Jan 18 2013 12:00pm
An excerpt of Aloha, Lady Blue by Charley Memminger, featuring former Honolulu crime reporter Stryker McBride (available January 22, 2013).
When Stryker McBride receives an unexpected SOS call from a sultry beauty queen, he agrees to look into the suspicious death of the woman’s grandfather. As Stryker investigates, he encounters a cast of characters as diverse as Hawaii itself, and soon discovers a deadly secret buried deep in the heart of Hawaii that has consequences much larger than one old man’s death.
November 12, 2001, 5:14 a.m. Waikiki Beach. Chester McArthur, eighty-three, is walking along the water’s edge off the Moana Hotel, moving the search coil of his Cobra Beach Magnet metal detector evenly back and forth through the gentle lapping waves. He’s hoping to hear the magical ping through his headset indicating the presence of a thumping big gold ring or bracelet that some hapless tourist lost playing in the surf the previous afternoon. He is untroubled by his role as one of society’s scavengers, comfortable with the concept that someone else’s mischance is his good fortune. If people are too fucking stupid to take off their jewelry before jumping into the ocean, that’s their own damn fault.
The sun is just rising above the horizon on the windward side of Oahu, but the Koolau Mountain Range blocks the lowest rays, casting a shadow over Honolulu and the South Shore. In the hazy half-light Diamond Head crater looms like a crouching lion looking out to sea. The beach is lit up by spotlights on the Moana’s seawall and pool deck, but the ocean is dark, and the muffled sound of waves can be heard in the distance.
Staring down at the metal detector, Chester suddenly notices some movement to his left in the water. At first he thinks it must be a surfer on dawn patrol getting ready to paddle out, but then the form materializes into the shape of a man inexplicably walking from the ocean with something heavy in his arms. Chester pulls off his headset and gapes at the approaching specter.
The man walks unsteadily toward the beach. Once out of the water, he falls to his knees and gently lays the limp body of a woman on the sand. He looks up with what Chester would later describe as a tired, mournful expression and says, “This is police officer Jeannie Kai. Jake Stane killed her.”
The man then collapses unconscious onto the sand.
It was one of those typically blustery mornings in late August when rain squalls march across Kaneohe Bay from the eastern ocean, one after the other like soggy invading battalions. I was in the day cabin of the Travis McGee, my fifty-foot-long Vagabond house boat, nursing along my first meal of the day, which I had come to refer to as Honey Bunches of Budweiser because it sounded healthier than “swigging beer for breakfast.” The gods were restless, pacing outside the screen door on the covered aft deck, waiting to be fed. The two German shepherds, Kane and Lono, had been on duty all night, patrolling the grounds of the Bayview Yacht Club, a small suburban club on the windward side of Oahu where I kept my boat. As the nominal night watchman, I was the only club member allowed to live on his boat. Keeping an eye on two piers berthing about seventy-five boats, a swimming pool, two tennis courts, and the club’s long house and bar wasn’t as difficult as guarding Fort Knox or even Taco Bell, especially with the gods doing most of the heavy lifting.
I took the gods two large metal bowls with dry dog food mixed with leftover spaghetti and meat sauce from the night before, which they tucked into with the restraint of hyenas bringing down a Serengeti wildebeest. They were still wet from their last patrol, so I couldn’t let them inside. I’m not the greatest house keeper in the world, but you don’t spend a couple of hundred thousand bucks on a houseboat just to have it smell of Eau de Damp Dogs.
I had already taken my morning exercise, diving off the end of A Pier and swimming the half mile along the edge of the channel to the last reef marker and then back. I was still in pretty good shape for a gentleman of a certain age. Nothing like when I was a nationally ranked butterfly specialist, but I wasn’t ready for a walker and ear trumpet just yet.
I finished my breakfast with a last swig and walked back inside. The house boat came with twin Merc 230-horsepower engines, two seventy-five-gallon fuel tanks, two bedrooms with baths, two wet bars, galley, covered lanais fore and aft, and a day cabin big enough to stage the finale of Oklahoma! The day cabin was ringed by picture windows that let in light no matter what time of day when the blinds were open. It was bordered on one side with a leather sofa facing the big Sony. A wet bar was in the corner, and elsewhere in the room were coffee tables, another couch, and a couple of chairs for hypothetical guests. The galley was separated from the main room by a counter and contained all the usual appliances you’d find in a regular kitchen except for a garbage disposal. There was no sewer hookup.
Upstairs, or up the ladder, as the grumpier old salts at the club liked to remind me, was a second deck with a state-of-the-art flying bridge, the other wet bar, a hot tub, a couple of kayaks, surfboards, and a Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14 Jet Ski. A guy has got to have his toys.
I’m told there are also a couple of anchors somewhere on the boat, but I hadn’t had to use them because I had yet to put the Travis McGee in the water. The thing about a smallish yacht club is that there are only so many wet slips, especially slips that can handle a fifty-foot-long house boat, and Bayview Yacht Club boat owners tend to hang on to their slips until they die.
You’d think that since the average age of a club member seemed to be about 114, boat slips would become available rather frequently. But it’s the members of the tennis fleet, the ones who get daily exercise and restrict their alcohol intake, who die off regularly. The geezers who own boats, who drink all day in the Long house Bar reliving the glorious days of sail when Admiral Nelson ruled the sea, these guys apparently live forever. It must be all those vitamins in the rum.
So the Travis McGee had been sitting on blocks at the water’s edge for the past year and a half, sort of like my life.
I looked at the cluttered desk near the hallway that passed as my office. The red light on the telephone blinked on and off indicating there was a voice message, one I had already listened to three times. It was from Amber Kalanianaole Kam, a girl I had had a huge crush on in high school but hadn’t laid eyes on for probably twenty years. I pushed the button to hear the message a fourth time. Her voice sounded fragile, like a piece of fine porcelain about to shatter.
“Stryker,” she said. “You might not remember me, but we went to Punahou together. My grandfather Wai Lo Fat died in a terrible accident a week ago. Stryker, I think I need your help.”
An hour after sunrise, steady trade winds blew the rain squalls over the Koolau Mountain Range toward Honolulu and eventually out into the southern sea. The late-summer sun quickly dried everything in sight: boats, piers, cars, tennis courts, and the gods themselves. Kane and Lono, sated from their Italian breakfast, had plopped down under the awning on the stern lanai and gone to sleep. I headed across the lawn toward the long house to see if I could find a Honolulu Advertiser with news of Wai Lo Fat’s death. Before I called Amber back, I wanted to know what I was dealing with. Old reporter’s instincts die hard.
Passing the swimming pool, I glanced out of habit at the fifty-five-foot-tall sailboat mast set in a concrete base that served as the club’s flagpole. The Stars and Stripes and the Hawaii state flag were at the top of the mast, but the smaller ocean blue club flag was flying halfway down. One of our members apparently had gone to that big yacht club in the sky.
At the club office, I saw Commodore Fleetwood Richardson on the other side of the sliding glass counter windows shuffling some papers. I slid the glass partition open, feeling a rush of cool air from the air-conditioned room.
“Morning, Commodore,” I said.
He looked up from the papers.
“Stryker, I swear you are positively turning into a ghoul,” he said. “We just lowered that burgee an hour ago, and you are already running in here to find out who died. It was Old Lady Baldwin. She had a heart attack, God bless her. And she didn’t have a damn wet slip.”
“I just wanted to say good morning,” I said, smiling.
“A ghoul!” he growled, the way only a seventy-two-year-old former marine jet pilot who had done two tours in Vietnam could growl. “Why’d you get such a damn big boat in the first place? My God, it’s like the Queen Mary. You’re lucky we let you live on the damn thing.”
“We haven’t had a major theft since I volunteered to keep an eye on the place at night,” I countered.
“That’s because of those two monsters patrolling the grounds,” he said. “Hell, if we kept those dogs and got rid of you and the USS Enterprise out there, we’d have room for another tennis court.”
I knew he was just firing the afterburners for the hell of it. He owned a thirty-five-foot-long power boat and had no love for the tennis fleet. If he could get rid of one of the two existing tennis courts to create more dry slips for boats on trailers, he would do it. For a small club, it was amazingly segregated. The fishing fleet boat owners didn’t socialize with the plea sure boat owners. The sailboat owners hated all the power boaters. And all the boat owners turned their noses up at the non-boat-owning tennis players. The only place where peace and harmony seemed to reign was the drinking fleet, which met every afternoon at four at the large round table in the Long house Bar and of which I was a member in good standing.
After his verbal broadside, the commodore went back to his work. So I closed the glass partition and wandered over to a corner of the open Long house where members left paperbacks, magazines, and newspapers to share. I flipped through a few Honolulu Advertisers and some copies of the Honolulu Journal, the newspaper I had worked for before becoming nominal night watchman for the yacht club. Wai Lo Fat was a fairly prominent businessman and an elder in the Chinese community, so there were large feature obituaries in both papers. His decades of business success and public service were well documented, but there weren’t many details about his death, other than he had apparently drowned in a taro field. As a former investigative reporter, my surprise meter is set pretty high. So I wasn’t surprised that an old man drowned in a taro field.
I wasn’t even surprised to learn that the taro field was smack in the middle of Kahala, a posh residential colony east of the less photogenic side of Diamond Head and one of the most expensive chunks of real estate on the planet. Strange things happen all the time, even to elderly Chinese guys with weird names and the net financial worth of a small country.
That isn’t to say I can’t be surprised. In the summer of 1998, about a year after I started working for the Honolulu Journal, a local character known as the Rev. Franky Five Fins had somehow contrived to commit suicide by locking himself in a fifty-five-gallon drum, shooting himself fourteen times from outside the drum, and then tossing the drum off of a cliff near the Makapuu Point light house. Now that was fucking surprising.
In a way, I considered the Rev. Franky Five Fins a friend. He was a former professional surfer, an ordained minister, and an underworld hit man. He must have been about fifty years old, part Hawaiian, part Portuguese, and part who-knows-what-else; what island locals called a poi dog. I used to run into him at Bowls, a surf spot off Ala Moana Park on Oahu’s South Shore, between Honolulu and Waikiki.He was called Franky Five Fins because his nine-foot-ten Turbo Thruster surfboard had five fins instead of the standard three, the leading edge of each fi led as sharp as a chef’s knife. On the board’s deck was airbrushed Guido Reni’s Archangel Michael Defeating Satan, the seventeenth-century painting showing the Archangel Michael with his foot upon the head of Satan and sword poised for a fatal thrust. The expression on the face of the Archangel Michael was the same look the Rev. Franky Five Fins assumed when any other surfer was stupid enough to drop in on a wave Franky figured belonged to him. The penalty for a first offense was a stern lecture on good and evil and God’s will. Should the offender prove unrepentant and try to steal a wave from Franky a second time, he would feel the wrath of the Archangel Michael when the good reverend launched the holy board into his back or legs. I had seen it happen more than once and can report that being struck by five sharpened fins in the back can really ebb a surfer’s zest for wave riding.
For some reason, Franky liked me. Maybe because at one time I had been a nationally ranked competitive swimmer, like his idol Duke Kahanamoku. Or maybe because I never tried to steal any of his waves. We always sat together, outside the pack, waiting for the biggest swells. I was usually the only haole out at Bowls but never got hassled by the locals. Yes, I was a white guy, but I was the white guy sitting with Franky Five Fins.
One day, sitting in the water waiting for waves, I asked Franky Five Fins how, as a man of the cloth, he could justify firing a surfboard armed with hellishly sharpened skegs into the backs of clueless high school kids, practically decapitating them and causing them to wipe out onto the shallow reef.
“Stryker,” he said, “Our Lord Jesus Christ didn’t like pussies. Sometimes you just gotta knock the Word of God into these little cocksuckers.”
He also saw no conflict between his religious calling and his professional career as a hired killer.
“You see, Stryker,” he said, pointing to the Archangel Michael on his board, “that buggah right there is whacking Satan, but in real life Satan is people like that degenerate Mongoose Pacheco or Samoan Johnny. Sometimes it’s God’s will that certain cocksuckers get whacked.”
At the time, I was an investigative reporter focusing on white collar crime—crime in the suites, not the streets—but I knew about the death of Samoan Johnny. He was a notorious leader of an organized crime group that controlled cockfights, drugs, and protection along the West Shore of Oahu. His partially eaten body had been found a few weeks earlier at a Waianae pig farm said to be favored by certain criminal enterprises wishing to make trouble disappear. But Mongoose Pacheco was still alive.
“I just saw Mongoose in Chinatown the other day,” I said to Franky. “He’s not dead.”
“Not yet,” Franky Five Fins said, giving me the official underworld hit man death stare.
Then he smiled.
“I’m just fucking with you, Stryker,” he said. “Mongoose is okay.”
A beautiful six-foot swell moved toward us, explosions of sunlight bouncing off of its blue face.
“Take it, Stryker,” Franky said.
“You sure?” I asked, turning my board tentatively toward shore.
“All yours, haole boy.” He laughed. I paddled for the wave, and as it took me I heard Franky Five Fins yell, “Go in peace, brother Stryker.”
The next day the body of Mongoose Pacheco, a lowlife gambler, meth mouth, and sometimes bagman for Chinatown crime interests, was found slumped at the foot of a large iron cross in Our Lady of Redemption Roman Catholic cemetery on King Street with a trinity of .22 caliber bullet holes in the back of his head. And a week after that, some fishermen pulled a fifty-five-gallon drum with more bullet holes than Bonnie and Clyde’s Ford sedan onto their boat off of Makapuu Point. Franky Five Fins had gone to meet his maker.
So while the unusual death of Wai Lo Fat in the taro patch didn’t surprise me, the phone call from Amber Kalanianaole Kam did. We had attended high school together at Punahou, the most exclusive private school in Hawaii. But Amber was way out of my league. While she perched on the higher branches with the school’s elite, kids from some of the richest and most politically powerful families in the state, I was in the “Downward Bound Program,” a struggling C-student from the wrong side of the island on a swimming scholarship. I held the state record for the 50-meter and 100-meter butterfly, but Amber was senior class president, honor roll, and Blue Lotus Blossom Queen. She was an absolute knockout, a gorgeous Chinese- Hawaiian with long black hair and green almond eyes. Our relationship basically was that I ached for her with the intensity that only a seventeen-year-old boy with raging hormones could and she ignored me from afar. Close up, too. So why would she be calling me twenty-two years later in connection with the death of her grandfather?
After going through the newspapers I walked back to the Travis McGee and finally called the number Amber had left. As the phone rang, I realized I actually was nervous about calling her. Maybe you never grow out of that rigid psychological caste system that exists in high school. On the fourth ring, she answered. This time her voice wasn’t soft and fragile, it was all business.
“You’ve reached the Kam residence. Leave a message.”
I did. I take direction well.
“Amber, it’s Stryker McBride returning your call,” I said. “Sorry to hear about your grandfather. I’d be happy to help you out however I can. Call me and let’s talk about it. Aloha.”
I was pretty happy with my message: professional, yet tinged with concern. And I didn’t sound overly excited that she had bothered to honor me with a phone call. The “aloha” at the end was kind of cliché, but better than “Tag, you’re it.”
I pulled a beer from the refrigerator and climbed the stairs-slash-ladder to the top deck with the telephone handset. The Jet Ski was sitting near the port rail, covered in a custom-designed elastic waterproof cover. Last thing you want is your Jet Ski getting wet. I couldn’t remember the last time I took it out. The six-person hot tub also was covered. It hadn’t been used for a while, either. I guess I was being optimistic getting a six- person hot tub. I’d never had more than four in it, myself and three friendly premed students who had come to Hawaii from Oregon on a sailboat skippered by one of the girls’ father. It was a hell of a night. How long ago had it been? A year?
I stood at the flying bridge, turning the stainless steel steering wheel back and forth. An elderly club member known as Football Mike because he had played in the NFL as a linebacker a million years ago walked by on his way to his boat.
“Hi, Captain!” he shouted. “How’s the bay today? Little rough? Hahahahahaha!” The Travis McGee being on blocks was a source of constant amusement for passersby.
“Lono! Kane!” I shouted down to the two gods, who now were loafing on the lawn. “Kill!”
They lumbered over to Football Mike and began licking him to death. He rubbed their heads and patted their sides as their tails whipped back and forth. Then they followed him along A Pier toward his boat, knowing he was a soft touch for a couple of potato chips or a piece of beef jerky. Traitors.
Just then the phone rang and I almost jumped out of the seat. Jesus. I took a breath and let it ring a few more times. Then I answered.
“Stryker!” Amber said, sounding genuinely enthused. “It’s been so long! How are you?”
“I’m great, Amber!” I said, with more excitement than intended. Then I shifted into a more serious tone. “I was sorry to hear about your grandfather,” I said.
“Yeah, it was really horrible,” she said. “But the police aren’t telling me anything about what happened. I remembered reading about you a while back. You’re like this famous reporter guy now. I thought maybe you could help me, as a former classmate and everything.”
“I haven’t been a reporter for a while, Amber,” I said. “I can probably find a reporter for you to talk to.”
“No,” she said quickly. “I mean, look, can you just come to the house?”
“Sure,” I said. “When?
I almost jumped at that. Then I thought, Hey, man, have a little pride. Act like you have a life.
“How about tomorrow morning? I’m in the middle of something this afternoon.”
“That would be great,” she said.
She gave me directions to her house, which I didn’t need. I had already looked it up in a street map book I keep on my desk. I assumed we’d engage in a bit of pointless chitchat, sharing stories of the great times we didn’t have together in high school, but she said someone was ringing her doorbell and she had to go. For some reason, I suspected the doorbell was just as hypothetical as the something I had to do that afternoon. I took a sip of beer and decided to look at my Jet Ski some more.
Copyright © 2013 by Charley Memminger
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Charley Memminger is an award-winning humor columnist, screenwriter, and author who is based in Hawaii. A former crime and investigative reporter, Memminger's work has appeared nationally in magazines and newspapers. He was twice named the top humor columnist in the country by the National Society for Newspaper Columnists. He lives in the sleepy windward Oahu bay town of Kaneohe with his wife, cat, love birds, geckos, and other indigenous island wildlife.