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Chapter One: Kuromaku, The Black Curtain

The first thing I noticed about the man laying face-down on the floor was that he was missing three fingers. Both pinkies were gone, and part of a ring finger. The scars looked like ritual yubitsume, which screamed yakuza, as did the brightly detailed tattoo curling around his wrists.

Then it dawned on me that he was dead.

As if finding yakuza here wasn't bad enough, he had to be dead?

I scurried down the stairs to take a closer look at the body. The back of his tee-shirt was pure white, like the carpet I stood on, but beneath his chest and dusty jeans, a sticky rust-red circle blossomed. The corpse wasn't wearing a skinsuit, so the DNA sensors were probably blaring "Intruder! Intruder!" at the top of their little electronic lungs.  Unless, of course, this body belonged to Mr. Hiroaki Ito, the man I'd come to rob.

quot;Rob" was the wrong word. Actually, the crime I intended to commit was burglary. Robbers carried weapons and took what they wanted with violence. Force was not my style. I didn't have the stomach for violence. Sure, I had a screw driver, a soldering gun--oh, and an electronic lock-pick which, in an emergency, I could macgyver to boost a nasty current. But I've never been the type to brandish my tools at anyone--not even during rush hour on the El. I was a thief, not a killer. >

Whatever else I was, I was definitely starting to hyperventilate.

I half sat, half stumbled into a nearby chair and put my head between my knees. My breath made a raspy sound through the skinsuit's filtered mask. A puff of super-cooled air pricked under my arms, as the suit worked overtime to try to keep my body temperature under the range of any heat sensors Mr. Ito might employ. I'd already slid under several beams, disabled the motion detectors, and sent phantom signals to the digital cams. I’d cased the place for hours. The place had been quiet as a graveyard since sunset. Literally, as it turns out.

I stared hard at the body..  Right about now, I wished I'd listened to Cat when she told me this caper smelled of bad juju.  She'd looked me straight in the eye with that ultra-sincere look of hers and said, "Junko, girl, don't do this one.  Black diamonds are bad luck; besides, your Saturn is conflicted." The rest of her warning had rolled off my head, like most of her Western astrological mumbo-jumbo. If she'd talked about Chinese lambs and monkeys, I might have had a clue.  I never bought into that spiritual stuff, West or East.

Instead I'd just watched her lips moving, and thought about the last time we were naked together.  Those lips were quite talented, and hard to miss.  Cat was fond of bright green lipstick, which she said accented her eyes.  The corpse's open mouth was tinged with blue, almost gray, and I couldn't say it did much for his blank, glassy eyes--although it did go nicely with the tattoo.

I'd never seen a dead body this close before. Pulling myself out of the chair, I knelt in front of the body.  Grateful that the skinsuit's respirator filtered smells, I was mesmerized by the slack grayness of his skin.  Traditional flat tattoos covered his arms, rather than the 3-D holo-jobs most kids favored these days.  Even without the extra dimension, the corpse's tattoos were incredibly detailed and almost seemed to dance before my eyes.  The pattern that wove its way toward his wrists looked to be the tails of a dragon. Scales of turquoise, indigo, periwinkle, and a thousand other shades of blue that I didn't even have names for shimmered like water against his graying skin. 

I sat back on my heels.  This corpse was a kobun to some seriously powerful family. I didn't understand all the markings, but I knew that dragons meant big-time.  Standing up, I wondered why my informant never managed to mention that a yakuza family protected my mark’s house. More strange, since Mr. Ito and I had one important thing in common: we were both Japanese.  Okay, so I was only half and I thought of myself as an American, but people were funny about skin color--especially the yakuza.

I stood up and looked at the stairs. There were two levels to Mr. Ito's condo, and I'd come in from the upstairs bedroom window.  I looked at the hallway that led to his study.  His study held a safe, and in that safe lay the black diamonds.

If I were smart, I'd leave the jewels.  By far the wisest course of action would have been none at all..  If only I'd listened to Cat and stayed home tonight spooned up to her on our ratty old couch that smelled like socks on warm August nights like tonight.  Truth be told, an even smarter woman wouldn't be a career thief.  She'd commute into downtown Chicago and have a regular, steady job that had absolutely nothing to do with corpses or the yakuza.

So I was stupid..  Although I preferred to think of myself as more fool-hardy, daring, even crazy to stupid, really it came down to semantics and a matter of degrees. I stepped gingerly over the body.  Anyway, this black ice already had a buyer.  If I didn't deliver the goods, my reputation would be ruined.  Better to be caught with intent than to be branded a bungler.  At least that's what I told myself as I padded softly on the white plush carpet toward the study where the safe and the black diamond necklace waited.

Mr. Ito's apartment seemed more spacious than the floor plans had led me to believe.  Everything looked new, and all the lines were crisp, neat.  In contrast to the order of the apartment, big bay windows overlooked Japantown's jumbled skyline.  Street light sparkled against the business district’s glitter paint that spelled out gaudy advertisements in English and kanji characters for homeopathic remedies, groceries, and sex.  Yet even Japantown's chaos looked contained, almost like framed art.  If Cat were here she'd say the late Mr. Ito was probably a control-freak. Cat was great at that psychoanalyzing stuff; she even had me pegged as a thrill-junkie. 

She was right, of course..  Adrenaline was a bang-rush, but something else drew me back into the work time and time again, something deeply satisfying. I loved wandering around in other people's homes trying to figure out who they were.  Sometimes I'd even imagine myself living their lives, sitting in their chairs, drinking their wine.  This time, with the dead body only a few feet away, my enthusiasm was a bit dampened. I didn't usually imagine myself as a dead yakuza guy lying in a pool of my own blood.

I moved down the hall..  Traditional watercolors hung perfectly spaced along the hallway.  Their black frames and bold colors stood out against the white walls, white carpet, and white ceiling.  Maybe Mr. Ito wasn't as much a control-freak as he was a minimalist.  The whole stark thing was very big among the rich and famous right now--at least the ones whose houses I visited late at night.   Normally, I found trend-followers irritating, but I had to admit I liked the late Mr. Ito's taste in art.  Strange, since laying there in the living room he seemed like such a gurentai roughneck..  Still, if I wasn't so anxious to get the hell out of this place, I might have stopped to admire the light origami crane a second longer. 

The plush carpeting squashed beneath my soft-soled boots as I crept down the hallway.  I was struck by an irrational fear that I was leaving footprints, and I glanced behind to check..  Mr. Ito's mutilated hand was all I could see at the end of the hallway.  Ice stabbed me in the chest.  Low-level hoodlums didn't die in their homes; they died on the streets fighting for their oyabun, their boss.  Cat's bad juju hung thickly in the air, and, despite my determination to get the jewels, with every footfall, my heartbeat scolded: "Stupid. This is Stupid. Stupid."

The study door was open, a bad sign.  I peered cautiously around the doorway only to have my biggest fears confirmed.  The place was trashed.  Worse, someone had cracked the safe with an absolute lack of finesse.  The plascrete doors had been blown off, and sooty scorch marks marred the wall.  The work was very amateur and exceedingly unsubtle.  Not very slick like I expect from the yakuza, and certainly not the kind of job I wanted associated with my name.

The safe--damn my conflicted Saturn--was empty.

My breath stopped.  Alarms could be blaring.  Yet, I had to remind myself, the corpse had had time to grow cold. If the body and the safe were blown at the same time--and there was no reason to think they wouldn't have been--the cops weren't coming any time soon.  I let my breath out slowly, and allowed my shoulders to relax.  Despite the amateur look of the job, whoever had done it must have been as careful with the safe's alarm as they had been with the door's seal.

I told myself that should make me more nervous. I mean, I had to wonder why someone would go to the trouble of making the safe-crack look like an amateur job.   My heartbeat's thudding continued to spell out my stupidity, but professional curiosity got the better of me.  I wanted to see how they did it.

I stepped around broken vase, books, and papers strewn across the floor.  Books and papers, I sighed. Mr. Ito had been very rich, indeed. I knelt for a moment and picked up one of the books.  My skinsuit allowed a fair amount of sensitivity, and I flipped the pages over my thumb. The feeling was divine, even luxurious.  The cover of the book appeared to be tooled leather.  The leather alone could fetch a good black market price, and all this paper looked virgin, unrecycled.

Without even thinking, I dropped the book into my bag. Crawling on my hands and knees, I blindly started picking up the smooth papers and other books within reach.  At least I would make some profit out of this screwed-up caper.  Maybe there was even enough virgin paper here to afford to shuttle Cat and me to some nice third-world, non-extradition treaty country.  Seemed to me Butch and Sundance went to Bolivia. Bolivia sounded tropical.  I'd always wanted to see Cat, with her purple hair and fondness for black clothes, stretched out on some white sand beach.  Too bad that, thanks to the Eco-Crisis of '25, such things only existed in my fantasies.

I stuffed paper in my bag until it overflowed. Then, something glittery under the desk caught my eyes..  It winked in the darkness as I lay on my belly to look at it.  I reached out to it, and my fingers curled around something cold and hard.  A shimmering string twinkled darkly in my gloves.  I couldn't believe my luck; it was the black diamond necklace I'd come for.

Cat once told me that my Mercury had a good placement and that the wing-footed God in charge of communication was also the patron of thieves.  Though Shinto like the former Mr. Ito, I sent gratitude in the direction of Mount Olympus.

No sooner had I finished my prayer of thanks, a loud screeching alarm exploded against my eardrums.  Someone had tripped the DNA sensors. It would be the cops, or worse, the yakuza coming back for whatever they didn't find the first time. I shoved the necklace in the skinsuit's pocket where it clinked noisily against my tools. The voice in my head that had insisted that staying here was a bad idea started a new litany:  "I told you so.  I told you so."

My nerves twitched with a barely restrained desire to run. Instead, I pressed my body flat against the floor.  I took a quick scan of the room, looking for an escape route.  There was only the one door; no windows.  My breath came in huffs: "Shit.  Shit.  Shit."

Then I saw it from under the desk: the ventilation system grate on the floor.p>

I dumped out my bag, and crawled over to the ventilation shaft.  The space was tiny.  I doubted I would fit, but I started jamming myself into the shaft feet first and as fast as I could without ripping my skinsuit.  Maybe because I was thinking tiny thoughts, or maybe due to my prayer to Mercury, I was able to pull the grate over my head a second before the cops burst into the room.

* * * *

I was going to have to give up Shinto for Cat's neo-Pagan, woo-woo religion.

The cops never discovered me.

It was a long ordeal.  I found I could not move further back in the vent, and my face loomed just inside the line of shadows from the overhead lamp.  My biggest fear was that the heating system would turn itself on, and I would be crisped.  For eight hours, I jumped at every little tick and thrum of the building. When the police were in the room, I alternately held my breath in fear and hyperventilated.  My skinsuit kept my breathing muffled, and, when a detective stood inches from my face, it silently whisked away through the catheter what otherwise would have dribbled down my leg.

I was lucky.

Even so, I wasn't out of hot water yet. They'd sent in their watchdog to electronically map out every inch of the crime scene.   I knew, at some point--on one of those damnable "hunches" homicide cops always got in the VRs--if they enhanced the digitized image, they would see a shadow of my skinsuit at the very edge of the ventilation grate..  Plus, I'd heard them talking.  They'd ticked the area; their exterior surveillance monitors would catch me leaving the building.

My muscles screamed profanities as I pulled myself out of the tiny vent.  I moved slowly, partly out of caution, but mostly because my body had frozen-up from anxiety and hours of attempted perfect stillness.  Somewhere, during the past eight hours, I also think I achieved understanding of the sound of one hand clapping, but that might have just been a hallucination brought on by my pounding heart and shallow breath.

I took a second to refill my bag with the papers and books of the late Mr. Ito. The simple exercise of stuffing my bag gave my muscles a chance to work out their kinks.  I didn't really trust my legs to hold me just yet.  Tingling violently, pinpricks stabbed every muscle.  Still, I was grateful I could feel them at all.

     Okay, so taking more stuff that would link me to the corpse seemed like bad idea number three..  Truth was, my fate was sealed the second I stuffed the black ice in my pocket. At this point, there was no way I was leaving behind the diamonds--bad juju or no..  I'd suffered for those rocks, and, by Gods, I was going to profit from them.

Besides, the cops already carefully noted in their ubiquitous palm pads the blown safe and missing necklace.  They had the whole thing figured as a robbery gone bad. Cops were searching for killer thief, not a really clever mafioso hitman.  That's precisely how whoever set this hit up had intended it. Since my mug was already slated for the prime suspect spotlight, I might as well garner whatever money I could from blackmarketing the virgin paper.  I was going to need it.

I bounced my legs up and down, grateful for the softness of Mr. Ito's white carpeting.  Looking at the dirty smudges that the cops' shoes and the doggie's tracks had left all over the once-white carpet kind of pissed me off.  Sure, the cops didn't move any of their precious evidence, but clean and careful Mr. Ito would have noticed someone had tracked up his beautiful, pristine office.

The sympathy I felt for Mr. Ito struck me as potentially dangerous.   I should be more worried about my own skin..  The cops' mess seemed like more unprofessionalism that would be heaped on my name.  I prided myself on getting in and out of a place so seamlessly that sometimes my marks didn't know they'd been hit for weeks.  All this was a disgrace.

My legs stopped tingling quite so badly, and my bag overflowed.  Time to go.  Using the edge of the desk, I struggled to my feet.  I stumbled a little, but my legs held my weight.  I propelled myself awkwardly out of the office, down the hall, and past the rust-red stain and laser-holo of the body on the living room floor to the staircase.

Every step jarred my cramped muscles. Leaping the gap between Mr. Ito's building and my escape route was going to take a miracle.  I supposed I could just walk out the front door, but dressed in my skinsuit I'd make quite a sight strolling down Michigan Avenue with my bag of stolen paper. Besides, I wanted to impress the cops' surveillance robots with my fancy ninja acrobatics.

A muscle spasm nearly sent me to my knees.

My fists had a white-knuckle grip on the banister. Okay, so I'd skip the double mid-air flip.

Catching my breath, I looked down at the living room. The police's holographic projection of Mr. Ito glowed like a pink ghost in the darkened apartment. The holo copied him perfectly. The details were all visible, down to the missing fingers.  I shook my head.  Something about this place and that body didn't quite fit.

Maybe it was just that I couldn't imagine Mr. White Walls and White Carpet ever condescending to dress in jeans and a tee-shirt, even in the privacy of his own home.  Jeans, especially, carried the connotation of hard work, labor, sweat.  The jeans on the body, I remembered, weren't new.  That body lived and worked in jeans and a tee-shirt, just like he'd died in them.

Still, this crisp apartment could be a pristine refuge for a nouveau riche chimpira. I hefted my bag.  No, it took time and taste to collect books like these.  This was not the apartment of some bullet-catcher come-lately. Perhaps he was borrowing the place from his boss, his oyabun.

I pulled my gaze away from the holograph of Mr. Ito or whomever the body belonged to, and restarted my painful ascent of the stairs.No good would come from puzzling over him now.  Besides, that job belonged to the cops.

At the top of the stairs was the bedroom--my point of entry, as the cops would be calling it in their reports.  Black silk sheets tucked into precise corners covered the bed. White pillows were arranged symmetrically to soften the impact of the dark color.  Black lacquer vases and objects d'art spotted the room, drawing my eye neatly into the space./p>

I limped over to the closet. The door swung open easily on oiled hinges to reveal rows of tailored Italian suits  My fingers randomly touched the soft and yielding fabric. If it wasn't real silk, it was a damn fine imitation.  Not a tee-shirt or a pair of jeans in sight.  Even the shoes looked like real leather.  All these animal and plant products, I sighed--all hideously expensive, all completely illegal.

Mr. Ito was bigger than me--most people were--but one of his button-downs would probably fit Cat nicely.  I had one half-way off the hanger, before I stopped myself. The paper was a necessary additional expense, but clothes?Carefully putting the shirt back and smoothing the sleeve down, I reminded myself that I was a jewel thief, not a common felon.

I shut the closet door with a snap. Trailing a finger along the silken sheets, I made my way to the window..  Early evening light streamed into the room.  Not the ideal time for the stunt I was about to pull, but I didn't really want to hang around dead Mr. Ito's apartment for another minute.  The mystery of the dead body could quickly become an all-consuming passion. I didn't have time to play detective. Plus, the longer I stayed the more likely I was to fall back on old, less-sophisticated habits. My reputation would ruined for sure then.

The window looked untouched.  The cops had not disturbed my jerry-rigged alarm by-pass.  Not that it mattered, at this point, if I set off any alarms.  The ticks positioned on the near-by buildings would see me, so the cops would be on me the instant I stepped outside.  I'd have to hurry, but I had a fighting chance--ten minutes head start, tops.

I hoisted up the window easily..  My arms felt pretty good.  I didn't think I'd have any problem climbing up to the roof.  The jump across the alley was still going to be tricky, however.  Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I set my jaw.  Nothing ventured, as they say.

Balanced on the widow sill, I shut the pane with my toe. My leg muscles twitched like I'd been a long run.  I took a second to steady myself, then started up the wall.  My brain tuned in.  My only thoughts were finding handholds--Zen and the Art of Thievery.

In no time, I pulled myself over the edge. I breathed hard, clinging to the thin parapet.  I lifted my chin to stare out at the sun setting garishly over the twisted, dense rooftops of Japantown.  Neon started to flicker to life, and the chaos of nightfall made me miss the neat frame of Mr. Ito's window.

Only eight feet away was the flat surface of the grocery store's roof.  Once there, it was only one more, short hop to the makeshift roof-way the suri gangs I used to run with had built to make quick escapes easier.

It looked so close, I thought if I stretched my arm out I might be able to reach it.  Rolling off the thin parapet onto the tar-papered roof, I pulled myself shakily to my feet.  I could do it; I just had to think buoyant thoughts.  It worked with the grate; it would work with this jump.  Mercury of the winged feet, I prayed, carry me over this chasm.

Maybe it was the extra weight of the bag, or the weakness in my leg muscles, but the second my feet pushed off the wall, I knew I'd miscalculated..  My fingers stretched for the wall, and, through the skin suit, I felt them touch the rough brick surface..  I didn't get a handhold. I plummeted three stories and all I could think was: this is gonna hurt.