A woman sits in the background holding a gun and a beer while a man in the foreground tattoos a gangster.
Gokudo Cats, Emma Ríos (2012)


Emiko sat by the window nursing a beer, with her legs splayed in the same way that her mother used to chide her for as a child. A cat played around her feet, alternating between demanding attention and studiously ignoring every human in the room. Emiko wore a robe with the top pulled down to let the touched-up tattoo on her back heal and cool off in the evening’s breeze, two more things that would’ve made her mother frown in that certain way she did, as if she hoped that making a sour-enough face would let her walk back her daughter’s bad decisions. It was bad enough her husband had tattoos, but her only daughter too?

Though Emiko called him uncle, Hideki was actually her father’s sworn brother, now an old man who retired from one life and found another. Hideki had dedicated his new life entirely to leisure and tattooing. When he permanently left the city and moved halfway up a mountain—Emiko had taken a car most of the way there this evening, and walked the last three miles as the sun set—he took an artist’s name and set about his second life’s work. He was a horishi who worked without the aid of machines, like many others in their world, and had a good reputation amongst his prospective clientele. Hideki wasn’t particularly exceptional, but he was still connected, and that went a long way. The relative inaccessibility of his studio and his lifelong cranky attitude only added to the mystique. He certainly played the role of a master, even if he was more of a journeyman.

Hideki had been Emiko’s haven for decades. He first put ink to her skin when she was sixteen, a solid decade before before he permanently left the city. Her father had died six weeks earlier, upending her idyllic home life. She fought with her mother until she either ran away or was put out of the house, depending on who you asked, and she ended up running straight to Hideki. She was oozing grief by the time she knocked on his door, her hair dirty and matted and her eyes huge and wet in the twilight outside his apartment’s door. He gave her a bed, chores, and structure. He loved her father, and so, he loved her too.

Together, they designed and executed the first step of what would later become her munewari soushinbori, a type of full body tattoo with an opening on the chest. It was dedicated to her father, but when her mother saw it by accident some months later, the halting reconciliation they’d embarked upon froze solid. Her mother attacked Hideki with a ferocity Emiko had never seen before, a flurry of swinging fists and flung curses. She broke Hideki’s nose and orbital before Emiko finally pulled her off him. They drove home in silence, save for Emiko’s occasional whispered apology. It took over a year for her mother to trust her again.

The view out of Hideki’s window was incredible. The window looked down the mountain, back the way Emiko had come. She could see clouds wafting past tree tops down below in the bright moonlight, a spread of white and blue and green that felt more like an ocean than a forest. The colors reminded her of her own tattoos, with designs that coiled and twisted around her body as if they were swimming through a sea of their own. She could see for miles, and the sounds of the mountain and bright night sky made her feel relaxed. Emiko knew that there was a city in the distance, somewhere past the gloom and clouds, but for now, the whole world felt natural. She finished her beer and set it on the windowsill next to the mostly-empty rice bowls, sake cups, and other cans that had settled there over the course of the evening.

Hideki claimed he had an eye for aesthetics, and so had designed and built his home to maximize its harmony with the outdoors. Branches from trees tapped his windows on windy days, plants of all types littered his working area, and the building was cooled by natural air flow in the summer. The sun rose through his bedroom window in the mornings, his own personal alarm clock, and set through the window in his living area, where he ate dinner and read before bed. From the outside, his home seemed like it was on the verge of being overgrown. Inside, it simply felt right.

Comfort was paramount to Hideki, he’d come to learn. He worked when he wanted, how he wanted, and on who he wanted, while keeping his own hours and generally being his own boss. No more foolish old men giving him marching orders, no cops preventing him from getting what he wanted. Just peace, quiet, and his craft.

The room was filled with a thin, hovering layer of cigarette smoke. Hideki had smoked the same brand of tobacco since she was a kid, rolling his short, blunt cigarettes himself. The smell was so familiar to Emiko that it was a comfort in trying times. Sometimes her nostrils flared as she gazed out of the window, savoring the second-hand smoke, while her uncle worked on the young gangster who’d come to his studio.

Tonight’s subject was an underling who’d recently earned some stripe or another, a milestone in his burgeoning career but one that Hideki had achieved and forgotten eons ago. The man was an underling in Hideki’s former organization and had been gifted a session with Hideki from his boss. Hideki came up with a design, accepted the enormous check, and was on his fourth of six sessions with the young man. By the end of it, the man’s back would be covered and Hideki would have another finished work for his private album.

Emiko had arrived around ninety minutes before the man, so she and Hideki had time to share a small meal and drinks while he touched up the tattoos on her back. She pulled on her light robe shortly before the man came in the door. He walked tall, full of big-city swagger and privilege. He hit on her at first, a crude attempt rooted in an assumption that she was there as another gift from the boss.

Instead of responding, she lowered her robe and exposed her torso, an act that made him smile, at least at first. But as he registered the tattoos and the withering glare she leveled at him sank deep into his heart, he realized he’d made a horrible mistake. He bowed deeply, apologizing profusely to Emiko and her uncle both for the disrespect. He was silent for the remainder of the session, even when Hideki’s needles occasionally poked a little too deeply and sent shivers of pain up and down his back.

Emiko’s father had been dead for twenty-some years now. After the drama of the tattoo, after making peace with her mother and attempting to live at home again, she had walked the straight and narrow. School, exams, and then university. But it didn’t take. She found herself drawn to her father’s business, but the sexism rooted in the field did its best to push her away, to keep her from finding a family of her own.

Still, she was good with a gun but better with a blade, and she soon found a lane that worked for her: freelance. Her new career took her all across Tokyo, and then to Hiroshima and the Ryukyu Islands. When things got too hot for her in her motherland, she left. Her mother barely spoke to her any more, and it’s not like she’d leave behind a lot of friends or lovers if she simply disappeared.

There was a city in America that she’d heard of, one where she could ply her trade and possibly find great success. Her path there took her through Taiwan, Hong Kong, and then Hawaii before making it to the mainland, with each stop deepening her connections and desire for something new. When she arrived, she was exhausted, but found a warm welcome from strangers who knew her by reputation. Within a year, she had found her groove and settled in. Within two, she’d started sending money back home to her mother, her way of making amends.

Five years after her arrival in the United States, five years after she left the only world she’d ever known, she received an email from Hideki. He was never much for flowery messages or correspondence, and the email was so short as to be curt. He simply told her to read the attached file and do as she willed. She imagined him typing out the email, one finger at a time, frowning at the screen, and smiled.

The file he sent her told quite a story. At the beginning was the same coroner’s report that she’d read dozens of times before, detailing her father’s condition when he died. After that was a dossier. It was new, and it suggested that her father died from one 5.56 round fired from long range. She immediately wondered if it was an American who’d killed her father, some bored GI wandering around drunk and armed. But the more she read, the more it came off like a professional shooting, which meant it must have happened on someone’s order. And sure enough, the following pages explained exactly who ordered the hit, who delivered the order to an underling, and which assassin who pulled the trigger. It was a mix of police surveillance, private detective work, and Hideki’s own intelligence, gathered and collated over the course of several years.

Her father had been retired for quite some time before he died, ever since she was a young girl, so his death must have been payback for some past sin. But her father was her father, so within twelve hours of reading the email she was on a plane back home—first class—and by the end of the week every man involved in her father’s death was dead, whether they were in bed, in the arms of their mistress, or attending a business meeting for their legitimate enterprises.

It was the assassin that was the hardest to kill, but he was old and slow when it counted. She caught him while he was in bed, sleeping alone. She stood there a moment, listening to him breathe, waiting for it to change. When he woke and moved to pull a snub-nosed gun from under his pillow, she threw a knife at his shoulder. By the time the gun cleared the pillow and he was struggling to lift his dead arm to aim at her, she’d closed the distance between them and buried a second one in his heart. She didn’t take her time or exercise any cruelty. He was simply alive in one moment and dead the next, the gun falling out of his limp hand as a last gasp passed his lips.

Emiko had killed him not twelve hours earlier, and taken the long drive to Hideki’s place after checking out of her hotel and closing out her affairs in the city. She had a hunch that someone would be after her, though, and wasn’t surprised to see car headlights down the mountain as she gazed out of the window. They were winding their way around the roads, getting closer and closer to the studio, flickering on and off as the cars took the twisting turns. She counted three cars or trucks, and imagined she could hear the growl of their engines over the air, despite the distance.

“Uncle?” she said. She picked up the gun that sat between her legs, checked the action and ammunition by instinct, and placed it on the windowsill.

“Yes, little girl?” he replied, his focus locked on the picture taking shape before him. His gloves were dotted with blood and ink, the ash at the end of his cigarette long and hanging dangerously over his subject’s back.

They hadn’t called each other by name for years. He called her “little girl,” and she called him “uncle” in return. It was a reminder to her that her life was not always what it is today, and a reminder to him of the same. She half-smiled every time she thought of his love for her, and hoped he felt the same.

“They’re coming,” she said. She shrugged her robe the rest of the way off and gathered her neatly folded pants and shirt to put them on. She pulled her hair into a tight ponytail and stretched her arms above her head, reaching for the heavens before dropping them to her side. She shook her shoulders. She felt loose.

Her uncle sighed a deep sigh and was quiet a moment. “It’s a pity.”

I also wrote a critical appreciation of this illustration, which you can read here.

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