Read Snakeskin Shamisen Online

Authors: Naomi Hirahara

Snakeskin Shamisen (8 page)

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
4.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The black woman rose as Juanita approached. “Ms. Gushiken,” she stated more than asked.

“Yes.” Juanita stuck out her hand, which the woman gripped firmly. “It’s so nice to meet you, Professor. This is my translator, Mas Arai.”

The woman took hold of Mas’s hand, and Mas was embarrassed that she could probably feel every callus knotted on the palm of it. She was a smart woman; she would realize in an instant that he was no translator, but a plain workingman who had little to do with words. She took out two business cards and presented them in turn to Juanita and Mas with both hands, Japanese style. “Genessee Howard. Please call me Genessee.”

Mas nodded, telling himself that he wouldn’t be calling the professor any name, especially one he couldn’t pronounce, if he could help it. Professor Howard was a small woman with a face round and squat like the shape of a garbanzo bean. She had a short, neat Afro and wore gold-framed eyeglasses and large earrings that shimmered like the inside of an abalone shell. In a strange way, she resembled Chizuko, and Mas was surprised to feel the top of his head go

“Thanks again for meeting with us, Pro…Genessee.” Juanita quickly corrected herself as they joined her at her table.

“Any excuse to eat at Bruddah’s.” She smiled, revealing a small space in between her front teeth—also just like Chizuko, Mas noted.

Genessee had already ordered, so Juanita and Mas quickly looked over the menu. Something called Loco Moco for Juanita and Hawaiian French toast for Mas.

“I ordered the French toast too,” Genessee said. “Theirs is the best, even better than a lot of places in Hawaii.” She went on to explain that she had lived in Hawaii as a child. “I was actually born in Okinawa. My father was in the service; my mother’s Okinawan.”

, Mas mouthed silently.

“You were probably wondering why this
woman has such an interest in Okinawa,” Genessee said.

Mas shook his head, and Juanita just looked puzzled.

“You really do need a translator, don’t you?” Genessee said to Juanita. “
means black person. African American in my case.”

They waited as a waitress in T-shirt and jeans served them all coffee. “So how can I help you?” Genessee, putting some cream in her cup, asked Juanita.

“Well, as I explained to you over the phone, I’m a private investigator. I’m helping a friend with an unusual case. We’re trying to get some information about this.” Juanita took out a copy of the snakeskin
photograph from her back pocket.

—what happened to it?” Genessee traced a finger over the
image as if it had once breathed air.

“It was found at a scene of a crime.” Juanita was obviously not going to get into Randy’s death. “Does this instrument have any significance?”

“It’s hard to tell from this photo—the resolution isn’t that good.” Genessee adjusted her bifocals so that she could get a better look at the battered
. “It certainly looks like pre–World War Two. Real python skin. Look—the pegs are animal bone. It may even date back to the early eighteen hundreds. The
actually originated in China and then was developed in Okinawa, before eventually making it over to mainland Japan. The Okinawans used to use python skin from India, until it became too rare and expensive. After World War Two, when Okinawa was struggling to recover from all the destruction, they made them from tin cans and parachute strings. Now they use python skin again, but from Southeast Asia.” Genessee placed the photo back on the table and studied Juanita’s face.

“You don’t know much about Okinawa, do you?”

Juanita shook her head. “My parents are actually from Peru.”

“So many left for Latin America. Couldn’t blame them, with all the high taxes and limited economy.”

Before Genessee could complete her thoughts, their food arrived. Juanita’s was a mess of runny eggs over two hamburger patties and rice, all soaked in brown sticky gravy. The French toast, in contrast, was majestic, thick slices of sweet Hawaiian bread cooked golden brown, cut diagonally and resting so that its powdered-sugar-sprinkled crusts looked like snow-covered peaks.

“I was actually reading something about Okinawa over the Internet.” Juanita cut into her eggs and skillfully placed a bite of yolk, rice, and patty on her fork. “Read something about these Japanese warriors taking over Okinawa in the sixteen hundreds. I think they even kidnaped the king and held him hostage in Japan?”

Genessee poured maple syrup on her French toast. “Yes, that’s true. They were from the Satsuma clan. Japan at that time was divided into different territories led by these lords, or
. The Satsuma leaders saw invading Okinawa, then an independent kingdom, as an opportunity to expand their territory and their wealth without letting the Edo government know what they were really up to. And they hid their relationship with Okinawa from China, who viewed the islands as their tributary. So the Chinese were proceeding with business as usual.”

“Yeah, I didn’t quite get that. So the Chinese didn’t know that Okinawa had been taken over by the Satsuma?”

Genessee nodded her head. “I know that it’s a bit confusing. But in order for trade with China to continue, the Satsuma forced Okinawa to pretend that it was still independent. So actually Okinawa had two masters in a sense: Japan and China.”

“Weird,” Juanita said. Mas had to agree. He hadn’t heard about all the duplicity involved in Okinawa’s early history.

Juanita wiped the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I also read that the king presented some secret
music to a shrine in Kagoshima—that’s the headquarters of the Satsuma, right?”

“That hasn’t been verified. There’s a lot of original documents that have never been found. Like the banana-paper
, for example. The
are these early music scores that the Okinawan
masters created. Famously missing is one created by Master Chinen Sekiko in the early eighteen hundreds. I’m a great fan of Chinen; he really blazed a trail for more modern-day

“With the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, so much was completely wiped out or stolen. Do you know that some Okinawan treasures, invaluable ancient texts and tablets, were discovered at a military officer’s house in Massachusetts in the 1950s? The government never revealed how the items got there, but they were eventually returned. The whereabouts of the royal crown is still unknown. It’s a tragedy. As I said, even this
in the photo, it could have been constructed way before World War Two. It’s a pity that it’s been so severely damaged.”

Mas remembered seeing a documentary about the battle on a UHF television station. Something like 200,000 killed, half of them civilians. Present-day Okinawans, wearing masks and gloves, were still digging out remains from caves where many families had hidden during the explosives and gunfire.

, maybe worth sumptin’,” Mas said out loud.

“Well, maybe to a museum. But
aren’t really collector’s items. It would only be prized by obscure musicians, and academicians like me.” Again, Genessee flashed the gap in the teeth. “If you’re that interested in the
, you should come to the concert at the Okinawan Association next Saturday.” She then swallowed the last bit of her coffee and informed Juanita and Mas that she had to leave to make her afternoon seminar. “I’d like to examine the actual instrument, if that’s possible.”

“It’s been entered into evidence at the Torrance Police Department.”

“You never told me what the crime was. Robbery?”

Juanita glanced at Mas, who hung his head down as if he had discovered something fascinating in his empty coffee cup.

“Murder,” Juanita said. “Someone was killed.”

Genessee visibly shuddered as if a cool draft had blown into the restaurant. “Well, good luck on your investigation.” She opened up her wallet, but Juanita shook her head and pulled the small plastic tray holding the bill toward her. “It’s on me,” she said, thanking the professor again.

Back in the truck, Juanita put on her sunglasses and turned to Mas. “Well, what do you think?”

“Nice lady.”

“Not her. But the stuff about the
. Does any of it help?”

Mas really didn’t know how Okinawa’s past would have any relevance to the
found with Randy’s body. “Dunno,” Mas said.

“Yeah, I’m not sure either. I hope I didn’t freak her out too much.”

The mention of murder probably had been too much. Mas didn’t think that they would hear from Genessee again. “Nice lady,” he murmured again.

Juanita drove less than a mile before she stopped outside a typical Gardena home. It was the color of mint toothpaste, with a square, flat cement porch and a front yard of Bermuda grass and sculpted pine trees.

They got out of the truck and attempted to peer through the large picture window’s blinds and drapes. The door was open, but a barred security gate insured the safety of the home’s inhabitants. The plucking of multiple
sounded from one of the inside rooms.

Juanita tried the bell, but it seemed rusted over. She then dragged her keys along the bars of the security door like she was a prisoner seeking relief. After a few rounds of this, the older basset hound–faced man with bright white hair whom Mas had seen at the restaurant appeared at the door.

,” he said.

“Hello, are you Mr. Kinjo? I’m Juanita Gushiken. I’d like to talk to you about Saturday night. The night of your performance at Mahalo, the restaurant in Torrance.”

The man looked from Juanita’s face to Mas’s. “I’m teaching now,” he said in Japanese. His voice came out rough, like the edge of a saw. “This is a very bad time.” Yet he didn’t move.

Juanita stared at Mas, and he knew that he was on. “I’m very sorry.” Mas tried his best in the most polite Japanese he could muster. He had lived in Japan for seventeen years, but he had been in America for more than fifty. The Japanese language was full of rules that were difficult to remember. It was all about who you were and who you were talking to. If you were a boss, you would talk one way to your employee. If you were a servant, you would address someone higher than you in a completely different way. Throw in age and gender, and it would be again another ball of wax. Mas knew that he was tripping over his words. “This girl insisted.” Mas gestured toward Juanita. He was selling her out, but she deserved it. “Hired as a police…” Mas had forgotten the Japanese word for detective, so he just switched over to English. “Investigate. Lookin’ into murder.”

“Spoke to police already,” Kinjo said, ready to close the door.

“We’re looking into the
,” Juanita spouted out.

The security gate slowly opened, revealing that the man wore a fleece vest over a flannel shirt, and loose khaki pants that were patched at the knees. Not much of an outfit, especially for a sensei, a teacher.

“Come in,” he said in English.

They followed the sensei to his sparsely decorated living room. He gestured for them to sit down on the couch while he tended to his class. In front of the couch was a glass-topped coffee table holding a lacquerware bowl shaped like a squat persimmon and a set of books in Japanese on Okinawan history and the
. To the side of the couch was a standard
, Japanese doll, in a glass case, and on the wall hung a large framed
, the Japanese character for longevity, assembled out of flattened gold-paper origami cranes. Mas always thought it was strange how Japanese Americans would fold a thousand and one cranes, and then arrange them into shapes of
, family crests, or Japanese characters. Instead of pulling the wings of the folded birds and inflating them, women would lay the poor cranes flat, glue them down, and encase them under glass.

The plucking of strings resumed as Mas sat on the couch. Juanita was leafing through one of the heavy books. “Is this the music that Genessee was talking about?” She pointed to an illustration of symbols handwritten within a grid of squares.

Mas read the caption and section of the story beside the photo. “Um, so…” he said. “Datsu
.” They reminded Mas of the sheets of musical notes that Mari practiced on her piano when she was a child.

Juanita sucked on the earpiece of her sunglasses as she continued to flip through the photographs in the book. Mas, on the other hand, almost nodded off until he heard a jangling and turning of the lock on the front security gate. The door slowly crept open to reveal a Sansei man holding a plastic bag that looked and smelled like takeout from a Japanese fast-food restaurant. He didn’t seem that surprised to see two strangers sitting on the couch.

“Hello, I’m Alan Kinjo, sensei’s son.” It was the other man who had played the
at the Hawaiian restaurant.

Up close the man, who was probably around G. I.’s age, wasn’t bad-looking. He was tall, with that familiar long face. His cheeks didn’t sag as much as his father’s, and his eyes were clear and bright, like he was ready to make any negative a positive. He wore a suit and tie and shiny dress shoes.

Juanita rose first. “Juanita Gushiken,” she said, brushing her hand on her pants before extending it to Alan. Mas remembered that Juanita hadn’t bothered to wipe her hand before she had shaken his when they had first met at the Hawaiian restaurant. Mas merely mumbled his name from his seat.

“I work a few miles from here,” he explained. He was apparently one of these Sansei with a Japanese work ethic. To these folk, it was unseemly for a grown man not to be working during broad daylight. “I check in with my dad during my lunch break.”

One of these
children, who put their parents before their own selves. Mas wondered what it would be like to have a son or daughter like that.

BOOK: Snakeskin Shamisen
4.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Wolfman - Art Bourgeau by Art Bourgeau
Filthy English by Ilsa Madden-Mills
Tracking Bear by Thurlo, David
Forever Freaky by Tom Upton
Fools' Gold by Philippa Gregory
In the Moors by Nina Milton
Demon Games [4] by Steve Feasey
The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner
Gossamer by Lois Lowry