That afternoon, Yuki rode the Hankai tram north to Tennoji station. The Dog Doctor was located across the street from Osaka City University Hospital. Among their patients were seeing eye and comfort dogs.
The back of the clinic faced the Kansai line right-of-way. Another hundred yards further north, the mesh wire domes of the Tennoji Zoo aviary rose above the elevated tracks. The location meant that nobody complained about the smell or the noise. In any case, Yuki kept the kennels cleaner than the rest of the back lots.
The only complainers were the residents of the kennels themselves. A familiar noise greeted Yuki’s ears when she let herself in through the back door.
“Yip yip yip yip yip yip.” That was Cocoa, a brown and white Pomeranian.
“Goodness gracious, Cocoa. Can’t you be quiet for five minutes?” said Kosugi Sensei.
Yuki followed the yips to the exam room. Cocoa was leashed to the grooming table. She was being held by a college-aged girl, the new intern. The girl looked up and did a double-take. Cocoa practically yipped herself right off the table.
“Oh, sorry,” the intern said, taking a tighter hold of the collar.
Kosugi Sensei smiled. “A picture can’t do Yuki justice.” She said, “Yuki, this is Sachiko Hayashi. She’s a veterinary student at Osaka Prefecture University in Sakai. Sachiko will be interning with us.”
They exchanged bows. Yuki directed her attention back to Cocoa. “What did she get stuck to this time?”
Sachiko turned Cocoa to show the sticky lump plastered to her hindquarters. Kosugi Sensei shook her head. “I commend Wada-san for wanting to break a bad habit, but his dog attracts nicotine gum like a magnet.”
“Sounds like she’s been licking the tea cups again too.”
Kosugi Sensei said to Sachiko, “Training the owner is a bigger challenge than training the dog.”
Yuki leaned forward and locked eyes with the Pomeranian. “All right, Cocoa. Enough. Pipe down and be a good girl.”
Cocoa gazed up at her with glistening eyes. If the canine had been human, she would have stuck out her lower lip and whimpered like a scolded child.
“Yes, I know, I know,” Yuki said soothingly, patting her head. “The world is so exciting and you want everybody to know about it. We get it, okay?”
Kosugi Sensei added in a dry aside, “Not to mention being hopped up on caffeine.”
Cocoa sat down, as reserved as a Buddhist priest contemplating the universe.
“Wow,” said Sachiko. “How did you get her to do that?” She looked from Yuki to Kosugi Sensei.
“I’m afraid I can’t claim any credit. Yuki’s a natural.”
Yuki protested, “It’s not so much that I got her to. It’s more like we came to an understanding about who’s in charge and what the rules are. Dogs aren’t so different than human beings, I don’t think. Everybody wants a pack to belong to.”
Kosugi Sensei froze the gum in Cocoa’s fur and combed it out. Sachiko took Cocoa to the washing table. Yuki went to the locker room and changed into her green and white company coveralls. That day’s workout roster was posted on the board outside the kennels.
Her arrival at the kennels was met with a rowdy welcome. Starting with Sergeant, she let the dogs out in order of seniority. Yuki donned a pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap and gathered up the leashes. Sergeant took up his usual position at her right knee. They left through the back lot’s double gates.
Yuki’s preferred route took her clockwise around Tennoji Zoo to West Tennoji temple, and past Tennoji Elementary to Horikoshi shrine on the east side of Tennoji Park. The park and zoo required a ticket. But any pedestrian could duck away from the six bustling lanes of Tanimachi Avenue and into the peaceful precincts of the Shinto shrine.
She always brought a few coins to pitch into the offertory box. After paying her respects, she got two bowls out of her backpack and filled them from a water bottle, then sat down on the ledge adjacent one of the big stone shrine dogs guarding the torii gate. Her less divine canines rested in the shade of the trees.
Sergeant’s ears pricked up. He turned his head toward Yuki and back, as if to point out the little girl scampering down the shaded walk. Yuki took off her sunglasses and gave him an appreciative pat. “Yeah, I see.” She shortened the leashes of her more excitable charges, whose enthusiasm alone could bowl a small child over.
“Look! Doggies!” The girl pointed and ran toward them.
“Mika!” cried a woman in a manner that suggested the girl had a habit of rushing in where angels feared to tread.
Mika squatted in front of Sergeant. She was wearing a bright yellow cap and had a red leather backpack strapped to her back, the unofficial uniform of an elementary school student.
“Are these your dogs?” she said.
Yuki was struck by an odd sense of familiarity in the girl’s gaze. It took her a second to respond. “Oh, no. I’m their walker. Um, like the gym teacher.”
Mika gave Yuki an equally examining look and said, “You look like Mito Kômon-san.”
Yuki laughed. The girl spoke her mind. Yuki liked her instantly. She had to consciously restrain herself from reaching out to stroke the little girl’s hair.
“I guess I kind of do look like him. Well, except for the beard.”
In the history books, Mito Kômon (née Tokugawa Mitsukuni) was the governor of Mito Province. In the long-running television series, he and his retainers roamed the countryside in disguise, rooting out corruption and criminality. He was invariably played as a robust old man with white hair and eyebrows and a white goatee.
“It’s my daddy’s favorite show.”
“Hey, mine too.” Every episode ended with the good guys opening a big can of whoop-ass on the bad guys. A justice system that made sense to her.
Yuki turned to find herself being regarded with a startled expression. Mika’s mother eyed her hair, then said, “Well, I’m sure you have things to do. We don’t want to keep you.”
“Yes,” said Yuki, taking the cue. “We need to get going too. Look alive, guys.” She shook out the water bowls and tucked them into her backpack.
Everybody got to their feet, two legs and four. Mika’s mother had on a simple outfit, slacks and a blouse, though finely tailored and fitted. Her lithe frame suggested an athletic background.
“Oh, I’m Noriko.”
“Noriko-san,” Yuki echoed with a polite bow.
Noriko-san took her daughter’s hand. She paused and glanced around and then back at Yuki. “I can see why my husband wanted to live here.” The smile that accompanied this observation struck Yuki as more reassuring than perfunctory.
“Bye-bye,” Mika waved.
That was odd. Not only Noriko-san’s statement but the pull Yuki felt towards the child, as if the wolf inside her knew something the human couldn’t comprehend.
Instead of going straight home after work, Yuki rode the Hanwa line to Nagai Park.
She’d ruled out the park as a place to go running on a regular basis. The soccer stadium and recreational facilities meant it was crowded day and night, with security guards around every corner.
For now, she preferred to work out along the banks of the Yamato River. Come winter, the rising water levels would cover the sand bars. Later in the year, though, the paths through Nagai Park should be less frequently patrolled. The unused practice fields could come in handy.
She was toying with buying a membership at the Nagai pool so she’d have a place to change. A big white wolf loping through the streets of Osaka attracted the wrong kind of attention.
Yuki circled around the outdoor track and cut through the park to the indoor pool. After picking up a membership form, she rode the Hanwa line another two stops to Abikocho. It’d be faster to walk home from there.
She turned onto the Sumiyoshi ward high street and had almost reached the cafe across from Yamato Technical, a boy’s high school. She was thinking of grabbing some take-out when she stopped in her tracks and took a sharp detour into the adjoining alley.
She’d long learned to trust her instincts in situations like this. A moment later, a cautious peek told her two reasons why.
Keiko Namiya and Jirô Onodera.
Yuki bristled. What was he doing here? If he’d waited this long for payback she might almost admire his patience and persistence—
Then she noticed he was wearing black slacks and a starched white shirt. Not the navy blue prescribed by Omiya High but the colors required at Yamato Technical. Come October first, a high-collar jacket inspired by Meiji period Prussian military advisors would join the ensemble. Like Sumiyoshi Prep, Yamato Technical kept things old-fashioned.
Jirô must have left Omiya High not long after Yuki. Somebody in his family (not his mother obviously) had decided he needed a more disciplining environment.
Keiko Namiya was perched on the corner addressing a gaggle of high school boys. Yes, definitely Yamato Technical. Yuki glanced back at Jirô. He slouched against the side of a parked delivery truck, arms folded, head slumped as if taking a nap. He and the other boys must have been on their way home after club activities when Keiko appeared.
“Idiots,” she heard him grumble to himself. No, he wasn’t in charge. He wasn’t calling the shots. He was going along to get along. Yuki had a hard time believing it herself—until she thought about it for two seconds. Maybe Jirô needed a do-over as much as she did.
Yuki shifted her position to take in the whole scene. Behind Keiko, Tama leaned her long frame against a telephone pole and looked no less terrifically bored. Next to her, Ma-chan studied the scene intently, as if trying to figure out how she could get boys to pay attention to her like that.
Keiko wasn’t so much talking to the boys as dangling a handful of doggie biscuits in front of a bunch of hungry mutts. She said, decorating her voice with an alluring lilt, “Do you guys know who Ami Tokudaiji is?”
The dumb boys looked at each other, desperately trying to puzzle out what it’d take to get their hands on the scrumptious Keiko-treat. One of them finally figured out the answer to Keiko’s question: “She’s that little chibi. Attends Sumiyoshi Prep.”
Their memories jarred, heads bobbed up and down.
“Kinda cute. Like one of those gymnasts from the Olympics.”
“I heard she hangs out with that white-haired girl.”
More agreement. But instead of snarling with animosity, Keiko leaned in and grew all the more sultry. “Well, here’s the thing—she and that new friend of hers would like to get to know you guys. Something along the lines of a group date maybe—”
“Yeah? Really?” They sounded honestly excited at the prospect.
“Oh brother,” Yuki whispered to herself. Jirô was right. A bunch of idiots. She shook her head in disbelief. Keiko was coaching a litter of puppies to wait on a command. Dog obedience training 101. Who knew it worked on boys too?
“Tiger at the front gate, wolf at the back.” Jirô grumbled louder this time. The old Chinese proverb was a warning about guarding against an encroaching tiger while the wolf snuck in the back door.
Keiko shot him a puzzled then dismissive glare and turned her attention back to her pets. “Tomorrow morning—”
The light changed and the line of evening traffic drowned out the rest of Keiko’s instructions. Not that the rest needed a genius to figure out.
Emerging from the alley after the gaggle dispersed, Yuki saw that the banner in front of the cafe advertised a pot sticker special. She decided to get a bite to eat and figure out how to respond to this intriguing turn of events.