The Otter and The Owl

otter owl image

So, just a word or two before I go…

The next week or so will be somewhat trying on this end. I typically handle surgery well enough but I’ve had a bad feeling about this one for a week or two, so…we’ll see. Oh, I made good progress on this story back in November, before the proverbial shit hit the fan, but progress has been sporadic at best ever since. It feels rushed, particularly on the back nine – so in other words ripe for a revision or two. And yes, there is a loose affiliation here to that earlier story, The Otter and the Fox. The plan, such as it is, is to round out the tale with a third part somewhere in the future. So again, we’ll see. Hang in there, okay?

Life grows peculiar when you begin to see yourself as something resembling an indefinite article.

[America \\ Here]

The Otter and The Owl

Chapter One

Seattle | Today

A gray day, windy and with rain threatening to kill the sun, again. Rain, rain, and nothing but more gray rain for days. Or had it been weeks?

The old man lived in a striking gray house perched above the gray Pacific, and so intent was he to live in gray anonymity he had even had the original shake roof pulled up and replaced with a gray standing seam metal roof. At least, he thought, the new roof sounded nice in the rain.

His foppish gray hair had long since turned white and with the change, like the inevitable change of seasons and the falling leaves of autumn, his legs had begun a falling of their own. Quite normal, he realized, in the usual seasons of man. It was a day to day thing these days, this sustained autumn of his, but he took all this too in his stride. He was anything but bitter and was in fact rather satisfied with the remnants of his life.

His name, of course, was Grey. Patrick Grey. And for most of his life he had been a spy. MI6 and all that. But all that had been in another life, a life he had tried to forget for a time – before he realized the pointlessness of the exercise. He’d been retired for a few weeks when he’d run over the bright idea of writing his memoirs – only to be reminded of the dour vicissitudes of his office, re: The Official Secrets Act – so he’d taken the easy way out. Taking a road more or less well traveled, he’d started writing novels. Trashy spy novels. Airport novels of no real import, however his publisher had inflated his involvement in that other world into the balloon-sized, ego-feeding nom de plume of Patrick Whats-his-name. Oh yes, Grey. And very much not Gray, thank you so very much.

But then he’d penned a book of some – import. He’d ruffled a few feathers, so many that he realized his time had come and gone. And come again.

He’d grown up very much his father’s son, on a rather large estate south of Cheltenham, on lands of neatly rolling hills and narrow country lanes lined with stout English oaks and low rock walls. And speaking of rocks, his family estate had been located quite near a formation known locally as the Devil’s Chimney, a smallish spire that stood above the village of Leckhampton Hill. Old spies, the young boy learned soon enough, were quite often put out to pasture along these very same narrow lanes. His father chief among them, as it happened, when his own season came.

Now he lived in Seattle just south of Ballard Locks, hard by the railroad tracks. On weekend mornings sailboats motored by as if lost in the ironies of their dependence, while he sat watching from his wheelchair hoping the painkillers might actually kick in and work again that day. But on this Monday morning no motoring sailboats were to be found plying the waters off his deck, though a somewhat large fishing boat had just transited the locks and was even now headed out into Puget Sound, trailing a whirling stream of white birds screaming for a handout. Screaming, like the homeless children by the freeway caught up in another wayward gyre.

He looked at his watch, a beat up old Submariner that had come along for most of the ride, and he winced at the pain in his hips and knees before he turned in his chair and stared at his nemesis. His piano, an iterative variation of the same creature that had defeated him his entire life. This one a Yamaha, a smallish grand with a sumptuously mellow way with words, and he hated her. Positively. The way Odysseus hated the Sirens.

Was that because of the way she called out to him? Seductively, and with glowing words full of promise and praise. Yet she was the last accursed bitch in his life, the last one standing, the one who just didn’t know how or when to let go. A trait not shared by all the other women he had known. No, this last had triumphed by attrition and most certainly not by wit and wisdom.

The walls were white inside his gray house. The cabinetry in his kitchen was white, the countertops too. Bookcases in the living room were white, the leather upholstery around the room too was purest white. The original Douglas fir flooring was varnished to a high sheen and lay there in stark contrast to almost everything else in the room, for even the brick fireplace had been painted white. Only the bricks inside are black, but that was another story.

But hanging there on the chimney above the hearth was the one blast of color in this otherwise unremittingly white room. An ornately framed piece waiting to been seen and admired waited there, a kimono of deepest red silk flanked by a samurai’s two swords; the long killing sword and the shorter, much sharper blade used to commit ritual suicide. Seppuku, right? Wasn’t that the word? All three pieces, the kimono and the two swords, were ancient, and yet they each had a story of their own to tell. A lone recessed light in the ceiling shone down brightly on them, imploring them to speak, to tell their story to all who passed by, but the gilt frame contained them all. Or, perhaps restrain is the more apt choice, as we shall see.

But for now their only voice resides inside the man in his wheelchair, and to this day he still resolutely refuses to utter even one word about their former lives. 

Oh, how they cried out, begging to be heard – even if just one more time.

+++++

A knock on the door – so easily ignored. Pointlessly so, of course.

Then the sound of a key in the lock and the tall varnished fir was easing open once again, slowly, surreptitiously, as if letting fresh air inside this mausoleum was a sin beyond redemption.

He winced as he looked at his watch, again. ‘Oh hell, is it Monday already?’ he sighed. Inevitable Mondays, again and again.

“Patrick? Are you ready to go?”

It is Carolyn, his agent. His last friend on this Earth, the last one standing who no doubt will discover his lifeless body one day, and perhaps in this very room. “I think I might need help with my shoes this morning,” Patrick replied, the words poised to cut, perhaps like the short blade over the fireplace might – if given half a chance.

She walked-in and saw him sitting there in his chair, looking out over the water – and for the life of her she still thought he looked like some kind of peregrine man-beast, perched on the edge of forever and waiting to take flight to God only knew where. She looked down and saw his bare feet, the forlorn hammer-toe on his right foot, the yellowing toenails so out of place, in character almost simian. She went to his bedroom and saw the clothes she had laid out two days ago – still and untouched. 

“Did you shower this morning?”

“No. Did you?”

“Patrick! It’s a book fair, not a trip to the zoo! Actual people will be there, they are coming to hear you speak. To listen – to you!” She came and sat on the coffee table and smiled into the gales of his obstinance, meeting his stoicism in her own headstrong way, which was of course the only way he would tolerate her. “Can you lift your leg?” she added.

He tried once then shook his head. “Not today.”

“Is it much worse?”

He looked away, looked at the white seabirds swirling behind the fishing boat and he wanted to be with them out there, screaming.

She lifted his leg until he winced – but she quit there. “I think today we’ll go with the clogs? Does that sound alright to you?”

He shook his head. “No, that doesn’t sound ‘alright.’ Not at all, as a matter of fact.” 

“What are your sugars?”

He shrugged.

She picked up his phone and entered the code, looked at the readout from his glucometer and sighed. “Patrick, if you stop taking your insulin you’re going to die. Do you hear me? That means you close your eyes and you stop breathing. Understand? It’s a fact of life even you should be aware of, okay?”

“Not your life.”

She sighed, if only because they’d had this conversation before. Too many times.

She went to his closet and found a pair of old gray Stegmann clogs neatly tucked away in their original box; like all his shoes they were boxed and put away clean after each wearing. The felt had been, she saw, recently brushed, and the cork footbed neatly oiled…but that was just Patrick being Patrick. He had turned neatness into a fetish, and though he had a housekeeper that came by twice a week he ended up cleaning the floors after the old woman left, pushing her lingering dust out the door from the comfort of his wheelchair.

She slipped the clogs on his feet then wheeled him to the door.

“Has it rained yet?” he asked.

“No, not until noon – at least that’s the forecast,” she said as she wheeled him out to his van. Modified to allow some semblance of mobility, the door slid open at the push of a button and the ramp inside began a long, tortured process of unfolding itself, making ready to haul him up into the belly of the beast. He rolled onto the ramp and turned just so, allowing the clamps to engage the wheels and so to hold him securely in place while Carolyn drove him downtown.

“What have you got me doing today?” he asked. “Not another reading, for heaven’s sake?”

“No, no, just anecdotes and then a brief Q and A, followed by a signing.”

“Oh…joy…” he sighed. “And if I should, per chance, soil myself again?”

“Please don’t, Patrick.”

He looked out the window as his van turned into a vapidly huge downtown parking garage. “Why do you keep doing this to me, Carolyn? I mean, besides the obvious commercial exploitation of a helpless old man – what’s in it for you?”

“Another book, dear Patrick. Like your fans, I absolutely yearn for your next book.”

“Bosh. You are so full of it it makes my head spin.”

“Hey, hope springs eternal.”

“Does it, indeed? How sweet for the both of you.”

She parked then wheeled him into the book fair and people pointed at him as he wheeled by, all the way to the conference room where his pithy anecdotes and all his answers from on high were supposed to come down as received wisdom. The room, he noted, was full, and there were two tables stacked high with new books waiting to be purchased and signed. What Carolyn called ‘money in the bank’ but which was, in the end, anything but. He looked at the stacks and shuddered at all the blood spent on those pages.

When he wheeled out in front of the assemblage he looked over the crowd, meeting a polite smile here and there with one of his own, until his eyes came to rest on a rather tall, willowy woman standing against the back wall. Black dress, the same black hair and yes, he saw she was older now, older than the last time they’d danced this dance, but now she was staring at him, an old scowl played in a minor key – until pale recognition registered in his eyes and on her face. Then she smiled and walked away, her apparent triumph complete. For the time being.

+++++

“What happened out there?” Carolyn asked. “It’s not like you to get nervous in front of an audience like that…”

“I thought I saw a ghost.”

“A ghost?”

“Yes. A ghost of my very own, let’s call it my Ghost of Christmas Past.”

She shook her head and grinned into the rearview mirror. “Well, you did good today. Lots of positive feedback.”

“So, does that mean you sold a few books.”

“Well yes, we did, as a matter of fact.”

“And do tell, but how many people complained about my shoes? Or my lack thereof?”

“Everyone, Patrick! Why, just think about it, would you? Everyone there, absolutely everyone –  wanted to know all about your feet!”

He crossed his arms and grumbled at her reflection in the little mirror. “And to think, I didn’t even shit myself. What a wasted opportunity. Don’t you find that ever so thoughtful of me?”

And that purchased a few minutes of silence.

“Do you need to stop at the market before I drop you off?”

He sniffed once, wanted to sigh at the indignity of his existence but thought better of it. “If you can spare the time, yes. I need a few things,” he said as he – reflexively – reached inside his jacket, hoping to feel the reassuring cold steel of his little Walther. But no, not this time, for time had erased even that most primal level of reassurance.

“Trader Joe’s?” she asked.

“Please,” he said, feeling chastened. “If you don’t mind.”

She helped him out of the van and watched him roll off into the little market, pulling out her cell phone to catch up on all her missed texts and emails as she got behind the wheel to wait for him, yet for a moment she thought she spotted the woman in the black dress that had so rattled Patrick at the fair. Getting out of a taxi, and now she was following him – at a discrete distance – into the store.

“Now just what the hell is this all about?” she muttered, lifting her phone and firing off several images of the woman. Big black sunglasses, black heels and stockings and a bright white handbag. Incongruous, just like Patrick. And out of place – again, just like Patrick. She saw the taxi pull away and thought to snap a few pictures of it, too. Not sure why. Call it instinct. Or maybe she’d read too many of his books?

+++++

He spent a good deal of time in those days looking over freshly picked mushrooms. He’d recently read that several key varieties stop the spread of vascularization around new tumors, in effect killing them before they could grow dangerously large, so now he added copious quantities of the things to almost everything he cooked, but especially his omelets. There was a new shipment of good looking shiitakes being put out on the shelves, and he waited until the stocker finished up then moved in to grab a couple of quart-sized containers.

And that was when he felt her hand on his shoulder, and he felt the same electric feeling he always had – almost from the beginning of time. He took a deep breath and relaxed, leaned back in his wheelchair…

“I can still feel you, you know. Like a summer breeze chasing away the last chill of winter.”

She moved to his side, so he could just see her. “Some things never change.” Her English was still flawless, her voice the same immeasurably soft cocoon, yet her hand stayed on his shoulder.

“So? Have you come to kill me this time?”

Her hand lifted, but then she leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “No,” she said once she was standing again, “I have come to say goodbye. To you.”

He wheeled around and looked up at her, sudden fear now in his eyes. “Akari? Tell me everything?”

She looked around the crowded market. “Surely not here, Jeremy.” 

He reached up and took her hands in his. “You are not well?”

“I am not well. Now, may I help you shop for mushrooms, or do you have enough?”

“Fresh fish is the only other item on my list.”

“You are finally taking better care of yourself?” she asked.

“Me? Oh, no, the fish is for a friend of mine.”

“Truly? You finally have a friend?”

“Truly. I have a friend.”

“Jere, this is a most unexpected development…”

“Oh, wait ‘til you meet her. You’ll fall in love, just as I did.”

He wheeled over to the fish counter and, Akari noted, the man there had a package ready and waiting, and she smiled – because that was so like the Jere she had known all her life. Patient routines, and yet never an unplanned for intercession, never the unexpected. But now, with his shopping out of the way, Jere turned and wheeled his way to the registers. “Do you need anything?” he said once there, and he smiled at her reluctance when she gently shook her head and said “No.”

Like everything where ‘Patrick Grey’ was concerned, Carolyn was not at all surprised when he came out of the market with the elegant woman in tow, and now walking almost by his side. Yet how odd they looked together, she thought. She walking one step behind and to his right, like she was playing her part in an ancient, ritualized dance of some sort – yet even so she sensed one belonging to the other. The stranger’s massive sunglasses were gone now, too, and she could see the woman was part Asian, possibly Japanese-American, but whatever else she was – quietly refined elegance defined her perfectly. Precisely so, in fact. So of course Carolyn was instantly on-guard and also a little jealous, for she had been the spy’s agent and his sole care-taker, and for almost five years. At least ever since he had moved to Seattle, right after the wild success of his last book.

But watching him now with this strange woman by his side, she realized he was still an enigma – and that he would probably always remain so. Or maybe, she thought, he was more like a series of interlocking riddles – and that like icebergs on a flat sea in the middle of an April night, the most dangerous parts of the man seemed to remain perpetually just out of sight, lurking beneath an inky surface of swirling complexities. Like waiting to inflict his next fatal wound, no doubt…

Chapter Two

Whitehall | Yesterday

The assignment was simple enough. 

Someone in MOD had decided that solar panels were soon going to be the next Big New Thing and that some of the most interesting, cutting edge research – in something called stochastic chemistry, for God’s sake – was taking place in Japan, at the Nagoya Institute of Technology. Soon enough, word was coming in via Hong Kong that agents, in other words – spies – notably from the PRC, were mounting several penetration efforts to learn more about the manufacturing processes these new developments would require. Also, there were some in both London and Washington that thought these efforts might somehow be directed at sabotaging this research.

Yet all this was just an elaborate ruse. A legend. A cover story.

And Jeremy Fontaine was uniquely suited to such an assignment. Of impeccable pedigree – being an Old Wykehamist of the Consanguineus Fundatoris variety, Fontaine was not simply Trusted. That was a given, a matter of pedigree and to an extent a question of political inheritance, his unsullied birthright. Fontaine’s background in physical chemistry, it was said, as well as the many years he’d spent in both Hong Kong and Japan, were a necessity – given current circumstances – so now all that stood in the way of his being assigned was his total lack of interest in working for MI6 ever again. Or so the story went.

Fontaine was not now and had not ever been a field agent of the usual sort; indeed, he possessed neither the physical properties nor the survival instincts of that peculiar species. No, Fontaine was an analyst of the most esoteric information imaginable, so an analyst of the most unusual sort. He was an academic and perhaps would have lived a more or less contented life in the classroom, had he chosen, perhaps, to remain at the little school on College Street, but his life had been governed more or less by an inertia that circulated in the bloodstream of all the various Fontaines. Growing up in Cheltenham’s shadow, his was a brew long steeped in the life and lore of The Service. On long walks with his father among the many wooded trails that encircled the Chimney he’d heard of little else, and in this manner his upbringing was but an echo of an echo. Yet Jere, as his mother called him, also possessed more feminine inclinations, notably for poetry and playing the piano. And perhaps it was this dichotomy that, more than anything else, formed the young man. It had always been the boy’s innermost desire to study Letters at Cambridge, yet time and paternal disinclination dictated he take his first doctorate in Biochemistry from Oxford. Young Jeremy was, you see, a product not simply of unchecked desire. The times he lived in, perhaps more than anything else he was willing to admit, shaped the man he would become.

Born during the closing moments of the war, he experienced the great upheavals of the 50s and 60s firsthand, and yet you could also say these tectonic shifts also fed his more feminine side. He read Lawrence Ferlinghetti on his holidays away from school, and when no one was in the old house he played music as disparate as Jerry Lee Lewis and Glenn Gould – until he fell head first into his Japanese phase. When Jere turned up at Oxford in 1963, he was among the first students to take classes in the new East Asian Studies department, but that year was also marred by many other pivotal personal and political events. 

First among them – his father passed. Control of the family’s fortunes fell to his mother Claire, then it seemed that within weeks of his beginning his studies that John Kennedy was murdered. He had been taking an introductory class in Japanese literature that first term, and about the time news of the event rattled around the globe he had been sitting by a fireplace lost in his explorations of The Tale of the Heike, and as it happened, and as these things so often do, he had just finished a key passage when the news fell on his ears. To Jere, this was a moment cast away by time, an orphan without explanation – a lonely boy waiting to be embraced:

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

And so, in a way, 1963 became his year of passage. The year both Kennedy and his father passed from this life to the next. A year of remembrance, and of tears.

And in this confluence of events, perhaps like two streams coming together, it wasn’t long before he found his way to Shinto, and as a result he came upon an unforeseen way of experiencing the world, a new way of understanding death: to be conscious of kannagara no michi.

And as this was the path that had chosen him, he cared not even a little that this was perhaps the one path his father would have mightily disapproved of.

Chapter Three

Seattle | Today

“Is this what you eat? Omelets…and mushrooms?” Akari said, looking up at him as he reduced a skillet full of mushrooms, adding a little white wine and a few impossibly thin slices of shallot after the mushrooms had browned just so.

He nodded, slowly, a sly grin spreading like cold treacle across his face. “If I require more than what I have,” he shrugged, “well then, the entire world has come to this little city, Akari. It’s a fantastic time to be alive. Nothing but unappreciated choice, and everywhere you turn hardly anyone notices. Or even cares, really.”

“But,” she added, not buying his latest dodge, “what of the fish you purchased? Where is this secret woman of yours?”

“Oh, my dear. Did I say I had a woman?” Jeremy Fontaine sighed, shrugging playfully with a coy roll of the eye. “But Akari, I do have some saké on hand, should the desire arise. A decent selection, I might add.”

“Of course you do. You always do.”

He smiled. “Yes, of course. Always the stranger in a strange land, but of course I remain very much afraid that, as such, I will never find my way home.”

“Were you ever at home, Jere? I mean really, in-your-skin at home?”

His smile broadened. “No, of course not. How could something so impossibly real suit the likes of me?”

“So, are you not at home? In this here and now?”

The smile vanished, his bushy white eyebrows curled in deep furrows. “Do you know, Akari, I’m not at all sure that I’m not. Isn’t that strange? Almost like a strange — what? A twist of fate?”

She turned away and walked to the fireplace and studied the ancient red kimono, then the two swords, each in their turn. They still called out to her, even after she had turned away from then — once upon another time now very far away. They had, after all, when what was known about their past came undone, belonged to her father. Then, for the briefest moment, to her mother. But, she now knew, that was when they passed to Jeremy Fontaine. And so here they were, hanging over an Englishman’s mantle – held by no hand now and so far from the distant fires of their creation. So, she wondered why she saw absolution hanging there in the bright, grim light…

“Would you mind helping me with these things?” he called out from the kitchen.

She went to his voice – hadn’t she always? – and she took in his artistry. Mushrooms and shallots over roasted artichoke hearts and an omelet, but then another plate, this one loaded with thin slivers of king salmon sashimi. He gently tossed a small salad of butter lettuce topped with walnuts, apples, and a sprinkling of Stilton bleu. Riesling, too, because he was, after all, still an Englishman. She carried the plates to a varnished redwood table on the deck overlooking the sea and he rolled along after her, now admiring the golden sky and the sun setting carelessly beyond the Olympics.

“I like the house,” she said after a first tentative sip of his wine. “It fits you.”

He nodded. “A local architect drew it for me. Llewelyn Sumner, very radical for his time. Probably a Welshman – but one can never quite tell these days.”

“You still enjoy working in the kitchen, I see.”

“No, I don’t. Normally I can’t be bothered with such foolishness, but then again…this hasn’t been a normal day, has it?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“The salmon? Do try a piece?”

She nodded, then turned and looked out to sea. “I think I always saw you living in the mountains. Why did you come here? To the sea?”

He turned and looked at a passing boat, then like an old conductor turning to face his orchestra he spread his arms wide. “Why Akari, just look around, will you? We are surrounded by mountains here, though they hide away in their clouds all too often…”

“Are you hiding, Jere? Here, in your clouds and rain?”

He smiled. “There is no hiding for me now, Akari. Not from the things I have done.” Or that I must do, he reminded himself as he turned to look at her. “So? You must be dying? I can’t imagine you coming otherwise.”

She took beautifully lacquered chopsticks, and with those glowing obsidian lances she picked a piece of salmon and held it up in the fading light, regarding it thoughtfully as she gathered her thoughts. “You were never so direct, Jere? So devoid of tact? What has happened to you?”

“I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps I’ve eaten at Burger King one time too many, learned that eating is a pointless exercise in…”

“Stop!” Akari cried. “Enough with your evasions! I asked you a question. What has happened to you?”

He seemed to deflate for a moment, to slump a bit in his wheelchair – as if the truth of the moment was a burden he could no longer shoulder. His head fell, his face dropped away, but then he caught a deep breath and lifted his eyes to the setting sun, smiling again as he found the last of the warmth…then he caught sight of something in the sea and smiled. He then pushed his chair back from the table and turned to face the sea and his little dock – that pointed like an accusing finger at the sprawling blight along the far shore.

“Here she comes,” he said, his voice now reverent, a prayer to and of the unknown.

“What?” Akari said, confused by his sudden change in demeanor. “Who is coming?”

“My spirit friend. The kami that have aroused all your anger will flee now.”

She turned and looked at the sea, watched a faint disturbance heading toward his dock and she thought the change she saw in the sea most odd – for a moment. A steady, purposeful motion came to them, and she was puzzled. A…kami? A spirit? Here? Visiting him?

Then a small head appeared, the first glimpse of an unseen creature as it continued its careful approach, an undeniable cadence that seemed to announce both purpose and a gentle homecoming.

Then a small sea otter flew out of the water, landing on the dock but then stopping to surveil an unforeseen development in this place. A stranger was there beside the man, her man, and her small black eyes appeared confused for a moment – before the power of their reunion became too much for her to resist. She ran to him, pulled herself up the blanket that covered his legs before she circled his neck once, then again – his smile now deep enough to warm them both. She dropped to his lap and waited, watching the stranger warily for a moment before simply ignoring the interloper. 

He gave her pieces of fish and bits of raw carrot he kept in a pocket just for her and she ate and ate and the more she consumed the happier he became, and when there was no more to give he wrapped her in some of the blanket that covered his legs. She rolled a bit, exposing her belly and he knew what she wanted now so he rubbed her cold fur, drying her with the warmth in his hands until she grew sated and soft. And then she fell asleep, giving in to this quiet place in his arms.

And Akari watched, fascinated by the transformation within this man she thought she knew so well – and she watched the little sea creature too. Until she realized with a start that she had never really known anything about this man…anything at all…but by then the unexpected contours of her realization had left her feeling breathlessly alone and unsure how to proceed. But hadn’t that always been the way where his secrets were concerned?

Yet as she watched the man she thought she knew, she began to see and understand how utterly alone he was. But hadn’t that always been the way life came to spies? Especially the old ones? With nothing left to keep them warm but the deep secrets still buried in their hearts?

Chapter Four

Tokyo | Yesterday

The matter was never in doubt. Jeremy Fontaine joined The Service when he finished his studies, and he was forthwith dispatched to No 1 Ichiban-cho, Tokyo, nominally posted as one of the many commercial attachés attached to Her Majesty’s Embassy, and once there he began to develop ties to industry and within academia. He spoke the jargon-laden lingua franca of local commerce flawlessly, and he easily mingled with elements of the PSIA when the need arose. He was, to be blunt, everything a good spy was not. Which, oddly enough, made him the perfect spy.

If spies were otherwise known to lurk about in dark shadows, Fontaine thrived in broad daylight. When he visited large industrial concerns, where his peers more typically met with layers of silence, Fontaine disarmed the subjects of his inquiries with dusty bottles of the rarest scotch whiskey. He took CEOs golfing and soon enough the privilege was reciprocated; when he let it be known that he had been playing golf since he was seven years old his stature only grew. Soon he had sponsored memberships at two of his favorite courses, the more exclusive Hirono course and then the even more spectacular Kawana Fuji course. And of course Fontaine was an active listener who never failed to pick up the rarest insight, and it was said his knowledge of nightlife in Tokyo was second to none. So yes, he was a perfect spy, even if everyone knew exactly who and what he was.

Superiors in the embassy praised the depth of insight Fontaine provided in his timely reports, which were in due course handed over to the Americans. Within a year MI6 sent him to the CIAs Field Officer’s Training Course outside of Yorktown, Virginia, thence to a language institute in Monterrey, California to study Korean. When he returned to Tokyo he was soon immersed in the day to day activities of the PSIAs Third Division of the Second Intelligence Department, in other words he was soon “monitoring” developments in North Korea.

And the perfect spy began to better understand the currency of secrecy. He became a practitioner of the art, too.

But all the real action was happening just north of the Korean peninsula, in the Tartarsky Straits, with all the various naval attachés keeping their keen eyes on developments in the latest classes of Soviet submarines, so in effect Fontaine’s efforts were usually shunted aside, put on the back burner, and though only in his late twenties he was quietly, and rather suddenly, burning out.

But then the unimaginable happened. 

He chanced to meet a girl, a Japanese girl just a few years younger than himself, and as it happened she was not a spy. Rather far from it, as luck would have it. Her name was Aki, and she was the daughter and only child of Japan’s long-term economic advisor to Japan’s current Ambassador, then posted to the United Kingdom. Without laboring the point too finely, having lived in neighborhoods around the Thames almost all her life, Aki had spent more time in and around London than Jeremy ever had, and the case could be made that she spoke the Queen’s English far better than he, as well. She attended Prior’s Field where she took high honors in chemistry and he noted she played a mean ragtime on the piano. Aki was, in short, tailor made for Jeremy Fontaine, yet even so, oddly enough, it was his mother who first thought of arranging a first meeting of the two.

After her husband, Jeremy’s father, passed, Claire Fontaine resumed her career at the Foreign Office, soon preferring to spend only infrequent weekends in Cheltenham, and in the course of her duties she routinely “interfaced” with Aki’s father, and it was during one of her meetings with Kaito-san that she first met Aki, his daughter. Currently in town for a long weekend, she was studying biochemistry at St John’s College, Cambridge, working under Frederick Sanger refining the partition chromatography method of sequencing amino acids. And, it turned out that when not so engaged she played jazz bars not all that far from Bodley’s Court. Upon learning this, Claire Fontaine knew Aki was the perfect match for her one and only.

And so it happened, only not in the manner Kaito-san and Claire Fontaine had so artfully and dutifully arranged. Yet soon enough they spent all their free time together – talking chemistry. They fell in love – discussing chemistry. They continued to see one another on a regular basis, yet before all the ensuing madness Aki’s father and Jeremy’s mother had wed. And while most of these things happened long before Aki and Jeremy ever laid adoring eyes on one another, the first most important result of this new union was Kaito-san’s summary dismissal from the diplomatic corp and his immediate return to Japan. And his new wife dutifully followed, the happy couple moving into Kaito’s family’s ancestral estate in the mountains just west of Hakodate, on the island of Hokkaido.

Yet his mother’s actions caused Jeremy no little amount of distress. She left the estate south of Cheltenham in his care, necessitating frequent trips home to manage affairs he had long taken for granted. Also, as it happened the FO, or the Foreign Office, had taken a dim view of his mother’s actions and it seemed to Jeremy that they had decided to take all their recent unhappiness out on him. So, on one of his many trips home and after being absurdly abused one time too many, Jeremy simply resigned from government. He thought about moving out to Cheltenham and might have, too, had it not been for his meeting – finally – Kaito-san’s daughter Aki.

And yes, as predicted they were indeed a perfect match. But now, with their parents out of the picture they talked long into many a night about – pursuing post-doctoral degrees, together, of course. So marriage seemed a decent way to proceed, at least until it dawned on them that pursuing such a course of action would be plainly peculiar – as technically they were now step-brother and step-sister. Hardly a relationship conducive to cultural approval, they both knew.

Ah, yes…but what about America? America – the land of constant reinvention, where those disinclined to more restrictive norms often went in search of the road less traveled? 

They talked more about the idea. They planned, then they schemed. She applied to Berkeley, he to Stanford, and upon acceptance he leased the ancient familial lands astride the Devil’s Chimney and they planned their escape to California. And yet all the while keenly knowing eyes followed him down this new, undiscovered way, for there is an old saying just as appropriate now as it ever has been, to wit: once a spy, always a spy. Which, as he was reminded just a few years later, choices always have consequences – some more deadly than others.

Chapter Five

Seattle | Today

He knew people. Human interactions had, of course, always been his medium of exchange, the currency of survival he had long collected in service of an empire that had long depended on obscure, often deliberately hidden knowledge, for its very survival. Sometimes it was the merest scrap that made all the difference, and that remained a maxim Fontaine held to even now.

He called Carolyn, as she was the one he called first when he needed specific knowledge of hidden treasures in and around Puget Sound. Because she too knew people, she maintained her own intelligence network, and when she knew what there was to know she drove over to Patrick’s impossibly gray house. Once there she stopped and looked at Sumner’s masterpiece from the street, marveled at the incongruous angularity of the architect’s secret way with hidden walls, and each time she drove up the driveway she rediscovered all the hidden gardens under their mitered glass windows and only then could she make out all the odd little statues scattered about these hidden glades – and that each seemed to mean something quite special to the man lurking within. 

What had Patrick said about all his little statues? That they were the houses of the kami that resided around the house? The ‘Spirits’ of his journey, hadn’t he told her as much? And yet even to this day, even in her white Mercedes outside the gray house surrounded by towering green pines, she saw the little statues in their hiding places and her mind drifted to other times, to the odd moments here and there when she’d asked him to explain what he meant by ‘spirits’. And yet with this strangely quiet man his reaction was, as ever, unchanging and obscure: the same odd little smile that creased the face, the clear gray eyes under gently furrowed brow darting this way and that. The same dismissive, wayward shrug of yet more secrets to be kept. 

For now. 

Almost as if he was waiting for just the right moment to set all his spirits free.

And when she rang the bell that morning – not a doorbell, mind you, but an ancient bronze bell  atop a cedar post gray with age – the slate gray door opened and the same elegant woman in black appeared. Then there was Patrick in his wheelchair, only this morning he was rolling along with the weight of the world on his straining shoulders. Into the van and across the water to Aloha Street, to the university’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, to where a confirmation of diagnosis awaited the elegant woman. 

A first meeting with the recommended oncologist Carolyn uncovered, the documents the stranger dressed in black carried by her side – on her recent journey from Hokkaido. 

Documents detailing a diagnosis of fibrillary, or diffuse, astrocytoma. 

The stranger’s documents soon reviewed by the physician Carolyn uncovered, one Scott Andrews, MD. An MRI scheduled and her first treatments organized. Within a few days Akari’s future, the oncologist told Patrick, would be mapped out – in what felt like nauseating detail. ‘Treatment will not be easy,’ the calm voice of Dr. Andrews advised the spy, ‘or pleasant, but we have had recent success with agents that might offer a meaningful extension of life.’

‘Ah,’ the spy thought, his brooding cynicism waking up, ‘so now the oncologist is selling Hope.’

He looked around the physician’s world, a world he was once more than familiar with, and he felt faint tendrils of nostalgia wrapping around the core of his soul.

‘So, when did I become such a cynic?’ 

Chapter Six

Hakodate | Yesterday

He is walking with his mother on a chilly September morning. Along a narrow trail that skims along the side of a cliff, with the sea a few hundred feet below them as they talk. A thundering surf crashes into huge rust colored rocks down there in the mist, and yet he feels fresh salt spray falling from above, coating the way ahead, turning the trail into a slippery mess of oozing mud. 

How can this be so?

“A storm is coming, Jere,” she has just said to him, her voice hiding the same subtle tremor that has over the years filled him with both fear and longing. It is the same crenelated voice he heard when she first spoke of his father’s illness, yet it is the very same as when she spoke of going to play golf – “Just the three of us…” as she would say, meaning that for once her husband was home for the weekend and they could pretend to be a family – for a while, anyway. How he longed for that feeling, even now. To be together again, the three of them. Again, forever.

He was following her along that trail, but then again, hadn’t he always been following her? Her gait was still as strong and as steady as it ever had been, yet he could – feel – something different in the air apparent, something of her tremor lingering in the mist around the trail. He watched the placement of her trekking polls, watched her boots sliding in the ooze as a particularly heavy wave slammed into the rocks below – then he pulled up short as she stopped just ahead.

She turned and looked at him. “Can you feel it?”

“The storm? Yes, I think so.”

“What else are you feeling?”

“I’m wondering when you’re going to tell me why you asked me to come?”

“Are you going to marry her?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

She turned and resumed walking, picking her way with great care now. Parts of the trail had recently washed away, leaving little chasms to be crossed, slate gray troughs lined with gravel and rock, little rivulets of clear water running back to the waiting embrace of the sea.

After several minutes more of this they came to a rocky outcrop; it first appeared to him as a great creature in the mist, almost like a huge preening falcon that has been sunning itself on the cliff, waiting to leave the safety of the rocks, perhaps to soar once again on hidden currents above these hidden seas. Then it hit home – his mother was the falconer, and she always has been. That’s why she had brought him here. She is going to let slip the falcon’s hood – so that perhaps he can see the way ahead is not without danger.

But now she pulls off her little backpack and sits on another sun-drenched rock, pulling out sandwiches and bottles of cold, still water.

“Aki’s father has Huntington’s, Jere.” She speaks the words calmly, her delivery practiced, her manner still quietly a matter of fact, like the falconer’s wrist is offered, as always, as neutral ground. She is safe. Isn’t she?

He swallows hard, tries to take a deep breath but his throat feels constricted. “Huntington’s Chorea?” he manages to say. “Is he symptomatic?”

She nods. “Yes. Just.” Her voice is clear of the tremor now, the falconer’s strength is regained.

“Oh, Mom,” the dutiful falcon says, the vice around his chest constricting tightly, rockbound in anguish as yet another secret falls away, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“And neither does Aki, Jere. He’s wants to keep it that way, too, though I think now he understands how unfair that is of him.”

“Doesn’t it skip a generation? I mean…is it a certainty that Aki will inherit?”

His mother turned away from the sea, looked away from the shadow of his doubt and then cast it aside with an errant shrug. “There’s no…no one, Jere…nothing really definitive when such things are brought up. Everything seems so very circumstantial. And, well, I’m sorry to say, but I rather think the odds are she too will be affected.”

“Mother,” says the voice with the tremor now all his own, “Aki is pregnant.”

“How pregnant?” asks the falconer.

Five months, it turned out, so far too along to even consider the usual alternatives. But then…the hammer blow, the reason for his sudden trip: “Jere. You mustn’t tell her.”

“What? Mother? How could either of you ask such a thing?”

“Because it is still her father’s wish. Please don’t put me in that position, Jere…”

“What? Just what, exactly, is the position you will be in?”

She had looked out over the sea after that, only taking time to finish her sandwich – before the falcon cried out in pain again, still waiting for release.

Chapter Seven

Seattle | Today

Akari is in radiology. Today is her MRI.

He has asked to speak with her oncologist, Dr. Andrews, in his office. The physician seems slightly put out by this intrusion but is otherwise observant and attentive, in that oblique way physicians sometimes have around relatives and the great unwashed they must so often endure. The physician’s eyes are red, his eyeglasses quiet and thick, but he smells of expensive cologne and too much red wine at lunch.

“So…Mr. Grey? Patrick Grey, you said? Say, are you the writer?”

Fontaine/Grey shrugged. “I am Akari’s father.”

The physician nodded before a sated yawn appeared. “So, what can I do for you?”

“Akari’s grandfather and mother passed from Huntington’s Chorea. She doesn’t know that. In the rather unlikely event you stumble upon markers for that disease, assuming you sequence her genes at some point, you will not tell her anything concerning this – should the subject arise. And I just wanted to be clear about that.”

And it soon became apparent that Dr. Andrews didn’t care for being told what he could and could not tell a patient in his care. His face turned scarlet, he sputtered words like ‘paternalistic crap’ and ‘disgraceful’ and peppered them with spit-covered and rather abusive epithets that sounded an awful lot like four letter words – before finishing up with a couple of spicy ‘How dare yous!’ thrown in for good measure.

“And I suppose you learned about gene sequencing on YouTube?” Andrews snarled as he stood and pointed to the door. “You! Out! Now!”

But the old spy ignored the physician. 

“Get out of my office!” Andrews thundered once again. “Now!”

So the old spy simply extended his right hand.

And the physician ignored the spy’s hand, still pointing at the door to his office.

And so then the spy spoke.

“Thank you for your time,” Fontaine/Grey said as he made to leave.

But there was something in the spy’s eyes that gave the physician a moment of pause. Something akin to flashing red lights and blaring klaxons. 

“Tell me something, Mr. Grey. Are you the writer of those spy stories?”

The spy looked at the physician, his eyes now brooding and dark. “They aren’t stories, Doctor. They are more like…recollections…of events,” he said, his voice low and clear, and perhaps even a little menacing, “though of course some events had to be cleared by the agencies involved.”

“I see. I enjoyed the last one very much. Did you study chemistry?”

“I did, yes,” the spy said, his voice now – like his eyes – slipping into façades still too readily deployed.

“Akari’s mother, I assume, was a carrier?”

“She was, yes.”

“I’m so sorry. Was it her wish that you not tell Akari?”

The pain is as inescapable now as it ever was on that day. Yet even now, so caught up is he in the suffocating web of secrecy that has defined his life, the falcon still cannot fly. He can only nod before he turns and leaves the room.

Chapter Eight

Palo Alto | Yesterday

Akari is nursing contentedly on her mother’s breast; a soft, warm breeze caressing mother and daughter through open windows, a soft lullaby of redwood and eucalyptus drifting slowly through another lavender afternoon. Aki is asleep, lost in dreams of Cambridge, of the long walks she used to take beside the river. Maybe it’s the lacework of lavender on the arbor, or the gentle way of the sun-kissed warmth carried on the languid breezes, but these dreams feel so real to her, so real she wants to reach out and hold on to each new lucid moment before they fade away in wakefulness.

Jeremy is ‘at work,’ at Stanford, or whatever that means. He is supposed to be working in a doctoral program there, yet it is, apparently, a program people around campus don’t talk about. It is, she heard once, a Dark Program, a course of study concerning Very Dark Things. She suspects he is working on some kind of biological warfare project, yet she just isn’t sure, not really. And though the possible nature of his work bothers her, it is the careless evasions he hurls indiscriminately that hurt the most.

He seems to live in a world of secrets, where lies and deceit are intertwining strands of the sacred rituals he lives by. When she asks what he’s working on at school he mumbles and shrugs as he helps get dinner ready, muttering incoherently about recombinant this and bivalent that and in the end he really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And yet that lack of meaning feels deliberate, and thoughtlessly so, as evasions tend to be. Because she has driven him to campus, usually to the Gilbert Building but more often to the Beckman Center facility at the Medical School, and she has seen other teachers and students there greet him knowingly, so at least she knows he isn’t lying to her – about working there, anyway. But even so – the feeling persists: there is something inherently wrong, almost evil, in his evasions.

And now her father has grown silent. He used to call every Saturday morning, but not recently. She has taken to calling him instead, yet Claire always answers the phone – and she wonders why this is so. “He is napping,” Claire says. Or: “He is out on the golf course.” And now her father is always just beyond her reach, and she is grasping for reasons, reaching out in the darkness, her hands enmeshed in more spiders’ webs. Why has he turned away? From her. From his granddaughter? Why? Always—why?

And then the call she has been waiting for comes just as Akari finishes feeding at her mother’s breast. The telephone is close by so she doesn’t even have to disturb her daughter, and then in an instant her father is on the line. He is coming to San Francisco later that week. He would like to see her, and of course he wants to spend time with his granddaughter.

Aki is ecstatic. It is as if her dreams are coming to life, and all Jeremy’s evasions are summarily forgotten, discarded, thrown out with yesterday’s trash. In a manic race against time she sets about cleaning their little bungalow, sprucing up the garden and the backyard where Akari and her grandfather will play.

Jeremy takes note of the change as soon as he gets in from school. Suddenly surrounded by her boundless energy, at first he is amused by the change that has come over Aki. But then the ragged contours of mania, of another manic episode, take shape in the rooms around the little house. He gropes in the dark for explanations, paying no mind at all to his own role in the looming collision; all he sees is his wife – coming undone in the grips of another unexpected hysteria. 

His first impulse has been to regard these manic tirades as some sort of hormonal thing – “because she is, after all, female.” But no, that isn’t quite right, nor is it fair – because he knows how invested she is in all her father’s comings and goings. This feels, to him, more like a fault slipping deep within the earth, unseen and barely remembered until the plates let go – in that first surreal moment when the rolling tremor begins. But then the inherent dichotomies of his own life take charge and he falls into the search for a mystical explanation rooted in thoughts of karma: he is soon left to consider that this outburst might be an awakening of the ancestral spirits that surround her. And if this is so, have these spirits come to guide her, or to warn him?

Chapter Nine

Seattle | Today

Akari is standing on the deck – alone with her thoughts. With her fears.

The spy is in his wheelchair. In his white living room, with a small fire set on iron grates now a fading glow above bricks blackened by time. He is watching Akari, thinking about the little bungalow in Palo Alto and the life together that almost was. Before their life turned to silence and everything fell into the sea. Yet even now his thoughts roam through time to those last precious moments together. To Aki, his wife. Akari’s mother. To all the things that vanished in the heat of sudden release.

Akari had, like her mother, grown up away from Japan, yet never was she fully removed from Japanese life and customs. Indeed, she always carried little pieces of Japan with her everywhere she went. Rocks large and small, but always either black rocks or white, and always from the sea beneath her grandfather’s houses. Pinecones and pine-needles too, yet only from the forests around her family’s ancient estate. And an arrow, at least for a while, that had once been split by another incoming arrow. But that was a secret she never talked about.

And that secret, like all the rest, began to unravel one day in Palo Alto. The day her grandfather came to visit. The last time, as it happened.

But the spy’s mind snapped back to the present, to Akari standing on the pier, staring into the water. He watched her watching the sea, unsure in that moment where her mind roamed. Would the otter come, he wondered? Could Akari possibly understand something so obvious?

Try as she might, Carolyn had not once seen the otter – despite many attempts. She had heard of Patrick’s encounters with the creature often enough; word of these strange communions was common knowledge down here along the water by the locks. Patrick’s house, despite all his intentions to the contrary, had become a very public place – no secrets allowed. Boats, from yachts to fishing trawlers coming in after weeks at sea, passed by the striking gray house, the one with the old man in his wheelchair often seen out on the tidy little private pier. Because not long after the old man moved into the gray house an otter appeared, and now it seemed that the little creature came to the old man almost every evening, and that, from a distance, it appeared as if the otter and the man in the wheelchair were speaking to one another. Soon enough photos of the encounters popped up on Instagram and Facebook, and some weekend evenings small crowds of boats gathered in the waters off the striking gray house and the gathered people waited to see what would happen.

And there were nights the old spy rolled down the pier right to the water’s edge and he waited there for the otter, seemingly willing her to appear. Yet there were evenings, usually when the largest crowds appeared, when she never came to him. And then the people saw that the old man was worried – even as all the disappointed boaters went back through the locks to Lake Union. 

Yet then, but only after all the noisome crowds dissipated, she came to him. And those who watched from a distance began to understand.

Yet after more than a year of hearing about all this, Carolyn had still not seen even one of these encounters. Like everyone else she wondered what they were all about, but like all the rest she found herself caught up in the deeper mysteries surrounding these encounters. She began to search for something that might explain the man, the creature, and the Spirit Gardens around the strange gray house. But once she started down that path the next most obvious question came to her quite naturally: what was the relationship between the statues in Patrick’s little gardens and this otter? 

Because for some reason Carolyn was sure there was a connection, and an important one at that.

“Why are such statues placed in these little gardens?” she asked him once, after she’d returned him from another doctor’s appointment. 

“They are homes, homes for the spirits that follow me from time to time,” he explained.

“What?” she barked, suddenly thinking her best-selling author might just be a nut case.

“In Shinto, spirits roam both the heavens and the earth, yet when they are here among us they need places to stay.”

“Spirits? You mean…like ghosts?”

The spy smiled. “Not always, but then again, yes, a kami might reside in the spirit world, for a time. But it is important to remember that kami are like us in many ways; they are not simply good or evil – they are often a little bit of both. Precocious, you could say. Even more difficult to grasp, these spirits are not separate from the natural world, but they are, rather, of that world. A kami, or what you call a spirit, might not reside in a rock – rather than simply be of the rock. So kami will not, in that sense, be like a breeze, rather they are quite literally the breeze, so when you look at one of my little gardens focus on what your eye is led to, then let your thoughts stay there for a while. Focus. Drift inward. It is said that in time, when your thoughts become one with the kami, that you can watch a rock grow, or see the breeze as it moves through its sky.”

“So, you’re saying that these spirits, these kami…they live…in your gardens…?”

“Not exactly, Carolyn. It is a more direct relationship than that. The garden, or I should say the individual elements within the garden, like that rock by the lantern, may be kami. The garden is simply a part of their journey, perhaps a place of rest along their way. Of more importance, these gardens are a place to reflect on my own journey.”

She looked at him carefully now, unsure how to proceed before deciding to go for broke. “So, tell me about the otter?”

“Tell you what, exactly, Carolyn?” the spy replied.

“Is this otter, well, some kind of kami?”

But the spy relaxed just a bit, then he smiled – even as he shrugged – and a little playfully, too, or so she remembered thinking at the time. “Sometimes, Carolyn,” he finally sighed, “an otter is just an otter.”

And yet there are times when everything falls apart, even the idea of kami, under the weight of just one more secret. Some call this bad karma, though it must be said that this is usually whispered with a gently knowing smile.

Chapter Ten

Palo Alto | Yesterday

Aki had been scrubbing the bungalow, making the old house ready for her father’s visit. Jere had mown the grass twice this week, and he dropped a sack of nitrogen rich fertilizer on the lawn two days before D-Day, watering everything until the grass looks like it belonged on a travel poster extolling the virtues of Irish dairy products. There wasn’t a single weed to be found in any one of the half dozen flower beds around the pristine little yard, and he’d even touched up some peeling paint on the garage door. The place, he thought, was spotless – so clean it might easily pass a cadet inspection at Sandhurst.

A black limousine pulled up out front and a driver exited and removed a wheelchair from the Cadillac’s boot, and now Aki stands quite still, almost like an English Setter on point. She watched as Claire helped her father from the back seat, and she was mortified when she realized her father could hardly stand on his own. Claire wheeled Kaito-san to the front porch, but there were four steps here and no ramp for Kaito-san’s wheelchair. He stood and Jere helped him up the stairs, and Jere could see now with his own eyes Kaito-san’s rapid decline, and he was stunned speechless. Once Akari’s grandfather was wheeled into the living room the little girl turned away from the sight of the crippled old man, and everyone in the room was devastated – Aki most of all.

Though everyone there is fluent in Japanese, English is the chosen language, yet one moment Kaito-san can hardly speak coherently, then he speaks clearly – until his head jerks sideways and his eyes roll upwards. He reaches for Claire’s hand, obviously an agreed upon signal that she will break the news and lead all further discussion.

“Aki,” Claire began, “your father loves you. He wants you to know that now, and he wants you to remember that in the years ahead.”

But Aki is a biochemist. She teaches biochemistry. She understands the chemistry of neurodegenerative disorders, and even the classifications of such disorders, so when she observes her fathers rolling shoulder movements and his twitching hands she understands what has befallen him.

“How far along is he, symptomatically?” she asked, her voice a cool, gray monotone.

“More than a year,” Claire said.

Aki turns to her father. “How long have you known?” she asked him.

“He’s known all his life,” Claire stated.

Aki turned to her husband. The spy. The expert at keeping secrets. “And how long have you known?”

But the spy turned away from her words and walked from the room.

“I see,” Aki says, her mind taking flight in this suddenly altered reality.

Now quite alarmed by the sorrow consuming the people in the room, Claire tries to intercede. “Aki, Jere didn’t find out until it was too late to stop the pregnancy. Your father asked that we keep this from you, at least until he knew more about…”

“Keep this,” Aki whispered, clearly stunned as Claire’s words crushed inward, “from me?”

And then, as her mind ran into the future – and, in effect, now that she knew what form Death would assume when It came for her – her eyes turned to her daughter, her future too suddenly inescapable and vulnerable – and like herself, so innocent of the crimes that had just been revealed. Then confusion began to distort reality… 

…and Aki reached for the rage suddenly consuming her being, turning first on her father – and then she pointed at the front door. “Please, leave!” she screamed, her voice scraping along the ragged edge of despair. Then she turned to Claire, and her husband: “Now! Get out of my house, all of you!”

And Claire watched helplessly as, a few minutes later, her son too came out of the house and down the walkway, two suitcases in hand. She was about to say something to him but he walked right past the limousine and to an old olive brown XKE in the driveway. There was, she knew, no room left for words between them now. His wounds were too deep, because words cut deeper than the sharpest sword. 

“Go to him,” Kaito-san advised, his sodden voice a crushed monotone. “Go, while you still have time.”

But Claire rolled up the window and turned to the driver. “Take us to the airport, please.”

And yet Jeremy was hardly aware of his mother’s departure, so vicious were Aki’s words, so deep were the wounds she left him with. He started the car but could not move, could not force his hands to operate the controls. He looked up in time to see the door to his life slam shut, and suddenly it was so hot inside the little interior he could hardly breathe.

Chapter Eleven

Seattle | Today

Akari is resting, wrapped in a blanket on a brown vinyl recliner, laying almost flat with her feet up. An IV line is hooked-up to a port under her left clavicle, and though she is sleeping, sweat has formed on her brow. The spy sits in his wheelchair by her side; he looks up from time to time and makes sure the blanket she has pulled up to her chin is still where she wants it – before turning back to the book in his hand. The book is a lavishly illustrated volume from the Cornell Ornithology Center titled The Owls of North America, and he has, apparently, finished reading about half of the book.

The room is about the size of a basketball court and there are sixty recliners here, and this morning every recliner has a patient, each with an IV running. One or two family members attend each patient, and a low-grade fear permeates everything in the giant room. A nurse comes by and changes Akari’s IV to a potent anti-nausea medication that they finish up each chemotherapy session with, and she smiles at Patrick Grey then looks at the book in his hand. “Are you interested in birds?” she asks, her voice barely more than a whisper.

The spy nods, and he tries – without much success – to smile. 

The nurse has seen this old man at every single chemo session – yet he almost never speaks – and in the nurse’s experience this is quite unusual. When most family members enter the room they are beyond scared – at least for the first few sessions – then the fear begins to subside, little by little, session by session. The room is filled with parents and their children, husbands with their wives, even a few of the forlorn and forsaken. The room is a war zone; the room a purgatory where winners and losers wait to be sorted out. Everyone in the room, absolutely everyone, is all too aware of the consequences that awaits the loser – yet this old man seems unfazed by all that. He doesn’t chatter on and on about how many people are getting chemo or the weather outside or even the latest football standings.

No. He seems untouched by the fear in the room.

And yet she understands. Or at least she thinks she does.

So when she leaves she reaches out and puts her hand on his shoulder as she passes. It is a friendly gesture. Innocent in the extreme.

And she is finally surprised – when he stiffens and pulls away.

“Are you alright?” the nurse asks – reflexively.

But now it is like the old man has donned a new mask; he is all smiles and suddenly very polite.  “Yes. So sorry…” he seems to say, then he thanks her for her empathy. Her empathy? And in all her years of nursing no one has ever spoken so obliquely, or in a voice so paternalistically manipulative. She nods and walks away, suddenly wary of the old man – because now she realizes he is anything but nice. Indeed, she is now more than a little scared of this old soul.

Chapter Twelve

Cheltenham | Yesterday

Jeremy Fontaine can’t think anymore. He is beyond tired.

Working once again at his father’s beloved GCHQ, he now finds himself putting in fourteen hour days at JTLS, the Joint Technical Language Service; he is translating SIGINT – Signals Intelligence – emanating from North Korea. Most of the intercepts come directly to Cheltenham from Royal Navy submarines operating covertly out of Japan, snapping up chatter between the Mayang Do Naval Base and the smaller naval station at Osang-Dong. The reason for all the excitement is simple enough: a Soviet Grisha III Class anti-submarine corvette had made an unscheduled port call at Osang-Dong and was now docked along the concrete quay on the south side of the small, deep water harbor. An American KH-11 Kennen 1010 satellite imaged the base a few hours after the ship’s arrival and just minutes later the first images were downloaded; telephones started ringing in Langley and Whitehall after that, and had been ever since.

And as Jeremy Fontaine was the only TS-cleared linguist on duty, and because he was fluent in Korean, Russian, and Japanese, he was now knee deep inside a clandestine weapons operation – which was a far cry from sorting through the biochemical warfare intel he was usually tasked to. Before he knew what was happening he was on the A40 bound for RAF Brize Norton, and once there he was shuttled out onto the apron to a waiting RAF L-1011 bound for Yokohama.

When the dust had settled some ten days later, the illegally delivered Russian SA-9 SAM launchers had been reloaded onto the Reshitelny and the corvette soon departed for her home port of Khabarovsk, leaving Fontaine conveniently stranded in Japan. Once cleared to leave, he hopped on an ANA YS-11 bound for Sapporo’s Okadama airport, then he found a seat on the afternoon Hakodate line railway service.

On the platform in Hakodate he called the number his mother had given him, only to find she was in town at the main hospital, Hakodate National. He set off to find a taxi, then rode across town in dense, late afternoon traffic – and by now he was completely exhausted. He found her outside of Kaito-san’s room, speaking to his step-father’s physician, and she appeared miserable – at least until her son walked up unannounced and so quite literally out of the blue.

Wide-eyed and stunned into grateful silence, she fell into his arms.

Kaito-san, it now appeared, had lost all almost cognitive function. He could no longer speak. He no longer understood the basics of day-to-day life – such as telling time and the necessity of eating food or drinking fluids. The physician, a neurologist, was trying to convey the available options, notably inserting a gastric feeding tube to keep her husband alive, but the physician had an open sheaf of papers in hand and he had been waving them about until Jere walked up. They were copies of Kaito-san’s Advance Directive, papers drawn up by lawyers detailing what was to be done once this state of dissolution was reached.

“There is very little I can do for your husband now,” the physician sighed, shrugging helplessly. “It is time to move him to hospice.”

And Jere looked at the physician. “Is there any mention of his daughter in those papers? Did he want her to come home to say goodbye?”

Yes, that was exactly what Aki’s father had expressed, only now that it was too late for her to have a meaningful conversation with her father, would she even come?

“Jere? Could you call her?” his mother asked. “I’m not sure I’d know what to say…”

So he went to the house and waited for the time zones to catch up to him, then he called her. She told him that she would come, but only if he was nowhere to be seen.

“Do you really hate me so much?” he asked.

“You have no idea,” she started to say, but her voice trailed off in lingering defeat.

“How is Akari?” he whispered, afraid of her next words.

“She is none of your concern.”

“Aki, I am her father; of course she is my concern.”

“You will have your time with her,” she snarled, her words sharp and cruel.

“I didn’t do this to you.”

“You kept it from me—you and your secrets! How dare you imply innocence.”

“I wonder, Aki. What would you have done if our roles had been reversed?”

There followed a long pause, then a hard swallowing sound over the long-distance connection. “I do not know,” she finally answered, her voice little more than an echo of the hollow life she had created for herself and her daughter.

“When you figure it out, would you let me know?”

“No. Never.”

“Did you ever love me?” he whispered.

“No. Never. I despised you from the moment I first laid eyes on you?”

He laughed at that, remembering their first few days together. “Yes, I felt exactly the same way,” he said, adding a thoughtful chuckle. “As a matter of fact, I’ve never had lips so chapped.”

“Don’t do this to me, Jere. Leave me to my hate, it is better than the house of secrets you made for us.”

“It makes no sense to do this, Aki. We had so much love to give our little girl, for each…”

But then the line went dead.

“So,” his mother said, “she hung up on you?”

He nodded. “I pushed her too hard.”

“Is she coming?”

Again he nodded. “As long as I’m not here—yes.”

“Then she can rot in Hell,” Claire sighed, her anger pushing aside all else. “I need you here with me, and so here you will stay.”

He turned and looked at his mother, not at all sure what he felt or even what to say, but he was angry – and he knew it was never a good idea to speak when anger was building – so he simply went to his room and packed his suitcase.

And she said not a word to her son as he left her husband’s ancient estate. 

He returned to Yokohama and then returned to Cheltenham, to the inherent sanity of his father’s ancient estate…and to the cold warmth of the many secrets he had surrounded himself with.

Chapter Thirteen

Seattle | Today

Akari was in the hospital again, her white count perilously low – again. She was in isolation, receiving platelets and now even more powerful anti-nausea meds. All her hair had long since fallen away, every bit of it, everywhere. The eyebrows had been hardest of all, and he’d heard that those – sometimes – didn’t ever grow back. How odd, he thought at the time. So many of our first impressions come to us by way of eyebrows, and now his daughter looked almost like a stranger without them. How odd. Yes, very odd. She was the same person, after all.

Or…was she. Cancer changes people. Cancers in the brain often produce stunning changes, but so far Akari seemed exactly as she had been – before. Would she emerge on the other side of this ordeal as the same person she had been? Would she emerge – at all? Or…was it time to act?

Carolyn was in the kitchen tossing a salad and he was in his chair, rolled up hard by the large windows that looked out over the sound, and the sun was already behind the Olympic Range – the lingering sky purple streaked with ambers and orange. He focused on the sky now, if only because when he closed his eyes he saw Akari in that dreadful hospital bed, leaning over the rail on her side while she retched into a blue plastic pail. 

He saw Carolyn’s reflection in the window, saw that she was staring at him now, her inert hands still on the salad tongs. She looked down at the salad then carried the bowl to the table, then she moved to scramble an egg for him – and he watched her, covertly, as she moved about his kitchen.

‘Isn’t that strange? She’s my agent and yet she’s the only friend I have left in the world.’

Kaito-san had been a friend, in a way, yet there had always been an uncomfortable distance between them. He’d had so-called friends at GCHQ, even a few kind souls at the Wheatsheaf Pub down the way that were good for a talk – but where were they now? ‘Gone, just like all those other lives that drifted in and out over the years.’

Yet right now there was the lone reflection in the glass, the friend who collected her percentage – yet even so here she was, despite having nothing to gain.

‘Is that friendship?’ the voice beside the thought wanted to know.

She finished his scramble and called him to the table. Everything was just as if he had made it himself. “Have you watched me so well?” he asked. 

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“You’ve made eggs just as I do. Spinach, mushrooms, and no fat at all. And the salad, just as I make mine. Amazing…!”

She grimaced – a good-natured, self-deprecating thing. “I guess I’ve watched you a few times too many, huh?”

He rolled closer to the table and took a bite of egg. “Perfect!” he shouted. “It’s bloody-well perfect!”

She grinned again, and an unexpected, contented warmth spread across her face. “You’ll have to show me how to do the artichoke hearts someday,” she blushed.

“My word, but I am surprised. Do go ahead and dig in.”

“I know I’ve never asked, but are you a vegan?”

“Me? Good God, no. If my blood pressure could stand it, I’d love nothing more than a pound of bacon on my next cheeseburger.”

“Really?”

“Yes, yes, but don’t go on about will power because its nothing of the sort. Good old fear of death has worked for me, and very well, too.”

“That’s funny. I can’t picture you afraid of anything.”

He looked up from his plate and studied her for a moment. “Why haven’t you remarried?”

“Scared, I guess. Too many bad memories.”

“Oh? How so?”

“He turned out to be abusive. More verbally than anything else, but he was intimidating, too. Physically, I mean. Kind of like a bully – but there was an anger in him he just couldn’t shake…and when he started to take things out on me? Well, living with someone who’s scaring you when they’re supposed to be the one you trust?”

“Did I hear once that he was stalking you?” he asked.

“No, not really. And about six months after the ink was dry on the divorce papers he up and moved to Boston, got married and had a whole bunch of kids…”

“So, you think that was it? Just bad chemistry between the two of you?”

“I don’t know, Patrick, I really don’t. Sometimes I think there was just something about me that punched all the wrong buttons, or maybe I was punching his and didn’t know it…”

“I’m not so sure I’d blame myself for someone else’s issues, Carolyn, but that doesn’t really answer my question. You’re what? Not even fifty and still living alone?”

“Patrick? I could ask you the same thing, you know? Problem is…I’m just like everyone else in the world. I don’t know the slightest thing about you, and I don’t even know who that girl is and I’ve been driving you two up to the cancer center for weeks now…”

He smiled. The same warm smile he always used to deflect questions he didn’t want to answer. “Fair enough,” he just managed to say, putting his fork down on the white plate. “She’s my daughter, Carolyn.”

Carolyn leaned back in her chair and smiled. “Your daughter? And here I thought she was, oh, I don’t know, like some kind of exotic old flame – you know…like the one who got away?”

He looked down, crossed his hands on his lap. “The one who got away,” he mumbled at his fingers. “My, but isn’t that rich.”

Chapter Fourteen

Hakodate | Yesterday

Kaito-san’s family lineage stretched back at least a thousand years – at least Kaito-san had stated so on more than one occasion – and if the size and grandeur of the estate was any measure of the claim Jeremy had no cause to doubt it.  In winter the grounds were rather bleak, yet spring and summer brought on magical explosions of color, but it was autumn when the place seemed to come into its own.

The main house was now almost three hundred years old, and as a registered Special Historic Site it was open to both visiting scholars and – twice a year – to the public, and as such, the old house was used more for special ceremonies and had no longer been a daily residence for almost a hundred years. The new residence was architecturally similar to the old, but it had been built in the 1950s and renovated once since. While the new house would never have been mistaken for a western residence, the rooms were climate controlled and there was even a modern bathroom or two. When Claire moved into the new house, however, Kaito-san took note of her obvious discomfort and he had plans drawn up for a new wing, with rooms fitted-out to western sensibilities.

Now, with Kaito-san near death, Jeremy was alone in one of the large visitor suites in the new wing, and he was staring at the gardens on the other side of a huge plate glass window that seemed purpose built to make the landscape feel part of the interior. Maples were ablaze in all their autumnal glory, and red leaves were falling onto the gently rolling stream that meandered through the gardens on its way to the sea. Across the garden, lost among stands of towering pines, was the old residence; huge timbers now gray with the passage of time, amber shoji screens leading to candlelit rooms, the scene quiet, almost austere – yet elegant.

Aki was on the other side of the garden now; she was staying in the old house, keeping to the formal rigidity of other times. And as they remained – technically, at least – married, she remained Jeremy’s wife – and she was, therefore, duty-bound to treat her husband with respect. As he too was required to treat her. There was, of course, an ancient teahouse on the grounds, up the gently sloping hill behind the old house. It too was designed and built in another era, a slower time paced to allow life to unfold along the more or less predetermined lines of feudal society.

But then the thought comes to him unasked: Has so much changed? Are our problems really so different? 

So…why not a tea ceremony. And – perhaps – the formal reconciliation that such ceremonies enshrine in tradition?

So far Aki had eluded him; only Claire had been allowed to visit her – and Akari – in the old house. And only after that meeting had Claire been permitted to take Akari to see her father, to talk as grandfather to granddaughter might – under better circumstances. And as Aki had allowed no further contact between them, and as her Will seemed unshakeable, the spy seemed at a loss. 

So he asked his mother about a formal tea ceremony, and how she thought Aki might respond to such a formalized request. He knew that, per ancient custom, such a request could not be denied without grounds – and as such it might be the only way he could break down the wall Aki had erected between them. Still, his participation could backfire spectacularly. He had no training in how to conduct himself during such a highly ritualized, intimately choreographed ceremony, and in the end all he might accomplish was a staggering embarrassment that would kill off the last tattered remnants of their marriage.

And would such an invitation even be appropriate – at a time like this? The family was gathered here in the shadow of Kaito-san’s looming death, so how could a reconciliation between them take place without Death casting long shadows over everything he said or tried to do?

Yet his mother was uncharacteristically sanguine about the idea. “Well, you certainly have nothing to lose,” she said later that afternoon while on a slow walk through the old garden. “And who knows? Perhaps an appeal to tradition might be just what she needs right now. But Jere, you must understand that such an invitation must come from your hand, not mine.”

“Of course,” the spy said.

But then he received an invitation from Kaito-san. One last meeting between them was requested, in the hospital, and early the next morning. Auspicious timing or not, he would ask her father what he thought of the idea. Could the tea ceremony bring them back together?

And then how strange that last night had become.

Sleep without rest, quiet rain falling on reddened leaves – everything waiting on a response from the too quiet earth. And then something deep within gave way and he was left to stand inside some kind of new silence, trapped now outside the space between the sun and the moon. What was happening to him?

He felt translucent, lifeless. Like a ghost might feel.

Like he was standing on the precipice between light and dark, between life and spirit.

A sudden movement – caught his eye – and he walked to the huge plate glass window that overlooked the garden, his mind searching for movement in the dark rain. What had the spies in Virginia taught him? Stand still – become as one with the darkness and let movement come to you, use averted vision to focus on the threat – then move decisively.

Yet this new place was without light and sound; black clouds hung so low and thick that not even the lights of the city made it to this place. 

He remembered thinking how impossibly dark that night became – until he heard the cries of two women split the night.

And while the cries still pierced the night he saw, on a low-slung branch hanging out over the garden, his first signs of movement. Pale and gray, up in a tree. Dark and so very still. Patient, like a predator. Like death. 

Then a jolt of recognition. An owl, huge and white, was up there, searching eyes full of amber as they found their way to him. And in another jarring instant he realized it was Kaito-san out there on the low lying branches of the tree, and in the next instant he understood why he had heard two birds sing their song of sorrow to the waiting earth.

Chapter Fifteen

Seattle | Today

Kaito-san’s swords still waited over the fireplace, their song unfinished.

Carolyn was in the kitchen, finishing the dishes. Waiting to hear the rest of the story.

He turned and stared at the short sword until he could no longer stand the sight of it, then he turned away and looked off into the darkness.

“You have some Drambuie in the cabinet,” she called out. “Should I pour one glass, or two?”

“Two,” he replied as he pushed the door aside and rolled out onto the deck, his eyes adjusting to the darkness beyond the night. He threw a couple of cedar logs onto the fire pit and just managed to get them going, their warmth pulling him in and holding him close, and he watched the flickering line between shadow and night playing out on the deck, a dance caught out of time – as always with no resolution but time.

He felt a blanket and closed his eyes, tried to remember his mother protecting him from other chills, then he saw Carolyn sitting across from him in the firelight. She was such an unambiguous creature, even now, after almost five years.

He saw the glasses she had carried out and nodded. “Thanks. I may need a little liquid courage tonight.”

“Is that so? Because Akari is your daughter?”

“Yes. Yes she was, once upon a time.”

“Once upon a time? Divorce, you mean?”

He shook his head as he took a sip of liqueur. “No, not really. She was my daughter, you see – right up to the moment…” But he stopped talking, looked out into the night – until he saw her swimming his way – and then his heart leapt with joy. ‘Oh, Aki,’ he sighed, ‘please don’t leave me again.’

“What did you say?”

But the spy simply shook away the intrusive question, kept his eye on the otter approaching the pier – until she burst free of the water and scurried across the sanded redwood planks to his chair. And in the next instant the otter was a writhing mass of fur spinning in and out of his grasp – until she finally settled inside the blanket bundled around his neck.

“You know,” Carolyn whispered, “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching this…”

The otter slid down onto his chest and so throned she stared into the old spy’s eyes, and perhaps she too was mesmerized by the flames playing within the infinite reflections she experienced again and again.

Chapter Sixteen

Hakodate | Yesterday

Kaito-san’s lineage was samurai, and ancient. That his line of the family had ended up on Hokkaido was no accident of birth, either. His great-great grandfather had been given a large fiefdom near Hakodate almost two hundred years ago, the bestowal presumably a just reward for decades of faithful service to the Emperor, yet the real reason came down to brute-force politics. A years long struggle for the shogunate ended with the ascension of the older brother and the forced exile of the younger – so the trick had been to make exile somehow feel like victory. And yet some had wondered if the Shogun had not been too generous with this huge bestowal.

Kaito-san’s grandfather had set about developing deep ties with the military liaisons from both France and Britain and soon enough it seemed to many in Edo that as military power shifted away from medieval methods, real power began to shift towards those with the strongest network of alliances with western governments. While this mad rush got underway, Kaito-san’s grandfather further consolidated power by developing the means to keep Russia away from the home islands, at least until he could build a strong enough navy to take out Russia’s Imperial Navy, and by the time this consolidation was complete the younger brother’s political dynasty was assured.

Yet something unexpected happened to the heirs of this dynasty. They traveled to Europe and then to the Americas, they went to schools in Britain and Switzerland and eventually, God forbid, in California, and they in time began to view themselves as not simply citizens of the Japanese Empire but rather more as citizens of the world. They loved Japan, especially the cooler northern islands of their home, but the more they traveled and the more they experienced other points of view the more tolerant they became, so by the time war seemed inevitable, in the late-1930s, the more a deep despair filled their hearts.

After the war ended, and after Kaito-san’s father returned to Hokkaido, it did not take long for the boy to craft his return to Britain; before too many years passed Kaito-san was studying in Oxford, and not long after graduation he was working at the embassy in London. He married the woman that suited his family and they had a daughter – Aki – yet it was this young woman’s misfortune to be raised between two cultures while never really belonging to either. She was, she always felt, on the outside – looking in. Never British, yet rarely did she consider herself Japanese – especially after one of her infrequent trips home – when she began to feel like she was living at one of life’s more oblique margins. Soon she pursued academic interests – if only because it was in the less restrictive yet somehow more confining classroom that she felt a more secure sense of belonging.

Yet as a Japanese national in Britain she was frequently the target of real racial animus, though by the 1960s the worst of these influences were on the wane. When one professor at Cambridge dug into her radical background a little too disparagingly she ran home for a time, only to be hit by another wave self-recrimination when ‘friends’ in Hakodate characterized her as a dedicated anglophile. And then her mother passed away, reopening old wounds once again – for her mother had never once felt any comfort when residing in London. 

After her return to England she met Jeremy, and he seemed to dote of Aki’s Japanese heritage – which only confused her more. Yet it was his intention to run away to California – to reinvent themselves, or so he claimed – that seemed to carry the day. By that point Aki was as culturally confused as she could possibly have been, and California offered a kind of anonymity that at first appeared comfortably attractive, so she leapt at the chance to escape this first trap she had constructed for herself. Settling into suburban life in Palo Alto and going to school in Berkeley, surrounded as it was by one of the most liberal academic communities in the United States, might have freed her from this trap…at least had it not been for the secrecy surrounding her father’s Huntington’s diagnosis. As it was, all her walls fell at once, leaving her wounded and exposed once again – and feeling more that a little self-destructive. Ridding herself of Jeremy was perhaps her last, most desperate act of self annihilation, yet not even he saw that for what it truly was.

With Jeremy now expelled from their lives, Aki and Akira drifted on unseen currents. Aki recognized the precariousness of their existence and sought help; her first attempts to speak to traditional psychotherapists proved uninteresting, so she latched onto the more radical approach to dealing with emotional interventions afforded by Linus Pauling’s Orthomolecular Medicine Institute. As a biochemist herself she was perhaps more inclined to accept the extreme nutritional guidelines the institute prescribed, yet within months she began to feel not just better, but almost reborn.

When she heard the latest rumors that Jeremy was working on some kind of advanced biological warfare program she secured Akira and herself behind increasingly opaque layers of anonymity, and in time she grew revolted with the idea that she had ever allowed herself be seduced by such a two-faced monster… 

Chapter Seventeen

Seattle | Today

The spy was sitting in his study on the telephone, listening to the oncologist’s report while sitting at his desk. Akira’s white counts were still perilously low and there was still no sign chemotherapy had had any measurable impact on the tumor in her brain. The spy asked questions, surprisingly informed questions that rattled the oncologist, then the spy hung up the phone and turned to look out the window. High in one of the pines along the water’s edge he saw the owl, and then he saw the owl was staring – at him.

“I know, Kaito-san,” the spy said. “I know what I must do. I will not fail in my duty to you again.”

He made two calls, the second to Carolyn. He asked her to pick him up later that afternoon and drive him to the airport, and though surprised she dutifully agreed. Jeremy never traveled by air these days, and he never, ever went anywhere alone.

Something, she realized, must be terribly wrong.

Chapter Eighteen

Hakodate | Yesterday

The spy followed all the prescribed rules of the tea ceremony; what to say, how to write what he needed to convey, everything he could imagine. He was, ensconced as he was inside Kaito-san’s sprawling residence, surrounded by experts who all seemed most eager to help. The best calligrapher was summoned and an impossibly simple – yet profoundly elegant – invitation was crafted, and accompanied by his mother he delivered it to Aki. She dutifully accepted the scroll and retired to consider the entreaty. 

The tea house would be prepared and made ready for the ceremony two nights hence, and Aki sent word to Jeremy that as it was her duty to attend she would of course be there. Yet almost from the moment she had first read the invitation, Aki had felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Could they finally reconcile their differences – not just their personal differences but the lingering cultural differences that had suddenly loomed so large? Or were the differences between their worlds simply too great? 

At least, she told herself, he was trying. Couldn’t she meet him halfway?

Word spread throughout the vast residence of the reunion, and there was a freshening in the air, something almost like an early spring. Jeremy was fitted for a proper kimono – deepest red with a single white cherry blossom – and he was also directed to include Kaito-san’s swords in his ensemble. Because they were his now. 

His? 

Surely not. He wasn’t samurai, so how could this be?

And when the anointed hour came Aki waited for him. And she waited. Until word came to her, of some kind of emergency – some kind of biochemical emergency – in Tokyo. Terrorists were reportedly involved, thousands were allegedly at risk.

And she knew then that he had made his choice.

The gulf between them had been too great after all.

Chapter Nineteen

Seattle | Today

The spy sat on his deck overlooking Puget Sound, a small Yeti cooler by his feet and two large manila envelopes resting under his hand on the varnished redwood table. It was late afternoon and two gardeners lingered not far away, cleaning away a few weeds growing along the periphery of the rock-faced sea wall, and an arborist has just finished clearing away branches that had been closing in on the house. A large ‘bird house’ had been placed in the tallest pine two days ago, and he looked up and smiled at it.

The spy heard the patio door slide open and then two people walking towards the table – yet his concentration remained fixed on the bird house in the tree. Did he see eyes in the darkness? So soon?

“Patrick?” Carolyn asked cheerfully as she walked up. “Could I get you something to drink?”

“I’ve put a pitcher of blackcurrant tea in the ‘fridge,” the spy replied. “I think there’s some mango juice, as well.”

“So,” she sighed, “you’d like iced-tea?”

“If you don’t mind. Dr. Andrews? You?”

“Tea sounds good,” Akira’s oncologist said as he sat next to Patrick Grey, the writer.

Carolyn returned to the house and the spy turned in his wheelchair to face the physician: “Thanks for coming. I know this was rather short notice.”

The physician was in his forties, perhaps fifty years old, and he seemed very put out, almost angry. Yet the head of the medical school had, in effect, ordered him to attend this impromptu meeting.

Wheels were rolling. Wheels the spy had set in motion.

“So, Mr. Grey, I’m told you wanted to speak to me about something important?”

The spy nodded. “Important…yes. But you see, first I think I need to tell you a story.”

“A story?”

“Hm-m, yes,” Grey sighed – just before he turned and looked up into the pines – again.

Now the oncologist seemed peeved, like this whole affair was turning into the colossal waste of time he knew it would be – but Carolyn returned with drinks as well as a platter of crab claws and remoulade, which the spy had only recently learned was a weakness the oncologist simply could not resist.

So the spy turned to his assistant and nodded. She produced a fountain pen, a fat old Mont Blanc, and put it squarely on the two envelopes before she returned to the house. 

Patrick took a sip of tea and nodded. “There’s something about this blend, I think. Perfection in a glass. And, oh yes, the Dungeness are from City Fish Market. Your favorites, are they not?”

Andrews turned to the spy and smiled. “So, you’ve done your homework. Now, care to tell me what this is all about?”

Patrick set aside his glass of tea, his hand passing over the fountain pen and for a split second he thought he felt a change in gravity…like something was pulling his hand to the envelopes. So he smiled at his own discomfort as he turned to look at Andrews again.

“Once upon a time,” the old spy said – as if out of the blue, “there were labs all around the world that had but one purpose, and that purpose was to fight the next war. The men and women working in many of these labs focused their attentions on developing new weapons…”

“Excuse me, but are you talking about CBW?” Andrews asked, referring to the usual acronym employed when discussing chemical and biological warfare.

And the old spy nodded. “I am.”

“And what has this to do with me?”

Now the old spy simply held up a hand, and his meaning was clear enough. “Many of us, on the other hand, were charged with coming up with so-called antidotes to possible agents the Soviets were developing…”

“Us?” Andrews said, his eyes narrowing a bit. “Are you saying that you…?”

The old spy nodded, ignoring the interruption.

“What’s your background?” Andrews barked, now more than a little perturbed by the direction this meeting was headed, but again the writer simply held up a hand, a scolding admonishment a parent might wave at an offending child.

“During the course of our duties it was often necessary to penetrate Soviet research facilities and acquire samples,” the spy said, his eyes sparkling with memories both fond and fearful, “and after one such excursion we found ourselves in possession of the most evil creation imaginable. An aerosol agent, quite easily dispensed, that once inhaled led to the almost spontaneous formation of mutations within certain classes of glial cells, notably fibrous astrocytes.”

Andrews was paying attention now.

“Curiously, this agent was, or is, rather persistent.”

“How persistent?” the oncologist sighed.

“Oh, at first we determined it was almost flu-like. It could hang around for ten minutes with no loss of potency. When we hit a half hour we knew they had hit the proverbial jackpot, and all we had to do was determine its rate of uptake.”

“Which was?”

“Ninety percent at fifteen minutes, then only a modest falloff all the way out to the thirty minute mark.”

“Shit.”

“Yes, just so, and I think I used that very word. Then word began to percolate that Andropov wanted to test the weapon. And then a few months later hundreds of cases of glioblastoma presented at two hospitals in central Siberia, numbers as you might suspect way beyond any reasonable standard deviation, and so we had our answer. The most potent biological weapon ever created in the laboratory had been test deployed over two penal colonies, and so of course a few weeks later Reagan announced the whole star wars thing and it was off to the races we went once again.”

“Is it contagious?”

The old spy looked away, but then he nodded his head. “It behaves, all in all, rather like any other garden variety influenza particle. Absent transcription errors it happily goes about it’s job with little regard for UV or other photo-chemical intervention…”

“Then why the hell hasn’t there been a pandemic? I mean, the pathogen you’re describing would have been beyond lethal…”

The old spy nodded. “True. Too true. I think the developers understood these implications, and thankfully they took appropriate precautions. I think they were quite terrified of the global implications. Also, you should understand that most of these researchers disappeared.”

“Disappeared?”

“Dead men tell no tales, Dr. Andrews.”

“So…are you saying it’s just dumb luck we haven’t had a major incident involving this stuff?”

“Oh, there’ve been a couple of incidents.”

“What? Are you serious?”

But the old spy was no longer paying attention. No, he had quietly turned away and was now staring at the kimono over the fireplace, lost in the impenetrable sorrow that had chased him since that night of fast passing storms. 

Chapter Twenty

Osaka | Yesterday

He walked out the gate to a waiting Land Rover; a half hour later he was airborne and headed for Osaka. Once onboard the US Air Force Gulfstream he quickly read through the briefing paper that had just been forwarded to Washington and London; a “red” terror cell now had the neurotoxin and was preparing to disperse the agent – and word was the cell planned to release the agent either in or around a major transportation hub or onboard a crowded train. Infrared scanners and dedicated “sniffers” had already been installed in railway and subway stations in both Tokyo and Osaka; dozens more units would go active in the days ahead. These surveillance nodes could detect people with high temperatures as well as – theoretically – airborne viral particles, and both would be key to any successful response.

Chapter Twenty-One

Hakodate | Yesterday

Aki walked to Jeremy’s room and found that, yes, he had indeed left the house.

She walked through the house in a daze, lost in shame and suddenly all too aware that through her actions she had dishonored her family and filled her father’s last years with great sorrow. She felt buffeted by gales of uncertainty as she came to her room – until she remembered. She was samurai. She had dishonored her family. There was only one way out.

She went to find her father’s swords.

 Chapter Twenty-Two

Seattle | Today

The spy looked at the crimson kimono even as his mind drifted to the swords that attended the silken garment. They were his now – and he could not deny them…  

“Patrick?”

Light from a recessed fixture in the ceiling danced along the Masamune’s perfect edge, entrancing him, as always drawing him inward to that other light… 

“Patrick? Are you still with us?”

He recognized Carolyn’s voice and felt his way back to her, his mind struggling to break free. “Yes…yes…so sorry. I’ve still a bit of jet-lag, I think. Please, pardon me.”

Carolyn refilled their glasses, pulled him back into the moment. “Should I make you an espresso?”

The spy pushed himself up in his chair, then he smiled at Dr. Andrews. “How is the crab? Palatable, I hope?”

“Delicious. Won’t you help me out here? There’s too much for me alone.”

“Perhaps.” The spy looked at Carolyn again and she retreated to the warmer confines of the kitchen. “Where was I? Oh yes…incidents.”

“Yes, and frankly, I hope you don’t mind me saying that I find all this a little hard to swallow – Mister Grey.”

The spy smiled. “I understand,” he sighed, before taking a long pull from his glass of tea. “My PhD, the first, anyway, was in biochemistry. Oxford, in case anyone is wondering. My second was in neuropharmacology. Stanford. I also finished my MD there, by the by.”

“You…you’re a physician?”

The spy shrugged. 

“That’s a simple question, Grey. Are you a physician, or aren’t you?”

“It really doesn’t matter now, does it, Andrews?” the spy sighed, suddenly growing tired of the other man’s preening paternalism.

“What has this story got to do with me, Dr. Grey?”

The spy looked down at his hands crossed on his lap and he nodded slowly. “Once we knew of the existence of the virus we began to model possible threat vectors, and these crude estimates were alarming enough. Then we received the purloined sample and the first thing we did was send it to Goldstein at Southwestern. Once we had the sequence it didn’t take long to figure out how they’d made the agent. Essentially they weaponized a potently malignant cancer, so the job at hand was to come up with a readily deployable countermeasure.”

“A…countermeasure? You mean…like a vaccine?”

The spy shook his head. “A vaccine was deemed too slow. Vaccines take time to reach a significant percentage of any given population, and with this agent the time involved was simply too great. No, the problem we faced was twofold: detection and direct intervention.”

“Direct intervention? How so?”

“We devised a cure, Dr. Andrews.”

A cold, heavy pressure settled over the oncologist as the real import of those words sunk in.

“A cure? For neuroblastoma?”

The spy nodded. “Yes, including all known forms of astrocytoma and glioblastoma.”

“That’s preposterous! Fucking preposterous…and you know it!”

“I am the wisest man alive,” the spy whispered, “for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing at all.”

“What?” Andrews snarled.

“Oh, nothing,” Fontaine/Grey/the spy replied. “Nothing at all.”

Andrews pushed his chair back and he had just started to stand…

…when a large white owl flew down from the pine and settled on table.

The physician, now quite startled, fell back into his seat. “What the devil…” he just managed to say, his voice now little more than a dry, barren place in a land of confusion.

“I don’t think he’s quite ready for you to leave, Dr. Andrews. Do sit and let me wrap this up.”

The owl was not quite two feet tall and he was purest white – aside from his all-seeing amber eyes – and once he’d settled on the table his head turned slightly – until his unblinking eyes were trained on Andrews’.

“In the cooler,” the spy said, pointing at the Yeti by his feet, “you’ll find twenty-one vials; Akira will need three of these.” The spy took one of the envelopes and bent the little brass clasps to open it. “These documents release the patent and assign it to the University of Washington. I’ve already signed, and note my signature was duly notarized by our embassy in Japan. Carolyn will notarize yours when you’re ready, at which point you may begin synthesis and production. The second envelope details the necessary steps.”

“Look, if this is true, if you’re not pulling some kind of…”

The owl’s head bobbed twice, then he spread his wings wide.

“Oh, it’s quite real, Dr. Andrews. And there are no strings attached – other than my request for absolute anonymity.” 

Andrews now stared at the owl, quite unable to avoid the creatures haunted eyes. “Anonymity?” he asked.

“My absolute anonymity. It’s spelled out in the release, but everything is rescinded the moment absolute anonymity is vacated. Understood?”

Andrews nodded – but he was startled by a wet, thrashing sound out on the pier…and then he spotted a sea otter trundling up the planks towards Grey…who was now smiling and spreading open a large towel on his lap. The otter leapt up into the all-embracing towel and Grey wrapped himself around the creature and began drying her fur. Andrews shook his head in disbelief, his hands beginning to tremble. “What did you put in that goddam tea?” he asked serenely. “Acid?” The otter turned and began licking the spy’s nose and chin, then the owl hopped over and assumed his place on Grey’s shoulder, leaving Andrews to drift along inside a self-induced semi-hallucinatory stare.

“Stevia, I think,” the spy sighed, the owl rubbing against his ear. “But just a pinch.”

Coda

Seattle | One year later

The spy’s daughter sat on the deck watching the sunset, her mind focused on the otter in her lap. Carolyn slid open the patio door and came out with dinner, Dr. Andrews following along a moment later with four glasses and a bottle of chilled riesling.

Akira’s hair was growing again – though her eyebrows were still sparse – and her color was better, but she was free of the malignancies that had been coursing through her body. She was settling into her new life in America, still very weak after treatments ended but improving day by day. There were times when she – almost – believed as her father had, that the otter was really her mother and the owl her grandfather, but as far as she was concerned the jury was still out on all that nonsense. The gardens were, however, still immaculate.

“Is Patrick still napping?” Andrews asked – though he directed his question to no one in particular.

Carolyn smiled and nodded. “Yes. He had another rough night, I’m afraid.”

The physician nodded. “I guess that’s to be expected – at his age. Is he using the walker?”

“No,” Carolyn replied – with a little scowl showing. “I think he’s too proud.”

“Is he in the living room?”

Carolyn nodded and Andrews put down the glasses and the bottle then turned to go inside and check on the old man. If nothing else it seemed like the right thing to do.

As he walked up to the sofa in front of the simmering fireplace he pulled up short, surprised to find a tiny fox curled on Patrick’s chest – though he saw both were sleeping fitfully. He moved closer to look over the little creature, but as he bent over to inspect the fox a shadow passed over Patrick and Andrews jumped back as the white owl landed on the sofa’s back. The owl stared at him so Andrews shook his head and walked back out onto the patio, not quite knowing what else to do – or even to think. “This isn’t a house,” he muttered to himself, “it’s a menagerie.”

He walked over to the table and sat down, found his glass was full and that condensation was already forming on the glass. “When did the fox show up?” he asked Carolyn.

“Fox? What fox?”

“What fox? The one in there, the one asleep on Patrick.”

“What?” Akira and Carolyn cried as they stood, both making their way into the house.

Yet Patrick wasn’t on the sofa now. In fact, he was nowhere to be found.

Carolyn ran into Patrick’s bedroom – but he wasn’t there. She checked his bathroom, then ran outside through each one of his little gardens – and still she found not a trace of him. She heard Andrews in the garage and went to check, but nothing came of that, either.

Then they heard singing. A low, almost sonorous lament, the words Japanese. Was it – coming from the living room?

They ran from the garage back into the house and found Akira standing before the lone television, and she was openly weeping now.

“I was just standing here,” she sobbed, “and then this started playing…”

Andrews recognized the scene immediately, the words incisive, grounded in the heart of the moment:

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for there is no such thing
as tomorrow, after all

A chill ran down the physician’s spine as he tried to remember the first time he’d seen Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and how he’d openly wept as Takashi Shimura sang The Gondola Song. The poetic imagery of those last scenes had never left him, and he halfway expected to look up and see Patrick out in his garden on a swing set in a gently falling snow, but no, that was not to be.

“Wait a minute,” he muttered. “Where’s the fox…and the owl?”

And after a quick look around the house they found that all of Patrick’s animals were now gone, even the otter. Gone without a trace. As if they had never been there at all.

And then Akira gasped, and pointed at the framed kimono hanging above the dying fire.

Andrews walked up to the frame and inspected the wood, then the paper backing that sealed the rear of the piece, yet both were intact, undisturbed.

Which was, under the circumstances, quite odd.

For the short sword, the tantō, was no longer mounted there.

But just below, on the black slate hearth gleaming in the last glowing embers, was a spreading pool of deepest red blood – disturbed only by the paw prints of a passing fox.

© 2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | all rights reserved. This was a work of fiction – pure and simple – and all characters and events presented herein are fictitious constructs not to be taken literally, or even seriously. Quoted passages from The Tale of the Heike (c.1330), as well as the first stanza of The Gondola Song (1915) are now in the public domain. By the by, I highly recommend the Criterion Collection’s restoration of Ikiru, available on BluRay/DVD.

Adios, and keep warm.

7 thoughts on “The Otter and The Owl

  1. As always … compelling, disturbing, and beautiful. Whatever comes for you in the future, know that you are a wonderful writer.

    Like

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