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The Nihongo Papers

Chapter 9

>> Chapter 8

“Where is my husband?” Sayuri Shishido repeated, pressing the broken china underneath the woman’s chin. The Asian woman actually must have been a little older than she looked, based on the lines around her neck. She was toned and sinewy, an athlete. Sayuri was more of an academic couch potato, but she had a wife’s anger on her side.

“I don’t—” The woman began to choke, and Sayuri pulled the china back a little but kept a firm grip on the woman’s wrist. The stranger coughed—it sounded real, not fake. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of a red Toyota truck, parked about a block away from the motel that Sayuri’s missing husband Greg must have been earlier that day.

“Who are you?” Sayuri asked.

“Juanita.”

Sayuri shook the woman’s wrist and pressed harder.

“Juanita Gushiken,” the woman spat out.

Juanita Gushiken? What a name. Sayuri recognized the surname as being Okinawan, but Juanita? That was a Spanish name.

“Your real name,” Sayuri demanded.

“That is my real name.” Juanita’s black eyes widened for a moment, and Sayuri felt that she was telling the truth. “And I don’t know anything about your husband.” On the passenger’s seat was a camera with a high-powered lens and a laptop computer.

“Then why are you following me?”

“I was hired to. I’m a P.I. Private investigator.”

“Who—“ Sayuri was ready to ask, but then she stopped herself. “The Canadian woman. Phyllis Hamakawa.”

Juanita’s eyes grew big again—Sayuri wondered how she could be a good investigator when she wore her emotions so clearly on her face. Sayuri loosened her grip on Juanita. “There’s a Starbucks down the street,” Sayuri said.

Juanita nodded, which didn’t surprise Sayuri. Even enemies had time for Starbucks.

***

Jorge Yamashita was tired. So tired. He had worked out in the fields with the rest of the workers, and then had gone into the test fields to check on the Saburo seedlings. The strawberry was settling in nicely. Before long, there would be Saburos throughout all hundred acres of Shishido Farms.

He came back to his home, his son Carlos’ and his motel room, stripped his dirty and sweaty clothes off, and soaked in a hot tub. It wasn’t anything like their Japanese furo back in Paraguay—this bathtub was made of cheap plastic, not even any ceramic tile, but it would have to do for now. One day soon they would get their own apartment and then house. Carlos would go to school. Grandfather had promised.

Jorge leafed through an old Time Magazine in the bathtub. It was an old issue, dating back to the last presidency. Didn’t matter because Jorge was practicing his English. He would need to be more proficient in English in order to take over Shishido Farms.

Just as Jorge was turning the page of a full-page advertisement for Old Spice cologne, something banged against the wall, hard. Jorge placed the magazine on the bathroom floor and stood up, water dripping from his torso, down his legs, back into the cheap tub.

“Carlos—“ he called out. Just the sound of a cartoon on the television. Jorge got out of the tub and wrapped a towel around his waist. “Carlos!”

His son was huddled against the headboard of the bed, Lucky Charms cereal spilled on the sheets. Carlos was obviously afraid of the sound emanating from the other side of the wall. Bisabuelo’s room.

“What’s wrong?” Jorge asked, but his son refused to say. Another bang.

“Bisabuelo—“ Jorge rapped the door separating the two rooms with his knuckle. “Open the door,” he said in Spanish.

“No, Papa, no!” Carlos cried out.

“What, mijito. What’s wrong?”

“You won’t like what you see.”

Jorge felt sick to his stomach. The old man had been spending too much time with Carlos. Jorge now started banging, aware that too much noise would arouse unwanted attention from the motel manager. “Open the door!”

His son was now covering his eyes and ears. Something was terrorizing him. Something unknown to Jorge.

Jorge couldn’t stand it anymore and pulled on his work boots over his bare feet. He stood a few feet away from the door and then lunged forward, kicking his right foot as hard as he could near the dead bolt. The door flew open and Jorge stepped into the neighboring room.

“Abuelito,” he then said. “What have you done?”

***

Even though it was getting cold with the Oxnard evening fog creeping inland, Sayuri and Juanita sat at the table outside of Starbuck’s. It was better than way. More truth could be told away from the friendly barristas and Starbuck’s travel mugs.

It turned out that Juanita was distantly related to Phyllis Hamakawa. Phyllis had been the woman who had barged into Sayuri and Greg’s apartment, accusing Sayuri of poisoning her grandmother in Toronto. The map of North America that Sayuri had pinned to the wall with articles about the strawberry poisonings in Canada only served to heighten the Canadian councilwoman’s suspicions.

“So why are you so interested in the poisoning incidents in Toronto,” Juanita asked, sucking down an espresso—all black, no sugar or even milk.

“Those poisonings have something to do with my husband’s farm. I know that this sounds crazy, but I think the farm started having these weird formations that link back to this Japanese textbook from the thirties—”

Juanita’s heavy eyebrows arched.

Oh, why not? Sayuri thought to herself. She knew she would sound crazy, but she needed an outside opinion, someone who was trained to piece mysteries together. She shared everything with the P.I. The strange formation in the strawberry fields and its link to Greg’s great-aunt’s Nihongo textbook. The strawberry formula written in the margins of the book with poison written underneath it. It all sounded like a fantasy, Sayuri realized. But she continued on. The strange message on the computer, “SHISHIDO FARMS KILL.” Greg investigating the new employee, Jorge Yamashita. The broken piece of the Shishido Farms mug found in the motel parking lot.

Through all of this, Juanita just sat and listened, taking small and neat sips of her espresso until her paper cup was bone dry. After hearing it all, the private investigator stood up. “I think that we’d better go back to the motel.”

***

As the two women caravanned back to the motel, Sayuri started to get a sickening feeling in her stomach. She still didn’t have any messages on her cell phone from Greg. His parents hadn’t called either, which meant they didn’t have anything new to share. As they turned the corner towards the motel, Sayuri saw a string of black-and-white police cars surrounding the building. She felt like she was going to haku, throw up, right then in her car.

Juanita had reached the police officers faster than Sayuri was able. Sayuri couldn’t even properly parallel park the car, hitting the curb a couple of times, before abandoning the car practically in the middle of the street.

By the time Sayuri crossed the street to the motel parking lot, Juanita had gotten some information from the police huddle.

“Is it Greg?” Sayuri’s hands were shaking.

Juanita shook her head. “No, no. Just a couple of customers making a mess of the hotel rooms. Guess they left in a hurry.”

Sayuri looked up to two open doors on the top floor, as menacing as plucked-out eyeballs. “No!”

A couple of the uniformed officers turned their attention to Sayuri and Juanita quickly steered her to the side of the parking lot. “What’s wrong?” Juanita asked.

“That’s where our employee lives with his son. I was just there earlier today.”

“Stay here,” Juanita commanded Sayuri before rejoining the clusters of police officers. Juanita was a pretty woman, Sayuri just noticed, and seemed to be using her feminine wiles to charm the man in charge.

Juanita returned to Sayuri. “They’re letting us take a look. But it has to be fast. And we can’t touch anything.”

Sayuri nodded and Juanita took her hand. Sayuri knew her fingers were ice cold, but the private investigator didn’t seem to mind.

They walked up the stairs and passed a couple of uniformed officers. Juanita looked into the room next to 202 first and then nodded for Sayuri to follow.

The lights were turned on. The room looked strange. The windows were covered with black trash bags and there was duct tape on the headboard on one of the beds.

“Did you see anything?”

“I smell him. I know he was there. Did you see that duct tape?”

“We can’t go by smells. It has to be material evidence. Do you see anything in there that might be traced back to your husband?”

Sayuri carefully studied the room again and shook her head. She wished that she could have touched the bedspread. She would have been able to tell if Greg had been in there or not, she knew it.

“You’re in no shape to drive. Let me drive you home,” Juanita said after reparking Sayuri’s car so it was no longer sticking out in the street.

“No, I can ask my in-laws to come.”

“You want them to see this?”

Sayuri glanced at the blinking police cars. No, this would unnecessarily cause them to worry. Even though she had known this woman for less than three hours, she agreed to be escorted home in the Toyota truck.

To avoid the gridlock caused by the police cars they went around the back way, towards some fallow strawberry fields. The moon was full, casting weird shadows over the clumps of soil.

“Stop!” Sayuri called out.

Juanita slammed on the brakes, propelling them forward in their seats. “What the—“

“Greg’s car.” Sayuri pointed to the outline of a vehicle behind a small tractor.

Juanita parked the truck on the side of the dirt and both women got out, walking slowly towards the tractor. The dirt road was empty. There was no sign of anybody at least within a two-block radius.

Their feet sunk in the dirt as they made their way towards Greg’s truck.

“Don’t touch it—“ Juanita cautioned, pulling something out of a large bag she was carrying. “It might have fingerprints, some kind of evidence.”

They stood facing the empty truck. There were no dents or any other signs that it had been vandalized.

“Someone must have kidnapped Greg. Tried to dump his truck here,” Sayuri said.

“We can’t make any assumptions.” Juanita handed Sayuri a pair of acrylic gloves, apparently part of her P.I. gear. She then turned on a big flashlight that poured light into the truck. The two women searched through the unlocked cab of the truck, but it looked fairly clean.

“That—“ Sayuri’s voice got stuck in her throat and Juanita went over to the driver’s side door to see what Sayuri had found.

“What is it?”

Sayuri pointed at something on the floor underneath the accelerator—a tiny green marshmallow clover, the kind found in a child’s cereal box, a box of Lucky Charms.

Chapter 10 >>

 

* “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

fiction serialized story strawberry

Sobre esta série

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