His voice was rough, wasn’t it? Blackened by cigarette smoke, stretched by kansai diction like hot tar on a summer day. It must have been - raw and dark and lazy and warm, she tells herself at night. In her dreams, Taiga doesn‘t speak and he doesn‘t have a face. In the morning, the blinding, baring sun reminds her that she no longer knows. It's better this way. When she lays a knife to a man's throat and pulls, it's a blank slate of a voice that tells her no. Easy to ignore.
What did her own voice sound like? It's become so tedious to use her voice. She has to speak to Katsuragi, to correction officers, to men with their chest sliding ever closer to her viewfinder until they're point blank and all she has to do is pull the trigger. Actions speak louder than words, they say, but maybe if Taiga had spoken more, she would remember the inflection of his voice when he said I love you and maybe if all the reasons to talk weren‘t part of the nightmare, she'd remember her own. She has no reason to give her love anymore, anyway. No reason to give any part of her away, not even her words.
"I‘m very driven," she says, and it‘s true for the person she is now but maybe not for that little voiceless girl. With no one around who knows her, who's to say. "I'm hardworking and humble and I'm quick on my feet. I like taking care of the men in my life. That's why i took up this job." The manager regards her carefully, a measured look not unkind, like observing cattle. He nods to himself, cigarette bopping up and down, an unflattering mole on his cheek following the motion. "You‘re lucky; we've been looking for an older girl to fill our ranks." He stubs his cigarette out. "Youre one of Tanaka’s, huh? No papers? I trust you know your way around undercover cops and raids and shit then. Know when to run." She gives a small nod, thinking of a slit throat bathed flickering blue and definitely not of a day in summer ’85 when Taiga and Majima had stumbled out of a conbini, grabbed her hand and ran, ran, ran
They get her a wardrobe of mainly soft tones, make her face up in rose tones. She's supposed to look older, but not old. "And we gotta distract from that nose,“ says the manager, looking at the stylist's work passively. "You look too harsh, our customers want an older sister and not a school teacher."
"By the way, you got a name girl?"
"Lily," she says, and along with her voice and her nose, she disappears.
She walks past a movie poster, blood still fresh on her hands. „Yakuza Sunset" it says – a yakuza film, men in ostentatious suits on the poster. They look nothing like the men she knew, who always wore the most run-down, mix-match shirts because pickings are slim when you don't have a stable job but three people to clothe. These films get a lot of things wrong, she knows. She knows, and yet –
„And of course one of them‘s got a woman. They always do, these yakuza types. Money and women, even us normal guys can relate to that,“ says the man on the dressing room radio. Another man‘s voice cuts in: „Yes, our leading man had a girlfriend, pretty as a flower, but she died and now he is out for revenge.“
She lights a cigarette after hours, huddled with some of the girls behind the club, and tries to imagine the poster the other way 'round, with her at the center and the boys behind her, scuffed and dirty and fierce like wolves. That's how it always was. That's the true story. But it's not what the world will see when it learns her story.
„“I have no place to sleep anymore, my father‘s stopped sending me custody money", says Joy, a pretty young girl from Korea, not even a legal adult yet.
„My son‘s lungs are getting worse, i can't pay for the surgery,“ says Kiko, long bleached waves distracting from the age lines around her eyes.
„Maybe tonight my husband will beat me to death,“ says Ami, and all of them remain silent. There‘s nothing to say to that, they all know how it goes. These are not their stories and here, washed up at the edges of society after trying and trying and trying, it's hard to keep fighting the narrative.
She keeps the smoke in her lungs long enough to burn all flesh to ashes and when she looks up, the dirt and trash of the back alley reflects in Ami's shining eyes. She‘s the only one looking at Ami, all the others keeping their eyes downcast. She nods at Ami, lifts the handbag all the girls know she keeps a gun in – no point keeping secrets around ghosts. Ami hiccups a quiet sob and nods back, the butterfly clip holding her bangs away from her sweaty face threatening to fall.
Later that night she paints her own poster. Her, illuminated from behind by an open doorway, gun drawn, pointing at Amis husband; a nameless, faceless actor; the audience; no one in particular.
It's not her story and it's getting harder to keep arguing against that, but at least she can try. What's one more, anyway? she thinks as she disappears behind the black silhouette on the poster.
There’s a man in a purple shirt who comes by the club every night and asks for a different girl every time. This night it's Ami's turn but Ami keeps bowing forward every time she forces a laugh and after only 30 minutes excuses herself to throw up backstage. She holds Ami's hair and traces gentle fingers over the bruises littering her stomach, the way Taiga used to stroke her back when she was sick. Then, it's her turn.
He introduces himself as Nishida and she believes him, just as she believes everything any man in the club will tell her. Easier to tell a lie when you believe in it, and as a hostess she is nothing more than an accessory to a lie.
Nishida buys the most expensive bottle of champagne they have and keeps them coming. He sits primly, an unusual distance apart, quite proper. He's uneasy, she can tell, but he carries himself with the poise of a man who's done this before and who will do it again, invariably, every single night.
„I work very unusual hours, you see, and my colleagues are all family but they annoy me sometimes,“ he says, looking at her carefully when he says „family". She only nods compassionately, not understandingly. Nishida goes on: „My boss, he's quite unusual too. They say when he was younger, he lived in Sotenbori with his brother and sister. They promised each other to make it big one day and now he did.“ He seems flustered, stumbles over the clumsy sentence like it‘s not his own. When she twitches, involuntarily, terrifyingly instinctual, his eyes grow wide and his hands fidget, going to his phone. She's quick on her feet though, by now a professional in handling men of all walks of life. She lays a hand on his, smiles without a ttrembleto her lips (hopefully) and says: „I bet wherever his sister is, she‘s happy for him.“
Maybe her smile was a little desperate after all. He's nice about it, though: His hands go for his cigarettes instead of his phone. When he notices her look, he holds the carton out to her. They light up with Nishida's lighter. She can feel the floor manager's stink eye from across the room but she's not bothered. It seems this will be her last night in this particular club, anyway.
„He says he lost her somewhere along the way. He's looking for her.“
„Does she get a say in the matter?“
She almost thinks he didn't hear her over the music; he wasn't supposed to. It's no use anymore, giving away a part of herself, even her voice. But he did hear and while she's closing her eyes and waiting for the hands that drag her away, he only wiggles in his seat. „He's my boss. I have no choice.“
It's what all men in her life have told her; I have to do this to you. I have no choice. It's what Taiga said the morning before he disappeared. She loves him, but now that one of her last memories of him has been repeated to her over and over and over again, it's hard to not be angry at him. She wants to see him again. So badly, it‘s swindling, looking down that empty nothingness of 25 years and seeing no bottom, no reunion at the end of the fall.
Before she can work up all her courage and ditch her stilettos, make a run for the exit, he clears his throat. „But I‘m sure there‘s something she has to do, so she can't see him yet. I’ll tell the boss tomorrow.“
She's already put out her cigarette, is halfway out of her seat. „Maybe she's looking for someone as well. Maybe she wants to protect the ones she loves, too.“
„I'll be sure to tell him,“ she hears as she turns to leave. She feels the floor manager hot on her heels. He lays a hand on her shoulder as she bursts through the double doors leading to Pink Alley. He hisses as the door hits him in the face and she is free – as free as she'll ever be for the rest of this life. She slips through the gaps in the crowd and disappears.