Last night I dreamt I nursed my child;
This morning I woke weeping.
---Lady Suzume Murasaki, 1766-1790.
By now my mornings were taking on the feeling of a routine: wake up with the impression I had not been alone, use the bathroom, and go downstairs to find breakfast waiting for me with no sign of Suzume. Another addition to my life was an interesting message waiting for me when I got to work, this time an e-mail from Mitsuoko Harris. She wanted to know if I had given the museum exhibit idea any thought. I replied that I had not, but that I had learned something since I last saw her, explaining what Alasdair Kemp had done.
'While I have serious misgivings about getting involved with him to any degree whatsoever, no exhibition about Suzume Murasaki could be considered comprehensive without that jacket and the letter embroidered in it,' I wrote, 'and who knows what other pieces of the puzzle he holds?' I attached the letter from Suzume to Junaemon to the e-mail, and sent it.
I had a reply back within twenty minutes. 'I would rather not leave a trail of electronic ink which mentions names and details. Are you free for a rather late lunch? I can meet you at Pane y Tomate at two-thirty.'
She knew something detrimental about Kemp; no one would refuse to send an e-mail in those terms otherwise. Pane y Tomate was a popular Italian restaurant not far from the campus, and about four blocks from the office supply store where I planned to buy the translator anyway. I replied that would be fine.
Scarecrow and Dr. Crane still had not put in an appearance by the time I got to the eatery. Why not? What was different about me/us today?
Pane y Tomate, which meant Bread and Tomatoes, was a small local chain, moderately priced and family-friendly without being child-oriented. While it had no pretensions to elegance, neither was it a dump. The light fixtures had been made from old olive oil bottles with the bottoms cut off, and clean white butcher's paper took the place of the tableclothes. The potted plants were real, not silk or plastic, and appetizing aromas wafted to my nose as I opened the door, not the smell of stale grease. Ms. Harris was waiting on a bench by the door. She was much as I remembered her--a pleasant and intelligent-looking Asian woman of middle age. She greeted me, and the hostess showed us to a table. After we sat down, ordered, and were given ice water and bread to hold us until more substantial food arrived, Ms. Harris sighed. "Now...concerning Alasdair Kemp. He has a certain reputation in the Asian art world, and it's a dubious one. At best, he's a vandal, at worst—but I ought to work up to that. As I've never yet personally encountered him, I checked with my counterpart in the Hong Kong Rotheby's, Lee Kao. I've known Mr. Kao for more than ten years, and I can vouch for his reliability as a source. Seven years ago, Kemp paid a visit to our office there. He's purchased items at our auctions several times over the last twenty years, but never sold through us. On this occasion, Mr. Kao showed him, as a courtesy, an ivory netsuke of a sparrow. A netsuke is part of a belt-pouch ensemble, an essential part of a gentleman's wardrobe. The word for 'sparrow' in Japanese is 'Suzume'—and this particular netsuke had come from the Murasaki family collection."
"Did it belong to her?" I asked, breaking off a hunk of rosemary-scented bread and dipping it in a dish of olive oil.
"No. If the dates are correct, it belonged to her father. Kemp offered to buy the piece, but it had already been sold to a museum. Kemp offered to pay half again what the museum had paid for it, but of course that was out of the question. Rotheby's doesn't do business like that. Mr. Kao told him so, and Kemp seemed to take it in good heart—but when he stood up to go, the buttons on his sleeve got caught on the display pad, and the netsuke was knocked to the floor. When Kemp moved his chair to look for it, somehow he stepped on it and ground it into splinters. I've seen pictures; it was an exquisite piece." Ms. Harris took a swallow of water. "You could see every feather."
"It might have been an accident," I offered.
"It might have," Ms. Harris agreed, "except that Mr. Kao saw Kemp's face reflected in a brass urn at the moment when he bent over to see what damage he'd done, and he says Kemp was smiling."
"He destroyed it so no one else could have it...What did Kemp do then?" I inquired.
"Took out his checkbook and paid for the piece. He could hardly do anything else under the circumstances. However, there's more to Kemp than that. As a professor of Japanese history, he's written several books on the subject, and frequently contributes to museum publications. Naturally he often visits those museums. When he last visited The Tale of Genji Museum in Kyoto, a small jade water container from the original Lady Murasaki's writing set went missing. The Mingeikan Museum of Folk Crafts in Tokyo lost a tea scoop which had belonged to the renowned master of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lost an obi which belonged to Jigoku Dayu, The Courtesan from Hell."
"'The Courtesan from Hell?'," I couldn't help asking.
"That was what she called herself. Not much is known about her, other than that she wrote poetry and always wore clothing with an infernal motif—hellfire, demons, skeletons, and so on. A prototype for today's Japanese Goth girls."
"I see," I said, flashing for one moment on what Suzume might look like dressed as a Goth. Again, adorable sprang to mind.
"I could keep going—Interpol has a file on Kemp going back over thirty years. He's suspected of seventeen different thefts of Asian art objects, mainly from museums. I happen to have a contact in Interpol, to whom I spoke before I came here, which is how I found all this out. All the items in question could be concealed about his person or in his briefcase, all were unique not so much for what they were as for who had owned them, and most of them belonged to women."
"Has he never been searched, arrested, or prosecuted?" I asked. The waiter brought over our meals and offered us fresh Parmesan to top our meals.
"Most of the thefts went unnoticed for several days, and one was overlooked for more than two months. It's not as if he went in and took the Hope Diamond out of its case—and given how long he's been active, many of the thefts pre-date motion detectors and security cameras. He's been searched twice, but they found nothing either time—and he has never been formally arrested or prosecuted. Also, whatever he's doing with them, he's not taking them to sell. None of these have turned up on the market."
"He's taking them to keep," I stated. "He's not a kleptomaniac, he's a collector. These objects have a romantic association for him—he's in love with the past, and specifically with Suzume Murasaki. Most likely he has a room set up somewhere as a sort of shrine with all these items and more in it."
"I'm inclined to agree," Ms. Harris said. "As you can imagine, Interpol would like nothing better than to catch him and retrieve the stolen items. Some of them were important cultural treasures. However, his penchant for pocketing valuables isn't the worst of it. He might also be a murderer."
"A murderer!" I exclaimed, sitting up straighter.
"Yes. This is strictly confidential, of course."
"Of course. Who is he thought to have killed?"
"A young woman by the name of Naomi Miyabe." She pronounced the name 'Now-me', not 'Nay-oh-me'. "If she were alivetoday, she would be about my age. Twenty-five years ago, she was studying English Literature at Oxbridge, where he taught. She wasn't in any of his classes, but given that she was Japanese and he teaches Japanese History, it was natural that he should speak to her at certain college events, like a tea for new students. Given that we, Naomi Miyabe and I, that is, were of the same generation and similar backgrounds, I can speak for her regarding how she was brought up. It's relaxed somewhat now, but girls of our generation were brought up to be completely self-effacing--dutiful, obedient, polite and respectful.
"We were expected to bow to authority--especially male authority-and not to trouble others with our problems. It was also expected that we would leave the workforce--if we entered it at all-- optimally by age twenty-five and certainly by age thirty, that we would marry suitably and not only take care of our children and our home, but our husband's parents when they got old. We were not to expect to marry for love alone, or to rely on our husbands for more than a paycheck. He would be gone eighty hours a week and sometimes more, between work and socializing with co-workers, which was mandatory if he wanted to rise in the company. He had to be a team player. All the house work, all the child care, all the elder care, all the financial management of the household, would fall on us. We would even dictate if our husband could keep a mistress as he wanted to, or if he would just have enough for a visit to a sex worker now and then-yet if we divorced, we got nothing, not even custody of our children. We were brought up to do everything while asking for nothing, uncomplainingly.
"That Naomi was allowed to study abroad was very unusual. She was exceptionally intelligent, reliable, not flighty, or her parents would never have allowed it. They trusted her. When Kemp began to bother her, she did not complain to them. She went to one of the student proctors for advice. These days, we would call Professor Kemp a stalker--but twenty-five years ago, if a young woman complained about unwanted attention, she wasn't taken very seriously. He wasn't threatening her, or making sexual advances--she would have known how to cope with that. He was always the perfect older gentleman, whenever they met-which was far oftener than they should have. He would run into her in places he would not otherwise have been, if he wasn't following her or keeping track of her movements. He sometimes sent her little gifts--a book, a little bunch of flowers. She did not like how he spoke to her, but he never said anything obscene or suggestive. She did not give any details, and she didn't want to make any trouble for him. She just wanted him to leave her alone.
"It would have taken a lot to make her break her silence and ask for help but all the proctor said that until and unless Kemp did something illegal, there was nothing they could do. Naomi apologized for bothering her, and left.
"That conversation took place on a Friday. On Monday morning, Naomi Miyabewas found lying on her bed with a plastic bag over her head. She had apparently taken an overdose of sleeping pills, laid down, and put on the bag so she would be sure to suffocate and not live on with brain damage. Her death was ruled a suicide. I disagree, based on the contents of her stomach.
"Her last meal included a Welsh rabbit and ice cream for dessert. Do you know what a Welsh rabbit is, Dr. Crane?"
"Isn't it a melted cheese sauce over toast, with mustard and beer and such in it? I know there's no actual rabbit meat in it." I had never eaten it, but I had heard of it.
"That's right. Did you happen to notice that I didn't get a dish with a lot of cheese in it? The only cheese in this is that little grating of Parmesan the waiter ground over it. I, like Naomi Miyabe and many other people of Japanese birth and descent, am horribly lactose intolerant. It's a genetic predisposition combined with a cultural peculiarity. Not until recently have dairy foods been a significant part of the Japanese diet--until the latter part of the twentieth century in fact. Thousands of years of not consuming milk or milk products after being weaned from breast milk contribute to that intolerance. If I were to drink more than a few ounces of milk, I would suffer terrible cramping, bloating, and general misery."
"But if it was to be her last meal, perhaps she decided to indulge herself," I suggested, stowing away the information about lactose intolerance for future reference. Suzume had enough issues with food, given her fear of poisoning, without my bringing home a pizza and a pint of ice cream some night and discovering how dairy products affected her the hard way.
"No," Ms. Harris was definite. "Although that was the conclusion the coroner's office came to. For my generation and older, dairy products are more of an acquired taste. Naomi Miyabe never had the chance to aquire that taste. The first time she ever ate enough dairy products to make her sick was at the welcoming tea. A well-meaning individual hospitably filled her plate with all sorts of the delicacies served at an English tea--cream cheese sandwiches, cheddar and tomato sandwiches, a Stilton-apple tart, a wedge of Wensleydale--and then there were the desserts. Trifle with pudding and whipped cream, cheese cake... Being a guest as well as a well-brought up, polite young woman, she choked it all down rather than waste the food or embarrass anyone. That night she had intestinal pains so bad they nearly took her to the emergency room."
"What do you think happened?"
"What do I think...I think that it would be easy to hide the taste of sleeping pills in a Welsh rabbit. Cheddar cheese, mustard and beer would cover a lot of sins."
Who does that remind you of, but yourself?, whispered the Scarecrow. It was disturbing to realize I had something in common with Kemp.
Ms. Harris continued. "I imagine Naomi approached Kemp to ask him to leave her alone, and that he somehow persuaded her to eat dinner with him. Maybe he said he just wnted to have the pleasure of her company over a meal one time, and, being polite, self-effacing, and compliant with male authority, she agreed. Perhaps he threatened her into eating the rabbit, or maybe she didn't want to embarrass him by not eating, even if she would be in pain later because of it. At any rate, she ate. When the pills began to work, he took her home, and once he got her inside, he put her on the bed and, just as he would do with the sparrow netsuke eighteen years later, he destroyed what he could not have."
"Was she sexually assaulted?" I asked.
"No, In fact, she died a complete innocent. It was in the coroner's report. Kemp never married, never had affairs with anyone, female or male. He was widely thought of, around Oxbridge, to be more or less asexual."
And doesn't that ring a bell? Scarecrow taunted again. Was I that much like Kemp? Would I dwindle into a mad eccentric who thought nothing of doing what he pleased, no matter how criminal it was?
"Do you hope to pin her murder on him?" I asked.
"I don't think that's realistic, at this point," replied Ms. Harris. "I would be glad to see him go to prison for theft and burglary, however. Would you be willing to help toward that goal?"
A longer chapter, as promised! Hope you enjoy--the last chapter was a bit thin.