Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolás Obregón is a compelling, brilliantly moody, and layered novel that's sure to be one of the most talked about debuts in 2017 (available March 7, 2017).
Newly reinstated to the Homicide Division and transferred to a precinct in Tokyo, Inspector Iwata is facing superiors who don’t want him there and is assigned a recalcitrant partner, Noriko Sakai, who’d rather work with anyone else. After the previous detective working the case killed himself, Iwata and Sakai are assigned to investigate the slaughter of an entire family, a brutal murder with no clear motive or killer. At the crime scene, they find puzzling ritualistic details. Black smudges. A strange incense smell. And a symbol—a large black sun. Iwata doesn’t know what the symbol means but he knows what the killer means by it: I am here. I am not finished.
As Iwata investigates, it becomes clear that these murders by the Black Sun Killer are not the first, nor the last attached to that symbol. As he tries to track down the history of black sun symbol, puzzle out the motive for the crime, and connect this to other murders, Iwata finds himself racing another clock—the superiors who are trying to have him removed for good.
CHAPTER 1: BOXES
IWATA WOKE FROM A FALLING dream again. Drenched in sweat, struggling for breath, he went to the window. The Tokyo cityscape stretched out below him, cities within cities, angles incalculable. Thirty-five million existences crammed into circadian rhythms of concrete and cables. Immense infrastructure, never-ending networks—all of it delicate as hummingbird heartbeats.
The lights of the city are so pretty.
Iwata crossed his sparse apartment to the kitchenette and poured himself a glass of water. He saw the large cardboard boxes stacked in the corner and looked away. Wrapping himself in a blanket, he sat down by his stereo system and put on headphones. He closed his eyes as the opening notes of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major, op.90, no.3 filled his disquiet and the nightmare dissolved in the music.
Gray morning haze had seeped through the blinds by the time Iwata had made up his mind to leave. He drank coffee in silence, showered rigorously, and dressed in jeans and a thick, gray, cashmere pullover. Picking up the newspaper, he took the elevator down to the car park and unlocked his 1979 Isuzu 117 Coupé. He plucked a handwritten note from the windshield offering cash, scrunched it up, and put it in his pocket. The leather had cracks and she’d hardly ever seen a garage, but Iwata found notes like these every other week. Clearly, he had a covetous neighbor.
He started the car and left the radio off, enjoying the rare quiet of the Tokyo roads. At the southern entrance of Shibuya Station, the first few street vendors had assembled, sharing bags of hot nuts and flasks of tea as they conspired. Payday loan shops and cell phone dealerships were opening their shutters. On the roof of a department store, the news played on a giant LED screen. Mina Fong, a famous actress, had been found dead in her apartment. A well-known heiress had broken up with a promising Yomiuri Giants pitcher. A popular cookery show had been canceled. And there was a new number-one single in the pop charts. The broadcast ended with an insurance company’s slogan:
THIS IS WHAT JAPAN SHOULD BE.
Iwata turned off the main roads and found parking in an overlooked lot behind an arcade. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and made his way along the chilly backstreets. Spring was not just late this year; it had seemingly given up on itself.
Iwata went into a large department store and spent an hour buying highlighters, workbooks, and plastic dividers. In the café, he ordered a gum-syrup coffee and a fruit salad. There was no Wi-Fi here but Iwata liked the view. He sat among exhausted night-shift workers and sipped his coffee, looking down at the high street. Shibuya was now throbbing with flustered commuters and bleary-eyed students. Traffic cops frantically waved at inching traffic and pedestrians bristled at the red lights.
Iwata opened the newspaper and turned directly to the classifieds. He ignored oblique offers for discreet massage, dining company from middle-aged women, and French tuition. He stopped at the storage-space section and scanned through carefully. After a few minutes, he circled an ad, then folded the newspaper under his arm and left.
Outside, the fog had momentarily lifted and the sky was a cold, exquisite blue. Iwata got back into his car and called the number from the ad. A drowsy voice answered.
“This is Matsumoto here.” The man coughed then lit a cigarette. “Your storage problems are my passion.”
Iwata stated his interest and Matsumoto reeled off an address, agreeing to meet in an hour.
Driving north, past Harajuku, Iwata parked up near the subway station. He walked along Takeshita Street with its knockoff T-shirts, Hello Kitty, and plastic fads. Tourists gawked at the chichi neon and manufactured cheer. Posters of the latest idol groups clung to all available wall space. Cheap speakers played happy pop and teenage girls cutting class weighed up prices. Iwata hated this place but there was a nearby noodle bar he favored for its breakfast tamagoyaki. Usually it was half-empty but today, for some reason, it had attracted a large line of smoking salarymen. Iwata swore and returned to his car.
He drove southeast, along the grand, tree-lined avenue of Omotesandō, where wealthy housewives browsed designer Italian labels. Iwata turned on to Aoyama-Dori, and fifteen minutes later, he turned off Meguro-Dori. He found space in an empty lot between houses. As Iwata got out, he looked up at the sky. It would rain tonight.
From a hole-in-the-wall, he bought a paper plate of vegetable and shrimp dumplings. The old cook complained about the game last night and Iwata nodded along while he ate. When he was done, he promised the cook he would come back again.
At the end of the street, a short, fat man with a ponytail stood outside a shabby shop, its windows covered in faded newspaper. The man was smoking anxiously as he glanced up and down the street. Seeing Iwata, he pinched his cigarette between his lips and stuck out a hand.
“Are you my guy?” The cigarette bobbled as he spoke.
Iwata nodded and they shook hands.
“Let’s open her up for you, then.”
Matsumoto stepped over a mound of junk mail. The room was narrow but Iwata liked the gloom. The walls were lined with lockers of varying sizes. At the back, there were also several safe boxes.
“What you thinking, mister? You like it?”
“I like it fine.”
“What you using it for?”
“I just have some boxes. I’ve got about sixteen of them, eighteen by eighteen by twenty.”
“I can give you the whole back room but it’ll cost you.”
He looked at Iwata sidelong.
“Mister, if you don’t mind me asking, why not just keep them at your place?”
“I do mind you asking. How much?”
“All right. You’re looking at thirty-five thousand a month.”
Iwata shook his head.
“I’m going to make you an offer instead: eighty thousand for three months. But, for your flexibility, I’ll pay you up front.”
“Eighty.” Matsumoto puffed out smoke and squinted one eye. “Up front?”
“What are you, some kinda loan shark?”
“I just need a space for my boxes.”
“So why me, why not just store them at one of the big places for less?”
“I don’t like forms.”
Matsumoto shrugged. “Fuck it. You got yourself a deal.”
At the bank, the cashier politely reminded Iwata how little insurance money would remain but he ignored him. Outside, Matsumoto slipped the fat envelope into his pocket and tossed over a set of keys in return.
“Guess I’ll see you in three months.” Matsumoto winked.
He turned away, his ponytail swishing down the street. Iwata returned to his car, and in the distance, he heard thunder.
* * *
Iwata reached the airport-sized maze of Shinjuku Station a little after 1 P.M. He bought a ticket for the bullet train to Nagano and boarded Asama 573. The seats were clean and the temperature was optimal for human comfort. Staff bowed as they entered and left the carriage. The silent car was absolutely silent.
As the train pulled away, Iwata watched Tokyo recede. He flew past commuter towns of new-build complexes and man-made lakes. Young professionals lived here, eating the right food, getting enough exercise. Iwata had been like them once. Before there was any need to make this journey. He couldn’t remember the last time he had taken this train. Nor did he want to.
The lights of the city are so pretty.
When the concrete of Tokyo’s sleeper cities finally ended, there were only dead fields and pylons. In the distance, green hills swelled like lovesick sighs.
* * *
Arriving at Nagano Station, Iwata bought an evening newspaper and a tasteless lunchbox. He had appetite for neither. He boarded an old train, too ugly for vintage, bound for the mountains. At its own pace, the limited local express passed through green flatlands, then up forest ridges.
Through the window, Iwata observed mundane details of mundane towns. A woman at a red light scratched her elbow. Schoolchildren painted over a graffitied wall. An old lady on a bench watched cellophane wrapping rolling past her in the breeze. A mistaken bee butted against the window of a closed pharmacy. A car alone in a rice paddy, its security alarm blinking needlessly.
A little before 5 P.M., Iwata arrived at his destination—a nothing town near Lake Nojiri. He got into the only taxi outside the station and asked for the Nakamura Institute. He passed derelict factories and long-failed businesses scheduled for demolition; the last remaining blots of the old way. The driver was listening to a radio report regarding a deep-water drilling conglomerate that had defrauded a midsized bank. His white-gloved hands hardly moved on the wheel.
Iwata looked up through the sunroof at the deepening dusk. In the distance, cranes were motionless, a profitable future waiting to be built. He made out a slogan.
CREATING TOMORROW TOGETHER.
Iwata stopped at the only shop near the institute to buy fresh fruit and several pairs of thick socks. The old lady at the till smiled at him.
Iwata nodded and left. The path up to the institute was steep and long. Despite the chill, he was sweating by the time he reached the main entrance. The receptionist recognized Iwata and bowed. As she led him through the secured corridor, she looked down at the disinfected floor.
“I’m sorry to mention it but it appears that you’re seven weeks behind on your payments…”
“Forgive me, I must have made an awful miscalculation. I’ll rectify this as soon as I get back to Tokyo.”
The nurse nodded apologetically.
“She’s outside for sunset. Please go through.”
Iwata thanked her and stepped into a large, well-kept garden. Patients were planting flowers at the far end. Papier-mâché flamingos and elephants swayed in the breeze. Colorful pinwheels spun. From an open window, he heard a woman practicing her vocal scales. At the other end of the garden, near the tree line, Iwata saw her. Cleo was lying on a sun bed, covered in a blanket.
The lights of the city are so pretty.
His stomach lurched as it always did when he saw her. It had always been this way, but it was a different kind of lurch these days.
I’m happy with you. Please let me hear.
He took a white plastic chair and sat down next to her. Cleo was Iwata’s age, midthirties, her blond hair recently cut into a rough, short bob. Her skin was paler than he remembered. Her dark blue eyes were fixed on the distance.
“Hello.” He spoke in English.
Birdsong fluttered through the dusky branches above them.
I walk and I walk, swaying like a small boat in your arms.
He reached out for her hand and gripped it sheepishly, his lips trembling. It was small, its warmth faded like a pebble plucked from the beach.
I’m happy with you. Please let me hear.
Realizing he must be hurting her, Iwata let it go.
“I bought you some fruit. Some socks, too. They always lose yours.”
She said nothing as he placed the bag beside her.
“I’ll ask them to stitch your name in. They won’t get mixed up that way.”
She still considered the horizon, as though she had decided to do only this for the rest of her life.
“You look strong, Cleo. You look … well.”
I’m happy with you. Please let me hear. Those words of love from you.
Iwata began to sob into his hands.
“You fucking bitch. You fucking bitch. You fucking bitch.”
* * *
It was after 1 A.M. when Iwata reached his apartment in Motoyoyogicho. In the corridor, he stepped over tricycles, bundles of newspapers, and fallen mops. The microwave’s clock bathed his apartment in weak green. Seeing his boxes heaped in the corner, he looked away. He would have to move them soon. But not tomorrow.
Iwata did his crunches while he watched an English language TV show. The impossibly cheerful host congratulated her guests on their terrible pronunciations. The word of the day appeared on-screen in jaunty yellow letters:
Iwata switched off the TV and laid out his cheap futon. He got in and opened the curtain a crack. Below him, Tokyo’s neon aurora. Infinite function and enterprise, every square meter scheduled for expansion and redevelopment. The clouds were heavy and low, though he could not tell their color. Trying not to think of Cleo, he closed his eyes. Iwata hoped for dreamlessness.
Copyright © 2017 Nicolás Obregón.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Nicolás Obregón is a British-Spanish dual national and grew up between London and Madrid. He has worked as a steward at sports stadiums, an editor in legal publishing and a travel writer, falling in love with Japan while on assignment for a magazine. Blue Light Yokohama is his first novel.