by Naomi Hirahara


by Naomi Hirahara


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A Japanese American nurse's aide navigates the dangers of post-WWII and post-Manzanar life as she attempts to find justice for a broken family in this follow-up to the Mary Higgins Clark Award–winning Clark and Division.

Los Angeles, 1946: It’s been two years since Aki Ito and her family were released from Manzanar detention center and resettled in Chicago with other Japanese Americans. Now the Itos have finally been allowed to return home to California—but nothing is as they left it. The entire Japanese American community is starting from scratch, with thousands of people living in dismal refugee camps while they struggle to find new houses and jobs in over-crowded Los Angeles.

Aki is working as a nurse’s aide at the Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights when an elderly Issei man is admitted with suspicious injuries. When she seeks out his son, she is shocked to recognize her husband’s best friend, Babe Watanabe. Could Babe be guilty of elder abuse?

Only a few days later, Little Tokyo is rocked by a murder at the low-income hotel where the Watanabes have been staying. When the cops start sniffing around Aki’s home, she begins to worry that the violence tearing through her community might threaten her family. What secrets have the Watanabes been hiding, and can Aki protect her husband from getting tangled up in a murder investigation?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641295970
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/02/2024
Series: A Japantown Mystery , #2
Sales rank: 293,932
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Naomi Hirahara is the Mary Higgins Clark Award–winning author of Clark and Division, and the Edgar Award–winning author of the Mas Arai mystery series, including Summer of the Big Bachi, which was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and one of the Chicago Tribune’s Ten Best Mysteries and Thrillers; Gasa Gasa Girl; Snakeskin Shamisen; and Hiroshima Boy. She is also the author of the LA-based Ellie Rush mysteries. A former editor of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper, she has co-written nonfiction books like Life after Manzanar and the award-winning Terminal Island: Lost Communities on America's Edge.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I had only been working at the Japanese Hospital on Fickett Street for a month when Haruki Watanabe was brought into an examination room. The one Issei doctor on call was treating a patient who had been suffering from severe hypertension. It was up to me to take Mr. Watanabe’s vitals and update his medical chart. I was only a nurse’s aide, not a full-fledged nurse, but the hospital had just reopened in spring 1946, three years after we had been sent away, and the facility was severely understaffed.
     Mr. Watanabe had sad eyes with bags that drooped down onto his sagging cheeks. Everything about his face seemed to be melting away. His lip was swollen and the side of his face was beet red, inflamed from some kind of trauma. The only sign of vigor was in his hair, still jet-black and abundant, like a badger’s coat, despite his fifty-two years.
     I put the glass thermometer under his tongue, which was thick and streaked with bacteria. His temperature was a little higher than normal.
     I gently took hold of his wrist, which was sturdier than I expected, to take his pulse. His pulse was fast, but that was not unusual when people came for emergency care. I spied something red on his upper arm and lifted his shirtsleeve. Bruises the pattern and color of smashed raspberries—not fresh, but not months old, either.
     “What’s happened here?”
     Nandemonai,” he said in a low voice, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear. Realizing that I was a Nisei and might not understand much Japanese, he said it in English, too. “Nothing.”
     I got a cotton gown out of the cupboard and left it next to him on the examination table. “Can you get dressed in this?”
     “Doushite? I only have my head problems.”
     “The doctor will probably want to do a thorough checkup.”
     “No need,” he insisted.
     “Please, Watanabe-san,” I said as firmly as I could. I had found that attaching san to their names usually softened the most distraught of Issei patients.
     I left the examination room, closing the door behind me to give him some privacy.
     Dr. Isokane appeared from around the corner. He had been in Santa Anita Assembly Center and then Manzanar, like us, and then Topaz after that, serving other Japanese Americans in bleak wartime camps. He was older than my father and should have been thinking of retirement, but instead he had dedicated himself to those who had been exiled.
     “Isokane-sensei.” I handed him Mr. Watanabe’s medical chart and shared my concerns about the bruises on his arm.
     The doctor didn’t reveal any emotion. He was trained, after all, not to be shocked by practically anything. “Is he working?” he asked in Japanese.
     He was, as a driver. Not as a gardener or janitor—no taxing physical labor. I wondered if he was a good driver. He was living with his son in an apartment in Little Tokyo.
     Dr. Isokane pulled his stethoscope out of his white coat pocket and looped it around his neck, a sign that he was ready to see his patient. I excused myself to prepare for the vaccination of children at a hostel down the street.
     I was gathering needles in our storage room when Dr. Isokane appeared from the examination room. “His mind seems fine but I wanted him to get X-rays,” he told me in Japanese. “Some hearing loss, but that’s not unusual for his age.”
     “Did you see?” I asked.
     Dr. Isokane had. Apparently there were bruises all over his upper body.
     “Life has been hard,” he concluded.
     I searched his face. Was he saying that our Issei elders were all walking around with wounded bodies from the wartime experience and beyond? Or was he making an excuse for some kind of continual abuse?
     An orderly, a Nisei who had been in Jerome, Arkansas, helped me wheel Mr. Watanabe from the examination room into the X-ray room. He was dressed in a gown and clutched something so intensely that his knuckles were turning white. “What do you have there?” I asked him. I gently turned his fist to see a gold pocket watch, the second hand meticulously ticking around the dial. The old man snatched his hand back, protecting his treasure.
     As the orderly strapped him onto a gurney, I asked him, “Who brought you here, Mr. Watanabe? Perhaps he can hang on to your watch.”
     “My son, Shinji. I’m not sure if he’s still here.”
     “I would like to speak with him.”
     “Doushite?” Mr. Watanabe’s face revealed fear more than irritation at a lowly female nurse’s aide. “Job of docta, desho?”
     This wasn’t simply a case of an old man falling down the stairs, as was stated in the intake papers. I had seen my share of old-timers who had taken tumbles. Bruises, first red and inflamed, followed the pattern of their fall. Mr. Watanabe, on the other hand, resembled a human cheetah, with spots all over his upper body.
     I decided not to fight him over the watch. The orderly wheeled him off to get his X-rays.
Shinji Watanabe wasn’t sitting in the waiting room. The receptionist reported that he was in the hallway having a smoke.
     The son’s back was toward me, a halo of cigarette smoke around his head. The surge of tobacco won out over the constant odor of disinfectant that usually overwhelmed our corridors.
     “Shinji Watanabe?” I said softly, almost afraid to be in the presence of someone who might have caused Mr. Watanabe harm.
     The man turned. The lights were bright in the hallway, casting a yellowish tinge over his broad face. Even healthy visitors ended up looking sick when they entered the hospital building.
     I stood there frozen, hearing a rush of air escape from my lips. I knew this man. Mr. Watanabe’s son, Shinji, had been my husband’s best man in our Chicago wedding a year and a half earlier, in November 1944.
     Babe dropped his stub of a cigarette onto the linoleum floor.
     “Oh, Aki. Hello.”
     “I didn’t know that your real name was Shinji.”
     “Well, it’s my legal one. Hardly anyone knows my Japanese name.”
     “You’re back already.” I waited for him to fill in the blanks.
     That’s all Babe was going to give me? I wanted to ask him directly, Why are you out when my Art still hasn’t been discharged? But I opted to be more discreet. “Art’s due any day now.”
     “Yeah, I heard.”
     They were communicating. I felt a pang of jealousy. Why hadn’t Art told me Babe was back and in Los Angeles?
     “The doctor said that my old man is getting X-rays?”
     I tried to regain my composure and return to my professional duties as a health provider. Of course, that was the crucial matter at hand. The well-being of Mr. Watanabe.
     “They want to make sure that he doesn’t have a concussion.”
     “He’s pretty clumsy in his old age. Falls down a lot.” He lowered his eyes as if he was ashamed to lie to me.
     “You must be worried. Him working as a driver.”
     “He was a truck driver before the war. Even a midget-car racer back in Arroyo Grande.”
     I knew of at least one Nisei man, the son of a florist in Los Feliz, who had died in a stock car race before World War II. I didn’t know why these men were so attracted to speed, enough that it might take their lives.
     Babe checked his watch and I had the feeling that he was pressed for time.
     “They probably will want him to spend the night. Just for observation,” I explained.
     Babe released his tightened lip. I could feel the conflict inside of him. He was obviously relieved that his father seemed to be okay, but was that a touch of guilt, too?
     “I can call you to give you an update,” I said. Seeing Babe had elicited a flood of emotions. I wiped my perspiring hands on my uniform.
     “We’re in the San Mark Hotel. We don’t have a phone in our room, but you can leave a message with the front desk.”
     “Well, it was good to see you, Babe,” I said, trying to convince myself it was.
     “Yeah.” Babe couldn’t even reciprocate the lie. “I’ll see you again when Art comes back.”
Babe was the reason I don’t have many photos of my wedding day. My fiancé, Art, had returned to Chicago in the late fall of 1944 from Camp Shelby in Mississippi with Babe, who had become his best friend in boot camp. He didn’t resemble his father much aside from the healthy black hair that seemed hard to tame. He was tall for a Nisei, although not as tall as Art, with a beefy body and squinty eyes kind of like the famous slugger’s. Actually, people from his hometown in Arroyo Grande called him a Japanese Babe Ruth for his pitching and hitting skills, and his athletic prowess was known throughout the Central Coast. I had never heard of Babe Watanabe before. My older sister, Rose, and I were city girls, and there was really no reason for Babe to enter my consciousness when I was growing up in Los Angeles.
     Babe Watanabe’s eyes were narrow but his vision was as sharp as an eagle’s. Those eyes could register if a ball was coming at him curved like the letter C or straight and furious. He bought a camera in high school and when not playing ball immersed himself in snapping pictures: of the flat farmland of the valley, of his teammates, both in action and goofing around. He had to turn in his camera, as all of us did, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Our family weren’t shutterbugs, so we weren’t that inconvenienced, but I can imagine the loss had been especially painful for him.
     As soon as Babe arrived in Mississippi in October 1944, he bought a camera—apparently not as fancy as the one that he’d once had—in a store in Hattiesburg. There he was in an American army uniform, and he wasn’t going to let a store clerk tell him that he was too seditious to own a camera.
     Art had told me all this in letters, excited that his friend had volunteered to take photos of our wedding ceremony. It was simple, at a church on the South Side that Art’s aunt sometimes attended. My parents were the perfect hosts, dressed immaculately as they would have for special occasions in the old days. Only I knew of their private doubts. Pop maintained that our wedding had happened “all of a sudden,” when they had known about our engagement for some months. I sensed that they had always expected to be the parents of the bride for Rose’s nuptials and to skip over that to mine stirred up some unmentionable and buried sadness.
     I didn’t tell Art, but I wasn’t impressed with Babe from our first meeting. He never looked straight at my face when I spoke to him. He also seemed to be all thumbs. I couldn’t imagine him being a star baseball player because he seemed so awkward and clumsy. Art later said that he was nervous to be around a girl as pretty as me, but I figured he was just making excuses.
     About five minutes after the ceremony had ended, we were posing outside the church doorway when all visual evidence of my wedding was erased forever. I wasn’t sure exactly what happened, but Babe’s camera, complete with a newly purchased lamp flash, crashed onto the concrete steps, bouncing a few times for good measure. Babe ran after his camera, cradling the shattered remains as if it were a hurt kitten. He then announced that the film was ruined.
     I was in a state of disbelief. I could hear Mom releasing a few tsk-tsks as if this was all confirmation that our union was indeed cursed. Dropping my wedding bouquet, I fled to the ladies’ room inside, tears spoiling the makeup that my Chicago Nisei friends, Louise and Chiyo, had applied. I wished that Nancy Kowalski, my friend I’d met working at the Newberry Library, was there. She was a real photographer, but my parents hadn’t allowed me to invite her. No outsiders at the ceremony or reception, which meant no one who wasn’t Japanese.
     I dotted my lips with Red Majesty, which had been the favorite shade of my sister, Rose. “There,” I imagined Nancy saying to me. “That will give you good luck.”
     I knew that I was being silly. Most of the people I cared the most about were at the ceremony to share these memories with me. But still, I did want some evidence that I, Aki Ito, now Nakasone, had been chosen for marriage. I was no longer that girl declined entry at a private pool party, the anonymous wallflower at high school or city college. At Manzanar, a government photographer had snapped a photo of my sister, Rose, with the Owens Valley wind tossing her hair. I would always be grateful for that glamorous image of her, despite the circumstances. I wanted a counterimage of me being happy and entering a new phase of my life.
     After I came out of the powder room, Art was waiting, looking so handsome in his uniform, gold pins on his lapels and chevron stripes on the arms of his jacket. He handed me back my bouquet of white stephanotis, daisies, and yellow carnations. “Listen, we’ll take pictures of the rest of our wedding day with our minds, how’s that?”
     “What do you mean?”
     “Take a moment and snap, file it away in our brains. That way it will never go away.” Art took a few steps back. I felt foolish, but went along with it, gripping my bouquet with both hands. He closed his eyes, revealing his fine line of lashes, and then opened them. “See, I just took one. Your turn.”
     Art could be such a romantic at times.
     “Here.” Art directed me to a mirror by a coat rack. “C’mon, I’m not goofing around.”
     I stood beside him, bouquet in my right hand as I held on to the crook of his arm with my left. In the mirror’s reflection was a handsome Nisei couple. My mother and I had covered the bodice of a plain white dress with lace to make it look more bridal, while Louise had lent me her pillbox hat, which she had worn for her own wedding two weeks before. Art counted off, “Three, two, one,” and we closed our eyes in unison.
     “What if something happens to our brains and we forget this?” I asked him as we prepared to walk outside where our family and friends were waiting to throw grains of uncooked rice on us.
     “We are only twenty-one years old. It’s going to take some time before we get batty,” he said. “We’ll take some photos when I get back from overseas. Maybe you can even get a fancier dress.”
     “What’s wrong with this one?”
     “Nothing, nothing, darling. You should look exactly the way you do right now. We’ll do it all over.”
     But, of course, we never did.

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