By R. John Quisenberry
Grey lead them all up to the door. Pressing on a portion of the wall beside the door, he revealed a panel that contained a number pad and a lens. Grey entered a twenty-five-digit number on the pad and leaned forward to place his left eye close to the lens. The grinding sound of multiple heavy bolts sliding came from the other side of the door, only to cease right before the door swung inward. Grey motioned for the other two to enter as he stepped to the side. “Please enter the garden. We will rest a while by the tea house to contemplate before we wash up and enter.”
The inside of the warehouse was a wonder. The inside had been emptied and replaced by a sizable garden. An artificial hill had been raised and was covered in slender trees and plants that formed a natural-looking garden with a meandering path following the small stream that gently gurgled all the way to the top of the hill, where a small structure stood. The structure was of forest green painted wood with dark brown trim. The entire environment within the warehouse had a balanced feel that resonated with, rather than vies for attention over the plants.
As Sam was watching, a small rabbit hopped by, almost brushing his foot as it hurried up to a plant to nibble on the leaves. The animal observed him in turn without any sign of fear. “My employer enjoys the company of such gentle creatures. They, in turn, enjoy protection from even the fear of mankind.”
After a few moments, they all began walking up the hill. The stream wove back and forth, wandering over the ersatz landscape, bringing water to the vegetation. Every so often, there was a small wooden bench overlooking a bend in the stream. Looking into the water, Sam would catch glimpses of large coi moving about in the clear water. Their bright gold and white markings on sharp contrast with the dark depths of the stream.
The roof of the warehouse had been replaced with transparent panels that let the light of the nearly full moon light their way in its silvered glow.
Sam had deeply enjoyed the walk and found himself remarkably relaxed as the group neared the final bench overlooking the pond that fed the stream at the top of the hill.
“Please enjoy the view while I see it all is ready,” said Greg as he turned to the small structure and approached a small door. The roof was only about half the height of a normal door and was a foot off of the ground.
Turning back to the view, Sam noticed that a small fountain gently poured clear water into a small stone basin to the side of the pond. Alan gesture to it and walked over. Reaching down, he picked up a ladle with a long handle, made entirely of bamboo. He rinsed his hands with water from the ladle and cupped some of it into his hand to rinse his mouth with. Sam carefully copied Alan’s actions.
As they stood, Grey returned and rinsed his hands and mouth as they had done. “If you are ready, we can enter. Please seat yourselves around the mats inside.”
Sam took the lead. In front of the small door and replaced his shoes with the slippers indicated by grey. Kneeling on a small mat, he eased his arms into the opening and pulled the rest of himself up and in. As he entered the space, he noticed that two of the corners of the cost space were occupied by a young woman kneeling in a kimono of sapphire blue with embroidered woodland scenes. The one to his left held a strange instrument with a cylindrical base and two strings. She was playing a soft, haunting melody that flowed from the instrument as she gently applied the bow. The other woman was softly accompanied by a beautiful, but simple flute. at the center of the left side of the room was a Japanese man of indeterminate age. His robe was shimmering black with designs of a stream, nightingales, and a silvered moon embroidered in it’s midnight expanse.
The man nodded to Sam as he entered. He did the same with Alan and Grey in turn. He then turned to a set of implements laid out on a tray beside him on the mat. There were two bowls. One large and one small, both were simple brown stoneware. There was a bamboo ladle much like the one the men had used to rinse with. It was accompanied by a small, bamboo scoop and a raw silk cloth. In an alcove opposite the door, was a very old and delicate-looking scroll with Japanese calligraphy and a branch of honeysuckle in a wall sconce.
The man in the black robe scooped some water with the ladle, from a large-mouthed container that sat over a large insulated bowl of hot coals. He carefully cleaned each of the implements with the water and dried them with the cloth after pouring the wastewater into the larger bowl.
Next, the man bowed to each of his guests in turn and placed a plate of delicately beautiful, and complexly decorated chocolates in front of them. “Please enjoy as I prepare the tea,” he said in a soft and clear voice. “I am Jeremiah. Welcome to my humble teahouse. The scroll you see in the alcove says ‘Honor, Honesty, Patience, and Courage.’ It is a statement of my goals and focuses in life.”
At last the confections were consumed by all and Jeremiah set the smaller stoneware bowl in front of Sam. Alan mimed picking up the bowl and rotating it a quarter turn and drinking. He then mimed wiping the rim with the cloth that sat beside the bowl. Sam followed the movements indicated and passed the bowl to Alan on his right. Once Alan completed the ritual, he passed it to Grey on Sam’s right.
The tea was bitter but pleasant. It played an interesting counterpoint to the sweetness of the confection that came before.
When Jeremiah had taken his turn sipping from the bowl, he repeated the cleaning ritual with the bowls and implements. He then turned back to the group.
“Now, let us get to know each other. I am Jeremiah. You have met my friends Grey and Alan.”
“Thank you for the welcome Jeremiah. I am still not entirely clear about the point of all of this,” replied Sam.
“My employer, Oroboros San, holds you in great respect. He wished to meet you,” said Grey.
“Grey puts it a bit awkwardly. But what he says is essentially correct. You see, upon my retirement from my previous position, I took this area as a sort of ‘Pension Plan. I inherited responsibility for maintaining the viability of the organization’s businesses in this area.
“I have a more… socially responsible view of how business should be run here. I run several places of ‘hospitality’ where a person can seek relaxation in certain ‘hobbies’. I make sure that all games of chance are run fairly within the Free Zone. I also make sure that ladies and men who provide certain services do so in a safe environment. Those who enjoy certain ‘libations’ do so with clean implements and the safest manner possible.
“The ‘gentleman’ you visited the other night was of a different opinion about how things should be run. He had been attempting to pressure some of my businesses and franchises into providing less specialized services. His men attempted to have inferior libations of his own, cheaper and less safe compositions sold in my businesses. He had also been trying to adulterate and take over several of my other ‘hospitality’ businesses. This was a situation that needed to be addressed. I was surprised when this odious individual was removed before I could have Grey remove him.
“You did me a favor. When I asked my good friend Alan to look into how such a wonderful event had come to pass, he was kind enough to investigate.
“May I ask, what was your motivation to visit the dearly departed?”
“He played a part in the deaths of some people I cared for. He also caused me a lot of physical pain.”
Alan seemed to grow curious after Sam related this. “When was this crime committed?” he asked.
” Three years ago. My group was passing by a section of the New Confederacy in West Virginia. We had just traded with the ‘White Homeland’ idiots for a load of their home-cooked E. We planned to trade it with a place in Virginia. They use it to treat mental patients. Their regular suppliers had become unreliable.”
This time Grey spoke up. “Are you certain the man you eliminated was responsible for the attack in question? I am fairly certain he was overseeing operations in the former Italian peninsula until six months ago. His recent business efforts had been funded by that work. He was there for five years in total. Were your other targets selected due to the same event?”
Looking with trepidation at Grey Sam replied, “Considering what you just mentioned, I seem to need to investigate my targets with more attention to detail.”
” I have a list of those I suspect were your victims. If you like, I can do some investigating of their activities in the last few years. Please feel free to pass anything you need to be researched to Grey, and he will gladly provide anything our considerable resources reveal.” Grey performed a small bow as Jeremiah finished speaking.
“Thank you, Jeremiah. I will take that offer. Do you suspect that my benefactor is misleading me on purpose?”
“I am unsure of his motivations, but it would seem that at least some of your information was incorrect.” responded the older man. “Is it safe to assume that a certain, Lord Thornsberry is your benefactor? I only ask because my data shows that he was also enjoying certain business advantages due to the untimely deaths of the men you have been eliminating.”
“I would prefer to keep that information confidential. After all, it would be unfair for me to tell others about our conversations, would it not?
“I thank you for the information, the tea, and your offer of friendship. I feel that I need to beg your pardon though. I have a business to attend to.”
“Very well. Grey will show you both out. It was a pleasure to meet you Oroboros San. I look forward to our next meeting.”
“Please, Jeremiah, call me Sam.”Sam stood and bowed to his host.
Grey and Alan stood and bowed as well and the trio made their way out of the small teahouse and out of the warehouse via the path.
Sam had many things to think about. His investigation needed to start as soon as possible.