ANCIENT CHINESE SECRET - JAMES C. CLAR
“So, Mr. Li,” HPD Detective Jake Higa asked the immaculately dressed restaurant owner. “You don’t deny that the missing men worked here for you?”
Cars turned off Kaimuki onto Kapahulu Avenue. Houses and high-rises competed for space on the lush, towering hillside in the distance to the north toward St. Louis Heights and the campus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Across the street, a small group of locals played basketball at Crane Park. Their efforts were seen rather than heard through the thick glass of the restaurant’s tinted windows. The game seemed like some sort of liquid pantomime in the mid-morning sun.
“Deny it, Detective? Why would I deny it? In fact, I’m quite proud.” Li spoke perfect English, acquired first at a British school in Hong Kong and, later, honed by years of dealing with a fickle public in San Francisco and, finally, Honolulu. “I’ve come up with a remarkably efficient solution to one of the island’s most vexing problems.”
“Yeah,” Higa’s partner, Ray Kanahele observed sardonically, “it’s obvious you’re a real philanthropist.”
Higa raised his eyebrows in a cautionary way and glanced meaningfully at the lumbering Hawaiian. Kanahele was nobody’s fool, and he was a good man in a tight spot. At times, however, he had trouble restraining his tongue. With Halloween only a few days away, the big man was particularly on edge. Holidays always had that effect on him.
As far as Kanahele was concerned, the Waikiki area was madhouse enough what with the tourists, the eccentric residents who had washed ashore from God knew where and for God knew what reason and the commercial juggernaut that roared basically twenty-four hours a day. Mix in a holiday like Halloween and reality soon became even more twisted. Waikiki could overload anyone’s circuits under normal circumstances. Now there were whack-jobs running around in costumes and all the stores in the area were tricked out with ghosts, ghouls, goblins, witches and jack-o’-lanterns in every goddamn window. All in all, Kanahele would argue if given the opportunity, it made a tough job even tougher.
“You could say that,” Li continued unperturbed. “In any case, once word gets out – and I’m certain it will – others will adopt my strategy, here as well as on the Mainland. The idea’s guaranteed to take off in less developed countries as well; in places where scruples often take a back seat to economic necessity.”
Higa spoke before Kanahele could interrupt.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Right,” Kanahele chimed in undeterred, “enlighten us about your ‘ancient Chinese secret’.”
Li turned and barked out instructions in what Higa assumed was Taiwanese to a harried employee shucking pea-pods at a table in the far corner of the dining room.
“The homeless have proliferated here in Oahu in alarming numbers over the last decade. Of all people, you and Detective Kanahele must realize that vagrancy has become a life-style choice of late. There was one man whose, um, acquaintance I made who divided his time between Hawaii and Southern California! Nothing the City or County has tried to do has worked.”
Despite himself, Ray Kanahele almost found himself agreeing with Li’s assessment. The number of “Hoovervilles” that had sprung up on the island was a genuine embarrassment, not to mention the subject of much consternation on the part of officials concerned with the Aloha State’s image as a tropical paradise and primetime vacation destination. The sixteen mile stretch on the leeward coast between Manakuli and Keauu, for example, had become little more than a sprawling shantytown. And, of course, there were ongoing issues with vagrants camped out in Kapiolani Park and Kuhio Beach in the heart of Waikiki. But now three homeless men had gone missing under somewhat mysterious circumstances; circumstances that seemed to be connected with their “employment” by Li in his fashionable new restaurant.
Higa, for his part, looked into Li’s eyes. As a Japanese-American proud of his Asian background, he had hoped to see something in the businessman with which he might be able to connect. What he saw, however, disappointed and disturbed him. Li’s eyes were lifeless, calculating. If Higa saw anything there, it was avarice and an utter lack of humanity.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Li, I’m still a bit confused,” the wiry policeman stated. “You admit that you offered the three missing men jobs. We have a statement from another of your employees to the effect that he transported them, on separate occasions, here to the restaurant in one of your vehicles. Now, though, you’re referring to some ‘solution’ you’ve come up with for the island’s homeless problem. I’m not sure I see the connection.”
From where he stood just off to the side of the owner, Ray Kanahele looked around at the ornate furnishings in the dining room. Right in the middle was a full-sized koi pond complete with a colored lights and a waterfall. Each of the tables in the establishment was topped with a “harvest” centerpiece featuring a mini-pumpkin. He leaned in close and lightly squeezed the well-dressed man’s shoulder.
“See,” Kanahele spoke quietly, “what my partner means is, we’d like to know what ‘jobs’ these guys were supposed to be doing for you and, you know, where we might be able to locate them. All three of ‘em were pretty well known in the area; no one’s spotted them in the last two weeks or so.”
“Detective Kanahele, please,” Li grimaced under the pressure of the beefy detective’s grip. Kanahele released the man’s shoulder and backed up. “Times are hard, detectives. The pressures of running a successful business – let alone a restaurant – in this economy are enormous. We did quite well when we first opened. You might recall that I was profiled in Honolulu Magazine. But, of late, the pace has slowed somewhat. Prices, however, continue to rise, especially for meat and fish. Raising my own prices is out of the question. That’s the worst thing you can do when trade starts to fall off. Plus, the holidays are upon us. It should be our busiest season. I studied the problem and devised an elegant and cost-effective answer.”
Higa looked up from his battered, black Moleskine notebook. Almost at once, he understood. Looking at his partner, it was clear that the big man was still in the dark.
Li’s eyes met Higa’s. The owner then turned toward Kanahele. He spoke to the Hawaiian detective as though to an uncomprehending employee.
“Surely, detective, I don’t have to remind you of the practices of your ancestors!”
Higa closed his notebook and stood up.
“I think we have everything we need here, for now, Mr. Li. I’m going to have one of our patrolmen escort you out to his car. Be aware, please, that anything more you say may be used against you. If I were you, I’d get in touch with an attorney.”
“You know, Jake,” Kanahele spoke two hours later as he looked quizzically at his untouched teriyaki steak plate lunch. The two men sat at an outside table on the Kanaina Avenue side of the Rainbow Drive-In a few blocks down Kapahulu from Li’s restaurant. The venerable take-out place once frequented by a young Barack Obama was jammed with the usual assortment of tourists, construction workers, delivery drivers and surfers.
“Bastard’s got balls mentioning the ancient Polynesians like that. They did what they did in special ceremonies and as a way to capture the strength of their enemies. They weren’t trying to save a buck by luring in unsuspecting victims and serving them up in their friggin’ Kung Pau Chicken or Mu Shu Pork!”
“Aren’t you going to eat that?” Higa asked pointing to the quickly congealing mass of meat and rice on Kanahele’s plate.
The big detective stood up from the table and tossed his meal into a nearby trash can.
“I’ve lost my appetite. Besides, we might as well go and get started on all the paperwork. I need to get home at a decent hour tonight. Maile accepted an invitation to a Halloween party from one of her coworkers. We’re supposed to dress up in costumes, for Christ’s sake.”
“What are you going as?” Higa asked, still seated.
“Yeah, well,” Kanahele hesitated. “I was going as a Fijian warrior. Now I think I’m gonna’ come up with a different idea.”
Higa stood. A wry smile played across his usually impassive face despite the fact that he still had to acquire a few items to complete the costume requested by Toshio, his girlfriend’s gifted but troubled son. The eleven-year-old was planning on trick-or-treating this year in an authentic Yomiuri Giants’ uniform.
“Ray, didn’t you and Maile eat at Li’s place just last week?”
“Shit,” Kanahele replied looking a little pale, “I think I’m gonna’ become a goddamn vegan, too!”
BIO: James C. Clar has published numerous stories in print as well as on the Internet. His work has appeared in venues as diverse as 365 Tomorrows, Apollo’s Lyre, Flashshot, The Taj Mahal Review, The New Flesh Magazine, Weirdyear, Shine: A Journal of Flash, Long Story Short and Everyday Fiction. Earlier stories featuring Honolulu detectives Higa and Kanahele may be found right here on A Twist Of Noir, as well as on Thrillers, Killers ’N’ Chillers and Powder Burn Flash.