“If these guys make a move, we have to take them down…and then run.”

Yamato said this to me as I stared at his eyes, or the place his eyes would have been had he not been wearing those sunglasses and I tried to figure out if he was bullshitting me because as always, his ever-present smile was wide open and the festival was completely packed with people.  Women and men, old and young. Office workers and spouses, hookers and thugs.  Hanazono Shrine had done it again and the “Torinoichi” festival was alive.

People flowed through the lanes of stalls and vendors finally arriving at the massive red and gold shrine that sat at the top of the steps like a heart, pumping blood rhythmically through the body.

“Are you serious?” I asked him.

Again searching his mask of a face for some indication of what exactly I had walked into. “Of course I’m fucking serious.  Look, just be cool, like before, and don’t jump unless I do,” he said as he turned away and walked into the brightly lit pavilion.

The smell of grilled meat, beer and cigarettes engulfed me and as I saw the table we were inevitably going towards, I considered just walking away from this.  I don’t do this anymore.  I don’t know you people anymore and it’s better like that.  I can just walk away and it won’t matter. Then I nearly laughed out loud realizing the slick bastard still had my phone in his hand. Ten minutes earlier “Hey let me use your phone my battery is dying,” he had said.  He had spotted me in the crowd and I had been genuinely happy to see  him.

I had to admit, Yamato looked well.  Very slick dark blue suit, pink collared shirt with the top open and mid length black hair slicked back.  He and I joked and caught up as the people streamed by us in the crowd and stared hard at us, dressed like hit-men out of their respective countries B-movies. So sure, happy to see my former boxing coach, friend and trouble maker so why not; I passed him my phone.

Well played Yamato.

In the tent approaching the table in the next instant I felt my chest expand and my muscles flush with juice as my adrenaline slowly started to build.  Out of the entire group at this table we approached, the three potential problems were clear enough. The tent we had gone into was one of the many erected on the grounds within the shrine for the festival.  This one in particular was a tent selling beer, shochu, grilled beef and chicken and fried noodles.  About 14 long folding tables were set up inside the tent behind the grills and coolers for drinks and at the farthest table in the back right hand corner were 13 people.  This is the table I followed Yamato to. We got the attention of  everyone seated immediately.  8 men and 5 women.  Five of the men were older, easily in their sixties with gray or black loose-fitting suits and oddly colorful cashmere scarves around their necks.  Each one of them had salt and pepper hair, tightly slicked back over their heads and to a man they all wore very dark hued Gucci or Prada sunglasses with gold frames.

These men turned to look at us, first Yamato, then me, then back to Yamato, but none of them stood.  They remained seated and slowly sipped their beers and sake while watching us make our way past the other tables and chairs and laughing bodies of people having a celebratory style Friday night.

The three men that did stand up as we neared the table were not older, but younger than both myself and Yamato.  Mid 20’s as far as I could tell.  All three of them slighter in build but with a taught smoothness that reminded me of big cats.  All three of them wore jet-black suits and white shirts with large collars, opened up wide so I could see shiny gold and silver medallions, the slim tightness of athletic collar bones and chest muscles and then, just where the shirts started, the colorful patterns of tattoos that I knew ran off their pecs, to their shoulders and down the arms and backs of these men who had already proven themselves in numerous fist fights, beat downs and likely prison time.  They had already earned the spot here, with the bosses and were trusted to do what needed to be done when the time came and the way they stood to meet us was not one conveying welcome, but was one filled with hostility.

These guys were the reason Yamato had tricked me into walking over here with him.

Kindness can in fact, be a weakness.  Particularly when you deal with men that spend their lives walking the tight rope. Yamato bowed when we reached the table.  I stood two paces behind him and one pace off to the left so that I could see everyone.  This position also put me within equal distances of all three of the bodyguards.  The one closest to Yamato began to snarl at him before the older man sitting in front of him raised his hand for silence.  He then greeted Yamato, almost warmly,  mumbling in that very distinct way that these men communicate when they are older.

Yamato kept bowing, very deeply, showing his respect for the mans position and they conversed quietly for about a minute. I stood there, both hands folded in front of me and looked at everyone without looking directly at anyone.  Noted where I was in relation to everyone else.  Asked myself some questions: “Can I jump over the table to hit that guy with this women sitting there? She’s sort of in the way,” and “Can I get this folding chair up in the air without it getting caught on something?” then “If we have to burn the hell out of here, do I go right to the nearest exit or left into the crowd?” Nobody at the table, including the women all of whom were in their 30’s and pretty, said anything.

Then somehow and rather suddenly, between the two of them, things were settled and Yamato stood up straight to his full height, at least as tall as me so about 6’3 and nearly as broad across in the shoulders, and he looked directly at the younger man who had tried to start a problem with him and suddenly broke into a big smile and jokingly told him in a booming voice “You need to relax son! Here, let me get you a drink!” The table laughed, except for the three bodyguards, still standing and Yamato raised a hand for a waiter.  At this the young soldier, clearly offended and in possession of some beef with Yamato, tried to push past a folding chair to stand directly in front of us.

I instinctively moved up a pace to be between Yamato’s back and the bodyguard on our left who then slowly reached one hand up to his shirt collar and pulled it open showing off a large tattoo of a bright red Cherry Blossom with a Dragon dancing around it emblazoned on his chest.  He did this and leaned his head back giving me his best menacing, wide-eyed “Fuck OFF: I’m connected,” look. I know this game though, have played it once or twice before and what you learn quick is that the only thing you can’t do, ever, is back down.  That’s what gets a folding chair crashed across your face.  Weakness incites a predators malice.  So I cocked my head to the side slightly then pulled up the sleeve of my black suit jacket enough for him to see the beginnings of the ink on my right forearm.  Then I blinked slowly a few times and shrugged my shoulders….”So What?” being the message.

I have no doubt now that these three young gangsters would have tried very hard to beat the living shit out of Yamato and I, had their Boss, two of them actually, not told them to

“Sit the fuck down it’s all finished now,” because men like them, living that lifestyle don’t care.

It’s what they do. I know this from before.  That having been said, between Yamato and myself we probably weighed as much as all three of them.  Also, between the two of us we have over a hundred fights in the ring, I have been in and out of that over the years, the ring and the cage, and Yamato was at one point a Light-Heavy weight boxing Champion who I know from experience has very fast hands and hits like a freight train. Aside from that, both of us had done these types of dances before.  It’s not something I want in my life now, but to some degree at least, once you’ve been there, you can’t forget what you know.

The math in my head said they couldn’t have been armed with anything beyond a small knife, a gun would be out of the question here with all the police and people, and there were loads of easily improvised weapons at the ready on all sides.  Shit, I can give a man a concussion with a magazine if that’s what I happen to have. It would be embarrassing to get your teeth knocked out with a rolled up edition of “Elle”.

Finally, Yamato and I weren’t playing king of the mountain I knew now; he had to squash a beef with this old guy and only needed things to be cool long enough for him to have his say.  He tricked my overly kind-to-friends-ass into backing him up hoping my presence would keep things copacetic by throwing everyone off-balance; massive white guy, dressed like he is going to a funeral with the black suit, white collared shirt and black tie, black wrist watch and a few silver rings. If it went south, we would cause enough damage to give ourselves a few seconds and then be gone into the waves of people. What’s more is that he knows me, and knows about me and has seen some things.

He knew that I wouldn’t go with him if he asked plainly because I don’t do that anymore, but he knew if he got me there, I would know what to do, when to do it and when to go wheels up and flee if necessary. By the time I meandered back to my friends across the shrine at another stall, maybe ten minutes had gone by but my hands were shaking heavily from the adrenaline dumping out of my system and I did the mental math realizing how bad that could have been.

A few beers down the hatch…

(courtesy of Yosomono who was lining them up) and the atmosphere of the festival and all was good. Until he called me back. “What the hell? Get your friends and come drink with us! Yeah bring everyone and don’t forget the blond girl.” I can tell you this much, when you drink with these people, no matter what you drink, eat, order or do; nobody expects you to pay.  They don’t even bother asking. Later on, after many beers, loads of sake and a train of gangsters, hostesses, pimps, boxers and even a monk had come and gone Yamato pulled me aside and in his fashion, still wearing the sunglasses and smiling, slightly hunched over vaguely resembling a Japanese gangstered out John Wayne he said by way of thanks, his arm around my shoulders, “OK.  Tonight was lucky.  I got the drinks next time…but that was fun though right?”

Fun?  No.  Memorable? Oh, yes.

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