The Ninja's Daughter by Susan Spann is the 4th installment of the Shinobi Mystery series (Available August 2, 2016).
Autumn, 1565: When an actor's daughter is murdered on the banks of Kyoto's Kamo River, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are the victim's only hope for justice.
As political tensions rise in the wake of the shogun's recent death, and rival warlords threaten war, the Kyoto police forbid an investigation of the killing, to keep the peace—but Hiro has a personal connection to the girl, and must avenge her. The secret investigation leads Hiro and Father Mateo deep into the exclusive world of Kyoto's theater guilds, where they quickly learn that nothing, and no one, is as it seems. With only a mysterious golden coin to guide them, the investigators uncover a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption within the Kyoto police department that leaves Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives.
Knocking echoed through the silent house.
Hattori Hiro sat up in the darkness and pushed his quilt aside. His cat, Gato, tumbled to the floor. She mewed in protest.
Careful footsteps passed the door to Hiro’s room. He recognized the pace of Ana, the housekeeper who cooked and cleaned for the Portuguese priest whose home they shared. Her rapid response told Hiro sunrise must be close at hand. Only a person already awake and dressed would reach the door so quickly.
“Hm. Unreasonable hour for visitors.” Ana’s irritated mutter carried through the walls.
Her footsteps faded into the entry. Moments later, Hiro heard the creak of a door and Ana asking, “What do you want?”
“My name is Jiro,” a male voice said. “Please . . . I need to see the foreign priest.”
Hiro crossed his room and opened the paneled door to hear more clearly. Unexpected visitors brought news, but also threats, and though most people thought him merely a translator, Hiro was also a shinobi— a ninja spy and assassin—hired to protect the priest.
“Return at sunrise,” Ana said. “Father Mateo is asleep.”
“I beg you,” Jiro said, “please let me in. I cannot wait for dawn.” The paneled door beside Hiro’s room slid open with a muted rattle. “It’s all right, Ana,” Father Mateo called, “please show him in.” Hiro shut his door, slipped on his favorite gray kimono, and
wrapped an obi around his waist. He checked the samurai knot atop his head. As he expected, not a hair lay out of place.
Dressed and ready, he entered the common room.
Father Mateo knelt by the hearth, across from the man who called himself Jiro.
The visitor had gangly arms and narrow shoulders that tapered to bony wrists. His skinny hands protruded from his sleeves like twigs from a bank of snow. He wore a fine but faded kimono that seemed to be recently slept in, and his close-cropped hair stuck out at odd angles above a slender face that Hiro recognized at once.
Jiro was the apprentice of a prosperous merchant and moneylender who owned a shop in Kyoto’s Sanjō Market. Hiro and Father Mateo had met the youth, and his master, while investigating the murder of a brewer several weeks before.
As he walked to the hearth, Hiro wondered why his investigations returned to haunt him like hungry ghosts. He hadn’t come to Kyoto to help the families of murdered strangers, and although he enjoyed the hunt for a killer, it attracted more attention than he liked.
Father Mateo smiled at Jiro. “Good morning. Aren’t you Basho’s apprentice?”
“Yes, sir.” Jiro bowed his head. “I feared you wouldn’t remember me. Please, I need your help.”
Ana stood near the entrance, watching the youth with a wrinkled frown that made her opinion perfectly clear: no one should bother the Jesuit before dawn and without an appointment.
For once, Hiro agreed with her. Predawn visitors never brought good news. He gave the woman a barely perceptible nod, and her frown deepened into a disapproving scowl. She circled the room along the wall and exited through the door that led to the kitchen.
Gato trotted after her, tail high.
“Has something happened?” Father Mateo asked Jiro.
The young man drew a breath and blurted out, “Last night I killed a girl and left her body by the river.”
“The priest does not help murderers,” Hiro said. “You need to leave.”
“Hiro.” Father Mateo raised his scarred right hand.
Hiro bristled at the gesture, even though the Jesuit meant no insult. When distracted or surprised, Father Mateo often forgot the rules of Japanese etiquette.
The priest turned to Jiro. “What help do you think I can offer?” Jiro ducked his head. “I don’t want to die for a crime I didn’t commit.”
“You just confessed to killing a girl,” Hiro said. “Did you do it or not?”
“That’s the problem.” Jiro looked up. “I don’t remember.”
Hiro raised an eyebrow. “Either you killed a girl or you didn’t. It’s not the sort of thing you forget overnight.”
The delicate odor of steaming rice wafted into the room. Ana must have started cooking before the visitor arrived. Hiro’s stomach growled. Hunger always shortened his temper, but Hiro didn’t care. A samurai had no obligation to heed a commoner’s plea at all, let alone before the morning meal.
“Tell us everything you remember,” Father Mateo said. “Would you like some tea?”
“No, thank you,” Jiro said. “I couldn’t impose upon your kindness.” Just our sleep and safety, Hiro thought.
“Tell us what happened,” Father Mateo said, “and we will help you, if we can.”
Hiro didn’t argue. There was time enough to send Jiro away when he finished with his tale.
“Last night,” Jiro said, “I went for a drink at a sake shop in Pontochō. I’d never been to one before, but yesterday morning a customer gave me some silver coins for delivering a package.” After a pause, he added, “I didn’t spend them all on sake.”
Hiro loathed the pleasure districts, especially crowded Pontochō, but couldn’t fault the boy’s attraction to lovely women and cheap sake. Most men found the entertainment quarters irresistible.
“You met a girl in Pontochō?” Father Mateo asked.
Jiro blushed. “I could never afford the girls in Pontochō. I drank three flasks and left the sake shop.”
“Three?” Hiro asked. “That seems a lot for a youth your age and size.”
“I didn’t drink them alone,” Jiro said. “I split them with the man who shared my table. Even so, I left the shop almost too drunk to walk. I didn’t realize how much sake a silver coin could buy.”
“Is there a girl in this story somewhere?” Hiro asked.
Father Mateo frowned.
Jiro bowed his head. “I’m sorry. I will speak more clearly. I left the teahouse feeling sick, and went to the river to get some air. The guards on the bridge didn’t stop me—I think they knew that I was drunk.”
“That, or they knew your story would take all night,” Hiro muttered.
Father Mateo gave Hiro a look, but Jiro apparently missed the comment.
“South of Shijō Road, I saw a beautiful girl by the river.” The young man’s voice grew soft with memory. “Moonlight glimmered on her hair and set her skin aglow. She seemed like a dream, but when she turned I recognized her face.”
Hiro fought the urge to stifle the youth’s romantic fancy. It seemed young Jiro had spent many hours with poems, and far too few with real girls.
“You knew the woman?” Father Mateo asked.
“Her name is Emi,” Jiro said. “She lived in a teahouse in Pontochō and worshipped at Chugenji, the little shrine just east of the river at Shijō Road. We met there a couple of weeks ago, and after that I saw her several times.”
“The girl is an entertainer?” Father Mateo asked.
“Yes,” Jiro said. “That is, she was, but I don’t know which house she worked for. She said she didn’t want the owner learning we were friends.”
“A teahouse owner can bill a man for spending time with an entertainer,” Hiro explained to Father Mateo. “Even if they meet outside the teahouse.”
Father Mateo nodded and turned to Jiro. “Please continue.”
“Emi hated the teahouse,” Jiro said. “The owner didn’t like her, and the other girls were mean. She planned to escape, but couldn’t afford to buy her contract back.”
Hiro wondered if the girl had asked the youth for money. Entertainers often spent a lifetime working off the costs of education and room and board. The lucky ones found a wealthy patron or acquired sufficient fame to earn their independence. But for girls with lesser skills and plainer faces, life in a teahouse could, indeed, be cruel.
“Then, last night, Emi said she’d found a way to buy her freedom.” Jiro sounded on the verge of tears. “She wouldn’t tell me how, or why, but said the teahouse owner had agreed to let her go.”
Father Mateo smiled at the boy. “You wanted to marry her, didn’t you?”
Jiro’s cheeks flushed red. The color went all the way to his ears. “She was a beautiful teahouse girl. I’m . . . I didn’t know if she would have me.”
“So you asked, and she refused, and then you killed her.” Hiro hoped the accusation would speed up the narrative.
The color drained from Jiro’s face. “No . . . at least, that’s not the way I remember it. We sat together by the river. She told me about her plans to move to Edo. I felt dizzy from the sake and lay down, in hopes of feeling better.
“Next thing I remember, I woke up and found her dead.”
A door on the opposite side of the room rattled open, revealing a portly Portuguese man in a knee-length linen shift. His rounded belly protruded before him, causing the nightshirt to stretch across his stomach and then droop like a wrinkled curtain.
“So, what happened?” the man demanded. “Did you kill the girl or not?”
“Luis!” Father Mateo exclaimed.
Luis Álvares folded his arms across his ample belly. “He woke me at this indecent hour—the least I deserve is to hear the rest of the story.”
Hiro stared at Luis’s feet to avoid the unfortunate sight of the man as a whole. In the years since Hiro arrived in Kyoto, he had never seen the merchant barefoot. Luis’s hairy toes repulsed and intrigued the shinobi in equal measure.
“I don’t know if I killed her,” Jiro said. “I don’t remember anything after lying down on the riverbank.”
“You’re certain the girl was dead? She wasn’t sleeping?” Father Mateo asked.
“She wasn’t breathing,” Jiro said. “Her eyes were full of blood.” “Why do you think we can help you?” Hiro asked.
Jiro gave him a pleading look. “You helped the brewer, Ginjiro— please, I don’t know what to do.”
“Turn yourself in and confess to a drunken accident,” Hiro said. “Perhaps the magistrate will show mercy and grant you an easy death.” “What if he didn’t kill her?” Father Mateo looked dismayed.
Luis snorted. “Who else could have done it? A river spirit?” He waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mateo. Your translator’s right. The boy is guilty. I’m going back to sleep.”
Luis returned to his room and shut the door.
Hiro recognized the determined look on the Jesuit’s face. Father Mateo intended to help the youth, despite the evidence—and the potential danger.
“Kyoto is barely safe for the innocent, let alone the guilty.” Hiro spoke quickly, in Portuguese, to stop the priest from making a foolish promise. “We must not intervene where we don’t belong.”
“The boy needs help,” the priest replied. “If we refuse, he faces execution.”
“He forfeited his life when he took another. As I said, this is not our concern.”
Jiro bowed his head and waited, unable to understand the conversation.
“I choose to make this matter my concern.” Father Mateo turned to Jiro and switched to Japanese. “I will help you, but I cannot shield a guilty man from justice. If you killed her, you must answer for the crime.”
Tears welled up in Jiro’s eyes as he looked at the priest. “I wish I never drank sake. I wish I went home by another path. . . .” He paused to recover control and bowed his face to the floor again. “Thank you for helping me. Thank you both.”
Hiro felt an unexpected spark of compassion. The parallel scars on his shoulder, and the matching ones on his inner thigh, were constant reminders that all men’s indiscretions had a price.
“We will help you discover the truth.” Father Mateo rose and smoothed his kimono. “Take us to the place where you woke up and saw the girl.”
Jiro shook his head. “I can’t go back. The police—”
“—will find you one way or the other,” Hiro finished. “You asked for help. Now do as you are told.”
Hiro hoped their investigation wouldn’t involve the Kyoto police and wouldn’t draw the attention of Matsunaga Hisahide, the warlord who seized the Japanese capital after the shogun’s death three months before. Officially, the emperor hadn’t named a successor shogun, but Hisahide claimed the title—over the objections of the former shogun’s clan. With Kyoto’s future uncertain, and rival samurai threatening war, wise men took great care to avoid attention.
“Shall we go ?” Father Mateo’s question interrupted Hiro’s thoughts.
“One moment.” Hiro returned to his room and fastened a pair of swords to his obi. He also slipped a star-shaped metal shuriken and a dagger into hidden pockets in his sleeves.
He rejoined the others and left for the scene of the crime, thoughts of breakfast temporarily forgotten.
Copyright © 2016 Susan Spann.
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Susan Spann is the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year and the author of three previous novels in the Shinobi Mystery series: Claws of the Cat, Blade of the Samurai, and Flask of the Drunken Master. She has a degree in Asian Studies and a lifelong love of Japanese history and culture. When not writing, she works as a transactional attorney focusing on publishing and business law, and raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.