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Snakeskin Shamisen

Chapter One

Mas Arai didn't think much of slot machines, not to mention one
with a fake can of Spam mounted on top of it. Mas was a poker and
blackjack man, and he had been for most of his seventy-odd years.
Slots were for suckers. For heavy hakujin women in oversized
T-shirts and silly earrings. And as far as he was concerned, Spam
was strictly for eating--a fat, shimmering slice resting on a
rectangle of sticky rice and tied together with a band of nori,
dried seaweed. That's how most of the Japanese he knew in L.A. ate

His late wife, Chizuko, hadn't been a fan. She was straight from
Japan, while Mas had bounced back and forth from row crops in his
native California to the rice fields of Hiroshima. Chizuko had
disapproved of Spam, and instead attempted to push
natto--fermented soybeans, sticky as melted glue and rancid
smelling as a baby's behind--onto their unsuspecting neighbors.
Only Mrs. Jones, a large black woman with a middle as wide as one
of the tires on Mas's Ford gardening truck, had taken up Chizuko's
offer. After she'd opened her mouth wide, placing the web of
natto on her tongue and swallowing the sticky and stinky
beans, Mas had half-expected her to rise from their kitchen table
and head for the bathroom. But instead she'd smiled sweetly as if
holding on to a secret. "Like okra," she'd said. "Only

Mas was more of a Spam man, with some limits, of course. Spam was
perfectly acceptable at potlucks of the Americanized Japanese, in
particular the second generation, the Nisei, and their children,
the Sansei. Mas could live with Spam being served at the coffee
shop of the California Club, a favorite casino choice of Nisei
families, Hawaii-born gamblers, and gardeners like Mas. Hell, he
would be first in line to order Spam, eggs, and rice for breakfast
or a couple of Spam sushi, referred to as Spam musubi, as a
midnight snack. But once he left the confines of the coffee shop,
he just wanted to fix his eyes on the clean surface of green felt

Yet to get to those dollar blackjack and poker games, Mas always
had to make his way through rows of slot machines. In recent years,
it had only gotten worse. Instead of the standard slots, with
cherries and 7s, these new machines joined the video age and took
their themes from old television and game shows. Others looked more
like children's games, with jumping frogs and Chinese takeout boxes
and silly cartoon sounds. Too much noise. Mas just gritted down on
his dentures and shook his head as he passed by.

But when he first laid eyes on a Spam slot machine, he knew that
the gaming industry had gone one step too far. First it was that
ridiculous lit-up giant Spam can positioned on top of the machine
like an askew crown. Then there were the multiple video images of
people eating and serving Spam, and then Spam itself. What did any
of that have to do with gambling?

Those thoughts returned to Mas as he sat in his fake leather easy
chair in his own living room after a meal of rotisserie chicken
from the local discount warehouse store. He was reading the L.A.
Japanese daily newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo, as he did every
evening, when he saw it--a quarter-page photo of a Spam slot
machine on page three. And that wasn't the worst of it: two Sansei
men were clutching the slot machine as if it were a Vegas showgirl.
They had leis around their necks and glassy looks on their faces.
Drunk as skunks, thought Mas. He adjusted his reading glasses. One
of the men in the photo, a guy with long graying hair pulled back
in a ponytail, looked familiar. No, couldn't be. Mas turned on the
light beside the easy chair, pounding excess dust from the
lampshade. There was no doubt now; it was his best lawyer
friend--well, only lawyer friend--G. I. Hasuike. Beside him was a
thick-chested Sansei man in a tight T-shirt. He had a mustache and
sideburns. He looked like any other Japanese American man of a
certain era. The type to hang out in smoky bowling alleys and pool
halls. In the man's left hand was a cardboard rectangle, a giant
check from the casino. Mas carefully counted the zeros. Five of
them, all behind a number 5.

"Sonafugun," Mas muttered. Half a million dollars. He read the
caption underneath the photo. "Randy Yamashiro, left, celebrates
winning $500,000 in the Spam Slot Machine Sweepstakes at the
California Club casino in Las Vegas with friend George Hasuike."
Mas groaned. Now every Japanese fool, every single aho,
would be making their way to the California Club for a try on the
Spam slot machine. Any child, or even a monkey, could stuff coins
into a slot. It didn't require the guts and smarts necessary for
card games. It wasn't fair and it wasn't respectable. But then
again, $500,000 could buy its share of respect.

There was a brief story underneath the photo and caption:

Randy Yamashiro, a resident of Hawaii, credits George Hasuike as
his "good-luck charm." Yamashiro, who is visiting the mainland from
Oahu, announced that he will be holding a luncheon in Torrance, CA,
in Hasuike's honor later this week. The two men were in Las Vegas
for a reunion of Asian American Vietnam War veterans.

Mas knew that he should be impressed with Yamashiro's generosity,
but instead it made him sick. Going to rub our noses into it,
thought Mas. The last thing he would do was go to any meal paid for
by a winner of a game based on a food product.

Mas's best friend, Haruo Mukai, of course, was of another opinion.
Haruo, like Mas, had escaped from the ravages of the Bomb in 1945.
Mas returned to America, his birthplace, physically intact, whereas
Haruo had left his dead eye behind in Hiroshima. Haruo's good eye
was as good as, if not better than, a pair of Mas's eyeballs; he
saw things that Mas had a hard time seeing. Like their obligation
to go to that luncheon. Haruo had received a personal
invitation--Mas would have, too, if he'd bothered to get an
answering machine.

"We gotsu a go, Mas," Haruo insisted over the phone. It was close
to eight, the time Haruo usually went to bed before working the
graveyard shift at the flower market in downtown Los Angeles.

"I don't have to do nutin'," Mas replied. Sitting at home seemed
like a more appealing option.

"Osewaninatta. G. I. the one who help youzu out wiz a ton of
legal problems, rememba?"

Like a typical Japanese, Mas thought, Haruo would pull out that
card. Osewaninatta, Japanese would say to each other. I am
in your debt. You've helped me out, and I owe you, big-time.

"Get you, Mari, out of more jams than you can count," Haruo kept

Mari was Mas's daughter in New York City, and Mas didn't appreciate
Haruo using her as part of his argument.

"Yah, yah, yah," Mas said quickly, not wanting to be reminded of
past troubles. "Orai, orai."

Mas ended the call soon after that. He immediately regretted
agreeing to go to the party. It was fall, a time to reassess and
rescue scorched lawns and dried-out plants on his gardening route.
It was a season to restrategize, not to wander twenty miles south
to the coastal suburb of Torrance.

Haruo had invited Mas to go with him and his girlfriend of two
years, Spoon Hayakawa. Spoon's real name was Sutama, but Mas
guessed that it could have been worse--being called "Fork,"
"Knife," or "Chopstick," for example. Shaped like a gourd, she had
long salt-and-pepper frizzy hair, which she held back with a
stretchy headband. She was also a Nisei, and being an all-American
gave her an easy sense of humor. Mas and Haruo, on the other hand,
were Kibei Nisei, which meant born in the U.S. but raised in Japan.
This duality resulted in men and women who were either sweet or
sour. Haruo was sickeningly sweet, the type to hold hands with his
girlfriend even when he was pushing seventy-two. That was hard to
take for Mas, the classic sour, so he declined Haruo's offer.
Another invitation came from other family friends, Tug and Lil
Yamada. Again, Mas passed, making up a story about needing to
deliver some plants to a customer on his way to the restaurant. The
last thing Mas wanted to be was a third wheel. Indeed, if he had to
go, Mas would go alone.

A lot of times, Mas noticed, when you looked forward to
something--like the start of the horse race season at Santa Anita
Racetrack on the day after Christmas--time went slow. Each
gardening job before the twenty-sixth of December seemed tedious,
because it was the very thing that stood between Mas and his
favorite holiday activity. But when you weren't that excited, it
was entirely different. So cutting trees, shaving hedges, clipping
rosebushes--they all seemed to merge together, and then finally it
was Saturday and Mas was parking his truck in a gravel parking lot
in Torrance.

Torrance had an Orange County feel to it--new land, large, pristine
boulevards, and only a few bunches of trees in the business parks.
Aside from its main high school building and the old retail section
by the defunct train depot, nothing seemed to predate 1950. There
had once been strawberry fields and flower farms, but then progress
came, wiping out the farms and bringing in tract homes, super-sized
malls, and corporate buildings, all shiny and reflective like
structures to be launched into space.

Since the 1990s, Torrance had become king of the Japanese American
communities, beating out its northern neighbor Gardena, which had
held the throne since post-World War II. As the Sansei left their
fathers' jobs as gardeners and producemen to become dentists,
lawyers, and doctors, and made more money, they headed south to
Torrance. It was like a hole in a dam--soon Japanese American
families and businesses poured into the lowlands and then climbed
up the Santa Monica Mountains into the Palos Verdes

G. I.'s party was being held at a Hawaiian restaurant called
Mahalo. It must have been an International House of Pancakes in a
previous life, because it had the same gingerbread-house sloped
roof and concrete-block columns. But instead of being painted baby
blue, the building was a tan color, perhaps to simulate Hawaii's
sand, even though Mahalo stood along a huge six-lane boulevard
filled with whizzing cars.

Mas was late because his 1956 blue-green Ford truck had been giving
him problems. It had been stolen a few years ago, stripped of its
guts like a cleaned-out trout. But the thieves hadn't been able to
open the mouth of the machine, the hood, which had been dented and
scarred when Mas's daughter, then six, and her friends had jumped
on it like a trampoline. Ironically that past pummeling was the one
thing that ultimately saved the engine, since no one but Mas knew
how to open the damaged hood.

With the engine still operational, Mas had simply improvised on the
truck's gutted interior. He found an old neon yellow Chevy driver's
seat at the junkyard and jammed it into place. As it was a little
too wide, Mas had to saw off part of the passenger's-side cushion
and seal it with some black duct tape. Haruo had located an old
dashboard from a 1970 Ford pickup, giving the truck the clashing
look of two disparate decades. An old mug glued onto the
driver's-side door with rubber cement had served as an adequate
ashtray back when Mas had smoked. He'd kicked the habit a couple of
years ago, so the mug was now filled with old Bic pens and a free
promotional flashlight from a Clippers basketball game. Mas locked
the car with a screwdriver (who would steal his truck anyway,
especially with new Toyota Camrys, Infinitis, and Honda minivans
all parked in nice, straight rows?). Lately, the dependable engine
had been sputtering out, a flame growing fainter over time. Mas
knew that one day he would have to finally retire the Ford, but
today was not the day.

He walked to the restaurant and opened the heavy wood door. Inside,
it was cool and dark; Mas blinked a few times to get his bearings.
He could make out a counter filled with macadamia cookies, bean
cakes, and other pastries. Up above were fake palm fronds and
strings of leis made from mini conch shells.

"Aloha," said an Asian woman in her twenties, her cheeks as smooth
and brown as the Hawaiian sweet bread on display. Her hair was long
and straight, and she wore a yellow Hawaiian shirt with a pattern
of white hibiscus flowers.

"Yah. Lookin' for G. I.," Mas said.


"The party in the back, Tiffany." Another waiter, his hair standing
straight up like the teeth of a comb, jabbed an elbow in Tiffany's

"Oh, please come this way." Tiffany led Mas down the stairs into a
large open room with bare wood beams draped with more fake palm
fronds. The youngster then returned to her post at the hostess
table, while Mas stayed on the bottom stair, surveying the crowd.
There were people logjammed at the buffet line, scooping steaming
noodles and meat out of metal trays and onto white plates.
Families, including harried Sansei mothers and old ladies with
their grandchildren, sat at round tables. A bar to the side with an
overhead television tuned to a college football game attracted a
couple of men with apparently no social skills. A stage in front
held microphones on stands. And in the back were a bunch of Sansei
men in polo shirts and long-sleeved button-down shirts. Two of them
were wearing white carnation leis: G. I., the man of the hour, and
his friend Randy, the jackpot winner. Mas's plan had been to say
hello and then good-bye, but the smell of soy sauce, ginger, and
bacon made him reconsider. He was here anyway; couldn't hurt to get
in an early dinner.

A Sansei man in a windbreaker apparently observed Mas's change of

"You a friend of G. I.?" He had a raspy voice, like a coil of wire
being unraveled.

Mas nodded.

"Well, come in, come in. Have some food, beer." The man extended
the Sapporo beer in his right hand toward the buffet line. "I'm
Jiro. Another buddy from 'Nam."

Mas introduced himself and stepped down so that he was on the same
ground level as Jiro. The man was about Mas's height, a little over
five feet tall, and his face was marked by a spray of freckles,
splatters of different sizes and shapes. When he closed his mouth,
his lips both puckered out as if he were waiting for a kiss that
would never come.

Chapter 2; pgs 22-35

Juanita had specifically asked Mas to bring over his screwdriver.
Mas couldn't imagine why anyone, much less the police, would know
or care about the screwdriver he used to lock the door of his Ford
pickup. Juanita wouldn't explain what was going on over the phone.
"I can't talk anymore," she

said. "Just get over here, please."

Mas called Haruo but just got his answering machine. Next he tried
Tug and Lil Yamada's house.

"Hello." A male voice, low and distinguished.

"Tug. Itsu Mas."

"Mas, we missed you today. It was quite a spread. Haruo mentioned
that you'd be coming, so we were expecting to see you."

"Yah, yah." Mas could only take so much Japanese guilt right
now."Went ova late. Did you hear about some kind of trouble ova

"Trouble? No. After we left? What happened?"

Tug wasn't accepting the boredom of retirement well, and Mas
quickly realized that his phone call was throwing more fuel onto
Tug's simmering fire.

"Itsu orai,Tug. I take care. I see youzu later."

"Monday night, right? Dinner at our house. Give us a full

Mas grunted. He hoped the news was the type that could be shared at
the Yamada dinner table.

As he drove back to Torrance, Mas's head began to pound. He didn't
know if those three Sapporo beers were finally kicking in. More
likely, it was shinpai, worry that something had gone
terribly wrong at G. I.'s party.

Once he arrived at the intersection half a block away from the
restaurant, Mas saw that it was much worse than he expected. Parked
police cars lined the boulevard, their red lights blinking like
bloodshot demon eyes. He passed the restaurant and contemplated
driving back home.

But he remembered the urgency of Juanita's voice. He had to follow
through, whatever the situation was. He parked in a deserted bank
lot three doors down. He cradled his screwdriver in his windbreaker
pocket and didn't bother to lock the door.A dorobo would be
crazy to steal something with the blinking police cars a few feet
away. Before Mas reached the Mahalo's door, he noticed a CLOSED
sign in the front window.

A young Asian man with a shaven head was walking from the
restaurant toward his friends standing on the sidewalk.

"What's happening?" they asked.

"Somebody got killed in there."

"For reals?""Dang.""What else is open?"They hopped into a car
stopped at the curb and took off.

Mas wished his reaction could be so carefree. Who had been killed
at Mahalo? Surely not G. I.? Was that why Juanita had called,
instead of G. I.? Mas fingered the screwdriver in his pocket and
wished this whole business were over. It was

one thing for old men to die, but someone in their fifties? G. I.
was still in his prime. He could still become a father, albeit an
old one. He could still make a bundle of money and maybe help a few
more people in the meantime.

Mas tried the front door, and it opened in spite of the CLOSED
sign. But instead of some smiling teenagers in fake leis, two
grim-faced uniformed police officers greeted him. "I gotsu go in.
My friend, G. I. Hasuike. His girlfriend call me," Mas told

One of the officers spoke into the other's ear. Out of the corner
of his eye, Mas spied the hostess, Tiffany, pointing toward him.
When Mas turned his head to get a better look, she lowered her
head. "That's him," Mas heard her say to someone facing her. He was
a large man, well over six feet tall. His shirt, blazer, and slacks
were all the same tan color; he was as monochrome as a dog biscuit.
He looked a little Asian, but not quite. He had dark, wavy hair and
big round eyes that seemed to register everything in front of him,
like the lens of a camera. Mas thought his roots must be in some
Pacific island, a place where they needed their men to be fierce,
at least on the outside. He told the hostess something that Mas
couldn't hear. She wiped her eyes with a tissue and retreated into
the back room while the tan man approached Mas.

"Hello, I'm Detective Alo with the Torrance Police Department." The
man's voice was nothing like his body. It was thin and reedy, like
the sound of an amateur blowing into a bamboo flute for the first

He told Mas to sit down in the next room, which turned out to be
another bar for the restaurant guests. In a few minutes, Alo
reappeared with a long, skinny notebook in his hand. He sat across
from Mas at a table decorated with a hibiscus centerpiece.

"So you were here for the party?" Mas nodded.

"How do you know Mr. Hasuike?"

Mas didn't answer immediately. He didn't know how much he had to go
into the legal assistance his friends and own daughter had
required. He chose, instead, to give a shortcut description.

"And Randy Yamashiro?"

"See him for the first time. G. I.'s friend," Mas said, and then
wondered if he had said too much.

"You mean Mr. Hasuike."

Mas nodded. "George Iwao, I thinksu." He felt sweat drip down his
face. Haven't done anything wrong, he reminded himself.

"I understand that you brought a screwdriver here to the

Mas placed the screwdriver on the table.

"My picku-upu key don't work too good. Have to use dis now."

"What kind of pickup do you have?"

"Ninteen fifty-six Ford."

"One of those moldy green ones?"

Mas didn't appreciate his truck being called moldy, but this was no
time to be a stickler about car colors. "Yah."

"You a gardener?"

Mas nodded.

"We had a neighbor with one of those. I grew up in the South

Mas knew that the detective was trying to win him over with small
talk, but Mas wasn't a small talk kind of man.


"Whatsu happen? G. I. orai?" Mas's directness surprised even

"Your friend is fine. But your friend's friend is not. Randy
Yamashiro was killed this evening in the parking lot."

Mas's jaw became slack. He couldn't believe it. Randy Yamashiro had
been breathing, standing in front of him, that very day.

"Tonight. About six o'clock. Were you still here at the party, Mr.

Mas shook his head. "I go home already."

"We heard there was a bit of an altercation in the bathroom after
five P.M. A couple guests mentioned a man fitting your description
in the crowd."

How many people looked like him? Mas thought. His looks were a dime
a dozen.

"You know, altercation. Fighto." Alo was trying his best to make
some kind of connection with Mas. But "fighto" was an expression
that fans used at Tokyo Giant baseball games, not in reference to a
bathroom brawl.

"Izu there, but nutin' much. Those guys just playin' around, not

"Does G. I. often get into physical fights?"

Mas shook his head. G. I. was into battling people in court, not on
the street.

Detective Alo must have sensed that Mas was holding back. "Mr.
Arai, do you understand that you need to tell us the truth.
Everything, you understand? Even the smallest detail can help us.
Something that you don't think is important

may really mean a lot."

Mas stared at the leaves of the fake hibiscus flower. Someone had
worked hard to make it look real. There were even plastic
artificial raindrops stuck onto the petals.

"Again, Mr. Arai, can you tell us anything about that argument in
the bathroom?"

"Anotha guy," Mas began, feeling like he was ratting someone out.
He explained that Jiro had been in the bathroom too.

"Are you saying that he was involved in the altercation?"

Mas shrugged his shoulders. He had walked right into the middle of
the scuffle; he had no idea what had really been going on. If the
police wanted details, they would have to go straight to the
horses' mouths, G. I. and Jiro.

Before Detective Alo could squeeze Mas for more information, a
uniformed officer leaned down and whispered something in Alo's

"Okay, well, I might need to interview you again, Mr.Arai. Here's
my card."

Accepting the embossed business card, Mas breathed easy. "I go home

"Yeah, that's fine, Mr. Arai." The detective brought out a
handkerchief and dropped the screwdriver into a plastic bag.

As Mas pushed the chair back to leave, he found that his legs had
become as soft and weak as a cooked udon noodle. News of
Randy Yamashiro's death had affected him more than he realized.
Where was G. I.? Mas could only imagine G. I.'s torment.G. I. and
Randy had been close friends.And to have their last interaction be
a fight --- it was terrible to close the door on a friendship
forever that way.

Mas stumbled through the restaurant and back into the waiting area
and almost bumped into a man sitting by the hostess station.
"Excuse --- " Mas said, only to find it was Jiro, now wearing green
scrubs, the kind that Mas's doctor customer

wore when he went to work. Jiro didn't bother to say hello, and Mas
didn't either. Jiro's face, especially around his eyes, was all red
and swollen. When some Japanese cried, the skin above their eyes
folded up into double or even triple eyelids. Jiro had at least
quadruple. His grief was deep --- that much was obvious --- and it
would have been an insult for Mas, a virtual stranger, to say
anything. Besides, had Mas in fact betrayed him to Detective Alo?
Mas bowed his head and kept it lowered until he pushed open the
restaurant door and

entered the coolness of the October night.

Mas thought that he had made his escape, but there was Juanita on
the sidewalk, talking to the Latino photographer who had taken
their photo during the party. He was nodding his head as if he had
agreed to something he was already regretting.

"Tonight, okay, Mario?" Juanita was saying.

"Yeah, my editor will be calling you too. First thing Monday
morning." Straightening his vest, the photographer then headed
toward the line of police cars.

After the session with the Torrance PD, Mas was not in the mood to
rehash tonight's events, especially with a PI. He tried to get back
to his Ford without being seen, but it wasn't one of those

"Mr. Arai," he heard Juanita call to him. He stopped in his tracks
and cringed before turning around.


Juanita's eyelids hadn't swollen like Jiro's, but her eyes were
shiny and wet. "Thanks so much for coming."

"G. I. ova here?"

"He had to go to his house with the police. Randy's stuff is there.
Oh my God, did they tell you? It's so awful." Juanita pressed a
hand down on her right temple. "What was that about your
screwdriver? You know, never mind. Listen, I

know it's late and you're tired. But can you come to G. I.'s for a
little bit right now?"

No, Mas said silently.

"G. I. wants to talk with you."

"I gotsu go home."

"Please, please. He's come through for you when you needed help,

Chikusho, Mas cursed in his mind. This Juanita girl must
have a big dose of Japanese in her; she understood the power of
reciprocity. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Apparently it
was Mas's turn to engage in some back scratching.

"Just few minutes," Mas said, knowing that he would end up being
there for at least a couple of hours. He hoped his debt to G. I.
would finally be paid off in this one trip tonight. "I'll see you
back at the house, then." She waved and went back into the
restaurant.Was it her turn to be interviewed by Detective Alo? Mas

A yellow taxi then pulled up to the curb a few feet away from Mas.
It was unusual to see taxis in L.A. People liked to drive
themselves places; that's how cars like the Ford became good
friends rather than just transportation. People spent more time
alone with their cars than with their wives, husbands, or

A Sansei man with a sturdy build much like Randy's got out of the
backseat. Mas passed the taxi but was close enough to hear the man
say to the driver, "Hey, give me a break, eh? My brother just got
killed. I'm sure the police will cover the ride."

Mas felt his head spin as he trudged on the sidewalk along the busy
boulevard. Too much chaos, too many people. He turned into the bank
parking lot. His Ford was the lone vehicle in the lot. He had
almost reached the driver's-side door when he heard faint noises
coming from down the connecting alley. Mas crept beside the bank
building and snuck a look around the corner.

Two police officers aimed bright flashlights into an open rubbish
bin. A third person beamed a light on the other side of the

"Hey, I got something over here," one of the two by the rubbish bin

"Whadjya find?" the officer next to him, a woman, asked.

The man, who was a good foot taller than Mas, dipped his gloved
hand into the bin to retrieve his find. The policewoman followed
his actions with her flashlight. In her partner's gloved hand was a
long knife as big as a dead trout.

"Jackpot. What's that, blood?" she said.

The third one joined them beside the rubbish bin. "That looks like
a bayonet. That's the kind we used in 'Nam."

"Great. I guess we'll get home early tonight." The first officer
placed the knife in a plastic bag, and the three of them walked
north toward the restaurant parking lot.

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 rainbowcolored 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 umeboshi,
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. whenJuanita 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 zori 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

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 oshiri. 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 abunai." 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

"No, Mr. Arai, this wasn't a random crime."

Mas felt something in the back of his neck go piri-piri. 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 Rafu'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

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

Juanita pressed down on a few more keys, enlarging the

"A-ra," Mas gasped. "Shamisen." Indeed, it was the
broken face of a shamisen like the ones the musicians had
been playing at the restaurant, stripped of its neck and its three
strings dangling. The shamisen'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. Okashii. Strange.

"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

"So-ka," Mas murmured. The splintered bone must have broken
from the shamisen's neck.

"I don't think they're human."

Mas was relieved. "Those guys doin' music --- police look into

"I saw them being interviewed, but it's not the same
shamisen. 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' shamisen 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 shamisen left at the murder scene.

"Ole shamisen worth sumptin'?"

Chapter 2; pgs 35-51

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 shamisen was
this kind of valuable junk, so valuable that it was worth killing

"Not sure," said Juanita.

"His shamisen?" 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

"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

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

"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

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

"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

Mas remembered Jiro blubbering in the bathroom."What happen ova
there in the restaurant? Whyzu you kenka, fight?" G. I.
pulled the door shut. "This is just between you and me, right,

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

"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.

"No, no," said G. I. "Just talking."

"Yeah, right. I bet." Juanita wasn't convinced.

The doorbell rang, tinny and cheap, followed by banging on the wood
frame of the glass door.

"Now, who the hell could that be?"G. I. went back to the living
room and drew back his drapes. Looking out his window, he muttered,

"Who is it?" Juanita asked, following G. I. down the stairs in the
entryway. The cat was next, and Mas, not wanting to be outdone by a
cat, went down too.

On the other side of the glass door were Detective Alo and a couple
of uniformed police officers.

"What's going on?" G. I. asked.

"We need to do a full search of your residence."Alo's voice had
become even softer, barely audible.

"Look, your men were already here to pick up Randy's belongings.
What more do you need?"

"We've found some evidence back at the murder scene.

We have probable cause."

"Do you have a search warrant?"

"We thought that you'd cooperate, Mr. Hasuike."

"Listen, it's late. I just lost one of my best friends. I'm wiped
out, guys. I don't want you ripping up my place. You get a search
warrant; better yet, you tell me what you are looking for, and I'll
be more than happy to cooperate, really."

Alo and G. I. went back and forth like those tennis pros that Mas
occasionally saw on TV while flipping channels. Except what Alo and
G. I. shot back and forth were words, legalese that Mas didn't
quite understand but still feared. G. I. must have won this match,
because Alo was gesturing for the officers to return to their

"We'll be back, Mr. Hasuike." Detective Alo's voice was breathy,
but they all could still feel the power of his threat. The three of
them watched the police cars leave the street through the glass

"What was that all about?" Juanita asked.

"They found something at the restaurant. Something that implicates

"But what?"

Mas then remembered the discovery in the rubbish bin by the bank.
"Katana," he blurted out.


"Knife. Police found knife in trash. I see it."

"What kind of knife?"

"Big one." Mas held up his hands about a foot apart.

"Someone say like in 'Nam."

"Must have been a bayonet," G. I. murmured.

"So that's the murder weapon?" said Juanita. "What the hell? So
what were they going to do, try to find a knife in the

"There's two of them here, Juanita. Not to mention my

"Shit.Well, get rid of them. Where are they?"

"I have nothing to hide. Probably half of the guys at the party own
guns and knives. This is L.A., after all."

"G. I., you are their prime suspect. A bunch of people saw you
arguing with Randy."

"I was trying to calm him down, I tell you. He just had too much to

"You have to think,G. I. Think about your law practice. It won't
look good for a lawyer to be arrested. Doesn't matter if the
charges are eventually dropped, or you're declared not guilty at
trial. It'll be all over The Rafu Shimpo. Your career will
be over in a flash. No Nisei grandma will be calling you about her
HMO problems. No Sansei's going to be hiring you on his DUI case.
And you know the Japanese --- they never forget."

G. I. picked up the cat and stroked its fur as Juanita

"I spoke to Alo at the restaurant. Told him that he needed to look
into the sanshin. He said they had a lead on it, that I
didn't need to worry about it. He practically patted my head, G. I.
They weren't taking me seriously."

"The police could know something that we don't."

"I know, I know. They probably do. But there's something about that
sanshin. Why was it there? Randy was a postal worker and
Vietnam vet. He didn't identify with being Okinawan. I know; I
spoke to him about it. There's something

behind it. Something more than the police have discovered."

G. I. finally nodded. "All right, you win, Juanita. Stay out of the
cops' way, but check out the angles they might overlook. You know,
the shamisen --- "

"Sanshin," Juanita corrected him. "That's what the Okinawans
call it."

G. I. chose not to argue with Juanita. "And take Mas with

"Why?" Juanita then looked down at Mas, slightly embarrassed." No
offense, but I can do this myself. It's my job, after all."

"But Mas can speak Japanese. He can really help you out with the
Japanese people. People always talk to Mas."

G. I. was right. Mas, for his part, was usually dead quiet. It was
the other party who would go on and on like a broken faucet. Many
times, these people were just looking for buckets to fill with
their stories. But buckets were limited in space, and the overflow
usually resulted in a mess that wasn't helpful to anyone.

"My parents can speak some Japanese."

"But Mas can deal with a different crowd."G. I. shoved his hands in
his pants pockets. "He'll know the earthy ones."

Mas didn't know what "earthy" meant, but he figured that it had to
do with the people who lived close to the bottom rather than the

Juanita crossed her arms over her tank top as if she were hugging
her tiny breasts. "Okay, he can tag along. But you're going to talk
to the Rafu Shimpo reporter. Off the record, of

"I'll throw her a few bones. But anything you find, report it to
Alo, okay?"G. I.'s phone began to chirp. "I better get this," he
said."Thanks for coming all the way,Mas." He flipped open his phone
and held it to his ear while walking back upstairs. "I'll walk you
back to your car, Mr. Arai." Juanita grabbed a hold of Mas's elbow
and practically led him out the door and down the concrete steps.
Once they were outside, Juanita released his arm. "I know what G.
I.'s up to. He wants you to watch out for me, right?"

Mas was too tired to deny Juanita's claims. He felt mucus rise up
in his throat and spit on the side of the walkway.

"Well, that's fine. As long as we have an understanding. That we go
after who did it, no matter who it might be." Mas hesitated. That
wasn't part of the deal.

"Yah, yah," he said. Mas thought his daughter was urusai,
but Juanita was

making Mari look like a harmless little lamb.

Mas fumbled for his screwdriver in his pocket and then remembered
that he had given it away to Detective Alo. He had parked
underneath a streetlight, and the truck's yellow interior glowed
like the peel of a ripe banana.

"That's your truck?" Juanita said like she didn't quite believe

Mas nodded. He silently dared Juanita to insult his automotive
friend, but she was smart enough to back off.

"I'll see you tomorrow evening, Mr. Arai."

Mas grunted.When he got back into the truck, he realized that he
hadn't given her his address and phone number. She's the detective,
Mas thought to himself, she can figure it out.

The next morning, Mas called Haruo again. Haruo worked
on Mas like a human Alka-Seltzer. He cleaned up any pain in Mas's
gut and cleared his head of any early-morning cobwebs.

"Come ova," Mas said after relating the sketchy details of Randy's
death and the mysterious snakeskin shamisen.

"Orai, Mas, we be there." Before Mas could ask about

"we," Haruo had clicked off.

Forty minutes later, Haruo was walking up Mas's driveway. And sure
enough, right behind him, clinging to his hand and wearing a knit
cap, was his girlfriend, Spoon.

"Hello, Mas." For someone with such a narrow face, Spoon didn't
have a matching thin oshiri. She often wore bulky sweaters,
which didn't do her figure any favors. Mas would, of course, never
say a thing to Haruo, because, well, there were limits to every
friendship, especially comments about a lady friend's behind.

Haruo had brought supermarket donuts adorned with a red sticker:
DAY OLD/HALF OFF. Mas didn't mind eating dayolds, and even
applauded Haruo's thriftiness. He knew that Haruo was barely
surviving on his Social Security and the little he made at the
flower market; Mas was always worried that Haruo might someday
succumb to his gambling addiction. Hopefully, with Spoon in the
picture, the odds of that would be slim to none.

Mas poured some ground coffee into his drip coffeemaker and joined
Haruo and Spoon around his kitchen table. He reported what he'd
heard at G. I.'s house, that Randy Yamashiro's throat had been
sliced open with a bayonet. A bayonet, Mas had once learned on a
television show on the Civil War,was a type of katana, a
knife that sat atop a soldier's rifle. In fact, during World War
II, farm wives in Hiroshima had fashioned makeshift bayonets on
agricultural equipment to ward off the threat of the barbarians,
the Americans, who turned out to be not so barbaric at all. Spoon
was apparently surprised that Mas could provide wartime details so
nonchalantly, as if he were ordering a cheeseburger with

"Mas and me, weezu seen our share of dead people," Haruo told her
as if it were something to be proud of.

Spoon shook her head back and forth. "I can't even imagine," she
said. "I would be having nightmares every night."

"Mas does. I hear him whenever weezu go to Vegas. Cries like a baby
in his sleep."

"Orai, Haruo."

"Unn. Unn." Haruo was apparently trying to re-create one of Mas's
night terrors. Haruo closed his good eye while his left one
remained half-open. He shook his long white hair from his face,
revealing the knotted scar stretching from his left forehead down
to his chin. Mas knew that most people would have averted their
eyes at this point. But Mas never turned away from Haruo. He
figured the scar was part of his friend, like it or not. Why make a
big deal out of it?

"Enough," Mas finally said. He knew that Haruo was just showing off
in front of his lady friend. Even Spoon gave Haruo a sharp jab in
his ribs.

Haruo quit shaking and patted his hair back over his scar.

"Orai, Mas.Weezu listening."

Mas cleared his throat. "I callsu you ova here to find out whatchu
rememba --- yesterday's party. Figure youzu there before I come,
maybe youzu see sumptin' I don't."

Haruo and Spoon exchanged quick looks. "Well, Spoon and me were
talkin' about dis on our way ova here."

"Nani?" Mas waited.

"Dat Randy seem so sad."

"Didn't seem like he just won half a million dollars," Spoon
elaborated further. "He didn't look us in the eye.

Didn't smile. G. I. seemed happier for him than he was himself,"
she continued, reinforcing Mas's previous hunch.

Mas asked them if they had met Jiro.

"No, dunno Jiro. So many people at dat party. Maybe Tug and Lil
rememba. Youzu gonna see them tomorrow, right?"

During the past two years, the Yamadas had had Mas over for

dinner every other Monday. Mas directed the conversation back to
the party. "Youzu no see a shamisen?"

"Just on stage," Haruo said. Mas felt the top edge of his dentures
with his tongue.

"What's a shamisen?" Spoon asked.

"Plays music. Like banjo," Haruo explained.

"You know, I did see someone with that kind of instrument.

I think a hakujin fella."

"Hakujin? Not too many hakujin ova there. Maybe
somebody's husband?" Haruo asked.

Spoon chewed on the tip of her index finger. "I was buying some
peanut butter mochi from the cashier to bring back for my
granddaughter. And this man came in, bringing in that banjo thing.
He left it in the corner, in back of the register, and covered it
up with his jacket. I don't think anyone else saw him with

"Toshiyori? Or young?" Mas asked. His heart began to thump
so fast that he began to feel blood pulse up to the tips of his

"You know, I really can't remember. All I know is that it was
someone different. Someone who didn't match." Mas pressed down on
his left eyelid with his index finger. Somebody not matching could
definitely be a distinguishedlooking hakujin in a polo
shirt. Somebody who was a judge. Mas knew that he should probably
clear his next move with that girl PI. But at times like this, you
couldn't waste time asking permission to do something. If he had
called home and included Chizuko in his decision to put two hundred
dollars on a long-shot horse, Popping Paul, in the third race at
Santa Anita, he might have lost the opportunity to win three grand
--- his all-time high in gambling winnings. And because he had not
consulted with Chizuko, he didn't have to tell her about the
rolled-up Ben Franklins that he had hidden in different parts of
the garage: in the bottom drawer of his toolbox; inside a stack of
gray, black, and red duct tape; in an empty box of cigarettes; and
finally in the nozzle of an extra garden hose. He could have never
imagined that one day Chizuko, fed up with their leaky, worn hose
in the backyard, would take it upon herself to replace it with the

Aiming the nozzle at the vegetable garden, she had been shocked to
see a projectile of hundred-dollar bills land in her cherry tomato
vines. The jig was up, and the money was given over to Chizuko ---
all except for the stash in the Marlboro box. Every businessman,
even a small-time gambler, needed capital to reinvest in his

It only took Mas ten minutes to get to the Parkers' house. It was
located just south of Caltech, some kind of technological
university frequented by pale hakujin and Asian men and a
handful of women who all wore the same kind of uniforms ---
monotone T-shirts and jeans. The tree-lined street was empty as
usual, typical for a Sunday. During the weekdays, the only people
you'd see were the gardeners working beside their trucks and the
maids walking either to or from their bus stops. The landscaping in
front of the Parkers' white wood house had changed. The bushes had
been removed to make way for agapanthus plants that looked like
giant lavender dandelions. Rows of red, peach, and yellow roses
were enjoying their final bloom before being clipped for the winter
months. Bunches of sky-blue hydrangea, the delicate petals
yellowing, seemed on their last legs. Mas was somewhat happy to see
the imperfection; he could only imagine what hell the Parkers were
giving the new gardener for that.

As he walked up the driveway, he was surprised to see an old gold
Mercedes-Benz parked on the other side of their gate. The Parkers
had just purchased that car when Mas had worked for them twenty
years ago. Mas could tell that it was still in pristine condition;
he didn't think of the Parkers as being sentimental types, so he
figured that they were rich tightwads. Hiroshima people, in fact,
were known as tightwads themselves --- whenever other Japanese
spoke of their frugality, they balled one hand into a fist to
represent how the Hiroshima folks would hold on to their money.
Upon seeing the two-decade-old Benz, Mas thought the Parkers
deserved a two-fist ranking.

Mas pushed back his Dodgers cap and rang the front doorbell. He
felt quite pleased that he was at the front door instead of the
back. He was no longer a hired hand; nobody could tell him where to

He saw an eye through the little glass window in the door.

"Who is it?" came a muffled female voice from the other side.

"Mas. Mas Arai. Gardener from long time ago."

Locks were turned up and down the door, which finally swung open,
revealing the trim figure of Mrs. Parker. Her hair was still dark
brown, no doubt due to the help of a beauty parlor. She had a spray
of wrinkles around her eyes and mouth,

which surprisingly made her more attractive than in her younger
years. She seemed more lived in, comfortable with herself, like a
well-maintained car seat in a classic automobile. "Mas, how are
you?" she said. "Edwin mentioned that he had seen you

"Good," Mas lied. Good, bad, it really didn't make a whole hell of
a difference.

"Mista, judge, here today?"

"Oh, no, I'm sorry. He's gone golfing, his Sunday-morning ritual.
Is there anything I can help you with?"

Mas blinked. He couldn't come right out and ask, What was Judge
Parker doing with a shamisen in Torrance? "My friend put on
dat party in Hawaiian place," Mas finally said.

"Just checkin' if judge didn't leave anytin' behind."

"Oh, I heard about what happened at the restaurant.Terrible, wasn't
it. Edwin has already spoken to the police. Is that what you were
concerned about, Mas?"

Mas was struck by how silly he was to have come to the Parkers. Of
course the police had already gotten to the judge; he had been the
highest-profile guest there. And why would Judge Parker be carrying
around a shamisen, anyway? Before the party, he had probably
never seen one before. Bakatare, bakatare, he cursed
at himself. He was starting to feel angry that G. I. had put him in
this position in the first place.

"Do you live in the same place? Can I have Edwin call you?"

"Ah, no. Orai, orai. No big deal." Mas slid away from
the door. "Sorry to bother." He almost tripped down the porch
stairs on his way out. He realized later, as he rubbed his bum
knee, that he wouldn't have almost fallen if he had just gone to
the back door as usual.

Mas knew that he had to come clean to the girl PI when she
came over that night. Juanita was less than pleased."Why did you go
there, Mr. Arai?" Juanita paced on the linoleum floor in Mas's
kitchen. It was close to eight, already pitch-black outside, and a
breeze blew through old wind chimes Chizuko had bought in Solvang,
causing them to tinkle like shards of broken glass.

"Dis lady saw a hakujin wiz a shamisen. So I go ova
to ask," Mas repeated.

Juanita opened her mouth so wide that Mas could see the filling on
her back molar. She then snapped closed her mouth in defeat. "Edwin
Parker," she said after taking a deep breath. "The judge on the
JABA board, right?"

JABA? Sounded like a children's comic book character.

"You know, the Japanese American Bar Association." Mas remembered
Judge Parker mentioning that group.

"Yah, how come he wiz dat group?"

"You know, I asked G. I. the same question a while back. I guess
Parker's always felt close to the Japanese. Something about his
old-time neighbors being Nisei.And, of course, he's done a lot on
behalf of redress." Redress was shorthand for "redress and
reparations" for those like Tug and Lil, who had been locked up
during World War II without being charged with any crime.Tug spent
a year in camp, before shipping out to fight for the same country
that had imprisoned him.

"She couldn't say one way or anotha who she saw." Mas didn't know
how good Spoon's eyes were. And she hadn't even known what a
shamisen was."Could be some otha hakujin man. Maybe
singer wiz shamisen group."

"Well, I'll check over the guest list. In the meantime, I'll get a
photo of Judge Parker --- there must be something over the
Internet.We can confirm if he's the man your friend saw."

Spoon's not my friend, Mas wanted to say, but that was beside the

"Maybe she can at least verify that the sanshin she saw was
the same one left by Randy's body."

All this detailed work was giving Mas a mean headache. He didn't
mind tending to an overgrown bush, but to have to keep returning to
people and having them recount their observations was too
mendokusai, too troublesome, for Mas to deal with. Juanita
must have sensed his bad attitude, because she said, "Listen, Mr.
Arai, if this is too much for you, you can back out at any

Mas realized that was Juanita's unspoken desire, but that just made
him dig his heels in more. "No, I do it."

"You have to be totally straight with me, even about the little
things." Again, just as Detective Alo had said, report on the



"Yah," Mas said. Anything to keep the girl quiet. Mas walked
Juanita to her Toyota truck.

"Dunno too many women with picku-upu," Mas couldn't help but

"Trucks are very handy --- as you know, Mr. Arai. You can easily
hide dead bodies back there."

It was Mas's turn to open his mouth. Juanita let out a long laugh
that seemed to bounce off each metal garage door down the street.
"You're too easy," she said, opening the driver's-side door and
getting in. She then proceeded to make a U-turn on McNally Street.
Mas turned back to his house and then heard a loud boom, like the
sound of a shotgun. It had only been the backfiring of an older
German car, which was speeding down the street and now practically
sitting on the Toyota's tail at the stop sign. It was past
twilight. Mas couldn't tell if the car was gold or yellow, but it
was definitely a Mercedes-Benz. They both made right turns, one
after another, and Mas was worried. "Sonafugun," he muttered. He
went inside and found Juanita's cell phone number on her
no-nonsense business card.

"Mr. Arai," she answered her phone, surprised. There was a lot of
static on the line, and Mas could barely make out her voice.
"Something wrong?"

"Where are you?"

"On Fair Oaks. Near Old Town. What's up?" Old Town Pasadena was a
tourist area full of lights and pedestrians. Juanita would be safe
from there to the freeway.

"Some crazy driver back on McNally. Checkin' youzu

"Just some impatient asshole. Lost him a few blocks ago.

Mas breathed easy. Why would a judge be following Juanita like a
no-good spy? Didn't make sense. "Nutin'. I talk to youzu

Mas hung up the phone. Maybe he should have said something, but he
felt like a fool. He didn't want to be like a worrywart old woman,
jumping at every backfiring car and concerned about whether young
people were wearing a jacket on cool autumn nights. But then again,
he had told Juanita that he would report everything, even the
tiniest of the tiny. He glanced at his Casio watch, held around his
wrist with twine. Only ten minutes had passed, and Mas had already
broken his promise.

Excerpted from SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN © Copyright 2011 by
Naomi Hirahara. Reprinted with permission by Delta, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Snakeskin Shamisen
by by Naomi Hirahara

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Delta
  • ISBN-10: 0385339615
  • ISBN-13: 9780385339612