Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 473 - James C. Clar

GOOD SOLDIERS - JAMES C. CLAR

“For real, Jake,” Detective Ray Kanahele said as they pulled up in front of the pavilion at Kuhio Beach Park on Kalakaua Avenue. “Why do we give a shit about anything Freddy Grace has to say? The guy’s a stone-cold killer. I make him for at least four or five murders in the past ten years or so... and that’s just here in the islands. With his contacts, he’s probably been working on the Mainland or maybe even overseas too for all we know.”

Jake Higa turned toward the imposing bulk of his partner as he threw the car into park. As always, the street was teeming with people. Through the passenger side window the ocean shimmered vibrant teal in the mid-morning light. The action out in the popular surf spots of ‘Queens’ and ‘Canoes’ was nonstop. Nearby, a large red and yellow catamaran fought its way through the light mid-morning chop. On board, twenty or thirty sunburned Malahini snapped pictures and laughed at stale jokes as the crew explained the procedure in the event of an ocean-going emergency. The fact that, less than a year ago, a young boy was killed on a similar sightseeing boat when the mast snapped and fell to the deck added a measure of urgency and seriousness to what was otherwise a perfunctory spiel.

Accustomed to his friend’s silence, Kanahele continued. “Unless the bastard’s going to confess to multiple crimes, I don’t even want to be near the sleazeball.”

“Easy, Ray,” Higa said, suppressing a smile as they left the car and walked toward the pavilion. “Freddy Grace is our best brah, remember?”

“Don’t remind me!”

The two men were made for cops before they had taken ten steps. The crowded picnic shelter emptied out in seconds as they approached. Two old men stood and moved away, leaving a game of chess unfinished. The pieces remained in position, poised for the next move whenever they were able to resume. One scruffy itinerant scurried off leaving a shopping cart containing his worldly possessions, including his prized ukulele, in his wake.

“Jesus, will you look at this place?” Kanahele muttered, pointing to the sleeping bags, bed rolls and makeshift tents strewn about everywhere. “When did being homeless become a lifestyle choice? There was a series recently in the Star Bulletin. You must have seen it. A lot of these folks get pensions, social security... you name it. They opt to live this way. One guy I read about divides his time between here and San Francisco. You tell me. If he’s homeless, where does he get the money for an airline ticket? I can’t even afford to take Maile to Vegas or even the Big Island for the weekend!”

“Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed or something this morning, Ray? I mean, this is ‘paradise’ we’re talking about here. Where’s your Aloha?”

“It’ll come back as soon as we get this bullshit over with.”

Higa and Kanahele sat down at one of the picnic tables that had been so recently abandoned. The concrete of its surface was pitted by the salt air and worn by the fretting of countless elbows. They watched the activity out on the water in silence for a few moments. With the practiced obliviousness of those who live somewhere truly crowded, a few Japanese tourists had nevertheless remained in the shelter at a nearby table, chatting and eating an early lunch. All of its problems notwithstanding, Hawaii – and Waikiki in particular – was still one of the most beautiful and vibrant places in the world.

“Howzit, detectives?” The two men were greeted by a handsome if rugged-looking man in his early to mid-fifties. He was powerfully built. His deep tan was set off by an expensive, white Tori Richard Aloha shirt. His hair was black with flecks of silver and he wore it long, tied back in a ponytail.

Neither Higa nor Kanahele responded. Nonplussed, the man sat down opposite the two policemen.

“So that’s how it’s gonna be? I thought we were friends.” The man smiled archly.

“Just tell us what you wanted to see us about, Freddy,” Kanahele said with genuine disinterest. “Then blow.”

“Well,” Freddy Grace began as he leaned his large forearms on the scarred tabletop in front of him, “I thought that maybe my two favorite maka’ikiu would like to know that I’m retiring.”

“And we should care about that...because?”

“Call it ‘professional courtesy.’ Listen, two years ago when old man Murakami got whacked, everyone was ready to pin the job on me...even though they knew I didn’t do it. You were the only two guys who wouldn’t go along. That took balls, plus professional pride. That’s something I can appreciate.”

“Yeah.” Kanahele spoke with more than a little resentment. “It was our finest hour, a real service to the public.”

With only a glance, Higa implored his partner to take it easy. After a second or two, the diminutive Japanese-American policeman spoke quietly.

“I’m still not following you here, Freddy. What’s your impending ‘retirement’ got to do with us? You looking to cut a deal, witness protection, something like that? You’d need to talk to people much higher up the food chain than Ray and me. That’s a fact.”

“Shit, Detective, there’s no need to insult me. No power on Earth could make me talk.” Grace looked genuinely offended.

“If I were to tell you how many transactions I’ve successfully, um, executed, you wouldn’t believe me. You know what they call me? ‘Mr. Automatic.’ I’ve never turned down a contract or botched a job. Over two decades in the business and I’ve never been caught. ‘Give it to Freddy,’ they used to say, ‘and it’s a done-deal’.”

Higa looked at Kanahele. The two men remained silent. The sound of waves could be heard caressing the white sand of the crowded beach twenty yards or so to their right. The sweet, ersatz coconut smell of suntan lotion was born on the breeze along with the iodine and saline tang of the ocean. The lilting rhythms of slack key guitar from way down toward the Waikiki Shell were just audible above the hypnotic sighing of the palm trees that surrounded the structure where they sat.

Grace unwrapped a stick of gum, popped it into his mouth, and began to chew. “I haven’t had a cigarette in six months,” he said by way of explanation.

“Thing is, some folks say I’ve lost a step, that I could be more ‘conversant’ with the latest technology and methods. The fuck do they know? I’m still the best in the business.” The big man paused and tossed his gum wrapper into a metal trash can painted green and emblazoned with the Hawaii state logo. Letters printed in white circled the faded image: Ua mau ke ea o kaiana I ka pono, ‘the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.’

“I had no problems with the Wops. The Russians were OK, too, maybe a little touchy. The crazy-ass Asian kids in charge of things today, though, they’re another story. They don’t trust me anymore. I’ve been around too long and know where all the bodies are buried, literally. Besides, they have all the answers. No one in the business today has my work ethic or integrity.
Plus, nobody appreciates what we used to call a ‘mechanic’ anymore. Any asshole with a handgun, some C-4 and a detonator thinks he’s a professional.”

“Son-of-a-bitch, Jake,” Ray Kanahele blurted as he made to stand up, “how much more of this do we have to listen to?”

Higa placed his hand lightly on his partner’s shoulder. The big Hawaiian policeman settled back onto the bench.

“Ok, Freddy,” Higa replied in his most mollifying tone. “Things are tough all over. Our hearts bleed for you. Again, though, where are we going with all this?”

“Here’s the thing. I said I was retiring. That’s not quite true. I have one last hit. My contact passed me the name a few days ago.” Freddy Grace fingered a slip of paper with his right hand. While they had been sitting there, a number of pedestrians had approached the pavilion looking for a break from the sun as they strolled down Kalakaua toward the Zoo or Kapiolani Park. Once they saw the brooding looks on the faces of Higa, Grace and Kanahele, however, they headed straight back for the street. Sometimes public places provided the most privacy.

“You crazy moke,” Kanahele interjected. Higa shot his partner another cautionary glance. “You can't be serious. You’re telling us about this ahead of time. Is this some kind of game? You’re challenging us to stop you?”

Grace laughed and looked the two detectives squarely in the eyes. “Hell, you couldn’t even if you tried. You know that. You’d have to arrest me now, but on what charges? Conspiracy would never stick.”

Grace paused to let his words reach critical mass. Power and control were the radioactive isotopes that fueled the nuclear reaction that drove his personality.

“Nah, this is no game. I don’t give a rat’s ass whether it means anything to you or not, but I respect you two. I really do. You’re good soldiers. Well, I’m a good soldier, too...always have been. When this is finished I want everyone to remember that. I want them to know that this last one was all mine. No way I want some young pissant taking credit for it ’cause I guarantee it’ll be memorable...one for the ages, even.”

“So that’s it, Freddy? Kanahele asked. “You tell us you’re going to commit the ‘crime of the century’ and we just let you walk away?”

“Yep,” Grace replied as he stood and moved away from the picnic table. “I’m a regular obake and I’m gonna disappear. But remember what I told you. In the end, all we got is honor.” Before the big man turned and began walking away, he placed the paper in his hand on the table in front of Jake Higa. The detective reached out and pulled it toward himself. When he looked up, Grace had vanished.

“Is it me, Jake,” Ray Kanahele turned toward his partner, “or is that the strangest goddamn conversation you've ever been involved in?”

Higa toyed with the paper in his hand before speaking.

“I'm not so sure. There’s something else going on here. We just haven't figured it out yet. Freddy Grace is a mainline sociopath, but he’s got a code and, you have to admit, he’s always stuck to it.”

The clang-clang-clang of the bell on the Waikiki trolley passing on the street beat out its Doppler rhythm in counterpoint to Higa’s voice.

As the two men stood to leave, Higa smoothed out the crumbled paper he was holding with the palm of his hand. It bore a familiar name written in red ink.

“Our pal Freddy’s ‘more an antique Roman than a Dane’.”

“You and your damned quotations, Jake,” Kanahele quipped as he took the proffered scrap from his friend. “What is it this time, Nietzsche or more Buddhist crap?”

“No. Shakespeare.” Higa pointed toward the note that was still engulfed in the Hawaiian’s massive fist like a tiny white pearl clasped in the sun-darkened claw of a mythic Polynesian monster.

“I’ll be damned,” Kanahele swore incredulously as he read. “Let’s pray the ‘hit’ is as spectacular as Freddy promised.”

The two detectives returned to their car and cranked up the AC. As they pulled out and headed toward Kapahulu, not even the outrageous midday traffic in the heart of Waikiki could prevent wry smiles from playing across their normally impassive features.

*

Once the maka’i and their snitch left the shelter, an elderly indigent man returned to claim his laden shopping cart. Always on the lookout for anything he could use, he spotted a piece of note paper on the ground next to the picnic table he had vacated earlier. He bent with difficulty and picked it up with an arthritic hand. There was a predatory gleam in his eye. He hoped it wasn’t something he’d have to worry about turning in over at the police substation near Kaiulani. There was even an ethic to scavenging, after all. The paper bore only a name, ‘Freddy Grace.’ It meant nothing to him and, so, he tossed it aside. Without thinking he grabbed his ukulele and adjusted the tuning. For no particular reason that he could fathom, he began strumming a traditional Hawaiian lament.

BIO: Short stories by James C. Clar have been published in print as well as on the Internet. Of late, his work has found a home in the Taj Mahal Review, Apollo’s Lyre, Flashshot, Powder Burn Flash, Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers, Golden Visions Magazine, Word Catalyst Magazine, The New Flesh Magazine and The Magazine of Crime & Suspense. He considers it particularly important to follow the sage advice of former Olympic champion and Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku: “Never turn your back on a wave.”

2 comments:

Matt Hilton said...

As rich and vibrant as ever in the writing, I really can picture paradise in Jim's tales. I've been following Higa and Kanahele for some time now and this is another beautifully told story, and a brillinat addition to the series.

Des Nnochiri said...

Elegant, eloquent, and highly atmospheric. Great job.