Ieyasu Takezo opened the soji screen and padded out to a cushion at the edge of the porch in his tabi socks. His silver hair glowed against his blue and gray kimono in the brilliant morning sun. Pulling the katana from his belt, he settled cross-legged on the cushion and placed the sword on his right, in easy reach. Breathing deep as he gazed at the tiny garden in the courtyard, he focused on that quiet space at his center. But at the scuff of footsteps, Takezo snatched up his katana and jumped up. Long sword drawn, he glared at three small boys in short kimonos huddled at the other end of the porch. They fidgeted as the old man stood with sword raised.


“Hey, grandfather!”

“What’re you doing?”

Takezo smiled and slide the blade into its lacquered scabbard. “I was going to meditate before I was interrupted by my dirty-faced grandsons. Maybe I should beat you rascals instead.” He scowled at them. The boys leered back, then broke into giggling fits.

“We’re bored,” the six-year old announced. “There’s nothing to do. Would you tell us a story?”

“Yeah, the story about your adventure!” said the second.

“About your fight with the blue-eyed demon,” the youngest added.

Takezo sighed, glancing to the immaculate rock garden with its carefully raked sand. “All right, if you promise to leave me alone afterwards. But do you want that story? You’ve heard it so many times.”

“Oh please, please,” the boys shouted. “It’s exciting. Tell it again.”

Smiling, the old man nodded. “Come and sit. But you’ll give me peace after that, eh.”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused. They scampered over, bowed at the waist and plopped in a semicircle in front of Takezo. They’re getting tall and strong. Soon I’ll have to train them for battle for our lord. But these thoughts jostled against others about little league, cub scouts and college funds. Takezo pushed the rogue thoughts away. Gazing over the little garden, he collected his thoughts as he sat.

“One day many years ago, I realized I’d been trapped by an evil demon in a bizarre, nightmare world.” Takezo settled on the cushion and folded his hands on his lap. “I don’t know how I got there, but I had to escape.”

“What did the demon look like?” the oldest boy asked.

“Oh, he was horrible!” The old man threw his hands up and grimaced at the boys. “He was bald and ugly. His skin was pale white, as white as snow. His eyes were round like coins. And they were bright blue, like the sky!”

“Blue!” the boys breathed and huddled together.

“But that wasn’t the worst thing. You see, the blue-eyed demon was about to steal my soul.”

Jon Ieyasu glanced up to find Frank Bartel, his boss, waving from across the room. Just inside Frank’s office a tall, hatchet-faced man in a dark suit stood staring. The suit struck Jon. Pressed and buttoned up, it made Jon think of a uniform. Especially with the crisp white shirt, the man’s crew cut and steel rimmed glasses.

“Hey, Achoo!” Mr. Bartel shouted. “Get in here!” He turned and walked into his office followed by the guy in the suit.

Jon dropped his files on the typist’s desk and hustled to Mr. Bartel’s corner office. Prickles of fear whispered through his gut. There’d been rumors circulating for weeks about a surprise audit. Sam in accounting dropped hints at lunch yesterday that the expense account records for Frank’s sales unit for the last year had been pulled by an auditor. The guy in the suit?

Jon paused at the doorway and fought to keep his expression neutral. Mr. Bartel sat behind his massive mahogany desk, bald head glistening, pasty-faced, and sweating in the office air conditioning. The suit stood over Frank’s shoulder as the suit pointed to different things, as he flipped pages and whispered. Frank glared when he saw Jon shuffling in the doorway.

“You deaf? I told you to get in here. Sit.” Jon licked his lips and sat.

A tremor passed through Jon as his face burned under the other man’s stare. His gaze wasn’t angry or friendly. More like a scientist examining a questionable specimen. Chill out. My expense reports are clean.

The man in the suit stood back and waited, face hard, eyes on Jon. Am I supposed to say something?

Mr. Bartel shook file at Jon. “Pay attention, smart boy. You’ve screwed up big time. Mr. Phillips’ firm conducts the corporation’s audits. Accounting asked them to review my department’s expense accounts. Did you think nobody would figure out what you did at the San Diego Convention?”

Jon’s stomach jolted as he reviewed the trip in his head, a trade show out near the airport. Other than drinks with sales reps at the hotel bar, he couldn’t think of anything untoward he’d claimed. “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about. Frank. I turned in my receipts with my report as soon as I got back.”

The suit broke from his careful examination of Jon, picked up the file and stepped around the desk. “I’m Ron Phillips with Jacobs and Smith, the accounting firm retained by your board to conduct the independent audits for the annual report.” Holding out an expense report, he pointed to the bottom. “This is your signature, right?”

Jon glanced at the paper and nodded.

“Well, can you explain why you visited the Ledo Bar seven times for meals? At a hundred a pop? That’s a topless club in the red light district. They don’t serve food. Or four nights at the Aces Up Hotel down the block, two hundred a visit? They rent rooms by the hour, not the night. And I believe you were booked into the Marriott for this trip, right?”

Jon opened and closed his mouth several times before words came out. “No! That’s not true. I was at the Marriott or the Convention Center the whole time.”

Mr. Phillips sat on the edge of the desk and smiled, the first Jon had seen on him. “Look, son, I was with the LAPD in the white collar crime unit, I can smell a lie across the room. And I understand. You were there on the company’s dollar. You thought you could get a little slap and tickle while you were away, right? No big deal. But you can’t bill your employer for getting your jollies off.”

Jon glanced from the investigator to Frank and back. His voice cracked as he said, “Hey, this is bull. I never left the convention. I definitely didn’t go to any strip clubs. Frank, you were there, tell him.”

Frank just shook his head once, right then left.

“Sorry, kid. I spent most of my time with the guys from Wiler Chemical. They signed that big contract while I was there. I saw you around, but I didn’t keep tabs on you.”

Mr. Phillips turned to face Frank. “But, you did sign off on this expense claim.”

Frank grinned and rubbed his neck. “Well, yeah. It sounded kind of funny, but Jon swore it was all legit. I took his word.” Frank sat forward and stared. “And I warned Jon about messing with the expense accounts. But he insisted these were all real, places he took clients to. No big deal as long as he can give us the details. Like who was with you?” He stared at Jon, waiting.

Jon froze, shocked. What’s he talking about? We never talked about that.

Mr. Phillips waited, his look patient. Like this is old hat. How many times has he gone through stuff like this? Jon looked to Frank and caught the briefest of smiles, there and gone in a blink that spoke volumes.

Jon jumped up. “What are you trying to pull, Frank? What did you do?” Jon felt the heat of anger building as he glanced at the report. All neat and in order, with his signature at the bottom.

Jon turned and walked out the door. Damn. I’m screwed!

Complete story available in the print edition of Big Pulp Winter 2010



James R. Stratton is by day, a mild-mannered government lawyer specializing in child abuse prosecutions, living with his wife and children in Delaware. But in recent years he’s been forging a dark alter ego of genre fiction author. James has been published multiple times in Big Pulp, and in Dragons, Knights & Angels Magazine, Ennea and Nth Degree Magazine, The Broadkill Review, Tower of Light Online Magazine, and Paper Blossoms, Sharpened Steel, an anthology of Oriental fantasy.

For more of James' work,
visit his Big Pulp author page


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