Hola, Mexico

He was driving. South.
Deep in Mexico.
In eternity.
In sheer, violent blue endlessness.

Heading for those mountains, rising like shoulders of rain out of the parched, broken, cactus dotted, windswept desert.

Battering wind, dusty, cool, shattering insects on the windshield.
He’s got the windows rolled down. So he can taste the dry air.
Taste the smashing wind.

His elbow roasting in the sun glare, where it rests on the window.

Sometimes he puts his hand out, opens the fingers. To feel the wind.
To feel the violent, surrealistic, shattered, unborn reality of Mexico.
He tries to snatch it. But the wind always escapes.

He shuts his eyes.
Sees the road, the white line unfurling.
Mountains distorted by heat.
Sweat stinging his face.

Empty road, mirage wavering asphalt.
Lakes appearing. Castles.

He licks his lips.
Turns on the radio.
It’s a Bible thumping preacher, out of Texas.
Shrieking Gospel into the blurred airwaves.

He can see the man vividly in his mind’s eye, dark-suited with a face like a hatchet, shouting in his roadside pinewood chapel.
Shouting into a big steel-gilled microphone.
He, the blue eyed man — gaunt-faced, handsome, with thinning hair, in a blue denim shirt, jeans and steeltoed cowboy boots — makes a face.
He switches the station.

A long crackle of radiowaves.
Then the blare of horns.
A mariachi song. Okay.
He turns it up, until the harsh clangs of the guitar make the air tremble.
He listens. Falls into a trance.

When the song ends, his head jolts.
But he hasn’t fallen asleep.
He’s still driving the Jeep. Straight and fast.

But now dusk is climbing the mountains.
They’re turning a fantastic rose-hue.
And in the distance, a little town, already lost deep in a well of shadow.

He’ll stop. He’ll eat at a Mexican cantina.
He’ll fill the jeep with gas.
Maybe get a cerveza or two, some shots of tequila. Why not.

As he slows down to forty, the blue eyed man bends.
Reaches under the seat.
Pulls out the gun.

Holding the steering wheel one handed, he flicks open the cylinder.
At a glance, he sees it’s fully loaded.
Gleaming copper cased bullets.
He lays the pistol on the hot leather passenger seat, where it bounces slightly.

The wind-roar subsides. The rattle of windshield glass slows to a soft ticking.
He realizes the windshield is so filthy it’s tinging everything brown and dull.
He’ll get it washed in the town. And now he sees the first color splashed billboards.

Ads for Las Cervezas Mas Fina.
Houses, more like shacks.
Chickens walking around a fenced yard.
Dogs, their tongues lolling out, lying in the shade of an adobe wall.

He pulls into the first service station that appears in the brown dust of his bouncing vision.
He brakes the Jeep, sweeps up the pistol, and in a smooth movement, as he steps out onto the overheated asphalt, sticks the barrel into his belted sweat-cold jeans waistband at the front  and pulls the tails of his shirt out to cover the grip

Hola, Mexico.

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The Blind Swordswoman

What is the strange allure of the swordswoman figure in martial arts novels and movies?

Is it all just pulp garishness? A prolonged adolescent erotic fantasy hangover?

Then why is the swordswoman figure — whether she is blind, tattooed, one-armed, or merely disgraced, outcast, suffering and abused — always so melancholy, so wounded, so tragic?

Listen to these painfully beautiful last lines intoned by a narrator at the end of CRIMSON BAT: THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN (1969, aka BLIND OICHI STORY: RED BIRD OF FLIGHT): “Oichi went away on the cold wintery wind, carrying with her her sword-cane and a great deal of loneliness . . . her sightless eyes filled with tears.”

As for me, I wrote my novel OSAI’S RAZOR (here it is in the Kindle format) to tell the story of a swordswoman in old Japan whose life was almost unbearably harsh. Osai Itto’s story came to me in great, blazing and silent images. I found it, and her, irresistible.

And I wrote the final sentence blinded by tears.

AKIKO’S FURY

Deadly “Akiko” retires from killing to restore a Zen temple on a remote island off Japan. But violent people won’t let her alone.

THE LONELINESS OF THE BLUE-EYED ASSASSIN (originally titled AKIKO’S FURY) is the first in a planned series of crime thrillers dealing with the life of a half-Japanese half-American young woman who also happens to be a highly paid assassin code-named Akiko.

Born in Okinawa to a heroin-addicted American ex-Marine and a Japanese bar girl, the blue-eyed, black-haired Molly Vance grew up in San Francisco until age nine, when her father died mysteriously. She was then brought to Tokyo and raised by her father’s friend, a yakuza gangster.

As a teenager, she was trained in martial arts by the head of an ancient cult of tattooed female assassins called the Habu Kurage, or Medusas. Following her adopted father’s death in a yakuza war, Molly went on a bloody rampage, destroying the entire rival yakuza clan.

Still later, after more intensive training by the head of the Medusas, she began working worldwide for a shadowy group known only as the Organization, and quickly gained renown as the deadliest woman alive.

But, after glimpsing an underlying pattern and suddenly realizing the Organization’s motives behind the “hits” she is assigned, Akiko risks it all to help one of her targets escape.

She then disappears from view, going to live in an abandoned mountain temple on a remote island off the coast of Japan.

Both the Organization and the Medusas are now determined to find Akiko — and kill her. Even worse, they have found a way to get to Molly through people in her past. To save their lives and her own, she must unleash all her fury.

***

In this novel Molly Vance, living under a false name, is busy restoring the ruined Zen temple as a way of purging her dark karma. At the same time she is falling in love with the remote island’s only policeman, a young man named Jiro Takagi, whom she begins to train in the sword.

One day she gets a letter from her adopted father’s former mistress. The woman’s teenaged daughter was kidnapped by Chinese gangsters on a trip to San Francisco and is being forced to work as a prostitute in a sleazy massage parlor.

Akiko travels to San Francisco to get the girl back and soon finds herself fighting for her life against a hired kung fu master. Though Akiko survives almost unscathed, retrieves the girl and returns to her island, the head of the Medusas has now gotten word of her whereabouts, and sends assassins.

After Takagi is badly hurt trying to save her life, Akiko realizes that she cannot run away any longer — that she must face her former teacher in a combat to the death.

“Akiko” is like a female Jason Bourne, James Bond, or Nicolai Hel (the reluctant assassin hero of Trevanian’s SHIBUMI). Each novel in the series is fast paced, cleanly written, and structured as cleanly as a Simenon mystery or an Ian Fleming Bond novel.

Though Akiko is the central character we get immersed in many other characters, places and situations, so each novel has its own mood and “feel,” and stands on its own.

This opening novel gives us Akiko’s painful backstory, shows her fighting like a fury to save her friends, and at the end launches her on a completely unexpected path.

***

A damaged but appealing protagonist whom I hope everybody will want to cheer on as she fights impossible odds using only her finely honed skills and wits, plenty of sharp martial arts action reminiscent of samurai and yakuza movies (including Tarantino’s KILL BILL 1 and 2 and just about anything by Takashi Mike), exotic settings, and strong, evocative, sensual writing. That’s about it.

Enjoy reading!

Akiko. Tokyo. Deep night.

Many readers have noted my “unconventional” approach to dialogue and sometimes also to indentation and punctuation.

In stark truth, I used to be much more “correct” about how I put together a piece of fiction. So correct, and so hyper-aware of real and imagined flaws, that I instantly destroyed just about everything I wrote.

Then, one fine day in 1992 or so, I read a generous excerpt from Cormac McCarthy’s ALL THE PRETTY HORSES in Esquire. (This was at a time when big magazines were still publishing interesting stuff.)

At that instant, a light bulb flashed on over my head, as I began to see the possibilities open for sheer writing. I began to see that there is no necessary contradiction between action and poetry.

The great spaghetti Westerns, Hong Kong gangster and Japanese yakuza crime movies, for example, are lyrical as well as gritty and bloody.

Akiko Royale

The inspiration to begin writing the “Akiko” series came to Okamoto through reading Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, CASINO ROYALE. “What sort of human being would I want to write a series of crime/thriller novels about? Who could keep me so deeply fascinated that I would want to write the adventures of an entire lifetime?”

And there, popping up out of nowhere, was the image of a beautiful but melancholy, starkly blue-eyed half-Japanese half-Caucasian woman boarding a ferry to take her to a remote island on the Sea of Japan. The story of “Akiko” arose from that moment and unfolded itself in terse stages. It was the birth of lonely ex-assassin Molly Vance.

_____

The ferry that sets out for Kamijima from the main island is a small and rickety and paint-peeling launch with a clanging engine, a single smokestack, and room for about thirty passengers. It runs once every two days. It does not carry automobiles, though some of the tourists bring aboard bicycles or motorscooters.

On that morning in June a pale young woman, wearing a white linen suit and sunglasses and thin leather sandals, her lips coated with red lipstick of a shade so dark it was almost black, boarded the ferry with two heavy black calfskin leather luggage bags; she hauled them across the wobbling gangplank by herself, one in each hand, over the gibbering objections and complaints of the little brown ferryman who tried in vain to take hold the straps and wrest the bags away from her. She carried them without any seeming effort and once onboard she slumped on a bench, in a space that mysteriously cleared for her, the heavy bags at her feet, and without any fuss lit a cigarette and smoked it staring at the Sea of Japan.

Blue-green water boiled white behind the engine and with much clanking and a muffled roar as a boy in shorts and an oil smudged t shirt tossed the heavy frayed bow and stern ropes back onto the deck and a puff of black smoke and the stink of diesel the boat shuddered deeply and turned in the water and pointed its prow toward the low and distant outline of Kamijima then began to slide and jolt away from shore. The woman flicked her cigarette overboard and crossed her arms over her chest, as if already feeling the cold. She rubbed her shoulders.

She seemed to enjoy being out on the water, away from the heat and clamor of the city, and as the dark hair flew over her face in the salt-laced wind she was  taking in everything, alert with all her senses, exuberant even.

One might have thought she was coming to life again . . .

Allan Guthrie was my agent for a few years and tried valiantly to sell my novels OSAI’S RAZOR and THE LONELINESS OF THE BLUE-EYED ASSASSIN.

He’s also a fine crime writer, given to terse descriptions of gritty and dark Grand Guignol violence. As in his novel: SLAMMER.

Allan Guthrie is rather adamant that no character in a noir novel should be sympathetic.  He himself pulls this off brilliantly, somewhat like James M. Cain but with buckets rather than squibs of blood.

My own feelings are somewhat different. If I can’t sympathize with its protagonist, a book usually doesn’t cut very deep. Avoiding empathy, one risks writing what amount to mere manifestos of gore and academic exercises in mayhem.

I want to put you there and make you feel the action in a hair-raising way. This includes the risk of falling in love with a character who might be ill-fated, even doomed.