The 13th Samurai, Act 1, Scene 3

Masaru used a short wooden pole to pick up the iron pot of soup, taking it away from the fire. With a nod of his head, Masaru motioned for Ichiro to place a nearby lid on top of the pot. There was not so much to worry about the soup getting cold, but rather the boiling hot liquid sloshing out and burning the cook. With the long, winding passageways inside Castle Edo, this was a daily risk for all of the cooks.

As Masaru stepped left foot then right, then left again, his barefoot toes felt the lay of the cobblestones leading upward. The pathways were long and winding. Around every corner or bend in the path were small alcoves inset at varying heights, perfect defensive positions for the Samurai loyal to the Shogun. Torches lit much but not all of the cobbled stone walkways, their smoke hindering visibility at times. Masaru, however, had made the daily journey so often the obstacles meant nothing. He just needed to be careful.

A voice behind him asked “Which way? I am confused?”

It was Masaru’s new assistant cook. The man was trying to find his way to the main entrance of the castle so he could venture out to the markets and obtain more fresh vegetables. Spy or assassin, it mattered not to Masaru since at best the man would return with vegetables needed for the dinner. At worst, he would fall victim to one of the false passageways, those leading to nowhere.

Some of those routes were ascending, others dropping steeply. Invaders assuming the elevated paths would lead to the Shogun would find themselves at a walled-in summit guarded by archers aiming their arrows downward. Survivors, if any, might have tried to escape down one of the other paths, but there deep pits awaited.

Masaru told his assistant to stay on the level pathways. He warned going up would get him lost for hours; downward in any fashion and he would never be found.

Ichiro gave another short bow, then picked up his empty sack and went on his way. This simple errand, albeit a necessary one, would allow Masaru enough time to speak to the Shogun. He dared not speak to anyone else. Especially to Kira.

Arriving at the antechamber of the Shogun’s dining room, Masaru set the pot on the table, removing the wooden handle and stowing it away in the folds of his kimono as a Samurai would. Masaru had no formal training in weaponry but had seen enough martial training to know the short pole would make for a decent club in a fight. With a Samurai hiding in his kitchen, Masaru wanted to take no chances. There could be more.

The door opened.

It was Kira, followed by a man whose wrists were cuffed in irons. Two Samurai entered and stood behind the man. The daily ritual had begun.

“Masaru, do you assert this soup has not been poisoned?” Ichiro rattled off the words just as he had done every day for the past several years. Masaru knew the game. If the soup actually did contain poison, once the body of the food taster had been taken away, Masaru would be the next taste tester whether he wanted to be or not.

“The soup is just as the Shogun prefers. There is no poison in it.” Turning to the shackled man now sitting at the table, Masaru continued. “Do not worry. You will eat better here than if you had been sent to the mines on Sado.”

“Yes,” Kira added. “And perhaps live longer. But for now, taste the soup, thief.”

There was no effort made to remove the iron handcuffs from the prisoner’s wrists. Instead, one of the Samurai dipped a small wooden bowl into the soup pot, then pushed the bowl up to the man’s mouth. As soup spilled over the reluctant diner’s face, the second Samurai drew his katana.

The sound of the metal blade being withdrawn from its sheath was enough to convince the man to swallow.

The room fell silent as everyone waited.

Beads of sweat formed on the man’s brow. His tongue smacked against the inside of his cheeks and teeth. The soup had scalded his mouth. As he gasped for breath in an effort to bring relief to his blistering skin, Kira pulled the man’s head back by the hair.

“Let me look into your eyes, thief. Do I see death? Or not.”

Masaru decided enough was enough and used his leverage with the Shogun to move things along. “He is not dead. Let me bring the Shogun his lunch before it gets cold. You know how he is intolerable of cold soup. Or should I tell him you wanted to play with the thief while the meal cooled?”

“Do not try my patience, cook. The Shogun may be your benefactor now, but he is old. The next Shogun may not be so, so friendly, to one of such a lower class.”

Masaru did not reply, instead inserting the pole back into the pot. On his way through the doorway leading to the Shogun’s private room, Masaru let the pole slip just slightly to one side. He had cooked more soup than the Shogun would normally want and he had done so intentionally. Kira’s left leg received an unexpected cleansing.

Birds roosting on the highest points of the castle wall took flight; farmers stopped their carts. And Masaru wondered if the Jesuit heard the devil’s cry?

♦ ♦ ♦

How did Dickens do it?

 

What if little Oliver Twist had crowd-sourced funding for better gruel at the workhouse? Such was the unlikely anachronism pondered as I sought (for a while) Internet access at the coffee shop this morning. After one large Americano, the connection finally ‘connected’ and the research of the day began. Of course, I soon became distracted and found myself reading. Is that so bad? And it involved Charles Dickens, not just any hack.

I had stumbled across The Dickens Fellowship. I know, I know, almost every famous author now long gone has some sort of fan club or society bent on preserving their literary works, so why wouldn’t Charles have one, too?

Thanks to server issues, though, I did not have much time to peruse. So sometime soon, in my spare time (ha) I will check out the website. It did seem to have a large amount of peer-reviewed information on a writer who is arguably one of the best we have seen. Not sure how if Charles Dickens will figure into my next novel, or the current sequel on renegade Samurai, but you never know.

Interesting to note, there are TDF chapters all over the world. Most of the major hubs have them. There are groups meeting in Sydney, Toronto, London (of course) and then there’s Tokyo. But wait? Denton, too? As in Denton, Texas?

If you are a jazz educator, or appreciate jazz education, you know about Denton, Texas and their local university (University of North Texas, formerly North Texas State University) home to the legendary One O’Clock Lab Band. If you have never heard the band play, in any of its iterations, you should. You’ll become a fan.

But a Dickens Fellowship chapter, too? Kudos, Dentonites. You are one up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

That may change eventually, but for now, I am happy to have found a good source of information on one of my favorite authors.

Cue segue to today’s teachable moment:

And as many of us prepare for November’s writer-slogfest called Nanowrimo, let me remind everyone that you may have a lot going on in your life, and these things take up a lot of your time. I know that. You know that. We all know that. But if you really want to write, you can do it. Take a minute, visit the Dickens Fellowship website and read about the environment Dickens grew up in, lived as an adult in, and wrote in.

And Charles Dickens did not have the help of the Internet.

How did he do it?

Americanos hadn’t been invented yet. He just buckled down and started writing.

And we can, too.

Okay, pep talk over. Back to the ink well, people. The outline for The Milk Chocolate Murders is coming along nicely. This weekend is another round of research for The 13th Samurai (posting on Sunday evening, hopefully) and I just queried a new lit agent about The Apple Pie Alibi. And bonus: I have already found a good killer for the third and final part of the Winnie Kepler series, working title The Wedding Cake Witness.

That’s enough for me. For now.

What are you doing?

The 13th Samurai – Act 1, Scene 2

“Do you not speak, Ichiro?” Masaru ignored the weapon for the moment and tried to focus on his new assistant’s eyes. What was this new man’s intent?

Masaru’s mother had once said a killer had the gaze of a normal person until the decision had been made to take a life. She knew from painful experience being one of two survivors of a near-massacre at the hands of drunken ronin, Samurai who no longer had a master. Masaru, a babe in her arms at the time, was the other survivor.

“Why does Yamato Kira fear you?” Ichiro retorted as he sliced the yellow carrots with deliberate, slow strokes of his blade.

Masaru broke a few pieces of dried kombu and added it to the devil’s tongue soup. The saltiness of the kelp harvested from the northern island of Hokkaido would give the soup the balance all dishes required.

“Kira does not fear me. He despises me.” Masaru had no other way to say the truth.

“Yet he lets you cook for the Shogun. Is he not afraid you will poison your master?”

Masaru’s mind, honed to a sharp edge of skepticism and wariness from twenty years of living in Castle Edo, began to question the assistant cook’s motivation. Why does this man ask these questions? With each stroke of Ichiro’s knife slicing through the sturdy root vegetables, Masaru knew his interest would became obsessive.

He noticed the pieces of carrot falling over in rhythmic succession. If Ichiro had anything to do with a plot to kill either the Shogun or Kira, perhaps Masaru could force a sign of recognition.

“It is no secret,” Masaru said. “Besides, there are those who will taste all of the food before it reaches the Shogun. I would say if anyone is in danger, it is Kira, not the Shogun.”

The knife did not waiver. The carrots continued to fall, one after another like the low-pitched ringing of the bonsho bell calling the Buddhist monks to prayer.

Masaru would need to stay alert. Something was not right. The Shogun had always treated him and his late mother well, almost like family. Masaru felt an obligation to protect the Shogun if he could, as if the army of loyal Samurai were not capable. He rationalized his thought by telling himself he was on the inside of the castle; most of the Samurai guarded the outside. What if the enemy were within?

Ichiro had finished preparing the vegetables and asked what else was needed. When Masaru turned around to answer, he noticed the man’s knife had already been secured out of sight, save the tip of the handle sticking out just below the edge of the man’s sleeve. A scar, small, probably a burn from cooking somewhere else Masaru assumed, was visible as well.

Ichiro noticed his mistake and pulled his sleeve down enough to cover the knife handle. He studied Masaru’s reaction, trying to decide if his secret had been discovered.

“Hataka Masaru-Itamae, I am just here to do a job, hoping to earn respect from my family. If there are enemies within Castle Edo, I know them not.”

Masaru was not sure how to respond. First, the man had bowed when he arrived, an unexpected sign of respect. Now he addressed Masaru with a title – Itamae, meaning head cook. Masaru considered himself a decent cook, but knew for some reason the Shogun kept him employed only because of his mother. Had the ruler desired more fanciful meals, the Shogun would out of necessity need to hire someone else.

“Indeed, Ichiro. In that endeavor we are all employed.”

Masaru pierced the devil’s tongue noodles with his own knife. The soup was done. Placing the lid on the iron pot, Masaru thought about his conversation with the Shogun. Would he advise him of the Samurai in the private kitchen? Is the Shogun even the target of an assassination plot? What if Ichiro was telling the truth?

Masaru opened his pouch and removed his omamori. It was time to make a decision, a choice that would affect him the rest of his life. And more than likely a decision that would directly influence how long his life would be.

My new weekly serial!

After much research, and with more to come I am sure, here is the first installment of my new historical thriller. This story will be loosely based on the true events of the legendary 47 Ronin (Samurai without a master) who, in 1703 Edo Japan exacted revenge for the unjust killing of their master in order to uphold the ethos of the true Samurai.

And of course, food will play an important part in the story. It’s how I roll. (Pun intended, sorry.)

 

The Thirteenth Samurai

By D.J. Lutz

Hataka Masaru stirred the devil’s tongue, and wondered which guest at tonight’s dinner would not live the night.

If the rumors were true at least one head would be sitting atop a pike, waiting to see the morning sun rise over Castle Edo. The cook stopped stirring the noodles and said a quick prayer in hopes it would not be his own head.

Masaru added a few sprigs of scallion to the soup with one hand, the other slowly reaching for the small omamori given to him by the Shinto priest. He knew using the amulet was a tradition for most all Japanese, but the Jesuit missionary residing in Kirishitan Tashiki had warned him against depending on such trinkets. Masaru’s recent conversion to Christianity was a certain death sentence – seppuku by choice or force. He stirred faster, hoping no one had seen him conversing earlier with the sole religious prisoner in Edo.

There was little time to mentally debate the issue of a stranger’s one god to the many Masaru knew. The loud voice of someone coming down the steps into the kitchen took him by surprise. Back into his belt satchel went the rectangular piece of wood. Masaru looked up, hoping the Jesuit’s god would protect him, too.

Two men entered the room. The first bowed to Masaru. The man was a farm worker, perhaps some other basic laborer. Masaru could only judge by the man’s plain clothing and stooped posture. The bow, slow in movement and long in duration, was a display of honor the Shogun’s personal cook was not accustomed to receiving.

Masaru gave a slight bend at the waist to reciprocate. The other man stood tall and strained to look down upon Masaru. This man was no stranger to the cook. Yamato Kira was the highest advisor to the Shogun and it bewildered Masaru as to why a man of such high position would be in the kitchen.

“This is Ichiro. He will be your assistant. The other cooks will also be receiving help, but do not get used to it. The Daiymo will be visiting the castle soon and the Shogun wants the food to be perfect. Ichiro has been hired only for this occasion.”

Masaru gave another quick bow to his new companion. Turning back to Kira, he said “When will the Daiymo arrive? And what shall we serve them?” Unlike many of the courtisans, the Shogun wanted a very simple diet of brown rice and vegetables; Masaru was confused by the sudden change.

Kira did not reply at first, instead he turned about and stepped toward the doorway. As he reached the portal, he slowed his gait, finally stopping to answer. And, as if still bothered by the fact he had to be there at all, the man did not fully turn around to recognize Masaru. He spoke to the stone wall.

“They have already started to arrive. Cook what you normally prepare, just adjust the quantity for more people. There will be twenty Daiymo from western Honshu. They prefer seafood so you will have to go find some. Ichiro will prepare the rice and vegetables while you are gone.”

Masaru was relieved. There had been no mention of the Jesuit; this was a simple matter of the Shogun entertaining the Daiymo again. Masaru knew the Shogun wanted to expand the castle and to do so meant more supplies and labor would be needed from the provincial warlords. Good food would make the tasking less problematic.

There had been rumors of the Daiymo being upset with recent land divisions, particularly the issue of Saito Takeji and how his domain was divided. The Shogun had decreed Takeji guilty of drawing his katana within the walls of the castle, and also of attempting to kill one of the higher classes. After Takeji’s death, his land was divided up among the more favored Daiymo, not the customary neighboring factions.

Masaru noticed a scar on Kira’s left cheek. If only Saito Takeji had been successful, he thought, the Shogun would have one less advisor plotting against him. Masaru could prove none of his theories, and so for now he worried about preparing the meals. The cooking would be easy enough, however, since Masaru’s mother had taught him the basics when she was in charge of the castle’s kitchens. Once his mother had gone with the ancients, Masaru had been given the Shogun’s kitchen as his own domain. Masaru had his place with the Shogun, and he was content as long as Kira stayed away.

“Thank you, Yamato Kira. We will not disappoint the Shogun.”

The words echoed through the damp, stone walls as Kira had already disappeared into the labyrinth of passageways leading to the main floor of Castle Edo. Looking at his new assistant, Masaru asked the newcomer if he knew how to chop vegetables.

Ichiro nodded, then slowly drew a short knife from within his left sleeve. Masaru recognized the blade, a kaiken. Only Samurai used such weapons. Ichiro was not the downtrodden farmer Masaru had envisioned earlier.

Yes, tonight there would be bloodshed at Castle Edo.

 

 

On Orwell, Guacamole, and Labor Day

I guess working on a holiday is par for the course for many people. I did it every single holiday, and them some, during my last career. But today, Labor Day in the US, I have the day off. So quick review -what have I done and/or plan to do on this day of rest?

Made coffee and breakfast

Cleaned the kitchen

Made guacamole using Alton Brown’s recipe

Cleaned the kitchen

Vacuumed the stairs, the upstairs hallway, and the master bedroom

Took apart and cleaned the vacuum cleaner (in the kitchen)

Cleaned the kitchen

Cleaned the guest bathroom and the upstairs second bathroom

Brushed the dogs

Played with the dogs

Ate chips and guacamole for lunch

(I’m waiting to clean the kitchen again.)

Next up: writing the first installment of The 13th Samurai. (I’ll do anything to keep from cleaning that stupid kitchen again.)

I hope your holiday, if you are celebrating one that is, is a good one. Don’t channel George Orwell and work too hard on Labor Day.

And if you make Alton’s guacamole, make sure you have something cool to drink nearby. Just a thought.

 

New Lit Review – call for submissions!

Want to get in on the ground floor of something that may become big?

Check out this new literary review, The World Unknown Review, being created by published author, L.S. Engler. The thought is to feature indie writers, new writers, heck – writers who write! Is that you?

And it pays.

Not a tremendous sum, but enough to keep you in grande Americanos for a week or so. And for me, that’s enough reason to enter right there. This is an ambitious project and I wish L.S. the best.  (I know the work involved. I had seriously considered creating a mystery review once. More work than the money warrants, but a work of love it is.)

And if you haven’t read any of her stuff, you should. I did. And still do. L.S. Engler is a very talented young writer who will go places. Be a part of the ride and send in your short stories today. Deadline is October 31st.

Go ahead – start writing!

 

Help me find a cure for Crohn’s

Hi everyone,

This is not the normal post for this blog. In fact, I have copied and pasted this post onto all three of my blogs in order to get the word out. I am only doing this once. No worries, the start of The 13th Samurai is on the way, as are new recipes and restaurant reviews for the food blogs.

So what am I asking?

The teenaged daughter of a co-worker has been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I won’t scare you with all the details, but suffice to say this was not in her college prep plan. I guess there’s never a good time, is there?

Several of us at work have come together and formed a team to raise money on this girl’s behalf. We will be walking several miles at a fundraiser in late September. Please consider using this link and donating a few dollars. A cure is coming; we want our dollars to help find it sooner rather than later.

Thank you.

D.J.