The ad in the classified section of the Times-Dispatch was only three lines long, but it caught his eye:
Looking for a clean break and a fresh start?
Curious, he flipped open his laptop and did a Google search on “A. Jouhatsu,” and learned that it wasn’t a who but a what.
Jouhatsu, he discovered, was a Japanese word, literally translated as “evaporation.” The article went on to explain that the jouhatsu of the Land of the Rising Sun are people who, for reasons of their own, have chosen to disappear from their lives of quiet desperation and take up anonymous residence far from the homes and jobs and families and friends they have abandoned, and that there are secretive organizations, known as “night movers,” whose mission is to help the jouhatsu make the transition into invisibility.
For reasons of his own, a clean break and a fresh start was exactly what he was looking for, so he opened an email blank and began to compose a message.
The woman who was waiting for him at the pre-arranged rendezvous point was no more Japanese than he was. He found her right where she said she would be, on a wooden bench between the shaded walking trail and the shoreline of the Swift Creek Reservoir, a few minutes’ stroll south of the Landing at Commodore Point, deep within the densely wooded Brandermill neighborhood of Midlothian, a suburb twenty miles west of Richmond.
She was dressed all in black, despite the warmth of the day: black yoga pants, a sleeveless black T-shirt, black Skechers, her long black hair tied in a ponytail, dark sunglasses though it was late in the afternoon. She wore no jewelry and no makeup, not that he could see.
There was a small black messenger bag on the bench beside her, and she picked it up and moved it to her lap to make room for him.
He held out a hand and said, “I’m—”
“No names,” she said, cutting him off but not unfriendly. She ignored his hand, and after an uncomfortable moment he dropped it and took a seat.
“You’re with the night movers?” he said, making sure.
She nodded grudging approval. “I see you’ve done your homework.”
“You didn’t make it easy to find you.”
“You don’t have GPS?”
“Well, yes, but—wouldn’t it be simpler if you had an office?”
“Downtown?” she said, parting with a hint of a smile. “On the twenty-ninth floor of the James Monroe building? With ‘The Night Movers’ professionally lettered on a pebbled-glass door and a blonde receptionist painting her nails between clients?”
He winced at the absurdity of it. “I guess not,” he acknowledged.
“We provide a service,” she explained, and the impersonal tone of her voice made it clear to him that this was an explanation she had offered many times before, “and complete anonymity is one of the hallmarks of that service. This location, for example”—she waved a hand at the lake that lay stretched out before them, forests of invasive hydrilla just visible beneath the smooth surface of the water, the sun a ball of orange fire descending towards the tree line to the west, two kayaks and a lonely paddle boarder the only signs of life—“is one we have never used before and will never use again. We have a full-time employee whose only function is seeking out isolated places for my colleagues and me to meet with prospective clients.”
“Speaking of which,” he said, “it would help me make up my mind if I could talk with a couple of your satisfied customers, get a sense of—”
“You want references?” she said, and there was no trace of humor in the brief chuckle that followed those words. “Testimonials? I assume you see the irony in that? What makes our satisfied customers satisfied is the fact that we make them invisible to the world, so they are never seen or heard from again.”
“And you expect me to take your word for that?” he frowned.