Urashima Book 3 The Red Rose by Steven Salazar by Steven Salazar - Read Online

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Urashima Book 3 The Red Rose - Steven Salazar

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CHAPTER 1

WEDNESDAY JANUARY 7th dawned in a flurry of snow. Kazuyoshi Ueda opened his eyes, realized what day it was and immediately tried to go back to sleep.

So it hadn't been a dream, then? The meeting he'd had in that strange teahouse place with Father's friend- The Professor- and his fancy foreign robes and cigarettes? There was something odd about that man. He certainly knew a lot about the war in China for someone who'd never been there. But what really bothered Ueda was the business about the crabs. Why go to the trouble of importing your own and risking a dockside fight with Kanemoto's Korean gang when you could buy as many as you wanted at the Tsukiji fish market for a mere ten per cent mark up? It wasn't as if The Professor was strapped for cash-.

The very thought of venturing down into the docks filled Ueda with trepidation. Kanemoto must surely know he was running with Obuchi's people now; that he'd taken a leading part in that street fight back in December and that he, personally, had been the one who'd sent The Snake¹ to meet his maker. Ueda burrowed deeper into his futon, not at all happy with the way events were turning out. If he'd known about the crabs beforehand, he'd have happily returned his suit and shoes and gone back to his old frayed army drabs. This new life of his, though seemingly glamorous, was already getting complicated. 

And then he heard a mewing sound and Neko's furry head came into view. What you doin' in here? he said in the high-pitched voice he reserved especially for cats. Are you cold, too? He stroked his little companion and thought once more about the miserable situation he was in. How can I get out of it? he asked Neko. I've told everyone about my new job, shown off my new clothes. I'd lose all face if I backed out now! And it wasn't as if he was afraid of Kanemoto's thugs. One on one, he could lick any of them. But on his own, against a group of them? He knew he had no chance. 

The kitten nuzzled him as if understanding his predicament. You want your breakfast, don't you? Reluctantly Ueda hauled himself out of bed and prepared a mess of cold rice and dried fish for the cat. There was nothing for him so he decided to go down to the cobbler's brazier to warm himself until the journeyman's eating-house on the corner opened its doors. 

He returned later, feeling a lot better. Two bowls of rice and a dish of fermented bean soup had cheered him up and he resolved to make the best of whatever was to come. It's in the lap of the gods! he assured himself. I'll just try to forget about it and what will be, will be!

So he went to the oshireiri- the futon cupboard with the sliding doors- and pulled out his father's sword. He sat cross-legged on the floor, and withdrawing it from its scabbard, he placed the hilt reverentially in the bowl of his groin and set happily to work on the blade with the sharpening stones and oils he'd bought from the ironmonger's the previous week. He started from the base, the way his father had taught him, and soon became so absorbed in his task that he became oblivious of both the cold and the hour.

Shard by minute shard, he restored to the blade its youth and splendor, paring the rust away from the steel and grinding at the three little serrations on the tip, until they, too, had completely disappeared. When he was satisfied, he took the choji- the clove oil- and began working it lightly into the blue-black steel until it glowed with a lustrous sheen. Finally, the handle. He discarded the frayed cord and re-bound it with new, working the threads tightly together so that the grip was entirely slip-proof.

Six hours later, he was finished. His aching eyes feasted on the naked katana as it shimmered in the dull light of his room. And that's when he became aware that there was now a bond between him and the sword, a kind of electric charge that hadn't existed before. It was as if the sword was acknowledging the work he'd done on its behalf and wanted to repay him.

He eased it carefully back into the scabbard, wrapped it in the cheesecloth then returned it to the cupboard. What to do now? He felt strangely energized, not tired at all. He wandered over to the window. Down in the alley, the cobbler had some customers but elsewhere business looked slack. His mind turned to Eri. Where was she now, he wondered. Almost certainly sitting around Ogawa's noodle cart, warming herself next to the coals of his brazier. Ueda scowled; he needed to make up with the whore, needed to let her know he was sorry. Maybe if he told her about his new job, told her he was no longer the one to take money from her, she might change her mind about him. He resolved to put on his new clothes and head straight over there. He could even have something to eat.

§

It was just as he thought when he reached the Bridge. The carts were all quiet and she was right where he imagined her to be, sitting on one of the noodle man's stools. She had her favorite red dress on and it clung so provocatively to the shape of her body, Ueda was convinced he could see every last contour of her breasts. Sucking in a mouthful of air, he moved closer, wedging himself into the recesses of the Bridge and knowing that if she saw him, she might run. Before long, he was close enough to hear them talking.

Your friend Yoko's sick you say? It was the noodle man Ogawa.

No, she's OK, Eri said. It's her baby. He's caught a cold.

Poor little thing. You should take him to one of them Longnose hospitals.

They don't help people like us.

You sure? Ogawa frowned. A friend o' mine got hit by one of them army jeeps once. They helped 'im all right.

Something told Ueda it was time for him to make his move. 

Can a man get somethin' to eat here? he said strolling nonchalantly out of the shadows.

You! Eri gasped and shot to her feet. Leave me alone, why don't you! I- I don't have any more money for you!

Ueda pulled up a stool and sat down. Though his face was calm, his stomach was churning. I aint come for no tribute. Just somethin' to eat, see? Say, old man, you got any of them shrimps?

I- I sold the last ones at lunchtime, Lord. I can get you some more if you want-.

Then do it!

Ueda watched the old vendor scuttle away then he turned his attention back to the whore.

Look, he began tentatively, I come to say sorry. About last time; the fight an' all. I never meant it to happen. I got a job to do, that's all. If I don't get your money, somebody beats the shit outta me. That's the way of it. It aint personal-.

Eri glared back at him. Then you should change your job!

I'm about to. I'm gonna be workin' for a posh gent. In Omotesando. A professor.

I don't believe you!

It's true. He bought me these new clothes. Tailor-made down in the Ginza. I'll take you to the shop if you want.

Her glare softened. How do I know you're not lying?

Here. Look for yourself. He pulled his suit collar out for her to see the label.

She took a step forward, still unsure of him. A professor, you say?

He lives in this fancy house not far from the Meiji Shrine. You should see it! They even got a river in it!

A river? Eri lowered herself cautiously onto the next stool. How can a house have a river?

Beats me but I seen it, didn't I? An' he's got this room full o' books, too. That's where I had my interview.

Interview?

Yeah. He's gonna give me the job. I'm to be his driver.

Eri stared at him for a while, unsure of what to make of his story. What about the money? My monthly tribute? And the old man's?

That's nuthin to do me with me now! Ueda said breezily. Saburo's in charge of it.

The fat man?

He nodded. And I was thinkin'- as I'm not involved with that anymore- well there's no reason why we can't be good friends, is there?

What kind of good friends?

I dunno, Ueda shrugged. Like maybe I could take you out one time. For a walk. Or somethin' to eat.

You mean on a date?

He felt her sharp eyes knifing into him, laying his soul bare. I aint got no special word for it! he mumbled.

And you've finished with this gang, you say?

No, not exactly. But I'm plannin' to-.

Well, when you do, Eri said coldly, you can ask me again!

I can? Ueda's face broke out into a broad smile. It had all gone far better than he'd dared imagine. In that case, I'll be back!

And with that he got up and skipped away, not giving the girl a chance to change her mind.

Hey! What about your shrimps? she called out.

You have 'em! he shouted back. I aint hungry!

CHARACTERS

MAP

GLOSSARIES

WEB

FOOTNOTES

¹Plot point: In Book 1, The Snake had forced Ueda to abandon his injured brother in a black-market heist down on Yokohama's docks

CHAPTER 2

MIDNIGHT. IT WAS time to get ready. 

For most of the day, Kazuyoshi Ueda had managed to forget all about the venal threat the port-side Koreans posed, what with the sword and his visit to the Bridge. Then seeing Eri, making his peace with her and the prospect that things might actually work out between them- well, it had filled him with such elation, he hadn't given The Professor and his crabs a second thought. Now though, as the depths of night began to take hold, as ordinary people locked their front doors and the normally teeming streets began to empty out, the prospect of what he had to do made him feel distinctly uneasy. He ran through The Professor's instructions one more time.

'A truck will be waiting for you in the old vegetable market behind Obuchi's bathhouse; the keys will be under the seat. At one o'clock, precisely, you're to drive onto the Shiba Wharf and find Pier Number Six. At the end of it, you'll see a single-masted fishing smack called the Ishigaki Maru; it'll be showing a blue light at the stern. Load the crabs onto the truck, then drive it straight back to the market. After you park up, put the keys and the coin under the driver’s seat and leave immediately. Someone will come to pick it up.'

It all sounded so straightforward yet something didn't seem quite right. He still couldn't work out why The Professor was buying a boat load of crabs. And what was all that about passwords and signs? He took out the red and yellow coin he'd been given and scrutinized it. There was a dragon's head on one side and a chop mark on the other that he couldn't read. He was to show it to the vessel's master and on no account lose it.

Ueda shrugged; in the end, it was none of his business. He'd been promised a bonus if the job went well and that was all he cared about. That and the Koreans. What would he do if they showed up? They always hunted in packs, just like rats, except they used bicycles. It was a clever ploy. A bicycle had maneuverability; you could get around the docks quickly on one, yet at the first hint of trouble, you could vanish into the maze of narrow alleyways and backstreets, places a vehicle could never go.

The scam the Koreans had perfected on the piers was an ingenious one. After they'd negotiated their cut from the fishing boats waiting to unload, they'd leave their share in piles on the quayside, a sheet from a Korean language newspaper tied to the top of them. Everyone knew what that meant and no one dared touch them. Then, in the early hours of the morning, they'd bring their trucks in, pick up all the fish and drive it up to the market to sell just as if it were their own. Day after day, night after night, it worked like clockwork- so well, in fact, that their leader Kanemoto had built his empire on it, moving from fish to other commodities, slowly extending his tentacles farther inland, even to the streets surrounding the Ginza that had once been the territory of Obuchi's Sumidakai.

That's what had precipitated the war between the two gangs. With the Sumidakai striking the last blow, the Koreans would be looking for revenge and Ueda imagined himself on the receiving end of it, spread-eagled over the hood of his truck, his body slashed in a thousand places by a thousand fish cleavers. It was the tell-tale calling card of Kanemoto's men and he shivered at the thought of it.

He checked his watch again. Twelve o'clock. It was time to get ready. He'd laid out his old army clothes on the floor of his room and now he put them on. Once more he checked everything he needed for the operation: his knife, the dog-eared driving license that The Professor insisted he carry, a flashlight and lastly a street map, in case he had to flee into a part of the city he didn't know. He took one last look around, grinned at Neko who was fast asleep in his futon, then as twelve fifteen approached, he unlatched his door and stepped out into the blackness. 

§

There was no moon, and Ueda thanked the gods for it. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders to mitigate the bitter cold, he trudged up to the bathhouse then cut down an alleyway to where the vegetable market had once stood. It was nothing more than a bombsite really; a scruffy expanse of weed-strewn land with a hulking iron shell at one end