The Hell Screen: A Mystery of 11th-Century Japan Featuring Sugawara Akitada (Penguin Mysteries)

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9780143035626: The Hell Screen: A Mystery of 11th-Century Japan Featuring Sugawara Akitada (Penguin Mysteries)

A tangled web of deceit strikes very close to home in this new mystery of ancient Japan featuring Sugawara Akitada

Eleventh-century Japan is the expertly realized setting for I. J. Parker?s ingenious mystery series featuring sleuth Sugawara Akitada. In The Hell Screen, Akitada is on his way to the bedside of his dying mother when bad weather forces him to take refuge in a temple whose central treasure is a brilliantly painted hell screen. Perhaps its violent imagery influences his dreams: that night he is awakened by a scream. It?s only after Akitada returns to a scene of domestic unhappiness and scandal that the significance of that cry becomes clear. For while he slept, a woman was murdered, and now he must find her killer.

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About the Author:

I. J. Parker, winner of the Shamus Award for "Akitada’s First Case," a short story published in 1999, lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She writes regularly for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


ONE
The Mountain Temple
The path was rocky and the horse’s hooves slipped on the wet stones. Rain hung in the air like a thick mist. In a gully a miniature waterfall had formed, its muddy current splashing and gurgling downhill. Patches of wet fog hung between the sagging branches of tall cryptomerias like giant jeweled cobwebs.
The tall rider sat hunched forward in the steady downpour, his big sedge hat joining seamlessly with the straw rain cape covering his body. At a turn in the path he straightened and peered ahead. Ah, finally! The curving blue-tiled roof and the red-lacquered columns of the main gate to the temple lay just ahead. Beyond the plaster walls, dimly seen in the grayness of mist and rain, rose a graceful five-storied pagoda and the many roofs of temple halls and monastic outbuildings.
The tired horse smelled stables and shook his head, releasing a shower of water. Its rider was Sugawara Akitada, returning to the capital from one of the far northern provinces. Akitada was still young, in his mid-thirties, and physically strong, but days of forced riding had worn him out. The steady cold rain had made this particular day’s journey across the mountains especially wearying, and now, in the fading light of early evening, he was forced to seek the temple’s hospitality: a simple room, a hot bath, and a vegetarian supper.
Two other travelers had reached the gate ahead of him. The man had already dismounted and was solicitously helping a lady from her horse. They both wore rain gear similar to Akitada’s, but the woman’s broad-rimmed hat was also covered by a thick veil, sagging with moisture. She rearranged it impatiently and walked up the steps to the gateway, the lavishly embroidered hem of her gown sweeping through the mud behind her.
As Akitada stopped to dismount, her companion struck the bronze bell at the gate. Its high clear metallic sound broke the peaceful splash and drizzle of the rain. Almost immediately the gate opened and an elderly monk appeared, looking uncertainly from the couple to the tall rider waiting behind them.
The woman’s companion, unaware of Akitada, explained, “We are traveling to Otsu and cannot go any farther today. Can you give us shelter?”
The monk hesitated. “Is the other gentleman with you?”
They both turned then to look in surprise at Akitada, who looked back calmly. Though he could not see the lady’s face behind all that wet veiling, he knew she was young, for she moved quickly and with studied grace. The man was stocky, well-built, and in his late twenties. He wore traveling clothes of good quality and, like Akitada, had a sword stuck through his sash. A gentleman, perhaps. Certainly a member of the affluent class. His face was not handsome, but open and friendly, and he bowed politely to Akitada before telling the monk, “Oh, no. There are just the two of us. This gentleman is a stranger to my sister-in-law and myself.”
The woman moved impatiently, extending a smooth white arm from under her rain cape to gesture to her companion to hurry. Multiple layers of fine silk, in shades from russet to lavender, peeked out from under the cream-colored satin sleeve of her robe. The embroidery on the sleeve and hem was of autumn leaves and chrysanthemums.
A very rich lady indeed, thought Akitada, who was tying his horse next to their mounts and noting the costly saddles. Bowing deeply to her, he hoped she would remove the veil so he could see her face. But he was disappointed, for she abruptly turned her back to him. He told the monk, “Please accommodate your guests first. I shall wait for your return.”
The lady ignored Akitada’s courtesy, but her companion bowed his acknowledgment.
“Are there many visitors here tonight?” the lady asked, slipping off her wet rain cape for the young man to pick up.
“Oh, yes, madam,” the monk replied.
“And what sort of people might they be?”
“Oh, mostly ordinary,” said the old man, turning to shuffle barefooted down the long covered corridor to the right. They followed him. Akitada stepped up under the gateway to watch them walk away.
“Ordinary?” she asked, her voice rising a little. “What do you mean?”
“Mostly pilgrims, madam. And a group of players who put on bugaku dances for the local people. But don’t worry. They are in a different building.”
She pursued the topic, but Akitada could no longer make out the words. He slipped out of his wet rain cape and took off the sedge hat, chuckling at the lady’s fears that she might have to rub shoulders with the common people. He reflected ruefully that she had evidently not approved of him, either, when she saw him in his cheap rain gear and on a hired horse. Underneath the straw cape he wore a sober brown hunting robe over fawn-colored silk trousers which he had tucked into his leather riding boots. A long sword was pushed through his wide leather belt. His slender, deeply tanned face with the heavy eyebrows might have belonged to a scholar or a warrior, but was to his mind ordinary. And he thought his narrow straight back and waist and the broad shoulders lacked both grace and muscular bulk.
He laid his wet straw cape and hat on the railing of the balustrade and looked out across the large courtyard toward the main temple hall. Memories stirred of visits to this place back in the days of his childhood. He had been accompanied by his imperious mother and two younger sisters, along with nursemaids and servants. How would he find them now? Was his mother still alive? The message of her severe illness had reached them two weeks earlier, on their homeward journey, and Akitada had pushed ahead alone, leaving his wife and small son to follow more slowly with the luggage and servants.
Now he was only a short day’s ride from the capital and worried about what he would find. Akiko, the elder of his two sisters, had married an official during his absence and moved away, but Yoshiko was still at home. He tried to imagine his mother ill, her fierce strength gone, and only the bitterness remaining. He sighed.
Steady streams of water descended along the chains suspended from the monstrous snouts of rain spouts above him and splashed with a great din into pebble troughs. Across the courtyard the tall pagoda rose into the mist, its top lost above the clouds. The scent of pines hung in the air and mingled with the sweetish odor of wet straw and sedge. But for this miserable rain he would have made better time and arrived home this very night. Instead, he and his horse were near physical collapse after hours of trudging through deep mud and roaring torrents.
The gatekeeper returned, his soles whispering softly on the smooth boards of the gallery. “Forgive the delay, sir,” he said, glancing at Akitada’s clothing and sword. “Has your honor come to worship or for lodging?”
“Lodging only, I’m afraid.” Akitada produced a visiting card and handed it to the monk, who peered at it and bowed deeply.
“A great honor, my lord,” he said. “May I conduct you to the abbot?”
Akitada suppressed a sigh. He was bone-tired and in no mood for courtesies over fruit juice, but the visit was obligatory for men of his rank.
This time the monk turned to the left and led the way to the inner courts of the temple and its monastery. After an eternity of galleries and corridors, he paused before an unadorned door made of beautifully polished wood. It was opened by an acolyte, a boy of ten or eleven. In the room behind him sat a very old man on a small dais.
“His Reverence, Genshin,” murmured the monk.
Genshin was frail, almost skeletal, and his skin stretched like yellowed paper across his shaven skull. He wore a dark silk robe and a very beautiful stole patched from many-colored pieces of brocade. A string of amber beads slid slowly through fingers thin as the claws of a bird. His eyes were closed, the lids almost transparent, and the thin, pursed lips moved silently.
“Reverence?” whispered the gatekeeper. “Lord Sugawara wishes to pay his respects.”
A bead moved as they waited, and then another. Finally the thin lids lifted and faded eyes looked at Akitada. “Sugawara no Michizane?” Genshin’s voice sounded like the rustling of dry leaves.
Michizane, long dead though never forgotten? “No, Your Reverence,” said Akitada, stepping forward and bowing deeply. “I am afraid I have little in common with my illustrious ancestor. I am Akitada, most recently provisional governor of Echigo.” He said it with an odd mixture of pride and humility. Echigo had been a punitive and punishing assignment, and only he knew how hard-won his achievements had been.
The abbot shook his head confusedly. “Governor? I thought . . .” His voice trailed off and the lids closed again.
Apparently the courtesy visit was going to be more difficult than Akitada had anticipated. He sought for words that might wake the old man to some semblance of conversation. “I have been recalled to the capital. A few years ago I held a minor position in the Ministry of Justice.”
The lids lifted marginally. “Justice?” Genshin pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Yes. Justice. Why not? It’s an appropriate choice. Please be seated, Akitada. I am delighted that you have come to see me.”
Akitada suppressed his puzzlement and sat, wondering how to explain to this senile cleric that only the accident of a rainstorm had driven him to this Buddhist temple. Aloud he said, “I am here for a brief rest only, Your Reverence, a chance to gather my thoughts and refresh my spirit.” And that was not far from the truth.
“Ah!” Genshin nodded eagerly. “Of course. Then listen: He who seeks the Law will find it in the mountain groves. And remember, that which seems real in the world of men is but a dream and a decepti...

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