Archive for October, 2013

Voice of the Mirror: Exclusive!

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Chapter One from the sequel to “Voice of the Sword”, Book 2 in the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy!

It was the Godless Month. The tenth month of the year, when the Gods of Japan leave their shrines and assemble at Izumo, on the western shore of the Japan Sea, to discuss matters of destiny. It was the month when mortals like ourselves faced devils and dangers with only our wits to protect us, as the leaves withered and turned gold, and the air grew chill and carried the scent of wood smoke.
The twentieth day, of the tenth month, in the tenth year of Bunka.
Still in my sleeping robe, I put away the futon in the closet, and swept the tatami, the simple brushing movement also serving to clear my mind of dreams. I slid open the paper door to the central room. It was the hour of the rabbit; the servants and the other temple maidens sat by the open hearth, the wood fire burning steadily beneath the big iron pot. One servant knelt, setting out the bowls and chopsticks. The smoke left its pungent smell behind as it was absorbed by the straw in the roof.
I knelt in formal position on the tatami, and gratefully accepted a bowl of buckwheat porridge. “Itadakimasu,” I said. I humbly receive this. I took a handful of chopped spring onion and miyoga from the serving tray and sprinkled it into the bowl.
After eating, I prayed to the images of my parents, enshrined in the kamidana – the Shinto family altar. Enshrined within the cypress-wood alcove lay the tablet carrying the posthumous names of my dear, departed mother and father, written in formal Kanji calligraphy. Strung above the altar were the required hempen rope and the O-fuda – white paper amulets, cut into the shape of lightning bolts, upon which were written the charms of peace and blessing.
Other acolytes here had the memories of their parents to comfort them. I had none. I simply had the visions sweeping in to guide and warn me, the chilling visitors from the edge of sleep. I accepted the knowledge, and my destiny; as it was written in the Wen-Tzu, nothing can be done to help the changes of myriad beings, but to grasp the essential, and return to the source.
The servant helped me don my ceremonial kimono, the white uniform of the Star-Tellers. Then I bid farewell, and walked out onto the temple academy courtyard.
To my right, Guard Captain Wakita stepped out of the sentry hut and bowed. “It is a beautiful morning, Mistress Furukawa.”
I smiled. Despite his title of Guard Captain, Shunsuke Wakita was little older than me. He had inherited the position at the Academy of Star-Tellers after the untimely death of his father. That was something else we shared, along with our youth; the loss of our parents. Mine, carried away by plague when I was but three months old, and his, taken in the tragic collapse of Nihonbashi Bridge eleven years before.
He stood beside me, the October sunlight glinting upon the chestplate, the helmet, and the hilts of the long and short swords he wore. His face had a fine, chiseled look, and beneath his helmet I knew he did not yet have the shaved chonmage pate of the adult samurai, but rather thick locks of slightly curly hair.
“You do not have to be here,” Shunsuke said. “There are many other maidens belonging to the Temple.”
“But I have duties to perform, just as you have,”
We stood, looking across the paved courtyard at the wall of ancient oak and elm trees around the complex of temple buildings, the bamboo thicket near the entrance, the sacred well where visitors were required to perform their ablutions.
It was up to Shunsuke to fill in the silence.
“You told me that your own star-readings state that today is a day of ill luck, Reiko,” he said softly. “It may be advisable for you to stay here. I can carry a message to the priest, if you wish, saying that you are sick.”
“I thank you for being prepared to do me such a favor,” I said politely, “but my duties are clear.”
His hazel eyes glanced at me from beneath the steel rim of his helmet. “That’s the trouble with fortune-tellers,” he grumbled. “They always have the last word.”
It was now the hour of the dragon. Asakusa was awakening, preparing for the day’s business. The air was heavy with the smells of incense and grilling fish. Beyond the grounds of Sensoji Temple, I could hear the cries of the vendors and beggars, the rattling of the bamboo omikuji charms in their wooden containers. From the long narrow street of stalls called the Nakamise Street I could hear the chirruping of the caged sparrows; many elderly vendors made a living by selling birds and small fish that the customers would later free, in honor of their chosen Buddhist saint.
The sun was pale in the clouded sky, with a sliver of moon still barely visible. The strong sense of order and routine calmed me and made me feel at peace inside. I loved the serene brutality of Asakusa, my home. I loved the electric power of humanity I felt with each breath of dry, smoky air. The mercy of Amaterasu the Shining One had granted us another day in this world.
The Star-Tellers Academy was situated on the Hill of Kinryu, the Golden Dragon, in the grounds of Sensoji Temple. Iyeyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, had set up the Academies in the early years of his rule. One was located at Fushimi, near Kyoto; and one was here, in the heart of Edo, the capital of Japan. The two faiths of the Academy were the same two faiths that had co-existed peacefully in Japan for over a thousand years; Shinto, the indigenous Japanese religion of nature and ancestor-worship, and Buddhism, brought to Japan from China.
Two sentries guarded the huge oaken door that served as the entrance to the Academy halls. They bowed, opened the door, and admitted me into a narrow, lantern-lit corridor. Above the doorway stood the Zodiac Clock, a gift from the Tokugawa administration, beautifully constructed by the Shogun’s elite clockmakers. Each of the day’s twelve periods was depicted by lovingly rendered images of the twelve animals of the Zodiac. I shuffled through the doorway beneath it and into the interior of the Star-Reader Academy.
Whispering voices came from behind the latticed wood and paper walls, and steam hung in the air from the round wooden tubs in the nearby bathrooms. I walked past gilt murals showing ancient warriors slaying demons and dragons. In the gleaming cypress floor, I could see my own blurred and darkened face, reflected by the highly polished wood. I passed the central hall, with its dozens of chrysanthemum branches hung in front of the altar, from the Kikumode Ceremony two days before.
Tomoe was already casting the oracle bones into the hot charcoal of the brazier when I reached her room. She knelt in formal position beneath the scroll bearing the names of her household Kami, and looked up at me with dark eyes as I entered. She pushed back her glossy, waist-length black hair and smiled wistfully.
“Did you see the moon last night?” she asked.
I nodded. “A full moon, entering the final phase, according to the calendar.”
Tomoe smiled. “More than that. It was so huge, and bright. I could not take my eyes from it; I could feel it … eating. Yes, eating through me.”
“They say staring at the moon for too long can drive you insane, Tomoe.”
“I think it may be too late for that.” She got to her feet, looking up at me shyly, as if about to tell a secret.
“We are nearing the winter solstice,” she said quietly, “and I can feel something approaching.”
“Something?” I asked. Tomoe’s abilities were, in some ways, greater than mine; her premonitions were never to be ignored. “Did you dream last night?”
“Yes. Today we shall be summoned; and tomorrow we shall leave the capital to begin our journey.”
“Where shall we go?”
“Over the sea.”
“I dreamed the same thing.”
“Others shall lie in wait and seek to kill us.”
“I dreamed that, also.”
“I feel that, and more. There is something within myself,” she said. “As if my powers are getting … stronger.”
“Then we are in the Kami’s favor. A stronger Star-Teller means a stronger Academy, a stronger Edo.”
“Then why do I feel so afraid?” she asked urgently, her eyes flashing.
The walls of Tomoe’s room were packed – even more than mine – with the tools of our magical art, Onmyodo, the natural science based on the ancient philosophies of Wu-Xing and Yin-Yang. Calendars and charts showing the movements of the stars hung next to scrolls bearing names of the Kami. On her shelves lay half-finished wooden votive tablets propped up against bottles of murky liquid with dead shima-hebi snakes coiled inside. Upon the altar at the end of the room stood arrangements of candles, flowers, fresh sasaki twigs, and at the altar’s heart, a mirror. There were no images allowed of the Kami, the gods and goddesses of the Shinto pantheon; in every shrine or academy, the Kami were represented by a mi-tama-shiro, a spirit substitute. These could be beads, stones, arrows, paper amulets, small bells – or in some cases, such as Tomoe’s personal shrine, a mirror.
Tomoe and I had studied and practiced together at the Academy for as long we could both remember. In fact, in terms of power, we were the Academy – no other shrine maidens had shown the abilities we had, and our lives were dominated by a constant stream of visitors asking for our services. Thankfully, the Academy had ordered a squad of samurai, led by Captain Wakita, to protect our privacy.
We were born in the year of the Snake, under the element of Fire. According to the Wu Xing, such a collaboration was taboo. To be avoided at all costs. It did not stop us becoming firm friends, who had protected each other’s lives more times than we could count.
Or so we were told. We would be proud, if it were not for our curious … affliction.
Tomoe scooped another handful of oracle bones from a lacquered dish and tossed them into the brazier.
‘Have you breakfasted?”
“No, I shall eat now. Recently I enjoy preparing my own food. Chopping the leeks, grating the daikon. This kind of humble task is valuable. Some would say this is pointless, and omit it all together.” The oracle bones in the brazier made a sharp, cracking noise, and she raked them out with a clawed metal rod. She cast them into the metal dish at the side, studying the fissures on their blackened surface.
“What do you see?”
She paused. “Something I cannot name.”
A muffled call from outside and the sliding open of a wooden door interrupted us. We both left Tomoe’s room, to find Shunsuke waiting in the outer corridor. “We have a visitor,” he said. “From the magistrate’s office.”
I glanced at Tomoe. She was smiling.
“At your convenience,” he added, looking at the breakfast bowl in Tomoe’s hands.

It was forbidden for visitors to the Academy to look upon the sanctum interior, so meetings were always conducted from behind a bamboo curtain. We knew without looking, however, the face of the young samurai who came shuffling in with his guards to kneel upon the tatami. In recent weeks, messages from the magistrate had come via Hideaki Sakamoto, whose boyish face always wore a look of nervous determination. He walked self-consciously, shoulders hunched, putting one foot in front of the other with exaggerated care. As if afraid to make noise or occupy space.
Hideaki Sakamoto’s father had been a doshin, one of Edo’s low-ranking police patrol officers in the office in charge of investigating fire, theft and gambling. He had inherited the position at age fifteen, maintaining order in the city streets until becoming Magistrate Kotani’s chief retainer a year ago.
“Greetings, my lord,” said Tomoe. “Please forgive us, once more, for applying the Academy rules, and asking you to remain on the other side of the curtain. Let us know what is required of us.”
There was hesitation before Hideaki replied. “There is sadness in your voice today, Miss Kanzaki,” he said.
“There is sadness,” I said quickly, and rather defensively, “but there is meaning to her sadness. What is required of us?”
“The magistrate has asked that you come at once. There is a delicate matter involving the Shogunate’s security, and he will explain.”
“I shall accompany you,” said Shunsuke, from the side.
“That is not necessary,” Hideaki replied rather waspishly. “We have sufficient guards. And it is, as I say, a delicate matter.”
“Then I shall be as delicate as I can while I fulfill my duties to the members of the Academy,” insisted Shunsuke.
“Come sirs, are you fighting over us?” I could clearly hear the coquettish turn in Tomoe’s voice. I frowned at her as I got to my feet.
“We shall prepare to leave immediately,” I said.
Walking back to our rooms, I was silent, mentally going through the steps of what I would need to take with me to our appointment. There was no mistake what the summons signified; there was trouble in the capital. This was the summoning that Tomoe and I had dreamed of. Whatever it signified, it had begun.
In this pensive mood, I immediately became aware of something unfamiliar as I entered the inner gateway. I stopped, looking at Tomoe, as she returned my look of alarm. There was a hushed, tense atmosphere in the chamber, pregnant with meaning.
We both looked up. The great Zodiac Clock above the doorway had stopped.

Dear Reader,

No! Your eyes are not deceiving you! The above character is indeed Reiko Bergman, from the 21st Century Chiyoda High School! She is not a clone, an android, or an alien shape-shifter! This is not a dream or an alternative reality! How is it possible that the same person – and her friends – are alive in two different historical periods?
For the answers, pre-order your copy of “Voice of the Mirror” now! If you haven’t read “Voice of the Sword” yet – get it here!

Northampton, 1985: The Day The Paper Factory Exploded

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This is an excerpt from a story to be published in “Tales from Beyond Tomorrow!” Volume 2, coming from Excalibur Books, 2014.

The Day The Paper Factory Exploded

By John Paul Catton

An unusual title, you might think, from a man who’s spent most of his working life with banner headlines and cross-heads. However, I’m not writing this for my newspaper. I’m writing this in honor of the recently deceased Mr. MacLean … so I’ll dispense with the usual clichés and excruciating puns that we hacks adore.
Rodney MacLean was a good man. He loved his family, respected his friends, and although his tragic and untimely demise cut short his career at Hardiman’s, his colleagues said that as a customer accounts clerk – he was exemplarary.
To introduce myself, my name is Paul Hobbs, a senior reporter at the Chronicle & Echo, our county’s most successful evening daily – and this is my account of the extraordinary, unbelievable, but nevertheless true events of that summer of 1985.
The first time I met Mr. MacLean was in the dead part of a Saturday afternoon, a quiet part of a hectic day. I’d spent the morning in Northampton Crown Court covering a running story – a Building Society boss up for fraud, if I remember rightly. I was looking forward to the MacLean assignment because the story was what we call a ‘special’. A one-off; a good slice of human interest.
The MacLean’s house was in Oldthorpe – a suburb on the north side of town. Driving through the rows of crescents and peaceful cul-de-sacs to get to my appointment, the faint but unmistakable odor of money wafted from the front gardens and renovated porches. I found the address, parked my car, and cast my eye over the bright multi-colored objects flapping in the June breeze, some perched improbably on his roof, some stirring fitfully here and there on the front lawn. I crouched down for a look at one of the objects that was lying on the gravel driveway; it was an Argos catalog.
I rang the doorbell. A tall man opened the door, nudging away with his foot a small pile of free newspapers that still lay beneath the letterbox. He wore that vaguely bewildered look that most people have when they answer the door to a reporter; I found out afterwards, ever, that he looked like that all the time. I introduced myself and he invited me inside.
We sat in his over-furnished living room. His wife, attractive in a traditional kind of way, said she would make some tea. I looked towards the open kitchen door and met the stare of a small child, standing behind the door, fingers in mouth.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” I said, “in no hurry to get out my notebook.
Rodney MacLean nodded. He was in his early forties, I guessed. His gigure was still trim, no sign of mid-life spread. His hair was thinning though, brushed in long sandy-colored sweeps across his skull. He wore box-shaped gold-rimmed glasses that sharpened his gaze and disguised his long nose.
“Lived here long?” I asked.
“Not exactly, no. We used to live in Dotsworth – you know, the place famous for pies. We moved here about eleven years ago, I think. A bigger house, more local … um … facilities.” He had a monotonous tone of voice – the kind best described as ‘soothing’. “Still, nobody told us that things like this happened in Oldthorpe!”
“No.” I smiled, slipping the notebook into my hand. “Mr. MacLean, those are Argos catalogs on your front lawn, aren’t they?”
“Yes.”
“And when you rang me up, you said they … fell from the sky.”
“Yes.” He snorted with embarrassed laughter. “Look, I know how it sounds, but …”
“Perhaps,” I said, pushing my shoulders back into the sofa, “you could give me some idea how it started.”
“It was early this morning.” He hesitated, as his wife Jackie arrived with the tea. She handed the cups out, put the tray on the coffee table, and sat beside her husband. “I’d just got up and was going downstairs to make the coffee – Jackie was still in bed – and I heard this … drumming sound on the roof.” Another pause. “I thought it was raining. That’s all … just rain.”
“You could tell something was wrong,” Jackie interrupted. “It sounded like hailstones, big hailstones coming down with loud thumps on the roof.”
“I got to the kitchen,” Rodney continued, “and I looked through the window and I saw books.” I nodded. Smiled and scribbled in Pitman as his voice climbed towards exasperation. “I thought it was kids having a lark, but they didn7t stop. It kept on raining catalogs for another ten minutes!”
“They made a thorough mess of our magnolia,” Jackie added petulantly.
“There don’t seem to be that many catalogs lying around,” I quizzed them.
“Oh, we put them in the shed.”
“Yes,” Jackie confirmed. “We put the ones that we could reach in the shed. We couldn’t leave them all lying around for the neighbors to see.” She frowned. “They’d think we’ve gone … funny.”
I collected a few more details, and finished the over-sugared tea they’d given me. Before I left, I arranged for a photographer to call the next morning, and Rodney asked if I wanted to see inside the shed. Well, I thought, I didn’t doubt his story but if the hard evidence was there, it was my job to cast the eye of the press over it.
We went through the back garden and I noticed that some of the more delicate plants did look in a bad way; stems snapped, petals everywhere, small bushes trampled. Rodney opened the door of a big shed, painted a lurid green. “There they are,” he said.
Inside, the beams of sunlight illuminated the floating dust and there was a sharp tang of creosote. Stacked in four tall piles were the Argos catalogs; stained, creased, but somehow very … ordinary.
“Yes, well,” I said vaguely. Rodney and his wife looked at me and I tried hard not to grin. “Yes, indeed.”
On a whim, I picked one off the top of the pile and asked if I could take it. They both said yes, with some delight. I suppose they thought I was going to rush down to Campbell Square police station and hand it over to their Forensics department.
I said my goodbyes, got back to the car and threw the catalog onto the back seat. What had made me take it? Was I expecting it to reveal the mysteries of the Universe?
Looking back, though, it did come in useful. My wife used it to order an exercise bike a few days afterwards.

*

The story made an ace filler. I’ve always been pleased when I can get my hands on a good special, because you can let the imagination loose and slap the corny lines and the puns in – a bit of comic relief for the reader. Lovely photo, as well; Rodney ducking in mock terror while his wife held an Argos catalog over his head.
Nearly ten days later, I saw Rodney MacLean again. Her rang me at the Star, asking for me by name, and told me that something else bizarre had happened to him. I made an appointment for him to come in the next day.
In the morning I met a couple of old dears for a fluff piece about their diamond wedding, and after lunch, at three o’clock, Rodney turned up. Reception gave me a buzz and I rushed down to greet him, then took him up to the interview room to talk things over.
“It was another shower,” he said. Rodney had a slack sort of mouth, and when he wasn’t smiling or talking, it made him look very tired.
“More Argos catalogs?” I asked.
“No, something different this time.” He reached inside the Tesco plastic carrier bag he’d brought with him and produced a slim, gaudily colored magazine. He passed it to me.
NUKE FOR JESUS! the magazine’s title declared, in hot crimson letters above a picture of a cross, superimposed over the planet Earth. I flicked through it briefly. It claimed to be the monthly international newsletter of the Inspirational Congregation of the One True God. Some loony cult from the States, no doubt. Its contents seemed to link current affairs to events prophesied in the Scriptures. I had seen it before, distributed free from corner shop newsagents.
“Did these … magazines … fall on your house?”
Rodney took a deep breath. “Well, I know this sounds barmy but the shower actually took place inside the house.”
“You mean they came through the window?”
“No, they … appeared in mid-air before our eyes, then fell to the floor.”
“Mr. MacLean, that’s impossible,” I said, a little curtly.
“I know it’s impossible!” His head jerked up as emotion flared behind his metal-framed spectacles. “I know that. But I saw it happen, and so did my wife and Eamonn, our son. If we can’t believe the evidence of our own senses, then what can we believe?”
Falteringly, Rodney told me how it happened. In the early evening on Sunday, Rodney had – rather ironically – just switched off the TV because it was the time when religious programs filled every channel. Jackie was in the same room, playing with their son, when a NUKE FOR JESUS! magazine fell, spreading its pages open at Rodney’s feet. He looked at it, then looked at his wife – then the magazines began to fall hard from every part of the ceiling for the next five minutes, making painful jabs on the body where they fell.
“Who have you talked to about this,” I asked, “apart from your immediate family and friends?”

TO BE CONTINUED

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