Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin plot or characters.
A/N: This is the result of what happens when you read too many Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet novels on top of too little sleep. Of all the RK characters, Sanosuke seems to fit the archetypal noir detective best, so I'm making him the lead character. This is Los Angeles 1947, so expect a bit of OOCness due to the change in venue.
I heard the door to the outer waiting room open and close as I sat at my desk doodling on the notepad where I'd written the name and number of my last client, Mrs. Stuart. She was another satisfied customer, or dissatisfied depending on how you looked at it. Her husband was stepping out with the cigarette girl from the Coconut Grove Cocktail Lounge. We got it all, photos, hotel receipts, and the names of bellhops and chambermaids willing to testify in divorce court. It was going to be one nasty divorce. I drew another broken heart in two jagged pieces with torn edges.
High heels click clacked briskly across the fake marble floor of the waiting room. I didn't blame them. There wasn't much to see in the outer office, just a coffee table with magazines no one read, two chairs, and an aspidistra Ken nursed with the determination of Florence Nightingale with a wounded soldier on the Crimean battlefield. There was also a secretary's desk and chair set which were empty since we couldn't afford one.
Ken's desk, situated directly across from mine, was empty too. He'd gone home early after we reported our findings to Mrs. Stuart. She'd been pretty broken up about it, used up two of my handkerchiefs and a glass of water before we sent her on her way with the name of a good divorce attorney. Mrs. Stuart hadn't really thought we'd find anything so she took it pretty hard. You saw it all the time in this business, broken dreams and broken promises. I drew a careful 'X' through the heart. Ken went home right after helping the woman to her car. He's sensitive that way.
A hand rapped twice on the mottled glass window in the door to the inner office.
"Come in," I yelled.
Ken wasn't there to open it himself and I didn't feel like getting up. It was 5:00 on a Friday afternoon. I wasn't even sure I wanted another case though we could use the money.
She opened the door and walked in like a dream. I looked her over as she paused in the open doorway. She had perfect skin; eyes so black they'd make obsidian jealous, and lips rouged with a dark burgundy color that did something to those eyes. Her hair was pulled back off the sides and into a bun low on the back of her neck, with one of those stylish little hats about the size of a teacup with netting and jet beads perched on her head. It probably cost a fortune but did nothing to keep the rain off. The beads matched the piping on the edges of her grey skirt and jacket set. The skirt was long enough for even the cattiest dame to call modest, but it did nothing to hide the calves leading down to thin delicate ankles and the patent leather pumps that caressed her feet like a lover.
"Are you S. Sagan, the detective?" she asked.
Her voice was low and rich, like the kind of expensive chocolate you can't just go out and buy in paper wrapped bars at the local five and dime.
"That's what it says on the door," I agreed.
Her glance skittered over to Ken's desk then back to my face.
"My partner is out for the evening," I told her blandly. "Come in, have a seat."
She threw another stare at Ken's desk then came forward and sat in one of the two leather chairs parked in front of my desk. She crossed her legs and pulled off her gloves one finger at a time. Her hands were just as elegant as the rest of her, pale with long aristocratic fingers. The nails were shorter than I expected, manicured and painted in a shade that matched the one on her lips. Up close her eyes were slightly epicanthic, giving her an exotic look. She was Eurasian. Like me. Like Ken. Small world.
"What can I do for you, Miss…? I trailed off, letting her know it was her turn to complete the sentence. The 'Miss' was a good guess. No gold band on the left hand, only a small sapphire and platinum one on an index finger.
She gave me the longsuffering look a beautiful woman uses on men who want her name and a lot more from her.
"Meg, Meg Takani," she replied crisply.
I digested that. She'd kept her Japanese surname. I bet 'Meg' wasn't short for Margaret either. When I didn't reply right away she lifted her chin and gave me a hard stare.
"S. Sagan?" she drawled. "And the 'S' is for…?"
"Sanoske. Sanoske Sagara once upon a time. It's my adopted family's name. They changed it years ago when they moved here. My adopted father was one quarter Japanese. I go by 'San' mostly."
"And people call you Sam, don't they? They hear 'San' and think it's 'Sam' and you let them because it's easier, isn't it?"
She leaned back in her chair, cool and amused. I didn't like it much. I'm a quarter Japanese too, or so the Sagaras told me. I don't remember my parents. The Sagaras raised me here, in America. Like Meg Takani, I've got enough Anglo in me to blend in.
"We could talk about names all night, or you can tell me why you're here instead of wasting my time."
"Not much for diplomacy, are you?"
"That's my partner's job. I like to get down to business," business being a half full bottle of scotch in the dresser drawer by my bed. I'd solved the Stuart case, so I deserved a drink to celebrate. I'd love to celebrate with Miss long legged Meg Takani, but I didn't think that's what she came for. I was right.
"I have a job for you," she said.
"What kind of a job?"
"I need you to find something, something that was stolen from me."
"Why not go to the police?"
She pressed her lips together. Her eyes flashed anger, and it came out in her voice too.
"If I wanted the police I'd have gone to them in the first place, now do you want the job or not?"
"It depends," I told her lazily. "So far all I've got is that someone took something you want back. But I don't know you, lady. For all I know you could be that cat burglar who's been hitting the estate crowd in Beverly Hills. Maybe that's your game. Maybe you find some shamus and pull this sob story, pretend some big bad old rich guy stole your stuff and broke your heart. They get it back only it's not really yours. They do all the work and if they get caught all you've got to do is play dumb. Is that it?"
"No! I'm not a thief!"
She jumped out of the chair, eyes blazing, color showing in her cheeks.
"Calm down, I never said you were. We're talking maybes here. Maybe you give me the truth and maybe I stop spinning fairy stories for kids."
She didn't like it, but she settled back down in the chair.
"I'm not a thief," she repeated.
I believed her. I'd baited her but good and she reacted, not with a cynical admission or an actress's crocodile tears. Besides, I happened to know that the Beverly Hills burglar had the sort of arms you'd need to use a rope and grapple to climb a couple of stories and break into attic windows. The cops found the marks left by the metal prongs.
It paid to have friends on the force. Sometimes they sent business my way if it wasn't strictly a police matter. Sometimes I even accepted it.
Meg smoothed her skirt over her legs. They were thin and shapely, like her arms.
"The item in question belongs to my family," she said.
She raised her eyes from contemplating her legs so I did too.
"It's an heirloom, a katana. A katana is a…"
"I know what a katana is," I interrupted.
I ought to know, since Ken could go on and on about them, a side effect of having been raised by a martial artist and weapons instructor for the Canadian army. We had to talk about something to pass the time when we were tailing someone, and neither of us wanted to talk about the war.
Her eyes widened a little. "Then you know that some of them can be quite valuable – collector's items."
I shrugged. Guns were my weapon of choice, guns or my fists. The army's training rubbed off on me.
"This sword is listed in the Kyoho Meibutsucho. It was forged by Toshiro Yoshimitsu." Meg had the look of a schoolgirl reciting her lessons from memory. It was cute, but it wasn't getting me anywhere.
"So what's it look like?"
She sighed and raised her arms, hands out past her shoulders.
"It's about this long. The saya, the sheath, is black lacquer and the tsuba has a bird of prey pattern carved into it. The birds are falcons in flight with their wings spread out."
She dropped her arms. "Is that what you wanted?"
"It's a start, but you still haven't told me why no coppers."
"Yeah, that again."
Her hands weren't happy without anything to do anymore so she used them to fuss with her gloves, gripping then smoothing them flat on her lap. Her eyes got in on the act and glued themselves to the gloves.
"Then make it simple."
"The katana wasn't stolen from my apartment, it was stolen from my boss's house. I brought it over one evening to show it to him at a dinner party. He collects Asian art. I guess I got a little drunk. He let me stay in his guest room. That night there was a robbery. The burglar broke in through the study. He took some money and my sword. My boss has a wife back in Japan who has lots of friends here. If it gets out that I spent the night…That's why I don't want any police."
"What about your boss's money?"
"It wasn't that much," she said quickly. "He keeps most of it at the bank." She stopped herself as if afraid she'd say too much if she kept talking.
"Know a lot about your boss's finances, do you?"
"Dr. Shumei trusts me. How else would I know about his financial practices?"
It was good, the open honest stare, the way she forced her hands to stop fussing with the gloves, but the slight quaver in her voice gave her away. She was lying about something. I felt like telling her that it didn't matter to me if she was having an affair with her boss. All I cared about was if the job was legit or not.
I nodded like I believed her. Neither of us was fooled.
She cleared her throat and continued. "Dr. Shumei woke up and went downstairs. He saw the study door was open. When he looked out the window he saw a man running away. He was short, like a jockey, dark-haired, and skinny. When he looked back at the house the porch light fell on his face. He had a mole right next to his nose. Aren't you going to write this down?" she asked, pointedly staring at the notebook on my desk.
I flipped it over so she'd stop sneering at the doodles on it.
"Don't need to. My memory's OK."
"So can you find it for me?"
"Sure, for $25 a day plus expenses."
She opened the clasp on her little black purse and used my desk and my pen to write out a check then passed it across without batting an eyelash. It was written for $100.
"That's for four days. You'll get another for expenses after you submit an itemized report with receipts."
I whistled to pretend I was impressed. "Must be quite a racket, the medical profession."
"Dr. Shumei isn't a medical doctor. He's a research scientist and professor over at the university. I'm his research assistant."
That explained the short fingernails. She used those hands for business, not for show. They probably spent their time in surgical gloves. It seemed a shame to hide them.
Miss Takani stood and took a small rectangle of stiff paper out of her handbag and laid it on the desk.
"That's my card," she said. "It's got the university's address and phone number on it. I've written my home number on the back. Call me the minute you find out anything, anything at all."
I nodded and picked the card off the desk. Satisfied, she turned and legged it out of my office. I let my eyes wander as she left. Her stocking seams were straight, and her tailored suit fit snugly enough to show off her curves but not enough to hobble her. The doughnut shaped bun at her neck didn't have a hair out of place, but one of her hairpins was sticking out about a quarter inch from her bun. I wondered what it would be like to pull it out the rest of the way, and the others too, to feel that mass of silky mane pooled in my hands and find out if it was as soft as it looked.
When she got to the outer door she paused and looked back.
"Don't fail me, Mr. Sagan. I'm counting on you," she said, and then she was gone.
The next day Ken and I hit the pawnshops that weren't too particular about who actually owned what, and the art dealers who dabbled in Asian artifacts. Truth be told, there's not as much difference between them as people like to think, only art dealers fence goods stolen from countries while pawnshops fence goods stolen from houses. No one had seen or heard of a sword in a black scabbard with falcons on the tsuba. It was a bust.
My feet were tired, my stomach was angry about the hamburger stand lunch I'd fed it, and the sweat trickling down my back reminded me that it was summer in the city of angels.
Ken sailed through it uncomplainingly. He did take his hat off to fan his face more than once though, and that red mop of hair of his was sticking to his forehead. Ken looked less Japanese than I did, and most people couldn't tell me from an Italian.
I pulled the car over to a payphone by a gas station. Ken looked at me questioningly from the passenger seat of the old 1937 Packard 120 series sedan. My car was ten years old, but it survived the war, and that meant something.
"Relax a minute. I'm going to see if Miss Takani has a key to Shumei's house."
"So we're going to see the scene of the crime?" Ken asked.
"Something like that," I grunted and hoofed it to the telephone booth.
Miss Takani was at work, but according to the department secretary Dr. Shumei was not. This stumped me for a minute until the secretary said he'd taken an unexpected sabbatical and would be gone several weeks. That meant the house was empty. On the phone Meg was brusque. She kept it brief, probably because the chatty secretary was listening. It turns out she had a spare key. Sometimes people left them with friends or coworkers in case of emergency. Sometimes they gave them to their lovers. Meg didn't say why she had the key, she just left it with the secretary and didn't come out of her lab when Ken and I dropped by.
The secretary was blonde, plump, and could barely restrain herself from pinching Ken's cheeks. He had that effect on middle aged dames. We got the key and got out as fast as we could.
Shumei's house wasn't too far from the university. It was a mock Tudor bungalow two rooms wide in front and a lot longer in back. A side porte cochere sheltered a nice looking Daimler with plenty of room on either side of the car. To the right of the house was a vacant lot. To the left was another smaller bungalow with a garden and cutout porch on the side. An old man was working in the garden. He gave us a sharp look when we got out of the car, then went back to cutting deadheads off his flower bushes.
We climbed the steps to Shumei's porch, unlocked the door and entered. A wood staircase led to the upper floor, and a table with an empty Chinese style vase was dead center of the reception hall. We wandered the ground floor through a living room with two open-mouthed stone lion-dogs flanking it, a formal dining room, kitchen, and towards the back we found the study.
It had been searched and then put back in order, but not completely right. Indentations in the rug showed where chairs and floor lamps had been upended and replaced, but not in the exact spot. The desk drawers with locks had splintered wood where they'd been jimmied.
Ken drifted over to a side table in front of a bookcase. The books looked like they'd been pulled down and shoved back out of order. On the table was a wood rack with spaces for three things: a katana, a wakizashi, and a tanto. I knew that because I'd seen a similar one in Ken's apartment mounted on the wall. This one was empty.
"Miss Takani did say that it was just a katana that was missing?" Ken asked thoughtfully as he stared at the empty stand.
"Yes, she did." I answered grimly.
"And she also said that the katana belonged to her, and not to Dr. Shumei?"
"She said that too."
Ken stared at the sword stand a while longer. "Then either Dr. Shumei lost far more than just money, or Miss Takani is lying, that she is."
"Women lie," I told him. "It's what they do."
I saw him bite back a remark and smile noncommittally instead. Kenshin lived above a karate studio owned by a brother and sister. Their dad, a second generation Japanese-American, signed up the day after Pearl Harbor and died in the war. With Kenshin's rent money and a few students they were making it, just barely. Ken was sweet on the girl, Kaoru, though they were still dancing around it. You wouldn't think it to look at him, but Ken was nearly a decade older than me.
"Perhaps Dr. Shumei put his own swords in a bank deposit box or took them with him after the robbery," Ken suggested hesitantly. "If her sword was more valuable than his, the robber may have taken it and left the doctor's swords behind. What did she call the sword?"
I crossed my arms. "I told you before, I don't remember. It was forged by toshimushi somebody or other."
"Perhaps if I spoke to her…?"
"Nothing doing," I told him. "If she lied about the sword she probably lied about everything else. I'll handle her."
Kenshin Himura was the sort of guy you wanted at your back in a brawl, the trustworthy type. He'd been a sniper during the war, and could hit a target like no one else I'd ever seen, but put him with a skirt and he was putty in their hands. It's not that he was some loverboy, or that he believed everything a dame told him, it's just that he was the chivalrous type and it didn't mix well with the sort of women we had to deal with most of the time. Knowing Ken, he'd forgive Meg for lying, pat her on the head, give her a lollipop and promise to help her for free. That's what he'd been doing when I found him again after the war, wandering around helping people in between whatever odd jobs he could find. There'd been a woman during the war. There was always a woman. Something happened and it weighed on him. I tried to keep him away from the more dangerous dames.
"Miss Takani must be a very interesting woman."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Her lies are interesting." Ken smiled and headed out of the room. "I'd like to see the upstairs."
I followed him without enthusiasm. I knew what we'd find, traces of her in Shumei's bedroom. When a woman stays over more than once she always leaves something behind. An earring, a bottle of perfume, a handkerchief. After a while she sometimes even gets a drawer in the bureau, or a few hangers in the closet.
There was nothing. Shumei's bedroom was the biggest and the one with his clothes in it. It smelled like an old man's room, and the picture he had on the dresser showed a small man with grey threading its way through his hair. There was another picture of a round-faced Japanese woman, but it was much older, taken before the war. The wife, maybe. There wasn't a trace of anything that looked like Meg Takani. Not in Shumei's room, and not in any of the three empty guest bedrooms. All of the rooms had been searched recently as well.
We left the house the way we found it. I was just locking up when Ken began to crane his neck and stare up at the porch ceiling. He stood on his tiptoes and touched the edge of the porch light shade, setting it swinging so it creaked and tinkled as it shifted. It was one of those shaded light bulbs that hang down by a cord.
"Sano, please open up the door again."
"OK." I turned the key in the lock and pushed it inward. Kenshin had a look of concentration on his face that I'd learned meant something.
He stepped into the doorway, reached around for the wall switch on the left of the door and pressed it. Nothing happened.
I raised my eyebrows. He reached around to the right, pressed another wall switch and the reception hall light blazed overhead for a second until he turned it off. Then he walked back outside onto the porch and stared up at the porch light.
"Miss Takani said that doctor Shumei saw the thief's face by the light of the porch light, but the bulb is burnt out. Also, the study is at the back of the house. Dr. Shumei would have had to lean out the study window very far indeed in order to see the face of someone running down the side of the house by the porch light."
He stretched and gave the porch light another swing before going down the steps. The broken filaments inside shifted against the glass. I watched it sway back and forth a couple of times and then followed him down the front steps.
The old man from next door ambled over to the low fence between the two properties. It came up a little past his knee. That fence might stop an overweight chihuahau from gamboling between the two properties, but it sure wouldn't stop anything else. The man wiped his sweaty brow with his shirtsleeve and grinned.
"Porch light's busted. I saw you monkeying with it."
Kenshin walked over to the fence and smiled. "Yes. My name is Ken Himura. How do you do?"
"Ed Grant. Can't complain. You?"
"I'm fine, Mr. Grant. If you wouldn't mind telling me, how long has the porch light been broken?"
"A week, maybe two. I told Dr. Shumei about it, but he hasn't done anything."
"Is Dr. Shumei a good neighbor?" asked Kenshin politely. It's amazing how much information he can wring out of people with the politeness angle. I stood back and let him work it.
The old man wiped his forehead again and squinted. "If you'd asked me that a week ago I would've said yes. Keeps himself to himself. Doesn't entertain much either, but two nights ago he had the lights on and the music playing loud. My bedroom's at the back of the house. The wife was ready to send me next door, let him have it for keeping us up so late, but then he shut off the music and it was quiet for a while. I think his guests left later. Most of them anyhow. My sleep was shot to hell so I stayed up in the front room to read in my rocking chair. Round about three in the morning I saw a little guy with a mole hightailing it out by the carport. He was carrying a bag like he'd meant to stay the night but changed his mind."
"How big was the bag?" Kenshin asked.
"Oh, about yay big," the geezer gestured with his hand and his gardening shears.
It was about the same distance Meg had used when she showed me how long the sword was.
"Like one of them army bags, you know, the duffle bags." He squinted at us and shaded his eyes with his free hand.
"Yes, I know of them." Kenshin agreed softly. Something about his voice made the old man take a sharper look.
"You don't look old enough to have been in the war, sonny."
I stifled a snort. I'd heard people tell him that for years. Kenshin was scrawny with a boyish face and a 'gee shucks' way about him that made people think he was barely out of high school. They underestimated him. In my line of work, that made him gold as a partner.
Kenshin raised his hands and shook his head. "Oh, I didn't do that much in the war, and I'm older than I look."
The geezer shot him a suspicious look.
"He was in my squad," I told him. "I can vouch for him."
He looked from Kenshin to me. "Just as you say. Look, I told the lady the same thing about the guy with the bag. She asked a lot of questions too."
"What lady?" I asked, keeping my voice as calm as I could.
"Takani, I think her name was."
"You know Miss Takani?" asked Kenshin.
"Not to speak of," the old man laughed at the notion. "I only see her coming and going. She drops off papers and such like on the weekend sometimes."
"Does she stay long?" Kenshin asked softly with a quick look in my direction.
"Nope. Just goes in carrying papers, sometimes boxes, and leaves soon after. Don't think he's so much as offered her a drink. I know he's never offered to have me or the wife over."
He seemed disappointed by it.
"Say, you wouldn't want to come in for some lemonade, would you?" He looked at us hopefully from under grizzled eyebrows.
"Sorry, we've got to go. Some other time, maybe," I told him abruptly.
I tugged on Kenshin's sleeve to cut short his apologies and started walking. The only drink I wanted right now was the kind you'd find in a bar, not the sort of drink grandpa was offering.
Dr. Shumei hadn't seen the burglar leaving his house. Dr. Shumei was gone, along with his sword set. Meg Takani had lied, about everything.
To Be Continued…