An excerpt of Claws of the Cat, a debut historical detective mystery in the Shinobi mystery series by Susan Spann features a master ninja and a female samurai in feudal Japan (available July 16, 2013).
May 1564: When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro has no desire to get involved. But the beautiful entertainer accused of the crime enlists the help of Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit Hiro is sworn to protect, leaving the master shinobi with just three days to find the killer in order to save the girl and the priest from execution.
The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto’s floating world, where they learn that everyone from the elusive teahouse owner to the dead man’s dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai’s death a mystery. A rare murder weapon favored by ninja assassins, a female samurai warrior, and a hidden affair leave Hiro with too many suspects and far too little time. Worse, the ninja’s investigation uncovers a host of secrets that threaten not only Father Mateo and the teahouse, but the very future of Japan.
Father Mateo strolled through the narrow yard, hands folded and face cast down in meditation. His shoulders bent against the predawn chill. The first two weeks of May had been warm in Kyoto, but this morning the switch to his summer kimono seemed just a bit premature.
At the other end of the garden a shadow snaked over the wall and into a cherry tree with no more sound than a spring wind rustling leaves.
The priest walked on, unaware.
He passed the koi pond without a glance. It was still too dark to watch the fish. At the back wall of the garden the Jesuit crossed himself and knelt before a statue of a man nailed to a cross. The priest’s knees sank into the dampened ground as he bowed his head in earnest prayer.
The shadow moved farther up the tree. Rain-slicked leaves and slippery bark made climbing treacherous, but the shinobi did not falter. His hands and feet found purchase where none existed for other men.
A branch grew over the path between the koi pond and the house. The assassin stretched his body along the limb. He moved out over the path without dislodging a single leaf.
And there he waited.
Minutes passed. The eastern sky purpled with dawn’s approach. A fish jumped in the pond, and a delicate splash resonated through the yard.
The priest’s lips moved without a sound.
The shinobi’s black eyes glittered in the depths of his hood.
As the sky turned pale Father Mateo concluded his morning prayers. He stood up and brushed stray leaves from his brown kimono, then frowned at the damp patches over his knees. When the moisture did not rub away he shrugged to himself, nodded to the statue, and turned back toward the wooden house that served as his home and church.
The shinobi’s breathing slowed until even his dark blue tunic ceased to move.
Father Mateo passed the pond without stopping. As he stepped beneath the tree, the assassin dropped to the path with no more sound than a breaking twig and laid a slender hand on the Jesuit’s shoulder.
Father Mateo spun with a startled cry. The shinobi’s hands flew up in defense as the priest’s face tensed and then relaxed in recognition.
“Hiro!” Father Mateo exclaimed. “How many times must I tell you not to do that?”
Dark eyes sparkled within the shinobi’s cowl. “I will stop on the day that I fail to surprise you.”
The Jesuit frowned. “Have you been out all night again?”
Hiro pulled down the cloth that covered his mouth and pushed his hood back onto his shoulders. “I don’t answer that sort of question, remember?”
He reached into the pouch that hung at his side. “I brought you something.”
“Other than heart failure?” Father Mateo asked.
Hiro raised an eyebrow in amusement and pulled out a small, dark object. It squirmed.
“An presenta,” he said in Portuguese.
“Um presente,” Father Mateo corrected. Hiro’s Portuguese was startlingly good, considering that the shinobi had studied the language for barely eighteen months. The priest’s Japanese had far more flaws, despite two years of study before his arrival and eighteen months of living in Kyoto.
“Presente,” Hiro repeated.
The present struggled and mewed.
Father Mateo stepped back. “That’s a cat!”
“A small one,” Hiro agreed. He switched to Japanese. “Since you talk to the fish, I thought you would like it.”
The priest switched languages, following Hiro’s lead. “Where did you find a cat?”
“Abandoned by the canal. It’s not a lucky color, but you claim you don’t believe in luck.”
“God controls my fortune,” Father Mateo confirmed, “but lucky or no, I can’t keep a kitten. Cats make me sneeze.”
Hiro considered the squirming ball of fur. “What should I do? I don’t want it to die.”
“Have you become a Buddhist overnight?” Father Mateo grinned at his own joke.
“You know better than that.” Hiro frowned at the kitten. “It needs a home.”
“I can’t touch it, but it can stay. It’s your cat now, if you want it.”
The kitten spun in Hiro’s grip and clawed at his arm. He clutched it to his chest to stop its struggling.
The kitten gave a muffled mew.
“You’re squeezing it,” Father Mateo said.
“It’s stabbing me,” Hiro retorted. “I’d say we’re even.”
The kitten began to purr. It retracted its claws and relaxed in Hiro’s hands. He looked down at the tiny bundle of marbled black and orange fur. A white patch gleamed at the kitten’s throat, and the tiny cat squinted at him through greenish yellow eyes.
Loud banging echoed through the air. It came from the front of the house.
“Open up!” A male voice yelled. “I need the foreign priest!”
“Who did you insult this time?” Hiro arched an eyebrow at the priest.
Father Mateo started for the house. “No one I remember, not intentionally anyway.”
Only a handful of foreigners had the shogun’s permission to live and work in the Japanese capital. Many samurai found even that limited presence offensive.
“At least they’re not Shogun Ashikaga’s men, or the emperor’s.” Hiro followed the priest to the wooden veranda that circled the perimeter of the house.
The men slipped out of their sandals and stepped up onto the smooth, unpainted wood.
“How do you know that?” Father Mateo asked.
Hiro followed the priest inside. “The emperor and the shogun do not knock.”
The room that served as Father Mateo’s bedroom and study had a built-in writing alcove instead of a desk and no Western furniture at all. Only the crucifix mounted in the tokonoma, the decorative alcove that normally showcased pieces of Japanese art, hinted at the room’s foreign occupant. Although the Jesuit mission had purchased the house from a Japanese family two years before, in the spring of 1563, Father Mateo lived as a Japanese and had permitted little change.
Father Mateo crossed the floor, slid open the door, and stepped into the central room beyond. The open room at the center of the house had a sunken hearth and tatami mats on the floor, and it served every purpose from parlor to family room and even church. Father Mateo turned right, toward the small entry chamber at the front of the house, and ran a hand through his dark brown hair.
He turned to look for Hiro.
The shinobi had disappeared into his own room, which shared a wall with the priest’s. Hiro couldn’t let anyone see him in assassin’s clothing. Moreover, a messenger would think it strange to find the household alert and about so early.
Father Mateo started to run his hand through his hair again, but caught himself and stopped. He faced the swinging door at the front of the house and called, “Who’s there?”
His Portuguese accent often made people pause, but this time a male voice answered at once. “Mateo Ávila de Santos? You are wanted at the Sakura Teahouse.”
Father Mateo opened the door. “So early?”
The visitor wore a simple kimono belted at the waist with a wide obi. A dagger hung at his hip but he carried no sword. His close-cropped hair was thinning on top, a situation made even more obvious by the fact that his head barely reached the Jesuit’s chest.
The messenger startled at the sight of the foreign priest but recovered more quickly than most. “There has been a murder. A man is dead.”
“Was the victim one of my students?” Father Mateo avoided the term “converts” in the company of strangers.
“No. The murderer asked for you.”
The messenger nodded. “Sayuri, an entertainer.”
Father Mateo stepped backward and shook his head. “That’s impossible. Sayuri would never kill anyone.”
“She did, and a samurai at that. You’d better come quickly if you want to see her.”
“Is she going to commit suicide?” Father Mateo asked.
“You’d better come quickly,” the messenger repeated. “She hasn’t got much time.”
Hiro emerged from his room wearing a smoke-colored silk kimono and a pair of swords. The short wakizashi hung down from his obi, while the longer katana stuck upward through the sash with its black-lacquered bamboo scabbard jutting several feet behind his back. Somehow, the shinobi had also found time to retie his long hair in a samurai’s oiled topknot. Not a strand was out of place.
The messenger’s eyes went wide at the sight of a samurai. He dropped to the ground and laid his forehead in the dirt.
“Get up,” Hiro said as he reached the doorway. “Where is the Sakura Teahouse?”
The messenger stood and bowed from the waist. “Honorable sir, it lies on this side of the Kamo River, on Shijō Road, east of Pontocho. It’s the third house east of the bridge. You will know it by the stone dogs in the yard.”
Hiro scowled. “I will bring the priest. You may go.”
The messenger bowed twice more and hurried away.
“We could have gone with him,” Father Mateo protested as Hiro shut the swinging door.
“Samurai do not follow commoners.” Hiro looked the priest up and down. “More importantly, that’s your old kimono and you need to put on your swords.”
“You know I don’t like to wear them, and we need to hurry.”
“Why did I train you to use them if you won’t wear them?” Hiro shook his head at the priest’s stubbornness. “Nevermind. As you say, we should hurry. Change and get your swords.”
“Why are the swords so important?”
“Two years in Japan, and you still have to ask?”
The priest crossed his arms over his chest.
Hiro pointed at the swinging door. “You saw the way he reacted when I appeared. Only samurai have the right to wear two swords and to order men to obey. The shogun’s edict granted you the rank of a samurai, and today you must use it. If this woman is in trouble, you will need your swords to save her.”
“We have yours,” the priest pointed out.
“Mine are paid to protect you,” Hiro said. “My clan and I owe nothing to a girl we do not know.”
And have every reason to let her die if doing so saves your life, he thought.
But he didn’t say that part aloud.
Hiro and Father Mateo left the house and walked west along the narrow earthen road that led to the Kamo River. The priest stood three inches taller than his Japanese protector, but the status he gained by his six-foot height was destroyed by his katana. The longsword wagged behind him like the tail of an overexcited dog.
Hiro shook his head and fought a smile. “That would stop if you practiced wearing the swords, you know.”
“Yes. Just like the last ten times you told me.” Father Mateo smiled to remove the comment’s sting.
After half a mile they passed the white torii gate at the public entrance to Okazaki Shrine, which marked and guarded Kyoto’s eastern border. A white-robed Shinto priestess sold amulets by the gate. She nodded respectfully to Father Mateo. Shinto acknowledged a multitude of divinities. The priestess considered the Christian god no threat.
Father Mateo returned the silent greeting. He saw the woman often on the road, and, though he disagreed with her theology, he bore her no ill will.
At the river Hiro and Father Mateo turned south along the unpaved road that followed the eastern bank. Cherry trees lined the way. A month before, their blossoms fell like snow, but Hiro preferred May’s leaves to April’s flowers. They made better camouflage.
A bridge spanned the river at Sanjō Road. Had they crossed, the street would have led them to Pontocho, a twisting alley connecting Sanjō Road with Shijō Road to the south. Teahouses and brothels crowded the narrow thoroughfare, barely leaving space for three people to walk abreast.
Hiro glanced at the bridge and the city beyond. He hated Pontocho. Tight spaces didn’t bother him, but large concentrations of dishonest women did.
East of the river, Sanjō Road was residential. Well-groomed gardens and trees surrounded the dwellings. As the messenger promised, stone dogs stood guard at the third house on the left, a two-story structure with a raised foundation and steeply peaked roof. Long eaves overhung the wide veranda that circled the house, and a gravel path led to gates at both sides of the building. Wooden fences shielded the yards beyond from public view.
Crowded Pontocho had no room for private gardens. Then again, the average teahouse patron wasn’t paying to see a landscape.
Father Mateo walked to the door and knocked with a familiar confidence that made Hiro wonder how much time his pious friend spent in teahouses.
The door swung open to reveal a woman in a formal kimono embroidered with dark purple blossoms. Her hair and makeup looked flawless despite the early hour, and though her thinning face suggested age, no lines or wrinkles marred her powdered features.
She inclined her head to the priest.
Father Mateo bowed. “Good morning, Madame Mayuri. Sayuri sent for me?”
The similarity in the names suggested mother and daughter or master and apprentice. Hiro guessed the latter. He could hardly imagine a less maternal figure than the tall woman standing in the doorway.
Mayuri’s gaze shifted to Hiro as if drawn by his thoughts.
He bowed just enough to show manners but not quite enough for respect. “I am Matsui Hiro, Father Mateo’s translator and scribe.”
The assumed surname fell naturally from his lips. He had used it so long that it almost felt like his own.
“I have not seen you here before,” Mayuri said.
It was neither a question nor an accusation, and also both.
“His previous visits concerned only his religion,” Hiro replied, “but this time he may encounter words he does not understand.”
Mayuri nodded but did not bow. Hiro decided to overlook the slight. Teahouse women stood outside the social structure, and though they usually indulged male guests to the point of obsequiousness, this was not a normal morning and, strictly speaking, Hiro was not a guest.
“Mayuri owns the Sakura Teahouse,” Father Mateo said.
Hiro didn’t need the explanation. Successful entertainers often bought or inherited houses when they retired, and although she was now too old to sing and dance for men’s amusement, Mayuri would have won hearts and emptied pockets in younger days.
She stepped back from the door. “Come in.”
The cedar floor of the entry gleamed like honey beneath her sock-clad feet. Hiro pitied the servant tasked with keeping it clean. He stepped out of his geta and onto the raised floor, but paused to let Father Mateo enter first. Hiro always reinforced the impression that Father Mateo deserved great deference and respect, while Hiro himself was merely a low-ranked scribe.
A shinobi’s first and greatest defense was misdirection.
Six tatami covered the entry floor. Most entries measured no more than four mats, and the extra space conveyed a sense of luxury and light. A decorative screen by the eastern wall showed merchants and samurai cavorting with courtly ladies.
Hiro inhaled the scent of expensive cedar mixed with something faint and sweet that reminded him of distant flowers in bloom.
Ahead and to the right, an open doorway led to the central foyer, but before Mayuri could lead them through Father Mateo asked, “Has there really been a murder?”
Mayuri raised her painted eyebrows at his directness.
Hiro pretended not to notice. The Jesuit tried to behave like a Japanese, but his Western nature showed through under stress. At least he hadn’t run his hand through his hair yet.
Mayuri kept silent long enough to indicate her disapproval. “A samurai is dead.”
“Surely Sayuri didn’t kill him,” Father Mateo said.
Mayuri’s lack of reply said more than enough.
“I don’t believe it,” the priest insisted, “May I see her?”
Mayuri inclined her head in consent. “Follow me.”
She led them into the square, twelve-mat foyer. Sliding doors on the eastern and western walls led to private rooms, three on either side, where the teahouse women entertained their guests. Unlike prostitutes, who needed only space for a futon, true entertainers required room to sing and dance as well as a hearth for serving meals and tea.
Another door, in the northern wall, stood open to the informal room beyond, where the women gathered for meals and conversation or to wait for guests to arrive. Hiro averted his eyes. Polite people did not stare into private spaces and he had already seen enough to know the room held no imminent threat.
Mayuri knelt on the floor before the second sliding door on the western side.
“No proper entertainer opens an interior door while standing,” Hiro murmured. “Didn’t Sayuri do the same?”
“I told her Christians kneel only to God.”
Before Hiro could reply Mayuri looked up. “Sayuri will explain what you see, but be warned. You may find the scene … disturbing.”
“You haven’t cleaned it up?” An edge of frustration clipped Father Mateo’s words.
Hiro made a mental note to refresh the priest’s memory of etiquette. Dead samurai didn’t mind insults and accusations, but the living often felt differently.
Mayuri sat up straighter and raised her chin. “Akechi-sama’s family has the right to see what happened.”
Her powdered face betrayed no emotion, but the words told Hiro more than she realized. Teahouse owners protected their performers like samurai guarded their honor. Mayuri’s refusal to clear the scene meant she thought the girl was guilty.
Mayuri fixed her eyes on the men. She clasped her hands, but not before Hiro saw them shaking.
“Why are you waiting?” Hiro asked.
“We have seen death before,” the Jesuit added.
“Not like this,” she said, and drew back the door.
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Spann.
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Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, knife and shuriken throwing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding. She keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals. She lives in northern California with her family.