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Authors: Alan Russell

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While the medical examiner was figuring out how Kingsbury died, maybe Am should be considering why he died. Cops were always
looking for motives, and Am decided that would be his first order of business in the morning. If
bushido
couldn’t solve the case, then maybe Yankee ingenuity could.

As if to emphasize that point, Am reached for a small pump. San Diego averages less than ten inches of rain in a year, and
Am had decided to irrigate his garden through his baths. Tubing ran from the pump into the garden below. The so-called gray
water wasn’t exactly legal, but his plants were thriving. He dried himself off while the pump made short work of his bath.
The strangling calls of a pump going dry prompted him to turn it off. Perhaps because Am’s fingers had been underwater for
so long, they were unusually sensitive. On the underside of the pump was a small metal plate with upraised bumps, the embellishments
of identification. He stopped himself from looking to see where the pump was made, afraid to discover that he was sharing
his bathtub with all of Japan. Who would have guessed World War II would have paled against the larger conflict, the rubber-ducky
war?

Am’s bedtime dilemma was whether to call Sharon. It was late, but he knew she’d be up. She said women had to work twice as
hard as men to get ahead. Whether that was true or not, Am couldn’t say; he only knew her work was like the old rhyme—never
done. Did he resent her for that? Did it injure his male pride that he was the one who kept calling her and not vice versa?
Sharon had told him that she didn’t have time for a relationship. He had made that same speech once or twice himself. The
shoe was on the other foot, and the phone was in the other hand. He called anyway.

She answered on the first ring. That was at least some consolation. Sharon was in British Columbia, part of a negotiations
team looking to purchase another hotel for Yamada Enterprises, or at least one of its subsidiaries. The family business, the
doozuku gaisha,
was immense and still expanding. Sharon had said an anthropologist would be hard-pressed to figure out all the familial players
and relationships in the company. She had told him that if you analyzed the
shinseki,
the networks of households, you could find scores of businesses. They were bedfellows—literally. Like royal lineages of old,
marriages of ranking families were arranged to strengthen positions. By American thinking, the result was almost incestuous.
It was also tough to beat. These days American firms never compete against one company; they compete against a consortium.
In Japan, whenever an important marriage is announced, the newspapers routinely document the network of
shinseki.
Marriages can mean a mating of major automotive and electronic concerns, with kissing cousins in chemicals and computers
and other enterprises—even hotels.

“Interrupting your metamorphosis?” asked Am. He liked to tease Sharon that she was turning Japanese.

“Call me Madama Butterfly,” she said.

“That explains it,” he said. “Today felt like an opera.”

“Do tell. Or would you prefer singing?”

“Wailing,” he emphasized, then explained, letting out his whale song.

He talked about life and death, about business and business cards, and working in an “occupied Hotel.” Am and Sharon had met
at the Hotel California. She had arrived as a hospitality spy, had worked there gathering information before Am found her
out. He still insisted that what she had done was unethical; she conceded only some gray area. The Japanese had to know everything
about any business they were interested in buying, she had explained. It was almost a compulsion with them. According to her,
the Japanese loved data more than sushi, and their information networks rivaled those of the CIA, KGB, British Intelligence,
and Mossad. These days, though, Sharon’s Mata Hari days were over, unless helping Am figure out how to navigate the Japanese
cultural maze qualified her as a double agent. Her advice came with a price, though, payment doled out by Am in the form of
a Japanese folktale. Sometimes she called him “My Scheherazade-zuki.” It was about as close to an endearment as she was offering
these days.

“Kipling was right,” finished Am in his lament, “when he said, ‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall
meet.’ “

“I suppose you’re talking about the same Kipling,” said Sharon, “who in one sentence managed to be sexist, racist and imperialist,
when he wrote, ‘Take up the White man’s burden.’ “

“Change the word ‘white’ to ‘yellow’ and we have the unspoken mind-set of the Japanese, don’t we?”

“The Japanese don’t think of themselves as being yellow,” said Sharon. “They consider themselves wheat-colored.”

“Wheat-colored,” said Am. “I supposed that makes sense. Don’t they always go around saying America is their granary?”

The exact quote, oft repeated in Japan, is that Europe is their boutique, and America their farm.

“And you don’t like being a farm boy?”

“I don’t like being treated like a boy.”

She had told him before that the Japanese were the most prejudiced race on the planet, had even conceded that many of their
business designs were imperialistic in nature. And yet Sharon admired many things about Japan and the Japanese, including
their accomplishments, their drive, their industriousness, their innate curiosity, and their culture.

“Then don’t act like the American stereotype that they believe in: loud, whining, and uneducated.”

“What? And disappoint them?”

Sharon had told him before how the Japanese public schools ran 240 calendar days per year, as opposed to 180 days in the United
States. She had a lot of facts like those at her command, enough for him to refer to her sometimes as “Tokyo Rose.”

She was pragmatic, with a business head, and he was the philosopher and dreamer. Her roots were East Coast and upper class.
He had never lived more than half a mile from the Pacific. And yet Am remembered how only a few months back they had connected.
They had—had—twained. Oh, how they had twained. Maybe Kipling was wrong. Sharon must have felt his hope and his ache.

“I have no time for
ren’ai,
Am Caulfield,” she said. “You have to start going out with other women.”

“What’s
ren’ai?”

“Romantic love,” she said.

“I’m surprised the Japanese even have a word for such a thing,” he said.

“Don’t stoop to their level,” she said. “Don’t automatically assume the worst. Surprise them, farm boy. Who knows? Maybe they’ll
even surprise you.”

“Is this sayonara?”

“Not before my folktale.”

“You wouldn’t consider phone sex instead?”

She didn’t answer. Eventually, Am told her about the two elderly neighbors, the one honest and good, and the other black-hearted
and evil. They saw each other on the road just before the new year, and the subject of their new year’s dream was raised.
For the Japanese, the first dream of the new year is very propitious, foretelling what is to be.

“A few days later,” Am said, “the neighbors saw each other again and compared their dreams. The honest old man said that he
had dreamed that luck would come to him from the heavens, while the vile old man said in his dream he had seen that luck would
come to him from the earth.

“That very day the honest old man started tilling the earth on a field he shared with the evil old man, only to find a huge
jar full of coins. He decided that this was the fulfillment of his neighbor’s dream, and that the right thing for him to do
was to go and tell him about his find. He tromped next door and told the evil old man about the booty that awaited him, then
went home to warm himself in front of a fire.

“The evil man hurried over to the site. As he turned the buried jar toward him, he was overjoyed to hear the sound of clinking
gold. But instead of finding coins inside it, he found it was full of writhing snakes. Vowing revenge, the evil man carried
the jar over to his neighbor’s house. He climbed a ladder that was propped alongside the house and, straining with his load,
made it up to the roof. Looking down through the smoke vent, the evil old man could see his neighbor and his wife warming
themselves. The sight incensed him. He hoisted the jar up over his head and decided to dump all the snakes atop the good man
and his wife. But when he overturned the container, it wasn’t snakes that fell into the room, but coins of silver and gold.

“ ‘Isn’t it wonderful!’ cried the honest old man, as the room filled with lucre. ‘First our neighbor receives his luck from
the earth, and now we receive our luck from heaven!’“

Sharon didn’t say anything for several moments. Maybe, Am thought, he could have chosen a better story. With a little doubt,
and a little defensiveness, Am announced, “Japanese folktales aren’t necessarily like Aesop’s, or Hans Christian Andersen’s.”

“I wouldn’t expect them to be,” said Sharon. “I was just thinking about the story. Thank you for sharing your pennies from
heaven.”

Cued, he offered his own good-bye. He wanted to tell Sharon that she had been his new year’s dream, but that would have been
a lie. If he remembered correctly, he had dreamed about the Hotel. Was it a sweet dream? He couldn’t recall, could only remember
his having to work through a hangover the next day.

Chapter Eight

Mass transit is not something considered synonymous with Southern California, but it was Am’s preferred method of getting
to work, partly because he enjoyed the pleasant bus ride along the coast, and partly because he didn’t have to explain himself
to Annette. But today he needed to drive, reason enough to plead.

“Going to La Jolla Strand,” he told his car, using the same kind of tone you would to mollify the gods.

Annette was a 1951 Ford Station Wagon, but not just any station wagon. She was a “woody,” a wood-paneled wagon. Am had bought
her under false pretenses, had figured only to hold on to her a few months before getting a nice return on his investment.
That never happened. Anyone who owns a collectible soon learns that Emily Post could have written a three-volume set on dos
and don’ts. Am figured that owning a Frank Lloyd Wright house was about the same thing as owning a woody in Southern California.
You don’t add an indoor Jacuzzi or a sundeck to a Wright house. It’s inviolable. And you don’t just treat a woody like you
would any car. Am claimed he would have sold Annette years back if it hadn’t been for his neighbor Jimbo, who liked nothing
better than working on her and keeping her in “bitchin’ trim.” Whenever Am mentioned that he was thinking of selling her,
people responded as if he were spitting on the flag. They didn’t know about, or wouldn’t believe, her quirk. Annette drove
fine if you didn’t take her far from the coast, preferably within sight of it. Stray from that route, and she quickly let
you know you were on the road to hell.

Luckily, the drive from Del Mar to La Jolla is most easily navigated along the coast. Annette cantered along Old 101, her
V-8 purring and easily taking the grade up Torrey Pines. Temperamental? she seemed to be saying. Not me.

The scenic drive was lost on Am that morning. He had risen very early and purchased copies of the San Diego
Union-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times,
and the
Blade-Citizen.
All three newspapers had devoted a good deal of black ink to the life and times of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury. Or was that lives
and times? Kingsbury had been a doctor, a researcher, a magician, and a psychic/paranormal investigator. “When I was a healer,”
he was quoted as saying, “it was unacceptable for me to give up on a patient. I resented being stymied by the incurable, and
the unknown. I went into research to open doors. I went into the miracles business. That’s when I really started to resent
the phonies. I saw too many scientists giving their all only to be eclipsed by pseudo-science charlatans. I saw the sick being
preyed upon, false hopes being dangled for dollars. Every society needs their Totos pulling back the curtains on disingenuous
wizards. I made it my mission to promote reason and rationality, and expose snake oil and cosmic dust.”

The portraits the newspapers provided made Am wonder just whose death he was investigating. Was it Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, dedicated
hematologist; Thomas Kingsbury, M.D., research scientist; Tommy Gunn the Magician; or Dr. Tom, the avenging angel? The man
was a Rubik’s cube. He had won a slew of awards, most for research unpronounceable to laymen; work with globulins, glutinins,
hemoglobins, leukocytes, and polymerization. Kingsbury evidently never met a blood disease he wasn’t interested in. Maybe
that’s why he had so vigorously pursued the claims of the exploitive paranormal; he couldn’t stand bloodsuckers.

There had been occasional patches of fog along the drive, at first innocuous wisps, but a gray layer by the time Annette crossed
the borders of north La Jolla. The June Gloom had staked its position along the coast as firmly as a desert dweller on a beach
holiday. Am caught his first glimpse of the Hotel just above Scripps Institution of Oceanography, its telltale red tile roof
a beacon through the haze. The Hotel stretched along the expanse of La Jolla Strand, forty acres of beach-front property.
It had been housing guests for more than a hundred years, and during that time had undergone numerous expansions and renovations.
What hadn’t changed was the resort’s many charms. A masterpiece does not age; it just adds myths.

Am parked Annette in Outer Mongolia, the employee parking lot that was far away from the Hotel, but relatively close to the
security hut. He took a shortcut, a trail of his own making, cutting through the more circuitous flower-lined pathways. The
Hotel’s gardens were famous, from its towering palms to its colorful peonies. No walkway was without bird-of-paradise or hibiscus;
no trellis without bougainvillea or mandevilla; no trail without roses or orchids. Any stroll was a floral seduction, the
intoxicating scents of jasmine, honeysuckle, and gardenias commanding visitors to do as they should—stop and smell the flowers.

BOOK: The Fat Innkeeper
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