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Newcastle, California * September 16, 1943
They bump along the country road, rolling through golden hills that are punctuated with granite boulders and dotted with clusters of oak trees that appear blackish green from afar. Every so often the road dips through a marshy patch here, a thicket of wild blackberry bushes there. Broken branches and nibbled leaves; the signs of beaver and deer. Verdant meadows and white flashes of cabbageworm moths. As they near the orchard, clouds of sparrows and finches make nervous, disorganized dives at the soft yellow weeds around the plum trees, little groups of them assembling like constellations and abruptly breaking up again, each and every tiny nervous body keeping one eye turned to the sky for the shadowy shape of a hawk soaring high above.
When they reach the break in the low split-rail fence, the sheriff steers the car onto the property and along the dirt drive, through the many rows of trees, and toward the leaning peak of the largest foothill. The morning air is laced with the sharp, peppery scent of dry grass burning.
"Awful smoky out," Agent Bonner remarks, once the automobile comes to a stop.
"Rice fields," the deputy says as the three men step out of the sheriff's old Model A. "Somewhere down in the valley. It's after harvest, see. This is when they burn 'em. Smoke gets trapped up here, against the foothills. Kind of sets around a spell."
The sky is indeed filled with a thick haze, turning it the color of dull gunmetal; the sun is a flat white disc, small as a dime and lost in a sea of gray.
"It's routine farming business. The rice fields aren't Jap-owned," Deputy Henderson continues. "Or if they were, they aren't anymore."
He is young, the right age for a soldier, but there is an air of being excluded about him, and of lingering teenage angst. Probably flat-footed. Or poor eyesight, Bonner thinks. Those are the most common 4-Fs, when you can't tell by simply looking at a man. Henderson's hair is the color of tarnished brass; his face and neck are very pink, the flesh cratered, ropey and swollen with acne. Just to look at him, a man could feel the sting of what it must feel like to shave.
"Let's get this over with," Sheriff Whitcomb says. At least it is obvious why he isn't marching around in a uniform on the front: too old. He is thin, with haunted blue eyes. A pair of jowls and one tuft of white hair sprouting from an otherwise shiny dome. Bonner spied the tuft back at the station, before the sheriff reached for his hat and offered to drive the group out to the ranch. Every town seems to have a pair like this, Bonner thinks. Henderson and Whitcomb. One will eventually replace the other, and the cycle will begin again.
"You said Louis Thorn is living in the old farmhouse now?" the sheriff calls over his shoulder, speaking to Henderson. He is polite enough to Agent Bonner, but it is clear he prefers to pretend the agent is invisible.
"Yes." Deputy Henderson answers the sheriff in a quick, eager voice. "Old Man Yamada signed it over to him, before they lost legal rights. So Louis owns it fair and square."
"That's mighty interesting," Agent Bonner remarks. Bonner's certainly heard of cases where Japanese families had signed over their property to their white neighbors before being evacuated to the camps. In every single case, the Japanese were hoping to eventually have their land, homes, and cars returned to them, which implied a kind of special trust in one's neighbors.
"It ain't how you think. The whole town was mighty shocked the Yamadas did that," Henderson says. "The Thorns and the Yamadas had a long-standing dispute over this land."
"Why'd he sign it over to the Thorn family, then, if there was bad blood?" Bonner asks. He looks to Whitcomb, but Whitcomb shrugs and looks away, his gaze dilating with disinterest. Bonner can tell the sheriff finds explaining town gossip to an outsider tedious.
"Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada was friends-sort of," Whitcomb says, dispassionately. "Maybe Old Man Yamada put some stock in that. The old man didn't have any friends who weren't Japanese, himself. Maybe he figured it was worth a shot."
"Took a fat chance on that," Deputy Henderson grunts, reaching one hand up to rub at his pimply face. "I say Louis ain't givin' this land back. His father and grandfather always told him this land was Thorn property in the first place. They'd likely roll over in their graves if he was to think about giving it back."
"All right," Whitcomb says, pulling out his revolver, spinning the cylinder to ensure all six rounds are there, and putting it back in his holster. "Let's just see if he knows anything. Keep it civilized. Should be pretty straightforward. We're talking about a law-abiding citizen here; I don't have any reason to believe Louis Thorn'd lie to us."
They begin walking up the incline of the foothill toward the tidy white clapboard house nestled into the hillside just below the top. Louis Thorn might be living in it now, but Old Man Yamada had originally built it half a century ago-back when the latter was still a baby-faced young man, an early settler to the area. The house sits into the hill in a slightly cantilevered fashion, with a small wraparound porch from which a person can look out over the orchards below; neat rows of plum trees extend below one side of the house, a grove of satsumas in the middle, and almond trees on the other. The property consists of some fifty-odd acres, and as the three men climb the foothill now, they can see that the trees eventually peter out to reveal a wide, flat pasture some distance away. As they pause to look, three sets of eyes fall upon the far-off shape of a small, impromptu hangar down below, looking as though it had been thrown together hastily from available materials.
It is the place where the Yamadas kept their biplane, and where Louis Thorn purportedly still keeps it now. Or so Agent Bonner has been informed. The F.B.I. took special note of the biplane after the two remaining members of the Yamada clan-Kenichi and Haruto "Harry" Yamada-broke out of the Tule Lake Relocation Center, where they were being detained. The plane made the F.B.I. more nervous than usual, but either way the Yamadas were to be tracked down and returned to the segregation center, and as soon as possible.
The three men arrive in front of the house and climb up the twenty or so stairs that lead up to the porch. No need to knock; their boots make a good deal of noise on the wooden planks. The screen door swings open on creaking hinges before the third man reaches the top stair.
"May I help you fellas?"
The door claps shut. Louis Thorn, dressed in a long-sleeved undershirt and trousers, his suspenders hanging beside his hips, looks at the men standing on his porch, glancing searchingly from one to the next. One half of his face is dewy, clean-shaven. The other half is covered in lather. He is still clutching the straight razor in his left hand.
At the sight of the razor, Whitcomb lightly touches a hand to the butt of the gun on his own hip. "Mornin', Louis. The way I hear it, you got the run of things here these days," the sheriff says, taking the lead.
"That's right," Louis responds. There is a note of caution in his voice. He looks over the sheriff's shoulder, taking in the unfamiliar sight of Agent Bonner. For a brief instant Louis appears startled to see the F.B.I. agent, but quickly recovers himself.
"Looks like you settled into the place pretty good," the sheriff presses on.
Louis returns his gaze to the sheriff but doesn't reply.
"I take it you heard about them Yamada boys already."
"I heard," Louis says. His voice is low, steady.
"Then you know we're here to ask you if you seen 'em."
Louis blinks. "Harry and Mr. Yamada?"
"I reckon this is the last place they'd come."
"So you're telling me you ain't seen them?" the sheriff prods.
"And you wouldn't be inclined to help those Yamada boys if they came knocking?"
"I told you, I haven't seen them since."
"All right, all right," the sheriff relents. "You understand, we gotta ask, Louis. Agent Bonner here can't go about his business till them boys have been found."
"Mr. Thorn." Agent Bonner introduces himself, clearing his throat and extending his hand. Louis hesitates, then passes the straight razor to his other hand. The handshake is curt.
"Look here, Louis," the sheriff continues, "I don't know what you got goin' on in that head of yours. Maybe you got it in your head to protect these fellers, even if they're Japs. Or maybe," he says, lowering his voice, "you've gotten accustomed to being a property owner. Ain't no crime in that. Maybe if they came back here they wouldn't exactly be welcome. Like I said . . . I don't know what you got goin' on in that head of yours. But, to tell you the truth, I'm an old man, and I could give two shits."
Whitcomb pauses, certain that he has everyone's attention now.
"What I do know," the sheriff adds, "is that it would make all of our lives a hell of a lot easier if you let us take a look around the property and see if we can't prove you're telling us the truth."
Louis is silent a moment. "All right," he finally answers.
The sheriff nods. Louis moves as if to go back inside the house to finish his shave.
"The biplane," Agent Bonner says, reminding everyone.
"Oh," the sheriff says, turning back to Louis. "The agent here has to ask you some questions about that airplane being kept on the property . . ."
"How'd that plane come into your possession?" Bonner begins.
Louis hesitates. "Bank auction," he says.
Bonner has read the file: he knows that Louis is skipping details, leaving out the part where Kenichi Yamada-not Louis-bought the plane at a bank auction, and only later signed it over to Louis.
"We used it for our flying circus act, but I don't do that stuff anymore. I work for the U.S. Army Air Corps as an instructor up at the Lincoln airfield. I train flyboys headed to the Pacific, mostly."
Bonner already knows this, too, but does not interrupt. It was always better to let people do their own telling.
"Do both Yamada men know how to fly the plane?" Bonner asks.
Louis shakes his head. "Only Harry." He pauses, then repeats Harry's full name as though to clarify. "Haruto Yamada."
"And before your instructor days, you and Haruto Yamada"-Agent Bonner flips open a notebook-"you charged spectators to watch you perform stunts in this plane? That's how the two of you became friendly?"
Louis shrugs. "Originally, we both worked for Earl Shaw and put on a barnstorming act for his flying circus. Later we had our own act . . . it was called Eagle & Crane."
"Eagle & Crane?"
"Sounds mighty . . ." Agent Bonner pauses, looking into the air for the proper word. "Showy." Louis narrows his eyes just slightly at Bonner, but Bonner presses on. "What sort of tricks did you perform?"
"Oh, wing walking and barrel rolls and such," Louis replies. "With Earl's show, sometimes we flew two planes in formation, did loop-the-loops. Later it was more choreographed stunts. Parachute jumps, that type of thing."
Bonner nods. He scribbles a note.
"Say . . ." Louis asks, his eyes narrowing again. "Why so many questions about our business with the plane?"
"Well," Bonner says, clearing his throat, "it goes without saying that the Bureau feels an escaped evacuee who knows how to fly an airplane might be a liability."
Louis doesn't comment. Bonner knows he's obligated to ask the questions the F.B.I. expects him to ask, so he presses on.
"Do you have any reason to believe Mr. Yamada might attempt to gain access to your biplane?"
Louis pauses, considering. He shakes his head.
"If Haruto Yamada was able to gain access to the biplane, do you have any reason to believe he might use his flying skills to commit an act of war?"
"An act of war?" Louis repeats. "You mean hurt folks with the plane somehow?"
"Yeah," Deputy Henderson suddenly chimes in. "I'll be damned if Pearl Harbor ain't taught us all about how vicious those Japs can be-can't put anything past a-one of 'em!"
Louis's head snaps irritably in Deputy Henderson's direction. His hand holding the straight razor twitches.
"No," Louis answers, returning his attention to Agent Bonner. "I don't think Harry would do anything along those lines. It's not . . . it's not Harry."
"You sound defensive on Harry's behalf," Bonner remarks.
"I'm not defensive." Louis stiffens. "I'm just not going to say something is one way when I know it's another. Harry ain't about to steal the Stearman and crash it."
As if by the most absurd cue, their ears suddenly prick to the sound of an airplane engine droning in the distance. Louis knows from the sound of it that the plane is flying at an unusually high altitude, the steady whine of the engine humming like a dying mosquito.
All four men-Louis included-hurry to the railing at the edge of the porch and look up. Sure enough, there in the sky is the familiar silhouette of the Stearman. The group stares at the plane, powerless and immobile as they watch it inch across the sky, all of them mute as they listen to it drone along.
But then they hear an even more alarming noise. The engine sputters and coughs, and for one long, horrendous second shudders loudly, until finally it goes silent. It is a sequence of sounds Louis has never heard the airplane make before, a noise ever so slightly different from the stalling noise it makes if you pull up too hard . . . and yet, the second he hears it, Louis recognizes the sound with a sick feeling in his gut: It is the engine running out of gas.
What happens next is baffling. The biplane falls from the sky, a flying thing no longer, like Icarus and his melted wings. No one pulls up on the nose or raises the wing flaps. Instead it drops like a stone, or-even swifter-like a bird diving on purpose. But a bird can recover from such a dive. A small biplane cannot-that is, not without an expert pilot intent on maneuvering the contraption for all it was worth.