Excerpt from December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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December 6

by Martin Cruz Smith

December 6
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2002, 352 pages
    Nov 2003, 352 pages

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Chapter One: 1922

Five samurai crept forward with a scuffle of sandals, eyes lit like opals by a late setting sun. A bloody haze flooded the alley, tinting street banners red, soaking drab wooden shops and houses in a crimson wash.

The story was tragic, true, profoundly satisfying. Lord Asano had been taunted by the unscrupulous Lord Kira into drawing a sword in the shogun's presence, an act punishable by death. He was beheaded, his estate confiscated and his retainers dispersed as ronin, wandering samurai with neither home nor allegiance. Although the evil Kira went unpunished, he watched the samurai, especially their captain, Oishi, for the slightest sign that they plotted revenge. And when, after two years, Kira's vigilance finally relaxed, on a snowy December night, Oishi gathered the forty-six other ronin he trusted most, scaled the walls of Kira's palace, hacked the guards to pieces, hauled Kira himself from his hiding place and cut off his head, which they carried to the grave of their dead Lord Asano.

Gen, the strongest and fastest boy, played Oishi, his leadership marked by the aviator's goggles he set high on his head. Hajime, second in command, had a face round as a pie pan and wore a baseball catcher's quilted vest as his suit of armor. Tetsu wrapped muslin around his waist, the style of a criminal in training. The Kaga twins, Taro and Jiro, were rotund boys in raveled sweaters. Both were ready to eat nails for Gen if he asked. Each of the five boys swung a bamboo rod for a sword, and each was deadly serious.

Gen motioned Hajime to look around the ragpicker's cart, Tetsu to search among the sacks stacked outside the rice shop, the twins to block any escape from a side alley of brothels and inns. Prostitutes watched from their latticed windows. It was summer, the peak of a warm afternoon, with neither clouds nor customers in sight, shabbiness plain, the city's poor clapboard houses huddled like a hundred thousand boats battered and driven by storm from the bay to founder along rivers, canals and filthy sluices, here and there a glint of gilded shrines, at all levels laundry rigged on poles, and everywhere the scurrying of children like rats on a deck.

"Kira!" Gen called out. "Lord Kira, we know you're here!"

A whore with a face painted white as plaster hissed at Tetsu and nodded through her bars to a pile of empty sake tubs at the alley's end. Gen approached with wide-apart legs, his bamboo sword held high over his head with both hands. As he brought it down, the tubs thumped like drums. His second stroke was a thrust. The tubs rolled away and Harry squirmed out, his ear pouring blood.

Tetsu jabbed at Harry. The twins joined in until Harry swung his own rod and drove them back. Harry wore two layers of woolen sweaters, shorts and sneakers. He could take a blow or two.

"Submit, submit," Tetsu screamed, whipping up his courage and raining down blows that Harry had no problem deflecting. Gen swung his pole like a baseball bat across Harry's leg, dropping him to one knee. The twins synchronized their blows on Harry's sword until he threw a tub at their heads and bolted by Tetsu.

"The gaijin," Hajime shouted. "The gaijin is getting away."

This always happened. No one wanted to be the vile Lord Kira. Harry was Kira because he was a gaijin, a foreigner, not Japanese at all. As soon as the hunt began in earnest, the fact that he was a gaijin was reason enough for the chase. Harry's hair was as closely cropped as the other boys'. He went to school with them, dressed and moved exactly like them. Didn't matter.

Down the street, a storyteller in a dirty jacket had gathered smaller kids around his paper slide show of the Golden Bat, champion of justice, a grotesque hero who wore a skull mask, white tights and a scarlet cloak. Harry slipped between them and the cart of an orange-ice vendor.

Copyright © 2002 by Titanic Productions

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