Saving Paradise – Excerpt
COLD AND BEAUTIFUL
IT WAS ANOTHER MAGNIFICENT DAWN on Oahu, the sea soft and rumpled and the sun blazing up from the horizon, an offshore breeze scattering plumeria fragrance across the frothy waves. Flying fish darting over the crests, dolphins chasing them, a mother whale and calf spouting as they rolled northwards. A morning when you already know the waves will be good and it will be a day to remember.
I waded out with my surfboard looking for the best entry and she bumped my knee. A woman long and slim in near-transparent red underwear, face down in the surf. Her features sharp and beautiful, her short chestnut hair plastered to her cold skull.
I dropped my board and held her in my arms, stunned by her beauty and death. If I could keep holding her maybe she wouldn’t really be dead. I was already caught by her high cheekbones and thin purposeful lips, the subtle arch of her brow, her long slender neck in my hands. And so overwhelmed I would have died to protect her.
When I carried her ashore her long legs dragged in the surf as if the ocean didn’t want to let her go, this sylphlike mermaid beauty. Sorrow overwhelmed me – how could I get her back, this lovely person dead in my arms?
Already cars were racing up and down Ala Moana Boulevard. When you’re holding a corpse how bizarre seems the human race – where were all these people hurrying to in this horrible moment with this lovely young woman dead?
I did the usual. Being known to the Honolulu cops I had to call them. I’d done time and didn’t want to do more. Don’t believe for a second what anyone tells you – being Inside is a huge disincentive. Jail tattoos not just your skin; it nails your soul. No matter what you do, no matter what you want, you don’t want to go back there. Not ever.
So Benny Olivera shows up with his flashers flashing. If you want a sorry cop Benny will fill your bill. Damn cruiser the size of a humpback whale with lights going on and off all over the place, could’ve been a nuclear reaction – by the way, why would anyone want a family that’s nuclear? Life’s dangerous enough.
So I explain Benny what happened. He’s hapa pilipino – half Filipino – and doesn’t completely trust us hapa haoles, part white and part Hawaiian. To a kanaka maoli, a native Hawaiian, or to someone whose ancestors were indentured here like the Japanese or in Benny’s case Filipinos, there’s still mistrust. Didn’t the haoles steal the whole archipelago for a handful of beads? Didn’t they bring diseases that cut the Hawaiian population by ninety percent? And then shipped hundreds of the survivors to leprosy colonies on Molokai? While descendants of the original missionaries took over most of the land and became huge corporations that turned the Hawaiians, Filipinos, Japanese and others into serfs? These corporations that now own most of Hawaii, its mainline media, banks and politicians?
I’m holding this lissome young woman cold as a fish in my arms and Benny says lie her down on the hard sidewalk and the ambulance comes – more flashing lights – and she’s gone under a yellow tarp and I never saw her again.
Couldn’t surf. Went home and brewed a triple espresso and my heart was down in my feet. Sat on the lanai and tried to figure out life and death and what had happened to this beautiful woman. Mojo the dachshund huffed up on the chair beside me, annoyed I hadn’t taken him surfing. Puma the cat curled on my lap but I didn’t scratch her so she went and sat in the sun.
I’d seen plenty of death but this one got to me. She’d been young, pretty and athletic. Somehow the strong classic lines of her face denoted brains, determination and hard work. How did she end up drowned in Kewalo Basin?
Benny’s bosses at the cop shop would no doubt soon provide the answer.
House of Sharks
AS MENTIONED, I’ve seen lots of dead people. A tour or two in Afghanistan will do that for you. I sat there with my feet up on the bamboo table and tried to forget all this. Mojo kept whining at the door wanting to hit the beach but I didn’t. Once the sun moved past her spot Puma jumped back in my lap and began kneading her claws into my stomach.
By afternoon the surf was looking good, and when you’re under that thunderous curl you don’t even think about Afghanistan. Or about Sylvia Gordon, age 27, KPOI reported, a journalist for The Honolulu Post, dead in the surf this morning near Ala Moana Beach.
But I had a raunchy feeling in my stomach like when you eat bad sushi so I quit surfing and went down to the cop shop on South Beretania to see Benny and his friends. Benny was out cruising in his nuclear Chrysler but Leon Oversdorf (I swear that’s his name), Second Lieutenant Homicide, wanted to see me.
“Look, Lieutenant,” I said, “I been cool. I don’t drink or smoke weed or indulge in premarital sex or habituate shady premises –”
“So how the fuck you find her?” Leon says by way of opening.
I explained him. How it happened. All the time he’s looking at me under these gargantuan eyebrows and I can tell no matter what I say he won’t believe me. Just because I been Inside. I could tell him Calvin Coolidge is President and even then he wouldn’t believe me.
“So she drowned,” I said after a while, looking to leave.
Leon watched me with his tiny sad eyes. Him that helped put me Inside. “No,” he said.
And what he said next changed my life. “She was drowned.”
“I didn’t do it,” I said right away.
Leon leaned forward, meaty palms on his desk. “Pono,” he chuckled, “you think we don’t know that?”
“Know what?” I said, covering my bases.
“She was dead six hours before of when you found her.”
The thought pained me horribly. This lovely person floating in the cold uncaring sea. When I could’ve held her, kept her warm.
“She was dead,” Leon said matter of factly, “from being held underwater till her lungs filled up with good old H20.”
“How do you know she was held?” I risked. “Even if she just normally drowned there’d be water in her lungs –”
Leon scanned me the way the guy with the broadaxe smiles down at you when you lay your head on the block. “This water in her lungs ain’t ocean, it’s fresh.”
“Like from a swimming pool or something. You get it?”
WHAT’S BAD ABOUT TIGER SHARKS is they don’t kill you right away. They’re not fast like a great white, where you get maybe two seconds and then half of you is down his gullet and the rest spread across the ocean. But these damn tigers, they like to play with you.
There’s a reef on the south side of the island of Molokai called Hale o Lono, which means House of Lono, who was one of the four gods brought to Hawaii by the ancient Tahitians. Tiger sharks breed there by the millions, hammerheads too, with their widespread heads and eyes on the end. I don’t mind hammerheads – they bug you when you’re down forty, fifty feet you just sock them in the eye. In that wide-faced appendage of theirs.
Tigers however a different deal. How they play with you. Rake you across the ribs with a quick twist of their jaws and then backpedal to watch the blood uncurling from your body like a holy flag – I swear they like this – and wait to see what other brothers and sisters show up for the luau. The human luau. Tiger sharks, they’re never in a hurry. Always have time to watch you bleed.
So when you’re sitting far out on your board waiting for the next wave, your legs dangling into the deep, in the back of your mind there’s tiger sharks. Occasionally they take somebody, leave a shred of bathing suit or a chewed board. But you can always hope it’ll be someone else.
So what I didn’t understand when I found Sylvia Gordon is why the tigers didn’t get her. She’d been dead six hours, Leon said. Trouble with Leon is he hardly ever lies except professionally.
Not only did she get held under till she choked out the last air and sucked in fresh water that filled her lungs like embalming fluid, after that she got dumped in the ocean and the tigers didn’t get her.
Why was that?
Leon didn’t seem to care. “We’re lookin at this,” he said. “From The Honolulu Post stuff she was doin. She was some nosy broad, yeah?”
Thing about Hawaiians – and you can tell a true Hawaiian by if she or he does this – they often end a sentence yeah? It’s reflexive, like scratching your balls when they itch. I’ve caught myself more than a few times doing that in polite company.
So I asks Leon what’s he mean. He says she was doin articles – in the paper even, on crystal meth. So the meth dealers wanted to clean her. And they did.
Now crystal meth is a horrible disease and like leprosy and most other diseases in Hawaii it came from the haoles – the white folks. Tourists who stay on Waikiki (the antithesis of Hawaii) or some sham condo somewhere furnished with top-of-the-line formica, Wal-Mart dishes and phony Hawaiian prints, or even in the fake Kona resorts where (I swear this is true) they have ersatz Hawaiian celebrations with gas-fired torches and fat ladies dancing hula (more on this later, but as a clue, hula came from the same place as rock’n roll) – but visitors almost never get to see the sleazy side of paradise. To tourists Hawaii is an air-conditioned tanning booth with shopping, booze and bikinis. The real Hawaii is something else.
So Leon bless his narrow little soul tells me how a bunch of guys on the North Shore were brewing meth big time and Sylvia went out to investigate and they’re the ones who drowned her. “We arrested seven these guys already,” Leon says under his big black brushy brows. “Get the rest the motherfuckers tomorrow.”
What strikes me right then, if these methheads did in this beautiful person how come they’re hanging out in their hammocks by the seaside high on meth and getting blow jobs from their cranked-out sweethearts when the cops arrive? If it was me that killed her, by now I’d be deep in the mountains of Molokai.
Leon didn’t assist with this theory. Because he hates methheads. With good reason. You can walk in a house full of methheads and the kids haven’t been fed in three days nor had their shitty diapers changed. And some skinny little dog is lying dead on the carpet. So I’m not fond of methheads either.
But that doesn’t mean they killed Sylvia Gordon. Because methheads are not proactive.
In Afghanistan we had what we called instant response. The ragheads nail one of us, we nail them right away three times harder. But our mission in Afghanistan was entirely humanitarian. And anyways methheads aren’t so bad as ragheads.
So I figured Leon was practicing instant response. Going for the usual suspects.
I left feeling Leon was less than half full of honesty. Which is a precious commodity these days. I wandered over to Kahala and talked to some surfing buddies. Including Grunge.
He’s one of the best surfers on Oahu and I trust him because he’s an ex-Marine. From GW’s fabricated Iraq War. “She was here,” Grunge said. “God what a pretty lady. One a them that walks softly, you know, not even knowin how pretty she is and we just want to bow down and say can I lay my cloak under your feet?”
Trouble with Grunge is he’s prone to overstatement, as he got his head mixed up in Iraq from too many IEDs, and every time a 747 of pudgy pale tourists roars over he just hears incoming and reaches for his guns. So he’s always a little furtive, glancing about.
“So they kill her?” I says. “The methheads?”
“Kill her?” Grunge sounds offended. “Hell no.”
“So who did?” I says, but really to myself.
THAT NIGHT I did the strangest thing. I’d been out on the rocks with my rod trying to get dinner. I get a nice hit and it’s an oholehole, lovely delicious fish. About eight inches. He stared into my eyes and I unhooked him and set him free.
Went home and tossed a pound of frozen hamburger on the fire and cut open a papaya. You could argue that the steer wanted to live too, but cattle aren’t free, can’t survive in the real world, and are stupid as shit, whereas most wild fish are fast, wise and beautiful. Sadly however we are what we eat.
So maybe it was stupid to turn on the TV. I hate the damn thing but tonight felt lonely in the reminder of death and wanted some distraction. And caught KHON just as a photo of Sylvia’s smiling bright-eyed face filled the screen, the announcer saying, “The drowning of Honolulu Post reporter Sylvia Gordon,” his charming TV voice all sad and wistful, “police now say was an accident.”