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Authors: Naomi Hirahara

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BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
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G. I.
lived in a place called Culver City. Culver City was old, at least for Southern California, and a lot of its streets tangled up in knots like the roots of a tree smashed into a pot that was too small. Luckily, G. I.’s house, a fourplex, was off a large boulevard called Pico, and even if Mas hadn’t known where it was, he would have as soon as he spied a black-and-white police car parked on the street.

The unit’s light was on, and Mas could see G. I.’s gangly silhouette through the glass door. G. I. lived upstairs, but he had his own downstairs door, which opened onto a set of stairs that in turn led visitors to his small one-bedroom unit. G. I. owned the whole fourplex, and the rent he collected from his tenants apparently came in handy between the infrequent checks from bureaucratic insurance companies and clients on the run.

Even before Mas had parked the Ford, he saw G. I. come outside behind two police officers who were carrying some kind of rectangular box. It turned out to be a black nylon suitcase opened to reveal T-shirts, folded jeans, and tube socks. One of the T-shirts on top had a design of a rainbow-colored snow cone.

Mas waited in the driveway for the officers to pass him by. G. I. brought up the rear. He looked much paler than a few hours earlier. His eyes were bloodshot, like two little red
, pickled plums, on his white, ashen face.

“Mas,” he practically whispered. “Thanks for coming all this way. I’ll be free in a minute.”

The officers placed the suitcase in the trunk of their car. They were having a few more private words with G. I. when Juanita arrived in a red Toyota pickup truck with a white cab over the bed. After parking the truck, she joined G. I. and the officers for a moment and then approached Mas. “You want to come in?” she asked.

“Izu wait out here for G. I.”

“I’ll be up there,” she replied, and headed up the walkway toward the fourplex.

Mas got out of his truck and made it to the unit’s concrete steps and sat down. He ached for a cigarette and massaged the back of his neck. How could he possibly help? Law and order was G. I.’s world, not Mas’s.

The police car finally left with the suitcase, and Mas noticed a few of the neighbors peeking out their windows. Many a story would be woven in the neighborhood tonight. But that was the least of G. I.’s worries.

His friend was now approaching, worn-out rubber
on his bare feet. The slippers slapped against the walkway, making a noise slightly irritating and lonely at the same time.

“So sorry.” Mas rose, keeping his arms to his sides.

“It’s been a nightmare, Mas.”

G. I. ushered Mas up the stairs, which were littered with brown accordion files and other legal-looking papers. G. I. had his share of brains, guts, and heart, but no housekeeping skills. Mas shuddered as he passed by a litter box that obviously had not been cleaned out for a couple of weeks. Since G. I. had a girlfriend now, Mas half-expected his apartment to be neater, but it was actually filled with two times the mess. A top-of-the-line bicycle, resting upside down on its handlebars and rear frame, was in the middle of the hardwood floor. A backpack leaned against the hallway wall, and circles of bright yellow and red rope had been left in corners of the living room. What kind of woman was this Juanita Gushiken? Mas wondered. G. I. didn’t seem the outdoor type, although Mas knew that he was coordinated enough to tie himself into knots doing a thing called yoga.

“Sit down,” said G. I. “Please sit down, Mas.”

Mas opted for a plush purple chair the color of the felt bag for Crown Royal whiskey. It was his favorite resting spot in G. I.’s house; the chair enveloped and soothed all his rusty joints and sore muscles. G. I. squatted on a black leather couch, barely resting his
. Juanita, meanwhile, was in a room connected to the living room: G. I.’s home office, which was filled with more brown accordion files and fat stacks of paper held together by black metal clips. In the middle of the desk, peering out from the mess, were a computer and a monitor. Juanita was typing on the keyboard, her back toward them.

“I saw him, Mas. Just lying there. In a pool of blood.” G. I.’s red eyes watered.

“You findsu him?”

G. I. shook his head and stared blankly at his open hands. “One of the waitresses found him collapsed by her car.”

Probably the Tiffany girl, thought Mas. This might have happened only minutes after he had left the restaurant.

Juanita turned around in her chair, most likely sensing that she would have to take over in disseminating the news. “He was sliced through his neck. Went right through the carotid artery. Whoever killed him knew what he was doing.”

“Didn’t know Torrance so
.” In Mas’s mind, Torrance was a sleepy suburb with more than its share of straight-A Japanese kids. But wayward teenagers and drug addicts knew no geographic boundaries.

“No, Mr. Arai, this wasn’t a random crime.”

Mas felt something in the back of his neck go
. He swatted the back of his head just in case it was a spider and not his nerves.

“He still had his wallet, his watch,” said Juanita. “The killer had some other motive besides robbery.”

Mas frowned.

“Let me show you something, Mr. Arai. C’mon here.”

Mas went into the small attached room and stood behind Juanita’s swivel chair. “
The Rafu Shimpo
photographer e-mailed these pictures of the crime scene to us,” she said.

“I don’t know why you had to have him do that, Juanita.” G. I.’s voice had a hard edge to it. “I don’t want anything to do with those photos.”

Juanita ignored G. I. “I made a deal with the photographer,” she said. “We’d talk to the
’s reporter if they’d send us a copy of their photos.”

“You can talk to them. I won’t.” G. I. lay down on the couch and closed his eyes.

Mas wasn’t sure where his allegiances fell, but he was curious to see the photos. The background was familiar—the parking lot filled with Japanese cars. The photos had been taken close to sundown, so most of them had a brownish tint. A group of people gathered in an empty parking space next to a white Honda. Somebody was kneeling over the collapsed body; all Mas could see of Randy was his outstretched arm. His fingers were curled in, revealing that Randy had been a chronic nail biter.

Juanita pointed to the back of the man obstructing the view of Randy’s body. “That’s G. I.’s doctor friend, Glenn. He’s a general practitioner in West L.A. He was trying to revive Randy.”

The dark pool of liquid underneath the doctor’s shoes looked like an oil leak, but Mas knew it was blood. There were white tufts floating in the liquid.

“Carnation petals,” Juanita explained. From the lei, of course. Next to the pool of blood was something that looked like a crushed box.

Juanita pressed down on a few more keys, enlarging the object.

,” Mas gasped. “
.” Indeed, it was the broken face of a
like the ones the musicians had been playing at the restaurant, stripped of its neck and its three strings dangling. The
’s snakeskin covering was peeling off, most likely due to the violence it had just experienced. There was a strange splintered bone next to its neck, and Mas leaned closer to the illuminated monitor to see what it was.

Juanita nodded. “You can’t see it that well here; the picture’s too dark. But that’s really a bone.”

Mas grunted.

“See here, though, up by the neck—the other two pegs are bones, you see?” One of them was black, as if it had been painted or dyed.

,” Mas murmured. The splintered bone must have broken from the
’s neck.

“I don’t think they’re human.”

Mas was relieved. “Those guys doin’ music—police look into them?”

“I saw them being interviewed, but it’s not the same
. See this picture?” Juanita pointed to a printout of the group photo from earlier, and yes, Mas’s teeth were indeed clenched. “The shape of the musicians’
on the stage was rounder, and the pegs are made of polished wood—no bones. And the snakeskin on their instruments was new and shiny—see how worn-out the snakeskin here is?” Juanita pointed back to the battered
left at the murder scene.

worth sumptin’?”

Mas remembered watching the public television show where ordinary people brought in old metal toys and wooden furniture rotting in their garages and attics. What they discovered, more often than not, was this junk could be sold to some fool for thousands of dollars. Maybe the
was this kind of valuable junk, so valuable that it was worth killing for.

“Not sure,” said Juanita.

?” Or the killer’s? wondered Mas.

“He didn’t have it when we left for the restaurant. We went together,” said G. I., now sitting up. “He was staying with me. Actually, he slept on this couch.” G. I. patted his hand on the leather cushion underneath him as if it still held the warmth of his friend’s body.

“Whatsu dis man’s work?” Mas asked.

“He worked in the post office on Oahu,” G. I. replied.

Government worker. Not a rich man, but collected a steady paycheck. “Wife?” Mas asked.

“No,” said G. I. “He’s divorced. No kids. I thought both of his parents were dead—that is, until I got a strange phone call yesterday.”

“You didn’t tell me about any phone call,” said Juanita, swinging the computer chair toward the living room.

“Yeah, I didn’t have time to tell you. But I mentioned it to Detective Alo. It was an old man. Kibei, I think. Couldn’t speak English too well. He wanted to speak with Randy. He claimed to be Randy’s father.”

“What did Randy say?”

“You know Randy. Poker-faced Randy. He stayed on the phone with the guy for only a few minutes. Afterward, he said it was an old guy talking smack, but he then left for a couple of hours. I didn’t think much of it. I guess I should tell Randy’s brother.”

“Brian finally came to the restaurant, G. I. After you left. He borrowed forty bucks from me for his cab fare. Can you believe that?”

Mas remembered the chubby Sansei getting out of the taxi. “He from ova here?”

“No, he lives in Oahu, too, but he’s been in L.A. on business. He was supposed to show up for the party; I don’t know what happened.”

“That whole thing is kind of weird, G. I.,” Juanita said. “I mean, here he is on the mainland, and he’s a no-show. What kind of relationship did they have?”

“Randy never said too much about Brian. Just that he was his kid brother. I guess he thought that their grandparents favored him. You know, typical sibling rivalry.”

Juanita turned the chair back to the computer. “Shoot,” she said. “I can’t open up this one file.” Her slender fingers quickly poked the keys on the keyboard. G. I., meanwhile, had risen from the couch and was gesturing for Mas to follow him. Once Mas reached the living room, G. I. pulled him into his bedroom, a plain square with a turntable and stacks of albums in orange crates all against one wall. On the opposite side was a futon on the floor, sheets crumpled below two pillows. Mas narrowed his eyes as he spotted something moving beside the bedsheets. A cat with black and white cow markings that was meticulously licking its paws.

“Listen, I need your help.”

Mas waited with dread. Why did he get the feeling that this favor would surpass anything he owed G. I.?

“Juanita is going gung-ho with her ‘independent’ investigation.”

That was obvious, but what could Mas do about that?

“I need you to work with her. Keep her even-keeled. Watch over her.”

Mas furrowed his brow. If G. I. couldn’t control his own girlfriend, what made him think Mas could?

“I know this is a big imposition. I would ask someone else, Kermit even. But Juanita can’t stand him.”

Kermit? Mas didn’t know any Kermits.

“Jiro, I mean,” G. I. corrected himself. “You know, that other guy in our Vietnam group. The short one.”

Mas nodded. Jiro he knew.

“Oh yeah, well, we call him Kermit. Like Kermit the frog on that kids’ show
Sesame Street
? He looks like a frog, right? We started calling him Kermit at training camp.”

Mas gave G. I. a blank look.

“Anyway, she’s always talking shit about him. But he’s harmless, really. Has a good heart. Got into a little trouble after ’Nam. Drank a little too much, public disturbance violations, a few fights. But he pulled his life together and went through nursing school.”

Mas remembered Jiro blubbering in the bathroom. “What happen ova there in the restaurant? Whyzu you
, fight?”

G. I. pulled the door shut. “This is just between you and me, right, Mas?”

Who else was in the room? The cat?

“Randy was beating the crap out of Kermit. I don’t know why. They’ve always been kind of funny about their relationship.” G. I. swallowed. “I even asked Randy about it recently, when we were in Vegas, but he wouldn’t say.”

That didn’t surprise Mas. Even though he had just met Randy, he could tell that he had been a man who didn’t reveal secrets.

“But they were close. Real close. Randy trusted Kermit more than his own brother. You didn’t say anything about Jiro to the police, did you?”

“No,” Mas lied, feeling shame creep into his gut.

“I’m just glad that he wasn’t around to see Randy’s body. He had already left to go to work, the six o’clock shift. He’s a nurse at Little Company of Mary Hospital, right in Torrance. Juanita thinks he’s a jerk. He just doesn’t know how to speak with women; he always manages to insult them. He can’t help himself. When something gets into Juanita, she can’t drop it. She doesn’t trust anyone, especially authority figures. I guess that goes with her background—”

Before he could say what her background was, the bedroom door swung open.

“So you guys having some kind of secret meeting in here?” Juanita had one hand on her hip. She was the type who didn’t run from confrontation but chased after it.

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
5.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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