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  Black Lotus by . . .
Laura Joh Rowland
"Another fascinating entry in an excellent historical series."
— Claire White/WritersWrite Reviews on BLACK LOTUS


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Excerpt from BLACK LOTUS

Prologue

Cover: Black Lotus by Laura Joh RowlandEdo, Genroku Period, Year 6, Month 8 (Tokyo, September 1693)

The day of tragedy dawned with an iridescent sheen in the eastern sky. As the heavens gradually lightened from indigo to slate blue, stars disappeared; the moon's crescent faded. The dim outlines of forested hills framed Zojo Temple, administrative seat of the Buddhist Pure Land sect in Shiba, south of Edo Castle. Across a vast tract of land spread the domain of ten thousand priests, nuns, and novices who occupied the more than one hundred buildings of Zojo proper and the forty-eight smaller subsidiary temples clustered around it. Above countless tiled and thatched roofs soared the tiered spires of pagodas and the open framework structures of fire-watch towers. The Zojo Temple district was a city within a city, deserted and silent in the waning darkness.

On the platform of a fire-watch tower stood a lone figure in the unpopulated landscape: a young priest with a shaven head, a round, innocent face, and keen-sighted eyes. His saffron robe billowed in the cool early autumn wind that carried the scent of fallen leaves and nightsoil. His high perch afforded him a splendid view of the narrow lanes, walled compounds, and courtyards that comprised the district.

"Namu Amida Butsu," the priest repeated over and over again. "Praise to the Buddha."

The chant would insure his entry into paradise after his death, but also served the practical purpose of keeping him alert during a long night of guarding the religious community against Edo's most dangerous hazard: fire. The priest's stomach rumbled with hunger; still chanting, he stretched his cold, stiff muscles and longed for food, a hot bath, and a warm bed. Looking forward to the end of his vigil, he turned slowly on the platform.

Around him revolved the panorama of morning. As the sky brightened to luminous pearl, colors appeared in the landscape: green foliage and multihued flowerbeds in gardens; scarlet woodwork on buildings; white monuments in cemeteries; the hazy violet mirrors of ponds. The first tentative waking trills of birds rose to a chorus of songs. Sparrows darted over the peaked and gabled roofs; pigeons cooed and fluttered in the eaves; crows winged in the blue distance above the hills, against rosy wisps of cloud. It would be a clear, warm day. Another night had passed safely. Yet even as the thought soothed the priest's mind, his sharp gaze sighted an aberration in the tranquil scene.

A small, dark cloud hovered low over the western sector of the district. While the priest watched, it thickened and spread with disturbing speed. Now he smelled the bitter tang of smoke. Frantically, he pulled the rope that dangled from inside the roof of his tower. The brass alarm bell clanged, echoing across the district.

Fire!

#

The insistent ringing of a bell jarred her from deep, black unconsciousness into dazed stupor. She lay facedown on the ground, with damp, fragrant grass pressed against her nose and cheek. Where was she? Panic shot through her, followed by the certainty that something was terribly wrong. Pushing herself up on her elbows, she groaned. Her head throbbed with pain; soreness burned on her buttocks and calves, between her thighs, around her neck. Aches permeated her muscles. The world spun in a dizzying blur. Thick, acrid air filled her lungs. Coughing, she fell back on the ground and lay still until the dizziness passed. Then she rolled over, looking around in bewilderment as her surroundings came into focus.

Tall pine trees pierced the dim blue sky above her. Smoke veiled stone lanterns and orange lilies in the garden where she lay. She smelled smoke and heard the crackle of fire. Moaning, she sat upright. Nausea assailed her; the pain in her head intensified, and she covered her ears to muffle the loud clangs of the bell. Then she saw the house, some twenty paces distant, beyond red maples circling a pond.

It was a rustic, one-story cottage built of plaster and weathered cypress, with bamboo lattice over the windows and deep eaves shading the veranda. Fire licked the foundations and crept up the walls, curling and blackening the paper windowpanes. The thatched roof ignited in an explosion of sparks and flame. Instinctively she opened her mouth to call for help. Then the first hint of returning memory stifled her voice to a whimper of dread. Through her mind flashed disjointed impressions: a harsh voice; the taste of tears; a lantern glowing in a dark room; loud thumps and crashes; a violent thrashing of naked limbs; her own running feet and fumbling hands. But how had she arrived here?

Baffled, she examined herself for clues. Her brown muslin kimono was wrinkled and her long black hair tangled; her bare feet were dirty, her fingernails torn and grimy. She struggled to piece the fragmented recollections into a comprehensible whole, but terror obliterated the images. The burning house radiated menace. A sob rose from her aching throat.

She knew what had happened, yet she did not know.

#

As the fire bell pealed its urgent call, an army of priests clad in leather capes and helmets, carrying buckets, ladders, and axes, raced through the crooked lanes of Zojo Temple district. A burgeoning cloud of black smoke rose from one of the subsidiary temples enclosed in separate walled compounds. The fire brigade stormed through the gate, whose portals bore the circular symbol of a black lotus flower with pointed petals and gold stamens. Inside, priests and novice monks stampeded the lanes between the temple's many buildings, up the broad central flagstone path leading to the main hall, toward the rear of the compound and the source of the smoke. Children from the orphanage followed in a chattering, excited flock. Nuns in hemp robes chased after the orphans, trying in vain to herd them away from danger.

"Let us through!" ordered the fire brigade commander, a muscular priest with stern features.

He led his troops through the chaos, around the main hall and past smaller buildings, into a wooded area. Beyond a cemetery of stone grave markers, he saw flames through the trees. The priests of the Black Lotus Temple had formed a line from a cylindrical stone well, along a gravel path, and across a garden to the burning house. They passed buckets down the line and hurled water at the fire, which had climbed the timbers and engulfed the walls. The fire brigade quickly positioned ladders to convey water to the blazing roof.

"Is anyone in the building?" shouted the commander.

Either no one knew or no one heard him over the fire's roar and the din of voices. Accompanied by two men, he ran up the steps to the veranda and opened the door. Smoke poured out. Coughing, he and his companions fastened the face protectors of their helmets over their noses and mouths. They groped through the smoke, down a short corridor, through fierce heat. The house contained two rooms, divided by burning lattice and paper partitions. Flaming thatch dropped through the rafters. The commander rushed through the open door of the nearest room. Dense, suffocating smoke filled the small space. Amid the indistinct shapes of furniture, a human figure lay on the floor.

"Carry it out!" the commander ordered.

While his men complied, he sped to the second room. There, the fire raged up the walls and across the tatami mats. The heat seared the commander's face; his eyes stung. From the threshold he spied two figures lying together in the corner, one much smaller than the other. Burning clothing enveloped them. Shouting for assistance, the commander waded through the fire and beat his thick leather sleeves against the bodies to extinguish the flames. His men came and helped him carry the two inert burdens out of the house, just before the roof collapsed with a great crash.

Away from the other priests still fighting the blaze, they laid the bodies on the ground beside the one previously carried out. Choking and coughing, the commander gratefully inhaled the cool, fresh air. He wiped his streaming eyes and knelt beside the victims. They lay motionless, and had probably been dead before he'd entered the house. The first was a large, naked samurai with a paunchy stomach; knotted gray hair looped over his shaved crown. There were no burns on him. But the other two . . .

The commander winced at the sight of their blistered, blackened faces. Breasts protruded through the shreds of charred cloth clinging to the larger corpse: It was a woman. The last victim was a very young child. With its hair burned away and the remains of a blanket swaddling its body, the commander couldn't discern its sex or exact age.

Priests and nuns gathered near the sad tableau. Shocked cries arose from them, then the click of rosary beads as they began chanting prayers. Someone passed the commander three white funeral shrouds. He murmured a blessing for the spirits of the deceased, then tenderly covered the bodies.

#

Lying huddled behind a boulder, she watched the priests continue throwing water on the house while the fire brigade hacked apart the burning shell with axes. The flames and smoke had diminished; ruined walls and timbers steamed; the odor of charred wood filled the air. Soon the fire would be out. But she felt neither relief nor any desire to call out to the firemen, who were walking around the site, examining the wreckage. She saw their worried expressions. In her confusion and terror, she felt an overwhelming urge to flee.

She raised herself on her elbows and knees. Her throbbing head spun. Nausea convulsed her stomach; she retched, but nothing came up. Moaning, she crawled. Her body felt enormously heavy and cumbersome as she dragged herself across the ground, her lungs gasping. She mustn't let anyone find her here. She had to get away. Gritting her teeth against pain and sickness, she inched across coarse white gravel and damp lawn, toward shadowy woods and the temple's back gate.

Then she heard purposeful footsteps approaching from behind her. Strong hands lifted her up, turned her around. She found herself looking at a fireman in leather robe and helmet. His stern face was daubed with soot; his eyes were red.

"What are you doing here, little girl?" he demanded.

His accusing glare sent tremors of fear through her. Whimpering, she writhed and kicked in a feeble attempt to escape, but he held her tight. She tried to speak, but panic choked her voice; her heart pounded. Dizziness overcame her. The world grew dim and hazy. As she descended into unconsciousness, her captor's face blurred.

She wished she had a good answer to his question.

Chapter 1

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 Ichiro 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 stirred uncomfortably 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. Zojo 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, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi was a devout Buddhist, a generous patron of religion, and took a strong personal interest in the Zojo 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 sosakan-sama--Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People--Sano had served on Edo's police force as a yoriki, 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 ronin, 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 the arson 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 fast; 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 became a fad 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 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. "Will you keep 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 advisor 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 he adored, 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."

Tokugawa 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 repeated 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 Tokugawa 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 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. However, despite all her training, which extended 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 Zojo 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?"

"Do I!" Reiko sat up straight; her eyes sparkled, and she shed her weariness like a cast-off garment. "I would love to! How I've been longing for some adventure!"

"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 Zojo district in 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 very 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.

 

Excerpt from BLACK LOTUS
©Laura Joh Rowland, 2001
Published by St. Martin's Press




"Laura Joh Rowland has written another triumphant novel that will thrill mystery and historical fiction readers who will feel they traveled back in time."
—Harriet Klausner on BLACK LOTUS

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