Flask of the Drunken Master: New Excerpt

Flask of the Drunken Master by Susan Spann is the 3rd historical detective mystery in the Shinobi Mystery Series, featuring a master ninja and a female samurai in feudal 16th Century Japan (available July 14, 2015).

August 1565: When a rival artisan turns up dead outside Ginjiro's brewery, and all the evidence implicates the brewer, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo must find the killer before the magistrate executes Ginjiro and seizes the brewery, leaving his wife and daughter destitute. A missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, and a female moneylender join Ginjiro and the victim's spendthrift son on the suspect list. But with Kyoto on alert in the wake of the shogun's recent death, a rival shinobi on the prowl, and samurai threatening Hiro and Father Mateo at every turn, Ginjiro's life is not the only one in danger.

Will Hiro and Father Mateo unravel the clues in time to save Ginjiro's life, or will the shadows gathering over Kyoto consume the detectives as well as the brewer?

Chapter 1

“Halt!” The armored samurai stepped forward to block the bridge. “No one crosses the Kamo River without identification. State your names and your business in Kyoto.”

Hattori Hiro gestured to the Jesuit at his side. “Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, a priest of the foreign god, from Portugal. I am Matsui Hiro, his interpreter and scribe.”

After a pause, Hiro added, “Our business in the capital has not changed since yesterday. As you know, we live just up the road.”

The samurai pointed east, away from the bridge. “You live two blocks past Okazaki Shrine, beyond the official boundary of Kyoto. You cannot enter the city without declaring your names and business. That, also, has not changed since yesterday.”

Hiro considered pointing out that only a fool asked for identification from men he recognized. However, he didn’t bother. Men who followed orders blindly didn’t respond to logic, and Hiro, a shinobi assassin, didn’t waste time on fools.

“You’ve stopped us every morning for a week,” Hiro said, “and yet, our names and business have not changed.”

“Surely you remember us—your words suggest you do,” Father Mateo said in perfect Japanese.

The Jesuit’s skill with the Japanese language often made Hiro wonder why few people questioned the priest’s continuing use of a translator. After three years in Japan, Father Mateo spoke and understood the language well.

Fortunately, most Japanese natives believed their language and culture far too nuanced for a foreigner to master. Hiro knew this also—it was one of many factors he depended on to shield his true identity and his mission to protect the Jesuit’s life.

“I have orders.” The samurai glanced over his shoulder as if expecting to see someone behind him.

Hiro’s attitude softened a fraction. Many men obeyed unreasonable orders out of fear, and Matsunaga Hisahide, the samurai who controlled Kyoto, inspired well-founded fear in all who served him.

“Noodles,” Hiro said.

The samurai’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Excuse me … noodles?”

“Our business in Kyoto,” Hiro said without a smile. “Do we have to show a travel pass to eat a morning snack?”

The samurai’s cheeks flushed almost as dark as the crimson armor that covered his chest. “No,” he said, “but I need not apologize for following orders.”

“Not to me,” Hiro said. “However, this priest has the emperor’s personal permission to enter and leave Kyoto without restriction, and, unless I am mistaken, the emperor outranks Matsunaga Hisahide.”

Technically, Father Mateo worked in Kyoto under a blanket permission granted to all the Jesuits, but Hiro hoped his companion would cooperate with the bluff.

The samurai’s mouth opened and shut like a fish hooked out of the river beneath the bridge. He bowed. “I apologize, Father-san. I did not know.”

“If you wish to keep your job,” Hiro said, “I suggest you learn to distinguish between genuine threats and imagined ones.”

As Hiro followed the priest across the bridge, he considered the irony in his parting words. Despite his current position as the Jesuit’s bodyguard, Hiro’s shinobi training made him a dangerous threat indeed.

Father Mateo said nothing until they started south on the road that paralleled the river bank.

“You know what I think of lies.” The priest spoke softly to ensure the samurai wouldn’t overhear.

Hiro put on an innocent look. “I told no lies.”

“Permission to work in Kyoto hardly equates to unfettered movement.” Father Mateo frowned at Hiro. “You stretched the truth on purpose to intimidate that young man.”

“I wouldn’t have had to do it if he exercised discretion.” Hiro disapproved of men who flexed their power without cause. “We have tolerated his arrogance long enough.”

Father Mateo’s lips drew into a disapproving line.

The men walked on in silence.

The clear blue sky and pleasant summer temperature soon lightened Hiro’s mood. By the time they turned east on Sanj? Road, the priest’s good temper seemed to return as well.

A few minutes later, they reached the road where Hiro’s favorite noodle vendor frequently set up his wheeled cart. Shuttered sake shops and restaurants lined the narrow street. The last of the patrons would have straggled home just hours earlier, as dawn began to kiss the eastern sky. Fortunately for the hungry shinobi, vendors opened earlier than sake shops and restaurants. Charcoal smoke and the oily odor of roasting fish already filled the air.

Hiro’s mouth watered at the thought of handmade noodles in a savory, fishy broth. He spotted the vendor almost at once and had to restrain his pace to keep from hurrying toward the cart. A samurai never hurried. Not even for the tastiest udon Kyoto had to offer.

The vendor greeted Hiro with a deep, respectful bow and a happy grin. “Good morning, Matsui-san. So nice to see you!”

“Good morning, Kenji.” Samurai didn’t bow to vendors, but Hiro’s use of the merchant’s name conveyed respect.

“Two bowls this morning?” Kenji asked as he bowed to Father Mateo.

Hiro nodded and reached for his purse. As he withdrew it from his kimono, he heard shouting at the far end of the block.

“Arrest me!” a reedy voice screeched. “I’m the guilty one, not him!”

Hiro recognized the voice. He wished he hadn’t.

The shouts continued. “I’m the murderer, you fool! Why won’t you listen?!”

Hiro felt his noodles slip away as he turned in the direction of the sound.

Half a block to the south, a samurai stood alone in the narrow street. The man wore a colorful surcoat, cut the style favored by yoriki—the assistant magistrates who supervised lower-ranked policemen known as d?shin.

Hiro frowned. If a yoriki left his office before noon, someone was either dead or being arrested.

Possibly both.

A bald-headed monk in a stained brown robe jumped up and down in front of the yoriki. “Listen to me!” he yelled. “I’m a dangerous man!”

The yoriki stepped around the monk as a pair of d?shin emerged from a nearby brewery. The policemen held the arms of a brewer who walked with a lowered head and sagging shoulders. Hiro couldn’t tell if the merchant’s posture suggested guilt or merely embarrassment.

Years of training told the shinobi to turn away and ignore the scene.

But Hiro’s conscience wouldn’t let him do it. He recognized the monk who hopped and danced around the yoriki. More importantly, he knew the brewer walking between the d?shin.

The man was named Ginjiro—and Hiro owed him a personal debt.


Chapter 2


Father Mateo looked up the street. “Are the d?shin arresting Ginjiro, the brewer? And did that monk say ‘murder’?”

Hiro nodded.

Father Mateo had met Ginjiro a couple of months before, while investigating a murder at the shogunate. Hiro knew the Jesuit would want to help the brewer, even though most Japanese would turn away. The priest cared more for justice than for etiquette.

Father Mateo switched to Portuguese. “We have to help him.”

Hiro appreciated the language shift. The noodle vendor didn’t need to hear this conversation.

“Not our business,” Hiro said, also in Portuguese, though he slipped his coin purse into his kimono as he spoke. He intended to help Ginjiro, too, but hoped an argument would cause the priest to show some caution. “Theyoriki could arrest us for interfering.”

“That man is your friend,” Father Mateo said. “You cannot turn your back on his distress.”

“He owns a brewery I frequent,” Hiro said. “He’s not a friend.”

Father Mateo shook his head in disapproval. “Ginjiro helped when you needed him. I think that makes him more than just a brewer.”

The time had come to let the Jesuit win.

“Agreed,” Hiro said, “but let me lead. We cannot anger the yoriki.” He turned to the noodle vendor and switched back to Japanese. “Regrettably, we will not need noodles after all.”

Kenji bowed as Hiro and Father Mateo walked away.

The two men walked toward the brewery at the leisurely pace of samurai enjoying a morning stroll.

Ahead, the balding cleric shouted, “I am the murderer! Listen to me!”

The yoriki ignored the monk’s confession.

Hiro didn’t believe it either. The monk, whose name was Suke, spent his evenings drinking Ginjiro’s sake and mornings sleeping it off in the narrow alley beside the brewery. He might be guilty of vagrancy, but not of murder.

Suke turned to the d?shin who held Ginjiro. “I am a dangerous man!” the monk declared.

The wooden shutters covering the brewery storefront rattled open, revealing Ginjiro’s adult daughter, Tomiko, and a tiny, gray-haired woman that Hiro recognized as Ginjiro’s wife, though at the moment he could not recall her name.

The elderly woman squinted and blinked like an owl caught in sunlight. When she saw Ginjiro between the d?shin, she clutched at Tomiko’s sleeve and whispered something in her daughter’s ear.

Tomiko bent her head and whispered back. When the elderly woman released her sleeve, Tomiko bent down and set a pair of geta in the street. She stepped down into her sandals, approached the yoriki, and bowed, hands crossed before her body to show respect.

Hiro noted with approval that Tomiko did not tremble. Women rarely showed such courage when addressing the police.

Suke pushed himself between Tomiko and the yoriki.

“You fool!” the monk declared. “Are you deaf, or merely stupid?”

The yoriki turned away.

Suke drew a breath but let it out, the words unspoken, at the sight of Hiro and the priest.

“Hiro-san!” Suke ran toward them, long sleeves flapping like a pair of greasy wings. “He wants to arrest Ginjiro, but I’m the killer.”

The yoriki met Hiro’s eyes and shook his head.

Father Mateo approached and asked, “Has a murder been committed?”

Hiro wondered how the Jesuit always managed to ask the most obvious question possible.

Suke pointed to the narrow space between the brewery and the restaurant next door. “In the alley. He’s still lying where I killed him.”

The d?shin holding Ginjiro’s arms looked around, as if for instructions. The yoriki made a motion for them to wait.

“Good morning, Father.” The yoriki bowed.

Hiro wondered whether the yoriki knew that “Father” was a title or whether he omitted the suffix “-san” to slight the priest.

“Good morning.” The Jesuit returned the bow. “I am Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, and this is my interpreter, Matsui Hiro.”

The yoriki gave Hiro a cautious look. Father Mateo’s introduction didn’t mention the translator’s rank or province of origin, indicating Hiro was ronin, a masterless samurai forced to adopt a trade.

“What happened here?” Father Mateo asked in Japanese.

The yoriki looked at Hiro. “Please inform your master we do not require his aid.”

Hiro translated into Portuguese, mostly to delay the priest’s response. Father Mateo’s Japanese was better than his patience.

“We know this brewer,” Father Mateo said. “He’s not a killer.”

Hiro felt a rush of pride as the Jesuit made a Japanese-style gesture toward Ginjiro. The priest remembered that samurai considered pointing rude.

The yoriki scowled at Hiro. “Tell your master he is misinformed.”

I am not misinformed,” Suke said, “and I already told you, Ginjiro is not the killer.”

“Shut up, old man,” the yoriki said in a voice that sounded more bored than angry. “Don’t make me arrest you for causing trouble.”

“Arrest me for causing a murder!” Suke shrieked.

The yoriki raised his hands in exasperation.

“Who was murdered?” Father Mateo asked. “I see no corpse.”

“No one important,” the yoriki said.

Father Mateo started toward the alley. “I want to see.”

Copyright © 2015 Susan Spann.

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Susan Spann is a transactional attorney focusing on publishing law and a former law school professor. She is a featured blogger/columnist for the Social In Network. She has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, and knife and shuriken throwing. Spann is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the Historical Novel Society and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Association. She lives in northern California with her family.

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