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The breeze was thick and hot and weighed down with the stench of cigarettes, alcohol, cheap perfume, and dead fish. The alley was narrow, bordered on both sides by four-story buildings with blackened windows and steel-grated doors. The pavement was cracked and the sidewalk was littered with broken milk crates and crumpled magazines. There were puddles everywhere, flashing bright snakes of reflected neon from the signs perched above the buildings. The puddles were impossible to avoid, and John Malcolm cursed to himself as he splashed through them. His Gucci shoes were already two shades darker and soon they'd be completely ruined. Shoulders hunched, head down, he was moving as fast as he could without showing how much he wanted to run. Somewhere up ahead someone was shouting, but the words weren't English, and even after five years Malcolm didn't speak anything else.
Wrong time, wrong place. That's what the headlines would say, Malcolm thought to himself. Another ugly American sticking his head where it didn't belong. He knew he was just being paranoid. Even here, in this alley in a part of the city you didn't find in the glossy travel brochures or happy little guidebooks, you were safer than anywhere back in the States. It was well past two in the morning, and there were people everywhere; bad things usually didn't happen when people were around. But just the same, Malcolm wanted nothing more than to turn and head back toward the train station. Back to the safety of fluorescent lights, vending machines, and brightly dressed tourists.
He stepped over a milk crate and through another puddle. In front of him, oneof the grated doors flung open and a group of businessmen in matching blue suits stumbled out into the alley. Loud, laughing, jackets open, ties undone. Fumes of whiskey coming off them like diesel, their faces matching shades of red. Then they saw him and quickly made a show of not seeing him, their voices dulled, their movements suddenly subdued.
He hurried past. Another ten yards, and a dark green awning caught his eye. Beneath the awning was a yellow wooden door with no knob, just a covered steel slot at eye level.
Malcolm pulled at his white oxford shirt, which was sticking to his chest and back. There was no number, but he knew this was the place. Green awning, yellow wooden door. Then he noticed the handpainted sign next to the door, brilliant red English letters on a black background: JAPANESE ONLY.
He felt his lips tighten, more reflex than anything else. There were signs like this all over Tokyo. On the surface it seemed like bigotry: acceptance based on race, as if his white face would contaminate the place. But it was more complex than that. This wasn't a gourmet restaurant or a country club or the entrance to a golf course. Establishments with signs like this really weren't meant for Americans. Especially here, in Kabuki-cho.
Although originally intended as a cultural center to showcase the glamorous Japanese-style theater from which its name was derived, Kabuki-cho had morphed into an entirely different entity by the 1950s: a place with no equivalent in the Western world, a redlight district on a scale unimaginable anywhere else. A twenty-block maze of dark, windowless alleys and bright neon signs that drew more than six hundred thousand visitors a night. A throbbing city within a city, a pincushion of sex-related amusements: strip clubs, hostess bars, massage parlors, X-rated theaters, and various shades of brothels.
Malcolm straightened his hair with his fingers, then rapped a knuckle against the steel slot.
There was a brief pause, then the slot flipped inward. A pair of dark eyes peered at him from inside: long eyelashes, thick blue shadow, cracked eggshells at the corners. Malcolm's face relaxed as the woman considered his appearance: short, dyed blond hair, narrow blue eyes, lips that naturally turned up at the edges. A bit below average height but compact, with muscular limbs and an athlete's shoulders. A personal sense of efficiency was reflected in his clothes: dark slacks, dark shoes, the white oxford rolled up at the wrists. He had come straight from work. His jacket and tie were still draped over his chair back at the office.
A few seconds passed in silence, then the steel slot snapped shut. There was the sound of multiple locks clicking open, and the door swung inward. The woman with the blue eye shadow and eggshell eyes was standing at the top of a descending carpeted stairway. She was tiny, less than five feet tall, and wearing a floor-length pink gown. She smiled, showing crooked yellow teeth. Then she took Malcolm's hand and ushered him inside.
A blast of cold air hit him as he reached the bottom step. He paused, pulling against the woman's hand as he took in the strange sight ahead. The room was long and rectangular, stretching a good fifty feet. There were steel benches lining either side and chrome poles sprouting from the floor. Metal bars and leather hand straps hung from the ceiling. Women in business suits, some with briefcases, stood with arms outstretched, holding on to the straps and bars. Younger women, in the penguinlike schoolgirl uniforms common all over Japan, gathered by the chrome poles. About a dozen men, most of them middle-aged, were seated on the metal benches, watching the women hungrily. The women seemed to sway back and forth, as if the floor were vibrating beneath them. Stranger still, the walls of the room were covered in rounded windows with fake outdoor scenery.
A subway car, Malcolm thought to himself. He watched as one of the men got up from his bench and made his way to one of the schoolgirls. The girl pretended to ignore the man as he came up behind her. Without a word, he lifted her skirt with one hand. His other hand slid between the buttons of her blouse ... Ugly Americans. Copyright © by Ben Mezrich. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.