A Play of Shadows
Behind the picture window of the darkened office, a man stood looking down, smiling with malignance into the lighted streets below. It would be so easy now, with the network completely set up, to establish his kingdom. His private fortune would double. His power would expand, and perhaps one day, not too far in the future...
All that it would need were a few changes in the way goods were transported. Of course, there were risks. However, he thought he could manage them handily enough.
Like cut diamonds, the lights in the street attracted his attention. All he needed to do was reach out and grab them. Who would deny him that privilege? Such an opportunity, he knew, would never come again.
He glanced towards the phone. A few calls and he could start it tonight. While everyone slept and no one the wiser. After all, when you came right down to it wasn't he the favored son of the most powerful man in the world? Didn't he want some of that power now before the old man kicked off?
The next day phone calls were made and for a few years, he was lucky. No one interfered with his operations. He started thinking of himself as some feudal lord, impervious to harm.
That was when his luck ran out and the shit hit the fan.
The wreckage was one great mass of scattered brick, mortar, wood and glass, and most of it was burning. The man who'd been keeping a camera's eye pinned to the corner of the building before it turned into a fireball, groaned, muttered a curse, and shaking off the shards of debris blown in from the mess across the street, he grabbed hold of the broken chair he'd been sitting on and hauled himself up.
He glanced out the frameless window and shook his head. It was amazing he was still alive. It was just an idea at the time, to set up quarters here; he could as easily have chosen his beat-up Chevy. Down below, a dozen vehicles had turned over, and some were on fire, one of them his.
Moving carefully, feeling as if he had a couple of cracked ribs, he pulled back from the frameless window before anyone spotted him and concentrated on essentials.
First, his muddled wits told him to focus on the camera. He turned to the tripod thrown into a corner and then cursed. The Leica was in pieces. Second, was the old suitcase under the cot. He pulled it out and began shoving things in as fast as he could.
Remains of camera, shotgun mike, tape recorder, thermos, blanket He looked around feverishly; making certain nothing traceable or out of the ordinary was left.
Then moving as carefully and as quietly as he could, he checked that the hallway was still clear, and got out of there! Holding the armored side of the suitcase up like a shield, with his 9mm Beretta ready in hand, he headed for the stairs and took three steps at a time.
When he got down to the first floor, he paused to listen, and then crept close to the wall, taking the time not to make tracks in the dust. Overall, it took him three minutes to get to the hole broken into the side of the building. He paused at that point as well, listening, peering around for any movements, and when he thought it was safe, he slipped through and made it to the break in the fence.
No one noticed him as he merged with the crowd on the street. They gawked at the blasted out storefront and warehouse now on fire.
A few people cracked jokes about tearing down the neighborhood. A number were making bets on how long it would take the fire engines to make it before the entire block went up. Then a woman remembered the sweet little old Asian woman who ran the shop on the corner and started screaming.
Another ran for a phone, but whatever their intentions, it was far too late to do anything except watch. The fire enveloped the place so fully, so quickly, that even had help been available, it wouldn't have mattered.
Gray mists swirled and shrouded the post-built cabin with its polished deck and sliding doors made of wood and paper paneling. Unless one knew where to look, it appeared as a part of the bamboo forest it nestled against.
Shadows played across the only path that led to it, and a crooked path it was, going first one way and then another.
A dim glow from a pale lopsided moon brightened the gloomy setting, but then a mesh of clouds darkened it again.
Inside, three men sat on the Tatami flooring on cushions, but they were not reposing. The twelve flickering candles, their only form of illumination, cast a light that slipped in and out of the corners.
Suddenly, one of the three shifted as though uncomfortable with the silence. "The Europeans have overstepped themselves. It can only be to our advantage. If an attempt isn't made now, within the week, our opportunity will be lost."
One of the other men looked at him questioningly.
"To wait any longer," he defended, "would have us remain as we are. Now, while they sleep, now is the time to act. Let us see how the tiger responds. If his eyes open, well and good. If they remain closed " He shrugged.
He took up a steel prong and stabbed into the iron bowl before him, stirring the thin strips of glowing wood, his face a mask of cunning, the lines written into it cruel and unsparing.
The one to his right shrugged. For his part, he was ready to act, even when orders contradicted good sense. Politics was not his field, so he did not bother commenting on it.
On the other hand, the third man of their party glanced down at the iron container, seemed to grow drowsy watching the embers, and nodded, smiling slightly.
"We could be mistaken. Instead of waking the tiger, rousing him from his slumber, he whips up with teeth bared, stomach hungry."
The leader of their secret clan shook his head vehemently. "You're wrong. I have studied them, and I tell you they sleep. Now is the time!"
A shrug of the shoulders. "Very well, if you feel now is the time, then perhaps it is. To see how they respond, I will agree to it."
The quiet one, the samurai, rose smoothly from his place. A door panel slid aside, and he went to make arrangements.
Smiling agreeably, their host asked if the other might wish more tea. A shake of the head; he was content with what he had.
The old man smiled warmly. He was content with what he had, too. "Well, my friend, how are you getting along, being so newly established here among our islands?"
"I grew up in this region."
The prong stabbed deep in the pot. That information was not in the records. In fact, they said something quite different. This meant, the records about the younger man were untrue. Something fluttered in his stomach.
He glanced round slowly. One day, he told himself, he would have to deal more effectively with this upstart, but for now, he had been right to summon him, and get him to commit himself. Eventually, that could be used against him.
Tamiso Koduska took his time, reaching only for things within his grasp. Their host, on the other hand, a legendary plotter, might think he was reaching for too many things too quickly? If that was the case, he could be in trouble and he might even have to kill this snake before the other struck.
The old fool was determined to raise the prestige of their clan no matter what. While he could foresee what tonight's business would bring. The sense of a cold blade touching the center of his back was all the warning he needed.
Outside, the samurai master gestured, and a moment later a figure clothed entirely in black, approached. He smiled grimly. His orders were clear. A subtle probe first. The shadow departed on his quest.
Now, thought the samurai master, we shall see how the tiger awakens. He turned to go back and stopped, for some stray beam of moonlight caught at something and pulled his attention. A flower grew in the center of the path. It was highly unusual. Almost beautiful. An overhanging bulb pulled the stem down in a curved loop, and it appeared almost glowing. He liked flowers, although he had no formal training in such things, but he could see this flower was rare. Then again, it invaded his master's domain. Had it been daylight then duty would command his action.
Yet, might not the nature of the night hide his treachery were he to simply step aside?
The idea amused him, but then he shook his head. No, that would be treachery. For if, he showed mercy with this, what might happen if his enemies also appeared inoffensive? He stepped down upon it, crushing it, destroying it. If a thing was to be done well, then best it is done completely.
Hurrying through the familiar grounds, stepping nimbly upon the inset path laid with heavy plated stone, the young man paused, a smile lighting his face as he eyed the patterns that made up the backbreaking effort it had taken when he worked here himself.
Beauty, he had been taught, was serenity of mind, like peace in harmony with nature and he looked off to the side expecting to see the flickering of candle lamps through the panels of paper, but they remained dark. Nor was there the usual sound of the other's bamboo flute, "greeting the night," as the old gardener was fond of saying. He frowned. So where was he?
Maybe he had better look in on the old man just in case. After all, he had not seen him in over a week, and even though he was late for a meeting, it would only take a moment.
With a steady hand, the old man took the blade and flexed it once against the single light of the candle. His lips thinned, and with a keen eye, he peered critically upon the edge and grunted. Good. He had kept it well all these years, and now it was ready for its destiny. Wrapping the naked steel in parchment three quarters up from the hilt, he rested, forcing himself to breathe deeply, closing his eyes, and waited for the strength of his soul to take hold, building to the proper instant, when he was ready.
Should he wait a few moments more? He shook his head with embarrassment. He was becoming timid in his old age, and that was embarrassing. So, without further ado, he turned his wrist and placed the tip slightly left of the center of his stomach. Involuntarily, his gut muscles flinched at the touch of cold steel.
A whisper hissed: "Wait!"
However, he was beyond such mundane matters as speech, and with an increased pressure, his breathing rapid, unconscious of everything that was not part of this cleansing ritual, he pulled it into himself.
A quick movement outside his inner resolve, and the blade was snatched from his hands. Shock! Horror! Betrayal!
With a desperate cry, he turned, adrenaline pumping, and wrestled for the blade. His only thought was that he had to succeed he had to!
A hand blurred at the back of his neck, and with a sudden relaxing of contorted features, a closing of agony-filled eyes, he fell back gently, gently, into the arms of the young master, who returned earlier than expected.
In the main room, seated on cushions, the eleven elders listened carefully to what happened, and upon hearing, it looked grim. At their head, the highest ranking of their clan gazed upon his nephew and thought how his brother's only son constantly amazed him. To hasten through his own work to make this meeting, yet taking that one extra moment to look in on the health of an old gardener
He shook his head worriedly. He would long remember this night. First, hearing that their elder sister in Seattle had been assassinated, and now their gardener, an ancient teacher to them all, trying to commit hara-kiri.
A panel slid to a side and their physician, a master of his own house, came to sit beside the young man in the center of the half circle.
"He is lying at rest now. The wound in his side will heal, and I have sedated him. But we shall have to deal with the trauma in his mind more delicately, and over a course of time."
He hesitated to say more.
A relative of the Matusata was concerned and puzzled. "But why? It makes no sense."
"Unfortunately," their physician reported softly, "it makes a great deal of sense. Our old one thought he had lost something." He clasped his hands together tightly, looked down, and told them the bad news, as if he was giving medicine. "The Birthplace has been stolen."
The shock on everyone's face was more than sufficient to acknowledge the gravity of the matter. Their greatest treasure was gone. Created over five hundred years ago by a master ceramicist from their own bloodline, it had been judged by qualified experts to be unique. It could never be copied, no matter how long others tried. The process was still shrouded in mystery. Like a most unpleasant medicine, the news did not go down well.
Stanton Truesdale let the loupe drop from his eye and into his hand. "I'm sorry, truly, but this isn't my field." He looked into their faces. "What you need is an historical artifacts expert, not an appraiser."
He gestured to the porcelain slate on the table and grimaced. "What you have here is more a sculpture than a painting. There are some blemish marks that could be cleaned up, but I wouldn't touch any of them with a ten-foot pole. If you want me to type its origin, at a guess I could say Japanese with some odd Chinese influence. Age of the thing would have to be done in a lab."
"That's it, then?"
Stanton grinned at Minerva Halley's disgusted face and nodded. "That's it. But if you want me to add something, then I'll say this. It's a bloody marvel. That's not your ordinary, everyday piece of rock you've got."
Dr. Jackson, the museum's curator pushed his glasses back up his nose, still staring at what he had earlier concluded was an artifact.
"I would agree with you, but I'd like it if you gave me your reasons."
"All right. For one thing, it's been artificially hardened. Almost petrified."
Eyes widened in surprise and turned back to the object on the table. Of the three examiners there, one looked up with a sense of discovery.
. "Are you sure? Petrified?"
Truesdale laughed. "I'm not the one you should be asking. I haven't a clue to its origin. I know you've been on the computers for a week, before you got a hold of me, and I just don't know."
"But," said Mr. Spanning, very put out by all this business, "haven't you any idea as to its worth?"
Truesdale muttered to himself as he stripped the rubber gloves from his hands. "Listen, all three of you, this is way over my head. Why haven't you had your own people examine this? Surely somebody from the arts department, or your own antiquities section should be able to make something of it."
Instead of replying, Bernard Holcroft, who had been silent, nodded. "I've heard enough. This is the kind of puzzle that could blow up in our faces if we're not careful."
Minerva looked at him curiously. "What do you mean?"
He grunted sourly. "I mean it doesn't belong here. And if it doesn't belong here, how the hell did it get here?"
"Wait a moment," said Truesdale. "What do you mean you don't know how it got here?"
The silence in the examining room was strained, and then suddenly Bernard Holcroft went to a phone hanging on a wall.
"You know," Truesdale told Mrs. Spanning, "there is or was and I don't know if she's still in the business, one person who might be able to unravel this puzzle for you."
"Wonderful person, really, if you don't get on her bad side."
"And I'm not too certain I could interest her in this sort of thing, you know. Terribly independent."
Minerva sighed. "All right, how good is she, and what is it going to cost?"
Truesdale chuckled. "Let me put it this way. If she wanted to badly enough, she could take your under drawers and track down where the fibers were grown."
"And the cost? What would it cost us, Mr. Truesdale?"
"That's just it. She's an eccentric. She may want a fortune just to force us to go away, or she may think it's worth her while and take it for next to nothing."
"You know her well, then?"
Truesdale sighed and nodded. "Oh, yes. Failed me twice before I was able to get a passing grade in her course. Gave me twice the homework of everyone else. Came damn close to making my social life a wreck."
She chuckled. "A teacher!"
"Still is," he replied. "That kind never lets up. They're always teaching somebody something, you know.
Holcroft returned smiling. "Good news. Under an emergency clause we have with the insurers, they'll cover it, as long as its below a quarter million, and after its been appraised. Now all we need is somebody who can find out what that thing is, and do it."
Minerva smiled ironically. "Yes, we're getting on that right now."
"Might as well," Stanton, acknowledged. "Just one thing more."
"You didn't answer my question. How did you get this? I would have thought a little out of your line."
Her smile had a lopsided twist. "Dumb luck. One of our buyers sent it from a London gallery, picking it up as a curio from a benefit offering. But then we thought it was mislabeled as an artifact."
"But," he asked further, "how did you even know what you were getting?"
"Now that," she said, as her other two partners looked away with embarrassment, "was more dumb luck. There was an accident a week ago, a fire in a storeroom. It was taken care of but the insurance people demanded an accounting, and we took an inventory. A closer examination revealed something that didn't match up. Then a closer examination had us all scratching our heads."
Truesdale chuckled, and then he laughed. It was amazing how some people found their fortunes.
Geoff Geauterre is a retired civil servant with a degree in History and special interests in Journalism and Research. He has lived in Florida, New York, Chicago, Boston, Maine, Montreal, Northern Quebec, Calgary, Northwest Territories, and parts of Alaska. He's said he gained his sense of humor from the back of a mule.
Experienced in Medicine, Administration, Security, Publications and News Services as a reporter and commentator, with over four years in the U.S. Navy, he later applied that background when attending the University.
Geoff has traveled to England, France, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and the Mediterranean Islands. He likes studying Philosophy, Comparative Myths, Legends and Religions. He is also reasonably certain of having gained prior experience in writing in another life. He only hoped it wasn't one that led him to the guillotine!
TTB Titles: A Nightful of Mages - sf/f novel
The Fourth Guardian - sf/f novel
The Soapmaster's Apprentice - sf/f novel
Author web site.
A Play of Shadows Copyright © 2006. Geoff Geauterre. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
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A special note to TTB readers. All contents of this web site are copyright by the writers, artists or web site designer. If you discover any artwork or writing published here elsewhere on the internet, or in print magazines, please let us know immediately. The staff of Twilight Times Books feels very strongly about protecting the copyrighted work of our authors and artists.
Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2009. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
Cover design 2006 Gin E. L. Fenton. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 01-02-09.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.