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Authors: Naomi Hirahara

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BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
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“Okay, then tell me. If you were so damn close to him, tell me about the real Randy Yamashiro.”

“Go to hell, G. I.” Jiro then headed down the stairs, with G. I. right behind him. They exchanged more words by G. I.’s front door as Mas and the cat stared at each other in the living room. Mas edged toward the foyer, but their voices, bouncing against the bare walls and high ceilings, were hardly distinguishable. Mas returned to his beer, moving to the couch with Mu. Mas had to admit that the cat was decent enough, as far as animals went. “Moo-moo,” Mas teased, raising the half-empty can above Mu’s head. In response, Mu squarely swatted the can’s bottom with his paw, sending the beer and its contents onto the leather couch.

“Sonafugun,” Mas spat out. He leapt up and grabbed the beer can, but the damage was already done. A bubbling stream of Budweiser was making its way in between the cushions. Mas scanned the room for a napkin, a dishrag, anything. Leaning in one corner was a
—what was that doing there? Mas frowned. He finally used one of G. I’s discarded T-shirts to mop up the mess. Mas began to toss the cushions from the couch to make sure that the beer hadn’t soaked through to the springs. On top of the couch’s frame, he found old peanuts and pretzels, a few pennies and a dime, and an envelope whose middle had gotten wet. Although the envelope was blank, there was something inside, Mas could see, because the ink was starting to bleed through.

,” Mas cursed again. He felt bad opening the envelope, but there was no time. And there, on an extra-long check, was the name
, and then the sum:

chapter six

Mas wanted to blame everything on the cat, but he figured that wouldn’t go very far with G. I. Mu was now on a
, a Japanese chest of drawers, raising his paw as innocently as one of those
maneki neko
statues of cats welcoming good luck into businesses and homes.

From the living room window, Mas had seen Jiro leave in his dark Toyota Cressida. It was dusk, and the whole street was enveloped in a brown haze.

G. I. finally emerged, the top of his head sopping wet with sweat. All this business was taking a psychological toll on the fiftysomething lawyer.

Gomen, ne
,” Mas apologized as G. I. surveyed the cushions dumped on the floor. “Beer all ova your couch.”

“No biggie, Mas,” G. I. said. “It’s survived worse.”

“No, your check. Check all damage.” Mas pointed to the limp check.

G. I. frowned and took a look. “What the—Where was this, Mas? Exactly where?”

Mas pointed to the center of the naked couch.

“I don’t know where this came from,” he said. “This is a cashier’s check. Look, it was issued five days ago. The day before Randy was killed.”

“Jackpot check?”

“No, he deposited the money into a new account at a bank in L.A. I told him to wire the money to Hawaii, but he didn’t want to for some reason. I don’t understand this, Mas. This cashier’s check is from his bank. Why would he do this?”

Mas stayed quiet. It did look bad. Doubts about G. I. even hit Mas for a second, but then he brushed them aside, making his mind work like heavy-duty windshield wipers. If G. I. had known about the check, why would he have hidden it underneath a sofa cushion like a Depression-era old lady? G. I. wasn’t that

“Maybe Kermit was right.” G. I. wiped his oily forehead with the edge of his sleeve. “He said that I didn’t really know Randy. What do you think, Mas? What the hell should I do with this check?”

Mas shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know what to advise. G. I. could turn the check over to the police, but eyebrows would be raised about G. I.’s connection to Randy’s murder. He certainly couldn’t cash it—that would be plain wrong. What had Randy Yamashiro, or Sanjo, or whatever his name was, been thinking?

as made up some excuse about needing to go home to meet a friend, completely forgetting to ask G. I. about the
leaning against his bookcase in the corner. As it happened, his fake excuse came true. Somebody was sitting on Mas’s porch as he turned onto McNally Street. Mas checked his Casio watch. Nine o’clock. Too late for salesmen or evangelists. Mas didn’t recognize the boxy Honda parked outside his house, but after easing his truck into the driveway and approaching the front door, Mas could see a familiar sloped back and balding head. Stinky Yoshimoto.

“You couldn’t wait to tell him.” Stinky dispensed with a plain hello, which was fine with Mas.


“Wishbone. He left me a message—called me every four-letter word in the book. In English, Japanese, and Spanish. Didn’t know he knew that many languages.”

“I had nutin’ to do with it.” Mas was tired after driving all the way from Culver City. Beginning with the mortuary session at Lopez, Sing, and Iwasaki, it had been a long day.

“Bette came home first to hear the message. Now she’s asking me a bunch of questions. I told her that Wishbone had lost his mind in the nursing home. But that’s not going to hold water for long.”

“Youzu ask him.”

“I went to Keiro this evening. He’s AWOL. Gone.”

Mas licked his lips.

“His roommate said that he had a visitor today. An old Japanese guy. And they were arguing.”

Mas tried to go back in time. He hadn’t even run into the roommate. And his conversation with Wishbone had been low-key; no angry words.

“The roommate said the guy was probably a Kibei.”

Mas braced himself for what was to come next.

“On the visitors’ sign-up sheet, there was only one visitor for Wishbone. You.”

“I see him, but I no
. Nutin’ about your money deal.”

“Then what? You were there for one straight hour. A long time to say nothing.”

“Just hallo. And then sumptin’ came up. Sumptin’ that I lookin’ into for G. I. We talk to Gushi-mama.”

“About that guy who won the jackpot? What the hell would Wishbone have to do with that? He’s been sick this whole time. He can’t offer you much about something that happened over in Torrance.”

That’s where Stinky underestimated Wishbone. Wishbone wasn’t a hundred percent, but when it came to gossip, thirty percent of him could rival any investigator—maybe even Juanita—in tip-top shape.

“So you’re telling me that between the time you saw him and the time he called me, he spoke to some
Kibei who spilled the beans?”

Mas shrugged his shoulders. “Youzu believe what you believe. I tellsu Wishbone nutin’. None of my bizness.”

Stinky stepped into the light set off by the motion detector attached to the next-door neighbor’s house. He studied Mas’s face as if he were looking at a map directing him to lies and truths. But Mas wasn’t the type to blab bad news, so Stinky finally let out a long sigh. “Okay, Mas, I’ll have to take your word for it. But in the meantime, I’m going to find that guy.”

“Who, Wishbone?”

“No, the guy who swindled us. His last phone number was in the 213 area code. Downtown. I’m going to check every fleabag Skid Row hotel. Once I get my hands on him, he’s going to wish he was dead.”

“Yah, yah,” Mas said, not believing Stinky’s threat. Do what you need to do, he thought, just leave me out of it.

ometimes when Mas repressed his feelings, his feelings broke loose at night while he was sleeping. Often they took the form of Chizuko, her piercing eyes shining light on every weakness in his character. Other times, it was a person who Mas wouldn’t think twice about—like Frank, the black man who operated the local liquor store. In a recent dream, Frank had floated above him, legless, saying that he had a job for him to do. Normally Mas would need a lot more details, specifically how big the job was and, more important, how much money he would get, but here he unquestioningly followed Frank. Frank brought Mas to a dead sparrow lying in the street, maggots wiggling out of its stomach.
Bring it to life,
Frank shouted.
Bring it to life.
Just like how Mas had felt stumbling in between corpses in Hiroshima.

Early this morning, Mas was visited not by Frank, but by Gushi-mama. For some reason, she was much, much younger—her skin smooth and spotless and even real teeth in her mouth. She had her hands outstretched in front of her—palms facedown. On the back of her hands were tattoos of a boat, its sail full mast. “
,” she called out for help.

She then turned her palms up. Blood ran down her arms and pooled into the cups of her hands. What could Mas do? He was afraid to touch her, but he couldn’t run away either. He stood frozen and waited, feeling drops of blood soak his bare feet.

t had been a bad night and an early morning, so Mas wasn’t happy to be answering the phone at ten thirty. “Guess what?” The voice was breathless and female. Juanita Gushiken.

Mas waited.

“Mr. Arai, are you there?”

“Yah.” He wasn’t in the mood for guessing games.

“You were right. It looks like the Yamashiros may have been Sanjos.” G. I. had apparently told Juanita of Mas’s hunch. She went straight to the computer and found a handful of information, mostly death records, on Sanjos in Los Angeles. One with the same first name Gushi-mama had given: Isokichi. Date of death: June 4, 1953. After talking with Brian Yamashiro, Juanita had figured out that was the same year that Brian and Randy had moved to Hawaii with their mother. She also discovered Randy’s middle name: Isokichi. Too much of a coincidence. All these years, the two brothers had assumed their father to be a deadbeat dad, but not really dead. Juanita’s findings indicated otherwise.

“Randy’s brotha believe you?”

“I don’t think he cares, one way or the other. But G. I. thinks it’s worth checking out. Do you know Hajime Kaku?”

Mas grunted. Kaku’s name again, in less than forty-eight hours. Ever since he’d been hired by the coroner’s office in the fifties, Kaku had had some kind of low-level job, processing stiffs as they arrived. But when another man straight from Japan became the top dog in the sixties, the head coroner of Los Angeles, Hajime became his countryman’s biggest champion. Hajime was often the one to visit each of the twenty-some-odd gardeners’ associations, telling them that Japanese Americans needed to band together to rally against any criticism leveled against the coroner, who was dealing with the autopsies of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Robert F. Kennedy—no man could withstand the pressure and limelight, especially one with yellow skin, Hajime told them. With four to maybe even eight thousand Japanese American gardeners throughout the Southland at the time, many politicians, even the mayor of Los Angeles, had eventually made their way to these meetings to convince gardeners to think their way on the latest bill or election.

“I say we pay him a visit,” Juanita declared.

Mas’s first inclination was to refuse, but then he stopped himself. It wouldn’t be bad to see Hajime Kaku after all these years. Old acquaintances were hard to come by these days, with the Nisei and Kibei dropping like flies. When the opportunity came to see a familiar face, sometimes you needed to take it.

ajime Kaku told Juanita to meet him outside the building where he worked. Hajime was a company man, but he was a community man too. If he were to spill any secrets, it would be to friends or friends of friends, and only outside the walls of the coroner’s office. And since Kaku and Itchy had been close all these years, Juanita and Mas apparently qualified as friends of a friend of a friend.

Hajime was sitting at a plastic picnic table, a manila envelope in his hands. It was half past three, and the only other people were a man and woman wearing identification tags around their necks, sitting on one of the benches. The building was right next to the L.A. city emergency center and across the street from Lopez, Sing, and Iwasaki—offering full services for fallen bodies within one square block.

As Juanita and Mas approached Hajime, he stood up. He wore thick plastic-rimmed glasses that had seen their heyday about thirty years ago.

“Hello, I know you?” Hajime was Issei; he had moved to America as a child, Mas remembered, and his English came out smooth as motor oil. Mas figured that his family must have been high-toned, the learned kind that actually read books and didn’t work with their hands like Mas’s lineage.

“Member of Crown City gardeners. Youzu came to talk to us.”

“That’s right, that’s right. Way back in the sixties. Sheesh. A lifetime ago.”

Mas nodded.

Hajime turned his attention next to Juanita. “So Itchy told me that you’re an investigator. Looking into a case from the fifties.”

“Yes—1953. His name was Isokichi Sanjo.”

“Yes, yes, Itchy filled me in on all the details. Why are you investigating this, may I ask?”

“You know that I can’t say.”

“Well, I’m not supposed to be giving out information either.” Hajime straightened his back as if he were facing a noon showdown. It didn’t take long for Juanita to back down.

“Our friend was killed. Over in Torrance.”

“The jackpot winner?” It seemed like everyone they talked to knew about the case.

Juanita nodded. “Something was left at the crime scene. Something that can be traced to a man named Kinjo who was friends with the Sanjo Brothers. And now we’re thinking that our friend’s family might have once been named Sanjo. The father hasn’t been heard from since 1953. He may have had the same name as a man who died in L.A. in 1953.”

Hajime pushed up his glasses. He had a typical Japanese nose with a low bridge. “I remember that dead man,” he said.

?” Mas couldn’t help to express doubt. “Ova fifty years ago.”

Hajime tightened the grip on his envelope. “I started working in the office that year. The first Japanese to be a clerk in the coroner’s office. One of my teachers at L.A. City College got me the job. I was assigned to the graveyard shift. I was so nervous; I wanted to make sure I did everything right.

“Then, one evening, I was outside having a smoke. I shouldn’t have, because my supervisor was still out on his break—but he was twenty minutes late and nothing was going on in the morgue. I heard some noises in the parking lot, and there’s a
man dragging something from the backseat of his car. He sees me and says that he has a dead homeless man. Needs my help to get him out.

“It was a black Ford—that much I remember. And then, when I get closer, I see an Asian man just a little older than me. He was fully dressed, with a knit vest, hat, slacks, and shoes that were unscuffed. It was the same kind of shoes that I had purchased myself in Little Tokyo. Only his shoes had no shoelaces.”

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
8.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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