The scent of smoke – Part 9

“So I‘m coming back tomorrow night,” Subaru just let Jazz know over the phone.

“Good. I miss you,” she almost sang before she got serious again. “How’s Mizuki doing?”

“Still hasn’t regained consciousness.”

Jazz could see Subaru’s face in her mind’s eyes, the crease between his eyebrows, the tight line his lips formed when he was frustrated.

She couldn’t even offer him comfort; had tried so the day before but every of her attempts sounded like a platitude, worn out and shallow to her own ears.

“Take care on your trip back,” was what she said instead. “I love you.”

His tired sigh sent a burst of longing through her heart. If only she could hug him, smooth out the frown with her fingertips.

“I love you, too. So, so much…” Subaru cleared his throat. “Okay, I have to go now. I will send you a text when we leave here, but I don’t think I’ll have enough time to actually call.”

“Okay, I understand.” Only one more night. She could make it through one more night without him.

 

“Mann-san, thank you for preparing this preparation today.” Mr. Takuchi dipped his chin slightly, waited for Jazz to bow before he went on. “As you know this is a crucial event for our agency. What are your plans for it?”

Jazz launched into her pitch, showed pictures of the museum, played samples of the music.

“The overall idea is it to bring back the grande time of photography. To honor its origins and prosperity period.”

Four men were watching her, their faces the usual polite mask Jazz had gotten used to ever since coming to Japan. Mr. Takuchi, her direct superior. Yamamoto, who had lost this job in the first place. Makoto, Mr. Takuchi’s secretary. And the actual client, Professor Nozumi, head of the award jury.

“Thank you, Mann-san. This was enlightening and I’m certain we are having a lot to think about now. We will let you know what we decide, please wait for our call.”

Again she bowed and left, knowing this was a formality rather than an actual pitch. There simply wasn’t enough time to change plans again, but they couldn’t just give her free rein. She was a woman, a foreigner, with a reputation of planning incredible weddings. But only weddings. The constant check-ins would become less and less during the next few jobs, she was certain. Almost certain. She hoped for it.

Back in her own office she checked her phone only to find the notifications empty. Eight, maybe ten hours and Subaru would come home.

“How did it go?” Liana poked her head in, entered fully when Jazz motioned towards the chair.

“I think they are going to agree to all my plans. They lack alternatives anyway.” She opened a drawer, set a box with cookies on the desk.

“You want one?” Sugar was probably a bad idea, Jazz was already buzzing with restless energy, tapping her toes and fidgeting with her pen.

“No thanks, I’m going out for dinner tonight.” Liana crossed her legs, smoothed down her pencil skirt.

“That explains the posh outfit today.” Her eyebrow raised Jazz bit into a cookie, caught the crumbs with her free hand. “You are going out awfully often lately,” she mumbled, still chewing.

“And?”

“Nothing ‘and’. Just saying I noticed. So it’s going well with Ishigami?” She brushed the last crumbs off her hands and desk, threw the box back into the drawer. Out of sight, but never out of mind.

“It’s only dinner dates so far but I enjoy it. We talk a lot, he’s really smart and sophisticated. Considerate. So yes, it’s going well.” Liana’s small smile was telling Jazz the gist of a story she really wanted details of.

“Hahhh, the beginning of something is always so exciting. To find out all the new things, try out different things.” She put her hands behind her head, leaned back in her chair.

“Sounds as if someone’s missing a bit of excitement. Not enough fresh air in your marriage?”

“Nah,” Jazz objected softly, leaned forwards now. “We are good. No signs of a lull yet and I intend to keep it like that. It’s just – I like to think back to the beginnings every now and then. Subaru really drove me crazy, weak knees and butterflies included. He still does, from time to time, but there’s so much more than tingles and a racing heart now. And I like that even better.”

“Well, we are still in the ‘getting to know each other’ phase. There is a certain tension and excitement and it’s very enjoyable.” With a wide grin Liana got up when Jazz’s phone rang. “Good luck with the higher ups and have fun welcoming your husband back home.”

“Thanks and thanks.” Jazz picked up the phone, back in work mode. The anticipation would only come once she was at home, getting everything ready for Subaru’s return.

 

When his key turned in the lock Jazz was ready. Dinner was in the oven, kept warm. A bottle of wine was on the table, together with two glasses and some snacks. Also she was shaved and showered, just in case he was hungry for something else than food.

“I’m back,” he yelled through the hallway so Jazz skipped out of the living room, jumped into his arms.

“Welcome back.” He smelled familiar and comforting, she buried her nose in the crook of her neck, but pulled back when she caught a whiff of smoke.

“Let me bring my luggage away first.” He patted her head, made her frown with this gesture. He never did that before.

“Yeah, sure. Go ahead, I’ll get dinner ready for us.”

Bowls and plates piled up on the coffee table in the living room when Subaru came back, in casual clothes now.

“We are eating here?”

“I thought it’s cozier here. Come, take a seat.” She patted on the space next to her on the couch, handed him a glass of wine.

“I missed you.” Close to him after the time apart she snuggled up, tucked herself under his arm, against his side.

“I missed you, too.” Half of his wine was gone before she offered him the first snack. “But I’m also hungry.”

They passed bowls back and forth, Jazz filled the space between them with chatter, happy giggles and an occasional peck on his cheek, lips and neck. He responded mostly with grunts, kept eating and nodded every now and then when she looked at him expectantly. Another glass of wine and a full meal later he leaned back on the couch, patted Jazz’s thigh.

“Ready to talk now?” Patience wasn’t her strong point. Despite the relieve of having her husband back he still had to tell her what exactly had happened.

“Things went wrong, someone got shot and I’m still mad about that.”

He reached for the wine bottle, refilled his glass. Jazz placed a hand on his back, the tension in his muscles made her frown.

“That much I already gathered from your calls and the news. I’d like to get the bigger picture, though.”

In one swig he downed his wine, but stayed on the edge of the couch.

“That would just worry you unnecessarily.”

“And not knowing what’s going on won’t worry me?” She snorted, scooted closer to the edge, too. “Stop keeping secrets from me, babe. You don’t have to carry that all by yourself.”

He looked at her, for the first time that night took in her expression. Concern creased her forehead, darkened her eyes.

With a sigh he pulled her into his embrace.

“Sorry. You are right. Okay, what do you know about Fukuhara and his politics?”

“He’s the next big hope for Tokyo, at least according to his supporters. Safety and progress while keeping up the traditions.” She was citing some phrase she read on a flyer a while ago.

“Something along those lines. Japan, especially Tokyo, is already pretty safe. But lately Fukuhara has set his mind on clearing Tokyo of certain crimes. Gun and drug trafficking mostly. And obviously his vigorous effort caught some interest from the wrong guys. He got some death threats, a few weeks ago.”

Jazz drew a sharp breath, sat up so she could look at him.

“That’s why you are in charge of his protection now.” Not even asking it as a question she didn’t need his answer. “And here I was wondering why it takes three well trained bodyguards to keep one politician safe. Especially since he doesn’t even hold a major post yet.”

“Yeah. And he brought his wife on this trip, so that’s also a factor. He didn’t want to leave her behind, not with how he’s getting targeted at the moment.”

Fukuhara and his wife were the model couple of modern Japanese politics, even made it on some magazine covers. Young – at least in comparison –  successful, good looking.

“Okay, so far I can follow.”

“Well, we split up that day. I stayed with the wife, Mizuki and Takamura accompanied Fukuhara.” His hand rested on his thigh, Jazz grabbed it and squeezed lightly.

“You haven’t been there?” When it happened. When Mizuki got shot.

“No. They called me immediately but I wasn’t even close.”

Jazz bit back the ‘thank goodness’, someone else ended up in hospital after all.

“So we stopped the event, got Fukuhara and his wife out of there. Police was everywhere all of sudden, plus the media. Things were crazy and I needed a while to call you.”

He exhaled, squeezed her hand back.

“I’m so sorry.” And here she had yelled at him for not texting her sooner. “How – how’s Mizuki doing?”

“Not good. He’s getting weaker. Collapsed twice. They – he might not make it.”

Following her instincts she hugged him, as tightly as she could. There were no words of comfort, no promises that it would be alright in the end.

“I’m not good company right now. How about you go to bed first? I – I didn’t even have time to think about it all so far. Might want to take a quick walk.”

Her gaze flitted over to the window, it was already dark outside.

“You just came back and want me to go to bed alone again?” She jutted out her bottom lip and batted her lashes at him, but Subaru only scoffed.

“Really? One of my coworkers is basically dying as we speak and all you can think of is what? Sex?” He got up in one swift motion, almost jumped.

“What? No, that’s – I wasn’t implying sex. I just missed you and want to comfort you. Some people like some physical contact from time to time, and I’m not talking about banging.” The change of mood was palpable, his anger so intense she never witnessed before.

“Yeah, as if. You can be really selfish sometimes, you know that?” With that he stormed off, Jazz heard his keys jingle and the door slam shut.

“What the heck did just happen?” Her question, muttered into the empty room, trailed off without an answer.

 

She was still awake when he came back, some time after 3am. Lying in the bed, the covers pulled up to her nose she pretended to sleep while he stomped through the entryway, cursed lowly. Slurred. Jazz strained her ears, could tell when he went into the bathroom – and peed while standing up – stumbled into the kitchen for hopefully a glass of water and finally came to rest in the living room. After a few minutes of silence she tiptoed over, found Subaru snoring on the couch.

The smell of alcohol was strong, even from a few steps away. She took a blanket, threw it over him. Maybe he needed this, a way to let off some steam, to deal with the anger and guilt. Tomorrow they could talk about it.

She wouldn’t apologize, though. But she wouldn’t make it hard for him, either.

Back in bed she only fell asleep when the early summer sun peeked through the curtains.

 

Jazz smiled at the waitress, paused in her sentence and waited until her food was in front of her and the waitress gone again before she continued.

“So things haven’t been exactly easy and I thought, maybe Goto could have a nice heart to heart with him about this whole situation.” Her tea was already gone again so she signaled for the waitress, avoided Miho’s gaze from the other side of the table.

“And with situation you mean…?” Miho’s hand drew a few circles into the air, prompted Jazz to elaborate.

“We got the call yesterday morning. Mizuki died after collapsing again.” Jazz poked a tomato in her salad with a fork, just shoved it around in her bowl.

“Oh shit, I haven’t heard of that. How’s he taking it?” With practiced ease Miho snatched the olives from Jazz’s salad, dropped them in her own bowl.

“He refuses to talk to me. Like, at all. Not even the basic stuff, like ‘Good morning’ and ‘I’m off’. Nothing. Just broods and avoids me.” It was just an escalation from the days before.  After coming home drunk that first night back they had barely talked more than two sentences. Mostly about what to have for dinner and who would pay a certain bill. Definitely not about how he dealt with the loss and guilt. And now, with the worst case coming true, he had completely withdrawn from Jazz.

“He drinks more.” Not so much or often that she saw the need to intervene, just enough so she noticed. And worried.

“The whole attack on a politician gave our investigation a boost, though. Permits come faster, easier. We are going to inspect a ship soon, once it’s back in port. But I guess Seiji can spare an evening to check on Ichiyanagi.”

The other guests at the restaurant provided enough background noise to cover up Jazz’s sigh.

“Thanks, that would be great. I guess I just can’t really understand what it means being in your shoes, having to deal with the risk of losing someone at any given time. Except for being married to an officer of course.” Which was a private risk, not a professional one.

“Well, you know my opinion. Gotta live life to the fullest, yada yada yada. That’s why we don’t have kids, just dogs.” Miho took a piece of bread, dipped it into the dressing.

“Which I won’t take in case both of you kick the bucket. We had that discussion already.”

“But they are such good boys!” Miho whined, her own puppy eyes  directed at Jazz in full force now.

“And they are huge! Like, small ponies. No, thanks. Let your in laws have them.” Jazz shoved a fascicle of lettuce into her mouth to end the discussion.

“Fine. But you are their godmother, if you want it or not.”

“Fine,” Jazz parroted around a mouthful of greens. “When they have their First Communion, I’ll read the prayers.”

 

Superstition wasn’t a big part of Jazz’s life, just like religion. She believed in some cosmic karma, but in the end everyone was responsible for their own happiness in her opinion. So far it had worked for her, but now she came to the point where her private life hit rock bottom while she soared at work. Every single suggestion she made for the award show got praised, the suppliers were cooperative and she even found a stunning dress for that night for a cut-price. Meanwhile her husband kept staring at her without saying a word.

He was grieving, hurt, probably mad and she wanted to give him the support he needed. But how should she do that if she had no clue what exactly it was? More time and space without bugging him about mundane questions? Encouraging him to talk to her? Just being there and hugging him?

It was a week already and she had tried it all, with no success. As if her mere presence was annoying to Subaru he kept his distance, only came to bed when she was already asleep or worked night shifts to begin with.

“Okay, flowers will get delivered tomorrow, the stage is getting assembled today. Music, food and drinks are clear, too. Looks as if we got an event tomorrow night.” Liana ticked some more boxes on her list, nodded and smiled. “That was quite a feat, I wasn’t sure we can pull it off.”

“And I wouldn’t have managed without you.” With Liana’s support she had handled every bump in the road so she only had to make sure she looked presentable for the awards.

“How about a bonus, then?” Liana tapped her pen against the clipboard, batted her lashes.

“That was a good one. How about I treat you to lunch?”

Jazz shut down her computer, stretched her arms above her head. “Or are you going out for dinner again today?”

“Lunch sounds good. I have to make some calls first. How about we leave in half an hour?” The clipboard in her hand Liana got up, tilted her head to the side. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, just – tired. This was all a bit last minute and I feel like glued to this desk. Half an hour works great for me. Ramen or Italian?”

Distraction was the key. The more time she spent at work or with other people, the less she mulled over Subaru and his strange behavior. No, not strange, she corrected herself inwardly. He was grieving and beating himself up. She just hadn’t seen him this way before.

“Let’s just see how full our usual bistro is and decide then.”

A suggestion Jazz could accept, especially since she didn’t care what she ate. Eating without Subaru was only half as fun anyway.

 

The black dress was still in a garment bag, but Jazz had her hair in an updo, her makeup was also done with more accuracy than normally. Catwing eyeliner and ruby red lips, matching the nail polish on her fingers and toes.

“Isn’t that a bit much?”

The first complete sentence Subaru said to her in a week.

“With the dress later it will all come together to a modern homage to old Hollywood,” she let him know, took a careful sip from her tea. A light smudge of lipstick stained the rim of the cup, she rubbed it off with her thumb.

“Old Hollywood? In your office?” He missed her glare, was pouring himself a coffee.

“I know you are a bit – occupied lately.” The cup clattered on the counter when Jazz turned to face him. “But after I kept talking about this award show I put together over the last few weeks I somehow expected you to at least remember the date. Today. So I’m going to go directly to the location from here, will make sure everything is prepared and perfect for tonight and yes, old Hollywood is the perfect theme for my look.”

“Wow.” He slurped some coffee, furrowed his brow. “Someone’s cranky today, huh?”

After tiptoeing around him for days, careful not to upset him any further, her patience was thin enough to consider it see-through.

“I’m not cranky, I’m nervous and stressed and could use some support from my husband who’s unfortunately completely unavailable for me right now.” She frantically blinked against the tears, had no time to redo her makeup if she bawled now.

“Unavailable? I’m right here.” Arms wide open he shrugged, spilled a bit of his coffee on the floor. “Oh shit.”

“You are here, but you don’t take part in our life anymore. You go through the motions, without listening to a single word I say, without even looking at me anymore. I get that the whole situation is messy and painful and honestly, it just sucks. I was so happy you came back to me, but now you are just a ghost here.” During her tirade she grabbed a paper towel, wiped the floor clean and came back up to find his smug expression gone.

“A ghost?”

“Maybe not a ghost, but you are not yourself anymore. And I miss you.” She glanced at the clock, cursed lowly. “I’m going to be late.”

“Wait.”

He set his cup down, next to hers, and took both her hands.

“You got an eyelash there.”

His face was close to hers now, with a fingertip he carefully wiped right under her eye, showed her the lash for her to blow it away.

“Make a wish.”

When they started dating he didn’t know about this childish custom. Had stared at her fingertip with his lash for a full minute while she had explained what she wanted him to do.

“Like blowing out candles on a birthday cake, you know? Just not only once a year.” A silly superstition, one of the few she had kept over the years.

He had adapted it, made sure to offer her every eyelash he found on her face.

She closed her eyes, focused on her wish – an obvious one – and sent a quick breath of air towards his finger. The eyelash vanished, carried her hopes off to whatever power in universe was in charge of eyelash wishes.

“What did you wish for?”

Her eyes found his again, so close now.

“It’s not going to come true if I tell you.” The way she bit her bottom lip and stared at his mouth was enough of a hint, at least it should have been. But when he leaned in he pressed his lips on her forehead and pulled back too soon for her to follow up with a decent kiss.

“I don’t want to ruin your makeup. You’re looking too pretty for me to mess it up.”

“Yeah, sure. Of course. After all looks are all that matters.” A step back, away from him and the false comfort, and she exhaled deeply. “I have no idea how long the event will take tonight. Don’t wait for me.” Not that he would do so anyway.

 

Hours of busy preparation later Jazz found a quiet spot to change into her dress and touch up her makeup. Black peep toe high heels showed off her nail polish, a nice contrast to the black dress and her pale skin. Glamorous, sophisticated and a hint of teasing – the perfect outfit for tonight. She put in her earpiece, grabbed a clipboard and joined Liana who had changed into a navy blue shift dress.

“Ah, Mann-san. Is everything ready?” Professor Nozumi, in a dark grey suit with a blue tie this time, greeted her, let his gaze wander through the room.

“Yes, Sensei, everything is going according to plan. We open the doors in 20 minutes, handing out the awards can start one hour later. After that there will be time to mingle and celebrate with music, food and drinks. All in this wonderful location, filled with art and atmosphere.” She bowed politely, tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear afterwards.

“I have to admit, I was sceptical at first when Takuchi-san told me about the change in personnel, but I enjoy what you came up with.”

A waiter walked past them, Jazz motioned for him to come back.

“I’m happy it is to your liking. Would you want a drink?”

After providing Professor Nozumi with drinks and giving some last instructions to the caterer and waiting staff Jazz prowled around the museum. The last minutes before an event started were the worst, nerves made her jumpy and scenarios of possible catastrophes ran through her mind.

When the doors opened she was smiling, greeted the guests and took care of smaller problems. No catastrophe so far.

This time she was prepared when he came through the door, in a dark suit but without a tie.

“Well, hello gorgeous. Not behind the bar tonight?”

“Yushima-san, hello. Welcome to our party, I hope you’ll enjoy it.” She bowed, but grinned when she came back up. That strand of hair was bothering her again, she should have brought some spare hairpins.

“Now that I see you, I bet I will. Nice dress.”

Black satin with a halter top it was tight fitted and flared out from her hips downwards. Her back was left bare, thanks to a clever bra solution without any straps at all.

“Well, it’s not appropriate for handing out beer, but I thought it’s nice enough to stand around and show off what god and my weekly 20 minutes in a gym gave me.” She turned a bit, looked at him over her shoulder. His gaze followed the lines and curves of her body, from her shoes up to the nape of her neck. A low harrumph and he looked her in the eyes again.

“Yeah, definitely nothing I would cover up with an apron and a bar counter either.”

Her heart made a small somersault, for the first time in days her smile reached her eyes.

“Your seat is over there. Should I show you the way?” Back in her event planner mode she motioned towards a table close to the stage.

“Sure, if it’s no trouble for you.”

Jazz nodded towards Liana, handed the clipboard over and turned back to Yushima.

“Follow me.” She held her head high, accentuated her nape and back this way, teasing him on the short way to the table. All nominees were sitting at different tables, mixed in with the other guests. “Your category will be last, so you have enough time to mingle and have a drink. If there’s anything you need, tell me.”

If he was aware of the double meaning he didn’t show it, just dipped his head briefly. “Thank you, I will.”

A last smile and Jazz returned to her post, greeted the guests and showed the nominees their seats.

There was a small incident with a waiter and a glass of red wine, otherwise the presentation went off without a hitch. The Emcee found a good balance between dignified and entertaining and when the last category was up Jazz was on her toes to see who won.

“Yushima Jinpachi for his ‘Impressions of a rainy country’.”

Applause filled the hall, Jazz clapped until her hands ached, watched Yushima get on stage to accept his award.

“Thank you, this means a lot to me. I’m always looking for that special image, an idea captured in colors and shapes. It honors me others see the same when they look at my pictures. Or maybe they see something else in them, but at least they are looking for something, not walking the earth blindly. Opening someone’s eyes to a new concept, a new picture is all I ever hope for and with this award I feel as if I managed. At least for a few people. So thank you very much.” He bowed briefly, caught Jazz’s eyes while she beamed up at him.

The actual party started after the award presentation, music and drinks helped getting people in an exuberant mood. Waitstaff was busy offering drinks and snacks, some journalists interviewed guests and award winners.

Standing close to the bar Jazz monitored the event, the tension now gone, replaced by fatigue and aching feet – the default setting for work.

Her polite smile never wavered, not while facing some over the top demands of one guests and not when someone spilled wine on her dress. At least it was black, impossible to notice a stain on. Even this was more appealing than being at home and getting ignored by her husband.

“Hey, gorgeous, could you do me favor?”

At some point she must have tuned out, only blinked back into reality when Yushima stood right in front of her.

“Do you need a beer?” she asked, tilted her head to the side.

“That, too. But right now I need you to dance with me.”

Or maybe she was still daydreaming.

“What?”

“This reporter keeps pestering me and I guess the only way to get rid of him is to be busy with something else. Like dancing with the most beautiful woman here.” He offered her his hand, waited patiently while she hesitated. “Come on, it’s my big night. Won’t you give me this dance?”

The last time they had danced was still vivid in her mind. How he had held her, dipped her. How much fun it had been. Her thoughts flitted to Subaru. Would he be angry if he knew about this? But it was just a dance after all.

With a bright smile she placed her hand into his. “I’d love to.”

His fingers were warm as they closed around hers, with his free hand in the small of her back he lead her towards the dance floor.

2 comments

  1. The smoke continues to thicken, and darken too…
    I think Subaru’s projecting, doesn’t know how to deal with the complex mess of his own emotions, and is taking it out on Jazz. 😦 He should *really* consider going to a shrink… Don’t they have an EAP program or something, especially in that line of work? I’m a bit surprised that they haven’t mandated all members of the team check in with psych for a debrief of sorts….though being Japan, the cultural and professional norms there in this regards may well be different.
    He’s moving towards putting his marriage in a precarious position, and if he doesn’t get his head together soon, it looks like they’re heading for the rocks… 😦 I guess it remains to be seen whether he’s willing/able to fight for his own mental health and marriage, or if he continues to drift along the easiest path of least resistance until it’s decided for him. 😦
    Poor Jazz, too… 😦 That must be a painful period she’s going through.
    If Liana realized more of what was going on, she may be able to lend an empathetic shoulder, having gone through something similar herself. (And hope her friend is not heading for a train wreck.) Ironic how inversely Jazz’s personal and professional life seems to be going…
    Looking forward to seeing how things continue to develop! 🙂

    Like

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this chapter.
      Actually Jazz will suggest Subaru to get help soon, you are right, he can’t go on like that without risking their marriage.
      At least work is going well for Jazz. And there’s also the welcome attention and ego boost a certain photographer provides. We will see how that will affect her and their marriage.
      I hope you got some answers to questions from earlier chapters. I always enjoy reading your comments, so thanks for that.
      😘

      Like

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