Excerpt “Flask of the Drunken Master” by Susan Spann

Excerpt “Flask of the Drunken Master” by Susan Spann


Father Mateo leaned over the body. “is that the broken base of a sake flask?”

Hiro hoped the Jesuit wouldn’t ask about the mark.

“Yes,” the dōshin said. “the murder weapon—part of it, anyway.” Hiro circled the corpse and examined the shard.

Ginjiro bought his sake flasks from a potter who produced them for the brewer by special order. the flasks had a distinctive color, and each bore the brewer’s mark impressed in the base. the markings distinguished Ginjiro’s flasks, which never left the brewery, from the ones that customers brought for personal use.

“That is the brewer’s mark,” the dōshin said.

Hiro straightened. “A broken flask outside a brewery hardly marks the brewer as a killer.”

“I agree,” Father Mateo said. “Anyone could have stolen a flask or dropped it in the alley.”

“More importantly,” Hiro added, “delicate pottery would have shattered before causing so much damage to the victim. Unless, of course, the flask was full, but I see no sake on the body or the ground.”

The dōshin crossed his arms. “if it’s a coincidence, where’s the rest of the flask? We haven’t found any other pieces here.”

“You believe the killer took them with him,” Father Mateo said. Conveniently leaving the one with Ginjiro’s seal, Hiro thought. “Why would Ginjiro kill a man with a flask that bore his seal?”

Father Mateo rubbed his chin.

“Arguments happen,” the dōshin said. “Angry men don’t think before they act.”

“That’s a lot of assumptions for one dead body and one small shard from a sake flask,” Hiro said.

“Ginjiro didn’t kill Chikao.” Suke’s voice echoed through the alley as he entered. “I’m the killer.”

Hiro noted the dead man’s name and wondered how Suke knew it.

“Shut up, old man,” the dōshin said. “Go away before I arrest you.”

Hiro raised a hand and said, “We’re finished. We’ll walk him out.”

The shinobi took hold of Suke’s sleeve and led the monk back out to the street, where the yoriki stood talking with tomiko. Ginjiro’s wife stood nearby, but her glazed expression suggested inattention.

Hiro looked up the street and saw the dōshin lead Ginjiro out of sight around a corner. the brewer’s head hung low, like a man condemned.

Father Mateo followed Hiro’s gaze. “Where are they going?”

“To the magistrate,” the yoriki said. “the facts are clear and not disputed. Ginjiro argued with the victim yesterday evening. late last night, Chikao returned, and Ginjiro killed him.”

Hiro glanced at Father Mateo, expecting the priest to argue.

Suke struck a fighting pose. “You want guilt?” the monk demanded, curling his fingers into fists. “I’ll show you guilt!”

“Calm down,” Hiro said. “if you’re the killer, explain how it really happened.”

The yoriki sighed and shook his head, but Suke lowered his hands and said, “I will. I’ll tell you everything.”

The monk straightened his shoulders and raised his chin like a child about to confess to a youthful crime. “last night I sneaked a flask out of Ginjiro’s at closing time. I didn’t intend to steal it, I just wanted to finish the sake. I would have returned the flask in the morning.”

Suke paused as if concerned that Hiro might accuse him of stealing flasks. When the shinobi said nothing, the monk continued, “this morning, when I woke up, my flask was gone. I saw Chikao’s body and heard the dōshin say Ginjiro’s flask—the one I took—was the murder weapon. Clearly, I am the killer!”

The yoriki made a disgusted gesture. “Clearly, you were too drunk to hear a man being beaten to death beside you. We have listened to your story. Go away.”

Suke jumped forward and shoved the yoriki, catching him off guard. the samurai fell backward and sat down hard in the dusty street.

The dōshin, who had followed them from the alley, ran to Suke. He seized the monk by the arms.

Suke bowed his head. “I surrender,” he said quietly. “Deliver me to the magistrate for judgment.”

The yoriki stood up and brushed the dirt from his clothes. “Arrest him—but the charge is public drunkenness, nothing more.” “Nothing more!” the angry dōshin glared at Suke. “He assaulted you and confessed to murder.”

“He’s a drunk.” the yoriki removed a pebble from his sleeve.

“He wobbles like an infant and he smells like a brewery floor. I believe he spent the night in the alley. the rest of his story? Merely a drunkard’s dream.”

“But . . . the assault!” the dōshin protested as he tied a length of rope around Suke’s wrists. “this man attacked you.”

“You are mistaken. I stumbled and fell.” the yoriki paused to let his words sink in. “Now take him away, and send some bearers to carry Chikao home.”

“Don’t worry, tomiko,” Suke said as the dōshin led him away. “I’ll tell the magistrate what happened. Ginjiro will be home in time to open the shop tonight.”

Tomiko smiled weakly, as if unwilling to put much faith in Suke’s promise. She laid a hand on her mother’s arm and guided the older woman back to the brewery.

Hiro wanted to speak with Ginjiro’s family, but first he had some questions for the yoriki. “Where is Chikao’s brewery? Did the victim belong to the brewer’s guild?”

“Do not mistake my leniency for permission to investigate.” the yoriki finished brushing the dirt from his trousers. “The magistrate doesn’t need your help—or his.” The yoriki glanced at Father Mateo.

“What if we disagree with your assessment of the crime?” the Jesuit asked.

Hiro stifled a nearly overwhelming urge to drag the priest away from the scene by force. As usual, Father Mateo didn’t know when to hold his tongue.

The yoriki smiled, but his eyes were devoid of warmth. “then you will keep your disagreement to yourself.”

“Have I misunderstood the samurai code?” Father Mateo asked. “I thought honor required noble men to seek justice and act with mercy.”

“That argument might work with a samurai from the ruling clans,” the yoriki said. “But I see crimes, and criminals, every day. Justice does not mix with mercy where commoners are concerned.”

The yoriki started toward the alley, paused, and turned back to Hiro. “I expect cooperation—and discretion—from you both. Murder is a matter for the magistrate alone, especially now, with the city on alert. if you speak of this to anyone, I will ensure you share the killer’s fate.”

Hiro doubted the yoriki could carry out his threat, but knew better than to challenge him in public.

Father Mateo called after the yoriki, “Why insist on privacy? Unless, of course, you don’t intend an honest investigation.”



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