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
    Paperback:
    Nov 2003, 352 pages

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"He defends them?" the man in the beret said. "That's loyalty for you."

"It speaks Japanese?" Someone pressed forward to observe Harry more carefully.

"It speaks a little," Gen said.

The woman with the cloth said, "Well, your victim isn't going anyplace until he stops bleeding."

Harry's head stung, but he didn't find it unbearable to be in the gentle hands of a chorus girl with half-moon eyes, bare white shoulders and a paper crown, or to have his shoes removed by another chorus girl as if he were a soldier honorably wounded and carried from a field of battle. He took in the narrow room of vanity mirrors, screens, costumes glittering on racks, the photographs of movie stars pinned to the walls. The floor mats were covered with peanut shells and orange rinds, paper fortunes and cigarette butts.

"Achilles stays here." The man in the beret smiled as if he had read Harry's mind. "The rest of you can scram. This is a theater. Can't you see you're in a women's changing room? This is a private area."

"You're here," Gen said.

"That's different," the man with the boater said. "He's an artist, and I'm a manager. Go ahead, get out of here."

"We'll be waiting outside," Hajime threatened. From farther down the stairs, the twins rattled their poles with menace.

Harry looked up at the woman with the cloth. "What is your name?"

"Oharu."

"Oharu, can my friend stay, too?" Harry pointed to Gen.

"That's what you call a friend?" Oharu asked.

"See, that's Japanese spirit, what we call Yamato spirit," the artist said. "Loyal to the bitter, irrational end."

"But he's not Japanese," the manager said.

"Japanese is as Japanese does." The artist laughed through yellowed teeth.

"Can he stay?" Harry asked.

Oharu shrugged. "Okay. Your friend can wait to take you home. But only him, no one else."

"Forget him," Hajime said into Gen's ear. "We'll get him later."

Gen wavered on the threshold. He pulled the goggles from his eyes as if seeing for the first time the women amid their cushions and mirrors, the packs of gold-tipped Westminster cigarettes, tissues and powder puffs, the sardonic men angled in their chairs under a blue cloud of cigarette smoke and mosquito coils stirred languidly by an overhead fan. Gen looked back at the stairway of boys, then handed his bamboo pole to Hajime, slipped off his clogs to step inside and closed the door behind him.

"How is it you speak Japanese?" the artist asked Harry.

"I go to school."

"Japanese school?"

"Yes."

"And bow every day to the emperor's portrait?"

"Yes."

"Extraordinary. Where are your parents?"

"They're missionaries, they're traveling."

"Saving Japanese souls?"

"I guess so."

"Remarkable. Well, fair is fair. We will try to do something for your soul while you are here."

Harry's position as the center of attention was short-lived. A music hall might offer thirty comic skits and musical numbers and as many dancers and singers. Performers shuttled in and out, admitting a brief gasp of orchestra music before the door to the stage slammed shut again. Costume changes from, say, Little Bo Peep to a sailor suit were done on the run, Bo Peep's hoop skirts tossed in all directions for the wardrobe mistress to retrieve. Three or four women shared a single mirror. While Oharu removed Harry's sweaters to wipe blood from his chest, he watched a dancer hardly older than himself slip behind a screen to strip and pull on a ballerina's tutu. In the mirror he could see all of her.

Harry's experience with women was mixed, because his mother was on the road so often as partner to his father's ministry. Since Harry had been a sickly child, he had stayed in Tokyo with his nurse, who knew no better than to treat him like a Japanese. So he had grown up in a world of indulgent warmth and mixed baths, a Japanese boy who pretended to be an American son when his parents visited. But still a boy who had only speculated about the painted faces that stared from the windows of the brothels a few blocks from his home. There was something ancient and still and hooded about the whores in their kimonos. Now he was surrounded by an entirely different kind of woman, casually undressed and full of modern life, and in the space of a few minutes he had fallen in love first with Oharu and her half-moon brows and powdered shoulders, and then with the ballerina. If pain was the price of a sight like this, he could bear it. Sitting up, with the blood wiped off, he was small and skinny with a collection of welts and scratches, but his features were almost as uniform and his eyes nearly as dark as a Japanese boy's.

Copyright © 2002 by Titanic Productions

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