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Authors: Naomi Hirahara

Snakeskin Shamisen (18 page)

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
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Again, the funny tingle on the base of his neck.
, Mas berated himself. He tried to picture Chizuko, wearing her trademark full-length apron, wagging her finger at him and laughing. But still the tingle did not go away.
Piri-piri, piri-piri.

Mas didn’t bother locking the truck, and even threw the screwdriver underneath the front seat. He didn’t need a replay of the L.A. courthouse episode again. For Genessee, he wanted to look like less of a fool than he normally did.

They were walking together toward the police building when Genessee tripped over a cement bumper block. Mas automatically reached out to her waist to steady her, and then quickly released her once she got back on her feet. Her middle was firm, not at all squishy as he’d expected. She smelled musky, like the first summer thunderstorm on hardened soil.

“Oh, my, must be my nerves. Even though my nephew is on the force, I haven’t had good experiences with the police. I’m glad you’re here. Strength in numbers, right?”

Mas wasn’t familiar with the saying, but understood the part that she was happy he was with her, walking side by side. Mas’s back straightened. He didn’t mind being a bodyguard, though he didn’t know if five feet two inches of anything could do much protecting. But he was willing to try.

“Ready, Mas?” she asked before the glass automatic doors.

He waited for Genessee to take the first step onto the rubber mat. “Ready,” he murmured behind her.

ressed in the same tan sports coat he’d worn at Mahalo, Detective Alo came to the front desk. “Mr. Arai,” he commented, “you’re everywhere.”

Genessee tugged at Mas’s elbow. “He’s good to have around.”

“Well, we’re most interested in your expertise,” Alo said before leading Mas and Genessee into a windowless room with a dusty vent. They sat in metal chairs around a table. On the table was the broken
, and Mas surprised himself by cringing at the sight of it. It wasn’t as though the instrument were a human being, but now Mas had experienced its power. Something that evoked such emotion needed to be respected; even Mas knew that much.

“So, Professor, anything distinctive about this
? Would it have any value to anyone?”

Genessee lowered her bifocals and carefully looked over the battered

“May I touch it?”

“Sure.” Detective Alo pointed to a pair of nylon gloves on the table that Mas noticed for the first time. “Wear these gloves, just in case. The instrument’s been dusted for fingerprints already.”

The detective didn’t say if the fingerprints matched any criminal’s. They must have found the judge’s, but Parker claimed to have already spoken to the Torrance PD.

Genessee began with the top of the neck, where three narrow pegs had once held the strings of the instrument. The middle of the neck was broken off from the
’s body, and the decaying strings attached to the bone pegs, one of them black, lay limp and useless. The face of the
was completely busted, as if a prizefighter had taken a left hook to it. The snakeskin, in fact, was curling up, revealing the
’s hollow insides.

She stuck her nose in the broken face of the
and then moved it back and forth toward the fluorescent lights. “This
is very old, could date back even to the nineteenth century. Could be a
that the royal court musicians used. But in terms of monetary value, I don’t think it would be worth much even if it weren’t damaged.”

Detective Alo tapped his fingers against the surface of the metal table. “One reason why I asked you to come, Professor, is that we discovered something in the neck of the instrument.” The detective placed a plastic bag on the table. Inside was a yellowed scroll about five inches long. “We thought that you might be able to tell us what this is.”

Genessee’s eyes grew wide. She waited for Alo to give her the go-ahead.

“Go on—open it up.”

Genessee pulled the scroll out slowly, as if it were a vial filled with dangerous contents. The paper was brittle, and Genessee took her time unrolling it. If it had been Mas, he would have torn open the paper; but perhaps that’s why Mas dealt with plants, not books. Genessee knew the value of paper—its ability to tell stories and give information through the strokes of a pen. Mas preferred nature. He understood the secrets told on plant leaves—burnt edges, stripes, holes, each imperfection evidence of the sickness that lay inside.

Finally, the paper was completely unrolled, its image fully exposed to the three of them. A grid of brushstrokes.

“What is it?” the detective asked.

Genessee turned to the detective, her eyes filled with tears. “An Okinawan
. A very old one.”

It was if the professor had been landlocked for her whole life and was seeing the ocean for the first time. Her eyes devoured the document. In fact, she got so close to the
that the detective told her to keep a little distance. “We wouldn’t want it damaged in any way, right?” he said.

Her reading glasses were smeared with tears like a windowpane splattered with raindrops. Mas blinked hard. The
was obviously sacred to the professor.

“What is it, exactly?” The detective had taken out a pad of paper and was writing down notes.

“A musical score for the
. The
system was developed in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. Before that, the music was just passed down orally. The
has actual links to the Ryukyu court music. It’s like a road map of how our music developed.”

Mas noted how the professor used “our” instead of “their.” She saw this music as a part of herself—no wonder she was crying.

“How old do you think it is?”

“You would need to have it analyzed in a laboratory. But it is definitely handmade banana paper—that’s unique to Okinawa. They developed it in the eighteenth century. This could date back to that time.”

“Suppose it’s the real deal—how much do you think it’s worth?”

“Tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. “But it’s worth more than the money, when you consider its value to a people. It belongs in a museum in Okinawa.”

“So how did it get in there?”

Mas could process the detective’s thoughts. If the
had been hidden in the
, it meant the owner probably had placed it there. Kinjo, the man who had been so desperate to have the
returned to him?

“I’m not sure. I’ll have to spend more time analyzing it. There are more experts you can call in from UCLA and USC. And, of course, the Okinawan Prefectural representative. He has an office in L.A.”

Genessee recited names, which Detective Alo scribbled into his notebook. After the fifth one, he stopped her. “I think this may be enough for now. I’ll call you if we need further assistance.”

Mas could read between the lines. Now that he had what he wanted from Genessee, Detective Alo was trying to get rid of them. He practically pulled the chair out from underneath Mas and opened the door to the hallway. “After you,” Alo said to Genessee.

Before they left the building, Genessee gave Detective Alo some final advice: “You’ll have to get a special box, acid free, for it. And place it in a temperature-controlled, properly humidified room.”

“Yes, yes, don’t worry, Professor. We’ll take care of it. You’ve been a great help.” He left them before the automatic doors. Genessee asked for the bathroom, and Alo pointed to a door down the hall.

While Genessee was gone, a woman in a sweater and name badge approached Alo. “We’ve traced the knife in the Yamashiro case. It was purchased from an army supply store out in Vegas.”

Standing by the door, Mas, as usual, was forgotten. “When?” Alo asked the woman.

“A little more than two weeks ago.”

“Do they have a record on who purchased it?”

“Cash transaction. But an Asian, the seller said. That’s about it.”

“Get a better description. Age. Size. Any distinguishing marks. Send over the mug shot of Jiro Hamada. It’s twenty years old, but he still looks the same. And we’ll have to get a photo of Hasuike. Maybe from one of the local newspapers. And the brother, Brian too.”

Alo then turned and finally noticed Mas. “You didn’t hear that. Any of it, right? If I hear word that you’ve leaked this to any of your friends, Mr. Arai, you’re going to be in big trouble.”

Arai was so surprised that he didn’t know how to react. A few minutes later, Genessee reappeared, and together they stepped onto the rubber mat and walked out the door.

“Mas, I don’t think that the police department’s going to take care of that
properly. They’re just looking at it as evidence in a crime, but it’s more than that. It’s the legacy of a people. We’re going to have to contact the Okinawan Prefectural government and inform them about what’s going on.”

Mas’s head was still full of what Detective Alo had said about the murder weapon. “Betta not
,” he said. In case Genessee didn’t understand
, Mas repeated, “You knowsu, stick our noses in it.”

“Why not? Don’t you understand, Mas. This is big news. If it’s what I think it is, the
deserves to be back home. Where scholars can study it and
lovers can trace how their music has evolved.”

Genessee’s mind was now spinning around the
, but she had left the main issue behind. Like who had killed Randy, and what might this latest discovery have had to do with it?

Mas walked Genessee back to her car, but her heart was now completely surrendered to the
. He could tell in the way her eyes moved back and forth, barely focusing on the mundane parking lot before them. Her eyes were instead following her thoughts, which must have been traveling back in time to when the Okinawan court musicians were sitting
, on their knees, their precious instruments held close to their hearts, the melodies soaking into their skin. Genessee was calculating her next move to save the
, and Mas knew that it wouldn’t be with him. Just as Detective Alo had used them up, Genessee was through with Mas, at least for today.

They stopped in front of Genessee’s VW Bug. “Mas, thanks so much. This was an exciting day.” Genessee gave Mas a quick squeeze; he kept his arms awkwardly to his sides. This time he felt no tingle, no

He waited for her to pull out of her parking space before approaching the Ford. He waved and realized that even after the VW left the parking lot, her musky smell was still on him.

chapter twelve

Mas went home and played two rounds of solitaire, losing both times. Bad deck of cards, Mas thought, throwing the whole set in the trash. He didn’t know what to do with Alo’s information about the knife. He should tell G. I. Because G. I. was innocent, right?

It was only seven o’clock in the evening, but Mas got into bed. He thought of Gushi-mama’s roommate, how gray her face had looked from oversleeping. Mas was imagining his own face as a piece of overripe fruit, spoiling on the vine, when the telephone rang.

“Mas, Stinky.”

“Unn,” Mas grunted, waiting to be either mad or annoyed.

“Wishbone found out that the guy, Saito, has an account with the Japanese Credit Union in Crenshaw. He’s been sitting there every day, waiting for Saito to show up. I think something’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s the last day that the CD matures; he’s got to take it out or pay extra. And this guy isn’t the type to want to pay extra for anything.”

The phone began to crackle, but Mas ignored the noise. Was Homeland Security going to care about the comings and goings of a two-bit hustler like Wishbone? If they did, the country was really in trouble.

“Whatchu want me to do about it?”

“Go over there, huh? Make sure Wishbone’s okay.”

“Whaddabout you?”

“Bette has me on this painting project. Got out of it today, but don’t think my excuses will work tomorrow.”

“Well, I gotsu
, too, tomorrow.”

“Go after work, then. Not working full-time, right?”

What did Stinky take him for? Some lazybones with nothing to do?

“He’s getting around with crutches. Even driving around with his bum ankle. He could get hurt, do you know what I mean? Just take a look-see, after your last job.”

Mas didn’t give a definitive yes or no, but Stinky knew what the answer was.

, Mas. You’re a good guy. Sorry for the stuff I’ve been saying about you.”

Mas didn’t care what kind of
, literally “bad mouth,” was coming out of Stinky, but he was kind of curious what it could be. Before he could hear any details, however, Stinky had hung up the phone.

riday mornings were easy. First was a ten-unit condominium complex in Pasadena, not even a “mow and blow,” but a “shave and blow.” Shave off the ivy along a wall on the walkway and then a good blow from his gasoline-powered machine. Since the condos were in a business zone, it was legal to break out the blower, although some sleepyheads would sometimes yell out in protest before slamming their windows shut. The next and final job was a small, neat bungalow in north Pasadena, the home of an emergency room doctor and now his newlywed wife, also a physician. They liked to keep it simple—a manicured lawn and a passion fruit tree in the corner. Since they were either not home or sleeping during the daylight hours, it didn’t make sense to put too much time in the landscaping.

But today Mas spent extra time at the doctors’, just to spite Stinky. First of all, he had lunch, which he’d never done before. And then he hand-weeded most of the lawn, resulting in an old lady across the street coming over to ask whether Mas was taking any more new customers. “Gardeners today, all they do is zip in and out, use blowers when they’re not supposed to. What happened to a good old rake? Using your hands, not machines,” she rattled on and on.

Mas didn’t even bother to look at her. If she was so against machines, did she walk instead of drive? Use a washboard instead of the washing machine? Machines were good for the customer, but not the gardener. Besides, Mas knew that she would balk at his rates, even though he hadn’t raised them in ten years. If you want hand-weeding, it’s going to cost you money,
, he thought to himself. But these folks who wanted him to work extra never seemed to want to pay extra.

Mas pretended that he couldn’t speak English, and eventually the woman retreated into her house, going through her garage and apparently pressing a button to close her automatic garage door.

Mas finally got up, tossed the last of the weeds in his grass catcher, and dumped the contents into the doctors’ garbage can. Driving to the Japanese Credit Union in the Crenshaw District in Los Angeles, Mas hoped that the whole thing would be over. That Wishbone had caught his man and retrieved his money. Case closed.

But as he entered the thick of Haruo’s neighborhood—his duplex was only three blocks away from the credit union—Mas’s temples began to pulse. He parked the Ford on Jefferson Boulevard and saw that the case was indeed not over. Sitting in a lawn chair underneath an umbrella was Wishbone Tanaka. He was looking intently through a pair of binoculars toward the credit union parking lot across the street. He had a thin towel around his neck, a small vinyl cooler at his side. His crutches were leaning against the chair.

“What, you watchin’ the horses from here?” Mas asked.

Wishbone lowered his binoculars. “What are you doing here?”

Mas continued walking down the cracked sidewalk toward the bare piece of ground that Wishbone had claimed.

Wishbone moaned. “It’s that
Stinky, right? I told him that I don’t need a damn babysitter. It’s because of him I’m out twenty grand.”

How about all the others who lost money? Mas thought. Wishbone had gotten a taste of his own medicine, and he obviously wasn’t feeling too well afterward.

“Any sign of da guy?”

“Nope. But he’ll be here. Believe me. Soon. It’s four fifteen, and the credit union closes at five. The guy won’t want to lose one bloody cent.”

“How much he got in there?”

“He told me fifty grand. And twenty of that is mine. He’ll be here; I guarantee it.” Wishbone held up the binoculars to his eyes again. Mas noticed a security guard standing in front of the tinted glass door. A couple of black men sitting outside a clothing store pointed fingers Wishbone’s way. For a guy trying to be inconspicuous, Wishbone was sure attracting a lot of attention.

“Guard ova there, don’t say nutin’ about youzu?”

“Came over here once yesterday. Asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was watching birds.” Wishbone gestured toward a couple of crows resting on a telephone wire next to a pair of ragged tennis shoes that were hanging by shoestrings that had been tied together. Bird-watching in Crenshaw? Didn’t make sense. It was like saying you were collecting butterflies in Watts. It was
, or crazy, talk.

“What heezu say?”

“What can he say? Free country. This sidewalk is public. I’m not hurting no one.” Wishbone dabbed at his face with the edge of the towel as if he had been in an athletic competition. Obviously spying was taxing on the body. “Waitaminute. I know why you’re here. This is about that Sanjo guy you’re looking for.”

Mas did a double take. Were his ears acting up? Or had Wishbone said Sanjo?

“I heard all about it from Gushi-mama.”

“Gushi-mama in hospital.”

“Yah, I saw her there. After talking with her, I was able to put two and two together.”

Mas waited.

“Saito, this Saito fella I’m waiting for? He’s the same guy you want. His real name’s Sanjo.”

“Sanjo’s dead.”

“I don’t know. That’s all Gushi-mama told me. That she saw this Saito come to Keiro once. My Saito. But it turns out she remembers him from way back. Sanjo.”

Why hadn’t Gushi-mama mentioned this to Mas? Before he could quiz Wishbone more, the old man pointed a crooked finger toward the street. “There—there’s that SOB!”

A white car drove into the parking lot. It was one of those cheap soup-can rental cars. A man opened the car door and got out of the driver’s seat. He was short, but well built. Strong shoulders. He must have studied karate or judo when he was younger.

, letsu see.” Mas nudged Wishbone for the binoculars. It took a couple of seconds before Mas could find the man through the binocular lenses. The man had puffy bags underneath his eyes, and a face that Mas had seen before. At Mahalo, Mas remembered. The man sitting next to him at the bar, ordering sake on the rocks. Now watching him carefully, Mas could see that the resemblance was unmistakable. Randy’s face, aged twenty years. Mas didn’t know if this was indeed Randy’s father, but it had to be a Sanjo, one way or another.

Wishbone pulled at Mas’s sleeve. “Wait until he gets the money out. No sense catching him before that.” He reached back for his crutches and hobbled onto his unsteady feet.

Mas was unclear what Wishbone expected them to do. After a couple of cars passed by, Mas helped Wishbone cross to the parking lot. The guard was up from his chair too. He wore a pair of sunglasses. A long club was attached on his belt.

“When he comes out, talk to him,” Wishbone said. “Whatever you do, Saito can’t get back into his car.”

Whatever you do? When did I come into the picture? Mas wondered.

And then, as if he’d heard his name, the man walked out of the credit union. “Go on, Mas, stop him. Stop him.” Wishbone practically pushed Mas forward.

Mas almost tripped on the asphalt. “Sanjo,” he called out. “We needsu to talk.”

Sanjo quickly got into the car, slamming the driver’s-side door closed. He revved up the engine, backed out, then sped toward the exit, barely missing Mas’s feet.

Wishbone had already positioned himself in front of the exit. “Stop!” he yelled, waving a crutch. Sanjo had no choice but to stop, unless he wanted to add a manslaughter charge to the other crimes he was piling up in L.A.

The guard ran out, his hand on his club.

Wishbone began banging his crutch hard on the rental car’s hood and then on the driver’s-side window. Bam, bam. The window was close to shattering when the guard pulled Wishbone aside and motioned Sanjo to get out of the car. As soon as Sanjo emerged, Wishbone swatted Sanjo’s hand with his crutch, causing him to drop his keys onto the ground.

.” Wishbone poked Mas. “Pick up the keys.”

Mas dutifully scooped up the keys without thinking.

A small crowd stood outside the credit union.

“Should I call the police?” a Japanese man in a suit asked the security guard.

“No, no police,” Wishbone said.

“No police,” Sanjo echoed.

Apparently Wishbone and his partner in crime had something in common: they liked to tell lies, and they were good at it. Both were laying it on thick with the security guard.

“Old friends, we’re old friends. Just wanted to get his attention,” Wishbone said.

“Yah, big mistake.”

The two men hugged each other’s head, two coconuts on a tree.

The security guard folded his arms and grunted. More bank employees were now outside, clutching paper bags and briefcases. It was past five, time to go home. A woman with big
, wearing a tiny T-shirt and tinier miniskirt, strutted into the lot and stared at the security guard. “What’s going on? You ready to go?”

The security guard looked at the two old men, then at his woman friend, and then back at Wishbone and his partner. “You guys handle your problems off of the bank’s property, okay?” he said, shooing them out of the parking lot.

“You drive his car,” Wishbone hissed in Mas’s ear.


“I don’t care. Just take us someplace where I can pummel this guy.”

Mas reluctantly got into the driver’s seat while Wishbone forced Sanjo into the back. Both Mas and Sanjo were unhappy with this new arrangement. The rental car was filled with rumpled clothes and fast-food containers. The man had clearly been living out of his car.

Sanjo’s spirit was now as flat as a pancake, like an old tire that had been punctured by a nail. He was empty of all energy or rebellion. He must have been tired of running.

“Where you taking me,” Sanjo said, more than asked.

Mas didn’t bother replying. He made a right out of the parking lot and then a left, two blocks down, to Haruo’s house.

as, didn’t knowsu you gonna come by.” A lopsided grin on his face, Haruo held open his security gate. He must have just taken a shower, because his long graying hair was plastered against his keloid scar, resembling wet seaweed over barnacles. Badly equipped with an ancient fake eye, Haruo usually embodied the classic
look. That is, one eye focused on London; the other, Paris. Today his fake left was barely visible, as if it had left the map.

Before Mas could enter the duplex, Wishbone nudged his hostage forward with the back of his crutch. “Gotta borrow your house,” he said to Haruo.

“Hallo,” Haruo said, smiling at the stranger. “Hallo,” he said to Wishbone. “Yah, datsu
. But Spoon and her family comin’ to pick me up for dinner, so you gotta be out of here by seven.”

Mas felt guilty bringing the two criminals to Haruo’s one-bedroom apartment, but he didn’t know where else to go. Haruo was Mr. Hospitality; he probably thought “borrow” meant “visit.”

Haruo had moved his persimmon bags into the house; they were lined up against the walls. “What’s this? Trick or treat?” Wishbone hobbled around the duplex with one crutch and peered into a bag. “Ah, trick,” he said, almost cackling. “No kid will want
for Halloween.”

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
7.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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