Shy Demon

Shy Demon

Shy Demon

Osuke felt a twinge of unease as he strode across the scarlet carpet toward the host in the velvet robe with glimmers of silver. Megumi looked glad to see the young man and pleased that he had picked out an elegant dark suit for this occasion. For a moment the realtor and her guest stood there in the gentle light from an overhead, probing the depths of each other’s eyes, trading pleasantries without hearing them, as Osuke tried to recall when he last met this influential person.

Taking in the guests who stood around talking with drinks in hand, he recognized a few faces, but not one was a close acquaintance. More than two years had passed since Osuke even thought seriously about buying or selling property, yet every morning his inbox was full of news and gossip and solicitations, and agents kept inviting him to functions in the most stylish quarters of the city. He saw no reason to decline. Once your name gets into a database somewhere, you are for all intents and purposes a perpetual client, unless one evening you get drunk and take a swing at a guest or commit some other idiocy, Osuke reflected. That’s just how the world works.

So, the offers kept coming of free food, wine, and schmoozing at places he found agreeable to the eye. If Osuke himself was little more than a pretty ornament, there were worse things to be in this world. Usually, the venue was a gallery or nightclub, but tonight it was the penthouse suite of one of the city’s finest hotels.

The young man stood expectantly before the host. Megumi smiled in the manner that endeared her to nearly everyone.

“It’s been far too long, Osuke. I really want to invite you to a showing next month. It’s a studio apartment downtown. You’ve never seen such a view of the city in your life.”

Osuke smiled.

“If you say so, Megumi. I’m not one of these blasé folk who act like studio apartments are something you outgrow.”

“No, believe me, Osuke, it’s perfect for a writer. They always tell me the same thing, that something about living and working in that space is conducive to their creative process.”

Osuke gave a self-deprecating laugh.

“Ah, well, you know, it’s a bunch of spoiled kids who say that sort of thing. Guys and gals like me who’ve got one foot in real estate and one in the literary world and need a fancy space to augment what should be an organic process in simple settings.”

Megumi looked as if she disagreed but was too polite to correct him. Maybe to claim that Osuke had even one foot in real estate these days was an exaggeration. He spent a bulk of his time attending readings and talks, writing short stories, sending them to literary journals, making notes for a novel. Though he had published two so far, his efforts to write a third had met with frustration. Every day people complete the task, there does not seem to be that much to it until you sit down and try to start and the difficulty of the task and the uncertainty that it will result in anything people will want to read stare you in the face. Still, Osuke was proud of the two that he had written and held out hope. Any attack from critics was an expression of their hidebound philistinism, not a reflection on his talent.

Now more figures moved up from the tastefully lit recesses of the suite. Megumi had friends with money to burn. Here were some of the best-dressed people Osuke had seen in years, smiling with the assurance and optimism he associated with the professional class of this ever-expanding city that usurped the role of other megalopolises like a giant lizard lashing victims with its tongue and swallowing them. Osuke recognized Izumi, who ran a thriving gallery not four blocks away and had invited him there on occasion, and Hayate, another realtor whom Osuke had once given a copy of his first novel.

At the same time, Yukio and Fuyuhito approached. They too were realtors, Yukio in his early thirties, Fuyuhito more than twice as old. To Osuke these people were the kind of friends it is easy to make and hard to dislike, because you never see them on anything but their best behavior and they hold out opportunities. They were professionals with mutual acquaintances in the publishing industry. Izumi had solicited Osuke’s critical opinions on the art she put on display in her gallery, and Osuke had told her what he thought whether she cared to hear it or not.

“Look who has decided to grace us with his presence tonight,” said Megumi.

“This young man becomes the center of wherever he goes,” said Izumi.

“Though maybe not for the reasons he thinks,” Yukio replied.

“A writer among mortals. I hope you don’t find us too odious,” said Fuyuhito.

“Not at all. Just you, old man. The last living kamikaze pilot,” said Osuke, and they all laughed.

Their good-natured ribbing was a well-worn tactic, Osuke guessed. They meant to take the edge off things, then tempt him with deals to which only members of their circle were privy.

“The literary life keeping you pretty busy these days, Osuke?”

Osuke chose not to answer Yukio’s question directly.

“You all talk to me like I’m the only one with other pursuits. You seem to have forgotten about Izumi here. I can say without fear of contradiction that running a gallery doesn’t take less work than closing a condo sale.”

Now the others laughed and Osuke had no idea why.

“Oh, we know quite well that it does take work, especially given the class of people who tend to show up at some of Izumi’s openings,” Fuyuhito said.

Osuke thought it best to change the subject but was unsure how. Fortunately, Megumi came to his rescue.

“We’ve made an effort to woo you to come to more of these events. Now the trick is how to convince you that we’re not acting purely out of self-interest. You haven’t come to these functions or come to my seminars and panel discussions. So you just have no idea that the real estate market is changing in ways you can’t begin to understand. We all fear for you if you sit it out much longer.”

Now her tone was different, and Osuke was unsure whether she made these remarks in the spirit of the earlier joshing or expected him to take her seriously. He looked around at the faces of Hayate, Yukio, Izumi, Fuyuhito, Megumi. The world of real estate’s movers and shakers is so clubby and unfathomable to those outside it. But no veteran of the literary world will tell you that the terrain you navigate there is firmer, less contingent or speculative or vulnerable to tremors and fissures and groundswells, than the markets that these professionals worked in from day to day.

Osuke grinned.

“Well, I can’t say that I love these cryptic statements, Megumi. But I really do want to get back in the game, and I’m confident that upstanding professionals like yourselves would never try to screw me over. Never mind that commissions are so steep that sellers have raised an outcry over your predatory policies, not to mention a class-action lawsuit.”

The others stood and looked at him, neither smiling nor frowning. Then Osuke laughed.

“You must know I’m joking. Of course, I appreciate all the work you do and the fact that you have to split your fees several ways. So, let’s hope neither the lawyers nor the yakuza feel any need to come after you.”

The others chuckled.

“Come on, allow me to propose a toast to Megumi,” Osuke said.

They took new glasses of prosecco and pinot grigio from a passing server’s tray and stood in a little circle in the dim space.

“To the great and glorious Megumi, matriarch of the upscale real estate market where all brokers would practice if they had her smarts and interpersonal skills. Here’s to Megumi’s many sales and all the sales to come, houses, bungalows, mansions, estates, castles, skyscrapers, office parks! There’s no one I’d rather have in my corner!”

After the toast, Osuke carried his drink over to a scarlet couch running parallel to a long window through which the lights of the towers downtown were visible. He reclined on the couch with his arms spread out in a way they would never be at a function with colleagues out there in the city. Around him the low voices were calming, though he knew how silly it was to relish the hum of conversation while oblivious of its content. It was not the most original thought, but it coiled around him with insidious intent: those people standing around in their elegant suits sipping champagne might be plotting your abduction and murder.

He gazed out the window at the receding red lights of the cars on the arterial road in the distance and the winking light at the top of one of the highest towers. Maybe the others expected his continued engagement, but it struck him now how little conversational currency he could scrounge up, rack his brain though he might.

If your name is on books that people will read and discuss and hand down through the ages, then in at least one sense you can consider yourself to have cheated death. But if your name is on a document in a filing cabinet somewhere, codifying your ownership of a condo unit from this date to that date, six or seven or fifteen owners ago, it is to imagine who could care. Out there in the night, lives sped by in gleaming chassis, strangers worked late behind those windows that were still on in the towers, and not for the first time Osuke wondered how little sense any of them had of these things. He drained the wine from his glass and stared out into the night.

Now he noticed that Hayate sat over to his right on the couch and might have been there for a while. He expected Hayate to say something dumb. We don’t bite, you know.

But Hayate said, “I know what you must be thinking, Osuke. These thieves in fancy suits must be looking to take a large chunk of your inheritance, in the form of brokers’ fees. That’s why they keep inviting you to these things, when you haven’t actually expressed interest in a purchase or sale in a long time. Am I right?”

Osuke set his glass down on the coffee table and answered carefully.

“Anyone who comes into a bit of money is going to wonder about people’s motives, Hayate. We both live in the real world. But, as far as Megumi goes, no. She’s obviously doing well for herself without my money. Same goes for some of these other brokers. And I’d be foolish to imagine that most of the guests are here tonight as cash cows. The lifestyle’s the job and no one puts on classier functions than Megumi.”

Hayate smiled.

“Well, I’m glad you don’t share the cheap skepticism of other young parvenus I’ve met.”

“Thank you.”

“But honestly, Osuke, it will feel increasingly awkward if you become just a permanent prop at these things and you don’t get back in the game.”

“No argument there.”

“I think the problem here is that you don’t understand why brokers want your business. The market really is changing, faster and more radically than you understand—”

“Damn it, Hayate. Everyone keeps repeating that nonsensical phrase. What are you all trying to tell me?”

An acid quality had crept into Osuke’s voice. Hayate looked taken aback, almost startled, as if the fake Osuke had fallen away to reveal a scary stranger.

“Young man, I’m trying to tell you that radical changes are underway. Ones that were unimaginable before Fumio and his New Democrats left office. Now, who you are as a person, what kind of friend and neighbor and boyfriend and son and employee or manager you are, affects your life in ways you haven’t begun to grasp.”

“Oh, I’ve heard all about the ‘new ethos,’ Hayate. And I have a fair idea of what it demands intelligent people believe. A witch will put a hex on me if I don’t leave good tips and pet strangers’ dogs on the street and say please and thank you. Do you want me to tell you what I think of the new ethos?”

Hayate looked disappointed.

“Well, it’s a conversation for another time, Osuke.”

Osuke wanted to pour water on the situation but again had little idea how to relate to Hayate. A generational divide is one thing. The older guy was like an emissary from a land where people act morally and could not fathom a creature such as Hayate now addressed.

“Let’s have some more wine.”

Hayate looked uncertain, as if he knew Osuke had drunk too much and lacked a polite way to say what he wanted to say. Yet he smiled again and signaled at one of the passing servers. Osuke finished another glass of the perfectly chilled white wine and did not even notice when Hayate left him.

He found himself craving whiskey. The bars would still be open for a few more hours. Osuke looked around the suite. Megumi was talking to a middle-aged businessman in a suit. Izumi and Fuyuhito stood before a painting of a temple, sipping wine, their backs to Osuke. He had no idea where Yukio or Hayate might have gone, and he did not care. Ignoring what his mother had once told him about thanking each and every host before you leave a gathering, he stole out of the suite and into an elevator. In the morning, Megumi would get a nice email.

Outside, a drizzle had started up. He decided not to hail a cab. Eight blocks away there was a quiet bar. That was far enough from the building he had just left that he did not have to worry about getting even drunker and running into someone who would recognize him but not too far to walk in a light rain.

One block from the bar he had in mind, jazz music beckoned from inside an establishment he had passed on the street before but had never tried out. If he was to obey others’ counsel and leave his comfort zone, why not check out this place, he figured.

Inside it was dark, not too crowded, and the long instrumental passage of a Duke Ellington piece wooed him and helped him forget the scene back in that suite. People sat around at the tables sipping whiskies, talking or sliding ever deeper into silent contemplation. Looking around, Osuke thought he could spend hours and hours in this bar, and he might get some creative ideas or just tune out to the jazz and not worry about committing to anything, here in this place between roles and identities. Whatever came of it, he could not be worse off, he thought, while reflecting on his interactions over the past few months.

After starting on this third whiskey, Osuke looked up and happened to notice a forlorn figure seated two stools to his right. He was unsure when she had arrived or whether she had been there the whole time and escaped his notice. The young woman had shoulder-length black hair and smooth translucent skin and was free of the earrings that Osuke, for all his vanity, thought a detriment to beauty. How he longed to engage with this wilting flower, who seemed sad in a poetic way, far removed from those trembling weeping wrecks he had seen from time to time in the nighttime redoubts of this grinding city.

To Osuke, the young woman two stools down looked deeply sad yet not beyond solace. So he focused his mind and tried to pretend he was not half as drunk as he felt and groped for a way to convey his empathy and his sense of knowing what she was dealing with, though, of course, he had as little sense of it as of the amount of rainfall in a village on the other side of the world or the number of protestors at a rally.

He set down his empty glass and forced himself to speak, hoping in the face of his deepest fears and anxieties that the wilting flower might snap to attention at the sound of a stranger’s voice.

“I’m sorry about all the drunk American idiots who come in here and ask to buy you a drink.”

She raised her head and turned to face the interloper.

“Oh, I don’t think you have any idea of the quality of patrons this place gets.”

“A fair guess, given that I’ve never dared entered this establishment before. But I was trying to anticipate one of the worst scenarios I thought an attractive, interesting, dare I say unattached, young woman might have to deal with on her own in a bar such as this one.”

Osuke had no idea how the stranger would react. But now the flower ceased to wilt, the muscles in her neck taughtened, and she looked at him with an intensity he found a little scary. In the remotest centers of her eyes, a fiery light danced, one that he would have stared at in an effort to delineate its discrete qualities and impress it on his own memory if he could look for so long without rudeness.

“Some women would slap you for assuming so much. But I have this feeling you like to extrapolate and envision scenarios. You’re a writer.”

He nodded.

“I’m Osuke. A writer who finds every experience to be of interest because you never know what heads it will sprout. I look at you, pale flower, sitting alone here in this dark smoky bar, and you could be anything. An emissary from an alien realm, a member of the red faction that went crazy in the seventies, a princess of the twelfth century whom Kenneth Rexroth brought to life in the present, a revolutionary, a poet, a spurned lover, a demon. Anything at all. I assume nothing and rule out nothing. I get ideas for stories and novels at random moments of the day and night when you’d expect my mind to lapse into prosaic habits.”

She looked at him with an expression that might have been guarded interest or world-weary contempt.

“So, you’re a writer. Well, here’s your chance to drop a lot of big names. Tell me about your creative inspirations, the authors who awe you and inspire you with the feeling that you could never be anything else.”

Her tone was somewhere between facetious and impassioned. She could have meant these words cruelly; here was one of those situations whose distance from an abyss he could never fathom no matter how drunk or sober he might be, and to delay his answer now would court more awkwardness. He tried self-deprecating humor.

“There are so many writers I could talk you under the table about, bore you to tears for hours. Out of the kindness of my heart, I won’t do that.”

She did not smile. He went on.

“But I will tell you about the influence of Kafka on my work and ideas. I think about Kafka almost every day. I can’t think of a single other genius for whom the barrier between conscious and subconscious was so completely absent, who dwelled so far outside the usual habits of thought.”

The young woman nodded, but an old sensation crept back. Osuke did not know whether his words hit home or she was just humoring him. He went on.

“When my authorial voice aligns with Kafka’s, that’s when monsters emerge onto the page.”

She nodded again.

“I was waiting for that, Osuke. For the moment you would betray the same sensibility as those who have plundered Kafka’s work to make a dollar. They made a film back in 1991, did you know that? I guess you weren’t yet born. But, yes, they made one with Jeremy Irons as Kafka, and in the early frames you’ve got a monster running up the street, because nothing offbeat or weird succeeds if the audience doesn’t get to see a monster a few seconds into the running time. They perpetrated this terrible movie and turned this most idiosyncratic of figures into a horror writer. Unlocking all kinds of merchandising opportunities for Halloween and TV and sequels and prequels.”

 Osuke had a heavy feeling in his chest, and the veins pumping blood through his head had gained vigor. He had sensed guardedness on her part but not the hostility or loathing that now bloomed.

“Really? I don’t remember Kafka 2.”

She ignored the question.

“You jump on the Kafka wagon, Osuke, along with a hundred million others, and you dare to think you’ve asserted something artistically and intellectually. Poor fool. If you really want to embrace what is strange and dark and alien, come out with me into the city tonight. I’ll help you across barriers. But I don’t think you will. I think you’d rather sit in a bar and sip whiskies and preen and pose as a tortured intellectual, checking your phone every few minutes so the world doesn’t pass you by.”

He racked his mind for advice he had heard on de-escalation. After all the wine and whiskey, he recalled one little thing.

“Can I—uh—can I ask you your name?”

“Sachiko. And I can show you things more wondrous or terrifying than your celestial or infernal self. I can show you all your historical analogues and make you watch your actions from outside your skin, everything you’ve ever done. You’ll know my visionary state when you see the outlines of my form imbued with red flame.”

Osuke wanted to say that one of them was crazy, and he did not think it was he.

“Ah, Sachiko. Lovely name. You know, even after all you’ve said, I think that you and I probably have more in common—”

He tried to complete the sentence, but failed. Right now, it was all he could do not to toss his drink in her face for insulting a stranger in public.

“Look, Sachiko, I’m not stupid. You’ve impugned my creativity and offered me the prospect of something genuinely dark because that’s your method. Tell men you can show them something, lure them, then drug them and open their laptops and loot their accounts. Isn’t that it? Or maybe they step into your place and someone comes out of the closet and puts a gun to their head. I wonder how many men you’ve ensnared this way, preempting their suspicions by pretending to dislike them. Piquing their curiosity and moving in for the kill. You unspeakable whore.”

He heard a loud smack and felt a burning sensation in the right half of his face. Then the space beside him was empty. He did not see her hand or even see her leave the bar.

Twenty minutes later Osuke entered his flat in the chic quarter, flicked on the lights, went to the sink, and drank five glasses of water. He walked to the window filling the eastern half of the suite, looked out at the lights at points in the vast dark, and ran his hands through his hair. Then his phone rang. Half-thinking that Sachiko had somehow found his number and wanted to unload on him, he answered.


“Good evening, Osuke.”

He recognized Megumi’s voice.

“Why, good evening, Megumi. I never thanked you for a lovely time.”

The pause before she answered his banality was ominous.

“No, you made a rather hasty exit, as I think nearly everyone noticed.”

Osuke winced. He had hoped to cut out in a manner that would elide any discussion of him but guessed he had achieved the opposite.

“Please let me apologize for my rudeness. I was running late with a meeting in the city.”

“So, you were rude twice tonight.”

“Some feat, I know. Really, Megumi, it was a lovely function. Thank you.”

“It’s still going on, Osuke. I am standing here with Izumi. She vividly remembers the time you showed up drunk to one of her openings and took more wine from the servers and walked around insulting all the canvases.”

Osuke felt that acute unease that came when he got to the other side of what he thought would be bliss. He wanted to get drunk on whiskey until he actually ended up in this figurative space and became so susceptible to provocation that beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.

“Tell Izumi I was drunk and was trying to do a parody of a snooty art critic. I love abstract art—”

“And I also have Yukio here. Remember Yukio? He did not always want to be a broker. But he grew disgusted with a publishing industry where your father could use his influence to force people out of their jobs to make room for you. The most incompetent production manager who ever lived. Or so his industry contacts tell him.”

Osuke thought Megumi had come up with a way to rake him over the coals as a rebuke to his rudeness. He resisted the urge to throw the phone at the wall.

“My father would never—”

“Never do business that way? That’s a minority opinion. But these things so subjective, aren’t they? And Hayate’s father may have overreacted to you.”

“Hayate’s father? What in the world are you talking about, Megumi?”

She laughed.

“Oh, don’t worry, Osuke, product liability doesn’t apply to writers the way it does, say, to playpen manufacturers. But I must say, I have never heard of a reader taking as much offense as Hayate’s father did when Hayate presented the old man with a copy of your first novel.”

Thinking back to his literary debut, The Isle of Debauch, Osuke wondered why someone of Hayate’s father’s generation might not like it. The book strove to be neutral on the issue of Japan’s relations with small Indo-Pacific societies.

“So I’m not the only one who can be critical of others’ work, yes?”

“Hayate said he gave the novel to his father, thinking it would impress the man. It turns out your book is highly derivative of one from the 1950s that the father remembered having read, and he thought that making a gift of it was a studied insult.”

The sweat came hard now as Osuke realized that people had, in fact, read and remembered the obscure novel from which he borrowed shamelessly when writing The Isle of Debauch. Still Megumi was not done.

“And we also have Yōko here. She has been here all evening, but I don’t think you took any notice of her earlier. You have that way of eliding faces and identities, Osuke. But Yōko has a slightly longer memory, and she personally knows a half dozen young women you have chewed up and spat out. You abandoned them completely when you got bored of them, never once thinking that one or two just might be prone to suicidal thoughts.”

Yōko had been at the gathering? Osuke was furious, his palm almost too damp to hold the phone.

“Megumi, I have never spoken boldly or rudely to you in my life. But now you trot out Yōko and make some scurrilous accusations about my personal affairs and expect me to crumple under their moral weight. You know what, Megumi? Fuck off and die, you aging crow. “

Expecting her to express her outrage in the most vocal manner, he heard only a chuckle at the other end. Then someone else took the phone.

“Hello, Osuke.”

It was the voice of Fuyuhito.

“I really can’t—don’t want to stay on the phone, old man. What in the name of hell do you want?”

Fuyuhito spoke in a calm, wry tone.

“I will answer you politely in spite of your contempt for your elders, Osuke. Do you remember what some of us alluded to earlier? Social credit scores, the ambitious program of the new government?”

“I do vaguely remember something about that, yes.”

“Ah, well. We hoped to make you understand what brokers, professional and well-connected ones, can do for you. But it still may not be too late.”

“If you think this little function had any purpose other than to court my deep pockets—”

“Brash young man. When’s the last time you looked out the window? Things are not as permanent as you assume.”

Osuke had stood at the window of his suite the whole time, but come to think of it, had not glanced outside for a while now. He turned, warily, and could not believe what he saw. Some of the lights still shone out there in the dark, but he had the distinct sense that many were missing, as if a big rectangle of the urban grid had vanished.

Gazing out at the vastness of the night, he saw another multitude of lights disappear, and then an adjacent block, then another. People were not turning off their lights in concert, Osuke realized. The urban planners had devised the means to make blocks vanish, not collapse or implode but disappear with all the magical realism of a Murakami tale, and the number of square blocks with buildings and people on them contracted as Osuke gaped, all the lives, all the hopes and delusions of the stupid and callous residents folding instantly into nothing. Now he came to see how the value of the trust and goodwill of the realtors he had despised shot up exponentially, far beyond his brain’s ability to calibrate, how deeply unworthy he was of safe respectable quarters among the honest people of the city.

Osuke thought these were his last moments. But what had Fuyuhito said?

He would redeem himself. He would find the shy demon he had insulted without basis.

Without a moment’s pause, Osuke dialed the numbers of three of his friends, guys he had bought whiskies for after work when he was in one of his less foul moods. Only the third, Kazuharu, picked up. Either the other two were deep in sleep or the blocks they lived on were no more. Osuke explained that he urgently needed help in finding Sachiko, whom he hurriedly described. Kazuharu must get all the people he could find to help in this effort. All who helped out would receive a lavish reward, he promised. Kazuharu said he knew some people he could call, and they would come out into the streets and form a dragnet.

Now I know who my friends are, Osuke thought. Kazuharu is good enough to live, as I may be even now.

He ran out of his suite and dashed down the stairs and out onto the street, then retraced his steps to the bar where he had met Sachiko. Osuke guessed she had headed off to the north in the direction of the residential area with a lot of lofts. He pushed himself to run even harder though he knew his chances of finding her on the street must be roughly one in a million. All around, the buildings stood tall, their lights shining defiantly, or so it seemed to the young man as he looked around for signs of destabilization.

Sachiko could show him the wondrous things that had been absent from his peculiar psychospiritual makeup. He wanted to believe she was not a demon but an angel. One he had blown off with the same callousness he had shown to people all his life.

As Osuke turned a corner, a flutter of limbs in motion caught his eye. When he focused his gaze on the area ahead where the block ended, the figure or whatever it was had vanished into the near-total dark. He ran up the block, panting, thinking that Sachiko must be in league with the realtors and the city planners but that none of them could make a fool of him all night. He would find her, and kneel, and voice his contrition in a manner she could not ignore or deny.

Maybe he had missed her on this block, but his friends were coming down from the other direction. He ignored the voice in his head that said it was silly to imagine the random stranger he had noticed could be the woman he sought. He screamed.

Kazuharu! I think I see her! Down this way!

Crossing the street, he thought he saw another flutter ahead at the end of the next block. The thought that the buildings and streets around him might cease to exist any moment drove him to charge even faster. Even as he did so, the thought came that all that mattered, all that was decent and virtuous in the world, was in retreat.

He screamed again into the night. It was all about to go, he thought, the pavement, the walls, the lamps, the signs, forget who merits life and who does not.

As Osuke crossed to the next block, he peered between the rows of buildings up the perpendicular street and saw that yet another quarter of the city was gone. Then he spotted the open mouth of a gigantic warehouse and, deep within its depths, a figure sitting cross-legged on the floor and looking out at the street. As soon as he entered the warehouse, the red flames rushed with untamable fury through the length and breadth of the slight outline before him.

About the Author

Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author of five short story collections. His short story "Confessions of a Spook" won Causeway Lit's 2018 fiction contest.