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When I was a kid, I often messed this up.
In crowded shops, in other people’s houses,
things I’d pick up furtively would slip from my fingers.
Strangers’ possessions were like foreign objects that
didn’t fit comfortably in my hands. They would tremble
faintly, asserting their independence, and before I knew
it they’d come alive and fall to the ground. The point of
contact, which was intrinsically morally wrong, seemed
to be rejecting me. And in the distance there was always
the tower. Just a silhouette floating in the mist like some
ancient daydream. But I don’t make mistakes like that
these days. And naturally I don’t see the tower either.
In front of me a man in his early sixties was walking
towards the platform, in a black coat with a silver suitcase
in his right hand. Of all the passengers here, I was sure
he was the richest. His coat was Brunello Cucinelli, and
so was his suit. His Berluti shoes, probably made to order,
did not show even the slightest scuffmarks. His wealth
was obvious to everyone around him. The silver watch
peeping out from the cuff on his left wrist was a Rolex
Datejust. Since he wasn’t used to taking the bullet train
by himself, he was having some trouble buying a ticket.
He stooped forward, his thick fingers hovering over the
vending machine uncertainly like revolting caterpillars. At
that moment I saw his wallet in the left front pocket of his
Keeping my distance, I got on the escalator, got off at a
leisurely pace. With a newspaper in my hand, I stood behind
him as he waited for the train. My heart was beating a little
fast. I knew the position of all the security cameras on this
platform. Since I only had a platform ticket, I had to finish
the job before he boarded the train. Blocking the view of
the people to my right with my back, I folded the paper
as I switched it to my left hand. Then I lowered it slowly
to create a shield and slipped my right index and middle
fingers into his coat pocket. The fluorescent light glinted
faintly off the button on his cuff, sliding at the edge of my
vision. I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner
of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips
to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread
throughout my body. I felt like I was standing in a void, as
though with the countless intersecting lines of vision of
all those people, not one was directed at me. Maintaining
the fragile contact between my fingers and the wallet, I
sandwiched it in the folded newspaper. Then I transferred
the paper to my right hand and put it in the inside pocket
of my own coat. Little by little I breathed out, conscious of
my temperature rising even more. I checked my surroundings,
only my eyes moving. My fingers still held the tension
of touching a forbidden object, the numbness of entering
someone’s personal space. A trickle of sweat ran down my
back. I took out my cell phone and pretended to check my
email as I walked away.
I went back to the ticket gate and down the gray stairs
towards the Marunouchi line. Suddenly one of my eyes
blurred, and all the people moving around me seemed to
shimmer, their silhouettes distorted. When I reached the
platform I spotted a man in a black suit out of the corner
of my eye. I located his wallet by the slight bulge in the
right back pocket of his trousers. From his appearance
and demeanor I judged him to be a successful male companion
at a ladies-only club. He was looking quizzically at
his phone, his slender fingers moving busily over the keys.
I got on the train with him, reading the flow of the crowd,
and positioned myself behind him in the muggy carriage.
When humans’ nerves detect big and small stimuli at
the same time, they ignore the smaller one. On this section
of track there are two large curves where the train
shakes violently. The office worker behind me was reading
an evening paper, folded up small, and the two middleaged
women on my right were gossiping about someone
and laughing raucously. The only one who wasn’t simply
traveling was me. I turned the back of my hand towards
the man and took hold of his wallet with two fingers. The
other passengers formed a wall around me on two sides.
Two threads at the corner of his pocket were frayed and
twisted, forming elegant spirals like snakes. As the train
swayed I pushed my chest close to him as though leaning
against his back and then pulled the wallet out vertically.
The tight pressure inside me leaked into the air, I
breathed out and a reassuring warmth flowed through my
body. Without moving I checked the atmosphere in the
carriage, but nothing seemed out of order. There was no
way I would make a mistake in a simple job like this. At
the next station I got off and walked away, hunching my
shoulders like someone feeling the cold.
I joined the stream of weary people and went through
the barrier. Looking at the fifteen or so average men and
women gathered at the entrance to the station, I figured
there was about two hundred thousand yen among them.
I strolled off, lighting a cigarette. Behind a power pole to
my left I saw a man check the contents of his wallet in
full view and put it in the right pocket of his white down
jacket. His cuffs were dark with stains, his sneakers worn
and only the fabric of his jeans was good quality. I ignored
him and went into Mitsukoshi Department Store. On the
menswear floor, which was full of brand-name shops, there
was a display mannequin wearing a coordinated outfit,
something reasonably well-off guys in their late twenties
or early thirties would wear. The mannequin and I were
dressed the same. I had no interest in clothes, but people
in my line of work can’t afford to stand out. You have to
look prosperous so that no one suspects you. You have to
wear a lie, you have to blend into your environment as a
lie. The only difference between me and the store dummy
was the shoes. Keeping in mind that I might have to run
away, I was in sneakers.
I took advantage of the warmth inside the shop to
loosen my fingers, opening and closing my hands inside
my pockets. The wet handkerchief I used to moisten my
fingers was still cold. My forefinger and middle finger were
almost the same length. Whether I was born like that or
they gradually grew that way I don’t know. People whose
ring fingers are longer than their index fingers use their
middle and ring fingers. Some people grip with three fingers,
with the middle finger at the back. Like all forms of
motion, there is a smooth, ideal movement for removing a
wallet from a pocket. It’s not only a matter of the angle, but
of speed as well. Ishiwaka loved talking about this stuff.
Often when he drank he became unguarded and chatty
like a child. I didn’t know what he was up to anymore. I
figured he was probably already dead.
I entered a stall in the department store’s dimly lit
toilet, pulled on a thin pair of gloves and inspected the
wallets. I’d made it a rule never to use the station toilets,
just to be on the safe side. The Brunello Cucinelli man’s
held 96,000 yen, three American $100 bills, a Visa gold
card, an American Express gold card, a driver’s license, a
gym membership card and a receipt for 72,000 yen from
a fancy Japanese restaurant. Just when I was about to give
up I found an intricately colored plastic card with nothing
printed on it. I’d come across these before. They’re for
exclusive private brothels. In the male companion’s wallet
were 52,000 yen, a driver’s license, a Mitsui Sumitomo
credit card, cards for Tsutaya video store and a comic
book café, several business cards from sex workers and a
whole lot of scrap paper, receipts and the like. There were
also some colorful pills with hearts and stars stamped on
them. I only took the banknotes, leaving the rest inside. A
wallet shows a person’s personality and lifestyle. Just like
a cell phone, it is at the center, forming the nucleus of
the owner’s secrets, everything he carries on him. I never
sold the cards because it was too much bother. I did what
Ishikawa would have done—if I dropped the wallets in a
mailbox, the post office would forward them to the police,
who would then return them to the address on the driver’s
license. I wiped off my fingerprints and put the wallets in
my pocket. The male escort might get busted for drugs,
but that wasn’t my problem.
Just as I was leaving the stall I felt something strange
in one of the hidden pockets inside my coat. Alarmed, I
went back into the toilet. A Bulgari wallet, made of stiff
leather. Inside was 200,000 yen in new bills. Also several
gold cards, Visa and others, and the business cards of the
president of a securities firm. I’d never seen the wallet or
the name on the cards before.
Not again, I thought. I had no recollection of taking it.
But of all the wallets I’d acquired that day it was definitely
the most valuable.
Feeling a slight headache, I gave myself up
to the rocking of the train. It was bound for
Haneda Airport, but it was terribly crowded. Between the
heating and the warmth of other people’s bodies, I was
sweating. I stared out the window, moving my fingers in
my pockets. Clusters of dingy houses passed at regular
intervals, like some kind of code. Suddenly I remembered
the last wallet I took yesterday. I blinked and an enormous
iron tower flashed by me with a loud roar. It was over in an
instant but my body stiffened. The tower was tall and I felt
like it had glanced casually at me standing tensely in the
middle of that crowded train.
When I looked around the carriage I saw a man who
seemed to be totally absorbed by something. Not so much
concentrating as in a trance, eyes half closed, as he groped
a woman’s body. I think that men like that fall into two
types—ordinary people who have perverted tendencies,
and people who are swallowed up by their perversion so
that the boundary between fantasy and reality becomes
blurred and then disappears completely. I suspected he
belonged to the second group. Then I realized that the
victim was a junior high school student, and I wove my
way through a gap in the crowd. Apart from me and him
and the girl, no one had noticed anything.
From behind, I deliberately grabbed the man’s left
wrist with my left hand. All his muscles suddenly jerked
into life and then I felt him go limp, as though after a
severe shock. Keeping hold of his wrist, I steadied his
watch with my forefinger, undid the clasp on the strap
with my thumb and slid it into my sleeve. Then I pinched
his wallet from the right inside pocket of his suit with
my right fingers. Realizing there was a risk of touching
his body, I changed my movement, dropped the wallet
in the space between his jacket and shirt and caught it
with my left hand underneath. A company employee in
his late thirties, and judging from his ring he was married.
I grasped his arm again, this time with my right hand.
The color had drained from his face and he was struggling
to turn towards me, twisting his neck while rocking with
the motion of the train. Sensing the change behind her,
the girl moved her head, unsure whether to turn around
or not. The carriage was quiet. The man was trying to
open his mouth to speak, as if he wanted to justify himself
to me or to the world. It seemed like some malevolent
spotlight was calling attention to his presence. His throat
quivered as though he was getting ready to scream. Sweat
was running down his cheeks and forehead and his eyes
were wide but unfocused. Perhaps I would wear the same
expression when I got caught. I released the pressure on
his arm and mouthed, “Go!” Face contorted, he couldn’t
make up his mind. I jerked my head towards the door.
Arms trembling, he turned to the front again, as if he’d
realized that I’d been looking at his face. The door opened
and he ran. He thrust his way into the throng, wriggling
and shoving people out of the way.