing," the captain said.
Nelson nodded. But he wasn't thinking about cherry blossoms. He was eager to go ashore. Moreover, these waves were mere ripples compared to those the Shenandoah had plunged through on its way around the Cape of Good Hope. It had been a long voyage, more than two months, and had begun, unceremoniously, in Brooklyn. The Shenandoah was a steamer, carrying cargo, mostly coal, but also several hundred barrels of that newly discovered resource in Pennsylvania, oil, a necessary commodity for Nippon's industrialization after two hundred and fifty years of self-imposed isolation during the Edo period, which came to an end when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with his fleet of black ships in 1853 and opened the country to foreign trade under the threat of a naval bombardment. The current Meiji emperor had the idea that his country should modernize and catch up with the West, perhaps even surpass it.
Nelson’s younger brother, Warren, had been waiting months for his arrival. Warren, once a harpooner on a whaler, had been to places in the Pacific that Nelson had only read about. On one of their rare meetings in a tavern in Brooklyn, he had convinced Nelson that by going into the business of exporting Japanese silk together they could make a fortune. They had to take advantage of the opportunity before someone else did. Already there was a demand for Japanese wood prints and lacquer-ware, and a demand for silk was sure to follow.
"These seas won't keep the sailors from going ashore," the captain said. "I can assure you of that. Sailors are sailors. Their needs are few and pleasurable ones."
As a former detective in the New York City police department, Nelson knew exactly what the captain meant. They were in need of women, alcohol, and, as the captain had told him, a drug smuggled in from China, opium. Accompanying the drinking there would certainly be fistfights and stabbings, accusations of cheating at gambling halls, and perhaps murders, as sailors fought over the favors of a particularly talented girl.
Nelson was all too familiar with this. He had been the victim of a German sailor who had gone mad in a Canal Street brothel, strangling to death one of the girls. When Nelson and another policeman cornered him in a dark alley, the man had thrown a dagger at Nelson that had stuck in his right kneecap. On cold days like this his knee ached. He feared that one day he would start to limp as the captain did and be forced to use a cane to get around. But he was too proud to surrender to the pain for now, when it came.
"Aye. Japanese women are accommodating," the captain said. He puffed on his meerschaum. "Aye, they are. But they don't cause no trouble. Tis the men that always cause the trouble, they do."
Thinking of his wife, Elizabeth, who had recently died of typhus, Nelson wondered if one day desire would once again take hold of him and he would seek the company of a woman. Elizabeth was still with him in spirit, but for now a future with a woman was less important to him than a silk business.
A spray of water doused the captain's pipe. He knocked out the bowl of tobacco on the gunnel and repacked his pipe with a wad of fresh tobacco that he had bought in Canton, where the Shenandoah had set at anchor for a few days. Turning from the wind, the captain struck a match, to light his pipe; he puffed on it a few times until the tobacco glowed red. He turned back to Nelson and said, "Men are in need of carnal pleasures from time to time. It's not normal to be away from women. It breeds indecent acts. But opium is far worse. I don't approve of it, I don't. It robs a man of his soul."
Continued. . ___________________________
"A Prayer for My Daughter," a mystery/literary novel narrated by a Tokyo Metropolitan Police detective, Tomoyuki Kawayama, starts with a prologue that establishes the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. Detective Kawayama goes to investigate the murder of a young woman in a Kabuki-cho love hotel. Her death makes him reflect on his relationship with his daughter and test the bonds of his marriage. The investigation reveals that good intentions can lead to the deaths of others.
A Prayer for My Daughter
Due out in 2024
An Excerpt from Chapter One is on
Fresh Words, January 2023.
I picked Yuji up in Kabuki-cho at a video arcade near a sex shop, just where Nobuyuki had told me he'd be. He was playing the video game Divine Fantasy, a sad thing, considering how old he was, but I didn't show how sorry I felt for him and did what Nobuyuki had paid me to do.
Yuji finished the game and smiled to himself before looking up at me. I forced myself to pucker my shiny red lips and say, "You won a favor!” He just stared at me. So I had to go on and say, “But wouldn't you prefer the real thing?"
He continued on staring at me the way an otaku does. Poor Yuji, I thought, maybe he'd never had the real thing in his life.
I was wearing my heart-shaped eyeglasses with the red frame, no lenses, and my lips were as shiny a red as the red frame. I was one of those idiot girl video game avatars who had come to life. He didn't know what to say, so I said what had to be said, "Maybe we should go to a hotel?"
The love hotel Nobuyuki had picked out was the Amour, in that area of Kabuki-cho where the love hotels are lined up side-by-side. They all have beautiful neon signs out front or on the roofs that make couples think they are going to a carnival, and I suppose they are, but one for couples. I'd been in more love hotels than I wanted to remember, here in Tokyo and down in Fukuoka and even a few between the two cities, I'm sorry to say.
Life didn't turn out to be so easy for me after leaving home.
The Amour had been a hotel I'd wanted to visit for quite some time, way back to when I was a high school student and first learned about the pleasures of boys, but the Amour was too old-fashioned for them. The boys said it was for middle-aged women whose breasts hung down to their knees. They wanted a room with video games and AI generated spaceships or soccer matches. Boys! I'm past them now. Long past them.
I liked the Amour because the look of it took me out of Japan and back in time. A miniature of the Eiffel Tower is near the entrance, and the facade is made up like a building painters might have lived in long ago. You know, a bit run down but charming. But that had nothing to do with why Nobuyuki had chosen it. He had insisted that I take him to the Amour because it was across from a Family Mart convenience store, where he wouldn't look out of place.
When Yuji and I passed him, he had a cigarette in a corner of his mouth, but he let it fall to the street as he raised the camera. I'd thought that before entering the hotel with Yuji I could tell him I'd changed my mind and run off after Nobuyuki got his photos, but on the way to the hotel Yuji and I talked a bit about life, and I started to feel sorry for him, not something that's a habit of mine. Yuji mentioned the sushi company he worked for, the pressures he felt put on him, but he didn't tell me later what they were exactly, just enough for him to draw me in.
Yuji and I slipped past the wall hiding the Amour's entrance and went inside. He booked the expensive Monet room that I wanted, putting a ten thousand yen note under the slot in the smoky glass window. He was so nervous he forgot about the change, and the woman behind the window had to remind him to take it.
As we were walking along the carpeted hall to the room, a couple came out of another room, and the man, who was about twenty-five or so, in jeans and a flannel shirt, looked me over and smiled. He reminded me a bit of Pirate, scrawny and selfish. His girl elbowed him in the ribs. He deserved it.
Yuji tapped the key card against the door lock, a green light flickered, and we went inside. What a delight that room was. It was just what I'd wanted, like a room in one of those French painter's ateliers. Against one wall there were fake windows. 3D images were in the windows, to make the street scene below look real. Lining the street were bistros and sidewalk cafes. Over it all was a starlit sky. I couldn't help but think how wonderful it would be to not be doing what I was doing for money but to share the room with someone I cared for, the way I had for Junichi.
Yuji was too nervous to have paid any attention to the way the room was decorated. His eyes were totally on me. I had power. Men, so many of them, are fools.
I unbuttoned the first two buttons of my frilly blouse to get him started, but even then he didn't know what to do, and so I took his hands and had him undo the other buttons. Then I slipped it off and tossed it over a painter's easel by the TV screen and turned around, for him to undo my bra. His fingers were like icicles.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I . . . I've . . .”
“Don't think about it,” I told him. “Things will come naturally.”
I stood on my toes and kissed his neck. It was like kissing marble. Then I put his hands on the waist of my red dress and got him to pull it down. He finally caught on to how a man should be and did the same with my panties.
I reached out for his belt and undid it and his pants dropped to the floor and I saw then that he was ready. I had the feeling then that he wasn't going to be a disappointment, the way some men are, the ones I have to listen to at work.
Yuji searched for the switch to turn the room lights off but couldn't find it, even if it was right there in the wall next to the bed. I flicked the lights off, and the fake stars above us continued to flicker. Yuji took his glasses off and put them down on a bed stand. I reached up to pull off the ridiculous blue wig I'd been wearing, but he took me by the wrists.
“Please,” he said. “No.”
I had remained one of those avatars in the video game and didn't like it one bit.
“I'm not a video avatar,” I said.
I left it on. If he wanted me to play in to his fantasies, I'd do it. Nobuyuki was paying me well.
Yuji was good for two rounds. I did teach him some new tricks, and he thanked me. After the second round, when we were lying in bed together, he said, “I haven't been that strong since my honeymoon in Hawaii.”
“You poor darling,” I said. It was the way I talked to customers, and I hated to be that way, a liar, but it is who I had become. Then Yuji surprised me, and I don't know why he said it, but he did. He said, "My wife put you up to this. Didn't she?"
I just stared back at him. “What are you talking about?” I said.
“That man with the camera,” he said. “He's my bother-in-law. A divorce will ruin me.”
That threw me. “What man?” I said.
“I don't care,” he said. “If she can run off with a lover, I can too.”
That was none of my business, what his wife did. But if she had a lover it wasn't so difficult for me to understand why. I said, “We had a good time, didn't we?”
He smiled. “I love you,” he said.
I had to force a smile. I wasn't going to lie to him.
Then he said, “I'm sorry.”
He was so pitiful. We lay there for a minute or two longer, and then he said, “My company.” He paused. “I shouldn't be telling you in this.”
I was foolish enough to say, “Go on.”
“No. I shouldn't. It's too dangerous.”
“Knock it off,” I said. “What could be dangerous? You work at a sushi company, you said. How could fish be dangerous?”
“No. I shouldn't talk about it. We had a good time.”
“That's better,” I said. “Maybe you could teach your wife the tricks I taught you.”
“She's the ones who knows all the tricks,” he said, “and not all of them are ones in the bedroom.”
He started to breathe heavily. I calmed him down by running my fingers through his hair. He smiled and then took my hand and looked me in the eyes and said, “The time I spent here with you has been the happiest two hours of my life.”
What could I say to that? Nothing. I couldn't help but wonder what about his company, what he'd meant about involving me in something dangerous if he told me what was on his mind. I was as well, every time I met with Pirate, involving myself in something dangerous. Junko. She didn't turn out to be a friend. She just got me in deeper. I thought about telling Yuji about my situation but held back. I said, “I need to go.”
“No,” I said, “of course not. How could you ask such a thing, after the time we spent together. I'm a hostess.”
He looked at me, a bit tearful, and said. "You must know a lot of men.”
“They're only customers,” I said, “only customers. It's a job, a boring job.”
“We had a good time?”
“You were a tiger,” I said.
“Maybe we could spend the night together?”
I hadn't seen that coming. I had to admit to myself that spending the night with Yuji was better than listening to the dull stories of my customers.
“What about your wife?” I asked.
“I'll tell her I have to work late, that I'll stay in a hotel. She'll understand. It wouldn't be the first time. What does it matter, my marriage?”
He leaned against the headboard. His white, hairless chest looked like a moon.
“I'll spend the night with you,” I said.
He showed put a hand on my thigh and smiled. His touch was now warm and gentle, a nice thing in a man. Pirate's touch was like that of a robot. The way he did it wasn't much better.
We kissed, and he worked his hands up my blouse to my breasts.
He pulled me over onto the bed, and we lay there for quite a while, looking up at the fake stars above us, which had somehow become real. The feeling of the two of us lying there together was so peaceful. We were two lost souls. I hadn't experienced that with Junichi, but with him I hadn't been wearing a foolish wig, and so I pulled it off and tossed it on the floor and no sooner had I done that than I realized I'd made a mistake.
Yuji touched my forehead, where the scar was, right at my hairline on the right side of my head. “How did you get that?” he asked.
“It's nothing,” I said.
“A car accident,” I said. Thinking of that accident, I had to hold back tears. Junichi had died in it.
“But you're fine now.”
“Fine, yes,” I said.
He smiled and came out with what had been troubling him, saying, “My company, the yakuza is pressuring me to do something I shouldn't.” He looked at me and went on, saying, “I've never told anyone that. Not my wife, even. What a relief.”
I knew from my father all about the yakuza and the pressures they put on company men. I had never expected the yakuza to have anything to do with fish, but, well, they were always full of surprises, how they made money. We'd connected. Pirate had me just like the yakuza had him.
“I hope this isn't the last time we meet,” I said.
He looked so happy that I thought he might cry. But what a mistake it was for me to say that. What a terrible mistake.
Continued. . .
Love Is Thicker Than Forget
(Free download. Except on Amazon: .99 cents.
With war between the U.S. and Imperial Japan looming in the fall of 1941, Colton Hancock, who grew up in Tokyo, reluctantly returns to the U.S., leaving his Japanese lover, Yasuko, an independent, free-thinking woman, behind. During the war, he was an army lieutenant, assigned to help with the interrogation of Japanese prisoners of war. Soon after Japan's surrender in 1945, he flies into Tokyo, hoping to pick up where he has left off with Yasuko, but the course of their romance is anything but predictable. The backdrop for this novella is war-ravaged Tokyo, GIs, as victors, taking advantage of their situation, a thriving black market, and the complications of Japanese society.
Arrival: Tokyo 1945
Mount Fuji showed off the left wingtip of the C-47. Looking out the window at the mountain, the captain sitting next to Lieutenant Hancock said, “Where’s the damn snow?”
They all have the wrong ideas about Mount Fuji, the Japanese, and the country, Lieutenant Hancock thought. The Japanese are not all samurai warriors, and Mount Fuji isn't snow-covered year-round.
Lieutenant Hancock thought Mount Fuji was as he remembered it, its summit, in early fall, an ashen black. The first snow would come in middle or late October. The sight of Mount Fuji made him recall his life with Yasuko. He wondered if she had made it through the war.
“A-once-in-a-lifetime experience,” the captain said. He raised his Canon to take a photograph of the mountain, and, as soon as he had, the GIs sitting on the right side of the plane, realizing that they were missing out on their chance at a souvenir photograph, rushed over to the left side, holding up their cameras. The C-47, because of the shift in weight, began to spin around its left wingtip and went into a dive, heading into the mountain. Lieutenant Hancock braced himself, fearing that he would never see Yasuko again. This was his end, in this C-47. But then the co-pilot, a lieutenant, came out from the flight deck and grabbed a GI by his coat collar and flung him back into his seat. The others, having realized that the plane was in a fatal nosedive, returned to their seats.
“That ain’t fair!” complained a cigar-chewing sergeant.
Lieutenant Hancock felt that he was on a bus full of children going on a school outing. They were on their first venture out of the small town they had lived in all their lives.
The pilot pulled the plane out of the dive, leveled it off, and banked to the left, to give those GIs who'd found themselves on the wrong side of the plane their chance to take their souvenir photographs.
“Where’s your camera?” the captain asked Lieutenant Hancock.
“I had to give it away for a seat,” he said, lying.
“My seat cost me a damn bayonet, but I kept the wristwatch I got off the dead Jap.” He rolled back his shirtsleeve, showing the Seikosha Chronograph on a leather strap. “Keeps better time than what Uncle Sam issues,” he added.
Jap, Lieutenant Hancock thought, I'm fed up with hearing them called that. But, to humor the captain, he said, “Nice watch.”
Lieutenant Hancock and the other GIs were on one of the first transport planes of Americans to arrive in Japan after the surrender on September second. It had departed from Okinawa early that morning. He had orders to report to a bombing survey unit, which would make reports on the effectiveness of the B-29 bombing campaign on Tokyo.
This was a change in duty for him. During the war he had worked as an interpreter, helping with the interrogations of Japanese prisoners who had surrendered on the islands of Wake, Leyte, Tarawa—and so many others scattered across the western Pacific—and during the campaign to retake the Philippines. Mostly, rather than gathering any valuable information from the prisoners, however, he had talked with them about baseball, cowboy movies, and, of course, girls. They had given him the opportunity to keep up his Japanese, even learn some new phrases, which these POWs, intellectuals for the most part, but a few sons of farmers, were eager to teach him.
"Don't Cause Trouble." A literary, humorous story narrated by a retired Navy/airline pilot who goes on safari to Zimbabwe, is fleeced by an NGO, but uses the experience to start a new, and more meaningful, life. New Contrast, celebratory 200th edition. Oldest South African literary magazine, which has published Nobel laureates. 2023.
"The Liver Eaters." A literary short story about an Imperial Japanese Army war crime in China. Murderous Ink Press, Off the Record. Available on Amazon. 2023.
"A Few Photos, Please." A Half Hour to Kill. Flash fiction. A former yakuza, now a PI, is asked by his sister to dig up some dirt on her husband so that she can get a quick divorce. Overtones of incest. August 12, 2022.
"Cultural Revolution." Whisky Blot. A short story without dialogue, in paragraph-length chapters, that tells the story of an independent-minded, attractive Chinese woman who rebels against the restrictions of traditional Chinese culture and finds her own way in the world. 2022.
"Bue-haired Girl." Close to the Bone. Flash fiction, prologue to a forthcoming novel, "A Prayer for my Daughter," set in modern Japan. A police detective's runaway daughter ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. 2022.
"The Manga Artist." Fleas on the Dog, Fiction Issue 11. A short story about a manga artist who aspires to be taken seriously as an artist and is suckered by the wrong (or is it the right?) woman. Read it and decide for yourself. 2022.
"On the Run." Mystery Tribune Online. A down-and-out ex-con agrees to be a fishing guide for a man who knows nothing about fishing and becomes involved in something that will send him back to prison. 2022.
"Black Market MPs." Crimeucompia: It's Always Raining in Noir City. Set in post-war Tokyo, a naive MP becomes involved in the black market and the wrong Japanese woman. 2021.
"Any Port in a Storm." Florida Roots Press Anthology, Coming of Age in Florida. A young adult short story about a Chinese girl adoptee who goes sailing with her grandfather; he instills in her self-reliance and confidence. 2022.
"Manta Rays, a Massage Lady, and Love." The Bombay Review. Two backpackers in Indonesia seek fulfillment in their travels in very different ways. 2019.
"A Career Murder." Crimeucompia: Careless Love. A Japanese salaryman fears that his wife will divorce him, making it difficult for him to receive a promotion in the company he is devoted to, but his plans pride in preventing the divorce go awry. 2019.
"The Hat." Short Story. The Alaska Quarterly. A man and his wife visit Japan and he fantasizes about Japanese women. 1994.
Memoirs, Essays, and Nonfiction
"Goree Island." The Violent Hour. Short nonfiction piece about the commercialization of Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, where millions of Africans were sent to the Americas. Forthcoming. August 2023.
Open Journal of Arts and Letters. 2023.
"Black Lives Don't Matter in Zimbabwe." Finalist in the Missouri Review's Jeffery E. Smith Editors' Prize for 2020. Published in Healthy Oppositon, 2023.
"Miles Davis, Zen Buddhism, and the Dysfunctional Japanese Family." Shambles: a Literary Journal. My meeting with a Buddhist priest, his wife and son, while cycling in a remote area of Japan. 2023.
"Round Lake." Florida Roots Press. Coming of Age in Florida. Memoir of my mother's memories of growing up in St. Petersburg during the Great Depression. 2022.
"My Minute with Mao." Short-Story-Me. Hybrid nonfiction/fiction about a trip I took to Beijing to stay with a Chinese woman, our relationship, and the absurdity of seeing Mao lying in state in his very own mausoleum. August 2022.
"The Wise Owl | Sienna in Gold." Two CNF pieces and podcasts, "You're a Bad Man," set in a market in Dakar, Senegal, and "Mickey Rat," set in Sanya, Hainan Island, China. 2022.
"Outside Hoi An." The Wise Owl. Memoir/travel writing about my meeting with an elderly, impoverished woman outside Hoi An, Vietnam. 2022.
"Watch Where You Walk." Zoo Anthology. Sweetycat Press. A memoir about the dangers of walking across the Shenzhen University campus. 2022.
"The Gangster from Hell." Litro. Travel writing, set in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia. My experience in a grubby bus station's street food stall with a few men of different sexual and political orientations. 2019.
"The Golf Swing." The Body in Motion. Sweetycat Press. An analysis of what Michael Jordan said in an interview with Stephen Curry was the most difficult thing he had ever attempted, golf. 2022.
"Zimbabwe's Illegal Gold Miners." A Thin Slice of Anxiety. My visit to an illegal gold mine, which are plentiful in impoverished Zimbabwe. 2019.
"Mr. G. the Diamond Peddler." Ariel Chart. While in a queue to buy petrol, along comes a man who wanted to sell me uncut diamonds. 2019.
"The Pineapple Girl." Verdad. A young Indonesian girl who sells pineapples makes me think about my failures and successes. 2011.
Writing Bio: James was the Japanese correspondent for the, regrettably, now-defunct e-zine flakmag.com. His articles included "MOS Burger: Bettering an American Icon"; "The Sento, Japan's public bathhouses"; "The 100 Yen Shop," Japan's version of the one dollar shop; "Cycling in Japan"; "Japan, land of the Technotoilet"; "The Honda Cub," the 50cc step-through motorcycle that started Honda Motors; and "Dining in Singapore"; the city-state is an epicurean's paradise.
Other nonfiction articles appeared in the Univesity of Oregon's, also now-defunct CNF magazine, Etude, "Red Lights, Big City," about legalized prostitution in Singapore, Hack Writers, "Cock Fighting in Port Barton," a remote beach village on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, and "The Art of Japanese Striptease" in, yes, the now-defunct e-zine The Black Table.