The fourth installment of the Mas Arai mystery series and the precursor to Strawberry Yellow, Blood Hina is now in paperback for the first time.
Mas Arai's best friend Haruo is getting married, and he has grudgingly agreed to serve as best man. But when the ancient Japanese doll display that belongs to Haruo's fiancée goes missing, the wedding is called off with fingers pointed at Haruo. To save his friend's life, Mas must untangle a web of secrecy, heartbreaking memories, and murder dating all the way back to the Japanese American detention centers of World War II and drug-running of the 1980s.
About the Author
Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning and Anthony and Macavity Award-nominated author of the Mas Arai mystery series, including Strawberry Yellow, Snakeskin Shamisen, Gasa-Gasa Girl, and Summer of the Big Bachi. Her books have earned such honors as the Chicago Tribune’s Ten Best Mysteries and Thrillers and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. The Stanford University alumna was born and raised in Altadena, CA, where her protagonist lives; she now resides in the adjacent town of Pasadena, CA.
Read an Excerpt
By Naomi Hirahara
Prospect Park BooksCopyright © 2013 Naomi Hirahara
All rights reserved.
And do you, Sutama Hayakawa, take this man to be your husband?" the minister asked, the third time that night.
Mas Arai, his hands shaking and wet, wasn't going to miss his cue again. He pulled out the simple gold band from the pocket of his windbreaker and, pressing hard, as if he had captured a sand crab from a California beach, held it toward his best friend, Haruo Mukai. And then, before it could be successfully transferred to the groom, the ring slipped from his sweaty fingers and plopped into the fish pond below them.
"Ah, oogoto!" screamed an old Japanese woman holding a clipboard and standing on a concrete walkway on the other side of the pond. "I think that koi is going to swallow it!"
Before Mas could take any kind of action, Haruo's grandchildren had jumped into the pond, followed immediately by the grandchildren of Sutama, who was better known as Spoon. Fish tails of milky white and neon orange thrashed through the water in between soaked pant legs. Would Haruo's or Spoon's side of the family take the prize?
Spoon, Haruo's pear-shaped bride, whose bulky sweater was no benefit to her ample oshiri, held onto the railing of the bamboo bridge, shell-shocked. Haruo, his skunk hair carefully arranged to cover the keloid scar on the left side of his face, tried to smile. "Howsu one more try, Mas?"
* * *
The wedding rehearsal was a disaster from the very start. Spoon showed up forty-five minutes late, saying her youngest daughter had taken her car without telling her, so she had to wait for another daughter to pick her up. All the grandchildren, meanwhile, had arrived, pulling at mondo grasses, terrorizing the koi, running through the bamboo, and hopping on the worn bridge. Mas could just imagine the reaction of his fellow gardeners who tended the Japanese garden in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo for close to nothing. The Gardeners' Federation was big on "volunteer"—but Mas didn't believe in it, because you usually ended up losing more than you put in. And for what? A pat on the back and maybe a photo in the federation's newsletter. Mas preferred that his charity be less visible, if visible at all.
As the bridge shook from all the commotion below, the minister, dressed in slacks and a blue sweater, desperately held on to a stack of three lacquered bowls that were part of the san-san-kudo. Three, three, nine—fortuitous numbers, eternal numbers. Both Haruo and Spoon had sipped from the empty bowls two times each during the rehearsal. Tomorrow the bowls would be filled with sake—Mas wouldn't mind imbibing some rice wine right now.
Why was Haruo, at seventy-one years of age, even thinking of getting remarried? Might as well just buy two cemetery plots right next to each other and put a bow tie on one headstone and a veil on the other.
The two of them had met at the flower market, and their romance had bloomed while Mas had been answering an exceedingly rare call for help from his daughter in New York City. Perhaps if Mas had stayed in L.A., Haruo and Spoon's relationship would have never ignited. Because if anyone could put a damper on love, it would definitely be Mas.
Spoon was all right, Mas guessed. She was pretty quiet for a Nisei woman, the second generation to be in America, and when she talked, she was assari, a plain speaker who didn't bother to smooth out rough edges like those straight from Japan tended to do. Mas remembered how his late wife Chizuko could shuffle and arrange Japanese words like a master magician so the unsuspecting wouldn't even realize that they were being rebuffed or insulted. She would have thought Haruo's remarriage was kurukuru-pa, plain-out crazy, but if she was here at the wedding rehearsal, a perpetual smile would have been plastered on her face.
Even the men at the Eaton Nursery last week seemed mystified at Haruo's upcoming nuptials. "Why don't he just go to Vegas?" asked Stinky Yoshimoto, examining the sharp teeth of one of the metal racks for sale. Stinky was the king of bad ideas, and he was fortunate that most in their circle didn't bother to listen to him. "There he could sneak in a game of pau gow and poker between the ceremony and honeymoon."
Except that Haruo was a former gambler, a recovering one, as he liked to say. Gambling fever had ruined his first marriage, and he sure wasn't going to let it grab hold of his second.
"So you some kind of big shot in the wedding, I hear," Wishbone Tanaka chimed in. Wishbone, the former owner of his own lawn mower shop, was always concerned with status, even in the puddle of a world that they all inhabited. "Best man—oshare, ne."
"Best man" did sound highfalutin. Mas had never been best at anything in his life, other than perhaps regrets. Haruo could have easily selected Tug Yamada—a medal-laden veteran who was trustworthy and dependable and would never do anything like lose the bride's wedding ring to a giant fish. Or even Wishbone, who limped around with a walker, its back metal legs protected by two neon-green tennis balls, would perhaps have been a better choice.
But Mas and Haruo shared something that none of those men did—the Bomb. While the experience was written all over Haruo's scarred face, it remained hidden in Mas's heart and mind. The two men hadn't known each other in Hiroshima, but when they learned that they both had been in the city during World War Two, their connection was forever fused. Haruo talked too much, but his overflowing words often greased Mas's disjointed emotions.
So when Haruo asked him to serve as his best man, Mas hemmed and hawed, but they both knew he would eventually give in. He always did.
Haruo now must have been regretting his choice, after Mas had presented him with the ring at the wrong time two times at the rehearsal, and now it might be lost forever. The children were soaked, and their parents, including two of Spoon's daughters, crossed their arms, their anger ricocheting from the hubbub onto Mas.
Haruo's grandson stood up in the knee-deep water. "I got it, I got it," he said, holding up a glint of gold like a prospector with a lucky find.
"Ah, yokkata," the old woman, the wedding coordinator, said in relief. She then studied the sky, weighed down by gray. "It's going to rain tomorrow," she predicted. "That means good luck." Mas hoped the wedding coordinator was wrong. Good luck, in Mas's experience, seemed to always be followed by bad.
* * *
From Little Tokyo, the three generations of Spoon's and Haruo's families—with Mas and couple of others tagging along—headed deeper into the city toward downtown L.A.'s industrial Four Corners, where the Garment District, Produce Market, Toy Town, and Flower Market all collided. It was amazing that so much down-and-dirty commerce happened in downtown, merely blocks away from the svelte high-rises and fancy hotels. Some of the business—at least at the produce and flower markets—happened before the crack of dawn, when trucks and forklifts moved bunches of gladiolas and carnations, boxes of strawberries and tomatoes, in the transfer of goods that would continue onward to Des Moines, Iowa, or even foreign countries.
It was a secret world, where only nocturnal men and a few women like Spoon and her daughters dared to tread. At night, outside the aging and sometimes crumbling concrete buildings, the human residents of Skid Row, as well as rats and cockroaches, ruled the streets. Those fooled by superficial appearances might think that Four Corners L.A. was only for the impoverished. But scratch deeper and there was money to be had.
Some of these deals were forged inside nondescript diners that seemed to date from the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of Los Angeles. They had plain-Jane faces and sometimes bars on their windows, but insiders felt as drawn to their counters and tables as they did to their own mothers' kitchens.
If old-fashioned breakfasts, mounds of hotcakes, melting butter, and swollen sausages were the king in this neighborhood, then chop suey, a mishmash of tastes from the Old West and Far East, had to be the queen. So it was no surprise to anyone that Haruo and Spoon's rehearsal dinner was held at one of the standard chop suey houses in the neighborhood. This particular one was even a favorite of a former manager of L.A.'s baseball team.
Mas's own mouth was salivating as the oval plates of tomato beef, egg foo young, and crunchy chow mein arrived on the lazy susan on their table. He was sitting between Haruo and Debra, Spoon's oldest daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed destined to droop in the same places as her mother. Debra was distracted by her teenage sons horseplaying at the next round table, so Mas could ladle his chicken soup to his mouth in peace. As the plastic plates of food arrived, the boys calmed down, allowing Debra to sink her teeth into both her food and Mas.
"So, Mr. Arai, are you still working?"
He removed a chicken bone that was caught in between his dentures. He hated that question. Seemed like once you hit seventy, everyone expected you to be good for nothing anymore. "Yah, gotta work." Even if it just meant a handful of customers.
Debra proceeded to ask question after question—Mas felt like he was the target of a firing squad, only here the shooter kept going, even though he was dead. Did he have any children? Yah. Boy or girl? Girl. Mari. Did she live close to him. Nah, New York. East Coast? Why so far? It went on and on and on.
In desperation, Mas surveyed the table. He knew that Spoon had three daughters, the three Ds. There was Debra next to him, Donna across the way, and Mas tried to remember the third D. He'd run into a van full of Spoon's girls and grandchildren at Haruo's Cracker Jack box–sized apartment in the Crenshaw District. The third daughter didn't look like the others, Mas remembered. She was skinny, but there was something else. Mas remembered that she was some kind of black sheep of the family.
Mas knew that the only way to stop Debra's prying was to ask some questions of his own. "Where's your sista?"
"Donna, she's right there." Debra gestured her fork toward the pear-shaped woman across from her.
"Nah, the otha one."
Debra's distaste for her youngest sister was apparent. "She couldn't make it."
She then bit down on her teeth, even though nothing was in her mouth.
Mas's strategy worked, because the middle-aged girl promptly turned her attention to the person seated on her other side—Haruo's daughter, who was as sweet and gentle as her father.
Mas felt bad, but only for a minute, as he scooped another helping of the fried rice drenched in soy sauce. He remained blissfully alone with the sound of the crunching of his food until someone began clanging his water glass with his fork. Others joined in and soon all the guests were focused on Haruo and Spoon.
"Kisu. Kisu," he heard someone, most likely an old gardener who had drunk too many beers, chant from a corner.
Mas covered his face with his right hand. He'd already witnessed his friend kiss his fiancée on the mouth three times at the rehearsal. Did he have to be sitting right next to him when he did it again?
Haruo noticed Mas's discomfort and laughed when he finally caught his breath after one especially long smooch.
"Mas, youzu just wait. Your turn's comin'."
Mas knew what Haruo was getting at. Haruo had invited their professor friend, Genessee Howard, to the wedding tomorrow. Genessee had been just a tomodachi, a friend. How could she be more? She was a professor at UCLA, after all. Why would any woman with a head on her shoulders want to be romantically involved with Mas? He was out of her league, and Haruo was so blind with his own version of love that he couldn't see it.
Mas picked up an almond cookie from the lazy susan when Itchy Iwasaki, one of the heads of the Lopez, Sing, and Iwasaki mortuary in Lincoln Heights, approached their table. Mas wasn't quite sure why he was there—this event was for the living (well, at least barely), not the dead—but he remembered that Itchy was distantly related to Spoon through marriage.
"Good to see you at the track, Haruo." He tugged at one of his trademark enormous ears. "Haven't been there in years. No need to bet onsite with computers and everything."
"Oh yah, good to see you, Itch." Haruo then awkwardly tried to change the subject to the mortuary—"business good, must be with all these funerals"—but Mas's ears kept ringing. The track was off limits to Haruo, at least according to his counselor in Little Tokyo. What was he doing at the track, especially now that he was going to be a married man?
"I'm not feeling too well, Haruo," Spoon pronounced loudly, her fortune cookie broken but not eaten on a napkin in front of her.
Both daughters, Debra and Donna, looked across the table with concern and accusation.
"It's probably from the MSG."
"I told them no MSG."
"But you know there's always MSG."
As the two sisters argued, Mas's head started to pound. Leftovers had been scooped into takeout boxes and bagged. Only more small talk awaited. As the best man, Mas was obligated to hang around, but assisting the bride-to-be was as good an excuse as any to make his getaway. He turned to Haruo, who was holding Spoon's wrinkled hand. "I take her home," Mas said.
"Youzu sure, Mas?"
"Yah. Get there faster if I go."
Haruo glanced over at the adjoining table of teenagers throwing chow mein noodles at each other and nodded his head. "Thinksu you're right."
Spoon was obviously of the same mind because she nodded as Haruo whispered their plan in her ear.
The two daughters were not happy—each vied for the right to escort Spoon home—until the old woman finally had enough. "Mas is taking me home. He is alone and has no one to worry about but himself, and Haruo needs to pay the bill."
With that, the daughters complied. Mas could have taken Spoon's words the wrong way, but she had spoken the truth, no denying it. He was indeed very much alone.
They walked out of the room, past the counter where crooked framed photos of Dodger stars hung on the wall. Mas grabbed two plastic-covered toothpicks and offered one to Spoon as they left the restaurant. She shook her head no, and Mas led the way toward his Ford truck parked on the far corner of the gravel lot. Since it had been stripped after being stolen some years ago, he had been busy improvising. In addition to the banana peel-colored car seat from a 1970 Chevy and a dashboard from another Ford truck, he'd found a side mirror from a semi at the junkyard. With help from his friend Tug, he was able to weld and screw on the mirror on the driver's side. It was guaranteed that no other 1956 Ford could boast such an impressive mirror. While Mas was proud of the Frankenstein surgery on his vehicle, he sadly realized, in the dim light of the chop suey parking lot, that others might have a different opinion.
He took out a screwdriver that he used to open the driver's side door and then opened the passenger's side. He swept an old rag over the yellow seat until Spoon stopped him.
"Mas, I'm an old route woman. Little dirt never hurt me." She smiled and plopped squarely into the seat. He wondered if she really wasn't feeling well, or maybe she just needed an excuse to get away from all the people. Route men and route women were like gardeners; they spent much of their day alone, but instead of mowing lawns, they drove to faraway places, delivering palms to places like Palm Springs and birds-of-paradise to Disneyland. From Haruo, Mas knew that Spoon's late husband had been not only a route man, but had studied botany at Caltech. A genius and a self-made businessman—how could Haruo compete with such a memory?
"I guess being a best man isn't all that it's cracked up to be," Spoon said as they were on the road to the freeway.
Mas was surprised. How could Spoon read his mind?
"You're a loyal friend," she said abruptly, causing him to almost steer the Ford across the yellow dividing line. "I'm glad Haruo has you."
Excerpted from Blood Hina by Naomi Hirahara. Copyright © 2013 Naomi Hirahara. Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The unlikely hero of the string of books Hirahana has put together is a classic Japanese Gardener. Mas Arai is a guy I remember being around when I was a little kid. The book is a fast read, the few Japanese words are the ones we Sansei learned growing up American. Even for a non-Japanese, these fun books give you a snapshot on the Japanese Americans. I would highly recommend it!
In Los Angeles septuagenarian Japanese-American gardener Mas Arai is unhappy that his friend fellow Hiroshima survivor Haruo Mukai drafts him as his best man in his marriage to Sumako Hayakawa. The wedding rehearsal is obvious a forerunner of things to occur as that proves a disaster. Soon afterward her family accuses Haruo of stealing two ancient Japanese Girls' Days hina dolls from them. Besides the theft the purification rite the dolls represent is tainted so Sumako ends the engagement. Although he hopes otherwise Mas fears Haruo stole the family heirlooms to pay off his latest gambling debt as his friend is a betting addict. Mas investigates the theft by tracing the dolls' trail, which takes him to drug dealers making him fear his friend is guilty and homicides; several of which occurred decades ago, making him believe his friend is not. The latest Mas mystery (see Snakeskin Shamisen) is once again a wonderful amateur who-done-it that enables the reader to see deeply into the Japanese-American lifestyle. The story line is fast-paced as fans will enjoy accompanying Mas as he follows the clues of the dolls past and present through the Great Los Angeles area. Harriet Klausner