“You got a nice noodle shop here,” I said, then, leaning across the counter, “It’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.”
The guy just stood there, in a dirty apron, trembling. This was my favorite part of the job. I cocked my head and sniffed the air.
“You smell smoke?”
He coughed up the money right after that. They always do.
I went back outside, nodded to the guys, and held up three fingers. They did a little dance, sang a little song, and threw the mikoshi up in the air three times, while I moved onto the next place, where a hollow-eyed woman and two malnourished children stood cowering behind the man of the house, who flinched and raised a bouquet of daffodils in front of his face when, with a swoosh and happy chime, the electric door swept to one side and I stood glaring into the little florist shop.
I had found religion.
Organized religion, which, like organized crime, relies heavily on extortion.
“You smell smoke,” the heavy-set Italian fellow says. “It’d be a shame if you were to wind up in the eternal fires of hell.” And he slides an indulgence across a restaurant counter speckled with bits of whatever people ate back then, keeping his fat thumb on it until the money comes sliding back across.
Me and the fellas didn’t have any of those medieval Catholic get-out-of-hell cards to sell, so, instead, we plied the streets with our mikoshi, which, it turns out, is about as effective at shaking down the faithful. A miniature Shinto shrine on a stick—well, two sticks so you can carry the thing—bit of bamboo, some sparkly decorations, and other assorted god stuff. A sacred battering ram carried up and down narrow streets by a dozen or so drunken hollering thugs who stop occasionally to spin and toss the thing around more and more wildly as the night goes on and terrified shopkeepers put food and alcohol out on wobbly folding tables in the same sort of misguided hope and faulty reasoning that leads a lady in my neighborhood to put milk out to stop stray cats from screeching and crying all night. All that happens is the thugs wind up staying out later and getting even drunker until they eventually send the mikoshi careening through some poor sod’s window, opening up a hole through which races the swarm of stray cats that now live well-fed and unmolested in my neighborhood.
“Accidents happen all the time,” I told the terrified florist, who was now shaking so badly the petals on his daffodils began to loosen and flutter to the floor. “You could be walking down the street,” I began again, after a pregnant pause, startling his wife, who I noticed, after she fainted and fell onto the floor, was also pregnant.
“You could be walking down the street,” I repeated, deciding to ignore the interruption, “and something could fall out of a window.”
I lit a cigarette and tossed the match onto a stack of paper napkins.
“Or,” I continued, stepping to one side so as not to get my expensive leather shoes wet as one of the skeletal children rushed to poor water on the spreading fire, “you could be eating breakfast, minding your own business, and . . .” I stopped to yawn. It had been a long night. All the innuendo was wearing me out. “. . . and someone could shoot you in the head.”
I walked out five seconds later, held up two fingers, and the fellas obliged.