August 1565: When a rival artisan turns up dead outside Ginjiro’s brewery, and all the evidence implicates the brewer, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo must find the killer before the magistrate executes Ginjiro and seizes the brewery, leaving his wife and daughter destitute. A missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, and a female moneylender join Ginjiro and the victim’s spendthrift son on the suspect list. But with Kyoto on alert in the wake of the shogun’s recent death, a rival shinobi on the prowl, and samurai threatening Hiro and Father Mateo at every turn, Ginjiro’s life is not the only one in danger.
Will Hiro and Father Mateo unravel the clues in time to save Ginjiro’s life, or will the shadows gathering over Kyoto consume the detectives as well as the brewer?
Flask of the Drunken Master is the latest entry in Susan Spann’s thrilling 16th century Japanese mystery series, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Jesuit Father Mateo.
“Halt!” The armored samurai stepped forward to block the bridge. “No one crosses the Kamo River without identification. State your names and your business in Kyoto.”
Hattori Hiro gestured to the Jesuit at his side. “Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, a priest of the foreign god, from Portugal. I am Matsui Hiro, his interpreter and scribe.”
After a pause, Hiro added, “Our business in the capital has not changed since yesterday. As you know, we live just up the road.”
The samurai pointed east, away from the bridge. “You live two blocks past Okazaki Shrine, beyond the official boundary of Kyoto. You cannot enter the city without declaring your names and business. That, also, has not changed since yesterday.”
Hiro considered pointing out that only a fool asked for identification from men he recognized. However, he didn’t bother. Men who followed orders blindly didn’t respond to logic, and Hiro, a shinobi assassin, didn’t waste time on fools.
“You’ve stopped us every morning for a week,” Hiro said, “and yet, our names and business have not changed.”
“Surely you remember us—your words suggest you do,” Father Mateo said in perfect Japanese.
The Jesuit’s skill with the Japanese language often made Hiro wonder why few people questioned the priest’s continuing use of a translator. After three years in Japan, Father Mateo spoke and understood the language well.
Fortunately, most Japanese natives believed their language and culture far too nuanced for a foreigner to master. Hiro knew this also—it was one of many factors he depended on to shield his true identity and his mission to protect the Jesuit’s life.
“I have orders.” The samurai glanced over his shoulder as if expecting to see someone behind him.
Hiro’s attitude softened a fraction. Many men obeyed unreasonable orders out of fear, and Matsunaga Hisahide, the samurai who controlled Kyoto, inspired well-founded fear in all who served him.
“Noodles,” Hiro said.
The samurai’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Excuse me … noodles?”
“Our business in Kyoto,” Hiro said without a smile. “Do we have to show a travel pass to eat a morning snack?”
The samurai’s cheeks flushed almost as dark as the crimson armor that covered his chest. “No,” he said, “but I need not apologize for following orders.”
“Not to me,” Hiro said. “However, this priest has the emperor’s personal permission to enter and leave Kyoto without restriction, and, unless I am mistaken, the emperor outranks Matsunaga Hisahide.”
Technically, Father Mateo worked in Kyoto under a blanket permission granted to all the Jesuits, but Hiro hoped his companion would cooperate with the bluff.
The samurai’s mouth opened and shut like a fish hooked out of the river beneath the bridge. He bowed. “I apologize, Father-san. I did not know.”
“If you wish to keep your job,” Hiro said, “I suggest you learn to distinguish between genuine threats and imagined ones.”
As Hiro followed the priest across the bridge, he considered the irony in his parting words. Despite his current position as the Jesuit’s bodyguard, Hiro’s shinobi training made him a dangerous threat indeed.
Father Mateo said nothing until they started south on the road that paralleled the river bank.
“You know what I think of lies.” The priest spoke softly to ensure the samurai wouldn’t overhear.
Hiro put on an innocent look. “I told no lies.”
“Permission to work in Kyoto hardly equates to unfettered movement.” Father Mateo frowned at Hiro. “You stretched the truth on purpose to intimidate that young man.”
“I wouldn’t have had to do it if he exercised discretion.” Hiro disapproved of men who flexed their power without cause. “We have tolerated his arrogance long enough.”
Father Mateo’s lips drew into a disapproving line.
The men walked on in silence.
The clear blue sky and pleasant summer temperature soon lightened Hiro’s mood. By the time they turned east on Sanjō Road, the priest’s good temper seemed to return as well.
A few minutes later, they reached the road where Hiro’s favorite noodle vendor frequently set up his wheeled cart. Shuttered sake shops and restaurants lined the narrow street. The last of the patrons would have straggled home just hours earlier, as dawn began to kiss the eastern sky. Fortunately for the hungry shinobi, vendors opened earlier than sake shops and restaurants. Charcoal smoke and the oily odor of roasting fish already filled the air.
Hiro’s mouth watered at the thought of handmade noodles in a savory, fishy broth. He spotted the vendor almost at once and had to restrain his pace to keep from hurrying toward the cart. A samurai never hurried. Not even for the tastiest udon Kyoto had to offer.
The vendor greeted Hiro with a deep, respectful bow and a happy grin. “Good morning, Matsui-san. So nice to see you!”
“Good morning, Kenji.” Samurai didn’t bow to vendors, but Hiro’s use of the merchant’s name conveyed respect.
“Two bowls this morning?” Kenji asked as he bowed to Father Mateo.
Hiro nodded and reached for his purse. As he withdrew it from his kimono, he heard shouting at the far end of the block.
“Arrest me!” a reedy voice screeched. “I’m the guilty one, not him!”
Hiro recognized the voice. He wished he hadn’t.
The shouts continued. “I’m the murderer, you fool! Why won’t you listen?!”
Hiro felt his noodles slip away as he turned in the direction of the sound.
Half a block to the south, a samurai stood alone in the narrow street. The man wore a colorful surcoat, cut the style favored by yoriki—the assistant magistrates who supervised lower-ranked policemen known as dōshin.
Hiro frowned. If a yoriki left his office before noon, someone was either dead or being arrested.
A bald-headed monk in a stained brown robe jumped up and down in front of the yoriki. “Listen to me!” he yelled. “I’m a dangerous man!”
The yoriki stepped around the monk as a pair of dōshin emerged from a nearby brewery. The policemen held the arms of a brewer who walked with a lowered head and sagging shoulders. Hiro couldn’t tell if the merchant’s posture suggested guilt or merely embarrassment.
Years of training told the shinobi to turn away and ignore the scene.
But Hiro’s conscience wouldn’t let him do it. He recognized the monk who hopped and danced around the yoriki. More importantly, he knew the brewer walking between the dōshin.
The man was named Ginjiro—and Hiro owed him a personal debt.
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About the Author
Susan Spann acquired her love of books and reading during her preschool days in Santa Monica, California. As a child she read everything from National Geographic to Agatha Christie. In high school, she once turned a short-story assignment into a full-length fantasy novel (which, fortunately, will never see the light of day).
A yearning to experience different cultures sent Susan to Tufts University in Boston, where she immersed herself in the history and culture of China and Japan. After earning an undergraduate degree in Asian Studies, Susan diverted to law school. She returned to California to practice law, where her continuing love of books has led her to specialize in intellectual property, business and publishing contracts.
Susan’s interest in Japanese history, martial arts, and mystery inspired her to write the Shinobi Mystery series featuring Hiro Hattori, a sixteenth-century ninja who brings murderers to justice with the help of Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, martial arts, horseback riding, online gaming, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her highly distracting marine aquarium. Susan lives in Sacramento with her husband, son, three cats, one bird, and a multitude of assorted aquatic creatures.