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Chapter 11

Chapter 10 >>

Saburo Shishido looked up at the house. Although vacant, it was still standing. A Victorian, the house was designed by one of the preeminent architects in Watsonville. He and Itsuko had stayed in the round room after they got married. The union had been arranged by their parents back in Wakayama. Itsuko’s parents had done well in America and had returned to Japan, but Itsuko wanted to stay behind in their beautiful house. Her favorite room was the round room, the room without corners. Even though it was harder to clean, the bedroom had represented an unending circle. Their marriage.

How could she, a few years later, run off with a migrant peach picker, Saburo did not know. He continued to look after the strawberry farm, but at night he would write letters. To reporters and businessmen in various cities and towns where the Japanese lived. Fresno. Clovis. Sacramento. He drove into San Jose through their Japantown on Sundays, buying supplies but also carrying Itsuko’s photo in his pocket. “Have you seen this woman?” he’d ask. And then he would add distastefully, “She might be with a man.” He’d continue writing. Los Angeles. San Diego. Portland. Seattle.

And then he heard something from Vancouver, Canada. There was a woman who fit Itsuko’s description. But she was married with a daughter. Three years old. Their last name was Nagashima now, the name of the peach picker. Three years old? Itsuko was gone a little more than two years. That meant one of two things. Either that daughter was his or Itsuko had been having an affair during their life together in the round bedroom.

Saburo was incensed. He burned with anger. But he could tell no one. How shameful would that be? So he instead turned all his energies towards making the perfect strawberry. He’d become rich and Itsuko and the daughter would come crawling back to him. He didn’t have the smarts to do such a thing, but his brother did. His younger brother had a daughter of his own, Haru. How could his brother be so fortunate with a perfect wife and daughter? And the wife was pregnant again with another. Saburo was filled with envy.

He befriended the town’s midwife, as if her contact with pregnant women would somehow satisfy his own emptiness. And then fate stepped in. His sister-in-law gave birth to twins, but the girl was badly deformed. She was missing an arm. Saburo’s brother was shocked, but the midwife told him that she knew of a place in San Francisco where the little girl could be taken care of. The family, who lived in a dirt-floor shack, was financially strapped as it was. How could they properly take care of such a child?

Saburo had driven the midwife to his brother’s house and he waited outside in his truck while his sister-in-law was in labor. And now the midwife was walking outside toward him with a bundle in her arms. This was a gift. This girl would not go to the Salvation Army as was decided. She would become his daughter.

To make this plan succeed, Saburo had to make some special provisions. He paid off the midwife and she left for her sister’s house in Colorado. And he had to buy a mother for the girl. A spinster named Senzaki. She had agreed so readily, without question, as if she had been waiting her whole life for this opportunity.

Problems surfaced. Senzaki-san became too attached to the daughter. And then his niece Haru had seen all three of them together. Saburo had to do something drastic—so when Senzaki-san came to the house one day, Saburo served her some special homemade manju. “My first attempt,” he explained. “May taste a little strange.”

Senzaki-san was charmed by his domestic efforts. She ate one manju after another. Inside the bean cakes were mashed red beans, mixed in with powdered apple seed. Any good farmer knew one cup of apple seeds could kill a person. And sure enough, after eating her fourth, Senzaki-san crumbled to the floor.

Saburo had already created a home for the body in the basement. And there Senzaki-san had stayed for more than seventy years. But now with plans for a renovation project, the house would be cleaned up. There was no doubt that the body of Senzaki-san would be found.

“Bisabuelo, what is this house?” Carlos stood beside Saburo’s wheelchair. The sky was bright with a full moon and the light bounced off the boy’s black hair.

“This is the house where I spent the early years of my marriage.”

The boy looked confused and turned back towards the truck. Jorge, the boy’s father, was knocked out in the front cab, oblivious to what Saburo was planning. The boy thought his father was just tired, but Saburo had effectively poured some strong sleeping medicine in the Diet Coke Jorge had been drinking.

In the back seat was the young man, Greg Shishido, still tied up and his mouth taped shut.

“Go collect some dry branches in the brush out there,” Saburo said to his great-grandson.

The boy frowned and hesitated, but then did as he was told.

Saburo’s freckled hand shook as he caressed the armrests on his wheelchair. The past. The present. It all had to burn.

* * *

Phyllis Hamakawa sat on her late grandmother’s bed and wiped away some tears. Her mascara was most likely running. She needed to buy some waterproof kind but she hardly had time these days to even properly style her hair. For a female politician, appearances were everything. Not looking attractive might put her re-election in peril. But after Baa-chan’s death, Phyllis didn’t seem to care about much.

She had returned from her investigation in Oxnard, California, with more questions than answers. She didn’t understand this Sayuri Shishido’s obsession with the strawberry poisonings. The private investigator Phyllis hired, Juanita Gushiken, a distant relative, had continued to dig information about Shishido Farms after Phyllis returned to Toronto. The PI, in fact, had just called Phyllis’ cell phone. “Sayuri’s husband is missing,” she reported.

Phyllis couldn’t care less. What did a missing husband have to do with the murder of her grandmother? But then Juanita explained that there was some kind of link between the two people—Baa-chan and Greg. What would Baa-chan have to do with a hapa young man in Southern California? It didn’t make sense.

Baa-chan actually didn’t speak much of her past. Phyllis knew that she was from Wakayama and had lived in California for a brief time. But that was it. Now that Baa-chan was gone, family history went with her.

The retirement home was eager to give away Baa-chan’s bed to a new resident and Phyllis only had today to pack up her grandmother’s things. Although her space was small, she had made use of every nook and cranny. Phyllis found picture after picture of her daughter Cassandra in Baa-chan’s dresser. It was quite clear what was precious to her.

Phyllis removed the quilt bedspread from the mattress and began removing the sheets as well. The sheets actually were the home’s, but Baa-chan would want Phyllis to strip the mattress. Be chanto. Restore the room to its original bare condition.

As Phyllis tugged on the bottom fitted sheet, she noticed something tucked in between the box spring and mattress. A manila envelope. Probably more photos of Cassandra, she thought and smiled.

But as she opened it, she was surprised to see a couple of pages of official-looking documents. Perhaps her immigration or naturalization papers?

One was a birth certificate. It was Mom’s. Everything on that document seemed correct. Mother: Itsuko Nagashima. Father: Hideo Nagashima.

On the back, however, was some Japanese writing. Baa-chan’s—Phyllis could recognize her florid handwriting anywhere. But what did it say?

Phyllis then studied the other paper: a marriage certificate, dated in the 1920s. Phyllis frowned. It was an American document, not Canadian. Sure enough, there was Baa-chan’s maiden name, Itsuko Hotta. Phyllis’s hands then began to shake. Under groom it stated a name that was both foreign and familiar at the same time: Saburo Shishido.

* * *

“Stay right there.”

Sayuri stopped in her tracks in the strawberry fields next to the Victorian house. As soon as the family had made the connection between Saburo Shishido and Jorge Yamashita, they did some quick research on where they could have taken Greg. Saburo Shishido had once lived in Watsonville. All of them had then piled into an SUV and headed north, sometimes even exceeding ninety miles an hour. And here they were. At the house. And apparently so was he.

“I said don’t move.”

Sayuri didn’t recognize the man’s voice, but she knew whose it was. Her husband’s great-grandfather’s brother. Would that make him a great-great-uncle? Who knew. It didn’t really matter. All Sayuri cared about was her husband Greg.

She heard a mechanical sound behind her. She could tell from the horrified expression on the faces of Greg’s parents, their foreman Zip, and the private investigator Juanita Gushiken that the sound came from the cocking of a gun.

“Mister Shishido—” Juanita’s voice rang out, “let us be civilized and talk.”

Sayuri stared at the stairs of the old house. Someone had piled a bunch of sticks on the empty resident’s porch. In between the sticks were rags and balled-up pieces of newspaper. It looked like someone was planning to start a fire. And then Sayuri’s eyes seemed to be playing tricks on her. She thought that she saw something move behind the branches. And there, yes, a pair of tennis shoes—Nikes, the kind that Greg wore.

Sayuri ran forward and then heard a pop of a gun. Her mother-in-law screamed and father-in-law yelled, but Sayuri was just intent on those shoes. She ran up the stairs and then around the pile of wood. And there was her husband, his hands and legs bound and his mouth gagged. But those bright eyes were moving. He was alive!

Chapter 12 >>


* “The Nihongo Papers” is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

© 2008 Naomi Hirahara

California Discover Nikkei fiction mystery fiction Naomi Hirahara stories strawberries The Nihongo Papers (series) United States Watsonville
About this series

Award-winning author Naomi Hirahara presents a bioterrorism thriller that involves characters that span generations and continents, strawberries, and a mystery that unfolds to reveal dark family secrets.

Read Chapter One

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About the Author

Naomi Hirahara is the author of the Edgar Award-winning Mas Arai mystery series, which features a Kibei Nisei gardener and atomic-bomb survivor who solves crimes, Officer Ellie Rush series, and now the new Leilani Santiago mysteries. A former editor of The Rafu Shimpo, she has written a number of nonfiction books on the Japanese American experience and several 12-part serials for Discover Nikkei.

Updated October 2019

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