When veteran samurai-detective Sano Ichiro, the most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People, is called on to investigate the burning of a cottage belonging to the Black Lotus Temple, he makes a shocking discovery. The three victim of the blaze did not die in the fire, but were brutally murdered before the fire even began. With a triple homicide on his hands, Sano's search for a killer leads him to Haru, an orphan girl found at the scene of the crime. But Sano's wife, Reiko, investigating the case against Sano's wishes, is convinced of Haru's innocence. Reiko's investigation leads her behind the walls of the Black Lotus Temple, where she discovers a sect involved in extortion, prostitution, and hedonistic rituals. Could one of the sect's members be the killer? Now Reiko must risk her marriage to Sano in order to prove Haru's innocence...
Set in the luscious finery of the samurai court of medieval Japan, this latest installment in the bestselling series by Laura Joh Rowland is filled with shocking surprised and suspense as readers are once again allowed access into the world of Sano Ichiro.
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March 01, 2002
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Excerpt from Black Lotus by Laura Joh Rowland
I have come into this impure and evil world To preach the ultimate truth. Hear, and you shall be released from suffering And attain perfect enlightenment.
--FROM THE BLACK LOTUS SUTRA
"There was lamp oil spilled along the path to the cottage and on the ground around it." In the private audience chamber of Edo Castle, Sano Ichir addressed Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Japan's supreme military dictator. "The fire brigade found a ceramic jar containing a small quantity of oil hidden in some bushes nearby. And a search of the garden turned up what appeared to be a torch: a stump of pinewood with a charred rag wrapped around the end. I've examined the scene and the evidence. The fire was definitely the result of arson."
"Ahh, this is most serious." A frown crossed the shogun's mild, aristocratic features. Dressed in an embroidered bronze satin kimono and the cylindrical black cap of his rank, he stirreduncomfortably upon the dais, where he sat with his back to a mural of blue rivers and silver clouds, facing Sano, who knelt on the tatami floor below. Attendants rearranged the silk cushions around the shogun, filled his silver tobacco pipe, and poured more sake into the cup on the low table beside him, but he waved them away and turned toward the open window, contemplating the crimson sunset descending upon the garden. From the distance came the neigh of horses, the footsteps of patrolling guards, the muted bustle of servants. "I did hope that the, ahh, suspicions of the fire brigade would prove unfounded," the shogun continued morosely, "and that the fire was just an accident. But alas, you have confirmed my, ahh, worst fears."
That morning, a messenger had brought word of the fire at the temple of the Black Lotus sect, along with a report from the fire brigade commander, which stated that the blaze had been set deliberately. Zj was the Tokugawa family temple, where the clan worshipped and its ancestors lay entombed, and any crime against the main temple or its subsidiaries constituted an attack against the shogun. In addition, Tsunayoshi was a devout Buddhist, a generous patron of religion, and took a strong personal interest in the Zj community. Therefore, he'd assigned Sano to investigate the fire. Sano had begun inquiries at the Black Lotus Temple and had just returned.
Now the shogun said, "I suppose you have also confirmed the, ahh, identity of the man who died in the fire?"
"I regret to say that I have," Sano said. "It was indeed Oyama Jushin, chief police commander. When I viewed the body, I recognized him immediately."
Prior to becoming the shogun's ssakan-sama--Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People--Sano had served on Edo's police force as a yoriki, a senior police commander. He and Oyama had been colleagues, although Sano hadn't particularly liked Oyama. As a hereditary Tokugawa vassal whose family had served the shogun's clan for generations, Oyama had scorned Sano, who was the son of a rnin, a masterless samurai. Oyama had been promoted to his present higher rank last winter. From priests at the Black Lotus Temple, Sano had learned that Oyama had recently joined the sect. Now the death of an important official transformed thearson into a politically sensitive murder case and grave offense against the bakufu, Japan's military dictatorship. Fate had brought Sano the responsibility of catching the killer.
"The other two victims haven't been identified yet," Sano said. "One was a woman and the other a small child, but they were badly burned, and at the moment, it seems that no one knows who they are. Membership in the sect has grown rapidly; there are presently four hundred twenty holy men and women living on the premises, with more arriving every day, plus ninety servants and thirty-two orphans. Nobody seems to be missing, but I got the impression that the sect has difficulty keeping its records up to date. And because of the crowds that frequent the temple, they can't efficiently monitor who's in the compound at any given time."
This situation sometimes occurred as a sect grew in popularity among people in search of spiritual guidance or a new diversion. The many new followers of the Black Lotus Temple could worship or even live together while remaining virtual strangers. Two particular individuals might have easily gone unnoticed by the sect leaders.
"Ahh, there are so many Buddhist orders nowadays that it is difficult to keep them all straight," the shogun said with a sigh. "What distinguishes the Black Lotus from the rest?"
Sano had familiarized himself with the sect while at the temple. He said, "Its central doctrine is the Black Lotus Sutra." A sutra was a Buddhist scripture, written in prose and verse, parables and lectures, containing the teachings of the Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha who had lived in India approximately a thousand years before. There were some eighty-four thousand sutras, each of which elucidated different aspects of his wisdom. Various orders structured their practices around various texts. "The sect members believe that the Black Lotus Sutra represents the final, definitive teaching of the Buddha, and contains the essential, perfect, ultimate law of human existence and cosmic totality. They also believe that worshippers who absorb the truth contained in the sutra will attain nirvana."
Nirvana was a state of pure peace and spiritual enlightenment, the goal of Buddhists. The state could not be articulated, only experienced.
This explanation seemed to satisfy Tsunayoshi. "Will youkeep trying to identify the dead woman and child?" he ventured timidly. A dictator with little talent for leadership and less self-confidence, he hesitated to make suggestions that he feared might sound stupid.
"I certainly will," Sano reassured his lord. Who the unknown victims had been might prove critical to the investigation. For reasons involving Tokugawa law, Sano forbore to mention that he'd sent all three bodies to Edo Morgue for examination by his friend and adviser Dr. Ito.
"This is a sorry state of affairs," lamented the shogun, fumbling with his pipe. A manservant lit it for him and placed the stem between his lips. "Ahh, I wish the Honorable Chamberlain Yanagisawa were here to offer his opinion!"
Yanagisawa, the shogun's second-in-command, had gone to Echigo Province on a tour of inspection with his lover and chief retainer, Hoshina; they wouldn't be back for two months. Although Sano couldn't share Tsunayoshi's wish, neither did he welcome the chamberlain's absence with the joy he might have once felt.
From Sano's early days at Edo Castle, Yanagisawa had viewed him as a rival for the shogun's favor, for power over the weak lord and thus the entire nation. He'd repeatedly tried to sabotage Sano's investigations, destroy his reputation, and assassinate him. But two years ago, a case involving the mysterious death of a court noble in the ancient imperial capital had fostered an unexpected comradeship between Sano and Yanagisawa. Since then, they'd coexisted in a truce. Sano didn't expect this harmony to continue forever, but he meant to enjoy it while it lasted. Today his life seemed replete with wonderful blessings and challenges: He had a family that he loved, the favor of the shogun, and an interesting new case.
"Have you any idea who committed this terrible crime?" asked the shogun.
"Not yet," Sano said. "My detectives and I have begun interviewing the residents of the Black Lotus Temple, but so far we've found neither witnesses nor suspects ... with one possible exception. The fire brigade found a girl near the scene. Her name is Haru; she's fifteen years old and an orphan who lives in the temple orphanage. Apparently she tried to run away, then fainted."
Tsunayoshi gulped sake; his brow furrowed in thought. "So you think that this girl, ahh, saw something? Or did she set the fire?"
"Either alternative is possible," Sano said, "but I haven't been able to get any information from her."
By the time he'd arrived at the Black Lotus Temple, the nuns had put Haru to bed in the orphanage dormitory, a long, narrow room where the children slept on straw mattresses atop wooden pallets. Haru had regained consciousness, but when Sano approached her, the small, slender girl shrieked in terror and dived under the quilts. When two nuns pulled her out, she clung to them, sobbing hysterically.
"I won't hurt you," Sano said gently, kneeling beside the pallet where the nuns held Haru. "I just want to ask you some questions."
She only sobbed harder, hiding her face behind her tangled, waist-length hair. Sano ordered a soothing herb tea brought to her, but she refused to drink. After an hour of failed attempts to calm and question Haru, Sano told his chief retainer, Hirata, to try. Hirata was young, personable, and popular with girls, but he fared no better than Sano. Haru cried herself into a fit of choking, then vomited. Finally Sano and Hirata gave up.
As they left the dormitory, Sano asked the nuns, "Has Haru told anyone what she was doing outside the cottage, or what she saw there?"
"She hasn't uttered a word since she was found," answered a nun. "When the fire brigade and the priests questioned her, she behaved as you just saw. With us nuns she's calmer, but she still won't talk."
Now Sano explained the situation to Tsunayoshi, who shook his head and said, "Perhaps a demon has, ahh, stolen the poor girl's voice. Ahh, how unfortunate that your only witness cannot speak!"
But Sano had a different theory about Haru's behavior, and a possible solution to the problem. "Tomorrow I'll try another way of breaking her silence," he said.
After leaving the shogun, Sano walked down the hill on which Edo Castle perched, through stone passages between enclosed corridors and watchtowers manned by armed guards, past security checkpoints. Lanterns carried by patrolling troops glowed in the deepening blue twilight. The evening was almost as mild as summer, yet a golden haze veiled the waxing moon. The wind breathed the scent of charcoal smoke and dry leaves. In the official quarter, where the shogun's high-ranking retainers lived, Sano quickened his steps as he passed estates surrounded by barracks with whitewashed walls. He was eager for the company of his family, and he had a plan to propose.
He hurried through the gate of his estate, greeting the guards stationed there and in the paved courtyard inside the barracks. Beyond an inner gate, he entered the mansion, a large, half-timbered building with a brown tile roof. As he removed his shoes and swords inside the entry porch, he heard feminine voices singing and laughing, and the excited shrieks of a child. He smiled in bemusement while he walked down the corridor toward the private chambers. He still couldn't believe that the addition of one tiny person had transformed his peaceful household into a place of noisy activity. He stopped at the nursery door. His smile broadened.
Inside the warm, bright room, his wife, Reiko, sat in a circle with four other women--her old nurse O-sugi, two maids, and Midori, a family friend. They were singing a folk tune. Little Masahiro, eighteen months old, dressed in a green cotton sleeping kimono, his soft black locks disheveled and his round face rosy, toddled on plump legs from one woman to the next within the circle. His happy, childish whoops joined their song; his tiny hands clapped against theirs.
Reiko glanced up and saw Sano. Her delicate, lovely features brightened. "Look, Masahiro-chan. It's your father!"
Arms outstretched, chortling in excitement, Masahiro ran to Sano, who picked him up, tossed him in the air, and caught him. Masahiro laughed with glee. Sano hugged his son close, enjoying Masahiro's softness and sweet smell. Love clenched his heart; awe sobered him. He was a first-time father at the late age of thirty-four, and this boisterous little creature seemed a miracle.
"My little samurai," Sano murmured, nuzzling his son's face.
O-sugi and the maids gathered up the water basin and damp towels from Masahiro's bath and departed. Sano greeted Midori. "How are you tonight?"
"Fine, thank you." Midori bowed. Dimples flashed in her plump cheeks; her lively eyes danced. Eighteen years old, she was a daughter of a powerful daimyo--provincial lord--and held a post as a lady-in-waiting to the shogun's mother. Sano had met her during an investigation some years ago. She and Reiko had become friends, and Sano suspected that Midori and his retainer Hirata were somewhat more than friends. Because the shogun's mother had many other attendants to serve her, and great esteem for Sano, she allowed Midori to visit the estate often.
"I guess it's getting late," Midori said, rising. "I'd better go back to the palace." To Reiko she said, "Shall I come again tomorrow?"
Reiko smiled and nodded. "Good night."
After Midori left, Sano and Reiko played with Masahiro, discussing his appetite, bowels, and all the endearing things he'd done today. Then Reiko announced, "Bedtime!" This entailed much fussing and coaxing, but finally Masahiro was asleep on his little futon. Sano and Reiko settled in the parlor, where he ate a meal of miso soup, rice, grilled trout, and vegetables.
Reclining upon cushions, Reiko sipped tea. Tendrils of hair had escaped her upswept coiffure; fatigue shadowed her eyes; food stains blotched her maroon silk kimono. She was twenty-three years old, and motherhood had given her a new, mature beauty. "Masahiro is so lively, he wears me out," she said.
"You work too hard," Sano said between bites of fish. "Let the maids help with Masahiro."
"Oh, well. Masahiro keeps me busy." Reiko smiled, adding wistfully, "There's not much else for me to do."
Sano knew that Reiko, the only child of Magistrate Ueda, had enjoyed an unconventional girlhood. Her indulgent father had hired tutors to give her the education usually reserved for samurai sons bound for careers in the bakufu. Despite all her training, however, which extended even to the martial arts,women couldn't hold government posts or work as anything except servants, farm laborers, nuns, or prostitutes. Not until she married had Reiko found a use for her talents: helping Sano with his investigations.
She'd uncovered clues in places where male detectives couldn't go. She'd gathered information through a network composed of women associated with powerful samurai clans. Often her discoveries led to the solution of a case. But since Masahiro's arrival, Reiko had spent almost all her time at the estate. The child had occupied her, and there'd been no work for her in Sano's recent investigations.
"What did you do today?" Reiko asked.
The eager curiosity in her voice told Sano that she missed the challenge of detective work. Now he realized with consternation that she'd lost some of her spirit. That he hadn't noticed this before signified that they'd grown apart. Maybe a short break from housewifery would refresh Reiko and bring them closer together.
"I have a new case," Sano said. While he ate rice and pickled daikon, he told Reiko about the fire and the three deaths. He described his unsuccessful interrogation of Haru, then said, "From her behavior toward the fire brigade, the priests, Hirata, and myself, I believe she's afraid of men. I ordered her moved from the orphanage to the main convent at Zj Temple because I don't want potential suspects--as all the residents of the Black Lotus Temple are--to influence my only witness. I'd like you to go there and interview Haru."
Sano smiled at Reiko. "You're my only female detective, and I'm hoping that you can get some information from her. Do you want to try?"
Reiko sat up straight; her eyes sparkled, and she shed her weariness like a cast-off garment. "I would love to."
"I must warn you that Haru may not cooperate with you," Sano said, though pleased by Reiko's enthusiasm.
"Oh, I'm sure I can persuade her to talk. How soon can we go to the Black Lotus Temple?" Reiko looked ready to jump up and leave immediately.
"I have to go to Edo Morgue tomorrow," Sano said, "then make inquiries around town." Seeing Reiko's disappointed expression, he said, "But my detectives are going to Zj districtin the morning. They can escort you, if you like."
"Wonderful. I can hardly wait."
Reiko shimmered with happy energy. Sano saw in her the young bride who on their wedding day had pleaded to help solve a murder case, then forged ahead on her own after he'd refused. He felt a surge of love for her.
"All right," he said. "We can share our results in the evening."
A distant look came into Reiko's eyes, as if she'd mentally moved ahead in time to tomorrow. "This is a very important interview. I must be careful with Haru. Tell me everything about her, so I can decide how best to draw her out."
They discussed possible strategies, just as they had in the days before Masahiro. Sano realized he'd missed their partnership, and was glad he could include Reiko in the investigation.